There’s something about leaving that feels strange, almost foreign. Mark read this line somewhere, and it stuck in his mind as he drove at a steady pace towards the airport from his client’s office. Beside him, his friend Faith sat silent, lost in her own thoughts, which allowed him to muse about things that he tried hard to suppress that morning while he still had to work. Now that he was finally on his way to the airport, a little over a year from when the last time he went there for almost the same reason, he let his mind wander freely.
But there’s always something comforting about going home, this thought answered that other thought, and a small smile played on his lips. Yes, that was it. There’s something about coming home, and welcoming someone home.
“You okay, Faith?” he asked, glancing at his passenger. She still sat there, face turned toward the window, looking almost forlorn. Granted, she wasn’t really as noisy as her other friends, including Rain, but it was a happy day for all of them with Faith’s anniversary with her boyfriend and the arrival of one of her best friends, which was why they were on their way to the airport now. It was almost like someone had turned her off, and she was a far cry from the cheerful Faith that morning, who suggested that Mark buy flowers for Rain when they pick her up. He pretended to be innocent, feeling just a little embarrassed about the fact he already had a bouquet ready and waiting in his car ever since that morning. He may have been friends with Rain’s friends for a while now, but these feelings inside him felt too precious and fragile to be talked out in the open. He wanted to keep them safe inside him, ready and waiting for when it was time to let them out, for when he would finally see her again.
“Welcome back, Rain!”
Those words were written on the card that came with the bouquet he bought. Those were also the words written on his old school desk calendar at home — those words, together with the black printed number on the upper right and the box that surrounded it were encircled several times in bright red ink, a bright spot in the blankness of the entire calendar. It lay untouched in the earlier part of the year because let’s face it — who uses desk calendars in this age of smart phones and tablets? It lay untouched up until the start of the month, where Mark found himself flipping it over out of habit, and he saw the first thing he wrote on the calendar when he received it, something he forgot he had done. From then on, he started counting the days toward that encircled box, doing the same thing that he only saw people in TV and movies do: put a big black “x” on each box that came before it as each day ends. This has become a ritual for Mark everyday, and he felt a thrill of excitement every time he realized that she’s almost there, she’s almost here, she’s almost home.
It’s not that they don’t talk. They talked a lot, and it was another ritual for him too. He was thankful for the two-hour time difference most of the time because that meant he could send a good morning message knowing it was really still morning there, even if she was closer to noon than he was. It also meant that it was easier to catch her when she was still awake, where they talked longer, about everything and nothing. It was almost like their conversations back before she left, but there was also something there in their careful words, suppressed sighs and well-placed laughter. It wasn’t really uncomfortable, and Mark was thankful for that. It just felt like they were tiptoeing around something, around someone who’s sleeping that they do not want to disturb. Like they were walking carefully, carefully at the edge of a cliff, waiting and watching for someone to jump first before the other follows suit — if the other would even really follow at all. He was always careful, and he can tell she was, too.
But he hated this two-hour time difference, too. He hated it especially during nights when he was out late. By “late” it meant anytime past ten o’clock, still relatively early for someone his age. By then it was midnight in the Land Down Under, and Rain always sleeps before midnight as she told him ever since she had flown there to be with her parents last year. He hated those times, because there were still a lot of time in Manila, but it felt like there was so little time where she was. It reminded him of the physical distance between them, the distance that he has been patiently trying to tolerate ever since she left.
“Yeah. I’m fine, Mark,” Faith said softly after a few seconds of silence. He saw her glance at him with a small smile. “Don’t mind me. You need to focus on the road so we can get to the airport as soon as possible.”
Mark laughed, feeling his embarrassment from that morning go away with the sound. “I am,” hsaid simply, giving his phone a quick look. He knew that there wouldn’t be a message from Rain there, but he still checked it anyway out of habit. Her last message was last night, a short see you tomorrow message, but ending with three smileys. It was corny and almost cheesy, but it gave Mark hope that nothing will go wrong today.
Maybe that was why he was always careful, why Mark never pushed anything. It was that distance, that time difference, the things that kept them apart for a year. It was a distance that he could have crossed — he could have flown there, he could have said things that would push things forward even before she goes home. He could have done so many grand things, but he didn’t. There was something in her voice when they talked, in her messages on their chats, that told — no, asked — him not to do anything just yet, to not make hasty decisions. It was as if she was holding him at arm’s length, asking him to wait, to wait, and wait a bit more. It wasn’t spoken, but Mark felt that maybe things will change when she gets back.
Rain was almost back. He was almost there. Almost. In a few minutes, they would be in the same time zone again. They would be in the same place, feeling the same heat and breathing the same air. It was today, the day he had been waiting for, and at the same time, trying to ignore ever since she left.
* * *
He stood at the waiting area of the airport, with a quiet Faith beside him. There he stood, holding a bouquet of flowers, wondering how he looked to the other people who were also waiting there, what they thought of this guy who clutched a bunch of wilting flowers in his hands. He wondered vaguely if the other people around him are making speculations, if they are making stories of how he would give that bouquet and who would get it. He wondered, but only vaguely, because his eyes were trained on the steady stream of people appearing by the ramp, guiding their carts with luggage and boxes, eyes tired but bright and smiling, eyes scanning the crowd for familiar faces that are also scanning for theirs.
“There she is,” Faith whispered, so softly that he almost didn’t hear her. But he saw her before she spoke. His face broke into a smile — he felt that everything in him smiled — he smiled until his cheeks hurt, and he smiled like his heart was going to burst. He saw Faith from the corner of his eye, who started waving, and opened her mouth to probably call her friend’s name. But Mark beat her to it. He wanted to be the first — he should be the first. He has waited this long.