Until the Set Lasts

Until the Set Lasts

Perhaps, of all the feelings, the hardest to ease is frustration.

There’s nothing like a frustrating situation to get your patience tested and your spirits all worked up. I mean, I guess what’s infuriating about it is that you don’t need a lot to go wrong — just a little bit of the unexpected could send you spiralling into a place where… you’re not really completely helpless; it’s just that you keep holding on to that very little possibility that things could’ve gone better, if only.

I found myself dealing with the same as I arrived at The Glow one night, drenched in January drizzle and greeted by an unreasonable amount of tobacco smoke and muted red light. The Glow is actually pretty decent — one of the many spouting places dotting this particular road in Metro Manila; similar, even, with the exception that it has an in-house band. To be frank, I didn’t really care, so long as it’s a place where a guy in his late 20s could vent out his frustrations in peace.

I went straight for the bar and ordered a beer just as the band played through the opening chords of Up Dharma Down’s “Turn It Well.” I was about to sit at the barstool nearest to the speakers when the barkeeper called.

“Sorry, sir, seat’s already taken.”

Of course. This night couldn’t get any worse, I thought.

I reluctantly took the one seat next to it, and tried to think of something else. But, damn… damn Armand and his boss.

It was my first time visiting Manila in a long time, and my friend and I had already planned an evening out. We’re supposed to go around the city, hitting bars at every turn, drinking and having awesome foo—

“Excuse me.”

My thoughts were interrupted by the woman who was about to take the seat next to me. “Excuse me,” she said in a steady voice. Unsurprisingly, the first thought that went through my mind was: wow, she’s beautiful.

Okay, I’m an animal, and I’m no good with articulating every feature of a woman’s face. Besides, I can’t really make out most of her features clearly because it was a bit dim, but I can confidently say that she is, plainly, beautiful. She has fair skin, black hair dressed in subtle curls. Perhaps not as subtle as the hint of a smile playing on her lips, although I have to admit it was dark and I might’ve imagined the smile, too.

Outside, the rain poured harder. I straightened myself up and muttered, “Sorry, yeah, please.”

She smiled (I didn’t just imagine it this time) as she took her seat, holding a bottle of light beer.

“Why Light?” I asked, grasping for conversation.

“Sorry, what?” she replied. I can feel that this night is going to be a rain of “sorry’s” competing with the relentless one outside.

“Why Light?” I asked again, this time raising my voice a bit so it could be heard above the bass lines of Peryodiko’s “Tayo Lang ang May Alam.”

“I mean… girls do love their light beers, but I never really understood why.”

She managed to give another smile, not hiding her surprise. “Well I suppose it’s a cosmetic matter. There’s just something un-ladylike about a woman trying down a Stallion, isn’t there?”

“True,” I found myself agreeing. “Some girls do prefer heavier stuff, but I guess girls would look at least a bit more decent with a Ligh—“

“…but I don’t believe that at all,” she continued. “I drink Light because I like how it tastes. I do drink Stallions occasionally, but today’s really not so bad that I’d need it.”

“Right.”

The band finished their cover of Peryodiko, and the vocalist mumbled something over the silent gap.

“Oooh, I love this one,” my… new friend, the woman, said. “Watch the keyboardist.”

The opening passages of Up Dharma Down’s “Indak” played shortly after, and I found myself looking at how the keyboardist played the piano lines.

“He always loves to play this one,” she added.

And it’s true. I may know jack about musical instruments, but I can recognize if a person is really “in it” or just doing it for his next pay check.  I was more surprised about my friend’s comments, though.

“Do you know them?” I asked.

“You could say that. I come here often.”

“Well, thank you for robbing me of the opportunity to ask.”

She laughed. “I’ll be here until the set lasts,” she said, though I noticed a bit of seriousness in her tone.

I’m sure there was something important that I should be dealing with right now, but funnily enough, all I wanted to do is to keep this conversation going.

“Right, then,” I said, fumbling for questions.  “Why do you come here often?”

“A nice cold drink after a shitty day; maybe even on not-so-shitty ones.  But mostly I want to solve the cold mystery of life.”

Is she serious? “Cold myster— what?”

“The cold mystery of life. Why we do what we do. Why you’re sitting here next to me right now. Why I keep coming back here instead of the numerous bars dotting this stretch. Do you like mysteries?”

“I suppose I don’t hate them.”

“Alright. I’ll be your mystery tonight. You will have to solve me, but you have to ask the right questions.”

“I, uhm-” I gave a tired grin. From one exchange to the next I’ve never been in control. And I’m not used to not being in control. “What’s your name, then?”

“Rina. Yours?”

“I’m Al,”

“Hmm,” she said over the chorus. “So, what brings you here, Al? Haven’t seen you around before.”

“I thought I was supposed to be the one asking questions.”

“You’re not very good at it.”

I chuckled. “Of course. See, I’m not from around here. I just came to visit and I’m supposed to meet a friend, but his boss had to make him work overtime tonight. Says it’s an emergency and there was no one else. We’ve planned this for months, too.”

“Huh. Definitely shitty day,” she said. “You need that beer.”

“Not more than anyone else, I guess,” I replied. “How about you? Any particular reason for that bottle right now?”

“Nah, same old. I almost always come here after work to listen to the music. It just calms me. Besides, I have to.”

“You have to?”

“Yeah… I have to.” I can tell by her tone that she doesn’t want to talk about it any further.

“Okay, then. Cold mystery, indeed,” I thought as I finished the last of my bottle. “I’ll have another one, man,” I gestured to the barkeep.

Then, silence. She seemed to be intent with listening to the music now.

That’s the weird thing about conversations in places like these. Because of the music and the constant chatter, you never really notice the silence, the subtle pauses. But you can feel them. And I tend to pay attention to silences like that; if they were any more meaningful than the ones you have when you’re alone.

I didn’t want to remember why I chose to visit The Glow in the first place. All I know is that there is someone sitting here next to me, a… mystery, as she says, waiting to be solved. I never cared much for puzzles, but she is the kind of puzzle that draws you in and makes you believe she’s worth solving.

Perhaps, I thought, I could liken her words to the thinnest clouds, blocking the sun. It’s really easy; you can feel that everything will be clearer with just the gentlest touch. But of course, you would have to have means of reaching the clouds first.

Not that she’s straying far too high. “Hey,” she said as I took another unmanly gulp, never taking her eyes off the stage. “Do you have someone? Back Home?”

“Sorry, what?”

“Do you have a girlfriend back home, I’m asking.”

“Oh, sorry, no. How about y-”

“Surely you’ve had exes?”

“I did. Three.”

“How did it feel like, letting go?”

Now, to be honest, I don’t remember completely. One thing for sure is that I was not relieved; in fact I remember pleading for another chance with one. But I suppose one tends to forget the details when things run the risk of being traumatic.

“I don’t really remember,” I just said.  But wow, she really doesn’t pull her punches, does she? I never thought that coming here to relieve my frustrations would lead to someone asking me about my life’s decisions.

“Hmm. Fair enough,” she said.

“Why do you ask?”

“Because I have someone. A boyfriend, I mean.”

Oh.

Well that’s… just great. Thank you for telling me that just now.

I felt really light-headed, and… a bit more frustrated. The beer did not help. I barely mouthed a pained “Oh, okay…”

She smiled again, a smile that I would now consider murder. “I’m sorry,” she said.

Despite the little prickles of hurt I managed to chuckle through my words. What the hell did I expect, anyway? “Nah, you didn’t do anything wrong.”

“I know, but I might’ve given you the false impression,” she replied. “I just… needed someone to talk to. There’s a reason I was asking you how it felt like to let go.”

“Hmm? Why?” I asked.

“If you’re tired, that’s one thing you could do, right? Let go,” she said as she stared at the stage.

I can tell she was soaking in the music as she lets herself be absorbed; her every word strategically spoken so as to accent the rhythms.

“I guess,” I answered. I never thought I could feel even a bit of happiness for this impending demise of a relationship, but I did. Is she waiting to be saved? And why did I even think that I can be the one that saves her?

I tried to rid myself of guilt and said, “Of course, I don’t really know what you’re situation is, but I suppose you could still try and fix things between you and-”

Tears begun to well in her eyes, and although her expression did not change, she let them flow. She still stared at the stage as she said, “I always sit here. I love listening to them play. Reminds me of older days. Happier days.”

I did not know what to say. “For what it’s worth, I’m really glad I met you, though.”

She gently wiped the tears from under her eyes, trying hard not to let anyone else notice. “I’m sorry. I guess… I just… I have been keeping this inside me for a while and you just happened to be here. It’s not right; I just ruined your night.”

“It’s not that bad. And I don’t mind, really,” I answered. She could’ve asked me to drive halfway across town to get her a bouquet of roses and I know I’ll do it; I wouldn’t have minded.

“I can’t believe I just poured my baggage out to a stranger,” she said with a mild laugh.

“Hey, people are only strangers until they start to get to know one another, right?”

“Right,” she said.

We spent the rest of the night awkwardly trying to know each other. She really loves music; so passionate about it, even, that it’s easy to see how she got through the nights just soaking in music alone. Why she prefers this particular place or this particular band still escapes me, however.

“They’ve been playing here long before I frequented,” she shared. “I just came for the drinks, but eventually they grew on me. You can tell they’re good right? I love them.”

While we’re being careful not to touch on that earlier subject again, it’s really hard to steer the conversation away from what one really wants to say. You can talk about the weather all you want and all, but you have to get to the point inevitably. At one point, I just couldn’t help but ask.

“Why… why are you thinking of letting go, again? What’s wrong…?”

“I told you this place reminds me of happier days; yes, I was alone. But I just realized I’m better off alone than pretending I still love someone I really don’t anymore, you know?”

“I can understand.”

“He used to be a great guy. And it may be a tired old cliché but it’s true, he’s just so good to me at the beginning. So sweet, so… he was my happiness, believe me. But now, we couldn’t go through a decent lunch without fighting over something. It’s ridiculous.”

“Do you hate him?”

“No, but I can tell I don’t love him anymore. It’s the first time I was this serious about a relationship and I’m just… too scared of sudden changes. Too scared to let go. I keep telling myself, most nights, ‘I am gonna do it tonight. I’m gonna leave him,’ but I never had the courage.”

I nodded. “I hope you find your courage, soon. You asked me earlier how it felt to let go; I remember now. It’s the easiest thing in retrospect, and it probably was the best decision we ever could have made in that situation. However, pain has a way of masking things, of amplifying and exaggerating things, of not seeing the forest for the trees—or something. ”

“It’s painful.”

“The most painful thing in the world. It will make you into another person, believe me, it will change you. But you’ll realize, in the long run, how you’re a much better person than you were in all those days past.”

“You seem to really know a lot about this stuff.”

“I’ve had three breakups.”

“Why, though? You seem like an okay guy… are you a cliché, too?”

I shrugged. The vocalist on-stage announced that they’re ending their set. Too soon, I thought.

“Oh, they’re done. I’m gonna have to go in a bit.”

“Yeah,” I wrote my number on a piece of tissue paper and tried to give it to her. “Please, take it. I would understand if I couldn’t have yours, but if you ever need someone to talk to…”

My heart skipped a beat as she took it. “Thanks.”

I was staring so intently at the way she twirls her hair that I did not notice the approach of the band’s keyboardist, who is now standing in front of us.

“Hey, you’re done. Awesome  set, as always,” she said to the guy. She had put on the sweetest smile as she stared at him, too; a smile I never saw before. It was radiant—perhaps I’ve had one too many drinks or it’s just the lack of music now, but… that’s genuine joy if I ever saw one.

“Al, this here’s Chris, my boyfriend. We were just talking about how beautiful your playing was, babe,” she said matter-of-factly.

Wow.

“I- uhm… yeah, that was awesome. I love your flourish on that Feist track,” I said.

“Thanks, man,” Chris said. He then turned to Rina. “Listen, babe, we have to go home early. Can you cook us a mean dinner? I asked Ronnie to come and join us for beers. Come on.”

“Sure, sure thing, yeah,” Rina said, that smile still on. It was unbelievable. She was like a different person. “Bye, Al. It was nice meeting you.”

“Thanks for keeping her company, man,” Chris said.

They got their things, left The Glow, and… I guess that’s that? What the hell.

I’d like to say that I managed to touch someone’s soul tonight, but after that… transformation, I’m not so sure anymore. Did I really know her? Did I really know anyone?

Needless to say, I stayed for a few more beers after that.

On my way back to the hotel, I received a text as I was about to fall asleep in the cab. Unknown number.

“I’m gonna do it tonight,” the message said.

***

I should probably tell you that I overstayed in Manila after that incident, and each night, I spent in The Glow. Armand was with me the first couple of nights, but he eventually dropped out after the third. I was there every night for two weeks, but I never saw Rina again.

I did see Chris, though, still playing as beautifully as before, and I wondered what kind of asshole hides behind that graceful veneer. I think I saw him with a different girl once or twice. Musicians get all the fun, it’s unfair.

***

Yes. Perhaps, of all the feelings, the hardest to ease is frustration.

I keep going back to that night. It’s been months since I left Manila for home, and I still keep thinking about what I could have done to make the outcome better. I keep drawing a blank. I texted her number too, and got no reply (I’ve been as persistent as a clingy bastard, believe me).

There were nights I lay awake thinking about Rina; how, if I had only come earlier in her life I would’ve saved her. But the truth is, it makes no difference what I do. She didn’t need saving; she needed someone to reaffirm what she already decided is true. She made up her mind, I suppose, and if using me as a sounding board helped her finally achieve freedom from her burdens, then so be it.

But damn it, I did try. I tried hard.

***

I woke up to the sweet sound of birdsong one fine October morning. I checked my phone and saw that I have an unread text. Rina.

I was smiling like a madman the whole time I read it.

“Hey, I heard there’s a new band playing at The Glow. Wanna come see? I heard they’re really good.”

“I’d love to. I found myself getting acquainted to the scene when a certain someone taught me to appreciate it,” I replied.

“Come by Wednesday, then. And don’t worry, I’ll stay long after the set is over.”

I may have imagined it, but I thought I caught the sun smile.

**

—A. P.

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