A story written by Luis Joaquin Katigbak
You liked bus rides, I remember that much. I thought you were nuts when you first told me that, all economic reasons aside, you preferred riding buses to taking taxis. I chalked it up to your sheltered upbringing- your overly protective parents had not allowed you to take public transportation until your were twenty years old. I supposed that, even after four years, the novelty had not worn off yet.
Taxis afforded us a bit more privacy, I reasoned. We could sit comfortably, snuggle a little, and not worry about the conductor not giving us change, or someone squeezing unto the seat with us, or having to jostle our way through a people-packed aisle when it was time to get down. “But it’s different,” you insisted. “Yes,” I agreed, “and in this case, ‘different’ means ‘better’.” For that remark, you accused me- not without justification or amusement- of being small-minded and smug. It took me a while to realize that you were right and I was wrong. As per usual.
As I write this, I have to wonder- why do we remember the things we remember? Not that all I’ve retained of our time together are bus rides and bite-sized arguments. My theory is that people, emotional masochists aside, tend to just recall things that won’t sting too much, that are easier to think about or explain, given time and distance.
You know, once in a while, I’ll start to remember something; a scene will start to fade into view. An evening in a dimly lit club, with a live band and oblivious waiters. An afternoon in a vacant office, sunlight slivering through closed blinds. A morning meeting in Mini Stop. But before the two of us walk into the frame, before the audio comes on or any sort of action begins, I’ll stop, I’ll shut off the film reel in my mind, because I know that watching those particular memories is not going to do me any good. Quite the opposite, in fact.
But I can think of you and me on a bus and t doesn’t hurt, it’s even pleasant, to remember you sitting next to me, occasionally resting the side of your head on my shoulder; to remember the chill of the air conditioner, the juddering motion as we sped through the evening, the look-at-me graffiti scrawled on the seat in front of us, the grime-blue and sick-green bus tickets folded and jammed into the gaps of that same seat, even the incessant and annoying pseudo-techno medley that almost always serves as the official soundtrack for Metro Manila buses.
I recall how the urban landscape blurring past our bus window would give us endless fodder for conversations, inane or otherwise. Remember that little store called “Manly Mart,” in Cubao, just across the Araneta Coliseum? We wondered: did you have to be Manly with a capital M to shop there? Would they bar scrawny nerds at the door? Or was that where one went purchase men? Then there was the time we were stuck in traffic on East Avenue, and you told me about the day you visited a friend who was confined at the medical center there, about the feeling of desolation the place gave you- the depressing green tiles on the hallways, and the constellations of cigarette butts that you could see from your friend’s hospital room window, spread out on the blackened rooftop of a lower floor.
And one time, instead of the usual techno-dreck, the bus we were riding was playing ‘80s hits on its sound system. This started us on a conversation that encompassed our high school years ( the unsurpassed cruelty of cliques and certain teachers), our most embarrassing hairstyles ever (frizzy and poodle-like, in your case: a mullet, in mine) and of course music. “Turn Back the Clock,” that sappy nostalgic tune, started playing, and I got absurdly sentimental. It occurred to me that even though we had been out for a few months, we didn’t have ‘song’ yet to call our own. I remarked upon this fact. You remained silent. And when I remarked upon your silence, you said “I’m holding out for a better song.”
I could hardly blame you. Unfortunately, it was too late; the concept, and the moment, stuck, and from that point on, whenever we heard “Turn Back the Clock” somewhere- in a mall, or on classic flashback nights on the radio, we would look at each other and grimace affectionately.
And almost always, on these bus rides, I would tell you about my latest daydream, my latest idyllic scenario involving us. I was always dreaming up situations and setups where our being together was not so difficult, where your parents did not hate my guts and regulate our meetings every step of the way, where your friends and mine were more understanding and accepting of what we had, where our lives seemed to be heading in the same direction. Foreign lands, desert islands, even alien planets or other time periods might be involved in these scenarios. You said that you always liked hearing me described them, and I was only too happy to oblige.
Of course, our city being the sprawling cutthroat traffic-tangled mess that it is, there were times when we just couldn’t get any sort of ride at all- times when taxis would speed by, ignoring our energetic gesticulations, times when the buses stuffed to bursting with wriggling commuters. During such times, I would wish I had a car. Not that I would even have known how to operate one. “You should learn how to drive,” you once told me. “so you can pick me up, and I can wear skirts when we go out…” You leaned a bit closer: “Short skirts,” you stressed.
“That’s a good way to get killed,” I said. “Distract me while I’m driving. Like you’re not distracting me enough in jeans.”
“You’re sweet,” you said, punching my arm. (I miss that way you used to do me violence: punching my arm, pinching my cheek, pretending to strangle me. I suppose if I thought about it deeply enough, these gestures might seem more disturbing than endearing, so I’m happy that I didn’t.) “But, really,” you said, “are you ever going to learn how to drive? You’re almost thirty.”
I gently reminded you that I was several years away from turning thirty, and called into question your arithmetic skills. I received another punch in response, just as I thought I would.
I wonder if you’d be amused to learn that I know how to drive now. I drive a beat-up box-type Lancer that’s almost as old as my sister, who is no entering her freshman college year in La Salle. Barring unforeseen circumstances, I don’t suppose I’ll ever ride a bus in Metro Manila ever again. To me those careening hunks of metal no longer represent cheap rides to Galleria. No, they are now The Enemy, who must be outmaneuvered, outfoxed, overtaken.
Sometimes, though, when I’m on the road, I’ll pass an air-conditioned southbound bus, and wonder if you’re on it. I just know that one of these days, I’ll be drifting , and wondering , and that same bus I’m wondering about is going to take advantage of my being distracted, and slam into me and crush me like a beer can.
When that happens, I can only hope that you actually will be on that bus, and you’ll rush down, and while my blood slowly stained the asphalt underneath me, you would support my injured neck and I would sing you a few line of “Turn Back the Clock,” and tell you my latest daydream about us, the one where we meet again decades from now in an old folks’ home or a free Tai Chi session at the park and we’ll both be gray and forgetful, so forgetful that we won’t even be able to remember why we ever broke up in the first place. And we’ll get back together, our passion more fiery than ever before, and disgust our respective grandchildren with our uncontrollable public displays of tongue-kissing. “It’s easier when you don’t have any teeth anymore,” we’ll explain.
Yeah, I know. It may be time to seek psychiatric help.
Anyway. Would you even still be riding a bus, these days? You always told me about how you wanted to buy me a pickup truck with automatic gear-shifting once you had the money. I wonder what you’re doing, if you’re still doing freelance film editing, or if you ever got that producing gig at that local cable channel. That’s one of the things that bother me the most, not knowing what’s going on in your life. Not that I should care anymore, I suppose.
Believe it or not, I finally got a regular job. I finally put my Chemical Engineering degree to some use, sort of. I was hired to work on the supply chain of a big multinational company that manufactures such life-essentials as potato chips, paper towels, and deodorants. My position requires that I travel around a lot- to meet customers, to discuss their orders, to inspect the workings of factories and to attend seminars as such. I’ve been to Thailand, India, and Singapore, and that was just this year. I have eaten at the McDonald’s franchises of seven-plus nations. I’ve seen that Taj Mahal (It’s not so great.)
It’s never quite real to me, all this going to foreign lands to meet with various important people to discuss armpit roll-ons. I hope my immediate superior never learns how truly detached I am from what I’m doing. She sees each inflated order as a challenge, each tiny loss of market share as a personal affront. I can’t say I feel the same. You know what I do like about my job? The airports, and the plane rides. It’s nice to buy magazines or books you wouldn’t normally buy, just because you see them on the shelf of an airport newsstand, while you’re waiting. And it’s also nice to be a passenger again once in a while, to let somebody else worry about how to steer, how to get me where I’m going.
It was on a trip to Singapore that I picked up this issue of Discover magazine, and read about Martin Rees, Britain’s Astronomer Royal. It seems that- based on the idea that an array of separate big bands erupted from a primordial dense-matter state- Rees proposes that our universe is but a small, isolated corner of what he terms that multiverse: an infinite variety of universes, each with its own distinctive characteristics. “For example,” the article said, “one universe might feature six dimensions, another universe could have ultraweak gravity.”
If there is an infinity of universes, I thought, leaning back in my padded airline seat, then there might be an infinite number of worlds that are just like ours, save for some detail niggling or important, like a lost president or a different-colored sky. I closed my eyes. Anything one could imagine might be possible. I thought about you. Given an infinity of earths, all of the daydreams I ever made up about us are true, somewhere.
I thought of our time together, of how brief and bittersweet it was. I didn’t tell you something important, then. I guess it’s too late now, but it’s something that occurred to me only after we parted ways. I thought- when I was with you, I was content to just sit back and enjoy the ride, as it were, because the ride was so pleasant. And maybe that was the problem. Neither of us ever learned how to drive, if you’ll forgive the analogy. And I’m not even sure if we got on the right bus, if we were headed the right way. We were happy enough to be travelling together- to be passengers-and we never figured out who was driving.
But what does it matter? Maybe that’s all we’re meant to do, enjoy the trip while it lasts. Maybe luck or faith are the only things that keep us from delays, transfers, fatal crashes.
What if, against all the laws of probability, you happened to be on that plane bound for Singapore too? What if you had walked up that aisle, and taken the seat next to mine? What if you had asked me, then and there, what my last and fondest daydream about the two of us was, what fresh possibility I envisioned that day as I sat in the plane and looked at the clouds through a little round-cornered square of glass? This is what I would have told you:
There is an endless road somewhere, and on that road speeds a hand-me-down rattletrap bus on an endless trip, and somewhere near the back of that bus, you and I are snugly squeezed into one of the two-seater benches, with you next to the window and me next to the aisle, holding hands like schoolchildren, talking, occasionally smiling at each other, looking like we will never let go.
Disclaimer: This is written, owned and copyrighted by the author, Luis Joaquin M. Katigbak. I have only shared it here for the sole purpose of sharing my love for the story along with its author; as well as to pique interests and spark discussions regarding the story’s plot and its characters.
In the process of writing my own love story,
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