Jonel felt his heart drop when he saw the aircraft. It loomed before him, like an enormous bullet at rest, its engines humming loudly. Other passengers had queued up on the wheeled, steel staircase, oblivious to his face which bore an expression of panic. It was his first time to fly.
His friend Christian came up to him and said: “Jonel is scared now,” tapping him on the shoulder. “Don’t worry. We all had the same feeling the first time we boarded a plane. But of course that was a very long time ago.”
He could only smile at what he thought was both an insult and consolation. At least he was not as ignorant as those who had stopped midflight of the staircase to have their photos taken. As though reading his mind, Christian nudged him to look at a twentysomething guy smiling at a camera held by an elderly man.
“Probably his father,” Mike, Christian’s partner, commented. “Look at the pride on his mother’s face.” The mother, bespectacled and clad in floral-printed blouse, wore a big grin. Jonel could imagine her eyes brimming with tears behind her glasses. Then, as if they hadn’t held up the queue long enough, the trio asked another passenger to take a picture of all three of them.
“Why don’t they pose near those big fans so they can get sucked right in and end their misery,” Christian said.
“They’re called propellers,” Mike volunteered the information.
Christian looked at him, and said: “Smartass.”
But before Mike could retaliate, the queue started to move again, relieving Jonel of the task of having to break the two off. As he sighed, the warm breeze began to blow, warm because of the morning sun. The sky was clear except for the cirrus clouds straggled across it. It was what the poets call a pleasant morning. Under such weather, if he were at home, he would have seen glimmer in the morning dew, heard the birds twitter as they darted across the sky, the leaves rustling, the grasses bending at his feet. Jonel, however, felt only dread. The tarmac that stretched on about him gave an impression of desolation; the noise of the engines rang in his ears.
By the time they got on the plane, his two friends were already discussing about the places they would go to once they arrived in Manila. They talked with so much animation as though they had not lost their temper to each other earlier. It was amazing how the two had been together for a year now, for they were opposites. Christian always slacked off―in his job, in his family responsibilities, in their dates, on the day of their flight. Meanwhile, Mike, newly promoted and indicating no intent to stop, dreamed grand and actually did something about his dreams: he had already applied for PAG-IBIG to house his ailing parents in; he was also went out of his way to give presents during birthdays and monthsaries. Earlier that day, he had berated Christian for being late an hour from their agreed assembly time at the airport.
The two, Jonel thought, were bonded by this inherent and pressing need to comment on people. Strolling in a mall, someone always wore something that didn’t look right to them. In the office, they constantly made snide comments about so-and-so’s ability and intellect. There were times that the two would turn to Jonel and berate him for thinking of Raffy although the latter had already left Davao City.
Mike and Christian knew Raffy, of course, and they were as confounded as Jonel was when he broke up with him. He said that he could no longer take the hiding. It was Jonel’s idea to keep their relationship a secret; they could not hold hands in public for people might comment. Working for the same company, one could not tell a co-worker, lest the news spread and they be talked about. The boss wouldn’t have liked that. But Raffy, who also claimed that he was sick and tired of his job, didn’t want to conceal the relationship anymore.
“It’s OK for you to say that,” Jonel said. “You haven’t got anything to lose.”
“So this is what it all comes down to,” Raffy answered. “Now I know what you really think of me.”
“What are you talking about? I just don’t want people to talk about us. I’m only protecting us.”
“No. You’re only protecting yourself.”
No reasoning from Jonel could keep their relationship from crashing. Raffy had simply walked away, never heard from again, except for the news that he had gone to Manila to seek better opportunities. He had always believed that Davao had nothing to offer him.
Christian said that Raffy couldn’t move up because he wasn’t intelligent enough. “He’s impulsive, we all know that. He doesn’t even realize that Manila will eat him alive.” Mike said almost the same thing about him. They knew nothing about him except for his ineptitude, his refusal to be sensible enough to keep a partner like Jonel, his inability to walk a straight line. Of course the two would take Jonel’s side; they knew each other longer than they did Raffy. And they never failed to drop an insult or two about him, especially when they saw their friend sulking. The first few weeks he spent moping around; then there were bouts of sullenness in the middle of a dinner party, or while they were out for a drink. And every time, they knew it was because of him.
“Forget him. He doesn’t deserve you. He doesn’t deserve this.”
Jonel felt hurt every time they talked ill of Raffy. But he could not tell them that, otherwise they’d turn against him instead and tell him how childish he was. So he decided to mask his sorrows, let it dam up in him. After all, he was used to keeping secret feelings to himself. He might as well take advantage of the very reason he and Raffy broke up.
When Mike and Christian, unknowing of his pent-up feelings, invited Jonel to a vacation in Manila–“Just to get away from the everydayness of Davao; I mean it’s time we see some skyscrapers and kill our lungs with Manila’s polluted air”–he agreed right away, filed for a leave, and booked the flight with them. It was his first vacation. But it was not a vacation for him, really; it was a quest for a lost love, to retrieve something (or someone) that got away.
* * *
The pilot’s voice announced over the PA system that they were hovering over Manila. The safety belt sign above lit up. Metal clicked on metals as the belts came together. Jonel looked down the window and saw the sea and the miniature houses along the coast. Ahead through the smog rose skyscrapers of the capital city.
“Ah, the urban smog,” Christian said, leaning over to look out the window. “This is it! Shopping malls here we come!”
It was amazing how the city was submerged in a brown lake of a great flood a few months ago. It was all over the news. Jonel could only gape in horror at the tragedy shown on national TV. Three months worth of rainfall slaked the thirsting roads, washed the dusty buildings, filling the dam to a brim, spilling all over the metro. And the people could only watch in despair from their rooftops as the world seemed to have ended right at that very moment. Lives, too, were taken. As the number of casualties continued to inflate, Jonel prayed that Raffy wasn’t one of them. He wasn’t sure where particularly in Manila he was staying; he only had the impression of this one great city washed up wholly by torrential rain.
And when they had landed, walking out toward the porticos outside the terminal exit, Jonel was awestruck at how the city coped with the tragedy, that no trace of lost lives and hopes could be found nor felt. The city was bustling with people.
An elderly Caucasian man in cargo shorts pulled a trolley of luggage behind him, while beside him, strode a Filipina in green spaghetti straps, wearing a bonnet. A tall, thirtyish man in white shirt and skinny jeans stood beside an ashtray atop a trash bin. He was a mestizo, hair slicked back, and was talking on his cell phone, a laptop bag slung on his left shoulder. A group of Korean women was laughing and smoking. Jonel realized that for the first time, he was no longer in Davao; that he could smoke in the streets and not be reprimanded about it.
Taking advantage of this sudden liberation, the three of them smoked first before hailing a cab. When they got to the hotel, the first thing Jonel did as soon as they entered their room on the tenth storey was look out the glass-paned window (wiped clean probably by one of those men who were standing on a platform lowered from a pulley and who were cleaning the windows of another building across the street). Impressed by the immense series of bar graphs of buildings that spread as far as the eye can see, Jonel let out a sigh.
“I see our friend is taken in by the city,” Mike said to Christian.
But it was more of a sigh of despair. I’d never be able to find Raffy here, Jonel thought. He didn’t have any contact information. He tried Facebook but his profile was locked, and his friend requests had been rejected twice over. Yet he kept his hopes up. He’s leaving it all to providential intervention now.
“So where are we going?” Mike asked.
Christian, who was born and raised in Manila–his family relocated to the south when he was in first year college–, was their appointed tour guide. “First stop is Trinoma. I haven’t been to it, you see.”
“Are we going to take a cab?”
“And miss the chance of riding the MRT? No way. What do you say, Jonel?”
Jonel shrugged. “Whatever you say.”
When they went out from the hotel lobby, a drizzle had started, wetting the paved roads. The sky was overcast, and the noise of the traffic was deafening. It was 11 A.M. when they got on the train. As it rumbled on the tracks and slowed down into the station, people ran to the platform and, when the double doors hissed open, got on the car. Squeezing his way in, Jonel smelled the aroma of male deodorant, and saw that his face was next to an armpit of a man who was wearing a tank top. The black, wiry strands of hair burst forth like sooty dandelions. Mike was lucky to find a space in the blue plastic seat. Christian, however, wasn’t, standing near his boyfriend opposite Jonel; he was signalling at Jonel about the man in a tank top.
The train, slowly gaining speed, crossed over the city, over the river of traffic. Skyways sloped up about them, gray tentacles of a giant octopus stretching across the metropolis. They had made the congested traffic of Manila less excruciating, especially for those who could afford the toll fee, Jonel was told. He marvelled at how the whole place looked different from his hometown. He thought of every impending disaster that might occur anytime: the skyways crumbling beneath the weight of vehicles, the train skidding off the rails, a building toppling over and falling on them. With the sky gray, the drizzle only made the cemented city a slick mass of gray crags.
The man with the dandelion armpit got off at the Araneta-Cubao stop; other passengers exited as well, giving Jonel and Christian a space to sit in. Others who had been waiting at the station rushed forward and entered the car, finding their places, as though they were enlarged molecules diffusing in an empty space. The train glided forward once more. The people seemed to ignore one another, one stranger standing beside another, one probably wondering where one lived, the other probably thinking if the other was gay.
Jonel wondered if Raffy took the MRT, if he had sat on the seat where he was on. Raffy was the type who strikes up a conversation with strangers; he claimed that he’s just “ma-PR,” when asked about this.
“But when you start talking to important people you get intimidated and not say anything at all,” Jonel had once told him, and Raffy would creep back into his shell of silence, not daring to answer him. He thought that telling the truth would help pry him out of his shell.
The drizzle had let up. A circular light forced its way through a thick mass of gray clouds, which soon would break and get scattered. It was almost noon.
Jonel looked to the aisle, and in one corner, sat two men; one was wearing a white shirt with “Cool Doods” printed on the front; he was lean and had a goatee. The other wore a pink collared shirt unbuttoned two-thirds of the way, its collar spread, bearing a dog tag near his breastbone. They were smiling and giggling at what seemed to be a private joke. Praying that the one in pink wasn’t Raffy, Jonel looked closer, and sighed in relief, registering their faces.
So intent was he that he hadn’t realized that the woman sitting across his seat was staring at him. In her arms, bundled in a blue sheet, was an infant. She cradled it, jerkily moving her hooked arms, as she held a bottle of milk to the baby’s mouth. Her stares burned; she kept a poker face, her hair tied back. Jonel looked down and, after a few seconds, he looked out the window, watching the skyscrapers clawed up toward the slowly brightening sky.
“Look at those two,” Christian whispered to him, nudging him. “I’ll bet you a cup of Starbucks that they’re lovers.”
“Why does it matter?” Jonel whispered back.
“The guy in white is the bottom,” Mike piped in.
“What made you say that?” Christian frowned, leaning forward, to take a closer look.
“Don’t,” Mike snapped at him. “They might notice you.”
The lady turned to where they were looking, and back to Jonel, who smiled in resignation, realizing they had been talking in Tagalog the moment they arrived. He wished he could communicate with her–through the space between their eyes, through their skulls which encased their brains–that the world had now turned from “Are they gay?” to “Which of them is the top?” She did not return the smile, looked away, and murmured quite distinctly above the din of the electricity powering the train, hurtling them forward, “Bakla.”
Taken aback, Jonel moved a little away from Mike and Christian, who were still discussing about the two men across the aisle. He focused instead on the gigantic billboards, traced the black wires that waved up and down, snagging then straightening in a continuous line, stretching from one pole to another.
The train finally slid into the North EDSA station. A woman’s voice reminding over the PA system to stay far from the edge of the platform. Those who had reached their destination, however, seemed to have heard nothing as they squeezed their way as soon as the double doors hissed open.
“This is our stop,” Christian said, standing up.
Before leaving the car, Jonel took one last look at the woman who was carrying the baby; she was staring up at him again, her face expressionless, indecipherable. For a moment he thought that she would throw the same insult again, murmur that elusive word that became derogative at a slight change in the tone of voice. She, however, neither uttered any word nor looked away. Instead, she kept her eyes glued to him while cradling the infant.
They stepped down a cemented staircase. On the bottom landing, Jonel saw an entrance to the mall, and for a moment, stood there, awed by the idea that a mall was interconnected with one of the stations. He imagined himself living in the metro, traveling from one city to another, bumping into strangers, thinking of what they were thinking, wondering how many men in the endless crowd were like him. In this city, the possibilities were infinitesimal; the chances of intimate contact with strangers were high. And places, in this city, were always interconnected, and the modes of transportation were boundless; the congested traffic would be the only hindrance to meeting his very own stranger. But that could also be eluded, for there would always be other options to choose from.
When they entered the mall, the tumult bore into his ears. People were milling about, some carrying bags of shopped items, others holding their cell phones. What was remarkable to Jonel, though, was that most of them were dressed well. A guy wore plaid vests on top of a collared shirt, wearing a baseball cap sideways. A woman was in short skirts fringed with frills that matched her black tank tops. He noticed that most of them were dressed up; he also noticed that most of them were good-looking, especially the men.
Or is it because of the way they dress? Jonel thought, and stared at one man who was walking toward them. He had broad shoulders, was lean in his plain white shirt and skinny jeans. Though his sneakers were somewhat worn out–it had lost its bright red color–, Jonel could not help admit that the man looked good even if, after studying his face, unabashedly staring at him (I’m not from here, anyway! So I can do whatever I want, stare at whomever I like, Jonel thought), he realized that the man wasn’t exactly what he called handsome. The tip of his nose was round and his nostrils a little bit wide; his lower lip pouted a little more than the usual; and a mole was stuck right above the upper left corner of his mouth; from the mole grew a few strands of tiny hairs. By the time Jonel got a closer look at the man, the latter had already noticed, and stepped a few inches away from him and continued walking.
“He was straight, you know,” Christian said.
“I can tell by the way he avoided me,” Jonel said. Before getting a response, he noticed that the two men on the train were also in the mall, clasping hands as they walked and stopped by the display window of a clothes store.
“Hey, look. It’s those same gays on the MRT,” Mike said.
Jonel thought if he and Raffy would have done the same in Manila had they still been dating. He wondered if he could muster enough courage to walk in a mall and hold hands. “HHWW” was what they called this show of affection. He felt sheepish remembering the term, and he blushed further, picturing him and Raffy being “normal” lovers strolling in the mall, unmindful of other people’s reaction. If he were still here, I would have–
Jonel froze. Surveying the crowd in the mall’s atrium, where booths were installed and where people were looking around, he saw Raffy. He was standing in front of one of the booths, asking the sales lady about a vintage shirt with a worn-out print of a Coca-cola bottle. He was wearing his pink polo, constantly adjusting with his right hand the watch strapped around his left wrist. Jonel even heard his voice, an inquiry spoken in Tagalog tinged with a Bisaya accent. Raffy was never used to speaking in Tagalog.
Without a second thought, Jonel darted across the floor, calling, “Raf! Raffy!” as he ran, jostling his way through the throng of people. The run seemed very long, and the way he called his name–“Raffy! Hoy, Raffy!”–was willed by instinct. The name had already become part of his system that it was like breathing. His calling “Raffy! Raf!” as he ran, however, was only drowned out by the usual tumult of the place. He was panting by the time he reached the guy, who turned out, as he excitedly swung him around, calling Raffy’s name for the last time, to be a complete stranger. Nothing in the stranger resembled his ex-lover. The man stared at him, bewildered. “Yes?” he said.
“I’m sorry,” Jonel managed to croak, finding himself unable to speak further. His apology, forced from his throat, sounded like a whimper of despair. He let go of the guy’s arm, his eyes transfixed on him, registering no familiarity save for the feeling of a loss. The man, gaining his composure, smoothed out the sleeve of his shirt, looked at Jonel from head to foot, and walked away.
Jonel turned to where he ran from, and saw, across the distance through which he had fled, Mike and Christian, who were looking at him, bewildered like the stranger Jonel had mistaken for Raffy earlier. And for a moment, he merely stood where he was, letting himself get engulfed by the waves of people who were as much strangers to him as he was to them.