5. 12. 2020

English Version | Love is: José Couto Nogueira

by José Couto Nogueira


I’ve seven decades to live, but just like Orlando, the famous Virginia Wolf character that crossed four centuries, I’ve walked through an ancient time where love was mystified, and sex was cursed. 

To read or write about love is always a frivolous hobby, since the only love we know, and that actually means something to us, is the one we feel inside. The love others feel, amongst themselves, or for someone else, is reality searching for fiction. That being said, let’s dive into the matter at hand: to love is the only sentiment that proves we’re alive. Period. The rest is tales and stories. And we should talk about those too. If the feeling that is love has remained unchanged since Man became Sapiens, its manifestations, the so-called “customs”, transform with time and culture. And, even within a given culture, they are different from country to country. For example, relationships in 1950 Sweden were different from those of the United States in the same decade. Today, in 2020, lovers act one way in France and another in Russia. I entered my “conscious life” in Portugal, in the 1960s. In the case of our country, there is a paramount historic marc, the Revolution of 1974. For those who were already around long before that date, it was as if they were going from the Present to the Past.  Therefore, I ask the younger generation to believe that world actually existed. Much like in George Orwell’s 1984, or The Handmaid’s Tale from Atwood, it all appears to be fiction, but it was real. Many of my contemporaries didn’t make it out. But one day, they’ll all be dead and these reminiscent memories from that Dark Age will, alas, turn into fiction that entertains perplex readers.

Love existed and was recognized, but solely within the prejudices of the Holy Mother Church, coded by the lay of the Holy New State and fulfilled naturally by families across the country. Sex didn’t exist, I mean, it wasn’t acknowledged or talked about aloud. A friend of mine’s family would say things such as “front ass” because any direct reference such as “vagina” or “pussy” was a sin, or even worse, distasteful. Everyone knew that love and sex were two very intertwined realities, but, because people didn’t talk about them, every time something remotely resembled love appeared, even in the innocent form of dating, sex alerts were immediately put in place. Sounds weird? It was the most normal thing. My first girlfriend lived in Cascais, in an isolated hillside house, while I was living in Lisbon. Since I was part of the academic association in college, her parents saw our relationship with much mistrust. We belonged to the same social level, otherwise, it would have been inconceivable for them. But we cared about each other, and that was a sentiment that could lead us to the unthinkable. We’d write letters to each other during the week, which were tolerated. Phone calls, not so much. On the weekend I would take the train to Cascais, being well aware I wouldn’t be able to go over to her house. We would either meet during “gatherings” – dinner parties, with adult supervision – or I’d go up the hill of pine trees, up to the backyard’s wall. At a scheduled time, she would escape, because her family was numerous, and she would come out of the dark, beautiful as the moon. We’d caress each other, hug, and exchange short, intense kisses. Delicious mischief, that controlled boldness. Her brothers didn’t know, and I didn’t speak of it to my friends. Whenever we’d meet during the aforementioned gatherings, or at the beach, we were together, clumsily holding hands even. She was the woman of my life, and one day we’d be older and get married and be very, very happy. 

Parents wouldn’t always oppose a relationship. Not if both families got along, or if an investigation of both sides didn’t bring up anything improper. However, tolerance didn’t imply acceptance. One of my friends and I would spend hours and hours across the street, waiting to see the girl of his dreams walk by. She knew and would let us admire her since the tiniest glance would make our evening. Later on, they were allowed to date and got engaged, meaning he could enter her house. They got married, had kids, and have stayed together ever since. About his mistresses, women of other statuses, perhaps secretaries, I will not speak. After many years of suppression, finally, the love of my life yielded and started dating some idiot her family had approved. I faced him, of course, but something prevented me from being aggressive – I’ll explain why – and he walked away. I cried for many days, comforted by a mother not very at ease with handling feelings. So, why didn’t I hit him? Only years later, as I discovered how I operated, did I realize. If she didn’t want it, I wasn’t interested anymore. Unreciprocated loves are masochistic. I confronted him because it would have looked bad if I hadn’t, but really, it was no good to punish him. She had chosen, to my misfortune. She had the right to change her opinion, even as a woman. 

Time went by – one or two academic years later, our unit of measure – and I fell madly in love with a cousin of some friends. She lived with her mother, a very sad lady since her husband fled to the colonies with someone else that would spend her days on sedatives. She accepted me without much fuss – she liked me and would even let me come over to her house. So, I went, sometimes officially, other times under the radar. At the time I had a motorcycle and could move quickly from one place to another. At the apartment, on the Avenidas Novas, lived her, her mother, and grandmother. Due to the lack of much space, the light of my life, so gentle and sweet, slept on the sofa-bed in the living room, behind the first door after the entrance. We’d make love inexpertly, in silence, in the dark, with our eyes closed and ears open. I never saw her body. One fine evening, there was noise in the corridor. I got up immediately, but there was nowhere I could hide in that living room. The window took up an entire wall – International Style architecture – covered with a tall curtain. I stood there, naked, pressed against the curtain when her grandmother barged in and turned on the lights saying she had heard some noises. It so happens that grandma had very severe eyesight problems. My love protested that she was asleep and that she hadn’t heard a thing. Just like a beast that feels your presence in the woods, the secret is complete immobility. The lady turned off the lights again and left the room. All this took a minute, but it was one of the most intense moments of my life. So much so, that I still recall it vividly.

While this delicious love evolved, a strange episode came to place. At the waterfront in Cascais, I was approached by a cute girl – weird, but cute – that told me, with perplexing honesty, that she had been watching me for two summers and would like to meet me some time. An unusual situation, that awoke, I swear, nothing but curiosity. We began by meeting up at Estufa Fria, and it quickly became clear that the location wasn’t ideal. Cutting to the chase, there was a film noir ambiance: her parents would go to the movies every night after dinner. I would sit on my motorcycle across the street, waiting for them to leave – they didn’t know me. I would ring and come up. She was a spoiled only child, with a bedroom I had only seen in movies, full of lace and feminine touches. The obsession even led her to embroider her initials on the sheets. She had a baby doll and sexy lingerie collection, heeled pompom slippers, soft eyes, and languid gestures. If my friends saw it, they wouldn’t believe it. If it had happened to them, they would have told everyone. But they never knew; to me, it was all a secret I was keeping from myself. And then I figured it out: sex without love didn’t excite me. Cheating on that girl upset me. I was trying to live that movie, but with no enthusiasm whatsoever. On the other hand, her enthusiasm hadn’t weakened one bit. The maid would be on the lookout. When it was time for her parents to come back home, I would go over to the kitchen. At the door to the staircase, she would watch over the elevator. When she would hear their voices coming up, I would go down the stairs. The maid, a young girl, would walk with me for the first flight of stairs, just to make sure. One night, she kneeled and opened my fly. She wanted a taste of what her mistress enjoyed so greatly. It was the most shocking thing that had ever happened to me. I couldn’t wrap my head around it. When I got outside, I decided that had to end, there and then. My social life continued as usual: Gatherings were always supervised at friends’ places, those who had sisters at least. We would talk, dance, but nothing inappropriate. When they were held at someone’s pool, during the summer, and people were on their swimwear – there were no bikinis or speedos – we couldn’t dance anymore. That was something reserved for American movies, people with no sense of shame. Going to the movies would only be allowed in groups, along with a mademoiselle or some aunt that would have a grip on the situation.

How did my friends, that didn’t “do it” with their girlfriends handle it? They would go over to “call girls” in groups, in Bairro Alto. They would meet them in taverns and move over to short-stay pension houses. I went too, once. I found it awful. The poor girl didn’t have the charm nor the glamour we say in imported magazines. I was the complete opposite of Pasolini’s “Belo Antonio”, where the hero can only make love to women he isn’t in love with. It wasn’t for lack of effort on her part, only to conclude I was impotent – but it was her fault, damn tradition that men cursed women with, and that still holds today. When the baby doll girl understood I had given up on her for good, in an act of despair, told her daddy everything. She knew the man would put his toughest face on and resort to the consecrated solution. Indeed, he called my father demanding marriage. Legally, I wasn’t obliged to, since we were both minors. My dad, a gentleman, aware of the situation, with vast experience after two wives and countless mistresses, answered we were both too young and that we could date under supervision, and when we turned 18, we’d see about that. The other refused, with no margin for clarifications. My father told me about the call and added, as a form of conclusion: “Maybe I should have taken you to the whorehouse…”

Besides call girls, there were also foreign girls. Generically known as “bifas”, they could either be English or of any other nationality for that matter, as long as they had looser principles we wouldn’t demand from virginal Portuguese women. I usually didn’t walk down that path, but one day I met a Swedish girl that made my heart spark. I was alone, so we started a real relationship. It was the first time I came across vaginal pills as a form of birth control. In fact, one night we were both on her couch, her parents were asleep upstairs (her dad was a pilot for Scandinavian Airlines), and we heard a noise. “If your dad appeared, what would he do?”, I asked. “He’ll ask if I took my pills”, she answered. But that’s not all I learned. She would read Swedish papers to me, opening my eyes to a civilization that was radically different from the whole I was living in. She was a socialist, and we’d argue energetically. One time she told me: “I thought you were stupid, but now I see you’re just ignorant!” Since we were dating and I was very proud of her, I took her to the famous annual party at the Clube da Parada de Cascais, the créme de la créme of our absolutely provincial “high society”. We were poorly welcomed and the next day they came demanding explanations: “How dare you bring a bifa to a party our girlfriends and sister are also attending?”

I can say I was a precursor, but not alone. At the time, at the end of the regime, sisters and girlfriends started to get pregnant and there were a lot of rushed weddings. I, fortunately, escaped that shame. I married a foreigner – not the Swedish one, another one – whose parents also came from a post-Inquisition world, accompanied our relationship and help us set up our house. The Lusitano world was spread thin. All that was missing was a political revolution to bring that diabolic structuring crumbling down all at once. I don’t wish to resume with moralisms, so I’ll resort to a friend, the writer Possidónio Cachapa: “The right to happiness consists also on the right to end something and go look for something better, more suited to who we are now. Throughout our lives, we’re different people, in our tastes, the way we see the world, in our affective needs. Therefore, the first person might not be the one to support all of this, since she will have changed, just as we have. And, if by chance that person stopped loving us, then, that’s the time to hold them, thank them for all the good we lived with them… and tell them to go. Not for their sake, but for the space that’ll give us to find someone that will appreciate us, like a new dawn.” This, that he writes in 2020, sums up well what before, wasn’t possible.

Translated from the original article from Vogue Portugal's Love issue, published in December 2020.