ONCE UPON A TIME
RENATO REDENTOR CONSTANTINO
For Kalayaan Pulido Constantino, who I married
H.I.P.P. Magazine, February 2009
There are places where our stories begin.
A night on a quiet coast south of Manila. Overcast sky, windy and cold enough for a shawl. There is a chill in the air and the bonfire, down to its last embers, lends orange glimmers to her face. She smiles as the dry wood cracks and pieces of cinder fall to the ground.
She is sitting on the sand, a fern's half curl, knees close to chest and arms around legs, and the wind whips her hair and her stole to the right. She digs her feet into the sand where it is warmer and looks on.
Another evening we're slowing down time north of the country. She is leaning on a wooden fence and looking out at the dark sea, both elbows on the rail and a full wine glass in one hand.
Moonlight is bouncing off receding waters, mingling with her skin and summer dress. We walk towards a sand bar and the conversation becomes softer and softer, fading with the tide.
Perhaps if I ask her to recall the instances she would not remember. A day glows and retreats and what would it matter? The moments are mine not hers and she would be happy to know it was so.
At the Khan Market in Delhi, I remember spending an entire afternoon searching for titles I knew she'd like as I browsed around for books I wanted. There was Byatt and Bryson and Dick Francis and Asimov, volumes smelling of new paper and new vistas.
I remember telling her about Issyk-kul, a name that leaps out like a Tolkien hearth and which means "warm lake" in Kyrgyz because the waters there never freeze even though it's surrounded by snow-capped peaks.
Issyk-kul. Eeseek-kool. Cold mountain crater with a beach formed around a saline lake surpassed only by the Caspian Sea in size and which appears to straddle the nothern Tian Shan range in eastern Kyrgyzstan.
At night, I said, you walk along the lake's coast and it hits you how peculiar the world is. Hydrologists have long pondered over Issyk-kul's sources and outlets while other seekers pored over its inhabitants -- the remains of drowned settlements, Soviet dachas, a world transitioning from here to somewhere.
Here was a lake, I said. I met it on top of a frigid peak one night and it was mimicking the ocean: it tasted salty and when the moon is high tiny waves jostle millions of small stones lining its edges, producing the sound of a seashore.
She's heard this story twice; once, right after I returned from Central Asia, and before that when I was circling the lake alone. When she reads this, it will be the third retelling.
It's a weird thing, love, like many of Chagall's paintings, which project blissful union and yet under its skin the lovers' reverie of joy and melancholy.
When you get used to the idea of spending a lifetime together sometimes things fit and sometimes they don't and you tend to look at the same images yet see things differently, like life observed through an odd stereoscope.
Charles Bridge, Prague. A band is playing dixie music and artists are peddling handcrafted necklaces and earrings and paintings while the Vltava river flows beneath massive arches first constructed in 1357.
We are standing side by side looking in the same direction, exhausted but eager to drink more of the city.
Her eyes are fixed far away at the ramparts of a distant castle. I am fascinated by the ridges and lichens on the mortar of the bridge. For a few minutes we huddle transfixed and then hands clasped we walk on. She is already looking intently at the bridge tower of Mala Strana while I go for the cobblestones. We laugh.
I'm not sure how we reached this place, this companionship which sometimes tastes like ice cream and other times like the sting of chili. But I think three years and a decade after promising forever we both still like it.
I suppose having common interests help or that we both believe in and pursue the same things.
I know that what binds us is something Barbara Kingsolver spelled out in her novel Animal Dreams, and a little more.
"[S]omething so simple [we] almost can't say it," Kingsolver wrote. "Elementary kindness. Enough to eat, enough to go around. The possibility that kids might one day grow up to be neither the destroyer nor the destroyed."
She'd add fairness and I the verse and verve of meaningful lives. We'd agree on this - a good beer after a long, tiring day. Nothing too grand.
Maybe I had her at haller? I'm not sure she'd agree but it's a nice thought. She might say that I actually liked her from the time I first met her and with a staredown end the argument right there. But it's also a nice line and she knows it's true.
It's never always easy; forever's a long time to waste and sometimes nothing works and you doubt the notion of happily ever after.
But there are times when everything pans out and the mind curls around all possibilities and you follow a strange compass that goes round and round and round, always pointing elsewhere and yet somehow it's still okay.
"In politics, as in cooking, there are no dogmas," the writer Tariq Ali once said. He may as well have thrown in human ties, the kind where you share the same blanket with another for a long, long while, from where you wake up on odd mornings thinking once upon a time there was a boy who loved a girl. And you begin the day anew. #
Renato Redentor Constantino is the author of The Poverty of Memory: Essays in History and Empire (CFNS 2006). Feedback also welcome at his blog: http://redconstantino.blogspot.com
I was asked by Gina Abuyuan to write something for H.I.P.P. Magazine things that keep family relationships going. I tried a few times but in the end decided not to write about the role of the kids. I told Gina "sometimes kids become the crutch or clutch in a marriage, doomed or floundering, blooming or plateaued. Does it take more than swooning to sustain a romance? Perhaps it does, perhaps it doesn't. I don't really know. The article came out this way."Get a copy of the farewell issue of the best parenting mag in the Philippines called H.I.P.P. Magazine before it runs out... (H.I.P.P. -- Happy, Intelligent, Progressive Parenting.)