I remember the first time I experienced loneliness. I was 35 and living in Spain, teaching English and studying Flamenco guitar.
I met a Spanish woman and we fell in love.
We were both staying in the same small hotel in central Madrid.
She had just arrived from her home in Caceres, and needed a place to stay before starting a new job. I had just arrived after spending six months in Andalucia, where I had been searching out authentic, impromptu Flamenco guitar performances called "Juergas".
We struck up a conversation at lunch in the hotel dining room. My Spanish was terrible and she spoke no English. Nevertheless, we somehow managed to communicate, and fell in love almost at once.
The initial stage of our getting to know each other was made more difficult by the owners of the hotel, a couple in their 80's, who forbade any visits between rooms among the residents. The eagle eyed chamber maid made every attempt possible to enforce this rule. After two very romantic and clandestine months sneaking up and down the hallways of the hotel and attempting to hide our "affair", we decided to find a flat together.
Two weeks later we found a place and moved in.
It was wonderful. I had never experienced true love before and I had never lived with a woman as gracious, funny, generous and beautiful as Paca.
One day, just before Christmas, she invited me to visit her family at their home in Caceres a few hundred miles from Madrid near the Portuguese border. Of course I couldn't wait to see her home town and to meet her family but Paca told me there was a problem. Her parents were very old fashioned and conservative she said and would not approve of her living with an American guitar student much less having an affair with one. If we were to visit her family together, it had to appear to be a chance meeting.
She hatched a plan. She suggested that she return to Caceres on Christmas day and that I come into town late that afternoon and 'bump' into her, a total "surprise". She would then take me home as "a backpacker friend from Madrid" for a Christmas dinner, and to meet her family. There was another problem. The bus made only one trip per day from Madrid to Caceres, so we were forced to ride into town together, split up, and meet again somewhere back in town that afternoon.
She suggested I walk about a mile out of town and wait by the Roman Bridge. "It's beautiful and it's about 1000 years old, you'll like it. Then, at 4PM come back into town and I will meet you at the Post Office on the main street".
As planned, at 2PM that day I found myself standing near a 1000 year old Roman Bridge surrounded by dry scrub and looking down at the red dirt of Southern Spain.
The Bridge was actually an ancient Roman aqueduct which contained no water, nor was there any water in the riverbed beneath it. I stood there, beautiful blue sky above, lovely olive trees growing out of the red dirt below and no one else around for what seemed like a thousand miles.
Then, I felt it. That deep, slow, fearful numbing of the soul we call "loneliness".
Although it was the first time I had had this feeling it was unmistakable. I was suddenly uncomfortable and edgy. I wanted to be with other people, but it was just me out there.
I felt as if I were the only person left alone on Earth that day. I wanted to communicate with someone, anyone. Where was Paca? "My God, two more hours" I thought. How was I going to get through this? I remember thinking, "I don't like this. I hope it doesn't happen again".
With difficulty, I waited out the two hours at the Aqueduct.
I then walked back into town and met Paca on the main street. That aching feeling disappeared immediately. The rest of the day with her family, including dinner of fresh cold rabbit in gelatin and garden vegetables went wonderfully well.
Her father had gone out into the "Campo", the countryside, and shot the rabbit just for this occasion. I was honored to be the "Surprise" guest.
It is now 35 years later. Paca has been married to another American for 20 of those years and I am living alone, here in Hong Kong, at a lovely Yacht Club.
I ask myself, "What happened? How did I get here?" The beginning of the answer is, "25 years ago I bought a beautiful sailboat".
I didn't know it at the time, but that day on the Aqueduct was a signal about my future, and because it was so painful, I chose to ignore it. I wasn't to experience that feeling again until many years later.. when I went to sea.