Nice Guys Finish Last

I waved down a taxi and got in. We made an abrupt U-turn and almost hit the curb but we just drove on as if it didn’t happen. I told the driver the destination. I was surprised that he didn’t ask for extra as most drivers do. I thought I was lucky.

The backseat smelt of LPG. I can barely breathe. It’s the same kind of gas you’d find in a typical household kitchen, except we weren’t frying bacon and eggs that morning — it made my head hurt.

I was running late. I was attending a friend’s wedding. It seemed obvious enough to the driver since I was wearing my oversized white barong with a boutonniere flower pinned on.

He asked me if I was one of the groom’s men. I said no. Then he asked me if I was already married. I told him that I was somewhere in between. He asked me what that means. I told him I’d tell him when I found out for myself. He stopped asking.

“You seem like a nice guy,” The driver started. “But you know what they say about nice guys.”  He needed not to finish the line. I don’t know about me being a nice guy, but I know I’ve always finished last.  I had no response. We beat a red light.

The sky was overcast and a little later there were some light rains that sprayed.

I wasn’t able to make it to the exchange of vows, I wasn’t able to make it to the church at all. But I was just in time for the opening of the bar. I liked my scotch dry. I liked it with water too.  I ordered a round, and another, and another — it was like a well in a desolate desert more than a wedding reception.

There was a lady sitting next to me, I thought I knew her, but she reassured me that it wasn’t the case. We started talking, first about Bernie Sanders, and a lot of random things that I have already forgotten about.

She was alright. We slow danced to Death in Vegas’ Girls while expertly holding our cocktails. I thought it was perfect when they decided to tone down the lights. The indigo matched the mood.

“Do you believe in marriages?”  She pulled her head back and waited for my answer as if it was a test of character.

“You’re the second stranger who asked me about marriage today. Well, I think of it as a retirement package.”

“Wait, what? Like living off on a pension and taking vacation trips on cruise ships?”

“Yes, all of that. But don’t forget about prostate cancer too.”

There was some laughter.

“But seriously, I think it’s a lot of work. And you reap the rewards long after —

I think I believe in the integrity of its commitment.”  I retracted for a simpler answer.

“What do you do anyway?”  She asked.

“I’m a writer.”

“They say writers are difficult to live with.”

“Oh yeah?”

“I guess, maybe you’re overly committed to what you do.”

“No. I think it’s because we’re poor.”

I went home alone as usual. I went out for a nightcap at a local nightclub. As I sat at the bar I thought about Santiago in Hemingway’s book. I thought about his fish and the lions walking on the beaches of Africa in his dreams. I thought about the great Joe DiMaggio and the great games he played. On how good he must have felt winning. And the prisms, in the day, and the reflection of the countless stars on the surface of the sea at night. I thought about a lot of things in between those thoughts. And when I snapped back, I wasn’t anymore in the mood for watching the girls on stage. But there I was, still inside the bar, still draining the well.

I checked my wallet and there was almost nothing there.

But I drank like how rich men do. I felt like Bukowski. I felt like an entire world inside of me existed.

I drank like a millionaire.

The Color of The Ink Wasn’t Blue

In between semesters I worked in a furniture shop as a clerk. It was a rickety old place on Hickory Street between a hardware store and an abandoned building that used to be a prime commercial spot before the fifties. I worked there from day until nightfall. Even on weekends, when I was asked by the Chinese couple who owned the place to help out with the workload, I would show up. On weekdays, I would sort out boxes of supplies and carry them to the stock room at the back, and I would bring some out to replenish the display windows. I talked to customers, suppliers, and I was responsible for liaising shipments whenever the delivery trucks came in three times a week.

I lived with my older sister and her five-year-old daughter, Sabrina. It was just a small two-story apartment good enough for temporary living and it was near the market place and a chapel a few blocks away. There were two rooms, a bath, and a small living space, which was used for nothing really, with just a couch and a low wooden table placed at the center.  “Please don’t encourage her, Fred.” Was her reaction when I came home one day with a bar of strawberry chocolate wrapped in a tin foil and a fancy ribbon.

My sister was around six when the war ended. People refer to it as a world war, but for the likes of her, it was just simply war. She does not understand the distinction. There wasn’t any coherence to any of it as far as she’s concerned. She detested it. If there was one good thing she learned about human conflict, it would be that all interactions, forging relationships, or any sort of dealings, were always either based on mutualism, grab of power, or survival.

I was married once, many years ago. I was still very young at the time, I was nineteen. It was a decision made by our parents for us. It was customary then. Soon before long, we fell apart like how metal and wood on white glue would break loose.

There was a single-stemmed sunflower cutting in a ceramic vase between us. My ex-wife moved it aside since it was blocking her view of me when we talked. There were only a few words needed to be shared for goodbyes, but I felt she had hesitations about it. She was looking down most of the time. We parted ways on a Sunday of July. It was 1969. It was raining hard when I left our place by the river. I didn’t hear her cry – I wasn’t looking – when the door was latched behind me on the way out. The rain must have concealed it for us. I was at the doorway for a good period of time, waiting for the rain to let up, but it didn’t. I thought I heard a whimper after a while, but I dismissed that thought. It was better that way, I suppose. Oblivion is necessary sometimes. It was a good friend to me that day.

I played duckpin bowling at the arcade to pass the time. I drank beers with a third of my work money and I wasn’t concerned even if I went over it.

There were a few friends there good for conversations but it was the armadillo whom I felt the closest.  I merely used the time to get attuned to the universe. The neon lights attracted me most, and I could sit there at the corner in silence — looking at it through an open window, at its glaring, at its changing colors, with its electric lights and fluttering pulses that almost felt it had a life of its own.

After a degree in writing, I soon set out and pursued what everybody was after. I wore a suit and a pair of leather shoes, and a tie to go along with it. It felt like my marriage. I quit in my fourth month.

Down at the arcade, I downed glasses of hard drinks and confided everything with the armadillo. But it wasn’t the time for heartbreaks and soul searching. It was a quaint time to be daring. Hustlers used the armadillo as a duckpin ball to get the better of unsuspecting amateurs, who were willing to bet off their allowance money, their gold watches, and sometimes even their girlfriends. And the money was good. Soon, we agreed to be partners. With my skills with people and negotiation, I soon became his handler.

Before long, my sister grew quite concerned about the direction I was threading. And with respect to her wishes, I quit my racket and went back working for the Chinese couple full time. In return, I was allowed to read my books during my shift — It was my only concession. I found out that they couldn’t find anyone else who could manage their little store as thoroughly as I did. It was alright, I decided, besides, I grew fond of them, but I didn’t let them see that.

It was a quiet but unfulfilling life. It was what it was, and that’s what made everyone happy. There was a long period of peace, but really, it was just an empty silence that prevailed. Even Sabrina got the best of it. She looked up to me as her own father. I would take her to ice cream shops on weekends, and to the night carnivals whenever they were in town. I bought her pinwheels and pink cotton candies and she would scream in excitement every time as if it was the first time she had seen one.

At the bar, the armadillo was the wisest person next to the barman. “You’re so good with kids, why don’t you start your own family?” I didn’t know how to respond to the question I just shed a shrug. I thought about finally pursuing writing, I told him. I think that’s where my heart really belongs to. But all I could write about was women.

“What’s wrong with that?” The armadillo asked.

“All they do is suck your soul. I don’t think I want that. It’s the only thing I’ve got left.”

“Stop overdramatizing it. You’re no Fitzgerald.”

As the sun was setting, the static clouds were of different shades of dark blue until it was gone completely for the day. And the neon sign was switched on and I got the first glimpse of its life that night. I felt a glow warm up from inside of me once again as if resurrected. Like how it was the first time. The lights gave off an electric twitch every now and then. I thought it saved me. I thought that the universe was directly speaking to me. I thought about a dedication, an inscription. I wrote down the first line that dawned on me. It was on a table napkin amidst the hustlers and their victims and the background noise. The words that formed was for the drunks and the poets, for my older sister, and all the hearts that were breaking at that very moment.

A Warm Bowl of Ramen

“What is that exactly?” He pointed to the sky but I couldn’t make out what he was referring to. I asked him what he meant, there must be over a thousand stars up there. The cigarette smoke was clouding up my glasses. We were both standing outside a ramen place after we had a few drinks from a watering hole we found across.

It has been a cold February and we were having a great time.

“It could just be a satellite or probably just a glare you caught.” I finally responded.

Truth is, Ronnie has been developing a severe case of an optic nerve disorder or probably glaucoma. He wouldn’t tell me exactly. I think it’s progressive. I think it’s getting worse.

We ran a little magazine back then. Ronnie had all the connections in town and we used his place when we worked. He convinced me to run it. I was moved by his persistence and dedication. We asked independent writers with the right material to contribute but most of the stories were written by us. It wasn’t in any way prolific, we make just about enough, but in most days less, still, we felt we had our audience going and that was all that mattered.

It was a dying form – writing – and it was going away with his eyes, he told me. And that the ramen was delicious, it makes his soul happy. “If we keep it real like this godsend dish, we will never go out of business. That’s what I believe.” But we both knew we were going out of business. He was slurping a mouthful of wheat noodles and washing it down every time with an ice-cold beer.  I don’t exactly understand where he wanted us to go, but that’s how he saw things from where he sat.

Ronnie was a good writer. Problem was, he was all passion but rarely obeys form. He was all over the place. But then, maybe it was wrong of me to judge that. During our time together, I was helping him finish the stuff that he wrote but he always felt that it wasn’t good enough, or I was editing too much, that it wasn’t raw enough to publish.

On his best days, he would ask me to do what I do. He would apologize, but of course, I understood. I was in charge of copyediting and proofreading, basically making sure that he would finish his work. But I couldn’t not tolerate him. Of course, there was the women, and the self-inflicting defacing moments of isolation, and drugs, and the drinking. It was good for a period of time, however, real-life catches on and we missed deadlines and there were just too much unfulfilled commitments both to our writers and readers.

For what it’s worth it was a good run, we both agreed. It was those who did not try who really failed, as the wise would say. We both got married and had kids. I teach basic writing and he just enjoys early retirement and the riches his parents left to him. I heard he goes to the doctor every now and then, but it wasn’t for his eyes apparently. We see each other twice a year during the anniversaries of the magazine when it started and ended.

I took the time finishing my broth. It was warm and cozy on the inside that it deserved to linger in those moments. I took my time in a lot of things, it seems. This was probably just an excuse. I have always been a slow reader and it has been the same with everything else—I still hadn’t gotten over it. I lighted a cigarette and he asked me for one. And I looked into those eyes and I saw there was passion still. The same kind. They may be tired, damaged, a little frustrated perhaps, but the soul hasn’t departed yet.

I lifted my bowl and slurped to my heart’s content. And he was right. The ramen made our souls happy that night.

A Life with Joan Didion

She wanted to be exactly like Joan Didion. She basically patterned her life on her. She would even mimic JD’s writing style, except that she wasn’t as good. She would try, and a lot of her readers like what she writes, but for her, it wasn’t good enough. She would go at lengths, she would even refer to her boyfriend as ‘John’, and named her cat after Quintana — Didion’s late husband and daughter. She would dress up like her, and would always wear dark sunglasses, and would always prefer drinking straight from a large bottle of Coke first thing in the morning. Her favorite imitation of her, was a picture taken dressed up like the renowned writer — In a long-sleeved dress, with a cigarette pointing to the ground, leaning against a Corvette Stingray. She was particularly keen about matching every detail, except for the car, which was tough to find, so she settled with an old white Toyota Crown.

Her boyfriend didn’t mind. He even finds it amusing sometimes. He would even help her, giving her all the time she needed in writing, encouraging her to the aspiration. What he did mind, however, was when it got eerily weird when she wanted to talk about his apparent death, and as to the manner of which it would occur.

One time, after writing for nearly seven hours — locked up in her room — she woke him up at around three.  She asked him to comment about what she had written about, with an intense glare of excitement in her eyes. At first, he didn’t see anything wrong with it, in fact, he likes how driven she could get, but then, there was something in her look that night that wasn’t there before.

He sat up, opened the bedside lamp, and put on his glasses. She was holding what appeared to be a printed manuscript against her chest.  “Do you want me to heat your dinner, honey?” Asked John.

“No, just need to hear what you think, that’s all.” John read it, while she sat anxiously at the edge of the bed, waiting.

“I like it.”

“You do? That’s great!” She looked genuinely relieved. “What else, John?”

“Uhm, I think it’s perfect. I would read this over and over and never get tired.”

“And? How about the technical composition, the arrangements?”

“I think it’s great, honey. I really think it’s good.”

She smiled dimly and fell silent for a while and said:

“The real John would have been a good critique. Obviously, you’re not him. You could have at least pretended to be smart by going against it. How typical.”

“Because I’m not John, honey.”  Stunned, he almost yelled at her.

She collected the printed papers and went back to the study. The next morning when John woke up, she was lying next to him, still asleep. During breakfast, he asked her about the night before but she didn’t have a memory of it at all. He asked her about what she wrote, which she was able to recall, but the episode in the bedroom apparently didn’t happen as far as she was concerned.

In the weeks that followed, she’s been gradually moving out of their place, discreetly, until she was able to empty the apartment of all of her belongings. Of course, John noticed this but opted not to say anything.  She took some of John’s stuff — probably by accident — in exchange, she left Quintana. Besides, one couldn’t hang around with the dead that was just absurd.

At the bar, everyone is calling him by his real name, of course. Nobody knew that the name ‘John’ was just a pet name she once gave him. He spent most of the time in the university where he teaches in the mornings until late afternoons and took his night classes at the bar. The apartment was just a place where he sleeps. “It’s Quintana’s home now, I’m just a boarder.” He told the old man and the armadillo.

Weeks turned to months, thirty-two to be exact. He saw her doing an interview in some late-night show. She’s been doing great. Published four novels, and a book of essays, and a weekly feature column. Of course, she had to use her real name now. She goes by Mia S. Torres. But hearing this sounded distant to him. She will always be Joan to him. It was rather strange. But all in all, he was genuinely happy for her.

He heard so much about her. Especially from common friends. They say, that she was seen sometimes just driving around in a vintage car, a Corvette, sometimes in their hometown. That she’s been around artists, and other writers, and celebrities of her kind in loud music bars, smoking and drinking behind a cordoned-off area. His friends say that she is a lot nicer, despite of everything, and that she appears to be grounded still, a better person.  Of course, he knew, that this is just a dense assessment of her character confined in the limited quarters of their brief encounters on some random street somewhere.

But he knew that she has become all of the things she once wanted, and more. Again, he felt genuinely happy for her.

While he lived his life as is, just the same, he always remained consistent. He always preferred to be still and constant. To be reliable. To his students and on keeping the barkeep employed — Despite all that had happened.

After sometime Quintana, the cat died. “She just got old, I’m sorry.” He phoned to tell her about it.

“Was she in pain?”

“I think she passed on quietly. The vet was really delicate about it.”

“Thank you for letting me know. I appreciate it a lot.”

“That’s not a problem at all. I’m happy to have called you.”

“Thanks again, Elliot.”

“No, I mean, you’re welcome…

But please, call me John.”

Ugly Men

They were in a shopping center along Taft Avenue. The old man and the armadillo were both standing in front of a mannequin. Just staring at it.

“I don’t think it’s going to budge, Fred.” Said the armadillo.

“Just wait. We’ve been here this long, why back down now?”

They had lunch at the food court. It wasn’t that good, but they had plenty of choices, plus, there was a lot of greasy food too.

A couple walked past them. The guy, whom they assumed the boyfriend, was carrying the bag of the woman he was with.

“I feel sorry for the guy.” Fred almost twisting his head following the couple.

“I don’t know about you, Fred, but I think she’s just gorgeous.”

“I didn’t mean that.”

“What then?”

“I mean him carrying that woman’s bag.”

“Why? Is it how he’s carrying it?”

“Especially that. The lady must not have insisted on it. But the way he wears that bag slung across his chest like that, just gets me.”

“Oh, I see.” The armadillo was admiring its newly polished shell.

“What’s the title of that movie with those giant, worm-like monsters in a small desert town? I just remembered something.” Asked Fred.

“What? Earthworm Jim?”

“No, the one with Kevin Bacon in it.”

“You mean Tremors?”

“Yeah, that one.”

“What about it?”

“Well, I had a young lady once. Pretty as hell. Like one of those beautiful college girls we go see sometimes.” Fred paused and picked up the plastic saucer and drank what’s left of the gravy. “Anyways, I just thought about that other thing she told me. Other than what she said about men carrying shoulder bags.”

“Why? Did she despise it too?”

“Quite naturally.”

“Have you ever heard about chivalry, Fred?” Refuted the armadillo.

“It’s not about that. But yeah, that too… Anyway, that’s not the point.”

“Then what is?”

“Tremors, buddy. Tremors.”

“I’m not sure I follow you.”

“She prefers ugly men with little wieners, seriously, over those who are good looking but packing big guns.”

“For real? We’re ugly, we like to travel light. Well, that’s our department.”

“Yes. I really thought I finally found the perfect girl.”

“Have you ever.”

“Yes. I thought so too.” A busboy came over and cleaned the adjacent table beside them. They caught a whiff of detergent.

“I’m not sure how, but ever since she saw that movie she got nightmares non-stop.”

“So what happened?”

“You know, things.”

“Why don’t you get back with her? Obviously, you’re still hungover.”

“I’m in my late sixties. She’s probably dying or dead by now.”

“Probably.” The armadillo plainly responded. “Was she the reason why you were staring at that mannequin earlier?”

Fred did not respond.

“But one thing I don’t understand…” The armadillo straightened up from its curved stance. “Why that mannequin? We could have picked up a live one. I know just a place.”

“Well, it had no face.”

“You’re getting weird again, Fred.”

“No, it’s not like that, A.”

“Get to the point.”

“I’m getting there. Jeez.” Fred took a sip of tap water, then continued. “I’m an old bastard. And nowadays, I forget things, you know?”

“Right. Go on…”

“I mean, I still remember the details, but I couldn’t seem to remember her face, anymore.”

“I’m sorry to hear that, Fred.” The armadillo replied genuinely.

“That’s okay, I guess.”

“Oh. Like that Joey Albert song! Only in reverse.”

“Ha! Like that one exactly!” Both of them laughed.

Then silence fell between them. It was a thin one, but it was sincere.

“Something like that, huh?” The armadillo looked to the direction of the crowd.

“Yeah. Something like that.”

Fred’s tone was a little somber. He then checked his hands and licked the gravy off his fingers. They’re now both looking at the direction of the crowd, where a street dance contest was about to begin.

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.