TODAY’s my last day on the island. It’s Friday, the afternoon inviting a warm, calm breeze, and I’m at a bar called Ritzy’s. A group of people is sitting across me at a table — all thirteen of them — while a promising bottle of local brandy, now half-empty, still stands in their midst. Laughter fills the air as they throw jocular asides at their friend who’s probably in his late thirties while the staunch waitress cackles in glee, all the while teasing him coquettishly with her unbridled gestures. He keeps his cool, choosing not to take off his reflective sunglasses, as he laughs with his friends even at his own expense. He excuses himself from the table to go to the toilet, and for a while the laughter fades.
Except for the splashing sound of gentle waves, the silence at the other table echoes for a few seconds. A quick respite. I look at the ocean before me and realize the tide has risen. Time, it seems, arrives unannounced at almost quite the same moment as its imperceptible leave-taking, like a furtive passerby who peers for a few seconds then leaves. The kind whose fleeting presence can only be glanced at by a keen eye, and, more often than not, in momentary silence. It comes and goes in a mildly discouraging way that only it knows how.
I arrived here with my three best friends six days ago. And on a few occasions when we somehow told each other how fortunate we were to be in this place, we’d inadvertently talk about how the days flew by so fast. At one point, one of them asked me if I wanted to stay here for one more night, to which I said no for two reasons: one, the place itself carries with it both an abundance of beauty and an achingly familiar presence of the past; and two, I simply miss home. Today, I chose to be alone, at least for a few hours, with the thought that I wanted to spend the remaining time by myself and enjoy the solitude of the afternoon without having the need to talk to anyone.
As I look around, memories of when I came to visit this place for the first time start coming back to me. They come to me in pieces and in no particular order — a familiar-looking street he and I used to pass by a lot, this restaurant at the corner that has withstood time, the hostel where we stayed for four nights, the seeming ghostly presence of this guy who became what this place was all about in the first place. But, as with any other places touched by time, a lot of things about this place have changed since then. More cottages and apartments for rent. More bars and restaurants. More new names. Paved roads. The town’s cathedral, for instance, is under repair. So is the basketball court, now temporarily fenced with G.I. sheets to prevent people from coming in, where, five years ago, he’d gone in with a group of local boys he’d met at the beach one afternoon. Having finished a bottle of beer they’d all shared, he decided to heed their invitation to go to the basketball court, and said he could only watch them play some hoops. So then this business of revisiting memory itself is at once both a fond activity and a debilitating task. But I say this with a kind of pleasant ambivalence one feels when talking about a dear yet perplexing old friend whom one has lost touch with at some point.
We met online sometime in late 2011, at a language exchange platform, which I’ve heard for the first time from a very good friend who’d signed up way back in university. I was working then at a publishing company as a copyeditor, and most of my time was spent on the computer. As I was browsing through some profiles on the site, I came across him. In retrospect, what compelled me perhaps to send him a message was the self-assured way he was able to describe himself in detail. He was gorgeous too, I have to admit. The way his eyes seemed to shrink when he smiled in his featured photos sent my fingers fluttering to type the only word I could muster to say: Hi.
That year would mark the beginning of our year-long correspondence. Back then he was living with his parents and his younger brother at their apartment in Moscow while I was renting a small room I shared with three other guys somewhere in Dumaguete. We’d write long letters to each other and anticipate each other’s response the next day, and each letter written with so much care and attention to details about our lives seemed somehow to ease the distance that separated us. In one of our earliest correspondences, he was the first person I confided with about my sexuality. I remember feeling shaken as I typed I’m gay and finally reading the words on the screen, what had once been mere thoughts materializing into concrete words and knowing that another person would read them. So many things ran in my head after I hit the ‘send’ button. What if he stops talking to me? What if he feels disgusted while reading my message? What if he feels betrayed after such a revelation? Will we still be able to talk as freely and as comfortably as before? Would this sudden revelation change things? Would he turn cold afterwards? Or worse, would he disappear? I felt discombobulated. I was relieved as much as I was bothered.
His response came the following night. As I read his message, I felt a slow, gradual unburdening of the weight of my most private secret. He said he was glad to read my message, and thanked me for being brave enough to tell him about it. I felt lightheaded, astonished, dazed at the immensity of such acceptance that I didn’t believe it at first. I read his message over and over again, letting each kind word he’d so carefully written sink in. I stared at the computer screen long enough that I wasn’t able to hear my colleague who sat right next to me say, “Let’s go out for some snacks.”
In moments like this, I always find myself coming back to Frederick Buechner, the American writer and theologian who wrote his third autobiographical book Telling Secrets, which, for him, is his own undertaking about finding “the need to put things into words before [he] can believe that they are entirely real.” There’s this particular passage in his memoir where he emphatically points out why he needs to talk about his life, but says so without a hint of arrogance, yet instead conveys a message of grace in this most humane act of telling secrets:
“[…] I talk about my life anyway because if, on the one hand, hardly anything could be less important, on the other hand, hardly anything could be more important. My story is important not because it is mine, God knows, but because if I tell it anything like right, the chances are you will recognize that in many ways it is also yours. Maybe nothing is more important than that we keep track, you and I, of these stories of who we are and where we have come from and the people we have met along the way because it is precisely through these stories in all their particularity, as I have long believed and often said, that God makes himself known to each of us most powerfully and personally. If this is true, it means that to lose track of our stories is to be profoundly impoverished not only humanly but also spiritually.”
It was, as if, by telling my own secret to someone whom I wasn’t afforded close proximity with that I became closer and truer to myself. For the first time in my life, I was able to hear myself more clearly — more powerfully and personally — only because I allowed someone else to hear it for me.
He finally came to visit me the following year sometime in October, days after my birthday and prior to his. I was to pick him up at the airport, which would take me about five hours by bus. I set off at ten in the evening from my city, and while on the bus, I kept wondering what I’d say to him when we’d finally see each other. He arrived at past three in the morning. He wore a blue polo and a pair of long pants, and carried with him a big backpack.
I think we felt a little awestruck shortly afterwards, not so much at each other’s presence, but more so at the fact that we were right where we’re supposed to be at. That the entire year of talking endlessly and relentlessly brought us to this time and place, right outside the airport gate where most of the passengers who’d boarded on the same flight as him already passed through, so he could take his turn alone as I stood on the other side of the road watching him. After months of building a world for each other with words, we could finally break away from the abstraction of our time spent and approach the tangible realm. I was disarmed. He was taller than me by a few inches. He was skinnier than I thought. Only his eyes and the way he smiled were the two familiar things I instantly recognized about him. And the first thing that came out of my mouth the second we stood facing each other, as the awkward air of thrill and timidness still hovered between us, was the exact same word I’d said the first time.
“Hi,” I said, grinning anxiously as I tried to look him in the eye.
“Hi.” He smiled.
How was your flight? How long did you have to wait for me? Are you hungry? What do you want to eat? Where are we headed next? The timbre in his voice sounded a little different than the one I kept hearing over our countless video calls. Or perhaps he was just exhausted.
On the bus to the island, we didn’t say anything much. I handed him some boiled eggs we’d bought from a vendor, and after awhile, he decided to rest his head on my shoulder. I froze. I was not prepared to experience such immediate physical intimacy in public. I looked around, hoping no one else would notice. The bus was small and crowded. Other passengers stood on the aisle, holding on to the overhead steel bar. I realized soon enough that some of them were glancing furtively at us. I looked at him, but he’d closed his eyes. I could feel my ears burning in embarrassment as I imagined all sorts of ideas other people around us were thinking. All I could do was to look outside the window or rest my head against the top slat of my seat and close my eyes. I chose the latter.
I told him this episode in our trip when he decided to come back in 2015. So much has happened between 2012 and that year when he visited me again. He laughed, and asked me why I never had the courage to tell him about it back then. I guess that had to happen for me to realize how naive I was at twenty-three. After three years since he first came to see me, he’d finished his studies while I got my second job in the city as a teacher. He came over days before my twenty-fifth birthday. Little did I know that as I was about to finish a quarter of my life, I’d already broken his heart and that soon enough I’d break mine.
Recently, I’ve been reading an essay by Andrew Sullivan called “If Love Were All” from his book Love Undetectable: Reflections on Friendship, Sex and Survival. In it, he explores the concept of friendship versus lovers, and scrupulously examines the distinctive qualities and traits of these two types of relationship. In this regard, he writes, for instance,
“There’s something about friendship that lends itself to reticence. Lovers, after all, never stop telling each other about their love; they gabble endlessly about it, tell the world about it, emit excruciating poetry and a constant stream of art to reflect every small aspect of its power and beauty. But friends, more often than not, deflect attention from their friendship. They don’t talk about it much. Sometimes, in fact, you can tell how strong the friendship is by the silence that envelops it. Lovers and spouses may talk frequently about their “relationship,” but friends tend to let their regard for one another speak for itself or let others point it out.”
On a personal level, the essay accounts the journey of his friendship with his best friend Patrick whom he initially fell in love with, and how, through the years, their friendship developed and gained a much stronger, more stable anchorage when both of them were beset with AIDS. In this last essay among the three ones, Patrick has already died, and what he’s left with are the fragments of memories they’d both shared and his ruminations over the years he’d spent with him and much later after his death. Patrick was his lover-turned-bestfriend, and when he passed away, Sullivan writes,
“[…] death swept away the mystery of our friendship and exposed its raw existence. The friendship articulated itself at the moment that it ceased to exist.”
Although it was never like that with Ilya (he’s alive and in Germany at the moment for his master’s degree), there’s a familiar resonance to this particular line in relation to what he and I both share now. We don’t talk as much as before, we don’t constantly tell each other the minute details of our lives, and, to put it more bluntly, outside the realm of being lovers, we no longer assume certain romantic projections as we did. I remember after he left the Philippines for the first time, still feeling dazed at having spent ten days together, both of us even considered seeing each other again in Hanoi. It’s as if, this time around, now that the “romance” has died, what was left of and for us was the raw core of our friendship, which is, I believe, the main reason why it flourished beyond friendship in the first place. The kind of friendship I have with him articulated itself by the silence that now envelops it.
It’s past five in the afternoon, and the group across me has moved to another table, closer to the view of the ocean. Tove Lo’s Habits is playing on their portable speaker. One of them has replenished their empty bottle with another full one, and the women are now dancing to the beat of the song. The men sit idly on their chairs, watching the women and laughing with each other. My friend sends me a message, asking me if I’m done passing the time alone, saying she’s thirsty. I look at the ocean one last time before making my way back home.
Photo: Lo Lee Ta