Inspired by the prompt "Blog about the old letters and photos in your attic."
I no longer have the letters. But I can't forget his elegant handwriting in green ink on thick cream-coloured vellum. Those 8-to-12-page missives were eagerly awaited, in between phone calls from that faraway land.
We met at Sir Harry’s Bar at the Waldorf Astoria; an inauspicious beginning. A friend and I had stopped for a drink after work; he was there with a colleague. He resembled a handsome young Omar Sharif, with deep brown eyes and an intriguing conversational style. Frequent travel for his job meant he was often in New York. In his absence, our romance was sustained by letters and phone calls from far-flung capitals such as Madrid, Paris and London.
When he came to New York, I dropped everything to accommodate his capricious schedule. Eventually I would rebel at the idea of such control. But I was a naive young girl from the South, still adapting to big city life. And I had stars in my eyes: they were firmly focused on the East.
He had a brilliant mind and we debated history, politics and music. We discussed philosophy and religion and cultural differences; none seemed insurmountable. My curiosity and interest increased with every meeting.
We dined at Cachaca, a Brazilian nightclub where we were too tired to finish the bottle of wine that cost more than a month’s rent. We danced at Regine’s, where the waiter spilled red wine over my Calvin Klein gold lame dress (bought on sale for $50). There were shopping expeditions at Bloomingdales (a calfskin handbag, a jacket and a gauze skirt); at Fortunoff (gold and diamond hoop earrings, later sold to pay bills) and Saks Fifth Avenue, where he told me I could have anything I liked. Overwhelmed by kid-in-the-candy-store possibilities, I could find nothing, finally settling on a Diane von Furstenberg white wool suit, piped in navy leather.
A week later, I returned the suit and used the cash to surprise him in Miami, where he was participating in a seminar. It was a flight risk with a happy ending. Thrilled to see me, he took me to a Turtle Bay restaurant where we were seated in plush, throne-like chairs and the entrees were mystifyingly labelled “King Tut” and “Queen Tut” and other Egyptian themes.
While he tended to business, I took a taxi and went shopping, amidst the heat and humidity. I was enveloped in a cocoon of care and contentment and there was a moment well after midnight – after champagne and declarations of love – that the thought came to me if I died right then, I’d die happy.
We had lazy brunches at the Waldorf and high tea at the Plaza and long chatty walks in Central Park. We had dinners with his friends and mine, as well as many museum, theatre and shopping expeditions.
We met in other countries, where I began to see him in a new light. While always charming, I saw that he could be manipulative. In a language I didn’t speak, he took control of situations; sometimes out of necessity; more often out of pride. In his own country, like a white knight, he rode to my rescue at Immigration, where a missing stamp on my visa meant the guards would not let me leave the airport. He instantly smoothed things over and we roared off in his fancy white sportscar (rather than a horse, an analogy not lost on me).
We dined with friends at a Western restaurant and nightclub, where a bottle of Scotch was stashed in my handbag and quite literally poured under the table. Pictures of that night show us both smiling broadly, his hand protectively around my shoulder. But our worlds were about to collide.
He took me shopping in the local souk, selecting a beautiful hand-beaded and hand-embroidered long coat in red velvet. Although the coat did not flatter my pale complexion, red was his favourite colour. So he laughingly ignored my protests. That afternoon in my hotel room, I modeled the coat for him, over a black silk blouse and trousers. Armed guards concerned about my modesty pounded on the door, ordering him to leave.
Later he guided me through the magnificent peach stone villa he was building. It was three stories high, surrounded by ornate black and gold iron gates. As he showed me each room - all with grey and white marble floors imported from Italy - he talked about his plans and ideas for the decor. But there was no mention of any possible input from me.
He escorted me to a party to meet all his friends. Apparently I made a good impression, as he took me aside and hugged me, exclaiming, “That’s it! You belong to me.” I smiled, but felt uneasy, rather than reassured. We went to a late-night dinner at a restaurant, kept open just for us. He suggested a romantic holiday in the Canary Islands. But in the photographs from that evening, my smile looks forced.
He took me on a lengthy tour of the country, wanting me to see “the good, the bad and the ugly.” The former included a nighttime drive through a desolate expanse of desert. The vast blanket of stars glittering over empty space was the most beautiful thing I'd ever seen. The idyllic reverie was interrupted by local police, wondering why we were "in the middle of nowhere." They advised us to leave.
The "ugly" featured a public square where dissenters once were hung from platforms. “Thirty-five years ago everyone was living in mud huts,” he explained. “Then oil was discovered and it changed everything. The tribal way of thinking hasn’t necessarily caught up to the modern reality.”
That astute observation certainly applied to his family. Although his brothers and sisters were educated in London and Paris and had good positions in commerce, government and medicine, I was not invited to meet them. This was my “preliminary” visit to see his country; if all went well, on another trip I’d be invited to meet his parents at the family home. While these social nuances were never spoken of, they were understood.
My last day in town, we had lunch with friends, including a Scottish woman married to his friend and colleague. I asked about daily life for her and her children, my concern particularly for their right to travel unaccompanied. Her responses failed to convince me that a move from New York would prove seamless.
He had a business meeting, so I took a taxi to the airport. Just as my flight was boarding, he arrived, breathless, pressing a letter into my hand. “Read it on the plane,” he whispered, squeezing my hand.
High above the clouds, I read his words of endearment, He affirmed his love for me and promised we’d be reunited before the year's end. While the starry-eyed girl in me was thrilled, doubts had begun creeping in…we were very different and my career as a journalist was just beginning. If I married him, I’d be a bird in a golden cage.
In New York, I tried to forget him. I dated other people and kept busy with my work as a United Nations correspondent. Then he arrived unexpectedly, at the worst possible time – the day after I’d had two impacted wisdom teeth pulled. He chose to overlook my fever-flushed and swollen face. He couldn’t understand why I wasn’t full of spring and delighted to see him. I tried to rally and make an effort through dinner, but jaw pain forced me to leave the restaurant early.
The next day we met for lunch. He refused to accept that I was unwell; he’d planned a big surprise and I was spoiling it! We argued and spent New Year’s Eve apart. He kept phoning, but I was confused about my feelings for him and exhausted by the drama. I set the answering machine and went to sleep. When he flew home, I was relieved. Still, we continued to communicate via phone calls and letters, his filled with more depth and seriousness. He expressed his wishes for a future together. I didn't know what I wanted.
Suddenly, war reared its ugly head. All contact ceased and for months, I had no idea if he were dead or alive. One evening I saw news footage on television, in which someone who looked like him appeared in the background. I phoned the news producer and persuaded him to let me view the footage. Even after watching the newsreel several times, I couldn’t be certain of the man’s identity.
All telephone lines to his country were cut. But one day I phoned and he answered! That very day, international service had been restored. Both of us were giddy with excitement and emotion, after all the months of worrying and wondering.
A few weeks later I met him at the airport. We were very happy to see each other. And he’d brought a peace offering of sorts - an elegant gold pen so I could “keep writing letters and those articles you write.” He talked about the months of deprivation and anxiety he and his family had endured and seemed a changed, more compassionate man.
At dinner, he presented me with armfuls of white roses and told me the thought of our reunion was what kept him going through months of darkness and silence. “I had to see you; I had to,” he said, clasping my hand. “I had to find you, wherever you were in the world. I've never stopped loving you."
For so long, I'd waited to hear those words. But it seemed love was offered only on his terms. And the hardship and fear of war hadn’t eroded his arrogance, or the disdain with which he treated restaurant or hotel staff if even the slightest thing was amiss.
We enjoyed our time together, but I resolved to avoid getting too close to that golden cage - lest the door be slammed shut and locked. The phone calls continued for a while; the letters became less frequent. I was preoccupied with work; we argued about conflicting schedules. Those spellbound days when I might have given up everything for a life with him had passed.
To this day, he has never married. The breathtaking villa in the faraway land remains empty. And a security guard is paid to prevent intruders.