IT’S BEEN a month now since I left my last teaching job which lasted (miraculously, I must say) for three years. Once they handed me my last paycheck, I knew there was no turning back. My three wonderful years in that school ended the minute I said goodbye to Jean, the finance officer, turned my scooter bike on and went out the gate. And just like that, I was left by myself on the bike, driving 40km per hour on the road that afternoon.
Driving at 40 isn’t that fast at all. I can drive as fast as 80 – even 100 or more – given that the road is empty, which I’ve done a couple of times on another island while I had the chance to travel. Otherwise, I’m a relatively safe driver. No, no. I simply play safe. I think I have to admit that. And when it comes to driving, you never go wrong with that mantra playing in your head. Except for that night when I got real drunk after going out with friends and drove home. So I’m approaching a turn. The road is empty. It’s past three in the morning. And for some reason, my arms refuse to turn the handles to the right. Yes, they refuse. You know how it is when a part of you refuses to do its job. So my eyes are fixed on that patch of concrete in front of me where the headlight’s beaming at. I’m driving between 50 and 60, I forget now. Next thing I see is the roadside drainage and I knew right away I was driving on the wrong lane. But then my arms refuse to swerve gently back on track. I jerk the handles back to the right lane not wanting to swing right into the ditch. I crash. The bike skids a few meters from where I lay on the pavement. I quickly look around. No one’s watching. I pick up the bike and drive as fast as I can. My arms are shaking. My legs are shaking. My left hand and cheek are bleeding. I realize on my way home at 3AM I lost one of my slippers.
Recently at a friend’s bar/nightclub, I was hanging out with some three friends and after we downed a shot of tequila we came to the subject of fate. I think I started it. Not a good subject to talk about when you’re supposed to be having fun with friends. At a bar. Needless to say it came up. We were all outside at this one table standing and smoking, enjoying our drinks, and at some point, I think all of us came to an agreement that fate and destiny are synonymous. Like you’d talk about fate in terms of how you’re destined to have this thing, for example. Or that you’re destined to meet this person. Fate per se. I don’t believe in fate. One of my friends at this table did. The other two stood to listen. The matter became more interesting when we got right down to the specifics. Concrete examples.
“So you think it was fate who brought you to my friend?” I asked F. He’s German. My friend J is Filipina. His English isn’t so good but it’s OK. He can survive any conversation.
“I believe so,” F said. “I think it’s something you think in the past and the universe hears it. And if you keep thinking about it, then it’s going to happen in the future.”
“You mean, you were thinking about my friend even before you met her?” I was sipping from my glass of gin and tonic. He was standing across me holding his beer.
“Not her specifically but an idea of her,” he said. F’s tall. A 7-footer something with blonde hair, tattoos and all.
“Like after I came to the Philippines for the first time,” he continued, “I went back home and I told my mom, ‘Mom, I think I want to marry a Filipina’. Now I’m with her.” F looked at J, half-smiling in a joking way.
“We’re not married yet,”J said to him. She was wearing a thick red lipstick, which actually looked good on her. F stooped to give her a hug. She squirmed in half jest. We all laughed. (They have a 2-month-old son now.)
“So you’re saying fate is a product of whatever it was that we thought about in the past? Whether it’s something we really desired or just a passing thought?” I asked. I wasn’t planning on getting him off the hook just yet. Too early to be agreeing with someone only two years older than me.
“Exactly. That’s what I’m saying,” F said, taking a swig from his bottle. “The important thing is, you think about it.”
“See, I refuse to believe that. For example, I don’t believe at all that L and I here will become friends,” I pointed to L standing to my left. “I’ve never thought in the past about meeting her here, let alone getting to know her. Not even a passing thought. I mean, we went to the same university, studied the same thing, she’s a year ahead of me. I’ve seen her at some point, fine. Have I thought of her? Probably. In passing. But I’ve never thought the day will come when, you know, we’d become this close. Can I have one of your cigarettes?”
“Which is why I don’t buy the whole fate thing. It’s a weak argument is what I’m saying.” I lighted my stick.
“No no no no no. You’re contradicting yourself by saying you don’t believe in it,” L said in that familiar rising tone. After almost a year of knowing her, I’ve come to know that tone so well. That don’t-give-me-that-bull-coz-I’m-going-to-slay-you tone. The first time I talked to her was at a friend’s wedding about two years ago.
“By saying you don’t believe in fate, you’re accepting the idea of it,”L said.
“What do you mean?”
“Coincidence. You don’t want to submit to the idea of some force out there controlling your future. Who you meet, what you’ll become someday. You want to be in control, which is why you keep saying you don’t believe in it. But think about it: you don’t believe in fate. Well, hello, coincidence. An outside force leading you to where you are right now or some time in the future even though you haven’t thought about it or never even considered the idea of it.”
We were quiet for a while. I think the tequila had quietly kicked in we just didn’t notice it. By the time I finished my cigarette, F asked if we wanted more drinks. Of course I said yes.
I left my previous job because I wanted to go to Vietnam. For a lot of reasons. A job was waiting for me there as an EFL teacher to a bunch of Vietnamese kids in Hanoi. I applied for it, did a quick demo, got interviewed. Before the day ended, I was told I got the job.
And so for the next couple of weeks, I started fantasizing about the place. I would go to sleep every night and imagine a different self in the place. I googled Vietnam, especially Hanoi. I downloaded an app that would help me learn basic Vietnamese. Xin chao. Chao ban. Xin loi. Tam biet. I started looking up on Ways to Overcome Homesickness When Living Abroad. Turns out there are four stages to it, although articles I found online have different ways of saying it, sometimes adding one more stage. I found the 4-stage process quite compelling in itself already: honeymoon, frustration, adjustment and acceptance. I devoured all of the articles I could find.
At the same time, I also devoured the money I already had for the trip. Some from what I have, but for the most part from friends who were willing to help me. I was supposed to leave in April, halfway through the semester before school closed for summer vacation. My friends knew about it. It was all over Facebook and it felt good. But then I was asked if I could just finish the semester at least. I said yes.
I was out every night. And every time I came home, I went to bed (most of the time on the floor) with my fantasies about Vietnam tucked somewhere in my head. Two months passed. School was finally over. It took me a long time to admit the fact that I screwed things up.
The motorbike accident left me a few scars. One on my left cheek. Another one on my left shoulder. A few on my knuckles. The ugliest one though is the one on my pinky finger. My nail’s dead, but it wouldn’t let go just yet. It’s been protruding upwards now the past few days. I can see this fresh nail like a baby growing underneath, but I’m sure it will take some time before it finally becomes a good nail. Hard. Firm. Beautiful to look at. All I’m seeing now is this ugly nail that doesn’t want to come off yet. I go to bed at night, and I always have to be careful not to brush it past a pillow or a blanket.
About two years ago, I was going to Siargao to meet a friend whom I haven’t seen for quite some time. I was falling in line at the ticket booth at the port at about 5PM when this guy came up and asked me where I was heading.
“Siargao,” I said. He was with another guy who was holding on to their surf boards. The guy who approached me looked friendlier than the one behind. One look and I knew they weren’t Americans.
“Oh great. We’re going there, too.”
“You can stand behind me if you want.”
We introduced each other and chatted for a while as we waited for our turn. His name’s I and his friend’s J. They were from Finland and wanted to check out the surfing scene in Siargao. I told them I came from Dumaguete and wanted to go to Siargao to meet a friend. We took the same boat which was scheduled to leave at seven in the evening.
When the boat finally reached Surigao at eight the next day, we saw each other again, and the first thing he asked me was if there was McDonald’s in the area.
“I’m going there, too. That’s where I’m meeting my friend.”
A few days passed and we found ourselves on a small island facing the Pacific. My friend L decided to invite them over at his place, and he thought of bringing us to this island for a night. We brought tents and some food which would last us for the night. Our friend B joined us too.
That night we set up a bonfire. The island was quiet except for the sound of waves roaring in the distance. I placed a big mat on the sand near the fire to keep myself warm. The other guy J asked if he could share the mat with me. We ended up talking about Finnish pop music and he made me listen to some Finnish songs from his phone. After some time, side by side, we started talking about constellations. The stars are very bright on that side of the country. I admitted to not knowing much about it except for the Orion’s Belt and the Big Dipper.
Then out of nowhere, he looked at me and asked if I believed in fate. It took me a while to give him a proper answer. Nobody has asked me that question before.
“Do you?” I asked.
“I asked you first,” he said.
“Can you give me a minute?”
“Okay. Just a minute.” And he began counting by tens.
“It’s not a difficult question, you know?” he said.
When he finally finished counting, he asked me the same question.
He nodded his head, and as I looked at him, half of his face lit up by the fire beside us, I wasn’t so sure for a second if I said the right thing or if it mattered to him at all.
“So you do,” I asked.
“Yes. I do.”