Saturday, June 27, 2009

Eugene And Ora

It was my graduation gift. I was allowed to go with my cousin and his friends to Europe for graduating high school with high marks and a full scholarship. My cousin and his friends were in college already and I was still only sixteen. But my parents thought that I was a quiet thoughtful, mature 16yr old and could handle the trip. But then most parents don’t really know their 16yr olds, do they?

I was a seething mess of anger and ambition, impatient to grow and spread my wings, but chained to family ties of blood and guilt complexes.

It was our third morning in Denia, a small coastal town just south of Valencia on the Costa Blanca shore. It lay on the Mediterranean coast so when the day began, it got the full force of that hot sun. Again, I woke up alone since my cousin always slept with his girlfriend and probably spent all night drinking in the café beneath our hotel.

If I wanted to be nice, I could describe the hotel as “quaint and native”, but I didn’t want to be nice so I called it cheap and nasty. The paint peeled from the walls, the furniture stank of liquor and tobacco. I slept with the windows thrown wide open to alleviate the stench and closeness of the room. I guess it was consolation that my cousin didn’t stay in my room. That much closeness might have stretched family bonds beyond reason.

I was uncomfortable, my cousin and his friends ignored me like a giant postule on their end of their nose. I had no siblings so I was uncertain of my position in the group. I had no problem with solitude, but I was having problems with the language and the heat, accustomed as I was to the order and comfort of an air-conditioned room.

Instead, I got a ceiling fan which I contemplated hanging myself from, until I surmised it would only probably fall down on top of me, causing head wounds and severe bleeding, but no death.

That morning, I got my clothes ready to take to the showers at the end of the hall. I hated shared showers. They were called water closets in Europe, I understood why. The toilet was maybe a foot away from the shower stall, with the washbasin being the only thing separating them. I had my clothes bunched up on top of the closed toilet lid. I was freakishly frightened of having my clothes touch the floor. I hated dressing in that cramped space, but hated the idea of racing down the hallway with only a towel around me. It was so difficult to get my clothes on with my skin still moist.

I returned to my room to find that my cousin had been there just long enough to write me a note:

Where R U? Bus is leaving! C U 2nt!

I knew nothing about a bus, unless they had decided at the last minute to take the trip up to the mountains to visit the monastery Saint-Matthieu. Great, I thought, another day farting around here.

I went down to the café and placed my order for orange juice and a raisin nut muffin. I stepped out to find a seat outside only to find each table occupied, which really didn’t surprise me since there were only 4 tables. But I didn’t want to spend any more time sitting up in my room. So I saw a harmless looking old man occupying a table for two. I angled over to him, placed my food on the table, touched the empty chair across from him, smiled and gestured if I might sit. He waved his hand giving me permission.

I ate in silence, but in the middle of a sip I found a little boy at my elbow selling candy and cigarettes. I lifted a corner of my mouth to pass for a smile and said one of two Spanish words I knew, “Gracias”. Then I went back to my muffin. But the boy still stood looking at me expectantly. I turned to him again, nodded and said “Gracias” a little more firmly, without a smile.

At which point, the old man spoke in American accented English.

“You told him thank you so he’s waiting for you to pick something to buy.”

I rolled my eyes, sighed, put my food down, dug in my pants for change, gave it to the boy, picked a stick of gum and said gracias again. Then I made the universal sign for dismissal by shooing him away with hand gestures.

I stuffed the rest of my muffin in my mouth and chugged the rest of my orange juice. Something about the incident annoyed me.

I took great pride in my grades and basked in the adoring pride of my parents. I was called Einstein by my classmates and everyone came to me for answers. To not have known what that boy wanted or anything of Spanish, profoundly unnerved me. I wanted to be away from this witness to my ignorance and embarrassment.

I had no idea where I was going to go, but I had to get away from him. In my disturbed state, I realized I had wandered farther than I had gone before. I had walked down a side street and found myself surrounded by tombstones.

The sight stopped me dead in my tracks, no pun intended. It was just a strange sight. I was looking down from a slight rise; the Mediterranean glistened blue framed by white, sun-bleached crosses. Some people get weirded out at cemeteries. I wasn’t one of them.

I was always a weird child who never worried about death—sometimes feeling that it was a quiet friend who always stood at my shoulder. When I was 7yrs old, I spent weeks saying tearful good-byes to my parents every night, convinced I would be dead in the morning.

That stupid, morbid child’s prayer; “…if I die before I wake…” had me believing my death every night. It didn’t help that this was about the time I saw Oliver, the movie. It convinced me as well that I was this close to being an orphan any time and I wanted to die first before I was made to suffer the same fate Oliver had.

So when I didn’t die, I made up an imaginary friend—not some innocuous giant invisible pink bunny – no. My imaginary friend was Death.

Death came to play with me because I wasn’t afraid of him like other people were. I’d watch news reports on TV about murder, mayhem and war and knew that Death would need some time-out time. I think it was that superb confidence of having Death as a friend that lead me to the arrogance I’d gained over the years. For I knew Death was inevitable and so I had to learn everything I could before I died stupid.

I remember some early childhood member of an elder relative’s wake. I remember Mother telling me not to go to the coffin and to stay close to her. Then I heard her whispering to someone how at my tender age—seeing a dead body would give me nightmares. But as more and more people came, I got lost in that forest of tall people and I found myself facing the coffin. There was a little step in the front that was supposed to be used for kneeling, which was just perfect for me to step up onto to see my first dead body. I was fascinated.

I looked hard at him to see if I could discern any twitch or movement—I expected him to bolt upright and imagined a scene of fainting blue haired ladies and screaming and I smiled a wicked little smile holding back a giggle.

My mother caught me and yanked me way, hissing “What are you smiling about?” Other people saw the smile, the story circulated and I was branded the weird cousin.

That morning, in that cemetery, I was in my element. Subconsciously, I probably never really let go of my imaginary friend.

The cemeteries I had seen in Chicago were testimonials to great lawn care. This cemetery had no rhyme, nor reason. At times, it seemed to balance precariously against a sloping sky. There were tombs that were simply concrete pillboxes piled atop each other. There were weeds everywhere and some even tumbled down tombstones. Some names were simply painted on. 

Others were plaques of bronze or marble.

I tightened the straps of my backpack across my back and trod forward. I looked at the names, Aranchezes, Villaneuvas, Rojas, Ferrers. But it was the numbers that enthralled me. Some dated back to the 1800s.

Then suddenly something caught my eye, a flicker to the right—something that drew my eye out to sea. There in that bright day of azure sky and turquoise water—a slowly silent, single boat rocked towards the coast. The other fishing boats were already gone except for this one, whose jet-black sail jarred ominously against the sea and sky.

I stared in frank wonder until I was jerked back by a voice.

“He’s taking his passenger to the village priest for final rites.”

I didn’t turn, I knew it was the old man.

I nodded knowingly. “Funeral barge.”

“Sort of, but unlike the Nordic tribes, they won’t burn it, they’ll just sail back to bury him after the rites are said.”

“Will he come here?”

“I don’t know.” He answered. At that point I turned to face him.

He stood with his left hand shading his eyes, his right hand clutching a bouquet of flowers.

“How do you know it’s a he?” I asked suddenly.

“Only a fisher man gets that boat and around here, only men are fishermen.” I nodded, filing that away.

He looked at me suspiciously. “What are you doing here?”

“Looking.” I said defensively, I was used to being questioned about my odd behavior.

“Where are your parents?”

“Home.” I retorted sarcastically. “I wasn’t doing anything wrong—I was just looking, this is a free….” Then I realized I wasn’t in the States and Spain had a King, so I wasn’t sure if it was free.

“You’re in Spain in the middle of a graveyard. You don’t speak the language but you want to invoke freedom of speech?” His eyes twinkled and his lips twitched. I was beginning to like the old guy. At least he didn’t seem to mind my talking to him, which was more than I got from my cousin and his friends.

But I rolled my eyes and said, “Yeah, okay. But I really didn’t mean anything by it. I was just looking at the names and years, that all. Honest.”

“I know, I was watching you for a bit. I was afraid you might be defacing the tombstones.” Then he nodded like he’d made up his mind about something and turned away.

I followed him at a discreet distance until he stopped at a small white pillbox on top of another one. He pulled out small thin candles from his pocket and lit them, placing them at each corner of the box. He replaced wilted flowers in a clay vase with the flowers in his hand. Then he placed one hand on the tomb and bent his head down in prayer. When he finished, he made the sign of the cross, and finished by kissing his fingertips then touching the name to pass that kiss tenderly to whoever lay in that tomb.

“Come here,” He said to me. “I want you to meet someone.”

When I came closer I saw the name gilded in a bright yellow that might have been gold.

“What’s your name?” He asked.

“Ed,“ he gestured to the tomb, “Meet Ora, Ora meet Ed.”

“Hello Ora, please to meet you. “ And I bowed slightly. His eyebrow raised at my formality.

“Your wife?” I asked.

“And more. The love of my life.” Then he told me his story.

I was in the press corps when I met her in Paris. Her family had come to escape Franco’s war in Spain and had gotten caught in the second world war. She was a nurse working at one of the Parisian hospitals. They didn’t get paid with money at the time, but she got food for her help with the wounded.

I remember the first time I saw her. I was sitting by a buddy’s bed, he had shrapnel in his leg and he was laid up until we could fly out our wounded. So I’d come by when I had the chance to sit and talk to him. We both came from East St. Louis, growing up just a few blocks from each other, but we didn’t meet until we both ended up in the infantry division. We kept each other sane.

I had just told him an off color joke about another soldier and his antics with some of the friendlier Parisian women, when this blur of white caught my eye. This petite little miss in the brightest white uniform and one of those funny little nurse caps on her head came up and started fiddling with Carl’s IV. I remember admiring her legs because she had to stand tip toes to reach the IV. She had fine calves.

She turned and walked to the end of Carl’s bed and started writing on his charts. Something about the tilt of her chin, the tightness on her lips as she wrote, then the dark brown eyes that boldly returned my stare, just threw something inside me into overdrive.

It took everything I could to stop myself from running after her. She didn’t look French, she was tiny, with straight black hair and clear olive skin. She looked Italian or Spanish. I knew then and there, that off all the women I’d seen in Paris, I had just finally seen the most beautiful woman in the world to me.

I spent the rest of that year walking all over Paris with her. Every moment we spent together was my reality and every moment apart was torture. I would have followed her to the ends of the world. Instead I got shipped out to cover Hitler’s retreat and I lost track of her.

I tried to find her after the war but it was just chaos and no one had any idea where anybody was. She was a volunteer nurse so there really wasn’t anything in terms of documentation. I had her name Diasdora Cienza and that was all. I was 22 years old,she was 20yrs old; I loved her and lost her.

I went home, lived my life and loves but every now and then she’d enter my head and I’d be transported back to that summer in Paris. Then about twenty years later I took my first trip back to Europe. I was a correspondent for the St. Louis Post Dispatch and I got the plum assignment of covering a European economic conference in Madrid. That’s when I took a few weeks afterwards and looked for her.

Over the years, I’ve had my ups and downs, loved and lost. But no one ever stayed. There was no one I really wanted to stay. But I always remembered my Ora. So as a lark, I went driving over the Valencia province to Cienza, where she was from.

I found relatives of hers who told me she was living with her family in Denia, Spain, a little town on the Costa Blanca. It seems Ora talked about the American soldier she met in Paris. So with the little mini cooper rental I got, I headed off for the coast.

I was coming up a hill, her neighbors pointing me towards her house. I looked up as I hesitated at her gate and watched linens flapping in the breeze. I saw a shadow behind the sheets and a glimpse when the wind took the sheet up. She wasn’t the petite little bird when I first met her, but then, neither was I the stripling young man she had known.

“Ora!” I found my voice.

She peeked beneath the sheet, saw me, but I saw she hadn’t recognized me. So I kept smiling as broad a smile as I could and watched her come towards me. Then as each step brought her closer, her puzzled smile began to warm and spread across her face like sunrise until it reached her eyes and I knew she still remembered me.

“Gene!” Her voice was pure joy to my ears and I thought I heard the same feeling in her call that I had in my heart.

She came to me and drew me into a big hug.

"Oh, Dios mio!” she exclaimed. I beamed down on my little bird. I called her my little bird because when she’d get excited she’d lose all ability to speak in English and would let loose with a startling torrent of Spanish which sounded like chicken squawks to me.

Then 6 children of varying shapes and sizes came tumbling out of the house on the hill. She drew me into her front patio, ordered her little division of workers and had them serve us cold drinks. She introduced me to her children and we strolled around her house.

It was a comfortable house, obviously well maintained and looking more prosperous than most of her other neighbors. So I was proud that she had made a success of her life and looked so happy with her children.

We spent that afternoon walking around Denia, I was invited to dinner and we waited for her husband the fisherman to come back from his work. She still worked as a nurse at the provincial hospital and was happy.

I went home after spending two weeks catching up with my friend, lost love and fighting the increasing realization that she should have been my wife. But I had met Esteban, who was quiet but genial and generous. I tried to put myself in his shoes, how would I feel if a man from my wife’s past came back to visit her? Yet he was gracious and never seemed concerned as he watched his wife walk away arm and arm with a stranger.

I saw it as a testimony to the strength of their love and I felt joy for my Ora. She deserved this success story.

There was one moment of concern. It was my second day in Denia; Ora, Esteban and I were sitting in the town plaza drinking evening coffee with their friends, Ora acting as translator for my halting Spanish when a young man approached the table.

I had noticed him earlier, tall and brooding, he had been standing off to the side with a few of his buddies, eyeing our table. A reporter’s instinct kept my eyes roving around a scene always taking in the entire picture. When he approached the hair on the back of my head stood up.

But instead of trouble he came over to Ora and kissed her, calling her mother. She introduced him as her eldest son, Guillermo. He was just home for the weekend from his studies at the Alicante University. It made my heart leap a little since my middle name was William. But it couldn’t be, I kept telling myself, it just couldn’t be. But where as Esteban was short and squat, Guillermo was tall and lean, like me when I was that age. His eyes were dark but he had a narrower face than his siblings. Which could mean nothing at all. Ora and I never talked about it, Esteban was his father, period.

That was one of the startling connections we had, we would come to this mutual understanding without ever having to say a single word to each other. It was sometimes a twinkle in the eye, a tilt of the head and an answering nod or sometimes it was just a feeling she and I exchanged with some sort of subliminal body language only she and I spoke.

When I left that year, I left her with my address in St. Louis and a promise that I would write. And we did write. Even when it was only a Christmas card or a birthday card, there were correspondences over the years. I traveled the world over, sometimes on assignment, sometimes for leisure. I’d send postcards and she’d always ask about the women in my life. She acted like the sister I never had. Extolling the virtues of marriage and how I needed to settle down to find myself a nice woman to take care of me.

Over the years I’d tease back that I had found the love of my life only she went and married someone else. And she’d say, well maybe if you had found her sooner….

We never went further than the teasing words.

She was the one constant in my life. I moved from St. Louis to Chicago, then to Seattle, then to Cleveland then finally to Washington DC. I was in my third year at the Post when I got a call from Ora. I was shocked and surprised, she’d sometimes called me to wish me a happy birthday and it was always a delight. But this time, it wasn’t my birthday or Christmas, so I knew something was wrong.

She called to tell me that Esteban had died.

I took a few weeks and flew out. I missed the funeral by two days, the connecting flights in England delayed by fog. But I was there by her side. She was 60yrs old, a widow and a grandmother.

We were inseparable. I always knew how to make her laugh and I made it my job to make her laugh. One evening, sitting in the same café we had sat in twenty years later, we had our first heart to heart.

My Spanish was fluent now and though I’d never rid myself of the accent, I could talk to her in her native tongue. We had lively discussions, how a woman who spent most of her life in a small town in the east coast of Spain, could converse about the world as she did, attested to her will. She sent all her children to university and they in turn came back to illuminate her world and she glowed with that pride.

“Why didn’t you ever marry Gene?”
”Ah, you know I’d never marry anyone but the single love of my life.”
“So why didn’t you?”
“Well, she married someone else.” Same old argument we’d had over the years.
“You should have married her when you had the chance.”
“I know that now, I just didn’t know it then.”
“I knew it.” She said calmly and my world shook.

We sat in silence for the space of several heartbeats, letting what she said sink in.

“You knew?”
“I knew.” No blame, no posturing, just a simple statement of fact. “You had to go and tell the world what happened. You had something you had to do.”
“But you never said anything!” I was on the verge of hysteria.
“I told you I loved you.” She answered firmly.

And she had. She had whispered it to me one morning in Paris as she tiptoed on the edge of a fountain while I held her hand. When she jumped down and came up to my face and whispered quickly. “Love you.” I feigned deafness, but she wouldn’t repeat it, she just ran away giggling. I always thought it was just a girl’s impulsive naivete.

That broke the dam that had held 40yrs of love and devotion. It took me 40yrs to realize that the most important thing in my life wasn’t the accolades or the money, it was the love of this fine woman. We talked and we walked, profound revelations tumbling past our lips. I stumbled in my Spanish vocabulary but Ora understood nonetheless.

She sent me away two weeks later. She was a widow and there were certain proprieties that needed to be met. I left her with my heart and my promise to return. A widow has to observe at least a year of mourning.

I went back to DC to finish up my work, counting the days the weeks and the months. I had set money aside and knew that what I set out to do I had done and now my real life could begin. I wanted to spend the rest of my life with the woman I loved.

So a year later, I came back and we got married in a small ceremony and we were happy. It was bliss. Not the giddy sort that rock stars sing about, but the lovely, heartwarming love that comes when it’s the real thing. The bone numbing, seep inside every pore and soak you all the way down to you cells kind of assurance that only comes when it’s true.

As a reporter, I chased every chance to find truth. To be a witness to the events that shaped our world and future generations. Yet all along, my own personal truth was wrapped around the heart of a gentle, giggly little woman who lived on the coast of Spain.

We had 15 great years together before she had to leave me. We treasured everyday knowing it could be our last. We never took each other for granted and we always laughed. Down to the last second when she breathed her last, gathering her strength for our final kiss, we loved each other.

By the time Gene had finished his tale, we were back at the café, the same café he used to sit at with his wife. He said he never ever failed to feel her by his side. He stayed in Denia because it was the only place in the world he was truly happy. And after all his travels, here he discovered his love and found his home by her side.

“You’re so young Ed, don’t waste your energy with anger and resentment. Listen to your heart and it won’t lead you wrong. It may lead you to places you never thought you’d go, but you are sent to places to meet people and do things for a reason. They are the accumulated moments that will make up your life and you must never take them for granted. No one can ever take that from you.”

“Work like you don’t need the money, dance like no one’s watching and love like you don’t care.”
I must have given him a look because he just shook his head.

“One day, trust me, you’ll understand and maybe that will be the day you stop rolling your eyes.”

The afternoon was slowly creeping into dusk. We watched the fishing fleet come in and watched the black sailed boat slide back where it came from. We sat in a comfortable silence. Then I turned to him.

“Why tell me?”

He shrugged. “No one else seemed interested to listen and I didn’t feel like telling anyone else 

My cousin and his friends found me sharing tummy tightening fits of laughter with this strange old man. An old man I found I wanted to call my friend.

That night my cousin came to my room to visit.

“Look, we’re going up to Valencia and taking the ferry out to Mallorca so you’d better start packing.” He announced.

“We’ll leaving day after tomorrow.”
I winched. “No.” I suddenly said.

My cousin almost snapped his head back to look at me.

“What did you say?” he asked me with a hostile tone.
“I said no. I’m not going.”
“Excuse me? You wanted to come along this damn trip now I have to spend my summer baby-fucking-sitting you, so you do what I say!”

His vehemence and hostility startled me. I guess I wasn’t the only one who resented a cousin this summer. But I surprised even myself by the calm self-assured way I answered.

“I’ll stay here, I’ve got my own money. You can come back and get me when you’re finished. Otherwise I’ll just have to talk about how you never spent a night in my room anyway. Besides, you don’t want me hanging around you and your friends and I don’t particularly want to either. So let’s just cut the bullshit.”

“You little shit! What the hell are you going to do around here?”
“I’m going to spend my summer in Spain enjoying myself. What about you?”

His friends convinced him I would be ok, it was a small town in Spain seemingly without crime so what was the big deal? They regarded me as a burden and I didn’t care.

I spent that summer in Gene’s presence, enjoying his stories of the war, his reports from all over the world and listened to his tale of love for Ora. She came alive in his stories. I came to know her and at times I could almost see the two of them laughing together.

That year I learned to sail a boat, speak Spanish and say goodbye.

“How do you do it Gene? How do you stay happy all day when I can tell you miss her so much?”
“You learn that to love someone you have to let them go, although the person may be gone, the love stays.” He told me.
“You never wished you would die?” I was always a morbid little shit.

Gene looked at me, that strange keen look I was getting used to. I knew by then that he was listening to Ora speak.

“I hurt so much when she left me. I hurt because I blamed myself for not having seen how much we loved each other sooner. I resented all the time I had lost. But when I thought of her children and her grandchildren, I knew I could have never begrudged her their lives.”

“Yes, we could have had children of our own, but they wouldn’t be these kids. These guys needed to be born. That’s all.”

He got a far away look in his eye, as if something had caught his attention and he was trying to focus in.

“I remember thinking that when the time came, I wanted to be the one left behind, because I didn’t want her to suffer my loss by herself. I didn’t know if I could handle her loss, but I thought I’d rather feel that pain that put her through it. Besides, she’d already lost one husband. I had only one wife.”

His gaze settled back on me. He answered an unspoken question
“No buddy, I never asked to hasten my time. I never tried it because it wouldn’t be what Ora would have wanted. My time will come, when God wills it, not because I want it to end.”

He leaned in close, drawing me forward, cupped my chin in his hands and said:

“No matter how bad it gets, no matter how much it hurts, never rush the inevitables. Life, love and death comes when it comes, don’t prepare, don’t worry and don’t regret.”

I remember leaving at the end of the summer. He was sitting in the café waving good-bye as our bus took us to Valencia to fly home. There was a lump in my throat, but I was intent on being brave in front of my cousin and his friends. I also was looking forward to my first days at university and I knew deep down that I had learned a lesson about friendship and love that I would carry for the rest of my life. I just knew that Denia was not my place, not my home. I had my own life to lead, my own story to make.

We were pen pals. When I learned he died two years later, I remembered my old friend Death and thanked him for bringing Gene and Ora back together again.