THEY MET outside an abandoned movie theater in Divisoria.
This is the first line to a story I’ll write someday, if I have the time. When I’m waiting, I like to think of opening lines to stories.
I’m in a hospital, sitting in the middle of a long corridor, at two in the morning. The hospital is old, cobwebby in the corners, with thick concrete walls, high doors, and floors covered in patterned tiles. It’s a place you might see in a film set in the 1920s—or a horror movie where the heroine sees ghosts floating down hallways or standing behind her in a misty bathroom mirror.
The fluorescent lights above me are switched on, and tiny insects dance around them. But the rest of the corridor stretches into darkness on both ends (almost outside the reach of light, but not quite, is a security guard slumped over in a plastic monobloc chair, asleep). The bench I’m sitting on does not have a back, and the wooden seat pushes against my bony buttocks. An electric fan mounted on the wall keeps rotating up to a certain point and stopping, unable to turn all the way to the left, like someone with a stiff neck.
The last time I was here I was with my mother. To pass the time she told stories about when she was a little girl: how she once rushed her chores so she could sneak out one evening to watch a movie (sponsored by a now-obsolete brand of milk) in the town plaza. In the movie a young Gloria Romero played Imelda Marcos. My mother and her friends thought she was the most beautiful woman in the world.
My grandmother caught my mother creeping back into the house and gave her a spanking with an old umbrella (“But it was worth it.” my mother said); then, perhaps out of guilt, my grandmother tucked my mother into bed and put her to sleep by telling an elaborate tale about the adventures of a talking white mouse. The next day, as my mother walked to school, her eyes searched the roadside for this mouse, which she was convinced was real.
Some stories make you love a person. And if you already love the person telling the story, there’s an ache in your chest when you hear about who the person used to be, in a world that no longer exists.
I shift in my seat. I’ve been waiting for half an hour now. There are other people here, aside from me.
Sitting on the bench across from me is an old couple. The man is tall, with gray hair thinning at the crown. The woman is short with large hips, her feathery hair dyed an unnatural red-brown. It’s touching to see how the man holds the woman’s hand as they talk in low voices, their heads bent towards each other. Whatever they’re talking about must be amusing; they speak with smiles. Every now and then, in between words, the woman lets out clucking noises, like a chicken. Mostly it’s a guttural bok-bok-bok, but sometimes the clucks ends in a high-pitched squawk. This doesn’t seem to bother either of them—they continue their conversation as if the cluck-and-squawk never happened.
Sitting to their left is a broad-shouldered woman dressed in a black pantsuit. Despite the hour she is wearing a pair of sunglasses. I can tell she’s upset by the set of her jaw and the number 11 furrow between her eyebrows. She whips out her arm and glances (almost every few seconds) at her large silver wristwatch, then lets out huge, impatient sighs.
To the right of the old couple, a bench away, is a family. There’s a girl who looks about 14 that seems dressed for the beach—tank top, short shorts, rubber flip flops. I’m guessing that’s her mother and father sitting on either side of her. They look tired. They don’t speak. When the girl begins to move her arms as if she’s swimming—she begins with the breast stroke, then moves into freestyle, her head dipping in and out of the imaginary water—her father’s lips tighten and he grabs her arms, trying to stop her.
It feels like we’re the only souls in the entire hospital. None of us speak to each other. I wonder if they look at me and wonder what I’m here for.
I’m here because I have trouble sleeping.
It seems strange and counter-productive to see a doctor at 2 a.m. for this problem—but she practices in other hospitals, and her clinic hours in this hospital (which is the nearest one to where I live) begin at 10 p.m. There is always a long list of patients scheduled to see her, and I’m lucky she was able to pencil me in tonight. She is supposed to be the best.
I glance at the girl still splashing about in an imaginary swimming pool, and see the tortured look on her mother’s face. I suppose some people prefer the late hour because it’s more discreet.
My family has a history of having problems with sleep. My grandfather was a great sleepwalker: my father says he used to wake up in the middle of the night and hear his father’s footsteps clumping up and down the stairs, over and over. One of my aunts likes to tell the story of how, late one night when she was a girl, she spilt a glass of water down her nightgown when she bumped into my grandfather, who was standing in a dark corner of the kitchen. My aunt likes to imitate how my grandfather’s eyes were closed, how his mouth was hanging open wide enough to show all his teeth, and how he held a whole llanera of leche flan in both hands, on level with his chest. This same aunt suffers from vivid nightmares, and wakes up bathed in sweat at least once a week. Her nightmares usually involve her being chased by something large and dangerous.
I, like my father, have terrible insomnia—which is perhaps preferable to nightmares and sleepwalking, but it does put you at the risk of high blood pressure, heart disease, diabetes, and a host of other things. It also makes you feel like a zombie during daylight hours.
There are times when I don’t sleep for three days.
What is insomnia like? It’s lying on your back, tracking the movement of your thoughts into the dark hours of the night until the early morning—thoughts that skip like the stones I used to throw across the surface of the fishpond in my grandfather’s farm; thoughts that circle over and over like the flocks of birds I’d see in the sky over the rice fields. The thoughts have no structure or purpose, and come one after another, like water dropping from a faucet: scenes play across your mind out of nowhere, a projection from a movie reel made out of snippets of your memories and fears and hopes. Sometimes I remember houses and places I’ve never been to except in dreams. They all have an atmosphere of silent expectation and mystery, a quality I haven’t felt in the air since childhood.
The old couple is gone. The swimming girl and her family are now inside the doctor’s office. The broad-shouldered lady’s arms are crossed, and she is staring at the ceiling through her sunglasses, tapping her feet against the tiles.
I read the name plaques on the walls. There are doctors with names like Ulysses Xerxes and Duberry. I like the old names best: Telesforo, Bonifacio, Filomena. They make me think of the Manila I know from my grandparents’ black-and-white photographs, where young men with slick-backed hair and perfectly tailored white suits escorted girls in permanent waves and stacked platform shoes to parties where they danced to songs like “Moonlight Serenade.” My grandfather had a terrible argument and proposed to my grandmother in the course of a single dance, in a hotel ballroom, right before the war.
The receptionist pops her head out of the doctor’s office and beckons to the broad-shouldered lady, who jumps up from the bench and says, in a voice that can almost be described as manly: “FINALLY.” Soon I am alone in the corridor.
I imagine myself waiting with a cigarette in my hand, swathed in ghostly tendrils of smoke and looking bored, like a girl in a French film from the 1960s.
You have to be amused with yourself when you have thoughts like these—how you think of walking or talking or acting a certain way, a way which struck you in a book or a film or a TV show that you once came across at a time when you were at your most impressionable. Some people take it a step further, and participate in an insincere but perhaps beautiful destruction of themselves, like they are living their life so that someone can make an interesting movie about it someday.
I think of my mother’s story about the white mouse and the Gloria Romero movie again. I love that story. I guess stories about early childhood are poignant because they come from a time when the person telling them was at their most unvarnished and sincere. Very young children have yet to create a persona for themselves. They have yet to read the books that will inspire them to start smoking, drinking, or swearing like Holden Caulfield; they have yet to flip through the magazines or watch the movies that will make them want to look as sexy or rebellious or glamorous as some celebrity; they have yet to learn enough to make obscure references to books, music, and films in conversations in order to impress someone, or test someone, or to feel special in some private way. Maybe we have to think and do many stupid things like this before we can once again achieve, hopefully sometime in our adulthood, that state of mind we had as children.
The broad-shouldered woman emerges from the doctor’s office, looking a few degrees more relaxed. As she strides down the corridor, the businesslike click of her high heels against the tiles wakes the sleeping security guard, whose head snaps up.
The receptionist asks me to come inside, and I stand up, running a hand over my sore behind.
There is nothing remarkable to report about my time inside the doctor’s office, except that the doctor was kind though systematic, and that I was distracted by the flecks of froth that gathered at the corners of her mouth. Sometimes as she spoke there were thin white strands of saliva between her lips. I kept gulping involuntarily, wanting to give her a glass of water.
She asked me about my family, my childhood, my ‘love life,’ and my work. I imagined myself as an armoire full of drawers, with the doctor opening each one, trying to discover where the source of my sleeplessness was kept. It’s interesting to think of, this possibility that all our problems can be traced to incidents in our past, as if we were books that someone can flip through, dog-earing the pages where scenes foreshadowing a future event might be found—though personally I think of life as a confused mass of rainbow threads crossing and crisscrossing and ending in the occasional snarl, so that you have to work a little harder to follow any thread to discover where it begins.
The doctor says my main problem is that my brain is too busy. I say it gets this way when everything is quiet, which is usually the middle of the night. She opens a drawer and takes out a pen as she is still talking, her ritual to winding up a consultation. In a few minutes she writes out a prescription.
Later as I walk across the hospital parking lot to my car, I look at the dark silhouette of trees against the sky. I wonder if I’ll miss this when I get better, being awake when the air is not crammed full of the heat of other people’s thoughts, when it’s so cool and dark you focus only on the details that are illuminated, as if you were in a movie theater, watching a screen lit by the light of your own consciousness.
In a few hours I’ll be in bed, watching the gold begin to seep under the crack of the door and through the spaces between the window blinds. When the light fills my room, I will put my arm over my eyes. I will pull the blanket over my ears when the birds start chirping. Then I’ll be asleep.
When I wake up, I will not remember anything I thought of the night before, at all.