My friends are tired of this story. It has been told over and over since that year when I returned home after 10 months in Kyoto as an exchange student. I keep retelling the story, afraid of one day forgetting it.
I was 19.
We met at a dorm. She’s fluent in Japanese, I wasn’t. I’m fluent in English, she wasn’t. We became good friends.
She laughed at me for learning how to bike only at 19. The Philippines isn’t bike-friendly; bike lanes are rare, the sun is often mad, and the air dances through tailpipes before reaching your nose. In Manila, leisurely biking feels like an extreme sport.
Our dorm had three kitchens, we cooked on the third floor since it had less people. We talked about books, bands and movies; swapping favorite titles and undercooked dinners. We both had embarrassing diarrhea episodes at some point. We both have a love-hate relationship with Murakami and his cats.
She sleeps with a copy of Never Let Me Go next to her pillow; she told me to read it, but I wasn’t interested in clones or love that time. I was reading The Color Purple, which she borrowed. She then asked why the grammar is all wrong.
I fell hard.
One day she told me she had a crush on her best friend, a girl, during primary school. “Nice,” I replied. I wanted to tell her that I did, too, when I was 6. She had a boyfriend during middle school, I told her my country didn’t have that. She had a girlfriend in high school, then another boyfriend in college, and now she is single. I told her I’ve never had anyone.
I was born and raised to believe in God, a god who looks down on homosexuals. She was born and raised without a god, but also without homosexuals. Homosexuality is taboo in her country; a sin in mine.
Throughout grade school, I had crushes on girls and boys. In high school, I started wondering why I only crushed on girls. I believed in god back then because my parents and most Filipinos do. During recess, I would ask god if I’m really a lesbian. I asked for signs and arranged barters with Jesus: 1) If I’m gay, will you still love me?; 2) My friends think I like him, please make me like him; 3) I discovered my older brother’s stash of FHM magazines, I scanned them. I'll never do that again, just don't make me gay?
I told myself it was only a phase, a very long one.
In my freshman year in college, I agreed to join a friend’s bible study group; it’s funny now, but it was serious business then. I was given a bible, with my name etched on it. That semester, I started reading the holy book every night. I even contemplated entering the nunnery, leaving behind doubts on my sexuality.
While reading the bible one night, I remembered this young nun I met when I was a high school senior. She was one of the speakers during career orientation; she spoke right after an engineer and before an entrepreneur. The two spoke about their impressive salaries, while the nun spoke about passion and public service. I got goosebumps, I felt so moved. I then recalled how beautiful she was; I slept smiling.
During my “bible year,” the Philippines was torn on the issue of reproductive health. The Catholic Church was stopping the government from passing a new law providing reproductive health services and education for all, especially among poor families. My country’s population and poverty were both growing. I was very angry with the Church. I asked my bible study group why the Church was being very irrational. Why are they against contraceptives? Why are they against sexuality education? I didn’t get answers; they read me bible passages instead.
I then asked what they thought of being gay. That was the last time I saw those girls. We’re still Facebook friends though, and I think one of them is now in China, spreading the word of her god.
Since then, I began reading up on world religions, gender and sexuality; soon enough, god(s) died. It was hard at first; I felt cheated, I didn’t learn any of this while growing up.
At 18, I finally told myself I like women and it’s okay, very okay. I never told anyone else until I met her.
Kyoto summers were just as hot as any regular day back home.
The first time we held hands was also the first time I saw her cry. She fell from her bike while we were going down a hilly street. The accident left a heart-shaped scar on her left knee. She squeezed my hand as our dorm manager cleaned her wound.
She was in pain.
The second time was during a cultural festival. She grabbed my hand and told me she’d put me inside her suitcase when she returns home. “I’m too big,” I said. She laughed and told me she’ll figure out a way. I smiled nervously and downed two small bottles of Yakult, as she chugged a perspiring can of beer.
She was in love.
Autumn passed and it got colder. The falling leaves were beautiful; they were then replaced with snow. Our friends and I watched movies in my room; some nights, it was just the two of us.
I told her I love her, but I didn’t know what I'm supposed to do when I'm in love. She told me not to worry. She told me she loves me too.
It ended as spring came. She broke up with me a day before our flights home. It was my first break-up, I didn’t know it would hurt that much.
Shortly after, we got back together, agreeing to a long distance relationship. Skype, Facebook, Tumblr, Gmail. Thank you, Internet. We also sent each other love letters, journals, photographs, and postcards. Aren’t we romantic?
I kept everything inside a shoebox.
Alas, I eventually broke up with her. I was doing my summer internship then; Chief Justice Renato Corona was on trial, while I was trying alcohol for the first time. I was sad most of the time; it was too much and I didn’t know how to handle it. To ease the forgetting, I even tore all the letters she wrote me. I wish I didn’t.
We never spoke again.
I was angry at myself for a long time, thinking I’ll never have that kind of love ever again. I tried dating, in hopes of forgetting her. I did, in between break-ups and failed Tinder dates.
Years later, I finally read Never Let Me Go.
We learned a lot from each other. It was beautiful, it was real, and it was over. It’s time to let go.
But three months ago, I got an email from her. I let the email sit unread for a day before opening it. Weeks later, I booked a flight to visit her. I guess I’m still as impulsive as before. A couple of days from now, we will see each other for the first time since our flights home and that failed LDR. I’m far from being 19.
I told my friends that the story might not be over after all. They laughed and told me to move on. I nodded and tried to laugh too.
I guess I still keep on retelling the story, no longer afraid of one day forgetting it, because it really is a lovely story. Besides, good stories like that don’t come all too often.
This story was first published in Rappler.com, a Manila-based social news network where stories inspire community engagement and digitally fuelled actions for social change.