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.


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.


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


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


“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


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?

Out of the Game

I must be getting old. (Which is okay, by the way.) Recently, encouraged by Roger Rosenblatt’s New York Times piece on the best movies about a writer, I watched the film adaptation of Starting Out in the Evening, which is based on a novel by Brian Morton. To my horror, then not so much, I found that I could see myself more in the old, writerly Leonard Schiller character (played by Frank Langella) than in the young, student-y, brimming-with-enthusiasm Heather Wolfe (played by fire-haired Lauren Ambrose). Not because Schiller is a writer, which I claim to be (besides, so is Wolfe—she’s writing her thesis), but because Schiller is old—older—and would rather not suffer from the intense but short attentions of young people. 

This is not to say that I regularly attract young—younger—people’s attention. I don’t. Of the intense kind, I attract even less. I only mean that if I do, I won’t be able to keep up with it. I know so! As Rufus sings, not too sadly, “I’m out of the game.” And the game, whatever it was, was invariably something I’d be useless at playing in the first place. 

If this sounds outlandish and awfully ageist, forgive me. But it’s true. A few days ago in a bar I met a pair of backpackers barely out of their teens and, next to them, I could positively hear my bones creaking. One was from France, the other from Denmark, and they began to talk to me about beer—the beers of the world. It was a conversation that lasted close to three hours, felt longer (much!), and involved voluntarily dished out lists of breweries visited, places sojourned in, cultures absorbed, exotic foods sampled, sexual encounters had, wealth squandered and wealth accumulated; it was, in short, the kind of conversation that was not about beer, really. It was about being young, wild, and free (or Eat, Pray, Love as told by two guys in a room). I made less than a little contribution to it. Here’s an old-person skill I did not use to have: I managed to talk without actually saying anything.

Now if only I can find people who’ll tell me something about books instead of beer. Or about Starting Out in the Evening. About anything! As long as it brings to the surface how one thinks instead of what one thinks. Also: age doesn’t matter, as long as it doesn’t get in the way. I thought I’d find friends in bars. Obviously not! But I’m only half-kidding, which goes to show that I don’t know as much as I think I do—a fact that to me will be clearer in a few years, and much, much clearer in a lot of years.

07 March 2013

We Must Not Touch Our Idols

We must not touch our idols; the gilt sticks to our fingers.

I just finished reading Madame Bovary. (Phew!) It took a long time. It took three sleepless nights to get through the last part. By the end of the third night, I was crying. Flaubert had me. For whom were these tears, you might ask? For Charles Bovary, Emma’s husband. 

So what if Charles is common, unsophisticated, not intellectual? He is a good man. He is kind, hardworking, loyal. That’s the most important thing, isn’t it? That’s all one can ask for from a man—from a spouse. Few deserve Charles. Emma doesn’t. I certainly don’t. (Not that it’s a matter of what one deserves.) But it’s funny because I wrote recently to a friend about how I could identify with Emma, who is irresponsible and a total romantic, who lapses into boredom, sickness, and depression whenever reality fails to match her ideas. (It’s awful, but that’s me. I touch idols until inevitably they cease to be idols.) And yet in the end it was Charles for whom I was suddenly rooting. It was for him that I was suddenly feeling.

One of the most interesting things about the creation of Madame Bovary is that the first English translation of it—that which I read—was produced by Eleanor Marx, the youngest daughter of Karl Marx. If you’ve read the novel, the story of Eleanor’s death will sound horribly familiar. She was sickened by, among other things, a love affair: this was with socialist campaigner Edward Aveling. So sickened was she that she decided to send her maid Gertrude to the chemist for chloroform and hydrogen cyanide. Eleanor swallowed the poison in the privacy of her room. Unlike Emma, however, she actually had time to pen a final billet-doux. “Dear, it will soon be all over now,” she wrote in her suicide note to Edward. “My last word to you is the same that I have said during all these long, sad years: love.”

25 February 2013


It was with shock that I read about the recent death of a schoolmate—the sudden death, only a few days ago, of a man whom I had not seen since our high school graduation in 2001. According to the news report, he was killed when the wayward jeepney in which he was riding tipped over and fell on its side—his side. He was twenty-nine.

We weren’t friends exactly; I can’t recall him ever speaking to me, or me to him, although we must have spoken to each other at one point or another. We did go to school together, starting from kindergarten at the old Little Angels in Quezon City, where we, I remember, were classmates. So in a way his face was a fixture in the scenes of my childhood. We grew up together, in a way. This must explain part of the shock: he could have been a friend of old. That he wasn’t—that I knew him only through other friends, from a place and time I don’t terribly miss—does not make his death any less shocking. It doesn’t make me feel less sad. Anyone his age is too young to die.

I do wonder if such terrible news could be made less terrible if one didn’t find out about it through Facebook. I was, in fact, Facebook friends with the deceased. We had over a hundred mutual friends. I’d gotten so used to seeing or hearing about others’ birthdays, romances, breakups, engagements, weddings, babies, promotions, habits, diets, travels, pleasures, parties, possessions—their proofs of life—that the announcement of someone’s death, a proof of the end of someone’s life, came as something entirely unexpected. When the “Rest in peace” posts began to appear on my News Feed—posts written by fellow schoolmates—my heart jumped. Then I felt embarrassed. I realized with sudden horror that Facebook was a massive cocktail party and I had just followed a crowd into a private room with a casket in the middle. Is there a clumsier way of having this sort of news broken? I think not. You could be holding a martini in your hand while everyone else is consoling the bereaved. 

23 February 2013

Thanking Daniel

Note: This piece was originally published December 2012 in Positively Filipino, a new 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.”

A couple of weeks ago, I met for the first time the editorial group, led by founder and former Filipinas Magazine publisher Mona Lisa Yuchengco and managing editor Gemma Nemenzo. My fellow contributors are a lovely bunch; I encourage you to visit the site and read their pieces.

A few days ago I was out late with my friend E at Barrio Lastarria. It must have been around three or four in the morning and we were already—or only, given the place and time—half-drunk.

“Maybe El Toro will still be open,” E suggested, since around us the pubs and cafés were either closed or closing. So we walked north toward Parque Forestal, an eerily beautiful park created on reclaimed land from the Mapocho River, on our way to Loreto Street in Bellavista, the sleepless bohemian barrio of Santiago, Chile.

At the park we noticed a group of four young men in hoodies who had emerged from leafy shadows and appeared to be following us. One of them carried a bat of some sort: the baseball or cricket sort. A few seconds later, a fifth man—slightly older, but no more than thirty, with a shaved head—also seemed to come from nowhere and began to walk even more hurriedly in our direction.

“Jacket, please,” E began to say, in a tone that verged on being hysterical. “Your jacket! Put it on.” A clueless, silly foreigner, I did what he asked me to do while the fifth man caught up with us. He approached with a kind of swagger, with a cocky little smile that to me looked less amiable than threatening. Addressing E, he inquired, “¿Qué hora es?”—as if there were a train to catch, an appointment to make, or a deadline to beat; as though it was the most common thing in the world to be asking for the time in the dead of the night-morning while the rest of the city slept or got lost in the heady blur of cervezas and vinos

It was only after E gave the time and, without warning, plucked my sleeve and we burst out running, as fast and as far out of the park as we could, without looking back, without bothering to check where and who the chasers were, if indeed they chased and not simply stood there laughing at us—it was only after this sudden, harrowing half-minute that E told me we had just escaped neo-Nazis.

At the mention of this I positively shivered. Neo-Nazis in Chile are known to discriminate against a wide range of minorities, including homosexuals, Peruvian immigrants, punk rockers, alcoholics, drug addicts, even whites from southern Europe. About Asians I don’t know how they feel exactly, but I won’t hesitate to say that the scare at the park could have turned into something perilously worse. Last March, neo-Nazis killed a twenty-four-year-old Chilean gay man named Daniel Zamudio. They attacked him in Parque San Borja, which is also along Alameda, five minutes away from Parque Forestal. There were four attackers; according to reports, they beat Daniel up for an hour, broke both his legs, cut off one of his ears, seared his skin with cigarettes, pounded his head with a stone, and carved swastikas on his abdomen using the neck of a broken bottle of pisco sour. He died a couple of weeks later in the hospital.

“I’m sorry we had to go through that,” said E, who is gay. The apology was not necessary. What was he saying sorry for? I was alive and unharmed. Though jolted sober with hearts still pounding, we were alive. As though to relish this fact, we sat on a sidewalk on Dardignac Street in Bellavista and simply stayed there for at least two hours, only getting up just before the sun rose.

A sidewalk: when I came eleven thousand miles from Manila to work in Santiago, I well expected to feel transplanted—to spend my days in a state of perplexity and unbelonging. I expected correctly. Save for a graphic designer who recently left for Nagpur in India, I have not met another Filipino. There is, in fact, nothing here that can be described as being from home or of home: there isn’t a single Filipino restaurant, a single Filipino club, a single Filipino anything. More than once I have wondered if, as a temporary resident of Chile, I may as well be living in another planet. 

Like E, I also happen to be gay. This makes it almost impossible for me to be any more a ‘minor’ than I already am (unless I tried to like punk rock, which I believe I am too old for), and indeed if there was a place in Santiago where I belonged, at least as much as E did, it certainly would not be Parque Forestal, among Chilean neo-Nazis roaming, waiting, moving to pounce.

Yet—yet—as we sat later on concrete in the wee hours of the morning, I began to wonder if there was a more profound way of gaining and strengthening one’s sense of identity than to encounter people bent on disagreeing with it; if, in the face of fear, or amid threats of intolerance, hatred, and discrimination, one might suddenly become more honest and frank about himself. “You don’t look Chilean,” E said when I asked, half-jokingly, if I could pass for one. Of course not—and I always knew it. But never have I felt more exceptionally Filipino than here on the streets of Santiago, under the glare of people who are shockingly non-Asian, and never has the fact of my sexuality asserted itself more swiftly than when I was made to grasp, both by telling and by reimagining, the heartbreaking tragedy that befell Daniel Zamudio. 

E told me that he was one of thousands who lit candles the day Daniel died. Shortly after that Chilean President Sebastian Piñera accelerated the passage of an anti-discrimination law designed to prevent hate crimes and violations of fundamental human rights. I was still in Manila then, occupied by the comforts and entanglements of the Filipino commonplace. But if somehow there was a way to reach out to the dead, to the murdered, I’d say to Daniel, thank you for your life. My journey across thousands of miles no longer seems so distant, and I can be more fearless roaming the world you had left.

29 January 2013

Fondly, Niña

Again her left eye is swollen shut and again I know it must be to do with some unknown girlfriend or lover. She’s at the kitchen cooking chicken adobo, which she’ll pack neatly in Tupperware and eat later during a break from her usual night shift at the call center. Hi Miguel, she says, so I say hi back. Hi Ate Niña. 

The pair of sunglasses that she was wearing when she came in is on the dinner table. Her backpack, whatever is in it, wherever it has been, is propped on one of the chairs. I am sitting quietly at the table in front of my laptop and again I am filled with rage. Who is this person beating up my sister? Who is abusing her love? Because Lourdes—fondly, Niña—is loving—sometimes to a fault. It’s one of the things I have learned, that it’s possible to be loving to a fault. Another thing I have learned is that sometimes it’s better to be discreet and not say anything, even when there’s an elephant in the room.

So I don’t say anything. I simply let her watch a YouTube video on my computer, the audition of a stuttering gay Cuban singer on American Idol, and while she’s sitting next to me I do my best to ignore the plastic spatula in her hand dripping soy sauce on the floor. 

The eye is black just above the lid. It’s so swollen it looks like a nasty cockroach bite. The fact that it’s so dark, that it’s so black, makes me cringe. There have been times when it’s not the eye, when the bruises are on the cheeks, or the legs, or the shoulder muscles, or somewhere under the rib area, just under her breasts. There have also been times when the eyes are swollen but only from crying. You hear bits of her talking on the phone throughout the night—her sniffs and wails. Then she comes out of her bedroom in the morning and you know that something’s up. You smell her suffering. 

Once when we were children Niña couldn’t remove herself from the hollow newel at the top of our ancestral house’s green spiral staircase. We had been playing hide-and-seek and she had covered herself with a bath towel so that I wouldn’t be able to find her. But I did, easily. The edge of the sleeve of her fuchsia San Miguel Pale Pilsen t-shirt was showing—not to mention the bump under the towel that was obviously her head. Huli ka! I said. But no matter how effortlessly she had inserted herself in that gap, getting herself out seemed somehow impossible. Father had to come up and assist, and it put an end to the game. Niña was in tears.

Well, she’s thirty-five now, a beautiful grown woman. Time does fly fast, especially if you count not by years but by tragedies. The face of the lover-enemy who does this to her, I have not seen, and the violent parts of her life that leave marks on her body, I cannot claim to know, but the blood that runs through her veins remains ever the same as mine. To see her in such a state—to be helpless about it—it jolts the heart and cramps the fist.

Finally the chicken is done. She turns off the kitchen stove and we watch another audition, this time of a transgender contestant with a guitar who claims she’s from “North Carolina, Planet Earth.” This part makes us laugh. Niña, watching closely, says, I can’t figure out if he used to be a girl or she used to be a guy. Clearly she used to be a guy, I say. Then the contestant begins to sing, and her voice turns out to be like honey. 

You might find me by the side of the road, in that old train yard;
You might find me on the corner, with a smile on my face, strumming on my guitar.
I’m out here wandering underneath an azure sky;
I’m gonna keep on wandering ‘til my days on God’s green earth are done.

20 January 2013


He was sitting with a little girl at a table next to mine inside Chowking. He wore a crumpled army cap, a provincially (as opposed to metrosexually) tight grey t-shirt, a pair of ripped jeans. I assumed that he, too, was waiting for the orange chicken lauriat. The day had slowed down in the hours after lunch and so, it seemed, had the service. But when finally my food came his didn’t. He hadn’t ordered anything.

His name is Joel. He is from Lucena, Quezon, a provincial city southeast of Manila and north of Tayabas Bay. Early in the morning he, along with the little girl, his daughter, took a Philippine Rabbit bus to see the big city and visit the Children’s Museum. On their way to the museum Joel realized that his wallet was missing. It had been stolen. By whom he did not know; he did not even feel anything when it happened. He was thus left with no cash. The two hundred dollars that he, a repatriate, had brought for exchange were gone, too. He had to call the bank to cancel his credit card. But how was he going to make his way back home? The bus conductors refused to give him a ticket in exchange for a promise. The cops to whom he reported the theft could not do anything apart from write an entry on the blotter, because what more could be done? This is life. People’s wallets get stolen all the time—especially in this part of the city, on these streets, which can be dangerous, harsh, and unkind, preying on those who look clueless, who do not look and act and sound like Manileños. 

I am a Manileño. When Joel told me his story it was not my first time hearing of such a thing. I had never fallen for it. There are different versions. Sometimes it’s a mother who has to pay a deposit to the Philippine General Hospital so that her sick son or daughter can be admitted. Sometimes it’s a public school student at the bus station who has simply run out of money for the fare. Sometimes it’s an impossibly attractive young woman who is supposed to have fled her abusive husband. (She isn’t fooling me.) The story invariably closes with a plea for help, then with me turning deaf and walking away.

Joel’s daughter has asthma. While her father and I talked she slept with her head rested on the table, next to his yellow-cased iPhone, her shiny Captain America action figure, and the pink, patterned JanSport backpack that contained her nebulizer. I’m guessing she’s about eight or nine. She had been looking forward to visiting the museum, he said, but now, after some hours of despair, neither of them had the energy to even do anything, apart of course from wait for the in-laws in Lucena to call and confirm if anyone was coming to pick them up.

A part of me believed nothing that Joel said. It’s the part called common sense. But another part reached for my wallet and gave the money that common sense was too pained to give, and which Joel had not asked for. I hope this helps, I said, handing the peso bills out discreetly, under the table. It felt odd to do that; it felt almost illegal—a crime against reason. What was I thinking? Joel thanked me profusely—he was actually teary-eyed—while quietly I wrestled with the terrible thought that I may have been conned. 

But if I have been conned, so what? Isn’t it more okay, isn’t it healthier, to let your guard down at least once than to never let it down at all, ever? To know you have a heart, however foolish; to feel you’re alive; to learn in very sudden fashion that you can get struck no matter how thick and high the walls you have built to protect against it. Essentially, to be reset to default; to be unclouded by adult doubts and suspicions. Others can laugh. But the cost of a bus ticket to Lucena is a price I’m willing to pay for a temporary yet necessary disengagement from cynicism, from a deep Manileñan distrust of city men and women. When I got up to leave the restaurant, Joel told me that I was a decent man, and whether he was putting me on or not I took it that he meant ‘decent’ and not ‘stupid’. Let father and daughter make their way home.

Related: “Thieves in Our City

11 January 2013


Last time I saw you
We had just split in two.
You were looking at me.
I was looking at you.
You had a way so familiar,
But I could not recognize,
‘Cause you had blood on your face;
I had blood in my eyes.
But I could swear by your expression
That the pain down in your soul
Was the same as the one down in mine.
That’s the pain,
(That) cuts a straight line
Down through the heart;
We call it love.

— From “The Origin of Love”

Ever heard of To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything! Julie Newmar? It’s a movie that I watched when I was a young boy. HBO had shown it a bunch of times, sometimes twice in one day. So I watched it a bunch of times, too. (In those days—we’re talking mid to late nineties here—I preferred to stay awake while everyone took their siestas.) Back then, I, being no more than twelve or thirteen, didn’t really understand what the movie was about. It was lost on me. (As was everything else possibly important in my misspent youth.) But I do remember how I felt seeing Wesley Snipes, Patrick Swayze, and John Leguizamo in drag. I felt startled. Men dressed up as women! My Christian Living teachers would not have approved of it.

I was also held spellbound. 

I bring up To Wong Foo because recently—between hours of listening to Georgette Dee and Frank Ocean—I watched The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert and Hedwig and the Angry Inch. Both of these are—how do you describe it?—both are drag queen movies. They kind of brought back the same feelings that I had had watching To Wong Foo as a kid. Hugo Weaving, Terence Stamp, and Guy Pearce were freaking fabulous in the former; and if I start with John Cameron Mitchell in the latter, I will not run out of good things to say. He was simply terrific as the title character, a transsexual singer from Berlin supposed to represent, metaphorically speaking, the old divide between communist East Germany and democratic West Germany. The story is more philosophical than political, though. If you haven’t seen Hedwig and the Angry Inch—well, I would at least recommend that you look for and listen to “The Origin of Love,” one of the songs from the original stage show (the film is an adaptation of a musical by Stephen Trask), which is based on Aristophanes’ speech in Plato’s Symposium. The sound, I daresay, is Bowie-esque. The lyrics are even nicer.

Are all drag queen movies supposed to be preposterous? I won’t pretend to have an opinion on the matter. (People who know me, however, will hasten to tell you that I can be either a drag or a queen!) Besides, if they are, it’s probably because they’re only being faithful to the dramas and realities of drag queenship. A couple of months ago, I was hanging out with my dear friend M at a local bar on Pio Nono in Santiago, Chile, and we came across this dancing man-woman who touched, or attempted to touch, the ass of every male passerby. It was a hoot. Escudo almost came out of my nostrils, and M and I had as good a time as she did. She was dancing, shaking, sashaying in this glittered lavender ensemble, complete with bold red lipstick, a classic blonde wig, and heels that clattered, and she reminded me, not with words but with appearance and action, that I took life way too seriously, that I ought to have fun once in a while, you know? The way she was having fun. Someone gave her a quiniento—an insult to her talent, apparently—and she just tossed it in the air and proceeded to grab the shirt of a random Chileno for a few minutes of non-traditional street-side cueca. Again I was held spellbound, but no longer was I startled.