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.