Friday, December 31, 2010

Happy New Year!

Did you notice how hollow it sounded, even as a soundless text message from me to those happy enough to remember today?

Thursday, October 28, 2010

The doctor is sick

I tried to make out the expression of her face as she sat silhouetted against the glass door. But the glare from the street outside hurt my eyes. All I could see was the shape of her hair falling on her shoulders and half her body leaning against a chair. Her voice was sad and clinical, as if she was explaining a surgical procedure. “The lumads—once they get pregnant, they already half-expect to die,” she continued in a monotone. “Yet, when everybody talks about the Reproductive Health Bill, nobody thinks about the lumads.”
For a moment, I swore she was only talking to herself. But she was facing me, gesturing with her hands. She tilted her head slightly up, so that the light caught briefly the outline of her nose and eyes. She was a doctor. Her profession trained her only to deal with the coldness of empirical facts.
I squinted. The sun outside was harsh. It was hot, something they blame on global warming. Perhaps, if I had only moved closer to where she was, I could have seen some anguish—or anger—on her face. Perhaps, I could have established a human connection. Perhaps, I could have understood better what she was talking about. But I was a little farther away and I could only see her shadow.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Please remember everything!

Where were you on January 2, four years ago?
I tried asking you but you can’t remember.
Is it only the mind that forgets? Or, is it the heart?
Is it because we did nothing significant that day that the date simply slipped off our memory for good?
We must still have been living in that rented house with a red gate, numbered 72, along McArthur Highway, the house that Sean thought was our own to the chagrin of the real owner. It was the house that Ja, your stepdad, described as a garage because the owner used to park their rusty old sedan and a new van just outside our front door window. It was a house that I remember with horror and helplessness because the bedroom where we used to sleep had no window and the other room, where you used to draw and be alone, used to have windows that looked out to a stove in the open kitchen of the other house. That window was eventually overshadowed by ugly granite when the owner built another extension to their house.
It was a perfect trap, that house. It was built only as an afterthought.
First of all, I’m not very good at dates. I couldn’t remember the exact day I met your father or when exactly America first attacked Iraq, but I can still picture his eyes and the way that his shirt revealed the curves of his shoulders. Just as I had clear pictures on my mind of Operation Desert Storm on the pages of Newsweek magazine on the magazine rack of the Recoletos library; and then, of Typhoon Ruping, afterwards, when the entire city went dead and we had to hunt for bread and canned goods out on Colon street because there was nothing to eat in the entire Tsa Elim dormitory. I still can remember the exact day when you arrived, the dress I was wearing, the look of panic in your father’s eyes, the exhilaration and the long hours of struggle before that. It was a day that changed my life, so, I can’t believe I can’t remember anything on January 2, 2006, when you turned 13. I remember meeting towards the end of that year another 13 year old boy whose mother and father were killed on the street of Kidapawan in broad daylight; and I immediately took to him because I was thinking of you.
If I could not remember where I was on January 2 four years ago, it was not because I had forgotten you. I’m sure I was shuttling to and from Davao city and hometown again, desperate, as usual; trying to cope with the crazy demands of the holidays and jobs. Maybe, it was the Christmas I lost Sean’s biplanes along with his medicines and other toys in a small backpack in the bus, because deep inside, I was crumbling. The holidays always required me to spend the money that I didn’t have and I was always thinking that I wasn’t good enough for you.

Wednesday, October 06, 2010

Missing Kwin Dukduk

In times like these, one could not help missing Kwin Dukduk. She’s an intense young woman who fiercely believes in what she says and would often arrive with lots of egg pie from Goldilocks to give when she’s terribly upset about something.
At least, Kwin Dukduk is sharp.
I missed her today when the sun was at its zenith, and somebody started talking about the discarded bag of a boxer’s wife selling at P120,000 or more. Actually, I did not have anything against the boxer’s wife or her discarded bag (which Ylevol said was Chanel and did not interest me at all). But somebody insisted that if the boxer’s wife only lived abroad, she could have been selling her discarded bags or panties for a million dollars and everybody would be crazy enough to buy them.
I was not surprised at all by that stupid display of absurdity and decadence. Just like everybody else I’ve been used to it, but I couldn’t help opening my mouth because I know of somebody who sold his old camera seven times its purchase price by bestowing upon it some historical value no brand new camera could ever have. (It was Jamil!)
Didn’t we learn enough that the market has always been susceptible to some idiosyncratic twists and turns just because such thing as 'market value' has oftentimes been dictated by perception? And that, perceptions going awry, with all the overvaluations and undervaluation in between, had precipitated numerous historical crashes in the stock market and the world economy, looking back to the early part of this century alone, including the most recent global financial meltdown? I know that if Kwin Dukduk were here before me, she would vehemently nod her head and say, "The market is such a cold-blooded idiot. It has no heart at all," and then, because this thought itself would upset her, she’d turn the computer's volume up and break into a song by Susan Vega!
One could not help missing Kwin Dukduk. Every time I was with her, I always felt I could turn the world upside down and still emerge as winner.

Sunday, October 03, 2010

Letter to Sean

I was thinking of you when I got a glimpse of the waves of Lianga from the car on the road. I never knew that waves could gallop like that. But there they were, right before my eyes, galloping like horses at the back of thatched structures that served as the public market. It was raining and the people I was with in Lianga were taking lunch at an eatery that displayed gigantic fresh crabs, fresh catfish and octopuses that reminded me of the tentacles of the kraken in the Pirates of the Caribbean. I never stopped thinking of you even for a while. When I saw the kraken’s tentacles on the plate, I wanted to shout “The Flying Dutchman!” the way we do it at home, taking in a scared look before breaking into our long hard laugh that continue to amaze the neighbors.
I told the people of Lianga I felt like a cannibal eating the kraken. They were telling me some people sometimes come down from the mountains to flee the fighting and stay in the gym for days.
Braving the rain, I went out of the eatery to take pictures of the galloping waves, intending to frame them against the dark shadows of the thatched huts.
But I discovered when I got closer, that my camera could not capture the terrifying texture of the waves before my eyes. Within the thatched huts were women persuading me to buy the fish they were selling. I aimed my shot at the gleaming bodies of their fish, instead.
It was a terrifyingly ugly shot because it was made as a compromise. I’m sure that people who would happen to take a look at it someday would wonder about the senselessness of the whole shot and would harshly judge me for taking it.
As you grow older, you would know how to be true to what is in your heart. Once you set out to take pictures of the waves, by all means, do it whatever it takes, and don’t stop to take pictures of krakens.

Thursday, September 30, 2010

The Lettuce Tree

I wish you'd find time to water the lettuce I planted in the pot outside my window. I only remember it on my way to Esperanza when I looked out the window of the running car and saw the murky brown water of the Naboc River snaking down the ridges below, trying to but never finding the level ground that could put a stop to all its running.
I want you to remember as you water the plant that there was only one leaf left of it the other week but now it has grown three leaves, each one promising to be greener than the other.
Let's not allow the plant to wilt. Let us work together and pray for more shoots to grow and spread into leaves so that when I come back, its succulence and crispiness will make us forget the blight.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Bottled Feelings

I know you’d say this is such a boring picture. That you’ve seen this before and that I could have done this better; maybe, find another angle to give larger space for the ripples in the water, so that maybe, it could bring about the catharsis that we need.
You know, you might be right. I took this picture towards the sunset in early 2006 when things were equally foreboding as they are now. I remember staring at the dark clouds looming over the estuary of Davao Gulf and thinking I should not take such kind of pictures in the beginning of the year--!
But who could resist? I clicked away the shutters, discarding the symbol and, as my pagan soul seems to warn me, a thousand and one repercussions. In the face of such irresistible beauty who would still care for meanings? Isn’t that how cruel our impulses are?
This morning, I was crying at the dining table because Jamil told me I was not cut out for running stories, I often get left behind. But I was not cut out for slow moving stories either because I had not written anything of the sort for a long time.
I did not have anything against Jamil. He is the kind of man who would push you down when you’re down and push you up when you’re up.
In fairness to Jamil, he cried the first time he saw my first fiction in a magazine. That year, we still lived in a garage. He used to treat me like that woman in VS Naipaul’s “The House of Mr. Biswas” but the day he read that story, he came up to the room in a daze and taking a long, hard look at me, said, “Ma, you made it, Ma.” If you’d known Jamil for a long time, you wouldn’t believe he would do it—come to the room in a daze and say, “Ma, you made it, Ma.” I wanted to ask him, made what? But I merely stared at him and kept quiet because I knew how lousy that story was. I kept a copy of it in my drawer to take a look at it once in a while but over the years, my belief only strengthened that it was really such a lousy piece. So, I hid it again in the drawers hoping that someday, I will have the courage to burn it. I was not crying because Jamil told me I was not cut out for running stories because I believe he was right. I was crying because I remembered something that Rainier Maria Rilke wrote in his “Letters to the Young Poet.”
Things are getting so dark for me these days that I began rummaging my files to search for meanings.

Wednesday, September 01, 2010

Lusting at Zeitgeist

It’s a German word, I know. Which means, the spirit and outlook of the age. But we never saw it when over a year ago on our way to the campus, roommate Prathibha and I first passed by the row of shops just outside our dormitory’s gate.
We were only aware of the most pleasurable things staring at us from the glass walls: Jeanette Winterson’s, “Arts and Lies,” Neil Gaiman’s collections, and again, further down, Winterson’s “Oranges are not the only Fruit.”
We were almost late for the morning classes but we couldn’t help ourselves. We entered the shop, almost gasping for breath, to find more treasures inside (perhaps, the world classics crammed in such a small space): Gabriel Garcia’s “No One Writes to the Colonel,” in at least three editions; “The Autumn of the Patriarch,” Vladimir Nabokov’s “Lolita,” some old classics by Chesterton and other titles I thought I’d never ever find on earth.
It was only much, much later, when Pratish and I would meet our German roommate Jana would we find time to look at the shop from a distance and read the German name above it.
If there was one pleasure that Pratish and I were hanging on to during our summer stay in Manila, it was this very small bookstore that offered the best of the world’s classics in such a small space. The prices, however, were not really as dirt-cheap as it could go: the owner, of course, knew what she was selling and had kept the prices only as low as P100. I discovered that in Manila, you can book-hunt to places where you can actually find books by your favorite authors at P50 (try the uppermost floors of the National Bookstore in Cubao) or even at P20. Try the Instituto de Cervantes during its anniversary and you’d get them with long-stemmed American roses!

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Lady of the Flies

Perhaps, you should stay here for a while. It feels better to work with editors who treat you like a real person.
Quite unlike those people you knew who rushed you into writing something they thought was easy simply because they didn’t know anything about it and you were just as stupid to oblige.
The last time you left this job for such a thing as a book project, they let you climb the highest mountain in Davao Oriental on a habalhabal.
The driver got so pissed off when you insisted getting off the motorcycle instead of sticking it out with him down the slope that you swear was an 80 per cent incline. You went there supposedly to edit a book, didn’t you, and not to commit suicide!
But when you reached the highway and you were back on this habalhabal, the driver revved up the engine and sped along the road like crazy. All the people by the roadside of Caraga were turning their heads to see what was going on and because the driver was already flying so maddeningly fast, you only managed to catch a glimpse of the look of concern on their faces.
The driver only wanted to scare you, you knew even without looking. He thought you did not have the right to complain because you were a visitor. It’s part of the customs and traditions of the place, is it not? You must do everything they wanted to—including getting killed in a stupid habalhabal ride, maybe?
As soon as you reached their house, somebody asked, ‘Were you scared? That was so fast!’ and you managed to say, ‘Was that the fastest you could get?’
You were seething with fury. When, days later, you told a man about it, the man said, ‘You should have complained, you should have gotten off that motorcycle, you should have told them how you felt!’
But you were just a woman they were trying to scare. You knew you would detest the look of triumph on their faces. So, all you did was to tell them their fastest was not even fast enough for you.
It was a totally different kind of job. They made you travel over 24 hours on the road non stop from Davao to Bukidnon to Cagayan de Oro, to Iligan where you crossed the Mukas wharf near Kulambogan on your way to Ozamis, going all the way to Oroquieta and the small towns leading to Dapitan and when you reached Dipolog, you could not even sleep a wink because they had to start the meeting where you were supposed to interview, or at least ask questions from, the leaders they gathered. You could no longer remember what questions you managed to ask because you were so numb and dumb from sleeplessness and exhaustion after more than 24 hours on the road.
They didn’t notice, though. They were so goddamned dedicated to their work, they thought it was natural for you to travel all the way from the other side of Mindanao and still be up and about to ask all the brilliant questions!
When they were about to start the meeting a latecomer arrived and everyone decided to let her have a nap because she traveled three hours on the road. Three hours against your 24 hours!
When you got too tired to stay awake, they just let you sleep on a hammock while flies buzzed around the benches and tables scattered over the uneven dirt floor. The people you met there were patient, too. Their leader did not make it because he got no money for the fare, said the woman you talked to. The sound of your last conversation mingled with the buzzing of flies in your dream.

Wednesday, July 07, 2010

Women are strong

[[From the Journal of a Demented Woman. Retrieved from the Trash Bin of Decaying Things]]
“Women are strong, strong, terribly strong. We don’t know how strong we are until we’re pushing out our babies. We are too often treated like babies having babies when we should be training, like acolytes, novices to high priestesshood, like serious applicants for the space program.” –Louise Erdrich

I’m training for sainthood and this has gone on for years. Martyrdom is not my cup of tea but here I am, sacrificed before an altar, staying awake at 10:41 at night, waiting for him to come home.
It’s another kind of experience, something which fiction could only approximate but never copy. Bleeding and angry at the same time, I sit here on a chair, facing this computer on my table, trying to make sense of the ticking of the clock, thinking of that body—a baby I once pushed out of my body now a being separate from me. It is now a body with a life of its own and a mind that has totally discarded me.
Early in the afternoon, I climbed up the stairs leading to the high school faculty room on the second floor and was surprised to find the teachers waiting for me. The stories they told me were simply astounding. Of the school disciplinarian chancing upon the four of them--smoking? maybe drinking?--in a store in an eskinita across the school ground. Of the sketchpad full of drawings—his drawings?—of demons and monsters and obscenities—what do they mean?
Six hours after I left the school campus, I sit here, waiting interminably, thinking of a million things that could go wrong. I am thinking of the dark, deserted road stretching from our house to the highway. I am also thinking of the people surrounding him, I am thinking of gang wars in the news, of dangers lurking in the streets. I am thinking, too, how come that he cared more for other people than he ever cared for me?
Where in the world is he?
It’s like inside a torture chamber, sitting here, held incommunicado for eternity. It’s like the crucifixion of Christ, only that, this time, I am the one being nailed. I can feel the stab wounds all over my body. I am bleeding.

Thursday, May 06, 2010

Thoughts in Midair

I did not know how it happened. I only knew I was on top of the stairs, hurrying down to catch up with Sean and Ja who had already gone out the door a few minutes before. When all of a sudden, I lost my balance and my feet and body succumbed to the laws of uncontrollable motion. I could see all the people down below in the midst of their Chowking dinner, looking up at me and gasping, all of us contemplating the natural course of my fall. Right there in midair, I was struck by the hopelessness of the situation: I had fallen from some other places long ago but never from such a stairway as this. There was no way I could ever stop the fall. I only wished I could get a glimpse of Sean and Ja’s retreating back and ask them to come back.
But it happened in a flash. I did not even have enough time to say goodbye as I looked down and contemplated my end at the bottom of the stairway. These were my last thoughts as my head hit the floor and I saw the sparks of a million stars.

Friday, April 16, 2010

For Each Pot, a Bowlful

Don’t forget to water the plants. Pour one bowlful of water onto each pot in the morning because that’s what ganda loves. Don’t use the dipper from the bathroom. Use the big bowl we use for rice. The rice bowl is the symbol of life. Using it will give us sustenance, blessings. As long as the plant lives, we will survive.
This was the text message I sent Ja exactly a year ago from a room I shared with Pratish on Esteban Abada, just a 15-minute walk to the Ateneo campus on Katipunan Avenue, where we were having on campus classes at the Asian Center for Journalism. The Ganda, which I raised in a pot at home in Nova Tierra, was a gift from Babu Avelina, a brave and intelligent Mansaka woman we interviewed some time in September 2008 for a book project on the Lumads in Mindanao.
I carried the plant uprooted from Babu’s garden in Maragusan to the rickety bus that took us out of the rustic town near the foot of Mt. Candaraga to Tagum city. From Tagum, I took a more comfortable bus to Davao city, where Sean and Karl were waiting for me after such a long absence.
I couldn’t describe in one sitting what happened to me during the trip.
It was not Babu—but something else about the whole set up that actually left me feeling drained and downright oppressed. The plants must have sensed how my feelings towards the whole thing warmed and soured and then, warmed again. Only the memory of Babu Avelina sitting in her porch that faces the beautiful Mt. Candaraga reminds me that the trip was worth taking after all.
Mansakas use Gandas to spice up their tinolas (I could no longer remember how they call the dish) just the way we use onions. Our hosts proudly let us taste the dish for lunch—and that was the first time I tasted the native spice.
When Ja saw the plant, he said, “Oh, my God, I never knew you’d like to plant a weed!”
I merely smiled. Months later, when out of desperation, I put the weeds into his cup of noodles, he suddenly changed his mind.
“I never knew a simple plant like that could make my noodles taste better!” he said.
Now, I’m going ahead of the story. At the time when I sent Ja the text message, he still was unconvinced about my plants. I had to use it as a metaphor to scare him into watering it and taking care of the boys while I was away for the summer. I was worried about my boys. I was worried that the plants might not survive my long absence.
By the end of May, I went home to see the plants, scraggly from lack of water, but still surviving. Sadly, though, this is also how I feel about my boys but thanks God (or Goddess), we survived!

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Before Ampatuan

Sometimes, we still look back and realize that we have crossed the line between the before and the after; and we are sad because we could no longer go back to that lazy--no, hectic--Sunday afternoon when everybody was packing, rushing to go. We agreed, we had biases, afterall. We are human beings. Our biases will always be towards humanity. Looking back now, we realize that we are thinking of another place, another time; and the thin line that separated our present from the past is the same thin line that bordered sanity and madness. That Sunday, we never had a hint about what will happen on a Tuesday, in between nine o'clock and eleven o'clock in the morning, when our world changed forever.

Tuesday, January 05, 2010

Lost and Found: Memories

Maybe, because I’ve taken so many detours in the past and gotten lost so many times in some jungles; maybe, because I’ve been stranded too often in someone else’s kitchen or got trapped in some odd jobs, my memories of dates have gotten so mixed up. Since the day I left the university I’ve been having trouble filling up forms that needed dates: I no longer remember things the way I used to remember them before.
But I still remember very clearly how the news of Ninoy Aquino’s death found us inside the upper classrooms of Holy Cross of Bansalan College in August 1983; which meant, we were in our higher years, then; because higher years at the Holy Cross of my hometown were in the classrooms on the third and fourth floors—the freshmen were on the ground floor.
When news about the Yellow Friday movement reached the airwaves, we were aware of the surging excitement in the world beyond, although we were still being kept inside the protective campus walls. One day, the whole class watched Ninoy’s wake on TV—I couldn’t remember where this was, but we were agog over Kris Aquino because we thought she looked like Jane! And here, the memories came back, Marichu or was it Tessa or Angie calling up Jane to catch a glimpse of her look-alike on screen—but this was still when K was still sweet, slim and seventeen; her mother, not yet President; and we watched Fr. Patrick Payton’s show in the park at night, featuring Jesus, Mary and the mysteries of the Holy Rosary, where at the end Fr. Payton would say, “The family who prays together, stays together;” followed by another show of the Exodus with Moses and his long cane in the desert.
Since I could no longer remember dates, I had to figure out many things on my own, which was rather hard to do. I figured that I couldn’t have graduated from high school in 1982, before Ninoy Aquino was gunned down on August 21, 1983 in the airport tarmac. To find the exact date, I’d begin again in 1972, when (former President) Ferdinand Marcos declared Martial Law. I was still four years old. I can’t forget the sight and smell of lush Bermuda grass getting mixed up with the sound of Ma in the background, as she turned on the radio to listen to static (was this my memory or the memory of someone telling this to me?!). I remember hearing my agitated Ma the following day, talking to her fellow teacher in a slightly suppressed voice, “huh! Marcos has declared Martial Law!” and the rest of their blah-blah-blah!
The following year, I started school. I’d begin counting six elementary years and add them up with the four years in high school to finally get the exact date I graduated.
Just to make sure I got it right, I’d validate it with another memory: this time, no longer in the four-story building of my high school and its perennial sound of trumpets playing. This time, it’s the memory of huge glass windows awash with sunlight; of whitewashed walls and our tightlipped Ilocano professor holding us in his geodetic engineering class when all we wanted was stick our ears on the radio to listen to the reports of people crowding the streets of Edsa. That was February 21 to 25, 1986.
I did not make it to the reunion of the high school Batch 1984. But the huge streamer they put up had put an end to my figuring out.

Friday, January 01, 2010


Late in the afternoon of the last day of the year, the sun made bright outlines of your shirts on the clothesline and painted strips of gold on the walls of my room. Near the corner where you always strummed your guitar, sat an empty chair. I listened to the neighborhood kids singing your songs downstairs. All I had were the debris you left behind, as usual: an abandoned cap of the black pentel pen that dried up long ago left lying on the floor, a drawing pad full of sketches of skin-and-bone kids with angular faces, long spiky hair and half-finished bodies, a tattered notebook full of your dogged attempts at rap, the earphones I told you not to mix with my clutter; your soiled socks strewn in the corner.
Where are you? I strain my ears for the sound of your footsteps. It has been 17 years today since you left my body. I wait for the sound of knocking at the door.
My room is full of shadows.
You are everywhere.

Happy Birthday

What do I have for you today? Our years have been spelled out by p-o-v-e-r-t-y. I should stop trying to send you gifts I can barely afford; stop pretending I could even cook up your favorite spaghetti, or give you that branded hood you wanted so badly.
I have to be more upright; more down-to-earth. All I have are words. Let’s sit down and count the years we’ve been together. I still remember the precise hour when you arrived; I can reduce that entire year to one eventful second—only one second—that changed my life.
I can start at the dawning of the early signs. It was quarter to one in the afternoon on New Year’s Day of 1993 there at an old Tres de Abril apartment. I could not forget the bright red cushions on the rattan chair. Facing the wooden bookstand, I was glancing at the clock, timing the pain every five minutes, seeing your father’s anxious face outside the screen door. He had rushed in from his rented house to take part in this moment of great drama: The rush to the hospital on a taxi, the panic on his face, moments of exhilaration as I was led the way to a mysterious chamber filled with women’s screams.
My first encounter with snotty hospital attendants and edema, a form of women’s torture, angry voices scolding women giving birth to men; bloody sheets and writhing bodies on the beds next to mine, women moaning in great pain.
Sorry to give you these ugly images on your 17th birthday. But ugliness surrounded that moment of great beauty. If I fail to remember this, you wouldn’t understand half your life: You were raised in great pain.
Your father only came in when all the blood had been washed away. He actually missed the whole story.