My melancholic friend

I have a friend who apparently has everything a person might wish for: he is successful, wealthy, with a wife and four grown children. He lives in a charming city where he is one of the prominent citizens. He is widely respected. He has several hobbies, from reading historical books to sailing, and he is the most exquisite host you may find. Yet I’ve always found there is a trace of sadness about him, a deep set melancholy as if he knew something is missing in his life but there’s nothing he can – or will – do about it.

We first met as business associates and there was some empathy. Then of course talking about history and exchanging notes about our many reads brought us together, and we slowly developed a pleasant friendship. Although we don’t meet often, when we see each other we always find time for a nice chat, and soon we were talking about each other’s lives and families.

It was not difficult to see he is unhappy in his marriage. When we met I was already divorced and in a new, happy relationship, so one day I bluntly asked him if he had never considered a divorce and finding someone who would share his interests and make him a happier man, but he sadly replied he did not find the courage to do that. At the time I didn’t pursue the subject as I saw it was painful for him, but as our friendship progressed and he confided more and more in me I understood he was deeply unhappy, but somehow reconciled with a situation which he saw as inevitable.

One day I met his wife, a charming woman, full of life and energy but also visibly unhappy. They were always quarrelling about everything and it was somewhat embarrassing – I could not imagine how they could live together if this was their daily reality. But they went on throwing nasty remarks at each other and accusing each other of this, and that…

I suppose they must have been in love when they first married, more than thirty years ago, but this emotion had long since disappeared, substituted by the habit of being unhappy together. I learned this had been a marriage blessed by both families – both wealthy and upper class – so maybe it was not just love to start with, but a combination of several more practical factors.

He complained she was frivolous and unfocused, and she accused him of living for his work and not paying her any attention. Their children having left home she was now facing the empty nest and being a housewife – however bright and with a university education, she had stayed at home – added to the emptiness she felt as she had no escape as he had. So she travelled and spent money.

Being so unhappy one might imagine he would sometimes find consolation in other women’s arms as so many do, but one day, on a brief visit of his to Lisbon, as we were having lunch at a sunny terrace, he confessed to me: ” You know, Teresa, even if I’m deeply unhappy in my marriage I have never been unfaithful to Anne” (his wife). It would be against my principles”. And I must confess I admired him for that. Not many men would do the same.

Just the other day I was in his city and we took time for a drink on a beautiful terrace over the sea. He was proudly showing me photos of his last family holidays, with his wife and children, and then he went on to show me some old photos of his city on his iPad. At a certain point he pointed to a building in a photo and suddenly he had a nostalgic look on his face: “Oh – he said, and he was smiling – this building has a story”. I asked him to go on, of course – I love a good story! And he continued: “I once loved a girl who lived in this building for a time. I met her when I was studying in London. I fell madly in love with her – I was young at the time, and very inexperienced. She was slightly older, with much more experience, already divorced and a career woman. She lived here for some time and during that time we envisaged a future together, but then we understood – both of us – this was not her world and our lives were too different for us to go on. Our worlds would never fit together. And, even if it broke our hearts – it certainly broke mine – we decided to go our separate ways. I stayed here taking care of the family business, as was expected of me, and she went back to the UK to pursue her career. For many years we knew nothing about each other and incredibly, a few years ago we discovered each other’s whereabouts by chance, through a mutual friend”. And he concluded: “We have only met once, after all these years, but we occasionally keep in touch”. So then, I thought, the flame has not been rekindled, or maybe once again he has decided he will not change his life.

He looked very sad as he finished telling this story, and I was uncertain as to what to say. Should I say something about how old loves never die, in a way, because they will always be among our most cherished memories, long after we have outgrown them? I did go on and tell him, but I could see he was not paying too much attention, his eyes looking at the setting sun on the horizon and his thoughts far away, certainly locked in a happy moment of this love story that, I could see now, had been so important in his life.

I gave him a few moments – as a friend must – and soon he was smiling at me and showing me another photo, this time of a beautiful spot by the sea, and saying he must take me there some time. I said yes, certainly, we’ll do that. And as we went up the street, talking about many things, I was happy that my friend had yet again confided in me, as I felt he was happy to have shared this cherished memory with me. After all, I thought, that’s what friends are for. To listen to us when we need to open our hearts, especially in our most melancholic moments.