Essays, Journal

Foreign lands

Today, I wanted to roast some cauliflower to snack on and I found out when I looked for it in the refrigerator that I couldn’t do so because our maid had half-steamed it already. And for some reason, in that moment, I felt such an acute despair that I had to run up to my bedroom, curl up under the covers, and cry. It was the most absurd thing to be upset about, and I knew it even at the height of my uncontrollable sobbing. But then, a part of me knew that it wasn’t really the cauliflower I was ugly-crying over. It was just the last little frustration compounding so many greater frustrations, finally pushing me over the edge. That last grain of sand, tipping the scale.

And it was when I realized that I didn’t know who I could possibly talk to about my feelings that I felt even lonelier. I don’t have much of a support system left in this country. And how the hell was I supposed to explain to my boyfriend that I was crying because of a head of cooked cauliflower? How stupid would I sound? But I knew then that it was never about that, and so I messaged him, because one of the things I love best about him is that we’re of such similar backgrounds and temperaments that he’s the person I’ve least had to explain myself to in all my life.

It is hard to come home to a city you no longer recognize. I left Manila cavalierly and essentially put it out of my mind while I was away. What I wasn’t expecting was that it was doing exactly the same to me. The city as I knew it had changed while I was gone, filling in whatever void I left behind with other things. “I came home to a dynamic that changed to accommodate my absence, and it hasn’t adjusted for my return,” I told him. It feels like there is no longer any room for me here. And oddly enough, that’s what I wanted when I left: a clean break from Manila, detachment from the toxic environment that made me so miserable. But I never thought that emancipating myself from the bad would also divorce me from the good.

It’s unbelievably lonely here. I almost never leave my house, let alone my room, because I’m tired of trying to carve out a new space for myself — what’s the point, when I intend to leave again? I don’t go out anymore because the only thing lonelier than being home alone is trying not to be lonely and failing.

I feel like a peg trying to shove myself into the hole I used to occupy, only to find that I am an entirely different shape now, and I can’t find a corresponding slot for myself anywhere on the board. It’s so difficult to go back to being less when you know what it feels like to feel like so much more.

And it doesn’t help that Manila is a shadow of what she was when I left her.

More than the distance and detachment from the people and places I loved — and still love — in it, the city itself has a constant cloud hanging over it. The city as I knew her is just a shade, haunted and haunting. The color has leached out of her brightest of spaces, and the light has gone out of her eyes.

I guess that’s what happens when everyone is living in a state of fear, fury, and distrust.

I had my issues with Manila before I left, but there was always a vibrancy and spirit to it that I loved. I remember us describing it to foreign friends as being dirty but sexy. It was always fun here, at least in the circles I actively chose to run around with. We’d have our drama here and there, but for the most part, we were happy and carefree, and we loved to dance, and we loved to sing along to Robyn in Future. We’d drink on the sidewalks, talking about all manner of things you’d never expect to discuss with near strangers in what is essentially a dive bar in a corner of Cubao.

We still sing along, but it’s not the same. You can feel the climate has changed. Everyone is so subdued — is it because we’re afraid to be too exuberant, lest that exuberance be attributed to being high, lest we be mistaken for drug personalities? We’re all so eccentric to begin with that your average judgmental person — 85% of Filipinos, probably — would find it easy to take one look at us queers and weirdos and feel justified in their judgment. Far more normal people than us have died for being in the wrong place at the wrong time, and in this state of uncertainty, any place could be the wrong place and any time could be the wrong time. Within days of my arrival here, I was already told not to be too friendly with an acquaintance I’ve always been friendly with because this person was rumored to have popped up on a drugs watchlist, and I shouldn’t want to be associated with that. Rumors fly everywhere about who else is a suspect, about who has supposedly turned informant and sold out his friends, and these intrigues chip away more and more at the sense of community the alternative spaces of the city used to have. How true are any of these rumors? How many have been started by people with bad intentions? And yet, you can’t just ignore these things because you need to be smart. You need to look out for yourself.

And when my thoughts turn darkest, I wonder if there aren’t people out there who hate me enough to hurl unfounded accusations at me, too; lies that will be seen as gospel truth in this new world order of guilty until proven innocent, murdered before proven guilty. I tell myself that it’s an overly paranoid thought. I’ve always had a tendency towards anxiety and paranoia; it’s the curse of the oversensitive overthinker, with a side of clinical depression and her fair share of anonymous haters. But if anything, human nature has never been more transparent, and human nature is proving to be cruel and vicious and void of empathy.

That’s the kind of environment we live in now. One in which I can’t be bothered to dance in the club because more often than not the stern-looking bouncers and security personnel standing along the walls, staring at you, number greater than the people on the dance floor, and you just feel judged. So I don’t go out at all. It’s safer at home.

I know this is superficial, and that there are more important things than the city’s nightlife and the city’s sense of fun, but those were among the few things left that I had to love about it, and now they are gone. Whatever camaraderie there used to be is falling away. The parts of Manila that I loved best, the ones I used to escape into, are taking their last gasping breaths and I am watching them die. It is heartbreaking to see such a colorful, fascinating character turn solemn and gray. The atmosphere is funereal and cold. There is so much anger and grief.

If you get me started on the even more important things, I’m going to fall into a black hole that I will not be able to pull myself from. And besides, smarter and more eloquent people than me have written plenty — but apparently never enough. I can’t tell you how profoundly saddening it is to read or hear the appalling opinions of people I thought I knew, only to realize with indescribable disappointment that maybe I never actually knew them at all. It is with incredulity and disgust that I watch and read the news. Every morning, I wake up expecting to hear at least five new fucked up things before breakfast. I am not surprised when that number is exceeded.

I don’t know how to be here anymore. Rationally I know that these things that bother me aren’t going to affect me, but just because I’m safe doesn’t mean that I can be silent, that I can turn a blind eye to those who are affected, who aren’t safe.

The only thing keeping me going is knowing that I am going away to a place that I love, where I am happier, and where the physical distance will enable the detachment that I’m not capable of while I’m here. And I hate that. I’ve never been emotionally strong enough for disillusionment. I want to love this place but I don’t know how.

Essays, Journal

True stories

I knew when I laid my head down at seven in the morning after my first 24 hours in Berlin — to sleep for the first time since arriving, after a night out at Roses with Bobby — that the summer would give me many stories to tell.

I looked forward to telling them here. I looked forward to finally having exciting things to write about; a new and exciting life far from home, populated with fresh and unfamiliar characters whose stories would gradually intertwine with my own. A foreign stage upon which to stage the next act of my life, an act in which I would finally stop being a supporting character in my own narrative and do something interesting.

I never told any of my stories here. I hardly told any of them at all, actually. The whole time I was in Berlin, I almost had to force myself to upload perfunctory photos on Instagram just to reassure loved ones back home that I was actually alive and well. I’d let a few hints slip through about what was going on in my life — a vaguely captioned Instagram photo here, a vaguely worded Facebook status update there. Vague, vague, vague.

But what I realized about my life in Berlin was that it was entirely mine to do with as I pleased — a freedom I hadn’t had the privilege of enjoying before the summer of 2016 — and what I most wanted to do with it was to hold it close to my chest, right by my heart, and keep it sacred.

There are a lot of things I could tell you about my time in Berlin.

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Essays, Lost in the World

No distance left to run

When I can’t find the words or imagery to express how I feel, I turn to film stills. I have hundreds of them saved or screen-captured into a folder on my phone, and over the last year, I’ve watched them gradually turn from quotes about love and loss, to statements about self-discovery, to lines of dialogue about escape in some form or another. (Perhaps it’s a cycle: You lose something of great value to yourself, and there’s a part of you that’s left empty. You try to find something to fill in that void. And if you can’t find it in your existing surroundings, you set out for new ones to search there.)

The need to escape is something many of us feel keenly — an escape from the banality of day-to-day living, from bad company, from a difficult situation, from an uninspiring environment, from ourselves, from all of the above, from all that and more. Some will find that escape in music, or in books, or in binge-watching films and television series and losing themselves in those fictional worlds; checking out of one reality and into another. Some will find escape in creating their own alternate realities. Some will find escape in a bed or in a bottle.

And some will find escape by literally escaping.

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Solo flight

It’s Thursday morning in Berlin, and while I have spent the better part of the last 36 hours sleeping like the dead — I’ve never had a particularly strong immune system, I haven’t exercised regularly in six months if you don’t count dancing, and I’ve always been prone to illnesses triggered by overexerting myself in new climates — I am slowly resurrecting myself.

I messaged my best friend (who is a nurse) in Los Angeles, and both my doctor aunts in Manila to ask what I should do about what appears to be a terrible case of a sore throat (I could literally feel it closing up my airways), and because I know exactly how fragile I am, I actually have the antibiotics onhand and have begun to take them. (Then I messaged Mom with an updated list of medicines to bring me when she and the family come to visit me for my birthday in July.)

Since I’m not allowed to be in close quarters with other human beings for the next 24 hours (and the last thing I want is to make my classmates sick), I’m resuming my household chores. I just took out the trash, and after I write this, I will do the dishes, and then I will make the brief walk to the nearby grocery to quickly stock up on supplies (I always have a running list of things I need or will be needing soon), and then I’ll go to an apotheke and see if there are over-the-counter items I can get to help alleviate my symptoms. Then I’ll go back to bed and read my textbook until I theoretically understand the concepts I need to be physically applying on someone’s face when I go back to school. Then I’ll edit a new cut for my final Pantene video, then I’ll write this week’s Lost in the World. The world doesn’t stop when your immune system does, although in Manila, it would have.

Thankfully, there aren’t that many dishes to do, mostly because I’ve been ill, and when I’m ill, I’m lazy, so on Tuesday, I cooked things that I could make on just one pan: grilled chicken and the morning’s leftover mashed potatoes for lunch, a three-cheese grilled cheese sandwich for dinner; and on Wednesday, my throat was so abominably bad that I made beef and vegetable broth in a pot and kept reheating it and eating it with bread every time I got hungry.

I cook here, which I never do in Manila, and now realize that it’s something I enjoy, even when my body is in pain and rebelling against me. I do my dishes and clean up after myself, because no one else will, and I’ve learned that the Manila status quo of having at least one maid in most households is as foreign in this city as I am (but that’s a story for Lost in the World, maybe this week or next — it’ll be an extended telling of this “brief” update), so no one bats an eye that I have to tend to all of my own needs, because everyone does it here.

Part of me wants to say that I miss my life in Manila — Lisa and Jessica, who will bring me whatever I feel like eating or drinking with a call on the Intercom, and make the laundry disappear and reappear clean, dry, and hung; Robert or Gil, who drive me everywhere I need to go — but I don’t. I miss my mom, of course, but for reasons that don’t involve being babied and taken care of because I’m sick again. (As I’m always sick, this is something I’ve grown accustomed to.) I just miss her because she’s my best friend, and we’re so attuned to each other that her presence in itself is home, makes any place warm and safe.

But I like this life. I like it for many reasons that I will go into eventually, and I have a feeling I will like it for even more reasons once I’ve been here longer than two weeks, but I have absolutely loved everything about living here. Even the getting sick part. I am a shy and solitary creature, and I have really taken to living on my own. It’s been great to prove to myself that I am capable of caring for myself, that I can get myself from Point A to Point B, that I can juggle classes, chores, dancing, sleeping, and quiet evenings chatting with friends over a drink or two. I can be given control; and yes, sometimes I will mismanage that control, but I am capable of handling the fallout and getting back up on my own feet. (And I’m confident that I’ll catch up with everything I’ve missed in class yesterday, and everything I will miss today, because I’m a fast learner.)

I feel like an actual adult for the first time in my adult life, and it’s great, and I feel beyond thankful to have been given this opportunity to learn myself in a city that I love.

There are groceries to do. And more to be done after that. I’ll write again soon.


Essays, Lost in the World, Non-fiction

Extra, extra

“Reg, are you free on Monday?” my Italian friend asks me on Messenger. “Yes, I am, bella. Why?” I reply. “I am trying to help my friend find foreign-looking people to be extras in a teleserye.”

She tells me the talent fee I’ll receive for being in the background for a day (the fee for afams is reportedly P1,000 more than locals get, and because I’m not with an agency, no one gets a cut), and I figure to myself that it isn’t as though I’ll be doing anything anyway, so I may as well make a little pocket money by doing nothing somewhere that isn’t my bedroom. It’s more than I’d make writing a feature for a magazine, and the money is handed over in cold, hard cash immediately after the shoot.

That, and like many others I know, I’ve always had a not-so-secret fantasy about being an artista. (I used to seriously want to audition for Big Brother to see what would happen. “Don’t,” was the advice I received from a friend who was actually a Housemate in one of the Celebrity Editions. “As in, do not. It’s terrible.”) This would be my opportunity to see what that world is really like. For that alone, I just have to say yes.

Our call time is nine in the morning, and upon waking at exactly nine in the morning, I try to back out. “Don’t worry,” I’m told, “these things never start on time; you can still make it.” I arrive at the location — an events venue in Quezon City — at half past 10 and recognize some legitimately foreign friends lounging outside the Sbarro next door. “What’s happening?” I ask. “Nothing yet,” they say, although we have all already made ourselves up and dressed in black. The scene we’re shooting today is a formal-ish function, and we were instructed to dress for a black and white party. The small but air-conditioned changing room — like a glorified Portalet — is set up on the sidewalk by the road, next to the show’s catering service, housed under a rental canopy, and a tent that serves as a holding area for other extras’ things, but not the extras themselves.

At 11:30, we are all antsy. It’s an incredibly hot summer day, and we retreat into Sbarro to enjoy their air-conditioning under the guise of buying drinks. Some of us leave to grab a bite to eat. (They ultimately do not return.)

At 1:30, we find out that taping starts in half an hour, and that we will be expected to remain on set until taping for the day ends. “Sometimes it is just a few hours,” my friend tells me. “Sometimes, it is until early morning.” But one of the main actresses for this particular show has a clause in her contract stating that she will not tape past two in the morning, so at the very least, we know the worst case scenario. This is the point of no return — do I commit the next 12 hours to this endeavor, just to sate my curiosity about what life in showbiz is actually like?

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Essays, Lost in the World, Photographs


Every 27 to 29 years or so, the planet Saturn will have made a complete revolution around the Sun, placing it in the same position that it was in when you were born. This is called Saturn Return — a tumultuous time in your life when you start to get existential crises, when major upheavals begin happening all at once, disrupting the life you were already living, that you thought you were happy with. It will make you doubt yourself. It will force you to reassess every single choice you’ve ever made over the years, everything that’s turned you into the person you are today, and make you wonder if you might have gone wrong somewhere.

Saturn Return will put you through mental and emotional hell, and after this approximately three-year period, there are two ways you can come out of it.

The first possibility is that soldiering through so many trials will cement your current path, whatever that path is. Making it through the struggle is what proves to you beyond the shadow of a doubt that this is who you are, this is what you want to do, this is your life. And this certainty, this clarity, this comfort, you fought hard for it, and it’s what will light the fire in you that will keep you going. You were right all along, so you can throw yourself completely into your life, confident in that knowledge.

Lucky you.

Because in contrast, the second possibility is that all of the questioning and self-doubt will bring you to the realization that you don’t want the life you’re living anymore. The person you are now isn’t the person you want to be — it’s the person you thought you wanted to be. The dreams you used to dream aren’t the same any longer. And this is understandably terrifying because you’ve spent the better part of your youth working towards becoming who you are, only to discover that it doesn’t feel right, and you don’t know what does.

All you know for sure is that you need a change. You’re on the brink of 30, and instead of finding security like you thought you would, everything has fallen apart. Suddenly you have to figure out who you’re supposed to be. And then you have to put that person together somehow.

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Bruce Weber, Love & Adios, 2000
Essays, Journal

Forever, always

We drive through the expanse of undeveloped space, mostly empty save a few mausoleums already built. I ride shotgun, as I always do. “God, look at that one,” I say, pointing out the gaudiest, most self-important offense to the Renaissance era (or maybe Baroque; I am bad at art history) that I have ever laid eyes on. It stands out in the darkness, it stands out among the small number of minimalist mausoleums (some almost brutalist in their minimalism; a simplicity that appeals to me) that are scattered around the memorial park.

Completely lit chandeliers, marble (maybe marble) pillars, gilded cherubs on every corner — ostentation at its most ostentatious, saying without needing the words that the dead who occupy it and the living who inevitably will join them likely consider themselves royalty, or similar. Surname etched in huge gold-engraved serif above the entrance, Greco-Roman. “Ah, I’m not surprised.”

I decided long ago that I never want to be buried. It’s something we discussed, often jokingly, around the Sacred Table on a few occasions: what we wanted our funerals to be like. (“Nobody’s allowed to be happy at my wake because I’m dead. Everybody needs to be fucking crying and miserable. I’m dead.“) In keeping with the sanctity of our Sacred Table, I will only tell you what I finally decided upon, which is partly a joke (although if there is any possibility of it becoming reality, then I take that back, please make it happen): I want something like a viking funeral.

I would like to be as beautifully decked out as Padmé Amidala laying in her funeral boat at the end of Revenge of the Sith, except not floating down a river, but out on the ocean somewhere. Without a flower crown. (My friend Karlo says I should be dressed in Dior couture, but that’s Karlo for you, and it would be a waste of a thing of beauty — and money. I’ve never been keen on designer goods. The only labeled things I own are a few purses and my mother’s Fendi shoes that are older than my youngest brother, which she bought because she was told Princess Diana owned the same pair. But I digress.) Then, I want a flaming arrow fired onto the boat (or my ideally still beautiful corpse, probably doused in kerosene), and I want to burn into the sea. Like Frigga in Thor: The Dark World, except I won’t fall out into the empty silence of space because the Earth is not flat.

I am not sure if there will be major environmental repercussions should this actually occur, and if there will be, then I suppose I’d like to just be cremated and have my ashes scattered into the ocean, which I love, or spread out in the soil beneath a strong tree that will hopefully get to live another century, but what I know for certain is that I do not want to be buried in a traditional manner. I do not want a tombstone with my name and dates of birth and death on it. I don’t want a quote of some sort beneath that basic information that says nothing about the person I was or the life I lived, but that’s probably because I would never be able to decide on a quote. None of that.

“It just takes up space,” I tell Joseph. (Because who else is in the driver’s seat but my best friend?) “If I’m already dead, then I don’t want to take up any more space that I won’t even need. How much bigger will the population become by then? How necessary will that space be for someone actually living? It seems…egotistical in a way. I don’t really feel the need to be remembered. If I’m going to be remembered, I’m going to be remembered in different ways, by the people who really matter, and you won’t need my rotting corpse in a box to do that. And if I’m forgotten, life’s life; someday, the Sun will become a black hole and none of this will have been for anything. So I’m just going to think about now.” I don’t know if the word for what I am is fatalistic, nihilistic, or something else entirely. I get the feeling my shrink might think I have taken the principle of being in the present just a tad too far.

I think of Shelley’s “Ozymandias.” Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!

I think of the movie Troy — yes, the Brad Pitt one — where Achilles is told by his mother that, should he remain home, he will live a wonderful life, but will eventually be forgotten. Should he sail to Troy to fight with the Greeks, he will never see home again, but his story will become legend, and his name will survive the ages. We all know what he picked.

I steel myself for the evening as we come closer to where we are supposed to be. “Never married, never buried. That will be me, that will be my thing.”

Lately, as age has crept up on me, I’ve begun to worry that I may never fall in love. (I have loved, deeply, but feel as though I have never fallen in love, been in love, and there’s a difference. I’ve never known the kind of love that consumes; the kind you live and die for. The kind that you just know is right, even when things are going wrong. The One. I wonder sometimes if all the books have lied to me, but my friends say no.) The romantic in me despairs at the possibility. The pragmatist already has a long list of very logical reasons as to why a significant other is more of a complication than a necessity. (“Just give me a Eurasian grandchild,” my mother has implored in all seriousness at every possible occasion. I think it’s why they’re sending me to Berlin for three months.)

But I digress. Again.

Joseph and I, we finally arrive at our destination: the wake of a friend, who happens — happened, happened, God, I cannot bring myself to write it in the past tense — to be the love of another friend’s life. The pain of such a thing is unfathomable to me. The unfairness of it. I force myself to inhabit an emotional space I cannot quite describe: I try to stay still, I try to stay distant, I make myself pleasant, because I know myself too well. The part of me that is all heart is breaking for these people that I love so much, but to cry, to show that kind of emotion, would be the most selfish thing I could possibly do in a situation like this.

It is not my place. It is not my right. Not here. Not now.

At a wake, you come to comfort. You come to give support, or whatever the bereaved need from you. You come to pay your respects.

You come to remember.

You come to say goodbye.

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1024px IMG_0499
Essays, Journal, Non-fiction


It is July 2015.

I am in Berlin for my 28th birthday, crashing on a friend’s couch for the next 12 days. I’m on my own across the world from my parents, something I’ve never been allowed to do before now, but I’ve never really been allowed to do a good number of things by Millennial standards anyway, so it’s a gift I appreciate all the more. (I suppose getting your heart broken and your pride wrecked by someone who gave you the idea that he wanted to be more than a summer fling does have its perks.)

The feeling is like being underage and getting drunk for the first time: like I’m doing something I’m not supposed to, and it’s the best thing ever. Except this time, I’m doing it with a lot less guilt and no fear, because there will be no repercussions — no one is watching; I don’t know anyone here. I can do whatever I want, and there is no place for doing that quite like this city.

No one watches in Berlin. No, that is wrong. They glance, and then look away politely; they do not document, and they do not judge. There’s a respect for privacy and individuality here that I never thought possible, which is unsurprising because Manila is the polar opposite, and Manila is the only place I’ve ever truly known. In Manila, there are no strangers. There are whispers, and whispers spread like wildfire, so you tread carefully.

In Manila, you either disappear or do your best to fit in, which is essentially the same thing. There’s this homogeneity to it. Ironically, despite the need to blend into the wallpaper, there is also a need to be seen, but not necessarily for who you are, unless who you are fits into the preferred social mold. If it doesn’t, you trim bits of yourself off until you do. So many give up personalities to become Personalities. Go where everyone goes. Wear what everyone wears. Do what everyone does. So pretty, so clean, so #GOALS. But it is all surface, surface, surface.

I came from a time less policed, when people felt more comfortable baring their souls to strangers who would eventually become real friends, which is probably why I still sometimes do, although things have changed considerably since then. But I have no right to judge if those who came after that era choose not to make themselves vulnerable; that is their prerogative, as this is mine. And perhaps theirs is the better choice in the end; there is less of them available for scrutiny, for judgment, for the condemnation of strangers who will most certainly not be your friends. But almost everything is so thoroughly sanitized. We present only the best of ourselves, the idealized and aspirational, and it turns into a never-ending cycle of everyone else trying to do the same thing: bury our grit in the dirt and pretend at perfection. It’s safer that way.

Berlin is gritty, and it is dirty, and it is all the more breathtaking for it, and within 12 hours of landing exhausted at Berlin Tegel, taking a quick nap, grabbing a bite, and being dragged out by friends to two clubs thinking that not wearing a bra under my backless tank top might be the most scandalous thing I have ever publicly done — my God, it’s nothing here — I already know I will leave this place irrevocably changed, because for the first time in my life, I am going to be allowed to learn — or decide, or discover — who I am, what I really want, and what kind of person I am capable of becoming outside of Manila’s gilded limits, in a place where everyone is free. The cage is open; I am about to fly.

No, that is the wrong metaphor. The abyss is before me; I am about to jump.

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Essays, Non-fiction


“What is it like?” she asks me.

“What is what like?” I ask back, not understanding.

We are in Starbucks, decidedly not having coffee cognoscenti-approved third wave beverages. I sip on my very basic mocha frappuccino with absolutely zero shame and plenty calories. (It’s cheat day anyway. On cheat day, you are allowed to cheat not only on your diet, but on your high-brow pretensions as well.)

For some reason, real talk is easier in Starbucks. There are so many of them these days that you’re unlikely to run into anyone you know, and depending on the branch of your choosing and the time of your visit, it can be so crowded with the noise of strangers that you need not worry about anyone overhearing — let alone caring about — anything particularly sordid or sensitive that you intend to discuss.

“What is it like? Well. You know.” There is the shrug of shoulders and a quick quirk of the head. “Spending your entire adult life trying to figure out who you are and what you want, and finally getting there,” she replies. “It must be pretty damn good, right?”

I laugh at her incredulously. “Mel, I’m not even 29 yet. If I’m at all lucky, I still have some time to go, and a hell of a lot to learn.” There is a lot of world yet to see, and even more than that to experience, and I feel as young and wide-eyed as I ever have, except with more of the freedoms that come with age, and I may not look it or feel it, but I am aging.

I pause to think. It is not an easy question to answer. “It depends, I guess,” I tell her. She arches a perfectly groomed eyebrow at me. “‘It depends’? The hell kind of answer is that? What does that even mean? ‘It depends.’” She rolls her eyes.

“It depends on what you find yourself becoming, in the end, and how easy or otherwise it is to continue to be that,” I reply.


“It’s the best and worst thing in the world,” I say, “to start to determine for certain who you are, who you want to become, and what you want your life to be like. Because once you hit that point, there’s no going back.”

The look on her face is quizzical. “Why would you want to go back? Isn’t it a good thing, to definitively know who you are?” she asks me.

For her benefit, I try to give myself an approximation of the Manhattan once-over for emphasis. “Look at me. Do you have any idea how difficult it is to be different here on a superficial level, let alone in terms of principle? To, I dunno, swim against the current with the knowledge that it would be infinitely easier for someone like me to just go with the flow and become what everyone thinks and expects I should be, yet also knowing that to do so would kill me inside?” I ask her in return. “I’ve tried. I’ve tried to be that girl. It’s for other people, but it’s not for me.”

She laughs. “You and your Goth/fetish aesthetic,” she jokes, glancing at the leather collar I’ve taken to wearing lately. “Yeah, name five other people we know who can pull this look off,” I smirk back at her.

Sometimes I think I am resigned to this, to always being the oddball. Sometimes I resent myself for it, for not trying harder to realign myself and my interests and my attitudes, for not trying harder to fit in. I resent myself for the isolation I feel; the loneliness. (“He said you had too many issues for him,” I was once told by a friend about another friend with whom I had briefly shared a mutual attraction. And at first, it hurt like hell to hear — would I ever have a chance at love? would I have to make myself basic for it? — but when I was composed enough to think, I realized, who doesn’t have issues? Ours were likely just as incompatible as we were, and all the better to have discovered this early on.)

When I look past the internal conflict, though, mostly I am content. I have compromised, in some ways, as we all must, but I have never truly compromised myself.

“I’ve spent the greater majority of my adult life warring with expectations, real and imagined,” I tell her. “One time, I was at this very Starbucks with my friend and former co-worker Irish, and we got to talking about our time at Cosmo, and she straight up told me, ‘Mads, we always used to wonder why you were even there in the first place. Why did a girl like you even have to work? And you worked so hard, and never let anyone help you.’” I laugh, mix my fast-melting drink with my straw, and take a sip. “That’s just one of the things people thought of me — entitled little Daddy’s girl, which of course I sometimes am, but when you give me a job to do, nobody will do it better. Others thought I’d run straight to Dad and get a cushy job at the newspaper handed to me, which is the last thing I wanted, so I applied to Summit after graduation without anyone’s knowledge and worked my way up from the bottom for years.”

“And you’ve avoided politics like the plague,” she adds.

“Like the fucking plague! Yes!” I exclaim, laughing. “There was a point where I could have still been molded for that, but those years have passed, and nobody would ever vote for this anymore.” I am a little too strange now, a little too immovable, a little too uncompromising. Far too idealistic. Politics would destroy my spirit more than society ever could, and society has done enough.

I nick her fork and take a bite from her slice of Oreo cheesecake. “Is it so rich girl problems?” I ask her.

She smiles at me sadly. “To people who don’t understand, and most don’t, or won’t even try to because they can’t fathom that people like you have the right to have issues, yes,” she replies. “But you understand, right? You understand that this is the context you were born into. You didn’t choose it; this is the subset of planet Earth that you just happened to materialize in, and you’re only doing what you can with your life and everything you’ve been given. You just happen to be lucky to have been given a lot, and you can’t be blamed for that.”

I look down at the palms of my hands, and promptly press my face into them, grateful beyond belief that someone gets it. I feel her hand rubbing circles on my back. “You feel guilty, don’t you?” she asks me. “That’s the worst part, isn’t it? You feel guilty for being born into the world — the life — you were born into; something you had no control over. You feel guilty for things you shouldn’t feel guilty for.”

I turn to face her and look her straight in the eye. I am trying not to cry, but I’ve always been terrible at that. “Mel, I’m clinically depressed and I’ve never felt lonelier in my life, but at the same time, I wouldn’t trade this life for anything in the world,” I tell her. “Because it’s mine. Because I’ve done what I could with it. Because I actually get to choose what to do with it from this point on.”

(Photograph: Joseph Pascual)

Essays, Non-fiction


In the early 2000s, it would be the flashing of the bottom-most light on our intercom — my personal line, indicating a call — that would set my heart to racing. Only a handful of people ever knew that number for the thirteen years it existed, and for the life of me, I can’t remember why my parents even gave me my own landline to begin with when the advent of cell phones had already begun. But it would be that light, blinking, and I’d know there was a conversation ahead with someone who meant something to me.

I can no longer remember what it was like to talk for hours upon hours on the telephone, like I used to almost daily for years. Nobody does that anymore. What did we talk about, when we still used to talk?

Ten years later, advancements in technology changed the art of communication completely and my landline went mostly unused, partly because smartphones and the Internet made messaging more efficient than long chats on the phone, and partly because I had parted ways forever with the person who last used that number.

I use R2-D2 ringtones on my iPhone for receiving messages because I am a proud nerd, and also because so few other people do that I almost always know it’s my phone ringing.

The first is a frantic string of beeps and bloops — Artoo sounding adorably panicked — that I’ve set specifically for members of my immediate family. ‘R2-D2: Curt,’ it’s called. It’s the perfect choice for them, because they typically only text me when it’s important, and theirs are the messages I can never miss, never ignore, and never not reply to unless I want to get into more trouble than I’m already in, so the sense of urgency I’m immediately launched into upon hearing that particular tone is ideal. It puts me right in the “Oh shit, what have I done now?” mindset — I am instantly ready for action, or snap into the creative writing zone I need to be in so that I can come up with a logical, reasonable explanation for whatever it is I’ve done wrong. (Usually it has something to do with my curfew, which I believe has finally been abolished.) I remember when my brother still had a BlackBerry, and the indicator light in the corner would flash in multiple colors every time it was Mom messaging or calling, like mini disco lights. “It’s so I know it’s you and I can start freaking out,” was the logic behind it, just like mine, though I get the feeling he received far more angry text messages typed out in capslock than I ever did. (And probably still does.)

The second is a fairly standard series of R2-D2 chirps; cute, brief, and cheerful. ‘R2-D2: Happy.’ It’s the tone I use for everyone else, and it is what it is: functional, pleasant, and nondescript. It could be anyone, it could be anything.

And there is a third one that I only used once, and have not since. It is called ‘R2-D2: Tri-tone,’ but the name doesn’t do it justice. It is three happy notes, bright, excited, and thrilled; precisely the way I would feel every time I would hear it. The only time I ever used it was for a boy, and the sound of it would send a jolt up my spine. I imagine I must have had the dumbest smile plastered onto my face every time it would beep from my purse or pocket, but I just loved hearing that tone and knowing that there was something waiting for me from him, even if it was only a hello or a how are you? It made me light-headed, like a schoolgirl with a crush. (I certainly wasn’t a schoolgirl, but I did have a crush.) “O, who is that? It’s him, no?” Raymond or Milan used to say in the office on closing days, when I’d zone out of work and zoom onto my screen with a self-satisfied little smirk on my lips, fingers tapping out a snappy reply. I would just smile back at them after hitting send.

The last time that tone beeped was when I got The Message from him — the digital equivalent of The Talk, the one every girl dreads, the formal apology and the ending of the affair. And after that, I set his tone to the same one I used for everyone else, and he became just like everyone else again, too. Anyone, anything. No one, nothing. I didn’t realize how much that small action would hurt until I actually had to do it, but it hurt, like having hopes dashed, like defeat, like potential gone kinetic, then come to an abrupt and unexpected stop.

And the silence afterwards was deafening.

I briefly toyed with the idea of using that tone again for the next one who seemed like he was serious (for some reason, it’s when you transition from online messaging applications to actual text messaging — even though iMessage is essentially the same thing — that things start to feel a little more serious), but I had since learned caution, and in the end, that lesson paid off. It was one less hurt to handle when that, too, came to a sudden, unforeseen end.

It has lain dormant among my selection of sounds for almost two years now. Part of me thinks I may never use it again. But the smaller part that still knows what it is like to hope is just quietly waiting for someone who will deserve those three utterly delighted notes, that much joy.

(Illustration: Ralph McQuarrie)