1 Essay by Ria Valdez
Caffeine and alcohol could either start a relationship, or end it. For J and I, it was both.
There were three things I remembered the night J became my fake girlfriend in the middle of our coffee session: I was kidding when I asked her; her favorite coffee at that time became mine too; and the gap between her teeth peeked out from her mouth when she said yes. We weren’t close friends even though we were in the same barkada. Our only bond was through coffee sessions because both our roommates hated coffee. That night, the coffee she bought for us to share had tasted sweet like the sugar syrup of leche flan. I wasn’t a fan of sweets but I liked the coffee. Of all things I could remember that night, there was one thing I had forgotten: both of us were Catholics.
J’s number one trademark, and my favorite feature of her was the gap between her two front teeth. I originally called her “Gap,” but our friends thought “Gaffy” was cuter and so the name stuck. She didn’t seem to mind and even embraced the nickname. When we would walk around downtown, people mistook us for twins. Our classmates said soulmates looked alike. I wasn’t sure if we were soulmates though. I believed fate wasn’t present in our pseudo-relationship. J and I did everything to look convincing as a couple when we were fake girlfriends on that day.
We established silly rules: we should hold hands in the corridors and in class; we should share a chocolate drink in a tetra pack; and we should pay for each other’s meals. J never had a romantic relationship before, which was probably why she let me decide mostly on those rules. The one rule she really wanted us to follow was to call each other cheesy couple names. We both hated being called “babe,” but we did so to make us look convincing.
When I asked J to be my fake girlfriend, she was thinking of another girl—the girl who didn’t love her back. I, on the other hand, thought about the girl who turned me down because she told me she was straight. But I didn’t even ask that girl to be my girlfriend. I had just told her I liked her. I guessed J and I had our own heartbreaks before we had each other.
Our “relationship” never made it to lunch because I had a high fever, caused by a side effect of my antibiotic. My father fetched me in our boarding house before we went home. J and I then promised to each other never to be in a fake relationship again.
“We’re not mean to be,” she laughed when she and my friends visited me at home. “It’s a sign.”
But in that one day where J was my fake girlfriend, coffee had tasted extra sweet as if it had honey in it. J had made me coffee that morning as part of the rules we made. It was the 3-in-1 sachet of Nescafe that was “Now creamier!”—the same coffee we drank the night before. The taste of that coffee in the morning never left my mouth the whole day—even when I was being taken to the doctor.
When I went back to school after I got sick, I immediately asked J to have lunch with me at Jollibee. This was where we became real girlfriends. But I wasn’t sure if she was serious or not. Perhaps there was a part of me that wanted to think she wanted this as much as I really did. On our first coffee session as an official couple, we didn’t know how to act around each other. I felt like we were still two friends trying to convince others that they were lovers.
Having a girlfriend did not feel weird at all. It wasn’t like when I had a boyfriend. Boys demanded a lot. They had always nagged me to let them carry my shoulder bag because they wanted to be gentlemen. They would even get mad if I opened a door for them. I hated their pride of not making me do things because it had to be them. When J became my girlfriend, we didn’t have a sense of that pride and dominance. We both carried our own bags.
J was drunk the first time she told me she loved me. I had fetched her in UPub, a bar in Mintal, because she wasn’t texting me anymore and I got worried. Red Horse tasted sweeter and I believed that was the first time beer didn’t taste like rust to me. We had shared a beer before I went home ahead to do something for the student council. J was usually silent. She wore earphones all the time, shutting the world out and keeping the music in. But she talked a lot on our way home.
I held her by the shoulders to maneuver her up the spiral staircase of our boarding house. The staircase was narrow and I had to stand behind her. She stopped to look at me. I couldn’t see her eyes clearly because it was almost midnight and our landlady had turned off the lights in the living room. I thought she was going to barf because she leaned forward enough to for the scent of Red Horse to invade my nostrils.
“Ka-sweet mo uy. Maka-in love,” she slurred.
She didn’t really say she loved me, but I believed she did. I watched her crash into my bed and spread my blanket over her body, tucking it under chin and under her feet. She lay down spread-eagled on my bed, leaving a space for me that was fit for a doll. I had to squeeze myself into that space just to lie beside her. I felt my body shrink and fold as if it were for origami: arms and legs, like edges of the paper being folded to meet at the center. I didn’t complain that time. I didn’t mind being creased then smoothened out. I was in love.
The first time J kissed me was the morning after she had a talk with the girl who didn’t love her back.
“She asked me if I still loved her, but I told her not anymore. And it was true, there was none anymore,” J said while wiping my tears.
I never expected I would cry at the idea of letting J go for someone she really liked. I was still crying when J pressed her lips on mine. I stopped crying and kissed back. I could taste a tinge of alcohol on her lips—she had been drunk the night before. Whenever I smelled beer in her breath, it reminded me of the comfort of this moment. It also reminded me she was near. I had kissed a girl when I was six years old but that was a different story. My kiss with J this time was my first kiss with a girl who really mattered to me. I thought J and I would find the kiss awkward because we were both raised in a Catholic-oriented family that considered homosexuality as a sin. But our kiss felt natural: her bottom lip parted my lips and she let it stay here, as if she was trying to keep it warm between my lips. I felt her smile in the kiss and I smiled back.
I always imagined a lesbian relationship to be platonic. And lesbian sex was only a creation of pornography. As if she read my mind, she pecked my lips again. It felt like a reassurance that she didn’t feel guilty as well. I no longer prayed like I did when I was still in a Catholic school. But I believed in a loving God who loved us all equally. It wasn’t the same God my parents raised me to believe in. But since I lost that kind of prayer in my life, I had embraced what would truly make me happy. And that was loving girls.
We loved coffee so much that we went to coffee shops often to spend all-nighters there. We crammed a lot. We wrote essays and poems together. Sometimes we held hands under the table and used just one hand to type on our laptops. Whenever we had frappes, I would always stir the whipped cream into the coffee. She always complained about that, saying that they were called “sprinkles” for a reason. But I told her that whipped cream and coffee were meant to be one. Not mixing the whipped cream meant there was a sweet layer before the actual coffee. “’You wouldn’t taste the coffee because the cream is in the way. You would only taste the sweet part,” I had argued. But she continued to tease me how weird it was.
One time when we were on our way back to Mintal, she leaned her head on my shoulder until she eventually dozed off. While we waited for the jeep to be filled with passengers from Bankerohan, I whispered I love her. I felt her cheek twitch but she pretended not to hear. I believed she was smiling even though she didn’t say she loved me back.
When we drank liquor or beer, we drank it with friends. We sat beside each other in the table and held hands. We gladly kissed for them when they teased us. Our friends didn’t want to have juice as a chaser because it caused hangovers. I also found juice too sweet and I puked more than usual when I drank it with brandy. We still went with juice because I told them J wanted to. When J and I went home together drunk, we crashed into bed together. These were the nights when the bed would fit both of us. Our bodies laced like our hands.
On mornings we exchanged breaths of beer between kisses, and woke up with headaches as if we shared one head. We were both wrapped in each other’s arms and held each other close, afraid that one would fall off the bed. On mornings like these, the hint of beer in her breath made my mouth feel warm. I wanted to make J drunk all the time to have moments like these. She never told me she loved me when she was sober.
Our daily coffee consumption became two mugs a night. We bought 3-in-1 Nescafe sachets with different flavors every week because we had already found the coffee with free sprinkles expensive. The new instant coffee we bought was cheaper and easier to prepare. Instead of long talks over coffee, we had shorter talks in bed. When we first made love, it was in the dark. It didn’t feel weird touching someone with the same body parts as mine. Those were the parts J and I had touched the way a breeze would graze over blades of grass—both careful and teasing. When our kisses became urgent, our hands became clumsy. My hands and hers fumbled around each other’s body, trying to touch anything that felt like skin. I had been intimate with boys before but it wasn’t as sensual as this because the boys I had been intimate with knew what parts of me they wanted to touch. J and I didn’t even feel guilty that we were Catholics. Feeling the warmth of her body close to mine made me forget what I was raised to believe in.
When she started to be passionate about soccer, J drank buckets of beer with her teammates almost every night after their practice. She brought me along one night and I didn’t want to admit I wasn’t enjoying their company. It reminded me of how my grandparents had gone to Butuan City just to support my cousin in his basketball game while they had only stayed for ten minutes in my debate tournament because I wasn’t winning like him. That was the reason I hated sports and J knew that. She eventually noticed how silent I was or how I went to other tables often, and finally stopped inviting me. But on nights she came home early, she smelled of sweat and grass. She didn’t want me to hug her because she felt stinky. I told her I didn’t mind. I gave her massages when she said her body ached.
We had our first anniversary on July. We went to Eden Nature Park, a resort that closely resembled the coldness of Baguio. This vacation was my gift to her so I paid for the room with the extra money in my bank account. The room we could only afford was part of a duplex building. There were seven rooms in our wing, each room separated with green bamboos painted on concrete walls. There were two separate beds. We used one for our bags and the other one for the two of us. J had bought red wine and we drank it with cheap potato chips. Wine was probably the most expensive bottle of alcohol we had drunk together and we bought it for today’s celebration. I always thought it tasted sweet like grapes but it tasted bitter like beer It also made J’s head felt heavy. We laughed, kissed, and held each other for a while before she said she was sleepy. She had just arrived from GenSan that day to celebrate our anniversary. While she slept the whole night, I thought about our plan to gaze at Davao City’s lights competing against the stars in the sky. I had wanted to share those lights with her. I watched Awkward, an American TV series, on the bed were our things were until I felt sleepy. I carefully lay beside J on the other bed and wedged myself between her and the wall, feeling myself being folded forcefully. I fixed my eyes on J’s sleeping face to distract myself from the coldness of the wall seeping through my skin.
When we were on our way back to Davao, I accompanied her to Mintal before I went home to Ma-a. My wallet got stolen on the jeepney ride home because I had slept the whole time. I was thankful it only had twenty pesos left as I had spent most of my money on the Eden trip. When I told J about it, she told me she would give me a new wallet for my birthday—the night I got so drunk because she didn’t celebrate it with me. The new wallet she gave me was blue just like the one I had lost, but had a smaller slit than usual wallets so I had to fold my bills in half just so she could see me use her gift.
After our anniversary, we decided to become roommates for the next school year. We tried to mix our own coffee with black coffee in small sachets, creamer, and sugar. I liked mine with more cream and hers with more sugar. I didn’t know we liked different brews of coffee all this time. We loved being roommates and going home to each other after tiring student council meetings and soccer practices as much as we loved waking up to the snores of each other. But then I started to notice that she went home late almost every night.
“Shat kayo mamaya?” I had asked her one time even though I knew she was going to drink with her friends again.
“Yes, treat ni coach” she replied while she stuffed her soccer jersey in her bag.
“Will you take long?”
“Wake me up when you’re home. I miss our cuddles.”
She smiled and nodded before she left. She didn’t wake me up when she went home that night. She was too drunk. I got mad the morning after but then she said, “Try to understand gud, Ri. I don’t get to spend time with my teammates that much.” I guess I was the only one who felt that we didn’t spend time with each other.
Our room felt empty without her. It reminded me of the times I would stay alone in my room because I felt isolated from my relatives. Ever since my relatives found out I was a lesbian, I could feel tension every time we had a family gathering. I felt I wasn’t safe anywhere even among people I care for. And that I was looking for a certain presence to be as somewhat refuge. I missed seeing J writing in her journal on her side of the study table, where she had arranged her books by width and had placed a little glass jar of coins for her fare and cigarettes. Before she would leave our room, she would always fix our bed, making sure our sheets looked smooth as a newly waxed floor. Sometimes I was afraid to lie down because I wanted the sheets left that way.
J usually came home drunk or tired around nine or ten in the evening. Without a word to me, she would crash on the bed and crease the sheets. I mentally laughed at myself for trying to keep things as they were.
On nights where I felt the room was empty, I spent time in the visitor’s area outside our room. R was always there because her roommate was always away too. Emptiness brought us together. R always drank tea that had a citrus scent. She offered it to me once and I began to drink it every night. The tea felt soothing in my throat, almost like inhaling again after holding my breath for a long time. She was my classmate in some subjects but when we talked over tea, it felt like we knew each other for a long time. “I can’t believe we never talked before. And now I’m graduating,” she had said one night. I felt sad R would be leaving soon because I had feelings for her—the kind where I wanted to know more about her every day. But I was in a relationship with J and R had a boyfriend. R and I just remained friends.
I decided to spend a lot of time with my friends, usually over beer, so that I wouldn’t feel J’s absence. Drinking with my friends now felt like drinking beer for the first time. Beer tasted like rust at first but I craved for it when it began to taste like apple juice. Whenever I went home, she was usually asleep. There came one night when J told me she missed me. I didn’t want her to think that I felt it too because I wanted her to think our relationship still worked. I sometimes thought that our relationship was still the joke we had once shared to convince people that we were a couple.
We had almost broken up two times: one was when her friends were uncomfortable with J and I’s relationship. They didn’t like how we held hands and kissed so we had to hide our displays of affection. I wondered if they thought all lesbian couples were gross. The other time was when I was so drunk and mad at J for some reason I have already forgotten that I cursed “Tang ina niya naman eh!” She had understood it as me cursing her mother. I hated how fast she could utter the words “break-up” as if it was a protocol for our fights. Hearing her say “break-up” was like having my ear drums shattered and my rib cage crushed. The first time she had said it, when we both found out that her friends were uncomfortable with us, I knelt at the foot of her bed and begged for her not to break up with me.
“How could you miss me? We’re roommates!” I said with a stiff laugh. She said nothing and I was afraid she would break up with me again when all I wanted to do was stay. It was a protocol. “Pero masarap magising na katabi ka,” I said. “At least we could still wake up to each other.” We tried to make things work. We even had a “balik-alindog” program for our relationship where we would only spend time with each other. But we were so used to spending time apart, we forgot how to act around each other again. Trying to make things work felt like we were working against fate. Maybe lesbian relationships were like that.
J and I rarely drank together now. If we would, we only shared a couple of shots of rum before she would leave for another bar in Mintal. I told my friends we could have water as a chaser now. J and I were stuck to this routine for what I felt was a long time. She had started to drink with my friends without me and I didn’t miss holding her hand while I drank with my friends. We drank in different bars in Mintal. Even though Mintal was a small place and I had memorized almost all the streets in it, I never saw her. The distance between bars were just a couple meters away but the distance between J and me felt really far, farther than our weekends spent apart whenever she went home to GenSan.
On my birthday that year, we drank in different tables. She drank with her teammates, like she always did, while I drank two tables away with my friends. I was so mad at her for not spending time with me that I bad-mouthed one of her teammates out of my drunkenness. And she was so mad at me, I forgot I was hurt. That night was like the others where I had to fold myself to fit in the space left beside her—a space fit for a doll. I felt my body resist as if it were cardboard. I wasn’t made for origami anymore. That wasn’t even the first night where I had screamed for her not to touch me out of drunkenness and how I meant every word. I never wanted her to found out that I did.
We never admitted it back then that we didn’t want to go home to each other anymore. At least I did. No matter how close we held each other, her warmth didn’t feel familiar anymore. We never admitted we had a new routine: we would crash into bed, both of us drunk; a stuffed bear I gave her would come between us while we slept; and different liquors in our breaths with hers also smelling of smoke. The room we shared had turned into merely a place for sleeping because we wanted to be anywhere else but here. I hated the temporaries that had now come from sharing one bed.
We wanted our coffee black to stay awake. It was bitter like chewing calamansi seeds but we drank it anyway, although not together anymore. J was still busy with her soccer varsity and I still talked to our fellow boarder, R, while I waited for her. R kept me more awake than coffee. J and I fought a lot about time for each other until I found myself not looking for her anymore. I didn’t know when I started to get excited with the texts of R than with J’s. Although R and I decided to remain as friends for the sake of our lovers, I had to admit I liked how she found excuses to talk to me.
After a class production, J and I had dinner with our friends in UPub. The free iced tea in every meal was the only thing we shared. It tasted sour. We didn’t even sit beside each other that night. When J left our table to be with her teammates, our friends immediately asked what was wrong with us. I replied that we were just tired. “We’re okay. Tired, but okay.” I went home ahead of J without asking her who would accompany her home.
I was with R that night—the night before J and I broke up. I had wished J would sleep somewhere else because I wanted to stay with R. But her teammates brought her home around midnight and I helped her into bed when all I wanted to do is to let her sleep and lie down beside R. I only found out the next morning that J had read the poem I had written for R, the one I had submitted for, and would be published in, an anthology by lesbian writers. That was the reason she was drunk last night. Before she even said she wanted to break-up, I knew we were over. She didn’t have a hangover that morning.
“Why didn’t you tell me?” she asked.
“Nothing happened,” I said remembering how much I wished I had stayed with R.
“Don’t put poems on your desktop where I could read them.”
J talked rather calmly before she cursed “Putang ina” and started crying as if her tears choked her. I held her and when she didn’t pull away, I cried as well, finally admitting that we couldn’t fix things anymore. “I will miss looking and thinking how you are the most beautiful creature I have seen,” J said in between sobs. We cried harder.
“So ano na? What do we do?” I asked, hoping there was still a chance we wouldn’t break-up. This was the first lesbian relationship for the both of us. Maybe I held on to the idea that relationships like ours would last. I honestly thought it was society that would drive us apart. But it was us. We were no different from any other relationship.
We remained roommates even if we had broken up. It was hard not to kiss her good night and to cuddle while we slept. It was hard to get over familiarity. One time she tried caressing my body until she eventually reached my crotch where I stopped her hand. “This wouldn’t change anything,” I said quite sadly. I knew where it would lead up to and though there was a part of us that wanted to do it, nothing could change our decision to break-up. I told her I knew she wasn’t in love with me. And I wasn’t in love with her anymore.
She was sober when she said she was leaving me. And I let her leave. I even told her it was okay. I wanted to offer her another bottle to make her drunk. But no amount of caffeine or alcohol could save our relationship now.
Before she went home to GenSan for the Christmas break, I accompanied her to the bus terminal. I watched her take a seat by the window. We would be miles apart again, but it won’t feel different. She had always felt distant even while we lay side by side on the bed. Her bus was leaving and the thought of it was comforting. As it turned to vanish in the corner, I decided to walk to the jeepney stop. I stood there waiting for a ride home.
Ria Valdez is a graduate of Bachelor of Arts (AB) in English, major in Creative Writing, from the University of the Philippines - Mindanao, she currently teaches senior high school Creative Writing and Creative Nonfiction subjects at Davao City National High School. Her poems and creative nonfiction are published in Dagmay Literary Journal, Payag Habagatan: New Writings from the South, and “Press: 100 Love Letters” (University of the Philippines Press, 2017), among others.