by Victor Fernando R. Ocampo
“And then what?” the priest asked. “We would just be lost. It would be better for us to reach a destination first, at least before we contemplate such actions. I don’t think either of us would like to be trapped out there. It’s nothing but a brutal wasteland.”
Felix said nothing. This had been the second time in his life that he had wanted to jump from a moving bus. The first was in New York City, a little more than five years ago. With his student visa expiring, he had no choice but to return to the land of his birth. The young man had been so used to life in America, that Promised Land for all Filipinos, that his trip back home seemed like a punishment, an exile to limbo after his brief taste of heaven.
On that bus he had fought a great urge to run away and he would have probably done so if a beautiful young woman hadn’t sat down next to him. Like Felix she was also on her way to Manila. By some odd twist of fate, they ended up spending the next fifteen hours together. In those long golden hours, they became fast friends. Before they knew it, their relationship blossomed into something else. A year later, the two were married.
“We feel most mortal before dawn, they say,” Fr. Vladimir said, trying to comfort his brooding companion. “Let us keep our wits about and let us not lose hope. Who knows what destiny waits at the end of this ride?”
“Thank you, Father.” Felix sighed. He knew that the old man was trying to make him feel better. “It’s just that being trapped on this bus is driving me nuts. I wish we knew where we were going. It doesn’t really matter where. I just want to get somewhere and get the hell off.”
“I can’t honestly say that I am not worried,” the old man mumbled. “But Milton said that the mind is its own place. In itself it can make heaven of Hell, and a hell of Heaven. Perhaps we can lighten our mood with a change of topic. Let me think... Hmm... my life’s work, my magnum opus, if I may, is a lexicon of dreams. I have been compiling it for decades. Shall we talk about dreams instead?”
“You study dreams?” Felix asked, momentarily distracted. He had dreamed of his wife every single night since her death. Different dreams, different situations but always with one thing in common: every night she would tell him to come and find her. His anxiety returned and Felix took out his handkerchief and started folding it into a four-point pocket square.
“Yes, I study them, looking for a common language to define their meaning.”
“So can you interpret dreams, Father?” he asked, tucking the pocket square back into his pants.
“In a manner of speaking, I can,” the priest explained. “For example, according to my research, if you dream of riding on a bus to nowhere, it means that you feel you’re being carried along by events beyond your control.”
“So... you think that we are in a dream right now?” the young man asked, looking around the strange bus and weighing the unreality of their situation. “I suppose that’s possible. I could be in a coma somewhere.”
“When you wake, or think you do, what would you say of this evening?” the old man asked. “I have an interesting thought experiment. Let’s say that we are indeed just dreaming, and you are dreaming that you’re riding a bus to places unknown, what is your inescapable tragedy, my son?”
“I haven’t said a prayer to St. Christopher yet,” Felix said abruptly. He had wanted to ask the old man about his dreams but he just couldn’t bring himself to open his heart to a stranger.
“Sorry? What are you going on about?”
“St. Christopher. He’s the patron saint of travelers.”
“And buses, I imagine,” the priest added. “Forgive me, but I feel as if there is some truth that you are denying. However, I suppose Carl Jung can wait, if you’re not comfortable with confessions.”
The old man looked out to the manifold darkness and became lost in his own thoughts.
After a while, the young man began to feel irritable and a bit lightheaded. “Father,” he asked, “do you have anything to eat?” In his rush to drive back to the city, Felix had forgotten to have dinner. Now he felt the deleterious effects of hunger, as his blood sugar started to drop precipitously. Is it possible to feel hungry in a dream? he thought. If I die now, this won’t be suicide. The saints will let me see her. Please St. Jude, St. Anthony, let me see her. We need to be together.
“Ah, hunger... another great leitmotif. Knut Hamsun used it well,” Father Vladimir murmured, still lost in his thoughts. The priest had spent too much time in the bus alone. He succumbed readily to the temptation to forage his mind for conundrums and verities.
“Father, I have diabetes,” Felix cried out. He knew that his wife wouldn’t have approved of a diabetic coma, not after she had spent so much time mothering his illness. “I feel dizzy.”
“Oh! I’m so sorry. Where is my head today?” the priest said, with much embarrassment. Fr. Vladimir opened one of his large valises. Inside he had an enormous bag of chocolates, bottles of mineral water and a crumbly cake packed securely in a sturdy styrofoam box. “I was on my way to a party for the children of my orphanage. I suppose this is as noble a use for these victuals.”
The priest took out some paper plates and used the handle of a plastic fork to cut the cake. He carved out a big piece and handed it to Felix, along with a bottle of mineral water. “Smachnovo!” he exclaimed, wondering secretly if this bus was to be their true and absolute Cenacle. “That means bon appétit.”
“Thank you. That was surprisingly delicious,” Felix said, gobbling his share with an almost desperate gusto. “What kind of cake was it?”
“Kiev cake,” the old man answered proudly. “It’s a divine confection isn’t it? It’s made of two airy layers of meringue with hazelnuts, chocolate glaze, and a butter-cream filling. It’s very rich, like the culture of my people.”
After they finished eating the young man excused himself to take a nap. When he woke up it was still night time. On the bus he did not dream and that bothered him greatly. He realized how deeply he needed the comfort of seeing his wife every night, even if it was just a shade of her memory.
The young man noticed that Father Vladimir had also fallen asleep. He wondered how long they had been travelling. He looked at his watch but remembered that it was still broken. He tried to recall the details of his accident, but his memory now seemed fuzzy. It was as if it had happened a very long time ago. He took his phone out of his bag and checked it again. “Please, I just want to see her picture,” he prayed, but his phone remained hopelessly dead.
A voice boomed suddenly in the darkness: “Come, let’s get to work! In an instant all will vanish and we’ll be alone once more, in the midst of nothingness!”
“Dios ko po!” Felix cried out, startled by the old man’s declamation. “Sorry, I didn’t know you were awake, Father.”
“Nothing like a quote from Samuel Beckett to start the day,” Fr. Vladimir said gruffly. “Night and sleep came and went but we did not dream. At least I didn’t.”
“But it’s still night,” Felix protested. “In fact, I think it’s still the same night. Everything is exactly the same. Nothing’s changed since we ate and slept.”
“Forget the night, my son! Beckett said that nothing matters but writing, and this applies to us now,” the priest said, with a distressed tone and an odd, vacant look. “I think I have figured out where we are. We are not dead. We are not dreaming. We are in a story. Oh heavens, this would be such a contrived, self-referential plot if that were true!”
‘We are trapped... in a story?” Felix asked warily, as he got up and moved a few rows behind his companion. The young man wondered if their situation had finally taken its toll on the old man’s sanity. He started a silent litany to St. Dymphna, the patron saint of mental health, just in case.
“Yes, I believe so,” Fr. Vladimir repeated, suddenly livid at their situation. “We are trapped in a cliché. I had hoped if someone ever put me in a story I would be in something literary, not genre, some novel of ideas or lofty philosophical fiction. But two strangers trapped in a single point in space and time, waiting for Godot all eternity? Maybe this is purgatory...”
“Father,” Felix cut in. “I’m a Business major with an MBA. I’m not so deep into philosophy. I have no idea what you’re rambling on about, and frankly you’re scaring me.” He crossed himself silently and said another prayer to St. Dymphna. For good measure he added yet another to the martyr St. Sebastian, the patron saint of cranky people.
“I... I’m so sorry,” Fr. Vladimir said, apologizing profusely. The young man’s worried tone had returned him to his senses. “It’s just that I have dedicated my life to words and meanings. If my absurdist conjecture was true, then this would be the equivalent of hell for me.”
“Hell on a bus? This is hell?” Felix asked. He hadn’t thought about that possibility. Now it became his turn to get upset. There were things that Felix had done in his life that he wasn’t proud of, and Catholic tradition wasn’t particularly kind to sinners. Besides, there was no truer hell for him than any place where his lost love wasn’t.
“This ride... this infernal ride has both of us undone,” the priest reflected. “Let us talk about more pleasant things instead. I... I myself love to read. Do you like to read, my young friend?”
“Sometimes,” Felix answered fitfully. “Business books on my tablet mostly. It’s more convenient to read them in the toilet that way.”
“Touché,” Fr. Vladimir said, suddenly deflated. The old man found himself tired beyond belief and without a single word left to say.
The pair remained silent after that. Felix felt that his fellow passenger didn’t really converse, he lectured. Father Vladimir lamented the decline of philosophy in an age of restless, clueless youth.
The young man looked out through the dark windows, searching for the moon or the stars, anything that would help him determine the passage of time. There was nothing in all directions but a desolate landscape, one that mirrored the hollowness in his soul. “Just take me away my love,” he whispered longingly, forgetting which saint reunited soul mates and lovers.
After a while, the oppressive monotony of the road began to affect Felix. Without the company of his wife or the distraction of his phone, his mind started to root for something to do. Eventually, he decided to move back towards his companion and brave another conversation.
“Father, you mentioned Waiting for Godot earlier. I saw that play in college. Isn’t it the one about the two bums who wait for this guy who never shows? I remember it well.”
“You do?” the old man said, his face suddenly lighting up. “Godot is a difficult work. Not everybody likes it. Why do you remember it?”
“My wife played one of the characters, the one called ‘Lucky’. I could never forget it.”
“Is that so? Where is your wife now?” Fr. Vladimir asked.
Copyright © 2012 by Victor Fernando R. Ocampo