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Adrift on the Street Formerly Known as Buendia

by Nikki Alfar

The Taxi Guy won’t take me any farther than the Ayala intersection, which I can’t blame him for, really, because as early as this point the water’s already knee-deep, and it’s only going to get worse down the street.

This happens a lot on Buendia (which is supposed to be named Gil Puyat now, only I don’t think anyone but the Post Office actually calls it that) in the wet season. Every year (or so I’m told) they muck out the sewers; and every year it floods anyway, drastically and chronically, at even the slightest hint that the sky might be vaguely considering rain. You’d think that no one would keep on living in this area anymore, but it’s not like any of us can afford to move. Or at least I can’t.

I don’t even know if I’ll be able to pay the rent once the deposit that Jimmy put down runs out, but for now I’m stuck in my condo, if not permanently on this corner. I’ve gotten the hang of how things work in the couple of months I’ve been here. I know a manong will be along soon, piloting a transformed tricycle with the motorcycle part replaced by a bike and the seat jacked up to what used to be shoulder level, or a wooden cart with one or two monobloc benches strapped haphazardly to its surface with plastic straw — in either case charging some ridiculous but incontestable amount to get people home safe and sound, if not entirely dry.

I’m hoping it’s a cart manong who shows up, really, because with the seat propped so high you have to totally hunch over in those tricycles, almost like a fetus; and besides, there are already two people in line ahead of me and I don’t want to have to wait around any more than I absolutely have to, although thankfully the actual rain has finally stopped. (And of course I don’t have an umbrella; no one does, it’s one of those evil Manila days that started out like the scorching height of summer and then turned traitor right after lunch.)

I’m sure my mother would be just as relieved not to have to share with strangers, but I’ve discovered that in these situations people who have nothing else in common are suddenly willing to chatter away like old chums, which I admit isn’t always desirable, but there you go: catastrophe (or the current local equivalent, anyway) makes strangers into neighbors, something that doesn’t happen all too often in the city.

These two in front of me, for instance: I’m sure I would never think of talking to them under ordinary circumstances. I mean, the girl seems normal enough; in fact, she’s spectacularly pretty, even though she’s wearing a horrible fuschia glitter t-shirt with the words ‘Kiss Me Quick!’ embossed on it. But the guy is wearing something that looks like a diver’s wetsuit, a one-piece rubbery getup in black and bright blue, so I’m trying not to stare at him, which isn’t easy. At least you could say he’s dressed for the weather, unlike me in my one good suit and formerly good heels.

He’s obviously thinking along the same lines, because when manong finally arrives (with a cart, thank you Lord!) and we clamber aboard, Diver Guy says, “Too bad about your shoes. They look expensive.”

They are, too — or they were — blush-colored Nine Wests that were a present from Jimmy back when things were good (although even then I noticed that the shoes had faint scuff marks on the soles, but I was stupidly in love and brilliant at making excuses to explain away all the things I didn’t want to understand).

I go, “It’s okay. If I get the job I interviewed for today, it’ll be worth it,” as I settle in to my position in the middle of the bench. (It’s Buendia Flood Etiquette that the third person in line gets the least desirable position — not that the sides of a precariously perched monobloc are exactly the lap of luxury, but at least you get an armrest and you’re only squashed on one side by your companions.)

“Oh?” he says, zipping the collar of his wetsuit up and down a couple of inches (not in a gross way, just sort of idly). “What kind of job?”

“Call center,” I say. I’ve already been training myself to say it without cringing, so it rolls out nice and smooth, even though of course I’m still thinking: graduated with honors in Comp Lit, and this is what I’m doing?

“That’s good money,” Diver Guy says. “Are you transferring from another call center, or just starting?”

“Just starting,” I say. “I used to be a dentist’s assistant.”

“Wait, that’s good money too, later on,” he says. “Not to say anything about call centers. I’m sure they pay much more at the start, but it’s a waste if you have dental training.”

“I don’t,” I tell him. “I only became a dental assistant because...” Okay, hang on, camaraderie in the face of catastrophe is one thing, but there are limits to how much I’m willing to share here. “I just kind of fell into it.”

I look away from Diver Guy and focus instead on the water swirling past us as Cart Manong trudges forward. It’s around thigh-high here, and things are floating around in it: squashed cigarette butts, translucent plastic bags, a ragged square of carton. Dirt too, of course, though it colors the water brownish-gray instead of being visible on its own; and I’d rather not think about what else is in there that I don’t see. It can’t be pleasant to be immersed in.

Poor Manong; but at least he’s making a killing at twenty bucks a passenger just to go down the street. I look over at him and see that he’s wearing a flimsy cardstock crown, like the kind they gave out at my nephew’s last birthday party, only with just three points in front instead of all the way around; more Wonder Woman than Burger King, maybe. Anyway, it’s open on top and doesn’t protect him from the rain at all, so who knows why he’s wearing it? It’s just Buendia, I guess; the rain comes down and the weirdos come out. (And it’s not that I’m being snotty, exactly; I figure I fit right in.)

“What about you, what do you do?” T-shirt Girl, from my other side, asks Diver Guy. “And why is it you’re wearing a diving outfit?” Wow, obviously they’re not big on manners in Fuschia Glitter Land, or at least she doesn’t have her mother’s voice perpetually in the back of her mind, telling her what is and isn’t proper to talk about. (And yes, I know a lot of things wouldn’t have turned out the way they did if I’d listened more, but I will never admit that to you, so shut up, Mental Mama.)

“I’m a marine biologist,” says Diver Guy. “I study aquatic life.”

“You mean in Manila Bay?” I ask, unable to prevent my voice from squeaking up a couple of registers. I mean, obviously, it’s the only sizeable body of water close enough for him to already be wearing his wetsuit (though that’s still weird, if you ask me), but I wouldn’t have thought anything could live in that cesspool aside from rats and roaches — then again, who knows? Maybe all the pollutants everyone dumps in the bay have caused the rats and roaches to mutate into some new kind of amphibious life form, and that’s why he’s studying them.

“No, no, right here,” he says, and I smile because that’s exactly the joke my train of thought was leading me to, that if anyone wanted to study aquatic vermin or pollution-spawned fungi all they’d have to do is come visit Buendia on a rainy day like today.

But it seems like he’s actually serious, because he goes on with, “We forget, don’t we, that the wellspring of life continues to flow even in the most unlikely places, whether by accident or design,” and I don’t have anything to say to that, so I look at T-shirt Girl to see if she thinks he’s as wacky as I suddenly do, only she’s looking at him with disgusting dewy-eyed admiration, like he’s MacArthur slogging through the surf at Leyte or something.

Then Diver Guy says, “In fact, I should really get to work,” and, holding his nose like a kid on the edge of a diving board, stands up and steps right off the edge of the cart.

“Wait!” I try to say; but he’s already gone, which is ridiculous, because the water isn’t even above Cart Manong’s waist yet, and no one who isn’t, you know, vertically challenged like Mahal should be swallowed up by water that’s no more than three feet deep, but Diver Guy has completely disappeared.

“Did you see that?” I ask the world in general; but Manong doesn’t seem to hear me, so I address it to T-shirt Girl, who’s staring at the water, but doesn’t seem particularly fazed. In fact, she’s smiling. “Did you see that?!”

“It’s nice to find out that a man can be so devoted,” she says, smiling even wider to reveal annoyingly perfect pearly teeth.

“He just vanished!” I lean farther toward the side of the cart and look down, but all I see is debris and dirty water. Maybe he landed badly, and twisted his foot, and fell. Maybe he stepped straight into an open manhole. Either way, he could be drowning and no one else seems to care.

“I mean, obviously it’s to his work, but still,” T-shirt Girl says, “it’s nice to see such commitment in a human male. Do you think he’d be the same way in a relationship?”

I should go in after him, I think (even if he is quite possibly a lunatic), but I’m scared Manong will just leave me and I’ll have to slog through the filthy water on my own all the rest of the way home. What if I’m the one who falls through an open manhole? In these stupid heels, too; I could break an ankle. Maybe Diver Guy is just fine and — I don’t know — swimming around, catching cockroaches underwater. No one else is worried, so maybe I’m overreacting, like Jimmy always says.

“Not that I’ve known many human males, you understand,” T-shirt Girl goes on. “I’ve only been on land for some few days, but it certainly appears as if they’re not very —”

I finally make some sense (if not exactly achieving comprehension) of what she’s saying. “What?”

“Reliable,” she says, twining a lock of hair in her fingers in that coquettish way I can’t stand. “You know, my father warned me that it was foolish to leave everything I knew behind, but love makes people foolish, don’t you think?”

I can’t help but stare this time; she’s hitting too close to home, and I’m starting to think that maybe I’m on one of those TV prank shows somehow. Joey de Leon hosts one, doesn’t he?

“Where’s the camera?” I turn my stare into a glare, hoping I look threatening and not quite as idiotic as I feel.

“I know what a camera is!” she says. “He liked to use one when we were together; he said it would give him something to remember when he got hitched.”

“How did you know he was married?” I try to snarl this at her, but it comes out as a weak little whisper; because I never told anyone but Rina, and she swore never to breathe a word, and I’m going to kill her, that bitch of a supposed best friend.

“I didn’t,” T-shirt Girl says. “I didn’t know what ‘hitched’ means; I only found out later, when he told me he’s getting married next week.”

I realize she’s not talking about me (How self-centered can I get, honestly?), and she’s about to cry; her eyes are all shiny, though in a pretty way, like brand-new marbles before they get scarred from being played with.

“Well, a lot can happen in a week,” I say, hating myself even as the words come out. Why am I trying to give her false hope? “I mean, you could wake up tomorrow and find that you’re completely over him, just like that.” I snap my fingers, improvising. “You never know.”

She does start to cry then, and I look away so she can maybe compose herself. The water is almost up to Manong’s chest now, and something swirls past the cart that’s way too big to be a rat, not even one of those cat-sized rats you catch sight of, running on top of electric wires at night. It swishes by too fast to really see, and probably the muddiness of the water is messing up its real color anyway, but it almost looks purple, bright purple like ube ice cream; and it’s moving like something alive.

“I don’t have a week. I don’t have any more time,” T-shirt Girl sobs; and now I see that it’s not just her eyes that are shiny, it’s everything about her — skin, clothes, hair — gleaming suddenly as if she’s been wrapped in transparent plastic. I have no idea what’s happening (which seems to be the theme of my day and, possibly, my life); but I want to comfort her despite the fact that she seems to be the kind of girl I ordinarily detest, so I touch her shoulder gently.

My hand passes right through her. I snatch it back and stare at it; and my hand is covered in bubbles, like I’ve been washing the dishes. I look back up at T-shirt Girl and she’s turning into bubbles: first, different-colored ones, still in more or less the outline of a human being, in all the shades of her hair and skin and clothes; then pure white foam that slips through the oblong air holes on the monobloc bench and spatters down into the film of water that’s by now washed over the surface of the wooden cart (and my once-expensive shoes).

I can’t seem to think what I should say or do. I want to reach forward and shake Cart Manong by the shoulders (since he never seems to hear me), screaming like the proverbial Sisa; but frankly, I’m afraid to. Less afraid that he’ll be upset or get distracted and stumble, really, than that he’ll twist around and turn out to be — I don’t know — maybe the Creature from the Black Lagoon, the way things are going.

I don’t know where I am anymore. I’ve been too distracted to pay attention; but it’s pretty clear now that this is no longer Buendia, though I can see my condo building — just the very top of it with its ‘In God We Trust’ logo — in the distance behind us, as if we’d gone past it already when I’m pretty damned sure we didn’t, at least not in any kind of way that obeys the laws of physics as I know them, not that what I know seems to count for very much in whatever place this is that I’ve somehow slipped into.

I wipe my bubbly hand on my suit jacket and keep my mouth shut, as what’s left of T-shirt Girl floats farther and farther away on the brownish-gray surf.

I’m hardly surprised at all when a small boy pops out of the water and climbs aboard the cart and onto the bench beside me. He looks like a typical little street urchin with his tanned skin and orange-and-brown sun-striped hair, except for the wide flaps of — skin? — that stretch from his wrists to his ankles on either side, like a miniature manta ray. (Or a regular-sized manta ray, I guess, if you think about it; and obviously this isn’t the most useful thing for me to be thinking about in this situation, but I’m just yammering away in my head right now, because it’s hard to make sense when the world refuses to.)

“You’re not pregnant, you know,” Manta Boy says; and it should probably stun me that he knows exactly what I’ve been trying not to worry about for the last week and a half, but I think I’ve gone beyond amazement now.

I’m just looking at the water. It’s still filthy; and it’s obviously much deeper than it has any right to be (and obviously Cart Manong is much taller than any human being ought to be). And I could drown in it; or lose my bearings and never find my way home (and besides, you can’t go home again, isn’t that what they say? It’s what Mama said, anyway) or be attacked by who knows what else is swimming around down there that is probably much, much worse than Diver Guy or Manta Boy. It would be foolish to leave what little I still do know, when I could just stay where I am.

“It’s only that you haven’t even let yourself cry,” says Manta Boy. “You’ll dry up completely if you keep holding it all in. You need to learn to go with the flow.”

I stand up and look at him. Skin flaps aside, he’s adorable, really: big earnest eyes, and the beginnings of awesome cheekbones that will have girls falling all over him when he’s older. Especially if he becomes whatever the weird aquatic equivalent is of a professional: a doctor, a lawyer, or even just a dentist.

“You shut up,” I tell him. “None of it is any of your business anyway, any of you.” And I take off my suit jacket, take off my hand-me-down shoes from my hand-me-down lover, take a breath, and dive in before I can change my mind.

Copyright © 2010 by Nikki Alfar

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