Carmen is beautiful, provocative, and age appropriate; in many ways a Filipina version of Marlene: a princess. Similar, but very different. She was also very loving, and as the days of our discovery progressed, she seemed to become completely devoted to me. I found it a little unnerving, my reluctant heart struggling to protect itself. Was her growing love for real? Was it enough to overcome the evident gaps in our economic, educational and cultural experience, not to mention the ghost of Emily? I had come to Philippines to discover if she could fill this huge void in my life. It seemed pretty unlikely that she could. Am I going to end up breaking her heart and relegating her back to the impoverished place she comes from?
After eight days in dreamland it was time for me to return to Canada and face the loneliness of a Christmas alone. Of course I had my kids and grandkids to be with, but my own Christmas traditions were now completely lost. And it pained me deeply to think Emily was spending her Christmas with her boyfriend.
I promised Carmen that, like my namesake, I would return. It would be Carmen’s birthday on January 16. She wanted me to celebrate it with her. The irony and the agony: Emily’s birthday was January 13.
Doubt occupied my mind throughout the Christmas break, but I rebooked tickets for Manila January 15 – 22. Why so short? I spent Christmas in Markham; dated the enigmatic Kathy who wanted to ’rekindle the magic’; and had lunches with Frankie; I spent a sumptuous New Year’s Eve with my Trinity College friend. And Skyped with Carmen almost daily. I was also developing an email friendship (Pen Pal?) with Carmen’s favourite pamangkinin Osaka, Genebebe. (Carmen, as many Filipinos, have great difficulty saying v.) She had become the translator between Carmen and me: Carmen on Messenger with Genevieve, and on Skype with me, email between me and Genevieve. Even though, as it turned out, Genebebe’s English was only slightly better than Carmen’s, she was willing to explore more complex topics; it was a relationship I wanted to continue.
On January 7 I had lunch with Kathy, the rediscovered magician, and a therapy session with Nancy, and that evening I Skyped Carmen. I told her I didn’t think our relationship had a realistic future and that we needed to end it now before we invested too much more emotional energy in it and make the breakup even more painful. I was very conscious of the brutal way Emily had ended it with me – by text. And even though Skype is real time visuals, it still seemed inadequate. In all my professional years of orchestrating the termination of hundreds, even thousands of employees, the first criteria was preserving the dignity of the person whose employment was being terminated. I was determined to preserve Carmen’s dignity; I would not terminate her by text!
Of course she was upset. She cried and turned desperate in her pleading. I told her I would send her the rationale by text, Emily’s cudgel again on my mind: ‘I won’t take the time to tell you all the reasons why.’ Carmen deserved to know my thinking.
Unsurprisingly, the enigmatic Kathryn had another revelation and informed me we had no future, despite the fact that three days earlier she thought we would be married within the year. Surprising to me, I was completely nonplussed by this revelation. Three days later I phoned Carmen again. I hadn’t changed my mind about our future, but I would come back to Philippines and celebrate her birthday with her. And we would talk. Carmen was ecstatic. I’m not sure she heard the word ‘talk’.
Give an inch, give a mile (I wonder how that goes in metric?) – I allowed myself to consider whether I needed more information to make such a big decision, affecting both of us. Maybe my obstacles could be overcome. Maybe I would never find the perfect companion I sought. Even if I found somebody closer to home compromise and accommodation were inevitable. Two of my minds were at war with each other: the realist in me, and the idealist. The idealist bought some time from the realist – let’s get more data.
So I told Carmen before I left Canada that I wanted to visit her hometown in Samar Province, to see where she had grown up, and to meet her family who still lived there in Santa Rita. I didn’t tell Carmen this, but I knew I was looking for more than just herroots in The Philippines, I had something to prove to Emily, even if only to myself. So I booked two return tickets on Cebu air for Tacloban for Carmen and me.
Of course my alarmed friends in Canada, raised all new alarms. It’s not that I wasn’t listening. I just had to find out for myself.
My flight to Manila was an echo of my flight the previous month, complete with editing my ‘novel’ on my i-Pad. I arrived at Ninoy Aquino International Airport, Terminal 3, on time, around 7:30 pm; the difference this time?, Carmen was waiting at the Arrivals area to meet me. She had arranged for a taxi and we were out of the airport and on our way downtown in a New York minute, well, more like a Manila minute. All of my previous weeks and hours of rehearsal went out the window – I was delighted to see her. We made out like teenagers in the backseat all the way to Discovery Suites Hotel, registered, dropped our bags in our room and rushed to Las Flores Restaurant to celebrate her birthday. Maria, the hostess, was expecting us and warmly welcomed the two of us back.
Two days later we were on our way to Tacloban where I met her nephew Noel, who acted as our tour guide, and another nephew, Esme, who was our driver into Samar Province. (Little did I know it at the time, Esme was also my security detail – he is a police officer and the trunk of his car was well equipped with ‘counter measures’.) We arrived at the family homestead in very rural Santa Rita, which is a string of Barangays along a country road. I met the family, her two older sisters, their adult children and dozens of grand nieces and nephews from nine months to 16 years, and many other cousins whose links I could not make out easily. In all at least 35 family. All were lovely people, all welcoming, though I felt I was being examined and evaluated, naturally enough. Carmen herself hadn’t seen her family in Santa Rita for almost seven years, so it was quite a reunion. Now I understood Carmen’s reluctance to parade me around her extended family: what if it doesn’t work out between us.
Nevertheless it was a lovely afternoon: strange (to me) Filipino food, and Filipino wine (really, coconut rum mixed with coke) and karaoke!
We said our goodbyes and headed back to Tacloban, marveling again at Ferdinand Marcos’ San Juanico Bridge. The next day we toured as much of this blasted town (by Typhoon Yolanda in 2013) as we could: Imelda Marcos’ folly of a Leyte version of Versailles, and the Leyte Landing Memorial to General Douglas MacArthur. We returned to Manila Monday and I returned to Canada Tuesday.
We hadn’t talked enough, but my doubts about our future had not been assuaged. Carmen clung to my arm at ANIA. I released myself from her tears and her fingers and promised her we would continue to talk. Maybe if she could get a visa to Canada….