The house was a long, flat bungalow with six windows and three doors, one of which was blocked by the wickerwork-seat divan made to resemble driftwood. This door, well-oiled although little-used, opened into a view of well-stocked, door-less cupboards, stacked translucent plates, and the giant table too massive for the airy house. Solid and imposing, the table alone threw a clear, opaque shadow on the tiled, cold floor. It gave the impression of solidity so imposing you could see it even with your eyes closed. And although Dan Chaves had stumbled drunkenly into their house many times before, this time the twenty-two year old was disoriented not with the comfortable lightheadedness as the result of too much tequila, but from an encounter so alien and heartbreaking it knocked him into a coma where he sat in a much-frequented watering hole, watered-down glass of beer knocked out of his hand as another tipsy patron – someone who looked sixteen and unsteady atop three-inch heels, slick and upright in a tight shirt, her cheeks unevenly coated with blush too red for the busy orange-red-yellow lights – obscured his view by landing on his lap. It was with the inevitable force of the immense family table’s gravity that pulled Dan into a midnight collision – first, Dan staggered towards it, all elbows and knees – and his own momentum threw him back onto the divan where he lay, immobile.
He began smoking three months ago, in the sari-sari store up the street that serviced village construction workers, grass-cutters, the guards who peeled off straining white uniforms and played basketball in the afternoon, but lying there waiting for the morning, he felt the half-buried craving for a cigarette between his lips, something to taste instead of dew, the dampness of a new morning. He wanted to feel sullen, menacing, some crawling dark invader.
Outside, the night sky swelled into an angry bruise. Dan burped and fanned his breath out towards the surrounding lawn, the superfluous door yawning wide. He tasted the dawn.
Alone of the siblings, Dan possessed the only key to this door, surrendered to his responsibility the night he came home announcing he had been assigned the graveyard shift at work. Use the side door, his mother said, so you don’t disturb the dogs in the backyard, so we can lock both the lightweight screen door and the heavy oak front door. He enjoyed the thrill of sneaking into his bedroom to steal some sleep. And, alone among the three siblings, Dan inherited his father’s insomnia and a boiling in his gut, a slow-cooking fire that disturbed prolonged periods of idleness. Dan began tapping his feet to keep busy as a headache formed and his consciousness slowly retreated, pulling back layers of coherent thought to accommodate a throbbing pain in his temple. Tangina. His father was the same way, unable to sit still, physically incapable of staying put. Dan’s father’s eyes raced over the walls of their house, unstoppable, forever moving and agitated, until he strung up family pictures to maintain the illusion of a story told one frame at a time. It was no surprise, therefore, when his father walked barefoot into the kitchen.
And there it was: his father’s distinctive smile. At five feet eleven inches, Dan towered over his father of the same height who had become so used to stooping, he rarely stood up straight. His wireframe build, a clean-shaven head, and bright large eyes hid little less than half a century of drawing supermarkets, condominiums, curving roofs of several storage facilities, some schools constructed out of lego blocks, and a few government offices tucked between several acres of grassland. His father’s smile had been hung there by his mother because Dan, being the eldest among the siblings, recalled no memory of a smiling father before his mother gifted her husband with one, wrapped prettily and boxed up for an early Christmas. His youngest brother only a baby and the floor littered with colorful paper, his father discovered the box addressed, simply, for my husband. The smile was small, malleable, and warm and it grew or shrank, when appropriate. Her mother gathered her husband in her arms and managed to water his lips with a kiss before a permanent curve, a wrinkle of satisfaction, appeared and stuck.
It was this smile that Dan’s father wore as he advanced towards the refrigerator gently humming in one corner. Uy, anong nangyari sa’yo? It was a mild question because, Dan knew, his father was a patient man who expected little from his children. Despite the dangerous pounding headache, Dan sat up and stared at his father, bent over to retrieve a pitcher of cold water. His bare legs, translucent skin, the green veins shooting up his thighs; the way his father bent his head lower, as though in submission; his father’s smile. All of these were familiar and recognizable.
Earlier that evening, Dan pulled on his father’s old leather jacket. Deep brown, it hugged the contours of his body almost perfectly, his elbows sunk into the familiar burrows his father wore thin, and when Dan slipped his hands into its pockets, he found the lining warm and smooth where his father’s hands had once been. Against his ribs, it hung protectively, a solid weight. Under the cool September night, Dan nurtured the relative comfort of a cold drink and the warmth in his belly as he settled down with some friends in Torque, a cantina, half of whose patrons spilled out onto the street where there were no cars or tricycles or jeepneys or buses, it was a narrow Cubao back-alley. The wind that blew between the tall buildings sidling up on either side of the slant-roofed restaurant smelled of concrete and some sweet, overripe fruit.
Wala, dad. I just got home. Dan stood beside his father, put a hand on his shoulder, felt the muscle tense there. He watched his father’s grip on the jug of water waver and slip. It was awkward as any confrontation but Dan stood up, trying to grow one extra inch, eyes hooded and head slightly thrown back.
Ikaw, anong oras ka nakauwi?
Maaga ako, kanina pa. His hand on his father’s shoulder crept up towards his neck, measured the strength and the brittle bones, found itself clamping shut in a grip. His father did not shrink, did not quiver, did not fear, only squinted in the dark at the boy.
Dan? On the ground, the shadows disappeared.
Hours ago, a sixteen year-old in the club danced with one of Dan’s buddies from work, Gin, whose loose tongue and deep, drained pockets guaranteed only that he would be noisy and robust in any restaurant. Unfit for anywhere but McDonald’s at midnight, Dan and Sol, another co-worker, brought Gin out to their college-era haunts in Cubao where the cleaned-up streets swerved upwards and outwards. After four buckets between them, Gin assembled the solemn one-syllable words that remained within his control and stumbled into the girl. A tiny waist, naked arms, and the way she swayed in Gin’s general direction. As out of control drunk as he was, Gin managed to collect her into his arms long enough to sway, lean close and whisper some remedial compliment as he nosed her cheek. She was tall for her age. Whenever a chill wind blew, Gin closed himself about the girl, reeking of his cologne. Dan and Sol watched, holding hands, both of them disinterested, until the girl crashed into Dan’s lap and he excused himself to wander into the small cantina in search of a bathroom.
Dan found himself crushed beside the back-counter where half a dozen men crowded together, ordering drinks. He left the handsome leather jacket with Sol outside. He crouched, folding his body inwards, trying to become as small as possible because the place was crowded and there was no room. And there was a moment when an odd, golden glint must have caught his eye, when one of the liquor bottles displayed beyond caught the gleaming strobe lights and illuminated a familiar shape, a familiar weight.
It was the same smile, the same lilt, the same curvature and it was impossible to mistake his own face. It was crisp and new and it had been re-hung and stretched, by another woman whose hands – fine fingernails, long fingers, a naked wrist, gleaming bands on eight fingers impossible to decipher which was gold or silver or glass – framed his father’s face.
The lights popped open. Dan and his father stood blinking at each other.
His mom stood at the edge of the kitchen, hands splayed on the wall. Anong ginagawa mo?