Dead Stars by Paz Marquez-Benitez


(This is a short story that gave birth to modern Philippine writing in EnglishI love this story, and I hope you would appreciate it toodear reader.)

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DEAD STARS
by Paz Marquez Benitez

THROUGH the open window the air-steeped outdoors passed into his room, quietly enveloping him, stealing into his very thought. Esperanza, Julia, the sorry mess he had made of life, the years to come even now beginning to weigh down, to crush–they lost concreteness, diffused into formless melancholy. The tranquil murmur of conversation issued from the brick-tiled azotea where Don Julian and Carmen were busy puttering away among the rose pots.

“Papa, and when will the ‘long table’ be set?”

“I don’t know yet. Alfredo is not very specific, but I understand Esperanza wants it to be next month.”

Carmen sighed impatiently. “Why is he not a bit more decided, I wonder. He is over thirty, is he not? And still a bachelor! Esperanza must be tired waiting.”

“She does not seem to be in much of a hurry either,” Don Julian nasally commented, while his rose scissors busily snipped away.

“How can a woman be in a hurry when the man does not hurry her?” Carmen returned, pinching off a worm with a careful, somewhat absent air. “Papa, do you remember how much in love he was?”

“In love? With whom?”

“With Esperanza, of course. He has not had another love affair that I know of,” she said with good-natured contempt. “What I mean is that at the beginning he was enthusiastic–flowers, serenades, notes, and things like that–”

Alfredo remembered that period with a wonder not unmixed with shame. That was less than four years ago. He could not understand those months of a great hunger that was not of the body nor yet of the mind, a craving that had seized on him one quiet night when the moon was abroad and under the dappled shadow of the trees in the plaza, man wooed maid. Was he being cheated by life? Love–he seemed to have missed it. Or was the love that others told about a mere fabrication of perfervid imagination, an exaggeration of the commonplace, a glorification of insipid monotonies such as made up his love life? Was love a combination of circumstances, or sheer native capacity of soul? In those days love was, for him, still the eternal puzzle; for love, as he knew it, was a stranger to love as he divined it might be.

Sitting quietly in his room now, he could almost revive the restlessness of those days, the feeling of tumultuous haste, such as he knew so well in his boyhood when something beautiful was going on somewhere and he was trying to get there in time to see. “Hurry, hurry, or you will miss it,” someone had seemed to urge in his ears. So he had avidly seized on the shadow of Love and deluded himself for a long while in the way of humanity from time immemorial. In the meantime, he became very much engaged to Esperanza.

Why would men so mismanage their lives? Greed, he thought, was what ruined so many. Greed–the desire to crowd into a moment all the enjoyment it will hold, to squeeze from the hour all the emotion it will yield. Men commit themselves when but half-meaning to do so, sacrificing possible future fullness of ecstasy to the craving for immediate excitement. Greed–mortgaging the future–forcing the hand of Time, or of Fate.

“What do you think happened?” asked Carmen, pursuing her thought.

“I supposed long-engaged people are like that; warm now, cool tomorrow. I think they are oftener cool than warm. The very fact that an engagement has been allowed to prolong itself argues a certain placidity of temperament–or of affection–on the part of either, or both.” Don Julian loved to philosophize. He was talking now with an evident relish in words, his resonant, very nasal voice toned down to monologue pitch. “That phase you were speaking of is natural enough for a beginning. Besides, that, as I see it, was Alfredo’s last race with escaping youth–”

Carmen laughed aloud at the thought of her brother’s perfect physical repose–almost indolence–disturbed in the role suggested by her father’s figurative language.

“A last spurt of hot blood,” finished the old man.

Few certainly would credit Alfredo Salazar with hot blood. Even his friends had amusedly diagnosed his blood as cool and thin, citing incontrovertible evidence. Tall and slender, he moved with an indolent ease that verged on grace. Under straight recalcitrant hair, a thin face with a satisfying breadth of forehead, slow, dreamer’s eyes, and astonishing freshness of lips–indeed Alfredo Salazar’s appearance betokened little of exuberant masculinity; rather a poet with wayward humor, a fastidious artist with keen, clear brain.

He rose and quietly went out of the house. He lingered a moment on the stone steps; then went down the path shaded by immature acacias, through the little tarred gate which he left swinging back and forth, now opening, now closing, on the gravel road bordered along the farther side by madre cacao hedge in tardy lavender bloom.

The gravel road narrowed as it slanted up to the house on the hill, whose wide, open porches he could glimpse through the heat-shrivelled tamarinds in the Martinez yard.

Six weeks ago that house meant nothing to him save that it was the Martinez house, rented and occupied by Judge del Valle and his family. Six weeks ago Julia Salas meant nothing to him; he did not even know her name; but now–

One evening he had gone “neighboring” with Don Julian; a rare enough occurrence, since he made it a point to avoid all appearance of currying favor with the Judge. This particular evening however, he had allowed himself to be persuaded. “A little mental relaxation now and then is beneficial,” the old man had said. “Besides, a judge’s good will, you know;” the rest of the thought–“is worth a rising young lawyer’s trouble”–Don Julian conveyed through a shrug and a smile that derided his own worldly wisdom.

A young woman had met them at the door. It was evident from the excitement of the Judge’s children that she was a recent and very welcome arrival. In the characteristic Filipino way formal introductions had been omitted–the judge limiting himself to a casual “Ah, ya se conocen?”–with the consequence that Alfredo called her Miss del Valle throughout the evening.

He was puzzled that she should smile with evident delight every time he addressed her thus. Later Don Julian informed him that she was not the Judge’s sister, as he had supposed, but his sister-in-law, and that her name was Julia Salas. A very dignified rather austere name, he thought. Still, the young lady should have corrected him. As it was, he was greatly embarrassed, and felt that he should explain.

To his apology, she replied, “That is nothing, Each time I was about to correct you, but I remembered a similar experience I had once before.”

“Oh,” he drawled out, vastly relieved.

“A man named Manalang–I kept calling him Manalo. After the tenth time or so, the young man rose from his seat and said suddenly, ‘Pardon me, but my name is Manalang, Manalang.’ You know, I never forgave him!”

He laughed with her.

“The best thing to do under the circumstances, I have found out,” she pursued, “is to pretend not to hear, and to let the other person find out his mistake without help.”

“As you did this time. Still, you looked amused every time I–”

“I was thinking of Mr. Manalang.”

Don Julian and his uncommunicative friend, the Judge, were absorbed in a game of chess. The young man had tired of playing appreciative spectator and desultory conversationalist, so he and Julia Salas had gone off to chat in the vine-covered porch. The lone piano in the neighborhood alternately tinkled and banged away as the player’s moods altered. He listened, and wondered irrelevantly if Miss Salas could sing; she had such a charming speaking voice.

He was mildly surprised to note from her appearance that she was unmistakably a sister of the Judge’s wife, although Doña Adela was of a different type altogether. She was small and plump, with wide brown eyes, clearly defined eyebrows, and delicately modeled hips–a pretty woman with the complexion of a baby and the expression of a likable cow. Julia was taller, not so obviously pretty. She had the same eyebrows and lips, but she was much darker, of a smooth rich brown with underlying tones of crimson which heightened the impression she gave of abounding vitality.

On Sunday mornings after mass, father and son would go crunching up the gravel road to the house on the hill. The Judge’s wife invariably offered them beer, which Don Julian enjoyed and Alfredo did not. After a half hour or so, the chessboard would be brought out; then Alfredo and Julia Salas would go out to the porch to chat. She sat in the low hammock and he in a rocking chair and the hours–warm, quiet March hours–sped by. He enjoyed talking with her and it was evident that she liked his company; yet what feeling there was between them was so undisturbed that it seemed a matter of course. Only when Esperanza chanced to ask him indirectly about those visits did some uneasiness creep into his thoughts of the girl next door.

Esperanza had wanted to know if he went straight home after mass. Alfredo suddenly realized that for several Sundays now he had not waited for Esperanza to come out of the church as he had been wont to do. He had been eager to go “neighboring.”

He answered that he went home to work. And, because he was not habitually untruthful, added, “Sometimes I go with Papa to Judge del Valle’s.”

She dropped the topic. Esperanza was not prone to indulge in unprovoked jealousies. She was a believer in the regenerative virtue of institutions, in their power to regulate feeling as well as conduct. If a man were married, why, of course, he loved his wife; if he were engaged, he could not possibly love another woman.

That half-lie told him what he had not admitted openly to himself, that he was giving Julia Salas something which he was not free to give. He realized that; yet something that would not be denied beckoned imperiously, and he followed on.

It was so easy to forget up there, away from the prying eyes of the world, so easy and so poignantly sweet. The beloved woman, he standing close to her, the shadows around, enfolding.

“Up here I find–something–”

He and Julia Salas stood looking out into the she quiet night. Sensing unwanted intensity, laughed, woman-like, asking, “Amusement?”

“No; youth–its spirit–”

“Are you so old?”

“And heart’s desire.”

Was he becoming a poet, or is there a poet lurking in the heart of every man?

“Down there,” he had continued, his voice somewhat indistinct, “the road is too broad, too trodden by feet, too barren of mystery.”

“Down there” beyond the ancient tamarinds lay the road, upturned to the stars. In the darkness the fireflies glimmered, while an errant breeze strayed in from somewhere, bringing elusive, faraway sounds as of voices in a dream.

“Mystery–” she answered lightly, “that is so brief–”

“Not in some,” quickly. “Not in you.”

“You have known me a few weeks; so the mystery.”

“I could study you all my life and still not find it.”

“So long?”

“I should like to.”

Those six weeks were now so swift–seeming in the memory, yet had they been so deep in the living, so charged with compelling power and sweetness. Because neither the past nor the future had relevance or meaning, he lived only the present, day by day, lived it intensely, with such a willful shutting out of fact as astounded him in his calmer moments.

Just before Holy Week, Don Julian invited the judge and his family to spend Sunday afternoon at Tanda where he had a coconut plantation and a house on the beach. Carmen also came with her four energetic children. She and Doña Adela spent most of the time indoors directing the preparation of the merienda and discussing the likeable absurdities of their husbands–how Carmen’s Vicente was so absorbed in his farms that he would not even take time off to accompany her on this visit to her father; how Doña Adela’s Dionisio was the most absentminded of men, sometimes going out without his collar, or with unmatched socks.

After the merienda, Don Julian sauntered off with the judge to show him what a thriving young coconut looked like–“plenty of leaves, close set, rich green”–while the children, convoyed by Julia Salas, found unending entertainment in the rippling sand left by the ebbing tide. They were far down, walking at the edge of the water, indistinctly outlined against the gray of the out-curving beach.

Alfredo left his perch on the bamboo ladder of the house and followed. Here were her footsteps, narrow, arched. He laughed at himself for his black canvas footwear which he removed forthwith and tossed high up on dry sand.

When he came up, she flushed, then smiled with frank pleasure.

“I hope you are enjoying this,” he said with a questioning inflection.

“Very much. It looks like home to me, except that we do not have such a lovely beach.”

There was a breeze from the water. It blew the hair away from her forehead, and whipped the tucked-up skirt around her straight, slender figure. In the picture was something of eager freedom as of wings poised in flight. The girl had grace, distinction. Her face was not notably pretty; yet she had a tantalizing charm, all the more compelling because it was an inner quality, an achievement of the spirit. The lure was there, of naturalness, of an alert vitality of mind and body, of a thoughtful, sunny temper, and of a piquant perverseness which is sauce to charm.

“The afternoon has seemed very short, hasn’t it?” Then, “This, I think, is the last time–we can visit.”

“The last? Why?”

“Oh, you will be too busy perhaps.”

He noted an evasive quality in the answer.

“Do I seem especially industrious to you?”

“If you are, you never look it.”

“Not perspiring or breathless, as a busy man ought to be.”

“But–”

“Always unhurried, too unhurried, and calm.” She smiled to herself.

“I wish that were true,” he said after a meditative pause.

She waited.

“A man is happier if he is, as you say, calm and placid.”

“Like a carabao in a mud pool,” she retorted perversely

“Who? I?”

“Oh, no!”

“You said I am calm and placid.”

“That is what I think.”

“I used to think so too. Shows how little we know ourselves.”

It was strange to him that he could be wooing thus: with tone and look and covert phrase.

“I should like to see your home town.”

“There is nothing to see–little crooked streets, bunut roofs with ferns growing on them, and sometimes squashes.”

That was the background. It made her seem less detached, less unrelated, yet withal more distant, as if that background claimed her and excluded him.

“Nothing? There is you.”

“Oh, me? But I am here.”

“I will not go, of course, until you are there.”

“Will you come? You will find it dull. There isn’t even one American there!”

“Well–Americans are rather essential to my entertainment.”

She laughed.

“We live on Calle Luz, a little street with trees.”

“Could I find that?”

“If you don’t ask for Miss del Valle,” she smiled teasingly.

“I’ll inquire about–”

“What?”

“The house of the prettiest girl in the town.”

“There is where you will lose your way.” Then she turned serious. “Now, that is not quite sincere.”

“It is,” he averred slowly, but emphatically.

“I thought you, at least, would not say such things.”

“Pretty–pretty–a foolish word! But there is none other more handy I did not mean that quite–”

“Are you withdrawing the compliment?”

“Re-enforcing it, maybe. Something is pretty when it pleases the eye–it is more than that when–”

“If it saddens?” she interrupted hastily.

“Exactly.”

“It must be ugly.”

“Always?”

Toward the west, the sunlight lay on the dimming waters in a broad, glinting streamer of crimsoned gold.

“No, of course you are right.”

“Why did you say this is the last time?” he asked quietly as they turned back.

“I am going home.”

The end of an impossible dream!

“When?” after a long silence.

“Tomorrow. I received a letter from Father and Mother yesterday. They want me to spend Holy Week at home.”

She seemed to be waiting for him to speak. “That is why I said this is the last time.”

“Can’t I come to say good-bye?”

“Oh, you don’t need to!”

“No, but I want to.”

“There is no time.”

The golden streamer was withdrawing, shortening, until it looked no more than a pool far away at the rim of the world. Stillness, a vibrant quiet that affects the senses as does solemn harmony; a peace that is not contentment but a cessation of tumult when all violence of feeling tones down to the wistful serenity of regret. She turned and looked into his face, in her dark eyes a ghost of sunset sadness.

“Home seems so far from here. This is almost like another life.”

“I know. This is Elsewhere, and yet strange enough, I cannot get rid of the old things.”

“Old things?”

“Oh, old things, mistakes, encumbrances, old baggage.” He said it lightly, unwilling to mar the hour. He walked close, his hand sometimes touching hers for one whirling second.

Don Julian’s nasal summons came to them on the wind.

Alfredo gripped the soft hand so near his own. At his touch, the girl turned her face away, but he heard her voice say very low, “Good-bye.”

II

ALFREDO Salazar turned to the right where, farther on, the road broadened and entered the heart of the town–heart of Chinese stores sheltered under low-hung roofs, of indolent drug stores and tailor shops, of dingy shoe-repairing establishments, and a cluttered goldsmith’s cubbyhole where a consumptive bent over a magnifying lens; heart of old brick-roofed houses with quaint hand-and-ball knockers on the door; heart of grass-grown plaza reposeful with trees, of ancient church and convento, now circled by swallows gliding in flight as smooth and soft as the afternoon itself. Into the quickly deepening twilight, the voice of the biggest of the church bells kept ringing its insistent summons. Flocking came the devout with their long wax candles, young women in vivid apparel (for this was Holy Thursday and the Lord was still alive), older women in sober black skirts. Came too the young men in droves, elbowing each other under the talisay tree near the church door. The gaily decked rice-paper lanterns were again on display while from the windows of the older houses hung colored glass globes, heirlooms from a day when grasspith wicks floating in coconut oil were the chief lighting device.

Soon a double row of lights emerged from the church and uncoiled down the length of the street like a huge jewelled band studded with glittering clusters where the saints’ platforms were. Above the measured music rose the untutored voices of the choir, steeped in incense and the acrid fumes of burning wax.

The sight of Esperanza and her mother sedately pacing behind Our Lady of Sorrows suddenly destroyed the illusion of continuity and broke up those lines of light into component individuals. Esperanza stiffened self-consciously, tried to look unaware, and could not.

The line moved on.

Suddenly, Alfredo’s slow blood began to beat violently, irregularly. A girl was coming down the line–a girl that was striking, and vividly alive, the woman that could cause violent commotion in his heart, yet had no place in the completed ordering of his life.

Her glance of abstracted devotion fell on him and came to a brief stop.

The line kept moving on, wending its circuitous route away from the church and then back again, where, according to the old proverb, all processions end.

At last Our Lady of Sorrows entered the church, and with her the priest and the choir, whose voices now echoed from the arched ceiling. The bells rang the close of the procession.

A round orange moon, “huge as a winnowing basket,” rose lazily into a clear sky, whitening the iron roofs and dimming the lanterns at the windows. Along the still densely shadowed streets the young women with their rear guard of males loitered and, maybe, took the longest way home.

Toward the end of the row of Chinese stores, he caught up with Julia Salas. The crowd had dispersed into the side streets, leaving Calle Real to those who lived farther out. It was past eight, and Esperanza would be expecting him in a little while: yet the thought did not hurry him as he said “Good evening” and fell into step with the girl.

“I had been thinking all this time that you had gone,” he said in a voice that was both excited and troubled.

“No, my sister asked me to stay until they are ready to go.”

“Oh, is the Judge going?”

“Yes.”

The provincial docket had been cleared, and Judge del Valle had been assigned elsewhere. As lawyer–and as lover–Alfredo had found that out long before.

“Mr. Salazar,” she broke into his silence, “I wish to congratulate you.”

Her tone told him that she had learned, at last. That was inevitable.

“For what?”

“For your approaching wedding.”

Some explanation was due her, surely. Yet what could he say that would not offend?

“I should have offered congratulations long before, but you know mere visitors are slow about getting the news,” she continued.

He listened not so much to what she said as to the nuances in her voice. He heard nothing to enlighten him, except that she had reverted to the formal tones of early acquaintance. No revelation there; simply the old voice–cool, almost detached from personality, flexible and vibrant, suggesting potentialities of song.

“Are weddings interesting to you?” he finally brought out quietly

“When they are of friends, yes.”

“Would you come if I asked you?”

“When is it going to be?”

“May,” he replied briefly, after a long pause.

“May is the month of happiness they say,” she said, with what seemed to him a shade of irony.

“They say,” slowly, indifferently. “Would you come?”

“Why not?”

“No reason. I am just asking. Then you will?”

“If you will ask me,” she said with disdain.

“Then I ask you.”

“Then I will be there.”

The gravel road lay before them; at the road’s end the lighted windows of the house on the hill. There swept over the spirit of Alfredo Salazar a longing so keen that it was pain, a wish that, that house were his, that all the bewilderments of the present were not, and that this woman by his side were his long wedded wife, returning with him to the peace of home.

“Julita,” he said in his slow, thoughtful manner, “did you ever have to choose between something you wanted to do and something you had to do?”

“No!”

“I thought maybe you had had that experience; then you could understand a man who was in such a situation.”

“You are fortunate,” he pursued when she did not answer.

“Is–is this man sure of what he should do?”

“I don’t know, Julita. Perhaps not. But there is a point where a thing escapes us and rushes downward of its own weight, dragging us along. Then it is foolish to ask whether one will or will not, because it no longer depends on him.”

“But then why–why–” her muffled voice came. “Oh, what do I know? That is his problem after all.”

“Doesn’t it–interest you?”

“Why must it? I–I have to say good-bye, Mr. Salazar; we are at the house.”

Without lifting her eyes she quickly turned and walked away.

Had the final word been said? He wondered. It had. Yet a feeble flutter of hope trembled in his mind though set against that hope were three years of engagement, a very near wedding, perfect understanding between the parents, his own conscience, and Esperanza herself–Esperanza waiting, Esperanza no longer young, Esperanza the efficient, the literal-minded, the intensely acquisitive.

He looked attentively at her where she sat on the sofa, appraisingly, and with a kind of aversion which he tried to control.

She was one of those fortunate women who have the gift of uniformly acceptable appearance. She never surprised one with unexpected homeliness nor with startling reserves of beauty. At home, in church, on the street, she was always herself, a woman past first bloom, light and clear of complexion, spare of arms and of breast, with a slight convexity to thin throat; a woman dressed with self-conscious care, even elegance; a woman distinctly not average.

She was pursuing an indignant relation about something or other, something about Calixta, their note-carrier, Alfredo perceived, so he merely half-listened, understanding imperfectly. At a pause he drawled out to fill in the gap: “Well, what of it?” The remark sounded ruder than he had intended.

“She is not married to him,” Esperanza insisted in her thin, nervously pitched voice. “Besides, she should have thought of us. Nanay practically brought her up. We never thought she would turn out bad.”

What had Calixta done? Homely, middle-aged Calixta?

“You are very positive about her badness,” he commented dryly. Esperanza was always positive.

“But do you approve?”

“Of what?”

“What she did.”

“No,” indifferently.

“Well?”

He was suddenly impelled by a desire to disturb the unvexed orthodoxy of her mind. “All I say is that it is not necessarily wicked.”

“Why shouldn’t it be? You talked like an–immoral man. I did not know that your ideas were like that.”

“My ideas?” he retorted, goaded by a deep, accumulated exasperation. “The only test I wish to apply to conduct is the test of fairness. Am I injuring anybody? No? Then I am justified in my conscience. I am right. Living with a man to whom she is not married–is that it? It may be wrong, and again it may not.”

“She has injured us. She was ungrateful.” Her voice was tight with resentment.

“The trouble with you, Esperanza, is that you are–” he stopped, appalled by the passion in his voice.

“Why do you get angry? I do not understand you at all! I think I know why you have been indifferent to me lately. I am not blind, or deaf; I see and hear what perhaps some are trying to keep from me.” The blood surged into his very eyes and his hearing sharpened to points of acute pain. What would she say next?

“Why don’t you speak out frankly before it is too late? You need not think of me and of what people will say.” Her voice trembled.

Alfredo was suffering as he could not remember ever having suffered before. What people will say–what will they not say? What don’t they say when long engagements are broken almost on the eve of the wedding?

“Yes,” he said hesitatingly, diffidently, as if merely thinking aloud, “one tries to be fair–according to his lights–but it is hard. One would like to be fair to one’s self first. But that is too easy, one does not dare–”

“What do you mean?” she asked with repressed violence. “Whatever my shortcomings, and no doubt they are many in your eyes, I have never gone out of my way, of my place, to find a man.”

Did she mean by this irrelevant remark that he it was who had sought her; or was that a covert attack on Julia Salas?

“Esperanza–” a desperate plea lay in his stumbling words. “If you–suppose I–” Yet how could a mere man word such a plea?

“If you mean you want to take back your word, if you are tired of–why don’t you tell me you are tired of me?” she burst out in a storm of weeping that left him completely shamed and unnerved.

The last word had been said.

III

AS Alfredo Salazar leaned against the boat rail to watch the evening settling over the lake, he wondered if Esperanza would attribute any significance to this trip of his. He was supposed to be in Sta. Cruz whither the case of the People of the Philippine Islands vs. Belina et al had kept him, and there he would have been if Brigida Samuy had not been so important to the defense. He had to find that elusive old woman. That the search was leading him to that particular lake town which was Julia Salas’ home should not disturb him unduly Yet he was disturbed to a degree utterly out of proportion to the prosaicalness of his errand. That inner tumult was no surprise to him; in the last eight years he had become used to such occasional storms. He had long realized that he could not forget Julia Salas. Still, he had tried to be content and not to remember too much. The climber of mountains who has known the back-break, the lonesomeness, and the chill, finds a certain restfulness in level paths made easy to his feet. He looks up sometimes from the valley where settles the dusk of evening, but he knows he must not heed the radiant beckoning. Maybe, in time, he would cease even to look up.

He was not unhappy in his marriage. He felt no rebellion: only the calm of capitulation to what he recognized as irresistible forces of circumstance and of character. His life had simply ordered itself; no more struggles, no more stirring up of emotions that got a man nowhere. From his capacity of complete detachment he derived a strange solace. The essential himself, the himself that had its being in the core of his thought, would, he reflected, always be free and alone. When claims encroached too insistently, as sometimes they did, he retreated into the inner fastness, and from that vantage he saw things and people around him as remote and alien, as incidents that did not matter. At such times did Esperanza feel baffled and helpless; he was gentle, even tender, but immeasurably far away, beyond her reach.

Lights were springing into life on the shore. That was the town, a little up-tilted town nestling in the dark greenness of the groves. A snubcrested belfry stood beside the ancient church. On the outskirts the evening smudges glowed red through the sinuous mists of smoke that rose and lost themselves in the purple shadows of the hills. There was a young moon which grew slowly luminous as the coral tints in the sky yielded to the darker blues of evening.

The vessel approached the landing quietly, trailing a wake of long golden ripples on the dark water. Peculiar hill inflections came to his ears from the crowd assembled to meet the boat–slow, singing cadences, characteristic of the Laguna lake-shore speech. From where he stood he could not distinguish faces, so he had no way of knowing whether the presidente was there to meet him or not. Just then a voice shouted.

“Is the abogado there? Abogado!”

“What abogado?” someone irately asked.

That must be the presidente, he thought, and went down to the landing.

It was a policeman, a tall pock-marked individual. The presidente had left with Brigida Samuy–Tandang “Binday”–that noon for Santa Cruz. Señor Salazar’s second letter had arrived late, but the wife had read it and said, “Go and meet the abogado and invite him to our house.”

Alfredo Salazar courteously declined the invitation. He would sleep on board since the boat would leave at four the next morning anyway. So the presidente had received his first letter? Alfredo did not know because that official had not sent an answer. “Yes,” the policeman replied, “but he could not write because we heard that Tandang Binday was in San Antonio so we went there to find her.”

San Antonio was up in the hills! Good man, the presidente! He, Alfredo, must do something for him. It was not every day that one met with such willingness to help.

Eight o’clock, lugubriously tolled from the bell tower, found the boat settled into a somnolent quiet. A cot had been brought out and spread for him, but it was too bare to be inviting at that hour. It was too early to sleep: he would walk around the town. His heart beat faster as he picked his way to shore over the rafts made fast to sundry piles driven into the water.

How peaceful the town was! Here and there a little tienda was still open, its dim light issuing forlornly through the single window which served as counter. An occasional couple sauntered by, the women’s chinelas making scraping sounds. From a distance came the shrill voices of children playing games on the street–tubigan perhaps, or “hawk-and-chicken.” The thought of Julia Salas in that quiet place filled him with a pitying sadness.

How would life seem now if he had married Julia Salas? Had he meant anything to her? That unforgettable red-and-gold afternoon in early April haunted him with a sense of incompleteness as restless as other unlaid ghosts. She had not married–why? Faithfulness, he reflected, was not a conscious effort at regretful memory. It was something unvolitional, maybe a recurrent awareness of irreplaceability. Irrelevant trifles–a cool wind on his forehead, far-away sounds as of voices in a dream–at times moved him to an oddly irresistible impulse to listen as to an insistent, unfinished prayer.

A few inquiries led him to a certain little tree-ceilinged street where the young moon wove indistinct filigrees of fight and shadow. In the gardens the cotton tree threw its angular shadow athwart the low stone wall; and in the cool, stilly midnight the cock’s first call rose in tall, soaring jets of sound. Calle Luz.

Somehow or other, he had known that he would find her house because she would surely be sitting at the window. Where else, before bedtime on a moonlit night? The house was low and the light in the sala behind her threw her head into unmistakable relief. He sensed rather than saw her start of vivid surprise.

“Good evening,” he said, raising his hat.

“Good evening. Oh! Are you in town?”

“On some little business,” he answered with a feeling of painful constraint.

“Won’t you come up?”

He considered. His vague plans had not included this. But Julia Salas had left the window, calling to her mother as she did so. After a while, someone came downstairs with a lighted candle to open the door. At last–he was shaking her hand.

She had not changed much–a little less slender, not so eagerly alive, yet something had gone. He missed it, sitting opposite her, looking thoughtfully into her fine dark eyes. She asked him about the home town, about this and that, in a sober, somewhat meditative tone. He conversed with increasing ease, though with a growing wonder that he should be there at all. He could not take his eyes from her face. What had she lost? Or was the loss his? He felt an impersonal curiosity creeping into his gaze. The girl must have noticed, for her cheek darkened in a blush.

Gently–was it experimentally?–he pressed her hand at parting; but his own felt undisturbed and emotionless. Did she still care? The answer to the question hardly interested him.

The young moon had set, and from the uninviting cot he could see one half of a star-studded sky.

So that was all over.

Why had he obstinately clung to that dream?

So all these years–since when?–he had been seeing the light of dead stars, long extinguished, yet seemingly still in their appointed places in the heavens.

An immense sadness as of loss invaded his spirit, a vast homesickness for some immutable refuge of the heart far away where faded gardens bloom again, and where live on in unchanging freshness, the dear, dead loves of vanished youth.

 

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And Their Lives Started With This.


“So, then, this guy, I could swear he makes his living posing half-naked in underwear campaigns and linen suits and tapered clothes down the runway.”

“So?” her friend asked.

“So we shared a table, a conversation and a few laughs. And that was it.”

“Nothing? No mobile number exchanges or a pen-pal thing?”

“No. It was just like that, a fleeting moment.”

“Weren’t you always fascinated with models in general?”

“Yeah.”

“So why not in him? Is he exceptionally good-looking?”

“Sure. Very. His face is a masterpiece.”

“No tingly feels?”

“No.”

“Lust?”

“No.”

“And he isn’t someone you’ve seen anywhere?”

“I don’t think so or I would have remembered.”

“Why weren’t you interested?”

“I don’t know. I haven’t associated that meeting with any emotion, real or unreal. I haven’t thought about it until you asked me.”

“You’ve always been the sexy thing, come on.”

“Well all my libido might have dried up.”

She stirred her coffee lazily and looked outside. It was snowing. Snow in the city can be lonelier, but she’s always lived alone, decided to live alone. She liked the melancholy, the freedom, of being alone.

Could her eyes be deceiving her? The man she met last week in the same cafeteria is walking slowly outside, crossing the street, wearing black jeans, weathered leather boots, and grey wool coat. He has a blue scarf tied around his neck. Suddenly, a huge wave of strange de ja vu and nostalgia hit her – it felt as if she’s known him for so long it’s impossible not to remember him, or love him. Suddenly she knew everything about him – where he was born, when and to whom. She knew where he went to study, when he started working and that his first ever casting was with Armani. His habits, the way he laughs, talks and stares. The way he sways and the way he makes her feel. Suddenly, she knew it all, felt it all. She tasted it – sweet, with a hint of bitterness somewhere. Kind of spicy too, like a chilli dark chocolate. She blinked.

“What happened to you?” her friend asked her.

“I know him. From somewhere, suddenly, I- ”

“What do you mean, know him?” her friend asked.

“I know him, all about him, as he knows me!” She said rather wildly.

“You were just saying there was nothing, you know nothing, how come this suddenly turns into a mystery thriller?” her friend asked, confused.

“I DON’T KNOW! But there is everything – and – ”

Images flooded her mind. A villa somewhere in Crete. Sailing in Antibes. Intimacy, nakedness, fondness, love. Proposals. His being flooded hers, she was suddenly drowning. They loved each other somewhere. There were blinding flashes of light. She winced; as if something metallic, deathly is going to take him away.

“There he is…” she croaked, pointing a shaking finger to the man who just opened the floodgates of her consciousness.

“Where?” her friend asked.

“There.” She pointed.

Her friend craned her neck to take a good look at him.

“But that’s!” Her friend couldn’t go on.

“Yes.” She said quite breathlessly.

“He’s… can’t be… why? They said… It was reported…”

The man, outside, looked at her. He recognised her. He stopped dead on his tracks, just outside the cafe door, standing in front of huge glass walls, directly opposite him is the woman. He stared at her, and to her, it seemed as if he was remembering things, feelings, and places, just like what happened to her, like what is happening to her. He was standing outside, unmindful of the gale of the wind and its harsh coldness. They shared kisses. He was fond of kissing. There were lots of it, and caresses and loving. Laughter, too. And talks. Late night ones.

He stood there, shock plastered on his face, a look of broken, painful comprehension on his face. He knows her. He knows her from… way back. Her short, pixie cut. Her small, beautiful face. Her warm, soft hands that offered him the most comfort. Her small body that fits perfectly with his. Those hypnotising, deep eyes. Her intelligence. Her warmth and ferociousness. He knows her, her life, the details, and all the beautiful and ugly things associated with it. There were bright flashes of lights. He winced, both of his hands plastered on the glass wall, perhaps for balance, for steadying, or for reaching out. The barrier. What was it? What’s keeping him from her?

He took a small step forward to go inside.

“His name is…”

And then she woke up.

She caressed her temples.

“That damn dream again,” she muttered.

She stood up and looked in the mirror. She felt that long scar just below her jaw. There’s a vague sense of knowing in her, that the scar is connected to that dream, to that man. She knew only what her family told her. She never bothered telling them about the dream. Or the man. It’s snowing.

Somewhere in a beautiful rustic beach house in Santa Catarina, a man woke up.

“It’s her again.” He whispered.

The winds howled ominously. It was dark outside, and snow was falling.

It’s how he always felt when he has that dream. Cold. Somehow, it coincides with the weather. It always does.

…….

Without You


He was smarting himself up for the wedding – knotting his tie carefully, he made sure his suit was ironed and in perfect condition, his shoes shined, or else the bride-to-be would be after his head. He was humming a tune while fixing himself inside the hotel bathroom. In half an hour, he’ll be driving to the church, to see her beautiful best friend get married. In half an hour, he needs to brace himself for the vows and the crying and the kissing and the hugging that comes with weddings. He knows that she’s rarely weepy, but really emotional events like this get to her. He laughed.

He put on his coat, looked himself one last time in the mirror, and said,

“See you, soon-to-be Mrs. Navarette.” He needs to get used to it.

The Church decoration for the wedding was simple but very elegant – stargazers and wildflowers in bouquets were placed tastefully along the aisle. It was very George, indeed. He was taken out of his reverie when George’s sister gave him a pat on the back. Delighted to see each other, they hugged.

“How are you?” she asked.

“Fine. And you?” he asked.

“All right. Gah, the wedding has not started yet but I am just so emotional!” she said.

“Well this is a pretty big event. You should think of marrying yourself.”

“No. All the guys I know are idiots.” She said scornfully.

“You frighten them, that’s why.” He said.

“All the more reason not to get married. But George… ah I am just happy she found Kurt, you know?” she asked, searching his face for a twitch, a tell that might give him away.

“Yeah, really good for her.” he answered absentmindedly.

“How come you did not date George? All the time you were closeted together, you did not even feel –?”

“We are best friends.”

“I wondered why Kurt never got jealous.”

“Because I am a prat, that’s why.”

“But you’ve always treated George right.” She said.

“Yeah because… she’s not like any other woman I’ve met.” He confessed, with a soft, dreamy expression on his face.

“Ahhhh. A lot of people say that about George. But not with that same… what would I call it? Fondness.

“Would you rather have me as your brother-in-law?” he asked her, incredulously.

She laughed.

“I did not say anything like that, John.” She said.

“Yeah? Plenty of implying, you know.” She slapped his arm.

“Behave!”

“You are so like George. I am not misbehaving.”

“Ah maybe that’s why she went for Kurt you know…” she teased.

“He’s a great man, Kurt. It’s good that they’re marrying.”

“Yeah. You are too much of a playboy.” Dorothy said, if a little sadly.

“I don’t know where you’ve been getting your news but, you seem misinformed. I have not been with a woman for five years now.”

“Really?”

“You sound sceptic!” said John in indignation.

“Well, your track record shows…”

“Can we not talk about my past misbehaviours, please?” he said, although in a light manner. She laughed.

“Ah of course. Oh look, here comes the bride!”

A white vintage car parked in front of the Church, and she stepped out – the most breathtaking bride he’s ever seen. She’s wearing a white gown that features an embroidered top, and tulle skirt. It was simple, elegant, and she is ever graceful. Her hair styled in a messy French twist, and her make-up’s fresh, dewy, and soft. She smiled at him – a dazzling, heart-stopping smile.

“John!” she called out. She practically ran to greet him; and he was only too happy to welcome her in his arms.

“Oh God I’ve missed you!” she said.

“We haven’t seen each other in a year, George. Just a year.” He tried to sound casual.

“Are you saying you haven’t missed me?” she asked, indignant.

“George, how could I not miss you?” he said, looking at her face hungrily, checking for anything that changed during his absence.

“Thank you for coming, I am so happy you could make it!”

“Ah I cannot miss this for the world. You look absolutely wonderful.” He said. She beamed at him.

“Well, go on, let’s not prolong the procession – Kurt is waiting for you there.” He tried to hide the bitterness and pain in his bearing.

“Yeah. This is it! Thanks again, Johnny.” He smiled. She was the only one he let get away with calling him Johnny. Well, he’d let her get away with anything. Hadn’t he let her get a hold of his heart? Well, without her knowing, at that… and now the resentment with himself is starting to creep in. The same question that pestered him for the past five years is resurfacing again – Why hadn’t I told her? But he shook the thought away.

“Go.”

He didn’t notice they were holding hands. He reluctantly let her go. He exchanged a brief hug with George’s parents – their families were very close.

“Good to have you back!” boomed Federico Lazatin, George’s father.

“It’s good to be back, Tito.” He said.

“Well, we better go now. Will you escort me to my seat, dear?” Consuelo Lazatin said, George’s mother.

“Of course, Tita.” He gave Consuelo Lazatin her right arm, and they walked to where her seat is.

“Come on, Papa.” Dorothy called out to his father. Federico Lazatin whispered to Dorothy’s ear,

“How do you think he’s feeling?”

“I don’t know. He’s taking it well; quite too well. But don’t be such an intrigero, Papa!” She said.

He shrugged, and together, they walked to the pews.

John was one of the grooms men, as he is great friends with Kurt as well. Aissa, Georgina’s childhood best friend, is the maid of honour. Her only bridesmaid is her sister, Dorothy. So he was on stand-by there all the time, watching, as little by little the love of his life is tying the knot – candle, veil, check. And now the vows…

“Do you, Georgina Isabelle, take Kurt Anderson, to be your lawful wedded husband…?”

He imagined himself on that altar with George. That they are the ones getting married, and that she answered, happily,

“I do.”

It rang inside his head. Those two words…

“And do you. Kurt Anderson, take Georgina Isabelle…”

He was not hearing what the priest was saying. He was not hearing the crowd, either. He was back in the Lazatin patio, singing, laughing, and joking with George. He was there, and all that time, why hasn’t he said anything?

Once again, he was put out of his reverie by Kurt’s cousin, tapping him on the shoulder.

“John, they are now giving their messages. Are you here man? Jet lag? Kurt told me you’ve just been here a couple of days…”

“Ah yeah, I just had a bit of a late night…” he lied. Indeed, it was time for the couples to give in their message. And Kurt was the first one to give it.

“Do you remember the first time I asked you out? It was for our prom, and you were hidden in a stack of books at the children’s section, reading a Hardy Boys mystery.” The crowd laughed. George laughed, too.  She just looked so radiant.

“And on our prom night… you looked magnificent in that green gown. And I knew then, that I will never let you go. Everything in my life fell into place – you are the light, you’ve always encouraged and supported me. Just when I was about to give up on my diplomatic ambitions, you helped me – you studied them with me. You’ve always extended your helping hands. I just… I love you so much. And I swear to God, I will love you always.” Finished Kurt. He felt like the luckiest man in the room, finding Georgina, loving her. He could not stop his voice from cracking and himself from crying – he just felt so damn happy.

John looked around. People were now sniffing, and wiping their eyes with handkerchief. He thought about Kurt’s message. Well, he went to prom with George, too. Wasn’t that the time when he thought George was perfect? Why hadn’t he realized it sooner? Maybe then… he would be the one on the altar with her… he resented these thoughts, but it seems he lost control of his thinking today. He looked at George, she was crying, too. But he could see that she is happy. And then he felt tears sting his eyes.

“When you asked me to prom that day, I could not keep myself from grinning, you know, as Aissa as my witness!” Aissa laughed appreciatively.

“And that prom night was a lovely day in my life. The loveliest, being now, here, married to you. Married to the man who has the biggest heart, the man who accepts everything about me, even if I could be a little difficult at times. And I thought, I’d do anything to help you, to assist you – to share responsibilities and life with you. Here we are, the first step towards our journey complete. You will never be alone, Kurt. I am here, and God knows how much I love you.” Georgina said, beaming, crying with happiness. She felt wonderful, happy, elated – she was feeling definitely delighted.

After that message, there were more sniffing and crying. What the hell, even he is crying. But he is not crying because of happiness but with sadness and regret. He barely noticed Kurt’s cousin patting him consolingly on the shoulder. He wiped his tears with his handkerchief and returned the pat on Kurt’s cousin.

“I’m okay, thanks bro.” said John.

It is now time for the blessings and exchanging of rings. The couple’s wedding rings are double-band platinum, with their names engraved in the inner circle band of the ring. After this ceremony, the liturgy continued. And then, finally, it is time for the last blessing that will bind them in the eyes of God and of everyone. John felt his legs twitch – he wanted to run and object to this wedding, he wanted so bad to tell George now what he feels – but can’t. Still can’t, won’t; not when her happiness is concerned.

And then there was the priest blessing them, bound for life, and then, before John could make up the words…

“You may kiss the bride.”

They looked at each other, and then kissed. The guests applauded and hugged each other.

“Mr. & Mrs. Kurt Anderson Navarette, everyone.” Said the priest.

The wedding mass has ended. And John felt that a part of his life has ended, too.

II.

It was a lovely garden reception. It was a mix of modern and antique. The tables were wooden and were covered in antique lace; there were painted glass lamps that hung from the posts. The tile floor was a colourful mosaic – bright colours of orange, aqua, yellow, green and red. The finest silver and porcelain wares were used. The service was efficient, the food looked absolutely wonderful. Champagne overflowing, and there were chatter and laughter everywhere. It was almost time for John to serenade the guests, so he finished his glass of champagne, and made a motion to stand-up. Before he could do so, however, Aissa sat her down again.

“Time for you to sing, huh?” she asked.

“Yeah.” He answered absentmindedly.

“So. Are you ready to do this?” asked Aissa, with growing concern. He looked at her.

“Of course. I practiced with the symphony from the day I got here until yesterday.” He answered.

“You know that is not what I meant.” She said quietly. Aissa looked at him in scrutiny, as if waiting for him to crack and tense and then breakdown.

“Then what do you mean?”

“Oh John. You are in love with Georgina.” She said. She did not worry about people overhearing them – the chatter was too loud for them to be heard anyway. He did not answer. Why would he deny it to Aissa? He did admit it to her, didn’t he? And even if he denied it now, he knows her – she is convinced that he is in love with their best friend. And he is. Truly, irrevocably, in love.

“That will not change anything. I’ve kept it for years, there is no reason to feel any differently, now that she’s – she’s married to… Kurt.” He said. His throat was dry but his eyes weren’t.

Aissa did not know what to say. John looked so defeated – her heart was breaking for him. Of course she’s known it for years, but kept her mouth shut – why should she say anything? Georgina and Kurt were happy, and it wasn’t as if John wanted George to be his…

“Y-you know, I t-think Georgina suspected it herself…” she said.

“That doesn’t change anything, Aissa. I don’t know what to do from here but, well, we’ll see.” He said hurriedly, while wiping his tear-stricken face.

“God my tear ducts seem to be too active today.” He said, hiding his pain in a tone of mock disgust.

“Do you really love her, John?” asked Aissa timidly. He looked at her.

“Yes, Aissa. I love her with all of me. And will always do. Yeah maybe I was such a coward for not telling her, but I’ll be braving this new chapter in my life now that she’s married. And nothing will change. I will love her until I die.” He said with conviction. Aissa hugged him. And he hugged back – knowing that someone knows of his condition, that someone understands.

“You are a good man, John. I don’t know what to say to you, you know, but, just… be brave. We are still her best friends, you know.” She said bracingly.

“Of course.” He said simply.

“Well, it’s time for you to go with the symphony,” said Aissa, checking the wedding program – for she is the wedding planner as well.

“Right.”

“Sing to her, John. If it’s the closest thing you’d ever do to admitting you love her. Sing to her.” Aissa said.

“Oh I will, Aissa. I got this.” And then he stood up, and disappeared through the crowd. Aissa was flabbergasted. She is now anxious on what he might actually do.

He walked up the makeshift stage, conferred with the symphony, and then he spoke on the mic.

“I hope everyone is enjoying their meals. I am here to serenade you as you eat, I promise to try and keep your sense of hearing at the end of the jam as normal as possible.” The crowd laughed.

“The bride requested for my presence here. And I told her, this is my wedding gift to her and her husband.” He looked at George and Kurt. They were both smiling at him in gratitude.

“If I may, I’d like to raise a toast please.” John lifted up his champagne glass, and so did everybody at the wedding.

“To George and Kurt, you two are beautiful. I wish you all the best. You are such wonderful persons who deserve no less. All the happiness! Cheers!”

The crowd echoed his cheers, some murmured “hear, hear.”

“And now, let’s do the traditional father-daughter dance.” John announced through the microphone.

The symphony started playing Michael Buble’s version of Daddy’s Little Girl.

You’re the end of the rainbow, my pot of gold, you’re daddy’s little girl to have and to hold…”

Federico Lazatin and Georgina were waltzing to the music, in the centre of the floor, and Georgina was crying. They were talking, and laughing, and crying.

“Georgina is acting crazy.” Dorothy told their mother.

“And so is your Dad, look. They couldn’t decide whether to cry or laugh or talk.”

“I guess this is too much. She is after all, our baby.” Dorothy said fondly.

“So when will you marry, Dorothy? Make sure we’re still around when you do.” Joked Consuelo.

“Mama!” she said indignantly.

“Well? You have turned down every suitor you have ever had, and your Dad and I aren’t getting any fresher.”

“Wow. No pressure, huh?” she said shrewdly. Her mom laughed.

John then sang Tim McGraw’s “My Little Girl”. The father and daughter have stopped crying, but they continued talking.

“I will miss you, G.”

“And I will miss you too, Papa. You and Mama and Ate.” She said.

“You be a good wife to Kurt, you hear me? Be his friend, his lover, his confidante…”

“Yes, Papa.”

And they hugged. And then Kurt was there, asking for Georgina’s hand, and they danced. They smoothly transitioned the song from My Little Girl to How Sweet It Is (to be loved by you).

Kurt and Georgina hugged, and then they waltzed. John tried not to look at them, but he can’t help gazing at Georgina. She looked perfect. And then he thought, she is perfect. He summoned his will to stop looking at her and try to connect with the audience, or he will totally give himself away at this wedding. But he did as Aissa suggested. He serenaded her, Georgina. He sang for her. He poured out his heart on every song. Then they started with Rod Stewart’s Have I Told You Lately. It was just the perfect moment – Kurt turned Georgina around, and John, he caught her eyes, and sang,

Have I told you lately that I love you? Have I told you there’s no one else above you? You fill my heart with gladness, take away my sadness. Ease my trouble that’s what you do…”

Georgina smiled at John. And so did Kurt. There was nothing for him to do but smile back, and then he looked the other way. More people poured into the dance floor. Mr. and Mrs. Lazatin are now dancing, as well as Kurt’s parents. Aissa was dancing with her boyfriend and Dorothy with Kurt’s cousin. Aissa looked at John. She knew he is passing on this cryptic message across with everybody present! She tried to relax but failed.

“Can we just sit again? I’d like champagne.” She said. She walked back to their table, with her boyfriend holding her hand.

John continued to croon in the background. After the song, the people applauded them. He introduced the maestro, the symphony, and they continued on. They started with “She.” John took a break for a sip of water, he then congratulated the newly weds again, and then sang. Then they started with pretty fast tunes, Heaven Must Be Missing an Angel, Wouldn’t it Be Nice, and Donna Summer’s Last Dance. Everybody’s having a good time now, they formed this great big circle around the newly weds and they were all just dancing there. Aissa joined in, but she was sensing the pattern of the songs – and she shot John an exasperated look. He just smiled at her, and motioned for her to just dance.

After the last song, the guests returned to their tables, and chatted away. Meanwhile, John and the symphony continued singing. They opted for modern songs this time.

“This, as the groom’s special request.”

John nodded towards Kurt, and Kurt nodded back.

The symphony played the intro for Ben Rector’s White Dress.

I said do you remember? With your white dress onIt was the end of December, oh, we count the days ‘til dawn…” John was singing with all his heart. He was imagining himself singing this to George in his make believe wedding.

I never knew that I could love someone the way that I love you…” he was looking at George. For the guests, they might interpret this as nothing – just part of the act, is all. But Aissa knew better.

Georgina leaned over to Kurt.

“Can I come in front of the stage?” she asked Kurt. This did not seem curious to Kurt, and so he said,

“Of course. We’ll go.”

“Okay. I just want to say thank you to John.”

“All right.” They kissed, and then they walked towards the stage.

John was now singing his favourite part of the song.

I never knew that I could love, that I could love, that I could love someone like you. I never knew that you could love someone like me oh!”

And George was singing along with him, and… so was Kurt. But it didn’t stop him from singing it to her.

After the song, Georgina clapped hard, and so did the rest of the guests. And then the symphony started with Train’s Marry Me. Some guests stood up and went to the dance floor again, waltzing to the song. Georgina was just there, in front of him, while Kurt now was busy hopping from table to table. Then a cousin of George asked her for a dance, and she obliged.

Marry me, today and everyday. Marry meif I ever get the nerve to say ‘hello’ in this café, say you will. Mmmmmsay you will…” he sang.

He closed his eyes and tried to concentrate on the song. There was a radical shift in feeling – people were reduced to tears while listening to him sing.

Together can never be close enough for me, to feel like I am close enough to you. You wear white and I’ll wear out the words I love you and you’re beautifulnow that the wait is over, and love has finally showed her my wayMarry me…”

He opened his eyes again. Georgina was looking at him, unsmiling, searching his face, and he looked back, and he gave her a smile – then she smiled back. More people were out on the dance floor, and Kurt was now walking towards his bride.

They danced again. When she turned, Georgina mouthed the words, “thank you” to John. He closed his eyes, and continued singing.

Promise me you’ll always be happy by my side. I promise to sing to you, when all the music diesand marry metoday and every day. If I ever get the nerve to say ‘I love you’ today, say you will. Say you willmarry me…”

Only Georgina and Aissa seemed to notice that simple change in lyrics. Aissa spilled some of her champagne down her chin, and Georgina looked at him, smiling curiously at him. He smiled and shrugged. The crowd applauded.

“We are now down to our last song, and this one, well, anybody close to George would know that this is her favourite song of all time. She probably told Kurt, Aissa and me a thousand times how she could not get enough of this song. She said it is something about the feel of the song, its musicality, and its message. And as a bonus, George, I’ll be singing it for you.”

The symphony cued in the intro for Back to You. George and Kurt laughed. Aissa put her face on her hands. John is really trying to get across his message – but nobody else seemed to notice but her. And then Dorothy sat beside her.

“Noticed, have you? But Aissa, you are totally giving yourself away. Relax. It’s all he could do now. It is all he would do.”

Aissa groaned.

“ I’m dying!” she said, exaggerating.

“Calm down. Here, have more champagne.” Said Dorothy.

“Ah I’ve had enough. So, what do you think of John doing this?” she asked. She drank the champagne anyway.

“Okay. Oh of course Papa, Mama and I know John too well, and his true feelings for George, we don’t think it’s a bad thing to do… he’s acting cool, nobody suspects a thing.”

“How sure can you be?”

“The guests are all drowning in champagne and all the lovey-dovey stuff. They don’t see or hear anything except the exceptionally good-looking guy singing. The people here don’t even know George and John are best friends, relax, Aissa.”

“Well, when you put it that way…” Aissa conceded.

Meanwhile, the newly weds…

“It is your favourite song!” Kurt said.

“Yes it is.”

“You really are close to him, aren’t you?” Kurt said.

“Yes, we are. He’s a damn good best friend. But you know that already, Kurt.” She said, looking at John, beaming. And then she looked at him, and for a fraction of a second, she thought she was with John. However, Kurt did not seem to notice anything peculiar. She smiled at him.

“And you – you are a damn great man. I love you, Kurt.”

“I love you, Georgina Navarette.” She giggled.

John sang the song. His eyes were closed, and he was just perfectly still on stage.

Back to you, it always comes around, back to you. I tried to forget you, tried to stay away, but it’s too late. Over youI’m never over, over you. There’s something about you. It’s just the way you move. The way you move meyeahI’m so good at forgetting. And I quit every game I play. But forgive me love, I can’t turn and walk awaythis way.”

Georgina made her way through the crowd, holding hands with Kurt. She was again back in front of the stage, singing along to the song. John didn’t seem to hear her – he was all too absorbed in his emotions and singing. But she didn’t mind, she just sang along… and then she remembered those times they spent at the patio, singing, their memories together, and she felt the urge to cry – she felt as if there’s an inevitable good-bye somewhere. She dismissed these feelings, owing it to the fact that today is a very emotional day, and gripped Kurt’s hand. He gripped hers back. She smiled to herself, and sang along continuously to the song.

Back to you, it always comes around back to you. I walk with your shadowI’m sleeping in my bed with your silhouetteyou should’ve smiled in that picture, if it’s the last that I’ll see of you, it’s the least that you could not do. Ohhhhhleave the light on. I’ll never give up on you. Leave the light on, for me toofor me too, ooh, for me too…. yeah…”

Back to me. I know that it comes back to meDoesn’t it scare you? Your will is not as strong as it used to be…”

John finally opened his eyes, and was a bit surprised seeing Georgina in front of her – with Kurt of course. She smiled at him. He spoke.

“Again, our congratulations, everyone, to the newly weds!” he pointed to Kurt and Georgina.

“Mr. and Mrs. Kurt Anderson Navarette!”

The crowd applauded. John again introduced the maestro and the symphony, and bowed. He exited the stage.

Georgina hugged him. He hugged her back. He noticed he was clinging to her like a lifeline. He tried to put a lot of unsaid words to the hug. And then they let go of each other.

“Thank you so much Johnny. We know it’s such an inconvenience…”

He cut whatever it is she was going to say.

“George, don’t be silly. This is nothing, I’m glad to do it for you and Kurt.” He added that last bit with a pang.

“Thanks, man. We owe you one.” Kurt said, hugging him. He hugged him back.

“Again, don’t mention it.”

They just stood there, making small talk, and then Aissa came round.

“Great performance, John!” said Aissa. He knew she was patronizing him; but he played it cool.

“I know, Aissa, thanks. I saw you were entertained.” He said, smiling at her.

“Shall we sit down and get drinks then? You two hurry along, you need to have your pictures taken with the guests.” Aissa said, pushing the newly weds along.

“We’ll have time to catch-up later, go on!” she insisted.

“All right. Later, we’ll call you for the photo-op.” Georgina said, and then they hopped from table to table, and had their pictures taken.

Aissa led John back to their table. She picked up two glasses from the passing waiter, and handed one to John.

“You are too tense, Aissa. Loosen up.” He said languidly.

They sat down.

“John, I almost fainted. What were you thinking, singing those songs?”

“ Didn’t you tell me to sing to her? That’s just what I did you know.”

“Yes but that’s before I noticed you had it all planned!” she exclaimed.

“So you’re not feeling sorry for me now? Because I sang those songs? Aissa, it was all I could do. And nobody noticed… so just relax. It is all over. I’ve said my piece. Or in this case, I’ve sung it.” he said.

“Ate Dorothy noticed.”

“I thought she might.”

“Oh John.” Said Aissa.

“What?”

“Sorry.”

“Don’t be, Aissa. Everything’s cool.” He said tonelessly.

It was, she understood, the dot to their conversation. She looked sadly at him, and brushed the top of his head lightly. He closed his eyes to the touch for a moment, and the opened them again. He drained his champagne. The symphony is playing again, this time, Glenn Close’s Moonlight Serenade.

“May I have this dance, Aissa?” John asked, smiling at her.

“Of course, silly.”

She gave him her hand, and they walked to the dance floor. There they talked normally, of the things they used to do, and the things they could and could not do now that their friends were married. They were quite enjoying themselves, so to speak.

“So, when are you and Rupert going to marry?”

“Oh gosh, that’s in the distant future!” she said, laughing.

“But you’ve talked about it?” he asked.

“Oh yes. But we’re taking things in stride, you know…”

“That’s good, that’s good.”

“And you? No L.A.candy?”

It was his turn to laugh.

“No, Aissa. They approach but I don’t do more than introduce myself and be a ladies man. No more than that.”

“When will you fly back?”

“Probably after a month or two. Mom said I earned this vacation. But there’s not much to do around here, really…” he trailed off.

Aissa knew, of course. There was not much for him to do here because the woman he’s devoted to is now married. Of course, they are still best friends, but they can’t hangout like they used to, could they? Aissa knew how close they are to each other. When John left for the States, Georgina cried for about a week. Kurt didn’t know about it – he was away on business then. She felt that Georgina was more upset in John’s leaving rather than Kurt being away for business. She also thought that Georgina terribly missed him, although with Kurt and her around, it didn’t show much. They are very like soul mates – now she’s convinced that soul mates do not necessarily end up together.

“You know… she cried for about a week when you left. Probably more, I don’t know. That one week, all she did was cry. I was with her in Gabu. We went back here and well, she just stayed in the condo.” She said.

John nodded absent-mindedly.

“I craved her, you know? Her company, her laughter, her silly antics. For months I was in withdrawal – all I did is go to work, go home, go to work. I even did my drinking at home. She got engaged weeks before I left, how was I suppose to feel about that? And then when finally I thought I was coping, she called and let me know she’s definitely getting married. She wanted to visit me in L.A., you know? But I went against it. Told her she has a lot to prepare, and telling me by phone is okay. We went on video chat when the invites were finished, and she showed me sketches of her wedding gown… she showed me the newspaper clipping of their wedding feature…” he trailed off.

“She kept you updated on the progress of her wedding.” Said Aissa in awe.

He laughed.

“Yeah, she did. That wedding gown? I said it would look amazing on her. And then she said,” he was in tears again, “she said then that’s what she’s going to wear.”

Aissa was positively alarmed that John is crying again.

“Hey, do you want to like, sit down?” she asked.

“No, I’m okay, I’m fine. Besides, I need to go ask George for a dance. Come on, I’ll walk you back to the table.”

They walked back to the table, where Rupert was waiting.

“Hey Rupes. I hope you don’t mind, I borrowed Aissa for a bit.”

“Not at all, John.”

“All right. Need to find the bride. See you around, Aissa, Rupes.” He gave them a curt nod, and then went looking for George.

“Was he crying?” Rupert asked Aissa.

“No, he just got something in his eye.” She lied.

The symphony was now playing Queen’s You’re My Best friend. And John found her. She was in the table with Kurt’s family.

“Excuse me. May I borrow the bride for a while?” he said smoothly.

They all looked up to him, he acknowledged Kurt’s family, made small talk, and then addressed Georgina,

“May I have this dance, George?”

George looked at Kurt, he nodded, and then she smiled at John.

“About god damn time, Johnny.” She said. They laughed.

He led her out on the dance floor, and they took the centre without knowing it.

“So, Mrs. Navarette. Getting used to it yet?” he asked her playfully. They are now dancing foolishly.

“Well, it will take a little getting used to.” She said.

“Happy?” asked John.

“Positive.” She smiled at him.

“I missed you, George.”

“I did too. I do miss you.” she said. “When are you going back to LA?”

“In about a month or two.” said John casually.

“There’s this new Japanese restaurant in QC, you need to try it. They have awesome Japanese food!” she gushed out.

“George, you don’t eat Japanese food.”

“I know. I read a review for you.”

John laughed. Oh how he missed her!

“All right. You take me there.”

“Okay!” she said, beaming.

“And Mom and Gramps said they’re so sorry they can’t come. You know business and all. It’s very busy this time of year there and they cannot leave at this moment. I brought their present for you though. I’ll bring it when I visit you guys on your new home. Is that all right? I’ll bring Aissa along.”

“Oh of course! I miss them so much too. One day we’ll come and visit, okay?” she said bracingly.

“That’d be swell.”

They sang to the song, never minding the crowd, or their tune.

Ooh you’re the best friend that I ever hadI’ve been with you such a long time, you’re my sunshine and I want you to know, that my feelings are true, I really love you, Oh you’re my best friend…”

The people watching were fixated on them because they looked like kids playing. One in a wedding gown, one in a suit.

“Oh and John, I forgot to tell you, you look great!  The suit looks great!” she said, breathlessly.

“Thanks. And you are beautiful. So you picked the gown after all.”

“Of course! We both agreed it is the best.”

“And it is. It looks awesome on you, George.”

“Shush John; tell me something I don’t know.”

John laughed. He knew it was a rhetorical phrase, but he almost took it seriously. And what would he tell her? That he loves her? It would cause an uproar.

The song playing now is Norah Jones’ Come Away With Me. They were pretending to be ballerinas now, dancing on tiptoes and doing plies and demi-plies. They were having too much fun.

“Oh God John, this has to be the most tiring dance ever!”

“Well you kept dancing silly, I had to back you up, right?” he said.

“Of course that’s why you are the best friend!” she said.

“Of course.” He said.

She stopped moving. She held both his hands.

“But really, Johnny, thank you so much for coming and singing for us. I am so happy you’re here.”

He embraced her, tightly. She hugged him back, her eyes wet with tears.

“Hey don’t cry!” he said, alarmed. “Here,” he offered his hanky.

“But it’s wet! What is this? Sweat?” she asked half-laughing, half-crying.

“No!”

“Then what?”

“Water. I-I spilled water on myself.” He lied.

She wiped her eyes with his hanky.

“Thanks Johnny. It’s just that, I’ve really missed you. And I’m just overwhelmed with emotions…”

“This is an emotional day.”

“Yes, and there are all kinds of feelings – excitement, happiness, I’m a bit anxious like am I going to be a good wife? And I’m afraid of all sorts of things and –“ he cut her off.

“George, you are a wonderful, wonderful woman. And all of us close to you see that. Kurt married you, it means he sees you as his equal, and his love, and that you are just… perfect. So don’t cry. You’ll be okay, you’ll be great.” He said, and then gave her a big smile.

“Thanks John.” She gave him another hug. “I feel loads better now. And I love you, I really do.” She said.

“I love you too, George.” He said. “Come on, I’ll take you back to Kurt.”

“All right.” She said, smiling.

“Thanks Kurt. Congratulations again, bro.”

“Thanks, Bro.”

He moved away from them and returned to his seat, to find Aissa and Dorothy together again.

“Nice dancing moves.” Dorothy said.

“Yeah reserved it especially for today.” he said airily.

“You’ll be okay, John.” Dorothy said, looking at him with sadness.

“Don’t feel sorry for me guys. I’ll be fine, really.”

“We know you would be…” Aissa said consolingly.

“Anyway, it’s not like I’m out of her life, right?” he said, convincing himself.

“Of course not! Best friends are forever!” Aissa said.

He smiled tremulously at them. A waiter passed by with a fresh batch of champagne flutes, he immediately grabbed three and handed two to the ladies with him.

“Well, here’s to ‘forever alone’ for me.” he said. Aissa looked scandalised, but Dorothy laughed.

“That makes two, John.” She said.

“You two!” Aissa exclaimed, shocked at their words.

“Aissa, if you don’t relax you’ll have a breakdown right here. The wedding is going fine, everything is, so just drink up.” Dorothy said. Aissa shook her head and downed her champagne in no time.

“You might want to slow down though…” John told her.

“Say that to yourself.” Aissa snapped.

Dorothy laughed.

“How could George have two really different persons as her best friend? You guys sure compliment each other well!” she said.

“You can’t deny she’s got taste though,” John joked. Dorothy laughed again, and even Aissa gave a grudging smile. He’s back to his old self… she thought. Well, for now.

III. 

Months passed. John was able to visit Georgina and Kurt in their new home; he was able to give him their gifts, he even spent evenings with them for dinner, and weekends for backyard parties. They looked happy all the time, and that made it all the more hard for John to stomach. He is happy for them, of course, but that doesn’t mean that he is not pain, that he is not reeling from the heartbreak.

He left two months after they got married. He’s back in his old life in LA. All work, not so much play. He just lost interest in dating, not that he didn’t try when he got back – there’s just nobody out there for him, he was convinced of this. He tried looking for somebody all over the world but there really was nobody.

Aissa,  Kurt and Georgina visited him in LA. They stayed there for a month; it was one of the happiest moments of his life. It felt great, it felt like the old times… them, out in the patios, laughing, fooling around, and having fun. He’s still quite not over Georgina, and he thinks he never will be, but he is coping. He is coping well.

Until that fateful day… that devastating, fateful day..

A Minute for an Eternity


Everybody in the canteen is transfixed on the television. PAGASA raised signal number 3 in Metro Manila and all the surrounding provinces.

I looked outside the window and it looked like 6 in the evening instead of 7 in the morning. All the typhoon hype is making me nervous and queasy which made me stop drinking my cappuccino. PAGASA is advising people from work and school to go home already, if they still can, before the typhoon hits in the afternoon. As usual, late announcements. As for our company, we were told to wait until 8 am for further announcements – whether work operations will be cancelled or not. Jacques, Marit and I looked at each other.

“This is crazy. I mean, late announcements again! It would take me 2 hours to go home and by that time trees have fallen along the expressway. I will get stuck inside my car and will die in the typhoon!” Jacques exclaimed exaggeratedly. He was always like this. Plenty gay and beautiful — more beautiful that Marit and I. We shook our heads.

“Don’t be silly,” she said, trying to look calm, but I know she is worried for her family — the signal has been raised to 4 in their province. “You two are fortunate enough because you could still go home to your families, me? I’d probably be alone in the apartment, dying not because of the typhoon but because of worry for my family.”

“Come home with me, Marit.” I asked her. “At least you would have company. You don’t have to stay alone in the apartment.”

“I don’t know… I’ll think about it.” She said, while toying away with her salad.
“What is there to think about? Nothing! Nothing!” Jacques exclaimed.
“Yeah, he’s right. So what? Do I get a yes or not? Come on, we don’t want to leave you alone in there. Besides, we wouldn’t have to worry about anything at all at my home — food, clothing, shelter…”
“Okay, okay, I’ll go home with you.” Marit finally conceded.
“Great! Wait, I’ll call my dad. Whether they cancel or not, I would still go home. I do not want to be trapped in this place. It’s hell.” I stood up and went to the stairs, far from people. I dialed my dad’s number, told him I’d be going home any moment now, and that Marit is coming too. He said OK, and told me they are busy preparing for the typhoon. PAGASA said it will probably last 2-3 days. Great. Stuck with no electricity and water supply, for sure. I sighed. Dad told me to take care, and to pass it along to Marit. He said he is cooking Arroz Caldo, my favorite. At least that made me smile. He hung up. I walked back to my two best friends.

“OK. All settled, Marit. We’ll leave in a few minutes.”
“There is no announcement yet, sweetums.” Jacques commented.
“Like I give a damn.” Then my phone started ringing. I looked at the screen. Oh damn.

My face must have looked like hell, Jacques and Marit pulled me back to earth.
“Who’s calling, Auds?” Marit asked. “Why aren’t you answering the call?”
“Is it Pierre?” Jacques asked. I nodded.
“Oh why not answer it?” he asked again.
“I will. Excuse me.” I stood up and pressed the OK button. I sat on the staircase.

“Hello?”
“Audrey? Where are you?” he asked. How I like it when he calls my name.
“Still at work. You?”
“Same. Listen, are you going home? We were advised to go home. Work cancelled for 3 days.”
“Hmmm. I don’t know yet. We were advised to wait until 8 am today.”
“But you are going home anyways, are you not?” he said. I could almost see him smiling. I smiled and answered,
“Yes.”
“Then let’s go home together. I’ll see you at the train station. Thank God there is a train.”
“But there would probably be loads of people —”
“Not if we beat them to it. Come on, let’s go home together.”
“And Marit is with me.”
“Doesn’t matter.”
“Okay.”
“Leave now. I’ll buy us the tickets.”
“You don’t have to.”
“Audrey, I insist.”
“Fine.” I said a little harshly. I hate it when he acts like that. Like he is some almighty Hercules come to save me. He is more like Paris — who destroyed everything for me.
“I’ll call you again. Bye.”
“Bye.”
“And Audrey?” he asked, this time softly it almost broke my heart. Again. He does that too often.
“Yep?”
“Take care. Please do take care.”
“Will do. You too. Bye.” Then I hung up. I heaved a heavy sigh and returned to our table.

Marit and Jacques have already concluded what we have talked about, as it was clearly visible on their faces.
“He is going home with us, right?” Marit said.
“Yes. He is going to buy us the tickets.” I said, nonchalantly.
“Ah, bless Pierre’s soul!” Jacques commented, then sniggered.
“Don’t do that!” I said.
“Ah, to add to your feeling of elation,” he teased, “Work is cancelled for 3 days, honey. They just announced, while you were in the staircase too busy to notice anything. So you and Marit could enjoy 3 days doing practically nothing except burying your noses in your home’s posh library.” He said jealously.
“Awwww.” Marit teased.
“If we are allowed to go home now, can we get moving? I want to catch the 8:30 am train. The earlier, the better.”

We all stood up, grabbed our bags and our tumblers, and then headed to the nearest door.

It was mad outside — sure there is no rain — yet. But the winds are so strong, the three of us had to grab on to each other to make sure nobody is going to be blown away. Jacques told us he’d give us a ride to the train station, and Marit and I could never be grateful enough for that — all the means of transportation going to the station are crappy and full. Full of crap.

It was heaven inside Jacques’ car. And then my phone started ringing again.
“Is it the musketeer?” Jacques teased.
“No, it’s the evil butler who ruined my life.” I said.
“Awww. Don’t be too hard on him.. and just answer the damn phone, Audrey.” he said.
Why is it too hard to press the OK button when he calls? And why is my throat dry?

“H-hello,” I croaked.
“Audrey? Where are you?” he asked.
“I don’t know. Jacques took this shortcut. He’s taking us to the station.”
“Great. Will you be here in 20 minutes? There is an 8 am train.”
“I don’t know. I’ll ask.” I put my phone down and asked Jacques.
“Jacques, are we going to be there in 20 minutes? He says there is an 8 am train trip.”
There was no need for this, but he grabbed my phone, put it in loudspeaker, and in a raised voice he said, “Yes, Pierre honey, we will be there in 20 minutes. I will deliver Audrey to you safe and sound. And Marit too. Now, don’t you worry, ok?” he said, voice in a fit of frenzy. He loves doing this to me. I heard Pierre’s loud laugh emanating inside the car from my phone.
“Ok, thanks, Jacques.”
“Jacques, honey?” Jacques teased him. He laughed again.
“Yes, Jacques, honey. Thanks.”
“Great! Bye! And see you in 10 minutes. Audrey, you might want to re-touch.” He said, and that made Pierre laugh again.
“There was no need for that comment! Yeah, we’ll see you in 10. Bye.” and then I hung up.
I glared at them, and then they started laughing.
“You might want to re-touch, Auds.” Marit said. I grunted, but did as told.

Sure enough, in ten minutes we were in the station, and after a lot of goodbyes and take cares, we finally let Jacques go. Marit and I walked to the ticket booth and looked for Pierre.
Marit was the one who spotted him.
“He’s there. Beside that fat guy. Ewww. Oh my he looks good. Navy blue suits him.” She commented. I didn’t need to hear that; I’ve seen him many times wearing navy blue. I am impartial to that color. To him, anyway. Maybe he felt Marit and I looking, because he suddenly turned to our direction, smiled and waved. There was nothing else to do but smile back and wave. He stood up and walked towards us.

“Where is Jacques?” he asked.
“We didn’t let him stay too long, he needs to get home ASAP.”
“Oh okay,” he said. “I booked separate compartments.” He said. “You and me, Marit is alone.”
“What? Why?” I asked, fuming. I HATE IT WHEN HE IS SO ASSUMING.
“Because there is no available compartment for three persons. And because Marit wanted to be alone. Didn’t you tell me so, Marit?” he asked. She nodded. I do not know who is lying but I am determined to stay with Marit.
“You go in that compartment alone! I will stay with Marit! Where are the tickets?” I demanded. He gave me the tickets.
“You will have to share that compartment with me,” he said. “It is registered in my name and your name. And they will check, won’t they?”
“Stupid! Trickery! Don’t you come near me.” I said.
“Honey, you’re pink in the cheeks,” Marit said, smiling affably.
“Urgh! You two! Can we get to the coach, please? Marit is just beside us, right?” I asked.
“Yes, her coach is number 24. Ours is 25.”

I didn’t wait for them to respond, I just headed where the train was waiting. I climbed up and sat on the couch. Marit peeked in, smiled, waved, and then headed to her coach. Pierre joined me inside.

“Why are you so upset? We’ve made this trip many times before.”
“Exactly. I don’t want to make trips like this with you anymore.” I said weakly. Great going, Audrey. I told myself. He would really believe that, what a weak assertion.
“What are you thinking?” he asked.
“Nothing that concerns you.” I snapped. He sighed.

We stayed silent for a good 20 minutes. All that is inside my head are memories with him, and it is so funny, that here I am with him, shouldn’t I be making another memory worth remembering? But no. I don’t want them anymore. Staying away is the best option for us, because I want the cycle to stop. And I am determined to stay away, but most of the time I do it half-heartedly. One call, one message and everything is returning. But now I am determined. I can only go so far. I AM TIRED. AND THIS IS NOT RIGHT.

“Audrey?” he called.
I looked at him. “Yeah?” I said.
“Will you kiss me?” he asked. He looked desolate, but there was a finality in that look that it scared me.
I tried to regain my composure.
“Will you give up with that already?” I asked, half exasperated and half amused.
“Please?”
“What? You think a kiss is just some kind of candy I could give away to anyone and at anytime? My kiss?!” I exclaimed.
“I think your kiss is so special and I want it. For selfish reasons.” He said, unwincing. Just like that, huh?
“Yeah, for selfish reasons.” I repeated.
“So, will you? Just this once, Audrey, and I won’t ask for it again.”
“You’re damn right you won’t! Because if I kiss you now, it would mean goodbye. If you choose for me not to kiss you, I will stay in your life indefinitely; like an old favorite shirt you stacked away inside your closet.” I said. I finally managed to say it. I have been thinking about that for a very long time.

He looked at me. His face registering mixed emotions I can hardly name them all — shock, guilt, sadness, wait, what was that one? Amusement? And then he turned serious. And silent.

It was so silent inside the compartment; all I can hear is the thundering of my heart inside my chest, and the engine of the train. I wonder what Marit is doing. She needs to be the little beast that she is and knock and put an end to this very uncomfortable silence. I know Pierre is thinking, and is choosing between the two choices I gave him.

Finally, he spoke. He called my name. Will this be for the last time?

“Audrey?” he called. I closed my eyes and let the sound of his voice reverberate inside my head.
“Yeah?” I asked. I have no energy to even open my eyes.
“Look at me please.” And just like that my eyelids opened. I hate this effect. And so I looked at him.

Those black eyes devoid of any emotion for so long are now looking at me meaningfully, it’s like looking at a part of him. A part I say, because I can never fully understand and know him. Never. This has come to an end. And I can taste the goodbye already, even if the choice has not been stated yet.

“I have made my choice. The reason for your life being such a mess right now is because of me. I admit to my selfishness; we are all selfish, everyone of us involved in this situation. I wouldn’t give myself all the credit of hurting you, but I admit to having a big, significant part in it. And this is why I need to stop. You don’t need me in your life; and I don’t need you in mine. I want you so badly, but I don’t love you. I don’t need you. The one you love and need is now gone, and now you will be alone. But someone is bound to come for you. I will have to say goodbye.” He said. This, this is the longest speech he has ever had with me.
“So?” I croaked.
“So I am choosing the kiss. Your kiss, Audrey. And I promise never to be a nuisance to you anymore. Ever.”
I glared at him, but his facial expression was so soft and torn in anguish. I am guessing he never felt this way before.
“Up to the last minute, you are as selfish as ever. You get something from me, I don’t get anything in return.” I said. It sounded stupid, child-like.
“You get your freedom, Audrey. You get to move on.”
“Yeah. From the sordid, hellish past.”
“Yes. And it will make me feel right again, knowing you’d be happy somewhere.”
“Right.” I answered, and sighed.

He moved beside me, he was so close, too close — I could smell his peppermint breath. And I could not breathe at all.

“Thank you Audrey, for showing me things. For making me feel things.” He said, looking at me straight in the eyes. His eyes were sincere.
“Okay. Right.” I answered. There is no need for me to say stuff like that, I’ve already said them at least a dozen times before.
“So, this is good-bye.” And before I could do anything, he cupped my face gently, and pulled me closer to him with enough force, and then it happened —
The Kiss. Our lips met.

We were like that for I don’t know — seconds? minutes? Until he moved his lips and gave me a real kiss. I answered back but it was to me, improper. I stopped. I pulled away from him, and before I can stop it, the tears fell.
Goodbyes. I hate goodbyes.
“Am I that bad a kisser?” He joked.
“Don’t! Don’t joke about it! I, I, I—” I cannot go on. I cannot speak anymore. He embraced me.
He put his lips in my ear and whispered,
“Goodbye, Audrey. I pray for your utter happiness. You deserve it.” He looked at me, wiped the tears from my eyes, kissed my forehead, and sat still beside me.

The train has already stopped. I looked wildly to check for the station; we are in his stop already.
He stood up, grabbed his bag, looked at me, and I finally managed to say,
“Goodbye, Pierre.”
He smiled, and then stepped outside the compartment without another word.

He traded a lifetime of standing still for a minute of a kiss.
It has come to an end. A new start awaits me.

P.S.
(For Viviene and Fhadz — who told me to write. Told, not asked. :)) Forced. Hahaha. Purely fictional.)

(RMRS, 2009.)