Tuesday, July 13, 2010

i always run away

I went to Europe that summer. No matter that I only had a visitor's visa, I worked at odd jobs, things I wasn't trained for or experienced in. In Luxembourg, I waitressed at a restaurant and attracted the American tourists who were glad to see someone who spoke their English. In Bruxelles, I typed manuscripts for a writer-translator. In Paris, I did retail work at a lace shoppe and tutored a couple of kids to speak English.

Benjamin got a job in Saudi Arabia. He had asked his sister to send me his address. I wrote him a rather casual letter, but he never replied. A year later, while in Bournemouth, England, I learned he had gone back home and did not renew his contract.

When my visa for Canada came, I wrote to him one more time but my letter came back. I've established my life in Toronto, got into a relationship, took another diploma course to add to my ever expanding resume and immersed myself in work, generally. Once in a while, I had thought of Benjamin, wondered how he had made out after coming back from Saudi Arabia. After ten years, I decided to write to him. It was his youngest sister who wrote to me a few months after I had sent my letter. Benjamin and his family were fine. With the money he earned in Saudi Arabia, he bought a property and built a house for his mother and his family. However, his mother had died, as well as an older sister.

A few weeks after I received his sister's letter, I also received a letter from Benjamin. He thanked me for my birthday greetings and sent his greetings, too, although he admitted that with the many years that had passed, he had actually forgotten my exact birthday. Knowing he is fine, I kept his letter but did not reply. I kept in touch with his sister, though.

In the winter of 1999, after fifteen years, I decided it's time to pay the old country a visit. His sister met me at the airport. I tried so hard to not mention anything about Benjamin even though deep inside I wanted to. From what his sister told me, Diana, after all these years, was still jealous of me, and that Benjamin, in deference to her, had kept all the letters secret.

It was a surprise when one evening, Benjamin came over to our old family house where I had been interviewing my father for a story. He had not changed, except for a few lines under the eyes, a few white hairs on his temple, he still looked almost the same as when we last met more than 20 years before. The sparkle in his eyes, the mischievous smile, the same lithe body, and he could still make my heart beat in a funny way.

My cousin Regine was also visiting. We were sitting around the dining table and Benjamin and I couldn't help but stare at each other. Regine was saying something. I could hear her, but couldn't understand what she was saying. Suddenly, she stood up.

"Hey, guys, you better talk this out. You still have unresolved issues." That was the last thing she said before she left the dining room and went to the kitchen.

When we were alone, I asked Benjamin, "What are our unresolved issues?"

We both laughed. Giggled was more like it. My sister, Charlotte, came in. "You two are acting like you were twenty-five years ago." She was quite amused by the way she grinned. "Exactly the same way. Ah, true love."

"Will you stop it?" I said, but I was still laughing.

After two hours, Benjamin signified his intention to leave. I walked him down to the compound's gate. It was when I noticed that we were holding hands. That night, the air was still and humid and there was no moon, but his eyes still sparkled from the faint light coming from the neighbor's windows. As he rubbed the small of my back, I cupped his face in my hands and gave him a peck on his lips.

"Oh, my God, Cynthia," and I felt his grip on my shoulders. He bent down so that our foreheads touched for a long while. I felt the warmth of his breath. I thought I heard his heart beat. Or maybe it was my own.

"I love you, Cyn," he whispered. "I have not stopped loving you."

"Please don't stop loving me," I said. I patted his cheek lightly and freed myself from our embrace. I unlatched and opened the heavy metal gate. He went out and all I can remember is the sad smile on his face and the happy sparkle in his eyes.

Sunday, July 4, 2010

fate, fickle-minded fate

It had been two years and Lee still had not divorced Rosaire but we continued to live together. My affair with Benjamin fizzled on its own, mostly because I had gone back to school to study law. My quest for more education made him so insecure, and school work left me with no time for anything else. Somewhere I read that "absence makes the heart grow fonder". But with the length of time that we haven't seen each other, things switched to "out of sight, out of mind".

And Lee, he immersed himself in work and travelled more frequently. The demands of school gradually made it impossible for me to accompany him on his travels. In my articling year, we found it easier to live apart and slowly we saw less and less of each other. Eventually, our affair tapered off, too.

But fate wasn't finished yet with Benjamin and me. A chance meeting was all it took and the ebbing embers suddenly got re-ignited.

Odette and I had spent more than three hours at Rustan's native crafts department to find a gift for one of our departing expatriates. Something distinctively Filipino. At the same time elegant enough to fit in a European home. I had been avoiding coming to this store, but Odette insisted on buying "just the best". The item we chose was a set of wooden bowls. The saleslady suggested we might want to have them engraved and proceeded to call the person in charge of engraving.

"Is that Ben Suarez?" I asked.

"Why, yes, ma'am," she replied. "Do you know him?"

"He's a friend."

"Well," Odette said, "does that mean we might get a big discount?"

And there he was, looking dapper, as always. Smiling like he was the happiest person on earth with that special sparkle in his eyes. The eyes that widened when he recognized me.

"C!" he exclaimed, ignoring the saleslady as she explained what we wanted to have done with the wooden bowls. "Two years! What happened to you?"

"Has it been two years?" I asked. "Time flies, doesn't it?"

"Aherm!" Odette said. "I hate to break some news to you two, but there are other people around you."

"Ben, this is Odette, my friend and co-worker. Odette, this is Ben." They shook hands and Odette picked up from where the saleslady stopped with her explanation about the wooden bowls. But Benjamin wasn't listening.

"Why did you stop calling me? Every time I called your office, your secretary always told me you weren't in, so I gave up."

"There you go," I said, "you gave up."

He winked at me.

"How's Lee?" he asked as he picked up one of the bowls in the set and examined it.

"He's fine."

"Who's Lee?" Odette interjected. I glanced at her. I had never told Odette about Lee except that I had previously lived in with an American boyfriend.

"The American," I said. "Ben, how much would it cost us to engrave two-letter initials on these bowls?" I had to take the initiative to get the conversation to the matter at hand.

Benjamin looked at the price tag on the box, tapped the bowls, all five pieces of them, and without hesitation, replied, "It's free."

Odette gasped. In delight.

"There's a catch, 'though," he said laughing.

Odette laughed, too. "Whatever, we take the catch, or shall I say, Cynne takes the catch." She poked my back, discreetly.

The catch was we will take Benjamin to dinner. At the last minute, Odette bailed out.

"Plus," she said, "All he really wants to be with is you."

Sakura, the Japanese restaurant where we ended up going that night, boasted having the best tempura meal in the city. Lots of people, mostly expatriates and American tourists. For twenty pesos that Benjamin slipped into the waiter's shirt pocket, we ended up sitting at a quiet corner table.

"You were hiding from me," he started as soon as the waiter had left after taking our orders. "You avoided me."

"I didn't hide from you nor did I avoid you. I got busy."

"For two years?"

"Let's face it, Ben. You weren't exactly a free man, and I had a commitment with Lee."

"You could at least have said goodbye."

"Goodbye is so final. I didn't want any goodbye's. Besides, I felt guilty. I don't want to be a home wrecker."