Over the years, the memory of Sophia Paula had inspired a myriad of poems. Although he had long been writing poetry before she entered his life, when he left for the military, he had not yet learned how to write without thinking of her.
So much emotion lingered for her like the scent left after an embrace. He had penned dozens of verses, in a tiny note pad, during the brief moments he had to himself: sometimes standing in formation before and after meals, or lying on his bunk at the end of the day's training.
When members of his platoon learned of his skill with a pen, they requested poetry for the loves they had left behind. That was when he knew that he would make a living as a songwriter.
He had established a system of appointments for his clients to describe the women they loved. He listened as they revealed how they met, where they fought, why they mattered, and when they had planned to marry.
Those distant lovers were as precious to them as Sophia Paula was to Hadriel Alighieri. And though he personalized every poem—the hundreds he had written for others and their hopeless love—page after page burned with the affection he felt for Sophia Paula.
In an era when romantic poetry remained reserved for literature courses, hidden within the pages of books that nobody opened, Hadriel Alighieri earned a reputation as the soldier's scribe. He wrote about every imaginable circumstance when it came to matters of the heart. A tempest of metrical composition, and Sophia Paula lingered in the eye of his storm.
To remind her that she had not been forgotten, he had written a letter to her about his experiences, his hopes, and his fears. He made no mention of love, because he reserved that secret for his heart.
Two weeks later, she sent him a photograph that hung in his private locker. His platoon mates did not believe he knew her until they read the personal message that she wrote and signed: For my best friend! She included a separate note that bid him good luck, and a humorous bit of advice: Remember, don't drop the soap!
He wrote her back immediately, but her thoughts never returned. Her memory kept him going. Emotions bled through his pen freely, augmenting his renown as a romantic poet.
He wrote love letters and poems for fellow recruits, and instructed them to re-write them with their own hand, but he imagined that he wrote to Sophia. When the lovers wrote back, it was he who had to reply. And so it was that he engaged in a feverish correspondence with faceless lovers that cherished someone else. Each letter written and received, every poem penned with genuine affection that Hadriel Alighieri believed dripped with the warmth Sophia Paula would have felt upon reading his thoughts had she shared his passion.
The days were long and his nights were longer, but despite the controlled chaos, he could not avoid lyricism, because his thoughts were only of Sophia Paula.
The seasons changed. The trainees had changed with them. Yet, despite the manner in which everything grew colder, at his core Hadriel remained the boy he had always been.
The soldiers rose before the sun. They endured the hour of physical training before breakfast, and watched their days blur by as they prepared for a series of tests to determine that they were fit for graduation, and ready for war.
The surplus of testosterone led to confrontations between the young men who grew impatient about returning home, but cooler minds prevailed, and their focus remained on their goals.
Hadriel hoped to return home like the fabled soldier in uniform. Properly groomed, and worthy of his heart's fancy. Regardless of the thirty pounds of muscle he had gained and a more serious demeanor, there remained evidence in his eyes of his mortal encounter with love.
He suffered through sleepless nights after he kindled the fires of love. His intention was to keep the coals alive until she felt inclined to reciprocate his feelings. He would have pursued her with more fervor had he known the terrain of her emotions, but they didn't know each other well enough to truly venture into love.
His ignorance proved fatal to their future, because a man cannot truly love a woman until he knows her first.
He lost himself in fantasies that never came to pass—his yearnings unfulfilled—but the visions comforted him, because in that way she remained in his life.
Although many sought to sway his heart with flattery and seduction, he declared that he would wait for love. And when others tried to convince him that love was an illusion, he remained steadfast in the idea that love is the only thing worth waiting for an eternity.
At nineteen years of age, undaunted, Hadriel Alighieri loved unconditionally, without reservation and without despair.
When he returned from his military service, Hadriel Alighieri learned that Dr. Fermin Luis Paula had been offered an opportunity to practice medicine in the United States. La Familia Paula emigrated from Mexico to America, and settled in Chicago where Dr. Paula attended Loyola University Medical Center.
They returned to Santa Lucia in December for a series of festivities: beginning on December 12th with el Día de la Virgen de Guadalude, Las Posadas, which ran from the 16th to the 24th—the Biblical New Testament story of Joseph and Mary’s search for shelter in Bethlehem, Navidad on December 25th, el Día de los Santos Innocentes, Año Nuevo Vìspera—New Year’s Eve, and concluded on the 6th of January by el Día de los Reyes Magos.
The day that Hadriel Alighieri saw Sophia Paula on the steps of the basilica, he was seated on a bench in the plaza reading a book. He had not known of her arrival in Santa Lucia. He felt his heart break with each beat for inexplicable reasons.
Does she not wish to see me, he wondered. Perhaps there had been no occasion or means to notify him of her arrival. Hadriel Alighieri could not be sure, and he struggled to distract himself from one suspicion or the other.
Her hair had grown long, and straight, and hanged loosely over her shoulders. She wore a long white dress, plain, yet charming in its simplicity. Their eyes met. Sophia Paula did not seem to share the enthusiasm of the festivities, but when she approached, Hadriel Alighieri believed she was happy to see him.
They sat together on the bench in the plaza. She spoke of Chicago, the Windy City, and its myriad of skyscrapers and restaurants and museums. The stark contract between its historic architecture and bustling nightlife amazed her.
“It is a different world from Santa Lucia.” Sophia Paula remarked.
She asked about his time in the army. She inquired about his writing and about his plans, but she didn’t say that she missed him, or that she thought of him, and he didn’t dare ask her why. It wasn’t for lack of affection, for Sophia Paula cared deeply for Hadriel Alighieri. But she was careful not to tip the scale of their friendship, which hung delicately in the balance.
Perhaps the opportunity had been there in their youth, or perhaps that opportunity only lingered in Hadriel Alighieri’s imagination. The truth was that after all the time that had passed; she cared about him too much to deceive him with the false promise of love.
When they parted for the day, after she invited his family to the grand dinner at her home, Hadriel Alighieri had a nagging suspicion that his chance had not been lost. He had heard from the men in his platoon that when women deny a man’s affections, she does so to test his resolve. She waits for him to pursue his passion, and prove his level of desire, for men are notorious with words of devotion, and exiguous with actions of love.
That night, Hadriel Alighieri decided to recite a poem to Sophia Paula. He was going to reveal to her, once again, the secret in his heart. She would accept or deny. But she would not live her life wondering if he was still in love a year after his initial declaration.
Guests filled the home. Every object of value polished. The walls lined with frescoes and statues. The tables set with the finest linen and silverware and china. La Familia Paula brought with them, from America, the custom of lining the windows with Christmas lights and a large Christmas tree.
After the meal, which consisted of tamales and atole and buñuelos, everyone gathered in the main room for refreshments and galetina de colores. The adults danced to the music and children took their turns swiping at a piñata on the terrace. When the clock neared midnight, neither Sophia Paula nor Hadriel Alighieri realized that the event would change their lives permanently.
With the intention to dazzle her, he knelt before her, and held eleven roses behind his back. She smiled at him, her lovely eyes twinkled like stars that twinkle before dawn, and he recited to her his poem as he handed her the eleven roses one-at-a-time.
"Before I woke up this morning
You were on my mind,
And after I awakened
You were still the only one I could find
Thinking of the most special way
My heart may someday purpose,
I’m thinking of how to tell you that
This bouquet is not missing a rose."
Sophia’s lovely smile beckoned Hadriel to continue.
"The first rose and the second rose
Are to tell you that I miss you
And I love you,
The third rose and the fourth rose
Reveal how much I want to kiss you
And think of you
The fifth rose and the sixth rose
Of this dedicated bouquet,
Are for the sweetness of your heart
And the things you've done to make my day
Continuing on the count
With roses seven, eight and nine;
Can only begin to describe the many ways
I want to share with you my time
Sweet rose number ten
And beautiful rose number eleven,
Are for each of my eyes you have opened
To see that falling in love is heaven
But if finding that final rose
Is what you truly want to do?
It’s not missing from this bouquet
Just look into the mirror
And watch it stare right back at you."
Hadriel stood and motioned for Sophia Paula to turn around. Together they gazed into the mirror.
She looked at their reflection momentarily, seeing them as they looked a billionth of a second ago before her gaze fell to the roses in her arms.
She turned, embraced him, and whispered, "Thank you, Hadriel." She vanished, and he had no idea that would be the last time he held her in his arms.
That night he handed her eleven roses, a letter, and the deepest part of his heart. He had hoped she would cherish the memory all of her life.
La Señora Keila looked at him with deepest sympathy. The crowd stood confounded by Sophia Paula's reaction. Hadriel said goodnight, and a few days later he learned that La Familia Paula left the country.