Saturday, October 20, 2007

Fifteen Years

I gave my ticket to an attendant on board the hydrofoil, settled in my seat and looked ashore through the window. The riverfront boulevard looked quite prosperous with its graceful French colonial hotels and agressive high-rise office buildings, in contrast with the haggardness of the working-class crowd milling about on the wharf with their cheap scooters.

The engines started, and soon boats and wharves, parks and pavilions, ships and warehouses were gliding past my view. The river became less crowded, the sky less obstructed, then the hydrofoil emerged into a vast expanse of vivid blue and green, whipping up white foam in the deep murky water. I could not resist stepping out of the cabin to feel the wind pushing hard against my face.

About an hour later, the wetlands covered in nipa palms and mangroves gave way to the sea. Waves turned into billows, and the boat was rocking harder. From afar the rocky peaks of my destination were looming. I pressed a few keys on my cell phone and told a friend that I would arrive soon.

The man who was going to meet me at disembarkment had gone to high school with my younger sister, and fallen in love with her too. He had been a nice young lad, and we had all liked him except our mother, who had looked at his relationship with her youngest daughter with apprehension. I could hardly blame our mother's attitude, considering that his father had been a full-time drunk. He had understood that and resignedly accepted his poor standing in our mother's eyes.

I stepped onto the pier and glanced around. It was a pretty place of sea, mountains, and new money. I was wondering about the chance of recognizing someone I had not met for fifteen years when I heard my name called. His voice was the same, his build unchanged, the difference was his prematurely worn face and his new shining black luxurious sedan.

His family had not supported his education, so he had had to work through high school. College had been out of the question, though he had tried but had been unable to make it through the prep courses on an empty stomach. After my sister's marriage to a suitor favored by my mother, he had left town and got a job in construction.

He gave me a tour of the coastal boomtown, where new roads and buildings were ubiquitous. The town itself was charming enough with its winding roads squeezed between mountain and sea, dainty hillside villas, and beaches filled with merry vacationers. But it was his construction sites that he was all eager to show me, from which I could tell he was doing very well indeed.

A diligent worker with ambition, he had worked his way up until he had caught the attention of a young woman with heavy-weight connections in the local communist cadre, and had married her. He had started taking evening classes, eventually got a degree, started his own construction firm, and thanks to the connections of his wife's family had won many lucrative contracts. Ah yes, his wife...

It was while we were having an excellent seafood dinner at a seaside restaurant that he broached the subject of his wife.

"My wife has left me," he abruptly said, sipping on his beer.

I looked at him in silent sympathy.

"She took my daughter with her," he added matter-of-factly.

My look was now encouraging.

"It was complicated," he said with embarrassment.

Then he changed the subject. He talked at length about the maze of corrupted bureaucracy he had learned to navigate to protect his business. He talked about the painstaking way he had to entertain the people who mattered. He explained why sometimes he had to bid to lose a contract, not to win it. And he insisted on paying for the expensive dinner.

He took me home to a four-storied townhouse with iron gates and elaborate façade embellishment typical of new money in this part of the world. For some reason he put me in his daughter's bedroom, which was cozily furnished and decorated. Everything here was in spick-and-span order as if ready for the little girl to come back. He was lingering, looking at his daughter's portrait on the wall.

"I don't even know where she is now," he softly said.

Before I could say anything, he turned and left, wishing me good night.

The next morning he took me to a picturesque hillside café for breakfast. We listened to American oldie music while watching ships passing by in the sea below. Our conversation was just a long silence broken by laconic phrases and utterances.

We shook hands at the wharf entrance. It felt exactly like when we had shaken hands fifteen years ago after my sister had been married and he had decided to leave town. Our hands were connected, but our understanding was held back by pride on his part and discretion on my part, and neither of us was willing to do anything about it.

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