I was lost.
“Shit,” I muttered, my eyes darting around as I steered my car into another unfamiliar street.
I had another one of those episodes where I was just driving around aimlessly until I came to my senses and I couldn’t recognize where I was anymore. I was still in Las Piñas—maybe. I just didn’t know where exactly. But, lost as I was, I really didn’t want to hear Waze’s incessant voice blaring from my speakers, telling me where to go. I guess, like everybody else these days, I just wanted to be… somewhere.
I sighed, turned onto another street, and saw a familiar sign in the distance, almost making me step on the brake and stop right where I was. I wanted to make a U-turn and speed away to where I came from. Instead, I slowed down and stared at the sign that I was drawing nearer to, until I was parked, looking at it from the opposite side of the street.
I wasn’t just familiar with it; I designed it.
More than ten years ago.
For someone special.
Of course, it wasn’t the same four-foot-wide, painted on signboard of his name that we commissioned those years ago. It was now a light box sign that stretched the width of what looked to be a barbershop—an empty barbershop, at the moment. Right beside it was an equally empty coffee shop with a similarly designed light box sign, that was almost an extension of the sign on its left, with a different name—mine.
Or maybe it was just a coincidence.
But, seriously, maybe I should send him a bill for this.
I put my mask on and got out of the car, slightly stunned, still staring at both signs. If I let my imagination run wild, in front of me could be a sentence that I would have wanted to hear—or read—more than ten years ago.
Inside my head, the voices that would usually tell me to run away were unusually silent. Or, maybe, the pounding inside my chest was really just a lot louder.
I didn’t know what it was—curiosity or just plain hopeful thinking—but I started walking towards the barbershop, as antsy as I had started to feel right then.
I could always pretend to ask for directions. I was lost, anyway.
Or I could also get a haircut. I looked like I needed one. Not that I wanted it.
Like most guys during this pandemic, I had no choice but to grow my hair long. It was actually a choice that I like and wholeheartedly agreed with, so when the government finally eased a little on the lockdown and allowed barbers to operate, I wasn’t one of those making an appointment to get a hair cut.
But, here I was, pushing my way into an empty barbershop.
A buzzer sounded as soon as I pushed the door open, specifically from inside the room at the end of the shop. Its door was ajar enough to let out the sound of someone shuffling inside it, and soon after, a voice called out.
“I’ll be right there. Just a sec!”
And my heart thundered.
The voice had changed, somewhat, but it was still the same.
It was enough to send my mind back down memory lane, more than ten years ago, to when I was all of an idealist, a hopeless romantic, and a bastion of stupidity.
And yes, I was a crazy mixture of all those things in 2008—typical of twenty-year-olds who thought they’d put distance from their teens and felt they were pretty awesome. Not quite gods’ gift to men, but just that, pretty awesome. I didn’t realize how I was back then, but now that it has come back biting me in the ass every now and then, I can see it perfectly for what it was.
Back then, I spent every Friday nights, Saturdays, and sometimes, even Sundays at Ali’s. He was, sort of, my entrance into the Pinoy gay world—or maybe just the gay world, in general. He and I were both members of a gay Filipino online forum which was very active back then and, sort of, a popular site for those who were closeted and did not have the freedom to express themselves anywhere else but also wanted to stay hidden deep in that closet. I know now that there were other social media sites back then that gay guys used to look for sex in, but during that time, what I was mostly interested in was exchanging thoughts with people who were in the same boat as I was—basically, misery loving the company. So, that forum became kind of my go-to internet site. It was my safe space back then. The fact that a lot of the members lived a city or two away, if not in the same city as I was, also added to its appeal to me, made me feel that if I needed someone to talk to personally, it would be easy to find one.
Then, in October of 2008, after a suggestion from one of the guys, we, Ali included, decided to meet up for a few rounds of beer somewhere in Pasig. That drinking session was soon followed up by a couple more until each of us got to know each other pretty well and could call ourselves acquaintances, more or less. Then, in February of the next year, after an invitation to a round of bowling with some of Ali’s friends, we hooked up.
He wasn’t the first guy I had sex with—he was the second—but he was the first that I tried to play house with. He was eight years older than me, and back then, it felt like a twenty-year gap that—I could see now—intoxicated my ego more than my, well, heart. I met up with him as often as I could even if the commute from my house in Las Piñas to his condo in Makati took me at least an hour. That was, until I got a job as a customer service representative for a travel agency in Makati in April 2009—him, being the main reason for that decision—and we were seeing each other almost everyday to the point that I was basically, for the majority of the time, living with him.
I thought we were simply enjoying each other’s company and the state of having no labels to pressure us into couple-associated public activities, or as public as a couple could get when one of them, me, still had his other foot in the closet. We were trading I-love-you’s even though most of the time we spent with each other was on his bed, fucking, and I never really gave it much thought until he failed to respond to my texts one day on my way to work.
Looking back, I can say that I honestly did love him for a certain period of time during our fling. There was this genuine desire in me then to be with him and settle down with him for that moment’s foreseeable future, and at that point in time, I understood what it was to not want to look at another. So, when he failed to respond to any of my texts and calls, I felt so worried I didn’t think twice about becoming late for work just to check on him, only to find that he was sick due to symptoms of an STI—he told me—that I never did find out what specifically to this day.
We always had sex without condoms, but I did not feel even the least bit afraid of contracting whatever it was he had. What I felt instead was utter confusion, that I did not care at all about being late for two hours, spending it in a park near my workplace, staring at nothing. I felt that, maybe, at that point, the hopeless romantic in me—if there ever really was—died, and just for a tiny bit more, I was seeing the world for what it really was. I decided then that whatever he did, I also could do. So, when he caught me in the act of physically flirting with a guy from his building, I shrugged it off as just another nail in the coffin of whatever it is we thought we had, which may or may not have been the same thing for either one of us. Though, I was left with a feeling that finally made me stop toeing our boundaries. It was a feeling that wrung my gut for days.
Around June of 2009, Ali moved to a two-bedroom condo in Boni, right along EDSA, with a girl friend of his. Despite everything, there was enough of a delusional part in me that still held on to the thought of us being together, so when it seemed to me like he was trying to pump second wind into our labelless relationship, I rode in the enjoyable feeling of it, for a time, even though I felt then that we were probably headed nowhere. And nowhere, it proved, was only about a month away, since Boni, for most of the time, was almost an hour farther from Las Piñas than Makati was. A distance that, I believed, Ali never considered even to this day.
We did not have matching shifts, so whenever I stayed with him, I spent a couple of hours all by myself while he slept. I mostly watched his DVD’s during those times, but since most of the movies he owned were too much drama for my taste, I soon ran out of things to do. If only the internet in the Philippines back then was the same as it is now, I probably would have stayed holed up in front of his laptop instead of developing the habit of strolling the streets below during those times I was bored out of my mind.
Near the condominium building Ali lived in, a flea market operated 24/7. It had about 50 stalls, maybe, and during my strolls, I would usually frequent the place just to ogle the items being sold or for a quick snack—I mostly gravitated towards the fried noodles stall. The place had an easy-going atmosphere to it. There were speakers set up all over the place that played all kinds of music, mostly pop songs. So, I could say, it was the highlight of my strolls, and probably why I saved the place for last before returning to Ali’s condo.
It was one of those days that was neither hellish nor perfect when one of the stalls made me do a double take. I was sitting on one of those metal benches that was welded directly on its counterpart metal table and was munching on a just-got-off-the-pan spicy fried noodles with two or three squid balls mixed in it, just lightly daydreaming while I chew. For some reason, they had no music going on at that time and the only sound you could hear were of the occasional passing of vehicles on the highway a few meters away, the blown horn here and there, but mostly the echo of rain as it fell on the metal roof high above the flea market.
I imagine, if I were in the same spot today, I would’ve had my earphones on, watching something on YouTube or listening to my playlist on Spotify as I eat. I wouldn’t have had the time nor inclination to look anywhere else.
In one of the stalls, unusually, was a slightly buff Korean-looking guy who looked to be about the same age and height as I was—I was on the taller side for Filipinos at a little less than 5’8”. There was no one in the stall but him. I knew it sold pirated CDs of music, movies, etc—basically, anything you can get on a CD at that time when internet in the Philippines made torrenting a form of torture—which he was rifling through when my eyes landed on him. I can still remember he was wearing a blue T-shirt, black jeans, flip-flops, and a black fanny pack that you can also wear as a sling bag, but that time, he was wearing it as a fanny pack. Either he was one of the vendors or he was trying to impersonate them, but since no one minded his presence, I assumed the former. It was unusual for him to be there because whenever I passed by the stall, it was a middle-aged woman manning it.
I quickly finished my noodles, crumpled the paper bowl, and threw it with the chopsticks in a nearby bin before going over to the stall, trying to be as casual as I could. Korean Guy was then hunched in a chair in front of the TV that was playing a movie I couldn’t remember now, fiddling on the remote of what I could only assume to be their DVD player. He threw me a brief glance, meeting my eyes, before looking back down at the remote. I mentally shrugged my shoulders and started going through their CD collection, crossing off a checklist inside my head of things I was allowed to watch at home.
Like most Filipinos—well, Asians, actually—I was a 21-year-old who was still living with my parents. They were not just devout Christians, but they were also quite radical about it. If they could have their way, we would have had the Bible as the Constitution of the Philippines, complete with stoning the sinners and all that. At least, that was my impression of them—still is. I hated them back then. Now, I just think of it as them being too high on their opium, though that does not make me hate them any less. Looking back, this was probably the main reason why I was so eager to play house with Ali even when I felt that he probably only kept me to have someone to fuck all the time.
I couldn’t just buy any CD off the shelf. I did not have my own computer in my room at home—it crashed the previous year and could not be resurrected anymore—so, I had no choice but to use either the TV or computer in the living room where everyone could see my choice of heresy. That’s why, if I was going to spend money on something, it had to be something I wouldn’t get stoned, in the Biblical sense, for. Hence, my mental checklist, and right at the top of it was 'no homos’.
As much as my initial purpose when I went into the stall was to check out Korean Guy, I immediately got immersed in looking at all their CDs. I particularly concentrated on all the animes, remembering that I used to follow a series on TV, Eyeshield 21, before I became too busy with everything and that I never got to finish it. Unfortunately, I couldn’t find it anywhere in the stall.
“Hey, looking for something in particular?” said a voice to my left in Tagalog with an almost unnoticeable Visayan accent, but since I have sensitive ears to tone, I heard it clearly.
It was Korean Guy. I didn’t even notice him standing right beside me until he spoke. He was smiling—not one of those salesman smiles, but a genuine one. Both his eyebrows were slightly raised, clearly waiting for an answer.
“Uh… actually, I’m looking for Eyeshield Twenty-one,” I told him, not taking my eyes away from his, feeling my heart beat just a little bit harder than usual. “You don’t have it here.”
“Hm.” He looked at the row of anime CDs my finger was pointing at, breaking our eye contact, before leaning into the pile and starting to rifle through them. His lips gave a slight pout after looking at the last CD, and I caught myself almost licking my lips. “Right. Do you want it?” he asked, looking back at me with his brows furrowed before standing up straight. “I can get it for you, but… it might take a while.”
“Yeah,” I answered, looking at the teeth showing through his grin. “I want it.”
They apparently kept a list of requests in a hardbound log book, which he took from a backpack—his, I assumed—hanging on the corner of the stall. Since, he said, the title was unfamiliar to him, he asked me to write it down at the bottom of the list and to check back after a week.
The beating inside my chest began to pound harder and faster as I made the quick decision to be both brave and dumb. I wrote “Eyeshield 21” after the last entry. Right beside it, I also jotted down my name and number for anyone to see, even though I saw that all the other titles in the page were clearly without my addition, before handing the log book back to Korean Guy. Amusement was written on his face as he looked back and forth at me and the page of the open log book I had just written on. He closed it, then put it back into the backpack.
“Right, uh, Jacob. I’ll text you,” he said with a pause, “when I have your CD.”
“Thanks.” I tried to smile at him, as much as my sudden nervousness would allow me, before willing myself to finally walk away and back towards Ali’s building.
I definitely, definitely developed a crush on him.
The next few days after that saw me less and less at Ali’s, eventually leading me to forget about the encounter with Korean Guy. The commute to and from my house in Las Piñas was simply killing me, that even though I was only doing it no more than three times a week, I became less and less willing to do it each time. I never really brought it up with Ali nor had he ever asked about it from the start of our “relationship”; I just assumed he understood since he knew where I really lived. It was just another thing that accelerated the deterioration of my relationship with him.
The final nail in the coffin for me was one Friday, when, after work, I was standing like a fool in front of their door, ringing both their doorbell and his phone, a few times more than I cared to count, and no one was letting me in nor picking up my call. Staying with him every Friday after my shift had already been basically routine for the past few months, and I felt it suspicious that he didn’t let me know in advance that he wouldn’t be there that day—if he even really wasn’t. For the first time since I’d known him, I was sincerely pissed off and couldn’t help being reminded of the time he told me he caught an STI from somewhere—because I was a hundred percent sure it was definitely not from me—which I then, finally, started to feel angry at. I stewed in anger on the floor outside his door for about an hour before accepting the fact that for that weekend, I would be staying in my house in Las Piñas with a couple of Jesus freaks.
I also decided to end everything with Ali. I did not want to see him again.
So, when he texted me the next day to apologize and say he was with friends at a birthday party, my only response was “Let’s end this. I don’t want to do this anymore.”
I don’t even want to detail the entire phone conversation that followed after that. He basically blamed everything on me because I—to make his long rant short—was a cheater and did not make any effort for our then still labelless relationship. He also threw in the fact that his friends thought he should have dumped me earlier ago when he had caught me with someone else. Back then, his words felt like—I didn’t know for sure though—he was trying rub in the fact that I was just a closeted gay guy who didn’t have anyone to talk to about the situation we were in. Or maybe he was just really trying to pick a fight—I didn’t know. But, at that time, I just felt really tired of everything concerning the two of us, so I let him have his way, let him feel he was ending it on his terms. I remember thinking back then that if he had wanted to do it personally, I was going to tell him that he was free to come all the way to Las Piñas because I sure as hell wasn’t going to Boni just for a rehash of that phone conversation.
In any case, we are on better terms now. Yes, we did see each other again after a while, and the few times that we did, for me, were not as bad as it might have been for others in the same situation as us. We aren’t friends, but we also don’t hate each other. We just simply choose to glaze over those few months in the past when, for some reason or another, both our paths met and overlapped and meandered.
Our break up—if I could call it that—affected my motivation for the weekday commutes going to work in Makati, or maybe more specifically, my motivation for work. I wasn’t late everyday, but I was cutting it close. There were times when even if I wasn’t late, I would call in that I would be, when, all the while, I would just be sitting on one of the benches in the park nearby the office, staring at nothing. I also began searching for a job nearer to my house, with hopefully the same amount of pay, if not more.
One Thursday morning, on my way to work, I received a text message from an unregistered number.
“Hey, I have your Eyeshield 21,” it said.
I immediately knew who it was from. It had been almost three weeks since I’d had that encounter with Korean Guy, and I had already forgotten about him. But, the feeling that receiving his text message brought me, that he had not forgotten about me—even if I had—lifted my mood up by a mile along with my crush on him suddenly surging back. Never mind that the logical part of me told me that he was just following through with the request I made when I left their store both my name and number.
“Nice! Can you hold on to it until Saturday? I’ll pick it up then,” I replied to him, saving his number as KG and letting my imagination run wild.
“Sure. How about porn? Want one?”
My heart started pounding, all my focus concentrated on my phone. Looking back, he probably was just looking to sell me more stuff, but to me, it looked like an opportunity I would regret passing up. I was just glad that the me back then, on top of being braver than the me now, was also too stupid to recognize that fact. It felt both easy and difficult to type my reply, but I really wanted to know what he would say.
“I don’t watch straight porn though,” I sent him.
“What do you mean?”
Come on, really?
Him drawing it out—deliberately or not—amped up my nervousness, making my fingers shake as I typed my reply and making me feel more like a thirteen-year-old who was trying to flirt through text for the first time. It was a good thing no one was sitting next to me on the bus. No one saw me agonize over those few text messages.
“I’d rather watch m2m.”
“That so. Why not have the real thing instead?”
“Sure, as long as it’s with you :D” I replied, as fast as my shaking fingers would allow. All the while, my heart blasted in my ears and definitely did not feel the same as the emoticon I just sent him.
Not more than ten seconds later, his reply came. “Why not ;)”
And I was finally able to breathe easier.
Every time I remember the tiptoeing I had to do back then—and that was probably the most blatant tiptoeing in the history of conversations—I can’t help but shake my head in amazement at how gay guys these days really have it so easy. All I had to do now is go on Grindr or whatever app and I would see all the nearby gay guys who are pretending to look for a relationship but, in my experience, are actually just there to look for a quick fuck, just like anyone using the app. There isn’t even a need to come out to each other anymore, unless the one I was interested in is not on the app. There is no longer that fear that maybe this hot guy I was buddies with will hate me if I make a move on him because it would be easier to just forget about him—I could just open the app and look for someone else to quench the thirst.
But back then—yes, I know I now sound like my parents—all the tiptoeing I did was laced with an indescribable fear of the unknown, which I know only closeted Asian gay guys living with their Christian parents could relate to. I wasn’t going into it blind just for a quick fuck—though, of course, it should at least be in the package, no pun intended—but I also wanted to find out along the way if the guy was, maybe, the one meant for me in the long run. I mean, back then, because it was so rare to meet a gay guy that liked you back, that each one you’d meet gets categorized into the one. That was why even though I was scared of that conversation and was tiptoeing on it, I did so as blatantly as I could with Korean Guy. I wanted to get a feel of how my chances would fare with him, and I was glad I did.
However, while I admittedly liked him and saw him then as a potential 'the one’, I had also learned a few things from dating Ali, and one of which was that commuting back and forth to a place three cities away from mine is exhausting even if you stayed the night at his place. So when KG and I decided on a place and time, we agreed on the coming Saturday at 9 p.m., with my stipulation that we were to meet halfway, which, to my estimation, was at Gil Puyat Station—I didn’t measure it in distance but in travel time, which was about an hour from mine and almost an hour from his. He had no objections when I told him where I lived, only that, since I chose the place, I should also choose where we stay.
I decided to go there early to see my choices and ended up checking in at Victoria Court, one of those motel chains that seemed to have a branch in every city. It was located on a one-way street a block away from Gil Puyat Station. From the highway, there was a car-wide alley lined with food stalls that went directly to the street the motel was on. It was so secluded that I would not have expected it to be there had it not been for the sign at the corner of the alley and the highway, just perfect for two guys who did not want to be seen going to a motel together.
When I opened the door for him, he only gave me a brief second to be awkward and nervous before pulling me by the back of my neck, his mouth latching on to mine almost at the same instant. His tongue wasted no time, going into my mouth, as ragged hot breath from both our nostrils fanned our faces. The next thing I knew, we were already on top of the bed without our clothes, still kissing, with him on top of me as we humped each other through our underwear, feeling his hands in my hair and on my neck as both of mine roamed the smooth skin all over his back.
From that moment and every moment after that, a single thought formed and burst its way out of my subconscious when we both climaxed: his body was made for mine.
And, maybe, mine was made for his.
A few seconds passed of me just staring at the ceiling, feeling the warm sweaty skin of his arm right next to my left while listening to the sound of the both of us panting almost violently—it was somewhat hypnotizing—until he spoke.
“By the way,” he said, still catching his breath, “my name’s John.”
Chuckles got mixed into pants as I turned my head sideways to look at him. He was grinning at me, his eyes nearly squinting, and I just couldn’t help but return that grin back to him.
If I could, I would have stopped the time right at that moment.
Over the years, it was always that span of the first hour of the first time we spent the night together that seemed to incessantly find its way to the surface of my memory, often at odd times, sometimes even in my dreams. Every time I had sex with someone, I knew somewhere deep inside my mind, a part of me sat and compared everything to that. It was most probably why, though I’m still early in my thirties—and I’d never say this out loud—I have not had sex with anyone for a long time now.
For some reason that wasn’t clear to me back then, I had kept putting off asking him his name. Looking back, I now knew it was the fear that the question would give him a hint I was interested in more than just a quick fuck—irrational, I know—which might make him decide to back out of the whole thing altogether. But him, telling me his name then, gave me hope.
I raised myself a little and leaned in to give his lips a soft kiss, something I had wanted to do since the first time I laid eyes on him, and that I was finally able to do so made me feel so giddy inside.
“Shower?” I asked, and he agreed, still grinning.
It was honestly the most casual encounter I’ve ever had with anyone in the shower, not that I’d already been with a lot back then. There was only Ali, and whenever we did, it was mostly to have sex in it. With John, there was an air of ease. It was almost like we were just children, playing in the rain, even though we couldn’t refrain from hugging each other once in a while or steal kisses here and there. It was addicting.
Afterwards, he asked me to join him for a walk outside to look for somewhere to eat dinner—his treat, he said—since he hadn’t had one because he couldn’t really leave the store earlier with it being a weekend. We settled on a place that had fried chicken, which, as soon as he saw, he seemed to immediately crave.
“You new? To the store, I mean. Where’s the auntie?” I asked him.
He chuckled. “I own it—the store. And she quit,” he said, shrugging his shoulders.
“Wha—really? That store is yours?” You pirate, I mentally added, almost laughing out loud at the thought.
“Yeah, it’s mine.” He sighed. “The day before we met was her last day, and I just couldn’t find someone yet as a replacement. I also have another one in San Juan. Good thing my guy there hasn’t quit yet. Before the auntie quit, I used to just drop by both stores everyday to restock, get the daily sales, and get the list of requests. Which is why it took me this long to get your Eyeshield Twenty-one. I really need that replacement soon. It’s killing me.” He was shaking his head and sporting a slight pout at the end.
I couldn’t help looking at him incredulously after that rant. “How old are you?”
“Don’t worry, I’m still probably near your age—twenty-one.”
“Psh. I’m the same age. So, you’re… rich?”
“No. I wish, but no.” He grinned. “Just… um, resourceful, I guess.”
“Resourceful,” I repeated, nodding, wishing I had his brain and guts. At twenty-one, I was a college dropout, hopping from job to job and somewhat resigned to my slightly-higher-than-minimum-wage pay which may never improve.
He glanced down at his plate for a bit before looking me in the eye again, scratching the back of his neck, almost like he suddenly felt shy. And, maybe, he was. I found it cute, though. And if only we weren’t at some diner where anyone could see us, I would have already planted my lips on his.
“I used to help my uncle with his own store. He also sells”—he chuckled—“CDs—pirated CDs—of, well, everything, and—I dunno—I had this inspiration. I had money saved up, and I used it to buy CDs from his supplier. I prioritized the requests from his store, then the ones we usually sold often, and I mixed them in with the CDs he had in his store. Eventually, I had enough CDs and money to start on my own and”—he shrugged, still with that shy expression on his face—“here we are, I guess.”
“You’re amazing,” I told him, and I absolutely meant it.
I couldn’t help jumping him when we got back inside the room, and he laughingly obliged, repeating everything we did earlier but much slower. Sleeping was then preceded by cuddling, which he seemed to like, and generally just listening to the sound of him breathing, my infatuation growing by the second. When I woke up a few hours later because of the cold, my mind instantly became alert. The blanket was at my waist, and I was alone in bed.
I looked around and found John, fully clothed, kneeling on the floor on his side of the bed, mumbling words I couldn’t make out. He was praying, I realized. He dipped his head to the ground for a few seconds before kneeling upright again, then turned his head to the right, then to the left, and once again faced forward, totally silent. He was still for a few seconds before turning to look at me, showing no sign of surprise at finding me awake, staring at him. Flashing me a smile, he stood and stretched himself, yawning, before removing all his clothes. Then, he went under the blanket, kissed me on the lips, and wrapped an arm around my chest.
He sighed. “I’m Muslim, yeah.”
I turned my body to face him and recognized the uncertainty on his face as we made eye contact. “It doesn’t really matter,” I half-whispered, before hugging him tightly and kissing his lips. The kiss turned into a make out session, and we were soon having sex with the same passion that we had the first time.
It became our routine. Sex, shower, late night walk, late dinner or midnight snack, sex, cuddle to sleep, wake up to him praying, sex, and breakfast. The rest of the week, we’d be texting each other all buddylike. Somehow, it was a routine I never got tired of. In fact, it was probably a routine I lived off. There were times—most of it, actually—that it even felt like it didn’t matter that I was living with those Jesus freaks for six days of the week. As long as that routine went on. As long as the coming weekend was the same as the one before it.
By the third weekend of meeting each other, it was clear to me that we could have something going on, if we just took the time to talk about it. He was better than Ali in so many ways, and I found myself happier than any moment in the past twenty-one years and so on of my existence. However, I was too scared to initiate that conversation. I was afraid it would lead nowhere or worse, as that was also the time he started telling me not to fall in love with him.
He said he was going to get married and have a family someday.
I didn’t know if it was because of family expectations on his part or his religious beliefs, but I found myself believing—more like trying to convince myself—that the feelings I thought we might have for each other were just figments of my imagination. In my mind back then, I tried to convince myself that we were just two lonely souls who were in it for the company. His family was in a far away island, in Mindanao, while mine was as far away as heaven and hell. We were merely each other’s breathing room.
Since then, “don’t fall in love with me” became included in his dialogues. Sometimes, “because I’m gonna marry someday” or “I will have a family someday” would join in. And whenever he would say them to me, I never could quite gauge how he felt behind it. For me, it hurt, of course, and I tried so hard to be as nonchalant with it as I could. But the longer we were together as fuck buddies, the more those words hurt. However, being with him, even for just one day every week, was enough for me to look past my hurt feelings.
By December 2009, John already had three stores of his own, and he seemed happy with how things were going for him on the business front. Of course, by that time, I was already familiar enough with him that I could tell him his stores could get shut down any minute because it was illegal and also that the demand would soon wane since the internet was improving and torrent was becoming more accessible. His only response was that he’d already thought about it and that he had a few ideas. Regardless, during that time, business was booming for him.
It was booming enough for him to consider going home to his family in Cagayan de Oro for almost two weeks. He would be leaving by plane on the twenty-third and would be back on the evening of January first. Then, on the second, we would have our usual Saturday night. He told me he would be paying his cousin to do a few of his jobs for him, especially the restocking part, and it seemed that he trusted his sellers enough to leave them the store for that long. In our case, we would miss one of our Saturday meetings, the twenty-sixth, and that would be it.
It was a simple enough plan, until one Saturday became two, and two became three. And by the fourth, I had resigned myself to the fact that I had been tossed aside. With that in mind, I couldn’t muster up enough courage to go after him. Seeing my messages unanswered hurt, and bearing it and moving on from it were the easiest choices I could think of.
It wasn’t my first heartbreak; it was the second. But with Ali, the signs were all there. It was so gradual that it was almost painless. In fact, it was such a relief that I sometimes find myself wondering why I even call it a heartbreak. With John, it felt like I was forced off a plane to skydive without a parachute, and there was just nothing of me left on the ground to scrape off.
But, then again, maybe it was for the best. If things hadn’t gone the way it had, it was just a matter of time, anyway, until he tosses me aside, marries, and starts his own family. I was gay, through and through. I wasn’t like him, who, maybe, was just with me to get his rocks off. Except, I knew that wasn’t how he treated me. In fact, I never felt like we had to work on a relationship at all. We just simply had it. We were just ourselves, especially with each other, and getting used to not having any of that anymore was, at times, excruciating. But, I also did not want to be strung along anymore. So, in my mind back then, it really was for the best.
On the night of my birthday, January 27, I was nearly asleep when the sound of my phone’s text message alert zapped me awake.
“Can we meet?” it said.
And I could only stare at it.
Deep inside, I knew it made me happy, of course, but I also decided to be rational about it. I tried to be an adult about it—whatever that meant.
The phone rang as I was still staring at John’s message.
And, again, I could do nothing else but stare at it.
It was the last time I ever heard from him again. The fact that I also changed my number the day after that was probably also a huge factor why.
Sometimes, I wonder if things would have been different if I had only replied to that text message or answered the call that followed.
Sometimes, I wonder if things would have been different if I had only agreed to stay at his place that first time we hooked up, if only Ali hadn’t scarred me that much back then, and if only I had been more willing to give more of myself to John the way I did with Ali. I wonder what could have been if I hadn’t been scared to tell John I loved him back then the way I was so brave to say those words to Ali. If, just maybe, I had held on to John the way I held on to Ali even when I knew he was fucking other guys besides me, the past ten years would probably have been a lot happier for the both of us.
I was a fool.
I was a coward.
These two things I kept telling myself everyday for the past ten years.
I sat myself down on a barber chair, feeling so thoroughly overwhelmed at the fact that my earlier suspicions—or hopes—were now confirmed.
It felt like I was waiting for my executioner.
I wanted to run away, but, at the same time, I wanted to wait.
When he finally came out of the room, reading something on his phone, I couldn’t stop looking at him through the mirror in front of me. He was wearing a plain grey T-shirt on a pair of black cargo shorts and a pair of black flip flops. Though anyone could tell he was taking care of his body, he wasn’t as buff as the last time I saw him, while I was able to maintain my weight through the years.
I couldn’t help inhaling through my face mask, trying to take in his scent, when he leaned forward to place his phone on top of the counter in front of me. At that moment, our eyes met through the mirror, and I swear I could almost see the longing in mine reflected in his. I could almost imagine his mouth flapping soundlessly inside his mask. He recognized me.
He turned to really look at me instead of through the mirror, removing the mask on his face and almost gingerly putting a hand on my shoulder. I had to look up just to gaze into his eyes once again.
I removed my mask and tried to smile. “John.”
“I’ve looked everywhere for you,” he said, almost whining the way he used to back then. His voice cracked; his eyes brimmed with tears.
“I didn’t,” I replied, tears starting to spill from my eyes, “but here we are.”
He started to back away, breathing heavily, and almost plopped down on the leather couch a meter behind the barber chairs. Through the mirror, I watched him raise both his hands to cover his face as his shoulders shook and his sniffles started to fill the shop. My heart wrenched. I stood from my seat and sat beside him, patting his back, before deciding—to hell with it—to pull him by the neck into me and let him cry on my shoulder.
“I’m so sorry, John.”
“No, no, no,” he said, in between sniffles, pushing himself off of me and looking into my eyes. “I’m sorry. Please, please forgive me.”
I chuckled. “Fine, okay.”
He smiled through his tears. “Can I kiss you?” he asked.
I didn’t answer him. I put his face in between my palms and slowly pulled him closer to mine, keeping my eyes on his. He grinned the grin I used to love seeing on his face back when we were younger, filling my chest with so many indescribable feelings. When our lips touched, the kiss was soft only for a few seconds until I felt both of his hands on my head, and we were kissing each other like there was no tomorrow—or covid, for that matter.
In that moment, I felt complete, and hot tears spilled from my eyes once again at that thought. I didn’t realize until now how, all along, this was really all that I had been needing for the past ten years. This was what has been missing from my life.
He was my other half.
He was my soulmate.
And, I would never let this end again.
Moments later, we found ourselves snuggly lying on the couch, looking into each other’s eyes. He was holding on to me, so I won’t fall to the floor, my right hand touching parts of him here and there.
“Are you sure you want to cut this?” he asked, touching the small bun of hair at the back of my head. I used to tell him I wanted to grow my hair long.
“No, I just”—I chuckled—“I saw the sign.”
We had a lot to talk about, but for now, that seemed like a good start.
Many thanks to Anthony Camacho for looking over this story. Any remaining mistakes are mine alone. Please send any feedback to sirjito[at]gmail.com.