She had called him, for no apparent reason, an asshole. The sound of that word crashed against his ears, cracked, boomed, what have you. Every time he replayed the moment in his mind’s eye, he would hear her voice a hundred times louder, the words rolling up: “… yooooooouuuuuuu aaaaSSSSSSHOOOOOOOOOOOLLLLEEEEEEE!”
Of course, shame was the cause of all this exaggeration. She had never actually shouted at Gab. Jane’s intention was to say it quietly enough so that he was the only person who could hear her in the whole airport, and she was more or less successful in this regard. It was the reality of that incident – the instant of his reduction into a source spewing nothing but excrement and his awareness of that moment’s reality – that made him feel as if the whole world had risen up against him in chorus.
What was it that he had said? What had he done? He admitted to himself that he merited at the very least a reprimand, explaining that she did not like that he tried to hold her hand. Perhaps a slap would have even been better. He could have at least survived that. But then again, she had already made her feelings clear when she jerked her away as soon as she felt his fingers make contact. Yes, she had called him an asshole later than that, once they were arguing, once he had already apologized for that misjudgment. So what was it then? What was so wrong in trying to strike up a conversation?
When he had first seen her there, she was standing with her back against the wall by the bathroom door he had been watching, not that he needed to go or anything. She had been standing there for quite some time, and it reminded him of the first time he ever saw her, all those years ago at the—
No, wait a minute… that was the first time he had ever seen her. When he saw her at the airport, it was raining and the habitual bursts of light and sound shook Gab out of his daydreaming and turned his gaze away from the windows that soaked and blurred the white shapes fading in and out of the evening. It was during one of these bursts that he turned his head to the gate of the terminal and saw her passing through the security checkpoint. He had left his bags behind without saying anything to the freshman who shared the cab with him from the dormitory, assuming that the boy would watch over his things anyway. He was an especially round, awkward boy who constantly looked at Gab as if he were a saint, not that Gab thought that this was true. Gab was neither handsome, nor rich, nor skillful. He had the inkling that the boy must have known him back in high school and admired him from a respectful distance. Forgetting him now, Gab left to pursue the girl.
It was the memory of their first and only real encounter that drew him to follow her now. They had met in their first year of college at the house party of a mutual friend, where he was convinced that out of all the people he knew from home, she was the one who struck that perfect balance between excitement and dryness. At most parties and especially at the airport, Gab usually bumped into his co-provincials, but they were typically people he couldn’t imagine himself enjoying the company of. If he ever found himself among them, he feigned small talk and quietly regretted being with them. How little they knew of his inner workings. When he recognized them, he registered their names as the names of strangers, no longer as friends, though in truth he would have been more welcome to real strangers than to them. The idea that strangers had never disappointed him was preferable to the history of upset that he had gone through in college.
Gab had formed flimsy alliances with his friends from home. Of course, at the time, they were friends by default, brought together by the uncertainty of new experiences. They practically clung together as they walked through the university gates, which towered over them like the entrance to a new world. A nearby sculpture of a friar on a horse, its distinct human features obscured into jagged angles by a now-famous Cubist, its hand raising what was probably a codex where a saber should have been, was their Lady Liberty. Gab in particular was more surprised by the sudden flood of attention he got from girls whose names were previously the only thing he kept of them. Seeing each other in one of the labyrinth hallways of their ages-old college, they called out to each other as if their special bond had placed them into a special sort of clique, which was something recognized by their peers from the big city. Gab was almost popular in that brief period. Or at least, he felt popular for once.
He found himself making promises with these new old friends that they would look out for each other (what were friends for after all?), and in all of two weeks these promises were completely forgotten. They were all sorted out into their respective blocks and getting to know people whose company seemed more inviting than Gab’s. Before long Gab would spot his comrades and ladies having lunches with Ben Sherman and Florsheim, kids whose cliques they had weaseled their way into with their stories of going to this party where they did this. Or going to Bora that one summer to do that. Or going abroad where they got so-and-so… Gab himself remained uninvited, having made of B.S. and Co. passive-aggressive acquaintances. He tried very much to integrate himself as well, wanting to impress them with his own stories, but of the affluence and carefree life that they had lived and continued to live, Gab found no share. The rest of what old friends he thought he had left simply forgot there was an alliance at all and remained at home, a safe distance from whatever dangers were awaiting them since the first day of college. Gab saw them as he walked around the dormitory, and he noticed that they looked miserable behind the iron grating of their dormitory windows. He wanted nothing of their present misery, and ran off in any direction as long as it didn’t lead him back to the others from home.
The weight of his isolation permeated into the moments when Gab had managed to forget them. Whenever Gab glossed over a photo of these schoolmates enjoying the white beaches of his hometown (and its neighboring islands) he knew very well that the best thing was to put it out of his mind. And whenever he was home, Gab found himself constantly seeking something more than what he had there, and was always having. While home did not share the dour quality of the dorm, it was also quiet… dull. Nothing ever happened back home, a space whose designated epicenter was his bedroom, whose limits were marked at the airport. The evening gatherings and parties lacked the appeal that they had when Gab was growing up in them. The friends who stayed behind had suddenly become mediocre. The feeling of watching home unfold in front of him was like the feeling of scrolling through old forgotten photos on Facebook and realizing the urgent need to get rid of them. Home, the city he grew up in, had been trapped in perpetual tastelessness. Whenever he went home, he longed once more for the freedom and promise of dorm life. But once he returned to the metro, rejection would keep him company all the while through. His mind would be stuck, imagining after all what they would be like if he did get along with the other kids.
It was at that party where he met her that he was beginning to develop the notion that a party was an awful place to spend a lifetime in. It had a quality of deception, often convincing people that it was temporally lax. At that party he was watching the doorway for faces that he knew. With the constant flow of comers and goers it was unlikely – the procession of people leaving with their sullen hopes, the parade of people entering with their bags of chips (or more likely, two bottles of whiskey) – unlikely that of the hundreds of kids that went out to parties every day in that city, Gab recognized none. But this time he was unlucky, and in the hope of some new experience, he attached himself to his friend Mike, who was a local. From afar, Gab spied her against the wall and they exchanged inviting glances before Mike brought them together.
She was never coy, and never sounded stupid. After exchanging names and handshakes with Gab, she launched right into conversation. She seemed to speak without need for breath, responding immediately to everything he said and laughing or vocalizing her immediate thoughts whenever he spoke. Most importantly, he never thought she was annoying. Though she talked and talked, she talked about things that allured him, particularly her knowledge of secret places around town that sounded like places worth visiting in the sprawling metropolis. Here was someone who enjoyed going to bars instead of clubs, who enjoyed actually listening to bands instead of dancing mindlessly to the deafening dullness of house music. Eventually, he found out that they were from the same hometown, and she shared his contempt for its continually wilting monotony. He enjoyed talking to her, and somehow, strangely to him, she seemed to enjoy talking to him too. She found him interesting.
From time to time they moved around the room, gradually shifting their positions until they found themselves on the couch and then they were by the drinks table and then by the window and then back to the drinks table and finally to one of the vacant rooms. Clutching their beers as they dangled their legs from the edge of the bed, Gab felt that they both had kissing on their minds despite the stories she suddenly unloaded on him, which he considered to be nothing more than the perfunctory details of her history. Her parents who had split the year before. Her relative freedom as an adolescent, able to go wherever she pleased without having to argue with her mother. Phases that she had experienced. Going through the motions in one of the bigger, older Catholic schools in the city. (“It’s weird that we’ve never met before,” Gab remarked, upon learning the name of the high school she went to, which was a casual haunt for him and his friends.) Though she told him that she wanted him to know her, she sped through her life’s details, going so quickly that he thought they couldn’t have possibly been the point. She ended with the story of her first kiss, which she shared with a much older boy at a party not unlike this one. They were alone together in one of the rooms. They were lying down together. And then it happened.
This last detail, Gab felt, was an indication. Whatever was going to happen, whatever it was, was definitely coming.
But the possibility had been shattered by the sudden appearance of the same friends that had brought them together. The party’s snack supply had somehow fully depleted, and a food run was being arranged. The two of them were volunteered by their friends. They sat next to each other in his friend’s car, heading to a burger joint on the corner of the street where he was living. She reached out and put her hand over his as the car sped off into the night. He looked at her. She smiled. They said nothing. He looked away and from the direction of where she sat, he felt cold plastic lodge itself into his ear. He looked at her. The plastic twin was in her ear. It was a band he hadn’t heard of before, something like The Americans or The Nationals or something. Because the singer’s voice was so deep, Gab could barely make out a single word of the song. She leaned close to him at some point, and began to whisper along.
“Jean!” he called out.
She turned to look up at Gab. Her expression hardly marked surprise or recognition. She answered: “… It’s Jane.”
He tried to save face, an all too transparent effort: “Hindi ah! You’re lying… Just kidding!” Damn.
Since the last time he had seen her, she had put on a few pounds. She wore a navy blue tank top under a beige sweater, but the tank top seemed to have been worn in an attempt to make her look thin again, an effort that was clearly failing, though she was still attractive. The fact that she was wearing a large, almost-masculine pair of pants reminded him that she was in shorts when they met; he recalled the devilish pleasure of watching her legs find their way through the room when the crowd obscured his view. To the drinks table and back. To the bathroom and back. She brought along with her a roller bag and an oversized shoulder bag. She probably had a third, bigger bag checked-in on the plane. When Gab found her, her roller bag was open and she was hastily trying to stuff her clothes in between a pair of books and a big black rectangle that looked like a home appliance. It was as if she had packed everything she ever owned into that bag. Instead of laughing with him at his mistaking her name, she zipped up the bag and crossed her arms over her stomach, stretching her arms to her back so that it looked like she was hiding her belly, a gesture that Gab found so familiar that he almost laughed a little longer at it. For Gab, it was a subtle gesture of motherhood. Or rather, it reminded him of his mother, who used to cross her arms over her belly when she was pregnant.
“It’s okay,” she said, frowning. The area around her eyes was puffy and pinkish. “I get that a lot.” She then forced a smile at him, and then asked, “Going home?”
“Where else would I go?”
“Yeah, you’re right. Stupid question… Can I sit with you?” he gestured to the vacant seat to her right. They were standing in front of an empty bench, which was remarkable given the crowd in the airport that night.
“Flying by yourself?” he asked as he took the seat. She said that she was, another stupid question, and they exchanged seat numbers, only to find that they were on different airlines. He should have figured that out by himself, considering that she had only just arrived. Gab in the meantime had arrived at the airport at 5. It was 8. If everything had gone as scheduled, he should have been home just an hour ago.
She sank into her seat, feigning exhaustion, her arms still crossed over her belly. Gab watched as she pulled her head back up, straightened herself, and looked back at him with sudden contempt, as if he were a stranger once again. She had changed either very much or not at all, and Gab was trying to decide which it was as all the things he could have said when he got her name wrong came to mind. “Mali ka jean!”
“It’s been like four whole years, hasn’t it?” Gab asked to break the silence that now hung over them.
“Since we last saw each other.”
“No, we saw each other last year.”
“What are you talking about? Of course we saw each other! Well, at least, I saw you. We were in Greenbelt and you passed me without looking at me.”
“I—” he couldn’t come up with a passable excuse in time. He had recognized her then.
“I followed you afterwards and you met up with your girlfriend or something. She was very skinny looking and had this really bored look in her eyes.”
“… She’s… not my girlfriend. Well, she used to be.”
“She said she felt it was too one-sided.” Whether or not this was true, Gab could not tell. Whenever she complained, he did his best to make up. In time she would complain again and this went on until she decided it was enough. Their last fight ended after she told him she felt that he was trying to make her feel like she owed him. It’s not that he thought that this was true. Rather, he was disturbed by some misplaced courage she had summoned up to say something like that to him. “I was always trying to make her happy and she somehow felt it was all wrong.” He eventually realized that he was saying this to himself. She stopped paying attention as she pulled out a wrapped sandwich from one of her bags.
“Big whoop,” she said as she tore the sandwich free from its paper trappings. Gab took a sip from his Coke. “Point is, you passed by me without saying hi.”
“You didn’t say hi yourself.”
“I did! I waved at you.”
“Yeah, I would have appreciated something like that. You walked right past me.”
“I’m sorry,” he finally said, and without her realizing it, Gab knew deep down that he was apologizing for much more. He had been apologizing for all the opportunities he had to say hi, but didn’t. Though she had eventually vanished into thin air the night of the party (Gab could not recall what happened to her; he only remembered that he never said good-bye or good night or told her that he had a good time with her), the truth was that Gab had made a secretive effort to see her more often. Just as at the airport, he had gotten her name wrong while looking her up on Facebook the day after they met. He kept typing Jean although he knew that there was something wrong about typing that name. He looked at name after name, profile pic after profile pic, and knew no one. It was only while seeking her out through his friend’s network that Gab managed to find her again. At first he checked her profile religiously, stopping by almost every day after class to see what she was up to. He never sent a request for them to be friends. He didn’t want to scare her off, which he thought would have been quickly accomplished by doing just that. If she wanted to be friends with him, she would have made the request herself. So he continued to check. He did not think he was stalking her as much as he thought he was trying to satisfy her lingering presence over him with something sensual. Every picture on her Facebook had been captured terribly, showing her as a blur in mid-action. His interest in her would waver, and he would check her out with diminishing frequency. Whenever he checked, it managed to confirm to him one thing: that he remembered her. But encountering her now at the airport, he realized he hadn’t seen a single picture of her in a long time. Maybe it had been months, sure. But it couldn’t have been more than a year.
“It’s okay,” she said, instantly absolving him. She seemed to hesitate for a moment, like she had been disappointed by his apology. How could that be? It was exactly what she wanted. She finally spoke up again. “At least you weren’t struck by lightning.”
“Why would I be struck by lightning?” Gab asked.
“It’s just an expression.”
“I’m not familiar with it.”
“Well, okay, it’s an expression I made up,” she stopped to gulp down her drink, “When I was a kid, I remember that one of our teachers, and she was a nun, she told us that if you said bad words, you’d get struck by lightning. She told us this story about how her brother used to shout a bad word, a really rotten one, all the time – probably the f-word or something – whenever he was outside the house. And then one day it happened. He was riding his bike in the rain and he got struck. I remember being really scared about that because I believed her. I was so little.”
“That’s cute.” From where he sat, Gab spotted a group of girls from school. They had just found another bench a few rows ahead of them. They were accompanied by an athlete whom he also recognized, but couldn’t place the name of. He wasn’t from the province.
“And then one day I heard one of my classmates say ‘damn’, and I was so surprised she never got hit or anything. And it was in my head all the time. Like I used to be mad and stuff, and it was weird just saying like a safety bad word like ‘gosh’ or ‘shish.’ We weren’t so little anymore, you know? So one day, I just went to like this really quiet corner of a hallway in school while nobody was around. I even told God I was sorry I was about to do it. And then I just whispered it. I whispered the four words I thought were really bad when I was a kid. I never got struck and I just found it so strange that I believed my teacher after all.”
“How about that.” The girls started throwing quick glances at Gab, talking quickly.
“But then…” she hesitated again. “I realized that in the nun’s story he didn’t get struck because he said the word once. He kept saying it, you know? So… so, he got struck.”
“Well it’s not like you did it again, did you?”
“I was such a big pottymouth in high school. When we met, I was throwing f-bombs all around the room.”
“No you weren’t!”
“Yes I was! I was so bad back then. Not just bad words, but, you know…”
He laughed. “Yeah…” he said without really thinking.
“I guess what I’m trying to say is,” she said, “I used to think that lightning would strike me, right? But now I think it doesn’t strike from outside. I don’t know how to really say it. It’s like… I’ve been saying bad words all my life, and for the first time I feel like I don’t have to say something bad anymore. It’s like… you strike yourself with lightning, but you don’t have to.”
He was thinking of a feeling he had once in class when they were asked to read ‘Spring in Fialta’, whose title had slipped his mind at this point. All he ever remembered were the feelings. He remembered his classmates hating the story because they could never get past the first few sentences. Because of this he was not much of a public reader and he was very quiet about his secret fondness for well-written romances. A moment of silence passed between them before he asked her: “Hey, have you ever read J.D. Salinger?”
“Right now, I feel the way I did when I first read that guy.”
She laughed. “What, you feel like a catcher in the rye?”
“Catcher in the—? No, wasn’t he the guy who wrote… the…” Embarrassment loomed over him. He stopped trying to think of the story and went back to the feeling. “Anyways, I got a good feeling after reading it. Like there was something that made me wanna read the story again. Like I knew that I missed something and so… I need to go back.”
“Do you smell that?”
“Nothing. Nevermind. It’s gone.”
“What was it?”
“I don’t know. It just smelled like somebody’s dog was passing by.”
“They only allow dogs until the check-in, and in their cages.”
“Okay. I was just saying that it smelled kinda gross.”
“Okay. I didn’t smell anything.”
“Did I ever seem like a good person to you?” she asked, slouched. She kept moving her hands back and forth over her stomach, a gesture that Gab took to be something she was doing out of boredom. She then pulled out another sandwich and munched on it quickly, as if the sandwich from earlier had never happened.
“Of course,” Gab answered.
“But… but was I someone you would have wanted to be friends with?”
“So why didn’t you ever talk to me after?”
Gab remembered how everything had been ruined. At the burger joint, he realized he was short on cash and had to go home just to get a little extra change. When he returned, he found that she had gone home. He had just missed her.
“I really wanted to.”
By now she had thrown the last bite of the sandwich in her mouth. She reached for a napkin in a paper bag and wiped her mouth as she chewed. “You know… that’s the problem with you guys. You keep saying that you want to, but you really don’t, do you? If you really wanted to, you would have gone ahead and talked to me. You would have added me on Facebook at the very least.” She put her hands down on the bench, looking away.
Gab thought about saying sorry, but realized that it wasn’t something he could just say sorry to. An alternate universe unspooled in his mind, conjured memories of an unfulfilled relationship where they would have turned out differently. He noticed her hand on the bench, planted so close to him that it seemed to Gab that she was reaching out. It was an inch away from his thigh. He hesitated, and she was looking away so he couldn’t tell if it was the right thing to do. He gently hovered his palm over her hand and lowered it. The slightest contact made her jolt. “What the hell are you doing!” She pulled her hand away and faced the opposite direction. She clutched her hand and looked at Gab very sourly as if her hand were some idol that she thought Gab was trying to steal away. Gab had turned into a little cherry. She looked as if she was about to explode, to publically reproach him for something grave, like rape. Her eyebrows leaned in toward her nose. Her frown was fixed, speaking feelings of betrayal.
He pulled himself farther away from her on the bench. No one was looking at them, but Gab felt the need to run away now.
She tried very hard to control her voice and speak to him so that it wouldn’t be a spectacle for strangers. “Well,” she said. “I don’t blame you. I knew you were like the rest of them when you didn’t want to say hi to me. When you conveniently took out your phone and…” Her shoulders fell after another deep breath. Her face relaxed. “It sucks. I was counting on you, Gab. But I’m going to say no.”
“We can be friends now. Let’s hang out over the summer. Let me have your number.”
“You don’t understand. I can’t do that. I can’t do that anymore.”
“Because of the way I am. I need to go home and I need to stay home and that’s it. I want to change, Gab. I am changing. That’s it. I’m going and I don’t want you to follow. I can’t let you follow.”
“My name isn’t Jean, damn it!”
“Sorry! I… You can talk to me. I’ll listen. What’s going on?”
She started to pick her bags up. “I have to go now. My plane’s boarding in a bit, and you’re making…” she said, her voice shaking as she trailed off. There hadn’t been any announcement over the PA in the past five minutes.
“Please, wait. You can trust me,” Gab reassured her as he took hold of her wrist, but this gesture provoked some other unexpected response. She retched all over the floor, the chunks of sandwich matter splattering a little over Gab’s feet. He jumped. She stood there, pale, looking at the scene she had just made. People turned their heads around and looked at them with displeasure. Nobody was standing up to help. They seemed to assume that Gab was in control of the situation. He was going to help her himself. Gab looked at her, ready to say something again, but she clearly didn’t want to have any of it anymore. So she said it. Picking up the last of her bags, she hurriedly walked away from him and disappeared when his eyes darted over the faces from one part of the pre-departure area and back to her. She had been heading in the direction of the bathrooms rather than any of the gates.
Instead of going after her, he let her go. He looked up at the monitor. No change. He let out a sigh, trying to get away from himself. He could not stand there much longer. Passersby continued to look at him, and he started to feel like he was standing over a body. Flushed, he averted his gaze, turning to a trash can or some other object. He didn’t want to look at the girls from the other bench and he prayed that they hadn’t seen his face earlier and recognized it. Someone sneezed and then the lights went out for a few seconds. Children either gasped or screamed, and the chatter became louder in that time, as if it would somehow bring back the lights.
When the power came back, he made the long walk across the hall back to where his things were. The freshman had disappeared. An elderly man seated across Gab’s things looked up and told him that the freshman had gone to the bathroom or somewhere, but he had taken his bags with him. Gab thanked him and sat down. He tried hard to put what had happened out of his mind. There was something in what she had said to him. She told him that she was changing, but as far as he could tell, she had already changed. She behaved strangely, and she was no better than a stranger whose name registered as that of a long lost friend.
When he felt like he had restored himself to his natural color, he turned his head to the bathroom door, as if looking for someone else.