The Tenor of these Delusions

(A ‘Proclivities’ story)

Dreams hovered like mist after waking for Jess, like a night’s rain lingering as fog in the following break of day. Waken by the flight’s turbulence he opened his eyes, and the half-sleeping recollections of Adriana seemed to linger, seeping from the airplane’s air-conditioning as condensing vapour. It was midnight, and outside his window Singapore was a galaxy of streetlights constellating on the dark earth.
For rubber tappers, he thought as the plane began to touch down, prolonging fog was a simple matter. On an old tin can filled with bits of coal from a fire, one was but to drop some rubber trellis unto the embers. This was how his father drove out the mosquitoes. The smoke that would ensue, pungent yet soft to the nose, enshrouded the memories of his early childhood mornings. It was not as easy, though, to bring memories back. Just impressions, triggered by some stimulus. The actual sensations will be as elusive as the smoke’s corporeality. Like this air-conditioning fog billowing from under the luggage compartments, all one could produce was a faint semblance of the old feelings.
But how persistently do one’s thoughts return to them in moments like this, even after a decade. As he walked out of the plane into the tube, he fixed his coat and smiled ironically. After years since he last saw her, after a lifetime that saw him rise from a tapper’s son in rural Philippines to an executive class passenger on a flight to Singapore, he still thought of Yana.
Changi Airport was a world away from the rubber groves of his childhood in Kidapawan city. And yet the soft green carpet that ubiquitously covered the airport floor reminded him of the undergrowth of covercrop kept neat by regular rolling of steel barrels and goat grazing, and the dim midnight lighting of the hallways reminded him of the shade of the thick rubber trees that canopied over much of Kidapawan’s rural outskirts. He was thousands of miles and a lifetime away, and yet here he was, remembering his childhood again – birds heralding the coming and going of the sun with overwhelming fanfares every day above the canopy.
The portion of the fragmented Jimenez rubber groves in Kidapawan which Jess’s family had tapped for the wealthy Jimenzes for generations sprawled on one side of a national highway. Across the road was a smaller grove, owned by a branch of the Bacchus family of Kidapawan’s old blood. When Adriana Bacchus would come along with her father to this rubber plantation of theirs, he would play with her.
He would take her around the farms and show her all kinds of wild and rural things she would not see in downtown Kidapawan. She had made him realize just how much he knew of the primitive world of the rubber trees, and just how much there was to love. Her sweet, innocent laughter would echo across the grove as he tried to teach her to ride a carabao or climb a tree. They were still young, so her father did not mind his boyish daughter playing with a tapper’s son.
And she in turn, between games of taguanay (hide and seek) and spider fighting, would teach Jess French phrases and tell him the stories of the books her mother bought her. She would hum to him the German and Russian pieces of music she was learning in piano school. She would talk about all the big cities to which her parents had taken her – Davao, Cebu, even Manila. He, who knew no other world at the time but Kidapawan, could only dream of these places. And in all these dreams she was there.
He would imagine the highway between the groves as some great river he had to cross just to see her, the tribulation he had to endure to reach her reward.
For as long as he could remember he has had this proclivity, seeing metaphors everywhere, conjuring up beautiful delusions, products of an overactive rural imagination that made the daily routine of tree wounding more interesting for a child.
Dragonflies were keys to the sky’s unopened doors, he told Yana once. Kuhol eggs on reeds were the little aquatic snails’ attempts to produce raspberries. Butterflies were exiled flowers, hovering from one stalk to another to look for the ones that disowned them. Spiders were fishermen of the air, with the dewdrops as bait. The patch of grass in the undergrowth, downy with spores, was pretending to be mist. The rubber seeds were little worlds, complete with continents in an ocean of brown. When Yana introduced him to poetry, he told her he wanted to be a poet. She would giggle at him.
‘The problem with you, Jess, is that the world is too beautiful to you. If the rain would tell you that it’s not the sky’s tears, you probably wouldn’t believe it.’
But the morning sunlight continued to rain down on them in mottled rays from the clouds of the canopy above, and at seven years old all he could do was fall in love with her.
As he neared the end of a walkalator he closed his eyes and shook his head – no, he is here to forget, he must resist these delusions.
At midnight the airport was still crowded: on one side of the walkalator he saw two young Indian men on their iPads; on another a pretty young Chinese girl was sitting on the floor with a Caucasian young man, she asleep on his lap while he was reading. He was surprised to hear a lot of Tagalog spoken here and there – the uncalled for familiarity disquieted him. As he walked ahead, trolley bag and briefcase in hand, he could imagine the steel barrels his father would roll under the rubber trees to keep this green carpet a neat covercrop. The place was familiar in a removed, deliberate way.
He was amused to see an orchid garden, complete with a little pond with fish, inside the airport. He could not help recalling the brook in the Jimenez grove. As children he and Yana would go there to catch piyo, freshwater crabs, when the day’s tapping was over for him and her father would be in their farm all day.
The immigration officer who checked his passport was a pretty Indian woman. In spite of the late hour she looked fresh and cheerful.
‘From Davao?’ she asked convivially.
‘And now in Singapore.’ And to this she giggled, handing him back his passport.
‘Welcome! Enjoy your stay!’
Yes, he thought as he went to get the rest of his luggage. He was in Singapore. It was not just some quip, it was him telling himself to leave Adriana Bacchus, to leave the very idea of her behind. In this wonderfully strange, new land he will lose what little of her sacredness he had kept inside him.
The organizers of the conference had asked if he needed to be picked up from the airport when he got his invitation. His arrival was at an ungodly hour, he knew the room they got him was already very expensive, and Singaporean cab drivers were a tourist attraction of their own, so he had declined the offer. With nobody meeting him, he called a cab as he emerged from the arrival area.
After the driver (a Chinese man) helped him with his luggage, the driver greeted him a good morning and asked where to.
‘Marina Bay Sands,’ he replied.
The cab took off, and he got his first luxurious glimpse of Singapore. An elephant of a raincloud loomed gray over the night sky, grumbling threats of rain and flashing tusks of lightning here and there.
The clean roads slithered beyond the horizon like giant concrete snakes, winding past groves of skyscraper trees with glowing barks of glass. At certain angles the acacias that lined the road looked as if they bore fruits of street or traffic lights. Ma’am Isabel, the Jimenez estate’s young heiress, must have loved the rows of flowers beneath them. Sir Gaston her husband made a good decision to take her here for their honeymoon. That was his first – and really, his only – idea of Singapore before actually coming here.
‘Here for vacation?’ the cab driver asked.
‘Ah, not entirely,’ he answered, looking up from his papers. He had opened his briefcase to review his schedule. ‘There’s a conference I’m attending.’
‘At Sands?’
‘Yes, that International Rubber Conference. Heard of it?’
‘Oh yeah, yeah! I heard of that. I follow updates on rubber, fuel, and motor manufacturing industries. I need to keep this cab in shape after all. So you from Thailand?’
‘No, the Philippines.’
The Philippine rubber industry had until recently suffered from poor standards – rubber planters would hide stones in their latex blocks or mix bark in cup lumps. This left Philippine rubber the cheapest and least sought after in Asia. But three recent technological advancements by Filipinos brought about a dramatic recovery: the development of a cheaper and odourless acid for setting the sap, the discovery of the pharmaceutical and therapeutic potentials of burnt rubber trellis fumes (which expanded the market to the pharmaceutical industry), and the development of a covercropping scheme that miraculously made the trees produce thirty percent more sap. The inventors, all from the Cotabato area of the Philippines, made significant headlines internationally. Manong Mario, another Jimenez tapper (who had arrived in Singapore a few days ago) developed the covercropping. Jess, at twenty six the youngest among them, led the acid research. He was here to deliver a lecture on his findings.
‘Yes now I recall!’ said the driver after some time. ‘You were that young Filipino on TV. “Genius,” they called you!’
‘Jess Landim,’ he said timidly, extending his hand to the driver.
‘Ivan,’ And the driver shook his hand.
The conversation died comfortably from there, with Ivan quietly content at having someone of a celebrity onboard. He also noticed Jess rubbing his eye ridges and assumed the young man was tired.
In truth, the luxury of the urban scenario was making him wax romantic again – the urban skyline, dominated by the skyscraper trees, windows glowing with lives and loves inside, good looking and fashionable: how great it would be to look down from those hotel heights at them all with Adriana, embracing her from behind as the city’s constellation of streets glowed radiantly on her pristine face – possibilities, ones that will never be. Goodness, he was young in an urban playground, but how old life had made him.
‘Listen, Ivan’ he said suddenly, trying not to think of Yana. The cab was at the corner of Simei and Changi roads. ‘I want to eat. Tell you what, if you pause the meter and take me to a good hawker centre, I’ll treat you.’
Ivan smiled and readily agreed. He turned left into Changi road and went straight ahead.
‘I’ll take you to Lavender Food Court.’
Jess chatted with the driver without saying too much. It was his first time here, and he was staying for four days. He was meeting up with manong Mario tomorrow evening – ma’am Isabel had insisted he spend a day in the city alone first. Ivan recommended places he might want to go to: the Safari Zoo, Sentosa, Bugis and Orchard for shopping. He answered that he also wanted to visit the Botanical Gardens and try the street food.
Ma’am Isabel had almost overloaded him with information about Singapore when she found out he was invited to the conference. Because he was young she was far more excited about his participation than manong Mario’s. She had insisted on paying for everything. Know the world, Jess, she had urged him before he left. You’re still so young, and you’ve more than earned it. He did not know if that was a command or not, but he felt compelled to obey – no, he did not earn it all entirely, much of this was the generosity of the Jimenezes.
‘Your women are beautiful here,’ he said, as thoughts of his humble origins were threatening to touch on Yana again. A young Malay girl on the road had caught his eye. It felt awkward – he was never the type to remark aloud on a woman’s appearance.
‘Oh yes they are. And those that are …available, they’re affordable.’ Ivan laughed affably. ‘If you want, I have contacts…’
Jess laughed and, out of curiosity, asked for some sample pictures. Ivan took out his smart phone and showed him a picture of a very pretty Chinese girl.
‘She’s twenty. Oh I don’t do her of course, don’t worry. Wife will kill me. Just my neighbour.’
‘I’ll think about it.’ He replied, laughing.
They had reached Lavender Food Court, a homely but comfortable collection of hawker food stalls at the juncture of Lavender, Foch, and Jalan Besar roads. Across the street was a row of historic looking buildings with pastel colours. Even at one thirty the food court was still filled with people.
They alighted and began looking around for food to order. After some time choosing, Jess ordered a bowl of Laksa, a plate of carrot cake, some Roti Prata, and a glass of Bandung, while Ivan had a plate of Rojak, some Kaya toast, and a mug of hot Teh-C.
Red floating on opaque white – the bowl of Laksa, with the toppings and noodles submerged, made him remember the time Yana had joined him tapping the rubber trees on their farm and he, not doing anything, decided to teach her. They were eight, a few months before she last visited their farm.
In her excitement she cut her hand with the tapping blade. He rushed to see how bad it was, but she just giggled it off. Her blood trickled on the coconut shell full of still wet sap. He was disturbed not at the sight of blood but at the sight of the pure white sap being stained by the blood’s intense redness.
That was when he first realized that things ought to remain pure, pristine, untouched.
But memories rushed to him with substance as he sipped the broth. After they caught piyo, they would go to his father’s hut, where his mother would boil the crabs in a broth of coconut milk, chilli peppers, and bagoong. In spite of its simplicity Yana loved that broth, and he could remember blushing when she told his mother she wanted to be part of the family.
The Laksa tasted a bit like that broth – even along Lavender Road, Kidapawan would not stop coming back to haunt him.
No, he was doing this deliberately. He must stop it.
‘Though there’s no wedding…’ he said, raising the glass of Bandung.
‘You know a lot.’ Said Ivan, getting some carrot cake. ‘You sure it’s your first time here?’
‘I researched it. Bandung’s a wedding drink right?’ He laughed. ‘And how could I afford to have been here before! Would you believe Ivan, I’m just a rubber tapper’s son.’
‘Tapper?’
‘Labourers in a rubber plantation. We would wound the trees to let them bleed sap, then collect the sap in coconut shells. Definitely not the type of people to wear a coat and tie. My parents could only support my studies until high school, but a few years ago the landowners I work for made me study and get a degree. Now I have a master’s in agricultural management and in Singapore trying Bandung, would you believe.’
Ivan nodded with an impressed look.
Jess took a sip of the pink liquid and was taken aback.
‘Wow,’ and Ivan giggled at his surprise.
Yana, as if afflicted by his beautiful delusions, once said that the roses that grew near her grade four class room in the Notre Dame of Kidapawan College campus had the fragrance of love.
But love when one tasted it will be more intense than one thinks it would be. Overwhelming, like condensed perfume, and too sweet for comfort. And yet there will be something hallow, cold, tasteless at the edge of all the intensity, as if reality has diluted its fragrance.
Was this foreshadowing? He thought as he smiled back at Ivan. Was this telling him that once he got a taste of that which he had always held sacred – and therefore kept a distance from – he will only get perfumed emptiness?
As they set off again after eating, the silence in the cab led his thoughts again to the past, nostalgia loudening to a reprising tenor. He recalled that afternoon when she suddenly told him the Bacchuses have had to sell their farm. When she told him she barely looked at him, her eyes staring into nothingness with a seething wrath that in its silence resembled resignation. And for the first time he had realized that she was a landowner’s daughter and he just a tapper’s son. He felt powerless, and she in her young and quiet tribulation did not even bother seeking comfort in his eyes. Before he could even attempt to answer her, her father came back to the jeep, she went back in, the jeep started, and he would never see her again.
Rumours, too wild to believe, of her later depravity in NDKC would reach National’s Science Curriculum students in his high school years – losing her virginity in a school restroom at first year high school to some jock, five-rounding with college students at second, someone even claimed they saw her coming out from some shady clinic in Kabacan, abortion capital of North Cotabato, when they were in third year. Impossible rumours, really. But since that afternoon not a glimpse, only sympathetic words from his father from time to time of the Bacchuses continued decline – Yana’s father had died, and her once proud mother has had to be a sales lady in a local mall just to pay off their debts. The last thing he heard of her before last week was that she had moved with her mother to faraway Panabo to sell Avon products.
In that long span of time he had kept his memories of her, his soul an altar for the perpetual veneration of that purity of hers with which she shone in his shady world of rubber groves. In National, in the University of Southern Mindanao in Kabacan, even in Davao as he took his Master’s, he continued remembering what she had been, and he denied himself of many possibilities. She after all had been denied her own. He had come to believe that on that anticlimactic good bye that afternoon, she bade not just him but all her chances of living a comfortable life good bye. She had been and continued to be subjected to the defilements of this world, and yet he imagined her as remaining pure. She was purity itself in this defiled world, the victim of its perversions, and he needed no other devotion but the celebration of that –
Delusions, nothing but miserable delusions.
He and a group of high school classmates gathered in Kidapawan a week before he flew to Singapore, and over some bottles of rum two of them ended up realizing that both of them had experienced Yana’s dexterity with her fingers and tongue at different points in time – they had inadvertently shared her. Hungry for men, they had said, as if she was trying to fill an emptiness inside her by literally filling her holes. They did not even know he, Jess, once knew her, so jovially they enjoined him to catch her whenever he was in Davao to get a go at her too. Over there they said she’d take any man if he was from Kidapawan.
These two were not prone to bragging, nor did they have any reason to malign her, and the sharing had the air of almost hushed confessions: he had no choice but to believe it…
‘Listen, Ivan,’ he said on the taxi after some silence, his voice faltering with the sudden rush of emotions born by these thoughts. They were nearing the Esplanade, and he could get a glimpse of beautiful Marina Bay.
‘Yes?’
‘That neighbour of yours…’
Ivan nodded with a smile.
‘Wait for me outside the hotel, I’ll tell you my room number. Tell her to be there at around 3 if she can.’
‘No problem.’
Jess was surprised at how calm he was with this transaction. Had those two school mates – had every single man been this calm when he was about to take her..?
‘Room 305,’ he told Ivan as he returned from the front desk, and he gave him a tip. The bell boy had just taken his bags to the room. Ivan nodded, thanked him for the night, told him to contact him if he needed a cab, and left.
On the elevator, he could do nothing but imagine how it was supposed to be done. With the fingers, with the tongue, with skin touching against skin. He felt a powerfully tickling sensation below his navel – excitement felt very similar to the most intense of miseries.
Thankfully the elevator was empty – at the thought of what he was about to do, of what Yana could have gone around doing in all these years, of how her memories of him must have been so easily washed away by the sweat of all the men whose chests she had pressed against, he could no longer hold back his tears. The elevator lights swam in his eyes as he went up.
Yana, he muttered amidst sniffs.
But he stopped himself, stifling his sobbing. No, he will not be weak anymore.
Purity, innocence, defilement – were they all nothing but delusions one put into this world to fill its emptiness?
The view of the city from the room’s window was spectacular. Marina Bay, and all the dazzling streetlights that constellated by its banks reflected in the water, sparkled like a galaxy studded with earthbound and floating stars. The queen sized bed was soft and pristine, the sheets immaculately folded. There was a faint and pleasant tinge of mint in the room’s air conditioning. He put his briefcase on the desk and untied his necktie.
There was something luxurious about hot showers. It allowed one to sin in sensual calm, as if nothing bad one did could hurt anything. And it allowed one to ruminate in the hovering steam of dreams.
No. He was not going to sin. Tonight he was going to wash himself of the very concepts of sin and goodness. He was going to man up and face the world as it was. He was going to rid himself of seeing his youth in green carpets, love in roses, exiled flowers in butterflies. He was going to liberate himself from the dream of mists, of rubber trellis smoke, and of this shower’s steam. He was going to silence the noise of these dead hopes. He was going to break free from the very tenor of these delusions.
As he finished drying himself the doorbell rang. He wrapped himself in a bathrobe and opened the door. His hands were colder than the aircon could make them.
The young girl on Ivan’s phone was outside, much prettier in person, a sweet, rose-flavoured smile on her beautiful face. He let her into the room.
As she made herself comfortable seated on the bed, he faced the window, started taking off the bathrobe, and naked he faced her. Then, with a faint smile but almost ceremoniously, she began taking off her clothes.
Outside the windows, the urban galaxy of slow moving comets and orange and white stars floating on the Marina and sprawling out into the horizon from its banks was reverting back to neon signs, car lights and streetlamps.

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