I stand with my back to the bus shelter, my coat hunched over my shoulder just an inch more so my nape won’t be exposed. I tighten my hold on the Food Basics bag and my spoon clangs against the fork and the Tupperware. We didn’t have enough Tupperware at home because I always forget to wash; I’m supposed to use my brain. I’d have to rake the leaves later. Don’t forget, please don’t forget. I have homework tonight.
A balding Arab man carries a corrugated yellow sign out of Joe’s Convenience. He removes a faded green sign advertising the store’s stock of Pepsi, replacing it with the yellow one, promoting 10% off greeting cards. I have been here long enough to know that that ad isn’t new at all and was probably pulled out from behind one of the lesser-used shelves in the store, like the greeting card shelf. I have also been here long enough to know that while the Arab man runs Joe’s Convenience, he’s not Joe. Joe is long gone. Dead, maybe, or living somewhere else where he could run a one-plaza-one-convenience-store business in peace, away from the pesky Koreans a few paces down the plaza at Sunny Variety.
An orange taxi speeds past. I always have the option of calling Beck Taxi to get to school and skip ahead of everyone down the road waiting for the bus, too. They know my name and my order so well that a phone call lasts exactly ten words. Hi can I get a taxi to—? Yes. Thank you. A nearly-empty wallet stops me from making the call. I had better things to buy, anyway. Things like hash browns or frozen beef patties from the Sunoco. Or a Java Monster, even though they’re bad for me. Nanay hates it when my eyes twitch too much from caffeine.
I have to rake the leaves later and make sure to carry the bags to the front. Tomorrow is Collection Day. Use your brain, and maybe you can get this done and have time to talk to her tonight.
I look inside my Food Basics bag. Rice and adobo today, with a can of tuna and some crackers. I can smell Nadi making her morning batch of curry goat at her restaurant—it used to be her Caribbean Corner—wafting from the plaza unit where the Fish and Chips used to be. Everything changes, even that old Italian place at the end unit which had been around for twenty years before closing. I know this because I was one of their last customers. It was my first time in the Italian restaurant and the old owner who served me, slightly teary-eyed, admitted that the store was closing the next day. It was the saddest meatball-eating experience I’ve ever had. Now it’s a pub with half-price wings which make me just want to avoid the place. If they can’t even be confident about their wings, why should I be confident about their menu?
* * *
My eyes are drier and more tender than usual. But that’s okay because it’s a new day and I just need to focus on getting to my World History class and hand in my Ferdinand Marcos proposal. I really hope the teacher accepts it. I had to stay up really late last night to get it done.
* * *
The pneumatic breaks of the 116 stop the bus in front of the shelter across the road. That’s two-for-zero now, in the last fifteen minutes. I since realized that when people say “Rush Hour,” they only mean it for buses going downtown.
Across the road I see an old man with a thick jacket, a hunter hat, and a hunchback crossing at the yellow light. He crosses really slowly, but the cars are nice enough to wait for him to pass. I hear the balding Arab again, yelling Yalla, Yalla! into his phone.
The old man turns in my direction and hobbles toward the bus shelter. I grab my phone from my pocket and slide it open. I pretend to check my texts in the same way I try to ignore conversation at home. Leaves, leaves, don’t forget to rake them today.
A notification pings at me from the phone, begging me to open it. why arent u here yet the texts reads. I reply curtly with waiting for bus its taking way too long geez.
Fuck. I shouldn’t have typed geez. She’s going to kill me with guilt-trips today at lunch. I shouldn’t have ended the sentence with a period either, damn it. I turn my phone off out of fear of a staunch reply.
“Are you Pilipino?” a voice behind me asks.
I turn around and the soft face of the old man in the hunter hat is a couple of feet away from mine, smiling. He stands like a soldier at ease, his hands behind his back, his gaze not giving into any sign of awkwardness in his approach. I feel my body becoming rigid, and I turn my head to acknowledge him.
“Opo,” I answer in the traditional way, for his Polynesian eyes, crisp pronunciation of Pilipino, and his flat nose immediately flagged his inclusion within the social group I reluctantly crawled into during birth. One of us. One of us.
“Are you prom dis nay-borhood?” he asks. I’ve officially been engaged into a conversation, things I try to avoid in the morning.
“Yes, po, I live here in Coronation.”
“Ah, I lib sa oder side, near Poplar. Is dat your pagkain? Anong ulam?”
“Yes, der’s lots of chicken sa Pilipinas. Do you eat Pilipino pood? You know chicken adobo? Dat is my pabourite, chicken adobo.”
I look toward the end of Morningside Avenue—where the cliffs are—and I see the bus turn into the street. The conversation won’t last too long now that the bus is here, so I tell myself to be patient for two more minutes. Another bus halts in front of the shelter across the street, allowing an old woman with a cane and silver curls to slowly step inside.
“Yes, I know chicken adobo.”
“Good, good. When was da last time you went back home? I hab’nt gone back por six years. When did you last go back?” the old man presses on. I would have wanted to answer “a few minutes ago” but I know that the home he’s talking about is nowhere along Coronation, nor is it anywhere in West Hill, in Scarborough, or even in Canada. I could see the bus in the distance flashing its hazard lights, immobile maybe a block before the railroad tracks.
“I went back last summer for a couple of weeks.” I become increasingly aware of the weight of the phone in my pocket, its presence heavy and clear but out of reach. I feel tempted to reach for it and pretend to receive a call, from my Nanay or something. My trip to the Philippines is not something I want to talk about, definitely not to a stranger. But the old man’s eyes do not waver and they stay fixed on me. I feel obliged to think of a story to tell, a way to expand, so the honest old man goes about his day happy to have thought about home for a while with a strange young Pinoy at the bus stop.
“And did you injoy it?”
I want to tell him about something nice, maybe about my trip to Tagaytay, way high up in the mountains, where I was serenaded by a lone guitarist in a nearly-empty restaurant overlooking the lake with the captive fish. Maybe I’ll tell him about Lake Taal, the volcano lake with a volcano island inside, with a lake inside of the island. It’d be old news to him, but maybe that’d be a good story to tell. Or I could tell him about the big city with its tall skyscrapers and wide, dirty river, with people who live in the slums that weave around tall buildings washing their dirty laundry. I could talk about the brothels and the balut merchants, and the fresh fruit in carts available every morning pulled by men who are too old to find a real job like Jollibee.
Maybe I could tell him about my family that I visited in Bataan and the river that used to flow for the kids to swim but was now nothing but a brown trickle. I could talk about the random villages along the highways and beaches, and how beautiful and happy the little dark kids looked when they roamed around with nothing but their shorts and sticks to play with. Or I could talk about seeing godparents I never knew existed. Maybe I could tell him about the wedding I went to, and the hasty preparations it took to celebrate it seventeen years after it was supposed to happen, and the awkward after-party with nieces and nephews I’ve never met, or the honeymoon with the rest of the family at a beach and all the times I stole away from everyone to be alone with the sand and the merchants—
The 116 arrives and the doors open. I quickly step inside, and notice that the old man made no intention to enter. I look back at him, his eyes still focused, his body still in a hunched soldier’s stance.
* * *
“The trip was okay,” I say, and the bus doors close. The driver urges me to find a seat or to stand behind the white line beneath my feet.
I turn on my phone and it vibrates. I see the name above the text and hesitatingly open the message. dont forget 2 rake the leaves and take the bags out. i better see it all done before i get home.