This Glorious Nothingness

boba

The only card game I know is Pusoy Dos. I only learned how to play this game when I was 17 years old. Up until then, I didn’t even know how to shuffle a full deck of playing cards.

It was summer and my friends and I were bored and broke in our own homes. Left with sparse entertainment options that didn’t cost any money, we spent our time emailing each other daily (never mind that most of us lived within a 2-kilometer radius). In a city of 12.8 million people, I chose to move only within this narrow subset.

My friend Marc laid out the rules for me, while the others watched me struggle in amusement. My role in our friend group was half perpetual hostess and half lampooned dunce. In this instance I was the latter.

“Pay attention, kasi!” Marc shook his head, exhaled cigarette smoke, and expressed exasperation in one swift movement. We’ve been sitting in a cafe across our former alma mater for hours, playing cards at the extravagant cost of a PHP 200 blended drink each.  The sun was setting, and I still could not remember the rules correctly.

“But I’m paying attention! I know what a straight flush is!” Dammit, how could I not get this right?

“But you don’t use that hand at the very beginning!” Marc gently flung a card at my face in jest. The rest of the group laughed.

It took a few more weeks before I was finally playing at lower intermediate level. To this day, when I see a deck of cards I get a tiny bit sentimental about those empty sunlit hours we spent in that now-defunct cafe.* Where did the time go?

***

Time is a really curious thing, isn’t it? I vividly recall being listless over long and humid summer days when all I had were but a couple of hundred pesos in my wallet and no vacation allowance. I’m jealous of my teenage self for having devoted that much time to absolute nothingness. You skinny little witch.

These days, just setting a day to sit down with a pal for a quick coffee is a challenge. My friend Inat was in the city for three months and we simply could not decide on a day to meet. Things were always in the way: doctor’s appointments, client meetings, urgent errands, family dinners, weddings to attend, ad infinitum. The cadence of our daily lives in our 30’s, regardless of whatever they are centered on, rarely allows much room for old (much less new) friends. People have moved away to other cities, have gotten married, have found new circles. With oceans and obligations between us, the days of empty hours seem so far away.

My mother assured me that it will get even harder as we age. I totally believe her.

***

coffee

Ira and Krisna had tears in their eyes from laughing too hard.

Last summer, Krisna decided to spend a few months here in Manila. She had moved to the US two years ago to be with her amazing wife. Although we were all from the same elementary school, our tight triumvirate was forged just another couple of years prior to the big move. We were so tight as to feel broken when Krisna left. Ira and I relished this rare opportunity to relax with this trio’s resident conscience.

“Ayoko sa amoy barya.” (‘I hate people who smell like loose change.’) Beautiful Ira was our kook, and we relied on her for these gems. Back in elementary school, she and I were always chosen to play guardian angels in religious school plays. She was always baby-faced; I was simply the short kid who seemed 5 years younger.

Krisna was lightly hitting the table and cackling, pausing only to flick her cigarette into our ever-present ashtray. Back when we were both single, she and I would drown our dating sorrows in caffeine and menthols. I had since quit smoking; but seeing her enjoy those delicious sticks of death with coffee made me miss the old days.

The wonderful thing about casual old acquaintances that turn into really good friends is that the conversation is always about the present. While our trio’s baseline has always been our shared school days, we hardly ever reminisce about them. Rather, we spend hours laughing at inane things while actually talking about the heavy stuff in the process.

We talk about relationships, life goals, how weird my next door neighbor is, the marked improvement of Ira’s parallel parking skills, Krisna’s ukelele, Japanese food, Manila traffic, the country under this president, what we’ve learned from our exes (hint: a lot), our careers.

The day before Krisna left us again, we had one last final lunch. It was in the middle of a work day, but we had to meet as a complete group one last time. A couple of hours of nothingness was all we needed.

***

My strangely razor-sharp (but oxymoronically selective) memory is both a blessing and a curse.

I remember exactly what my friend Gai wore to our first grade Christmas party (large white top with bunnies, striped leggings, white Mary Janes), what color Trisha’s  gown was for our graduation ball (wine red velvet, with a metallic gray shawl), and where I sat for our Senior Class photo in high school. I remember that Gian loved Shaggy’s It Wasn’t Me video. I remember that Coco’s dog was named Buloy, and that I saw him in church the day before I had my scoliosis operation. I remember that the fifth house along Cojuangco street on my daily walk home had the big dogs I was so scared of. I remember exactly where I wrote our graduation song. I remember listening to Norah Jones’ Don’t Know Why on my way home from my 18th birthday party, with my friends loudly discussing the previous night’s debaucheries in the back of our pink van. I remember calling my friends my created family.

But with the good comes the bad.

I remember crying for days because of insults hurled at my expense. I remember walking out of a cinema theatre because someone had made a joke about my ex-boyfriend. I remember receiving news about friends losing parents. I remember hugging April outside their house one last time before she migrated to Maryland. I remember not speaking to my best friend Dianne for nearly two years. I remember the first time I drove into our subdivision and realizing that nearly everyone has moved away. I remember feeling sad. I remember realizing that I would never host another party at my parents’ house again.

For most of my young adult life,  I viewed my created family with sentimentality. A large chunk of my consciousness was tied to the people I grew up with. In the last few years, with everything else that has happened in everyone’s lives (including mine), that nostalgia has lost its luster. Our lives filled up with new details, new environments, new people, and even new families. There was simply not much room for remembering.

The truth is that high school ends, just as it should. No matter how much I choose to remember of our youth, I can never be 17 again.

WE can never be 17 again.

***

wine

Our beloved Ben was back.

After seven years away from Manila, he had rung the alarm and called for a dinner with the old friend group. I have known Ben since 1996, back when we used to sing Hot Hot Hot to him so that he would show us his enviable high kick. He was there to give my first serious boyfriend his stamp of approval (I dragged him to the beach with us). He was there to straighten my hair in the early 00’s. He was there to spice things up at our friend Denise’s birthday by singing Kylie Minogue’s Can’t Get You out Of Head. We owed Ben big time.

So after three years of absence, I showed up.

A much smaller group assembled in the restaurant to fete the returnee. Absentees had their usual reasons: traffic, work, kids, family. A lot of other people had fallen out of the group a long time ago, and merely handful of the members still meet on a regular basis. It was interesting to peer into my friends’ faces and see how much we have all aged since those days of Pusoy Dos with blended drinks.

We talked about this administration, undeserving members of this president’s cabinet, struggles with mental health, engagements, weight gain, receding hairlines, Uber pricing, spouses, new kids, old friends who had moved away,  and how much we hated Manila traffic.

Somehow, without realizing it, we had all become adults. Their tired 30-something eyes were at odds with the 90’s era jokes we exchanged about our young selves. While a few quips about our friend Rica’s fun arguments with Marc (about directions to Julia’s 18th birthday party) came up, we mostly spoke about the present.

Louison turned to me halfway through dinner to ask, “So what’s new?” I thought about my marriage, my new family, my new job, and my new address. What was there to say? How exactly does one condense a brand new life into a sentence?

“Nothing’s new.” I smiled.

Looking at my old friends laugh with and at each other, nothing was really ever new. We may have all aged, we may have all new different addresses, and we may have all leaned into inevitable adulthood.

But right there, basking in a few hours of nothingness, we were still the same.

It was glorious.

 

embryo
December 2000

 

*RIP Frio Mixx

 

 

 

 

 

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