Once upon a time, I thought I was going to marry you

I was freshly-bruised from a bad relationship when we met. I nursed myself like a newly-born baby, my hands brushing over the parts of my body that didn’t feel like they belonged to me anymore. He had impaled me and pushed in like a shovel into rubble, leaving a crater of viscera and memories tinged with hurt. Every time I woke up, I felt my heart sputtering in my throat.

You looked statuesque, beautiful. I’d never met a man so beautiful, almost delicate. It was different from just handsome, it was always this saintly quality. Gentle-voiced, caring. It was frightening how often you said I didn’t deserve what happened to me. At that point, I was afraid of someone saying they wanted to be there for me and I didn’t trust you right away. I was too raw, too open. You were such a mystery–I could never read you. We both believe in God.

As I’d shake from night terrors, you’d tell me stories. Or you’d tell me I was beautiful. And it was almost painful, I wanted to push you away every time you came close. But still, you stayed. I expected you to raise your voice but you never did, I expected your violence, but it was never there. I wanted to see every man who’d hurt me in you but that was never you. You waited, told me of my beautiful heart. Even as I was surrounded by broken things and damp tissues, my curls akimbo, you spoke of the beauty I had inside and out that I couldn’t find, the mirror smashed ages ago.

By the time I tided over, you had found someone else. But I was glad for you. The line went quiet. I wasn’t ready to be with you. You wanted to take care of me. But I knew it was unfair. I continued to heal, nights still filled with drowning, but I often thought of you with a fondness. I imagine just how fortunate that someone else was to have you, so gentle, so kind. In the mess of my sheets, the shards of broken perfume bottles, I dreamt of your joy and that at least soothed my own pain, a strand of hurt unfurling from my body to dissipate in the empty air and miles between us.

Months had passed and I found the strength to reach out. You tell me how relieved you are to hear from me. You say you’ve been waiting all this time. She’s asking for money, you tell me, the girl you’re with. And you have a feeling it’s not right. Still, I tell you if you feel for her and want to be with her, you should. You say you love her and you share photos and I smile. You look happy. I’m happy for you.

I traverse the world slowly still, tip-toeing everywhere I go. I’m afraid to get yelled at again, to be touched again, to be manipulated. I’m afraid of the men who ask to see me, I’m afraid of what they’ll do. Even violence can be born from desire. And I’ve felt its sting so keenly, crumpled in defeat on dusty bedroom floors.

She says she’s meeting with her ex again and you’re worried. We talk about trust, the foundation of it, and how its something you should establish. But you know something not right is happening. The money, the secrets. For a while, there is a stretch of time you don’t talk about her and I feel your hurt. It’s not long before you tell me you’ve left her long ago.

Slowly, you inch closer. Say good morning, good night. With that same gentle hand, you hold me without malice. You send me songs and pictures, poems and kind words. You say that when we met, there was no other girl you wanted to talk to. Even when I had been fractured and splintered by my hurt. And when I wasn’t ready for you, it broke your heart.

You fell in love swiftly, and I felt how you adored me. And I felt a flutter I hadn’t in so long. You were so careful with me, as if cupping me in your hands. And even if you had fallen in love, you never rushed me. Still waiting for me to overcome hesitation. It got easier day by day, waking up to you and falling asleep to you. Seeing your name on my screen with a photo of a sunset saying “I remembered you” like sunsets can be distilled into people. But somehow, I believed they could, and felt as radiant and as warm as the sun sinking into a blazing ocean.

You crafted our romance, our story, so intimately. You unspooled everything that had hurt me and wrapped me in your sweet gestures, your ginger touches. And when I finally said yes to you, you’d been so overjoyed that we both started to cry. You had become my mysterious man, strange to me still, but close to my heart.

Love Feels / Art by Jin Xingye

The first time you kiss me, we’re in a dimly-lit bar. You’ve never rushed me before, and you touch your forehead to mine first before pressing forward, a timid, caring kiss that bursts in my stomach and chest, a rush of wings and wind knocked out of me. Your friend cheers and asks us to do it again. I laugh shyly and you acquiesce–as if you’ve been waiting all this time.

You take me out dancing until I’m margarita-tipsy but you still keep your hands respectful, resting on the small of my back. I’d hardly ever been dancing before, but the dizzying lights and the intoxicating feeling of being with you fueled a life in me I thought I’d lost to those other men forever. My heart drummed wildly, pounding in my ears, as I jumped up and down in my heels, dancefloor-scuffed and shiny. You kiss me again in pink light, my hair wild, your hands kind as you hold me still.

I fall in love with you in a life-altering way. On long nights, we talk about the future. You say you want to take me away to a better place, somewhere safe. And you can do it, too, a dual citizenship powerful in this kind of country. That you’d love to wake up to me with the sun filtering through glass curtains, not warm enough to merit removing the blankets. Or that you’d want to end our nights with glasses of wine and movies until we both curled up on the couch. That we’d take long drives on interstate highways where I can stand up and scream at the top of my lungs how much I love you. That we’d find ourselves with our hands encased in each other’s on Sunday afternoons, huddled up to a fireplace.

You had promised me a future of unconditional love and I thought: I’m going to marry you someday. That we’d share that same timid kiss from the bar over and over until we turned 70. That even if we didn’t have the money to go out dancing, we’d put in one earphone each and slow dance in the living room we’d share. I dreamt of becoming your wife and choosing you every day. I whisper this to you one night and you tell me you’d love that someday.

In time, I had grown to love you with an ease that dressed me in girlish joy. And though I could feel it in how you spoke of the future, you hadn’t said it yet. It was only one night as you were departing and saying your goodbyes that you let it slip. “I love you,” you say, and both our faces glow shyly. You cover your mouth, as if making a mistake, and look away. Before I can stop myself, I ask, “what did you say?” You glance at me again, take a breath, and enunciate every word, proud. “I love you always.”

We walk an empty street under a starless Manila sky. I talk about how I wish I could see stars someday, clearer, better. You say you can make that happen someday and we can wish on as many as we want.

You tuck my head under your chin on the couch one night and you inspect my hands, your thumb running over my ring finger. And I felt a skip inside me. We both thought of the same thing. I turn and you kiss me deep and hungry. Against your lips, I think the word so hard that I hope you hear it, too: Yes.

I dreamed everything so often it felt I manifested it in reality. Our house, the color of the shingles, the way our table would face the sunset. The garden, how I’d sometimes forget to water the plants so you’d do it for me. The stack of recipe books on our counter that we don’t use, google being the way to go. The little cat-paw wine glass you’d keep for me. Our cats, three, and more when I’d find a stray and you never being able to say no. How quiet it’d be if we fought and how much jazz you’d play when we’d make up and sway in our living room. Your guitar in the corner of the bedroom. The way you’d tuck me in when I was sick.

One night, you bend over me like a man in prayer. I let you. And you are gentle with every motion. When you are spent, you lie beside me and I slip my head under your arm and onto your chest. I hear every beat of your heart against the taut muscle of you, still erratic. You say I’m beautiful and then you hold your breath. “I have to tell you something,” you say, quiet suddenly, and I feel uneasy.

You turn to me, glassy-eyed. I hold my breath this time. “I have a kid.” A lump forms in my throat. “And a wife.”

In the end, it’s you who leaves me. You’d left your wife before we met, you tell me. The air of your mystery dissipated into a world of betrayal. In the end, you say this isn’t right. That you should have never done any of it. You tell me you will always love me but this is not what God wanted. I hold every name I want to call you in my mouth. You even used God against me. I run my thumb over my ring finger and watch our house, our wine glasses, our fireplace all shatter into another string of deceit. Our cookbooks tear themselves apart. Our cats disappear. And the music that plays when we make up slowly falters into silence. I take a hammer and demolish it all into the ground.

It’s been 2 years. I have a Christmas gift for your daughter I’d never gotten to give. She must be 8 now. You text one day asking if I have moved on, that if I don’t hate you, we can see each other again as friends. I smile and all I say is that I’m happy now. I put away my phone and walk that same street we walked, this time teeming with wishing stars on a clear, clear night.

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