The path not taken

Carlos is just three months shy of his fourteenth birthday when the term “unrequited love” is first explained to him.

‘It is a love that is not reciprocated or returned,’ that’s how his literature teacher defines it.

At the time, Carlos thinks the whole concept is stupid. He thinks this Florentino Ariza in the book they are studying is a fool for spending his life pining for some woman that does not love him back. How can she possibly love Florentino and stay married to someone else?

Sixteen months later, just a few weeks after his fifteenth birthday, love’s cruel arrow pierces his heart for the first time, and Carlos finally comes to understand what unrequited love is all about.

He is walking onto Paula’s terrace one evening as the sun is packing up the day. She stands to greet him, and she raises a hand to her forehead to shield her eyes from the final few rays, casting a small shadow over her face, giving her an alluring air of mystery. He has seen her thousands of times before. But, in this moment, he looks at her with new eyes. As the sun slips past the horizon, Carlos’s heart gives itself over to her.

Paula is the daughter of a golfing buddy of Carlos’s father. When they were kids, their mothers would take them out shopping each Saturday to Bogotá’s high-end shopping centers. They were two happy children, playing hide and seek between the clothes racks, getting caught splashing in the decorative fountains, and nagging their mothers to buy them ice cream.

Now that they are in high school and no longer need supervising, they still meet frequently, hanging out in each other’s houses listening to music or watching television. It is the first years of the new millennium. Bogotá exists in a state of high alert. The memories of the recent years’ bombs and kidnappings are still fresh in the adults’ minds. And yet, Carlos and Paula have no real cares in the world. Filled with the divine laziness of adolescence, they flop on their fronts on the floor, hands resting on chins, watching Sunday afternoon movies interspersed with seemingly endless commercial breaks.

But then the sickness takes hold. They remain friends and, outwardly, nothing about their relationship changes, but the landscape of Carlos’s heart is altered forever. Everything Paula does takes on a new enchantment for him, and he stores up visual memories of their smallest moments to replay later in his head. Like the image of her on the terrace that evening. Or the picture of her lying serene on her bed, lost in a book, with a box of chocolates by her side, each one individually wrapped in bright smiling colors. Or her splashing around playing water polo, laughing, but with a fierce competitive look in her eye.

Throughout the rest of school and into university, their friendship remains strong. To the outside world it is as platonic as when they were eight-year-olds racing around the shopping center.

Every morning they squeeze into his tiny, rattling car and make their way from their homes in the north to university in the city center. After class, they drink beer in small corner shops with their friends, the bottles crowding the table in front of them. They spend hours playing bolirana and pool. They can afford to waste entire afternoons doing nothing but drinking, talking nonsense and laughing. Their whole lives are ahead of them. They still have the luxury of time.

Throughout it all, Carlos keeps his love very still and quiet. Sometimes, as they sit on her bed watching movies, he looks down at their hands lying barely an inch apart, and he imagines his fingers interlacing with hers. It would be a tiny gesture that would say so much. It could be the start of something wonderful. But it could also be the end of everything. If he tells her how he really feels, she might feel nothing but betrayal. She might start to see him as just another man vying for her affection, a player of the worst kind, one who has masqueraded as her friend.

In moments of optimism, he tells himself that the best course of action is to wait for her.

Perhaps, she will create the moment. Perhaps, one day she will reach across and, with the slightest of touches, gently remove his mask and toss it aside forever. And so he does nothing. And in the meantime, they both learn the physical ways of love with others.

There are kisses—moments snatched in other girls’ bedrooms—hands exploring naked bodies in the darkness—sweaty nights of dancing with dark-eyed girls that are just as beautiful as Paula. But all of it is just a distraction. None of it fills his longing. There is nothing like the adrenalin shot when Paula laughs at his jokes, or rests her head on his shoulder, or kisses him goodbye on the cheek.

At the end of their second year at university, they start seeing each other less and less. Carlos suspects that she might have met another boyfriend, but then if she has, he reasons, surely he would have met him by now. One day, she calls to say she is on her way over because she has something to tell him. He hates those words—we need to talk. It is what his mother said to him the day she told him she was sick. Six months later, at just twelve years of age, he had lost her to the disease. On the day of the funeral, Paula had stood next to him, hand in hand, as the Bogotá rain soaked them at the graveside.

Paula now tells him not to worry. Her news is good news. Within half an hour she is at his door, throwing her arms around him in excitement and telling him that she is happier than she had ever felt possible. She asks him to promise not to say anything until she has finished speaking.

‘You have my word,’ Carlos says.

She proceeds, breathless and excited, to tell him about Pedro. Pedro is a DJ. They met a few months earlier at a party. Carlos was out of town that weekend at his latest girlfriend’s finca in the Tierra Caliente. Why is she only mentioning Pedro now? Usually, she is keen for Carlos to meet her new boyfriends straight away; usually his opinion matters. This time the feelings are different; she says she wanted to keep Pedro to herself for as long as she could. But now there is good news to share.

Carlos waits, without breathing, willing her not to go on. A chilly wave of nausea washes over him. He is desperate for it to be something else, but it isn’t. Jumping with excitement she confirms his fears—she and Pedro plan to get married in a matter of months.

Carlos has been hiding his emotions for so long that it has become second nature, and so his customary act as her best friend takes over his external persona, sharing in her joy, but inside he is in turmoil.

She tells him that her parents are beside themselves. He can understand why: she’s only twenty, and she’s marrying a man fifteen years her senior. And he’s not even a professional who will kiss her goodbye in his suit and head off to his office each day.

In the registrar’s office, Carlos stands next to Paula’s mother who sniffs throughout the ceremony. He suspects they are not tears of joy. He focuses on keeping his own sadness buried under an exhausting smile. If he really loves her, then he should be happy for her. It would be selfish to feel any bitterness about her happiness. But the river of love that has bubbled beneath the surface for so long fills his chest—heavy and immoveable as a lake.

Eighteen months later, as they stand on the steps of the college library, Carlos smoking and the two of them staring up at the mountains, Paula announces, ‘Pedro and I are moving to Brazil.

One moment I’m excited, the next I’m terrified. I’ve never been out of Colombia. Well, except for a couple of trips to my aunt’s in Miami and our trip to Cancun. Can you believe it? An old married lady, and I’ve barely had a chance to use my passport!’

Pedro has decided that, after spending years playing other people’s music, he wants to make his own. He’s been invited by a music collective in Rio to join their new studio. The plan is to make money teaching rich kids the art of mixing, scratching and various other DJ tricks. According to Pedro, this is quite a lucrative business, and the cool and moneyed young middle classes of Brazil provide the perfect market. In his spare time, Pedro and his partners will produce local talent and play their tracks in the clubs and bars of Rio.

‘But what about your own ambitions?’ he asks, ‘Didn’t you want to do a masters when you graduate?’

She doesn’t meet his gaze.

A scene flashes through Carlos’s mind. Paula bored and alone in Rio, sitting at home every night waiting for Pedro to come home; Pedro at the decks basking in the attention of beautiful garotas; arguments, accusations, regrets; Carlos collecting Paula at El Dorado on her return home from Brazil, alone, without Pedro; Paula and Carlos going to the notary together, him providing moral support as she signs the divorce papers; them getting drunk together that night, and then a kiss, finally, the kiss that will change everything. Pedro will, one day, simply be her “first husband,” a youthful mistake that no one in her family bothers to mention.

‘Studying will have to wait,’ Paula says, interrupting Carlos’s fantasy. ‘I’m probably going to have my hands full for the next couple of years.’

He doesn’t understand.

‘I’m pregnant,’ she whispers.

‘Wow, congratulations,’ Carlos splutters, the early evening chill encircling him. The Technicolor images of his future with Paula immediately fade. That future is now as intangible and transitory as the smoke that escapes from his cigarette into the grey Bogotá skies.

Two days before she is due to fly out to Brazil, Paula arrives at Carlos’s apartment alone and unannounced, carrying a large photo album.

She looks tired. She tells him it’s from the chaos of the move.

‘Now that we’re leaving, I finally had to go through all those boxes that I brought with me to Pedro’s place when I moved in after the wedding. Ironic isn’t it—that leaving the country has forced me to unpack. I should be packing stuff away, but it feels like every time I turn my head more and more things appear, like I’m sabotaging my own efforts.’

Before the wedding, she procrastinated for weeks. It was only on the afternoon before the big day that she finally got round to clearing out her room at her parents’ home. Carlos had tried to help her organize her things, but her form of packing involved simply throwing the contents of whole drawers and cupboards straight into cardboard boxes without stopping to think what she really wanted and needed to take. She said she would sort it all when she moved into Pedro’s apartment. She did unpack her clothes and most of her belongings, but there were a few boxes left that she never got round to unpacking. Things from her old life that were now obsolete in her new one. Things she should have thrown away. But couldn’t.

‘Here,’ she says, handing him the album, ‘something to remember me by.’

‘Something to remember you by? That’s a bit dramatic—I’ll see you again, won’t I?’

‘Of course, silly—I found the album you made for my twenty-first birthday, and I got a duplicate made. I thought you’d like to have a copy.’ She flops on the sofa and motions for him to join her.

‘Open it!’

Carlos takes a seat next to her and starts going through the photos as Paula watches over his shoulder.

All of them are of Paula and Carlos, from young eight-year-olds, standing by the entrance to their fathers’ golf club, looking straight-backed and serious beyond their years, to the photos of the first time they got drunk together at fifteen on a carton of cheap aguardiente, giggling, their foreheads cut off at the top of the picture or a thumb in front of the lens, to their senior trip together to Cartagena, Paula cradling a sloth in her arms. She remarked at the time that they looked like an odd family, Carlos, her and their lazy bear baby. It is all there: horse riding in La Calera; his birthdays at Pizza Nostra; her birthdays in the communal salon of her building; the two of them jumping to reach the piñata as white gloved waiters passed whisky around for the adults crowded behind them; dancing the waltz at her Fiesta de Quince; dancing on the tables at Andrés Carne de Res. They study each one together, travelling through their shared history of over fifteen years, laughing at their past selves, at the clothes and the haircuts and their youthful antics.

‘What a life we’ve had together,’ she remarks, ‘you’ve always been there with me through everything, and now we’ll be separated. You know my mother always said that we’d end up together. I think this is the first time she’s ever been wrong about anything.’

‘Really? I always thought your mother just saw me as the naughty little eight-year-old that used to lead you astray in the shopping center. I suppose she’s relieved not to have me as a son-in-law.’

‘No, she would’ve been delighted if we’d got together. She only ever wanted to see me happy, and you made me happy,’ Paula holds his eye for just longer than an instant and then gets up. ‘What am I doing here? I should be at home packing.’ She grabs her coat and makes to leave, her eyes averted, unable to meet his gaze again.

He follows her to the door. She opens it and then turns, throwing her arms around him in a bear hug. He holds her as close as he can, but the swell of her belly, now six months pregnant, keeps them apart. She pulls away, and Carlos notices a single tear trace the side of her beautiful profile and drip on to her bare shoulder.

‘Pau,’ he calls after her, but she is already rushing down the corridor and doesn’t look back.

In that instant, he realizes unrequited love is a sham, an impostor that convinces you that love can only ever be that way—that you have no option but to accept the pain. Maybe she does not love him now, but she could have—he thinks perhaps she always did. Suddenly, their whole history together is revised. He was always so afraid of losing her friendship that he never risked asking her if she loved him back. But what has he been protecting? Wasn’t it inevitable that if he didn’t play for the big prize early in the game that his safe hand would eventually get chipped away, leaving him with nothing in the end? Sometime in the past, there was a fork in the road, and he had chosen the path of unrequited love. Only now does he realize that he had a choice, there was an alternative road, if only he’d seen the signs.

Bogotá without Paula becomes a haunted place. Her absence is like a presence, following him around the city pointing out all the places where they drifted through their youth together. Titicó, the sweaty salsa club where they’d end up most Saturday nights; Pravda, the fancy bar in La T where they first tasted martinis together, feeling so sophisticated and grown up; the basketball court near his house where they’d play one on one, him easily throwing the ball high above her tiny frame; the hot dog stand on the 15th, their usual pit stop on their way home at 3am, that she named the ‘danger dog’ after the time she got food poisoning, although that never stopped her going back there; the breakfast place near their university where they’d have huevos pericos and arepa every Friday morning.

Carlos decides he can no longer stand to live in this city of memories and so he applies to Boston University to study a Masters in Latin American Literature. Working part-time in a Boston sports bar, he meets Catherine. On quiet Sunday afternoons, they stand behind the bar together, dusting the bottles of liquor, as she explains the intricacies of baseball to him, and he tries to convince her that nothing is as beautiful as football—the real football, that is. Within a year, they go from colleagues to friends to lovers to boyfriend and girlfriend to living together.

Carlos takes a job as a teaching assistant overseeing tutor groups of undergraduates discussing the works of Gabriel García Márquez. For the first time in years, he is forced to read Love in the Time of Cholera—Florentino Ariza’s story—once more.

‘I think it’s ultimately a story of hope,’ says one of his nineteen-year-old students. With her silky hair, wide smile and just the hint of an athlete about her body, she looks like the kind who might have been elected home-coming queen at high school, the kind of girl who has only known hope and opportunity in her life.

‘I disagree,’ a pale, skinny boy in a t-shirt of an eighties British pop singer says, ‘I think García Márquez is trying to show us that unrequited love is the cruelest, most wasteful of human emotions. But it also has an inevitability about it. No matter how many women he sleeps with, Florentino can’t escape the bitter hold of his love for Fermina. Once you get love sickness, you are never fully cured of it. It’s like alcoholism. You might be able to fashion an ordinary, sober life for yourself, but you will always be an alcoholic.’

‘You can’t possibly think that love is a sickness,’ the home-coming queen retorts, ‘Carlos, tell him that whacky interpretation is wrong.’

Carlos looks at his watch. Thankfully, time is up. ‘We’re going to have to pick this discussion up during the next class.’

That night, at home in the studio apartment he shares with Catherine, Carlos receives an email. It is from Paula.

‘Carlos! How long has it been! I hope you are enjoying life in the US.

I really wanted to tell you this over the phone, but I realized I don’t have a number for you in Boston. So e-mail will have to do.

I’ve left Pedro. Isabella and I are back in Bogotá living with my parents, for now. Things haven’t been great between Pedro and I for a while. I hung in there for Isabella’s sake, but living in a foreign country, with no friends, stuck with a man I didn’t love, it all wore me down.

Are you coming home for Christmas? I hope so. I’d really like to see you again. Can you believe it’s been nearly three years since we last saw one another? How is that possible? There was a time when we used to spend every waking moment together.

I saw a car broken down on the Septima the other day, and it reminded me of all those times your old Sprint would get a flat tire during rush hour on our way to class. Remember when the jack broke and we were stranded on the roadside for nearly two hours waiting for your Dad to come with a spare? We had the radio blasting the whole time and then, when we finally had the tire changed, the car wouldn’t start because we’d run the battery down. Your Dad had to go back home for the jump leads. He was so mad!

I had a good laugh to myself remembering that. Everywhere I look in Bogotá I see the two of us as teenagers having fun together.

Anyway, give me a call sometime at my mom’s house. It would be good to catch up. And, hopefully, I’ll see you at Christmas. A big hug from your old friend, Pau.’

Carlos looks up from the screen and catches Catherine’s eye. She is sitting a few feet away on the living room floor in her Boston U sweatshirt, laptop on her knee, books scattered around her, her hair in a messy ponytail and a blue pen streak racing down her cheek. She smiles at him, and he smiles back.

He loves Catherine. He knows he does. He has already decided that this is the woman he will build a life with. And yet, if he squints, he can see another reality. A parallel world where he doesn’t live in this cramped third-floor walk-up in a nearly two-hundred old converted house, with a red-haired girl who has a baseball obsession and a witty sense of humor, in a city that seduces you with its warm summers, green commons, and tree-lined streets and then punishes you with its sub-zero winters. A world where, instead, he lives in a two bed, three bath, wood floor apartment with his best friend, bought off-plan with the deposit their parents gave them as a wedding gift, in a city with no seasons, where they spend each weekend at asados with their high-school friends or at the country club with their parents. He can still feel the force of this alternative reality, even if it is now at the end of a road too far back in time to reach.

For the rest of his days, images of this other life slam into Carlos at the most unexpected moments—as he puts on his suit the morning of his wedding—as he carries boxes into his and Catherine’s first house in the Boston suburbs—as he drives his daughter to school—as he and Catherine jet off to Hawaii on their twentieth anniversary. He often wonders at what moment he chose this life over the other. Was it when he deleted Paula’s email without responding? Or when he failed to chase her down the hallway and demand to know why she was crying? Or when she showed him her engagement ring and he simply said “congratulations,” instead of telling her how he really felt? Or at any other moment when they were alone together and he did nothing, said nothing? Some might call this merciless and unrelenting emotion ‘Unrequited Love.’ Some might call it regret. Whatever it is, it is always there, hidden from view, buried deep within, quietly questioning him.

The story above has been adapted from one of the chapters in the novel Dancing with Statues.

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