By Jozef Leyden
The plane bringing me from Copenhagen to Lisbon was half-empty. So was the ‘Arrivals’ at the Lisbon-International on that late warm October evening when I came across her ̶ my inamorata-siren ̶ for the first time.
With no checked baggage, just a backpack, I smoothly sailed through ‘Immigration and Customs,’ briskly pacing toward the ‘Exit,’ bypassing people in the hall, anxiously waiting to welcome landed travelers, those who expected to be expected. I avoided any eye contact; no one would be there for me. All of sudden, about ten feet ahead, a young female waved her hand. To me! In sheer surprise I looked closer ̶ a breathtakingly beautiful woman, standing still, an inviting smile on her fine face. A serene Iberian Aphrodite, impenetrable dark eyes, a tiny pink rose, more like a rosebud, in her thick black hair, crimson cape loosely draped over her slender shoulders. A mirage ̶ invoking a sensation of indefinite longing. Like an intriguing portrait in an art museum which, once seen, is remembered forever.
I looked around me; there was no one else near to be hailed. Hesitantly, I raised my hand in greeting… toward an empty space in front of me. She was gone.
Sobered up from the momentary enchantment, I returned to reality, took a taxi to my hotel downtown; settled for the night.
Giving up hope for the tranquility of sleep, I got up in the middle of the night. Wide-awake, frantically I hurried through the brightly lit downtown Lisbon boulevards and narrow alleys of the old quarter. Intoxicated by the memory of her image, I desperately wished to miraculously cross paths with the mysterious airport-beauty again. For a second, I thought I caught a glimpse of her, entering a seedy bar with a flickering pink neon sign ‘Vila de Rosas’ above its entrance. Delusion of an insomniac.
Exhausted, I returned to my hotel; had a few hours of sleep that gave no rest.
Early in the morning, I took a bracing walk to the National Institute of Oceanography to join the introductory meeting of a team of scientists participating in a tropical Atlantic plankton migration study. A great international expedition was kicking off in a few days. With me onboard, representing the Danish Marine Science Institute.
The cruise was advertised as a ‘significant international venture encompassing transdisciplinary coordinated research, in pursuit of deep planktonic layers in the oligotrophic waters of the Sargasso Sea.’ There, about one hundred meters under the surface, the answer to the mysteries of oceanic bio-chemical processes was to be found, the key to improved global climate change modelling. Or so it was believed and emphasized in the funding proposal of the initiators of the venture.
A modern, well-equipped Portuguese Navy hydrography vessel ‘Vasco da Gama,’ and a crew of experienced seamen were chartered for the sail. Experts in marine sciences from all over the world had been invited to join the explorations.
The morning meeting was a stormy affair; disturbing news was announced by the expedition leader. Our departure would be delayed for at least a few days due to a strike in the harbor area. The gathered researchers were not happy, loudly expressing their discontent. Not me. More time for my absurd quest for the airport-nymph in the neighborhoods of Lisbon.
Despite the setback, the farewell reception was still held in the aula of the institute that afternoon. The aula ̶ a large, open space decorated with photographs of famous naturalists ̶ had a small podium under a portrait of Darwin and a registration desk at the entrance, where each of us was given a badge with our name, tittle, and affiliation.
Uplifting speeches were given by the institute’s director and an important someone from the Ministry of Science and Education. Greatness of the forthcoming oceanographic endeavor and indispensability of its anticipated outcomes for global warming studies were emphasized. The crowd of seafarers and a few invited guests mildly applauded and then moved to the back of the room, where tables with bottles of Port and trays loaded with snacks stood in celebration of the upcoming launch of the grand project. People dispersed through the space, eating and drinking, excitedly talking ̶ many of them bemoaning the delay and its consequences.
And there, out of the corner of my eye, she stood! My airport-siren.
The magic of her allure had not waned since yesterday. A touch of melancholy in her face; she chose to stand alone, solitary, apart from the chatting mob. White blouse, black jeans, rosebud in her hair ̶ now dark red, the color of the Port in our glasses.
She was beyond pretty, and she was aware of it.
Yet, I would dare to intrude on her solitude.
No time to lose ̶ she might vanish just like she did at the airport. Swiftly, I moved through the socializing crowd to get closer to her, close enough to read her nametag ̶ Luzia DaCruz, Ph.D.
“I found you, Luzia!”
“Nice to meet you too, Jacob,” she said, reading my badge. She did not seem to be intimidated by my bluntness. Not even surprised.
“Yesterday ̶ after you greeted and then abandoned me at the airport ̶ I roamed through the streets of Lisbon by night, desperately seeking you,” I blurted out, shamelessly.
“Why would you look for me, Dr. Andersen. You don’t know me. Don’t delude yourself. At the airport, I mistook you for someone else. Someone who had pretended to be my true lover forever, until yesterday, when he didn’t show up, and cowardly stayed put with his wife in Amsterdam.”
With a small, intriguing smile on her face, she looked into my eyes.
“You West-European thirty-something globetrotters ̶ blond and tall ̶ easy to misidentify from a distance. I had left my contacts at home. If you had waved back, maybe, I’d have embraced and kissed you.”
She didn’t seem to be overly mourning for being dumped by the coward from Amsterdam.
“Are you unhappily married to a complicated wife too? Just asking.”
She spoke in a soft alto, hardly opening her mouth.
“I deeply regret that I missed my chance, Luzia. I was fascinated merely by looking at you. Can I make it up, somehow?”
“Who can tell, Jacob. But I must leave now. Hate these busy gatherings of complacent scientists. Meet me for coffee tomorrow, here in the cafeteria after lunch. If you are interested in paleontology, I can show you my lab. You have nothing better to do anyhow, the strike may take weeks.”
Forthwith she left, not looking back. I felt euphoric and anxious at the same time. Would there be a tomorrow?
She kept her promise; the next day after lunch we found each other in the brightly lit cafeteria of the National Institute of Oceanography.
The space was deserted, silent after the buzz of the lunch break, except for a slacker in overalls reading a newspaper in a remote corner of the room and a lady in a blue smock who was vigorously closing the metal covers of the empty food-counters.
Time stopped when we settled at a table beside a large window facing the Tagus, small cups of espresso in front of us.
After some introductory clichés and professional chitchat, we soon abandoned any formality in our conversation, gradually slipping into a capricious verbal intimacy. ‘Science’ quickly evaporated from our dialog. Suggestively, neither of us was shy sharing details of our lives, permitting one another glances into hidden corners of our traits. Neither of us bothered to hide liking each other’s’ company. An hour, two ̶ who was counting ̶ passed.
“My father left me when I was twelve. It was because of my hysterical extravagant mother. First, I was sad; now I don’t care,” Luzia confided. Too zealously to be true.
“When my parents’ divorce became final, I stopped brushing my teeth and began compulsively crunching tons of hard candies and nuts in shells. Within a few years, my teeth were rotting away and needed extensive restorative dentistry. A great metallurgic job. It is my burden, my sentence, ever since. I can’t laugh loudly, don’t cheer, don’t sing, keep my jaws tight. Do pity me, Jacob.”
She looked around, checking if anybody was watching our tête-à-tête. To my unconcealed amazement, she widely opened her mouth. Aladdin’s treasure trove, gold glittering under the fluorescent lights of the canteen!
“Luzia, you know, there is a simple remedy. You can have your treasury replaced by white ceramic, so nothing can prevent you from laughing again.”
“No can do, Jacob. My father paid in full for this precious dental work. It was his goodbye present before he died.
“Your dowry,” he told me on his deathbed.”
I wasn’t sure if Luzia’ was telling the truth in her sentimental account or if she was just pulling my leg, to feed our dialog with captivating tales.
“Now, that’s a moving confession, Dr. DaCruz. However, your father’s gift doesn’t seem to have you brought any luck in romance, so far. I don’t see a shiny rock on your ring-finger.”
“Well, Jacob, true love does not need any affirmation with precious stones and metals; you must know that. No wedding band is adorning your finger either.”
“True. Since we are being so frank with each other, Luzia, I must admit that I am currently wading through a separation process. Nothing too dramatic, no kids involved, just being dumped for a wealthy dentist. You see, we are both cursed by some teeth-related misfortunes.
My ex and I blame ̶ rightly or wrongly ̶ my frequent and lengthy oceanographic cruises for destroying our marriage. Her new guy is my antipode, short and fleshy, thick brown cowlick. Intellectually, not what you’d call an academic type.”
We were overtly enjoying our animated chat ̶ a prelude to a serious flirt? It was getting late; the slacker was gone, the lady in the blue smock was reopening the counters for the tea-break. We stood up. I accompanied Luzia to her lab in the marine paleontology department.
“See you tomorrow,” we promised almost in unison.
“Same time, same place,” she added and walked away. I followed her with my eyes and noticed that this time she quickly, surreptitiously looked back, checking to see if I was still there, capturing each second of her presence. I was.
It took a full week before the research vessel was ready to weigh anchor. I didn’t mind. Each day, after lunch, Luzia and I consorted at the window table in the institute’s cafeteria, talking or silent, absorbed by our growing mutual affinity. No wonder that we were finding professional reasons to be together also after work.
“A visit to the Paleontology Museum is a must for a field-scientist. I’ll take you there,” Luzia professed. No doubt about it.
The white-haired chief-curator, Dom Miguel Hurtado, Luzia’s uncle, gave us a private tour through the museum’s fossil collections. During a moment when Luzia was out of earshot, he informed me that ‘DaCruz’ is a respected, old family name in Portugal.
“Luzia comes from a well-established Iberian lineage. Treat her with dignity,” he advised me when we were leaving.
Nothing could spoil the glorious remnant of that sunny autumn day. Luzia was in a jubilant mood and so was I. It felt fantastic, exhilarating to be close to her; I took her out for dinner to a simple fish place in the old city. Live Fado music was played that evening. Luzia tipped the lead songstress, clad in a black silk dress, to sing a sentimental song about burning love for us. Or so I was told as we parted for the night.
She brought me to her apartment only on our last evening together, just before my departure to the wide ocean. Tenderly, we seized each other, entangled our secret realms, fantasized about our forthcoming life in blissful affection; no vows. Our pasts did not exist. Until dawn.
The last embrace ̶ we pledged not to lose sight of each other, to keep in touch during my sea voyage. We would write ̶ old-fashioned email would be best. Internet availability may be limited for voice and video streaming onboard a ship in the middle of Atlantic.
I made it on time to the hotel, packed my rucksack and caught a taxi to the harbor. The great international expedition in pursuit of the layers of plankton, hidden deep under the sea surface, was about to begin.
Our boat set sail in the afternoon; many of the crew and staff leaning on the gunwales, watching friends, wives and husbands gathered at the pier, all merrily waving goodbye. Luzia was nowhere to be seen; she hated farewells.
If all went well, the ship would be back in Lisbon at the end of December, making a stopover at the Azores on our return journey. It was my seventh trans-Atlantic research cruise. Oddly, during this takeoff, still within sight of the homeport, I was already imagining the homecoming.
The October weather, rough only for the first few days, appeared to be on our side. Steadily, full steam sailed the ship south-westerly towards the blue desert of the Sargasso Sea. It felt good to be at sea, smell the salt of the ocean, to take part in the daily routines ̶ water sampling, meal shifts and evening discussions in the mess about everything and nothing. Within a week, we reached our destination. Below the shifting water surface, the riches of the deep plankton layers were easily located.
The first days of each hydrographic endeavor are filled with working frantically to set up the labs and test the equipment. As a rule, none of the instruments brought onboard function as they should. Work was occupying my brain, suppressing my infatuation with Luzia. For a while, she was just a sweet memory.
Subsurface oceanic surveys could be a fascinating experience. During nightly water column profiling, strong searchlights penetrate the sea surface to greater blue-green depths, revealing clusters of brightly colored jellyfish and solitary stingrays gliding through water saturated with fluorescent algae. Suddenly, I wanted to share this almost surreal sensation with the marine paleontologist left behind in Lisbon.
Back in my cabin, coincidentally, an email popped-up on my laptop screen, a sign of a distant promise.
I guess, you have found your vein of deep green algae. Consumed by hard labour? Too much to drop a line?
Missing our afternoon confessions. And more.
Luzia. Your Luzia”
Overwhelmed with sudden euphoria, I read the laconic message several times; could not wait to reply.
“Luzia, my Luzia,
Well, you did find me in the wide ocean. No, I am not hiding in the swell, forgetting or avoiding you.
Must admit, I feel overpowered by the intensity of affection which overcame me (us?) during those few joyful days in Lisbon.
So, now I am dealing with an emerging addiction. I yearn to listen to your voice and the way you talk, to hear what you are saying, to watch your expressive face. I am addicted to being near you, addicted to opening up to you.
Not regretting my weakness in the least.
This may all sound overly dramatic. Cannot help it; it is candid.
Jacob. Your Jacob”
Our emails travelled back-and-forth across the Atlantic at irregular intervals. Only in our early messages we tried to refrain from sentences conceding our intimate feelings, not sure who would be reading over our shoulders. At the institute and onboard, our ‘thing’ was no secret; we had no reason to hide it. Innocuous comments were made by colleagues; Luzia seemed to be popular at the institute.
We had been crisscrossing the Sargasso Sea for four weeks. Only sporadically was a distant vessel spotted on the horizon or on the radar screen. So far, the weather had been favorable, except for a few clouded days when swell and breeze ruffled the sea surface. The work was progressing well ̶ hundreds of water-quality surveys recorded, bottom cores taken, common and rare fish species caught in nets and preserved in big freezers. The rhythm of vertical migration of plankton in the water-column was being intensively studied, as intended.
Life onboard had become an agreeable routine ̶ breakfasts in the mess, mornings and afternoons of concerted underwater measurements and sampling, analyses in the labs, lunches and dinners in shifts, evening briefings. Occasionally, modest partying and drinking took place in the common room; wild oceanographic adventures were recalled. Multicultural fraternization. Of course, there were conflicts too ̶ the exact position of a sampling site and the order of activities on deck could be matters of life and death for some self-absorbed scientists; instrumentation broke and had to be fixed; rivalry among international teams flared up now and then. The longer at sea, the more heated arguments accompanying the incidents became, eventually requiring resolution by the expedition leader in accord with the captain’s instructions.
For a week now, there had been no sign of life from my remote flame. I pretended not to care. In vain. Fellow seafarers from the institute had noticed my unease.
“Luzia forgetting you, Jacob? She is a generous woman. A butterfly. You should have known, old boy. Half of the institute has had her,” the ostensibly-friendly head of the marine biology group mocked me. “Don’t you worry, the institute is not so big,” she added sarcastically.
Yet, Luzia had not forgotten me.
It’s been a busy week, work and some personal stuff. As many of the staff are gone, keeping you company during the mid-Atlantic adventure, there are only a few of us to do the real work ̶ analyzing a huge backlog of observations collected during past surveys.
That’s not what upsets me. I badly miss you, feel lonesome. So, when R. ̶ you know him, the bearded geologist you met a few times in my lab ̶ asked me to go out with him, I agreed. Why not? We had sort of a romance in the past.
We had a couple of drinks in a tavern downtown, and a few more at my apartment. It was nice to be with him. As you can imagine, we got nostalgic.”
Startled, I paused reading; my distant siren’s typed confessions were hurting, hurting awfully. I knew I had no claim whatsoever on Luzia’s sole affection; she had no accountability to me ̶ feverishly, I was reasoning. Reasoning! Intensely, I wished that nothing, nothing had happened that evening in Luzia’ apartment.
Hesitantly, I went on reading.
“It was a cold evening, outside and in my house, so we snuggled under the blankets. It felt good not to be on my own that night. Loneliness is depressing; you can understand, I guess.
So, tell me dear Jacob, this acute emotional emptiness, us not being together, can you feel it? Do you have a cure for it? Hard work?
Today, I started counting the days separating us; biting restlessness consumes my heart. Still too many lingering days and nights ahead. Don’t abandon me.
Dark misery clouded my soul. The dim laptop screen reflected my instantaneous thoughts as I pounded the keyboard ̶
“Luzia, butterfly Luzia, you did me, us wrong! I won’t meet you; won’t see you again. We are not meant for each other.”
Words of distress; I deleted them all. No answers, no absolution would be coming from me. Not now, not ever.
Time flew by; I was working hard in twelve-hour-shifts. Avoiding the nightly assemblies in the mess, I drank Aquavit from the bottle in my cabin; trying to heal my tormented ego, craving to forget.
While a redeeming oblivion stayed out of reach, unwittingly, my attitude was making a U-turn. Could it be that a breakup with my far-away mistress was making me feel more miserable than a stoic acceptance of her concept of affection?
Would humility be a remedy?
“Luzia, Luzia. In severe pain, I hate to admit; I cannot erase you from my mind. There is nothing to be understood or forgiven. Nothing matters anymore, only being with you. I want to come back into your arms. Please keep them open. Our time to come ̶ we will figure that out later.”
Lines of desperate pathos. Once again, I made my feeble reveries disappear from the screen.
I saw no point in sending more emails. What could I say? A lie of forgiveness when there is no guilt? Another lie of tolerance which would be just a self-delusion? The bitter truth of the scorching wretchedness of the betrayal, when there were no vows, no promises to be transgressed?
The weather was changing in the Sargasso Sea; westerly winds were picking up, high rollers were rocking our ship, impeding our survey schedules. The internet connectivity was unaffected though. Not yet.
A message was delivered to my Inbox.
“Jacob, my (?) Jacob,
Adverse weather for the expedition was announced today on the institutes’ electronic bulletin-board.
Do you feel wronged? Seasick? Met a mermaid? Not many of them in the Sargasso Sea. Maybe one of my charming colleagues onboard? Don’t trust their fables. Smoke and mirrors, gossips.
I am not seeing R. anymore; just so you know. Do come back.
Yours (?) Luzia”
A weak spot of light in the tunnel under the mountain of misery and heartache. Not all is lost; there may be a cure, a hopeful passage back, back to Luzia. Past be forgotten, future be ignored.
“Luzia, my Luzia,
Your instincts don’t fail you. For a while I was fiercely rejecting the idea of you and me being together ever again. Pretending that the noxious potion, you mixed to abate your loneliness ̶ snake oil ̶ leaves me cool, would be a thin lie. Proclaiming I could easily forget you, would be a hollow pretention as well. Inevitably, you’d find out.
Losing each other in bad weather ̶ for me, now ̶ the most lamentable option.
Is your gold dowry still waiting for a suitor?
I am coming back. Wear a rose in your hair and wave your hand when you see me at the port of Lisbon. I’ll wave back. Don’t just disappear as you did the very first time our eyes met.
Never minding the drama in my words anymore, I clicked the ‘Send’ icon. A moment later, the speakers of the onboard PA system announced upcoming stormy weather. Securing the lab instrumentation and lashing on-deck equipment was advised. We all knew the drill. Had been there before; not a big deal.
A few of us ascended to the bridge to watch the screen of the weather-radar. A thick reddish blotch on the monitor was approaching our position. Not a hurricane, just an ordinary storm; nothing to be overly concerned about. Find some buckets for seasickness sufferers.
It was a respectable squall, a true spectacle like they showcase in action & adventure movies ̶ wind of Beaufort 10, foam-crested towering waves, a wildly rolling ship ̶ the whole nine yards. Only hardened sea-wolves were in for a cup of coffee while it lasted.
The storm raged for a full day before the wind weakened to a Beaufort 8, still a strong gale. For those who were up to it, a warm lunch was served in the mess. The last one for a week, we learned soon. We were finishing our generous portions of rich paella, when the ever-present background roar of the engines lessened and finally completely died. We had to grab and firmly hold our plates as the rolling of the vessel, now freely drifting on the choppy ocean surface, escalated. Thirty minutes waiting, joking, guessing.
The LED of the ship’s PA system turned on. “Attention, attention, the skipper speaking on the. I have some bad news, guys ̶ our two diesels stopped cooperating. It may take an hour or so to fix. Keep calm and carry on,” the captain instructed in an artificially jolly voice. Annoying news. Dessert was skipped.
Our investigations in the Sargasso Sea were almost complete; the conclusion of the program was in sight; in a week we should be sailing full steam to the Azores for a deserved break. All of us were looking forward to feeling solid ground under our feet. Now, with broken engines, the scheduled grand finale of the cruise became uncertain.
Because of the motor-failure, the electrical power, provided by an auxiliary generator, was available only on the bridge and for emergency lights and freezers. Cabins and labs were cut off. The batteries of our laptops, tablets and smartphones would soon be depleted. Which happened a couple of days later.
The lack of warm food and disruption of our research were not catastrophes, losing the internet was an unforeseen drag.
Engineers toiled around the clock to get the diesels back and running; calling a rescue boat in the middle of the ocean was a costly matter. After two days of hectic repair attempts, the captain bit the bullet and radioed for help. A tugboat was ordered to Save-Our-Souls. The nearest port, Ponta Delgada at the Azores, was two days away. Two more days lingering on our uncontrollable, rolling and pitching Flying Dutchman. Not good for the moral of the seafarers. Fatigue was taking over our minds and bodies. The consumption of booze among the oceanographers sharply increased. Rumors flourished and proliferated.
Fatalistic, we idled, played poker, read books, and penned gloomy journals and letters on white sheets of printer-paper.
Doubts and melancholy ruled. A sheet of paper can carry a load of drama.
Our ship is drifting, not getting closer to Lisbon.
I feel the distance, I feel the angst of a menacing loss. Will you be waiting at the shore when I land?
Madly, deeply I long for your embrace. I shall lock you up in my arms. Won’t let you go.
My holy pledge.
I reread my handwritten rash declaration of love, tore the sheet of paper into small pieces, climbed the steep iron stairway to the rocking deck and released the scraps into the wind on the leeward side. The grey surf of the raging Atlantic devoured my pathetic revelations.
The tugboat arrived on time. Less than three days later, the lame ‘Vasco da Gama’ was anchored half a mile off the port of Ponta Delgada, ready to be towed into the harbor, weather permitting. We were counting the hours; it took almost a full day.
The wind eased, the sea was calm, the sun was shining as we approached our designated pier in the old port. The same scene as at our departure ̶ crew and staff standing on deck, leaning on the gunwales, watching the shore. We did not expect much of a welcoming party; the ceremony was planned for our later arrival in Lisbon.
We could see a small group of people at the pier ̶ waiting, anxiously observing the cumbersome landing maneuvers of the paralyzed ‘Vasco.’ Among them, I recognized the director of the institute and some high-ranking Navy officer, both apparently relieved with the happy-ending of our eventful return journey.
A few meters from the group ̶ there she stood! With a tiny red rose, more like a rosebud, in her thick black hair. Waving her hand.
I was among the first ones off the ship when the gangplank was lowered ̶ rushing, running to my unfaithful siren. Wildly, she locked me in her arms.
“Jacó, olá! Meu amor!
I found you, Jacob!
All those nine trying weeks ̶ madly, deeply I have longed for your embrace. I won’t let you go.”
An echo of my own words that had scattered over the ocean. Her face was beaming as she spoke, not shy to open her mouth, exposing her perfect white teeth.
The dowry was gone.