You never know what hides behind a smile until sincere words are spoken. You never know the true meaning of words unless followed by heartfelt actions. This is the only way to know someone. This is the only way to love them. Sincere words, heartfelt actions. This is how I finally met my one and only girlfriend.
Our paths crossed at the most improbable of intersections, that of music and law. I was a college student valiantly returning home to Brazil after my second year in Princeton, determined to spend that luminous summer interlude studying music. Cristiane was a second year law student, still blindly feeling her way through the labyrinth of the Brazilian legal system. We both lived in a seaside apartment building that had an ample ground floor room originally designed for parties and social gatherings. Cristiane reserved it for legal study sessions with friends. I reserved it to study the classical guitar. A confluence of the most divergent interests, but a meeting of sensitive hearts. A tryst arranged by fate, but delayed by the abstruse intricacies of a legalese that extended her study session well beyond her allotted time.
The patience of a musician should never be tested by silence, but such was the predicament I faced that night. Bored and languishing outside my performance space, I wistfully hoped that Time had the same regal power in law as it did in music. Apparently, the metronome was mightier than the watch. One can only wonder if the conspicuous laxity of the Brazilian clock was the true inspiration for the syncopated rhythms so characteristic of samba.
Pensive digressions aside, dilatory is not an adjective that I would have used to describe her, but the lack of personal contact limited the reach of my vocabulary. Her family had moved from the countryside to my coastal city when I was young. This much I knew, not much else. We lived in the same building, but in separate worlds. Despite being my next-door neighbor since the age of 12, we attended different schools, had different friends. Her brother frequently invited me over, but my contact with her was restricted to a few superficial exchanges dictated by the gelid formality of social norms observed by neighbors, who live close enough, but far away. Close enough to reside in physical proximity, but far away to avoid any meaningful conversation. As the translucent glass door opened and a coterie of young women left her makeshift study room, all this was about to change.
She greeted me with a resplendent smile at once endearing for its vulnerability and uplifting for its unexpected spark of joy. Hers was the jovial beauty of an effulgent lotus flower, sublime in its simplicity, unadorned in its natural elegance. A blossoming radiance that carried the iridescent beauty of a spring destined to defy the temporal scythe of seasonal variation. After bidding farewell to her friends, she ceremoniously apologized for the unforeseen delay. She had been entirely oblivious to my presence outside her study room. In fact, she had been entirely oblivious to my very presence in the country itself. I explained that an artistic and familial sojourn was a necessary respite from my vibrant but hectic academic life. She had her own explanations to give.
An effusive sense of elation emanated from her smile, but her disconsolate eyes told a different story. They testified of a deeply suppressed sorrow, a corrosive tribulation consuming her from the inside out. The poignancy of her distress prompted me to remove the formal straightjacket I had worn for years. Doing so required only a simple albeit emotionally charged question. I asked her if she was feeling well. It was an offer of assistance masqueraded as a rhetorical question, but one that left her visibly shaken. She lowered her gaze and avoided my eyes as if the incandescence of the sun emanated from my pupils. Someone had furtively caught a glimpse of a naked vulnerability that could not be dressed up in clothes. She swallowed words that pleaded to come out; she swallowed an unborn truth never shared with anyone. A silent emotional civil war that had afflicted her for so long was about to end at the most unexpected of times. A few solicitous tears accompanied her back to her study room, as she closed the door behind us. It had now become a courtroom. The law student languidly took the stand, courageously addressed my eyes and solemnly confessed, “I haven’t felt well for a very long time.”
She was reeling from a breakup, trying to start a new life amidst the embers of her first relationship. The two had been polar opposites in every respect. He was a misogynistic cliché of the worst kind. In his stereotypical chauvinist world, women were slabs of meat. The most succulent cuts meant to be displayed, bought and devoured. The least appealing ones discarded at will. To describe a woman was to delineate the contours of her body. To love a woman was to possess her physical being. His first allegiance was to his friends and his primal passion was his soccer team. In law school, he could not hide his contempt for his professors. An education was simply an unfortunate means to an end, not a liberating end in itself. He was a mute in class discussions, but gregarious with his friends, precisely as the academic debate unfolded. Books were a necessary evil, but not a time consuming one at that.
The walls of their law school did not confine his virulent maleficence. Cheating was not a verb that he conjugated only in the classroom. Lies were his truth and her truth he treated as lies. He projected his own amoral behavior on her, leading to a pathological mistrust, a caustic jealousy that corroded her days. Endless phone calls to map her location, but never any time for intelligent, heartfelt conversation. Her preferences, feelings and interests were of no concern to him. Endless hours spent on bumpy, nauseating road trips to his cattle ranch, weekends stranded on a secluded location where the master-slave relationship had resisted both the passing of legislation and the passing of time. This was more than a glimpse of his life; it was the totality of his creed.
The proverbial apple had not fallen far from the tree. His mother was just as domineering towards her as he was. Her words of wisdom no less appalling. Comparing her to Agrippina would be a compliment to Nero’s mother, but one memory dictates. Sensing the tension in their relationship, this tropical Agrippina admonished her to count her blessings. Myriad women lined up for her son. His perceived faults were all universal in nature, inextricably related to all men. Her duty was to be understanding; her body, her greatest weapon. Feigning submission while exercising subliminal psychological persuasion was the art to be mastered. The strength of a woman resides in her ability to influence a man’s decision, while conjuring the illusion that his choice was freely made without her interference. If men and women had been created equal, they would not need each other. She should be mindful of the subtle role a woman has to play in a relationship; a man will never see the world through the eyes of a female. The lack of heartfelt conversation may seem deafening, but the absence of a man is the greatest silence in a woman’s life. If apparent submission is the price a woman has to pay for companionship, what is the value of freedom?
This is only a small dose of the neurotoxic venom Agrippina injected into her life, but words imbibed in poison are never as destructive as the actions used to deliver them. Her first relationship, once an early promise of divine ascension, had become an agonizing descent into hell. The mirror now revealed the reflection of a stranger, a transmogrified face reminiscent of Dorian Grey’s portrait. Exams became a perennial source of anxiety, a celebratory moment for the studious, but a sacrificial torment for the unprepared. As her grades spiraled out of control, so did her ability to manage her daily routine. Her cellphone was a medieval ball and chain, restricting her every move. Incessant calls and text messages demanded to know her whereabouts, to identify the company she kept, and to ascertain her immediate plans. It also became a one-way military radio. Martial orders issued throughout the day, even the color of her hair dyed as dictated by his personal preferences. He was especially fond of blonds, plural.
Her restless spirit had no place to dwell. She felt imprisoned inside her home, she felt imprisoned outside as well. Not even in dreams was she free to roam, she felt imprisoned within herself. Of true companionship she knew very little, of abject solitude she knew so well. The greatest amputation in life, is to lose your sense of self. If sorrow can be a source of poetry, she had more than her taste of hell.
At this point, her testimony ended. She had just relived the single most traumatic experience of her life with unexpected candor and considerable fortitude. The searing pain I vicariously experienced demanded a moment of silence. My thoughts had to regroup before firing a single word. Insensitivity never dries tears. Where did I stand in all this?
My parents had met in High School, fallen in love and had been together ever since, in sickness and in health, through good times and bad. They had attended the same university, worked at the same job, and shared the same routine. Their friendship had endured the vagaries of life without as much as a hispid word spoken. Their relationship taught me the significance of true companionship, especially in times of hardship. The dictionary can never define a word with real meaning, only life can. Their life did.
As a child, I vowed to emulate their example. I resigned myself to the long wait this would entail, mindful that the promise of true companionship was worth the sacrifice. I believed in the existence of a soulmate long before I understood the existence of the soul. This was my manifest destiny and my adamant faith acknowledged no contingency plan for failure. But the consequences of exercising poor judgment were never as clear to me as when I heard her testimony of despair. I could not begin to fathom the pain she was experiencing; my empathy for her plight left me momentarily speechless.
I also felt attacked on the most personal level. The man that had wrought such destruction in her life was the antithesis of all that I represented. His creed was the negation of my most deeply held beliefs. If the price of true love is the long interstice one has to endure in order to meet the right woman, I had paid my penance in full, despite sibilant temptations that would have seduced lesser men. But a burning sensation now coursed through my veins as a neurotoxic venom attempted to destroy my lifelong beliefs and convince me that foolishness had been my lifelong curse. The specter of Agrippina and her wretched son questioned if I had the requisite life experience to excoriate them, but mastery of darkness is unnecessary in the defense of light. It was now my turn to address the court and I did so with an open heart,
“The greatest solitude in life is finding yourself in the company of someone who allegedly loves you, but still feeling absolutely alone…”
These are not words taken for granted, these are words she had experienced herself. The importance of physical attraction was not to be understated, but every luminous summer must eventually fade. What matters most in a relationship is true companionship, especially in times of hardship. Clearly, she never had that. When a man truly loves a woman, he places her needs before his own, in full expectation that she will reciprocate. After all, a relationship is a partnership amongst dissimilar yet compatible equals. Not an abusive power struggle where a woman must accept submission as the price of companionship. I told her that true companionship is mutual support based on sincere dialogue, heartfelt friendship and shared values. Her ex-boyfriend never showed her what to pursue in life, only what to avoid. In this spirit, I finished my summation:
“He never showed you what love is; he only showed you all that love is not... Do not allow yourself to be scarred for life. All men are not equal. Not in decency, not in sensitivity. Not in love, not in intelligence. You have only to find the right one.”
Despite anticipating a duel with her incredulity, she visibly exhaled relief with my closing arguments. Tense muscles proved less intractable and exhaustion gently gave way to relaxation, as if a rush of endorphins had flooded her brain after a long cardio session. She reclined back on the chair, as a faint smile returned to her face. Disclosure brings the relief of acknowledging one’s problems. This is the first step in addressing one’s mistakes, and what a mistake she had made. Allowing the wrong person into your heart is the biggest blunder one can make. I still had countless unanswered questions I wanted to ask her, but each one would have carried an emotional toll, additional suffering that precluded further inquiry. It would have been monstrous to satisfy my curiosity at her expense, but one question simply baffled me completely. If they were so diametrically opposed to one another…
“What did you possibly see in him?” I asked in complete bafflement.
“I was unexperienced…”, she said while straitening her posture once again.
“He said he loved me. He was the only boyfriend I ever had. Nobody had ever said that to me before. I’m such a fool, it’s just embarrassing. I actually believed him, I really believed that he loved me. That is the worst part, he never did. He took more away from me than I can bear to mention. I’m sorry I unloaded all this on you.” She said lowering her gaze once again.
“Don’t apologize for being human...”, I replied ashamed at myself.
Waiting to meet the right person was an ordeal I knew so well. Being constantly assailed by two relentless, unforgiving predators is a thankless plight. Solitude is a silent companion, the clock a fearsome enemy. They can obfuscate vision, cloud judgment, drain one’s heart. They can do so much more. Maybe she simply gave up on waiting, a concern afflicting myself.
“Listen, I have to go home, take a shower and get dressed. I have to meet some friends at a bar later tonight. Maybe you would like to come?”, she said getting up from the chair and stretching her arms.
“A bar? Why don’t you stay? We could just sit here and talk. Intelligent conversation is what I enjoy most about Princeton. I’ve learned more from my friends and classmates than from my professors.”, I said visibly mystified by the proposition.
“Yes, it’s a bar. There is going to be music, my friends are going to be there, we will meet people. It’s a Saturday night, you’re going to spend it all alone in this room?”, she asked, now equally mystified.
“A bar is just another place where people go to be alone together. There is no meaningful conversation, just mindless banter. Alcohol is a siren of the mind, luring the senses, seducing the will, just another socially acceptable drug. Background music is background noise. All in all, not a very agreeable place to meet people.”, I retorted. And yes, if my words seem excessively formal or borderline pedantic, this is how I spoke back then. This is how I still sometimes do.
“Alone together? What do you mean?”, she asked, making no effort to conceal her confusion.
“Take the movie date for example. Two people go out on a date because they want to get to know each other. Sitting in silence, side by side, in a dark room, looking at a screen for two hours… This is just another example of being alone together. They should be looking at each other and having a meaningful conversation, intimate, sincere dialogue. Instead, they end up knowing more about the lives of the movie characters than their own. It makes absolutely no sense to me! Is this companionship?”, I prodded, feeling like my point had finally been made.
“So in general what would you propose?”, she said, mollifying her tone of voice.
“Going to a restaurant, sharing a meal and having a meaningful conversation would be a start. Or even better, going for a walk by the beach and having a sincere conversation. Just about any peaceful setting where two people can have a meaningful conversation.”, I said equally mollifying my own tone of voice, but to no avail.
With visible incredulity she said, “Every conversation is meaningful, but you keep bringing this up. I’ve known you since we were kids but…”
“No! You knew about my existence! You may even have known about me, but you never knew me… We only met tonight! This is the first meaningful conversation we ever had. What did I really know about you before tonight? You just opened your heart to me; shared your feelings! We talked about what really matters in your life. Ten years from now, I will still remember this night. This conversation was not written on sand, meant to be washed away by Time. Superficial, mindless banter aggravates me to no end. The pedestrian small talk so characteristic of social events is the bane of my existence. There is no substitute for an intimate, truthful conversation between souls.”, I protested.
“Are you sure you don’t want to come?”, she prodded in deaf defiance.
“Are you sure you don’t want to stay?”, I replied standing my ground with a sigh.
The Middle Eastern peace process ensued...
“Let’s call it a truce then, and gently agree to part ways.” I said, raising the white flag. She grabbed her purse and left, closing the door behind her with more force than seemed necessary.
In retrospect, was I insensitive? Possibly. Did her invitation carry any ulterior motives? Possibly. So what is my defense? Let´s address each charge separately. On the first count of insensitivity, I rejected her invitation not only because of my personal preferences, but also because of her own best interests. She had just confided her most traumatic personal experience to me, a neighbor in theory, but a complete stranger in reality. This spoke of a quiet desperation she could no longer contain. Was a bar the most advisable location to address her issues? She would be attending an emotional masquerade ball, having to conceal her true feelings while engaging in small talk with supposed friends and complete strangers. At the best of times, this seemed insensible to me for the reasons I previously outlined. At the worst of times, it seemed preposterous. I set aside my own plans and offered her the company of someone who was privy to her suffering and was willing to offer a helping hand. Instead, she was adamant about disregarding my advice. My compassion ended where my personal principles began.
On the second count of possible ulterior motives, I also plead not guilty. If absence of malice is a disability, there is no greater blind man than the one who stands before you. All playfulness aside, malice was the limit of my sensitivity. I felt like I understood women much better than most men, but never could I tell if a woman was interested in me. I also believed that friendship should precede courtship, never the other way around. Never did I approach women simply on the basis of physical attraction. Sexual overtures of this nature, which are admittedly so typical, were demeaning in my eyes. I also learned that friendship with a woman was a very delicate matter. A fine line exists that once crossed will forever change the dynamic of the relationship. There is nothing like a failed romantic entreat to destroy a friendship, a lesson I had learned recently in college.
All this aside, the company of music was my defense. Alone in a room? No one can complain of solitude when accompanied by the poetry of sound in time. I had Beethoven, Baden Powell. I had one of the most romantic and intimate of instruments, the classical guitar. In a digital world of long distant communication, the weak natural amplification of the classical guitar demands close contact in an intimate setting enveloped by nocturnal silence. So personal is the instrument that even the size and shape of the guitarist’s fingernails completely affects the quality of sound produced.
I used to be an electric guitarist, but now quiet was the new loud. There was something deeply alienating and dehumanizing about large crowds. The multitude striped my individuality away, silencing my voice amidst a vast ocean of flesh and bones. I decided that I would listen to the music I could not play, and play the music I could not listen. A quiet night of quiet stars, quiet notes from my guitar, floating on the silence that surrounds us... Tom Jobim had the right idea. An hour flew by before I heard a knock on the door and my practice session was abruptly interrupted.
She had returned. When surveying the bar scene that night, she did so with different eyes. What once seemed like an oasis, now felt like the desert described. Where once she saw friendship accompanied by gregarious laughter, now she had seen a raucous emptiness that in no way filled her heart. My words had kept her company, she no longer felt lost in the dark. She had exchanged a meaningful conversation with someone who had truly listened to her problems, for superficial words never meant to be remembered. Lustful looks that denuded her body were unaccompanied by words that inside her heart entered. She returned that night to resume a conversation prematurely interrupted that had on the most pressing issues of her life been centered. She wanted to know more about the man behind the guitar and listen again to the music that had so touched her heart. Those were notes she had never listened, accompanied by sincere words, and in the future, by heartfelt actions.