These things, I later realized, do happen in real life.
There I was, in the front seat of a car whose owner is a family I have never met till under an hour earlier. We were going I-did-not-know-where, in search of an internet shop that served midnight customers. The father drove, the mother asked questions, the two kids stared at me while I told fragments of my life to complete strangers. What was I thinking? I wasn’t.
When the mother burst into the glass doors of the review center where I worked as a full-time tutor, I was typing an entry for my blog. Being the assigned closer for the day, I had to man the front desk until mall closing hours, exactly nine pm.
Besides the janitor who comes on the last hour of every workday, I was the only employee left. I had twenty minutes to waste. Rather than stare in space and pretend to be thinking of means to increase company productivity, I decided to pretend to be finishing urgent reports and appear to be a hardworking review center tutor to the passers-by who see through our glass walls. Not that many prospective clients drop by at this time.
She reminded me of Morticia Addams. Her wavy long hair, dark staring eyes and all-black outfit were in stark contrast to her powder-white face. I stopped typing and greeted her with the standard, “Yes, Ma’am, how may I help you?” coupled with a smile that had “At your service” stamped all over it.
“Anong pangalan mo?” she said as she glided, not walked, towards me.
It was an unexpected question. “Ronnie po,” I instinctively replied nonetheless, the Addams Family theme song playing in my head. Clients never ask your name first. They first ask all their questions, and after you give them all the answers (the ones for which you could get nailed in case something goes wrong), then they ask for your name (so they know whom to nail in case something does go wrong).
“Ronnie, pwede bang maki-internet?”
She must have seen my jaw drop in incredulity. Being a medical student, I am supposed to be trained in answering questions with a straight face, even the seemingly most outrageous ones. (My favorite, so far, is this: “Dok, bakit po tuwing tumutungo ako, may naamoy akong mabaho?”) Stupid questions do not exist in medicine.
Filipina Morticia’s question, in itself, was not stupid. It should have been a normal one, had it been it asked in an internet shop. She looked literate enough to have read our signage that, the last time I checked, still said tutorial and review. And we only had three computers in the office, one of which could not be seen from the outside.
I think I zoned out while thinking of the appropriate response; I did not notice her husband and their two daughters come inside.
“Sige na Ronnie,” she said in a sing-song voice, such that it sounded like “Seeee-ge na Row-neeee.”
“Po?” was all I could mutter.
“Babayaran ka naman namin e,” the father said, approaching the front desk.
“Ka-ching! Ka-ching!” rang my mental cash register. Hmmmmmm. “Para saan po ba?”
“Sa US embassy, kailangan lang talaga namin ito para sa Visa application namin bukas. Sayang naman kung hindi namin matatapos. Hindi kasi kami marunong mag-internet e.”
He removed sheets of paper from a brown envelope and pushed them to me. He had thinning hair parted to one side and he wore brown wire-rimmed glasses. Everything about him was brown; he was old.
“Babayaran na lang namin pati printing.”
Now if I were an employee with a damful of salary complaints, I would have taken the offer, no questions asked. I had my internet card I could use and the only thing I would feel guilty about was the printing. As of last payday, however, I was adequately compensated for my services. Also, the janitor was not yet finished cleaning up the center; he would overhear whatever deal I would make with “my clients,” a risk I was not willing to take.
“Sorry, pero hindi po talaga pwede e. Baka po mapagalitan ako ng boss ko.”
“Sandali lang naman ‘to Ronnie.” The sing-song voice was beginning to irritate me.
I looked at the time: ten to nine. “Patingin nga po,” I said, reaching for the printed sheets of paper with the intent of delaying the conversation, giving me the polite and necessary excuse of having to close the center and go home.
“Daddy, ibigay mo nga kay Ronnie yung password.”
Password? What password? To the US embassy website?
I looked at her. “Legal naman po ito ‘di ba?” I asked, swallowing the saliva that had accumulated in my mouth.
“Syempre legal!” they said at the same time. I flipped through the pages without actually reading the words.
“Pasensya na po, hindi ko kasi pwedeng gamitin itong computer sa office. Made-detect po kasi yun e. Mapapagalitan po talaga ako.”
“Talaga? Pag nag-internet ka dito, malalaman sa US embassy na in-access mo siya?”
I answered yes and gave my explanation while watching her eyes widen with every word. Then I knew she was telling the truth about not knowing how to use the internet. About the task she wanted me to do being legal, I had begun to doubt.
“Sorry po talaga. I-try niyo na lang po sa internet shop diyan sa baba. Kaya lang, magsasara na rin po sila e.” Five minutes to go.
And the janitor had to leave. I asked him to sign his logsheet and thanked him as he left. Was that a grin I saw? I wondered what he would do if he were in my place.
To say that it was a moral dilemma is to over-dramatize what I was thinking. Minus the janitor who might overhear our deal, plus the internet card I could use and the computer internet history I knew how to clear, I did not have qualms about making a little extra money from my employer’s resources. Besides, I could always overwork so I would become underpaid next cutoff. I care even less about possibly breaking the law. That possibility only happens to porn shop employees in movies.
The need to go home and eat home-cooked dinner, though, was a different matter. Forget my superego; I was worried about my id.
“Tara na, wala namang mangyayari sa atin dito.” The father slumped in one of the chairs in resignation. Meanwhile, the children, 11 and 10 if I remember correctly, started to explore my work environment. The mother fixed her gaze at me. When I try to recall how she looked at that moment, the begging image of Shrek 2’s Puss in Boots would always come to mind.
Then my mind shut down and my tongue took over:
“Kung gusto niyo po, pagkasara ko nitong review center, sasamahan ko kayong maghanap ng internet shop sa labas.”
It is funny how things shift to fast forward when you stop thinking. I no longer remember whether I closed the office before I really read the documents I was supposed to access, or the other way around. I knew the parents left their kids with me when they went to the restrooms, but I am not sure if I asked for all their names only when I got inside their car: a brown box-type Lancer.
Gaaaaaad. If my instincts were wrong, there was a strong possibility I would end up in the front page of Abante the next morning: “UP med student, tinadtad, patay!” I texted the car’s plate number to a friend, whose reply was a very helpful “Get out! You stupid fuck!” I texted my mother that I would go home late, and her reply was the text-wasteful three-character “Ok.”
You know how they say that there are only two types of people? (One of the million two-types-of-people!) Those who put their minds over their hearts and those who put their hearts over their minds. When I found myself sitting in the front seat of their car, while we were leaving the SM parking lot, I started calming myself by the belief that I was just being the latter.
Apart from EDSA, Ortigas and Shaw Boulevard, I knew no other road or street in the area. My lack of driving skills made such knowledge unnecessary. I could always find my way home anyway, just take me to the nearest MRT or LRT station.
“Alam niyo po ba kung saan may internet shop dito?” I asked the father.
“Basta, diyan lang, marami sigurado.” Vague. Tsk, tsk, ronibats. I tried memorizing every left and right turn the car took, but to no avail; I had easier time memorizing neuronal pathways.
To complicate matters further, my cellphone began flashing, “Attention: Battery Low!” I had wanted to charge my unit in the office that afternoon but I forgot my Ericsson charger at home. Wanting to save power in case the need for an emergency escape arose later, I pocketed my cellphone and focused on the road instead.
Big mistake. The mother switched from Morticia Addams to Kris Aquino mode. Perhaps thinking that I was “getting bored,” she flooded me with questions.
“Saan ka nag-aaral?” “Kailan ka ga-graduate?” “May balak ka bang mag-abroad?” And the inevitable “Anong specialization kukunin mo?”
The coming semester would mark my fourth year of answering such questions. Not that I am brushing off other people’s interest in the making of a doctor (who is I), but sometimes, I feel that other people ask these questions for the lack of something relevant to say, as if there were a covert rule requiring that they ask them. Which is crazy, because believe me, by the end of the first year, every medical student would feel like a tape recorder on infinite repeat-play when the most decent question somebody could ask him is his choice of specialization.
I answered every query nevertheless, wishing for the nth time that I owned a book entitled “Questions Medical Students Get Asked Most Often and How to Answer Them with Seemingly Genuine Interest.”
I was wary of volunteering too much information though, omitting details such as my exact dormitory address in Manila and my work schedule. It was, looking back, useless. If they indeed wanted to kill me, why not do it right there and then? I was, after all, inside their car. All they had to do was blindfold their kids or something. Maybe they weren’t even kids, but midgets eating pizza and disguising as kids!
The problem with being a creative writer is that you get more paranoid by the minute.
Eventually, the anxiety ebbed when the father stopped the car to ask a pedestrian for directions to the nearest internet shop. It was relief like no other: a mixture of “Sabi na nga ba, tama ako eh!” and “Haaaay salamat, magiging doktor pa rin ako.”
Five minutes later, I was encoding their personal information to a computer inside a house-turned-gaming center somewhere in Mandaluyong. It turned out they just wanted to access online Visa application forms and had to have the Adobe files printed for submission to the embassy the next day. The password Morticia mentioned? It was the form’s URL.
The question and answer continued. This time, I was the one prying for information. I asked about the couple’s Saudi work experience, their family’s upcoming trip and their pawnshop business. What I found interesting was that they could afford to send all their three kids to a posh Metro Manila school and yet not possess basic computer skills.
I finished typing a little before midnight. Before leaving the internet shop, I called home to say that I would arrive late, an understatement, and that I already ate, a downright lie.
The mother asked, “Ano Ronnie, magkano ibabayad namin sa iyo?”
In an instant, the sing-song voice became music to my ears.
Unfortunately, my brain would not start yet so my grumbling stomach usurped control, “Nakakahiya naman po. Maski pakainin niyo na lang po ako, ayos na.”
We found a Chowking outlet where the father took our orders and brought them to the car. I had siopao and tofu. The food stopped all conversation.
Since by then, the MRT was already non-operational, I requested that I be dropped off in the LRT station where FXs en route to Las Piñas waited for passengers. The father readily agreed although it meant straying from their route home.
At the LRT station, as I was about to alight from the car, the mother took my hand and gave me folded bills. I said, “Naku, ‘wag na po,” but she insisted that I take the money, so I did. Thank you and goodbye were exchanged, and I could not help but smile when I noticed that the father did not start the car until I safely got into an FX. The money, when I counted at home around one in the morning, amounted to 300 pesos.
Whether it was lack of an adventurous summer or plain stupidity that prompted me to help them, I had long stopped deciding. I think that at some point in our ordinary lives, chance provides us an opportunity to do something extraordinary for others. Some do not think. Some think a little. Some think too much. Medicine taught me the last one; I was, however, getting tired of it.
When I said yes to Daddy Brown, Mommy Morticia and the Kids-Who-Might-Be-Midgets-in-Disguise, my instincts told me I should not let the opportunity pass. In retrospect, helping them helped me realize, I have meaning.
If I had to be a “stupid fuck” to make a difference in other people’s lives, I would not hesitate. Because if they were my parents seeking help, I would want a person stupid enough to help them.
At what cost? Well, that was how I became “the guy you could get inside your car for 300 pesos, siopao and tofu” in the workplace.