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A Philam Life Building romance

Many years ago, armed with a fresh degree in creative writing, I responded to a job ad I'd found in a newspaper. I don't remember anymore what the exact position was, but the job was for Philam Life and the role required writing skills. 

I wasn't too excited when I got their call, and whatever excitement I had left fizzled out when I found myself in the Philam Life Building in Ermita one early Saturday morning, taking a series of tests with hundreds of other applicants in the auditorium.

It's all hazy now, but I remember the test involving a lot of math and me with my Math 1 only curriculum struggling, wondering what on earth this had to do with writing and already hating the job that wasn't even mine yet.

After the first test, we were told that those who would move on to the next phase would be called and those who weren't were welcome to take another test for insurance agents. 

That wasn't what happened. But during the wait, I stepped out and walked to Orosa and bought Skyflakes and Mountain Dew from the vendors under the trees. 

Maybe I met him at the building's entrance, easily my favorite spot the few times I'd been to Philam Life, where I finished my snack; maybe he asked for the time or asked when we were due back. He recognized me, maybe, because I was dressed like a job applicant and was carrying a plastic envelope with my one-page resume and transcript.

I wasn't in the mood for any conversation with a boy, not when I knew some strangers were at the same moment discovering how bad I was at math and using that as basis for how well I might do writing for them, but this boy was persistent and when the waiting time went beyond an hour and a half, I started warming up to him.

Both our names weren't called for the next phase of the recruitment process, but we were called for the exam for insurance agents, as if it were no longer optional but another path to success in Philam Life.

"Do I want to work here?" I thought, and the answer, which was no, became a yes when I looked around the building.

He asked if I wanted to take the next exam. I was going to say no, but he said he wanted to try and while I was sure I didn't want to sell insurance (I was super shy then; I'm just less shy now), he convinced me to join him. 

The exam had even more math. We both didn't make it. I was ready to go home, but he insisted on walking with me along UN Avenue to Taft and then invited me to lunch. He suggested Chowking at Times Plaza.

He was friendly and also forward in a way that I needed him to be, so even if I was upset about my first jobhunting fail, I thought, well, here's to meeting your first boy outside UP. So I said yes.

Over lunch, we got to know each other. But whatever romance I was imagining soon faded because he told me he'd just graduated from Don Bosco seminary school. 

Are you going to be a priest, I asked.

He said that he wanted to. Many are called, but few are chosen, he explained, so after graduation they are given some time to experience the real world--find jobs, girlfriends, even--and then come back only when they are sure priesthood is their calling.

Then he asked if I had a boyfriend, and I said I had none. He got my phone number and I gave him my landline.

He called me once or twice, we talked about jobhunting, about meeting up again, but soon I was hired to work as a writer for a media company, and we never had the chance to talk again.

Sometimes, when I remember him, I like to imagine that God won and he's now a priest somewhere.

The Philam Life Building was the host of that core memory. My first day out in the "real world." My first foray into jobhunting. My first "lunch date" with a stranger. My first boy outside of UP who asked for my number. 

Years after that, I went back to DLSU for graduate studies, and my classmates and I would frequent Malate, sometimes staying up until sunrise at the then-rare 24-hour McDonald's on UN Avenue.

We'd always walk past the Philam Life Building and I'd always say to anyone who cared to listen that I loved that place. Then I'd remember him. Depending on who I'm with, I sometimes tell this story.

I can't remember his name or his face anymore, so there's no way of looking him up. And the Philam Life Building is gone as of today.

The kindness of strangers

A couple of days ago, I went out to buy vegetables and found a tiny cabbage among many large cabbages in a bin. It looked full grown, its light green leaves confidently curled around each other in easy to peel layers, and yet I could hold it with tip of my fingers. If it weren't so tiny, it would be so in place with the rest of the other cabbages, ready to chop, to dice, to cook.

I took a picture, making sure to show its scale. I took several pictures, making sure to show the scale more accurately.

I heard a girl beside me laugh. "I was wondering what you were taking a picture of," she said, "And then I saw it was a cabbage." She made her voice tiny with the last word. 

"Cute, no?" I replied. And we laughed.

I went home that day grateful for the human interaction. It had been over a month since I last stepped out of the house to, well, do anything, after hearing about the new virus strain. 

I'm a people person who likes staying away from people--I can love them better that way, I believe--but our quarantine has crawled ever so painfully, almost nefariously, to close to a year now, and I am people hungry. 

I find myself talking to strangers lately.

A few days ago, it was that girl with whom I had a good laugh over a tiny cabbage. Then, on Sunday it was the water delivery guy, who, upon learning I consider Cebu my hometown, told me of his trip to visit an aunt on Bantayan Island, where they ate shellfish all day, including oysters that they themselves picked during low tide. 

"When the tide is high," he said, raising his arms to full length, "the water is this high." But it receded to show the seabed, he said, and that's when they picked the oysters.

"I've been meaning to go there," I told him. Later, before I slept, I remembered the time I walked on the beach in Panglao during low tide and found not oysters but a tiny sparkling pink gem in the shape of a heart.      

Today, I had lunch with my best friend. We had a lot of catching up to do, so lunch stretched out into dinnertime (even if all we had after lunch was coffee and cake) and soon the mall was closing up. As we were waiting for her driver, my friend said she needed to use the comfort room.

I was amused, because we have been basically doing the same things each time we meet: At least once in every two months, she picks me up, we eat one type of food in one type of restaurant, run some small errands, talk about things we've sort of talked about already online, then she brings me home. It's the pandemic version of our pre-pandemic meet-ups, and because she's one of the few people I meet, it is a very welcome routine.  

The last time we were together, while we were waiting for her driver, it was me who needed to go. Tonight, following the same routine, it was she who needed to use the comfort room. 

When it was me, I asked the guard where it was and the only one they kept open was far from where we were. I led the way, and I remembered that the last time, they had already barred the comfort room entrance, but the cleaner, who was already leaving, was kind and unlocked the PWD comfort room for me. As we walked, I said, "I hope that same cleaner is there." 

He was, and he was finishing up cleaning the men's comfort room. He again led us to the PWD comfort room, because the ladies' room was already locked. As I was waiting for my friend, he waited with me and asked, "On your way home?" I nodded, and asked him the same. 

He just had to clean the PWD comfort room, he said, then he was going to walk home. He lived nearby, which I said was fortunate, because mass public transportation these days is a risk. He agreed, and he said tricycles are safer but expensive, and he likes the walk. He told me where he lived, and I remembered that after my last job, I'd promised myself never to work too far from home again, as the commute made me miserable even when I tried to make the best out of it. "You're lucky," I told him, "to live so close to work."

We thanked him when we left, and I almost caught myself saying "Until the next time!" as if to an old friend. 

My theme for 2021: Beauty

I think I missed writing a blog entry on my theme for 2020, but I did manage to post it on Facebook and I was reminded of it when the new year rolled in. I wasn't thinking of coming up with a theme for this yearto be honest, I wasn't very hopeful; I wasn't really negative about it either, just ambivalentbut then the reminder also reminded me that I did want a life with more intentionality. 

So I thought back to what helped me through the 2020 and what I carry with me from it that I believe will help me even more in 2021, and then I came up with this: Beauty.

I actually want to say "lovely," but I feel like "lovely" only works in a sentence. But that is also what I mean. Lovely.

I refer to one of my favorite verses from the bible, which I discovered years ago in an essay I have since forgotten: 
"... Whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report; if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, think on these things."
Whenever something bad happened in 2020, I was always comforted by something lovely. Sometimes I created it, sometimes I sought it out, sometimes it was given to me. Often, I simply focused on it, and it put me in a grateful, grounded space.

This year, I want more of it. Give me more of it. 

"We'll both end. We'll both begin"

If you look close enough, life as you know it ends each time you meet someone new. 

But not everyone changes the way the stars move.

***

Our Story

By William Stafford

Remind me again—together we
trace our strange journey, find
each other, come on laughing.
Some time we’ll cross where life
ends. We’ll both look back
as far as forever, that first day.
I’ll touch you—a new world then.
Stars will move a different way.
We’ll both end. We’ll both begin.

Remind me again.

2021

To those of you who are still with me this new year, let us continue all our joys together and see them grow.

To those of you who are staying behind in 2020 (and even earlier), please look for me at that point in time when I wanted to take you with me, and know that I would have if you had let me.

To all of you, thank you, please forgive me, I'm sorry, I love you.