Rush hour. The slowest hour of the day. Trains few and far between. Lines at a complete standstill. Tired bodies hunched like question marks, wondering why in a city so small, going home felt like a thousand miles. A train approached, and I was hellbent on making it into this one. By sheer force and luck, I was relieved to have been sucked into the crowd, just a person away from the door.
I didn’t usually pay attention to the people around me. Except that shock of badly-done blonde highlights was asking for attention. And also looked awfully familiar. Shit. Shit, shit, shit, as the recognition hit me like a knife to the gut. Shit, shit, shit, as she angled for the last empty space in front of me. I tried to budge towards the left, earning a deathly glare from the woman beside me. I considered options to my right – an elderly woman, a student almost as tall as the metal post, and a pair of lovebirds that looked like it would take a crowbar to pry them apart. My only hope now was for the doors to close fast enough.
But it was rush hour. The slowest hour of the day. Asking for haste was futile.
One last push and shove from the crowd outside, and the shock of blonde hair was right in front of me. Great. Just what I wanted after a long day. A face-to-face encounter with my ex. Liza. It was complicated and messy and something I really didn’t want to get into in a stuffed train coach. I looked down, chin almost stabbing my chest, like that was the secret to invisibility. It failed. What was I thinking? Of course, it did.
“Jo, is that you?”
I looked up, managing a tight-lipped smile as the train jerked forward. Going home felt like a thousand miles as it was. Being stuck with my ex, my worst heartbreak to date, made it feel doubly long.
“How have you been?” Brave of Liza to engage. After all that had happened.
“Good.” I said, denying her the satisfaction of a lengthy answer.
I stood there – like I had much of a choice – half-wishing she’d shut up, half-wanting she’d try and talk to me again. She opened her mouth, then decided against speaking. The silence that followed left me with a strange sense of disappointment.
The train went about its slow pace, jostling the passengers about every time it shook. I stood my ground. She kept her silence. I put my earpods on, and allowed the music to make me feel like I wasn’t really here. Everything was as it was, until a new throng of people rushing in made Liza lose her balance. I caught her about to grab for my hand before swerving on a woman’s shoulder, accidentally shoving her and triggering a tiny complaint chain of aray, aray, wag naman manulak that rippled through our side of the coach.
“Sorry,” I heard her say to nobody in particular.
Over two stations, I watched her scramble for an anchor every time a wave of passengers rushed in. She averted her gaze, shifting sideways, looking out the window, focusing on the billboards that littered EDSA, anything to avoid looking at me. I watched her brace for another onslaught as we approached Shaw Boulevard, her eyes wincing slightly, her exhale turning into a low hiss.
There was a time when the nearness of her made me feel safe and sound and warm. When the lines on her hand were as familiar to me as my own. When her touch was something I craved and longed for at the end of the day. I shook away the fragile memories, careful not to let them break me wide open. Not here in this stuffed MRT. Not in front of her. Never again.
But she was so near. And my stubborn mind started to wonder what it would feel to touch her now, after two years, after everything that went down, after all the love had been bled dry by one too many fights. Just a little wider, a little further back, I bargained.
A tiny crack never hurt anybody.
Sure, Jo, if you say so.
“Here.” I tapped my forearm before I could change my mind. “Hold on to me.”
She gripped my arm as the doors opened. She gave me a small smile, mouthing thank you as the new passengers pushed her closer to me. I gazed at her eyes, then her lips. I used to kiss that mouth.
“You okay? I don’t know if you want to punch me or—” Liza’s voice trailed, before worrying her bottom lip repeatedly. I caught myself staring again, and quickly looked up at the dull fluorescent lights above.
“Yeah, I—it’s just a little hot.” I replied, wracking my brain for a deflection. Music. Music was always one of our, if not our most, favorite things. I removed one of my earpods, and offered it to her. As if on cue, my phone shuffled to Take Me Away.
“It’s Weekend Club, your favorite.”
“Our favorite,” she corrected.
I remember, I almost blurted out as the song begged me to put the car and drive and leave this stupid city with its 30-minute train rides that shaved three years of my life every time.
I could hear Liza humming softly. “Ali Andrade really is the voice of the generation.”
“In a world without Van Tomas, you mean.”
“Oh, please. Vocal for vocal, you know Ali’s is the more stable and solid. And her high notes are pure heaven.”
“It’s not just about being stable; it’s about color and evoking emotions. And Van Tomas just makes you feel things, OK.” I snapped my fingers, and pointed at Liza. “Van’s solo in Three’s A Crowd, please. Remember when you heard it the first time and you wept while crossing the street to Math Building?”
“OK, but countering you with Ali’s adlibs in that one version of Find Me. The acoustic one in the bus.”
“Raising you with Van’s vocal runs in Back At Your Door.” I stuck my tongue out, as Liza scrambled for a rebuttal. I made a pretense of waiting, but knew full well I had won Round 997865648 of the Ali Andrade-Van Tomas Best Vocals debate.
“Who stayed in the group, though?”
I let out a gasp. “Low blow, man.”
Liza’s eyes grew wide before softening their gaze. “I know. I’m sorry.”
I shook my head, clutching my heart with my free hand. “Low fucking blow.”
I felt her thumb draw circles on my skin; an apology I was willing to accept. I wondered if she noticed the goosebumps rising to the surface. “Let’s not fight. We both know they were better together. OT4, best times.”
“True. We — I mean, they were better together.”
“You can let go of my arm now.” I said, as the speakers announced that we were at the end of the line.
Liza let go, a faint blush growing on her cheeks. We walked towards the turnstile. I walked slower, delaying the goodbye that was to come. But soon, we ran out of steps to take; all that was left was a parting of ways. She was ready to turn on her heel and catch a passing jeepney.
No, not yet.
“Do you have somewhere you need to be?” I asked.
“No. Not really. Why?”
Because I wanted to sink into The Weekend Club’s discography with her all through the night, over a plate of ox brain and a couple bottles of beer, just like old times. Because maybe this was a sign,some sort of divine intervention, a nudge from the universe to fix what needed fixing.
Because I missed her. Oh god, how I missed her.
But I’d be caught dead before I admitted to that last one.
“Shawarma for dinner?” I asked instead.
Her whole face lit up, understanding what I meant to say and what kind of night laid ahead. She reached for my hand and gave it a gentle squeeze.
“Shawarma sounds nice.”