03 Nobyembre 2012




I orchestrated my life to arrive at this confession on the trampled soccer field converted into a cramped maze of tents, swirling ticket-booth lines, and roaming fourteen year-olds with looped belts or twisted rope chasing boys for the marriage booth. Somewhere on the damp lawn muggy with heat and sweat from at least two hundred bodies, Lena, seventeen years old and a senior at the Holy Virgin Mother High School, cocked her head to one side and looked at the claw on her shoulder. I gripped her to steady myself more than to prevent her escape. Her classmates in the booth behind us began to stare, Lena stared back and she did not move from my grasp.

Over the last few months, Lena's voice had developed a fullness perfect for whispering and she employed her considerable skill to make sure I caught her every word without drawing the curiosity of the carousing freshmen. “About what, sir?" 

"About the Variety Show program." Waved a printed  copy of the email her committee sent a few days ago. Ugly, uneven circles polka-dotted the first three pages. Lena's eyes dimmed and she cast around for other committee members. She had been assigned only to draw up the program, I knew, but she didn't have the authority, according to their awry chain of command, to enforce changes. "Miss Dinsay, let's go." I strode away, leaving her to puff after me. "My office, now." 

Late November brought low-hanging clouds spread in sheets above the hills. Moss grew in large, roving patches all over the Field where tents, booths, and rides were set up for the annual school fair. I took my time and avoided patches of mud and silt. Instead of a barong, my white undershirt, and a pair of black shapeless slacks, I opted for a brown shirt and a pair of sturdy, faded bluejeans. The kids steered clear of my path. If Ada, my wife, had been here, she would have insisted I wore something more festive for the occasion but my outfit had been  the one thing Ada refused to specify and the only detail in her often-told story that I had been unable to wheedle out. Everything else -- from the Variety Show program, my tone of voice, the shape of the words I used and all their jagged coldness -- she retold so often I could hear her voice in my mind narrating the scene. 

"Eh ano nga sinuot ko?

"Surprise me." Ada smiled. We had this conversation twenty-five years or so Up Stream, in our house behind the High School. She was stubborn, my Ada. And overly fond of tricks and gimmicks. The six years or so I spent Down Time as a Temporal Tourist, I relished only because I knew I was participating in my wife's last and most elaborate scheme: our love story. 

"Basta. You'll know when you get there." Ada closed her eyes and slipped a small pipe down her throat. The bluish haze of her ChronoSphere chased me out of our bedroom. 

Located in the main administration building sufficiently apart from the noise of the High School's annual school fair, my office retained and dour atmosphere closely associated with morose funerals and the strained, panicked air of college entrance exams. There was barely enough room for my desk, two filing cabinets, and a small sofa but the ceiling extended high above. A small bulb hung over my desk, fixed at the end of a long wire. Windows opposite the door opened to a wall of dirt topped with tall, swaying glass. 

Not bothering to close the flimsy door, I sat on the sofa, stapled sheets of paper on my lap, my hands clasped tight until Lena knocked for permission to enter. She hadn't been a student of mine -- my wife didn't mention that particular detail -- but I knew most of the students were intrigued by the little digit printed just above my left wrist. After Lena drew a monobloc chair opposite my seat on the couch, I drew up my sleeve. 

Five years ago, the figure had been a small yet discernible "6" coal black against my skin. Now it was a faint, ochre “0”, a yawning mouth. I stared, too, at my wrist and shattered veined hands, large enough to cup her cheeks, to smother her. I handed her the sheets of paper and crossed my legs. 

Somewhere overhead, Mrs. Hilda’s high, thin voice trilled over eight loudspeakers like angry flies, asking for the history teacher, Ed Kalampang. The chill of late November burrowed deep in my hands, knees, and in the small catch-all of my groin so that I stood shifting my weight from one foot to the other while Lena scanned my edits, slack-jawed and brow-furrowed. Today she wasn’t dressed in her pleated green skirt, the yellowing blouse with its navy collar, and the solid black shoes that made her infamous among her peers. She would grow up to lament their size. Lena wasn’t a pretty seventeen: on her upper lip bloomed the early fuzz of faint but discernible ladystache.  She was old seventeen. She carried herself heavily, as though dealt with some weighty past she will never live through.  


"Sir?" She looked up from perusing the paper. Aside from half a dozen minor revisions, I simply asked her to rearrange the schedule for two bands half an hour apart. 

"We don't have much time." I had closed the door and turned to her. At this point, my wife would lower her voice an octave, shadow her eyes with a curtain of hair. Something in her eyes would wander and obscure. "Lena, I'm not just your history teacher." This part of the story was my wife's favorite. At seventeen, Lena romanticized her life to an astonishing degree: people were characters with lush back-stories. Her invented life for me involved a wife who left years ago -- something eerily accurate -- and a miserable home life in some infinitesimal apartment where the noise of barking dogs seemed to echo and swill. It wasn't far from the truth. The speech my wife composed -- or I composed, I thought -- flowed out of me with the ease of long practice and painful familiarity. I caught Lena at the beginning of our love story but Lena only enters the picture as a footnote, a necessary evil, at the last leg of my race home. I had waited six years and I was almost home. Almost. The digit on my wrist was fading fast. 

"Do you understand, Lena?" My wife said throughout my speech -- the speech she heard, the speech she taught me to declaim -- she felt goosebumps riding up her arm. 

"You touched my cheek." Ada said and although in her retelling the blush had long gone from the moment, in my dusty study, my hand grazed Lena's rosy skin and left a blazing sunset in its wake. "And then you took my hand." I took Lena's cold hands, wrapped them in the calloused, rough palms. 

"I didn't kiss you, did I?" 

"No, you didn't." I always asked her, at that point, to see the thrill of a stolen kiss lift her eyes. 


It was five in the afternoon, an hour before a three-hour open-air concert featuring local student bands, when I held onto Lena. My wife told me this story so many times so I know exactly how it ended. Every year, the senior batch spearheaded preparations and decided on the school-wide theme. The year this story happened, my wife said her batch voted for Dekada Singkuwenta to invoke the fifties.

After talking with the rest of her committee, Lena stood on the stage with three male batchmates, arranging the stage for the first band, a trio called Lazy Monkeys. The band members were somewhere in the crowd, mingling with a crowd of high school girls. Lights flashed on the rough grass. I watched Lena teeter on the edge of the stage, one hand flailing in the empty space. The critical moment. My wife said her heart jumped in her throat, that she saw my still, swollen face in the crowd, and she knew she had done the right thing. Girls gasped as Lena fell backward off the stage, floated out of sight. A thud of bone and flesh against muscle. Someone caught her breath. All around me, a surge of students lurched forward to see Lena in the arms of a scrawny eighteen year-old from the neighboring all-boy high school. The digit on my arm had all but faded but I caught my own voice, strange and disparate, not part of my own body echo back to me from somewhere in the crowd. How did I hear it from the crowding bodies? 

"I'm Ed. Ikaw?"

"I'm Adalena -- Ada." 

02 Nobyembre 2012

Homeward Bound

He never lied to his mother. Or, at least, his lies were easily forgiven, ranging from how much money he spent on his latest stack of readings (they cost fifty, not a hundred pesos), how much beer he drank at his friend's despedida (more than six bottles), and what course his ex-girlfriend took up (Psychology, not Business). His most daring lie had been inspired by Kate's invitation to visit a new students-only bar somewhere in Old Cubao, accessible via train and a short tricycle ride down a twisted alley mostly inhabited by crowing cocks. The bar was called Old School, a fifties-styled former home that had somehow survived the rise of cement grocery stores and refurbished ukay-ukay housed in giant catacombs and beehives with staring, dirty windows. Having told his mother he was studying with four other groupmates at Kate and Trinka's room at a condominium near their university, Troy conveniently forgot to charge this mobile and watched it sputter out of life in the cab to Old School, his wallet stuffed with two weeks worth of lunch money. He ignored his grumbling stomach forced to subsist on one order of beef siomai consumed on the sidewalk waiting for Ger's car to navigate the u-turn a few meters up the avenue. Troy had stuffed himself into the backseat with Kate, Len, and Trinka. Up front, Ger's girlfriend, Mins greeted him with a cool smile and look that took in his battered bluejeans, soiled everyday sneakers, and the backpack slung from his shoulder. Mins raised an eyebrow and glanced at Kate who shrugged and pushed against Len and Trinka to make room for Troy.

"Sabi ko mag-ayos ka." Mins was a college junior with two piercings: one on her upper lip, a small glittering orb of black metal stamped with a minute "G". The other no one had seen except Ger. Mins grabbed Troy's bag from him and arranged it between her legs in the front seat. On her lap, Mins hugged Len, Kate, and Trinka's multicolored purses.

"Ganyan lang ayos niyan. Mama's boy kasi." Len chimed in with a small smile. She was farthest from Troy, the most petite, and she wore dresses exclusively. As Trinka, Kate, Ger, and Mins laughed, Troy glanced at Lena and blushed because her micro miniskirt had ridden up her thighs, balled up around her waist. She was the only freshman who infiltrated the small group of friends and had become a regular fixture at drinking parties thanks to her older sister, Kate's, nepotism.

"How are we supposed to get you a girl or two kung mukha kang bata, Troy?" Ger glanced at him from the rear-view mirror and Troy knew he was smirking. Ger had been Troy's high school best friend, the only one among forty-five other boys who tolerated Troy's disinterest in females. Although they had been trapped in the same Merit Section A for all four years of college, Troy had had to work harder than his classmates. Unlike Ger and the rest of them, Troy had earned his spot in Merit Section A, arrived at the beginning of his high school career driven to academic distinction by a severe discipline and strict obedience to the value of delayed gratification unnatural and uncanny in a thirteen year-old boy. Troy accepted he wasn't as naturally talented as his peers and made up for his limitations by focusing, almost exclusively, on his studies. Little had changed in college, only that he had developed a minor habit of drinking as much as his sense of self-deprivation allowed. Tonight was a rare treat, Troy thought, rare enough to justify the lie he told his mother. His mobile was heavy and dead in his pocket.

"Uminom na lang tayo, wag mo na problemahin yun." Troy said, punching the back of Ger's seat.

"Mins, pasuntok naman si Troy, oh!"

"Papatay naman lahat ng cellphones oh, my mom might call." Kate snickered at that and turned to her girlfriend, Trinka, with a small, secret smile.

"Basta para sa'yo eh." Trinka and Kate squirmed in their seats, their hands disappeared into pockets, searching for their phones. Kate's  mom didn't know about Trinka. During her bi-monthly visits, Kate's mom often found Troy, Trinka, and Kate sharing a table in the coffee shop situated on the ground floor of their condo. Between his second White Chocolate and Cinnamon Supreme and a Double Fudge Brownie Cake, Kate and Trinka excused themselves for the bathroom and Mrs. Flores wheeled around in her seat, impaled him with a glare where he sat on the sofa, and in a tight voice like frayed string stretched to its limit and then tickled till it sang, she asked, "Anong meron kay Kate at Trinka?"

When Kate and Trinka returned, their hands carefully stowed in respective jean-pockets, Troy smiled brightly up at his friends and apologized to Kate for revealing their relationship. "Hindi mo pala sinabi sa mom mo na tayo na!" Troy made room for Kate on his couch, locked an arm around her shoulders, and pressed a kiss on her cheek while she squeezed his thigh under the table and boxed his ribs. He had been the recipient of their fierce, loyal friendship ever since.

"Ano ba sinabi mo sa mom mo para makalaya ka, Troy?" In the front seat, Ger slipped a hand over Mins', held her for a minute, and then let go with the ease of a husband. They had been dating for three months but at twenty, the future for them extended only to twelve, twenty, sometimes thirty months at a time. Troy crossed his legs, felt his blood boil down tot  his ankles.

"I told her I was studying at Kate's."

"We never just study, Troy." Trinka reached over and mussed his hair as the friends appreciated the joke. They were just old enough to live in a world where sex-talk was no longer the meat and potatoes of each secret discussion. They had realized, each in their own way, that sex -- whatever that meant for them -- was no longer a lost, foreign element that hung, undiscovered and just out of reach. They had moved into that country, occupied it, and begun the life-long journey towards mapping its geography. There were other things more painful, more vast, and more fruitless. Love, they agreed, was far more treacherous. Now they could afford to make jokes about the sex act, understand it, and let it go, relishing but no longer dwelling on its mystery.

"We're here!"

Old School admitted only college students --  no more, no less -- and the price of entry was two hundred pesos and a valid college ID. They scrambled out of the car to stretch cramped limbs while Ger parked beside a massive pillar that held up train tracks thrust five meters into the sky.


Within a solemn white and gray two-storey house, a party was in full swing. Hard plastic chairs draped in black and silver cloth lined all the walls and a a long table set against the far wall, where the kitchen sink had once stood. Above a short flight of stairs, a long low corridor led off into two locked bedrooms and a veranda occupied by potted plants and smokers. Troy inhaled a slow, sonorous beat and the heat from fifty bodies. The music was low and

Outside, party-goers had attracted a couple of street vendors hawking fishball and tokneneng. On their way inside, Kate and Trinka recognized no less than half a dozen classmates and peers, all of them stoned out of their minds. They flocked to a gallery of parked cars in an empty lot overgrown by weeds and wild grass, the kids scratched and slapped their legs, swearing.

Ger and Mins separated, looking for other couple friends who had promised to meet them. Kate and Trinka bypassed the bar for the veranda, both of them fingering metallic cigarette cases, leaving Troy and Len to complete a solitary procession towards a row of empty beer bottles. Len pointed to a tall, amber bottle labeled with an Arabic name but Troy settled, feeling less impressive by the minute, on San Mig Light. Len was only eighteen but she stood apart from Troy, eyes deep-set in a smooth, oval face. She had put on make-up, a little blush, and the smirk Troy associated more with Kate than the younger, bubblier sister. An underclassman appeared at her elbow, someone Troy recognized only because his face was on tarpaulins posted along school hallways.

"Sino yan?"

Len shrugged off his question and turned towards her batchmate, a boy with curly hair and  small, beady eyes. She seemed to know him and, without so much as a backward glance, Len was gone. In the space she left behind, Troy spotted an empty chair behind the staircase. It wasn't long before another beat sparked a tight-knit circle of dancers on the slick floor of the living room and Troy, aroused by the heat and smell, decided to sit back and relax, a comfortable spectator.

That was when he saw him.

Hair slicked back by sweat and the three-inch claws of a kolehiyala on his arm, Troy, stunned, watched his father twirl her in the space between Ger and Mins and two other couples. The foremost thought that crossed his mind was not "how did he get in here" or "how did he find out about this place" or even "how do I get out of here without getting caught".  It was a declarative sentence: "I'm not the only liar in the family."

By day, Troy's father was a bank manager of a popular branch of a nationally unpopular rural bank. He sat behind a desk growing a beer belly and arrived home, on average, at ten in the evening. Every once in a while, he went out with friends for dinner and drinks. Troy's mother, never the clingy wife, slept or feigned sleep until her husband waddled in, trying to walk straight. He dropped into bed reeking of booze and smoke  and dried sweat. Regular lapses of conduct were expected of all fathers, Troy learned, so that he was lucky -- or he considered himself lucky -- that his father's vices took him away so little, kept him home so much, and allowed Troy no opportunity to discover more. He didn't want to know what his father did -- or did not do -- any more than his father attempted to discuss Troy's academic life. It wasn't lack of interest that kept them mutually mum but a respectable distance that men -- and only men -- understood. Violence and dark things were personal and secret not shared or paraded or acknowledged or -- god forbid -- discovered. So Troy's immediate and instant reaction was shame for having walked in on his father's night off from fatherhood and husbandhood, not anger. The anger, embarrassment, and sense of having been cheated on came later.

Partially hidden behind the stairs, Troy crouched behind the banisters while his father groped an unfamiliar girl with short, wavy hair, a sharp, peaked nose. Thin lips rimmed her wide-open mouth and glistening straight teeth. His hands dipped between her thighs, tugged her skirt up, forced fingers beneath. For a split second, the girl's eyes widened before they collapsed, her hips gyrated, she pressed against him, heaving. Troy turned away, a hollow space in his chest aching. He couldn't breathe. Beats in the air pressed against his ribs, thudded against his skull.

Before he escaped from the den, Ger pulled him into the pit. "Huy, anong nangyari? San ka pupunta?" Mins appeared behind Troy, hugged him from behind, kissed his cheek. Only Ger would recognize Troy's father so Troy clasped his arm and nodded at the kolehiyala and her dirty old man. Ger's eyes widened. "Si Tito ba yan? Sino kasayaw niya?" Troy shook his head, tried to escape, but Ger held firm. "Di mo pupuntahan?"

"What? Look at him." Troy's father had stopped dancing. One hand on the girl's lower back, he guided her towards the bar. Some invisible force worked against the beat of the music and the inertia of his father's energetic walk towards the bar, he pulled back for a split second, cast his eyes over the sea of bodies, and found the calm, tense pocket of stillness where Troy, Ger, and Mins stood. His father didn't recognize him or pretended to ignore him or no part of him felt the invisible, strange force of guilt at the sight of his son.

After sitting at the bar for a few minutes, Troy watched his father get heavily on his feet and trudge towards the door.

"Ger, I need your car."


After two bottles at the bar, his kolehiyala left him to dance with a rowdy group of boys and Troy's father slumped on a tall, wobbly bar stool, half-wishing he could leave for home.

"Huy." The bar owner, a friend of his, stood behind a wall of beer bottles. "Ano, isang round pa?" They had been colleagues at the bank until the bar owner decided he no longer wanted to wake up before four in the afternoon. Troy's father shook his head, wiped a film of sweat from his brow with the back of his left hand, and stood up to leave. "Aalis ka na?" He nodded, too tired to shout to be heard. He handed over a five-hundred peso bill and waved as he made his way to the door.

He had been tired all week and agreed only to spend his Thursday night at Old School because the bar manager promised a plateful of sisig and rousing stories over drinks. After dinner, Old School transformed into a twenties-something bar: too loud and noisy, too crowded, and too dark, an unkind reminder of how much he enjoyed his own youth but he had slipped out of that skin and settled into a bulky, greased body that lumbered when he walked and refused -- with a stubbornness he had never possessed -- to do what he wanted when he needed to. One of the young girls, someone as old as his son or younger, asked him to dance only because he had looked up at her from the sidelines with puppy-dog eyes and a small sneer like an open challenge.

"Kaya mo pa ba?"

Troy's father found himself smothered by her smoky hair, her skin glowing and warm and pliant, her hands rough on his neck. He found his body still knew how to dance and move and for once he doubted the reality of middle age, thought maybe he hadn't forgotten or hadn't grown out of all his old vices, only that everyone else had, only he had moved so far from it that his body almost forgot. But vices took its toll on his body and something clicked in his old motor, muscle memory awakened, and he found himself grinding with a twenty-year-old-antiquated promiscuity, a torpid lust momentarily awakened.

It was in the music, too, the beat that drummed against his knees, made the air fizzle and sour. The girl touched him awkwardly, grabbed his shirt, daringly slipped a hand up his polo, kissed his fuzzy neck and he felt himself go limp, his heart clobbered and ringing, as something like a fist closed over it. He ejaculated in his pants, stopped dead mid-beat, and walked the kolehiyala to the bar.

He backed the family car, whose interior smelled distinctly of his wife and burnt toast and pine, carefully out of the lot. In the narrow alley, kids scrambled before his headlights. A group of them, hurrying across the pavement towards the bar, dallied in the middle of the road. Troy's father braked hard until the car skidded to a stop. A car with its headlights off crashed into him from behind. The force of its impact threw Troy's father forward. A long, unending note wailed from the family car, mingled with the bar's languorous heartbeat.