I met her in high school when I was 14 and she was 16, one year and a half older than me. I believe the first thing that brought us closer together was that we were two tall girls in a world of short people, but we soon discovered we had many things in common. Such as our dislike of the 1974 revolution and the changes it had brought into our lives. It had cost me my native land Mozambique and all of my family’s properties and money, and in her case it had cost her father’s life.
Soon we were sharing our stories with each other. Her huge, brown, expressive eyes were moist as she told me hers. She was the daughter of a very well off family; her father was a successful businessman and her mother, a beautiful blonde lady with green eyes, stayed at home with her son and daughter. They had lived a wonderful life until the revolution came to Portugal in April 1974. The communists almost took over the country in the months that followed and began persecuting those they called “fascist”, mainly people who belonged to well known, traditional families and had money and important businesses. A period of terror followed and one frightful night there was a knock on their door and a group of men came to take her father away. He was imprisoned without charges (as was usual those days) in the prison of Caxias, used for the so called “political” prisoners – a definition under which all non communists might qualify, in fact.
Her father stayed there for several months during which he was tortured and beaten. When he came out, he was not the father she knew but a broken man and he died of a heart attack only a few months after. His young daughter who was fourteen at the time never forgave nor forgot, and years after I could still see how painful it was for her just to tell the story, and how much she had loved her father.
The revolution period and its extreme positions passed and the Portuguese finally elected a democratic government. Isabel’s family recovered many of their lost properties and they lived very comfortably. She was a simple girl though, never boasting about her money, but I could see it in her clothes and accessories, and most of all in her lifestyle – among other things she kept a horse at the Jockey Club, something only the rich could afford at the time.
We became very close during the last years of high school. She met my family and I met hers. I was fascinated by her smart, beautiful mother, always impeccably groomed. I loved her huge apartment in one of the most expensive buildings in Lisbon and of course very well located. And when she turned eighteen and immediately got her driving license I was fascinated by her mustard coloured sports car. She would come to pick me up on Saturday afternoons and even if we didn’t go far, only a few block away to the fashionable café Mexicana, I felt thrilled to ride in such a fantastic car!
At school we were part of a special group of friends but she had her own friends outside of school, friends who belonged to her upper class world and were all several years older than us. She would go out at night with them to bars and discos, at a time when I was not even allowed to have dinner out with friends…she had two worlds in her life: that of high school, one I was part of, and the other one, from which I felt excluded but that strongly added to her aura of seduction and mystery. When she was with us she was a normal teenager and acted as such, but in the evening I pictured her changing like a modern day Cinderella to go to the ball…and of course her romantic aspirations had nothing to do with mine. Whereas my possible “beaus” were mostly our acne ridden shy schoolmates, she went out with “real adults” (20 year-olds and such!) who picked her up in expensive cars and had a whisky bottle under their name at the fashionable discos (this being the ultimate proof of affluence at the time!).
Of course I secretly longed to be part of that exclusive world of hers, but the only time I ventured into that difficult-to- access territory and began going out with a friend of hers some seven years my senior I soon realised it was a huge mistake, as this wasn’t my world and this young man’s aspirations and reality had nothing to do with mine! I soon – and quite sensibly, I must say – put an end to it and went back to the boys my age who might not be so interesting but who definitely brought fewer complications to my life!
But for all her glamorous life she was not happy. Maybe it was her innate sadness due to what had happened to her father, or maybe the fact that she only attracted the “wrong” men (whatever this means). In our first years of university (we didn’t go to the same university but still kept our close friendship) she met a man who she thought was her prince charming and I was somewhat shocked when one day she told me they were going to get married. She hadn’t finished university but then she was her own woman, she was rich and did not need to work for a living. She invited me to her wedding of course but in the end I didn’t go, I knew I didn’t belong to that part of her world so I made up an excuse that left me feeling terrible that I was such a lousy friend.
Years went by and life took us in different directions. Soon after her wedding she told me she was pregnant and this of course made us drift further apart as I was horrified at one of my closest friends having a child! At the time it seemed to me the end of life as I wanted to live it, the end of youth, the end of a career, and the end of everything I thought we girls should be fighting for.
Only a few months after having her baby she told me she was very unhappy in her marriage and filed for divorce. She told me her husband had forced himself on her soon after the birth and it had felt like being raped; she had hated him from that moment on. And with reason, I thought! Then I remembered something she used to say – as a joke, I then thought – back in the good old days of high school :”I’d much rather marry and get a divorce than become a spinster, never married!”. So, I thought, that was the reason for a hurried marriage, and now the stars have granted your wish. In her early twenties, divorced and with a small child – still, she continued her studies and graduated in Economics, and, even if she didn’t need it, she worked hard to build a career, and I admired her for that.
We seldom saw each other as our worlds continued to be very different, but sometimes we got together for a cup of coffee and she unfailingly came to see me on my birthday, but then one year she didn’t come and then another and we slowly drifted apart, this time for good. I believe one of the reasons for this was that I was stupidly jealous of her with my then husband, who shared her interest in horses and at a time I thought there might be something else between them, and when I forced these stupid thoughts out of my mind somehow it was simpler to include her in the package and forget about her.
But somehow news of her kept reaching me. A common acquaintance whom I now came across during some business meetings told me she had remarried and was very happy. A few years later he told me she was gravely ill and had been through a very tough period; and then one day, suddenly, I came across her on the street, near her former apartment where I had spent so many nice moments and I found her so thin, so frail, her hair short and her eyes so deep… as she told me she had been ill but was now recovering I didn’t know what to say, I felt uneasy that I had been incapable of giving her a call; when we said goodbye we said we’d call to arrange to have lunch together but I knew I wouldn’t do it and neither did she. Then some time later our common friend again came with terrible news – her second husband, with whom she had finally found happiness, had suddenly died of a heart attack and she was devastated.
Again I didn’t call. Somehow I felt we had nothing in common now – it was simply not worth trying to renew a friendship that no longer existed, that had been lost in the mists of the past. The girls we once were had been good friends, the women we were now had nothing left in common.
Years, decades have gone by. I haven’t bumped into her on the street since. Some time ago I heard she was okay, her daughter long grown into a woman and married. I expect she will have grandchildren by now. I wonder if she has found another love or maybe not, after all she found perfect happiness once and it’s difficult to get another such chance in a lifetime. I wonder if she’s still keeping healthy – and I sincerely hope so – and I wonder if after all the blows life has given her she still dreams. As she did when we were young. Life has not been kind on her, abruptly taking from her some of the people she loved most, and making her go through the terrible ordeal of her illness. Sometimes I wish I had been a better friend to her – maybe we’d still get together sometimes and go to a café as we did all those years ago and open our hearts to each other, and share our experiences of the different lives we led. And, I think, what different lives they have been, in fact, as the stars above have been much kinder to me.
I open the photo album and look at the two of us together in the last year of high school leaning against her car on the street; we are saying something to each other and smiling, both of us dressed in dark blue as was the fashion then…seeing this photo brings many happy memories to my mind and I suddenly miss her and our friendship. I close the album and leave the memories in the past where they belong, but I blow a silent kiss to my friend of long ago, a poor rich girl if ever there was one.