The streets are familiar. Even the quaint light from the sporadic convenient stores are familiar. "The convenient store! I know that one convenient store there." I was supposed to visit the place a year after 2011, but it took me only in 2017, and a chance encounter, to be there. There was no pain anymore. Chills, maybe. But I needed this. It was six years overdue.
Mike sent me an SMS and asked if he could get his book back. Of course, he can. I just loaned it from him and it's been a while since I kept on saying "yes" but wouldn't go. If it weren't for the seemingly irritated undertone in his messages, I would still be thick-skinned as to delay the return of the book.
Even during the first time I visited Mike's home, I was already acutely aware that somewhere around his neighborhood was the complex of dormitories. I tried to look for it last December when I went home on foot from Mike's with I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings clutched in my pit. But that time, I was not looking harder. I thought, if I'd see the house, I'd see it. If I don't, then I don't.
February. Mike texted. I was ambling down to his place on the back streets of Sampaloc, away from España Blvd. The familiar ruckus of people, the train tracks of PNR, and suddenly UST is coming to view. From the house, I took on Florentino St. to reach M. dela Fuente. The night wind allowed me to think through the 17 blocks of street: "I guess I'll try harder this time around."
Almost half an hour passed when I returned the book, thanked Mike, and saluted off. "I'll try harder this time around." I took a turn on Piy Margal, as if some metaphysical hand pushed me offtrack. Finally, the streets became familiar. The quaint lights from the sporadic convenient stores became recognizable like a dusty case folder taken from my mental cabinet. I could not be wrong about the convenient store. There is no mistaking about it.
I walked to a slow, hoping to make sense of the small block from my six-year-old memory. It felt like deliberately touching a scar at the back of my head wanting to recall how I figured in the accident and got the wound. It was both dangerous and liberating: to be at the place where I spent that one night that will redound to an error of a lifetime.
I saw the convenient store. I knew that back in February 2011, a boy named Jerome hissed from the other side of the street to signal me to enter into a complex of dormitory units. I should remember too well that store like a lifeline on the palm of my hand, some thing that's ought to be there. It was the store where I bought a Mountain Dew as I texted him where exactly his place is. From the right bank of the road I saw the sari-sari store. I saw my 22-year-old self crossed the street and entered into a gate. "Where the fuck is the gate?" I was already directly across the store when I reminded myself "I'll try harder this time around. This memory is overdue. I'll try harder and find it." I turned around and paced, redraw my steps. It's should be somewhere around here, I thought. There's a tree: Too insignificant. There's a salon: I don't recall. And then suddenly, like a sleeping prisoner in the dark jail, the green gate appeared. I stopped.
I stood there. For good 15 seconds I allowed my inner eye to resurrect what I should have not done in 2011. I saw myself entered the gate. It could only take a while when I and Jerome were already undressed, I thought. If only there was a way to stop me, I would. But memories are ghosts with bloodshot eyes. They stare at you without remorse, and only then you'd know if you have grown accustomed to bringing the Crucifix out into the streets.
I stood for a good time, allowed myself to immerse, to marinate into the thought of that night. From the gate, I saw the imposing old house. It looks haunted from the outside. I thought that should have been enough to scare me off already. But I was stupid then. From what happened, the orbit of my memory moved to Jerome. Is he still there? Or had moved to another dorm? Or if he's still alive and here on Earth in the first place. I remembered how he led me through the snaking stairways to his room. How he asked me to shush and to carry my feet so as not to rouse the others to wake. I remembered how we sat awkward, watching but not watching the TV. I remembered them all. Those were enough for a six-year overdue memory. I walked away.
I don't know how to make out of it now that six years passed and one too many bottles of ARVs went to the trash bin. If you'd ask if there was a sense of regret in me, there's nothing--not even a dint of it. I always believed in the concept of happy accidents. For an existentialist, how I love to blame my faulty wiring to fate. I and Jerome still got to talk after my diagnosis in May 2011. It was that time when he told me he's already suspected that he had it but was just afraid. If only killing was legal, I would have bloodied my hand of his crimson at that time. But wherever he is, I still want to thank him, I guess. If it weren't for my stupidity and what he caused me, I would have not been where I am. Cheesy I know, cliche even, but that's how we romanticize pain to legitimize where we are right now.
Ever since the family moved from Sta Mesa to Sampaloc, I already thought of revisiting that place again. You know, sometimes it's good to return to those old barns in your life just to find out if they scare you still. I guess that old barn of a dormitory, where angels cried during that fateful night, doesn't hurt now as much as I thought it will. Sure, there was that chill that crossed my spine. Sure, there was that utter disbelief that I'd get to see the place years after (I was secretly hoping that it was already razed to the ground and a new building stood erect there). Sure, there was the sudden confluence of memories flashing before my eyes. But I guess those were just but natural. After all, you do not look at a ghost and welcome him with unfolded hands.
I was flooded with what-if's and the could've-been's on my way back home. I was looking at the street and not looking at it at the same time. I just snapped out of the daze when this young man--probably around my age--walking towards my direction was giving me a sticky stare. And, as we came shoulder-to-shoulder, a bated "Hello." He passed by and I surreptitiously turned around. I saw him cross the street towards the dormitory.
I turned away, and didn't look back.