Flash Fiction by Angelo Lorenzo
Memories on the Riverside
People leave, Joaquin thought as he gazed at the river. His mother’s petition had just been approved, and it wouldn’t take long before he’d move to the States and reside there for good. But he wished to trade his lifetime just to see Rochelle again. So on a mild Saturday afternoon, he went to the riverside park and thought of her.
Maintained by the convent of the cathedral behind it, the riverside was carpeted with lush trimmed Bermuda grass. Two golden trumpet trees stood at opposite distances on each side of the stone bench where he sat. As a warm breeze breathed through the late afternoon, yellow petals fell from their twisted branches, speckling the grass like mosaic on green canvass. The sun glowed faintly in the blue sky, its fading rays glittering over the river’s surface. Joaquin knew that this would be a perfect moment for Rochelle.
Of all the places she had loved, this was the picture-perfect spot. Joaquin remembered the photo he took of her, fished out his phone from his pocket, and searched the gallery. He found her sitting on the same stone bench, smiling in her white dress as brown eyes looked straight to the camera. There had been petals on her head like a torn laurel, unintentional accessories swept by the wind from the trees’ branches, before he took a snap of the camera. Her hair cascaded like straight black curtains on each side of her face. He remembered her well that afternoon, and felt his eyes sting as their conversation came to mind once again. The image was taken in the summer of last year, just months before the incident happened. The riverside park may have been a picture-perfect spot for her, but for Joaquin, it was a landmark that fortified his fateful decision.
“I don’t think America is for me,” he had said.
“But what about your mother’s petition?” The smile had faded from her face. She had sat beside him on the stone bench.
“What am I gonna do there?” He had never thought about how his degree and license would get him a job in a place foreign to him. If America had its own engineers, why should they hire him? He’d have to start from scratch, and what use would his education be if he couldn’t practice it there?
“Besides, I’m here with you.” He had held her hand. It was soft against his touch. He had no plans to leave the Philippines, most especially when a future with Rochelle was most likely.
They had met in college, as classmates in a world literature class during their sophomore year. Because similar classes for Engineering students had been full that semester, he had no choice but to take one for English majors. Literature had not been of particular importance to his studies, and he was not as much of a reader as she. So when their professor required a weekly book report on the classics, he had sought the assistance of Rochelle, who had been seated beside him, to help him choose which books were worth reading and reporting. That was when he had been introduced to Dickens, Tolstoy, Hugo, and Orwell. Library sessions led to dates, and led to a relationship.
“All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” He remembered her quoting Tolstoy, taken from his seminal novel, Anna Karenina. “After years of being apart, don’t you think it’s about time to reunite with your mother and live with her again?”
“Does it have to be in America?”
“She has a career there.”
“But what about us?”
Their two-year relationship had made him believe that she was the one. He had planned on telling his mother about his decision when she returned for his graduation, but in December last year, the river – the same river he was gazing at now – had changed its course.
He remembered that evening, when the sky wept and smashed its tears over the defenseless city. The wind had raged to bursting thunder as lightning rippled in radiant flashes across thick black clouds. They had been on their way home from school, huddled in a jeepney, before getting off at a sidewalk. Rochelle’s house belonged to a neighborhood that lay close to the riverbank. Hand-in-hand, they had trodden a slippery path between drenched houses before they reached the front garden of her house.
He held the umbrella handle just as he had held her hand - secure and gentle. “Are you sure you’ll be okay tonight?”
“I’m home now,” she said. Her cheeks had been slightly beaded with raindrops, accumulating over her brown skin before cascading like tears. “I should ask you that. Maybe you should stay with us in the meantime before the storm stops. Mama’s cooking rice porridge and it’ll warm you up.”
Joaquin chuckled. “I’ll be okay.” He glanced around him. The storm had been ceaseless. Strong winds folded the edges of tin roofs. He thought about his grandparents in their neighborhood uptown. They raised him like their son while his mother nursed the elderly residing in a California retirement home. He didn’t want his grandparents to worry about him. He had to be home soon.
They had parted like couples do – their lips against each other in a momentous touch. Her lips had been warm against his amidst the cold wind.
But morning came and his calls went unanswered. He wanted to check on her, but his phone could not register an initial ring. When he came down to the living room, the morning report hooked his attention. News had flashed like the lightning of the night before, shocking people with reports of a thousand calamities in one night. The river from which Cagayan de Oro City took its name had surged beyond its banks, drowning communities, homes, families, and lives with its fierce current at midnight. By dawn, the storm had calmed, but the flood still lingered. Those residing by the riverside found no refuge before the rafts came.
That was nearly a year ago, and Joaquin had never seen Rochelle again. She left nothing behind just as those who passed on. What was left was the memory.
He graduated alone, and his mother came home to tell him that the petition was underway. He never told her about his decision. Now that Rochelle was gone, he struggled to find any reason to stay.
“What about you, Lolo?” he asked his grandfather one evening in their living room after discussing his move to America with his mother. “I can’t just leave you and Lola here. You’re family, too.”
“Apo, when your mother was your age, she had us,” his grandfather had said. “She can’t just live alone after years of being separated from you, can she?”
Joaquin, who had been pacing around the living room to articulate an honest response, halted. “Can’t you and Lola come, too?”
His grandfather, sitting in a cushioned single-seat couch, had leaned over. “Joaquin, your grandmother and I have made our home here. We have lived our lives and we hope to see you live yours, too. It’s a bigger world out there, and you’d get to see it with the years ahead of you.”
He had hoped those years would be spent with Rochelle. If only it was possible for memories to become reality, to draw the past to the present and use it as a gauge for the future. But some things, just like the storm, happen beyond expectation.
“But it’s just so hard…” He felt his knees shaking, and his sight blurred when his eyes stung. “People leave. Mom… Dad…”
His grandfather stood from the couch and gently laid his wrinkled hand over his grandson’s trembling shoulder. “Joaquin, I know what you are going through. Sometimes, Apo, all we can do is to make the most of what we have, what we’re given, and what’s left of what we had. Your father left not because of a storm, but because of his choice. And your mother did everything she could to support you. She did not leave you because she wanted to. Now, you have the choice to be with her again.”
Recalling their conversation made it clearer for him this time. In the present, he was alone on the riverside, and this would probably be his last visit before he leaves. As he sat on the stone bench, he gazed at the river beyond the railing. This river crossed the city, dividing his hometown in two just as oceans divide countries and circumstances separate people. He got up, walked towards the railing, and leaned over the steel bar, rusted with age. A warm breeze whispered over the water once again and his black hair fluttered. He trailed his eyes over the river’s course. It passed beneath a bridge, along communities that had been evacuated since the storm, flowing towards the sea beyond, where space was limitless.
Rochelle did not choose to leave him. The storm happened, and then she was gone. But recalling her words, he knew she wanted what was best for him. He was about to enter a new phase, and although she was not here to share it with him, he would keep her in his memory forever. He gazed at the rose in his hand. Its petals were as white as her dress in that picture he had taken, long ago. Wherever she might be, she always had a place in his heart.
He kissed the tip of the rose, gently, just like the momentous touch shared between couples briefly leaving each other. Then he let go, and watched the white petals fall to the river below. It landed on the clear surface, just at the edge of the bank, sending ripples that marred the reflection of the sun and the blue sky above. It floated on its course. Wherever it led to, Joaquin could not know. But whom it was for, he’d always know by name.
The afternoon sun stretched its rays before descending behind the gathering clouds, its glare as vivid as the memory of Rochelle.
Angelo Lorenzo is a writer from Cagayan de Oro City, Philippines. His works range from journalism to literature. His short stories have appeared on The Wellington Street Review, New Pop Lit, and InQluded Digital Magazine, among others. He is currently taking his Master's Degree in Literature at Xavier University - Ateneo de Cagayan.
Author's Note: It is a piece that is quite personal because the flooding incident did happen in Cagayan de Oro City back in 2011. There were many people who had lost their loved ones.