April 20 2009, Monday
Jill cupped her hands around her eyes: no difference. Still the same purple haze. She had to concede that it was a pretty thing, this cheerfully dark blanket of blackness. But a hopeless romantic likes to blink back at the stars. A stupid romantic like her, even more so.
From somewhere behind her there was a crash of bass against metal; the unmistakable sound of guitars being tuned to life. Jill stretched her legs, the soles of her shoes gliding down the Beetle’s paint. She heard the sound of rubber grinding lightly against gravel. Jill lay stone-still, balanced on the hood of her car, waiting.
“You’re late,” said Miki.
“No,” was her flat response.
He perched on the hood beside her. “Yes,” he countered, grinning.
Jill patted the shiny yellow-green hood lovingly. “I’ve been here for over an hour.” And still those stupid pinpricks of lights were a no-show.
Miki inclined his head, acknowledging her response. His cropped hair swayed over his head like a mild wave, then kept still. Jill has long wondered how Miki’s hair would look if he grew it out—how thick and massive and dark it would be. But he never does it. Miki preferred constancy.
“They’re touching Julia,” he said.
Jill stood up bolt upright. “Let’s go.” She started down the gravel drive, past rows and rows of newish cars.
“You know one day you’re going to give that shiny Beetle a scratch,” said Miki, keeping up easily.
“No I won’t.” Hurt her beloved car. She’s not high.
“That’s what Kim said about his Honda.”
Jill grunted; the official response. Miki crunched over the worn stones with more measured steps against her heavy stomps.
“Two months and three days,” he said clearly.
Jill cricked her neck turning to glare at him. “I thought I had to stop counting.”
“You do.” Miki shrugged. “I’m irrelevant.”
Jill growled under her breath, the sound quickly swallowed by loud chatter when they crossed the braided metal gate. Miki grinned; of course he still heard it. A few more steps in they were met by a loose crowd assembled around plastic chairs and wood and wrought-iron tables under a canopy roof. Saguijo Bar was occupied with its usual work night crowd—a mix of giddy minors and stressed-to-the-hilt yuppies. Jill and Miki received handshakes, cheek-to-cheeks and shy smiles from people they knew and people whose names they might remember one day.
Miki opened the door, waited a second for Jill to move, then gave her back a quick shove, pushing them both inside.
Jill stumbled, realizing only then that the heat and the noise of the feedback have enveloped them both. She straightened her feet, thankful she remembered to wear something without laces.
“Late,” said Son, spinning to face her with his bass guitar hanging from his neck.
“Always the grand entrance,” said Nino from behind his drum set, one stick taking another practice swing at the cymbals.
Jill stuck her tongue out at them both, like a proper grown-up.
A loud orange shirt moved up from the amplifier, separating from the dancing glare of the little red spotlights, and Kim cocked his head toward her.
“Let’s go,” he said, and her breathing stopped.
Kim had already faced the crowd, the crowd had already pushed closer to the mike stands, calling and cheering, and Nino already had his drumsticks count off—one two three four—but to Jill the entire cramped space was a vacuum.
Miki elbowed her side gently.
“Your weapon for war, soldier,” he said, swinging the Olympic White Stratocaster’s strap over her head, and everything moved again.
Jill saw the eager, sweating faces, recognized the pounding of the drums and realized the exact moment when she had to pluck the strings, press the bar, and sing out the first words. The floor shook around them, bodies crashing against each other, and Julia the Stratocaster sang with Jillian the Attention-hording, Chronically Late Vocalist. Julia’s high metal pitch wove in the humid air with Jill’s raspy alto, and together they danced. With Miki and Son they danced, while hearing with acute precision Kim’s voice as he echoed the words to the chorus that he and Jill wrote together.
Jill kept her eyes open, swinging Julia’s neck to Nino’s angry beat, and shooed the vacuum away.
They called themselves Trainman. Son was addicted to manga and anime in high school—an affliction that only got worse when he had money to spend without needing to skip lunch and his fare home. It seemed funny at the time, but then most things do when you’re seventeen.
“Why Trainman?” asked a girl sharing their table.
She’s another one of those classmates/org-mates/neighbours/strangers from Ministop that Nino invites to the gigs, always the petite, chinita type, always not his girlfriend. The actual one is currently killing her youth away in a twelve-month advertising assignment in Canada.
Jill and Miki exchanged looks. Son plunked his chin on his arm on the table, beer bottle dangling from his hand. He liked acting drunk when the conversation goes this way. They think it’s his coping mechanism.
After seven years you think people would’ve moved on to the next thrilling question.
“Because Densha Otoko would have been a mouthful,” said Son, spilling San Mig Light down his collar.
“And no one would get it,” murmured Miki.
“Excuse me?” the girl called out, moving an ear to hear better.
Son grinned and gave Miki’s bottle a shaky toast. In the pounding noise of a punk song playing from the speakers and the heightened decibels of voices of people still striving to have a conversation in this racket, a newbie like this Nino fan will never hear.
“Kim likes trains,” hollered Miki.
“Oh.” The girl nodded, satisfied that she now understood. “Of course. He’s the leader, right?”
“Sure.” Miki nodded like a yo-yo.
“Just like in Asian boybands,” Jill added, doing the yo-yo nod too.
“J pop rules,” Son slurred.
Jill sipped her beer through sealed lips. Kim hates the train. He thinks it’s too cramped, and his skinny ribs could never take the constant elbowing.
“I like the songs they play there too,” the girl shouted. “MRT radio; it plays a good mix.” She beamed, like a kid waiting for the teacher to hand out the gold star.
Miki and Jill and Son looked at her. They picked up their beers and drank deeply.
“Good for you,” Miki said.
Jill lifted her bottle again and downed the remaining half in two seconds. She brought it down the table with a loud slam, Son’s wary drunk-acting eyes on her, then stood up in one abrupt movement.
“You have great musical taste,” she called to the still (why won’t she stop?) smiling girl.
Then Jill walked off, weaving quickly through the thick band of people. It was midnight, Saguijo’s primetime; at least two more bands were in the line up, and nobody here was thinking of surrendering to sleep.
She found Nino just outside the door, inhaling all the second-hand smoke. And Kim, the orange shirt next to him.
“Your new girl’s fabulous,” she hissed to Nino’s ear as she hopped off the step.
“Lisa,” Nino supplied with a grin.
Jill cocked one eyebrow.
“Of course you don’t care.”
He was a big guy, six-foot tall he claims (to no one’s protest), towering and dark with sharp eyes and a sharp nose, but was more skin and bones than other drummers they knew. Only his hands get all muscled, they’ve noticed.
“You should at least endure your girls with the rest of us,” said Jill.
“Hey, she’s nice.”
“She likes MRT radio.”
Kim coughed out his beer. Jill’s eyes flicked towards him once, then they both returned to pretending each other doesn’t exist.
“I’m sorry.” Nino started laughing.
“She’s probably back there asking what kind of music we play.”
“And you left Son and Miki to that on their own?”
Jill shrugged, as unrepentant as he was. “Son’s playing drunk. Miki’s always been too nice for his own good.” She stepped forward and elbowed Nino’s rib hard. “If you drive her home I’m telling Suze.”
“Oww. Hey, you’re leaving?”
Jill turned back, already a full meter away. “I have a visitor coming.”
Then she trotted off, not looking back, as practiced. It was pathetic to wonder why Kim couldn’t have at least murmured a goodbye, so she concentrated on how she hated his orange shirt. It made his skin darker and his eyes smaller. It’s true.
The gravel-paved parking lot was too quiet to do Jill good. The bassist from the band who played before them yelled out a hello as she walked past his pick-up truck, his head and arms partially through the proper holes of a fresh shirt. She heard alcohol-laced chatter from beyond the makeshift metal gates, but it wasn’t enough. The silence made her think of movie tickets, couple shirts, two pairs of socks and Julia’s birthday.
By the time she reached her car she was running. At least the thoughts were now coming in flashes, rich yet blurred, not the vivid streaming images they were before.
Her phone vibrated in her pocket. Miki’s voice and a range of static flowed from the earpiece.
“Where do you think you’re going?”
Jill cleared her throat. “Not very far.”
“You left us with Girl. How could you?”
Jill popped her trunk, laughing now. “But you were handling it so well. A few more minutes of that and she would have switched the object of her affections. You win one over Nino, which would only be fair and well deserved.”
She peeked under the hood, saw that Julia was lovingly sleeping inside her hard case and with a calmer heart shut it gently.
“You get back here, woman.”
“I can’t.” Jill spun her keys around two fingers. “I have an errand, remember?”
Miki’s voice was now coming through with a chorus of other voices. “Remember what? Is it tonight? I thought the flight was coming in Tuesday.”
Jill checked her watch.
“It is Tuesday,” came a voice from the darkness.
“Gah!” Away flew her car keys, heart jumping up her throat and dying there.
“Yo,” followed by laughter. Then a grinning face stepped into the flickering light of lamp posts, a grin Jill hadn’t seen in the longest time tolerable, and she had to forget that she was scared into anger and that the keys to her car and the rest of her life were now missing.
“Jill?” Miki’s voice was crackly and louder. “Hey. You alright?”
She sighed out her first breath in two minutes. “Shinta.”
He walked towards her, a backpack hitched loosely on one shoulder. Did he always lope? He stood in front of her now; she only reached up to his chin. Two inches put on in a matter of three months for a twenty five year-old—what did they put in the sake in Japan?
Shinta leaned forward. “You still scare easy.”
Even his voice moved like gravel. Jill stepped back, shook off her daze that was serving as good comedy to her guest.
“I was supposed to pick you up,” she muttered. “Did I mess up the time?” Shit, she’ll never hear the end of it from at least two mothers.
“By a very nice coincidence, there was an earlier available flight.” Shinta shrugged, plane-like shoulders moving. “I figured you’d be here.”
“So you decided to play bait to the airport taxis?”
“He liked that I spoke Filipino; didn’t mind that I handed over a yen note.”
Jill started shaking her head. Impressive. “You just robbed an opportunistic man of an early breakfast.”
Shinta laughed, patting the Beetle’s roof like a long missed friend. “Happy to see you too, Jiru-chan.”
Jill pursed her lips, deciding to scratch up on her foreign languages. She cleared her throat. “Ohsashiburi.”
Shinta beamed, dark eyes dancing in the light. He dipped his head towards the old building, switching back to speaking English. “Can’t I come in?”
“Show’s done for the night,” she answered quickly.
Somebody betrayed her and opened the door then, freeing the shouting and cheering and the first rifts into the dark humid morning. A shaky baritone cried out ‘I’m singing until I pass out’ before barging into a screech of lyrics.
Shinta looked at her. Jill looked at the stones on the ground.
Shinta tsked once.
“Fine. Your country, your time.” He held out a hand, showing a bundle of keys held up laboriously by a little patchwork teddy bear. “Buy me coffee. And don’t you dare give me jetlag as an excuse. We both know you don’t have it.”
She scratched the keys off his wide palm, clicked the car doors open and rushed inside. Just after her seatbelt locked she saw Miki through her mirrors, rushing down the steps past the bouncer, but she only managed to give him two honks goodbye.