A Quaint and Well-Lighted Place for Books

Segunda Katigbak


Blame it on the stars — on Betelgeuse, on Venus, Sirius or any other cosmic body he knew she didn't. He was smarter than anybody else (which was true, to an extent) and often, he would get involved into rowdy school brawls for merely proving that he was smarter than anybody else or at least to anyone who would listen. She was aware of this fact but didn't care. She had her own mindset on things (albeit her point was most of the time wrong) — she was too headstrong, too stubborn to sit, shut up and listen to whatever the other has to say, especially if it came from him who happened to be the best smartass in town. But anyway.

Mostly it was because of Venus, a topic of which he found amusing to argue with her about. For one, Venus was not — and will never be, in case she would claim something beyond human reason that Venus is actually — a star. Of course, she would, by no means, ever listen to him. His trademark style was to always make fun of her and since the very first jeer she'd heard him say, she had already established that everything he spoke of were fallacies, especially if the words were directed to her. And she was right about the yes-he-is-an-absolute-meanie thing. She has always been.

They've know each other for as long as they could remember. She knew him as an unruly brat (which grew from impression to actuality) and he knew her as an ugly, curly-curly perm geek with a face full of freckles. In other words, ugly. But then, girls grow up and when puberty took charge, she was one of those who profited most out of it. Eventually, the freckles disappeared, replaced by a permanent pale-pink tint beneath the skin of her cheeks. The dimples were there, on her cheeks just below her eyes, which he was never interested on. He lied.

Nevertheless, it was because of Venus and the seemingly chicken-and-egg discussion of whether Venus was a star or not. For the record, Venus was a planet, but like I said — she never listened to him, considering the things he knew and the things she didn't. Nor did she likewise consult anybody else.

The midnight sky was dark but clear, save for the single unblinking dot aloft. It didn't blend with the black canopy, although this made the dot look a lot more prominent than it should appear, especially in a starry sky unlike this one. They were arguing about something neither he nor she would remember, if they would ever recall the moment, and he was winning — as per usual. Only this time, circumstances were different. Somehow, fingers found their way with each other and his hand was on top of hers; a heavy coat that smelled of spicy cologne — of him — was draped on her shoulders and both faces held that same, dreamy expression.

Neither he nor she would remember how it began, but maybe it was the moment she said, "That lone star looks magnificent. Mom said the wish you make on the very first star that appears in the sky comes true."

He counter-argued with a, "That's Venus and it's a planet — not a star, idiot. Can't you tell it's not blinking?"

And the rest was history. It always has been.

Later, when certain things unfold, some things change and people grow up, they substantially drift apart, even emotionally perhaps. And they promise that someday, in a busy street of bustling early street vendors setting up their stalls on the sidewalk and of commuters rushing their way to work and school, they would see each other and smile, happy about the life that was made happen. And they would laugh and talk about silly memories.

It was not much of a planned meeting — he didn't even know she was back. He saw her name by chance on the yellow pages when he was looking for a client's name and he punched her office number, not expecting she was actually the girl he knew; but it was her — the voice, the indignation, he was certain.

But the sidewalk, they figured, was already overrated. Instead, he found her between two shelves with large SALE signs printed on laminated paper, hanging above her head. She was not very hard to locate — she was all over the place, moving from one particular shelf to another, pulling books out and putting them back in place when she'd seen the cover.

He had insisted they meet on one of his favorite bookshops, A Quaint and Well-Lighted Place for Books.

One reason he liked the place was its location — it sat quietly on a small town a few miles away from his office and people rarely came and went. Patrons were mostly old town folks and he never got into trouble getting along with them. Another was the name, which was already amusing by itself alone. It was a place he loved and found solitude in.

He tapped her shoulder once and caught her attention quickly. The beard made a nice touch on his face and he was unrecognizable after a few years. But the trademark glint on his eyes instantly told her that it was him — Manuel or Immanuel — he hated his name because it sounded ancient. Of course, she would contradict him and insist that it was a beautiful name. He never batted an eyelid before accusing her of fraud.

They exchanged smiles. She complained about his beard with a frown and a flick of her finger but he ignored it by saying hello two or three times on purpose, of course. Their conversation was settled over a cup of strong black coffee — he insisted — and crepe, which the store owner had hospitably provided and they sat on one of the leather couches between two rows of old-looking books. They needed a lot of time to catch up and they had plenty, both of time and caffeine. They talked about their lives, a topic which never lost its touch.

She earned a degree in law at twenty-five — it fit her well, he said — and she was a street lawyer, working pro bono most of the time and teaching tax law least of the time. Their clinic was a small nearly-rundown building, funded by the government and they were not paid well for their job. He asked how much she was earning; she said not much but she loved her job. The way she said it made him whisper inwardly, "No further questions, ma'am."

After a brief pause and a refill, he took over.

He was a man who chain-smoked Philip Morris and saw the world in a permanent blur but didn't care; he hated specs and the mere idea of touching his eyeballs with bare fingers was cringe-worthy enough for consideration.

The marriage was a mistake — it has always been — and the settlement involved a large sum of money to lawyers who talked more and worked less. Suddenly, it became the hot topic of their chitchat and he gave it all away. It lasted for five years. Their relationship was initially successful, and then came to an abrupt haze, was patched up when they reproduced and tried counseling, cracked again until they eventually gave up on it.

Why, she asked, her voice dripping with pity and he felt useless. It was the old, we-broke-up-because-of-personal-differences kind of thing but instead, he replied with a shrug and a sad smile.

The name was Gideon, a child very much like him, save for the sharp nose and the double eyelids, which he got from his mom. He held him once or twice a week, if his schedule allowed him, and he had to travel for at least seventy miles to see his son.

"You can visit him next week," he spoke, his voice distant. "His mother would drop him off since she's going on a convention in Palawan for a week. I've already filed my leave."

She responded with a sure, that'd be great, accompanied with a wonderful smile. His heart twitched slightly, but he disregarded it.

When the caffeine began to kick in, she stood up, stretched her arms over her head and walked over to some of the shelves with dark-colored spines. She pulled one book out, cross-examined the cover, flipped the pages quickly and put it back on the shelf. "You know," she began while walking slowly from his direction to see the rest of the titles on the collection, "I always wondered why you were so engrossed with books."

Because they're all I have, he wanted to say but what came out was a noncommittal, "Hn," and an evasive shrug.

Ever since he was a child, he has always been engrossed with the idea of books; their old-fashioned smell, like old wood, the paper, the ink; the printed words and how they invariably come to life in his imagination. Books were — are — knowledge and blame it on them that he's become a smartass. Books gave comfort to him, the love that his parents couldn't even provide. It's like being pulled in a world different from where you're actually in. Like escaping reality, cheating on it. They kept me company when you were gone.

One of the memories he would have tried to forget was their quiet moments in the library; he's grab a book, prop it open in front of her and read it aloud. Sometimes, he'd force her to read but she'd only be able to finish seven pages max and her head wood slam on the table and she was snoring.

"I would never read a book lest someone makes me read one," she said and he bit back saying, I remember it well. "But law school forced me and my shelf is mostly thick law books and some Supreme Court Justice dissents. How 'bout yours? Still the same old ones, eh?"

"D'you want to take a look?" It sounded like an implication and she looked a bit taken aback.

"No," she spoke with a smirk. "Not a good idea, I think — I have a client meeting at four. Besides, it probably just floods with Almanac and geeky novels that I'm not really interested in."

"I bet," he shared the sentiment. "I'm a little disappointed. I thought I'm having you for the rest of the day."

She gave a soft laugh; one that made his lips quirk up a bit and his chest give another one of those gentle tugs. "Maybe next time, when I get to meet Gideon."

The grandfather clock near the counter read a quarter to four and it was time to go. He insisted he'd take her to the office but she declined; she brought her car. After a brief hug, a newly-bought book and an awkward silence, they parted ways. They exchanged personal numbers and next week was something they would be looking forward to.

Next week came and Gideon was a handsome and a polite little boy who resembled his father more physically rather than attitude-wise, which she was somewhat grateful for. He warmed up to her easily and found it comfortable to sit on her lap or to wring her neck with his tiny arms. Manuel was on the kitchen, brewing tea and cooking something that smelled edible.

"Are you an angel?" Gideon asked with a small voice while pressing his cheek against hers. He smelled nice, of talc and milk, like a baby. She wondered humorously how Manuel managed to learn how to change diapers or fix a formula or cook eatable food in a few years. She'd probably take more time to learn everything.

"No, why?" she asked, bemused.

"Papa said you're an angel."

"I did not," Manuel emerged from the archway, placing a teacup on a saucer in front of her and she muttered a curt thank you. "You came up with that on your own."

The little boy ignored his father and fired another question. "Is she going to be my next mommy?"

"No, why?" she replied patiently, with a curious smile on her face.

"Because you're an angel."

She broke into a laugh, another one of those that caught both Manuel and his son's attention and that tug, again. "I wish I were," she said while pecking his small, pudgy face.

Lunch came and Manuel served lasagna on white paper plates and carbonated soda on paper cups; ever since he moved out, he's never gotten the chance to shop for any other kitchenware except for one pair of everything. She made a lame joke about this and he didn't laugh because it was not funny.

They talked about their jobs after they've finished eating and when Gideon drifted to sleep on top of her lap. They were watching television in the living room while sipping cheap white wine on plastic cups.

"So, are you dating someone right now?" he asked, and he felt like seventeen again.

"Somewhat," she replied and his heart dropped on his stomach and he somehow understood. No, please don't. "It's complicated and neither of us wants to commit because of our jobs."

A pregnant silence took over and he wondered idly what could have happened had circumstances been different. Had he hold on to her hand and never let her go, had he told her the truth that he didn't want her to leave, that he wanted her to stay by his side, would they be like this?

"Manuel," she spoke his name and he glanced to her direction. "You remember the day we, er, broke up?"

His heart clenched tightly and he had a bad feeling about this. "Yeah, what about it?"

"When I told you I wouldn't go, that I wouldn't leave if you held on to my hand?"

"Y-yeah."

"Do you regret you lost your grip?"

"Do you?"

There were still faint heartbeats — albeit distinct and both couldn't deny it.

"I don't wish things were different though," Manuel spoke, his head leaning on the couch, his feet propped on the coffee table. He closed his eyes and the plastic cup sat beside the lamp on his left. "I have Gideon."

Her head dropped on his shoulder and he inhaled chamomile shampoo. Somehow, fingers found their way with each other and his hand was on top of hers. They could feel it coming.

"I don't regret it either."

After a few wrong turns and mishaps, they found home. And on that quaint and well-lighted bookshop he loved but she didn't they found a good old friend. They didn't dare look at the future yet, the now is still unfurling itself.