I ran into an old boyfriend at a vintage record bar two days after my twenty-ninth birthday. Neither of us spoke at first and when we both realized it was too awkward to just stand there, he asked if I wanted to get coffee. I think he was just being nice. Maybe he asked thinking I would decline but it was a Sunday and I had nothing better to do so I paid for my records and said yes.
Years ago, we were madly in love. No wait, that’s not exactly true. I was madly in love and he had just gotten over a long relationship and was looking for a “distraction.” Ashamed as I am to admit it, that was me. I took what I could back then. Those were such different times. My hair was longer and most of my clothes had at least one food stain. I had just moved into the city and I didn’t know that there were monsters hiding in the dark spots behind alleys and doorways.
Needless to say, it didn’t work out. Two women took him away one day- his mother who disliked me from the get go and his ex who changed her mind as quickly as she changed her hair color. For the longest time, I sat at home in tears, counting hours and footsteps, wondering how many of them it would take to bring him home. Prior to that inconspicuous day at the record bar, I had neither seen nor heard from him. That’s probably why I was stunned in silence when I saw him at the Jazz section listening to an old Coltrane record.
In lieu of coffee, I told him I wanted to get bibingka. “There’s this great place a few blocks from here.” He nodded, stubbed out his cigarette and hailed a cab.
We were mostly quiet on the ride there. The pleasantries had run out and in its place, there were several elephants in the cab with us. One was for why he chose her over me. Another was for why he didn’t write me back. There was one for if he really loved me. I had thought of that exact moment more than a few times in the past but the lines I rehearsed for hours in front of an imagined audience reeked of vengeance and bitterness and I just didn’t feel that way anymore.
“What do you want?” I asked as he thumbed through the menu.
“I don’t know. Just get me what you’re getting.”
I got us two of the café’s special bibingkas. They’re laced with salted duck eggs and threats of heart disease but they’re also good as hell. The entire place emanated with good energy and the overwhelming scent of butter. Over the PA system, an unknown DJ was playing Top 40 songs from two years ago.
“So, how’s Rebecca? You guys still together?” I asked. I figured we were there anyway so we might as well talk.
“She’s good. She’s at home, I think,” he said as he checked his watch. “Yeah, she must be home by now.” I hadn’t noticed but there were lines around his eyes now. He also had a few stray gray hairs here and there. He didn’t smile as much as he used to back then. If I were to be honest, I’d like to think that that woman sucked out all the happiness in him but seriously, it could be how the whole situation was just so darn awkward.
But I was fine. For some strange reason, I didn’t think it was awkward at all. I made circles in my glass of water with a purple straw. “We should get her something.” I said as I called for the waiter. “You can say it’s a bribe for coming home late.” I ordered a third bibingka and asked them to put it in a pretty box.
“Yeah, she’d like that. She’s been craving a lot lately.”
“Is she…” I stuttered. There was a lump in my throat that might need more than nine months to get rid of.
“Yeah. It’s a little crazy at home right now. I’ve been taking these long walks just so I can have some me-time. I think it’s her hormones or something. That’s how you found me a while ago.”
“Oh, I’m sorry. I didn’t realize I was interrupting anything.”
“No, no. It’s good. I needed a, uh, a distraction.” We both froze at that word. He closed his eyes, probably regretting why he had to bring the D-word up again. And to think we came so close, so good at toeing the line without hurting anybody.
The food arrived and we ate our cakes in silence. Every now and then, he’d drop his fork and open his mouth like he was gonna say something but then he’d pick it right back up and continue eating. When he was finished, I still had more than half of mine. I couldn’t eat another bite.
“You want more?” I asked. “I had a heavy lunch and I’m just stuffed.”
“You should have gotten us smaller ones. I’m pretty stuffed myself,” he said, patting his belly like they do in cartoons. “Or we could’ve split one.”
“It seems like such a waste of good food if I just leave it here.”
“I could bring it home to Rebecca.”
“That doesn’t seem right. She shouldn’t have to eat my leftovers.” We both stared at my plate, wondering at what moment it evolved from a simple bibingka to a volatile metaphor. I looked into his eyes. He looked a little hurt by what I said. I wanted to apologize or maybe explain but he had called for the bill and I knew there was gonna be no more of it after that.
Outside, it started to drizzle. “I’m just gonna get a cab, if you don’t mind. It’s gonna start pouring soon. Can I drop you off anywhere?” he asked. I struggled through my purse for my fold-up umbrella as he lifted his collar and turtled into his jacket.
“No, I’m good. You know my house is just a few blocks away. I’ll be fine.”
“Seriously, it’s no bother. I mean, it’s technically along the way.”
“It’s not. You know that.” I said, with a chuckle so it wouldn’t seem so spiteful. “I’ll just wait till you get a ride.”
It’s a universally accepted fact that nothing is ever there when you need it. There wasn’t a cab in sight and the thunderclouds seemed right about ready to release their load on the unsuspecting citizens of the city. We stood there, shivering from the cold, me under my frail umbrella, him with an outstretched arm aimed at the highway.
“Listen,” he began, when the silence became too heavy to bear. “I’m sorry about before. If it’s worth anything, I really did love you.”
“I know. It’s all good now. We’re cool.”
“Thank you. That means a lot to me.”
A beat up taxi spit out a passenger across the street. “There’s one. Go catch it before somebody else does.” I said. He zipped up his jacket and made a run for it. His feet made such large splashes on the concrete. They muddied his khakhis from the knees down. I wondered if she would wash them for him.
It wasn’t until I got home that I realized our take-out-slash-metaphor was still with me. After all these years, he still managed to leave me with the burden of our relationship. I popped it inside the refrigerator with the milk and my feelings as I wondered if I had just undone what years of therapy tried to rebuild.
Photo Credit: Bibingka
Love. Angel. Music. Baby.