I was excited to see her after I got back from Cebu, but was distraught when I was told that I was Davao-bound by the end of the week. For some reason, I felt compelled to explain yet another ‘responsibility’ on my shoulders, albeit there was nothing she could do about it. She once told me, half dismayed yet understandably, that she knows she can’t compete with my work and family. I worried that she would start with the ‘I’m just an option, never a priority’ argument, but either she felt secured or realized that she was being overly sensitive, because she never brought up the whole competition thing after I assured her that she was more important to me than my work and family combined. That was four months ago. When the Davao trip did not push through, I found myself in a tight situation, in which I was both the predator and prey. Lovely, if you ask me, but then the thought of losing everything I worked so hard for over a mere recurrence of something I have long since buried became more serious than a political punch line on prime time television. We are who we are, even if we sometimes forget, a friend once told me, and that was the exact equation of May. I forgot who I really am. Funny, but for a moment, it felt great to forget.
*** As I count the hours and the minutes, the bright, tiny specks of neon lights beneath me, one dot after the other of orange, green, red and blue, the ones trailing from the right wing, cutting across the dim canopy spread vastly for no one to see, I leaned back, reclined my seat and tried to make the most out of rows and rows of leather stitches and complimentary peanuts. Unaccustomed as I am to hushing and shushing, my eyes, excruciatingly sore from an almost twenty hour flight, my back, screaming for a soft, king sized-bed with silky sheets and fluffy pillows, - I could ask for one, but then, what’s the point? – I cannot afford to be grotesque and, well, sleepless. Especially since I am three hours away from being one of the few privileged. I am appalled by how the rest of the world measures significance and wealth. It is not something I completely understand, and frankly, I do not wish to even try. For instance, this airline alone spells the difference between ‘obscene’ and ‘cheap sake’. The ones feasting on lobsters and caviar while sipping champagne on ice must have spent a lavish amount for a statuesque flight attendant with a ‘pleasing personality’ to rub their soles and massage air sickness out of their heads. As for me, I am condemned by my superiors to eat peanuts and cookies, and drink bottled water, not exactly mineral, but assumingly, safe, since it comes in bottles. This is immersion. ` With earphones on full blast, I shifted my attention towards the window and endured the view instead. Far from a skyline you can only stare at, googly-eyed, in Manhattan – where I should be headed three months from now – I fixed my eyes, nevertheless, on the blacks turning grayish, silently wishing that the plane gain enough momentum and fly an altitude higher, closer to the moon. I feel my heart, pounding heavily, goose bumps all over, nerves near my temples almost prominent and shapely, as I imagine being weightless, floating shamelessly on the moon. It must be the closest thing to being free, without anything to pull you down. “Did you sleep?” “Hardly. You look refreshed.” She brushed sleep from her eyes, smiled at me, and fixed her hair. “That was good. I needed that. You ate anything?” “Peanuts. And water,” I smiled back at her, bloodshot eyes and tousled hair. “I think I won’t be eating peanuts for a long time. “ “What time is it, anyway?” It was only then that I remembered I’m wearing a wrist watch, the same analog timekeeper with blue rubber straps, nothing fancy, that she would wear to work. “It’s five in the afternoon.” “Manila?” “Yeah,” suddenly compelled to doze off, even for a bit. “Wake me up when we get there.” She handed me her pillow, a look of concern on her face, featherlike touch as she playfully tugged my left earlobe. “You look like hell. Get some sleep.”
*** When I first told her about that Cebu trip, she was envious as hell. She has always wanted to go to Cebu, being a water person herself, but could not, for reasons too boring to mull over. It was a seminar sponsored by future colleagues, and although I had an official mission, no matter how boring the whole trip seemed, it became bearable, if only for her round the clock messages and phone calls. I was there for three days, and did not get to explore the city that much, since I was nursing flu while swatting mosquitoes and keeping my focus intact. But I couldn’t. She was far too distracting, one of the most amusing, actually, and I encouraged it just the same. I left Batangas in such a hurry that I forgot my wallet and slippers, and when I arrived in Cebu, I was amazingly unperturbed, even grateful when I felt my phone in my pocket. My sole companion, Kristoff, paid for the incurred expenses the whole three days – and we stayed in a swanky hotel – while I stood beside him, embarrassed and dumbfounded, as he filled up the forms at the front desk. It would’ve been a one of a kind experience, as the prominent people of the industry were there, except that I could not keep my mind off of her. I was busy, yes, with my right hand jotting down notes and quotes I deemed important, and my left feeling the keypad of my mobile phone. She occupied my head, and at that moment I knew she wasn’t going anywhere. Of course it annoyed Kristoff. We were supposed to be learning and hobnobbing with the best and the brightest, but I was too busy being anything but myself.
*** “Can’t sleep?” I turned my head to face her, mouth stuffed with bread. “Yeah, I can’t sleep even with the slightest movement.” “Okay. Want some?” “No, thanks. I’m not hungry,” I replied, adjusting the pillow for the nth time. “Nothing wrong with chewing your food, you know,” I joked, watching her closely as she stuffed herself, one bit after the other. “Do you think I’m fat? I feel like I’m fat already.” “No, not to me. Why? Did somebody say you are?” “Nah, just asking,” she stretched her arms and stifled a yawn. “I’m excited to land! I can almost feel the Parisian air,’ she quipped, eyes closed, could be imagining her first day as a tourist. Her enthusiasm is quite addictive, and I would have been easily moved, if not for the peanuts I had eaten earlier. “I’m more of a Florence-person, but I’m thinking of dropping by Louvre and the Eiffel Tower.” “What time does the summit start, anyway?” “I should be there at the conference hall by seven. Enough time to check in, eat dinner and shower afterwards.” She slumped back to her seat, bit her nails and looked down on her toes. God knows what goes on inside her head. “You work so hard. Shame if you wouldn’t enjoy the stay. Like it’s a sit-and-run trip. That’s not the way to enjoy Paris.” I looked away, pretended not to hear and gazed at the cosmic everglows outside my window.
*** We had a disagreement once, one of those heated exchange of nonsense heightened by the summer heat and sweat oozing out of our every pore. She compared me to people I never knew existed, and I lashed out on her as if the whole thing was a question of morals and principles. Don’t dare question my passion, I told her, blood rushing to my head as I turned beet red, ready to explode without so much as a warning. I’m just really scared of you, she said, citing her temptations, previous experiences – and she never did enumerate them –, even her own fragility and distaste for boybands. I want to earn every bit of you, I’m scared that I’ll just disappoint you… how many of those have I heard over the last four months? Do I need to mention that we made peace afterwards? Another exchange of words, only sweeter and softer, I could almost puke. I’m afraid of you but I trust you, she whispered, and that was more than enough reason on my part to wave a white flag. I just don’t want to get hurt, I blurted, and covered my head in frustration. I felt like burying myself alive that afternoon; the least that I wanted to do was upset her in any way. Almost anybody would agree that a most gratifying reward takes any form, including a successive make out after a major rift.
*** “You are not listening to me.” I smiled, apologetically, and faced her. “I’m sorry. What were you saying?” “What were you thinking? You were mumbling under your breath…” Dare I tell her? It would not be polite. “I was just recalling something. That Cebu trip with Kristoff back in May.” “Oh yeah? What about it,” she asked, sitting up straight, very much interested. I noticed that she had fixed her hair, probably while I was busy tossing and turning on my seat. “We went to this beach, forgot the name but beautiful nevertheless, white sand and crisp water. We rode a boat and saw dolphins.” She clapped, loudly, like a kid, and woke the guy sitting in front of us. “I like dolphins. I think they’re cute. Like strawberries. And you.” “I’m not cute.” “Yeah, you’re right. You’re lovely.” I grinned at the description. Lovely. What a smooth talker. How many guys have fallen for her charm, over strawberries and dolphins? Six, seven… perhaps eight? “What’s funny?” “You are,” I boldly retorted, almost expecting a loud smack across my face. If I get one, I probably deserve it for being way too honest. “Thanks. That’s sweet. Nobody’s ever described me as funny. I mean, I try so hard but you know, I guess it’s one of those things that you have to be born with. Like it’s innate or something.” Are the gods smiling at me or what? *** I did not notice that I had been staring outside the window for quite a while, not ‘til she tugged my sleeve and offered some peanuts. “No, thanks. I’ve had enough of peanuts,” I told her, almost wishing that she leave me to my thoughts and just eat. I have had enough of peanuts. “Oh well. Your loss,” and gobbled up the contents of that pouch on her hands. “So, what happened to that Davao thing again?” “I didn’t leave.” “I know, silly. I mean, why didn’t you?” From my seat, I could see the specks of light growing larger, the city of Paris, the ultimate dream destination for some, and I could almost touch it, except that I am sitting here, by the round glass window, gazillion miles above sea level, and forcibly listening to a motor mouth. “Why didn’t you?” Cold sensation, or could be the beginning of a panic attack – I am not much of a flyer – started to creep up on me. I fear being caught in one of the propellers should the pilot announce an emergency landing for whatever reason, a terrorist aboard or someone is about to give birth to twins on her way to the washroom. Someone could absentmindedly open the exit door and cause ruckus, that’s possible, and we are not provided with parachutes. I might die here, now, without seeing my mom or saying goodbye to my nieces and sisters. This blasted Concorde could malfunction anytime, and this airline won’t even spare a dime for my funeral. And why worry about my funeral? This plane could go kaput, in flames, in an instant, and that certainly would rule out a space in the cemetery. Cremation is a no-brainer. “Hey. Why didn’t you?” “Why didn’t I what?” “Why didn’t you leave?” I let out a sigh, and hoped that it would summarize everything. I took this trip, partly, so as not to talk about Cebu or Davao, even Vigan. Those were boring trips, lonesome as I was when I went to the said places, and that’s just it: they were moments, hours of solitary confinement, depressing as a whole day locked inside your room while watching the rain waste the day away. “I’m afraid of flying. I’m afraid of anything that goes up or fast.”
*** Half past four in the afternoon. The smell of good old Charles de Gaulle International Airport, with people of mixed ethnicities hustling and bustling, bags towed like fruit boxes up and down the escalators, and I am finally standing here, now. I am finally here. I read somewhere that Paris smells of coffee, cigars and cheese, and although I have had nothing except peanuts and cookies and water, I feel like exploring this aspect of the Parisian pop culture. Except that I should be hailing a cab by now and showering by six. “Hey.” I turned around, and there she was, one hand with a cup of coffee, her trunk on the side. She looked different, prettier when standing, her eyes filled with excitement. I almost forgot who she is, now that she’s looking like THAT. “So this is goodbye?” “I guess so.” She smiled at me, the same one she’s been giving me the whole trip, like her mouth is stuffed with food. “Well, have fun. Enjoy Paris.” I grabbed my bags and started walking towards the cab service, half running like I’m in a familiar territory. “Hey!” I turned around, and she’s still standing where I left her, somber looking. “So… where is she?” “I don’t know. At work, I guess.” She smiled at me again, the widest, most sincere I have seen since we left Manila. “She must be one lucky girl.” Someone must have passed by me with a lit cigar, because suddenly the whole section reaked of nicotine, the rough kind, big as those Macaduros you can only get from Cuban retail shops. “I guess,” nodding and refusing to meet her gaze, “yeah, she is.” She waved, and then walked away, one hand towing her trunk as she sipped the last of her cup. I started walking again, a slower pace this time. Everything around me is moving so fast, faster than my feet could carry me, and Paris is just another city, – like Cebu, Davao and Vigan – another part of the sequence as the afternoon shadow met the silence I carried from Manila. It is just another stop over, nothing major. It is just as bland as Cebu, as quiet as Davao, and as old as Vigan, where everything ages by half a century. By the window again, this time, inside a cab, and I glimpsed at the Parisian life, those lovely shops by the streets, cobblestones and fresh flowers. Even the old people seemed perky. Almost everything is cerebral, in some way, and romantic. Paris! Paris! The city of lights, the Aphrodite of Europe, and I am here, now, stiff as I am, and tired. Way tired. And as the cab steered left, there it stands, the once innumerably rejected, like me, the Eiffel Tower beside the Seine River, in all its majestic wonder. I leaned back on my seat, closed my eyes and made a promise to climb that dang tower before the summit is over, as the cab sped up, trailing the lights and sounds I once explicitly described to her before I left Manila. And for a second, I felt her long, almost bony fingers intertwined with mine.
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