April 17, 2010

maps, letters and a brief guide to navigating scars

Notes: After “Mnemonics.” Also, I have invented most, if not all, of the travel routes. This is not an accurate guide to vacationing in the Philippines. Consider yourselves warned. Yes, all similarities to real people and events are perhaps coincidental. Perhaps.

i. letters

This is how I get by without you, the first few weeks: I try not to think about you. Try being, of course, the operative word. I am actually surprised by how difficult it turns out to be, finding out how you are in fact everywhere in this life, yet the attempt in itself – the repetitiveness of it, my constant failure marked by the several moments that your face flashes before my eyes, this heaviness in my chest – the attempt itself fills my days, mostly, until at some point it becomes more about the attempt than you.

I try writing love letters on nights when it all becomes unbearable. I get to the end of around 10 of them when I try sending them to the address you left with me.

The package returns to sender about a month later.

*

I stop actively trying to not think about you around halfway through first semester, freshman year in university; something to do with new people providing excellent distraction, on top of school work to be attended to properly. Suddenly, there are simply so many new things and slowly it feels like the empty spaces that you’ve left without warning are filling in and it is wonderful.

Suffice it to say, however, that I still slip every now and then. Truth be told, the first thing that crosses my mind upon acquiring my cigarette vice, sometime toward Christmas of freshman year, is the image of you and me smoking on our lawn while staring at your bike steadied against our fence.

I don’t have to tell you how I spent Christmas that year.

*

It’s 2003. Halfway through college, I meet a girl. She has your eyes.

When it happens, I sort of forget about you for a while; actually, I’m well on my way toward not even having to try. She comes around in December, wearing a silly Santa hat, red as the blush that creeps onto her cheeks the moment she starts singing a Christmas carol right in the middle of the parking lot. I’m off to the side, smoking by the railing, looking on.

The first thing that hits me is, What a voice. She’s singing O Holy Night, of all things; I figure it must be one of those application processes for university orgs that require a bit of public humiliation. I roll my eyes, drop my cigarette and light a new one; chain smoking is bad for people, absolutely, but I’m not too keen about standing there and doing nothing. Smoking is always a good excuse to stand still.

She’s smiling as the song ends; I wonder briefly if it had been indeed a task for an application, or something she just wants to do, for the sake of it. Off the side somebody claps and she breathes out, albeit a bit shakily, covering her face with her hands.

That day I think about whether I’ve seen her before; she’s familiar in ways people are when you’re not really paying too much attention.

Days later, I find out that we take an Art History class together, and on the third Tuesday, I muster enough courage to go on ahead and sit right beside her; in the absence of functioning vocal chords, I just say, via written note, Is this seat taken? (I hope not.) =)

She’ll reference this note endlessly in the years to come, always with that trademark laugh that starts off the conversation the first time. We talk about film, mostly, as it is what she’s most interested in. “I’ve always wanted to be an actress,” she tells me, at some point. “If only I were pretty enough.”

The first time she brings it up is the first time I look at her that way; she’s of the sort that don’t strike you as extraordinary, but as far as ordinary-looking girls go, she’s not too bad.

Not too bad, is how I’d be repeating the whole thing in my head later on that night, and in the days after. For the most part this is me steadying myself – calming myself. Somewhere else, my heart begins moving like it’s almost ready to feel again.

*

The moment I give in to the confusion of the feeling is the moment I finally tell her; it’s a cold July evening and I’ve just been backed into a corner I can’t wiggle out of. We’ve been playing an idle question-and-answer game while smoking cigarettes behind the university videotheque when it comes out.

I catch on too late that her line of questioning seems actually headed to potentially dangerous territory; she asks about that softball player in class with us for Art History, to begin with. “You know her. Soft brown cropped hair, nice eyes, sturdy shoulders?” She gestures with her hands when nervous, and it’s no different this time.

I nod. “She smiles at me sometimes, and I don’t know why,” I say.

“I dated her in high school,” she says, shrugging nonchalantly, as if she expects me to dismiss these kinds of confessions as stuff I hear every day – sure, I mean, from random girls I don’t happen to like. I must have been wearing an uncomfortable shocked look on my face, because the next thing I know, she’s laughing a little shakily before, “Of course, it’s a phase; don’t tell me you haven’t had a phase like that, huh?”

I pause to light a fag, my fingertips numb and quivering embarrassingly. I draw from it deeply before forcing a cough out. “Oh,” I just say, clearing my throat. Does she think we’re together now? “She’s cute, I think.”

She nudges me on the shoulder with a balled up fist. “Come on, don’t evade.”

It’s the first time in so many months that you cross my mind again; all these days you’ve been nothing but a severely private memory I’ve shared with no one else. I don’t see the point of telling really; for the most part, it’s just me wanting to start completely anew.

“I’ve thought about it, yeah,” I say. I bite my lip and look away, afraid so suddenly of what the rest of the night might hold.

“About what?”

I look down and stare at the ground beneath my shoes; I’m hovering above it a little as we are seated on the ledge, our legs dangling over the videotheque sign. I try to focus on the space just beneath my left sneaker when she nudges me again. “Oh you know,” I try to shrug. I want to say, This is not a big deal for me too, you know, but all that comes out is a sigh. “Girls.” And then, “We’re always asking questions, aren’t we?”

“Yeah,” she says. I can see her shadow rearranging itself beside me, cast upon the pavement by the dimming fluorescent lights from the lobby. “But it’s over now, yeah? Or for me, at least. I mean there is a guy now, you know that.” I shrug again and this time, I mean the nonchalance. Of course, there’s always boys. She asks briefly about this guy she thinks I’m most probably dating at the time; we’re doing the same course together, and he’s always been kind.

“He’s kind,” is all I say, as that’s all there is about him. I don’t tell her about you, or at least not yet; not until the thought of you bubbles up and out of my chest, a long silent while later.

“There used to be a girl.”

She turns her head at that; I’m still staring at her shadow on the floor, and right then, I feel her hand wrap warmly around my wrist. “Tell me about her.”

I don’t know why I choose my words carefully; why it matters that only the right ones come out, and by ‘right’ I mean those that won’t scare her away. People with pasts are frightening creatures, this I know too well. “We were young together, once,” I just say.

I leave out all the other details and she doesn’t prod either. She just finishes her fag before fishing another one out and finishing that as well, without so much as a word. At the end of it, she asks quietly, “Are you still… I mean—”

“Oh,” I say, turning my head finally. I stub my cigarette against the ledge and let it fall. “No, we um—” We were never really together. It ended right after it began. We said goodbye and now she’s changed her address and all I have are unsent letters, unread after having been returned. They’re still in a pile in the corner of my closet— “We broke up. The summer after graduation, right before college.” The easiest way out.

She says nothing to that. I turn the words over in my head and marvel at the passage of time. It’s been years, and back then I thought I’d never get here alive – and by here I mean, behind the videotheque on a night like this, sitting beside a girl who actually gives me butterflies and nerves.

“So you’re on the rebound, is that it?” she asks, a long while after.

Am I? “It’s been years,” I say, trying on a smile. It’s not a yes, not a no, but at least it’s an answer.

“So, is there a girl now?”

My first instinct is to laugh out loud. “Oh, seriously,” I say, off the bewildered, I’m fucking serious look on her face, wiping at my forehead nervously. “You’re asking that question?”

“Oh, I’m sorry,” she says, back-tracking a little. “I didn’t know you and what’s-his-name were, what, serious?”

“That’s not the point at all.” Inside me, there’s a dam threatening to burst. “That’s not it at all.”

“Then what is it?” Her voice goes a notch higher, and she pushes herself off the ledge with a small hop, landing on the pavement with a slight crunching sound. Shaking my head I follow suit, reaching out for her arm and gripping it.

“Come now, don’t go,” I say.

“We keep talking in circles; I just wanted to know—”

“If I like girls? I’ve said I do.”

“So you’re seeing one now?”

“Why does it matter to you?”

“We’re friends, that’s why. I thought we tell each other everything.”

I pause to swallow at that word, friends. It hits me like a sobering slap, and I flinch upon imagining it. “We are, and I’m telling you,” I swallow again, breathing in deep. “There is no girl. Right now, I mean.”

She takes a few seconds to look at me before spitting out, “You’re lying to me.”

“Christ.” I say, looking away. “What would I ever do with you?”

“Why don’t you trust me with it?”

Crap, I think. She’s pulling out that card. “Don’t be silly, you’re the only one I’ve got.” This is true and frightening. “Suppose you don’t want to hear my answer, how’s that?”

“What, is the girl on drugs? On parole? Excessively repulsive?” I laugh at each one, before she goes, with a slight gasp. “Jesus, it’s someone I know, isn’t it?”

Fucking hell.

“Isn’t it?” She runs an open palm down her face in her mild disbelief, making a soft hissing sound. “I fucking knew it. Right under my nose, too, you fucking…” And then she goes on to list all the girls we both knew, including a few names I didn’t even know she knew as well.

“Look—” I say.

“This would be easier if you just came out with it you know—”

There’s only one more name on the list, and we both know what it is. I try to beat her to the epiphany. “So what if it’s a girl you know?” I ask.

“So? It won’t matter.”

“Would it be similarly insignificant if I said – if I said it was you?”

She falls silent at that; she is stunned and she can’t hide it. “Well?” It’s my turn to repeat myself now. We’re both standing at the curb, and she’s just seated herself on the gutter, her limbs slow to fold. I follow her and sit a foot away. The street is silent, save for the rustling of jeans and sneakers. “I told you.”

“You couldn’t have meant that,” she says, breathless. “Are you fucking pulling my leg? Because if you are—”

“Would I have taken so long if I were joking?” I say with a level voice. “I warned you, yeah.” And then, “You should have listened.”

At that moment, my heart’s readying itself for the quiet letdown, and inside, I feel like I’m putting cushions in places where it might break. I’m holding my breath for the first blow when she turns to me and asks, in a voice I’d never quite heard before, “Can you – can we walk? It’s a lot to think about, isn’t it, and I just need – I just need some air. Can we do that?”

Can we do that? I stand up first, hold my hand out for her and I pull her up. I don’t mind that she doesn’t let go throughout, or that the walk lasts for two hours, or that we talk little while at it. The university is strangely still that night, like my waiting heart.

At the end of it, she tells me finally that we probably should have a go at it; we’re standing right under the street light across one of the university dorms, and the thing inside my chest turns itself over and flutters about in my ribcage in ways that keep me awake all night, the possibilities tickling my insides.

It turns out to be an elaborate heartbreak that goes on for years and years – of course, it does – but then this is me getting ahead of myself. In between there’s a lot I’m actually thankful for, and despite all the grief the rest of it has caused me, I maintain that I have no regrets.

*

I don’t write anymore. Neither do you, but then I’d long made my peace with the fact that you never really had. I guess that’s how life goes – people get over taken by events, their new lives swallowing them up whole, and they lose sight of each other, perhaps permanently. It’s sad, that; I’ve since relegated you to that part of my life that’s only meant to be revisited in thoughts, like we do the dead. Maybe I should mourn you, one of these days. You make me wish I’d taken photographs, but some nights, getting off the phone with a girl I do see (for a change), I think it’s for the best that we have none.

*

You call on the eve of my 20th birthday. It’s 2004. I am drunk beyond dreams in a party my girlfriend has thrown in my honor. We’re on the rooftop of a friend’s flat, in the company of people we’ve come to associate with friendship, at one point or another, for the past few years in university. It’s a warm night in the middle of September and I am filled to the neck with vodka and Sprite, my face severely flushed. It’s a miracle I could still distinguish the keys on my Nokia as the unfamiliar number flashes on the screen.

I move away from the crowd to the quiet corner before slurring a hello and steadying myself against the wall.

You say, “Happy birthday,” before, “I’ve been looking all over for your number.” I blink, as if my eyesight’s the one that’s tricking me. In the dark and without proper glasses on the lights of the city below are a hazy blur of dots and swirls.

“Hello?” I say again, righting myself by the wall. I know it’s you, but I still feel the need to ask, “Who’s this?”

You laugh, and just like that you’ve identified yourself enough. You mumble your name, before adding, “Surely you haven’t forgotten me?”

I used to write letters all the time, I almost answer. Instead, I just say, “Long time.” Standing by one of the tables, my girlfriend catches my eye and she waves with a small hand. My heart sinks because I love her, and right now I am being haunted by ghosts and it feels so heavy.

“We moved to Cebu permanently,” you say. “Sorry I didn’t phone sooner.”

“So that’s why all the letters came back,” I say back, unable to hold it in.

I don’t ask for your new address. You don’t volunteer it either. “It was a horribly rushed affair,” you just say. “Sorry.”

The silence that comes after is painful, at best. Suddenly, from the girl who’s written you pages of letters, I now have nothing to say, and I remember nothing from my efforts. Clearing my throat, I ask, “Is that all?”

You say, “Yeah.” Your voice is small.

“I have a party going,” I say. “My girlfriend’s waiting.”

There’s a small, “Oh” from your end before I cut the line. I will feel only marginally guilty for this, after, and I go back to the party as if I’m suddenly sober and I take in as much vodka and Sprite as I had during the first two-thirds of the party for the remaining one-third of it.

What I retain in the morning after: The hangover, the sprain I sustain while trying to drunkenly get down the metal spiral staircase, the lingering taste of a careless kiss I’d shared with her that I hope went unnoticed by the rest of the crowd, and the memory of your laugh in my cell phone.

* ii. maps

It’s 2005 when I graduate with a degree. She and I smile in all the pictures, but we both know we’re nearing an end, and it’s killing us. That night, after the ceremony, we look at each other as the crowd thins around us, shooing our parents away with our soft, “Give us a sec.” I hold her sweaty hand inside mine, trying to grip the slippery skin.

I think: I am done losing girls to this requisite turning of pages and closing of chapters.

“What do we do now?” she asks me, her voice heavy like lead.

I shrug. I can go ahead and tell her we’ll make it work after, but then that would mean I hadn’t learned from anything you’ve put me through, so I keep my lips pursed, for the meantime saying nothing. I want the next thing that comes out of my mouth to be something hopeful, and hope just isn’t something my heart is teeming with, at the moment.

“Say something,” she says, gripping my hand.

“We’ll figure something out,” I reply, finally finding my voice. What else is there left to say when this was exactly how things ended the last time? At this point, I am still too young to be certain about not repeating any of my mistakes.

*

That summer, we take the trip we’d saved up for all year, a few weeks after graduation. It’s a week-long province hop thing, kind of cross-country; we ride buses and take barges at roll-on, roll-off ports to cross big bodies of water. It’s a new thing, the government says; I stare out the window as the bus goes at full speed, the countryside view of plains and mountains blurring, her head warm on my shoulder as she slept.

We miss the first barge in Calapan by ten minutes. Setting our backpacks down, we laugh uncontrollably after inquiring about the next barge; it’s not due for another hour.

“Crap,” I murmur through my grin, looking around the port, bare except for a couple of suspicious-looking doors in a separate shed; perhaps the toilets? “What are we going to do for an hour?”

She pushes her shades upwards, off her eyes. “I don’t know,” she says, still giggling. She gets this wicked glint in her eye that tells me she’s got a hundred and one things in her mind and we end up making out by the corner of the shed, regardless of who might see. Nobody knows us here, and besides, this is the last time, we’ve told ourselves as much; after the trip, we’ve resolved to end things – whatever that means – for the lack of “future.”

But for now – for now, there is this; we part for air, and in her eyes I see the trip unfolding ahead of us, and as she pulls me back in, the thing that strikes me the hardest is how her lips are soft; it reminds me mostly that between this moment and the inevitable end, we still have an entire idle hour of wait.

*

It’s hit-and-miss like that for the rest of the trip; we are tired and prone to tantrums, but in the interest of keeping this final week of sorts as pleasant as possible, we celebrate our misfortunes with endless laughter instead. I wonder briefly if this would ever be useful when we get to the “real world” later on; if laughter is indeed the best medicine.

We make it to Kalibo by nightfall, and we hurry to find a place to stay and sleep. It’s too late to catch the next bus to the nearest port off the island so we put it off until morning; besides, she’s itching for a bath. We find a small inn and tell the clerk we’re sisters; he smiles back as if he knows better and gives us the keys anyway. We fuck quietly as the walls are thin, and something as gentle as running water can be heard right through them without having to put your ear against any of the adjoining surfaces. It reminds me of our first few months when I still lived with roommates, and I had to constantly sneak her in and out of the dormitory, and just like that my heart fills with a fondness I’d always associate with being younger.

*

On the third day, we land in Cebu via ferry for the first time. It is a choice between that and the beach island on the opposite end, and I choose the city first, saying that I’ve always wanted to see the Cross, anyway, and that we could always put the beach last. (Of course, I don’t tell her you’re in Cebu, nowadays.)

All the while, I am on my toes, on the lookout for the mere shadow of you, darting in and out of shops and restaurants with this wariness that she mistakes for a touristy sort of wisdom. I let her believe what she wants. We take pictures by Magellan’s Cross and sit on a bench looking out into the street, trying to figure out the public transportation. Neither of us spoke the dialect, and we get by using context clues, and the little Cebuano I remember from an old yaya from several years ago.

We drop by a beach briefly; we leave before sunset and arrive hours later in Bohol, also by ferry. She’s been extraordinarily patient, saying nothing about the weight of her luggage, not even once throughout the trip. We’re approaching Day Four. In Tagbilaran, we hold our breath and cross our fingers behind our backs for an empty room at the first pension house we see, and we find that our luck has yet to run out.

*

“This,” she begins that night, tracing lines across my bare stomach, after. “This inter-island fucking. Is this our idea of goodbye then? This marking of places?”

I sigh, shifting my head, noting instead how there’s a bit of light coming in through the gap of the blinds from the outside; too strong to be the moon, must be a street lamp, I just think. Halfway through the week and it’s the first time we’ve addressed what happens beyond the end of the trip.

“When you put it that way, it sounds like there’s no escape then,” I say, focusing on a spot on the ceiling. “You and me, we’ll be everywhere now, after.”

“Doesn’t seem so wise now, does it?” she says, lightly scratching my skin with a nail.

I almost say, I’m used to being haunted. One more ghost won’t that hurt much, would it? “If it has to end, then let’s do it with a bang, yeah? All guns blazing, that sort.”

She turns to me, propping her head upon an elbow, the sheet falling off her shoulder. Under the little light, I can make out the faint outline of her tan and trace it absently with a finger. She laughs a little, tickled. “You make it all sound so violent,” she says.

“And isn’t it?” I just say back. The carnage after – it’s all the same anyway. She raises her brow, sighing; it sounds like agreement.

Just like that, she’s drawn first blood.

*

We drop by Panglao the morning after. We stay until the afternoon, just as low tide sets in and the sea pulls itself back from the shore. The sky is cotton-candy pink, and the beach is full of shells now. I take photographs of her trying a cartwheel by the sea; she accomplishes about half of it, and reviewing the pictures later, it looks quite decent until about the fifth picture in the sequence, which is when the attempt bogs down.

Dusting her hands, she bends to pick up a few shells from the sand. In this light her skin is golden as she walks over to me in her shorts and that bikini top that’s in all of the beach photos thus far, though I have yet to get enough of the sight of it – four, five days counting, and not just quite yet. She hands them over, two nearly identical shells. She’s grinning like a school girl.

“It takes a hundred years for nature to make these, you know,” I say, turning the things over in my hands.

“I’m sure nature would understand the dire situation we’re in,” she just says, winking. “One for you, one for me. That’s all.” I hold one each in my hand, marveling at the similarities. What were the chances, right?

*

We pass by Cebu briefly again on our way back to the other island. Walking around the port area, I am half-worried, half-excited at the prospect of bumping into you in a city so small. I don’t, and we board the next ferry out, and by nightfall we are in an altogether new island where the sand is powder-fine and the water is clear.

We will not see much of this until morning, though. We spend most of the night jumping from bar to bar after stowing our backpacks in a small hotel further in, past the market even. The ones on the beachfront are all full, and considering the season, the rooms must be fully booked until June.

We stop to gape at fire dancers, arms slung around each other’s shoulder, drinks in our free hands. We meet new friends with strange accents, take photographs of girls dancing barefoot, have our photographs taken in turn, drink some more. Rising to the challenge of a Hungarian girl we shared a table with, she tries to drink the Happy Horse with a straw, only to end up flushed to the ears and choking on beer froth halfway through. I laugh as I rub her back, reaching over to finish the drink off. The drink’s so unusually strong it nearly feels solid in my throat. After, I light a fag and then pass it over to her, when she’s recovered.

The Hungarian girl asks, smirking, “So, are you lovers?” complete with an accent, coupled with this drunken drawl.

I laugh, and she laughs, and I say, “Yeah, you can say that,” and she falls against me, burrowing her face into the crook of my neck, still in a fit of giggles.

“Oh the things that happen here,” says one of the boys good-naturedly, a low whistle in its wake.

“What happens here stays here; isn’t that how it goes?” another one chimes in.

The laugh in me dies out, and I try to restart the sound in my chest, just to get the spirit of merrymaking going. Pausing to take a drag, I just say, “Well, not always,” and that is how we leave it, shifting to another topic right after, and just like that we’re laughing again.

*

We wait for sunrise by the shore, watching carefully with weary eyes as the horizon changes color; as the sky separates itself as a lighter shade of blue. “A first and last, isn’t it,” she says beside me, yawning. I yawn back, nodding, moving closer to her and hugging my sarong tighter around my shoulders. The morning is chilly and I shiver lightly; by then we’ve run out of fags. “You believe what they say, about leaving things behind on this island?”

“No,” I just say. “I mean, people just don’t tell other people, I guess, when they get back to their lives. That doesn’t mean they’ve left it though, does it? We continue to carry things around, don’t we?”

She smiles as the day’s first sun rays hit her face, and I hold my breath at how pretty she looks, just right then. “That’s what you’ll do after? Carry me around but not tell people about me when you’ve moved someplace else?” she asks, still smiling. “That’s what you did to the first girl, right? I don’t even know her name.”

I shrug. I hate how she’s so spot-on despite her lack of sleep. “You’re just tired,” I say softly. “Let’s sleep this off, shall we?”

She falls asleep the moment she hits the bed, still smelling of the sea and the smoke from the night before. I look at her while lying on my side for a long time. I take a while before dozing off myself; somewhere inside, I’m busy locating the new shards she’d just put in.

*

We take the flight back to Manila in Cebu, come Day Seven. We’re tired from always having to catch some sleep while in transit, and I can feel the trip starting to take its toll, judging by the stiffness in my shoulders.

We arrive late that night in the city, shrugging our bags off our weary backs right in the middle of my flat. We stare at each other, heaving for a moment, our bags between our legs; the room is still dark, but I can already see her with the lights coming in through the window facing the hall, the sadness filling in her silhouette a shade darker.

“What do we do now?” she asks.

I shrug. “We sleep. I guess.”

Of course we don’t; we take off our clothes slowly, fingertips pressing and smoothing out the knots from shoulders, thumbs kneading flesh and then some. That night, it feels like we’re trying to shed our skins – the skins we knew so well – in order to give way to something new, a new surface to show a new world.

“What do we do now?” she asks again, after. We are lying in bed, right over the blankets we had not even bothered to spread.

“I don’t know,” I say. I feel so raw and exposed. “I think I have an interview in a couple of days. Somewhere in Makati.”

“That’s great,” she says, sniffling lightly. “Maybe I’d drop by Ortigas tomorrow, see where I can go.”

“That’s great,” I say back. This is how we divide the city between us, and little else is said after that.

*

I see little of her after she leaves my flat for her parents’ house, the morning after, sans the expected excessive drama and the all-too-final goodbyes we’d foreseen. We’ve had the whole week to do that, and it’s as if there’s nothing left.

Tears come much later; coupled with the mixture of anxiety and frustration and exhaustion brought about by unemployment, the sight of my empty apartment and the shell from Panglao sitting on the kitchen counter triggers a bawl-fest that lasts a few hours. I smoke over the kitchen sink to calm myself throughout. When the first wave of it is done, I head out for the 24-hour convenience store nearby and stock-up on alcohol, just in case a second wave hits. (It does, that night, and I wake up the next day with a hangover.)

*

It takes a few weeks before I learn I’ve bagged the job. A few weeks later, she tells me about hers. We go our own ways trying to adjust to these new lives. Some days I get through without thinking about her; slowly, the charm of the whole meeting-new-people thing starts kicking in again, just like it had before.

I still see her on weekends; sometimes we have dinner on Friday nights, and sometimes one thing leads to another, though not too often. Slowly, she feels less like the ex-girlfriend and more like just this person I used to go to university with. It sounds sad, but I’m too busy and life moves so fast and I just don’t have the time to slow down and be sad. I have deadlines, she has quotas, and all I can afford is this brief pause when I can ask myself, is this how it goes, this time? (And I’m back on the go without even finding a good enough answer.)

*

I find out that she’s dating someone else the way everybody else finds out about old lovers, these days: through a photo posted on a social networking website. He looks all right, if I may say; a bit short, but otherwise, he looks like a nice guy – proper and soft-spoken and gentle. That she’s actually with a guy now does not surprise me; what does is how I feel somewhat betrayed that I didn’t merit a personal confession, after everything.

I contemplate clicking the “like” link below it before deciding against it altogether, on grounds that it would look all too passive-aggressive and juvenile.

I get a phone call a few days later, and she tells me about him in a small voice. I try to sound like none of this hurt at all, though most nights after I spend staying out late with the new people in my life and drinking until 3 in the morning.

Suddenly my weekends are open, and she’s always saying no to Friday dinners. Perhaps it’s for the best – is this how things with exes with new partners go, I wonder. Nobody’s passed a handbook my way, and I have no idea how to go about this.

A couple of years later she quits her job, leaves her parents’ house and goes abroad. They get married there in ceremonies I hear about the same way I had everything else. It’s all right, I tell myself. At the time, I’d been focusing on closing a major deal with a huge multinational, and I spend the fifteen minutes I could spare that day browsing through the wedding photos while breezing through my lunch and double-checking an Excel file in the other window. There are a hundred of them in that album, and I just try to skim through the thumbnails the best I can.

That night over drinks in my flat, I start writing you again; a pen in one hand, a cigarette in the other.

*

iii. navigating scars

For a while I keep wondering what it is about me that leads girls like you and her to just move out of my life without saying anything; is it that I don’t listen? Is it that I am difficult to talk to? Somewhere, there must be a lesson, I tell myself, though I spend the better part of the couple of years after her wedding trying to figure it out.

In the years between, I keep writing to you; funny how they must all look like put together, from the early days when they’re all about you, to these days, when they’re all about her.

I wonder if things would have been different, had you gotten any of them in the first place; if you would have bothered to reply at all. If I had any of your letters in return, would it have counted as the two of us working it out? Would I have not found myself sitting next to her anyway that day?

Would it have changed anything?

I’ve heard about that somewhere, this study about history changing its course had the major events in a country’s life occurred some other way. (If they had only let Benigno Aquino Jr back into the country unharmed; if the Twin Towers had not been hit that day – we all wonder, would life have been starkly different without eras called post-Marcos and post-9/11?)

People say things like, things happen for a reason; the more fatalist of us meanwhile believe no matter what we do, things always happen anyway, regardless of the reasons.

I personally think had the details been different – if you and I had met when we were even younger, if she and I had had more time, if in the middle of our trip something had gone wrong, if you had been better at math and science, if I had learned how to cycle perfectly and did not fall down, that very first time – if the little things had happened differently, I wouldn’t be here wondering at all, would I – and, well.

Well, that’s a very different place altogether, and I’m not sure I want it, in the first place.

*

A good while later I see you again, in a book store in the city. You’ve cut your hair short, and are browsing something by the M-section; the book in your hand is Murakami’s Norwegian Wood. I am alone, as it is a Sunday; I’m browsing books from the shelf across, and the book in my hand – Niffenegger’s – is something I’ve read from a few years ago. As to why I chose this exact moment to walk in here to find a book I’ve read before; this exact moment to look over my shoulder only to find you there – it’s curious, right?

Life’s made up of a bunch of these curious little moments we like to call coincidences, and right now, as I’m waiting for you to look up from that page you’re on, slowly my heart starts humming this familiar tune I haven’t heard in a long, long while.

When you do, you catch my eye once before looking back down; you pause all too obviously, your brows slowly arching, the epiphany hitting you as you raise your head to face me, and then.

Of course I smile; I don’t move, but it’s more for the lack of motor skills than intention.

“I knew I felt like I was being watched,” you say, smiling as you walk over, book still in hand, thumb stuck in between pages. You haven’t changed at all; maybe a bit taller now, a bit leaner, but nothing on your face betrays the years between.

I squint a little, pushing my glasses up the bridge of my nose. “It’s my eyes,” I just say. “They’re lying to me all the time now, these days.”

You laugh. “Age,” you say, biting your lip. And then, “You still with – I mean, it’s a Sunday, are you with–” You look away, embarrassed, your free hand scratching the back of your neck, and then you laugh, a bit awkward. “Sorry, it’s just--”

“Age,” I just say back, laughing along. I think, we can be comfortable again, can’t we? “And to answer your question, well.” I look around, shrugging as if to say, This is all there is. “You’re liking Murakami so far?” I ask, nodding over to the copy in your hand.

“Ah this,” you breathe out, sounding thankful I’ve changed the topic. “This used to be my favorite thing of his. Re-read it a thousand times, dog-eared copy at home and all.” I laugh at that; who would have thought we’d grow a set of identical urges even though we’re apart? “Have you seen the movie from a few years back?” you ask, referring to the book in my hand in turn.

“Not as affecting as the book, but it was nice,” I just say. “Though I think I was reading an entirely different book the first time around. Does that make sense? I open these pages and I see new things, and it’s – well.”

It’s your turn to laugh, and this thoroughly surprised look that washes upon your face makes me feel like I’ve just said the most fascinating thing you’ve heard in ages. “I feel exactly the same way,” you say, still laughing, and my head starts spinning at the flurry of unexpected things – what were the chances, that even the new things still fit, after all these years? You hold up Murakami again, studying the cover before setting it down upon the shelf, misplaced. “Guess the first time’s always different, isn’t it?”

I think I blush as I put my book back on the shelf, right on top of yours, similarly misplaced. “I guess,” I just say back. And then, just as I begin saying, “I was just about to go and grab some lunch—” you chime in with your own, “I’ve got an entire day open, and I was thinking if you don’t mind—”

We pause to look at each other, our laughs hanging in mid-air. “We should catch up,” I say finally, breathing out. You only nod, head to the door, push it open and hold it until I step out with you.

The noon air is warm, and I inhale deeply. It’s September again; I’ve been here on a Sunday all too many times by now, and it’s the first time in ages that it feels different.

It’s drizzling outside, and I keep on expecting to see your bike, steadied against a wall somewhere, ready.#