Essays

Ghost Spots, Flashbacks, Little Misdemeanors, and the Happy-Sad-Drunk People We Want to be Happy-Sad-Drunk With

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.

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Places

A Love Letter to the City and the Gentle People

Dear D,

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.

Sincerely,
A

 

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Confessions

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.

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Confessions

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.

 

 

 

 

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Confessions

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.”

 

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