It’s been a while, I know.
Staring at my screen now, with my fingertips on the keys for the first time in almost a year, I realize that it’s because this — the written word, this space — has always been where I am most vulnerable, and I have not wanted to be vulnerable. Vulnerability is an exhausting, terrifying quality to possess in a world like the one we live in now.
The last thing I wanted was to make myself vulnerable again.
Experience has taught me that it never ends well.
It is a year to the day since I learned I’d been cheated on. Mayon Volcano erupted this morning, something I took as a sign that it was finally the right time to write again.
I want so badly to be able to write this without referencing my heartbreak of 2017, but that makes no sense. How do you write about recovering from something without mentioning that something, that someone? You can’t. I can’t.
I want so badly to free him from my narrative, because he hasn’t been in my life for nearly a year now, but that’s impossible, because he will always be part of my narrative, and the loss of him, his absence, the emptiness he left in his wake, and all the hurt, figured so significantly in the year that was my year.
That is the nature of life, I suppose. It is the nature of stories, of interpersonal relations and their endings. It is the nature of writing, and one of the perils of dating a chronic oversharer who has made words her living from the age of seventeen.
“You own everything that happened to you,” says Anne Lamott in her Instructions on Writing and Life. “Tell your stories. If people wanted you to write warmly about them, they should have behaved better.” I’ve lived by those words since the day I read them. I’ve been living by them since before that, really.
You’re always going to be a character in my story now.
Oddly enough, I’m far enough removed from the heartbreak to wish that I’d written the happier stories, too. I began journaling in earnest in January 2017, right at the height of the decline, when everything seemed to be going so wrong. As a result, I have what is probably the most complete record ever of the death of a relationship, but no written record of the good things that birthed it in the first place. That record exists now only in fading memories that I’m finally capable of looking back on with some measure of fondness instead of resentment. However badly it all ended (and it ended so, so badly), it was good, too, when it was good. It occurs to me now that we went from the honeymoon straight to the divorce, and never actually got the chance to experience the relationship.
I wish I had records of the process of falling in love, just like I have records of the process of crashing headlong out of it. If only to serve as evidence that I was actually — and may someday again be — capable of falling in love.
It is February 4th, 2017, and I am in El Nido with my family, though you’d never be able to tell from the photos I have of the day because I essentially turned the vacation into a personal photo shoot, and my mother was only too happy to oblige. They say the best revenge is living well, and this fresh off a breakup, looking good is great supplementary vengeance. Look what you just threw away, it says. You dumbass.
I don’t know why I miss him when we spent more time apart than we did together, I write in my journal. Nothing has really changed, but it still feels like everything has changed. I am not feeling particularly healed by the sea.
Mom and I are having late night massages in a cabana on the edge of the island, overlooking the water, when I hear my message alert tone go off.
Unbelievably, unexpectedly, it’s from the last boy who broke my heart. (The one Thermodynamics and Intimacy were written for.) It is an apology, nearly two years later. Unable to process this while also processing the latest disruption in my love life, it takes me a few days to finally compose a reply.
I want the same things for you that I always have, I write to him. For you to find what you seek, especially if it’s peace. If you’re on your way there, keep going towards happiness, with my forgiveness and my well wishes. I only hope for the best for you always.
And I mean it. I mean every word. There is a part of me that can’t believe that I do, but I do.
In many ways, it’s this boy who drove me into the tailspin that landed me in Berlin by myself in the first place, and what essentially also got me there the next time around, which was when I met my ex-boyfriend. His breaking of my heart was the tipping point of my disappointment with Manila and my life in it, a disappointment that had been growing and growing and growing until he became the final straw.
(Months later when I am better than I’ve ever been in probably my entire life, my mother will tell me that she thinks my ex was really just a rebound, and that this boy was the one I was rebounding from. I find the idea a little ludicrous and I disagree, but that is how bad that first heartbreak appeared from the outside. “When you were at your worst, after him, you looked so empty, like nothing in the world could ever make you happy,” she’ll tell me in late 2017, around Christmastime. “I was so scared.”)
I don’t know where I find this forgiveness, where it comes from. I think, perhaps, it’s because I’ve just been devastated by someone I actually truly gave myself to, in a way I never did with him. I never gave him my trust, or all of my heart. But I gave those things to Tom. And the scale of it, the exponentially greater difference between that old hurt and this new hurt, gives me clarity and perspective. I think it might be because it’s been a very long time since 2015. I don’t know, I just know that it is there.
But what it does is that it makes me realize that I’m capable of forgiving. And there is a small part inside me that hopes that I can feel this way about my ex-boyfriend someday, too. Sooner rather than later.
Nobody wants to be hurt forever. Especially not me; I’ve been hurt enough.
I returned to the Philippines in August of 2016 with the intention of going back to Berlin in 2017 to be with him. We had discussed timelines before I left, and although I knew it would be exceedingly difficult, if not impossible, I said I would try to be back by February. He wanted me back earlier but February was the best I could promise, and even when I said it, I already had a feeling it might not be within the realm of possibility. (That’s the stupid thing about me: I always bend over backwards for the people I love, even when there isn’t an inch left for my body to give. Then all I do is break.)
And so, when I came home, I lived in suspended animation.
It was hibernation, in a sense, although I was physically awake the whole time. In my mind, it was like I was sleeping until I could wake again in February and resume the life I was hoping to lead after the winter. I wanted to wake to springtime.
I only halfheartedly tried to pick up where I left off in Manila. It wasn’t made particularly easier by the fact that everyone and everything I had left behind for three months seemed to have left me behind, too. My closest friends were gone, or too busy for me, and I couldn’t be bothered to try harder to reconnect. A new president was elected while I was abroad, and it felt like the very air I was breathing had changed; the energy of the city was different, somber, solemn, mournful. After so much joy and so much life in Germany, Manila felt funereal in comparison.
I shuffled through my days aimlessly, unproductively. I had so much time on my hands and yet I could not be bothered to do anything with it. Nothing creative, nothing physical. I couldn’t be spurred to any kind of movement; I just inhabited space and barely existed. What would be the point of trying to set roots again, when I fully intended to uproot myself in five months anyway?
That was my biggest mistake.
My head and my heart were already living so far in the future — a future that didn’t even exist yet — that it made the present a misery to live through. The present was just another obstacle in the way of my future happiness.
It was a hard punch to the gut when I realized that the future I spent months looking forward to would never exist at all. And I found myself even more lost than I was before, with nowhere to go and no idea what to do next.
That is the problem with being so obsessed with the future: You miss all of the present. And when that future never comes to pass, you realize how much time you wasted looking forward to nothing. It’s a mistake I made that I will never make again.
Be present. Be here, now, wherever you are. Be right here.
In April, I finally unpack the suitcase that was still packed with clothes for Berlin, and I begin to travel.
With nowhere to go and nothing to do, I decide to allow the winds to take me where they will. It’s a luxury that I’m grateful I am able to afford. I will finally do what I haven’t been doing: I’m going to live, not just exist.
I am going to be stuck in the Philippines again, indefinitely this time, and I don’t want to fall back into depression. Lord knows I already learned how hard it was to climb out of it — and only barely at that — the last time. So I have to make Manila good for me. I tell myself I’ll go out more, try to go to more places, and if my old friends are gone, then I’ll try to make some new ones, or make new friends of old casual acquaintances. I promise to say yes more often, especially to new experiences, especially to things that scare me.
So, I say yes when a longtime acquaintance, Valerie, offers me a bed in her and her friends’ hostel room for an upcoming La Union weekend after I mention wanting to go. I say yes when my business partner, Mikhail, invites me to his birthday on an island in Coron the weekend after that weekend. (Confirmed attendance to Mikhail’s birthday, God help us, I write in my journal towards the end of March.)
I just want to be somewhere new. I want to have something to be excited about again, but something within reach this time. Am I running from the heartbreak? Maybe. Yes.
I experience my first 13-hour car ride with virtual strangers, and by the end of it and all the shenanigans along the way, we become friends. I dance on a table at Flotsam and Jetsam after having tequila poured into my mouth by my friends from Future, sing a few songs live at a La Union bar (accompanied on guitar by Tony, and egged on by the vice mayor of San Juan, La Union, of all people), establish new in-jokes, babysit some of the legendary La Union kids while listening to Raimund Marasigan play Eraserheads hits, fall in love with the song “Operator,” and realize that I’ve found a friend for life in Val, who until now was only ever someone I’d say hi to on the dance floor.
And it dawns on me as I watch the sunset with Val that this is the first time in weeks that I don’t miss him at all.
But the island, it changes everything.
I don’t know what it is about Camp Ngey Ngey that makes it so amazing, and I don’t think I’d be able to explain the magic of it if I tried. Run by Tao Philippines, it’s described as a Robinson Crusoe-style getaway. A resort that isn’t a resort; guests sleep in bamboo huts without air conditioning, bathe in bamboo enclosures with either a dipper or a makeshift shower, and eat all their meals together in the Ngey Kusina, family-style, where the Tao Lost Boys manning the kitchen cook the catch of the day, among other delicious and unexpected variations on Filipino food. There is only electricity from (I think) six in the evening to eight in the morning. It’s beautiful there, barely touched. The people of Tao allow the island to speak for itself; the structures they erect build on the natural beauty of the place, they are never an obstruction or an intrusion.
What you do with your time on that island is entirely up to you. Some of us explore the two house reefs. Some hang out and converse in the shade of the Yoly House, in hammocks or on cushions. We fan ourselves in the intense summer heat with abanicos that have #30 printed on them, the 0 replaced with Mikhail’s face. (The hand fans are Val’s and my gift to Mikhail, and they’re a hit with all the guests.) Some play beach volleyball: Europe vs. the Lost Boys. Some kayak or paddle-board. We converge in different permutations, until the evenings when we all come together for drinks and dancing because Mikhail doesn’t only curate great guest lists, he also curates music. We wade in the shallows at night, not sure if we should be looking up at the impossibly bright stars or at the bio-luminescent plankton glowing in the water around our ankles.
I am up for the sunrise on my last Ngey Ngey morning, and it feels like a rebirth. It’s the most beautiful thing I have seen in a long time, and somewhere in my heart, there is a certainty that everything will be okay.
I knew only a handful of the 35 or so people on the trip when I set foot on the island, and only a few of that handful with any familiarity, but I leave Mangenguey with new friends, severe separation anxiety, a sunburn, and the feeling that something in my life has just fundamentally shifted.
Unbelievably grateful to be discovering new places with new people, growing as a person, and falling back in love with my life and my country, I write on my last night at Camp Ngey Ngey, and it’s a sentiment that will find itself repeated over and over and over as the months go by.
Summer began in earnest then, and it hasn’t stopped since.
Today was the day I would have returned to the Philippines had my trip to Berlin pushed through, I write on May 10th. I find myself oddly grateful that it didn’t, I guess because the circumstances really forced me to make the most of my time here, which taught me to enjoy Manila again. It’s hard to appreciate a place when you are pining for another. It’s hard to open yourself to others when you are pining for someone else. I went to new places, I met new people, I did many things, I laughed a lot, I still danced like a madwoman, I loved, I was loved. I am happy.
Travels follow in rapid succession in May — Hong Kong the week after Ngey Ngey, then Batangas for a raucous weekend with the island crew, then Balesin with my family, book-ended by pool parties and dinners and drinks with my new friends, who are quickly becoming fixtures in my life. In June, we go to Siargao, and to Batangas again.
It’s hard to make new friends when you are older. You make a lot of acquaintances, certainly, but real friendships are harder to establish. It’s not often that you find the opportunity to really connect on levels beyond the superficial, which is why I find myself grateful to Mikhail for having given us that opportunity. Some of the people in my new group are people I’ve been on hi-hello terms with forever. Some are totally new faces. But all of them have fit so seamlessly into my life that it is hard to imagine they weren’t there before. And we all feel the same about each other: there is something about us that just works.
It’s the first time I’ve had a girl gang (plus a few honorary girls) in forever. The boys are taking bets on when the friendship will blow up, because apparently all female friendships implode, but I have a feeling it won’t. I think it will only get stronger.
The space that was empty inside me, it fills up again slowly with love. I read somewhere that the glass is neither half empty nor half full; it is always refillable. I believe that now.
In June, I was asked by an editor friend to write about how traveling healed my broken heart. I toyed with the idea, because I already considered writing exactly that story before anyone wanted it for publication in a magazine. I said yes, tentatively, but ultimately didn’t go through with it because in my heart of hearts, I knew I hadn’t fully healed yet.
Maybe it’s my Sagittarius ascendant — the way I present myself to the world (and if my ex were to read this he’d probably roll his eyes because he always made fun of my love for astrology) — but there is a part of me that always needs to put up a strong, confident front. It’s why I gave myself a deadline — the end of February — for being publicly sad about my breakup. Only one month! Looking back on it now, it was a stupid idea. I was so caught up in how I thought I should recover, I never gave a thought to how I needed to recover. I kept telling myself that a strong woman, which is what I purported to be, would be back on her feet quickly. So I carried myself with as much bravado as I could muster. And while fake it ’til you make it was actually a pretty effective recovery mechanism, in hindsight, I wish I had been kinder to myself.
It is not embarrassing to have feelings. It is not embarrassing to need time to process those feelings and to move past them. Take as much time as you need; there is no timer counting down on healing, and it’s different for everyone. He bounced back much faster than I did, and I was angry at myself about it for a while, but then I realized I was being unnecessarily cruel to myself. Don’t think about what anyone else thinks of you; just feel what you feel. Ride that wave out until the very end. Recovery is not a competition. Sadness doesn’t make you weak, emotion doesn’t make you weak, and holding your feelings inside only keeps them trapped within you longer.
I came to that realization in July, when, in the Museum of Broken Relationships in Croatia, I wrote in the confessional book (in Filipino) — and finally admitted to myself for the first time — that I still loved him, and that a part of me probably always would. Maybe I only loved an idea of him. Maybe just the version of him that I knew, who might not even be him at all, really. I loved that figment of the imagination all the same. We clearly weren’t meant for each other, and it wouldn’t have worked out in the end, and he hurt me more than anyone had ever hurt me before, but that didn’t mean that I couldn’t still love him in some manner.
That’s when I finally began to let go. Releasing that feeling, that truth, if only in writing, released me, too. It set me free.
And I promised myself I would never again be ashamed of love, even if it was love for people who didn’t deserve it. It takes a lot of love to love people like that. It seems like there is too little of it in the world, but in truth, love is the only resource that is infinite.
Val and I crash Paolo’s Hong Kong business trip — and his hotel room — in August. We go on a second trip to Ngey Ngey for Halloween, and then to Pangasinan in November for Camila’s birthday. We start making plans for Wonderfruit in December. And on November 17th, when I am settled into Manila again, it dawns on me that it has been a year since the last time I saw him. It is exactly a year since the last time I kissed him, when I kissed him goodbye. I didn’t know then that it would be for the last time.
God, time flies by so fast.
I think about the year that I’ve had. I have loved it beyond belief. It has been the best year I’ve ever lived, and I’ve never been happier in my life. And I realize that things turned out as they were meant to. I am exactly where I am supposed to be. It is not where I was expecting — I could never in a million years have imagined this — and I am not with who I was expecting to be with, but everything is right. Everything turns out alright in the end, it’s just that it doesn’t always come to pass in the ways that you hope for or expect.
His selfishness gave me all of this. No, that’s wrong. His selfishness was the catalyst that allowed me to give this to myself.
And I forgive him. I finally forgive him.
It is a year to the day since I learned I’d been cheated on. Oddly enough, the predominant feeling is one of gratitude, because the last 365 days taught me the extent of my strength and resilience. They showed me that I was capable of survival, and the knowledge that I’ve been there before and made it through will always get me back on my feet. This year taught me how to be present, how to enjoy my life, how to build a life wherever I am.
And this year taught me the value of time. I spent a lot of time running away. I thought that going to new, far-off places would fix me, and as I’ve always been an escapist, I ran in so many different ways that weren’t just physical. But the thing is, time is the true distance. You can never run far enough. You can only wait.
And I’ve finally waited long enough.