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.

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.”

The Invisible Man

Jupiter was no bigger than a five-centavo coin when it shined that night. Thrilled, he placed it inside the hole he made with his fingers and peeped through it into the sky with one eye. He took a photograph of the sighting but his phone camera failed to deliver justice and so he decided to just discard it.

Overhead, its glow was diluted by the increased display lightings of the bookstore. As he stood outside, he then watched the storekeepers and the customers raced — like lab mice — the mazes of the bookcases inside. Uninvited, he crushed his half-done cigarette and went in and did the same. He started with the selected features and trod along the modern classics section until he slowed down when he reached the aisle between the Russian giants and H.G. Wells. He decided to procrastinate venturing and opted for the latter instead this time. Besides, he figured that reading Tolstoy or Dostoevsky would not sit very well with commuting on public transportation and discerned that he doesn’t want another unfinished book.

He had plenty of time, he tried to convince himself. But by the year he reached thirty-four true friends had enormously reduced to mostly dead writers and fictional protagonists. It was as if living people were only worth trying out if their thoughts and general interests were first proofread and edited like any publication houses would do.

This he thought about and the million things that could potentially take place in his short lifespan. But who would dare care? After a while, people would eventually move on with their lives. He confronted himself with the thoughts of unreciprocated love affairs and unfulfilled passions. What if they discovered that the only thing, he could ever love unconditionally was the rain? The time of the monsoon was coming, and it would be cooler soon. The thought began to console him. It was not necessarily of importance but for him, they were like the soundtrack of a very good film and the foams in his drink.

They say that life flashes on by without you realizing it. And oftentimes we miss it, especially when it counted the most. But in his case, there were no flashes, no theatrics — Just a series of random movements and intermittent pauses.

On the escalator going down, he bumped into an old colleague from the University. They exchanged numbers after going over a crash course of where their lives had led them since they last saw each other.

During the dialogue, all he was thinking about was the Irish coffee he was dying to have.

He never thought that the idea would ever touch his ugly mouth, but it did, he blurted it out, he felt ashamed.

At that moment everything else sounded broken to him.

It was a beautiful reclusion of the heart.

The Visit (homage)

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 contacted 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 figment 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.” 


The Visit

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

Crossings and Intersections

I was waiting by the tracks on a platform sitting on an empty steel bench where a beam from the weekend ether is cascaded down through an opening of the plastic transparent sunroof. The rustic smell from the old neighboring provinces flooded the air. There were not many people there yet, it was still early and so the sight is pretty much the usual vacated scene at this time of the day.

I had my left arm folded resting atop a luggage bag beside me, while the knuckles were pressed against the temple of my head. I just finished drinking coffee from a local inn, and I did not mind waiting. In fact, I was lingering at the moment while it was still mine to savor.

Not borrowers, but I guess we are the temporary owners of these fragments we call moments. Or at least we attempt to steal these from the overly stretched time we have left.

A dog-eared paperback book was occupying the other hand, laying it flat open across my right arm. I was caught between the lines that stuck with me for quite some time. Somehow, I couldn’t get past the words. I was rereading the same chapter over and over, and it was an indication that I was not getting anywhere obviously, and should give it a rest for the meantime.

Or was I becoming too engrossed?

Quite not sure.

Faceless people began to appear. I heard them coming from the steps but not rushing. From the sound of their voices, I was assuming that they were college students talking about school stuff and a professor that I thought they hated.

I turned to their direction to see, a mere mechanical reaction I guess, or maybe I was looking for a momentary amusement. I was in a way channel surfing for real-life episodes, not really knowing what I wanted my eyes to sit on.

An old lady carrying an eco-bag and a folding umbrella was also there, walking after the students. She had a sullen and weary look in her eyes, the kind that had seen many cold Decembers I suppose.

I watched her pacing herself to reach the bench where I was. She placed her things down carefully and made sure that these were secured and will not fall over. She then slowly chose a spot, sitting next to me.

I was trying not to be obvious. I was looking straight down on to the book I was holding, and just observing her through my peripheral. I didn’t want to offend her, but I couldn’t stop noticing as well since we were the only ones there.

She looked at the direction from where the train was going to appear, but she only found the image of me sitting there across her.

“Hijo, what time is the next train?” the old lady asked, her gaze shifted towards me.

“Um, I guess in a few minutes, they operate less on weekends” Stammering, I responded.

“And why do you suppose they’d do that? People still have to be somewhere even on weekends, right?” then a faint chuckle followed.

Clearly, time complimented her with wisdom.

“I guess, you’re right” taken by surprise on her response, I returned with a polite nod and a smile.

“If I may ask, are you in a hurry, Ma’am?”

She reached for her bag and went through what was inside and held out a standard-sized marble that kids play with especially during far back in the day.

“I plan to visit my son and surprise him with this. He is much older than you are, probably a decade older.

I found this thing from a box filled with worn-out clothes and old books, and I thought this will make him remember.”

“Remember what?” I quickly followed.

“Well, when he was still a little boy, he never left this behind, everywhere he went he carried this in his pocket, believing it held some sort of magic. I guess he got that idea from reading too much Mark Twain novels.”

“To tell you honestly, this is not the actual marble that he believed had magical powers. Many years ago, I accidentally dropped the real one when I was checking his trousers for anything before washing them. I lost the damn thing when it went straight through a hole.”

“That must have felt very frustrating” I sincerely injected.

“Then what happened next?”

“I went to the house of my son’s best friend, whose mom I was very close with, and explained what happened with the marble.

As a mother, she understood why it was so important for me to find another similar.

We snuck inside her son’s room and went through a drawer where he kept his collection of marbles. But we were dumbfounded when we discovered that there was a lot to choose from.”

I gave out a huge laugh after hearing this and felt very much intrigued on how the story was turning out.

“How were you able to find an exact match?” Curiously asking.

“Well, we didn’t.”

“I don’t understand, what did you do after?” Now really intrigued.

“I got back to our house with three marbles I thought similar with the real one. It was getting late, so I just bought us dinner on the way home from a cheap Chinese restaurant near our place.

And when I arrived, he was sleeping, apparently tired from looking for his treasure.

I woke him up and took the time explaining to him what happened.

“And then? Did he get mad about it?”

“Yes, he hated me for it. And it took a few days to get him talking to me again.”

“But it surprised me when he finally did, he told me, that he had a dream about his magic marble”.

I leaned closer to hear her clearly. Her tone and the volume of her voice dropped a couple of notches it was almost a whimper.

“He said that in his dream, I came out of an Ice cave and gave him a marble.

And according to the dream, I placed the marble inside his invisible pocket, and told him that it will never, ever be lost again.”

“That turned out well?” with a gesture of relief I gave a deep exhale.

“Well it sort of did, but years went by, and he seemed to have also forgotten where that secret pocket was. That’s why I am visiting him to show him this old marble. It’s been years since the last time we saw each other. Call me overly dramatic, but I am running out of time.” Holding the round toy up next to her hopeful smile.

All of a sudden, the train loomed out of the huge body of a hazy fog across the green field, approaching the station.

We hurriedly bid our short but sincere farewells, never knowing if we will cross paths ever again for another storytelling.

Apparently, that was the last time I saw the old lady.

She got on the train as I stayed behind watching her go.

The heavy weight on my chest was starting to fade as the rubber soles of my shoes seemed to have grown wings on them suddenly.

Flying off to somewhere instead.

Intersections

Omelet Tidings

The two waited on the bleachers with their eyes wandering through the damp. They were exchanging a half-done flask as they were also whistling cigarette smoke across the soccer field.  They have found themselves in a vacuum within this seemingly infinite void before the dawn.

She reveals her face to the voyaging clouds across the sparkling seas of the night, giving up a smile as she pulls back the hood of her jacket. The paradox of the universe unfolds. She gently kisses the stale tasting lips of nicotine, freeing its very soul one drag at a time.  It had no complaints, nor did the silence of the surroundings, as it implied in affirmation. Neither even the imposing claws of the tree branches nor the entire army of crickets under that sweet vanilla moon had any quarrels with her at that moment.

Her make up smears, she hasn’t painted her nails for a while, but she doesn’t really mind at all.

Deep breaths, as she administers imagination, what needs to be done?  She had begun in the shallow waters of her mind.

And little by little, she submerges down into the depths of her profound contemplations. And in every burning sip from the bitter openings of the flask, it was as if a passionate lover making love to her, she finally reconsiders.

She was taken gradually, within the raptures of the abyss and the parallel dimensions of her make-believe world. What is this unalienable truth that haunts her now? She then wishes for an antidote, like morphine, dismissing the pain in ten folds.

Then she ponders on the reassuring respite of bacon and omelet. How this dynamic duo may soon have to save her and the world when they both cry out for help. Be great presidents someday perhaps, or a pop song playing in loop, or be an empathizing friend for just a little while.

She then retracted these notions out of her head almost immediately. She must be drowsed, she thought.  Over romanticism might have murdered her skeptical heart she feared.

But these apprehensions were real. Confronted by their undeniable strength, she was tied to the mast.  As she turns to him reluctantly, almost uttering the words, falling like the rain in September.

She gave the boy a smile instead.

Omelet Tidings

Photo by T. Angara-Aragon