I've learned that there's a better chance of you seeing the stars when you're outside Shalla's home than when you're outside mine. I realized this when I was holding her nephew - the two-year-old boy - outside, and he kept on looking up.
"Alam mo ba," I said, knowing very well that he will not understand a single word I'm saying, "'yang mga stars na 'yan, hindi 'yan 'yung hitsura nila ngayon?"
I must have been remembering something I saw from Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey, the remake with Neil deGrasse Tyson. It was the bit about how the light from the stars take a long time to reach earth, thus the concept of light-years: the light of a star seven light-years away would take, well, seven years to reach us, by which time the star may have grown, or changed, or exploded. Maybe I am making it up, but I can hear Neil talk about how looking at the night sky is like travelling through time, because what you're seeing is the universe from back then, thanks to the vagaries of space and time.
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In times like these, when you can't really move around, you're much better off travelling in your head. I realized this when I was home for the weekend, and I found myself, my sister and Shalla in a pretty boisterous conversation about our trip to Seoul. The beats were familiar - it started with how Shalla and I chose not to go to the demilitarized zone and instead make our way through Gangnam, and it led to how we experienced our first snow fall while actually exposed to it, rather than while in a bus returning to the capital - and there were several detours along the way, from the first time we tried hotteok in Insadong (at half the cost of the ones found on Nami Island) to the assemble-your-own-ssam restaurant we had dinner in.
That led us to a story somewhere in between all those. We skipped the DMZ in part because we were going to meet one of Shalla's distant relatives, who happens to live in Seoul. We took a train from Apgujeongrodeo and headed to Nowon - a pretty long train ride, from one of the glitziest parts of the city to a relatively far-flung residential district. I think there were ten stations (and one transfer) in between, and we had to cross the Han river.
Before the train crossed the river, this tall, chiseled guy got on board the train. Shalla thought he looked familiar. Could he be a K-pop idol? There was no way for us to know, as he was wearing a mask. I would also imagine he wouldn't be out and about by himself, considering it was the final week of the year, which meant the major television networks would have yearend concerts, and they'd be pretty busy. We assumed he's an ulzzang - roughly, someone who's really good-looking - and perhaps a model.
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Over the weekend, after ninety-nine days, I finally went home.
Only for the weekend, though. Shalla's still working from home, so I'm still staying here at the flat to make sure things run a bit more smoothly.
It's not that I don't want to go home. I miss being home. It's something I wouldn't admit, at least out loud, but I realize this when I'm on video chats with my folks and I notice my speaking getting more animated. Not that I'm reserved when I'm with my girlfriend; we're a different kind of animated, especially when the timing is right.
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The past few months have been isolating, indeed. Sure, you can still talk to people, now more so than ever thanks to technology, but there's something about being cooped up in the same place day in, day out - and knowing everybody else is doing the same thing, especially when you look out the window and see nothing where everything used to be - that reinforces the feeling. You're alone, from here on out, or at least at this point in time.
I say this as if it's new to me, but, well, it isn't. Not to paint myself as an eternal outcast, but I've always just been on the periphery, never really fully accepted into a group. Back in college we called ourselves the "drifters", the people who would never be considered part of either of the two big cliques in the block. (Shoutout to Derek who came up the term, as far as I can remember.) Now, sure, cliques don't really matter as your universe is expanded considerably - unless, of course, you kept your friends, in which case, I will forever be jealous of you - but the feeling, that you never really are part of something, doesn't go away that easily. I may be in a relationship and have a pretty fulfilling (if not as well-paid as most of you) job, but I still don't feel like I belong anywhere. Just a utility player, nothing more. Still, I am quite foolish to try to belong to something anyway, as seven years of writing a music blog proves.
I was reminded of this last week, when I tweeted something debunking a supposed leak showing that Manila will be brought back to the strictest of lockdowns. Not that I planned for it to be seen by anyone; I've long conceded that nobody will. Over the weekend it got more retweets than I usually get, though, and most strikingly, none of them came from people that I know. Like, the people I do know skipped over what I had to say. And yes, it's most likely because I have made it that way, or so you say.
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I can count with my fingers the number of times Shalla left the house since the quarantines began. One time, when I asked her to help me bring up an unusually heavy grocery bag. Two times, when she had to get deliveries downstairs. One time, when, in a complex sequence of events, we had to both go down 24 floors through the stairs to get donuts and coffee, because I had to go to the laundry and the electricity was erratic.
For most of the past three months I was the one with the quarantine pass, so it was up to me to run the errands: grocery runs, bank runs, cravings-in-the-middle-of-the-afternoon runs. This was still the case when Manila loosened its restrictions, partly because of force of habit, and partly because it's really unclear if two people who know each other can go to the same place together. The government really has a communication problem when it comes to making us stay at home - apart from "it's your fault if you get sick, really" - so it was really up to all of us to figure it out. In many cases, it meant only one person can go out. But I still saw couples go to the grocery together at the height of the restrictions. I guess they felt different rules applied to them.
Shalla joked that she's become an agoraphobe. Again, I get it. The impression you can get is that the virus is waiting outside, and it will pounce on you as soon as it gets the chance. It's been three months and I, a guy who's been outside pretty much every week, hasn't had any symptoms. Thankfully. But then I end up think I might be one of those asymptomatic folk who unknowingly spread the virus, and considering it's only Shalla and I in this flat, well...
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