The Stranger: A Story by Sacha Calagopi

Miranda’s throat was parched as she stared at the photo album on top of her marble dresser. The night before, she climbed a chair and opened the cabinet on top of her closet and rummaged through old files to find the album with golden bells embossed on its cover. She hadn’t browsed through this book in months, and the only reason she decided to do it now, was because of the conversation she had a few days before while she had lunch with Zeny, a psychologist friend.

“So what’s up with you?” Zeny had asked.

“Oh, I don’t know,” Miranda babbled between bites of tapa and garlic fried rice that had become a regular order because it instantly filled up the emptiness in her stomach. “You know about Adrian, right? Well, you know he’s married and stuff but that’s not what’s bothering me. Sometimes I look at him and wonder if it’s really worth continuing and all. I’m quite sure I’m not in love with him, but when he calls and asks to see me I find myself wearing my best skirts. Then, when I do see him, I wonder who he really is. You know, who he really is in my life.”

“Aren’t you wondering how his wife would feel if she found out about the two of you?” Zeny asked as she took a sip of her iced-tea.

Miranda shrugged. “I really don’t care.” She dipped her tapa in vinegar and chewed on it. “Sometimes I think about Anna, but I’m not particularly fond of her, if you know what I mean. And after a night with Adrian, it’s like I feel, I don’t know, like my stomach burns or is full or something. Like I’m not hungry anymore.”

Zeny nodded and put her glass down. “How did you meet him?”

“Oh,” Miranda pushed the fried rice into her spoon.”I met Anna, first of course, because she was Tomas’s officemate. Then, hmmm…” She chewed her rice. “I was with Tomas in this party and Adrian started talking to me.”

“Well,” Zeny said. “You seem kinda confused from what you’re telling me. And I’ve never known you as the type to have an affair without feeling guilty about it. Maybe you should look at your past,” she added.

“My past?” Miranda asked as she gulped her mineral water. “What’s in my past?”

“I don’t know. But maybe something in your past holds the key to your present affair.”

Miranda rolled her dark eyes. That’s the problem with psychologists! They always have a set of cryptic messages. All I need right now is for someone to tell me what to do with Adrian!

But her friend’s words rang in her ears for a few days, and as she watched Adrian sip his bird’s nest soup in a restaurant in Ongpin, and she heard him make the same promises, “I will leave her soon. I can’t stand it, anymore,” he cried. “If it were not for my children…” she realized that Zeny had hit a chord with her.

‘My past’, she thought to herself. ‘I can’t even remember how much the dollar was a month ago.’ She was a trader in an investment house in Makati, and it was part of her job to keep track of the peso’s value as it fluctuated with the kidnappings of Europeans in Jolo and a governor squealing on the president’s jueteng kickbacks. She sighed as she watched the numbers dwindle in her computer monitor’s screen and wondered if she was capable of doing something else. But she remembered the monthly checks she wrote out for a townhouse in Sta. Rosa and the numerous trips to the United States for seminars to increase her knowledge of numbers. ‘I’m sure a lot of people would love to be in the position I am in now.’

Miranda lit a cigarette and flipped through the acetate-covered pages of the photo album. She giggled. They contained pictures of herself in Vigan, where she visited an old house and pretended to dial an antique phone’s rotator, and her swims in the seas of Ilocos, with its dark sand and emerald waters that splashed against the waves of her hair. Her eyes were dark and bright as she smiled at the camera, and in many of her pictures, her arms were high in the air, as she welcomed a world that brought her laughter and friendship.

“Tomas,” she whispered, when she got to the middle of the album. Even back then she knew that he wasn’t a very handsome man. His slanted eyes behind silver-rimmed glasses gazed at her as he chewed on a grilled fish that made his blemished cheek puff. She felt a tear stream down her cheek and she immediately wiped it off. What the hell! It’s been more than a year and so much has happened since then. She viewed him sitting on the gray desk of his office, holding a rolled plate in his hand. What ever made me fall in love with him? Another snapshot contained him and his university friends in a dim bar with planets printed on the wallpaper, many of their faces red from the bottles of beer that stood on the table, and her eyes widened as she saw herself wearing a sundress with violet flowers and her arms wrapped around Tomas’s long torso. Her eyes shone then, and her skin glowed like the sun. ‘Zeny should’ve warned me about the effects of looking at old photographs.’ Tears spurted from her eyes as she remembered the gentle kisses he planted on her cheek and the warmth of his embraces and the words they exchanged as she leaned her head on his bare chest and they watched the orange sun rise from his bedroom window.

“Sometimes after taking a shower, I look at myself in the mirror, naked, and I feel like a boy inside the body of a thirty year old man,” he had whispered into her ear. “The other day I was invited to be a guest speaker to a Visual Communications class in U.P.. And the student’s faces were so eager when they asked me how I got my job, how I became a creative director, how I got ideas for my proposals. . . I remember not many years ago, I was sitting on one of those desks and I was sketching a car on its surface, and I couldn’t wait ’til I could drive to work in an air-conditioned office and get a big salary so I can buy my own place and eat in fancy restaurants.” He shook his head and kissed Miranda’s forehead. “It’s a silly cycle, isn’t it? When you’re young and in school and have no clue as to what’s out there in Makati, you can’t wait to join it. But once the mystery has faded, you work your butt so you can afford the carefree spirit you had when you were a student.” Miranda silently nodded and wondered if she could find time to paint the blank canvasses that stood against her bedroom wall.

‘It wasn’t the rough skin acquired from many years of toiling under fluorescent lights that I had given my heart to,’ Miranda realized. ‘But the spirit etched in your words. I fell in love with your laughter when I told you about my nephews who teased me about my furry slippers, and your gait when we danced from bar to bar in Malate during a gay parade.’ Her eyes spat tears that her heart had stored for many months, and she banged the photo album shut. ‘I am now thirty years old myself. I can’t have myself bawling over a love long gone.’ She walked to her bathroom, scrubbed her face, and wiped it dry.

She sat in front of her dresser and stared at her face in the mirror, now with fine lines imprinted under her eyes, where the once bright darkness in her pupils had transformed into a dullness found in stones. Adrian and Anna were strangers then. Anna was merely Tomas’s officemate, and Adrian was merely Anna’s husband. She glared at the photo album, which continued to sit on top of her dresser, and she heard its bells ring.

“What do you want from me now?!” she shouted at the album.

It did not answer her, but it rang out a monotonous high-pitched melody that reminded her of Zeny’s cryptic message a week before. Hair tied back and lips straight, she reopened the album, and found a photo of her and Tomas taken when they attended his boss’s birthday party, where she had first met Adrian. ‘I didn’t even notice him; he was short, and his shapeless nose and beige lips added little to his nondescript features.’

It was while Tomas and Anna mingled with clients, doing public relations, they informed their companions, that Adrian sat down beside Miranda.

“What do you do, Miranda?” Adrian asked. His smile was lopsided and he had a dimple on the right side of his cheek.

“Oh, nothing dramatic.” She shrugged. “I borrow money from people and lend them to companies who need a loan.”

He threw his head back and laughed. “Reminds me of the law of karma.”

She put her hand on her chin. “What do you mean?”

“Nothing I care to explain right now.” He shook his head and gulped the remaining red wine in his glass. “Have you ever read The Celestine Prophecy?”

“No.” She combed the straight strands of her hair with her fingers. “But it sounds familiar.”

He poured another glass of wine for himself, and tilted the bottle towards her.

She shook her head.

“It says that there are no coincidences, every event has a reason, as if everything is in perfect design.”

“Ok…” Miranda’s voice trailed off. She searched the room for Tomas, who was nowhere in sight.

“It says that when you make eye contact with a stranger, you should talk to him or her, because this stranger has a message for you,” he continued.

Miranda stood up and grasped her purse. “Excuse me. I’ ll just go and look for Tomas.”

She saw Adrian on several occasions after that, during a Christmas party and an out-of-town beach trip. She simply nodded to him, for she didn’t want to indulge him in a conversation she couldn’t quantify.

It was many months before Tomas and Anna went on business to a congregation for advertisers in Cebu, a festival of half-naked city dwellers who danced the limbo under the stars of artificial beaches. Miranda did not notice the distance in Tomas’s eyes and the curtness in his stories when he arrived from that trip, because she was busy converting currencies for clients who fattened her commission. It was many weeks before she checked her e-mail, and received a letter from Cathy, Tomas’s officemate, who invested in her company, and eventually became her friend due to their extended lunches in cafes located in air-conditioned malls.

Miranda, I am sorry that it is me, who has to tell you this, Cathy wrote. But I don’t like to see you played for a fool, so it is best you know. I was at the ad-congress… She proceeded to relate details of the affair. Tomas and Anna. Holding hands on the shore. Dancing from bar to bar. Shared room. Boxer shorts returned in the office.

The sensation on Miranda’s skin receded, as the blood inside her heart departed into the veins of her mind. She didn’t cry. She simply lifted the handset of her phone and dialed Tomas’s number. “I’m going to be extremely busy in the next few weeks.” Her voice sounded calm, almost monotonous. “I have to write out many proposals and pay many bills. It wouldn’t be fair for us to continue; you simply don’t add up in my life.”

“What are you talking about?” She imagined the sweat dripping down his forehead. “We’re both busy but we’ve always managed.”

“I have made my decision,” she replied.

“What happened? Did I do something wrong?” he almost screamed.

She hung up.

He called her every hour for the next few days, but when she saw his name flash on her phone’s screen, she didn’t answer. He texted her messages, “Please Miranda let’s talk” or “I am sorry for whatever I did” or “I love you don’t give up on us”. But she never responded.

It was during this time that she constantly thought about other men. June, sitting a desk away from her, or Philip, her boss. She imagined entering a restaurant with any one of them, his arms around her, as she swallowed wine, and Tomas would be there, glaring at her, with a question mark in his eyes. She would throw her head back and laugh, and hope that her skin would glow like the sun, as she kissed June or Philip, with Tomas’s slanted eyes gazing at her from behind silver-rimmed glasses.

Adrian called her a few days after. “I remember you mentioned that you work in an investment house,” he started. “I have some extra funds and I was wondering if we could meet up for dinner or something to discuss bonds and treasury bills and stuff.” She tried to imagine his face but all she came up with was a blank ellipse. “I’m going to be very busy these next few weeks, but I could refer you to someone.”

He was silent for a moment. “I know this is a little eerie, but I want to see you.”

“Maybe some other time.” She hung up.

That same night, she dreamt about Adrian. He was alone, sitting at the edge of a pebble washed balustrade. It was nighttime, but she couldn’t see the moon. Instead, the clear sky overhead bore a trillion stars, and their light shed upon his face—high forehead, thin eyebrows, the lopsided grin, which produced a dimple on his cheek. And his eyes, dark and shimmering from tears that wanted to fall, so much like her own. She walked towards him and grasped his face between her small hands. Her fingers quivered as she allowed its tips to feel the cold skin of his cheeks and the ridge of his nose and the line between his smooth lips. She brought her eyes close to his and stared at the reflection of her long straight hair and firm lips.

She woke up and dialed Adrian’s number. “I dreamt about you.”

“And…?” he asked.

“I remembered our first conversation, the one about meeting strangers.”

“Would you like to meet up today?”


She drove on flyovers that didn’t look familiar, and through unsymmetrical streets lined with groceries that sold champoy and hopia. She searched for the restaurant’s name that she scrawled on a piece of paper. It became their regular meeting place in the months that followed. Several times she parked her car by a gutter, rolled down her window, and asked directions from a man who pushed a cart full of bottles, for most of the street signs in Ongpin had either peeled or fallen off. The man would point to a store sign written out in Chinese characters and mumbled “kariwa karan diletcho” and she would nod and pretend to understand.

Am I in the right place? The fluorescent lights glared at her from the restaurant’s tiled ceiling and she heard the endless chattering of high-pitched voices in a language she couldn’t comprehend. Her eyes searched for a face she wasn’t sure she remembered when a hand that waved at her from a round table caught her attention. What the hell am I doing here? She sat across him and opened her menu.

“What would you like to order?” Adrian asked.

She inhaled the mixed aroma of oyster sauce and something sweet she couldn’t identify. “I don’t know,” she replied as she gazed at the unfamiliar print.

“Why don’t we just go somewhere else?”

She closed her menu, sighed, and nodded.

Adrian drove her to a place where a man who sat inside a guardhouse handed him a set of keys with a room number engraved on it. He parked his car in a garage and she followed him up the narrow stairway.

He closed his eyes, brought his thin lips to hers, and she felt his breath on her upper lip. He gently pushed her to the bed, removed her blazer, and fumbled with the buttons of her blouse.

She grasped his hand. “It’s okay. I’ll do it,” she whispered.

She removed her clothes and folded them on the sidetable. He ran his tongue down her neck, between her breasts, on her navel, and around her inner thighs. His saliva felt cold but she wrapped her legs around his shoulders, arched her back and moaned. She pulled him up to her and he entered her and thrust to a rhythm that felt vaguely familiar and she moved her pelvis to his hips, and an unexpected heat exploded in her stomach so she opened her eyes to see where the strange sensation was coming from.

Adrian’s eyes remained closed as he continued to thrust and she stared at his shapeless nose and wondered if this was the same face she saw in her dream. She remembered the sky that bore a trillion stars and a conversation she had with Tomas, who enjoyed science fiction. “Each star contains a light of its own,” he said. “And it takes a special kind of person, one with an open heart and who understands the telepathic language, to discern the wisdom the stars convey.” Miranda wondered what constellation she would form if she drew a line to fill up the spaces in between the stars in her dream and pangs of pain entered her chest as she felt a sourness go up her throat. So she turned her face away from Adrian and listened to tricycles roar outside the window and hooves of horses pulling kalesas passing by and the mutter of high-pitched voices speaking a language she didn’t comprehend.

She didn’t understand why Adrian called her a few days after, and why she agreed to see him again, and why she drove through the unsymmetrical streets she never mastered. All she felt was the burning satisfaction in her gut, which had become an addiction, like the cigarettes she started smoking after breaking up with Tomas, to comfort her and adorn her surroundings with a romantic haze.

She realized that her photo album didn’t hold an image of Adrian, and none of them ever possessed the desire to bring a camera to their meetings.

Miranda’s phone rang and she licked the salty tears that landed on her lips.

“Would you like to meet up today?”

She shook her head and wept. “No.”

“You sound like you are crying.”

“I am,” she sobbed. “I don’t love you.”

“You don’t love anyone.”

“Yes, you are right.” She hung up and wiped the tears from her eyes.

Miranda returned to the first page of her album and skimmed through it until she found the picture she was searching for. It was a photo of a girl, swimming in the seas of Ilocos, with its dark sand and emerald waters that splashed against the waves of her hair. Her eyes were dark and bright as she smiled at the camera, and her arms were high in the air as she welcomed a world that brought her laughter and friendship.

“I’m sorry,” Miranda whispered to the girl.

~Sacha Calagopi (The Philippines)

Return to Passions: Poems and Stories about Love and Heartbreak by Young Asian Writers

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