The Universal Plot

The Setting

First we understand that there is a boy, his girlfriend, and another girl. Ahh, you will say, the love triangle. “I know this,” you will exclaim in recognition. The love triangle. Of course you know it; who doesn’t? We could choose to place it anywhere, but we situate it in a university, the three people hitting their right angles in a criss-crossing geometry of books, fraternity rumbles, tambayans,  and barkadas.

We situate them in a group where all the people are old enough for sex, lies and non-commitment. Hurry past the age of first kisses, corsages, and the fluttering-butterflies-in- your-stomach feeling upon seeing each other walk past each other’s classrooms. There are no phone calls made in the middle of the night just to hang up when someone answers. We  will not see them sweetly leaving roses on each other’s doorsteps or lying awake waiting to go to class the next day so they can sit beside each other excitedly. They do not doodle each other’s names  on their notebooks instead of listening to lectures on Machiavellan politics.

Instead, we zoom right in to the scenario of  willing soon-to-be adults: let us focus our attention on the people who go to parties knowing that getting drunk will be an excuse to make out in a dimly lit back room or kitchen. Where saying “we kissed” has WITH TONGUE as the unsaid given; where keeping  score is something that girls can do, too. It’s a free world, baby, people would say, with smoke curling out of their mouths. In this setting, we have too much free time; laze about on rainy afternoons and light incense to set the mood. These people know what to do.

The Characters

A. The Stereotypical Philandering Male

The boy’s name is Isaiah. What he looks like is unimportant, and non-descript besides. His is not a face that, upon encountering on the street,  you would turn your head to see again. You would forget it as soon as your eyes focus on another face in your vicinity; your attention would fix on something new. Except that he has something–over bright eyes and a subtle sense of humor, perhaps–there is not much to differentiate him from the rest of the plain, plain multitude. Giordano jeans and loafers. Collared shirts and Tommy Hilfiger perfume wafting through his car. But we feel that he knows things, lots of things, he doesn’t show us. So we hang out with him to find out what exactly it is that draws our attention. When he smiles sometimes we feel that we get it; but then he looks away and he just reminds us of a classmate from long ago that we never bothered to talk to, and he is still a thing of curiosity. We could also show you a picture of this boy: not too tall, a blue letter jacket, a funny unibrow and a killer sense of humor. Girls are suckers for subtle funny men, who grow on them like fungus, and the fact that this boy, Isaiah, is taken, magically endows him with an elusive quality that everybody wants. This quality makes him a success with girls, because what he does, as a specialty, is cheat on his girlfriend.

We know this man; he is our best friend, we love having him around. We hear him justify his infidelities to his barkada all the time because we believe him when he says he only loves one person, that he would be faithful to her if he could. We know what he’s all about: to him, we dedicate all the melodramas and clichés like “having your cake and eating it too.” Or the one that says, “a bird in hand is worth two in the bush.” He says that  he can’t help himself, that he likes too many women to exercise restraint.

“As long as she doesn’t find out, di ba?” he asks us, asking for reassurance.

B. The Stereotypical Innocent Girlfriend

That she would be his girlfriend. The too-busy medical student clad in whites, the one who studies too much, and is too dizzied by various anatomies and medical terms to see his eyes wander off, checking out other girls. She has the sweetest smile, and praying hands. She is nice, she is conservative, she is a Good Girl. She is pure and quiet, and to be with her, Isaiah drives miles, waits till she’s done dissecting the preserved liver of a man who died of cirrhosis, kisses her forehead. He brings her dinner, which she nuzzles his neck for. “They make the sweetest couple,” everyone exclaims.  Nobody bothers to tell her the truth, but she is aware of her boyfriend’s tendencies: a multitude of fights arise from her vague knowledge of what she thinks her boyfriend does. She is right to do this, we applaud. But we hate her just the same for believing in Isaiah. For still loving him. (Love! That word!)

The long suffering girlfriend has many other things on her mind (like femurs and measurements of gastric acid secretions, biochemistry instead of saliva and beer). Too busy to be part of the story, she operates at the sidelines, the periphery of all the barkada stories, like an omniscient being, like a conscience. Of course we are not allowed to know her: we don’t know what kind of movies she likes, if she listens to NU 107, if she loathes the smell of durian. We know of her from conversation sidelines, the pedestal Isaiah puts her on. His TO DO list has her errands up front, and yet: we cannot see her dreams, or what she feels.  We can only imagine her shock and feeling of pain at the idea of another woman, having no idea that they are more alike than they both realize.

C. The Stereotypical Other Woman

Or rather, the other girl. She, on the other hand, has a name, a past, a reputation.  She is called Grace, after the virtues of women that flow and ebb and are not pointy and bumpy and awkwardly sad but are rather whole and pure and clean. Which is everything Grace is not. The contrast we see here is stark and bisecting: there are no overlapping lines between the medical girlfriend and the delinquent Grace, and we have to accept the fact that the other woman is bad. Graciousness and virtue are effaced by her need, her cloying desire to be different.

So we picture her: the misfit, sitting on the AS steps wearing short skirts, fishnet stockings and all black during sticky summer afternoons. She reads Kerouac, and keeps spare joints in her wallet. Rivulets of sweat pour down her forehead as people snicker past her but she doesn’t care because she does not want to look like anybody else.  She inhales a cig like her life depends on it, and during the rainy months of June, splashes through puddles rejoicing in gray skies and rain.

It washes down her face as Isaiah watches her. She cannot be classified.

We then wonder how Grace, innocently sexual, would agree to be part of this angle–or any angle, for that matter. It surprises us. We see her tough combat-booted foot tapping away with impatience, waiting for Isaiah. That she would let herself hang hang hang in the air waiting for this boy who is not really hers is not really in her character, is it? But then we remember: upon her we thrust the role of the other woman.

She has to be the bad one. She has to be the one that, not wanting to commit, kisses boys in street corner festivals for a dare. She has to be the one whose parents let her stay out all night, to come home smelling of cigarette smoke and beer. She has to be the one who doesn’t believe in God, the one to spread her legs. And she has to be the one who doesn’t care; too fast and loose and elastic to be contained enough for herself, let alone for another person.

The Story

So how does it happen? What really happens in a love triangle? We all want to confirm what we’ve already figured out for ourselves; that, yes, Grace and Isaiah are old friends, being members of the same organization. They hang out with the same groups of people, in the beginning, for different reasons (music? water sports? drugs?).  Isaiah’s cousin used to court Grace until she turned him down; her best friend had just started going out with Isaiah’s thesis mate. When they begin to go out, it is in groups, until the other people start dropping (like flies, they later say) out of their little circle and they are left by themselves. Just each other in close proximity. And again their pointy angular coincidences brings this triangle closer to home: Grace is friends with the medical girlfriend’s cousins, Isaiah and his girlfriend are in Grace’s sister’s bestfriend’s org, she went to kindergarten with Grace’s kabarkadas.

Isaiah is fascinated by Grace’s spirit, because with her, he is able to do things that nobody else agrees with. Like smoke grass, or go skinny dipping in broad daylight. He tells her  things he wants to do with his life that would never occur to say to his girlfriend. He sends her witty pages on her beeper in the middle of the night, like, “Isn’t it strange? One minute I’m in your dreams, the next, I’m in your beeper.” Grace, on the other hand, is infinitely amused by Isaiah. In a time in her life when everything is boring, he makes her laugh.

One day, Isaiah just pops out, “I want you, you know that?”
Grace stares at him, and nods while blowing  smoke into his face. “Yeah. But you have a girlfriend.”
“So?” he asks.
“So lets change the subject.” Grace says.
“Okay.” Isaiah smiles at her, and Grace is amazed that she was able to say that to him, that she didn’t just grab him without thinking. Because she wants him, too.

Except that he’s not the only one she wants. Grace has many other guys to distract her; they flit in and out of her life. She, bored easily, holds on to them like marbles that she lets go off with glee, thinking that they look infinitely better rolling away, flashing their multi-colors at her. She is not really interested in relationships, she tells Isaiah. She doesn’t want a boyfriend. Ever.

For all of Grace’s seeming worldliness, she really is innocent, not knowing that–BINGO! –what she says  is tantamount to willing Isaiah to throw away the flimsy friendship barrier-excuse between them. He, of course, feels like he’s hit the jackpot, and presses her. “You see, its the perfect set-up,” he explains. “You don’t want a boyfriend, and I want you. Badly. So what’s stopping us? We’re  friends naman.”

When he explains the situation to Grace, it all seems to be so simple.  She thinks, why not? I like him enough to make out with him, but I don’t want him to be my boyfriend. And since we talk, there would be no commitment. No promises of anything. Besides, why is wanting Isaiah so wrong?  She says to him, “What  if  I’m not strong enough? What if I start liking you too much?” and thinks, at the same time, I am such a liar. Shooting words off her mouth, it didn’t seem possible that what they were talking about would be real. That there would actually be a basis for their mutual desire.

If, distilled into one thing, this attraction could be classified, it would only boil down to sex. Isaiah’s girlfriend, the typical  conservative,  is also typically virginal. She will not sleep with him. Or is it that he respects her too much to ask? No matter, it is a fact that in their four years together, she has never been in a motel room with him, never gone down on him, never held him down there. Grace, however, who has been around, knows what’s up with the world. She, having a reputation bordering on the labels between easy-to-get and slutty, is not stupid, but she isn’t as experienced as she seems. Maybe what  drew them together  was the illicitness of the whole thing: it swelled their tongues and made them unable to speak about what they really wanted. Maybe it was that what they wanted could be expressed only in the most primal of urges.

As Isaiah found out, Grace had the smoothest  skin between the slopes of her breasts. He was an average kisser, but when he touched the crook of her elbows, he would rub his thumb against the soft inner skin of her arm, making Grace want to drown in such  exquisite tingling. There was no quantifier for this feeling; Grace has always had only half-hearted emotion for all the men in her life,  and having half of Isaiah–half of his attention, half of his presence (but for sex, where he was always wholly there)– was more than enough for her. He would say to her, “we’re friends, right?” And she would agree.

Until she saw his girlfriend. It was at a party of some mutual friends, that Grace, who arrived late and breathless,  first saw her. She was sitting with Isaiah, and his hand was resting on the small of his girlfriend’s  back, holding her close. Grace, stricken by guilt, had the strangest sensation of being unable to breathe. Saying hi, she smiled until her eyes were little squints, until her vision blurred, because she couldn’t bear looking at his girlfriend’s face completely. Just the thought of having a face to match the omniscient presence was enough to make her throw up, and so she only allowed herself to see parts of the girlfriend’s face, to take in less of the sight of her: half of her eyebrow arc, the easy smile, chin length hair clipped back. Grace would’ve liked to scream “Generic!” at the girlfriend’s black and white T-shirt and  jeans, except that she couldn’t stay in the same room without thinking of what she and Isaiah did together. She  starts feeling sick inside, and she rushes out of the room, without having been introduced.

We would’ve found out the girlfriend’s name, finally, if only she had stayed. But she didn’t, and the obligatory scene (the catty remarks, the pulling of hair) doesn’t happen. How could it?  The girlfriend, after all, has no idea that Isaiah and Grace are seeing each other. Having sex.  And maybe scenes like that never really happen, Grace tells herself. She is too mature and she knows the score, she is above all this petty resentment. Above this need to be the first in Isaiah’s life, in everybody’s life. Ego, ego, ego. Besides, she tells herself, she values their friendship too highly.  Besides, she tells herself, she never wanted Isaiah for keeps.  Besides, she tells herself  (knowing only too well what Isaiah is), he is not worth the effort. No matter that everybody laughs at her and makes her feel stupid. She suddenly feels angry without knowing why, and that night, she doesn’t sleep. She can’t. She gets a message on her beeper from Isaiah: “You looked really good in that shirt tonight. When are we going out again?”

If it weren’t for the girlfriend, Grace would’ve been okay. In the beginning, Grace would tell Isaiah that she couldn’t stand the guilt, and he would always say, “Why do you feel guilty? I don’t,” until his reasoning began to ring in her ears, from too much repetition. She felt the kind of guilt that is unavoidable when an unknown quantity of pain is targeted towards an unassuming, innocent victim. Grace began to think of Isaiah’s girlfriend all the time. And she began to say no.

When she first began refusing him Isaiah would treat her like he used to, amusing her with funny messages on her beeper, and calling her at home in the early morning hours. He would try to get her to go out with him again, but Grace always refused. Until his pages became fewer and further apart, and then he stopped calling altogether.  This puzzled Grace. I thought we were friends, she said to her  friends. What happened?

The End

In the end, nothing ever happens. We know this for a fact. Love triangles, after all, only switch sides. The man, no matter if he goes with his old girlfriend or the new one, will always fool around. As much as we would like to give him feelings, or a conscience, there is none to give. He is, after all, a stereotype. Of course here Isaiah stays with the medical girlfriend, because he (in the biggest irony of ironies) doesn’t trust Grace enough to choose her. And besides, having gotten what he had wanted all along, he feels that he is justified in disappearing from her life. “She probably doesn’t want to talk to me,” he lamely reasons out. Too late, we see that Isaiah is the kind of person that our fathers tried to shield us from, saying “he is only after one thing.” Or maybe his feelings were hurt too? We doubt it. While we would love to see Isaiah suffer, he doesn’t because he can’t. No residual emotions are in store for boys who are used to infidelity. No feelings are possible.

There is no justice for Grace, either. Why should she have our sympathy? What happened was her choice, even if the consequences were worse for her. Grace takes her experience and tries to swallow down the label she has given herself. Not-the-Slut. It doesn’t comes off as real and convincing. She gives up on their “friendship,” stops anticipating Isaiah’s calls or his funny messages on her pager. She changes her alert tone from the sci-fi melody to the long beep so she would stop jumping every single time she would get a beep in the middle of the night. She tries to make Isaiah feel bad by going out with a plethora of boys, which of course doesn’t work. All it does is make Isaiah feel free to hit on other girls who will not commit, and Grace ends up with a worse reputation and near-zero self esteem. Having never been in a stereotyped relationship before, Grace is categorized: casting herself in the role of the other woman has made her good for nothing else.

And so we are able to predict the future; given time, our basic love triangle evolves into more complicated abstractions, into added quadrilaterals of earnest boys waiting for Grace, or more segments of flirting with innocent girls that Isaiah is able to indulge in. The connecting geometries of people and mixed up feelings criss-cross into infinity. As long as two people like each other in some basic pointy way,  there will always be sad love angles and angry, disappointing love triangles.

As for the one constant point in the story: the medical girlfriend is still around–a floating, unknown entity.

– Previously published October 1997, Free Press

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