What it Means to Choke in Silence

(Published in Banaag Diwa 2017, Literary Folio of the Ateneo de Davao University.)




Benjamin Quitubod dried his tears as he emerged from the school clinic and took a deep breath, so deep it was as if he were trying to breathe in all the courage he could fill his lungs with from the early evening air. Courage – he needed every bit of it he could inhale.

The nauseating vapour of teenage sweat still lingered over the all-boys school’s campus. He strained to get even if just a whiff of hope against it all.

Nurse Soly had confirmed with much scandal that he had it – he was even able to find out that the antibiotic was out of stock in Davao. But he thought he needed to cry to convince her he didn’t mean to get it. Thankfully she bought the story, and she acted all sympathetic and motherly in spite of her undeniable indignation.

His parents would be coming over by six to meet with Brother Romley about his grades, he told her, and he would be telling them today during that meeting.

He had little doubt, though, that thanks to the nurse by tomorrow all of Kidapawan would know. Oh, what a problem child he was now.

The Notre Dame Boys campus was empty. It was beautiful when it was empty like this, when he had it all to himself. Just a year ago he’d have abhorred this solitude, but since the abuse began, he felt like he couldn’t get enough of it.

As he sat on a stone bench near the high school library, he thought how easily he cried in front of nurse Soly. When you gave yourself the chance to let it out you can’t fully do it somehow, but when the situation unexpectedly allowed it, all the stifled horror would just burst out. Grief has a tendency to be indecent like that. Hopefully, later it would happen, too.

Through the cyclone fence that surrounded Boys he could see his parents alighting from the tricycle that had just come up from Datu Ingkal street. He stood up as they entered the main gate. They must have taken their time chatting with the people in the Municipio, they should have arrived half an hour ago.

It was probably a good thing they were making friends, he thought.  They had moved here to Kidapawan from faraway Libungan just a year ago, when his father landed a place in the accounting office in Kidapawan’s Municipio. They were really still adjusting.

After only being able to send their two children to public school in Libungan, they were finally able to save enough to send both to Kidapawan’s private high schools.

The daughter was performing well in Girls, but here was the son, failing three subjects on the first grading period of his second year.

When he met them at the edge of the flag ceremony area, they curtly gave their hands for the mano.

No, he could never tell them about the abuse. It would be far too much a bother for them.

‘Is the principal waiting?’ his mother asked tersely.

‘Not yet, the registrar said the Brothers are still having a meeting in the Champagnat house.’

They walked towards the High School Administrative Building at a pace at once leisurely and funeral. His parents looked around the campus: they were only ever here for enrolment.

The wooden Administrative Building, where all the High School offices were, loomed over the campus, old as Kidapawan, the aging wood reminiscent of decaying coffins. It was fronted by a daised flag pole that, flanked on both sides by two lush cypress trees, looked like a crudely cemented tomb.

When he first came to this school it was an exciting new world full of things for him to discover, with bits of life pressed between the pages of every old book or tucked in every nara-floored corner.

Since the abuse began it started feeling like a place where he was sent to die a slow and miserable death.

They entered the building, passing by the large wooden doors and the list of honour students just outside the assistant principal’s office. He could not help but flinch.

The registrar, ma’am Cora, met them as they entered, and she gave him a smile. Sympathy, of course she knew he was failing.

He wanted to punch that kind condescending ignorant smile off her face, the same way he wanted to twist Nurse Soly’s head off with a slap as she shook it in motherly tut-tut superiority.

After some empty pleasantries, ma’am Cora directed them into the principal’s office, and he felt a rush of nausea and dread. He struggled to compose himself while they sat down inside the office, as Brother Romley’s sickening cologne choked him.

The office was full of trophies, proof of student victories in different events for the past few years. At the center was a solid wooden table, with a cushioned chair just behind. The gallery of trophies ended just below the back of the table, where there was a bookshelf full of clear books and ring bound documents.

He knew this office well.

Too well.

Brother Romley had summoned him into this office for the first time when Benjamin was a first year. His curiosity had been overwhelmed by dread at the prospect of punishment: that afternoon the Brother-principal had suddenly asked him to come to his office after classes, and judging by the reaction of the other boys, he thought he was in trouble. Oh how young he had been just a year ago.

It turned out the brother had just noticed that he still had not been making friends two months into his first year (Boys was a small, intimate community).

He admitted to the sympathetic principal that he was too shy, most of the boys had known each other since elementary, and it did not help that he preferred books over basketball.

Brother Romley looked as if this fascinated him. He asked Benjamin what books he read, and that was the first of their long afternoon chats about books.

The principal was his first friend in high school.

‘What is this Brother Romley like?’ whispered his father to his mother.

‘Our neighbour auntie Fely – she has a son here – thinks he’s gay.’

Months ago he’d have been infuriated by this. It did not take him long to get wind of what they say many of the Marist Brothers in Kidapawan have been engaging in since the time of the Americans: giving undue grade incentives or exceptions from disciplinary action to boys they fancied, treating them out to meals, scandalously even going out to drink with these minors. Nothing more was usually speculated, though if the gossiper was feeling vindictive or nasty, so much more would be implied.

And some boys were rumoured to be among ‘Sister Romley’s boys,’ including some Arnold or some Doydoy in the higher years. Of course Benjamin could not believe this. It became even more absurd when he overheard some of them gossiping in the bathroom that he, Benjamin, was another Romley’s boy. As far as he was concerned, the reticent young principal’s bookishness was just misunderstood for effeminacy.

Oh, how young he had been just a year ago.

‘Go on ahead, Cora,’ said the familiar silky voice from outside the office, ‘I’ll lock the doors after our meeting.’ And he could hear the registrar excuse herself before heading home.

Brother Romley glided into the room with the stealth of despair. With the air of importance only an academic administrator or a religious man could wear, he did not even throw Benjamin or his parents a glance, just a casual apology for making them wait.

At the mere sight of him, Benjamin began doubting if he could do this. He trembled, as fear makes all victims tremble and doubt the culpability of their molesters.

But he clenched his wrist where the syringe went, and he reminded himself that there was no turning back. He had it already, and there was no turning back.

To calm himself he scrutinized Brother Romley, who was reading what looked like Benjamin’s records. The young, bespectacled Marist brother, perpetually stooped with focus on what he was reading, often intimidated people with his clause-perfect English and his cold, often snobbish demeanour. But Benjamin had known him up close – far too up close.

He could only wonder how, in spite of all the terrible things this man had done to him, he could still see the witty, intellectual, good humoured man with whom he had spent almost all the afternoons of his first year in high school. In spite of the sickening things he was forced to do in this office, he could still remember the warmth of conversations as they’d chat about books Brother would recommended and which Benjamin would read in the spare time he had between classes.

While his peers played basketball and football, he talked to Brother well until past six in the evening – when they were alone in campus together – about European history, botany, and literature.

‘Araling Panlipunan, Biology, English…’ Brother Romley muttered, and he fell silent again.

As he continued to go over the papers, he sat down, and began absentmindedly stroking the table with his hand, leaving the room in silence. Benjamin’s parents were tense but couldn’t dare call the principal’s attention from the importance of his paperwork. How comfortable the man was with silence, Benjamin thought. Like some spider easily caressing the web that gagged and choke some unwitting soul that caught themselves in it.

‘I really cannot understand why Ben is doing badly,’ the principal said (he knew the perfect timing to put the Quitobod couple at ease).

‘We’re really quite sorry, brother…’ his mother answered differentially. This of course was what was at stake: the Quitobods were newcomers to Kidapawan, Boys had been an institution in the town for almost thirty years.

‘Oh but he’s usually very good in these topics, right Ben?’

Benjamin knew that tone. It was the tone that delicately balanced care and threat.

He knew that tone all too well. One afternoon near the end of Benjamin’s first year, he first heard that tone in all its horror.

That afternoon the conversation strayed from the symbolism of trees to a rather different topic. About a week earlier Brother had lent him a copy of some novel by Oscar Wilde. After some incoherent discussions of its fascinations and possibilities, he gingerly looked out to see from his window that the six o clock campus was empty, and he locked the office door.

With an almost hushed but feverish urgency he urged Benjamin to sit on the hard wood table. To the boy’s paralyzing surprise, the Brother began touching him, whispering ‘there you go, very good…’ repeatedly into his ear with that menacingly caressing purr. He held on to the hard wood as it transpired, the Brother whispering ‘very good’ into his ear, a hand inside his pants in agitated delirium, until he climaxed.

‘We really don’t know where we went wrong with this boy…’ muttered the father almost apologetically. ‘Must have fallen into some bad crowd…. His sister in Girls is running for honours, and here he is…’

‘But we should try to understand your son, Mr Quitobod.’ Oh how very progressive the principal sounded. ‘Young people usually go through so much at this age.

‘Will you tell us what’s wrong, Ben?’

A threat. At the sound of that sentence he felt he couldn’t bear it. He was clenching his wrist so tightly now his hand was starting to grow numb.

Shame and expulsion in a sentence: it was that sentence which the Brother would use to choke him in silence. With psychopathic dexterity, he would alternate between caressing whispers of ‘very good’ as he stroked or sucked or penetrated the boy or force himself in the boy’s mouth, and this sentence, puffed out between gritted teeth as he pulled the boy’s hair or choked him against the door after every instance. ‘Will you be telling, Ben? Will you?’ and too horrified to even sob Benjamin could only nod. Then he’d tell the boy to return the next afternoon, and it would happen all over again. This went on for months.

‘Ben, will you tell us what’s wrong?’ the Brother repeated.

You know fucking well what’s wrong you monster you stuffed your shit down my throat and I am too goddamn weak and paralyzed to tell anyone about it to even tell anyone about anything for fuck’s sake and I can’t breathe choking in silence and I can’t fucking trust the world and even my goddamn self because you made part of me think I was actually enjoying the sickening shit you did to me

Stop it. Benjamin composed himself by looking down the floor. No, he reminded himself. You did not come here because he defeated you. No. You failed those subjects on purpose. And he lost weeks ago…

‘He doesn’t even look us in the eye, Brother…’ his mother screeched, and his father concurred with a resigned nod. Oh, how terribly disappointed and ashamed his parents were of him now.

Just as he had planned it.

He looked up to look at Brother Romley in the face. The man had the same seductive condescension in his eyes, that look that so chimerically merged the loving older-brother figure, the trustworthy but authoritative man of faith, and the psychopath using God and academic freedom to choke resistance with silence.

But no, he will not back down. He had the upper hand.

He recalled the first time he tried to kill himself. He had stopped counting on the fifth time how many times he tried to kill himself, but he cannot forget the first time. In desperation he drank fabric bleach while his parents were away on a Municipio outing mayor Gana was sponsoring. He just ended up vomiting it out. When they came back all his mother did was complain that the bleach had run out too fast.

The thought of the sheer indifference of his family choked him, and it was enough to achieve the desired effect. He began sobbing.

He sobbed and he sobbed and he sobbed. This disquieted his parents, and when he noticed this, he rushed to his mother’s arms. She accepted him with surprising tenderness.

‘Ma, I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.’ He could see this was having an effect on her.

‘You were right, Pa,’ he wailed. ‘I fell into a bad crowd,’ he threw Brother Romley a look – and for the first time the man looked unsettled. But he quickly gathered his composure, and threw back a bored look.

‘There, there…’ his father tried to console him.

‘I’ve done terrible things, Ma.’ Benjamin continued sobbing. At the corner of his tear-filled eye he saw that Brother Romley wasn’t even paying attention anymore, taking long glances at some papers on his table.

‘Drink, smoke, I’ve been doing so many terrible things…’ perfect lies, of course. His mother gave a nurse Soly-like shake of the head.

‘Pa, I’m sorry. Even women..!’

‘What do you mean!’ his father sounded indignant, but he could swear he could sense a hint of awe behind that.

And he noticed that Brother Romley was once again paying nervous attention.

‘I’ve been using prostitutes, Pa.’ he sobbed. ‘I’ve been stealing from your wallet to have enough to pay for it.’

‘Santisima!’ his mother exclaimed. Brother Romley was ghostly pale.

‘And Ma, I’m so sorry. I’m really so so sorry…’

And as he said it, fully confident that his parents we’re too troubled to notice where his eyes were directed, he stared at the troubled principal.

‘I just had Nurse Soly check me earlier. I had some pustules in my private parts for over a week now.

‘She says it’s syphilis.’

Brother Romley’s jaw was agape in horror. Of course he had touched the pustules, he had put them in his mouth, mocking Benjamin for actually secretly wanting these afternoon horrors. Maybe, the principal taunted, the boy liked it so much he was playing with himself too excessively as to cause blisters. Then he licked them to make them sting.

‘What!? Son!’

‘I’m so sorry Pa!’

‘From a prostitute!?’

‘Yes Ma, I’m so sorry!’

It was true. When he gathered enough strength to decide he’d keep the silence and ram it back down Brother Romley’s throat, the first thing he did was ask around – tricycle drivers, security guards, construction workers  – where to find prostitutes in Kidapawan. And when he found them he asked who among them had syphilis. The street women mockingly pointed to a poor middle aged woman who lived under the Nuangan bridge alone, nearly insane from her shame.

He then bought a disposable syringe, paid the poor woman fifty pesos for some of her blood, and injected it into himself.

‘Can’t syphilis drive you insane, or blind!’

‘Yes pa…’

‘My goodness, my son!’ screeched his mother.

‘But it can be cured, ma,’ he looked at Brother Romley again. ‘Isn’t that right, brother?’

The horrified principal scrambled to compose himself. ‘Yes, yes… I think some antibiotic…’

‘Is it true brother!’ said his mother gratefully. ‘Oh thank goodness. But can we find that here in Kidapawan?’

‘Nurse Soly says it’s lucky Doctor Evangelista has it, Ma.’ said Benjamin. ‘She said she heard there’s been a shortage in Mindanao: the hospitals in Davao have been out of stock for months now, and the supply in GenSan is too low to share.’

‘Thank goodness!’ and his mother seemed far too relieved at her son’s safety to think about the scandal for now. Besides, he thought, that fell into plan too: being promiscuous was respectable for a young man, even in Catholic Kidapawan. His father will at least have something to joke about when drinking with friends.

‘I’m so sorry ma! I’ve been a bad son!’ he sobbed again, embracing his mother, who just patted his head with resigned affection as he dried his tears.

And as he did so, he looked at Brother Romley. If he ever went to any hospital or clinic, he was far too well known in the Cotabato area for word of it not to spread, and all the Marist Brothers in GenSan would know if he went there. His only hope of a discreet treatment was Davao, but that had but cut off from him (what a blessing that was). He can wait, but a principal has to follow a busy academic calendar, a sudden out of town trip would be just as damaging as walking into Doctor Evangelista’s clinic with a syphilitic genital under his cassock (with Nurse Soly making the topic hot in Kidapawan because of Bejamin, accurate speculations will be all too easy!). But if he waited too long the virus would slowly rot him away.

Benjamin, with eyes glistening in assumed tears, looked as Brother Romley agonized in choking silence between irredeemable shame for himself and the school or crippling invalidity, even death.

The brother saw him looking, and Benjamin smiled.

And that was all he needed to do to tell this defeated monster that this was what it was like, this was what it meant to choke in silence.


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