Wednesday, November 02, 2011


I had always associated this day with jovial get-togethers at the family mausoleum. Pleasantries, jokes, and fun memories of the deceased were exchanged amid laughter and bowls of ginatan (sweet coconut stew with lanka) and chicharon (crispy, deep fried pork rind). Large, fancy candles were burned nonstop, wafting the smell of wax into the air that was already suffused with the faint scent of flowers for the dead. My cousin and I would go from tomb to tomb collecting molten wax to form wax balls. By the end of the day, we would have created several chunks of wax the size of tennis balls.

More food would sometimes be given by the Chinese family whose mausoleum stood just in front of ours. Believing that food should be offered to the dead, they would cook more than they could consume and would give some of them to the families of neighboring tombs.

Part of the thrill of this day was to elbow our way through the slowly moving throng of families bearing candles and flowers for their dead kin. It had always been a slow and arduous ordeal, leaving us all smelling of candle smoke or, if we’re not too lucky, of grilled, sun-dried squid smoke (they loved selling this rubbery, jaw-breaking, foul-smelling delicacy in the cemeteries). It had always been worth the trek, though. I loved gazing at the other tombs—mausoleums that were way larger and more extravagant than ours or those cramped, inexpensive, tiny, tenement-style holes in the wall of the underprivileged, which we used to call “apartment tombs” when we were kids. Sadly, even in death, one is reminded of the grim reality of social classes.

Being the naughty kids that we were, my cousins and I would hunt for funny-sounding names on marble lapidaries and laugh out loud. We would also look for cracked tombs and peek inside, hoping to find discarded skulls or fractured hip bones. There was one time when we actually did find what seemed to be a leg bone. It gave us something to scare each other with the whole day.

Ironically, I’ve had fun memories of All Saints’ Day in the Philippines. The cemetery was like a curious playground for me as a kid and a fun venue for family reunions as an adult.

Today, however, I spent the day without the usual festive mood. I went all alone to Cimitière du Père Lachaise (Father Lachaise Cemetery) in the 20th arrondissement. Known as the graveyard of celebrities, this 44-hectare necropolis is arguably the most visited cemetery in the world. Some of its famous “residents” include Molière, Frédéric Chopin, Jim Morrison, Eugène Delacroix, Maria Callas, Oscar Wilde, Gioacchino Rossini, Gertrude Stein, and Edith Piaf. It’s not surprising, therefore, to find more tourists wandering through its labyrinthine alleys and passageways than somber families bringing chrysanthemums to their deceased loved ones.

In my previous visits there, I had noticed a discrete stretch of lawn set against the west wall of the cemetery. This is called the Jardin du Souvenir (Garden of Memories), undoubtedly created for those who wish to pay homage to their dead who had been buried somewhere else. This garden is always full of bouquets left by people to remember those who, in life, had given them the sweetest of memories. This was where I wanted to go to honor the memory of my father who had died in September last year.

Having entered the cemetery through the Porte des Amandiers, I had to walk all the way to the other end of the sprawling necropolis to reach the Jardin du Souvenir. Armed with a map of the ancient graveyard, I slowly made my way on the damp cobbled streets, past grandiose monuments in red, black, white, and pink marble; past moss-covered statues of weeping women shrouded in mourning veils; past elaborately carved Gothic mausoleums; past stone effigies of 18th century dignitaries reclining on top of their tombs; past bas-relief of suffering Jesuses and grieving Marys; past muddy side streets covered with dried oak leaves; past deeply buried memories that, although forgotten, still stood in all their elegance, as if defying time itself. Some of them had fresh flowers—mostly chrysanthemums, the traditional funeral flower here—arranged in low, wide pots or vases.

There were also neglected mausoleums with broken stained glass windows or cracked tombstones that revealed yawning holes going at least four feet below the ground. I stopped at some of them to peek inside, hoping to find human bones, like what my cousins and I used to do. But I found none.

I’m not sure what my father would have thought if he had known I went to a foreign cemetery to honor his memory on All Saints’ Day. He had always hated going to the graveyard on this day when he was still alive. He hated the smell of the sweaty crowd, the pushing and the shoving just to get to our mausoleum, the lack of parking space, the smell of burning incense and candles which he thought was suffocating, and the general idea of braving the city traffic just to visit putrefying corpses. “They’re already dead, what else can you do about that?” he used to say.

Despite his protestations, he would always end up going because he had to drive the whole family there. There was even a time when, after having wandered off into my friend’s family tomb, I heard his voice in the cemetery’s loudspeakers (they install such equipment on this day to page the parents of lost kids, which gives you a rough idea how thick the crowds can get on All Saints’ Day in the Philippines) angrily ordering me to go to the parking lot immediately because they’re all waiting for me and it was already time to go home. My friends made fun of me for months because of this incident.

Now, he’s one of those rotting corpses he had not wanted to visit. Whether he liked it or not, there would be flowers and candles in his tomb today. And, one of his sons would be paying homage to him in a 19th century cemetery thousands of miles away.

The weather was bleak as I made my way through crumbling tombstones. The sun had not shown itself the whole day, the sky was sagging with gray clouds and it was slightly drizzling. My toes were starting to stiffen and I could see my breath in the chilly air. The trees looked eerie without their leaves as we were already well into autumn. I stopped in the middle of the passage and hastily wrote a note for my father on a small piece of paper.

When I reached the Garden of Memories, I saw that there were more flowers there than usual. I was briefly reminded of the large, expensive funeral wreaths given by friends and relatives during my father’s wake. They were too many we couldn’t hold them all inside the small funeral chapel on the second floor. We had them lined in the corridor, on the steps of the stairs, and out onto the sidewalk.

I stood in front of the assemblage of flowers and thought about my father. It was not easy to hold back emotions. If I had been in front of his actual tomb with my family, it would’ve been different. The mood would have been light, delightful even. We would have recounted his funny antics and stupid bloopers. We would have all laughed and remembered him with fondness. We would have felt fortunate that we got to have a father like him, who, despite the harshness of life, never wavered in his commitment and dedication to us all.

But here, all alone in a strange cemetery in the dreariness of autumn, things were different. I longed for his gentle words when I was down. I longed for his hand on my back whenever I felt depressed, which somehow, made me feel things would be all right. I yearned for his booming, angry voice that never failed to reprimand me whenever I would wake up late. I yearned to see him doing stupid, funny things with almost crass audacity.

I put out the short note I had written and wedged it between the thickly packed bouquets of flowers. I had scribbled my gratitude and my love on that paper. I knew there was no way he would be able to read what I had written there. Rotting corpses don’t read sweet notes left by their sons. They’re too busy decomposing. That’s probably what my father would have told me. My gesture was more for myself than for him. I know that despite the passage of years, despite my geographical distance from his tomb, and even if, in life, he was not so crazy about visiting tombs, I will not forget. A son will never forget.

I turned around and slowly made my way toward the exit, suddenly feeling old. It was getting darker and colder. The lethargic sun would set without having even risen at all. I gave one last look at the tombstones before I went out. They all looked desolate. Cemeteries did not seem like playgrounds anymore.

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Saturday, September 24, 2011

not your ordinary choir

To compare the University of Santo Tomas (UST) Singers to a typical glee club of the American high school variety is to do them injustice. Sure, they do have the staples of glee clubs: the glitz of costumes and fanfare of choreography—what with their gleaming pink ponchos, sequined Filipiniana dresses, and cheesy hand movements—but they’ve got something that most show choirs lack: vocal versatility.

This was amply showcased during their recent concert at the UNESCO Headquarters in Paris. From smoothly sliding contemporary motets to rousing Broadway anthems, they easily breezed through their repertoire, which prompted the audience to give them three standing ovations. Listen to one of their songs and you’ll know that this is definitely not an odd group of high school losers hoping for a slushy-free day on the school corridors. First, they are no longer in high school; they’re composed of University students, faculty, and alumni who are passionate about singing. Second, well, there’s just no point in comparing them to a run-of-the-mill show choir. Period.

Organized in celebration of the 400th founding anniversary of the UST, the concert was an auditory feast of fine choral music. As what Father Rolando de la Rosa, UST Rector, aptly said in his opening remarks, this group is the Philippine’s “gift to [a] world” which defines the word Filipina as househelp and Filipino as a brown biscuit. This clearly shows that Filipinos can do more than scrub toilets and satisfy snack urges.

Repertoire. The show was opened by Albert Hay Malotte’s iconic version of The Lord’s Prayer. Three other sacred songs (Manuel’s Alleluia, Calalang’s Jubilate Deo, and White’s O Magnum Mysterium) followed, each of which showing the range of the choir’s vocal prowess.

With Alleluia, they accentuated the piece’s lyrical quality with long, fluid lines. With Jubilate Deo, they jumped with crisp staccatos as if they were on pogo-sticks, and then finished it off with the ostinato of the male voices towards the end.

Prof. Fidel Gener Calalang Jr., the choir’s conductor, wrote this piece himself. Five other songs performed that night were arranged by him, too. There is, of course, a great advantage if the conductor himself arranges or writes the pieces that his own choir performs. Having prior knowledge of the strength of his group, he can tailor the piece to highlight what they can do best and mask what they can’t. Or, he can write a vocally demanding oeuvre and whip his choir into attaining a certain level of excellence in order to perform it.

But with a group like the UST Singers, there might be little need to bring out the whip, if at all (except perhaps if they intend to come up with S&M inspired costumes).

Their selections of international songs included a poignant rendition of Aznavour’s Une Vie d’Amour. The mispronounced French words notwithstanding, the song still resounded with romantic yearning.

Federizon’s eerie Gabaq-an ushered in the Filipino suite. This Visayan masterpiece started with creepy ululations of the women accompanied by little bells attached to their fingers, reminiscent of tribal fertility trinkets. The singing was as raw and throaty as the choreography was surreal and calculated. The song spoke about humanity’s cruelty towards nature.

Artist Lucio San Pedro’s lively arrangement of Sa Libis ng Nayon quickly followed. The choir members dispersed across the stage to recreate the atmosphere of a town fiesta.

This section was capped with Cayabyab’s Tuwing Umuulan at Kapiling Ka, a song that has had so many incarnations. Calalang’s arrangement for mixed voices was direct, clean, and true to the song’s original form.

The Broadway suite featured three songs from Stephen Flaherty’s musical Ragtime, one of which was the uplifting Wheels of a Dream sung by a tenor and a soprano and joined in by the choir in the chorus while Prof. Calalang pounded at the baby grand.

Since the audience wouldn’t stop applauding, three encores were performed including One Day More from Les Misérables which showed that many of the choir members can do solos.

Serious choral group. The UST Singers is not new to the international stage. They have won several awards all over the world since their creation in 1992. They also hold the distinction of being the only group to have won the Choir of the World Grand Prize-Luciano Pavarotti Trophy twice.

As with most experienced Philippine choirs, their repertoire spans the whole gamut of musical styles and genres. From the musical tapestries of renaissance pieces to the exuberance of Broadway choruses, they seem to be at ease with every style. Whatever the genre is, they sing with great vocal control reminiscent of the Philippine Madrigal Singers when it was still under the baton of National Artist Andrea Veneracion.

They also do not shy away from fully choreographing their livelier songs, something that may be met with raised eyebrows by the more serious and traditional choral groups that prefer very minimal movements and that deliberately avoid going down the route of show choirs (like New Directions, the group of losers from the Fox series Glee). The UST Singers, however, does not overdo it. Albeit some of the hand movements in the concert were predictable, their overall choreography was innovative.

With or without choreography, they remain to be a serious choral group that knows its stuff well. A little bit of showmanship will not do them harm. And it certainly does not mar their performance. A choir with that caliber is something a trumpety Rachel Berry can only dream of becoming a part of.


Saturday, August 27, 2011

before summer ends

In Paris, the last few days of summer do not go gentle into that good, somber dusk of autumn. It rages on with aplomb. It’s as if the ageing, dying sun, in its last attempt to make itself felt before the gloom of autumn sets in, heaves in a deep breath and exhales in full force whatever air is left in its lungs. With the temperature wildly swinging from the mildness of 15 degrees to the dizziness of 32, there is still enough zest left among Parisians to take to the streets and celebrate the season.

These days, if I could help it, I choose not to ride the subterranean Metro. There is so much to see on the streets on summer nights. Whenever I go out from my part-time job near the attention-seeking, suppository-shaped Eiffel Tower, I would cross the Seine through the Pont d’Iena and walk all the way up the Esplanade du Trocadero, from whose vantage point one can have a perfect view of the Tour Eiffel in all its vulgar, phallic glory.

On this esplanade, you can see boisterous tourists, hawkers of Chinese-made metal replicas of the Eiffel Tower, and professionally trained pickpockets milling about amid never-ending camera flashes. Most tourists pose in the most grotesque manner just to make the illusion on picture that they are holding the tower’s tip. Or that they’re leaning on it. Or that the tower is impaling them through their butt. If I only had the time, I’d stay on this esplanade the whole day and watch tourists do their otherworldly poses.

Here, too, I get to see street performers every night. Since this wide, open space is vast enough for several groups to perform simultaneously without disturbing each other, you’re bound to see a group that suits your taste. Among the regular performers here are a group of American Indians in ponchos and fancy feather headdresses playing the recorder, the flute, and a rattling thingy to pre-recorded background music. Hanging on their mic stands are colorful dream catchers in various sizes. On good nights, they perform what seem to be stylized, New Age-inspired renditions of native American Indian music. But most nights, they simply play standard pop songs like Celine Dione’s My heart will go on, Andrea Boccelli’s Time to say goodbye, and even the Christmas standard When the child is born.

In one corner, a band plays Latin music to which couples passionately dance, to the delight of amused onlookers.

In the middle of the courtyard, a group of hiphop dancers commands the biggest crowd. They do their routine break dance coupled with acrobatics while goading the audience to participate by clapping or waving their hands. Then, they pass a small container around for some loose change. “If you liked our performance, please give us money; if you didn’t, then just give us money,” they would say.

Last night, I saw a guy pushing an upright piano on a specially made cart with four heavy-duty wheels. He stopped in front of the Palais du Chaillot at the edge of the esplanade and nonchalantly unloaded the instrument as if it was just an ordinary wooden cabinet. Then, he lifted it from the side and set it on the ground. There was no way that thing could be a piano! It took six robust men to carry my own piano when it was moved out of our old house in Manila. Or maybe they’ve already found a way to use lighter material for the frames instead of massive iron, making the mammoth instrument more portable. Anyway, I didn’t pause to know what exactly he would do with it because I was itching to go home.

But tonight, upon reaching the steps of the Palais de Chaillot, after having crossed the esplanade, I saw the same guy playing the instrument with bravura. It was, indeed, a real piano. He had removed the wooden panel of its lower half to expose the front soundboard, the strings and the pedal mechanism, thus making it sound louder. (I’m still wondering why it was so light.)

A group of onlookers had gathered around him, filming or simply watching him. I stopped and marveled at how skilled he was on the keyboard. Wearing a leather jacket and faded jeans, he pounded on the keys with such fiery passion. He was wearing silver nail polish which vaguely glinted as he fingered the arpeggios and hammered the octaves. I could tell that he was merely improvising because the piece didn’t seem to be progressing methodically. In fact, at one point, I thought he would go on and on. He seemed to have perfected the technique in playing several virtuosic passages and then just combined them to form a sonata-sounding piece. But then again, I may be wrong. It might really have been a composed piece which he memorized. Whatever it was, it sounded good. And the audience erupted into rapturous applause when he finally ended.

I had wanted to speak with him after that but there were already some people who beat me to it. So I just threw in some change into a basket on the piano top, took a hard, long look at the impossibly light piano again, and then continued walking onto the cobbled streets, into the cool night that bore the dying wheezing of summer and first few breaths of autumn.

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Tuesday, July 12, 2011

eulogy for a friend

When I asked Ali about his skin cancer before the start of Cez's church wedding, he spoke lightly of it. It was as if he just contracted the flu. He said he would be starting chemotherapy sessions the month after that. I was not sure if he noticed it but I was worried, terribly worried. But the way he spoke about the matter somehow assured me that things would be all right, as things are wont to do whenever we over-worry about them. Our conversation was cut short because he had to take pictures of the wedding (he was the official photographer) and I had to play the piano for the wedding march. That was six months ago. I just learned thirty minutes ago that he would be buried this coming Thursday.

I was probably the very first person from his high school batchmates to have learned of his condition because his mom had informed my sister about it in December. It came as a shock, and, somehow, I got the impression that it was not something to be divulged, not right away.

However, I felt that this was something my high school friends should know, too. So, after having whored before Ali’s camera the whole night at the wedding, I told some of them about it. They had the right to know. And, I thought, should the inevitable happen, they would have had time to cherish the person while he was still alive. The inevitable did happen. And all we can cherish now are memories.

Years ago, when dreams still ran high and science investigatory projects were considered the pinnacle of our achievements, Ali was a constant companion. Not a lot of people may know it but we did become quite close especially during the last year of high school. We used to hang out a lot, together with Bonny. He used to go to our house, and, sitting side by side on the piano bench, we would play Blue Moon in four different variations—jazz, classical, pop, and just plain funky. He played primero and I secondo. He marveled at how effortlessly I would shift from classical to jazz in one bar. But when he himself learned the trick of musical improvisation, he got so adept at it he started doing it with practically every pop song.

After I had taught him the rudiments of reading notes, he got to play slightly more difficult pieces. He was a fast learner and his interest in the instrument never waned. Later on, he got good enough to play regularly in his church, Iglesia ni Cristo.

“Improvisation is not allowed there,” he told me once, after playing in church. “You have to strictly follow the music sheet.”

I don’t want to take the credit, though. I merely showed him the door and he entered it with gusto, like most of the other things he engaged in—photography being one of them.

At a time when text messaging was still unheard of, we would spend hours on the telephone mostly talking about his exploits with girls or those he merely fancied. There were instances when I actually fell asleep and he would wake me up by pressing a button on the phone, which made my earwax shoot out of my eardrums, that jerk!

During those phone calls, too, he got to bare his dreams, which, unfortunately, I don’t remember anymore. Only the more lurid parts of the conversations got stuck in my mind, as these regular talks were always punctuated with laughter, jokes, and general rubbish. Suffice it to say that I got the privilege of knowing the other side of him. He was always seen as a class clown with a big nose, someone who didn’t seem to take things seriously, who always made fun of things and found something funny in anything. In our regular phone calls, I realized that he was dead serious about many things in life.

Whenever we would visit Bonny, we would deliberately pause at his gate (even if it was wide open) and call Bonny’s name out loud in a sing-song manner, he doing the base part and I the tenor part. It was one of those things we did to amuse—or annoy, depending on the case—Bonny.

At Bonny’s place, we used to watch the 10th Anniversary concert of Les Miserables. He loved the musical so much that he read the thick, unabridged English translation of Victor Hugo’s original. He lent me this book and, somehow, I never got to finish reading it, preferring the abridged, simplified French version. This dilapidated book is still in my shelf at home.

His sister being a ballerina, he was able to procure complimentary tickets for me and Bonny for a performance of Romeo and Juliet at the main theater of the Cultural Center of the Philippines with none other than prima ballerina Lisa Macuja playing the lead. It was the very first ballet I had ever seen.

We shared a passion for music. The Phantom of the Opera, of course, was our favorite musical during that time because we had to do our own version of it for a school competition. I played the title role and he was one of the unforgettable, nameless extras trying to look good in the background. We fabulously lost the competition to a group that lip-synched the whole thing.

We used to sing Tong Tong tong pakitong kitong to the tune of Phantom of the Opera; again, he did the base part, I the tenor. We would sing it whenever we were bored. Or just to annoy whoever was within earshot.

He told me once that whenever he would hear Think of Me, he imagined his future wife to be that girl, to have that pristine voice singing with yearning and longing. I have yet to hear Maria Mariquit sing to know if, indeed, she sounds like Sarah Brightman. But even if she doesn’t, I’m sure Ali saw in her much more than what a fictional Christine Daeé can ever offer. And I have yet to see Karl Matthew, his baby who will never know how fun a dad Ali could have been.

Ten months ago, when Ali took touching pictures of my father’s funeral, I had no inkling that he would follow suit. Ten months ago, too, his mom told me how happy Ali had been when he got his new car. “He was like a boy,” she said. And in many ways, that’s how I, his high school classmate and friend, would remember him, like a boy with a happy heart and a big nose.

Life has a way of playing jokes on us. Or should I say, ‘improvising’ at the last minute. The joker sometimes leaves earlier, making the hall silent, desolate. The jests, the antics, the fun, however, would never ever die. They will linger as long as we need them.

Goodbye, Ali. It had been one hell of a ride.

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Thursday, June 30, 2011

sleep over

The day was arid and the breeze balmy at the park. People were mostly lazing around on the lawn; the men shirtless and the women in their bikinis. Some half-naked children were cavorting in the fountain. My friend and I were slumped on a picnic mat, finishing leftover wine and potato chips. From a distance, we could see a very young couple petting and necking on a bench, both of them seemed like they hadn’t grown body hair in the right places yet.

“That’s the reason why I’m quite apprehensive about raising kids here, if ever I would have kids” she quipped. And then we guessed how old exactly they could be. Nine? Eleven? Definitely not more than twelve.

A few feet from us, a slew of sick-looking pigeons were feasting on Buddha-knows-what. They’re also having a picnic, my friend said with a faint smile. On normal days, she regards the creatures with disgust and calls them ‘flying rats.’

Life seemed less harrowing that afternoon, especially under the shade of a flimsily foliaged tree, which barely shaded us from the evening sun (for the sun sets around 10 p.m. here). Homesickness, apprehensions, and other afflictions were momentarily dissolved in the boiling air as we discussed life, politics, intolerance, plans, and other people’s lives.

By and by, her boyfriend arrived and we started playing UNO cards. When a guy from another group of picnickers signified his intention, quite absurdly, to join our game, he—my friend’s boyfriend—told him it was our last game and we were about to leave. And we did, slowly, for such sun-drenched nights discouraged haste. The plan was to have dinner at their apartment and then continue playing cards, or just hang out.

At the apartment, another bottle of wine was opened and we feasted on bread, stinky (but great-tasting) cheese, and ready-made pasta. After some sumptuous dessert bought from a local boulangerie, we had three or four games of bingo chess (which they called Puissance 4). Each time, he won. I made a mental note of his strategy. Next time—maybe, just maybe—I would defeat him.

Several games of UNO came after that. They both made fun of my colorblindness. Fortunately for me, the cards’ colors were pretty solid and unmistakable in my eyes.

“Or maybe he can’t read numbers, too!” he later commented when, in between laughs, I made a mistake with the numbers. If they could see my grades in Math when I was in school, they would probably be convinced that number-blindness, indeed, exists.

I was luckier with UNO this time. I won several games. And even if we were just three, we still managed to gang up on each other.

“It’s two Asians against a European,” she said. Later on, he retaliated: “This time, it’s two boys against one girl!”

When we got tired of UNO, we started playing Carcassone, a tile-based German board game named after a medieval French town. It involved building a terrain with castles, bridges, prairies, and abbeys, and then stationing followers—vassals, more like it—on them. They both tried to explain the game to me as we played.

“Can I kill your followers?” I asked.
“No, you can’t do that.”
“Can I raise an army to invade your castle?”
“What if I wanted to?”
“Nothing of that sort. Your violent tendencies are showing!”

Since I was a neophyte, they were both kind to me and helped me build my fortified castles. By the time the game was done, I had the most extensive castles on the terrain, which of course, meant more points.

It was already midnight when we decided to stop. Since it was raining that night, he suggested that I spend the night there. Fearing that I would no longer get a bus ride home, I agreed.
He inflated an air bed, lent me some comfortable clothes, wedged earplugs into his ears, and then went to bed. She, on the other hand, decided to watch TV first. So I decided to stay up with her. We ended up just talking about scandals, gossip, pretentions, fathers, more gossip, table manners, life, and her school application. And then the night deepened. The balmy breeze gave way to a cool gentle wind. The aridness of the day had finally ended. Even in the absence of the stubborn sun, there was still no haste to go to rest.

But when I finally decided to sleep, I tormented their earplugged dreams with my divine snoring.

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Wednesday, June 22, 2011


After an exhilarating jog in the woods, I head to the train station to begin the anti-climactic trek back home. With endorphin-enhanced senses, I notice everything around me down to the minutest details.

On the platform, an overexcited (drunk?) guy sings to himself. He stands up and saunters toward the vendo machine and dances in front of it, his plaid boxers peeping from his low-rise jeans. A woman looks at him and frowns.

A few minutes after, the train arrives. I sit beside a girl who is curling her eyelashes. One sudden jerk of the train and she would end up accidently pulling out her lashes.

A couple is making out in the middle. The guy suddenly stops and playfully brushes the girl’s hair off her face. It gets in the way, he seems to say. The girl slaps him lightly on the cheek. More tongue action after that.

Girl beside me is now applying eyeshadow.

An old woman with gray hair and long, black skirt gives a speech in rapid French at the far end of the train. She’s too far for me to understand what she is saying. All I know is that she’s asking for some spare change. She quickly walks down the center aisle without pausing to see if anyone would actually give her anything.

An adolescent boy in a Justin Bieber hairdo comes in with his two friends. Since he is curly-haired, he only manages to look like Tina Turner.

The girl beside me finishes her makeover session with blush-on.

The train stops.

A teenage girl gets up and stands by the door. She lightly gyrates to the music on her iPod. Despite her bulging love handles, her hip movement is actually sexy. She’s the second dancing passenger I’ve seen in the span of ten minutes. It must be something in the air.

The train stops. The doors open. I get off, realizing that the commute back home is not really as anti-climactic as I’ve thought.

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Saturday, June 18, 2011

black bridal car

It all started with a black bridal car festooned with flowers and cheesy crepe paper.

“Lucky for them, they found each other,” the fortyish woman sitting beside me at the bus station suddenly blurted out as the black car sped past us. I gave her a polite smile and went back to reading my book.

“Oh yes, it’s good for them. Me, I’ve been alone for years now,” she continued. “And I’m telling you, it’s hard, it’s really hard. I decided to call it quits with my boyfriend years ago because he had been coming home late from bars. I couldn’t help but think that he was cheating on me. I mean, who would come home at six in the morning from a bar? Did he think that I didn’t know that he hooked up with some girl there?”

“Yes, perhaps he was cheating on you,” I curtly commented and started reading my book again.

“Exactly! And what if he brought home AIDS with him? That would have been terrible. So I decided to end it. The relationship wouldn’t have amounted to anything anyway.”

“Good choice,” I simply said as I uncomfortably leafed through the pages of my book.

“You’ll never know what you’re going to get these days. I’d rather be safe than sorry,” she said, more to herself than to me. She went on to ruminate about relationships at this time and age, and how people should always be on guard.

By this time, I had already closed my book; the woman had all my attention now. I noticed that she was not so much into conversation as into prolonged monologues. During the rare moments that her pale blue eyes met mine, she sought confirmation and affirmation, not active dialog.

She was wearing an oversized white shirt with some colorful print in front. He baggy pants seemed haphazardly chosen and worn in haste. She had with her an empty shopping bag.

“And you know what else he did?” she continued while we both boarded the bus that had just arrived. “One night, he went out with my mother and they came back home after midnight. And then, that same night, he slowly crept out of bed and went to my mother’s room and locked the door behind him. What was I supposed to think?”

“How old exactly is your mom at that time?”

“Sixty,” she quipped. “But love knows no age.”

I asked her if she had talked to her mom about it. She said the sexagenarian replied that she was merely trying to live her own life. I have to agree. Everyone has the right to be happy. But sleeping with your daughter’s boyfriend might be going overboard.

“That’s why I decided to end everything. It’s no use staying with a guy like that, even if he was a prince.”

“A prince?”

Apparently, the guy was the distant cousin of the ruling monarch of Monaco. This was getting stranger by the minute. It was more than I expected from a normal morning bus ride.

Fortunately, before the conversation took more unexpectedly surreal twists, she said she had to get off at the next bus station.

“It was really nice talking to you,” she said. She gave me her name and her mobile number, which I wrote at the end page of my book. “Maybe we can meet up again to chat.”

I gave her an ambiguous smile. The bus pulled over by the station. And I watched her walk away. I slowly opened my book again, hoping not to see another black bridal car.

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Thursday, June 16, 2011


Returning to an old addiction after three years of hiatus can be exhilarating, to say the least. Like a freshly detoxified drug junkie going back to sniffing cocaine, or like the president of Alcoholics Anonymous, who, after having shunned the liquid for a decade, suddenly finds comfort in quaffing glasses of brandy again, I am back to my old habit.

My addiction.

My elixir.

My home.

There is much to be said. But to start in the beginning is to go against the tide. I won’t go back. Let it all ebb in. I’ve tasted pain in the past year. And it left an agonizing aftertaste. I won’t dare stride back there again, especially nine months ago, when, bursting into a posh hospital room, I saw hordes of doctors and nurses still trying to revive my dead father. And then, two months after that, my aunt, my father’s only sibling, passed away, too. I had barely stashed away my mourning clothes when I found myself wearing them again.

Whatever haze these events have left hovering above me is still there. But life, as it is wont to do, will not stop and shed a tear for anyone. It prods on. And I, too, found myself prodding on. Laboring.

Walking in the dense woods the other day, amid heavy foliage nourished by the first few rays of the summer sun, I felt so alive. Thankful to be so, actually. I knew it wouldn’t last long so I had to cherish it. Be grateful for the air you breathe, my father used to say. There is poetry in everything. There is beauty wedged somewhere between the cracks of dusty cobblestones.

Last Sunday, for instance, I saw a fiftyish man dance with a backhoe to the lyricism of La Callas’s arias within the courtyard of a renaissance palace. The night sky was still bright with a sun that was so reluctant to set. And it was drizzling lightly. Gathered around in our umbrellas and plastic ponchos, we witnessed how the giant, normally uncouth backhoe seemed to have developed its own emotions as it interacted gracefully with the human dancer. That was sheer poetry.

There is poetry in my life, somewhere. And that is what I intend to bring out yet again. Three years of silence has not exactly dried up my inkwell. No amount of detoxification or rehabilitation will keep me away from my addiction. Would that nothing make me kick the habit again.

My name is Slim Whale. And I am a blogger.

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Thursday, September 18, 2008


I am in the front seat, beside the driver of a passenger jeep. To my left sits the driver's friend holding fliers of luxury condominiums. He eats peanuts from a tiny paper bag while admiring his acne scars in the side view mirror.

Pare, don't you know that peanut is food for the brain?” he bellows in Tagalog to the driver. Without looking at him, the driver replies, “But you don't have a brain!”

The jeep turns right and a famous beer factory comes in full view. Cases of beer are being loaded into huge trucks parked within its premises. Acne Scar guy, again, shouts to the driver:
“Pare, look at those trucks! They're brimming with beer! Anak ng puta (Son of a whore), I'd love to have just one of those!”
“Oh, you're such a bore when you're drunk. You're always catatonic,” the driver says, making his best impression of Acne Scar guy's catatonic state. “I'm better than you when I'm drunk. I'm always happy.” Me too, I think. I mean, come on, what the heck is alcohol for if not to bring happiness to humankind? The gods created it to palliate the sufferings of the people.

I need a drink right away, I say to myself. It is obvious that Acne Scar guy also needs one. When the jeep speeds past a chain of shanties, vulcanizing shops, beauty parlors, and gas stations, he looks around and faces the driver again.
Pare, there are always drinking sprees on this street, no?”
“We'll have ours, too, when Oktoberfest arrives. We will go to Ever,” the driver says.
“But that's not where they celebrate Oktoberfest!”
“Oh yes, stupid! It's celebrated everywhere, as long as you have beer.”

We stop at an intersection. Further ahead, the road rises up into a wide fly-over. Three girls wearing shorts approach the driver and thrust the sampaguita (fragrant Philippine flower) garlands they are selling. One of them, the eldest, who must be around fourteen years old, is wearing eyeliner and eyeshadow. The two younger girls, who are unbelievably pretty, resemble each other; sisters, no doubt. The girl with make-up smiles and holds out her empty hand without saying anything. The driver hands her some coins, payment for the garlands he has taken the other day.

“Buy this one too,” she demands.
“I've got no more dough,” the driver replies.
“You don't have to pay today. You can pay tomorrow, same arrangement.”
“No,” he is stern. He notices the youngest of the girls, who coyly holds up her flowers to him. “This girl's beautiful. Come here, pretty little thing!”
The girl approaches and automatically hands him a garland. The driver takes it and pays for it.
“Oh but take mine, too,” the girl with make-up says.
“No, I can only buy one today,” with that, the driver steps on the gas and the vehicle speeds up. I notice that the two pretty girls are barefoot as they walk away.
Pare, those girls' mom must be very gorgeous, no?” I am relieved that Acne Scar guy hints at a desire for the mother, not for the kids.

The jeep traverses the flyover. Traffic is getting heavier. Acne Scar guy suddenly croaks out a line from some cheesy song. His voice is hoarse but loud and clear.
“You have a good singing voice, so full and rich,” the driver comments.
“Oh yes, pare! Wait till you hear me belt out 'Skylight Pigeon,'” and he shouts the first few bars of the song, as if sarcasm were a compliment. A minuscule piece of chewed peanut darts out of his mouth and lands on my right arm. I discreetly wipe it on my pants so as not to embarrass the singer. He notices it anyway. And he is not embarrassed.

I get off under a steel overpass painted in searing pink. The jeep zooms away, billows of smoke trailing behind it. I head toward the sidewalk, ruminating over the romance of public transportation in this country.

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Thursday, September 11, 2008

i died

In a dream, I stand at the end of a long hall whose sides are lined with huge glass windows that let in the early afternoon sun. There are two rows of sewing machines. Humped over them are workers busily running cloths under their crude machines' rhythmically stabbing needles. I am wearing a dark suit without a tie and I watch them with apathy.

I see three bullets suddenly zoom from nowhere and hit me. I feel the bullets rend my clothes and lodge themselves into my flesh. They are neither hot nor painful, just icy. The speed with which this happens is almost cinematic. Like worms seeking comfort from some imagined persecution, the three bullets slowly inch their slimy bodies into my muscles. I feel every tissue tear and every ligament snap loose.

I fall on the concrete floor face first, dead. I know I am dead because my heart has stopped beating and my body has turned limp. I can feel my blood freeze inside my veins. I lay there for a while until my left forefinger starts twitching. A woman notices me, approaches me, and feels my pulse. “He's still breathing,” she shouts. There is a flurry of rustling skirts and slippers scraping against the polished floor as the workers rise from their boring task to attend to me. The scene slowly fades into darkness.

I limp out of the heavy sliding door of my deceased grandmother's ancient, crumbling house. I am supported on either side by two friends whose faces I don't recognize. They are in a mad rush to get me to the hospital. They are bawling commands left and right, urging everyone to make haste but I don't see anyone except the three of us.

I remain calm and disinterested, still not feeling the pain of the bullet wounds. We reach the garage and one of them opens the gate, which creaks at it swings. A 1940s cab pulls up. One of them says something about the car being too small for us. They bawl orders again but I don't understand them. We nevertheless get inside the car and cramp ourselves at the backseat like Jews on their way to a concentration camp. I feel tired. Just tired.

I remember seeing the road through the cab's windshield. The sun, somewhat milder now, lightly bathes the asphalted road with yellow light. It jars my vision.

And then I wake up.


Wednesday, September 10, 2008

let's beat street kids to death, they're not human!

I was reading John Bayley to while away the time as I queued for my ticket at the train station. He was talking about his boredom as a bourgeois kid in a golf course somewhere in Littlestone, England in the 1930s. His hobby was to collect used golf balls and bury them in the sand like crocodile's eggs.

This childhood nostalgia was cut short when I heard a commotion. A few paces from where I was standing, a security guard lifted a long cane and brandished it in the air. A boy, a street kid, wearing a soiled, oversize blue shirt and a pair of blackened shorts, cowered on the ground beside him, refusing to stand up. I thought the guard merely wanted to scare him off the train station's premises because beggars weren't allowed there, but he grabbed his scrawny arm to make him stand and whacked him hard on the butt. The child pretended it didn't hurt. Not a sound came from him but the impact sent him sprawling on the floor. He covered his behind with his grimy hands.

The guard forcefully dragged him away and sent the cane whirring down again. I'm not sure which body part it hit because I turned away and looked at the violent scene again just in time to see the boy grimace in pain. Still, not a sound came from him. His face was again stern and resolute, the grimace having faded as soon as it appeared. The people who were impatiently queuing for their train tickets craned their necks to get a better look. Some women gasped. But most of them surveyed the incident with curiosity, if not with indifference.

The guard dragged the boy toward the stairs, beat him some more, this time more vigorously, and hurled him down the steps. The boy, of course, did not fall as he got hold of the railing and clung there like a cat under attack. The guard turned away and walked proudly back to the station. I heard some unintelligible cuss words from the boy and then something flew and hit the guard's nape. From afar, it just looked like an empty plastic bottle of water or something lighter. Infuriated, the guard turned and ran toward the stairs again, his stick and his truncheon ready to attack.

They exchanged curses and threats. He, no doubt, hit him again with his two weapons because I saw both his cane and his club rising and falling from behind the low concrete walls of the stairwell.

Having beaten down his enemy, the guard hurriedly went back to his post. He had the air of a soldier who had just done something patriotic for his country. Apparently, the boy wasn't ready to surrender. He ran up the stairs again and shouted in Tagalog: “You son of a whore! You can only do such things because you're a guard! You wait and see!” And he let loose more Tagalog expletives.

I got my ticket and walked with big strides toward the turnstiles. I had seen and heard more than I should. I stowed Bayley's book inside my bag, suddenly losing interest in reading about the travails of rich, English school boys.

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Monday, September 08, 2008


I only felt solemn awe when we finally reached the summit of Mount Pinatubo. The sun had already sunk but its last rays were still emanating an eerie glow from behind the mountains, extremely faint but sufficient enough. It gave the whole place a misty but ghastly appearance, like a lurid dream you wouldn’t want to wake up from. The lake that had been formed inside the crater during its last eruption was hemmed in by rock mountains all around, creating a deep, irregularly shaped basin of still, pinkish gray waters. After drinking in the scene while the cold mountain air lashed at my cheeks, I hurriedly put out my camera and whored in front of it with Noelle, Eric, Glenna, and Allan before darkness finally sucked in the whole scenery into its underbelly.

I wasn’t so keen on joining them in this trip because I had just had my dental implant screwed into my skull. I was afraid that I might get so tired walking it would bleed, or worse, come off. However, after consulting with my implant dentist, I finally said yes at the last minute, causing Glenna to conclude that, in any trip, I always say I wouldn’t go but I push through on the eleventh hour. I’m glad I did. I have never camped yards away from the crater of an active volcano before. This was the first time.

It felt like we were hobbits on our way to Mordor to cast the ring into its fiery bowels. Around us was a vast expanse of rock and sand. Dust rose in billowing volumes. The sides of the mountain range seemed like they had been cleanly sliced off by some enormous knife, revealing the powdery filling within. In between these mountain ranges, we trekked through a wide desert-like path that, only a few years ago, was raging with lahar from the summit. I wondered if lahar could really be so powerful as to have this singular effect on something as huge as a mountain. I kept imagining chocolate encrusted marshmallows that had been cut in half, only, in this case, the chocolate was green and the marshmallow light gray.

Boulders as big as houses were strewn all around. A stream, which widened into a sprightly river and narrowed into a trickling brook at some parts, flowed along with us. A natural guide toward the crater, I suppose. Just follow the bouncing, gushing waters and you’ll get to the top. At some parts of the stream, we could see greenish brown deposits that were remnants of its volcanic origin, no doubt. It was a constant reminder that we were on our way to a volcano, not just any other mountain.

The way was fairly flat. We only climbed when we were quite near the crater; the path was a narrow strip of water-soaked boulders flanked by lush foliage. As Noelle said, it was a hike with “no assaults” at all. Despite Eric’s advice not to drink water during the climb (I forgot why exactly), I still gulped from my metal flask. I couldn’t help it. It energized me. Water was to me what lembas was to hobbits. Sorry for the constant allusion to Tolkien’s epic but that’s what I was reading at that time. Yeah, I know, it’s too late to jump into the Hobbit trilogy bandwagon.

There were still Aeta communities somewhere in the mountains for we bumped into some of them on the way. They had surveyed us with either boredom or curiosity. Here go the stupid tourists again with their cameras, they must’ve thought. There was a cave from whose aperture peered a family of Aetas. I’m not sure if they actually lived there or were just taking a respite from the beatings of the horrid sun. Allan later said that our guide pointed to a human skull half-covered by sand and said that it was an Aeta who had perished in lahar. The Aetas are short, dark-skinned indigenous people with strong white teeth and huge Afros. They were mountain dwellers and hunters until Mount Pinatubo erupted in the nineties, unleashing tons of lahar that ravaged mountains, houses, cattle, and people. They were said to have evacuated to some site which was under the care of the government. But like everything that is government-run, this settlement didn’t have anything that could sustain them so they had no choice but to go back to the mountain and start anew atop the bones of their kinsmen.

We paid for a military escort in full battle gear, something that was compulsory for all trekkers. This was obviously just a money-making scheme, according to our guide who was a native of the place. The military saw something they could possibly milk for some cash that’s why they demanded that they become part of it. I couldn’t understand what the heck they attempted to protect us from, not unless skeletons of wild animals that had resurrected from their sandy graves regularly prowled this area. Anyway, this gives you a rough idea what type of government we have in this part of the world. When the escort started getting friendly with us, chatting us up beside our tent and accepting offers of refreshments, I got really uneasy. I don’t trust men in uniform. That’s something you’ll learn if you live long enough in this country. Noelle, an erstwhile activist who had battled against riot police in many anti-government rallies, later commented that the soldier and his armalite also made her uncomfortable.

But that didn’t spoil the fun of course. Eventually, the guy went off to a tent which his ilk pitched, leaving us in peace as we serenely listened to soothing guitar music from Noelle’s ipod plugged to a tiny speaker. Tone it down, Glenna said, we might disturb the tent beside us. We did and the music became even more enchanting, a soft undercurrent eddying in and out of our hushed conversation. The air was chilly and the stars burned vigorously. Other groups had already set up camp near us. The darkness was just broken by flashlights and battery powered lamps glowing from within the tents. Eric, as usual, was in charge of cooking our food. With a black, tie-dyed sarong (a large rectangular piece of cloth) draped around me, I silently enjoyed the place. I never said this to any of my companions at that time lest I sound like some new age mystic, but I really felt at peace with myself and with nature at that moment. And to think that we were on the edge of a crater that could erupt any minute.

The next morning dawned hesitatingly. Sunlight brushed against the mountain tops at first and slowly crept down to the lake. Despite that, the water didn’t shimmer. It still appeared misty to me like watercolor washes in an impressionist painting. We went down the lake to wash our feet. The water was still icy. There were tiny bubbles in some parts which suggested that there were creatures in its depths, or vents, or, damn, was it starting to boil? For something that’s boiling, this was pretty cold. The other campers soon went down by the bank too. One foreigner took his shirt off and plunged into the lake. I wanted to do that but the water was so damn cold. And besides, we had been warned not to stay in the water for more than twenty minutes, otherwise its sulfur content or whatever substance it has, will burn our skin. Although at that time, I sort of didn’t care anymore what the elements could do to my skin. The dust and the sand had already wreaked enough havoc on our pores as our sturdy four-wheeler braved the roughness of the terrain during the first half of our trip the day before. It’s free face powder, Glenna commented.

The truck crossed shallow rivers and trenches, and braved sharp rocks, leaving a trail of disturbed lahar deposits swirling in its wake. The ride was an adventure in itself. There were times when I felt that the vehicle would topple over and send us rolling on the sand. But it never did. The tires were huge and strong, the driver experienced and determined. For a time, the drive seemed endless. We could see nothing but grayness and some greenery up on the cliffs. After about two hours (believe me, it felt more than that) we finally stopped at the foot a moss covered boulder where we met our other companions, the other group that was set to conquer the volcano’s summit, too. They were pretty organized. They formed a circle for a short briefing, to which I listened, and followed it by a prayer, about which I didn’t give a hoot.

They were fairly slow because it was a large group and some of them couldn’t walk fast so we decided to overtake them and walk ahead, thereby making us the very first group to reach the summit that day. It was exhilarating to arrive there without seeing tents that could mar the view. All I felt was awe. Solemn awe. Standing face to face with an enormous opening into the depths of the earth is not something I get to do every day, much less admire something that has caused so much anguish, pain, death, and suffering to hundreds of people. As the horizon slowly dimmed, the crater took on a somber, misty appearance, showing its most ghastly face at the last dying rays of the sun.

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Thursday, September 27, 2007


Five days after I banged my forehead on a glass wall at the company party, I could still feel it slightly swollen. I was way too drunk to recognize who laughed at my booboo. I didn’t care, really. If it had happened to any of them, I would’ve guffawed more boisterously. All I knew was that I hit the damned glass wall too hard because when I turned, all of them were looking at me. And possibly laughing, too. I wasn’t sure. At any rate, it was a swell party that left my forehead swollen. Funny, but that’s exactly the image that flashes in my mind when I think about that party: swollen.

It started docilely like a prayer meeting as people arrived dressed in black, white, or both at the hall decorated with black and white balloons. Obviously, it’s a black and white party. But I love stating the obvious, so there. The chandeliers were deliberately not turned on. Only tiny downlights provided soft, sleepy incandescent glow to the whole place, which, at that time, seemed more like a fund-raising event in the country club of botoxed matrons. Anyone can look like a botox image model without booze. At that time, wine wasn’t overflowing yet, it was merely trickling, droplet after seductive droplet.

A chocolate fondue fountain was flowing by the entrance, which was flanked by two buffet tables laden with miso soup, sushi, sashimi, tempura, and some other Japanese mutations, blueberry cheesecake, some really tasty noodle thingie, and fish, I think, and some shit, hell, you can’t expect me to remember what the heck they served there. I puked them all out five hours later in the restroom at Starbucks, after having asked for directions from four unbelievably sober officemates at the other table, who, seeing that I was as bloated with booze as a lactating cow’s udder (wouldn’t it be nice if udders squirted tequila instead of milk?), coaxed me to speak French. The American goaded me to speak Tagalog. Freak show mode. But I digress. Where was I, oh yes, the party. At dinner, my wine glass magically filled itself up every time I emptied it. I made a mental note to remember who catered this party. If ever I would throw a party, I want my guests to do the backstroke in a pool of wine. Later on, somebody from HR passed around vodka in a funky bottle that looked like a dildo. I just gulped whatever was handed to me and continued to dance like a hippopotamus with a bad case of hernia. Did I mention I had colleagues who are part of bands that have regular gigs? There, now I did. So there, I danced, hernia and all, and I only have a vague recollection of who exactly I danced with. All I remember is that they were either in black or white. I dragged one of them up the stage where we danced some more, and yeah, there were cameras all around. I whored for the cam whenever I saw one. I borrowed a white, feathery halo from one of the organizers and wore it the whole night. Horns would’ve looked better on me but I don’t want to be a walking cliché. When everybody else was losing all their inhibitions, I decided to keep mine intact and pretended that I was holy. One wore a stuffed panda on her arm, one wore a white wig, and the big boss had a huge Afro. And I mean nest-of-a-fucking-ostrich huge! By this time, I had no idea what songs were being sung by the performers. All I knew was that I was dancing and camera-whoring. I grabbed the camera from a friend, went up the stage, and photographed the singer’s bare foot. I don’t know what else I took photos of. For a while I felt the place was bobbing up and down. That was the time when I was jumping. Or was I? Maybe everybody else was, except me. I gulped some more wine and downed the fresh glass of vodka given to me. Yup, the place was really moving. This was the swollen part of the event, I guess. From there on, it was pretty much downhill. Some people were already leaving to continue the party at some club. I caught the managers line-dancing onstage. I was too wasted to notice the other wasted people around. I hugged some coworkers goodbye and headed out to Starbucks to puke. At the coffeeshop, I was the only one who was that drunk so I shut up and dozed off as they took pictures of me, which are now plastered all over the Net. At some point, I remember having said that I would never drink wine again, ever! But of course, we say stupid, nonsensical things when we’re drunk. And that’s my standard line whenever I feel like puking. At least, I’ve learned my lesson. And I’ve learned it hard. Glass doors and alcohol don’t mix.

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Thursday, September 20, 2007


When strangers meet, they don’t normally talk about forever. The most they will do is go over the perfunctory hellos and how-do-you-dos with as much emotion as ritualized introductions allow. They don’t have an inkling that, later on, they will stain the sheets with sweat, saliva, and other fluids of passion, and by the time it happens, they will have tied more knots than they could ever hope to untie in one lifetime.


Tuesday, September 04, 2007

guava tree

You won’t find me sitting on a tree branch and drinking in the breeze, soft against my skin. Those days are long past. Too far removed from what I have become. Like the last time I climbed down the guava tree in our backyard, never to climb it up again, not so much because I outgrew the tree as because the tree grew weary of my presence. You know too much for your own good, it said. Innocence is the prerequisite of childhood fantasy. And I was losing that, inch by inch. Was it not the point of education? To erode innocence and replace it with doubt? Or did I equate innocence with ignorance and antagonized the two?

To put me to sleep, my grandmother used to sing an ancient folk tune that spoke of a huge moon and a woman yearning for her lover, while I thought about my playmates who were out in the sun, playing backyard football. My grandmother noticed that I wasn’t in the mood for a siesta. With a slap on my behind, she sent me off, murmuring some cusswords which I had yet to learn and enunciate properly. I felt guilty then. I wasted her time and her saliva. It was not easy to sing songs like that. And it was easy to feel guilty back then, when days were long and afternoons lazed around shamelessly.

It was so much fun to be a kid again and be capable of just one emotion at a time. Cry when you’re pissed. Jump when you’re happy. Hit the idiot next door when you’re mad. But everything is ambiguous now. Nothing is classifiable. No definitive answer to anything. Which is what I have always wanted, really. When my diffidence as a child was replaced by assertiveness as an adult, something slipped away so stealthily I hardly noticed it. Or had it been there in the first place? Much of the boy still lingered within, perhaps nursed by my artistic proclivities. It only came out when I felt like climbing the guava tree again, which had long been cut. On its site yawns an ugly hole on the ground which should have been the foundation of a new house my family wanted to construct there.

If I were a poet, I would’ve waxed poetic about all these and romanticized even the guavas that dangled in that tree. But I am not. And there is not much to sugar coat anyway. Childhood memories are intrinsically sweet, until reality grows like an incurable pimple and nothing is the same again. Beliefs get flushed down the toilet, emotions become more complex, songs no longer speak about a huge moon and a yearning woman but of an evil sun that whips the ground until it breaks and gushes forth black mud, thick and ugly like a child’s rhyme swelling epical with a convoluted plot and twisted characters, each desiring to bring down the other in a mad rush to get to the top and to feel some semblance of an emotion, like that feeling that one gets while one sits on a tree branch, feet dangling, face upturned—drinking the breeze that is soft against one’s young skin. But that tree exists only in one's memory.


Thursday, August 23, 2007

music and rust

“At least you made it sound like music,” I commented. My friend smiled. The French horn swelled like pus, and then receded, sucking back in every note as if it were a shy child. Only the piano accompanied the soprano onstage.

“The pianist's rhythm is wrong. That's not how I wrote it,” my friend said. He had arranged all the songs for this book and made them sound like they weren't disjointed Lego blocks. When he was commissioned to do this, all he had received were crudely transcribed melodies. He fixed the harmony, added accompaniment, and straightened up the rhythms. The final products sounded elegantly polished. There were parts for flute, piano, French horn, and a choir. He was not allowed to touch the words though, which grated against the glistening music. It was like having rust in your milk.

“Pretty didactic, no?” my friend murmured. His talent, apparently, goes beyond music, he can also make the most understated understatements. “I'm thinking of writing new lyrics for one of the melodies,” he added. He could probably present it to the 86-year-old composer/lyricist who, after having met him for the first time that afternoon (they had only communicated through email prior to that event), said that she would have more work for him. She has more songs that need to be arranged. She needs all the help she could get, no doubt about that.

After the event, the audience flowed out of the small auditorium toward the lobby where cocktails were served. I spotted some high profile personages in the academe and literature. The old composer/lyricist was herself a distinguished person when she was younger.

At the lobby, high-heeled matrons swarmed around us. Introductions were made and congratulations were thrown in. My friend meekly smiled as professors and school officials commended him for a job well done, vainly suppressing their astonishment at how young he is. “Are you still a student?” one of them asked. “No, ma'am,” my friend simply said. The lobby sagged with the weight of excited chitchat. Waiters scurried in and out, serving drinks and some finger foods. My friend was dragged back into the auditorium to be introduced to the composer/lyricist. The choir and the musicians beamed with every flattering phrase they received. Some stray camera flashbulbs punctuated the crowd like sequins of a fully-beaded ball gown. Guests started queuing by the buffet table as manufactured laughter ricocheted against the ceiling. I took some food and melted into the wall.


Thursday, August 16, 2007

the blender within

When words come out bland, I let my mind wander in some hard to reach corner of my being, hoping that it would find some gleaming phrases there. All it finds, however, are pieces of scrap metal strewn on the musty floor, rusting away but refusing to be thrown into the garbage bin. Some memories can be adamant like leeches. Or are they indeed memories? Or mere wads of thoughts that got stuck there after I have put off a major cleanup again for the umpteenth time? Cleaning up is a nasty business. How can I defragment a soul that frowns upon categorization? Everything is so mixed up in there I'm starting to think it has some sort of blender that eternally grinds down everything—memories, thoughts, ideas, emotions—to a mush, unrecognizable in its gooey viscosity. Now if you could find some words in that mess, lucky you. I can't. My mind should wander elsewhere.


Wednesday, August 15, 2007

the eyes of a father

It was like the old times. My high school friend and I chatted animatedly about politics and business. Our conversation swung from being highly contemplative to mildly perky. He related his experiences when he supervised the construction of mobile phone towers in war-torn Mindanao (Southern Philippines), how the rebels in the boondocks demanded that his team of civil engineers pay revolutionary taxes to be allowed to continue their construction; how they were forced to hire gun-wielding rebels as workers; and how one of them actually discovered a murdered man on the site. There was even one instance when one of his colleagues, also an engineer who spoke Bisaya (local dialect widely spoken in Mindanao), overheard two armed boys talking:

“Can you shoot the guy working on top of that tower?”

“And what would I get if I did that?”

“I'll give you a pack of cigarettes”

The engineer, horrified at what he had heard, spoke to them in their own dialect and offered them one pack of Marlboro each in exchange for his colleague's life. The boys, fortunately, readily agreed and left.

I said he was lucky he didn't perish there. He had tried to blend in, he said. He had worn shorts and faded shirts at work so as not to attract undue attention to himself. That was just a minor inconvenience he had endured so that he could return in one piece to his wife and hyper-active little daughter in Manila.

We proceeded to speak about the economy, corruption in government (sorry for being redundant), businesses we could put up, and the unimplemented law that requires the demolition of buildings older than thirty years. He spoke in a quiet voice, still with his familiar lisp. He was more articulate than he had ever been. Despite his lack of sleep, his mind was still clear. Such conversations are best accompanied by clinks of beer bottles and punctuated by crisp laughter. This time, however, I was merely gulping water from a transparent plastic cup and he sipping coffee, our smiles were dry and somber for we were seated in front of the tiny coffin of his four-month old son. Wreaths of flowers, two mass cards, and an inflated Dalmatian dog swamped the white, gold-trimmed coffin, making it look grotesquely puny in their midst.

“Look at his eyes,” he said, pointing to a large picture of the boy on top of the coffin. “Those are the only parts of his body that weren't punctured by tubes at the hospital.” The boy's eyes stared back at us in all their innocence. They were big and bright but they didn't sparkle with dreams yet. They never had the chance to.

This was the only time I sort of missed my friend's corny jokes, for which he had been infamous way back in high school. We used to pull our collars up to our foreheads to conceal our faces, in mock shame over his horribly corny retorts. We even coined the adjective “belty” in his honor. This was in reference to the Circum Pacific Belt, the string of underwater trenches and volcanoes in Asia, which we were studying in geography class at that time. He undoubtedly oozed with the corniest lava there was.

“The doctors told us that 85 percent of those who have this condition survive. My son was part of the 15 percent who didn't. He put up a good fight, though. I knew he did.” He stared blankly at the coffin, a faint, sad smile twisted on his lips. I didn't really want to speak about his boy as I knew that he had told the story to every visitor at the wake ten million times already. It's hard enough to go through the experience once, it's horrible to relive it repeatedly in a narrative. But he didn't stop talking so I silently listened, my eyes involuntarily drawn to the ribbons pinned on the coffin's lid. There is consolation in giving shape to grief through words.

“We did some research on the net regarding his condition,” he continued. “In a way, we were prepared for whatever would happen. I'm not sure if our own research scared us more or prepared us further. All we knew was that we didn't want to give up. We won't just sit around and watch him slip away like that.”

He was unusually calm and composed, enunciating every word with clarity. Would that I have the same fortitude to face sorrow. It wasn't helpless resignation that I saw in his eyes. It was brave acceptance. The kind that one sees in the eyes of a soldier who knows he is about to die and yet pushes on, valiantly. A lost cause is only arrived at by cowards.

“At least my son won't experience how grim this world is.” After having spoken about the government, brain drain, and unemployment, we both agreed that the boy had died blissfully unaware of how ugly the world is. But he would also be regrettably incognizant of how his father stood by his side every single step of his painfully short life; how he clasped his tiny hands and whispered prayers into his ears; how he marveled at his (the boy's) bright eyes in those rare moments when he actually opened them at the hospital.

I was wrong. This was not like the old times. This was something else.


Thursday, August 09, 2007

and then it comes thundering down

The rainy season in Manila is both harsh and silky. With the first rumor of rain, decaying buildings leer and shanties yawn upwards to welcome the free shower. Tricycle tires unabashedly displace puddles of mud, splashing them against the Benzes and BMWs of the affluent or the pretentious.

Cusswords are exchanged on the street like pleasantries as holes the size of moon craters magically appear on asphalted roads, further screwing up the already screwed up traffic and inducing armpit sweat despite the cold weather. Half-naked boys with their soapy rags clamber up cars and frantically wipe their windshields until they become dirtier than they have originally been, and then they ask for some loose change.

Children cavort in the streets as only children can, dancing, shrieking, calling each other names in a language that is a cross between cherubic parlance and thuggish slang. It is like a pagan celebration, a paean to the rain god for relieving his bladder onto the parched earth.

The rain has its own language, too. It murmurs sweet drizzles that tickle galvanized roofs held in place only by huge rocks, pieces of hollow blocks, and spare tires. When its fickleness reaches its peak, it thunders and pounds and stomps with a deluge of malicious words that pour down and rid the gutters of cigarette butts, candy wrappers, and used condoms. It does not relent. Like a matron in the throes of menopausal lunacy, it charges on and on, lashing at everything on its way until what's left are tiny, crystal droplets on fresh leaves that trickle down if you so much as breathe on them. Clear water streaming down the gutter like a virgin brook. Fresh, pristine puddles that hold the luminous sky on their greasy surfaces. And crinkled, mucus-filled noses that release their wards in passionate and intense sneezes.

Ah yes, tomorrow will be another rainy day.


Sunday, August 05, 2007

dead face

I’ve been tossing and turning in bed and it’s already half past fucking four. Sunday mornings ought to be hazy and glittery as the hangover of the previous night starts to kick in. But no, I’m here, in my room, totally sober, trying to figure out ways on how I could doze off after counting three thousand, eight hundred sixty-four and a half sheep. I tried reading Harper Lee’s Pulitzer award winning novel but the letters just swam on the page like a bowl of dyslexic alphabet soup. So I got up to stare at my face in the mirror. I got scared with what I saw. Except for my shifty eyes under my bushy unibrow, I looked dead. This is how I would probably look inside my coffin—parched lips, dry skin, and glassy eyes (assuming that the mortician forgot to forcefully close my eyelids). I tried making faces but they all seemed as dull and lifeless as Jennifer Lopez’s acting. Now that’s really bad. Maybe I can become a Hollywood actor and contribute to the betterment of the human race by starring in B movies with plots only morons would applaud. That’s a good thought. But it doesn’t fare better than counting stupid sheep. Maybe I should try banging my head against the wall. But where’s the fun in that? If it were, say, my neighbor’s head, I would relish the experience, maybe even consider it divine. Or am I just envious of my cocaine-sniffing neighbor who is snoring his innards out while I’m still wide-awake, my face getting puffier every minute and looking more like a drug junkie than he ever could? And is the sky brightening up now or is it the hallucinatory effect of lack of sleep? I have to get back to bed. Now.