Nine hours until my presentation the next morning when my phone made that awful sound, which at that moment was not very welcome. The clock had just struck midnight and I was still facing a blank PowerPoint slide, trying to find the first word. Still, I picked up the phone.
“Hi. Is it a good time to talk?” the woman on the other end of the line asked. “Can we meet? Are you busy?”
I responded as though I had all the time in the world to engage in conversations. “Not at all. Of course, we can talk. Same place,” I answered. Surely, my boss would not be pleased with me the next day but my tortured soul was drowning in a confused mixture of satisfaction and frustration. In less than fifteen minutes, I found myself sitting at a table at a 24-hour diner within the block.
She arrived a few minutes later, wearing a pale face with gargantuan eye bags that looked even heavier than the dark red bag that slung on her left shoulder. She sat opposite me. Her name was Claire.
“I’m sorry to bother you at this time of the night,” she said. “It’s just that I didn’t know anyone to talk to.”
“Don’t worry about it. It’s fine,” I lied.
“Happy birthday.” She pushed the small box on the table towards me. “It’s not much but I hope you use it.”
Oh boy. I almost forgot it was my birthday. Working on my birthday, can you believe that? I accepted the gift without opening it. “Thank you.”
“How are you?” Ah, the mandatory check of well being at the start of the conversation.
“I’m fine. How about you?”
“I’m getting married next month.”
“Yeah, I heard. Congratulations.”
“Thank you.” Her smile was forced, like when you were a little kid and your parents ordered you to paste a cheerful mask on your face at a family event even though it meant that you were going to see your obnoxious aunt who laughed at your missing front teeth and pinched your chubby cheek so hard. Or when your boss asked you to report to work on your birthday so he could spend a day off with his mistress and you just said yes without question while in your head you hit him with a stapler. Or a puncher. Or both.
“It’s been four years,” she said in almost a whisper.
“Yeah, I know. Are you okay?”
“Yes, yes,” she assured me but I was sure it would be followed by a but like it always had been. “But…” There it was. “But I still can’t forget what happened. It’s been four years. Four years. And I’m getting married to a new guy soon and I still can’t forget about him. I’m a terrible person.”
“Don’t be hard on yourself. It’s not like what happened is very easy to forget.”
“It would have been him, you know. I always told myself I would marry him,” she said as I nodded even though as far as I knew, he was not the marrying kind. “But he’s gone. Matt is gone.”
Matt. Four years ago, my world was rattled. Matt was gone. Gone, not dead. Truth be told, I don’t see the difference anymore. Nobody knew what happened to him. He just went missing.
– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –
One drizzly Saturday morning in January, his mother, Sylvia, had almost finished preparing her own version of champorado for her family. It was one of those days when the family was complete and it was occasions such as this that Sylvia had always loved and looked forward to for they had become very special and very, very rare. Of the three siblings, Matt was the only one left in this town; his brother was a doctor who enjoyed philanthropic work in the south and his sister married an Australian goat farmer.
When breakfast was ready, Sylvia knocked on Matt’s door but there was no answer, which was not very Matt. She was not one to enter her son’s room without permission but at that moment, she said, she just had this nasty feeling that something horrible had happened inside. When she opened the door, however, she found his bed unkempt, his things intact, his valuables untouched, but Matt missing. At first, everybody thought he just went out to buy something or meet someone. But the night came and he did not return. He did not come back the next day, either. And the day after that. And in the coming days. No one knew where he was. Not even Claire, his girlfriend for years.
He vanished. He left without letting anyone know. He couldn’t have left the country; he left his passport and mobile phone behind along with all his clothes. Everyone started asking everyone if they had any idea where he could have gone. No one could give any satisfying answer.
Sylvia never cooked that damn porridge ever again.
That was when I first got a call from Claire. We agreed to meet at this very same spot four years ago.
“Matt and I, we haven’t seen each other in a while. Years, I think,” I said. “I’m sorry.”
“I was somewhat positive you would know where he was,” said Claire in between sobs. “He didn’t call you?”
“No,” I was trying to pull myself together after hearing the news from her for the first time. “I’m sorry.”
“Don’t be sorry. It’s not your fault,” she said.
“Why would you think that I thought it was my fault?”
“Don’t mind me. Sorry.”
“I’m sorry I’m such a mess right now. I’m just really sick worried. And I miss him so much.” She looked like she would cry her eyeballs out that the other customers at the diner looked at us like we were a distressed couple about to break up.
She smiled in the middle of it. “He talked about you a lot. That’s why I thought you would know where he is. You’re best friends, right?”
“Yes. No. Yes. Until college, yes. To be honest, we kind of drifted apart since we graduated. We would see each other every once in a while but I can’t remember the last time, now that I think about it.”
“He was so fond of you, though,” she said. “He always told me that you were his greatest friend.” It made me smile for I felt the same way. It was a shame that we were not as close as before.
“How could he leave just like that? Without telling anyone!”
I could sense a little bit of anger in her words.
“He might just be taking time to think or resolve issues or whatever. He’ll come back. It’s not very Matt to flee like that.” I stretched my arm and tapped her right shoulder like a brother would to a little sister. “Don’t worry, he’ll call soon.”
And call he did not. We did not hear a word from him or about him in years. I wish I knew what happened or what was going on in Matt’s head. He was happy. He seemed happy. He had a great career with a pay others could only dream of. He had a supportive, happy family. A circle of successful, happy friends. And a loving, happy girlfriend, whom, even though I didn’t like very much, turned out to be a perfect match for him. They were a pretty couple. It puzzled me as much as everyone else why Matt disappeared in the middle of the night like a fugitive. No one had a clue.
He must have told someone.
– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –
It was also my birthday when Claire contacted me the second time. It was several months after our first meeting. My friends were at my apartment that time having a great time drinking and chatting and dancing and flirting and thinking no one could spoil that night. When my phone rang and I saw who was calling, I knew the party was over for me. In the middle of my own party, I left to meet her again at the diner, where she had been waiting.
“I’m sorry for being such a party-pooper,” Claire said. “Happy birthday, by the way.”
“Thanks,” I responded.
“I’m sorry I didn’t get you anything. I hope I’m not such a bother. I’m just hoping to know whether you’ve heard from Matt…”
“I’m sorry, Claire. No, no. I haven’t.”
“Too bad. I was really hoping there’d be good news. I know he never failed to greet you on your birthday; he always told me that.”
I didn’t realize that before but she was right. When I thought about it that time, I could not think of a year when Matt failed to call me on my birthday to greet me and ask how I am or how we should see each other and catch up soon. I guess it was out of habit. After all, we had been best friends since kindergarten. Even though we were not close after college, we somehow tried to reconnect every now and then. The operative word being tried.
I remember the moment Matt and I became friends. The seating arrangement was done alphabetically and since our last names had the same first four letters, we found ourselves seated next to each other. We were in Kindergarten then and we never really talked to each other until the second week into the school year. It was at the time when the guardians were asked to leave the children so we could not get used to relying on them all the time. Matt was very close to his mom that he made a scene after learning that she won’t be staying at the porch of the classroom anymore. The five-year old Matt threw away and smashed everything his fingers could reach including all my pencils and notebooks and books and bag and lunchbox. Matt and I were forced to clean it up while the mother was asked to stay where Matt could not see her.
Later, during class, Matt simply walked out of the room while the teacher was struggling to draw a decent house on the board. When the teacher realized Matt was gone, she asked me where he went but I could not give her an answer. After over an hour of searching, we found Matt at the canteen sharing a slice of pie and a laugh with the manager. When asked why he left, he simply said he was hungry. When he was brought back into the classroom, Matt and I were both ordered to stand in the corner and face the wall. The teacher insisted that it was my fault, too, for we were seatmates and we should be responsible for each other. From pre-school all the way to High School, Matt was my seatmate and I had always felt responsible for him.
When Claire and I parted ways that night four years ago, there was a different sadness surrounding her. It was the biting kind. It was like it was only then that it all sank in for her. It was like she, too, felt responsible for Matt as his girlfriend. I know the feeling. I saw her break down, sit on the ground by the lamppost before turning the corner, and just sob like a little girl. I ran towards her and told her — even though I knew it would not do anything — that it would be all right and everything would be okay as I tried to assist her to get up again.
She pushed my arms away and hit me so violently that I was pretty sure I would lose my consciousness, too, had it been a little more forceful. My head hit the post so hard that a deafening ring pestered my eardrum but I still heard my skull crack in spite of. What a strong woman. Claire got up and unleashed the grief. Unfortunately for me, I was on the receiving end.
“How could you say that? He’s gone! And we don’t know where he is or why or what happened! You don’t know anything!”
I guess we were equally shocked when I touched the side of my head and saw blood on my right palm. She spilled a series of I’m sorry‘s and ran away. It was the worst birthday gift I had received ever.
Claire never contacted me again for two years after that night.
– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –
Almost three years after Matt’s disappearance, horrible news broke in our city.
A young boy, skipping class, went for a swim in the deserted part of the river. A favorite hangout place for kids in our town, this was the only accessible part of the river that was deep enough for a dive from a tree whose branches extended overhead. Matt and I frequented this place, too, in the years before our circumcision. (After getting circumcised when we were 12, we decided we were adults and stopped hanging with other kids.) Anyway, this little boy envied the other kids that he also climbed the tree and jumped from the branch into the water, without considering one tiny detail — he didn’t know how to swim. The other kids tried to save him but lost him eventually. His body sank into the deep.
Hours later, the grownups arrived in groups with a boat and a rope and a lot of fear for the boy’s life. After an hour of diving and searching, everyone was shocked when the team recovered the body of the little boy and — the more shocking bit — the skeleton of an unidentified man, which they said was loosely tied to a boulder by a rope around his torso.
While it looked like an obvious case of murder in the beginning, the autopsy of the body revealed traces of shallow cuts on one wrist. The theory was that the man at first tried to slit his wrists but, for some reason, didn’t push through with it and just decided to drown himself in the river. He was found at the deep part where big boulders were absent so it seemed like he got the rock from another place, perhaps upstream. At first I wondered why that poor guy had to endure carrying the boulder with wounded wrists to the more deserted part of the river when he could have just drowned himself where he found the rock. But the rocky part of the stream was so shallow it was almost impossible to die there. Unless, of course, you hit your head with the rock but that could’ve been too painful for a guy too cowardly to finish slitting his wrists.
Matt’s family and Claire were called in to identify the body but it was not an easy task given that there were only bones. That night, I received the third call from Claire.
After inspecting the body, family and friends of Matt’s gathered outside the morgue and started talking — no, more like arguing with and shouting at each other. Some strongly believed it was him, saying how the bone structure of the face was a match and that the teeth kind of seemed like his. Others, including Claire, were not buying it. I did not join the commotion. I sat beside the mother, Sylvia, who was eerily quiet on one side.
“It was him,” the mother said. I was about to light a cigarette when I heard it that I almost dropped the lighter.
“Are you sure, ma’am?” I asked her, thinking she was just too exhausted to think.
“It was him,” she repeated.
It was odd to hear that from the mother. I was sure as hell it was not Matt.
A couple of days later, I was attending a funeral that Matt’s family had arranged for the body. While I never got to talk to the other family members, it seemed like they were convinced it was Matt. Claire told me that the family would do a DNA test but it would take a long time to process it so they just figured that they would have the body buried properly just in case. Sylvia, however, just accepted that it was Matt, test or no test. I was upset at first but I couldn’t blame her. After all, I think it was easier for her to accept that her son died a horrible, horrible death than hopelessly hope in perpetuity that one day Matt would return. Sometimes I feel the same, too. Sometimes I wish he were dead, instead; perhaps that would have given us peace. Lord knows how badly we, especially I, need that.
A month later, the DNA test results revealed it was not Matt.
– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –
And so we’ve come to this moment. Seven hours before my presentation at the office on my birthday. And I’m here at the diner with Claire.
“I guess that’s about it,” Claire said in a cracked voice. “I just wanted to say goodbye actually.”
“Yes,” she showed one of those forced smiles again. “Jeffrey said — his name is Jeffrey, by the way — that it would be best if we leave town and just start anew elsewhere after the wedding.”
“Oh. I guess that would be best…”
“I just wanted to tell you how I appreciate all the time you were with me, listening to me. And I’m sorry for hitting you that night. I never had a chance to apologize for it but I’m sorry…”
I chuckled. “No, no, it’s okay. It’s been a long time.”
She laughed with me. “So there. I’m sorry.”
I smiled. Genuinely.
“And Happy Birthday,” she added.
After a long pause, a deep sigh, and a million hesitations, Claire finally asked, “Do you think he’s dead?”
“I don’t know.”
“Do you think he killed himself?”
“That’s not a very Matt thing to do.”
Claire smiled. “Yeah. But I don’t know what’s Matt and what’s not Matt anymore.”
“He left on a Friday night,” I said. “Sometimes, I just think he’s away for the weekend. I picture him on a backpacking trip across the country perhaps enjoying a bowl of champorado in Sagada or jumping from a tree branch into the river in Davao. That’s what I think about when I think of him.”
I walked with her until the end of the block and without looking left or right just crossed the street in a hurry. When she reached the other side, she turned to me and shouted. “If he calls you today…”
“Yes, yes, I’ll let you know!” I shouted back.
“No,” she disagreed. “If he calls you today, don’t tell me! Just let him know I’m fine!”
“Okay, I will!” I waved at her. “If he calls.”
She turned around and ran away like a midnight thief as I watched her drown in a new aura of peace, of freedom, and, hopefully, of happiness.
I faced my computer screen as soon as I got home for another round of battle with my harried and deeply distraught mind, searching for the first word to write on the second slide of my presentation for the next day. The first word was always a bitch, the hardest to find.
My phone started beeping as my friends, one by one, started realizing it was my birthday and the best way to let me know they remember was to key in a few characters. I appreciated it, of course, but I somehow wished someone would call the way Matt did. A call is just much more meaningful.
I remember all the calls Claire gave me. We’ve known each other for four years now and she had called me only four times. All of which were about Matt.
I remember the last time Matt called me.
It was still very clear to me. It was a night very much like this. I was preparing a presentation for my idiot of a boss (who made it look like he prepared it himself) when my phone made that awful sound. “Hey, bro,” Matt said. His voice was unusually weak. “This might surprise you but I need to talk to someone… I know you’ll listen, like old times. Is it okay? Are you busy?”
“Hey, Matt. Sorry. Kind of cramming something right now. Can we talk tomorrow?” I replied with no pause, no emotion, no fucking clue that it would be his last message. Probably to anyone.
He hung up. Tomorrow. What kind of idiot was I? Tomorrow, Sylvia would be making champorado for the last time. Claire would get in touch with me for the first time. Matt would go missing. And I, oh I, would spend my birthday every year waiting, expecting that one call. I swear to God I won’t be busy this time.
Note: This is fiction. This story came to me while letting the rain pass at a mall in Makati.