May 5, 2007

the art of fleshing out rumors, in ten parts.

the best thing about family reunions is the amount of interesting rumors you get from the elders. when i was younger, they always told me to keep out of grown-up talk; but now, i’m 22, and actually guzzling beer while listening to one of my aunts telling the clan about an old friend of theirs leaving her husband for another girl — a former high school batch mate, apparently, that she’d met again in a reunion.

of course, i say — hmm interesting. there were only but a few details, and all the while auntie kept eyeing me with a certain glint in her eye that said, well, you like this story, don’t you?

well apparently i do. very much. don’t we just love fleshing out rumors in our heads?

1. this is how it doesn’t start:

we were fifteen, it was raining, and the dirt road on the way home was already soft mud. at the door, we tried our best to shake off the earth caked around our legs, knee-high, our uniforms still dripping at the edges, rain still battering the roof above our heads.

“your mother will kill us.” with a grin, you proceeded to take off your clothes, shutting the door with a still-muddy shoe behind you. the door closed with a slight grating noise, as the soil which clung to the edge of the door ground against the jamb.

i’d known you all my life but it was only then that i felt something akin to that - a heightened sense of feeling that amplified everything, down to the minutest of sounds.

“take that off if you don’t want to catch a cold,” you said casually, and i found myself absently toying with the first button of my blouse.

i don’t exactly remember when it was that i first saw you — we must have beeen very young. but in my head, i’d always looked back to this rain-drenched afternoon as the day we actually met.

2. this is how it doesn’t start:

at graduation, neither of us made it to the top ten, but we were content just the same, sitting side-by-side in our togas amidst the mid-afternoon heat, laughing quietly at the valedictorian, who was delivering his speech against the glare of the 4 p.m. sun.

“now how about that,” i just said, fanning us furiously with my mother’s abaca fan. “aren’t you glad that’s not you?”

i stared at you as you tried keeping your laugh in, the delicious noise pooling at the corners of your lips. right then you just nodded mutely, but your face looked every bit like it was ready to explode.

and it was then i started thinking about trying to stop myself from thinking about the many ways i might never see you again — because you were insightful like that, and it wasn’t the time to give away the fact that as the speech went on, i was actually feeling smaller and smaller.

i left right after the ceremony ended, not bothering to say goodbye. goodbyes were for people who’d never see each other again.

3. this is how it doesn’t start:

it was twenty years after graduation when i saw you again; you were infinitely prettier than i remember — eyes a darker shade, hair way shorter.

thank god for high school reunions, because otherwise there was really no reason to come back.

i’d approached you tentatively to introduce myself, as if i didn’t live across the street, as if i didn’t use to spend rainy afternoons sitting beside you, nearly naked, as we waited for our skirts to dry. “hey,” i’d said, “remember me?”

foolishly, i extended a hand — as if this were a business transaction of sorts, only i was extra-nervous, and my hands, extra clammy. and you, for your part, you were all too ready to throw yourself at me with a hug.

“remember?” you just said back, giggling loudly against my shoulder. “remember’s such a weak word.”

this was how it didn’t start, sitting together at the far corner of the gym, away from the blare of the mega speakers and the crappy 80s music they set the mood with. “so,” you just said, “what you been up to?”

and for the lack of better conversation skills, i tried my best to explain the several mishaps that comprised my life for the past couple of decades - employment mistakes and relationship errors, most of which i never recovered from. “and you?” i asked back weakly, starkly feeling all the more small.

“oh you know.” a pause. “kids. marriage. the drill.”

there’s a lump in my throat that i did not feel the need to explain, not even to myself. “really.”

“got married immediately after college.”

“is that right?”

and it must have been the way i had swallowed that prompted you to ask, “are you okay?”

or maybe it’s just that, all these years, you still could read through me like crystal-clear cellophane. “it’s getting a little hot here,” i just said.

that night, i offered to drive you home, but you smiled politely and said, “my husband’s coming.”

all i could do was smile right back.

4. but if it could’ve started somewhere, it could’ve started here:

over coffee, ten months later, in an unsuspecting mall back in the city. “we should’ve done this a long time ago,” you said by way of greeting, settling into the seat across me.

“i didn’t think you were in town,” was all i said. “besides, my schedule’s wide open. the perks of single-blessedness, whatever.”

“whatever,” you laughed back, brushing the top of my hand lightly with the edge of your thumb. all these years, i find it’s still there, the tendency to amplify everything that had anything to do with you. “you had my number.”

“good thing you also had mine, then,” i just snapped back, tongue-in-cheek and laughing, and it was all easy banter from there, as if there had been no years between — just casual conversation between two fifteen-year-olds waiting for their uniforms to dry.

true enough, you still talked with your hands a lot — still gesturing wildly as if i wouldn’t understand the entire thing if you didn’t — and now there’s this certain glare that catches my eye whenever the lights hit the ring you had on your left hand.

i spent all night trying (and failing) to broach that topic– who he was, where the kids were, how you knew. and somewhere in the middle, you broke the small talk with, “it’s a pretty ring, no?”

totally unprepared, i just blinked and cleared my throat. “what?”

“seriously,” you smiled, fiddling with your ring self-consciously. “you’ve been staring at it for the past hour, something has to be said, at least.”

so i have, i just thought to myself, shrugging. so much for subtlety and stealth. “it *is* a pretty ring,” i ended up saying.

that night, by way of parting, i found myself asking who he was, and you said he was someone you went steady with in college. “now our youngest daughter’s a little over 9, she’s lovely.”

and i just said, “a mother like you, she must be.”

eventually, i’d look back at that statement as the first of my many mistakes.

(that night, i assumed your husband would come and pick you up, so i just settled for a kiss on the cheek before walking away.)

5. or maybe it could’ve started here:

“maybe we should meet for christmas,” was how your message read, it was a couple of months later. odd how we go for weeks without contact and then, when we do get back in touch, several weeks later, it would be as easy and effortless as this, it’s amazing.

amazing still, but only hugely because i didn’t have the time just yet to think about how scary this could be.

and so i said right back, “bring the cake, i’ll bring the booze,” a little hop in the step i had as i fiddled with my cell. i was in the kitchen when your message arrived, doing the dishes i had put off for a couple of nights.

and that’s when my phone started ringing, “hello?”

“so, your place or mine?” of course, it’s you on the other line, but it only made the statement much much more difficult to ingest. “hey, you there?”

“here,” i managed with a slight ‘ahem’, my throat suddenly, needlessly itchy. “you pick.”

“if i do, i’ll have to say your place. but only because i don’t want to clean up after us.”

the answer hit me squarely on the chest, forcing out a laugh that sounded strangely like, “sure, that would be great.” at the back of my head, i knew something ought to worry me more than the fact that my dishwashing liquid’s running out.

6. and this is where it does:

two days before christmas, you showed up at my doorstep at 8 — eerily punctual, what with your sense of direction that was keener than some of the men i knew had.

silently, i marveled at the way your face didn’t seem at all to have been touched by the years. and for the lack of anything less incriminating to say as greeting, i just said, “i thought you’d get lost.”

you dutifully handed over the box of cake. “thankfully though, i actually am skilled at map-reading,” you just said, moving closer to step in.

there’s a cold gust of wind that blows past us just then; i stayed rooted where i was, and before i knew it, you were too close and i may have stopped breathing at one point.

“can i come in?”

i just had to tuck your hair behind your ear before i could say, “sure, why not?”

the way you had looked at me then was unmistakable — you *knew*, and curiously, i did not feel the need to cover it up.

7. this is where it does start:

there are mechanics to drunk dishwashing — that is, washing dishes without breaking any, regardless of the fact that there were nearly a dozen empty beer bottles on the dining room table and only two women in this apartment. you just had to do it quickly — soap, rinse, put away. the quicker you do it, the less chances of blunders, and that was the plan.

it’s a little past one in the morning and, looking at the clock again, i realized it’s already the 24th. “technically christmas eve,” i heard myself slur, grip a little too tight around the edges of the plate. on hbo, they’re showing “santa clause” for the nth time, and that was where i last remembered to have left you, slightly sleepy.

or maybe i remembered wrong, because the way you said, “so it is christmas eve,” sounded so near, and when i turned around, that’s where you were — near. like, standing by the doorway of the kitchen–near. like, walking toward me with slow tentative steps–near. like, standing beside me, reaching into the sink, saying something like, “let me help”–near.

you were officially shortcircuiting me, and i couldn’t do anything about it.

“no, i’ll manage,” i insisted, the way drunk people do. somewhere near the bottom of the basin, i caught your hands. “seriously.” quick - soap, rinse, put away. quick. i pulled your hand out of the water and turned the faucet on. “no, really.”

this was all starting to sound like i was talking to myself, and not about the dishwashing even; i only recognized it the minute you pulled your hand away from under the faucet and proceeded to dry them on my shirt, pulling me closer, in this drunken stupor that’s a bit all too honest.

i think i may have said, “you can’t,” before you got even nearer than you were already, and that was it — a lot like hollow grounds caving in, like gravity taking its toll.

8. this how it starts:

we did not talk about it in the morning, but really, the days, the weeks, the months following felt a whole lot like an extended morning-after conversation, anyway — summed up the way i had that night: we can’t.

but then again.

but then again, we could — what else were random saturdays or weekday business trips for anyway.

you’d call me when you get home and thank me.

“when will i see you again?”

you’d pause a while; i’d think about the way you’d check your calendar, finger just below your lip, eyebrow raised in thought. “he’s away on the 20th.” i’d have my own calendar handy, rubbing the date lightly with my thumb. “but shit, ann has an early thing on the 21st.” ann, the eldest daughter, who may be 13 or 14. of course, this was all just a sort of flexible arrangement — a very flexible one at that. “sorry.”

“no need to apologize, really. i know that–”

“you’re not starting up on this again, are you.”

i swallowed, but only quietly. days with you feel like i’m always on the run, it might have polished my stealth skills at one point. “no.”

a pause. “i’m free on the 26th.”

i breathed. “so am i.”

9. this is how it ends:

there’s a dinner, sometime in mid-june, where you kind of hinted at a marital problem that probably involved an extramarital affair. i finished my lasagna without a word, half-baffled and half-disgusted that you couldn’t tell me straightforwardly about what it really was — he found out and we must stop.

“what are you trying to say?” i managed finally, dabbing at the corners of my lips with a napkin. this was not how grown women do it — grown, *mature* people do this with grace and in-your-face but tactful honesty, and really, i wasn’t about to sit here and let you talk to me in circles.

“i think,” you started slowly, and since mature people don’t interrupt each other, i sat back and let you go. “i think i’m leaving him.”

i may have held my breath — a second or two or maybe longer, since i felt myself getting slightly dizzy, i had to rest my face against my hands, close my eyes, count my breaths. that wasn’t exactly what i was preparing myself to hear. “you’re not saying.”

“hey.” fingers rubbing my elbows lightly. “you okay?”

“so, he found out and now he’s sending you away?”

a pause. “okay, what part of me leaving him is not clear to you?”

i took my hands down from my face, blinked a couple of times. “you are so not telling me this.” i was relieved and scared and hopeful all the same, all at the same time — at that point it was a jumble of sensations that was impossible to assign a singular facial expression to.

“i so am,” you just said, reaching for my face across the table, and i let myself get pulled in, your laughter now bouncing off my cheeks, so close. “so are you in?”

might as well. “yeah,” i just said, but then, you were so *close* i may not have said anything at all, and you still would’ve heard it. “i guess i am.”

10. the art of endings

there was no violent confrontation; your husband was a quiet, agreeable man, who looked at me squarely and even shook my hand. i didn’t say anything — not in defense of you or me or this, whatever. you were choosing me and i set myself on speaking only when spoken to.

and when he did, he only asked me when it started, and i told him when — we were fifteen and it was raining.