The Hostess on Romulo Street

The lady at the front desk was dressed in a traditional kimono with western jewelry jingling on her wrist.  Its intricately carved stone was of bright ruby that glistened when she handed over my key.  “You’re all set sir, room is at 801 and breakfast is served at six.”  It was too bad I told her.  I usually have trouble sleeping in strange places I rather want to start my day ahead.  She recommended trying out the bar instead.

A bleeping sound was made when I tapped the card on the door panel.  As I entered, I was greeted by a citrus scent that suggested that the room was clean, and it was.  Everything was spotless, this I attributed to the reputation the place has.  I started placing my bag on the luggage rack, retired my shoes under it, and sat on the corner of the bed in front of the television.

By the awnings, I watched the blanket of the night that slithered below.  The moonlight shone over the rain-soaked pavement—it coated the foams of the clouds white, sailing across overhead.

As a matter of habit, I first unpacked the clothes I was going to wear, hanged them all in the closet and lined up the toiletries neatly on the lavatory before changing to head out.

It was getting late, and the hallways waned in the darkness as I waited long enough for the elevator before realizing that it was not working.  I decided to use the fire exit since the bar was just four floors down.   At the end of the hall the exit sign glowed as if an enticing invitation was calling upon me.  In the dark, I trailed the narrow glimmer of green neon light until I reached and pushed the heavy door.

Two flights down I heard a murmuring from below.  I stopped, startled of this irregularity.  Guests were not supposed to loiter around these parts and I suppose the management does not allow employees as well.  But the voices grew louder as I approached and caught a smell of stale cigarettes in the air.

As I climbed down the stairs, placing most of my weight on my heels, I came about a huddle of men on the landing.  Some of them were on their knees, one was sitting on the railings, and a few were standing with their hands either propped on their thighs or on the wall.  A flashlight was directed to the ground where playing cards were laid down with the pot money in the middle.

With their loud response, I do not know how many of them shrieked in surprise.

Standing so close to them this time, I reckoned that they were a good ten at least — some bore old tired faces, some were foreigners whose skins were as pink as salmons adjusting to the heat, and women smoking with only burnt tips visible.

“The bartender does not know what he is doing” A man complained to me and reached up and offered his drink.  “Right here we like it clean.”

“Thanks comrade” And downed the drink in a gulp.

There was a voice that loomed from the lower landing.  It was the receptionist, but she is out of her uniform now.  “You’re 801, right?”

At first, I could not make out who she was, but I remembered when I heard the jingling of her bracelet.

“I guess I am” I tried responding coolly.

“What are you doing here 801? Are you lost?”

“Your elevators do not work.  The lights led me to the stairs.”

“Is it now?”

“Are you not going to fix it?”

“Everything gets broken around here anyway, why bother? Besides somebody from maintenance will find out sooner eventually, stay for a while, and care to play will you now?”

I declined politely.  I would rather take my chances at the bar I told her.  It is one of the few places I know is fair.

She asked if she could tag along. I did not know why she did that, but it was probably because she suspected me of ratting them out.  It took a bit of an effort, but I convinced her that I was not.

“But it was not about that at all” she assured me.

“I thought you would rather go to a better place to drink. I owe you that”

We walked two blocks to this place she knew.   She had one round and another.  She was a terrific hostess until around two when she left me in peace.

But peace is a just another word thrown around so carelessly these days.  What we have is silence in the shade of a world set ablaze.

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Red Moon Parting

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.

Photo by Biankitty

The Inconsolable Distance of an Early Life

It was career week and most of the huge companies around town came over to talk about industry choices we had while scouting potential seniors running for honors with exceptional qualifier scores. Everybody wanted to be someone and seemed so sure to know what career option to choose. At first, I didn’t understand what it was I was feeling at the time, but it made me feel bad about the indecisions and on the lack of preference over and under.

Over coffee that afternoon I was on my usual quiet state walking past the walls of Intramuros. The smell of moisten grass complimented the descending sun in the west. The styro cup I was holding had bite marks on it, not realizing I was gnawing on its defenseless brim.

I confided my dilemma to her, and she was not in a hurry to dispense any answers. She just sat there by the wide windows of the convenience store we found ourselves at, listening intently as if I was a puzzle to solve. I was waiting for some quirky punchlines to shrug off my bickering, but instead, she just pursed her lips and pointed her index finger on my forehead and said that she was not worried about me, that I should see what she was seeing. I decided from then on that I love convenience stores and wanted to kiss her in the mouth occasionally.

From then on, we were buddies for life. There was nothing in the world that could separate us. I told her about this place where I used to go to that she should try out, and there, in the weeks that followed, we spent our nights and the little money we had on second-hand records and inexpensive chocolate bars while listening to unearthed B-sides with cigarettes. While it lasted it seemed endless. I liked the classics while she burrowed herself to punk rock. She always had good taste in music. I respected her, while she thought I was over-sentimental and coy that I was too sad I should seek professional help. One time we crashed a party pretending we were distant cousins just to see how the other kids in the subdivisions did it. Then we drove around town in her brother’s stolen car talking about how terrible it was, but deep down we thought how nice it really was and confessed eventually that we envied them. We laughed about it and pretended more, but could only go on so far that we knew we’d run out of roads.

She always persisted to take the wheel, going around places getting nowhere in particular, persisted that we go to the sea and drink by the fire. The nights were colder then but we always knew we had something to warm us with.

Sometimes if we’re low on gas, we’d just walk down the creek if there was enough moonlight and sit on the low walls of the golf course. We were juveniles, and those blue summer nights were ours. Had we held them close enough it would burst, and we’d explode along with it.  We would hold no form, morph into invisible energy roaming in the air, carefree. We would be in different places at once, many drifting parts of us, multiplied, experiencing simultaneous life episodes.  We wouldn’t have to worry about being overwhelmed — we’d be shapeless.

I looked across the purple dusk in that sullen, dry tropical afternoon, listening intently to the singing of the wind. And even though I have tried so much to reconcile, mustering with all might in this exponential attempt to remember even the slightest of, I could not have achieved it. For I am the chapters read from a torn paperback, dog-eared, spine ripped and worn down.  I will always remember her drinking from a paper cup, placing it under her lips, on queue after a drag from a cigarette in the streams of smoke. Her skin was the railways on her cheek for tears, deepened and mapped with heartaches.  I told her to listen, to just listen, for there was nothing left to do but to just wait for the playing of a well-chosen soundtrack that could rescue.

Internship Paper

I was at the receiving area waiting under a bamboo ornament, for the Colonel — who I was interning for at the time — was concluding unofficial business matters in the other room with a tarot card reader who was also his lover. I kept on looking at my wristwatch hoping it would wind up faster. Earlier that day, he said he had received a phone call from the lady and demanded it imperative that he must come by her place at once. But he couldn’t really say why and therefore I couldn’t, in turn, determine which role portrayal she was on that afternoon. The Colonel was not always this superstitious; matter of fact, he was quite critical and sensible. His decisions have always been based on his years of extensive military service and never believed in anything supernatural. Word was, a few years back, he saw an apparition in the mountains and for days he had fallen ill and had serious episodes of convulsions which ensued from this chain of events, him being rather delirious and “undetermined”. According to the rumors, once, he snuck out of the camp, climbed over the steel fences and was found by roving soldiers talking to barks of trees and wandering about in the shadows. All of these, of course, in respect to his rank, were not stated on the official routine reports.

Flipping through a magazine and chain-smoking, across where I seated were four comfortable looking armchairs each decorated by carefully embroidered apple green throw pillows, of which the designs represented the celebrated animal zodiac of the year. I preferred to stay near the front door where I amused myself with daydreaming and brewing empty, sobering thoughts. The place was always lit red whether it was day or night, and the embellishments on its interiors were limited to beaded curtains, fortune plants, oriental figurines, and wind chimes, which I suppose for the purposes of being economical more than being spiritual. The lady across me was fourth in line and she appeared to be accustomed to the culture of the queue. She was right about mid-forties, had a good posture, and still had good set of teeth. She was with her daughter who appeared to be oblivious on where she was and was absorbed watching videos on her mom’s phone.

I was about to doze off when a fast pacing movement caught my attention and saw the Colonel and the fortune teller crossing the street getting into a white taxi. And it flashed to me the instructions I had received from one of the high-ranking officers to not lose sight of him. Hurrying, I looked over the counter (to make sure), peered through the slightly opened reading room, and figured that they had used the back door.

I saw the Colonel look back from his side of the backseat as if motioning with his expressions that the future has been foretold and everything was out of his hands. I witnessed the slopes of his discontent vanish in the light of the sun that glared on the glass window. In his eyes, I saw the greenest meadowlands on a perfect summer day. I turned the other way, and with earphones on, I walked up those festive streets warm on the eve of Chinese New Year. I turned around and the vehicles behind me were reduced to blurry hazes and bylines. I couldn’t tell where they turned, but in the absence of, something from within welled up, as if a part of me was working again.

Then I remembered the moment I first met the Colonel. It was my internship interview when he started talking about cigars eagerly, about the types of wood, and how the Ilocanos traditionally made theirs. I knew nothing about these of course, but I caught myself nodding between these expanding points. And I thought to myself that I knew him, that he must have had a familiar soul.

Nowadays I still wonder about the Lady and the Colonel. On how she undresses and tucks herself beneath the warm sheets underneath the pale moon. And how the Colonel would watch her and think to himself how beautiful she is especially when she cries. Not that her grief amused him, but it was more about the honesty that shaped her. It was like an encapsulating shell that preserves every piece of humanity that was left there for us to feed on. That fate and luck must have decided to reconcile this time around, amidst chaos and the inevitable misalignments of our limited capacity.

Photo By: Bianca Osorio

Crash

Manuscript

It was cold and windy when he stepped out of the publishing house. While its appearance was uninviting, its cragginess still appealed to him, nevertheless. Although its elevators no longer worked after the last world war, the staircases were wide and generous, while windows were tall, quite suitable for thinking and writing.

He thought it was indescribable what he felt holding the manuscript finished in his hands. Links of sleepless food stalls wailed, and prolific choreographed routines of evening companions for hire flooded the atmosphere. Artists of all sorts stood around at the corners performing, while middle-aged men who’d rather refer to themselves as aficionados lounged in wicker chairs on narrow alleys.
It was four days before his birthday, exactly two weeks after the car accident. And although the doctors told him he was lucky, the experience still attracted him. It gave him something to look forward to, a journey to profoundly aspire for.

 

Accident

He was driving west in the rain when the car swerved off the freeway until it tumbled off the cliff and dived. It was a hard rain, he couldn’t see. Half conscious, he thought it was beautiful, how the dark, electric blue flashes in the patches of the clouds would entertain him while he waited for the sirens to come.

 

Haircut

When he got discharged, the first thing he thought about was getting a haircut. Nothing grand, just good old-fashioned clean haircut. Grooming was after all his pilgrimage back to civilization. It was how humanity saw it, he wanted to compromise.

 

Train

As he strolled there was a hint of rain in the air. A few swelling beads of raindrops crackled onto his leather coat just about when he reached the turnstile to catch the late-night train.
In this pluvial darkness he pulled up his collar close, and the lapels which overlapped across his chest warmed him. A few celebratory drags then he flicked the cigarette half-done to the puddle, staying with it as he watched it hiss before entering the station.

Just the same, even after all, he still thought it was a good time for a drive, but he could not. Instead, he imagined steering the wheel in the darkness through the same night until he catches the first light of the next day. As he stood on the platform, he thought about how the rain will wash away the world clean as it always did. There were a few lines that he wanted to write her, regrets even. But he couldn’t. His hands are failing him.

Photo by: Bianca Osorio

Bastet

Gregor and Emma are examining book spines of classic Filipiṅana collections hoping they will stumble across something interesting although they already knew that this is highly unlikely.  If only great authors from the past could just magically write something new to send across to the present time, or maybe publishing houses would brilliantly come up with ideas like releasing special commemorative book editions or better yet, finding lost unpublished manuscripts from some hidden vault or a locked study.  Emma is on her knees, as if praying in front of a shrine – her collar bones perspire – while Gregor is skimming the pages of a Nick Joaquin shorts.  The old bookstore is so cramped, that religion and adult romance sections were placed next to each other.

Either it is a force of habit to induce intelligent conversations or just part of this unnecessary need for a routine that they occasionally come over to the same bookstore to have a proper venue to kick off their colorful speculations and exchanges that they agreed to term “The Crayola Sessions”.  Today is about the eventful ending of life as we all know it. The end of the world.

Gregor is wearing a samurai blue coat, with a white shirt beneath it. The necktie knot is loose, and he wears sports sneakers for comfort, while Emma is wearing a gray cardigan over a sleeveless casual shirt and a pair of denim shorts.

A whiff of old papers and the cold rain from the open windows marinate in the air, there is nothing like it.  Emma hailed the passing attendant of the store and ordered coffee and a pack of Marlboro reds, handing over the payment and a few change as tip. There are just about three round tables in the bookstore to occupy guests. They sat by the Capiz sliding windows.

“Say, do you think some divine being will truly show itself when the time comes? I really hope they’re cats. I think they must be, right? They are the sanest, most beautiful answer to save us from this godforsaken place. Ancient Egyptians believed it. I think it’s real.  You should see that episode about it.” Emma continued.

“You’re annoying.  But should it be true, at least it should be something original”

“I mean,” closing the book in his hands, placing the index finger between the pages “I hope it’s not going to be some cheesy judgment day where the sky opens up and angels appearing with trumpets start playing heavenly tunes, like what you see from those mediocre films.”

“Okay mister, supposing you are given a chance to participate to come up with a grand design on how things should end, how will you write it? What will be your ingenious version then? “

Emma scowling with a heft of sarcasm, crossing her legs together and leaning back against the My Home magazine back issues.

“I don’t know, probably angels and evil minions in Uber sedans, or perhaps a Ferris Wheel ride to enter heaven, only those permitted will be given a free pass.”

Emma gave out a genuine laugh.

When the attendant came back with their coffee the breeze picked up stronger.  There is no rain, but the air is definitely damp. “Stay in for as long as you want, we’re supposed to close in about an hour, but you are welcome here anytime.”

“Thank you for the hospitality sir, but we have to be somewhere as well,”  Gregor replied.

“Do we really have to go to that party? I mean, we’re already settled in here. “

“But you promised me, Emma, don’t be such a prick.”

“No, I did not! I said I will consider it.”

There was silence between them.

Gregor patiently studied the ceiling fan and making sipping noises from the cup that eventually graduated to slurping.

“But okay, to merit your infallible persistence, I will go.  But only until midnight and you need to promise me that.  Emma asserted.

“Okay, I promise then.”

“Just need to go back to my place and change.”

The attendant stepped back and nodded to the patrons before turning away.

“There’s no time, besides I have come prepared.  I asked my sister to lend you her dress.  You’re a size 6, right?”

Emma’s eyes rolled back, confused whether she would be impressed or annoyed.

When they arrived, the hall was already teaming up with people and loud danceable music.  Looking around, people of different age brackets are there. They are drinking and dancing, but they don’t look like they are enjoying at all. They are like hermits in uncomfortable shells. It felt odd to Emma.

When Gregor came back from the refreshments table his face was beaming with excitement.  He handed over a glass of punch to Emma.

“What’s this party about again?”  Emma asked in a loud voice next to his ear.

“It’s a masquerade party!”  Gregor shouted.

“A what party?!”

“A masquerade party!” Gregor repeated, and Emma finally caught up.

“I don’t think I follow you, I mean people are not wearing any masks here!”

Emma keeping up with the noise.

“Well, I don’t blame you!  It’s a different kind of masquerade.  People here are wearing a different kind of masks.  That includes you, Emma.”

“Uh, I don’t understand” Emma now more perplexed.

“People came here wearing clothes of other people.  Preferably people who are linked to them.  And they pretend as if they are them as well”.  Gregor explains.

Emma stepped back and surveyed the friend from head to toe.

“But you’re wearing your own clothes!”

Photo by: LJ Jumig

Cake

A heavy downpour was reportedly on its way, but we reckon that we still have a couple of hours to discuss the matter on hand.  Well, he first saw her on a crowded elevator, midway to his floor.  He eventually braved the odds and spoke to her after a few more encounters which turned out to be a positive thing that he did.  He was always proud of that and would boisterously tell friends at dinner tables or after a few rounds of drinks during the weekend literature meetings held at his place.

He would occasionally talk about how it went on down to the very last detail and how this series of pleasing events would make him write about her. Unsolicited, he also does recite poetry whenever he feels like and claims that the taste of rice has just become sweeter. Clinical or not, I think a sort of madness has stricken him.

It was exactly a month from today since the last time I had cake.  I have almost forgotten its taste; how soft the texture is like exactly whenever I gorge a mouthful while smoking a stick of cigarette.  And so, I agreed to go out today.

We live near to each other, practically a good stone’s throw away. He was at the door for a good fifteen minutes before I reluctantly answered back.

I crammed my pockets with keys, phone, and a few changes, quickly pulling a jacket on. I took a deep sigh as I braced myself before stepping out.  In the sun, I can see more visibly the tufts on my coat and the highway lines of my skin. Invariably despising this idea almost immediately, but there was also a hint of mood that stirred inside me. All of a sudden, I became somewhat excited to see the moonglow and thought about spring.

On the reflection of the glass, my eyes followed a line of ants marching across the pane until I could no longer see where they were heading.

We were standing in the cold, at the front of a jewelry store.  This younger friend asked me to choose which one he should buy her. Our hands were tucked deep in our pockets, nursing to their feeble quakes.

I told him he was stupid, and we should buy cake now.

Photo by F. Osorio
Photo by F. Osorio