It’s late in the night when we took a cab ride around the outskirts of town. We picked up some supplies on the way at the local 24-hour convenience store near the bay and paid extra on top of the fare. He was sorry about waking me up, but he didn’t know who else to call at the time, he explained. Of course, I didn’t mind one bit.
We watched the smoke lingered in the air under a street lamp. It was like a scene from Close Encounters of the Third Kind. This made him forget for a little while, which relieved me in a way, for I was putting on a terrible performance consoling him.
We didn’t talk about it much really. I didn’t know how. The ebbing of the tides in the moonlight did all of that for us.
I guess that was all he ever needed, what both of us did.
“I don’t think we could ever prepare for these sort of things.” He started.
“You’d know if it’s good when it’s scarce.
All the good ones are.”
I didn’t say anything.
We waited until dawn before heading back. He wanted to catch both the last light of the night and the first of the coming day.
At the end of it, he knew that profanity is the cheapest means of revenge.
“Think about something else. “ I urged him finally.
“The good days.” I knew I was doing worse I wanted to puke.
“I want to see that try bring down all the xenophobic ideas in the world.”
Then the warm rays glimpsed upon us suddenly with the breeze blowing from the direction of the sun.
And it went on in my head. I could still trace him. My son’s scent on the pillows.
I think it’s painfully blissful, sometimes I couldn’t stand it.
Jupiter was no bigger than a five-centavo coin when it shined that night. Thrilled, he placed it inside the hole he made with his fingers and peeped through it into the sky with one eye. He took a photograph of the sighting but his phone camera failed to deliver justice and so he decided to just discard it.
Overhead, its glow was diluted by the increased display lightings of the bookstore. As he stood outside, he then watched the storekeepers and the customers raced — like lab mice — the mazes of the bookcases inside. Uninvited, he crushed his half-done cigarette and went in and did the same. He started with the selected features and trod along the modern classics section until he slowed down when he reached the aisle between the Russian giants and H.G. Wells. He decided to procrastinate venturing and opted for the latter instead this time. Besides, he figured that reading Tolstoy or Dostoevsky would not sit very well with commuting on public transportation and discerned that he doesn’t want another unfinished book.
He had plenty of time, he tried to convince himself. But by the year he reached thirty-four true friends had enormously reduced to mostly dead writers and fictional protagonists. It was as if living people were only worth trying out if their thoughts and general interests were first proofread and edited like any publication houses would do.
This he thought about and the million things that could potentially take place in his short lifespan. But who would dare care? After a while, people would eventually move on with their lives. He confronted himself with the thoughts of unreciprocated love affairs and unfulfilled passions. What if they discovered that the only thing, he could ever love unconditionally was the rain? The time of the monsoon was coming, and it would be cooler soon. The thought began to console him. It was not necessarily of importance but for him, they were like the soundtrack of a very good film and the foams in his drink.
They say that life flashes on by without you realizing it. And oftentimes we miss it, especially when it counted the most. But in his case, there were no flashes, no theatrics — Just a series of random movements and intermittent pauses.
On the escalator going down, he bumped into an old colleague from the University. They exchanged numbers after going over a crash course of where their lives had led them since they last saw each other.
During the dialogue, all he was thinking about was the Irish coffee he was dying to have.
He never thought that the idea would ever touch his ugly mouth, but it did, he blurted it out, he felt ashamed.
At that moment everything else sounded broken to him.
H narrowed his eyes, squinting at the three-hundred-year-old enamel chalices, spoon, and ladles sitting inside the glass case. As he read the inscriptions, the professor was observing him quite amused with his growing interest for the Spanish colonial artifacts. “Now that we’re done with the kitchenware, when can we see the replicas of the Manila Galleons?” H half-jokingly mused but the host paid little attention to him and continued on with his private tour. Their heels clacked raucously against the linoleum tiles until they were seated inside a study, where the curator usually entertains visits from historians, politicians, grantors, and special acquaintances in the scientific socio-sphere.
The professor scheduled the tour on an early morning of midweek, which meant the city tours were on low key which worked perfectly both for them and the host. Education was essential to move forward, but the past was an integral part. “You see“, placing the boater hat on his right knee, “The tales of history are always best told in such fashion. True appreciation depicts demeanor, so bring some of that home with you.”
But H was daydreaming. The lucid mind receded. It was a terrible habit.
After a few, he asked earnestly “But how do we know we’re making the right kind of history?”
This came out of nowhere but the professor welcomed it anyway.
“Well, that’s tough.” He repositioned and crossed legs.
“But I guess all good ones are.”
The old man commended H for his potential, for his innate artistic brilliance. He felt responsible for him — he was but a ship that was imperative to build.
That night at the ball they were in their double-breasted amerikanas, surrounded with great pieces in the Amorsolo gallery. “It feels quite absurd wearing uncomfortable outfits in such scorching climate” H complained.
But like his fathers before him, who shared the same streams of aspirations but unable to shine on fully, he was willing to submit, basking in its symphonic reception. The corners of his lips widened as the smiles beamed. By and by the crowd has been able to separate the two, until arthritis got the better of the old man.
The General Council on Cultural Development had taken interest in the works of the young aspirant. They consist mostly of middle-aged men, of scholars and intricate critics who busied themselves buzzing on and about, clinking champagne glasses and exchanging small talks here and there to no end.
A woman in her fifties approached H who was now standing by the tribal shaft ornaments. The powder on her face traced the wrinkles on her temples, while the yellows of her teeth emphasized by the redness of her lips. The laces of her evening gown appeared uncomfortably itchy to him.
He felt like a young buck drinking water from a murky shallow swamp.
It made him feel worse he wanted to change right away into his regular clothes and lay down by the awning thatched windows of home. In his mind, he would sail the leagues of his imagination where he’d set out on a trip on-board the Manila Galleon bearing great treasures of gold, ancient jewelry, and rare
spices of the east. Then at nightfall when the skies are clear enough, he’d be under the stars, gazing in his hammock suspended as it sways to the gentle motions the ship. And as it bobs on the cradles of the ocean, he’d wonder on further to even greater depths to where the giant squids are lurking, rare sea creatures reign on the decks of sunken armadas. He’d be there where the midnight blue outlines the darkened earth of the mountainsides, while the waters like dark ink with splinters of glass mirror the cloudless sky.
He pinched his nose as he walked out of the gallery. Both teacher and pupil started the road again.
“There are always dark days ahead. In my case, my arthritis.”
“I was just here for the relics.” H grinned.
“So did you sign the job offer?” The professor sat at the park bench and fed the koi fishes in the pond.
I drew the shower curtain and found her there, curled up in the dry tub. It was days now since the time she last spoke to me. I could imagine her resentment against me and I couldn’t blame her of course, how could I? In the soft beams of the afternoon sun, I bathed in its modesty, lending me the time for myself outside to catch some air. Time is a friend that catches on. And when it does, it leaves you behind uncompromisingly. Its passing does not protrude to hurt. Its manifestations need not be heralded. It makes its own course through the passages of being and existence.
We took the train and exchanged the snuck whiskey during. I held her close enough to remember or not to forget and snatched some shallow sleep in between stops. It took several hours to complete the draft. And I had her read it out loud, so we can both comment on it. She suggested not changing anything. It’s always best unadulterated she would say.
In the evenings we would walk up the streets to talk about it — what’s philosophical and objective — on how she would always support me, love me, until we reach the fork of our ways. I knew It could be that even in the stillness of her voice I heard her say those silent encrypted protests for the unbecoming. Let’s be like Ed and Anne for good — to be in a place where the roads never end, licenses never expire, and the rides go around and roundabout.
The news came one day. A friend committed suicide. Connie took muriatic acid, it was immediate. No other details shared apart from that. We haven’t heard from her for a while, we just didn’t realize.
A country musician from Illinois was playing on stage by the time we got there, making use of his larynx as the main instrument in his repertoire. People who knew Connie were felt compelled to keep her alive until the bar closed at four. The musician paid tribute to Layne Staley, Lou Reed, and Sinatra too. It was fitting: life is a life, nonetheless. It was years after when I saw some of them. The rest I wrote letters and postcards were mailed back especially around the holidays.
Over rounds of drinks, we were reconciled, at least for a while, in this tragedy we were bound into. Subtlety always resided with sobriety, while indiscretion and truth were found on the side of the night, always. Back at the apartment, I phoned a relative just to be sure. A doctor-on-call was scarce. Discretion was the key, Intervention was next I suppose.
It’s never going to be perfect, she said. It’s going to be ugly, and mad, and hysterical. Her arm was filled while the spirit high. But flowers wither, rivers eventually run dry. The colors fade, if not, most eyes will turn the other way. And if not for these fleeting moments of transcendence, life will never be appreciated on the pedestal of grandeur. That glory, courage, and wisdom, these fragments we hold onto – not reluctance but a mere recognition, a fight if you will — of life not ending but transgressing.
The white walls were all there were. I was sitting in front of it. At the bedroom table, I was surrounded by all of them. White walls on all sides. Plain as it could get, except for the outdated calendar hanged limply on the southwest side that was about to give out in the faintest blow of the wind. The room was still. Even with open windows, there was no breeze entering at all. No rustling coming from the neighboring trees, neither whistling nor visits from the birds that usually perched on the window sill. The smoke of the cigarette followed the pathless hike, ceiling-bound as it curled in front of my face. Everything around me was silent as if we were all waiting together for something important to happen. Thin sheets of clouds were covering most parts of the sky like an oversized gray patch so dull it resembled a clearing of a lahar aftermath. I decided to rescue an empty coffee container made of glass, to use it as a spare mug should I have visitors coming over. But I was not expecting anyone that night, or any time soon I figured. Still, I washed the damn thing anyway and placed it on the drying rack next to a microwavable dish plate.
It was not always like this in fact. Especially on weekends when the halls outside my room were packed by children running up and down playing and yelling until twilight when their parents call them in for supper. Or at Christmas when my mom and sisters come over to have lunch with me before heading back for Noche Buena, or last summer when I dated someone from work who also lived nearby the sea. In this vacuum of time I remained, in this void, I lingered, over expanding in the thoughts of my consciousness boundless. I thought I belonged there, it was like a homecoming. I began to snap my fingers to break the chain. I could no longer stand the silence. I walked towards my reflection and saw the lines on my forehead. Deeper than the last time I remembered them to be, even the placements had changed, it was uncanny. I didn’t realize that my wrinkles were well-traveled. And when did they decide to move was unknown to me. When one was asleep perhaps? It should be that, lest I would have noticed it moved.
The cream firmed up. I stirred and stirred before it lost warmth. I leaned over stretching my head to see the other side of the wooden fence below for an acquaintance resting my arms on the balcony. Then I heard a heavy knocking on the door which caught me off-guard. At first, I thought somebody saw me peering at the neighbor’s and ran up to my room to tell me off. But that was too fast of a reaction it was impossible. I didn’t know who it was behind it, as I said I wasn’t expecting anyone anytime soon. As I turned to approach the door, I thought it could be the caretaker, or someone from the other units probably borrowing some tools like a Phillips screwdriver or an electrical tape. People always forget to buy electrical tapes ending up asking the neighbor for some. And as I came closer, I remembered all of a sudden that I was still in my sleep clothes and thought of putting on something more decent. So, I did that, throwing in over a sweatshirt although it’s thirty-three degrees that afternoon.
When finally, I turned the knob to open, there stood in uniform a guard from downstairs panting, catching his breath while wiping his massive neck with a face towel. He has a wide body, probably too big for his shirt and hat, who also was taller than I was. I gave him a moment before he was able to say that there was a phone call for me at the reception.
“I don’t understand, did the caller leave a name?”
“I’m sorry, I neglected to ask” he responded, finally regaining himself.
“That’s fine, does it sound urgent?”
“It was a woman’s voice, I can’t really tell”
From the living area, I heard the first arrival of the birds perching on the tufts of the sofa. The leaves rustled for the first time that day.
I invited him in to drink a good glass of cold water and joined my perched friends on the balcony.
She got out of the shower and stood by the doorway soaked. It was hard not to watch her body glisten in the light. She asked me about the fight, on why I over-reacted like that. Obviously, she was upset about the whole thing and I did not want to make matters worse, so I turned the other way. I told her that I didn’t mean to scare her and all, but it’s something that I did not have control over like how I was when I am around her sometimes. Like the polar caps in the heat of the sun, I guess we just simply melt away.
Lightheaded, I asked her if she can go to the front desk to get some fresh bandages and anesthetics. Miles Davis’ Blue in Green was on the static radio. I looked outside and noticed that the moon was a bit distant than the usual. It was turning out to be a really slow night.
When I was about to reach a complete state of deep slumber, I felt a sudden jolt which pulled me right off from respite. And in her softer version of a whisper, she said that we had no time and we ought to be going soon before the sun rises. “Movement is life, and there is no telling what the road holds for us today.”
She was always the wiser one.
I looked around trying to get some grip on what’s going on. My head still felt woozy from the sedatives and vodka I took. On the newsstands, some guy from the government was causing trouble in the south. I then skimmed the column and memorized the name on the byline and thought that the writer was one tough guy to be able to say things like that. And I wished wordlessly, that someday I could be as brave.
We sat down along the roadside by the line of shrubs under the canopy of the trees. The heat was gentle, and the dews were still present on the soft landings of the open leaves. We waited for the first bus trip while drinking cool stale water from our canteens and watching the day unfold. The wound from my head was starting to dry off, a bit painful still, but it was better. Across the benches, there was a sidewalk vendor selling herb oils and healing mantles, who signaled to me for a remedy, but I rather self-heal.
We bought a local wine to get us through the cold by the time we reach the highlands. This helpful advice was taken from an old commuter, whose business was to bring farm and household supplies to the villagers up north. He was a light-hearted fellow with a pair of shiny, rosy cheekbones. We thanked him for the tip and offered if we could buy him a bottle as well, but he respectfully declined and said that he does not drink while working. Instead, he offered his home to us in a couple of days during the cropping of the harvest. And then he added that we could also help out should we want to earn a few pesos or just for the experience. We said we would definitely consider that and thanked him once again for his generosity.
The day was ultimately different compared to the last few days. As if there was something grounded governing those mountains. I never felt so still in my life. And in those moments, I genuinely heard the voice of silence speaking to me, as the waves of the wind carried its message across, it was like an endless cradle of fleeting conversation with nature itself, it was inexplicably serene.
Then I surveyed the scenery around us, from the line of trees with their broken shadows cast on the road to the uneven terrains of the hillside, heaving deep breaths as I began to wonder if the thought of staying has ever occurred to her. And in the midst of this wandering contemplation I suddenly arrived at the conclusion which I have always known, that she was a runaway, and like the great mustangs in the west, she is always meant to run.
And so, I hid these and leaned against her shoulder thankful still.
I was at the receiving area waiting under a bamboo ornament, for the Colonel — who I was interning for at the time — was concluding unofficial business matters in the other room with a tarot card reader who was also his lover. I kept on looking at my wristwatch hoping it would wind up faster. Earlier that day, he said he had received a phone call from the lady and demanded it imperative that he must come by her place at once. But he couldn’t really say why and therefore I couldn’t, in turn, determine which role portrayal she was on that afternoon. The Colonel was not always this superstitious; matter of fact, he was quite critical and sensible. His decisions have always been based on his years of extensive military service and never believed in anything supernatural. Word was, a few years back, he saw an apparition in the mountains and for days he had fallen ill and had serious episodes of convulsions which ensued from this chain of events, him being rather delirious and “undetermined”. According to the rumors, once, he snuck out of the camp, climbed over the steel fences and was found by roving soldiers talking to barks of trees and wandering about in the shadows. All of these, of course, in respect to his rank, were not stated on the official routine reports.
Flipping through a magazine and chain-smoking, across where I seated were four comfortable looking armchairs each decorated by carefully embroidered apple green throw pillows, of which the designs represented the celebrated animal zodiac of the year. I preferred to stay near the front door where I amused myself with daydreaming and brewing empty, sobering thoughts. The place was always lit red whether it was day or night, and the embellishments on its interiors were limited to beaded curtains, fortune plants, oriental figurines, and wind chimes, which I suppose for the purposes of being economical more than being spiritual. The lady across me was fourth in line and she appeared to be accustomed to the culture of the queue. She was right about mid-forties, had a good posture, and still had good set of teeth. She was with her daughter who appeared to be oblivious on where she was and was absorbed watching videos on her mom’s phone.
I was about to doze off when a fast pacing movement caught my attention and saw the Colonel and the fortune teller crossing the street getting into a white taxi. And it flashed to me the instructions I had received from one of the high-ranking officers to not lose sight of him. Hurrying, I looked over the counter (to make sure), peered through the slightly opened reading room, and figured that they had used the back door.
I saw the Colonel look back from his side of the backseat as if motioning with his expressions that the future has been foretold and everything was out of his hands. I witnessed the slopes of his discontent vanish in the light of the sun that glared on the glass window. In his eyes, I saw the greenest meadowlands on a perfect summer day. I turned the other way, and with earphones on, I walked up those festive streets warm on the eve of Chinese New Year. I turned around and the vehicles behind me were reduced to blurry hazes and bylines. I couldn’t tell where they turned, but in the absence of, something from within welled up, as if a part of me was working again.
Then I remembered the moment I first met the Colonel. It was my internship interview when he started talking about cigars eagerly, about the types of wood, and how the Ilocanos traditionally made theirs. I knew nothing about these of course, but I caught myself nodding between these expanding points. And I thought to myself that I knew him, that he must have had a familiar soul.
Nowadays I still wonder about the Lady and the Colonel. On how she undresses and tucks herself beneath the warm sheets underneath the pale moon. And how the Colonel would watch her and think to himself how beautiful she is especially when she cries. Not that her grief amused him, but it was more about the honesty that shaped her. It was like an encapsulating shell that preserves every piece of humanity that was left there for us to feed on. That fate and luck must have decided to reconcile this time around, amidst chaos and the inevitable misalignments of our limited capacity.