Friday, March 21, 2014


There was one empty seat left on the bus, so I took it. It was right at the center of the last row, the only seat with nothing in front of it to stop its occupant from hurtling fatally forward should the bus come to a sudden halt.

There were two men who sat on either side of me: to my right, an old man sitting patiently, dressed in a neat polo shirt and slacks; to my left, a younger man, foreign by the look of him, slumped over the seat in front of him and clutching a bottle of Red Horse.

There was also, the night before, a prayer left as a status message on Facebook: “Going on a 10-hour bus ride to Vigan by myself! Bring on the adventure!! (Dear universe, please give me an interesting seatmate. Or a decent one at least.)”

There was a noise in my head. Let’s see if my prayer will be answered, it said, challenging whatever god was in charge of heeding the requests of stubborn young women who mask their fear of traveling alone with overstated excitement.

There was a silence that followed. It begged for a response.

And then there was a voice. It sounded exactly like the Voice of Reason, asking me where I was going. It came from the old man on my right.

“Vigan po,” I answered.

Mag-isa ka lang (You’re alone)?” he asked.

Opo (yes, sir).” I braced myself for the reprimand I had heard one too many times: kababae mong tao, mag-isa ka babiyahe! (You’re a girl,you shouldn’t travel alone!)

But there was no such scolding. Instead, there was a lull, followed by a rumbling beneath our feet. The bus had started to traverse the distance between Manila and Vigan, Ilocos Sur.

As the vehicle rolled ahead, there was an exchange---of origins and destinations, of explanations for our being the last two people who got on the bus.

The old man came from Cubao, His daughter lived there, he said with fondness. He stayed with her for a month, because he missed her. He lived in Cagayan, a few blocks away from his son. He decided to go home because he missed him.

There was a cautious laughter. And then there was a question--what do you do?

“Writer po,” I said, and asked him the same.

He was a pastor, he said, and he continues to be a Man of God.

There was another question--did I believe in God?

There was a silence that begged for a response.

My family are Christians, I not-really answered, deflecting the inquiry best I could to avoid an extemporaneous evangelization from a man that I had started to like too recently to dislike so soon.

Suddenly, there was yet another question--will there be a stopover?

It was not the old man, but the foreigner on my left.

“I think so?” I not-really answered.

“I need to pee,” the foreign man not so much said as shouted. There were turning heads and angry looks shot his way. These were blissfully ignored.

Once again, there was an exchange. A louder, more gregarious one.

The foreigner was a gardener from Switzerland. It was winter there, which was why he had been living in the Philippines for the past three months. He was on his way to La Union “to drink and surf.”

He was funny, so there was a lot of laughter. He was interesting, so there were stories. He was also very insistent that I drink with him, and he was very loud, so that the bus--especially the old ex-pastor--could hear.

There was shame.

And then there was still another question--do you have a boyfriend?

“Do you have a girlfriend?” I answered.

There was a pause, a sleepy smile, a swig of beer. “Yes…but that’s why I’m here, to escape her.”

There was the smell of beer-breath. It was getting closer.

“I don’t even know your name,” I not-really rationalized.

“Alex,” he answered, and it figured: A-lex. Law-less.

There was an interruption. It was the Voice of Reason, asking me to please move my backpack so he could pass through the aisle.

We hadn’t realized that there was a stopover.

There was a blackbird in a cage in the trunk of the bus, his beloved pet, the old man explained. He was going down to check on it, see if it was still okay. There was worry in his eyes and urgency in his step as he walked out.

There were lukewarm cup noodles at the stopover. There was a rush to get back as the bus started on its way again.

After everyone had settled, there was a silence.

And then there was weight on my shoulder. It was Alex.

There was a pointed cough. It was the old man.

Again, there was shame. Again, there was a silence. It begged for an escape from this strange, only semi-holy trinity.

There was the bright afternoon sunlight streaming through the windows from the left.

There was a voice. Again, it was the Voice of Reason. “Hija (girl),” it called.

I braced myself for the reprimand, the rebuke of my flirting and fraternizing with a drunken man--I was a girl after all, and from a Christian family, what a disgrace!

There was no such thing. Instead, there was a request: “Pakisara‘yung kurtina, baka masunog siya (kindly close the curtain, he might burn).”

There was a clench in my heart. Not relief, but shame for assuming worse.

There was another stopover. Then there were two empty seats beside me. The old man and Alex had left.

There was a noise in my head. It reviewed the journey so far, replayed the conversations that just took place. There was an inner voice that puzzled at the existence of a god. It calmed down when it realized that this was beside the fact.

There was, after all, an answered prayer. This was all that mattered.

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