Present Day, Quezon City
Nickie knew it would be a futile effort, but she needed some sort of reprieve from the daily grind. Pulling out her three-year-old Vivo from her backpack, she looked at the tedious screen, a mess of unorganized icons and folders, and tried to find the Grab icon before she felt the urge to throw away the contraption. She never liked these new phones. She’d rather use a laptop, but there are just some things that you cannot do with a laptop. Like order food when you’ve missed breakfast and lunch. Or book a Grab. Today, she wants to immerse in the sublime and artificial, which is SM North EDSA. This is about as far as she’ll go in terms of commercial edifices. The rest, in her opinion, can rot in hell.
After about three attempts, a driver picked up her pin. A white Honda Jazz is coming her way in about twenty minutes. The Grab app sent her the obligatory message about COVID-19 and wearing a mask. She was already wearing a mask and a flimsy face shield.
“Probably stuck somewhere at the elliptical road,” Nickie murmured to no one in particular. She looked around and realized she’d been sizzling in the afternoon heat. A few meters away from where she was standing was the good old jeepney stop. A roof over her head. Everyone needs a roof over one’s head. Even when it’s just waiting for a Grab to reach your pin. She moved forward, intent on enjoying a few minutes of solitude at the jeepney stop. In the distance, she spotted a figure that made her do a double take. For a brief moment, Nickie and the man made eye contact.
A crazy thought sizzled through Nickie’s mind. She knew the man, somehow.
The man suddenly crossed the road, nearly getting sideswiped by an old Korean van. Nickie stood transfixed at the figure—a sixty-something man who wore an old Boysen shirt, faded jeans and black Rambo flipflops. The man disappeared into the grassy area that led to the lagoon.
A white Honda Jazz honked frantically at Nickie. The bumper was half a foot from her left knee. Nickie’s face drained. She blinked a few times at the care and wondered what a white Honda Jazz was doing on the sidewalk.
“Ma’am, are you okay?”
Nickie was standing in the middle of the road in a half-step, chasing after the man.
Nicks: I think I need to see doc again.
Ofie: Why babe what happened?
Nicks: I was almost run over today at school.
Ofie: Well that’s something you’d do right. Hahaha!
Nicks: Gaga, I’m serious.
Ofie: Well, let’s start with, telling me what happened?
Nicks: I saw him again…
Nicks: The man in my dreams.
Ofie: Babe, we all have that man in our dreams.
Nicks: Sometimes I wonder why I even call you a friend, Of.
Ofie: Hahahahahaha! I’m not, I am the devil who knows how to cook a mean batch of pasta in under 30 minutes.
Ofie: Wait, you’re serious?
Ofie: The problem, in my opinion, is you don’t get out much.
Nicks: I don’t want to ‘get out much.’
Ofie: Sure you do! Everyone does. We’re all gonna die soon, either by the hands of this regime or by getting COVID.
Nicks: Not me, I barely noticed COVID.
Ofie: That is harsh, my dude.
Nicks: So better decide if you still want to be my non-friend.
Ofie: Right, right.
Nicks: As always, you’re not helpful but I love you still.
Ofie: You can’t get rid of me, you know.
Nicks: I don’t want to get rid of you.
Ofie: That’s my gal. Now, you need to start dating again.
Nicks: I have to go.
“When all else fails, write poetry.” This was one of Ofie’s unsolicited counsels when Nickie was having one of her bad days. Nickie technically knew how to write poetry, but whether it was good poetry or not, she could barely tell. It was easy reading other people’s works as text. But writing your own poetry? It felt like looking into the open mouth of a shark and wondering why your toes were so close to the teeth.
The Body and the priest
he leaned back in ecstasy
for the newly-found
and the long-lost
in the name
of the Father, Son, Holy Ghost—
he said to hell with his vows
Nickie took a good look at the string of words on the page and laughed. She imagined her old Catholic school teachers reacting to her poetry and calling her a slut or loose woman. Her care for her old life, under the guidance of her grandmother who was a strict relihiyosa all her life, was very much a faint memory now. Her dad was adamant about Nickie taking the UPCAT. Nickie was just happy that UP didn’t require theology courses, should she pass. She secretly avoided taking entrance exams from other schools. When she finally got in, she was rejected from her first choice, journalism, and winded up getting into comparative literature.
“Comparative literature, what is that, Nickie?” her father Domingo had asked her when he saw her admission papers from the university.
“I have no idea, papa.”
“Well, you have my blood in you, I’m sure you’ve not made a mistake. Whatever makes you happy, hija. But I didn’t know you loved literature so much that you’re willing to study it…in UP.”
“Well papa, did you love buildings so much first before you decided to study engineering?”
“Pilosopo! Okay, that was a bad analogy. You got me there.”
“Just asking papa? And what about lolo and the rest of your brothers? What did they have to say about civil engineering?”
“I took engineering because in my time, everyone wanted to become one. This was also the dream of my tatang and bapas for me. They did not decide for me, but rather, suggested that I take engineering, even if they did not truly know what “taking engineering” meant. You know how they are, Nickie. Don’t pretend to not remember that they are not aral, and they spent most of their time tilling land.”
“It was a happy time. I learned a lot. I joined the movement soon after, to better serve the people. The people is also us, Nickie.”
“I know papa. Well for me, I love reading, just not all the time. Maybe UP will change me. Maybe I get to enjoy reading more.”
“It may do just that. It depends, Nickie. It really depends on what you intend to do once you are finally inside.”
“I don’t know what to do there, papa. I mostly feel lost about myself. I’m not sure about a lot of things, honestly. Only that I don’t like religion classes. I’m not sure if I can take any more religion classes.”
Domingo smiled at his daughter’s pronouncement about religion classes. He too, did not like obligatory religion classes. Had he landed in a Catholic college with those subjects, he would have probably just dropped out.
Like father, like daughter, indeed.
“You’re going to be fine, Nic. I think.”
Nickie was struggling to put on a little makeup for her impromptu date that evening. She rarely wore any makeup, and she didn’t like Ofie touching her face. There was just something about being touched in the face that made her recoil. She was intent on getting to the bottom of it. However, for tonight, she needed to survive putting on makeup.
“Who is this guy again?”
“And why do I have to go on a date with him?”
“Because you’re a recluse?”
Nickie banged the brush on the bedside table. “I told you not to call me a recluse. I’m not. I just like my privacy. And the peace and quiet.”
Ofie backed down, but only a little.
“Nic, it’s been years since Marlon passed on. It’s okay to look for other guys, you know. I’m sure he’d say the same thing.”
Nickie resumed putting on her makeup. She looked at herself in the mirror carefully. Nickie had almond eyes, thick brows that she never plucked, and a small nose set upon alabaster skin. She had thin, pink lips that her friends said almost always looked pensive. Nickie just felt pissed most of the time. She inherited her mother’s short fuse. She’d punched a fair number of guys at school. Guys who tried to get it on with her.
Pricks who tried to kiss her, out of libog or jest. There was even one who tried to cop a feel. He left school with spots of blood on his white uniform and loose front teeth. Nickie had to hide the bruise on her hand so her lolo wouldn’t notice. It was hard to hide bruises when you had fair skin. If there was one thing she was consistent with, it was punching boys who didn’t know their place and treated girls like they were second class citizens. At one point, Nickie did it so they would consider kicking her out. But the school never did—and Nickie had to withstand several more years in the same institution, because her grandmother insisted that she attend the same Catholic school until it’s time for her to attend college.
“I keep forgetting that you’re a matchmaker by trade, Ofie,”
Ofie laughed while scrolling her newsfeed. “I try, Nic, especially for you.”
Nickie had met Marlon through Ofie, and she trusted her closest friend. She had no one else. Everybody else were merely acquaintances. Only Ofie has access to Nickie beyond her being an academic. Ofie had access to Nickie as Nickie, as a woman.
“I’m ready, Ofie.” Nickie was absolutely not ready to go on a date. Ofie looked at Nickie’s smeared lipstick and the mismatch between her eye makeup and the rest of her face and sighed. “At least you’re yourself today, bruha ka.”
“I’m leaving, Ofie, it’s fine you know, you don’t have to do anything anymore.”
“Bruha, you can’t just leave—”
The two were standing outside a café in Teacher’s Village.
“The guy is not interested in me, Ofie, don’t you get it?”
“He just checked out his phone, come on Nickie, give him a chance naman, this is crazy! You’re being crazy!”
“So what if I’m crazy? I go on my first date in years and he’s checking out his what, Tinder? The fuck with that, Ofie.”
Rick Perez stood outside the café, but kept a good distance from the warring pair. He opened his phone a couple of times because his team leader was emailing out of the blue. That was a bad sign when you’re working in BPO and your leave of absence was just approved. He had no idea that his date would explode on him for just opening his phone. Rick Perez towered over Nickie at six feet and two inches. Nickie was 5’ flat. But he felt small right now. Really small. So small he wanted to disappear, never to be seen again.
“Uh,” he started. The two women barely paid attention to him. He was just a shadow, just like every other shadow in the dimly lit street where the café was located.
“Nickie, we can go inside and talk about it, Rick can apologize for his sins, we can all be civilized-”
“Don’t use that card on me, I’m so sick of you—”
“Well you’re not the nicest bestie either, Nickie,” Ofie said quietly, folding her arms across her chest.
Nickie quieted down. She knew she had crossed the line, again, and people got hurt. Two people. She didn’t know why she had a sudden surge of red hot anger. She felt sick. She looked at Rick, who had one arm up, motioning to a waiter inside that café that things were under control, and that he’s going to pay for everything they ordered.
“I’m sorry I looked at my phone. My team leader—”
To Rick’s massive shock, Nickie approached and touched his elbow lightly. “No, it’s my fault, Rick, I have to apologize for my outburst a while ago. I’ve not been feeling well. Can we try again?”
Nickie studied Rick’s gentle features, the small scrub of beard on his chin and his wild, curly hair. In Nickie’s mind, she was already analyzing Ricks’ facial features to determine his possible ancestry. There was something unsettling and fascinating about Rick’s features. Nickie’s training in anthropology allowed her to roughly estimate and compare the measurements of common facial points. Rick has Middle Eastern, Chinese and Pacific Islander features. This could mean that Rick may be the product of several ‘interesting’ intermarriages.
“Do you by chance, have Persian blood, Rick?”
Rick’s eyes widened in surprise and blurted yes, he was. As far as he knew, he was the descendant of Persian fabric traders. He has never been to Iran, however, but he dreams of one day visiting the country to see where his ancestors lived. He had a striking Persian countenance—a classic mixture of hard and soft facial features. His eyes, however, were not wholly Central Asian. There was something else, of course, Nickie surmised.
“Indulge me one last time Rick, before we go inside?”
“Sure thing, Ms. Nickie,”
“What’s your middle name?”
“My middle name? It’s Tanjuatco.”
“Tanjuatco,” Nickie repeated thoughtfully. That would explain the dimensions of his eyes, and the somewhat slim profile of his face, Nickie calculated quietly. Rick’s mouth was characteristically Pacific Islander, along with the color of his skin, which was leaning toward brown instead of olive-skinned. So he has Chinese blood, is of Persian origin and…his dad was Filipino. That means Rick’s grandmother, Nickie thought carefully, was probably last person in Rick’s Persian lineage before the Iranian surname finally disappeared after marriage.
“You’re so interesting, Rick,” Nickie said dreamily, as she mentally plotted Rick’s family’s genealogy in her head. To Rick’s second biggest shock of the night, Nickie locked arms with Rick and moved in the direction of the café’s entrance. Rick blushed and asked Ofie what was going on.
“I have no idea man,” said Ofie honestly.
The three went back inside the café, intent on ending the night on a much brighter note.
“It’s been fifteen minutes,” Nickie reminded Rick. Rick was relaxed now, but he agreed that Ofie’s long absence from their table was a little unnerving.
“Would you like me to check on Ofie?” Rick asked Nickie, who was already spamming Ofie’s Signal chat with messages. Nickie looked up from her phone and gave Rick a slight ‘please find my idiot best friend please’ nod. As Rick stood up, Nickie realized that she would be all alone if Rick left.
“Rick!” Rick looked at Nickie with a puzzled expression.
“I’ll look for Ofie. You stay here.”
Rick slowly sat back down, nodding at Nickie. He needed to digest all the cheese they ordered, anyway. Never has Rick seen such an appetite for cheese. Nickie and Ofie ate so much cheese he’d wondered where they were putting it—both women were really slim. And that’s just the cheese. He’s had two beers the entire night, the two women have demolished eight bottles of Pale Pilsen.
“I’ll be back, Rick. I just have to make sure that Ofie’s alright.” Nickie patted Rick’s arm slightly before turning her back. Rick’s eye trailed Nickie’s generous bottom before shaking his head slightly and distracting himself with some YouTube.
“I hope Ofie’s alright,” Rick muttered. “It’s almost closing time.”