AUTHOR’S NOTE: “An Ocean. . .” is a side project I’m currently working on during my down time from the MAGNUS series. This is a story friends and family have been bugging me about for years. Yes, it is epic. Yes, it is unbelievable at times. It is the true story of how my wife and I met eleven years ago. Chapter 1 can be found here, Chapter 2 here.
Scouting for Knowledge
“Oh, is it okay if I call you Rob?”
It was an interesting question that prefaced the body of the second email from the mysterious Yvonne.
“Rob.” I heard myself say it out loud, just loud enough to hear the subtle nuances contained within the single syllable. I had never been called Rob before and didn’t know what to think. “Rob,” I repeated and nearly jumped out of my skin when I heard a bump and clatter from behind me.
In the corner, a pair of sky blue eyes floated within a forest of white hair. It was staring at me. It was my cat Smudge, wearing a look of annoyance on his face. “I’ll talk out loud if I want to,” I scolded the furry feline. He turned his face from me.
Rob, I said again, this time within the solitude of my own head. There were no cats in there to judge me while I listened to the echoes of the name bounce around the corners of my skull. After a few more silently spoken attempts, I came to the conclusion that the name Rob was a little strange but would have to do for the foreseeable future. The last thing I wanted to do was hurt Yvonne’s feelings by telling her to never call me Rob again. At least she didn’t ask to call me Bob or – I cringed – Bert.
“I’m sorry it’s taken so long to get back with you,” I read as I leaned in closer to the computer screen. “It’s been a busy week here at school.” I paused for a moment and studied the two paragraphs of words. A thought had just occurred to me: Wow, she must be really smart. She writes English so well! I wondered if she was an English teacher or just naturally gifted in the art of linguistics. “Anyway, I actually had no idea that all three of my outfits were purple! That was a complete accident, but you’re right- purple has always been my favorite color.”
I nodded, fairly impressed that I had picked up on something so ambiguous without much effort at all. I told myself to stay clearheaded as I read the remaining sentences and hit Reply. It was apparent to me by this point that I was dealing with a woman way out of my league. As such, I knew there was a strong likelihood that I would say something dumb and/or drop the ball if I didn’t maintain the highest form of disciplinary focus.
“Sorry you’ve been so busy, but thanks for taking time to get back with me. So what do you teach? English? I noticed that you write it so well. It must have taken you years to learn! Anyway, I’m so impressed. I know learning another language is quite a feat.” I decided those last three words might be a bit too lofty for a non-native English speaker and replaced them with “really hard.“ I applauded myself for recognizing the literary pitfall I had almost plunged into and plowed ahead.
“I tried learning Chinese recently and called it quits when I reached the number ten. It started so easy: ‘one’ in Chinese is just a straight line. ‘Two‘ and ‘three‘ are just two and three horizontal lines. Once I got to the number four, it began to get so confusing. By the number ten, the Chinese character was just a + sign. What’s the deal with that? Shouldn’t it just be ten straight lines?” I thought my commentary was insightful and thought provoking but erased it all. Instead I wrote, “So what is your native language, by the way?”
I dug deep into the wellspring of my mind and couldn’t for the life of me think of which language they spoke over there. It couldn’t be Chinese, because that was from China. Korean? No, that was probably Korea. Or South Korea. I couldn’t remember which.
“I noticed in your profile that you like karate. That’s so cool! I’ve been taking kung fu for a while now but have been sidelined the last few weeks with a foot injury. It’s been tough not being able to walk around and do things I normally love to do, which is why I set up my profile on here. It’s really helped to pass the time while I heal.”
I grimaced and muttered to myself after writing that last part. What’s wrong? Are you embarrassed? Are you ashamed that you set up a profile? Hmm, well maybe a little. Why? Well, you know…isn’t it kind of weird to meet people online? She’s on here too, so why do you feel the need to excuse yourself? Good point, inner self. Go on. In case you haven’t realized it yet, she’s on the other side of the world. It’s not like you’re ever going to meet her face to face. Get to know her. It will be an eye-opening experience to learn about another culture from someone who actually lives there. Kind of like a pen pal, you know?
I nodded in agreement and gave my inner self a high five. He could be absolutely brilliant from time to time. Nevertheless, I watched as my right hand made a slow but short journey to the northeast quadrant of the keyboard. It stopped and hovered above the Backspace key. We just talked about this. What are you doing? “Just a little editing,” I answered under my breath as I depressed the button and erased the last few words I had just written. “And I’m not embarrassed, by the way- just trying to be more concise. She’s not from America, you know, so I don’t want to confuse her with too many English words. That would just be mean. She probably speaks Thai or Japanese or something like that when she’s not writing emails.”
I waited for my inner self to respond. He never did, so I continued where I left off: “It’s been tough not being able to walk around and do things I normally love to do, so I really can’t wait to get back to class and continue my training.” Yeah, that was better. “And how about you? How long have you studied karate?”
I wrapped up my second email to her, looked it over, and hit Send. I slouched back in the chair and sighed. It was kind of cool to meet someone new. Still, I wondered how long it would take for me to receive her next email. A week? Two weeks? Never?
My cat rubbed against my leg and I returned the favor. “What about you? Do you know what language they speak in the Philippines?” He stepped over my foot, meowed, and left the room without another glance my way.
So now what? I picked myself up, hobbled down the stairs, and stared at the still-paused TV. There were two kung fu heroes on the screen, both frozen beside the water’s edge. I hit Play and finished the movie by myself, distracted by dreams of returning to class and the gnawing loneliness that consumed me.
Her third message was waiting for me early the next morning.
“Hi Rob,” she started for the second time in as many messages. Much like the day before, the shortened name made me a bit skittish. This time, however, I brushed the unease aside much as a master calligrapher brushes ink across a scroll of fine parchment (I had become enlightened to that metaphor whilst watching the Zhang Yimou film the day before).
“I love martial arts of all kinds! But you know what? I have something to tell you and I hope it doesn’t scare you away. You see…I also love to watch MMA. I’m a big UFC fan. I know it’s very un-ladylike, but I grew up in a family with five older brothers and it was hard to get away from all that! Other girls around me think it’s a little strange. Even my two sisters think it’s weird. Still, as soon as I was able to, I enrolled in karate with a friend of mine. Sometimes it’s hard to balance training with work, but it helps me unwind after a long day of teaching (I teach all subjects, by the way, not just English!).”
I reread the text five or six times. Each reading brought forth a new and opposing emotion. First it was giddiness; next it was sorrow; then I felt honored that, of all people, she chose to email me and say “Cool pic!” In the end, I ended up flat out disappointed. On the one hand, I had just met a girl who seemed fascinating and incredible. On the other hand, she was fascinating, incredible, and on the other side of the world.
“There are two things about the Philippines you may not know. The first is that boxing is our national sport. Have you ever heard of Manny Pacquiao? He is a boxer and our national hero. I think he may be a little famous in America too. Have you heard of him?” I reread the name and couldn’t even figure out how to say it, much less conjure an image of who the man was. “The second is that almost every Filipino speaks English. We learn to speak, read, and write it from childhood and it’s pretty much our native language.”
“Of course,” I spoke under my breath. Who ever heard of a – I backed my eyes up to the word I was looking for – Filipino that spoke Japanese or Korean? That was just absurd!
“We also have a native language, but the dialect varies from island to island. Here in my city, we speak Visayan. Our capital city is Manila and they speak Tagalog there.” I licked my lips and remembered that Girl Scout cookie season was just around the corner. Tagalogs were my favorite cookie of all time and I couldn’t help but wonder about the Filipino connection. “Here in the Philippines we have thousands of islands and many of them have a dialect unique to only those residents. For example, if I went to Manila or Cebu, people probably wouldn’t understand me if I spoke. Through the years, English has become our best way to communicate with each other across the different islands. Interesting, isn’t it?”
“Fascinating,” I spoke to the computer as I leaned in toward its warm, soft glow. “I had no clue.”
I finished the rest of her message, reread it, and looked at the clock. I was running a bit behind, so I downed my coffee and hit Reply. Who would have ever thought that a morning just like any other would begin with an eye-opening burst of knowledge about a distant land in a far off corner of the earth?
I passed the drug store and did a double-take. “Oh yeah,” I bellowed, unashamed to be speaking out loud to myself in the car. I switched lanes, made a right turn, and pulled into the parking lot of the drug store just around the corner from my house. “Come to papa.”
The girl was standing to the right of the automatic doors with her mom. I gingerly pulled myself out of the car, closed the door, and welcomed the dual laser beam glares from the tiny salesgirl and her matronly protector. A ding sounded, the door slid open, and a well-dressed man reached into his pocket with a grin. The girl said a few incoherent words, opened her palm, and accepted the cash. I saw the mom reach for the last box I cared about, held back a scream of terror, and sped up my awkward gait across the parking lot.
“No, no, no!” I hissed under my breath, ready to barter with the man who was reaching out for the last rectangular box of my favorite snack on earth. It was make or break, a once-a-year-and-it’s-gone kind of moment, and my hopes and dreams were crumbling before me like a ten year old chocolate wafer. A car pulled in and I had to stop as it sped straight across my path. I was crippled and in a hurry- why would the driver do that to me? The customer was smiling as he lifted the box in gratitude and fond farewell to the little girl who had made his day. It made me sick. There was no time left. It’s not supposed to end like this!
“Girl Scout cookies, sir?” I heard as I glared at the man climbing into his car to speed away. I was too slow, too late. The box was gone. “Girl Scout cookies?”
I reluctantly released my eyes from the car and let them fall upon the short human standing before me. Her mom sat behind the table, fanning herself and smiling in pride at her daughter. She was delivering dreams, after all. Who wouldn’t be proud? “I wanted that last box of Tagalogs,” I said, afraid I was going to become emotional.
“Tagalogs?” the mom chirped from behind a mountain of lesser-quality cookie boxes. “You mean Tagalongs?”
“Whatever,” I answered, the grumpiness negatively affecting my attitude. “The Filipino cookies with peanut butter.”
“Tagalongs,” she repeated as she reached below the table and pulled out a few more boxes of the delicious treat. “We have plenty, sir. How many do you want?”
“Ah,” I managed to stammer, overcome with joy beyond measure. I put a number on it, though: “Perhaps…five will do. For now.”
I made it home without opening a single box, which was no easy task considering I lived three minutes from the drug store. As soon as I got home, I poured myself a glass of milk and removed the plastic cookie holder from the box. They were all so beautiful. I ate the first one and studied the name on the outside of the box. Tagalongs, not Tagalogs. I flipped the box over, looked at the fat content, and pretended those numbers didn’t exist. So there isn’t a Filipino connection at all, I realized as I stuffed another whole cookie in my mouth and chewed it contentedly. Oh well.
I threw the box away after finishing the last two bites and set the empty glass in the sink. As I made my way out of the kitchen and into the living room, a profound thought struck before I even had a chance to realize it had formed in my head. In the two weeks that I had been exchanging emails with Yvonne, I had come to learn so much about a place I had only heard of in passing. I had come to know and appreciate a girl – no longer so mysterious – on the far side of an ocean. We were becoming friends, miles apart though we were. It was amazing.
I reached the stairs and grabbed hold of the railing. I took the first step.
In two weeks, I had learned that the Philippines was a nation comprised of more than seven thousand islands. It was a very green land, hot most of the year except for the couple of months in spring when it rained for weeks on end without stopping. They lived on rice over there, relied on it so much that they considered it their main dish every meal. They didn’t even put butter on it, which was a little weird to me. Most of the citizens of the Asian nation were Catholic, although Yvonne and her family – which included five older brothers and two sisters – grew up Protestant. I also learned that aside from boxing, most Filipinos loved basketball and were extremely gifted musicians. Filipinos loved to laugh, joke, and sing all day, every day. It didn’t even matter that most struggled to provide for their families on a day to day basis. She was happy, and she didn’t even have a computer with internet at the home she shared with most of her large family.
I reached the top of the stairs and looked down at my foot. I hadn’t even realized how much better it felt the last few days. “What would happen if…” I reached down and unclasped the boot from around my left foot. I bounced a time or two and took a step away from the stairs. The pain was still there but dull and minimal. And that was good. “It’s progress,” I said with a nod.
I sat down in front of the computer, entered the now familiar website address, and smiled when I saw the flashing Mail icon. Of course it was flashing- she hadn’t missed even one day since sending that second email two weeks before. I clicked the button and saw a new unread message from her. But above hers was another.
And when I saw the title of that other email, I instantly regretted eating that whole box of Girl Scout cookies. My stomach turned as I fumbled to open it, felt my heart fall into my lap with despair as I waited for it to load. It was from the website administrator. Unlike Yvonne, they were not interested in my awesome black and white photo. No, this was much worse.
“We regret to inform you that the website will be permanently closed by the end of this week. . .”