Manila, 2011. It was early March, when all surfaces were coated in grimy sweat. I’d only been in town a few days but I’d met a girl. And not even online. I sent her a message:
hi, it’s stu here. I met u in the internet cafe this afternoon. how r u?
Lin was 26 years old. She was the café manager, and worked long hours every day. I suggested we go out that Saturday evening, when she finished work a little earlier.
We met on the corner of Taft Avenue, surely one of the world’s busiest streets. She was waiting on the steps to Starbucks in a short, black dress covered in sequins and with black high heels. She shimmered and took hold of my hand.
— Would you like to get a drink or something?
— Not really, she said, where do you live?
I pointed to my building up the street. She squeezed my arm with both hands.
Walking back to my apartment, I tried not to think of how it looked: a tall-ish, white man in zip-off travel pants with a scantily-clad, dark-skinned woman. What I wanted, and what Lin hoped for in return, was plain as day. But I tried to pretend that we weren’t like that, that we were just two people who liked one another (in the way that any two people, since the dawn of time, might have liked one another), or even that we had been in a relationship for many years, and this was just another night, another stroll and another conversation. I asked her about her day. I listened closely. I smiled and reminded myself of how friendly I was.
In the lobby she had to write her details in the security guard’s log. I watched the silver bracelet bounce on her arm while she signed her name and asked the guard something in Tagalog, and I tried not to imagine what the security guard was thinking, trying instead to tell myself — but really, trying to show him — that what he suspected wasn’t true. Until we could escape into the elevator.
By the time we’d entered my apartment and I’d asked her if she wanted anything to drink, all I wanted was to take her clothes off. But, despite all of her grins and giggles, Lin wanted to take things more slowly. Apparently. So we sat on the couch and watched some TV. She asked me if I had a favourite show. We stumbled onto a movie that we both liked. She lay down and put her head in my lap. Next thing my hand was reaching under her skirt.
— Hey, she looked up, you’re cheeky!
I apologised, but kept touching. Suddenly she sat up and kissed me. After that, we were knotted together; soon our bodies were glazed in sweat, giving our limbs a lustre that approached the silver bangle on her arm, the only remaining ornament on her body. After a while in one position she would push me away and then clamber over me until she found the position she wanted next. If I grabbed her by the waist and took control, she would cry out in surprise. This was the beginning of everything I had wanted; everything was turning out exactly as I had hoped…
At some point all of this resolves (into what? into what?) into a conversation. Now the focus is on her words instead of her body, which has grown hazier and receded from view. She is saying something… what was it? I can’t stay. Yes, I had asked her if she could stay the night.
— I can’t stay, she said.
— But you could go to work straight from here in the morning?
— No, I’d have to go home first. Not tonight, baby.
To change the topic, she asked how I liked Manila, what I was doing here. I was here to write, I said. I was based at the university across the road. And Manila, well, it was enormous, too big to think about. Then her phone rang from the other room and it seemed to shock her stiff: she rushed out and took it from her handbag. I couldn’t hear much over the air conditioner, but it was pretty clear that she didn’t want me to, either.
— It was fine, she was mumbling, No, it was OK… yeah OK, that’s fine… huh? No, I’m at home… OK, sure, I’ll do it in the morning…
— Who was that? I asked when she walked back in, the lone silver bangle resting on her wrist.
— No-one, just my boss.
I went to see her at the internet café again. It was packed; I took a place at the only available computer and pretended to check emails while she hurried around and occasionally shot cheeky grins in my direction. She seemed confident, in control. Nothing flustered her. Only once, when I raised my hand to ask for help, did she come to my shoulder. I left after half an hour or so, feeling like a dope. But I was smiling.
I’m pretty sure she came over that evening, after she’d finished work. We fucked straight away — this time she leant over the back of the sofa — and then we ordered some food. After eating we had more sex. It was wonderful, to be able to have so much sex. I was amazed, and relieved — that I still had it in me, that, after years of fighting with my former girlfriend — her rabid desire, for which I was all but useless, then all of our tears and yelling — I could still perform, I could give my partner as much as she needed, I could do it like a normal guy. It was a gushing, liberating sensation: no, the anti-depressants hadn’t taken it away from me, my body was still here, I could re-enter it.
And the sex itself was delicious, like a prolonged shock, something to do with descent, or ascent — some kind of scent, some way in which I was drawn in, or across, the way she drew me to her — into, across that glossy skin, towards that irreducibly bold, black hair, the blinks of pearl, those strings of ebullient teeth. I was circling deliriously around her planet, plunging into darkness before opening my eyes at the height of midday. And clouds of glitter like my own, personal nebulae. Underneath: scattered memories of how many times and for how long and in which ways.
During these first evenings, the only hint that I was in Manila was the oceanic drone of Taft Avenue traffic from ten flights below, the occasional phrase of Tagalog from the TV in the other room, and the fact that here was this woman, the glorious centre of my desire, she was here, here, here.
I’d hoped so fiercely for something like this to happen that it almost didn’t surprise me when it did. My ex and I had been stuck in a boiling, abusive relationship for years. We weren’t right for each other but we couldn’t leave each other. So we turned on each other, hoping that by eating through the other we might devour all conflict, and emerge freed and satiated. By the time it was over — it ended not in some great explosion but by an act of cowardly subterfuge (me, cramming everything into a couple of suitcases and stealing away while she was at work) — I had a deep hole in my gut and all I was sure of was that, prior to anything else, the hole needed to be filled, or at least covered over. The way to do that, I clumsily reasoned, was to be with as many women as I possibly could — not just any women, mind you, but delectable women, women who seemed to push against the very skin of reality to bask just slightly in the light of the divine. Each woman couldn’t be fucked and then forgotten, either, for that would fill nor cover nothing. No, they needed to look at me with sparkling eyes, they needed to laugh as we walked down streets together, to desire my body, to demand it repeatedly, to make jokes as we lay in bed afterwards, exhausted, calm. Each woman needed to be an instance of mutual craving, and on top of each instance I had to pile another, and another, and another, so that each day, if possible, twice a day even, I could be distracted by yet more intimacy, by yet more electricity as it sung and danced from one body to another, and all together these threads and flashes might weave themselves into one, impenetrable, rolling ball of light. Lin was only going to be the first, but she would be at the beginning of all this light.
One or two nights later, when Lin told me that she had a boyfriend, I liked how I remained so calm. The disclosure of her commitment to someone else seemed to relieve me of all pressures and, even more, I was excited by the implication, that she wanted use me: she knew what I was after, and she wanted it, too.
We had finished with sex, and she would need to be heading home soon. She had to be up early again to answer the phone call from her boss.
— He calls me every morning, to make sure I know what to do for the day.
— But why can’t you take the call here?
— Because he’ll know that I’m not at home! It’s very hard to hide things from him.
— But why do you need to hide things from him? I asked, completely incredulous —
: I work from 7am to 10pm every day. Sometimes I get Sundays off but not if we’re busy.
: The place where I work, it belongs to my boyfriend. But he lives in Australia, in Sydney, so he calls me every morning to check how things are going and to tell me what to do.
: I met him when he first visited the Philippines. He wanted to start a business in Manila. I was 18.
: Each year he comes to visit me for a few weeks. But sometimes he flies me to Sydney instead, where I stay in an apartment in Bondi and he visits me every few days. It’s really boring, because I don’t know anyone else and I don’t have money so I can’t go anywhere without him.
: He’s older than me, nearly 50. He has a wife and children there too. For years he promised me that he’s going to leave them, but lately we have stopped talking about it.
: I don’t know what to do. I can’t leave him. I love him. And I’ve been with him for so long now, I’d be too old for anyone else. Plus I’d lose my job if I left him, and jobs are so hard to get here. I don’t have a good education so it would be impossible.
: The last time he took me to Sydney he left me alone in the apartment for almost a whole week. I got so frustrated that I decided to visit him at work. When I turned up at his office he got really angry with me and asked what I was doing there. I told him that I was lonely and I wanted to see him. He said that I had to go and wait in another room because his wife was about to come by. I waited in an empty office next to his; I could see them together through the frosted glass. I didn’t wait for her to leave, I went back to the apartment and cried and cried until he came to see me that evening, and he was so angry with me that I couldn’t stop crying, and this made him angrier, and he pulled my pants off and fucked me and then he left and I didn’t see him for another few days.
In response to all this I kept saying the same two phrases in a row. If I give the first of these phrases (“Jesus Christ”) a number 1, and the second phrase (“Jesus fucking Christ”) a number 2, my responses were as follows:
— 1, 2
— Fuck, 2
— Oh, 1
What happened next is unclear, which is to say that from here on time slows down, and all subsequent events merge into one, bulbous space…
No no don’t worry of course I’m a good guy but let me tell you about the others, you can’t trust them, you can never trust them, let me tell you, yes yes come here cry on my shoulder it’s OK, don’t worry I’m here now I know it’s hard, but so many guys are like that really so many of them are like that, you need to take care even with me, you need to realise that I might seem like the nicest guy in the world but I could be anyone really anyone you don’t know anything about me, just think of all those politicians think of how convincing and truthful they all look then think of what they do, so many guys so many guys are like that with girls they just want to win to win, they’ll do anything to convince you that they’re good and decent to convince themselves that they’re good and decent that what they’re doing is OK…
I give more time to dreams than to reality at the beginning of these sorts of relationships. Even though we might have very little to talk about, I like to imagine that this doesn’t matter, because her brilliant smile, and the size of mine in response, somehow fills the silence. The silence is like a vast, alluvial lowland, or an enormous, empty petrol tank, but I imagine that I feel a vibrant, primordial energy in our bodies, which runs through all things and grants them most of their power, and which is more than capable of filling any space.
I like to think like this until I’m no longer interested in justifying the relationship, which is when I start to feel that there is no sense in which it was ever a good idea. We are two hopelessly different people, and our different journeys, previously bound by a bright, delightful paint, have worked against it, cracked it, to the point that they are bound by nothing.
Of course, I kept seeing Lin. I would go for a few days, but then the desire would return. And I only needed to send her a text for her to reply almost immediately. Besides, once I returned to Australia, who knew when I would get to be with a girl like her again? Back there, I’d have no chance with someone like Lin. She’d be too busy choosing between ferociously competitive men — men who worked in corporate law firms and in various, vague areas of finance, and who were able to display their competitive prowess with expensive dinners and cocktails. But here I was a quasi-celebrity, and women like Lin would do almost anything I wanted.
But I still couldn’t admit that I was using Lin purely for sex; I had to believe I was better than that, than my countrymen, so many of whom — admittedly, many years older — I saw on buses, in bars, with women half or even a third their age. Often then, after sex, I would ask her more about her life, her Australian boyfriend, her thoughts about the future. It would distress Lin, telling me about the things he made her do. You have to leave him, Lin, I would say, he’s not right for you. You deserve so much more than that. Then she would stare at me with a yearning that I tried to ignore.
It wasn’t long before I would start to feel peculiar things. I would be sucking her lips, I would be inside her, her sweaty body rubbing against my own, but there was a second self — also mine, but different — above my first self, looking down at it, wondering what are you doing?, worrying about what yet another, third self would think, should it enter the room at that instant, another self that more or less spoke for all selves, which had access to a power that my two other selves did not, a power to place morality prior to all action, to build vast walls of morals that prevent all problematic action, what would that communal self-cum-other-self think? How would it condemn me? How would it reveal to me the appalling consequences of my actions, gathered there, at the end of a dark cul-de-sac that I hitherto had only passed by and which, if I had seen it at all, had been largely obscured from view by that first self, that self now above her, full of her, tracing its pattern in her wide eyes, burning up as its hands continued down her body, her endless skin, its ever-smoothness, the way she kept unfolding from the bud and, in her unfolding, the way shards of her thought would start to flicker between the spaces that were opening between each of those burnt yellow petals. It was like this. Like diving into a delta. Like lying prone on a bench and watching as my body dripped onto the pavement below. Slowly turning deeper and deeper, as my first self pressed deeper I grew longer, always bound to the world above;that third self was still looking down on us and, as I pressed deeper, as I wondered, as I looked, in the corner of each eye: would it enter, would it catch us, would I finally be condemned in the harsh light of the open?
I took her downstairs to see her out — I would always take her downstairs — and I stood in the lobby as she disappeared in that hideous night of neon and diesel. Whatever fondness I might have felt for her in that moment was sawn off by roaring jeepney and truck engines. Lin personified that gnarled, tangled city as much as she was its exquisite, momentary exception: when her lips opened, whether to speak or to laugh, bolts of irrepressible, wriggling energy shot from her eyes, whereas around her edges, just before light sank into her black hair, or as it skimmed through the thin, barely perceptible hairs of a forearm, there was an equally irreducible fragility, where her very flesh was at point of decay — only the very edges, but surrounding her completely like a sickly, contaminated halo, just as her expressions and gestures shot out like a powerful torch, shooting out, out, but always entombed in Manila’s irrepressible darkness.
I tried to look stern as I walked back to the lift. Hopefully the security guard would think that Lin and I had just concluded a meeting to discuss a challenging project we were working on, or that Lin was a dear friend, and she had spent the past couple of hours in my apartment telling me about a family tragedy. But from over and underneath this shallow choreography emerged the persistent, haunting wail from LCD Sound system’s ‘North American Scum’, and if I managed to drown it out for a moment it was only with the groove of the song’s verse, into which I fell —because the fact that I understood the song, the fact that I understood it in a place where few others would, meant that I was as awful as any North American. I knew this like I knew gravity. I knew it as I waited for the elevator and tried to avoid the security guard’s glare. My shoulders struggled under the weight of my pathetic vices, made so much heavier because of how they were like the vices of so many other men.
I can’t remember how many more times she came to visit. I know that we never met outside again; she just came straight up to my condo. At any rate, it didn’t go on for much longer. It was clear that Lin thought I was the man who would save her from her boyfriend; the struggle between those second and third selves reached fever-pitch. I knew what I had to do, that I couldn’t do what I was doing.
In other words, fairly soon after we first met, I lost much of my interest in her. Our text messages became less frequent, and whole weeks would pass when I made no contact, and when I heard nothing from her in return. One night I came home with another girl. She was insatiable — she’d said as much to me while we were still in the bar — but she was also like a perfectly chiselled figure of some icy, shimmery alloy, and in turn — because I couldn’t seem to find the source of such insatiability in such coolness – I started to hunt for it, and promptly became insatiable myself. We fucked all night long. Each time, just before I came, she’d grimace and push me away so as not to get any of it on her.
At one point shortly after, while we were lying there and she was telling me about her flatmate, a young guy who worked in a call centre who she slept with from time to time, I heard a knock on the door. I put a finger to her lips. We lay in silence for a moment. There was another knock on the door.
— Stuuu! Lin called.
I looked at my companion and shook my head. She chuckled, and whispered that I had too many girlfriends.
— But I don’t know who it is! I lied.
My phone started ringing from the other room. Then it beeped with a text. And with another. Lin knocked on the door again.
We lay there in silence, until my companion lost patience and reached once more for my cock. We didn’t hear anything more from the door.
This new woman left early in the morning, then I went back to bed and slept until late in the day. There were several missed calls and texts waiting for me on my phone when I got up.
sorry babe! I wrote, i went out last night and forgot 2 take my phone
Sometime later, Lin’s reply: i missed u and wanted 2 c u. i waited at ur door 4 hours. i heard giggling and talking
what r u talking about? i wasnt even here!
thats ok stu. i understand. u r bored with me now
what??? [and later]
r u there??
I saw this new girl a couple of times but, because she was able to live without hope, because she wasn’t interested in me as anything other than a toy, when I grew bored of her it was easier to tell her. We were too different, I texted. I was looking for more of an emotional connection, but she seemed to be after something else. OK was her simple reply.
A few days later and somewhat inevitably, I guess, I ended up texting Lin again. Like always, I asked her to come over.
I remember that time quite clearly. I hadn’t seen her for weeks, but once more she was next to me on the sofa, giggling and fidgeting like it was the first time. I remember how I pushed aside the distance and grasped for her, pulling off her underwear (‘Ooo, you’re so naughty!’ she giggled), watching those lips curve into a delicious grin, taking her there on the couch but not lasting long, arg, only a minute or so, it felt so good, but yes, finishing a little sheepishly and remaining there, above her, until I could collect myself and recover those lines, lines like, ‘Well, it was great to see you again’ and ‘I really should be getting to bed…’, and her slow retreat to the door, while I’m still smiling and asking about her work, really interested, opening the door, smiling, no, she won’t come here again, I won’t see her ever again, when someone great is gone, when someone —
At some point I would text her again. And again. But there were no more replies. And that third, quasi-communal self grew bored and left, while my second self, always wondering if the third, judgemental self was ever going to come back, started priding itself on the fact that it had won: I was no longer seeing her, it was all over now, she had escaped me.
Meanwhile, beneath that second self, the first self, the one that was always closest to her, was lost in a stream of memories of her sensation. This first self was left troubled, even a little shocked, that she hadn’t followed after it. From time to time I went out and wandered the streets, hoping to bump into her. I strolled slowly past the internet café, sending the odd text out into the ether. But she was gone.
Then, a couple of years later, I was back in Manila for a conference. One morning I went to look for her. I walked up and down the length of Ermita but couldn’t find the café; either I’d forgotten where it was or it had closed down. Suddenly I was desperate for her again, as if there was no other point to the entire, gargantuan city. I wasn’t sure if her number still worked but I sent her a text:
hi lin its stu here. I dont know where u r. I hope u r ok. im in manila 4 a few days if u want 2 c me?
Stuart Cooke’s latest books are the poetry collection Lyre (UWAP, 2019) and a translation of Gianni Siccardi’s The Blackbird (Vagabond, 2018). He lives in Brisbane, on Turrbal and Jagera land, where he lectures at Griffith University. Pre-COVID, he was the Australia Council’s BR Whiting Fellow in Rome, Italy.