THE FIRST thing I let go once I left Dumaguete City was my only pair of dark brown boots I bought at American Savers in another city sometime three years ago. It would be the only good, brand new pair of shoes I’d buy in the last three years of my stay there. By now it had gone old, stained with remnants of dried-up water and mud after wading them through countless puddles left after so many rains. The toe caps had lost their original color and the back straps half-way torn and were about ready to give up. The inside layers have gone into their bad state, and in occasions when I wanted to go to a friend’s bar and wear them without any socks on, I could feel the uncomfortable fabric brushing against the skin of my feet. Rainy nights were the worst.
I decided to leave them behind the next day at a friend’s studio apartment when I stayed in Cebu for a night. Having missed the 7:00 PM boat trip to Surigao, I had no choice but to send her a message on Facebook and ask if she could let me crash in for the night. Her two-floor apartment on the fourth floor of the building was spacious and bare, the white walls freshly painted. She had just moved in from a smaller one; this time, she took the top floor of the building which had the best view of the city outside her bedroom through the veranda separated by clear, wide sliding glass doors. The tiled floors imitated the façade of old wood. Downstairs was her small kitchen, a high table where she has her meals and another window which faced the busy traffic just below.
My departure was sudden and lacked any signs of warning. I was out the night before drinking the usual drinks with my usual friends at the usual bar. My friend L was confiding to me her problems with this French guy she was chatting with whom I accused of being narcissist, which was why she wanted to cry, and became one of the reasons we were out. My friend Y was being his usual, sometimes obnoxious but for the most part happy self. One cigarette from time to time in between his drinks, even though he promised himself to quit smoking. My friend C was his being usual self, too: quiet while looking at the TV screen, downing his own shot, sometimes quipping trivial funny asides. It was a usual Thursday night, and at some point, L and I both agreed that Thursdays at this bar have become the new Fridays.
What time I went home I forget now, that small detail which I always miss out on such occasions, and at five in the morning, I was sitting at the table across my friend J who was working online all night, and we somehow steered the conversation to my current situation and what my plans are in the future. As I sat there listening to her, the idea of leaving just came to me, like a visitor who’d arrived sooner than I’d expected. Sitting there as she continued talking, I looked at it, studying it closely just to be certain that this was the right guest. It simply stared back at me, not saying a single word, and I knew.
“I’m leaving today,” I said, and went to my room (F and J gladly lent me their extra room while I stayed with them for a couple of weeks) to pack my things.
Inside the car, no one said a word. F drove the car at a steady rate, while J sat at the front seat staring at the road in front of her. C sat right next to me, his eyes also fixed on the road. I looked outside through my window, glancing at the familiar places gliding past me. By now the alcohol has worn down a little, and I began to feel the first wave of exhaustion.
We left the house at around two in the afternoon. They were sending me off to the port twenty minutes away from the city on a bright, sunny Friday afternoon. I held my backpack beside me and realized my entire life was in this bag. Clothes I didn’t even care to fold neatly earlier. Laptop. Ipad. Vladimir Nabokov’s annotated book Lolita, which was a birthday present. A pair of used neon blue-and-orange running shoes, which my friend C gave me, now dangling on each side of the bag. A small silver thermos, also a birthday present two years ago (the same friend who gave me the book). A blue dry bag with extra clothes in it. And a big blue woollen blanket I bought from a flea market a few years back. I couldn’t believe that after six years of living in Dumaguete, I’d leave the place with only a traveler’s backpack and a dry bag.
“Don’t go,” F whispered to my ear as he locked me in his embrace the minute we arrived at the port.
“I have to,” I said, hugging him. C went out of the car as well, gave me a pat on the shoulder, and said I should take care of myself. J chose to stay in the car. I got inside the terminal and saw my friend’s car pass by until it was out of sight.
Fifteen minutes later, I was on the boat to another island.
The ship to Surigao was supposed to leave at exactly 7:00 PM. I sat on one of the benches at the roof deck. Beside me, a mother was busy attending to her small son who wouldn’t keep still. He’d go from one person to another, mumble something incomprehensible, while tugging at everyone’s pants. Nobody seemed to mind. At first they would get startled, look around, and realize it was just a child. Then they’d let out a smile, conscious that the mother was just around. Soon enough they would simply smile at her, not saying a word. At some point the child looked at me, but I simply stared back. The kid’s mother was busy talking on the phone. She seemed to be arguing with someone on the other line, while she tried her best to keep the kid from moving around.
A fuss below. Onlookers stood at the railing at the deck looking down, sharing snippets of what was going on. Apparently, one passenger got down from the boat a few minutes earlier to buy some load for his phone, but he was nowhere to be found. A guy in red shirt and shorts stood outside the parked Mitsubishi Adventure, snapping instructions to one of the boat crews. I figured it was the missing guy’s father. He was tall, wore a clean cut, and had an air of authority as he rested his hands on his hips, telling this particular habal-habal driver beside him to go look for the missing guy outside the port gates. A few seconds later, the motorbike sped off, and the onlookers at the deck followed the driver with their long gazes, all the while muttering to themselves, “He should’ve known the boat leaves at 7!” Or “We should leave already.” Minutes passed and the habal-habal driver returned with no passenger around. “Go!” shouted the guy in red shirt, then went inside his car and drove.
I wondered if the missing passenger was just somewhere inside the boat, or did he really get left behind? Such a small, stupid mistake to lose track of time. Next thing you know, you arrive at the port and the boat’s gone to a destination you’ve dreamed of going the night before.
Much later, as the boat skirted its way from Cebu until the island looked almost distant, with only the city lights visible from where I stood smoking, two fathers talked about what brought them to Cebu. The stocky old man who was wearing a blue polo shirt and a pair of glasses held a can of Pilsen in one hand. And from the way the other guy addressed him, it seemed to me that the old man bore a more powerful stature than the one holding a can of Light.
“My boy is in the city now to meet some of his friends,” the old man said. “How many kids do you have?”
“I have two, sir,” the other said. “One is six, and the other’s 14.”
“I have four. I must say their generation is completely different these days.”
“I agree. With my kids, I always set a curfew. I say to them, ‘You have to be back home at seven.’ They need to study.’’
“Well, I do that, too. But, in the end, it’s their choice. It’s their life, you know? The only thing I can do is to advise them what to do, but it’s their choice in the end.”
The other man simply nodded. A few seconds of silence remained between them before they started talking. At this point, I decided to go to my assigned bed to read.
I’ve always known that leaving is less painful than being left behind. There’s something uniquely selfish and egoistic about it. You know that it will happen one day. That pretty soon this threshold will be looming in the distance. When you’re perceptible enough, you’ll see that the trail leading to it will already have become less familiar, that the grasses are different this time, and the stones more foreign than they were before. Perhaps, you’ll be more surprised to realize you’re already treading on packed dirt, and that this, too, will bear a new trace of soil way different than what you’re feet have long been accustomed to. The trail will get narrower the more you get closer to this threshold. And then the crossing. You then wake up the next day on a boat or a bus or a plane, your life in that small bag in tow.
Whether leaving quietly was the right thing to do or not doesn’t matter anymore. I only said goodbye in person to seven people. Seven people. I must say, it was still kind of quiet. While people throw out parties to friends as a way of celebrating years of friendship and, finally, a farewell, I’m the kind of person who believes departures shouldn’t be celebrated. Most of the time, the people we cherish the most are the ones we’ve met on some quiet occasion, usually in an unexpected sort of way. I believe it should be the same with leaving a friend or being left behind.
Three nights ago, I told a friend I’m glad to be in a place where nobody knows me. It has been a long time since this happened. I’m on a different island right now, closer to home, and I feel I’m in the right place. I look around and see a lot of travelers who come here to surf or simply enjoy the life on the island. I’ve begun to walk around barefoot, the way locals here do, whether to go to the market or to simply walk around. The place feels very unfamiliar to me, and the dialect a little strange. Much stranger is the sight of so many tourists who, unlike me, come here to taste life. I look around and listen to snippets of conversations they have in bars and restaurants, and I feel a sense of awe and wonder at the friendships these people have forged after living here for days and weeks. Yet I also feel a sense of security knowing that I’m just standing at the periphery of all this.
I’ve only told three people here on the island the reason why I left Dumaguete, and I feel that should be enough for now.