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.

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