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.

Dreaming in Lieu

At forty-two, he met his son under the bright neon signs for the opening of the night festival. There were electric lights that illuminated the boardwalk, giving off an ambient mood which made him all the more taciturn as they walked towards the end of the dock. He didn’t know how to start. It always took a while to get warm around him. At the bright corner, he lighted a cigarette and exhaled a white stream of smoke into the air that perfumed the nearby surroundings. The waves were not visible but they could hear the crashes when it approached the bay.

It was a long time ago since they first came here. As if it was a race, both of them happily traced the memories while eating dirty ice cream in a bun. There was so much to say but the eyes always said more. He’s always been proud of what his son had become. The young man has got his father’s eyes and the strength of his mother’s heart.

“Why do you have to go?” The son almost cracked his voice.

“I don’t think I’ve got a say on this, son.” He swung his shoulders back to stretch them.  He felt the urge to punch the night right on its chin.

“Can I be there when you go?”

“Don’t be like that, you know I don’t have the knack for the theatrics. We’ll see each other someday.”

He always felt it helped. How the colors of the flicking lights conceal the ugliness and the scars. He always thought that they were sort of a phenomenon. It was Lou Reed who was playing on the car radio when he opened the windows, driving just a little over the speed limit.

Under the cup of darkness, he felt estranged —  wherein the midnight blue reigned, it was a proxy for a companion that delivered.

At the local diner, he consulted a friend who worked as a part-timer.  She was old, but still got good legs.

“With enough money to spare, we can surely buy happiness. But batteries and permanency not included, honey. So don’t go expecting it would last until daybreak.”

He ordered another pour of coffee with six spoonfuls of sugar.  This he consumed bitterly still, with the poetry his son wrote on the pages of his wife’s old Cattleya notebook.

It Must Have Been That Gary Guy Down the Hall

I wasn’t sure if I dialed the right number. But I tried and tried until I was finally able to get a hold of the local police. I frantically gave out a description of what happened that night. I told the operator that I heard some strange noises and that I was really scared. There were some low screeching noises in the walls. The sound that it was making were cold, of tormented voices which can be simply described as hoarse and scratchy all the same. “It must be Gary, I really think it’s him!” I told the woman I spoke with. I was fidgeting and twisting the spiral cord of the payphone in the hallway.

There is something about the rain that calms me. There were nights that I wished that it would not let up and it would just spray like that forever — slanting, almost sideways, so in that way I would know that the wind was carrying it, like how my memories would carry my chest adrift.

But there wasn’t a single drop for months.

At midnight I would randomly call friends to relieve me of my self-inflicted agitation. And they would say that Susan – my made-up girlfriend– did not deserve me at all.

They said that I should just simply forget her and they gave me a fine lesson on how I should start anew.

I wrote to my folks to lend me some money because I spent most of what I had on cheap evening companions and prescription drugs. Of course, I didn’t tell them that. I used the excuse that I was struggling, coping in the big city.

I always felt that I was different compared to those low-life addicts. I separated myself from their filth but I also wouldn’t call myself anywhere near special. I guess the only difference was that I knew there wasn’t an escape, nor a commiserated vindication if there was an end to any of these.

A guy who lived down the hall dropped by one night and brought some drinks to share.

He lifted his foamy beer and drank, and used a plastic fork when he pinched and chewed on the fried tofu. As if harnessing holy powers from this, he told me — in a forlorn way — about his prevocational wisdom.

“We don’t really get fixed. We just think we do and go on by, mending until we’re all done for.”

I guess he’s right. The world is not equilateral after all.

“Until we’re all done for.” I repeated the line to myself and stood up to get us fresh beers from the fridge.

“Do you like horror stories?” I asked him while balancing myself on a chair with its two back legs.

“I suppose.” he answered coolly.

And I read him something that I wrote and asked him to critique:

He was lying on his side facing her. It’s been days now since he got admitted for an illness he still wouldn’t believe he’s got. And he stared at her and wondered on, in those kind brown eyes that seemed like bathing in a midsummer night’s moonlight. He knew what she did, all of her secrets.

There was shortness in his breath. There was also shortness in the nights that ensued.

“Can you talk about the house again? Just enough to get me to sleep.”

She indulged him and told him about their dream house as he would have wanted it. How they’d wander in and about the halls and the walkways together to the garden in that perfect warm morning sun.

It was just a matter of time she reassured him.

Then one of the evening shift nurses came in and administered a dose of penicillin through a syringe and gave him something for the pain.

Then he asked to be moved to face the windows. But there was a bricked wall that blocked the view.

After reading him the first lines, Gary gave a huge laugh and told me that I should seriously consider switching genres.

Flushed and rather ashamed, I told him that I was going for something more.

Sometimes, the easiest decisions are the hardest ones to make. I wanted to stop using, but the thought of strangling him seemed more plausible.

I knew exactly what he came for.

Then I switched my gaze towards the lock of my door and thought about the shortness in his breath.

Eczema (wildflowers)

 

Wrinkles

I told everybody that I was leaving. My closest friends had asked me where, of course, but I felt it didn’t matter if I shared exactly where. I wasn’t even sure myself. All I knew was that it had to be done sooner than later. No use if I tried to go against the inevitable. The dried leaves in the public pool that night seemed like old people trying to swim. Their wrinkles were cloaked by the soak, I thought the contrast was beautiful. I took a dip under the crescent moon — the tidal wave in the sky. I felt weightless and buoyant, and I could stay like that for the rest of my days, I told her from afar. Then I caught her doing a backstroke. Her plumped breasts made it so easy to stay. When she remerges, she waved at me like a child.

 

After-taste

There was an enormous moon that shined that night. Its glow was on the unsteady surface of the public pool which sprayed chlorine water in the gush of the wind.  Under one of the beach umbrellas, she spotted a satellite that orbited across the sky, until it disappeared completely behind a thick grey cloud. The chlorine had an after-taste when it landed on her lips. It made quite an impression.

 

Detergent

The bathrobe had too much detergent on it that it stung the nostrils. They used too much — as always.  One of the maids said that it had to be like that to make sure that they were clean. “I’d say, kill them all, sir, and dump the bodies in Manila Bay to fatten the fishes.”  Then she left me the bucket of ice she fetched from the bar.

 

Wildflower

Even after watching a Clint Eastwood movie I couldn’t get myself to bed. I had an early flight and I was restless. It was around midnight by the time I got out of the hotel. When I was about to cross the street there was a man waving at me as if I was a relative that he was meeting at the airport.

“Bikini Bar, sir? Young girls, pretty girls, sir?”  I didn’t look at him and continued walking.

“Just come and see first, sir.  Two, five. Very cheap, sir.”  There were wildflowers sprouting in the gloom.

Still, I didn’t respond and went about my way. But he reeked of persistence. And as the sleepless often are, my mind was as playful and as curious. We did that night by the pool when she skinny-dipped.

There was a burning rash on the skin, but I couldn’t stop scratching.

 

The Devil Likes Oranges

A long May summer sky has become a companion that overstayed its welcome. It made matters worse when it brought along drought that led to many indecisions to do anything productive. I guess I was waging war against climate change by drinking at the bar every night. It was definitely never a good idea but I did it anyway. I guess I was afraid it was making me rather quite compelled to do absolutely nothing and at the same time feel accomplished under the false pretenses that I was a philosopher when I had a little too much to drink.

Everything is peachy on the right side of alcohol, they say.

I drove up to the mountainside where it was cooler. There I was to be greeted by my friends. And by friends, I mean is those made up. I think.

At the rest stop, there was a bench waiting for me. It was sitting under the sun next to an enormous fig tree along with the others that lined up quite evenly.

There I talked to the devil. He wasn’t as bad as everybody thought. He’s just misunderstood like most people I know. He was going to stick around until the end of summer, he declared. After that it would be cool again, this he promised.

We ended up talking about a lot of things. I even invited him over to my place for more drinks but he said that he doesn’t want to impose and give my parents a heart attack.

I asked him if he regretted anything that he did. It took me a while to find the right words and the right timing to ask him.

At first, he hesitated. But after a slug of whiskey, he answered anyway.

“We make bad decisions all the time. This happens to everybody. And if you’re in it for the long haul, believe me on this, I really think that you’d see through the end of it. But this is not the only consolation, you see. You’d find out eventually and I hope that it will appease you to know, that there are the little things worth staying for.”

The devil was consoling me. It couldn’t be more ironic than that.

“I know what you’re trying to tell me. I know I should be glad, grateful even, but truthfully, I’m not.” I shared ruefully.

“There’s a festival coming up.” He pointed to the summit. “Right there between the two peaks. I think you should definitely come. It’s for St. Anthony, the patron saint of lost things.

“Sure, I’ll check my calendar” I gave a friendly scoff.

“And also, if you can be so kind as to loan me a book. I couldn’t find the time to buy one. And even if I did, I don’t think they’d ever let me in.”

He confessed that he was a slow reader. I told him that I never find the guts to smoke in front of my mom, in return.

“You’ve always been a slow reader, so what? You literally made world domination popular.”

I was peeling an orange and handed him over a slice. He told me it was the most refreshing thing he had in a long while. We sat there exchanging thoughts until twilight.

Uncut Strings (and that problem with catching sleep)

While one might assume it as given, I, on the other hand never thought it mattered then as it does now. I never knew that it was coming for us — I honestly didn’t. We stayed up late at the balcony, since both of us were smoking, while we finished off what’s left of the night. The kids were already sleeping inside and she said it’s going to be her last beer but I don’t think she’d be able to catch the last train. It was beginning to be a slow night, and the kids would definitely look for her by the time they woke, so I convinced her to spend the night for old times’ sake. There was a yellow moon that accompanied us. It was full and the breeze was cold, it wrapped us in such a way an old lover would.

I am not what you would say a happy man. But by the time I got married, things started to fall in place as it should be. There I found order and a pattern that made sense. And when it happened, I couldn’t bring myself to pick up after the pieces.

That night, I climbed up the bed and climbed up her. I was home again. A week later she wrote me a letter and told me she was all better now with the apricot trees in her view in the mornings except that sometimes she’s woken up by the drip from the tap late at night. But with all things considered, it was certainly a jubilant dream like in the song, she said.

We didn’t exchange numbers and soon the mailing addresses kept on changing and we stuck to just writing emails instead. We figured it was way faster although it felt strange not seeing her handwriting but I got used to it eventually.

“Where are you going?” It took several exchanges before she finally hinted about it. “There’s a vineyard I want to see in the south-west of France while it’s still spring.”

I sent her a map of the region where she was headed to from a reliable travel guide. “I looked it up and marked the places that should help you. I hope it checks out.”

I opened a can of beer and sat by the nightstand. I was listening to the music that played on TV. There were lanky Koreans dancing to some upbeat music, and they seemed to be really happy about their little routine. I wished I could play music. I always wanted a beautiful butterscotch gold Telecaster. I wished I could be Tom Waits that night. I wished I could write music like he did, sitting in a lonely bar somewhere.

Up until now I still do not know why I still keep in touch after all that had happened. I can still feel that the string that connects us will never be cut. The thread was too straight and that was the same problem that everyone else saw.

Not some two years ago I was visiting a friend for drinks on a weekend night. And on the way over to his place, I saw her in the passenger seat bobbing her head over and under behind the dashboard of David’s car. I didn’t know what to make out of it, and I couldn’t erase that image in my head.

It was said that Hemingway rewrote the ending of A Farewell to Arms over forty-seven times. I could only hope to do the same just this one time.

But since that’s not going to happen I guess, I would settle for some sleep at night, just enough to function in the morning. Except that sometimes I’m woken up by the drip from the tap. Then I’d remember her, and I would lay wide awake and dream about that jubilation dream of hers or alter it the way I would rather be, but then I’d snap out of it.

She called upon me from the bedroom and her voice streamed through the narrow hallway. The light from the lamp was dimmed and there was a gentle rustle from the trees outside the open window. Although it was cold, there was a faint light from the night sky that glistened on the bed sheets that silhouetted the leaves and the crooked branches. It didn’t do anything but it helped make the room appear warm. Her breath smelt of spring from the vineyards she visited and mine was a stench of burnt wood — of strong hard liquor, old American. She told me that I was in her dream, only I was not.

Only I was not.

Almost Famous

I never did well in a crowd. But I tried to stand there in a half circle with the boys watching the girls in their miniskirts in some friend’s party. I was particularly drawn on how detailed they were with their descriptions of a woman’s anatomy, about their psychology, on the time they spent to study that universe. I was so intrigued, it was like a complex algebra problem to me. I could never get it even if I tried harder.

I could very well be mistaken as a wallpaper. I was awkward and mean and dull. I guess looking back we all were at some point but I never got past that. I lacked personality and patience for any human interaction. I was a cockroach that everyone despised.

Luckily Bianca was fool-proof.

Bianca lit up when I showed her the book. It was another eight-hundred peso purchase on my second Bukowski that month but it was never a question to spend on well-written treasures she said. I wasn’t interested in his books about poetry, but I find his short stories particularly moving.

It was a long summer. But we got through it just fine even though the heat of the sun was of no help when you’re trying to put things together.

You use the material that you have, Didion said.

So I put my dark glasses on, drink coke straight from the one-liter bottle while placing the words on the electronic paper.

Font 11, Calibri (Body).

The phone rang.

B: “Hello?”

D: “Hi”

B: “How was the writing?”

D: “What was that?”

B: “I miss hearing your voice, how was the writing?”

D: “I’m sorry the reception is terrible, it’s quite slow, but I got past the hard part

— first two paragraphs — I think I’m making progress.”

B: “That’s good to hear!”

D: “How’s Kafka?”

B: “He misses his Dad”

D: “Tell him I’ll be home soon enough”

D: “Hello?”

B: “I can’t hear you, can you move to a better spot?”

D: “Tell that to the president.”

B: “Let’s talk later, maybe the service will be better then.”

D: “Okay.”

B: “See you soon, I love you.”

A few days ago I saw the president on TV.

I also saw a cockroach that landed on his shoulder and squirmed a little in my seat.

I also laughed a little, cried a little, but paying close attention I realized that the cockroach was me.

It was a long time ago, but it was still me.

I guess I am what you call a celebrity.

Cats Smoked the Souls of the Dead

At the funeral of a friend, he saw her helping out, handling over cold tetra packs of juices and repacked green peas and peanuts to the guests. His relationship with her was as dead as the one lying in the pine casket by the electric candles. He thought about saying hi but hesitated and felt it was completely inappropriate to do such a thing. It wasn’t the place or the time to rekindle with old romantic acquaintances, even though what he only wanted was to ask her one question after all.

It was a cool and damp night. She was wearing a comfortable-looking knitted cardigan over a strapped blue top and a pair of her usual outfit, a square pants and worn down sneakers. It was close to midnight but it was still quite a work finding his way through being noticeably visible. When he was young, he was made to believe that funerals are big farewell parties every time a relative died. “And that cats feed on the crematorium smoke, that’s why they have many lives” His uncles would tease the kids. But it wasn’t the case when his dad went when he was only eleven.

He thought about what happened between them. There was that problem she one day declared to him, turning the other way as she sat in the passenger seat. It was all a blur to him, but he can remember very well the humming of the car engine while she was at it. He wasn’t worried, she still had the seatbelt on.

What could have been said more often was reduced to mere incidentals, and what should have been felt as something natural eventually became a matter of opinion. A cause, and a consequential effect to put it simply. In the movie Interstate 60, James Marsden was told that all relationships were a reaction of the previous ones we had. It wasn’t the point of the scene, but that was the message that stuck. That night she just left in his sleep without saying goodbye. He always thought she’d come back for her stuff in his place, but still hasn’t.

“I almost couldn’t believe my eyes, I thought I was seeing the wrong ghost.” There was a soft chuckle when she said this after many of the guests left. “I was surprised to see you here.”

The night was filled with stars, there were only a few thin sheets of clouds scudding across. The wind was cool, it was such a good night for a long drive to the coast, what he truly wanted to say. “It was such a beautiful service.” He said after a while.

“I’m just glad it was over, peaceful. You know?” She replied without looking.

A week after he was at the door in front of the house, feeding a stray cat with milk and a corn-flavored cereal. Then it hit him, cats didn’t feed on the souls of the dead. They rip them apart until they were completely gone.

The Staring Contest

Behind the window, he was staring at the tall building standing in the hot sun across the street. The more he stared at it the more it looked bleak and ordinary that he almost forgot that it was where he actually lived. There was nothing special about its dimensions and the way it was built. One could never strike an interesting conversation about it, and there was no passion that can be felt on its architecture.

The only thing amusing about the scenery was the maintenance guy Mang Nato, who was watering dust off the pavement.  He was particularly drawn on the way the spraying water gleamed in the light of the sun — it had a familiar hue about it.

When his table was ready, he asked the waitress if he can be moved a little closer to the shade where it was cooler. There he found himself sitting more comfortably, back-reading a Sunday editorial while drinking a tall perspiring glass of coke. He couldn’t help but feel a gap between him and what he read. As if an audience following a televised political soap, he felt affected but only at a certain distance of affinity.  Apparently, there had been some unlawful arrests related to it just over recently, and there were farmers killed, and young women mutilated it seemed so unreal. He was overlooking a sloping backstreet where customers were allowed to smoke even if there was an ordinance against it. People just didn’t care anymore nowadays he realized.

It was still midweek but already the wind tasted like ash in his mouth and felt that he was in dire need to wash it all down for as long as it didn’t hurt his head the next morning. Six words down, four across. He stared at the crossword puzzle and just found sad and empty boxes waiting to be reunited with their words.

When he ordered, he told a lie to the waitress that he just got a promotion and tried to flirt a little.

He felt self-conscious about his belly and tried to hide it the entire time he was talking to her, and kept on repositioning how he sat, but eventually just gave up when he sensed that all she ever wanted was to take his order and move on to the other tables.

On the window reflection, he studied what could have been smile lines on his temples even though he didn’t smile that often. From ash, the wind tasted sour – the impending flavor of self-loathing.

The image he saw was not his. He’s been wearing someone else’s skin, he argued to himself.

He realized that he has been feeling this slow drag, especially in the mornings when he is reminded that summer had helped suck out the color of the leaves to dry.

He wanted to go back but he couldn’t, wouldn’t. He wouldn’t walk back to his apartment at this hour. It was hotter and humid compared to most summers. He wouldn’t go back at this hour not until the landlady had the screen doors installed finally, which she agreed to do when he signed the lease.

There was a certain storm that stirred in his chest, but he still managed to smile back at the waitress when his order was served.

The sun caught up to where he sat, and the heat was lashing out so hard on the skin.

He looked directly in the sun until he winced at its hurtful glare.

Tall Glass

While we were at it, I threw in all sorts of questions on how it was like to be up there. He gave a picturesque narrative of the life in the camp during the summer with those kids from the private schools and how exciting the first year was. My brother tried very hard to be as detailed and brief as he could possibly be on the phone, but there wasn’t enough time so we bade goodbye and agreed to keep in touch before the new school year started.  I was pressing the receiver hard on my ear, it left a slight redness afterwards.

As natural things could get, we weren’t able to contact each other over a good period of time when we were supposed to. He was living in the city while I remained recluse back home.  I wasn’t able to keep track and assumed he was preoccupied himself that it didn’t feel it mattered then.

And as the gap widened while the silence grew, it haunted me all the more. Every time I was finished with the day’s chores, I would always try to imagine how it was to be up there with him. I would begin waking up in his room, in the all-boys dormitory making the bed before heading out, always making sure I was on time for each class. I thought about the faces of his classmates and the professors, what sort of people were there in the university, even the pretty girls he would have chosen to pursue.

The more I delved about leaving, the more it felt real to me. The more that I did it, the more it felt that I needed to move away from this zany town of ours.

There was no way around it I concluded.  It felt exclusive, more than the sensation I felt the first time I tasted caviar.

She insisted to take me all the way as far as she could make it. And as all things must end, the day was also coming to a close. She rested her head on my arm while we stood on a crowded bus on the way to the terminal. I looked at her, and she did the same to me — she had her hair just above her eyes and she was simply wonderful.

But I couldn’t help feeling that even after all that magic — enough to favor prejudice — still, it arrived quite dry on the surface.

I always faulted myself for that.

Up in the clouds, it made me forget all there is about on earth and it allowed me to bask in the soak of twilight. The sky was overcast but the runway was filled with outlining lights when the plane was about to land. It resembled a mid-summer night sky in a tropical coast island somewhere far away. I was drawn to it like a moth to a fire.

It felt like it was calling me, I wanted to hold it in my hands so bad I wanted nothing more.

I guess you’ll never know how disdainful the fire is until it burned you.

This could happen to you too, I told myself.

I waited for the green leaves to turn.

I hope I could help it.  But she didn’t want to bring it up.

I was sorry for the weight, I told her on the phone.

“I was staying in the Honeymoon lodge this past few nights.” She retorted.

I was pressing the receiver hard on my ear, it left a slight redness afterwards.

It Was Like Catching Flu

It’s late in the night when we took a cab ride around the outskirts of town. We picked up some supplies on the way at the local 24-hour convenience store near the bay and paid extra on top of the fare. He was sorry about waking me up, but he didn’t know who else to call at the time, he explained. Of course, I didn’t mind one bit.

We watched the smoke lingered in the air under a street lamp. It was like a scene from Close Encounters of the Third Kind.  This made him forget for a little while, which relieved me in a way, for I was putting on a terrible performance consoling him.

We didn’t talk about it much really. I didn’t know how. The ebbing of the tides in the moonlight did all of that for us.

I guess that was all he ever needed, what both of us did.

“I don’t think we could ever prepare for these sort of things.” He started.

“You’d know if it’s good when it’s scarce.

All the good ones are.”

I didn’t say anything.

We waited until dawn before heading back. He wanted to catch both the last light of the night and the first of the coming day.

At the end of it, he knew that profanity is the cheapest means of revenge.

“Think about something else. “ I urged him finally.

“Like what?”

“The good days.” I knew I was doing worse I wanted to puke.

“I want to see that try bring down all the xenophobic ideas in the world.”

Then the warm rays glimpsed upon us suddenly with the breeze blowing from the direction of the sun.

And it went on in my head. I could still trace him.  My son’s scent on the pillows.

I think it’s painfully blissful, sometimes I couldn’t stand it.

It was like catching flu in the rain.