They called it their Meeting Place, the heart of their neighborhood. Every Friday night, they’d gather in the Meeting Place and share stories over a bonfire. Their conversations often followed the same pattern—first, the perfunctory talk about the events of the week, what they were doing the days, even the morning, prior; and then one of them would complain about work, then the others would follow, some saying the same regarding their own, the others saying how grateful they should be that it’s not as bad as theirs; and then someone would remind them that they all faced the same stress, that they were all being childish, fighting over whose job was more stressful, that there’s no point in arguing over petty things, that life is and will always be like that; and then someone would mention college, how safe, and how turbulent it was, and then they’d recall how separated their barkada was during college, and then arrive at the miracle that they were all back together again, just like their days in high school; and then they’d find themselves talking about high school, reminiscing their youth, talking about the things they did and the things they should have done, and by this time the bonfire would be at its brightest, the moon at its highest, and they at their drunkest.
The night began just like the others: by eight o’clock in the evening, they stepped out of their houses and made their way into the Meeting Place. But the night, however, would not end the same way—this Friday was different, was one of their bigger, more eventful hang-outs: their big barkada blowout, as they ironically called it, which they celebrated on the first Friday evening of every summer. They’ve been doing this for six years now.
Vonn was the first to arrive for the night’s preparations. She was in charge of their drinks, and so for the entirety of the afternoon, immediately after work, she made a stop at the 7-Eleven near her workplace and gathered all the drinks she needed for the bonfire. Big party? the convenience store clerk asked her, as she was scanning the bottles through the counter, and Vonn said, yes, definitely, a big one. She managed to fill four shopping baskets with beer, a smorgasbord of different brands and flavors, as they needed lots and lots of them, whatever could make them drunk faster than they can think about getting drunk. They usually could not make it through the summer evening gathering without alcohol numbing their very selves, distorting the memory of what they were doing.
Nanette was in charge of gathering wood for the fire. Since tonight was one of the big ones, she had to gather more wood than usual. Nanette had lumbering services prepare the bulk of the wood for the bonfire—the rest of the fire paraphernalia, she prepared herself. This became a common yearly transaction for Nanette, that the man in charge of the lumbering service already knew what to give her the moment he saw her name on the store’s service phone. The usual? he would ask, and Nanette would only say yes, and by the end of the afternoon a truck would come by her house and drop the usual things she ordered—piles and piles of wood, short sizes, long sizes, anything to make a large fire. She would have had them delivered to the Meeting Place for the convenience, but the truck was big, and the road to the Meeting Place was narrow, so she had to make do with manually carrying the logs of wood using a wheelbarrow from her house to the Meeting Place. It was an arduous and exhausting job—she usually had Ysa help her with the hauling in order to finish everything by nine o’ clock, just in time for the gathering to officially begin.
After the fourth roundtrip from the Meeting Place to her home, Nanette crumbled to the ground, heaving. Feeling okay there? Vonn asks her, as she was transferring the bottles of beer she bought into a cooler.
Yeah, Nanette says, I’m fine.
Vonn fishes for a beer from the bottom of the cooler and passes it to Nanette. She grabs one for herself, and together they drink the night’s first pair of beers.
We’ve been doing this for years and I still get butterflies in my stomach, Vonn says. The bad kind.
Nanette was silent for a while, and aside from the crickets, the only things that made noises that night were the bottles of beer clanking in Vonn’s cooler. Nanette brings her bottle into her mouth, lets the drink fizz in her throat a bit before swallowing, and then says: Mariposas, Vonn. You have mariposas in your stomach. Nanette’s sudden fascination with the word, instead of simply saying butterfly, came the night prior, when, in an effort to fight sleep, she binge watched select movies from her Barbie catalog. The one with Mariposa, the Butterfly Fairy, was one she and her friends surreptitiously enjoyed.
At this comment, Vonn rolls her eyes. Oh God, she says. Not Mariposa again.
Binged lots of Barbie last night, says Nanette. Mariposa just one of them. Was enough to keep me awake.
I just played tennis, Vonn says. The wall’s a pretty good opponent. Much better if it were with Charo or Melanie or Matt, though.
Charo, Melanie, and Matt weren’t in the neighborhood anymore.
Nanette takes another gulp. What does it feel like, she says, playing with yourself?
Lying there, on the cold ground, cold air around them, cold beer in their hands, Vonn manages a little laugh, and Nanette manages a little laugh too, and then they were both laughing, the first they’ve had in weeks.
Their laughter was cut short by Joseph’s haranguing. It’s almost nine, he reminds them, and we still have lots of work to do. Best that we get this over with now so we can rest early and brave another busy week, don’t you think? Plenty of time to lie down and chatter and get drunk later.
It’s Saturday tomorrow, Vonn says. And that’s all we ever do in these kinds of things. But Joseph immediately retorts with another reminder: no, that’s not all we ever do, not tonight.
With that, Nanette went back to the logs and Vonn to her drinks. Joseph, on the other hand, makes his way to his car to get the things he prepared for the night. Prior to arriving at the Meeting Place, Joseph drove down to the convenience store near the neighborhood to gather a few things for the night’s gathering. Aside from the packs of meat he prepared for the evening, he picked up a few snacks, a pack of barbecue sticks, and before he paid for all that at the cash register, he grabbed a lighter at the counter as well. Before driving off, he stopped by the gasoline station beside the store to stock up on gasoline. He wanted to get the night over with as quickly as possible as he still had an early and long road trip the next day. He filled up the tank of his car, along with the metallic cannisters he had with him, and then he drove off to the Meeting Place.
Oh, Joseph says as he was heading to the car, I just finished designing what we could make of the neighborhood’s empty houses, now that some of us aren’t here anymore. I know how sentimental you all can get but perhaps it’s time to move on. Can’t let houses like that stay empty and gathering dust forever. Joseph brushes off the sawdust that was carried by the wind onto his clothes with his hands. That’s how I spent the night, he says, in case you were wondering. Wasn’t aware that it was morning until I looked out the curtains and saw the sun rising a bit.
Same, says Louise, who arrived not a long while later. Since Ysa wasn’t in the neighborhood anymore, she helped Nanette in hauling the wood for the fire. She prepared materials for the fire herself—bundles of newspapers and piles of scratch paper she had lying at home. She told the group that she spent the prior evening just answering quizzes online, quizzes like what their job says about their personality, or what the different astrological signs felt during the pandemic from years ago, or how they would die and when, and she laughed at her results. And then at some point she called Nanette, who was in the middle of the Barbie movie where the characters were spies, and they talked and talked until the sun, like in Joseph’s house, crept through Louise’s curtains.
Scarlet arrived at the Meeting Place much later than the others. She was in charge of the evening’s music, and although they usually had Vonn play the acoustic guitar during their Friday Meeting Place hangouts, on special nights, like tonight, they would just make use of the summer playlist they curated through the years. For each year that passes, they agreed to add one song, a special, defining song, that would symbolize that year’s summer evening gathering. So she brought with her the speakers she normally brought, and thanks to the neighborhood’s reliable internet connection, she managed to power up her music app, ready to play the night’s soundtrack, beginning with the songs from the years before.
Have any idea what tonight’s special song will be? Joseph asks her.
I’m not entirely sure, Scarlet says, but I have something in mind. We’ll play this by ear.
Joseph nods, and continues with preparing the night’s food. Before heading off to help the others, Scarlet presses play. The first song on the playlist was Fun.’s We Are Young. Despite being tired from dancing all week—her pastime to stay awake—the song seemed to reinvigorate her spirits. Louise, as she put down the second to the last pile of wood from the wheelbarrow onto the ground, recognized the music being played, which she said happened to be Patrick’s favorite. Yup, Scarlet tells her. Remember the last summer night he was here? If only he were here still.
Lorena was the last to arrive. She was supposed to help Joseph with the food, but she said she got carried away with this game that she was playing. She had been playing it since the night before, all throughout the morning and until it was night again, just as much as Nanette binge watched the Barbie movies, or just as much Vonn played tennis with the wall, in order to stay awake. She was hours into the game and in too deep with the gore, that when she looked at the clock it was nearly nine. She prepared herself for the night, forgot about the deal with Joseph, and, anticipating cold weather, donned a hoodie to keep herself warm throughout the evening.
As if it won’t be warm, Lor, Nanette tells her. We’re going to be around a fire and we’re going to be drinking. How can you not be warm?
Hey, Roy gave me this hoodie just a few days ago, she says. I wanted him to see me wear it, because appreciation. Lorena made squiggly actions with her arms as she said “appreciation.” Nanette, hating the gesture, writhed with a jesting repulsion.
Waited half an hour for you, Lor, Joseph says. Could have been late and would never have packed everything in time if I didn’t take matters into my own hands.
As if your work is that hard that it needs two people to do it, Nanette says, unloading the last pile of wood from the wheelbarrow. We had to carry these. She gestures at the pile of wood on the ground, and then she looks at Louise for argumentative support, but she fumbles in her words, too shy to say anything.
True, Vonn says. But at least there’s two of you. I mean, I get how physically tiring it is, and I do not mean to invalidate your work or anything, but… I had to carry all that beer alone. And I had to risk looking like a fucking alcoholic.
Gosh, guys, Scarlet says. We’ve been doing this for years. I don’t think we should be complaining about these things year after year.
Yeah, you just sift through music, sis, Lorena says, I don’t think you have a say on the matter.
And you keep arriving late, so neither should you.
Guys, stop being petty, says Joseph. The work we do for this summer evening is all stressful, okay? It’s all equal. The previous years were exhausting; I don’t see why this year is different. This is just a fact of life that we all have to get through, okay? Now what time is it?
Joseph checks his watch: 9:05. We should get started soon, he says. Is everything ready?
The music transitions from one song to the next—this time OneRepublic’s I Lived, Christian’s, another friend’s favorite. They look around, surveying the scene for the essentials. The food Joseph prepared was already on the grill. Nanette was already setting up a few scraps of wood for the fire, while Louise borrowed Joseph’s lighter and lit her bundles of paper to start the flame.
All good, they say.
Wait, Lorena interjects, where’s Roy?
A voice comes up from behind them: here! It was Roy, running, heaving, profuse with sweat. Got off work late because they had to make me do extra things, he says. And to think I don’t get paid for it! Fucking capitalists. And oh, by the way, here’s a scarf I made for you, Lor. She hands down an intricately handwoven scarf to Lorena, bouncing with glee, trying the scarf on, joking that she felt so special being given all these gifts. I made that to stay awake last night, Roy says. I know how cold you can get during these gatherings.
Guys, Joseph interrupts them. He taps his watch: 9:10.
They were finally complete. They all gathered around the fire, and Vonn served the first round of beers. Then they were all laughing, telling stories, drinking and drinking and drinking some more, as their annual gathering for the first summer evening began.
The time came when they were all drunk. The fire was crackling still, in tune to their laughs and conversations. Some of them had started slurring words when they spoke, but all of them were still conscious, all of them still capable of thought. Years of doing the annual summer evening gathering had taught them to fall but not completely succumb to inebriation, taught them to have some semblance of alertness even when the booze is telling their brain to shut down. They were all finished with their food then, and Joseph went to gather all their paper plates and utensils and threw them into the trash bag. The barbecue sticks were kept in a small plastic on the table.
I can’t remember the last time I had barbecue that good, Vonn says.
Last year’s gathering, maybe? says Lorena.
No, we had pork chop then, I think, Louise says. Remember the grill?
They all nodded, and with a suppressed “yeah” they rolled their eyes, and Lorena, shaking, says, oh, yeah, right, that damned grill. She clutched her scarf and wrapped it around herself much tighter, as the night only grew colder by the minute.
Now that I think about it, Roy says, I think the last time I’ve ever had barbecue this good was in college. Remember those barbecue stalls during Founder’s?
To die for, they all said, and the fire danced to their reverie.
Founder’s was amazing, Nanette says. I mean, busy for some of us organizers, but ultimately an experience.
Yeah, the midterm exams prior was shit, though, says Scarlet.
Oh yeah definitely, but once you come out of that it’s just two weeks of celebration and drinking and laag, Roy says. Taking another drink, he continues: It’s the most anticipated thing to happen each year, where you spend every afternoon just walking around the booth area with friends and then you begin the night eating barbecue and end it drinking your lives away and that’s all you ever do—just eat barbecue and get drunk, nothing else afterwards.
God, Lorena says, if only I knew that that was the last Founder’s celebration we’ll ever have, I would’ve literally just broke the rules and stayed in the booth area taking it all in for the full two weeks.
And we were complete then! says Nanette.
Joseph coughs, reminding them that he was still there, and that he was in fact not present during the last Founder’s celebration, that their barkada wasn’t really complete then, as some of them were in different, far flung places, in Cebu or in Manila, during college. But I guess that doesn’t matter now, does it, Joseph says. We’re all still separated, in the end. And then they began reminiscing their time with those who weren’t in the neighborhood anymore: Charo, Melanie, Matt, Ysa, Christian, Patrick. In a sense, Joseph went on, what we have now is just like that time in college, just like Founder’s.
But we were complete in spirit though, Lorena reminds them.
Just like in high school, Roy says.
Yeah, says Vonn. Good times.
But not as bad as now, Louise interjects. And they agreed.
God. Our petty fights, our laughter. It was just like home, noh? Joseph asks. And they agreed to that too.
Much more if you include the sleepovers, says Roy. And the stupid things we did to the people who called it a night first, don’t you remember? They laughed sadly at that.
Scarlet realizes what the night’s special song should be. Since we’re talking about high school, she says, and home. She takes out her phone, taps on the search bar of the music app, presses a few keys, and then adds the night’s special song to the queue. It was the last song to be played.
Hey, guys, Joseph says, I don’t want to be a killjoy or anything, but I think we should go on, with, you know. They were all sullen then, just as they were in the previous years, always exactly at this same time. I mean, he says, since Scarlet already has her phone out.
So they all drank some more. Scarlet exited her music and then browsed through her other apps until she reached the one that looked like a camera. The app, once opened, was split into seven screens. Each of those seven screens were of a dark green color, all depicting empty bedrooms, living rooms, bathrooms, whatever room that could be in a house. At the top-right hand corner, a timestamp, still running: April 12, 11:34 p.m., the time it was now.
Scarlet set the date back to April 11, the time to morning. On the screens flickered different rooms, now bright with sunlight. From the edge of those seven screens came all of them—Roy, Lorena, Joseph, Scarlet, Louise, Nanette, Vonn—occupying one screen each, as they all went through their morning preparations for work. Every time they left one room and into another, the scene automatically changes to where they were, the camera following and watching them. The rest of the day after that morning, the screens were empty again, as they all spent their day on their respective jobs.
On the recording went, until it was the evening of the 11th. On one screen recording of an outdoor field, Vonn is seen playing tennis. In another, Nanette is seen laughing, as an image of what seems to be Barbie is on her television screen. Louise is seen on her laptop, phone to her ear. Joseph crouched on the drawing table, Scarlet in the middle of bar stretches, Roy sowing the scarf she gave to Lorena.
Wait no, Joseph says. Let’s not watch it like this. Put the recording on reverse. Like before.
Do we have to? Vonn asks.
Yes, we should. As much as I want to get this thing over with quickly, we can’t just figure it out this way.
They all nod, and so Scarlet sets the date and time back to now, and plays the recording backwards. Scarlet speeds the recording to triple-speed to expedite their viewing, and they all crowded around her phone, as if they were looking at something wondrous, something life-altering, looking carefully and meticulously at each movement, glancing once in a while at the timestamp on the corner.
The screens started with empty rooms, as they were all out on the bonfire. The first change in scenery was Roy running backward into his home, as he was late to the preparations. And then they all started appearing in the screens, all walking backwards—Vonn with her cases of beer, Joseph with the things he bought at the convenience store, Louise with the bundles of paper. After much rewinding, the screens went dark again, as it was already midnight of April 12th. Scarlet slows the recording down to double speed.
All of them were asleep in their beds. In reverse, the first to wake was Lorena, which meant she was the last to get to bed.
God, again? Vonn says.
Like I always say, Vonn, says Lorena, I have no problem with staying awake.
Then next awoke Joseph, who walked backwards to his drawing table. He sighed with relief, wiping the sweat from his face, breathing in the chilly, summer air.
And then woke Nanette, then Louise, then Vonn, who was surprised, as she was sure, and depressed at the fact of being sure, that she would fall asleep much earlier than the others.
Now there were only two people left: Scarlet and Roy. Scarlet slows the recording, finally, to normal speed.
They all watched in anticipation, at who would wake up last, which meant who among them, in the evening prior, fell asleep first. Both of them were stirring in their sleep, the creases of their blankets shifting with each movement. And with each little move they made, the rest of them watching paused to hold their breath, eyes glued to the cellphone before them. After much waiting, a phone in Scarlet’s part of the recording lights up, and then, in reverse, she picks it up, texts what may have been perhaps a good night text, puts the blanket away, and then walks, in reverse, away from the bed, and her screen shifts to the studio in her house, where her bars were located.
And then they all looked at Roy.
No, he says. No, that’s… No.
The recording speaks for itself, Roy, Joseph says.
They all looked at each other, unsure of what to say, as they always were, in situations like these.
You guys know I’ve had more hours of work to do the past week. You guys doing overtime. This is bullshit. Why do we even have to do this thing anyway, why not just let it end, fucking hell. Roy fulminated with more expletives, but there was nothing else he could do, nothing else they could do. It was this neighborhood’s tradition, the others reasoned to him, reminded him, that ever since before they came here, was followed. This was an unfortunate history that was never disclosed to them until weeks after they moved in.
Roy went bellicose, and tried to free himself from their crutches. But they were all used to this now; they had six years’ worth of practice to pacify situations like this. Joseph grabbed Roy by the arms, while Vonn held his legs.
The music transitions one last time to tonight’s special song. In between drunken shouts and slurs, Phillip Phillips’s Home blares through the speakers.
Last year, they used the grill. With Joseph and Vonn holding Roy down, Scarlet took the barbecue sticks from the table, almost toppling over the bottles of beer on her way. They each stuck a stick deep into Roy’s skin, to try and weaken him, which they found was much more effective than the grill from before, and he howls in the process.
Nanette and Louise, in charge of the night’s fire, grabbed the largest pole that was given to them by the lumbering service. Lorena took the scarf around her neck and used it to tie Roy onto the pole, which they then dropped into the large wheelbarrow, showering it with bundles of scratch paper and other burning paraphernalia. Joseph runs to his car, gets the metallic cannisters he filled up with gasoline at the convenience store, and pours them all over the wheelbarrow.
No, no, you can’t do this, Roy screams. Mga yawa mo, you just can’t.
But they did. Drunk as they were, as drunk as they were the previous years, they pushed the wheelbarrow, doused with gasoline, into the fire. The bonfire booms, ecstatic with what they brought to it, and it danced as it continued to grow bigger, looming over them, turning brighter and brighter with every moment, reaching for the moon now at its peak in the sky. They all stood around the bonfire, empty bottles of beer in hand, weeping loudly at what they have done, and Roy screaming, just like how the others before him were screaming, at the cruelty of life, at the cruelty of the neighborhood, at the cruelty of the night.