By Christian Huebner - Washington, DC, USA - Pentecost/Assumption 2011
When you take a vacation to the sea, you know what’s supposed to matter. After two-and-a-half days in Cebu, it had already happened: beaches, fishes in front of my snorkel mask, fishes on my plate, and documentary evidence stashed away on my iPhone’s SIM card.
Then it was Sunday afternoon. The three of us -- Emily, Gabi, and I -- were flying back up to Manila that evening. With several hours left, we decided to leave the land of resorts and visit a public beach. Our driver, courtesy of Em’s parents who lived in Cebu, ferried us through farrow fields, past tin shacks and luxury cars, past a check point, and finally down a muddy lane that terminated in a grassy (well, muddy) parking lot. The beach, an artificial scoop out of a rocky shore, refilled with sand, lay just beyond. It was packed. Brown and ochre and tan bodies, all dark haired, in families gathered around coolers and beach bags, in packs of young teenagers, the boys talking to the girls too loudly and the girls trying and failing not to care about the boys. All of them walking, laying, the little ones running on the gritty sand beach.
The swimming area was hedged in by concrete sea walls on both sides, meaning that flotsam tended to pool around the shore. The water was warm, but had a slippery, oily feeling near shore that made me eager to wade past the seaweed, twigs, and children (and at least one used condom), further out to where the temperature was cooler, the swimmers dispersed, and I could plunge like a porpoise.
We had a bit of lunch on shore under an umbrella we rented, some lechon purchased in town that morning: sections of whole roasted pig, gooey fat and crackling skin all together in glorious porkish goodness. The only problem was we didn’t get enough; only an appetizer split three ways. So the girls set off to investigate the restaurant further down shore and I found myself left alone on the beach, a lone white guy, arms crossed, slathered in sun screen that was basically the same color as his skin.
Strange the moments that make so much of a difference. As I stood there in my awkward surveying posture -- in reality, far more surveyed than surveying -- I caught eyes with a Filipino man roughly my age. He was short and slightly built, like most Filipinos, and what caught my attention were his glasses. They were thick, dark-framed, and hip in a way that signaled wealth and probably a cosmopolitan history. We struck up a conversation. He was from Manila, but lived in Europe now, where he’d gone to business school or started a nonprofit, or perhaps both. The details were hard to discern. Now he was back in the Philippines for some reason, vacation, a break, or some new venture, for some indeterminate amount of time. Again, specifics seemed just out of reach.
Fair enough though, I thought: what did I have to say about my own story? I was from the United States -- and at this point it was difficult to say where -- and was over in the Philippines working for a short stint at an NGO in Manila, but also traveling around East Asia over long weekends. Why? The short answer was that a law firm signing bonus back Stateside had allowed me the luxury of voluntourism for a few months before beginning a new job. The longer story was more complicated.
Gabbi waved further up the beach: lunch. The hipster Filipino and I shook hands and split.
The view from the restaurant deck was not of the swimming beach, but of the natural rocky shore on the other side of the seawall. I ordered a Caesar salad, which four wait staff assembled tableside, using an alarming amount of raw egg white for the dressing, which I could taste oozing off of every leaf of lettuce. I didn’t finish. Em and Gabbi and I talked about something -- I can’t remember what. A swimmer, two swimmers, hopped over the seawall and sidestroked out into the cove beneath the restaurant’s perch. The check came, we paid too much, and instead of going back to the beach, we lingered at the table.
Then I had to go to the bathroom. Again, it’s odd what matters in a day. The maitre d' gave me a key tied to a big wooden paddle and pointed me to a concrete bathhouse behind the restaurant.
While I was washing my hands, I heard another key grind its way into the lock. I turned over my shoulder and saw the hipster guy walk in, backed by a bar of grayish white light pouring into the dim chamber.
“Hey!” I said. I couldn’t remember his name.
“Hi,” he said. He came and stood at the sink next to mine. He, too, began to wash his hands. “Those girls -- which one is your girlfriend?”
“None of them,” I said.
“Aw. Ha ha.”
“Nope -- just friends.”
I twisted the faucet, shook my hands into the basin, and turned to the towel hanging on the wall.
I felt his hand touch my side. We were both in our swimming suits, bare chested. He reached his other hand around my back and tried to squeeze me from behind.
“You have a nice body.”
It took a moment not only for my mind, but for my body to realize what was happening. Then reflex kicked in. Without saying anything, I gave some kind of forceful shrug that brushed him back.
“Sorry,” he said. “That was -- sorry. Sorry.”
And went back to the beach.
It was starting to rain.
I walked into the water, now ribbed with wind, reflecting the dull, colorless strata of cloud cover. Knee deep, waist deep, chest deep…I dove, plunged, gave a strong frog kick and bobbed up like a torpedo breaking surface.
The girls were going back to the restaurant to order halo-halo before we left. I told them I’d follow in a minute.
Because it was time to think, that much I knew. I had maybe half an hour left on this beach, in this place, in Cebu, and I had to think.
My first instinct was to give it the deep forget. Send it to the sea. Bottle it. Bury it. Drown it. Pick your metaphor, I knew what it meant. That’s the crafty thing about devils: they so often resemble your better features. In my best moments, I’m a forgiver, a pleaser, a reconciler, with a tinge of a Messiah complex, accustomed to taking one for the team. I could do it again -- whichever team it might be for.
I exhaled, and my second instinct swept into the vacuum like the undertow. Rage. But rage of a particular kind -- a consciously self-righteous, self-aware, self-esteem-driven, modern rage. It was like every morsel of public school self-esteem training, every snippet of Oprah pop psychology, gathered inside of me to form a fist of protest. And what was I protesting? Violation of the first and only modern rule of interpersonal ethics: consent. I had every right to rage.
I stood on that for a moment; but only for a moment. Then something else came to mind, a memory. I thought of someone I knew, back in the United States, someone who I had hurt, probably more than anyone else in my life. I thought of how that person responded. I thought of her.
The memory did a strange thing: it infected me. I felt it. Smuggled inside of that memory was a principle of action, a way of being, that was not my way, not any of my ways, except that it could become my way -- or I could become its way. Once the way planted itself inside of me, it was only a matter of waking to the presence consciously. In the space of a thought, it was evident what I would do.
Back at the restaurant, I joined the girls for halo-halo, the crowning genius of the Filipino sweet tooth, a bowl of pink peppermint ice cream, big enough for three or four, with gum drops, licorice, and all drowning in pools of gooey, sticky, sweet sauces. Halo-halo starts off looking like an electric rainbow and at the end it’s reduced to purple-gray sludge. We devoured it.
All the while, my eye was on two people several tables down, finishing a late lunch. When we’d paid, the girls went to find the driver; I told them once again that I’d follow in a minute.
After they left, I got up and walked down the deck, toward him. Halfway there he spotted me and put his head down into his plate. I kept walking.
When I arrived, I stood over the table. “Excuse me,” I said to him, “I need to visit with you for just a minute.” I turned to his friend, who had no idea what was happening, and asked. “Will you excuse us?”
It took him a moment -- maybe slightly longer than it had taken me -- to react. He shrugged at his friend without saying a word, some sort of expression of confusion and annoyance that I realize now was a mask for terror. We walked back over toward the green space between the restaurant and the bathhouse. Halfway across I stopped and turned around to him.
“I wanted to say -- I think we need to talk about what you did earlier.”
He said nothing.
“I think you owe me an apology, and I want to give you the chance to do that.”
Then it came out. All of it. Not just an apology, but a whole pit of darkness. There was a long story -- there always is -- but the short of it was, he despised himself, and he was out of hope. And all I could think was, I know what it’s like, to live life afraid of your own self-destruction.
“That’s why I am back in the Philippines, to get support from my friends. That’s why my friend,” he nodded toward the restaurant, “is with me.” Then he said more quietly, “I believe in God, but I know that is the worst part about it.”
What was I supposed to say to that? I supposed that I believed in God, too -- I’d said so ever since I was a child. Lately, I hadn’t been so sure.
So, lacking knowledge of what I was supposed to say, I told him what I knew. That I knew what despair was like. That I had my own story. That sometimes you hurt others, wantonly, cruelly, not only from some dark impulse that you didn’t know you had, but also because you have no hope for yourself. That it was important -- really important -- that he keep fighting his despair, because we were in the same fight together somehow, and what he did mattered for me, too. I told him he was an encouragement to me.
Then it was time to go. I felt the press of time. We shook hands and walked off in opposite directions, he toward his lunch table and me toward my car.
On the way back to the airport, we drove past the shacks and goats again, past the resorts. We made a stop at a t-shirt shop that made a trendy local pride silkscreen print that was all the rage among Cebuanos and increasingly so among tourists. We browsed, considered, and ultimately decided not to buy.
Security was sleepy at the airport and we were soon ushered into the central waiting lounge, orange and brown vinyl seats bolted into the linoleum and ringed with stands of food, trinkets, and magazines. We had to try the dried mangos, said Em. Cebu was famous for its mangos, and you hadn't really been to Cebu without tasting them. So we did: they were very sweet. I ate almost a whole bag, and got my fingers quite sticky.
So that is what the kingdom of heaven is like, I thought. The kingdom of heaven is like eating a bag of mangos in Cebu, it's like a weekend on the beach, it's like accumulating the memories you're supposed to acquire, and all the while knowing that the most beautiful thing that you saw was in the bent and burning shame of a man who molested you in a cement bathhouse.
We chatted some more, the three of us. Our flight was called, we boarded, and lifted up northward toward Manila.