The News of You

Briefly, just after college, I left my parents’ house, thinking independence was a priceless thing.

It was worth it, I liked to remind myself, especially on idle Saturday mornings with their slowness, the bread warm and inviting, to be chewed with an amorous relish. In those brief moments, our two-bedroom on the Manila-Makati border felt like a P20,000-a-night suite, insulated from the tyranny of weekdays. Even the birds chirped as if they meant it.

“Actually, the stupid birds can’t tell Saturday from Tuesday,” said Tom, devouring a massive forkful of instant pancit canton before taking a bite of pandesal.

“But listen, listen,” I said, and, right on cue, a vaguely melodic tune issued from the tiny balcony where we did laundry. “Nice, right? Right? Nice.”

Katrina laughed, so good-naturedly that I might as well have the word “naïve” plastered on my forehead. “They also twitter on weekdays. But you know, you can’t hear them if you’re rushing to work or sleeping like a corpse.” She looked at Tom, who was still chewing.

“For the nth time, my show ends at midnight,” Tom said, his words garbled by the food in his mouth. “His show” was a late night news program for which he wrote the script. “At least I deal with real news.”

Katrina, who did research for a major broadsheet, glared at him. “Hello, what would news be without background and context. You should know that if you’re in the field.”

Here we go.

“Yeah, because beat reporting is so difficult,” Tom said. He cleared his throat, fixed an imaginary tie, then recited in a contrived monotone, “Four died and three were injured when a jeepney plowed through Nepa Q Mart on Monday—”

“Really mature, right,” Katrina groaned, looking at me, in need of alliance. I gave her a neutral shrug, protective of my peace.

Tom was relentless. “—sending pieces of liempo, kasim, and chicken breasts flying through the air—”

“Oh, grow up, Tom,” Katrina said. “No wonder Michelle—”

Tom stopped. “What. No wonder Michelle what.”

There must be more to civilization than desire so primal it also resembled resentment, an amorous history disguised as a record of affronts to the desire. This little exchange resembled the kind of conversations we had in college five years ago, when I was thinner, Tom was kinder, and Katrina was a sheltered, chauffeur-driven colegiala, glimpses of which still peeked every now and then despite her best efforts.

“I paid for the groceries this week, so, fuck off, Tom,” Katrina was saying, giving her boyfriend the French-tipped middle finger.

“Really?” Tom asked. Taking the high road, he proceeded to make a show of shoving more rolls of the leathery-looking noodles inside his mouth, puffing his cheeks, and making ape-like sounds.

“See what I have to deal with, Vin?” she turned to me. “You gays are so lucky.”

I nodded, unsure.

But on my part there was progress: less and less, I was remembering my bed at home. In a last ditch effort to lure me into staying, my mother had switched to a new fabric softener shortly before I left, and, as I drifted to sleep, the swirl of the flowery aroma had become the last thing on my mind. Most days here, the apartment was overcome with a powerful dog smell, courtesy of Katrina’s Japanese spitz Chester.

“Chester stinks,” I said.

“What?” Katrina said. “Where the hell did that come from?”

“I’m sorry, Kat. He does. You’re probably used to it, which makes it worse.”

She stared at me then, recovering, blurted out, “You say that like your dirty clothes in the hamper smell divine.”

“What the fuck?” I looked at Tom, who was grinning, happy to be off the hook.

Intimacy—what else but this license to inflict pain and expect to be forgiven. How mankind managed to evolve despite the grueling burden of personal relationships, I had no idea. Outside our unit, the balcony overlooked the corrugated tin sheets that roofed Manila’s 10 million, the cables that transmitted voices and TV signal and power, the skyscrapers that were sprouting like mushrooms. Closer, bougainvilleas in tiny canisters lined the concrete railing, the tiny petals swaying in the smoke adrift from the nearby expressway.

There was chirping again, this time, Katrina observed, a tune that sounded like the opening to Chopin’s Waltz in D-flat major. “Oh, that’s heavenly,” she gushed, looking at Tom and me, one palm on her chest. 

The remark was followed by sounds of disgust.

It was a Saturday, and all three of us went back to bed, Tom and Katrina to their room, me to mine, which was smaller. The dirty plates were dumped on the sink, the leftover noodles and morsels of bread a feast for the little birds that sometimes, with much caution, flew inside.

We were usually more relevant than this, trained in the reign of facts.

Or at least they were. They worked for major media organizations, household names in the industry that people trusted more than the police or the government. I, on the other hand, was the news lightweight in our little triumvirate, writing for the lifestyle section of a new Village Voice-type weekly no one had ever heard of.

“But I would kill to go to these events for work,” Tom had told me once, in line with the Halloween party of a men’s magazine. “These opportunities are completely wasted on you.” 

I agreed, showing the usher my media invite and pointing at Tom, my giddy plus-one. Inside the dim venue, girls in lingerie gyrated to deafening music inside makeshift cages, occasionally petting what looked like plaster bald eagles motionless in the girls’ held-up wrists.

“The theme’s Prometheus,” I told Tom, whose mouth was agape. Now here was an example of love’s double edge—wasn’t Prometheus motivated by his love for mankind, and didn’t this push civilization forward? On the other hand, didn’t the punitive bird feast on his liver, the seat of capricious human emotions as per the Greeks?

The lesson couldn’t be clearer.

On the taxi on the way back to the apartment, Tom inquired about openings in the paper, although his judgment might have been clouded by plump memories of quivering cleavages. The “legwork” I did could be enjoyable—art exhibits and plays and restaurant openings where everything was free—but it was hardly journalism, hardly the hardcore Woodward and Bernstein-style stuff we had all imagined in college, no anonymous tipster or smoking gun-type recordings that could bring down presidents.

Worse, my chances of being promoted depended on a woman whose only mode of exit, it seemed, was death, but whom death itself appeared unwilling to touch with a five-foot pole.

Ma’am Monette, who owned the paper and was also editor in chief, smoked so much that she was unrecognizable without the frayed stick dangling from her blackened lips, the marbled haze that enveloped her like a ghostly field.

“You want this job?” she had asked me at her office more than a year ago. “Can you get an interview with Dina Bonnevie within the day?”

“Who?” I almost asked, fortunately stopping my face from twisting into a look of pain. I didn’t know the job was for the entertainment beat, I told her.

“Good!” she exclaimed. “That was a trick question. She had quit acting. Now doing office work at some food and beverage firm in Taguig. Don’t ask.”

I was already eyeing the door, deciding on the kind of torture to inflict on the friend who had referred me to the job, when Ma’am Monette said “You’re hired!” and shook my clammy hand. Going with the flow and avoiding confrontation had long been virtues of mine, and a year later, I was still submitting my drafts to her every Thursday, braving the occasional outburst for some unfathomable thing, and opening a bottle of cheap Chiraz as soon as the weekly issue had been sent to press.

We drank Coke instead of wine for the latest issue. Our main feature was on the visit of Atlanta-based Coca-Cola archivist Ted Ryan who was in town to oversee the mounting of a “Coke lore” exhibit at a mall in Pasig. Desperate for a nice angle, I had asked him about Coke’s fabled secret formula in the open forum after the ribbon-cutting. 

It had been stored, he said, in a vault in a Georgia bank since 1925, and to get your hands on it required getting the signatures of the company’s board members, all 22 of them.

“But it is in a piece of paper, right, like a piece of parchment?” I followed up, being a visual person, to which the savvy American replied, “I didn’t say that.” The stupid crowd laughed.

The Philippines, Mr. Ryan then told the press, was the first territory outside North America to receive a Coca-Cola bottling franchise. He paused as dozens of pens and recorders went to work, taking note of the catchy piece of trivia. Last year they sold half a billion cases here, and that doesn’t even include—

“Can you confirm this figure?” Ma’am Monette had asked later that day, tapping the butt of her lit cigarette on the issue’s final dummy. “Half a billion   ?”

“Yes, Ma’am,” I boldly said, absolutely unsure.

“Wow.” She took a sip of the saccharine liquid and, through a cough, blew carcinogen smoke to her left. The gaseous ribbon of gray bounced off the nearby wall and, with nowhere to go, dispersed into tiny evil air molecules that, of course, gathered near my nostrils.

“But you know,” she said, recovering from the coughing fit, “my husband alone takes care of probably a hundred cases, so, yeah, maybe that sounds right, yes.” She coughed again and afterward cursed the memory of her husband for causing it.

“Nice alarm clock!” Katrina shouted from the other room the next day, above the ringing noise that in my dream was my mother shrilly telling me to “Get a massage! Get a massage!” whatever that meant. I next heard furious banging on the thin wooden wall that separated our rooms.

“Sorry,” I told them, half-asleep, during breakfast moments later.

“Fuck you, Alvin,” Tom said, with succinct newsman precision.

“I forgot to deactivate the alarm last night. Sorry.”

Sundays were like Saturdays—empty and bewildering in its vacancy—except that on Sundays, Monday hovered 24 hours away, like a bully. Work at a nearby construction site, after a weeklong break, also inexplicably resumed, and the racket has been making us and Chester jumpier and noisier than usual.

But soon reprieve: the aroma of the coffee starting to swirl around the living room. Like true addicts, Katrina and Tom showed signs of life, talking about Tom’s old running shoes, the latest victim to Chester’s manic chewing spree. A few days ago, it was Katrina’s horror novels which she had wisely arranged on a low-lying shelf. “That pooch—” Tom said when we found the dismembered paperbacks, “not a fan of Stephen King.”

I cleared my throat now and announced, “So, there’s this guy.”

From her stupor, Katrina let out a noise so shrill that it awoke Chester next room and, no doubt, all other wildlife within a 500-meter radius. “What guy? What guy?”

A calculated pause, then I told them that I covered this press con last week. This call center company just hired their 10,000th agent and—

“And, and, and?” Katrina asked.

I was in one corner, I said, minding my own business, like I always do, you know—they nodded—when all of a sudden, out of the blue—

“Yes, yes?”

“All of a sudden this guy in a nice coat approached me, cleared his throat, and said.” Another pause. “And he said—”

Katrina slapped the table with a force that stunned dozing Tom. “Quit. The fucking. Suspense, Alvin.”

“The guy said, ‘Is there a socket behind your chair?’”

“Socket—” Tom murmured.

“So, I asked for his plug,” I said, “and our hands brushed just slightly.”

“Jeez,” Tom said, while Katrina grabbed her boyfriend’s arm in excitement.

I finished quickly. “We went out last night.”

“How was the sex?” Tom asked, just as Katrina wondered, “What did you guys do?”

“Tom!” She hit her boyfriend’s arm.

“Three rounds,” I said, and the room erupted in a raucous cheer. Always supportive of my love life, Chester heartily barked.

It would never be said, but I suspected that Katrina and Tom felt partly responsible for the fact that their best friend and now housemate was a single guy whose love life consisted, at best, of one-night stands that sometimes vaguely overstepped into romance. Always, I would tell them it was OK, because it was. There were momentary victories, like this, this news of someone, and those were enough.

Katrina had gone to their room and emerged with a bottle of champagne.

“Kat,” I said, “it’s 9 in the morning.”

“I have a watch,” she said, perplexed.

“My mother had warned me about her,” Tom whispered to me.

“So, what do we know about this guy?” Katrina said, trying to uncork the bottle.

“Other than his stamina,” offered Tom.

“Name’s Rainier,” I said.

“Sexy name, nice,” Katrina quipped.

“28 years old—”

“Mature, mature, nice,” Katrina said.

“Works at a call center.”

“Flexible tongue, nice,” Tom said, mimicking Katrina’s falsetto.

They were looking at each other with what seemed like pure rage when the cork finally popped, shushing the room. Chester then started barking again and Tom, turning to me, began to slow-clap in approval. “Happy for you, Alvin.”

“You know,” Katrina told Tom, “I hope that all your clapping will magically get the plastic cups from the kitchen so we can partake of the champagne.”

“That’s my Spumante, you know.”

“I gave you that shirt,” Katrina said. “Are we into counting things now?” This prompted Tom to remove his shirt and fling it straight at his girlfriend’s face.

“Guys, guys,” I said, gesturing to myself. But as they were wont to, they had disappeared into their own world of petty bickering, underneath which supposedly lay an ocean of tenderness, some water from which had sometimes flowed my way. I grabbed the bottle from under Katrina’s arm and poured some into my empty coffee mug, while Chester looked forlornly on.

Here’s to us, I thought, wondering about the fate of this one and emptying the mug in one wincing swig.

A week later, the driver of the taxi was throwing me strange looks for bursting into giggles at hearing the news of a hurricane that had barreled through New Orleans.

“Katrina,” I typed on my phone. “So, typical of you to vent your anger on the innocent.” I pressed Send then ignored the persistent ringing that followed. I was surprised at how giddy it made me feel, this rare chance to contain my friend’s shrillness inside the tiny rectangular box. “Kidding,” I next typed. “See you later.”

I told the driver to turn right after the Cultural Center of the Philippines toward Sofitel.

The nice people at Coke, Ma’am Monette had told me this morning, were so impressed with our feature that they had committed a full-page full-color ad every issue—as long as we continued covering all their events. Today it was the launch of a new campaign on nutrition, she had added, so good luck trying to spin that one. “I have the number of the Philippine Diabetes Society,” she said.

“I’m on it,” I had said, ignoring the cackling that escorted me out of the office.

The hotel’s grand ballroom was swathed in red draperies, the classic Coke calligraphy inscribed in the table and stage décors, the press kits, and the loot bags for the journalists. I spotted their PR head near the registration table and gave her a little wave. On one side of the hall was a row of coolers stacked with Coca-Cola beverages.

At the apartment that night, Katrina was drinking a glass of Coke, wondering why I was looking at her in a weird way. 

In an odd display of support for each other’s careers, we had sat down to catch Tom’s show. He said he had a surprise for us.

“How are you, Alvin?” Katrina said, in a formal tone that terrified me.

“I’m fine, thank you,” I told her, fighting the urge to curtsy. “You?”

“I’m well,” she said. “Just great.”

A refashioned rock anthem accompanied the show’s opening credits, and we sat back. The camera panned 360 degrees then eventually found the anchor, looking pinched and constipated as usual. “The wrath,” he began grimly, “of Katrina.”

The Katrina beside me groaned. “Did you talk him into this?”

On screen flashed footage of people on rooftops surrounded by brown water. Then a huge football stadium that had been turned into an evacuation center. The montage was capped off with the requisite shot of George W. Bush looking sufficiently confused.

“Good evening,” the anchor resumed. “the news. Like a woman scorned, Hurricane Katrina tore a path of devastation in New Orleans, with hundreds feared dead and—”

“So lame,” said the other Katrina, turning the TV off.

“Everything OK?”

She let out a lungful of air. “Well,” she said, then sighed again, in her mind maybe assessing if she looked sad enough.

The time before she met Tom, Katrina liked calling it the wilderness years, before her life really began. I had long suspected there were no wilderness years at all—she was uncommonly beautiful, probably never experienced true unhappiness, used to a world that granted, sooner or later, all her wishes. Kindness was the only logical aftermath.

“What’s wrong?” I asked.

“I found these messages in his inbox,” she said.

Something erupted in my chest.

A Cebuana, she explained, whom Tom might have met in a teambuilding trip there last month. There was nothing explicitly intimate about the exchange, but the messages were long, meticulously worded. You know how Tom could get wordy, she said. I nodded.

“Let’s not jump to conclusions,” I said.

“Well, she’s in love,” she said. “Found her blog.”

“Why?” I asked.

She looked at the dead screen. “I’m a researcher.”

Accursed with the need to know, we are.

“The worse part is,” she said, “I knew this was coming. Somehow.”


“It’s fading,” Katrina said, and that was that. After a moment, the sweet smile returned. She went to the kitchen to heat Tom’s dinner. At the buzz of the microwave, Chester woke up and came plodding to the living room. Katrina smothered him with kisses, scratched him behind the ears. She then took his leash from the belt rack behind the door.

“Isn’t it too late for a walk?” I said.

“Tell him I won’t be long.”

Please tell me if it’s fading,” I told Rainier later that week, on his balcony that had a nice view of the city’s lights. “That way I can do something about it.”

“What?” he said, taking a long drag from his cigarette.

“You know,” I said, running my hand along the balustrade. “Fading. Like this paintjob.”

His 21st floor apartment, deep in Mandaluyong, smelled of nicotine, masking other odors that I suspected were much worse. In one corner, dirty clothes spilled from a basket, including the red shirt that I recalled him wearing when we saw a movie two weeks ago. There was no chirping of wild fowl here; instead, a familiar industrial hum that was comforting in its own way, like a lullaby.

“See that?” Rainier said, pointing to a nondescript white edifice beside a tuft of palm trees. “That’s the famous Mandaluyong mental hospital. On Nueve de Febrero.”

“That’s my birthday,” I said.

“You’re kidding.”

“Nope. February 9th. That’s me. Where insanity resides.”

He smiled. “Thanks for the warning.”

“You’ll find out soon, anyway,” I said.

The hum stopped for a moment then resumed with a shudder.

“I can’t wait,” he said. 

He evaded my eye and looked into the city. In the years following Rainier’s death, I would find myself avoiding balconies, certain that the rush I had dismissed that night would have led to some incomparable thing.

“Katrina said her feelings for Tom are, quote, fading,” I told him.

“How long have they been together?” he asked.

Four years, I told him.

“Yikes,” he said.

“You’re literally the only person I know who says ‘yikes.’”

“I hear it a lot.”

Under a certain light, his face lost the severity created by his thick brows, the bad skin, and permanent scowl. Seized by a nameless thing that resembled fondness, I gave him a kiss behind the ear, which led, as I had hoped it would, to something else in the futon where he slept, curtains drawn, in the daytime.

“You should really meet them soon,” I told him when we were done and he was reaching for the requisite cigarette.

“My schedule’s weird, as you know,” he said.

“Yeah,” I said. Thankfully I could free up my days, I found out, by turning in articles culled from online sources, and Ma’am Monette, far from tech-savvy, couldn’t tell the difference.

“They’re fun,” I told him, “most of the time.”

“So, we’re in that introduce-to-friends phase now?”

“Yep,” I said, as he slid next to me on the futon, cigarette in between fingers. “After this, I ask for your hand in marriage.”

“No dowry?” he asked.

“You’re so traditional,” I groaned.

Deepening his already low voice, he said, “Dalagang Filipina.”

I shook my head and tried to get up but felt his hands restrain me and pull me back to the futon, where we laughed and laughed.

Suddenly turning anxious, he said he’d been getting these awful, awful headaches lately, and he suspected it had something to do with one of the agents on his team who was always spelling out names in the most peculiar way.

“Peculiar?” I asked.

His voice hiking to a falsetto, he said, “Smith? So that’s S for sisig, M for menudo, I for isaw—”

“That’s not true,” I begged. I tried to imagine the reaction of the American caller on the receiving end of this Filipino menu.

“The account next to us,” Rainier went on, “is directory assistance. You know what’s one of the most frequent inquiries they’d get?”

I shrugged.

“911,” he said, watching my reaction. Finding the haze of confusion in my face, he explained slowly, “Americans would dial 411 to ask for 911’s number.”

“What a fascinating world,” I told him.

“It’s not so bad.”

“You hungry?”

Waiting for the delivery, we sat in front of his computer, in search of something to amuse us. I asked him to play something. Without answering, he moved the mouse and double clicked on a folder then a file. The audio player took a while to open; meanwhile, he lay back down on the bed, where I joined him. Except for the glow of the monitor, the room was dark.

It started to play, a gloomy succession of notes, and I wanted Rainier to engulf me.

Words are floating on like endless rain into a paper cup

They swivel while they pass they slip away across the universe

Moments later, I, half-asleep, mistook the doorbell for chirping birds. We disentangled and waited for the song to end. When we got our food, the fries were still crispy, the burgers warm. We talked about Hurricane Katrina, how they were bombarded with calls from the Gulf Coast about people’s bank accounts, and all they could do was apologize for the act of God. The next morning, there were ketchup stains in his sheets. We quibbled over who did it, and I said sorry after a while, just to get it over with.

When the train, northward, slid out of the Guadalupe station, and the expansive Pasig River swept into view, the passengers all stared in awe, perhaps at the wide open space that was such a sharp change from all the city’s claustrophobic concrete. A sky crowded with feathery clouds completed the panorama and, with the engine’s silent wheeze, the feeling for these passengers must have been akin to freedom.

I would imagine these things sometimes, woozy and a bit lightheaded from a night of drinking with Rainier at the apartment. Tom and Katrina—and Chester—were in Tagaytay for the weekend, and Rainier and I would’ve stayed in if Ma’am Monette didn’t call about a 9 o’clock in Quezon City. Ten minutes before the appointed time, I was at the lobby of the hotel, scouting the dimly lit surroundings for something I didn’t know. Like always, Ma’am had only given me a time and a place, and any prodding for details was met with an enigmatic “Oh, you’ll know what’s it for. You’ll know.”

Minutes later, Coke archivist Ted Ryan approached my chair. He was so amused with the suspicious look with which I had taken his outstretched hand him that he spilled Coke on his white shirt while laughing. He handed the now half-filled glass to an assistant and laughed some more, before we retreated into a quiet corner of the lobby.

“Alvin, right?” he asked.

“Yes,” I said. I told him I was told to come here but didn’t know what for.

“Yes, yes,” he said, then mumbled, “That Monette, what a character.”

After the obligatory small talk about Boracay and Filipino hospitality, he looked to his side. The same assistant materialized from behind a potted plant and handed him a Manila envelope, which he wordlessly gave to me. “Go ahead, open it,” he said. Inside was a laminated yellowed cardboard certificate. The Coke logo was in the middle, surrounded by lines of text.

“It’s a sampling coupon,” he said, “from the time when Coke was distributed for free.”

“Wow,” I said, more because I felt like it was the reaction expected of me than out of genuine awe. On the coupon’s flipside was a somewhat amateurish sketch of a Coke bottle.

“Straight from the 1890s,” he said. As he spoke, he would sweep his hair with his right hand then cup his cheek, with a ponderousness that seemed rehearsed. Even so, I was struck by the golden wisps of hair in his arm that glinted when hit by sunlight. Even his eyelashes were blond.

There’s more of it, he added, pointing to the black bag carried by the assistant. Inside were around 20 more laminated coupons with different designs and colors, some formatted like money and checks, others like Christmas cards. All carried specific cultural meanings. “But this one right here,” he said, tapping the one in his hand, “is the very first one.” Another sweep of the hair, more glint of the grass-like fibers.

“Wow,” I repeated.

“It’s very special,” he said. A bellhop arrived to tell us that our meal was ready, at about which time Mr. Ryan dropped the envelope to the floor. There was a moment’s hesitation, in a split-second meditation on duties and boundaries, before four men—Mr. Ryan, his assistant, the bellhop, and myself—fell on their knees to retrieve the envelope, which was on the ground for less than five seconds.

Walking out of the hotel with the bag an hour later, I felt a spring in my step. To write something and be congratulated for it was one thing; to be sought out to do a feature that would appear in all of Coke’s local ad spaces plus the North America website, I supposed I should feel special. But when I hailed a taxi and mentioned my street, the driver only gave a noncommittal shrug.

I bought a 1.5-liter of Coke from 7-Eleven to accompany me in writing the 700-word masterpiece. The plastic bottle under an arm, I entered the apartment and went straight to my room, ignoring Tom and Katrina, who were watching TV, probably sensing the pitiful self-importance I was peddling. Chester certainly noticed it, barking incessantly and pawing at my door once I had shut it.

In my room, I opened the bag and took the coupons one by one. Because Mr. Ryan was scheduled to fly back to Atlanta tomorrow evening, he asked me to finish tonight so I could return the coupons early tomorrow. They weren’t one of a kind by any stretch, he said with a nervous smile, but they were still quite a valuable stash.

Halfway into writing, I received a text from Rainier about a quick cup of coffee before his shift. When I returned to our apartment, it was after midnight, the unit dark and quiet. 

The second I heard the dull sound of cardboard ripping through a low growl, I felt something descend in my chest, a terrible weight, and I instantly regretted not closing my door when I left. As I shooed Chester away, the vitality had all but escaped my arms and legs and maybe some internal organs. Surveying the damage on my bed, my mind breezed through alibi after outrageous alibi. A pickpocket? A burglar who was also a Coke buff?

Vanishing without a trace seemed the most appealing option.

Sitting on my bed, I checked my phone and found more bad news. In a lengthy text message, Ma’am Monette narrated how her son, a physical therapist based in their native Davao, emailed her a link to a parenting article he had written that uncomfortably resembled a piece that we had run two issues ago. The message descended soon into incoherence—she was most likely drunk—but it ended with a threat to print my mug shot on page 6 if I didn’t report to work the next day to explain myself out of this bullshit.

On my desk, the bottle of Coke and half-filled glass sat unscathed.

The vicious morning arrived, beautifully sunny, the selfish birds chirping.

I woke up from dreams of champorado, which turned out to have been triggered by the steaming pot of hot chocolate that Tom had been stirring in the kitchen. A bribe, he explained when he found me, groggy-eyed, standing next to him. He said he might have gone overboard with the teasing because what seemed like a harmless bout earlier caused Katrina to storm out, Chester in tow, threatening to end it all.

“Storming out,” Tom chuckled. “Get it?”

It’s not about that, you cheat, I almost said, through a yawn.

“But when she returns,” he went on, “she’ll find a cup of chocolate with marshmallows on her table, and she won’t be able to resist.”

I told her what Chester did to the valuable but not one-of-a-kind Coke coupons, expecting a reaction along the lines of rage, maybe even upturned furniture and an offer to give the dog away.

“Oh?” he said. “Anyway, I couldn’t resist, you know? Hurricane Katrina’s always in the news, and our Katrina is a spoiled brat who destroys things in her path.”

Like all pleasant people, Katrina unraveled at very specific provocations. Early this year, the news of five US Marines raping a 22-year-old in Subic nearly undid their four years together. Tom, as it turned out, had an uncle who died on September 11 and thus welcomed the military exercises. On the other hand, Katrina’s family was from nearby San Marcelino in Zambales. She was also, to our eternal shock, quite the well-read feminist, despite the beauty pageant addiction.

That’s misogynistic, I heard her say in my head.

I was pouring myself a cup of chocolate when my phone started to ring. I imagined Ma’am Monette taking furious drags from her cigarette, her 30th for the day, as she shouted obscenities at every canceled call. Or Ted Ryan, sipping Coke and pacing around the hotel lobby, asking his assistant to dial again and again. Because turning the phone off seemed insufficient, I removed the battery and SIM card and flung everything inside my bag.

Illustration by Jimbo Albano

A few minutes later, Katrina walked into the living room with a huff, and I saw Chester for the first time since last night. The little monster circled my right leg and sniffed my foot, which twitched at the touch of his wet nose.

“Get that fucking dog away from me,” I said.

“What’s your problem?” she said, her voice low and dry. “Don’t start with me, Alvin.”

I pushed her, and she froze, speechless. Chester barked.

The birds chirped, and the smell of cocoa wafted in the air.

I pushed Katrina again, and this time, she pushed me back, quite hard, at about the same time Tom, from behind me, walked into the room. From the cup in his hand, the warm brown liquid formed a luscious, dripping outline on his shirt. Without meaning to, I sniffed at the pleasant aroma.

“There’s cinnamon,” he said, before turning around to leave.

On Rainier’s balcony, I told him how, frankly, it was hard to think how our friendship could survive this. “I wish I could say we’ve been through worse, but we haven’t.”

He held my hand, and at the touch I was hit by a sudden urge to jump, to approximate the swell in my chest. “Thank you,” I said. I felt a squeeze.

Encouraged, I told him about Coke, the ruined sample coupons, the text from Ma’am Monette. I told him about the stupid birds, Chester, my mother’s champorado. All the while he listened, nodding from time to time, stifling a disobedient yawn. I even told him about Hurricane Katrina, Prometheus, and the Subic rape case. I told him, finally, that I was surprised at this kind of anger, that I was even capable of it.

I should work where he works, he said, chuckling.

“Really?” I asked.

“Why do you think I’m so calm?” he said.

After an hour or so, he told me he really wanted to stay up longer but his shift began in four hours and, as it was, he had barely slept.

I apologized, which he dismissed with a wave of a hand, a kiss on the lips.

“Alvin,” he said through another yawn, walking me to the door. “Maybe something in that place is making you crazy.” He gave me a pat on the arm. “Go home.”

By home, Rainier had meant a bungalow in San Juan, on the front yard of which I, as a kid, supposedly sat on a bench every morning and unfurled a newspaper even though I couldn’t read. My mother liked sharing this anecdote, impossible to refute, to anyone who was too polite to run away. In college, whenever someone would ask why I had taken journalism, I would say something about a deep hunger for reality, a hunch that it had something to do with my place in the world.

“You’re so intense,” Tom had said when we first met, in one of the earliest chats we had that over time accreted into this, a five-year-long conversation. “I’m in it for the perks.”

We were on a jeepney that day to the Senate to observe a committee hearing for class. Tom had sat across me, the wind ruffling and rearranging his long hair. He could at best turn out to be a nodding acquaintance, I thought, maybe even a friend in the loosest sense. Five years later, he slept on the other side of a thin wall, through which snippets of conversations and all manner of rustling could be heard.

The creak of the door awakened Chester now. He came running to the dark living room, and I patted his head and stroked his fur. From Rainier’s, I had gone to a nearby mall to pass the time. I caught a movie about newlyweds who literally went insane—candidates for custody at Nueve de Febrero—from too much ambition. After that I went to have dinner and a few drinks at a roadside bar. By the time I was hailing a cab to get back to the apartment, it was 3 o’clock, more or less, and the two of them had long gone to bed.

Chester followed me into the kitchen, his white fur seemingly aglow. The alcohol had produced in me the usual mellowness and heavy eyelids, the tempering of emotions. Like I always did, I took a shower to clear my head, welcoming the icy cold, the cleansing. Refreshed, I returned to my room and stood under the wall fan.

I lay on my bed, suffused with a lucid calm.

I had nearly drifted to sleep when I heard something from across the wall. Tom and Katrina had patched things up—that much was clear. Muffled by wood, the creaking of their bed was loud and just as distinct, the rhythm unmistakable in the 3 o’clock hush. Each squeak and inconsiderate creak grated in my ears, forbidding sleep and peace and more.

I went to the kitchen to have a glass of water. My vision was still blurry, my head heavy, but the tranquility had evaporated, the silence and darkness suddenly a fright. Standing there, I felt soft fur in my ankle. In the counter, I found the tablea bars that Tom had used in making hot chocolate. Sensing a treat, Chester began to violently wag his tail, expecting leftovers, a morsel tossed in mercy.   


Glenn L. Diaz
Glenn L. Diaz
Glenn L. Diaz’s first book, The Quiet Ones (1971), won the Palanca Grand Prize and the Philippine National Book Award. His second novel, Yñiga (2022), was shortlisted for the Novel Prize. His works have appeared in The New York Times, Rosa Mercedes, Liminal, The Johannesburg Review of Books, and others. He teaches literature and creative writing at the Ateneo de Manila University, and holds a PhD from the University of Adelaide.


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