Essays, Journal

Foreign lands

It was so stupid, really. 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 cook it the way I wanted to because our maid had half-steamed it already. And for some reason, in that moment, I was so upset that I ran up to my bedroom, curled up under the covers, and cried. 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. 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.

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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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Essays, Lost in the World, Photographs

Returns

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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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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