Friday, March 29


The morning she’d decided to escape 20 years ago, the train that she had taken stopped as it hovered above the Pasig River. The engine died, suddenly, and every passenger had a good view of the water, a fabric of dark silver that gleamed here and there under the 10 o’clock sun. On the horizon was Escolta Street, once the most fashionable in the country and home to its first movie house. On the foreground was the Manila Central Post Office, the most imposing in the string of neoclassical structures that dot this part of the city, one of the lucky few that survived the rain of World War II bombs.
From outside the train, she and the other passengers looked like assorted mannequins trapped in a display window. This one, lean and statuesque. That one, frail and stooping, a little plump. A middle-aged man wearing a denim jacket scratched his thick sideburns, the left one, from which a tiny bead of sweat glided. This rustling of pubic-like hair, back and forth, was followed by a far-flung sneeze. A teenage girl grumbled about the delay, panning slightly toward her direction in search of acquiescence. A man in a suit loudly unfurled a day-old newspaper. A huge woman wearing powder blue scrubs let out a hyena laugh at what her companion, a tiny man in a nursing uniform, said.
She decided, right there and then, that she was tired of this place; tired of these people she didn’t even know, but whose trifling lives she was forced, in the meanwhile and maybe ever, to intimately overhear.
When soon the lights came back on and the air-conditioning resumed its thin whizzing, she and her fellow passengers breathed a sigh of relief. But when the doors, dangerously, slid open, to remove what separated them from the wide bright panorama of river and skyline, a silent panic crawled inside the still-motionless train. Everyone looked for something to hold. It was unclear which they feared more: a sudden hand pushing them to the murk of Pasig or a vigorous urge, from no one but themselves, to jump.
It took a few moments for anyone—student and janitor, construction worker and executive, market-bound housewife and lost tourist—to notice the strange rain that was falling, ever so slowly, solidly, from above. In seconds, the sun was all but blocked out. Inexplicably, dusk had arrived eight hours ahead of schedule, just when that day – a Saturday – was settling into its familiar groove.
In her coach, the last one, it was her flat, tiny nose that twitched first, visited by a flicker of rogue ash, part of the near-invisible legions that 55 miles away, in the vicinity of Pinatubo, were murderously pressing unto tin roofs and thatched huts, uprooting trees and power lines, suffocating babies and cattle. Here, in the city, the ash that arrived swirled almost tenderly, laying atop heads and treetops, car hoods and pavement, evoking nonexistent memories of snow in a populace that watched too many Hollywood movies, that sang along with too many American Christmas songs.
Later that day, a woman would jump in front of the trains, an act silently attributed by many to the harbinger of doomsday that some had mistaken the ash fall for.