It was cold and windy when he stepped out of the publishing house. While its appearance was uninviting, its cragginess still appealed to him nevertheless. Although its elevators no longer worked after the last world war, the staircases were wide and generous, while windows were tall, quite suitable for thinking and writing.
He thought it was indescribable what he felt holding the manuscript finished in his hands. Links of sleepless food stalls wailed, and prolific choreographed routines of evening companions for hire flooded the atmosphere. Artists of all sorts stood around at the corners performing, while middle aged men who’d rather refer to themselves as aficionados lounged in wicker chairs on narrow alleys.
It was four days before his birthday, exactly two weeks after the car accident. And although the doctors told him he was lucky, the experience still attracted him. It gave him something to look forward to, a journey to profoundly aspire for.
He was driving west in the rain when the car swerved off the freeway, until it tumbled off the cliff and dived. It was a hard rain, he couldn’t see. Half conscious, he thought it was beautiful, how the dark, electric blue flashes in the patches of the clouds would entertain him while he waited for the sirens to come.
When he got discharged, the first thing he thought about was getting a haircut. Nothing grand, just good old fashioned clean haircut. Grooming was after all his pilgrimage back to civilization. It was how humanity saw it, he wanted to compromise.
As he strolled there was a hint of rain in the air. A few swelling beads of raindrops crackled onto his leather coat just about when he reached the turnstile to catch the late night train.
In this pluvial darkness that enclosed him, he pulled up his collar close to him, and the lapels which overlapped across his chest warmed him. A few celebratory drags then he flicked the cigarette half-done to the puddle, staying with it as he watched it hissed before entering the station.
Just the same, even after all, he still thought it was a good time for a drive, but he could not. Instead, he imagined steering the wheel in the darkness through the same night until he catches the first light of the next day. As he stood on the platform, he thought about how the rain will wash away the world clean as it always did. There were a few lines that he wanted to write her, regrets even. But he couldn’t. His hands are failing him.
A friend once told me “do not try to fend off the good” apparently this has always been my problem according to her. Given that it is non-clinical, and it is encroached upon the merits that it is all based on pure alcohol induced speculation, I guess, I should believe her prognosis.
“Everyone is a character, in a plot of this book told by a satyr or a romantic. You could either live lavishly like the Divers or die tragically valiant like El Sordo defending the Spanish hilltops.”
But I was not anywhere near any of it. I could no longer see fit to entwine myself to the life of a poet. Sure, I still believed in desserts and an occasional ticket pass to the pictures, but I seemed to have lost something between the sweet taste and the closing credits.
From a table napkin dispenser, she withdrew a couple of sheets that she used as substitute for parchment paper. She could have written an entire volume on them had it not been for the limiting light from the blue screen monitor overhead. I can’t remember what exactly she wrote there, knowing her, she could have probably written something about the cooling waves under the moon in those sultry nights or something about a duck. She wrote happily, and lived, and coyed with the boys her age, she did it all. She was a God.
Until one day she ran away with an older boy whom she met in a smoky room. I can still remember that night quite well; they were smoking by a dying florescent lamp under a frameless Joan Jett poster taped on a wall. I never had the chance to talk to her about that in fact, and I reckoned that we must, like we used to in the past. There was an occasion when I saw her in a middle of a crowd somewhere in Cubao, I knew it was her; she had a Mao cap on, carrying a canvas tote.
I guess for now I will just have to see her in our conversations, in her stories, or perhaps this time, among the pages of my fictions, until then.
“Wake up Alice!” He leapt out of the bed to get ready for school, rushing awkwardly, boxers in prints, sprinting across the heap of overnight clothes and leftover fast food styros on the floor. It was Monday and he felt forcibly contending with everything that basically moves. But the floodlit room entranced with rays and rubies, promises of fresher beginnings, in their gentlest graduation life has sprouted. On this eve oozed within him the end of the term in March, it was finally summer, after all.
He swung over a long sleeved shirt lying limply on the couch, its embroidered crest patch stood out on the bright white linen chest pocket. While facing the reflection on the mirror, he briskly half brushed his bristled hair, tracing the remnants of adolescence on the skin, the innocence radiating there, surfacing, and joyously immersing in his debonair youth.
Late afternoon radio-drama was on the background, for a moment of pause, he passively watched the fornicating dogs on the street by the fish-ball cart while sat there at the corner wall was Alice clasping the hems of her skirt nervously. She held in her hands a curious strip. It had two blue lines faint in color, keen on him for an opportune chance to dialogue. He scuttled underneath the sofa for his shoes.
Her beautiful dark hair was neatly tucked behind her ears, thick healthy curls down to her shoulders, prim like the holy mother. Fearful of the divine and the sins outside matrimony, her family follows the traditional and the sacred. She dreads and shudders. She never felt more alive.
She opened her mouth to catch the unusual rainfall, having a little taste of the sky, of that sweet, sweet rain in that midsummer. She struggled, plunging the blade inwardly until it was no longer seen. The blade must be dull, or her strength just dwindled. She is fading, drenched.
In her mind she used a skiff to dump his body on the other side of the riverbank under the bridge where there was soft red earth – This she contemplated while staring at the cream firming up in the luke-warm coffee by a Collin Classic. Earlier, they clinked glasses and loathed by the fire, all against the skies and their cardinal oppressors. She placed her head against his chest and sobbed. She loved him too well that she doubted, and knew. “Will you please stay for the night, will you love?”
“Of course” said he. Where else would I be?”
She shook her head, as if coercing understanding. “But you won’t.”
Her breath smelt of Italian spring flowers, and how it reminded him to set out and see the other side of the world even though he detested traveling. Cigarette locked in between her fingers, dragging cold, flavored smoke. He wanted his soul to taste like nicotine that night.
They talked about poetry and what could have been like as if it were in the movies, of rewritten screenplays, oh how they loved a kiss, and another, under a bridge, draped under the tender lights of Manila.
He held up an old framed photograph that sat on a wooden chest, on a crochet table mat her mom made. Immaculate white curtains wavered over it like a ghost gliding in the nightlight. “It was such a strange thing to see mother dancing like that. Who knew? And I wonder whatever happened to the songs they indulgently danced to anyway? Like their youth in time, they must have simply transposed, minutely into mere fragments of recollections we now share.”
His voice strained but it had maintained resolute permanence. It’s almost never easy to live in the past his father concluded. In the mind of the old man, it is almost like an attempt to recover a deep lasting sleep, trying to recapture a wonderful dream he once had, at least what’s left of it.
And he can never, anymore, remember how many wonderful weekends he spent with those whom he loved, nor the feeling that they carried along with them. The night lamp was dimming along with the diminishing chirps of bush crickets in the enclosing windows, until the fire had flickered no more, until the dark had devoured the nothingness and the absolute.
We were set to meet the week after Earl was found on the bathroom floor in her parents’ house. Everyone had to lay low for a while, but clearly it was also a way of saying that the club was about to end. The climate was inclement distinctively that night. The smell of sanitized concrete was clean and calming which paced my driving slow. The man in a green suit and pointy front teeth directed me to where I could park; hand-gesturing to a space behind the steel fences by the backdoor, where I found a graveyard of cigarette stubs and puddles of dark water left by the rain.
I cranked the hand break and checked the parking job from the rearview, and waited for the engine to die down before pressing the dial. The phone rang a few times over until finally a coarse voice answered lazily hinting a dozy reluctance.
It wasn’t her, so I hung up. I went inside and nursed my impatience coupled with anxiety, while I sank in my usual spot at the corner where it was dark and cool and relatively isolated.
I repeatedly went over the unfavorable odds, and faulted myself for it.
So I drank, and shook a pinball machine instead.
A little over a year ago, Earl and I stayed in a summertime retreat house near the eastern coastline that a relative of his handsomely sponsored. It was a favor that I had to go through which he insisted, since I had nothing especially to do that vacation period anyway. Besides, I have already given tita my confirmation, which would be considered a huge let down if I had changed my mind the last minute. We were made to do preplanned activities which were part of the program, which also ensued, consequently, the day to day itinerary adversely tight for anything else.
On the fourth night, I thought of getting up before the sun did. Sleep was a novelty that was not there since the time we arrived. The moon was too bright it seemed prying, stars too many that I felt naked under them.
It felt like I was making up for lost time. I had a mini viewing deck in my room, sat there with my early cigarettle. Looking through the binoculars following a tree line over the ridge, I saw a beautiful white domestic canary gliding over the sloping into the narrow passages until it disappeared, completely. The entire landscape was starting to warm up until it was finally soft and rosy all around, while the ocean whimpered across the shore on the opposite side of the lodge.
And it seemed tranquil enough to begin, for anyone who wanted to start all over – like a moth to a lamp I was drawn to it.
It was after breakfast when I saw her waded in the shallows. The water was clear, and blue, and sometimes green in the day. The skiff shifted, it was about the perfect time to daydream, and what better way to do it than sailing away from the coast. When the waters were right about her hip, she went in and plunged. She paddled on patiently, her arms made consistent circular motions toward the direction of the horizon. She tasted the salt upon turning her head for air, and permitted the sea to wrap itself around her young body, to flow through her hair and touch her eyes.
I have never seen anyone so beautiful. She was the countless sand in that ocean, slipping away through my fingers.
Consumed, she took a rest on the raft, and lay there as if entwined with the planks; she felt the weight sinking beneath her and the water trickling down the surface of her now warm skin. Her complete state heeded to the call of gravity, and the sun was almost midway up when she stared at it through the gap between her thighs.
She also saw the passing of the skiff, the sails were unfamiliar, but the face she knew. Even so, she paid no mind to it, then she turned to her side and thought about the other boy instead.
It echoed to her, ringing into her ears. Circling, hovering in the air suspended. A thought that lingered, a shadow cast, a return mail, or perhaps in this case of her’s a puzzle piece that she’d rather not complete. On the side table sat a half filled glass of water and a mat of aspirins accented by the crumpling of drugstore receipts. She got up but not quite making it and leaned against the two giant pillows propped on the wall. The day was not over yet, the soft glow of twilight brimmed across the wide horizon making the sky flushed up in that gentle orangery burst.
Her body was warm, a leg was bent and both arms sagged across the bed. The wrinkles of the undone fitted sheets gave out, it was almost dark and she was turning into a bat. A familiar musk of which only a man could only produce made her senses and her entire anatomy felt defensive. She dabbed on her side hesitantly, lips were half open, curious words stifled by this uninvited ambiguity. She can hear innocence and lightness in the breathing that accompanied her. It was dry and rhythmic, almost melodious in tone. It got louder as she leaned forward, causing her head braced.
She then dragged her fingertips quietly forward until finally they had made contact with a crooked body.
“It is not a dream” She thought. “But I do not know this man”. She pricked herself again and again – for sometimes she would wake in a dream and would wander off in another.
“I slept the day away. But why aren’t you scared silly? Alas! At the very least weirded out by all this, stupid…” She gasped and slowly moved back to her side and tapped her left sole first onto the floor to get into her bedroom slippers.
Half an hour past she walked toward the table that stood by the open window, dragging a trail of blanket behind her, covering herself to the chest. She waited there staring at the burrowed face on her bed, behind the mosquito net beneath the moonglow that showered through the faint curtains. This woke the crooked body and arose almost in stealth, propped on its arms on the sides.
This time she can see him, but not entirely. Half of his chest and most of his being were concealed, unshared. But there was nothing to show, it spoke finally. “It is I, Juliana” his tone low and suited the sultry tropical weather. He was just a faceless man, not of the flesh but made of stencils, and paints, and narratives – a pigment of her imagination, an absolute manifestation of her mind.
Surely she was not running a high fever to cast this delirious persona she checked.
The dream if it were, was surprisingly placid, she rationalized.
Behind the scaffolding, a grimy mirror on the mahogany closet held her reflection. And she traced the light of the night outlined her shape, the slope of her forehead, the swell on her chest, and the rugged top knot of a painter’s panache she was sporting.
She was humbled by what she knew – She saw the sketching of the skies, the molding from clay, a creation of someone else’s dream.
She reopened a note she retrieved from the drawer and read:
“Let us linger in time before things disintegrate completely before us like paper in the rain. Perhaps it will help you remember. With complete vigor and youthful view round the backseats, as we drove up north, and decided on how you and I should face each other, now, then, in front of, or miles apart, we will always be the same people who we chose to be. Like our favorite characters in those films. So I’ll see you there, amour.”
The wind was all about him. Kerosene lamps lit the huts, while generators for the volunteer canopies. He got down on one knee and felt the lifeless ground beneath his palm. The earth was frozen, gray, and forlorn, as if barren. It labored the imminent misery that it will carry for the remainder of its time while the quiet and the unbidden tears, all the faithful disobedience – to not go this time – will be forcibly tucked to oblivion. No, not this time, or perhaps he was wrong. There were no second chances there he thought, only a time for reclusion, to mourn, and to dream infinitely in solitude. In the soft cradles of midnight blue overhead, and the casting light in the drowsy river, gentle and sparkling, an overflowing champagne in November. Square miles of farm grass yielded their blades – in pine or in the shade of moss – glowing in that blue and deep night. It called for him, and it did not hold back. It was restless like how the sea waves submit in the time of the monsoon. And the black hole, and the super-clusters and the entire universe held in reverse in the eyes of those who lay half-awake in their sleeping bags by the fire. While the scudding clouds pushed by resentment, and indifference, and incoherence. Dancing waltz or celebrating a solemn procession during lent. However so, these days were his, for the first time he knew for sure. When he felt the pounding life force on his chest, when his veins were streamed with perpetual devotion to just breathe, and lead, to command, and write, and work with his bare hands, with ink, and thoughts, and sheer brute, and absolute resolve.
Lest the world will crumble away easily.
Slow walking, he made a promise to himself. To never return, for it could no longer, ever, reclaim the innocence it once had. The cold north breeze crept beneath at the beginning from the foot of the brown hills, now patient and almost still. It won’t be hurried; a mother nursing what soon will be morning dews. As if it was a craft, or poetry, a prayer for the divine.
She walked behind him, sidled and handed him the canteen. He drank from it and he felt the warm liquid gushing through his insides.
He had to get some air he said. As he looked down to his feet, he thanked her for the thought. Half of her face was shrouded by an emerald light from the east, and you can see hair tufts on her nape. She crouched on a slight slanting, overlooking the patches of shrubs across the plain distance.
From a far, the moon gleamed over the tent canvas and the red nylon textiles were tender, subdued. On the mountainside, a significant clearing has been made to open up pathways for the recovery plan. One can barely make out the remains of the clipped bird.
He felt this overbearing weight in his lungs. Perhaps it was the residues of the stench, of dead rats mixed with the smelt of cold rusts. He was flying back to Manila before sunrise.
“You did real well. You should take that with you, always”. She consoles.
“But the weird thing is, and you must forgive me for saying… I think I have only known you now after all these years. I can’t really put a finger on it, but it was as if you were someone else.”
“The meeting of parallels” He retorted.
“Tell me more about it, when we’re done here.”
“That’s for sure.”
The long ride back was fast and smooth as soon as they reached the national highway. She drove him to the free airfield in a service truck, also to fetch the succeeding waves of rescuers flying in. The thick blowing winds muffled their ears, and preferred not to talk much all throughout the drive. And when they reached the guard post, she waved her identification card at the officer to open the barrier gate, pulling over to the nearest parking space by the tarmac.
He tucked her hair behind her ears and kissed her on the forehead. They both felt warm as they wrapped arms around each other wordlessly, and smiled before turning around. He saw her leaning against the grill, looking sunward until he can no longer see her.
Back at the apartment he sat at the corner by the telephone rack. And he looked round the room filled with words and labels from household appliance brands he rarely uses, stacks of western shoe-boxes, construction company calendars, double-ply toilet paper, a notepad and a courtesy pen from a hotel.
Behind the glass window he stared at the conniving sky, and wished for it to fall.
Gregor and Emma are examining book spines of classic Filipiniana collections hoping they will stumble across something interesting although they already knew that this is highly unlikely. If only great authors from the past could just magically write something new to send across to the present time, or maybe publishing houses would brilliantly come up with ideas like releasing special commemorative book editions or better yet, finding lost unpublished manuscripts from some hidden vault or a locked study. Emma is on her knees, as if praying in front of a shrine – her collar bones perspire – while Gregor is skimming the pages of a Nick Joaquin shorts. The old bookstore is so cramped, that religion and adult romance sections were placed next to each other.
Either it is a force of habit to induce intelligent conversations or just part of this unnecessary need for a routine that they occasionally come over to the same bookstore to have a proper venue to kick off their colorful speculations and exchanges that they agreed to term “The Crayola Sessions”. Today is about the eventful ending of life as we all know it. The end of the world.
Gregor is wearing a samurai blue coat, with a white shirt beneath it. The necktie knot is loose, and he wears sports sneakers for comfort, while Emma is wearing a gray cardigan over a sleeveless casual shirt and a pair of denim shorts.
A whiff of old papers and the cold rain from the open windows marinate in the air, there is nothing like it. Emma hailed the passing attendant of the store and ordered coffee and a pack of Marlboro reds, handing over the payment and a few change as tip. There are just about three round tables in the bookstore to occupy guests. They sat by the Capiz sliding windows.
“Say, do you think some divine being will truly show itself when the time comes? I really hope they’re cats. I think they must be, right? They are the sanest, most beautiful answer to save us from this god forsaken place. Ancient Egyptians believed it. I think it’s real. You should see that episode about it.” Emma continued.
“You’re annoying. But should it be true, at least it should be something original”
“I mean,” closing the book in his hands, placing the index finger between the pages “I hope it’s not going to be some cheesy judgment day where the sky opens up and angels appearing with trumpets start playing heavenly tunes, like what you see from those mediocre films.”
“Okay mister, supposing you are given a chance to participate to come up with a grand design on how things should end, how will you write it? What will be your ingenious version then? “
Emma scowling with a heft of sarcasm, crossing her legs together and leaning back against the My Home magazine back issues.
“I don’t know, probably angels and evil minions in Uber sedans, or perhaps a Ferris Wheel ride to enter heaven, only those permitted will be given a free pass.”
Emma gave out a genuine laugh.
When the attendant came back with their coffee the breeze picked up stronger. There is no rain but the air is definitely damp. “Stay in for as long as you want, we’re supposed to close in about an hour but you are welcome here anytime.”
“Thank you for the hospitality sir, but we have to be somewhere as well.” Gregor replied.
“Do we really have to go to that party? I mean, we’re already settled in here. “
“But you promised me Emma, don’t be such a prick.”
“No I did not! I said I will consider it.”
There was silence between them.
Gregor patiently studied the ceiling fan and making sipping noises from the cup that eventually graduated to slurping.
“But okay, to merit your infallible persistence, I will go. But only until midnight and you need to promise me that. Emma asserted.
“Okay, I promise then.”
“Just need to go back to my place and change.”
The attendant stepped back and nodded to the patrons before turning away.
“There’s no time, besides I have come prepared. I asked my sister to lend you her dress. You’re a size 6 right?”
Emma’s eyes rolled back, confused whether she would be impressed or annoyed.
When they arrived the hall was already teeming up with people and loud danceable music. Looking around, people of different age brackets are there. They are drinking and dancing but they don’t look like they are enjoying at all. They are like hermits in uncomfortable shells. It felt odd to Emma.
When Gregor came back from the refreshments table his face was beaming with excitement. He handed over a glass of punch to Emma.
“What’s this party about again?” Emma asked in a loud voice next to his ear.
“It’s a masquerade party!” Gregor shouted.
“A what party?!”
“A Masquerade party!” Gregor repeated and Emma finally caught up.
“I don’t think I follow you, I mean people are not wearing any masks here!”
Emma keeping up with the noise.
“Well, I don’t blame you! It’s a different kind of masquerade. People here are wearing a different kind of masks. That includes you Emma.”
“Uh, I don’t understand” Emma now more perplexed.
“People came here wearing clothes of other people. Preferably people who are linked to them. And they pretend as if they are them as well”. Gregor explains.
Emma stepped back, and surveyed the friend from head to toe.