My favorite West End musical is The Phantom of the Opera. I first saw it as a silent film on one of my film classes, and while the original version was of the horror genre (and therefore hardly a musical), I loved it so much that I saw all the other versions that followed. Comparison aside and despite the different portrayals, the story remained the same: there’s a guy who fell for a girl whose pipes could shatter church windows, and they pledged their commitment to one another through a duet. The stage version even stayed faithful to the film version – why ruin a winning formula? Except maybe throw in a couple of sopranos and baritones, dress them in Belle Epoque grandeur, signal the curtains to drop after the first act, and maybe hope that the whole thing does not rival an average vaudeville performance. But behind the whole bravado remains the skeleton plot: a guy met a girl and they fell inlove.
Almost everyone I know who had seen either the musical or the subsequent film versions swooned when Raoul and Christine made haste for the rooftops to proclaim their love for each other; I, on the other hand, was anxious to see if Dick Van Dyke would jump out of the shadows, covered in soot. And when Raoul and Christine held hands, stared in each others’ eyes and began singing All I Ask of You, I imagined a thousand and one Barbra Streisands belting the same song. Some might have sung along, love stricken and emotional about seeing handsome, perfect Raoul promise to protect the dainty Christine Dae’s heart for as long as he shall live, but not me, no. Somewhere between the opening scene, the auction at the Grand Opera House and the music box, I had lost count of how many sobs I had kept to myself for dear Phantom.
We live in a world where the Raouls find the Christines and they all give an arm up or a limb for a heart wrenching duet. There was a time when I’m quite certain you thought that Neverland was the dream, and I, your Wendy. I don’t disagree; in fact, I rather admire your optimism. It’s just that, everytime I look back at how it all began, whenever I’d retrace my steps to that very first instance we clapped eyes on each other, I always get goosebumps from this lingering feeling that at the time, we both knew we were grown ups trapped in compact travel body sizes. I’ve always felt that we’re both older than we seemed, in our hearts and minds. For some inexplicable reason, we gravitated towards each other, like the sky and earth (debatable who is which). I felt a pull towards you, and maybe because we spoke the same language and used the same method to do so, I didn’t resist at all, even if I so detested Raoul.
See, dueting with someone is never the plan. It’s why everytime anyone ever tries to assure me, let alone expect me to be a bone out of Christine’s make and model, I am quick to surround myself with walls. Not every girl is a damsel in distress. I’m a lady, dammit. I can handle a solo. And if I am to share DNA with Christine Dae and bunk up with someone, I’d rather u-haul with Phantom, thank you very much. A pretty boy, I’ve learned, is always followed with trouble and headaches; a pretty girl, even worse. The boys I have met and hated thereafter all wanted to tame me. The girls who followed envied my freedom. The boys could not accept that because of necessity, I had to grow a pair. The girls, interestingly, wanted lessons on how to grow a pair. The boys smiled, offered their hands for me to hold, and walked away when I refused. The girls smiled, dug their nails and whined, and scarred me for life before they left. It’s an endless encounter with the Raouls and the Christines, and it’s a puzzle what they want from the phantomed me. I’m nothing special. I neither blend in or stand out because I’d much rather stay away from people. I mind my own business and work my ass like it’s cushioned to take a fall. I don’t have much, and what I have I cannot sell or pawn even if it would save my life. My most treasured possession are my books, and if one day you cannot seem to find me, trust that I am buried in piles and piles of pages in black and white. I blabber incessantly about history and AM radio drama because of nostalgia, and no one hardly finds that appealing. Yet, for some reason, the Raouls and the Christines waltz in and out of my life, one hand thrust forward when they do, and two hands in surrender when it’s time to leave.
You always revert to the time we met, not the exact moment, but the succeeding days and years after, when nights were spent sitting across each other, doing our “business review”. I don’t blame you. You may have thought that the meat of how we began as opposing musicals rested on the days we were arguing about something implicitly banal, and we were not really about who’s right and wrong. It’s just who we are, and it may have taken me years to get that, finally, but it’s just how we are. That’s how we show love to each other, going back and forth until one of us changes the topic or concedes, not for the sake of agreeing to disagree, but because we are bigger than everything else laid out in front of us. Bigger than the small disagreements, the cross pacific conversations where replies are always a day or two late, or the random doubt if we’re both still here. Because I know you so well, maybe not as much as you know me – and I guess I have to live with that – I know that it crosses your mind whenever you snag a minute to think, you get that sinking feeling, that fear, that here is a thing of the past and it’s meant to stay there.
I wish I could assure you that it isn’t, that you’re overthinking and overtly scared of something that isn’t ever going to happen. But that’s like saying Phantom doesn’t have scars. You probably thought that this whole thing is meant to console you, being it’s your birthday and your how many seas away from home. It isn’t. We don’t do consolations or second prizes. You and I have always been about going big or going home, and we’ll bleed dry before they take our sorry asses home. When we were younger we used to say to each other, I’m always here for you. That meant a great deal then, and translated to how many derivatives. I’ll never leave. I’m just a phone call away. Text me anytime and I’ll reply. I’ll always have time. We tested each of those and flunked miserably. We both left. There were times when we didn’t pick up. Some messages were unanswered. We both got busy. Adulting is hard. Adulting tested the here. There were days when I’d ask if I could get a do-over, if here meant physically, or did it mean emotionally? I was quite certain that it’s the thought that counts, but when you’re stuck in a rut and you have no one to turn to, does that same thought help at all?
The last time we talked, you asked what’s different about me. What ‘s changed, you said. And I may have said something about not waiting anymore, for anything or anyone. A grand testament to my impatience for all things wonderful, and you were quick to say that some things take time. I asked you the same thing, and you said that you feel less brave, that you’re no longer capable of taking risks, and that you hate it when things are out of control. I must admit that wasn’t what I was expecting from you, and in an anticlimactic way, I understood what you meant. We wisen as we age but we also become cautious. We’ve seen horrors paired with amazing things. We’ve had our knees skinned and our hearts dismantled and taped up, yours probably worse than mine. And yet somehow, you still managed to muster enough love to call me out for how I turned out to be after six years. I know you, you said, I know your heart and how committed you could get, you used to have a pair, what happened to you. I didn’t have answers then, so I said the only thing that I’ve always known to be true: I can’t do this without you.
What did you wish for when you blew your candles in August? I’m interested to know. I know there are lots you still want to do, places to see and people to meet. I know you don’t dream of holding the fort there forever. How many items are left on the bucket list? It’s like everytime we talk or chance upon each other on Messenger, I never get to ask you these questions. You have a way of starting a conversation that leaves me in fits of laughter. How come it never works the same way with people we like? How the hell are we so good with telling each other how it is and still remain socially awkward when meeting others? How did we get used to picking each other up when shit hits the fan but could barely respond when those we love corner us into submission? How is it that those who scarred us and took from us the most became the reason why we had forgone the Raouls and the Christines, and settled for stolen glances and wishful thinking? How is it that you feel less brave but remain so strong for me and Norgs? Where does that strength come from? How do you manage to draw that out even when you can’t seem to brave your own days, just to make sure that there’s enough for Norgs and I? Because I’ve seen you do it several times, when you’d travel from Batangas to Manila after a 10 hour shift to be with Norgs and I just because we’re flying off the handle. And you’d take us out for coffee, stay overnight and catch the earliest trip back home without so much as a minute’s worth of nap because you have work in the morning. Tell me how do you it. Maybe if I figure that out, how to channel rage into strength, I wouldn’t demand for your attention so much. And you won’t have to check up on me periodically.
Unlike Christine, I do take cognizance of when I may have crossed the line. I have that much sense of self awareness to ask myself every so often if I take too much from you, if I demand more than you can hand over; and it’s never a question of will for you, it’s never if you’re willing or not. I dreadfully try to keep it an impossibility, that if and when I have sucked you dry, you’d still be gracious enough to think that if it was the other way around, I would do the same thing. One poignant lesson I have learned the hard way – and I remember telling a friend the same thing on her birthday – is that relationships have good and bad days, glowing and darker shades. The good highlights the bad parts and should never overshadow anything. The good bits should never make you forget about the horrible ones, because they remind you how the good came to be. I could only hope that by being friends with me, by planning to buy a more sturdy and expensive rocking chair than mine for future use, that you have grown to ignore the bad pieces of myself, and have accepted that the broken trampled glassy ones of my heart are forever lost, so you can stop glueing me back together while you’re at it. I could enumerate all the unpleasantries I have – the row of bad bones from my neck down to my tailbone, the evil thoughts rivaling that of a sociopath inhabiting my head, the uneasiness on my hands when I see someone I think resembles someone I knew too well, or even the fact that I always, always, find someone you deem is never worthy of even a period or comma – and they are more than enough reason for you to demand a do-over. I wouldn’t and couldn’t blame you if at one point you thought you were getting more than you bargained for; believe me, I would think of that too often, and more so after every conversation. Something’s gotta give. That’s how I learned to accept that sometimes you come and go as you please. It used to bother me – and Norgs knows about this – because we couldn’t keep up with you. I know you don’t deliberately do it, and I do blame deep seeded trauma of being left behind, but I guess it’s one of those things you do for you. God knows despite the timezone difference, Norgs and I still drive you insane.
Marco, I know you already blew your candles and had your cake. I know this is almost 3 months’ late, but a promise is a promise. And between Neverland creatures, that’s as serious and binding as Peter Pan himself. Why I always get to play Wendy in your version, I could only guess. It couldn’t be the absence of female characters for sure. I could always be Tiger Lily, granted that I don’t look as good as Rooney Mara. I’m absolutely, positively certain that I cannot be Tinker Bell although I do make that much noise. And I’m absolutely, even more positively certain that I am nothing like Wendy – yes, I love to tell stories but I am a horrible, subdued mess. I could never last in the forest for too long, 4 hours tops, or wherever there is no cellphone reception. I’m afraid of heights, I have no talent in domesticity or sewing, and when I was a little girl I couldn’t wait to grow up. Sometimes your choices baffle me and God knows who else but, really? Wendy? What, I couldn’t be Lisbeth Salander or any other kickass woman in Literature? I mean, I appreciate the gesture and how you probably see me as opined in a posh manner but, really? Wendy?
Do you remember that scene in The Phantom of the Opera, when Christine looked at Phantom for the last time aboard that boat with Raoul, and Phantom broke down in tears, escaped the cave through the life size mirror, and he left his monkey music box behind? And then the scene cut away to the present when Raoul is already withering himself, bids for the music box from the auction and takes it to Christine’s grave, only to find a single long stem red rose with a ribbon? Phantom had always been a step ahead of Raoul, in this lifetime and the next. And she didn’t have to marry Phantom or pledge her undying love in a duet. If you ask fans of the musical or the film version what they thought of it, I’m a hundred percent sure that while they can dissect the plot to pieces and interpret it in a hundred and one different ways, they will always zero in to Raoul and Christine singing All I Ask Of You. They will revert to that moment when Raoul held Christine’s hands, and Christine sang her love for Raoul for the rest of Paris to hear. They will always swoon a little more, a lot harder, whenever that scene when Raoul rescued Christine from Phantom comes to mind. They would not think of how damaged Phantom was, how generous he was and how he managed to do so despite being robbed of a chance to experience it himself. They would think of him as that name in the title, the scarred monster whose face resembled a skull, who terrified performers at the Grand Opera, the bratty ghoul who would cause accidents when he would not get his way. They would not remember that his name is Eric and that the only possession he ever had, he so willingly and graciously gave to the audience of the Grand Opera. They would so callously oversee that what made him come alive in spite of the abuse he suffered all throughout his life, he gifted to a beautiful girl, and all he wanted was for her to look past the scars and the cloak. She sang to Raoul with all the love in the world, pledged her undying commitment with the most pristine, melodious and brave voice that the Phantom gave her. And for all accounts and purposes, he gave her strength and a voice.
Thank you for the barrage of roses disguised as conversations. For the monkey music box in the context of late night coffee dates. For wearing your heart on your sleeve so I wouldn’t feel alone doing it. For always being on my side despite the doubt of here. For keeping tabs on me even if you think I’m unaware that you do. For letting me love people knowing that I love you the most. For standing guard because of the endless encounters and subsequent failures with the Raouls and the Christines in this life. For nursing my heart whenever it gets beaten.
Thank you, Phantom, for giving me a voice I could hear when I couldn’t hear yours to comfort me, in this lifetime and the next. Happy Birthday, old fool. I love you dearly.