Fleeting Love in the Time of Ambiguous Cinema, Part II

In January 2007, I found the one.

Physical attraction. Mutual creativity. A shared passion for travel. And the quality you cannot fake: chemistry. In the beginning, the relationship was light and airy. Playful and curious. Effortless.

Summertime.

That’s what it felt like.

But here, on this earth, the seasons change. And somewhere along the way, I lost him. To this day, I don’t know how, I don’t know where, I don’t know to whom, and I don’t know why.

But all that is irrelevant, as two more summers have come and gone. The only thing important to note: He was not the one.

Perceptions.

Then, reality.

* * *

I finally watched 500 Days of Summer, the quirky anti-love tale of Tom and Summer, two people who meet while working at a greeting card company. I’d been itching to watch it after a conversation with my one ex who remains a dear friend. He mentioned the movie was about a relationship in which one of the partners realizes he is just a stepping stone to someone else—someone permanent.

In the beginning, when Tom and Summer are getting acquainted at a work party at a karaoke bar, we learn that Tom, once an aspiring architect, is an idealist and a romantic. He believes in love, intangible and elusive, and is determined to find it. But Summer is skeptical.

“There’s no such thing as love,” she says. “It’s fantasy.”

“I think you know when you feel it,” says Tom.

He loves her smile. He loves her hair. He loves the sound of her laugh. He has found her. But she, in turn, doesn’t give herself fully. Her wall never falls.

The movie does not unfold chronologically—the first sequence starts at day 290, when Tom’s precocious younger sister rushes over to console him, post-breakup. The film jumps back and forth in time: Tom is blissful. Tom is distraught. Tom sings and dances in the streets. Tom drowns himself in alcohol. Scenes of bliss and torture, plucked from a timeline. Yet while these moments are relative to one another—A led to B, B led to C—none of it matters.

Love, when pure and true and mutual, is not measured by days, nor seasons. It simply exists, and even consumes. There are no walls; you are not left wondering. But for Tom, this was not so. As time passes, the features he had initially loved about Summer become irritations: He grew to hate her crooked teeth. He hated her 1960s haircut. He hated the way she sounded when she laughed.

Illusions.

Then, reality.

* * *

For us, there were some good things: laughter and inside jokes, an appreciation for dining together, exploring new places, supporting one another’s creative and professional endeavors. But looking back, there wasn’t any of the stuff that really mattered.

I built him up to be someone he wasn’t—and never would be. And, like Tom, I always wondered.

Was I the one?

Did he feel the same?

Toward the end of the film, Tom heads to a party at Summer’s. The split-screen sequence shows two paths: On the left, what he hopes will happen. And on the right, what actually happens.

Expectations.

Then, reality.

* * *

Perception.

Illusion.

Expectation.

Layers between me and reality, states where love isn’t love. Whatever love may be.

* * *

Much later, Tom and Summer find themselves reunited, for a few poignant moments, on a bench overlooking the city: a spot where Tom gazed at skyscrapers, felt inspired, and dreamed big.

Summer is freshly married. And Tom still wonders.

“It just happened,” says Summer.

“What just happened?” asks Tom.

“I just woke up one day and I knew.”

“Knew what?”

“What I was never sure of with you.”

* * *

I always wondered. But I never asked questions. Deep down, I knew the answers.

Unlike Tom, I never heard those harsh words, which I wanted to hear. But I came to reality on my own—separating what I wanted to see from what actually was.

Notes on Social Media, Egypt, and My Pseudo-Activism

I’m an outsider looking in on all that’s happening in Egypt.

Since January 25, I’ve been overwhelmed, amazed, and inspired by the Egyptian people protesting on the streets of Cairo and throughout the nation, following #jan25 and #egypt tweets on Twitter, watching the live stream and coverage on Al Jazeera English, and keeping up with blogs like The Arabist and the Guardian UK’s news blog. (This Mother Jones page, “What’s Happening in Egypt Explained,” is a helpful resource of compiled sources and multimedia from the past week, too.)

After reading a protest-related New Yorker piece from today, “A Policeman’s Engagement,” I stumbled upon Malcolm Gladwell’s October 2010 essay, “Small Change: Why the Revolution Will Not be Tweeted,” which has made me think about the incredible power and role of social media, namely Twitter and Facebook, in the Egyptian people’s fight for freedom and change, and the resulting pseudo-activism—of those not directly affected by what happens in Egypt, like me—that Gladwell discusses in his piece.

In “Small Change,” Gladwell notes several events in American history that exemplify “high-risk activism,” notably an afternoon in February 1960 in Greensboro, North Carolina, when four black college students sit at a lunch counter reserved for whites. The waitress says they “don’t serve Negroes,” but for the rest of the day, they don’t move from their seats. The small crowd that forms outside swells to hundreds and hundreds of protesters over the next few days. People throughout the South hear what is happening and want to be a part of it. By the end of the month, protests are reported as far as Texas. Some 70,000 students participate.

This, says Gladwell, is true social activism.

I spend more time online than not—not just because the nature of my work requires it, but because I value the information and connections I have built online, both professionally and personally. If you don’t feel social media networks like Twitter and Facebook add value to your life, that’s fine; after my own experimentation with these tools, I have learned how to use them effectively—to connect and collaborate with likeminded media professionals and travelers, to promote my writing and photography, and to curate news and trends on ideas and issues that matter to me, all in one place.

Says Gladwell on social media: “The world, we are told, is in the midst of a revolution.” I have always been amazed by the Internet: what it teaches me, who I meet, how it inspires me. This week in particular, the influx of media and information about the protests in Egypt—in the form of tweets, YouTube videos, blog posts of fragmented thoughts and Twitpics, ground-level audio clips—is so powerful, so constant, and so raw that it’s paralyzing at times to absorb it all. But it’s a good kind of frozen—to have access to all this information, to watch these images and real-time streams from the Middle East.

I’m on-the-fence about Malcolm Gladwell in general—I think his books (from The Tipping Point to Outliers) are more of the same. (Amusing digression: Seen this?) I’ll admit I dove into this piece irritated, especially given the title and subtitle. Small change? The revolution will not be tweeted?

Whatever, asshole. I’m part of this social media generation you imply is powerless, and I am certainly not insignificant.

After reading his piece, however, I agreed with him.

Social media connects us, pushes us to collaborate, enables innovation, and celebrates equal participation (think Wikipedia). But Gladwell asserts that social media networks are “built around weak ties” that “seldom lead to high-risk activism.” On a Facebook page, I am asked to donate funds to a friend who is walking in an event for breast cancer awareness. Or on Twitter, someone asks me to donate money to a project that will build a school in India or provide supplies to students in Honduras. And I participate in such things, because why not? I have the time and the money to do so—it takes little effort.

This passive activism is the result of these kinds of social media efforts. We are not asked to do too much, Gladwell says—”That’s the only way you can get someone you don’t really know to do something on your behalf.” Whether I’m running an AIDS marathon (which I did in New Orleans in 2004) or visiting the hospital for a bone marrow testing (which I did for a high school friend who had leukemia), these acts don’t require me to do much: No challenge of the status quo. No physical danger.

I have never risked my life in the way those four students did, in North Carolina in the volatile sixties.

I have never protested on the streets and demanded that my president step down from his 30-year-rule and prayed for basic freedoms and the ability to vote for my leaders.

What have I done? Or the current question: what am I doing now? I read the passionate, desperate tweets from brave protesters on my computer screen. I am deeply inspired, I comment on other’s tweets, I share articles on Facebook. I feel like I’m participating.

But, I am not.

“Facebook activism succeeds not by motivating people to make a real sacrifice but by motivating them to do the things that people do when they are not motivated enough to make a real sacrifice,” writes Gladwell.

These words stunned me at first. But after thinking about it, in regard to my own actions, I realize he is on point. I wish he wasn’t.

An Outline of My Parallel Universes

1. My mother and father, both born in the Philippines, move to the United States and meet one another, or

2. My mother (or father) moves to the United States, but my father (or mother) does not, or

3. Both my mother and father don’t leave the Philippines, but still meet each other, or

4. My mother and father never meet one another.

* * *

1. My mother and father have a son, born in 1971, and later give birth to me, in 1979, or

2. My mother and father have a son, born in 1971, and decide not to have any more children, or

3. My mother and father have a son, born in 1971, and later give birth to another son, in 1979.

* * *

1. At 14, after a bit of kicking and screaming, I attend the Catholic, all-girls Notre Dame High School, and am later inspired to pursue writing, thanks to my freshman and sophomore English teachers, AP US history teacher, and AP art history instructor. I focus on writing, film, and art history, or

2. At 14, I win my adolescent battle against my parents and attend the public high school down the street and am influenced by a different path: math, or science, or sports, or

3. At 14, I go to a small school in the Philippines and learn English, my second language.

* * *

1. In August 1997, I move to Los Angeles to attend Loyola Marymount University, enroll as a screenwriting major, and meet friends named Bing, Leah, Lisa, Brian, Kevin, Aki, and others in a coed dorm, McKay Hall, on campus. We drink a lot, bond quickly, and experience an eventful first year of college together, or

2. In August 1997, I move to New York City, overjoyed to be accepted into the dramatic writing program at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts. I live in the Village, and never meet people named Bing, Leah, Lisa, Brian, Kevin, Aki, and others, or

3. In August 1997, I decide to stay on the San Francisco Peninsula and attend nearby Santa Clara University. I continue to hang out with various high school cliques, as well as coworkers from my jobs.

* * *

1. From 1997 to 2001, I have  enlightening, entertaining, and inspiring experiences with friends in Los Angeles. I settle into a young yet serious relationship with my first boyfriend, study abroad in Cannes, graduate from LMU’s School of Film and Television, and develop a passion for traveling the world, or

2. From 1997 to 2001, I live in New York City and become a cynical city girl, dating writers and artists and settling in Brooklyn, or

3. From 1997 to 2001, I live comfortably with my parents on the Peninsula, work a few jobs and grow my savings account, and don’t experience the wanderlust itch.

* * *

1. In 2000, I live at a college across the street from the Mediterranean on the French Riviera, study French in the morning, eat cheese on the beach in the afternoon, and sip wine through the night with friends Robin, Elise, and Maggie, or

2. In 2000, I study abroad in Florence instead of Southern France, study sculptures at the Duomo, and never meet Robin, Elise, and Maggie, or

3. In 2000, I don’t study abroad because I’m too afraid to part from my boyfriend, or

4. In 2000, I win a screenwriting scholarship and spend my junior year in New York polishing a feature-length script, snagging an agent, and pitching to producers, or

5. In 2000, I enter a nursing program in the Philippines, inspired by what my mother had done when she was younger.

* * *

1. In 2002, I return to Montreal for a summer, brush up on my French, and enroll in an intensive public relations certificate program, or

2. In 2002, I meet a guy in San Francisco, decide not to quit my job at the local bookstore to move to Montreal, and get serious with him, or

3. In 2002, I continue to live in New York City, while my family wonders if I’ll ever return to the West Coast, or

4. In 2002, my 22-year-old self, living in Manila, wonders what it’d be like to finally visit the United States.

* * *

1. When I’m 24, I move to Thailand to teach English and explore Southeast Asia solo, or

2. When I’m 24, I move to Costa Rica (my second choice for teaching abroad), and love Central America so much that I decide to linger for a few years, or

3. When I’m 24, after working full-time for several years, I use the money I’ve saved up to buy a condo in the Bay Area.

* * *

1. In 2005, while working at Job #1 (a reading clinic in Palo Alto), I am offered an editorial internship at the George Lucas Educational Foundation, its office located two hours away from Job #1. While the pay is shitty (about $5 an hour), it’s an opportunity to work at Skywalker Ranch. I accept the offer, or

2. In 2005, I choose not to take the internship at Skywalker Ranch and seek more hours (and better pay) at the reading clinic instead, or

3. In 2005, I apply to and am accepted into the intensive journalism program at Northwestern, quit the reading clinic job, and move to Chicago.

* * *

1. At 25, I apply to numerous graduate programs in writing, at Columbia University, Sarah Lawrence College, and Goucher College. Rejected from Columbia and accepted to the other two, I enroll in Goucher’s MFA program in creative nonfiction and spend two years drafting a manuscript on raves, techno, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Thailand, and subculture, or

2. At 25, I apply to numerous graduate programs in writing and decide to enroll in Sarah Lawrence’s MFA program. I move into an apartment with my ex-college roommates from Loyola Marymount, Lara and Irene, who already live in Brooklyn, or

3. At 25, I still live in Thailand—as I had agreed to stay another semester—and write a book independently on my adventures in Southeast Asia, or

4. At 25, I continue to live in Central America, and now live and work in an open-air hostel on a beach in Belize.

* * *

1. In 2008, I stumble upon a Craigslist post for a “marketing assistant” position at a women’s college in Oakland. Even though I have a steady, well-paying job at a local school district, and initially think nothing of the job post, I nonchalantly email my resume. I land the job and move forward, or

2. In 2008, I stumble upon a Craigslist post for a “marketing assistant” position at a women’s college in Oakland and ignore it, or

3. In 2008, after a decade of drafting scripts, I finally sell a screenplay, or

4. In 2008, I sell my one-bedroom condo on the Peninsula so I can move into a bigger place with my current fiance, or

5. In 2008, after several years wandering and writing in Southeast Asia, I finally come home, or

6. In 2008, after visiting the United States numerous times over the years, I hope that I’ll marry a nice American man so I can remain in the country.

* * *

1. At the start of 2011, I live in San Francisco, work in travel and higher ed, explore the world as often as possible, and am so busy that I forget I am single, or

2. At the start of 2011, I live in Brooklyn, work in publishing and bartend on the side, and date periodically, or

3. At the start of 2011, I live in Montreal, am married to a French Canadian, and have returned to the Bay Area a few times per year since 2002, or

4. At the start of 2011, my 31-year-old self does not exist.

Fleeting Love in the Time of Ambiguous Cinema, Part I

I moved to Montreal on a hot day in May. I felt summer in the air, saw it on the streets. Gorgeous women in sundresses. Blocks of Boulevard St. Laurent closed to traffic so food carts, funky clothing vendors, and DJ booths could set up on the sidewalk.

I didn’t know anyone.

The first Friday night that came around, I met Eric at Sona. I danced all night, emerging from the club in the wee hours, sweaty and satisfied. My calves got the workout they longed for; my muscles were raw, ripe for soreness.

As we said goodbye outside, I learned that Eric was a waiter at a restaurant in Old Montreal. I agreed to meet him again. The next time I saw him, we drank and played pool at Bar St. Sulpice. A professional pool player, he pretty much kicked my ass, but let me win a few games. Another night, we explored parts of the Latin Quarter I had not yet seen, then hung out at his apartment, watching his roommates play video games and looking through old photographs in his room. He was French; he told me about where he was from, and chatted about his ex-girlfriend when photo booth pictures surfaced. I shared my stories, too—I had ended my first relationship the year before, and had been dating someone that spring.

And now I was in Montreal. I was 22.

A few weeks had passed, and I acclimated to dorm life on the McGill campus—the university rented rooms to long-term travelers over the summer. On another night, Eric took me to the movies; we watched Star Wars: Episode II. He admitted he had never watched the Star Wars films, so I said we should see something else. But he noticed I really wanted to watch it, so he said it was fine. Charming, he was.

As the night progressed, I sensed a magnetism—sitting next to one another in the theater, hands awkwardly not touching, then sort of touching, then not touching. When the movie was over, we walked to the metro station, stopping at the escalator leading to the platform. He looked at me, and I knew.

I remember his face, his accent. He looked young, but his voice was mature and deep. When he said my name, I had to stop myself from giggling. A Frenchman calling me cherie? Really, Cheri. This is too much.

I knew he was about to say something that would end our summer before it even started.

“I would really like to kiss you,” he said. He inched closer.

“I like you,” I answered. “But can we hang out as friends?”

He looked disappointed. “I don’t know if I can do that, Cheri. When I look at you, I just want to kiss you.”

Couples walked past, heading down to the train. His eyes locked on me. I looked away, staring down the street, to Rue Sherbrooke—toward my dormitory, my escape.

“I really just got here,” I said. “I’ve got my French classes, then when those are done I’ll start my other program. I like you, but can’t we just be friends?”

He took my hand and kissed it. “I cannot just be friends with you.” He smiled, kissed my cheek, and stepped onto the escalator. He didn’t look back.

And so I walked home. Part of me had wanted to say I did yearn for a summer love affair. But if I was to have a true love affair, it was going to be with Montreal, not a man.

* * *

I was leaving for Thailand in several weeks.

I met him one night, after-party style, chilling at my friend Jesse’s house in Hayes Valley. There was a computer in the room, so we logged onto Friendster and showed each other our profiles. First name, last name. Noted.

He was an artist—a famous one, I was told. A Google search the next morning confirmed this. The first night we met on our own, we drank at an art gallery in downtown San Francisco. Another night, we met at a dive on Polk and played a bit of pool. On yet another evening, we wandered in North Beach; he wanted to show me a few spots—up the Peter Macchiarini Steps off Broadway, then to a random peephole in a wall that, when looked through, had a cool view of the Transamerica Pyramid.

Another time, he presented me with a tiny canvas: a painting of me, wispy bangs and black-rimmed glasses and all, morphed into one of his signature characters with closed eyes and enlarged hands. I had told him I used to play the violin, so he painted me playing one.

We hung out for less than a month, but I got an ample dose of his intriguing, impulsive life: parties, shows, painting, mingling. Nights out with him let the endorphins loose. Even though we were in San Francisco, his spontaneity made it seem as if we were somewhere else: somewhere unfamiliar, someplace whimsical. In those weeks, anything was possible.

And then I moved to Southeast Asia.

* * *

I have a complex relationship with Lost in Translation.

How beautiful, I think—a film about a girl, coming of age, finding her place in the world, understanding how to be with another. How wonderful, I think—a story of a woman in Tokyo, exploration at her fingertips, with all the time in the world to wander in Shibuya, to contemplate at shrines, to learn the precise art of Ikebana, to get blissfully lost. How sweet, I think—a tale of a young woman and an older man at very different points in their lives, who bond over karaoke with new Japanese friends, over vintage films and sake in a swanky high-rise hotel, over random evenings in the electric landscape of Shinjuku. Two people who connect in a foreign country, who understand each other despite the absence of context, of anything concrete.

How poetic the final scene is, I think, when Bill Murray hops out of a cab to say goodbye to Scarlett Johansson on a crowded street, to whisper in her ear that he adores the young woman he sees before him, that he wishes her only the best, that they will always have this time in Tokyo in their memory.

Precious. Whimsy. That’s what I thought about the film.

And then I entered the world of adult relationships.

How harsh, I begin to think—this poor girl stuck in a hotel room, ditched every day by her hipster photographer husband, locked in an emotional prison where staring off is the easiest way to pass time. How horrible, I begin to think—a bright woman who is lost career-wise, married too young, too cynical for her age. How sad, I begin to think—two people have found each other amid the chaos and elusiveness of an unfamiliar culture, stuck in stagnant marriages, making sense together in a place where everything else is lost in translation—and knowing “they” will dissolve as soon as one leaves.

They can run away and start a jazz band, she says. Yet how unfair that such thoughts, once uttered aloud, lose their magic.

How lustful, I begin to think—this weathered middle-aged man jumps out of a cab to lose himself in a kiss with a naive girl he met on a business trip.

I used to love the fleetingness of Charlotte and Bob’s situation—the creation of something solid, pure, and solely theirs in a lapse with no real beginning and no end. My encounters with the Frenchman and the artist were swift and sweet—woven from thin air and pure adventure.

Today, my response to these ephemeral connections grows increasingly fickle, even sour. At some point, I realize something won’t last for whatever reason—two unsynched wavelengths, an issue of geography, an ill-timed encounter—and Sophia Coppola isn’t there to soften the experience with her rose-colored lens.

These aren’t romantic, poetic connections, are they? Take away the fanciful cinematographer, and all that is left is a harsh reality.

Parts II and III:

A Triptych on Hieronymus Bosch, Love, and Madrid

Part I: Bosch

Over the years, I have relied on Dutch artist Hieronymus Bosch’s The Garden of Earthly Delights to explain my writing process, and also to hint at how I see the world. This early 1500s painting is a triptych (composed of three panels): the left depicts Eden; the center displays a whimsical orgy of nude figures, creatures, and surrealist iconography; and the right panel, dark and moody, depicts hell.

Garden of Earthly Delights
The Garden of Earthly Delights, via Wikipedia.

Separately, Bosch’s characters, scenes, and iconography are nonsensical. The canvas is made up of fragments, all quite powerful, and without them—even the absurd ones—the piece won’t work. As a whole, The Garden of Earthly Delights is cohesive: the chaos, ultimately, makes sense. The first time I looked at it, in my art history class in high school, I was perplexed—even uneasy. Since then, this painting has become a metaphor for how I put things together, as a memoirist and thinker.

How I read this painting is how I write: moments, scenes, even entire chapters of a narrative don’t quite make sense during the writing process. Inspired by nonlinear scripts—The Usual Suspects, Memento—I write in fragments, hoping to see light pushing through the cracks in the deep, dark cave that is my mind; betting that these narrative threads connect in the end.

But this rarely happens, and I leave my threads hanging. To date, my arsenal of unfinished pieces is my greatest accomplishment. And so, I thrive on writing story fragments; I rarely craft endings. I recognize and am comforted by themes that guide my life—from juxtaposition to unreliable memory—but don’t understand why they’re significant.

Part II: Love (Or, At Least Fragments of It)

And in regard to love, I’ve figured out that I won’t ever figure things out. My closest friends are pairing off, falling in love—true, honest, romantic love—and agree to support one another for a lifetime. I don’t think this type of love exists for everyone, and while I’ve been in love before, long long ago, I have yet to find a partner today who complements me.

The colors of Wat Arun in Bangkok. Fragments create my world.
The colors of Wat Arun in Bangkok. Fragments create my world.

As time passes, I am increasingly drawn to modesty—to a quiet, strong confidence. Not many people impress me, but when I come upon someone who does, they usually don’t hit me in the face with it; I peel their layers as I go, with every encounter, and in return, I allow this person to do the same to me. In the past, the more I’ve peeled, the uglier we both get.

Still, I accept my flaws. My search for the “perfect” person is more a search for an individual with imperfections I can handle, and with leftover fragments that can be stored with my own in harmony—in a big glass jar that we can shake to create a haphazard, eclectic mix that works. While this is not love in the conventional sense, it makes perfect sense to me.

Part III: Madrid

My slowly developed love for Madrid—10 years in the making—reflects this search for a lifelong mate. I first wandered Madrid when I was 20, in the spring of 2000. Aside from the quiet, intense moments between me and The Garden of Earthly Delights inside the Prado Museum, Madrid was forgettable.

That spring, I also wandered the streets of Barcelona, Florence, Interlaken, London, Paris, and other cities, and while I’d filed clear snapshots of La Pedrera, the Florence Cathedral, Big Ben, the Eiffel Tower, and other landmarks in my mental photo gallery, I could not recall anything concrete about Madrid after my trip other than Bosch’s surreal, chaotic landscape. I know I walked around and saw massive monuments, but the city was a blur. For a decade, Madrid was a blotch in my mind.

My trip to Madrid this past August, then, was surprising. I fell in love with it. I lingered a lot, spending hours in its plazas sipping wine, nibbling on tapas, and talking about life with my dear friend Ben and his sister Nicole. I wandered quieter streets of La Latina, studying the mundane and the crumbling facades; I sat on benches on a tree-lined street to watch sellers of El Rastro market set up their booths. I lingered at fountains; I explored the city’s parks. I returned to my favorite plazas, sitting for longer, sipping more wine, indulging on more plates of food.

Madrid
Friday Night Plaza Bustle, Madrid.

I wondered why I didn’t experience this 10 years before, and I realize I have absorbed Madrid differently than other cities. When I was 20, I was attracted to the obvious beauty and grandness of cities like Barcelona, but on this recent trip, Barcelona felt superficial—the city was fleeting, but not in a pleasurable way. I could not identify with or grasp anything in Barcelona. Gaudi’s monuments were jaw-dropping, of course, but I couldn’t scratch the surface of the city. I left unfulfilled.

But Madrid’s beauty is unassuming. It simmers just under the surface. And it’s not that Madrid lacks iconic symbols to hold onto, but rather the city reeled me in and captured my heart in a quiet, gradual way. It’s a mature, sophisticated love: despite its flaws, and even though it’s not postcard-perfect, I love it all the same.

And that’s how people generally win me over. Love has never bonked me over the head with a hammer: it creeps up on me, it lingers…it pulls me closer bit by bit, moment to moment. It takes many pieces, and a good amount of time, for me to feel. For me to create something whole.