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Photo by PJ Caña

Note: This is the prologue of a novella

By Paul John Caña

 

“Dearer to me than a host of base truths is the illusion that exalts.” 

– Alexander Pushkin

 

“When people show you who they are, believe them.”

– Maya Angelou

===

The affair had been going on for six months. The woman’s name was Sarah. From the earliest emails, I gathered she was an old high school classmate of Joey. Sandwiched between an advertisement for penile implants and one about winning an online lottery, I found the first message, with the subject line titled simply, “Hey.”

“Joey Aguila?” I read. “From Concepcion High School? This is Sarah De Guzman. Can’t believe I’d find you here on LinkNet after all these years. If you’re the Joey Aguila I know, drop me a line. I’ll know it’s you if you can tell me the name of that old store right outside our campus where we used to buy hopia and Coke. If not, don’t bother replying, and sorry to waste your time. Sarah.” There was a smiley at the end of the message; rather, a winking smiley: “;)”

Apparently, it didn’t take long for Joey to respond. The next message, “Re: Hey,” carried  Joey’s enthusiastic reply.

“Are you kidding? How can I forget Tingting’s Sari-Sari store?” The usual niceties followed: “How are you?” What are you doing now?” Is that really you in your profile photo? I thought it was Anne Curtis!” Joey went on to describe an extremely condensed version of his life in three sentences: the job (“I’m Senior Development Manager at a financial consultancy company in Makati”), the wife (“Been married for six years!”), the kids (“Hector’s four, Cassandra is two”). At the top of the thread was Sarah’s response, expressing her “delight” at having found a “dear friend” on the social networking website. The next few emails, all carrying the subject title “Re: Hey,” were pretty banal: they covered old classmates, current preoccupations, job complaints. And then there was the inevitable invitation to meet face to face.

“How about lunch?” Sarah wrote. “Your office isn’t that far away from mine. Call or text me anytime.” She ended with her mobile phone number.

I had to scan through dozens of other messages before I found the next message from Sarah, about three weeks after the last one. There was no subject title.

“Just wanted to say thanks again for dinner last night,” she wrote. “It was great. And the other thing, too.” There was the winking smiley again. “Hope there wasn’t any trouble afterwards. It was pretty late. Next time, dinner’s on me.” And yet another winking smiley. I clicked on the Sent Messages folder, scanned through the dates and found what I was looking for.

“I’ll hold you to that,” Joey wrote. “Nah, my wife’s used to me coming home really late. I could’ve been out all night and she wouldn’t have said anything. She doesn’t say much to me these days. We’re pretty much all talked out at this point. But I don’t want to bore you with all of that. I’ll see you soon. Love, Joey.”

The last message from Sarah was dated only about two weeks before the accident. “Joey, I am forwarding our e-tickets to Tagbilaran. I can’t wait for this trip.  Only three weeks to go. Finally, just the two of us. Love, Sarah.”

I leaned back on my chair as I read the last message. I stared at the wall past the laptop, trying to come to grips with everything I had just read. Joey and I have been friends since freshman year in university. I had never heard him speak about this Sarah before; not since we became friends and certainly not after they had reconnected six months ago. I felt hurt that he chose to keep that secret from me, and wondered what else about him I didn’t know. And then I felt guilty. I violated my friend’s privacy and discovered something about him that haunted me. I listened to the steady tic-toc of the clock on my desk and regarded the pile of books that lay next to the open laptop. Although I was looking, I wasn’t really seeing anything. My mind had filled with images of my friend and his wife and kids, and then of this mysterious woman. I wasn’t sure what to make of the information, and was even less sure if I should share it with anyone.

===

The casket was the wrong color. That was the first thing I noticed as soon as I stepped into the viewing room. Joey hated white. I couldn’t remember ever seeing him wear the color. Said it was too easily dirtied. And yet there he was about to spend eternity in a blinding white box. He would’ve loved the irony, if it had happened to somebody else. I surveyed the room. People were milling about, conversing in hushed tones. I saw Renee sitting on one of the front pews and went over to her. She was dressed in a black roundneck t-shirt and black jeans. Her long dark hair was pulled back in a pony tail, with wisps escaping on the sides. As she turned her head I caught her eyes: they were swollen and dark, like somebody punched her. She saw me and attempted a smile. She stood up and we hugged. For a while we didn’t say anything. It felt like hours. I felt a lump in my throat, which I quickly swallowed. Gently I let Renee go.

“Hey,” I said. “Uh…” I had no idea what to say next.

“I’m fine,” she said, sensing my uncertainty. “Thanks for coming.”

“Of course.” I reached out again and found her shoulder. There were a dozen things I could have said. I could’ve made a joke about how Joey always bragged that he’d done everything—like go parasailing, get married or buy a car—before me, so it was typical of him to be, well, himself. I could’ve asked about the kids, though I could see little Cassie asleep in the arms of an older woman, probably an aunt or something. Or I could’ve made up some meaningless drivel about how things happen for a reason and that God takes the good ones first or some shit like that that people often spew on occasions like this. In the end I just went with what I really wanted to say to Renee.

“If you need anything, just let me know.”

“Thanks,” she said. “I appreciate that.”

Just then a group of people in suits and ties came in. Renee and I both looked and I nodded to her that it was okay. She gave me that smile again as she went over to the new arrivals.

I stood rooted at the spot, unsure of what to do next. I didn’t see anyone else I knew, and I wasn’t sure I wanted to go over to the casket. The viewing area was tiny; it was one of about twenty rooms at the funerary place. Renee had said they were hoping to transfer to a bigger room as soon as one was available. Too many dead people, I thought as I finally moved and made my way towards the back. An assortment of cookies and nuts in plastic wrappers, styrofoam and plastic cups and sandwiches wrapped in napkins were spread on a small table. A water dispenser stood next to it. I stared at the dirty orange rag that lay on the floor, soaked from the liquid that missed the cups. I was picking up a small pack of nuts when I heard somebody call my name.

“I thought that was you,” a female voice said. I turned around and recognized Lisa, who everybody called Lee. She was with someone, a guy who looked vaguely familiar. I decided he was probably the boyfriend. I gave Lee a hug.

“This is David,” she said.

“Hey, good to meet you,” I said as I shook his hand. “When did you guys arrive in Manila?”

“This morning,” Lee answered. “I’m still a bit dazed.”

“Yeah I know what you mean.”

Lee didn’t look that much different from when Joey and I first met her our senior year in college. We both tried to date her but it became obvious rather quickly that she was much too good for us. We all liked the same things: greasy, smoky bars with bands that played good music, cheap beer and cheaper smokes; we became fast friends.

“How’s Renee doing?” she asked as we squeezed ourselves into a corner.

“Seems to be holding up.” I glanced over at Renee talking to the suits across the room.

“Excuse me, I’m just gonna go smoke outside,” David said. He moved towards the door.

“How are you doing?” I said to Lee, emphasizing the “you.”

“Oh you know me. Same old, same old.” She gave me a shrug and a forced, forlorn smile, like one a talent show runner-up gave to her parents when she broke the news that she didn’t win. “Thanks for asking.” I decided against pursuing it. Lee would have probably opened up and told me about it, but at that moment, I didn’t think I could handle any form of stress heavier than soggy peanuts. I put the pack I was holding back on the table. Lee and I moved on to the small talk, which was surprisingly breezy. She was based in Singapore and Joey and I hadn’t seen her in over five years. We did the usual roll call of old classmates, where they were and what they were doing. It felt good just to talk to her, and for a while, I forgot about our friend lying in a nice suit in a white box at the front of the room.

===

I wasn’t exactly sure what made me do it. Renee might have mentioned something about looking for important messages in Joey’s e-mail, and I kind of figured I was trying to help her. In the end, and I hated to admit it, I was probably just bored. I was in my apartment one night a few days after the accident, looking in my hard drive through old photographs of Joey and our college barkada.

I knew Joey’s email addresses, of course. He had two, the first was for work, and the second was a web-based address he’s had since college. I typed in the URL for the web-based email.

USERNAME:

PASSWORD:

I stared at the screen. I moved the mouse and placed the cursor above the space for username. I clicked the mouse and typed it in.

What am I doing?! I asked myself. I was hacking into my dead friend’s email address and I couldn’t think of a reason why. I was acutely aware that this was a gross violation of privacy, but I tried to rationalize it by telling myself Joey was dead and that he’d hardly mind if I took a peek into his private email. When people died fifteen, twenty years ago, the letters they left behind were tangible. More sensitive correspondence was folded and locked away in some secret drawer or old shoebox hidden under the bed or on the top shelf of the closet. Handwritten letters are practically nonexistent these days. I couldn’t remember the last time I got anything in the mail, other than bills. Then I wondered how many people die everyday and how much of their lives they put online.

The cursor kept blinking. PASSWORD.

I thought about Joey. The first time we met was during registration, when we were in line to sign-up for a class we both wanted to take. I was the clueless boy from Cavite and he was the self-assured, city-bred know-it-all. He was tall and gangly to my short and pudgy. Over the years we eventually evened out; I hit my growth spurt later that year, and thanks to swimming and athletics, lost the baby fat I’d had all throughout high school, while he put on a few pounds of muscle working out and playing basketball for the university varsity team. He and Renee met during one of their games. They’ve been inseparable ever since. The marriage came a couple of years after graduation. I was his best man.

“Dude when are you gonna stop screwing around and just settle down already?” he would tell me not a few times during our regular drinking sessions. “People crack jokes about being married but I don’t get it. I love being married.  I love my wife. I love our kids. I love my life. You should start thinking about getting in on it, too.”

“Not everyone’s as damn lucky as you, asshole,” I would shoot back.

Joey would just shrug his shoulders and take another swig from his beer bottle. “What can I say? Fate smiles upon Joey Aguila.”

===

The call came past eleven o’clock one Tuesday night. I was just settling into bed and had the TV on to one of those late night American talk shows. The monologue was just starting and the host was cracking a joke about some aging Hollywood actress when my mobile phone beeped. It was Renee.

“Hey, what’s up?” I said.

There was silence on the other end, then I could hear a faint whimpering. “It’s…It’s Joey. We’re at the hospital.”

I sat up and turned the TV off. The neighbor’s dog was barking loudly again and I willed it to burst into flames. “What’s wrong? Tell me what happened.”

“We don’t know yet.” I could hear the strain in Renee’s voice and could feel her trying very hard to rein in her emotions.  “He…he was driving and got into an…an accident.”

“Okay hang on. I’ll be right there.” I asked her which hospital then hung up.

As I changed into jeans and the first t-shirt I could get my hands on, I was strangely calm. It couldn’t be that bad, I kept telling myself. He probably had a bit too much to drink, although in all the years Joey and I have communed over beers, I’ve never known him to have any problems driving afterwards. I grabbed my keys and headed downstairs, locked the door of my condominium unit behind me and half-ran to the elevator. I pressed the down button and waited. He probably has a sprained leg or a banged-up head or something, I thought. I’d punch him in the side and kid him for being distracted by that sexy new billboard of that actress in her underwear on EDSA. We’ll have a good laugh about it after. The elevator came and it was empty. I pressed B2 and spent the next 30 seconds wondering what sort of condition Joey was in.

When the elevator doors parted I walked the short distance to where my car was parked, jumped into it and drove off. Traffic was light and I was in the hospital in less than 30 minutes. Renee was sitting by herself in the emergency room waiting area. She was in a red button-up blouse, jeans and flip flops. Busy nurses and doctors with their stethoscopes and charts walked past her. She remained motionless in her seat, arms crossed on her chest, eyes glazed. I walked up to her and it took her a moment to recognize me. She got up to hug me and I felt her shaking.

“He…he’s gone.”

===

I tried the most likely possibilities for Joey’s password. His birthday, the names of his kids, his wife’s name, his favorite NBA team, even the word “password.” I tapped my finger on the mouse, wrinkled my eyebrows and pursed my lips. This is crazy, I thought. It was then that I noticed the question just underneath the PASSWORD line on the screen. “Forgot your password?” it said in red letters, like an assistant whose offer of help I kept ignoring. I clicked on it and it took me to a page with a password recovery question. “Who do I miss most?” I couldn’t help but grin.

Joey was an only child and was therefore a bit of a brat. He always insisted on getting his way every time, all the time. We’d meet for drinks at this out-of-the-way place because, according to him, the “beer was ice cold and the waitresses were red hot.” He’d talk to me about issues in his office and complain about how everyone, most of all his bosses, were complete idiots. He always had somebody do almost everything for him—an assistant at the office, the help at home, anyone he could pay off to do the simplest and most menial tasks. Despite this occasional tendency to place his needs and wants above everybody else’s, I’ve always known him to be empathetic and generous. He volunteered once a month to a group that organizes feeding programs in depressed communities; he subsidized the tuition of the family laundrywoman’s daughter who goes to a college in Ilocos Norte; and I knew for a fact he spoils his wife and children rotten. My friend was a pretty solid, upstanding, sensitive guy. And I missed him.

I was counting on this goody-goody side of Joey when I started typing a response to the password recovery question. We’ve been friends for almost 15 years and I thought I had a pretty good idea of who he was and what he was like. The answer came to me instantly.

BADGER.

It was the name of the golden retriever he had when he was a kid. He told me about it in one of our usual night outs laced with alcohol. “Badger because she was a bad girl,” Joey explained. There were no siblings to play with when he was growing up, so Badger filled that role in Joey’s life. She died of old age right about the time her owner graduated from high school. Somehow, I never forgot the name, partly because I myself have always wanted but never had a pet, but mostly because it was one of those rare times when Joey got all quiet when he was talking about it. “We never had another dog after Badger died,” he said. “She was pretty special.”

“Your password is ZYXWVUT321.”

Good old Joey. I would’ve never figured that one out. I went back to the email home screen. Less than 10 seconds later, I was staring at Joey’s email Inbox. I felt curious, exhilarated, shameful and disgusted all at once, like I’d won a tennis championship and ran over a puppy in the span of a few minutes. What had come over me that I would hack into my best friend’s email so soon after he died? I attempted to conjure thoughts and words to justify my actions. While none, I felt, sufficed, I was already scrolling down the messages. Soon, the guilt in my conscience began to dissipate, and in its place were the beginnings of an appetite to learn more about my departed friend.

To say that I was completely shocked at what I discovered during the course of my review of Joey’s e-mail messages would be a gross understatement.

===

I noticed a policeman talking to one of the doctors. I turned to Renee and she looked like a woman on the verge of crying, little puddles gathering in her eyelids, threatening to fall down her cheeks any minute. The shaking had stopped, but she still seemed fragile. She hadn’t uttered a single word after telling me Joey was gone. I didn’t want to leave her but I wanted to know what happened.

As I stood up and walked over to the policeman, my mind suddenly flashed to images of Joey and Renee, and how I always thought of them as the perfect couple. They weren’t overly affectionate towards each other in public, but they laughed at each other’s jokes, used pet names when they thought nobody could hear them and were excellent parents to their kids. Renee used to come with us for drinks, but hung out with us less when Hector and Cassie came along. She was a beautiful woman and I always kidded Joey that he must have done something so spectacularly good to have gotten her to agree to be his wife. Joey always just smiled and said, “Yeah, I guess I got lucky.”

The policeman had one arm on his chest and one hand softly pinching his lips as he listened intently to the doctor. When I got to him, I heard the doctor say something about taking painkillers and getting some sleep. I was confused until I realized the policeman must have been asking about a personal medical issue.

“You think maybe it has something to do with this weird weather we’ve been having?” he asked the doctor.

“Pardon me?” the doc said, his tone the equivalent of a raised eyebrow.

“You know. It rained for an hour this afternoon, but the sun was still shining. The ground was wet but it was still hot and humid. Nanay always said when that happens a pair of tikbalangs was getting married.”

“And you think their marriage has something to do with your headaches?”

“Er, not exactly, but I’ve never had a headache this intense before.”

“That sounds like a migraine. Like I said, try a couple of Ibuprofens and a good night’s sleep.”

At that point the doctor noticed my presence and gestured to me to the policeman. “I think he wants to talk to you. If there’s nothing else, please excuse me, I have patients to see.” He didn’t wait for an answer and walked away.

The policeman turned to me, his hand moving from pinching his lips to scratching his chin. I introduced myself and said, “Sir do you know what happened to my friend Joey Aguila? He’s the husband of that lady over there.” I pointed to Renee.

“Oh yeah. Accident happened this afternoon, around 5:30 PM. Head-on collision over at Commonwealth.”

Commonwealth? I asked myself. Joey’s office is in Makati. What was he doing in Quezon City on a work day? I kept my thoughts to myself and instead asked the policeman why it took so long to bring Joey to the hospital. “His wife was notified at almost 11 PM,” I said.

“I don’t know. Probably took a while to find an “in case of emergency” contact number. He didn’t have a wallet on him. Didn’t find any identification in the car. We had to trace the owner through the license plate.”

I looked over at Renee and saw that she hadn’t moved. She was still absolutely motionless, eyes transfixed on a spot on the wall.

“And you said it was a head-on collision?” I asked the policeman.

“Yeah. This truck was doing about 80 kilometers per hour, apparently lost control, swerved to the other side and went straight for the car your friend was driving.” He made a dramatic action with his hands: fist to palm in one short burst. “It was pretty bad.”

I couldn’t take my eyes of Renee. She couldn’t take her eyes off the wall.

“And my friend? Joey?” I paused and swallowed the growing lump in my throat. “Did…ah…did he…I mean…Was it…” I trailed off, unable to verbalize my shock.

“Like I said, it was pretty bad,” he said matter-of-factly. “The front of the truck smashed through and flattened the front of your friend’s car.” He looked at me looking at Renee looking at the wall. “Sorry, but your friend was killed instantly.”

 

END OF PROLOGUE

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