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Had I known what challenges awaited me in the Philippines, I would have tossed my plane ticket straight into the trash bin.
My story begins innocently enough. Back in my late twenties, I spent a week on isolated tropical islands. Just before the mini-ferry to my final island could depart, a tropical typhoon showed up on the weather radar.
Day after day anxious tourists, including yours truly, chewed their fingernails as the wind howled and water crashed. I didn’t fear the storm. I was worried about getting to my final island – home to world class SCUBA diving – with enough time to dive before my flight back to Manila.
Do you know you can’t ride in an airplane right after SCUBA diving?
Here’s what happens: breathing from an air tank underwater adds nitrogen to your blood, which needs time to escape through your lungs. Going up in an airplane relieves pressure from the atmosphere on your body. If you have any un-escaped nitrogen in your blood, it can expand into terribly painful, possibly deadly bubbles. So – no flying too soon after SCUBA.
Thanks to the storm, I faced a trifecta of challenges: squeezing in SCUBA, not dying from the bends, and not dying from a typhoon.
The Team Up Top
On the third morning of “will the coast guard allow the mini-ferries to leave today?” I almost missed the boat thanks to an ill-advised snack shopping excursion. I ended up rushing down to the docks in the final minutes of passenger loading. Yikes!
I stared at our chariot. The hull of the boat was no bigger than your average airstream trailer. Outriggers stretched like spider legs to stabilize the long, slender vessel. A single, rebuilt, 4 cylinder diesel engine with god-knows-how-many-miles powered the whole thing. The eight bench planks lining the port and starboard cabin walls overflowed with passengers.
From behind me another late-comer was getting permission to bypass the full benches and instead ride on the roof. Then, without introducing himself, this George-Clooney-look-a-like invited the only person left standing on the dock (me) to join him in the only spacious and comfortable place on the entire watercraft. Yes, please! Genius! I passed my bag to the luggage hold, put my foot on the ledge of a cabin window, and pulled myself onto the roof.
A few other travelers realized the roof was first-class seating and scrambled up behind us. Then the boat of time-strapped-tourists and lost-wages boat employees motored out into the harbor.
Mr. Clooney and I finally swapped names, countries of origin, and travel itineraries over the roaring of the diesel engine. Roberto was from Spain. His steel melting voice and twinkling eyes were the cherry on top of his immediately obvious intellect and fantastic sense of humor.
Had I not been approaching my six year anniversary with the man whose babies I planned to have, I would have been immediately smitten. Instead, I was pleased to have such lovely company for the six hour boat ride.
Roberto and I both shared the same tight SCUBA diving timeline. We were both flying back to Manila the same day. We both felt similarly about travel and lifestyles. We had everything we needed to make the best of a six hour slum voyage.
Not So Good
At a lull in conversation I closed my eyes and felt the sun warming my face. Suddenly my eyes flew open.
The sun. On my face. My sunscreen. In my bag. In the luggage hold underneath 32 passengers’ feet on a rocking sea. Oh shit. In my haste to seize a great opportunity, I failed to prepare for six hours on the tiny roof of a tiny boat under the massive tropical sun. I had no sunscreen, no layers, no book, no snacks… Ugh.
I explained the look of dismay on my face to Roberto. In a gentlemanly cliché, he offered his handkerchief. I laughed as I accepted the tiny square of cloth.
It was about this time – maybe 30 minutes into the trip – that we entered open water. Two things became immediately obvious:
- The ferry should have been delayed a fourth day.
- The connection between Roberto and I had entered the danger zone.
The moment I realized I’d so far failed to drop the phrase “my boyfriend” into conversation was the same moment our boat began climbing the face of a 9 foot wave.
We roof dwellers sobered up instantly as the boat tilted skyward, threatening to dump us into the sea. We clung to the roof. Suspense about whatever was on the other side of the crest grew.
Finally the bow tipped from sky back to water and we were staring into the bottom of a twelve-foot trough. We cringed. The boat teetered, then slid into a very deep hole. We clung harder.
I squeezed my eyes shut when I realized we wouldn’t be riding up the face of the next wave. Oh no. It would be crashing right over us – roof and all.
More clinging. More squeals as every passenger was simultaneously traumatized and soaked to the bone. And so began a 12 hour game of Russian Roulette. We faced wave after wave, cowering each time the ocean pulled the trigger.
When Life Give You Lemons
Roberto and I did the only thing optimists can do in this sort of situation. We laughed.
Several gallons of salt water being pitched straight into our faces every 70 seconds? Ha ha ha!
Being stuck in the glaring tropical sun with no place to go? Too funny!
As a crust of salt developed in my hair, on my clothes, and on my burning skin, the deep conversations Roberto and I were having (between waves) were my Valium and my Xanax. I wondered aloud if we were in for even rougher seas the farther out we ventured. I wondered if our tiny little craft would make the whole six-hour journey.
“Well,” I said to Roberto, “at least we don’t have to do this at night!”
The Things I Didn’t Say
Maybe using the words “my boyfriend” right after I realized my error wouldn’t have changed anything. But maybe I would have lost the only thing making it bearable to be repeatedly punched in the face by the ocean and scorched by the tropical sun.
Not slipping “my boyfriend” into the conversation became its own punishment. As our arrival hour came and went, land failed to appear on the horizon. We kept checking the clock as the sun sunk toward the sea. Darkness descended and our teeth chattered as the boat rocked and rolled. The worse our situation got, the more thankful I was for Roberto’s kindness. The growing bond between us was its own karmic punishment. There’s nothing like the torture of relentless possibility with your gorgeous knight in shining armor when you’re committed to doing right by your partner.
Eleven hours after departure, Roberto insisted he saw city lights in the distance. By the time our battered ferry approached the dock, I desperately wanted to say, “Yes, Roberto, of course I want to go SCUBA diving with you tomorrow!” Instead, I stalled and changed the subject. “Let’s talk about it when we land,” I’d say, “Uh… tell me more about that study abroad program…”.
The minute we landed, I did what I would have done hours ago if I could have. I ran away.
Roberto the gentleman stayed on the roof helping passengers down. I rushed ashore. My couchsurfing host happened to walk up and say hello as I stepped onto the dock. My small bag was first out of the hold, having been last in. I rushed through greeting small talk with my host, eager to get the hell away from the Spanish god vying for my companionship.
“Nope! No other bags. Nope… not hungry at all! No, not interested in a walk right now. Uhh… you know I’ve just been on the water so long… let’s hop straight on the scooter and motor to a dry place. Stat. Right now please.”
I didn’t dare glance over my shoulder as I guilty rushed away from the dock with my host, my heart in my throat.
Once we got to my host’s house, safely away from the possibility of encountering Mr. Gorgeous & Amazing, my pulse began to slow.
The next morning, just after sunrise, we hopped on the scooter to search for a spot on a dive trip. At my host’s friend’s SCUBA shop, my host begged the owner to squeeze me onto the dive boat. Hearing it was the only day I could dive, the owner relented.
“Meet the boat at the docks in 60 minutes,” he said.
On our way to the pier, we got caught in small-town gridlock. As we idled, I heard my name. I turned around… and there was Roberto. Standing there in nothing but tiny blue shorts only a bronzed Spanish triathlete could pull off.
Panic descended as he jogged up to the scooter. I swallowed hard and tried to feign happiness.
“Uh. Roberto! Hi. Gosh, here you are. And look. At those. Shorts. Yeah… I just couldn’t find you last night. I looked everywhere. I thought I’d never see you again. But here. you. are.”
“Oh, yeah, I found a dive shop already. You haven’t? Oh, no, I don’t think mine will have any room – they’re already squeezing me onto a trip.”
My host interrupted, “Well, we should at least try. Hop on, Roberto!”
Now if you’ve never traveled in Asia, you may not know that scooters there are really a one-person affair. Things were cozy with two of us. And now I was about to become the center of a Roberto sandwich. Shhhhhhhhit. Noyesnoyesnoyesno…
Wheels of Fate
“It’s okay,” I told myself. “Everything is going to be okay. You’ll go to the shop, they’ll tell him no, you’ll go diving with that huge group of people, MJ will drop him at another shop… you’re okay. This is going to be okay.”
At the shop, the owner said “No. We can absolutely not squeeze another person on to the trip. Not possible.” I sighed audibly with relief.
“Are you sure?” pleaded my host.
“Actually,” said the owner, “another dive master just got here. Here’s what we’ll do. We’ll break you guys off from the big group, and send the two of you with him instead.”
“Wait, WHAT?!” I nearly said aloud. Oh god. He did not just say Roberto and I could go on our own personal, private trip together. He did not just say that Roberto and I could spend the entire day basically alone and basically naked together. He did not say that. There is no way that he said that.
Yup. That’s what he said.
I tried to force a smile as Roberto and my host. celebrated ‘our’ good luck.
Of course we all crammed back onto the scooter to get to our private boat. Of course I spent the entire day with my heart pounding in my throat, maintaining the stiffest upper lip I could manage as Mr. Gorgeous was relentlessly charming and wonderful and the chemistry raged between us.
Of course fire exploded inside me each time Roberto helped me onto the boat or touched my arm underwater to point out beautiful sea creature.
Of course I felt like I was on a torture rack, being stretched in two directions. My sense of responsibility to my partner was like a wall… made of balsa wood and tissue paper.
Sweet Relief. Almost.
At the end of the day, I couldn’t wait to get away from the man whose arms I so desperately wanted to fall into.
That’s when our SCUBA guide said, “Hey my girlfriend and I are going to karaoke tonight. You guys are awesome. You want to come?”
That’s when Roberto recalled our hurricane-boat discussion about karaoke and said, “Jema and I both LOVE karaoke! We’d love to go!”
That’s when I nearly burst into tears.
My suffering wasn’t over.
I endured several more hours of painful, exquisite, raging chemistry. My Spanish god showered me all night with compliments and eye-twinkles that I accepted with silence and a weak smile.
I couldn’t wait for the night to be over. I’d spent the previous day being pummeled by the ocean, and now this day being tortured with longing. At last call, I began counting down the final minutes of my agony.
As the bar crowd started to thin, I had a horrifying realization. When we walked out onto the sidewalk at the end of the night, the couple we’d come with would get on a motorbike and drive away.
That meant Roberto and I would be standing there on the sidewalk, truly alone together for the first time. Being alone would obliterate the last shreds of resistance left in my body. And we would absolutely share the most intense kiss of my life. And I would absolutely take his hand and let him lead me to his hotel room.
I panicked. I nearly jumped out of my chair at the bar, piling pesos from my pocket onto the table as I said, “Oh wow, guys. Gosh it’s so late. I’m suddenly so tired. I have to leave right now. Uh… nice meeting you. Bye.”
I couldn’t meet Roberto’s quizzical and injured eyes as I fled my personal battleground.
Relief and disappointment flooded my veins and I made my way back to my local host’s house.
Just Kill Me Now
My host greeted me with great news.
Some other travelers had asked him to arrange a private snorkeling trip the following day. Did I want to go, too? “Sure.” Yup, he thought so. And he texted Roberto. He wants to go as well – it’s all set!
I nearly passed out.
Those little blue shorts. That sexy mind. Those bronzed muscles. Those twinkling eyes. That steel-melting voice. Again. For another entire day.
I spent most the day laying on the bow of the snorkeling boat, catatonic with desire exhaustion. I was back on the torture rack, longing for both Roberto and the end of the day when I would finally escape this torment.
Off to the Loony Bin
My host met us at the dock with more ‘great news.’ He couldn’t give me a ride to the airport, but he’d arranged a shuttle. “And Roberto, you said you needed to go, too, right? So I reserved you a seat, as well.”
Are. You. Serious?!
The next morning I could only offer Roberto a rapid heartbeat and an exhausted half-smile as he crawled into the airport van. I melted as he nestled in beside me. I summoned the last shred of my strength to keep from laying my head on his shoulder and curling up against him.
In the departure lounge, as we waited for our flights, my mind raced with all the goodbye possibilities. “Oh please god don’t let him try to kiss me.” I thought.
When they called my flight, I jumped up, putting a safe distance between our lips, and reached my arm out for a handshake.
I looked away from Roberto’s injured eyes, and whispered, “I’ll write you on Facebook.”
Never Ever Again
I sank into my plane seat sad, relieved, and disappointed. Would I regret my resistance for the rest of my life? Would dropping ‘my boyfriend’ into conversation have changed anything? Would things have been the same without our brutal sea journey? Would I ever experience something like this again in my life? Five years later… the answer is still no. Not even close.
I never told my partner about the-affair-I-never-had. Back then, I published a less-revealing synopsis of the boat ride from hell and a far more enthusiastic review of my SCUBA/karaoke/endless torture with Roberto. Also, names have not been changed, because… Roberto doesn’t care. Do you know what that wonderful man said recently when I told him people were shocked I’d resisted and demanded to know why I’d do such a foolish thing? “Because resistance is the most beautiful, and makes it linger in history and the memory.” Which sounds better in Spanish.
I told the audio version of this story on a stage in Tucson.