It’s been 17 years since A and I last saw each other. I was still studying in that supposedly premier state university in Diliman, while he attended that private learning institution in Intramuros that annually churned out engineers and architects. Previous to that, though, we were classmates in high school, and in the last two years that I wore the school uniform, I had a silent crush on him for reasons similar to my childhood belief in fairies and my appreciation for stories that end sadly.
I admit now that I was a bit nervous about seeing A again. The intervening years between the last time we spoke had seen me changing into someone quite different from the person he’d met in high school or seen during the few times we saw each other as university students. But more than anything, I was apprehensive because the last time we had met, I didn’t know if I had broken his heart or at least chipped it.
None of my worries, however, were enough to make me think it was a bad idea to see him again. We had communicated though Friendster and then on Facebook. He was always friendly, he was always kind. I felt that maybe he had forgotten, and that if there was anything to forgive, that he had done that, too.
And so we agreed to meet for tea and cake. I was back in the country and so was he for a short while. It made me happy to think that we could be friends again, and this is what made me shrug off everything else. We hugged and smiled and he apologized for being 20 minutes late. It was easy to forgive him because it was obvious that he had hurried the entire time to get there: he was sweating, and he was practically running when he arrived.
For the next hour he told me about how he had been. He was happy, and while he didn’t come out directly and say it out of modesty, successful; but five years ago he went through hell when his marriage dissolved in a way one would associate with the melodramas shown in the 80s and scriptwriters could not be bothered to be more creative.
I was sympathetic and shocked that he went through all that, but it was hard to keep from laughing: he narrated his story of woe in a self-mocking manner, and while he was not detached, it was obvious that he had succeeded in putting much emotional distance between his experience and himself. He could already afford to laugh and to pretend to look sad. He had recovered; for this I was grateful — I didn’t like the idea of A suffering.
Truth be told, he is the sort you would never think to hurt because, well, he always seemed to me a gentle soul, almost a child, really. Back in high school he was never mean or arrogant or overly self-confident. True, none of the other boys in our class were, but A, to me at least, was a shade nicer than most. But I’m being biased, so nevermind. Privately, I thought his former wife was an idiot.
Then we moved on to other things. I told him about this and that about my life, my work, the onset of what promised to be a brutal winter in Europe that prompted my and my daughter’s hasty departure leaving behind my husband who still had two years to finish his doctorate degree.
By then I was no longer apprehensive, I was certain that no mention of the even more distant past would take place. We could focus on the present, I thought; the elephant that threatened to enter the room would never have to show its face and it would go back to the circus that was my emotional and relationship history.
I was wrong. Not only did the elephant entered the room, it did so being carefully led by A himself.
“I have a confession to make. I know it’s been years and years and years, but I still want to come out and tell you,” he began. I noticed that he sat even straighter in his chair, and he was leaning forward in his eagerness to speak out. As for me, I felt myself slowly turning into a snail.
So he began to talk. He told me that in high school he had a crush on me, and did I ever know that? I shook my head: honestly, I didn’t. There was the prom and we danced…There were times when our friends teased us, didn’t I remember?
Mute, head shaking, weak smile.
But what about after high school — the few times he visited me in Diliman? It was a long ride from Intramuros to Quezon City, did it never occur to me why he made the effort? Or the other times we went out to watch movies? The times we talked and it wasn’t like he was always making jokes…
This is what he said that made the elephant dance: he said that I told him that there was someone else that I cared for, and while that declaration from me did not really constitute a refusal for him and what he had yet to really offer, it was enough to stop him from ‘bothering’ me. It hurt, he said. He wasn’t expecting it. And while he said it with regret, he didn’t sound at all like he was blaming me for the pain.
I could only shake my head. Right then I knew exactly how Celine in that movie Before Sunset felt when Jesse kept telling her details of their one whole day together a decade before, and she kept denying everything: it turned out, in the end, that she remembered everything even as she forced herself to forget.
Interruption — I decided to write about this because I felt, as a writer, that it was something interesting to describe. Chuck Palahniuk in a recent blog post came out with a list of writing tips, and among them he said to ‘write about the things that upset you because they’re the only things really worth writing about.’ Well, this reunion with A upset me, and while it’s not in a bad way, it affected me enough to make me want to write about it.
Then here’s the truth: I did feel that the short time I spent with A back in our college years was happy, and when it ended suddenly, abruptly, and without proper explanations as a result of my …confusion and — let it be said even if some would say it’s a corny excuse — youth, I felt bad and sad about it.
The cliches about closure are true: it is needed. It doesn’t matter if it’s been months or years and even decades; the words left unsaid, the unfulfilled necessity of showing gratitude for kindness received and affection felt; the unperformed ritual of saying goodbyes and stating sincere wishes that a friendship will be kept despite, they all need to be spoken and done.
It had been years, but suddenly it felt like only yesterday. That’s another cliche that I have personally proven to be true. Right then I began to remember what I said, what I did, and it was like being caught between sliding doors. Memory is a funny thing, really. It turned out that, boy!, A had a very good one, and mine, well, there have been so many things that I have chosen to forget because they caused me pain; and there are other things I chose to forget because they caused me shame and a measure of, yes, regret.
Ah, Celine! If only you were real, I would’ve tracked you down in Paris and asked you about the persistence of memory and how it can surprise you!
In the end, all I could offer A was the explanation that I never said that I already loved someone else (I could barely get the ‘L’ word out) and that I didn’t want to see him again; all I said was that there was a friend I cared about and the said person was more or less relying on my friendship (gad, how’s that for a grayish description of a relationship). I told A these things because I wanted to be honest, and I wanted to be fair. At the time I was uncertain why exactly A rode the jeep from Intramuros to Quezon City to see me (no, I’m not clueless; I just don’t like to assume things because I’m not vain), so if he was going to speak up, then was a good time as any.
And no, it was not at all like I didn’t like A or didn’t care about him (two years of having a giant a crush on somebody is not nothing; and I did write him this strange letter…).
But he didn’t speak up. Instead, he became silent, and he all but disappeared from my life until Friendster was invented and then years later, Facebook.
Return to the present. To make amends, I made a vow to answer all A’s questions honestly if he issued them. We agreed to meet again for dinner a few days after.
I don’t know what prompted him to tell me, but he told me about how his life was like in college, how he had to struggle to stay in school, and then afterwards to find work. It was not an easy life, and he often felt at a loss, but he persevered. He loved his family, he put them ahead of everything else, and it was for them that he gave all that he could to his work.
In the meantime, I felt it no short of amazing how I, who had once upon a time, had the courage and the anger to accost and berate a row of police armed with truncheons and shields; I who could help emcee a political rally with a crowd of thousands, had to breathe deeply to muster the strength to be honest and to not falter with my words. It made me sound flippant, the effort it took. I was to apologize for this later on, but right then as I sat across A, listening to him, answering his questions, even the ones for which there were no certain answers because the conditions they presented were unknown and could never be realized, I was thankful I could still speak.
I didn’t know that he had to struggle to finish school, and that he worked nights in various fastfood chains so he could have money for class projects; or that he sometimes did the homework of classmates so they would, in return, treat him to lunch…
Oh, but I was happy for him, and proud of how he had succeeded against so many odds! He loved his former wife, and while it didn’t turn out the way he wanted, he at least emerged in one piece from the remnants of their marriage that she broke. More than whole — he was not essentially altered because he became neither bitter or cynical. He was, still, whole at heart.
But this has been a long entry, and I don’t know how to end it. Generous of heart and kind to a fault, A deserves all the happiness he can get. It was a good day for friendship, that afternoon and evening we spent talking. It was not always awkward (on my part — only the guilty feel uncomfortable), and we both laughed and laughed over his romantic misadventures after that episode with his marriage. I told him about my husband, our daughter and how she takes after her father. I told him that no relationships were ever perfect, that they really took a lot of effort and that sometimes it was exhausting to the point of pain and tears. What it all boils down is constancy: love requires faith and constant work, and if you let down your guard or if you are careless, you could lose it and never recover it.
This, he said, was good advice, something he would remember when he finally finds HER. In fact, he may have already found her, but he’s uncertain how to proceed…
A! You wear Aragorn’s ring, and while I did tell you it was soooo geeky, it’s also cool in a Big Bang Theory way and because you believe in what Aragorn fought for and his quest. Forget my comment about it, and forget what I said about Arwen’s pendant and how you want to give it to HER. It’s a gesture that speaks much about you, what you’re like, and what you believe in. I wish you well, I wish you the courage to tell HER and nevermind all your fears and worries — full speed ahead! Thank you for the Listerine juice, thank you for your honesty, thank you for the friendship and the willingness to listen to this bad girl you didn’t know about and about to the ‘different’ life she leads.
And finally, you thought I didn’t hear it when you asked: you more than exceeded all my expectations formed in high school.