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.