It was nearly the end of the hour, most of the customers have already left the counters and those who remained were the regulars playing a few more rounds of pool before calling it quits. On a napkin, she drew a Martian cat holding a flag and a pint, folded it in half and inserted it in my phone casing.
I was feeling light, tired. She said it might have been the lateness of the night; we were not the same as we used to be. We were different then, but in a way, have not changed much. Probably we were both.
It was my turn to buy the next round. I was running thin on beer money, but the night was still asking.
It was a mistake, but who’s counting nowadays? The world is full of it. Everyone has drums and boxes filled with it.
“Where were we?”
“Back to where we used to be, in a place we ought to be” She insisted.
“But you’re moving back to California.”
“The moon was fuller the last time we were here. Your hair longer and I didn’t have this limp.”
“You were dashing” She chuckled.
I returned some myself. “Eight years of alcohol does a lot to you.”
The container trucks lined up overhead, stuck on a flyover across our window. The stream of orange highway lamps traced the roads with broken lines and asphalt. She wrapped her head as it rested on her upper arm and continued,
“Will you cook me breakfast?”
“If you still like over easy with burnt hems.”
“I always thought it was perfect.”
Sometimes I go to this place in my head where I recounted this sequence over and over. There were nights when I’d just look up in the sky and hope for a chance. I still keep it with me, her dog-eared paperback copy of The Trial, protesting, one unused bookmark at a time.
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.
It was cold and windy when he stepped out of the publishing house. While its appearance was uninviting, its cragginess still appealed to him, nevertheless. Although its elevators no longer worked after the last world war, the staircases were wide and generous, while windows were tall, quite suitable for thinking and writing.
He thought it was indescribable what he felt holding the manuscript finished in his hands. Links of sleepless food stalls wailed, and prolific choreographed routines of evening companions for hire flooded the atmosphere. Artists of all sorts stood around at the corners performing, while middle-aged men who’d rather refer to themselves as aficionados lounged in wicker chairs on narrow alleys.
It was four days before his birthday, exactly two weeks after the car accident. And although the doctors told him he was lucky, the experience still attracted him. It gave him something to look forward to, a journey to profoundly aspire for.
He was driving west in the rain when the car swerved off the freeway until it tumbled off the cliff and dived. It was a hard rain, he couldn’t see. Half conscious, he thought it was beautiful, how the dark, electric blue flashes in the patches of the clouds would entertain him while he waited for the sirens to come.
When he got discharged, the first thing he thought about was getting a haircut. Nothing grand, just good old-fashioned clean haircut. Grooming was after all his pilgrimage back to civilization. It was how humanity saw it, he wanted to compromise.
As he strolled there was a hint of rain in the air. A few swelling beads of raindrops crackled onto his leather coat just about when he reached the turnstile to catch the late-night train.
In this pluvial darkness he pulled up his collar close, and the lapels which overlapped across his chest warmed him. A few celebratory drags then he flicked the cigarette half-done to the puddle, staying with it as he watched it hiss before entering the station.
Just the same, even after all, he still thought it was a good time for a drive, but he could not. Instead, he imagined steering the wheel in the darkness through the same night until he catches the first light of the next day. As he stood on the platform, he thought about how the rain will wash away the world clean as it always did. There were a few lines that he wanted to write her, regrets even. But he couldn’t. His hands are failing him.
We were set to meet the week after Earl was found on the bathroom floor in her parents’ house. Everyone had to lay low for a while, but clearly, it was also a way of saying that the club was about to end. The climate was inclement distinctively that night. The smell of sanitized concrete was clean and calming which paced my driving slow. The man in a green suit with pointy front teeth directed me to where I could park, hand-gesturing to a space behind the steel fences by the back door, where I found a graveyard of cigarette stubs and puddles of dark water left by the rain.
I cranked the hand break and checked the parking job from the rearview and waited for the engine to die down before pressing the dial. The phone rang a few times over until finally a coarse voice answered lazily hinting a dozy reluctance.
It wasn’t her, so I hung up. I went inside and nursed my impatience coupled with anxiety, while I sank in my usual spot at the corner where it was dark and cool and relatively isolated.
I repeatedly went over the unfavorable odds and faulted myself for it.
So, I drank and shook a pinball machine instead.
A little over a year ago, Earl and I stayed in a summertime retreat house near the eastern coastline that a relative of his handsomely sponsored. It was a favor that I had to go through which he insisted since I had nothing specially to do that vacation period anyway. Besides, I have already given tita my confirmation, which would be considered a huge let down if I had changed my mind the last minute. We were made to do preplanned activities which were part of the program, which also ensued, consequently, the day to day itinerary adversely tight for anything else.
On the fourth night, I thought of getting up before the sun did. Sleep was a novelty that was not there since the time we arrived. The moon was too bright it seemed prying, stars too many that I felt naked under them.
It felt like I was making up for lost time. I had a mini viewing deck in my room, sat there with my early cigarette. Looking through the binoculars following a tree line over the ridge, I saw a beautiful white domestic canary gliding over the sloping into the narrow passages until it disappeared, completely. The entire landscape was starting to warm up until it was finally soft and rosy all around, while the ocean whimpered across the shore on the opposite side of the lodge.
And it seemed tranquil enough to begin, for anyone who wanted to start all over – like a moth to a lamp I was drawn to it.
It was after breakfast when I saw her waded in the shallows. The water was clear and blue, and sometimes green in the day. The skiff shifted, it was about the perfect time to daydream, and what better way to do it than sailing away from the coast. When the waters were right about her hip, she went in and plunged. She paddled on patiently, her arms made consistent circular motions toward the direction of the horizon. She tasted the salt upon turning her head for air and permitted the sea to wrap itself around her young body, to flow through her hair and touch her eyes.
I have never seen anyone so beautiful. She was the countless sand in that ocean, slipping away through my fingers.
Consumed, she took a rest on the raft, and lay there as if entwined with the planks; she felt the weight sinking beneath her and the water trickling down the surface of her now warm skin. Her complete state heeded to the call of gravity, and the sun was almost midway up when she stared at it through the gap between her thighs.
She also saw the passing of the skiff, the sails were unfamiliar, but the face she knew. Even so, she paid no mind to it, then she turned to her side and thought about the other boy instead.
It echoed to her, ringing into her ears. Circling, hovering in the air suspended. A thought that lingered, a shadow cast, a return mail, or perhaps in this case of her’s a puzzle piece that she’d rather not complete. On the side table sat a half-filled glass of water and a mat of aspirins accented by the crumpling of drugstore receipts. She got up but not quite making it and leaned against the two giant pillows propped on the wall. The day was not over yet, the soft glow of twilight brimmed across the wide horizon making the sky flushed up in that gentle orangery burst.
Her body was warm, a leg was bent, and both arms sagged across the bed. The wrinkles of the undone fitted sheets gave out, it was almost dark, and she was turning into a bat. A familiar musk of which only a man could produce made her senses and her entire anatomy felt defensive. She dabbed on her side hesitantly, lips were half open, curious words stifled by this uninvited ambiguity. She can hear innocence and lightness in the breathing that accompanied her. It was dry and rhythmic, almost melodious in tone. It got louder as she leaned forward, causing her head braced.
She then dragged her fingertips quietly forward until finally, they had contacted a crooked body.
“It is not a dream” She thought. “But I do not know this man”. She pricked herself again and again – for sometimes she would wake in a dream and would wander off in another.
“I slept the day away. But why aren’t you scared silly? Alas! At the very least weirded out by all this, stupid…” She gasped and slowly moved back to her side and tapped her left sole first onto the floor to get into her bedroom slippers.
Half an hour past she walked toward the table that stood by the open window, dragging a trail of blanket behind her, covering herself to the chest. She waited there staring at the burrowed face on her bed, behind the mosquito net beneath the moonglow that showered through the faint curtains. This woke the crooked body and arose almost in stealth, propped on its arms on the sides.
This time she can see him, but not entirely. Half of his chest and most of his being were concealed, unshared. But there was nothing to show, it spoke finally. “It is I, Juliana” his tone low and suited the sultry tropical weather. He was just a faceless man, not of the flesh but made of stencils, and paints, and narratives – a figment of her imagination, an absolute manifestation of her mind.
Surely, she was not running a high fever to cast this delirious persona she checked.
The dream if it were, was surprisingly placid, she rationalized.
Behind the scaffolding, a grimy mirror on the mahogany closet held her reflection. And she traced the light of the night outlined her shape, the slope of her forehead, the swell on her chest, and the rugged top knot of a painter’s panache she was sporting.
She was humbled by what she knew – She saw the sketching of the skies, the molding from clay, a creation of someone else’s dream.
She reopened a note she retrieved from the drawer and read:
“Let us linger in time before things disintegrate completely before us like paper in the rain. Perhaps it will help you remember. With complete vigor and youthful view round the backseats, as we drove up north, and decided on how you and I should face each other, now, then, in front of, or miles apart, we will always be the same people who we chose to be. Like our favorite characters in those films. So, I’ll see you there, amour.”
A heavy downpour was reportedly on its way, but we reckon that we still have a couple of hours to discuss the matter on hand. Well, he first saw her on a crowded elevator, midway to his floor. He eventually braved the odds and spoke to her after a few more encounters which turned out to be a positive thing that he did. He was always proud of that and would boisterously tell friends at dinner tables or after a few rounds of drinks during the weekend literature meetings held at his place.
He would occasionally talk about how it went on down to the very last detail and how this series of pleasing events would make him write about her. Unsolicited, he also does recite poetry whenever he feels like and claims that the taste of rice has just become sweeter. Clinical or not, I think a sort of madness has stricken him.
It was exactly a month from today since the last time I had cake. I have almost forgotten its taste; how soft the texture is like exactly whenever I gorge a mouthful while smoking a stick of cigarette. And so, I agreed to go out today.
We live near to each other, practically a good stone’s throw away. He was at the door for a good fifteen minutes before I reluctantly answered back.
I crammed my pockets with keys, phone, and a few changes, quickly pulling a jacket on. I took a deep sigh as I braced myself before stepping out. In the sun, I can see more visibly the tufts on my coat and the highway lines of my skin. Invariably despising this idea almost immediately, but there was also a hint of mood that stirred inside me. All of a sudden, I became somewhat excited to see the moonglow and thought about spring.
On the reflection of the glass, my eyes followed a line of ants marching across the pane until I could no longer see where they were heading.
We were standing in the cold, at the front of a jewelry store. This younger friend asked me to choose which one he should buy her. Our hands were tucked-deep in our pockets, nursing to their feeble quakes.
I told him he was stupid, and we should buy cake now.