I suppose it was fitting we met at an airport.
I stood by the Avis car rental booth on a balmy summer evening at the bustling Atlanta Hartsfield International Airport, with my back to the crowd of various welcoming committees standing in the arrivals area. I was going for a dramatic and demure effect. He was making his way up the slow-moving escalators which transported the travelers, the exhausted and the excited, from the airport train up to the ground level.
He and his batch of new arrivals were greeted with open arms by the 20 foot tall mural of an African-American little girl with a red and blue sari wrapping her slender frame, smiling with a grace beyond her years, the Olympic Fountain bursting in full force behind her. He had been on the phone with me from the moment his plane from Denver touched Atlanta soil, giving a blow-by-blow account of his progress from Terminal 2 to the spot where I was standing, back still turned, at the arrivals area.
As he tells me he was approaching, I started to panic. After all, this was the first moment of our meeting. What if there weren’t any sparks? What if he’s not as cute in person as he had looked in his photos? What if I wasn’t as cute as I projected in my photos? What if this was all a mistake? Was this the dreaded rebound after a recent soul-crushing break up with an ex-boyfriend my friends warned about? Was it too soon to meet in person after this long-distance relationship began on the phone a little over a month prior? Was it too late to send him back to Colorado and call the whole thing off?
I hear the once distant voice on the phone now speaking directly behind me. Taking a deep breath, I turn around and find myself face to face with the man with whom I would soon see the world.
“Hi there,” Glen said shyly.
“You’re here” was all I could muster.
Distance and travel have always been characters in our story. We both made our way over eight thousand miles across the Pacific from our respective homes in Manila to come to work in America. Back when we were living in the capital of the 7,107 islands of the Philippines, we were just a notch above being strangers to one another. We knew of each other at the College of Allied Professions of the University of the Philippines where we both got our degrees in Physical Therapy, he being a year ahead of me.
As I graduated in 1999, he was involved with a girl from my class while I was in the middle of a seven year relationship with a law school student. A few years after graduation, we moved to the States for work around the same time in February 2003, oblivious of each other’s journey and of the fact our paths would soon cross again.
“The website said to be here by 8:15am. It’s only 8:17. They couldn’t possibly have left us.”
As I heard the words come out of my mouth, I knew I was done for. He glared at me. Sweat beads were forming on his forehead. About 30% of it was from our sprint from our hotel to the train station and through the early morning commuters milling about in Placa de Catalunya to the front of the Hard Rock Cafe in central Barcelona. The remaining 70% of the perspiration can be attributed to the bubbling anxiety that held him captive when things don’t go according to his meticulously crafted plans.
We were at the meeting place for a group day trip to the Roman ruins at Tarragona and the once quiet fishing village of Sitges. Only there was no group. We looked around in vain up and down the block for the minibus that was to take us on this pre-paid excursion. Our worst fears were confirmed when a guide for a different group informed us our group had proceeded to the destination without us.
Without as much as another look at the guide, he turned and started to walk away, grieving the ruin of his itinerary, furious at the ten minutes it took me to put my make up on. I’ve let him down.
He settled to work at a skilled nursing facility catering mainly to the geriatric population in Denver. I was starting to get my bearings in my new life as a pediatric therapist in Atlanta.
Before Glen left Manila, he had already cut ties with his girlfriend. Consistent with his no-nonsense, Vulcan-like logic, he decided a transcontinental relationship would not work out. I, the sentimental sappy fool, was the polar opposite. I was convinced my beau would diligently work on his degree and start his law practice while I worked in America for a couple years, as per my father’s well-meaning wishes for a better life for his eldest child.
I got reacquainted with Glen through a casual email exchange about work. I was then a blithering mess following a year-long breakup with my ex. Emails about my efforts to recruit therapists from the Philippines turned into phone conversations about the lives we left behind in Manila. Marathon conversations about favorite movies and TV shows, the challenges of a newly-arrived immigrant in establishing credit history, and dream travel destinations followed. Soon, plans were hatched for him to visit Atlanta in time for my birthday.
Walking the streets that surrounded the Tsukiji Fish Market, I was waylaid by various sidewalk displays of food every several meters. It was nine in the morning, the air was refreshing and surprisingly free of any evidence that thousands of pounds of fish were in the area. We were hoping to catch a glimpse of the frantic energy that was involved in the buying and selling of seafood at the market but we arrived on the day it was closed.
Eschewing the notion it was too early for sushi, we settled into the narrow chairs by the empty counter of a small restaurant whose sushi chef standing outside taking a cigarette break assured us was open. After downing some hot green tea, we proceeded to partake in succulently fresh raw fish, grilled eel and deep fried prawns. I tried to commit each flavor to memory, knowing I will not get it this good at our local haunt back in Atlanta.
We finished our meal with effusive thanks to the chef and made our way down the street. Not one block away, we were lured into eating oysters and some unknown meaty crustaceans and mollusks by a tall, thin smiling man who did not speak English except for “Very good!”
Suddenly, a gaggle of people, tourists by the looks of the cameras dangling by their necks, came scurrying past and quickly turned into an alley. The rushed intensity and purposefulness of their gait compelled me to run after them. In my mind, I surmised that people ran towards one of two things: the sale of something really good, hopefully food, or a celebrity. I was game for either.
With a quick shot to Glen to follow, I darted towards the group, leaving him mid-slurp on his last oyster. I found the group crowding the entrance of what looked like another sushi restaurant. I tried to ask one of them what was going on but there was a failure of communication. Before I could get to the bottom of this mysterious quest, Glen gently but firmly reminded me that we were going to be late for a train that we were trying to catch.
I took one last look at the eager folks and silently wished them well in whatever it was they were there for.
There were three weddings.
First was in October of 2005 at a 1960s era utilitarian-looking courthouse building in downtown Lawrenceville a day after we drove from Denver to Atlanta. It had been seven months since we started our phone conversations and two months after we first met at the airport. With my boss as our only witness, we had a civil ceremony to appease our Catholic (me) and Evangelical Christian (him) conscience and started our cohabitation with a legal document.
The second was a Christian wedding ceremony in May of 2006 at a small boutique hotel in the heart of Manila, with the reception at the penthouse overlooking the evening lights of crowded, ever-frantic city below. Here, we furthered bolstered our union with the sacrament of marriage amidst family and friends.
For good measure, a third wedding took place a couple of months later in July, in Las Vegas. A middle-aged Elvis impersonator in a white jumpsuit with sparkly rhinestones and a greasy pompadour walked me down the aisle of an empty little white stucco chapel a few miles from the strip. When we reached the altar slash stage, he turned around and officiated the ceremony in a singsong drawl. After he pronounced us man and wife, he turned around again, grabbed a microphone, cued an unseen technician in the back and sang Love Me Tender as Glen and I took to the center of the little stage/altar and had our third dance as a wedded couple.
Twinkly lights electrified the Eiffel Tower at the top of hour. Surrounded by gushing lovers wrapped in embraces for figurative and literal heat on the cold spring evening, we sat close but inches apart on a bench on the first level of the tower, gazing as a light drizzle came down on the distant bustle of the 16th arrondissement.
I quietly but firmly informed Glen of my resolve to keep divorce out of the conversation. Never in my wildest dreams did I imagine this scene, most especially at this place where it was the norm to pledge undying love to one’s beloved. It was so far removed from the notion of romance I read about in my Sweet Dreams pocketbooks. Instead I found myself a childless, married woman in her early thirties sitting beside the man who’s supposed to be the love of her life, having the most unromantic conversation about how to keep our marriage going.
A chill worked its way from my toes up my legs, burrowing through my flesh, zeroing in on a spot in the center of my chest where a sharp tug made me gasp for air. I took a swig of hot chocolate that did little for my body and soul.
I mourned the death of an immature, unrealistic notion about love that I’ve held on for years. In its place, the heavy, real work of committing to a relationship set in. We sat in silence as Glen tentatively took my gloved hand, his way of reassuring me not all is lost, just transformed, redefined.
We stood up and made our way to the nearby souvenir shop where they made custom photo laser engraved crystal cubes. Instead of the usual smiling portrait, we opted for a pose that was fitting for a pair of heads that would appear floating in the middle of a crystal cube. A few minutes later, the shop girl chuckled as she handed us our souvenir. I looked down at our screaming images trapped within the crystal.
I realized that I had the choice to feel as trapped as I appeared in that cube, or to liberate myself from immature concepts of love and marriage and embrace what was in front of me. Which at that moment was the city of light and love, with a tactile-defensive history nerd who can only tolerate holding hands for ten seconds for a travel and life partner.
The evidence of travel in our home is plentiful and immediate whichever door you enter. In the foyer upon entering through the front door, a console is heavily laden with various souvenir items: a miniature gold menorah from Israel, a pewter topped tankard from Munich depicting various scenes from German towns, a small granite statue of an Egyptian cat from Luxor, a small piece of concrete painted bright red from the fallen Berlin Wall, a ceramic figurine of a half-kneeling Incan warrior with an arrow aimed at the wooden rooster from Manila.
Coming in from the garage through the kitchen door, the refrigerator door is immediately on the left and is covered with souvenir magnets from dozens of countries, cities, museums, and other attractions. The bookshelves in the living room are filled with Rick Steves’ ubiquitous yellow and blue guidebooks and various books bought from souvenir shops of castles, churches and monuments.
On a ledge by the stairs is the souvenir plate collection. Hanging above it are framed landscape shots from Alaska, Peru, Edinburgh and Greece. The second floor’s walls serve as a gallery of more photographs and other memorabilia of trips past: photographs of Stonehenge, Machu Picchu, the pyramids and Teotihuacan, framed papyrus with Egyptian cartouches with our names inscribed in hieroglyphics, various prints depicting Bavarian castles, Seattle street scenes, and the twelve tribes of Israel.
At night, I would walk through the house filled with mementos and I think about what’s missing: a baby’s crib, feeding bottles on tables, and children’s toys.
It was a sinking feeling, knowing we weren’t going to make it.
The wheels of our luggage made a raucous rattling sound against the pavement that intermittently changed from asphalt-covered streets to brick-lined lanes. It wasn’t that late in the evening and yet for some reason, we succeeded in missing every taxi plying the city until it was too late for us to make our flight to London.
We had taken the train down from Edinburgh to check out Hadrian’s Wall, the Roman fortification dating back to the second century which marked the northern boundary of the Roman empire in Britain. Sophomoric errors in calculating our travel time had us arriving past the site’s visiting hours.
To console ourselves, we walked the mile from the train station to a Newcastle attraction that was thankfully open at all hours, the Gateshead Millennium Bridge. An engineering marvel that spanned the River Tyne, the bridge had two arches with suspension cables between that looked like thin strands of taffy pulling apart inside a gaping mouth. When used as a walkway, the jaw would lower down to allow pedestrians to walk along its lip to the other side of the river then raising up again to allow river traffic pass underneath.
Quiet awe turned to frustration as I, the assigned photographer, couldn’t get the right settings on my camera to capture bridge’s ethereal changing colors that made it look like a rainbow in the evening sky. As the walkway was lowered, we started to cross over the Tyne.
Halfway through, Glen stopped and realized that we were cutting it too close for his self-imposed rule to be at the airport two hours prior to our flight (three if international). Due to our unfortunate luck with the taxis, we did miss the flight and had to rebook for the following day. As we headed to the airport hotel for the night, Glen made me swear not to tell anyone about the debacle in Newcastle, as if it were to black mark on his impeccable personal record as a traveler.
Whenever things are not well between Glen and I, my mind inevitably longs for the comfort of my childhood home in Manila eight thousand miles away. I would daydream about an alternate life in a parallel universe where I married the lawyer and had four children in quick succession. Before my mind wandered too far away, my conscience would pull me back in. And then the inner sparring match began.
“If you didn’t marry Glen, then you probably wouldn’t have gone to all the places that you’ve been to.”
“Well, I don’t care about all of those places anyway. They’re no substitute for having your own child.”
“Yes, you do care. And it’s not too late to have a child yet.”
“Maybe this is my lot in life. Maybe I can’t have everything I want. Maybe I just have to choose.”
“Maybe you’re being an idiot.”
Countless counseling sessions with a psychiatrist, marriage counselors, pastors, wise friends, and a monk have led to the conclusion that I was being an idiot. Our issue with infertility was not a hopeless one. If we truly put our heads and hearts in it the way we do our trip planning, we could probably get further along with it. The question was whether we – rather, whether I would choose to give our money and time to IVF or adoption rather than to go to Croatia and Morocco. Guess what’s been winning.
It is at this point of my internal conversation in my head that I submit that I had to stop blaming Glen and his infectious wanderlust for our lack of offspring. This is when I had to admit that maybe I was enjoying the ride a little too much because maybe I wasn’t convinced I was ready or fit to become a mother.
I always believed that between Glen and myself, I was the daring one. For some reason, I thought that my bravado would qualify me as the one more agile and coordinated to meet the physical demands of a outdoor adventure in Iceland.
That notion found its first crack as we made our way down the icy mouth of the Raufarholshellir lava tube cave. I desperately searched for a stable footing in the slippery packed snow, tension mounting. I could see myself sliding down the 70 degree snow-covered slope, knocking down my fellow travelers ahead of me like a green and blue bowling bowl in a race to the bottom.
Then came his outstretched hand. He led me down the steep path, tracing the steps of those who had gone ahead of us. His grip was strong. His steps were confident. He safely got me all the way down into the cave and through the jagged sharp rocks to make it to a huge pile of snow that accumulated where the roof had fallen through.
My nerves were still shot but I saw him scurrying his way up to the top of the mini snow mountain. He turned around, stood tall and asked me to his picture for Facebook. Bathed in a warm sunlight that shone a spotlight in cold, damp cave, he, my geeky nerd of a husband, looked like a real superhero.
We found ourselves standing on the edge of a cliff at the tip of the Snaefellsness Peninsula in the western region of the country. Dr. Otto Lidenbrock, Jules Vernes’ protaganist in his classic 1864 novel, descended into the volcanic lava tubes of this area in search of the center of the earth. Below us, the waves of the icy North Atlantic crashed relentlessly on the rocks that have been smoothed into submission.
Glen, with his fear of heights, stood close to the edge of a 300-foot drop. I watched him take photographs of the Iceland gulls perched nonchalantly on the side of the rock face. He inched forward for a better shot, ever mindful of his distance to where the ground ended. I went a little further out on the bluff, as if to find my lost pride from having been the weaker link in our outdoor adventures in the past week.
I looked out in the vast expanse of the azure ocean stretched out in front of me. I willfully pushed any thoughts from my mind for a minute. I just wanted it to take it all in without having to analyze, reflect or infer anything from the beauty that the world offered me at that moment. Despite my efforts to clear my head, a thought kept popping up.
“This is enough. Whatever you have right now is enough. Whatever will come will come. But for now, this is enough.”
As I broke away from my reverie, Glen was calling me back to him. We asked our guide to take our picture. There we stood, safely away from the edge, with the majestic ocean behind us.
I looked at the photograph on my computer as we settled back in our house that was still missing an offspring but at the moment, lacking nothing. It made a good showing on Facebook and garnered a lot of Likes. I looked at Glen’s face, a shade more handsome with his new-found confidence earned in the land of fire and ice. I stared at my own image and saw a woman smiling back at me with the quiet contentment of someone who has found her place in the world.