I Am the City
by Eliza Victoria
In the city was a man who rode the train every day. There was nothing remarkable in this — everyone rode the train, maybe not every day but at least five days a week, workdays, office employees congesting the air-conditioned coaches with their wet hair and unlined eyes, shirts untucked, ties hidden somewhere in the linings of their laptop bags, stockinged feet cushioned by flip-flops because heels could kill you. And the man wasn’t even thinking about that joke they always say about stilettos (Could one really use them as murder weapons? Are they sharp enough?) — he was thinking of the woman he saw last month, who was wearing pumps and tripped on her way into the train. It wasn’t her fault, the women behind her were jostling her. It was perhaps a week after the train administration approved segregation: women, children, and the handicapped in the first car of the train; everybody else in the other cars. The train administration thought they were doing something smart, throwing the young, the expecting and the broken into a crowd of women. They thought the women would take care of them, they thought the women would be gentle. But the women were employees, too, beating the clock, dealing with colleagues they wouldn’t even consider as friends, running late for an appointment, waking up cranky. The man wondered if he were being sexist. No, he was thinking not only of the women. He was thinking also of the men, maybe even the drivers, the guards, the people sitting behind the glass, breaking bills and handing out the cards with the punched-out hole and the President’s face. It’s true, he thought. The train turned everyone feral.
No. No. Not the train. The train was a resting place, a sanctuary — unless there were too many passengers and you had no choice but to stand, or be pinned to the doors, someone’s pelvis cutting the circulation in your leg. But if you were sitting beneath the air-con the train ride could be glorious. So it wasn’t the train, no. No. It was work. Schedules. The night shift. Not ever arriving at home to find your children awake. Stupid, irrational bosses. The city. She broke her leg, the woman who mistakenly wore heels to the train and tripped. There was a sharp crack and the other passengers drew away, wincing, horrified. The woman didn’t die, the man supposed, it was just one leg, one bone; she didn’t die but she screamed as though she were going to. Everyone in the station was late for an hour, and they didn’t feel bad for the woman, they didn’t feel any pity at all.
He was old enough to remember the city before the trains came. The horrible traffic jams, the smoke. They were still there, he knew; sometimes he had to stay late at the office, and before the train administration extended the train schedules he was forced to take the bus. It could be as comforting as the train but the ride wasn’t as swift, or as silent. In the bus the noise of the other vehicles came in unfiltered, every honk like a signal for an impending death. (Almost always false, but once the man was awakened by a sudden noise, and up ahead he saw a pile-up. One car lost its break, or just veered into the wrong lane. It’s those stupid pink fences, people said. You can’t see the pink fences in the dark. A family died, he learned later. Two children. This was the reason he didn’t drive anymore, he remembered. Also, the gas prices were incredible.)
The rudeness also was more pronounced. The man would think that since most of the passengers were on their way home they’d be too exhausted to scream at each other. It must be the long travel time, cruel in its extension; the congested streets, the ride home like a second shift at work. It must be worse in the mornings, with the heat and the evangelists clambering up the steps to deliver their speeches and their Bible verses in the aisle, telling the listless, possibly heatstroked passengers that they loved them and that they were damned.
He was old enough to remember these days, the lack of alternatives to maneuver the streets. But he was also young enough to be considered “young”. Gen X, he believed. Alex Garland and The Beach, Bret Easton Ellis and — well, practically all his books. Especially the one that got turned into a film, the successful one, the one with the handsome young man and an axe. Chuck Palahniuk, that movie with Brad Pitt, all that anger. The man tried to think of a Filipino novel that could serve as counterpart, but with Marcos to hate even years after his death, who had the time to be jaded and cynical? He thought of Gen Y. What is Gen Y? He read there was now a Gen Y but he couldn’t see the difference. Weren’t all “young” people the same? Disillusioned, world-weary, bored out of their minds? That constant need for an adventure, that constant need to ridicule suburban life and jobs that keep you deskbound and microwavable food and comfort. Everything was fake, and every day had to be a day closer to finding the genuine, or else just stop bothering and jump off a bridge. They were always single, these “young” people, childless, unattached, maybe rich. Selfish. Maybe Gen X just grew up and gave birth to Gen Y. Soon Gen Y would get tired of backpacking across Southeast Asia and settle somewhere, have children, cement himself or herself to a single place. Everyone had to move on.
He remembered that, being “young”, and being horribly, horribly selfish. How infinite he felt. Now he found comfort in the predictability of the train. But he didn’t miss his old self. Even then he knew he was lost.
He was still lost, even inside the train, despite the certainty of its destination, the one direction to which it proceeded. He found a constant for a little while, but there were so many people in the train station and their surge made even the constant slippery. When was the last time the train arrived on schedule? Never. The trains didn’t even have a schedule. The only certain thing was when the station opened, and when it closed. Whatever happened in between was indefinable. For example: he thought the train ride last month was just any other train ride, but there was a sharp crack and a crowd drew away and all of a sudden there was a woman howling on the floor.
There were other examples, the man thought.
He was sure of this.
Another thing he was sure of: A man could be allowed in the first car of the train, if he had a child, or a pregnant companion.
The train administration saw this exemption as a privilege.
Wait, the man thought; what happened in between — from the time the station opened to the time it closed — could also be defined. Ride the train often enough and you would find a pattern in its apparent randomness. Sundays. Holidays. Weekdays between twelve noon and three in the afternoon. These were the times when the train could breathe, when passenger volume fell. According to the latest surveys, more than half a million people rode the train every day. Half a million. Every single day. Half a million walking across the platform, riding the cars, changing the landscape like a steady raindrop inside a cave. It was a wonder the train had not yet buckled beneath all that weight, had not yet fallen like a decaying raft to the concrete sea below.
Sundays. Holidays. Weekdays between twelve noon and three in the afternoon.
After the train administration extended its office hours, the man added midnight to two a.m to the list. At half-past one every day the cashiers pulled down the blinds in their stalls; at exactly two a.m. the trains stopped running and the station would be closed. So few people came to the station between the hours of midnight and two a.m. that the man was sure the train was losing money. The man was sure that in a few weeks the train station would go back to its old office hours. If it insisted on being open longer it would go bankrupt.
One Monday night he went to his office building, but not to work because he was on leave — he had been on leave for almost two weeks now. He went to the office to eat dinner with a friend. How are you doing, his friend asked, It’s so nice to see you up and about. They were in a coffee shop where all the lights were yellow and almost everybody’s face was obscured by an open laptop. It was a sight to see, the faces awash in blue-white light, hanging suspended in yellow. Earlier he had given the coffee orders to a young barista, who smiled as brightly as the others behind the counter, but with half the spunk, her brightness dimmed by a flicker of worry. Doublemint Choco Ice Blended Tall, he heard her muttering to herself, Macchiato Over Ice Tall –
“You’re new here?” he had said to her, trying to sound friendly and sympathetic, but he did not get the intended reaction. She looked even more worried and flustered, and did not bother to return his smile.
The man was concerned. He did not mean to hurt her. He imagined her sitting on the train, already in uniform, nervous about her first day. He did that sometimes, study the train’s other passengers. Willing them to have a good day, to not worry too much. Wondering about their lives. Wondering if they were happy.
“Who’s staying at home with you?” his friend asked when they sat down.
The man frowned. “Just me.” Who else would be staying at home with him?
His friend’s face dropped. “You’re alone,” he said. This seemed unacceptable to him. “I thought you went to your brother’s house.”
“I didn’t want to impose.”
“He invited you. You should stay with him.”
“I’ll think about it,” he said, just so his friend would shut up.
After dinner he walked with his friend to the parking lot. He watched his friend throw his car keys in the air and catch them. The man ached for that, a moment with no worries, the confidence of the gesture. His friend said, “Come on. I’ll give you a ride.”
But it was close to midnight, so of course the man said, “That’s all right, I’m taking the train.”
This was what the man was trying to do: He was trying to find a way into the city.
He was trying to pierce through its surface. Its grime, its buildings, its dirty water.
He was not trying to find a way out of it, as most of his friends had assumed. He had tried that before but didn’t find satisfaction in it.
He wanted to ask it a question. How could it answer if he chose to run away?
On the face of the clock in the train station, the minute hand swept past 12. It was now Tuesday. There were at most eight people in the station. The man was at the first station, the origin. The train route had thirteen stations. The man bought a southbound ticket. Being at the starting point he had a myriad of stops from which to choose, but only one direction to go to. He really had no choice.
The guard didn’t hassle him when he entered the first car — the car reserved for the women, the handicapped, the children, the pregnant. With less than ten people in the station, it just wasn’t worth it; the guard was standing on his little podium, comfortable, drinking coffee. The other passenger in the first car was a young female nurse wearing enormous headphones, who glanced at him when he entered and sat down at the far end, but she didn’t seem to mind that he was in the car with her. The rest of the passengers were men and were law-abiding, and so entered the non-restricted cars. The man saw them through the glass, and felt a little ashamed.
Just five stations later, the train was already empty. It did not pick up any more passengers in the other stops. Bankruptcy, the man said to himself, and it sounded like a spell. He wondered what he would do if the driver suddenly decided to strike up a conversation. It must get really boring, driving a nearly deserted train that merely proceeded in a straight line. The train was colder now, and the man pulled his jacket tighter across his chest. He stared at his reflection. He soon got tired of this, and he just stared at his hands.
The thirteenth station was fast approaching. “Last station,” the train driver informed him, using the microphone just for the heck of it. Before the train fully stopped, the driver advised him to check his belongings, not lean on the doors as the other passengers alighted, and have a good day. “Last station,” the train driver said again, and stepped out.
The air-con died, and the lights went out. The man sat in the darkness and waited for a janitor to come in and clean the car, waited for a security guard to bark at him to get up and leave the station, we’re closing. The train doors remained open, but the man didn’t move. Nobody came. The last station appeared to be empty.
The train doors closed. The man remained where he was, waiting. Seconds later, the air-con came back to life with a whir, and the lights crackled like plastic and shone. The train doors opened. At the far end of the car, near the driver’s nook, a young boy of fourteen or fifteen entered and sat down. The boy was wearing jeans, a dark-green shirt, a black jacket, a pair of dirty Chucks that could have been gray once. The boy looked tired, like a worker ready to turn in after a long day. Why wasn’t the man surprised that the boy looked so much like his son?
Only when the train began moving again (it was the last station, no driver came in, but the train began moving again) did the boy look up and notice him sitting there.
The man wondered who would say the first words. But the boy just looked at him, so it had to be him.
“Hello,” the man said.
The boy blinked.
“Hello,” said the boy. “You’re not supposed to be in this car.”
The man glanced out the window. He couldn’t see anything. It was too dark.
“This car’s for women and children,” the boy said. “And the handicapped.”
The man looked at the boy.
“I used to ride in this particular car,” the man said. “I used to have an excuse.”
“I see,” the boy said. The boy stood up and held onto the back of the bench and the hanging hand straps to support himself as the train swayed. Eventually the boy reached him and sat across from him.
“What’s your name?” the boy asked.
The man told him.
The boy seemed to commit this to memory. Or perhaps he was sifting through a pile of information he already had, and was just trying to connect some details to the name. “I am the city,” the boy said after a moment.
The train whined to a halt, creating a sound like that of a large, very old animal in pain, and stopped at a station that looked identical to the last station.
The man reached into his jacket and took out a foldable knife. He flipped it open, and the boy jumped slightly.
The lights of the train flickered. Only the man looked up.
“Wait,” the boy said, holding out his hands.
“Get up,” the man said.
“Wait,” the boy said. “This isn’t neces — ”
They were frozen in their respective poses for several seconds, the boy’s arms outstretched, the man’s knife glinting in the light of the train.
“You don’t have to — ” the boy began to say. He eyed the man’s knife, checked himself for sudden movements.
The man and the boy stood up at the same time, by degrees.
“We’re getting out of here,” the man said.
The platform was well-lit, but empty. They did not meet another person as they made their way down the stairs and out of the station.
The man and the boy stood on the sidewalk. No cars or buses or taxis passed on the street in front of them. A soft breeze blew, and it was cold.
The man still had his knife out, pointed at the boy’s back, but the street was as wide and as deserted as an airport runway; the boy could have escaped him so easily. And yet the boy didn’t move. He stood in front of the man, surveying his surroundings.
“Walk,” the man said, but didn’t tell the direction because he didn’t know where they were.
The boy turned to his right, and the man followed. They passed by a building renting spaces to several establishments. The shops’ accordion doors were closed and locked, their signage curiously blank.
All of the buildings felt abandoned.
They came upon the entrance of what seemed to be a residential subdivision. The man and the boy moved to the center of the road. On either side of them were houses with lawns and flower gardens. The houses were all lit from within, but all of them were empty.
“I come here often,” the boy said, and the man nearly jumped out of his skin, still unaccustomed to the eerie silence. “For the quiet.”
The man tried to calm his heart, and said nothing.
“Where are we going?” the boy asked.
“Just walk,” the man said. Then: “I used to have a son.”
The boy nodded. “What happened to him?”
“The city took him,” the man said.
They came to a park. Beneath them the soil was soft and wet. Around them were trees, and the man and the boy passed them in silent awe, as though the trees were sacred.
They came to a bridge, its existence announced by a lamppost. The boy walked on the bridge. After a few steps he gasped and stopped.
Either the bridge had been destroyed, or was unfinished. The man didn’t care. From the edge of the almost-bridge was a steep drop to a river.
The man raised the knife higher so it would be pointing at the boy’s nape. The boy hunched his shoulders, feeling the blade.
“Where is my son?” the man asked.
In the silence following the question, the man heard the boy say, “Gone,” before collapsing into sobs.
“He was eight years old,” the man said. Is, he corrected frantically in his head. Is is is. “I was with him, on the platform. We were going to the mall.” I was going to buy him this toy helmet that could change his voice because he dropped the last one and we couldn’t fix it, but he didn’t know that because it was going to be Daddy’s surprise. It was going to be Daddy’s surprise. I woke up that morning waiting to see the look on his face the moment he got the toy, and I never got to see it.
Last month, on the train. His son standing beside him on the platform with the women. The loud crack, the woman on the floor howling. The crowd pushing back and away. His son gone.
The boy had stopped crying. If the man was facing him he could have seen the boy frown.
“That’s not how it happened,” the boy said, facing him now, but with his arms still raised, the victim of a stick-up. As the boy turned, his shoes scraped off pieces of cement from the bridge. These fell into the river. The river was so far down they didn’t hear the sound the cement made when it reached the water.
The man backed up a step, the blade of his knife now pointed at the boy’s neck.
“That’s not how it happened,” the boy repeated. “You didn’t lose him when he was eight. You weren’t there on the platform when he was eight. He was with his mother. It was your wife who bought the toy because you were away on a business trip. But you did see his face when he received the gift, your wife took a picture and you had it printed and framed on a desk in your office — ”
“You didn’t lose him last month,” the boy said. “You lost him two years ago, when he was fifteen. He was in high school; he took the train to get to school. Last month your wife left you and you couldn’t handle it. At work you were always in pain — ”
“He was eight,” the man said. “My son was eight. I should have held his hand but he was a big boy, he didn’t want his hand to be held all the time — ”
“No, that’s not how it happened.”
“I lost him in the crowd. The security guards couldn’t find him. The police couldn’t find him — ”
“He was fifteen,” the boy said. “He took the train to go to school. There was a box in one of the cars with an improvised explosive device.”
The man’s hand — the one holding his weapon — had started to tremble. He lowered his arm and fell to his knees.
The boy looked at him with pity. “He was among the dead.”
The man remembered taking the bus, the evangelists, the pile-ups. Then the bombs inside the buses, kept in boxes in the bus stations. When the trains came, the bombs found their way into them as well, hidden beneath the seats, strapped to warm bodies. There were bombs outside the trains. Hidden within homes, safe inside the schools. The soldiers taking control of a hotel in the city, rigging the city’s landmarks with bombs. His wife saying, I understand their frustrations, but nothing they say can excuse the bombs. But maybe they found that the placards were useless. You see, everything is better with bombs. When a bomb says Say yes, you say Yes. Those moments when the air was tense and the city was at a standstill. The talks of a second Martial Law Era. Distrust and fear. He lay at night imagining his wife pregnant, giving birth, his child growing, his child holding a placard in a protest march, burning in the sun, minutes later losing a shoe in a chase, minutes later bleeding to death on an unfamiliar sidewalk. Or else walking along a sidewalk, carrying no hatred toward anyone else, and being stabbed to death. Or else riding a train, nervous, fearing to enter a car and hear a bomb say, Say yes. Fearing that he would never be given the time to respond.
Why have a child at all, why let a child live with all this fear?
“I lost my son before my wife could even carry him to term,” the man said, and felt a happiness wash over him, felt relief. Yes, this feels right. This must be it. “My wife fell down the stairs and — ”
“No,” the boy said, lowering himself to the man’s level. They were now both kneeling on the ground, the boy’s back to the precipice. “No, that is not your life.”
Tears rolled down the man’s cheeks. “I am a backpacker in Malaysia — ”
“No,” the boy said.
The man cried.
“I have a son,” the man said, slowly. “I have a son and he was fifteen and I lost him.”
“Yes,” the boy said.
“The explosion peeled the skin off his face. We still couldn’t find his right arm. We buried him with just one arm.”
“You should have just given yourself to them,” the man said, sobbing, “to those people who left the bombs. They wanted you; you should have just given yourself to them.”
“It’s not that simple,” the boy said.
What was stopping the man now to believe that the woman who last month (and was it last month?) fell howling didn’t just break her leg? He heard a crack, it could have been a gunshot. There were people who carried firearms in crowded places, there were those who hurled themselves in front of speeding trains.
“Everything is so impossible to clean,” the man said. “You have no hope at all.”
The man waited for the boy to contradict him, but the boy just looked at his knees.
Eventually the boy helped him stand up. The man thought of wars, of cities burned to the ground, of preemptive strikes, of salt scattered on the soil to prevent the plants from growing.
“You have no hope at all,” the man said.
The man aimed for the vein in the boy’s neck, but the boy deflected the blow. “No, no, please,” the boy said, wide-eyed and scared, and the knife shot out of the man’s hand and over his shoulder, down to the water below. The boy’s hand was bleeding. A portion of the remaining half of the bridge cracked beneath them and in reflex the man moved back quickly, pulling the boy with him. The cement collapsed and fell into the river. The man tried to push the boy off the broken bridge. The boy clung to him, to what’s left of the bridge, his grip hurting the man’s arms.
“Let me go!” the man shouted, and pushed the boy sideways. The boy landed hard on his right shoulder and screamed.
Somewhere in that unfamiliar landscape, lampposts lining a street flickered and died, and a house crumpled unto itself and turned into rubble.
The man stood up, watching the boy writhe on the ground. Just one kick and the boy would fall off the bridge, like the knife, like the portion of the bridge, like the loose pieces of cement. The boy was lying on his side and was trying to sit up, but he couldn’t move. He could only scream and cry, the tears washing his face. The man stayed where he was. After a few moments the boy stopped trying to get up and just lay there, sobbing, his face turned to the ground.
The man knelt, moved closer, and the boy flinched as he raised his arms. “I’m sorry,” the man said. “I’m sorry.” Gently he placed his arms around the boy’s waist (the boy whimpering as the man brushed against his broken right arm) and helped him up.
The man took off his jacket and made a sling for the boy, and tried his best to stop the boy’s hand from bleeding. They walked back to the train station. The train was still there, empty and waiting. They sat in the first car for what felt like hours, then the air-con came to life and the doors closed, and the train moved toward the sunrise.
“I lost my son last month on the platform,” the man said. The boy was leaning against him, almost asleep. The boy stirred when he spoke. “He’s only eight. I hope he’s all right.”
“He’s all right,” the boy said in a soft voice.
“You think so?” The man placed a hand on the top of the boy’s head, brushed back the hair from his damp face. The boy did not reply.
“I hope he doesn’t get too cold,” the man said, his voice trailing away, the rocking motion of the train lulling him. “It gets too cold at night here, sometimes.”More stories like this by topic: Authors of color, Characters of color, Filipino/a authors, Philippines, Women authors