By Fae Marie Esperas
His tears were like pearls falling from his eyes as he held me in his arms. Round and misty, they instantly turned into ice crystals before they even landed on the ground. But I no longer felt the warmth of his embrace.
I know it’s me, not him. Have I gone numb? I hope not. Of course, I will never be. My senses may have gone pale, but never what I feel.
This is the first time I’m going to Kiltepan, Sagada’s most famous summit. I might have been to Sagada a few times before, but I have never set foot in this part of the town for myriad excuses. I hate walking, for instance. I also hate crowds. O my second visit it was Valentine’s Day and couples from all over the country (fine, Luzon, at least) had set up their tents to watch the Kiltepan sunrise a la That Thing Called Tadhana. What was I to see then, a sea of heads? Pass.
On New Year’s Day 2016, the weather didn’t hold back in pulling down its temperature just for us. Being a child of the sea, I hate the cold.
I can’t remember how we ended up reaching Kiltepan now.
Eli and I. After all these years of being together, it is only now that I come to see that we are indeed together. And yet, in between those moments of togetherness are cracks of emptiness, gaps that remain open, but no longer waiting to be filled.
“Finally,” he sighs after taking that long stroll from the main road that, depending on which direction you take, either leads you to Sagada’s town proper or down to the neighboring Bontoc. “We’re here.”
It’s just a quarter past four in the morning. The skies are still studded with stars, but he likes these early morning hikes. He’s been doing these even before we met, so he knows how to get by. He finds a boulder flat enough to sit on and, upon resting his bags, he sits and opens a pack of cigarettes. Menthol, as usual. He lights a stick and starts to puff incessantly, one of his defenses against the bitter cold.
I can no longer remember exactly why I chose to be with him.
But I remember when we first met. It was here in Sagada, in a vegan café where he saw me enjoying a chocolate muffin and lemonade alone. I was reading Milan Kundera’s Unbearable Lightness of Being, trying to understand how life was during the Prague spring. We don’t have spring in this country, only summer and rain. And in Sagada, these two seasons are notorious for playing under the same sky at the same time.
“Who travels to Sagada alone?” he scoffs at the memory.
We do, I whisper.
“You were brokenhearted then,” he recalls. “And I was single. Not yet ready to mingle.”
Yeah, sure, I chuckled. You were the one who approached me.
I guess that time I didn’t know what to do with my life, coming fresh from a breakup and all, so I indulged in the idea of talking to a stranger. He wasn’t as strange as I thought him to be, though, and like me, he was bored. I ditched Kundera for his company, first in his strolls around the town to a clandestine hike in Echo Valley and in a drunken stupor in a cabin lodge surrounded by pristine pine trees.
We left Sagada to face our respective realities, me as a humanitarian nomad and him as a corporate slave. I only gave him one of my three first names—the one I used the least, but somehow, he managed to find me. Big thanks to our nth degree friends on social media, it was only a matter of weeks when I received a message from him, more of a quote from an essay I authored on a national broadsheet.
Let’s begin again.
“What makes you keep running to the mountains each time we fight?” he asks me nonchalantly.
It must have been just a series of mere coincidences. Well, there was that episode when we broke up and I traveled to Baguio for a weekend respite, but he found me playing chess in Burnham Park. He decided to end our affair because he still wasn’t sure of what he felt for me, only to tell me that wanted a second chance. Knowing how addicting his presence was in my life, I let my guard down and surrendered the queen, even if I was just two moves away from earning a checkmate.
Is love enough to keep holding on? To be honest, I feel like I love him more whenever he and I are apart. Perhaps that is the reason I tend to run away, to the mountains.
I had cold feet when he proposed to me, a year or so after finding me in Burnham. Once again, I rode the bus to Baguio, but afterward I hailed a cab and took refuge at a relative’s house in La Trinidad. When he arrived, I told him about my family’s curse—that no woman in our family, for seven generations, would ever get married. I was the third of seven and, at that time, so far, none of the women in our clan had tied the knot.
He just laughed at the tall tale, but after the giggles, he told me that we were breaking the curse. The more reason we should get married, he said. Not only would we break it, we’d live happily ever after too!
And sure, we did, only for me to realize that the curse is the marriage itself. Or was it just a figment of my imagination?
“There’s no curse, okay,” he laughs with a hint of reassurance. “Everything we did was our own doing. Our decisions, our choices, our—”
It was my choice to leave him, on a September afternoon, almost two years after we got married, and barely a month after I miscarried. I’d been contemplating about leaving for good for a few months, if not for the unexpected pregnancy and the ongoing pandemic. Our married years, as short as they were, were not really blissful, or perhaps it was the paranoia of the curse that kept bugging me to the point that I was blinded by a ghost that didn’t even exist.
I feared that I wouldn’t be able to serve him like a regimented wife. I was never a good cook. I didn’t know how to do the laundry, and I was a dismal failure at everything taught in home economics class. I chose to travel and write and make money and serve others in the ways I knew, but not settle under the same roof with the man I would share the same bed with at night.
He resented that fact. But he was patient enough to wait for me.
The pandemic only made things worse. I couldn’t go out not only because of the virus hiding right under my nose—going out would me putting two lives at risk, mine and the one growing inside me.
Only that, after being triggered by the unprecedented loss, I decided to mourn on my own and find a life without him by my side.
“Did you regret getting married?” he asks while lighting a new stick. “I don’t. I’d still marry you if you tell me to.”
“Because I love you.”
Is love enough to keep holding on? To be honest, I feel like I love him more whenever he and I are apart. Perhaps that is the reason I tend to run away, to the mountains. The distance makes my love (and all other feelings I have for him) grow fonder, and the passion I have is reignited each time he finds me.
But things went haywire when I was able to smuggle myself to Baguio.
I told him where I was. That I was having a hard time feeling things. I was losing grasp of my senses. My sense of smell. My appetite. That everything I knew to be sweet tasted bitter. That I left my inhaler in his bag.
Now I wish they were all lies.
The folks in the mountains used to say that you could get that one thing you truly wished for during a specific kind of daybreak. That when you chanced upon that moment, right before the clouds parted to make way for the first ray of light to hit the land, your wish would be granted.
The caveat is, you can only savor it for a moment or two.
But what else is there for me to wish for?
“Ria,” he throws away the cigarette butt and starts to weep like a child. “What has happened to us?”
I don’t know, Eli. I sigh. He stands up and looks into the horizon. By his side I put my head on his shoulder, looking at the same picturesque view of the Sagada cliffs. But I’m sorry. For everything.
I’m sorry for leaving. I’m sorry for being a crybaby. I’m sorry for not being able to wait.
“But we’re finally here,” he chuckles again. “You’ve always wanted to see the Kiltepan sunrise, right?”
I nod silently.
“How long has it been?” he asks. “I miss you terribly.”
I miss you too, I reply. But things are never going to be the same.
“You know I’ll always love you,” he says.
“But it’s time,” he clears his throat. “For me to let you go.”
I lean against him again as we watch the sun rise amid the clouds of Kiltepan. It’s true: As the sun’s warm rays conquer the summit, the remaining patches of darkness transition from Prussian blue to indigo to fuchsia to mustard yellow.
I have to go now, Eli, I whisper as I embrace him as tight as I can with my perpetually hotdog arms. Find the love that you deserve on this earth, in this time.
Should the gods be kinder to us, I reach for his lips to feel them one last time, maybe in the next life they’ll give us another chance.
Morning has broken. I feel the heat of the sun pass through me, as Eli scatters my ashes onto the fluffy cumulu-stratus sea.
Fae Marie Esperas, 34, currently resides in Cubao with her cat, Ramon.