Thursday, January 15, 2009
A sudden change of course in their lives happened on that hot mid-afternoon day in the summer of 1992. Five years after the turmoil at EDSA. A year after the Mount Pinatubo had erupted. It was the year when Fidel Ramos had sworn for presidency. And mobile technology was yet to dawn.
It wasn't at all fateful, as what both of them forced to accept. It could have not happened because their mind sensed something was wrong, yet they had let confusion dragged them to damnation.
They were supposed to go to Bagiuo to attend at his uncle's wedding, but earlier that morning he knocked at his parent's bedroom and crawled onto their bed. He had a terrible headache. After they gave him an aspirin he declared two hours later that he could not go with them; he told them the pain had not yet subsided, and wanted to take some rest. Thirty minutes after his parent rolled their car from the garage and into the asphalt road, his nanny called in and said she couldn't get there until five in the afternoon. She was supposed to be on her day-off, but in special cases like this she wouldn't complain for an overtime.
Twelve weeks ago, on a similar day like this, he was also left alone in the house with his parents out of town and his nanny left for the supermarket. He knew too well how his nanny would always leave early and spend unusually long hours elsewhere. He called at his close friend's house and invited him over to accompany him. He was already eleven years old, and next opening he would be in high-school, but his childish fear of being alone in their huge house still hovered over him. And besides, he was bored, too. His mother gave him a dry cell-powered robot as a present two months ago on his birthday, and Marciano, his childhood buddy and neighbor, would love to play more than he would.
They were half-way rummaging all the toys in his room cabinets then when he remembered his father had a new pair of binoculars like that in the movie they had seen together before. They went to his parent's bedroom and ransacked every overhead closets. Then his friend saw it.
"What is that?" nine year-old Marciano pointed his finger at the two rectangular blocks lying face down behind a big Tupperware full of old cassette tapes and casings that he had pushed aside.
"It's some sort of VHS tapes," he grabbed the two black objects and then checked it. There was no label, and the cardboard casings were all white. He ran toward the player near the foot of the queen-size bed, turned the player and the TV on, and then waited. Marciano sat beside him with curiosity.
The monitor flickered, and a picture started to move. They then both fell silent.
Today, for the fourth time since, they would be tucked again in his parents room and play the VHS tapes once more. He knew long before about his family's plan to go to Baguio, and he had it all planned that he would stay at home. He called Marciano in.
At 2:30, with the bedroom curtains all hang loose and the TV audio muffled, they sat there watching. After three sessions in the past twelve weeks, the first tape had finally ended. It would be their first time to watch the second tape, and they were both excited, shaky, and jumpy.
"Put it in," Marciano said.
Halfway along the scenes, both their eyes shut wide in pure shock and disbelief. On the monitor was a scene so unusual and intense that they dared not speak a word or two. Two men and one woman were having sexual acts. The men kissed the girl, and each other, too.
After some time he turned to his buddy and, out of nowhere, asked, "Maybe we should try it, too."
Esmeralda, a 35 year-old, soft-hearted woman who lived a life based on principles, thought the traffic jam along Shaw Boulevard would be worse at this time of day. Yesterday the traffic was slower than creeping when a huge billboard had slumped to the ground and damaged several cars. But now the condition was far lighter, and she would be at the Garcia's by four.
She didn't bother to use the doorbell; she had a duplicate for the gate and for the main door, a way of knowing her employer had trusted her more than anyone. She heard no signs of Juancho, so she called his name. No answer.
She went upstairs and saw the boy's bedroom door was ajar. She saw no one inside. She presumed perhaps he dropped by his friend's house, and prompted to start preparing dinner. She had already reached the staircase when she thought she'd checked the master's bedroom if it needs cleaning.
Marciano was sitting on the bed; his eyes shut close. To his right was the door. In front of him was the TV set; the movie still running. His pants were on this feet. And Juancho was kneeling before him with his head on Marciano's groin.
The door flung open.
Year 2009. All the seventeen summers that had passed were no longer the same happy, innocent times of their lives. It had turned harsh and painful. It was the cruel reality their young minds had never thought would unfold as a result of their frailness. And ever since they were forced to act and think like grown men for them to outlive the grimness of their action. Time had moved on, but the grasses had not yet fully covered the mud.
Juancho now lived among the natives deep in the boondocks of Papua New Guinea, doing humanitarian work and spreading what love could possibly give. He'd been there for quite some time and had learned to love the people and the place, and became contented of the life he now lived and of the company of people with so much love to give and of people filled with so much love received. Though he felt never alone, but sometimes throughout the mission he felt empty and lonely.
For years he fought the urge to look back. At some points in his life he couldn't help his past from rushing back to him, haunting him. And no matter how hard he had tried to move on, the image of his friend still lived in his dreams. But he was also consumed by guilt and remorse that he pushed himself to accept the truth that his nanny was right, and instead threw himself into things that would occupy his time and mind.
But he was perhaps a frail man; too weak to make a stand on everything he do or think. And he could fight no more the desire to see his buddy. And so, amid the storms that wrecked inside him, and of his personal war against himself, he began the slow journey to find his friend.
In the birth of modern technology, he realized how limp he was for failing to make use of it to find the person who's lost for so long. He had lost trail of his best friend, which started a very long time ago when the wound was at its freshest, yet he could not help but wonder what it would be like to see or hear his friend for the first time in years.
He had lost track of his nanny, too. He could have asked his parents and relatives as much as he could ask them about Marciano when he made long distance calls once in a while, but anxiety and fear of suspicion had held him back from doing so. He wondered how she had been. He wondered how all the secrets had been kept. She was the bearer, and she promised to keep it in the box. But he could not help but wonder if she had ever said a slightest piece of it to anybody. And such slightest piece would be a bomb that would explode very loud. But so far, he sensed no commotion yet among the foliage of menacing trees.
He could still remember that very summer so well. And how it happened. And why. And he could still remember how he felt like burning every time Esmeralda glared at him silently. He was so embarrassed and guilt-stricken that he and Marciano had not seen each other after he had ran away, and up to now.
Esmeralda had persuaded him to stop seeing his friend, for nothing good would come out after what had happened, and it would be for both their good to let time bury it. In a voice that's more of a command than suggesting, she said he should find ways to outweigh his sin with good ones. And with a mind so young and pliant and confused and scared, he had promised to devote himself doing something for the humanity. And in return she had kept her promise. His parents had never learned about it. She had told no one. And had talked of Marciano no more. Then she had said something to him that he was not ready to absorb: he should convince his parents to let him study in his grandparents' place -- Cebu.
Then he had later learned that Esmeralda had left and lived somewhere in Quezon province. No words had been exchanged between them. No goodbyes. And he was too scared to ask about Marciano, too scared to remember him, too scared to think of his friend. But now, not anymore.
He wanted to his keep his promise to his nanny, and had no intention of letting it go. But he could not live like this forever, too: hiding from the past. He had already forgiven himself, and it was about time to ask forgiveness from Marciano and talk, if they felt they should, about the past for the very first time. And talk about how they had moved on. He now had the courage to risk the many years of trying to straighten his life just find him, if it's the only way to heal and totally move on.
The summer came. Under the scorching heat of April sun he drove his way to the town of Mulanay. He remembered that his nanny had sometimes told him about the stories of her town. And this was his first to actually be there. After asking a handful of passersby, someone finally pointed him to a modern concrete house with a manicured lawn fronting the sea, situated at the south end of the coastal town.
A tall, light built man in his late fifties opened the gate. When he introduced himself a sudden widening of the man's eyes followed by a gasp of surprise escaped the man as though he had been expecting him for so long and had already given up hope when it had finally happened. He was led inside the house as the man, who turned out to be his nanny's eldest brother, started narrating the story that he had never expected to hear. He learned that Esmeralda had been in Canada since 1997, five years after she had left their house in 1992, and four years after she got married. She now lived there with her family, but never once forgot about him and every once in a while asked Poncho, her brother, if he had already given the letter to him.
He learned that Esmeralda had suffered an immeasurable emotional pain, but Poncho was not specific enough as to why. She had always wanted to reach out to him, to say the things she longed to say but had no chance. And so she had left behind a letter hoping that one day fate would lead him here. Poncho gave the letter to him, which he took and opened.
My dearest Juancho,
God knows how I've always wanted to find you and tell you how sorry I am for forcing you to do the things which you shouldn't have done. I had been too narrow and clouded by my dark conviction. I have longed to ask your forgiveness for tearing your life apart and for directing you to somewhere else other than what you've wanted to follow. It had been a long time, and as the years gone by my guilt haunts me even more.
I know this time would come, as to when, of that I have no idea. With this hope I write this letter to tell you the things I so long to say.
Juancho, everyone who walks this world has his own shortcomings. Though we were created as God's perfect image, but we evolved into beings plagued with flaws. I had my share of flaws as you had yours. It is a lot helpful to learn from our mistakes, but it would also be healthy not to stay long with them. I know you are strong enough to leave them behind, for I see them in you the very day you decided to go. I, on the other hand, was not strong enough to completely move on. I ask you to forgive me, and when you do I can then sleep deeper.
Your family has always been good to me and welcomed me with so much respect that you all made me feel valued and trusted. For that alone I could never forget you and your kindness even beyond this earthly life.
What happened a long time ago did not stain my respect and perception of you, though at some point I found myself questioning those things that I believe in and doubting my own strength to understand why it happened. For years I have chosen to keep it to myself, and what I know would be kept only to me from here to the afterlife. Because every time I look at you I see a person of pure heart and kind soul; I saw deep in you a hope that you would become a man of greatness. You are more of a son to me, a son I could never have. And I will protect you from all the harshness of the world in every way I can. It was my very intent, nothing more, to suggest you should leave because I know you have that courage in you to start over. But I could also not deny the fact that with that intention I had pushed you into the wilderness. I know you hated me. I just hope you don't hate me anymore.
I do not believe early actions define a man in later life, for with our desire to change and move on is always more powerful, and would always mend the wounds of the past. I asked you to draw the courage to start over and lead a better life, because I believe that you could. As for me, I am waiting for your forgiveness for me to survive.
For so many years I have not heard from you and reckoned that perhaps you've already forgotten me, yet it is my very hope that you are now living a life whose wounds from the past has long been healed, and whose new self is nurtured by forgiveness and redemption.
Always be your nanny,
When he drove back home that day, tears couldn't stop from falling. For he, unlike Esmeralda, had not exerted as much effort to thank her. Yes, back then he felt resentments to his nanny and anger to himself, but now he'd seen where all those decisions and actions were leading him to. He should have thanked Esmeralda for redirecting his life. He should have thanked her for loving him that much.
That evening, he picked the phone and, holding his breath, dialled Esmeralda's number given by Poncho. It was Sunday in Canada, and he presumed she would be at home. On the third ring, someone picked up the receiver on the other end. He had trouble controlling his emotion and his body from shaking.
"Hello?" the voice of a woman cracked the momentary silence.
"May i speak with Esmeral --" he was shaking.
"Juancho?" he could feel her voice suddenly trembling with joy and disbelief.
"Yes, it's --"
"Oh, my God!" the woman gasped, followed by silence. He was about to consider that the end of the line had hanged up, but he thought he heard her sobbing.
"I'm so stunned. Oh, God, thank you for calling," Esmeralda exclaimed. "Oh, Juancho, if you only knew how long I have waited for you to call. Where have you been? How have you been? Where are you?"
"I'm OK. I'd been in Port Moresby. It's in Papua New Guinea. I'd been there on a mission. But right now I'm in Manila," his voice, too, sounded as if emotions that wanted to explode were suppressed. "I got your letter."
Esmeralda wept. For so long she had wanted this moment to come, and there were so many words she wanted to say, but she found it difficult to say them all at this moment. Instead, she just wept and said over and over how sorry she was, and begged him to forgive her.
"Yaya," he was surprised to find himself called her by the name he used to call her in his early years, but he continued, "please don't be. It is I who should feel sorry for what I've done. And I should have thank you ---"
"I'm so sorry..."
After sometime, when both their emotions had subsided, Esmeralda told him something. And she sounded urgent.
"You need to go to Chicago."
He was startled. Chicago?
"You need to see him, Juancho. Before it's too late."
"What do you mean 'before it's too late'?"
Esmeralda broke the news as he sat there listening. Then suddenly he felt like his heart was crushed forever.
Before he replaced the receiver, Esmeralda said something more.
"He missed you so much, Juancho. He still does."
Esmeralda told him that every now and then she came to Chicago to visit Marciano hoping to bridge the long time that had been lost to the wind, and of trying to reconstruct with him all those lost times. She had called Marciano's home in Manila, had found out that he was in Chicago, and later learned she'd learned that Mariano was dying. When Esmeralda told him that time was running out, Juancho knew he had to act fast.
He had been to Marciano's house in Manila when he arrived. But all Marciano's aunt had told him was that her nephew and his parents were in Chicago. Been there for almost a year already. He had asked why, but she had said nothing. He had asked how he was and how he had been, but there was no mention of the terminal illness. What she had told him instead was the sudden pain and devastation that she remembered seeing in Marciano's eyes that very day her nephew learned he went to Cebu. And that it stayed in him for so long, and was never the same happy kid again since. None of them had understood the sudden coldness his nephew felt from him back then. Or why he had left so sudden without saying goodbye to Marciano.
Esmeralda met him at the hospital entrance. So much had changed in her. She was visibly older, much older than he remembered. After a long, emotional hug, they went inside and straight to Mariano's ward.
A woman in her mid-twenties opened the door. Esmeralda smiled faintly at her and asked about Marciano. He's not getting any better, the woman said, close to tears. Before Esmeralda could introduce him, a little girl around four appeared beside the woman.
"Reah, this is Juancho."
Reah started to tremble as her voice faltered when she talked. She was fighting back tears. "I've been looking for you for so long," she started. "It's all he's ever wanted all this time, to see you." She broke and excused herself, said that she was just happy that her husband would finally find peace within him. And in a soft but happy voice, she said, "Thank you for coming."
She did not mention about what happened that summer, and he wanted to ask her if he had confided to her. But it didn't matter anymore. And he didn't care anymore if people knew about it. They're reunited now, though it took that long, but still it helped mend their souls so much.
He was led to the bed at the far side of the room, the one next to the window. Marciano wanted to be near the window, Reah said, so he could see the coming and leaving of time, counting the days until this very day would arrive.
What he saw before him made his heart sunk and crushed into pieces. He was not prepared to see him like this, to see him suffer like this, to see his illness consumed his body so much like this. His body withered, his flesh sunk to his bones, his figure more of an old man than of a 26 year-old's. His heart shouted so much ache. He wanted to cry.
Marciano was awake but his face was turned to his right toward the window, and his eyes was wandering at the view outside. His mother sat next to his bed, reading a book out loud but softly. When he sensed people coming in, Marciano turned his head away from the window toward them. Almost instantly, as if he was expecting him today, a weak, faint smile crossed upon his face.
"I knew you would come," Marciano muttered. "I knew you would..."
Days before today he had prepared himself to what he was going to see or hear. He had prepared himself of the words he needed and wanted to say, but none of them seemed to come out the very moment he saw him smile. Emotions were screaming, and he wanted to know what they were, but he couldn't hear a word from them. They were close to exploding, and he couldn't find a way to suppress them. All those years of longing to find his friend were drowned by the overwhelming feeling that burst into tears. He rushed toward him and hugged him so tightly, and never wanted to let go.
So much time was missed by both of them; so much words needed to say and hear and understand, but at that very moment none of them spoke a word for the hug they gave to each other was more than enough to express all they ever longed to express, and was all they ever needed to shrink the time they had lost.