Amsterdam, September 2018
When we met a few days ago at Rome Airport, I couldn’t believe the wave of emotions that stirred through me. Meeting a friend after thirty years is a big thing indeed. Same smile, same eyes. Yet I don’t remember you being so handsome back then. You wear our age well. You said I hadn’t changed a bit. I knew it was not true but I liked it, for you sounded relieved. I was surprised when you said that you were in love with me when we were teenagers. ‘You are born with a sparkling, sacred aura.’ I got shy: ‘No, it is just an expensive anti-wrinkle cream.’
What was the emotional rush at the airport all about? Did it have something to do with the war that had happened in the meantime? That you became a soldier and I a refugee? No, it could not have been that; the war is old news. Was it just excitement, then, that you flew in from Canada, myself from The Netherlands, to meet in Italy for fifteen hours, not knowing what had become of the other? Or perhaps, when you meet someone for the first time, or the first time after a long time, that only then, for just a moment, everything seems possible?
Then again, the rush at that point maybe had nothing to do with you. Maybe, there was not much happening in my everyday life, so I was ready for my next adrenalin shot. Or was I simply lonely? And maybe hopeful in some way? Why otherwise had I gone all the way to Rome?
It was raining. In my experience, it never rains in Rome. Yet the rain made it even more romantic. Those fifteen hours that we had to spend together were the shortest and the longest fifteen times sixty minutes I could remember in a long time. Each minute felt like an hour and hours felt like days. Too intense to relax and too beautiful to focus.
Your choice of hotel was a good one. Big, anonymous and expensive. A picturesque Italian family hotel would have been overly sweet for the occasion. We were catching up on the facts while we waited at the huge reception lobby. ‘So your son is going to the gymnasium. Wow, a big boy.’ ‘So your sister is living in Norway now. Does she have kids?’ … Our body language was so intimate and devoted that it seemed like we had been in love for a year at least, and that we’d come to Italy together for the deserved holiday. I held your hand and you stroked my hair. The young lady behind the counter explained that our room was not ready yet and asked if we could wait. You managed to use all of your Italian to explain that we had waited our entire lives, so what was another fifteen minutes. I was proud of you. I held you from behind and leant on your shoulders. You turned around gently and kissed me with a smile: ‘Fifteen more minutes.’ Time was ticking, fifteen minutes and thirteen hours to go, before we had to withdraw back to our respective lives.
As time went by, we went deeper into details of how we experienced our lives. ‘Rudeness and superficiality in life hurt you the most’ is how you summarised my life. I was surprised at how meticulous and correct you were in your diagnosis. Barely anything hurts you; after all you had seen in life, you had become chronically sceptical. You expressed your worry for me, for you found me too trusting. I tried to reassure you that there was nothing to worry about. We hadn’t spoken about work, world, or war. That would have been too mundane. Sometimes you would disappear in your thoughts, looking deeply into my eyes. I wondered what were you thinking then: Where does this mark on her eyelid come from? Or What would life have been like if I had pursued her back then? Or What is my wife in Canada doing now?… But you were smiling, so I thought it must be ok.
Minutes were passing, and hours too. Yet it seemed that fifteen hours would never pass. We filled every moment with even gentler caresses and even more detailed stories. In every sense, we were getting closer. But the excitement, the jetlag and the emotions wore us out, and sleep caught us unprepared.
While we were packing our toothbrushes and jackets in the morning, you told me that you wished that we had at least one more day together. You were not looking at me. The mere practicalities always take precedence in life. You were ashamed of your unsettling thought: ‘One should be happy and enjoy what one has got, instead of always wanting more.’ It sounded like you had comforted yourself with the wisdom one finds on Yogi Tea bags. I tried in my way to make us feel better: it is not a sin to want more, and one can only hope that wanting more does not kill the enjoyable moment.
You declared that only a few years ago you realised that you are attracted to strong women. You observed how I would react. It seemed like a confession, difficult to make. You meant it as a compliment to me. Or I took it like that. In the taxi I started telling you the story of how I fought for my freedom and how important it is to me. While telling it to you, I became aware of how often I have repeated the freedom story in the past, like it is my Modern Independent Woman mantra. Even if we had more time, I don’t think I would have been able to express my doubts about my freedom. Yet I feel I owe it to you. You will understand, for you fought in the war: every fight brings its fruit and takes its toll. I have been enjoying the fruits of my freedom and I still do. I am independent: I have created my own place under an artist’s sky in a strange country, I take good care of my son and have an exceptional circle of friends … It does indeed feel very good to be able to say that about oneself. But you know how it is: you start fighting and halfway there, you forget what are you fighting for. Winning becomes more important than the reason why you fight. Now, deep into my triumph, I can say that I’ve crossed the line of my own freedom. I’ve got so dependent on my independence that I’d created another prison for myself.
I try to imagine us having this conversation and I can see you instinctively twitch. Doubt is not sexy. And it is hard to see the power in fragility when time is short. So I stuck in the taxi to my story of the strong independent woman finding her freedom. I guess, I wanted to keep the sacred aura you’d awarded me. But now, more than that, I do not want you to mistake me for someone that I am not.
When the flight attendant called my name, telling that I had to board immediately, you asked me: ‘When are we going to see each other again?’ ‘In thirty years,’ I tried to make a joke ’they will pass like a minute.’ The flight attendant was patient, but firm. ‘Miss, I am sorry, you have to board.’
This morning I looked at the photo of us taken a minute before we left the hotel room. The dark brown wooden furniture, light creamy walls, spotlights, striped carpeting and the two of us exhausted and happy looking in the same direction. So potent and alive. And now, a week later, it seems like a distant memory. Fifteen hours is not that short at all. But thirty years is longer.