“¿Qué tal?”I smiled, wondering how those two simple words sounded so melodic coming from your lips. They didn’t rhyme and there wasn’t anything poetic with the question yet to me, it sounded like a beginning of a song I’d end up singing even in my sleep. And it did.
Those were the first words you said when we first met. I didn’t understand them then, and like an idiot, I smiled and repeatedly said, “Si!”, which didn’t really answer the question.
“Panandaliang nahawi ang ulap ng pangungulimlim upang masilayan ko ang langit sa ilalim ng iyong mga paa. Iyan, iyan ang kaganapan.” I answered, sounding more like a kid writing his first poem.
You just rolled your eyes and laughed, the melodious sound bouncing off the walls of that little coffee shop we were in. A few curious glances were thrown our way but that didn’t stop you. Nothing ever did as far as I can remember.
You turned to look out of the window as I settled myself on the seat in front of you.
“Ha estado lloviznando toda la tarde…” I heard you say after a while, your eyes trailing the lines the raindrops have made on the glass window near us.
I almost asked how you could look at a raging storm and see it as a mere drizzle. But that’s how you have always seen everything around you; small, miniscule, nondescript.
“Tuvimos una tormenta muy fuerte ayer.” I replied, looking at your hands tightly clasped on top of the table, hoping like hell that I said the words correctly. I wanted to add that it was still storming, that it didn’t stop, but I could remember the words. My Spanish wasn’t really good, lacking actually.
“Natututo na ikaw,” You said in your faulty Tagalog, making me chuckle.
Pouting, you reached for your bag and took out the Filipino-English-Spanish dictionary that you always have with you. I took it away from your hand just as soon.
“Todo vien… Todo va muy bien…”
You look as if you wanted the argue for a few seconds, a look of pain crossing your eyes.
I lied. Nothing was fine. Not the raging storm outside. Not the difference in the words we speak. Not the distance that the bond on your finger have created between us that no dictionary can ever bridge.
“Estoy bien.” I said, hoping that it didn’t sound like another lie for it wasn’t. It was more like a promise, that of wishful thinking.
“Estoy enamorado de ti—” I said as I watch the tears fall from your eyes.
“But it’s okay.” I added, in English this time, in the language that we both speak yet never use. It was poetic really, the fact that we have a common language we could have used all these times but never did. But we both understood why.
It was a game of hide and seek, after all. Us hiding from the world while trying to seek ways to understand each other. In a way we did, and somehow, we ended up understanding too much, much more than the meaning of the words. We ended up falling into the crevices between the letters and the lines.
I took a quick look around the cafe. We were the only one inside now. You did say that you didn’t plan on opening it that day. It was supposed to be just one of the multitude of cafes in Pamplona closed because of the storm, small, nondescript, hidden under blanket of the rain.
It was the only place where we could meet. And at that moment, even the few people who had sought refuge from the rain had left.
It wasn’t the Instituto in Ermita, that was clear. I was no longer your student too. I was just a memory, maybe even a nightmare from your past, a mistake.
I took out a pack of cigarette from my bag and stood up to open the window. The rain was still pouring hard outside.
I lit one up and choked on the first drag followed by a torrent of coughing. I don’t really smoke that much, not anymore anyway.
“Fumar te da cancer.” You said in that tone that you have always used at the Instituto before; authoritative but gentle.
“Kailan pa ako mamamatay kung hindi ko ihahanap-hanap?” I answered with a smile. That too was a lie. I was already dead and smoking doesn’t have anything to do with it.
You see, I have this stupid notion that a person should only have one bad habit at a time. I already have you. No. I had you. That’s the difference.
You just shook your head. You’ve heard me say that line countless times before; outside the Instituto, at the streets of Ermita during our late night walks, in your hotel room, the one overlooking the crowded streets of Manila which you said would always remind you of me.
“Estamos compremetidos. Ya hemos fijado una fecha para la boda.” You said out of the blue. I choked on the cigarette again.
I have heard about the engagement. Why else would I have flown to Pamplona if I didn’t? I didn’t want to believe it.
“Siempre fiel.” That’s what you have asked of me before. And I thought that was your promise too. Always faithful, that’s what you wanted. I didn’t know it was something you could not give.
“Why did you come, Michael?” You asked when I didn’t say a word.
English didn’t suit you, I thought. It was too clinical, too detached, too bland in contrast to the seductive and passionate aura that you exude when you talk in your native tongue or in mine.
But it was appropriate. It fits the whole situation just as much as the pouring rain outside. Cold and merciless.
“I wanted to say goodbye properly. You at least owe me that.” I said, the pain coming from the memory of you leaving without a single word echoing in my voice.
That was a year ago, when you just disappeared, when you asked the Instituto to not give me information about where you are, just to send me a letter a year after, with only the word “Gracias” written. Why you even bothered to write down your telephone number at the envelope was completely lost to me.
So, I called, and as it worked out, found my way to that cafe to meet you. For what and why, I still do not know.
“If you came for an apology, you are not getting one.” You said coldly. All I could do was look at you, then at the rain, then at your blurry reflection on the window.
I shook my head, took one last drag from the cigarette, before walking towards the door.
I wanted to bolt out of that cafe, away from you, away from your memories, away from the three years you have given me.
“No. I just wanted a clearer picture of what conquered me so that I could find ways to break the chains that bounds me to you. I just wasn’t expecting such a vivid picture.” I said before walking out into the cold rain.
Poetic, that’s how I want to see it, how you have conquered my whole being, an echo of what your ancestors did to mine.
I took one look at the signage of your cafe before walking away. And there it was, your chain, your prison.
Recuerdos de Ermita. I didn’t need a dictionary to translate that.
It was after a month more when I took the cab from the hotel to the airport. In those days, I went everywhere that my feet could reach, everywhere except that corner in Pamplona where the cafe stood. I wanted to have a different memory of Spain, one that was inviting, welcoming, a version so much like you when we first met.
In a way, I succeeded, the reason why I was thrown back into oblivion when I saw you standing at the airport, in Manila, smiling.
You pulled out a piece of paper from your pocket as I walk towards you.
“¿Qué tal?” I asked, my voice just above a whisper. It was like a repeat of that day, only without the rain.
“Panandaliang nahawi ang ulap ng pangungulimlim upang masilayan ko ang langit sa ilalim ng iyong mga paa. Iyan, iyan ang kaganapan.” You answered, reading from the piece of paper.
I couldn’t say a word.
I was conquered yet again.