We crossed paths many years ago, when I was a university student of 18 and he had already finished university and was beginning his career as a researcher and University professor.
A different kind of friend
He was some five or six years older than me, but it made a difference at the time. We met during some holidays in Madeira, when I was experiencing one of those summer passions that came and go as fast as a tropical storm, and with the same intensity. After the object of my infatuation left the island, I still had a few weeks of holidays ahead, and decided to enjoy myself instead of sulking. And that’s when an old friend introduced his cousin, and there was this natural empathy between us, and we began a friendship that lasts to this day.
I found him intriguing, so different from my other friends – he was more sophisticated, yet quiet simple in his way of speaking; he could explain the most complicated things in words you’d understand, and he never made you feel less smart than he was, even if he was usually so much brighter than most people around him; he dressed casually, not fashionably, but he was tall, and his raven-black hair and grey eyes made him look like the hero of some romantic novel, although he was the opposite of romantic, in fact. He talked about everything but love or any of its manifestations. He had great charm but did not exercise it. He was a wonderful dancer, but always kept his distance, not one to create romantic expectations of any kind.
That was ideal for me. Long after my holiday fling was buried and forgotten in my mind, I went on seeing my friend, who became even more mysterious if possible: there was never a word about a girlfriend, or how he spent his free time, the people he went out with – when he took me out, or when at times he came along with my group of friends, he was nice and made merry; in fact everyone liked him, but he kept this aloofness about him, that he actually cultivated. He would show up for a while and then disappear for months. And then he would be back again, his charm and sophistication intact, and would always be welcome.
Although I found him attractive, I never fell in love with him – exactly because he was too distant. Sometimes I found him a bit cynical too and I knew he was not the type to reassure a girl – not me at least. So, friends we remained.
Time went by. For some years we lost contact. Those were the years of my engagement, marriage, having children…there was little time for old friends of the evasive type. He also stopped getting in touch.
Then, years later, I found him through my work. I saw his name on a file I was dealing with and I called him. With his usual frankness he confessed not remembering me by name but did recognise me as soon as he saw me; naturally, we resumed our friendship, with the occasional lunch together where, again, we talked of many things except his private life. While I told him about my marriage, my children, my career and then my divorce, he talked about his work and the many interesting subjects he always mastered.
Then I invited him for my 50thbirthday party. He came alone but excused his wife. He had already began talking about his family, his daughter most of all, and I finally met his wife that very same year. I found her ill-suited to him – looking much older, a sombre looking woman, with a bitter look about her face. I learned they had been together for many years, realizing that when I had met him, he was already dating her, yet kept her a secret. How odd, I thought. Maybe it was all part of a strategy to keep his mysterious aura around him. And it succeeded.
Now he was becoming less so, however. We had long talks about our children, and he was very helpful whenever I needed advice about my career, being a good and supportive friend when I was most in need. I knew I could count on him and hoped he thought the same about me.
Until the other day. We hadn’t seen each other for a few months, and he called trying to arrange a meeting. I was going abroad and suggested we meet after that, but something in his voice made me insist and ask how he was. In the end he told me, in a sad, tired voice: “I am divorcing my wife”.
I swear I didn’t do it on purpose, I only wanted to cheer him up, but I must have been silly when I blurted out “Well, welcome to the club!”. Still, I sensed a smile on the other side. I understood he needed to open his heart and as in the end I did not travel we managed to find a Saturday to have a quiet lunch over the sea and he told me his story.
As in many marriages – don’t I know it well? – things had been dragging along for years. Life together no longer offered anything beyond the daily routine of saying goodbye in the morning and dining together in the evening – this, of course, when he was not travelling on business or when she was not working late. On weekends they rarely did anything together unless it was a family affair – and so years went by. They had become strangers in their beautiful, expensive apartment in one of the best quarters of Lisbon.
One day he met someone interesting, through his work. They met again, and again, working on several projects together. When it happened that they had to travel together they spent hours talking about their respective lives and dreams – and discovered they had many things in common. And the inevitable happened: at first it was an attraction, then it grew stronger and then they finally had to admit they were in love and shared the same dream – that of living the rest of their lives together.
Apparently simple, but not. Why, I asked my friend? After all you did what you had to do, talked to your wife (“and hurt her terribly” he added, but then we all know how these things happen, haven’t we all been hurt at some point?) and told her it was over and then told you daughter and then went off to live by yourself…all very civilised. So, what’s the problem? It’s on her side, he said. She loves me, we know we want to be together, but she cannot bring herself to destroy her family. Not just yet.
I looked at him dumbfounded. How love changes people…this was not the mysterious, cynical friend I had known for so long, one who seemed so cold and unattainable…the same one who was now before me, a Cupid arrow shot straight through his heart. He looked so candid, even naïve, as he unfolded his story that I could not help wondering if it really is as he thinks on the other side. I know it must be difficult to break up a family – don’t we all know it – but then if you are so completely in love there’s probably no other way…and in the end her children are already adults, as he told me, so I couldn’t really understand the difficulty of it all, but he seemed resigned. He simply said, “I will wait, not too long, but I will wait until she brings herself to tell the truth to her husband and set herself free”. And he said it with such conviction that I could picture him, on his walks alone by the sea, looking at the horizon while patiently waiting for the woman he loves to make a decision.
In front of me I saw a man in love, a man with a dream, but also a man who’s afraid that dream may not come true. For the first time in my life my mysterious friend has shunned his aura and looks like a normal human being, a person made vulnerable by love. I smile at him and tell him things will turn out well, even if in my heart I have some fear they may not. I know he will go through a period of solitude so, as an old friend, I tell him I’ll be around for whatever he needs and tell him we must see each other more often. After all, isn’t this what friends are for? He smiles and thanks me, and says of course, you are a good friend, one of my few friends, one of my oldest…
As we come out of the restaurant, I think how life changes us. I used to be the romantic, sensitive one, always dreaming of great love; now I’m much more the cynical type, love has disappointed me so I really don’t believe in great loves anymore, at least for me, in this lifetime; and he is the one building castles in the air. As I kiss his cheek and say goodbye, and see his slightly anguished grey eyes who have lost their mystery, I ask the gods above to make this woman worthy of his love, and also that she may sort out her life and come to him and make him happy. My no longer mysterious friend, now a man in love and so vulnerable, deserves to have his dream come true.