It was as clear as a summer night’s sky that later he exhumed the details of the incident. But at that moment, all doors were shut tight and nobody seemed to know what answers he wanted to hear. He looked at the tenants scornfully, at their undiscriminating speculations, he could not stand it.
He was just making matters worse, they said to him. There was nothing else he could do and thought better of it. They could be right, of course. But he could not ignore the stench of apathy in his nostrils.
In the end, he decided to retreat back to knit a constructive point of view. It sounded old-fashioned, it made him shudder. But it has always been an effective antidote to the poisoned heart.
He used charcoal briquettes to take out the smell, along the wooden panels and throughout the gaps.
But it was the sight of chloroform that interested him.
Once there lived a hermit living an ordinary solitary kind of life. All he ever needed was the sands beneath him, and the salts of the ocean to preserve. He stayed in the shallow reefs near the shoreline, along the coast where he had access to food and a few leisure. He rarely travels to the land, and only went when he had to. It was just a little corner of the world what he had, it was not much but it was his corner nevertheless. He had it all.
Sure, he got a few friends at work, but he doubted if anyone would ever stick his head out for him when the time came. Not that it was necessary really, but sometimes, it was just comforting to think that one’s well-being is of some value to others.
He continues to scuttle through the sands of the beach.
The Old Dog
I read about the incident in a newspaper while waiting for my clothes to finish at a local Laundromat. I barely knew Lisa, but it saddened me, nonetheless.
She must have been dead for three days by the time her body was discovered in her apartment. She just got old- basically, it was what the news read.
It was a pivotal experience, she was the closest friend I ever had.
And now that she is gone, the more I am tucked away from ever existing.
Lisa was 77, twelve in dog years. Her famous person left for Siargao to catch some waves.
She looked good in her two-piece bikini on her Instagram post.
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.
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.
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 an explicit permission.
A few days had passed, it was the weekend, the brothers decided to get some air in 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 backseat 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 have latched his gaze onto 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 were set to meet the week after Earl was found on the bathroom floor in her parents’ house. Everyone had to lay low for a while, but clearly it was also a way of saying that the club was about to end. The climate was inclement distinctively that night. The smell of sanitized concrete was clean and calming which paced my driving slow. The man in a green suit and pointy front teeth directed me to where I could park; hand-gesturing to a space behind the steel fences by the backdoor, where I found a graveyard of cigarette stubs and puddles of dark water left by the rain.
I cranked the hand break and checked the parking job from the rearview, and waited for the engine to die down before pressing the dial. The phone rang a few times over until finally a coarse voice answered lazily hinting a dozy reluctance.
It wasn’t her, so I hung up. I went inside and nursed my impatience coupled with anxiety, while I sank in my usual spot at the corner where it was dark and cool and relatively isolated.
I repeatedly went over the unfavorable odds, and faulted myself for it.
So I drank, and shook a pinball machine instead.
A little over a year ago, Earl and I stayed in a summertime retreat house near the eastern coastline that a relative of his handsomely sponsored. It was a favor that I had to go through which he insisted, since I had nothing especially to do that vacation period anyway. Besides, I have already given tita my confirmation, which would be considered a huge let down if I had changed my mind the last minute. We were made to do preplanned activities which were part of the program, which also ensued, consequently, the day to day itinerary adversely tight for anything else.
On the fourth night, I thought of getting up before the sun did. Sleep was a novelty that was not there since the time we arrived. The moon was too bright it seemed prying, stars too many that I felt naked under them.
It felt like I was making up for lost time. I had a mini viewing deck in my room, sat there with my early cigarettle. Looking through the binoculars following a tree line over the ridge, I saw a beautiful white domestic canary gliding over the sloping into the narrow passages until it disappeared, completely. The entire landscape was starting to warm up until it was finally soft and rosy all around, while the ocean whimpered across the shore on the opposite side of the lodge.
And it seemed tranquil enough to begin, for anyone who wanted to start all over – like a moth to a lamp I was drawn to it.
It was after breakfast when I saw her waded in the shallows. The water was clear, and blue, and sometimes green in the day. The skiff shifted, it was about the perfect time to daydream, and what better way to do it than sailing away from the coast. When the waters were right about her hip, she went in and plunged. She paddled on patiently, her arms made consistent circular motions toward the direction of the horizon. She tasted the salt upon turning her head for air, and permitted the sea to wrap itself around her young body, to flow through her hair and touch her eyes.
I have never seen anyone so beautiful. She was the countless sand in that ocean, slipping away through my fingers.
Consumed, she took a rest on the raft, and lay there as if entwined with the planks; she felt the weight sinking beneath her and the water trickling down the surface of her now warm skin. Her complete state heeded to the call of gravity, and the sun was almost midway up when she stared at it through the gap between her thighs.
She also saw the passing of the skiff, the sails were unfamiliar, but the face she knew. Even so, she paid no mind to it, then she turned to her side and thought about the other boy instead.
It echoed to her, ringing into her ears. Circling, hovering in the air suspended. A thought that lingered, a shadow cast, a return mail, or perhaps in this case of her’s a puzzle piece that she’d rather not complete. On the side table sat a half filled glass of water and a mat of aspirins accented by the crumpling of drugstore receipts. She got up but not quite making it and leaned against the two giant pillows propped on the wall. The day was not over yet, the soft glow of twilight brimmed across the wide horizon making the sky flushed up in that gentle orangery burst.
Her body was warm, a leg was bent and both arms sagged across the bed. The wrinkles of the undone fitted sheets gave out, it was almost dark and she was turning into a bat. A familiar musk of which only a man could produce made her senses and her entire anatomy felt defensive. She dabbed on her side hesitantly, lips were half open, curious words stifled by this uninvited ambiguity. She can hear innocence and lightness in the breathing that accompanied her. It was dry and rhythmic, almost melodious in tone. It got louder as she leaned forward, causing her head braced.
She then dragged her fingertips quietly forward until finally they had made contact with a crooked body.
“It is not a dream” She thought. “But I do not know this man”. She pricked herself again and again – for sometimes she would wake in a dream and would wander off in another.
“I slept the day away. But why aren’t you scared silly? Alas! At the very least weirded out by all this, stupid…” She gasped and slowly moved back to her side and tapped her left sole first onto the floor to get into her bedroom slippers.
Half an hour past she walked toward the table that stood by the open window, dragging a trail of blanket behind her, covering herself to the chest. She waited there staring at the burrowed face on her bed, behind the mosquito net beneath the moonglow that showered through the faint curtains. This woke the crooked body and arose almost in stealth, propped on its arms on the sides.
This time she can see him, but not entirely. Half of his chest and most of his being were concealed, unshared. But there was nothing to show, it spoke finally. “It is I, Juliana” his tone low and suited the sultry tropical weather. He was just a faceless man, not of the flesh but made of stencils, and paints, and narratives – a pigment of her imagination, an absolute manifestation of her mind.
Surely she was not running a high fever to cast this delirious persona she checked.
The dream if it were, was surprisingly placid, she rationalized.
Behind the scaffolding, a grimy mirror on the mahogany closet held her reflection. And she traced the light of the night outlined her shape, the slope of her forehead, the swell on her chest, and the rugged top knot of a painter’s panache she was sporting.
She was humbled by what she knew – She saw the sketching of the skies, the molding from clay, a creation of someone else’s dream.
She reopened a note she retrieved from the drawer and read:
“Let us linger in time before things disintegrate completely before us like paper in the rain. Perhaps it will help you remember. With complete vigor and youthful view round the backseats, as we drove up north, and decided on how you and I should face each other, now, then, in front of, or miles apart, we will always be the same people who we chose to be. Like our favorite characters in those films. So I’ll see you there, amour.”
Power lines and phone cables decorated the streets, outlining the power grid, exposing how hideous the entire city planning was done. It was as if a severe case of varicose veins has decided to show up on someone’s leg. Overpopulation or just good old apathy to decongest caught in a time warp — this underdeveloped third world country is stuck in the past; its economy relies heavily on taxes, and the promiscuity of the movie goers, who also prefer reading current events on sleazy tabloids with monochrome center folds. The strands of this electrical network which hang suspended across the intersecting roads of Manila resemble the humorless tangles of squid ink pasta.
A young man is casting overly animated shadows as he walks out through the sitios. Careful not to disturb the unsuspecting underage delinquents sniffing solvents in plastic bags, he deliberately stays on the other side of the street. And as he makes his turn to the back alley, a thick invisible body of stench welcomed him. Cat or human piss (or probably mixed) and what seemed to be a byproduct of decomposing manure occupied his nostrils.
His backpack is fully packed that it suggested to anyone seeing him that he is going somewhere real far. A second bag was slung over across his chest, on his right shoulder, as he also wears a trucker hat that conceals his face. As he trod along, he felt this unadulterated fixation to get away. He fidgeted an unlit cigarette on his thigh as he waited for the next bus trip in the terminal. Flies swarm around the flickering florescent light above the ticket booth, as the stout cashier behind the window is watching the late night news, just waiting for the night shift guy to takeover. An image of a young Jesus with wilted sampaguitas strung around its neck is standing next to a jade frog with a coin in its mouth.
The looming darkness is like the devouring of the world by a giant fish god and Adam is beneath the ceiling of its mouth. Adam stared blankly into the night sky and thought about Jonah from the bible. He imagined what it felt like to stay inside the belly of an enormous fish. If had it been true, Jonah must have felt really bored from all the waiting to be digested that he must have counted the number of rib bones it had to kill time. His theology teacher Mrs. Paraiso insisted that it was probably a whale that saved him. It would have been such an exciting book if it was a Megalodon or the Lockness creature instead. This he playfully mused until a long legged prostitute walked on by and signaled to him to employ her.
He could have said yes to her, not because he wanted her but because he was dying of boredom. Instead, he lit the cigarette and welcomed the quiet. He closed his eyes and can almost hear the thick whooshing sound of the sea hurling itself onto the shore. He imagined in awe the continents and the golden beaches they visited. He saw the sun basking Africa, and wondered if there were lions walking on the shore. And between the crashing of the waves and hauling of the winds, was this lingering beat within him that stretches on so.
All of a sudden the night was so tranquil that it appeared that the world is on Valium.
He decluttered his mind and found no trouble reacquainting with loneliness. He is used to the transient nature of human beings. People leave all the time. And even if they did not, he always felt alone. But the reason of his ongoing departure has got nothing to do with clinical depression or some weird existential crisis even. For him the night is a friend that dismisses away scars, who truly never minds, and he appreciates that. And it dawned on him, as if it was a feeling of joy almost forgotten that finally, finally he has escaped his life. “Freedom” he gasped with relief.
This decision just came to him like some divine apparition. He just woke up one night from a dream and decided that he wasn’t going anywhere unless he was to do things his way finally. When he reached the port a dark skinned man was standing on the gangplank counting the passengers coming in. His face was so oily you can sauté something on it. Adam approached the man and asked to be admitted and paid for the fare. Now that they are standing face to face, he thought he resembled Seal for some reason. A porter sidled through the passing crowd and asked Adam if he needed help with his bags. He refused and told him that he can manage his carry on, and this has caused the porter’s reaction to distort a little as he departed to chase another passenger. Even if he wanted to, he needed to limit his spending after all. He went onboard and climbed the stairwell to the second level and found himself a bunk bed by the railing so he can smoke whenever he decides to. He then placed his bags against the steel bar, strapped it securely and placed the pillow to cover them.
His parents always knew what’s best for him. Took care of everything he ever needed growing up. The dad is one of the most decorated generals in the armed forces while the mom owns a chain of uprising salons in the metro. Through the years, he lived under the strict patriarchal regime of his father. He always did keep outstanding grades, to avoid the litany on how his father worked his way up doing manual labor for just about anything to finish school. Adam did as they told him. But he didn’t feel close to them at all. He felt that he was just a responsibility to them. Or perhaps just another life project that needed to be fulfilled.
For the most part of living together, they let him watch too much television in exchange of the assimilation. Adam has fallen in love with films.
Adam’s discovery of his fascination of cinema happened when he first saw Jaws airing on channel 5. It was the feature blockbuster Sunday movie. The voice from the television box said that it was the best way to cap the weekend. Good thing it was scheduled after the evening mass, giving him just enough time for the family dinner, to brush his teeth, and change into his night clothes. Locally aired programming normally takes longer than it should be because of interrupting advertisements for product promotions. His dad said it is the only way that broadcasting networks could make real money. Adam hated these.
Somehow, watching that great white unleashed its merciless tendencies helped him dispense his own inhibitions and all the frustrations holed up inside him. For him, the shark was not the monster, it was something else.
Rows of uneven waves calmly rally across the surface of the sea with faint midnight moon-gleam wrapping over them. White foams are trailing behind the ferry, and the refracted light heralded the arrival of the new set of migrating waves. He looked around from the deck view, and noticed that the night was blue and dark and it was also patient.
Right across the island, Sammy de la Pena is standing at the harbor waiting for the arrival of the eleven o’clock ferry. He has a receding hairline and claims that his relationship with his hair was just a summertime fling. He wears thick lensed glasses with heavy black folding frames to make people take him seriously on the right occasion. His revolting checkered cardigan made him visible to Adam from a mile away. His assistant named Pierre is waiting in a boxed-type sedan, and was told to keep the motor running. Pierre has five kids and a nagging wife. He sidelines as a security detail for Sam, sometimes a temp lover to earn more money.
Sam met Adam as he walked down the ramp and reached for his bag. This time Adam allowed to be helped. He finally cracked a smile as the excitement was brimming out of him. He took the backseat of the car and quick introductions were made by Sam and they drove to the nearest coastal pub where they serve fresh crabs and delicious buttered shrimps. At the bar Sam ordered two beers and a platter of sizzling minced pig ears and a glass of ice. The barkeep nodded and placed a ceramic ashtray between them. Beads of sweat were noticeably gathering on Adam’s forehead as he scraped the paper napkin onto his face.
“So, can I see it then?” Sam asked.
Adam reached down under the table where his bags are, and pulls out a clamped manuscript. His face was flushed. “Here, but it’s not finished yet” He modestly injected.
“What’s it about?”
“It’s a story about the struggles in a war period”
“Is there a love scene in it?”
“The protagonist has a romantic interest, yes, if that’s what you mean.”
“There should be at least a couple of those in it, that’s what sells. Anyway, I’ll have Pierre take a look at it. He knows what to do. I mean he knows my taste.” He grinned audaciously at the subject of reference.
Pierre looked away, his jaw closed tight and his hand pressing onto his leather clutch bag sitting next to his leg.