Thursday, October 7, 2010


She had always lived there, it seemed to him. Far from the people who could touch her. Or hold her back. This was where he found her now on the last evening before. She sat there like a caged bird, dangling her legs to catch open air, looking beyond what he himself could see. A few years back, their barangay captain had conveniently died, involuntary donating this spot of land to the government, and which the government quickly sold to one of those cellphone companies that needed somewhere to plant their towers on. Everybody knew it was restricted area but in a cluster of houses as small as theirs, everyone kept everyone’s secrets. They would sit there in the evenings, take in the sugarcane’s dancing leaves, the stars above, the mosquitoes buzzing around their heads. At one time, there were four of them, acting as sentinels to the houses the tower surrounded. Now, there was only one.

Before transferring schools, moving to bigger cities, higher pays, marriages and kids, the four of them stood facing all directions like pointers to a compass. She was always the highest to dream. Danny, the meekest. She saw beyond the dried-up land in the North, past the coconut trees. On a good day, she said she could even see past the mountains that surrounded them. She was going to be a physical therapist, migrate to Canada, have blue-eyed kids. Letty would roll her eyes while Ivan would talk animatedly, asking for more details. Danny would sit there quietly, somehow afraid of her too-high ambitions. They never talked about their issues at home. Being so close to each other, they probably knew what went on even before they got out of the door anyway. Up there, there was only air. And dreams. She would convince everyone to run away for a week and serve one of those houses in town so they could have enough money to go to the big city and walk through the parks and boulevards. By the time they got home, she would get a stick from the side of the road to give to her mother. It was better to choose your beatings, she said, and through the window, they would see the mother thrash her like a doll back and forth their cardboard and kawayan hut. The stick she brought would not be used. It was far too small.

They called her constantly at the beginning, giving her tidbits of the haughty classmates they met, the money that a bigger city sucked. But by the second semester, calls were down to about twice a month until there were none altogether. When she called, they were always in class or were doing a project with a friend. The line was too choppy. The jeepney, too noisy. The time, too short. That was the time she ran away for a month to one of those big-time construction sites in the city where girls like her hung out to sell kakanin and pleasure. They barely recognized her when she walked unsurely through the dirt road. She died somehow and in her place was a bargirl wearing red lipstick and far too crimson blush-on for anyone’s comfort.

‘Danny Bayot’, she greets him.

‘Teryang Agtang’, he retorts back, tousling her hair although the once familiar gesture felt just sad now.

She looks at his palms, the ones she had once placed scribbles of nothings and everythings. During the time when the cellphone craze had hit its peak, she used to write love quotations on his palm, copying it from screen to skin. She read and reread it, grazing through his calluses and just when he was about to read it, she would erase the inks, its smudges dripping down along with his sweat.

‘You scared us.’ he said, without looking at her.

‘I know. I meant to.’

‘They’ll kill you for this.’ The word kill hung in the air and he wished he wasn’t so reckless with her. That’s what she always did to him, made him reckless. And all too sudden, he was scared again, of her, of what she might do to him, of what she might do to herself.

‘How’s the wife?’

‘Good. Craving. Good sign. She uh, was the one who said I should be here.’ He sounded different even to himself. His call center training hung on to his every word. It shamed him. He didn’t want to make her heavy accent sound just that, heavy and ignorant.

‘Did you mean it?’

‘To die? No. I would’ve done it already. See how easy it can be?’ She dangles her legs as if diving on a board and he hears himself hold a gasp because he knew that was exactly the reaction she wanted. ‘No. Not yet anyway. I wanted to see you.’

He read once in of those Catholic magazines, Kerygma probably, that those who often talk about suicide don’t actually get around to doing it. He wonders now if this is true. He forgets whether it was God or Brother Bo or a psychologist who said so. If it weren’t true, then at least he’d have someone to blame. God, maybe. He always got blamed for everything anyway. He refused to think he had any part in her undoing, this rugged woman with a slight paunch and smoker’s teeth who once in their childhood summers, he had kissed in this very same spot. And then after, had refused to talk to because she might expect too much. He didn’t want her to be attached to him. He couldn’t bear her need for him, for higher dreams, for getting out.

‘I texted Ivan yesterday. He said he’d be here sometime this month to check on you. And Letty told me to take care of you.’

‘No. She didn’t.’ No. She didn’t. Her exact words to him were ‘OA baya. Ayaw na na sya tagda oi. She’s only after your attention.’

‘She really did. She said she’d be here just as soon as her husband allows her to come.’

She was quiet for a time. He remembered she became like this on two occasions, when she took a really bad beating from her Mama or when she was planning something extreme. She breathed in the smell of the sky pregnant with unshed thunder clouds. Her hand massaged her nape and there he saw one of her scars from when her back stuck to a slanted nail after that time they ran away for a week. She placed her head on his shoulder and he involuntarily flinched, afraid of what others might think.

‘Do you have a pen?’

He shook his head. She took his hand anyway.

Her fingers drew the number 14, her contact causing him to tingle nervously. And he did not understand.

‘Fourteen?’ he asked. She smiled and started climbing down. He saw her curly hair cover her face and then move with the wind like a cyclone. He looked at the land around him, now bare or with small sprinklings of low-cost housing. He remembered how once, he couldn’t even go past the coconuts, how he was too gripped by the fear of falling, he just concentrated on the slanting bars and the wisps of Teryang’s hair smothering his already-short breaths.

That night, his phone rang again and again, telling him of his obligations. His wife probably wanted to ask him when he’d be home. His office was asking where he placed the application forms for hopefuls, like himself once. Friends were asking for pasalubongs. Ivan texted asking whether Teryang was as crazy as ever. He answered none.

When he woke up, sunlight was escaping past the shades of his old room. The darkness would’ve welcomed him again except that his phone was ringing again, bringing him back to where he was and that he was supposed to leave soon. But more than the phone was the strange banter from outside, hushed as if speaking of mortal sins but loud enough like a lamenting prayer. Sobs. Cries. Hurried footsteps.

He didn’t know how he got there or how fast but there she was. Crumpled on the muddy ground, her body in fetal-like position, too tight to be comfortable for the living. Teryang. Her eyes seeing beyond the dried-up land of the North, past the coconut trees. And today, even past the mountains that surrounded them. His eyes would’ve been fixed on her if not for the insistent ringing of his cellphone, surprisingly there on his left hand. How it got there, he didn’t know.

It was his wife. The phone formed a quiet rhythm of lights flicking on and off. He fingered the first 2 numbers on the leftmost part. 14. 1 and 4. January 4. That was the day he kissed her. And at last he grew conscious of his hands and the dank coldness of plastic.

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