Quite a while back now, I flew to New York City during early spring with no huge expectations. All I wanted was to tick a couple of touristy checkboxes on the list in my little white notebook and spend time with dear people. The goal was to turn 31 in an iconic city and celebrate with friends. The trip itself was an unexpected gift from an aunt and that already had me over the moon way before I was booked. I was so excited and militant ‘bout my prep I even forced myself to fix my bio-clock on the plane (abstaining from eight hours of sleep on the long-haul trip with Downton Abbey Season 4’s help). The plan was so that when I’d arrive my clock would be “fixed.” Thus, I’d have no trouble going to bed at the right hour to get the biggest bite out of the Big Apple in 12 days. All I really expected was to go and come back the same, unchanged, only having experienced one of the world's most talked about cities.
Everything for the trip was as planned as could be on my part. Except perhaps suddenly meeting someone in the middle of it all.
Following a series of my first five days where my planned “fixed jetlag” did not work along with New York’s 16 degree-C weather (C for “cold”), I met someone on the sixth day of my 12-day trip. I shared a common birthday week with a friend and we met up with a New York based group of friends in Manhattan. Our group rounded the table to meet their group, and it was right there when I stood across him that his eyes caught mine as we waved hello.
I sat down somewhat diagonally across him. It was lightning quick and I didn’t think much of it in the moment, but noted. I felt eyes on me and I looked up, caught him again. “Kind eyes,” I thought to myself, "But, hmm, not really my type.” I quickly dismissed at the time. The usual chronic overthinker in me chose to digress left instead towards a plate of fish tacos, that had gone cold, drat. Then again there's always the mobile phone.
Things changed quickly after dinner.
Later in the evening, the requisite lit birthday desserts came out. We blew out our candles, made our wishes, and resumed mingling. Magnetized Fil-American guy with stoic, focused eyes came out from his seat all the way from the other side and sat beside me. He wasn't excessively tall, like 5'9-ish, but he was broad. Even if he was warmly layered for early spring you could tell he was fit, but not bursting. I knew the move, I saw him look, but “atm” as we say today, wasn’t super feeling it. I was, however, enjoying the energy of the entire group we just met. As he pulled his chair up to me from the right, we talked over the Mexican restaurant noise as best we could. It would lead to something short of a hilariously polite shouting match.
Names were exchanged...and it was game on.
I leaned over, tilted my head, and blasted in the most feminine way possible "ARE YOU AMERICAN? LIKE A NATIVE NEW YORKER??"
"YES, BUT I'M HALF FILIPINO. I GREW UP IN MANILA AND GRADUATED FROM THERE, MY PARENTS ARE BASED IN QC, BUT MY MOM'S HERE AT THE MOMENT WITH MY SISTER. MY MOM'S FROM UPSTATE, MY DAD'S FILIPINO. THEY'RE MISSIONARIES. THEY MET ON A TRIP ABROAD. YOU'RE FROM MANILA?"
"YEA, I AM. I'M A MAKEUP ARTIST AND A BLOGGER." After straining with more grace to hear, I went, "WHAT DO YOU DO?"
"OH, I'M IN COMPUTER ENGINEERING. I HAVE TWO JOBS. I WORK ON FIELD, I'M ON CALL AND I REPAIR MEDICAL MACHINES (THE ONES THAT ANALYZE BLOOD RESULTS, CHEMICALS, AND THE DIRTY STUFF), I DRIVE CROSS-COUNTRY TO DIFFERENT HOSPITALS TO FIX OR UPGRADE THEM. AND I'M ALSO WITH THE U.S. AIRFORCE..."
Ding. Ang bato. Warped silence. He froze in my head inanimately as I processed that detail and I resumed regular programming as he continued.
"...SO, YEAH, I'M ALSO WITH THE MILITARY AS AN ARMY RESERVE TECH ENGINEER, I DO SERVICE ONCE EVERY TWO MONTHS OR SO. BASICALLY, I WORK UP, INSPECT, AND REPAIR THE ARMY AIRPLANES."
"He's cooler than I thought," I mind-murmured to myself. He was slightly sedate and a bit nerdy perhaps but his stoic, straightforward side totally appealed to me. I then chose to speak to the girl on my left.
Appearance-wise, he wasn't specifically my type. Tisoy, sure. Polished, but not overly so. Overall, I thought he was cool, but being an NYC local crossed him off my list pretty quickly (my No-to-LDR kung pwede, char!). The friends I was with, and the husband of a friend of mine noted his keen interest in me as we parted ways and headed back to our hotels. I brushed off a couple of teases on our way back. Suffice it to say, that first meeting there was no spark, only curiosity.
As a birthday gift for myself, I managed to pre-book tickets to James Franco's first attempt at Broadway, Of Mice and Men. That excited me enough more than meeting anyone on a trip. Actually, my first meeting with the guy didn't incite any more tickle that he almost instantly faded from my memory. Almost.
On my actual birthday, my friend who I was rooming in with asked me what I'd like to do. I only had one place on my mind, Coney Island—the beach and the boardwalk. I remembered it from the cheesy yet memorable 90s movie Beaches. I really wanted to go get diner and carnival food and oversized desserts like candy apples, cotton candy, and ice cream there. Since I liked the vibe of the group, I actually told my friend I'd like to mass-invite the people we met at the group dinner to Coney Island (including guy mentioned). Naturally, some said they couldn't make it but he and another guy friend said they'd make arrangements for my birthday in the evening. In fact, airforce dude picked the restaurant we'd be meeting up at later in the evening.
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The punchline that day: Coney Island was a little disappointment. The whole amusement section was closed because it was a Jewish Holiday. The food establishments like Nathan's was open, and the boardwalk was open for people who wanted to walk, skate, fly kites, and do whatever.
We took a couple of photos as a girl group. There were only a few people. We enjoyed the short time we had there for late lunch, and I was quite excited to head out to dinner and meet up with the guys.
Drinks from a different party in Tribecca.
Darkness started falling. We then headed over to Pio Pio, a Peruvian restaurant he picked for the night of my birthday. He had it reserved and we all met up there and got seated, he and I side by side. In that moment, we found that had a lot more things in common. His father's family was from Pampanga like my mother's side and just like her side they were a lot of siblings. His dad was the eldest of 10, my mom was the eldest of nine. I also found that he was an inspired foodie who started dabbling in baking bread or desserts at home.
I was equally keen or just as passionate about being in the kitchen. It was here during my birthday dinner that I started to feel just a little bit differently about him, not quite a spark just yet. I guess you could safely say he broke the ice when he ladled a bit of his dish onto my plate to try. With that gesture, I started to open up just a bit more that evening.
After dinner, we transferred to a bar called Milk and Honey, one of the coziest bars in Manhattan. It was here that I could feel a bit of build up in terms of spark. Still, I was just kind of flattered and observing. He leaned over and it turned out he had asked my friend, "Where is she going to be tomorow, what are her plans?" She reported this to me later on. A round of invites to join us on my last day in New York were put forth but sadly he said he had work the next morning. So, there was no expectation. After Milk and Honey, he offered to give me and my friend a ride back to our flat and in the car there was a surprising round of birthday prayers offered by everyone in the car including himself. He jumped in at the end, "I want to pray for her, too."
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My roommate and I bowed our heads to hear my non-corny birthday prayer by airforce dude whose parents were missionaries. In the backseat, she and I squinted sideways grinned at each other covertly, then quickly behaved to resume the prayer. With an "Amen," we said goodnight.
When my roomie friend and I entered the flat that evening, I just said, "Um, okay, so that was nice, that was really nice."
She went, "Oh no, he prayed for you and you like him already!" Laughter. "Hay naku..."
"Not really sure just yet, but he's cool, smart, he's nice...nicer than I thought, actually."
With a bit of a giggle, she then leapt onto the couch, whipped out her laptop, and got on Facebook, "What did you say his surname was again?"
Of course, we checked.
On our last day in New York, my roomie friend and I decided to pass by the MET museum. It would be a really quick pass-by and not one long enough to appreciate all the art, just enough for a quick experience. I was feeling pretty low that day—we had just made a bunch of friends and I had to check out of the apartment by 8 PM. An airport shuttle was going to come by automatically for me. We would have to make the most of our time during that day. My roomie asked me if I was okay, I said I think I was a little tired from the trip and coming down with a cold. She was a little fidgety that day and I wondered why she kept insisting I put a bit of makeup on in the cab on the way to the MET. She told me I didn't look well. All I was thinking was it was my last day and the new friends we made couldn't be around, so I was slightly put out. By the time we reached a certain painting inside the museum hallways, I was pretty much in-the-zone. I was taking a photo of this one painting, then suddenly I heard really quiet whispering. He was there. With two other guy friends. He had his hands in his pockets and a sneaky smile on his face. The look on my face that moment—shocked, surprised, confused—became the subject of hilarity for my girlfriend roomie. As it turned out, she semi-planned the surprise all along.
"Oh, hey I thought you said you were busy?" I tried to contain myself with a laugh.
"Yes, remember I said I told you I wasn't sure if I could join you guys because of something at work?" he grinned. "Well, that something got fixed so I'm here now."
In that moment, I felt the—well, they call it "spark," don't they? Everyone around might have felt it, too, that time, as I could tell with the gushy giggles and smiles. We all exited the MET quickly to catch the golden hour in Central Park. We then walked through Central Park, to this area here where the cherry blossoms had just begun to fall.
I briefly checked my little digital watch later on as our small group sat in a little Manhattan restaurant for early dinner. I had barely enough time to savor a few bites of my order. A little alarm had sounded reminding me that I needed to walk back and close up my luggage as the shuttle was arriving at the flat soon.
He offered to walk me back and help me and said something like, "Next time you're in New York, no need to hire a shuttle. Like, I can pick you up! Or, like, if you didn't have a shuttle now I'd bring you."
As we walked down New York's nippy sidewalks, the silence between us became slightly deafening. He just continued to smile, and that silence broke into laughter when we finally got to our apartment floor. Strangely enough, I was so flustered with the key that the door wouldn't open, I stuck the key in three times to no avail.
"Want me to get that now?" he laughed at me.
He then slid the key in once and it opened to my embarrassment. When that happened, I became even more sure he was telling the truth about fixing military jets. It all panned out to plan, I closed up my luggage and my handcarry and he helped me bring it downstairs. The shuttle arrived on time with the other people waiting inside.
As the van door slid open, I turned around to face him one last time. "Thank you so much. Really.... Hopefully, it's 'See you again soon,' not 'Goodbye.'"
He was just speechless, smiling. I tiptoed to hug him. I had my other arm busy carrying my bag, so I could only give him a brief one arm hug.
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At the airport, I brushed past a couple who were French-kissing non-stop (hello, NYC). Before my check-in counter, I swung around wide-eyed at the couple to take a second glance. The lady assisting me with her New York twang laughed said, "Sweetie, you shocked at what you see? That happens all the time here. We ain't even surprised, we're used to it! They're probably not gonna see each other for months or somethin'."
Moments after I arrived at the boarding area, airforce dude began texting me on my US sim. I was blushing but something in my gut felt off. Long story shorter just here, I flew home to Manila by the first week of May with that same odd gut feeling inside.
I would like to say that this story had a happier ending but "truth well told" has always been my thing. In the next three months that followed my arrival here, we gave getting to know each other a go. We relied heavily on What's App and Skype calls, video calls, sometimes, yes. Sunset and sunrise photos capped our conversations which involved family, food, work, music, our hopes and prayers for people and the world in general, plus talks about reaching people in need with church ministry.
After the first month, chats remained daily. But the calls lessened. Anxiety began building in me between the gaps because I sort of knew what was beginning to happen. Yes, we were unravelling. Though he mentioned randomly asking what time would be a good time to visit Manila, his inquiry sounded somewhat vague.
What I haven't mentioned in the middle of this story is while I was in New York my father actually suffered a series of multiple strokes that caused him to collapse while I was away. He was confined to an ICU. My mother told me while I was abroad that everything was under control and not to worry or try to cut my trip short and still enjoy because Dad was confined and in good hands. Torn as I was while abroad, I trusted her reassurance.
I came home to my Dad who was like 70% of who he was before I left for NYC. He was not paralyzed thankfully, but he was damaged. His short term memory was impaired as well as some minor motor coordination and his ability to stay present and learn new things. He was more like a gradeschool child now and suffered from nicotine and sugar withdrawal as well, which was not pleasant to deal with at home. My father had no problem remembering everything else like his family and other people, but along with the stroke were the revealed signs of his early dementia. He had a new inability to comprehend certain situations or trust people who would try to explain things to him. When I got back and was getting to know my new keen friend, my father suffered yet another stroke and we confined him.
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At the time of my Dad being confined another time, airforce friend asked to schedule a Skype call. This, despite communication between us lessening. He became a good "LDR friend," staying in touch to ask about my Dad and I over time.
But we had one conversation just about "us." He had asked us to define what we had, but somehow felt within that he wasn't ready for any relationship. He said I deserved this talk way earlier in our getting to know each other. His eyes were misty.
I quietly nodded and then asked the questions I wouldn't be able to ask later on from halfway around the world. I asked if he met someone new and I asked if it was because of the distance. "No," he answered to both.
If I wasn't imagining things, his eyes grew mistier and his nose got red. The distance didn't matter, he said, since four of his five siblings including his parents were all based here in Manila. In short, he basically said he needed to journey inward, something I refused to make fun of or consider a lame excuse because of the person I already knew him to be. He meant it, it was genuine. My heart stopped or at least it felt like it did. I didn't cry, though, I did have a lump in my throat which unleashed itself when I hung up. I thanked him for not taking the path of the douche and disappearing. He was honest and said in the week leading up to our scheduled Skype call he was so tense that he was actually considering just stopping or ghosting me because he's done it before. "Juls, you're an amazing girl. You've become such a good friend that even if just disappearing crossed my mind, I decided I'd rather talk to you rather than be the guy who'd do that to you."
The talk, while painful, brought a certain inexplicable peace to my spirit. The gut feeling I had in New York was my spirit knowing earlier that this wasn't meant to be. In the months that followed, the anxiety eventually left me. I found that it was possible to have pain yet know things were exactly as they should be. The pain of separation for me isn't always the indication that you were meant to be with someone. I'd rather believe it to be glistening proof that whatever happened between me and him—a story of two people that has transcended from only getting to know each other for a mysterious short while, in a far-off city we wouldn't set foot on at the same time again soon—was real.
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Photos from: Giphy.com, Instagram.com/blessmybag