June 12 is Valentine’s Day in Brazil ~ This is…A True Love Story

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My dad is a man of few words.  When he speaks, though, it is either something very profound or something so funny it will make you fall off your chair in laughter.  He said something to me many years ago.  He said that when someone really loves you, they will do something about it.  I never recognized the truth behind those words until…

It was June of 1988, summertime in the US, winter in Brazil.  I was 15.  We packed our bags like we had done so many times before; 14 suitcases, army bags and large boxes, between the seven of us.  (Seven because my brother’s nine year old friend, Bradley, joined us)  Inside the boxes:  silk flowers, party favors, cake decorating supplies, and engraved items such as napkins, champagne glasses, and matches, -everything needed for a celebration of high caliber.

I, the typical teenager, wasn’t interested in a fancy party.  But I had to board the plane and go with them.  After all, the party would be for me.

At the duty free shop in Brazil my mom purchased boxes and more boxes of whiskey.  We spent a few days in Belo Horizonte, a city whose name means beautiful horizon.  There we met with the seamstress so I could try on the dresses.  The dresses, fit for a princess, weren’t ready but they would be shipped to my grandmother’s house in Januaria.

Back then, the only safe way to get to my grandmother’s town (my mom’s hometown) was via a very long bus ride.  The bus departed the train station in Belo Horizonte at nine o’clock in the evening.  The road was covered with large potholes that had formed after the rainy season.  We bounced and jiggled around the bus the entire way.  It was cold outside.  I leaned my head back but I couldn’t sleep.  Eight and a half hours into the trip (around 5:20 a.m.) the bus stopped and the driver instructed everyone to exit.

We were at the bank of the Sao Francisco River.  The river’s bank was lined with small clay huts that had straw roofs.  The soil was a thick, burnt-orange color.  Our shoes and the hems of our pants absorbed the powdery soil as we walked.  During the winter season, the Northeastern region of Brazil is hot and arid during the day and cool in the evening.  It was still dark outside; the sun would creep out soon.  Single flickering bulbs dangled from the electrical lines that were strung from hut to hut.  A handful of villagers carried baskets or metal trays containing items such as corn on the cob, fried fish, and bottled drinks.  The villagers weaved between the waiting passengers and offered their goods.

Nothing was wrong with the bus, by the way.  We just had to wait for the barge to arrive from the other side of the river.  When the barge arrived, the larger cargo, including buses and trucks boarded first.  The river was calm, it’s water thick and brown.  If it were daytime you’d see the tones of red.  The thought of boarding a flat piece of metal loaded with heavy vehicles and subsequently being tugged across the river by a small boat seemed risky.  I negotiated with God and asked him get us across the river safely.  Twenty minutes later (felt like longer) the bus drove off the barge, we re-boarded and were back on the road to Januaria.

The town didn’t change much from year to year.  Dilapidated homes lined the cobblestone streets.  My grandmother lived in the city square where the homes maintained the colonial style of the late 1800s.  The square had a bank, a church, a bakery, two drug stores and a hardware store.

The day we arrived my mom informed me I would dance the waltz with someone named Manoel.  According to mom he was the most handsome man in town.  She wanted to be sure the photos would turn out nice, hence the arrangement.  An argument ensued.  There was absolutely no way I would agree to dance the waltz with a complete stranger who was 23 years old.  Creepy!  I proposed that it was only necessary for me to dance with my dad.  The second waltz was reserved for boyfriends and if I didn’t have a boyfriend, we could logically omit that part of the ceremony.

My mom and I argued back and forth on the matter until I finally agreed to her conditions:  If I didn’t have a “boyfriend” by the day of the party I would dance with Manoel. (In the meantime I told myself I would devise a plan to meet and inform this allegedly good-looking man that it wouldn’t be necessary for him to dance with me.)

The next day our family went to the “beach”.  The road that led to the beach was dusty with that thick burnt orange powder.  At the beach we sat under the shade of a tiki hut.  Something was cooking in the hut’s kitchen and it smelled really good.  My parents went from table to table and greeted people. Everyone was really friendly.  We got hugs and kisses from people I had never met before.  My parents found an empty table.  I sat facing the hut’s kitchen because even back then I was curious about food.  My parents had their backs to both the kitchen and to the entrance of the hut.

I looked around and explored our surroundings and quickly noted the contrast in the local’s attire versus mine.   I wore a lime green American-style bathing suit.  The bottom of my bathing suit looked like a diaper compared to the teeny-tiny bikinis worn by all the other girls on the beach.  Good thing I had on a pair of white shorts to cover my diaper butt.  I looked down at my clothes and felt a bit embarrassed.

I heard some laughs and commotion at the back of the hut.  When I looked up, there he was.  He was tall and had dirty blond hair (like Jon Bon Jovi’s).  His eyes were green, set perfectly between a nose that turned slightly upward when he smiled.  He had full lips and perfectly aligned white teeth.  I don’t think I had ever considered a being to be perfect until my eyes scanned downward toward his legs.  Those legs, thick and strong all the way down, completed the package.

My analysis lasted the few seconds it took him to walk to our table and gently pat my mom on the back.  Mom turned and enthusiastically hugged him.  “Manoel!”  Meanwhile, my mind and heart raced at 100 mph.  This was Manoel and he was not the best looking man in town.  He was the best looking man I had ever laid eyes on.  My mom introduced us and told him I was her daughter and would be the one for the waltz.  He flashed a smile and said he would be delighted to dance with me.  Something told me Manoel had been in many other waltz pictures and didn’t seem to mind the attention.  He moved to greet people at other tables.  We were at the elder’s tent.  He disappeared behind me…very likely headed for the young and cool people’s tent.  My pulse and blood pressure returned to normal after a half hour.  Okay, maybe it took a couple of hours.

The party wouldn’t be for another several weeks.  The doorbell rang constantly at my grandmother’s house.  People came to ask for invitations and also brought gifts.  The party planners came over every couple of days to discuss the details.  I stayed out of it.  It seemed to me that this party would be the wedding my mom never had.  She married my dad in a small ceremony.  Dad wasn’t there.  He was in the US and sent a power of attorney for his brother to take his place so that mom could obtain a Visa to come to the US.

I went out almost every night with my cousin who was one year my senior.  She taught me how to fend off unwanted guys.  Brazilians are quite forward when compared to American guys.  I wasn’t used to walking in the street and having a person walk past and say he wished he were the strawberry ice cream I was savouring.

I hadn’t seen Manoel since that day at the beach.  My cousin and I leaned against the wall that ran along the river.  About 20 feet below was the river.  During the rainy season the river would reach the top of the wall and sometimes flow over into the city.  I remember exactly what I wore that night.  It was a gray knit skirt, about an inch above my knee.  My blouse had half sleeves and matched the skirt.  The back of the blouse said:  “Naughty Boys”.  It was a popular brand of clothes in the US at the time.  (For Brazil’s fashion standards, I was still tacky)

Two guys came over to talk to us.  The guys were Paulistas (from Sao Paulo), in town for work.  Their names were Luis Enrique and Olavo. They were your typical city boys, nicely dressed and clean-cut, with Italian last names.  The conversation progressed to our plans for the days ahead.  My cousin mentioned my 15th birthday party and also told them that I would be forced to dance with a guy who I wasn’t interested in.  The Paulista who seemed to take a liking to me, immediately offered to be my partner for the dance.  I smiled and thanked him but didn’t exactly accept.

Cars drove slowly down the street.  Some played loud music.  The boys made passes at the girls.  Across the street there were a number of bars.  The bar directly in front of us was sparsely occupied.  I noticed someone familiar at a table with two girls.  He wore a beige and brown marbled sweater, jeans and a pair of all-stars.  I wondered who the girls were and whether either of them was his girlfriend or maybe a friend with benefits.  I was actually jealous.

Meanwhile, the two Paulistas carried on.  They asked me questions and I answered, mostly using monosyllable replies.  They didn’t notice where my attention was.  You have to keep in mind that I was a very shy girl back then.  I didn’t know what a comfort zone was but you can be sure I was outside of it.  What happened next blows my mind.  My actions would shape my life forever.

I casually informed the Paulistas and my cousin that I would be right back.  I strutted across the street on a mission…poofy hair and high-heel silver pumps (so tacky)…and said hello to Manoel.  I told Manoel that I would like to ask him a question.  He smiled and waited.  By then the girls he was with had eased out of the way.  In a soft and shy-but-confident voice I asked him if he would dance the waltz with me at my 15th birthday party.  He hugged me and said “Of course I will”.

From that moment forward he never let go of me.  Across the way the Paulistas deduced they would not be guests at my party.  My cousin was utterly confused.  Manoel and I were inseparable for the next several weeks.  He’d pick me up each morning and we’d head to the beach.  After the beach he’d drop me off at my grandmother’s house so I could nap.  He’d return later and wake me from my nap—that was nice.  We were together until around midnight, sometimes longer.  I was in love.

On the day of the party Manoel and I, along with my parents and brothers, stood at the reception area of the social club and greeted 600 guests.  (Three kisses on the cheek from each.  My facial muscles were sore.)  I had made some friends since our arrival in Januaria.  But of the 600 guests I could say I only knew 50.  We danced the waltz together just as my mom had planned.  Wink, wink!  Fireworks rang out.  He stood at my side and we cut the four-tier cake. The celebration would come to be known as the Party of the Century.

It is true.  All good things come to an end.  Our time expired just a few days after the party.  Our family had to board the same bus back to Belo Horizonte to then board the flight to Miami.  Manoel and I cried and hugged and cried some more.  I knew he would miss me and I would miss him just as much.

The years passed.  Each time I visited Brazil we would meet. The emotions were the same.  He had a few serious relationships and lived with a woman when he was away at law school.  Eventually he returned home to practice law with his father and became engaged to a local girl whose family owned half the town.  They had supermarkets and gas stations.  I knew he didn’t love her.  He was making the wrong move for the wrong reasons. Money and power are never good reasons to marry.

My family was invited to the wedding. On the eve of his wedding I was at a Karaoke Bar when a young man approached our table and asked if someone could tell him where to find Priscilla.  My aunt pointed at me.  The young man said that someone at the door was waiting to speak with me.

His truck was parked out front.  In small towns, everyone knows everyone…and everyone finds out about everything.  I didn’t care.  I got in the truck.  We talked…he told me he wanted to marry me.  I scolded him and questioned his sincerity.  He said he loved me and that I was the one he wanted to marry.  I didn’t believe him.  Why would he wait all this time to tell me?  On the night before his wedding?  It probably wasn’t true.  So I called his bluff and said that if he wanted to marry me he could.

He stopped the car at my grandmother’s doorstep—another big mistake in a small town where everyone talks.  We talked some more.  Neither of us seemed to care what other people thought that night.  We stared into each other’s teary eyes and didn’t say a word for a few minutes.  Before I closed the door he said he loved me.  I ran up the stairs, buried my head in a pillow and cried.

The next day wasn’t easy.  Remember that the church was in front of my grandmother’s house.  I opened a bottle of wine and sat at the balcony.  The guests began to arrive.  My family and I walked over and sat in one of the back pews.  My hands shook and heart pounded.  Manoel saw my brothers and pretended to choke himself, a Brazilian gesture that refers to the act of getting married.

The wedding happened.  They bride and groom exchanged vows.  At the reception they greeted guests.  I walked past.  His new bride held on to him for dear life.  While still holding her hand he leaned toward me and said something in my ear.  The music was loud so I couldn’t hear him.  I asked him to repeat.   He repeated but I still couldn’t hear.  On the third attempt he said, “Never mind”.

Months and years passed.  I heard rumors about his failing marriage all the time.  He left the house several times.  I saw him every now and then.  He always had a hug for me, a very special hug.  The kind that neither of us wanted to let go of.  After seven years and a number of reconciliation attempts the marriage ended.  (Apparently seven is the magic number for divorces).

Separation after being with a person for a long time is not easy, even if things are bad and the separation is for the better.  But life was really looking good for Manoel after the divorce.  He moved into the space above his law firm. I was happy for him.

My mom was in Januaria in August of that year.  She emailed me pictures of Manoel and said he wanted to see me.  He asked my mom if it would be okay for him to visit me in Miami.  He told my mom he wanted to marry me.  She always liked Manoel so “yes” was her answer.  I told her to let him know that he shouldn’t worry because we would see each other soon.  I had plans to visit in December.  He sent a message back saying that December was too far away.  He said he would come get me sooner.  My mom played along with him and said, “Okay, as you wish”.  After all those years he still referred to my mom as his “sogra” or mother-in-law.

Mom returned to Miami.  We were both excited about my seeing Manoel again.  He was divorced now.  The path was clear.  After also having recently ended a long-term hopeless relationship I was ready for him.  We were ready for each other.  I remember sleeping so peacefully in the weeks that followed.

One morning in late August, not long after her return from Brazil, Mom entered my room with a startled look on her face.  Something was wrong.  “What, mom?”

She told me she had just received a call from my uncle.  Manoel had been in a car accident.  My immediate reaction was, “Okay, but he’s going to be okay, right?  He’s in the hospital, right?”

“No”, she said.  “He died in the accident.”

My world fell apart on that day.  We had waited so long.  How could our plans end this way?  The sadness I felt was deep. His physical life ended on that day.  My spirit died.  My heart was broken.  My life would never be the same.  I promised myself many things.  I would never take time for granted.  I promised I would always do what I wanted to do and say what needed to be said, without holding back. I promised to say yes more, to believe in people more…to love more.

One year later to the day of his death I visited Januaria. Strangely, I walked around town and still expected to see him drive past in his truck and wave.  It was hard to accept his death.  What occurred next was even harder to accept.

Manoel’s mom came to visit.  She brought an envelope with her.  She began to cry as she told this story:

“On the day of his wedding, Manoel drove 100 km to another town and called us to say he would not be there for the wedding.  He told us he did not want to marry her.  He told us he didn’t love her.  He said he loved you and wanted to marry you.”

Manoel’s mom described the events that had transpired on the day of his wedding. She said, “I told Manoel that all the catering had been arranged, the guests had been invited…and he couldn’t just walk away.  I told him he needed to come back.  I told him he needed to respect his family, her family, and the guests.  He refused. We had no choice.  So we sent his brother and sister to pick him up.  We coerced him into marrying his fiancé against his wishes.”

Manoel’s mom was there to apologize to me.  She felt a tremendous amount of guilt for forcing him to marry someone he didn’t love. And now, she felt she would have to carry the guilt of his death with her.  Had he not married her, she reasoned, he might not have started drinking…and therefore the accident wouldn’t have happened.

She opened the envelope and showed me the contents.  One by one she laid them out on my lap.  They were all photos of me, different sizes, different shapes, and different ages.  She had found them in his drawers, hidden in various spots.  She found them while cleaning out his home following the accident.

“He loved you, Priscilla.  His wife knew he loved you.  She despised you because she knew the truth.  She knew he was with you the night before his wedding and she knew he left town on the day of their wedding.”

I was in complete shock.  He really meant it that night.  He really did want to marry me.  I should have believed him.  I should have offered to run away with him.  I would have done it.

Now I, too, was overcome with guilt.  I thought of what our lives would have been like had things happened differently.  I don’t know how our lives would have turned out…but I now know that my dad was right when he said, “when someone loves you they will do something about it”.  Manoel did something about it.  But his family stopped him.

His mom hugged me and we cried.  Before she left she said I should go on with my life and find someone good.  She said that’s what Manoel would have wanted.  He wanted me to be happy.  She said it was time to let him go.

I haven’t returned to Januaria since then.  I prefer to remember the good times we had, the sunsets and sunrises.  The sun set too soon for my Manoel.  I am still blessed with the gift of life and a sun that rises every day. It means I have the responsibility to live a meaningful life and try to make the world a better place.  His love shines in my heart every day.  Happy Valentine’s Day, Manoel.








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