I looked up at the steep staircase, small and dimly lighted. Behind me was the rush Sunday activity of vendors eager to call on the churchgoers leaving the Basilica Minore del Sto. Niño de Cebu just across from where I was standing.
I climbed up the stairs and walked the familiar hallway. Obscure lighting from the high ceiling failed to flood every corner of the corridor. The indistinct paint was coming off the old walls. The floor was unswept, with unbundled trash and a couple of cockroaches just off the corner at the top of the stairs. I immediately turned my eyes to the direction I was going, lest I would feel a bile of disgust coming out of my throat.
I entered the office of the review center I enrolled in. It was a bright contrast to the hallway. Almost everything was white—the sofa, table, chairs, and walls—like a comfortable clinic for adults. The air conditioning was working well, a balm to my heat-cloaked skin. I found a corner as I listened to my classmates talking with the teacher, as we all waited for the time to reach one. Most of my classmates were old, more than 35 years old, many of them vying for permanent positions in the government. To them, failing the civil service examination was not an option.
When it was time for the class, we moved to another room, a classroom, passing another section of the dark hallway. The classroom was not what I expected it to be: some windows were broken, the poorly maintained armchairs were scattered across the floor, the blackboard already turned yellowish green, and the wall paint was peeling off badly. The entire area was fit for an emotional video documentary. It was my third time in the room so I wasn’t surprised at the sight anymore.
When we entered, some of our other classmates were already there. The old ones sat in front near the teacher. The front rows throbbed with desperation. I found my usual spot at the back near the window in front of two noisy black-dressed punks. The younger ones, with their lightheartedness and devil-may-care attitude, filled the back rows.
I was quiet, listening to my rowmates making fun of the series and sequences the female teacher was trying so hard to explain; her throat’s veins were probably popping out from the exertion. The teacher was sitting on the desk, her dyed graceless hair fell on her shoulders, her pencil skirt raised, her upper body leaned forward, one hand grasped the edge of the table while the other held a thick stack of paper. She was showing that overly generous smile. And now, the jokes and insults from the back rows were directed at her, how pretty she was, how sexy she was, how good she was. I rolled my eyes. She kept on smiling, like a fool.
About 30 minutes into the three-hour review, a slender man walked in. He was in loose jeans and shirt. He was wearing slippers, his long hair a mess. Looking sleepy, he took his usual spot behind me, a few chairs away to my right. I sat up and pretended not to notice. After some time, I twisted my body and poured my head on my notebook, half-listening to the teacher. From afar, I would have looked like an earnest student. But my position allowed me to steal glances at the man at my back.
Sitting alone, he was looking at his notebook, too, his face almost hidden by his long hair. He looked like Philip, the drummer in my cousin Jayson’s band. I had a crush on Philip when I was in high school. It was fleeting, it was inevitable. He regularly came to Jayson’s house beside mine for band practice. Since I played my cousin’s Nintendo often, shooting ducks or feeding my Pacman, I saw Philip a couple of times and I liked him somehow.
The stranger behind me in the classroom, whose name I did not even learn, looked so focused on his notebook to be bothered by a 21-year-old girl’s covert attention. Sighing, I returned my concentration to the teacher who was still a poor subject of selfish comedy.
The lessons eventually moved to reading comprehension, my favorite. I could tell some of my classmates were not readers; they were slow in reading a huge text block and equally slow in selecting the correct answer from the multiple choices given. I was pleased with myself when I answered correctly, silently from my seat. I finished quickly so I had more time to observe my surroundings.
The two boys right behind me began arguing over a particular paragraph and before I know it, I turned a bit and made a general comment about the correct answer, to which they were awed. Then we started talking random things about the lesson until one of them volunteered to say they were both graduates of the University of the Philippines (UP) and asked about mine. I said I finished my studies at St. Theresa’s College, which puzzled them because for them, why would a Theresian need a review for the civil service examination?
I never thought about it that way. I just knew that after my three-month stint at the Mandaue City Government, I needed a mental boost. I was about to reply that I could say the same of them, they being UP graduates. But someone from behind the two of them, a man with short hair and a big smile, interrupted our conversation. “Bai, dili in-ana pag-diskarte. Inanion o (That is not how you make a move. This is how you do it),” he said, extending his hand between them and thrusting over his Sony Ericsson to my hand. “Miss, pwede mangayo sa imong name ug phone number (May I ask for your name and phone number)?”
Suddenly, I found myself holding his phone and all I could think of was that it was an entrapment. I felt my cheeks burning with embarrassment, my hands quivering with uneasiness, my head going numb with confusion, my mouth giving out a forced smile. I forgot about my messy drummer-like crush and the two boys at my back. My mind went black yet I could see my classmates’ eyes on me and hear how they go, “Oh, ah!” followed by laughter.
I wanted the unexpected awkward moment to be over. But the man went on to say his name was Rey something. It was a long name, that much I could process. I could call him Boboy, he said. My instinct told me to return the phone without my name and number in it but I was too polite to follow my guts. So I said my name and keyed in my number, already half-planning of changing my number when I get home to deliberately cut off communication.
Upon returning his phone, he smiled the satisfied smile of a cat who had his big fill of milk. Everything in the classroom went back to normal, like nothing momentous just happened. I sighed with relief and withdrew into my silent corner of the room.
When the class was over, I immediately walked out. Before I could even breathe in a gust of fresh air to ease my tense muscles, Boboy was already walking beside me, asking about me, where I was going, where I lived. He said he was from Lahug. I answered crisply, “Mandaue.”
Having fully recovered from the awkwardness he caused earlier, I could see him properly now. He was tall with a medium build. His short hair was neatly combed, his face clean and shaved, his eyes gentle, though dark-rimmed. His nose was big and he showed off a good set of teeth when he smiled. He was neatly dressed: black shirt with a big colored print I could not make out, jeans, and closed shoes. He looked decent.
He walked with me along the hallway and down the stairs. We reached the corner of the old building and I waved my stiff goodbye. “Ari ko agi (I go this way),” I said, pointing to the direction of the Cebu Metropolitan Cathedral where I parked my father’s beat-up minivan. He enthusiastically bid me farewell and walked the opposite way, to the Basilica.
TO BE CONTINUED