Fiction / March 2013 (Issue 20)


by Glenn Diaz

My neighbourhood is always teetering between dog-eat-dog desperation and passable pockets of First World. The houses have Frigidaire and helpers, the dogs are named after Hollywood actors (a dachshund named Danny, a tiny poodle named Meryl), but, every now and then, when an aunt gets diagnosed with stage IV metastatic melanoma or a father loses his job at the accounting firm, things can turn ugly, fast, and it's up to the bumbay to save the day, sky-high interest rates be damned.

"So now the poor kids have to quit school while they settle their debts," I say about the Garcias next door. "Too bad. The eldest is really smart. Did you—"

"Vacillating middle-class," Gene says. His head is on my lap. We are on my bed, a twin. "They work all their lives, then pass the same life of middling comfort to their kids."

I wonder if he knows what "vacillating" means. He probably picked it up from one of the countless sit-ins and liked how it sounded: the labiodental fricative /v/, the coronal sibilant /s/ and the succession of /e/ and /I/ that drowns the alveolar plosive /t/. A pretty word.

"What a negative thing to say," I tell him.

He looks at me, feigning irritation over this familiar repartee he enjoys so much. "Yes. Vacillating. You know, being indecisive."

My mother is on the 22nd floor of a beige Hong Kong apartment, scrubbing the floor and raising a set of foul-mouthed Chinese triplets. My father is dying of a disease that enlarges the knuckles, turns them into bruised overripe guavas. He can scarcely flick open a lighter; his thumbs are losing their opposability, a step back in evolution.

In spite of myself, I take the bait.

"We can't judge people, Gene."

And the fish, as they say, is always caught in its mouth.

"I think we have to. We have to judge. We ousted a dictator and put a haciendera in power. So much for progress. "

Gene's grandfather was a famous surgeon who juggled his duties as head of the Cancer Institute with anti-Marcos demonstrations. He had been, a few months earlier, on stage at an anti-US bases rally in Plaza Miranda when a bullet forayed into the tiny distance between his left ear and eye, exiting just below his right cheek. The probe revealed that the gunman used a Vietnam War-era XM21 sniper rifle and fired from the left steeple of the Quiapo Church. He was acquitted: mishandled evidence. Gene was born a few years later.

This information is useless to him. When he sheds off his student leader façade, as he does now, tired of the bluster, he snuggles up and makes himself small. I envelope his long, lean body in a cocoon of arms and torso and neck. When he says something, like "I want to stay here. Right here," my chest feels the vibration before my ears hear the actual words.

We close our eyes, until my father, on the pretence of dinner, knocks on my door with his guava hands. Before heading out, Gene inspects my shelves, runs a hand down the cold, rippling spines. On cue, he spots Žižek and Adorno, scoffs at Glück and Dillard, and fishing a small pink volume from the shelf, asks "Who is Linda Ty-Casper?"

"Martial Law. Satire."

He flips Awaiting Trespass on its backside and squints to read.


In the living room, my older sister, her two-year-old daughter Bea, and their yaya are watching a trouserless mustard bear and a piglet in pink button-downs. This calm is hard-earned, judging from the debris: a blue plastic bottle lodged on a low-lying bookshelf, a yellow rubber duck under a shoe rack, a pile of toys on the floor. I make some instant coffee. Gene and I sit on a rattan chair. He smiles at my sister.

"Have you guys eaten?" she asks, and Gene lies and thanks her.

Bea, my two-year-old niece, wobbles toward me, sets herself in between my knees. She has a ready smile and motions to touch my hot mug, which I pull away. Feeling that it wasn't that hot after all, I let her touch it, and, as soon as her dainty palm touches lukewarm ceramic, she lights up, her face awash with newfound wonder: the nuance of temperature.

"Ee-nee!" she whimpers. Already she is capable of simple vowel sounds and a few consonants, the first ones the tongue learns, the easiest.

The bear is holding the outstretched paw of the baby pig. They walk on a verdant meadow toward a gingerbread house on a far-off corner, a soft xylophone tune accompanying the adventure. Bea's head sways with the beat, before it stops and turns toward the thin wall separating us from the Garcias.

Frenzied shouting, muffled by concrete, erupts like Mount Pinatubo from next door; then plates breaking, a loud thud, the crying of petrified children. I look at my sister. She looks at me. I look at Gene, whose face mirrors Bea's, seemingly on the verge of crying in sympathy with her playmates.


At school the following day, in the big verdant expanse of the Sunken Garden, we perch ourselves on a depressing slope in front of the College of Law. Four presidents finished their law degrees there, including the strongman who was flown out of Malacañang and to Hawaii five years ago. Gene plans to follow suit in a couple of years. In the meantime, he's in the school's film programme.

He hands me a banana cue, saba crusted with caramelised brown sugar that crumbles when you bite into the soft, warm flesh.

It is June, and, after soft rain, the field is brilliant green. All around, there is risk of getting hit with flying Frisbees and soccer balls; the smell of moist foliage, of hydrated soil and undergrowth. Students play cards on beds of Xeroxed readings, and lovers sneak away to cop a feel. To me, this place had always spoken of the largeness of adulthood, of the world, especially for the wide-eyed provinciano whose first brush with Manila included, among others, a communist for a philosophy teacher, a favourite satchel slit in a jeepney in Philcoa and a nagging suspicion that everyone was having the time of their lives except him.

Things, in other words, that make one feel small.

Gene is from Tarlac. When he was ten, he followed a nondescript track behind the town cemetery and, two hours later, was nearly gunned down by one of the roving militia men in the nearby hacienda, whose ambiguous borders he had apparently breached. He was taken to a big house, palatial, announced by a grand staircase that cascaded over three floors. Gene had never seen anything like it.

A granule of sugar precariously clings to a corner of his mouth now. I narrow my eyes at him— "Hold still"—and pluck the guilty morsel, as one would a piece of rogue lint on a freshly dry-cleaned dress shirt. I motion for him to open his already full mouth, then flick it inside.


Mouth now closed, he tries to suppress a guffaw; his cheeks are plump with air, with half-chewed banana mush.

"When I look at Sunken from here," he makes a viewfinder out of bony fingers, "framed by my shoes and your shoes, pointed upwards like this, it's kind of, you know…" he hums, in search of a word, "OK. I'm actually OK with this. The world is OK."

"What's the problem?"

"I think I need to tell you something."

When Gene, in a half-whisper, says he is member of the communist party, my first thought is, "Yes, and?" I've always assumed that the militant organisations on campus were somehow connected to the movement. To me, there is nothing worrisome about this. At least they did their work here, in my city, in the open, away from the crossfire.

And so the moment passed and I merely nodded, acutely aware of the wet grass brushing my ankles, the various clouds in the distance—this one thick and bulbous, that one reed-like. He said it as a matter of fact, with no trace of fear or terror, like the way he told me he had an out-of-town shoot next weekend and asked if I would see him off at the bus station.

It's a school day, so he gets up after a while. There is always a short film to shoot for his classes, locations to inspect, parts to cast, screenplays to check for the future Cannes showstopper. We say goodbye. I give him a peck on the lips.

I begin walking to the Main Library. From the lobby, I descend a flight of stairs to the dank basement where the Filipiniana section is located. A mausoleum stillness welcomes the sound of my sneakers.


My relationship with Gene progressed the way relationships progressed: from the beautiful surface of best feet perpetually forward to deep secrets, moments of light charades. He liked dropping big words that ended with -ism, and I liked calling out his bluff, liked asking him to explain commodity fetishism in light of his need to chain smoke.

From nodding acquaintances in freshman English class, we became strangers whose nods, after casual chitchat on the pretzel-like queue to pay for tuition, turned into tentative smiles. Then five bottles of San Miguel, and a tentative brushing of thighs under the table. The all-male dorm on campus where he was staying was hushed at 3 a.m. One wing smelled of dirty socks; the other, of nail polish.

"Will we regret this tomorrow?" I had asked, above the sound of belts unbuckling and heavy alcohol-laced panting.

"Shut up."

The following day, I was scampering across the Palma Hall lobby, a freshly typed paper in hand, when I heard a faintly familiar voice booming garbled from a megaphone. There he was, fist punching the stolid air, wearing the same shirt and jeans from the previous night, surrounded by red-clad bodies on the floor, ears upturned in attention. I felt something tighten in my pants.


The news says a 13-year-old boy shot his 16-year-old boyfriend at a shopping mall located a couple of hours north of Manila. He then shot himself, his body falling on top of his lover's in a languorous embrace. The two had the kind of whirlwind romance that only young people are capable of, which ended with a vow and a final bullet to the brain.

My father has a choice cuss word for things that at once reviled and saddened him: putang ina, almost whispered. Son of a bitch.

On cue, Gene stands up from the couch and says goodbye. "We'll go ahead na po." My father grunts. "Pa, we're going to Chinatown. Want anything?" My father grunts.

We walk to the main road where we take a jeepney. Everywhere there are still remnants of the ash fall that last week surprised the city—the powdery haze that embraced the buildings and jeepneys of the capital, the sea of iron roofs and crisscross of pockmarked asphalt. We are 55 miles away from the eruption; closer to Mount Pinatubo, the effect is a little more than the inconvenience of unseen dust constantly pressing unto one’s skin. The Americans at Clark and Subic had just been shown the door; too bad, they would have helped with the clean-up, I told Gene, just to spite him.

It was the first time, he predictably retorted, since Magellan landed in Cebu in 1521 that there was no foreign military base in the country.

Gene asks me what I think about the shooting incident.

"Ang lungkot," I say. It is sad.

"That's it?"

"It's also romantic. It's Romeo and Juliet. You and me against the world."

"You think that would have happened if they were rich?"

"Let's see," I tell him. "They'd probably be in an all-boys' school, where they'd form some sort of ambiguous friendship. One night, they'll get drunk and experiment with what it's like to kiss another boy."

Gene throws me a sidelong glance.

"So they just took a shortcut."

In Avenida, we walk to an elevated train station nearby. The concrete structure, held up by giant pillars that quiver at every train’s approach, offers a nice enough shade at 12 noon. After sunset, it casts a depressing pall in this previously open space, where street urchins now congregate and wayward black wires dangle overhead. The city was thankful for the trains: another step closer to leaving its own streets.

"Gene, are you OK?"


"I don't know. Something about you lately."

"Just been thinking about a lot of things."

We put our tokens in the metallic turnstile on the way to the platform. Two security guards patrol the perforated edge.

A woman in her 40s jumped in front of an oncoming train here a few weeks ago. She was wearing a hospital gown and jogging pants. For those on board, the crunch was said to have felt like eggshell breaking under their feet. The passengers, mostly students and office workers, secretly grumbled about the interruption. The word "inconsiderate" floated in the air above the exiting horde.

Chinatown is ushered by a pagoda-style arch, crisscrossed with bored-looking dusty vermilion dragons. We go straight to our favourite spot by the estero, where the food is cheap and authentic. After eating some dim sum, we go to a bakery for dessert. I buy some hopia for my father. Gene asks if I can buy a couple of boxes for him. It's the first time he's asked, so I say of course. Maybe it's for his lola. He says he'll be visiting her at Home for the Aged tomorrow.

We walk for a few minutes and find an empty bench in front of a Chinese drug store. From inside wafts the dependable smell of camphor and incense. We sit down, and I bring out the box of yam-flavoured hopia.

"You need me to bring you anything on Friday?"

"Just come and say goodbye."

"Of course."

He looks at me; a timid smile.

"It will be a long and tiring shoot."

"I'll be there."

A dog saunters by our feet, sniffing and digging its nose toward the hems of our jeans. Gene nips a fingerful of crusty bread and the dog, even before it's offered, snatches it from his hand.

"Dog-eat-dog," he says, before moving to pet the mutt on its head.


I live in an odd part of the city. Five minutes away on foot, the houses are wooden planks and galvanised iron sheets held together by rusty nails and Manila rope, named after this city, where they stand or float, depending on the weather. Ten minutes away, in my father's Gemini, the skyscrapers of Makati begin to loom on the horizon, vague and hazy from the smog, but you know they're there, mighty and gleaming, awaiting you once you graduate.

Usually, these are the only paths. But for the courageous ones like Gene, there is another. It is Friday, and his bus will traverse EDSA, this city's main artery. It will ply the North Diversion Road, make a careful turn toward an oft-ignored exit and go for another two hours before stopping at a concrete shed in a sleepy town in central Pampanga.

Gene will get off and right away see two guys in army green shirts. He will, without exchanging a word, follow them into a thicket of tiger grass as tall as our bungalow. Right behind it, a barely visible path leads to a hill that leads, after a two-hour hike, to the foothills of a mountain. The trees will get taller, go from fruit-bearing to hardwood. Gene will not be able to name any of them, except a wayward camachile, like the one outside the window of his dorm room.

After four hours, a clearing, a camp with a live fire and a string of huts made of bamboo and cogon, draped with red flags. There will be a few familiar faces, though recognition will be slow: a blockmate without the glasses maybe, a former professor with a full beard. At night, the mosquitoes will be impatient, and a million tambourine wings will sound the forest's eternal hymn.

He will find, in the recesses of his bag, under the ill-folded clothes and box of special hopia, a bandanna primed to protect his hair from the sun, tubes of insect repellent, a book about injustice. Tucked in between the pages, a scribbled note:

Take care.


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