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short story

Screenshot from In the Mood for Love (2000), dir. Wong Kar Wai. Thanks to Nicole for helping me pick this photo out! 🙂

The most effective way to test a bridegroom’s resolve (to finally, after so many years of watching and wishing and waiting, leave the careless playtime of childhood behind and know with exact experience that you have become an adult) is to bring an old love to the bachelor party. Though Andy learned this firsthand on the eve of his own marriage, it was at the same time one of the bigger secrets he kept in his life. Even in his older years, he thought that the whole incident was best kept between himself and the girl and no one else, and he committed to this, hoping that the girl had done the same on her end as well. He often hoped that the incident would sink into the depth of obscure memories where all childish things eventually end up. Someday, the memory would be forgotten or at least, half-remembered.

From time to time he found himself closing his tired eyes as he sat by the pool, blocking out the sound of his grandchildren running around him or cannonballing into the water, their laughs fading into the grand noise of, as one of his favorite books precisely captured it, “adults pretending to be children pretending to be adults.” He remembered seeing behind his closed eyes the glimmering of orbs of all sorts of colors. On the night of his bachelor party, he was tracing his vision over the shoulders of his groomsmen, no longer minding them or their petty arguments on the history of ideas. They were not interested in going out. They would not last the night. Andy scanned the faces all around the bar, anticipating one whose sustained occupation in his thoughts made her face clearer and clearer. He was hoping that if she just happened to be there, there was a chance that he might relive an even older memory. His eyes stopped as he looked across the pool. It was fortuitous. She was sitting on one of the lounge chairs alone, looking around as well as if she were waiting for someone. She looked exactly as he remembered, exactly as he had been picturing her in his mind. It was uncanny. He held his breath, forced back a smile, and stood up.

And he opened his eyes because he felt his arms shaking, and there were his grandchildren, asking him to join them. He would smile, decline, and tease them, which satisfied him. He longed to close his eyes again. He could never make them imagine the noise that he imagined and still remembered, so that it felt like he was hearing it there and then. He was imagining that the noise of parties that burst muffled from nearby. They were as old as he was. And even when there were parties at the hotel, it came to him no different from the way it sounded when he first heard it as a child. Whenever he heard a party, especially a marriage party, he realized that it was impossible to forget, that what happened that night was forever tied to him.

Andy had seen a number of weddings pass through the hotel in the days leading up to his own. Along the Cebuano coastline, there were dozens of neighboring resorts, and Andy knew from experience that his could not have possibly been the only one hosting nuptial celebrations. The beaches of Cebu were popular for that kind of thing. He personally knew two of the married couples that week, and he paid them visits to extend his congratulations, even to offer a gift from the hotel. As he shook hands or spied the couple entering the hotel having been wed, he paid attention to how the grooms looked, a strange pattern emerging. The grooms receded in age, beginning with a sexagenarian who was thrilled to be coupled with a short brown woman almost half his age and ending with a clean-faced man just a year or two younger than Andy, eyes gleaming with the promise of new life, new beginnings. This last groom was one of the two that Andy knew, one of his juniors from high school. They did not know each other that well, considering that Andy was not a very social student in those days. He attributed this to differences in taste, Andy usually being satisfied with what many of his peers considered a quiet night. In point of this fact, Andy was aware that the young groom’s bachelor party was spent at one of the popular dance-clubs on the other island. Though he had never entered it, Andy had been very familiar with the place. Several times the club had been redesigned or renovated with fancier, curvier architecture, and was slapped with a new name with each facelift. There seemed to be a need to make the club sound like it was more and more the seat of comfort when to Andy it was really anything but that. From then until now, the dance-clubs were where most of the kids went because most of the kids liked going there and they all liked being seen by each other. There was no room for any talking or any sense of real intimacy. Still, Andy shook the man’s hand, exchanged smiles and compliments, and wished them all good luck.

Now that that party was well underway, he started to head back to his room, his mind reeling in the nostalgic familiarity of walking past well-dressed men and their dates, and he remembered a certain night that he lived through as a young man. He was himself dressed up, but not for any wedding. That night, it occurred to him to dress up for himself. He was celebrating his solitude, he recalled. A solitude that would be broken that same night. He stopped in his tracks. He realized that familiar as the evening felt, this night ought to be different. It was the night of his bachelor party. He headed in the direction of the rooms to track down his groomsmen. They were planted in their respective rooms, and whether they had any surprise plans, Andy really had no impression or inkling. It seemed to him that their plan was to simply remain there. He asked them if they wanted to step out of their rooms, hoping to have a drink, even if just there at the hotel bar. Andy’s groomsmen were selected from his bunch in college, a group that was not particularly used to drinking as an activity but used to talking of things that did not involve other people’s business. Andy had had quite enough of that in his pre-college days. The times he spent with them he welcomed, and perhaps that was how he considered them his best men. They each had a beer, beginning to joke about the state of the evening’s affairs and then veering away to talk of theory.

Is it still alive or is it already dead? One of them asked in relation to Schrödinger’s cat.

Perhaps it is a matter of semantics, another suggested. It is alive, but we consider it to be dead, therefore it is indeed both.

But you are suggesting that only theoretically. Making its death a condition in the mind removes the paradoxical quality of the experiment. It must be dead – really dead as it is really alive – or else the experiment is settled…

            If we cannot find an answer, what is the point of posing the question in the first place?

And that was the exact moment he saw her.

The door to Andy’s room yawned open. He stood in the doorway, eyes not quite ready to call it a night yet. He flipped on the light switch and found that he was no longer alone, that he could see

I.

two teenagers already inside, the boy – a younger shadow of Andy himself – in a dinner jacket and the girl (what was it? Her name. What was her name again) – who had been attending a wedding that night – in a dress, standing by the shelf across the door. The girl was unusually talkative.

“I have this friend who went to Germany recently for her older cousin’s wedding. She said that couples who want to get married over there have to go through this thing to bring about luck for the future. It’s nothing at all like a bachelor party. I mean, you can still have a bachelor party, but if you want, you can also do the porcelain breaking thing. Anyway, they get together with all this porcelain and one night, in front of everybody, they just smash all the porcelain and then they clean it up together and I think she was saying that the porcelain is usually porcelain that the guests bring, so they’re bringing all kinds of porcelain, like jars and vases… Don’t they sometimes make toilet bowls and bathroom sinks out of porcelain? … What are you thinking about?”

“This isn’t weird, right?” Andy asked, walking into the room, pulling his jacket off. “I mean, it’s a nice room, even though it feels kinda seedy…” He felt guilty saying this. His aunt owned the hotel, and she was very welcoming to the idea of Andy pitching his tent up there. He had been staying in that room a lot lately. His parents had been going out-of-town regularly now that their business was earning a reputation; negotiations had begun on franchising the establishment up north. He had been given the same room to stay in since he first came over. It was a convenient distance from all the other hotel amenities.

They had bumped into each other as she was walking out of the reception hall, hoping to escape the noise. She was headed toward the swimming pool. It was funny that Andy had happened to meet her on his way back to his room, and he explained the circumstances of his staying there, which led him to invite her up. They had met before when Andy had volunteered for a play that her school was staging. She may or may not have been aware that Andy had developed quite a crush on her then, and it made him nervous to find her there in his hotel. He was bent on impressing her and that night was just the latest in a series of efforts. She immediately texted her parents to let them know that she had come across a friend with whom she wanted to catch up. Though she did not specify who the friend was, she did indicate that the friend would be taking her home.

Andy walked up to her. “What do you think?”

She didn’t seem to be listening. Something had caught her on eye on the shelf hanging across the door. It was a statuette of a man standing behind a woman, his arms gently pressing her belly. She looked at the expressions of the man and the woman, trying to tell how they felt while locked in the eternal embrace. They appeared to be sleeping. She put the statuette back on the shelf horizontally to see if this was true.

“Really?” she picked up the statuette again, holding up on its side to Andy, rotating it slowly to make its lewdness less elusive. He was standing in front of her now. “No kidding. This doesn’t look seedy to me at all. What is this? Porcelain.”

“Well, just because some funny-looking statue has tickled your fancy doesn’t mean—”

It slipped through her fingers and he remembered it crashing slowly, as if it had frozen before it could come apart completely.

*

Andy was shaken out of memory’s grasp once he heard the crash. He looked around and the teenagers were no longer with him. He was suddenly nervous. What had he done? He was no longer a teenager, but there was something about what he was doing that felt so young, so full of wild carelessness. But he was not planning to sleep with her or kiss her or take her when she was not looking. He had only come to the room to get his car keys.

Andy’s car slowly traversed the winding road that went up the hill. The way was poorly lit and every now and then Andy had to be mindful when a truck suddenly leapt out from a blind corner. Nonetheless, he was thrilled. He had always wanted to do this because he was very fond of going up the hill as a child, and he had always hoped that he could share the majesty of that view with someone. Naturally he wanted to go with his fiancée, Eliza, if she weren’t so busy trying to make sure that things came through for the wedding. Their original wedding planner had dropped out a month before the wedding once she found out that her mother was dying of cancer in the United States. Andy and Eliza agreed that they would harbor no hard feelings toward her, but it seemed that Andy had forgotten to bless himself infallible as well. As she took the reins over her own wedding, Eliza seemed to dump her frustration day-after-day upon Andy, who, as much as he wanted to get back to work, had forced himself to accommodate her. He was well aware after all that if he didn’t bear this small cross, he was not off to a good start as her future husband. Attempting to engage himself into a supportive role, he offered to split the work with her, so that she would have less to worry about. Much to his surprise, this set off another bomb in her mind, and she refused to speak to him for a week, though she eventually apologized. Eliza noted that it was indeed very unusual behavior on her part and rather immature. As a future wife, she wasn’t off to a good start either. Since then, she had confided her rants to him less frequently, perhaps to compensate for the one week.

On the week of the wedding, Andy seemed completely mystified as to what Eliza was up to. When the week began, he asked once again if there was anything he could do to alleviate the stress. Her answer was simple and obvious: “Just be there on time.” After that, he had seen so little of her that week that it was almost as if she had flown back home. She was really just running back and forth all the time between places. It was practically a miracle that Andy had the car to himself that night.

“Did you hear that?” Andy asked, referring to the buzz that was coming from inside the otherwise silent car.

The girl leaned forward and opened the glove compartment, where a phone was violently buzzing. It almost fell out onto the floor, but she caught it and managed to read the name. It was Jamie, Eliza’s maid-of-honor.

“It’s Eliza’s phone,” Andy said, reaching out for it. He took the phone and explained to Jamie that Eliza had left her phone in the car. She then proceeded to tell him to tell Eliza about some situation with the cake, that it had collapsed while they were putting it together or something. Andy told her that they just had to relax and try to put it back together as best as they could. In the meantime, they were to make use of the smaller cake because at least that one was finished and okay. The upside to it, he told her, was that no one was going to know what the cake was supposed to look like anyway. Jamie answered okay, but she didn’t sound very sure of herself, and hung up.

When he put the phone down, Andy sighed and remarked that the two cakes would have killed him in college, both financially and physically. It astounded him now that he could afford to actually have two cakes served at his wedding now that he no longer relied on the false income of youth.

“At my wedding, we had a cake made entirely out of macaroons,” she answered. It was good that they were approaching a stoplight when she said that.

“When did you get married?”

“A year before my husband died.”

“Jesus.”

“You didn’t know?”

“I had no clue. I’m sorry. I haven’t seen you in a long time.”

“Well, looks like they were wrong about gossip spreading fast.”

They were quiet for a moment.

“He was already dying when we got engaged,” she added.

They reached the top of the hill, where they came across a flipped-over funnel-shaped structure that turned out to be a small cemetery. They stared out over the city, a view which had rarely changed since their childhood, and then they drove out. Nobody said anything. Suddenly, the view was not at all interesting. Many of the places they had grown up around were still there. The hotel on the hillside, whose ownership and brand had changed hands during their lifetime. The Mormon temple standing on the lot behind Andy’s old school. The tower on Osmeña Boulevard, where you could pay to walk over glass on the top floor. The two of them walked away from the ledge over the hill, as if walking away disappointedly from a window display. Nothing new, one supposes.

II.

Shards bring luck. That’s what it’s all about, my friend said. The word itself means something like ‘to make a lot of noise in the evening’ or better yet ‘the evening of noise.’”

“Will you help me clean this up?”

She completely disregarded him, and leaned down so that her face was close to his. “Let’s go see a movie.”

“I hope they don’t charge us extra for this.”

“Nah. Actually, this feels like a pretty swanky hotel. I bet celebrities come here all the time. They probably always come and go breaking things around the room. Who knows? Maybe it wasn’t even porcelain.”

“Well, whether it’s porcelain or not, it’s still broken and it’s still theirs and it’s still their prerogative to char—what are you doing?”

“Keeping one.”

“Why?”

“I already told you. Shards bring luck.”

Andy said nothing to this.

“What’s curious about the whole thing is that even when the porcelain is still whole, they still call it a shard. It’s just as much a shard as all the little ones.” She smiled. “As far as we’re concerned, we just made them a hundred tiny statues!”

Andy didn’t find this joke particularly funny. He continued to sweep up the pieces of statuette. An arm here. A lip and cheek there. He thought about putting it back together then and there if only he had some glue.

“And besides,” she went on, “Your aunt owns the place, doesn’t she?”

“Yes, she does. But that doesn’t mean I can just go on and rip the entire hotel to shreds. This place has a reputation, and it’s practically the family business.” He sighed. “Who knows? Maybe I’m going to run this place one day, maybe even get married around here, too.” He sounded very certain about this.

“Well,” she then said, bending down across him and picking up one of the larger arm pieces. “If that’s your plan, I should help you clean up then.”

*

They had returned to the hotel swimming pool. Instead of staying at home, Eliza had decided that it was for the best that she and Andy stay at the hotel closest to the church so that it would be faster for them to move back and forth. Andy’s house was on the other island, roughly thirty minutes away. Yet for some reason, Andy had gotten wind from his mother that Eliza was staying over at their house tonight. He hadn’t a single clue why she would even do that. Whether she was expecting Andy to come back or not, he really wasn’t sure. He wasn’t planning on going back. It was too late for anyone to be awake, Andy included, so there was not very much risk of them being seen together. He was giving her a summary of what had gone by for him since the last time they had seen each other. Particular topics of interest to her were what he had done after he graduated, what sort of work he was doing, and how he met Eliza. He was not so keen on telling her, partly because he was afraid that he would fall asleep telling his own stories. And besides, having to drive back and forth between the bar and the hotel had tired him enough already. Eventually, he would have to drive her home too.

“Now I want to go see a movie,” he finally said.

She laughed, but said nothing. Now was probably a good time to get that beer. He stood up and said that he would look for the bar. Coming back, he held two bottles of San Miguel Light, and noticed that her eyes were open a little wider now and her body had tensed up. He immediately asked her, “What’s wrong?”

“Just keep your eyes on me, okay?” she said hastily. “Sit down. Put the beers on the table.”

“What’s going on?”

“Do you see the table on the other side of the pool? That fat white guy in the Hawaiian shirt? Look quickly, but don’t stare. I think he may be looking at us too.”

Andy afforded himself a quick glance, and noted that there was indeed a large man sitting at one of the tables on the other side of the pool and he was indeed wearing a Hawaiian shirt. But he wasn’t looking at them.

“What about him?”

“I’m going to pick up my beer and walk to the car. In five minutes, you will fol—”

“Wait, before we do anything, do you mind explaining to me why you want to get away from th—”

“Don’t gesture at him!” she whispered. “He’s only going to know we’ve been looking at him. Just get in the car and let’s get out of here.”

“Uh…” he thought for a moment about all that was happening. He looked again at the fat man, who was minding his own beer. “Okay, okay. Go ahead. I’ll follow you.”

“Okay,” she said, standing up. “I’m sorry for this.” And then she slapped him right across the face and strutted back to the parking lot. Andy looked across the pool in disbelief. The fat white man failed to notice anything.

III.

“Let’s just lie down for a while,” she said.

The bed was comfortable.

He had an idea of what was going to happen next. The time was ripe for him to say something. But the more he thought about it, the more he realized that he didn’t want to suggest anything. He didn’t want to overstep any boundaries or ruin everything. Everything was perfect now.

“Do you ever think of what life’s going to be like five, ten years down the road?” she asked, looking at the ceiling.

Andy turned his head to look at her, but she didn’t notice. He fixed his gaze on the ceiling as well. He answered: “Yeah, all the time.”

“But I don’t mean what we’re going to be like in the future, but everything else. The world around us. Like, what if five years from now somebody discovers the technology for flying cars and then ten years from now, that shit is patented? And then whenever you go to Tops to look at the city, you’ll see all these things in the sky?”

“Or like what buildings are there and what buildings are gone.”

“Yeah, exactly! Like, how do we even know this hotel will still be here five years from now? I mean, to us, it’s a hotel, it’s a place, but really it’s just a building and there’s probably a great, unstoppable force that’ll come in and take it down. I’ll feel terrible about that. This is a beautiful hotel over a beautiful spot. I don’t want it to ever change.”

“Don’t get me started on dance-clubs.”

“Right, right. I mean, those clubs come and go, and they’ll always be the same even though the names change.”

“You don’t find that boring?”

“I do! It’s just that what you’ve just said makes a lot of sense to me now. They’re always there, but they’ll always be boring because they’re always there. It’s like saying that what makes something exciting is that threat of… destruction, I guess.”

“Well, consider your world five years ago. What’s different between then and now?”

“A lot of things, probably. But back then, I probably didn’t notice what would go and what would stay. I mean, five years ago, I was just a kid.”

“We still kind of are.”

“… Yeah, that’s true! But, you get what I mean right?”

*

When they got in the car, they didn’t talk about the slap or the fat white guy or why she was scared of him or where they were going next. She just made Andy drive and drive. Every now and then, she would point out something that inspired her nostalgia. She seemed content with just telling him these stories, not even expecting him to answer. He was unsure why she was doing this. After all, he had grown up here too. Why was she talking as if she were a tour guide?

When they had reached the main island again, she started giving him directions without telling him where she wanted to go. It took Andy a while to figure out where they were going, and he sighed to himself, realizing that perhaps the night was at an end. Eventually, they were deep in an informal suburban area when she told him to stop. Across the street was a one-story house encircled by a garden. No light came from the house. Weeds had overtaken the front lawn and had even peeked over into the driveway. The gate was ajar. She told him that this was where she lived when she was growing up. No one had been living in it for years now. They stared at it for some time before she decided to open her door and get out. Andy followed after her without asking anything. They stepped through the gate and shone light through the windows to make sure that there was nobody inside. She stopped particularly at one window, and tried to look deeply inside. They tried the door and went through it. They carried their beers with them the whole time this was happening.

In the room, she sat on a dusty old bedframe and sipped from her beer. There was no mattress and no other chair in the room. All the room had was the frame.

The long silence went on between her and Andy, and she waited for Andy to sit down next to her. Then she said: “After we moved out of here, I started dreaming about the day when I’d buy it back, and I’d live here with my family and raise my kids in here. I kind of hoped to marry someone rich, or someone who was willing to live in this place as much as I did. And I’ve been looking for a long time.”

“You couldn’t do that with your husband?”

“Hm?”

Andy regretted the question for a moment, and turned back: “But there’s still time for that, you know. For moving back.”

“No, there isn’t… Someone bought the lot last month. The lot, but not the house. They don’t want the house around here.”

They sat in silence for a long time.

IV.

They lay in silence for a long time.

There were many things he wanted to say to her. In retrospect, he could have told her what he should have, and that would have made everything different. In fact, he thought about it and wondered if they would have done anything about it if he told her. But he was equally aware that it could have ruined the night, if she didn’t feel the same way. No, all he really wanted was for the night to go on forever and ever. Even when he knew that it wouldn’t, unless he said something about it.

So instead, they lay in silence until sunrise, until it was time for him to take her home.

*

Andy carried her back to the car. She had fallen asleep on his shoulder, buzzed by the beer and exhausted by staying awake. As he fastened her seatbelt over her, she muttered the words: “Take me home…” and he answered her that he would, even though he knew that she couldn’t hear him. When she had fallen asleep, he thought he heard her whisper, “We have to clean it up.” He wasn’t sure if she had actually said that. He closed the door on her, and stared at the house once again. He entered it one last time.

As he drove back to the hotel, he started to ponder on the night that had just passed—the circumstances of their meeting that night, the flight from the hotel, the conversation at her house. Whenever she spoke, his vision adjusted to the darkness of the room and he started to become aware that it wasn’t empty after all. Aside from the bedframe, there was in fact a foot stool, a broom, a shelf, and on that shelf, the statuette of the man and the woman. It looked like the exact same one, but he couldn’t be sure of it. The floor was littered with crumbs of paint that glowed when moonlight shone through the windows. Well, they were either crumbs of paint or the old chips of broken jars.

When Andy re-entered the house, he stood across the shelf with the statuette, confronting it, wondering if he should take it or not. There it sat, waiting to be broken again. She never mentioned the statuette the whole time they were there, never drew his attention to it, never gestured or pointed it out. He only noticed it when they were silent, when she had fallen asleep. And yet, she had left it there twice, both when she moved out and when she had visited that night. Why would she leave it behind? Did the statuette mean nothing to her now? In the end, he took it because he knew that it would mean nothing after all because of all the things it implied between everyone involved, it only really meant something to her. It was the memento of a memory, which she was leaving behind in an even bigger one. He decided that it was the last time something would be ruined. No superstitions, no spells or magic or tradition. Just decisions.

He thought a lot about the things that had changed over the last five years. She was not the girl that he had developed his life’s great crush on because she had been changed so much by her circumstances. Or perhaps she had not changed at all; he just barely knew her back then. She was now the end of a trajectory that had been set five years ago (or perhaps she was still in the middle of that trajectory). He wondered about the strange man across the pool, and what he must wanted from her, or if she had made the whole story up to get out of that hotel. He wondered about her house, now he realized that she was visiting it perhaps for the last time. He wondered about her husband, who he must have been and what had killed him so early. He could tell that she was sad now, sad that many things didn’t turn out well for her. She had sacrificed her expectations, and in return she was sleeping now in the passenger’s seat. Perhaps five years ago, when they had that conversation, she had no way of seeing that her life would end up this way. He didn’t even know where she lived now.

The sun was rising as he crossed over the larger bridge that connected Cebu’s two islands. The night of the bachelor party was over now and it was the day of Andy’s wedding. A large oil-tanker, bigger than any of the ships that had crossed through the island when Andy was younger, blew its horn. The skyscrapers of Mactan’s business district, the sight of which he had never really admired until now, glittered. He suddenly became conscious that this building was not actually familiar to him; it hadn’t been around at the beginning of the century, when Andy was still growing up. Moreover, many of the routes he took to get to the bridge passed by the familiar landmarks of his old life, many of them now coming to him as having changed significantly over time. Some of them were even places he had gone to with the girl sleeping next to him in the car. The old seaside mall going decrepit, having been forgotten after the completion of its much bigger, much fresher replacement. The park over the old airfield was now completely urban, no greens. Roads were much larger now. Many parts of the city now had proper sidewalks and a number of overpasses and underpasses. A bus system boasted drivers that were more professional, more polite on the road than the jeepneys that ruled the streets back then. The last of the bars and clubs of their high school days were now completely gone, and in their place, new bars and clubs and restaurants and diners had risen. In many ways, the city now resembled very much the city up north that Andy found so exciting when he lived there in his college days. Andy’s feelings were changing as well. Instead of being utterly repulsed by the idea of living there, Andy could now imagine himself settling down. He had searched outside for many years, and now having finally stopped and looked, he knew that he had reached it, home, with someone whom he knew would be just as happy to call it home too. It was not so much that he had been bored with Cebu. It just took it time to catch up with him. It was a city that fit him perfectly now, and he was not afraid to think that he fit in just as well.

Somewhere, at this hour, the girl he was about to spend the rest of his life with was waking up, as she usually did, and for the first time in an entire month, she was going to feel relaxed that everything would turn out alright. Andy knew that she harbored no fears about their marriage. Neither did he, and he was certain about this every time she suddenly appeared to him. Eliza was not the sort of person who made up expectations for herself. She was so frustrated by the ruining of expectations that she barred herself from making any. She took each day as it came. Perhaps that’s why she was so dedicated to him, so willing to give herself up. When they were still dating, he had simply taken her to this small off-the-road café that she had never heard of. They had good coffee and they talked for hours. At the end of it all, he asked if she liked the café, and she answered him, “What are we doing tomorrow?” He had realized it back then the moment she said it, and it came to him even stronger now: he had given her something to look forward to every time, whether he knew it or not. And she had done the same too. She was someone that he could talk to forever and ever.

In a few hours, he would have to wake his friends up. They would have to have brunch and start getting dressed. The wedding was supposed to happen in the middle of the afternoon, which means they had to be in the church just after lunch. When he reached the hotel, the sun was still in the middle of its rising, which meant that only the pool boys and a few maids were walking about, not minding Andy who was carrying a strange, unconscious woman back to his room. The security guards even offered to help bring her to her room in a wheelchair. He lowered her unto the bed with no fuss, and she slept soundly and peacefully as he wrote the note telling her that if she woke up while he was gone, it was because he was getting married. But then, it occurred to him that this was something that she already knew, and he would rather not remind her. He crumpled up the note, returned to the car to get the statuette, and placed it back on the shelf, wondering if she would notice. He stood at the door and looked at everything in its place almost as it was many years ago, and without really saying anything, wished her good luck for the very last time.

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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?”

“Yup. You?”

“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.

“… Okay.”

“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 when?”

“Since we last saw each other.”

“No, we saw each other last year.”

“Really?”

“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.”

“What happened?”

“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.”

“Oh.”

“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?”

“Yeah, why?”

“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.”

“Okay.”

“Do you smell that?”

“What?”

“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.”

“Okay.”

“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?”

“Yeah.”

“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.”

“Why not?”

“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.”

“But Jean—”

“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.