Saturday, February 02, 2008

Disappearing artist

THE girl took no notice of anyone in our jeepney, but I could not look away from her.

Walking back to the newsroom minutes later, I realized that I could not remember how she looked. Her skirt and blouse seemed to be of a certain high school, but, as her uniform was scrunched up and obscured by her school bag, envelopes and whatnot, I did not see enough details to determine where she studied.

She must have boarded our jeepney from a downtown stop. I only took notice of her when all I could see was the rumpled and wilted outline of her protruding from behind the towering Babel of her school things and the book that lay open on top of this.

When I got down at my jeepney stop, she still had not looked up. Wherever she was, it was certainly not at the washed-out pink upholstered spot of her jeepney seat.

Lost in her reading, this faceless, nameless girl shut us out.

If all of us in that jeepney ride were not just preoccupied with the stuff commuters fret and brood over during short trips—ponkan pits to spit out, phone messages to reply to, the stalled and agonizing rewriting I had to face—we should have resented her act of banishing us all.

Don’t read when you have company, was a peremptory reminder in high school etiquette class. Like keeping your mouth always stuffed in a party, reading a book makes people think you’re not interested in them.

Walking back to the newsroom, I could not easily shake off my curiosity, envy, and finally, regret.

I’ve often ranted that young people don’t read enough. Yet, in that ride, there was only the girl, reading, while the rest of us were content enough to pace around the worn grooves of life’s much despised but comforting treadmill: the husband’s relatives arriving unannounced, deadlines, an increase of pits in shrinking ponkans that are P1 more expensive than last year’s.

If only city dads commuted regularly, they might require operators to put, instead of a small token receptacle, a great machine to recycle the passengers’ trash and generate enough green energy to wean every jeepney from fossil fuels.

That’s an idea too odd to contemplate in real life. But in that girl’s world, not at all.

The nondescript school library property with curling brown leaves for pages and a maroon hard cover shedding off light pink spots like some scabrous burn victim: what did the girl see in it, other than perhaps recognize that, in some way, book and reader deserve each other, twins reflecting back the same mirror images?

That’s a question no one who has yet to open a book will ever find an answer to.

But should one waste a lot of time around books—not just to read and be edified but simply to smell, take the pages in hand, taste tentatively the first line and the next, rush headlong or succumb, wait or seek, like a certain Alice that went “down the rabbit-hole”—then one can master not only the trick of disappearing but even the more impossible feat of reappearing in a wonderland where drinking a bottle marked “drink me” can make one “shut up like a telescope,” and eating a small cake marked “eat me” restores one to the towering possibilities only to be imagined by a 12-year-old.

Where did the girl go? I wondered then and still wonder now. As the rest of the world settled for the light dying that day, this girl and her book took off.

It’s enough to make one gnash one’s teeth and seek comfort in, of all things, a cliché: I want to have my cake and eat it, too. 09173226131

* Published in Sun.Star Cebu’s Feb. 3, 2008 issue

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