billie and jean
billie and jean
it's been nine months since billie passed away, but the one-bedroom apartment that we have shared together remained alive with his memory.
he was there wherever your eyes could reach and rest, the distance kept short by the memory of his rare, melancholic smiles; he was always sad. he was there in the shadow, perhaps hiding behind the silk curtains with little floral patterns, plotting about what to do with the past and how to solve the future; he was a mystery. he was there in the tiny kitchen, staring absent-mindedly at the crowded shelf right above the sink and the faucet mentally arranging with the precision of a general preparing to go into a battle the bottles of wine, vinegar, soy sauce, fish sauce. he hated the mess.
this morning, while i was cleaning the bathroom, a task i had been putting off since billie was buried, i found his favourite book in the laundry basket -- one hundred years of solitude. dirty white, almost brown, creased like an old maid’s hands, the cover nearly torn, with some pages folded either at the top or at the bottom (he never used bookmarks). billie had read it several times and he would return to it from time to time. i often asked him why. hoping that through things as mundane as this would give me clues about the kind of person whom i have fallen in love so deeply, as though he was my first love, that i often wondered if i could still sail and reach the shore once he was gone.
i remembered asking him one sunday afternoon when i caught him reading the book in the toilet, when he forgot to lock the door and i accidentally opened it. he valued his privacy. we never shared the bathroom. i rarely saw him naked, or changing clothes when i was around in the room. i stood at the slightly ajar door and surprisingly, he didn't seem to mind. anyway, he was just sitting at the toilet bowl, his short pants still on. he probably just wanted to read in silence. away from me.
-don't you find it boring reading something that you have read several times? something you are already so familiar with like your own shadow?
-- not really. it's like meeting your beloved friends again. rediscovering their thoughts, their motives, their lives, the places they have been, the people whom they have loved and hated and wanted to kill and marry. when it's a great book, well-written and all, there is always something new to discover each time you read them.
-- is that why you have very few friends? (a pointed question and i regretted immediately after i said that. would he hate me?)
-- i have very few friends because most people are boring and selfish and shallow and care for nothing but themselves. they only show and say and do what they think would make them look good in the eyes of others. even when they are with their friends and families. they are never real. they are always wearing masks. as if they are afraid that if they show their real selves, people would stop loving them. but the characters in books? they are real and well-rounded. you get to know what they are really thinking about the people they love and hate, about their families, friends, even the government, the politicians. how many people do you know in real life whom you can claim to really know what they are thinking about? what they really feel about everything and everyone?
silence. i did not have an answer for that. to avoid answering the question and to break the silence, i asked him -- so why don't you write your own book? i am dying to know what's going on inside that gorgeous head of yours.
he simply smiled. but the pain remained in his eyes.
-- you would hate me if i do that.
then he closed the door. gently and without a sound.
then over dinner, i prepared omelette because all i've got in the fridge were eggs. i had also ran out of rice. luckily, there was still a loaf of bread from a week ago.
while eating the omelette sandwich (the bread was still fine, in case you were wondering), i remembered it was his favourite dish. that was also the only thing that he knew how to cook. billie hated cooking. he hated washing and ironing clothes. but he loved to clean to clean the house, to wash the dishes. he hated shopping for clothes, shoes, groceries, appliances, electronics. the funny thing is, he liked having new clothes, shoes, bags and perfumes almost every month. not because he followed trends. he hated trends. despised fashion. he had always been a blue -- any shade of blue -- kind of person. shirts (always long sleeves, and preferably either floral or linen, or both. dark jeans and adidas sneakers. that was his uniform.)
i once asked him why he liked blue so much. most of his things were blue. and if he had his way, the flat would have been all blue. from the walls, ceiling, kitchen and bathroom tiles, sinks, window and shower curtains, cabinets, sofa, table covers. luckily, one of his loveable traits was his ability to compromise and negotiate. he always consulted me when it came to things that concerned us both. otherwise, it would be "blue is the warmest color" kind of an apartment.
-- it's relaxing, don't you agree? it also reminds me of the beach, the open spaces, the sky. things that just calm me down.
-- why, do i make you nervous?
one thing i hated most about him was his honesty. he was too darn honest.
-- why do i make you nervous? (same question, but different context. i hoped he would not notice).
-- why do you have to ask the same question twice?
-- i didn't. the first one was different. there's a comma after the why. which means do i make you nervous? the second one is about the things that i do or do not do that make you nervous. same question, yes, but different context. different answers too.
-- ok what? ok you understand? or ok as in the dismissive ok and you don't want to answer my second question.
-- why do you have to overanalyze everything, jean? (this time, he was ticked off because he used my name). it was a simple ok.
-- so why can't you answer it? it was a very simple question.
-- this what?
-- this. your over-analytical mind is one of the things that make me nervous. it's like you are always putting me in a microscope -- everything i do, everything i say, every move i make, even the way i fold the towels and wash the dishes. you are always judging me.
-- i. am. not!
-- you are.
-- you are.
-- ok, what? as in ok you surrender?
-- ok as in forget it.
-- what's the meaning of that?
-- see what i mean?
we had all kinds of arguments. i like arguing. i like asking questions. i like to pry. maybe because i am a journalist and that's how we usually get a scoop, an information, a story. a big story.
but billie was different. he was.....i don't know really. after nearly a year of being together, i hardly knew him. he was a book, a very thick book, with blank pages. i had tried several times to collect stories, bits and pieces of him, so i could fill those blank pages. but I failed.
one thing i was sure though. he was sad. not clinically sad. like depressed or something. he was just sad. maybe because of his childhood. i apologize for trying to explain him. i know that you can never explain why a person is behaving in a certain way. every person is a complicated creature battling their own demons, but i would try. you see, he grew up with an abusive parent. his father. who hated himself, hated his wife, hated his children, hated his neighbors, his relatives, his dog, his job. maybe the whole world.
i used to cry every time billie was drunk, or both of us, and he would tell me about how his father used to beat up his mom and then them, his kids, especially when he was drunk.
-- he was weak. he likes his solitude. he is a very solitary person, yet he wants to have a family of his own. i really wonder why. why didn't he just stay single for eternity. or became a monk.
-- because that's what society dictates. society wants us to get married, have children, enjoy family life. if you are alone, everyone will be scared of you. or envy you. or hate you. the world does not like odd people. people who flaunt their individuality. society punishes them.
-- so what if society hates him? if nobody wants him? isn't that what he wants in the first place? to be alone and be left alone? to be free and do anything that he wants? by following social norms, he ruined lives. the lives of his wife and children.
i kept quiet.
-- the irony is, he never realised that. or perhaps he knew, but tried to ignore it.
then a few minutes later, i would hear billie's silent sobs. then we would cry together.
it was love at first sight. at nearly thirty, i thought it would never happen to me anymore. sure when i was a teen-ager, or in my early twenty's when i was totally shallow and looks were everything to me. if you looked like keanu reeves or christopher reeve, then i would fall in love with you right away. i won't care if you are a drug addict, a sex maniac, a bum, a kidnapper, a dognapper, a carnapper, a rapist, a murderer. heck, even if you are a politician.
it was a rainy wednesday afternoon and i had to go inside a small coffee shop because my umbrella had just been turned upside down by a strong wind. while i love the rains, and always fancy walking under them, this time, i could not afford to get wet. i had an important meeting in an hour or so.
so the first coffee shop that i saw, i went in. inside, it was warm. smelled of coffee and freshly baked bread. like home. like mother's kitchen at five in the morning. there was a soft jazz music -- billie holiday's "these foolish thing". it was small, cozy, with five or six small round tables surrounded by two or four chairs, tiny vases with sunflowers on top of them, a large, inviting sofa at the middle of the room, and a bar.
he was inside the bar, alone, amid the cash register, cakes and pastries on the refrigerated glass cabinet, a fridge, glasses of wines, coffee cups, saucers, plates on the shelves, wine glasses hung upside down above his face. his face. a genuine, crooked smile that hid his beautiful, evenly white teeth. chinito eyes. pointed, narrow nose. unblemished creamy skin. the hair, cropped close to his skin like those of military men. then tight fitting v-neck black shirt covered by a green apron.
there were four people inside. one, a girl with long, curly hair and coffee skin, was seated at the bar chatting with him. her back on me. and the room.
-- good afternoon, he said. the girl turned around to look at me. she did not smile. was i interrupting something? her flirting? their flirting? or were they weaving their dreams for a future of togetherness, inspired by the rains?
-- hi, was all i said.
-- table for one?
i nodded my head.
-- you want to sit here at the bar?
i hesitated. i didn't want to piss off the girl, whose eyebrow was arched to hell. she could not hide her irritation.
-- it's ok. come on sit here. it's very comfortable here.
-- maybe he wants to sit in the sofa. the girl interrupted.
-- yes, i'll sit at the sofa.
he stepped out of the counter, with a menu covered by a faux black leather cover with the logo of the coffee shop.
he was even more handsome up close. tall too. around five feet and nine inches. he was wearing loose, dark blue jeans and white sneakers (in this weather? but they were dirty and tattered) with the laces untied. i pointed it out to him, but he just said it was ok. he preferred it that way. no fuss. always in a hurry. always on the go. no time to tie the shoe laces.
"i'll be seeing you in all the old familiar places" -- billie holiday crooned softly.
he handed me the menu. i accidentally touched his fingers. it sent some chills inside of me. not the electric kind though. something light but heavy at the same time.
i pretended to scan and read it. the menu.
-- you should try our cappuccino. it's thick, frothy, and creamy. or coffee, black, bitter and hot. or tea? jasmine tea? camomile? but i think you are a cappuccino kind of person.
-- hey, i am just joking.
-- that's ok.
-- but i really recommend cappuccino. that's my specialty. nobody does cappuccino better than i do in all of metro manila.
the girl in the bar was now looking at us. her beautiful, apple-shaped face, punctuated by lush, full lips, and framed by long, curly hair that touched down to her shoulders.
-- ok what?
-- do you have sandwiches?
-- what about pain au chocolat? it's fresh. genuine french. flown fresh from paris.
i smiled again. he smiled too.
-- i am just kidding. but it's really good. goes well with the cappuccino. not too sweet, not too soft. i won't heat it up so the chocolate chips won't melt on the bread.
-- that's all?
her eyes were still on us even if she was now facing the shelve-lined wall of the bar. i was guessing she heard our entire conversation.
when he walked away, i took a closer look at his butt. it was firm and full. my weakness. (sorry to mention this. feel free to stop reading if it upsets you.) he must be a gym rat, i thought. and suddenly, i hated him. i hate vain guys. high maintenance guys who slaved on the gym, who were picky eaters (counting calories. no rice. no beer. shit! why don't you just kill yourself!!). what i hate most are those who want others to follow their lifestyle. as though everyone is as shallow as them. who thinks that only lean people are beautiful.
he caught me eyeing him. embarrassed, i pretended to read a book -- the newly released door-stopper, sleep depriving 1Q84 by haruki murakami. but i could not help but steal glances of him while he was back at the bar, preparing my cappuccino and putting the pain au chocolat on a small plate. from time to time, he would talk to the girl, who never stopped talking. i was praying her saliva won't land on my bread and cappuccino. ewww!! now i lost my appetite. hahaha
a few minutes later, he was back on my table. i put down the thick, more than a thousand pages book on the table. he served me the steaming cappuccino in a red, tiny cup. frothy. like he said. then the pain au chocolat on a blue plate with knife and fork wrapped in a thick, checkered cloth, not paper towel or tissue paper, mind you.
-- thank you, i said politely like a school girl in an all-girl catholic school. with a fake british accent as well.
-- what are you reading?
i raised the book to his face.
-- oh. he said. then:
-- mind if i take a look?
i nodded my head.
-- too heavy, he said and pretended to lift it up with difficulty. i smiled.
then as if noticing for the first time that i had not tasted the cappuccino nor the bread yet, he said:
-- oh sorry. am i disturbing you?
-- i am jean.
-- and you are? wait let me guess. alex?
i smiled. yes, i smiled a lot when i am nervous. and suddenly grew a british accent as though i just played eponine on broadway.
-- billie. my name is billie.
-- yes. as in the jazz singer. billie holiday. my mom was obsessed with her.
-- wow! we are perfect together.
-- i am jean. you are billie.
-- billie jean.
-- i am still not following you...
-- billie jean. michael jackson.
then he started humming:
-- billie jean is not my lover. she's just a girl.
this time, i can no longer help it. i laughed a bit loudly. oblivious of the jealous girl at the bar and at the couple at the far away table next to the toilet, who were also oblivious about us as they were kissing and kissing. as though they were on a honeymoon. maybe they were. they looked like it -- young and pretty. both.
-- don't tell me you do not know that song.
-- no. of course i know michael jackson and that song. though i am not into him.
-- really? let me guess. billie holiday?
as if on cue, billie holiday's "come rain or come shine" played... outside, the rain was obnoxious. incessant. like a rejected lover begging his love one to come back.
-- yes. because she's my mom's favourite and i was named after her.
-- what about ella fitzgerald? chet baker?
-- i love summer time and my funny valentine.
-- me too.
she stood up and went to the rest room. this time, she pretended not to notice us. suddenly, we were ghosts.
-- mind if i sit down here? he asked.
-- go ahead.
i was nervous.
there was something in the way he looked at me, at his crooked smile that won't show his teeth, at his voice (soft and soothing unlike the rain outside. more like chet baker on a drunken, lonely night) that made me want to eat and drink him. smell his aroma. taste his skin.
-- i hope you like the cappuccino.
oh the cappuccino. i nearly forgot about it. so i brought the cup to my mouth and sipped. it was indeed delicious.
-- it's really, really good. i am not saying that because you are here with me. then i smiled.
-- i told you, he smiled back.
he was sitting close to me.
-- am i sitting so close to you?
-- sorry. but you have such a soft voice. i can't hear you well if i am standing, or sitting at a distance.
the girl was back at the bar stool. glancing at us with a smirk from time to time.
-- won't your girlfriend be mad at us?
-- the girl at the bar?
-- ah celine. no!
-- no she won't be jealous. or no she is not your girlfriend.
-- is that a trick question?
-- i want an honest answer.
-- she is not my girlfriend. she is a customer who likes hanging out here after her class. and yes, i think she is jealous of you.
-- you're blushing.
-- no! i protested.
-- can i have your number billie?
-- you are quick.
-- life is short. so why waste our time.
-- very blunt too.
-- we might not meet again. you might not like the cappuccino or the pain au chocolat, or the place. you might not come back again.
sad. very sad. that was how he seemed to me the first time i saw him entering the coffee shop one rainy afternoon. he was wearing a blue blazer, cut close to his lean frame, white shirt, red tie, black jeans, brown leather shoes, and black leather bag, the expensive kind, not the ones used by computer geeks for their laptops.
his hair, thick but short (down to his neck) was wet, but not fresh from the shower wet, more like after being rubbed with a towel wet, probably due to the rain outside. some patches of rain too on his jacket and pants. but overall, he was dry. as though he was water proof.
he had the saddest eyes. even when he smiled at me. he was very good looking, tan, tall (five feet nine inches), and very smart. i was intimated by the thick book he was reading -- haruki murakami's 1Q84 -- and his taste in music -- jazz. miles davis. coltrane. duke ellington. harbie hancock. billie holiday. ella fitzgerald. while it was my first time to hear about murakami, i was familiar with jazz. though i was not really into it. i was more the 80's and 90's pop fan. michael jackson. wham. u2. springteen. etc. the etc. here is very relevant.
anyway, after breaking the barrier between us -- it wasn't too much, as i feared earlier -- i got his number and we had a date the next day. dinner. at my coffee shop. i prepared something simple but special. his favourite seafood spaghetti, french bread, cheeses, red wine. jazz music, of course. i closed the shop early that night.
in fact, he was stunned when he came in and found out he was the only customer. that aside from flowers, there were candles on the table, the light was dimmed, and the music was all jazz. starting with billie holiday's "i'm a fool to want you." not knowing that it was sort of a premonition. or a warning.
--yes. you are that special.
--what did the owners say?
--they said it was alright.
--really? are they your friends?
--what if what..
--what if they lose money and fire you?
--i don't mind.
--no. that's not right.
--why not? you are worth it.
--i am serious jean.
--don't worry about it. don't feel guilty.
--why not?! we could have dined somewhere else.
--i own this place.
--oh what? oh you are disappointed. oh you are sorry. oh you think i am lying. oh you think i am being pretentious.
--nothing. none of the above. just plain and simple, meaningless oh.
we ended up at my flat after that. simply because it was a few buildings away from the coffee shop slash bar slash restaurant. that i put up three years ago after i got tired of being a journalist, first for print, then for for television. print journalism is dying or dead, depending on where you are in the globe. television is somehow surviving. online is now and the future. i might consider online reporting if i got bored running the coffee shop.
it was funny because he never knew who i was. he had not seen any of my newscasts or reports. maybe to him, i was just the good looking waiter with a be-dimpled, "crooked" (his word, not mine) smile who hated reading books and not so fond of jazz.
(to be continued)