Saturday, May 14, 2011

Photographs and Memories

“Wow, look at these pictures, the subjects look so real. You can feel the emotions coming out of them.”

One of the students said to her friends as they continue to roam around the exhibit. I was actually fixing the lens of my camera when I overheard other people praising the photographs on the wall. I just smiled as I stood on one corner.

I never actually imagined that all of my dreams would soon come true. This exhibit, which was my first, was beyond what I thought of. I was just a fresh graduate back then when I dreamt of becoming a professional photographer.

Graduating as a business student from a not so popular university in the metro, I really had a hard time looking for a job that I like. Most often than not, graduates from known business schools and top-caliber universities always land the jobs that I only dreamt of. That was when I started thinking about photography.

It has always been my passion to take pictures even when I was young. During my 14th birthday, I received my first analogue camera from my uncle from the US and that was the beginning of my interest in taking pictures.

I would usually finish off a roll of film just by taking pictures of random things. Then, I would save up my allowance just to be able to buy a fresh roll.

You see, we came from a not so well-off family and both my parents were just regular public teachers, and so, photography had never been on top of the list in terms of the courses I would take in college. Aside from it being too expensive, my parents don’t think it’s a practical course to take since my future would not be assured.

So even if I am very much inclined to taking a photography course, I decided to just pass it off and go for a business course. And like most graduates desperately looking for a job, I ended up in an industry where speaking English fluently is the name of the game.

Yeah, believe it or not, I was once a call-center agent. We coin terms such as customer service representatives, customer care associates, and whatever euphemisms you may think of, but regardless, we are still what you may call “glorified telephone operators” working in the zombieland.

I don’t mean to offend the other agents like me out there, but hell that’s how I see it. I am a corporate slave and it’s really far from what I imagined would be, getting a college diploma and all. Now, all I see is myself, working for the benefit of those huge conglomerates taking advantage of cheap labor.

That was how I started my life after the momentous occasion that we all call college graduation. After all the encouraging speeches and optimistic messages, along with the smiles and excitement of thousands of hopefuls, I still wasn’t able to pursue that thing that I really wanted. Not until now.

Everything that happened actually was due to some twist of luck. A few months ago, after I left my job of being a sponge absorbing people’s stupidity, a friend of mine invited me for coffee in one of the busiest districts in the metro. Well, it was quite a long time since we saw each other, so I thought, why not.

So there I was, sipping on my cup as my friend told me everything that happened to him after college. He was now an events photographer for a well-known company. The whole time I was with him, I was actually just looking at the SLR hanging on his chest. Then, he probably noticed it so he asked me if I’m willing to assist him in an event that he’ll be covering.

My eyes lit up with what he said. Jake actually knew my interest in photography ever since college. But unlike me, he was able to pursue his degree in photography. Eventually, I agreed with the whole thing and that was my first professional job as a photographer. From then on, everything went like a blur.

After being able to fix my camera, my phone suddenly vibrated. I took it out from my pocket after hanging the camera on my neck. It was from Jim, one of my co-agents before in my former job. I was actually surprised to receive a message from him. It had been quite a while since we communicated after I left but I must admit, Jim was one of my closest friends back when I was in the company.

Hey Alex! Care to have coffee one of these days, just want to have a chat with my long-lost buddy. Hope you’d be free. Text me up. Ciao!
Sender: Jim Manalastas

I quickly replied, setting a date a week from now. Well, I would’ve wanted to schedule it as early as possible, but since I’m going to be busy, I need to do some adjustments.

After the exhibit, Jake and I went to this café which was not far from where the gallery had been setup. It was actually a very familiar place since this was where I usually hangout with my co-agents after work.

As I stepped inside, the familiar aroma of coffee greeted me. There were not a lot of people during this time so it is quite silent. We scanned the place and found a good space to relax after a very tiring day.

As I sat on the soft sofa, looking at some of the pictures I shot during the event, two guys entered and sat not far from where we were seated. They were wearing hooded jackets that have the same insignia of the company I once worked for. Agents, I thought.

The shorter guy took out a stick of cigarette and lit it up. The smoke suddenly filled the air, and as I sniffed the mixture of smoke and coffee, a memory began to enter my head.

It was almost Christmas that time. You would surely notice the chill in the air and a lot of colorful decorations and Christmas lights had been placed all over the lamp posts and walls everywhere.

I entered the place which we, agents, jokingly call the ‘lung center’. As you may have guessed it, it was the smoking area. Cigarette break had been one of the much awaited breaks for most of us. It was that brief period of freedom from the madhouse.

Since the place was packed, I decided to just go outside the terrace. I leaned over the railing and lit up a stick of cigar as I looked at the full moon. I inhaled deeply and blew smoke as I try to erase from my head the degrading words I got from those dim-witted Brits who can’t distinguish a credit card from a debit card.

“Hey there, why are you alone here. Had a rough time?”

I was startled by the voice that came from beside me. I was too preoccupied with my thoughts that I didn’t notice the guy who stood beside me. He took out a cigarette and asked me for my lighter, which I let him borrow. After lighting his death stick, he repeated his question.

“Why are you alone? Where are your friends?”

I was a little hesitant answering his question. I don’t know if I’ve met this guy before but since there are hundreds of callcenter agents being hired by the company handling different accounts, it’s really difficult to know everyone. He probably noticed the look of shock and curiosity so he continued talking.

“By the way, I’m Scott, Scott Williams. I’m with the Insurance Group. Don’t think that I’m a stalker or something, I just often see you around here hanging out with your friends most of the time. That is why I’m wondering why you are alone now.”

Scott Williams. Yeah, right. Well, we usually have a different name in this industry. We use it as our identity to hide our being Pinoy. Well, those idiots just don’t trust us enough, but for me, I knew we’re far intelligent and able than them. I don’t want to look rude or something so I responded.

“Well, hi Scott. I’m James Riley. Nice to meet you. Well, about your question. It’s just too crowded inside. And my friends went to the café nearby. I just want to stay here so I didn’t join them. Not really in the mood to go somewhere. Need to utilize the break.”

“Oh, yeah, 15 minutes… Really not enough to detoxify, huh?”

We both laughed at the comment. From then on, we started talking every chance we’ve got. It was during one of our conversations that he told me he liked me. He said that the moment he saw me in the lung center, he would usually spot me whenever our breaks would coincide and that he would usually observe me from afar. I was just listening the whole time.

I know I had been a bisexual ever since college, but I don’t shout it out loud to everyone. But I guess our industry is actually infested by people with the same preference. You probably have heard about the increasing number of gays and bisexuals in the callcenter industry. Well, our company is not an exception.

Scott Williams, or legally registered as Peter Soriano was actually gay. But he does not dress like any stereotypical homosexual who wears make-up and high heels to work. He still had that decency to wear stylish clothing which is still suited for a man to be respected. I, on the other hand, do not suggest anything bisexual, but like most of us, he can smell a guy’s “aura” even from afar.

As much as Peter wanted to hit on me, I never actually gave him a chance to even further his motives. I usually kept my answers short, not meaning to sound rude, but still giving that impression of disinterest and indifference.

He probably noticed that but he kept silent about it. Well, I knew what he really wanted anyway. I’m not the type of guy who would be too desperate to have a guy with me in bed. He, on the other hand, actually wanted to get the ball rolling with me. He obviously wanted to get between my pants, but I would not let him.

He began to be more determined to woo me, probably because I posed as a challenge to him, but like a conservative woman, I played hard to get. Not because I want him to suffer, but because I want to know how far he would go just to get me. Actually, I’m starting to feel something for him, but I don’t want to jump headfirst only to find out that I’ll fall directly on concrete floor.

He was actually sweet and thoughtful, but my closest friends warned me about him. They just strengthened my suspiscion of him only going after my dick and my ass. But as I looked at how he treated me, he’s trying to prove all of us wrong. Is he probably willing to change? Or is he actually just playing it cool?

But still, I never gave in. I let my pride and my friends get the best of me. I never did give him a chance to show me how he truly felt and I kept on pushing him away, trying to tell him that there are other guys out there more worhty of being sought. As difficult it is for him as it is for me, I told him to just stop because all his efforts will just go to waste. Of course, Peter didn’t take it lightly, although he can’t do anything but to respect my decision.

Apparently, as days passed, all the rumors revolving around Mr. Scott Williams were true. He started hitting on other guys without even feeling remorse for what happened to us. Although I know it is I who pushed him away, I still think he should’ve at least gave our sort of “relationship” a time to heal. Anyway, I don’t feel anything anymore for him, but I knew I felt something deep within me.

Months passed since my so-called association with Peter and I’m only a few days away before I left the company. I seldom see Peter during breaks so I’m guessing he probably have been reassigned to a different account or maybe a reshuffling had been done. Anyway, that made my life easier, and I don’t think I still need to know if he’s fine, knowing that he’d probably been sleeping with a random guy every chance he got.

I never actually saw Peter again even after the day I left the company. He probably knew I’m leaving since we’ve had some friends in common but I guess he just doesn’t want to see me anymore, after the rejection I had caused him.

I thought I would never see him again after I left, but I was wrong. Just a few days ago before my first exhibit as a professional photographer, I needed to go back to the company because I need to settle something.

It was a cold Monday morning. As I was sitting on the couch at the lobby of the building, waiting for the HR personnel, the elevator door opened and someone not very familiar, or so it seemed, stepped out. He was wearing a long-sleeved sweat shirt, jogging pants and a cap as he carried with him a brown envelope.

My gaze met his and I noticed a look of shock in his face, although he quickly managed to smile at me. I smiled back at him as he continued to walk slowly towards the exit. I quickly went back to the company journal that I was reading when all of a sudden, a woman, about my age, came running towards the exit shouting something that made my heart jumped.

“Peter Soriano! Wait up! I’ll come with you!”

My hands began to feel cold as I heard the familiar name. She was actually calling the attention of the guy who just smiled at me awhile back. Was he the same Peter I know from before? But why is he looking like that? He was so thin and his cheeks were sunken.

I was about to stand and ran outside to see him again but the car carrying the two already left. What I saw and the questions in my head continued to bother me the whole day. That night, I tried calling him using his old number but there was no response. His phone just kept ringing. He probably have changed his number or something. I shook my head and tried to erase the thoughts in my mind as I began to doze off.

I suddenly snapped back to reality as Jake nudged my elbow, trying to ask me if I was okay.

“Hey man, are you okay? You’ve been staring into space the whole time. I was just asking if the photos for our next exhibit were already prepared.”

“Sorry, something just crossed my mind. Anyway, regarding that, I’m working on it. I was just trying to look for a perfect place to get the inspiration.”

“Well, you better start working on it. A lot of the big names in the industry would be going. You just don’t know, you might make it big.”

Just the thought of it made me excited yet I felt a little anxious. It would really be a big event and if ever, this would be my first-ever major exposure in the world of photography.

Days flew by so quickly without me even noticing it. One day, I received a message from Jim reminding me of our coffee date. I replied to him and we agreed on a specific place and time.

“Hey there fella! Lookin’ good!”

“Hey Jim! It was nice to see you again. How are you doing? How was the group?”

“Well, we’re fine, although some of us have left and followed suit after your resignation.”

“Oh, is that so? Well, I really don’t see being an agent as a long-term profession. Sooner or later, you know you’ll just get fed up.”

“I know but, oh well, we’re still part of the whole industry. I’m planning to quit too, though I still need to fix my passport and my visa. I’ll be leaving with my parents. We’ll be migrating to the US and probably, I might land a good job there.”

“Wow, that’s great Jim. I’m happy for you!”

“That’s one reason why I invited you for coffee. I want you to attend my despedida this coming Saturday, 7PM at our house. Will you be available?”

“Well, let’s see. Hmm… Sure, but I’ll probably be late. I have to meet with some people for my next exhibit. Is that okay?”

“Sure thing! As long as you come! Anyway, another reason why I wanted to talk to you is because… Uhm, do you remember Peter? Peter Soriano?”

Not again. Why does someone always remind me of him during the time that I’m trying to forget him? “Peter Soriano? From the Insurance Group? What about him?” I acted as if I’ve never seen him just a few days ago. To be honest, I just don’t really care.

“Well, he just passed away last Monday.”

I felt like a huge bucket of ice cold water fell down upon me. Peter? Peter Soriano? Mr. Scott Williams? Dead? On the day that I saw him? How? Why?

Jim probably saw the look on my face so he continued. “You see, just a few weeks before his demise, we started noticing something different from him. He was unusually quiet, and he kept on wearing a cap. Then we saw these odd-colored marks on his skin. We were actually getting a little worried but whenever we ask if he’s okay, he would just nod and smile at us.”

Jim sipped coffee from his mug before continuing. I was looking at him intently, trying to read his eyes. Is this guy even telling me the truth? He might be just pulling my leg like he usually did back then. But I saw those marks too back when I saw Peter, or am I just hallucinating?

“As the days passed, Peter showed more signs that he is not fine. He lost weight a lot, and he kept on forgetting things. There was also this one time when he almost fell from the steps in front of the building. Then, just one day, he stopped coming to work. The Supervisor kept on calling him but there was no response. A few days after that, we found out the dreadful truth about his condition.”

“AIDS, right? He has the virus…”

“Yes. As much as I hate to tell you, the plague that had been sporadically spreading amongs the callcenter agents had also caught him. He probably got it from one of his sexual escapades long ago…”

I was looking straight at Jim as the images came flashing back at the back of my mind. Then it finally hit me. He probably had the virus ever since the day he was trying to court me. What if I gave in? What if I let my desires get the best of me? I would’ve been like him right now. The thoughts scared the hell out of me.

After the meeting with Jim, I did something that I haven’t done for years. Something that I should’ve done a long time ago. As I drove my car, I made a quick turn to the left and reached a very familiar infrastructure.

I stepped out of the car and walked towards the entrance. Again, I saw the beautiful frescoes on the walls and ceiling of the building I once grew up visitng with my family. The place was almost deserted if not for some people who were looking dead straight ahead. As I sat in one of the empty pews, looking straight at the huge cross on the altar, tears began to trickle down my cheeks. And all of a sudden, I found myself kneeling down and praying.

For the longest time, I had been ignoring Him all along. I never did remember him during the my successes but I used to hate Him for my downfalls. Never did I give him credit for all the good things He had done to me. Now, as I looked back, I thank Him for saving my life. And I prayed for the soul of the person who once became a part of my life. Peter, wherever you are right now, I hope that you are okay.

As it began to rain outside, I silently uttered a prayer, not only for Peter, but for everyone who had been a victim of the virus. May it all be a lesson learned for all of us. Now, as I renew my faith in Him, the rain continued to bless the dry pavements of the metro, while I kept my head bowed down, tears in my eyes, and an awakening which a friend had taught me. Life is a matter of choice. Even when it seems that there is no option, there is always something else that can be done. What happens in our lives is the result of decisions that we make. And regrets will be avoided as along as we make the right decisions.