At dinner, a couple of weeks ago, the children asked about the men I had loved.
Love comes up a lot at our table. I have a 16-year-old son, a 13-year-old daughter and a nine-year-old little boy, so there’s a lot of ribbing about boys and girls. I don’t like the kids feeling embarrassed about all these new feelings they’re having, so I like to join in about having crushes and all that jazz.
I have a couple of favorite crush stories, ones I tell even to my students. There was the glass guy, the light bulb guy, and the fish balls guy. The glass guy was my crush when I was in Grade 4, and it was my first time at a school fair. He was the DJ at the main booth, and I stuck to that booth like a leech, in awe at his ability to speak on the microphone. When you’re young, you don’t know that you like someone because that someone has the very thing you wish you had. How mysterious is the truth that falling in love with someone is a little bit about falling in love with oneself or a possible version of oneself. At the end of the day, he gave me his school glass. It was sticky with Coke, but it felt like a metaphor. I still didn’t know about metaphors and their power then. I just knew that it stood for something.
Mr. Light Bulb was a guy in high school. He asked me to the school dance, and I had on a pretty pink dress with green flowers. I was wearing green shoes, too. I think dreamy nymph maiden was the look I was going for. He waited for me at the school’s Administration building with four red roses. I never could figure out what four stood for: “I love you, maybe?”
This dance was a huge thing, as it came at the end of the Marcos years. The years before this, in between the fair in grade school and this dance, were lean years; years our school did not allow for frivolous things. So a dance and to dance with such freedom was something I felt deep in my bones. I mean, in grade school, our bags were constantly checked and classes were sometimes cancelled because of supposed bomb threats.
While dancing to Mike Francis’s “Let Me In,” I told my crush how pretty the gym looked that night. It was festooned with blue lights and the whole gym lost its sweaty and gray self, and in its stead was this sky-like ethereal, massive thing. He looked at the blue lights and at me, stopped dancing, and without even tiptoeing, un-screwed one of the blue light bulbs. He handed it to me, still hot with electricity coursing through it. It was the singular most beautiful thing to happen to me so far in my life.
Whenever I tell the children stories of my youth, they are enthralled. Not so much because they are good stories, but because a parent having a life apart from being a parent is quite unimaginable. It seems impossible to children that their parents were anything else but their parents. They presume we were born to just have them and that we have no past and the future is just as hazy, inconceivable, and all in all is present time—here at the table, every night, frozen in love and time.
The children don’t know what to do with the vision of their mother loving another, and truth be told, in the lens of twenty years after, I cannot make sense of that young lady either. How bold and brazen I was when I came to love! Was I really that obvious? Was I really that desperate to be loved? Mr. Light Bulb guy would send me love letters, the songs of Sting with missing lyrics for me to fill in. It seems crazy now all that time spent deciphering what he truly wanted to say to me. Discussions during recess time would revolve around his choice of missing lyrics. What did he want to say? What did I feel about my inability to know what he truly wanted to say?
The children listen with bated breath and it is my 13-year-old who is brave enough to ask what these men taught me about love. I prevaricate and tell them about other boys who might have passed my heart, albeit briefly, such as the boy who first called me on the telephone. They laugh at how I describe how frightened I was to have defied my father, who did not allow “gentlemen callers.” Oh how I would run to the phone whenever it would ring, making sure I caught the phone before my father did! In a time with no computers or cellphones, I could not send him the message to desist!
The nine-year-old asks why I defied my father, his knowledge of his strict mother incongruous with this young rebel. I know we’re treading dangerous ground here, not wanting to encourage disobedience, but they absolutely like this version of me much, much more! “I don’t know,” I tell him. “Maybe because I didn’t think there was anything harmful about a phone call.” But I was quick to add, “But Lolo was right. I was definitely too young.”
I tell them about the crush-ng-bayan whom my friend was in love with and forced me to meet in Unimart for heaven’s sake! How strange it was to be told that it was I whom he liked instead, and how awkward it was for me and my friend for like, forever! She and I never quite became friends again after that.
And how my kids love the story of me burning all my love letters in a fit of anger, me grasping for the memory of what it was that had made me so angry. The nine-year-old is interested in the idea of matches, of all that consuming fire and rage, but it is the older kids who want to know what it was I eventually learned. I do not know what to say although I know there is something to say. I say:
“There’s a reason why it’s called a crush because there’s nothing more crushing than this alien feeling of liking someone. I mean, at first, all you want is candy and that you can have power over and then one day it becomes a thing that can’t be bought or kept on a wall like a poster and you have absolutely no power. Everything you know so far gets challenged and it’s crushing to realize that there’s nothing you can do to make the other love you if he doesn’t. And then you grow up a little and you realize that others can like you too, and for me it was amazing to be liked by a boy, never thinking I was beautiful or desirable or anything like that. How strange it is to be changed by the gaze of an other—it is a delicious thing, but you need to know that there’s nothing more complicated than love.”
They are quiet at this point, it all being vague and obscure from their vista, the posters of their crushes on their walls the most real thing for now. So I take that cue and stop. This is all that’s necessary, perhaps. There is silence at the table as we look at each other. Then the 9-year-old’s eyes light up! “Mom, how about Mr. Fish Balls, you haven’t told that story yet!”
I smile and say, “Drink your vitamins. I’ll tell you, tomorrow.”
(Photo of cardboard heart by -Weng- via Flickr Creative Commons; photo of heart sweets by Leo Reynolds via Flickr Creative Commons; used for illustrative purposes only)