I was sixteen when I had my first boyfriend although boyfriend isn't quite the right word. We were like flies, nothing, wearing ourselves thin with cigarettes and stronger drugs and sex and broken record players. His name was Amac. He was one of those foreigner boys who fidgeted with their hairs when we went out for school excursions; those boys who were strong and yet so soft, so cowardly. Still, I loved him. Amac and I barely talked but when we did, it was mostly about his friends' skydiving and how much he too wanted that. He said we did not need to talk and that talking made one vulnerable.
"Do you want to be vulnerable?" he asked.
I shook my head, told him no, then bit down hard on my lower lips so that it drew blood. I should have told him I liked the idea of being vulnerable once in a while, made us all humans.
He liked drugs, though. Not so much the idea of smoking but the way his hands worked meticulously to roll the paper. He was skilled at it, said it was the one thing he liked doing; that kept his mind away from home. I did not know about his home but I figured it was bad. I would sit on the couch in his friend's stepdad's basement and watch him as he rolled the paper and he dabbed his lips on it. We would not smoke it immediately. He would sit back, three rows of marijuana on the table, his hands on his sides, and take a deep breath. Like he was praying.
When we smoked, it passed through our lungs gratingly like sandpaper and twisted our lives so that all we ever thought of doing afterward was to lay on the hard wooden floor that smelt of wet fuchsia flowers and laugh. There was nothing funny about us.
I was seventeen when we broke up but really, it couldn't be called that. All I heard later was that he had hung himself. The end, nothing cynical about it. It made me wonder. There I was, in the small church, crowded with friends and families and friends and enemies. I thought about him and his home when his father stepped right to the front where the coffin was and cleaned his eyes. There was something remarkable about the way his hands came fleetingly to touch his eyes as though there was an underlying meaning to it. I swallowed.
"He was such a lovely boy," he said.
His mother broke down in front of everyone. Two women, in brown and yellow overalls, came to take her away.
His brother, in a wrinkled suit and a necklace with a pentagram around his neck, stood up next and touched the coffin. It was closed, unusual.
"My brother...well, he made me angry sometimes but he was a great brother and a friend and... I will miss him."
The pastor asked if there was anyone else who'd liked to say something. I wanted to stand up but my parents were in the front row, devoted to God, strict and cold. Besides, what would I have said? That he was my boyfriend and the only boy I loved? That we never talked but we smoked? That I liked the way the smoke lifted out of his lips in a slow, carnivorous sway? I had nothing. But someone —a boy— stood up.
"He was my friend and my good man," he said.
I was twenty-five, halfway through my second divorce when I saw Amac again. This time, we were not in the high-pitched walls of New Orleans. We were in Baguio, Philippines and we were older but there he was, sitting cross-legged by the side of the street. There was a bottle of red liquid in front of him. An array of emotions swept me over and I walked. I crossed the busy street, maneuvered my way past a woman in leggings cursing in broken Ilocano and came to stand in front of him.
He arched an eyebrow when he saw me, almost as if somehow, he'd been waiting for someone to find him. The restaurant was clean, housing people from all over. I could not care less. I was one of those people who understood little of life and was stuck in time zones, drifting away like the sun in June.
This was Amac, the man I had loved more than myself; the boy I had grieved over for months whilst wondering if I should probably stay underwater a little while longer. Amac was a grown man now but he looked the same to me. His mother's face came to mind now and I remembered her, watching me, hating me, pretending that I did not exist, as though I had died with her son.
"Do you want to maybe sit?" he asked.
There was a chair in front of him. Carved around its arms were words I could tell meant everything. The words were in Arabic. Amac smiled. I took my seat. It was not exactly how I planned my day to be. In twenty minutes, I ought to be in my therapist's home, telling her how many bad porn videos I'd enjoyed. My daughter would be with her father, bonding over cartoons and ice cream.
Now for the main course: how did one start conversations with their dead lovers? I glanced around. People walked by in quick strides, with purpose and addiction and I was here with Amac, with nothing.
"Why are you here?" I asked.
He sipped the drink from the bottle and placed it back down. "Do you maybe want coffee? It's a little too hot for that. Maybe iced tea or lemonade? I'm not hungry but maybe you are. What do you want to eat?"
"Why are you here, Amac?" I asked again.
He touched his hair and gave a tight smile. We'd never talked before. It was probably best if he took my hand and we ran down the alley and rolled some weed.
"I'm not dead," he said. "What do you want to know?"
I shrugged. Five minutes had passed. Ten more minutes and my therapist would call. Her voice would be full, probing: you should have been here minutes ago.
"They said you died. Your mother, your father, your brother, they all said you'd died."
"They lied then," he said. "I was shipped here years ago with a warning not to return home. My parents come to visit sometimes. I don't speak with my brother anymore."
He talked with a precision quite unlike him. It was like he had rehearsed the words by himself in a bathroom mirror in a public toilet. The words were harsh, straight, and dirty but they fit perfectly with his lips. I had kissed those lips before, syncing with perfect melody, flipping through life with ease and mundane practice. I'd hate to think that those lips became my undoing.
"But why? I was at your funeral. They held a mass for you. Your mother cried for you."
"She's always been a good actress —that woman," he chuckled and sipped from the bottle. "I don't smoke again, Abby. I don't drink either. I teach now at the local high school. My students think I'm a little uptight but they love me or at least I think they do. How are you? I shouldn't ask that right? It makes me wonder..."
It bothered me how Amac had changed. It was not a bad change but it was a change nonetheless. The boy I knew was not careless with words. That boy did not allow himself to be vulnerable. This young man was different, like a clone, sandwiched between life and the comical reality of being broken and half dead.
I should have told him I hated him and how much I'd hated myself too. I should have told him that he could have called. Instead, I let him order me a drink. It was cold, a welcoming change from the humidity.
"What are you doing here?" he asked.
"I live here now," I said. "Is that a problem?"
"No of course not," he said. "You look different."
I shook my head. "I look fatter, right? That's what you mean."
"Is that what they call it these days?"
"You look different, beautiful, real," he said. "Kind of intense actually."
"Is that another fancy way of saying I look fat?"
He laughed. That was Amac, always laughing, never happy. "I should like to see you again. We could go watch a movie or something."
My phone rang. As expected, it was my therapist.
"I still have so many questions, Amac," I said.
He wrote his number on a napkin. I wrote mine on a piece of paper, the kind where I usually write a list of things I hated and passed it to him.
My therapist —Shelly Woody— opened the door and let me in. It would be the second time we were meeting at her place. The place was a little dark. It smelt of garlic and chili sauce. At the dining table, there was a bottle of white wine and a glass placed neatly by the side. Shelly folded her hands across her chest and rolled her eyes.
"What held you up this time around?"
The last time, I'd been walking to her place and found a stranded cat by the sidewalk. I'd held it close and waited for someone to come looking for it. It was small and black and had spots over its body. I waited for thirty minutes and then I took it to a vet. An hour later, I was at her home telling her how I'd saved the cat.
Now she was looking at me, giving me one of those hard, mean stares.
"I was held up," I said to her. "I saw someone."
"A friend?" she asked.
"I don't know if I can call him that, Shelly."
"Did you give him your number? Did he tell you he'd like to see you again, sometime?"
Shelly was a hard woman to please. I followed her into her study. Books of religion and championing your life lined the shelves and on the table, there was an artifact she'd gotten when she visited Ghana. Everything was placed in such a way that my life suddenly seemed like a bitter tale, something that would soon end in a tragic formality. She sat at the edge of the table. I sat on the floor. The place smelt of expensive perfume.
"Who was your friend?" she asked suddenly.
I hesitated. She was not supposed to take me off guard. "He's no one."
"You seem distracted. He must be someone."
"I don't want to talk about him."
She nodded. "What do you want to talk about then?"
It took a while of thinking to say something tangible. The words blurred before me but I said them anyway. "I am no longer human," I said to her.
She arched an eyebrow. She had been expecting more, something different. "What are you then?"
I hesitated and causally pulled at my hair. For a moment, Shelly refused to look at me. Instead, she looked at her surrounding. This was her home but she looked at it as if she was a passing stranger, visiting a place she had seen before in a dream. The study was a little too beautiful and a little cold but it was not what mattered. What mattered was that we were here together, brushing up on life and the sheer expectancy of wanting more out of it. Shelly gave me a small smile, something resembling pity and love and hate. I did not smile back.
"Are you a vampire then?" she asked. I could tell that she was simply trying to lighten the mood. My lips trembled. "Because I don't know what I'd do if you were one."
"You'd probably run," I told her. There was no hint of laughter in my voice.
She nodded. "What are you, Abby?"
"I am a concept," I said and then bit down hard on my nails. "I am a concept, Shelly. Do you get that?"
"Actually, no I don't," she replied. "What are you talking about?"
"I am a concept of hate and love. I am like a night sky with stars and moon and I don't know everything. Then I'm the sun and the clouds and the fancy children with running noses. Do you understand now?"
She said nothing.
A week later, Amac and I met at his place. It was small and fancy and had a fishbowl with a little blue fish swimming about. He laughed when he showed it to me, said his name was Jerry.
"Why didn't you call?" I asked him.
A song was playing in the living room.
"It's Italian," he said about the song. It sounded French to me.
"Why didn't you call?"
"What if I have no answer for you, Abby? What then?"
"I would walk out and never come back."
He nodded and ran a hand through his hair. "They told me I was a disgrace to the family. They knew about the drugs. They sent me here to get better."
"Yes —yes I am. I teach now—"
"You said that before."
He clapped his hands playfully and smiled and looked at his feet.
"You could have called. I grieved for you, Amac."
"I don't have an answer for you," he said. There was a tear in his eyes, threatening to fall. This was vulnerability and we knew it. "But I am sorry for everything."
"What if sorry just won't cut it?"
He said nothing.
"Roll me a smoke," I said to him. It was foolish but I said it and he heard me.
"I can't do that, Abby," he said.
"Roll me a smoke."
"I don't have any—"
We found ourselves on the kitchen floor. It was some sort of comfort zone for both of us. The plates were all hand-painted, art in its raw form. Amac's hands came dutifully to roll the paper. His hold was firm. He did not look up at me but I watched him as he did this; as though he had never stopped. When he was done, he dabbed his lips against the edge and placed it on the floor in front of me. He said nothing.
"Are you praying?" I asked him after a while of total silence.
He smiled. "I prayed yesterday."
I took the rolled-up weed and threw it out of the window. He was standing in the middle of the living room, hands to his side.
"Forgive me, Abby," he said.
"Is that another way of saying this is a date?"
He nodded. "That depends..."