How I Met My…

It was twelve years ago; on a cold, windy night similar to this; on a ship bound to Cebu.  I was a nerdy college boy with braces, carrying a guitar, trying to remember the chords and the lines of a Spongecola song, with a bunch of flowers hidden in my back pocket, looking at the door. She would open it soon, and I will begin strumming and nervously singing. The nerves got the best of me, and things didn’t exactly pan out as planned. But on that night, I finally expressed my true feelings for a best friend; my first love.

 

A montage of fastfood dates, movies, and jeepney rides later, I found myself crying in the cold breeze of Tagaytay. Don’t judge me. I was young and juvenile, and I thought it was the end of the world. If you know me well today, you’d think I would have done a “nagmahal, nasaktan, nag-travel”. But that JD twelve years ago was practically a travel virgin. I was actually a little scared of travelling, more so travelling alone. So I did what I thought at that time was the best thing to do – get a job.

 

My first job was perfect. BPO. Travel. If you’re from the industry you would know. It paid pretty decently. I met a lot of new people, and even dated once in a while. Although I was initially doing it out of bitterness and heartbreak, I soon fell in love with that job. And I learned so much about travel while I was at it.

 

The next three years meant I was single for three Valentines days. Honestly though, I vaguely remember how I spent them.

 

I may have spent them with friends, most probably drinking at the balcony of a cheap apartment somewhere in J.P. Rizal.

 

I may have spent them with family. Typical mall dinner, pretending to be stoic about every bug-bitten couple, holding hands, flowers, chocolates, movies, and every cliché in between.

 

Or I most probably may have been alone, flicking the remote to Cinema One to find out if John Lloyd and Bea was playing, and immediately flicking to Jack TV, settling for South Park, pretending to cringe at the sight of Popoy and Basha making juvenile promises at the UST school grounds in the rain.

 

I may have had friends and family and TV, but the reality was I was alone, like all single people feel during the love month. But what I didn’t know is that 2009 is the last year I would be alone, and not just on Valentines.

 

I remember how excited I was around this time that year because in less than two weeks, I would ride the airplane for the first time in my life and, coincidentally, it was a trip to Cebu. I vividly remember the first time I stepped on the sands of Bantayan; my first sniff and bite of ngohiong (which I would discover later on that wasn’t the best yet); colourful jeepneys with route codes unlike in Manila; and walking inside our Cebu office for the first time (it was partly a business trip).

 

The office almost looked exactly the same. The same computers, the same phones, similar carpets. And then I saw her. She was wearing jeans and a white shirt. She had long black hair, and her eyes looked at me cheerfully. Then she smiled at me as if we have been friends forever.

 

I instantly forgot about my ‘best friend’ and how I cried on the phone when she got married a year ago; I instantly forgot about getting wasted every night for two weeks before deciding to move on and get a job; I instantly forgot about the jeepney rides to Project 8, the night classes at PUP main, and the 15-peso lugaw dates; I instantly forgot being the newbie shy nerd in the office trying to improve himself, not just to fit in but also to bitterly show a better face should I get the chance to meet her again; I instantly forgot about me ugly-crying at a chilly roadside, waiting for the bus home, contemplating whether I should ride it or stand in front of it to die. That moment, all the pain and bitterness was gone.

 

What I didn’t realize is that the pieces of my heart were no longer scattered around Tagaytay, Sta. Mesa, and Quezon City. I found it whole in Cebu, carefully held by this woman smiling at me. I fell in love again.

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Kapit Lang

Kapit lang, kapit lang.

 

Ilang beses ko nang sinabi.
Ilang beses ka na ring nakinig at sumunod.
Kahit gaano kabilis ang takbo ng buhay;
kahit gaano kabagal ang pagdating ng ginhawa;
kahit madalas ay masakit ang mga kasu-kasuhan sa puyat at trabaho;
kahit minsan kumakalam ang sikmura;
kumakapit ka pa rin.

 

Kapit lang, kapit lang.

 

Sa sigawang minsan ay inaabot ng bukangliwayway;
sa katahimikan matapos ang mahabang pagtatalo;
sa ngiti mo na nagsasabing “pinapatawad na kita, patawarin mo rin ako”;
sa mahigpit na hawak ng kamay mo na nagsasabing “mahal pa rin kita”;
sa dampi ng labi mo at sa init ng yakap mo;
at sa sigawan, katahimikan, ngiti, hawak, halik, at yakap;
ng susunod na pagtatalo.

 

Kapit lang, kapit lang.

 

Muli kong pakiusap;
muling nagdadasal na sana huli na ito;
muling umaasa na umayos na ang lahat sa wakas;
muling humingi ng palugit sa puso mo, na alam kong sawa nang kumapit.
Huwag ka sana mawalan ng pag-asa;
huwag din sana masimot ang sa akin;
dahil minsan parang malapit na.

 

Kapit lang; kapit lang

 

Salamat sa pagkapit.
Salamat sa pagtitiwala.
Salamat sa pag-ibig.
Kahit nandito pa rin tayo;
malayo sa doon na hinahangad.
Malungkot na hanggang ngayon pinapakapit pa rin kita.
Masaya na hanggang ngayon kumakapit ka pa rin.

Dear 40-Year Old JD,

I write to you from ten years in the past.

It’s almost Christmas. Did you decorate the house this year? I sure hope you did, and that you have done so for the past few years. Did you finally make that Christmas tree using different-sized nonlas, or have you outgrown Southeast Asia? How tall is the tree? How much gifts are underneath? However it was done, I’m sure BJ took care of all the details. I bet it’s a standout!

Have you travelled the world? Do you still eat on the streets? I hope we did not become too good for streetfood and only eat fancy. How were the brownies in Amsterdam? Did you climb the Andes and see Machu Picchu? Have you proven the existence of the fountain of youth in Okinawa? Did you follow the Gringo Trail, the Silk Road, Route 66 and, ultimately, have you finished off the cities in the Banana Pancake Trail?

Speaking of the trail, did the restaurant make it? Is it restaurants now? Did you use monobloc stools and stainless tables like the ones in Hanoi? Did you remember to enclose the original burlap banner in glass and place it at the wall of the dining area? Are we still using the same decade-seasoned woks? Did BJ finally agree to use our old travel pictures to decorate, disregarding how chubby we were on our temple selfies?

Or did we not make it at all? Did you go back to teaching? Did you start a different business?

How is Sam and Jared? How is BJ? Is the relationship still going strong or have you two already divorced (assuming that’s already legal in our country at your time)?

I’m sorry for bombarding you with questions. I guess that’s all I have right now. I’m sure 40-year old us would have bigger problems and you’d probably have questions that I can never answer in return. But I write to you to remind you of how we were in 2016, in the hopes that you can pick up something from it.

If the Christmas decor is not as great as you wanted it to be, I hope you look back at 2016 when we didn’t decorate our house. In fact, we have not done Christmas decorations since 2014. In my time, life was faster than us, and we can barely catch up. But we never lose our spirit.

If you missed a few trips in the past decade, I hope you remember how we cannot even afford a nearby vacation, moreso a plane ticket to Yangon. And even if we did, we wouldn’t have any funds for food and accommodation. But we never lose our passion and wanderlust.

If the restaurant is not doing well or worse, failed, do not forget how much sleepless food bazaar nights we had to endure; how this particular December drained all our physical, mental, and emotional strength; how breaking even does not compensate; and how much pride we had to swallow. We did all that just to keep it running. We never lose hope.

If Sam still eats with one foot atop the dining chair, think of the time when Sam can hardly feed herself without supervision. If Jared still cannot express himself in ‘regular’ language, remember the time when he cannot utter anything at all, word or non-word. We should relentlessly help them improve. We never lose patience.

And if you and BJ are falling, or have fallen apart, do not forget how we almost fought everyday in 2016; how we had extended arguments in the car over driving routes and where to have breakfast; how we hurt each other. But most importantly, how we win each other back. Every. Single. Time. Because we never, never stop loving each other.

You see, if you think things are not going well, don’t forget to do what we do best: keep going. When things go wrong, remember 2016. When we learned that Christmas is ‘truly in our hearts‘. When we learned to travel without leaving home. When we learned how to start a business. When we learned to be a better parent. When we learned to forgive. Because we never stop learning.

With hope from the past,

JD

P.S. It’s her birthday again. I hope you have been doing better at her birthdays the past decade. We always forget the cake in my time.

Fernweh

 

I am sitting alone in a couch. Poolside. Hotel rooftop. I wish I didn’t want to do some contemplating, but the loneliness, ambient resort lighting, the mellow sound of the water, and the night sky makes it almost mandatory. Besides, I haven’t written in a while.

Truth is, I’m having a genuine case of fernweh. Far-sickness.

A pair of Merrels that I excitedly received as a gift last year, which I thought would be abused in another globe-trekking journey with the missus, is now ripped and worn out. But not from climbing temples or braving dark alleys of a red light district. Instead, it was overused in the gravel of a food market that we work at every weekend.

The cheap Hershel rip-off backpack we bought in Melaka, which should contain travel essentials, now holds a coin box, contracts, and a checkbook. Sure, it has souvenir keychains and a bagtag that screams adventure. And yes, I never take out my almost empty travel journal and “A Cooks Tour” by Anthony Bourdain in the hopes that I would finally, someday, fill up the journal in another border bus ride and finish reading the book while lying down a beach cot, sunburnt in the shores of Nha Trang.

But the reality is that the bag is now a work bag. And that travel journal now contains market lists and expense reports. And that book will forever have page 16 folded, and I will never have an accidental meetup with Tony B. somewhere in Hoi An to have him autograph it.

The reality is I am sitting on a hotel poolside couch, but not as a guest. I’m here for work, and I’m taking a quick break.

And that’s exactly why I’m feeling fernweh. Because I should be sitting in this couch, but I am wishing that the couch was in another poolside, in a faraway hotel, with similar ambient lighting and a slightly different night sky.

I miss riding the cab to the airport (instead of driving). Then getting caught in traffic and almost missing a flight.

I miss being frustrated at our ridiculous international travel tax and terminal fee.

I miss giving my most charming smile to the ground attendants to get a good economy seat for the long flight.

I miss having expensive airport food for brunch.

I miss the claustrophobia inside A320’s.

I miss arriving and looking out the plane window, and seeing weird signs and right handed cars.

I miss the snobbish immigration officers.

I miss the money changers.

I miss riding the first cab in a new place and not taking my eyes off the window because everything, everything we see is new and foreign.

I miss checking in and comparing our English to that of the hotel receptionist’s.

I miss exploring markets and streetfood.

I miss taking touristy photos and selfies.

I miss talking to locals and fellow tourists for the first and last time.

I miss having an itinerary.

I miss not having an itinerary.

I miss finding new places.

I miss being lost.

 

An Open Letter to My Best Cook

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I think the problem was you were very close to Kuya Potch; and I was very close to him too. But the two of us had many question marks and exclamation points in between. To make things more interesting, I was born in the 80’s and You were a 90’s baby. And that mini generation gap meant I was almost ending my love for video games at the time of Ragnarok while you were just beginning yours.

You needed to move to Cebu because you were lost. You needed to find yourself. Guess what? I realized a part of me was lost too. Seven years of living away from you made me lose the brother and friend that I was to you and Potch. But now, I have found that person in me again. Thanks to you. And I know you found yourself too.

I am sad that you had to leave. Especially when I think of how great our last few nights of cooking side by side was. But I know you have your reasons.

If there was any time that I made you feel like I was disappointed at you, know this: I am ALWAYS proud of you and I have never and will never give up on you.

I am sorry for those times that I was expecting too much from you, it was only because I was impatient. Atat. Nagmamadali. Excited. Because I know you can handle it and I know you can do so much more. You can BE so much more. My only mistake was I did not allow you to do it at your own timing.

But I have seen you step up in the past few weeks. From where I stand, you have indeed found yourself and your passion in Cebu. And if you follow your heart, you will not be an engineer or an electrician the next time we see each other. You will be a chef.

Now, that may change and I respect that. But if it doesn’t (and I surely wish it doesn’t) and somehow you find yourself wearing a toque and holding a wok the next time we meet, then you’re on for a cook off. And may the best Pad Thai win.

I cannot wait to cook side by side you again. In the meantime, I would like to share with you one important tip:

Whether it’s Pad Thai, Beef Wellington, instant Pancit Canton, or a fried egg. There is only one secret ingredient to all dishes: LOVE.

I Sometimes Wish My Children Did Not Have Autism

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Before I had Sam, I promised myself that I would be the cool father that every daughter brags about to their besties. I would be strict, but I would embrace all the nail polish, bedazzles, and her crushes. I would ground her at times, but I would take her to a Justin Bieber concert if I had to. I would be the man who will scare away the boys, but will keep a right amount of distance when I see that she is falling in love for the first time.

But Sam has autism. She cannot speak our language and cannot tell her friends about me. She probably would hate the feeling of having nail polish put on, and I know for a fact that she hates wearing anything that has fake jewels sewn in. She doesn’t have friends or crushes, and there are times that she hates being with people including, and sometimes most especially, me.

Before I had Jared, I promised myself that I would re-learn how to play basketball. I would teach him how to play the guitar. I would tell him the secrets to our recipes. I will climb mountains with him. I would tell him how I fell in love with his mother when he gets his heart broken for the first time.

But Jared has autism. He cannot grasp the mechanics of group activities like sports. His fingers would probably hate the feeling of plucking or strumming the guitar strings. He does not always focus when I talk to him. He also hates long walks and would most probably want to piggy back halfway through a mountain trek.

They need more attention than most kids. They are lazy when they have tasks; but too rowdy when they need to behave. They have their own language. They have to follow a strict routine. Simply put, they are high maintenance.

Which is why I sometimes wish my kids did not have autism.

Not because they are not good enough for me.

But because I feel I can never be good enough for them.

All those things I promised myself are not even an inch of what my kids really need. The time I spend with them is never enough. Everything I earn to sustain their lives is not enough. All the sacrifices that I think I made are not enough.

I am not enough.

But they still love me back.

They are the epitome of unconditional love. They are better at expressing love even with the lack of words. Unlike most of us, they do not think bad for and of others. They do not know sin and have an automatic pass to heaven. They love me no matter what. Even if I haven’t taken a bath in days, or if I did not buy the toys they want. Even if at times I cannot afford to send them to school. Even if I force them to eat vegetables.

Then I remind myself: my kids love me so much they would never wish I was someone else. So I should work harder to deserve the love that they unconditionally give.

Opening Day

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He ordered one Pad Thai for his wife.

He was giving us a curious look. Possibly even slightly cautious. I had that feeling that he and she might be that customer. Someone who’s been there, has tried the real thing, and who would be very critical about how ours tasted.

I knew that that customer will show up one of these days. I just didn’t expect it on opening day.

I sincerely hoped that his wife (and him, if they were sharing) would like it. If not for the flavours at least for the amount of effort we have put in that plate.

They did not know how much blood, sweat, and tears went into our recipe. Not literally, of course. That would be just gross. What I meant was my heart and soul was in that dish. Okay, that didn’t sound any better. Whatever. You know what I mean.

They didn’t know that just a few weeks ago I was working for the most unpleasant (read: shitty) boss I have had. And I have had several in the past decade which I was able to stomach, so that says a lot.

They didn’t know that I quit my job, and it’s probably a bad idea because I am sending two children to SPED and therapy.

They didn’t know how much sleepless days and nights we spent, making plate after plate of Pad Thai just to get the best taste possible.

They didn’t know how much visits we made to Carbon market and more than half a dozen grocery stores just to make sure our ingredients are consistent. No substitutions.

They didn’t know how much arguments my wife and I had in planning, costing, cooking, and aesthetics.

They didn’t know that I put all my cards in this, and there is no looking back. I am all spent in the corporate world.

At least for those reasons if not for the flavours. But they didn’t know.

Moments later, the couple approached me. The Pad Thai was already sold out and I was all ears.

He was asking for a business card and I didn’t have one. She was asking where our restaurant is located and we didn’t have one. Yet. I told them that this is the first time we took a shot at this. That we’re just well-travelled home cooks.

And then she handed me her card.

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She told me how much she loved the Pad Thai and that it tastes like the ones in Thailand.

She was satisfied, even if she didn’t know the back story. She genuinely liked it and would even want to write about it.

For a few seconds it all came back to me. The stressful white collar job I had and having to hold on to it for my special kids. The lack of sleep. The wasted noodles and shrimps. The grocery and market hopping. The arguments with my wife. The arguments with myself. The big question of “Am I doing the right thing for myself and my family?”

Confirmation. One more thing they didn’t know is that they gave it to me at a time I needed it the most.

I thanked them with all my heart. I didn’t know how my face looked like but I was tired and sweaty and stressed. I imagined Will Smith’s expression in the last scene of The Pursuit of Happyness. He was lost for words. He was tired. He was laughing and crying. I probably looked like that. I was happy. I am happy. No big words like jovial or copacetic, just happy. But in its truest and purest sense.

I think I’m on the right track.