Eight months ago, I received a call from Brian, a schoolmate from grade school. I can't say I've been wanting for that call to happen, but I realized afterwards that I had been waiting for it for a long time. I just didn't expect to receive it the way I did (and I wished I hadn't, really.)
Brian (not his real name) was someone I met back in second grade (way back in 1976, a long time ago). Before that, I had no idea that we lived in the same neighborhood - we were five houses apart from each other.
It was during one of those PTA meetings when our mothers met, and they decided to turn us into best friends. That was a lousy move, since he already had his clique, and I was one of the weirdos that no one wanted to be seen with.
But parents have their charming ways, and us kids were always at their mercy. One day, we were introduced to each other, and since then we would go to school together in the morning, and then go home together after classes.
At first, we rarely talked to each other. In fact, as soon as we stepped into the school's premises, we would go our separate ways.
Brian attended Class C. He was very good in Math, Art and Sports, and was easily popular with the teachers. I attended Class B, and was good in Science, English and the Social Sciences. Like most kids in Class B, I was a nerd and a klutz (but we were better off compared to those in Class A who were all probably born in Saturn, had alien DNA, and were very good at everything).
There were days - Fridays, mostly - when Brian had to stay after classes for shooting practices (basketball). I had to stay too, and wait for him because our parents gave strict instructions that we must always go together and that we are not to leave each other behind.
Back then I already knew that Brian was embarrassed to be seen with me, and the situation did not improve with time. Although it was true that Brian and I did warm up to each other eventually, and became comfortable enough to do things together like go to the library, eat lunch together at the school cafeteria, visit each others' houses on week ends or eat at McDonald's' a couple of times, at school we maintained a distance: he was with his kind of crowd, and I was with my kind of crowd.
In fourth grade, I got a taste of how cruel Brian's crowd can be. It was Christmas, and because back then I sort of believed that Brian was my best friend, I bought him a gift (nothing fancy), wrapped it, and gave it to him three days before Christmas while we were on our way to school. When Brian's friends found out about it, I became the target of sissy jokes. Very soon afterwards, I earned a notoriety that sort of stuck on to me like a gum to a shoe. It was very embarrassing, and very annoying. But there was nothing I could do.
Although it was true that Brian did not show his approval of his friends' behavior, he also kept quiet on the matter. A few days before the New Year, Brian returned the gift I gave him. He said his mother decided it was for the best under the circumstances.
My own parents and brothers knew nothing of the end of our so called friendship. They did asked several times why Brian never came around anymore. I told them he had other things to do.
The following year, Brian and I totally drifted apart. We stopped going to and from school together. I tried to visit him during his birthday (because my mom insisted that I go), and although I was graciously welcomed, I knew that it was all a matter of politeness. I gave him his birthday gift that my brother made me buy. Just before I left, when I was sure no one was looking, I took the gift back home with me.
By the time we were in sixth grade, Brian had transferred to a private Catholic school. Although he maintained his contact with his other friends at our school, Brian and I were completely cut off from each other, despite the fact that we lived on the same street.
Although I was angry over what happened, I decided not to make a big deal out of it. I did hear from someone that his parents decided to transfer him to a different school to keep him away from bad influences.
At a tender age of twelve, I was already an accused petty criminal of some sort. This was the same year when I had wanted to ask my father if I could move to Cebu City and continue my High School education there (see my story, The House on Tres Abril.)
Fast forward to 1997: it was my first week at my third job right out of college. It has been more than fifteen years since our family had moved away from the old neighborhood. A lot has happened - high school, university, and two jobs in private organizations. My first two jobs were very rewarding, but this third job (for the government) offered stability and security of tenure.
I had grown tired of that sickening sensation of dread every time my contract with an organization would end, so I decided to go and work for a government office. Sure, the pay is much lower, and promotion is far in between, but hey - it is security, and it is far more attractive compared to starvation.
By my second week on the job, I realized that Brian's mother and I both worked for the same agency. I had seen her around the hallways, and at first, I failed to recognize her as the years have certainly changed her a lot. I introduced myself to her, and she happily and generously embraced me like a long lost son. I invited her for coffee and she happily accepted.
I learned that she was already a widow, and that she still lived in the same house in our old neighborhood. I also learned that her daughter (her eldest child, on whom I actually had a crush on) has her own family and that she was already living in another city. Her youngest son, Bobby (not his real name) was about to finish college.
Although I never asked her anything about Brian, she told me that Brian already has a family of his own, though he has yet to marry the girl with whom he has two sons. She also said that Brian never got to finish college because he fell into some bad company.
I told her I was enrolled in a Master's program at the University because I wanted to be filthy rich by the time I'm forty-five (I was in my early thirties then.)
In 2001, our office assigned me to a tour of duty at the Palace (Malacanang), and that was where I officially reported to for seven years. Two of the ghostly experiences I've recounted (see Ball and Bambi had to pee badly... And so she did), actually happened while I was on my tour of duty at the Palace.
When Brian's mother heard I was being assigned to the Palace, she thought it was such an honor and a recognition of my talents that she actually started bragging to her co-workers that I was her son's best friend, and that I was like a son to her myself.
I didn't have the heart to tell her that being assigned to the Palace was not such a big deal in my line of work. I also wanted to straighten her out about my being best friends with her son, but I chose the path of self-righteousness and to be kind.
The week before I was to start my tour of duty, Brian's mother gave me a coffee mug with a Hallmark message printed on it. She advised me to start drinking chamomile tea instead of coffee. She also told me how proud she was of what I've achieved, and how she wished my good sense had rubbed off on her Brian.
Before she left, she informed me that she had told Brian about me, and that he was happy to know I am doing well. She invited me to have dinner at their house so Brian and I could meet and catch up on each other personally. I told her I would make time for it.
Of course, we all say things we don't mean, every now and then.
Years passed since then, and I have completely forgotten about her dinner invitation. From time to time, Brian's mother would send me a word through one of my co-workers, but I was so busy with my job that I often fail to retain and process whatever information that was not written down.
Last month, some fourteen years after my last conversation with Brian's mother, I received a call at 2:15 in the morning, just when my coffee-to-blood ratio was at an all time low. The insistent ringing rudely interrupted my dream, made me drag myself out of bed, caused me to bump my knee against my bed side table, and insisted that I go to the living room to pick up my land line receiver.
It is 2014, and nobody calls their families, friends or co-workers on land line phones anymore. I use mine to call and order for pizza or take outs, or complain about bad services to someone at some hotline numbers.
I picked up the receiver and growled a grumpy "hello." Whoever it was at the other end of the line giggled, then hanged up. "Jerk!" I hissed, and slammed the receiver down.
Three days after, and someone called again, at 1:03 in the morning. I was still half awake, so I dragged myself out of bed to answer the phone, praying the call was not the police or from a hospital about someone in my family, or someone I know. "Hello," I said. There was nothing but silence, and after a while, the caller hanged up - again.
Annoyed, I unhooked the phone and went back to bed.
A whole week went by, and I hooked in the phone again. Two days after, a Friday night, and the phone rang again, at 11:23, a few minutes before midnight, and I was already asleep. I got out of bed, groggily walked into the living room, stepped on my poor cat, then picked up the phone and drawled, "hello."
"Hi, Clarence" said an unfamiliar voice from the other end of the line. "It's me, Brian."
I was at a loss. The caller says he's Brian, yet something about this phone call was off. It was sending wild warnings to my brain, but I was too sleepy, and too annoyed to pay attention.
"Are you there?" Brian asked.
"Yes," I said, suppressing a yawn. "I'm here."
"How are you?" I had a mental image of him grinning from ear to ear as he asked.
"Tired and sleepy," I stressed, then yawned exaggeratedly for extra rude points.
"Oh," he said, concerned. "I'm so sorry. I tried to call you twice, but I hanged up at the last moment on both counts. Sorry about that."
"No, it's okay," I said flatly. I was feeling very pleased with myself. "What's this about?"
"I can call some other time," he offered, his voice sounding a tad disappointed.
"It's okay," I said. "I'm glad you called."
"I've been wanting to," he said, the smile was back in his voice. "It's been a while."
"Yup. Since fifth grade," I emphasized.
"True," he said. "But that was a long time ago," he reminded me. "Right?"
That stumped me.
"What age were we then?" he was practically giggling, "Ten, eleven almost? Most kids are cruel at that age."
"Yeah," I said, my voice lower. "Kids that age don't know any better."
I definitely could use some coffee then.
"Right," he said, giggling some more.
"Why are you giggling?" I asked, annoyed.
"Because, it sounds to me like someone needs to grow up and move on," he said, almost laughing.
I had it in me then to just hang up on him and go back to bed. The toad! I hope he didn't call to ask for a job.
"I called because I heard that you're doing well. And I wanted to tell an old friend how proud I am of him at how far he has come in life. I didn't expect you to sound like a fifth grader," he explained.
"What?" I was stung.
"Besides," he cut me, "I have a bone to pick with you."
"Oh, do you, now?" I answered, icily.
"You gave me a birthday present, then when I wasn't looking, you took it back," he said, matter of factly.
I didn't know what to say to that.
"Tsk, tsk. Naughty, naughty," he laughed.
I was struggling to stay awake.
"I just wanted to say hello," he said again.
I didn't know what to say to him. It's been decades, and we were practically strangers to each other, then here he was calling me at midnight, and I was really tired and sleepy.
"I didn't mean to be such an a - hole," he said. I could really hear the sincerity in his words. "Believe me, if we could all go back, I'd do things differently. But we can't. All I can do now is apologize."
"Okay," I mumbled.
I could actually hear him smile at the other end. "Does that mean we're friends again?"
"Okay," I mumbled, again. It felt like Algebra all over again - terrible.
In all honesty, I was having a difficult time processing the situation, much less the value of our conversation. It's not like this was going to erase every bad feelings that I had growing up, especially how betrayed I felt.
To a twelve year old, betrayal from people whom he considers as friends feels like a terrible toothache - it keeps him awake at night, causes loss of appetite, and the terrible feeling it inflicts wouldn't go away so easily. You need a minor dental procedure to take the pain away. It wounds, and you bleed, and probably end up scarred for life.
It's the definitive wrong.
"You know what," I suddenly snapped, "I felt so bad after what you guys said and did to me that I practically kept to myself all through High School. I was full of hate, and it was painful. It was only when I was in my Second Year in College that I was able to make friends again. I was so hurt!"
There! I said it, not bothering to hide my annoyance. And besides, it is the middle of the night. Any decent person knows not to call at midnight, except when it's an emergency.
He kept quiet for a while. "Feeling better?" he asked, finally breaking the silence.
"Yeah, I do." I said. In fact, I was glad to have gotten that out of my chest.
"Good," his voice was smiling again.
"So, what now?" I asked.
"What do you mean?"
Is this guy dense, or what?
"Why did you call me after all this time?" I said, impatient. "Is there a class reunion happening? Did you call to invite me?"
"No," he laughed. "What's happening is I'm calling my best friend."
Those words, somehow, had a bitter-sweet effect on me. A part of me wanted to reject it, making me want to throw it back at him. That will show him what I think of his friendship.
On the other hand, another part of me was happy to hear those words from him. They brought me back to when I was twelve, when I was broken. And those words made me feel whole again.
"Listen," he said, cutting through my memories. "I know it's late, and you have to rest. So, good night."
"Okay," I said, a bit unsure. My sleepiness was wearing off, and I was suddenly hesitant to allow our call to end so abruptly, but that was that, and he hanged up.
It was a weird and short phone call, no more than ten minutes, but I was glad for it. I went back to bed and slept soundly.
Two weeks passed before I could have the chance to process Brian's call. There was this lull at work, and Mark (not his real name), the co-worker through whom Brian's mother used to ask to pass a few words to me every now and then, just happens to pass by my cubicle. I flagged him down and asked how Brian is doing, even casually mentioning to him that Brian called me recently, in the middle of the night no less, and jokingly told him to tell Brian that I'm definitely pissed so he needs to buy me a couple of rounds of beer one of these days
His eyes went wide like saucers. "How can you joke like that?" he said, his voice accusing.
Again, I'm confused. "Did I say anything wrong?"
"I told you last year that Brian died of heart failure while he was confined at a hospital. What is wrong with you?" he said angrily.
I was to learn from him later that Brian is actually his second degree cousin. I don't remember him telling me the year before that Brian had died, but then again, maybe I wasn't really paying attention.
Worst, maybe deep inside, I was determined to shut out everything and everyone that has anything to do with me when I was eleven and twelve.
After he has quieted down, I asked him to tell me again what happened to Brian. He recounted to me that Brian suffered a stroke at the middle of last year, and was in coma for a while. Then, his heart failed, and he died.
"I'm not sure how, but I did receive a call from someone who claimed to be Brian," I told him. "And I was convinced that it was him. Now, I'm not so sure. Maybe it's someon's cruel joke."
"I don't know anything about that," he said, shrugging. "But Brian is dead, and that's a fact."
I tell you what: these days, I still don't know what happened - maybe it was a dream - but my land line phone is always unhooked now. I don't even bother to turn on my answering machine. I've already called the phone company to cut their service. I'm good with just my mobile phone, thank you very much!
Also, I've asked my nephew and my niece who lives with me to always be home from work before ten in the evening. It's wise, and I really don't need to lose sleep over strange things that are happening in this world, especially when I'm alone at night.