Sept. 20, 2006

there is no ending

but all stories have endings, so i made one myself.

ps - this almost didn't make it out of my head. of course, everything's part-fiction.

finding kerima

01. public transportation

Honestly, had I known we’d be agreeing to return each other’s things anytime soon, I would not have borrowed that book at all. But then, the naïve complacent girl that I was, I went on ahead anyway. Kerima Polotan’s compilation of heart-wrenching short stories was quite a golden bunch, and it broke my heart further that I happened to misplace it.

And so there I was – an hour before noon, I found myself on a familiar jeep bound for the campus. With these memories choking me, I am almost unable to mutter the necessary, “Ikot lang po,” as I handed over my fare. I gave the driver a worn twenty-peso bill and received P13.50 as change. I marveled at how things here didn’t really take so long a time to change as drastically.

Nearly four years ago, I met a girl. It was December when she was introduced to me as a friend of a friend. Nothing too arresting, really; all those stuff about love at first sight had been horribly overrated, thinking about it now, several months hence. However, I still remember she had quoted Og Mandino then, and that she had been singing Christmas carols. It’s as if my mind had set aside, not only mental photographs but audio files of that particular day – as if it knew it was the start of something, at the very least.

It was one of the stories she never really grew tired of hearing – that first day. “Somehow, I’d always known you were gay,” she kidded once, mentioning this other girl whom I was often seen hugging on campus.

I laughed. “You were jealous, weren’t you?” She shook her head, laughed some more and then changed the subject.

“Remember that first letter I wrote to you?” she’d asked instead, not at all a perfectly smooth segue.

“The computerized one?” I asked. “Sure, I remember with utmost fondness the extremely personalized, typewritten letters I receive…”

“You know how bad my handwriting is,” she blushed.

“No, seriously, I really do remember that one,” I assured her. Then, a bit softer, “That was your first letter, how could I forget?”

She smiled. “Of course,” she just said. “I had to write you, I just had to…”

“… All because I told you to run because it was getting dark?”

“Yeah, and also because you told me to ring your phone even if you hadn’t given me your number.”

Who can blame me, a stupid nervous thing? The memory made me laugh. “Yeah, that was really stupid, wasn’t it?”

02. university bookstores

I was only off from work on Saturdays, so it wasn’t like I had all the time in the world to procrastinate – might as well get it over and done with.So instead of lying around in bed all day, I headed for the university bookstore to find a replacement copy, so I can return all of her things. And by all, I meant all.

The night before, I had cleaned my apartment and put all of her things in an old paper bag – books, photo albums, DVDs of movies we had once enjoyed watching. In the middle of it all, it occurred to me how I was actually deciding to go through these formalities for the very first time. Once and for all. It felt so final, I also decided to move to the upper bunk and change my sheets as well.

So maybe it really was what it was -- a breakup, a very Hollywood-inspired one at that, but still, somebody must have undergone this kind of ordeal herself, somebody who had been tortured enough to include a slice of the incident in a screenplay. I was sitting in the jeep, oblivious to the steady roar of the engine, and it made perfect sense.

Eight months later – this was three years ago – I fell in love with her. She was a girl who had dreamed of writing screenplays herself. She was going to be a filmmaker.

Like a moth drawn to a flame, I was drawn to her passion and simplicity and everything about her, really – you know how those smart pretty girls go. I was drawn to her in ways that I’d never felt for anybody before, much less the same sex. Eventually, she’d burn me up, but then I am getting ahead of myself.

Two years later, she ended up writing her own screenplay for her own movie, one she would submit as her final thesis, the final requirement for her degree. Curiously, she would write about a woman who felt trapped in her own marriage, and how that woman would eventually leave her husband in pursuit of her freedom. Her short film later went on to win awards of all sorts.

I would never forget that day I stood there among the audience during the panel presentation of her first film, as the anonymous girlfriend of that girl who had brilliant cinematic vision and a stellar talent for writing. I was proud beyond words, like the thing had been my own – actually, it very well could have been, though I’d never really thought about looking at things that way. She put my name in the end credits, a single line which contained my name and nothing more. That was enough, at least at that time, it was. Tonight, it feels like my heart had been very young then—it had all the strength to make do.

I wrote my own final paper as my final requirement for my degree. In my dedication, I named her and called her my partner and confidant. As a matter of fact, if anybody were to look for my undergraduate thesis in our college library, her name would be there, in a way as permanent as our relationship just wasn’t.

Tonight, thinking about that day she stood there to present her film, I feel terribly shortchanged. If it had been me on that stage, presenting a film I had painstakingly made in the span of more or less nine months, nurturing it like a delicate pregnancy – I would have announced to the world who it was I had made it with; I would have called her onto the stage, my invisible partner who had stayed up until the wee hours of the morning to brainstorm with me, donated all possible props and pulled all possible strings – my partner, invisible no longer.

Unfortunately, visibility wasn’t something I was genuinely granted, especially not with her. I’ll have to leave it to history to judge the way I held on despite the mandatory hiding – it was a time when I still thought I could handle being hidden from everybody’s sight – as long as she loved me and I loved her. It was a time when that was all that mattered. A time when a heart as young as mine could still make do, remember?

Hearts did grow old though, I later found out. Mine did, and it is ageing by the minute as I type. That girl met a boy whom she later paraded as her very public boyfriend. Nobody had known I existed in that light, and now that she had his arms around her, nobody ever would.

It was an easy way of erasing me from her history – something she’d never admit to, but anybody who saw the entire picture would readily point out. Something I had ignored when I was younger, but now my heart, weary and worn, would want to do away with, once and for all.

I alighted in front of the bookstore and lit a cigarette I had fished from my pocket. The time on my watch was eleven-fifteen. I took a drag and proceeded to walk toward the door, particularly relishing the feel of menthol and nicotine on my lips.

This university had its own way of reminding me of where I had once been. For a while, it felt a lot like those first few days, when cigarettes were new, and I didn’t even know how to light one on my own. I shook my head slightly at the memory – that was one of the many things I had once promised myself I would never learn how to do. Just one of the many many things.

The guard later told me the bookstore was only open on weekdays. I sat on the steps and finished my cigarette as I thought of my options. I had not been prepared for this rejection. Come to think of it, I had never been prepared for any of them.

I was reared to be this competitive super-girl by my mom, who herself succumbed to cancer when she was 38. I was twelve then, and I’m turning twenty-two in December. I left my competitive self when I graduated from high school. Or so I wanted to believe.

The girl often came to me whenever she and public boyfriend were on the verge of breaking up. Actually, whenever anything fell apart. To admit, I had been around all that while, relenting to tiny favors because I knew no other way to react to them – because I still loved her, even as I assured my friends I was moving on along just fine.

Looking back, I had been competing with him as I had competed in quiz bees when I was younger, as I had stood up to my teachers and insisted that I was right and they were wrong. I kept up with him, I made it a point to be there when he wasn’t – especially when he wasn’t, as if I could make her see she had made the wrong choice by going public with him and not with me.

But then, just like my teachers in high school – she never did. Just like in far too many competitions, somebody else always gets chosen, not me.

My father likes to humor me, every so often, reminding me of how I cried that time I lost a spelling bee in second grade. Always, I laugh. I don’t tell him I still cry every now and then – for other battles lost.

03. trains

Before I knew it, I was on the train, on my way to the city’s biggest mall. I wasn’t sure whether the book was available in the bookstore there, but at least, I was sure it was open. That was enough for me. Frankly, I just needed to be in constant motion.

04. powerbooks, megamall

When I got there, it took half an hour of scouring the Filipino fiction section before I finally gave up. I had no idea Ms Polotan was a very rare find. If I had, I would’ve chained the book to my neck in the first place. But then, no use blaming myself for the could-have-beens now, right?

I took a Murakami book off the shelf, paid for it and left. It was the most sensible thing to do at the time.

We were in one of those periodic but blissful in-betweens – weeks, or at times, months, of being insanely happy together, without complaint – when she told me how angry she was that he had refused to get back together with her.

At that time, they were two months into their breakup, their first formal one, actually. I took it as an opportune time to be at my best – the steady ear, the warm embrace. As if she had not chosen him over me before, I spread out before her my offer, something that has stood there all these years, terms unchanged – my catalogue of promises, tried and tested to last all possible wear and tear.

“There’s something I must tell you,” she says to me, tone already reeking of that rehearsed apology she had always used on me, all these years.

“I know, I know, I know,” I just say in return, nodding absently, eyes blank. “It’s not like I don’t have enough clues.”

I’m a smart girl, I wanted to add – but then I didn’t, because I suddenly had a hunch that wouldn’t be entirely true.

05. office floors

I proceeded to the office, even if it was my day off – not really to check in for work, although I could be a masochist like that at times. I just realized it would be unhealthy and self-destructive to head home with a Murakami book in tow. There was nothing as depressing as coming home to an empty room. I needed to be around people as much as possible – that much I knew.

My officemates offered a nice array of distractions – DVDs of tv shows on cable that I don’t get to watch because I had no connection; food, alcohol, tea. It rained hard that night and when I got home it was already 2 in the morning. It felt good to be too tired to think before sleeping.

A week into this attempt to cut her completely out of my life, I called her just to say I didn’t find a Kerima Polotan book, and to discuss possible replacement in the form of another book or whatever.

“Maybe you can get your sister to check with the bookstore on weekdays?” she suggested.

“The bookstore’s at the opposite end of campus, I don’t think she’d have the time to,” I said.

“Can I just replace it with something else?”

I felt her smiling on the other end of the line – three years is long enough to know the lips behind a voice. “A Murakami book would be nice,” she says, a bit too flirty to be comfortable, but I let it slip, that’s how we’d always been, I knew it would take time. "I could pitch in a small amount, if you want."

I paused deliberately, and it made her go, "Hello? You still there?" just to check if the line had been cut.

"Still here," I just said. Words have a funny way of coming together with their own sets of levels.

"I don't know, I feel I have to buy that exact Kerima book. It just won't be right if I didn't."

"If that suits you."

"Yeah." Beat. "I have your things ready, by the way. I'm just…" Another pause. God, I couldn't even finish the sentence. "I'm just waiting for that book."

"Waiting? What do you mean, waiting?"

Here goes. "I'm only seeing you again to return everything," and, knowing how every single word hurt, I drew it out slower and longer than I normally would have. To admit, a part of me enjoyed the torture. Another part of me was thinking I only did mostly because I was a natural masochist, and I enjoyed it because it hurt me immensely, too.

"That's not fair," she protested, voice growing a bit shrill. "I vote for piece-meal returns."

"No fucking way," I said back. She always hated it whenever I cursed, but hey, I'm not in any position to be reprimanded. At least, not anymore. "We do this one time, big time."

A pause on her end. Unlike her, I don't ask if she's still there – I could hear her breathing anyway. In my head, I knew where she was – in the darkness of their veranda, judging from the constant hum of the electric fan, and the occasional slap of skin against skin to ward off mosquitoes. It was the only place in the house where she could safely talk on the phone with nobody listening in.

I used to spend nights in that house – at first it was kind of awkward, being in the midst of her parents and siblings, but eventually, they got the hang of me. I told them where I was from, how my mother died, and when my father remarried. I think they even grew fond of me – their youngest girl's best friend who always had something in tow whenever she paid a visit, may it be donuts or nachos or chocolates. Looking back, it did seem like I was courting her family, showing up with food late at night like that.

Thinking about it further, it actually saddens me a bit, the fact that I was cutting off that family too along with her. Usual hijinks and quirks aside, I was pretty fond of them as well, to the point of being attached, somewhat.

"When would that be?" she said finally, after a long while. "One time, big time?"

I sighed. "I honestly don't know. Not in the next few weeks, certainly."

"Don't do this to me."

"I'm sorry. But who knows, I'd find that book, and I'll tell you when I have, and we'll meet over coffee. You still have my slacks."

She laughed. "Yeah, your lucky pants are still with me." It was a private joke, actually, that we passed both our job interviews in those slacks. Memories of other private jokes which used to be very very funny before now summoned a certain air of sadness.

"I'll need them back, you know. And hey, do I still have shirts in your place? Maybe I could have them back too." Maybe it was just me, but as the conversation went on, it seemed like I just found more and more painful things to say, in the form of random reminders and memory triggers.

"I'm not really sure," she indulged me nevertheless. "I'll go check later.""Thanks."

I remembered that one shirt we had in common – actually, I was the first one who bought it. She liked it immensely – it was deep maroon, and it had the female sign of a cross, mounted on a circle right smack in the middle. She went bonkers trying to get me to give it up, only I liked it too much myself that I was unable to part with it. As a solution, she bought the exact same shirt for herself. We called it our conjugal shirt. We were on our last year in college, and we were very careful not to wear our common shirt at the same time. It required little coordination, surprisingly – it seemed we had been together long enough to read each other's minds.

Definitely one of the things I'd miss about the two of us together would be the fact that she could talk me into a sleep over even if I hadn't packed things for it the night before. "You have clothes here," she just had to remind me. And that would be the end of the negotiation. Even if I wasn't sure I did have clothes there, her shirts suited me just fine anyway.

We shared everything, had a certain level of comfort in each other’s midst that was difficult to find anywhere else – thinking about it, who would ever want to lose that kind of connection?

Well, I held on three years – a long, drawn out fight. So, whoever it was who didn't treasure that all-important connection well enough, it sure wasn't me.

06. powerbooks, alabang

I felt the need to find that Kerima book get stronger as the 21st neared. It would have marked our 36th month together, but it wasn’t as if we were still keeping count. I mean, I’d deny it if she asked me about it, and I’m pretty sure she would too if I had asked. But then, things like these – dates, months, numbers – are quite difficult to do away with. I wondered how much harder it could have been if I were mathematically inclined.

It was September. I remember having sat underneath a lamp post at the corner of the main road and the street where my boarding house stood. She had just finished crying her eyes out after one of our bigger fights, and I had taken her out for a walk. Imagine, she had come all the way to our boarding house just to cry her eyes out and confront me. You gotta respect a girl with those kind of guts, somebody as open as that.

“Kind of getting dark,” I had said, unable to bear the silence anymore. “Say something.”

“You think we should have a date?”

“A date?” She just nodded in response. I eyed her curiously. “You mean, a date as in a dinner?”

“No, I mean a date as in a calendar date.”

“A calendar date?” I asked, growing confused.

“One to remember anniversaries with,” she explained.

I felt my eyes go wide. “Seriously. Are you saying what I think you’re saying?”

She got up with a vague smile on her face, extending a hand down to me. I took it and let her pull me up, her grip tight around my clammy hand, sweaty from being too nervous. “Why, do you want me to take it back?”

I laughed, wiping my hands on my jeans. “No, no, it’s not that,” I began. “It’s just that… that’s how everybody’s doing it. Don’t you think it’s cheesy?”

“Let’s not have a specific date then.”

I nodded. We stopped walking upon reaching our gate, at approximately the same time we reached the decision not to label a specific date as ours. “You better get going before it gets too dark,” I just said.

“Okay. I’ll see you tomorrow?”

All of a sudden, I was overwhelmed by this strange feeling, and before I knew it, I had thrown my arms around her and was clutching her to my chest, tight, reveling at that distinct new feeling of holding a body close, at the feel of this body fitting into mine in a way I had never thought possible before. It was strange, but it was good. “Yes,” I just said, more into her hair than to her directly. “I’m definitely seeing you tomorrow.”

Thirty-five months and seventeen nights hence, I still remember exactly when, even as I had promised I wouldn’t.

The fight broke out on the eve of what would have been our thirty-fifth month together – yes, I had broken the not-counting clause as well. I had been feeling particularly expressive that night, and needless to say, some really honest but painful things got thrown about. Careless or no, I regret none of the things I had said.

I remember having said that night, “This routine is getting old, and so am I.” I had never told her that before, it actually caught me by surprise as well. “Right now, I’m all used up. Worn and tired.”

She had responded with the words “love” and “need” sewn together in a convoluted paragraph, just phrases strung together but ultimately devoid of any valid meaning. Sure they still tugged at something, but that night I wasn’t so sure that part of me was still there – it felt so far away from me, detached. Or worse, there but just numb. Maybe the latter case was more feasible.

“Why don’t you just go back to him,” I had said, “That way you could illustrate to yourself how it is to be in my shoes – to have so much to give to someone who couldn’t handle what you got.”

She shot back, “If you had wanted to hurt me, then congratulations, you definitely have.”

Maybe I did want to hurt her as much as she was hurting me. Fortunately, I was lucid enough not to extinguish my cigarettes against my own skin, but nevertheless, at the rate I was going, ‘killing myself’ wouldn’t exactly be a metaphor anymore.

“Seriously, I’d think it would be better if you give it a try,” I spat, taking a drag from my cigarette. “I mean, I’m a dead end, you know? The spineless bastard that he is, I think he’ll fit perfectly into your heteronormal plans anyway.”

“He’s not a spineless bastard, you know that.”

“Okay,” I exhaled, smoke coming out of my lips in thin shaky wisps. “I’ll settle for ‘commitment-phobic at the moment’ since we’re in the business of political correctness. But really. If he only had half the spine that’s holding me up right now, I just might respect him as a worthy competitor.”

I braced myself for a slap that never came. I hated him for being spineless most of all; that night I felt like running my fist into a wall, etched ever so lightly with the lines of his face. As I lay in bed that night, swallowing the last of my sobs, I imagined what I would do if I happened to pass by him on the street, and in my head I allowed my dam of self-restraint collapse. I imagined grasping his imaginary collar and shoving him up against an imaginary wall, driving my imaginary knee into his imaginary midsection, and watching his not-so-imaginary spineless form crumple to the ground.

I know, if ever we do get into that situation, and I would ask him to stand up and fight with both our knuckles bare, he wouldn’t do it. He wouldn’t fight me, I’m a girl, what kind of guy would do a thing like that? In all probability he’d just dust himself off, look at me one last time and leave.

And I’d realize, between my bruised knuckles and his disfigured face, he still wins.

The gruesome fantasy offered me no relief. I cried myself further into sleep that night, mourning the monster I had become.

“Which Kerima Polotan books do you carry in this branch?” I asked the girl behind the customer service counter. It was 11, and I had decided to come by before heading for work. She showed me a couple of books – a novel and a collection of personal essays. Again, the short story collection was nowhere in sight. “Thanks, I’ll come back for them tomorrow,” I said. The girl smiled and put them away. I exited the store with both hands in my pockets.

I called her again to tell her I was losing all hope of finding that book I had lost. “I’ve been to two Powerbooks branches, and I haven’t seen a shadow of that book,” I said.

“It’s all right,” she tried soothing me, but somehow, even that voice had stopped working on me. I was dead set on finding it so I could end this properly – all this while, that’s what I had been thinking about, ending this properly. “This is still me, you know. It’s all right.”

“No it isn’t,” I insisted. “Say, would you mind if I got that essay collection instead? I mean, it wouldn’t be the same thing, but it would be close.”

“I’d love a new book,” she just said, her smile so audible. “I’d love anything you’ll give me.”

I couldn’t think of anything but the fact that this would be another compromise as I put the phone back to its cradle.

07. seattle’s best, megamall

I arrived a few minutes ahead of her, a paper bag in one hand, book in the other. This was it. A proper way to end things.

She arrived in that green sleeveless shirt I had absolutely adored on her.

“You look good tonight,” I had just said, biting my lip. She blushed profusely as she thanked me, as she always does in response to any compliment.

To steer me away from that familiar attraction, I concentrated on the image of a particular photograph I had seen by accident: she and him huddled close together, eyes closed. The photo was captioned, “The simple things.” Right. What we had certainly wasn’t simple. The move was successful in a way – it successfully quenched all desire to spend some more time with her, for one. If I could keep my tears in for the time being, everything would be all right.

“Let’s get things over and done with,” I cleared my throat, and then handed her the bag. She continued being silent, not saying anything up until then. “These are yours.”

She took the bag and the book, and then she handed me a package herself. “Your slacks,” she just said weakly. I forced a smile with my thanks.

We sat there saying nothing, the package growing unbearably warm underneath my fingertips. Sitting there, it felt as if everything I had ever held onto was slipping away from my grasp, at a speed that was impossible to stop – sensations I had memorized, territories I had mapped carefully, contours I had helped shape and mold. Everything, as if things were doing this strange auto-rewind at this moment we chose to return things to where they once belonged. Everything.

I paused to think, was it happening to her too? Was she also feeling me, bits and pieces of me, slip away from under her hands? I didn’t ask. I didn’t have the strength to say anything.

I stood up after a few more moments of feeling these things slip away. I smiled at her and sighed before turning to go, without so much of a word from either of us.

I crossed the street to hail a cab. ‘Just a few minutes more,’ I told myself. ‘Keep it in for now – you have all night to let it go.’

Needless to say, it was a very long night.

08. university bookstore

I found the book a few weeks later. It was available in the university bookstore all along. I bought it, thought about giving it to her for a moment, and then decided against it.

‘It’s a wonderful book, after all,’ I thought to myself. ‘Why not keep it?’

And so be it. Maybe one day, one girl would come by, the same unexpected way that last one had, and maybe, just maybe, I’ll let her have it.

It was such a pleasant thing to look forward to, I couldn’t help but smile.#