It must be the proximity of their place to the business district, and the sea, a kilometer away to the West with some portions reclaimed, never reached them with its smell of brine, that the young people there would engage in regular reunions; former classmates in school in which one of them, amid the stultifying work in cramped office spaces -- articificial auspicious places that suggest nothing but an outlook for the future -- would think first on contacting his contemporaries and those few who had migrated to other cities for arrangements. If someone would take notes on what usually takes place during these get-togethers, he would notice that they begin with superficial details concerning their advancing careers, and when everybody have slackened off due to the languor brought by consumed calderata and pancit bihon, when what is left are wine and bottles of beer, they exchange tidbits of a shared past too much to their own pleasure.
One of the young people who subscribed to this was Jose Centeno, an abled man with no practical worries to make him look older than his age, and reunions for him were welcome rituals, perhaps to compensate for the slow ripple of his social life. And, perhaps too, for the simple reason of reliving the past.
"Carmelita dropped by this afternoon," said Dominic Crisante, cousin and constant classmate in school.
"What's her concern," Jose replied.
"The usual. And probably in a resort this time."
"We could try La Union."
"Yeah, never been there. Anyway, she has told the others about it already."
"What did they say?"
"It's fine with them. They already set a date when to talk about the details."
This prospect ran in the head of Jose as he combed the tuft of hair in his forehead with callous fingers. He was halfway done recording on the computer the birth and death certificates of the population of Hawaii, circa 40, from a roll of microfilm. The idea had taken much of his thoughts, and already he tasted in his mouth an urge for a smoke . He stood up. For a moment, surveyed the rows of computers around him and listened to the perpetual clatter of keyboards being pounded at an average speed of 45 word per minute. He walked past the working area, out into the corridor and veered for the comfort room. He found that several of his officemates were already there, cigarette smoke hovered in the air like a morning fog, slow moving while being sucked by the exhaust fan. He relieved himself on the urinal, then got a cigarette in his back pocket and lit it. His officemates were entertaining themselves with juvenile imagination of having a hot chick for a wife.
"Wouldn't it be great to have a wife like that?" said one.
"Sure it is," Jose joined in and added, "Just don't leave the country for you'll writhe in bed anxious that she is making out with other men."
"That must be hell," replied by another.
When Jose returned to his seat, he checked whether he had had recorded the certificate seen in his viewer, and verifying that it had been, resumed encoding the next data. For hours, he was deep in repetitious process of typing names, dates and causes of deaths.
Doing this job for a long time, Jose had marveled at the idea that this hynotizing task, bringing the sensation of the brain being massaged, makes one dumb. And already he feared he was starting to be one. Few more years on the job and probably he could degenerate into a moron, he thought.
He was rehearsing this wisdom when a flash struck him, like an apparition that swept by without portents. Actually, the flash was not a blinding light of illumination, rather, a blurred glimpse of a remote past.
It was a casual conversation with former classmates as they stood on the bridge near another classmate's home, a time prior to their discovery of holding formal reunions. He had mentioned to one of them a case of mischief several of them did during one of their school days. But the quick response was: "Sorry, but I don't remember it." The reply baffled him. He could have had retorted by saying: "Of course you remember it", and offered further elaboration to construct a detailed past. But the conversation was a merry one, straying to other topics, that to delve on an uncertain past was uncalled for and unnecessary. Thus the realization that he alone remembered it hung in the air; a benign terror that eventually dived in the depths of the sea and stayed there slumbering for a long time.
"Common." It was his seatmate nudging him. Jose snapped out of his reverie. Everybody around had started to stand up. Almost everybody were rushing toward the counter to pass the unfinished recorded microfilms. He pulled the microfilm in one sweep from the machine, put the film inside the brown envelope and stood up. The next shift, crowding along the corridor and spilling over already at the door, their heads peeking, was about to enter the working area any minute now.
He chose a seat by the window. When the conductor issued him his ticket, he crumpled it into a ball with his fingers, rolling it until the sweat in his fingers rubbed on it. Humid air slapped his face as the bus sped along the highway and his vision barraged by the lush of billboard ads' neon lights.
The issue could be treated as a simple case of lapsed in memory, he thought. But he felt otherwise. He tried to find a resolve to this anomaly, taking the stance of a homespun philosopher to regain his peace, anchoring his deductions on the events in the present times.
Jose focused his thoughts on the case of his officemates. They would remember years later the habit of sneaking out to smoke in the comfort room during this stint in their job. The repeated shirking would etch a strong impression in their memories that it would be certain that, if the situation calls for it -- when an early evening chat with their aging wives begs for a casual sharing of anecdotes or when their children have grown up and on their first job and need stories to teach them about work-place scenarios -- Jose's officemates would be able to remember and tell about it. And, probably, with a hint of pride for their laid-back coolness.
He continued with this line of reasoning, rolling the ticket in his fingers tighter now. What if three of them, instead of sneaking out to smoke in the restroom, decide to proceed downstairs, go out and eat at the open-air eatery beside the building which was not their usual wont. On their way back to work, they encounter a ragged old man begging for loose change. One of them, out of naughtiness and for the purpose of having a good laugh, gives the beggar an antiquated coin that would be without use for the old man. They would go back then to their work guffawing. Decades later, when fate have separated them, either to pursue other jobs or migrate in other cities, two of them chance to cross their paths in the street. As an old acquaintance and to say something special, the first one would suggest about that afternoon with the old man. But the other would deny that he was with him in that situation. He remembers they usually smoked in the restroom, yes. But about the case regarding the old man? No, he does not remember it. The one who opened up the subject would be left dumbfounded, but goes on, desperate, narrating this time the details of the encounter. The other says: "I still don't remember it."
The one with keen recollection, to his dismay, discovers that he alone the keeper of what was once, and holds on on something that is slipping into non-existence.
Jose felt a discomfort in his guts.
The conductor hollered: "Evangelista! Evangelista!"
He alighted the bus, the gravity's pull heavier than usual. He strode for the jeepney terminal, which was two blocks away, and still rolling the ticket in his fingers. At the sight of the terminal, he flicked the ticket onto the pavement. It settled on the slow stream along the gutter. As the ticket drifted down the sewer, he took one last look at it like a prayer of farewell for an intimate transient companion. He heard the barker yelled for the last seat in the jeepney. He ambled faster and hopped in.
to be continued......