Before 4 a.m.

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This old woodshed stands a few feet away from the airport runway. | Dumaguete City, October 17.

 

THE SEASON of rain has finally come. These days, the sun shows up for an hour or so, then disappears behind thick clouds in order to give way, first, to a slow, steady, quiet drizzle then, almost imperceptibly, on to a sudden downpour. Some days when I wake up at ten or eleven in the morning, I look outside the window and see the overcast sky  imbuing a delicate, somber mood which ultimately registers throughout the day. As a response, I usually curl up on the couch, still half-asleep, as I try to pick up those little fragments of my dreams that seem to deftly slip past my half-conscious grasp. Chase them down for a couple of minutes, although to no avail. Surrender kicks in like an exhausted friend slumped at the corner of the room. So I decide instead to get up and make myself some coffee.

I open my laptop, check my Skype, and quickly scroll down for some updates from my supervisor. Between 15 and 40 unread messages altogether in five or six separate group chats. At least, no private messages for me. Yet. Quick sigh. I wait for the coffee to brew.

Earlier this month, I was transferred to the writing department for this online ESL company I’ve been with for a year and two months. My job then was much simpler: lead generation, posting ads across different sites, the usual marketing tasks. The main goal’s to gather as many online English tutors to teach for the company, and I was among the few tasked to hunt for these particular online job seekers. It was the kind of job I knew I’d eventually get tired of. When, about a month ago, my supervisor pitched in the possibility that I’ll be writing blogs for the company soon (she knew I love to write), I took it like a giddy kid would take a lollipop handed to him through a stroke of some well-deserved luck.

Now I’m on probationary period which — I’m hoping — will last until the end of this month. The task is to write eight 500-to-700-word articles every day from Mondays to Fridays. Topics vary from tips on teaching English to tips in learning English, and other marketing write-ups to push the company forward and spread the word.

I’m a little skeptical about this whole thing, to be honest. I’ve never done full-time blogging before, so now I’m still having a hard time catching up with the pace. I’ve so many pending articles to write — about 35 of them — but every time I sit up straight, face the laptop, and start fidgeting with the keyboard, nothing comes up. Or something does, but it feels too contrived, too bland, that I end up staring at the first few sentences I’ve strung together and realize they don’t make sense. Delete. Delete. Delete.

Speaking of things not making sense, I just recently turned twenty-eight nine days ago, and now I’m utterly and completely broke. Which doesn’t sound like a great way to welcome a new year of my life, although having almost nothing at all, while it’s confounding and, quite frankly, extremely perplexing for the most part, also allows me to patiently look for those small, tender graces I tend to ignore. I really really really have got to start being responsible with my own finances.

On a brighter note, I recently discovered this singer/songwriter called Tom Brosseau. Stumbling upon unheard-of singers is like finding little, precious gems. You take immense pride in showing them off. His song “Fit To Be Tied” is just too beautiful I was a little disappointed to find out no one has transcribed it online. So I did.

Fit To Be Tied

My head is so heavy
It’s hanging like the moon
Well I’ll find a way to love you
And I know ain’t no way gonna do
Well I’ll find a way to love you
And I know ain’t no way gonna do

Well I’m leaving and then I won’t look back
And don’t you expect a goodbye
I said all my prayers
Returned the vows and the honeymoon
I ain’t got the answers
My prayers never made it out to you
I ain’t got the answers
My prayers never made it out to you

Well that’s just the way you wanted it
Ain’t that just the way the story goes
I’m cut from my connection
A solemn anchor cast to sea
I ain’t fit to be tied
I keep driftin’ down without security
I ain’t fit to be tied
I keep driftin’ down without security
And my home’s the abyss and I know
I won’t be missed at all. 

 

 

 

 

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Letter to My Twenty-Seven-Year-Old Self

YOU HAVE come this far. By the time you turn twenty-eight, you will have learned to let go of a friend. This is one important lesson you will learn at twenty-seven. While it will not be entirely his fault, it will not be entirely yours either. It will be painful, more so when your listless mind begins to wander back to fond, old memories with him, and you will arrive at a place of confession. It is here where you will learn to accept that you stoked the fire to your friendship, the same place where listening to your voice with an attentive, compassionate ear will allow you to surrender yourself to your own truth. You will fall in love with him. And while there’s nothing wrong with falling in love with a friend, how you will act on it in the long months following this revelation inside a bar one night, both of you drinking gin and tonic, succumbing to the awkward stretches of silence afterwards, will amount to consequences that neither of you will be prepared to admit and to which you alone will pay. You will still see each other in places you usually frequented with, but you will no longer exchange a single word even though your eyes will occasionally meet. Silence will be the only act of grace you will bestow each other. You will learn a great deal about yourself. You will learn to shake your inner demon’s hand.

At twenty-seven, you will be spending most of your nights going from one bar to another. You will meet strangers on the dance floor; and soon enough, these strangers will turn into familiar faces. Much sooner, they will become familiar voices. And on most nights, you will be sharing a drink or two with them. You will hear more about yourself from them. You will laugh at what an asshole you are when you learn how drunk you have been on previous nights. As you go on dancing, you will find yourself delighted to small things — the flicker of lights above you, the strange way people dance around, the absurd-looking clothes of the sweat-bathed ladies and the men, the ridiculous ecstasy written in their glistening faces. Nights like this, you will be perpetually teased by your inner demon asking you relentlessly, Why are you dancing alone? To which you will dismiss, by way of tucking out a passage from one of your favorite books: “Go out dancing tonight, my dear, and go home with someone, and if the love doesn’t last beyond the morning, then know I love you.” And you will close your eyes and smile to yourself, and kiss Andrew Holleran for these kind words even though you’ll end up going home alone.

You will leave the city one morning with a hangover and resolve within yourself that you are not coming back. You will find yourself on another island in the south, and it is here where you’ll write again. You will be astonished, one morning, after going to a bar the previous night, when you find yourself standing at the shore at some quiet resort as you gaze at the distance to a sight of yet another shore while the early morning light sweeps across the coconut trees and the white sand that it reminds you of your childhood home. You will find yourself in tears and realize you have not yet grieved over the death of your foster mother after all.

But you will come back to the city that you left.

You will not be complaining about your online job, even though it will never give you even the slightest breath of excitement and purpose as your previous one did. A friend will write you a letter all the way from Ireland asking you about this, wondering why he’s never heard about it. You will respond with brevity and not with despondency. Another friend will send you a letter from Russia. And another from the UK. You will soon realize this year will be a year of writing letters.

You will travel a lot at twenty-seven. You will revisit old places and see new ones. You will continue to meet new people. In one of these travels, you will meet a fine woman one afternoon at the beach who will talk about friendship and marriage and love. You will take her photo with your small camera you borrowed from your friend. You will also meet another fine woman one night who will talk about depression and family and self-discovery. She will shed a tear, as will you.  You will also find a friend from a young man you will meet much much later, and through him, you will learn again how to ask good, tough questions. These will be the kind of conversations which will resonate in you, and which you will look for.

You will live with your friends. And in this, you will find another home.

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

 

 

 

That Woozy, Ticklish Feeling of High

A FRIEND once pointed out to me that the next time I embark on a gigantic, life-changing decision, I should rather keep it to myself than have all the people in the world know what I’m about to do. The most apparent culprit for this, of course, is Facebook, this tempting beast of an online platform where our most personal frustrations, those well-deserved triumphs, or even our most mundane moments such as the well-garnished lunch we had or this multi-flavored frappe we downed with our friends in a franchised hip coffee shop somewhere in the city are exhibited in the open, curated by our well- or ill-discerning standards of taste in which ‘critical’ assessment comes in the form of emoticons or a ‘well-thought-out’ review in the comments section below the post in question.

Well.

The last time I did, it was a text message I received congratulating me for being hired for a Vietnamese company from a prospective recruiter who, at the time, was hiring English teachers to work in Hanoi, which I posted on my timeline, because, as much as I hate to admit it, I wanted instant recognition. Minutes after I screen-captured the text message and posted the delightful news on my wall, my notifications soared to a ridiculous high number of congratulatory comments, and each time I hit them back with a trite Thanks, the feeling of elation swelled inside me, like when you’re in a car running 60km per hour and suddenly the road curves down, and that split second when your heart seems to come off, you feel a woozy, ticklish feeling of high that you want to do it again and again.

Of course, she’s right. That proved to be a huge mistake. And in retrospect, a kind of blunder, I must say. Because months later, I’d still be in the Philippines. And when people asked me, surprised to see me gallivanting around, “I thought you’d be in Vietnam by now?” I’d give them this nonchalant, unperturbed look and say, “Plans change, don’t they?” One night, my friend even posted a picture of us at a bar, when we were out celebrating for our other friend’s arrival after a month or so of being away-there were five of us-in which he captioned the photo “Welcome back Yannick, and goodbye Aaron #leavingforVietnammaybein2019”. It was funny. But deep down, fuck.

Fuck, no matter how unabashedly banal and unapologetic it sounds, seems to sum up the whole experience entirely. That proved to be my first, gut-wrenching lesson on 50 Ways on How Not to Use Facebook. It also made me critical about the things I should post there. But more importantly, it gave me a glimpse of my naïve and pompous 26-year-old self: at the core of this is an underlying lesson to be had.

In a letter written by Cheryl Strayed in response to an anonymous 22-year-old penned Seeking Wisdom who asked the 40ish-year-old writer, “What would you tell your twentysomething self if you could talk to her now?” Strayed’s first response was arrestingly simple: Stop worrying about whether you’re fat. You’re not fat. Or rather, you’re sometimes a little bit fat, but who gives a shit?

It was her rhetorical question that made me close the book, pause for a minute and stare at the wall for a few more goddamn minutes. Who gives a shit?

Because I guess in the long run, we’ll always find ourselves confronted with this ridiculously yet surprisingly wise question. In my case, now that I’m a year older, I still do. Or better yet, I have to. It’s a bittersweet, face-smacking wake-up call that puts your tail back between your legs. It keeps you at bay of all of your baseless, puffed-up assumptions about yourself. It keeps you grounded.

Or that’s how it was-and still is-for me. Who gives a shit?

Well.

 

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

 

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.