Saquina Karla C. Guiam
It is past midnight, and the club music is still crawling inside your veins, but you sit down, because your legs can’t keep up with the echoes of more! more! more! and sweat is all over your skin, anointing you for a sacrifice or an ascension–you can’t quite tell.
You decide you want to breathe in the cool night air (That’s a lie, there’s nothing cool about the air in this part of the city, since it’s mixed with every cigarette smoked from decades past and the inky black exhaust of every vehicle), so, with your remaining leg-strength, you walk to the back door, past friends and ex-relationships losing themselves in each other and strangers.
Once outside, you lean against the wall of the club, taking a deep gulp of poison-sweet air into your lungs. And you close your eyes.
Someone taps you on your arm.
You open your eyes and you blink several times, then you shake your head. How long have you been napping, under muddy lights? Did someone nick something off you while you were unconscious?
But your vision clears, and there’s a girl right in front of you. Her clothes look old and ragged, some parts of her skirt look like they have been eaten away by rats. Her skin is pale, or maybe it’s the lighting, but she looks like she came from the cemetery, a ghost refusing to be buried. Then you look at her face.
You’ve heard the stories of Helen of Troy, of Maganda, the first woman, of women whose beauty seemed to be the catalyst and spark for—something. And here you are, caught in pools of eyes you know to be dark brown in true light, but streetlights and moonlight don’t offer the same illumination, and you are left staring into darkness, a flimsy image of your face reflected back at you. She’s the most beautiful girl you’ve ever seen in your life.
“I think I’m lost,” the woman says, and when she moves slightly, you see that her clothing is darker than the first time you saw it. Dingier and more ragged; less chewed on by rats and more like something with claws tried to pull on it. It’s wet, too, and the moisture makes it even more obscure than the sky above, as it clings to her skin. “Do you know what this place is?”
Her voice has a strange quality to it—almost accented, like she doesn’t come from here, like there’s a specific note she’s singing, but you can’t tell since you’ve always been tone-deaf. You want to get lost in it—her voice is kind of like that.
You blink and shake your head, get it together, and you tell her the name of the nightclub, and the river next to it.
“Oh,” she replies. “Then I really am lost. I’m looking for a river, but this isn’t the one. Can you help me?”
Can you? Knowing your legs are shaking, from the humming of alcohol and the ringing of drumbeats? You say yes, you offer your right arm, she loops her left around it. Her face, under a rapidly retreating moon, glows with her smile—it’s shy, but you know it’s real, and you know your thundering heartbeats are real. You tell her your name as you lead her to her destination.
“That’s a nice name,” she tells you, and you respond with a wry slant to your lips. She laughs at that. “I never told you mine, and you offered to accompany me to wherever I’m heading, I feel so rude.”
You tell her it’s fine. You also tell her that you didn’t have anything better to do—you didn’t want to go back to flashing lights and temporary solace in another body, at least for today (or tonight?). Cars and buses pass by, headlights like small-scale suns. You ask about the river she seeks.
“It’s not much, but I’ve always loved it. It always felt like a home away from home, you know?”
You don’t really have something like that. You tell her so, talk about how both the house you grew up in and the schools you’ve attended didn’t make you feel at ease. You tell her you’ve always been looking for something like that, maybe even in the shape of a person.
“Maybe it is a person, for you?” A group of middle-aged drunk men on the other side of the street are suddenly yelling, Hoy, gago, ibalik mo pera ko! Both of you watch, but only briefly, and continue walking, separating yourselves from the inevitable sound of fist against skin, of wooden chairs and broken San Miguel bottles. “Limiting belonging to a physical place seems boring,” she says, and then you see her making the same mouth lift you did earlier. “Though I told you about the river being a home to me. For you, or maybe for anyone else, home doesn’t have to be a place. Or anything physical. Just a space of comfort. Do you agree?”
Red light glares from above you, and then both of you stop, letting the flow of traffic become background noise. You respond to her question by saying it sounds like something you’ve been thinking for a while. Her smile jumps at you again, and you almost miss the flashing of red to green, in her radiance.
You ask for her name once the two of you have crossed to the other side of the street, and continue the journey.
“It’s Pasig.” Her smile loses its shine but doesn’t waver. “Kind of old-fashioned, compared to yours, huh?”
You tell her it’s a pretty name, that older names have a certain charm to them. She tells you you’re sweet, you ask her if you remind her of candy; suddenly, a burst of bubbling laughter comes out and disturbs some wandering street cats.
“You’re silly! And no, you’re not candy, but you are refined sugar.”
That summons another well of laughter from her, but also from you, though yours is shorter and smaller and not as loud. It’s a good joke, you think, with no hint of malice coating it—like sour candy sprinkled with sugar, your head says.
The journey is long, the hours have passed; from a corner of your eye, a faint glimmer of dawn slowly but surely splits the curtain of night. The two of you have passed trees, street vendors, dwindling cars, disappearing children—but you don’t feel any ache in your legs.
“Are you tired?” Pasig asks, worry clear in her tone. “You look lost.”
Disconnected comes out of your mouth, and it strikes you how fitting that word is to your current condition. You were tired before you decided to accompany this stranger. You distinctly remember burning in your throat and your insides, remember the throbbing of guttural bass amidst dangerous lights.
You shake your head, move to go forward, assure her with another crooked smile. She smiles back, and both your steps synchronize to an unnamed and unheard beat.
On the horizon, light slithers through. Somewhere, a rooster calls. The rhythm of the city at night slows down. Sleep beckons the weary. Soon, the only footsteps you hear are yours and Pasig’s, accompanied by the city beginning to breathe.
You notice there is less night clinging to trees, to buildings, to the ground. The sun is unfolding, ready to cloak the place in light. Pasig stops walking, and you take that as a cue for yourself.
The two of you have reached a river. However, as the sun lifts the remaining wisps of darkness, you think, this is a corpse—or rather, the corpse of a river. Pasig lets go of your arm and kneels by the riverbank.
“I’m home,” you hear her say. “A friend brought me back.”
She turns her head toward you, lifts a hand to beckon you over. Her shadow is indistinct, as if it does not quite fit into the lines of her form. You follow, and kneel next to her. You see the river has been dead for some time; the water does not even reflect the smallest glint of sunlight. There is nothing swimming in it. You look back at Pasig, the strange girl who asked you to accompany her to this river.
She is smiling.
“Thank you so much for taking me here,” she says, and you notice her voice has changed. But when, you wonder, when did her voice start sounding like she was drowning?
You tell her again it’s nothing, that you didn’t have anything important to do when she had asked, repeating words you already said before. You say anyone would have done the same. The smile on Pasig’s face grows bigger. Under the bright new morning, her facial features look like they are spilling, dripping, on to the riverbank.
You cannot move, nor can you speak. All you can do is look at her.
“You’re really sweet.” Pasig’s mouth is moving as it forms the words, but you also hear them echoing in your head. “I feel really bad about this, especially since you’re so interesting. But I have to do this.”
You do not see her hands pushing into your shirt, into your skin, into you. But you see Pasig fall into the river, her hair unraveling slowly, becoming weed-like at the first contact with the surface. The back of her head follows: her ears, her eyes, her nose, the muscle and bone and tissues that make up her face. Her hands—or rather, what feels like her hands—do not fall off, even as her arms disappear. The torso follows, then the place where one would see genitalia but which you see is smooth and empty. Then her legs. Finally, her feet. Her skin melts, then congeals into a wet, sticky mass, falling into the water. Some of it remains, however, in the hands that are very solid in your chest, and the face that is no longer a face—just a flesh-colored mask underneath nothing. You see no bone or muscle framing her body.
The hands linger inside you, as do the remnants of Pasig’s face, especially the dripping smile.
“Thank you again,” speaks a voice, with no mouth and no throat. “I’m sorry.”
The hands dissolve. The remnants of Pasig’s face fall into the river. You can finally move, and you slump onto the space where Pasig was on the riverbank.
Sleep comes easy.
Above, the sun has finally bloomed, cloaking everything in light. It is morning. The one rooster becomes a chorus—they time their calls after each other, doing so after one has finished their turn. The city breathes.
“You’re not a bad fit.”
You wake up. Above you is your body, smiling the same way Pasig did. You expect there would be blood stains, where she pushed her hands into you, but your shirt on your body is not ruined. Instead, there are slowly drying leaves and small bits of grass stuck in the creases. There are patches of dirt on your pants. You watch your body sit cross-legged on the riverbank.
“I’m really sorry for what I’ve done,” your body says, the cadence of the words spoken sounding distinctly unlike you. There is only one explanation.
Your body laughs. You have never laughed as freely as your body does now.
“Who else?” Pasig says, the smile on your face a perfect copy of the one that she used to have. “Anyway, I wanted to say I’m sorry again. It was the only way.”
“Survival, for both of us, I think. I don’t quite remember the why or the what anymore.” You watch her pull your body up and stretch your limbs, dusting dirt from your knees. She gives you another look.
“You make a very good-looking river. In fact, I predict that once you clear up, you will be teeming with all sorts of lives. Exciting, right?”
Will you come back?
“Maybe,” she replies, putting your hands into the pockets of your pants. “I’ll think about it. Don’t worry so much, you won’t be on your own for long.”
I’m not worried.
Pasig doesn’t respond to that. Instead, you watch her chuckle with your mouth. You watch her, as she bids you farewell with your hands. You watch, as she disappears from your line of sight completely, carrying your body, becoming you.
You wonder what your friends or your family will think, of this you that is not like you. You wonder if they will notice the changes in what once was your voice, your gestures, your movements, your thoughts.
The time is high noon. The city is buzzing. It is the perfect lullaby.