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.