What it Means to Choke in Silence

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

 

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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.


Excerpt: Arabella Raut The Eighth

(Excerpt from my story ‘Arabella Raut the Eighth,’ which came out in Ateneo de Manila’s Kritika Kultura)

 

To keep myself going, I recounted the history of Arabella Raut. But this time, trying to see how I would pass on these miseries to the next holder of the name, how I would initiate her into it, and to the whole point of it.

Auntie Arabella the Sixth did it chronologically, from the starvation to her own impaling, and the second and fourth holders had no choice on their sequence. But yes, my first misery was easier, and it served as a good introduction. The next holder can then proceed chronologically from there.

‘Listen then, ‘day, and do as I say.’ No, it’s too coercive – how important it was to pass it on with the right wording. This shouldn’t ever be imposed:my successor must take it up on her own. How did auntie Arabella say it? ‘Listen, ‘day… this is what I do, because like you I do not forget…’ Yes, that was how she got me into it.

Then my first misery:

‘This is what you do, ‘day… Wander around, from town to town, and do this. You take flat stones of varying sizes and carefully stack them one on top of another, the biggest one at the bottom and with decreasing size as you go up. Carefully adjust the inclination of each stone so that every surface is perfectly flat before you add the next layer. Use little pebbles in between gaps to prevent it from tilting. Build this structure in a place where many people pass by, along a road perhaps, or in parks. When you complete it, feel the sense of accomplishment as you look at it – it will be eye catching, and yet because it will be made of stones, how perfectly well it will blend with its environment. This will be the result and manifestation of your creative impulse –my Ate Ginamae’s creative impulse, who like you felt the flatness of the stones in her fingers and realized too that something could be made from them. For yes, it will be her memorial – every one of these stacks you build will be a loving memorial to her and to all those who heard the call to build but who were destroyed, all those who have suffered, all those who have died.

‘And it will be for all those we have given and from whom we inherit the name and burden of Arabella Raut.

‘You will love them all, and you will build these stacks for them.And you will inherit their one hundred and ten years of suffering, and you will inherit this world that robbed them of the chance to live – after you finish these stacks, stand back. Watch as passing children or drunkards throw stones or piss at them.’

 

(Read the full story in Kritika Kultura now!)


Blessed are the Poor in Spirit

Manong Inting Padecio may just be a poor tricycle driver and he may have many faults, but he always did his best to make up for them by being a good father and husband.

 

Just before he put his pants back on, he peed on his tricyle’s front, thinking of his son Janmark. Smart boy, he thought. He’s graduating this March from Pilot, and he and his wife were able to save just enough to send him to CMC for high school. As he began digging up a pit to bury the bago-bo boy’s dead body, he felt a surge of excitement at the thought of seeing his son wearing a toga.

 

When the pit was deep enough to fit the dead body snugly, he kicked it in and covered it with soil. Then he looked around: this area of Baranggay Saguing, bordering Kidapawan and Makilala, is wild, uncultivated and deserted land, and save for the moon and his tricycle’s headlight, it was dark. There was not a soul around.

 

He saw the little bago-bo, probably around eight to ten years old, peeing on a car parked outside a house in Sandawa Phase 2 when he was about to garage his tricycle for the day. Chastising the little urchin, he dragged it by the ear in scolding to his tricycle and had planned to take it to DSWD. But when he reached Central Warehouse, he suddenly felt the itch for it, and seeing the dark skinned boy scowling beside him he could see that the little indigent was already starting puberty.

 

So he talked the boy into a deal: he won’t take it to DSWD if the kid agreed to come with him. Afraid of authority, the boy agreed.

 

The boy cooperated at first. In the overgrowth some way away from the highway in Saguing it agreed to take off its shorts and have its penis sucked (it wasn’t difficult to get boys this age up). The boy even came – the kid already had pubes as curly as the hair on his indigent head, but it seemed like that was the first ejaculation.

 

But when he asked the little botini to suck him, the kid refused.  So he broke the boy’s neck and, still being hard himself, relieved himself with the dead body’s mouth and anus. He was careful to come outside though so he can clean after himself. By the time someone finds the body all his traces would have decayed. As if anyone would look for a little bago-bo.

 

‘Nong Inting was experienced enough to clean after himself. On his way back to downtown Kidapawan he made a detour to Riverpark, where he found a dark corner to leave the shovel (he always left his shovel somewhere far from the spot every time he did this).

 

On the way back home he started feeling guilty again. Whenever he enjoyed little pleasures like this – with a few shots of Tanduay or, in spite of his wife hating the smell of it a few sticks of Fortune – he always felt bad for enjoying something he didn’t think he deserved.

 

But a bit of good will always justify gratifications, he remembered his late father once telling him. When he was alive, the man had been an unemployed drunkard whose frequent beating of his wife and effeminate son had often disturbed their neighbourhood in Baranggay Perez, and yet as Nong Inting grew up he always remembered his father around a circle of no less than five fellow tambays outside a sari-sari store laughing over Kulafu.

 

The man really did nothing for a living (his mother did the laundry to support them), so he thought if the oaf was allowed to enjoy some moment of gratification for himself, he, ‘nong Inting, who worked so hard for his wife and son as a tricycle driver would deserve it even more.

 

But so he won’t feel too bad he thought he ought to do something a little extra. Yes, maybe a dog. Poor Junmark always loved playing with the askals that their Ilocano neighbour Minyong was raising for adobo. Tricycle driving in Kidapawan made very little, but maybe he can scrape some for one of those mongrel puppies they sell in Mega.

 

When he arrived at their shabby little house in Bartolaba, he was surprised to see that the house lights were still on. It was already nine in the evening, and he had texted his wife he will be having dinner out because he had a passenger to Balindog (the other extreme end of the city from Saguing). He had expected his wife and son to be asleep now. Jumark came out from the door when he heard the tricycle and greeted ‘nong Inting with a mano. When he asked the boy why they were still awake the boy did not answer, but he noticed a faint smile on his son’s face.

 

When he entered the house, the wife was watching television, but it was obvious both she and Junmark seemed were waiting for him to get home.

 

The wife could not control herself. She told their son to tell him the news.

 

Junmark seemed at first to struggle finding the words. But it did not take him long to blurt it out – Pa, he said, his voice trembling. The Principal told me this afternoon. I will be graduating valedictorian.

 

Tears began welling in ‘nong Inting’s eyes as he hugged his son and muttered thanks to Lord Jesus for the fortune and blessings they had received. For all his faults and shortcomings as a person, thought ‘nong Inting, God can be so generous.

 

 


Mga Kuwentong Hugot

‘Limang Metrong Pagitan’ is in the natural hybrid of Hiligaynon and Tagalog spoken in Jude Ortega’s part of the Sox Region, probably the first time this language contact sees publication!

Cotabato Literary Journal

By Jude Ortega

Wagas na Pag-ibig

At namatay ang lalaki. At may nakita siyang ibang lalaki. Minsan, habang pinapanood ang panibagong minamahal, habang nagluluto ito ng agahan para sa kanilang dalawa, at pareho silang nakatapis lang ng tuwalya, sumagi sa isip niya ang una. Pinangako niya rito noon na ito lang ang mamahalin niya, na hindi kailanman magkakaroon ng puwang para sa iba ang puso niya, na ikamamatay niya kapag nawala ito sa buhay niya.

Gusto niyang malungkot sa alaala. Gusto niyang mahiya o mamuhi sa sarili. Ngunit wala siyang ganoong maramdaman. Nalungkot lang siya na hindi niya magawang malungkot.

Habang iniisip ang nakaraan, nakasunod ang mga mata niya sa lalaking nasa harapan. Napatay na nito ang stove at ngayon ay lumalapit sa kaniya. Hinapit siya nito sa baywang at bumulong na handa na ang agahan, ngunit ibang agahan daw muna ang kanilang pagsaluhan. Natawa siya, at napatili nang hablutin…

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Touch Move

(This story first appeared on the Inaugural issue of the Cotabato Literary Journal. This is a work of fiction, and any resemblance to reality in this story is purely coincidental. )

the-boy-face-left

Art by Joseph Anthony Harold Dubouzet

Touch Move

Gina-twist ko ang Rubik’s Cube pagpasok ni Dad sa sala. Pag-upo niya sa harap ko kalalim ng buntong-hininga niya, halos hangak na. Nakabarong siya na green na may arabesque na design sa gitna. Kakagaling lang siguro sa korte. Nagpiko siya ng likod palapit sa akin, nakapatong ang mga siko sa mga tuhod, at nakatago ang bibig sa mga kamay na nakalabid ang mga daliri.

May tatanungin siya.

“Len, ayos ka daw ng upo be.” Hindi ito yung iritable na tono niya, ito yung malumanay. Gibaba ko ang mga paa ko mula sa sofa, pero hindi ko giwala ang tingin ko sa Rubik’s Cube. Gisimula ko siya solve.

Nagbalik siya sandal sa upuan niya.

“Problema talaga yang lolo mo . . .”

Gihagisan niya ng tingin ang malaking picture ni Lolo sa ibabaw ng bookshelf ko sa kabilang gilid ng sala. Ito yung masamang tingin, makitid ang mata, pero nagalisik, ganito yan pag galit ang tingin.

Yan si Lolo ko. Jaime Saavedra, tatlong beses governor ng North Cotabato. Noong panahon ni Marcos gitawag siyang strong man ng Cotabato kay halos lahat ng pulitiko dito sa amin hawak niya.

Strong talaga yan siya noon, kahit ako matakot. Noong buhay pa siya, six pa ako, gipakita ako sa kanya ni Dad sa big house sa River Park. Matagal na yun masyado, twenty na gud ako ngayon. Sabi niya pagkakita sa akin, ano man itong anak mo Jerry, abnormal.

Natapos ko na ang Rubik’s Cube. 6.32 seconds.

Nakangiti si Dad, nakatingin sa Rubik’s Cube. A, dapat ako magtanong ano problema niya.

“Bakit, Dad, ano problema?” tanong ko pagyakap ko sa kanya. Gawain man gud yan ni Dad pag may problema, i-distract niya ang sarili niya. Minsan kailangan mo ulit i-remind sa kanya na may dapat pa siya atupagin. Joke minsan ni Mom na sa kanya ko siguro nakuha itong sakit ko.

“Tulungan mo ulit ako, Len, ha . . .”

Tango lang din ako.

Six years, three months, four days ko na ito ginagawa. Nung una ko ito gigawa kakamatay lang ni Tito Pat habang nakaupo na mayor ng Kidapawan. July 14. Tatlong bala sa dibdib, dead on arrival sa Madonna Hospital. Nagplano si Tito Jojo na gamitin ang timing para magtakbo. Pero mainit pa ang dugo ng mga rubber baron kay sila ginadiin ni Vice Mayor Balajadia na nagpapatay kay Tito Pat.

Nakasalampak din sa harap ko noon si Dad, yang pagod ang mukha niya. Siya ang gusto gawing campaign manager at legal adviser ni Tito Jojo. Naga-Rubik’s Cube lang din ako.

Sa desperasyon daw yun sabi niya sa amin ni Mom pagkatapos. Gikwento niya sa akin ang nangyari tapos gitanong niya ano daw gawin ko kung ako tanungin.

Ang tao parang Lego, ang mga kalagayan nila parang Rubik’s Cube, o kahit anong puzzle. Mga piyesa na maiba mo ang kalagayan pag alam mo anohin sila pagposisyon. Posisyon lang talaga, posisyon.

“Bakit nagpunta sa Paco si Tito Pat, Dad?” Gibaba ko na ang Rubik’s Cube.

“Gipakiusapan siya ni Balajadia na magpunta doon sa ribbon cutting ng golf course sa Balindog na gi-commitan niya pero hindi niya mapuntahan kay may meeting siya bigla with an investor sa Davao.”

“Si Balajadia malamang ang nagpapatay kay Tito Pat.” Nakataas na ang mga paa ko sa sofa, pero sa gulat niya hindi ako napagalitan. “Pero walang evidence,” dagdag ko. “At mahirap, malakas si Balajadia, hawak niya ang masa.”

“So . . . so ano suggestion mo gawin natin, Len?” Unang beses yun na pagkatiwalaan ako ni Dad magdesisyon, na sinali niya ako sa trabaho ng pamilya.

“Konsehal muna si Tito Jojo. Kausapin niyo ang mga may gomahan, ipaalam niyo na hindi sila ang ginapagbintangan niyo. Isali niyo ang ikaunlad ng mga gomahan sa platform ni Tito Jojo.”

One year tapos manalo ni Tito Jojo pagkakonsehal, nagbalik si Dad sa harap ko. Nagabasa ako noon tungkol sa Tagasatzung ng Switzerland. April 19.

“Hindi mataas ang ratings ni Tito Jojo . . .” Ulit, nagapalabas lang siya ng steam. Pero problema, at kailangan ko i-solve.

Maalala ko pa, gikuha ko ang Rubik’s Cube, at ang Rubik’s Cube naging Kidapawan. Up, side, down, left, right, left, right, right, left, center, up, down. Tapos sa loob ng ten seconds, naayos ko ulit ang Kidapawan.

“Dapat may gulo sa Kidapawan. Land grabbing dito, summary killings doon. Lahat dapat gawing kasalanan ni Mayor Balajadia. Si Tito Jojo ang lone voice na kokontra.”

Yung liwanag ng mukha na sabi sa mga libro, nakita ko sa mukha ni Dad. Mga ilang buwan tapos nun leading sa surveys si Tito Jojo. Gibilhan niya ako ng Megaminx galing Europe.

Kahirap pala ng Megaminx, pero nakatulong yun, kay nung gigawa ko siyang Kidapawan, nahulaan ko ano sunod gawin ni Balajadia.

November 27.

“Tayo ang gipagbintangan ni Balajadia sa gulo sa Mua-an!” Taranta yun sabi ng mga libro, galit na parang nawawala.

“Ano nangyari, Dad?

“Gipa-negotiate ni Tito Pat mo noon si Councilor Sirolo sa mga Manobo sa Mua-an na ibenta ang bahagi ng ancestral domain nila kay Nonoy Lu ng Regal Suites Hotels para gawing hot springs resort. Nagpayag na sila, nabigay na ang titulo kay Lu, pero pagkamatay ni Sirolo nagbago ang isip nila. Pero kay negosyante man itong mga Lu wala silang pakialam, gipa-fence ang lupa. Ganito man din nangyari noon sa kuya nito ni Lu sa Boracay ba . . . Ayan ngayon, ginademonyo ni Balajadia ang project at ginasabi niya na si Tito Jojo ang may pakana lahat kay kasosyo sila noon ni Lu.”

“Daan pa lagi ako ganito . . . Dad, ipaliwanag niyo sa radyo ang prinsipyo ng contracts. Magbayad kayo ng abogado na hindi kilalang kaibigan ni Tito Jojo.”

“Oo, ginaisip namin yun.”

“Tapos ikaw din magsalita ka rin sa radyo.”

“Ha? Ano din sabihin ko?”

“Na proposal lang yun ni Tito Pat. Si Balajadia ang nagmadali para mabango ang partido nila ni Tito Pat. Nagpakamatay si Sirolo dahil sa stress, ’di ba?”

“Oo.”

“Idiin mo si Balajadia, sabihin mo dahil gi-pressure niya yung tao na ilapastangan ang tribo niya, nagpakamatay siya. Ikaw na bahala na hindi slanderous.”

Mula noon naging spokesperson na si Dad ng pamilya. Natamaan si Balajadia, kaya gitigil niya ang atake. Napatahimik ang mga Manobo ni Tito Jojo sa ilang projects.

Ngayon ang sabi ng mga katulong sa kusina tagilid daw ang kampanya ni Tito Jojo pagka-mayor. Pero hindi ko makita bakit giproblema ni Dad si Lolo.

“Ano pala gigawa ni Lolo, Dad?”

Kalalim na buntong hininga.

“May anak na naman siya sa labas lumitaw.”

Pang-ilan na ito nangyari. Lahat, ang suggestion ko bayaran o iligpit. Anohin mo man ang Lego na hindi magamit kung hindi iligpit, maapakan mo pa lang, kasakit.

“Bayaran pala o iligpit gaya ng iba, Dad?”

“Mahirap ito . . . galing States, may marriage certificate daw siya ng nanay niya at ng lolo mo. Vegas wedding lang gud, pero bago pa sila kinasal ni lola mo. Bakit niya tanggapin ang bayad kung lahat makuha niya! At kung ipaligpit natin, halata masyado . . .”

“Hmm . . .” Pang-Megaminx ito na problema. Gikuha ko.

Up, side, down, left, right, left, right, right, left, center, up, down.

“Mag-uwi daw dito, Dad?”

“Daw. Kaka-email lang sa akin! Kakasabi ko lang kay Tito Jojo, hindi din niya alam ano gawin, tanungin daw kita”

“Sunduin niyo sa Davao.”

“Ha?”

“Tapos pag andito, i-welcome niyo. Wag niyo bigyan ng bahay, ipatuloy niyo muna sa isang bahay natin—wag siguro sa big house, may mga picture ni lola dun, sabi sa mga libro insensitive yun. Bigyan niyo rin ng driver at kotse.” Gihigpitan ko ang hawak ko sa Megaminx. “Tapos pag masaya na siya, isali niyo sa kampanya ni Tito Jojo . . .”

Kabilis naintindihan ni Dad. Giyakap niya ako, at naglabas siya, malamang para tawagan si Tito Jojo.

Gusto ko man sana talaga makatulong sa pamilya ko, pero anohin man, kahirap makipag-usap sa ibang tao. Alam ko gud pano sila magkilos, alam ko ano ibig sabihin ng kilos nila, pero kahirap pa rin. Minsan dalhin-dalhin ako ni Tito Jojo sa mga campaign niya, pero para lang may cute na abnormal kasama, pang-appeal sa mga may awa, para hindi din masyado malayo tingnan ang mga Saavedra. Pero mas makatulong pa sa mismong kampanya sina Carmina at Dinah, yung mga pinsan ko. Pasalamat ako na sa ganitong isip-isip ko makatulong ako sa kanila konti.

Kung hindi mag-solve ng puzzle or maggawa ng Lego, buong araw ako naga-basa-basa, libro man, dyaryo, o internet. Kasarap magbasa ng history, lingaw sundan ang mga nagyari noon at tingnan pano sila nakaapekto sa ngayon. Naging kalingawan na din ni Mom na bilhan ako ng dyaryo araw-araw galing sa simbahan, o kahit ano bang reading material galing sa mga constituent work niya kasama si Tita Salud, asawa ni Tito Jojo. Naging akin na ang sala, na laging puno ng Lego, mga puzzle, at libro. Minsan madaganan ko ng libro ang iPad ko.

Pagpasok mo ng bahay namin ang makita mo agad sa vestibule isang malaki masyadong Lego na winding staircase inclined 40 degrees na may malapad na tuktok. Kadaming gipadala na Lego ni Tito Margot galing Germany, kaya gigawa ko yan. Ang title niya Absolute Destiny Apocalypse.

Kalingaw mag-Lego, para silang mga tao. Pag-ibahin mo ang posisyon, maiba ang kalagayan nila. Ka-lagay-an. Yan. Kung ipag-halo-halo mo sila, iposisyon mo, makagawa ka ng gusto mong buo.

Pamilya lang ang iba, ewan bakit. Mas maintindihan sila, pero mas mahirap sila iposisyon. Alam ko na pag giiba ko sila masali ako, kaya matakot ako, tsaka lain ang pakiramdam kung gawin ko yun. Kawawa na makalungkot na makainis, pero sa sarili ako mainis. Ewan ko ano tawag dito na pakiramdam.

Mga tatlong araw tapos nun, August 11, nagsimula ako gawa ng malaking butterfly na Lego. Makulay yung bagong gipadala na Lego ni Tita Margot (2,586 pieces na lahat ng Lego ko), naisip ko i-contrast yung mga kulay. Red-black-black-white-yellow-red ba, tapos naisipan ko din paglaruan yung angles at pagposisyon sa kanila, 2×3’s para makagawa ng bilog, incremental forward lengthwise 2×4’s para concave, o 2×2’s incremental sideways para simple curve. Tapos naghalo ang kulay at angles at naging butterfly. Naisipan ko gawin, 4.6 feet siya kataas maging.

Nasa antenna na ako nang pumasok si Dad.

May kasama siyang lalaki na hindi ko pa nakita.

“This is Lenny, my son. He made that Lego staircase there. Len, bless ka kay Tito Brandon.”

Nagtango lang ako.

“Len, wag bastos.”

Gibitawan ko ang gihawakan ko na Lego at naglapit sa kanila. Nag-bless ako kay Tito Brandon.

“What’re you making?” Cartoon Network masyado ang accent niya. Nakangiti siya habang nakatingin sa butterfly. “A butterfly! Wow!”

“Opo.” At nagbalik ako ng trabaho. Narinig ko siya nagbulong sa sarili niya ng “It’s amazing.” Tapos nun gi-tour siya ni Dad sa bahay.

Kinabukasan nun, natapos ko na ang butterfly, nakadisplay na siya sa vestibule. Ang title niya Chaos Dream Metamorphosis.

Nagbalik yung Tito Brandon. Nasa sofa ako, naga-Rubik’s Cube.

May dala siyang chessboard. Hindi ko naisipan mag-chess, kaya ewan bakit nagdala siya. Habang patapos na ako sa ginagawa ko, nag-upo siya sa harap ko.

“Hey, Len. Heard hindi ka marunong mag-chess.” Bakikaw masyado pakinggan ang Tagalog niya. Nagtango lang din ako.

“Want me to teach you?”

Bitaw din, bakit hindi ko naisipan mag-chess? Gibaba ko ang Rubik’s Cube at nagtango. Napansin ko na bigla nagliwanag ang mukha niya.

Gituruan niya ako ng mga pangalan ng piece: pawn, rook, knight, bishop, queen, king. Tapos ang mga galaw nila at paano sila magkain. Tapos gituruan niya ako pano mag-arrange.

Gitanong ko kung may notation ba ang chess. Sabi niya oo, ang grid kay a to h parehong side (a sa kaliwa ng puti) tapos 1 to 8 (8 kay rook ng itim). Ang galaw ganun, pawn a4, queen d6. Mas madali kung ganun, maisip mo ang posisyon.

“I have to teach you an important rule though,” sabi niya bago kami magsimula ng laro. “It’s called touch move. Once you touch a piece, you have to move it, provided it’s allowed.”

“Kahirap pala.”

“Yes, so you have to be responsible with what you do.”

Paglaro namin ako itim siya puti. Nahirapan ako sa touch move. Ayoko magkamali, makatakot, makainis. Parang yung pakiramdam habang kausap ko yung ibang tao. Alam ko na pag magkamali ako sira ang usapan namin.

Pawn niya e4, knight ko f6, bishop ko b5 tapos kain ng bishop niya ang bishop ko d7 . . . Kahirap pa masanay sa notation.

Lamang siya konti lang, pero makita sa mukha niya na lingaw siya masyado. Ako man din enjoy.

Isang galaw at na-checkmate niya ako.

“Wow, ang galing mo. I”ve been playing for decades, you just learned, but I barely beat you!”

“One more round po.” At nagtawa siya pagsabi ko nun.

“Game!”

Habang nagalaro kami ginakausap niya ako. Mahirap, kaya ginapaulit ko ang gisabi niya pagkatapos ko mag-move. Katagalan nasanay na siya, kausapin niya lang ako pag siya na ang magkilos. Makainis din kay sa tanong niya ako mag-focus, mawala ako sa laro.

“You have any friends, Len?”

“No po. They get bored with me.” At sa bawat sagot ko magtawa siya. Hindi ko alam bakit pero hindi makahiya kung tawanan niya ako.

Nakailang round kami. Sa pangatlo nasanay na ako, at nanalo ako sa fourth round. Pero kahirap pa rin niya talunin. Gibigay niya sa akin ang chessboard, at nagpasalamat ako (dapat baya magpasalamat pag may ibigay sa iyo). Sabi niya magbalik daw siya bukas.

Tapos nun nag-practice ako. Madali na masyado magposisyon, pero mahirap ang touch move. Alam ko talaga na maling galaw lang mali na ang posisyon. Madali lang mag-isip ng solusyon sa mali, pero parang bawat piece kapamilya ko, kawawa kung makain siya, masakit isipin. Makatakot isipin na maling galaw ko lang makain yung piece. Pero kailangan maggalaw . . .

“Oo, Kuya, handa na . . . Nasa Manongol na si Leon . . . Oo, sniper, galing sa Davao . . . Ikaw na magpasunod sa kanya? Sige, sige . . . Sige, Kuya.”

Gibaba ni Dad ang phone niya. Rinig ko siya sa garden sa labas. Pumasok siya ulit sa sala at umupo sa harap ko: kita sa mukha niya ang kaba. Nakatingin ako sa gigawa kong chess game.

Naghinga siya ng malalim.

“Sige, ’nak, alis muna ako.” Tapos niya ako giyakap nag-alis na siya.

Hindi ko ma-solve ang gi-set up kong scenario. Gikuha ko ang Rubik’s Cube para makaisip. Up, side, down, left, right, left, right, right, left, center, up, down.

Mga tanghali nang dumating si Tito Brandon. Kalaki ng ngiti niya pagkakita niya na nakabukas ang chessboard.

“That looks tough,” sabi niya pagkakita niya sa bagong problem na gi-set up ko.

Pag-upo niya gi-solve ko ang problem.

“Woah!” Tumawa siya.

“Let’s play!” at gi-arrange namin ang pieces. Ako ulit ang itim.

Nakailang rounds kami. Ako lagi panalo, nahanas ko na ang notation, so madali na masyado magposisyon.

Pero para din kasing abala siya, na wala sa laro ang isip niya. Siguro nasa usapan namin: habang nagalaro kasi kung ano-ano mapag-usapan namin—history ba, mga current affairs, pagkain, kahit ano. Kaya katagal namin matapos kada laro, maggalaw lang kami kung tapos na ang isang topic.

Makapagtaka. Hindi man siya pamilya, pero para na siyang naging pamilya pag kausap ko. Siguro kasi nasa laro ang isip ko, at nasanay na ako sa kanya sa gitna ng kada galaw.

“Hey, Len, can I tell you something? Wag ka maingay sa Dad mo ha?”

Tiningnan ko siya nang patanong. Panglima na naming laro.

“I really thought when I got here your Dad and relatives would all hate me. Anak ako sa labas, remember. From all I heard from my mother about your grandma and uncles, I really thought you’d be out to get rid of me.” Nagtawa siya. “I kinda feel bad for thinking that now. Sinundo pa talaga ako ng Dad mo sa Davao! To think my email to him was so terse.”

Anak sa labas? Get rid of him? Sinundo sa Davao? Hala!

“But I’m so glad I have a loving family pala. I came here really to try to get what my father never gave me, and while I was thinking about property and all that, I did get something—a cool pamangkin like you.” Nagtawa siya. “Wala na akong family back in the States since my mom died and my wife and kids left me. But now I have someone to play chess with.” At gigulo niya ang buhok ko. Makita ko na basa kaunti ang mga mata niya.

Nag-ring ang phone niya.

“Hey, Jo . . . Yeah, I’m at Jerry’s. Estanyol, right? Haha . . . Really? Wow, I’m honored. Yeah sure, I’d love to! It’s near here? So the driver knows the place? Okay . . . I have to tell you, I don’t have any experience campaigning! Yeah okay, okay . . . See you . . .”

Hindi ito pwede. Tito Brandon? Campaigning?

“Sorry, Len, Tito Jojo wants me to join his campaign. It’s at Manungol, how do you pronounce that?” Tawa. “Though I don’t think I’ll win this game either.” Tiningnan niya ang laro namin. Nagtayo siya.

“See you later, Len!”

At umalis siya.

Hindi ako nakagalaw. Plano ko ito. Kasalanan ko ito. Dapat ako gumalaw. Pero hindi ako makagalaw, takot ako sa bigat ng galaw ko.

Gusto ko tumayo pero hindi ko kaya. Alam ko dapat ko siya tawagin, pigilan, babalaan. Pero hindi ko kaya. Hindi ko kaya gawin ang dapat ko gawin.

Wala na, nakaalis na ang sasakyan niya.

Hindi ako makaisip ng maayos. Kagulo ng isip ko. Ano dapat ko gawin?

Hindi makatulong ang ingay ng mga katulong sa kusina. Maya-maya gi-on nila ang radyo: maingay na crowd.

“Mga higala, ania na ang atong gipaabot, ang maoy angay himuong mayor sa Kidapawan, ang inyong Jojo Saavedra!” Palakpakan at hiyawan.

Ganito yun lahat. Yung mga giligpit ko para masira ang pangalan ni Balajadia, yung mga anak sa labas ni Lolo, ganito yun sila lahat . . .

Kagulo ng isip ko, kailangan ko mag-isip. Kailangan ko mag-isip.

Nagsalita si Tito Jojo. May ipakilala daw siya sa mga tao. Dahil nga daw masipag ang tatay nila (tawa ang crowd) maya-maya may bagong kapatid sumusulpot. Itong isa galing States, at mahal na mahal daw nila na kapatid. Paki-welcome daw ang kanyang Kuya Brandon.

Palakpakan at hiyawan—at may biglang tuldok ng tunog ng hangin na ginasipsip, at nahaluan ang hiyawan ng sigawan. Gulo. Pati ang mga katulong sa kusina nagkagulo.

Kasalanan ko. Plano ko ito. Sa kusina, nagsimula na salita ang mga katulong gaya ng giplano ko: sigurado, pakana ito ni Mayor Balajadia.

Naganginig ang kamay kong gikuha ang Megaminx. Kaingay ng isip ko.

Up, side, down, left, right, left, right, right, left, center, up, down . . . pero ayaw maalis ng ngiti ni Tito Brandon sa isip ko.

Nabasa na ng luha ang tiles ng Megaminx, sa dulas nabitawan ko.


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.


Tanha

(Buddhist flash fiction)

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‘Do you believe in soul mates?’ he asked her on the bed after they made love.
‘You said we were both Buddhists,’ she answered, giggling. ‘but meeting you does feel like destiny!’

She snuggled to him, this unfortunate stranger she met a month ago naked on the street, mugged and stripped of his clothes. She tried kissing him, but he had a look of an almost hungry distractedness. She loved this distance of his, but at times like this it made it hard to reach him.

‘But do you believe that we all come from One, and that we are fragments of a broken whole?’

‘Well…’ as she fell silent in thought for a while he caressed her leg, and this reassured her. ‘Well, there is the bija during punabbhava, a single aggregate can break off into many fragments, each starting new aggregates.’

For a moment he fell quiet. And then, after a while, he began talking.
‘Let me tell you the story of an Arhat who fell from grace in the Abode of the Righteous.’

She was fascinated with Buddhism, and part of why she fell in love with him was because he know so much about it.

‘The Arhat had disputed with the others on the existence of the Brahman. The Buddha himself said it did not exist, but the Arhat insisted that it did.
‘The other Arhats ignored him, but when he revealed what he believed was the way of becoming Brahman again, they feared him. They crowded around him, threw him against the floor, and he shattered into a myriad fragments, which scattered out unto the Realm of Desire to be seeds for aggregates.

‘It came to pass that one of these seeds became a cockroach, and another a butterfly. The butterfly was soaked with rain and, dying, fell onto the ground, whereupon the cockroach found it. As the butterfly slowly died, the cockroach began devouring it. And when it had done so it, in its state of irrationality, suddenly learned the feeling of emptiness. It sought to fulfill this emptiness, vainly, by eating.

‘It is in this state of bereft hunger that a frog – another aggregate of a fragment – devoured the cockroach, and the frog too came to know an even more pronounced bereavement. It sought vainly to fulfill too its hunger by eating.
‘But when another aggregate from a fragment, a snake, devoured the frog, the snake found itself sentient, remembering the glorious being it had been in the Abode of the Righteous. And it wept, for he knew his loss in full. But he had come to acquire too the cognizance to determine the lives which were aggregates of his fragments, and he thereafter sought them and devoured them.

‘When he had found and devoured a few fragments that have aggregated into rats, he found himself transformed into a bird. And as a bird, he soared and sought more of his fragments.

‘When thus transformed he had found and devoured a few fragments that have aggregated into fish and a few bits of moss, he found himself transformed again into a cat. And as a cat, he prowled and sought more of his fragments.

‘When thus transformed he had found and devoured a few fragments that have aggregated into rats and bushes of catnip, he found himself transformed again into a dog. And as a dog, he prowled further and sought more of his fragments.

‘When thus transformed he had found and, though unusual for a dog to do so devoured a few more fragments that have aggregated into mice or fish or birds, he found himself transformed again into a human being.

‘Indeed, this is how, as an Arhat, he had proposed to the Righteous how to become Brahman again: all beings are fragments of the One, and if one among them were to consume the others, all would be One again.

‘But do you know what it feels for one to crave the fragments of one’s own past aggregate?’

‘How?’ she asked bemusedly.

‘Overwhelming attraction, that you wish to be united fully, completely. Human beings call it love.’

‘She broke into a cold sweat. ‘They do?’

‘Yes. And I love you. You will complete me.’

She giggled nervously, ‘Isn’t the expression ‘you complete me?’’

‘No, you will. When I had devoured that rat and transformed from the cat into a human, you found me on the street, clothed me, and loved me. But I knew from the moment you saw me that you were part of me.’

‘But I thought you had been robbed!’

‘Of my fragments, yes. But now, after fifty years of searching, I have found you, and I had found them all.’

‘What on earth are you –?’ before she could finish her question his mouth had expanded to the size of the bed, he swallowed her whole, and he once again became an Arhat.