05 May 2014

Jolly A


A friend of mine died a few days ago. Let’s call him A. The last time I saw him alive was November in Bangkok. He already had cancer then. Just as I was coming up to his hotel room to give him a copy of the final season of Breaking Bad, A’s wife met me at the lobby to say that something had come up, and could I help wheel him to the emergency room? Bumrungrad was literally across the road, on Sukhumvit Soi 3—a five-minute walk, max; A had in fact chosen the hotel precisely for its proximity to the hospital. But so many times I’d seen him clench his teeth in pain when the chair did so much as protrude slightly or hit a pebble. With calamitous nerves I agreed to take him, only to have his niece—plucky blue-eyed Tiffany—volunteer and take the handle.

A was sixty-four. His body was cremated yesterday at a Thai Buddhist temple. He was from Swaffham, in the English county of Norfolk. Sometime in the late eighties he founded a perfume company and, with it, achieved success at a level that I hadn’t even been aware of until now, when stories of a life are being told, when memories of a man are being remembered through tears; A would certainly have been the last to brag. Anyway, six or seven years ago he moved to the Philippines and met a young woman whose delicate beauty deceives: she happens to be one of the strongest I know. They got married in 2010 in Dumaguete before moving to Davao City, close to a thousand miles south of Manila, in a quiet little village called Morningside Heights. A, who called me “Migsy Boy,” always offered to put me up whenever I visited. He loved slices of dalandan with his sangria and was the one who introduced me to French pastis. In summer days when the heat grew extra prickly he brought out the extra fan and placed it in my room, or insisted that we watch some TV. “What the fuck are you doing in there anyway?” he would say in the crunchiest way possible. “Come out of your fucking sauna and sit with me for a while.”

I came to find the owner of this mouth endearing. A was in fact quite jolly, and in the short time—too short!—that I knew him he looked after me like a father would a son, never mind that his style of taking to and caring for people was laced with profanity and guarded to the point of often going unnoticed. But A must have known me better than he had let on, which I began to suspect when he once joked that I seemed “intelligent but too unstable.” Plans to get together again were made when two years ago he and his wife moved to a southern coastal province in Vietnam called Nha Trang, but the diagnosis kind of put all of that on hold. The cancer progressed very quickly, and by the time I finally saw A in Thailand (they had come to take advantage of the excellent facilities in Bangkok) the doctors had already prescribed morphine pills.

There’s a saying somewhere about how friends are the family you choose. In this sense A was part of my small family, so it is with deep sadness that I pray for the soul of this good fellow to rest in peace. 

14 April 2014

Summertime

But I can’t help remembering the first conversation you and I had, the first meaningful conversation. We must have been six years old. What the actual words were I don’t recall, but I know I was unburdening my heart to you, telling you everything about myself, all my hopes and longings. And all the time I was thinking, So this is what it means to be in love! Because — let me confess it — I was in love with you. And ever since that day, being in love with a woman has meant being free to say everything on my heart.

From Summertime by J.M. Coetzee.

12 March 2014

The Room Vibrates With It


In most of the men in a gay bar there is a greater responsiveness than is usual in the world outside, and though most of them make it a piece of strategy to restrain their response, and though the elements composing it are more often subtle than not—a shift of weight, an extra blink of the eyes, an effort not to look at something that naturally draws attention—its presence is palpable; the room vibrates with it. 

A few months ago I read Necessary Errors, Caleb Crain’s wonderful debut novel about a young American in 1990s Prague. It’s breathtaking, unpretentious, and, I think, important. Crain’s work reminds me an awful lot of Henry James’, and his novel is just the kind of novel I’d like to be able to someday write. Since then I have been reading a collection of short stories called The Other Persuasion, a collection edited by Seymour Kleinberg, featuring, among many others, Marcel Proust, William Faulkner, E.M. Forster, Gore Vidal, Gertrude Stein, and D.H. Lawrence. (The Proust and Vidal stand out.) On these two books I’ve been taking more notes than usual—thank you, Evernote! And even though I know it seems that way I don’t make it a point to read gay fiction, only that it’s the kind of thing I find most interesting at the moment.

Why? My friend R has a theory. “Like women, gay men have to pay attention to the world around them in order to avoid harm,” he wrote to me. “This makes their writing better. But heightened attentiveness is all I would allow to characterize ‘gay fiction.’ Who knows what gay writers will do when there is little or no reason to conceal being gay?”

25 February 2014

How Does It Feel, Aurora?


My maternal grandmother—her name is Auring—no, Aurora—turned ninety-eight a few days ago. Ninety-eight! We threw her a party. The date fell on a Sunday. From the barangay chapel she was carried up by carers Lita and Yoly into a family van for the lunchtime celebration in Fairview, on the northeast side of Manila, with the Ascaño clan. The wheelchair was folded and put in the back, her medicines and tissue box and thick brown cotton scarf in a canvas bag; the priest, who had been invited to give the blessing, and whose name I never remember, took the front passenger seat. There wasn’t enough space in the first car, so the rest of us jumped into another van, joined by the apple-mouthed roasted suckling pig from La Loma. 

For the party grandmother looked her most beautiful. She wore her pearl earrings. She chose another, thinner scarf, boldly patterned and more silky, to put around her neck. Then someone (probably Lita) applied makeup on her, which made her cheeks as rosy and pink as ever. She was also made to wear green-tinted glasses, the design of which could be best described as vintage. “Make a wish!” a few guests cried, right before the chant to get her to blow the candles. Like she could still hear! Which of course she couldn’t. Wax was on the cake by the time she realized what it was we were egging her on to do.

Imagine if the number of candles had matched her age. (There were only six.) Grandmother, born in 1916, looked, apart from happy, a bit confused. Which makes sense, in a way. So many descendants! Her children’s wives, husbands, sons, daughters. Yet none of us who surrounded her were around when her life began; how strange she must have felt looking through those Instagram-worthy lenses. She grew up in Tuguegarao, Cagayan, about five hundred kilometers north of Manila. She has fair skin, eyes that you would doubt are of brown, and soft thin hair that in all her photographs never looked just Filipino black. There could be a genetic explanation for this: according to what I’ve been told, Germany’s interest in newly independent Philippines, cut short by the Treaty of Paris in 1898, in the event somehow left a settlement in these islands, a settlement that eventually produced grandmother. I know nothing of the rest of her origins and beginnings; to me they’re colored in sepia. I do know she married a dentist. She loved him very much and they were never apart. They had eight children. She has outlived four. Her husband—my Lolo Opong (Rodolfo)—was tall, dark, and handsome. He was a quiet man who always wore sunglasses—not out of necessity; it was just part of his style. Those Ray-Bans! That cane. Those Camisa de Chinos and grandfatherly slacks. His cigar! He died in the early nineties, a few years after the big earthquake. I could still smell him. How grandmother must miss this man, the love of her life. How does it feel, Aurora? To have to carry on like you do. To go through nearly a century of bearing witness to life’s most hapless certainties: love, loss, death. 

The day before the party grandmother actually told us this was going to be her last birthday. No one could blame her. I’d have given up long ago. She can no longer walk or stand. She is suddenly the old, unvisited widow. She is Emmanuelle Riva in Amour, all rigid legs and wiry bangs and heavy elbows and clattering teaspoons, but without a Jean-Louis Trintignant by her side to sing “Sur le pont d’Avignon”. Not that it would matter: she has, as I’ve said, turned deaf; if she did hear anything it would be the voice of grandfather. Every day is the same: sleep, eat, take pills, wipe nose, brush teeth, pray the rosary, sleep again. Every evening after dinner Lita puts a mask on her face to deliver extra supplies of oxygen. Here’s grandmother holding on to those holy beads while her exhalations come out of the mask in a kind of vaporous dance. It’s sometimes hard to watch. If it weren’t for the fall five or six years ago that knocked her out, fractured her pelvis, and brought on episodes of delirium, she’d probably still be rearranging the furniture, or watering the plants, or decorating the altar. This was the sort of work that made her happy: to configure the world, or at least the house, in ways that marked her authority and independence—in ways that were her own.

Her most recent nurse died last month. (The three previous ones had all left to work in the Middle East.) We couldn’t even break the news, fearing that the shock of it would be unnecessary, would do grandmother no good in her current state. Ed was only twenty-eight. He died on his birthday, in his sleep, on a floor mattress right next to grandmother’s bed. The whole business was as dreadful as it sounds. She had—has—no clue. By the time Lita went to wake the young man early that morning, his lips were already blue. Ed hadn’t even been more than two weeks into the job. When grandmother soon began to ask questions, we said simply that “he’s gone home.” Which wasn’t entirely a lie, and which we supposed, in hindsight, was a version of the truth.

About a week ago at the veranda, after she had been wheeled out and served her coffee and pastries, I went to say hello. “Ed?” she asked. “Is that you?” Her eyes shone, and her words—they sent a chill down my spine. But I didn’t have it in me to correct her. If all the years and tragedies should leave her muddled, if this birthday was indeed going to be her last, if it was her belief that there existed an other side by which Lolo Opong was waiting, let the woman call me by a dead man’s name. Let her see and hear what we don’t. Ler her dreams and imaginings bloom—and bloom spectacularly. What difference does it make?

One of my earliest memories of grandmother was when she used to spend part of every summer in the Manila ancestral house, which we had since lost to a big fire. This was at the young age when I could predictably be bribed with cookies. My mother, who always urged us children to spend time with grandmother, would say, “She has plenty of Chips Ahoy to give away to you all.” So we ran playfully from our apartments at the back of the house to where grandmother stayed: the main “unit,” which was called the Big House, for it covered half of our land’s 240 square meters, with three bedrooms, three bathrooms, built-in closets, a balustraded balcony, and all sorts of Spanish colonial furniture. Outside her window stood a tamarind tree, in sunny days looking somewhat like out of a painting. There was also a mirror at the old-fashioned dressing table in her room that spooked us: it was old and dirty and it warped our faces into faces we didn’t recognize. But we raced up the stairs anyway to take grandmother’s hand and, with it, bless our new-generation foreheads; we eyed the molded glass jar in which she had kept the cookies, and we stuck our five-, six-, seven-year-old hands into the bottom where bits and chips of sweet, chocolatey bribery had crumbled; then we climbed grandmother’s warm bed and jumped up and down, the lace curtain swaying to the slow, lazy orchestra of summer afternoons.

Dearest Aurora, I’m not your nurse Ed. Ed is dead. His body is buried in the province. My name is Miguel, your youngest daughter’s second son. I used to eat all the Chips Ahoy. No, I still have not married. I don’t have kids. But I think I have found someone whom I’d like you to hang around long enough to meet. A man, grandmother; a man. He’s Welsh and all kinds of lovely. Please don’t think this strange. I understand that so much has changed about the world since you were born, and if, through your lenses, you now find it hardly recognizable, if you feel like your place in it is not quite what it once was, I hope anyway that the twilight of your life brings some form of clarity: your blood still runs through my veins. The love that flows out of my chest is the same that, for grandfather, flowed out of yours. So to you I raise a toast and say—please allow me to wax Virgilian here—your descendants shall gather your fruits, of which you can rest assured there is a sweet abundance. Thank you, grandmother, and happy birthday. 

Funny. In the middle of the party, she decided to take a siesta; the journey, then the socializing, had tired her out. “Where did she go?” guests asked, over cupcakes and tequila. “Has she gone home?” Lita and Yoly took turns answering: no, Aurora just needs to rest a little, but she’ll come right back out.

15 February 2014

Erwin the Bartender


Note: This piece was originally published in Positively Filipino, an online magazine celebrating the story of the global Filipino. The magazine title is taken from an infamous sign posted on the front door of a Stockton, California hotel in the 1930s. The sign read, “Positively No Filipinos Allowed.” My fellow contributors are a lovely bunch; I encourage you to visit the site and read their pieces.

The bartender’s name was Erwin. The first drink he made me was a kangaroo: vodka, dry vermouth, olives. This was by ‘special request’; kangaroos were not on the laminated bar menu, which, I later learned, Erwin himself had created, featuring mostly shooters and fancy cocktails. Originally I had asked for a mojito, but he explained that they’d run out of mint leaves. I wondered if it was just the kitchen that ran out—the kitchen at Sunz En Coron, a quiet Korean-owned resort on Mabintangen Road, ten clunky minutes by tricycle from the port, with nipa huts and a small poolside bar, heretofore unmanned, at which I was now sitting—or if it was difficult in general to obtain fresh mint in this town.

Only twenty-two, Erwin learned the art of mixology in Metro Manila; he used to rent an apartment in Pasay. Like many others who were born and raised in provincial towns, he had left Coron to find a job in the city. He did not attend bartending school, but developed his palate by observation and instinct while working at Café Ilang-Ilang in the Manila Hotel. It was through an agency that he’d gotten the job, for which he was paid a fixed salary of 400-plus pesos. Being very ignorant, I thought he meant 400-plus pesos per hour, which wouldn’t actually be that bad a rate in the Philippines, but of course Erwin meant 400-plus pesos per day. When I asked why he never transferred to the Manila Hotel’s Tap Room Bar, where he could more properly flourish, he said, like I’ve heard many others say in response to questions of a similar nature, that it was not about what you did, it was about who you knew.

For reasons he did not reveal to me, Erwin returned three years ago to his hometown, of which he seemed very proud. He said you could accidentally leave your wallet or iPhone anywhere in Coron, Palawan and no one would touch it; the locals were honest and they did not play games with tourists.

This was probably true. Or at least it seemed less silly than if Erwin were to say the same about Manila. Earlier in the day during a tour of the islands, the boatmen miraculously stretched our group’s marketing budget (seven people in total) to present a king-sized lunch (with lobsters) at the white-sand beach in Malcapuya Island. Later on in Coron Town a tricycle driver ducked to avoid getting in the way of a potential Facebook profile photo, while a souvenir vendor smilingly offered discounts before I even attempted to haggle. The one beggar that I saw sang for change. On the way back to the resort my friend Roy—he lives in Singapore—said he got the sense that here people behaved differently; it was like they had been reset to default, unclouded by the usual doubts and despairs fostered by city living.

I guess we city dwellers were trying to reset ourselves to default, too. Later in the evening when the rest of my friends joined me at the bar, we each ordered Erwin’s signature shooter, the Sunz Special: a dainty, deceptive drink layered with Kahlúa, Baileys, Blue Curaçao, and Bacardi 151, set ablaze in a cocktail glass and served with a straw. It’s a less theatrical take on the Flaming Lamborghini—minus the complicated tower of glasses, snifters, and other props. The Sunz Special tasted like a hot summer evening. It was meant to be consumed in one go, after which it drew a line through your throat and held your sobriety in an hourglass. Its effect on our group came on slowly but steadily, making us rowdy but good-natured. We expressed admiration for good ol’ Erwin’s wonderful talents. We asked to have our photos taken with him. We vowed to learn a few recipes ourselves.

Yes, the idea of a twenty-two-year-old bartender suddenly became less absurd, although it must be said that Erwin actually played multiple roles at the resort. In the early hours of his shift, when guests weren’t expected to be ordering drinks, he served breakfast, assisted in the kitchen, answered phone calls, coordinated with service drivers, and took the owner’s five little Chihuahuas out for a walk. But mixing was clearly what he did best. Mixing was what NoName—a downtown pub, also frequented by tourists—had tried to recruit him for. (Erwin had passed up the chance because he felt happier working at Sunz En Coron.) Also: the bar menu was the result of his own constant experimentation, which is probably a good thing for bar menus to be a result of, because it would mean that the bartender was testing and tasting, testing and tasting until he got it right; it would mean he had initiative and, I assumed, enough freedom to take it. But was Erwin even aware of the surge in international demand for people with his skills? The classifieds always advertised openings. He could work in a hotel, he could work in a ship, he could work wherever adults outside the Philippines were thirsty. Just check the papers. Did he not want to go overseas?

Of course he did—wherever ‘overseas’ might be. It would be a welcome opportunity. I urged him to experiment with new recipes and proudly recited to him a list of cocktails I’d tried during my brief time in South America—pisco sours, terremotos, chichas, caipirinhas, caipiroskas, fernet colas—along with the disclaimer that, really, I knew nothing about how these were made, only that I enjoyed drinking them. I told him about an uncle who had spent most of his adult life in cruise ship galleys—about how he’d seen so much of the world, between serving gourmet meals and surveying provisions. Here was the thing, though: Erwin hadn’t had formal training. He still needed to finish the courses, he needed to get certified. It was possible he could skip all that but, as he said, he didn’t really know anyone.

And it wasn’t like he didn’t already have his hands full here. He was working the bar and the restaurant, which closed at ten. Sometime after dinner a young couple from Switzerland came and sat at the bar. Erwin made them some vodka cocktail while also demonstrating his ability to hold a conversation in English with foreigners. Julian, it turned out, was an IT teacher and programmer in Lucerne; his girlfriend Claire worked as a waitress. They were in Coron for the diving: in particular, they were looking forward to seeing the famous Japanese war wrecks. Wasn’t this place just incredible? Julian and Claire were gushing, they had tans, they might have already been slightly drunk—on adventure or alcohol or both. It was their first time in the Philippines; usually the south of France was where they went diving—in the Bay of St. Tropez or in Hyères. Julian hastened to add that they couldn’t really go for dives as often as they’d like: taxes were outrageous in Switzerland and rent was not cheap, either. While the two continued to describe what Europe was like (and how expensive it was), Erwin stood quietly behind the bar counter, listening happily to these stories of elsewhere. Perhaps he didn’t need a cruise ship, after all. Perhaps he didn’t feel the urgency of going abroad as keenly as I imagined; perhaps he’d only be glad to have the option. In “Sweet Life,” singer Frank Ocean muses, “Why see the world when you’ve got the beach?” In Coron—its precious island beaches, its limestone cliffs, its freshwater lakes even more beautiful than I hoped for—the world, in a way, comes to see you. And in his role as bartender, Erwin is an unexpected custodian of strangers’ secrets and revelations; to him others articulate assorted visions of a world, as seen through glassware. To be transported, all he needs to do is pour.

And pour he did. Eventually I settled on G&Ts, a couple of friends opened a bottle of Merlot, and Julian and Claire after a few rounds of their mixed vodka wisely avoided the Sunz Special, which, according to Erwin, not a lot of people—not even foreigners—could handle. Switzerland, Germany, Austria, Australia, France, the UK: it didn’t matter where you were from or how bulletproof you were, one Sunz Special did you in. Apparently, having two was being plain greedy and set one up for early retirement to bed (as a consequence). We were quickly assured, however, that the effects of the shooter did not carry over to the next day. No headaches, no hangovers, Erwin promised, before he called it a night, closed the bar, and headed home. 

27 January 2014

Real


D is now twenty-six. He was nineteen when he first met M, the Frenchman who was staying in the tropical-hut-style room next to ours. They met here, in Puerto Galera, Oriental Mindoro. M actually lives in Tahiti, if I remember correctly—or could it be Guiana?—but he regularly goes on holidays to the Philippines: I think two to three weeks at a time, a couple or even three times a year, ever since I don’t know when; certainly since his first time.

D is a boatman. He has an outrigger canoe, the native sort that runs on gasoline, and it looks new and is painted green and doesn’t yet have a name. It’s smaller than a small dive boat but big enough to fit maybe eight to ten people. It was M who told RB and me about D’s services. He said he had a local friend, a ‘good friend’ (this would be D) whose boat we could rent, in case we wanted to go island-hopping or whatever, for a better price than that of persistent sun-bronzed hawkers on White Beach. 

RB did decide to rent it. He chose a perfect day. The sun was out, the sky was clear, there was no hint of rain. With D at the helm we found an empty beach not far from the coral garden (a famous snorkeling spot) and there under the palm trees we grilled milkfish and potatoes for lunch, plus some bottles of San Miguel and Red Horse. After lunch we took a siesta then moved to another beach island before the sun set. 

Later RB and I would learn that M himself had financed the boat. It was a kind gesture, an act of love. He wanted D to be able to make a living. In Puerto Galera you make a living by catching fish, driving a tricycle, running a karaoke bar, selling market goods, or having a boat. I don’t know when M bought the gift—paid to have it built—but obviously it wasn’t on this particular trip; it must have been before D began to claim he was straight and had a girlfriend. This was when D still stayed the night with M at the lodging house, when the lines defining their relationship weren’t yet so strictly, starkly drawn. In any event it’s hard to judge. It isn’t love that blurs one’s view, but the desire for its effects—and the desire is natural, albeit complicated. Besides, aren’t our own ways wrought too with dilemmas and various entanglements? And to be fair, whenever I ran into D at the open kitchen area he would usually be cooking dinner for M: adobo, with potatoes and green chili, the latter a substitute for missing bay leaves. 

What position do you play, I asked one evening. D is about five-nine, five-ten; he has an Asian moustache and a baseball cap he always wears backwards. I assumed that like me he ran point or played shooting guard, but he said he played center.

At the time there was, you see, a basketball tournament going on in Minolo where D lives, a coastal settlement a few kilometers east of White Beach or for me a ten-minute motorbike ride, towards but well before touristy Sabang. The games were played outdoors, near the small, charmingly undeveloped port where D moors his boat. If you photograph the place it will look like a rural painting. Anyway, I watched one of the games with RB. It was sundown; you could smell the smell of the sea. We bought beers from a sari-sari store and sat on a rough log on the side of the court, among boatmen and fisherfolk. The coaches were rowdy and only half-serious, trading crunchy jokes with bystanders as much as they were discussing strategy. Because the playing floor was made not of hardwood or asphalt but of earth, a committee member or sometimes the referee poured buckets of water on the sand during timeouts—for traction, I suppose. Still when players ran the length of the court or bounced the ball or jumped to contest a layup they left puffs of dust that gave the action a kind of hazy, dream-like quality. It almost didn’t seem real. 

L, an Australian and friend of both M and D, also loves basketball. Why not? The three were talking one afternoon in M’s room and because the walls of the huts were made of bamboo rods it was impossible for me not to overhear. Apparently L was not allowed to play. The tournament in Minolo was only for Filipinos. All L could be was a sponsor, which meant paying for the fee D’s team needed to register: 3,500 pesos. He agreed to split this with M, while also with incredible enthusiasm motivating D to do his best impersonation of LeBron James come game time. The team was called Minolo Heat, after all.

We all met at a local bar on White Beach the night before M was due to fly back home: M, nursing a cold, in a red windbreaker; D in a basketball jersey and his trademark cap; RB in navy blue (a mysterious ‘Div 26’ on his shirt), and slightly pink from our swim earlier; and L, much older (early or mid-sixties) than I had imagined the owner of the thickly accented voice to be. He was with his boyfriend G, who is Filipino-Chinese. We had a few drinks and picked songs from the orange karaoke book. L was the first to go home, and M left just before RB and I did. The next day M’s room was occupied by a noisy group of Japanese tourists whose days in Puerto Galera, I soon found, would be spent doing nothing but playing mahjong; RB and I overslept and we didn’t get the chance to say goodbye to the Frenchman.

There is a beach in an area of Puerto Galera called Small Tabinay, which is southeast of Sabang, and this beach features a short, unremarkable stretch of sand that ends near a rocky seaside cliff. On this cliff there is a house, a white two-storey beach house that looks bright and durable and quiet, and I can’t stop thinking about how much I would like to live in it one day. There I’ll read my books and do some writing, there I’ll grow old and look back at the times that, when they happened, seemed absurd, illusory, or too fantastic, but which in hindsight were as real as anything could ever be. 

02 January 2014

Twenty-Nine


At some point a monkey appeared. His name was Johnny. He was shockingly small, less than a foot tall, his head probably half the size of my fist. The hawker was selling him for 3,500 pesos. At first—and this is because I don’t remember the last time I saw a monkey in person (probably when I was five or six)—Johnny’s movements made me nervous, despite his being on a leash, but after a while I decided he was simply adorable. He refused, however, to eat the piece of birthday cake that I offered (caramel mocha); he only stared at it doubtfully before retreating to the corner of the sandy steps that led up to the beachfront bar.

The beachfront bar: I cannot think of a lovelier place to be thrown a surprise birthday party, which happened to be my first. And I cannot think of lovelier people doing the throwing; it was such that if I never have another, I’ll always have this to remember and keep close to my heart. It all took place in Puerto Galera, in a province south of Manila called Oriental Mindoro, where I’d been living for about a month. An hour before Johnny stole the scene—sometime between wine o’clock and dinner—S, the owner of the bar, which is called Rioo, came out from behind the counter and walked up to me with the cake. Then the staff, buoyed by shots of rum-based Mindoro Sling, began to sing. I got very confused. My face must have looked so dumb. Up until then, you see, I had, in a way, gotten over birthdays, and by ‘gotten over’ I mean I had ceased to worry or think about how I would celebrate mine, other than alcoholically. Let no other plans be made! Call it the Don Draper approach, which certain disenchanted twenty-somethings too scared to fully, loudly love are poised to adopt.

But not on this night. There were balloons, confetti, dancing, karaoke, all the rest of it; even a cake fight, out of which, among its participants, I had the maddest, most childish fun, never mind my turning one year closer to thirty. (Icing eventually clogged the bathroom sink.) Also, people I’d randomly met since coming to Mindoro turned up to raise their glasses: a holidaying couple from Brighton, a family of internal migrants from a southern provincial city called Dipolog, a group of English tourists from Shanghai, an Australian-Filipino gay couple who had moved to Puerto Galera from Boracay (another beach island), plus a young Danish chef whose tattooed appearance I had foolishly been quick to judge. It was, in fact, F who did all the cooking, and fabulously: beef and pork medallions in red wine sauce, followed by chocolate orange parfait and proper Irish coffee. Dinner was served on a candlelit table on the beach, to the sound of waves and with a view of the full moon and stars.

If everyone else was a conspirator, the mastermind was RB, a Welsh gentleman whom I originally met several weeks earlier at the Telephone Pub in Bangkok, and who hasn’t since been able to get rid of me with the same ease as he has my disenchantments. Little did he know that, on that first night, well before he came up to me to say, “Hello there, how are you?”—pretending to need a drink from the bar, and order it necessarily right by where I was seated, despite the glass in his hand—little did he know that I saw him first: the second he walked through the door, all blue-eyed and suntanned and dimpled. His entrance almost caused me to spill my Chang; his approach made my heart somersault. An hour later, we were shopping at the night market in Silom.

If he knew little, I knew even less. Twenty-nine years and the world finds a way to reset me to default. I cannot say I saw it coming. About the surprise RB had given nothing away, and I didn’t at all suspect anything when, earlier in the day of the party, on the motorbike ride home from town, he insisted on getting to Rioo before eight: “Seven-fifty, at the latest.” “Wouldn’t that be too early?” I said, even though I wasn’t particularly concerned about what time we went. A bottle of Carménère at the lodging house made us half an hour late, but there remained plenty of time still for one of the great nights of my life. 

And as it happened I ran out of words. “You’re crazy,” I whispered to RB at one point, after he lifted me from the dance floor, and before my feet landed on sand. 

At around three in the morning we went for a walk along the beach, past the row of restaurants, bars, and hotels, towards a fallen log by the quiet northern end that had become our sort of Shirley Valentine spot: a place for drinking wine and chasing dreams. The waves at this time were rough, as rough as they had ever been, and the water horribly cold. We went in anyway. Though literally jolted sober, I remained intoxicated by the thought of what lay ahead, and by the sweet reminder that, no matter how hard I had tried to forget, no matter how hard I had tried not to celebrate, each day of my life had been blessed with love, and none more so than the days that led up to my turning twenty-nine.

We got out of the water and headed back to the bar before the sun rose. Remembering Johnny, RB joked about how I would like a monkey for a present. “No, not really,” I said. As if one could ask for anything more.