“Enjoy your lunch date,” I told the taxi driver as he handed me my change.
“You bet I will,” he answered with a hearty laugh as I got out of the taxi, my grocery bags in tow.
He backed out of my street and honked his horn when he caught a glimpse of me waving at him. Then the taxi was borne along the streaming traffic and I was again alone on the sidewalk with a story to tell.
A few minutes earlier, I was standing under the searing heat of an El Nino noon for nearly an hour, trying to get a ride home after some quick grocery shopping. I hailed taxi after taxi but each one was occupied. I gave up that stoop when I realized that it was the Bermuda Triangle of unoccupied taxis in there and lugged my bags of nourishment, junk food and laundry detergent a hundred meters away from the mall’s entrance. Aha! A taxi was sitting idle in front of a No Parking sign. There was no passenger. As I approached, the driver glowered at me from the rear view mirror. I noticed that he was texting somebody on his cellphone. With the straps of the grocery bags digging into my palms and the heat of the sun making me hungrier and homicidal by the second, I was ready to give a kick to the taxi’s side and make a dent on the paintjob if the driver wouldn’t take me on as fare.
As expected, the driver’s tone was unwelcoming when he asked me where I’m headed.
“Bates Street,” I said, really not at all enthused. I was checking my balance already, centering my weight so I could aim a kick at the side of the car if the driver said no.
I was taken aback when the driver’s face lit up. “Great! Hop on in!” I had second thoughts then but my stomach growled, so I got in.
“I’m meeting someone for lunch,” the driver was smiling. He waved the cell phone. “I was a bit worried that you’re going the other way but Bates Street is right before Ringo Avenue.”
As we waited for a light to turn green so we could make a left, he babbled on.
“It’s my wife, you see,” he said. “And it’s our anniversary today.”
“You’re meeting her in your favorite restaurant,” the uninterested me said, vaguely wondering where the confession was headed.
“Uh-huh.” The lights changed and we fell in with the other vehicles cruising the highway. “First chance I get to treat her.” Something was amiss, however. I could attribute the sixth sense to my constant viewing of crime and mystery shows because I now paid attention to the driver.
“Your wife… Hmmm. So, how long have you been married?” I just noticed that he wasn’t wearing a ring. He had no paunch that generally plagues the married male. He looked carefree – young. Reckless, even. Not burdened by the worries and travails of married life.
I think I got him there. The driver fell silent. It was a few moments later when he spoke up again. “We’re not actually married,” he began.
“But she was my girlfriend in high school. She was a junior then and I was a senior. Maybe it was because we were young and wanted to explore… We eloped. Both our parents looked for us, and when they discovered where we were staying, they convinced us to go home – separately. We were both terrified and guilt-ridden. Our parents forced us to agree that our schooling should be the priority.
“We didn’t see each other after that. I went off to college, got a girl pregnant, and ended up marrying the girl because of the child. It wasn’t love. My wife knew that I didn’t love her fully. But we did have another kid.
“I still wonder what became of her – the girl I eloped with during high school. Then I learned that she was already married but they didn’t have any kids. I also learned that her husband hit her on occasion. But I could not do anything about it. We both already had separate lives.
“My wife probably sensed that my heart could never be entirely hers, so we separated three years ago. She took our kids with her and they now live with her parents in the province. Me, I’ve been a taxi driver since after college graduation. Couldn’t do much anyway, with the course I chose.
“It might have been fate, I don’t know. I was off duty one morning. The night before, I was in a party with friends and slept in a buddy’s boarding house. It was around eight o’clock the next morning and I figured that I could just catch a train home; an LRT station was nearby anyway. In the station, I bumped into someone rushing past. Bags and personal belongings flew. When I looked at the person I bumped into, it was her. Twenty years passed and I often wondered how she’s doing; now, here she was again. While collecting her things off the floor, we only said hello and a cursory “Kamusta?” Then she had to catch a train going the other way for her office. I would have followed her but I reeked of stale cigarettes and fermented brew. The next day and the days after that, I hung around that particular station at 8 o’clock – whether I had taxi rounds or not – hoping I’d run into her again. It’s just recently that I learned that she goes to work before 7 am and that, on the day we bumped into each other, she was running very, very late.
“I wanted so much to talk to her, ask her how she’s doing. But I was afraid her husband might discover who I was, a link to her past. I still know their home phone number, and I know that she still lived there. Finally, when my vigil at the train station yielded nothing, I gathered the courage to ring her up at their family place. I was so surprised when they actually gave the phone to her.
“We talked and I learned that she and her husband were already separated for five years. She wished to see me, she said. I declined, knowing full well what will happen when we were alone together.
“I called her up almost every evening when she arrived from work. Even with the cell phone, I still called her in their home phone and we’d talk for hours. It was like having a phone pal again. Three months, and our communication was merely by telephone and text messages.
“I would have been content in our arrangement. We get to keep in touch over the phone. Yes, I ached to see her but I do not know if we have a chance of being together. After all, our history as a couple was short-lived and was filled with guilt and terror. I didn’t want that happening again.
“But she was the brave one. She arranged to be very drunk one evening somewhere in Morato. She called up and said she needed a taxi to take her home. Uh-oh. I had a bad feeling about it… Like the day our parents discovered us when we were still young. I asked a fellow driver to pick her up but he sensed what was going on and advised me to get it over with.
“When I picked her up, she was cold sober. And she knew where our relationship was headed. This all happened almost two years ago… It would be exactly this day when she called up asking for a pickup. We were never separated since.”
I never truly acknowledged before that love stories in books and films are inspired by real life. Here’s the proof – right inside a taxi that made a left turn to Bates Street and halted in front of a rust-colored gate.
The driver drove off, beaming.
What’s your own love story?