Author has chosen to remain anonymous
Graphics by Nicole Teng and Gwen Sy
It’s Christmas Eve 2019 and I’ve been unshowered for 3 days. Clothes are strewn about on the floor, a mess of wrapping paper and markers lie beside them. Piles of unread books, only a handful of them with peeled-back covers, towering high and precarious against a too-full bookshelf. Photos and letters I’d never sent sitting at the foot of the bed, matte with fingerprints or slick with tears.
Feeling the approach of the holiday season always brought me into some fevered, vibrant state. I could never get enough of it, the joy, the purchasing. I’d always chalked it up to being excited to give gifts, the feeling of kindness palpable in the air. And though there were many who tried to be snarky about it and say that Christmas was awful (and that was fine, because everyone had their reasons, too), I never faltered.
But I’m lying here in a three-day-old shirt and unwashed hair and find I have no excitement at all. I’ve missed my therapy session and am too sad to even swallow my pills. I feel like I’m a fish at a wet market with a constellation of flies overhead. Smelly and sad and all that’s missing is suffocated—dead.
I’d never felt dread towards the holidays. But knowing what happened the year prior, the anniversary effect seemed to want to dampen my spirits in spite of my protests. When I went to see my therapist the month after, in January, she’d told me heartbreak and trauma could resurface during its anniversary. But I didn’t know that at the time.
It’s been a month since you said you wanted to end things with me. It was convenient, I’ll admit, that you waited until my birthday to do it and then never answered until a month later, until I’m red-eyed and gaunt-cheeked, bereft at losing you and not hearing your reasons why. I’m surrounded by garbage, used tissues, dirty clothes, and crumpled paper.
I look like how I look a year later: Unshowered and unrested. My hair wild, curls undone. Nails grimy. Tear tracks seem permanent on my face. I can’t move and I don’t move. They say heartbreak is a cruel creature. And I feel its claws sinking into me so keenly.
On my phone screen I have 30 messages I haven’t gotten back to out of sheer inability. Missed calls from friends. Notifications. Memes are being sent to me to cheer up. But I can’t bring myself to open anything.
Until I hear another ping. It’s you. And you finally tell me why.
The first time you tell me you love me, it’s an accident.
We’re talking, as usual, deep into the night. The air in Manila is a little colder than usual and I’m wrapped in my covers, smiling every time you laugh about something. You’re with your friends, drinking, getting into all sorts of trouble. I’m at home, warm in bed. You detail your day with surgical precision–after all, you want to be a doctor–sleeping in, spending time with your mom, getting dressed, going out, all details that seem humdrum but make me smile anyway.
I tell you to enjoy yourself with your friends, unwilling to interfere a night out with the boys. You tell me I can always just send a text and you’ll be happy to answer.
Quiet minutes pass and my haze of you encircles me, the crush I have on you more intense than any I’ve ever had on any boy. But I refuse to ruin our easygoing conversations with complicated feelings. Not when things are difficult enough as they are.
But it’s this very haze that you slice through when you begin to slur and laugh. You call out my name over and over and I try my hardest not to recognize it as some sort of prayer. I laugh in return, answer “yes?” every time, try to fish out whatever you’re trying to say. You keep laughing, bright, before drunkenly saying “I have to tell you something” and a feeling blossoms in my stomach.
“What is it?” I ask you, fighting back amusement. You always jokingly jab that I’m making fun of you when I laugh at you trying to be serious.
“I love you,” you say. And time delightfully rips, slows, sweetens.
I’m in a city I love. I’m with family, on a trip, and you are a friend.
I have loved this city even before, on our previous family trip, its colors and lights so vibrant. Reds and blues emblazoned in moving dragon scales atop buildings, the fabled creature animatronic and alive. The smell of street food on every corner, wafting sweetly. A humble ice cream stall that houses only one elderly woman, her freezer, and the best soft-serve I’ve ever had.
I tell you everything that my family and I do, where we’re going, what we’re up to, in incessant little updates that you find amusing. You laugh when I say something strange, are concerned when I get lost and Google Maps stops working, and are in awe at all the museums I find. For some reason, I send you dozens of photos of the sights I see and for another reason, you respond to all of them with the same sort of excitement I do.
Without knowing, we forge a back-and-forth that I began to rely on. A good morning and a good night. A look-at-this or what’s-that that I began to adopt as habit.
We talk about inane things. Habits. The fact that neither of us can sleep facing away from the door in case a murderer comes in. Or how difficult it is to have siblings. The idea that certain stories should have gone different ways.
I send you a photo of my soft-serve and we make the beginnings of an inside joke. That’s the first time I feel a twinge of something, not quite a crush, but more than just simple affection.
I brush it off and head to the station, my plastic bag of trinkets and toys now growing heavy. And I must show you all of them.
On Valentine’s Day 2019, I’m sitting alone at a mall, eating popcorn, and drinking a bottle of tequila.
I know you’re with her, you mention it so flippantly, as if you don’t know it’ll hurt me. You’ve blocked me on social media, even when I don’t interact with you anymore. You tell me constantly you want to be friends and then you tell me about her, knowing full well how much it hurts.
You and her start seeing each other in January, 2 months after you leave me.
The popcorn scatters on the floor each time I sob. I’d gotten used to the stares at this point, crying in public was something I was very talented at even before you left me. But when the tequila sloshes out of my cup, I know I’ve had enough. I’d been pathetic before, states of pathetic even, but this was a new low. I see older men looking, as if weighing their options, seeing how desperate a lonely, drunk twenty-something might get. As soon as this happens, I pack my things and go.
A few days later, I go on a blind date in some effort to part from you. He is kind, soft-spoken, different. And I feel my bones trying to jump out of my body. Too different.
My love language is gifts. So naturally, I curate a box of them for you.
Your love of music has always been one of your best features, so I put together a playlist of songs that remind me of you. Lyrics you sing out of context or just text me in reference to something I say, I find those songs and put them together. And then I add songs that make me feel the same fluttery feeling you give me.
I put in a map, of the places we promised to see together in the whirlwind of our conversations. You called me once and I painted all the places you said we’d go to. A bucket list. The Northern Lights. The shimmering waters of Greece. Castles in Scotland. Places I’d never even fathom, much less afford. But you say one day we’ll make it there. I mark them all with hearts.
I put in pens and a notebook–because you always seem to lose yours and med school requires tons of notetaking. You say, a year and some months later when you finally open the box, that you haven’t lost a single one.
I write you a letter. In neat penmanship, I detail how I love you. And I count the ways.
This is the last time you tell me you love me. And this time, it’s not an accident.
You’ve been caught up with school and I understand. I just miss you. I think anyone would after exchanging words almost every day. But I do my best to support you in small ways I can.
I’m out with friends, a house party. Not quite sober anymore, stumbling a bit, but still able to walk a line. A cool amber bottle is in my hand and I take a good gulp before returning to a conversation with a group that I’m slowly tuning out of. There are red cups littered all over the coffee table in front of me, water rings without coasters, and half-emptied bags of chips. The floor is wet with spilled beer and melting ice, the heat of Manila creeping into the airconditioned home of a friend-of-a-friend.
There’s a buzz and everyone’s having a nice time. I laugh, let out some light-heartedness I haven’t felt in a while, before feeling my phone buzz.
“I’m trying so hard to find you that camera you want,” you say. And I go a bit slack, surprised you remember an offhand comment about a polaroid camera I’d been saving up for. “I’ll wait ’til Christmas, it should pop up.”
This is the first time you message in a few days, drowning in your schoolwork. I perk up immediately and step away from the group to craft a badly-spelled response. I tell you it’s not a big deal, you don’t have to get it, and that I miss you and hope you’re doing well. I say I love you. You say you love me back before disappearing for another few days.
I tell you in February that I can’t talk to you without my heart breaking. I say good luck. I say I loved you as much as I could and that I’m sorry it wasn’t enough. I say I need to step away but would still love to be friends with you when I’m ready. I say it all in a long message. All you say in reply is that you understand.
I’m in a city I love. But it looks different. The dragon no longer has its luster. The street food no longer seems appetizing. And I can’t even stomach the soft-serve.
This city, even if you never came here with me, only serves as a reminder of you. I see a corner of a museum and think of the jokes we shared there. I walk a street and know this is where I’d gotten lost and you pulled up a map to find me. I eat ice cream, and all I feel is the cold down my throat.
I tell you that I’m back here. You respond saying you hope I have fun. In the middle of a sunny day on a bustling shopping street, I stop to cry.
At first, you apologize profusely.
I sit in disbelief, tired eyes wide. I am wearing a shirt that slopes off my shoulder that I haven’t taken off in days. Mascara still dots my under eyes from when I had to force myself to leave the house for work and dreaded every second being outside. I crumple my sheets under my fist as you type.
But we talk. And at first, I think everything will be okay. You say the word “friends.” I believe you.
You tell me you can’t handle anything right now, no relationships, no nothing. You tell me that with all the stress with your family, there’s no room left to feel anything else. You tell me that all the stress in your life has brought you to a breaking point. You tell me that you loved me, truly, and that will never go away even if you wanted it to. I tell you I love you still, and maybe always will. You tell me you know. You hope I’m happy.
Days later, you tell me you wake up in bed with her. And any good feeling in me eclipses again. For the first time, I sleep with my back to the door.
I am in a city I love.
Its vibrance comes to me in sweetened hues. Honeyed colors bright on buildings, paving the streets. I dance with strangers on nights that are dizzy in the best of ways. I count the stars in a night sky I can actually see. I smile at the dragon. I eat my soft serve happily, even in the middle of winter.
The polaroids I take develop nicely. There are some of the streets. Some of the city. And there’s even one of a man I just met. I bought the camera myself.
On Valentine’s Day, I go to a batting cage and laugh as I hit ball after ball. I buy myself a chicken dinner. I buy a sweet liquor that goes down like syrup, a drink I discover in a tiny bar with other kind strangers before I rip into the karaoke microphone. I get kissed on a bridge overlooking shimmering water, alive with city lights. I take a photo with my camera and it loudly develops while I laugh, hearty. At the end of the night, I tuck myself in, plum wine-drunk, and take one last hazy look out at the slowly brightening skyline, only a small spray of stars still visible as the sun gently crawls over the edge. You can’t touch me here anymore.
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