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“Are We Dating or Hanging Out?”

The troubles of being in a relationship with no labels.

I nom tayo,” Matt said.

We ended up somewhere in Matalino Street after our graduation practice. It was just like the old days, only this time I’m driving and we’re done with graduate school. We’re now someplace we never hung out before, ordering two bottles of Pale and Chinese food.

“I’m glad you’re attending graduation,” I said.

“It’s for my parents, really.” He initially thought of ditching grad rites. But, at the last minute, he asked me to help him to get his medal and Sablay.

“Same here,” I muttered while nursing my bottle, oblivious to the awkward silence. When finally, I said it.

Shet. Gagraduate na tayo.”

Oo nga. Graduate na tayo.” He smiled, just grateful for the coming reality. 

We thought it would never happen, but there we were. Matt and I haven’t been in touch so it was good to know we could hang out again. These days, we can now joke around about the struggles of graduate school, writing, and how we met each other. For starters, we haven’t seen one another for more than three years. I only began communicating with him again before finishing my thesis.

Back then, everything was just too difficult to talk about.

W hen I decided to go to graduate school, I was a 23-year-old wanna-be-writer lugging around loads of emotional baggage, such as breaking up from an unfulfilling three-year relationship; being newly unemployed and existentially disillusioned, and grieving an emotionally estranged father who passed away. Looking back, I was in denial that I was severely depressed. I shut myself out from longtime friends and hardly went out to see daylight. Whenever people messaged to check up on me, I’d act like everything was alright so they’d leave me alone. I mostly went to school and back. Clearly, meeting new people and going on dates was the last thing on my mind.

Despite my sappy, neurotic state, the cold stars and planets still gloriously aligned to offer me romance at a terrible point in time. In short, I met someone. Yes, this unfortunate cosmic gift is none other than my friend Matt.

It was one humid day in June, the very first time I enrolled in the University of the Philippines. I had no idea lines in state universities extended until way past lunchtime. So, when I found another grad student asking about the same course, I approached him. This guy was tall, dark, and lanky, with a huge backpack in tow. He sported long messy hair like Joe Jonas in 2009. But, unlike Joe, he donned perpetual awkwardness with his shaky voice and slumped shoulders, bereaved of confidence and style.

Needless to say, we helped each other throughout the enrollment ordeal. He even turned out to be my first classmate in the program. Since our surnames began with “A,” the professor had no choice but to call his name after mine. With all the arbitrary details in place, sticking together was a no-brainer.

Apart from being together in class, it didn’t help that Matt and I seemed to have similar taste in music. I knew it as soon as he approved my friend request on Facebook: The Weepies, Imogen Heap, Ra Ra Riot, Death Cab for Cutie—I recognized all the bands on his feed. Regrettably, at that time, Matt lost most of his files when his laptop crashed. The audiophile in me understood his loss, so I lent him my hard drive to download all my music. For the record, I lost more than half of my hard drive files in 2016, but Matt may still have a complete copy of all my playlists to this day.

As if listening to the same bands wasn’t enough, it didn’t help that Matt was an absolute movie freak. That semester, we went to see as many movie screenings as we could at the University Film Center, including French and Japanese film fests, all the way to the Cinemalaya screenings.

But enough of that.

Here’s the low-down on “hanging out” and dodging labels.

  1. No commitment means no rules.

Spending that much time together certainly makes things move faster. When you meet a Matt who thinks on the same wavelength, you get to know a ton of personal information in a very short span of time.

I remember going with him to a friend’s book launch in UP, and later introducing him to my best friend, K. I’m not exactly sure what K. thought of Matt, but she dismissed him as just another classmate, which means she probably didn’t like him. From there, we took a cab with other writers to a bar.

As the night wound about, I had no real interest in talking to people or meeting old friends. Pretty soon I was downing bottles of Red Horse and Pale with Matt in Cubao Ex. I fixated on him, this new guy, because I liked the idea that he didn’t know me and he listened to all the nonsense I said.

We talked about a lot of things, mostly how we felt like fake, dumb outsiders around real writers. Drinking also urged us to mention things we did that we normally don’t talk about.

At some point, despite Matt’s sweaty palms, we started holding hands. I guess being disoriented and drunk made a good excuse for our behavior. My memory is slightly hazy, but there may or may not be some narcotics involved. And as the story goes, before we knew it, we were making out.

Okay. These things most likely happened more than once. We were aware of going beyond the friendship territory, but we weren’t ready to talk about it. Just go with the flow, I thought.

As embarrassing as it is to admit, I easily gravitate to people that were within reach. Yes, proximity is a great factor here. I’d go out with guys or girls that I seriously had a crush on, as well as people I genuinely only liked as “friends.” Technically, this shouldn’t be a bad thing. But from experience, it gets messy when I’m emotionally needy. I say I don’t mean to, but I know it can really drain people out. 

Thinking about it now, it may have happened way too often. I did not have the self-awareness to admit my recklessness back then, especially when I didn’t want to acknowledge I had real problems.

What Matt and I had was not exclusive. Did we think it could go bad? I think so. Did we stop right there? Nope.

We acknowledged we had a deep connection, but no real commitment.

2) Humans are not void of emotions.

One morning after class, I found out Matt was sort of seeing this hot girl. Let’s call this gorgeous lady “Sarah” to avoid intruding her peace. Sarah had long brown beach locks almost down to her waist. She’d show up in class wearing super short shorts or mini skirts and see-through tops. She was two years younger, a vegetarian, and was working for an environmental NGO. When I saw her, I rolled my eyes. I thought, “Uwi na ko, may nanalo na.” My scratchy jeans and shirts looked drab next to this babe.

Matt claimed whatever they had was “done,” but Sarah came up to me and explained her side of the story, which by the way was still happening in her narrative.

Apparently, she didn’t pass the grad school program, but she mustered the guts to appeal her status. Fortunately, the dean allowed her to take our writing course. And what do you know? We became classmates and regular drinking buddies after class. It became such a normal thing that we even had drinking sessions at my place. We made jokes about eventually having a threesome, but of course, that never happened. It was just too damn awkward.

One Friday night, Sarah confessed her feelings by emailing a short story about how jealous she was. She said things like, I was the girl Matt talks to about pretentious literature and art. I was the girl he asks about poetry homework. I was the girl he shares soggy canteen spaghetti with. Lots of scenarios that basically showed I was ‘that’ girl instead of her. I understood what she meant; she felt alienated by a guy she really liked. Most of all, Sarah said she was mad at Matt for being “malabo,” so she decided to “quit him.” But after all that, years later, I reckon they still managed to stay friends.

I was jealous of Sarah too, but I never told her. In many ways, we were in the same no-labels boat. I kind of had an idea they were seeing each other, I just felt it inappropriate to ask. Besides, I had no right to be jealous. Matt and I weren’t really dating, he wasn’t even my boyfriend.

At the same time, I had a thing with a guy who was regrettably on the other side of the Pacific. I told Matt about the guy one day when he walked me to the post office to send letters. And since nothing was exclusive, I was also “texting” two other guys I happened to meet online. But still, entertaining other prospects didn’t keep me from feeling jealous.

3) Expectations = Disappointment

It’s difficult to gauge an appropriate response when you can’t have real expectations. It sounds petty, but when Matt suddenly didn’t turn up in class or changed our drinking plans, it truly made me sad. It’s quite another level of cognitive dissonance when you know you should be unaffected, but then you’re actually disappointed.

Of course, I wouldn’t mention it. I didn’t want to demand time like in a real relationship. Even if I felt attracted to someone or went beyond friendly parameters, I disliked referring to dates as “dates.” I guess I wasn’t a fan of labels. And just in case it needs more clarification, “hanging out” really means engaging in fun, friendly activities and having actual conversations. No kissing, holding hands, or one night stands. I may be reckless with emotions, but I couldn’t ignore how things were getting confusing.

Before long, I sensed Matt felt constricted. Well, I assumed this, I wouldn’t know. I thought he didn’t enjoy hanging out as much. I didn’t blame him though. I was needy and depressed, so it must have been exhausting to spend time with me. The frustrations I projected were too heavy for the company of one person.

I can’t deny a huge part of me wanted things to work out. I’m sure Matt knew that. But, I also knew none of us could handle any real responsibilities then. Imagining 2011, me and Matt together definitely looked like a disaster. I was an emotional vampire, he probably had major trust issues. You see, he wasn’t so lucky with his streak of questionable exes. Plus, we were drunk and medicated almost daily. Together, Matt and I were one big hot mess. It’s a wonder how we passed the semester. Finally, we probably just made each other sick.

However, beyond our shortcomings, I appreciate Matt for simply being there. He was the only person I could talk to when I couldn’t tell my friends what I was going through. This is the part of our connection that I truly cherished. It was easy to open up to someone when you weren’t being judged. He really made an effort to give sound advice when I asked him for it. Most of all, Matt listened. I know because, after 6 years, he still remembers some conversations we’ve had that my memories have lost.

4) Awkward Alert: People ask if you’re together.

To be honest, in our case, not that many people asked. Some of our classmates knew we were hanging out, but they didn’t bother to pry on our relationship status. However, a girl in Theory class assumed Matt was my boyfriend. Anyway, she profusely apologized when she realized her mistake. I didn’t know how to react, so I laughed it out.

As the story goes, one afternoon in FC (Faculty Center if you’re not familiar with our college,) years before the building burned down, I finally gathered the balls to ask Matt.

“What are we?” Or was that, “What am I to you?”

We were having a cigarette break. There were stray cats along the pavement, he sat on a stone bench outside Katag, I pretended to read a book and text someone on my phone. It looked like it would rain, and I might as well make this all up— 

Sadly, I no longer remember how that discussion went, or most of our other conversations. Truth be told, I have no memory asking him. I guess my head had to cope, so it got rid of that recollection. It’s mind-blowing to realize that my brain had Lacuna Inc-ed away these events from my past. I only know this now because Matt mentioned it.

In hindsight, apart from Matt, some of the people I “hung out with” probably still had no idea I liked them that much. I wasn’t one to tell. When I was younger, I could have a thing with someone and never really call it anything. When the “thing” dissipated, it wasn’t such a big deal. In high school, people called it M.U. or “mutual understanding,” but I swear I’m not crazy about labels. Besides, if that someone doesn’t stick around very long, I take it as a sign that it’s not relationship territory. Plain and simple, or so I thought.

5) Someone can get more attached than the other.

Or worse. You might fall in love.

Perhaps I was in denial then, or I was aware and just too scared to acknowledge it. I remember playing imagined scenarios in my head: If we actually acknowledged it, what then? I didn’t believe he was ready for a relationship. Neither was I, but my young self wouldn’t admit that.

I had no control over what he felt or thought, but I realized I could still get myself together.

Once I knew this, I figured it was time to draw boundaries. I decided to bring it back to legit friendship territory. At some point, I thought I probably shouldn’t have spent a lot of time with him. Then again, severing is such a harrowing thing. It was hard seeing him every day, acting like nothing genuine happened between us. It was ridiculous, but apparently people could still fall in love even in shady circumstances.

I remember leaving him an online message, telling him how I felt. Shortly after, I stopped seeing him. I had to get over our nonexistent relationship.

I had no room for regrets here. I’d say I was only learning. It’s exactly what Roland Orzabal meant when he wrote, “It’s my own design, it’s my own remorse” in Everybody Wants to Rule the World. I would later harbor guilt for being so careless with emotions and killing hope for our friendship to survive. 

For these reasons, I stopped talking to Matt. It got easier when I finished all my classes. I needed the distance to grow up. The following year, I was busy with a new relationship. And as history had it, I wouldn’t see Matt for more than 3 years.

I sa pa, Cor?” he said, urging a third bottle.

I nodded and he called the waiter for another round. I don’t drink as much now. Two Pales easily get me buzzed. But I felt a bit more at ease that night.

“So, ano na pakiramdam ng gagraduate?” I said, just to break the dead air.

Wala, ganun pa rin. Mas matanda lang.”

“Yeah. But I’m happy we get to finish this,” I said. I don’t know what we were talking about, but after a while, I felt it was okay for me to finally ask.

“Hey Matt. Were you ever angry I left?”

He took a swig of beer, then looked at me. “I was, for a while. I thought you said bad things to your boyfriend about me. But then, it had nothing to do with that.”

Matt was talking about a guy who warned me to no longer see him.

“I’m sorry for what happened,” I said.

“I’m sorry too, Cor.”

Pero huwag mong masamain. Kailangan ko yun,” I said, letting him know it wasn’t because of some insecure ex. I wouldn’t have changed my decision. I knew he understood.

Oo nga. Paano ka makaka-move on kung araw-araw tayo nagkikita,” he said. I think he even flashed a bit of a grin there.

“Exactly. Kailangan magtanda.”

There was an extended silence here. Then, I knew we were cool.

We left shortly after the last round. Matt took a bus back to Cavite and I drove home to Commonwealth. I’ve always known he was a friend for the long haul, even if things between us never worked out. For what it’s worth, I learned it’s never a good idea to use people or any type of relationship as an escape. We have to make time for relationships to grow; give, not just take what we can. It’s the longest lesson I ever had to learn, and I guess I’m still learning it.

After all that, I’m glad Matt’s still my friend.

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