In The Manner Accustomed

(The following short story won 2nd Place in the 2013 Nick Joaquin Literary Awards, and had earlier been published in Philippines Graphic. Thanks as always to ma’am Alma Anonas-Carpio and sir Joel Salud of Graphic, and sirs Jimmy Abad, Krip Yuson, and ma’am Susan Lara who were judges in the Joaquin on that year)

In The Manner Accustomed

‘And indeed there will be time
To wonder “do I dare?” and “do I dare?”…
Do I dare
Disturb the universe?’
– T.S. Eliot, The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock

Andrew began that Wednesday with the little ceremonies with which he was accustomed to begin his Wednesdays. Orderly, according to schedule, and in the manner accustomed.

He had just cooked breakfast and was now on his dining table, and because in his daily Order it was a rice day today, he was having sinangag, maple flavoured bacon, and scrambled eggs. Outside, the birds chirped in chorus, with the slowly rising purr of the jeepneys beginning to gather in nearby Crossing Bangkal as bass line. It was a beautiful morning in Central Park.

For a man in his early thirties, Andrew looked relatively boyish. He had been living on his own for well over ten years now, but he still had that groomed neatness of a boy under a mother’s meticulous care. His wavy brown hair was ear length, and it had been parted in the middle since he was twelve. His face, immaculate since he was born, never needed shaving. His eyes had a languidness that bordered between boredom and solemnity. On a well-built jaw glided thin, narrow lips. He knew how to feed himself, so he was lean but not to the point of being gaunt.

There was an almost stylized deliberation in all his movements.

Everything in Andrew’s life was ritualized and steeped in meaning, and breakfast was no exception. To the left of his plate, right above the spoon and fork, was his mug of coffee unmilked and unsugared for Wednesday was a black day. Beside the mug was his iPhone, placed snugly on top of a folded face towel. Then beside this was his Daily Planner, a blue Moleskine note, with his House Pen placed neatly on top. Beside the planner was his Daily Lesson Plan, a smaller spring notebook on which he wrote the lectures and quizzes he was to give for the day. To the plate’s right was the day’s newspaper, and beside that was the manuscript for the paper he was thinking of writing for a journal based in Geneva.

The paper was about historiography’s impact on a culture’s symbolic signification. He was curious about how symbolic values died in a group’s shared system of valuation, how the sacred ends up becoming retrospectively exotic, or how the hallowed becomes mundane. He specifically wanted to show how those that “make history” invariably destroy it by taking a look at progressivism vis-à-vis the question of cultural introspection. His specific case in point was how the Manobo, in trying to adapt to contemporary westernized Filipino culture, began eating the sacred Limokon bird. The paper was bound to be interdisciplinary, and while he was, strictly speaking, a historian, he will need to ground it in post-structuralist semiotics, anthropological research, and dialectical materialism among other perspectives.

Oh distractions, he thought as the interview with the Manobo chieftain came to his mind. When one assumes an accustomed way of proceeding, impulses and bouts of succumbing to randomness invariably become distractions. Yes, he admitted, these disorderly instances often bring about changes in his life, and they often sow the seeds of creativity.

Later today, he will have his first date with Trish. Another result of an unscheduled impulse. Oh how he hopes this randomness will bear creative fruit.

But in his day there will be time for that, time even for randomness, as there will be time for everything. And so he ought to proceed in the scheduled manner accustomed. He must first eat.

Before taking his cup of coffee he knocked the knuckles of his bent left hand fingers on the table thrice.

He got this habit from Marisse, who showed it to him when they were ten. She had brought a thermos with Oolong tea to school one day, and while he poured her some on a cup she tapped her bent fingers. A sign of gratitude, she explained, in Chinese tea culture. She said it began when the Qing Dynasty Emperor Qianlong went out to mingle among his people in disguise. In a restaurant he poured his attending servant some tea, and the servant, wishing to thank the Emperor for the great honour but not wishing to reveal his identity, instead showed gratitude by knocking his bent fingers on the table thrice.

Charming, singularly nerdy Marisse. More for her memory than for Qianlong’s, Andrew adapted the knocking on the table as a sign of gratitude for all kinds of drinks. Even when nobody was pouring him a drink he still knocked on the table before taking the cup or glass.

Marisse had left for Canada with her braided pigtails and his heart when they were thirteen, but she had left behind in him a deep love for history and this peculiar personal habit.

After sipping the coffee, he took the spoon from the left of the plate with his right hand.

Andrew had been left handed in his early youth, but his mother forced him to use the right hand, hitting the left whenever he used it, until the right became dominant. He could no longer revert to left handedness, but to commemorate this forced usurpation of the hand, he always put the spoon to the left and took it with the right hand, as the right hand took dominance from the left.

In his first spoon of breakfast, he took a piece of one of each item on the plate: rice, bacon, egg. Then he had rice and bacon, then rice and egg, then bacon and egg, before taking another complete spoon and repeating the cycle again.

While eating, he proceeded to taking a look at his Daily Planner to see the day’s order of business.

He had begun scheduling his daily tasks – his Order – in his third year in AdDU High. Sabina had said he was too damak for her when he confessed his feelings. As he had fallen for the gentility in Marisse’s singular fascination for knowledge, he had been attracted to Sabina’s stylish sophistication, but like Marisse Sabina broke his heart.

The devastation of her rejection threw him into a paralyzing chaos, and he was so crippled he did not even know how to face his own parents, so for a day he stayed in his room and pretended to have a fever. During that one day of absence from school he calmed down and decided to set up a rigorous Order in his life as a resistance to Sabina and to the devastation she had caused.

By then he already had a personal tradition of drinking some Oolong tea on the second of July, the date Marisse had left for Canada. He had then decided to make a tradition too of going back every year, on the third of October, to AdDU Matina and muttering “damak” under that acacia tree were Sabina rejected him. These two events became annual rituals in the Order of his life.

So when Alice, back in fourth year college, gave back his copy of Orwell’s Animal Farm crying after he rejected her in the Fifth Floor Finster Lobby, returning there every February, with the same copy of the book, became an easy ritual to schedule.

Since Sabina he had been in Order, with precision and in manners to which he had grown accustomed.

He looked at his Planner to see what was tabled for that day’s Order. After the breakfast he was to take his customary light walk around Central Park through his usual route, contemplating (with controlled randomness this time) on postcolonial re-signification of mythemes for his paper. When he comes back to his house he was to write a few paragraphs on that, before taking a shower (no shampoo today) and preparing to go to the Ateneo. That morning he had two World History classes, during which he was to give a quiz on Deng Xiaoping before beginning the discussions on Africa with the Ethiopian Empire. Ma’am Tetchie, the Department chair, wanted to meet with him from ten to eleven to discuss the symposium on Ethnography the Social Science Department was organizing with the Literature Department. That afternoon until four he was to continue writing his paper in the Faculty Research Center. By four-fifteen he had a class on Philippine History (a class quiz bee on the American Occupation) and on Rizal (a discussion on Rizal’s time in Dumaguete) until seven. On his way home he was to pick up the laundry. When he comes home he was to water the plants and bring in the indoor pots. Before dinner he needed to finish his lesson plans for the coming week and liquidate the day’s expenses. Dinner for tonight was to be cordon bleu.

He took his House Pen and added “-with Trish” to “Lunch” and to “finish Geneva Paper.”

Since his undergraduate years he always had two pens: a House Pen and an Academic Pen. His House Pen was the pen he used for domestic purposes, like grocery lists, the daily planner, liquidating expenses and miscellaneous writing tasks. When he was a student his Academic Pen was for notes, quizzes, assignments, and exams. Since he began teaching it was used for recording, checking papers, making lesson plans, and drafting academic papers. The habit came from Alice, who also had two pens at hand, but with her it was for curricular and extracurricular activities. His first House Pen was a pen she gave to him.

After having breakfast he went out for a walk. His front yard, simply but elegantly landscaped, was manicured and glistening with morning dew.

The hedge of Santan, propagated from a small cutting Marisse once gave him in Grade Four, was bursting with red blossoms despite the rigidity of its trimmed smoothness. Twenty years and good soil can make a flaming hedge out of a little twig.

The branches of the young acacia sapling at the corner, a seedling of Sabina’s tree in AdDU Matina when he bought the house, were heavy with birds, chirping and ripe for mating. There were a few weeds growing on the Bermuda lawn. His classes tomorrow were all in the morning, so he made a mental note to unweed the lawn in the afternoon with Annika’s Kusanagi.

Annika never knew anything about his nuanced habits. Everything that happened with her was rushed, everything too fast to be understood, so it ended too quickly. He had only known her for two months in UP Dilliman (where he took his Masters in History, she in Creative Writing) when she said she loved him.

Alice’s devastation had left an unexpectedly intense sense of remorse in him, and he was still scarred by that when Annika confessed. The Alice Atonement, he labeled it, a self-policy that made him accept any feelings in the unlikely event that they were offered as atonement for what he had done to Alice.

That was the first time, he now recalled in retrospect, that precedent proved indecisive.

But it was not difficult to love Annika, in fairness to her. Like Marisse she knew what she wanted and was sure of her interests in life. And she also had a maturity that in any woman was invariably a form of sex appeal. Charmingly tomboyish in her speech but attractively fashionable, it was not surprising, looking at it now in retrospect, that Andrew found himself losing all accustomed inhibitions when he was with her.

When he returned to Davao to teach in the Ateneo she came with him to teach in UP Mindanao, and they lived together in his house.

She was eager to be part of his life, even having a foot-long cabilla flattened at one tip so she could use it to unweed the lawn herself. Being a Japanophile (she loved the works of Ihara Saikaku and Ango Sakaguchi), she playfully named this strip of metal Kusanagi.

But she never did fit in. To Andrew’s silent consternation, she kept disrupting his Order: the remote on the coffee table was not in its place on top of the TV, the curtains were tied with a different knot, the slippers were not arranged by order of seniority. And her perfume, sweet as any woman’s fragrance, nevertheless smelled like a stranger in his sheets. He got an inkling of this back in Dilliman, but it was magnified when she was placed in his ordered home.

He never said anything about this, of course. But she felt his discomfiture as indifference, and after barely three months of living together they broke up. Forsaken in a strange city, Annika managed to find a house in Catalunan Pequeño, much nearer to UP Mindanao.

They had not seen each other for seven years now. But she left Kusanagi behind, and he still used it to unweed the lawn. And to this day the remote had always been placed on the coffee table.

He was halfway into his usual route when he realized thoughts of Annika had distracted him from considering his Geneva paper. Order, he told himself. Order.

Alice had been very fond of parliamentary debate. When they were having their debate class with sir Cirunay (the AB English of AdDU had a semester in debate), she was thrilled with the last grading period.

It was from her, really, that he got his own love for procedure, and he ended up applying it to his own life. He began “considering” ideas, never deciding on them until they passed three “contemplations.” And he would call his own thoughts to Order. It was as if he had a legislature in his head, operating in ritualized procedure.

Alice, he admitted, had a profound impact on him. He was hardly surprised when he got news that she had been hired as staff in the House of Representatives.

As he put on his long sleeved polo shirt in front of his mirror (he had finished taking a shower) he wondered what became of Marisse, Sabina, and Annika. The last he heard about them, Marisse had a small business in Vancouver and had a boyfriend of 5 years. Sabina, high school batch mates say, was mistress to a congressman in Surigao. Annika was dating a CW graduate of UP Mindanao who was applying for a teaching post.

He unbuttoned the sleeves and folded the ends back to form “butterfly” cuffs. That was how his father had always worn his sleeves when he met clients. This included his mother, whom the late, lamented attorney had first met as a client who wanted to sue her fellow teacher in USEP for harassment. To this day, he still could not see how such a free spirit as his father could have ended up marrying a woman like his mother, who had very little imagination. She hated that way of wearing the sleeves, she found it messy.

When the attorney was buried, he and his brother insisted that the sleeves on his body were upturned like that. The two brothers had worn their sleeves so since then.

Today he decided to wear his old leather choker: the same one he wore during Marisse’s eleventh birthday; the same he wore during the high school Christmas party when Sabina gave him a wrist watch (the same wrist watch he was using now) for being a good friend; the same one he was wearing during Alice’s Debut; the same one Annika insisted he keep on when they first made love (although she did not know its significance).

Upon careful consideration he had decided to give the possibility of Trish a chance.

Since he had not ordered the contemplation of anything during the jeepney ride, he allowed his mind to wander. Experience told him the mind was unrestrainedly free during the half hour ride from Bangkal to Ateneo Jacinto, so he rarely tabled anything for consideration on rides. But he used this to schedule creative randomness. The many strokes of sudden genius that these free-thought musings have brought about convinced him he should commute rather than save to buy a car.

This morning’s jeepney ride though, invariably and unsurprisingly led him to thoughts of Trish. Oh, that other bout of creative randomness.

A Psychology graduate from the University of San Carlos in Cebu, Trish came to Davao to get an MA in Psychology from AdDU. He met her when she worked as an intern for the Tambara (he was one of the academic journal’s editors last year). She had since began working at the Research and Extension office, where he was also attached. They have known each other for almost two years now, but only about a month ago, when she first showed signs of interest on him, did he begin considering the possibility of her.

It had been nineteen years since he had allowed himself to feel something like this for a woman. It was a conscious desire to share everything with her, to not only be with her, but be himself with her, in all his accustomed manners and peculiarities. Sabina was the last, and the unrequited desire with her prompted the impasse. Alice was a victim of this, what he called the Sabina Seclusion, an apathy that sprang from the resolution to not want in fear of being unfulfilled. In this seclusion he had found solace in his own accustomed Order. Then he met Annika, whom he allowed by virtue of the Alice Atonement. But though he admittedly wanted her (if the right process was followed, love could be learned) he could not bear the thought of being himself with her. The decision to be with Annika was deliberate, the result of three contemplations, but the Alice Atonement did not provide for the reconciliation of another’s presence with his Order. Annika became out of place in his life, he had made no adjustments to be accustomed to her.

But this time, with Trish, it was different. She was to test the Annika Precedent, to avoid the mistake he committed with Annika.

If he was to live with her, he was to let her understand everything. She was to be privy to the obsolete griefs he commemorated. She was to be privy to the values he celebrated. She was to be privy to the fact that everything he did was ordered, everything with deep history and meaning, everything a celebration of the life he had lived. He wanted her to see and understand all that, and he wanted to commemorate and celebrate with her.

He went about performing that morning’s task as scheduled and in the manner accustomed. It had always been very fulfilling to see students score high in quizzes (almost everybody got the bonus question on Deng’s political patron, Zhou Enlai).

His mother had always wanted him to be a lawyer like his father, but as a resistance against her dominance he decided to take up her own profession and teach.

Recklessly he took Education units while he was an undergraduate student at his own expense and, when he was in Manila, he secretly enrolled for MA in History instead of Law School. He and his mother have since come to terms with that decision: she acceptance, he fulfillment. But the subversive character of his teaching choice still reflected itself on his insisting to teach beyond the department’s course outline, or in his novel class activities.

The meeting with ma’am Tetchie proved to be fruitful. The university was planning to invite for the symposium a historian who was known for his work on the Lumad’s obsolete rituals. He was to arrive in Davao on Monday next week, so Andrew could consult with him for his Geneva Paper. Ma’am Tetchie, who had always been very supportive of his academic writing (it was she who convinced him to send a paper on the same journal the first time he was published), was thinking of having him share the paper’s draft as part of the symposium.

But the meeting ended earlier than he expected, and he had half an hour to himself. So he decided to use the time to record his class’s quiz scores. In his desk at the Faculty Lounge, he entered the scores in his old Class Record. Maximizing the available time was part of his accustomed Order.

“Qu’ils ont appris, et rien oublie.” He muttered when he had finished recording the scores. One night in his flat in Manila, after they made love, Annika had whispered this phrase in his ears when she woke up seeing him recording the scores of his UP students (he had taught part time) on his study. She was much more a Francophile than a Japanophile, a Balzac and Dumas fan girl. She even went so far as learning the language and reading French history to complement her reading. She had altered Talleyrand’s quote, and what had followed was a lively argument between them on the French diplomat’s role in the Revolution.

Even after she left he still muttered these words right after he recorded scores.

When it was eleven thirty he checked his wallet and, seeing that he had enough cash in hand, left the faculty lounge to wait in front of the Faculty Research Center for Trish.

In a few minutes Trish came out of a Thibault room and headed towards his direction. Other MA students began filing out from the same door.

She had eyes that smiled more than her lips. Her face, morena in complexion but without blemish, was round and girlish in spite of her glasses. Her hair was naturally straight and today was tied up in a neat ponytail. A navy blue blouse and fitting white leggings emphasized her voluptuous curves. She walked towards him with that seductive joie de vivre he attributed to her youth (oh how young she was, he thought). Beautiful, cultured, intelligent: Trish passed what he called the Marisse Touchstones, ideals he first saw in Marisse.

They had arranged to have lunch together that day, but she did not expect he would treat her to the Marco Polo’s Polo Bistro. She refused the offer, but he insisted, and she gave way bashfully. She took advantage of the opportunity to show gratitude by embracing his arm.

As they walked down the Finster spiral staircase, she affectionately unfolded his butterfly cuffs and buttoned them. Andrew was slightly disconcerted, but he decided to let her play with this one custom of his for now.

Throughout the walk from the Ateneo to the Marco Polo she held on to his arm. Conversation about sir Pacatang, a teacher of hers in an MA class, who was also Andrew’s teacher when he was an undergraduate student, became a discussion on the K-12 reforms when they reached the Bistro.

As they were chatting, Andrew suddenly stopped talking, took his planner from his sling bag, and placed it in front of him. Then he placed his House Pen on top of it in a deliberate manner before smiling at her.

Then, she talked, continuing the conversation as if he had done nothing.

After the waiter took their orders (though it was a rice day, she insisted on having pasta) he found the conversation to have grown superficial. The swimming person on the pool. The hotel. The weather. When he asked her what time it was, she looked at her wrist watch, which was facing from the palm side of her wrist, and answered twelve fifteen. She giggled and reminded him he had a wrist watch too.

Oh, he had planned to show himself, all of him, to her. But instead he was growing uncomfortable in her presence. It was as if he had to assume the mien of a teacher, an employee, or a colleague, with her. Soon, he was simply answering as she asked questions.

Another waiter came to pour their wine glasses with some water. Suddenly, he felt the compulsion to prevent himself from performing his accustomed habit: the tapping on the table with his bent fingers as a sign of gratitude. The deliberate effort to stop himself from going about in the manner accustomed was discomforting. Fulfillment of an instinctive urge, he learned today, does not necessary result in relief and comfort.

When the food arrived, and it was time to take the spoon, he felt the same irritation. Having felt embarrassed to move it to the left, it was immediately in front of his right hand, and he felt as if he had missed a breath when he got it without arching towards the other side of the plate.

This was worse than Annika! She was preventing him from doing things in the manner accustomed. She produced in him some sort of apprehension, some inhibition, some fear.

And then he saw her, but for a fraction of a second, becoming Sabina, becoming Marisse, the women he adored but to whom he dared not show himself. He realized it was fear that she would profane the things he held sacred, that she would dismiss all his sentimental symbolisms as eccentricity.

But he had decided to give her a chance, he decided to share with her the little vicissitudes of the life he had lived and the principles he had lived it by. Yes, he would give her a chance.

He got a slice of Chicken Thermidor, a slice of foie gras, some buttered corn, a bit of mashed potatoes, and a bit of the Spinach Lasagne in a spoonful. The whole repast reduced to a spoon. He ate this and sipped some water before smiling at her.

“Oh how funny you eat!” she giggled in girlish good humour.
Desperately he tried to hide the disillusionment with an amicable smile. Oh, but one more chance, one more chance.

He began to feign absentmindedly toying with his old choker from time to time, in sufficient frequency as to call attention to it. Sure enough, in a few moments, she remarked on it.

“What an old choker” she said, again with girlish flirtatiousness. “You should throw that away and buy a new one. Oh, I have this perfect choker for you at home! It’s from Bali.”

Oh, she is a stranger, he thought. A different person. She would disrupt his Order of things. She would prevent him from going about with his little celebrations and commemorations in the manner accustomed. She will ridicule his peculiarities, disrupt his meaningful habits, let the Kusanagi rust, let the Santan hedge die or grow unkempt.

No, she would not just disrupt his order, she would alter it. She would try to make history on him, but she would invariably destroy the history already on him. She would never celebrate his historicity, to write it in custom. She will be only concerned with leaving impressions behind. “L’autre c’est l’enfer,” Annika once quoted Sartre.

His decision to be with Trish will be hell, as Annika had been hell. What a different construction that puts on the Annika Precedent!

After finishing the crème brulee he twisted his watch to face from the palm side of the wrist and looked at the time. Twelve fifty. It was more convenient to have his watch this way, he thought. He will be accustomed to this.

Without her paying heed to him, he reached out for his pen. Good heavens, he got the Academic Pen. Not for this purpose. Disruption, the invariable result to one’s order of allowing randomness. But he brought himself to Order, composing his unsettled thoughts, and with quiet determination he took the House Pen.

He opened his Daily Planner and crossed out “with Trish” from “finish Geneva Paper.” Trish failed to notice anything.

Apologetically he said he had an appointment by One. She showed signs of wishing to come with him, but she must have considered that he would have invited her if she could tag along. In any case she asked no questions.

After finishing their meal, he used seeing her off as a pretext to make sure she was away. They went down to the hotel porte-cochere and, after more apologies and feigned looks of regret, he led her into a waiting taxi.

When she left, he headed back to the Ateneo, looking at his watch from the palm side of his wrist.

He walked under the Davao sun with a sense of relief, of liberation. He had planned to research on his Geneva paper that afternoon.

Perhaps, he could add a chapter to the effect of isolation on the decline of the Limokon’s sacred status to the Manobos.

Yes, Order. And was that not contentment? To measure one’s life in coffee spoons. To go about in controlled manners accustomed. To be in Order.

That day he proceeded to going about with the tasks, with the little rituals of his life, in order. According to schedule, in the manner accustomed, and with contentment.

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