”Cold Christmases” was first published in January 2009 by Playboy Philippines. The story was edited and slightly adjusted to suit the times. Time flies so fast. Happy Holidays, everyone!
It was nearly 2 AM when Gindo left his workstation at a call center in Makati.
He had been answering a nearly endless stream of calls from foreign nationals, receiving abuse, the occasional praise and questioning voices that begged to ask, ‘where are you from?’ and ‘why are you answering my call, anyway?’
An irate Australian national once screamed at him: “I wanted to talk to someone from fucking Boston!” and slammed the receiver so hard that it hurt Gindo’s ear.
But it was all over now. Gindo breathed a sigh of relief that another round had finished, and well, he was still alive. While walking quietly toward the exit, Gindo’s hands were searching his pockets for loose change. He wanted to buy a caffeinated drink before he hailed a cab. From experience, Gindo knew that at this hour, taxis became hiding places for muggers. He was wary of a potential mugging but had no choice. Either he hailed a cab or he was sleeping on the sidewalk tonight.
The avenue where his office building was located was littered with parked cars; a few of them with the ignition turned on. One produced a faint squeaking sound that Gindo tried to ignore.
The cold air woke him up completely. He had forgotten all about his caffeine fix that he was supposed to get from the vending machine in the lobby. He made a half a turn to look at the night guard. The guard stared at him, seemingly thinking, “what the hell do you want?” Gindo looked at the ground once and turned his eyes toward the front door. It was 2:10 AM. Caffeine or no?
Unlike his other office-mates, Gindo had no circle of friends to at least watch his back when he walked the dark avenue at two in the morning. Gindo has always been a loner. He preferred his own company.
He decided to forego the caffeine fix from the vending machine in his office building. He also decided, against all good sense, to walk to the end of the avenue. In the no man’s land between midnight and the first rays of morning, Gindo watched his beloved Makati slumber.
At the back of his mind, Gindo knew that broken routines were bad omens.
When his mother one day failed to cook dinner for their large family, Gindo knew that something was amiss. A few days later, his mother left them for a strange man. Gindo’s father, devastated, started drinking heavily and soon abandoned them, too. Gindo and his siblings were at the mercy of the local barangay office and later on, the DSWD, after they were abandoned by both parents.
While walking toward the end of the avenue, Gindo realized, as he breathed the chilly air, that he was trying to remember Christmases. What were his Christmases like?
As the third child in a family of seven, Gindo had mixed feelings about Christmas. Hunger was often part of his infrequent recollections – and fear. The fear, which manifested itself as a faint stab to his gut, was something he never really understood.
Fear of what?
Gindo crossed the street and headed for a source of light, a 24-hour convenience store that advertised cooked food and brain-freezing slush. He opened the glass door of the convenience store and was greeted by the tinkling of bells, warm greetings, and shelves upon shelves of the day’s wasteful commodities.
Gindo averted his eyes from the shelves and looked for “real food.” His gut felt hollowed out. He’d not eaten his lunch. Too much work. He was also too absorbed in the memo regarding the major employee evaluation the coming week. The manager did not look kindly upon employees who never mingled, much less participated in any of the proactive team building activities.
Gindo passed a small magazine rack and scanned the titles. His eyes lingered on the curves of the beautiful women who smiled and paused while gyrating to invisible spectators. He looked at the eyes of a particularly beautiful woman and went back a decade, as he looked at the eyes of his own mother as she was crying from pain.
“Your father is going to leave us.” His mother was sobbing, nursing a broken lip that leaked blood on coarse piece of flour sack. Father on the other hand, was drumming up a storm in the adjacent room. “You take all my money, you leave nothing for me! And you think I’ll stay!” His father worked at a company that dyed textiles imported from India. He earns a little over 200 pesos a day and has been feeding a growing family for more than a decade. He felt miserable. The whole family was miserable.
Misery was Gindo’s middle name.
As a child, Gindo often woke to the sobbing of younger siblings. They felt hunger pains even as they were drowned by the emptiness of sleep. Hunger was painful, and it took a toll on the mind. In the morning, the youngest would approach any older sibling to ask for food. Gindo would often try to get some. A piece of bread, stale rice… Anything for his siblings. Stealing was not entirely out of the question.
Strife and lack defined his childhood. Sometimes the hunger would be so intense that he felt light-headed. Other children told him that their brains are slowly shrinking and are being replaced by air. Gindo believed this, as everything collapsed into numbness after a while. No more pain, no more hunger. But he could barely remember his full name or answer his mother when she called. He was on a cloud… Not on cloud nine, but close.
Now Gindo is chewing on a piece of siopao. He was sitting near the entrance, watching as muted cars cruised the darkened road. The city was never pleasant for him, especially at this hour. Mega Manila, as the radios parroted, skillfully hid its dangers from plain view. But within its labyrinths are its serrated claws that preyed blindly on the weak and the innocent.
Where others saw only the beautiful, cosmetic facets of this tiny region of smoke belching cities, Gindo saw something else. He could see in the faces of the people around him the same kind of misery and strife that he had worked so hard to escape back in the province. He saw unrelenting hunger seated in front of extravagant restaurants.
Retching hunger sat in front of bright neon lights, crying and tearing out hairs from scabby scalps.
“Holiday surprise, sir! Holiday surprise, ma’am!” The words brought him back to the 24-hour convenience store. A frail girl, possibly younger than him, greeted a couple that has just walked in.
Gindo had had enough. He left his siopao and walked out the door, trying to block out the promotional chatter of the frail girl who hastily offered him a cup of coffee (plus one free!) as he hurried out.
An hour had already passed. By now he was supposed to be home already, trying to beat off the insomnia that plagued persons like him. Graveyard shift individuals who stay up at night to receive calls from people who had just eaten breakfast somewhere else in the world are chronically sleepless. Gindo coughed, and zipped his jacket to his neck. There were no taxi cabs passing by. It seems that even the trusty cabbies of Makati had slept the night away.
Gindo decided to walk back to his office building to sit, think, dream of payday and his officemate named Lilla, who had the most soothing voice and the smartest head among the call center agents in his team. But Lilla did not even know him by name nor did Lilla care about his existence.
It took Gindo ten minutes to get back to the office building. This time, the security guard was not at his station. Gindo sat down and tried to figure out how he would get home.
Why were there no taxi cabs? Gindo looked around and tried to make sense of what was happening. He was alone, painfully alone. The silence was deafening. The concrete jungle around him lent no warmth and stared him down ominously as if asking – what the fuck are you looking at?
What time was it? 3 AM. He started pressing the buttons of his cellphone. Inbox – EMPTY. Sent Messages – EMPTY. Was there something that he had missed? Was everybody supposed to be in some party tonight, and he was left out, again?
Gindo forgot all about Lilla. Pent up feelings of rage and desperation started to overwhelm him. He remembered the job fair at the university, where he experienced the humiliation of being offered a job that he could have done even before he began his struggle at the university.
The toothy smile of the agent at the job fair assured him that “you don’t need to have a degree to be a story teller for us. Yes sir, our company promises promotion in less than five years, too!” He was being offered ten thousand pesos to be a company clown. For someone who had been accustomed to hunger pains, the sound of the amount tempted him. But Gindo was too idealistic then. He wanted something more.
Eventually, Gindo’s idealism gave out to desperation. He was running out of money and he had been behind his payments at the boarding house. It was getting harder and harder to subsist with the meager stipend he was receiving from some politician’s scholarship. Eventually he applied for a position at the call center.
Light hit the pavement and Gindo looked up, hopeful that he would see an empty taxi cab. Instead, a black car passed and rounded a bend smoothly. It was nearly 4 AM. Soon, the day’s commuters would once against spill into Makati, flooding the emptiness with human bodies desperate to tie themselves down to computer terminals and office desks. Mobility for paid immobility.
A man was smoking nearby and had been looking intently at Gindo for a quarter of an hour. He assessed Gindo, and looked at how fancy the call center building’s entrance was. He moved in quickly, dragging Gindo away from the light of the building’s taxi bay.
Gindo felt the wind knocked out of him as the other man punched and dragged him from his seat. A knife had then been pressed into his right kidney as the man spoke in a low voice. “Give me your money, your cell phone and your watch. Motherfucker, I will kill you if you shout.”
The call center agent tried to reason with the man.
“Sir, I’m just a student, I have nothing, this all I have, please sir-“
“Shut up. Shut up! Give me your cellphone!”
The man slammed Gindo onto the wall and tried ripping his watch off. The metal timepiece flew as the watch’s bracelet was ripped from Gindo’s wrist. The knife was already off Gindo’s kidney. Gindo looked at the man’s face and gasped. The man was not planning to spare him. The man’s eyes told him that he was out to kill.
“Useless pig!” The man stabbed Gindo in the gut and twisted the switch-knife until Gindo felt it dig deep into his stomach. The pain was searing at first, but as the man continued to stab him, the pain went away.
Little by little, Gindo’s senses faded. He did not feel when his head hit the pavement. He no longer heard the wheezing and swearing of the mugger as he took Gindo’s possessions.
The road looked strange form the level of the concrete pavement. Eventually, Gindo lost sight of it, too. The dark blood from his gut flowed freely. Mercurial red, his blood matched the Yuletide banners of a nearby mall.
It was the 25th of December, another cold Christmas for Gindo.