El: A Love Story
Written March 7, 2011
This is a story about my friend Elena.
We met one night I was out with some mates soon after I had moved from London to Surrey. She was Italian, tall, pretty, funny and smart, so she immediately caught our attention. But there was something inherently aloof about her. She seemed to be silently contemplating mysteries we couldn’t even comprehend while we were distracted by girls and football and girls and girls and girls. It was amazing, really, how quickly she incorporated herself into our friend group. One minute, she was the new girl, and before you knew it, before we even realised what was happening, she was hosting parties at her flat and commenting in her accented, withering, sharp-as-tacks way on the screw-ups and failings of our own aspirations. But she did it a way that was kind; like her infamous mother — shit, like everyone’s infamous mothers — although she was a little younger than most of us, she had a way of dressing you down while still letting you know that it was OK, that she still thought you were the bee’s knees.
She was everywhere, and we were all stunned at how easily she joined every single activity — the drinking games, paintballing, the Three-Curve test (don’t ask), you name it — without a modicum of concern for her social standing. She was single-minded and unrepentant; she was one of our group’s close friends because she said she was, and if it took us a while to catch up to her, well, she was willing to wait. And she didn’t have to wait long.
All the guys secretly had crushes on Elena and the girls were so stunned by her ability to rally the troops and become the pack leader, she was near-worshipped. El (she called me Dee), used to love to make fun of me because I was dating, for a spell, a series of women older than I was and she always said if that if I got my act together, there were plenty of ladies closer to my own age who could have potentially been interested. It wasn’t long before she became our ringleader, our soul, our spirit, our conscience. Whatever plans we ever had were always run through Elena. She was an unstoppable force.
Then she started dating Dickhead. To most, he was known as Mario, a name most unsuitable, as far as I was concerned. Dickhead had always seemed to sum him up for me. Mario was three years younger than most of us, a drummer in a band, and the butt of almost all the jokes from the guys. He also took part in competitive cycle races, something that would have been a most impressive athletic achievement were it not for his propensity to shave his legs. We could never figure out why cyclists did that. Was it to reduce wind resistance? Was it to avoid having hair caught in the spokes? It didn’t really matter; it was grist for our insult mill, and we milked it for all it was worth. To us, Mario was a short, dopey, slightly effeminate little wanker. He hadn’t really done anything to deserve such dissection, but we needed no justification. He was just our mental punching bag.
And Mario, no way was he good enough for El. I mean, she was like a foot taller than he was. But before we knew it, before we could even do anything to stop it, they were together. And they stayed together. Year after year, they remained the solid couple, the unbreakable bond. They even survived a semi-breakup, which culminated in a conversation where Elena told Mario that none of her friends liked him, and he said “What about David?” and she delivered the classic line, “Mario… he calls you Dickhead.”
Their relationship continued when Mario had to return to Italy for his job and El and I, who lived only a couple miles apart, remained the best of friends. She tried to set me up with all her single girlfriends, took me to all her fun music parties, even came along to a few of my football games, and talked about how much she missed Mario. We were inseparable. Some people started thinking we were an item, and there was the expected gossip, but we didn’t care.
One afternoon, I was sitting at home, inexplicably depressed, and El called. “I’m bored. Let’s go see a movie.” We decided on The Departed, headed to London and then walked out of the cinema around 9 p.m. The weather was glorious, one of those rare balmy London summer evenings, and we had a meal, a few drinks and then just walked around until about 1 a.m. talking about the past, and our future, and our friends, and what we wanted out of all of this, anyway. We walked and talked, just two old friends, looking at life, totally unprepared for whatever changes might be creeping perilously just over the hills.
In the autumn, Mario returned to London, and I changed jobs, and El and I just didn’t see each other that often anymore. Then she and Mario got married, in a beautiful Catholic ceremony with the whole gang back together again, me standing up there, so proud, newly respectful of Mario, who seemed a lot tougher and smarter and together than I’d noticed before, and I felt like an arsehole, and they were joined in holy matrimony, and I hugged them both, and then they moved back to Italy and El and I only saw each other on her brief visits to London. Then we sort of lost touch a little. It happens and it’s no fun, but that’s life… and then she called me one night right out of the blue.
“Hi Dee, there’s something I have to tell you.” She sounded fine, almost cheery. Could it be? Mario and Elena had been married for over two years now. Their lives were becoming more settled. El would make an incredible mother. Maybe they’d let me be the crazy godfather! I beamed in anticipation of the news.
“I have cancer.” Oh Christ! No! But it was true. Hodgkin’s Disease. She would be going through chemotherapy and surgery and testing and all that horrible stuff that happens to old people, not people like El. I was so stunned that our conversation lasted only about 30 seconds. I wished her good luck, told her I was so, so sorry, then called up a few of the guys, went out and drank until I forgot my name.
Every time I called for the next few months, Mario would answer in a grave tone, and tell me whether El had the energy to talk or not, usually not. I kept abreast of what was going on, but only Mario and Elena, who quite understandably retreated into their own world, could really understand. She wouldn’t be able to have children. She lost all her hair, she was weak, she was tired. Yet when I talked to her, she was still El, still on my case about something or other, still caustic and a whirling dervish. And Mario was a rock, handling the situation like a man. I don’t know if I ever took the opportunity to apologise to Mario for the years of abuse and belittlement my friends and I heaped upon him, so if I didn’t, I’m sorry. Seriously. We were stupid. You’re a good man. You have my respect. (Dickhead. Hee-hee.)
Sometime, I’m not sure when, maybe around October 2008, El announced that she was pronounced completely clean, the cancer gone. That Christmas, she and Mario hosted a party in London, with all the old gang there. We made fun of James and his new girlfriend, everyone mocked my grey hairs, we watched old videos, we drank and talked all night, like the last few years had only been a week. I took El aside, hugged her and told her how proud I was of her. She smiled and ridiculed me for being so soppy. Then she hugged me back.
I saw her last around November last year. She had a hectic schedule and we only talked briefly over coffee, and we made plans to try to meet up before she went back to Italy. But it was a busy week for both of us, and we didn’t get to see each other. And then this weekend I received another e-mail, addressed to about 20 people.
It had pictures. They were black and white, with a bunch of letters and numbers at the top of them. I couldn’t figure it out at first. And then it dawned on me: These were ultrasound pictures. These were of Mario and Elena’s son. Nineteen weeks in. July 18 is the due date. And right there, in the middle of a London cafe, I broke down in floods of tears. Against the odds, they’d done it. El, a mum! The next time I see her, she will be holding her baby boy.
In a Thank You card she sent me after her wedding, just before returning to Italy, Elena wrote the following: Don’t forget me. I mean, how could you forget me? I’d kill you. This is really mushy and it’s making me sick, so remember this: If I was a guy, I’d want to be you. – El
El, my friend, it’s been over five years since you wrote that, and don’t worry, I’ll never forget you. And if I were a girl, I’d want to be you too. As long as I don’t ever have to have sex with Dickhead.
- Cristiano David was born on July 17, 2011. I am his godfather!
- My dear friend Elena passed away on June 14, 2016. Riposa in pace il mio caro amico 😦