She was the most beautiful thing I'd ever seen.
I know what you're thinking, people say that all the time in their opium moments and evenings of glazed weed, but there was anyone who ever truly deserved this cliché, it would be her. A vision of dazzling emeralds for eyes and auburn hair that fell to her shoulders like water, and long long long impossibly long legs that seemed to go on for miles. Curves in all the right places, in all the right proportions.
Oh, but that's the inner me talking, the dream that I'll never become, because I'm too poor and too stupid and too ugly to be anything else but a beggar knocking on car windows whenever the traffic lights change. My usual vocabulary consists of maybe a couple of grunts, some "maawa na po kayo" here and there, and a token "salamat ho" to the blessed few who are kind enough to even look my way.
My name? It's not important. Even if I told you, you'd forget it immediately. There is abso-fricken-lutely nothing important about me.
But she asked me anyway, when she drove up to the corner in that sleek silver Porsche, the kind of car driven by people so far up on the food chain that they don't even see me. The smile alone froze me in place, like a dumb dog staring into headlights.
"Just give me a second to park the car."
She didn't say it in English, of course, but it's better to imagine her that way, since her broken Tagalog would have made anyone on the street cringe, and I almost rolled my eyes. Me! Roll my eyes! That's how bad it was. But you got to give her credit for trying.
"Hi Minda. I'm Neeka. Have you eaten anything today?"
I shook my head.
"I'm going to have lunch. I want you to join me."
That was almost it, you know. I knew there was something wrong with her just for the fact that she stopped to talk to me. But now, I was certain she was insane.
"Come on!" she exclaimed, in a voice that sang like the sweetest birds back in the province where I spent my childhood. She grabbed my arm and pulled me to a Chinese restaurant on the corner of the block. I tell you it was the strangest thing that had ever happened to me, and as I said, she was the most beautiful thing I'd ever seen. It was a dream from which I didn't want to wake up, until we got to the door of the place and the receptionist in front gave me a cold gaze that pinched me a thousand times.
"Ma'am… I'm sorry but… um… we can't let her in…"
Her face fell for a moment, but she simply shrugged and walked back the trunk of her car with me sheepishly in tow. The other beggars were looking at me oddly now, some of the kids selling sampaguita were laughing and chanting my name mockingly, but I barely noticed.
"Here we go. I hope this is your size."
As it turns out, she's a model (like that should come as any surprise) for a major international agency, or something like that, and one of the perks is free clothing, except sometimes the samples don't quite fit. In her case, she was almost six feet tall, and I didn't even clear five, but as luck would have it, there were some lovely dresses and jeans and shirts that she was going to give to a friend who was about my height. I protested lamely as she zipped me up in one of the dresses, tied my scraggly hair up with a ribbon, and wiped my face clean with some wet synthetic thingies that she pulled out of a plastic container.
"Hmm. We've got to do something about your footwear."
I think I looked almost civilized then, except for my worn rubber slippers with the straps practically hanging off, ready to tear away. I simply hung my head shamefully, as if I had disappointed her for not being her pretty, flawless doll. Maybe that's all I was to her, and I didn't mind it at all, better to be a doll and look nice and eat than to have my dignity and nothing else. A doll. A pet. I resisted the urge to bark.
And then, she removed the sturdy black sandals she was wearing and slipped them onto my feet. That did it. She was hopelessly insane. I think it was only her breathtaking looks that kept her from a padded cell in some asylum. She had a spare set of shoes in the trunk for herself, which she slipped on as she smiled at me.
As if to shut my mind up, she said, "I get lots of clothes in my line of work that I don't need. Better to give them to someone who can use them. Now, let's eat, I'm starving!"
I can't even begin to describe lunch with her, which I spent eating and she spent talking about everything and nothing at all. We must have been quite a sight, me gobbling foods whose names I couldn't pronounce, in a manner that suggested this would be the only meal I would ever eat for the rest of my life, and she just… well, looking radiant as ever.
I was so very full afterwards that I could barely move. I don't even remember when she paid. Did she? It's all the same to me, but maybe the staff at the restaurant was just as mesmerized as I was, and couldn't bear to let someone like her pay.
Then, she walked back to the car, still clutching my hand like we were sisters, though we couldn't have been farther apart in appearance, and I thought to myself, this would be the end of our bizarre but strangely uplifting one-time encounter, she would go off feeling good about herself for being kind to a poor stranger, maybe even brag to her friends about it, and forget about me, and the world would move on.
But suddenly, some of my feistier young counterparts, who just couldn't get enough of teasing me every day and had even more of a reason to now, started pushing me and tugging at my dress, all the while swarming her with requests for money for food and clothes as well.
She smiled her simple, relentlessly charming smile, patient when any other reasonable person would have shooed them away, and was about to reach into her bag when the teasing and shoving got a little rougher than usual, and I got pushed into the busy street.
The children screamed and shouted and ran for the sidewalk as a car zoomed past, barely missing me. I was so shocked by the near collision that I just stood there, like the idiot that I am, in the midst of traffic.
Right in the path of a huge 16-wheeler truck.
They say your life flashes before your eyes just before you die. My life didn't amount to much at that point, so by comparison it must have been pretty lousy, except for the part when I still had parents and we had a farm in the province and I could live like a monkey eating fruits and vegetables and drinking water from a nearby stream, far too long ago. I closed my eyes and braced myself for the impact, waiting for the truck to smash the life out of me.
What I heard next was a deafening crash and the splintering sound of twisting metal. The air began to smell of burnt rubber, from the screeching of the tires of the truck as it slammed to a sudden halt. There was a lot of smoke in the air, fogging up the immediate surroundings. I could hear the truck driver cursing loudly as I felt two hands lift me up by my waist and carry me to the sidewalk.
She looked down at me with her shimmering green eyes and brushed the dirt off my dress. Then, she pressed a small card into my hand.
"Lunch was great, Minda. Take care of yourself, now. But if you're ever in trouble, the kind you can't handle on your own, use this."
She placed a finger on her lips and smiled.
The usual crowd of nosey people had gathered around the wreck that was the 16-wheeler truck, stirring up a ruckus of noise as they all voiced their opinion of what had happened. In all the commotion, none of them noticed her slip away, get into her silver Porsche, and drive off.
When the smoke had cleared, we all saw the front of the truck, punched inward like it had collided with a steel post about the width of a human being. No, no steel post could have withstood all that mass, with the truck moving as fast as it was. The tires were all blown out from the sudden stop, and people covered their noses at the horrid stench. Strangest of all was the deepest point of impact, where you could almost make out the impression of an outstretched hand.
I looked down at the card.
Neeka Novenario Mesch. Friend.
On the back, she had scribbled "31 Potpourri Drive".
And I cried, then, deliriously happy and painfully sad at the same time and a whole bunch of other emotions, as I sat on the sidewalk and looked at my feet, with her sandals on them.
She called herself friend. But I knew then that she was much more.
And, I think, the most beautiful thing I will ever see.