14 April 2014

Summertime

But I can’t help remembering the first conversation you and I had, the first meaningful conversation. We must have been six years old. What the actual words were I don’t recall, but I know I was unburdening my heart to you, telling you everything about myself, all my hopes and longings. And all the time I was thinking, So this is what it means to be in love! Because — let me confess it — I was in love with you. And ever since that day, being in love with a woman has meant being free to say everything on my heart.

From Summertime by J.M. Coetzee.

12 March 2014

The Room Vibrates With It


In most of the men in a gay bar there is a greater responsiveness than is usual in the world outside, and though most of them make it a piece of strategy to restrain their response, and though the elements composing it are more often subtle than not—a shift of weight, an extra blink of the eyes, an effort not to look at something that naturally draws attention—its presence is palpable; the room vibrates with it. 

A few months ago I read Necessary Errors, Caleb Crain’s wonderful debut novel about a young American in 1990s Prague. It’s breathtaking, unpretentious, and, I think, important. Crain’s work reminds me an awful lot of Henry James’, and his novel is just the kind of novel I’d like to be able to someday write. Since then I have been reading a collection of short stories called The Other Persuasion, a collection edited by Seymour Kleinberg, featuring, among many others, Marcel Proust, William Faulkner, E.M. Forster, Gore Vidal, Gertrude Stein, and D.H. Lawrence. (The Proust and Vidal stand out.) On these two books I’ve been taking more notes than usual—thank you, Evernote! And even though I know it seems that way I don’t make it a point to read gay fiction, only that it’s the kind of thing I find most interesting at the moment.

Why? My friend R has a theory. “Like women, gay men have to pay attention to the world around them in order to avoid harm,” he wrote to me. “This makes their writing better. But heightened attentiveness is all I would allow to characterize ‘gay fiction.’ Who knows what gay writers will do when there is little or no reason to conceal being gay?”

25 February 2014

How Does It Feel, Aurora?


My maternal grandmother—her name is Auring—no, Aurora—turned ninety-eight a few days ago. Ninety-eight! We threw her a party. The date fell on a Sunday. From the barangay chapel she was carried up by carers Lita and Yoly into a family van for the lunchtime celebration in Fairview, on the northeast side of Manila, with the Ascaño clan. The wheelchair was folded and put in the back, her medicines and tissue box and thick brown cotton scarf in a canvas bag; the priest, who had been invited to give the blessing, and whose name I never remember, took the front passenger seat. There wasn’t enough space in the first car, so the rest of us jumped into another van, joined by the apple-mouthed roasted suckling pig from La Loma. 

For the party grandmother looked her most beautiful. She wore her pearl earrings. She chose another, thinner scarf, boldly patterned and more silky, to put around her neck. Then someone (probably Lita) applied makeup on her, which made her cheeks as rosy and pink as ever. She was also made to wear green-tinted glasses, the design of which could be best described as vintage. “Make a wish!” a few guests cried, right before the chant to get her to blow the candles. Like she could still hear! Which of course she couldn’t. Wax was on the cake by the time she realized what it was we were egging her on to do.

Imagine if the number of candles had matched her age. (There were only six.) Grandmother, born in 1916, looked, apart from happy, a bit confused. Which makes sense, in a way. So many descendants! Her children’s wives, husbands, sons, daughters. Yet none of us who surrounded her were around when her life began; how strange she must have felt looking through those Instagram-worthy lenses. She grew up in Tuguegarao, Cagayan, about five hundred kilometers north of Manila. She has fair skin, eyes that you would doubt are of brown, and soft thin hair that in all her photographs never looked just Filipino black. There could be a genetic explanation for this: according to what I’ve been told, Germany’s interest in newly independent Philippines, cut short by the Treaty of Paris in 1898, in the event somehow left a settlement in these islands, a settlement that eventually produced grandmother. I know nothing of the rest of her origins and beginnings; to me they’re colored in sepia. I do know she married a dentist. She loved him very much and they were never apart. They had eight children. She has outlived four. Her husband—my Lolo Opong (Rodolfo)—was tall, dark, and handsome. He was a quiet man who always wore sunglasses—not out of necessity; it was just part of his style. Those Ray-Bans! That cane. Those Camisa de Chinos and grandfatherly slacks. His cigar! He died in the early nineties, a few years after the big earthquake. I could still smell him. How grandmother must miss this man, the love of her life. How does it feel, Aurora? To have to carry on like you do. To go through nearly a century of bearing witness to life’s most hapless certainties: love, loss, death. 

The day before the party grandmother actually told us this was going to be her last birthday. No one could blame her. I’d have given up long ago. She can no longer walk or stand. She is suddenly the old, unvisited widow. She is Emmanuelle Riva in Amour, all rigid legs and wiry bangs and heavy elbows and clattering teaspoons, but without a Jean-Louis Trintignant by her side to sing “Sur le pont d’Avignon”. Not that it would matter: she has, as I’ve said, turned deaf; if she did hear anything it would be the voice of grandfather. Every day is the same: sleep, eat, take pills, wipe nose, brush teeth, pray the rosary, sleep again. Every evening after dinner Lita puts a mask on her face to deliver extra supplies of oxygen. Here’s grandmother holding on to those holy beads while her exhalations come out of the mask in a kind of vaporous dance. It’s sometimes hard to watch. If it weren’t for the fall five or six years ago that knocked her out, fractured her pelvis, and brought on episodes of delirium, she’d probably still be rearranging the furniture, or watering the plants, or decorating the altar. This was the sort of work that made her happy: to configure the world, or at least the house, in ways that marked her authority and independence—in ways that were her own.

Her most recent nurse died last month. (The three previous ones had all left to work in the Middle East.) We couldn’t even break the news, fearing that the shock of it would be unnecessary, would do grandmother no good in her current state. Ed was only twenty-eight. He died on his birthday, in his sleep, on a floor mattress right next to grandmother’s bed. The whole business was as dreadful as it sounds. She had—has—no clue. By the time Lita went to wake the young man early that morning, his lips were already blue. Ed hadn’t even been more than two weeks into the job. When grandmother soon began to ask questions, we said simply that “he’s gone home.” Which wasn’t entirely a lie, and which we supposed, in hindsight, was a version of the truth.

About a week ago at the veranda, after she had been wheeled out and served her coffee and pastries, I went to say hello. “Ed?” she asked. “Is that you?” Her eyes shone, and her words—they sent a chill down my spine. But I didn’t have it in me to correct her. If all the years and tragedies should leave her muddled, if this birthday was indeed going to be her last, if it was her belief that there existed an other side by which Lolo Opong was waiting, let the woman call me by a dead man’s name. Let her see and hear what we don’t. Ler her dreams and imaginings bloom—and bloom spectacularly. What difference does it make?

One of my earliest memories of grandmother was when she used to spend part of every summer in the Manila ancestral house, which we had since lost to a big fire. This was at the young age when I could predictably be bribed with cookies. My mother, who always urged us children to spend time with grandmother, would say, “She has plenty of Chips Ahoy to give away to you all.” So we ran playfully from our apartments at the back of the house to where grandmother stayed: the main “unit,” which was called the Big House, for it covered half of our land’s 240 square meters, with three bedrooms, three bathrooms, built-in closets, a balustraded balcony, and all sorts of Spanish colonial furniture. Outside her window stood a tamarind tree, in sunny days looking somewhat like out of a painting. There was also a mirror at the old-fashioned dressing table in her room that spooked us: it was old and dirty and it warped our faces into faces we didn’t recognize. But we raced up the stairs anyway to take grandmother’s hand and, with it, bless our new-generation foreheads; we eyed the molded glass jar in which she had kept the cookies, and we stuck our five-, six-, seven-year-old hands into the bottom where bits and chips of sweet, chocolatey bribery had crumbled; then we climbed grandmother’s warm bed and jumped up and down, the lace curtain swaying to the slow, lazy orchestra of summer afternoons.

Dearest Aurora, I’m not your nurse Ed. Ed is dead. His body is buried in the province. My name is Miguel, your youngest daughter’s second son. I used to eat all the Chips Ahoy. No, I still have not married. I don’t have kids. But I think I have found someone whom I’d like you to hang around long enough to meet. A man, grandmother; a man. He’s Welsh and all kinds of lovely. Please don’t think this strange. I understand that so much has changed about the world since you were born, and if, through your lenses, you now find it hardly recognizable, if you feel like your place in it is not quite what it once was, I hope anyway that the twilight of your life brings some form of clarity: your blood still runs through my veins. The love that flows out of my chest is the same that, for grandfather, flowed out of yours. So to you I raise a toast and say—please allow me to wax Virgilian here—your descendants shall gather your fruits, of which you can rest assured there is a sweet abundance. Thank you, grandmother, and happy birthday. 

Funny. In the middle of the party, she decided to take a siesta; the journey, then the socializing, had tired her out. “Where did she go?” guests asked, over cupcakes and tequila. “Has she gone home?” Lita and Yoly took turns answering: no, Aurora just needs to rest a little, but she’ll come right back out.

15 February 2014

Erwin the Bartender


Note: This piece was originally published in Positively Filipino, an online magazine celebrating the story of the global Filipino. The magazine title is taken from an infamous sign posted on the front door of a Stockton, California hotel in the 1930s. The sign read, “Positively No Filipinos Allowed.” My fellow contributors are a lovely bunch; I encourage you to visit the site and read their pieces.

The bartender’s name was Erwin. The first drink he made me was a kangaroo: vodka, dry vermouth, olives. This was by ‘special request’; kangaroos were not on the laminated bar menu, which, I later learned, Erwin himself had created, featuring mostly shooters and fancy cocktails. Originally I had asked for a mojito, but he explained that they’d run out of mint leaves. I wondered if it was just the kitchen that ran out—the kitchen at Sunz En Coron, a quiet Korean-owned resort on Mabintangen Road, ten clunky minutes by tricycle from the port, with nipa huts and a small poolside bar, heretofore unmanned, at which I was now sitting—or if it was difficult in general to obtain fresh mint in this town.

Only twenty-two, Erwin learned the art of mixology in Metro Manila; he used to rent an apartment in Pasay. Like many others who were born and raised in provincial towns, he had left Coron to find a job in the city. He did not attend bartending school, but developed his palate by observation and instinct while working at Café Ilang-Ilang in the Manila Hotel. It was through an agency that he’d gotten the job, for which he was paid a fixed salary of 400-plus pesos. Being very ignorant, I thought he meant 400-plus pesos per hour, which wouldn’t actually be that bad a rate in the Philippines, but of course Erwin meant 400-plus pesos per day. When I asked why he never transferred to the Manila Hotel’s Tap Room Bar, where he could more properly flourish, he said, like I’ve heard many others say in response to questions of a similar nature, that it was not about what you did, it was about who you knew.

For reasons he did not reveal to me, Erwin returned three years ago to his hometown, of which he seemed very proud. He said you could accidentally leave your wallet or iPhone anywhere in Coron, Palawan and no one would touch it; the locals were honest and they did not play games with tourists.

This was probably true. Or at least it seemed less silly than if Erwin were to say the same about Manila. Earlier in the day during a tour of the islands, the boatmen miraculously stretched our group’s marketing budget (seven people in total) to present a king-sized lunch (with lobsters) at the white-sand beach in Malcapuya Island. Later on in Coron Town a tricycle driver ducked to avoid getting in the way of a potential Facebook profile photo, while a souvenir vendor smilingly offered discounts before I even attempted to haggle. The one beggar that I saw sang for change. On the way back to the resort my friend Roy—he lives in Singapore—said he got the sense that here people behaved differently; it was like they had been reset to default, unclouded by the usual doubts and despairs fostered by city living.

I guess we city dwellers were trying to reset ourselves to default, too. Later in the evening when the rest of my friends joined me at the bar, we each ordered Erwin’s signature shooter, the Sunz Special: a dainty, deceptive drink layered with Kahlúa, Baileys, Blue Curaçao, and Bacardi 151, set ablaze in a cocktail glass and served with a straw. It’s a less theatrical take on the Flaming Lamborghini—minus the complicated tower of glasses, snifters, and other props. The Sunz Special tasted like a hot summer evening. It was meant to be consumed in one go, after which it drew a line through your throat and held your sobriety in an hourglass. Its effect on our group came on slowly but steadily, making us rowdy but good-natured. We expressed admiration for good ol’ Erwin’s wonderful talents. We asked to have our photos taken with him. We vowed to learn a few recipes ourselves.

Yes, the idea of a twenty-two-year-old bartender suddenly became less absurd, although it must be said that Erwin actually played multiple roles at the resort. In the early hours of his shift, when guests weren’t expected to be ordering drinks, he served breakfast, assisted in the kitchen, answered phone calls, coordinated with service drivers, and took the owner’s five little Chihuahuas out for a walk. But mixing was clearly what he did best. Mixing was what NoName—a downtown pub, also frequented by tourists—had tried to recruit him for. (Erwin had passed up the chance because he felt happier working at Sunz En Coron.) Also: the bar menu was the result of his own constant experimentation, which is probably a good thing for bar menus to be a result of, because it would mean that the bartender was testing and tasting, testing and tasting until he got it right; it would mean he had initiative and, I assumed, enough freedom to take it. But was Erwin even aware of the surge in international demand for people with his skills? The classifieds always advertised openings. He could work in a hotel, he could work in a ship, he could work wherever adults outside the Philippines were thirsty. Just check the papers. Did he not want to go overseas?

Of course he did—wherever ‘overseas’ might be. It would be a welcome opportunity. I urged him to experiment with new recipes and proudly recited to him a list of cocktails I’d tried during my brief time in South America—pisco sours, terremotos, chichas, caipirinhas, caipiroskas, fernet colas—along with the disclaimer that, really, I knew nothing about how these were made, only that I enjoyed drinking them. I told him about an uncle who had spent most of his adult life in cruise ship galleys—about how he’d seen so much of the world, between serving gourmet meals and surveying provisions. Here was the thing, though: Erwin hadn’t had formal training. He still needed to finish the courses, he needed to get certified. It was possible he could skip all that but, as he said, he didn’t really know anyone.

And it wasn’t like he didn’t already have his hands full here. He was working the bar and the restaurant, which closed at ten. Sometime after dinner a young couple from Switzerland came and sat at the bar. Erwin made them some vodka cocktail while also demonstrating his ability to hold a conversation in English with foreigners. Julian, it turned out, was an IT teacher and programmer in Lucerne; his girlfriend Claire worked as a waitress. They were in Coron for the diving: in particular, they were looking forward to seeing the famous Japanese war wrecks. Wasn’t this place just incredible? Julian and Claire were gushing, they had tans, they might have already been slightly drunk—on adventure or alcohol or both. It was their first time in the Philippines; usually the south of France was where they went diving—in the Bay of St. Tropez or in Hyères. Julian hastened to add that they couldn’t really go for dives as often as they’d like: taxes were outrageous in Switzerland and rent was not cheap, either. While the two continued to describe what Europe was like (and how expensive it was), Erwin stood quietly behind the bar counter, listening happily to these stories of elsewhere. Perhaps he didn’t need a cruise ship, after all. Perhaps he didn’t feel the urgency of going abroad as keenly as I imagined; perhaps he’d only be glad to have the option. In “Sweet Life,” singer Frank Ocean muses, “Why see the world when you’ve got the beach?” In Coron—its precious island beaches, its limestone cliffs, its freshwater lakes even more beautiful than I hoped for—the world, in a way, comes to see you. And in his role as bartender, Erwin is an unexpected custodian of strangers’ secrets and revelations; to him others articulate assorted visions of a world, as seen through glassware. To be transported, all he needs to do is pour.

And pour he did. Eventually I settled on G&Ts, a couple of friends opened a bottle of Merlot, and Julian and Claire after a few rounds of their mixed vodka wisely avoided the Sunz Special, which, according to Erwin, not a lot of people—not even foreigners—could handle. Switzerland, Germany, Austria, Australia, France, the UK: it didn’t matter where you were from or how bulletproof you were, one Sunz Special did you in. Apparently, having two was being plain greedy and set one up for early retirement to bed (as a consequence). We were quickly assured, however, that the effects of the shooter did not carry over to the next day. No headaches, no hangovers, Erwin promised, before he called it a night, closed the bar, and headed home. 

27 January 2014

Real


D is now twenty-six. He was nineteen when he first met M, the Frenchman who was staying in the tropical-hut-style room next to ours. They met here, in Puerto Galera, Oriental Mindoro. M actually lives in Tahiti, if I remember correctly—or could it be Guiana?—but he regularly goes on holidays to the Philippines: I think two to three weeks at a time, a couple or even three times a year, ever since I don’t know when; certainly since his first time.

D is a boatman. He has an outrigger canoe, the native sort that runs on gasoline, and it looks new and is painted green and doesn’t yet have a name. It’s smaller than a small dive boat but big enough to fit maybe eight to ten people. It was M who told RB and me about D’s services. He said he had a local friend, a ‘good friend’ (this would be D) whose boat we could rent, in case we wanted to go island-hopping or whatever, for a better price than that of persistent sun-bronzed hawkers on White Beach. 

RB did decide to rent it. He chose a perfect day. The sun was out, the sky was clear, there was no hint of rain. With D at the helm we found an empty beach not far from the coral garden (a famous snorkeling spot) and there under the palm trees we grilled milkfish and potatoes for lunch, plus some bottles of San Miguel and Red Horse. After lunch we took a siesta then moved to another beach island before the sun set. 

Later RB and I would learn that M himself had financed the boat. It was a kind gesture, an act of love. He wanted D to be able to make a living. In Puerto Galera you make a living by catching fish, driving a tricycle, running a karaoke bar, selling market goods, or having a boat. I don’t know when M bought the gift—paid to have it built—but obviously it wasn’t on this particular trip; it must have been before D began to claim he was straight and had a girlfriend. This was when D still stayed the night with M at the lodging house, when the lines defining their relationship weren’t yet so strictly, starkly drawn. In any event it’s hard to judge. It isn’t love that blurs one’s view, but the desire for its effects—and the desire is natural, albeit complicated. Besides, aren’t our own ways wrought too with dilemmas and various entanglements? And to be fair, whenever I ran into D at the open kitchen area he would usually be cooking dinner for M: adobo, with potatoes and green chili, the latter a substitute for missing bay leaves. 

What position do you play, I asked one evening. D is about five-nine, five-ten; he has an Asian moustache and a baseball cap he always wears backwards. I assumed that like me he ran point or played shooting guard, but he said he played center.

At the time there was, you see, a basketball tournament going on in Minolo where D lives, a coastal settlement a few kilometers east of White Beach or for me a ten-minute motorbike ride, towards but well before touristy Sabang. The games were played outdoors, near the small, charmingly undeveloped port where D moors his boat. If you photograph the place it will look like a rural painting. Anyway, I watched one of the games with RB. It was sundown; you could smell the smell of the sea. We bought beers from a sari-sari store and sat on a rough log on the side of the court, among boatmen and fisherfolk. The coaches were rowdy and only half-serious, trading crunchy jokes with bystanders as much as they were discussing strategy. Because the playing floor was made not of hardwood or asphalt but of earth, a committee member or sometimes the referee poured buckets of water on the sand during timeouts—for traction, I suppose. Still when players ran the length of the court or bounced the ball or jumped to contest a layup they left puffs of dust that gave the action a kind of hazy, dream-like quality. It almost didn’t seem real. 

L, an Australian and friend of both M and D, also loves basketball. Why not? The three were talking one afternoon in M’s room and because the walls of the huts were made of bamboo rods it was impossible for me not to overhear. Apparently L was not allowed to play. The tournament in Minolo was only for Filipinos. All L could be was a sponsor, which meant paying for the fee D’s team needed to register: 3,500 pesos. He agreed to split this with M, while also with incredible enthusiasm motivating D to do his best impersonation of LeBron James come game time. The team was called Minolo Heat, after all.

We all met at a local bar on White Beach the night before M was due to fly back home: M, nursing a cold, in a red windbreaker; D in a basketball jersey and his trademark cap; RB in navy blue (a mysterious ‘Div 26’ on his shirt), and slightly pink from our swim earlier; and L, much older (early or mid-sixties) than I had imagined the owner of the thickly accented voice to be. He was with his boyfriend G, who is Filipino-Chinese. We had a few drinks and picked songs from the orange karaoke book. L was the first to go home, and M left just before RB and I did. The next day M’s room was occupied by a noisy group of Japanese tourists whose days in Puerto Galera, I soon found, would be spent doing nothing but playing mahjong; RB and I overslept and we didn’t get the chance to say goodbye to the Frenchman.

There is a beach in an area of Puerto Galera called Small Tabinay, which is southeast of Sabang, and this beach features a short, unremarkable stretch of sand that ends near a rocky seaside cliff. On this cliff there is a house, a white two-storey beach house that looks bright and durable and quiet, and I can’t stop thinking about how much I would like to live in it one day. There I’ll read my books and do some writing, there I’ll grow old and look back at the times that, when they happened, seemed absurd, illusory, or too fantastic, but which in hindsight were as real as anything could ever be. 

02 January 2014

Twenty-Nine


At some point a monkey appeared. His name was Johnny. He was shockingly small, less than a foot tall, his head probably half the size of my fist. The hawker was selling him for 3,500 pesos. At first—and this is because I don’t remember the last time I saw a monkey in person (probably when I was five or six)—Johnny’s movements made me nervous, despite his being on a leash, but after a while I decided he was simply adorable. He refused, however, to eat the piece of birthday cake that I offered (caramel mocha); he only stared at it doubtfully before retreating to the corner of the sandy steps that led up to the beachfront bar.

The beachfront bar: I cannot think of a lovelier place to be thrown a surprise birthday party, which happened to be my first. And I cannot think of lovelier people doing the throwing; it was such that if I never have another, I’ll always have this to remember and keep close to my heart. It all took place in Puerto Galera, in a province south of Manila called Oriental Mindoro, where I’d been living for about a month. An hour before Johnny stole the scene—sometime between wine o’clock and dinner—S, the owner of the bar, which is called Rioo, came out from behind the counter and walked up to me with the cake. Then the staff, buoyed by shots of rum-based Mindoro Sling, began to sing. I got very confused. My face must have looked so dumb. Up until then, you see, I had, in a way, gotten over birthdays, and by ‘gotten over’ I mean I had ceased to worry or think about how I would celebrate mine, other than alcoholically. Let no other plans be made! Call it the Don Draper approach, which certain disenchanted twenty-somethings too scared to fully, loudly love are poised to adopt.

But not on this night. There were balloons, confetti, dancing, karaoke, all the rest of it; even a cake fight, out of which, among its participants, I had the maddest, most childish fun, never mind my turning one year closer to thirty. (Icing eventually clogged the bathroom sink.) Also, people I’d randomly met since coming to Mindoro turned up to raise their glasses: a holidaying couple from Brighton, a family of internal migrants from a southern provincial city called Dipolog, a group of English tourists from Shanghai, an Australian-Filipino gay couple who had moved to Puerto Galera from Boracay (another beach island), plus a young Danish chef whose tattooed appearance I had foolishly been quick to judge. It was, in fact, F who did all the cooking, and fabulously: beef and pork medallions in red wine sauce, followed by chocolate orange parfait and proper Irish coffee. Dinner was served on a candlelit table on the beach, to the sound of waves and with a view of the full moon and stars.

If everyone else was a conspirator, the mastermind was RB, a Welsh gentleman whom I originally met several weeks earlier at the Telephone Pub in Bangkok, and who hasn’t since been able to get rid of me with the same ease as he has my disenchantments. Little did he know that, on that first night, well before he came up to me to say, “Hello there, how are you?”—pretending to need a drink from the bar, and order it necessarily right by where I was seated, despite the glass in his hand—little did he know that I saw him first: the second he walked through the door, all blue-eyed and suntanned and dimpled. His entrance almost caused me to spill my Chang; his approach made my heart somersault. An hour later, we were shopping at the night market in Silom.

If he knew little, I knew even less. Twenty-nine years and the world finds a way to reset me to default. I cannot say I saw it coming. About the surprise RB had given nothing away, and I didn’t at all suspect anything when, earlier in the day of the party, on the motorbike ride home from town, he insisted on getting to Rioo before eight: “Seven-fifty, at the latest.” “Wouldn’t that be too early?” I said, even though I wasn’t particularly concerned about what time we went. A bottle of Carménère at the lodging house made us half an hour late, but there remained plenty of time still for one of the great nights of my life. 

And as it happened I ran out of words. “You’re crazy,” I whispered to RB at one point, after he lifted me from the dance floor, and before my feet landed on sand. 

At around three in the morning we went for a walk along the beach, past the row of restaurants, bars, and hotels, towards a fallen log by the quiet northern end that had become our sort of Shirley Valentine spot: a place for drinking wine and chasing dreams. The waves at this time were rough, as rough as they had ever been, and the water horribly cold. We went in anyway. Though literally jolted sober, I remained intoxicated by the thought of what lay ahead, and by the sweet reminder that, no matter how hard I had tried to forget, no matter how hard I had tried not to celebrate, each day of my life had been blessed with love, and none more so than the days that led up to my turning twenty-nine.

We got out of the water and headed back to the bar before the sun rose. Remembering Johnny, RB joked about how I would like a monkey for a present. “No, not really,” I said. As if one could ask for anything more.

31 October 2013

Made for Believing


No one will believe this story, but I once saw the hand of a monster. I’m being serious! This was many years ago, when I was about eight or nine. My older brother and I then shared a bedroom at the back of the ancestral house in Quezon City, and our view from the jalousie windows was of the neighboring house’s backyard, which seemed always shadowed by tall old trees. Because I was so fearful of supernatural things, and because I was, and have always been, the sort of person whose imagination runs wild, the decision had been made to tilt the windows shut every night, and lock the bedroom door, and let my brother, who was eleven or twelve, get to keep by his bedside the blue child-sized teddy bear with a massive hole on its cottony groin. 

It couldn’t have been a prank because the incident happened in the middle of the night, definitely sometime past twelve or even one. Everyone who lived in our house was asleep. In fact, I, too, had been sleeping until the creaking sound of the door—yes, the locked one—woke me. I knew it was a monster because its hands didn’t look human; they were colored black, a sort of gangrenous black, and had claws. And they were slowly pushing the door open. I remember glancing at my brother, who in those hot summer nights slept shirtless, to see if he was seeing what I was seeing, and when I realized that he wasn’t, that he was sleeping through the horror, I quickly but quietly crawled up to his bed and began to pinch his exposed belly as hard as I could. But he wouldn’t wake up. So I screamed at the top of my lungs—screamed like a wittle girl—and the next thing I knew the lights had been turned on and both my parents were at the door. The monster had disappeared. I was allowed to sleep in mother and father’s bedroom for the rest of the night, but to this day I have not forgotten, and continue to be spooked by, the image in my head of those hands.

Of the other things and creatures which various members of the household have, at one time or another, claimed to seeing—say, the lady in white or the headless man in Barong Tagalog, both of whom have a penchant for hanging around in hallways, and for causing disturbances to one of my cousins, who’s a busy mathematics professor—I cannot say I know anything. I’ve learned to be less afraid of what I don’t see, because after all our eyes are made for believing.

23 October 2013

Describe Away


I have forgotten every New Year’s Eve but two, I have forgotten what my dead brother looked like at the age of nine or ten or twelve, but I will never forget the three little facts the nice people in Brighton told me about the body that they pulled from the sea.  
The first is that Liam was wearing a short fluorescent yellow jacket when he died, like the ones railway workers and cyclists wear.  
The second is that he had stones in his pockets. 
The third is that he had no underpants on under his jeans, and no socks in his leather shoes. 
The tides in Brighton are fast and they range far. He wore the jacket so he would be seen going into the water, and his body would be easily found. Liam, who could not organise a box of matches, was, on this occasion, fully organised.  
The stones explain themselves. 
It is the lack of underpants that makes me cry. Liam was never together, but he was always clean, and though he lived in various pits, they always had running water, he always knew where the nearest launderette might be found. He used an old-fashioned pink soap, with an industrial smell—I have no idea what it was called. I remember standing in the supermarket sniffing all the bars through the paper, ending up with some odourless stuff which he would not use. He put Coal Tar shampoo on his hair, and Listerine on his gums. He sprinkled anti-fungal powder everywhere and made demands for wet wipes beside the toilet. He flossed. His anti-perspirant would strip paint. 
Liam took his underpants off because they were not clean. He took his socks off because they were not clean. He probably thought, as the cold water flooded his shoes, cleansing thoughts.  
I know, as I write about these three things: the jacket, the stones, and my brother’s nakedness underneath his clothes, that they require me to deal in facts. It is time to put an end to the shifting stories and the waking dreams. It is time to call an end to romance and just say what happened in Ada’s house, the year that I was eight and Liam was barely nine.  

The Gathering is a wonderful novel. But it’s not my kind of wonderful novel—at least not right now. I mean to say that timing likely has a lot to do with taste. As literary agent Jonny Geller says, “You read some books at the wrong time in your life. It’s not their fault.”

It’s the wrong time in my life, so it’s not Anne Enright’s fault. I happened to start reading The Gathering just after I bought a copy of Necessary Errors, Caleb Crain’s debut novel. Naturally, I wanted to immediately read the Crain (have you read James Wood’s glowing review in the New Yorker?), and to not get involved in anything that would distract me from it. But I’d already begun the Enright, and I didn’t want to not finish it. Meanwhile, the new Donna Tartt came out, and Alice Munro won the Nobel Prize, and Eleanor Catton, for her The Luminaries, won the Booker, an award that Enright herself took in 2007 for The Gathering. So there were three female authors I suddenly became more interested in reading than I was in reading Enright. It’s kind of embarrassing to admit, but I probably didn’t give The Gathering the attention it deserves.

The wrong time: my father also got sick. The Gathering, which really is a story about the horrors and wonders of love (among members of a big Irish family, the Hegartys)—or, in A.L. Kennedy’s own words, of “love’s stupidity—an outpouring of energy towards people who are always destined to disappoint, to be disappointed and, above all, who are compelled to leave us in the most devastating way, by dying”—The Gathering became a book that I couldn’t bear to read in the hospital, no matter how lyrically the story is told. Which isn’t to say that I didn’t decide to labor over it anyway. (The word ‘labor’ is unfair; if there’s one thing I can learn from Enright and Munro, it’s the amazing carefulness with which they choose their words—a carefulness that makes the former’s voice as Irish as the latter’s is Canadian.) I’ll probably read it again, but not anytime soon—maybe when I reach a time or the age when I have much more patience. 

In any event, I won’t attempt a critique now. And I definitely won’t share some people’s opinion that Enright’s descriptions of the narrator’s husband’s flaccid penis were unnecessary—this is a genital novel, full of dark, sad entanglements of bodies, bones, skin, and sex. Describe away! 

24 September 2013

Purple Shirt


Purple shirt. White chinos. Black sandals. Blue eyes. You’re sitting with a young Filipino man whose head is constantly turned, or turning, away. As if to hide his tears. Because there are tears. This is at Barcino in Makati. There’s Random Customer Number XX, up on stage, singing Stevie Wonder with the live band. He’s pretty good, right? Sings like a freaking pro. A funky “I Just Called to Say I Love You”—Latin vibe, Latin heat, Latin volume. But it’s still impossible not to overhear, what with these old-fashioned barrel tables set so close to each other. And all it takes is a few words, a few words that make it impossible to resist guessing the story. “Jealous.” “Married.” “Flirt.” “Open.” “Relationship.” “Okay.” “Stop.” Doesn’t take a rocket scientist. Know it too well. So tricky, I’m thinking to myself, these conversations are so, so tricky. I still believe it’s not for everyone. So good luck! To the both of you. It’s an earnest wish. Or maybe the story isn’t what it seems, I don’t know. Then, all of a sudden, you turn to me—me?—and ask if you could nick a cigarette. I’m like, sure. Whatever. Feigning disinterest, despite the quickening heart rate. But I check the pack and it’s empty. Oh, never mind. Hey, no, I’m actually going to buy another pack anyway, it’s a very bad habit but I’m not trying to quit. Yet. Ha, ha! You’re like, okay. Waiting. Smiling. Drinking that red wine. Showing off those blue eyes. And your man—he still has his head looking the other way, there are still tears to hide by turning, tears to dry by wiping. I ask the barman for Marlboro Lights and as soon as he returns with a new pack I tear it open and offer a stick. Here you go. Then of course you also need my lighter. Then the ashtray. Inside I feel so awkward. But you agree: it is a bad habit. It’s just so hard not to when you’re drinking, you know what I mean? Always one vice after another. I nod my head, I know what you mean. Finally you get back to your man and resume the conversation. “Jealous.” “Married.” “Flirt.” “Open.” “Relationship.” “Okay.” “Stop.” Again: so tricky. But who am I to jump to conclusions? Who am I to judge? Sorry. Wouldn’t be so lonely if I really knew better. If anyone has figured anything out, it isn’t me. Later when you get up from the table to leave, you ask if I wouldn’t mind giving you another. No, not at all! So: another stick. Your man does not speak. He’s busy pushing the chairs back. Here you go. One for the road. This time I light it. What the hell am I doing? The playful Cabernet Sauvignon versions of ourselves. Of the two of us, at least. Where are you from? London. I’ve come here for vacation, I’ll stay for half of the year. Ah, an Englishman. A summer chaser. (I’m thinking, at least you didn’t say, nick a fag—or worse, bum a fag.) And me? I’m from here. A writer, really? Yes, right now I’m doing mostly business stuff for local firms, you know—to pay the bills. The old boilerplate response. You ask, is he your partner? Meaning F. F! Who has been with me all this time. Who has gone to pee. I’m like, no no no no no, the guy who went to the bathroom is my brother. Oh, I see, for a while I thought.... Then a laugh. I kind of laugh, too. But not exaggeratedly. Because your man can’t waiiiiit to leave. So you do go. Cheers. A handshake. Then again that smile. Have a good evening! Yes, you too, and thanks very much. Purple shirt white chinos black sandals blue eyes, walking away into the night.

20 September 2013

Summer Vitality

I used Grammarly to grammar check this post, because tinkering obsessively with commas, modifiers, etc. gives me an uncontrollable urge to pull my hair, and hair-pulling is not healthy.


Everywhere there was the smell of vitality in clothes, the vital something in wool and flannel and corduroy which spring releases. I had forgotten that this existed, this smell which instead of the first robin, or the first bud or leaf, means to me that spring has come.

Reading A Separate Peace by John Knowles made me nostalgic. This, among other things, is probably what the book is supposed to do: make the reader revisit his own scenes of childhood. Mine were set not in spring but in summer (in the Philippines we don’t actually have spring): days I’d spent mostly with my cousin E. Together we were a version of Gene and Finny. A more happily irresponsible version, that is: we didn’t study French industriously or talk about world wars. Our activities were a lot less grand, a lot less sophisticated. We drew comics on construction paper, discussed neighborhood crushes and alliances, picked on our nannies and made them nervous. And instead of in clothes the smell of vitality that summer releases was smelled rather in trees, in its leaves, in the way these leaves fell to the asphalt concrete ground, which had a hot, sweaty, vital smell of its own, as if it meant to slowly bake skin. There was one tree in particular—a tamarind tree—that stood in front of the Spanish-looking house where E and I both lived. In lazy summer afternoons we would climb it and pick the tamarinds that were ripe for eating. You knew which ones they were by feeling up the brown shells, which, if the fruit was ripened, would feel like peanut shells—brittle, hollow, pregnant with mystery; then you cracked the thing open and licked the fleshy pulp. With even the most cautious of bites, it burst always with explosive sweet-and-sour goodness. This taste which instead of the end of the last day of school, or the fiestas, meant to me that summer had come.

13 September 2013

Not Mine


One of my good friends—let’s call him G—is dead. If he were still alive I’m sure he would dispute my use of the word ‘friend.’ No, I’m not being daft. He died two years ago; it will be exactly two years in a week’s time. I only found out about it now. By Googling. An obit came up as one of the search results. There was no mistaking it was him. You can imagine my shock. Some friend.

As a matter of fact, G and I used to talk all the time. I’d known him since 2006. Or it could be 2005. He was one of the first people to give me advice about coming out. When eventually I did, he made sure to remind me to always be careful, to always do rational things, and to always set standards for myself. This was in the early days. The last form of communication I ever received from him was an E-mail in 2009. He already had severe health problems back then; he was already very sick. Anyway, he was asking what I’d been up to, and how come he no longer heard from me as often as he used to. I wrote back, likely hurriedly, to say only that I would write more, soon, that I was just in the middle of something at that moment. But I never did write more, except for the offline message I would leave him once a year on Yahoo! freaking Messenger. Later when he joined Facebook I thought I’d leave messages there. But I didn’t.

Foolishly I thought that at some point in the future, when life took a break and stopped happening, I’d get to see and speak to G again. But his death—or, to be more accurate, my discovery of it—has shocked me into realizing that I’d taken him for granted. My sense of loss is even odder than it is profound, because it came late and it’s tinged with guilt. What the hell happened? Where is he buried? Can I contact the family? Now I can’t even call. At the same time I can’t bring myself to delete his number on my phone book; I can’t remove his username as a contact on YM; I can’t ‘unfriend’ him on Facebook—as though in my mind G might go on existing as a set of digits or an E-mail address or a profile page, as though these were proof of life, and a proper tribute, as I believed it, could wait. It couldn’t, after all. Life took a break and stopped all right. But it wasn’t mine.

13 August 2013

Ruel and Crew


I don’t know the names of the other two on the boat, but our captain was named Ruel. He is known around Coron Town for his basketball-playing ability. According to the youngest crewman—one of the two whose names I didn’t remember to ask—Ruel almost made one of the college teams that played in Manila, in front of a national TV audience; Polytechnic University of the Philippines (PUP), I think it was: neither an NCAA nor UAAP school. This was before my time, this was before the year I played for Ateneo’s reserve team (or, to be more precise, didn’t play), this was around the time a fabulous and therefore heavily recruited point guard named Bonbon Custodio chose to transfer from PUP to play for University of the East. Anyway, for some reason and despite the extra slot Ruel didn’t make it, he became a boatman instead of a player, which the crewman thought was a shame. The old me would think the same, too, but now I’m not so sure that playing basketball is much better than messing about in boats and touring strangers across the islands of Coron.

On our third day, we set out for Malcapuya Island, an hour’s ride from town. Five minutes after leaving the port, we ran into trouble—something to do with the engine. While the boat, an outrigger canoe, the native sort that runs on gasoline, with its engine turned off drifted in open water, Ruel out of frustration kept jerking his head; it was in the same heavy-hearted, tsk-tsking manner of a point guard after committing a crucial turnover. I wondered how much the problem would cost, how much money he would lose if we had to transfer, how concerned his family would be—because I knew Ruel had a young boy. He had tagged along with his father the previous night, when Ruel came by motorbike to meet us at the intersection of Rosario Street and Coron-Busuanga to discuss the plans (and lunch menu) for Malcapuya the next day. I’m guessing the kid is around seven or eight. He looks just like Ruel.

The engine was okay in the end, we didn’t end up transferring. As soon as the other crewman—the oldest in the crew, a quiet, moustached middle-aged man—presumably also married with children, although you couldn’t really get a story out of him if you tried; he did wear a wedding band, and most married Filipino men his age are fathers—who was usually in charge of dropping the anchor for hooking into the seabed, as well as of breaking it out of the bottom and hauling it up to be stowed whenever we were about to set sail for the next island—as soon as this man phoned for help, Ruel, after some creative troubleshooting, cried out and said the problem had in fact been solved, we would be able to make it to Malcapuya in his boat after all. The look of relief on his face was priceless. I was relieved, too; I’m convinced that at sea you care more readily for the people to whom you entrust your life, or at least the rest of the day; you want them to be blessed, not broken by bad luck; at best, you want luck or chance to not be part of the equation at all, although of course it can’t be helped that the wind and waves will make any voyage inevitably unpredictable. In general, though, I believe Ruel was pretty good at the helm, controlling the pace as best as he could, steering—and steering calmly—to correct whenever the rough, choppy sea whipped frothy water into the boat or caused its bow or outriggers to lift. 

However, he was a lot less talkative than on our first day, when he guided us through Coron’s Twin Lagoon, offered plastic cups as ashtrays, and cheerfully recited a list of island beaches where tourists often camped out: Coron Youth Club, Beach 91, Malaroyroy, and so on. Perhaps the morning’s engine trouble implied costs he hadn’t taken into account; perhaps it was something else on his mind.

He was also noticeably harder on the younger crewman, who—bless him—was not always sure which way to steer the bamboo tiller rod, and whom I felt a bit sorry for, because it was obvious he was new to this sort of job—new to seafaring. Wearing a yellow St. Vincent jersey (number 24, with ‘Pag-Ong’ stitched across the back), he put away the plates and bowls and saucers after lunch at Malcapuya and fed leftover grouper to the stray dogs. He told me he’d come to Coron only three months earlier; he used to live and work in Manila, near U.P. Village. In the afternoon we made conversation about the Philippine national basketball team’s semifinals win over South Korea the previous night (in which another point guard, Jimmy Alapag, supposedly starred), and this was how we got to talking about Ruel’s athletic talents, for which this crewman still had nothing but praise. He expressed regret that my friends and I were going to miss the town fiesta on the 28th of August, because there was likely going to be a tournament at the Coron Coliseum, which, as I discovered while walking around town, is really just a covered court, probably with slippery cement flooring. During breaks ‘Pag-Ong’ was often on his cell phone, talking sweetly to a girlfriend or lover. Whoever was on the other end, she sounded so far away.

28 July 2013

Look at the View


Robert imagined his mother talking to him when he had been sealed up in her womb. Of course he wouldn’t have known what her blunted syllables were meant to mean, but he was sure he would have felt a current flowing between them, the contraction of a fear, the stretch of an intention. Thomas was still close to those transfusions of feeling; Robert was getting explanations instead. Thomas still knew how to understand the silent language which Robert had almost lost as the wild margins of his mind fell under the sway of the verbal empire. He was standing on a ridge, about to surge downhill, getting faster, getting taller, getting more words, getting bigger and bigger explanations, cheering all the way. Now Thomas had made him glance backwards and lower his sword for a moment while he noticed everything that he had lost as well. He had become so caught up in building sentences that he had almost forgotten the barbaric days when thinking was like a splash of colour landing on a page. Looking back, he could still see it: living in what would now feel like pauses: when you first open the curtains and see the whole landscape covered in snow and you catch your breath and pause before breathing out again. He couldn’t get the whole thing back, but maybe he wouldn’t rush down the slope quite yet, maybe he would sit down and look at the view.

From Mother’s Milk, by Edward St. Aubyn.

Lola


She thinks the dog’s name is Pogi, meaning handsome. In general, the names she has decided to call the animals are based on how they look: Budoy is Browny, Tata is Whitey, Maja is also Whitey. The cat that my cousin Frederick used to have, she must have called with a five-letter word that starts with P, but surprisingly Brutus, who’s dead now, she never called Ugly. He was simply Brutus.

Anyway, I shake my head, pick up the non-permanent Pentel marker, and write on her flimsy strip of whiteboard: “Dog’s name: Emilio.”

Ah, says Lola Auring, we can call him Emil then, or Emi.

Lita, one of her two caretakers, who is sitting with us at the round table in the veranda after merienda, folding newly dry clothes, explains that the new dog is named after the Philippine independence leader, because he was born on June 12. Lola, of course, doesn’t hear this. She went deaf five years ago, at the age of ninety-two. This was also around the time a tropical storm hit northern Philippines and she slipped on a wet floor, breaking her pelvis. Now she’s stuck in a wheelchair, and has to have a priest or clergyman called in every Sunday for service, and all she ever hears, she says, are the songs of angels, sung by tenors and sopranos. 

Has Emil been baptized, Lola asks. She’s obviously joking. What I can’t determine is whether or not the joke is slightly cruel, something about how I, already in my late twenties, have yet to give her a grandchild. Between the two of us, the matter has not been spoken of, ever, but I can’t be entirely sure that she doesn’t know, because her eyes—brown? gray? brownish gray?—never give anything away, they are sly, like a cat’s. So I nod my head and say, yes, he has been baptized, and with the same marker I write “Bassig” as Emilio’s surname. Bassig! Reading it makes Lola giggle. Her teeth show, her dimples appear. This is my mother’s mother. Because the people in the house still aren’t sure of who Emilio’s father is—it could be Budoy, but it could also be some random neighborhood dog—I am tempted to add, “No father; Tata (or Whitey), like Mama Mary = virginal conception of Emilio”; but in the end I decide not to. Anyway Lola has already sort of changed the subject, and begun to repeat the story of a certain uncle of hers who died of rabies. She’s tapping a part of her oily, age-spotted wrist to point out where exactly this uncle had been bitten, and she says, be careful, don’t get too close until after Emil has been given injections.

01 July 2013

Lotus Onion


A Facebook friend posted recently, “Is twenty-eight too early to miss twenty-three?” The status update threw me into a panic. We are the same age, but unlike my friend, I don’t miss being twenty-three—because, and this is the cause of the panic, because honestly I can’t remember what the heck I was up to five years ago. My memory is usually not terrible; it’s supposed to be very good.

Could that amount of time have passed already? Or: could it only have been five years ago? Because it feels like a lifetime. It feels like the unwritten gap between one installment of the Patrick Melrose cycle and the next. I probably won’t recognize me. Back then, to be sure, I did not go or move about with the sense of having left people behind, of thinking origins to be so permanent, which is all the sense, it seems, that I have these days, wherever I do go. Others might call it responsibility; it involves having to talk to all sorts of people, yet in the end having no one listen to you. I guess at twenty-three it didn’t matter that no one listened, but it matters now.

Anyway, no, I’m not talking about responsibility. It’s more like what Alan Hollinghurst described as the darker sense of stepping already along the outward edge of youth, of looking back at the truly young with unwelcome eagerness and regret. You look back and wonder how you had all that energy to take notes, of everything, whereas now you just get on with it, time is running on, you’re fading and peeling. How I’d gotten to the edge, I don’t know; the five years that just passed—unlike the five years that preceded them—passed, it seems, while I was unconscious, instead of being simply on hallucinogens or salts and antipsychotics, which enabled alternative (and usually untroubled) ways of being conscious. Let me tell you what I do miss: being eighteen. But there you go: once a lotus blossom, now a lotus onion. Peel away.

Time


Here was a Lacoste-wearing young man in Greenbelt 4, between sips of The Original Ice Blended talking to his companion in loud, Atenean English about his Rolex. There was mention of its cost, which did not involve, contrary to what the companion might think, a five-digit figure—by which he meant it did not involve a mere five-digit figure. Asked where this particular watch stood among others in his personal collection, the man said he would have to have time to determine. How ironic.

06 June 2013

Spontanically


A little over a week ago, I had my first facial. (Behave.) It lasted about forty-five minutes. During the procedure I swore to myself to never do it again.

Why? Because it hurt horribly. Here’s what I now know about blackhead extraction: the reward is not worth the pain. There were tears in my eyes. My masseuse—is that what one calls a woman who does facials: a masseuse?—my masseuse broke out this little bugger—a sharp instrument, made of steel, that resembles something a dentist would use to probe cavities—which she used to squish and squeeze the impurities out of my face. My god, did she squish and squeeze. I must have been so impure. Afterwards she poked me to show the strip on which she proudly collected all the blackheads that had been extracted from my pores. She thought it was funny and had a rather grand time showing the rest of her colleagues. I went along with the joke and pretended not to be deeply humiliated.

In general the facial was much more clinical than I’d thought. I went in thinking that a salad platter would be made out of my face—that people would furnish it with vegetables, fruits, colorful sauces. Nothing this glamorous happened, of course. Shows you how much I know!

Good thing I went with my friend K, whose presence helped me take this traumatic experience in stride. We were walking around Jungceylon mall in Patong, on Phuket’s west coast, when we came across this Japanese beauty salon, which had a tarpaulin banner out front for a new promo: facials for 300 baht. Apparently this was a hit. People, mostly tourists, were coming in and out. “Want to go in?” K asked. I said no, but that I’d wait for him if he wanted to. “If I’m going in,” he said, “you’re coming with me.” Just then, a holidaying couple that I recognized as regulars at the beach came out and saw us. Immediately they shared their verdict: the other one was much better. What other one? They pointed to another Japanese beauty salon with facials that started at 350 baht. “We’ve tried both. This one just now wasn’t so good. Tschüss und bis bald!”

So that’s how it happened. It was not planned. It was about doing something for the first time, on impulse, without being certain of the consequences. “Spontanically,” as K would say in his German English. (He hadn’t had a facial, either.) Thus spontanically did we go inside the 350-baht salon, giggling like the first-timers that we were, making jokes about each other’s faces. “You’d have to scrape that thing with a rock,” he instructed my masseuse. “Please make him look ten years younger,” I said to his. I was shaking with laughter (the soft, delicate hands of my masseuse also happened to tickle) and had to pinch myself to hold it in—until, that is, the blackhead extraction part, in which I pinched myself simply to endure the pain. I wonder how other people do it without cracking; I wonder how they do it without crying. 

A few days later, K and I were back at Jungceylon with tickets to the new Star Trek movie. “We still have time, you know,” I half-joked. I may or may not have been talking about facials, but in any event he said no, and I was relieved to hear it. I thought he wanted to have another go but I guess I was wrong. He must have felt as I did. Next time would not be as much fun and could hurt just the same.

31 May 2013

Yet I Shall Kill Thee with Much Cherishing


On this latest trip to Thailand I brought light reading with me—light in content and light in weight. My baggage allowance, the minimum on a budget airline, did not allow for more books. (Or more anything.) So I brought only my Kindle and a friend’s copy of The Boy from Beirut and Other Stories by Robin Maugham. I thought these would do for a couple of weeks, most of which I knew anyway would be spent not reading. 

Anyway, there’s a very interesting interview with Maugham at the end of this book, edited by the late Peter Burton, which my friend recommended I check out. So I did. I have not yet actually read any of the stories—I have been reading at the pace of someone in a deck chair on the shores of west coast Phuket (very lazily and distractedly, that is to say)—but the interview, I found, is worth missing eye candy at the beach for. Maugham talks about his renowned uncle, W. Somerset, whose writerly footsteps he followed, and in whose shadows, whether he liked it or not, the younger Maugham grew up. On when he first became aware that “Willie” was gay, he says, “I went to Vienna to study the piano, in between leaving Eton and going up to Cambridge, and there I suddenly found that Willie was famous. Then of course his secretary and beloved friend Gerald Haxton came out and tried to seduce me. So long before I went to Cambridge I knew all about it. I mean...about them.”

Meanwhile, asked by Burton on whether his own relationships have been easy or difficult, Maugham says, “You see, a writer is in an awfully difficult position, because he’s got to work alone, except in very rare cases of book collaboration, and loneliness is occupational—is the occupational disease—sorry, disadvantage, of a writer. A writer’s...yes, occupational disadvantage is loneliness, and if you take Willie, for instance, he built himself a writing room on the top of the Villa Mauresque, Cap Ferrat—a kind of ivory tower you might say.... You couldn’t get to it except up a small passage and by walking across the roof. He would withdraw there. He’d even blocked out the view across Villefranche Bay, blocked it out so that nothing should disturb his concentration.... He’d come down for a cocktail before lunch. But when he was in the middle of a book he admitted that the characters which he was describing were more real than the characters of real life around him. And this, of course, didn’t make for a happy life with his companion and lover Gerald Haxton, who couldn’t help resenting the fact that he played only a peripheral part in Willie’s life. The essential part was Willie’s writing and although in his way he loved Gerald desperately, he couldn’t give all of himself to Gerald because he had to reserve the most important part for his work.”

I wouldn’t say I believe this to be true—that writers are, or could be, bad lovers—or at least I wouldn’t admit so readily that I believe this to be true. It can’t be! But I know that it could be. My own relationships have so far been difficult. That’s why I remain open that writing may not be for me—that this loneliness, this occupational disadvantage, is not permanent, after all—although I frankly cannot imagine doing anything else but write, if only because I am worse at everything else.

Anyway, the one other thing I just finished reading is a poem: Wilde’s The Ballad of Reading Gaol. It is a strange thing to be reading a—well, a “prison poem” on an island with beautiful views of sea and infinite sky. But there you go. Below you’ll find a passage that I have since been trying to memorize. Though the context is different, it’s reminiscent, I think, of the line, “Yet I should kill thee with much cherishing...” See what I mean:

Yet each man kills the thing he loves,
By each let this be heard,
Some do it with a bitter look,
Some with a flattering word,
The coward does it with a kiss,
The brave man with a sword!

Some kill their love when they are young,
And some when they are old;
Some strangle with the hands of Lust,
Some with the hands of Gold:
The kindest use a knife, because
The dead so soon grow cold.

Some love too little, some too long,
Some sell, and others buy;
Some do the deed with many tears,
And some without a sigh:
For each man kills the thing he loves,
Yet each man does not die.

07 May 2013

In a Strange Room



Nothing could have prepared for me for Damon Galgut’s In a Strange Room. In the end, nothing did. I finished the novel in a day and a half at home. It is astonishing. Its effect on me was physical. It made my palms sweat. I stayed up to read and did not sleep. I moved from the bed to the couch to the kitchen to the swivel chair then back to the bed. I burst into tears. (My dog Budoy came in and extended his leg more than once to console me.) In the middle of the third story—“The Guardian” (the novel is divided into three sections)—I slapped the book shut and decided to go up to the balcony and lift weights. I’m useless at lifting weights. But I felt like I had to: mainly to keep my distance. If this sounds awfully dramatic—I’m only talking about a book, correct?—forgive me. I can’t tell you why, unless you’ve read it yourself, and even then, I can only tell you that Anna, the narrator’s destructive friend, reminds me of someone in my own life, never mind that the story in which she figures—the third, yes, “The Guardian”—seems to be the story with which the critics were not very enchanted. But who cares about the critics anyway.

In a Strange Room (the title should ring a bell to anyone who has read Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying) was lent to me by a friend who’d put his copy in a paper bag that he handed to me a couple of weeks ago. Also inside were The Boy from Beirut and Other Stories by Robin Maugham (nephew of the famous W. Somerset) and A Separate Peace by John Knowles. Judging these books by their covers, I think I ought to read the Maugham next. I could use a little cheering up! And from what I heard, Lord Maugham was a bit Wilde, a bit Waugh. 

04 May 2013

A Home at the End of the World



At dinner, we talk about the restaurant and the baby. Lately our lives are devoted to the actual—we worry over Rebecca’s cough and the delivery of our used-but-refurbished walk-in refrigerator. I am beginning to understand the true difference between youth and age. Young people have time to make plans and think of new ideas. Older people need their whole energy to keep up with what’s already been set in motion.

A couple of weeks ago I met up with a friend who was kind enough to lend me his signed copy of A Home at the End of the World, by Michael Cunningham. “You haven’t read this, have you?” W asked. I told him I hadn’t; the only Cunningham I’d ever read was, naturally, The Hours. The next day I Googled the title and realized that, like The Hours, A Home at the End of the World had been made into a movie, too—featuring Colin Farrell, Robin Wright Penn, and Sissy Spacek (who starred in In the Bedroom, one of my favorite films). The screenplay was also written by Cunningham, who, I must say, has such a lovely signature that it should be turned into a font type.

There is so much to read, isn’t there? I find this to be truer every day. And every day there is less time than the previous day to read more, to do more, to catch up, to make the most of what’s left. It was with this feeling of hourglass urgency that I read the Cunningham at a faster pace than usual. A few pages into Part III, from which the above passage is taken, I received, again from W, three more books, each of which I also plan to read as quickly as I can. In exchange I lent him André Aciman’s Call Me by Your Name, in part because he told me he’d been reading Proust, of which Aciman is a sort of scholar. 

Anyway, about A Home at the End of the World: it’s a book, I think, that’s so full of love. I think I like it better than The Hours, and that’s saying a lot. Cunningham’s prose here is pretty, but his story is honest and raw. It made me cry a few times, none more unabashedly than when young Jonathan Glover walked into his parent’s bedroom after a fight between his mother (Alice) and father (Ned). He came upon his father lying across the double bed.

He could have picked me up and taken me onto the bed with him. That gesture might have rescued us both, at least for the time being. I ached for it. I’d have given everything I imagined owning, in my greediest fantasies, to have been pulled into bed with him and held, as he’d held me while the sky exploded over our heads on the Fourth of July. 

28 April 2013

The Anti-Bildungsroman



I’m reading something else—Michael Cunningham’s A Home at the End of the World—but I haven’t stopped thinking about Madame Bovary. I think I know why. A literary friend had written to me to say that he’d read the Flaubert (in the original French) three times—the first time as a twenty-something, when he still “knew nothing about life”; it occurred to me that my own experience of reading the novel could very well be influenced by where I am in my own life. 

After all, it is often true what some scholars say: the great books seem to be written for the reader and the reader alone. I am aware of the position of a book called The Perpetual Orgy by Mario Vargas Llosa (to which this friend had tipped me, saying he didn’t quite agree with the Peruvian-Spanish writer’s love for Emma Bovary), but I have not actually read it. I do have my own opinion of Emma. It’s not a very high one, and I certainly see her with less reverence than does Vargas Llosa. It has nothing to do with her cheating ways; it has to do with her being fatally romantic. To me, therefore, Madame Bovary is the anti-bildungsroman. Emma never comes of age. She remained as she was, as she had always been, until the day that she died (or killed herself). That Flaubert could craft a perfect novel (or as close to it as one might imagine) from having this woman as his central character demonstrates his astounding achievement. He never judges her, and he leaves it entirely up to us, the readers, to do so, if we could be so willing. And if we do judge these characters, it will perhaps say more about us—about where we are in the time that we read it—than about anyone else in the book.

Neither does Flaubert judge Charles Bovary, whom I have written about as the character I rooted for. He’s not up to much as a literary character—can anyone be less interesting?—but with a moral view of things, one will be hard-pressed to find fault in him. (Speaking of dull, I read somewhere that Flaubert wrote Madame Bovary as a way of taking on a challenge posed by friends or colleagues: to write a novel based on very dull characters. I’m not sure if this is true, but it makes perfect sense if it is.)

Like my friend, I’ll probably re-read Madame Bovary when I’m in a different place. I’m sure that by then the book will seem entirely new.

10 April 2013

Eduardo and Editha


Today my parents celebrate their thirty-sixth (I think) wedding anniversary. They met in a provincial town about three hundred miles north of Manila called Tuguegarao, which is now a city. Mother was a student in Saint Paul, father was in Ateneo de Tuguegarao, which no longer exists. During or after his senior year, at sixteen or seventeen, he successfully joined the AFS program, which meant that he was going to live and study for awhile in some exotic place called New York. This was in the sixties. The entire Bassig clan, including my paternal grandmother and grandfather (may they rest in peace), went to flank him at the airport. I have seen the send-off picture: they all had tears in their eyes and probably thought that he was never going to come back.

Well, he did. He came back as the world’s biggest Yankees fan, and he hasn’t since rooted for anyone in football except the Buffalo Bills. He also made good on his promise to marry my mother. In keeping with tradition there was a courtship stage, with maybe a bit of drama. Originally my mother’s family had not been so warm to the idea because he was not what one would call a mestizo; this was at least one of the unspoken reasons. Her family, you see, and this is all according to what I’ve been told, is of mixed German descent: Germany’s interest in newly independent Philippines, cut short by the Treaty of Paris in 1898, in the event somehow left a settlement in these blessed islands and produced my maternal grandmother. As I say, this is all according to what I’ve been told. I certainly don’t look one-sixteenth German, and I am as brown as father.

I am not, however, half as persistent or charming as he is, because eventually he won the affections of my mother’s parents and four siblings (down to three now; Uncle Boy has since died). By contrast, mother herself needed no extended wooing. She even wrote an effusive (open) love letter that he, then a radio DJ at a local station called DZYT, read on-air. He proposed to her shortly after that, and they got married in Saint Peter’s Cathedral, Tuguegarao. After the wedding they moved to Manila, where we, their four children, were born and raised. Mother found a government job, which she had to quit several years later; meanwhile, father worked as an advertising executive. Sometimes he let me tag along to his meetings and we’d drive back home in the old red Corolla listening to a Johnny Mathis record. Mother didn’t—doesn’t—drive. When I was nine, she, being very spontaneous, came in a rickety bicycle to fetch me from school. Being very proud, I refused to ride with her and decided instead to walk home, with mother in her print blouse (for which she had a penchant) still pedaling alongside me, inquiring in the wonderful way that mothers have how my day went and what sort of homework I had to do.

I think that a decade or two from now, when I’ve grown much older, I’ll look back and consider these memories as some of the loveliest in my life.

Also, when I was little, we usually celebrated the tenth of April by going on swimming vacations out of town. My favorite one was in a wonderful beach and golf resort in Cavite called Puerto Azul. I think the resort still exists, but it’s probably a different place now. Anyway, I was roomed in a nice suite with my older brother Francis and my sister Lourdes. (Josemaria, who must not have been more than five at the time, slept between father and mother.) I remember ambling dreamily down the hotel lobby every morning to meet everyone for breakfast. In the afternoons, I took the sweetest pleasure in the country club goodness of the place and innocently thanked God for the love that had brought my parents together.

Together they have stayed. Frankly, I cannot imagine being married to someone for thirty-six years. There are times when I cannot imagine being married at all. It’s definitely not going to happen in the Philippines, where a conversation about same-sex marriage is still likely to be met with raised Catholic eyebrows. Things may change—don’t they always?—but probably not soon enough. I remember that when I came out to mother about six or seven years ago I buried my face under a pillow. It was difficult. A few days later (even though she already told him) I came out to father; we were at Burger King in Welcome Rotonda and for most of that talk I was literally just staring at the chocolate sundae, crying. At the time I was totally ashamed, because I knew it would make my parents extremely happy if I could marry a girl, have kids, bring these kids up the way my parents brought us up—but all this was something I’d never be able to do. My love story was necessarily going to be different from theirs.

Of course, this doesn’t at all mean that I am inclined to consider their example less admirably than if I were straight. Everything I ever learned about love, I learned from my parents, Eduardo and Editha, whom I hope you will join me in wishing the happiest of anniversaries and the most indissoluble of loves.

07 April 2013

Bildungsroman


“Conservation instinct,” you write. I’m at my grandmother’s birthday celebration in Manila, you’re at a local hammam in Morocco, and I ask you to confirm that I didn’t really stand a chance. Did I? “I knew you were leaving,” you reply. “Now, do let me say no more.”

You don’t have to. It’s all I need.

Le Bistrot, on Nueva de Lyon, between Los Leones and Tobalaba. Remember? November. The last time we met. La Especial Bistrot salad for you, salmon fettuccine for me. Afterwards, a bottle of bad Cab at a Cuban bar where one of the waiters, a plump young man with a cringe-worthy mustache, gamely offered us girls. Bellas mujeres de Brasil, de Colombia, de Argentina! I think he was missing a tooth, too. When finally he left us alone you told me about the ex from Mexico who, in the ten years you were together, didn’t ever really know who you were. Or what you did. “I think it’s important to find someone to talk to,” I said. “It’s rare to be able to find someone to talk to.” I believed this myself. After the wine, I said goodbye to you on the street. You gave my face a friendly, affectionate slap. A farewell.

Librería Ulises, near Café Wonderful, in Barrio Lastarria. This was after our early dinner at Urriola, where Rodrigo, our waiter, acted, in your words, like such a “cock tease in search of tips.” Second to the last time we met. Also in November. It was just at the beginning of spring, wasn’t it? We were looking at the bookstore display. “I can’t believe they have it!” you said—it being the Humboldt ‘metabiography’ by Nicolaas Rupke. This brought to my mind Daniel Kehlmann’s teasing portrait of Humboldt in Measuring the World. “Do you know—” I began. “I know,” you said. About Humboldt. “There’d been plenty of rumors, all right.” Rumors. Stories. Books. I remember: you had Anna Karenina on your phone. I had Howards End on mine. Before sunset, you dropped me off at Santa Maria corner Pio Nono, in front of the university, the law school. You in your red shirt, your red car, your favorite color. We shook hands. “Thanks for coming out to dinner, Raskolnikov,” I said. Because you played him, didn’t you, in school, in a musical? I couldn’t believe it when you told me.

Plaza Italia towards Monsignor Müller, via Providencia. The daily walk. The streets of Santiago. Cowboy John Mayer through my earphones, singing, “It’s such a waste to grow up lonely.” September to November, from the last of winter to the first signs of spring. The times we didn’t meet. Or I couldn’t see you. The months I thought we’d meet. I wasn’t sure what the problem was. But you were in Peru, Bolivia, Belgium, China, America. Or you had a reaction to pollen. Reachable only through WhatsApp. You asked about my Spanish: how was I doing with it? “I decided not to take lessons,” I confessed. “But you’ll be proud: I’ve been studying the people.” “BS!” you said, to which I replied, “I’m a writer. Everything I say is BS.” “If you say so,” you said, “I can only concur.” My reply: “Meanwhile, you’re an economist, researcher, and professor. Trained to detect BS all the time.” Your reply: “Yes. Including my own.”

Roaring towards Costanera Center, through Costanera Norte, along the Mapocho River. You were more than an hour late; it was past midnight. A time during August that made one desperate to avoid the sordid charms of Grindr flirtations. You picked me up at Patio Bellavista after your dinner with colleagues. We  didn’t really talk much. But we were going—we were going 80 to 85 miles per hour. Something like that—too fast, that’s for sure. “What’s with the noisy phone?” I asked. “The app is called Waze,” you said. For navigation. For avoiding cops. I could hear the beeps, I could smell the alcohol, I could smell the danger. But I had no one else to talk to, you know? Or maybe it was the danger—not the romance of talk—that attracted me. Second time we met.

Rishtedar, on Av. Holanda, close to Metro Tobalaba. A detour from Café Liguria, because Café Liguria was too noisy; we wouldn’t have been able to talk in there. This was August. Winter, still. First time we met. It was so cold, I was shaking. Remember? You were wearing a red dress shirt under the overcoat. I was wearing a white dress shirt. We ordered spicy chicken curry, spicy shrimp curry, heaps of Basmati rice. We went for Kunstmann beers at Bar de Willy, then walked to Augusto Leguía Norte, past the sex shop, past the stray dog trying to cross the road. “The poor thing is going to die, I cannot bear to look,” you said. You once had a dog that went out through an opening under the fence in your farmhouse near Concepción, you never saw him again, it was awful to think of how he might have died. But this one crossing the road, he lived. Once we reached the front of your apartment, you asked if I wanted to come up. I said sure. I noted the red Welcome mat, the red walls, the red dining chairs. “So I guess you really like red,” I said, while you poured Pinot noir into the glasses. “My favorite color,” you said.

When I got up the next morning, I found the day’s El Mercurio on the red mat and eagerly picked it up without your asking. Should I have done that? It felt to me like I did something wrong, because you avoided eye contact when I said goodbye.

25 March 2013

Affection



Do you know that Manila is also called the ‘City of Our Affections’? It is. The nickname has quite a nice ring to it—it sounds, to me, a bit more thoughtful than the romantic ‘Pearl of the Orient’—but don’t, I advise, mistake “nice” and “thoughtful” for “feel-good.” To me, the nickname has always been injected with a certain pathos.

To questions of why, I’ll defer to a key part of “If These Walls Could Talk,” Carlos Celdran’s famous Intramuros tour, in which tour-goers are led into one of the historical district’s old American barracks in Fort Santiago. It’s the part that involves a pull-down projection screen and a slideshow featuring MacArthur and his Ray-Bans (in grainy sepia), a group of soldiers carrying the Japanese flag, and a black-and-white close-up of a bomb that half-eclipsed an aerial view of the city on which it was about to drop. The city in the photo—the city in which all the photos were taken—is Manila. You’re supposed to sit solemnly in a pew during this part, such that it seems wholly appropriate to call to mind the phrase, all together now, ‘City of Our Affections’—never mind if it must have caught on long before the war. Say it under your breath, and it takes on a strange, quiet wretchedness akin to that of a prayer being uttered at a funeral. A funeral for 100,000.

I do wonder sometimes: can these affections be evoked, be revived, without the help of a performance? Also: Manila is the city of whose affections, exactly? I don’t mean to be disagreeable. But last week, walking along Padre Burgos Street, I saw a homeless man just outside the gated golf course in Intramuros. He was peeing on the grass through a wire fence. (The newspaper men at the Manila Bulletin building in front could see his equipment, surely.) A few feet away, meanwhile, also on the sidewalk, was a young boy sleeping on a bed of rice sacks. Next to him a sign read, “Watch out! Flying golf balls.” His mother must have been the woman who was washing her clothes in the pool of water surrounding a monument: the Gomburza monument, I think it was. Why she chose to do her laundry there, I can’t tell you. The water was not clean, and on it sailed fallen leaves. 

To be sure, Manila is not the city of these people’s affections. Turning the golf course into a urinal, sleeping on concrete, washing dirty linen in spaces reserved for marble heroes: like they would ever give a damn what the place is called. But it is because of them, hollow and sentimental as this sounds, that Manila might become the city of someone’s affections: mine. Not that I wish to take any credit for grand gestures of kindness subsequently performed—if you really want to know, I was only making my way to Muralla Street for dinner; affection could do with, but does not require, kind gestures. (As tourists often say, “You cannot save everybody.”) In any event: are these people not collateral damage, too? From a different war with a different name. I’ll let you call it whatever you like. What I’ll say is that if hearts grow fonder upon engagement in the remembrance of history, so must mine—if not every Manileño’s—on a walk today through the old city streets.

Which raises the question: why is the golf course still there?