Love in the Slums – A Series of Stories Written by Me

Chapter 1: Back on the Island Because My Life is Fucked (In Bold Letters)

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Chapter 1: Back on the Island Because My Life is Fucked

The turquoise ocean is dotted in places by colorful corals where fish and sea turtles swim around; white sand everywhere, palm trees in perfect parallel alignment and sheer rocky bluff on one side.  Everything I see on this island are all I need to recuperate from the corporate rat race and my toxic life in the polluted city of Manila.  It has been ten years since I last visited Villa Esmeralda, Turtle Island, off Lamoiyan Bay. There are more tourists now than before, all looking touristy in their sun hats and floral-theme ensemble. Tina, Lola Esmeralda’s daughter, was having a hard time keeping up with all their guests’ demands. I can tell right away how exhausted she was by the way she dropped to one of the recliners while rolling her eyes at me. The last time I was here, I was with the two most important boys in my life – my dog, Rapsine, and my best friend, Erwin. 

I remember how Tina rolled her eyes at me back then too when she saw me shivering, my arms and legs full of abrasions and bleeding cuts.  Erwin was hugging me from behind to keep me warm, Rapsine at his feet, also shivering.  It wasn’t exactly the happiest moment, but it did lead to something so memorable that here I am now, 29 years old, still hanging on to hope that love will find me again. Take note of how I phrased that. Love will find me again because in all honestly, I stopped looking for it after Erwin.

My friend Tina has not changed one bit. I first met Tina and Lola Esmeralda exactly 10 years ago on this island during an excursion organized by Erwin and his friends.  She had married Erwin’s best friend, Jake, whom she met for the first time during that excursion in November 1996.  Even today I’m still amazed at how a two-day excursion led to blissful marriage between Tina and Jake.  Back in 1996, we had no mobile phones, there were no social media and people only communicated via snail mail.  Jake and Tina, I swear to God, wrote to each other almost every day for five years.  They sent each other flowers, notes, food, and gifts on Valentine’s Day, Christmas, and their birthdays. I remember Tina showing me one page of Jake’s letter with Jollibee spaghetti stain on one corner with caption, “I’m in Jollibee now and missing you so much!” I teased her with gag reflex because I myself wouldn’t stoop that low, I remember saying. Jake and Tina met at least once a month for romantic dates all those five years.  The reason I believed that long-distance relationships can work was solely due to the both of them.  On their fifth anniversary as a couple, Jake proposed to her and decided to join Tina in managing the resort.  They got married on the island a month after their betrothal in June 2001.  I was Tina’s maid of honor while Alvin, one of their friends, was Jake’s best man.  The honor would have been Erwin’s but Jake couldn’t find him at that time.

To say that I’m envious of how Tina and Jake’s relationship turned out is putting it mildly. Here I am, 29 years old, recently resigned from my work as Geologist in a large mining firm, single, aloof, and without a clue how on to proceed with life after leaving my promising career.  So yes, I am downright depressed!  It was so bad one day I just snapped and wrote letters to people who matter.  I wrote my resignation letter to my boss, a copy was furnished to HR.  I then wrote a long e-mail to Tina and Jake, to my parents, to two of my siblings, and the universe and told them how miserable I had been, blah blah. They must have cringed a lot. The last letter I wrote was written in my private blog that only I can view.  That private blog has become my safe space where I pour out all the things I feel, without needing to be validated by others. I also write to myself on there thinking that no one else would see the contents thus, I did not see the need to censor anything. Or so I thought. It turns out, nothing on internet stays hidden or private. I will tell you more about this later.

(Please note that everything on this story – characters, locations, and the story itself is entirely fictional but may have been inspired by bits of my life’s story. Any possible similarities to yours is coincidental as all of the stories that are and will be written here moving forward are entirely products of my imagination. The characters I build here may be inspired by real people but they are in no way representative entirely of any person I met or know personally. This is a love story, but not of mine but of Nef. The story might make you cry or laugh until you fall down your chair. Know that you’ve been warned.) – And yes, in bold letters.

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Chapter 2:  The One That Got Away

My life is like a puzzle at the moment except that none of the pieces fit together.  Erwin is by far the biggest puzzle piece of my life.

All the things I feel right now have mostly to do about Erwin, the one who got away.  Jake and Tina tried so hard to find him for me, but all attempts were futile.  We sometimes joke, on one of our moments of hilarity, that maybe he is in jail, got killed in a war, was abducted by aliens, or had gotten married to a rebel in the mountain.  We have all been worried about him.  He has no social media account, so are the rest of his family.  It’s as if the whole family has decided to go Amish!

To heal from all the toxicity caused by my absentee best friend and the mental and physical pollutants of the city, I decided to contact Tina and Jake to anticipate my visit to the island.   I thought it was about time I get plenty of vitamin sea.

Behind the chairs where Tina and I were relaxing, about 50 meters away, stands a humongous white villa on the hilly part of the island that can be accessed through a natural stair formed by an uplifted coral reef. These natural stairs branches to another grassy path that leads towards a steep bluff, at its foot lie large boulders of limestone where the waves crash onto in white angry sprays. The small embayment is where the tourists go for a swim or snorkel. Despite the size of the island, it has now gotten crowded because of its crystal clear water, thanks to the freshwater springs that are gushing out of the limestone rocks into the sea. The island has become so famous, you’d need to book 6 months in advance to control the influx of tourists from all over the world. Tita Esmeralda and the local government unit wanted it that way to lessen the impact on the island. It was my idea being their consulting geologist and a tree hugger at that.

Tina, as to be expected, bombarded me with life questions as soon as I set foot on the island.

“Gurla, I’m so glad you could make it although your timing is a bit odd. Not that I don’t want you here of course. It’s just odd.”

“Huh? What do you mean? I did tell you I’m coming because I needed a detox from living in the city for too long.”

“I know, Nef.  Jake and I decided to let you rest for now. We’ll tell you the news once you’re ready to hear them.”

“You’re pregnant? Congratulations! How far along are you?”

“Slow down!  I’m not pregnant. I’ve just been overeating a lot, thank you so much for body shaming me.”

“Are you kidding? If I have a body like that, I’d go skinny dipping now.  If I’m lucky, I’d probably catch one of those cute guys over there.”

“Haha. Don’t even try. We banned skinny dipping a long time ago. Also you? Go out on a random date?”

“I know, right?”, I wink and then a bitter smile slowly forms on my face. I look away.

I look at the grassy patch at the foot of the bluff. I wince in pain. Sensing it, Tina hugs me, her eyes suspiciously watery.  The grassy patch was where Erwin proposed to me in 1998 along with my dog, Rapsine.  My fur baby tragically died last year which became the catalyst to my misery.

“Yikes, there’s Mrs. Cruz looking for me.  She probably found something to complain about again. I’ll see you later, k? Don’t go near the rocks!”

I laugh at her latest remarks. See, those rocks played a role on how Erwin’s proposal came about.

I slowly walk to the spot where once, Erwin, on his knees, told me that he loves me and asked if would I be his forever. Beside him was my brown part Chow chow part retriever dog, Rapsine, which dad gave to me as Christmas gift about 12 years ago.

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Chapter 3: I love you as certain dark things are to be loved

If you ask me to describe Erwin, there’s a Pablo Neruda poem for that:

XVII (I do not love you…)
I do not love you as if you were salt-rose, or topaz,
or the arrow of carnations the fire shoots off.
I love you as certain dark things are to be loved,
in secret, between the shadow and the soul.

Our love was innocent and sweet.  Looking back, our relationship is also like a lotus in the pond.  It blossomed beautifully out of our murky environment.  You see, Erwin and I met in the slums, a small illegal settlement surrounded by petty crimes, adversities, drug wars, and whatnot. 

I walk towards the shore. I feel the Bermuda grass tickle my feet.  Then my feet touch the sand and hear the ever familiar crunch. The noise of the sea starts to quiet down.  I close my eyes and watch the island melt away, the coconut trees slowly get replaced by houses in various sizes and shapes. I feel the sand change from sand to concrete. The smell of the sea is getting replaced by a whiff of adobo mixed with the stench of the dirty and clogged drainage canal. The ground at my feet slightly trembles with the passing of the train on the railway, clouds of dust and debris falling from the small houses around me.  I’m Nef, 14 years old and this ugly scar of space is my home.