this is where we say goodbye


(inspired by imaginary events.)

the last time the pope was here, almost twenty years ago, my heart was broken. it was so badly broken that i thought it would no longer heal. that i would no longer be myself again.

it was january nineteen ninety-five and i was a struggling financial reporter, still new in the industry. still could not differentiate, for example, the different terms for money supply (m-one, m-two, m-three), still unable to explain bad loans, sour loans, unpaid loans, among other confusing terms that senior reporters at my other beat, the banking and finance, chewed quite easily and with delight like fruit flavoured bubble gums.

( i said other beat because apart from the central bank and finance department, i was also covering the president of the philippines then. looking back, i could not imagine how i was able to do that. juggling between two important beats and two vastly different subject matters -- politics and business.)

anyway, this is not a story about my early struggles as a financial journalist.

well, maybe. some of it. but this is all about a boy named john (yes, like john of the beatles), who was brown skinned, with short, thick black hair, twenty-one, a graduating engineering student at one of the top universities in manila. he was handsome, alright, with slit eyes that disappeared when he smiled or laughed, prominent nose with a well-defined bridge that gave him a patrician look.

just like his popular british namesake, he was exactly the man in every young girl's fantasy, especially those who were hooked on sweet dreams romance novels. just like myself when i was a teen-ager and i used to borrow, and sometimes steal, my sisters copies of those paperbacks.


&&&&&&&&&&&

it was a late rainy night, an hour or two after midnight, when i first saw him. i just came from a friend's party and i was wet and drunk. horribly drunk that i wondered the next day how i was able to go home.

after i rang the bell several times, a handsome young man, in boxer shorts and black sleeveless undershirt, opened the main door that was so heavy because it was made of narra. he was annoyed and did not bother to hide it. by the way, i used to live in a dormitory (at that time, my reporter's salary could not afford a flat of my own), renting a small room that could fit only a futon, a mini ref, medium-sized tv and vhs player.

because it was a dormitory, i didn't have a key to the main door. only the two houseboys had it. it was also them, or one of them (they did it by shifts) who was supposed to stay late so he could open the door for the late comers. but he was already asleep. luckily, john was still awake, probably still studying in the living room. now he was irritated that i disturbed him, a stranger late at night, drunk!

when he saw me, he did not open the other aluminum screen door. he asked first if i live there. i said yes. i am a new resident. i just moved in a few days ago. then i gave him my name. when he did not say anything and did not open the door, i showed him my press id. can you please open the door now? i am cold and it's raining, i pleaded.

he just stood there, looked at me with keen eyes, as if trying to ascertain if i was telling the truth or not. then he told me that there's a curfew in the dormitory. that i have to inform the houseboy if i will be home late so he could wait for me. ok, i said, thank you for the information. may i come in now? he hesitated, but let me in nevertheless.

pissed off, i pushed him out of the way. without saying a word, nor apologizing, i went straight to my room at the third floor, leaving him stunned.

even then, i was already the drama queen.



&&&&&&&&&&&

the days in the dormitory rolled easily into weeks. but i was still mad at john. i could not forget how arrogant his voice was. how he treated me like a petty criminal. how he let me stay outside, standing for several minutes in the rain. there was something strangely likable about him despite his boorish behaviour during four first meeting. fortunately, or unfortunately, i had not seen him after that night.

on my third week, i bumped into my landlady at the door way as i was headed for work. she was coming in from church. i knew this because she was still wearing a veil on her head and a stampeta around her neck with the image of the virgin mary. she was also holding fresh sampaguita garlands on her hand. i liked those tiny, white flowers. they may be small, but they have this powerful, nice scent that lingered with you for a long time. they smelled really divine.

she told me to please be home for dinner. before i could ask why, she said it's her birthday. so i am throwing a party for everybody. i greeted her a happy birthday and kissed her on the cheek.

her scent reminded me so much of my grandmother - perfume, lipstick and johnson's baby powder. she didn't use make up. thank you, she said, surprised by the kiss.

that night, i was back at the dormitory around eight, with a bouquet of red roses for my landlady. upon seeing me entering the door, she waved and came right up to me. when i gave her the roses, she was too happy to receive it. i feel like it's my debut, she said and kissed the flowers. and then she kissed me on the forehead. thank you so very much. it was my turn to be surprised.

she asked me to go to the living room where a small crowd was gathered -- eating, drinking, talking. we stood at the centre, her clutching the bouquet of roses and i holding her in the elbow as though we were going to have our photo taken. when she had everyone's attention, which was so embarrassing ( i could never get used to being at the spotlight), she announced that i brought her flowers. 

she then introduced me to her guests (her children, grandchildren, other relatives, and her friends who often played mahjong with her), and to the other boarders of the dormitory, mostly students.

(the all-male dormitory was an old, five-story building. when her eleven children got married and left home, my landlady, a widower, converted the last three floors, including the extra room at the rooftop, where we did our laundry and hung our clothes to dry, into a dormitory with two rooms in every floor, and four bed spacers in every room. since i didn't like sharing a room, i asked her to let me stay alone in one room, and i paid for the equivalent of three bed spacers. she gave me a discount.

some people wondered, including the boarders and some of her mahjong playmates, why my landlady decided to convert her old house into a dormitory. it was not because of money because she had her monthly pension, steady income from her other properties, and regular checks from her children who were living comfortably abroad. my guess was, just like everyone else, she was lonely. she needed company. she missed the noise of having a huge family.)

that was how i met john. formally. he was the nephew of our landlady.

you were the one who went home very late the other night, right? he asked after my landlady introduced us. mentally, i corrected him. it was in fact, way longer than the other night.

surprisingly, his voice was friendly, devoid of any accusation. nor the arrogance that he displayed that night. but i was still mad at him, so i just nodded my head and left him to join the other guests. even if i was shy around strangers and could never muster the nerve to start a conversation, i decided to introduce myself to the other guests just to avoid his company. as i was doing this,  i noticed that john kept on looking at me, as if observing me. he made me uncomfortable.

it was a feast, by the way. my landlady really spent a lot for her birthday, reminding me of my own mother at home in tacloban who could not help herself but spend a lot when there were special occasions, a constant irritant to my stingy father, bless his soul.

spread out on a huge banquet manned by waiters in white shirt, black pants were an array of filipino and spanish cuisines: menudo, kare-kare, paella, pancit guisado, morcon, fried chicken, fish dishes, two whole roast pigs (or lechon), an overflow of beer, wine, and other alcoholic drinks. desserts of all kinds -- leche flan, ice cream of different flavours and varieties, cakes of all kinds and sizes, etc.


&&&&&&&&&&&&

at around ten, when everyone was nearly drunk including myself, our landlady, who was seventy-two that day, was prodded to play the piano. she obliged and i was surprised at how good she was. one of the guests told me that she used to be a concert pianist and had toured other countries for concerts. she played the classics such as bach, beethoven, debussy, rachmanininov, liszt and chopin. in that order.

everyone was mesmerized. even the boarders -- who probably listened mostly to rock, love songs, and some alanis morissette, whose jagged little pill album was all the rage everywhere in the city, and the whole world -- were enjoying her impromptu performance. our landlady, who looked a decade  younger than her age, was in a dark blue dress that made her smooth white skin glow.  she was slim, with a twenty-eight waistline, said one of the maids, with long, black hair that she always tied into a bun. a style reminiscent of the former first lady imelda marcos.

after her much applauded stint at the piano, it was time for her to blow the candles on a huge, five-layer cake. we all sang happy birthday. while she was doing this, photographers took shots.

i was talking with another guest, a fifty-something lawyer (another one of my landlady's mahjong playmates) with greying hair, still handsome with flat stomach, when john joined us. he first greeted the lawyer, who, i learned later, was his uncle. after a small talk, the old man left us. before i could leave, john asked me how i was doing. are you having fun?

quietly, i stared at him with an unfriendly face. he was smiling, showing dimples on both cheeks. he sounded nice. a bit drunk, with a beer in his hand.

for the first time that night, i took a good look at him. he was wearing a black shirt with the logo of the rock band metallica, tucked under dark jeans, no belt, then brown doc martins. his thick, wavy hair was held together by gel. he must have spent a lot of money on those gels. he was wearing a watch, swatch, i think, and a gold necklace with a cross pendant.

i'm good, i said. he smiled again, his way of making me feel at ease. then he continued: some of us are going up for a drink to the rooftop. do you want to join us? that way, you can meet some of the other boarders. they were all asking about you after they saw you on tv during a televised press conference in malacanang. i think you were asking the president a question and the camera was focused on you. they said you looked like a movie star.

i wanted to say, really? but  i didn't want to sound excited. nor enthusiastic. so i said drily like a school teacher after a student gave a wrong answer to a question: sure, why not? i thought we would go up later, but that was not the case. let's go then, he said right away, leaving me with no other choice but to follow him. on the way up, we were quiet.

we were panting when we reached the roof top. half of it was covered by a roof, and the other half was open. so on a nice evening, when there were stars and a moon, and a cool breeze was blowing, it was actually a great place to sit, contemplate and drink. watch the stars.

&&&&&&&&&&&&

tonight the rooftop had been cleared of laundry. the clotheslines were also removed, even the basket where the boys sometimes played hoops was gone.

up here were a dozen boys having fun. some were seated next to a big table, others were  standing up, drinking beer. there were ten or more cases of beer under the table. some were already empty. there were also all kinds of food -- lechon, fried chicken, pancit -- things that were also served downstairs, at the living and dining rooms.

the boys were already out of their school uniforms and were wearing shorts and shirts. they were a bunch of good looking kids, tanned, hairy, some smooth and pale. others like john were brown and pretty. some had gym toned bodies, others still with baby fat. john had a nice, slim body. his strong legs were hairy. he played a lot of basketball in school, but never joined the varsity team. (i don't want to be famous was all he said when i asked him why.)

&&&&&&&&&&&&&

i felt overdressed in my reporter's uniform: a long sleeve shirt, jeans and brown leather shoes (there was a dress code required when covering the president. no short sleeve shirts, sneakers or rubber shoes). i excused myself so i could change.

instead of just changing my clothes, i decided to take a shower. after half an hour, while i was already putting on shorts and a shirt, there was a knock at the door. 

it was john.

we thought you had fallen asleep, he said, when i opened the door. no, i said, i took a shower. i felt hot, smelly and dirty after being out all day. john smelled himself. raised his arms and smelled his underarms. i laughed. still drunk even after a cold shower. don't worry, i said, you smell nice and you look even better. in fact, you are the best looking among us. he laughed, then pinched me on the stomach, a move that surprised me.

let's go then, he said, and put his arm around my shoulders. i was no longer surprised by this gesture. somehow, i was looking forward to it since i noticed him sizing me up from a distance at the party at the living room. we went up like twins joined at the hips. because we were so close, i smelled his scent, which i loved on a man: beer, cigarettes, and my favourite perfume (ralph lauren blue).

&&&&&&&&&&&&&

there was something funny about john that night. he was extra friendly. i thought maybe he was just trying to make up for his uncouth behaviour during our first meeting.

the whole time that we were drinking, he sat right next to me. we sat very close that our bodies were almost intertwined. instead of feeling uncomfortable, i welcomed this newfound closeness. frankly, i found him very good looking and sexy. i was thrilled by our closeness. later, i found myself putting my hand on his leg, caressing it, wishing he was wearing shorts like myself.

he was charming too. a trait that did not go unnoticed to the other boarders. they liked him a lot obviously. i noticed that he seemed to be the leader of the group. when he spoke, they all listened.  all eyes were on him. they always agreed on what he was saying. while i was mostly quiet. just observing them. when they asked me about something, like my opinion on a certain issue, i just gave a short reply.

as the night wore on, it became pregnant with promise. as we consumed more beer, john had become even more loquacious and jovial. he told a lot of funny, self-depreciating stories. he loved to be the center of attention.

he had also become more attentive towards me. he would always ask me if i was alright, if i still had a beer. i was slightly embarrassed by his attention, and i was afraid the others in the group might take it the wrong way. but they were all drunk and having so much fun to notice. if they did, they probably just thought we were drunk and behaving like normal drunk people.

they also didn't mind the way that john and i sat so close to each other that i could almost kiss him every time he turned to me to talk or to ask something. at some point, i was nearly tempted to kiss him in front of the other boarders.

as the night grew older and colder, the boys left one by one because they were already drunk and sleepy. some of them still had classes the next day. until there were only the two of us left. 

i hope they did not annoy you, john said, meaning the other boarders. he was standing right in front of me, smoking a cigarette. even if there was only a pale moonlight, i could still see his handsome face. i admired his tall (he was at least six feet), lean figure.

no, i said, i enjoyed their company. i liked their jokes. what about me? he asked. suddenly turning into  a child. so innocent. this made me laugh. of course i enjoyed your company a lot. i didn't know you were such a joker. i thought you were strict, serious and snooty after you scolded me that night.

i did not, he said. in fact, i was very nice to you. i was simply informing you about the dormitory's policy about coming home late. hmp, i said, you are heartless. you let me stay outside, cold and wet from the rain. you sounded so arrogant, as if you owned the house. well, technically i do, he said laughing. my aunt owns this place, so that makes me part owner. 

excuse me, i said, only her children have the legal right to this house. unless there is a written consent from your aunt stating otherwise, then we are both the same here, just boarders. outsiders.

he sat right next to me. very close once more. were you really mad at me then? before i could answer, he pulled me closer to him. you're so handsome, you know that, he told me. 

you too, i said.  i like you a lot, he said. is that wrong? is that alright with you? i smiled, a bit shy. why would it bother me? i said. you are handsome yourself, and i should be proud that you like me. 

really? i nodded my head to quiet him down.

then he kissed me. i tasted the beer, the cigarettes, the lechon, the fried chicken, on his mouth and tongue. it was like having another dinner. but i didn't mind. our hands became busy too, exploring each other's bodies beneath our clothes. we kissed, and kissed, and kissed until we could not longer control ourselves.

it was a lovely night for falling in love. a bit cold from the november air. it was dark, though there was a faint light coming from the lone quarter moon and a few stars in the sky. it was also quiet, the peace disturbed only by the intermittent sound coming from jeepneys and cars on the highway below us, and the barking of the dogs from somewhere unseen and faraway.

we ended up in my room.

&&&&&&&&&&&&

he said it was his first time to have sex with another man. when he asked me if it were the same with me (after all, i was only a year older than him), he was surprised when i told him i could no longer remember. he thought i was joking, but i told him i started quite early, at around twelve.

regardless, we became inseparable. right after school, he was either in my room, or we were having drinks at a bar in malate, which became our favourite hangout.

the thing about john was that he was very open, while i was quite secretive. he would volunteer information about himself and his family. i was right after all. he was named after john lennon. ironically, he didn't like the beatles (though later on, he learned to love them because i said i couldn't go out with someone who does not appreciate their music). he was a big fan of eddie vedder and his band pearljam, alanis morissette, boy george.

he said he was the eldest in a family of three, all boys. they were from ilocos. his father was working in canada as a doctor, and his mother ran the family business in the province: a resort, hotel and restaurant. they were well-off. he drove a car in the province, stayed in his own house (a small bungalow at the back of the family home, a three-story ancestral house that his father inherited from his grandparents).

he said his busy mother had no time for them. so they learned to look after themselves. even if they had maids, all three boys knew how to do all the household chores.

his  younger brother, seventeen, was studying at the university of the philippines in baguio. the youngest, thirteen, was still in high school and lived at home.

then came the troubling part. he had a girlfriend named ana. a classmate. he talked a lot about her: you should meet her. she's very nice, very pretty. she used to work as a part-time model. she will like you. she adores gay men, especially good looking men like you with a great taste. she likes fashion, the cinema and books. she is sophisticated just like you. only eats at expensive restaurants, never fast food.

excuse me, i protested, i only eat at cheap places like the turo-turo at the corner of the street because i can't afford to eat at expensive restaurants.

by this time, he was already familiar with my weird sense of humour and constant teasing.

it surprised my straight friends (especially women) when i told them that i did not mind that john had a girlfriend. truth to tell, i was flattered that he liked both of us. somehow, it was a reassurance that i was going out with a "straight" guy. i knew it was weird. some even accused me of being sexist. but that was me. ana, in fact, did not bother me, and she did not become an issue between us. ever. until later.

ana, it turned out, often spent the night at john's room. but this was before we started sleeping together in my room. some nights we watched movies on vhs, or listened to music while drinking beer and smoking. sometimes he would rent porn movies and bring some sticks of weed and we would finish them off before having sex.

how would ana feel if she learned about us? i asked him one time. it doesn't matter, john said. do you love her? of course, he said. what about me? i couldn't help but ask. i love you even more, came the quick reply. in fact, you are my biggest love ever. then as if to reassure me, he kissed me. what if the other boarders found out about our relationship? your aunt? i don't care, he said. anyway, they all adore you, so i would be honored to be your boyfriend.

still not satisfied with his answers, i pressed on. what if ana made you choose between us? who would you choose?

this he did not reply. i kept quiet. afraid of what he might say.

&&&&&&&&&

one night, after having sex, while we were lying naked on the futon on the floor (i didn't have a bed. never did. i prefer to sleep on a futon on the floor, japanese style), i asked him if he thought he was gay. i don't know, came his reply after giving it a thought. to be honest, i was never attracted to boys,  until i met you. i always like girls. in fact, i had several girlfriends before ana.

are you two serious? we made plans after college, john said. we want to get married, move to australia and raise a family there. why australia? because her parents are there, working. they have a house there. one of her older brothers is already there and he has his own business. so if we decide to migrate there, we won't have a hard time starting a new life. 

again i gambled with the question. what about me? this time he answered. i don't know what to do with you, honestly. i really love you. i like it that you make me laugh and you take care of me. that you are intelligent. that you read a lot of books. that you watch a lot of movies that i don't know of. i am starting to like those french, italian, chinese, spanish, and german movies that we watched all the time. i even missed reading the subtitles when i watched hollywood blockbusters.

what else do you like about me? i like it that you are simple, that you are not motivated by money. that even if you are close to powerful people, you are not arrogant about it. in fact, you even try to hide it. i like it that you enjoy taking the jeepney with me, even if you can afford to take a taxi (i raised my eyebrow on this one because he always insisted on paying for the cab fare after i told him how much was my monthly salary). that you eat isaw and kwek-kwek with me even if you don't like them. 

that's a lot, i said.

what about me? he asked. what do you like about me. 

nothing i said. then i laughed. this made him move on top of me and pretended to squeeze my neck, as though he was trying to kill me.

i love you john. you are my first love, i said, staring at his face. he was still on top of me. i could feel myself getting hard again. he was too. i continued: i like you because you are so honest. so simple, so down to earth even if you are rich. i like the fact that everybody looks up to you like their leader or as an older brother. you are too mature for your age, and sometimes i feel like you are way too old for me too. you are smart, very smart, i should add, and i like that you try very hard to like the things that i do. 

i like it that you are always concerned about my comfort. about my needs. i like it that when we are drinking even with your friends at school, you always put your arm around my shoulders. that you are not embarrassed to show how you feel about me. i love it that you treat me like a real woman.

because you are, he said. deep inside you, you are her royal highness.

then we talked about us. we made plans about the future. no, this time, we were not stoned.

&&&&&&&&&&&&&&

sometimes, insecurity would get the best of me and i would ask him: what will happen to us when you graduate and marry ana? when you move to australia?

this was always met with silence. sometimes, i felt he was getting irritated by my insecurities. but i could not help it. i had seen photos of ana and she was ravishingly beautiful. and they had been together far longer than we did. 

then after a while he said: let's not talk about it. please?

&&&&&&&&&&&&&

we had our first quarrel in december. the day before he went home to ilocos for the christmas and new year break. we were at our favourite bar in malate that sold cheap beer and played rock all night long except when it was near closing time. it was also the hangout of students who studied in nearby universities. sometimes we would meet john's classmates and friends there. that night, it was just us.

out of the blue, after finishing three bottles, he asked me to spend christmas at their house in ilocos.  i was surprised because we never talked about spending the holidays together. so i said i cannot because i did not file a leave at the office. in fact, i usually go on leave during the summer, during the holy week because that's the time when i go somewhere far and stay in the beach for two weeks.

then just tell your editor that someone in the family died. like your grandparents. they won't mind, they are already dead. i wish it's that simple, i said. we still need to file stories during the holidays. there are still events in malacanang even on christmas. there could be a coup, for all we know. or bombings by terrorists. or a massive power outage. or a bank run. 

also, i am doing a special report on the pope's arrival next month. i am interviewing the cardinal, some bishops and priests and nuns, students. in fact, i want to interview you about the world youth day.

nonsense. you can do all of that once we are back. i already told mother that i am bringing home a friend. i want you to meet her. she will love you. she will be impressed that i made a very important friend. a journalist covering the president and the central bank. my mother is a frustrated reporter. she always reads the newspaper and watches the news on tv. 

then why didn't you tell me about it before? i asked, annoyed. because i want to surprise you, he said.

there is nothing in this world that i would rather be than to be with you on christmas, i said. to meet your mother. your brothers. your friends in the province. but sorry. i can't. not now.  

i thought you love me, he said.

the bar was crowded. i love the place, by the way. while it played a lot of rock music, the volume was not too loud. we could still hear each other without shouting. sometimes it also played love songs, especially an hour before it closed for the day, usually at four in the morning. there was a small space for dancing. it was usually dark and smokey from all the cigarette smokes.

of course i appreciate the darkness because when we were drunk, john and i loved to kiss and fondle each other. but right now, there was no way it would happen. we were arguing.

what does it have to do with anything, john? just because i won't spend christmas with you and your family does not mean i don't love you. you're being childish. he hated it, by the way, being called childish. 

he became quiet after that. in fact, he was quiet the whole night. even when we were already in the cab. usually, after a night of drinking, we would start kissing and touching each other inside the cab. that night, he was distant. when we reached the dormitory, he headed straight to his room at the second floor, without saying goodnight. pissed off, i went straight to my room too.

&&&&&&&&&&&&

he went home to ilocos the next day without talking to me. he did not even leave a note to say goodbye.

&&&&&&&&&&&&

it was the loneliest christmas i ever had. the saddest new year too. i missed him so much. i missed his naked presence inside my tiny room. i missed his funny stories about his teachers, classmates, friends, the other boarders in the dormitory. i missed the way he would grab me from behind when i was about to stand up to get more beer from a small fridge beside the tv, and then he would kiss me.

it was a good thing that i was working. that there were parties that i had to attend to with other reporters and with friends. somehow, they helped ease the loneliness.

on new year's eve, he called long distance. cellphones were not yet invented then. only pagers.

i miss you, were the very first words that he said. he sounded drunk. i miss you too, i said, whispering. the phone was at the sala, on top of a round table beside the sofa, and i could not speak loudly because my landlady and her friends were playing mahjong a few feet away from where i was seated. i was afraid they might hear me. my landlady, who answered the phone, knew it was john calling. in fact, before she gave the phone to me, they talked for a bit.

he said he was sorry. then he told me what he did for christmas -- attended a high school reunion, got a new shirt from his mom, money from his dad who did not come home, shoes from his grandparents who were living in the california, a cook book from ana (john loved to cook). i said i was sorry i did not have a gift for him. he said we were even because he did not have a gift for me either. despite our sadness, we laughed. mine was a bit loud that i noticed my landlady looking at me. i blushed.

when i get back, he continued, let's go buy each other a gift, ok? sure, i said. again, i looked at my landlady for any sign that she could hear me. but i knew that she already knew. it all became clear the way she looked and smiled at me when she handed me the phone earlier. there was no malice in it. just her way of saying that she understood. perhaps she had seen us kissing before.

it never happened though. our planned gift giving.

&&&&&&&&&&&&&

january. second week. the dormitory was once again lively and noisy as the students came back from their holiday break. there was no john yet.

but i didn't mind. i thought he just extended his stay at home. i was also busy writing the stories about the pope's arrival, and his activities during his five-day stay in the country. i wrote about the design of the pope mobile, for instance. i was also interviewing people about the security arrangements, meetings with prominent church, government and civic leaders, the world youth day event at one of the catholic universities in manila.

despite my busy schedule, i still missed him. there were times when i was tempted to ask my landlady about him. surely she must know why john wasn't back yet. but i was a coward. i was afraid of what she might say. i also didn't ask the other boarders about him.

every time the phone rang, i wished it was him calling.

at night, i could not sleep. even when i was drunk and tired.

&&&&&&&&&&&

two days after the pope left manila, i got a shocking news.

john got married with ana. the news came from our landlady, john's aunt.

after talking with my landlady and other boarders, i somehow strung together the whole story.

ana went home with john to ilocos. while there, she learned that she was already three months pregnant. so she told john and his mother. john's mother, a deeply religious and conservative woman, decided that they should get married right away. she informed ana's parents about her situation, and they agreed that the two young lovers should be married before it became obvious that ana was pregnant. 

they got married on january three. in a civil wedding in the ilocos city hall.

then they spent their honeymoon in baguio.

&&&&&&&&&&&

that was my first heartbreak. of course i experienced it before countless of times. but looking back those heartbreaks were not really serious. most of them were a result of flings that in my young, foolish mind, i thought were real love. what i had with john was real. he was my first real boyfriend, whom i had made plans with for the future. whom i had shared my dreams and confessed about my secrets, a difficult one to do since i was secretive.

we were both looking forward to the day that he would graduate, find work, so we could live together in a flat of our own. just us, making house like a typical married couple.

it was true what they say about a broken heart. it was like waking up from a bad dream only to realize that you were living in another one while you were wide awake. the pain was unbearable as though a thousand pins were piercing my heart all at the same time. every second i missed him, and i thought i was going crazy because i kept hearing his voice, and seeing him everywhere i went.

nothing cheered me up. not even my favourite movies, nor kfc's original recipe fried chicken which i used to devour when i was feeling sad.

&&&&&&&&&&&&

it was february when i finally saw john. february twelve to be exact, two days before valentine's day and four months after we became a closet lover. after their honeymoon, the couple went home to ana's parents' house, where she used to live alone with the maids. john's things in the dormitory were sent to ana's house right away.

how are you? i asked, breaking the silence. since i arrived in the bar, where we used to hang out in malate, he was quiet. he was wearing a black pearljam shirt, jeans, and a sad, long face. he looked tired, haggard and sleepless. his hair had gone longer, he grew a beard that added to the dishevelled, rugged, despondent look.

in contrast, i looked sharp. fresh and rested. i just came from a press conference in malacanang so i was wearing my usual presidential coverage uniform: long sleeve shirt with sleeves folded up to my elbows, tucked inside a tight-fitting black jeans, socks and brown leather shoes. i also had my hair cut a few days ago, a facial, a whole body massage, and a shave that morning.

deep inside though, i knew we were both miserable. outside appearances may lie and mask the pain inside our hearts. but we could never lie to ourselves.

despite the noise around us, the air was heavy with sadness. of an impending end to a once beautiful thing. ah, why does everything have to end? why can't they last?

instead of answering, he merely shrugged his shoulders and inhaled his cigarette, then blew smokes, round and thin and weak, into the air. 

aren't you going to say something? i went on. i wanted some answers. i was aware of the gathering anger on his face. but i pressed on. i was angry too.

this is all your fault you know, he finally said.

what? how is it my fault? did i get ana pregnant? 

if you went home with me, then she won't be there.

but she will still be pregnant.

silence.

i continued: you mean you have no intention of marrying ana even if she is pregnant?

yes, came his quick reply. a bit loud this time, as though he was trying to convince himself.

so why did you continue having sex with her if you have no plans of marrying her? why did you stay together?

because that's what she wants. i wanted to break up with her months ago, even before i met you. but she threatened me that she would commit suicide if i leave her.

you believe that? i wanted to shout back. instead i kept my mouth shut. i looked around us and felt even sadder. this was the place where we spent countless nights sharing our dreams, talking about the future. kissing, touching. this was where we met his friends and where we spent the night arguing about politics, then when the mood hit us, we went dancing.

after tonight, i knew i won't be back here. how did it suddenly become a place of sorrow? a repository of a broken heart? after a while, recovering my composure, i said: then why did you take her with you to ilocos? (then the unspeakable question: why did you marry her?!)

i did not take her with me. i wanted to be with you, remember? she followed me. i think she planned it all along. she knew that she was pregnant. she knew that my mother would not let me run away from my responsibility.

i gulped my beer.

what now? i asked.

i don't know. her parents are already processing our papers so we could migrate to australia right after our graduation. 

which is next month already, i said, stupidly. 

he nodded his head.

i think it's best if we don't see each other after tonight, i said. it would be easier for both of us. especially for me. at least you have a child to look forward to. and a beautiful wife that you can be proud of.

at that moment, i felt like there were two people -- one good, one evil -- inside of me. one was telling him to go and live happily with her. the other one was begging him to stay with me and leave her. forget about their marriage vow. in the end, the good one won.

what i remembered thinking after i asked him to stay out of my life was this: it was also a night like this one, a night of drinking when we fell in love. when we first kissed. at the rooftop of the dormitory. there was a thin moon that sometimes hid its face under the clouds. there were stars too that were not as shy as the moon. but they did not matter anymore. it seemed like a long time ago.

i smiled weakly at the memory.

before he could say something more, i shushed him. let's not talk anymore. let's just finish our drinks and get out of here, i said. the adult this time.

&&&&&&&&&&&&&

it was my mother on the phone. calling from our home in tacloban, where i was born and raised. i left home when i went to study college in a university in manila. since then, i rarely went home. mother brought me back to the present, middle-aged me. now living alone in a one-bedroom apartment. still single. somehow i had gotten used to my solitude. i became uncomfortable around people and felt suffocated whenever someone was staying with me in the flat.

"are you coming home when the pope arrives here? it will be the first time that our city will be hosting a pope. this will be historic," she said.

part of the pope's itinerary was to visit tacloban, which was devastated by two strong typhoons in a year's time. first was yolanda in november last year, and then ruby this year. our house was still being repaired after yolanda's wreckage last year when ruby lashed out her anger early this month.

"i don't know yet," i said, stirring my coffee. it was only ten in the morning, but already my mother had eleven missed calls on my cellphone when i woke up. before i could even take a shower and finish my coffee, she called again. guiltily, i answered it.

"you should be here. the governor had asked me to be a part of the welcoming committee. we will be very busy in the next few weeks. you should come home and help us," she said.

i could picture mother. in her housedress (a loose caftan usually in white and beige), her greying shoulder length hair tied at the back, agitated by what i was saying, but trying to sound calm on the phone. as a military officer's wife, she had learned to mask her feelings to other people, including us her two children. (i had a sister, now married, two years younger than me).

"ma. you know i am not religious. i don't believe in all this..."

before i could say anything more, she stopped me.

"don't be blasphemous! i did not spend a fortune to put you and your sister in a good catholic school so that you will grow up like that!"

"like what?"

"a....a....."

"say it, ma. a heretic."

"never mind. i just want you to come home."

"ma, i am not a child anymore. you can't boss me around. i am forty two for fuck's sake."

"there you go again. using that word. then why don't you act like one? look at you, you're forty two and you're still single. acting like a teen-ager all the time. all you know is how to have a good time. party all the time. why don't you find a girlfriend and get married?"

"mother!" i said, raising my voice. "when are you going to accept the fact that your only son is gay. gay. gay. gay. i am gay! and i will never ever get married because i don't believe in marriage."

silence. i heard her sobbing at the other end.

i kept quiet and calmed down. then i regretted what i just did to her, but a the same time i was still fuming from the way she always treated me. a child who needed her guidance and assistance all the time. that was one reason why i was closer to my grandmother, my father's mother, who was so liberated, so relaxed and too democratic for my mother's taste.

it was grandmother who encouraged me to send love letters to my boy crushes when i was in the elementary, who taught me how to smoke and drink when i was in high school, who gave me advice on how to dress up, and court a man properly. if she were alive today, she would probably give mother a scolding. sadly, she died many years ago, when i was still in college, of cancer.

at forty-two, i could not believe that mother, who wasn't even that religious, still can't accept me for what i really am. that she still harbors some illusion that i will get married and have my own family, get my wife pregnant with a dozen or more children.

(to be continued)

**************

(part two)

after i hung up the phone, i was still having a mix of emotions about mother. it happened every time we talked on the phone or saw each other when she visited me in manila.

that morning, i was angry that she remained adamant about accepting my sexuality. i felt inadequate that i could not give her the dozen or so grandchildren that she wanted very much (my sister and her husband only had one child). i was also sad that i couldn't be with her every time she missed me and when she needed my help.

&&&&&&&&&&

it was a busy day at the office. the editors and reporters were already preparing for the pope's arrival in a few days. every time somebody mentioned the pope's visit, i could not help but think back about those days in nineteen ninety five, when i was twenty two -- eager for adventures and all sorts of experiences that i thought and hoped would help me live a meaningful life. looking back, i was wondering if i was right then to have that kind of hope.

because i was no longer with the main section (years ago, i asked the publisher to transfer me to the lifestyle section, where i edited mostly stories about culture, the arts, fashion, food and the cinema), i was no longer part of the planning and the strategizing involved in the coverage of the pope's visit to the country. somehow, i missed those days when i was at the forefront of the action.

at forty two, i no longer had the energy, the enthusiasm and the hunger to be at the center of such events, even this historic visit by the highest ranking official of the catholic church, as my mother had pointed out this morning. i could no longer picture myself running after officials, hopping from one event to another, and then rushing to finish my stories and beat the deadlines afterwards.

staring at the small screen of my laptop, as i tried to finish a feature story about a dubai-based filipino fashion designer who became famous worldwide and was recently given an award by the president as one of the outstanding citizens working overseas (whatever that meant), my mind kept on bringing me back to those days, two decades ago.

of course i remembered meeting ana for the first time. ana was john's ravishing young bride.


&&&&&&&&&&&&&

"before anything else, i want to thank you for coming," ana said, her beautiful face a picture of anxiety. she looked even better in person than on those pictures that john had showed me. in this particular day in february, the twenty-eighth to be exact, she had her long, wavy hair brushed up to one side of her face, highlighting her very mestiza features: round, black eyes, aquiline nose like that of a doll, heart-shaped lips, all arranged neatly in a slightly elongated face like those models in vogue magazine.

she didn't have any make-up by the way, just lipstick. still, she looked gorgeous.

her unmade face was matched by a simple white cotton maternity dress with tiny yellow and blue floral designs that reminded me of the coming summer months. despite her obvious anxiety about meeting me for the first time, she remained poised. her voice was calm. she was seated right across from me in a round table good enough for four people. we were already done ordering our lunch.

the restaurant, in one of the shopping malls in makati, was full with office workers and shoppers. it was, in fact, a lovely day for hanging out. it was sunny, yet the air was cool because it rained earlier.

"the pleasure is mine," i said, not hiding my admiration for her composure and beauty. that was the first thing that i told her when i arrived and kissed her on both cheeks, french style, as if we were long lost friends, the best of friends, that she looked like a movie star. that her photos didn't do her any justice.

she smiled at the compliment, and took it kindly. neither dismissing nor gloating about it. as a former model, she was used to being admired and lavishly complimented.

in contrast, i had always been uncomfortable with compliments. i didn't know how to react or what to say when i was at their receiving end.

"i'll go straight to the point, if you won't mind," she said, looking at my face earnestly, as if studying me. she was probably wondering what it was that john found "lovable" about me.

"go ahead," i said calmly, masking my own discomfort.

of course, i wished she had waited first until i had a beer or two before she proceeded to whatever it was that she wanted to see me about.

it was her idea that we should meet and have lunch. she called me a few days ago at the dormitory, at around ten in the evening. she tried to be friendly, but i could tell that she was uncomfortable. i could see her fidgeting while on the phone. i could even sense some animosity in her tone.

"it's john. he is becoming difficult. he's acting strangely. he is always drunk and goes home late. sometimes, he does not go home at all. but he won't tell me where he had been."

"not with me," i said quickly and meant it as a joke, which i later regretted after i saw the hurt in her face. she was in near tears. i could never stand seeing someone so sad, more so crying, even if she happened to be the wife of the only man i ever truly loved.

"i know that. auntie said john has never showed up at the dorm ever since he went home to ilocos for christmas. i think he is staying with his classmates and friends. every time i ask him where he had been, he answers me angrily. we never talk anymore. we used to...."

she stopped at mid-sentence as tears finally fell from her lovely eyes. she immediately reached for the tissue inside her bag and wiped them. but it seemed the tissue could not stop her from crying. i didn't know what to do. nor what to say. i just kept quiet, and let her cry. i didn't even mind the other guests who were now starting to look at us with curiosity in their eyes. probably they were thinking that we were a couple having a fight.

then she stood up and excused herself. she went to the ladies room hurriedly. for a moment, i was afraid she might fall down and have a miscarriage. i didn't want that in my conscience.

left alone, i felt so embarrassed. i could already tell what the others were thinking. that i was a heartless husband who made her pregnant wife cry, and worse, let her go to the bathroom alone.

"i am sorry," she said when she came back and was seated once again. she had stopped crying and i noticed that she had put on some make up on her face. her way of trying to perk up her spirits. before she continued whatever it was that she wanted to say, she sipped her mango juice first. she must be thirsty because she finished half of it.

i just nodded my head. i still had no clue on what to say to her. still unable to recover from the shock of seeing this gorgeous woman cry.

as it turned out, i didn't have to say anything. after wiping her lips and leaving some red marks on the tissue paper, she said casually, as if nothing had happened: "can you please to talk to him? just ask him what's wrong? i know that he thinks the world of you. he admires you a lot. he will listen to you."

i considered this for a moment. i couldn't help but think: did she know about us? what did john tell her about us? about me?

"what do you want me to say to him?"

"just give him some advice. please tell him to stop drinking. to go home. to talk to me. to tell me what's wrong."

"you think he will listen to me? i haven't seen him for..." i didn't know if she knew that i saw john a couple of weeks ago. should i lie to her? i decided to be honest. she was hurting enough. "i have not seen him since we had a drink more than a week ago."

"he will. you have no idea how he looks up to you. if i haven't seen you, i would have thought that you were old with wrinkles and gray hair. that you were the father that he longed for."

at this point, our food started to arrive. we became quiet. i noticed that despite her shaky emotions, she had an appetite. then i remembered that she was pregnant. she was probably thinking of her child. i was hungry too, so i ate a lot. i finished two cups of rice, half of the whole grilled chicken, three-fourths of the vegetable dish called pinakbet, half of the steamed milkfish, and a bowl of sour shrimp soup.

for her part, she finished a half cup of rice, a quarter of grilled chicken, small bites of steamed milkfish, and several spoonfuls of the vegetable dish. she did not touch her soup.

during coffee and dessert (cheesecake, which turned out to be both our favourite), her mood had lightened up. she was smiling a lot. she even told me funny anecdotes about her pregnancy. how she wanted to wear a diaper so she won't have to go to the toilet all the time to pee. she wondered why pregnant women peed a lot. why she craved for certain food.

i just smiled at her. my mood too had improved. i said i didn't know either.  i've never been pregnant and never will be. she laughed. you're funny, she said.

then she asked me if i had a girlfriend, which almost made me throw up. if i did, she said we should go on a double date. watch a movie together. have dinner together. mustering all the acting skills that i learned during a theatre arts subject in high school, with a poker face to match, i told her that i was single at the moment. that i was still recovering from a broken heart. oh, she said, i am so sorry to hear that. she sounded sincere. i hope that you will find the right girl for you soon.

so john did not tell her the truth about us. but couldn't she tell that i was gay? how could she? i always looked and acted like a straight guy. short, military style hair cut. on some days, i would have a three-day or five-day beard when i was too lazy to shave. just like today. i usually dressed up like a typical office man in his twenty's -- long sleeve shirt tucked under dark jeans, leather shoes, belt.

even the way i talk, walk and act had always been masculine. thanks to my military officer of a father, who at an early age impressed upon me that he did not want his only son "to become gay," and to act and dress up like those effeminate men who did my mother's hair and nails at the beauty parlor.

at the end of our lunch, when we said our goodbyes and kissed our cheeks, i promised that i will talk to john as soon as possible.

&&&&&&&&&&

a few days after our lunch, i decided to see john. but not without agonizing about it first. after meeting ana, i was restless. i could not sleep at night. i was torn between helping her and not doing anything at all. i was also afraid that if i saw john again, then i might not be able to control myself. that i might, as he had suggested during our last meeting, agree to run away with him anywhere, away from her.

god, i told him, i could never do that. i could never be happy and live with the thought that i hurt someone, much less a pregnant young woman whose only mistake was to fall in love with him.

on a friday, at quarter past seven, i was at the gate of john's university. hoping to see him. ana had told me that on mondays-wednesdays-fridays, john's last class was at seven in the evening. so he would probably be at the gate by seven fifteen, she said. how could you tell? i asked her. john is not the type of student who hangs around at school. right after class, he is out of the campus with his friends and they go straight to bars, she said. fine, i said. i knew she was right. after all, i knew john too.

a few minutes later, a familiar figure emerged from the gate. alone. walking slowly. unmindful of the other students who were walking briskly past him. he had that look on his face as though he did not know where he was, what he was doing, and where he was going. was he drunk? stoned? but unlike our last meeting, he looked better. i mean, he had cut his hair short again, shaved his beard.

a big smile escaped from his mouth the minute he saw me. like a little boy who saw his mother at the gate after class, he ran towards me.

"what are you doing here?" he said, then embraced me so tight. i felt conscious. we were in a crowded place. some of these people probably knew him. "i can't believe you're here. i never thought i would see you again."

"nothing," i said, pushing him away gently. he got the message, but he was still smiling. then he looked at me from head to foot.

"is that really you?"

"who else?"

"you look great!"

"you too," i said. "let's go."

"where? victoria court?"

despite myself, i laughed. he tried to put his arm around my shoulders, but i pushed him away.

"silly. we're going to our favourite bar. i need to talk to you."

"about what?"

"about a lot of things."

"like what?"

i looked up above. it was full moon.

"like why does the moon go on shining."

"don't they know it's the end of the world," he started singing.

we laughed just like old times.  we continued talking while we were walking. then at the jeepney stop, i hailed a taxi.

&&&&&&&&&&&&&&



"so ana finally talked to you?"

we were now inside our favourite bar, the place where i thought i would never set foot again. but here i was, two weeks after i made that promise, having a beer, and our favourite sizzling sisig, with the man whom i thought i would never see again.

"yes," i said. then i added very quickly before i lost the nerve to say it: "john, she loves you. you mean the whole world to her. you should give her a chance. she's pregnant with your child. it won't do her any good if she continues to worry about you. she has a lot on her plate right now. school, the baby, the  papers for your migration to australia, then you."

he took a deep breath.

"you think i didn't know that? you think i don't care about her or about our child? that's exactly the reason why i don't want to go home because i don't want to upset her. every time i see her, i get mad. i can't help it. i still think that she tricked me into marrying her."

"then talk to her. tell her how you feel. but whatever you do, please assure her that you love her. that you love your child. giving her problems might affect the baby inside her. "

"it's not going to be easy."

"nothing in life is. but please try to be there for her. stop being selfish. stop thinking only about yourself. you're married now and you will soon become a father. stop blaming her. it's also your fault that she got pregnant. you could have at least been careful. you should have used condoms."

"like i care about condoms. you know that i hate wearing it! it's like eating lollipop with a plastic wrapper around it."

this made me laugh. i was reminded of how we always argued about it.

"she's a very nice lady you know. very pretty. very sensible. i know you will be very happy with her if you give her a chance. she loves you so much. please don't push her away. you might miss your chance of being happy if you let her go. if you let go of your child."

"what about us? why can't we build our own family?"

"how? you think society will accept us? your parents? my mother? stop being childish, damn it! think. think about the future. think about your child. think about......."

"stop! please stop. you are not making any sense. stop treating me like a child."

"then stop acting like one!"

we became quiet.

a typical friday night, the bar was crowded. surprisingly, i did not see any of his friends or classmates. they might be busy studying for the finals, john said when i asked him earlier.

we consumed more beer. smoked more cigarettes. stared at each other. sometimes, we smiled at each other, at the queerness of the situation. here we were, former lovers and still obviously deeply in love with each other, but the other person was urging the other one to be with someone else. somehow, it sounded like a plot for a dramatic movie worthy of a famas award.

"are you done?" he broke the silence.

"i am nearly done."

then i paused for a while. choked by my emotions. i could no longer bear to hear my own words, which sounded as false to me as the rain on a sweltering summer day.

"just please go home. be there for her. be nice to her. take care of her and your baby. study for your finals. that's all i am asking you. that's all she wants from you."

"that's a lot, if you ask me."

i ignored him.

"one last thing. please be happy john."

"are you?"

"i will be once you do what i say."

"why are you so good to me?"

"because i love you."

i reached for his hand, which was holding a bottle of beer. we held hands for a while on top of the table. oh how i missed him. how i longed to kiss him. 

"because i know what's best for you. there is no future for us, john. there is no permanence. who knows, after our passion passed, we might not even want to be friends. i have seen a lot of gay couples ending up as strangers after just a few months. with ana, you have a future. you have stability. i know that you still love her. right now, you're angry. it's that anger that's clouding up what you truly feel for her. she is a lovely woman. you are lucky to have her."

i didn't know if he believed what i was saying. if i believed them myself. honestly, most of the things that i told him were the opposite of what i believed in, especially on matters about homosexual relationships. i knew a lot of gay couples who lived together longer than straight couples, and vice versa. relationships, or how strong they are, are gender blind.

"how did you know that i still love her?"

"because you married her. if not, you won't. you are too hard headed and stubborn to be forced to do something that you don't want to. i know it the moment i saw you the last time that we met. but you felt so guilty. you thought you betrayed me. that's why you were angry. that's why you refused to accept the fact you still love her. more importantly, that you love your child."

"will you be alright?"

"i will be."

after finishing our beers, we said goodbye. when a taxi stopped, he let me go first. inside the cab on the way to the dormitory, i almost regretted my decision to finally set him free. i knew then that it would take a while before i could forget him. i almost asked the driver to stop the cab so i could run towards him. he was still standing in front of the bar where i left him, smoking and waiting for a taxi. already lost in his own thoughts. already beyond my grasp.

&&&&&&&&&&


"what about it?"

the other editor's voice startled me. woke me up from my reverie as though he sprinkled a very cold water on my face. he was seated at the desk right next to me. loads of newspapers, bond papers, printed stories piled up on his desk. i had always told him to please clear up his clutter because they were distracting. but he won't listen.

"what about what?"

"helping me edit some of these stories about the pope's visit. that is, if you are not busy.'

by this time, i was done with the feature story on the filipino fashion designer.

"sure. send them over."

"i already emailed one story."

"you're fast."

he laughed.

"before you change your mind."

i opened the story. it was an eight hundred word feature about what the pope's visit means for the country, currently plagued with massive corruption in the government and still recovering from two strong typhoons that hit some parts of its islands in just a year.

"who wrote this?"

"very good no?"

"it is. very economical too. he said a lot in just eight hundred words. and the quotes. my god! they're divine!"

"good enough for a pulitzer?"

"even an oscar!"

we both laughed. bit louder. oblivious of the fact that it was deadline time and that we were probably disturbing other editors and reporters who were deep in their stories, fingers on the keyboards, eyes on the screens. but when i looked around, nobody seemed to mind. nor noticed. they were all buried in their own world, in their own stories, thinking about their deadlines.

i continued editing the story. correcting a few grammars, a few spellings. shifting some paragraphs. in doing so, memories of the pope's last visit stayed with me, like an old bertolucci movie. memories of john and even ana surrounded me, swallowed my every waking hour.

while rewriting a few sentences, i was reminded that a month after their graduation, john and ana flew to australia to start a new life. i had not seen them ever since.

a few months after, i received a letter from ana. i could not remember much of about what she wrote. but the most important ones remained carved in my memory.

first, she apologized for taking john away from me. even before we met for lunch, she already knew about my relationship with john. no, she did not trap him into marrying her. in fact, when john asked to end their relationship, she agreed. a month after, she found out that she was pregnant. so she told john about it. john decided that they should get married. later on, he changed his mind. so she asked around, including our landlady. that was how ana learned about john and i. so she decided to let him go.

somehow his mother learned about her situation. probably john's aunt told her about it. the distraught woman asked ana to spend the holidays in their home. ana refused. she didn't want john to think that she was forcing him to marry her.

john's mother assured her that he won't be home. that he would spend the holidays in manila. so she agreed. she needed his mother's advice. she needed her assurance that whatever happened between her and john, she will still be there for her. she was surprised when john picked her up at the airport. it turned out that his mother had other plans. she wanted john to marry her. again, she refused. she only relented when it was john himself who asked her to marry him. so that their child won't be borne out of wedlock.

the letter was a bit long. but that was the gist of her story.

did i believe her? does it still matter?

all i could remember was, after reading her letter, i immediately burned it and flushed the ashes in the toilet. at that time, i was still hurting. it took me years to get over john and even longer to trust and love another man again. in the meantime, i had stories about the pope's visit that i needed to edit and hopefully they would help me exorcise john's and ana's memories forever.

(end)

&&&&&&&&&&&&


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