November 11, Friday
He was reading Pride and Prejudice.
What guy does that? And in public too, inside a packed metro rail train South-bound on a Friday night. I lucked on a seat by some karmic miracle, though standing squished among the mass of passengers seemed like the better idea than what I had now, my wide-ass hips crushed between the hard plastic seat’s edge and the woman beside me.
I hated commuting. I hated trains. I hated the co-ed cars of the train the most, especially during rush hour. And rush hour these days was taking on that distinctive stench of holiday panic, as it usually did in the middle of November in this Christmas-loving country. I had come from Quezon City and had to jump into the first train car that could fit me, running late as I was for this obligation all the way in Makati.
Obligation. Okay. Heh.
My best friend Daisy would kill me if she heard my brain, after all the things she had done for me these past few years, air quotes, air quotes.
I looked up from my phone again, straining a look at the guy standing in front of me. He was gripping the steel railing above his head like a lifeline, which did me the favor of seeing his flexed biceps.
He had a lean arm, decorated by faint lines of snaking veins, muscular in a way that was not at all rude. It wasn’t hard to notice its very pleasing personality, swathed though it was by the sleeves of his striped black-and-white button-up shirt. The sleeves were rolled up to his elbows (thank you, god), in crisp, deliberate folds rising past toned forearms. I always thought that wardrobe move was both rugged and responsible.
I inched my gaze up his exposed skin, searching for tattoos. No trace of ink thus far. A bit disappointing.
My eyes travelled back down to his book. His edition was small, thick, and pink. Dog-eared and covered in plastic, the way one does to school books to make them last the year.
I dared look up as far as his nose, noting the tiny bump along the steepest part of the straight bone. I counted the lines marring his forehead as he kept it scrunched, taking care to miss his eyes should he look up from the pages, and decided he couldn’t be reading this romance classic for school. Not even for college literature class.
With his pressed shirt, nice watch, and tapered charcoal slacks, he looked like a corporate boy. A young, well-dressed one at that. Early twenties, easy. I’d learned from a string of stiff, boring dates that I didn’t like corporate boys much. Nor had I ever been inclined to go through the fun yet rickety ride of dating younger.
Those two things at least kept me from crushing too hard on this hot stranger and his intense occupation with only one of the best love stories ever known to womankind.
“I am very fond of walking.”
Shit. Did I say that out loud?
I flicked my gaze up and got my answer. Corporate Boy was staring back at me, eyebrows lifted, mouth threatening the smile that was already crinkling his eyes.
Yes, I said that out loud.
And yes, okay, now I knew he had kind biceps and a beautiful face.
Man, this was painful.
I cleared my throat and tried a smile instead of pretending I hadn’t heard him, since I was a grown up like that. “I was trying to remember if that was only a line from the movie or if it’s also in the book.”
“Oh. I think it’s just from the movie.” His brow wrinkled some more. His forehead looked like a map of waves now. “I should know that, the many times I have read this.”
“Your favorite book?”
He pursed his lips, blinked a few times, and turned to me again. Plump, just-bitten lips. Deep, dark eyes. A feathery fringe of lashes. Why so pretty, mister stranger?
“You do not know me so you can’t judge me,” his baritone voice drawled. “So I’m going to be honest and say it’s high up there.”
“My ready answer is that I’m reading it to help my sister write her book report, and that’s also true.”
No, my goodness. Stop it. Shut up.
“Do you like it too?”
He didn’t seem to have noticed I was having mild palpitations over here, thanks to the hot-guy-who-reads-and-dotes-on-sister fantasy reel he’d conjured in my head. I tucked a stray curl away from my cheek, pinched the inside of my wrist and forced my mouth to make words.
“Oh, I’m in love with Mr. Darcy. My friend says half my dates didn’t work out because I was expecting them to be brooding yet sensitive and to own both a heart of gold and half of Derbyshire. Or you know, Derbyshire’s contemporary equivalent in the Philippines.”
Wonderful. I was now babbling to a beautiful stranger on the train about my book boyfriend and my complete inability to keep a real one. Daisy would sock her fist inside my mouth and store it there for safekeeping if she knew.
He didn’t laugh, or worm through the sweaty, sticky, after-office train crowd to get as far away as possible from me, Weirdo Train Lady. The smile settled in his eyes, rumpling the corners.
“That’s too bad,” he said, and nothing else. He went back to reading.
I wanted to demand what that meant. Too bad, what, sir?
He’s a stranger he’s a stranger he’s a stranger.
I had to force a chorus of those words to drill the reminder in my head. Why should I care what this guy thought about my love life? Too many people I knew already had loud, decisive opinions about it anyway. No need to add another critic.
I turned my glare to my phone as it lit up with Daisy’s text. You better be walking up the mall already. I could hear every note of aggression in each perfectly spelled word. She was antsy and nervous, more so that I could psyche myself out to be, since I had categorized this night’s activity as yes, an obligation.
She was my best friend and she cared a bit too much about me. I was doomed to love her for it.
Do I lie? My thumbs hovered over the screen, preparing to type a reply. I was two stations and a 20-minute walk away from where she wanted me to be. The only difference between telling the truth and telling her what she wanted to hear was that if I gave her the latter, she’d be all the less anxious. I should be a good friend and do what good friends do.
The train ground to a halt, sending my left side crashing against the steel railing as the woman beside me hoisted herself up and barreled through the crowd to the opening door. My phone dropped to my lap as I focused on breathing through what felt like three broken ribs, and on swallowing the little oaths lined up in my throat, itching for release.
Another jolt, a swoosh of fine fabric and warm skin beside me, and the train was rumbling away again.
“You should breathe.”
I did—a long pull of musty, sweat-drenched air—before turning to Corporate Boy who was now settled to my right. “Thanks. I forget sometimes.”
The smile inched up his mouth this time. And he really shouldn’t have done that, because now I knew his mouth was beautiful too.
“I haven’t been on a date for going on a year.” The words came out of his lips sounding rehearsed, as if he’d spent the past few minutes assembling them in his head.
“Too bad?” I dared, eyebrow hitching.
“There you go.” He laughed, short and quiet. I barely heard the sound. “Now we’re even and I can go back to reading with a clear conscience.”
He didn’t though. His book was folded inside his palm and he was looking straight ahead. It couldn’t be a good view. A man was standing in front of him, hands gripping and body hanging from the handrails, looming over him like a grimy shadow.
“How many more stations for you?” He turned to me. He seemed to have made the decision that my face was a better sight than the man’s sweat-stained Keep Calm and Eat Bacon t-shirt.
The train was crawling into Buendia station. I expected the lurching stop this time. I gripped the metal bar beside me for leverage. “Getting off on the next. You?”
He breathed in once. Again. He was sitting so close I could feel it brush my ear, could feel it send static through my unruly locks. I could swear I caught him staring at my long, curly hair as strands lifted with his breaths, as if he wanted to sweep them away.
I know, I know, it’s a mess. But grooming beyond the basic social requirement is pointless in commute hell.
His gaze dropped back to his book as his fingers pried the worn pages open.
Huh. I expected more words. Just as well. My mother always said not to talk to strangers. She might have mentioned a special clause for the hot ones who read romantic books and weren’t ashamed of it. Those rare ones were sure to be serial killers.
Sometimes I wish I could strangle the voice of my mother that lurked within the recesses of my head. The many rules and don’ts she’d planted in me. I was in my thirties and still they were there, stamped where I couldn’t wash them off with beers or bury under hours spent out beyond midnight. I shouldn’t be blaming Mr. Darcy. I should be blaming her for my present disinterest in committing to a man.
You love your mother you love your mother you love your mother.
I was humming the words, making myself spurt out laughter. After forbidding me to have a boyfriend all through my school years, my mother was now all out with Daisy on fixing this aspect of my life.
Fixing, they dared call it. As if I had a leaking pipe. As if crossing over to thirty flipped a button that made a dashing man and a marriage pour out from heaven. Never mind that I had a business I loved and friends who got me. Oh no, it wasn’t enough, because my mother needed grandchildren.
I made the mistake of turning to my right, because Corporate Boy was staring at me, eyebrows raised.
“What?” I demanded. “Never seen a woman laugh to herself before?”
He seemed surprised, but also ready to answer. But the train made another awful stagger, screeching to a full stop. I craned my neck to look out the grubby window, as the voice crackling through the speakers confirmed my worst fears.
“The train ahead of us is having technical difficulties. We will wait here until it can depart from Ayala station. Please remain seated. Good evening and apologies to all.”
“Who the fuck is seated?” someone yelled out from the mass of bodies.
“You tell them, sir,” Corporate Boy cheered.
“Right on,” I seconded the motion.
Corporate Boy and I settled deeper into our hard plastic seats.
A moment later he was sighing out a gust of wind. “I’m in so much trouble.”
“Yeah?” My phone lit up again. I didn’t dare read it. “Big date? Shit, sorry. That was prying.”
“It’s okay. I also suck at small talk.”
He laughed. This time I heard it, deep and bright and full to bursting. I felt it shake inside his chest, his arm sharing the tremors with mine.
“Yes, it’s a date, and a setup too,” he said. “Looks like my awful streak is a solid one.”
“Don’t worry. One look at you and she’ll be a puddle on the floor.”
Okay, I just told him I thought he was hot. The trick to fix such a mistake, I’d learned, was to keep my eyes averted until I could mumble out better, less embarrassing words.
“I mean, it looks like you made the effort. That’s a nice shirt.”
He was smiling. I heard it. “I like your shirt too.”
“You know them?” I brushed my hair away and looked down at the shirt in question. I was wearing the name of a recent favorite local band. Excitement washed over my shame and I tipped my head to look at him. “They’re not very mainstream, but they have an old school sound that I miss with all of these EDM hits ruining the world.”
As if the train driver were my personal fairy, the speakers started booming out a stale Chainsmokers song.
“Like this piece of catchy shit.” I started singing out the words, just to get it out of my brain before it embedded itself into a week-long Last Song Syndrome.
“Are you going to a gig?”
It was my turn to laugh. A gig, a blind date. What was the difference anyway? I could very well be an old, jaded vocalist, fed up with the same old music playing, with how each night would end with me exhausted and unsatisfied and leaving the bar alone.
I should try this analogy with both Daisy and my mother after tonight.
“Sure. It’s my final gig, at least for a while. Because I’m so tired of these things not working out.”
“Is it a sound system problem, or a crowd control situation—?”
“It’s a me problem. I suck at gigs.”
His gaze found my mouth and my blood rushed to the space under the skin of my cheeks.
He caught my gaze. His eyes weren’t black as I first thought, but a deep, rich brown. I saw alarm flit there for a second. One blink and it was gone.
I took that as my turn to steer this small talk at which we both suck. “So, who’s the monster that set you up?”
“My boss.” He chuckled at the sympathetic gaze I fixed him. “She has her rare, more, er, charitable moments. I’m trying to not feel too weird about it. I guess she took pity on me.”
“Have you been very pitiful lately?”
“I guess. I’ve been drinking a lot the past few months, I am nearly incapable of getting drunk now.”
I let out a short whistle. “Congrats. Your liver is now steel on the outside, rotting on the inside.”
“I’ve stopped, okay.” He looked part amused, part worried. Part proud. “I am too young to die. All my hopes and dreams can’t go to waste.”
What a serious man he was. “Sounds like you have plenty.”
He shrugged, massive shoulders lifting. His shadow loomed over me when he was standing, and beside me now, he had to dip his chin a few inches so he could catch my eyes. For someone talking to a stranger, he sure made a habit of maintaining eye contact.
“I hope this girl I’m meeting tonight is nice,” his voice rumbled. “Because I really want to get married someday.”
“First date and you’re thinking about marriage?” My voice might have risen to a squeak a little bit.
“I’m going in with a goal in mind,” he said, sharp jaw set.
“How old are you?” I surprised myself at daring to ask him his age. I didn’t think I’d get a reply.
“Twenty-four, turning twenty-five.”
Ah, the quarter-life crisis. My ex-boyfriend Adam and I used to talk about getting married at 25. The age passed us and we didn’t, because we both realized we were still kids hitting wall after wall with our inflated little heads, confident and ambitious but naïve with no idea what we really wanted.
Three years past that age, he dumped me. A year later, he married someone else. I guess he figured out his life then.
“That’s not too young to get married.” Corporate Boy seemed to have read my silence as judgment.
That was partly true, fine, I admit it. Beyond that I was puzzled. And curious.
“I hope you’re not measuring yourself against Lizzie Bennet,” I quipped, keeping a straight face. “At least look to Mr. Darcy. He was older.”
“I am capable of heading a household.” His tone was flat but he didn’t sound annoyed.
“Sure you are. Everything about you reeks of stable income and a complete roster of fancy benefits. I just pity the girl you’re meeting tonight. What if she just wants to fool around, you know? Toe you under the table. Make out with you in the car. That kind of a simple life.”
I’d turned away but I swear I could feel his eyes on my mouth again. It must be a new superpower. I hoped my lipstick was as matte and long-wearing as the tube promised.
“My boss knows where I am. She said she found me the perfect girl.”
I scowled. “There is no such girl.”
“Okay, okay, you’re right, I take it back,” he said, palms up. He ran one hand down his face, as if he felt worn out. “I meant a girl who might want something lasting too, instead of just footsies and kissing. Though I’m not against any of that.”
“Why would you be?”
I wished the train would leave now, because I treasured Daisy and I really didn’t want her to end up in prison for strangling me for being so late. Also because I knew if we stayed still like this any longer, Corporate Boy would start asking me questions. Surely he’d retaliate for my terrible small talk.
I also wished the train would stall for a few minutes longer. Because Corporate Boy was gorgeous and his shirt felt good against my bare arm, and it had been a while since I’d wanted to figure out the spaces between a man’s words the way I did with his.
I blamed it on his friendship with Mr. Darcy.