Nathaniel T. Dela Cruz
June 15, 2017
I watch in delight as passengers flood the exit at Monumento Station. It’s 12:27 in the afternoon, and it was utterly unbearable to stay on the platform for longer than necessary; it was hot and I am sweating, having to walk a good 300 meters from where my jeepney ride ends to where my LRT trip begins, and for the most part of that typically fast-paced march that includes dodging and even elbowing people ignorant of pedestrian protocol and courtesy, I was under the scorching mid-day sun, and for someone who sweats a lot and sweats easily, this is not ideal.
I boarded the train, immediately awash in the feeling of relief and comfort as cool air blanketed my skin. I saw an empty seat not far from the door and sat down. I pulled out my fan and vigorously fanned myself, amplifying the cooling effect of the train’s air conditioning system.
I was busy trying to rid myself of the discomfort from feeling hot and sweating the past 20 minutes that I wasn’t noticing anyone around me; at least, not yet – part of my daily commute is to look at strangers I travel with and think about the shoes they were wearing, the people they are talking to on the phone, the reason why they are sleepy, why they refuse to seat down despite empty seats, etc.
“Is that heavy?”
I’m not sure which was first – noticing a hand touching my arm or hearing the question.
I turned to my right, and there she was. The first thing that came to mind was Gloria Romero – a mestiza who has aged gracefully it is inappropriate to describe her as ‘elderly’. If age depends on the energy we exude and the life in our eyes, she could easily be in her 30s.
She wore a plain dark shirt and shorts. She was smiling and soft spoken.
“No,” I smiled back at her.
“Oh,” she nodded a bit, somewhat satisfied that her curiosity about my 32 millimeter-wide steel tunnel earrings was answered. “Where are you headed?”
“I’m on my way to work. I’m a writer.”
“Oh, that explains why you are eccentric. But in a good way ha.”
“Ha ha. I’ll take it as a compliment.” And I did. I really think she meant it kindly.
She moved closer. “I like talking to eccentric people. They are interesting. Ordinary people are boring. When I saw you, I was thinking, ‘this guy wants to do what he wants and does not care what others think’, and that’s good, no?”
“Yeah. Life is too short to be obsessed with what other people think about you right?”
There we were, strangers just minutes ago, and now chatting inside the LRT like old friends. I can see other passengers looking at us, perhaps amused that we were having a conversation when we apparently don’t know each other personally.
I’ve had my share of conversations with strangers in the past – cab drivers, people on queue while waiting for their turn to pay the bill or buy a ferry ticket, and every once in a while, with those who were also stranded because of the waist-high flood we bravely crossed hoping to inch closer and closer to getting home.
I find talking to this woman easy. I haven’t asked her name yet, but we’ve already talked about a lot of things, between Monumento Station where we met and Roosevelt Station where we are supposed to alight. We talked about my eyebrow piercing, the cheap grocery prices in a spot in Quiapo which she regularly visits, her brand of lipstick when she was still working at the Finnish Embassy here in Manila (she even showed me her ID!), her current residence in Project 8, the political writers she likes to read, and her preference for The Manila Times over the Philippine Daily Inquirer, among others.
“I’m sorry, but I didn’t catch your name.” This is when she pulled out her ID. “Your last name sounds French.”
“Yes, I have French relatives.”
We both rose as the LRT slows to a halt at Roosevelt Station. “Can you please help me carry this,” gesturing to one of her grocery bags. “It’s quite heavy.”
“Sure.” We exited the train and went towards the escalator. “Maybe we can meet again, talk and have some coffee.”
“Sure,” I said. I meant it.
After we got off the escalator, she told me she was headed to the elevator. I, on the other hand, was headed towards the turnstile.
There, we said our goodbyes.
She was just another stranger, a woman from the train, one of the many I travel with during my daily commute. But after a conversation that wasn’t even 10 minutes long, she’s become a friend, just like that. There are lots of people I have been talking to for years and even until now I still don’t think I’m friends with them.
And then there’s this erstwhile stranger, a woman from the train.
Now, she’s a stranger no more. Her name is Micheline Picart.