"Bigay tayo ng gift?" she asked me in a separate chat window.
"Any ideas?" I answered. "I can go to Makati early tomorrow and buy something. I just need direction."
"Common na kasi ang lingerie."
"Huwag lingerie! Hindi ako marunong noon!"
"Do you know the store, Tickles? Maraming potential gifts doon."
"Yeah. Greenbelt 1, correct?"
Since I moved to the corporate world I've had difficulty writing essays about experiences. It's hard writing about people who would otherwise not want their travails - even if it isn't humiliating - published online. Yeah, sure, there's this thing about consent, but there's something uncomfortable about prospective employers looking up your name online and seeing whatever you have been up to. "Oh, he was on the beach. I won't hire him."
This time, though, I am making an exception.
I met Iris at one of those networking events I had to go to. The German Chamber, in this case. I worked for a German company; she worked for a headhunting firm.
When you go to a certain organization's events for an extended period of time, you end up feeling comfortable. You see the same people and, even if they're strangers who converse mostly in German, you feel comfortable. Familiar, perhaps, is the better term, but you take what you get.
Iris, however, is, one, a Filipino like me, and two, someone roughly my age. As always, I am the older one; I think she's four years younger. But we both came from La Salle, so there's something. Our times in university never overlapped - I'm a 105 who graduated in 2008; she's a 109 - so there's already some sort of gulf to overcome, but the conversation was easier.
Networking events thrive on business cards. It's some sort of currency, although one that does not have much bearing: if you find yourself out of cards, you only endure a split-second of embarrassment, nothing more. Me, I liked exchanging cards. It told me that I met people and that I did not just go to those events to eat, although I was never the kind of guy who'd email everyone after an event to tell them about where I work - it doesn't always apply. Iris, however, had to get a certain number of cards per event, and new ones at that.
Suffice it to say I'm happy to be one of those cards.
We ended up going around the event venue together. It wasn't a big venue, but we've seen most of the people already. I'm not sure now if she ever hit the quota, but I remember both of us leaving the venue together, riding the same bus home. She went down a condominium complex nearby, while I went down twenty minutes later at Ayala Center. My trip home was much longer.
The thing with networking events is, you really don't tend to remember everybody. Maybe you'll see them again, but you don't say hello and resume the conversation. This is a lot of small talk with some ulterior motives, or a quota to fill.
I met Iris again a year later, at another event organized (sort of) by the chamber. I actually forgot her name, but I remembered the face. But the bus ride must have worked wonders. We fell back to our old routine, if you could call it that, and acted as a tag team.
"Napansin ko, you're not good with initiating the conversation," she said. "Pero magaling kang mag-continue."
So it was set. She would start the conversation, and I would keep it going. There were, at least, new faces, and there was more than small talk. By then she was dating this Romanian guy, and we stumbled upon a group who were also dating foreigners. So that was an extended conversation, although my only claim to being part of it is having a girlfriend who is half-Taiwanese, but spent her entire life here. I guess that counts in a tangential way. I tried making it count in a tangential way, but then, I'm always awkward.
The German Chamber is filled with Lasallians. It looks like a natural stop for those taking up European studies, a major that I should have at least considered taking. One of those is Kat, who I have talked to a bunch of time, because she handles membership and I represent a member. Turns out she and Iris are both 109s - for non-Lasallians, this means they were freshmen, or frosh, in 2009; that makes me a frosh in 2005, but then you read this blog frequently, don't you? - and they had a common friend. Or, well, I think one's ex is another's blockmate. At least that's something I could more easily find common points on - the school, not the relationships - so I could easily ride that awkward silence.
We ended up being some sort of three-way tag team, although Kat could not really linger with us as she was technically at work. She'd show up in between Iris and I getting inside cars - we were at a Volkswagen showroom; they were launching the new Passat. That's why we call ourselves the Passat Trio. Well, it's a name I thought up, because, really, what else can we call ourselves? Three Lasallians who met up at a showroom?
I brought a car that night - not a Volkswagen - so I drove Iris to her place. It wasn't against the way, and the whole "you accompanied me last time; I'll accompany you this time" thing felt just right.
"What to buy..." I said in the chat window.
"Saan ka na?" she answered.
I was already at Tickles. I might have gone around the store - well, it's a stall - once or twice. I hate doing that. I look suspicious to the personnel. But then, I haven't a choice. The place is filled with stuff, and I wanted to make sure I had all bases covered.
"Do I go for a default plushie/pillow hybrid? I want something she can somewhat use."
"Hindi niya 'yan madadala 'pag unan! Naisip ko apron na may witty statement."
"Sana meron. So far it's too big or too small."
"Nasa Tickles ka?"
A couple more spins and I find the apron she was referring for.
"I saw the aprons. They're a bit hidden."
"Sa Greenbelt 5, sa pinakababa, merong craft store."
"Teka, I'm looking at National for an additional something. But good call."
I have always said that it's harder to make friends when you're out of college. Well, it's already hard when you're in college - by then you all come in with friends and you have to work extra hard to prove you're worth their attention and effort. Or maybe it's just me being cynical.
I never expected much this time, but I gave it a name - that's when you invest a little too much and set yourself up for failure. For months it was just a group chat on Facebook. Iris and I moved jobs, while Kat got promoted, or something. We tried occasionally to meet for dinner, but it got pushed and pushed, as these things tend to do.
It was nine months after the "christening", so to speak, before we could meet. It was one night in July. I, as expected, arrived first, even if I was farther from Greenbelt than the two girls. (There's also this side of me who tries to be punctual.) We ended up having crepes because we did not think this whole thing through - but, of course, the whole point was catching up, something that thankfully still has pull in this world of constant updating online.
Iris and Kat have definitely been talking online, but thank heavens I did not feel like the odd one out. It may be because I remember details from old conversations, something Iris has always pounced on. However, to be honest with you, I don't remember much of that first meet-up outside networking nights, but the conversations in those three hours felt... I don't know, and I'm definite I'm sounding pathetic here, but it sounded refreshing to me. You know those things kids call "real talk"? Something like that, but more adult, less show-off-y - just three people on the verge of, or in the middle of, a quarterlife crisis, sounding off each other. Perhaps too noisily, though, in an otherwise quiet crepe shop. That's on me.
We ended up talking about foreign languages, with Kat studying German (inevitably) and Iris finding herself having to learn Romanian, especially as she's spending Christmas there with her boyfriend's family - a test run of sorts. I remember suggesting she listen to Romanian radio; although I never really picked up the language in my many years of jumping around German, French and whatever else strikes my fancy, I found that it helps you understand how their conversations go, considering the nuances in delivery and tone. Kat said she shifted her phone's language to German for a while, so Iris went and shifted hers to Romanian.
We all agreed to do it for a month. Well, I didn't, because what else do I shift to?
The check-ups all happened online. Suddenly, we were stuck behind chat windows again. It gets really busy, after all. Kat went to Europe, getting lost in Paris or something. Iris, of course, went to Bucharest for a few months. I... stayed here, unable to imagine a time when I could save enough money to go to London, or maybe just Berlin. It was up to me to goad the girls for presents. Kat promised a fallen leaf, orange with autumn; Iris promised snow.
It's this accidental multiculturalism that led to some amusing exchanges on the chat window.
"Alles Gute zum Geburstag, Kat!" I go. "Sana tama."
"Vielen Dank, Niko!" Kat answered.
"La multi ani, Niko!" Iris pitched in.
"Birthday mo ba, Niko?" Kat suddenly asked.
"Hindi," I answered.
Iris figured it all out that afternoon.
"Kakaloka, Kat," she said.
"Bes, sabi mo kasi 'Niko'!"
"Fuck, akala ko happy birthday! Okay, I redeem myself. Iti multumesc mult, Niko. Ayan, tama na 'yan."
"Besh. 'Yung una mong sinabi 'happy birthday', ano? 'Yung pangalawa is 'thank you'? Ako 'yung may birthday!"
Iris blamed it on being stuck in Cebu, unable to get a flight back to Manila.
The next time we met was eleven months later, just this May. We had to prod each other many times, but schedules, you know, so hard to align.
Different restaurant this time, something fancier (and inevitably more expensive for us), but once again, I was the one who got there first. Halfway through the conversation, we all figured out our days are numbered.
"I'm flying to Romania for good," Iris said.
"Kailan?" Kat asked.
There you go. A deadline. If anything is going to compel us to meet more often than once a year, it would be one's imminent departure. But first, we had to talk about other things, the details of which, again, I can no longer quote verbatim, or even paraphrase. Let's just say it involves Iris missing Taiwan-style milk tea when she was in Romania. Oh, also, the word "compartmentalize".
I could not find anything suitable at the National Bookstore branch near Tickles. I was thinking of a cookbook, since we're getting an apron. Does Iris cook? I'm not sure. I should remember this; she always called me "Memo Plus Gold".
I swallowed my pride and went to the Typo branch a few floors up. I thought it would be nice to give a notebook instead. An apron leaves no space for a handwritten note, and knowing my love for how handwritten notes say more than typewritten ones, I thought Kat and I should send her a piece of our... our penmanship, I guess? Some more words of encouragement before she attempts to introduce Bucharest to Taiwan-style milk tea?
Nope, the notebooks are too expensive. This store is too hipster. I just got one at that craft store Kat mentioned.
"I'm getting an apron and a notebook," I said in the chat window. "For recipes."
"Milk tea recipes!" Kat replied.
"I was hoping we meet first before we meet Iris. Kunwari may telecon akong biglaan and I'm sequestered in a coffee shop. So we can sign the notebook."
"Sige, sige! Mga 20 to 30 minutes with traffic na."
It took her an hour, which meant we both had to deftly keep Iris waiting at her office - she just had to walk. But the bigger horror story was realizing I did not get her a notebook, but a planner, one that covered a whole month no matter what month it is. Ah, well, maybe she could do a milk tea recipe a day for a month. Thirty varieties is good enough.
We ended up meeting at the crepe shop, like the first time. We left it up to Iris because it's her send-off, but apparently she was hoping for peri-peri chicken. There were terrible amounts of miscommunication in the lead-up to the finale. For instance, to keep up the ruse I waited outside the restaurant, only for Kat to unknowingly come in by herself. I don't know. I guess we were overthinking it. But the pay-off was pretty good, suffice it to say - and so was the conversation, details of which, again, I will not repeat here, because they're ours, really.
"Kailangan talaga ng deadline para magtuloy, 'no?" Kat said in the middle of dinner.
"Kaya nga, eh," I said. "Final deadline."
Iris was offering me the rest of her crepe. My reputation for finishing leftovers still carry over to here, really? But, fine, it was a good crepe. Savory, with shrimp. It wasn't much, but I was concerned about my half-arsed attempt at a diet.
It's not that she wasn't full. We shared a dessert crepe, the three of us, and then, pondering whether we should got for one celebratory beer each - we're adults, after all - we ended up getting French fries. Iris picked that.
In the end, it was me and Iris. Kat was parked in a different direction, so she said goodbye first. We both had public transport to take - she no longer had that flat in Makati, so she was taking one of those vans to Antipolo. Now she has the longer commute.
We parted ways just outside the mall. I was going to cross the street. I don't remember the feeling, really. It's not sadness, not entirely. As I gave her one of my awkward hugs - I don't think I have given her one before; we all did those cheek kisses the Germans often do, one on the left, then one on the right - I wondered about the finality of all this. The next meet-up, perhaps in a year, will see me and Kat in some coffee shop, perhaps, one with steady wifi? And Iris on Skype, somewhere in Romania, papers settled, job fulfilled, marriage contract signed, ring on her finger? Maybe she'll show off her cooking. Maybe she'll have milk tea. Maybe we'll have milk tea with her. It will work, but will it ever be the same?
It's going to be awkward again, I thought, as I crossed the road to the shuttle terminal. But it was fun. It was quite fun.
And then I remembered Iris saying she will invite Kat and I to her wedding - a church one, we assume, one with more pomp and circumstance. It might be my first time in Europe, and it might be in Romania, a country whose recent history was pretty violent - damn the timing of my YouTube sidebar adventures. Will I have saved up enough for that?
To get to Bucharest from Manila, you fly to Abu Dhabi, then to Rome, then, finally, to Bucharest. It's a trip Kat and I might have to do soon. It's a trip Iris will do tomorrow.