by Alana Leilani Teves Cabrera-Narciso
Sarge Lacuesta, A Waiting Room Companion, BUGHAW, 2017. 188 pgs.
As I looked at the cover of A Waiting Room Companion—showing a woman reclined in a plush lounger, captured at dusk, appearing exhausted yet oddly pensive—I wondered what she was waiting for or thinking about, and whether the book itself might just be the perfect companion to help her pass the time.
Sarge Lacuesta’s varied collected pieces, interspersed with artful photographs, are arranged in sections that seem to graduate from childhood memories to sophisticated and cosmopolitan experiences, and are weaved together by the strong presence of the I character. For a non-fiction piece to work, the I must often take centre stage, but also be engaging. As Phillip Lopate would succinctly put it: “the reader must find [the I] amusing![i]” The I persona in this collection is one amusing and self-amused character. For example, in “Hurry Up and Wait,” he describes how he entertains himself while waiting for a plane to land:
I am left with nothing to do but think up of mindblowing scenes and schemes—of the pilot suddenly having a seizure and me being conscripted to fly the plane solely on instinct …
A similar tone, can be found in Lacuesta’s complaints about his parent’s travel eccentricities:
To add to that, my mother had prevailed upon [my brothers] to bring various odds and bends from the house she had fitfully abandoned a few months after my father died. They were in large and oddly shaped packages, including, I shit you not, a rusty ironing board that stood almost six feet folded and took both of them to carry [on board the airplane]. (“The Good Night”)
The energy with which the first three sections of the collection are imbued tempers down into a meditative tone in the last section. The I becomes ruminative, engaging in “thoughtful analysis,” writing about his experiences in bathtubs around the world and of writing letters to his son and his beloved wife. The last part of the I’s “Letter to My Son” ends with a loving promise, despite fears of old age and uncertainty:
I don’t know exactly how that really works, but I’ll tell you, for the nth time, for as long as I’m alive, how I think it works.
The I‘s myriad excursions reflect a keen eye that sees everything to be a possible subject of rumination. More so, they signal the presence of a curious mind at work, a mind that in Lopate’s words “struggles to entangle and disentangle itself in a thorny problem, or even a frivolous problem that an interesting mind finds a way to make complex.” [ii] Even in the collection’s profiles, the I does not lose the reader. It incessantly demands that the reader remembers that it is the I that tells the story just as much as focus her attention on the personalities it is profiling, so that both the told and the telling share the spotlight.
Perhaps because of his experience as a fiction writer, Lacuesta has masterfully exercised a certain level of distance from the self, allowing him to assess the I with honesty and courage. Take, for example, his strained relationship with a parent, in which he expresses the all-too-human feelings of exasperation and guilt:
I feel something that I’m sure my parents—as normal human beings—have felt during those times we had a full house: a growing intolerance for the small but piled-up inconveniences, or a slight but persistent displeasure at the unshakeable presence of the people they grew up with. But unlike my parents, I couldn’t be counted upon to suffer in silence. It could have been all she had been asking of me, and I could not afford it. (“Movement”)
The I‘s awareness of the difference between himself and his parents (or of other people), and of his past and present self is a thematic preoccupation of most of the essays in the collection. Nowhere is this most apparent than in the I‘s constant reminder to the reader that he grew up poor but in bourgeois company. Lacuesta’s incessant return to the I of his previous self takes on a sharp focus when we learn who the I has become now. The tables have turned for this boy who now dazzles the reader with his savvy knowledge of cars, of rock and roll, of mass media, of dining with the successful, of his “sartorial rectitude, “of seeing the world and his cool weariness to it all—an attitude which is perhaps more natural to those born with the privilege than to those born poor. And perhaps this is where I find the I‘s assertions a little troubling. The constant repetition of the I‘s earlier poverty raises a serious question about the author’s sincerity and intention. On the first few occasions, the reminder sounds endearing, but over the long run, I began to see it as a kind of self-consciousness, as if the I was starkly aware of the difference between his previous and present selves. I am tempted to say false modesty.
Yet it is also this awareness that makes this collection of childhood memories, of the places and people that carve themselves nooks in the heart, of portraits and thought excursions at once tender and fierce. The critical eye of the narrator scrutinises the self with much gusto and reflects on the superficial and temporary allures it is drawn to, such as the romance of things which are beyond one’s circumstances, from travelling to dining with VIPs:
This was also when I used to find airports … exciting and romantic waypoints by themselves … I suppose nowadays it’s glamorous to be on this side of things: to be jaded about always getting somewhere is the best way to show that you have arrived.
But the applause has died. I’ve begun to notice the other side of airports.” (“Hurry Up and Wait”)
The time will come, it is hoped, and it might be one bright morning, or existential afternoon, or glassy-eyed evening, when you will come to know the privilege of real power, which is to dine as one pleases, without a care for the encumbrances of class and standing and companionship. (“Feeling Bullish”)
Lacuesta’s collection, written in sleek, sophisticated prose, ends with an exhilarating montage of images that simultaneously deny and affirm the I‘s place, of its cosmopolitanism—”This is my beginning. This is my end”—signaling the act of closing, of bringing the reader to the book’s end. The finale comes full circle to the collection’s thematic preoccupations of self-awareness, of disparity and difference and how the I has come to terms with it and how like those selves in the airport—one who is excited at the prospect of travel and another who secretly wishes for something to happen so he can be left behind—both are in the same plane.
[i] Lopate, Phillip. On the Necessity of Turning Oneself into a Character. Available at: http://www.unm.edu/~gmartin/Essays/Writing%20Personal%20Essays%20-%20Turning%20Oneself%20into%20a%20Character.pdf
Alana Leilani Teves Cabrera-Narciso was chair of the Department of English and Literature in Silliman University from 2016-2018. She is married to Giovanni, a civil engineer with whom she has two children, Alessandra and Gamaliel. Currently, she is a PhD student at The Chinese University of Hong Kong.