In Jomgao, people call the river “salog,” (sa-log), pronouncing saaa with a drawl before dropping fast the “log.” Saaaaalog, not salog, the Visayan word for floor, which you pronounce by dropping the two syllables very fast, one after the other. As a five-year-old arriving in my mother’s hometown for the first time, I was met by the sight of an enchanting white rock, partly covered by clinging green vines, hovering over the river. An older boy cousin, excited over our arrival, pointed to me the river, told me it was the saaaaa—log.
But I was enchanted by the white limestone rock hovering over it. I had never seen anything like it. It was a rock the color of old cathedrals. Its sheer beauty stuck to my mind, populated my dreams. Salog, for me was not the river but that white limestone rock hovering over it, a sight so enchanting, I could never, never get over it.
So, every time I go home to Jomgao and get lost on my way to the Aunts, I’d ask people where the salog was, hoping to recover my bearing. They would point the river—any river—to me. But no—I meant the salog, the real salog, that part of the river in Jomgao, where an enchanting white promontory hovered above, where I imagined Mangao and his wife Maria Cacao discreetly passing by on a stormy night, aboard an obscurely small boat full of chocolate bars.
I promise to read the news first thing in the morning, I promise to read the editorials, the columns before everything else. I promise not to glance at the part of the room where my book pile is growing. I promise not to open the page of Van Gogh letters, where he described the scenes where he drew his paintings, I promise not to read nor open the pages of Hanif Kureishi nor of VS Naipaul nor Sheilfa's Flannery O'Connor. I promise to read NEWS only, nothing more. I promise to run everyday. I promise, I promise.
It's time for me to clear my desk of all the clutter, separate my reporter's notebooks from my journals; sort out the newspaper files, burn the documents I don't need, read the Granta, run, write and re-write my syllabus and come up with a whole new booklet; keep abreast with the breaking news, water the plants, mourn for the peppermint that died of neglect. Throw up.
I wrote my story on Maribojoc, Bohol in my mother's hospital bed. Nobody knew it. It was a very crammed ward, marked private, with only my mother and my father in it. I did it sitting on her bed, which was so small, I can hardly move my elbows. There was no electricity and no water when I arrived and it was very hot. My father sat forlornly on a bench across the bed."Were you pissed off, Pa, that your daughter took very long to arrive?" I asked, partly to strike a conversation and partly to ease my guilt. My father smiled. It took too long for me to come down because I could not extricate myself from my obligations. I was running out of cash and I knew how helpless I would be inside a hospital without cash. I was in panic as I interviewed people for my story, knowing that my mother was in the hospital, very sick. When the interviews were over, I brought the rest of my work to the hospital, trying very hard to summon all my energy to keep my mind in focus because the smell of dried sweat mingling with the smell of dust and medicine interfered. My sister arrived on a four o'clock bus from Butuan, asked me to meet her at the gate, but I was already fast asleep, I only read her message in the morning, when I awoke to find her talking to my mother, who was sick. I did not know how I finished my story. I sat there thinking about mothers and daughters and sisters and how they manage to survive.
The rest were merely places where I was born, and where I grew up, or places where I spent the elementary years or high school years, maybe, college years or graduate school years; places where I saw the man with the guitar and totally lost my voice, or places where I fell in love with Jorge Luis Borges, or places where I learned to eat pan de coco while reading the Neo-Classicists, or places where I broke my heart inside an ancient building full of lost, ignorant souls; places where I fell in love with newborns, all my own; places where I struggled to earn my keeps, places where I cried over some happy movies, thinking of the laundry; places where I saw the shadow of Henry the VIII, King of England; places where I talked to a Caucasian named Angela, who kept shaking her head because of the really shocking gap between the rich and the poor in the Philippines, unlike in Africa where, she said, the gap was not that big because they were all poor; places where I heard about the unbearable news of the four girls gobbled up by mud and couldn't forgive myself for hearing it, places where I fell in love with a priest, places where I fell in love with a general, or places where I fell in love with a rebel; places where I worked and places where I used to sing inside a locked room so that no one can hear me; places where I danced alone. But all of them were merely places I passed by on my way to my hometown, where the Aunt talks about the names of strangers whose bones are carefully laid neatly inside the crypt.
Once, in one of our most precarious moments, Ja and I decided to take lunch at a carinderia whose food we deemed cheap, tasty and clean. I was about to take my seat when one of the five-peso coins I was holding sneakily fell out of my hands and silently crept into a corner. I heard its sound as it moved away. It was like a child complaining. It had some issues against me.
So I began searching for it inside that busy carinderia, attracting the attention of the sales staffs.
But the more I searched for it, the more it eluded me and the more that I needed it to court my luck. So, I did not give up. Instead, I relaxed and concentrated all my desire on finding it. Luckily enough, the coin appeared just when we were about to leave the place. It was just waiting for me to find it under the table.
I can’t write because I’m bothered by a thought—a sad thought and a bad thought—and so, I spent the day re-reading Paul Theroux’s “The Stranger at the Palazzo D’Oro,” hoping to recover my focus. I was surprised because I already read the book before but I felt I was reading it for the first time. I remember nothing about the story except for its opening, where this young American student desired the life of a man he saw at a bar at an Italian Palazzo (a desire which had a way of coming true with the full impact of irony) and the scene where the narrator met the American student named Myra, on her way to Syracuse to see some paintings. But I felt strange because I used to recognize scenes I already read before but now, reading the book for the second time, I felt like I was plodding new territory. After I drifted off to sleep and awoke to finish the book, I read all my old New Yorker and did not move the whole day, so that when Ja and Sean arrived at dusk, seeing me sprawled on the floor with all the magazines, they asked why I was so depressed, I did not join them on the beach. Ja asked, too, if I wanted to sing again in a videoke but I said, no, I’d better stay home. “Are you really struck that hard, that you’re so devastated and depressed?” he asked. “Yes, of course,” I said and felt relieved. “I’m bleeding, can't you see?”
I really had a hard time dealing with it. “Why can’t you just put it aside and have fun?” Ja asked again.
I said, “Shhhhh.” Ja did not say a word. I kept telling myself I should not be sad. After all, Alice Munro won the Nobel Prize for Literature this year. I prefer her to Haruki. I needed to face my demons. I found pleasure in hunting for all those photography books I have accumulated through the years now languishing in abandoned corners of my room.
Cold compress—on his forehead, his neck, his armpits, his body. “Your friend, he met me at the canteen,” I told him, “He told me about you and then, another one came from another room, three or four of them, said you had such a fever, another one said you never ate anything for lunch, you must have already been very weak; and then, there were so many more; you had a battalion of friends so concerned about you, how come you are so popular?”
“Most of them are fakes!” he said, in between breaths, struggling to keep his eyes open, “You don’t even know some of them were bullying me. Plastic!"
"But they seemed so concerned."
"How come you don’t know a fake from the real?" he breathed and hissed. "They were only there for their curiosity. Just like Allied Bank, remember? The heist where there were so many dead and people came to see? They were there for almost the same purpose. They didn’t actually care about me! How come you can’t recognize a real friend from a fake?”
I was stomped.