Touchdown: 3 July in Sri Lanka. I arrive near midnight in Colombo, and get into a Kangaroo taxi to go to my hotel. Not even 5 minutes on the road, the driver looks back at me and says:
Driver: Madam, ah… what are you?
Me: (goes into immediate existentialist crisis) Uh, um… what am I?
Driver: (smiling indulgently) I mean, you are Japanese? Malaysian? Chinese? What are you?
Me: (relieved, whew!) Oh no no no to all that. I’m Filipino.
Driver: I see, from Philippines.
Me: Yes. Don’t I look Filipino?
Driver: Look Japanese.
Just as I closed the taxi door and settled in for the ride, the taxi driver asked me, “Weren’t you afraid, being the only girl waiting there in the long line of men?” I was taken aback, a little, by the question. I did notice that I was the only XX chromosome in the rather dark waiting area, but I didn’t think much about it, and didn’t feel even just a little bit scared.
I mumbled something about, “Oh, they were mostly construction crew from my building…” and the driver nodded, but felt impelled to add, “You can never be too careful, these days.”
Come to think of it, was I ever careless? I pondered that for a while. Despite all that’s happened to me in the past few years, the dire circumstances that have shaped life as I know it now, I still do not fear men. I had to Google that—androphobia—the fear of men. In my former job all my bosses were male, I worked with mostly male counterparts, would walk into a meeting with a roomful of men as the only female, and I liked it when they all scrambled to give me a chair. Men are often intimidated by me, as I am not a fragile looking woman, nor am I in any way, reticent. I have a marked tendency to say what’s on my mind, gender be damned. I’ve had relationships where men resented me because I was “bossy.” Or, my personal favorite, “too strong.”
I have male friends that I’ve known for years who treat me not as one of the guys, but as a girl, who is a friend. There are men I admire and would like to emulate, men who amuse me, men who I can be frank with, flirt openly with, or just quietly sit and have a beer with. They’re males of all kinds—old and young, single, married, or in some sort of relationship, old friends and newer ones—who treat me with respect, and I dare say, some measure of fondness. So, no, I am not afraid of men in general.
But hey wait, should I be?
I went out on a grocery run this weekend, and the taxi I was in had the aircon set to mid-range temperature. Politely, I asked the driver to adjust the aircon since it was so hellishly hot outside.
He immediately lowered the thermostat, saying, “It’s really hot ma’am, because of the global warning.”
I thought I was hearing things, so I verified, “Because of what, manong?”
Driver (loudly, since I seem to be hard of hearing): “Global warning ma’am, because of the hole we have in the sky. That’s why it’s so hot everyday.”
Me: “Ah, okay.”
Alright then, I have been warned.
Yesterday I was all out of sorts, I had a 10AM meeting I was running late for, and my mind was as always, predictably, somewhere else.
My taxi driver was a grizzled little old man who had to move his seat a wee bit forward so that he could step firmly into the brakes, or so I assume. I asked him to pass by the nearest gas station since I needed to break a five hundred-peso bill for fare—see, I’m a model passenger.
So we pulled into the station, and I think sometime during my harried juggling of a full bag, wallet, hairbrush, and lipgloss, my cellphone fell out. I didn’t even feel it, I was so deep into rearranging work stuff around in my head that when we reached the office, I stepped out the taxi minus my phone, rushed into my meeting, and was soon immersed into my work day.
I only noticed I was missing a phone around 5PM, and I just thought I left it at home, which I so often do. When I got home around dinnertime, I confirmed that I had indeed lost a cellphone. I sighed and that night, lying in bed, I tried to find which expense entry to sacrifice in my solo parent finances for a replacement phone.
Today at work, hoping against hope, I dial my cellphone number and lo and behold! a guy answers and he says, “Sure we have your phone, and you can drop by the office to pick it up anytime.”
(a few moments of reverential silence as a sea of jaws drop)
Yes, I am actually getting my phone back! It turns out my grizzled little old taxi driver found the phone and surrendered it to his office in the hopes that I would call to ask for it. And get this, he asked the guy at the desk to charge the phone and keep it turned on in the event that I might call. This dearest, is taxi love of the truest kind. I left a little something by way of a reward for my honest driver.
So now I’m happily reunited with my phone. And my belief in the inherent goodness of human beings is reinforced.
Let the taxi dancing go on and on and on.
We were mere windows away, so close we could kiss if not for the glass.
Cocooned in the air-conditioned backseat of the taxi, I watched his profile in the afternoon light. He could be Chinese, with eyes like that, but his jaw and the arrogant slant of nose hinted at lineage from the other side of the ocean.
Like the rest of us, his driving was put to pause by the gridlock, so he sat there impatiently tapping the steering wheel, squinting at the dashboard sun. From my vantage point I can see the smooth skin on one arm, spattered with freckles. I can see the soft curl of hair on his nape.
Suddenly he turns to look at me, and just as quickly I will my eyes to glaze over, as though I am seeing through him. He looks briefly at me, then at his fingers tapping the wheel. Then he half-turns his body on the seat and stares for what seems like a long, long time, his gaze straight and unwavering. I focus my eyes and just as simply, look.
This impasse goes on and on, neither of us moving or doing anything except holding a stranger’s gaze, the heat warping time and trapping us under the spell of the red light overhead.
Then, unforgivably, he smiles at me.
And, as though this was a kiss, the light blinked green, the spell was broken; the mass of vehicles swept us on. The road forked to our separate destinations, and we drift away from each other’s view fast, so fast the cars blur and I go back to looking at my hands, or at nothing in particular.
Ah, but what a smile that was!
Another taxi surprise today. Usually, when I get in the back seat, out of habit, I look at the driver. I see what’s expected, the back of his head. Then just today, as I was glancing at the back of the driver’s head, a pair of eyes pops out—there was a little head peering over at me from the driver’s seat, window side.
It was a little boy, barely 5 years old, though of course I can’t really be exact, I just saw his eyes and part of a snub nose. He was, how shall I describe this—wedged between the car door and the driver’s thighs. From the windshield you can’t see him, the top of his head is barely visible.
I ask the driver, “Is he your son?” He grins broadly and says, “Yes ma’am, this is my son.”
Then he goes on to explain, sheepishly or so I think, “He likes to ride along with me.”
The boy gives me a curious once-over, his expression quite grave. Then he turns towards the window and squints in the afternoon sunlight.
We get stuck in a little traffic jam near the mall. I put on my sunglasses. The boy smiles shyly at me, then turns back to watching the road, humming happily along to some silly commercial on the radio. Maybe it’s because his son was onboard, but I noticed the driver was cruising along smoothly, careful around corners and not trying to overtake other taxis.
I sigh inwardly, as I ask him to drop me off by the church door. Driving with a kid that way. It’s none of my business, for sure. I just hope that car door is locked. I didn’t have the heart to look.
This is a Valentine’s story if there ever was one.
Everything surreal happens to me in taxis. My driver today was cast in the true Taxi Driver mold of De Niro—bald head, mad twinkle in the eye, and a scowl that won’t quit. Being a cautious gal, I took pains to enunciate my destination clearly and made sure I had the exact change in advance. I sure didn’t want to argue with this sort of guy.
And boy, was he a gruff one. A red light at the intersection caught us and the pickup truck in front, and we had to wait it out. He grumbled that the pickup driver wasn’t fast enough; we could have gotten through if he just floored it a little. Prudently, I kept my opinions to the contrary to myself.
Just as we turned into the next lane, taxi driver’s cell phone rings. He grunts and the scowl deepens a few more centimeters. Roughly transcribed, the one-sided conversation I eavesdropped on went like so:
“What, what do you want?” Pause.
“Uhuh uhuh. I have a passenger.” Pause.
“I tell you, I’m on the road.” Exasperated pause.
“Yes, I will be home later.” Aha.
(Stage whisper) “I can’t, I tell you I have a passenger.” I smile now.
“Yes. I know. Me too. Later.” Oh bigger smile.
“Later, later later. Later OK.” By this time, I make no effort to hide my grin.
It amuses me no end to see a grown man, bald as a bowling ball and tough as a carburetor squirm with what looks to be embarrassment.
He lets the car roll to a gentle stop at the curb. I hand him the exact change I had prepared and say loudly, “Happy Valentine’s, manong!”
He had the grace to look sheepish, but he gave me a great big smile.