From the Collection of Short Stories, titled Love Is All Around. (Copyright)
Love Is All Around
Abel alighted from the passenger jeep that brought him to his destination from the docks. His first time to visit the island of Mangoes was totally refreshing. He received the taste of the people’s hospitality through their melodious way of talking when he asked for directions.
He stood in front of the non-existent gate of the compound, observing the activities of the residents, who he was told were close relatives down to the last person. In essence, he would stood out a complete stranger even though he was to be welcomed as a visitor.
With two sacks of dried anchovies beside his legs, he was spotted by Rey, who was the son of Abel’s fisherman friend back home. Abel was there specifically to coax the son to return from self-exile in Guimaras. Selling the dried fish was only secondary to his task.
The festive mood began after he was introduced to those who gathered around. They seemed to notice him as stranger than what he actually looked, with his heavily-accented Ilonggo spoken like a broken record, him being a Tagalog by birth. Just imagine an English speaker talking as an American Indian with little knowledge of the language. That’s how he sounded to them.
When he announced that half the contents of one sack was to be given away as their present, the polite and hospitable crowd rejoiced like early Christmas came in September. Each one fetched their respective plastic bags and grabbed with their bare hands the goods.
In the evening there was a gathering in the smallest of the houses. Abel was somewhat perplexed why they chose it since they barely fit inside. As derelict it might looked, he was told that it was the most favorite hang-out site of the younger generation in the clan.
Empty bottles of local whisky littered the roots of a jack fruit tree after the get-together. It was fortunate there was a long power outage lest he would had been required to join the karaoke singing. He was more than afraid to display his antics since alcohol and singing had been a bad combination for him in the past.
He could not sleep because of the alien bed. He had this dislike of sleeping in other people’s houses because of this weird uneasiness. Besides that, his mission was half accomplished since Rey neither agreed or disagreed of going home.
Rey’s lifestyle was his parents’ concern because he was too engaged in drinking. His almost vagabond life, while working in the provincial capital during the day and heavy drinking at night, took quite a toll on his body: he looked like a skeleton in clothes. If he looked healthier, Abel would not insist getting Rey home.
The next day he was awakened by a commotion. It was too early for people to move around. Or was it?
“Good morning,” greeted his elderly host, as he straggled out of the guest room. He cleared his eyes and adjusted them to see clearly what was going on.
Abel looked fascinated upon seeing the trouble.
The giant of a kettle was removed over and out of the fire stove as hands took it for its boiling water. It was the first time in his life to see newly-risen people holding mugs as if their line looked like a queue inside a prison’s mess hall. The procession was orderly though.
Rey, who was out of he line, holding his own mug, laughed as he noticed Abel looking for his slippers at the door.
“Just wear anything that fits,”Rey suggested.
‘Have you seen them?” Abel asked, perplexed how his footwear got lost.
“I saw them at that house,” Rey pointed to the site which was three houses down.
“Can we talk?”Abel asked as he wore what could have been a woman’s pair of slippers. He invited Rey to sit under the tall tamarind tree while they drank their black coffee.
Rey knew why Abel was there. He tried real hard to avoid the topic since yesterday when Abel arrived.
“This is my home now,” Rey confessed. There was sincerity and resolve in his voice.
“Why not take a vacation?” Abel asked, looking closely for any hint of Rey’s approval to his offer.
“I can’t,” Rey curtly replied.
They observed the arrival of young teen-aged girls with pails full of washed clothes. They were about to hang them on the clotheslines that crisscrossed the open space in the middle of the compound.
Abel smiled at them while they soothingly egged their Uncle Rey to help them.
“Nieces,” Rey explained, lest Abel misunderstood the somewhat romantic allusion of their actions.
Another beautiful girl passed near them. She smiled lovingly.
“You always wear my T-shirt,” Rey commented while she stopped momentarily to reply.
“I’ll wash it,’ she laughed, adjusting the hem of the shirt which looked very loose on her. “Uncle, do you have some change?”
“For what?” Rey appeared irritated but the Ilongo dialect was still melodious even if spoken in an angry tone
“You know, personal stuff.” she winked, leaving Rey no option but to shell out a few coins from his jeans’ pocket.
Observing the exchange, Abel saw the humor though he was afraid to jest if they also interchanged wearing underwear. It was very inappropriate even to suggest, he thought.
“I love them,” Rey claimed. “They are so innocent and helpless. Part of everything I earn goes to their personal needs like shampoo, soap and you know what.” He would not mention the item they used once every month.
“You can explain to your parents about that.” Abel insisted, knowing fully well by then that Rey’s decision would be difficult to sway.
For the next half hour, Rey related his experiences as if Abel was his confessor. Abel felt happy for Rey’s decision to go away and live his life the way he wanted. But at the same time Abel was sad that Rey would not give in to his parents’ wishes.
During their talk, Abel could discern that this place hosted a one whole big family, where one could move freely and be loved like all the rest. This was the genuine reason Rey wanted to stay: he belonged.
“Please tell Pa and Ma that I’ll probably visit them next year.”
Abel nodded, promising Rey that his message would be relayed accordingly.
“Excuse me,” a tall teenager, possibly a nephew, approached them. “Grandma said it is time for breakfast.”
“Okay, we’ll be going in a minute.” Rey nodded. “Thanks.”
Abel noticed the boy’s feet. So did Rey.
Curious why they stared at his feet, the boy immediately looked down.
“Are they your slippers?” Rey inquired.
The boy felt embarrassed and without ado returned Abel’s slippers. In turn, the boy took what Abel wore and turned away before departing with a shy smile.
“You’ll get accustomed to our ways in a few days,” Rey laughed heartily.
God help me what they would be exchanging next, Abel sighed.