Thursday, August 4, 2011


When they came out of that room, they were one less. There is to be no mention of that room, even in conversations turned serious with quietness unbecoming of the both of them now. The quietness never lasted very long though. Usually it was Joel who’d start another conversation, the trail end of a topic from yesterday, his voice a forced chirp. The days blended so well together now, it didn’t really matter what day it was, when it started, or when it ended. Taking her cue, Patty would pick up the conversation too. The same thing played in different ways. They both welcomed it now, if only to fill the silence, which was worse.

Instead, they chose to live their lives in the confines of this room, their kitchen, nothing moved, save for the Sagittarius mug Joel would travel around to make ring patterns on the table. The mug was Patty’s. He was an Aries, of course, but somehow he couldn’t remember what he did with his own. Both were tacky gifts from their wedding. They would sit on the same position every morning before work, Patty in the habit of twirling her fingers around the table, staring at the life that went on outside, kids home for the summer to the chagrin of their parents. Patty’s expression hardens. His softens.

‘Close the curtains, Wel. That neighbor of ours is looking in again.’ said Patty, flinging her elbow on the chair’s back.

Joel looks at the direction she was staring at. Yes. That neighbor. He looks at them with the strangest expressions. It went from wonder to pity, sometimes both in a day. Joel stares back at him, then closes the curtains. It didn’t matter anyway. He didn’t like looking at Patty in the sunlight now. It hit her in the most unflattering of ways. Pale. She was always pale, far from the vibrant go-getter she used to be. In his mind, he imagines the sunlight passing over her out of sheer fear of absorbency. Sometimes Joel felt like that sunlight.

‘Have you organized the groceries yet?’ Patty cuts through his thoughts.

‘No. I thought you would. Just get what you want from there. I have to rush off in a while anyway.’

‘But I’m hungry. And I thought we could actually have some real breakfast today.’ Patty sighs discreetly just enough for Joel to hear.

‘I can’t. I have to go.’ He cringes, knowing where this was leading to.

‘It’s always like that now. I was hungry that day too. Do you remember, Joel? It was like this excruciating hunger, like being hungry too long and never eating at all.’

‘Let’s not do this today. Please.’

‘I think that was his way of telling me, Joel, to take care of myself, to eat more when he was gone.’ Patty continues.

Joel shrugs. ‘Probably. I have to go to work.’ He stands up and starts to move around the room, leaving all the mess on the sink, his jacket spread on the back of the chair.

‘You should’ve stopped me, Joel. You knew how impulsive I was.’

‘I know. I did.’

She wouldn’t remember now although Joel somehow did, in small chunks spread far in between. Of how he saw her once rubbing her belly as if smoothening an invisible bump. He suspected although he truly knew too late, and he saw the pills. Baby blue pills hidden on the inner intestines of her bag, clearly meant to be not seen. They were deceiving, these little pills. They looked so friendly, so ordinary, like candy. But he knew what they were for. He’d seen it several times from their early courtship years with him taking awkward trips to the farthest pharmacy in town where nobody knew him and he didn’t have to mind the awkward, sometimes amused, look of the lady-in-charge when she handed him the purchase.

It was in that room, the unmentioned, where he confronted her.

‘When did you know?’ he asked quietly.

Patty was rearranging some things on her dresser, always a mess, a maelstrom of panties, bras and stockings tossed everywhere from mornings when she often rushed off to work. The only indication she heard the question now was her slightly tighter grip on the brush.

‘Last week. I was late. So I checked.’

‘Why didn’t you tell me?’ he asked, although in his mind he knew he’d never get the answer he wanted, or needed, anyway.

‘You know why.’ Patty is unapologetic, as she always is in the first round of their fights. He recognized that face, that stubborn modulation of her voice. It was reminiscent of nights spent arguing why she had to spend too many late hours at the office or why he seemed too needy of her all of a sudden. Spend some nights out with your buddies, Patty would suggest, or go get a new hobby, or something. Something.

‘I don’t.’ Joel says, sitting on the bed, rubbing his nape.

‘Don’t what?’ Patty asked, vexed at his typically ambiguous answers.


‘Because I knew you’d want to keep it, Joel’ Patty says, bluntly.
He nods, all the answer, encapsulated in that slight, if not weak, gesture. ‘We’ve been together three years. It’s about time, Pats.’

‘It’s not. It never will.’

‘But you should’ve told me.’ Joel’s voice is pleading. He is always pleading with her nowadays, to stay home more often, to make an effort to cook, to organize their budget, to visit their families, to fuck, to love.

‘I couldn’t.’

‘But why?’

Patty lets out a long sigh, the conversation starting all over again.

Was it that sigh that eventually broke the silence Joel often found comfort in? Because, if he listened well enough to the tones of that day now, everything that followed after was not silence, muffles maybe, the changing textures of Patty’s voice, from frigid manager talking to a subordinate to a pleading child asking for forgiveness. There were other sounds as well, sometimes he heard it in his sleep, but only from a secure distance, and especially when he didn’t sleep in that now unmentioned room. Sometimes, he’d hear his leftover coffee splashing on Patty’s skin or that mug with the tacky picture of a Ram crashing to the floor, or was it on her head? He barely remembers now. The problem with memory was, it is often the biggest chunks that are the hardest to swallow. All he knew was, when they came out of that room, they were one less. Yet he forgets this everyday when facing Patty across the kitchen table and ignoring her dull eyes and faraway expression, he is at last contented to have found his voice.

Friday, April 1, 2011


The waves move in contrasting directions. When he looks at it closely, it’s as if the shades were battling each other for territory. The blues are violently pushing the sea’s light greens aside, tossing itself back and forth without permission. It was as if the sea never knew what calm looked like although at one time, it might have. In the distance, he can imagine chaos like the sea. He can imagine the millions of people struggling just to see an already-familiar image. He can see the great amount of spit that merged with the lines on the street, and to which also merged the footsteps of people, going from here to there, front and back, left and right, most times always upward, at the heavens, giving thanks, asking. Begging. Always begging.

Oscar was not a prayerful man. But on this day, when all of the waves seemed to move upward like a communion of prayerful hands, he prayed for more water. He prayed for rain. He prayed for downpour so strong it could capsize the boat he rode from Negros to the opposite side. With or without him in it, he cared very little now, just as long as it watered the sugarcanes that were slowly wilting in the January sun along with his funds. On the bus going to the city, he thought of his two children about to give birth only a month apart and his wife’s prodding to wipe her handkerchief on the image of the Holy Child once he got to the Basilica. And, once again, before he dozed off, he thought of the sound of heavy downpour, beating like the drums that were getting closer.

Erwin decided to get the name of his girlfriend tattooed on his wrist right before they were to meet later that afternoon. It would say ‘Angel of Mine’ and he praised himself for being so clever with words as he crossed the street going to the Basilica just in time to catch the balloons being released with millions of the people’s prayers along with them. He watched the reds and whites floating like beads briefly before casting his eyes downward for an easy target. He thought of his cousins, rich bastards, as he subtly moved his right hand to cover an old man’s back pocket. Rich bastards. Never having to work for anything. He thought of Angel and how once again, his cousins would tease his Jejemon hat and his meager date money in front of her. But not this time. This time he’d have enough to spend on more than just ginabot and fishballs.

The long queue was expected but he’d never thought there would exist a day as hot as this. It was a fine time for the world to be hot, especially when the rest of the city seemed to be up and about, wanting to see the Sto. Niño too. The church was newer. It had a garden now, where most of the children who couldn’t be controlled by their parents seemed to be let loose. The line was slow to move so he had time to take a look at all the details, the paintings in the hallway, the fountain in the center, the remodeled staircases. He didn’t know why he felt like he had to report all of these to Anita and the kids. After all, they’ve been here several Mardi Gras before him. Each time he made an excuse not to come along with them. And it was not as if they would ask anyway. So, he stared further ahead at the snaking line slowly moving him closer to the room where the Sto. Niño would be encased in glass, waiting for him. He forced himself to memorize nothing from this place save for what he desperately needed to ask this Child.

He was not like this when he came here 40 years back. He could remember, not so clearly now, but well enough. His father, an agriculturist like himself, took their old Dodge and drove all the way to the city. He brought a good many of their neighbors with them riding at the back of the truck and they made a day out of it, lighting candles, buying peanuts and watching hands sway back and forth in the air in unison to the Gozos. He prayed for a new bike for the coming summer. His father prayed for the moving mass in his prostate to miraculously float and disappear like the balloons that swept high in the air above them, scooped by an invisible hand. That summer, Oscar’s new bike arrived, but he barely touched it. He was too busy going back and forth home and hospital.

Every pickpocket had a preferred target. For Erwin, it was the fathers. Fathers who were too busy watching over their wives’ bags or fussing over their children, fathers who were cocky enough to leave their wallets in the back pocket, fathers who always thought it would never happen to them. When Erwin chose a target, he thought of his own Papa and how most of him, even the parts that weren’t destroyed by alcohol, embarrassed his son. He thought of the days when his father would be hunched on the sofa, his paunch sticking out, the left leg of his torn trousers hanging on the edge, saliva dripping slowly on his side, even the smell of his day-old shirt combining with the vomit still on his breath. And he thought of his cousins and how cocky they got every time they reminded him their father, his uncle, was paying for their rent, their food, their schooling, their allowance, even the clothes on his family’s back. He thought of the times he had to resort to getting a few Pesos in his father’s pocket, leavings from a night of drinking with his buddies. He thought, and thought. Until such time he would be more embarrassed for those he was stealing from rather than from stealing. Far ahead, he saw a man with a slight paunch and shoulders that sagged down in the harshness of the sun. It reminded him of someone. He slowly moved with the crowd just in time for the man to turn, and reveal the bulge of a wallet.

He pocketed the change from the vendor who sold him candles. At one time, loose change such as these was given to the nearest vagrant. But not today, and perhaps not soon after. Once again, he doubted his decision to follow his wife’s urging to pray to the miraculous child. But it was difficult to concentrate especially when the miracle had cost him P800 for fare. It created a central energy in his pocket that he seemed too conscious of like a stain in a white shirt. And at a time like this, there was no room for unnecessary spending. He had just about exhausted his quarterly advances and his crop loans were almost due. The electricity was about to be cut. Not to mention the expenses that came with the pregnancies – medicine, doctor’s appointments, new clothes, food. Oscar patted the wallet in his pocket instinctively just to make sure his remaining P500 and loose change would be there, then he went on to massage his neck that seemed to strain from an unseen weight. Yes, he’ll just have about enough to go home along with a few pasalubongs for his coming apos.

When his children were little, Oscar gave the two girls dolls for Christmas gifts. They opened it during Christmas morning between the frantic chaos and fuss only children could generate from such an occasion. And amidst the excitement, it wasn’t too long before Tricia, the youngest, started pouting, then bawling, then finally spreading herself all over the floor, twisting in fits of rage. Her ponytail was loose and all four of them watched her- Anita, his wife, Daniel, his eldest and Mary Ann, the middle child- turn herself purple from crying and holding her breath. Anita tried to get to her but she kicked her mother’s bosom angrily. The doll was discarded on the corner, its new dress gathering loose dust. When she calmed down finally, Oscar had asked her soothingly what brought on such anger. In an accusing tone, Tricia said her doll didn’t have a bow in the middle like her sister’s. Oscar looked at the dolls. Except for the colors, Mary Ann’s was mint green, Tricia’s was pink, and the bow Oscar has never noticed until then, they were completely identical.

It seemed to him that was the memory Tricia remembers in all her fits of rage after. Because when Oscar looked at this youngest daughter of his, barely two months after high school graduation and already pregnant, he can imagine that Christmas Day playing in her mind, fueling supposedly unfounded anger, as she juts out her chin and tells him and Anita of the news. He looks at the scene as if in a far distance, his hands folded across the kitchen table. In his mind, he is in the backyard where he and the children used to play. He thinks of the birds of paradise neatly planted in a row and how Tricia used to complain of her curly pigtails getting tangled in the plant’s pointed blossoms while Mary Ann played with her own toys in the background. His hands were moving unknowingly on the table now as if he were untangling Tricia’s hair while Anita stands up and wordlessly slaps their youngest on the cheek.

In the afternoon, Oscar and Anita go to Mary Ann’s house in town. She is married now and three months pregnant with her first child. Mary Ann was a great diplomat and they could certainly use her help in breaking the news to the boy’s family. Anita was determined to barge into town to confront them although Oscar strongly tried to dissuade her. He thought of how his wife’s scandalizing of this incident will affect his loans especially since the Diazes were influential in their Cooperative. They were a well-known clan hereabouts, descending from early politicos and rich enough to work on over 600 hectares of land every season. It was too late to blame them for their son’s misbehavior. Besides, knowing her daughter, Anita was sure Tricia was to blame just as much as he was. But she figured they could at least pay for Tricia’s pregnancy, knowing how hard the latest planting period was for all of them. Mary Ann is surprised to see her parents. Her husband’s tattered shirt, the one that she is wearing now, still hides the bump in her lower abdomen. Anita massages the stomach before she goes to the kitchen without permission and sits on the table. Mary Ann breaks some ice for their water with a knife. Both Oscar and Anita offer to help but Mary Ann just shushes them off to the table.

“It seems like your child may have a playmate soon.” Anita starts.
Mary Ann seems preoccupied by the sound of the ice cracking into pieces.
“Tricia’s pregnant.” Anita says.
Mary Ann continues to chop the ice, her movements a little more directed now.
“Who’s the father?”
“That Diaz boy down in Paloma. The one who always rides into town on that monster motorcycle? Who knew they even began seeing each other?” Anita asks.
“I saw them once, at the Fiesta celebration in the other town.”
“When? Why didn’t you tell us? We could’ve stopped them earlier before your sister became a disgrasyada.”
Mary Ann serves them the water and sits with them. Oscar can hear her faint sigh even when she times it along with the clink of glass hitting table. The ice chips were so small they begin to melt in their palms immediately.
“She pleaded with me not to. Besides, I thought Papa already knew.” She thinks Oscar knew everything about Tricia. “So what are you going to do with her?”
“We’re on our way to the boy’s family now. To ask them to help with her pregnancy. Why, we can’t afford two babies!” The word ‘babies’ weighed heavy in the air. Mary Ann’s lips start to thin a little. It was just a month ago when she announced the pregnancy to her parents that she also embarrassingly added if they could help her a little financially, at least for a while, she assures them. Danny, Mary Ann’s husband, was an accountant at the City hall and between his salary and Mary Ann’s crosstitching sideline, they get by fine. At one time, she had even started helping with the expenses at home, offering to pay for water or adding to Tricia’s allowance. Now, she wonders whether she should just start working again so they could tide over. Then as is from embarrassment from her last statement, Anita orders Mary Ann to dress quickly. The Diazes’ house was still a long way off.
When they got there, the Diaz boy didn’t even come down from his room. His parents flatly refused.

Anita does not go to church anymore. Instead, she holes herself up in the room, praying the novena from afternoon until late evening. On Sundays, when they gather at the house, Anita would ask constantly what Linda was wearing that Sunday, which pew Emmie sat in, who Fely was with during mass. She is afraid they will find out that it’s because they didn’t keep to their annual tradition of offering to the Señor that Tricia got pregnant. At night, she laments to Oscar that they should’ve just borrowed money so that they could have prepared dinner for friends during the Fiesta.
‘You’re going to sacrifice our daily consumptions to feed people we don’t even like?’ Oscar jokingly asks.
Anita does not listen to this and goes back to clutching her rosary beads while she keeps eye of Tricia from the door.
So every Sunday, Oscar, Mary Ann and Danny all surround Tricia, guiding her from pew to pew like an invalid. They are careful to nudge her to not stop by for too long. Tricia talks to her old classmates the same way. She laughs, giggles and complains about what Toni Gonzaga was wearing that Sunday. But when they call her, she is quick to follow, for once.

On this particular Sunday, Tricia is hurrying to church instead of dragging her feet like she usually does. She is trying hard not to smile, imagining the reaction of her mother’s friends when they see what she is wearing. This Sunday she does not need to bow her head when they pass by, going to their usual pew in the middle. The novelty of a new dress makes her face look brighter than Oscar has seen it in months. They quickly board on their old Fierra to fetch Mary Ann and Danny. Tricia hums a Pop song Oscar has just heard on the radio recently, letting her hands feel the wind on the open side window. The dress is billowy, hiding most of the bulge of Tricia’s stomach. Oscar watches her suck a little bit of it in until there is only a small portion of her 6-month old swell left.
Just the other day, one of the Diaz boy’s aunts, the one who was also rumored to have had an abortion, came to the house to give Tricia some maternity dresses. They were from Cebu, she said, and Tricia wordlessly thanked her without even looking at the plastic where the dresses were placed. When she left, Tricia parades around her room for half the day, trying on each one over and over again. The dress she is wearing now is a classic black. She is careful not to ruin the most beautiful ones, saving them for a special occasion. Had they known that was the last time the Diaz clan would give anything to mother and child, Oscar and Anita wouldn’t have allowed Tricia to accept the dresses.
When they got to Mary Ann’s house, Tricia greets Danny with a sassy smile and plops on their sofa to read a magazine. Mary Ann is in a hurry, going past all of them. She knows they are almost late. These days, it is getting harder and harder to prepare herself in the mornings. She is still clutching her wet ringlets, her blouse moist in the places where they fell. What she is wearing now, an attire they’re already familiar with because she has worn it even before she was pregnant, is barely covering her belly. Tricia peeks from the magazine and goes back to reading.
‘Put that down. We’re already late and you know how Fr. Calumpang hates---‘ Mary Ann stops to look at the soft fall of Tricia’s dress. She puts the brush down abruptly and makes an excuse to go back to her room while the two men wait in the front of the house, smoking. When she does not return right away, Danny goes in to check on her. Her sobs reach Oscar and Tricia when he opens the door. They quickly follow to see Mary Ann on her bed with some disheveled clothes strewn all over the covers.
It occurs to Oscar this is one of the few times he will enter Mary Ann’s new room. It is like looking at a photo album of friends once close to you. The cabinet she had in her old room at home is standing at the side. The already-frayed doll, the bowless one, sits on top of the TV. Her crosstitch projects are framed on the walls. But they all seem new to Oscar. He felt the same way as he did the other day when a trusted laborer of his for 20 years, such a familiar figure that he had come to know the shirts that he owned, how he had a penchant for local gossip and a preference for dried viand, had died, and when Oscar went to the wake, it was only then that he found out his name wasn’t actually Ben but Ven for Venancio. Looking at Mary Ann, he felt the same strong melancholy. Her cries come down to soft hiccups. Tricia tries to console her but her appeal to Mary Ann seems trivial. Mary Ann quickly scrubs her face and joins them in front of the house.
‘It’s just hormones.’ Danny says jokingly. He holds his wife’s hand and Oscar watches them pass a look between each other he could not read.
‘Your dress suits you.’ Mary Ann says to Tricia when they go by her. Oscar is sure she presumes he bought it.

Thereafter, Oscar resolves to buy two of everything – two vitamin supplements, two house dresses, two bags of fruits or two sets of baby clothes- every time. He urges Anita to take the girls to their doctor’s appointments together. He suspects Mary Ann has been missing hers even if she tells them the baby is fine, so says her doctor, every month.
‘Hay, don’t spoil them too much, Oscar. Especially Tricia. Look at her! She’s just lazing around in the house, doing nothing. She needs to learn how to take care of that baby even before it arrives. And look, you’re carrying the burden for her again.’ complains Anita.
‘Never mind, Anita. She’ll learn in time. Besides, I don’t want them to think I’m playing favorites. Didn’t you always accuse me of consenting to Tricia’s whims all the time? I don’t want Mary Ann to think I’m leaving her behind on this too.’
He does not tell Anita their funds are slowly dwindling although she might have an idea because he always gives him the exact amount to pay for the bills without extra for pocket money. She keeps the money tucked between her Bible under Matthew who said ‘No one can serve two masters. Either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and Money.’ Oscar finds this funny because he knows Anita worries about what her friends will say about their state as much as anyone. Anita does not know where Oscar is off to every day. He always says he is out in the fields checking on the crops although she suspects he also drops by some of his kumpares once in a while to borrow for their daily consumptions. Not that they’re doing any better either. Very few were in the position to help especially since it has been three months since the last heavy downpour. In three more months as well, they will two extra mouths to feed.

Erwin is almost done for the day. It is a little over 1:00 and he is looking forward to enjoying his earnings with his girlfriend. He is in such a good mood, he even decides to treat his cousins to dinner. The look on their faces when he could actually afford to pay for their meals plus his own, would be reward enough. Sinulog Day, he learned was always a good business day. Happiness was a great distraction. People forget about daily living and trivialities like food or money. He sits on the area underneath the stairs to get some shade. He is tempted to count all his money but this was not the kind of thing you did in public especially if you did what you did for a living. He also knew that people like him with his mode of dressing and his impoverished demeanor was always subject to suspicion even then, when he still did not resort to doing what he did. So, he has learned to dress better, be less subject to people’s stares, blend in the crowd. He adjusts his black shirt and hits the man on his right with his elbow while doing so.
‘Sorry, Nyor. I didn’t mean to.’ Erwin says but the man does not even look. He is hunched over, allowing children to cross back and forth his way as if he didn’t even see them.
‘Nyor, you all right? Nalampasan ka’g gutom? Did you get sunstroke?’ he inquires and pokes the man slightly. The man fidgets. It occurs to Erwin it is the first time the man is registering his existence or where he was.
‘Yes, I’m all right. All right.’ He is saying this more to himself than to Erwin. ‘Tell me, Dong, do you know where the nearest police station is?’ the man asks. And all of a sudden, Erwin is filled with an ominous panic, silent but stuck in his Adam’s apple.
‘Jj-just across the front entrance. Why? Is something wrong?’
‘Someone stole my wallet. All my money is in there.’ the man says. Erwin sighs with relief. The man mistakes it for empathy.
‘Yes, plenty of pickpockets today. Sinulog’s a good day for them.’ Erwin says. ‘Do you have a cellphone?’
The man shakes his head. Erwin fishes his cellphone from his pocket and offers it in the man’s direction.
‘Here, maybe you’d like to call your wife or your child to pick you up.’ The man looks clean and well-dressed. Surely, he can have someone pick him up. It occurs to Erwin that had he not been upped first, the man would’ve made a good target.
The man shakes his head. ‘No, no. I can’t. I’m not from around here. I’m from Negros. I just arrived for the day. I was planning to leave this evening, so I didn’t prepare much.’
‘What? So you mean to say, you have no one here? How are you going to get home?’ Erwin asks.
The man shakes his head and hunches back again.

It occurs to Oscar, that in his despair, he is talking too much. He is telling this boy, whom he is sure is not even over fifteen or sixteen, things he could not tell his wife and kids. He imagines Anita’s reaction, Mary Ann’s disconnection or Tricia’s centeredness, and the thoughts fill him with fear that his weaknesses as provider and father will embarrass his family more than win their empathy. He is not even sure if the boy is listening. But he talks anyway. The liberation of a place that is so far from things familiar to him is making him talk. It starts with a little confession of him being too embarrassed to tell his wife he had no money for this trip, so he opted to take money he knew she’d never miss. He borrowed from his kumpare, another small amount that seemed to be continuously piling up the past few years.

Erwin simply nods, unsure of what to say or react from this. The rambling of this man, sometimes fragmented from one memory to another, reminds him of dawns with his drunken father where he would often make the habit of telling Erwin ‘I love you, boy! I love you.’, a mock interpretation of some movie monologue, Erwin is sure. What he is unsure of is whether it is truth revealed in drunken state or a drunken state taking truth.
Erwin’s silence makes Oscar talk some more.
He does not know how or from where they derived the topic. Perhaps it was when the boy asked him of who to call and he thinks more of Mary Ann than Anita since she was less prone to panic and nagging. Wherever the conversation started from though, somehow Oscar finds himself telling the boy about Mary Ann, and of how, even as a child, she had seldom asked him for anything. How even in College, she had opted to live in Dumaguete, far away from them, and earn her allowance as a working student. He does not know how to handle her, he says to the boy. With Tricia, it was always so easy. She either wanted it or she didn’t. What she needed, she asked for. With Mary Ann, he is unsure of when to help her and when to stay away.
Erwin laughs at this to Oscar’s surprise.
‘She sounds just like my mother. I tell her I want to help around the house, she tells me to concentrate on my schooling. Then, when I don’t help around the house, she tells me I’m being lazy. And my girlfriend for that matter. I offer to take her home, she declines. Says she can take care of herself. But when I don’t ask, she gets mad. ’ Erwin is reminded of her date then. It is a little past 3:00 and he was going to be late.
‘How old are you?’ Oscar could not help but ask.
‘Seventeen. Why?’ Erwin is watching the dancing ladies at the distance.
‘Nothing. Does your mother know you have a girlfriend? Does your father for that matter?’
‘No. Di naman na uso, Manoy, oi.’ Erwin says with a laugh. ‘Our generation doesn’t need to ask permission anymore.’
Oscar shrugs. ‘Just don’t do anything to compromise you and your girlfriend’s future. It’s a hard path to take, Dong. Believe me.’ How easy it was to give advice to strangers, Oscar thinks.
‘Is that what happened to your daughter? The one you mentioned?’
‘Who? Mary Ann?’ Oscar laughs, thinking of her prim daughter. ‘I don’t think she even had a boyfriend until after College. I think her husband was her first. She was never a problem in that department. In any department really.’ Oscar stops short of telling him about Tricia.
‘You’re lucky with that daughter of yours. Never obliging you to do anything. Never burdening you with her needs.’ When he says this, Erwin is thinking more of his father and how he should’ve been grateful to have a son who made his own way in the world without help from him.
Oscar can only shrug. Sometimes he wished Mary Ann would.
‘Women are like that, I guess. Confusing. ’ Erwin says with certain finality. It makes Oscar smile to think what this boy knows about women, or how much, in his age.
‘I guess.’ Oscar says quietly. ‘Well, don’t feel like you have to listen to my ramblings all day.’ The boy has been fidgeting since 30 minutes ago and his feet were making restless circles on the ground.
Erwin hears the demands of his cellphone, and makes it his excuse to leave. He looks at the man one last time, one of those cocky fathers who never wanted to ask for help from anyone. Heck, maybe this old man was conning him. He shakes his head and turns to leave, then just as abruptly turn back, fishes in his pocket and hands the man two crumpled purple bills.
Oscar shakes his head. ‘No. No. I can’t accept this. You’re going to get into trouble with your folks if they look for this.’
‘They won’t miss anything. I saved that up for today. That’s my money.’
This time he is too tired to protest. He balls the bills in his pocket and gives the boy a salutatory gesture.
Erwin shrugs insouciantly. ‘Hey, it was a good business day.’ He gives the man a tepid smile and hurries to merge with the flowing crowd. Oscar examines his back, quite small for his age, embarrassed by the boy’s generosity. For the first time, Oscar wonders when it can be said exactly that a child is giving too much.

Once outside, he watches the celebration of the Sinulog dwindling down. The dancers look just as tired as he was, the spectators frazzled from constant exposure to the sun. Oscar takes in the details, the coldness of the limestone to his touch, the rising silhouettes of the Basilica, the redness of its roof. If he remembers, he will ask Anita and his children how long it’s been this way.

The waves move in contrasting directions. When Oscar gazes at its ebbs and flows, he is unsure of whether it is taking him home or away from it. The smell of the salty saccharine waters remind him of Anita’s hands when she used to cook dishes so complicated, she forgets to wash her hands before joining them at the table. That was then, a long time ago, hidden in the recesses of his mind when his family had still asked him to say the prayers that would serve as gratitude and saving grace. He clutches his wife’s handkerchief, the only thing he remembers to bring back. In the distance, the outline of his homeland appears, shrouded in looming grays.

My entry for the 11th IYAS Writing Workshop which unfortunately did not get accepted. I realized my major mistake was trying to write on a subject I had no personal affinity with. But more than that, trying to write with a style and manner that is not mine or as close to mine as it can be.

Photo by

Monday, March 21, 2011

The Goat

Ever since Ian can remember, and he can’t really remember much since he is just four years old, all he ever really wanted was a goat. Not a big one. Even the littlest one of the lot would do. Just as long as it was a boy. Because their goat is a girl. And baby goats just aren’t made any other way. At least that was what Mommy La had told him, and Mommy La is never wrong. She told him too that their goat was getting old; and it had better produce a kid soon, or else it will be sold for meat so Ian can go to school.

‘Can’t I go to school and let her live too?’ Ian asks.

‘Ay, but school is expensive, Yan,’ Mommy La says. ‘You have to buy uniforms and shoes, books and notebooks. That goat better bring us a baby soon, or else she’ll be the one sold in the market.’ Mommy La says this while taking her breakfast with wisps of white hair dripping down her coffee and crusts of pandesal sticking on her whiskered upper lip. Mommy La isn’t really his mother. Ian had learned of this when they were at the market and someone had stopped them at the exit to talk to Mommy La.

‘Is this Ian?’ the stranger with musky perfume and too much make-up asked. ‘He’s so big already! Why, you were just a baby when I last saw you!’ She squeezed Ian’s arms the way they do with pigs sometimes to check if they were fleshy enough for eating. Ian just fidgeted there, holding Mommy La’s hand and trying to stay put.
‘No news of his mother yet? Ai, Diyos ko, that ungrateful daughter of yours.’ Later on, Mommy La explained to him that his mother was in Manila, working so she could save up for Ian’s future. Manila was such a faraway place, even farther than the market. You had to ride two planes and a bus just to get there. Someday, his mama will come home, Mommy La told him. And Mommy La was never wrong. She showed him what Manila was like one time on one of those soap operas on TV at night.

‘See, Yan, see those tall buildings, long bridges, and well-dressed people? That’s where your mama is.’ And ever since then, Ian had taken to watching TV every night just in case his mama shows up on the screen, walking on Manila’s sidewalks.
‘Now, hurry up and finish your breakfast. I have plenty of sewing to do today,’ Mommy La prods. Mommy La is the third most popular seamstress in all of Tanjay. When she and Ian go to church, they count the number of people wearing her creations that Sunday. Ian feels proud to walk with Mommy La even though her nervy and crooked fingers are a little uncomfortable to hold on to.

They look at the goat tied to their front yard, its brown fur glistening under the sun. They stare at it for a few more minutes before Mommy La stands up to do the dishes, then she’s off to her sewing machine to start the dress for her customers. Ian runs off to play with Mayumi until lunch time.


Mayumi’s Papa-san is very old, older than Mommy La even. He is Japanese and comes to visit Mayumi only twice or thrice a year. Every year, after her Papa-san goes home, Mayumi’s mama seems to be carrying another baby in her womb, so she is always crabby around Mayumi and Ian. They are careful not to disturb her. Once, during one of his visits, Mayumi’s Papa-san gave Ian a box of chocolates shaped like Hello Kittys. He forced himself to get only five a week. It took him a month to finish the whole box, which he still kept to place all his marbles in. In between then, he sends Mayumi all kinds of toys. She has so many she sometimes forgets to take back what Ian borrowed from her—robotic puppies that say ‘Arigato,’ wooden kitchen sets of sushis and rice cakes, bubble gum dispensers with small trinkets, and anime action figures. But she doesn’t mind. She gets more every three months. Mayumi has plenty of jewelry too. She is careful not to play too much in the dirt for fear of losing one of her bracelets. She even has a bracelet called corales, which she said protected her from the evil spirits and from getting hurt. It seemed to work too because Ian has never seen Mayumi scrape her knees or fall from a tree when they were playing. Ian wishes they had enough money to buy a powerful bracelet like that. That way, maybe he won’t be so cautious. That is what Ian heard Mayumi’s mama say about him one day.
‘That boy, Ian, is such a cautious boy,’ she said. He thinks what she meant was he wasn’t brave enough.

This is the day he and Mayumi are to visit the Marquez kids. Mayumi’s mama used to be a house help for the Marquezes before she married; and so, every so often, they turn to her to do some odds and ends, which she respectfully complies to. She will probably be always afraid of Mrs. Marquez. This time, Mrs. Marquez has requested for Ian and Mayumi to come play with her grandchildren. They are city kids from Manila who came here for the summer.

The Marquezes have a large house. Mommy La told him once they how they used to be rich, their ancestors being one of the first sugar barons in this area and all, but they’d fallen on rougher times. And all that was left was their grand house that needed repairing and repainting. When they enter the gate, two girls are busily taking pictures of everything. They are taking pictures of the untended grass, the wooden posts, the tractor parts, even the goats and chickens. There might not be goats or chickens in Manila, Ian thinks.

‘Spartan, be good ha’, the fat one says to the brown goat. Ian finds it funny how they liked to name their animals. Ian’s own goat doesn’t have a name. He will always be referred to as ‘the goat.’

He learns later on that the fat one is named Ida, and the tomboyish one named Dianne. Ian and Mayumi follow them around the good part of the morning, doing what they wanted to do. They climb on the irrigation pumps as if they were monkey bars. They take turns playing hide and seek around the big garage. They eat buko in the small nipa hut at the back. Ian and Mayumi even teach Ida and Dianne how to turn the leaves of the coconut into all sorts of shapes, like a cross or a hat, until the house help calls them in. Mr. and Mrs. Marquez join them for lunch. The way Mrs. Marquez cuts her fish so precisely, deboning the flesh without even using her hands, somehow scares Ian. He remembers the warning of Mayumi’s mama to behave when in front of her. She said she once saw Mrs. Marquez spank a child with a stick for playing with the cut sugarcane mounts in their front yard.

‘How is your mama, Mayumi? Does she still like to cook like when she was here? I remember your mama made the most delicious bitsuelas for us,’ Mrs. Marquez says.
‘No, she’s pregnant again, so she just eats all day long. She even eats my brother’s baby food,’ Mayumi says knowingly, then goes back to her prawn-shelling.
‘Oh.’ Mrs. Marquez does not know what to say for a moment. ‘And how about your friend?’ she asks, pointing her mouth to Ian. ‘I don’t seem to remember his mother being from around here.’
‘Ian doesn’t have a mother man,’ Mayumi says to her. Ian wanted to kick her from underneath the table, but Mrs. Marquez might notice, and for some reason, he is tongue-tied in her presence. He has used up all his Tagalog and English this morning, and talking is becoming a strain. He reminds himself to pinch Mayumi hard for saying that later.
‘Ian is Nang Eldring’s apo, ma’am,’ the house help who is waiting at the side butts in. ‘You do remember her daughter, Rachel, don’t you? I think she used to help around here during fiestas.’
‘Oh, yes. I remember her. Short, pretty girl, wasn’t she?’ Mrs. Marquez inquires. Ian can’t tell whether she truthfully remembers his mother or not.
‘My mother is in Manila,’ Ian blurts out all of a sudden.
‘Talaga? Where in Manila? If you visit her, you should drop by our house,’ Dianne says, preoccupied with her food.
‘The part where there are big buildings,’ Ian stammers.
‘Silly! All of the places in Manila have big buildings. Our school is a big building,’ Ida chimes in, starting on her second serving.
‘Basta, in one of those buildings. I see it on TV all the time.’ Ian stubbornly says before quieting down. When they continue playing that afternoon with Ida’s Legos, Ian builds a building so high, it continuously topples to the ground, breaking into small colorful pieces.


‘But, Mommy La, where in Manila? Ida said the whole place is full of big buildings. Mama might be lost there.’ Ian has been badgering Mommy La about this since he got back from the Marquezes.
‘I don’t know, Ian. I really can’t remember already. I’ll have to check the address she wrote the letter from.’ Mommy La has shown Ian the yellowing piece of paper she received from Ian’s mother. She does not tell him the letter was from three years ago, when Ian was still a year old, with an address that she constantly wrote to but never received a reply from.
‘And don’t worry, anak,’ she says as she prepares Ian for bed, ‘your mama is a very smart girl. If she is lost, she will find her way back soon.’
That is what he prays to his guardian angel for when Mommy La asks him to say his prayers.

That summer, during the many times Ian goes to the Marquezes, he becomes quieter and quieter. He is easily bored by Mayumi’s, Dianne’s, and Ida’s continuous talking. They even let their dolls join in the conversation, as if the group were not noisy enough. Even Dianne, whom he first thought was the type to want to fly kites and play with guns, is as much a talker as any of them. He is annoyed by how much they place so much attention on his gangly knees, his brown skin, his open wounds. They pick on him, telling him they want to cut his hair or marry his action figures to their dolls. They always want to do something and be somewhere. Ian was happiest when they just let him be to watch Ben 10 on their cable TV. The characters sound so different from the Tagalog voiceovers he usually heard on the local channel. Sometimes, he even ventures to the fenced grazing area on the back where the goats, cows, and chickens are at just so he can be alone. The girls are afraid to go there. Ian had threatened them that there would be plenty of black poisonous snakes hiding in the tall grasses. There, he can just poke on the mud with sticks or look for frog’s eggs in peace. Sometimes, Manoy Poldo will be there, but he is not much of a talker either. Manoy Poldo takes care of all the Marquezes’ animals. He is in charge of taking them back and forth their houses to bigger grazing areas during the day. ‘Animals need lots of space, Ian, or else they won’t grow,’ says Manoy Poldo.

Another time, he says, ‘Ian, make sure to let that goat of yours couple with a mestizo. That way, the kid will be more expensive. Bigger and stronger, like this goat here.’ He proceeds to pet a goat with caramel fur. To Ian, they look the same, but Manoy Poldo points off the many differences. Mestizos have bigger hooves, more twisted horns, cleaner and finer furs, he says. He often gives Ian tips about goats and other animals ever since he found out Ian has one of his own. Take off their ticks. Give them high rock formations to climb on. Don’t let their feet touch water for too long. Ian takes note of these before ducking off from the girls. Their voices can be heard even before Ian gets a glimpse of their shadows coming closer to his hiding place.


Mommy La is agitated for the past few days. He knows this because she is constantly badgering him to do one thing or another. Take off your slippers when you come in, she says. Sweep off the leaves from our yard, she says. Chew your food well, she says. Take a second bath, why don’t you? she says. Ian does not know what is wrong with her. Mayumi says old people can be like that when they’re problematic.
‘But what could she be problematic about? She wasn’t like this until a week ago, after she got back from the marketplace,’ ponders Ian.
‘Don’t you know anything? Old people are only worried about one thing, and that’s money. That’s what Mama constantly complains about at home, at least when Papa-san’s not around.’

What Ian does not know is that it was in the marketplace, while Mommy La was picking ripe tomatoes and big onions, that a returning domestic helper showed her a picture of her daughter. She was with an Iranian and carrying a small toddler in her arms.

‘Hay, business never used to be this slow. In the previous summers, bakasyonistas used to come to me to have their dresses made. Now, everyone is buying ready-mades from stores. Where are we going to get money for our daily expenses? My pension just isn’t enough for this,’ Mommy La says, grimacing. She is talking more to herself. Ian is watching a soap opera on the couch while Mommy La is finishing up her day’s work, a red skirt with pleats for one of her regular customers. But Ian really hears her although he pretends not to. He continues to watch the figures on the screen, but deep inside, he is held by an immovable, incomprehensible panic that somehow, this will affect his going to school. The fear spreads uncontrollably to the rest of his system so much that he is feeling pins and needles on his hands and legs. Mommy La had told him once that school was expensive. Where will they get the money now? And Mommy La is old. She may not find more work anymore. Ian has to find a way before school starts. From the window, he peeks at his goat, kneeling down on all fours, resting for the day on their front yard. He decides to take the goat to Manoy Poldo soon.

It is nearing the end of summer. In just two weeks, Ida and Dianne are going to fly back to Manila to start the new school year. He knows this because the girls constantly volunteer information even when he doesn’t ask. This makes Ian more anxious because he may not be let in the Marquez home after they leave. Somehow, he had to let his goat have a baby soon. Manoy Poldo will know what to do. He waits for him in the grazing area. The girls follow him there, excited at the sight of Ian bringing his goat around with a rope. They are eagerly jumping up and down, scaring the goat, making her fidget and trip on the rope. Manoy Poldo is surprised to see all of them there. He is even more surprised to see Ian with his goat, its brown skin with black patches radiant in the sun.

‘Manoy, will you help my goat have a baby? I need to sell her kid so I can go to school,’ says Ian in one breath. He is feeling flustered, and his heart is beating too fast.

Manoy Poldo is stunned by the boy’s request. His hand smacks his forehead in an involuntary reaction. He looks at Ian’s red face and sits the boy down on a rickety chair. Manoy Poldo can see tears springing in Ian’s eyes, so he speaks to him as gently as possible.

‘Dong, it’s not as easy as you think. We have to find her a mate, and even then—’ says Manoy Poldo.

‘But we can use one of Mrs. Marquez’s goats, right? She has so many of them here,’ cuts in Ian.

‘Yes. But if you do, you have to give the baby to Mrs. Marquez. That’s the protocol around here. The first baby always goes to the owner of the goat who gets the nanny goat pregnant,’ continues Manoy Poldo, measuring his words so Ian will understand.
‘That’s no problem, Manoy,’ Dianne butts in. ‘We won’t tell abuelita if you won’t.’
‘But it’s not just that, kids. Ian, we’re not even sure if your goat can have a baby. She looks a bit old to me already. She’s a bit slow on her legs.’
‘She’s really very healthy. Please, Manoy Poldo. I have to try so I can go to school.’ Ian’s tone is pleading.

‘I’m sorry, Yan. Let me know if you have a younger goat. Maybe we can try then. You better return her to your house now. You don’t want to get in trouble with Mrs. Marquez for bringing her here.’ Manoy Poldo pats Ian on the head before leaving.
Ian does not move for a long time. He does not know what to do or say. He was so excited to go to school and buy a new bag. He has even chosen which one he is going to buy, how many pencils and what notebook design to go along with it. The girls try to console him, but he can barely hear them for once.

‘Don’t worry, Yan,’ Ida says. ‘Maybe Manoy Poldo’s wrong.’

‘Yes. He doesn’t know everything. How about we try later this afternoon? We can sneak your goat in at the back and let loose abuelita’s big goat with her,’ Dianne encourages.

‘Yes. We’ll go with you, and here,’ Mayumi adds in, taking off her bracelet and putting it on Ian’s right wrist, ‘I’ll even lend you my corales. Then we’re sure nothing bad’s going to happen to you.’

Ian can only nod. He has to try. He does not have time to be a cautious boy.


They wait inside the whole afternoon. Ian and Mayumi pass on word to Mommy La that they are going to be late because Ida and Dianne want them to stay longer. They are leaving soon, after all. From the living room, they can see Manoy Poldo bringing the goats, cows, and chickens around to the sheds to rest for the evening. When they are sure that he left, they sneak in at the back, retrieving Ian’s goat, which was tied to the fence. She is quite a feeble goat so she easily follows them down to the grazing area. Ian knows the place well enough to make out the part of the fence that can be easily moved to the side. Once they are in, they tie her rope loose and check the sheds. They are looking for the goat with the caramel fur, the one Manoy Poldo says will get bigger money. Once they find him and let him loose, Dianne and Ida quickly take their posts in front to keep watch in case anyone comes along. Ian and Mayumi watch as the two four-legged figures basking in the sunset stare at each other from across the grazing area.

‘Do you know what they’re supposed to do?’ Mayumi asks, keeping her voice low.
Ian shakes his head. He is too intent on the two figures, watching their every movement, taking in each step. He rubs the beads of the corales anxiously as if he is rubbing a magic lamp. His whole body is so tense that he involuntarily shudders once in a while from the incoming gust of evening wind. The only prayer that he can remember at the moment is the one that started with ‘Bless us, Oh Lord, and these thy gifts . . .,’ and he starts muttering this under his breath. He is sure the Lord won’t mind what prayer it is, especially during an emergency such as this.
They wait for ten minutes, twenty minutes, but the closest the goats seem to being with each other is when they smell each other’s furs around, then quickly lose interest, going back to their own separate areas to eat more grass.
Suddenly, a voice breaks the quietness of the place, and he can feel Mayumi jolt by his side. It is the house help calling Ida and Dianne in. Ida whispers from her post, asking if they are done yet. Ian pleads for a few more minutes. He pulls the big mestizo goat towards his goat, desperately bringing them together, but they are insouciant to his efforts. The house help bellows again, and this time, Ida breaks in from the shadows to tell them she and Dianne has to go in.

‘I’m really sorry, Yan,’ she consoles him. Then they are gone. His hand is sore from the rope burns. Ian and Mayumi take the line between them and lead the goat home.


Both Ida and Dianne are gone for good. They have left some of their toys with him, almost apologetically after the last episode with the goat, and these are what he plays with back at home while he is waiting for Mommy La to come home from doing her errands. In the afternoons, he is back to cleaning up after her, taking the leftover cloth from the floor and placing it in the designated box.
He is idly swinging his leg back and forth the sofa now when all of a sudden, Mommy La bursts in, her buys from the marketplace trailing behind her.

‘Get yourself dressed, Yan. We’re going out for the afternoon,’ Mommy La says. She takes water from the refrigerator and sits down on the dining area to rest her feet.

‘But where are we going?’ He is both surprised and confused at the sudden change in Mommy La’s attitude. Just this morning, she was snapping at him to return the toys to the Marquezes in case Mrs. Marquez finds out and accuses them of stealing. Now, there is a twinkle in Mommy La’s eyes.

‘Well, your lola isn’t the third most popular seamstress in Tanjay for nothing!’ Mommy La starts to pace unknowingly. Ian sits back and watches her while she explains.

‘I just met a teacher from the public school, and they’ve been panicking the whole week, trying to find a seamstress to finish all their faculty’s uniforms. You see, both Miling and Luisa have turned them down. They said they were too busy with trying to finish a bunch of high school uniforms and college uniforms and what not, that they simply couldn’t accommodate the teachers in. So they asked me instead.’ Mommy La gulps down some water before continuing. Each time she gulps, it sounds like another heavy object has fallen off a well.

‘I just got back from the public school where they took me so I could get measurements of them. And look,’ Mommy La slaps an envelope in front of the table to show Ian, ‘their first down payment for the work. Fifty sets of uniforms to be finished by the end of the week.’

Ian looks at the envelope and opens it. He sees two blue bills and stares up at Mommy La inquiringly. He is unsure if the amount is a little or a lot.
‘Get dressed, Yan. We’re off to buy your things for school.’

The store is so packed that he has to hold on to Mommy La’s hands really hard so he won’t get pulled away by the crowd. Sometimes he will run off ahead, looking longingly at the many notebook arrangements. He will wait until Mommy La will tell him ‘Get five’ or ‘Choose something else’ before he actually picks up the supply and moves on to another selection. He is tempted to run ahead, but Mommy La is too slow.
They are so beautiful, he thinks, so new that he is sometimes afraid he will ruin them just by touching. He stares at the pencils neatly lined in a row, comfortably finding their place on his box, the paper leaves so crisp, their whiteness glimmers or the new bag he is to take his things in that still has a strong smell of plastic. He touches them one by one, his hopes matching their brightness. In his mind, Ian is already ticking off the things he wants to learn first from school. Numbers above 10, for example, like how many years it will take before he graduates. The complete alphabet, so he can write long letters in the cursive way he always sees Mommy La doing. Or places, like how far Manila really is, and how to find people lost.

(My entry for the IYAS Workshop. I don't know if it's going to get in. But at least it got me writing again.)