In the lobby of the Fairmont in Manila is a pianist who plays a variety of standards and pop hits, quite loudly, every afternoon beginning at 3pm. Melissa and I make a game of identifying them, “Beyond the Sea” side by side with “Blank Space” and the entire Disney canon. “I feel like I’m in a Woody Allen movie,” I say, as “Bewitched, Bothered, and Bewildered” echoes off the marble floors and high ceilings. I feel like I am in a Woody Allen movie more or less the entire time I am in the Philippines, like my entire life has gotten away from me and the best I can do is hang on and see what happens next.
I was afraid to come, obviously; it’s the furthest I’ve ever traveled by myself and feels like the furthest you can travel, period, even though I know objectively that it’s not. Every night I call my husband from twelve hours in the future and listen to his phone ring on the other side of the world. On the plane I curl up under my blanket scarf with Harry Potter, which I am reading for the first time and which both distracts me and helps keep my anxiety in perspective: Harry’s twelve years old and fighting the sum of all magical evil. Certainly I can saddle up and sign some books.
“Have you sorted yourself?” Robyn asks me over one of our many truly extravagant breakfasts, omelets and bacon and croissants the size of my face. When I tell her I think I’m a Hufflepuff she nods like, that makes sense: a nice girl, a hard worker, loyal. Prefers if you don’t look at her most of the time.
We do mall events that make me feel like One Direction; we do TV shows that make me feel like Taylor Swift. Everyone is so much lovelier to us than they have any reason to be. The fact that I’m reading these books turns out to be a rather excellent talking point—everybody has an opinion about Harry Potter—and I chat happily with more than one reporter about herbology and Scabbers and which characters should kiss. Hufflepuff, I say over and over when they ask me what house I think I’d be in. I’m a Hufflepuff.
Our last day there we have six interviews in the lobby, the coffee table littered with five hours’ detritus and the three of us perched on the sofa like birds on a line. The pianist is playing a vaguely recognizable tune with great gravitas but I can’t figure out what it is, working it over and over in my brain like a kernel of popcorn stuck in my molars; Melissa is halfway through answering a question when I finally realize it is “Killing Me Softly”, which strikes me as the most hilarious thing that has ever happened in the history of the universe, but I know that I can’t start laughing, because if I start laughing I will never, ever stop: at the song, at the situation, at the idea that I came here to this place and did this thing even though I knew with one hundred percent certainty that I couldn’t. I smile, bite the inside of my cheek.
After that everything seems easier somehow, like I’ve finally figured the spell out; suddenly I am sliding into a cab and onto a plane and flying back over the ocean, moving back in time and going home. “There you are,” my husband says, when he picks me up at the airport.
“Here I am,” I reply, and take his hand.
Two nights later I have dinner with a friend back in Boston. We talk about my trip and about her summer internship; we talk about Harry Potter, like you do. She asks if I’ve sorted myself and when I tell her Hufflepuff, she shakes her head as if that’s the stupidest thing anyone’s ever said.
“You’re a Gryffindor,” she tells me, like she can’t believe I don’t know myself better than that. “It’s just that you’re a different kind of brave.”