Our lives are stories.
Hilary Mantel, The Present Tense
Come December, it never fails. I’ll hear the strains of a Christmas ditty and suddenly, the memories come. And wash over me like rain dropping on a garden in summer. With them a melancholic fog settles while I do everyday household chores. Because. I was not able to say goodbye to a friend whose death brought so much grief I buried all memories deep within for more than a decade.
It’s different now, though. Having lived away from our country for so long, I play Christmas songs from back home even though one particular song induces memories that rise up from some forsaken pit of the mind. For the past few years, I’ve fought the urge to write them down. Thus, this post has actually been in gestation for several years.
Like I said, it’s different now. My gray cells are graying. With no physical memento or photograph to hold on to (except that taken at my wedding), memories are all I have. So write I must if I want to remember anything ten years from now of a friend who was more than a pleasant companion during a period of my life when I was young and gauche and insecure about so many things in life.
Having graduated from an unknown university and surrounded by English-speaking (English is not my native language) colleagues who appeared sophisticated beyond their years, I often felt like the country mouse in the office where I’d worked briefly before deciding to become a stay-at-home mom. Earl was the antidote to all the loneliness of a young girl alone with few friends in the big city.
We were compatible companions in that we both knew we were safe in each other’s company: he had a wife in America and I had a boyfriend back home. Thus, we were able to be freely converse. And talk we did. Over endless cups of coffee. Opera. Asthma. Shakespeare. Nursery rhymes. Audrey Hepburn. Pranic healing. Christianity. Aerobic exercise. You name it, either he knew it or had an opinion about it.
Once, I expressed admiration for an opera singer whose voice soared like an eagle and told him that all I could recall was her name “Flicka.” He readily supplied her full name: Fredericka von Stadt.
It was obvious that he loved his wife. Whether she did, I do not know. At university, we’d discussed setting free people you love during angst-filled days. Here before me was a living embodiment who’d actually done it: he’d allowed his wife to work in America, pursuing her career goals, while he languished at home doing work that was not conducive to upward mobility. It was a partnership that I with my young mind could not comprehend. Once, I probed deeper. He explained that to him, marital faithfulness was all that mattered, not sex.
And so he proudly talked about Irma and her idiosyncracies. How she wore a new pair of shoes everyday of the two weeks she’d been home to visit him. How she was apprehended by police one time when she threw out the garbage and called him from the police station. How she sued her former employer, Bank of America, for racial discrimination and won. How she called him “My lord.” How she … I can’t remember anymore.
What I do remember, though, were our eating sessions which most often occurred at my instigation. Whenever I was frustrated at work, I’d invite him to accompany me to eat out. Almost always, he’d come and introduce me to another dining spot in Makati.
He had a houseboy, Orly, who cleaned his house but did not cook (so it seemed). Thus, he knew all the best eating places in town for different cuisines. We dined at Mother Saatchi’s (vegetarian), Kashmir (Indian), Dayrit’s (hamburger), and other restaurants and cafes whose names I can’t remember anymore. When he started praising the kebabs and other Middle Eastern dishes of a restaurant in the red light district, I begged “Take me there, please!” but he declined “Ermita is not a place for young girls like you.”
How I wish I could tell him now “See, you didn’t want to take me there but here I am, able to taste any Middle Eastern dish I want!”
Singing. I am out of tune. But. Despite knowing that he played the piano (he’d once narrated how he’d scared two maids with his piano playing at midnight at their ancestral home in Bicol), I had no reserves when it came to singing in his presence. I sang while we walked down the street. Then he’d flash that devilish grin. Still, I’d sing. I sang until the day we were eating at a dine-and-sing restaurant and I heard another patron come up onstage to sing that Christmas song.
When a friend broke news of his death, my initial reaction was “Now don’t you go dying on me – you’re going to be my firstborn’s godfather!” But. It was meant to be.
Is it so bad, to hold on to memories? I don’t know. All I know is that next Christmas, hopefully the memories won’t come.
Earl Calleja, this is for you.