Letter to My Twenty-Seven-Year-Old Self

YOU HAVE come this far. By the time you turn twenty-eight, you will have learned to let go of a friend. This is one important lesson you will learn at twenty-seven. While it will not be entirely his fault, it will not be entirely yours either. It will be painful, more so when your listless mind begins to wander back to fond, old memories with him, and you will arrive at a place of confession. It is here where you will learn to accept that you stoked the fire to your friendship, the same place where listening to your voice with an attentive, compassionate ear will allow you to surrender yourself to your own truth. You will fall in love with him. And while there’s nothing wrong with falling in love with a friend, how you will act on it in the long months following this revelation inside a bar one night, both of you drinking gin and tonic, succumbing to the awkward stretches of silence afterwards, will amount to consequences that neither of you will be prepared to admit and to which you alone will pay. You will still see each other in places you usually frequented with, but you will no longer exchange a single word even though your eyes will occasionally meet. Silence will be the only act of grace you will bestow each other. You will learn a great deal about yourself. You will learn to shake your inner demon’s hand.

At twenty-seven, you will be spending most of your nights going from one bar to another. You will meet strangers on the dance floor; and soon enough, these strangers will turn into familiar faces. Much sooner, they will become familiar voices. And on most nights, you will be sharing a drink or two with them. You will hear more about yourself from them. You will laugh at what an asshole you are when you learn how drunk you have been on previous nights. As you go on dancing, you will find yourself delighted to small things — the flicker of lights above you, the strange way people dance around, the absurd-looking clothes of the sweat-bathed ladies and the men, the ridiculous ecstasy written in their glistening faces. Nights like this, you will be perpetually teased by your inner demon asking you relentlessly, Why are you dancing alone? To which you will dismiss, by way of tucking out a passage from one of your favorite books: “Go out dancing tonight, my dear, and go home with someone, and if the love doesn’t last beyond the morning, then know I love you.” And you will close your eyes and smile to yourself, and kiss Andrew Holleran for these kind words even though you’ll end up going home alone.

You will leave the city one morning with a hangover and resolve within yourself that you are not coming back. You will find yourself on another island in the south, and it is here where you’ll write again. You will be astonished, one morning, after going to a bar the previous night, when you find yourself standing at the shore at some quiet resort as you gaze at the distance to a sight of yet another shore while the early morning light sweeps across the coconut trees and the white sand that it reminds you of your childhood home. You will find yourself in tears and realize you have not yet grieved over the death of your foster mother after all.

But you will come back to the city that you left.

You will not be complaining about your online job, even though it will never give you even the slightest breath of excitement and purpose as your previous one did. A friend will write you a letter all the way from Ireland asking you about this, wondering why he’s never heard about it. You will respond with brevity and not with despondency. Another friend will send you a letter from Russia. And another from the UK. You will soon realize this year will be a year of writing letters.

You will travel a lot at twenty-seven. You will revisit old places and see new ones. You will continue to meet new people. In one of these travels, you will meet a fine woman one afternoon at the beach who will talk about friendship and marriage and love. You will take her photo with your small camera you borrowed from your friend. You will also meet another fine woman one night who will talk about depression and family and self-discovery. She will shed a tear, as will you.  You will also find a friend from a young man you will meet much much later, and through him, you will learn again how to ask good, tough questions. These will be the kind of conversations which will resonate in you, and which you will look for.

You will live with your friends. And in this, you will find another home.

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Secret Hum of the Sea

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

 

 

 

Ghost Spots, Flashbacks, Little Misdemeanors, and the Happy-Sad-Drunk People We Want to be Happy-Sad-Drunk With

I’M SITTING at this small, quaint café right now quietly enjoying my first cup of coffee for the day. On my blue-painted table: a small, gold-and-black French press, good for a serving; a violet mug, now filled to the brim with brewed coffee; a transparent glass ashtray, one cigarette butt parked inside; a half-empty shot of milk; a teaspoon splayed facedown; a glass of cold water; a deck of cards. Latin ska jazz is playing on the stereo, and I’m the only customer around.  Three ladies in their black polo shirt are busy talking behind the counter while preparing food for the busy schedule later. It’s eight minutes before four in the afternoon, and I’m waiting for my rice, bacon and eggs.

The café is called Kitya’s Place. It’s festooned with colorful paper balls hanging on the ceiling, bandaritas, chalkboards flashing all their menus in various colors—pink, yellow, blue, orange. Appetizers. Sandwiches. Breakfast. Kitya’s House Specials. Soup of the Year. Shakes. Alcohol. Drinks. Nipa hut roof, bamboo blinds now rolled and tied up, bamboo chairs and tables, a lounge area rising two feet from the sand with a dyed, hip piece of cloth pinned on the ceiling bearing a huge Peace sign, a hammock tied on the side with a jocular ‘Hang Over’ signboard hanging above it, a few small, colorful square cushions scattered on the wooden floor with three small tables good for when you’re sitting down Japanese style. The place seems to reflect Kitya herself—her contagious vivacity, positive outbursts, and festive mood. It’s hard not to notice her cracking laughter wafting in the air.

About a week ago, I came here with my friend B for Sexy Salsa Night. The café burst into life as people came, drinks got served, and games were played. People laughed and danced, a drink in one hand, and at some point, Kitya came up with an idea: crowd surfing. Everyone gathered in front of the lounge as she readied herself for her first dive. It took five tries, three of which failed, before everyone, including her, perfected the shebang for the night. The next day, Kitya and I watched the videos in her room upstairs, laughing our hearts out, and we both agreed again and again what a great night it was.

Ghost spots. In one of his interviews, the Egyptian-born writer Andre Aciman mentions this term, those places where some of our fondest or even our most soul-smashing memories were born. He says, talking about Rome, the place where his novel Call Me By Your Name was inspired from, “This, after all, is the eternal city. One never leaves. One can if one wishes to choose one’s ghost spot. I know where mine is.”

As I look around the café, I see those people who came here that night. I remember the flushed, ecstatic look on everyone’s faces. I don’t remember some of the names, though. What is a name but a mere representation of a person in letters. I remember the sound of laughter. I remember barks of orders for more drinks. I remember voices complaining in jest why the hell the music just stopped. I remember questions: Where are you from? Where are you headed next? How long are you staying here for? I remember drinks being spilled. God, I remember throwing up myself. But more importantly, I remember the thrill, and the night, and the rain, and dancing in the empty street.

***

I woke up on an overcast Sunday morning with a knock on my door from my next-door housemate B, and was greeted with the question, “Do you want to join us in Daku Island?” Muttering a sleepy yes, I closed the door again and began shuffling around the room, pulling clothes from the closet for the trip ahead.

The rain has seemingly stopped, and I was given a few minutes to prepare. I decided not to bother taking a shower; I knew it would be a whole-day affair of swimming at the beach. I had nothing much to pack except for my cigarettes and a lighter, which I shoved down my left pocket. I also decided to bring my backpack and placed my iPad inside, in case I got bored on the island and would have nothing else to do but read some ebooks I downloaded months ago. When it was time to go, it started drizzling again, and by the time we arrived at our friend’s small restaurant, a few of them had already gathered around. I sat at one of the tables with B as we waited with them for the others to arrive. Except for B and K who owned the place, I knew no one there.

While contemplating whether or not I should order a cup coffee, K announced it was time to go. A quick discussion as to who would buy fish and chicken at the market ensued for a few seconds, and B volunteered to do it on everyone’s behalf. I went with her on her motorbike, and left them at the restaurant. Minutes later, all thirteen of us were on the small boat as it made its way to the island.

At past one, we arrived at the island’s surfing area and were greeted to a sight of other surfers gliding and paddling on waves from a distance. The rain has stopped, and the sun seemed to have changed its mind and decided to show up from behind the clouds. Shuffling here and there, the others jumped off the boat, grabbed their surfboards and paddled to the area. One by one, they seemed to be eyeing the surfing spot as a land full of gold as they all made their way there, the distance between us growing wider and wider until they became one with the floating crowd.

I have to admit I sometimes wish I was brave enough to grab a surfboard and paddle to one small wave and enjoy that few-second bliss everyone here keeps talking about. Whenever I hear people talk about surfing, the shrewd thrill in their voices never fails to arrest me. There’s always that slight pang of pain and envy striking the chords of my naivety and utter ignorance every time conversations like this happen, as if I’m missing out on something spectacular and breathtaking. It all became too strikingly familiar to me, this gnawing feeling, when I came across a line from Nabokov’s novel Lolita (my reading pace with his book has been painstakingly slow these days) that I had to pause and close the book for a minute and laugh at the ridiculous image I’ve latched this feeling to. Here he describes Mr. Edgar H. Humbert’s thoughts as he sits on his chair talking to one of Lolita’s friends, Mona Dahl, about his dear Lo. As they continue to talk, Mona ambles her way closer to him, and a sudden realization hits him: that Lo was perhaps pimping the two of them. This thought disheartens him, and his eyes dart to this image:

“One of the latticed squares in a small cobwebby casement window at the turn of the staircase was glazed with ruby, and that raw wound among the unstained rectangles and its asymmetrical positions—a knight’s move from the top—always strangely disturbed me.”

That beautiful raw wound.

The island wasn’t as packed as we were told earlier would be. As our boat slowly docked on the white shores of the island, I scanned the beach, hoping to see the familiar image I had of the place about four years ago, the first time I came here. Nothing seemed or felt familiar at all. Time always has its devious ways of transforming a place. A few small cottages lined the beach, each with different colors. A bright pink cottage sat empty on the farthest left side, and a lady was scooting down, a can of paint on her right hand, as she patiently brushed the wooden seats with the same color. She seemed to be taking this job very seriously and quite meditatively, in fact.

We chose a yellow empty cottage which faced directly where our boat was. We unloaded our things from the boat and brought them in. A lady from the island approached us and asked if we wanted our food cooked. I handed her the food we bought at the market. The big fish to be grilled, while the smaller one to be soaked in vinegar and spices. Chicken to be grilled. We also ordered sautéed conches.

Soon I would find out as I sat at the cottage with five other Filipinos from the boat that we all came from the same place, Davao. As I sat there listening to their own stories about how they all ended up at the island, I couldn’t help but smile at the thought that I’d find people from home. I’ve heard stories of people from Davao coming and even staying on the island for good. One of them, a guy in his late twenties perhaps, whose head was shaved on all sides except for his long straight hair in the middle and whose body was bedecked with tattoos, said he’d been on the island for seven years. The first time he came here, he heeded a friend’s invitation to help him out on an art project, two sculptures that needed finishing touches. He was a passionate skater, and surfing wasn’t too difficult a sport for him once he decided to try it out. He showed me his tattoo on his back: the iconic Philippine hero Lapu-Lapu slashing Magellan with his bolo. Some foreigners would still feel shocked whenever they see this, he claimed, laughing.

I’m guessing they—we— heeded to that voice inside us, which kept whispering in our ears, “Go!” Go! Even if it meant leaving everyone behind. Go! Even if it meant leaving the familiar and going to a place where not knowing what to expect ahead is a challenge you must take on in order to grow up. Go! Even if it took all the nasty, ballsy, ridiculously self-serving attempt to go. Because, hey, it will be fine in the end. Because time, no matter how devious and a trickster it can be, is also a friend.

We talked about the island. Four years ago, the cottages hadn’t been here. All I remember seeing then was a barren-looking, long stretch of fine sand and about three, long, wooden tables and chairs. I remember space and grasses. Overtime, the place has transformed into one perfectly fit for tourism. Not that it looked bad now. Some changes aren’t all that bad.

***

It was a bright, sunny afternoon when my friend B and I decided to hit the road on her motorbike with her surf board resting on my lap, my hands clutching it firmly against the wind as we made our way to the most famous surfing spot on the island, Cloud 9. Word has it that the first surfers who’d discovered the spot named it after the local chocolate bar, Jack ‘n Jill’s Cloud 9. A small store stood somewhere around the spot, and these surfers figured to reconvene there by saying they should meet up at this place that sold Cloud 9.

B and I parked the bike at what seemed to be the entrance, spacious enough for other bikes. An old man put up a mobile cart and sold halo-halo. Local shirtless men sat idly on parked motorbikes, waiting for customers who needed assistance for surfing lessons. One of them approached us. Up ahead, the boardwalk welcomed us, stretching toward a wooden structure that served as a viewing deck. Surfing competitions happen here twice a year, usually in May and September, and onlookers would gather at the viewing deck, their phones and cameras ready to snap at surfers in the distance, gliding and ricocheting like bullets on big waves.

***

On my first night out alone, I went to Rum Bar. I arrived home the next day at seven in the morning with a puppy in my hand.

That Woozy, Ticklish Feeling of High

A FRIEND once pointed out to me that the next time I embark on a gigantic, life-changing decision, I should rather keep it to myself than have all the people in the world know what I’m about to do. The most apparent culprit for this, of course, is Facebook, this tempting beast of an online platform where our most personal frustrations, those well-deserved triumphs, or even our most mundane moments such as the well-garnished lunch we had or this multi-flavored frappe we downed with our friends in a franchised hip coffee shop somewhere in the city are exhibited in the open, curated by our well- or ill-discerning standards of taste in which ‘critical’ assessment comes in the form of emoticons or a ‘well-thought-out’ review in the comments section below the post in question.

Well.

The last time I did, it was a text message I received congratulating me for being hired for a Vietnamese company from a prospective recruiter who, at the time, was hiring English teachers to work in Hanoi, which I posted on my timeline, because, as much as I hate to admit it, I wanted instant recognition. Minutes after I screen-captured the text message and posted the delightful news on my wall, my notifications soared to a ridiculous high number of congratulatory comments, and each time I hit them back with a trite Thanks, the feeling of elation swelled inside me, like when you’re in a car running 60km per hour and suddenly the road curves down, and that split second when your heart seems to come off, you feel a woozy, ticklish feeling of high that you want to do it again and again.

Of course, she’s right. That proved to be a huge mistake. And in retrospect, a kind of blunder, I must say. Because months later, I’d still be in the Philippines. And when people asked me, surprised to see me gallivanting around, “I thought you’d be in Vietnam by now?” I’d give them this nonchalant, unperturbed look and say, “Plans change, don’t they?” One night, my friend even posted a picture of us at a bar, when we were out celebrating for our other friend’s arrival after a month or so of being away-there were five of us-in which he captioned the photo “Welcome back Yannick, and goodbye Aaron #leavingforVietnammaybein2019”. It was funny. But deep down, fuck.

Fuck, no matter how unabashedly banal and unapologetic it sounds, seems to sum up the whole experience entirely. That proved to be my first, gut-wrenching lesson on 50 Ways on How Not to Use Facebook. It also made me critical about the things I should post there. But more importantly, it gave me a glimpse of my naïve and pompous 26-year-old self: at the core of this is an underlying lesson to be had.

In a letter written by Cheryl Strayed in response to an anonymous 22-year-old penned Seeking Wisdom who asked the 40ish-year-old writer, “What would you tell your twentysomething self if you could talk to her now?” Strayed’s first response was arrestingly simple: Stop worrying about whether you’re fat. You’re not fat. Or rather, you’re sometimes a little bit fat, but who gives a shit?

It was her rhetorical question that made me close the book, pause for a minute and stare at the wall for a few more goddamn minutes. Who gives a shit?

Because I guess in the long run, we’ll always find ourselves confronted with this ridiculously yet surprisingly wise question. In my case, now that I’m a year older, I still do. Or better yet, I have to. It’s a bittersweet, face-smacking wake-up call that puts your tail back between your legs. It keeps you at bay of all of your baseless, puffed-up assumptions about yourself. It keeps you grounded.

Or that’s how it was-and still is-for me. Who gives a shit?

Well.

 

No Rain

THE DAYS of rain come to a halt as I wake up in bed at two in the afternoon. I look at the louvered window from where I lay and see a faint brightness illumine the slats of glasses. I get out of bed, pull the crank down, and the sight of the neighbors’ roofs welcome my gaze. They, too, shine with a mild glow.

Outside, a neighbor is singing Daniel Boone’s Beautiful Sunday, the videoke machine set to the highest volume. Even on rainy days, their spirits never seem to dampen. A woman’s voice usually floats through the air, a beautiful kind, accentuated from time to time with mispronounced words.

My friend, B has cooked pasta, and she tells me, as she folds her clothes neatly on the table, to help myself with it. I thank her for this. “Are you going somewhere?” I ask. “I might go around. The weather is nice,” she says. “I’ll stay here then.”

The wind blows softly, the trees sway back and forth, and upon closer look, they seem to follow a shared, well-rehearsed rhythm only they know and understand. Dry leaves. Different shades of green. They dance merrily as the wind brushes past them. The passing motorbikes maintain a relaxing pace, unlike the previous days, and you can tell by the way their engines sound, not the maddening kind of uproar the way they did the past few days as they tried to combat strong gusts of wind and heavy downpour.

B has left the house. I could hear her start her motorbike downstairs, and seconds later, the sound fades into the distance. I’m sitting alone at the veranda overlooking the main street, watching people go by. I prop my feet up on the wooden railing lined with potted plants. The sky is overcast, but a lighter shade of gray this time, promising rain later, but not insistent.

I think of my elusive friend, L who left over a week ago and hasn’t returned yet. No word from him. I wonder what’s going on in his mind. I miss him, and wish he’ll be back sooner. I think of my friends, too, and this thought settles for sometime, but I decide to tuck it in the corner. I decide to light a cigarette instead.

The neighbor has stopped singing. The wind continues to blow softly. It’s past three in the afternoon now. I hope the tide is high. I might take a swim at the beach.

[Siargao, November 6, Sunday]

A Love Letter to the City and the Gentle People

Dear D,

It’s been more than a week now since I left, and I must say I miss you. I’m sitting here on the second floor of my friends’ rented house looking at what seems to be the only gas station on this side of the island, which has been my view for the last couple of days. Not exactly the best view I wish I’d have, while I’m trying to sort myself out, but the greens around help a bit. It feels like ages already. The last time I felt like this was at twenty, those first few nights when I’d be sitting there at the boulevard all by myself, staring at the sea and the occasional passing boats as they slowly made their way to your shores, all the while missing home.

Now, here I am again, on another island thinking about you.

The sounds of passing motorbikes and trikes are way different here. They lack the familiar alacrity you’ve taught my ears to listen to for the past six years. Here, the quiet intervals in between passing vehicles remind me every day that I’m in a new place now surrounded with strangers and unfamiliar things. There’s a sluggish aura here at night when I walk on the ill-lighted streets, the sand and puddles of water making squishing sounds down my feet as I make my way to the small convenience store at the intersection. I buy little things there: chips, a bottle of water or juice, a pack of cigarettes. The language here is different, too: the twang like a singsong, filled with Ys and Js. Uyan. Kuman. Bayud. Jaon. If I stay here for more than a month, I might learn an expression or two.

Still, I miss the boulevard. There’s a café there I usually go to for a cup of coffee or a bottle of beer. When I’m alone at the bar, the first thing I see is that lone fire tree (or flame tree), which gives off this fiery, red orange contrast to the blue sea in the background during quiet or busy afternoons. And even though, sometimes, the terrible traffic gets to me, the sight of that long stretch by the sea still fascinates me. Oh, and I miss seeing those horrid yellow buses and big trucks.

I can imagine myself walking there now at six in the evening. A group of women would be dancing their usual Zumba routines with their neon colored sweatshirts and leggings at their usual spot: that space right in the middle of those two huge acacia trees, a little adjacent to that small tapas bistro right across, where my friend and I met, one night, this old wise guy from Cyprus who had so many stories to tell that we ended up blasting John Mayer and Nora Jones songs through that small speaker, talking about love, drinking a pitcher of tequila ‘til my giddy friend threw up.

Or when the clock strikes nine, I’m at another bar, a little way off from the boulevard, where, in six years, I’ve hung out with different groups of people. “Friend, same shit,” I’d tell one of the staff there. And in seconds, a small bottle of Tanduay, two Coke zeros, a bucket of ice, an ashtray and a few empty glasses would be there welcoming us. Here we go again. It’s Wednesday, the usual reggae night, and halfway through the bottle I’m dancing, a little buzzed, while Enchi plays his usual repertoire, and everyone’s beaming, faces flushed, the stage lights prancing and moving around in a wonderful, rhythmic speed. Another unopened bottle waiting. Quick hi’s and hello’s. Familiar faces. Those names I keep forgetting, but after countless times of seeing each other there I’d eventually learn to memorize by heart.

(My professor in university has written an essay about you, yet all I remember him saying was coconut trees. Lots of them.)

And that time I got nabbed and almost died. Do you remember that? Back in the time when that small fishy bar was still open, I went there alone all confident and completely fucked. Sitting at one of the tables while talking to a girl I just met, my arms flailing with all the dumbest passion I’d mustered, talking I don’t know what. My arm accidentally tripped a bottle of beer at another table with a group of men (the bar was too small, the tables an arm away from each other), and the next thing I knew I was sitting with them, drinking their beer. When it was time for us to leave, they offered me a ride to the habal-habal terminal, and I said yes. The 6AM sun was glaring above us as I sat between these two guys on the motorbike, and I remember we were crossing the bridge to that infamous drugs area in the city, and I snapped. “I can take it from here,” I told the guy in front of me. “Don’t move or we’ll kill you,” he said. So I sat there frozen like a useless pig about to get butchered, my breath stinking of alcohol. So then they stopped at this house, and I remember handing them my wallet. And when they were finally out of plain sight, I ran to the nearest alley ‘til I reached dead end, this bare unpainted wall which would be the death of me. I grabbed my phone and texted my friends. “I need backup. Someone wants to kill me. Lukewright.” Then my phone ran out of battery, my body collapsed, and I fell asleep out of sheer exhaustion and drunkenness.

After what felt like hours, I somehow managed to wake up. My heart pounding as I slowly got out of that shithole, I made my way out into the open, looking around for any signs of those two men on the motorbike. And I ran and ran all the way to the highway, all the while expecting to hear a gunshot, ‘til I hailed an empty pedicab and went home.

(Which reminds me. I have to read that short story again tonight by Flannery O’Connor called A Good Man is Hard to Find or was it A Hard Man is Good to Find?)

But most of all, I miss listening to the sound of my friends’ voices. I can imagine each of them right now, their giggles over jokes and those passing conversations to kill time. It’s 7:35PM now, I’m alone in the house, and the silence is deafening. I stare at the white pitcher full of water and my glass half-full, and nothing makes sense. I look out of the window, and all I see is that solitary lamp post giving off a dull white glow. The rain has stopped an hour ago, and I wish it would come back, and my mind drifts off again to you, but you’re miles away.

Which is why I’m writing to you.

I will always remember you with an aching fondness. I do not regret, though, that I left, but I’m still trying to take it in, like a pill I have to learn to swallow so I’ll be fine again. But I would’ve wanted to take a last stroll to your boulevard by myself, the way I did years back. I would’ve wanted to say goodbye to everyone, too. But I guess some things we have to do quietly, and a certain degree of selfishness is required from us in order to take a blinding leap of faith to a destination where we see ourselves grow more. I hope you understand.

I will see you one day. And when that day comes, I hope the fire tree will still be there blazing with the same colors I’ve always enjoyed watching during those afternoons when I’m at that usual café just right across. I will be there enjoying my cup of coffee.

Sincerely,
A