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.