MY FATHER LOVED TO TELL ME of how he couldn’t help it and felt this mighty unstoppable crush on this girl when he saw the pale pink backs of her legs as she walked past him as he paused, stumped by a question in one of his big exams in graduate school.
He never did finish graduate school, he loved to tell me, or anyone he knew, but he did finish that exam, and he was glad he was there on that day that girl proctored the exam in a miniskirt. He had no memory about the clothes she wore but he remembered to tell me, many times, of how she had left her pumps under the teacher’s desk, one red and upright on its sharp heel, the other fallen so that it showed a pale, unblemished sole. She had slipped them off her feet with no effort at all, dropped the papers and things on the desk and draped her cumbersome jacket—too large across her shoulders anyway, and they all recognized it as their professor’s—across that same professor’s chair.
But still, it made no one in their class want to be a teacher, even if their teachers were mostly all PhDs and many of them were great big thinkers and compelling talkers. Everyone knew they were poor, from the threadbare clothes they wore too often and their cheap Japanese watches and their shoes, all worn and shapeless and designed to soundlessly shuffle as they lectured their hours away.
That was how my father had felt, poor as a teacher, on his first Christmas in his boarding house in Manila, with only a handful of things to his name and a fried half-chicken and a plate of pancit canton from the café downstairs for Noche Buena. He had saved enough for three good meals on the next day, Christmas Day, and enough for a short phone call to his mother.
My father is fifteen years in his grave now, resting and rotting in a coffin that took so long for us to choose because we knew he didn’t want angels or the last supper, or any of those molded eternal figures on it. But our mother did, and that was the cause of some trouble, until we found out that the plain copper-colored one my sister and I had chosen was more expensive than the one with the two hosts of amateurly sculpted expressionless angels—mirror images, in fact—praying for him. It was like you had to pay people to leave things the hell alone.
Ugly wildflowers have overrun his lonely gravesite. Lonely because his starry black stone lies quite a distance from the older graves that look like they’ve formed own little apartment rows and subdivisions. But mostly because we hardly have the time to visit, and no one has formed a concrete idea about paying one of those wandering caretakers to keep the grass cut low and the weeds and those ugly flowers at bay. Besides, we’re too busy doing the things that the living do. My mother retreated to the province with my sister and decided they would make something of themselves there. And anyway I left a nice pen in there and we bought him a new pair of shoes he would never wear. And there was some ballet trophy from my sister and my college diploma, all those things we wanted him to have, you know. But I can’t really admit to myself how reluctant I was to put all that stuff in there, knowing I would never see it again. At the burial someone tried to comfort me with the idea that it would all probably be there longer than he would.
Over the last All Saints’ and Souls’ weekend we were all somewhere else again, somewhere else but there, and we all probably separately shuddered and thought that nobody again, for another year, had bothered to clean out the flowers and the weeds. Or for that matter—and for another interesting fact—repaired the letters on his marker. Someone had stolen the first letter of his last name—and so every one of our last names, come to think of it—so that he became, at his most permanent place on earth, “Ariston L. etrero.”
So it still works, and it’s a bit funny. What’s funnier is I don’t know how someone could have needed that letter L so badly. So his name, or more appropriately, this name, this chop-chop version of it, remains, and strangely enough remains true to the flesh that lies beneath, validated by our highly infrequent, often meandering visits, through the confusing layout of roads and “gardens of tranquility” spread across the vast memorial park, to his grave.
There is something that my mother calls “benign neglect,” proudly, and again and again, to describe a kind of situation, as though she herself had come up with the term, and had first thought up of such an elegant measure, or, as it were, half-measure, instead of the quasi-political policy it really was, as it was taught in my classes in history and economics. It became sort of our domestic policy. Dust gathered. Fruit was allowed to turn overripe. Pets died from parasitic infestations, only to be quickly replaced by new dogs and cats coming in from the street attracted by the smell of uneaten scraps of food.
There was also that yellow pickup in the garage that none of us could remember moving an inch since the day my father bought it third-hand and parked it in its parking spot, vowing one day to drive it—adding the terrifying promise that we would be stowed in the rear—all the way from Luzon to Mindanao, thereby transforming our archipelago into a single seamless landmass through the employment of chartered ferries and the network of underutilized bridges accumulated throughout the just-ended Marcos regime.
That thing had stayed parked there so long that we did not even feel the relief over my father having forgotten the mission. Plus, we heard that many of the bridges had gone into disrepair. My father had finally been prevailed upon to let go of the thing, and he came home one day with an old friend who had a thing about old trucks and who had apparently purchased ours that evening—for a song, we all realized, because when he boarded it and tried to start it, the engine turned over with little coaxing and revved with startling briskness, and the next thing we knew we were watching the yellow thing drive off with its new master, toward points unknown.
They were hard times, as you can imagine, even with my father around. Everyone knows the story about how he’d given up a promising corporate career for a suicide mission writing movie scripts. With only one battered means of transportation left in the garage and little hope of any financial windfall, there really was only one thing left to happen, and that was his death, from his first and only stroke, in the summer of 1992.
We were too old to ride a pickup but too young to know exactly what a stroke really was. After we buried him we took my mother back to the province, the old hometown, and my sister and I gave the old gate and the old yard that we’d only really ever seen once or twice a kind of wary look as we ushered her into her folks’ home, kind of holding her up by both arms and walking her slow. Not her folks’ home anymore really—cousins and other old-timers now lived there. Someone had actually thought to take photos of my dead father in his coffin at the funeral and passed them around, and all of them acted like they recognized or even knew him in some way, this poor man with his head on the pillow, who took my mother away from the town, who returned her many years later, looking spiffy and citified in her black dress and her new shoes.
Superstitious relatives helpfully supplied stories of graver deaths. There was one of our grand-uncles suddenly expiring upon bottoming-up a refreshing glass of water right after a thirty-minute bicycle ride in the heat of noon. Another uncle—what was it about uncles, anyway?—was pinned to death as he was trying to replace the flat tire on his delivery truck. There were more unfortunate ones, and by the end of the visit we were thankful enough that my father’s death had joined the ranks of the other kind, the quiet, dying-peacefully-in-their-sleep kind, a death so wished for that it became something magical: nobody could have witnessed it, and his body was presumed to exhale his spirit right up into heaven.
I was quite grown then, but those death stories and the unsullied Mindanao sky made me imagine any two random stars—out of clusters of millions—close enough together as eyes, and I dreamt about them that night and began to imagine other things as eyes—the twin headlights of the bus narrowly missing us on the dark road back to Davao City, the reading lights on the overhead console on the plane ride back to Manila.
I really saw Kate only when she crossed the University Avenue one late night after exams. I really didn’t know her because we were from different sections. I only knew her by name, and maybe by glimpses of her face in the school crowd. But as she passed that night under the yellow flares of two streetlamps I saw her face, and her body, lit quickly and fully from two sides.
The world was already well into the Internet age when I finally took her to my apartment. We had gone on to the same college, and I wondered for the longest time whether we had done it separately on purpose. She took a business course and I chose something called Interdisciplinary Studies, which many jokingly called Interplanetary Studies, which is really a way of saying I didn’t know what to do with my life.
We both didn’t know what to do then, that night, either. There were four hours of fumbling and two hours of sleep, which commenced right when my roommates arrived. I couldn’t afford the kind of place she had, which was a one-bedroom unit all to herself, with a balcony and a maid’s quarters, except her mother came in at odd hours to deliver fresh groceries, clean clothes and back-issues of Hollywood magazines. The maid’s quarters would have come in handy as a temporary hiding place, except that was where her mother liked to deposit all her canned goods and fresh laundry.
Kate asked me about my mother on one of our early dates and I didn’t know what to tell her because I honestly didn’t know what my mother was doing, or in fact where she was. I just gave her the answer I always gave those who asked, that she had decided to stay firmly behind in the province, and to me there was always some residual truth to this.
And this is where my sister figures because though I was never really in touch with her we had met once, in my early college days, quite by accident. I was walking the mall looking for something to eat and I saw her, quite grown since I had last seen her what, two or three years before? I didn’t know how I recognized her so quickly and from without even seeing her face, but of course you shake off that initial feeling and settle in quite comfortably. We found ourselves, weirdly enough, at a Jollibee, ordering the same thing we always got when we were in a kind of limbo after my father died but hated to order because it was Jollibee Chicken Joy and you can’t really say that out loud if there’s nothing much to be happy about.
It turned out there was no Jollibee and nothing to be happy about where my mother was either, and come to think of it, it did make us realize that the city is really good for bumping into people you know. We found ourselves unconsciously doing the same things with our bodies and our hands, the weird things you never notice when you’re around each other all the time. It was as if we were mimicking each other, shrugging our shoulders too much when we laughed, uttering the same non-words on the way to saying something crucial, even having to pee before leaving the restaurant.
The next time I bumped into my sister I was already about to graduate and was thinking about what to do for a living. But I did something brash and told her about Kate and how I didn’t really know what would happen between us. But I described Kate to her, about what she was like and what she liked. My sister told me about her apartment and her work and then we talked about what we really wanted to not talk about but what we also wanted to talk about, which was our mother.
At first I was full of pity and remorse and then I realized that I had actually hated her from the very beginning. That was a strong word but it felt right to hear it repeated by my sister. It was my mother whom I had heard complain one day about that one old car out of many that was left in the garage, that my father had not even bothered to insure, or register at the Land Transportation Office. It was she who had forced my father to give up that yellow pickup and his dream of driving us to Mindanao. “What’s in Mindanao, anyway?” she would say. That paint job, I suddenly remembered, was so that the New People’s Army wouldn’t mistake us for a military vehicle and fire at us as we passed through Samar or Leyte, or wherever, because my father told me they were everywhere and we must be careful on the ride.
So where was mother now, I asked my sister, and she said she probably was where she had always been since we last talked about her. It was easy to imagine how anyone can make a home of it in Davao—but no, it wasn’t even Davao, which has malls and movie theatres and five-star hotels and discos now, just like any big city in the Philippines—it was one of those small dark towns on the fringes, lining the sides of the national highway, houses shoulder-to-shoulder with karaoke joints, sari-sari stores, cockfighting pits, interrupted only by unpaved farm-to-market roads and god knows what.
Directly after graduating, Kate left for the United States for her masters’ degree. That had been the plan anyway, and my sister, who had kept in touch enough for a while, treated us to the last Filipino meal she would be having for a long time.
Kate asked us again about our mother, if she even knew about my graduating. I suspected that if my mother knew she would come, whether or not I was the one who let her know or not, but before I could say anything my sister saved us—or just me, perhaps—by saying things were most likely not good on the home front and it would have been a bit of a drain on resources if she had booked a flight. That was a good save, I suppose, and made very little difference anyway to Kate, who had never met my mother or my father or never even knew what either looked like.
My sister had just picked up a subcompact Toyota under her firm’s car plan and she dutifully drove us to the airport, where I hugged Kate goodbye and gave her a peck on the lips before she entered the gate beyond which only ticketed passengers were allowed, her fall coat slung like a stiff dark weight over her shoulder bag, her jeans as carefully pressed as dress pants.
After Kate disappeared my sister dropped me off at my apartment building. She had never gone in, and it wasn’t really a good time then because it was five in the morning and she would have to park and my unit was all the way up on the 12th floor. So we said our goodbyes and I really haven’t seen her since, and there’s really been quite a bit to talk about the next time we bump into each other.
It might be a good time to talk about money now, since I had gotten a job shortly after and that was a reason to rejoice. Money was something I always almost had quite a bit of, thanks to the odd writing or blogging jobs I accepted, except something would always come up. Kate and I took care to only Skype and we texted only when it was about something important. So the thing that always came up never did come up for me for a while and so there was the faint idea of a visit. I had never gone to the US and had never even applied for a visa, but the last two or three friends I knew who did all got rejected precisely for money. There was either too much of it in their bank account or too little of it, or something like that. I had never been brave enough to ask what the matter really was.
I’d thought up schemes, about applying for a grant somewhere, something easy and obscure enough for someone like me with nothing but a degree in interdisciplinary studies to make it. But then I thought, why not go for it and be honest about it. That was something my father would have told me to do. But I don’t know if it’s something he would actually do himself.
So Kate and I Skyped in between and I never mentioned my far-fetched plan. We noted our timezones so that my lunch breaks connected with her bedtime and vice versa. My line was almost always bad so we switched off our cameras most of the time and just talked or kept the line open while we did our work.
On one of those camera-less times it was three in the morning in Manila. She told me she had come home after her morning classes to take a nap. I had just come home from another work crisis so it all worked out. Kate described everything around her to me in great detail, beginning with her arrival at the stone porch of her apartment building and the furry thing on it that she wiped her boots on and the heavy key she used that had “Do Not Duplicate” engraved on it. The key was heavier than the keyring, which had a tiny guitar made out of pinewood with her name on it on one side and on the other side, “Baguio City.”
That wasn’t a trip she took with me. That was with her friends back in the summer right after college. As usual I didn’t have the money to go with them, though I can’t remember being invited anyway, but I do remember she told me everything in detail too, so that I could compare the Baguio she knew with the Baguio I knew—years and years before—when my father took us up there.
Kate took me up the carpeted stairs, through a doorway into her room, big enough for a double bed, a bookshelf, a desk and a chair. There was a small window that looked out into an empty apartment in the building right across. There was a small table and an electric heater at her bedside and she took me through her things, her schoolbooks, a pair of gloves, her vitamins, her headache pills and her birth control pills. That made me wonder, with a flash of jealousy, but then she described to me her aching limbs, taking care to explain how the way the ache really felt, as though all her blood had pooled in her calves and it was all threatening to burst out. And she poked them out from the covers so she could tell me what they looked like aching, and they had swollen like a pregnant woman’s legs. She described her chapped feet and her untended toenails, telling me they were not like I was used to seeing them. She took me through the bright patterns on her comforter, the ridges and the folds her flannel pajama top made between the comforter and her belly, and the colors of her skin, blotched by schoolwork and weather. She was fair-skinned to begin with but her stay in Chicago had made her skin positively pale, especially the skin of her belly.
We found ourselves unconsciously doing the same things with our bodies and our hands, the weird things you never notice when you’re around each other all the time.
She told me about how a faint line of hair had startlingly begun to form below her navel, how fine it was and how stiff it was, and that she had never noticed this before. She told me how she was idly sweeping up the strands with a thumb and forefinger as she told me about other things, the WASPs and the Jewish American Princesses and the guys she met, mostly Fil-Ams, and some guys she knew back in high school who she had bumped into on-campus. Of course I wondered what else was there and who was there and what she was not telling me about, but it was an abstract anxiety and I could not pinpoint what it was that I really wanted to hear.
Has it snowed yet? I asked her.
No, she said, and she reminded me about how much she couldn’t wait, and neither could her other friends, the new friends she had made, from Thailand and Vietnam and Korea, and she told me what they were like, and I might have fallen asleep if she hadn’t asked me to describe myself. I looked around me and thought about where to start and I made the room a bit bigger than it really was. I added a few details and I surprised myself with the non-existent things I could deliver so easily: a new suit hanging from a closet handle that I was planning to wear to work that morning, a coffee maker from the day earlier whose coffee I could smell all the way from my bed, a box full of calling cards I had obtained from all the contacts I’d been making in my work.
She then asked me to described myself like she did, and that proved more difficult, as if I were making myself up for her out of thin air. I described the texture of my unshaven cheek to her, knowing it was something she told me she always liked to feel against her skin. But I was cheating—it was something to feel her with, not something the skin of her hands could touch and remember, or remark about how different it was now, how she had never realized how rough whatever it was really was, or how wrinkled, or how round. I offered the back of my hands, my hairline, the protuberance of my kneecap. But I knew it was all the same old me she had known before she left.
I tried hard to tell her something new or something fresh, but it was taking me a long time to think because I was getting sleepy. I looked at my curtains and they were yellow, so I told her about our yellow pickup, wondering at the same time why I’d never told her about it. I told her about our trip from Luzon to Mindanao and It would have taken all of 24 hours, give or take, and my father had planned out all that we would need to bring: two spare tires, an extra battery, one of those long-range floodlights from the surplus shop, a five gallon container of gas, ice chests, sleeping bags, folding chairs, a camping cooker and a map, not any old map that you can get at National Bookstore, but a map of the entire Philippines that you can fold out large enough, with enough detail to show the major roads. The stops we would be making and the points of interest circled clearly. We never discussed how we would fit into the rear with all that cargo.
That was when I thought about paying a visit to my mother. Maybe that weekend or the next, unannounced. How hard could it be? I’d always known she never moved, and it shouldn’t be an ordeal to find out how to get to her town. But it was also difficult to do at the same time. I mean, do you bring money, do you bring photos, do you bring souvenirs?
She’d be home when I got there, with cousins and aunts, watching a noontime variety show turned up to a disturbing volume. They’d be turning deaf and slow, down to my mother, and I would hate the sound of her voice when she spoke to me because it would be loud and I would have turned gruff, and she’d be speaking more Visayan than Tagalog now and I took it to mean she had turned her back on her old ways.
Afternoons were for HBO and Cinemax and then it was one dubbed soap after another, and I couldn’t imagine this kind of life even if I tried my hardest. When dinnertime came someone finally switched off the TV but you could still follow what was happening because the other TVs in the neighborhood were on the same program. For dinner someone would do something to a chicken and we would all smell it hanging in the air long after it was all gone. I’d try to feign fatigue but my mother would have already taken her place on the sofa, her hands scratching against the leatherette cushions, ready with a photo album. There would be photos of me, in kindergarten, in grade school. One of me in a clip-on tie carrying a bible. Maybe my first communion. If I had it now in my hands, if I leafed through it now, there would be big jumps in the album—nothing on my college years, nothing on my working years, except maybe a couple of me with my sister that she might have taken the trouble to print and send over, plus some photos of her, maybe happily dining with friends, or one of her at her workdesk, working on whatever it was she was working on. I don’t know if my sister would do that, but she might.
My father took a lot of odd jobs. For example, he knew someone who knew someone who knew a Japanese guy who needed someone to do something really quick and simple. It was going to be in-and-out, collect-the-check and get out, and it was going to have to be yes or no, right then and there. He had just met him, and he was surprised by how dark he was for a Japanese man, dark like a Pinoy. He asked him if he’d been living in the country a long time and the guy said it was his first time in the Philippines and he’d been there two, three days. In and out. That was the end of the small talk. So he said yes because he needed the tie-rod replaced and the mechanic had warned him that if something happened it would happen very quickly and they wouldn’t know where to find him or how to put him together if they did.
So he shows up as instructed at this warehouse where there’s a refrigerated container van parked right up front. The engine’s running and the big compressor stuck to the back of the driver’s cab is running high and water is dripping down to the pavement. The back door opens and vapor comes out and a couple of heavies come out, all smoky in their heavy black jumpsuits and wave at him and tell him to enter. But this guy doesn’t, he’s waiting for his suit, too. He starts getting scared to death, of the cold and the guys and of what’s in the container van, but he’s also scared to death of taking even a couple of steps closer to take a look. But the guys are waving at him and waving him in and he realizes they’re Filipinos too so that thaws out his fear a little bit. He takes the couple of steps and it’s just all vapor he sees at the container van door because all that humidity is hitting all that cold in the van.
“Never trust the Japanese,” his father had told him. I never met my grandfather, but he survived the death march. Papa plants his feet on the pavement and rolls his hands into fists because his father had also told him how to prepare for a fight: stand your ground and never look at his eyes, look at the space between them, he’ll never be able to tell.
So these heavies—and he starts recognizing that they only look heavy because their jumpsuits are thick as pillows—start getting really hot and uncomfortable right in between those two temperature zones.
One of them starts trying to explain what’s in there to him and the other has gone half in and is now pulling something out of the van and it’s a big white furry thing that looks like a cross between Hello Kitty and the cutest, most harmless looking polar bear you could ever have an ad agency art director make who has never seen a single hair of a real polar bear, which averages about 3,000 pounds of pure muscle.
Packed in the rest of the available space in the van that wasn’t for the suit or the two heavies were crates of Japanese ice cream. So the only way they could all fit was for him to put on his costume so they could bring them to where they were supposed to launch the product and where all those kids and their schoolteachers were waiting for them, all hot and uncomfortable, too, because it was summer, the perfect time for launching imported ice cream.
They help my father put on the suit and he practices a few moves. He can’t see his feet out of his eyeholes. His hands only have three fingers. He can smell his own stale breath blowing back into his face. Something tugs at his arm and he turns his whole body to see Mr. Toshi, also in a white jumpsuit, looking smaller and darker than when he last saw him.
Mr. Toshi tells him the mascot rules in admirable English. He probably studied in America.
“You don’t have to smile, but if you do, it comes out better, so please smile. Put your hands to your mouth and wiggle your head back to demonstrate that you are laughing. Draw a heart in the air to say “I love you.” Use these hand signals to tell your guides—he gestures to the two men in jumpsuits—if you need to rest, or if you need help. Most importantly, don’t speak.”
My father and the two men enter the container and his sweat freezes and it’s the only time he realizes he is sweating. All he can see is cold vapor and crates of ice cream. He feels the van move and his handlers grip his arms and prop him up.
The van stops fifteen minutes later and he hears music from outside. The beats are coming through the walls of the van and the crates of ice cream and the layers of his costume. The song is “Ice Ice Baby.” The song is cut by a voice making an excited announcement through the PA system. Someone bangs on the van again and they turn him around and shout in his ear to stay close to them.
After his baptism of fire stepping out of the van right into the big pan of heat that was that yard full of sweating kids, it was nothing to him to trampoline or bungee jump in that suit. They raised his pay, of course, every time he did something risky like that. It was all good. And the suit itself, well, it felt shockproof. He did not put it on as much as enter it, like it was an airplane or a submarine.
He wore it like a second skin. Sometimes he felt himself smiling as he waved and did his little dance, and he knew he couldn’t help it that way. He sort of knew, he told me, that when he wasn’t smiling his wave was slightly different and he felt the difference in the cheers and waves of the children in front of him. And though he couldn’t speak, he had soon devised a language with what he could do with an arm and a hand, a pair of flapping eyelids, his feet and his big fat white hairy body.
The door opens and white fluffy clouds appear in front of his eyes. Somewhere 12,500 feet below they’re playing “Ice Ice Baby” again. His lifts his left hand so he can see it, a white paw thrust into the wind. His right hand is firmly hooked around the parachute strap dangling from his shoulder.
He walks forward a few steps and waits for his handlers to give him a push. He steps out into the air and falls face down into the city. He can see the roads and the mountains and the sea. He sees the buildings and the parking lots and finds the schoolyard where hundreds of kids are waiting for him.
The cold lets go and the costume starts filling up with heat. He lands with a roll and a tumble, and his handlers on the ground take his parachute away and stand him up on two legs. He’s right on target.
He hears the kids shouting his name: “Polly! Polly! Polly!” He lifts a heavy hand and waves to the exultant crowd and they wave back, their skinny arms matching him beat for beat. He feels himself smiling. The music seems louder now, and faster. Maybe it’s because his arm is tired. He lets his right arm drop and he lifts his left arm and waves it. He sees the crowd do the same. He swings his hips and the crowd does the same. So it’s left arm, left arm, left arm, right arm with a swing to make one bar. Where are his handlers? They’re probably back in the van opening up the crates and getting out all the ice cream. They’re probably going to toss all those icedrops at the crowd. The crowd roars. He’s so close to them it feels like he’s at the edge of the stage. He feels himself settling back against the frame of his costume and he feels himself dropping back. He knows he is fainting but he is still smiling, because fainting is better than the heat.
My grandfather survived the death march by filling his pockets with salt. It was one of those stories they like to tell whenever we go to the province. When I was a kid I wondered why he didn’t fill his pocket with sandwiches or bananas instead. Anyway he survived, but thankfully, not long enough to see his own son suffer under the same masters.
Papa spent a weekend in a nice hospital room and got a little bonus on his paycheck. They never hired him again, though we would go on to see Polly the Polar Bear breakdance, do cartwheels and skydive again and again into school fairs.
I borrowed a friend’s Rolex to wear to the visa interview. It was heavier than I thought. Now I am in a coat, a scarf and boots. I’ve never worn any of these things before and they look so strange on me that I wanted to describe what I am wearing to myself. Everything is just as she described it to me. Lake Michigan looks like it’s an ocean. The big smooth metal buses have scrolling LED displays that clearly tell you where you’re going.
I stop before I ring the doorbell because I know she isn’t there. A friend of hers would have called as soon as the first flurries showed. Maybe it was that guy friend I’ve always been jealous about, trying to hide the excitement in his voice, simply saying “Well?” and she would have known exactly what he meant. They would have run out their rooms, scrambled down their steps, flung open the doors and rushed out into the air, wearing whatever they were wearing in the freezing cold, and I wouldn’t hold it against them.
This was originally published in the February 2016 issue of Esquire Philippines.