MONICA MACANSANTOS

Stopover

When Cathy’s plane began its descent into Austin, Texas, she lifted the shade of her window and peered outside. From where she sat, the city streets trickled from the downtown area to the sparsely populated fringes of the dustbowl below. A vein of water wound its way through the city grid, appearing and disappearing as the base of her window bobbed up and down beside her. As the plane tilted to its left side, a bell tower emerged into view, and the trees and brick buildings that surrounded it seemed to reinforce its genteel authority. She imagined Evangeline biking to class under those trees, her wavy hair streaming behind her, the way it did in those tin-framed, open-air jeepneys they rode together to class in their sprawling college campus in Manila.

She and Evangeline had both been English majors in college, and when they graduated, Evangeline took a teaching job at an agricultural college near the foothills of Mount Makiling, while Cathy left the Philippines with her family to begin a new life in the suburbs of San Francisco. She wasn’t even “Cathy” back when Evangeline knew her, and when Evangeline called her by the name “Katrina” on the phone, she felt her old life tightening around her like an ill-fitting dress she had outgrown. She hadn’t intentionally cast away her old name, or her memories of the old country, during her three years in America. Like scales she had shed, she had hardly been aware that some of her old habits had fallen away from her repertoire.

This wasn’t her hometown, but as she walked up the tarmac and into the small, glass-paneled airport, she felt as though this were a sort of homecoming, and she pictured Evangeline being awed by her accent, as well as the ease with which she dealt with Americans. She hadn’t been back to the old country since she had left, and this was the next best thing to coming home—meeting a character of her past whom she could overwhelm with her knowledge of America. One of the fringe benefits she enjoyed as a check-in girl for American Airlines were free flights to any town with an airport in the United States. She took advantage of this to explore her adopted country, and she posted pictures of her trips to New York and the other big cities on Facebook religiously. She followed every “like”, every admiring remark about her success in this land that everyone back home called “the land of the free”. It came to a point where she needed to get on a plane to hear their comments in her head: for only by doing this could she remind herself of the freedom she now possessed.

When Evangeline messaged her, telling her that she was moving to Austin, Texas for graduate school, Cathy looked forward to having a couch to sleep on in a town she had only read about in in-flight magazines. Evangeline was probably as bewildered as she had been when she first arrived in America, but Cathy was sure she was smart enough to navigate the town, or at least to know how to buy a couch from a local thrift store. Cathy could take care of the other parts of this trip, like coaxing Evangeline to a bar, or teaching her how to flirt with American boys.

“Plane just landed,” Cathy typed into her phone, her boot heels neatly clicking against the grooves of the airport escalator. “You can pick me up now.”

“All right. I texted you my address. You can rent a car or take a shuttle to my place,” Evangeline replied.

“What? You don’t have a car?” Cathy texted back, alarmed.

“I said so in my email. Car rental companies near the exit. Sorry,” was Evangeline’s reply.

Sighing, Cathy pushed her phone into her jeans pocket and made her way through the crowd of families, students, and returning servicemen, in khaki boots and camouflage uniforms, who stepped aside as she passed without making eye contact with her. She felt as though she were walking through a forest of towering bodies that were too indifferent to do her harm. She approached the Avis counter and fell in line, right behind a family of Indians and a bespectacled old man in a gray suit and a battered briefcase. The crowd that had gathered around the baggage carousels thinned out, and she watched on as families in summer clothing entered the airport and let out excited screams when spotting their uniformed sons who lumbered towards them. Her friend was too poor to extend the same welcome to her, and when the uniformed teenager behind the Avis counter handed her a bill, she realized she didn’t have enough money saved up for this trip to be as mobile as she wanted to be.

Upon Evangeline’s suggestion, she reserved a seat on an airport shuttle, and she shared a ride with a quiet Asian girl who peered, near-sightedly, into her iPhone, and two middle-aged women in jeans and T-shirts who chattered about a bridal shower as they clasped their newly bought cowboy hats to their bellies. The houses they passed on their way to the city were just as seedy as the one-storey, clapboard bungalows that surrounded her apartment building on the outskirts of San Francisco. Outside her shuttle window, mothers pushed strollers across the street as small children grasped the hems of their worn, thrift store skirts, while men in baseball caps and baggy pants walked by the roadside, ignoring vehicles that barreled past them. A twin-sized mattress and box spring peeked from the mouth of a dumpster that faced the road, and she remembered the futon mattress she and her boyfriend had retrieved outside a vacant lot near her apartment building just months before. It creaked under them during their make-out sessions, and her boyfriend complained that it was giving him back problems whenever he slept over, but the two-hundred dollars she had saved was enough to pay for a two-night stay at an airport hotel in one of those sleepy Midwestern towns whose names she didn’t bother to remember. Money passed through her fingers like water, and again, and she was back to scrimping. The shuttle that bore her to her friend’s apartment was like a sealed capsule with its windows rolled up, shielding its passengers from the grayness that spread itself before them like the stale pages of an unread book.

After skirting past the university and entering a quieter neighborhood of oak trees and clapboard houses nestled behind flower bushes and evenly mown lawns, the shuttle pulled into a parking space in front of a gray, benign-looking apartment building with arched entrances and a pair of curved staircases that wound their way from a raised platform on the first floor to the right and left sides of the second floor. She dialed Evangeline’s number, and a door on the second floor opened. Evangeline stepped outside, holding her phone to her ear, and when she spotted Cathy at the foot of the stairs leading to her floor, she flipped her phone shut, smiled, and waved.

In America, Cathy had learned the habit of spreading her arms as a friend approached, and Evangeline whispered, “I missed you so much!” into her ear as they hugged. The touch of Evangeline’s palm against her back awakened memories of long ago, when Evangeline brushed Cathy’s arm teasingly whenever Cathy asked her to explain Derrida’s definition of différance to her, as though gleefully surprised that anyone she considered her friend could find such easy concepts so difficult to understand. Evangeline never lacked friends despite spending hours in the library, and when she did socialize with the likes of Cathy, it was with a lighthearted friendliness that she guarded her secrets of success. She was a favorite of the professors, a perpetual guardian and dispenser of answers when no one else in the classroom was bright enough to follow a professor’s train of thought. The tidiness with which Evangeline conducted her own life befuddled Cathy: she had left her hometown in the northern provinces to study in Manila, locked herself up in her dorm room to study, and despite her shyness with boys, had defied her classmates’ expectations by dating the President of the Student Government. Her life, it seemed, had been carefully planned out: even two years of teaching in a sleepy agricultural town south of Manila seemed to have gotten her places.

Evangeline grasped her shoulders, pulled back, and inspected her. “You’ve gained weight!” she said, in Tagalog. Cathy was sure she would’ve felt insulted if Evangeline said the same thing in English, but in their native tongue, it was a common greeting. Evangeline knew just how to tell a friend the embarrassing truth.

“At least I’m gaining some weight. You’ve remained a stick since we graduated,” she said.

“You know me. I jog everyday, for lack of a vice,” Evangeline said, letting go of Cathy’s shoulders. “I made adobo for dinner, by the way. My dad’s version.” She turned, and led Cathy upstairs.

“Great. That’s one less meal to spend for,” Cathy said, pulling at the straps of her backpack.

“This country’s crazy. You have to swipe your card for every move you make. That’s what I miss about the Philippines.”

“I know. Back home, you can laze around and expect a relative to send you money from abroad.”

Evangeline turned, and gave Cathy a hard look of reproach.

“Well, not everybody,” Cathy said, forcing a smile.

Evangeline’s face softened. Cathy was amused by her friend’s sternness, a habit acquired, Cathy joked to herself, from having to deal with minds that weren’t as sharp as hers.

“I see what you mean. My aunt thinks I’m making enough to save up for a house back home. If ever she knew how expensive it is to live here.” They had reached the door of her apartment, and Evangeline turned the knob, pushed it open, and stood aside to let Cathy pass.

“My futon was delivered a week ago. Just in time for your visit.”

Cathy spotted the black futon pushed to the right side of the living room, behind a chocolate brown coffee table with a growing stack of magazines. The entire living room bathed in the afternoon sunlight that shone through the room’s floor-to-ceiling window. Cathy would’ve been hesitant to sign a lease for an apartment with such a large window, but when one lived in such gentrified surroundings, one’s instincts weren’t sharpened by the constant threat of break-ins. She felt a pang of envy as she paced around the apartment and spotted a large, hardwood desk beside the futon couch, and a bookcase pushed against the wall that marked the end of the living room. It would’ve been the perfect writing space for her: a room with a view, offering enough space for the mind to wander.

She took off her backpack, set it down on the floor, and approached Evangeline’s desk. “This is a beautiful desk,” she said, running her fingers along its varnished surface and closing her eyes.

“Forty dollars, from a poet who was moving to Chicago,” Evangeline said, leaning against the wall dividing the living room from the kitchen. “It’s cherrywood.”

“I wouldn’t even have made the distinction,” Cathy said.

“Poetry used to be written at that desk. It’s a desk meant for you, not for me,” Evangeline said, and she laughed, as though wanting to ease Cathy back into the past, back into the ill-fitting dress.

“I just have enough space in my apartment for a futon and a coffee table,” Cathy said, sinking into the futon and pulling her backpack towards her feet.

“So your coffee table doubles as your writing desk?” Evangeline asked.

“As a reading desk, it does.” Cathy unzipped her backpack and peered into it, feeling Evangeline’s eyes following every twitch on her face.

“I miss reading your stories,” Evangeline said, retreating behind the kitchen wall.

Cathy pulled out from her backpack the library books she had brought with her, and set them on the coffee table. Both were due in two weeks: H.P. Lovecraft’s The Dunwich Horror, and Nicole Krauss’s The History of Love. It was an odd pairing, but there was no need for her to follow any syllabus or thematic grouping, now that she was out of school. She was educating herself, not enslaving herself to any institution, or order.

The smell of soy sauce and bay leaves wafted into the living room, and a wave of memories washed away the antiseptic calmness of the present, revealing the comforting confusion of her past. She was in her grandmother’s house in the old country, sitting on a bamboo bench as her grandmother puttered about in her stone kitchen. Her grandmother’s adobo smelled sweeter, more acrid. America, back then, stood for everything her adulthood meant to her: an unrealized vastness into which her parents, after getting their visa petitions approved, would initiate her. She was in college by this time, and she was telling her grandmother, who was ladling the pork and chicken stew into a bowl, that she wanted to be a writer, maybe a journalist. “But before you leave, you should learn how to cook our food,” her grandmother said, setting down the bowl on a linoleum-covered bamboo table and inviting her to eat. “In America, you’ll have food on the table all the time. But unless you learn how to cook our food, you’ll never be able to feed that belly.”

The first adobo she made, when she had moved out of her parents’ house, was too bland to awaken memories of her grandmother’s cooking. She gave up on her first try, and now subsisted on a diet of TV dinners and canned chili. As long as she kept her stomach filled, she could keep her longing for the past at bay. A more skilled cook like Evangeline, on the other hand, could afford to be oblivious to the longings she awakened in her friend.

“You must be thirsty. Would you like some tea?” Evangeline asked, emerging from the kitchen with a wooden spoon in her hand.

“Do you have beer in your fridge?” Cathy placed The History of Love on her lap, and opened it to a random page.

“Oh, I don’t keep alcohol in my house.”

Evangeline’s cheerfulness only served to fan her disappointment.

“For real?”

“I just can’t drink alone.”

“The only liquids I drink are alcohol. And water.”

“I’ll get you a glass of water, then.” Evangeline disappeared behind the wall, opened her fridge and cupboards, and reemerged with a glass of cold water. Placing the glass on the coffee table, she looked at the book in Cathy’s lap, and asked, “What are you reading?”

The History of Love. I was just looking at a random page. Haven’t really started yet.”

“Oh, that’s such a good book,” Evangeline said. Then, straightening herself, she said, “I’d like to see one of your stories in print, someday.”

“That wouldn’t happen.” Cathy bit her lip.

“Sure it will. This is America.”

“I don’t have time to write these days,” Cathy said, snapping her book shut and returning it to the coffee table. “There are just too many good books to read.”

“Don’t you remember Dr. Cruz comparing my failed attempts at writing with your polished prose?” Evangeline was behaving like a mother this time, and it seemed as though she took joy in dispensing kindness to her less fortunate friend.

“Why write, if there are so many good books to read?” Cathy asked.

“I don’t know. You were just so good at it. I still remember that story you wrote about two blind men.”

“I’ve been doing some living, too, you know.” For how could she justify her own laziness to Evangeline? Life rolled on, whether Cathy liked it or not, and she had other pressing concerns to deal with, like rent, bills, and coworker ex-boyfriends who nagged her with handwritten letters filled with misspellings and grammatical errors. She didn’t see any reason to be choosy—it was bad enough that her coworkers had turned her bookishness into a running joke, and she chose to laugh along with them rather than alienate her new friends. After all, it was the ones who had never been to college who treated her as though she were one of them—the college-educated among them behaved as though they were too good to be hauling suitcases onto conveyor belts and working alongside new immigrants like she. Traveling allowed her to forget the less savory details of her life, but the sheets of stationery she left blank on the writing desks in the rooms where she slept reminded her of a larger emptiness she preferred not to face.

Evangeline withdrew again behind the kitchen wall, and reemerged after a few minutes with a bowl of steaming hot adobo, which she set on the dining table. Like Cathy’s grandmother, Evangeline nodded at her, and said, “There’s no pork in here, just lean, skinless chicken breasts. I also made salad.”

On the table, she set two embroidered placemats, on which she placed two matching floral plates. Cathy sometimes suspected that Evangeline’s orderliness was a tic meant to disguise a hidden chaos. But Evangeline executed these gestures with so much ease, as though this weren’t a mask, but the foundation on which her life had been built. It seemed, at this point in their friendship, that Cathy had to give her friend a cleaner justification of her failure to accomplish her goals, since cleanliness seemed to be the only language Evangeline was capable of comprehending.

Cathy suspected that Evangeline saw life as a series of signposts pointing one to a sought goal, and that every wrong turn one made was the result of one’s own miscalculations. Over dinner, she told Evangeline that she had sent her resume to fifty newspapers upon arriving in America, and that only one of them asked her for a writing sample, after which she was informed that the position for which she applied had been filled.

“Then you could’ve applied to fifty more places,” Evangeline said, as though her mind were immune to reason.

“Vangie, you don’t get it, do you? I needed a job. I couldn’t get one at a newspaper. Americans don’t like our English.” This conversation was exhausting her, and she leaned back in her chair and pushed away her food.

“That’s not true. Look at me. I got into an American graduate school with my Filipino English.”

She groaned. “But I’m not you.”

Evangeline nodded, and in her silence, she seemed to give Cathy her half-hearted assent. But then, Evangeline said, “I’ll edit you. Send your essays to me.” She met Cathy’s stunned gaze with a reassuring look.

“You could always write travel articles. If I were you, I’d take advantage of those free trips. And then you could send me your drafts, and I could line-edit them.” Evangeline placed a feta cheese-powdered leaf in her mouth, and chewed.

After a few seconds of silence, Evangeline swallowed and said, “Oh come on, don’t be offended. Everyone knows you’re the better writer. You just said that Americans don’t like our English. Sometimes, it’s just a question of nuance.”

“And you’re the expert on nuance.”

“Well, I got into grad school here. Maybe they thought I could learn something.”

“Vangie, you’re making me want to get drunk.”

Evangeline smiled. “Is that the real reason why you came here?”

“You just read my mind. I have to get drunk. Dead drunk.”

“Plastered, you mean?”

Cathy sighed. “Yeah, whatever. And you have to get drunk with me too.”

A look of nervousness passed over Evangeline’s face, and it amused Cathy to see her façade of calm goodness crumble. Cathy put her hand over Evangeline and said, “Don’t worry, I’ll watch out for you. You have to trust me.”

“After tonight, you’re gonna thank me for not having a car.”

Tama.”

 

As Evangeline ran water over the dirty dishes and pots, Cathy took out the dresses she had brought and draped them on Evangeline’s futon. Apparently, it wasn’t too difficult for her to gain the upper hand. While there were things that Evangeline was better at doing, there were things she had yet to learn, and to turn her into a willing pupil, Cathy would first have to expose her ignorance.

“I’m glad you came. I’ve been feeling lonely ever since I arrived here,” Evangeline said.

“Don’t you have friends here?” Cathy asked, staring at her dresses, wondering which one her friend was willing to wear.

“I get along well with my classmates, but you know how white people are. They’re more comfy when dealing with their own kind.”

“You mean most of your classmates are white?”

“You could say that.”

“Now that would make me very uncomfortable.”

“Don’t you work with white people?”

“Just white passengers, and they can be so stuck-up sometimes.” Cathy picked up the fuchsia-and-black striped tube dress from its sleeves, and carried it to the dining area, where she turned to face Evangeline. “Now, what do you think of this?” Cathy asked, draping it on her chest.

Evangeline stared at it at said, “Very daring. Very Latin.”

“You’re wearing it,” Cathy said, and threw it at Evangeline. Evangeline was too surprised to let it fall to the floor, and after catching it, she held it before her, her face registering a faint disgust.

“We’re probably the same size. I have another dress on the futon, if you don’t like that one.”

Evangeline walked to the living room, and raised an eyebrow when she saw the neon green one-shoulder dress spread on her futon, like a mislaid piece of merchandise. “I can’t wear that one either,” she said.

“Unless you have something better to wear.”

Evangeline lowered her eyes, and it dawned on Cathy that it wasn’t modesty that made Evangeline hesitate. Cathy had bought both dresses at Ross, the only place where it didn’t pain her to part with her money, and the brightness of these dresses now flashed at her embarrassingly. They had both been brave choices, but her bravery could have been a result of her carelessness, or her simple lack of taste.

She covered up her embarrassment with a laugh and said, “Oh, come on. This isn’t the Philippines. No one’s gonna go after you for being slutty.” She knew Evangeline was embarrassed to admit to her own lack of experience in these matters, and Evangeline giggled.

“Oh, what the hell. This means I’ll really have to get drunk.” Evangeline withdrew to her bedroom, draping the fuchsia and black tube dress on her arm.

She chose to ignore the hint of disappointment in Evangeline’s voice, taking solace in her prediction that she’d outshine Evangeline later that night. “I’ll do your make-up too,” Cathy yelled, with relish. “After all, you said you’d edit me!”

 

This wasn’t Cathy’s town, and she stood out in the bar-going crowd of Sixth Street: the faces of the doormen lit up when they saw her, as though hungry for variety after watching blonde after blonde walk past them. When she flashed them her California driver’s license, they’d joke about knowing that she wasn’t “from around these parts” as they offered her a crooked arm that she gladly took as they escorted her into their music-filled bars. Evangeline trailed behind her, taking her Texas ID card from her clutch purse and returning the doormen’s patronizing smiles.

“Oh my God, I think the drummer just gave me the eye,” Cathy said, as they carried their drinks to a table near the stage.

“How do you notice all these things?” Evangeline yelled above the music.

“You don’t go out a lot, do you,” Cathy yelled back, stirring her chocolate whiskey.

She felt hungry after they had visited four bars, and they found a Mexican restaurant after walking down several blocks. After they had settled into their leatherette seats and given the waitress their orders, Cathy watched her friend from across the table. Evangeline radiated a carefree, alcoholic energy from her seat, and she leaned forward, blinking and laughing before she spoke.

“There’s this guy I met. His name’s David,” Evangeline said.

“And he’s making you all giggly,” Cathy said, nodding at the waitress as a bowl of chips and salsa was set before them.

“I know. He’s not my type, but I’m beginning to like him.”

“Sounds promising.” She pulled a chip from the pile, dipped it in salsa, and popped it in her mouth, giving Cathy a mute, prodding look.

“A classmate introduced us at a party. He’s a PhD student in Anthropology.”

“Wow,” Cathy said, her mouth full. Swallowing, she said, “At least you get to meet smart guys here. That’s what I miss about college, you know? Talking to people about books, meeting smart guys.”

“Hello, you could always go back to school here. You’d qualify for federal aid.”

Cathy smirked. “I don’t know. I’m too lazy to go back to school.”

“I don’t believe you,” Evangeline said, drunkenly slapping the air between them with her palm. “You, with your cum laude.”

Cathy rolled her eyes. “I didn’t work for that. Besides, all the forced writing we did in college made me want to quit school for good.”

“Forced or not, you were good at it.”

Service at this restaurant was quick, she noted. A plate of quesadillas was placed in front of her, and Evangeline stared in horror at her brownie a la mode.

“The newspapers I applied to didn’t think so.” She picked up her fork and knife, and sliced off a neat corner from her quesadilla. She put it in her mouth, and munched evasively.

“But you could still write while doing your airport gig. Maintain a blog or something.”

“Yeah. And then you’d edit me.” Cathy stared at the abundance of food on her plate, wondering why no one else in this country seemed to take notice of this habitual overindulgence. Food was so plentiful in this country, one didn’t have to strive for anything else.

“This is a lot of brownie,” Evangeline said.

“You’re still not used to the portions here?” Cathy asked.

“How can I? They always serve us too much food.”

“You say that, because you’re used to eating much less.”

“But this is too much.”

“I said, it’s too much for you, because you’re used to eating much less.” She liked the pathetic look on Evangeline’s face, and how much it seemed like an admission of cluelessness.

“Come on, eat up. You look like a hungry African child. And tell me more about David.”

Evangeline laughed, and dipped her spoon into the scoop of vanilla ice cream. “Well, he’s a blond, blue-eyed Texan who’s writing a dissertation about Indian culture. He has an adorable drawl. He’s really smart, too.”

“So, he’s a white guy.”

“Yeah.” Evangeline paused, and gave Cathy a doubtful look. “Do you have some beef with white guys?”

Cathy pursed her lips, then said, “Not really. It’s just that I’ve never dated a white guy.”

Evangeline was incredulous. “You mean, out of all the guys you told me abut over the phone and on facebook—“

“The guys I’ve dated so far are either coworkers or friends of coworkers, and none of those people are white.” She flipped through the laminated beverage list on their table. “But I’m okay with that. Latinos and Black guys are great in bed.” She ran her fingers through her hair, giggled, and said, “Did I tell you yet about the guy I’m sleeping with right now? Well, you’ve probably heard by now the myth about black guys and their, well, size. It’s true, for this guy at least. And his endurance, my God! It chafes after awhile, you know!”

Evangeline smiled.

“You, girl, have to go on birth control soon. As in soon. Because that white boy of yours is gonna ask for it, soon.”

Evangeline dug into her brownie. “He already did. But I told him I’m not ready.”

“That’s not the only thing you should be worried about. White guys suck in bed.”

Evangeline narrowed her eyes. “How do you know that?”

“You’ll know, when you sleep with your white boy.”

 

If Cathy could ever convince herself to write a story about that night, she’d probably mention how she took Evangeline home after her friend had nearly passed out on the sidewalk in front of the fifth bar they had gone to; she’d admit that she had known that Evangeline wasn’t used to marathon drinking, but that Evangeline didn’t seem to mind. Maybe she’d describe how Evangeline’s laughter buzzed in her ears like flies’ wings as when she had asked Evangeline for her address, and how she watched the lights of downtown Austin illuminate the interior of their cab with its indulgent, wasteful glow. Evangeline had sobered up when they had gotten home, and they helped each other fold out her futon couch, laughing when they realized that they couldn’t figure out how they had done it when they futon finally gave in to their pushing. If words fractured a friendship, alcohol healed it, and she wished it were possible to drown in the amber-colored recklessness of that night forever.

But with sunrise came the unwanted resurfacing of the mind, and she awakened to a bright throbbing in her head, and a dismal awareness of her surroundings. As she turned, her sheets rustled—she hadn’t remembered Evangeline spreading these sheets, and the detailed attentiveness of her friend vexed her as her eyes fell on the drawn blinds of the living room window.  The sputtering of cooking oil and the smell of brewed coffee and fried eggs reminded her of the calm domesticity that Evangeline was apt to return to, after what was probably, for her, a temporary relapse. Cathy wanted to remain in bed the entire day, and felt too conscious of how the rhythm of her body was out of sync with the rhythm of her surroundings. She sat up, and glanced at the clock near the kitchen. It was nine in the morning.

Evangeline peeked at her from behind the kitchen wall. “Did I wake you up?” she asked.

“You did,” Cathy grumbled, scratching her head.

Evangeline laughed. “I just got hungry, so I made coffee and fried eggs. I made some for you too, in case you woke up.”

Cathy stretched, and smiled. “Oh, I don’t eat breakfast.”

Evangeline politely raised a hand, and rushed back to the kitchen. “Sorry, the eggs might burn. My God, Kat. I’d faint I didn’t have breakfast,” she said from behind the wall. “Besides, we have a long day ahead of us. You’ll need the energy for walking.”

“Right. We’re going to walk,” Cathy moaned, getting up and walking to the bathroom.

Her head continued to throb as they walked around the university, and when they passed the bell tower on which the words, “Ye shall know the truth and the truth shall set you free,” was inscribed, she remembered that she had left her camera in California. She hadn’t taken pictures ever since she had arrived, and there would be no evidence of her trip here, aside from a few lingering memories that would probably disappear under the pile of worries and drunken nights in the strange cities she’d visit after this trip. For what was worth remembering in Austin? All she wanted to take with her was the freedom she felt the night before when music and lights swelled around her, eliminating the need for conversation. She complained about the heat and the dust, and fanned herself furiously with her baseball cap when Evangeline tried to appease her by pointing at a statue or an empty expanse of grass. Her surroundings did not pull her in, the way the bars of Austin did. In the clear light of day, these stucco buildings impressed her with their aloofness, and Evangeline’s familiarity with these surroundings spoke of a sense of entitlement she could afford to be gleefully oblivious to.

“The travel guide mentions a Zilker Park and Barton Springs. Do we get to see those places too?” Cathy asked, as they crossed another drearily bright avenue of paved walks and fenced-in islands of shrubbery.

“Miss, you fly back to San Francisco this afternoon. We don’t have enough time, and I don’t have a car to drive you around.”

“I totally forgot about that.”

Evangeline had a weary look on her face when she paused and turned to look at Cathy.

“Thanks for reminding me.”

“Gosh, how touchy you are.”

“Kat, I’m trying my best.”

Cathy held both her hands up in mock surrender, and said, “Okay, fine, whatever. Take me wherever you can take me.”

They had lunch at a pizza parlor near campus, and afterwards they waited for a bus that would take them downtown. After ten minutes of waiting and fanning herself, she said, “If you had a car, we wouldn’t be waiting this long.”

“If you had rented a car, you wouldn’t be waiting this long,” Evangeline shot back.

A bearded, red-faced man sat at the foot of a traffic sign, clutching a heavy, battered knapsack to his chest, pulling the collar of his filthy hoodie to his chin as though to take shelter inside his own clothing. Upon catching Cathy’s eye, he smiled, and whistled. It wasn’t just his scruffiness that frightened her, but also the cheeriness with which he immersed himself in his own stench while singling her out. Why was it so difficult, in this country, to snuff out desire in men who had nothing?

Cathy looked away, and folded her arms across her chest, eyeing the cars that sped past her, envious of the distances they could go. A grackle swooped down on her, opening its pointed beak to release a crackling screech, and she ducked and screamed. The red-faced man cackled, asked for change.

A blue metro bus finally came into view, and when its door swung open, Evangeline brushed past her as she boarded the platform, inserted a few bills, collected their tickets, and handed one to Cathy without saying a word. Cathy followed Evangeline into the bus, and Evangeline turned her head away as Cathy planted herself in the seat beside her. Nothing Cathy did, it seemed, could bruise Evangeline’s calculated calm—even her anger was performed with care, as though she had practiced these gestures before, in the event of a quarrel. Cathy knew that what Evangeline wanted from her was an apology, but this was something Cathy wouldn’t give to her that easily. If Cathy were to be honest with herself, she’d admit that it was an apology from Evangeline that would quell her own anger—an apology for accepting this shoddy life and forcing it upon her.

Cathy gazed above Evangeline’s head, at the scenes that rolled past Evangeline like pictures in a View-Master toy. She wanted to see something different in this town, something that would astonish her. Although the dome of the State Capitol Building impressed her with its rosy massiveness, many of the things she saw were familiar to her: the churches, the parking garages, the chain restaurants of the downtown area, the abundance of cars on the road. This was all Evangeline was capable of showing her in this musty-smelling bus. Evangeline’s spartan lifestyle reminded Cathy of her own shoddy apartment and the cheap clothes she was forced to wear, and she was exasperated by the way in which Evangeline compensated for her present poverty with an optimism that Cathy didn’t share. Evangeline was convinced she knew where her life was going—she had told Cathy that her dream was to be an academic, and Cathy imagined her surrounding herself with people who shared her naïveté of the world at large. It was these people who could afford to snub the modest American Dream of material comforts, a dream that was less delusional, and easier for Cathy to embrace. It required little from her, aside from optimism in the freedoms she already had.

There was one desire she found easy to fulfill in this sprawling country, and it was the weightlessness she felt as she traveled across America by plane. But then she had to touch the ground, in cities that were beginning to look increasingly alike, whose scrubbed cleanliness only served to remind her of the closer affinities she shared with the polluted, monsoon-drenched streets of Manila.

“I’m sorry if I can’t drive you around,” Evangeline said in a hard, sarcastic voice.

“There’s nothing we can do about it,” Cathy said, feeling the dryness of her throat.

When they had crossed a bridge and reached an eclectic row of one-storey shops, Evangeline pulled the window string beside her, and Cathy stepped aside and followed her lead as they got down the bus. She took Cathy to a curiosity shop called Uncommon Objects, and Cathy noticed the abundance of doll heads and framed photographs of white, blushing babies. She looked at their price tags, and gasped at the quoted figures.

“You can just imagine how much money we’d make if we raided our houses back in the Philippines and sold off all the worthless junk our grandmothers kept,” she said.

“Nobody sells their heirlooms back home. Family property is family property,” Evangeline said, staring at a Victorian baby doll in a mottled gingham dress.

“Imagine how creepy it would be if that white baby stared at me from my wall,” Cathy said, pointing at another baby picture.

“Pretend she was your daughter in your past life. Maybe that would help.”

Cathy grinned. “If I could get away with it,” she said between her teeth.

In another corner of the store, a narrow-waisted, Victorian-style lace dress hung inside an open wooden closet, and Cathy stood on tiptoe as she took it down. She draped the bust over her chest, allowing the skirt to brush the floor. “I’d love to wear this for Halloween, but I’m too short. The skirt would drag behind me.”

“It’s trail behind you, not drag behind you.” There was a slight, mocking lilt in Evangeline’s voice, and Evangeline raised an eyebrow, as though impatient.

“Whatever,” Cathy said, returning the dress to the closet. She turned and made her way to the door, without waiting for Evangeline to catch up.

“You’re the one doing the dragging, not the skirt,” Evangeline said, following Cathy through the aisles of the store.

As Cathy pushed the glass door open with her side, she took out her cellphone, logged onto Yelp, and when she caught a signal, checked into the store.

“What were you doing that for?” Evangeline asked, when they had stepped outside.

“Just checking into this store on Yelp,” Cathy said. “It’s too weird not to be reviewed by me.”

“You write Yelp reviews?” Evangeline asked, amused.

“It’s my new hobby.” She slipped her cellphone into her faux leather purse and, with a quick, purposeful gesture, zipped her purse shut. The walked down the street, and when Evangeline spotted a bookstore, she pulled open the glass door and held it as Cathy entered.

Evangeline seemed to know what she wanted, for she gravitated immediately towards a bookcase near the shop window, pulling out books written by Susan Sontag, Michel Foucault, French philosophers who wrote in a style that seemed, when Cathy had been in college with Evangeline, to be intentionally hermetic. The tactfulness with which Evangeline kept mum about the books she read or the ideas she had encountered, was, for Cathy, vaguely condescending. Cathy wandered around the bookstore, reading blurbs of graphic novels, avoiding the thick, hardbound books, ambassadors of a lost era when readers like she weren’t too impatient to bypass the challenge of a prolonged read, when they could impose upon themselves a stasis that promised few rewards.

As she stood before a bookshelf near the back of the store, looking at a softbound copy of The Great Gatsby, Evangeline sneaked behind her. “And who reads these Yelp reviews?” Evangeline asked, her sarcasm couched in her sickly-sweet voice.

“People who could use my opinions about these stores,” she said. “At least there’s some use in what I write.” She looked at the cover of the book Evangeline was clutching to her chest, and said, “Not everyone’s smart enough to waste their time reading useless Lacanian theories.”

Evangeline smiled. “If you put your intelligence to good use a little more, you wouldn’t be stuck writing Yelp reviews.”

“I’m intelligent enough to know what’s useful,” Cathy said, brushing past her and making for the shop’s front door.

She hadn’t realized, until she had stepped into the fresh outdoor air, that she needed Evangeline to find her way back to the apartment, where she had left her things. She wished she had predicted this moment, so that she could have left Evangeline’s apartment with all her things on her back, but how could one be capable of preparing for disorder, when it was in one’s nature to create it? She watched Evangeline through the window of the store, paying for the book she had found, smiling at the cashier as she received her change. It was impossible to knock down the windowpane that separated the two of them without hurting Evangeline. Evangeline was hurt, she could tell, but the windowpane had not been broken. Evangeline pushed the shop door open, clutching her bagged purchase, and gave Cathy an icy look. A group of women twice their size in combat boots and baby doll dresses passed between the two of them. If Cathy looked just like them, she could’ve merged with their pack, instead of confronting the anger of the person who was, in this town, her single friend.

“We’re going home,” Evangeline said, pointing at the bus stop at the other side of the road.

Back in the apartment, Evangeline called a cab service as Cathy packed her bag, and when her taxi arrived, Evangeline gave her a final, perfunctory hug. “I’m sorry if I was rude to you. We’re still friends, aren’t we?”

“Of course.” In America, the word friend meant anything.

“I wish you happiness in whatever you choose to do. I’m not bullshitting, Kat. I mean it.”

“Thanks for the sincerity,” Cathy said, breaking away from Evangeline’s stiff embrace.

If this scene were taking place in Manila, she would’ve been walking towards her cab amidst car honks, wailing babies, lines of dripping laundry, and the footsteps and laughter of passersby. In their homeland, there were too many noises, smells, and sights to distract them from the silence of inevitable partings. It took a trip to America for them to realize that they had parted long ago.

On the plane back to San Francisco, she closed her eyes as the ground released her into the weightlessness of the Austin sky. There was no need for her to look out the window—she had seen it all, and sought only release from the heaviness she had begun to feel when she parted with Evangeline. It used to be that she brought a notebook with her whenever she went on a trip, so that she could unburden herself on paper during long flights such as these. But in her effort to travel light, she discarded the things she had no use for, and after a few more trips, her notebook, like many of her previous necessities, had lost its use. Maybe it was this weightlessness of mind that she truly wanted, for only indifference could truly extinguish her longings. She’d have to will this indifference, for now. Sooner or later, it would come to her naturally. She’d be like a bird taking flight.

 

BIO: Monica received a BA in Creative Writing from the University of the Philippines and an MFA in Writing from the Michener Center for Writers at the University of Texas in 2013.

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