She descends like snowfall into Dupont Circle North station.
The stone etching overhead has greeted her many times. But only now does she recognize it, her eyes frozen on the last three lines. As she disappears into the cavern, her neck arches backward; her ungloved fingers try to reach out to trace the words to chisel them into memory.
…The hurt and wounded I pacify with soothing hand,
I sit by the restless all the dark night – some are so young;
Some suffer so much – I recall the experience sweet and sad…
Her Metro card, down to the last quarter, is folded and creased. The machine mercifully accepts it as the jangling keys mingle with her last few dimes and nickels. Her hands fumble to feed the machine. Her palms start rapping the cold metal face, as the grumbling queue grows behind her. The analog screen reads 2.75. Barely topped up, the card is spit out. Just enough for this time, she says to herself.
Shady Grove... 22 minutes
No rush. She is in the belly of the capital, and far away from home. Around her, she notices the honeycomb arches, the waiting passengers, the vapors – all in sharper detail. A few paces away, a blind man is humming, tapping his cane on the muddied floor. It is a familiar hymn, but she can’t place it; one that belongs to happier times.
She takes out her tablet -- one of the few things the Paper left her as severance -- and starts jotting. Her gaze wanders across the rail lines as her mind goes back to just a few hours ago. Back up the escalator, past the lifeless call boxes emitting nothing but static sparks to grazing limbs. Back into Kramer’s, and its warmly lit nooks. She had walked into the 24-hour bookshop the night before: and, ‘til dawn, she rekindled her weekend postgrad ritual. Back when a midnight tryst at the 18th Street Lounge across the fountain was washed down with a pilgrimage to the only clean, well-lighted place in the beltway. When browsing was honorable and quaint, when her eyes and hair still gleamed, with past summers.
Spanning two shifts, two men at the till cast sneers her way as she unhinges the inventory on the narrowed nooks of Classic Fiction: F to M. She finds the old Scribner’s edition, the one with the art-deco dust jacket and the womb-like eyes piercing through the velvet Jazz Age night. She nests on the carpet until the streetlights gave way to dawn.
It’s time. She makes her way through the ripples of shelves, wary of the leering vendor. He has just settled into his shift; one of those pale, veiny bohemians that only made time for conversation with well-heeled, white patrons. She stops at the counter.
“Can I now help you, ma’am.” He smirks and tries to stare her down.
“Yes, you may, Sir.” She looks back up, indignant.
“Will that be all?” He raps is fingers on the glass case.
She points at the find. “Yes, but if you look at this jacket, it’s stained ande even torn.”
He grabs the book from her, and rolls his spectacled eyes, “We don’t sell books in that condition. Did you just…”
“ I am not going to put up with this…” She tiptoes and leans forward as the clerk shirks backward, bumping the register.
Behind her, a few of the nocturnal pilgrims bearing their loot gather around and start to look over her shoulder.
“OK ma’am, if you’ll be kind enough to get another one back there, we’ll be over and done with.” His eyes strain upward, trying to avoid growing stares and mumbles.
She clears her throat and lets her strength out. “No -- you go back there and fetch me another one, or you give it to me at $12!”
She slams the hard-bound Gatsby on the counter with all her honor. He notices the corrugated flesh on her wrist; then after a few seconds, the faces now crowding around them.
“Okay, Ma’am. We can do that. Will you still be needing a bag?
She sifts through the last slivers of green from her mottled billfold, now left with clipped, lifeless cards, and a faded press pass, memorials to her life in the main. She clutches at the volume, looking at the crimson flooring as walks out, exhaling as she exits and her breath visible in the glacial dusk.
Red line. Doors Closing. Next stop, Woodley Park.
The train begins to break free of the city’s embrace. Inside, the chamber glows with a faint and sacred ordinary. On the farthest seat, there is a nurse, looking away, fighting tears. Nearer to her, another defeated man, the stench of gin and gangrene wafting through the aisles. There is plenty of space in the car, but she is too tired to move away, pays no mind and hunkers down.
Her writing goes on. She is trying to cobble together verses before daylight:
When the mist meets your warmth
takes your thoughts
and turns them to tears
Push off: your bed
is a glass-bottomed boat
and with your
wave then wander
into a place
where touch is
what rekindles a smile,
a promise; a brief reunion
Van Ness-UDC. Tenleytown. Friendship Heights.
The stops ring out in cold cadence. Fewer souls board the train each rung out of the beltway. Across, she spies the other train, before it speeds off in the other direction. It is filling up – most of them young, their heads filled with ambition, bodies fermenting with caffeine and the dregs of last night’s antics. There is a soldier standing at attention, trying not to gaze downward at the Congressional aide to whom he has given his seat. The staffer stares blankly as he struggles for a line. Behind the seat, another waif, possibly a K Street intern, pats her bangs and seems to let out a huff as she finds herself next to an imam, his eyes closed and fingers parsing his wiry beard, lips moving with incantation. Across the tracks, from her window, she continues to watch, tries to conjure their thoughts and words, ignoring her unfinished draft for a while. The train speeds off, carrying these mortals to another day through the hive and above, its babel of promises and power. She and her companions --- with their stillborn art and muted lives, head elsewhere.
Left in the shadow of the station, the doors of her car remain open. An unplanned track repair, another vagrant cast out of the train, perhaps... No rush.
The nurse has dried her tears with her coat sleeves and starts to sit upright. She smiles at her, and the benediction is returned. The old man has gone to sleep, and some of his fumes mercifully escape into the tunnel. She looks back out through the window. Aided by the cabin lights and the dimness outside, she notices herself for the first time in months. She unfurls her hair, setting the beanie on the next seat. The strands are brittle and sparse; even in the muted reflection she can see through to her scalp. She begins to trace her cheekbones, pressing against threadbare ridges of skin. She lets out a sigh; her voice, once full of money, now a faint rasp. The last time she was this lucid happened almost two years ago. Alone in the dusk and a flowerless room, she quietly reached for, unhinged, then dropped the IV bag on the linoleum floor. As she peeled the bandages, her eyes traced the crimson flowing out of her into the tube, like an umbilical cord to another life. There, as the last of her companions and insurance dwindled, and before the orderlies rushed in shouting, she imagined her father’s last moments and the many she missed in the throes of her Stateside dream.
She shakes her head. As she tries to escape these images, she looks down at the damp floor; at her ankles, pale and mocked with veins. She starts to think about her mother. The one she never really knew, who now doesn’t recognize her at all. Even if she scrabbled enough to fly homeward, after all these years, it wouldn’t matter. Across meridians, and into an archipelago where the myths and memories mattered, there was nothing more to be roused from her. After the remittances had dried up, her sister’s emails came few and far between. They read like health bulletins that barely disguised resentment:
Mother’s kidneys are failing. Una, yung neurologists, ngayon the encrin-ologists. Malala na sya, …
Her lips are blue, nothing comes out of them but screams. Ate, wala na akong magagawa.
She’s stopped eating na. Diyos ko, .
Heto na. It should be a matter of days
Send what you can, utang na loob!
Ate(h), malapit na and there’s nothing to come back for.
White Flint. Twin Brook. Rockville.
I must finish this.
She types in the last few lines as the train emerges into the light. She looks at the last map she saved, minimizes it, goes back to the draft, reads it one last time.
The good ferments
the bad withers
and trickles to completion.
When you lose the words
just listen for the mermaids’ voice
like the songs you once
breathed in my ear …
…you’ll be closer
to the constellations
traced by your fingers
The same ones that abuelita
The ones that help you
trace your journey home.
As she scrolls down her screen to find her sister’s email address, she is held back at the view before her as the train fords the river. Far from the monuments and marble, sprawled before her, she gazes at the carcass of Western industry. The detail of rustbelts and strip malls emerge from the horizon, the same scenes thatscattered every immigrant’s ideal once they crossed into the Heartland, upon those dark fields of the Republic. And yet just footsteps away, she is not alone. Shorn of her past, there is someone farther still, waiting for her to arrive.
She waits for a feeble 3G bar to rise. There is an exclamation point on the battery icon. The file attaches. The tribute, hanging perilously on thin aether, is sent. I know they will never read it to her. But she will know I said it.
She sees an email from N. A long-winded apology. Desperately contrite, with a promise to finally take good care of her, to meet as soon as he flew back from an assignment, to show her something. There is a trace of silent laughter, but all she notices are the hollowed eyes that stare back at her through the dimmed backlit panel.
The train rolls further, then halts. She is now on the other side. The driver’s voice, loud with relief, calls out the last stop, ushering everyone off. She feels strangely awake: almost as if an appetite was returning.
The card enters the slot, never again to emerge. She pushes past the turnstiles, not unlike the way she moved through the old playgrounds at Malate. Snow starts to fall as she crosses the road into Veirs Mill Road, and into St. Mary’s. At the corner, from a newly minted billboard, Dr. Phil – tonsure, teeth, and time slot -- looks onto the ashen landscape.
The hilltop, now powdered among the stones, starts to resemble a dream or an opening chapter she can’t place. She beats on, the ground damp with buried leaves and echoed footsteps.
She finds Him.
The last time she felt this way, she was at her grandfather’s at Paco Memorial, in a now forsaken part of Manila, a castoff within the city’s ancient quarter. A stone’s throw from her ancestral home, now rotting to its foundations. During her teens, before her father’s petition came through, her aunts and the other family matrons had conspired to marry her off to a feeble, landed cousin. If that plan to restore the family fortunes didn’t materialize, there was always the guaranteed grace of the convent to siphon off another ingrate.
Her father had read all her earlier stories and heartaches by her bedside. That never stopped, even as the words came through packets, in between stocking mess halls at the Navy’s carriers. He would have none of that, and offered a way out. During those Catolico-cerrado days, where her mother helplessly stood by, she would storm off several streets away until all roads led to the moss-laden rotunda that housed the martyr’s memorial. There, she would find and stay with Abuelo, who Papa said chronicled the Spanish, and then the American occupation as Homer did the Greeks. She would trace the etchings of writings on the tombstones with her eyes closed, and recite them as prayer. Before the sun set and park closed, hold vigil at Rizal’s empty grave. There, prostrate on the ground of the martyred hero, she recited his words, making them her own. To both she swore to write of her nation, and then to never look back.
This morning, as the faint sun reaches the headstones, she kneels, as she did then to another personal saint. She lays down his book. Her ungloved fingers have recited the lines. She closes her eyes, as her arms raise, then smash the tablet where the slab meets Zelda’s markings. She looks about her, will undiminished, even as she pats the snow for fragments. With all her reserves, she lifts the lifeless gadget once more -- higher, and casts it down the unhinged corner of granite.
She lays her coat on the ground and breathes in deep as she picks up a shard of the scattered display. It breaches the scar tissue, bringing her ceaselessly in the past.
Quintin Pastrana is a graduate of Georgetown and Cambridge, and recently completed his Masters in Creative Writing from the University of Oxford. He has returned to his hometown in the Philippines to promote good governance, renewable energy, and community libraries.