As a child, the first acronym I learn is “TNT,” tago nang tago, someone who’s always in hiding. I imagine you playing Counterstrike. You would duck around the corner of a building, crouch behind the bushes or keep still like a statue at a park to avoid looking conspicuous. Silence is safety. In the small living room, Mama with my aunts utter the three letters in hushed voices as if they are the ones hiding, afraid of getting found. You excel at the game because your playmates just give up and appear defeated, then leave when they couldn’t find you. I want to cheer you on. But after the game is over, once the sun goes down, my brother and I still look for you, and wonder why you haven’t come home.
My body jerks as if to help my character leap for safety. I smash the buttons on the controller, I’m careful not to hit a Koopa, fall into a cliff, and risk elimination while playing Super Mario Brothers. You could be him, deft at dashing past obstacles or sneaking through unmanned checkpoints, past the first, second, and third border, onto the safe side. But you did not follow the rule, which requires returning and heading to the opposite direction through the same guards and security borders you once slipped past, over the ocean, and back to the homebase where you started.
While waiting for your return, your absence forced us to bunny hop through school, heartbreaks, and work, expecting us to make it to the other side on our own. We hobbled through this course without a cheat code for extra boost in our life bar. We lost our balance without a chance at round two.
They tell me to tell you, or you tell me to tell them. You and my mother don’t tell each other anything because you’re not on speaking terms. You live under the same roof; I am twelve time zones away. We’re all getting better at passing the message like a game of Pong, but I’m not sure we’re getting the message across, which one is accurate, who’s the winner. In fact all of us might be losing.
You do return. You ask for money to buy homecoming gifts to pass them off as yours, and a one-way ticket back to Manila to finally complete your journey, almost two decades too late. But it seems it’s game over. Your children are grown. I am neither present to meet you at the airport, nor share your favorite snack of siopao and mami after a visit to your old house with Lolo and Lola—your parents—now both gone. The empty gaming chair—from celebrations during college graduations, a wedding, and other milestones—that was yours, is now mine. I am now the one away. I left the seat while the race was on.