I don’t remember crying when Paul Baümer died.
To be fair, it’s been a few years since I last read the book. I look around from my place on the bench before I wipe a tear from my eye. With a few visitors along Manila Bay today, it seems that half the city must have evacuated at this point. I sigh. What’s the point in leaving when you’re vulnerable elsewhere?
I close the book and steady it on my lap when a flyer lands under my feet. “Mag-enlist ngayon! Kailangan ka ni Inang Bayan!” it reads with the AFP’s enlistment branches. Perfect timing. Still devastated by Paul’s death, I take the paper and crumple it, grinding my teeth as I turn it into a stress ball.
“Excuse me,” I hear someone say, “Are you alright?”
“I’m fine!” I spit out, “I just don’t want to be reminded about the war right now—”
I stop the attack on the flyer and look up to find a familiar face. His eyes are now surrounded by laugh lines but his smile has remained the same. I stand up from my seat and marvel at how age has changed him. “Sean? Is that you?”
“Pia, it’s been years!” He shakes my hand excitedly. “What do you do now? I mean, before the war and all.”
“Really?” I move my things on the bench and motion for him to sit with me. “Weren’t you in STEM?”
“I took your advice instead,” he tells me. “When you told me to take Legal Management.”
My eyes widen and I clasp my hands together in recognition. We laugh but an awkward silence quickly fills the air, both of us overcome by the pressure of reunion pleasantries. Although we had been friends in high school, we had not spoken since college. I wrack my brain for stock questions. What do you ask someone you haven’t seen in decades?
“Isn’t that a Netflix movie?”
I look at him in a haze. “Sorry, what?”
“All Quiet on the Western Front,” he points at the book in my hand. “That’s on Netflix, right?”
I nod earnestly and hand it to him.
“Wars. History,” he says with a shy smile as he looks at the cover, “You were the only person I could talk to about those things back then.”
We’ll have an update in future history books soon. I push the thought aside and watch as he flips through the pages I marked with flag tabs. My gaze shifts to his face and I see his smile fall. He reads out a passage I underlined 14 years ago.
“We are not youth any longer…we fly from ourselves. From our life. We were eighteen and had begun to love life and the world; and we had to shoot it to pieces.”
Sean closes the book quietly and lifts his head to the sunlit bay. We breathe deeply, slowly, the pungent sea air filling our lungs. It is better than no air at all.
“I’m thinking about enlisting.”
He can't be serious. “That’s an anti-war book, by the way.”
“No, like, I’ve been thinking about it since the war started. And…you’re the only person I’ve told this to.”
Bus horns echo behind us, remnants of a rush hour in this now desolate city. Suddenly, being vulnerable elsewhere seemed better than living out Manila’s last days. I frown and shake my head. My grip on the flyer tightens. “Are you just doing this to prove something to fifteen-year-old Sean?”
“What? No!” he says urgently, “I just want to contribute something to my country for once.”
“Okay then why do you need to tell me you’re enlisting?” It is only when my words leave me that I realize how annoyed I feel. Thinking about the war was too much on its own. Losing people to it is a thought I refuse to entertain. Anger boils within me. I thought trauma dumping was a thing of the past. “Are you so insecure that you still need people’s approval?”
“I just need yours!” he exclaims, taking me by surprise. Birds once perched on the ledge fly away in a hurry. “I never planned on telling anyone I was enlisting! I was so confident, but then I saw you here and…I realized how scared I was.”
My heart sinks. A cool breeze passes through the baywalk, pulling time along with it. Beside me now sits a trembling fifth grader, his wide eyes imploring me to tell him that our history teacher didn’t say “Wrong format means zero.” My gaze shifts downward to his yellow pad, finding today’s date written on the wrong side of the paper. When I look up, the cheap white lights of a fast food restaurant blind me for a second. I blink twice and find myself patting the back of a tearful highschool senior. The words are fleeting: Dream school…try again.
“Everything came back to me when I saw you,” Sean’s voice awakes me slowly. “I’m back in grade school drawing comics. Then in high school talking about 20th-century blunders with you. I’m back in UST, at the Mcdonald’s in P. Noval. I just…I wanted you to tell me—or I just wanted my childhood to tell me it was okay to leave it now.”
I don’t know what to say. I turn to the orange sky before us. As the sun starts to dip into the horizon, someone is dusting off their naval cap somewhere on the West Philippine Sea’s artificial islands. Someone, 14 years ago, is underlining a passage in a book as she herself tries to make peace with the end of her youth. Someone is 18 years old today, signing up to join the army and giving up her youth. My eyes begin to sting.
“God, what have you done?” I bury my face in my hands and feel him place a hand on my shoulder. “I…I can’t just allow someone to come into my life again knowing full well that they’re cannon fodder.”
I feel him grip my shoulder before he pulls away. As the sun sinks farther into the sea, the streetlights over the baywalk flicker on above us. I wipe away the tears on my face and let out a tired laugh.
“I wish we hadn’t met again,” I say gently before turning to him. “We’d both have one less corpse to cry over when the bombs fall.”
Though his eyes are wet, his expression softens. There’s not a lot left in me to think about other people right now, but empathy is a valuable currency during times like these. I retrieve the flyer from my pocket and try to smooth it out. I slip it into my copy of “All Quiet on the Western Front,” marking the page he read aloud. I stand and hold the book out to him.
“As much as I don’t want you to enlist—” The lump in my throat stops me. It’s hard to lie nowadays. I clench my teeth together and close my eyes, trying to get my words out. “Come back alive. Please. Or I’ll have no one to talk to in this damned country about the Lusitania sinking.”
I look away when he takes the book from my hands.
Before he says anything more, I start down the baywalk, quickening my pace as the last bit of sun takes rest beneath Philippine waters.