What Am I to You? (A short story)

Drawing of a typewriterMy phone rang. An unregistered number flashed on the screen. I hesitated for a moment and then decided to take the call.

“Hello?” I said.

There were a few seconds of dead air, and then she said, “Hi there! I’m finally here.”

“Um, hello,” I said. “Who is this, please?”

“It’s me,” she said. “I can’t believe I can finally hear your voice and talk to you. Wow. I am so excited. Are you excited to see me, too?” She sounded giddy.

For the life of me, I couldn’t recognize her voice.  “I’m sorry, who are you?”

“It’s me, who else were you expecting? I’m already here at the airport. You need to fetch me right now.”

I need to fetch you right now? I thought. “I’m sorry, but I really don’t know who this is,” I said.

“Quit fooling around, will you? It’s me. I’m here already. I don’t want to be kept waiting,” she said.

“I’m sorry, miss, but I think you dialed the wrong number.”

“I don’t think so. 09176222347, right?” she said.

I paused. “Right, that is my number, but…”

“No more talk, okay? Be here now. Bye.” And she hang up.

I shrugged my shoulders and placed the phone on the passenger seat. I pulled over into the only parking slot available. It was past noon, and I was starving.

I devoured the meal as soon as the waitress placed it on my table. When she handed me the bill, I remembered the caller. Her voice did not sound familiar at all, but her tone carried with it the conviction that she knew exactly who I was. I reached into my pocket but my phone wasn’t there. I left it inside the car.

When I got back to the car, I checked my phone immediately. Fourty-four missed calls, it read. In an instant, it rang again, and the same unregistered number appeared on the screen. I didn’t answer it this time. I drove out of the mall grounds and into the main highway. The phone rang for several minutes more without interruption so I did not have the chance to switch it to silent mode or to turn it off. When I got to the subway 20 minutes later, it was still ringing. The phone finally lost its signal inside the tunnel, so I quickly pressed the power button.

I took in the scenery of the coastal road. The sea was calm under the afternoon sunlight. Far in the horizon, a strip of Bohol was visible. It looked shadowy. A small group of sea gulls flew over partially-finished buildings and perched on top of the cranes which towered above the construction site.

Then the phone began ringing again.

“What the…” I muttered.

It rang on and on until I reached Talisay. I pulled up in a gas station and held the phone in my left hand. The same unrecorded number flickered on the screen.

There was a gentle tapping on the window and when I looked up a gas attendant was waving her hand; her lips were moving. I lowered the window so I could hear her.

“Full tank, sir?” she said.

“No, just a thousand pesos, please,” I said.

“Diesel, sir, or gasoline?”

“Give me the Fuel Save Diesel.”

“Okay, sir. Please open the tank.”

I pulled a lever below the steering wheel and the tank cover popped open. She placed the fuel nozzle inside the mouth of the tank and pressed some buttons on the machine.

“Safety reminder, sir. Please turn off all electronic devices like cell phones, MP3 players, and other gadgets…”

“Is that necessary?”

“Yes, sir.”

My phone was still ringing. The girl looked at it and then looked at me.

“That’s dangerous, sir.”

“Wait a second.”

“I once saw it on YouTube, sir. A driver was texting in a gas station in Manila when suddenly, without warning, his truck caught fire and blew up. Boom! Everything was destroyed in an instant: the gas station, the convenience store, the fuel attendants, the other customers and pedestrians, the manager, and even the manager’s pet dog. It was absolute hell, and it was captured on camera.”

“Just give me a second. I can’t turn it off yet.”

“We don’t want that to happen here, sir.”

“I understand.” I opened the phone’s casing and pulled out the battery.

“Thank you, sir. One thousand pesos Fuel Save Diesel. Shall I check your engine oil, sir?”

“No, thanks.”

“Shall I check the power steering fluid?”

“Uh, no, it’s okay, no need for that.”

“How about the clutch and break fluids, sir? The radiator? The water for the wiper?”

I glanced at the convenience store. A woman was sitting alone near the glass window. She held a can of soda to her mouth and looked straight at me. A few seconds passed by and she did not lower her arm.

“Sir?” the attendant said.

“Yes, I said there’s no need for that,” I said.

She frowned and placed the fuel nozzle back into the gas pump. I handed her the thousand peso bill.

“I received one thousand pesos, sir. Please wait for your receipt.”

I made no answer. The woman in the convenience store was now reading a magazine. She looked intently at it and then looked up. She stared at me again.

“Your receipt, sir,” the girl said.

“Thank you,” I said.

“By the way, sir. We have a special promo right now. For every purchase of 10,000 pesos worth of gas, sir, you will get a 1.5 liter of Diet Coke for free. Just keep the receipt, sir, so you can add them up later, and claim your prize.”

“I see.”

“Before you go, sir, how about your tires? Do you want me to check them?”

I closed my window and drove away slowly, calmly. I turned on the stereo and switched the dial until I found the least annoying station. It was a Jazz channel. The music made me drowsy.

When I got home, I went straight to the kitchen. I was still hungry so I opened a can of spicy tuna and scrambled some eggs. Then I took out the rice cooker from the cupboard.

This time, it was the land-line phone which rang. The bowl slipped from my hand and crashed to the floor. The basin shattered into a hundred little pieces and the yellow slime splattered all over the place. The phone rang on persistently.

I marched into the living room and picked up the receiver. “Hello!” I said.

“Finally! Why aren’t you answering me?” she said. She sounded equally agitated. “Do you have any idea how many times I tried to call you? Do you have any idea at all of what you are putting me through? Where on earth are you? Why aren’t you here yet?”

“Listen, miss, I already told you, I don’t know who you are. Why do you keep on calling me?”

She sighed heavily. “Jay, Jay, please, don’t do this to me. You can’t do this to me. Don’t leave me here like this. You brought me here, so I’m your responsibility. Stop fooling around.”

My mouth was agape.

“Are you there? Don’t you even think of hanging up on me.”

“I’m not fooling around. I honestly don’t know who you are. How did you know my name?”

“How can I not know your name?”

“Where did you get my name?”

“What a question.”

“Who gave you my number?”

“You did. Jay, I’m really, really tired of this. Stop toying with me. You know this is tiresome for me. You know I get easily annoyed. You know me inside and out. Why are you playing with me? Just fetch me, please. And hurry up. I cannot wait another minute.”

“Why won’t you give me your name? Just give me your name.”

Her voice was drowned out by the sound of heavy rain, which came pouring without warning.

“Sorry,” I said. “I can’t hear you. Can you speak up a little louder?”

I could still hear her voice, but it was very faint, and I couldn’t make out her words.

“I’m sorry, I’m going to have to hang up,” I said as loudly as I could. “I’ll switch on my cell phone and I will call you as soon as the rain stops, okay?” Then I hang up.

The rain continued well into the evening, but it was still humid inside the house. I sweated through my polo shirt. I went to the bathroom and prepared the bath tub. Then I placed the cell phone’s battery back into the case and turned it on. I waited for a few minutes, expecting it to ring, but it didn’t. There were no new messages, either. I went back to the living room to check the phone. It remained silent.

I laid there on the bath tub, submerged in warm water and thick foam. I rested my head on the top end of the tub and stared at the ceiling. The rain didn’t abate. It fell relentlessly.

I closed my eyes and recalled the caller’s voice. I tried to imagine what she possibly looked like and where I possibly met her. Was she someone from work? Was she someone from the university? Was she a classmate? Was she a client? Was she someone I met during one of my trips to Bacolod, Dumaguete, or Davao? My mind was a blank sheet.

I fell asleep.

I dreamed. In my dream, a guy was interviewing a girl. The girl was applying for a job in a multinational company. The guy was wearing a suit and tie. And here’s the thing, the candidate looked uncannily like Norah Jones. That is to say, she looked in almost every respect like Norah Jones. Except that it wasn’t her. You could tell that it wasn’t her. She handed him her CV. The guy, thoroughly impressed and bewitched by her, was unable to speak for a few minutes. Then he asked her a few questions and she answered him confidently. She was very sweet, bright, modest and unassuming. The guy let her talk for a long while until he regained his sense of time, then he thanked her and hired her on the spot.

Then I dreamed that the two of them became close friends. They were drawn by their love for most of the same things. They shared the same tastes for books, movies, and music. Eventually, the guy fell in love with the girl, but he didn’t realize it at first. She fell in love with him, too, but she also didn’t realize it initially; and when she finally confronted him about it, asking him, “What am I to you?”, he simply ran away from her. Literally. He just stood up from where they were sitting inside a cafe and ran away; far away to who knows where.

I opened my eyes and realized that I had weaved my own dream. A few weeks ago, I had started writing a story. This dream was simply a recapitulation of that same story. The man’s name was Luc, and the girl’s name was Geetali.

The bathroom was utterly quiet. The rain had stopped. I could hear the intermittent dripping of the water from the faucet at the foot of the tub. I moved my arms slowly. My legs were cramped. My hair had dried. I looked at my fingers; they resembled the bark of century-old acacia trees. I dipped my hands back into the water and felt my cell phone beside my leg.

Then, there was a knock at the door. I sat upright in surprise. The water from the tub spilled over to the tiled floor. The bathroom door was half-open, so the sound must have emanated from the main door in the living room. The visitor knocked again, this time with more urgency. I stood up quickly and put on a towel. Then I motioned slowly towards the sala.

“Who is it?” I called out.

“Open up, right this instant,” she said.

It was Nica. I heaved a sigh of relief. I unfastened the lock and opened the door. “Nica! For a moment there, I thought…”

“You thought what? Were you expecting someone else?” She looked me over from head to foot. “Why aren’t you dressed?” Then she barged inside without waiting for my answer.

She turned around and faced me. “Who the hell is Gee?”

“Who?”

“You heard me.”

“Gee?”

She raised an eyebrow and pursed her lips. Her eyes looked menacing.

“Why do you ask?”

It probably wasn’t the best question to ask at that moment. She took out her smart phone and threw it at me. It hit my chest with a loud thud.

“Aw! What did you do that for?”

“She called me! She told me everything. You brought her here? She’s your responsibility? You need to pick her up? You know her inside and out? What the hell? Those are her exact words. And she had the gall to ask for your address!”

She was fuming mad. I just stared at her, unable to say anything.

“Who is this witch? How long have you been keeping this from me? Speak up or I swear…”

“Listen, Nica…”

She produced a second phone from her hand bag and threatened to throw it my way. She’s been managing their family business and she always, always brings at least four cellular phones with her wherever she goes.

I stared at her with hopeless, bewildered eyes. My mind was in a deep mess. I didn’t know what to say. “Nica, baby…”

She arched her back and hissed like an undomesticated feline. “Don’t you dare call me baby. Explain!”

“Alright, but first calm down…” I extended my hands in a gesture of defense.

“Don’t you dare tell me to calm down.” She threw the second phone at me, but this time I ducked. It hit the framed Norah Jones poster behind me and smashed the glass cover. The portrait promptly fell and crashed to the floor. She immediately took out the third phone.

“It’s like this… But, how do I even begin to explain it to you? Wait, wait! Please, don’t throw that at me. That’s a Samsung Galaxy S4!”

She calmed down a little bit.

“This will blow your mind away, bab… I mean, Nica. Remember a few weeks ago I told you that I was writing a new story? It’s about this guy and this girl who fell in love with each other, but their relationship was complicated because the guy only wanted a cerebral kind of connection, and was terrified of physical intimacy? Do you remember?”

Nica returned her phone inside her bag and rummaged for alternative objects.

“Well, honey, I don’t know how it happened, but she’s here. She’s really here. I mean, she’s here, in our world, in this space-time reality we inhabit. She’s real. Or rather, she became real! It must be magic, honey.”

“Are you crazy? Do you think I’m crazy? Are you on drugs? Oh my gosh, my boyfriend is an addict.”

“Nica, please, listen to me. Her name, in the story, I mean, was Geetali. I gave her that name, and now…”

I saw a bottle of lotion fly towards my face for a fraction of a second before I saw the stars and blacked out. I dreamed of my story again, but this time the scenes were jumbled. The setting had changed, the plot became convoluted, and the characters’ names were unpronounceable.

The first sensation I felt the moment I came to was sharp pain in my temples, magnified by the fluorescent light from the ceiling. I groaned. Things were also blurry when I opened my eyes. But I noticed that a dark figure was standing right above me. The abstract entity slowly became more concrete and I saw that it was a woman. Her left hand was resting lightly on her hip, while her right was dangling freely at her side. When my sight regained their proper focus, I saw that it was Norah Jones herself, or rather, someone who looked almost exactly and perfectly like Norah Jones. Almost, but not quite.

“Hey,” she said in a smoky, languid voice. “Sorry about what happened. So, she hurt you real bad, did she? You know, none of this would’ve happened if only you picked me up.”

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