“The last light is a great time for a first kiss,” I say, surprised by how deliberate my gaze is. The Philippine sunset provides a lazy contrast to the iridescent revelry on the boat we’re sitting at the side of, a faded pink, purple and orange concoction, the sporadic grey clouds like plumes of smoke from its cigar.
Still, somehow, the concoction emits a golden light that pours through the boat. The two of us are in a bubble, openly secluded from the chaos beside us, those trying to dance stumbling under the sway of the boat and five hours of aggressive drinking as she regards both me and my thinly veiled implication coyly.
Time holds its breath as I watch, her face impassive. Her eyebrow then kinks a little, the first glimmer of a smile playing at the corner of her lips. A shrug of encouragement. The space closes between us. We kiss. The start of something, or maybe nothing at all.
We met in the water, wading towards that very boat. As I have been for most of the morning, I’m pretending to be Australian (from the fictitious Tongawoowa, just outside Melbourne, if you’re asking), wearing the trademark combination of knitted Peruvian bucket hat and flamboyant shirt. Some see it as charisma, shrewder folks as idiocy. She’s the first person to immediately see through the false accent, and thus probably leaning towards the latter, if not intrigued in spite of herself. The ice is broken at least. We get talking.
A strange pattern forms. The next half hour unfolds with the conversation being repeatedly interrupted as I rise to dance, another irresistible tune having been thrown into the equation. Each time, a few minutes of convulsive jerking, thrusting and writhing later, I slide back into the both seat beside her and the conversation as if its rhythm never broke, an illusion of seamlessness that neither of us bother commenting on.
As if to underline my contradictions, I’m tumbling through deep thoughts on an otherwise shallow occasion, needing to prove there’s more substance than the surface stupidity. We’re quickly discussing my ‘pré-jà vu’ theory, her interest in Russian and Afro-American literature, people being more interested than interesting in the social media age, her preoccupation with death, particularly obscure ones, and the amount of time it took to create the known world – each brick of each building, each seed of every plant, each metre of every motorway painstakingly paved – the sheer scope and scale of everything we know.
It’s rapid fire, a plunge usually reserved until tentative prodding and probing has deemed the other legitimate enough to hear your thoughts, and yet immediately comfortable. I sense her intrigue tilt to interest, though it remains ambiguous whether it’s platonic or beyond.
Arriving at Magic Island, the spell is disrupted. We lose each other in the crowds, distracted by cliff jumping, more drinking, exploring other people and options, but it’s no accident I find myself beside her again when we return to the boat, the conversation forming whole again with the fluid immediacy of raindrops landing in a stream. The unknown opportunity cost of living, the mutual burning to see every inch of the world now, the incredible complexity of the body – firing synapses, blood rushing, limbs moving seamlessly behind the scenes as we talk – and other cosmic contemplations.
The sun nears the horizon, the moment threatening to elude me. After five minutes of losing my flow in a bid to locate the key, I find the words and roll the dice. Two sixes. One fleeting, lingering kiss.
Then, nothing. The day ends, I leave the boat playing raft to the incoherently drunk Indian couple draped over my shoulders as I wade back to the twilight-drenched white sands of Boracay, her whereabouts unknown.
When I locate her an hour or so later, we seem to be moving around the bar in a distant dance, never within a word of each other. Eye contact is carefully avoided, space and corners diligently utilised and avoided. The kiss had placed something between us, loaded it with a gamesmanship of who could display the least interest.
I hoped, at least; the more pragmatic part of me suspected she’d just lost interest completely.
And so it goes. A night of cruising and carousing leapt forth. She was soon half-forgotten, lost to the lights and the business of bedlam.
Travel romances have an inherent time limit, born in a temporary place where they’re over before they’ve even begun. And that’s where they flourish; alive in the deadline, thriving in the face of the looming finish line. At home, I’ve only ever been deeply affected by someone’s leaving once, whereas here, romantic interests fall away in the rear-view mirror weekly, monthly, with unerring frequency.
You just get used to it. Some last a day, some a week, some more. Some are no-strings-attached sex, others go beyond. The briefest can stay with you, the longest can fizzle out and leave you cold. They start fast then fight to endure, to keep up with their own wild energy, each its own candle that burns out hard and bright.
To prepare for this inevitability, you draw up your personal codes of romantic distance, devise a formula to find the balance between maintaining alacrity and openness without tying it to a specific person or place. Of course, the odd splinter, the occasional ache, but someone or somewhere lies just ahead. Teflon-hearted, you remain immediate, here, rather than yesterday, there.
In this case, attracted though I was, another passing paramour would soon emerge from those revolving doors. Superficial, maybe. Realistic also.
And then, the next night, sparks among the ashes. The timing is rather serendipitous, bumping into each another on the beach at an occasion laced with inherent urgency: quarter to midnight on New Year’s Eve.
Interest rushed back to me. Fifteen minutes of inevitability slipped by before the fireworks erupted. We quietly slipped away from the group as 2017 began. I guess that was the point at which we really did, too.
I found her the next day in two places; in the hostel bar and under my skin. It’s a peculiar sentiment on the basis I running around near-naked with some kind of sleepless, booze-soaked energy, knotted in a pink rubber ring with goggles pinning my swimming-pool-wet hat to my head at ugly angles, but there it was, that pretty itch.
When she found me in that state around midday, I was surprised by her continued interest. I was even more surprised by how quickly, over the next few days, she became the centre of my orbit. Usually I’m quick to drop romantic interests at the chance of a session, one of my lesser traits, but here the two entwined.
And that was crucial. Because what’s the point if it’s not fun? Why bother if you’re not laughing? It’s the most simple and vital aspect of anything, particularly a romance. Here, the atmosphere filtered into us, became our welcome third wheel.
Imagine the best night of your life. Condense it into a single, paused frame. Hit play. As if surfacing from dark water, everything hits you simultaneously – the lights, the music, the laughter, the almost overwhelming vibrancy. It was like we froze that moment and made it constant for a week, days and nights moving through each other in some relentless harmony of chaotic bliss.
You’d do unforgivable things to bottle it, download the moment or memory into something tangible, because it’s so rare for an occasion to come together with such soaring cohesion. We were part of the same group, the same stories, the same fierce grasp of fun, a fleet of phosphenes in fine focus, the two of us able to separate into different strands of revelry before our magnetism brought us back together just as easily.
Through long, drunken days and nights, I was pouring me out, drinking her in, searching for loopholes in my personal codes of distance to allow the closeness, somehow not intimidated by the intimacy. She became acquainted with my borderline schizophrenic side (sides?) and I with the way she’d set alarms up to an hour too early in a bid to trick herself into arriving at the actual time she had in mind.
All of this despite the fact it never felt certain. A part of me expected her to say, “it’s been fun, but…” each day, an apprehension that only ignited things further. There’s something in how the heat of doubt augments that sweetest little sting of infatuation. Assurance, after a certain point, diffuses the fire of a courtship. Doubt elevates it, tickles your heart, dances on your skin. It’s like feeling for the top of the stairs in the dark; the power of the precipice elevates matters, the thrill amplified by the anxious threat of rejection.
I’d been here before, but never like this. And then, more. We discovered our stars were aligned, both flying to the same place on the same day. Finality morphed into an extension of possibility. With it, the fear of getting too close rose thickly.
Starry-eyed, I swallow it back down. We reveal we were each sure of the other’s disinterest the night of that first kiss, hence the mutual distance. We discuss the fierce love we have for our friends – I feel like I know her friends, the triumphs, tragedies and peculiarities as she does mine – and how she misses dancing. She draws links between creativity and sex that I’d never considered before. Each morning she tells me about the strange dreams of the previous night, appearing to think it’s the first time in each instance rather than a charming habit.
We soon realise we’d been in the same hostel at the same time in Amsterdam three months earlier. Unluckily, but more so, luckily, we missed each other and collided later in the right place, because timing is everything and so much more. This morphs into a lengthy discussion about the sheer chance of meeting, all of life’s wild serendipity, a myriad of other big thoughts we then deliberately forget so we can just be simple enough for each moment to take us.
It flew higher still. When we became comfortable enough to unfurl our weirdness, we’re all privately strange and peculiar after all, said weirdness moved through our more sincere moments effortlessly. Definitely never like this.
And then, without warning, it collapsed around us.
I got sick, stealing our last day in Boracay. As planned, we reunited the next day on another of the Philippines’ many islands at Puerto Princesa airport, my sickness lingering. In the move, the magic between us had disappeared as if in an ironic trick, a beach romance lost amongst the concrete.
We were derailed by the tired reality of travel administration – what time to get which bus north, a fruitless search for hostels at our destination – and the dullness seeped into us. Our natural rhythm became evasive, circumstances seeming to conspire against us, too, when it hadn’t been possible to put a foot wrong before. A shitty restaurant choice, mine. A nice breakfast place, hers, undermined by the strange atmosphere produced by the wrong table choice, mine again.
Our equilibrium had been disturbed and imbalanced. Like magnets, we tried to inch towards one another, but the energy between us was now repellent.
Having met in an environment that was strictly vibrancy and fun, just this perfect, kaleidoscopic chaos, someone turned the lights off. We ceased to fit without others to bounce off. Alone together for the first time, there was nowhere to hide. Without the other colours of the rainbow to link them, how do orange and indigo stay connected?
If we’d both returned to our respective homelands and communicated through bottled messages cast into the ocean it may have had more flow, hers being New Zealand, mine being England. I could feel her trying and failing as she could me, but this wasn’t enough to disturb the cold blanket covering us.
It was only then it became apparent what an unnatural courtship it had been. Lost in the extended moment, I didn’t recognize how fast we’d been going. It was just too much, too soon; can you imagine a situation where you go from not knowing someone existed to their presence being perpetual, as close as your clothes, without separation?
Just as doubt fans the flames of infatuation, distance is a crucial element, too. It gives space for your imagination to run wild as you dream and yearn about their smile, their scent, their touch, all these vital little things to supplement the longing and attraction.
Absence had eluded us, and now we were stuck together. We’d failed to realise what a vital part of our chemistry had been supplied by our friends all along.
When we reach El Nido, we’re still staying together, but only due to the lack of available hostel accommodation in town. The word “friend” has newly entered the space between us, our limerence having stiffened and taken the shape of a marriage of convenience rather than the original desire.
I begin to feel a form of guilty resentment from her. I recognise it because I feel it too. On the third day alone together, we gently create space by making deviating plans, separately, yet with a tacit understanding that we need a day apart, and maybe much more than that.
She leaves. We breathe. In a windowless room, I ponder my next move.