I didn’t know there were so many lonely people in Cebu until I placed my advertisement on the local newspapers. “Friend For Hire,” it read in bold letters. Below it were printed my name and contact number.
Scarcely a day after it was published, I was getting phone calls almost every hour. At first, most of the callers were simply curious.
“What service are you offering?” one guy asked.
“Friendship,” I said.
“Is this a joke?”
Then he hung up.
Some of the calls were a bit bizarre.
“Hi, I’m calling about your ad,” one woman said.
“Yes?” I said.
“May I ask, what are you offering exactly?”
“What kind of friendship?”
I had to pause and consider how many kinds of friendships there were.
“Just friendship,” I said finally. “Mere friendship. You know, we go places, hang out, tell each other jokes, pat each other on the back, do stuff, whatever, and then you pay me.”
“Let me get this straight, you’ll do whatever I’ll ask of you?”
I realized that the word “whatever” was pretty general and can refer to all sorts of potentially mischievous and downright dangerous things.
“I mean simply that the service I offer is that of mere camaraderie.”
“Would “love” fall under the category of camaraderie?”
“Well, if you mean Platonic love, then yes.”
Then she hung up.
But soon enough, the general public, or at least those who read the advertisement every Sunday, understood what I meant, and the curious inquiries became less and less frequent. I hadn’t meant anything sleazy. My business was legit, and later people complimented me for introducing this novel entrepreneurial idea.
I was getting swamped by bookings every week. I was meeting people from Monday to Saturday. I restricted myself to two friends per day, so that I won’t be overwhelmed by too much sociability, and allotted a maximum of four hours per buddy. But sometimes I had to customize, as some friends would thirst for more than four hours of friendship, while others would get jealous that I have another best friend waiting for my company that same day.
As a rule, I only meet friends in public places like malls, movie theaters, and museums. I avoid residences for the reason that it would be too awkward, as most, if not all, of my clients were living alone.
I confess that I have favorite customers, and I do tend to prefer them over the others. I am inclined to avoid friends who are too creepy or scary. I can take mild forms of eccentricity, but psychosis is not my cup of tea.
One of my favorite friends was Aris. He’s a bit on the nerdy side of things. He always wore large glasses and over-sized pants that looked like pajamas. His shirt and shoes were usually mismatched, but I am not very particular about fashion. I’m aware that friends aren’t supposed to be judgmental toward each other.
We would usually meet at the public library or at bookshops. I would listen to him talk for hours about the latest video games, gadgets, comic books, and famous philosophers. I didn’t know a single famous philosopher. In fact, I didn’t know philosophers were famous. But more to it, I didn’t know a single philosopher, period.
“You’ve got to be kidding me,” Aris said the first time the topic about philosophers came up. He was holding a copy of a book from the Speculative Fiction shelf.
“I’m serious, I don’t know a single philosopher,” I said.
“You’ve got to be kidding me,” he repeated, this time retreating a couple of steps from me.
“I’m totally ignorant of philosophy. Oh wait, Plato is a philosopher, right? Now I remember. He somehow reminds me of food.”
“Then you can’t be my friend.” He looked downcast.
“Hey, hey cheer up, buddy, the thing about me is that I am always willing to learn new stuff. In this case, I’m willing to learn philosophy,” I shuddered a bit, “if you’ll guide me.” I didn’t want to lose my clients, or rather, it pained me, naturally, to lose my friends.
“Do you even read?”
“Of course, I read. I read the Classified Ads every morning. I read the Nutrition Facts on the side of my soda.”
“You’re hopeless. Haven’t you realized that I was named after a famous philosopher?”
“Do I look like I’m joking?” His expression convinced me that he wasn’t. “I was named after Aristotle, the father of logic, among many other things. Duh.”
For the next couple of hours he gave me a lecture on syllogisms, propositions, premises, inferences, deductive reasoning, truth value, modus ponens, modus tollens, and how the history of logic unfolded and who the key players in the game were. Needless to say, all of it went over my head and out my other ear.
Sometimes, our subject was a little less cerebral.
“You know, I once tried deactivating my Facebook account to see if my friends will miss me,” he said. “Yeah. But when I logged back in a year later, nobody even noticed I was gone. Imagine that! To think that I have over a thousand Facebook friends.”
My heart bled for the guy.
“One time, I got terribly sick. I had high fever and I was having chills all over. But I was lucid enough to announce the bad news in my wall before my parents rushed me to the hospital. It was dengue and I almost died. But nobody ever visited me during my confinement. Not one. Of course, my parents were there, but not one of my friends ever came to bring fruits or flowers.”
I was on the brink of bursting into tears, but guys aren’t supposed to cry with their guy friends.
My other favorite friend was Dylan. I liked him because he was almost Aris’ opposite. I liked Aris’ loquaciousness and intelligence, but often I found myself at the receiving end of too much information and knowledge. Dylan was usually timid and reserved, but interesting. Sometimes he would address someone beside him, and there would be no one there. It kind of gave me the goosebumps at first, but I got used to it eventually. The first time we met was at a little known coffee shop on the outskirts of the city called The Kaphenia. It was almost always deserted, which made me wonder how it remained in business for so long, but Dylan preferred the ambiance that way.
“Do you have a third eye?” I asked Dylan then.
“A third eye? No. Why do you say that?” He was tapping his lap nervously.
“Well.” I didn’t quite know how to put it to him. “Who’s your friend?”
“Oh, her? I am so sorry. Where are my manners?” He grinned. It was one of only a few times that I noticed him smile. “I forgot to introduce you two together.” I stared at the empty chair across our table.
“Maria Josefina Cervantes, this is my new friend Danny. Danny, this is my old friend Maria Josefina Cervantes,” Dylan said.
We shook hands. I wondered if I was meeting his grandmother.
“How do you do, ma’am,” I said. “Pleased to meet your acquaintance.”
Dylan is approaching the age of thirty-five. His favorite topics, when he was in the mood to talk, were wishes and dreams.
“I wish I were more brave when I was younger,” he said. “I should’ve taken more risks. I should’ve gone on to Law School or Med School. I’d probably be a lawyer by now or maybe an internist.” Often, we would while away the hours staring at paintings in art galleries. His favorite painter was Botticelli. I like art, but I confess that I couldn’t tell the difference between Impressionism and Surrealism when he asked me about it. He was severely disappointed.
“Why didn’t you pursue Law?” I continued our conversation. I saw it as an opportunity to draw him out of himself, so to speak.
“Oh, I wasn’t sure if Medicine was better,” he said.
“And why didn’t you pursue Medicine?”
“Because I wasn’t sure if Law was better.”
“I can see your dilemma.”
“Sometimes, I would picture myself standing in front of a court room arguing passionately for a case. I am passionate about justice. My blood boils every time I see someone being wronged.”
Somehow I just couldn’t imagine him having an excess of emotions, as he usually appeared apathetic and indifferent. Perhaps if he did go to Law School, he might’ve become a very good lawyer. Perhaps he would win each of his cases using only a few words.
“But sometimes, the smell of the hospital would beckon me out of my litigious revelry. Believe it or not, Dan, I love the smell of hospitals. Sure, it’s a place full of pain, anxiety, and misery, but I love it nonetheless. I love the intellectual stimulation of the profession itself. My favorite subjects in Nursing School were Anatomy and Pathophysiology. I loved studying the functions of the human body, and I loved tracing down the processes of diseases. Do you know where your clavicle is?”
I had a feeling it was a body part, but before I could speak, he proceeded to pinch my clavicle, and, to be honest, I was a bit taken aback. The barista observed us closely.
“You’re never too old to pursue Law or Medicine,” I said soon after I recovered.
“But I’m still not sure which of the two I love best, and I’m almost thirty-five,” he said, passing a piece of the apple pie on to Maria Josefina Cervantes’ saucer, whom I had forgotten was there listening to us.
“You’ll have to make up your mind, buddy. You can’t pursue both, obviously, and you can’t hesitate forever. Weigh the two options carefully and see which way the weighing scale tilts.”
“Maria Josefina Cervantes said the exact same thing the other day, didn’t you Maria?” He glanced at her. “Gosh, you two are so much alike.”
And then there’s Sophia, another favorite friend. The thing about Sophia is that she wouldn’t strike you as someone who would be short on friends. What I mean to say is, she is attractive, intelligent, funny, gregarious, fascinating and all that. When we first met, it was at a Japanese restaurant in I. T. Park. She treated me to some Yakiniku, Sake, and a whole array of Sushi and Maki. I must confess that among all of my favorite friends, she is the one I especially looked forward to meeting at the end of each week. I wished our meet ups were more frequent, that is to say, daily, but her schedule wouldn’t permit her to go out as often as she liked. Heck, I was more than willing to offer her my service free of charge. In fact, I proposed the idea to her once. But she would have none of it. It upset her that I even suggested it.
“If you won’t charge me,” she said, “it would appear as if our meet ups are in fact dates. And I don’t like that. No offense, but this thing between us is strictly business. That’s all this is and that’s all this ever will be.”
I have to admit that that sort of doused the fire inside me, so to speak.
“Don’t get me wrong. You seem like a really nice guy. But all my life I’ve been chased by guys who only disappointed me in the end, and frankly I’m sick of it. I don’t have a single male friend because all they ever wanted was to sleep with me. Excuse my saying so. This is where you come in. You will be my first male friend.”
I overlooked the Yakiniku, which I was supposed to stir. Black smoke rose from the electric grill and the pork and chicken meat became unrecognizable as charred pieces of flesh.
“I’m terribly sorry,” I said. “Waiter, waiter!” I called out. “Let me order another one for you. It’s on me.”
“It’s alright,” she said. “Don’t bother. I think they’re still edible.” She was smiling, and that gave me relief.
Since the topic was still fresh in our minds, I took the opportunity of allowing her to continue talking about the male species, whose members she apparently loathes, in the hopes of eventually drawing from her a picture of her ideal guy. Hope flickered inside me.
“Things aren’t that hopeless, you know,” I said, trying to cheer her spirits up. “Not all guys are that bad. There must be someone out there for you, and someday you’ll find him, or else he will find you. What is your ideal man, by the way? Can you describe him?”
She eyed me suspiciously, and I quickly averted my eyes and concentrated on the chopsticks in my hand, which under normal circumstances I usually managed to handle without any difficulty or awkwardness.
“Why do you want to know?”
“Well, if you really want to know…”
“I’m all ears.”
“But I don’t know where to begin.”
“You might begin with what he looks like, for example. Maybe how tall he is, or what the shade of his skin is?” I’ve always been proud of my height and skin color.
“Those are only secondary qualities. No, what I really want, is a guy who has big brains. Not literally, of course. I mean someone who has a beautiful mind. I don’t need a guy who will bore me to death with his cars, biceps, and ego. I want a guy who’s cultured and well-educated. In short, a want a guy who knows everything.”
“You mean like an omniscient person? Someone who knows everything there is to know about absolutely everything in the universe? And someone who can read people’s thoughts?”
“Well, that’s a gross exaggeration. I meant simply someone who is literate about philosophy, science, art, literature, and so on.”
“You mean someone who knows logic, premises, deductive reasoning and all that? Someone who can tell his modus ponens from his modus tollens?” Apparently, Aris’ sermons weren’t entirely fruitless.
“Exactly!” Her iris dilated as she looked at me.
“Oh, I see.”
“But not just logic, you know, but everything else. I want a guy who can sweep me off my feet with his knowledge of the history of philosophy, which is the history of ideas. Ideas excite me. Someone who can fill my mind and heart with the biographies and theories of the great thinkers from Antiquity, like the Pre-Socratics and the Greek philosophers…”
“Plato and Aristotle, you mean?” I said casually.
“Yes!” She blushed. “And the great minds from the Middle Ages, like Augustine and Aquinas; and the philosophers from the Modern period, like Descartes, Locke, Hume, Leibniz, and all the rest of them; and the great minds from the Post-modern age, like Nietzsche, Sartre, and everyone else. I need a guy who can talk to me about metaphysics, ethics, and aesthetics. Do you know what I’m saying?”
“He would have to be someone who is scientifically literate as well. Someone who is conversant with physics, astronomy, cosmology, and biology. Someone who can dazzle me with his explanations about the cosmos, quantum mechanics, multiple universes, natural selection and whatnot.”
“And someone who knows art?”
“Yes, someone who knows its history, who frequents art galleries, who has good aesthetic sensibilities and collects fine paintings.”
“My favorite painter is Botticelli. Yours?”
“He should be knowledgeable about literature, too. If not with Philippine literature, then with Western literature. He must know Homer’s epics like the back of his hand. He must know the Classics, also. I want no less than a Janeite. He must be able to recite to me whole passages of Pride and Prejudice, in particular Mr. Darcy’s proposal to Lizzie, her reply, and Lizzie’s retorts to and rebuttals of Lady de Bourgh’s threats and accusations. I guess what I’m saying is, he must be acquainted with the canon of Western literature. He must have a personal library, as well, and it must be big. There must be rows of bookcases inside his bedroom, and he must be in the habit of reading at least two books a month. He must be well-read, in short.”
“I’ve seen the movie Pride and Prejudice. Keira Knightley’s acting was superb.”
“Ugh. I detest that adaptation. It was unfaithful and too cinematic. And Knightley was too flirty, totally unlike Austen’s Lizzie.”
The waitress brought a pot of house tea, but I was starting to lose my appetite.
“He would have to be a published writer, obviously. Someone who churns out short stories, poems, and essays on a regular basis.”
I nodded weakly.
“And oh, before I forget, he would have to be either a lawyer or a doctor, too. I need someone who can protect me in case I get into some kind of legal trouble, unlikely as that is, or someone who can take care of me and our children with his expertise about diseases. And he must know how to play the pianoforte or the violin, so he can serenade me and the kids during family time.” She looked as if she was in a trance. Obviously, this was a topic she was absolutely passionate about.
“I’m sorry, I got carried away,” she said. “I could go on and on for hours, but that would be a good sketch of my ideal man. I have never shared this to anyone, by the way. You’re the first to know. Thank you so much for listening. You’re a good friend.”
“You’re welcome.” I was slumped in my chair.
I walked home that night. There was a bit of a misunderstanding about who was going to shoulder the bill. I paid for it down to the last centavo. But she was very gracious about it and took no offense at all. I concede that seventeen kilometers was not very near, but I needed the exercise.
I wasn’t able to get out of bed the following morning. I had a severe bout of leg cramps, but I didn’t mind skipping breakfast. I do that every now and again anyway when I needed to fast ahead of Lent. So I closed my eyes and dozed off. I awoke at half past three however when my stomach started to digest itself. It was more than I could bear, but I still couldn’t command my legs to move. I could feel them, but I had no power over them. I started to panic. I wondered if anyone will ever miss me if I’ll starve to death right there in my own house. Will anyone notice my absence? My neighbors will surely detect the stench of my decaying corpse in a few days, but will anyone really care that I am gone? How many people will attend my funeral? Will anyone cry at my wake? Hunger must have produced these morbid reflections. I banished them immediately out of my mind and tried to think of a course of action that I could take. Then I remembered my favorite friends! Luckily, my phone was within reach. I tried ringing Aris’ number, but he wasn’t answering. Calling Sophia was out of the question because the situation was too embarrassing and ridiculous. So I called Dylan.
“Hello, Dan,” he answered.
“Hello, Dylan,” I said. “How are you?”
“Not too good, I’m afraid.”
“Really? How come?”
“Maria and I had an argument last night. She hasn’t come home yet. I’m worried.”
“Oh, well, that’s too bad. I’m sure she’s alright. Perhaps she needed to spend more time with herself. You know, all of us need a little “me time” every once in a while. She’ll be back. Listen, buddy, I’m in some sort of a difficult situation right now. I need your help. Are you busy?”
“I think it may have something to do with you.”
“What has something to do with me?” My bedroom was rapidly turning into a sauna room.
“Our quarrel. I noticed that she was looking at you in a strange way the last time we met. I think she likes you.”
“No, no, that can’t be true.”
“I noticed that you were looking at her in a funny way, too.”
“That’s impossible. I will never do that.”
“Is she there?”
“Are you guys cheating on me? What kind of a friend cheats on his friend?”
“I’ll tell you, he isn’t a friend at all, but a conniving, back-stabbing, heartless, deceitful SOB. That’s what he is.”
“Hey, buddy, you misunderstood.”
“Don’t call me buddy. I now see why you keep on hanging out with me even if I’m boring. I’ll slit your throat with a scalpel if I ever see your face again.”
And he hung up. I stared at the ceiling, my body soaked in sweat. I wondered if Maria Josefina Cervantes was staring at me at that same moment. Maybe at my clavicle? I dialed the police hotline.