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.
A while ago, I received a call from one of the managers, requesting for employee data. We were on the line for a few minutes, as he was asking very specific information that I had to look up.
Me: Okay sir, that’s the last I have on Mr. ________.
Mgr: I’m sorry could you say his name again?
Me: Mr. _________.
Mgr: Hmmm… Could you say his name again, please.
Me: (Eyebrows knitted) Mr. _________. Did you have another employee in mind?
Mgr: Oh, ah… no, no. I just wanted to hear you say that name again with your accent.
Me: (Right eyebrow raised) Huh.
Until now I still can’t quite figure out if this was a compliment or an insult.
During one of our video calls, the boy suddenly stands up and tells me he has to show me something. He disappears from the frame momentarily, then returns with a big black object. He swivels the thing around in several directions to show me what turns out to be one of those huge duffel bags with a metal frame and wheels.
Boy: I got this from one of the shops down at ISAF. I can use this for check-in luggage. What do you think?
Me: Baby, it’s huge. I can probably fit in there.
Boy (chuckles): Yeah, you certainly can.
Me: I hope you’re not planning to chop me up in pieces and stuff me in that bag.
Boy (nonchalantly): No, no need for that. I can just chop your head off and you’ll easily fit in there.
See, at my age, dating is no longer that complicated. The most you can hope for is that the guy is not a psycho killer. Or maybe a big enough duffel bag.
For some time now, I have been dancing the dodgy two-step with this guy — an older man who is by turns charming, irascible, and sometimes, just plain tired. Together, we skim the surface of things, unlikely conspirators in a plot to eke out a little happiness.
I’m not entirely sure how I stumbled upon this bit of a dalliance, this little preoccupation. There was that phone call in the middle of the night. He made me laugh and yell at him until about 2 in the morning. I couldn’t make up my mind then if I liked his gruff manner. But the next night he called again, and it was hours before the phones got turned off. We call or Skype each other most everyday now. Sometimes he just grunts at me over the phone, at a loss for words. I kind of like that.
Details began to emerge, photos were swapped, bits and pieces got shuffled around to make room for us. This little preoccupation, it passes the time. It consumes me just enough to make me feed the fire day by day, to tend to it just so to preserve the spark. It is what urban kids nowadays call a ‘skinny love.’ A love that’s not fleshed out enough to be substantial, not solid enough to be defined as a sure thing, or as anything.
I don’t mind it, I mean not too much. There is a connection here that I can appreciate, no matter how tenuous, no matter how brief. But, the both of us, we’re not bothered too much by it. There are no unreasonable demands on time, no shallow arguments, no intrusions into privacy, no intense moments of feeling as though your heart will explode. None of that nonsense.
No, it does not eat us up. It is, after all, just a skinny love.
I’ve sat at a table and eaten with ‘rough men who stand ready to do violence on my behalf’ — and I am all the better for it.
Some days you sit outside and just look.
The sky can be so blue as to seem elementary. There is snow on the mountains now, but you knew that without having to see it, the sting of cold on the soles of your feet tells you as much when you jump out of bed each morning.
You watch people pass by, walking with their hands jammed into pockets, their bodies bent forward in that curved slouch the spine takes on during winter. You think, my tropical bones will never get used to that shape. You think that, but when you stand up to walk, the curvature reveals itself — how the bones arc inwards, trying to form a shell around the lungs, the ribs about to clutch your heart. The body shields itself, even when one is not aware of it.
Some days though, you see beyond the snow that blankets the rooftops, beneath the thin panes of ice on the ground.
Today, some guy turns in his resignation because he thinks everyone ignores him. He feels unseen. One guy confesses he feels betrayed by the locals, he says they pray several times a day and then send out a truck of explosives to try and blow up a gas station, a guard outpost, a camp full of people. He is tired of saving everybody. Some guys just want to move on to the next high-paying gig, go somewhere warm, where one can earn a decent living and be able to drink Jack-and-Cokes. One guy just paid off the last year of his kid’s college and it’s hasta la vista, see ya. Another left because he’d had enough of the crazy running into the bunkers, all hours of the day. And some guys leave because they want better quality toilet paper.
Five years of doing this, and some days when you sit outside you think you’ve seen it all. Some days.
This is my current view, a landscape of blue skies and gray concrete. It’s been set in my mind’s eye, I have been looking at it for close to five years.
The ground is hard, unyielding. We harden it some more, layering it with truckloads of cut rocks, every inch that we can. It is not enough that we already hide behind walls three stories high, we must discipline the earth as well. Imprisoned by rocks, dust, concrete, and steel, I have only the blue skies to remind me of the world that must be still out there. A world where softness is not weakness, where the earth is moist and teeming with life, and where the horizon, unbound, expands freely as far as it pleases.