Tuesday, April 2, 2019

Romancing the Balikbayan: Mina V. Esguerra's KISS AND CRY

Due to my travel schedule, I completely missed watching this year's World Figure Skating championships, one of the few sporting events I usually carve out time to take in. I made up for it by moving Mina V. Esguerra's Philippines-set skating romance Kiss and Cry to the top of my reading pile. It's an unusual skating story, and not only because it's a winter sports story set in a country without a winter. Instead of focusing on the tension of competition, Esguerra's story is about adjusting to life after the days of competition are over.

Thirty year old Calinda Valerio, the most lauded figure skater in the Philippines, has won her share of gold-medals: in the All-Asia Games, at the Winter Southeast Asian Games, and in her home country's national competition, Skate PH. Some people wonder if it was worth it, all the hard work and self-denial, given that she never made it to the Olympics. But for Cal, that doesn't matter:

Samantha Cabilles, Filipino figure skater
Sometimes a thing wasn't meant for you but damn you wanted it anyway, didn't mean you'd stop trying. Never mind if you had to knock on more doors and need to work so much harder. Sometimes even years at it wouldn't be enough and the next thing to do was to help make it easier for those coming in after you. (Chapter 2)

Now that her own amateur career is over, Cal is "making it easier for those coming in after her" by working as a choreographer, both for individual skaters and as creative director for Manila's Six 32 Central ice rink. For her past and current work, Cal is being honored by being included in a Manila society magazine's video feature, "30 Most Accomplished in their Thirties."

As is 32-year-old Ramirez Diaz-Tan, a leading member of the Filipino national hockey team. Despite sharing the same main rink in Manila for training and games, Cal and Ram haven't spent much time together in the past ten years. Not since her parents and coach insisted that the budding friendship between their twenty-something selves would take Cal's focus away from her skating, and forbid her to date him—or anyone else. As Ram describes it, "It was over before it started; Cal rightly chose skating over him, and managed to live an accomplished life, congratulations." He got the privilege of being her first: the "First Guy Calinda Valerio Was Not Allowed to Date" (Chapter 1).

The 2017 Philippines national hockey team after
winning the SEA Games gold medal
Ram emigrated to the US with his family when he was ten, and now holds dual citizenship. He didn't make the adjustment to living in the States easily, though; at 13, his family sent him back to spend the summer in Manila with his uncle for being, as he describes it, a "bad Filipino son" (Chapter 8). But while back in the Philippines, Ram took up hockey, and has kept coming back every summer since to play. He's grown so skilled that he's spent twelve years playing for the Philippines' new national team.

But traveling back to his country of origin each summer to play hockey is becoming increasingly hard to do, given the need to hold a steady job back in the States. Taking eight weeks off every year to skate competitively in another country—it's not something most employers are ready to accept. And so Ram has made the tough decision to hang up his hockey skates; this will be his final competitive season.

After meeting Ram again at the "30 Most Accomplished in their Thirties" photo shoot, Cal is eager to try out the things she was never allowed to do when she was younger and focused on her sport—and to do them with Ram. Shocking her parents and former coach by introducing him as her boyfriend is just one of the things on the to-do list she proposes to her surprised but willing former almost-boyfriend. Even the news that he's headed back to the States in only three weeks, with no plan of returning anytime soon, doesn't discompose Cal. Catharsis and closure are what she wants, not a happily-ever-after. Her parents and coach were wrong to take her choice away from her, as they didn't from her brother; she knows she wouldn't have moved to the States and abandoned her skating just to be with Ram, even if they don't. And she can prove it—by not doing it now.

Ram and Cal's second-chance romance is light and playful, not overwhelmed by the bittersweet. One of my favorite moments, during a discussion of whether Cal would have derailed her skating career if she and Ram had ignored her parents and tried to make a go of it all those years earlier:

"Because they made it seem like the worst thing for me to do, at the time. That if we got together and this happened, I'd suddenly want to quit. When I decided to retire, I tried it out—I dated, I had sex, and sort of... checked if dicks demotivated me."
     He hadn't laughed so much while in bed with someone and he wasn't stopping yet. "And what was the verdict on dicks?"
     She shrugged. "Um, they're just dicks?"
     "I'm sure they'll be sad about that."
     "Oh, come on. They performed well, okay."
     This woman. Only she could say that and make it sound like a disappointment. (Chapter 10)

But even in three short weeks, a sort-of-pretend-boyfriend situation can turn into something surprisingly important. And Ram and Cal find themselves facing some tough choices, choices that, unlike the one that was forced upon them as teenagers, they'll have to make for themselves.

Esguerra writes with a Filipino audience, or at least, with those familiar with Filipino culture, in mind; the book contains quite a few cultural references that as an outsider I had to look up to catch the full meaning (EDSA; Ibong Adarna; longganisas and kesong puti and other Pinoy food). But the book's storyline and romance arc are as accessible to other English-speaking readers as any penned by an American writer. And Esguerra's story has the added benefit of reminding American readers, especially those whose fears of outsiders have been exacerbated by current anti-immigrant rhetoric, that the United States isn't everyone's holy grail. As Ram himself reminds Cal:

     "You said that whether we had something or not shouldn't change what my plans are."
     "Yes, it shouldn't."
     "But it can. Maybe it should. Why aren't you asking me to stay?"
     "No one asks someone to stay here. Especially when they've got a way out already. You know that don't you? It's just not done."
     "You don't think we can question that too?" (Chapter 21)

Photo credits:
Samantha Cabilles: Flickr
Philippines Hockey: ABC-CBN Sports

Kiss and Cry
Six 32 Central #2
Bright Girl Books, 2019

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