21 December 2012


My first few nights back here in Manila I couldn’t sleep at all. I mean, forty hours—that’s how long it took to get here from Santiago. Actually, I’m still not able to sleep very well. Even if I go to bed early and slightly drunk I still wake up at one or two in the morning. The last time I slept for more than five hours was the night before we met outside the metro station and you drove me to the airport. That was over a week ago.

My strategy—the one that doesn’t involve alcohol—is to tire myself out as much as possible and be out for as long as I could, even if this means being aimlessly out and incredibly tired. This was the plan exactly when a few days ago I went downtown after work to shop for some holiday gifts. I rode a jeepney, a bus-like alternative to taxi, to get to Robinsons. On the way to the mall a young girl climbed in. 

Let me tell you about this girl. She was—what, seven? Eight? Young and feeble. She had this Dora-like mop of hair, and she was wearing an oversized yellow shirt with grey stripes. I noticed that she had a wart on her left eyelid that maybe looked like it needed surgery, and on her right arm she had another cauliflower-like growth. In her hand, she held a soft wad of red envelopes, kind of like what the Chinese use on Lunar New Year, except hers did not have Chinese characters.

She made her way through and passed the envelopes around and when she finished she backed off and stood on the single tread separating the speeding vehicle from asphalt. Clinging precariously to the chrome handrail at the back of the jeepney, she began to sing, and it lent her yellow shirt—raggedy and ill-fitting though it was—a new sunshiny splendor that I could not look away from.

The girl’s voice was soft and sounded drowsy. But it was the voice of an innocent. The thing is, she wasn’t even facing us when she sang. She was looking out and her audience was the wind, the world, the makings and manifestations of a life that perhaps has not been as kind to her as it has been to me. I have never had to sing for food, and if I did I would certainly always be starving.

And I know I already told you how much I hate Christmas songs. (Grinch may as well be my middle name, but honestly it’s all those minor seventh chords.) Well, this was the second time in as many weeks that I didn’t nervously run away from the music, that I actually listened and felt no irrational sadness or anxiety. The first was the time we spent assembling your Weihnachtsbaum in Santiago. I can’t really pinpoint what made the difference but I guess in both cases the presence of other people, of another person, reached parts of me that were not previously needed, that were perhaps unloved and unsung. 

Anyway, after her set of carols we, the passengers, gave the young girl a bit of change. She got off the jeepney somewhere between City Hall and the National Museum and jumped into another jeepney, the one I think trailing ours. That night, when I went to bed, I thought of her for a long time and wondered why it was always the most unlikely people who touched us most deeply. 

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