Creative Non-fiction / July 2018 (Issue 40: Writing the Philippines)


by Katrina Bonillo

I hadn't been home in a while. To call it "home" seems like a fallacy now; a tradition that I never really outgrew. What it is these days is a pin on a map that even Uber can't locate. I pin it and I pin it, but I'm pointed away from the vicinity anyway: no way we're driving you back there. To step inside the living room, on David Street, on Zabarte Road, in Novaliches, in goddamn Quezon City, is to rediscover certain moments that drove me away in the first place. At first, I considered the two-hour ride (or the three-hour commute) just getting there. But then it became something else altogether: maybe it's the jam-packed trains and buses, the traffic, the narrow roads, Commonwealth Avenue and, recently, the current construction of MRT-7.

And then maybe it's the pollution; the thick bursts of smoke. It's the shit-filled sidewalks, and then the lack of sidewalks. It's the smell of piss in every standing pole. It's the string of garbage across Philcoa, and the cat callers along Tandang Sora and Luzon Avenue. It's the line of modus operandi along Project 6, and then the line of homeless people in Visayas Avenue.

Or it's the random snapshots of people: it's the bleeding pulp that jumped off the overpass to UP Gym. It's the conyo boy in college who asked me which province I came from, when I'd lived my entire life in the same city he had. It's the masked man who embraced me from behind and then kissed me on the cheek—and whom I let because it had been a bad day. It's the teacher in high school who told me that God created only male and female and nothing in between. It's my chain-smoking, weed-sniffing roommate who led her entire block into our studio unit while I was asleep. It's the girl outside SM Fairview past closing hours; one hand held sampaguitas close to my face while another clutched a baby bump. It's Joseph in Conspiracy, licking my neck after sucking on his vape, then pulling me to an alley next to a 7-11, during Ebe Dancel's set.

And then it's the list of universities that rejected me the first time I applied to them. It's the long hours spent juggling three jobs while studying. The embarrassment of passing over a promissory note. It's the scholarship for which I fought, as if my life depended on it. It's lining up at the canteen during lunch for a bananacue. It's the first cut to feel, and the deeper second and then it's the routine. It's the bag full of clothes that I lugged around Katipunan. It's the guard telling me that the campus was closing, and the other guard nudging me awake in a condominium lobby while I pretended to be waiting for my non-existent friend.

It's that one school which, at the end of senior year, awarded me a Loyalty Medal for enduring it for thirteen years. It's the high school batchmates that went to college without really learning proper English grammar. It's the batchmates that created babies right after graduation, and the immediate instinct to turn the other way upon seeing them in malls or jeepney stops.

It's the dread of seeing the subdivision gate looming over me, its facade reminiscent of the Parthenon. It's finding the statue of an angel carrying a water jug on a fountain that had never once spewed out water. Or I suppose it's the irony, the tongue-in-cheek event of naming the subdivision "North Olympus," then placing it on a class D barangay called Kaligayahan. No one I know has felt like a Greek god living there. No one's been joyful for years either.

Clearly, it's the streets dotted with biblical names; the one-storey bungalows, each spanning eighty-eight square metres of floor area on our end. It's the ghosts of summers spent playing a harem of outdoor games with kids our age: Pepsi 7-Up, Bang-Sak, Ice-Ice-Water, patintero, hide and seek, dodgeball (dodge-tsinelas) and various modifications of these games. It's the ghosts of red ants we collected from our garage wall, and for whom we made houses out of empty Stick-O jars that we'd fill with sugar.

It's the way that everyone knew what they knew: how we knew the exact date when Jodel turned seven years old, and when Allen first uttered a bad word. How we knew that Badong and Ton-Ton were gay. How we knew that Lawrence and Cathy had an autistic brother named Dale. How we knew that Andre, at 14, had impregnated a girl in Moses Street. How we knew that Nicole's grandmother disliked her because she was an accident.

It's the lagoon leading up to Moses Street, where my first crush used to live. It's the low watchtower made of stone and which smelled of estero. It's the sporadic appearance below of decomposing bodies of pets that were run over by tricycles. It's the cautionary tales of kids drowning the year before, eaten by crocodiles or dragged down by diwatas in disguise.

It's the vacant house next to Mako's: a small, paintless one-storey house with red floor, sitting on a high pile of debris (my brother said its floor was red from all the blood shed by victims of the manananggal). Or I suppose it's the day that the older kids found a way to open that vacant house. It's the smell of piss and vomit (and eventually, the sight of piss and vomit) that welcomed us inside. It had a backdoor leading to a low cliff, which I now credit for my vivid imaginations of brutal deaths.

It's that time I accidentally dropped my Jigglypuff Happy Meal toy, and we watched it roll over the cliff. It's the fright that waved over us when Reniel jumped down to retrieve it. At nine years old, he was taller and more agile than most kids, and so was able to climb back up quickly. It's the way we screamed, panting and laughing hysterically as we ran out. It's the way my father hit my brother in the garage when he found out. It's finding the vacant house boarded up the next day, as if daring us to pull another stunt.

It's waking up one day to a commotion outside our house. The news that Ate Net-Net, who lived in the house facing ours, had hanged herself. It's watching her being carted off on a gurney, her face and body covered in a white sheet while her feet stuck out. It's finding out how the tabloid pegged her story: Death by Lesbian Heartbreak. It's coming to her wake in Urduja and meeting my first sight of death down the aisle.

It's watching the neighbourhood disintegrate as we grew up, seeing childhood friends turn into fathers at 23. It's Reniel making small talk years later, as he offered me a scooter ride to the subdivision gate, and discovering in the process that I was already in college. It's finding newborn kittens in the garage, only to watch them die hours later. It's falling into the hands of Akyat-Bahay Gangs, who now steal washed laundry and leave their soiled clothes behind. It's my mother going to the Barangay to file an exaggerated complaint, and the Barangay thinking she was full of shit.

It's the family house itself: the bathroom door that doesn't lock; the thin walls that divide our windowless bedrooms; the ceiling that has caved in, allowing big rats and stray cats to enter through the kitchen; the dislodged floor tiles; the countertop mirror, now broken after being thrown across a room; the wall cabinets in my bedroom, now barely hanging on their hinges.

It's also the loan shark parking in front of our house every Sunday, wailing for my mother to pay back the "millions" owed to her. It's my mother sobbing like a child in the kitchen after an ignored text; it's my father coming home in a bad mood and hiding his money beneath the carpet of his car. It's washing the dishes and folding the laundry amidst berating and name-calling. It's the shouting over the dinner table on my mother's 50th birthday, on Christmas and on New Year. It's both my brothers dropping out of college, and my sister enduring a job she resented just for the money. Eventually, it's my brother pulling out a knife in the heat of an argument. And then it's me trying to fall asleep in other people's houses. It's the idea of leaving, which had always, albeit quietly, presented itself. It's the knowledge that there was no other time to do it but immediately.

I went home on New Year's Eve. It has changed but was essentially the same. The previously bare walls of the living room were now lined with graduation pictures, diplomas, certificates and other mementos that once mattered and then did not. My room, which I had locked and left in disarray as I packed in haste months previously, was opened. My mother, with whom I had not exchanged a single dialogue for half of the year, had placed everything back in order.

When the clock struck twelve, I hobbled outside the house and into the street. Fireworks littered the skies. My father marvelled at the loud ones, my sister took photos. The vacant house next to Mako's remained boarded up, while the house in front of ours stayed empty. Mako was celebrating New Year somewhere else, his father said. The sounds of trumpets and happy cries echoed below from Jeremiah. Reniel ran up and down David, calling to childhood friends to come out. I didn't stay long outside to see them. We had the New Year's Eve dinner without looking at or breathing a word to one another.

This is my picture of home. Or at least a semblance of it. It's a semblance nonetheless that links me to it, calling me back whenever such occasions arise. Home then is an encounter with ghosts: a place that impacts on the beings that we are, only to drive us further away. It is a cross that we carry heavily on our shoulders; an inescapable burden. Yet, it is also this connection that allows us precedence over it: while forced to remember it, we are permitted, if not to walk away, to at least subdue it into a fragment of our bigger selves.


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