I hate dealing with government agencies in this – my – country. The insensible queuing, the bureaucratic BS, the leech-minded mediocrity that makes up the majority of the staff of most public offices. Efficiency is an unknown term where I come from; we seem to invent a thousand and one ways to make things constantly difficult for ourselves.
I was in the middle of another serpentine queue one fine day when I saw Helen. Apparently, she was married now, to a man she met in rehab; a politician’s son with his own political aspirations; and Helen was in the agency waiting for her husband who is in a higher-management meeting at “the top floor”.
She motioned me to follow her with my papers and we went to an office where she introduced me to Willie, a balding young gentleman in a t-shirt printed with the face of Helen’s husband. After small talk about his family, his work in the agency (Oh he has no plantilla even after 5 years of contractual work? That will not do! Helen will definitely inform Bong about this.), the project that Helen’s husband’s pork barrel has started. After all that, she sweetly asked Willie if he could please facilitate my papers and we will just be in the canteen and that I am such an old friend she hasn’t seen in a long time. He can come to us when my documents are finished. Willie answers ok madam; and he was smiling but he looked tired.
When I first met Helen, I have never thought that she will be the wife of anybody, much less a politician. I was under the impression that she would die before reaching thirty-five in a motel room amidst ecstacy tablets and shabu paraphernalia strewn all around; a very six-o’clock- news way to go. She was very pretty even when she was an addict, pale-skinned, small build, east Asian eyes, pearly white and even teeth – she could have been a soap opera star from South Korea. She was smaller than me and exuded a very effective damsel-in-distress aura that even I who was – well – a girl, would have wanted to turn butch and kill dragons for her.
Oh, and she was Jonas’s ex-girlfriend.
Seriously! I don’t know how Jonas managed to find these girls. (And what kind of fate makes me bump into them without meaning to, or even wanting to). There’s Gaia — knocked up at 17 and now married to a half-Brazilian half-American venture capitalist. When Jonas and I saw her in Washington DC, she looked like Kim Kardashian; spangly earrings, tight halter top, tanned all over. She talked to me in Tagalog with an American slang and told me that her great dream is to return to the Philippines and put up a home for teen mothers.
And now, Helen.
Looking back, I realize that I liked Helen when I first met her, a decade or so ago. I went with Jonas to the basement of a very expensive hospital in Makati where they kept the psychiatric ward. Helen had just gone through a tweaking stage. When I first saw her, she was very calm, sweet and heavily sedated.
Jonas was Helen’s “Person In Case of Emergency” which was very puzzling to me since they had broken up years ago. That time, I didn’t know him very well yet. Jonas is the kind of boyfriend, the rare kind of man, that manages to be real friends with ex-girlfriends.
(I spent 3 months of internship in that hospital and I was friends with the Training Director of the Substance Abuse division, Dr. Risa Mendoza. Risa gave me a funny smile when I introduced her to Jonas, those long years ago. She was giggling when she told me that she was under the impression that I would die an old maid. But then, she said with a wink, miracles have happened.)
What I liked about Helen was that she was a very good liar. A charming babble-mouth. A very good storyteller. I could tell immediately that she was even a better liar than I am. I had to respect that. Or … the person I was had to.
They discharged her from the hospital and she went directly to a rehabilitation facility south of Manila, where the air was cool, traffic was rare and where Helen met her future husband.
Now here she is (ten years hence) bubbly, sprightly, and seemed very pleased to have seen me. We are friends on Facebook, but I rarely make status updates so she thought I was still in Connecticut.
“I got back 2 years ago,” I told her. “No more visa, dissertation finished.”
“I have always thought you will settle in America. You are just too disciplined, too smart and bright to you know, stay here.”
“You and your husband stayed here,” I reminded her, bemused at her reaction.
“Yes, but Bong and his family are in politics.” She nodded and did not expound, as if that was explanation enough. “I invited you and Jonas to my wedding,” she said reproachfully. “Neither of you came.”
“I am sorry,” I tried to sound contrite. “I don’t know about Jonas but at that time, I couldn’t get away from the university.”
“Alice, I really feel bad about what happened to Jonas.”
“Yes, well that makes the two of us.”
“What kind of world is it that horrible things can happen to such good people?” she exclaims.
“A totally crappy world?” I said.
It is a crappy world alright. It is a world where an ordinary citizen like me has to get into a 3-hour-long queue in a government agency just for one fucking crappy piece of paper. It is a world where politicians like Bong and other pretentiously “respectable” goons in the echelons of power lord it over meek/apathetic/frustrated (take your poison) citizens who have long been used to this feeling of learned helplessness. It is a world where a person I love — a do-gooder tree-hugger of the highest order, who only wanted the best for this country that I couldn’t care less about – now has a PTSD so profound that even I, a psychologist by training, can’t get through to him.
I live in a fucking crazy country … which now (goodbye America) constitutes the sum total of my totally crappy world.
I stare at Helen. Once upon a time I really liked her.
Now I say: “Fuck you, Helen. Fuck you and Bong and all fucking Filipinos like you. And fuck me because I need your help and I don’t want to spend another hour in a queue and I need this fucking paper.”
Helen gave a screech, shocked that I can muster so many f-words in one statement.
That very second, Willie (bless his soul, government bureaucrat that he is), came with my precious paper, a government-issued certificate.
I mumbled a half-embarrassed, half-insincere apology to Helen. And without waiting for her reply, I left.
I know (just like I know that Jonas will still shut me out tomorrow) that Helen will unfriend me on Facebook and that I will probably never see her (nor benefit from her connections) again.