29 December 2012


...love your solitude and bear with sweet-sounding lamentation the suffering it causes you. For those who are near you are far, you say, and that shows it is beginning to grow wide about you. And when what is near you is far, then your distance is already among the stars....
...your solitude will be a hold and home for you even amid very unfamiliar conditions and from there you will find all your ways. 

While living and working in Chile, I picked up a habit of reading several books at the same time. It was not something I was used to doing, so more than one book was one or more books too many, especially given my extremely short attention span. I can’t say that I accomplished anything by doing this; even worse, I can’t figure out why I did it in the first place. But I started with Edward St Aubyn’s series of Patrick Melrose novels, and it took forever to get to At Last. That’s because I was also reading Howards End and Bouvard et Pécuchet on my phone, and a random selection of essays by Cynthia Ozick on my computer, and The House of the Dead (a tattered copy of which I bought from Libros El Cid Campeador on Merced Street), and stories from Colm Tóibín’s Mothers and Sons collection, and, later on, after mi jefe C had given me a Kindle, Justin Halpern’s Sh*t My Dad Says. (Guess which one entertained the most.)

For my return flight to Manila I thus resolved to stick to one book, Rainer Maria Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet, from which the above passage comes. I like writing letters, and I love reading them even more. About four years ago I read the 700-plus-page Decca: The Letters of Jessica Mitford, which proved to be at once a hoot and treasure, and instantly made me want to be a more outstanding correspondent; the book was given to me by a friend in New York. The Rilke, meanwhile, was given by another friend, who told me about another passage (from the same collection of letters) that I agreed was pretty useful advice for writers. (Identification of this other passage upon request.) He added a Flavia Weedn quote as his dedication, and it is the exact same quote that was printed on a bedroom poster (of a bear) that I had when I was a kid. (Identification of quote also upon request.)

So anyway: I read the Rilke in the time that it took to get from Santiago to Manila. My stops were São Paulo, Dubai, and Kuala Lumpur. After several months in Chile of not hearing another human being speak Tagalog, I was relieved to hear and see Filipinos at the Dubai International Airport. But I never did move to speak to them. The book absorbed me completely, and even though I had not given Rilke’s poems a try, I was glad to have his letters, which made the forty-hour journey somehow shorter.

23 December 2012

Julia Roberts

My friend J got married today. She looked so beautiful. The wedding was held just outside of Manila, at San Antonio de Padua in Silang, Cavite, followed by the reception at Hacienda Isabella, a charming private resort neatly tucked somewhere at the foot of the Tagaytay mountain ridge. I sat with a group of friends from the university and before the night ended, J came over to our table and showed us her ring. She also told us the story of how her husband had proposed—which he did, if I heard correctly (and if I didn’t, blame the vodka), after a hike somewhere in Malaysia, on top of another mountain called Gunung Datuk. 

J’s wedding is only the latest in a series of wedding- or engagement-related notifications I have recently received on Facebook. I don’t know how or why exactly these notifications have suddenly come to multiply—is twenty-eight or twenty-nine the new twenty-five, or are couples simply keen to avoid the curse of 2013?—but at least seven other friends (that I know of) who are my age got married or engaged in the last two weeks alone. Seven! (And I don’t even have many friends, which makes the ratio that much more impressive.) To me this feels a lot like three years ago, when wedding albums first began to clutter my Facebook news feed. The difference this time is that I am much closer to being thirty and unmarried, which therefore also means that I am closer to being forty and unmarried.


Not that there’s any, you know, pressure. In fact, don’t mind the gasp; it isn’t meant to be taken seriously. I’m not—or no longer—in a particular hurry to acquire the trappings of maturity, of married life, which everyone will surely tell me cannot be rushed into anyway. But owing perhaps to these recent events and notifications, I have wondered, more so than ever, if among my friends I am one of the remaining few who wake up next to an open book, a bottle of wine, or an ashtray of cigarette butts (I’d have added ‘beautiful stranger’ but unfortunately my romances, if I can be said to have them, are not at all whirlwind); if at this point—at my age—I really ought to have a spouse instead of a pillow. (A second gasp!) This, I like to believe, even if no one else will, is less a case of sentimental imagination than of a sort of tangible stress currently being thrown upon my own personal relations—and stress as in an external force instead of an internal one. 

Funnily enough, the stress may have begun to assert itself outside of Facebook, even before I found myself under barrage. A little over two weeks ago, when I was still in the Chilean capital city of Santiago, my dear friend K showed me pictures and videos of his wedding in 2004. I loved the crisp white suit that he wore, loved it more than I had let on. It drew attention to the blue of his eyes, such that I began to secretly wish—as he swiped an index finger across the screen of his iPhone, showing images of the kiss, the ceremony, the signing of papers, the delivery of speeches, the raising of toasts, the opening of gifts, the institutionalization of his love and his right to love—I secretly wished that if and when my own special day came, I would look as handsome, gentle, and pure as he did on his, eight years ago in Hamburg. 

The wish was secret because it was also impossible. It was the product of envy: wishing to be what will never be. ‘Gentle’ and ‘pure’? I would definitely be pushing it. (Even more than I would with ‘handsome’.) I am a bigger sinner at twenty-eight than I was at twenty-five, and each year—if not each day—my baggage gets heavier, stuffed increasingly and haphazardly with fresh anxieties, hurts, mistakes, doubts, impurities, phobias. If only one can marry a cardboard cutout! But one can’t. We can only marry people, and when we marry people, we also marry their baggage.

I don’t mean to sound horribly disenchanted; this isn’t my intention. My belief in marriage is actually firmer than ever, and my understanding of love and romance has ceased to be primitive. It has ceased to be romantic. It is governed not by some vague fantasy about meeting the One in a gondola or a dusty library, but by lesser excitements and tamer, yet more enduring, throbs. Like seeing the example of my parents, who have been together for over three decades, through thin more than through thick, through perhaps as much bad as good. Like observing the quiet, unannounced interactions of old lovers who never seem to run out of things to talk about, even after all these years. Like befriending couples who, when they have sex, are not, by arrangement, in the same building—let alone the same room!—but who manage nevertheless to be the most inseparable couples I have met. How much I have been through personally, I do not know, and would much rather not reckon anyway, but it is enough, I think, to part me from certain previous notions. I can see now that, when I was younger, I conformed to the sense one had in those years that a walk in the park with a beautiful stranger was the same as true love; that mountaintop proposals, white-suited fashions, and copious Facebook wishes comprised the fairy tale to which all marrying couples should aspire; that the loveliest unions took place in a church, to the soundtrack of a pipe organ being played by a virginal old maid; that breaking someone’s heart was the worst thing you could do to a person, just as having your heart broken was the worst fate imaginable; that the promise of fidelity was the promise to not sleep with anyone else, ever; that the joys and affections shared by two men or two women were somehow less than that shared by a man and a woman; that marriage bound instead of freed, and marked a single-occasion milestone instead of a happy responsibility that one chose daily to bear.

Why daily? Because married or not, we need reminders. Don’t tell my university friends, but I did shed a little tear at J’s wedding. It was because of the grand fireworks display that her husband had arranged as a surprise. And what a surprise it was: I mean, he lit up the sky for her—literally. The thought of it, along with the vodka, made me reach for my pink hanky. I relayed this information to mother by sending a maudlin text message, to which she replied, perfectly, “Who do you think you are? Julia Roberts?” This was my reminder; there was no need to cry.

21 December 2012


My first few nights back here in Manila I couldn’t sleep at all. I mean, forty hours—that’s how long it took to get here from Santiago. Actually, I’m still not able to sleep very well. Even if I go to bed early and slightly drunk I still wake up at one or two in the morning. The last time I slept for more than five hours was the night before we met outside the metro station and you drove me to the airport. That was over a week ago.

My strategy—the one that doesn’t involve alcohol—is to tire myself out as much as possible and be out for as long as I could, even if this means being aimlessly out and incredibly tired. This was the plan exactly when a few days ago I went downtown after work to shop for some holiday gifts. I rode a jeepney, a bus-like alternative to taxi, to get to Robinsons. On the way to the mall a young girl climbed in. 

Let me tell you about this girl. She was—what, seven? Eight? Young and feeble. She had this Dora-like mop of hair, and she was wearing an oversized yellow shirt with grey stripes. I noticed that she had a wart on her left eyelid that maybe looked like it needed surgery, and on her right arm she had another cauliflower-like growth. In her hand, she held a soft wad of red envelopes, kind of like what the Chinese use on Lunar New Year, except hers did not have Chinese characters.

She made her way through and passed the envelopes around and when she finished she backed off and stood on the single tread separating the speeding vehicle from asphalt. Clinging precariously to the chrome handrail at the back of the jeepney, she began to sing, and it lent her yellow shirt—raggedy and ill-fitting though it was—a new sunshiny splendor that I could not look away from.

The girl’s voice was soft and sounded drowsy. But it was the voice of an innocent. The thing is, she wasn’t even facing us when she sang. She was looking out and her audience was the wind, the world, the makings and manifestations of a life that perhaps has not been as kind to her as it has been to me. I have never had to sing for food, and if I did I would certainly always be starving.

And I know I already told you how much I hate Christmas songs. (Grinch may as well be my middle name, but honestly it’s all those minor seventh chords.) Well, this was the second time in as many weeks that I didn’t nervously run away from the music, that I actually listened and felt no irrational sadness or anxiety. The first was the time we spent assembling your Weihnachtsbaum in Santiago. I can’t really pinpoint what made the difference but I guess in both cases the presence of other people, of another person, reached parts of me that were not previously needed, that were perhaps unloved and unsung. 

Anyway, after her set of carols we, the passengers, gave the young girl a bit of change. She got off the jeepney somewhere between City Hall and the National Museum and jumped into another jeepney, the one I think trailing ours. That night, when I went to bed, I thought of her for a long time and wondered why it was always the most unlikely people who touched us most deeply. 

11 December 2012

Vineyard by the Sea

In a few days, I’ll be leaving Santiago and returning to Manila. This fact hit home when, late last week, I went to visit my barber one last time. Her name is Nataly. She’s in her late sixties or seventies and she’s married to the old, V-neck-sweater-wearing gentleman who runs the money changer next to her peluquería, on the ground floor of Crowne Plaza. She reminds me of Sally Fields. I say ‘barber’ but Nataly is what one may more appropriately call a ‘hairstylist’; I may be, for all I know, her only male customer. (Geographic incompetence had fortuitously led me to her instead of to some other, more traditional barbershop.) “Esta es mi última visita aquí,” I said to her, “porque tengo que volver a las Filipinas para la Navidad con mi familia.” After brushing and sweeping the hair off my shoulders, Nataly gave me a hug, as warm and soft and delicate a hug as only a meticulous silver-haired mestiza can give.

Don’t look too sad, she said. You’re going to be very happy to see your loved ones again. 

Nataly is not the only woman in Chile to whom I have said goodbye. There’s also red-haired Grandma, whose real name I still don’t know, even though she has served me lunch and offered seconds multiple times a week for the last several months in her humble Chilean—what to call it? carinderia? café? eatery?—her humble Chilean cafeteria, a block off Providencia on Monsignor Müller Street. There’s the kind Mapuche woman at the hotdog stand in Bellavista from whom I regularly order Chilean completos; she’s always smiling and she has the gentlest brown eyes in the world. There’s the marble-eyed cleaner who cleans our apartment once a week, whom I had once asked about a faulty laundromat, and whose Spanish-song-singing voice seems to float in the air, through the halls of the building I will soon stop calling home. But is it such a surprise that seeds grow where they have been scattered?

Then there’s her—Viña del Mar, about a hundred kilometers northwest of Santiago. She is so beautiful. I went to see her with my friend K from Hamburg and we drove up in a rental Chevy along Ruta 68, a winding highway that, once we reached Casablanca Valley, teasingly branched out to acres and acres of winery. (Why I waited until my second-to-the-last weekend to go for the first time, I couldn’t tell you.) The weather on that day was perfect. We rolled our windows down—eyeing and imagining verdant countrysides, Chardonnay plantations, voluminous grapevines, all the tangible joys of Chilean spring—until finally we approached the last of the hills and could smell the smell of the sea. 

First, we stopped at Valparaiso, Viña’s charming coastal neighbor, and got out of the car. There, an old, raggedy woman—bless her soul—approached us while we were sitting at an alfresco café. She was begging for alms but I did not have change. Then she asked for a cigarette, and I said I didn’t have any cigarettes left. The woman walked away, stopped at the corner of the street, looked back, and shouted to me (in accusatory English), “Your heart is very poor!” 

My heart is very poor all right. It is also very weak. This must have to do with having to leave. K, who, for work, spends months at a time in foreign cities (Santiago is as foreign to him as it is to me), wisely let me in on the dangers of attachment. “Saying goodbye is kind of like dying,” he said as we drove on. “You go back home, you think everything is the same, yet you are not the same. You are never the same.” I find indeed that with every act of farewell—however hurriedly it is performed, however disaffected and undemonstrative it is intended to appear—my heart breaks and I die a little.

The slayer is no brute. She is quite the opposite. Viña del Mar literally means “Vineyard by the Sea,” and she is also known as Chile’s “Garden City”—fondly, la ciudad jardín. Even though I only knew her for a short time—too short, in fact; an afternoon!—Viña del Mar is, for some reason I cannot explain (at least not with words), the one to whom I will have the most difficult time saying goodbye. Or could it be precisely because I only knew her for a short time, and no more than that? There is no guarantee that a hundred afternoons will be a hundred times better than one afternoon—or even as wonderful. We take what we have for what it is. And here’s what I have: an everlasting image of Viña’s greyish blue waters, her long stretches of white sand, those steady rocks that line her coast and tame the anxious tides of the Pacific. 

Before heading back to the city, K and I went to another café on the palm-lined oceanfront promenade, along which old couples ambled, children bicycled, lovers kissed. From there we could see Castillo Wulff, a granite German castle nestled magnificently on a rocky seaside cliff. It was the crowning touch to Viña’s beauty, which rallied me toward an exalted moment of restfulness and peace, while at once reminding me of the world that I had to love and leave.

And leave I did—exiting the shore, driving out of the carpark, heading toward the southeast, and dying a little once more.