(Be sure to read Welostit over the weekend. We shall recap our discussion on the poems we've taken up last meeting and then I will give you a short quiz about the story before discussing it. Enjoy :))
YOUR EYES REMINDED me of newly-screwed light bulbs beaming pure light. They were free of the gathered dust that dimmed and wrecked old bulbs, and I squinted when you tried to convince me that you were two years older than me.
It was easy not to believe your claim initially, your long hair over your clean, lineless face; your loose jeans under your loose, over washed, overused shirt; your easy laughter. Later, your shallow memory. You were either an amnesiac collagen-dependent or many, many years younger.
There were times when I would forget how old we were and you would just talk about anything you could think of, perhaps to keep me from remembering. But music often broke it. One time, we were driving along Quezon Avenue, looking for a place to eat when the DJ on the radio said something about a “Blast from the Past,” and aired “Man on My Mind” which I sang along with, to your apparent dismay. “Who is that?” you asked. The curve on my lips straightened when I saw your bright eyes.
“Carly Simon,” I said, and continued singing along with the song in my head.
You wrinkled the corners of your eyes, producing wispy lines.
“The daughter of Paul Simon,” I said with a straight face.
“Paul who?” you asked, killing my joke.
“Paul Simon. Of Simon and Garfunkel.”
“Simon and who?”
“Simon and Garfunkel. ‘Sounds of Silence’.”
“ ‘Sounds of Silence’?”
“ ‘The Boxer’, ‘Scarborough Fair’, ‘El Condor Pasa’, ‘The Only Living Boy in New York’. You know, ‘Time, check your plane right on time. You know, I’ll probably go fine. Fly down to Mexicowowowo’—or something like that.”
“Oh. Ohhh, that song. They sang that? I thought Everything But the Girl did that. It was just a cover, then.”
I was younger than you when I first heard that song. I was in high school, rubbing my eyelids an iced moss-green for a late afternoon schools dance, all the time thinking of how I could squeeze out of a date with my mother’s friend’s son and sprint behind the dimmed gym with the rest of my dateless friends to sing Leif Garret’s version of “Put Your Head on my Shoulder”---I, for Michael Jackson; Beth, for Shawn Cassidy; Nimfa, for the funniest Sotto brother, Vic. Nimfa would punch my shoulder every time I reminded her of her teenage infatuation, seventeen years from that day. She’d say that at least, she had good taste---Vic had since become sought-after by femmes fatale while Michael Jackson, whose darker, big-haired, flaring-nosed version I used to hang on my wall, had turned to boys and monkeys. With slanted eyes, she would tell me that I too had resorted to the same pursuits. I could have easily retorted with a hundred caustic remarks thinly disguised as jokes but I would never answer her, not even with pursued lips.
I often thought that none of this would have happened had I not yielded to the charms of my first nephew, Jaypee. When he asked me too cook my special lasagna verde and lumpiang shanghai because his friends were coming over for his twenty-first birthday party, he suddenly shrunk into a three-year-old boy in Scooby Doo shorts and a white sando, freshly Johnson’s Baby cologned and powdered, combed hair still dripping with soapy water, tugging at my smooth, unveined hand, saying that he had taken his bath, and could he now have his Kowloon “dumbo” pao?
When I managed to blink of the sight of that distant past, the older Jaypee told me that Sandy was coming over. Sandy who? He answered me with a smile he had last flashed when he received his college diploma, and before that day was over, I found myself driving to the grocery to buy spinach and lasagna noodles and Magnolia crème.
A few days later, I was in my sister’s kitchen frying lumpia as I waited for the third dish of spinached lasagna to bake in the oven. I had a pair of trusty tongs in one hand and a pot cover on the other, my shield against spit oil, when you entered the kitchen and asked for a beer. I didn’t even look at you---I had one eye closed anyway---pointed to the refrigerator. As I just took out a beer, you said you liked my lasagna, which Jaypee had been boasting about, and asked if you could have some of the freshly-fried lumpia. With my back still turned to you, I said, sure, get all you want, I’ve suffered enough for it, and continued dodging the pan’s scorching slobber. I couldn’t keep my eyes on the pan when you started laughing. I turned around to look at you. Are you Jaypee’s friend? I asked. You pulled out a meat roll from my stack and said you were a fried from work. As you took a bite, I studied your combat boots, garter-worn socks, cut-off jeans and holey yellowing white shirt, and said I didn’t know Jaypee worked at the North Harbor pier. You laughed again and said “Close.” You also worked for an international shipping company somewhere around the Port area. You continued laughing so hard, making me wonder whether you found my face as oily as the lumpia you were eating, but just didn’t have the nerve to say it. You spewed some of your chewed lumpia on your chin, then on the floor, and stamped your heavy feet on the linoleum floor, as if to put out a carpet burn. You spilled your beer. When you turned red, I dropped my tongs and grabbed the nearest filled-though-used-beer bottle I could find and made you drink it. You hurriedly emptied the bottle, but coughed the brew out just as fast, together with a cigarette butt. We stared at each other for about two seconds, both of us red-faced, you from near-choking and I, from smothered laughter. You burst first.
We were still catching the breath we lost to laughter when Ate Jing walked into the kitchen to get more food. She asked why you, Mikey, were there and why you had a wet shirt. Typical kid, I told her; still in need of a bib. You frowned, aid your friends called you Mike, then asked when I was born. When I told you, you said you were born two years before that. I put my hand over my opened mouth in mock surprise. You laughed as you followed my sister out of the kitchen but returned five minutes later for another beer, another lumpia , another Coke, more crushed ice, another this, more of that, and spent the rest of the night and early morning there---you said you wanted to be near the “goodies.”
Later, you would tell me that you stayed because I made you “happy” (which made me frown because I doubted your choice of the word) and you liked to hear me talk, which made me laugh out loud at first, then made me smile every time I remembered it afterwards, because it was my talking that had often kept others away from me.
Many times you had asked how I could stand you, and every time I would say that I couldn’t: I was only doing it to pay for all my sins while I was still alive; you were my purgatory on earth; every day with you was equivalent to a month in molten chains. The first time you heard this, you guffawed, and I had to put my hand over your mouth to keep the other people at the CCP’s Tanghalang Manuel Conde from pelting us with crumpled paper. Yes, I told them with my apologetic eyes and nods, not----never----in the middle of something like Rashomon. I looked around the small theater to see whether there was anyone I knew, and blew at my bangs when I saw no familiar faces. Until we got to the well-lit lobby. A classmate from college---how nice---approached me and looked you over. Her eyes brimmed with the malice of a dozen showbiz reporters. Before she could mumble anything I asked whether she had been working out lately. Her lips stretched, almost meeting her ears. She smoothened the sides of her bursting denim mini-skirt with her palms, as if to confirm the results of her gym sessions. I nodded like a woodpecker that had found a bug-infested tree. Before she could smile any wider, I advised her to see the CCP production office right away; they were holding auditions for the “Rocky Horror Show;” she was a shoo-in for that transvestite role.
Her smile shriveled into a smirk.
“You never changed,” she said, as she pressed my arm a little too tightly. Before I could say “You too,” she dashed to her scrawny, grey haired partner-husband, maybe, from the way she hooked her arm around his, who seemed to be just three birthday candles away from using a cane.
Sometimes, this situation happened in reverse, but you never seemed to care. That first time we went to Club Dredd where your friends’ band, The Third and Final Autopsy, played every week, I had to sit with your friends’ girlfriends when the band went on stage. You had to go too because you had to make sure all the equipment was working. The girls would talk to me every now and then, but often just kept to themselves, singing along with the band or smoking or dancing. When your band was through, you asked how The Third and Final Autopsy fared, and I said, fine, they were cool; they would have roused Flor Contemplacion and Delia Magat from the grave which, I was sure, would have shamed that farce of a Commission to death. One of your friends walked up to our table. You introduced me under the dim lights, which made him not look back at you with question marks for eyeballs---your friends’ expected reaction when they saw me for the first time---and everything was unusually fine. But when the lights came back on and the friend saw the un-tretinoined lines around my unmade, tired eyes and curved mouth, and the balete roots on my hands, an exclamation point blinked over his head which he translated in a whisper, to you. You shook off his words with a sharp slap on his back, which sent him away, wheezing and laughing, as if both acts would lessen his unexpected back pain.
When you saw my upright fist buried in half of my face, distorting my lips and pushing up my cheek, we prepared to leave. As I led our way towards the light outside the door, the guitarist of the next band began to pluck a familiar tune that froze my legs. I turned back, almost imprinting my face on your chest, and asked whether we could stay a while longer. We warmed the club’s cold wall.
“Ako’y may kaibigan. At wala siyang pangalan…” The Juan dela Cruz band, I mumbled. Pepe Smith before he got jailed for illegal drug possession, and was later freed, and crawled his way to a low stage to claim a Hall of Fame Award from a local radio station. They covered these songs now too, you said. I closed my eyes to the band of long-haired teenagers singing a song older than them. “Ang himig naaatin, ating awiitin. Upang taayoo’y magsam-saaama. Sa langit ng ating pag-aasa.” I sang; you sang too, to my surprise, though off-key. When your forefinger, maybe, began to brush against the back of my hand, I put my hands up and did a palm tree sway, eyes still closed. I was suddenly no longer there, but in my sisters’ room with my friends, listening to scratched Juan dela Cruz and Maria Capra LPs---jute music, all our other less adventurous contemporaries would call it. They were then too busy singing and swinging to the Bee Gees and VST & Co.
On one of the few times we returned to Dredd not to watch your band play, you tried to flush out scenes of the beating you took from your boss with four beers and several gin tonics, an outpouring of sentiments about your overworked, underpaid employment. You shouted above the voices of people in the surrounding tables and the booming music from the concert room that you didn’t spend eighteen years in classrooms, plowing through fields of books and term papers and reports, just to become a bundy clock slave. Didn’t we all, I answered, sucking on half a calamansi. So what if you drew the best liver cells in your zoology class? So what if you knew Mi Ultimo Adios by heart? Where did sliced-up frogs and “Adios patria adorada region del sol querida” fit into your job as an account executive at your shipping firm? You should’ve spent the rest of your life out of school, learning your father’s insurance business, which you could never get the hang of. At least, your father would appreciate your effort, unlike your boss who never knew you existed until you made even the “tiniest” of mistakes.
“Yeees,” I said, copying your exasperated tone. I closed one eye and formed an opened pincer with my thumb and forefinger in front of my face. “Tiny mistake. How different are the ports of Keelung and Kaohsiung, for Christakes? They both start with ‘K’ and end with ‘ung’; therefore, they both needed that two-ton mango shipment of your Cebu client, right?” I rolled my eyeballs, thinking of the two trans-shipment ports in different parts of Taiwan, one waiting for two tons of ripening mangoes to bring to Tokyo; the other, wondering what to do with its sweet windfall.
You looked into your empty glass and clinked the melting ice. Then, without looking up, you asked, “Are you like my boss?”
“Am I like your boss? I don’t know. I’ve never met him. How old is he? What’s his sign? Does he bleach his mustache?” A calamansi seed suddenly got lodged in my throat.
“No, not that. I mean, do you know I’m here?” you asked with your eyes on your glass, sounding oddly sober.
“Oh, that,” I whispered with widened eyes. “Do I know you’re here?” I tried to wretch out the seed but it only dug deeper into the soft flesh of my throat. “Of course I do. You’re paying, right? Remember---my patience, your problem, we drink, you pay?”
“I know, I know, but it isn’t that. Not that. I mean, what am I to you?” You looked at me with gin-glazed eyes.
“You to me?” I coughed out the darned seed, which was all dried up; the kind that wouldn’t germinate even if you planted it in a bed of horse dung. I placed a pinch of salt on the back of my palm and licked it, sipped my third shot of tequila to soothe the gash caused by the seed, then sucked another halved calamansi , this time, making sure I spit out all the seeds. I pressed my lips together and acted as if I were really thinking, to console you. I bored my forefinger into my temple, then said, in my most poetic tone, “You’re the pesky calamansi seed stuck in my throat. The harder I cough, the deeper I hurt.” I laughed at myself. I waited for you to join my burst of laughter but you just grinned, as if what I told you worked better than all the alcohol in the bar and your incessant whining. And I suddenly felt ants scurrying up my spine. You kept me from making any further comments by feigning absolute drunkenness---which you surprisingly managed to shake off by the time you got behind the wheel, without aid of coffee or hot, thin soup---and I shuddered in absolute regret.
Once, you asked what it was like to study in the state university, where you too studied, “back in those days,” which meant before the Edsa Revolution, and I suddenly had no funny remarks racing out of my mouth. I sat back and smiled, frowned, then smiled again, and could not be prodded, even by your best pathetic look, to say anything. I liked thinking about my past silently; words often left out details of those scenes, which had been left intact in my head. I didn’t say that I used to flag down jeepneys entering the university grounds and give their drivers my most embarrassed smile as I shook a box wrapped in bond paper under their noses, which they filled with some of their warm coins. Later that day, we would get on top of a jeepney or a truck, and urge others to join us; I, in my bad Farah Fawcett hair, sometimes with a megaphone, leading others in chanting, “Sumama na kayo! Sumama na kayo!” which drew twos, then fours, then tens, until we had enough people to talk to and make noise with. I wrote most of the statements, helped mimeograph and distribute the flyers one by one. I would still see most of them the next day, torn and stamped with marks of tires, cow’s hooves, blotches of mud, and footprints, including my own.
You tried to dip your feet in my thought stream by singing a line from “Bayan Ko”---“Ang bayan kong Pilipinas, lupain ng ginto’t bulaklak” as if I would suddenly link arms with you and turn yellow with nostalgia. But I cut you right away with “Ang bayan kong hinirang, Pilipinas ang pangalan. Perlas ng silanganan…,” which confused you, to my anticipated dismay. I had to explain that it was the complete “Bayan Ko” that we all sang before the Aquino cohorts entered the scene and cut the song by beginning with its refrain. I could only satisfy your curiosity about my college days with this line because I knew that if I told you more---what I did, thought and remembered when I was about your age---you would look at me with your rapt dog eyes and oblige me with your respectful silence, reminding me of how I might have looked the first few times my mother told me about the Manila she knew shortly after the war, with its unreclaimed beachfront and unsullied bay, and how she delightfully struggled with her first footlong hotdog sandwich washed down, in between careful bites, with her first bottle of tepid Coke. I would think of my mother at the time of her memory---she would have been about fifteen---and how, twelve years after that precious afternoon, she would meet my rich, younger father who made her wash down the lumps in her throat with snot and brine. You and I would then sit in necessary silence and try not to look at each other unless I sneezed or you belched.
We had always avoided complicating our situation by not talking about it, and that was how I thought it would be until you came to my apartment one evening, quiet and stinking, asking if you could sleep over because you couldn’t drive home. You even dragged me to your tripped car, which was half parked on the sidewalk, to show me the bloodied chicken feathers on the windshield and hood. You had bumped into a chicken trailer hitched to a jeep, preempted some of the doomed birds’ death, but managed to speed past the driver and the surviving chickens who shouted and cackled at you as you burned the road. The road brought you to my place, you said, and you had nowhere else to go. I touched your face, which was hot and red, and felt your pulse. Your veins wanted to jump out of your skin. I gave you an ice pack and told you to put it on your face while I got a towel; you had to take a serious shower. We would talk after you had rid yourself of your stench, Chicken-Killer, which made you grin so widely that I thought your face would split open.
When I returned, you were sucking on an ice cube. You gave me this funny look I had never seen before. I threw you a towel. There, cool yourself, I said, the bathroom’s waiting for you, but you didn’t budge an inch. You didn’t even take the towel off your face. When I attempted to take it off, you tool my wrist and forced me to sit beside you. I did, but not without pinching my nose and breathing through my mouth. I wasn’d even drying do be fuddy adymore, I said; you reeked. You took my fingers off my nose. What was it you had drunk? Vino Kulafu or one of these obscure gins I only saw in the provinces? C-88? Did people still celebrate with that? Acetone? Had you swallowed your mother’s nail polish? Not a single answer. You studied my fingers with your half-opened eyes and twined them with yours. You sat back, then slept, with my hand in yours. I wanted to pull out my fingers, sure, but I couldn’t, despite my strength.
From that night on, everytime I pressed at your hand, which I often did when we were sitting some place and we had nothing else to talk about, you would press back slowly---a lingering slowness---as if you were trying to squeeze my hand as tightly as you could but didn’t want me to realize it until your grasp had become too firm to shake off. One time I just sat there and held hands with you, as if it weren’t bothering me, until you let go, and that was only half an hour later, when I was already inside your car. You left my hand damp with our sweat. I quickly put it in my loose pants’ empty side pocket.
That was the time we went to a place overlooking the whole city, where you told me how you often wondered whether I was really born before the Beatles had their first number-one hit. You said I was so much younger than you in many ways. I had heard it so many times from you that I wondered whether you had been drinking too much again. Who was my first love? It was the kind of thing that we never even attempted to get into, even as a joke, despite the months we had known each other.
I told you that I used to bring Jaypee to the very same place where we now stood. He was about nine years old, my little chaperone. The man I was with would try to lure him back to the car with promises of GI Joe doll that talked when you pulled a string from his hip, but Jaypee was too wise; he never gave in to promises. We should have brought him with us, I told you, and that, as I intended, shut you up. How were things with you and Jaypee? I asked. You looked away.
When he first learned that you had begun calling me, he was cool about it; he said that you probably wanted to talk to somebody “wiser” after breaking up with a girlfriend of five years. But when we started going out twice a week, later, almost every day, he accosted you---never me---and asked what you intended to do to his favorite aunt. There he was again, my Scooby Doo Jaypee, to my rescue. He was only ten when he saw me break off with my second serious boyfriend; fifteen when he witnessed my doomed relationship with my last one. His Tito Dodi Pogi turned Tito Dodi Dead-o; this other what’s-his-name, rechristened RIP. What about you? You asked. What would he call you? I said you didn’t have to worry because he wouldn’t have to call you anything.
My eyes followed the second hand of the wall clock one slow Saturday evening, which I only did when I wanted to annoy myself. I had one palm on my chest, checking how many heartbeats it took per second. Two beats per tick on that snail-pulled day. I was alone in my apartment, waiting for something to do, for your call, maybe, but when the clock struck 10 and the phone kept its peace, I decided to take a walk and buy a shawarma roll two blocks away. I was hungry but had no energy to cook.
A turbaned boy in a Metallica shirt asked whether I wanted beef or chicken. Whatever, I said. It didn’t matter; they were bound to taste the same anyway; it would only be a matter of texture; beef, the tougher, juicier meat. The boy saw my lack of zest and wrapped me a chicken shawarma. No drinks, I said, but he insisted, and I found myself lugging a small brown paper bag, a cold plastic cup of Coke and the stand’s wilting onion and warmed-meat sell, on my way back to my place. I sipped my drink without any desire to; just because I had it in my hand and I felt I had to finish it and throw it into the gutter. As I tried to finish my drink, a drop of water landed on my cheek, and I wondered how my half-hearted sips could have raised some of the cola to my face. But when my stubborn cowlicks began to bend, I knew that I had to walk a little faster; run if I could. It was beginning to rain.
Pretty soon, I had to choose between losing my shawarma---which was breaking out of soggy bag---or my vanity. If I ran, I would lose my supper but I would keep my dignity. I was never a disciple of the Wet Look, especially in my house shirt and terry-cloth jogging pants, and it was easy to understand why. But I thought of all the trouble I had gone through to buy my food---getting into my jogging pants, putting on my bra, combing my hair, scrounging in my bag for my keys, going down the stairs, looking for my sneakers, walking two blocks---and ceased my frantic shuffling. I threw away what was left of the bag, and bit into my damp dinner. The sour cream and the cucumber cubes tasted better with raindrops; they gave them a dewy flavor.
Saint Peter was rolling strikes at the old Pearly Gate bowling alley by the time I got back to the apartment. And who else would be there but you, sitting on my doorstep, about a few spritzes drier than me/You saw my uneven eyebrows. The flash flood, you said. You couldn’t go home because you might get stranded someplace. Could you stay here till the rain ceased? And by the way, what had happened to me? Who snatched my umbrella? Was I scrimping on water? I was too refreshed and replenished to think of an appropriate verbal retort, so I just smiled, wrung the lower part of my soaked shirt on your equally soaked leather moccasins, and opened the door. As I walked in, you behind me, I almost thought you blew at my wet nape. I almost thought I liked it.
I didn’t mind the water rings that you left on my tiled floor. At least your water was clear; mine was murky, since I trudged on the muddy pavement. At least you were there to help me clean up, I thought at first. At least you had the will to sacrifice your drenched shirt o wipe our mess on the floor. As you stripped to reveal your hairless, heaving pecs and taut abs, you joked without smiling that I should do the same and I almost did, and not because I wanted to clean up. You either read my mind or felt the same way. Before my eyes and hands could say anything, do anything, we were on the floor, mopping the floor with our shirts and pants.
I wanted to think that you just slipped and you had to hold on to me to keep yourself from having a bad fall, and that we both, in the process, fell; I being about ten pounds heavier than you, though it didn’t show. When did I try to explain to you--with a straight face as always--that as people spent more time on earth, they seemingly got heavier because the planet got more attached to them? I had been around eleven years younger than you, I recalled telling you, and Mother Earth was pulling at me more than you, thus my supposedly heavier weight.
Mother Earth wasn’t holy one keeping me close to the wet, grimy floor that time. Funny how we never complained about the bits of street dirt that clung to our hair, faces and limbs. We weren’t even talking. I tried to keep my eyes closed, only half opening them from time to time, looking at you in parts—your shoulders, your arms, your chest, your throat, perhaps your chin—but never your face. When we were done, you were out of breath and dazed, a bit like me. I looked down and felt my heart springing a leak when I thought of the bigger mess we had made.
I would try to work myself to exhaustion to keep my mind off that mess. When I still had some energy left, I would fetch one of my nephews or nieces from school and take them to the mall to go shopping or watch a movie. That was when I first heard the word “chick-a-babes,” which my teenage nephew used to describe the trio of girls in hot pants and tight, ribbed shirts who passed in front of us one time I took him out to buy a pair of jeans. I used to be a chick myself, I told him with a wide smile. I who wore Bang Bang denim shorts, a Faded Glory shirt, Happy Feet clogs and a hint of orange lipstick. He stared at me, from my unmade fluff of hair, to my unmade face, to my loose blouse, to my baggy slacks, to my patent leather ribboned pumps, and shook his head as he laughed.
But chicks could only stay chicks up to a certain age, as my ad hoc council of older sisters and nephews and nieces would tell me. Who was once a hot chick was now cool Aunt Hen. For the last couple of years, everytime I got together with my sisters—married, both of them—they would tell me that they had given up hope of finding eggs in my nest that would hatch into chicks. They joked that I had become only good for table eggs. One time, when we were having our usual Sunday lunch, weren’t they surprised to find out that I wasn’t out to make omelettes nor horrid balut.
It was my brother who found out. As she spooned some pancit molo soup to her mouth, she said something about the skin between my collarbones, at the base of my throat, which wasn’t quite right. It was supposed to be hollow. Mine, breathed, she said. It did? My sisters snickered and remarked that I probably had a parasite in my throat. I laughed along with them and said I had something alright, and that yes, it could be considered a parasite for about twenty years or so, depending on its will to seek complete independence from its host. I quickly stuffed my mouth with a fourth of a banana, which I never did in the middle of a meal. My eldest sister looked at my elder sister, who looked at her husband, who looked at his sister-in-law’s husband, who looked at my mother, who stared at me, initially with amusement, then—and only when she noticed everyone’s silence—with horror. When her unemptied spoon hit the floor, my sisters told their sons, daughters and husbands to leave the dining room. Then they pecked and plucked at me until I had nothing else to hide. I still managed to burst into hysterical laughter, though, when somebody asked how it could have happened. How did it happen to you? I asked my elder sister. Did it only happen once? I refused to answer that one; not in front of my mother. At my age, my mother said, as she wiped her damp cheeks. At my age? At my age, I told them, Jesus Christ began his ministry, was hailed as the Messiah, turned water into wine, fed thousands with a handful of loaves, got a foot wash from a repentant prostitute, was allowed by the Lord Almighty, his own father, to be flogged, crowned with thorns, crucified and killed, only to live again. At my age, you had me, I told my mother in a whisper uncharacteristic of me. But I wasn’t saving anyone, they said, not the least my soul, or something to that effect. Oh, but I was.
I couldn’t remember too much of that lunch except that it was the first time we left the table with unfinished plates and half-empty serving dishes. The rice bowl, actually a large mixing bowl, wasn’t even refilled.
When my father learned about it, and only a couple of days after I detonated that Sunday lunch bomb, he said something about his children not having been raised that way. Whatever. I wasn’t really listening. I just stared at him and thought of all the weekends and family outings without him, and my brother’s deep wrinkles and perpetually swollen eyes. By the time his monologue clocked five minutes—it was supposed to go on for an hour, I was sure, but I didn’t let him—I rose to my feet and said there was nothing else that I, much less he, could do. It was all set. Perhaps this was his karma, I said, as I walked towards the door. Someone had to shoulder his social debts. Was this the reason he had three daughters, maybe more? Perhaps he was yelling as I closed the door behind me. I really couldn’t tell. There were different, louder voices talking in my head, the strongest, coming from you.
You could do “shumding” about it, you told me through bloody, burst lips, the day you found out—the worst day to pick because I was in the office, working overtime for a presentation of a market study on a new durian-guyabano-marang juice mix bravely con-cocted by one of our clients. I didn’t tell you; Jaypee did, and he bruised his fists in the process. You looked at me with one eye; the other, temporarily sealed by swelling.You said something about your “shdable job and a housh” your parents had bought in your name which you would get once you settled down. Some of your blood spilled on my arm, staining my creme silk blouse. On some other day, I would have made a quick joke about it. But at the time, you had to struggle with words, and not because you didn’t know what to say; Jaypee’s blows, which you didn’t return, had badly slurred your speech. I couldn’t even bear looking at you for more than five seconds. Your wounds stung me, too.
By the time we were about to leave the office, I had your blood all over my blouse. I had to take it off and button up my blazer, giving me a plunging neckline look that was hardly appropriate for what was about to take place. On our way to your house, I kept myself from laughing out loud when the DJ on the radio announced the choice “Blast from the Past” tune of the day, which they played every two hours or so. “So here’s to you, Mrs. Robinson, Jesus loves you more than you should know. Wo-wo-wow.”
Your mother’s needlehole nostrils flared at the sight of my low neckline, which didn’t reveal much, just a hint of chest and some wayward veins that managed to show through my thin, fair skin. Your father said he could understand why his son had gotten into that state—bruised and wounded, temporarily blinded—he would have done much worse to any man who had “impregnated” his daughter out of wedlock, if he had one. But how old was I? I should have known better. I was hardly a blushing schoolgirl; I knew the consequences of “unsafe copulation.” Your father’s technical analysis of how this was more my fault than yours, a carry-over from his days as a professor at the college where he met your mother, his student, made me think of myself as a lab mouse.
But I had known better and I had always been safe until that rainy night. But some things just happen. Unplanned, hardly thought of and never even considered, but still, they happened. It’s like that lychee seedling that suddenly sprouted from my mother’s pot of asparagus ferns in the den. Who would have known that the seeds I had thrown there as I emptied a bowl of fresh lychees—easier than going to the kitchen which would have disrupted my Sunday morning cable TV viewing—would germinate? As I walked home that night under the rain, eating my drenched chicken shawarma, I didn’t know that I would find you on my doorstep, or that the muddy floor would pave the way to an initially pleasurable, later wretched, night. It wasn’t as if I thought of a mob of sperm cells racing to my egg cell. All I—we—wanted to do was to snuff the heat. Unfortunately, you could never put out a fire with great huffs and puffs of stocked breath. But that wasn’t what I told your folks, of course, I said that although we were equally answerable for what happened, I wasn’t obliging you to give this squirming, forming being within me your name because it wouldn’t solve anything.
Your mother, sweet, soft-spoken lady that she was, asked whether I had gone to Catholic schools and whether I was ever a devout Christian. I nodded and shook my head. When you and your father went to a corner to discuss something in private, your mother’s honey voice suddenly spewed bee stings, her doe eyes turned into fiery slits, and her thin mouth swelled. I was just waiting for her to unpin her tight bun to reveal badly teased hair, grow huge bat wings, and pick at my liver and belly with her slimy elastic tongue. As she smiled to you and your father from the other side of the large living room, she told me in the simplest language, in the softest voice, that I should be locked up for seducing her son. There should be an amendment to the crime on pedophilia, she said in a hissing whisper; it should apply to older women preying on much younger men. At that point, I transformed into one big mouth. I told her that it was you who went to my apartment, you who wanted to stay there for the night because the flood on the streets might stall your car, you who took our clothes off first. You were the one who walked into my sister’s kitchen to get lumpiang shanghai during Jaypee’s birthday and wouldn’t leave until I had to go. I stood up and kept myself from yanking your mother’s bony arm to make her feel my belly. I was the one carrying the child. I was the one being secretly laughed at by all my so-called friends and enemies. I wasn’t there to beg them to allow me to marry their son. I just wanted them to know because it was the only proper thing I intended to do. Your mother looked away. You rushed to my side. I freed myself from your grasp and sprinted to the door. You knew me too well; you didn’t attempt to follow me.
I hailed a taxi and instantly regretted not having a hammer with me. I wanted to smash the blasted radio to bits. “God bless you please, Mrs. Robinson, heaven holds a place for those who pray. Hey hey hey!” Hey-hey-hey.
In the months that followed, I found myself thinking of creative ways of responding to mostly indiscreet queries of my new state. Initially, I said:
“I violated the after-6 p.m. diet. I was bullied by my growling stomach to have dinner at nearly 10 p.m. as it sent hunger messages to my brain, it sang, to the tune of the Caronia nail polish jingle: Sha-ha-warma, sha-ha-warma, chicken or beef, sha-ha-warma. Sha-ha-warma, sha-ha-warma, chicken or beef, sha-ha-warmaaaa! Shawarma, I did, and several months later, I got this. In a few months, I’d be—you guessed it—a chicken shawar-mama.”
“I had become afflicted with the rare Reversed Quasimodo Syndrome(RQS). People who had it had hunched fronts, not hunched backs. I would soon take the stance of a crooning Pilita Corales and spend most of the time looking up. At least, I would still appear optimistic.”
But later on, I simply looked back at them, as if they had just asked me the stupidest question imaginable, and said, “I got pregnant?” It worked best of all.
The bolder ones, either close friends or impertinent relatives, would ask about the father, which some of my “sympathizers” referred to as “the man who did this to you,” as if you were a criminal and I bore the mark of your dastardly deed. Honestly being the best policy and all that, I often said, “The best friend of my nephew,” which most of them just laughed off. That was the benefit of crying wolf all the time; I got away with everything. Well, almost, anyway. I couldn’t get away with this one. This was daily struggles to get up from bed every morning, trying to look good despite the water retention that had expanded my legs and rams and face, the widening nostrils that seemed to be racing against my lipline, and the darken-ing skin around my neck and armpits. This was sleeping sideways instead of flat on my face. This was profuse sweat and piss’ I leaked like a pierced water bag. This was goodbye tequila and vodka, smoky bars, and flirtation. This was goodbye, job—at least for two months. This was well, hello, baby.
One of my college professors once told us that labor pains were about a hundred times worse than menstrual cramps—the kind of diarrhea that made you anticipate the sight of your intestines in your toilet bowl, along with your osterized spleen and gall bladder¬—and that all the pain would be washed away by the sight of a crying infant lying on your chest. She got her math all wrong. Mine was about ten times more painful than her hundred times estimate; I felt as if I were giving birth to the rest of my internal organs. It was even more excruciating once my baby was out because the sac my baby was supposed to come out with got ruptured, and the doctor had to take everything out, by hand. As Doc picked bits of embryo sac left within me without the benefit of anesthesia, making me almost believe that she was trying to stuff my baby back. I screamed: “Mikeeeey, you fucking cigarette butt-sucker! You should have had your car stalled by that fucking flashflood! The chikens you killed, they’re all fucking pecking on meeeee!”
I was at the point of passing out when Doc placed her on my heaving chest, this tiny, bloody chick; my hatchling, and I wondered whether this was what people felt when they were ready to die.
She was hardly crying. I feared she wasn’t breathing too well. They quickly took her away from me. When I awoke in the middle of the night, and that was because my swelling breasts were longing for small lips to relieve them of their burden, you were there beside me, with your parents. You brushed your forefinger against my cheek and said that the baby looked just like me; we had the same belly button. I smiled dazedly and was lulled by Demerol to return to sleep, but not without hearing you whisper, “Welostit,” which I thought was what you wanted to name her.
I awoke the following day to the sight of my mother in different stages of her life, all with swollen eyes. When I rubbed my eyes to rid them of motes, I saw my two sisters and mother on the couch, with a huge basket of fruit and a box of my favorite ensaimada. I asked whether they had seen the baby. They all looked down, and I knew something was not right. Was she bald? Was she toothless? When they still refused to answer, I tried to sit up, which wasn’t a very good idea because my wound was hardly healed and it still hurt badly. Doc entered the room, but she didn’t have the baby with her
I had always prided myself on knowing the right things to say at the right time, or the wrong things at the right time but I wasn’t prepared to say anything at all when I was told that my baby had “expired” because of a previously undetected congenital heart ailment. The pain in my stitched wound turned into a sea urchin that rolled its spines across my emptied belly, my chest, my throat, my nose, then lolled in the surging sea behind my eyes. All I could say was “Wha?” the check-ups showed a healthy baby. I substituted alcohol with non-fat milk. I walked blocks. I ate fruits and vegetables, even slimy okra and bitter ampalaya that I used to pick out of my plate and throw out the window as a child, as a teenager, as a working woman. I did everything that my doctor told me to do. How could it happen? The wound she came out was still bleeding. I hadn’t even given her colostrums. She didn’t even have a name yet. I felt somebody’s arms around me, my mother’s—I knew them by a lemony smell—and I was reminded of the time I fell from a tree and she had to hold me in her arms as we rushed to the hospital because I had a nasty head wound that bled like a punctured soda can, which stung my eyes and nose so much I thought I was weeping and sneezing blood. My only fear then was that my head would be so dried up I’d look like a human raisin and would never marry.
My mother pressed my now scared head against her shoulder and stroked my clumped hair saying it’s alright, it’s alright, it was probably meant to happen and all that God-moves-in-mysterious-ways stuff. I clung to her, wishing that when I opened my eyes, I would be five again with a sputtering head wound, and it wouldn’t matter if I had a raisin for a head for the rest of my life. But not this; never this. Then, my eyes sprung leaks, and everything became awash with a sea of melted salt. And I didn’t see things quite the same way again.
On the day I was able to open my eyes properly—without the dried tears and swelling lids that sealed my lashes together—I was three months past thirty-four and still reeling from a sudden emptiness that only existed after her death, two months before. For about three weeks after I threw a fistful of soil into her tiny grave, I pumped my breast of the souring milk that would never contribute to anyone’s strong bones and teeth. Each time, my eyes would conspire with my breast; as soon as the yellow liquid oozed into the breast pump, my eyes would spurt tears. We often cried together, my breast and I, but I ended up crying much, much longer than they. I could choose not to drain them, which would actually stop my milk production, but I would have to contend with their stony heaviness that made me walk with a hunched back. I tried not to pump my breast one, just to see whether I could stand it, but the rock-hard pair crowd my chest, and squeezed out thoughts of the
daughter I had lost to an in-born illness—how for nine months, I thought of what a condom could have done to avoid all the “trouble”; how I would have had to slave through the coming years just to educate and clothe her; how by the time she would have turned two, there might be a Versace Child or DKNY Kids line and I would be compelled to don rags just to buy a Versus leather jacket for toddlers that she would rip or stain anyway with ice cream and banana cue and felt-tip pens, just because she would look so cute in it, my little Welostit. Lost it; we, her. My swollen breasts squeezed my eyes so much that I had to go to my doctor who prescribed me some medication to stop the milk from flowing.
Overnight, all my apprehensions about motherhood and child-rearing disappeared and I become a total wreck.
All the time I tried not to see you. I bought an answering machine to screen my calls; I had a peephole installed on my front door to check who rang my doorbell; I left instructions with my assistant and the company guard that I was “out” In case you dropped by. I only heard about you through Jaypee who told me that you were going out with his younger woman at the office, or this prettier younger thing, or that sexier classmate of your younger sister. I would just nod without looking at him, and say “Good, good,” as if I really meant it.
A few days before my thirty-fifth birthday, you rang to greet me in advance and ask how things were with me. You asked if you could come over. I wasn’t trying hard enough that time and I didn’t see any reason why I shouldn’t let you, so I picked up the phone in the middle of your message and said you could, and there we were again in the apartment that I would never own, trying to empty a bottle of vodka that you brought to celebrate my day. I diluted my vodka with 7-up and squeezed dayap into it. I didn’t drink as much as I used to, not that I was ever a real drinker, but I just felt the need to be more sober these days.
You hardly looked like a pier worker this time; you wore a tie and a long-sleeved shirt tucked into slacks. You had trouser socks. In less than two years, you had moved on to become your father’s executive assistant at your family’s insurance company. You were forced to get the hang of it after you got sacked from sending a shipment of Reeboks bound for the port of New Jersey to Vladivostok. At least you made a lot of Russians happy, you said with a grin.
You were on your fourth glass when you asked whether I was seeing anyone, and I said of course, lots of people; I wasn’t blind. You laughed so hard, lines ran deep at the outer ends of your eyes and I half-expected to see chewed lumpia coming out of your nostrils. As your laughter faded, you put your hand over your mouth, as if to keep me from seeing you pick at your teeth, and moved your other hand to touch my forearm. My first impulse to move my arm away was losing to my second, stronger, impulse to let you touch me, when the radio let out a drum roll to introduce the Philippine national anthem. You were either trying to be funny or had one drink too many, because you rose to your feet. I wondered what you were trying to pull but I found myself standing beside you anyway, singing “Lupang Hinirang” as if we were lined up for a flag ceremony in pre-school, voices soaring, hands over or hearts, mine hurting so much I though it would break out of my ribcage.
When we sat down, we were both suddenly sober and sullen. You tried to dispel the awkwardness that came over us by stroking my hair. I fell silent for a while, then asked if I had ever told you what it was like in the state university back in my days, when I fell victim to the Farah Fawcett hair craze that ushered in my split-ends phase, and when I mimeograph flyers against the lapdog government’s dalliance with Washington, which people hardly read, tossed away, and unintentionally, I always consoled myself, stepped on? I often got on top of an eight-wheeler truck and urged people to join us for a rally to the Batasan. They came in trickles, then left in droves when things got too rowdy and the PC had to stop whatever we were doing.
You brushed my hair away from my face and traced the long, thick scar just below my hairline, which I used to hide with flipped bangs. You asked whether I got that from a truncheon-wielding PC. I said no, you got that from a bad fall. You looked at me with dusted eyes and held my hand which had suddenly gone limp. How bad was it? You asked, as you pressed my hand slowly, firmly. I almost cracked my skull, I answered, without a hint of a smile. I stared at what remained of my glass—vodka turned cloudy yellow by the dayap slice stuck at the bottom, reminding me of the taste of badly sautéed ampalaya—and whispered, I almost died.
You leaned forward and held my face. You gently pressed your lips against my scar, and said that it would never, ever happen again.