I always knew I was destined to become my mother.
Family, friends, and family friends would tell me, “You remind me so much of your mom, Matt!” or “There’s such a striking resemblance between you and your mother!” and “You definitely have her hair and not your father’s!” I considered them compliments and positive predictions. After all, she married a doctor and was fabulous at fifty.
My mother married my father in the early eighties. They lived in the Philippines where divorce didn’t exist and you had to live with your mistakes if you said ‘I do’ after a whirlwind courtship of five months. That’s not to say they didn’t love each other. They did. But it wasn’t good enough for my mother, for either of them.
The year I was born to help save my parents’ marriage, my mother met a doctor. Their marriages ran parallel until their lives intersected. Their romance was “undeniable” (my mother’s word, not mine). For all of my life, my mother had an affair with the man I would later come to know as my stepfather, the man I would call “my dad.”
Once I was eleven, everything fell into place for my mother. She was ready to uproot her life and move to the United States, following her parents and brothers before her. At the time, she was still seeing the doctor. It was a public affair of sorts; my father knew about it. My parents were still legally married, but by all means emotionally widowed.
“He’ll have a better life there,” my mother said to my father. I pretended to play my video games but actually listened in on yet another one of their “heated discussions.” I knew what they were talking about. Though I felt that my mother just as well could have replaced “he” with “I.”
I remember sitting in coach minutes before our plane left Philippine ground and flew for American soil. I was sad, definitely, but no emotion my eleven-year-old self could muster compared to the sobs and tears of my mother beside me. She was on the phone with the man who I was sure was my stepfather. They were about to be separated by an ocean for an indefinite amount of time. I couldn’t even begin to imagine how she was feeling, but still I tried.
“Are you okay, Mommy?”
She stifled her sobs. “I’ll be okay, son. We will be.”
People were starting to stare. Once she hung up the phone, she pulled out mascara to fix the damage her emotions had done and put a fresh layer of powder on her face.
This was what I admired most about my mother. In the face of a challenge, her fortitude was unbreakable as her appearance. Her humility, like her highlights, never left her when we were forced to move in with relatives. Her courage, like her lipstick, never faded when she was forced to descend the corporate ladder to get a job in retail. Her resilience, like her high-heels, kept her standing when she fought for a civil divorce and brought my stepfather to America. She was my hero. My mother got her life—our life—the way she wanted it. And so help her God, she was going to look good doing it.
My mother and my stepfather now celebrate two separate anniversaries together, one in the late summer and one midwinter, for their marriages in the Philippines and America, respectively. Her epic romance finally reached its happy ending.
For anyone to tell me that I resemble my mother is not far from the truth. Like her, I believe in love, prefer to dress for a photoshoot than a snowstorm, and live by the saying “it’s happy hour somewhere.” But I think it goes deeper than that.
As long as I can remember, I have been the protagonist of my very own movie. Its genre shifted through the years, but always, I was its star. This came from watching too much HBO and not enough Sesame Street when I was growing up. When all the other kids wanted milk and cookies and played on the swings, I wanted to fight for the estate of a deceased estranged uncle and throw a martini in my evil clone’s face. I watched a lot of soap operas, too.
After nineteen years of performance, jumping from children’s movie to family drama to coming-out-slash-of-age film, I am ready for my epic romance. I want to be Audrey Hepburn in Breakfast at Tiffany’s, Rachel McAdams in The Notebook, Kate Winslet in Titanic. Happy ending, bittersweet ending, someone dies (but really, Jack could have gotten out of the Atlantic and onto that door with Rose), I don’t care.
I want to be swept off my feet. I want to be kissed in the rain. I want to have a public affair with my doctor soulmate, be an independent and untamable spirit, and look fabulous the entire time. I am destined to be my mother in her epic blockbuster romance. Like her, I am destined for fire, romance, and love.
Unfortunately, the supporting cast for the movie of my life left much to be desired. At least that’s what I’d tell myself. The people around me, the ones I surrounded myself with were the reasons I’d yet to have my epic romance. Not that they were awful, not at all. They were all quite marvelous, in fact. They were kind, smart, talented people, but with none of whom I had romantic chemistry. None of my hopeful leading men came up to scratch. Best friends and sidekicks? Yes. Romantic foils? No.
The first man who auditioned for the part of Mister Right was a senior whom I met as a sophomore in high school. On the day he first asked me out, he planted cupcakes at my desk in my two morning classes. The chocolate cupcakes each had two words scrawled in vanilla icing, so by the time he showed up on one knee with a third cupcake, he had written out “will you / go out / with me?” He wasn’t exactly my type, but he was older, wiser, and had a car. Besides, how could I say no to romance by way of chocolate?
He and I went out to dinner and chatted about our favorite television shows, movies, people at school, but we never really asked about each other. Aside from that, the date was flawless, down to the sweet first kiss at my doorstep. I relayed to my best girlfriends over the phone the taste of his lips, where I put my hands, and the gentle smiles we exchanged. The girls insisted that they plan our wedding.
But eventually, the wedding I never wanted was called off. He and I saw each other for a month, barely going out on any dates, but making out in his room for hours and fighting over the most insignificant details like me not wanting to say “I love you” in return. He was jealous and paranoid, but incredibly romantic when the mood struck him. It was a rollercoaster of a month, but with him I experienced plenty of firsts. They all didn’t go quite smoothly, but it was nice to experience those firsts with a guy who knew what he was doing.
The second Mister Right auditionee first played the role of the Love-Him-Like-a-Brother / Best Friend. Our friendship was effortless. Since he and I clicked impeccably as friends, we took a shot at being boyfriends at the beginning of our senior year, a choice well supported by our high school student body at large. (“You guys act like an old married couple!” and “Just date and get it over with already!”) We reasoned that we’d simply be ourselves with the added bonus of an active sex life, so we said, “Why not?”
Logistically, it was a sound plan, but our easy friendship soon devolved into a forced relationship. Slowly, we lost grasp of what made our friendship work. We failed at communicating our dislikes, our needs, and our feelings. When we were best friends, I could simply tell him, “You’re being an asshole.” When we were dating, I had to write something passive aggressive on Facebook to get his attention. In the bedroom, we were fine, but the thing that made us ‘us’ was replaced with half-assed blowjobs and lazy showers together.
After three months, we called it quits. We weren’t even together for any of the major holidays, like New Year’s Eve, Valentine’s Day, or our senior prom. It was hard getting over him, but eventually we reinstated some semblance of our old friendship. Though we’ve never been the same since then, he’s still a friend and we occasionally check in on one another to see who has the better love life. As of late, he’s been trumping me.
Between my two high school boyfriends, there came only chance sexual encounters, often hook-ups at parties that extended to getting to know one another’s horoscopes, tongues, and underwear labels. Some notable men included a guy from Vermont I met at a theatre festival-cum-camp (blowjobs in my bunk bed in Nebraska) and a boy from a rival high school (making out in his Mustang in an empty parking lot). But other than that, no other men have been called back for the vacant role of my Mister Right.
At this point, the movie of my life would be the dark horse in the best comedy or musical category, but none of the men in my life would be up for a best actor nom. However, the awards for best supporting actress and actor would definitely go to my mother and stepfather. No matter the problem, be it boys, friends, or grades, they were always there with glasses of wine and listening ears. My stepfather would share a witty anecdote, my mother would impart some experiential knowledge, and they’d tell me to study harder. If I were going to angst, they’d rather have me cry to Adele as I did my homework. For my parents, and consequently for me, school was the top priority; friends and boys came in at second and third.
This channeled energy translated well into my college applications. To distract myself from my failing relationship with my second boyfriend, I threw myself into academia, working towards exceptional standardized test scores, golden writing supplements, and a heart only slightly dented. Late one night, my mother caught me asleep on the kitchen table covered in SAT index cards and jokingly feared for my health and my heart when I’d be away at college.
But it was all worth it, because when the time finally came, I packed four moving boxes, two suitcases, and one messenger bag to head east. Perhaps thanks to my slightly dented heart, I got into my first choice school: a highly selective, residential, coeducational liberal arts college in the scenic Hudson Valley of upstate New York.
A hop, skip, plane ride, and rental car drive later, I was checking in and turning the key and moving into my freshman year dorm room with the help of my parents. Once we finished, the three of us had a very drawn out farewell. My stepfather was quite emotional, the most I had ever seen him, and my mother only slightly more so. My stepfather reminded me about fifty times to call home regularly, especially if I ever felt ill so that he could give me a diagnosis over the phone. And my mother, tearful in a pressed and summery linen dress, was the coolest she had ever been.
By the time she was on her third packet of Kleenex, my mother was reminding me to study diligently and that I was three thousand miles away for a bachelor’s degree; a bachelor came in at third, after best friends.
“But have fun, all right?” said my mother. Her throat was tight and her breathing was shallow. “Be safe and make good choices. Or … well, bad choices with good people.”
I gave her a look, watery eyes and all.
“If you’re going to make mistakes, please, at least learn from them.”
“Take it from her,” said my stepfather. “She knows exactly what she’s talking about.”
Our laughs turned into sobs fairly quickly.
I led them back to the now empty car. My mother said, “Are you okay, son?”
“I will be, Mom.” I sniffled. I nodded. “I will be.”
After hugs and I love yous and take cares, my parents drove away from my dormitory. They waved out the window and I waved back. I kept waving and waving and waving and they were leaving, out past the wrought-iron gates, back into the real world, without me in the backseat.
Sudden realization struck me from inside. My mind, body, and soul raced. I was on my own. Granted, I was on a meal plan that they were paying for, but otherwise, my parents were no longer the secondary characters to my protagonist. I wouldn’t have glasses of wine and listening ears with me at the kitchen table quizzing me on words like “egregious” and “ostentatious” anymore. Everything old and familiar in my life was trimmed away.
My heart, however, was racing for a different reason. I closed my eyes against quiet tears, took a breath, and counted to five. I felt my heart skip a beat as I looked around me. The scenic Hudson Valley and the equally scenic college campus were far cries from the desert and the tropics from which I hailed. It was so different, so novel. It was new, that was all. My life was changing, no big deal, and changing at a glorious pace in a gorgeous place.
I took another whiff of my new life and it reeked only of possibility. Here were brick buildings with creeping ivies, coffee shops under autumn leaves, and secret passageways to rare manuscripts. Here were dance studios and lecture halls and theaters and classrooms and open skies and four actual seasons. Here were empty dorm rooms and empty hallways and empty Moleskine journals, waiting to be filled by other brilliant and clever young men and women with only slightly dented hearts.
With a beautiful new backdrop and an exciting new cast, here, I thought, I would get a shot at the cinematic life that I knew I was meant for. I wasn’t sure if it was going to be an epic romance or a romantic comedy or both, but I knew it’d have a musical number thrown in for good measure. The lights were on, the camera was rolling, and I was ready to take action.
I wiped my eyes. Maybe now they were happy tears. I was on my own and holy shit I was afraid but I knew, because I promised my mother, “I’ll be okay.” Just as she did, I would fight for fire, romance, and love, and so help me God, I would look good doing it. My new cast would be there with witty anecdotes, glasses of wine, and listening ears because I would make plenty of mistakes, also known as men, but I would learn from each and every one of them. I would find that “undeniable” romance and chase it until I was swept off my feet and kissed in the rain.
Because as I was to learn, many times over, close isn’t good enough.