A burning midafternoon scorched the back of Joaquin’s neck as he stepped out of the dormitory. Before him, the world unfolded into the green of trees that lined the playing field. At once he desired their inviting shade, but at that moment it was all but owned by students who filled the benches under the trees, students who were probably enjoying the feel of cold stone on their bottoms as much as they did the shade which made the day more friendly.

The heat seemed to seep into Joaquin’s head, increasing the intensity of the pain which throbbed in there, like an animal wanting to burst out of a windowless cage. All that sleep (or more probably the lack of it) formed small pouches under his eyes, and added to the dull aching in his temples. Of course, it could have also been too much beer imbibed in last night’s binge with the guys.

His eyes squinted in the sudden blinding light, and when they had adjusted enough, he turned and walked towards the school gate. All the while he was rubbing heavy circles on his temple wishing as he did that he should have practiced a little more temperance the previous night. The alcohol tolerance he thought he had inherited from his late father was deserting him, and he was only twenty; his father lived to be fifty-five, his body stubborn even after that first stroke, until the accident finally got him.

The street just outside the gate was empty—it always was except during rush hours, and he crossed without even moving an eyelash to see if it was safe. Just across was the café. There he went, wanting to banish this merciless heat over its protective roof, and drive the sting away from his body with the help of industrial fans inside.

***

“Cold milk,” he had told the lady at the counter. He waited for his order now, at his usual place in the center, where it was possible to look outside and scan the antics of his fellow customers at the same time. The café was filled with pilgrims who, like him, sought the coolness of this place like moths clinging to a wall, staying there until driven away.

Conversations flooded the place; here a pretty girl in pink spaghetti straps that ended short of her waist, allowing a peek into her jeans, was babbling away about some boy she met. There a group of male students were, quite loudly, bragging about their exploits in last Thursday’s soccer game. But aside from these sporadic clips, the other sounds melted as they reached the periphery of Joaquin’s ears.

Anna’s voice, however, was very clear. “You are too perfect,” she said. Her words pleased him but hurt deeply as well. They were kind and truthful, but Joaquin knew they did not mean what they said. Not one bit. Just the same, he asked her what she meant

“I mean, there could not be an ‘us’,” Anna said. “Not at this time, and perhaps never.”

He nodded not because he understood but more because he wanted to hear the sentence without the slightest hint of euphemism. He had trained himself at being exposed to the naked truth; he had asked the doctor to be blunt with him on his father’s condition, and when it was his mother’s turn a year later, did the same, without even flinching when the sentence was read. He merely nodded, and when Anna asked him what was going on in his mind then, he stared out and said nothing, only looking at her a few moments later to say everything was okay, that he understood.

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***

His milk arrived, complete with a “your order, sir” and a table napkin wrapped around the glass, as though the proprietor didn’t want any fingerprints on it save for the customers’, which was cute service. Install central air conditioning and the place would be perfect.

But was there such a thing? Joaquin pondered. To the logical positivist, the proposition “it is raining” would mean that there are dark clouds pouring actual rain, no more and no less than those elements. How about “too perfect”? What were the elements of perfection? Perfection, like happiness, was something always farther off. He could pursue something which would make everything perfect, like that table napkin around the glass, for example, but he’d catch it, open his hands only to realize that it still isn’t enough. He could imagine that something he’d caught—if it had a face—flashing a silly, irritating grin, shaking its head and saying “nooope!”.

And yet there it was. He was too perfect. Of course, there was the fact that he was always known to stay within the line; he had toed the line once or twice, but he was always in.

And Anna? You are too perfect, she told him, brushing a tuft of hair that was always invading her brow. Stubborn, it kept coming back despite being tucked behind her ear again and again, wayward like its mistress. It made her look even prettier, that tuft; it ended right below her lips, right where a small dimple formed every time she smiled. But it also hid her eye, and sometimes, wanting to look into those eyes, Joaquin had to brush it aside himself.

—Why do you do that?

—Do what?

—My hair. It’s so stubborn. It keeps coming back so I just give up.

—I want to look into your eyes. That bad?

—Why would you want to look into my eyes? They’re not pretty. Besides, here comes the hair again…

And they would laugh, facing each other at some table in some coffee place, chins on folded arms.

***

His phone rang. He was in the café again, the café just outside the left side of the school. The laughter of the group of male students faded in from silence, as did the babble of Miss Pink Spags, who was still oblivious to the free show she was providing the rest of the people. Joaquin dunked a hand into his pocket for his phone, which was ringing the theme of that teen superman TV series. He held the phone against his ear and pushed the answer button. It was his brother.

“What is it?” he asked in the mock irritated voice he only spoke in when family and friends called.

Are you doing anything tonight?

“Well…” he paused. He and his brother always went out for a couple of beers every time the latter was free of hospital duty, but today Joaquin felt like he would sit one out. And besides…

“Yeah, I’m reviewing for finals. What did you have in mind?”

The usual, but I guess we’ll just reset. Hey, make good. Are you graduating with honors?

“I don’t know,” he said, cupping his other hand over his mouth so his voice could be heard over the din.

Okay, but tell us as soon as you know. Later. Oh, and write Tia Connie, too. Who knows what she’ll give you?

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“Yeah, okay. Later.”

The connection was terminated. A car, I hope, Joaquin thought, but knew that that was remotest from reality. A check for a hundred dollars was closer to home. He dunked the phone into his pocket and thought, yeah, hell, I’m graduating. Who would have thought?

In his reverie, he had forgotten that for a moment. It was just as well that he was not dating. In a week’s time, he finished the dreaded academic thesis, which had been gathering dust-bytes in his hard drive for two months or so. And he wrote it well, enough not to earn three or so more weeks of revisions. He sipped into his milk, then fished out a piece of tube ice and put it into his mouth.

Chewing, he thought of graduation now. Pink Spags and her friends were getting ready to leave. They were putting their phones and other girlie paraphernalia into their shoulder bags. Pink Spags was still chattering—what a mouth on that girl—her hips swaying this way and that, probably trying to keep her hiphuggers from falling. Show was over. Abadi-abidi-ah-that’s all folks! and all that shit.

You should try those newfangled cleavage jeans from London, he shouted to the girl with his mind. Now that would be some show. The thought elicited a small smile from his lips.

***

Following the girls outside with his eyes, Joaquin saw that the sun had let up a bit. The surroundings lost a bit of brightness, and were preparing to slip into the late afternoon grey. There were more vehicles now. In fact, traffic was at a standstill—the afternoon rush. RevOs, Lynxes, Corrolas, and even a rare Eclipse (shit, who drove that?) were inching their way forward in a parade of colors from outrageous neon yellows to avocado greens and shiny blacks.

Joaquin looked down on his drink and fished out another tube ice. Into the grinder baby, easy does it.

He wasn’t excited at all about graduation. He got excited when his thesis was approved, but not about graduation. He didn’t know why. To him, it was just another event in his likewise eventful twenty years. His brothers would come, his relatives would come, and they’d treat him to dinner somewhere. In Kalde-kaldero, Tia Connie had suggested when she called a few days back. They serenade you while you eat, the old woman said. It’d all be over in about four hours. Then what?

After school, he could find work, or he could study again. Law, this time. He had already applied at one school and the results had yet to come out. What had a friend told him when he said his thesis was approved? Oh yes, now he could date again. But Joaquin thought against it. He was too perfect.

Anna: we need to resolve our problems first. And he: yeah, we need to resolve our problems. And resolving them involved determining what he wanted to be, what he wanted to do with his life. Those questions had become so usual with people that they had become corny, and yet they returned from time to time to bug you, like how the vagrants on the street bugged you for coins every time you stepped outside of campus. And like the children, these questions tended to become even more demanding after being ignored for a couple of times.

Why were these questions so hard to answer? Well, first, they involved a lot of consequences that had to be thought and rethought over and over. But most of all, they involved leaving things—and persons, friends who held you together through all those review and beer, laughter and tear sessions—behind.

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—You’ll think of me?

—Of course. How could I not?

—You’re leaving soon.

—Yeah, but that doesn’t mean…

A phone would ring. Her phone.

—Just a sec…

The call would be his hint, his cue, his signal. What a fool he had been to want to stay, to believe he was needed to stay. A minute or so later,

—I have to go now.

Sometimes it was a quiz to review for. Sometimes it was his brother, calling him. But it did not matter what excuse he thought up, he felt had to leave. Leaving meant some persons had to stay behind, but that didn’t mean they would be lonely. They had a lot of other people who would think of them, and he would just be among the many. Who would think of him? Joaquin didn’t know. Perhaps there would be new friends, new acquaintances, new faces and places to treasure and, perhaps, love—ah, the heck, the people who stayed behind had each other. He had only himself.

***

It was getting dark. The yellow lights in the café burned brighter, triumphing over the daylight whose strength waned against the upcoming night. The yellow glow mingled with the growing shadows, rendering faceless the voices around him. It rendered questionable his vision of things. People spoke from behind a shroud of darkness, their arms (one, obviously of a girl student, stirred her glass with a straw) protruding out into the tables bathed in the glow.

He wasn’t perfect. Perfection—that untruth was merely a hint, a cue, a signal like many others whose facts he wouldn’t know, not now, nor ever, like the identities behind the arms. He had made his pass, and now he had to go on. But maybe it was his curiousity that had been staying his feet. He wanted to know a lot of things before he went on, but he had made his pass, and blessed was he to whom confessions were made, to whom the truth of things was bared, for that person would go on, sure of himself, perfect.

He was sure of himself before, oh yes. Confident as shit. But that was before circumstances disregarded his choices (You can’t go to that school; your brother just started medicine). He was sure of himself before his parents died. Before he discovered that there was a being named Anna Cruz. Now he didn’t know. I understand, he had muttered countless times, but he didn’t. Questions remained, and would remain.

With his straw, Joaquin sucked the last drops of milk at the bottom of his glass. Lifting it, he tilted the glass so that the remaining chunks of ice slid into his waiting mouth. As he brought it back on the table, he saw his arms fade out from the light into shadow, just above his elbows. He chewed the ice and felt it crumble and melt against his teeth. He stood up.

Conversations passed him like radio static as he walked past the other customers. Outside, traffic had smoothened. A lonely streetlamp lit his path back into the campus, to the dormitory. As the voices in the café were reduced to mere whispers behind him, the world unfolded again, dark.

After letting a harried taxi driver roar by, he crossed.

Quite alone.

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