Luis had me paged at work the other day. He came back after almost a month of work-related travel to Asia. He spent time in Hong Kong, Indonesia, and Singapore. I was surprised to hear from him. I thought that after the last time I had canceled a planned dinner date, he would have gotten the drift and wouldn’t ever have bothered me again. Yes, that’s what Luis does to me. He bothers me.
“Oh, you’re back,” I told him. “How was the trip?”
“It was just business,” he replied. He asked me to have dinner with him the following weekend. “And bring your Palawan pictures,” he added.
I sent him a postcard from Palawan a month ago. The sun was up, shining bright and hot when I took the blank postcard from my black address book. The postcard showed a picture of the Honda Bay dotted by several islands in various shapes and sizes. The islands were green with vegetation and were surrounded by the blue of the South China Sea. i was seated in one of the huts feeling the breeze, full of wonder. It was hard for me to believe I was actually out there in Starfish Island, far away from the pressure of life in Chicago. Across from me, in one of the bamboo benches, lay Julius, dozing off. He looked peaceful in his sleep. His skin glowed bronze, even after only few minutes of being exposed to the hot May sun. I took a sip of the cold San Miguel beer and wondered where Valentin, my other companion, was. He was out there somewhere exploring, maybe swimming, or simply gazing at the mountains visible on the horizon.
“It’s so peaceful here, Luis,” I wrote on the postcard. “I wish you were here with me.”
I meant that with all my heart. I wished Luis was here with me, sharing the beauty and tranquility of nature. He would have ever loved Palawan. Months before, he asked me if I would be interested in going to the Philippines with him on vacation.
“Not to stay in a big city like Manila,” he explained, “but go to southern Philippines and experience the beautiful islands, the beaches, the mountains.”
I told him I couldn’t afford the trip, which was the truth.
I was only able to go with Julius because he took me as his travel companion. Julius works for Northeast Airlines and the companion pass is one of their new company benefits. For a long time, the spouse of an employee plus their parents was able to fly free, but that policy discriminated against gay and lesbian employees. They can’t marry, and therefore, their partners were never given flight privileges. The companion pass was created so the gay airline employees could bring their partners on trips for minimum cost, without waiting for the government to legitimize gay unions.
Valentin and I paid $275 each for the round-trip flight, and we even flew first-class. What a lovely flight! The seats had enough leg room so we were able to sleep comfortably. We were served a chef-prepared authentic Japanese meal that lasted four hours. So different from the last time I went back to the Philippines, sitting on the cramped seat at the back of the plane, in February of 1989. Back then, I felt the my career was going nowhere and I needed a change. I toyed the idea of going back to the Philippines to study, to finish my course in Business Administration. I thought it would be easy to just pack my bags and resume my life back in the old country. The trip was to see if I could still adapt to the life back home.
“You will never survive over there,” my friend Anita told me. “What about the dust, the traffic, the heat? And you have forgo the conveniences of air-conditioning, telephone, hot water, orange juice in the morning, driving your own car.”
“I’ll do fine,” I told her. “It’s what I knew before and I’ll adjust.”
I was wrong. I conveniently forgot that I left when I was seventeen years old and when I went back, I was already twenty-six, practically an old man. The dust didn’t really bother me, nor the fact that I would never be able to afford orange juice for it was expensive over there. I knew I could get used to the traffic and the heat. What bothered me was realizing that I had changed. Most of the people I who were my friends remained the same. I felt that I was beyond a lot of petty stuff that they held important. Who cares about the designer jeans or the expensive cologne? So what if Mr. Flores is having an affair? These things were not important to me.
I wanted to talk about the more important things like letting go of colonial mentality, or striving to be free from self-hate, or being true to oneself. I felt that I could never talk to any of them. They wouldn’t understand me. There was a disconnection somewhere. And there was pain in knowing I didn’t belong there any more.
I continued to write on the postcard. I told Luis about the blue sky and the hot sun, the cool breeze, the salty blue water, the quiet and the stillness. “I miss you,” I ended. Strangely enough, that statement was what I meant most to tell him. I wished Luis was there with me. I wanted his arms around me. I wanted him to sigh and then for his head to drop on my shoulder while I was touching his hair and caressing his back. We would run down the beach, scaring the sand crabs, making them run for cover under the sand. We would swim in the clear water, closing our eyes from the sting of the salt while its taste lingered on our tongues. When we got tired, we would lie down on the hammock, drinking San Miguel beer while watching the sunset. I would take Luis’s hand in mine and I would feel such bliss that I could die at that moment and would not even care. He would look at me tenderly and kiss my brow.
All of this is just wishful thinking on my part. It was my romantic side surfacing, roused by the peace and quiet, by the beauty of nature unfolding before me. The need came out of the prison cell deep inside me, where it has been kept hidden for a long time, never once allowed to soar.
I felt that love would never happen to me. Of course, some people profess to feel love. Others think they have it. But over time, I realized that true love rarely happens any more. I have friends who have lovers and yet they still go out having affairs or one-night stands at a moment’s notice. Rick is one of them. He would excitedly call me on the phone to tell me about his latest conquest. Being polite, I usually refuse to ask the question that should have been voiced. “How about Michael?” I should have reminded Rick. “Do you have to cheat on him?”
I know what Rick would say. “What my lover doesn’t know won’t hurt him.” He would try to convince me that they still love each other, but their sex life is almost nothing. “With others, it’s just sex,” Rick will excuse himself. “With Michael, it’s an emotional and a psychological commitment.”
I always thought that love and sex should go hand in hand. True love never fades, nor does it give room for somebody else. That’s why I never understood my father.
“When you’re older, you’ll understand,” he told me.
“Well, Dad, I’m older. I still don’t understand.”
I remember one afternoon, I was thirteen at that time, my father took me to Yap Park, which was a picnic ground surrounding a lagoon in Balibago, two blocks away from Clark Air Force Base. When we got to Yap Park, we were greeted by a short woman. Her black hair was cut short, her complexion very pale. She had small eyes, a pert nose, and thin lips that smiled a lot. With her were her three children, two girls and a boy. The oldest was my age. I still remember her name. It was Laila. She was a junior at Holy Family Academy, the Catholic high school for girls near my school. Laila looked familiar, for we had already met during interschool competitions. But since she was shy and I was timid, we just kept to ourselves.
We went to one of the picnic sheds and my dad started to unload the bags of groceries he had bought. There were bags of M&M’s candies, cans of lychees, packages of steak and chicken to be grilled. The woman brought some mangoes and bags of potato chips. I looked at my dad. He was his most charming. He even looked happy. The short woman and he often stared at each other’s eyes. I knew something was up. I began to observe them together. They would touch at every little opportunity. Little touches here and there, a smile, a flick of the hair, a caress on the back, a pat on the tush.
I don’t know why I started to cry. I didn’t care that I was thirteen and that Laila would see me, but my tears feel. I tried to hide them, but my father noticed. I started sobbing and I ran, to et away from them all.
My dad caught up with me. He took me in his arms and asked me gently, “What’s wrong? Why are you crying?”
At first I didn’t want to tell him. But he persisted. Then he got angry.
“Nestor! It’s a sissy thing for a boy to cry.”
That triggered the hurt inside me and the words just burst. “I just remembered Nanay (Mother),” I replied between sobs. “I’m here enjoying the picnic, eating expensive imported chocolates while she’s at home washing clothes by hand. She knows I’m with you and that we are with another woman. I’m crying because I’m betraying her and I don’t want to do that. You took me with you without telling me you were going to do this. I want to go home and eat cheap ordinary food. I’d rather miss out on the steak than be with you and that woman.”
My dad didn’t answer for a long time. “When you’re older, you’ll understand,” he told me.
Now I’m a lot older and perhaps I understand a little. I know the love exists but not everyone can have it. I also know that sometimes it’s even hard to recognize love. There were times when I thought I’ve felt it, only to admit to myself later on that the emotion was just an imitation of love. Lust maybe, or even like, but it was rarely love.
Until I met Luis. Then I knew.
Isn’t it just funny that the person I fell in love with is a lonely, sometimes selfish, terribly cheap and not really good-looking (in a conventional sense) person?
Still, all that didn’t matter. I would have loved him no matter what. But Luis doesn’t love me back. He could only look at me, and see a friend.
So there I was in Palawan writing a postcard for a friend, wishing I could prove my father wrong. When it’s true love, there shouldn’t be room for anybody else. But sadly, I realized I was not given the chance to prove that. Luis doesn’t love me back. Shouldn’t I move on? Or should I prove my love for him by condemning myself to being alone?
“Okay,” I told Luis on the phone. “Let’s have dinner Saturday night. I’ll be sure to bring the pictures of Palawan.”
“I’m looking forward to it,” he replied. “I wished I had been able to go there with you.”
But you were there with me, I thought. You were there with me.
This beautifully written short story from Ladlad 2 will always be a timeless favorite (How coincidental is it that I am a Kapampangan as the narrator and my partner is a ‘Luis’ too? Lol.) Thank you for sharing such beautiful a story, Sir Jaime Almonte.