by B.J. Stolbov
Author's Note: The Philippines has more than 2.2 million Overseas Foreign Workers (OFWs) working in every field of employment in almost every country in the world. There are countless others who, for a better life, must leave their homes and go away. And there are many more unnoticed ones who stay.
Two young men, Juan and José sit, side-by-side, day after day, week after week, month after month, year after year, beside the road, watching the cars and the vans and the trucks and the buses going by.
Both are high school graduates, but no more than that; neither of their families could afford to send them to school anymore.
Juan lives on this side of the road. He helps around the house, helps to raise his younger brothers and sisters, and helps in his mother’s ukay-ukay (used clothing) store. Juan has not heard from his father for years.
José lives on the other side of the road. His parents farm a small patch of land behind the house. His brothers and sisters help. José has no feeling for the land. He’s good with his hands, works odd jobs, whatever he can get, whenever he can get them. But almost every day, he crosses the road and sits in front of the store with Juan, talking and listening to Juan. They have known each other for . . . forever.
They talk about their families, their relatives, their friends, their friends’ friends, about all the people that they know, and that they have known all their lives. They talk, occasionally, about their plans, hopes, and dreams. Then, eventually, they stop and go back to silently watching the cars and the vans and the trucks and the buses going by.
One day, one cool clear bright windy day, José crosses the road, carrying a large bag in his arms. Maybe because of the weight of the bag, he walks more slowly than usual. He looks serious; his walk more determined.
“Where are you going?” asks Juan.
“Away,” answers José.
“Anywhere.” After a pause, José sits down and says, “I can’t stay here anymore.”
Shocked, Juan turns and looks at his good friend José. “You’re dying?”
José doesn’t look at Juan. He looks around and then back across the empty road to the house and the land and beyond. “I’m dying here.” He shakes his head, takes a deep breath, then points to himself, “I’m dying here, inside, in my heart. I’ve lived my whole life here, I’ve done everything here, and I’ve done nothing. There’s nothing left for me here.”
“Where will you go?”
“What will you do?”
“Anything.” José puts his bag down and looks down at his hands. “I can do the same anything wherever I go. All I need is something to eat and a place for shelter in bad weather and some clothes,” he says, patting the side of the not-full bag, “that’s all I need.”
“When are you leaving?”
“Today.” He looks over at his good friend, and even though they have always known each other, José hesitates, before asking Juan sincerely, “Will you go with me?”
Juan is the slower, more stable, thinker of the two. He has to go over and over his thoughts. He does not like to make changes and it takes him a long while to make even a little change. His decisions come slower and, when he makes his decision, he does not change his mind often, if at all. “I have responsibilities here. I have my mother and brothers and sisters who depend on me.”
For the first time in all the years that they have known each other, José gets loud with his friend. “Look around you! This is your life and will always be your life if you don’t change it.”
Juan does not need to look around; he just looks down. “I do not know . . .”
“I don’t know either. But I do know what will happen to me if I don’t leave here. I will do the same thing, day after day, the same nothing until I die!”
Juan looks up and stares over at his good friend. “Do you think that being here with me is nothing?”
“No, that’s not the way I wanted that to sound. You know I like being with you. I just don’t like being with you, here. Come with me! We will go and see something different. Even if it is only the other side of the next mountain.”
“I do not know how I can leave here,” Juan responds. “I know what I know here. Out there, I do not know anyone; I do not know what I will be. Here, I am a son, a brother, and, until right now, your best friend.”
“You will always be my best friend,” José replies. “You will be no different, or, maybe, you will be completely different. There is no way to know, but to go. Perhaps I will fail. Perhaps I will succeed and my grandest dreams will come true. I only know that the answer to my life is somewhere out there.”
“And I only know that my life is here. I want to be happy and I am calmly happy here. I have my responsibilities, but they are good responsibilities. They tell me what to do and I know what I am to do. I am not always content, no one is, but that is my problem, inside of me. The answer for my discontent is not somewhere out there, it is somewhere in me.”
“Yes, I, too, am not content. But I know that I will never be happy here because I can’t live my dreams here. I know that I am leaving everything, everything but this one bag, behind me. I know that to you I am leaving. To me, I’m going somewhere, anywhere.”
“Have you told your parents?”
“I’ll tell them tomorrow,” José stops, thinks for a moment more, then says, “or when I have something to tell them.”
Juan gets up and goes into the used clothing store. He looks through a pile of old clothes and takes out a deep blue, hooded sweatshirt. He unfolds the sweatshirt, looks it over carefully, brushes it clean, then folds it neatly, and hands it to José. “I hear it can get cold out there.”
“Thank you,” José says, “but I don’t have any money.”
“You can pay me when you come back,” Juan pauses; his eyes look moist, sad, and far away. He sits down. “You will come back someday?”
“I’ll try.” José takes the sweatshirt and puts it into his bag. He picks up his bag, then puts it back down.
There is nothing more to say to each other, but neither of them wants to be the first to say good-bye.
José looks at Juan, and then embraces him warmly. They hug each other for a long, long time. José is the first to separate.
Juan asks, “Which way are you going?
“I don’t know.” José shrugs his shoulders and grins like a little boy with the whole world and his life before him. He picks up his bag, looks out, smiles, and says, “Away.”
The story behind the story by BJ Stolbov:
"I was riding in a long-distance bus through a nameless small village in the mountains of Northern Luzon in the Philippines when I saw two young men sitting beside the road, watching my bus go by. And I remembered the feelings I had from my own younger days growing up in a small town in the Appalachian Mountains of Eastern Pennsylvania, sitting in front of a local coffee shop, watching the cars driving by, watching the world going by, and hoping that someday I would get out of there and see some of the world. I did."