Yesterday, I received a visit from a friend. This friend, he's among the truer ones, those less given to betraying your secrets. Who don't plant little bombs for you to discover after they've up and fled, gone to other lives or time zones, still believing such things somehow made them more important, or interesting.
But this one, I have forgotten how intense things have always been with him.
I fetched him nine minutes past one at Olivarez. I apologized for not being on time, the highway was clogged by the traffic, there was a funeral procession at the junction. He reported a parallel procession on the other side, from where he came. I suppose I was also apologizing for my daughter, the younger one, who had been wailing the whole time. My wife was doing everything to console her, even resorting to lollipops, but Noam just can't take it when she sees either of her parents talking with strange people. Maybe she can accept the talking per se, but what she won't tolerate is happy, animated talk. If so, then she's bound to reject any person who truly engages us.
I told my friend that I would have to bring my family home before anything else because they kids were due for siesta. I'd have to show him part of the house, but not most of it, regrettably, because he came at short notice and we had been wrapping gifts, prepping the kids for parties, Elisha for exams. We had little time to tidy up.
He asked for a tour. First stop? The Main Library parking lot. It's a long story, but I believe it would not have been possible to carve a life from these mountains—much less a family—without that day when he, along with my other college friends, accompanied me to replace that book I lost. The library represents a crucial part of my life, but I pass by this lot every day on my way to errands, to work, to bring Elisha to school, always mindless of its significance.
My friend? He kept getting the goose bumps.
We went to Institute of Chemistry too, that was his pick. After that, I took him up the mountain, then to the park to see the Fertility Tree and the Carillon According to one story, they chained up the Carillon because students kept on committing suicide when they reached the top. A tower built for music, bedecked by the iron of many bells, flight upon flight of stairs: this was everything. The forbidding clouds above, the inviting green below, and—I suppose—a view of the lake: all the basic ingredients. And this sealed tower, within free reach of that Tree where lovers carved hearts, stole moments of crazy sweat...
It now occurs to me that I had been showing him the keys to this place.
Two boys climbed the mountain and died... A student's body was found right around here... In Biñan, an elsewhere... I apologized, again, this time for my inadequate skills as a tour guide, my banter, the limitations of my lore.
I showed him the horses and crows of APEC, the ambition of the place, the ill fit of school and community. We lacked noblesse oblige, he said. Once again, for I have heard him say the phrase before, a long time ago, while walking a different university. I believed myself doing a good bit, presenting him the wonders of the square meters that had been touched by a plan, and by the hands of workmen, only to be abandoned to non-completion. "It's what a hectare would look like if it had a sky but was put in drawer," I thought. But did not say, for he might think I was smuggling in another tactless metaphor for life.
We settled down at IRRI for pie and conversation. À la mode? The woman asked. No, he said. Ice cream was bad for the throat, and we had a lot of talking left to do.
I won't write everything. Not of our four hours, perhaps our last hours together, worth more than entire months of other people, not of his trials, nor of his identity now, nor my poverty as counsel. But I must write something, there's no other recourse. Unlike the better people I know—or their counterparts, those more certain and scientific—I have a clear weakness: if I don't write, I forget.
Now, the thing about forgetting: I have yet to earn that luxury.
One exchange, a mere facet of that whole time, it's all I can put down. Just this one. Even if it marks me as vain and hubristic, now, at this my age, when a person should have learned quite enough. When I should be frowning my grimmest frown upon all pretense and arrogance. Here it goes:
At some point in the conversation, I began thinking of a lesson plan. I wanted to lead with Janus when I meet classes again next year. I've done this a few times before (but not recently, not in the last five semesters), but I told my friend that this time around I might work the Janus angle right up (or backwards) to Achilles.
I could tell this digression caught his attention. He remained, as I suspected, a connoisseur of war in all its blood and nuance, the glittering array or the dirt of it. If this would be our last conversation, then the wunderkind of Peleus must take his portion of it. So I told him of a curious story about Achilles, background material. How the macho Olympians once desired his mother, the nymph Thetis. Once, I said, because they stopped the moment they heard about the prophecy, how this woman's son was destined to overshadow his father. So Zeus and the others discussed the threat and how only the humans honestly appreciated that sort of thing. They pulled their act together, hurried up, and married Thetis to Peleus, a mortal king.
My friend said he had not heard of this story before. I said the reason I brought it up was, well, we're human. I'm a father, and you're bound to be. And before us, our parents. As adolescents, we judged them harshly. But the years have tempered that judgment, have now made bona fide fools out of us. Made saints of our beloved parents. Still, despite all their virtues and invisible achievements, our parents have most certainly had their failings (of which we are keenly aware, though will never be fully so) and thus we try our best to avoid replicating them, yes?
We strive to become better versions—or shadows—of them.
Yes, he said. We owe it to them to make something of ourselves.
I said: Suppose we succeed?
What if we become the fathers we wanted to have? Fathers who always understand, who explain very carefully, firmly, lovingly, who never fail to convince and who leave their children happy to have been persuaded. My friend. What if we never fail to provide?
He shifted, in his seat. At that moment, I believed he perceived where I was taking us. So I did not tarry: If so, then we would fail to provide the thing that shaped us, that bitter gift to which we owe whatever character brought us this far, to our own families, to live long enough for this conversation. The gift so freely given by our parents, but which we now (so stubbornly and gullibly) keep to oursleves: pain. We would neglect to bless our children with adversity.
There is no other recourse, he said. We can only emulate the strengths. We can't make the same mistakes. The only kernel of human nature worth having is that which denies human nature, which seeks to surpass itself.
What shall we do?
What remains. We feed them stories. We fill them right up with stories.
There was more talk after that, better words, talk of the bleak and the far away, but most of all, of course, we stared at the clear and present. Of the dirty snow he never did aspire for but now must swallow.
I left him at the exact spot where I met him, the strip in Olivarez that leaves the highway and leads to the parking lot. He liked the idea of closing the circuit.
Stories. That's his word for it. I don't know. I teach narratives, I go so far as to call myself a fictionist, but I don't know about this idea of his. Because stories like that, they lead to hope. And the Greeks, they put hope in a box along with other knives.
What a clever people, their gods long gone, never to return. What's left is to defer to sound advice.