Sunday, September 26, 2010
6:23 AM |
Excerpt from "There is No Regret Here"
[a short story]
Even when I don’t admit it, I miss things here, but always in the light airy acceptance of circumstance cousin to denial. I miss an abundance of tropical light and warmth, for example. There are days when my mouth gets a phantom taste of kinilaw
or lechon paksiw
, and out comes a surging of so much want, that I would venture out into the cold, hoping for the chill to still whatever it is that constituted longing. I miss Jared. I miss sunrises unobscured by tall buildings.
It is easy to miss a September sunset in Chicago. The overcast of skyscrapers downtown and the artificial light that make the city glow like birthday candles embrace the late afternoon. They dominate it. In my spot at this Starbucks at a small corner of Macy’s in this intersection of State and Randolph Streets, the shadow of the elevated railway keeps away what strays of sunlight come. The constant stream of people—mostly shoppers bearing with busy hands the department store’s oversized bags—lends what surrounds me the energy of daylight. The roar of the L train above adds to the sharp take of air. Everything is tricky. And so, when the fullness of evening comes, I am not able to tell with certainty the demarcating turn of light of the hours, the boundaries between daytime and nighttime having become blurry in my preoccupation with both reading and waiting. One minute, I am reading page 67 of the book I carry around as antidote for small emergencies like queues and waiting and I see the sidewalk still gleaming in the sun’s late afternoon glow; the next thing I know, in the middle of a difficult passage on page 77, I look up and there is suddenly the palpable feel of evening and the sluggishness of street traffic that it brings. Chicago at night becomes a different city.And I’m a stranger here.
It is a thought that slips uneasily as I sip my second cup of my latte, with a double shot of espresso, knowing there will probably be one or two more. Palpitation is easy to take, I think, easier than damnable waiting.
I look at my watch, and see that it is only six o’clock.
Ramon has promised he is going to come by fifteen minutes after seven. This is two hours ago. “On the dot,” he swore in that tinkling voice I remember most about him—and I believe him. The suburb he is driving from is roughly an hour and thirty minutes away in light traffic. I have not seen Ramon in seven years, and so I have willed myself to wait. I surprise myself that I am still capable of such manifestations of patience. Back home in the Philippines, where the sun stretches the hours and tardiness is the rule, I am quite the aberration.
“Okay. But you must remember I have no way of reaching you,” I had told him earlier that afternoon after lunch in Cumin, a Nepalese restaurant, after we parted in Viagra Triangle and I made my way, on sheer instinct, to this spot just a block away from The Oriental where the play we will see is going to be performed. “I have no cellphone, nothing,” I had told him this with a note of trepidation. “And I don’t know anybody else in Chicago.”
But Ramon had to go and meet someone in Palatine. Someone he had been dating, someone newly arrived from Paris. Someone named Walid. There was some urgency in Ramon’s voice. He promised to make it quick.
“I’ll be there to pick you up,” he said.
I smiled nervously at him. “You better.”
“On the dot.”
“I don’t want to miss the show, Mon.”
“I’ll be there.”
By my fourth cup, Felicia, the chatty black girl behind the cash register, has become familiar with me. She now knows I have only been in Chicago two days, O’Hare’s smell still on my skin. She knows that I am staying with a friend in Skokie, in the suburbs of Chicago, for the meantime. She knows I am watching a play tonight in the theater district. She knows I am from the Philippines. She has already given the comment I have come to treat in America with a shrug: “Your English is quite good.” I say thank you, and I murmur something about having studied in an American university—which for me was a quick and easy answer than a protracted lecture on American colonial adventures back where I come from.
I have ordered bagels by then. Five minutes after seven o’clock, I look up from the book I am reading as the train comes to a roaring full stop at the station above me—and the worst kind of knowing suddenly washes over me. Ramon will not come on time.
But I am still hopeful, even when I find myself slowly succumbing to a restlessness that was fiercer than usual. I am a stranger here
, the thought comes to me again. It irritates me, and I want it to stop, but it sticks to my head like a ghost.
“Are you all right?” Felicia asks. I nod, and say that I am. Soon I am the only customer left. In one corner of the café, a boy who looks Mexican is wiping tables clean with a purple washcloth.
At 7:10, I finish off what remains of my coffee. The doses of caffeine have made me a little jumpy, and when I make an effort to steady my hands, I find that they jitter in small quakes. That amuses me a bit, but it is tamed by a nervousness that encroaches in the margins of my night. I put the book that I am reading in my duffel bag, and I tell Felicia thank you. “It was nice to meet you,” she says in a loud voice, in that overwhelming Midwestern friendliness. Outside, I linger by the sidewalk as another train stops and roars away. I don’t see it from where I am. It is hidden away by the platform that covers this length of Wabash Street; the platform itself is a mass of steel and wood painted in rusty red, and from my angle on the ground, it looks both forbidding and fascinating. Minutes later, the roar of another train signals its arrival and then its departure. It seems strange to me that some things in life we comprehend only by the faith on the sounds that they make, and nothing else.
The sounds of my own palpitating heart become relentless as my watch tells me seven minutes have already passed after my appointment with Ramon. Still, there is no sign of him anywhere.
To kill time and to massage away the pricking concerns of my solicitude, I decide to circle the entire block—all of Macy’s in what used to be the commercial fortress known as Marshall Fields—down part of Randolph Street, then turning the corner for Wabash Avenue, then on to Washington, then State. The excursion proves nothing except the commonness of the sight of the homeless huddled in their quiet corners here and there, and the occasional lost tourist that comes up to me asking for directions. “Do you know the way to Washington Station?” a burly blonde man asks. Do I look like a native?
I think with certain weariness. I shake my head. Near Borders, a group of students also stop me, “Is this the way to Dearborn Street?” I shake my head again, and walk on. Their questions have only managed to unnerve me—which magnifies the fact that I may know this particular block, but way past my precarious rendezvous with Ramon, Chicago looms above me as a strange sprawling city where I have no map, no direction.I am a stranger here.
Fifteen minutes later, I find myself back in my old, familiar Starbucks. I decide to stand by the State Street side of the corner, angled just so so that Felicia will not see me. She has gone outside to the fenced-in part of the sidewalk, gathering around her the café’s outdoor chairs and tables, which she then set together in an elaborate heap, which she then chains for the night.
A police car passes by. Another train arrives and departs. A black couple strolls by, and I pay no heed to the woman’s unusually long blonde extensions. Two or three trains arrive and depart. I soon learn not to count them out. A boisterous group of gay men shatters the gathering city quiet. An Indian girl in a sari wanders near, stops to take a call in her cellphone, and in an urgent voice tells the someone at the other end of the line where she is. Eight minutes later, a blue car pulls up, and she gets in. I wait. The night descends into the beginning of chilliness.I am a stranger here
, I think.
I suddenly think of Jared. In Cebu, in the tropical sun. It starts to rain, just a little, and I back up and press myself harder against Macy’s walls. I have already given up on the play, which has started forty minutes ago. I only want to go home to something familiar. As the minutes creep by, my mind races for alternatives, for explanations. What if Ramon got stuck in some emergency? What if…
The speculations flood like a rash, and the considerations for what to do fill me with both dread and adrenaline. There must be a way to call. There must be other friends I may know in Chicago. There must be a way to get home to Ramon’s apartment in Skokie. I feel my stomach turning.
He turns the corner when I least expect it, Ramon with a harried look on his face, a jacket in his hand, which he quickly wraps around me.
“I am so sorry,” he says, a note of utmost worry dripping in his voice.
But I don’t say anything.
I just close my eyes, and bowing my head, I start to cry.
Labels: fiction, writing
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