Hunting High and Low
The taxi pulled over in front of Starbucks Coffee along West Avenue an uncomfortable distance from the sidewalk. A jeepney had stopped, a little too abruptly, and occupied the spot my taxi’s driver had been trying to get into. I reached into my wallet, pulled out a fifty, and handed it to the driver. I thanked him and didn’t bother to ask for the change. He thanked me back and cracked a smile at Sergio Osmeña, whose smiled back with his eternal line-drawn smile. I heaved my bulky backpack out of the vehicle and closed the door.
It was another lazy afternoon, and I had decided against going home early to avoid the myriad of online distractions that plague me there. Starbucks Coffee was my haven of choice–the combined effect of crisp airconditioning, the gently oppressive taste of espresso, and the mighty melodies of my metal blaring straight into my ears has a very soothing effect on me, especially when staring at my students’ low quiz scores for too long.
The security guard greeted me with a smile from above the impressive volume of his chin. He had seen me in this particular establishment countless times, and he had always guided me into the building’s dismal parking spaces with fervor. As I came in without my own ride, he was content enough with opening the door for me. I smiled back at him and greeted him a good afternoon, though I could not hear myself over the opening riffs of a Stratovarius song throbbing in my earphones.
I quickly scanned the shop’s patrons. There was a young Korean couple seated near the window and two students poring over great piles of notes. A fine-featured lady sat in the far corner, immersed in her work. The shop’s ground floor was rather deserted for a weekday afternoon, but I preferred the isolation of the second floor.
I turned to Tin, the pretty barista with an impressive smile and a mass of braces.
“I’ll have a grande mocha frappuccino. No whip, double-blended, with an extra shot,” I said, as I scanned the sandwiches and pastries on display in the window refrigerator.
“Alright,” she replied. She furrowed her brow slightly, trying to remember my name and sheepishly continued. “May I have your name for the cup?”
At that point I remembered that she had a rather husky voice. I dismissively replied with my name, and allowed my eyes to wander over the pastries once more.
“Would you like a pastry to go with that?” she prodded.
Good salesperson sense, I thought. “Yeah, I’ll have a donut to go with that. Chocolate-dipped.”
I handed her two hundreds and a five. While she got my order ready, I allowed my eyes to wander once more around the room. I caught a glimpse of Fine-Featured Lady once more, but it was too far to see her clearly.Timo Tolkki began his song, wailing with a disembodied, echoing voice through my earphones.
“I feel the wind in my hair, and it’s whispering, telling me things, of the storm that is gathering near…”
I took my donut and walked over to the bar and took a straw from the dispenser. Tin’s chubby partner, also wearing the black-and-green uniform, handed me my drink. I thanked her with a smile—I always do—and tore at the straw’s paper wrapper with one hand. I pulled the straw out with my teeth, as I had done countless times before, and introduced it into the icy embrace of the rich-smelling frappuccino.
I proceeded up the stairs to the second floor to take my place, as I had previously decided, but stopped and turned back when a wall of hot air hit me. The airconditioning had not been turned on there, as it was empty. I walked back down the stairs, trying to find a place to lay down my heavy backpack and plug in my laptop. Seeing that there were no available outlets, I took a seat near Fine-Featured Lady and prepared my little niche for work and snacking.
“I am hunting high and low/Diving from the sky above looking for more and more, once again…”
The Stratovarius song was blaring its energetic chorus now, and it was at this point that I noticed that Fine-Featured Lady was much more than fine-featured, and much more than merely pleasing to look at. I made a little show of setting up my laptop, and got down to begin the tedious work of recording quizzes.
“I am hunting high and low/Sometimes I may win sometimes I’ll lose/It’s just a game that I play”, continued the chorus.
Fine-Featured Lady was curled up in her sofa-style chair. Her skin was very fair, with a very slight blush near the cheeks. Her eyes, viciously absorbed in whatever she was typing on her laptop, were veiled by long, dark eyelashes. She had a dark, wavy ponytail falling like a pile of feathers down the back of her light gray hoodie. She had in her hands a school textbook, bound in white with a silver-stamped title. Her bare feet were lifted off the cold floor; her simple, green rubber slippers lay there. I decided that she must be a foreigner who, judging by the silver text on her book’s cover, was studying in a local university.
With some difficulty, I pried my eyes off Fine-Featured Lady and got back to my work. I sighed as I looked at the dismal scores of my students, and sighed a second time as my spreadsheet began to display numbers in red. At this point, there was no contest as to which view I preferred.
Fine-Featured Lady lifted her venti-size cup to her lips—a hot drink, I noticed, probably a latte—and set it down on the side of her coffee table facing me. On the cup’s white side, written by the barista with a felt-tipped pen, was her name–Isabel.
A rather common name for such an uncommonly striking lady, I thought, as I attempted to undistract myself once more. I moved my fingers at a feverish pace across my keyboard, tapping in the disheartening quiz scores one by one. It was not long before I hit papers with 2/10 written on them. Sighing, I quickly found my eyes inching toward Isabel once more.
I stood up, pretending to stretch, pretending to look out the window at the people outside. I adjusted my glasses to conceal my eyes, and looked down at her. She was resting her chin on her left hand as her right touched the keyboard. Her dark iris quickly slid toward the corner of her eye to face me for less than a second, then went back to her work just as it had come.
I wasn’t very good at this.
I sat back down and resumed my journey to the abyss of my students’ quiz scores. Doing so did not take long, and thankfully did not go below 2/10. Still a disappointing result.
The song had repeated itself, Timo Tolkki reprising the first verse:
I feel the wind in my hair
And it’s whispering, telling me things
Of the storm that is gathering near
Full of power I’m spreading my wings
With my stack of quiz papers all recorded and neatly clipped together, I called up my lesson plan for the next day from the recent documents menu. I tried to bury myself in this, as I was in love with the story we were to discuss. Alas. Talking about a man with red boots, as alluring as it was, was not captivating as staring at this lady’s movements.
Isabel stood up and asked the man seated beside me if he would kindly watch her laptop while she went to the restroom upstairs. The man nodded, and the lady left. I smoothed my hair as she went past, and minimized all the windows on my desktop except for my player.
Now I’m leaving my worries behind
Feel the freedom of body and mind
I am starting my journey, I’m drifting away with the wind
Isabel brushed past me as she returned to her seat. She trailed a mild whiff of cologne that seemed to draw my gaze to her face once more. The straight, evenly-sloped bridge of her nose and the richness of her hair brought back memories of mestizas and the first stirrings of my heart long ago. Those were good days, innocent days, awkward days, spent running through my mother’s office hand-in-hand or idly chatting on the phone.
I cracked my knuckles noisily to return myself to the present reality of my laptop humming in front of me. I looked at Isabel once more, over the top of my computer’s screen, and noticed that her rose-colored lips were parted and moving gently, as if whispering to herself what she had just typed, or perhaps lip-synching the song that was playing on her earphones. I wondered what it would be like to touch them with my fingers or my lips, but I wrenched my mind free of that train of thought. Even inner theaters had to be censored. Still, this did not stop a sappy PG-13 movie, which involved the fragrance of hair and some close bodily contact, from screening.
I took a sip from my frappuccino and set it down on the edge of the table, the side on which my name was written facing her. She’ll look, I thought. She’ll see my name, and then–then what?
After halfheartedly entering a few ranting lines on my lesson plan, I decided to put it aside. I gave Stratovarius a rest–the poor Finns had been playing non-stop for at least 45 minutes now–and closed my player. I fished out a black DVD from my bag–my key to the world of Abeir-Toril, a world I could save–and tried to drown myself in Neverwinter Nights 2.
Outside the window, along the road, a jackhammer anchored itself in position.
I fumbled with the video game for several minutes, making mistakes and reloading several times. As immersive as saving a fantasy world alongside elves, dwarves and warlocks was, it was hopeless to keep from noticing how Isabel’s features began reminding me of Liv Tyler’s Arwen in Lord of the Rings. I buried my head in my palms, sighing, struggling. Lovely CGI elves and even a charming tiefling were just not as fetching as a flesh-blood-and-spirit lady. And now, even as my character and his companions struggled to put the King of Shadows to rest, I was struggling–in vain–to keep my mind from wandering.
The jackhammer began its work, driving its heavy metal point into the concrete base of a street sign. The machine’s mighty pounding was reduced to a click-click-click by the window’s thick plate glass, the force was jarring enough to send minor tremors into the coffee shop. Cracks began to spiderweb across the gray surface. I blinked and rubbed my temples, and turned back to my game.
At length, my characters finally slew the ancient, shadowy menace and my game ended. At this point I would have normally stood up and left, but I was rooted to my seat. I peeked over the monitor once more at Isabel. I opened up a trainer module and began testing a tiefling warlock character, but my eyes were hopelessly afflicted with wanderlust. Even as my warlock smote a horde of orcs with her eldritch magic, my own eyes were rendered helpless by other eldritch forces that worked within my own mind.
The jackhammer had finished its job. The concrete was pulverized completely, and the sign had keeled over. I stole another glance at Isabel. She was on the phone, smiling and laughing–her voice told me that she was actually not a foreigner as I had previously thought. Her Tagalog was perfect. Her desktop wallpaper was visible, it seemed to be a picture of her with a sister or close friend.
Soon all the orcs were lying dead at the feet of my tiefling, and I had to use the washroom. I planned to ask Isabel if she would kindly watch my laptop as I went to the restroom upstairs. I wanted to even use her name when addressing her, instead of the typical “Excuse me miss” line that I was so used to. Instead, I pressed Alt-F4 and waited for my laptop to shut down. Making a little show of packing up, as I am prone to doing, I replaced my computer into its foam-padded nook in my pack, and went up the stairs to use the washroom. I turned on my mp3 player once more; Timo Tolkki promptly resumed his singing.
After the storm there’s a calm
Through the clouds shines a ray of the sun
I am carried from all of my harm
There is no one that I can’t outrun
I realized someone was still using the washroom, so I stood in the hallway for several moments. My eyes were no longer stalking their prey, but my mind was. I took my turn, washed my hands and wet my hair. I went down the stairs and sneaked a furtive glance at Isabel as I walked toward the door.
Now I’m leaving my worries behind
Feel the freedom of body and mind
I am starting my journey, I’m drifting away with the wind
I walked toward the curb with sure strides, thanking the guard as I left. Seeing several people waiting for a cab, I decided to just walk home. Stratovarius was singing at its highest, the instruments reaching fever pitch.
I am Hunting High and Low
Diving from the sky above
Looking for, more and more, once again
I’m Hunting High and Low
Sometimes I may win sometimes I’ll lose
It’s just a game that I play
It’s not a game, Timo, I thought as I crossed the street. I sifted through the images my mind had captured at the risk of getting captured itself—images of the Fine-Featured Lady who I would probably never meet again. At this point I toyed with thoughts of who the hunter really was, decided it didn’t really matter, and clicked the button on my player that led to the next song.