Secret Hum of the Sea

TODAY’s my last day on the island. It’s Friday, the afternoon inviting a warm, calm breeze, and I’m at a bar called Ritzy’s. A group of people is sitting across me at a table — all thirteen of them — while a promising bottle of local brandy, now half-empty, still stands in their midst. Laughter fills the air as they throw jocular asides at their friend who’s probably in his late thirties while the staunch waitress cackles in glee, all the while teasing him coquettishly with her unbridled gestures. He keeps his cool, choosing not to take off his reflective sunglasses, as he laughs with his friends even at his own expense. He excuses himself from the table to go to the toilet, and for a while the laughter fades.

Except for the splashing sound of gentle waves, the silence at the other table echoes for a few seconds. A quick respite. I look at the ocean before me and realize the tide has risen. Time, it seems, arrives unannounced at almost quite the same moment as its imperceptible leave-taking, like a furtive passerby who peers for a few seconds then leaves. The kind whose fleeting presence can only be glanced at by a keen eye, and, more often than not, in momentary silence. It comes and goes in a mildly discouraging way that only it knows how.

I arrived here with my three best friends six days ago. And on a few occasions when we somehow told each other how fortunate we were to be in this place, we’d inadvertently talk about how the days flew by so fast. At one point, one of them asked me if I wanted to stay here for one more night, to which I said no for two reasons: one, the place itself carries with it both an abundance of beauty and an achingly familiar presence of the past; and two, I simply miss home. Today, I chose to be alone, at least for a few hours, with the thought that I wanted to spend the remaining time by myself and enjoy the solitude of the afternoon without having the need to talk to anyone.

As I look around, memories of when I came to visit this place for the first time start coming back to me. They come to me in pieces and in no particular order — a familiar-looking street he and I used to pass by a lot, this restaurant at the corner that has withstood time, the hostel where we stayed for four nights, the seeming ghostly presence of this guy who became what this place was all about in the first place. But, as with any other places touched by time, a lot of things about this place have changed since then. More cottages and apartments for rent. More bars and restaurants. More new names. Paved roads. The town’s cathedral, for instance, is under repair. So is the basketball court, now temporarily fenced with G.I. sheets to prevent people from coming in, where, five years ago, he’d gone in with a group of local boys he’d met at the beach one afternoon. Having finished a bottle of beer they’d all shared, he decided to heed their invitation to go to the basketball court, and said he could only watch them play some hoops. So then this business of revisiting memory itself is at once both a fond activity and a debilitating task. But I say this with a kind of pleasant ambivalence one feels when talking about a dear yet perplexing old friend whom one has lost touch with at some point.

***

We met online sometime in late 2011, at a language exchange platform, which I’ve heard for the first time from a very good friend who’d signed up way back in university. I was working then at a publishing company as a copyeditor, and most of my time was spent on the computer. As I was browsing through some profiles on the site, I came across him. In retrospect, what compelled me perhaps to send him a message was the self-assured way he was able to describe himself in detail. He was gorgeous too, I have to admit. The way his eyes seemed to shrink when he smiled in his featured photos sent my fingers fluttering to type the only word I could muster to say: Hi.

That year would mark the beginning of our year-long correspondence. Back then he was living with his parents and his younger brother at their apartment in Moscow while I was renting a small room I shared with three other guys somewhere in Dumaguete. We’d write long letters to each other and anticipate each other’s response the next day, and each letter written with so much care and attention to details about our lives seemed somehow to ease the distance that separated us. In one of our earliest correspondences, he was the first person I confided with about my sexuality. I remember feeling shaken as I typed I’m gay and finally reading the words on the screen, what had once been mere thoughts materializing into concrete words and knowing that another person would read them. So many things ran in my head after I hit the ‘send’ button. What if he stops talking to me? What if he feels disgusted while reading my message? What if he feels betrayed after such a revelation? Will we still be able to talk as freely and as comfortably as before? Would this sudden revelation change things? Would he turn cold afterwards? Or worse, would he disappear? I felt discombobulated. I was relieved as much as I was bothered.

His response came the following night. As I read his message, I felt a slow, gradual unburdening of the weight of my most private secret. He said he was glad to read my message, and thanked me for being brave enough to tell him about it. I felt lightheaded, astonished, dazed at the immensity of such acceptance that I didn’t believe it at first. I read his message over and over again, letting each kind word he’d so carefully written sink in. I stared at the computer screen long enough that I wasn’t able to hear my colleague who sat right next to me say, “Let’s go out for some snacks.”

In moments like this, I always find myself coming back to Frederick Buechner, the American writer and theologian who wrote his third autobiographical book Telling Secrets, which, for him, is his own undertaking about finding “the need to put things into words before [he] can believe that they are entirely real.” There’s this particular passage in his memoir where he emphatically points out why he needs to talk about his life, but says so without a hint of arrogance, yet instead conveys a message of grace in this most humane act of telling secrets:

“[…] I talk about my life anyway because if, on the one hand, hardly anything could be less important, on the other hand, hardly anything could be more important. My story is important not because it is mine, God knows, but because if I tell it anything like right, the chances are you will recognize that in many ways it is also yours. Maybe nothing is more important than that we keep track, you and I, of these stories of who we are and where we have come from and the people we have met along the way because it is precisely through these stories in all their particularity, as I have long believed and often said, that God makes himself known to each of us most powerfully and personally. If this is true, it means that to lose track of our stories is to be profoundly impoverished not only humanly but also spiritually.”

It was, as if, by telling my own secret to someone whom I wasn’t afforded close proximity with that I became closer and truer to myself. For the first time in my life, I was able to hear myself more clearly — more powerfully and personally — only because I allowed someone else to hear it for me.

***

He finally came to visit me the following year sometime in October, days after my birthday and prior to his. I was to pick him up at the airport, which would take me about five hours by bus. I set off at ten in the evening from my city, and while on the bus, I kept wondering what I’d say to him when we’d finally see each other. He arrived at past three in the morning. He wore a blue polo and a pair of long pants, and carried with him a big backpack.

I think we felt a little awestruck shortly afterwards, not so much at each other’s presence, but more so at the fact that we were right where we’re supposed to be at. That the entire year of talking endlessly and relentlessly brought us to this time and place, right outside the airport gate where most of the passengers who’d boarded on the same flight as him already passed through, so he could take his turn alone as I stood on the other side of the road watching him. After months of building a world for each other with words, we could finally break away from the abstraction of our time spent and approach the tangible realm. I was disarmed. He was taller than me by a few inches. He was skinnier than I thought. Only his eyes and the way he smiled were the two familiar things I instantly recognized about him. And the first thing that came out of my mouth the second we stood facing each other, as the awkward air of thrill and timidness still hovered between us, was the exact same word I’d said the first time.

“Hi,” I said, grinning anxiously as I tried to look him in the eye.

“Hi.” He smiled.

How was your flight? How long did you have to wait for me? Are you hungry? What do you want to eat? Where are we headed next? The timbre in his voice sounded a little different than the one I kept hearing over our countless video calls. Or perhaps he was just exhausted.

On the bus to the island, we didn’t say anything much. I handed him some boiled eggs we’d bought from a vendor, and after awhile, he decided to rest his head on my shoulder. I froze. I was not prepared to experience such immediate physical intimacy in public. I looked around, hoping no one else would notice. The bus was small and crowded. Other passengers stood on the aisle, holding on to the overhead steel bar. I realized soon enough that some of them were glancing furtively at us. I looked at him, but he’d closed his eyes. I could feel my ears burning in embarrassment as I imagined all sorts of ideas other people around us were thinking. All I could do was to look outside the window or rest my head against the top slat of my seat and close my eyes. I chose the latter.

I told him this episode in our trip when he decided to come back in 2015. So much has happened between 2012 and that year when he visited me again. He laughed, and asked me why I never had the courage to tell him about it back then. I guess that had to happen for me to realize how naive I was at twenty-three. After three years since he first came to see me, he’d finished his studies while I got my second job in the city as a teacher. He came over days before my twenty-fifth birthday. Little did I know that as I was about to finish a quarter of my life, I’d already broken his heart and that soon enough I’d break mine.

***

Recently, I’ve been reading an essay by Andrew Sullivan called “If Love Were All” from his book Love Undetectable: Reflections on Friendship, Sex and Survival. In it, he explores the concept of friendship versus lovers, and scrupulously examines the distinctive qualities and traits of these two types of relationship. In this regard, he writes, for instance,

“There’s something about friendship that lends itself to reticence. Lovers, after all, never stop telling each other about their love; they gabble endlessly about it, tell the world about it, emit excruciating poetry and a constant stream of art to reflect every small aspect of its power and beauty. But friends, more often than not, deflect attention from their friendship. They don’t talk about it much. Sometimes, in fact, you can tell how strong the friendship is by the silence that envelops it. Lovers and spouses may talk frequently about their “relationship,” but friends tend to let their regard for one another speak for itself or let others point it out.” 

On a personal level, the essay accounts the journey of his friendship with his best friend Patrick whom he initially fell in love with, and how, through the years, their friendship developed and gained a much stronger, more stable anchorage when both of them were beset with AIDS. In this last essay among the three ones, Patrick has already died, and what he’s left with are the fragments of memories they’d both shared and his ruminations over the years he’d spent with him and much later after his death. Patrick was his lover-turned-bestfriend, and when he passed away, Sullivan writes,

“[…] death swept away the mystery of our friendship and exposed its raw existence. The friendship articulated itself at the moment that it ceased to exist.”

Although it was never like that with Ilya (he’s alive and in Germany at the moment for his master’s degree), there’s a familiar resonance to this particular line in relation to what he and I both share now. We don’t talk as much as before, we don’t constantly tell each other the minute details of our lives, and, to put it more bluntly, outside the realm of being lovers, we no longer assume certain romantic projections as we did. I remember after he left the Philippines for the first time, still feeling dazed at having spent ten days together, both of us even considered seeing each other again in Hanoi. It’s as if, this time around, now that the “romance” has died, what was left of and for us was the raw core of our friendship, which is, I believe, the main reason why it flourished beyond friendship in the first place. The kind of friendship I have with him articulated itself by the silence that now envelops it.

***

It’s past five in the afternoon, and the group across me has moved to another table, closer to the view of the ocean. Tove Lo’s Habits is playing on their portable speaker. One of them has replenished their empty bottle with another full one, and the women are now dancing to the beat of the song. The men sit idly on their chairs, watching the women and laughing with each other. My friend sends me a message, asking me if I’m done passing the time alone, saying she’s thirsty. I look at the ocean one last time before making my way back home.

Photo: Lo Lee Ta

 

 

 

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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.

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.

26 (Part 2)

 

In memory of my high school classmate, Antoine

IN MY LAST YEAR in high school, I challenged my classmates – all 57 of them – that our next grand reunion should be in France. February 21, 2021. Under the Eiffel Tower. I remember standing in front of them one afternoon with another classmate R as we all waited for our next teacher to arrive, and whatever brought us to the topic of a reunion I forget now. But there we were, the two of us.

Some of our classmates listened. A few reluctantly agreed while others merely laughed. Some didn’t say a word, and continued going about their own private conversations in smaller groups. I thought, fifteen years at the time felt just right to prepare us for that ‘grand’ reunion.

Years later we all finished high school and led separate lives. Some of them became my schoolmates in university. One became my classmate ‘til we both finished university taking the same degree. Years passed.

Then two days earlier, the subject of the reunion came up. One of my classmates took it upon herself to create a group on Facebook called Mercury named after our section during our senior year. In it I would find out that some of my classmates have left the country to work abroad and pursue their dreams. I’d find out those small reunions and birthdays, and see pictures of them the next couple of days. There would be those old photographs of us in high school at the soccer field, all gathered in a group, looking goofy – the girls in their green skirts, white socks and black shoes; the boys in white polos and jeans. There’d be the news of one of our classmates who passed away because of leukemia and another of our favorite English teacher in freshmen who died of breast cancer.  And just recently, a friend got hitched to this guy I remember in university. One just became a doctor.

So out of nowhere, in that chat group, one of my classmates reminded us that our reunion is fast-approaching. This was after one of my classmates had said, perhaps out of sheer sentimentality, we’re all not getting younger anymore. Five more years, I chuckled, remembering the damn reunion.

***

A friend once said nothing much happens at twenty-six. It was a day or two before my twenty-sixth birthday. He was twenty-seven. We were at a bar one early evening with another friend, and the idea came and went before we even had the chance to talk about it in detail. I was eager to leave my twenty-five-year-old self behind and was hoping to get a glimpse, from his own experience at least, of the next year that lay ahead.

I had pictured being twenty-six as a dull passage to adulthood, believing twenty-seven is the year that marks the ‘official’ beginning of what it’s like to be an adult. To me, 26 promised a kind of uneventful threshold with nothing much in it except for my daily routine and perhaps a few small occasions such as birthdays, holidays, weddings or anniversaries. Like a bridge between the eventful twenty-five (which is a quarter of your century, and so a milestone) and the promising 27. What I’d expected at 26, at least, was one big shebang. The kind where, if one asks, “So, what’s 26 like for you?” I’d say, “Oh! That was the year I decided to quit my job because I wanted to travel. So I traveled.” Or, “That was the year I got promoted at work!”

But in June last year, The Atlantic posted an article saying adulthood actually begins at 25 or close to it. (See, When Does Adulthood Really Begin?) Other related articles said the same thing. On two occasions, a professor in psychiatry and psychology at the University of Pittsburgh, Beatriz Luna talked about a ‘hyper-activity in a part of the brain known as the striatum’ which responds to ‘rewards’, something that ‘continues on until the mid-twenties’. I looked up to see how the striatum looked like and if, indeed, it looked as gullible as I pictured it to be. To my dismay, that minute part of the brain looked so small and so painstakingly difficult to describe in words, especially when viewed in different angles. Now at this point, I’m pretty damn sure my high school classmates who took up medicine or any medicine-related degrees would be raising their brows by now in suspicion or even chuckling at the thought of me trying to describe that part of the brain I have no real knowledge of.

But what’s clear to me is this: while that tiny little rascal up there in our brain is trying to sweet-talk us into doing the things we love to explore, saying, “Hey, why don’t you go out there and conquer the world. Take the risks! You’ll learn a lot from them. Make mistakes, and make them good”, the reality of our environmental demands that require us to be responsible ‘adults’ gets increasingly heightened when we get closer to being 25. Then of course, economic milestones have to come into the picture. Being able to land on a steady job which will then advance our career. Being able to save money. Being financially independent. That’s what the professor’s point was.

Well, I somehow reached twenty-six with that little striatum in my brain still dancing and acting like an eighteen-year-old.

***

Antoine came to our school quite late. We were all in senior year and had begun forging deep friendships and cliques within the confines of that four-walled classroom, which surprisingly, was able to accommodate all fifty eight of us. His arrival in class came one morning when our adviser introduced him to everyone.

“This is your new classmate who will be joining us for the rest of the year,” our class adviser said.

He went on to introduce himself. He had studied his first three years at a science high school but decided to transfer to our school. That morning, he stood in front of the class like a boy who was forced to talk in public. He spoke in perfect English, and forced a smile whenever he felt being scrutinized by our lame questions. His hands were in his pockets the whole time, and he stood in such a way that one side of his body would bend sideways, as if he’s reaching for something at the bottom of one of those pockets. His long straight hair covered his forehead but the tips seemed to touch his deep round eyes, so that he’d flick his head to the side without even touching his hair.  When he finally finished talking, we all clapped our hands.

We all realized soon enough how smart he was. He would ace Advanced Chemistry, Trigonometry and Physics, leaving us all in awe whenever he’d answer our teachers’ questions. He’d smile in this mischievous yet shy sort of way whenever he’d nail the right answer. Our class belonged to the first section among all senior students in the entire school, but Antoine was above us in this regard. Whatever lessons they took back in his previous school gave him a lot of advantage now that he was in our school. That or he was simply smart. Sometimes, it annoyed me.

For whatever reason, we never really talked all throughout that year. He remained a familiar stranger to me, someone I’d see every day and exchange a few words with. But nothing more. When I heard about the news of his passing a few years back, it struck me how little I’ve known him.

***

My most favorite part in Wong Kar Wai’s Happy Together was that scene when Lai Yiu-fai (played by Tony Leung) finally decides to go to Iguazu falls in Argentina by himself. The journey to the falls was depicted in black-and-white with the view of the road from the windshield of Lai Yiu-fai’s rented car. He was supposed to visit the falls with his boyfriend Ho Po-wing (played by Leslie Cheung), but after a tumultuous relationship with him, decides to leave and venture out on his own.

The scene of the empty road resonates in me these days, as I realize it’s ten days more before I turn twenty-seven. What surprises me now, as I’m writing this, is Antoine’s image in my head, and why his memory comes back to me right now. He’d be around my age this time. He’d have finished university, just like me. And with his brilliance, he might have far succeeded everyone else in our batch. What sort of things would he have already said in our group chat had he still been around? Would he have gotten married sooner?

And then there’s that damn reunion. Five more years.

But the image of the empty road keeps flashing in my head.

 

 

 

 

26 (Part 1)

IT’S BEEN a month now since I left my last teaching job which lasted (miraculously, I must say) for three years. Once they handed me my last paycheck, I knew there was no turning back. My three wonderful years in that school ended the minute I said goodbye to Jean, the finance officer,  turned my scooter bike on and went out the gate. And just like that, I was left by myself on the bike, driving 40km per hour on the road that afternoon.

Driving at 40 isn’t that fast at all. I can drive as fast as 80 – even 100 or more – given that the road is empty, which I’ve done a couple of times on another island while I had the chance to travel. Otherwise, I’m a relatively safe driver. No, no.  I simply play safe. I think I have to admit that. And when it comes to driving, you never go wrong with that mantra playing in your head. Except for that night when I got real drunk after going out with friends and drove home. So I’m approaching a turn. The road is empty. It’s past three in the morning. And for some reason, my arms refuse to turn the handles to the right. Yes, they refuse. You know how it is when a part of you refuses to do its job. So my eyes are fixed on that patch of concrete in front of me where the headlight’s beaming at. I’m driving between 50 and 60, I forget  now. Next thing I see is the roadside drainage and I knew right away I was driving on the wrong lane. But then my arms refuse to swerve gently back on track. I jerk the handles back to the right lane not wanting to swing right into the ditch. I crash. The bike skids a few meters from where I lay on the pavement. I quickly look around. No one’s watching. I pick up the bike and drive as fast as I can. My arms are shaking. My legs are shaking. My left hand and cheek are bleeding. I realize on my way home at 3AM I lost one of my slippers.

***

Recently at a friend’s bar/nightclub, I was hanging out with some three friends and after we downed a shot of tequila we came to the subject of fate. I think I started it. Not a good subject to talk about when you’re supposed to be having fun with friends. At a bar. Needless to say it came up. We were all outside at this one table standing and smoking, enjoying our drinks, and at some point, I think all of us came to an agreement that fate and destiny are synonymous. Like you’d talk about fate in terms of how you’re destined to have this thing, for example. Or that you’re destined to meet this person. Fate per se.  I don’t believe in fate. One of my friends at this table did. The other two stood to listen. The matter became more interesting when we got right down to the specifics. Concrete examples.

“So you think it was fate who brought you to my friend?” I asked F. He’s German. My friend J is Filipina. His English isn’t so good but it’s OK. He can survive any conversation.

“I believe so,” F said. “I think it’s something you think in the past and the universe hears it. And if you keep thinking about it, then it’s going to happen in the future.”

“You mean, you were thinking about my friend even before you met her?” I was sipping from my glass of gin and tonic. He was standing across me holding his beer.

“Not her specifically but an idea of her,” he said. F’s tall. A 7-footer something with blonde hair, tattoos and all.

“Like after I came to the Philippines for the first time,” he continued, “I went back home and I told my mom, ‘Mom, I think I want to marry a Filipina’. Now I’m with her.” F looked at J, half-smiling in a joking way.

“We’re not married yet,”J said to him. She was wearing a thick red lipstick, which actually looked good on her. F stooped to give her a hug. She squirmed in half jest. We all laughed. (They have a 2-month-old son now.)

“So you’re saying fate is a product of whatever it was that we thought about in the past? Whether it’s something we really desired or just a passing thought?” I asked. I wasn’t planning on getting him off the hook just yet. Too early to be agreeing with someone only two years older than me.

“Exactly. That’s what I’m saying,” F said, taking a swig from his bottle. “The important thing is, you think about it.”

“See, I refuse to believe that. For example, I don’t believe at all that L and I here will become friends,” I pointed to L standing to my left. “I’ve never thought in the past about meeting her here, let alone getting to know her. Not even a passing thought. I mean, we went to the same university, studied the same thing, she’s a year ahead of me. I’ve seen her at some point, fine. Have I thought of her? Probably. In passing. But I’ve never thought the day will come when, you know, we’d become this close. Can I have one of your cigarettes?”

“Sure.”

“Which is why I don’t buy the whole fate thing. It’s a weak argument is what I’m saying.” I lighted my stick.

“No no no no no. You’re contradicting yourself by saying you don’t believe in it,” L said in that familiar rising tone. After almost a year of knowing her, I’ve come to know that tone so well. That don’t-give-me-that-bull-coz-I’m-going-to-slay-you tone. The first time I talked to her was at a friend’s wedding about two years ago.

“By saying you don’t believe in fate, you’re accepting the idea of it,”L said.

“What do you mean?”

“Coincidence. You don’t want to submit to the idea of some force out there controlling your future. Who you meet, what you’ll become someday. You want to be in control, which is why you keep saying you don’t believe in it. But think about it: you don’t believe in fate. Well, hello, coincidence. An outside force leading you to where you are right now or some time in the future even though you haven’t thought about it or never even considered the idea of it.”

We were quiet for a while. I think the tequila had quietly kicked in we just didn’t notice it. By the time I finished my cigarette, F asked if we wanted more drinks. Of course I said yes.

***

I left my previous job because I wanted to go to Vietnam. For a lot of reasons. A job was waiting for me there as an EFL teacher to a bunch of Vietnamese kids in Hanoi. I applied for it, did a quick demo, got interviewed. Before the day ended, I was told I got the job.

And so for the next couple of weeks, I started fantasizing about the place. I would go to sleep every night and imagine a different self in the place. I googled Vietnam, especially Hanoi. I downloaded an app that would help me learn basic Vietnamese. Xin chao. Chao ban. Xin loi. Tam biet. I started looking up on Ways to Overcome Homesickness When Living Abroad. Turns out there are four stages to it, although articles I found online have different ways of saying it, sometimes adding one more stage. I found the 4-stage process quite compelling in itself already: honeymoon, frustration, adjustment and acceptance.  I devoured all of the articles I could find.

At the same time, I also devoured the money I already had for the trip. Some from what I have, but for the most part from friends who were willing to help me. I was supposed to leave in April, halfway through the semester before school closed for summer vacation. My friends knew about it. It was all over Facebook and it felt good. But then I was asked if I could just finish the semester at least. I said yes.

I was out every night. And every time I came home, I went to bed (most of the time on the floor) with my fantasies about Vietnam tucked somewhere in my head. Two months passed. School was finally over. It took me a long time to admit the fact that I screwed things up.

***

The motorbike accident left me a few scars. One on my left cheek. Another one on my left shoulder. A few on my knuckles. The ugliest one though is the one on my pinky finger. My nail’s dead, but it wouldn’t let go just yet. It’s been protruding upwards now the past few days. I can see this fresh nail like a baby growing underneath, but I’m sure it will take some time before it finally becomes a good nail. Hard. Firm. Beautiful to look at. All I’m seeing now is this ugly nail that doesn’t want to come off yet. I go to bed at night, and I always have to be careful not to brush it past a pillow or a blanket.

***

About two years ago, I was going to Siargao to meet a friend whom I haven’t seen for quite some time. I was falling in line at the ticket booth at the port at about 5PM when this guy came up and asked me where I was heading.

“Siargao,” I said. He was with another guy who was holding on to their surf boards. The guy who approached me looked friendlier than the one behind. One look and I knew they weren’t Americans.

“Oh great. We’re going there, too.”

“You can stand behind me if you want.”

We introduced each other and chatted for a while as we waited for our turn. His name’s I and his friend’s J. They were from Finland and wanted to check out the surfing scene in Siargao. I told them I came from Dumaguete and wanted to go to Siargao to meet a friend. We took the same boat which was scheduled to leave at seven in the evening.

When the boat finally reached Surigao at eight the next day, we saw each other again, and the first thing he asked me was if there was McDonald’s in the area.

“I’m going there, too. That’s where I’m meeting my friend.”

A few days passed and we found ourselves on a small island facing the Pacific. My friend L decided to invite them over at his place, and he thought of bringing us to this island for a night. We brought tents and some food which would last us for the night. Our friend B joined us too.

That night we set up a bonfire. The island was quiet except for the sound of waves roaring in the distance. I placed a big mat on the sand near the fire to keep myself warm. The other guy J asked if he could share the mat with me. We ended up talking about Finnish pop music and he made me listen to some Finnish songs from his phone. After some time, side by side, we started talking about constellations. The stars are very bright on that side of the country. I admitted to not knowing much about it except for the Orion’s Belt and the Big Dipper.

Then out of nowhere, he looked at me and asked if I believed in fate. It took me a while to give him a proper answer. Nobody has asked me that question before.

“Do you?” I asked.

“I asked you first,” he said.

“Can you give me a minute?”

“Okay. Just a minute.” And he began counting by tens.

“It’s not a difficult question, you know?” he said.

When he finally finished counting, he asked me the same question.

“I don’t.”

He nodded his head, and as I looked at him, half of his face lit up by the fire beside us, I wasn’t so sure for a second if I said the right thing or if it mattered to him at all.

“So you do,” I asked.

“Yes. I do.”