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.

Standard
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

 

Standard
Poems

To My Nanay, in Memory

My last memory of you would not be
at your funeral which I would find out
days after you were gone. It wouldn’t be
how beautiful the dress, I imagine, seemed to fit the thinness
of your aging body, lying inconspicuous for each visitor
each friend, each eye to study closely after each breath,
each whisper of prayer and farewell. It wouldn’t be
of the familiar faces gathered in a small congregation
I would soon see in the pictures, imagining them
singing the all-too-familiar song we used to sing together
hours after those Wednesday prayer meetings have long been over
as we made our way back home, your soprano rendition
and my basal tone –
It is well with my soul.

Instead, it will be on that particular afternoon in 2011
a year after I left and came back
wanting to tell you that your little boy is gay:
You lie in bed in that small room
both you and Tatay share. Remember the clutter?
The dusty old books. Those carpentry tools. That old red and white
briefcase full of old pictures, old letters, stashes of old paper.
Disassembled furniture parts. Empty plastic bottles. Packed dirt beneath our feet.
Because we couldn’t afford the cemented floors
I’ve secretly wished we had.

Light passes through the window and I see you.
Your long wavy black hair you used once
whipping my skin to relieve me of the pox I had as a child
now short and graced with adorable white strands.
Your face which bears the meanness of old age,
the deep sockets in your eyes – until slowly your eyelids flutter.
And then you see me at last.

It will be this memory of how your eyes swelled in tears
at the instant recognition of seeing my face
and the first word you uttered which brought me back to childhood,
the name of the boy you knew and loved, Loy
this is what will remain.
You ask me, minutes later, if I have found myself a girlfriend.
I laugh nervously, trying to test the water. No, I say.
A smile escapes your lips as you squeeze my hand around yours
and without a pause you say, Good. Not yet. You’re still too young.
A minute passes and you find yourself asking me again
the same question I wish you’d forget to ask. You are giddy
like a child waiting for a treat.
No, I say.
You surprise me this time, your thin hand still resting in mine.
Why? I want to have a grandchild. A slight disappointment, the same child now embarrassed,
hiding behind your gentle voice —
this too will remain.
It is my turn to squeeze your hand. Something to throw in the quiet.
When you ask me this again the third time, I lean forward
careful not to hurt you with my embrace, for even small acts of kindness
in its seeming purity can still make one shudder. No, I say.
You smile. Good. You’re still young ¬—
this too will remain.

Some time in a few years when it is time to go home
it would be my turn to look for you
as you must have done in the years of my silence
before you went to sleep each night. I do not want to imagine
the things you must have asked yourself or the one
within your reach, Where are you, Loy? When will I see you? Do you still remember me?
Each question like stone
you’ve secretly lodged beneath your pillow
in my long years of absence
‘til they all piled up, making it more and more difficult to sleep.

It is too late now for kind words to be spoken
and apologies long overdue. But one day
at your grave, I will be there.
I will light a candle for you
perhaps on a Monday
and I will tell you a story.

Standard