Notes on Sudden Departures

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.

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26 (Finale)

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.