Call him, or her, Ishmael

Ishmael, or ‘Miss L’, aka ‘Madame Elle’, is an performer from Caloocan hoping one day to make onto the European entertainment circuit, possibly by way of international cruise ships operating in the Indo-Pacific region. Apparently, there is money to be made as an entertainer in hotels in and around Metro Manila, but for obvious historical reasons, Europe represents something of a step up. For the present, however, Ishmael was running the spa on board the 2GO ferry operating the Manila–Cebu City route.

They first spoke to me in Quick Mart, the onboard dispensary of coffee and snacks, but it wasn’t until later, while I was reading at a small round table on the landing overlooking reception, that they caught me away from other people. They said that as soon as they laid eyes on me, they knew I was “the one”. After barely ten minutes of conversation, they said they considered me a “close friend”, and that they hoped I felt the same. “Nothing more,” they added – I’d mostly talked about Laura. “Look after yourself, honey.”

They introduced me to the other spa therapists as their “future husband-to-be” at least three times. The therapists laughed in a way that made it clear I wasn’t the first person Ishmael had cornered like this. Ishmael encouraged me to visit the spa at around 9pm, after dinner “and a shower – take a shower first”, for a free massage. “I’ll even rub your back. I’ll take care of you.” They were wearing dark lipstick. I went to bed.

In the morning, Ishmael came and brought me coffee, a burger and a T-shirt bearing a travel-related platitude in a kooky typeface. They – I’m using ‘they’ partly because Tagalog (pronounced ta-GAH-log, the official language of Luzon, the Philippines’ largest and most populous island) doesn’t have separate personal pronouns for different genders, which may be why Ishmael, as a gender-ambiguous person, didn’t address this gender-ambiguity by stating their pronouns as people in ‘the West’ have grown accustomed to – knew where to find me because they had scoured the ferry for me during the night, while I was sleeping.

They asked me how I had slept and started to make friendly conversation with my neighbours, who took kindly to Ishmael’s flamboyance. Ishmael told me they had waited up until 2am, expecting me at the salon. “From now on, I am Mrs Cooke.” 

When they put their hand on my knee, I moved away. I was trying to read. Then it was my toe, but it was the way they fixed me with a stare that I found the most distracting. They kept telling me how much they missed me, or had missed me, and that they hoped to see me on my return journey to Manila. Thankfully, I already knew I would be on a different ferry for my trip home. They wanted me to visit their family in Caloocan.

When I got down to walk away, they grabbed me and planted a kiss on my cheek, aiming for my mouth, then dove in again for my neck. It made me think about assertiveness and gender. They were behaving like a ‘he’, I thought – presuming requital, persisting in the face of an awkward, uncomfortable smile – but I also know from experience that it’s not just men that can behave like that. He? She? How much does it matter? Be sensitive. When we finally docked, I was glad to get away: the Visayan Islands were beckoning.

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