A winning smile
When I was still teaching in the University of the Philippines Los Baños, I used to tell my students the story about how I met a stranger on a bus, as an example of an autobiographical report. Semester after semester, the reactions I got were always the same: kilig. Here goes:
It was a Monday night. I boarded an HM bus in Cubao after my evening class in UP Diliman. As usual, I took the window seat and stared at the carbon-monoxide laced window. Instead of pondering Metro Manila’s pollution, I recalled an incident that afternoon: I had reserved a copy of Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s autobiography at a book sale in UP, but the staff sold it to somebody else, so I ran to the ladies’ room to cry (silly, I know).
I smiled at the thought of this but quickly put on a straight face because I didn’t want to be seen smiling by myself. A guy sat beside me, but I hardly paid attention to him for I was still immersed in my thoughts on Gabo’s book and missed opportunities.
He asked whether that bus would be passing through Calamba. I found the question dumb because the Sta. Cruz signboard had “College” and “Calamba” on it, so I just nodded a little while still looking out of the window, sending the I’m-not-interested message across.
As the bus left the terminal and the conductor started collecting fares, I suddenly realized that I had no ticket. I strained my neck, looking for the conductor. The guy beside me said the conductor must have thought that we were traveling together because he gave him two tickets. I was about to raise hell but when I turned to look at him, I forgot about hell. He was so gwapo.
His eyelashes were longer than mine. His eyes were adorably big. Lips, pinkish. Nose, perfect. Complexion, smooth. And he smelled good.
For a split-second I was possessed, but I was exorcised immediately. He handed me one of his Calamba-bound tickets. “Oh no,” I said in protest, adding that he should have told the conductor that we were not traveling together and that we would get into trouble because HM’s ticket machine was like a cash register so it was easy to change tickets.
He just blinked and said sorry with his gentle voice.
When the conductor approached to collect our fares, I told him my ticket should be College (UPLB) and that the guy was not with me. The conductor, apparently irritated, scratched his head, gave us a mouthful, and walked to the driver to ask for help in changing the ticket.
When we had paid our fares, the guy talked to me again.
“So you’re heading for Los Baños?” he asked.
“Yup,” I answered.
“Do you live there?”
“I teach there.”
“Ah, anong grade?”
His question made me sad. I looked at him and said, “I teach college students!”
He laughed and apologized. I put on a long face and looked out of the window again until we got stuck in heavy traffic. The stranger decided to hold a question and answer session.
He asked what I was doing in Quezon City. I decided to intimidate him and told him I was taking my master’s in UP.
“What course?” he asked.
“Comparative Literature,” I said.
“Com-what?” he politely asked.
I didn’t bother to explain. I just smiled because even CL majors would have difficulty explaining it in a single sentence to somebody who cannot even say the program’s name.
Before we reached the South Luzon Expressway, he managed to slip in a few more questions that I briefly answered. I found it funny that he seemed to be genuinely interested. After a period of silence, I took my turn and asked him how old he was, because he looked like a high school student hitting on a college instructor. When he said 27, my eyes widened. “What? You’re three years older than me!” I said, and we had a good laugh.
We got into another heavy traffic at SLEX which was undergoing some widening at the time, so we talked about roads, highways and other things I can not recall anymore. We began talking as if we had known each other for a long time.
Somewhere before the expressway exit, my tummy ached and I whispered to the window, “I’m hungry.” He heard this (not my stomach, hopefully) and said we should have dinner. I said definitely no. Talking to a complete stranger was enough. Dining with him would have been too much.
As we approached Calamba, he offered again. I said I had an early class the next day. He insisted. I said I still had lessons to prepare. He insisted. I said my brother was waiting for me in my apartment to get some money and I didn’t want to keep him waiting (I had a brother studying in UP, but this was a lie).
The conductor called out to those who were getting off at Calamba, and he smiled and stood up. He looked at me again and asked, “Are you sure? Libre ko.”
I said, “Sige.”
We got off and had dinner and coffee somewhere in Calamba. Somehow the excitement of meeting a stranger had been growing inside me and talking with him seemed to be a most comforting experience, perhaps because of his voice. I imagined that we were characters in a story and I was the author of it. I decided to end our story there and said I was going ahead.
He wrote his mobile phone number on a piece of paper and pushed it toward me.
“What am I supposed to do with that?” I asked. He looked hurt. The wind carried away the piece of paper and he went after it like a kid. I felt wicked, so when he got back to our table I took the paper, went out of the restaurant with him right behind me, and took a jeepney without saying goodbye.
As soon as I arrived in our apartment, I found my friend Kei preparing her lesson. I told her I had talked to a stranger on a bus. We laughed and forgot about it.
Three weeks later, I was cleaning my room—the kind of cleaning you do when you are depressed about some things—when I saw the piece of paper he had given me. I sat on my bed and texted the number: “Thanks for the coffee.”
He replied, “Oh my God, Aileen, I’ve been waiting for your text! Do you want to have dinner again sometime?”
Boy, he must be interested in me, I thought. A week after that, I agreed to meet with him again. The end. (At this point, my students would roar all together, and ask what happened next.)
Well, he hosted my blog aiscracker.com. This year, we are celebrating our fourth year as a couple. We have traveled together around the Philippines, by jeepney, by plane, by bus. Last year, we had a magazine project called Lakwatcha and it earned some pretty good feedback, so we are planning to launch it in full force some time in the years ahead.
When I ask him why he sat beside me that fateful January night on a bus in Cubao, he says it was because I was smiling.
Aileen Macalintal, 27, is the editor of Rice Today and market analyst of The Rice Trader (based in Singapore).
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