Trains in Manila are not exactly romantic. Not only are they unromantic for me, they were also insignificant.
My commuting life has always been a choice between cabs or jeepneys, which can go either way depending on my mood. I like both. Inside cabs I feel safe, sometimes productive. Inside jeeps, I feel enthralled, as if every person who comes and goes offer a new story.
Trains I never cared for. I rarely got to take them anyway.
During my last month in Manila, however, I got to take more train rides. And as in all stories that need to be written, this one’s about a boy.
I didn’t make much of it at the time. They were just transits to me then, points connecting one story to another, a time and space where what was happening between us takes a pause and we’re just two passengers on the same train.
Since moving to London I’ve had to take a lot of train rides. Transits suddenly became relevant. Making the connections were more than just punctuations, they became words until they became sentences.
Like how this really handsome, tall guy stood inside an empty train for a 30-minute overground ride to West Croydon carrying his tiny baby in the sort of position when basketball players stand inside the paint like a post — standing still with their arms stretched down in front and hands clasped together. Maybe the baby would cry if his dad sits down; was he a first time father, where were they going, is he and the baby’s mother still in love?
Or this beautiful black woman I sat next to yesterday on the way to New Cross Gate with big chunky purple rope-like hair. I was just thinking about her this morning when I saw her outside the train station while walking to school. I was trying to remember whether her hair was purple or magenta —- and as I punched my ticket out there she was, standing so tall and gorgeous giving me the answer.
Or this eccentric old man outside Earl’s Court station. I was on the phone with a friend that I didn’t notice if he’d been speaking to me before he cut in front of where I was walking and said “You’re happy, you don’t care” and then just walked away.
My instinct had been to run after him to tell him that I was not in fact entirely happy and that I did care. I decided against it, but that lingered on my mind the whole day. What was it about being happy that he assumed I didn’t care?
Do people just radiate happiness as they walk, and does happiness automatically strips you off the ability to emphatize with people who were sad? Is there a psychological explanation behind happiness not intertwining with sorrow?
The more trains I took since moving to London the more that my short affair with Manila trains was highlighted.
In all the time that I had to squeeze myself into a cramped coach I never felt that I had the right to despise whoever it was who stepped on my foot, or pushed me to a corner, or hit my face with his elbows as he grabs onto the railings.
I have always felt that trains were the great equalizers of a society as polarized as the Philippines’s. In the end, you’re all just trying to get somewhere. And you would all rather be somewhere else at that moment.
Except that I didn’t want to be anywhere else. Our train rides, I remember now, had their own stories too. Of me holding on to his backpack as the coach wobbled and thinking that was the first time that I’ve truly felt I was not that alone.
Of having a little fight as we argued over his sister. “You shouldn’t encourage her like that,” he told me while looking out Cubao, referring to my conversation with his sister earlier that day about the men she’s met. This must be what it’s like to share your life with somebody, I thought, you gotta be careful with the details, as if respecting the fact that they’ve let you in that far.
Of standing face to face so close to each other that it took all of me to restrain myself from kissing him. And my god I wanted to, plenty of times.
So whenever I see couples kissing in trains here in London, I think of our cramped coaches back home and how even if he let me kiss him, we’ll never be able to pull if off with the same class as how Londoners do it. It just wouldn’t have worked as magically.
I started school two days ago, and slowly I’m feeling the effect of distance. I no longer have the convenience of waiting out during the day to wait for his free time. Now we’re both doing things, and trying to squeeze in as much conversation as we can in the pockets of moments we find in two separate lives that we now have to live.
This morning as I was pulling onto Kings Cross his messages suddenly stopped coming. He had to catch his own train. When he had gotten off his train, I was already underground and has lost signal, desperately wishing that by the time I reach Highbury and Islington to get the Overground, he would still have time to spare before he starts working.
Connecting trains became that significant, a matter of catching a few words from the only person who can make me happy just by saying hello.
I think of the old man in Earl’s Court who shrugged me off with a “you’re happy, you don’t care.” Can happiness be really that detached to sorrow? I don’t have answers to offer, except that someone who’s often consumed with loneliness can make a girl on the other side of the world happy beyond compare just by the thought of trains.
Loneliness is an old friend for me too. And sometimes I can see it creeping through a window, or blown by a whistling wind that seems to deliver a message of warning: I will come sooner than you’re ready.
So this morning as I contemplated on that on the train, I felt as though that just as trains were a thing of transit, the happiness I had been feeling might also be as fleeting. That loneliness might really come earlier.
But I think of him, and the trains that he gets on his own, whether he thinks about me while inside them or not, and I feel, with as much certainty as possible, that I’m going to be okay.