MY FATE WAS SEALED the moment the Chairman paused midway the narrow stairs going up his newly-acquired Bombardier Challenger 850 jet, turned back to wave at me and shouted over the din of the turbofan jet engines, his thin mustache moving up and down as he spoke: “Neil, can you come up for just a minute? I’d like to give you something.”
That was it. The deal was done, written in stone.
I was roasting my top under the noonday sun on the tarmac of Ninoy Aquino International Airport to see him off. He flew in all the way from his Chicago office to Manila the day before and is now set to leave for the annual review of our company’s plant operations in Mindanao. The Chairman’s coat was flapping in the whistling wind and his hair in complete disarray. He beckoned me to follow him inside the plane. I trailed him up the stairs and into the aircraft’s door where an angelic-looking flight attendant, definitely British and looking a bit like Martine McCutcheon, was smiling at us. The inside of the plane was well-appointed, the walls and the seats luxuriously upholstered. Ms. McCutcheon ushered me through the first row of seats where 3 expats (my Manila-based bosses actually) – the President, the CFO and the COO – were already seated for the flight.
“Your flight is top heavy,” I almost told Ms. McCutcheon but decided against it. The allusion might get lost in the whirring noise of the plane’s engine and getting waylaid by such fabulous hands could be quite excruciating and downright disastrous. In the cabin was a rather amusing scene. The air was thick with tension. The three über executives, in the company of their boss, were sweating profusely in their neatly-pressed Hugo Boss ensembles, power ties and Ferragamo shoes, worrying how their fates would rise and fall within the course of the two and a half hour journey to Mindanao. I had to suppress a rising urge to grin. The Chairman motioned me to follow him to the back of the plane where he pulled out something from his leather case.
“Everything is set,” he said, “Just call Alice and she will tell you where to go and what to do. I will see you there at sundown.” He gave me a business card that bore the name of someone I vaguely remember.
What is set? Meet him where?
“Okay, sir,” I blindly replied, unsure what to make of what he had just said. He was always like that, talking to people in “future tense” and expects you to fill in the gap between the now and the then. I nodded as if I understood. Strange tingling sensations were starting to converge inside my stomach. Everything, it seemed, hinged on the phone number on the business card. Certain that that was all, I made way for the exit with the Chairman following closely behind. At the door, I bade everyone goodbye. Back on the tarmac, I squinted to look back at the Chairman who was still by the door on top of the stairs. He was looking at me thoughtfully. Then came the bombshell.
“I’m sure you’ll like it. Happy Birthday, Neil!”
My lower jaw dropped instantly, so wide I think I had to drive my fist to my chin to close my mouth and stop myself from desecrating the historic tarmac with dribble. I caught a glimpse of something that resembled a smile emerging from a corner of the Chairman’s mouth before he disappeared inside the aircraft.
“Thank you, Boss!” I shouted back at him but seriously doubted whether he heard.
Ms. McCutcheon smiled at me as she manually closed and sealed the door. That was the sweetest smile I’ve seen and wondered whether I will have the chance to ever see that again. The pilot revved the Challenger’s engines. The plane moved and made a single turn towards the service runway. I swear I saw Ms. McCutcheon by a small window waving her hand goodbye before the plane taxied along the strip towards its takeoff point. Then it was gone.
THE PLANE HAD left the airport a good 5 minutes already but I was still burning my heels on the blistering runway, trying to comprehend what had just transpired. Am I about to receive a surprise birthday present from the most revered and feared person in our organization? There was no way he could have known. But he knew. Inside my suit, sweat was trickling down the small of my back. I craved for a cold shower and an icy drink.
Everything is set. Just speak to Alice and she will tell you what to do. I’m sure you’ll like it.
I ambled back to the hangar’s main reception area where navigator Joe was waiting. He was to drive me back to the office in Makati. I just had a long morning and was famished. Inside the car, Joe asked me for our next destination. I told him to wait for five minutes. I was looking at the business card. It was 1pm. Glen Frey was on the radio singing a haunting song about hope and change and no more cloudy days. I took out a pen from my pocket and a green piece of paper from a folder and called Alice, an investment firm executive who took care of our company’s investment portfolio. Let’s get it over with.
Alice, whom I met a few times in company functions, was in her usual animated self and was briefing me on what to do next. Joe was listening and, at the same time, was looking at me from the rear view mirror, perhaps trying to pick up telltale signs where we were headed next. Words and pleasantries were exchanged – mostly instructions and a few thank yous. Towards, the end of the conversation, I scribbled something – no more than three lines – on the piece of paper.
After the call, I remained motionless in the back of the car for what seemed like an eternity. I was stunned. My head was pounding. Joe was still gazing at me from the rear-view mirror, puzzled, waiting for my instruction. Even at 58, he was still as sharp as ever. But words escaped me. I felt exhausted yet wasn’t exactly tired. For a moment, all I could hear was Frey over the high-pitched whine of the car’s air conditioning. The sweltering heat outside had created heat blooms on the concrete pavement and the roofs of cars and houses. Inside, the stifling heat was only a rumor.
“Whereto, boss?” Joe finally broke the impasse.
Still unable to verbalize, I gave the green piece of paper to Joe.
He took the reading glasses that hung around his neck by a sling and put it on to read. Then, he looked at me with questioning eyes. I nodded at him. He looked back at the paper.
“It’s only less than 10 minutes away from here, sir.” Joe remarked
“But there’s no time for you to go home and—”
“I know, Joe. Just bring me to that address please.”
Joe promptly put the gear to drive, waved at the guard waiting at the gate and we were back on Andrew’s Avenue. Traffic was surprisingly light.
I realized at that point that I had nothing with me except a folder full of documents. I shook my head and smiled. I told myself not to worry too much. But I worried anyway. My brain was on overdrive. John Mayer was on, hollering about being covered in rain. The radio station was obviously flip-flopping on the weather. I looked at people walking by the roadside but wasn’t exactly seeing them. Then I noticed Joe looking back at me again, his balding head glimmering in the noonday sunlight that penetrated the car’s tinted window. I was a fish in a bowl. He gave me back the green sheet of paper. Before I folded it and kept it in my breast pocket, I read my handwriting one last time.
2:00pm. Hangar at 1516 Andrews Avenue, Pasay City
Take charter flight to Pamalican Island; Booking done and paid.
You will like it, the Chairman had said. It was the understatement of the year.
We reached the nearby private hangar in a little over 7 minutes. Joe parked the car right beside the office entrance. Before I opened the door, I saw him rummage for something inside the compartment.
“Just a minute, sir.”
“Huh?” I muttered, looking at my wristwatch.
Finally, he managed to pull out a medium-sized yellow Tupperware from within and gave it to me. I took it, curious of its contents.
“Sir, it’s chicken and rice. I know you must be hungry. I’ll manage.”
I felt bad depriving the old man of his spartan fare but he was insistent. I offered some money but he politely declined. Before I could say another word, Joe rushed outside and opened the door for me. It was something he never did before, and certainly something I will never ask of him. He was holding the door for me as I stepped out of the car. Then, bowing slightly, he offered his right hand to shake mine. I readily obliged, unaccustomed to and embarrassed by the sudden VIP treatment. He shook my hand firmly, his eyes holding mine as he spoke.
“You see, birthdays are never for the celebrant. It is supposed to be for the people around him, rejoicing that he will be around for another year. Happy birthday, sir.” Joe was smiling in a manner only he can. There was always something profound in that trademark toothless smile of his. And on rare moments like that, he becomes wise Alfred to my pathetic Batman. I returned the favor, bowing lower than he had. It was the Japanese way of respect: all things being equal, always defer to the chronologically-challenged. But that time, I was bowing for my salvation.
“Thank you, Joe,” I said. Then in a sudden epiphany, I added: “Yes, a very happy birthday, indeed.” And then I went in.
Inside the small pre-departure lobby, I checked myself in then sat in a corner by the last row of seats. The room was two-thirds full of passengers, mostly foreigners, headed for the dream destination, the private resort island of Amanpulo. They were in proper beach attire. I wore dark glasses, at least. Looking around, I opened the yellow Tupperware. There it was, my birthday lunch. I took the plastic spoon and fork on the side and heartily wolfed on fried chicken and rice. It was a day of pleasant surprises. The more I thought about it, the farther I came to understand. My head throbbed still. I wished I brought my I-Pod to numb the drums beating incessantly inside my head. But for the meantime, I had to contend with Gloria Estefan doing the conga somewhere between my cerebellum and hypothalamus.
My co-passengers were staring at me, perhaps amused by the sight of an inappropriately dressed bloke having lunch. I was going to Amanpulo and I just learned that there are far many more things that could be better than that. But right then nothing mattered anymore. At that moment, in that corner, inside a crowded room, in my quiet part of the world, I ate and ate and ate, humbled by every passing minute of a beautiful day.
(the beginning of the story)