It’s late in the night when we took a cab ride around the outskirts of town. We picked up some supplies on the way at the local 24-hour convenience store near the bay and paid extra on top of the fare. He was sorry about waking me up, but he didn’t know who else to call at the time, he explained. Of course, I didn’t mind one bit.
We watched the smoke lingered in the air under a street lamp. It was like a scene from Close Encounters of the Third Kind. This made him forget for a little while, which relieved me in a way, for I was putting on a terrible performance consoling him.
We didn’t talk about it much really. I didn’t know how. The ebbing of the tides in the moonlight did all of that for us.
I guess that was all he ever needed, what both of us did.
“I don’t think we could ever prepare for these sort of things.” He started.
“You’d know if it’s good when it’s scarce.
All the good ones are.”
I didn’t say anything.
We waited until dawn before heading back. He wanted to catch both the last light of the night and the first of the coming day.
At the end of it, he knew that profanity is the cheapest means of revenge.
“Think about something else. “ I urged him finally.
“The good days.” I knew I was doing worse I wanted to puke.
“I want to see that try bring down all the xenophobic ideas in the world.”
Then the warm rays glimpsed upon us suddenly with the breeze blowing from the direction of the sun.
And it went on in my head. I could still trace him. My son’s scent on the pillows.
I think it’s painfully blissful, sometimes I couldn’t stand it.
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 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.
Together with his parents, they were guests at the New Year’s Eve party hosted by his uncle Ramon and his wife Aunt Cecil. Like the rest, he said buenas to the older relatives and placed the back of their hands on his forehead. And after being thrown around like a Ping-Pong ball, he was seated — almost listlessly — near the family punch bowl, away from the smoke of cigarettes wandering about the room like aimless spirits with unfinished business. This was the year FVR has solved the power crisis, the end of his boyhood.
The Christmas tree was still up — the same as in the other households — and there were even unclaimed presents underneath it. The air still stirred in that festive atmosphere that triggered an automatic switch inside his chest. He felt the urge of lighting up a roman candle or perhaps a cone-fountain and thought about inviting a girl he knew across the street.
Kids chased each other around with sparkles in their hands, while the fireworks as if splashing in the night sky, rippled fighting for space and attention.
While everyone was preoccupied with merrymaking, he snatched a whole swig of punch and cruised mischievously among family friends and his unsuspecting relatives. He sidled and scuttled until he was able to completely break free to join the others his age.
He saw his cousins Nathaniel and Trixie went up the stairs first. Then it was Carol, the two Maries, Christine, and then finally Dex who snuck the glasses up to the room. Discipline and tact were highly regarded in the family. But tonight, kids were permitted to stay up as late as they would like. The husbands, joined by their wives were drinking Pale Pilsen beers, until their livers gave out, even dogs could bark all night, but they chose to be holed up in their hiding places instead.
After a while, he followed the rest into Dex’s room. And there he found the host of this secret party sitting on the bedroom rug passing around vodka in dining glasses.
He took his place on the bed, sitting next to the two Maries — the youngest of the cousins– who were giggling in excitement. Carol was perched by the windows wearing her first fourteen-holed Dr. Martens sharing pop magazine stories with Trixie and Christine, while Nathaniel busied with the Nintendo tapes in front of the television.
He chattered with Dex whom he felt closest with. Everyone seemed to be having a good time when suddenly they heard Dex’s dad, their uncle Ramon, calling them out on the door. The uncle was particularly strict, the paternal kind, but also believed that profanity has no place in parenting. All the paraphernalia were pushed under the bed, the two Maries, Trixie, and Christine hid under the bed covers, while he took the closet with Carol.
In the dark, while listening to the only sound that reigned which was their almost syncopated breathing, he accidentally dabbled into the cosmos of this unfamiliar paradoxical curiously. Of course, this could only be an infatuation, a mere glitch in his system. Captured during an unguarded moment, he could not make out the shape of this predicament.
He tried hard not to manifest the distraught. It was a complete abomination, he would be excommunicated for sure. And even through college, this haunted him. He saw fragments of Carol in the girls he dated, it goes without saying that this did not satisfy him. But the momentary remedy offered a relief so as to just get by. He felt bad of course. It was not in his nature nor was his intention to use people. But he could not bring himself to resist whenever he saw a piece of her.
But one thing he could never elude was the probability of meeting her again. Sure, he was able to dodge a few family gatherings, but the New Year’s would be a tough one to get rid of.
Under the hibiscus tree, he marveled over at the last setting day of the year. The skies reminded him of the four-season punch that was slowly draining. And yet again he found another piece of her in the wide canvas over him.
This time though, he has not found any traces of guilt in his chest. At the end of each year, the skies will bleed like no other, but it will be able to endure anyhow, this he finally knew.
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 nearly the end of the hour, most of the customers have already left the counters and those who remained were the regulars playing a few more rounds of pool before calling it quits. On a napkin, she drew a Martian cat holding a flag and a pint, folded it in half and inserted it in my phone casing.
I was feeling light, tired. She said it might have been the lateness of the night; we were not the same as we used to be. We were different then, but in a way, have not changed much. Probably we were both.
It was my turn to buy the next round. I was running thin on beer money, but the night was still asking.
It was a mistake, but who’s counting nowadays? The world is full of it. Everyone has drums and boxes filled with it.
“Where were we?”
“Back to where we used to be, in a place we ought to be” She insisted.
“But you’re moving back to California.”
“The moon was fuller the last time we were here. Your hair longer and I didn’t have this limp.”
“You were dashing” She chuckled.
I returned some myself. “Eight years of alcohol does a lot to you.”
The container trucks lined up overhead, stuck on a flyover across our window. The stream of orange highway lamps traced the roads with broken lines and asphalt. She wrapped her head as it rested on her upper arm and continued,
“Will you cook me breakfast?”
“If you still like over easy with burnt hems.”
“I always thought it was perfect.”
Sometimes I go to this place in my head where I recounted this sequence over and over. There were nights when I’d just look up in the sky and hope for a chance. I still keep it with me, her dog-eared paperback copy of The Trial, protesting, one unused bookmark at a time.
H narrowed his eyes, squinting at the three-hundred-year-old enamel chalices, spoon, and ladles sitting inside the glass case. As he read the inscriptions, the professor was observing him quite amused with his growing interest for the Spanish colonial artifacts. “Now that we’re done with the kitchenware, when can we see the replicas of the Manila Galleons?” H half-jokingly mused but the host paid little attention to him and continued on with his private tour. Their heels clacked raucously against the linoleum tiles until they were seated inside a study, where the curator usually entertains visits from historians, politicians, grantors, and special acquaintances in the scientific socio-sphere.
The professor scheduled the tour on an early morning of midweek, which meant the city tours were on low key which worked perfectly both for them and the host. Education was essential to move forward, but the past was an integral part. “You see“, placing the boater hat on his right knee, “The tales of history are always best told in such fashion. True appreciation depicts demeanor, so bring some of that home with you.”
But H was daydreaming. The lucid mind receded. It was a terrible habit.
After a few, he asked earnestly “But how do we know we’re making the right kind of history?”
This came out of nowhere but the professor welcomed it anyway.
“Well, that’s tough.” He repositioned and crossed legs.
“But I guess all good ones are.”
The old man commended H for his potential, for his innate artistic brilliance. He felt responsible for him — he was but a ship that was imperative to build.
That night at the ball they were in their double-breasted amerikanas, surrounded with great pieces in the Amorsolo gallery. “It feels quite absurd wearing uncomfortable outfits in such scorching climate” H complained.
But like his fathers before him, who shared the same streams of aspirations but unable to shine on fully, he was willing to submit, basking in its symphonic reception. The corners of his lips widened as the smiles beamed. By and by the crowd has been able to separate the two, until arthritis got the better of the old man.
The General Council on Cultural Development had taken interest in the works of the young aspirant. They consist mostly of middle-aged men, of scholars and intricate critics who busied themselves buzzing on and about, clinking champagne glasses and exchanging small talks here and there to no end.
A woman in her fifties approached H who was now standing by the tribal shaft ornaments. The powder on her face traced the wrinkles on her temples, while the yellows of her teeth emphasized by the redness of her lips. The laces of her evening gown appeared uncomfortably itchy to him.
He felt like a young buck drinking water from a murky shallow swamp.
It made him feel worse he wanted to change right away into his regular clothes and lay down by the awning thatched windows of home. In his mind, he would sail the leagues of his imagination where he’d set out on a trip on-board the Manila Galleon bearing great treasures of gold, ancient jewelry, and rare
spices of the east. Then at nightfall when the skies are clear enough, he’d be under the stars, gazing in his hammock suspended as it sways to the gentle motions the ship. And as it bobs on the cradles of the ocean, he’d wonder on further to even greater depths to where the giant squids are lurking, rare sea creatures reign on the decks of sunken armadas. He’d be there where the midnight blue outlines the darkened earth of the mountainsides, while the waters like dark ink with splinters of glass mirror the cloudless sky.
He pinched his nose as he walked out of the gallery. Both teacher and pupil started the road again.
“There are always dark days ahead. In my case, my arthritis.”
“I was just here for the relics.” H grinned.
“So did you sign the job offer?” The professor sat at the park bench and fed the koi fishes in the pond.
I drew the shower curtain and found her there, curled up in the dry tub. It was days now since the time she last spoke to me. I could imagine her resentment against me and I couldn’t blame her of course, how could I? In the soft beams of the afternoon sun, I bathed in its modesty, lending me the time for myself outside to catch some air. Time is a friend that catches on. And when it does, it leaves you behind uncompromisingly. Its passing does not protrude to hurt. Its manifestations need not be heralded. It makes its own course through the passages of being and existence.
We took the train and exchanged the snuck whiskey during. I held her close enough to remember or not to forget and snatched some shallow sleep in between stops. It took several hours to complete the draft. And I had her read it out loud, so we can both comment on it. She suggested not changing anything. It’s always best unadulterated she would say.
In the evenings we would walk up the streets to talk about it — what’s philosophical and objective — on how she would always support me, love me, until we reach the fork of our ways. I knew It could be that even in the stillness of her voice I heard her say those silent encrypted protests for the unbecoming. Let’s be like Ed and Anne for good — to be in a place where the roads never end, licenses never expire, and the rides go around and roundabout.
The news came one day. A friend committed suicide. Connie took muriatic acid, it was immediate. No other details shared apart from that. We haven’t heard from her for a while, we just didn’t realize.
A country musician from Illinois was playing on stage by the time we got there, making use of his larynx as the main instrument in his repertoire. People who knew Connie were felt compelled to keep her alive until the bar closed at four. The musician paid tribute to Layne Staley, Lou Reed, and Sinatra too. It was fitting: life is a life, nonetheless. It was years after when I saw some of them. The rest I wrote letters and postcards were mailed back especially around the holidays.
Over rounds of drinks, we were reconciled, at least for a while, in this tragedy we were bound into. Subtlety always resided with sobriety, while indiscretion and truth were found on the side of the night, always. Back at the apartment, I phoned a relative just to be sure. A doctor-on-call was scarce. Discretion was the key, Intervention was next I suppose.
It’s never going to be perfect, she said. It’s going to be ugly, and mad, and hysterical. Her arm was filled while the spirit high. But flowers wither, rivers eventually run dry. The colors fade, if not, most eyes will turn the other way. And if not for these fleeting moments of transcendence, life will never be appreciated on the pedestal of grandeur. That glory, courage, and wisdom, these fragments we hold onto – not reluctance but a mere recognition, a fight if you will — of life not ending but transgressing.