IN BETWEEN CLASSES
It’s funny how one person enters your life and your world is changed forever. You think you’re doing just fine minding your own business but he shows up and suddenly you know what you’ve been missing all along. Then you talk with him for an hour and it feels like you’ve known him all your life.
I didn’t expect that first conversations could turn out like that. Even though we didn’t talk about personal things (we were mostly reviewing for the Math exam), I still felt close to him. I still felt a connection. It was in those pauses and inflections and facial expressions. It was in the air between us.
I didn’t even know why I told him that the distance between us was just a heartbeat. You know, I was trying to make a good impression and I already embarrassed myself by saying something that might have been lyrics from an ancient song. I blushed furiously and waited for him to snort or laugh or roll his eyes or tell me I’m corny. Or all of them. But he just looked at me with that kind of interest you only give either to famous people or to freaks of nature. Whatever that was, it seemed I blew his mind.
But that moment passed and I stopped blushing and he stopped staring and he said something like, “Oh, good answer. Since I didn’t specify that it should be spatial or physical distance, I’ll accept it. So, lunch later?” He said it like my answer was the most ordinary thing he could hear during a Math review session.
It is one of the things I like about him, the way he is flexible in conversations. He can connect two or more topics that seem unrelated. He can make farfetched statements look natural. He can even make my weirdness seem normal.
Like when we were walking to the CAL Building (College of Arts and Letters) after our Math period, I blurted out, “Who’s the first person that comes to your mind when you see ants?”
“I don’t have a specific person in mind but I guess ants make me think about the Chinese. You know, they seem to be everywhere. And the way ants gather food? It reminds me so much of how the Chinese do their work.” He said all this like he was pondering about ants all the time. Like answering questions about ants was something very usual for him.
“So, do you think of yourself as an ant, too? Because you’re Chinese, right?” I asked. His last name is Chua and he has chinky eyes so I figured he is Chinese, but maybe I was being stereotypical so I had to confirm.
“Yeah, sometimes. But, I am the ant that goes astray. The one who always gets separated from the rest. I like doing things my own way.”
“What about the color? Are you the black ant or the red one?”
“Neither. I’m the ant that changes color depending on what it eats.”
We went on like that until we arrived at the CAL Building, and he realized that he left his car in the College of Science parking lot, which was near the Math Building. We laughed at the absurdity of it. How could he forget something as important as a car? But then I realized, I also forgot something. I forgot about my ex-boyfriend. All the time we were talking, I hadn’t thought of him.
I wasn’t thinking about him like before. Not every minute anymore.
It was a nice feeling. I felt light. I felt free. We were laughing there and maybe he was thinking it was still because of his car, but really I was laughing because I also realized that I just thought of my ex-boyfriend but it didn’t hurt anymore. So, I relished that feeling and thanked my stars, destiny, karma, fate, or whoever’s up there watching me for letting this awesome guy walk with me in the rain and talk about ants and forget his car and make me laugh my real laugh.
It was our Creative Writing period and I sat with my friends while he went to the back. I would have sat with him but it would be like an overkill. We were asked to describe what the color yellow sounds like. I wrote, “It sounds like a million little chimes glorifying the droplets of sunshine falling softly on his face and mingling with his golden laugh.” Everything else about the color yellow, or about him, for that matter, was ineffable. Yes, him. I was thinking of him the entire Creative Writing period.
After class, he came to me and asked if our lunch was still on. I could almost hear my friends’ brains buzzing with interest. I didn’t know what to say or do at this point so I just stood there like a dumb person and he was standing there expectantly and my friends were eyeing him with curiosity. He saved me from that awkward situation by saying, “I guess I needed to ask for your permission to take her to lunch with me. It was sort of a bet.” So, they watched us go and I prayed he didn’t notice the intrigue painted on their faces.
We both had a three-hour break after Creative Writing, so we walked back to the CS parking lot to retrieve his car. We continued talking about random things. The rain had stopped and the first ray of sunshine was peeking through the clouds. I remembered our Creative Writing exercise.
“So, what’s the sound of the color yellow?” I asked. We were already in his car.
“It sounds like the sunflowers singing along the university avenue in summer. I was trying to think of a really sweet song when my thoughts were interrupted by the sunflower singing at the Plants vs. Zombies credits.”
As if on cue, we began singing, “There’s a zombie on your lawn…”
It became our theme song. Kind of.
Conversations with him disturbed my inertia. I had been lifeless for a long time when he came by and fueled up my system. These conversations were real, unfeigned, and without an ounce of dishonesty in them. I felt like I was learning more about life with these kinds of talk, no matter how insane they were, than with classroom discussions. Being somewhat of a nerd, I didn’t know there would come a time that I would look forward more to the grace time between classes than the actual classes themselves.
And I was there, owning the passenger’s seat of his car and thinking, “Could this be our first date?”
MOVING IN OPPOSITE DIRECTIONS
I asked my boyfriend to write the previous chapter for me because I had been mulling over where and how I should start but I couldn’t get my hands on it. I had been staring at the first two sentences for so long and I couldn’t find the right words to say next. I just realized that it was the most blurry part of my love story, that in that particular period in my life, my mind was not working as it should. Half the time, I didn’t know what I was doing. The other half, I was figuring out what I just did and why I did that. And so, I entrusted that one to him, the one who was there when I wasn’t there for myself, the one who found me when I was trying to disappear.
He was a faceless person at first. All I knew is that he was somewhere out there, waiting for me even though he didn’t know it at the time. I wondered what his name was and what he looked like, but every time I tried to picture his face, I always saw my ex-boyfriend. Instead of starting anew, I got stuck in the past. Telling myself to move on was way easier than doing it.
But I tried. I even made a list of things to do.
1. Make yourself busy
2. Get a new hobby
3. Go out with friends more
4. Ignore your ex
5. Always think of memories that make you happy
Yes, I busied myself with studying, doing homeworks, and going to the library. On weekends, I was at the orphanage near our home, volunteering to babysit and teach children. Whenever I was free, I went out with my friends, doing group studies, eating lunch, or watching movies. Oh, I ignored my ex all right. The only difficult thing was the last one. You see, there were memories that made me happy and sad at the same time. I couldn’t take full control of my thoughts, and most of the time, they would go where I urged them not to.
Four out of five isn’t bad, I said. I thought I was fine moving on by myself. I thought I was actually moving on. I was perky and outgoing. I laugh a lot. I was normal.
But, what is normal, really? Is laughing a lot after a break-up normal? What about not telling my friends everything that was bugging me, all the things that disturbed my peace of mind, all the things that were proven wrong in a single moment? Does it include pretending all was right in the world, faking smiles, and deceiving everyone, even myself?
When I was with my friends, there would be a constant pause in our conversations where my ex-boyfriend’s name should be inserted. Then, there would be an awkward silence which I pretended not to notice. In my own solitary world, my ex didn’t exist. So I chose to stay there most of the time, savoring moments of solitude, moments when I could block out every painful memory, any stabbing pain in my being, everything that made this world cruel. I didn’t realize that I had been distancing myself from everyone, that in a desperate hope to get away, I built a wall around me. While I was trying to focus on what I needed to do to move on, I ignored everything else. I isolated myself.
I was blinded by my own notion that moving on has a deadline. That if I allowed sadness inside me for a long time, it would stay in my system forever. That after the tears had stopped falling, the pain would finally go away. I was scared that if I didn’t move on fast enough, the past would catch up and I would always be chasing my next love story. A love story that would get away even before it started.
But moving on isn’t moving too fast. It isn’t rushing things through, just to get over the pain sooner than it was meant to be. It is neither running from the past nor running for the future because the past always has a way of haunting people and the future has the knack of being one step ahead. Moving on is letting life take its course. Of letting pain stay as long as it wants because time heals everything anyway.
And moving on isn’t moving away. It isn’t a form of escape. I couldn’t just ignore people and places that reminded me of my ex-boyfriend because, at some point, it would all come rushing back and I wouldn’t be able to avoid it. I didn’t have to turn away from the whole world just because he was there, and he was part of it, and he was living in it. I didn’t have to forget and block out memories because, really, there is no such thing as forgetting. Only acceptance.
In that passage of time, I was always asking myself why I could not see my future boyfriend’s face. But then, I learned that he was there in front of me all along, only I was not looking at him. I was looking too far behind and too far ahead.
That was the reason why that July morning was the first time I ever saw him. Like really saw him. It was also the first time that, after a long agonizing period of searching for the right direction to move on, I saw everyone else – my friends, my classmates, and total strangers who were also moving on from something, one way or another. It was a turning point in my life, and I saw the world in a newfound light.
That time, I told myself to slow down and take it all in. I was on my way to the Math Building, and although it was drizzling and I had no umbrella, I still walked in nonchalance. I belong to the present, I said to myself, because the past is inevitable and the future is uncertain. I have to live this moment and let time take care of everything else.
Moving on is another story in itself. A story in which people, even after knowing that they should start over, get trapped in figuring out how to. It is about finding out that if there is anything that could go wrong in a given moment, it most probably would. That they have to make a lot of mistakes before figuring out how to do something right. It is about accepting that things don’t always happen the way they wanted. It is about learning how to let go, not just of others, but of their own selves, too.
Most importantly, moving on is a story that told me I didn’t have to to everything on my own. I didn’t have to rescue myself single-handedly. I didn’t have to walk alone.
So, I walked with him. Looking back, I realized that all those times, I was moving in two opposite directions in search for my rightful place in the world, that I was moving on because I was trying to find where I truly belong. That time, I found my perfect spot. Beside him.
That certain July morning, he started to make my journey more bearable.
THE DISTANCE BETWEEN
(written by my boyfriend and addressed to me)
It was the first day of classes when I first saw your face. We shared the same first subject, Analytic Geometry and Trigonometry. I noticed at once that you were different from the rest. Whereas everyone was either excited or nervous during first class meetings, you were bored. Your eyes were empty, lifeless. You searched the room for your friends, with an expression that said you would be more relieved if they were not there. And they weren’t. So you took a seat at the back and read a Grisham’s novel while waiting for the professor. It was obvious you didn’t want to be bothered.
You didn’t notice that you sat next to me. Or maybe you didn’t care. All the time, I was stealing glances at you but it seemed you weren’t aware. You also seemed oblivious to the looks our classmates were giving you. They gawked at your effortless beauty. They stared at your nonchalant class. I even became self-conscious because it looked like everyone was scrutinizing me, wondering why you chose to sit next to me, of all people.
I was surprised to see that you were also my classmate in my next subject, Creative Writing. I wanted to approach you and introduce myself but you were surrounded with friends. I then took a seat at the far end, like what I always did, and prayed you would notice me. It was the first time I heard you laughing. But when I looked at you, I found out that your smiles didn’t reach your eyes, that your laughs were all hollow. You were still empty, even with friends.
At first, I didn’t know what made me so interested about you. It wasn’t just because you’re pretty, a real head-turner. Then I understood that it was because of your aura. It was so strong I could almost touch it. It was a mix of confusing signals – one craving for closeness, the other one repulsing it. You wanted to have a connection with people but at the same time, you were distancing yourself from them. From us. That was what made me curious, I guess.
I couldn’t figure you out.
The next day, I was dumbfounded when I spotted you in my General Science class. In a school where students in a class were chosen at random, and you couldn’t even get the same classes with your friends or blockmates, it was a miracle that we were classmates in three of them. We were a hundred in that room but I still saw you, and I realized I had been looking for you all along. I sat beside you but you were again preoccupied by something or someone, and I couldn’t break into your thoughts no matter how deliberately I gazed at you. You were so near, but your mind was somewhere else. Somewhere far away. Somewhere nobody could reach.
The following days were basically the same. We were classmates in three subjects but it was as if you didn’t know I exist. We bumped into each other in the hallways but you kept on walking. You always walked too fast, like you were late for something. Or perhaps you were running away from God-knows-what. I saw you at the mall, in the library, at the track oval, and in a lot of places but you didn’t see me. I heard you talk to your friends but you weren’t really saying anything. All empty words. You never told them what was bothering you. You never let them know what was going on in your mind. You pretended you were all right.
No, don’t get me wrong. I wasn’t stalking you. It’s just that… it was so hard not to pay attention to you.
You were so alone. So lonely. It seemed that if I looked at you long enough, I would be sucked into a dark pool of nothingness.
I didn’t know if you were aware of it but you were isolating yourself from everyone, including your friends. You wanted to put a great distance between you and the whole world. Every day, I saw you sitting at the back of every classroom, trying to blend in with the wall. I thought I had no chance of talking to you and the semester would end without us exchanging a single word.
But, everything changed that certain July morning, when everyone was running from the cold drizzle outside, and you were the only one walking very slowly, as if in a trance. We were on our way to the Math building. This was the part where you tried to begin this chapter and it went like this:
“One July morning, after a month or so of feeling dormant and ignoring the world, for the first time, I saw my boyfriend. Of course he wasn’t my boyfriend yet that time.”
Yes, that was the first time you saw me, after numerous times of me trying to catch your attention. Your eyes weren’t empty anymore. There were sparkles in them, a multitude of tiny dancing lights that gave you a renewed look. You were emanating a fresh aura. There was something in you that wasn’t there before, and when you smiled at me, it wasn’t fake any longer.
I offered you my umbrella but you declined. You told me you loved walking in the rain. So I shut my umbrella and walked with you. You were utterly surprised and embarrassed when I told you that we were classmates in three subjects, and seatmates in two of them ever since the first day.
“Sorry, I wasn’t myself lately,” you told me, and you left it at that. It was the closest you could get to being personal. But it was a start, talking about yourself and admitting your problem, however vague.
I didn’t push you for answers – answers to questions that had been accumulating in my mind each time it wandered off in your direction. Who was I, a mere classmate, to ask you about things you couldn’t even tell to your friends? So, for the remaining time before our Math period, we reviewed for the exam.
We were at the cafeteria, sitting opposite each other. As we were going over our notes on basic geometry, I asked you some sort of a trivia question.
“I’ll treat you to lunch if your answer is close,” I told you.
“And what if my answer is wrong?”
“Then, you’ll treat me to lunch.”
“Okay, lunch it is, then!” you gamely said.
“What do you think is the distance between you and me right now?” I assumed you would grab your ruler and measure the diameter of the table because that was how far apart we were, more or less.
But your answer was nothing like what I expected. In that brief moment, I caught a glimpse of your soul and saw a different side of you. I saw you as someone who stopped running away. Someone who finally found a connection with the world. With me.
And if I were to capture my life in snapshots, that instant would be my favorite picture. That instant when you leaned on your chair and flashed your lopsided smile. And with much certainty in your voice, you answered, “The distance between us right now is just a heartbeat.”
BETWEEN HOLDING ON AND LETTING GO
But the end is not just a period. It is more of a thousand exclamation points in your heart and a million question marks in your mind, plus a bunch of other signs and symbols you cannot comprehend. You try to decipher what they mean and you get obsessed with finding answers. “What happens next?” you ask yourself over and over. But, most of the time, you only find the answers when you stop asking questions.
Until then, you are stuck. You are stalling. And the end keeps pulling you back. Because when you are at the edge of a cliff, you always have to think twice about taking another step forward.
I knew I was not making a lot of progress. Every time I thought about starting another love story, memories would come flooding in, drowning me in a sea of regret and longing. I nourished the what-ifs and could-have-beens. It was like every time I took a step forward, I would take two steps back. I was still secretly holding on to my past relationship, oblivious to the fact that when I fully let go of it, I would fall in the right place.
One of the hardest things in life is forcing yourself to forget things that made you happy just because it is over. The more I forced myself to forget, the more I remembered. I got frustrated when I burned all our pictures together and realized that his face was forever engraved in my memory, that I already memorized his every expression, that I could see his smile even in my sleep.
Most of the time, people cannot let go of all the hurt because they are reminders of a good love story in the past. They hold on to those shattered pieces of their relationship. It is like watering a piece of firewood, the stupidity and pointlessness of it all, and hoping it will still grow, bear fruits and flowers, and live on. Only when they let go of everything that is weighing them down and holding them back will they finally have closure and move on.
But the end is like a magnet pulling you back, making it harder for you to move forward. You see the whole world going on at its usual pace and you are the only one who’s left behind, and you break down at the unfairness of it all.
Here is to teenage romances and not knowing why they hurt like hell. Here is to falling in and out of love and running in circles. To those nights I wish I was older, better, and wiser in judging people. To songs that make me cry. To those moments I get lost in reminiscing. Moments I cannot take back.
After a while, I got tired of crying and moping around. I stumbled upon the realization that people are always going to hurt me and I will encounter more endings than this, but this is not how I want to experience the end. As much as it gave me pain, it also gave me a lesson.
Life goes on. So do I.
I gave myself another chance. This time, I told myself, I should have totally moved on before I met the new one. I was afraid that I might mistake companionship for love. I was scared that after going through a whirlwind of pain and loneliness, I might fall for the first person who would show me that I was not alone. I did not want to make the same mistake and walk along that wrong path again. This time, I told myself, I will rescue myself before someone else does.
And so, between holding on and letting go, I didn’t have to choose. I simply had no choice.
WHERE BEGINNINGS AND ENDINGS MEET
Most love stories have tricky beginnings. People often think that the question “How did it start?” is synonymous to “How did you meet?” and so they make a long account of how they first laid eyes on each other. But, except for the real love-at-first-sight, romance does not have a definite starting point. It doesn’t necessarily mean that love stories begin at first meetings. Most of the time, people are not aware of how it all started, of the exact moment that they suddenly thought of each other and one tiny smile emerged on their faces, or of the very first time sparks flew between them.
Some nights, I would lie awake looking at the glow-in-the-dark stickers on the ceiling and think about how mine started. But then, I realized that I don’t know. That somewhere between then and now, I lost myself, and I lost track of time that I only see the past, present, and future as a big shapeless entity all jumbled up and flowing into each other. That although I had a eureka moment when I was taking a bath and I screamed “I love him!” out of nowhere, the love I felt might have started way before that, when I was doodling during a boring class and I unconsciously wrote his name, or when I bumped into him at the hallway and it sent me chills all over, or when… Well, honestly, when I pinpoint a situation that might have started my current love story, I remember another one before that, and another one.
Until my mind takes me to memories even before I met him, right when my previous relationship ended.
Every relationship that ends, ends brutally. Couples may walk calmly and quietly away from each other but they could still hear themselves breaking into pieces. They may say the famous line, “We could still be friends,” but things don’t ever stay the same. Goodbyes get stuck on their throats, and they choke because they know that when they utter those words, it will all be final. They hold on to that one last thread of hope, like children trying to preserve a soap bubble, and they pray silently, “Just for one more second please, let us be infinite.”
Endings are harsh and painful. You know, the usual crying yourself to sleep, refusing to eat or eating a lot, shutting yourself in your room, thinking of the past, wallowing in self-pity. I remember how devastated I was over my last break-up. I drifted in and out of sleep only to find out that it’s still the same damn day. I welcomed grief and regret. I hugged my loneliness. I got stranded between relieving memories and running away from them.
I lost my inspiration. I gave up those dreams we painted on the night sky. I believed everything was finished. I even tried to finish myself. But, there was something inside me that was still fighting my lost battle. I felt a faint flicker of hope, a tiny bud of faith, that this misery would not take forever. Nothing is permanent. Endings also end.
And the end of an end becomes the beginning of a new beginning.
Endings are the perfect beginnings, don’t you think? Just when a caterpillar got swallowed by its coccoon, it turned into a butterfly. Just when I thought the night was endless, the sun shone at the horizon. Just when I got my heart broken by the person I thought I’d marry, someone better came along.
A better me.
I got up one morning, after a relationship that happened so fast and ended too soon, and opened the windows to let sunlight into my dreary room. Summer was almost over and I felt that the sun was giving all its energy and bursting in its brightness for one last time before it went hiding behind the clouds of June. That was the time I gave myself another chance. Basking under the early morning sunshine, that was the moment I knew something I have known all along. I would have another love story.
And that, I decided, was where this love story started. At the end.