IT WAS THE WORST POSSIBLE PLACE FOR THE WORST possible person. NEB stands for New Executive Building—a decrepit old structure in the city of Manila, by the river Pasig, kilometers away from McDonald’s, KFC, and other diet-busting yuppie comforts. It was my first job. And I displayed all the signs of being high risk: young, out of love and, most dangerous of all, hungry.
The cafeteria had all the makings of a sex dungeon in the wake of a zombie uprising. It was in the basement of a building beside the Pasig. The rats dashed from beneath one unclean refrigerator to the next. The yellowing walls were stained by god knows what, featuring old and pixelated photos of the food they used to serve—the labels in Times New Roman: camaron rebosado, chicken adobo, menudo, sisig. But even that eerie depiction was part of an unknown and glorious past. It was like entering the flat of a B-movie star—razzies in a banged up trophy shelf—who’d developed a full-blown meth addiction over the past decade. It was all pot belly, whisky breath and libido. And I—this most unfortunate I—was hungry. Hungry for the heartless, soul-crushing cuisine—that nutritionless hell—those ketchup containers that seemed older than the world’s oldest dog, squirting a watered-down, strangely spiced tomato paste.
I don’t remember the first meal I had in NEB. Or perhaps I choose not to remember. In our lives there are sensations that stand out and then promptly slide themselves into the hidden win32 folders of our memories. Over the past six years, my colleagues and I had come to accept and even... enjoy... suffering. Few will understand the freedom that comes with lack of control: Of forgoing your bodily desires to enhance a future pleasure, of missing out on the 10 orders of liempo they prepared for the hundred people in the building, of being deprived of satisfaction until 2 p.m. to eat because the caf ran out of rice.
Punish a mouth enough and it will love what you wish it to. It will crave your soulless chicken curry, and the deprived will eventually smear orange curry sauce all over their lips and clean it up with their tongues. And yet there are magnitudes of abuse that even the willfully abused find abusive. Once, during the cafeteria’s infamous #MonggoFridays, a friend’s order of monggo came with a surprise: an aged and exquisitely shaped cockroach egg, which the cafeteria staff responded to with: “Ay, naisama siguro habang niluluto.” To this day, people still ask me, “Where did you eat in Manila? How was it?” I must speak the truth: I cannot say. It was always one of two things. It was good in a bad way. Or it was bad in a good way.
Nevertheless, we quietly sought escape. The latter years of that relationship were finally tainted with a word we never hoped we would use: infidelity. In the office, in hushed tones, some began speaking of BABY and SARGE. We received daily texts from them, promising deliverance from the monopolists of the basement dungeon. And the food sounded nothing short of luscious: p0rk ad0b0 40, kare2 40, ginataang sitaw & kalabasa 25, shanghai 5/1pc., sinigang na salm0n sa mis0 50. And how we rejoiced at the illusion of choice. The harbingers of BABY and SARGE would trek to the lands of our faceless providers to bring us the life-altering emancipation of other food.
For weeks, and even months, we were safe. But only fools believe in saviors. In that godforsaken place they all wanted something from you: your will to live, your dignity, your soul. Imagine the unbearable existential defeat of the missed order; the missing p0rk ad0b0 40 that condemns you a NEB basement meal; or the sinigang na salm0n sa mis0 50, bearing within its broth not salmon, but bangus, or some other limbless cold-blooded vertebrate.
You will be glad to hear that I write you now from a better place. I am slowly recovering my palate in the abundant streets of Makati. And my only hope is others can take strength from my experience. Some nights, I still dream of being enslaved by the dungeon masters, but it brings me great comfort to hear that they’ve since changed. And sometimes I think: Maybe it was me. Or us. Maybe we brought out the worst in each other. But either way, the NEB caf is better now—cleaner, happier. I hear they now serve short orders—pork chops off the grill, sisig on actual sizzling plates, copious amounts of steaming hot rice. Maybe one day, when I can trust myself not to spiral into my old, rotten self, I will return. But not right now.