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.