This is why you don't travel to romantic island destinations with your best friend, especially when you were in love with them.
I was on a date. Everything around me gave clear, telltale signs. Twinkle lights, soft bossa nova covers of famous pop songs that made my skin tingle, and of course, my date. Georgina was beautiful, as per. She liked to play up her looks with darker makeup on her cheekbones, shiny things on her eyelids. I told her I preferred her without, but hey, it was her call.
She was looking at me expectantly, and I realized she was waiting for me to say something. Shit. This is what I got for trying to remember where I left off of The Unbearable Lightness of Being before I left the apartment.
"What, sorry?" I asked her, and George broke out into a fit of giggles like I just said something hilarious.
"I was saying we should go to Batanes together," she said, tucking her hair behind her ear. "I heard we can hike up Mount Iraya, and see fantastic views. You game?"
My throat went dry at the mention of the destination, and I immediately grabbed a glass of water and swallowed to buy myself time. I didn't know how to tell George this yet, but I was never going to Batanes ever again. Not after Martha.
"Holy shit, Martha. Where are we?" I asked six months ago, swiveling my head around the view that stretched around us as our car continued to amble up the curved roads. I knew we were climbing up mountains, but this...this was fucking spectacular.
Our view was wide open, with hills as far as the eye could see, with dark green trees making an appearance here and there. There we cows grazing lazily, unaware that they could tip over with just a little push. The road stretched out away from us, almost like it was running up to the tallest mountain I'd ever seen, its pointed top disappearing in a cloud bed.
From her seat beside me, Martha gave me a serene, sleepy smile. We'd departed from Manila to Basco at six am, arriving here promptly at eight. She was never a morning person, and I was lucky she still managed a smile.
"I told you," she said. "This is Batanes."
The name meant nothing to me. I grew up in the States, in California, where our idea of the beach came with concrete and boardwalks. What I knew of the Philippines was limited to my parents' experience, which was all Manila-based. I learned to speak Tagalog, ate adobo and kissed my elders on the cheeks when it was appropriate. Even when I studied in Los Baños, I very rarely ventured away from the campus. This view alone told me that there was still so much more to this country that I didn't know.
I pulled my phone from my pocket to send my twin sister a text. Olivia's life was hectic, to say the least, which made her absolutely useless when it came to actual conversation. But she was really diligent in texting, instant messaging and the like. I liked to joke that modern technology was what kept me close to my sister, but it was the truth. Twins first, we always said (or twinsies were winsies if you asked her, ew).
'Batanes,' I texted. 'Add it to the list.'
This was our thing. I would see something she had to try, and she would add it to the list of things we had to do when she actually made it to the Philippines. It was bound to happen eventually, one of these days, maybe, and we knew that we had to be prepared when it did.
'Where is that???' she replied quickly, despite the weak signal and the twelve hour time difference.
The car pulled to a stop at our hotel and the driver unloaded Martha's luggage while I slung my backpack over my shoulder. I winced with a slight 'oof' as the three books I brought slammed against my back. Served me right for bringing three books. But it was impossible to choose just one book for a four day trip. None of these were even part of my ever-growing 'to be read pile,'
"Are you sure that's all you're bringing?" Martha asked me skeptically. "Clothes and books?"
"I don't need much when I have you," I said, making her snort and roll her eyes.
"You are so lucky I brought extra sunblock," she said, smiling. Martha hopped off the van and stretched her arms over her head, just as a breeze wafted through the driveway, lifting her cropped shirt to reveal just enough of a lacy pink bra. Enough for me to know that it barely covered the full shape of her breasts.
"Sorry," she said, her cheeks burning as she pulled down her tee shirt over her fitted skirt. "Didn't mean for you to see the marks."
By marks, I knew she meant the stretch marks running up the sides of her softly rounded stomach. Little did she know, I'd been completely distracted by something a little more...due north. I chose not to say anything. With Martha, it was always better to choose your battles. She could easily kill you in any one of them.
"See what?" I asked innocently, as she shook her head and followed the porter to the reception area, a small brick house hidden under an arc of white flowers and vines. Two geometric stone statues guarded the door.
Seriously, where the fuck were we?
"Reservation under Aguas?" Martha asked the receptionist before they quickly went over the details of the room, tour times, whatever, whatever. I walked up behind her just as the receptionist handed her the key, and the receptionist's gaze instantly shifted towards me. I smiled at her, and she almost immediately giggled.
"Umm," she said to me. "You can follow the porter to the room. Breakfast will be served at the Hillside café at nine. We can reserve you a seat so you have a view of Mount Iraya. Your tour guide will be at the hotel at ten so you can start your South Batan tour. Is it your first time here at Balai Angeles?"
She blinked at me expectantly, and I suddenly felt like a mouse in a corner. I heard Martha snort beside me and I elbowed her to make her stop. She gave me a little wave and formed the words 'byeee' on her lips. Then she whirled around and left the room, leaving me alone with the receptionist and her intense gaze.
"I thought we were in Batanes...?" I asked, knowing fully well that the question was stupid but I desperately needed an escape.
"Batanes is a group of three main islands and six municipalities," she giggled, tucking a hair behind her ear. "This is Basco, and we're in the North Batan area. Don't worry, I'm sure your tour guide will explain it to you."
"I'm sure he will," I said, and damn it, I did not mean to make that sound flirty. It was Martha's fault. Catching a glimpse of her bra so early in the morning threw my sexual energy all over the place.
Not to say that I didn't like it. Far from it. Martha had a body with more to love, and it only made her sexier when she moved around. As her best friend, I knew I shouldn't call her sexy, but it felt idiotic to convince myself otherwise. I liked the way she moved, and found her beautiful. She was what she was, and I loved that about her.
"Ready, buddy?" She asked me, holding an arm out for me, her smile wide as her hair billowed around her face behind the sun, casting a golden halo around her. I grinned and looped my arm around hers and with her bag ahead of us, we walked to our two room villa at the Philippines's final frontier.
'Googled it. Damn, we gotta go. NOW,' Olivia texted.
It was a scouting trip, Martha had said in lieu of an explanation as to why we had to go to Batanes. They had clients looking to make an investment in the island, and needed Martha to make her evaluations. I didn't really expect much, even when she tried to convey why this trip was such a big deal.
"Not a lot of people go to Batanes," she explained to me, her light brown eyes sparkling with excitement as she lay brochures and research between us. "Flights are few and far between, so it's expensive, and it's like, uncharted territory over there. Wild country. It feels like anything can happen there."
If it meant spending the next three days just the two of us, I would have gone anywhere she asked me to, and I said as much. Martha and I always talked like this, her caring for me while I flirted just to the left and right of her.
Our car pulled up to the first stop, a small outlook point in one to the many sharp corners of the winding roads of Batanes. Sometimes we would look out and find ourselves staring out an an empty horizon, only for the car to push forward and find another curve to take. The roads were so small that little public signs reminded drivers to 'blow ur horn' every time they made a turn.
And people thought the streets of Manila were wild.
Martha looked absolutely delighted by it all, taking photos and videos of every bit of scenery we passed. And what a scenery it was.
I always thought she looked most beautiful when she was happy, with two dimples appearing on her cheeks as the round apples of her cheeks touched her eyes. When she was happy, she wasn't thinking about work, or her family, or if she should have that second helping of breakfast.
"This is the Chawa Viewing point," our tour guide said without preamble. "Careful please, there's a puddle in front of the entrance due to last night's rains."
Martha bounded out of the car with her camera in hand, her sunglasses on and sunblock carefully applied thirty minutes before. She regarded the puddle-blocked entrance for a minute before gamely stepping on the thin side of the puddle, ambling her way to the outlook slowly with the tour guide's helping hand.
No, I was not going to be jealous of a tour guide.
I heard her gasp as she made her way to the edge of the outlook. All I was expecting was a huge drop to the sea, but this island was really good at proving me wrong.
"Max, look at this," Martha exclaimed, pulling me next to her as she pointed down, where layers and layers of limestone rocks framed a small cove of deep indigo water. It looked incredibly inviting to jump into. I could almost picture myself diving into the water.
"Holy shit," I said.
"It's beautiful," she insisted, snapping a photo.
"Mamser, you can go down over here," our tour guide called, pointing at a steep set of stairs that zigzagged all the way down to the waters, where the low tide made a large, flat stone a serviceable walking area for fishermen and tourists alike. It had to be about a four story walk down.
After seeing Martha's enthusiasm about the view, I was sure she would enjoy getting close to the water. But as I turned to her, I immediately noticed her face turn a bit pale at the sight of the stairs.
"Uhm...you go ahead if you want to, Max. I want to look at this view some more."
I quirked my eyebrow at her. She'd just stuck her body out of a ledge to a fifty foot drop, now a set of stairs was making her blanch?
"You sure?" I asked her. "I bet we could take some awesome photos down there."
"Nah, you go ahead," she said quickly, turning away from me. Just like that, this discussion was over, and not even I could convince her to do anything.
So I shrugged and headed downstairs with the tour guide, and we talked about the islands and where Taiwan was supposed to be. When Martha and I returned to the car, she didn't look sad or regretful. She just smiled and asked, "how was it down there?"
I decided to give her and honest answer.
The same thing happened when we made it to our next destination, the Blue Lagoon. It was a gorgeous, somewhat hidden cove next to the highway. A deep slope led down to the rocks of the beach, with inviting tidal pools and calm waters.
"Some of our visitors like to swim down there," the tour guide explained as Martha and I looked down together. "Maybe you guys want to try tomorrow?"
"That would be awesome," I said, already excited for the cool relief of the ocean. Let it be said that the sun burned brighter in Batanes. Plus it had apparently rained last night, making the air thicker and more humid. For once I was glad that Martha was over prepared and sprayed sunblock on my exposed skin. She even had special sunblock just for the face, who knew?
She took one look down at the slope path, and her lips straightened into a frown.
"Hmm," she said noncommittally. "Maybe."
I knew that a noncommittal maybe from Martha Aguas meant a very definite 'no.' The tour guide took our photo at Martha's request and headed back to the car with us following behind him. Martha huffed and I placed an arm around her shoulders, pulling her close despite her protests that she was sweaty and gross. It was the combination of heat, sweat and sunblock.
"We're both sweaty and gross," I pointed out. "You sure everything's okay, gorgeous?"
I didn't miss her wince at the nickname.
"Yeah," she smiled. "It's beautiful here, isn't it?"
Then she slid out from under my grasp and fell behind. Something was definitely bugging her. As her best friend, I knew I had to find out what it was.
Our next few stops were made inside the small seaside municipalities of the islands. Specifically at the San Carlos Borromeo Church, a structure from the 1700s when Spanish colonizers came to Batanes. The Church was nice, but my favorite bit of the tour was next door, a dark little shop filled from end to end with books of varying shades of turquoise and deep blue. Numbers were stamped in gold on the base of the spines. It was a tourist thing, whenever someone visited the church they could choose a book from any of the volumes on the shelves, leave a message and make a memory. A bibliographic version of Paris' love locks.
"The nerve of some people," I grumbled, pointing out the carved writings some people left on the book spines. I touched the carved names like they were open scars. "You poor things."
Martha walked up against the shelves, running her fingers across the numbers. I felt myself shudder, like I'd been the one she'd caressed so lovingly. She turned to me, the excited smile back on her face.
"Pick a number," she told me as I came to stand beside her, her eyes wide and curious as I came close. Had her eyes always been that shade of brown? "And don't say 143."
"I wasn't going to," I lied, reaching over her head to pick a book from the line. "221, for Arthur Conan Doyle and your sad obsession with Benadryl Cumbersome."
She snorted as she snatched the book off my hands. She headed straight for the sturdiest chair in the living room set, a pen already in her hand.
"Don't lie, you were crying by the end of the series too," she said to me as I slid next to her, draping my arm over the back of the seat. I didn't try to deny her statement, but we were both grinning anyway.
"So what do we write?" I asked, peering over her shoulder and breasts to the blank pages propped on her lap, her pen hovering just above it. "This feels wrong, writing on a book."
Martha chuckled, leaning back comfortably as I gripped her shoulder with my hand. Her arm didn't fit around it, but I didn't care. We were just so comfortable, sitting like this.
"I'm sure you can power through to make mementos with me," she said, writing the date on top, then our names together in her block-letter handwriting.
Max + Martha
All the air rushed out of my lungs as the rest of the words Martha wrote blurred away, leaving just our names. Why did those words make so much sense to me? Why was I suddenly out of breath, ready to fall of my seat if I wasn't so damn comfortable? I was a reader, I responded to written words, but they were just our names. Our names together.
I felt shaken to my core, my grip on Martha's shoulder suddenly tight as she closed the book. She had no idea how my entire universe had spun with just those two names.
"Done!" She announced, and I nodded dumbly as she returned the volume to the shelves, tutting her lips as she pointed at desecrated spines on some of the books. But I didn't hear a word she said. I couldn't hear anything, just the beating of my own heart as I looked at Martha.
"Hi," I said, the words sounding lame to me as she quirked an eyebrow at me. Did she know? Could she see it on my face? So much had changed in a span of seconds, and I was still reeling.
"Hey," she said, looping her arm around mine as she steered me out of the side of the church. "You okay?"
The warm summer sun hit us like a fever, and it served as a sobering reminder of where I was what was happening. But I turned my eyes to the lovely woman beside me, squinting her eyes in the sunlight.
"Still not going to tell me what's bothering you?" I asked her, feeling extremely aware that she wasn't totally fine. That despite my feelings, what I want didn't really change. I wanted her to be happy, to smile the way she did.
"No," she said as we loaded the car.
The next few minutes were a blur of curvy roads and fantastic landscapes. Batanes had views that rivaled Scotland and Switzerland, at least in my book. I wanted to point out every cow and grazing goat we passed by, because while this certainly wasn't my first time to see those animals, it was my first time to see them grazing so freely.
"Oh look, that one's pregnant! And that one's leg looks a little mangled, the farmer will have to bring him to a vet."
"Oh look, they're all running away because the vet's here to give them a shot in the butt," Martha laughed, her breasts pressing heavily against my arm as she pointed to the gaggle (was it a gaggle?) of goats that were jumping higher up the mountain. This happened to us a lot, I realized. We were always sticking together, always close, always touching. She once said that she was so large that she didn't notice or care when her breasts hit something, or when her large hips knocked something over. I didn't either, except now there was a sexual undertone to the gesture, because I was in love with her.
Fucking hell it felt so freeing to be able to tell myself that.
Also, fucking hell, she didn't know.
She leaned closer to the window, and now was not the time to wonder what it would feel like to have her body in my hands. Nor was it the time to wonder what she smelled like. Perfume, obviously. Something light and floral that she wore rain or shine. I leaned my head forward, my nose inches from where her collarbones were supposed to be, getting ready to take a deep inhale when the car jerked to a stop at the side of the road, causing Martha to stumble. I caught her arms easily, and she pulled away, suddenly self-conscious.
"We're stopping here," the tour guide announced and turned off the engine. "This is Motchong point, the closest we're going to get to the sea today." We'd stopped at the side of a hill with fresh, spiny grass, the kind that golf courses paid thousands of pesos to sod their land with. The air carried the pungent smell of animal droppings, and I took in a deep breath.
"Gotta love the smell of hot shit in the morning," I said, making Martha laugh as she dropped my forgotten baseball cap on my head. I walked easily up the hill after our guide. I loved that just when I thought I had reached the edge, larger expanses of greenery cropped up. We had a perfect view of the rocky beach, the deep blue waves playing tag with the shoreline.
Then there were, of course, the goats.
Martha was still ten steps behind me when I turned to face her. She raised her camera and snapped a photo just as I saw her.
"Down here, sir!" Our tour guide called, and I bounded over to one of the lower curves of the hillside. The ocean looked vast and endless, and Mount Iraya looked tiny from where we stood.
"Martha, isn't it--" I began, surprised to find that she wasn't standing next to me. Was she still taking photos?
I turned and saw her making her way very slowly down the hillside, her arms akimbo as she balanced herself. She was red and huffing, like she'd run a great distance.
"Oh...wow," she huffed as she made it to the spot next to me, trying to hide the face that she was really panting. "Pretty."
"Okay, back to the car!" The tour guide announced, walking past us. "Your lunch is waiting at Marlboro Country."
I nodded and smiled at the guide as I heard Martha distinctly curse.
"Motherfucking hills," she mumbled, and it made me stop. I pulled her arm back before she took another step. "Dude, come on," she said in a none-too-happy voice. "Next spot."
"We booked the private tour so we can linger if we want, and we're lingering until you tell me what's bothering you," I said stubbornly. Yeah yeah I sounded like a petulant little boy, but Martha's behavior was bizarre. "You were so looking forward to this trip, and now you're grumbling and complaining. Do you regret it?" I asked her, wincing because I hadn't meant for my question to feel so loaded, even if it was only so for me.
After what felt like an eternity, she caught her breath and dropped her shoulders, shifting her weight from side to side. I hadn't noticed how tense she was until she let it all go.
"This is okay for you because you're as tall as a fucking tree," Martha grumbled. Finally, finally she was going to tell me what was wrong. "But my legs are short, my thighs are thick and I can't walk fast. Max, I cant even reach my own shoulders, so now they're sunburnt."
She twisted her arm to demonstrate the reddening skin, and I winced.
"I can barely walk a straight line at home, and here..." she trailed off, looking at the fantastic skyline, then behind her to the hill we still had to climb. "I can catch up, usually," she insisted, but it was more for her own benefit than mine. "I can. But here it's too wild, too high. I don't know if the path is going to go up or down or twist suddenly. I can feel my entire weight just pitch forward, and I'm so aware that I'm too fat to follow you. And I don't want to hold you back."
My eyes widened as her face burned with humiliation. All morning, my sudden realization of holy-shit-I'm-in-love-with-my-best-friend aside, I had run through different possibilities of what could have bothered Martha. Her frustration over being unable to fight gravity was the last thing I could have thought of. I wanted so much to pull her into my arms, kiss her and tell her she was being silly, and not to worry. But that wasn't what she needed to hear.
She mistook my silence as agreement, and she huffed.
"I know, I know," she said, her arms crossed. "You're going to say that I'm being stupid, and I shouldn't worry about this kind of thing."
"You are, and you shouldn't," I insisted. "You're not slowing me down. I don't want to see any of this without you."
Because I love you.
"Because...it's not worth it when you're alone, right?" I asked, hoping that they were the right things to say, that my hands on her arms weren't giving away my feelings, that the little hug I gave her didn't say anything more than I had to. I was so aware of every move I made, every little thing I said to her now. I hated that I was being a coward, that it was getting in the way of me being a good friend to her. Martha needed a friend, and damn it, I was her best friend. I would be a shit best friend if I didn't comfort her right now.
Then I slipped my hand in hers. Carefully. Her hand was warm and made my heart start racing again, but it made her smile.
"I'll walk with you," I said. "We'll take this as fast or as slow as you want. I have one request, though."
"Hmm?" Martha asked, her mood significantly better now as we walked up the hill together. I knew now that she was having difficulty talking and climbing, so I kept my questions to a minimum.
"I'm at a particularly exciting part of Like Water for Chocolate," I told her. "I was hoping to read a bit after lunch. Is it okay if we sit around for a bit?"
Her face absolutely lit up at the suggestion, her cheeks still red from the effort she made as we finally made it to the car. Taking a huge breath, she nodded and got in.
So that was how we spent our afternoon, me sitting on the sloping hills of Marlboro Country while Martha lay on the grass beside me, her eyes closed and her smile serene. We were surrounded by endless green hills, with nobody else for miles. The sea below us look looked perfectly still, and time seemed frozen here. The view knocked any English countryside I'd ever seen out of the park. We owned the world here, she and I. I wouldn't have had it any other way. I was determined that I was never going to come back without her.
I slowly lowered the book, wondering if now was the perfect time to kiss her, to tell her about these feelings. It was certainly the perfect place.
"I saw this tee shirt on one of the tourists in the restaurant," Martha said apropos to nothing. "It said Batanes: you see her you will fall in love, when you leave her she will break your heart. Sad, right? I can't imagine this island breaking my heart."
Neither could I. But the possibility still loomed over us, over me. That she would reject me, that I would be the one left behind. I still hadn't told her anything. My love for her could end up ruining our friendship, and I could end up losing her. I shuddered involuntarily.
"Read to me?" Martha suddenly asked, her eyes still closed.
"Sure," I said, resuming my page as I took a deep breath and started to read. There would be time to tell her how I felt. Later. We had a lot of laters to go.
"Max?" George asked, snapping me out of the memory. I was in Manila, still polishing off my water, still without having told Martha how I felt. Six months later and I was still a coward.
"Sorry George," I said, lowering my glass. "I...I didn't really like Batanes when I went."
Lying to her felt ugly and horrible, and I knew was a total jackass for doing it. Because the island had done exactly as the shirt promised. Martha was pining over someone else while I stayed in the sidelines, pathetic, heartbroken and a liar.
She frowned, and my phone started to ring. Martha.
I snatched it up before either of us could get a word in.
"Hello," I said, trying very hard to hide the smile on my face. "Miss me?"
"Only when you're not around," she joked, and just the sound of her voice made me heart swell in my chest. How long had it been since we last talked? Three weeks? A hundred years? “You’re still driving me to Dangwa tomorrow, yes?“
The was no way I could say no.
If in case you haven't read If The Dress Fits, Max and Martha's story continues here: