It was nearly the end of the hour, most of the customers have already left the counters and those who remained were the regulars playing a few more rounds of pool before calling it quits. On a napkin, she drew a Martian cat holding a flag and a pint, folded it in half and inserted it in my phone casing.
I was feeling light, tired. She said it might have been the lateness of the night; we were not the same as we used to be. We were different then, but in a way, have not changed much. Probably we were both.
It was my turn to buy the next round. I was running thin on beer money, but the night was still asking.
It was a mistake, but who’s counting nowadays? The world is full of it. Everyone has drums and boxes filled with it.
“Where were we?”
“Back to where we used to be, in a place we ought to be” She insisted.
“But you’re moving back to California.”
“The moon was fuller the last time we were here. Your hair longer and I didn’t have this limp.”
“You were dashing” She chuckled.
I returned some myself. “Eight years of alcohol does a lot to you.”
The container trucks lined up overhead, stuck on a flyover across our window. The stream of orange highway lamps traced the roads with broken lines and asphalt. She wrapped her head as it rested on her upper arm and continued,
“Will you cook me breakfast?”
“If you still like over easy with burnt hems.”
“I always thought it was perfect.”
Sometimes I go to this place in my head where I recounted this sequence over and over. There were nights when I’d just look up in the sky and hope for a chance. I still keep it with me, her dog-eared paperback copy of The Trial, protesting, one unused bookmark at a time.
H narrowed his eyes, squinting at the three-hundred-year-old enamel chalices, spoons, and ladles sitting inside the glass case. As he read the inscriptions, the professor was observing him quite amused with his growing interest for the Spanish colonial artifacts. “Now that we’re done with the kitchenware, when can we see the replicas of the Manila Galleons?” H half-jokingly mused but the host paid little attention to him and continued on with his private tour. Their heels clacked raucously against the linoleum tiles until they were seated inside a study, where the curator usually entertains visits from historians, politicians, grantors, and special acquaintances in the scientific socio-sphere.
The professor scheduled the tour on an early morning of midweek, which meant the city tours were on low key which worked perfectly both for them and the host. Education was essential to move forward, but the past was an integral part. “You see“, placing the boater hat on his right knee, “The tales of history are always best told in such fashion. True appreciation depicts demeanor, so bring some of that home with you.”
But H was daydreaming. The lucid mind receded. It was a terrible habit.
After a few, he asked earnestly “But how do we know we’re making the right kind of history?”
This came out of nowhere but the professor welcomed it anyway.
“Well, that’s tough.” He repositioned and crossed legs.
“But I guess all good ones are.”
The old man commended H for his potential, for his innate artistic brilliance. He felt responsible for him — he was but a ship that was imperative to build.
That night at the ball they were in their double-breasted amerikanas, surrounded with great pieces in the Amorsolo gallery. “It feels quite absurd wearing uncomfortable outfits in such scorching climate” H complained.
But like his fathers before him, who shared the same streams of aspirations but unable to shine on fully, he was willing to submit, basking in its symphonic reception. The corners of his lips widened as the smiles beamed. By and by the crowd has been able to separate the two, until arthritis got the better of the old man.
The General Council on Cultural Development had taken interest in the works of the young aspirant. They consist mostly of middle-aged men, of scholars and intricate critics who busied themselves buzzing on and about, clinking champagne glasses and exchanging small talks here and there to no end.
A woman in her fifties approached H who was now standing by the tribal shaft ornaments. The powder on her face traced the wrinkles on her temples, while the yellows of her teeth emphasized by the redness of her lips. The laces of her evening gown appeared uncomfortably itchy to him.
He felt like a young buck drinking water from a murky shallow swamp.
It made him feel worse he wanted to change right away into his regular clothes and lay down by the awning thatched windows of home. In his mind, he would sail the leagues of his imagination where he’d set out on a trip on-board the Manila Galleon bearing great treasures of gold, ancient jewelry, and rare
spices of the east. Then at nightfall when the skies are clear enough, he’d be under the stars, gazing in his hammock suspended as it sways to the gentle motions the ship. And as it bobs on the cradles of the ocean, he’d wonder on further to even greater depths to where the giant squids are lurking, rare sea creatures reign on the decks of sunken armadas. He’d be there where the midnight blue outlines the darkened earth of the mountainsides, while the waters like dark ink with splinters of glass mirror the cloudless sky.
He pinched his nose as he walked out of the gallery. Both teacher and pupil started the road again.
“There are always dark days ahead. In my case, my arthritis.”
“I was just here for the relics.” H grinned.
“So did you sign the job offer?” The professor sat at the park bench and fed the koi fishes in the pond.
I drew the shower curtain and found her there, curled up in the dry tub. It was days now since the time she last spoke to me. I could imagine her resentment against me and I couldn’t blame her of course, how could I? In the soft beams of the afternoon sun, I bathed in its modesty, lending me the time for myself outside to catch some air. Time is a friend that catches on. And when it does, it leaves you behind uncompromisingly. Its passing does not protrude to hurt. Its manifestations need not be heralded. It makes its own course through the passages of being and existence.
We took the train and exchanged the snuck whiskey during. I held her close enough to remember or not to forget and snatched some shallow sleep in between stops. It took several hours to complete the draft. And I had her read it out loud, so we can both comment on it. She suggested not changing anything. It’s always best unadulterated she would say.
In the evenings we would walk up the streets to talk about it — what’s philosophical and objective — on how she would always support me, love me, until we reach the fork of our ways. I knew It could be that even in the stillness of her voice I heard her say those silent encrypted protests for the unbecoming. Let’s be like Ed and Anne for good — to be in a place where the roads never end, licenses never expire, and the rides go around and roundabout.
The news came one day. A friend committed suicide. Connie took muriatic acid, it was immediate. No other details shared apart from that. We haven’t heard from her for a while, we just didn’t realize.
A country musician from Illinois was playing on stage by the time we got there, making use of his larynx as the main instrument in his repertoire. People who knew Connie were felt compelled to keep her alive until the bar closed at four. The musician paid tribute to Layne Staley, Lou Reed, and Sinatra too. It was fitting: life is a life, nonetheless. It was years after when I saw some of them. The rest I wrote letters and postcards were mailed back especially around the holidays.
Over rounds of drinks, we were reconciled, at least for a while, in this tragedy we were bound into. Subtlety always resided with sobriety, while indiscretion and truth were found on the side of the night, always. Back at the apartment, I phoned a relative just to be sure. A doctor-on-call was scarce. Discretion was the key, Intervention was next I suppose.
It’s never going to be perfect, she said. It’s going to be ugly, and mad, and hysterical. Her arm was filled while the spirit high. But flowers wither, rivers eventually run dry. The colors fade, if not, most eyes will turn the other way. And if not for these fleeting moments of transcendence, life will never be appreciated on the pedestal of grandeur. That glory, courage, and wisdom, these fragments we hold onto – not reluctance but a mere recognition, a fight if you will — of life not ending but transgressing.
The white walls were all there were. I was sitting in front of it. At the bedroom table, I was surrounded by all of them. White walls on all sides. Plain as it could get, except for the outdated calendar hanged limply on the southwest side that was about to give out in the faintest blow of the wind. The room was still. Even with open windows, there was no breeze entering at all. No rustling coming from the neighboring trees, neither whistling nor visits from the birds that usually perched on the window sill. The smoke of the cigarette followed the pathless hike, ceiling-bound as it curled in front of my face. Everything around me was silent as if we were all waiting together for something important to happen. Thin sheets of clouds were covering most parts of the sky like an oversized gray patch so dull it resembled a clearing of a lahar aftermath. I decided to rescue an empty coffee container made of glass, to use it as a spare mug should I have visitors coming over. But I was not expecting anyone that night, or any time soon I figured. Still, I washed the damn thing anyway and placed it on the drying rack next to a microwavable dish plate.
It was not always like this in fact. Especially on weekends when the halls outside my room were packed by children running up and down playing and yelling until twilight when their parents call them in for supper. Or at Christmas when my mom and sisters come over to have lunch with me before heading back for Noche Buena, or last summer when I dated someone from work who also lived nearby the sea. In this vacuum of time I remained, in this void, I lingered, over expanding in the thoughts of my consciousness boundless. I thought I belonged there, it was like a homecoming. I began to snap my fingers to break the chain. I could no longer stand the silence. I walked towards my reflection and saw the lines on my forehead. Deeper than the last time I remembered them to be, even the placements had changed, it was uncanny. I didn’t realize that my wrinkles were well-traveled. And when did they decide to move was unknown to me. When one was asleep perhaps? It should be that, lest I would have noticed it moved.
The cream firmed up. I stirred and stirred before it lost warmth. I leaned over stretching my head to see the other side of the wooden fence below for an acquaintance resting my arms on the balcony. Then I heard a heavy knocking on the door which caught me off-guard. At first, I thought somebody saw me peering at the neighbor’s and ran up to my room to tell me off. But that was too fast of a reaction it was impossible. I didn’t know who it was behind it, as I said I wasn’t expecting anyone anytime soon. As I turned to approach the door, I thought it could be the caretaker, or someone from the other units probably borrowing some tools like a Phillips screwdriver or an electrical tape. People always forget to buy electrical tapes ending up asking the neighbor for some. And as I came closer, I remembered all of a sudden that I was still in my sleep clothes and thought of putting on something more decent. So, I did that, throwing in over a sweatshirt although it’s thirty-three degrees that afternoon.
When finally, I turned the knob to open, there stood in uniform a guard from downstairs panting, catching his breath while wiping his massive neck with a face towel. He has a wide body, probably too big for his shirt and hat, who also was taller than I was. I gave him a moment before he was able to say that there was a phone call for me at the reception.
“I don’t understand, did the caller leave a name?”
“I’m sorry, I neglected to ask” he responded, finally regaining himself.
“That’s fine, does it sound urgent?”
“It was a woman’s voice, I can’t really tell”
From the living area, I heard the first arrival of the birds perching on the tufts of the sofa. The leaves rustled for the first time that day.
I invited him in to drink a good glass of cold water and joined my perched friends on the balcony.
The doctors swarmed around the registry, rabidly flipping over charts, murmuring as if a baffling discovery has come to their attention. Behind the glass window on a closer look, the whites of their coats varied in shade. The older doctors wore their tarred uniforms, while the incoming residents were clad in immaculate white. From the center, the seniors were the nucleus of the group, while the younger ones broke off into smaller clusters sharing leftovers of the discussion. One would think it was odd seeing a group of brilliant minds baffled by the simplicity of the news. It was a sudden, terrible loss of an innocent life. A body lay on its side on a cold steel table. Limbs lay on the same parallel direction, while the blackness of the eyes was full and open, and the lips were closed tight like a perfectly drawn straight line. An expression of peace was painted on the windows of its soul but there was no life remained at all. The woman’s face was burrowed into the chest of her husband; desperately in search for something that would console her. As he held her tight with one arm resigned, the husband watched the emptiness of the vessel which was the remainder of what was once considered to be their unending source of joy. The other patients wailed and mourned around them.
Through the swinging doors entered the medical assistants tasked to take the body to the observation deck. One of the new doctors walked up and explained to the couple all of the medical efforts that had been exerted, plus the basis of each conclusive result. This went on item by item as if it was from a recipe book read out loud. It was a small town they found themselves in, in a much smaller clinic. It was humid and cramped. Between these, with uneasiness, the resident doctor would turn to the registry where his peers were, drawing confidence and approval. But there was an utter omission of the official prognosis and the cause of death for it was apparent. Then he continued as he segues to declare that while their responsibilities as medical practitioners for the case of the deceased have officially ended, the devotion of their friends in the other room as artists has not. The time of death has been determined, and the team — should they prefer to meet — was preparing for the next phase.
Still in trance, the couple had grasped nothing of what the resident has attempted to explain. He repeated himself until confirming that the couple was able to digest at least the necessary information. After some time, they were led into a room where they met with the officiating attendant and his supervisor for the post-mortem matters that needed to be discussed. Papers were signed, in the couple’s own time of course, and servicing fees were also covered.
“It’s going to be a difficult task reconstructing the features to its original state, some photos will help. But nothing time and persistence wouldn’t fix. We usually deal with subjects who were either shot clean or those we have found on the road, so we could say we’re pretty good at what we do.” The taxidermist shared arrogantly.
“Sorry we wasted your time,” responded by the woman. “Can we please use your phone?”
As scheduled, they met at the family residence after dusk and sat together at the dining table under the low ceiling light hanging over them. The tiny crystal pendants around its main light, of which the glass shade refracted prisms on each dangling embellishment themed the room with mixed hues. Luis sat at the head of the table, while the younger brother sat by the corner, the two of them slightly facing each other while the lawyers seated side by side across. There were piles of documents atop the leather case between them, and cigarette stubs nearly overflowed in a porcelain ashtray by the cups of consumed coffee.
“Have you thought about your options, Luis?” the lead counselor began. Jojo turned to his elder for an answer. “I guess we have.” Luis’ voice has fallen tired when he responded.
“Or could we have more time to go over it? I mean we don’t have to decide right away, do we attorney?” Jojo injected worriedly.
“Inasmuch as we want to get the arrangements done for at this point, we want you to know that we completely understand how hard these things could get. Please take all the time you need but let us know as soon as you have arrived at a decision. It would be best if we get something by the end of the week, but we’ll hold it off as much as we can.”
And the rest of the exchanges were all ceremonials to make sure that everything down to the last detail was in order. After half an hour, they all stood up and shook hands except for Luis who remained silent in his seat. The younger brother showed the lawyers to the door and excused the indifference of the brother and blamed it all to exhaustion and explained further that he was not quite himself lately. He went back to the dining area after getting a pitcher of cold water from the fridge, and Luis mechanically reached for the glasses from the rack in front of him and handed one to the brother.
Frustrated, he bolts right up on his feet and walked around and turned his back to Jojo.
“I can’t believe mother would do such a thing” and mellowed down after a pause,
“I guess it can’t be helped.”
After supper, in front of the wooden dresser, he peeled off a strip of white tape from the dispenser and wrote her name on it. He then plastered it across the surface of the mirror where his reflection was, on eye level, to ensure that he won’t forget to think about her every time he stood there. Sometimes, the air in the bedroom would feel like a visit from the past. The room still smelled of dried flowers from the house altar which their mother used to keep. It has been decided that they would always keep her room locked from the housekeepers or anyone for that matter without explicit permission.
A few days had passed, it was the weekend, the brothers decided to get some air on the coast. Luis drove while Jojo was looking up to the direction of the foliage ahead with the wind on his face. The sun was always gentle after the rain he mused and reached behind him to the back seat to open the rest of the windows to let the cold breeze in. The waves were full upon their arrival to the shore. For countless years they have carved in the skirts of the land mass deep into the ocean floor. The crashes were hollow as it trembled heavily as both brothers felt minute in their presence.
“I remember how our parents have thrown their worries out here. Do you recall?” The stares of Luis fixed onto the horizon as if he has latched his gaze onto the ends of the ocean.
“I just remember how different things were, kuya. Those were just the happiest times.” Jojo replied as he stepped a few paces forward into the beach and felt the salt water drown his feet, and continued as if mimicking,
“I guess it can’t be helped.”
Just as they stood a mushroom smoke steadied its girth from the horizon up to the ends of the sky. The wild forest fire has been on for three days showing no signs of stopping.
The moon that night glared wildly red in the sky while its reflection quivered on the surface of the garden pond beneath the motionless virgin of the grotto. Its light sliced through the gaps of the wooden jalousie into the rooms of the house. The shadows crept in the corners, through the halls, and under the shed, while silhouettes shifted, and parted with each passing vehicle on the nearby street.
We listened to the protracted speech on the radio. One of the professors from the faculty said that maybe things would be easier now that the government is really serious about cleaning after the mess. I didn’t say anything about the remark for my disagreement may be viewed as cynicism I feared. In the first light, we reached the circle where the police and the protesters met. At noon, the red flags were etched high against the blue sky and when the meeting ended, the colors were swallowed by the enclosed cup of darkness. Nothing stood out, but the cries and the chanting went on until it rained hard and everyone decided to go home — it was like a terrible joke.
There was a hint of resignation and a silent flavor of discontent across the room when we got back. The senior photographer has decided to proceed directly to the darkroom leaving everybody behind to ready the films to be developed and motioned at me that I should follow to calibrate the story. It wasn’t a question if I was eager to comply, so I excused myself out and went after him.
The pictures started to take shape in the water like images appearing from a tender, abandoned memory. They were vivid and bold and yet seemed peaceful. I envied the craftsmanship and his eye. I asked him what it was he was hoping to get out from all of these, and he responded gently with a satisfied expression while clipping the papers to the lines “stories, just stories.”
In the courtyard, through the crooked shadows of the trees, I strode along to decompress before getting back to writing until the bell from the parish had rung. I was about half done with my second draft, just a few minor edits based on the featured photo we selected that night. I thought I should be able to finish before midnight, and maybe, there’d be enough time to swing by for some Chinese.
There was a girl in the main hall of the center building holding a lit candle walking with another woman, probably a year or two older. Their dresses were modest, they had grace, and their movements were subtle as if gliding on the waxed floors. They appeared to be heading in the direction of the church, yet it’s quite late but who am I to know. She resembled someone taken from the photograph or it could just be dark that I might have imagined it– I guess I was just exhausted, I wasn’t sure. There were a lot of things that I do not know I realized and thought that life has a way of putting you in a very humbling place. This was my version of that, I figured I should capture it, record it, and digest as much as I could. When they passed by me, courteous nods were exchanged. Their veils obscured the details of their faces, but the sincerity brimmed through, nonetheless. “There is still beauty in the dark, ‘di ba Ser?” A voice from the security guard loomed from behind. Apparently, everyone from that place was infected by a rare philosophical disease. I turned to the source of this unsolicited commentary and moved on to the main gate and lighted a cigarette.
And I wondered on, thinking about what we talked about in the darkroom. Two blocks away from the building there was an annoying honking in a traffic jam. There were kids loitering at the public sidewalks, and helicopters hovering too. I retrieved my week’s pay from my shirt pocket, unfolded the cheque and scooted to where it is brighter.
I heard my stomach give out a hallowed snarl and there was a sour taste that lingered in my mouth.