(as published on The Philippine Daily Inquirer’s Young Blood column today, 8 March 2020)
It’s a truth universally acknowledged that a girl who grew up surrounded by stories of dashing knights in shining armor or brooding Mr. Darcys would have unrealistic standards in love.
A tad unfair to real boys who can’t hold a candle to dreamboats that pop out of the page, you might say, but there’s no bit of jest in this. My 13-year-old self once swore she wouldn’t settle for anyone who wouldn’t love her the same way Mr. Rochester loved Jane Eyre. These teen years, really, they’re an era of folly, of giggles at the smoldering heroes of Austen and the Brontë sisters. More than Disney and its sanitized happy-ever-afters, these authors have ruined real guys for me.
As I got older, I learned to laugh at those days. Was there really a time in my life when I crushed so hard on a fictional man who kept his mentally ill wife in the attic while he flirted with another girl? Also, no, I wouldn’t want a Heathcliff digging up my grave to give my festering bones a hug because he misses me, thank you very much. What was I thinking?
Literature is still a constant, and at the sidelines of this tumultuous “adulting,” I usher in more tales of romance, of handsome princes and charming bachelors-in-binders (what I jokingly call counterparts of damsels-in-distress, guys in modern lit that need saving by brash heroines). However, I no longer regard them as yardsticks for real relationships. In fact, I became so disenchanted that I didn’t believe I would ever find love at all.
I’m okay to be alone, I decided, honestly and without a hint of bitterness. Staying sane is hard enough right now. Love seems… too messy, too much of a complicated cog to include in my current life’s machinations. I’ll just focus on surviving. Fate, however, has other plans for me. I should’ve expected that; after all, who’s the best writer out there but the Big Guy Upstairs?
It happened one December morning at the highest peak of Luzon. I was a newbie hiker, and with the wrong sort of garments on my back, I thought I’d die of hypothermia. My labored breaths came through my cracked lips in clouds. I did layering as instructed, but I didn’t have any thermal clothes; my socks were soaked with cold mud and my mind was swimming with scenes of amputations I’ve seen in documentaries.
Then, as the fog of Mount Pulag’s grasslands parted, I saw a limping figure. A stranger with a sprained ankle. In some other universe, where perhaps I’d been wise enough to bring the right gear with me, I would’ve probably helped him.
In some other universe, where I still hold my childlike giddiness at bumping into my soulmate in a cute Brontë-esque meet-up like this, I would’ve stayed by his side. But I was deathly scared for my own life then. I stopped and asked him if he felt okay enough to continue the trek. He had a hiking pack big enough to hold provisions; he was covered up from head to toe, so wrapped up that only a thin strip of his face was exposed to the cold.
He could take care of himself, I thought. In fact, he had a higher chance of surviving the hours-long descent compared to me, a shivering girl in seemingly paper-thin clothes. With the most perfunctory of goodbyes (and apologies), we parted. I thought that was the end.
But by some convoluted twist of destiny, we met again. It turned out he works just across the street from our office building, and at the end of every day he would wind up outside our door, waiting for me to clock out.
“How about we walk together to the bus station?” he’d ask.
The walks became talks in parks, then the talks became quick dinners. It was a slow burn, but the rest you can figure out.
This is where it all clicks in, you know? Books from my childhood had molded an ideal man in my head: the stern, mysterious dark figure who could sweep me off my feet, one with a cold heart only I could melt. A little roughness here and there.
Now this guy? He’s the complete opposite. He’s all tousled hair and eye crinkles from laughing too much, all lanky limbs and sunny smiles. He’s made up of tales, patched up from his narratives of being a dancer, his favorite video games, and snippets of world history. Warmth, kindness, adventure, home.
Once, when his lopsided grin greeted me at the end of one particularly exhausting day, I realized it was me he was melting, not the other way around. He’s no Mr. Darcy, that’s for certain. But who needs to borrow a literary figure when we’re meant to compose our own story in the first place?
A fellow writer once told me that life has an intelligence of its own the same way our hearts beat whether we ask for it or not, that it knows exactly where I belong. It doesn’t care for the cookie-cutter Prince Charming I’ve set up in my head, and doesn’t care about my decision to not get a partner in life at all. It just knows what my heart needs, and gives it: someone who’ll grip my hand and stand with me, look heavenward, and reach our dreams. Together.