The man was still staring at her when Gwen turned to look. He sat on the bench to her left, leaning back against the hole-punched steel, arms folded, head tilted toward her. She flicked him an irritated glance and returned her attention to the flat screen. PR 467 from Seoul, 11:30, status: delayed. Gwen uncrossed her legs and tapped her right foot. It was only 11:07. She had been sitting in the arrivals lounge for almost half an hour already, and she had a headache.
It was one of those mornings. She had woken up late, with a hangover, and had to skip breakfast and a shower to rush off to work. Chris had looked at her like he was about to have a seizure. She’d been working at the Ateneo’s Office of International Relations for less than six months, and already she’d accumulated an embarrassing record of late time-ins. It was only by a few minutes, never more than fifteen, but the habit irked Chris no end. She never called in sick, and she worked hard, but it was her chronic tardiness that reflected most on her performance.
“Don’t,” Chris said when she started to explain. “Just go.”
At first Gwen thought she had been fired, then she remembered that she was supposed to fetch a group of Koreans from the airport. She grabbed a folder from her desk and ran out to find the driver. She spotted him in the parking lot, leaning against the university van, enjoying a cigarette.
“Let’s go, manong!” she said, climbing into the front seat. “Go go go!”
It was only later, as they were weaving in and out of traffic along Aurora Boulevard, that Gwen realized that she had been panicking for no reason. According to her folder the plane was scheduled to land just before noon, which meant there was still a good three hours to go before the meet-up. She threw the folder on the dashboard and let out a laugh that quickly developed into a groan. Manong looked at her suspiciously. Her head was beginning to throb again.
Even with the heavy traffic in Pasay, they arrived at NAIA Terminal 2 with more than fifty minutes to spare. Manong dropped her off at Arrivals and told her to call him when she was ready to leave. Gwen bounced out of the van and entered the terminal.
Now it was 11:07 and she was in a sour mood. The seats were cold and uncomfortable. A stranger was ogling her. The flight was delayed. She was getting hungry. Earlier she had bought overpriced coffee and a sandwich from a nearby café, but now her stomach was grumbling again. She stared at the blue screen, idly hoping for another update. She ran her tongue over a small bump on her lower gums, courtesy of this morning’s hasty brushing. She was sure it would develop into a nasty sore.
It wouldn’t be so bad if she was here for family, or a friend at least, but instead she was waiting for a bunch of exchange students. Gwen didn’t like exchange students. She didn’t mind corresponding with them through email, but meeting them physically was a different matter. Six months wasn’t a long time to judge, but she’d had her experiences. It wasn’t anything they did exactly—which made it hard to explain to friends who cared to listen—but rather their overwhelming sense of entitlement. As soon as they arrived the students took on the usual foreigner’s airs, and the politeness of previous emails would give way to condescension.
Normally Gwen didn’t mind so much. It was part of the job, and anyway they were usually gone in a few months. There were even some nice ones, who brought her gifts and sent grateful emails after they returned to their own countries. But today she was nursing a hangover, and she couldn’t help but project her gloom onto the Koreans, as if they could somehow be blamed for her present misery.
She shouldn’t have gone out with Trish and Pam last night. They had spent several hours at a bar in Timog, downing cheap cocktails and complaining about their boyfriends. Trish and Pam both worried about marriage. They dropped hints to their men and fretted about being too forward, kept silent and grieved about turning into old maids. It seemed a peculiar anguish. They were at that age when they could still be single but were no longer young, the dreaded almost-thirty.
Gwen had swirled her drink with a straw and tried to change the topic. She was only a few months younger, but she didn’t yet share the same concerns. Marco brought up the subject sometimes but they never talked about it seriously. Neither of them was in any hurry. When she met him she had just quit her job at an attorney’s office and was trying out working for a university. Being on campus gave her a feeling of youthfulness she had almost forgotten. On nights like the previous one, she felt wild and irresponsible. She felt twenty-one.
From somewhere overhead Gwen heard the two-note tinkle signaling an airport announcement. A woman’s voice: “Flight PR 467 from Seoul has been delayed and is now scheduled to arrive at 12:10 p.m.” She checked her watch and uttered a curse. In front of her, passengers from another flight were making their way along the wide concourse, clutching passports and dragging suitcases behind them. Along the metal railings stood family members, lovers, travel agents, taxi drivers—the latter two holding up signs bearing mostly foreign surnames. A few shouts and questions, and a moment later they were exchanging hugs and handshakes, smiles and claps on the back. Gwen stared at them. She had seen this same performance only fifteen minutes ago.
The crowd dispersed, and the flow of passengers dwindled to a trickle, lone stragglers walking leisurely toward the exit. Suddenly there was a small commotion—a man had rushed past the others to reach a woman on the other side of the railings. He dropped his bags. There was a long embrace, a longer kiss. The other passengers filed past without taking much notice.
Gwen had been texting manong when she looked up and noticed the couple’s reunion. Her hands relaxed their grip on the cellphone. The scene, common enough in an airport, jolted loose a bundle of feelings in her. She experienced a strange conflation of life and memory, when what was remembered became real, ushered in by that most mundane sight, one of those unexpected convergences that matter little in the span of a life but mean so much in the moment.
Almost six years ago she had stood in this same airport with Niko. He had just finished his OJT at the Peninsula Manila, where she worked as a receptionist, and was going off to be a cook in Qatar. His family was based in Cebu, so he had planned on going to the airport alone, but she had insisted on accompanying him at the last minute. That taxi ride from Tondo to Pasay was the longest she had ever taken. It was a distance of only fifteen kilometers, but inside the vehicle time seemed to slow and thicken, toiling in the insufficient air conditioning, coagulating between them.
She and Niko said goodbye at the Departures drop-off. He was running late, so they only had time for a curt hug and some hurried words before he had to go. Gwen forgot exactly what they had said, if they had promised each other anything, but even now she could still recall the sight of him approaching those doors, showing his papers to the guard, and turning around one last time to wave before disappearing inside the terminal. She remembered his jacket, a bright blue Adidas knockoff, getting smaller and smaller as he walked away.
Sometimes she wondered what had become of Niko, but never enough to try to find him. The last time she talked to their friends at the hotel, they said they hadn’t heard from him. But that was a long time ago. Now she sat thinking about him and those months they shared together many years before. She wondered how long he had stayed in Qatar, if he had since returned to Cebu, or if he was even now in Manila, perhaps living only a few streets away from her but nonetheless a stranger. She wondered if he had managed to open his own restaurant, which he had always talked about doing before. She thought about herself back then, the weeks she had spent crying over him, and marveled at how far life had taken her.
Gwen considered all these things, surprised by her own nostalgia. But sitting there on that steel bench, she felt no sadness, only an awareness of the years spanning that existence and now. She looked down at her cellphone and finished composing the text to manong. She checked the hour. There was still so much time left to kill.