By Angelo Lorenzo
It was a Saturday night when Giselle felt a new episode coming. Her heart slammed in her chest, trying to rip its way out as if it had a mind of its own. She tried to take deep breaths, but a certain pressure gripped her throat. A call for help would be vital, and she would do anything to have someone to talk to right now.
She rose from her bed and darted toward the window. She swung the panes out and let the breeze in. Deep breaths from the cooler air outside helped ease the tension. For a while, she stood there, trying to avoid the thoughts that made her worry. The panic attack was unsolicited, but current facts about the pandemic were hard to ignore.
The Coronavirus flu, as sources said, was lethal, and it exempted no one from catching it. It had been a month since the world was asked to stay home. Although she was safe under her parents’ wing this summer, she was having a hard time managing her paralyzing anxiety. How could this not be a natural reaction when, around the world, the virus was spreading at a rapid pace? Numbers of positive cases doubled every week in April as she’d seen and heard on the news, and there’s no telling whether this was slowing down any time soon. Everyone was vulnerable.
Standing by the open window, she saw the tinted panes glinting with the glow of the streetlamps below. The sight was a good distraction, a respite from the surge of thoughts that troubled her. When her breathing returned to normal, she thought she heard music.
“How are you holding up?” A young man stood up from a stool on the terrace across her house. They were facing each other. The guitar he held with both hands caught her attention. Its brown wooden board gleamed with its varnished surface and the silvery metallic strings.
He smiled, revealing braces that shone, complementing the glee in his face.
She remembered the last time their eyes met. He had that same smile. They had grown up together, had gone to the same school. But years of not seeing him again had left her wishing and wondering how he’d be in a time like this. She remembered the Conrad who had the potential to easily win over people’s hearts with his performances at campus events, where intermission numbers from parent-teacher conferences to programs during the school’s founding anniversary had him strumming his guitar behind a microphone stand onstage. Whether it was an original composition or a cover of a Jackson Five hit, Conrad had known how music could easily relate to people. She, on the other hand, had grown fond of the comfort she found in solace. After all, she believed books would never leave her like people would.
She remembered way back when he used to play his guitar on that terrace. This was the Conrad she knew. But he wasn’t there to catch her attention or to play for all the neighbors to hear. He used to spend his time there, usually before bed, alone but with music as his company. She had asked him about it once during one of the bicycle rides around the neighborhood one afternoon many years ago. He said practice made him feel good.
She snapped out of the flashes of memories. But she forgot what he asked a moment ago. “I’m sorry. I didn’t quite get that?”
“Can’t sleep?” he asked instead. His brows narrowed. He had asked that before. Many times. Perhaps every time she had opened her window to hear him play. At this time of the evening, she had her gaze fixed on him. Seeing every detail — from his black close-cropped hairstyle to his glistening eyes — brought back the same feeling she had every time she’d seen him before. Only this time, he was just older than she had last seen him up close. She knew this wasn’t a dream, and she couldn’t deny that a reunion like this made her feel better.
She ran her fingers through her hair all the way to her shoulders where it ended. She felt the strands dampened with sweat.
Conrad smiled and strummed his guitar. “You don’t mind if I play, do you?”
She shook her head. “You don’t mind if anyone listens anyway.”
He shrugged and tilted his head to one side. He closed his eyes just as she did, and the music began. It was one of the same songs he had played before. And she started humming, recalling the lyrics of that song he used to love so much.
Emotions could betray people. She had known from the many times they would trigger another reaction. She knew better than getting stuck. So she opened her eyes and closed the window before she could think twice.
Later that night, she took a peek through the window to see if he was still there. All the terrace had instead was an empty space. She sat on the corner of her bed and, with the beam of the moon, gazed over the scar on her knee. Like an inkblot, it had darkened with age. She still couldn’t forget that one afternoon when she had fallen off her bicycle. He had been there with her.
The next day, Giselle was plucking malunggay leaves on the counter of their kitchen while her mother was stirring the heated contents in the pot on their stove. Plucking didn’t require much effort as the leaves, shaped like the curves of a clover leaf, detached easily. This mundane task eased her mind just as sweeping the floors and wiping tables did.
Her father was at their dining table next to their kitchen. His eyes fixed on the laptop screen. His ears were covered with a headset. He had been on a virtual meeting with his clients since morning. They needed to inquire about their insurance policies as the pandemic was projected to affect the economy and inflict not only sickness but a stream of global crises. Businesses were at a standstill, and lives were at stake. She knew he was not meant to be disturbed.
The appetizing salty scent of pork cuts boiling in broth wafted in the air, mingling with ginger and bundled lemon grass. The brewing fragrance had always uplifted Giselle, who grew up with her mother’s sumptuous dishes. Pour in the malunggay leaves and the meal would be complete.
“Is everything okay, Giselle?” her mother asked.
“Oh, it’s nothing.
“You seem so silent lately. What’s bothering you?”
She sighed. “I just thought about Conrad.”
“Well, that’s something new,” her mother said. Like Giselle, she was a tall woman with long sinewy limbs. Maybe it was maintaining a distinct fashion even while at home — with a ruffled floral overall duster — that gave out her slender figure. “You don’t usually want to talk about him. But it’s good that you remember.”
“Well, it’s not really a big deal,” Giselle said.
“Why isn’t it? You two used to be so close.”
“Yeah, sure. I don’t see how that changes anything.”
“Are you feeling okay?” Her mother ceased her stirring and looked at her with raised eyebrows.
“No, Ma. I just-…” she sighed. She didn’t want to be interrogated. She felt her heartbeat rising again. She dropped the malunggay stem into the bowl.
“You know I can’t hear you when you’re mumbling,” her mother said. “You can always tell me if there’s something bothering you.”
Giselle didn’t want to ruin lunch with an argument.
“I’m fine, Ma. You don’t have to worry about me. Now can we please continue with the cooking?” She pushed the bowl containing the malunggay leaves, showing that she was done. Her mother pointed at the stem in the bowl. Giselle picked it up and bent the green supple stem with her fingers.
She didn’t want her parents to worry. But if there was one nightmare besides closed windows and dark rooms, it would have to be the collective sight of white sheets draping the mattress on a stretcher, the glint of a needle’s sharp tip beneath bright fluorescent lights, and the bottles of alcohol emitting nausea in the guise of sanitizing the air. The memory brought her back to when she was nine. The wheels of her bicycle had struck stones scattered on the road. Whoever put them there remained a mystery, but what happened afterwards was impossible to forget. Off she flew into the air before she landed on the rusted bars that covered the mouth of a canal between the sidewalk and the road. Little Conrad had been there too, but Giselle had to take the road alone, limping in their subdivision, screaming as the blood dripped off her open wound. She had wept, nearly losing her voice as they took her to the hospital’s emergency room.
She remembered the white tiles that covered the floor and the walls. White lights glared from the white ceiling. The green plastic curtains closed around her. Her mother’s hand holding her arm, caressing. It’s going to be okay. The lullaby didn’t help silence the mild weeping of a lady on the other side. Beyond the green curtain, she could imagine the lady on a stretcher like her. No, it was a woman, and those were tears of joy, her mother had explained later on. A baby was on their way.
Then there was a man who held a syringe. The word, tetanus felt strange in her ears as he explained what the shot was for.It was a word she could associate with another word she had learned growing up. Tenacious. The pandemic was tenacious, she would describe from the headlines she had been reading on her phone in present day. She didn’t want to get sick. She didn’t want to have a needle pinned deep into her skin, didn’t want the sting to last for days. The sickness drains anyone dry, and treatment would always be given in the hospital. Ever since that accident, she had dreaded being confined to a hospital again.
She knew that happened years ago. She was well now, safe from all the harms that the accident had brought. She opened her eyes and sunlight streamed through her window, casting light around the blue walls in her room. It calmed her.
She had spent the rest of the day doing chores to distract herself from reliving that memory. But three nights since Conrad played his music again on the terrace, she felt her body sinking into her bed. She heard her pulse throbbing in her temples. She pushed the sheets off with her clammy hands, and winced as she brought herself up. No more nightmares tonight. Her joints started to ache from her neck to her knees. She sat on the side of the bed and took in deep breaths before her pulse settled. She checked the time of her phone. It was half-past midnight.
An hour later, she kept turning in her bed to find the right position. But whether she lay face-up or to her side, she couldn’t find a way to relax.
She decided to do what worked before.
Through the window, music came in with the breeze. The acoustic was a fresh sound from the buzzing of the air-conditioner behind her. It was enough to calm her down.
She looked straight ahead, and there he was. Broad-shouldered in his white shirt, cradling the guitar on his lap as he sat on the same stool, Conrad was playing his music. His eyes were closed as if he was immersed in his element, unaware of the world around him.
She stood by her window and listened to him play. And when the tension eased, she closed the window, hoping that the episode would not come back sooner than expected.
There were a lot of reasons why people had to go separate ways and move on. It’s when circumstance sets them apart, or when choice dictates their actions. If only there had been enough closure to say goodbye…
Race towards home! She remembered him saying that fateful afternoon. Last one to reach there is a stinky loser.
For a nine-year-old, she had the whole world to prove.
She had felt the wind through her hair as they had increased their speed. Her hair waving behind her. The air whistling. She remembered their laughter, some squeals and giggles that defined joy that had no end. Danger only lurked in the pages of fairy tales. The race to the finish line could go on forever.
Then there were the stones scattered before them, gray like the road. The wheels squeaked on the rough surface. Palms wet with sweat slipped from the handle bars. She screamed. He screamed. He never talked to her again.
Did she wish to talk to him again? After all these years, it had to take a pandemic to bring people together. What choice did others have but to let everyone know they care that they really do? Why do people have to go their separate ways? Why did she have to leave him there?
The next night, she opened her window again and saw him leaning over the terrace railing. His guitar on the stool behind him.
“Aren’t you going to play your music tonight?” she asked, mildly a whisper.
He smiled but kept his lips together. She remembered those cheeks that rippled in rosy tan whenever sunlight hit them. But tonight, the light of the moon made his face paler. “Shouldn’t you be sleeping instead?” he responded.
She shook her head. “It’s hard to pretend that everything’s okay, Conrad,” she said. “It’s been years since it happened, and I still remember every detail. I know I should just let everything go. But I can’t forget you.”
“Do you feel better when I’m here?” he asked.
“I’ve always wished… you were.”
What would he look like now that they were sixteen? She pictured him with close-cropped hair. Braces that he had always wished to have since some classmates in school would call him, Doc, and pretend to hold carrots to imitate the comical gesture of a cartoon character. And there was always his guitar, which was the only thing that kept reminding her of him.
He looked at her.
“I’ve missed you so much.”
He raised his hand to the side of his head, the exact spot where it had hit the rough road. Then he gestured a salute. “Whenever you need me…” He went back to his stool and held his guitar. Remembering him that way was a good distraction. But she knew it didn’t have to last. It was not a question of who was in a better place now. The world keeps going even for those who had seen loss right before their eyes. But everyone can grieve. There were those who remember. He was a memory, and she remembered.
As he played tonight, his image gradually receded. She saw all that was left over the dark and dusty terrace of the house that had long been emptied since his parents moved to another city. Dry leaves swept by the wind. Dust coating the rusty railing.
She closed the window and wrapped herself in the sheets of her bed. She hadn’t cried hard enough since she was nine and wounded. Heavy sobs released the tension, eased the pain. Tears could hydrate the soul. She remembered her mother’s words. Anything that’s bothering her… Will her father spare a little time to listen? Will her mother understand?
Despite all those cold nights, shallow breaths, recurring dreams, and thoughts about the world ending, she found herself breathing easily tonight. Nothing could last forever. If good things don’t, so do those that end them. She thought about tomorrow. There was still tomorrow.
Tomorrow came and she was with her family at their dining table. On the table, faint vapor swirled from the bowl of vegetable soup she and her mother had prepared for their lunch. While they were all seated with their plates set before them, the TV at the living room just beside their dining hall showed news about the cases concerning the pandemic. By this point, it had infected thousands in the country, and thousands more across the world.
“Dad?” she asked after setting her spoon on the edge of her plate.
“Hm?” was all her father could say between chewing.
“Is it okay if we turn the TV off?”
“The news is important, Giselle.”
She sighed. She couldn’t bear watching and listening to the rising number of cases.
Before she could say anything else, she felt her mother’s hand on her back.
“Is there anything wrong?” her mother asked.
Perhaps this was her chance to be blunt about what she had been feeling lately. On the TV screen, she caught sight of a family in a commercial where they’re gathered together in their homes’ living room. The words, We heal as one, appeared below the scene.
It took her a few moments to respond, but she wanted to believe that her parents would understand.
“I’ve not been feeling so good lately,” she finally said.
Her mother and father looked at her with concern in their faces. Her father laid his hand over her forehead. “Are you sick?”
She shook her head. “It’s not that.”
Her father put his hand away, grabbed the remote, and switched the TV off. For a while, silence dominated their home. He gently shifted in his seat and faced her.
“Would you like to talk about it?”
Both of her parents were looking at her now, concern deep in their faces. She heaved a sigh. She pushed back her plate, and told them everything. She started with the panic attacks that disturbed her sleep and that particular traumatic moment on a bicycle ride back when she was nine. Then there was that memory of Conrad. Remembering him was her way of coping, and her parents began to understand everything she had told them.
Opening up to them had somehow eased the tension in her chest, as if the weight of the problem had gradually lifted off her. Then she found herself in her mother’s arms, and her father hugged her as well. “Don’t worry, my child, this won’t last forever,” her father said.
She now understood that opening up to her loved ones whatever that concerned her was a good way to cope. The pandemic will not last forever, she believed, and if there was anything good that might come of it amidst all the sufferings it had caused, it would probably be the experience of being with her family again.
Later that night, she stood by her open window and saw the lights glowing from the streetlamps below. The neighborhood was silent save for the drone of frogs and crickets somewhere in the distance. But despite the darkness, the lights still shone. She thought about the many people who had to go through this trying time. Everyone has different experiences, but she believed all of this shall pass. Her father reassured her of it. Her mother encouraged her to share anything that’s troubling her. Whatever happens, she has her family.
Losing someone she cared about due to an accident was a pain she had to bear, but moving on was inevitable. After seeing Conrad’s limp body on the street where they had both fallen off their bicycles many years ago, she had been convincing herself that someday, he would return and they would see each other again. But accepting what happened was the first step to moving forward.
Conrad would still be in her memories just as the people who have passed on will remain in the hearts of their loved ones. She wondered about the many lives that the pandemic had claimed since it broke out earlier this year. Like the families of deceased loved ones, all that’s left of them were the memories. She would always remember Conrad with his guitar, his music, and his songs.
She went back to her room and pulled the window panes close. As she sat on the edge of her bed, she breathed calmly. She held onto the fact that, despite the night, a bright new day will always follow. She went to sleep with this thought in mind and let her dreams fill her with hope for better days ahead.
About the Author: Angelo Lorenzo (he/him) writes from Cagayan de Oro City, Philippines. His works range from journalism to literature. His articles can be found on news media outlets such as the Philippine News Agency, Rappler, and Sunstar, among others. His short stories have been published by New Pop Lit, The Elixir Magazine, and Marias and Sampaguitas, to name a few. He is currently taking his Master’s Degree in Literature at Xavier University-Ateneo de Cagayan while assisting podcast producers in his full-time job, and interviewing passionate individuals in his YouTube channel.