Tristan’s car smells like him. Brand new. The same thing can be said about his hair. Gone are the messy locks. Tonight, his long curly hair is neatly tied in a sexy man bun that even I, as a woman, can’t pull off even if it takes me the whole day.
He wasn’t kidding when he said dressy cocktail. He’s sporting an all-black ensemble V-neck shirt and butt-hugging jeans topped off with a black coat and finished with a pair of black Steve Madden Harpoon. He looks as if a brand volunteered to dress him up for a social event but knowing him, he probably just put together the neatly pressed clothes he can find in his condo full of boxes.
“You look really nice,” he says, as we drive the short distance from my condo to the Ayala Museum where Jason’s exhibit is being held. I become suddenly conscious about how I look. It seems as though all the confidence I had built in the years he lived abroad became suddenly questionable.
“Thanks,” I say. He parks the car in Greenbelt 3 and we walk the short distance to the museum. I’m in Greenbelt again but somehow, the air feels different this time. It’s lighter. Warmer. The lights that pepper the entire place feel softer. I feel softer, like I could really be happy and enjoy not just the gourmet food they will surely serve tonight but the small talks as well. I feel like I am my old self again—optimistic. Happy. Undamaged. Whole.
I slip my arm into Tristan’s and feel like all the years between early college and tonight didn’t happen. I feel like a bright new person again. And to think, he’s just been back a day or two.
“You’re hungry, aren’t you?” he asks.
“Yes.” We both laugh.
And sure enough, we enjoy the gourmet food they pass around at the photo exhibit. Tristan introduce me again to Jason who remembers me after all these years. I asked for his help for a course requirement in photojournalism in college. It feels nice to be remembered by people in Tristan’s life.
“I think he had a crush on you back then,” Tristan whispers in my ear after Jason leaves us and we walk from one portrait to another.
“Yeah, why do you think he helped you in college?”
“I’ve always thought about that,” I shrug and walk to the next portrait. “I thought you paid him or something.”
Tristan and I try to pick our favorites from the many Manileño black and white portraits on display. Some look familiar, like that one photo of a mother and her two kids picking each other’s hair for lice. Jason has this weird love-hate relationship with Manila that enables him to capture its beauty and malice.
“Ah, Tristan, you’re here, hijo.”
We turn around and see Jason’s parents walk towards us. His auntie elegantly wrapped her nephew in an embrace while his uncle dropped a very Filipino-like tap on his shoulder. The kind that could have knocked me down because of its weight. They immediately assumed that I’m Tristan’s girlfriend.
“No, auntie. This is Kit, a good friend from high school,” he explains and the two elegantly dressed Baby Boomers look more confused than ever. It takes a few awkward seconds before they get into the program and his auntie offers me a peck on both cheeks.
“Ah, hija, we are so glad to meet you,” the poor, confused woman says. “Enjoying Jason’s event, I hope?” The four of us spend the next few minutes making small talk, mostly about their son’s ‘crazy’ idea to drop out of law school to pursue photography and film making. I guess the penchant for jumping off cliffs runs in their family that the conversation soon stirs to Tristan and his plans to open a small restaurant here, which is another cliff diving event for their clan.
“I’ll be here for good,” he tells his relatives when they asked how long he’ll be in town. He soon finds more relatives and the conversation goes into a loop and develops a theme: the Atienza boys’ devil-may-care attitude.
I manage to slip out of the conversations undetected and work the room on my own. As I look into the photographs, I wonder if the same attitude will rub off on me if I hang out with the Atienza boys more often. I wonder if I’ll be brave enough to jump off my own cliff and pursue something I feel strongly about. Just then, my phone rings. It’s not the cliff I am looking for. It’s the iceberg, Matthew.
I stare at the screen for a while, not sure what to do. The missed call goes into voice mail but leaves no messages. It rings for the second time, almost immediately after the first. This time, I feel a slight tap on my shoulder and some bitch from the party gives me the face and said, “Excuse me but aren’t you going to answer that?”
I realize my Britney Spears ringtone has overpowered the classical pieces from the speakers. I quickly hit the ‘dismiss’ button and walk outside just in case it rings again. It does and this time, I answer it.
“Kit?” Matthew asks. “Bad time?”
I could say yes. I could say that yes, it’s a bad time. It’s been bad since college. Yes, Matthew, it’s bad. You’re bad. I hate you forever, bye. Please die.
But instead, I hear myself say, “No, what’s up?”
“I’m so pissed right now,” he starts and there goes the longest rant I have ever heard from him.
“I’m still working. On a Saturday. At this friggin’ time. We’re one week past due the editorial deadline and one of the models backed out yet again. One of our freelance writers can’t submit her two articles because, get this, she forgot she has an event in Singapore. I can’t get a replacement so I had to write those articles myself.
“Our publisher acts as if every single delay is my fault even if he sees me at the office seven days a week, 12 hours a day. I can’t even remember when I last had decent sleep. I’m working all the time. I’m losing it…I’m thinking of quitting…”
The rest of his rants are more or less the same and I listen through it all. I have to give it to him, it seems like nothing is even remotely awkward between us. It seems like he didn’t just ignore me for the past, I don’t know, week or so?
He must have very few options. I mean, if I feel that bad and I need to rant to someone, I will definitely not call a sex buddy unless I don’t have a choice or I’m feeling a little frisky, if you know what I mean. Or maybe, you’ve always been his only choice, Veronica adds. Sometimes, my inner voice works for me and sometimes against me.
And yet here I am, standing outside the Ayala Museum, watching the cars pass by, my mobile phone attached to my ear. It was a lengthy rant. A good five minutes or so. In the end, he just sounds so sad.
I have a choice. I can end the call and walk to back into the light. Quite literally, too. From where I stand, I can still see Tristan’s back. He knows I stepped out for a while to take a call. I can see him looking over his shoulder every now and then, waiting for me to go back to the party. I feel my feet inching towards the light, towards the warmth of the people, towards the good vibes and towards the inspiration that I haven’t really felt in a long, long while. But my heart keeps me in the darkness, in the cold Makati air. I feel exhausted from everything that keeps me in a standstill. In the end, I still choose the darkness.
“Hey,” I say. “You know why they’re pressuring you, right?”
“Because they’re dicks?”
“No… because they feel like you have more to give. It’s like, you haven’t given it your all yet.”
“What?” Matthew sounds irritated. “I’ve been up since five this morning and I haven’t slept peacefully in, like, weeks and you think I haven’t given it all yet?”
I exhale and choose my word carefully this time. “That’s not what I mean, Matthew. They won’t pressure you like that if they think you’ve reached your limit already. I think they still see that you’re capable of doing more. That’s why they’re pushing you further, get it?”
And then, silence. Once again, silence. It’s as if I haven’t suffered enough silence from his end that the universe feels like I need to be pushed more. Did I just drink my own poison? Is he pushing me further because I haven’t given it my all? Is he torturing me because he knows I have more to give?
But I told him the truth. I honestly feel that Matthew is capable of doing more. I know he is meant to do more. And I let my words sink in. I watch the cars again. This time, I hope he listened.
“I really like you, Kit,” he says finally. “I don’t know how you do it. You make me feel good about myself. Sometimes, I don’t know what you keep seeing in me.”
Just like that, he makes me heart skip a beat again. And just like that, his spell takes hold of me once more. “Where are you?” Matthews asks. “Can we meet tonight?”
To be continued…