The Lord of the Geeks
This is my current writing project. I just do this for fun. I will post an update at least once a week. Or whenever I feel like it. This is not a true story. 🙂
Stella was nursing a bad hangover, was in dire need of decent coffee, and was annoyed that the tour bus that would take her to the Hobbiton Movie Set had picked her up from her hotel at the unholy hour of 5 a.m., so she was not in the best of moods when she first heard Eddie’s voice.
She wanted to strangle whoever it was that was eagerly explaining Frodo Baggins’ lineage to an elderly lady in the tour, who, with her questions, had obviously never read The Hobbit, and, Stella sleepily presumed, not even one of the books from J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy. Her best friend Richard had warned her that the tour attracted Geekdom’s finest, and he was right. As usual. She just wished he was with her on the tour to make the long trip more bearable, but he had to work that day.
Noticing her slight movement, The Geek, as Stella’s brain labelled the guy she was later to know was named Eddie, looked at her and smiled. What was he smiling about? The sun had not even risen yet! Stella thought. “Did I wake you?” he said. Responding to the obvious was not one of Stella’s best traits, so she simply said, “I wasn’t asleep,” before switching on her iPod and plugging the noise-cancelling earphones extra tightly.
It was winter in Auckland and she was freezing. She flew in from Sydney the night before and was supposed to be on the tour with Richard, until a last-minute change in his gig schedule forced him to stay behind. Richard was the lead singer/guitarist of a band that had started in Melbourne and was making it big in Sydney. He was guilty as he drove her to the airport. Upset at being alone, she skipped dinner and helped herself to the bottle of Sauvignon Blanc she had bought from the Duty Free shop. Hence, the headache that morning.
Stella was awakened when the bus stopped. The tour guide used the microphone to announce that they could buy coffee or any breakfast item at 10% off. Stella could not be bothered to look for the discount coupon in her bag. She got off the bus and looked for the coffee shop, but all she could see was a souvenir store. “It’s at the back,” The Geek said, pointing to the arrow that led to the coffee. “Or we could follow our noses to that heavenly scent,” he added. Stella barely nodded at him as she was busy bundling up. Coming from a tropical country, she still was not used to the many layers of clothing she had to wear to protect herself from the cold.
When she finally got her soy cappuccino, she could not find an empty seat in the tiny cafe. Until, of course, The Geek stood up and gave her his seat. Stella had to say “Thank you” and sit next to the Tolkien-ignorant lady. She needed that second cup of coffee to be a human being that morning. The first cup in the hotel was just instant coffee; hence, dirty water as far as she was concerned.
The lady was staring at her. She had eyes the color of aquamarine, if there was such a color. She told her, “The young gentleman seems to fancy you,” and winked. Stella blushed despite herself, for The Geek was within hearing distance, she was sure. She had given him the once-over earlier and was convinced that emphasis was on the “young.” She did not want to waste anyone’s time. Being Asian, she was far older than she looked. People still mistook her as a university student back in Sydney, but she was already in her late 30s. This geek definitely had the early 20s look. It was the long, unkempt hair. And his cap that was certainly creating hat hair and should not be removed the entire day, in Stella’s opinion.
Finally, they were back in the bus. Everyone was awake and the tour guide started telling them about Auckland, its population, its main sources of income, and how director Peter Jackson had asked the now-famous farmer in Matamata, New Zealand if he could build a movie set in that farm. Stella had already read the website and the brochure, as well as googled all the information she could find about the location of The Shire scenes in both LOTR and The Hobbit, that she just preferred to look out the bus window and admire the scenery.
She only thought of New Zealand in association with two things before watching the Peter Jackson film adaptations: sheep and butter. She grew up in Manila with her mother’s favourite, Queensland butter by the New Zealand Creamery, Inc. And everyone knew there were more sheep than people in New Zealand. That was the extent of her knowledge about that country. Hence, she was excited to see the lush green grass and the sheep! She tried taking shots from the bus window but she could not focus in a moving vehicle and while rain was pouring outside.
The ground was very muddy and slippery, and they were given bright yellow tour umbrellas just in case it started raining again, but the sight of the colourful hobbit-holes greatly improved Stella’s mood. As she was holding her camera, and the umbrella, however, she lost her balance and almost slipped. A firm hand caught her elbow and prevented her from sliding on the grass in front of not just their tour group but several other tour groups who had converged at the first hobbit-hole. She looked up to see… The Geek. She had to smile widely and thank him audibly that time.
Ostensibly to prevent her from slipping, The Geek accompanied her throughout the tour. They exchanged cameras, which one only does with strangers when on tour in some faraway country, and took turns documenting the land of the hobbits for their respective friends and family back home. He knew how to maximize each shot, and even taught her how to take good selfies. He was rich enough to have data roaming and Instagrammed one shot, which she took of him in front of the bench where Bilbo had shared smoke rings with Gandalf. He pretended to make smoke rings. She quickly took the shot before the tour guide could remind them that they were not supposed to sit on to the bench. They were the last to finish all the hobbit-holes, but they did not mind.
The tour ended at the Green Dragon pub, where they had a choice between beer and ale. Stella sat while The Geek got the drinks. She admired the attention to detail in the pub’s interiors. She could imagine Strider/Aragorn sitting with his cloak hiding his face. When The Geek returned with their drinks, Aquamarine Lady passed by and offered to take a picture of them together. So they gave her their DSLRs and their smartphones, hoping she knew what she was doing. The shots were not bad at all, according to The Geek. Stella realized then that she still did not know his name, nor did he know hers. She thought she’d ask over lunch, as that was the next part of the tour.
But she was wrong. Their bus driver appeared out of nowhere and announced that those who had taken the Rotorua package had to leave immediately, and the rest could go to The Shire Café for their buffet lunch. The Geek smiled at Stella and said, “That’s me. I’m visiting those famous hot springs! I had a great time playing hobbit with you,” he said, “after you’ve downed your extra strong cappuccino.”
“Rotorua?” Stella managed to ask, stunned that he was leaving, and only starting to notice that he had the face of a Greek god. And that he had forgotten to shave that morning, and he had green eyes. How could she notice these details now that he was leaving?
“Yes, if you want, check out this brochure,” he said, and with a killer smile and a wave, he was gone.
Stella was so disappointed that he did not even ask her for her number. She got lost and was the last to join the group at The Shire Café. She made small talk with the group of Americans who were complaining about the lack of good quality merchandise options in the souvenir shop. Then she tuned out and looked at the brochure The Geek had given her.
She noticed at the back, written in heavy black ink, “EDDIE. Call me,” followed by a mobile number.
Stella smiled, and when she looked up, she saw someone smiling back at her. It was the Aquamarine Lady, who had another wink especially for her.
Back in Auckland, Stella regretted not taking the whole tour package that the travel website offered. Had she done so, she would have been immersed in a hot spring with Greek god-lookalike Eddie that night, instead of dining in the hotel’s only restaurant alone. The thought depressed her so she ordered room service, but added a glass of Riesling to continue her exploration of the New Zealand white wines.
It was raining and her room overlooked a park, so she sat by the window, listened to Chopin’s “Raindrop” prelude, and watched the autumn leaves and park benches being drenched, all from the comfort of her warm chair. Her mobile phone suddenly rang, and she wondered whether Eddie had telephatically gotten her number. But she saw that it was Richard calling. Her heart jumped and she grabbed the phone.
“I’m still not talking to you,” she said, in a voice that did not sound convincing.
“Stella, my lovely, how was your tour? Did you get to brush Legolas’ hair?”
“I was in Bag End, you silly, ignorant brute. Legolas is an elf not a hobbit. Call me when you have your Middle Earth facts straightened out.”
“Oh goddess of perfection, what will the world do without all the knowledge that you store in your pretty little head? My world is falling apart. I need you back. I need you to help me figure out the cable and TV remote controls.”
“I’m thinking of extending my trip here, Rich.”
“What do you mean, extend? Impossible. Stella, we both know you can’t live without me a day more than necessary.”
But you can. Live without me. Stella did not say that out loud, but felt increasingly convinced that she needed this time apart from him.
“I want to explore the city more. And I heard the University of Auckland has a campus with heritage buildings and they are within walking distance from my hotel.”
“Do I hear Chopin in the background? Are you writing again? Please tell me you’re writing; only then will I allow you to extend.”
Stella wanted to slap him for his petulance. “Why, I do believe I don’t need your permission.” After a slight hesitation, she added, “And I don’t need to be around while you throw yourself at that new Boy Wonder you just met.”
Richard heard the genuine hurt in Stella’s voice and stopped being playful, for her sake. They were still both getting used to the truth being out there between them, that the reason why they could not be together, even after years of flirtatious friendship and deep conversations, was that Richard wanted to date other men. He had just admitted this to her, one night, to end all the questions. Moving to Australia had allowed him the freedom to be himself. Stella had followed him using a student visa, and left everything behind in Manila. He knew he should have told her earlier, but he still had not figured out himself at the time.
“Ok, Stell. Tell me about your big day at the movie set. I bet your tiny frame fit right into that hobbit-hole.”
“The interiors were shot in Wellington.” Stella could sense the sudden change of topic and took a sip of her white wine to calm herself. “I entered the biggest hole, and there was nothing inside but sawdust. I met someone, though.”
“You mean the movie sets were elaborate on the outside but empty inside? Wait…. What? Met someone? Did Stella meet a hobbit?”
Stella smiled at the thought of a hobbit-sized Eddie. “No, this time I made sure it is aMan,” she couldn’t resist the emphasis. “Not an elf. Not a hobbit. A real man.”
Her friends back home had warned her not to throw her life away to follow Richard, but she was a hopeless case. He had the voice and he played the guitar so well and for a time after he left the Philippines, there was no music in her life. They dated for seven months but he never seemed to be able to commit to her. She thought he was just being the typical musician – impossible to have. So she reincarnated herself to the next best thing, and became his best friend. That way, she became indispensable to him.
She ignored all the signs. How his toiletries were color-coded. How he knew all the Carpenters songs – she even found this cute. How he was the neatest, cleanest, male on the planet. How his kisses were restrained, by the book. How he did not mind going shopping with her, and holding her bag for her.
This went on for nearly two decades. Stella had had other boyfriends, but always ran back to Richard for companionship, endless hand-holding, and romantic comedy movie marathons.
And then he told her he was moving to Australia. She thought she could manage, and it was time to move on. She grew miserable and depressed and wanted to hurt herself after he was gone, so she decided to follow her heart and go to him. She did not even tell him beforehand. She just showed up at his doorstep in Coogee one day, making sure he was home and not in rehearsal by constant email and Viber messages.
Their first few days were bliss. They took long walks on the beach. Stella moved in with Richard, and the world was right again. She cooked for him, did his laundry, and cleaned his apartment, while he paid the bills. They were practically married, she thought. But they still slept in separate rooms. This should have been the biggest warning bell inside Stella’s head, but she still thought he was just being a gentleman.
“So this man, is he sitting with you in your hotel room right now and did I interrupt something?” Richard’s voice brought Stella back to the present.
Stella was tempted to lie, but Richard would hear it in her voice so she simply said, “No, as my luck would have it, he probably is flirting with another gorgeous Asian in Rotorua.”
“I love the confidence, darling. You seem to enjoy being the gorgeous Asian girl in these Western countries a lot! Now go get yourself to Roto- wherever that is. I have to go, band’s first set is almost starting. I will sing Buble’s ‘Everything’ and dedicate it for you in my heart.”
Stella said goodbye to Richard and did not bother to explain that Rotorua was several hours, and hundreds of dollars, away. Everything was the song Richard had dedicated to her the night he told her of his real preferences. He said she deserved a man who would make her his everything, but he was not that man. Stella wanted to catch a plane back to Manila the very next morning, but she had to finish her Masters of Creative Writing course at the University of Sydney.
Needless to say, the heartbreak Richard caused her made for pretty interesting and distinguished writing, and her professors were impressed. She was going home in a few months, and the Auckland trip was supposed to be their final one together, but he cancelled on her. She knew the band was just an excuse. It was a particular band member, the well-toned drummer, that was the focus of Richard’s undivided attention, she was sure.
She knew she needed to concretize the act of moving on. She checked her watch – it was close to 9 p.m. If Eddie was being a good boy and thinking of her instead of making out with another tourist at that moment, she could risk ringing him. She found the brochure he had given her and dialled his number. She did this and then remembered that: a) he didn’t know her number, and might screen the call; and b) he didn’t know her name. She immediately cancelled the call, but not before it got connected and Eddie’s phone started ringing. Stella disconnected.
Eddie rang back. Stella made a quick comparison of the number flashing on her iPhone and the handwritten figures. He likes me and was waiting for this, she quickly thought.
“Stella here,” she said. “Umm, hi. Stella. What a wonderful name. I got a call from this number and am just returning it. Are you who I hope you are? Stella the caffeine addict? This is Eddie, the guy from the Hobbiton tour. You know, the one who could not get over how gorgeous you looked as you were frowning at him before sunrise this morning?” Eddie spoke quickly with an accent she could not quite place, and she had to concentrate to understand what he was saying. She usually compensated her ignorance of the Aussie accent by lip-reading, but there was no such help available for phone conversations.
Stella could tell this conversation was going in the right direction. Any man who found her gorgeous at 5 a.m., aside from needing an eye checkup, is a keeper in her books.
Eddie waited for Stella to reply, while repeatedly banging his head against the wall of his hotel room. Why did he have to sound like a bumbling fool and say all that in one breath? Naturally he scared her off!
Finally, after what seemed like eternity, but in reality just a few seconds, Stella spoke. “I believe I am that Stella, the caffeine addict. I’m not sure about the rest of that bit you just said.” Her voice sounded musical, the kind that brought sunshine to every room. This made Eddie smile. Widely.
“Well, um… Hi,” he brilliantly muttered. “I’m glad I caught you in a cheerful mood.”
“Haha, I was kind of mean earlier, wasn’t I? I’m just not a morning person. And I didn’t get much sleep the night before.” Stella was determined to show she had a pleasing personality. Because she had a compulsion to please people, even not-so-strangers of whom she should be wary, actually.
“Much as I’d like to ask you why you didn’t get precious shuteye, I won’t.” Boyfriend trouble? Late flight? Insomnia? Eddie wanted to get to know everything about her. It was not his normal behaviour towards women, but he was going with it. He decided to push his luck. “Stella, I was just wondering, why did you call?” Eddie was a simple man. He asked what he wanted to know.
“Eddie, I believe you’re the one who rang me this time.” There was a hint of a smile. He could tell.
“Yes, but I was just returning your call.” Pushing his luck even further…
“Ok let me just remind you that you gave me your name AND phone number?!” Stella retorted, to Eddie’s amusement. He could almost see her sparkling eyes flashing and he couldn’t help laughing.
“What’s so funny?” Stella asked, not really sure if Eddie found her cute. But she was curious.
“You! It’s like I’m seeing two versions of the same woman. You’re just a powerhouse of emotions, and I should really be careful around you. If your life were a movie, this should be what your poster would say: ‘Life is like a box of Stella. You never know what you’re gonna get.’”
“Either you just compared me to chocolates, or you diagnosed me with bipolar disorder,” she said, beginning to care, despite herself, what this geeky guy she just met thought of her. What was wrong with her?
“I meant it in a good way! You’re full of surprises… And I’m going to change the subject. What did I miss after I left Hobbiton? I really think they didn’t give us enough time to explore.”
“You mean you didn’t get to go shopping for key rings and mugs and other stuff? We had $10 off any purchase.”
“I hate shopping so I waited in the bus while the driver rushed the others through the store,” he stated. This, Stella knew to be the universal truth among men, except Richard. She closed her eyes and willed herself to think of Eddie, not Richard. The present, not the past.
“They sold bottles of the special brew they developed for the dwarves in ‘The Hobbit’,” she said. “It had about 2% alcohol, so the actors could appear tipsy without actually being drunk. It had a cool name, I just can’t recall it right now.” She suddenly remembered that Eddie was in another tourist spot, and asked, “Hey, how are those hot springs you were raving about? Are they as good as you expected?”
“It’s very hot in here,” came Eddie’s reply. “This is a geothermal city, with so many things to explore.” He felt like saying that it was better if he was exploring it with someone. So he did. “I wish you were here with me. I could take great shots of you, while you make love to the camera.”
Wait… whut? Did he really just say that out loud?
For an awkward moment he thought he really did it this time, and said the wrong thing without thinking. But she didn’t hang up!
“Stop wishing and just take me with you. Or better yet, come back to Auckland. You staying here in New Zealand for a while or heading off to…?”
Relieved that she let it pass, Eddie volunteered more information. “I could always go back here. I get assigned for work to Auckland every six months. But this is my personal holiday, a great use of my annual leave. How about you?”
“I have an early flight tomorrow back to Sydney.”
Silence. Eddie immediately calculated that he could not book a flight and be with her the next morning, and he did not own a plane. His mind raced, not knowing what to say.
“But I’m thinking of extending my trip here in Auckland,” she added.
Relief! Oh, there must be a God. Although he had not prayed yet, that was exactly what he would have asked for.
“Wait for me. I’ll cut this trip short. Will you? Please?”
“I’ll have to check with the hotel and rebook my flight…”
“I have a huge room at the Hilton. You’re more than welcome to stay,” he blurted out. “I have two giant beds and a beautiful view,” he explained.
“You’re staying at the Hilton? Wow!” Stella reacted to what she could react to, and wondered if she should take the offer. She was on a student’s budget, really. But she did not know this guy. She had yet to Google him. His hotel, however, she was familiar with. She had wanted to stay there but it was too expensive, as it offered great ocean views and was minutes away from the newly-developed Viaduct Harbour.
“I used my frequent flyer points. I travel so much for work, there must be some purpose to those miles.”
“Speaking of work,” Stella started the background check, “we haven’t reached that subject at all. If you don’t mind me asking, what do you do, Eddie?”
“I’m a software engineer for a Sydney startup tech company, working in the Silicon Valley of Down Under,” he proudly stated. It figured. Stella needed his last name so she could look him up on LinkedIn. She still had not revisited the subject of his age, which she suspected was far below her minimum. Yes, she only dated men who were either her age, or within three years older or younger than her.
“How about you, Stella? Any preoccupation aside from coffee and Tolkien?”
“You just about summarized it. I love books. I always have, so I took up Creative Writing at uni. Then I taught English for many years. Coffee helped me stay up to check all those papers.”
Stella had opened her MacBook, and was ready to do her research. She did not have much search words though: Eddie, software engineer, start-up tech company, Silicon Valley of Down Under. There were 335,000 search results. She needed to narrow it down, if she was to verify the identity of this man she planned to have a holiday romance with. Yes, it was just going to be a fling. She had no patience for younger men in her real life.
“Which university? Maybe I could sit in, if and when you discuss the ‘Lord of the Rings’?” Eddie had his HP Envy on Google as well. Love in the time of search engines was either getting more invasive, or preventive of heartaches. Either way, he wanted to see her digital footprint, if only to get to know her on a faster pace.
“Oh, I taught back in the Philippines. In Australia, I’m just a student at the University of Sydney,” she said.
“I went to the University of Melbourne. And then got my Ph. D. at MIT,” Eddie said casually.
Stella nearly dropped her mobile phone. Ph. D. at MIT? she mouthed to herself in awe. She also mentally gauged that Eddie could be older than he appeared, and this excited her.
“Are you on Facebook?” he asked.
“Maybe,” she said.
“Twitter? Instagram? LinkedIn? Google Plus?”
“Yes; yes; yes; no, I’m not a Google employee.”
They both laughed at that, and they instantly connected. Literally, for they exchanged user names and added each other as Friend/Follower/Connection.
After being social media stalkers of each other, Stella suddenly said she had to go.
“But we were only starting to get to know each other,” Eddie complained.
“No, silly. I have to put down the phone so I could concentrate on rebooking my flight.”
But Eddie would not let her go. He called up her hotel landline so she did not have to cradle her iPhone while typing on her MacBook. He helped her to rebook her flight online.
“You wish,” she said. “You’d grow tired of me. One week.” When Eddie didn’t reply, Stella checked if he was still there. “Hello?”
“Uh, sorry, I was also e-mailing my travel agency, that I’m heading back to Auckland earlier than planned. I want to be there tomorrow when you check out of Mercure.”
“How did you know which hotel I’m staying at?”
“First, you gave me the hotel number, and the receptionist said the name of the hotel before connecting me to the room. Second, and this is the real reason – I remembered clearly when I first saw you stepping out of your hotel lobby and into the van this morning. You were a vision in silver-grey.”
“I was not aiming for the Gandalf the Grey look with my winter coat. More of Galadriel.”
“The effect was indeed stunning. You were a black-haired, hobbit-sized, grey-cloaked Lady Galadriel.”
“Sobering thought,” Stella said sleepily. Eddie asked, “Did I just bore you?”
“That’s the name of the special brew being sold at the souvenir shop at The Shire. SobeRing Thought.”
“And did you bring back a bottle?” he teased her.
“Are you kidding? What is the point of 2% alcohol? I prefer mine a little stronger, thanks.”
“You are my kind of girl, you know that?”
“That remains to be seen.” Stella yawned. She did not realize it, but it was almost four a.m. “I really must get some sleep now,” she almost whispered.
“All right, sleep tight, Lady Stella. I will see you later, as soon as I can find a car that would take me back to you.”
“Good night, Eddie of Hobbiton.”
A phone was ringing in Stella’s dream. She pressed Snooze, only to realize that she had reached for her iPhone, which was actually ringing, and that the Snooze button only worked for the alarm, which in her dazed state last night, she forgot to set.
She was dreaming of a tall, handsome, green-eyed elf who was kissing her hair and swearing love in the liquid elven tongue, and she most definitely did not welcome this rude awakening at all. The caller would receive the full wrath in her voice.
“Go away, Richard!” She said, and it was all that she could muster. Her vocal chords were still at rest. How could some people be so dense and self-absorbed? She thought. And why did she answer the phone when she could have pressed the red button and denied the call? She berated herself. There were ten reasons to hate Richard at that precise moment and Stella added them to her growing list of resentment.
“Good morning, my princess. I have good news for you. I am picking you up from the Kingsford international airport! I wouldn’t want you to worry about carrying your heavy luggage full of toiletries on the train, like you so heroically planned to do. Tell me, are you on your way already?” Richard was being unusually cheerful, blissfully unaware that Stella was really and truly in the process of leaving him. Wait, Stella’s groggy inner voice told her, he must be realizing that his powers on her are weakening, hence this stubborn refusal to let go.
“Since when did I become your princess? You would do well to remember that I already told you that I’m staying longer in Auckland!” This city was beginning to feel like sanctuary, she thought. She didn’t realize how tired she was, how absolutely tired, of Richard’s neediness.
“You mean, you are doing this to me? Just when I need you to edit the words to a song inspired by your absence?” Stella could hear the pout in Richard’s voice. It made her feel sick.
She sat up despite her body’s refusal to leave the warm bed. She felt her blood rising, which was a strange feeling. She used to have infinite patience for Richard, even when they were constantly bickering like an old married couple. It was too early in the day for that image, and she felt the irony in it. For they would never be married. For the first time, Stella felt she could stop repeating the same mistakes she had been making for two decades. She could stop hoping Richard would choose to be with her. For he couldn’t, and he wouldn’t.
“No I am not doing this to you. I am doing this for me. Please, Rich. Maybe this is good for us? For me, I mean.” Stella needed to be stronger and more consistent if she was going to be serious about moving on. Then she remembered Eddie.
“Stey-a!” Richard screamed his pet name for her, which he only used whenever he wanted her to do something against her will, which usually involved asking her to stay. Stella interrupted him before he could further hurt her ear drums.
“I have to go now, Rich. And stop calling me. I cannot afford the mobile roaming charges! I am here and I will make the most out of my trip. I can deal with my classes online. I’ll see you in a week.”
She could hear him building his protests, but she pressed the End Call button. She put the phone on silent mode and resolved to ignore Richard for the rest of the day. Make that for the rest of the week, which she planned to spend happily with Eddie.
Speaking of Eddie, she jumped out of bed and started preparing to meet him. Richard was right about the toiletries, for she loved special shampoo-bath gel-conditioner combinations that only came in huge bottles, and she always brought at least two each of lotions, creams, perfumes, colognes, and soaps. She liked to have her options, and for her scents to match her different moods. Thus, she was definitely not a light traveller.
She dressed up deliberately, thankful that she packed the old rose-colored lace dress she bought on sale from Witchery, which went well with her black tights and ankle boots. A black Banana Republic jacket, a purchase from Manila that she had always treasured, and a floral scarf from Richard (whose taste was exquisitely perfect) completed the outfit. She did not bring enough clothes for a week, but maybe this was an excuse to splurge and do some of her own shopping. She wondered if there were outlet stores in Auckland.
Stella had great skin and needed little makeup, but she still made the effort to put on cream blush, sheer lip gloss, and lash-lengthening mascara on top of her powder foundation.
She was attempting to close her suitcase when the hotel phone rang. “Do you need help with your bags, ma’am?” came Eddie’s voice on the other line. Stella laughed, because she felt like it, and said “Why yes, but don’t expect any tip. I’m saying yes as a favour to you! What an excuse to enter my hotel room!”
In less than five minutes – what, did he fly? – Eddie was knocking on her door. She opened it and felt a little rush of excitement upon seeing him. He was dressed in a blue knit sweater that was definitely Ralph Lauren – this was Richard’s voice in her head and she needed to shush it -, jeans, and brown suede boots, with his leather jacket hanging from his pointer finger that was casually resting on his right shoulder. Without the unflattering North Shore cap on, his hair was revealed in all its glory, black curls cascading up to chin level. He did not shave that morning and that left a stubble that made him look even more ruggedly handsome.
“Hi,” he said, and flashed a smile that revealed pearly white teeth. Stella wondered how this could be the same guy she was annoyed at just yesterday morning. She was definitely a fan of having enough time to get ready in the morning, for it made a world of difference in them both.
“Good morning. You’re not the bellhop,” Stella returned the smile. She knew her effect on Aussie men, for she had been exposed to them on the beach near Richard’s apartment. They found her short frame and her olive skin and her dark eyes exotic. She, in turn, did not find the tattooed and muscled bodies that frequented the beach that exciting. That’s what set Eddie apart. He was an Aussie, handsome alright, but geeky in his brilliance, a welcome respite from the beer hounds that seemed to roam Richard’s neighbourhood. The last part started to sound sexy. After staying up to get to know him through his social media posts, Eddie felt like less of a stranger to her.
Eddie could not think of a word to say. His brain froze at the sight of Stella’s beauty, and he inhaled her perfume as if intoxicated. He merely followed her to where she pointed to her bags, like a puppy. He wanted to put his arms around her but something told him it was not appropriate. It was amazing how his conscience was still speaking despite his lack of sleep and his mad dash that morning from Rotorua to Auckland, stopping briefly at his room at the Hilton, which thankfully he had reserved for two weeks as his home base. He also had the time, using superhuman speed, to book a car so he and Stella could have a leisurely holiday.
“Have you eaten?” he managed to ask her. Stella did not have time, she said. Neither did he.
“We could have brunch,” Stella suggested, before realizing that brunch sounded like a very Richard thing to do. Straight men like Eddie, they probably only took meals by their proper names.
Eddie looked at Stella’s suitcase and wondered out loud, “Were you planning on staying a week? This definitely is not an overnight bag,” he teased.
“Oh yes, I was planning a tryst with an old lover who is now married with four kids, but he stood me up, and so I settled for you,” Stella quipped. She was a writer and could whip up a storyline at the blink of an eye, except that she was surprised at her own wit that morning, considering the increasingly alarming lack of caffeine in her system.
“Please, can we grab a quick breakfast? I really, really need some good coffee,” she begged Eddie, while closing the hotel room door behind them.
“After having experienced your charm without your drug of choice, yes, I do believe we should find a café at the soonest possible time.”
“We can just have sandwiches, and maybe plan our day?” Stella was surprised how naturally that felt, how she did not feel awkward about making plans with a man she had just met. Of course, she had always been a planner, at least, as to the things she could control.
“As you wish,” Eddie responded. The reference to one of her favourite childhood books, “The Princess Bride,” made Stella smile. She could be Buttercup in her story, finally.
Stella checked out and signed the receipt at the hotel lobby while Eddie got the car. When she stepped out of the hotel double doors, she felt very much like putting on a bandana, wide white-rimmed wayfarers, and a string of pearls, before riding a light blue convertible, except that it was not summer in Auckland, and she immediately knew that she was not going to be warm enough in her well-planned outfit of the day.
Eddie was waiting in his rented Toyota Camry, wearing dark aviator glasses that made Stella doubt if he really was a software engineer. He looked like one of those Nespresso models. How could this guy be single? Oh wait, maybe he’s not. Did she care? She was honestly not in the mood to answer that question.
“I’m thinking of taking you to Parnell, which, according to its website, is ‘New Zealand’s oldest suburb, famed for its galleries, cafes, restaurants and charming boutique-style stores.’ Then we can do something that this cold weather would permit, something indoors, perhaps?” Eddie was on the phone with his travel agent early that morning, planning a changed itinerary that now involved going around Auckland with an amazing Filipina writer. He had previously booked a Lonely Planet-inspired vacation out of the city, but he was only too happy to drop that for Stella, whose charming presence both intrigued and attracted him.
They found a cozy little Italian restaurant that had the best barrista on the Southern Hemisphere, in Eddie’s opinion. Stella was much more reserved in her praises, but definitely enjoyed her first shot of espresso for the day.
“Where do you want to go? We can walk around Parnell, or go to Queen St., which is Auckland’s most iconic and historic street.” Eddie was sounding very much like the tour guide that he was not. “I’m reserving the Viaduct Wharf for dinner as it’s very near our hotel.”
“I know where I want to go, now that my head has cleared after that magical cup of coffee,” Stella declared.
“Where do you want to go?” Eddie asked.
“I want to see the Auckland Art Gallery,” Stella replied. “And after that, let’s walk to the old buildings that house the University of Auckland. Please,” she added.
“The woman knows what she wants!” Eddie observed, amused. “As you wish!” he affirmed.
When they got out of the restaurant, it was raining. Eddie ran to the car to get his extra jacket, and put it around Stella. It was naturally much too big for her. He unzipped the hood and covered her head with it. Unfortunately, it also covered her eyes. They ended up laughing.
Stella did not remove the hood and walked with her arms in front of her, like a blind woman in need of constant guidance. She caught Eddie’s arm and let him lead the way.
After recovering from the spectacular vision that was Stella’s playful side, Eddie started walking back to the car, but moved Stella’s hand from his arm to his other hand, and firmly guided her to where they parked earlier.
Stella, who could not see a thing, felt Eddie’s warm hand on hers, and smiled underneath her large, black winter cloak.
She knew how the rest of that day would be like. She could already write it in her head. She just hoped that, unlike Richard, Eddie would play his part, and say his lines, well.
TO BE CONTINUED.
“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–