Balic-Balic
 


Margaret G. Rutaquio
 

© Copyright 2007 by Margaret G. Rutaquio
 

 Marla hurriedly alighted from the FX vehicle at España corner Vicente Cruz Street.  This was the main intersection which will lead one either to the north going to Quezon City or the south going to Taft, or the jeepneys going to the inner Manila district of Balic-Balic in the Philippines. A dispatcher was hollering “Balic-Balic” to passersby along the lined-up jeepneys waiting for passengers.  Her slightly Chinese-looking eyes saw that it was the turn of an old worn-out jeep, which was slightly tilted to one side, and she wondered if it was because the passengers on the right side were all heavy weight.  Under the first step of the jeepney, there’s a dirty sign that says, “Katas ng Saudi” (Fruit of Saudi).  One side of it was already touching ground and the bold letters were already fading.

 Self-consciously, she bowed her head crowned with long, dark mahogany-colored hair like a respectful Japanese would, consciously pressing a hand on the collar of her shirt as she stepped unto the rust-infested jeepney.  Marla walked past about two to three passengers before she saw space which seemed just enough for one thigh, but being the experienced Balic-Balic commuter, she purposely squashed and squeezed her hips into the small space like some middle-aged plump woman trying to fit into a size “small” girdle.

 The driver had stepped on the gas even before she was able to sit down or squeeze her way into the seat.  Amidst the cloud of smoke and dust brought about by the acceleration of the jeepney, she saw the stop light from where she came from growing smaller and smaller.  And even through the smell of the wet market and garbage, the throng of people – mostly loitering half-dressed, smudgy children and almost deafening sound of transacting marketers and merchants, Marla started to feel a sense of nostalgia, a buried feeling of belonging.

 As the jeepney rolled into the street of V. Cruz, it passed by the old drugstore, grocery and a street which will lead to a path going to her former school.  The school was built in a community which was what Marla learned from college as “el pueblo” style – very Spanish oriented.  This style shows that the church was in the center of the parish surrounded by the school of its namesake and usually, the municipal hall. The parish formed what seemed like outer circles from the center which was the church. The streets and the houses which formed the first outer circle were usually the well-off folks in the place whose surnames were also the names of the streets.   They say in the past, that the closer your house was to the church, the richer you were. Marla remembered how her family’s house was not exactly at the edge of the parish’s perimeter, but it was somewhat at the “second circle” being mainly the “Filipino bourgeoisie” of the place.
 Amidst the influx of hot air and the zero proximity of the passengers, Marla’s mind was caught by the street, looming like a portal.

 They used to live inside a compound which was inside an iron gate with holes. The compound didn’t have a parking lot and it wasn’t necessary since none of the tenants had a car.  Marla’s father just owned an old Suzuki motorcycle. Marla and John’s houses were right beside each other – Apartments A and B were literally right beside each other since their doors were actually side by side. As she recalled this, she realized how their doors were just like the two of them.  He had been her closest friend for the longest time, a part of all her memories from childhood, up until three years ago.
 The jeepney stopped on a red light and she saw a boy and girl playing, and she remembered John and herself.

Marla!  I’ll be the walking ice cream stand and you’ll be the Sorbetero!  We’ll surely win!”  A scrawny kid, about 8-9 years old shouted at a reed-thin, boyish-looking girl. They raced with the other kids in a game of “Ice Cream” wherein he would have to walk using his two hands while she held on to his legs as if she were the ice cream man.
 After a while, the boy got bored.  “I don’t want to play with them anymore Marla.” John whispered to Marla so the other kids wouldn’t hear.  “I want to play with the robots that Father sent me from Saudi.  Let’s stay in my room.”

 “Ok.”  She whispered back.

 “Do you miss her Marla?”  John asked while they walking to his house. “Your Mother, I mean.”

 “Of course.”  She said a little too nonchalantly.

 “It’s all right.  I miss Father too.”

 “C’mon, let’s play now.”  She said dismissingly.  And John didn’t mention it again as they played the whole afternoon.

 Marla snapped out of her revelry when a pregnant woman jostled her knee as the woman made her way down the jeepney.  The woman’s belly looked like it was on the eight or maybe even ninth month already.  Tagging behind her back was a child, about two years of age, a five or six year old kid, carrying a toddler seemingly about a year old.  They took quite some time in going down and the two-year old child’s rubber slipper almost got left behind.  The woman’s belly made her thoughts go  back to a conversation she had with John when they were kids.

 “Who told you that you’re going to get pregnant if somebody kisses your neck?!”  John said, incredulous.

 “You can see it on TV.  Every time a couple would kiss each other, then the man will kiss the woman on the neck, they would lie down, and then the next scene she’ll start throwing up and she’s pregnant.”  Marla had replied then.

 “Sometimes you can be so stupid Marla.  Girls don’t get pregnant just like that!”

 “Well if you’re such a know-it-all tell me how!”

 “I watched how they do it in one of my Father’s tapes, but I wouldn’t tell you! You’re too stupid to understand!”  John said haughtily and she started punching him.  She always managed to beat him up then when they were about 9 or 10, but when they turned 12 to 13, he suddenly seemed to have eaten a ton of growth boosters and he became three to four inches taller than Marla.  When they were about to step into high school, he started getting a bit awkward and had other friends in school.  She didn’t exactly mind since she had friends of her own and besides, if she were home, she would still hang out with him.
Are you and John, um, you know…” a classmate once asked Marla, voice trailing off.

Are we what?” Marla retorted a bit vehemently.

Going out I mean…like boyfriend and girlfriend.”

No.  John is my best bud.”  Marla answered, connoting purposefully that the conversation was done.  She was uncomfortable when the conversations went that way.

They were about to step into third year high school, when Marla’s father decided to make a turnabout change in her family’s life.

Who will be your best friend there?”  John had said, imitating the kid in a famous ice cream commercial.

 Marla replied with, “Of course, it will still be you!”  She gave the same answer which the other character in the commercial gave.

 “Seriously Marla, when is your family leaving?”

 “Next month.  Father was able to pay for a house in a village in Dasmarinas, Cavite, a developing place near the city.  He said it’s better there since there wouldn’t be any pollution and all…and that the community is so much better there.  He said something like almost everyone there had a job and were good influence, I’m not sure.  Of course I hate the idea.  I don’t want to leave Balic-Balic.  This is where I grew up.  There are so many memories in this place.”

 “Then, don’t go.  Oppose!  You can’t leave.  Not now Marla.”  His voice was anxious.

 “You’re overreacting.  I still have a month.  I just really wish I could finish high school here with you though.  And besides, as if my father will listen to what I have to say once he has decided.  He says that at least though we pay every month for the house in Cavite, it’s going to be ours someday, unlike here where we’ve been renting for twenty years now and the house is never going to be ours.”  She said this a little too matter-of-factly, but she knew that she secretly felt quite happy at his reaction.

 Marla was jolted back to the present when the jeepney halted and she saw the “Stop! Look! And Listen!” sign, by the railway.  The rattletrap train grudgingly passed, a slow blur of worn-out faces passed her vision. Before, she had used to hold on to something blue and made a wish every time she’s passed by the railway.  She thought about how stupid that was now, seeing an almost decrepit train, carrying a throng of weary expressions.

  When the last train car finally passed and they’ve crossed the tracks, she noticed that the intersection (if one can call it that) of Domingo Santiago and G. Tuazon streets was still the battle neck for congested traffic.  The 7-11 convenient store was still there but in front of that there’s already a McDonalds outlet. Aside from McDonalds, there were other new food outlets like a food alley with 3M pizza near the small wet market which seemed to be a mark of improvement.  Though there were new establishments, the rest of the old ones were still there - the congee and mami stalls, the BBQ merchants selling by the side of the road, the dilapidated bakeries and houses.  She noticed aside from the vehicles, there were more people in the streets – street vendors, teenagers, slipper-less kids, old people with deeply lined foreheads still trying to make a living.  She took note with a clandestine feeling of disgust that she didn’t quite want to admit.

 She told the driver to stop at the corner of G. Tuazon and Masbate streets.  Three years and yet it felt like walking on the pavements of this street as if her family just moved away yesterday.  The same old houses lined up her former street but they seemed older and ramshackle and there were more tricycles streaking past this time.  Marla had to cover her nose because of the smoke that the belching tricycles emitted.  One driver was looking at her and she was almost sure he was one of her batch mates.  But since she wasn’t sure, she didn’t acknowledge him and just walked on feeling mixed emotions of familiarity and alienation.
 How long had it been since she’d left?  It seemed like yesterday but she realized it had been three years.  She noticed the old places now and she remembered why she was there.  It had been three years since they left, since that inauspicious summer day.  Over the years she had heard a few gossips here and there about John’s life.  Some said he went with a bad crowd, did drugs and other things of the sort.  She had been interested in the news but was also too busy adjusting to her new “village life.”  It was different.  The village Marla’s family had moved into was quite picturesque for someone who came from a polluted place.  It was verdant.  Pedicabs or tri-cycled small carriages, manually droved by people were used as transportation inside the village so that the place won’t be polluted.  There was a clubhouse which was complete with a swimming pool and court.  Their neighbors were mostly studying and working; there weren’t any standbys who drank all day by the street.  The village had guards with trained dogs who roamed the streets at night so that the villagers can sleep soundly.

She had her own room now, with a window that had a view of the stars.  She had always been fascinated with them but couldn’t quite make them out, living in the city.  Now she can use her constellation map and trace some familiar constellations like Orion and Canis Major, Cassiopeia, and Castor and Pollux.

Her mother was now home.  Her father enrolled her in a prestigious university and her world almost completely changed.  Yet, at the back of her mind, she felt that a part of her still belonged in Balic-Balic and with John.  Something in her stirred every time she would think about him and how he felt about her.  It took her a while to understand and to realize what happened that day she told him that her family was moving away.

 “Marla, is that you?”  She turned, startled.  It was Mang Boy, the son of Ka Lulu where she and John used to buy palabok, a Filipino type of noodles with yellow sauce, shrimp, salted eggs and vegetables.

 “Opo.  I just visited so that I could buy Ka Lulu’s palabok.”  she jokingly replied.

 His face suddenly changed. “Oh, didn’t you know?  Mother died a year ago.  And now that we don’t have any other means, we’re leaving the place and going to a housing project in Taguig.  Didn’t you know? Didn’t you hear from John?”  She felt embarrassed.

I’m so sorry.  Condolence po.  I’m very sorry I didn’t know…I, I need to go now.”  She hastily excused herself and continued walking. John. John. How can I talk to John? I didn’t understand then. I didn’t understand how I felt about him then.  I was too young to understand what he felt, and to acknowledge what I felt.   She thought. Oh John.  The past three years, she had wanted to visit Balic-Balic and John.  But, everything became too convenient in her new life.  Though she missed her old place and John, something in her felt reluctant to go back.  Until she found an old piece of paper a few days ago. And now her thoughts went back to three years before.

 After she told him that her family was leaving, he became pensive the whole afternoon.  It didn’t seem as fun as it used to.  Marla almost literally dragged John out of his house just so they could ride our bikes and buy trinkets at Legarda.  She pushed him to go to the newly opened 7-11 store just so they could hang out to buy one regular hotdog and cool down since it was the only air-conditioned store in the area, but he just wasn’t in the mood.  Even the sight of their favorite palabok which they bought from Ka Lulu’s turo-turo didn’t make him smile.  She was already getting annoyed.  It was summer and they were supposed to be having fun.  After a while he said he was going home.  Before he did he suddenly hugged her tightly which surprised her.

 “What the!  What on earth is happening to you?  Are you gay or something?”  She had said sarcastically.  He didn’t reply and just let go of her.  She reacted the way she usually would – in a boy’s manner, but something in her stirred.
 “You know, you seem to have grown tall Marla.  What’s your height now, 5’4” or 5’5”?” he said quietly, peering at her face as he did so.  She suddenly felt a surprising feeling of self-consciousness at his stare.

 “You looked nice when you wore the skirt at Michelle’s the other day.  You should wear it again.”  He continued.

 “It’s hers not mine.”  She replied curtly, her face now burning.  He now went to the door but before closing it he said, “You should wear your hair down.  I imagine it will make you look different.”  He smiled and she wondered if he was smiling at her affectionately or mocking her discomfort.  He then left.

After about almost an hour of flipping channels, she decided to pester John again.  She pulled and opened their screen door and pushed open the main door.  “Good afternoon po,” she said to Tita Esper, his mom.

 “I think John’s asleep Marla.  But you can wake him up if you want.”  She bounded the few steps of their stairs like how she had always done ever since they were kids.  Sometimes it’s hard to believe that they were already juniors and that next year, they would have to choose a college to study at.  Her thoughts were wandering as she gingerly tried the knob.  It was locked.  She smiled mischievously now, knowing the secret way to open his locked door.  She inserted the pin he always used, turned the knob ever so gently and then quickly pushed open John’s door.

 She saw him then.  His round eyes were now larger than before.  He had an odd expression in his face that she couldn’t decipher if it was contorting in pain or relief. It was hot yet he was sitting on his bed with a blanket covering him up to his stomach.  He had one hand inside the blanket and the other was holding some sort of paper.  His face was warped in shock and something else that she couldn’t quite understand then.  For the life of her, she couldn’t fathom why she suddenly felt a lump of embarrassment in her throat.  For about the longest second she started to turn to go.

 “Marla!  Wait!”

 Marla stopped and turned back.  In John’s haste to try to stand, hold on to the blanket, and go after her, he dropped the paper he was holding.  It turned out to be a photograph. As if watching a movie in slow motion, he desperately tried to catch the picture, stand and cover himself at the same time. But to no avail.  The picture fell on the floor. And she saw the smiling face - of the person she saw everyday in her mirror.

 She felt nailed to the ground and just stared at it.  He was half standing and half sitting and staring at it as well.    Then he looked at her, but she couldn’t turn to look at him.  After a while, he used his blanket to wrap himself as he would a towel.  She was still immobile on her spot by the door, still staring at the photograph.  He walked and closed the door behind her.
 “Marla, look at me.”  He said softly.  She couldn’t.

 He tried to tilt her head so that she would look up to him but she still didn’t look him in the eye.  “I’m sorry.”  Marla remained silent, still trying to make her feet move.

 “I’ve been so attracted to you ever since we stepped into high school.  And today, when you said you were leaving, I…” His voice faltered.  She still didn’t know what to think.  “I’m in love with you.  Had a crush on you and then been in love with you for so long…I love you Marla, I do.  I don’t want you to go.”  He then tried to kiss her and that’s when she reacted.  She shoved him, pulled open the door and ran to her house.

Marla was thinking about this so hard, remembering John’s handsome face, his earnestness that day, and her youthful reaction, that she didn’t notice that a person suddenly stopped in front of her.  She almost bumped into him, but was able to stop. And there was John.

 She almost didn’t recognize him.  He was reed thin and his cheekbones were more prominent than before.  He looked older and more tired.  Only his eyes had a hint of the old John she once knew.  He smiled an almost familiar yet tired, faraway smile.

 “Marla? What are you doing here?”

 Startled, she just stared at him.

 “It’s been so…long.”  His voiced trailed off.

 She was thinking of what to reply when she noticed a girl about the same as their age close behind him.  The girl suddenly slipped her hand unto John’s arm.  Marla also noticed that the girl was wearing an empire-cut dress, with a belly that was bulging.

 “Um, Marla, this is my wife, Jane.  Jane, my childhood friend Marla.”

 “Hi.  Um, I better be going.  My mother just asked me to talk to our former landlady.”  She lied.  She suddenly felt so embarrassed and knew she needed to escape. “I, I need to go.”

 “Ah. Ok.  We’re going to 7-11.”  He said as if racking his brain for something to say.  The girl tugged at him to go.  “Bye.” He said.

 “Bye.”  Marla replied softly, speaking to the wind.

 She quickly walked away, then halted and turned back to look at him.  She saw his back, his left hand wrapped around the girl’s hip.  Half of her was wishing he’d feel her stare and look back at her; another part didn’t want him to.  She pulled an old piece of paper from the pocket of her jeans.  The letter mouthed the juvenile words, “I’m sorry.  I’m so in love with you.  I always will. And I’ll be waiting till you visit.  Give me a chance best friend.”  Marla smiled sadly but surprisingly, she wasn’t feeling really hurt. She slowly formed a fist with the old, fading piece of paper in her hand, and then threw it at a pile of trash lining the street.

      She looked around her and noticed the houses seemed older, the faces were new but the stories were simply the same.  The sun was dipping its face into the sea but it’s not something one will see from this place crowded with houses and apartment buildings. But the sun sent out streaks of canary yellow, orange and violet light, giving a sepia coloring to the old familiar place which has unchangingly, changed.  Marla found herself looking at her feet stepping on the familiar pavement…but then realized that though the walk going to her old house seemed so recognizable still, like it was just yesterday, there was no more Apartment B to go home to here.  The recognition surprisingly gave her more of a smile than a sigh. She then relished her walk around the corner to take the parallel road going to where the jeepneys would be waiting for passengers who are going back to the main intersection.
 
 

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