Hold the wheel and drive

I was actually in Cubao for a baptism. Rainy's troll of a nephew. While the priest was talking, he already had his mother's car keys in his hand, and he was attempting to - pretty much - burn it with the Paschal candle. Usual grown baby stuff, but between the godfather and the aunt, well, "troll of a nephew".

Apparently the baby's dad, Rainy's brother, asked her to invite me to their place for drinks. I didn't know about this until a couple of days later. Anyway, why don't I come around for drinks? By then I had already dropped her off at her place, and I was on my way home, and she was preparing to meet her friends, and in between she was rattling off a quietly pre-approved list of reasons why I can't stay long.

He wants to go home early.

I am such a killjoy.

He doesn't drink much.

Well, that is true, but once again, I am such a killjoy.

He lives far away. He doesn't want to be stuck in traffic.

I drove Rainy from Cubao to her place somewhere near Kamias. This was just before six in the evening, on a Saturday, so of course traffic would be terrible - not that I knew that up close. I don't really go to Cubao for two reasons. One, it's far from me. Two, the traffic is terrible. We managed to finish a five-track EP - and we played it halfway through the trip, after I made yet another wrong turn and found myself on the wrong side of P. Tuason, being salvaged by the fact that I did community service there and the place was still a wee bit familiar to me.

Thirty minutes later, I had dropped her off; the CD was back in its notebook-y case; and I braced myself for the drive back to the deep and dirty south.

Rainy and I have been together for twenty-seven months, and only lately have I been going to Quezon City. We go on dates in Makati, or Ortigas, usually. I always drop her off at a bus terminal. The first time I've been to her place, it was the troll of a nephew's first birthday, and I ended up with an asthma attack. This was last September. I've been back there three times since, all in the past month: once for a date along Maginhawa, once to drop her off after my mother's surprise birthday party, and once, this, after the baptism.

It is true that, the more you drive yourself to a certain place, the more confident you get. The place becomes familiar; you no longer miss a U-turn slot; you even make yourself a short cut or two. Sure, the drive may be long, but you've been through this before. No big deal. But there's still the dread of the things you can't control. What if a bus slams my wee little car and kills me? This is EDSA, after all. Do I need to say more?

The difference this time is, I'm not driving late at night. I'm driving at six in the evening. On a Saturday. I only had my mobile phone, plugged in to the car's audio system, tuned in to some radio station in Oregon, to keep me company. And my mother, too. "Buy your brother dinner," she said, as she and my dad chatted with their high school friends. There are some leftovers at home, sure, but he does not know how to operate the rice cooker. (But he can drive.) Sure, an errand. But good luck with the traffic.

It went smoothly until I hit Buendia, where vehicles inevitably creep to a halt. "Buendia to Tramo: heavy traffic," the LED display above me said, but it's useless at this point. I'm already in Buendia, and I'm already stuck.

"Isang paa lang gamitin mo," my dad would usually say when he'd watch me drive. I was new then, and I still didn't get the hang of just shuffling my feet from the accelerator to the brakes, instead lifting the whole thing, half-clumsily. It's so you'd feel comfortable, he says, and I agree, now that I've gotten the hang of it. I wish my driving instructors said as much, though, but then again, I was driving a manual shift then. I had three things to step on.

Those driving classes were fraught with stresses, considering who I am as a person, really. My first two hours was in an empty street in Las Piñas, and my instructor was a guy who wore aviator shades all throughout and acted like a drill sergeant who was being cool but seemed like a very angry man underneath. Or it was just my first day. I remember my second instructor more - I didn't have a fixed instructor - because we chatted about radio as I was stuck at Aguinaldo Highway, a quiet lesson in dealing with the traffic.

My last day of driving was a long one. My dad told the driving school to give me a long drive, just so I'd get used to, well, driving long. Five hours to round off my whole class, and me, driving a manual, from Las Piñas to Tagaytay and back. Only we still had time to kill, so I had to go through Aguinaldo Highway again, through the deeper crevices of Parañaque, and back to Las Piñas, the moment the sun went down.

By then I was a bit more confident in my driving, confident enough to go to third gear. But, hell, Tagaytay! Mountains! Zigzags! Okay, I was exaggerating the last two points, but still! This is a vacation destination! This is a place you go to when you want to escape Manila! (Only you can't, because Manila goes here so regularly it might as well be Manila.) And I'm driving there! As a noob! What if a bus slams your wee little car and kills us?

It was uneventful, now that I think of it. I only remember two things from it. I remember making a stopover at the Mahogany market: my driving instructor took the opportunity to buy some of that much-vaunted Tagaytay beef, before offering me a cigarette, not bothering to ask if I smoke in the first place.

I also remember the thrill of overtaking a vehicle for the first time. A tricycle.

Then again, it was uneventful because it was ultimately boring. By the third hour - and especially when I found out we can't go back yet because we'd have extra hours - I really just wanted to get it over with. I am a student, driving in circles. All this comes to your head now, plays around, and bores you to death. I really wanna go home now.

It's been forty-five minutes since I left my parking slot at Ali Mall, and I am now stuck at Ayala. I'm discovering some interesting songs, but at the same time, I am getting bored. And hungry. No buses will kill me at this rate, sure, but having to deal with your handbrake more then usual is. Can we just move? Nope. That's what you get for driving early on a Saturday night, Niko.

I got to SLEX after fifteen minutes or so, and I found myself stuck in traffic again. Traffic was heavy and barely moving, but it's still moving, an inch or so, so you still have to press down on the accelerator ever so slightly, else risk the ire of all the motorists behind you. And the stream began to buffer, so I plugged in another CD, First Aid Kit's third record. "My Silver Lining" plays and I begin to sing along.

"Master Pretender" plays next and I still sing along.

Before I know it, I have sung through the whole album, not that I harbored any delusions of sounding like the Söderberg sisters - not that I can split myself into two, for one, so nope, no enchanting vocal harmonies. But what if I was? What if I was with someone, and we were singing along to First Aid Kit, and butchering the blending with off notes and laughter? Man, that would be fun. I think I'm going crazy.

I was at the McDonald's drive through at fifteen past eight. Stay Gold had gone back to the start, and I was thankful I had a chance to stretch my right ankle. It hurts. It really hurts. It's been that way since Sucat, but no, we weren't exactly in a standstill.

"Two-piece Chicken McDo, extra rice," I say to the speaker. That's my brother's dinner. Just a little more, and I'll be home.

Earlier that week my dad was in Baguio. He was there for the weekend, leaving on Friday morning and returning on Sunday night. And then, suddenly, he had to return to Baguio, so he brought my mom, and they drove off on Tuesday morning, and returned on Wednesday afternoon. The drive, he says, is pretty good. Thanks to the SCTEX and the TPLEX, a drive from Balintawak to Baguio took merely two and a half hours. Sure, you have to pay roughly P500 for toll, and yes, dad was driving at around 120 kilometers per hour on the newer highways, but still, that's fast. And encouraging. Sure, there are the roads up to Baguio, but still, encouraging. I can drive to Baguio myself. I can drive Rainy to Baguio myself. She's never been to Baguio (but she's been to Ilocos) and she's always wanted to go to Baguio. We'll book a fancy hotel - my parents were at Camp John Hay - and just stay there, unless we decide to meet Dale over strawberries or something.

I tell my mother that thought, and she was quick to shoot me down. "Nakakapagod pa rin 'yun," she said. "Mahabang drive pa rin 'yun."

And then I drive two and a half hours from Cubao to Bacoor, and I agree with her. But then again, that's why I'm booking a fancy hotel in my daydreams. I'll need to rest my feet. I'll need to sleep. I'll still be on vacation. It'll have to be a fancy hotel.

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