Nine Lives

Carnival

She wanted the big panda. There was that game of popping balloons in one of the booths. He got her the prize at his nineteenth try. It wasn’t much, but he was proud of it. He wasn’t quite the catch she wanted. He was too tall for her and a bit hairy for her taste. He is a giant. But her mom approves of him and he is persistent. He was the convenient choice. It’s been a while since the last time she won anything. She decided to snuggle with her prize that night. She decided to be happy with her stuffed animal.

Roman Empire

She got down on her knees on the second date. It was Marcus Aurelius’ fault. He was to blame. She fell in love with a philosopher. She loved it when he read to her. A few days after, she could still taste him in her lips. He tasted like rusty metal, his breath smelled like rotten, wet cardboard. His junk smelled like dried piss and it ripped her apart, almost like paper.

It was a completely different sensation. To be conquered that way. At will. She blamed it all on Caligula. To her savage lover.

Dressing Room

“Well, what do you think?” She was trying on a dress at the local department store.

“They all look the same to me, Stella.”

“Do I look better with this one or the green one?”

“I think you look lovely in both, honey.”

“Could you please try a little harder?”

“I am. I am. Jeez, what do you want from me?”

“Just pick one that is better, John.”

“Okay.” He scratched his head in annoyance. “Well, I think you looked better with the green one.”

“You think so?”

“Yeah, honest. What do you think?”

“I’m not sure. Probably I’ll just buy both.”

“Oh.”

After a few more tries, they finally checked out and paid for three dresses.

White. Green. Black.

Rapid Boil

She handed me the photograph. It was a happy picture of her. She then excitedly went over the details on how to get there, on how easy it was going to be. It was a picture of her somewhere in sunny Japan. She was smiling. She seemed contented. She said we ought to visit there sometime next year, just us. I said, “Yes, of course.” But I knew trips like that never happen. Two years after she moved to southern California where she had a family of her own. I heard she had a child and has two jobs, sometimes three when she can afford to work nights.

I mean, it must have hurt. Difficult. I think about her every night, only when I could afford to. Mostly when I am preparing dinner. During when I am cooking eggs to a rapid boil.

Nine Lives

Soon after getting married, we found ourselves in our own little bubble. In the afternoons we would lay, and we’d stay in bed entwined until dusk, until dawn. We clung onto eternity. We were ageless, a little too hopeful, naive. But eventually, life catches on. The days are getting shorter. In the evenings we would fight. About money mostly. We had our biases, our own individuality, bursting our own little bubble. We were both stingy and splurging. We were both caring and spiteful. Living with each other was a riot. We were spent.

But I guess that’s alright. The world is not equilateral as the wise would say. Loving is, after all, like living with a cat. What you get in return is just an occasional purr and a whole lot of indifference.

But still, you cling for more, faithful, undeterred of its cunning.

Fog Machines to Infanta

When Fred got home, he found Maria sprawled on her belly in their bedroom. He tiptoed across the linoleum floor approaching her. Maria sensed this, clamped up as if on a defensive, turning to the other way to face the wall.

“Please go away.” Maria appealed softly to her beloved. Her body was completely tense and cold. She could smell his familiar scent when Fred tried to move in closer. She felt the bed bounce.

Maria has mustered enough courage and told Fred the news at the dinner table. It was a hard confession but it was the truth. She couldn’t bear his child. If only it had been possible, maybe things would have turned out differently. “The doctors did all that they could,” she explained. “It was already the third opinion.” She’s thirty-six.

Fred helped out with the dishes. They both had a cigarette and a drink in silence, after which, she went into the bathroom but did not come back for a good period of time.

The next day she spent the entire morning in the sun as she did the entire summer by the pool. Betsy and Jackie told her that she could still be happy regardless. Maria’s heart scowled at them.  She wanted to scream. She wanted to disintegrate.

She was driving just after sundown. It was already dark but the tufts of her scarf stood out in the glare of the dashboard. The Coke next to her was bland with the melting ice in it. She knew the time, but the destination was unclear to her. Regardless, the steering wheel had been kind enough to indulge her indecisions. There was the moon in the open sky. If she and Fred were to triangulate, they’d be able to find themselves on the moon, she figured. He was probably staring at it too, this she had hoped. Just imagine, forgetting grief. She told herself. But it is just an idea to help cope with a weeping heart. It wasn’t a cure or the antidote that Maria was looking for at the moment. It was an illusion for a fanatic, nothing more. A fog machine. Solid carbon dioxide.

Maria stopped by a store to rent a movie. She wanted to be River Phoenix and Keanu when they rode that canary-yellow Norton bike. She wanted to let her hair loose and just drive that motorcycle far away, getting lost. But she was tired and it was getting late. And it just won’t feel the same.

In the dead of the night, instead, she threaded what could have been a scenic road to Infanta in the morning. She drove on until the humming of the car engine had finally caught up with her and pounced her heavy heart.

It was a beautiful night under the stars. And what soon remained, finally, was the fading screech of the tires on the pavement and the deafening punctuation she had decided to write down, when she took a quick turn, ramming a steel barrier.

She had sent what remained of her sorrow into the deep enclosures of the quiet.

And as this moment stretches on infinitely in her head, during the fall, Maria played a memory again and again, until she could no longer:

When Fred and Maria walked up the hillside to the direction of the wind. When the tamarind trees were dark in the sun and there were tall grasses swaying around the pathway where they trekked. When Maria went along with it, even though she knew that her place had always been near the water. When her skin longed for the chlorine of her backyard pool.  When there were about six or seven patches of grey clouds above them. When they touched lips for the first time.

Sweet Spaghetti

She ordered a spaghetti meal and a coke. Tony liked his brewed coffee lukewarm so he let it sit for a while as they talked. They were in a fast food joint in QC, in one of its old parts. It was two after midnight. You’d know if it’s time to go when the whole place starts to smell like hospitals, of antiseptic, when it’s too clean. There was only them and a few service crew left closing up. The streets were dark and almost empty. It felt like the night alleys are lurking. It felt that it had plenty of room for dark secrets and piss. There were night owls sitting on the gutters, overly embellished prostitutes stood under the yellow lights, and there was a parked police mobile at the dark corner. Tony was just getting started. There were small teabags hanging under his eyes. He wore them proudly. He liked to sleep in the mornings and live his life at night.  Joy doesn’t have much knack for it. But she’s the spontaneous kind. She was like a kite that goes along with the direction of the wind, never minding.

Joy was going to stay in a hotel suite. Just a short drive from where she lived. There was a scheduled water interruption and she asked Tony to take her. The water levels in the reserve were too low and it’s going to hit their neighborhood twice that week. Tony spelled out the irony. It was both severely dreadful and funny Joy told him. Tony agreed.

It was as if they were both waiting for the dawn. Tony poured some whiskey he had from his jacket pocket into their drinks. She finished her sweet spaghetti and drank, while Tony leaned against the window with his coffee.

“I apologize for earlier.”

“It’s fine.” Joy answered cooly. “I just hope you don’t go around kissing girls you just met.”

“I don’t,” Tony responded. “They don’t like me that much.”

“Did you mean it?”

“Do you mean if it’s real?”

Joy did not answer.

They drove to her subdivision to pick up her things. And while he waited for her, Tony watched the full moon that was accompanying him from the sky. There was cool air that blew from the direction of the hills. There were cloud patches translucent in metallic blue. Time seemed to have stood still and was waiting for him to say something, anything. There were stars, lots of them, and the city lights below him.

When Joy re-emerged, the sound of the heavy gate woke the dogs from the houses nearby. There was a lot of barking and howling.  She had changed her clothes and her knees were visible with the hems of her skirt just above them.

“Ready?” She was the spring that never happened, thought Tony.

“There is no such thing. You just kind of do.” Joy answered.

“I guess it’s that simple huh?” Tony retorted.

“Like jumping off a plane.”

Both of them laughed.

Joy took Tony’s hand and said, “You know, to be frank, I like you, Tony D. And I think I want to keep you. But only for these sorts of conversations, you see?”

“I understand. Like how we prefer the night.”

“That’s just you, Tony.”

“Is there anything else?”

“Yes. And I like to fight sometimes too. Is that weird?”

“No. I don’t think that’s weird at all.”

Tony woke in her hotel bed the morning after. He suddenly missed home. But he decided to lie down for a while. Tony rested his eyes and turned to his side. His breath was on her temple and on her hair. He missed the sharp and muffled hisses of the cold air the night before when they drove. He thought about the amber lights when they passed through the highway.

Tony woke Joy up. They got some air and went for a walk. It was still early. They smoked while they held hands. Tony did. Joy was sucking on flavored vapor. Tony remembered what Collin Farrell had said in True Detective about e-cigarettes. It really looked like that she was sucking a robot’s dick. Tony laughed. She also laughed with him. They were holding hands still.

Black Hole

Fred woke up early. He was fifty-seven and unemployed. The sun hurt his eyes that he winced when the morning light was drawn in. There were sirens wailing outside vanishing into a fade. The room was strange, bare, and rather small. It was a birdcage. He looked under the sheets and found out that he wasn’t wearing his pants. He got lucky. He had no recollection of it but the fact still remained. He processed this, mulled it over while he nursed a hangover. What is it all worth if one can’t trace any of it? It felt like vanishing footprints in the sand. Shame, it could have been special he thought. It was like a nice dream that you couldn’t recall. There was a note on the side table. It was a woman’s handwriting. It wasn’t signed. There wasn’t a name on it. What was her name? He asked himself over and over. He simply couldn’t remember. She probably doesn’t have one.

He found the bathroom and took a quick cold shower. He wrapped his arms around the toilet and vomited twice and crapped right after. There wasn’t a pantry. The fridge was empty. There were vegetables he could blanch but he preferred pork fat and grease. He wanted something hot for breakfast but what he got instead was the warm beer that he picked up from the floor. Coffee was going to help. If only there was hot coffee the day would start out nice. He finished what’s left of the beer and headed out.

There weren’t any convenience stores around. But there was the bar. There was coffee. But there were a lot of bourbons too. He found another friend. The barkeep poured happily.

“I guess I am a focused man.”  Fred defended.

“But that’s not how it works, I’m afraid.” Said the barkeep.

“Should I change then?”

“You can compromise, I suppose.”

“Like a lot?”

The barkeep paused to think.

“No. Just keep it centered.”

“Do you think it will work?”

“No, I do not.”

“Oh. Why?”

“Because I’ve seen it too many times.”

“I’m confused.”

“I am too.”

When he got home, he collected most of his mail and the subscription magazines his ex-wife used to read. He couldn’t remember why she liked those. He doesn’t remember much. He wasn’t sober much either. He leisurely read the same columns she followed before throwing them all in the trash. Fred was fifty-seven and unemployed. His wife left him. The kids do not talk to him anymore unless they needed something. The problem was, he spent more time with his typewriter and it was like a black hole, Agnes would complain.

After getting the stamps, he mailed a copy of his book to her. He wrote an inscription which said “I hope you find something good here. For what it’s worth, our story looks good on paper, all things considered.

P.S.  Try not to use a bookmark here. Humor me, please. Write soon.”

Just before noon, the phone rang while he was lying on his back. He was watching an old Scorsese film. He thought about it but didn’t pick up. It must be Agnes or one of the kids. Ray Liotta was driving around paranoid, evading a helicopter after snorting coke.

The phone rang again. And again. Ray Liotta was still driving around, still evading the helicopter. He has to get his money back. He has got to convince Jimmy. The guns were sitting inside his trunk in a crumpled grocery bag.

But there was the helicopter still. He has to shake it loose. He has to keep his cool together.

Flypaper

I always feel happier whenever I’m on empty trains. But it’s been hard to ride them nowadays. In fact, I personally consider it a luxury whenever I find one. Most of the time, MRTs are cramped, it’d be a lottery to board one without experiencing a significant degree of struggle. We are running out of roads apparently. Too many cars, lesser good roads. Where there are too many people, there is not enough urban planning in place. I was on my way home when I bumped into this frustration. A faint reminder that disappointments are a troubling part of living. The dead have it easy.  I was reading a novel. Sometimes, I think that my only saving grace is fiction. Or it’s a sort of a consolation I guess. A disappointment cushion. A fucking doll.

I checked my phone and read a message from a friend. He asked to meet in Cubao. I said, what’s it about? He said, nothing serious. Then I asked, what the hell for? He said, he needed to talk. I said, okay.

When I got home, I took my dad’s car. I had enough of trains for one day. The ’76 Galant was craggy but still reliable. It needed some washing, but I thought the filth added character. Driving it was another joy of my life. No matter how tough the drive was, the ride had always been an escape.

Later, I realized that finding a parking space was as tough as surviving traffic. After the treasure hunt, I was able to smoke my first cigarette for hours. I got out, stretched my legs, and jaywalked.

I arrived three hours late. I needed a cold beer. Luckily there’s plenty. The city breeze that night was fresh. The rain just let up, but sadly it was only for a few minutes. It rained again. I showed him the manuscript. He read it. He didn’t like it. He said it was shit. He ripped it apart. He called it friendship. I called it my classroom.

We skipped the main reason why we’re there in the first place. We ordered some crispy Thai noodles. We talked about the monsoon and the countless rains. When you run out of things to talk about, you talk about the weather I suppose.

Then he spilled his insides out in the open.

For a man who was not meant to win anyone, he yearned for symbiosis. Long after then, he still had her picture tacked on his wall.

I wanted to console him. But I knew that there are some things that you can never win. I didn’t think he could drown himself with all the drinks he could buy that night.

“Just walk away.” I urged him.

“My legs are gone.”

“Just move.”

“Easy for you to say.”

“That’s unfair, scoot over. But I get you.” I said earnestly.

My mom had always told me to always see the good in people. But I couldn’t tell him that that night.  I guess no matter how much bearing the truth had, the pain can still shatter it through.

A Jeff Buckley song played on the monitor. We tried to sing along on the easiest verse to remember. We were both a bit tipsy and a whole lot out of tune.

I checked the news on my phone, the traffic was still bad. I guess we’re like insects stuck on flypaper, unable to move.

We both looked outside, the rain continued on, this time heavier. We can’t do anything.

Some of the rainwater seeped through the window. I suppose staying indoors was the right thing to do, at that time.

I suppose it’s all for the better. My mouth was still dry. I needed a cold beer. Luckily there’s plenty.

Fire Starter

It was a Wednesday. Thelma was boiling water with the percolator. She can smell the heated coils from the vapor which tells her that the water is nearly done. She was making complimentary coffee for two. One for the old man and the other for the armadillo. But the old man doesn’t drink coffee or eat. He only consumes alcohol all day. He reeks of it. You can’t stand four feet from him without catching a whiff of the booze coming out the pores of his skin. Thelma placed the serving tray between them. It was nearly three o’clock and they were the only ones who were left in the bar. The armadillo clamped up into a ball when she handed them their coffee. “Oh, I’m sorry, did I startle you?” Thelma inquired. “Don’t worry, it’s not you. He’s not quite himself today.” Cheered the old man.

The music that was playing had stopped. Thelma placed the tray on her side and went over to the jukebox and gave it a hard yank to fix it. It was a success. She then returned behind the bar and resumed wiping glasses to dry and anything else that she could find.

When the coast was clear, the armadillo resumed posture and started nipping on his cup. It liked how the hot liquid felt inside its stomach. The old man preferred his bourbon and water. A lady walked into the bar in her high heels, soaking from the head down, and sat at the far end of the bar. She ordered a scotch and asked for a telephone. There was a hard rain outside and she couldn’t drive through it.

The lady took out a pack of cigarettes. But this caused an alarm that as if a rolling bowling ball, the armadillo rushed over towards the lady and warned her about lightning anything inside the bar.

“You must forgive my intrusion miss, but smoking will get everyone here killed.” The armadillo slightly panting.

Startled, the lady almost spilling her drink, gave a puzzled look at the stranger.

The armadillo tried to explain. “You see, if you ignite so much as a matchstick, it would be the end of us.” He turned to the old man and faced her again. “My friend over there has this rare condition. That scent of alcohol that you’re getting right now is highly flammable.”

“It’s true. The old man drinks so much he’s got that medical thing. But I let him come here still. He’s about the only regular-paying customer I’ve got.” Thelma seconded.

“And the only reason I keep coming back to this filth of a place is that no one ever comes here I could drink in peace.”

“Touché.” Said Thelma.

The old man and the armadillo just smiled.

“It’s either I smoke or it would have to be something else. Would you like to dance handsome?” Feeling rather bored, the lady asked the old man.

They danced to some slow music written in the eighties. The lady was too drunk to notice the stench coming out of the old man’s wrinkly skin. She kissed him with a tongue and he kissed her back. “I’m Tabitha, what’s yours?”

“I’m Fred.”

“Just Fred?”

“Yeah, everyone calls me Fred.”

“You’re a lucky man Fred, you’re dancing with a celebrity.”

It didn’t matter to him.

“God, I could blow someone for a cigarette right now.”

“I’m sorry, I couldn’t be that man for you.”

“You’re funny, Fred.”

“No, I’m being serious. I’m so old I don’t have the time for jokes. But I could’ve set your world on fire.”

Tabitha laughed. “Oh, that’s alright honey, you don’t have to save me. I live in a world of haze, where the texture is soft and fluffy, but the line between success and disappointment is a blur. Don’t worry, I’m a big girl.”

“I think I live on the same street.”

They ordered two more rounds before billing out. The rain washed away the stench of alcohol on him standing outside the bar in a shared umbrella. The armadillo clung onto his shoulder while the lady was on his side. When they got into the car, Tabitha tried the ignition several times but she couldn’t start it. The old man popped the hood but still couldn’t do anything to fix it.

“We can’t say we didn’t try.” The old man giving up.

“Should we try the bar again?” Suggested the armadillo.

It was almost six in the morning, but the skies were still dark. Thelma was closing up when she saw the car still parked in front of her. It was still raining hard and there were no signs of stopping.

“What are you doing?”

“The car won’t start.” Said Tabitha.

“Thank God! You’re not supposed to drive.”

“Can you give us a lift then?”

“Or we can try the bar again.” Insisted the armadillo.

“Nah, I think you guys had more than enough for one night.” Answered Thelma.

They stood around in the rain for a few more minutes. They convinced Thelma to drive them as far as she could. They were dropped off in front of the armadillo’s apartment where they bought three more bottles of Jack and some breakfast from a deli nearby.

At the last minute, the call for a cigarette caught up with the celebrity. She bailed on them as they were falling in line to pay for their supplies. But the paparazzi has already done his job and decided to buy himself a drink at Thelma’s to celebrate.

Save the Jokes for Last

He sat with his peer at the nearby café after the day’s tiring work. The afternoon sun was beginning to set, but the day was considerably longer because of the summer solstice.

They had fried fish for lunch and planning to have pares for supper. It didn’t matter where they went for as long as they had fresh packs of cigarettes with them all day.

While passing the time, the younger one picked up the broadsheet from the vacated table next to them. The news was considerably current, even though the paper was dated some two days ago.

It read that the Department of Health had recently declared that the vaccine scare was over. It’s just that most people chose not to believe it, that was the predicament.

“Have you read this yet?”

“Why? Did somebody win the Lotto finally?”

“No, it’s about that Dengvaxia thing.”

“Yeah, I’m relieved that’s over.”

“People are still worried about it though.”

“Sadly. But hey, you can’t blame them right? With all of those fake news circling around.”

The evening sun relieved the day. The moon also did not disappoint, it was even brighter compared to the nights before with its copper-like glow. We decided to skip dinner, and transgressed to drinking whiskey with water, and full cups of Irish coffee instead. The café was starting to pick up, with customers filling up the tables.

He told me that his wife was leaving him. “Of course, she’ll take the house and the kids, even the goddamn dog.”

Then something welled up inside of me. I can’t help but feel that we’re all the same. We’re all just a pile of beat-up empty cans crashing down the hill.

“It’s just sad that the weight of the truth is nowadays measured by the amount of noise one makes.”

Still thinking about the news article, I shared my thoughts outloud.

“Do you think it’s all gone?” The elder colleague followed up.

I lifted my cup off the saucer and pretended I needed a sip. There was a moment of silence between us.

“Well, nothing is ever really gone, I guess. God, I hope it’s not. I think she’s just tired, needs resting, do you understand?”

“I guess so.” The old man’s voice was tired.

“Hey, at least you can use that as material for your second novel.”

“Ain’t that dandy?” Then he handed me his share of the check before finally making his point.

“I don’t believe it matters anymore.”

Months later a state of calamity was issued brought about by the suspension of the vaccine.

Nowadays, I spare myself from reading the comic strip section and jump straight into the by-line columns, to get my weekly dose of laughs.