Peeling The Covers
He walked inside the hotel bar for a drink and ordered vodka on the rocks. A muted television was hanging on his right and the bartender, after giving him his drink, turned his back and returned to polishing the glasses. It was still early, past seven on a Tuesday night, and he had ordered the vodka precisely because of that. He has enough time to mull over his drink, let the ice dilute the alcohol and cool it. He looked around, slowly turning his gaze on the mostly empty oak tables. He felt conscious of being only one of the four paying customers in the bar, none of them together, all of them in different states of looking busy or bored.
Andrew was still shaking off jetlag, a bit of time disorientation, having travelled for half a day and several time zones from Manila to Paris the day before. For the rest of that day, he had sat through a series of introductions and business meetings, fighting off sleep with several cups of coffee. At one point, in a meeting inside a conference room, he had dreamt of pouring himself buckets and buckets of caffeine, a bitter and scalding dream that woke him up in a manner that made him almost fall from his seat.
Later that day, he had been assigned a temporary cubicle by the window, the Eiffel Tower a tiny hint on his right, as his officemates had gladly pointed out to him. He smiled to express his enthusiasm, but even smiling seemed such a contrived effort. He was exhausted and he felt that if someone would poke him, no matter how gently, he’d flop over and faint.
Before three o’clock, he talked to his manager, a German woman with thick, auburn hair and bulbous eyes that seemed to swallow everything in its sight, if he could take the rest of the day off. Hanna stared at him, as though her eyes would pop out like those of broken dolls, and said, “Of course,” before breaking into a smile.
The hotel was a short distance from their building. It was on a small, cobbled street, the second right and then the first left from his office. The streets all started with “Rue,” which he had learned meant “street” in French. He wasn’t adept with the language, that being his first time in the headquarters. He knew “Casse-toi” (fuck off), “Merde” (shit) and “Nique ta mere”(fuck your mother) because he wanted to know when he’s being cursed or badmouthed. But the niceties of the language he didn’t bother.
He had fallen asleep for a couple of hours; a deep sleep full of dreams that he couldn’t remember when he woke up with a sudden urgency of having forgotten what time of the day or where in the world he was. He fumbled for his phone in the dark and breathed—a little easier—when he realized that it was still evening, that he hadn’t slept for an entire day or missed work.
The bartender handed him another glass, along with the receipt where he signed off with his room number. A sizable crowd has half-filled the place, mostly businessmen and travelers like him letting their hair down after a day of formalities. The chatter was mostly in French and he closed his eyes listening to the singsong of their voices, the way the sentences seem to coalesce into one long, mellifluous word. He finished his drink and was about to order one when he saw the bartender putting another glass in front of him.
“From that gentleman,” the bartender said, pointing to a gentleman on the left end of the table.
Andrew tipped his glass towards the gentleman before taking a sip. He was embarrassed, but at the same time the gesture left him flustered. He wanted to refuse, but it might seem rude. He felt the alcohol in his face burn more, although he knew that he was far from drunk, not even tipsy.
His heart began to beat a little faster when he saw the gentleman walk towards him. He was tall, six feet from his estimation, with a short, tousled haircut that complemented his slightly rounded jaw. He was still in his business suit, his coat unbuttoned and without a tie.
“I’m Samuel,” he said, extending his hand.
“So where are you from, Andrew?” Samuel asked, as he sat on the empty stool beside him.
“Philippines,” he said.
“Oh, I could tell you were Asian, but I had guessed you were Japanese."
“And you?” Andrew asked. “By the way, thanks for the drink.”
“You’re welcome,” he said. “I’m from Toulouse. Somewhere in the south of France. So what brings you here?”
“Work,” Andrew replied. “I have to do some audits for our firm.”
“Interesting. Can nobody in France do that?”
Andrew laughed, while Samuel finished his drink and signaled at the bartender for another one.
“What about you?” Andrew asked.
“I’m an engineer at the Toulouse Space Center.”
“What brings you here then?”
“I’m on sabbatical. I’ve toured Europe for a couple of weeks already and I flew in here yesterday from Berlin. I thought I’ll take another look at Mona Lisa before going back to work. Have you been to the Louvre?”
“No, I haven’t. I just arrived yesterday. But it’s in my itinerary.”
“Oh, you must see it. How long will you be here?”
“Such a short time to see France. Where else do you plan on going?”
“Notre Dame, Sacre Couer, the Eiffel, all those touristy spots.”
“Oh, so just in Paris?”
“Yes. I don’t have enough time. I’ve only got one weekend here before I go back next Friday.”
“Such a pity,” Samuel said. “You must return some other time on your own.”
More glasses were emptied and they became more relaxed in their conversation. Andrew glanced at the clock on the wall, which showed that it was ten already. Samuel noticed him and asked, “Do you have work tomorrow?”
“I do,” Andrew replied.
“Do you wanna come up to my room?” Samuel asked with the confidence of a half-drunk man.
Andrew looked at Samuel and gave him a wan smile. “I can’t,” he said. “I’m in a monogamous relationship.”
“Oh.” Samuel paused, straightening up. “That’s quaint. But he wouldn’t know would he? You wouldn’t tell him would you?”
Andrew shook his head, staring down at the polished bar table, and smiled. “He wouldn’t know. But I love him and I wouldn’t do anything to hurt him.”
“You wouldn’t hurt him if he wouldn’t find out. And unless you tell him, he wouldn’t.”
“I love him,” Andrew replied in a tone that was pointed and forceful.
Samuel stared at Andrew, as though assessing him as a person. When finally he got up to leave, he said, “He’s lucky to have you.”
“No,” Andrew said, smiling, “I’m lucky to have him.”
After Samuel left, Andrew ordered another glass. With a couple of sips, he had flushed out Samuel from his mind.
In two weeks, he and Lester would be celebrating their fifth anniversary in Singapore. The hotel and the restaurants have been reserved, their flights and three-day itinerary planned.
He was 30 and Lester was 28 when they met through friends of friends in a Christmas party setup by one of their common friends. Sparks didn’t fly at first, although they had later on admitted to each other that they felt an attraction.
But it was easy to dismiss those fleeting attractions, because everyone was attracted to everyone in some ways. Like a large net cast over the sea, anyone who’s a fish got entangled in that network of crushes and desires and lustful infatuations. Every person has something to contribute—whether money, looks, character, smarts or pedigree—to that ideal person that everyone fantasized about. And Lester caught Andrew’s eye because he was cute without being aware of it, while Andrew was tall and broad-shouldered, the kind of person who would stand out in Manila.
It was after coming back from Boracay during the summer that they became close and started going out. Three months later they became a couple and on their first anniversary, Andrew and Lester moved out of their parents’ houses, rented an apartment in Ortigas and lived together.
It felt, for Andrew, like the fulfillment of a lifetime, of finding a partner who has the same aspirations like him, who has a desire to establish a normal life despite their alternative lifestyle. There were big adjustments during their first year under one roof; the routines of daily life surprised them. They were used to a life of having helpers around to do the things for them. But alone, together, they had to manage and divide the tasks of laundry and housecleaning, washing the dishes and cooking and ironing.
Looking back at it, at the last five years, Andrew has never felt more in love with Lester than that night. Lester was his home, his anchor, his life. They’ve been through so much together, including the long period that Lester had been unemployed.
He looked at the time and it was eleven thirty already; it would be 6:30 in the morning in Manila. The bartender asked him if he wanted another drink, but Andrew refused and stood up.
While going back to his hotel room, he thought about what he could bring back to Lester. Something special for their anniversary, something that only Paris could have. Maybe he could shrink the Eiffel Tower or steal the Mona Lisa? He laughed at the thought.
At 7AM, Lester’s phone buzzed with the predictability that he had come to expect from Andrew. He was up already, in the kitchen having a glass of water, drinking it slowly as though it was an alcoholic drink. Andrew texted him good morning and that he was just about to sleep, having gone to the bar for a bit of a drink. Lester replied and said good night.
He sat there on the kitchen for a while, with a mind that was as blank as the wall he was staring at. He didn’t know where to begin to think. In his mind, he was trying to find an excuse for himself, a justification that would make him feel better.
He stood up, walked back to the bedroom and pushed the slightly opened door to reveal the naked figure lying on the bed. The figure, Lester thought, was less than the sum of the pictures he had seen in the Internet. Up close, it was flabby, less toned than the images had suggested. The face was not ugly, but plain with a few pockmarks that were conspicuously absent online. It was far from a Romeo than the profile had shown. He felt shortchanged. And he thought that maybe that was punishment enough.