Reminders: “Withdraw over the counter” and “Make Christmas playlist.”
The first, because you lost your ATM card and you’re due for rent. It bothers you; the trip will cost time, the transaction will incur additional charges on top of the fee for a new card. But you do not worry, you are not surprised. This is only nth in a string of mistakes you have made over the past year, learning to live on your own.
And by far not the worst. Remember that time you paid nearly double the rent? You left the apartment with a figure to deposit, a portion of which for rent and another portion, for credit bills. But the distinction must have slipped and rolled off the pavement along the way, because by the time you had paid both bills, you were left with change and none of the budget you had projected.
Dumbfounded, realising your double deposit, you cried. Crying, you phoned the landlord, desperate for a refund. And phoning the landlord, you remembered your roommate, who also happens to be your mother. Remembering, you decided to call her instead, explaining your predicament. And she, who graciously let you play adult when you decided to try a hand at living away from home, laughed. And then she offered to help you out.
The second, because December has been a few days and you have not heard a carol. At the courtyard this afternoon, as workers set up for a White Christmas Wonderland, it struck you that December is going just as it is coming. Christmas is slowly ebbing as surely as it is hovering. And while you are still adjusting to the temperature drop, while you are following through with campaigns and counting the days until you board a plane home, it occurs to you that you would like to start celebrating now. Why not celebrate now?
So you look up carols from Christmas vacations, gather songs you used to dance to at Christmas parties. You collect and line up songs that anticipate the year-end year, after year, after year.
N’Sync’s ‘Merry Christmas, Happy Holidays.’ TLC’s ‘Sleigh Ride.’ The ubiquitous ‘All I Want For Christmas Is You,’ by Mariah Carrey. ‘The Christmas Song,’ ‘Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas,’ ‘Give Love On Christmas Day.’
It still is the most wonderful time of the year. They say Christmas is for children, and for a while you were tempted to believe that. Although when do we stop becoming children? Even grown ups struggle with baby steps. Even adults count the years to their first apartment Christmas tree, when they can afford all tree and frills and the power its lights will consume. You now suspect, with secret gratitude, that mall displays are as much for children on a Sunday as for yuppies on a weekday.
It still is a season of magic and whimsy. How could it not be? Cold temperature and coloured lights. Fifty-one weeks at which to look back. A double dozen mistakes to count and a stocking brimmed with lessons. It still is a season of presents and secret Santa’s, this time wrapped in recollections, knocking on your door like Reminders.
It is Saturday and I am in pyjamas and colour-striped socks. My hands are cold so I cup them over the water boiler spout as I prepare a cup of coffee. I leave the brewed fancy for dates with girl friends and have my morning fix from a sachet, just add water. Apart from this, breakfast is honey and cinnamon on soft, white bread.
I play Saturday morning staples by the Goo Goo Dolls: ‘Sympathy,’ ‘Let Love In,’ ‘Better Days,’ ‘Name,’ ‘Slide,’ ‘Black Balloon,’ ‘Iris’ and ‘Here Is Gone.’ These only, yes.
It’s the way it happened once, in Cavite on a Saturday morning. Breakfast was a plate of cranberry wheat bread and an open jar of peanut butter. Birdsong streamed in through curtained windows handheld by the breeze, and from the back of the house came music from a radio, tuned to 96.3 Easy Rock. Mama sang along as nineties hits graced the hum of the washing machine. And across from me on the dining table sat my laptop, playing the Goo Goo Dolls.
It was a simple moment. It was also a distinct moment, quite like an Edward Hopper painting without the loneliness, without the desolation. And I thought, with a sip of instant Nescafe 3-in-1, that I would make this exact rendering of a moment mine. This would be my Saturday mornings.
The coffee is ready, the honey thick. The cinnamon brings an aroma that reminds me of papa. For a moment the shoebox apartment looks less like a cell, and the single fluorescent lightbulb illuminates the room as though it were a private banquet. For a moment, it’s as though the deep, polished wood of my bunk bed were handmade by a craftsman who calls the woods home.
And I dine as the head of a table, albeit a small table. I revel like a lady with a throne, albeit a small, foldable stool of a throne.
If I shall have words like knights for 2014, one of them will be ‘mindful,’ and it will be the first of my round table. It’s been a while since I last enjoyed breakfast like this, mindful of what I am eating, taking care to appreciate the sweet of honey against the kick of cinnamon and the delicate dough of bread.
Sans a screen and keyboard. Sans an episode of The Mindy Project, or The Crazy Ones. Sans walking. It’s been a while since breakfast were breakfast, no more, no less. It’s been a while since window gazes and birdsong serenades, since the company of the Goo Goo Dolls on Saturday mornings.
Your room mate and I talked some time ago and it was agreed, no specifics, that we would come visit you. To be honest, the idea hurt like pavement rising to meet a child’s knee; the impact solid, the wound open and scalding. I want flesh and bones and a laugh, not dates on stone and an epitaph, you know?
I think of you and picture a hundred emotions. You were always a ball of them, always full of life in all its seasons. I think of you and see you partying, studying, stomping off and running back. I see you expressive with every action and gesture, always good at saying things without really saying them, always excelling at code. You were a puzzle with heart-on-sleeve honesty, yet it wasn’t attention you sought so much as perception. You did not want to be saved. You just needed to be seen.
I think of you and see you dancing, tall and passionate and awkward. In high school they said it was a shame you didn’t play basketball, what with your height and all. Admittedly I was glad you didn’t, you made better company at Pictionary in the English Learning Centre, during a screening of Big Fish at lunch break, and in the library, straining to be silent with. With you it was wit and sarcasm in place of layups and jump shots, and we were privileged to have shared in your mind, pivoting around thoughts, dribbling opinions. Not that we agreed with them all. But they kept things interesting. At times you steered conversations; other times, you stirred them up.
When you left we hugged, and I knew you meant it, your embrace was firm. You were the first to leave among us, though we had a plan to meet up. Twenty-ten, right? The plan was to meet in August in 2010. I was working then, just a few months into my first job at a magazine based in Manila. What about you; what were you doing in August 2010, on the other side of the Pacific?
If there were a physical room for regret, there you’d find the August 2010 that did not happen. You’d also find the calls that stopped coming on Christmases and birthdays, that ceded into Facebook wall posts and then faded. Gathering dust in that room would also be missed opportunities for a ‘Hey.’ For a, ‘So when are you coming back to Hong Kong? Or should I fly over to Toronto first?’ For conversations about The National, had I known you loved them; for shared opinions, I’m sure, about Norah Jones.
But this room for regret does exist, it just isn’t physical. Instead it is here, inside of my heart like a closet I fear to unlock. Not that there is use for it, buddy. I know there isn’t. But I carry it with me. And when I think of you, and picture you living and well on the other side of the Pacific only to remember that such is not truth but memory, this room threatens to come undone. To bust open for everything to pour out: conversations we will not have, a tour in some part of Canada we will not do, stupid selfies we will not take and every other type of memory we will not make.
Then again, it might as well happen. Perhaps I should let this torrent of regret run its course. But after that? Wouldn’t that mean letting you go? Wouldn’t that mean learning to picture you over our shoulders? And then behind us, then far back, until finally like a story we pull from memory? Wouldn’t that mean leaving you behind?
And yet, like an ache in the bones that one feels without ever really seeing, is the truth. One that I will hold against you, until, maybe one day, it is something that I learn to accept without understanding. Something that I learn to live with, without hurting:
You left us first, buddy.
One day I’ll come visit you; it’s a promise that will not go into a storeroom for regret. But until then, here’s to you. I miss you. I love you, and no, I’m not on crack. I mean it, I love you like a brother. I just wish you knew, before everything got too difficult. And now I pray you feel it, too: love, from this side of life, and peace, from the other.