George had always been interested in the things and people that surrounded him. Even now, ready to kick the bucket, as he liked to joke, he still enjoyed watching people in public places and listening to conversations on the buses or in restaurants. His new Facebook account gave him a new outlet to pursue his curiosity. One day he was messaging back and forth with Mateo, one of his first Facebook friends, who asked him, “What are you doing?”
“Reading people’s posts, looking at photos…” he replied.
“Stalking?” Mateo interrupted him.
“And so what if I am?”
“Why so defensive?” Mateo said.
Silent for a few seconds, George responded, “You hide behind those quotes you’re always sharing. You think that’s better?”
“Are you mad at me?”
A few weeks earlier, Mateo’s photos on Cambodia had caught George’s attention. The two men connected and had been chatting every two or three days since then. The 28-year-old Filipino declared that he found the past – both people and artifacts – more interesting than the present. Mateo always sounded as if he was from another planet or an earlier century. One day George asked him, “Who are you?”
Mateo replied, “A babaylan.”
“I’m physically young, but my soul is as old as a child.”
[…] Over the next several days, Mateo introduced George to the legends and myths of Panay Island in the Western Visayas, the region of the Philippines where he grew up. In a message, he inserted a paragraph downloaded from the Internet: “The Philippines has a rich pre-colonial history and myths. Filipinos attribute all things in nature that give life to women. Water is life, therefore their term for a lake is ba-e (a high-status lady). Only a woman who can give life can become a babaylan. They also believe that someone who can give life can also heal others. If a man wants to become a babaylan, he has to possess a ‘female’ attribute like long hair.”
“Is that why you keep your hair long and in a ponytail?” George asked.
Mateo ignored the question. Instead he typed, “Send me a photo. I want to see you.”
“Why would I do that?” George reacted.
“All this chatting is taking place in air,” Mateo wrote. There was obviously more to come, the dots in the messenger box were dancing. “Are you afraid of what you are?”
[…] Mateo’s remark shocked George, who was tempted to fire back Who do you think you are? or simply unfriend the arrogant youth. Even though George’s Facebook experience was rather limited (no more than a few months), he had already noticed that some people used the medium as a quick way of brushing off a problem or an unpleasant feeling. One click and presto! problem gone.
“I’m still alive,” he replied. “Is that what you’re wondering about?”
“Why are you afraid of showing your face?”
[…] George enjoyed reading about ancient myths and legends, as they took him back to his university days. Mateo often shared traditional stories from his homeland, but would suddenly cut things short, leaving George disappointed. “Now, professor, I need to sleep. Goodnight.” Once, he signed off with, “Kalugdan ka ni La-on. May you be favoured by the gods.”
[…] Was this virtual intimacy a poor substitute or a complete fake? George wondered. Two people start chatting and then, with no warning, intimacy happens; a shallow and fragile feeling at the mercy of the slightest draft.
“Sorry, I need to do my laundry,” Mateo said one day, to George’s frustration. This is what you get for taking Facebook as any kind of reality, he decided. Whenever they messaged, the day was almost over in the Philippines, while George was just getting up.
“Empty your heart of its desires and fill your body with food,” Mateo messaged with a hehehe.
“You and your parables!”
The following day Mateo asked again, “Send me a photo of you. I just want to see you.”
“I’ll leave it to your imagination,” George replied. “What does it matter, anyway? I’m old.”
“I thought you were wise. But you are a child.”
[…] Finally giving in to Mateo’s request, George searched his Pictures folder and found a recent dramatic black-and-white photo showing him as an almost-bald man with a sun-burned, crevassed face, “Here’s a photo.”
“Wow, those silver hairs of wisdom!”
“I’m old, I told you.”
“Are you afraid of dying, philosopher?”
“Writing is my way of postponing the end.”
“Can you do it forever?”
“Damn you!” George typed. Before pressing Send, he added, hehehe.
Now the barriers were down. From that day on, George thought, his life on Facebook would be different. It would be a death in slow motion.
© Charles Au Lavoie
Victoria, August 28, 2018