Intramuros by J.X. Nulud

In his eyes laid a familiar sight, a spectacle he has not seen for years, and now it was in front of him. He stood still, his eyes as wide as the ocean, his feet unmoving, his thoughts scrambled and his memories came back one by one, each savoury detail, still thick in his skull.
Intramuros
Intramuros by J.X. Nulud
“Julia!” he exclaimed. Julia looked at him and for a few seconds she called to mind who the man was. She smiled her alluring smile, knowing it was Charles. “Of all places, I never thought I’d see you here.” She nervously acknowledged his presence while she waited in line to order her food at one of the hole-in-the-wall restaurants in Intramuros’ Muralla Street. It was a December Friday but the weather was hot as the steam coming out from the kitchen. It was vacation time for the colleges inside and so the ancient walled city was nearly empty of its usual sounds – the laughter of students walking, the chattering of street vendors, and the bells of the schools that would ring at each end of a class, only the Calesas touring foreigners were present and a few horns from cars. The sun was unforgiving, it glared the earth like a mad king and scorched the asphalt. “This is where I used to eat when I was in college and I just thought I’d visit Intramuros, kind of missing this place for some time now.” Charles was excited, he felt the sweat drip from the back of his head. “It’s been a long time, Julia.” He said her name and it felt good. “Are you with somebody right now?” he asked, hoping that she would invite him to join her. “Yes, three years did fly by. I still remember bumping into you at Jones Bridge. I’m alone, I just thought I’d tour around these walls, look for something to inspire my painting. Do you want to join me for lunch?” Julia invited Charles and he happily agreed. “So you do some painting now?” Charles queried as he quickly seated across the table.“I’ve been doing it for a long time, it’s actually my favorite hobby. I just didn’t have the chance to tell you before, you know, we spend just a few hours together that day.” She felt anxious, and she looked at the counter and followed up her order, but it wasn’t even five minutes since she placed her order. Charles looked at her with thrill, he terribly missed her. Muralla Street was always windy, the road snaked around the walled city and the buildings drifted the wind to the length of the street. Both Charles and Julia were silent, trying desperately not to look into each other’s eyes. A definite awkwardness filled the atmosphere of their universe. They questioned the world in their thoughts why they met again – of all places why on a Friday of December? Was it purely coincidence, divine intervention, or has fate played its way to draw them back together, again. Their food had arrived – two sizzling plates of boiled and chopped pig ears and cheeks, which were seasoned in vinegar, Philippine lemon, chopped onions and chicken liver. “No, don’t tell me Sisig is also your favorite?” Charles asked, hoping that they have something more in common with, other that broken hearts when they first met in Escolta years ago. “Yes it is, pork Sisig, I also read that this place was the best place in Intramuros to eat it.” She replied dismissively and without emotion, it brought further awkwardness between them. They waited who would make the first move to grab their utensils. Julia looked at the Sisig slowly cooking the egg and Charles looked to the heavens as if asking cupid to fire the arrows already. The sizzle of the plate became the only noise that saved them from deafening silence until the oil of the pork meat propelled into Julia’s arm and she shrieked in pain, in a spark of the moment they looked at each other and both of them smirked, trying not to acknowledge the discomfort of being at each end of the table. But Julia couldn’t hold it anymore and she busted into laughter and Charles soon followed. “Come on, let’s eat already!” shouted Julia while still laughing. Charles couldn’t help but remember how they first met and how she captivated him with her wide, bright eyes; how the sun kissed her radiant skin. He remembered how he became curious when he saw her walk into the art fair – he remembered the grand, red dress Julia wore and how it draped the curves of her body. He watched how her long hair with curly tips flawlessly flung against the wind. And Charles best remembered her soft, thin, pink lips that killed his senses when she pulled the trigger and planted a bullet kiss that sealed his heart in reserve for her. And ever since that night in Escolta, there wasn’t anybody who could make him forget her. Julia looked at Charles as he prepared condiments for their food, she could still remember that second Saturday of April when she bumped Charles at Jones Bridge. She reminisced how Charles shared about his broken past and how he professed being quickly she captivated him. Julia too, was broken when she met Charles. She was soul-searching that day and in Charles she found herself. They had shared much with so little time together that night. They understood one another because they were connected to each other. And the kiss they shared, she truly felt the honesty and sincerity of his lips. It was in the kiss that she knew he may be the one. But she didn’t want to waste him, she didn’t want to be with him while they were both emotional wrecks – instead she put a bet on fate to bring them back together if indeed they were for each other. And now, and always, fate won. “Is it your first time to eat here?” asked Charles. “It’s my first time to be here in Intramuros, actually.” Julia replied as she took a bite from her food and tasted the wonder of the savory meat titillate her senses. She closed her eyes in consent and admiration to the sizzling sisig. Charles quietly smiled across the table, knowing that she still had the radiant smile that caused him sleepless nights. “So what’s your plan after this? Going somewhere else?” Charles fished for an answer, but he really hoped that Julia would say that she had no other plans after lunch. He had missed her and he didn’t want to end their reunion over plates of garlicky meat. “I don’t know where else to go. I haven’t been anywhere other than Fort Santiago.” She explained. But she too hoped that Charles had something in mind as she missed him too. “I can show you my favorite places, the ones close to my heart.” Charles teased. “I’d love that.” Julia answered as they both gazed into each other’s eye in astonishment of the chance fate has given them. Charles looked at the dress Julia was wearing, it was bright and the cloth was thin, he watched it flow through the contour of her body. He imagined how it felt to be the fabric draping over her curves. “The last time I saw you, you were in a red dress. And now, you’re still in a red dress.” Charles expressed as he smiled and drank the bland, free iced tea from his glass. “And you’re still in a blue shirt, seems like nothing changed at all.” She replied. They had finished lunch and the sun finally hid behind the thick clouds, Julia lighted two cigarettes and handed the other to Charles just like before. Charles smiled and in his smile he knew that they were still connected, that there was a part of him still inside Julia’s memories because she too still resided in him. They sat and smoked under the old acacia tree to which its roots had busted out the concrete. Charles and Julia’s chemistry had not faltered after all those years of being away from each other’s comfort as they tried to catch up for the years that had passed. Charles then walked Julia outside the gates of Intramuros where they hailed a Jeepney for short ride. He had asked Julia to be blindfolded as he wanted to surprise her to where they were headed to and Julia liked the idea and so she agreed. As they alighted the Jeepney, they entered the building used by the old senate during the 1930s in Pre-war Manila – Neoclassical in design, its pillars rivalled that of the post office building. They soon entered the hall and Julia felt the air condition cool her body. She shivered and Charles felt this and held her hand tighter, Julia drew closer to his arms and wrapped her hands around it and she felt his warm muscles. Charles placed her at the center of the hall. “Are you ready?” he asked while he stood before her, he felt elated that after all those years, he was finally reunited with Julia. “Of course!” Julia replied. Charles ogled into her desirable lips and was tempted to kiss her but he succeeded in controlling himself. Charles removed the blindfold and when Julia opened her eyes she was thunderstruck at what lay before her eyes. It was the Spoliarium – a magnificent painting depicting dead gladiators being pulled away by roman soldiers. Charles had brought him to the national art gallery where the countless collection of the country’s best and historical paintings and sculptures were housed. Charles had gone to the side of Julia and the two of them stared in astonishment of the gigantic painting. The museum had only a few guests around at that time and so Julia experienced the quietness of the hall and the awesomeness of the paintings surrounding her, everywhere she looked, images vied for her attention. “It’s true what people say about the Spoliarium.” Julia said to Charles without removing her eyes from the massive canvass. “What do people say about it?” he asked. “It is truly one of man’s masterpieces.” Julia answered without facing him. “And you are one of God’s masterpieces.” Charles fired a love shell to Julia. Hearing what Charles said, Julia giggled, smiled and finally looked at him with her enticing eyes. Charles’ was in a state of ecstasy, Julia’s heart was tranquil. Their hearts needed one another, they haven’t felt like this since the night they went their separate ways in Escolta. They waltzed across the galleries of the museum, sharing opinions to one other, Julia enjoyed the gallery the most for it was her first time – she looked at every detail of the classic paintings and sculptures in each room. Charles gladly escorted her, he stayed quiet most of the time, only speaking when Julia asked something. He let Julia enjoy the museum on her own. But on the back of his mind came questions that he still needs to be answered – why was she suddenly back in his life? Is this a message from fate that it is finally the right time to be together? Julia had the same questions on her mind although she wouldn’t let Charles see it. She asked the paintings for signs that Charles was the right one for her, that it is simply not coincidence but purely fate that led them to the same path again. “You know, I used to be here all the time” Charles said as they took a seat and rested at one of the benches in the museum’s garden where a replica of a Benguet Nipa Hut stood. The birds chirped as they nested at the Nipa Hut’s roof. “In college when I had long breaks and I had the extra money, I would go here all the time and sit in front of the Spoliarium.” He continued. “Why did you do that?” she asked, confusion painted on her face. “I love the serenity it gave me, I’d sit there just staring at it and wonder what it’s like to be loved by many, to be adored, to be looked at for every detail of myself, just like how people admired the painting. And because I was often there I made friends with the staff and the tour guides. Usually it wasn’t crowded so they’d allow me to sit on the floor. The museum wasn’t as grand as this. It was much simpler, and there were few things on display. I’m glad I had the chance to bring you first in here, now it’s beautiful.” “Thanks for bringing me here, it’s very beautiful. I love to paint but I never dared to visit this place, now I realize that this place too, calms me.” Julia said as she leaned against Charles’ torso and they sat undisturbed in the garden, sitting quietly, suspended in each other’s presence. They spent nearly two hours inside the museum. The sun was priming itself to set when they got out. Outside the museum, street food vendors were lined up under the shade of a Narra tree – Ice cream, Fish balls, beverage, and even boiled eggs were sold. They went over and had a feast. Julia had ice cream stuffed in bread while Charles had some of the fish balls which he dipped into the flavourful sweet sauce. As the rays of the sun retreated and became frailer, they walked back to Intramuros, entering through the Sta. Lucia gate. Julia marvelled at its colossal wall that surrounded old Manila and enclosed the ancient city like a mighty fortress – it was known as the Vatican of the Far East because of the number of churches and religious orders that were based inside its 22-feet high, more than two meters thick walls. The stone wall was made by Filipino and Chinese workers who lived outside its walls, one can only imagine the sight and wonder the massive construction gave that began centuries before, it was quite the sight to see as Filipinos during that time had never seen such a mighty curtain wall, what they didn’t know was it was made by the Spanish to protect themselves from the very people who laboured to build it. A moat was also added facing the outskirts of the walls. Today, only the Manila Cathedral and San Agustin churches remained and the religious orders have since fled away to neighbour cities after the last Great War devastated their houses of praise. Parts of its walls now lay in ruin and in disrepair. The moat is now a playground for rich men who play golf. But in the walled city’s beautiful decay, romance flourished. At one part of the walls where the old cannons still faced the outskirts of the wall was Puerta de Dilao. It is popular to couples and student lovers to spend afternoons after class here. Young lovers would sit atop the wall where they have the full view of the golf course below them and the clock tower of Manila across the horizon. Here they took naps under the shades where the tree grew taller than the wall, men serenaded their women, and some shared stolen kisses. Because it was December, the cool breeze had enveloped the afternoon, there were only tourists around, and Charles eagerly picked the perfect spot for him and Julia to sit and talk. Charles lighted their cigarettes and they watched the rich play golf, they waved at the players and some acknowledged their presence. Charles and Julia were all smiles that Friday afternoon, they now didn’t question why they were brought together – they now knew it was fate all along, after all those years of separation, without contact, without a clue, they now realized what their hearts longed for – they needed each other to warm their souls, to give each other comfort in their turbulent lives. “What have you been doing all these years?” asked Charles and Julia looked at the horizon to recollect memories of the past years. “I went to places; I travelled all around the country with my canvas and brush. I painted the stars and waves in El Nido, the crater of Mount Apo, the folks of Ifugao. I went to the churches of Cebu, the beaches of Bohol, the people of Mindanao. I found myself in these places, I remembered a part of me that was lost when I was heartbroken.” Julia explained with a slight smile on her face while she looked up to the clouds. “I was rediscovering myself, I was doing the things I thought I would never do. I thought I couldn’t travel alone, I thought I couldn’t be independent, but as my travels amassed, I learned a lot of things – to haggle for prices, to eat whatever was available, I even got to forage for food when I camped.” She continued. “Most importantly, I knew who I was, before my heart was shattered and who I am now. I am whole again, at least in this moment.” She hinted. “What do you mean at least in this moment?” he curiously asked. “There was one night when I was at the beach in Dapitan, and the stars lit the heaven so bright. The constellations were beautiful and I saw shooting stars, I wished upon each one I saw. But for the brightest star, I wished for you.” Julia professed. Charles was surprised of what he heard. Julia had just confessed that she had not forgotten him. Charles’ eyes had become misty, his heart skipped beats and so was Julia. The sun had set behind them and the darkness began to swallow the walled city. The winds of December blew cold and they looked at each other tensely, wondering what was on each other’s mind. Charles couldn’t react to what he heard, Julia could not continue to what she said. They were at the mercy of what’s next to come. “I often thought about you, too.” Charles answered as he dabbed his dewy eyes with a handkerchief. “You never slipped my mind, when I close my eyes all I saw was your wide, bright eyes. And I couldn’t forget the way you looked at me back at the bridge. The first time I laid my eyes on you I knew we connected. I felt your eyes go through my soul, and you stayed inside me all these years.” He continued. “How could I even forget you? It was you who gave me sleepless nights. Your smile haunted me, I often dream about you, about this moment when I finally see you again. I already have something in mind on what to do, but somehow when I saw your face, my heart danced all over the place.” Charles said with a slight tremble in his voice. “I know I told you before not to go looking for me, but when I started travelling, somehow I wanted to see you, even just to say a greeting. Sometimes when I paint, I stop and often think how you were doing or where you are during that time. I wished you were there to see me paint.” Julia replied. It became clear that they were still in each other’s hearts, that their memories were forever etched in each other. He wanted her, she needed him – There was nothing else to say to each other. Julia sighed and rested on Charles’ chest. He closed his eyes and leaned toward her, he was about make contact to her lips, to make love, but Julia looked the other way. “What’s wrong?” Charles asked curiously, not sure why Julia evaded his attempt. “Where were you all these years?! I waited and waited but you never came!” she became furious. “What are you talking about?” Charles was now confused, Julia had suddenly become hostile. “I went to the Chinese restaurant on Saturdays if time permitted me, I had hope you’d show up. I talked to the owner of that place and he said you never came back after that night you burst into tears.” Julia’s eyes now mimicked the waterfall. “But you said that I shouldn’t go looking for you, that I should let fate bring us back together. I wanted to find you, but I had to keep what you said, because I believed in what you said. And even if I wanted to see you, how could I possibly find you in these labyrinth streets of Manila?” “I wanted you to find me, I needed you to find me, and when I got tired of hoping, that’s when I thought that fate would never bring you to me again. I wanted to forget you! But I just couldn’t.” “I never forgot you, Julia. You were always inside me, playing in my dreams, just the thought of you made me smile. Whenever I rode the transit going to work, I always hoped that I’d come across you, or even just to see you. It never came, but your memories are still with me.” Charles tried to console Julia who has covered her face with her hands. “You took too long to come back!” Julia screamed and the walls wailed with her. “I never left.” Charles responded and he held Julia’s face up. He wiped her tears and looked at her. He was so confused why Julia was so mad when it was her who had pushed him away years ago. He looked at her and even in tears, Julia was beautiful, her skin was soft, it seemed that she never aged at all. He put his hand on her chin and the other to the back of her head and his lips reached in for a kiss, but again, Julia shied away. “What the matter?” Charles asked. “You took too long!” she replied. “What do you mean by that?” he asked again. Now he’s become impatient with Julia’s repulsiveness. And out of the bosom of her dress, she brought out a gold necklace with a diamond ringattached to it. “An engagement ring…” Charles breathlessly said as his world came tumbling down. He was shell-shocked, with this, his confusion became bitter clarity, all these years he waited for the right moment to be with her again and it all turned into a nightmare. Julia lifted the necklace and her hands shook. She knew that moment that she had shut the door on him. “It’s never that easy, Charles. You have a part in my heart, but I love him too, he saved me from the pain you brought in me.” Julia explained, and realizing that he had missed the chance to chase after Julia after all those years, the mist in his eyes had turned into sobbing, he covered his face in disbelief. “I thought fate would bring us joy, but instead it brought me depression.” Said Julia “I met James when I was in Cebu, I was painting and he came by to talk. And ever since that day, we travelled together. I found the comfort I was looking for, he’s very kind to me, he respects me, and supports all my decisions.” She continued. Charles’ heartbeat ponded, hi sweated profusely, and he felt the searing pain with every word Julia released from her inviting lips. “Fate is a cheater, a liar, a goddamn traitor! Fate stole you from me.” Charles was enraged, his heart raced and his veins pumped angrily. His face showed fury – He couldn’t accept the circumstances - that he lost her just when he thought he had her. “I wasn’t here in Intramuros to paint, I was here because I couldn’t cross the bridge. It hurt me, I was supposed to say farewell to all our memories and shut everything down in the drain. But when I got to the bridge my knees trembled and it all came back to me like a rush of wind. I couldn’t let go, I just couldn’t so I went and wandered around here. And here you are.” Julia said. “And here I am.” he responded, obviously still mad at himself for letting fate get the better of him. The streetlights have now glazed the walls, and the golf park fired its spot lights for the nighttime players. “Why didn’t you say this earlier?” he asked for an explanation. There was a long silence between them and they sat still atop the wall, they heard the laughter of the golfers but it brought no calm to their emotions. The Christmas zephyr blew against them but there was nothing colder than their hearts. And if there was something that lit between them, it was only the streetlights. They watched the tower clock hit the next hour and its bells rang out throughout the city. “You know why I wished for you that night in Dapitan?” Julia finally spoke. She turned her direction to Charles. “I wished upon the brightest star for you because James had asked me to marry him, and I refused him for a second time already. I begged the heavens to bring you to me when I arrive in Manila, but days turned into months and after a year, you were not around.” Julia stared at the engagement ring in her hand. “Maybe this is our fate, Charles. Maybe this night was the closure I needed. That this is what you were meant to be in my life.” Charles looked at her and in his eyes, his soul slowly vanished into thin air, he felt weaker with every word Julia said. He sensed Julia had already accepted the outcome of whatever they shared. After miserable minutes of deafening silence, she stood up and stretched her legs. “When that clock hits at nine in the evening, meet me at San Agustin Church.” Julia jumped off the wall and into the darkness she went. It was only a few minutes before the clock struck nine. Charles, distraught and confused soon followed. Julia kept her pace ahead of Charles. He didn’t know what Julia was up to but he kept a close distance. And when they arrived at the oldest Church in Intramuros, a mass was on-going – It was the first night of the Misa de Gallo. People gathered inside the church – cramped and most are unable to move, there were already plenty of people outside the church who could not come in. Julia stopped at the big wooden arch door of San Agustin, Charles was soon by his side. “Maybe it’s not fate we should put ourselves in, but in faith.” Julia said and grabbed Charles’ hand and went into the church. They squeezed in while the faithful listened to the last rites of the mass – The church was filled up to the center aisle where they made a slow push to the altar. “Do you have faith in anything?” Julia asked. “Yes, why?” Charles answered as they pressed on to the front. “I don’t know what your purpose is in my life, but I believe we are meant for something. If you see me someday, will you still call my name?” “I don’t know if I’ll see you again. Besides, you will have your own life, you will soon marry, have kids, and I’ll be buried in your memories and soon be forgotten.” Charles responded, the situation finally beginning to sink in. “I remember what you said to me about life – That it’s never how we planned it to be. You have a lot of that in your life, and you’re having one right now, with me.” Julia whispered. They were now halfway through the crowd, but they couldn’t push any further, people gave them death stares for pushing forward to the altar. “What happens to us now?” Charles asked, his eyes became misty once again as they looked each other in the eye, not caring for the other people cramped in the church. There was silence in the crowd but their heartbeats grew stronger and they could feel each other’s pump of blood in their veins. “We’ll go our separate ways, you will be somewhere, I will be somewhere – Let all things happen and accept it, do not demand the universe for it. If it is meant to happen, it will happen.” “Will you put us in the hands of fate again?” Charles frantically asked. The church was so crowded that their grip on each other’s hand began to weaken. “No, all I ask is for you to have faith in this.” Julia pleaded, her eyes had began to moist. “And why should I believe you this time, I already lost you the first time.” Charles’ voice faltered, and his eyes, watered. The mass had just finished and people began to leave the church, flocking against them. “Because there is no fate but what we make.” Julia said, and with a spineless smile, and a tear falling from her eyes, she released her bind from Charles’ grip and he was swept away by the wave of crowd making their way out of the faithful-filled church. He saw that Julia just stood silent at the aisle, she did not move, she watched Charles be slowly swallowed by the crowd and away from her. They kept their eyes locked to each other for as long as they could and Charles tried desperately to ride against the wave of people but he was swept outside. He waited for the people to empty the church plaza and kept an eye for Julia. But as the old wooden doors of San Agustin closed and the flock of people had disappeared, he was left alone. There was no sight of Julia, she had disappeared with the crowd. Charles looked at the façade of the church – big yellow Christmas bulbs surrounded the shape of the church. “The next time I see you, I won’t let you go!” he shouted at the plaza filled with people as a desperate plea to Julia, he knew in his heart that he had let her slip away from his love once again and no one heard him but the coldness of December. He remembered what Julia last said to him and he murmured what he could encapsulate. “Have faith, because there is no fate but what we make.” He said to himself. And as he lit a cigarette, a cold gale blew past him. He looked up – the constellations ever bright, in his mind was a doubt for the future. But in his heart, there was hope.

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