25 February 2014

How Does It Feel, Aurora?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

15 February 2014

Erwin the Bartender

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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