Image taken here.
A Few, Unimportant Things
A ringing, growing louder by the second, greeted Ruben, stirring the boy into wakefulness. Half asleep, he reached for the alarm clock and pushed some buttons, trying to get a few more minutes of peace.
“Shut up…” The buttons would not work. The ringing was growing louder, climaxing to a fever-high pitch. “C’mon, c’mon…” His head was throbbing. A vein in his forehead was pulsating. “C’mon, c’mon…” His hands were shaking. His heart was pounding on his chest. He violently shook the clock and then slammed his palm on the buttons. They still would not work. In a sudden fit of desperation, he threw the clock across the room. The device smashed against the wall and broke into a hundred pieces. Exhaling, he mumbled, “thank you” and promptly went back to sleep.
Four hours later, and several morning classes forgotten, Ruben woke up, wondering where he was going to get breakfast. He surveyed his room, while unmindfully rubbing the sleep off his eyes. On the corner, next to closets half full of clothes he does not wear anymore, several towels lay across an old, dusty abdominal machine he bought for the low, low price of 2,999.99 pesos. The television, mute, but still on, was replaying an old episode of “Cheers”, when Frasier had a lot more hair. The ruins of the device that bothered his rest lay, in pieces, next to the idiot box. Several mementos, of lifetimes past, half of them broken, littered the night table. Ruben turned over his bed and reached for the statuette of an angel, its head broken, a remnant of his childhood. A gentle breeze blew through half open windows, and Ruben remembered, vaguely, standing up and opening them when the room became so hot he could not sleep. A slight dusty odor entered his nostrils. He realized he needed to change the bed sheets.
“God, I’m a pig…” He put the angel back and then smiled. In a slightly higher tone, he said, “No, not a sty, more like a homely clutter,” imitating the interior designer hosts in the Lifestyle network. His head was still throbbing. He thought over whether he would first have breakfast, a bath or a few more minutes of sleep. The slightly itchy scalp and sticky, sweaty skin seemed to shout the answer. He reached for the nearest towel, smelled it and put it back. “Ugh, I need to have my laundry done too.” He picked up and smelled each of the towels that lay across the abdominal machine. Deciding on a slightly damp green one, he slung it over his shoulder, and walked across the room. “Breakfast, oops, no, lunch,” he said, while looking at his wall clock, “will have to wait.”
Someone was knocking at the door.
Busy looking for his cell phone, his keys, and his wallet, Ruben remained silent for a while. He brought out a handkerchief from his pocket and wiped the sweat off his forehead. Then, he sat on the edge of the bed and rested his head on his hands. “Damn, this room is a freaking oven.”
The person was knocking again.
“Yes. Who is it?”
The familiar, high-pitched, scratchy voice of the landlady answered, “Ruben, phone. Diane.”
“Coming.” He quickly walked towards the door, opened it, and took the phone.
“Hello?” he said softly, changing his tone. His eyes grew larger, while a light flush appeared on his cheeks. He wiped his forehead and the edge of his nose a few more times. A small smile started to play on his lips. He motioned for the landlady to move, mumbled, “I’ll return the phone later,” then quickly turned his back and closed the door.
“Hey, Ruben, it’s me,” she said softly, apologetically. “I just wanted to say hi.”
“Uh-huh. Ok. Hi.”
“Yea…and ummm…I was just wondering if, you know…if…” She breathed her words, as if hardly daring to speak. Ruben heard a soft tapping in the background. There was a loud crumpling of paper and then another deep breath.
“You were just wondering if what?
“I was just wondering if, you know, we were still on for tonight.”
Ruben took a slight pause. There was complete silence on the other line. Looking around, he spotted his keys on the nightstand. He picked it up and then twirled it on his finger.
He looked around for a few more seconds. His wallet was next to the lamp on the study table. Walking towards it, he spun the car keys a few more times.
“Ruben? Are you still there?”
He smiled, hearing the slight quiver in her voice. Looking around, he twirled the key one last time, and then stopped it with his palm. “Of course, I’ll just meet you there.”
He heard a deep breath escape from her lips. “Ok, great, thanks.” He could almost see her face breaking out into a grin, her pink lips, slightly parting to reveal the whitest teeth.
“Oh, and how was your class today?” she asked.
He did not answer.
“It was fine. My classes were fine.”
“Oh.” There was a few seconds of silence. “Ruben, did I say something wrong?”
“No, nothing. Just drop it, ok?”
“Oh. Ok.” She remained silent for a while. Then, she said, “Ruben, I know we haven’t known each other a long time but…it’s just that…well…you know…I worry about you sometimes.”
“Well, don’t. There’s nothing to worry about.”
“Well…I guess,” she said. “So, where are you off to now?”
“Nowhere. I just have a few unimportant stuff to take care of and then I’ll go pick you up. Stop worrying about me, ok? I’m fine.”
“Yes, yes, of course you’re right. What am I thinking? Of course you’re right. I’m just acting crazy I guess. I’m just a bit worried I guess.”
Ruben did not speak for a while. His cell phone was on the bed, slightly hidden underneath his pillows. While reaching for it, he said, “Diane, c’mon, I have to go. I’m going to be late.” He looked at his cell phone. There was one message. It was from his Kuya Benjie. He quickly deleted it.
“Ok, sure. Bye.” She paused for a second. “Just be careful ok?”
“Yes, whatever. Bye.” She hung up the phone. Wiping the back of his neck, he looked at the clock.
“I need to get out.”
It was almost four o’clock when Ruben left the house. Stepping out the door, he felt the full brunt of the searing heat of the afternoon. Goose bumps ran all over his body. The tin roofs of his neighbor’s houses reflected the bright glare of the sun, infusing everything with a bright yellow tinge. He imagined the asphalt road letting off some steam, as if it was boiling over and evaporating. He rubbed his forearms, trying to get rid of the goose bumps. Then, shielding his eyes from the bright glare, he looked for his car. It was parked three houses away, directly underneath the scorching sun. “Damn, it’s going to be hell today.”
His cell phone rang. “Virgie,” he muttered. “What?”
A voice, throaty and deep, answered, “When are you getting here? I’m bored.” She purred softly and slowly, as if savoring the sound of each word. “Come over and keep me company.”
“I can’t today, definitely. I have plans. How’s tomorrow night?”
“That’s too long. And it’s too goddamn hot here. I want to go out. Come on, Ruben. Don’t be an ass.”
“I really can’t.”
“Ruben, please, come on. I’m bored. Whatever you’re doing, it can wait.”
“I really can’t.” He took a deep breath. “Something came up and I really have to go.”
Ruben heard a sharp breath and then a sudden change in her tone. “What’s so important that you can’t drop it and go out with me?” The soft, deep purring was gone, replaced by a high-pitched whining that seemed to come out of her nose. “Why, am I not important anymore? Fine. Go. Do your stupid thing. I don’t care.”
“I really can’t go there Virgie. I have plans. We’ll talk later, ok?” Ruben could almost see the hair at the back of Virgie’s neck bristling.
“Wow, really? Later? As in you’ll really talk to me? Wow, that’s so nice of you, the great, popular, famous Ruben will talk to his lowly girlfriend, Virgie. You’re so wonderful, how you always think of me like that.”
“Don’t mock me, Virgie.”
“Not mock you!? Ha! Not mock you!? Are you threatening me Ruben? Are you threatening me?” She laughed. “What will you do to me Ruben? Come on, get it out. What will you do to me?”
Ruben remained silent for a while. Then, slowly, he answered, “Just stop Virgie. You do not know what you are talking about.”
“Ha! I am not a child, Ruben. You are the idiot. I’ve been around the block a few more times than you think. I know what this is. You’re seeing somebody else, aren’t you? Aren’t you? God, I hate you. You pig.” She hung up.
Silent, Ruben put the phone back in his pocket. Staring at the glare emanating from the tin roofs of the neighbor’s houses, he stood by the side of the street for a while, just lingering. Then, shaking his head, he jogged towards his car and mumbled, “Goddamn, my ass is going to feel hell today.”
The car kept a steady humming sound, like an overgrown bee. The dark leather upholstery magnified the already unbearable heat created by the sun. Several books lay scattered on the backseat. Every available sitting space in the car was crammed with candy wrappers, receipts from several purchases, plastic bags, old tickets, and reports of every sort. Shaking his head, Ruben carried some of the trash and dumped them in the trunk to create some space. A gust of wind blew, carrying a few small pieces of paper. Ruben made a slight movement towards the runaway pieces, but then decided just to let them go.
He went back to his seat and turned on the air conditioning. Then, remembering that it was broken, he decided to roll down the windows. Picking up a large piece of cardboard, once the cover of his freshman math book, he fanned himself, trying to combat the searing heat outside. His car felt like a huge furnace. Sweat plastered his shirt on his back. Using his handkerchief, he wiped the sides of his face, the back of his neck, the edge of his nose, his forehead. Then, he fanned himself more furiously.
His cell phone rang. He did not answer right away. By the third try, he picked it up. “Yes?”
“It’s me.” It was his Kuya Benjie.
“I’m on my way.”
“Good.” Benjie remained silent for a while. “Try to get there as soon as you can, ok?”
Ruben heard Benjie take one deep breath, and then they again remained silent. After a few moments, Benjie spoke up, “Did you get my message?”
“My message. I sent it this morning.”
“I didn’t read any messages this morning.”
“So you didn’t get it?”
“What do you think?”
There was more silence. Then Benjie asked, “Ok, so how’s school?”
Ruben did not answer.
“Ruben, are you still there?”
“Don’t act like her.”
“Yea, fine. Whatever. I’m not in the mood for an argument.”
Benjie did not say anything. Ruben waited a while, looked around, fingered the key chain hanging from his car key, and then asked, “So, what do you want? I said I’m on my way.”
Benjie did not answer right away. After a few moments, he said, “I don’t want anything, Ruben.” Ruben could hear the slight hesitation in his voice. “I just think you should talk to me. I knew she was dear to you. She probably knew you more than I…any of us possibly could. But I’m family too. Why don’t you talk to me?”
Ruben remained silent.
“Ruben? Are you still there?”
“I’m on my way. What more do you want?”
He heard Benjie take a deep breath. “I don’t want anything Ruben. I’m just worried. I just want you to know that.”
“I’m on my way.”
“You said that already.”
“I’m on my way.” Then Ruben hung up.
Resting his forehead on the steering wheel, he remained silent for a while, his fingers lightly tapping the dashboard. He ignored his ringing cell phone. The streets were almost empty, except for the one or two tricycles that quickly passed by. He lightly pounded his head on the wheel. Then, straightening up, he took a deep breath, and drove away. The ringing stopped soon after.
Ruben waited outside the hospital elevator. A familiar ting! sound, then the doors opened. Walking in, he mumbled, “Third floor”, to the attendant, moved to the back of the elevator and leaned on the wall. He felt tired. Rubbing the back of his neck, he stared for a while at the only other man with him. The man was bald and thin, with a slight paunch. Ruben could see several bags of food around the man’s feet. The man was leaning on the side of the elevator. Ruben noticed a slight twitching in the left hand. The right foot was constantly tapping on the floor. The man had his eyes closed. He was mumbling. He looked like he was in deep prayer. Ruben quickly averted his eyes.
A familiar ting! sound and, again, the doors opened. “Third floor,” the attendant announced. Ruben hesitated for a moment and then stepped out.
He walked around for a bit looking for someone. He saw a passing nurse and stopped her.
“Where’s 312?” he asked.
“Right over there,” the nurse answered. She pointed towards the end of the corridor. “Just turn left at the end. You won’t miss it.” She smiled.
Ruben muttered a quick thanks, and then turned away. He easily found Room 312. He stood there for a moment, hesitant. Then, he walked in.
The moment he saw the white sheet that covered the bed, Ruben immediately looked down. He closed his eyes and drew a sharp breath. Resting his head on his fingers, he massaged his temples for a while. Then, he opened his eyes, careful not to look up, and made his way towards the low sofa. He waited a while, still staring at the floor. Then, he drew a deep breath, held it, and looked around. Beside him, several magazines laid scattered, opened at different pages. A cold cup of coffee was sitting on top of the mini-refrigerator. A small lamp was lit, creating shadows across the room. Bouquets of flowers, some dried up, adorned the night table. Ruben shifted in his seat, picked up a magazine, and stared unseeingly at the pictures for a while. Then, gathering his courage, he stood up and went to the bed.
She seemed to be sleeping peacefully. Spread out like vines framing her pale, white face, her black hair marked a clear contrast to the pillows. He touched her hand. It was limp, but warm. She was breathing, though aided by a respirator, her chest rising and descending in a slow, deliberate manner. Her eyes were shut tight, though Ruben saw her pupils often move randomly. He reached out and touched her chest. There was a definite beating of the heart.
The door opened.
“Ruben, I didn’t realize you were already here.”
Ruben turned around and saw his father. He was carrying a cup of coffee on one hand, and several sandwiches in the other. “I’m not staying long. I still have classes.”
“Oh. You still have classes at this time?”
Ruben bit his lower lip, and then answered, “Yea.”
His father stared at him for a while, then looked down on his shoes and mumbled, “Well, then I guess I’ll just tell her you came when she wakes up, ok?”
“Yea, that would be fine. Just say hi for me when she wakes up.”
There were a few moments of silence, then, his father spoke, “How’s school?”
Ruben suddenly felt the urge to vomit. “It’s fine. School’s fine.” His left hand gave out a nervous twitch.
“Good. That’s good.” He looked at her for a moment. “She’ll be happy to hear that.”
Ruben couldn’t say anything. He looked around until his eyes settled on the dried flowers on the table.
“How long are you staying?” his father asked.
“Just a few minutes. I only came to visit her.”
“Oh.” His father looked surprised. Then, he shook his head and walked to the couch. “Why don’t you sit?”
“I’d rather not.” While shifting his weight from one foot to the other, he looked around. “I need to go to the bathroom.”
“It’s over there.”
Immediately, Ruben walked towards the comfort room, using huge steps almost like leaps. He locked the door. He couldn’t breathe. Nauseous and disoriented, he ran to the sink and heaved. Chunks of vomit splattered and clung to the walls of the room. He breathed, loudly and deeply. “I need to get out,” he thought.
He looked up and saw his reflection in the mirror. The single, fluorescent bulb that shone in the middle of the room cast shadows across his face. Dark circles formed underneath his eyes. The shadows seemed to pull his face downwards, creating the illusion of age. He looked gaunt and pale. A vein ran down the right side of his forehead towards the eyebrows. Dizzy and sick, he stared for a long time at his reflection. He saw an old man.
He closed his eyes for a while and remained silent, repressing the overwhelming urge to cry. Then, he shook his head, picked up several pieces of tissue paper and wiped the vomit off the walls.
Minutes later, he went back to the room. He saw his father sleeping. “Dad,” he whispered.
His father slowly opened his eyes. “Ruben, yes,” he mumbled, groggily, “What?”
“I have to go. Or I’m going to be late for class.”
His father stared at him. Ruben looked away.
“Dad, really, I have to go. Just tell Kuya I dropped by. And say hi to Mom for me when she wakes up.”
His father looked at him some more, and then averted his eyes. “Ok, yes, I’ll do that.”
“Thanks Dad.” Ruben said. Then he kissed him on the cheek. “I’m really sorry that I have to go.”
“Don’t worry about it. I understand.”
“Yes, yes I know. I’m glad that you do.” Ruben smiled. “And please tell Kuya I’m sorry I wasn’t able to wait for him.”
“Yes, don’t worry about it. I will.” His father smiled back.
Then, scratching his head, Ruben slowly walked towards the bed and stared at his mother. She seemed to be smiling.
“Bye Mom,” Ruben whispered. He leaned down and kissed her on the cheek. She hardly moved. Tears started to roll down Ruben’s cheeks and he cried.
The sun was already setting when Ruben left the hospital. The venomous heat of the afternoon seemed to have disappeared. Ruben gazed around, and suddenly felt cold. Two beeps. He looked at his cell phone. “Virgie,” he mumbled.
It was a simple message. “Call me.”
Ruben stared at his phone and then proceeded to dial her number.