The train was often a canister of densely packed bodies in the late afternoon. The sun bathed the car in light through the fingerprint stained glass, as if saying goodbye to the city before it relented the sky to the night for safe keeping. Inside, salty sweat warmed the car faster than the air conditioning could cool it, but the commuters didn’t mind. The city’s summer heat was a far worse alternative. The car, at least, was not as humid.
This afternoon was no different.
The line on the platform was non-existent, and the would-be passengers stood in solid chunks at intervals on the platform. Impatience was evident after two trains had rattled past them filled with people, unwilling to open their doors. The skip trains, as they were called, brought the false hope of an early homecoming to commuters, only to crush their expectations by speeding past without picking up passengers.
Twice did the trains play their games in this way, and quite frankly, the commuters no longer wished to play along.
Perhaps the operators sensed this, and thus sent an empty train hurtling their way as the chunks of waiting commuters swelled like cookies being baked in an oven.
At last, sighed the hoard when the train came into view. The moment it screeched to a halt, bodies squashed themselves onto and off of the platform. Leo Masagi’s own body was amongst them, shoving through the crowd with his broad shoulders to get himself into that train.
At half past five, Leo was running late. His not-so-baby sister had been let out of school an hour ago, and he was meant to arrive at the gate at precisely six o’clock.
Leo glanced at his watch and allowed a groan to escape his lips. He shuffled into the train as quickly as his feet could take him. The doors began beeping, warning passengers to hop on board.
As the doors closed behind him, heavy bodies slammed against Leo’s back. He could feel the weight of a pudgy man against him. Too often had he been groped by seemingly innocent bystanders, so he discretely inched away from the man’s bulging stomach, fearful that something more intimate would press itself against his flesh.
The common chorus of ‘oi’s and the ‘move to the centre of the car, will you’s were absent this afternoon despite all the space towards the centre of the cart. Perhaps the heat rendered the passengers momentarily mute. But no, Leo could hear faint whispers around him.
“I’ve read about his sort,” the pudgy man was saying, “But I never thought I’d see one.”
“I can’t believe the guards even let him in,” his small companion muttered bitterly, hobbling away from the door.
“We used to have a house helper like him,” a stout old woman murmured to her niece, “but we let her go. Nasty business, it is.”
Leo felt curiosity stir in his belly. What was this nasty business they were all talking about?
He ventured to the centre of the car, where there was room to breath. Leo wriggled past men with backpacks sticking out like humps from their spines, and past women with wide shopping bags filled with fruits and vegetables propped up between their feet.
Though the space enabled him to roll his shoulders back, Leo felt the air thicken. The passengers this side of the car held their handkerchiefs close to their mouths as if bile would spill out any moment.
It was by chance Leo saw him. Perhaps the emptiness that surrounded the man lured Leo’s gaze. He was a leper, Leo understood as he gazed at the body covered with open sores. It looked as if chunks of flesh had been scooped out of him, leaving behind rotting flesh and exposed bone. The sickness covered his body—from his face to his arms to his legs. White puss oozed from the open wounds. Whether it was the body’s attempt at healing itself or giving up was beyond Leo.
He suddenly wished he had boarded another train car. The sight of the man gave him goose bumps.
Where the Leper’s flesh disappeared into his shirt’s paper-thin fabric, a white salve kept the cloth from plastering itself onto the healing skin. His leather sandals dug into soiled bandages, causing the Leper immense pain.
Leo turned away in disgust. He felt bile lurch up his throat as the leper’s image imprinted itself onto his memory. The clip rolled itself over and over again in his mind long after the encounter. To this day, Leo had not been able to shut his eyes without seeing the Leper.
He’d grown accustomed to it. In fact, he had once expressed a touch of fondness over the memory. His broken record mind taught him sympathy for those who had received none of it. But on that day, when the memory was yet reality, he had nothing but distaste for the Leper.
Leo looked over to the man with blackened flesh. His mind echoed the opinions of his fellow commuters: this man should not have been allowed on the train.
And yet, amidst his disgust, a small voice urged him to gaze on, as if he had missed really seeing the Leper.
Over and over again, Leo’s eyes drifted towards the man’s disfigured form.
Finally, he saw all he had missed.
The Leper stared down at the floor with hollow eyes that saw without seeing. Leo needn’t wonder whether the man heard the opinions voiced by his fellow passengers. As he studied the sick man, he knew the Leper felt their words. The way he sat with his shoulders hunched forward revealed enough as the man took as little space as physically possible whilst enduring physical and emotional torment.
The whispers were indiscreet, getting louder and louder as commentary turned to conversation.
“But it’s not airborne, is it?” the pudgy man had exclaimed.
“Of course not, don’t be daft,” his small friend said, coughing up laughter as he did.
“Worth my asking,” the pudgy man grumbled.
Despite assuredly breathing clean air, the pudgy man and his friend stayed as far away from the Leper as possible. Most commuters thought the same in this respect: the further they stood from the sick man, the further the sickness was. They averted their eyes and had their minds play tricks, pretending the Leper was absent though he was present.
Leo’s eyes were fixed on the Leper, who, over the course of the conversation, had arched his back further inward. His eyes, bordered with swelling flesh, had glazed over.
If a person required human acknowledgement to exist, the Leper would have disappeared that instance. He was perhaps more reviled by all in the train despite the presence of a stocky man at the far end of the car groping up a terrified young girl’s bottom.
Such was the nature of disease, as the Leper was well aware: there was no concealing his putrid physique. Rarely did a man’s nature look past what his eyes could see into the depths of his soul.
A pang of pity hit Leo squarely in his chest. Suddenly, his revulsion encompassed more than just the sick man’s rotting flesh. He turned to scowl at his fellow passengers. If he had been confronted with a mirror, he would have scowled at himself.
What was this mean spirit he felt in himself? Could it be that the rotten ones in the car were those with healthy skin and rosy cheeks?
Such was the irony of it: the abled bodied were those who forgot the value of their health, and the sick were those who were too well aware of it.
Leo was suddenly very conscious of his evenly tanned skin, and the fact that there was no reason for anyone to stare at him. He glared at his feet in distain—distain of himself, of these wretched commuters, of the Leper’s fate.
But his distain was short lived. The train slowed to a halt and nearly all the passengers shuffled out of the cramped car. They did not disembark for fear of contamination, oh no, though they were more than happy to be rid of the Leper. They had simply arrived at their destination, and it just so happened that their destination led them away from the sick man.
So it was that Leo was left alone with the Leper. He chanced another glance at the man, and found it impossible to pull his eyes away.
How could he avert his gaze when he had become so aware of this poor man’s plight?
Each screech of the train sent his shirt rubbing against his wounds, and he winced. His jaw clenched tightly as he struggled to breath normally.
Leo felt words tug at his throat. Somehow, intuition urged him to act—some small act of kindness ought to do it. Some small act of kindness ought to ease this poor man’s pain.
But the floor was like tar keeping his shoes in place, for his sense told him not to go out of his way. His throat was like honey keeping words from climbing up its walls, for his tongue could not decide what he ought to say. What, after all, could he say to make anything any better? And Manila folk don’t just walk up to strangers, Leo thought. Such a thing was abnormal in his city. Such a thing was abnormal to his lifestyle. But still, ought he to do something? Ought he say something? What if he was capable of easing the Leper’s pain in some way? Shouldn’t he ease it?
Leo turned his gaze to the horizon that lay beyond the car’s windows. The large orange sun had accomplished today’s journey, and had accomplished his retreat. The skyscrapers stood tall, craning their necks towards the heavens as the moon loomed above them.
He rode the train so often that he could count the number of streets they fly past before the car will alight on the next platform—the platform he disembarks on. Just as they past the seventh street from the next stop, Leo glances at the Leper. The sick man glances back at him, and for a brief moment, their eyes meet. Leo clenches his jaw, unsure of what to do.
The Leper’s eyes shift from hollow orbs to desperate pleading ones. His frown softens, and Leo assumes he’s about to speak.
Leo, unable to form words, forces his lips to pull into a tight smile. The Leper stared at him, astonished.
Was that the fourth street or the third?
Leo turned his head to look at the street below after having lost count, and, in doing so, did not see the Leper twist his lips painfully to smile back.
Just as Leo glanced back at the Leper, his smile faded and the sick man had dropped his gaze, frowning once again at his bandaged feet.
Leo felt his heart plummet into his stomach. If he had only the patience of another moment, he would have seen the Leper smile. Perhaps, then, his own would have mattered.
The train slowed to a stop, and the tar beneath his feet gave way. He glanced at the Leper once more as the doors peel open and a blast of humidity caused his cheeks to flush. The sick man does not dare lift his head again. Not to witness how one turned away. Not again.
With a sigh, Leo turned away and disembarked—aware that the unseen wounds he had left un-bandaged were those he could have healed. That day, he had acquired a putrid guilt that gnawed at his heart just as the disease gnawed at the Leper’s flesh. Guilt was a funny thing that he carried with him far into the future. But guilt did nothing for the Leper. It only reminded young Leo of what he could have done. What he had not done.