"You are one of the greatest loves of my life," he said.
Federico was exhausted from the long plane ride and hellish drive, and was now resting on my bed to catch his breath and find his second wind. We were catching up on years of each other's lives, years we hadn't seen or spoken to each other. There were so many things amazingly familiar, yet so much had also changed.
For instance, he still spoke with that low, smooth, velvet voice -- the one with just the right touch of roughness at the edges developed from years of chainsmoking and alcohol. Picture a man slowly pulling your face towards him as he gently caresses your face then lingers his touch on your chin, while he runs his fingers sensuously through the hair on the back of your head. To your surprise he crumples your hair tightly in his fist and suddenly jerks your head backwards, and presses his lips onto yours and kisses you firmly, with absolutely no hesitation. That's what his voice sounds like. Like a soft, teasing growl that delights.
Add to that a charming (OK -- and ooh-la-la sexy) French accent molded from a boyhood in Switzerland, a youth spent in France, and adult years both in the Philippines and the US. I spent enough time with the man to know that when he spoke, all female heads within earshot quickly swung towards the direction of his voice. And the view wasn't bad either.
Now he was leaner and more tanned; he had spent the last few years training as an amateur triathlete. And while he was never innocent or naive (I suspect even as a toddler), he had become even more hard-edged and cynical. I sensed the years hadn't been completely kind to him, but knew him well enough to be certain he had created most of his own misfortune. The man had never learned impulse control and delayed gratification. He was a bohemian with unabated wanderlust; his home was wherever he happened to be at the moment.
The first time I met him I was on a blind date, a double date. Federico happened to drop by unexpectedly while we were all enjoying a home-cooked meal at Steven's home. He even joined us as we headed off to a popular club on Sunset Boulevard much later in the evening. And although I was the only one in the group who did not know him, much less had ever seen him, he stuck to me despite the jostling, pushing, and shoving of the masses inside the steamy, smoky room. And when we all returned to the house to wind down, he was still constantly at my side. I had to remind him I was on a date that evening but he absolutely did not care -- my unfortunate date soon knew he had been elbowed out of the scene and spent the rest of the night getting high by himself in a corner.
Federico phoned repeatedly until I finally agreed to meet him after work one day. I knew he was trouble and the last thing I wanted was that. I figured meeting him at his workplace on a weekday night was innocent enough; I could drive off as soon as dinner was over. But the problem was I found myself wishing dinner would never end.
He brought the world to me as if he had playfully presented it inside a shiny snowglobe. I marveled at the wonders of his adventures and was intrigued by the yet untold. I was excited by his keen intellect, floored by his sense of humor, and now wobbly as I dealt with his certainty and confidence. And not long after, I fell.
I fell in love with him despite myself, and all that I had learned about self-preservation. I knew off the bat he would break my heart, there was never any doubt on my part about it. And to drive the final nail even deeper, he was only going to remain in Los Angeles for a few months and head for Texas in the summer to finish university. This truly was doomed from the start.
But something strange happened. I decided to jump in and discover adventure despite all the signs of danger. It was a wonderful time -- even if too short, often intense, and not always happy. But because what we had was meant to end, we skipped over the part where we were supposed to fight over trivial matters and petty things and decided to enjoy the ride. And when the weather started warming up, I released my foot on the gas pedal, slowed down, and pulled over. It was time for him to go, and I was shocked to find my heart still intact even if a bit scratched.
During his long drive to Texas, he phoned me at every stop -- especially in the evenings, when he felt most lonely. And, to my absolute surprise, he wrote me a tender love letter on some notepaper conveniently stocked in his motel room, which I've kept. But just as I expected, the time between his phone calls got longer and longer -- and there were so many more adventures and many, many more women in store for him the next decade or so.
I saw him again just a couple of times those years, and we never went beyond friendship, laughter, and discovery. His stories still enthralled me, and his familiar scent always gave me some comfort. But I knew trying to recapture the past was only going to destroy it, and so I kept my focus firmly on the future, with us merely as friends. And so now it was the beginning of a new century, and he flew cross-country, he said, to revisit all who meant so much to him.
"Mm-mm no, you know I'm hardly that," I responded to his grand declaration of love. "But I'll always be one of your greatest friends." He smiled at me, as if he were proud of how wise I'd become. We both knew there were too many women in his past, present, and future for there to be just a handful of his greatest loves (a tiny percentage would still result in a crowded room). But as a true friend, I would always be distinctive and very special indeed. Just as I believe I am.