As I wait for the break of dawn, I let my cup of coffee sit still on the table. A few more minutes, I tell myself, knowing too well that to drink it too soon would be to burn my tongue. I listen to the birds chirping instead and follow their call.
I’M SITTING at this small, quaint café right now quietly enjoying my first cup of coffee for the day. On my blue-painted table: a small, gold-and-black French press, good for a serving; a violet mug, now filled to the brim with brewed coffee; a transparent glass ashtray, one cigarette butt parked inside; a half-empty shot of milk; a teaspoon splayed facedown; a glass of cold water; a deck of cards. Latin ska jazz is playing on the stereo, and I’m the only customer around. Three ladies in their black polo shirt are busy talking behind the counter while preparing food for the busy schedule later. It’s eight minutes before four in the afternoon, and I’m waiting for my rice, bacon and eggs.
The café is called Kitya’s Place. It’s festooned with colorful paper balls hanging on the ceiling, bandaritas, chalkboards flashing all their menus in various colors—pink, yellow, blue, orange. Appetizers. Sandwiches. Breakfast. Kitya’s House Specials. Soup of the Year. Shakes. Alcohol. Drinks. Nipa hut roof, bamboo blinds now rolled and tied up, bamboo chairs and tables, a lounge area rising two feet from the sand with a dyed, hip piece of cloth pinned on the ceiling bearing a huge Peace sign, a hammock tied on the side with a jocular ‘Hang Over’ signboard hanging above it, a few small, colorful square cushions scattered on the wooden floor with three small tables good for when you’re sitting down Japanese style. The place seems to reflect Kitya herself—her contagious vivacity, positive outbursts, and festive mood. It’s hard not to notice her cracking laughter wafting in the air.
About a week ago, I came here with my friend B for Sexy Salsa Night. The café burst into life as people came, drinks got served, and games were played. People laughed and danced, a drink in one hand, and at some point, Kitya came up with an idea: crowd surfing. Everyone gathered in front of the lounge as she readied herself for her first dive. It took five tries, three of which failed, before everyone, including her, perfected the shebang for the night. The next day, Kitya and I watched the videos in her room upstairs, laughing our hearts out, and we both agreed again and again what a great night it was.
Ghost spots. In one of his interviews, the Egyptian-born writer Andre Aciman mentions this term, those places where some of our fondest or even our most soul-smashing memories were born. He says, talking about Rome, the place where his novel Call Me By Your Name was inspired from, “This, after all, is the eternal city. One never leaves. One can if one wishes to choose one’s ghost spot. I know where mine is.”
As I look around the café, I see those people who came here that night. I remember the flushed, ecstatic look on everyone’s faces. I don’t remember some of the names, though. What is a name but a mere representation of a person in letters. I remember the sound of laughter. I remember barks of orders for more drinks. I remember voices complaining in jest why the hell the music just stopped. I remember questions: Where are you from? Where are you headed next? How long are you staying here for? I remember drinks being spilled. God, I remember throwing up myself. But more importantly, I remember the thrill, and the night, and the rain, and dancing in the empty street.
I WOKE UP on an overcast Sunday morning with a knock on my door from my next-door housemate B, and was greeted with the question, “Do you want to join us in Daku Island?” Muttering a sleepy yes, I closed the door again and began shuffling around the room, pulling clothes from the closet for the trip ahead.
The rain has seemingly stopped, and I was given a few minutes to prepare. I decided not to bother taking a shower; I knew it would be a whole-day affair of swimming at the beach. I had nothing much to pack except for my cigarettes and a lighter, which I shoved down my left pocket. I also decided to bring my backpack and placed my iPad inside, in case I got bored on the island and would have nothing else to do but read some ebooks I downloaded months ago. When it was time to go, it started drizzling again, and by the time we arrived at our friend’s small restaurant, a few of them had already gathered around. I sat at one of the tables with B as we waited with them for the others to arrive. Except for B and K who owned the place, I knew no one there.
While contemplating whether or not I should order a cup coffee, K announced it was time to go. A quick discussion as to who would buy fish and chicken at the market ensued for a few seconds, and B volunteered to do it on everyone’s behalf. I went with her on her motorbike, and left them at the restaurant. Minutes later, all thirteen of us were on the small boat as it made its way to the island.
At past one, we arrived at the island’s surfing area and were greeted to a sight of other surfers gliding and paddling on waves from a distance. The rain has stopped, and the sun seemed to have changed its mind and decided to show up from behind the clouds. Shuffling here and there, the others jumped off the boat, grabbed their surfboards and paddled to the area. One by one, they seemed to be eyeing the surfing spot as a land full of gold as they all made their way there, the distance between us growing wider and wider until they became one with the floating crowd.
I have to admit I sometimes wish I was brave enough to grab a surfboard and paddle to one small wave and enjoy that few-second bliss everyone here keeps talking about. Whenever I hear people talk about surfing, the shrewd thrill in their voices never fails to arrest me. There’s always that slight pang of pain and envy striking the chords of my naivety and utter ignorance every time conversations like this happen, as if I’m missing out on something spectacular and breathtaking. It all became too strikingly familiar to me, this gnawing feeling, when I came across a line from Nabokov’s novel Lolita (my reading pace with his book has been painstakingly slow these days) that I had to pause and close the book for a minute and laugh at the ridiculous image I’ve latched this feeling to. Here he describes Mr. Edgar H. Humbert’s thoughts as he sits on his chair talking to one of Lolita’s friends, Mona Dahl, about his dear Lo. As they continue to talk, Mona ambles her way closer to him, and a sudden realization hits him: that Lo was perhaps pimping the two of them. This thought disheartens him, and his eyes dart to this image:
“One of the latticed squares in a small cobwebby casement window at the turn of the staircase was glazed with ruby, and that raw wound among the unstained rectangles and its asymmetrical positions—a knight’s move from the top—always strangely disturbed me.”
That beautiful raw wound.
The island wasn’t as packed as we were told earlier would be. As our boat slowly docked on the white shores of the island, I scanned the beach, hoping to see the familiar image I had of the place about four years ago, the first time I came here. Nothing seemed or felt familiar at all. Time always has its devious ways of transforming a place. A few small cottages lined the beach, each with different colors. A bright pink cottage sat empty on the farthest left side, and a lady was scooting down, a can of paint on her right hand, as she patiently brushed the wooden seats with the same color. She seemed to be taking this job very seriously and quite meditatively, in fact.
We chose a yellow empty cottage which faced directly where our boat was. We unloaded our things from the boat and brought them in. A lady from the island approached us and asked if we wanted our food cooked. I handed her the food we bought at the market. The big fish to be grilled, while the smaller one to be soaked in vinegar and spices. Chicken to be grilled. We also ordered sautéed conches.
Soon I would find out as I sat at the cottage with five other Filipinos from the boat that we all came from the same place, Davao. As I sat there listening to their own stories about how they all ended up at the island, I couldn’t help but smile at the thought that I’d find people from home. I’ve heard stories of people from Davao coming and even staying on the island for good. One of them, a guy in his late twenties perhaps, whose head was shaved on all sides except for his long straight hair in the middle and whose body was bedecked with tattoos, said he’d been on the island for seven years. The first time he came here, he heeded a friend’s invitation to help him out on an art project, two sculptures that needed finishing touches. He was a passionate skater, and surfing wasn’t too difficult a sport for him once he decided to try it out. He showed me his tattoo on his back: the iconic Philippine hero Lapu-Lapu slashing Magellan with his bolo. Some foreigners would still feel shocked whenever they see this, he claimed, laughing.
I’m guessing they—we— heeded to that voice inside us, which kept whispering in our ears, “Go!” Go! Even if it meant leaving everyone behind. Go! Even if it meant leaving the familiar and going to a place where not knowing what to expect ahead is a challenge you must take on in order to grow up. Go! Even if it took all the nasty, ballsy, ridiculously self-serving attempt to go. Because, hey, it will be fine in the end. Because time, no matter how devious and a trickster it can be, is also a friend.
We talked about the island. Four years ago, the cottages hadn’t been here. All I remember seeing then was a barren-looking, long stretch of fine sand and about three, long, wooden tables and chairs. I remember space and grasses. Overtime, the place has transformed into one perfectly fit for tourism. Not that it looked bad now. Some changes aren’t all that bad.
IT WAS a bright, sunny afternoon when my friend B and I decided to hit the road on her motorbike with her surf board resting on my lap, my hands clutching it firmly against the wind as we made our way to the most famous surfing spot on the island, Cloud 9. Word has it that the first surfers who’d discovered the spot named it after the local chocolate bar, Jack ‘n Jill’s Cloud 9. A small store stood somewhere around the spot, and these surfers figured to reconvene there by saying they should meet up at this place that sold Cloud 9.
B and I parked the bike at what seemed to be the entrance, spacious enough for other bikes. An old man put up a mobile cart and sold halo-halo. Local shirtless men sat idly on parked motorbikes, waiting for customers who needed assistance for surfing lessons. One of them approached us. Up ahead, the boardwalk welcomed us, stretching toward a wooden structure that served as a viewing deck. Surfing competitions happen here twice a year, usually in May and September, and onlookers would gather at the viewing deck, their phones and cameras ready to snap at surfers in the distance, gliding and ricocheting like bullets on big waves.
ON MY first night out alone, I went to Rum Bar. I arrived home the next day at seven in the morning with a puppy in my hand.
A FRIEND once pointed out to me that the next time I embark on a gigantic, life-changing decision, I should rather keep it to myself than have all the people in the world know what I’m about to do. The most apparent culprit for this, of course, is Facebook, this tempting beast of an online platform where our most personal frustrations, those well-deserved triumphs, or even our most mundane moments such as the well-garnished lunch we had or this multi-flavored frappe we downed with our friends in a franchised hip coffee shop somewhere in the city are exhibited in the open, curated by our well- or ill-discerning standards of taste in which ‘critical’ assessment comes in the form of emoticons or a ‘well-thought-out’ review in the comments section below the post in question.
The last time I did, it was a text message I received congratulating me for being hired for a Vietnamese company from a prospective recruiter who, at the time, was hiring English teachers to work in Hanoi, which I posted on my timeline, because, as much as I hate to admit it, I wanted instant recognition. Minutes after I screen-captured the text message and posted the delightful news on my wall, my notifications soared to a ridiculous high number of congratulatory comments, and each time I hit them back with a trite Thanks, the feeling of elation swelled inside me, like when you’re in a car running 60km per hour and suddenly the road curves down, and that split second when your heart seems to come off, you feel a woozy, ticklish feeling of high that you want to do it again and again.
Of course, she’s right. That proved to be a huge mistake. And in retrospect, a kind of blunder, I must say. Because months later, I’d still be in the Philippines. And when people asked me, surprised to see me gallivanting around, “I thought you’d be in Vietnam by now?” I’d give them this nonchalant, unperturbed look and say, “Plans change, don’t they?” One night, my friend even posted a picture of us at a bar, when we were out celebrating for our other friend’s arrival after a month or so of being away-there were five of us-in which he captioned the photo “Welcome back Yannick, and goodbye Aaron #leavingforVietnammaybein2019”. It was funny. But deep down, fuck.
Fuck, no matter how unabashedly banal and unapologetic it sounds, seems to sum up the whole experience entirely. That proved to be my first, gut-wrenching lesson on 50 Ways on How Not to Use Facebook. It also made me critical about the things I should post there. But more importantly, it gave me a glimpse of my naïve and pompous 26-year-old self: at the core of this is an underlying lesson to be had.
In a letter written by Cheryl Strayed in response to an anonymous 22-year-old penned Seeking Wisdom who asked the 40ish-year-old writer, “What would you tell your twentysomething self if you could talk to her now?” Strayed’s first response was arrestingly simple: Stop worrying about whether you’re fat. You’re not fat. Or rather, you’re sometimes a little bit fat, but who gives a shit?
It was her rhetorical question that made me close the book, pause for a minute and stare at the wall for a few more goddamn minutes. Who gives a shit?
Because I guess in the long run, we’ll always find ourselves confronted with this ridiculously yet surprisingly wise question. In my case, now that I’m a year older, I still do. Or better yet, I have to. It’s a bittersweet, face-smacking wake-up call that puts your tail back between your legs. It keeps you at bay of all of your baseless, puffed-up assumptions about yourself. It keeps you grounded.
Or that’s how it was-and still is-for me. Who gives a shit?
THE DAYS of rain come to a halt as I wake up in bed at two in the afternoon. I look at the louvered window from where I lay and see a faint brightness illumine the slats of glasses. I get out of bed, pull the crank down, and the sight of the neighbors’ roofs welcome my gaze. They, too, shine with a mild glow.
Outside, a neighbor is singing Daniel Boone’s Beautiful Sunday, the videoke machine set to the highest volume. Even on rainy days, their spirits never seem to dampen. A woman’s voice usually floats through the air, a beautiful kind, accentuated from time to time with mispronounced words.
My friend, B has cooked pasta, and she tells me, as she folds her clothes neatly on the table, to help myself with it. I thank her for this. “Are you going somewhere?” I ask. “I might go around. The weather is nice,” she says. “I’ll stay here then.”
The wind blows softly, the trees sway back and forth, and upon closer look, they seem to follow a shared, well-rehearsed rhythm only they know and understand. Dry leaves. Different shades of green. They dance merrily as the wind brushes past them. The passing motorbikes maintain a relaxing pace, unlike the previous days, and you can tell by the way their engines sound, not the maddening kind of uproar the way they did the past few days as they tried to combat strong gusts of wind and heavy downpour.
B has left the house. I could hear her start her motorbike downstairs, and seconds later, the sound fades into the distance. I’m sitting alone at the veranda overlooking the main street, watching people go by. I prop my feet up on the wooden railing lined with potted plants. The sky is overcast, but a lighter shade of gray this time, promising rain later, but not insistent.
I think of my elusive friend, L who left over a week ago and hasn’t returned yet. No word from him. I wonder what’s going on in his mind. I miss him, and wish he’ll be back sooner. I think of my friends, too, and this thought settles for sometime, but I decide to tuck it in the corner. I decide to light a cigarette instead.
The neighbor has stopped singing. The wind continues to blow softly. It’s past three in the afternoon now. I hope the tide is high. I might take a swim at the beach.
[Siargao, November 6, Sunday]
It’s been more than a week now since I left, and I must say I miss you. I’m sitting here on the second floor of my friends’ rented house looking at what seems to be the only gas station on this side of the island, which has been my view for the last couple of days. Not exactly the best view I wish I’d have, while I’m trying to sort myself out, but the greens around help a bit. It feels like ages already. The last time I felt like this was at twenty, those first few nights when I’d be sitting there at the boulevard all by myself, staring at the sea and the occasional passing boats as they slowly made their way to your shores, all the while missing home.
Now, here I am again, on another island thinking about you.
The sounds of passing motorbikes and trikes are way different here. They lack the familiar alacrity you’ve taught my ears to listen to for the past six years. Here, the quiet intervals in between passing vehicles remind me every day that I’m in a new place now surrounded with strangers and unfamiliar things. There’s a sluggish aura here at night when I walk on the ill-lighted streets, the sand and puddles of water making squishing sounds down my feet as I make my way to the small convenience store at the intersection. I buy little things there: chips, a bottle of water or juice, a pack of cigarettes. The language here is different, too: the twang like a singsong, filled with Ys and Js. Uyan. Kuman. Bayud. Jaon. If I stay here for more than a month, I might learn an expression or two.
Still, I miss the boulevard. There’s a café there I usually go to for a cup of coffee or a bottle of beer. When I’m alone at the bar, the first thing I see is that lone fire tree (or flame tree), which gives off this fiery, red orange contrast to the blue sea in the background during quiet or busy afternoons. And even though, sometimes, the terrible traffic gets to me, the sight of that long stretch by the sea still fascinates me. Oh, and I miss seeing those horrid yellow buses and big trucks.
I can imagine myself walking there now at six in the evening. A group of women would be dancing their usual Zumba routines with their neon colored sweatshirts and leggings at their usual spot: that space right in the middle of those two huge acacia trees, a little adjacent to that small tapas bistro right across, where my friend and I met, one night, this old wise guy from Cyprus who had so many stories to tell that we ended up blasting John Mayer and Nora Jones songs through that small speaker, talking about love, drinking a pitcher of tequila ‘til my giddy friend threw up.
Or when the clock strikes nine, I’m at another bar, a little way off from the boulevard, where, in six years, I’ve hung out with different groups of people. “Friend, same shit,” I’d tell one of the staff there. And in seconds, a small bottle of Tanduay, two Coke zeros, a bucket of ice, an ashtray and a few empty glasses would be there welcoming us. Here we go again. It’s Wednesday, the usual reggae night, and halfway through the bottle I’m dancing, a little buzzed, while Enchi plays his usual repertoire, and everyone’s beaming, faces flushed, the stage lights prancing and moving around in a wonderful, rhythmic speed. Another unopened bottle waiting. Quick hi’s and hello’s. Familiar faces. Those names I keep forgetting, but after countless times of seeing each other there I’d eventually learn to memorize by heart.
(My professor in university has written an essay about you, yet all I remember him saying was coconut trees. Lots of them.)
And that time I got nabbed and almost died. Do you remember that? Back in the time when that small fishy bar was still open, I went there alone all confident and completely fucked. Sitting at one of the tables while talking to a girl I just met, my arms flailing with all the dumbest passion I’d mustered, talking I don’t know what. My arm accidentally tripped a bottle of beer at another table with a group of men (the bar was too small, the tables an arm away from each other), and the next thing I knew I was sitting with them, drinking their beer. When it was time for us to leave, they offered me a ride to the habal-habal terminal, and I said yes. The 6AM sun was glaring above us as I sat between these two guys on the motorbike, and I remember we were crossing the bridge to that infamous drugs area in the city, and I snapped. “I can take it from here,” I told the guy in front of me. “Don’t move or we’ll kill you,” he said. So I sat there frozen like a useless pig about to get butchered, my breath stinking of alcohol. So then they stopped at this house, and I remember handing them my wallet. And when they were finally out of plain sight, I ran to the nearest alley ‘til I reached dead end, this bare unpainted wall which would be the death of me. I grabbed my phone and texted my friends. “I need backup. Someone wants to kill me. Lukewright.” Then my phone ran out of battery, my body collapsed, and I fell asleep out of sheer exhaustion and drunkenness.
After what felt like hours, I somehow managed to wake up. My heart pounding as I slowly got out of that shithole, I made my way out into the open, looking around for any signs of those two men on the motorbike. And I ran and ran all the way to the highway, all the while expecting to hear a gunshot, ‘til I hailed an empty pedicab and went home.
(Which reminds me. I have to read that short story again tonight by Flannery O’Connor called A Good Man is Hard to Find or was it A Hard Man is Good to Find?)
But most of all, I miss listening to the sound of my friends’ voices. I can imagine each of them right now, their giggles over jokes and those passing conversations to kill time. It’s 7:35PM now, I’m alone in the house, and the silence is deafening. I stare at the white pitcher full of water and my glass half-full, and nothing makes sense. I look out of the window, and all I see is that solitary lamp post giving off a dull white glow. The rain has stopped an hour ago, and I wish it would come back, and my mind drifts off again to you, but you’re miles away.
Which is why I’m writing to you.
I will always remember you with an aching fondness. I do not regret, though, that I left, but I’m still trying to take it in, like a pill I have to learn to swallow so I’ll be fine again. But I would’ve wanted to take a last stroll to your boulevard by myself, the way I did years back. I would’ve wanted to say goodbye to everyone, too. But I guess some things we have to do quietly, and a certain degree of selfishness is required from us in order to take a blinding leap of faith to a destination where we see ourselves grow more. I hope you understand.
I will see you one day. And when that day comes, I hope the fire tree will still be there blazing with the same colors I’ve always enjoyed watching during those afternoons when I’m at that usual café just right across. I will be there enjoying my cup of coffee.
The first thing I let go once I left Dumaguete City was my only pair of dark brown boots I bought at American Savers in another city sometime three years ago. It would be the only good, brand new pair of shoes I’d buy in the last three years of my stay there. By now it had gone old, stained with remnants of dried-up water and mud after wading them through countless puddles left after so many rains. The toe caps had lost their original color and the back straps half-way torn and were about ready to give up. The inside layers have gone into their bad state, and in occasions when I wanted to go to a friend’s bar and wear them without any socks on, I could feel the uncomfortable fabric brushing against the skin of my feet. Rainy nights were the worst.
I decided to leave them behind the next day at a friend’s studio apartment when I stayed in Cebu for a night. Having missed the 7:00 PM boat trip to Surigao, I had no choice but to send her a message on Facebook and ask if she could let me crash in for the night. Her two-floor apartment on the fourth floor of the building was spacious and bare, the white walls freshly painted. She had just moved in from a smaller one; this time, she took the top floor of the building which had the best view of the city outside her bedroom through the veranda separated by clear, wide sliding glass doors. The tiled floors imitated the façade of old wood. Downstairs was her small kitchen, a high table where she has her meals and another window which faced the busy traffic just below.
My departure was sudden and lacked any signs of warning. I was out the night before drinking the usual drinks with my usual friends at the usual bar. My friend L was confiding to me her problems with this French guy she was chatting with whom I accused of being narcissist, which was why she wanted to cry, and became one of the reasons we were out. My friend Y was being his usual, sometimes obnoxious but for the most part happy self. One cigarette from time to time in between his drinks, even though he promised himself to quit smoking. My friend C was his being usual self, too: quiet while looking at the TV screen, downing his own shot, sometimes quipping trivial funny asides. It was a usual Thursday night, and at some point, L and I both agreed that Thursdays at this bar have become the new Fridays.
What time I went home I forget now, that small detail which I always miss out on such occasions, and at five in the morning, I was sitting at the table across my friend J who was working online all night, and we somehow steered the conversation to my current situation and what my plans are in the future. As I sat there listening to her, the idea of leaving just came to me, like a visitor who’d arrived sooner than I’d expected. Sitting there as she continued talking, I looked at it, studying it closely just to be certain that this was the right guest. It simply stared back at me, not saying a single word, and I knew.
“I’m leaving today,” I said, and went to my room (F and J gladly lent me their extra room while I stayed with them for a couple of weeks) to pack my things.
Inside the car, no one said a word. F drove the car at a steady rate, while J sat at the front seat staring at the road in front of her. C sat right next to me, his eyes also fixed on the road. I looked outside through my window, glancing at the familiar places gliding past me. By now the alcohol has worn down a little, and I began to feel the first wave of exhaustion.
We left the house at around two in the afternoon. They were sending me off to the port twenty minutes away from the city on a bright, sunny Friday afternoon. I held my backpack beside me and realized my entire life was in this bag. Clothes I didn’t even care to fold neatly earlier. Laptop. Ipad. Vladimir Nabokov’s annotated book Lolita, which was a birthday present. A pair of used neon blue-and-orange running shoes, which my friend C gave me, now dangling on each side of the bag. A small silver thermos, also a birthday present two years ago (the same friend who gave me the book). A blue dry bag with extra clothes in it. And a big blue woollen blanket I bought from a flea market a few years back. I couldn’t believe that after six years of living in Dumaguete, I’d leave the place with only a traveler’s backpack and a dry bag.
“Don’t go,” F whispered to my ear as he locked me in his embrace the minute we arrived at the port.
“I have to,” I said, hugging him. C went out of the car as well, gave me a pat on the shoulder, and said I should take care of myself. J chose to stay in the car. I got inside the terminal and saw my friend’s car pass by until it was out of sight.
Fifteen minutes later, I was on the boat to another island.
The ship to Surigao was supposed to leave at exactly 7:00 PM. I sat on one of the benches at the roof deck. Beside me, a mother was busy attending to her small son who wouldn’t keep still. He’d go from one person to another, mumble something incomprehensible, while tugging at everyone’s pants. Nobody seemed to mind. At first they would get startled, look around, and realize it was just a child. Then they’d let out a smile, conscious that the mother was just around. Soon enough they would simply smile at her, not saying a word. At some point the child looked at me, but I simply stared back. The kid’s mother was busy talking on the phone. She seemed to be arguing with someone on the other line, while she tried her best to keep the kid from moving around.
A fuss below. Onlookers stood at the railing at the deck looking down, sharing snippets of what was going on. Apparently, one passenger got down from the boat a few minutes earlier to buy some load for his phone, but he was nowhere to be found. A guy in red shirt and shorts stood outside the parked Mitsubishi Adventure, snapping instructions to one of the boat crews. I figured it was the missing guy’s father. He was tall, wore a clean cut, and had an air of authority as he rested his hands on his hips, telling this particular habal-habal driver beside him to go look for the missing guy outside the port gates. A few seconds later, the motorbike sped off, and the onlookers at the deck followed the driver with their long gazes, all the while muttering to themselves, “He should’ve known the boat leaves at 7!” Or “We should leave already.” Minutes passed and the habal-habal driver returned with no passenger around. “Go!” shouted the guy in red shirt, then went inside his car and drove.
I wondered if the missing passenger was just somewhere inside the boat, or did he really get left behind? Such a small, stupid mistake to lose track of time. Next thing you know, you arrive at the port and the boat’s gone to a destination you’ve dreamed of going the night before.
Much later, as the boat skirted its way from Cebu until the island looked almost distant, with only the city lights visible from where I stood smoking, two fathers talked about what brought them to Cebu. The stocky old man who was wearing a blue polo shirt and a pair of glasses held a can of Pilsen in one hand. And from the way the other guy addressed him, it seemed to me that the old man bore a more powerful stature than the one holding a can of Light.
“My boy is in the city now to meet some of his friends,” the old man said. “How many kids do you have?”
“I have two, sir,” the other said. “One is six, and the other’s 14.”
“I have four. I must say their generation is completely different these days.”
“I agree. With my kids, I always set a curfew. I say to them, ‘You have to be back home at seven.’ They need to study.’’
“Well, I do that, too. But, in the end, it’s their choice. It’s their life, you know? The only thing I can do is to advise them what to do, but it’s their choice in the end.”
The other man simply nodded. A few seconds of silence remained between them before they started talking. At this point, I decided to go to my assigned bed to read.
I’ve always known that leaving is less painful than being left behind. There’s something uniquely selfish and egoistic about it. You know that it will happen one day. That pretty soon this threshold will be looming in the distance. When you’re perceptible enough, you’ll see that the trail leading to it will already have become less familiar, that the grasses are different this time, and the stones more foreign than they were before. Perhaps, you’ll be more surprised to realize you’re already treading on packed dirt, and that this, too, will bear a new trace of soil way different than what you’re feet have long been accustomed to. The trail will get narrower the more you get closer to this threshold. And then the crossing. You then wake up the next day on a boat or a bus or a plane, your life in that small bag in tow.
Whether leaving quietly was the right thing to do or not doesn’t matter anymore. I only said goodbye in person to seven people. Seven people. I must say, it was still kind of quiet. While people throw out parties to friends as a way of celebrating years of friendship and, finally, a farewell, I’m the kind of person who believes departures shouldn’t be celebrated. Most of the time, the people we cherish the most are the ones we’ve met on some quiet occasion, usually in an unexpected sort of way. I believe it should be the same with leaving a friend or being left behind.
Three nights ago, I told a friend I’m glad to be in a place where nobody knows me. It has been a long time since this happened. I’m on a different island right now, closer to home, and I feel I’m in the right place. I look around and see a lot of travelers who come here to surf or simply enjoy the life on the island. I’ve begun to walk around barefoot, the way locals here do, whether to go to the market or to simply walk around. The place feels very unfamiliar to me, and the dialect a little strange. Much stranger is the sight of so many tourists who, unlike me, come here to taste life. I look around and listen to snippets of conversations they have in bars and restaurants, and I feel a sense of awe and wonder at the friendships these people have forged after living here for days and weeks. Yet I also feel a sense of security knowing that I’m just standing at the periphery of all this.
I’ve only told three people here on the island the reason why I left Dumaguete, and I feel that should be enough for now.
On the eve of my twenty-seventh birthday, I went to my usual bar in the city and finished a flat of Tanduay with my good friend L. Minutes before the clock struck midnight, there was a moment of silence between us and a cheesy, rum-infused thought came to me. It was this particular scene in A Walk to Remember where the giddy Landon (Shane West) pulls his car over to the side and leads Jamie (Mandy Moore) right into the middle of this empty road with the headlights of the parked car spotlighting them. He then tells her she’s now straddling the state line (between North Carolina and Virginia) and asks the yet oblivious Jamie to place each foot on different sides. When she finally realizes she’s in two places at once, she beams her teethy smile at Landon and the rest is all mushy mushy.
For some reason, my friend L and I continued to talk until I forgot about those few seconds before midnight and how, earlier, I felt that sudden obsession at this whole idea of wanting to be there in the moment where both my “feet” were in two different spaces in time all at once. I’ve always had the knack for these kinds of stuff. The ineffable beauty of loss. Subtle passages of time. The few seconds left. The acute awareness to small things. The timbre in a person’s voice. It was only after thirty minutes had passed that L and I both realized it was already my birthday.
Feeling a little buzzed, we finally decided to settle our bill. By now the crowd has doubled, and the muttering voices around us and at the bar hummed steadily, with a few occasional shrieks of laughter. It was a kind of noise that was pleasant to listen to after a bottle of rum. The night was young and didn’t promise of rain. The band was playing some versions of jazz songs. It was my first time being twenty-seven. Goodbye, my twenty-six-year-old self as we proceeded to the next bar.
The most recent message I got from my mother was a greeting on the night of my birthday that included a reminder that Jesus Christ is coming soon and a flood of emojis. I haven’t responded to this yet, as well as the previous messages she’d sent me since I left her and my hometown in 2011. When it came to the subject of my mother, I’ve already rehearsed the lines I was supposed to say whenever a friend would ask me about her. During these conversations, I’ve always felt compelled to distinguish between my biological mother and my foster mother, the latter who passed away recently (see To My Nanay, In Memory).
In retrospect, I’ve always suspected there are two versions of my childhood story. My Nanay’s version was that my biological mother, after giving birth to me, decided to leave me to her care, for whatever reason I forget now. Whenever I keep looking at my birth certificate and I see the black typewritten words “illegitimate child” on that piece of paper, I would pause for awhile, as if the words looked blurry that I needed a few minutes to readjust my focus to see each letter more clearly. To me, they sounded hollow, empty, devoid of meaning. I remember looking up illegitimate in the dictionary once and felt a sudden surge of nausea once I discovered what it actually meant. It sounded accusatory and abject. Like I was being cut open.
So I grew up with Nanay and Tatay with the narrative of my childhood they both crafted as best as they could just like the way, I suspect, they knew how. There was always a hint of some sense of ownership hidden somewhere in her quaking voice whenever she’d recount those months at the apartment building they’d shared with my mother during her pregnancy. How, during those times, Nanay claimed my mother was about ready to get rid of me, and so she tried to take all kinds of herbs and whatnot. It was her intervening which saved my life. At some point she was able to convince my mother to go on with the pregnancy until she gave birth to me, and when asked whether she was prepared enough to raise me, my mother had apparently said no. Nanay, who didn’t have a child of her own with Tatay, took me in and raised me as their own. It was only until I reached my eighteenth year in my last semester in university that I decided to live with my own mother. Nanay was very reluctant about the whole prospect, and I sensed her fear of losing his little boy. “You’re overreacting,” Tatay had told her. She cried on the day I left home.
One early afternoon, as my mother and I were eating our late lunch, I mustered enough courage to ask her about my father. We were finished with our food and were just idling at the table, not saying anything who’s going to do the dishes.
“Tell me something about my father.” I quipped. I wanted it to sound as light as possible without giving her the impression that this would be a start of an interrogation.
“What about him?”
“What’s his name?”
She said she didn’t know. My father was a neighbor who, according to her, had a crush on her for quite sometime. At the time, she was already seeing somebody, and she had no idea who this guy from the neighborhood was. I sometimes imagine the guy she was dating with and how hard it must have been for him to have taken in the news of what happened to her next. One afternoon, she continued, my father came to her apartment and offered her a glass of juice. She drank it and then passed out. She woke up a few hours later, her body throbbing in pain and realized something was wrong. She didn’t go into details about my magical conception story probably, in part, because it still pained her to recall those last few minutes before she passed out and those first few minutes when she woke up and felt the unfamiliar pain. I didn’t press on.
“I heard he died in a car crash somewhere,” she added as she turned the faucet on. She never mentioned his name.
It’s an ill-conceived plot. There’s a lot of important details missing in the story. How did my father get in? Of course, she let him in; otherwise, the juice story wouldn’t be in the picture. Or did he force himself in? Did my father specifically bring a glass or was it a pitcher that they presumably had to share with so that whatever my father’s evil plan was would go unnoticed? Or was my father just too dumb to even notice this seemingly small detail? What was the first thing he said? What did she say? What compelled her to open the door and step back a little away from the doorstep so he could get in? What was the flavor of the juice? Did she suspect anything at the least? How did he introduce himself? What was the color of his shirt? What was his name? These were some of the questions I was forced to confront with on my own after she told me her story and decided to wash the dishes herself. It was my story, too. Her story and mine. But I felt it lacked enough perspective.
In writing, there are three kinds of perspective. First is the first-person point-of-view, which narrows down the perspective of the story simply from the narrator himself, and always with the pronoun “I”, like listening to a friend telling a story or confessing a secret. The second-person point-of-view, using the pronoun “you” but with a few tricks in the bag. The addressee, the “You”, can mean the “other” or the reader. Back in elementary, I used to read the spooky serial books Goosebumps, and nearing the end, the reader is given an array of choices on how to end the story. There’s usually a prompt question asking the reader to turn to this particular page if he or she wants to end the story this way or that page if he wants the other. But “you” can also serve as a mirror for the “I”, as if the narrator of the story is talking to himself. Finally, there’s the third-person point-of-view, which takes on the pronouns “he”, “she”, “it” or “they”. Under this point of view are two types: the third-person limited point-of-view and the third-person omniscient point-of-view. The first one, given, say, two or three characters in the story, a reader will only hear the thoughts of one character and will see the story from the perspective of this character alone, and whatever impressions this character has toward the other two are shaped solely from this character’s experiences. The great Filipino writer Gregorio Brillantes with his story “The Cries of Children on an April Afternoon in the Year 1957” comes to mind with the element of time perfectly played out by this genius author. Or Game of Thrones screenplay writer David Benioff’s “Merde for Luck”. The second one, on the other hand, is much more exciting. The reader is given the chance to eavesdrop some or all of the characters’ thoughts, so that perspectives are shifting constantly, and the reader is offered the best vista to watch the characters lead their miserable lives, for example. One of my most favorite stories under this type is by the Irish writer William Trevor with his short story “The Wedding in the Garden“.
I talk in great lengths about perspective because I find that my childhood narrative has somewhat been reduced to the third-person limited point-of-view. My fiction class professor in university has left me an indelible stamp in approaching stories in order to see the shape of it: he draws in lines and curves. If I do the same thing right now, I’d draw a Venn diagram, the easiest one to pick. One circle will be my mother’s story. The second will be my father’s. The third one will be Nanay and Tatay’s. At the heart of these three circles where they all juxtapose is my narrative.
In approaching my own narrative, I’ve come to accept that there are questions that will always remain unanswered and that sometimes details can no longer be necessary. I will never know who my father is or how he looks like. I will never know who my grandparents are and how they look like. And cousins, too. One day, out of curiosity, I typed my last name on Facebook just to see how many people I shared the name with.One by one I clicked their profiles, hoping to see a resemblance of their faces with mine. I even went as far as inviting some of them to be my friends. Some accepted my request, and for a moment I felt a sense of affinity and kinship. I didn’t send them a message though. In one of our conversations, my mother mentioned in passing that she has two sisters.
There are things that are better kept than said. My mother’s story comes from a place of hurt, and I guess it’s better not knowing all the details to it. The writer Cheryl Strayed said there are things we know. Like Nanay and Tatay’s version of how I ended up staying with them until university. My mother claimed she wanted to take me back and that she tried a lot of times, but Nanay wouldn’t hear of it. Nanay said that every time my mother took me with her for a couple of days, I would end up sick upon my return, and she would be the one having to take care of me, which was why she decided never again. There are also things we know we don’t know, like how things got okay in the end. There are also things we don’t know we don’t know, like my father. I sometimes wonder what he’d say to me if he were still alive and recognized me.
Before Nanay passed away, I received a message from my mother telling me to come home and said I shouldn’t let the day come when I would receive the news of her death. It was a warning sign I missed. I didn’t listen to her. I didn’t receive the news of her death, too.
My name comes from the Bible. Aaron is the brother of Moses and his personal spokesman. James is one of the twelve disciples. The former comes from the Old Testament, and the latter from the New Testament. My mother’s friend from church suggested it. Her name’s Doris. I’m carrying my mother’s maiden name.