Michael Marano, 129 TESS
I arrived at Peace Corps Staging in San Francisco surrounded by a fortress of buttons and wool. Before I entered what was sure to be an onslaught of icebreakers, I fastened my shirt all the way to my chin, feeling safer with every clasp, and cloaked myself in an oversized black cardigan. I spent most of the morning staring down at the hands in my pockets, mumbling my way through a condensed three-minute life story that got shorter and less illuminating on each retelling. Shuffled to my fourth table of strangers, I longed for the moment a genuine connection would increase the resolution of their pixelated faces but feared appearing in HD myself. I continued to hide in plain sight as the timid nephew of Mr. Rogers observing and gathering information until I felt comfortable enough to open up. Then, I was placed next to her.
Her smile melted me faster than the Campbell’s snowman eating a bowl of chicken noodle soup. I was enchanted by its familiarity and warmth, not knowing I would spend the next two years falling in love with its every iteration. She spoke with the cadence and melody of a Disney Princess as we bonded over staring at 30 in a sea of 23 year olds, wondering if we ever rode Splash Mountain at the same time, and our mutual love of her long, thick hair. Without realizing it she had unarmed me, my cardigan thrown to the ground and my top two buttons ripped off my shirt in fits of passion, metaphorically of course, a look is a look and conference room AC is colder than my students on an 80-degree morning. I began telling her fourth date stories before the appetizers even reached the table, the more bizarre the bigger the excitement in her reaction. I didn’t believe in love at first sight until I met Kaori Cierra Alonso Yamamoto.
With the luck of Wreck-It Ralph crash landing into Vanellope’s Sugar Rush, our sites were placed right next to each other, so close on the map of volunteers that her picture needs to be flipped up to find my own. Our host families were introduced a mere 9 days after we arrived in their homes when KC and her sister, P. Pui, travelled to my village to surprise me on my 30th birthday. Not knowing that I was a mile away from my house, drifting asleep on a hammock to the blood curdling screams of a pig being slaughtered 5 feet away, they spent the morning meeting all of my neighbors trying to trace the steps of the new foreigner in town. An hour later, riding through the sugar cane fields in the back of my host mother’s song taeo, sitting next to a cooler of fresh pork and a basket of hooves, I heard KC scream my name, running toward me with a cake and handmade crown. That first month at site I constantly heard whispers of “Mango and Crazy,” followed by the inevitable question of whether or not she was my girlfriend. Now when I see them, before asking how I am, they ask me about Kaori, something that has become common from everyone from the masseuses at the bus station to Peace Corp staff. I beam with pride every time, knowing that seeing me reminds them of her.
As true of any great love story, this instant connection didn’t liberate us from the icebergs looming in the distance. If KC was Dermot Mulroney then I was Julia Roberts, and our attraction to the same type of men was Cameron Diaz. That didn’t stop us from wishin’ and hopin’ and dreamin’ and prayin’ or her from engulfing me in the safety net that is her aura, slowly peeling me open like Shrek’s onion. She didn’t mind getting her hands dirty and delighted in every smelly, tear-inducing layer. My gaze drifted from the motivational quote on her mirror, that I needed to remember to make fun of later, to the eyes I had been avoiding as I told her stories that I’ve shrouded in shame only to be met with such kindness and empathy that I couldn’t remember why I had ever felt that way to begin with. We laid our life stories bare with Moana in the background, becoming more enamored with each secret we shared. I had found my person.
A year into our platonic romance it only made sense to take the final step and meet her family in the Philippines for Christmas. Her mother, a gay icon with fiery red hair complimented by a plethora of sparkly dance outfits, arrived before us. I could feel her energy from two rooms over as soon as we walked into the house. The vibrancy of every syllable she spoke knocked me out and I spent the week clamoring for her attention, doing whatever ridiculous thing I could to hear her say, “Michaelllllll” in her incredulous, wide eyed, full of amusement tone. The twinkle in her eye filled me with adrenaline and she distracted me from my own homesickness as we caused trouble that tasted like tequila and felt like a little kid’s Christmas morning excitement. The second she handed us matching tee shirts to celebrate KC’s own 30th birthday I understood how KC had become such a brimming with love, compassionate, optimistic person. Huddled closely together at their family’s resort, sipping hot lemongrass tea, with a storm raging around us my love for them grew as I learned the small secrets that reveal themselves only in the interactions of people who have loved each other their whole lives.
The most beautiful part of my love story with KC is that I share it with anyone who has ever met her, the details unique but the way we are listened to, the deep contentment we feel after a long conversation with her, and the unconditional love we receive to the most hidden corners of ourselves is all the same. Her friendship has impacted so many volunteers, allowing us to take bigger risks knowing that we have someone to help us pan for the small flakes of golden success in the muddy streams of failure. Not only did I fall in love in the Peace Corps, I fell into that can’t-eat, can’t-sleep, reach-for-the-stars, over-the-fence, World Series kind of stuff and not even our obsession with the same Thai football player could ever get in the way.
…and as the credits roll the main song sung beautifully during the film by an animated Tony Award-winning actress is butchered by a popstar.