We were in front of the Aristocrat’s Restaurant, where the malignant bone of Ermita and Malate in Manila breaks into two. Traffic was like a sledgehammer crushed on disgruntled drivers and pitiful passengers. The wind was accelerating like a developing mental disorder. A hooker was sitting on a cracked bench, facing the gunning sunset, crossing her legs for cinematic effect.
We walked away from the only lighted lamppost on the boulevard and I noticed our shadows walking ahead of us, the moon a dark-purple half-note, a mob of clouds caressing it.
Cecilia had always been negative, said maybe she would fail the job interview, would not get out from the mess she’s in. It had always happened, like cheap singing contests. She was the most qualified, a chemist who graduated at the top five of her class. But she bungled job interviews.
She picked me up from a nowhere, a thirtyish lady with already grey strands of hair, had a bulbous nose, but smashing blue eyes and sailboat lips, though whenever she spoke it looked like there was no land to anchor on.
Just got out of the police force, a physically muscular guy but with no muscles to show on my character. At that time got nowhere to go. My father, a strict, fiftyish former police officer, didn’t know about it, or else would have junked me. He hit me at the palest wrongdoing I had committed, as if I was a lowly private or corporal, as if I was a subordinate too. I was an only son, so maybe the focus, yet too much of it, like a singer with too much falsettos on a John Lennon mellow classic.
Once—I was twelve then—at the dining table, and he asked me if I had finished my homework. Trained not to tell a lie, I told him I had not. Then I felt it, a hard hit on my nape. My lips hit the glass sleeping soundly on the brown wooden table. Then mother sprang from her chair, consoled me, stared at father yet didn’t say anything. There was blood on my lips, felt it, hadn’t gotten over it.
But still I graduated, a criminology course—at the vicious prodding of my father—that would get you nowhere except to be a policeman, or the law enforcers’ nemesis.
I couldn’t stomach it. We were in a mobile patrol knifing through Quezon Avenue every stark night, with rock smashers of the seventies on the radio. But a different kind of music my police buddies played. They would forcibly pull out a prostitute cemented on the pavement in front of a Chinese restaurant on the avenue, as if she was part of the menu. Like a take-out order, but without paying. Then we would park in a dim part of Scout Fernandez street. They would have sex with the moll. Three of them, inside the police car. My buddies, with grasping, mashing, clutching arms and legs, looked like an octopus devouring a salmon. I would wait for them to finish. The sirens of lust, the screams, would be heard in full blast., our metal badges becoming cheap as twenty-five-centavo coins.
After I got out of the police force, I roamed Manila streets, last paycheck good enough for a month’s board and lodging in a cheap inn. I decided not to return to Father, he would kill me for sure. Then without work yet I decided to sleep on cracked benches on Rizal Park. Still had my identification card, so pretended I was still a cop in civilian clothes whenever a cop or a security patrol would accost me. Often I knew the cops that would check on me.
I talked with broken-teeth denizens of the dark, hobnobbed with strangers in the cold winds of the city’s baywalk.
“How about you, tell me about your father,” I said to Cecilia.
She seemed lost, like an unsolved chemical equation.
“My father? Well… he committed suicide.”
“Oh, I’m sorry for asking you that.”
“It’s okay, happened a long time ago. “
“My father? Well, he’s dead, committed suicide.”
“Oh, I’m sorry.’
“It’s okay, Jim. It happened a long time ago.”
Then she stood up, took a few steps, lithe movements like an actress in a Shakespearean play.
“He had a job, but my mother wasn’t happy with his salary, so he left his former job and applied to that multinational company where the work was toxic but high paying. They took him in.
He was a civil engineer, loved his family so much, with no vices, a very religious man. He was asked one day to do a presentation on a multi-million road project where he was assigned as chief planning officer.
He wasn’t prepared for the presentation, blew it.
Then he went home, and the neighbors said he walked in circles. For about fifteen minutes he did that, they said. Then he went inside our house and played his favorite song Spinning Wheel—that one by the sixties’ band Blood, Sweat and Tears, a sixties band. Then a loud bang was heard just a minute later, as if it was a struck cymbal, a part of the psychedelic blues-jazz funky music that had become the band’s trademark. His 45 caliber killed him. He had a rosary around his neck when he died.”
The day we met I had just been at a mass in Ermita Church. The priest was talking about Lazarus and the rich man. Outside the needy pleaded, the hookers bawled over tourists whose echoes mirrored torn alchemy. The hookers’ echoes coagulating with murky air, only about meters away from a filthy bay with only maybe the true treasure of Manila, the priceless Manila sunset, gleaming with the neon lights of see-through bars with naked men and women doing their thing in public.
“If you didn’t do a wrong thing but did not do a right thing, then you will still not go to heaven,” the priest stressed in his homily. Then he narrated swanky stories: “when we were in Milan, we met Archbishop Freno, when we were in Venice, when we were in Florence…”
I thought about it hard, he telling that we should give to the poor, but where the hell did he get the money, how the hell was he able not to think of the needy and just donated it to them? I went out, not out from God, but only from this priest, for he was always mentioning he went to the grandest places in the world every time he was out of the country, who always hobnobbed with super wealthy residents.
Then I met her.
There she was, mingling with the September breeze, sitting on a bench in a park by the bay. I’m talking about that park of all parks, where Rizal reigns, like an avatar.
She listened with her eyes when I told her I was once a policeman, but left after two weeks.
“I’ve been applying. In fact, tomorrow I’ll be hired in a Korean school,” I said.
“Oh, well, that’s great!”
Yes, she’s human. I liked her. She’s like a book, maybe a mystery book that I would have to read, the inside pages of her.
The preface and the first chapters I had already read. Her naked body on the first week of our being friends was like the first pages of a book. We did it in Fort Santiago. We had just eaten pizza, just drank gin stored in my pocket. Well, I would say I initiated the contact, took advantage. But she responded more than I expected, her fingers like narrow streets on maps leading to intersections, faulty directions, then a clearing, soft and blue.
It was her who did the storytelling while it was ongoing. A storytelling of skin conversing with another skin, without words said. Yet everything, every detail was told. A silent story. The wind helped her in the details she had left out. The electricity helped my inborn eccentricity fly away like paper cups blown by out-of-nowhere vicious winds on a tail end of a cold front.
Yet I noticed she was always a pessimist. Till I learned she had lived with her mother for thirty two years, who had been jittery since the war. The Japanese did it to her mother, lamed her with anxiety caused by the sound of their artillery.
She had inherited a large chunk of it, but was enough to also render her jittery at times, afraid to take risks, despite being extremely prayerful, a Marian devotee. I had taken risks, the complete opposite. I looked for my own moon when it was dark. Looked for other lampposts, other lights when the boulevard was pitch dark and stark, with only the clashing lights of vehicles in runaway nights.
She was the one who had read me well, through my poetry. I was contributing poems in a literary website. We were suited well.
Then after a month we were walking and our shadows were walking ahead of us. We were walking away from a lighted lamppost toward the one with blasted lights. I veered away, dragging her to Rajah Sulayman Park. The molls were there, waiting for some piece of an action. Well- lighted, we lost our shadows. We ate dinner at a cheap restaurant serving Filipino dishes.
A month after she was accepted at an alcohol distillery in San Fernando, Pampanga. “Congrats,” I said. After a week we met again on the boulevard. She had a story to tell.
“Having problems with the manager, she is stealing from the owner, who is abroad. Almost all of them are in connivance. He has been asking me to lower the alcohol production record daily so he can steal the unrecorded liters of alcohol. He has been in cahoots with BIR personnel. I really pity my boss, he is the one who accepted me. I had to resign, Jim.”
I didn’t know why she always liked walking along the filthy bay. Before, it was vibrant, with restaurants and bars churning and the music was wonderful. Pop, rock, jazz, reggae, it was all there, accompanied by the splashing waves and the parrot talk of wanderers and customers, gluttons of food, drinks, the good life; constellations above hanging, like fruits they couldn’t reach. Nearby, waifs searched for anything in garbage, searched for their true mothers and fathers, searched for a want, a need, that in their situation in life, couldn’t happen, a wish for a want, a need; they have even lost the meaning of the word “wish.” For them it’s just breathe now, breathe still later, breathe that you won’t even bother to wish, much more to want. The bulging belly of joggers in expensive running gearswith one with a shirt that shouts “Dream On!” passed them by.
Then we walked, I talked about teaching I found out I didn’t like, my writing now getting rejection slips, she said she is again on the hunt for a job after she resigned.
We sat on a queer bench with many cracks, facing a wall with many graffiti writings. We seemed lost in a whirlwind of silence.
“What are you writing now?”
“Anything about shadows.”
“Yes, they keep moving, and I like it. They always change, stretch, gain ground. When gunned by lights they diffract.”
“Oh? Can’t understand you. Why don’t we eat. My treat. Got my last paycheck! The doctors were inefficient, new graduates, the treatment left a lot to be desired.
The patients all had cancer too in her ward. I can’t understand the beds, they were sprawled, in disarray, like battle ships firing away at each other. I saw a one breasted lady talking to a wall, seemed out of her mind. There was no one, no loved one there with her. Until she just passed away like a melancholic poem without a desired effect, without the proper spin to keep it appealing. Malignancy had to have its dose of art too, I thought, like there’s art in dying too.
There was this lady who had also stage 3 cervical cancer, said she consulted first with a herbal doctor.
“I lost about three hundred thousand on him, giving me this and that herbal medicine to no avail. This was only stage two three months ago. Now it’s stage 4. Oh my, he’s a big joke.”
I fetched water from a toilet about 200 meters away, the only toilet on the second floor functioning. I bought fruits outside, for she already didn’t have the sense of taste. But the sense of love, she hadn’t lost, like a flat tire that still wheels on in the stark of the night in a dangerous place, afraid of denizens of the dark that might do harm.
After three months she was very weak, cheeks sunken, but can still walk, despite frequent chemotherapy.
We left the hospital after she sensed that there was no more hope. One night on a creaking wheelchair I pushed her. It was cold the night we walked along, on the same segment of the boulevard, the cracked fluorescent lamp in the lamppost I saw had not yet been repaired.
“I am not afraid of dying anymore, she says. I’m brave now, with you I can take it.”
“Thanks,” I said, shaking a bit.
We passed a moll talked to by an Ottoman, who had been talked to earlier by a pimp, who had been talked to earlier by a pimp of a call boy who had picked up a fight earlier with a gasoline boy. We passed street children begging, we passed by statues watched by stony people. We passed a woman lost, a church tired of sermons. We passed by Rizal monument, the movements of the guards seemed computerized. They acrobat their rifles every twenty minutes, marched around, then thumped their rifles again to the ground, parade rest. Their gaze passed us, though stealthy were their eyeballs’ movements.
But we were smiling, laughing, cracked jokes, as if knowing of your upcoming death is the genesis of true life.
After a week she died in my arms as we sat on a bench. I wept for a while. Then I carried her to a borrowed, dilapidated car. I looked at our shadows, in front of us. It was shaped like a cross moving.
Now there was only one shadow walking ahead. G