If it’s your first time to read this work, please visit “The Lord of the Geeks“, link provided above, for the first four chapters, before proceeding to chapter 5 below. Thanks! – E.
V. The Time Given to Us
“Kia ora!” Eddie warmly greeted Stella when they were both inside the car, while handing her various maps, brochures, and other travel guides to Auckland. “Take your pick, we have a week,” he added.
Stella suddenly felt warm but she didn’t want to remove Eddie’s jacket. He was honestly the best-looking guy she had ever spent time with. She stopped herself from gushing out loud and opted to simply thank him and look at the wealth of tourist information he had given her.
Eddie started to drive while Stella pretended to read about the hottest places in Auckland. She could not concentrate, as she was prone to motion sickness.
She was also becoming dizzy for other reasons. It suddenly struck her that what she was doing was something she had only read or written about in the past. She was running away with a stranger. Her instincts told her she should be running away from this strange foreign man, but she decided to do something crazy for the second time in her life (the first was running after Richard, and what a gamble that was). Well, technically, they were just staying put in one city, but still, the image of what she was trying to pull off stunned her.
She remembered her brother’s advice when she learned of Richard’s Reason (for not being with her), “The only way to get over someone is to get under someone else.” She laughed at Vince, for at that time she didn’t think she could ever want to be with anyone other than Richard.
Then just a few months later, she found herself in another country, with a man she barely even knew save for the information she had dug from his online profiles, and she had to stifle a giggle. Of course she was going to report this to Vince, who would be proud of his older sister.
She should be scared, really, but she wasn’t.
Eddie found a parking space outside Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki. He and Stella spent hours exploring the Gallery’s collection of New Zealand historic, modern and contemporary art, as well as international painting, sculpture and print collections.
When they entered the Gallery’s Library upon Stella’s insistence, however, they received quite a surprise.
Stella saw her first: the Aquamarine Lady. She was standing behind the librarian’s desk, in a room that housed the Gallery’s extensive collections about the visual arts. From a distance, her hair took on a silvery shine, and then she looked up and saw them. Stella had a weird feeling that she had been expecting them.
“Well, look who’s here! Hello, young lovers! And welcome to the Auckland Art Gallery’s Research Library!”
Eddie guided her by the small of her back to the librarian’s desk, and they introduced themselves. He was so delighted to see Felise, but Stella was quiet, only smiling politely and extending her hand at the proper moments.
Stella was silently overcome with guilt and discomfort. Her first impression was wrong again. If Felise was a librarian, then she must have read The Lord of the Rings. Stella had no business imputing Tolkien ignorance on this great lady. Oh, she hoped Felise was not a mind-reader, because she was so embarrassed by how her caffeine- and sleep-deprived brain had treated Felise the day before.
The librarian said they could read any of the books on display, and showed them the coffee table book from the recent exhibition, Angels & Aristocrats, which they had missed by a few days. Eddie promised to buy the book at the museum shop, and told them both how fascinated he was by angels.
A geek who likes angels, Stella thought. Eddie on 3D was even more interesting than his travel photos on Instagram and his list of skills on LinkedIn. She wondered if he found her equally appealing.
“So, what are you up to after this? I’m surprised the art gallery is your first stop after Hobbiton!” Felise remarked. “Although, very pleased to see you. I’m proud of our collections, of course.”
“It’s because of me,” said Stella. “Aside from it being too cold for me for any outdoor activities, I really love libraries and museums and art galleries. Eddie here is being nice.”
“No, no, I am glad we’re doing this. If not for you, I would never have seen those outstanding works by Māori and Pacific Island artists,” Eddie was not replying to Felise, but looking at Stella. What a pair of geeks we are, she thought.
Felise, with eyes of wisdom and tenderness, said to the couple, “Yes, a familiar place can be seen under new eyes when you revisit it with someone special. You see gems that were always there, waiting to be discovered.”
Stella liked that. She wanted to hug Felise.
“I don’t mean to sound like your grandmother, but it’s going to be a rainy evening, and you’d better go if you want to see more of the city,” Felise said. “All you have to decide is what to do with the time that is given to you.”
Stella was pretty sure that the last sentence was a paraphrase from Tolkien.
“I wanted to see the university’s old buildings, and Eddie wanted to have dinner somewhere near the Viaduct Harbour.” Felise nodded her approval at their simple plans.
“Parking could be a problem. We should probably leave the car here and come back for it before dinner.”
“How are you at map-reading, at dusk, in the rain?” Stella had to ask, before she realized she needed to put more trust in Eddie, as he was more familiar with the CBD than she was.
Before Eddie could reply, Felise blurted out, “Oh, don’t worry about that, it’s a pretty small city. Besides, you might like what you find along the way!”
“Not all those who wander are lost,” Eddie, Stella, and Felise said at the same time. And they laughed. They obviously had a shared love for “The Fellowship of the Ring,” the first book in the Lord of the Rings trilogy, from which that line was taken.
Felise looked so encouraging and confident that Stella wanted to stay behind to pick her brain about her travels and books and holiday romances. Almost wanted to stay behind, she corrected herself, for she also wanted to spend every waking moment of the next week with Eddie.
“Drink a lot of wine, try our famous Whittaker’s chocolates, and watch the Wynyard Crossing bridge as it lifts to allow watercraft to pass through tonight,” suggested Felise.
Stella agreed and said, “I have been gloriously acquainted with your excellent white wines recently, and I am definitely going to try the Pinot Grigio for dinner.”
“That, my dear is a good plan,” Felise replied.
They walked from the Gallery to the University of Auckland. Being Asian, Stella could not resist buying an umbrella from the museum shop and using it against the rain. Eddie ended up having to carry it as he was the much taller one, although he appeared to Stella not to be an umbrella person.
Stella wanted to document everything, but restrained herself. Her camera could get wet, and some moments were best preserved in her heart’s memory, she realized. Especially since it was turning out to be a very special afternoon. So they just walked by the School of Music, the beautiful building for Political Studies, and the law school library.
“Tell me, Eddie, if you were to choose another career, what would it be?” Stella had no real answer herself to that question, as she knew she was going to be a writer by the time she received her first Annie journal when she was nine years old. She liked thinking about alternative careers whenever she was roaming a university campus, however. And she liked to discover more of Eddie.
“I wanted to be a pilot when I was a child,” came the reply. “But my eyesight turned out to be not good enough for it. I’m wearing contacts, by the way. I think it’s the closest I could ever be to actual flying,” and Eddie gave Stella his boyish grin that she found so endearing. “And you?”
“I’m boring, for I’ve always wanted to be a writer,” she replied. “But I sometimes daydream about being a figure skater, probably because of all the Disney on Ice shows I watched as a girl.”
“Do you know how to ice skate?”
“Oh no, of course not,” Stella laughed. “We don’t have ice in Manila, although there are good skating rinks inside a couple of malls.”
“We could do that tomorrow! I could teach you, or we could hire an instructor for an hour …” Eddie said as they sat on a wet bench in Albert Park.
Eddie used his jacket as a dry spot for him and Stella to sit on, so instead of using the entire length of the bench, they were squeezed on a tiny portion of it, connected on one side, from shoulder to feet. Stella was, once again, freezing, but inside, she was warm, as if a shot of brandy had travelled all throughout her body.
Stella wasn’t sure she wanted to stumble and fall on the ice in front of Eddie. At the same time, it sounded sweet.
All we have to do is to decide what to do with the time that is given to us.
As she leaned on Eddie’s shoulder, Stella replied, “Let’s think about tomorrow, tomorrow.”
“As you wish,” Eddie said.
They watched as the rain softly fell on the brown leaves on the ground, not bothering anymore to bring out an umbrella.
Stella’s hair was sticking to her face, her makeup had long been washed away, and yet she did not feel the need to fix anything at all.
“We are going to get soaked, and I don’t want you to catch a cold,” Eddie said. He was holding Stella’s hand and could feel her shivering. “We’d better head back to the hotel, change, and have a nice dinner.”
But Stella did not want to move. There was nowhere else she’d rather be than with this man who was making her feel cared for.
“Let’s stay for a few more minutes,” she pleaded into Eddie’s eyes. “I have a pretty strong immune system,” she assured him.
Her mobile phone, her camera, in fact her entire bag was in the rented car. Stella did not care. She was, however, remembering every second of that moment, as if to write about it someday.
How long had it been since she had sat this close to a man (other than Richard, who did not count)? She felt fragile yet strong. Anything was possible. Anything she said seemed to fascinate him. He seemed to want to be with her, and not anyone else.
True, she did not know him yet, but surely her heart would not betray her. Surely she could trust Eddie.
“Tell me, how did you get started liking angels? It seems, I hope you don’t mind me saying this, a little bit out of character. For a brainy guy like you.”
“Angels remind me of my late mother,” Eddie replied, while staring at something in the distance.
“I’m sorry to hear that, when did she pass away?”
“Just, just four years ago. I was an only son. She and dad had separated when I was in five, and dad has another family. Mum was all I had,” he said in a quiet voice.
Stella covered Eddie’s hands with both of hers, although they were small compared to his.
“We used to travel a lot together. Her family left her with a house in France, and we visited Europe every year.”
Stella was not familiar with such loss. Her parents and younger brother Vince were all still living in their family home in Manila.
“I have never been to Europe.” Out of all the things to say, she had to make it about her? Stella wanted to take it back, but it was too late.
Eddie looked at her and said, “I could take you there someday. Mum left me the house.”
“Oh, Eddie, let’s not make promises like that. It’s dangerous for my heart. I am bad at this!” The rain had stopped. Stella knew that Eddie merely replied to her suggestion, but she did not want to build an imaginary future just yet, as she was prone to do with men, evidenced by the fact of her recent failed relationship. Was she thinking about Richard in the past tense now? That was progress!
“I mean, I would love to say yes, but let’s not do that to my poor heart.” As a writer, Stella had learned that she tended to feel things more deeply: love, lust, loss, pain, disappointment, heartbreak. Her therapist back at Sydney, whom she had consulted after Richard’s Revelation, tried to train her to be aware of how passionate she could be, and to avoid situations that would lead to certain agony.
As it was, she knew she was already treading on dangerous ground. But she thought that taking it one day at a time could lessen her tendency to feel too much.
She did not know that she was miscalculating again.
“Fair enough, I shouldn’t have made such a promise. I’m worse at this, believe me,” Eddie said. It was true. He had never figured out the right way of dealing with women. He always meant what he said at the time he said it, but that had gotten him in trouble more than once.
“To go back to mum’s angels, after the divorce, she took to buying art – paintings and sculptures – of angels and filled our house with it. She wanted to protect herself from further pain, I was told by my aunts later on. I always had angel pins and stickers in my school bag. She was not very religious, but just believed in angels, particularly the archangels.”
Coming from a Catholic country, Stella knew all the archangels, and in fact had received her Sacrament of Confirmation from the National Shrine of Saint Michael and the Archangels in Manila. She had, since she began working, been an absentee Catholic. She wondered if Eddie went to church.
“After mum’s death, I talked to a priest. I just walked into the chapel in the hospital, as I refused to talk to anyone else. The priest was a good listener. He and I had become good friends. He keeps asking that I attend mass sometime. I have never taken up his offer.”
“Maybe we could visit this priest-friend of yours. Maybe we could go to mass,” Stella was making “future” plans, she knew. She had not felt this urge to attend mass before, not even during the time of heartbreak from Richard. All she wanted then was to change the situation, and she took matters into her own hands. See where that led: she refused to let go of her co-dependency on Richard, and vice versa. For, although he left her for Australia, Richard still wanted Stella in his life, to be an observer, absorber, and validator.
“Maybe,” Eddie replied. “I’ll call him tonight, but that means you’ll have to go with me to Sydney, where he is assigned.”
Knowing her time in Sydney was limited, Stella wondered if she should tell Eddie. But it felt too soon to talk about such things.
“I’m hungry,” was what came out of Stella’s mouth.
Eddie chuckled. “Let’s feed you then,” he said.
Back at the Hilton, Eddie took a shower while Stella unpacked. He was not exaggerating when he said he had a big room. She happily hung her few clothes and mentally noted that she needed to schedule shopping the next day. If Eddie wanted to, he could just sit and drink coffee somewhere while she picked what she needed.
She also appropriated the other bed for herself, and left her watch, jewellery, and her books for night reading on the table beside it. They were going to sleep on separate beds, she was sure of it, despite what Vince her brother advised her before on how to forget Richard. He must not have meant it literally.
Eddie stepped out of the bathroom – he finished more quickly than Richard, no surprise there – wearing his clothes already, to Stella’s relief. She did not want to seem prudish but she also did not know how to react had he appeared wearing only a towel.
“Your turn,” he said, not looking at her. He pretended to open the closet to look for something. Stella felt it was just for show, as he was already, as previously observed, fully clothed.
“Thanks,” she said, and carried her toolbox-sized toiletry bag and her change of clothes with her to the bathroom. The tub looked inviting but she was hungry for dinner, so she opted for a shower as well.
“I’m going to browse for a restaurant, what do you feel like eating?” Eddie asked through the door.
“Seafood maybe?” Richard is allergic to seafood, so Stella always ate them whenever she was out of his house. Or in this case, out of his life. Her therapist must be counting the number of times she had mentioned Richard in this trip. She decided to let the water wash all thoughts of Richard away, and down the drain with the soap and shampoo.
“I found a place that has a seafood platter, better for outdoor dining, but it may be cold tonight. I’ll call to reserve a seat inside,” Eddie again, at the door.
Stella could barely hear him through the shower and so she just shouted her assent, “Okay!”
This should be awkward, only it wasn’t. So she was taking a shower in a hotel room that really wasn’t hers and talking to a man through the bathroom door to whom it belonged and now that she started thinking about it, she became self-conscious as she carefully dressed for dinner.
She should have worn the Wicked dress tonight, she thought with regret. Instead she settled for skinny jeans and a girly top. She was hungry and was ready in 20 minutes, which was a record, considering the outcome. She was pleased at the face of the girl staring back at her in the mirror. She looked grown-up, sophisticated, and free.
When she opened the door, she caught Eddie munching on the cookies that were provided by the hotel. The poor guy must have been hungrily waiting for me, she realized with a tinge of guilt.
Eddie looked at her appreciatively. He said, “My lady, if you would permit me, I’d like to take you out to dinner.”
“Why, kind sir, I believe you have started with dinner already,” Stella replied with a mischievous grin. She took the cookie from Eddie’s hand and bit into it. “I thought I was the one who was hungry,” she said, crumbs ruining her lipstick and all.
Eddie said, “That was very unladylike, and would not do.” He took a tissue from the bathroom sink and wiped away the crumbs, the lipstick and all traces from Stella’s mouth.
And then he kissed Stella. Right there, slowly, as if asking permission, which she gave, and then deeply, as if hungry and waiting for her all his life.
Stella was not sure how long they stood like that, because she was now with her back against the wall, and Eddie was leaning so he could reach her, and he did not seem to show any signs of slowing down, and something stronger than brandy was now surging through her blood, and Stella thought she should do something before dinner, and her seafood, and her Pinot Grigio, was totally forgotten.
She pulled back, and Eddie let her, although the look of longing in his eyes gave him away.
“There’s plenty of time after dinner, but right now, I think we have a reservation at a restaurant? Or was that just a ruse to get me out of the shower quickly?” Stella was still thinking clearly, and was grateful for that. Eddie did not seem to be able to reply immediately. He was still holding her very close. Their faces were only inches apart, the only inches Stella could muster to create between them.
Eddie gave her lips a brief kiss and then said, “This is going to be a quick dinner, okay?”
Instinctual fear of the unknown and the (seemingly) perfect made Stella promise herself to prolong dinner as long as she could.
They walked to the restaurant hand in hand, not talking. When they got there, Stella wanted a beer. It was not what she had planned, but she wanted to start with a beer. It seemed to go well with the seafood platter that Eddie had ordered.
Eddie, surprised that she wanted a beer, got one for himself too, although he ordered for her an Amstel Light. He was not sure what Stella’s alcohol tolerance was, but he did not want to risk it. He did not want to get his date drunk that night, for he had other plans.
Before the food was served, Stella was already halfway through the Amstel Light, her new best friend. She clung to it and not to Eddie, who suddenly became a most desirable object she could not have. She did not want to risk him kissing her in public. And then a thought entered her, something she wanted to repeat to herself all throughout dinner: this was just, technically, their first dinner date. It was up to her to take things slow. But the memory of his kiss lingered, and all coherent, prudent thoughts threatened to dissipate through the seafood platter.
“I didn’t know you drank beer,” Eddie broke the electrifying silence. He was sitting across from her, and not beside her. He could sense Stella needed some space, and he gave it while he still could.
“Back home, I enjoyed the occasional light beer. Our famous beer is San Miguel, named after an archangel,” Stella managed to reply. She thought of St. Michael, and in a sudden surge of Catholic school memory, asked for his intercession, to protect her from any harm.
Not that she feared Eddie. She did not think Eddie had any intentions of hurting her. What she feared was her own capacity to hurt herself, which, in the past, she had enormously and repeatedly done.
At the mention of an angel, Eddie’s blood flow slowed down as well. He showed her the St. Michael’s medal protection necklace that his mum had given to him when he started going to big school, at the time when the other boys were bullying him for being a weakling at sports, which everyone else in Australia seemed to be good at. His mother used to say that sports were Australia’s religion.
Remembering his mother, Eddie also got reminded of her advice on how to treat women, and he made a mental promise to her that he would be a perfect gentleman to Stella. For as long as he could.
— TO BE CONTINUED–