26 (Part 2)

 

In memory of my high school classmate, Antoine

IN MY LAST YEAR in high school, I challenged my classmates – all 57 of them – that our next grand reunion should be in France. February 21, 2021. Under the Eiffel Tower. I remember standing in front of them one afternoon with another classmate R as we all waited for our next teacher to arrive, and whatever brought us to the topic of a reunion I forget now. But there we were, the two of us.

Some of our classmates listened. A few reluctantly agreed while others merely laughed. Some didn’t say a word, and continued going about their own private conversations in smaller groups. I thought, fifteen years at the time felt just right to prepare us for that ‘grand’ reunion.

Years later we all finished high school and led separate lives. Some of them became my schoolmates in university. One became my classmate ‘til we both finished university taking the same degree. Years passed.

Then two days earlier, the subject of the reunion came up. One of my classmates took it upon herself to create a group on Facebook called Mercury named after our section during our senior year. In it I would find out that some of my classmates have left the country to work abroad and pursue their dreams. I’d find out those small reunions and birthdays, and see pictures of them the next couple of days. There would be those old photographs of us in high school at the soccer field, all gathered in a group, looking goofy – the girls in their green skirts, white socks and black shoes; the boys in white polos and jeans. There’d be the news of one of our classmates who passed away because of leukemia and another of our favorite English teacher in freshmen who died of breast cancer.  And just recently, a friend got hitched to this guy I remember in university. One just became a doctor.

So out of nowhere, in that chat group, one of my classmates reminded us that our reunion is fast-approaching. This was after one of my classmates had said, perhaps out of sheer sentimentality, we’re all not getting younger anymore. Five more years, I chuckled, remembering the damn reunion.

***

A friend once said nothing much happens at twenty-six. It was a day or two before my twenty-sixth birthday. He was twenty-seven. We were at a bar one early evening with another friend, and the idea came and went before we even had the chance to talk about it in detail. I was eager to leave my twenty-five-year-old self behind and was hoping to get a glimpse, from his own experience at least, of the next year that lay ahead.

I had pictured being twenty-six as a dull passage to adulthood, believing twenty-seven is the year that marks the ‘official’ beginning of what it’s like to be an adult. To me, 26 promised a kind of uneventful threshold with nothing much in it except for my daily routine and perhaps a few small occasions such as birthdays, holidays, weddings or anniversaries. Like a bridge between the eventful twenty-five (which is a quarter of your century, and so a milestone) and the promising 27. What I’d expected at 26, at least, was one big shebang. The kind where, if one asks, “So, what’s 26 like for you?” I’d say, “Oh! That was the year I decided to quit my job because I wanted to travel. So I traveled.” Or, “That was the year I got promoted at work!”

But in June last year, The Atlantic posted an article saying adulthood actually begins at 25 or close to it. (See, When Does Adulthood Really Begin?) Other related articles said the same thing. On two occasions, a professor in psychiatry and psychology at the University of Pittsburgh, Beatriz Luna talked about a ‘hyper-activity in a part of the brain known as the striatum’ which responds to ‘rewards’, something that ‘continues on until the mid-twenties’. I looked up to see how the striatum looked like and if, indeed, it looked as gullible as I pictured it to be. To my dismay, that minute part of the brain looked so small and so painstakingly difficult to describe in words, especially when viewed in different angles. Now at this point, I’m pretty damn sure my high school classmates who took up medicine or any medicine-related degrees would be raising their brows by now in suspicion or even chuckling at the thought of me trying to describe that part of the brain I have no real knowledge of.

But what’s clear to me is this: while that tiny little rascal up there in our brain is trying to sweet-talk us into doing the things we love to explore, saying, “Hey, why don’t you go out there and conquer the world. Take the risks! You’ll learn a lot from them. Make mistakes, and make them good”, the reality of our environmental demands that require us to be responsible ‘adults’ gets increasingly heightened when we get closer to being 25. Then of course, economic milestones have to come into the picture. Being able to land on a steady job which will then advance our career. Being able to save money. Being financially independent. That’s what the professor’s point was.

Well, I somehow reached twenty-six with that little striatum in my brain still dancing and acting like an eighteen-year-old.

***

Antoine came to our school quite late. We were all in senior year and had begun forging deep friendships and cliques within the confines of that four-walled classroom, which surprisingly, was able to accommodate all fifty eight of us. His arrival in class came one morning when our adviser introduced him to everyone.

“This is your new classmate who will be joining us for the rest of the year,” our class adviser said.

He went on to introduce himself. He had studied his first three years at a science high school but decided to transfer to our school. That morning, he stood in front of the class like a boy who was forced to talk in public. He spoke in perfect English, and forced a smile whenever he felt being scrutinized by our lame questions. His hands were in his pockets the whole time, and he stood in such a way that one side of his body would bend sideways, as if he’s reaching for something at the bottom of one of those pockets. His long straight hair covered his forehead but the tips seemed to touch his deep round eyes, so that he’d flick his head to the side without even touching his hair.  When he finally finished talking, we all clapped our hands.

We all realized soon enough how smart he was. He would ace Advanced Chemistry, Trigonometry and Physics, leaving us all in awe whenever he’d answer our teachers’ questions. He’d smile in this mischievous yet shy sort of way whenever he’d nail the right answer. Our class belonged to the first section among all senior students in the entire school, but Antoine was above us in this regard. Whatever lessons they took back in his previous school gave him a lot of advantage now that he was in our school. That or he was simply smart. Sometimes, it annoyed me.

For whatever reason, we never really talked all throughout that year. He remained a familiar stranger to me, someone I’d see every day and exchange a few words with. But nothing more. When I heard about the news of his passing a few years back, it struck me how little I’ve known him.

***

My most favorite part in Wong Kar Wai’s Happy Together was that scene when Lai Yiu-fai (played by Tony Leung) finally decides to go to Iguazu falls in Argentina by himself. The journey to the falls was depicted in black-and-white with the view of the road from the windshield of Lai Yiu-fai’s rented car. He was supposed to visit the falls with his boyfriend Ho Po-wing (played by Leslie Cheung), but after a tumultuous relationship with him, decides to leave and venture out on his own.

The scene of the empty road resonates in me these days, as I realize it’s ten days more before I turn twenty-seven. What surprises me now, as I’m writing this, is Antoine’s image in my head, and why his memory comes back to me right now. He’d be around my age this time. He’d have finished university, just like me. And with his brilliance, he might have far succeeded everyone else in our batch. What sort of things would he have already said in our group chat had he still been around? Would he have gotten married sooner?

And then there’s that damn reunion. Five more years.

But the image of the empty road keeps flashing in my head.

 

 

 

 

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