Monday, April 25, 2011

How to Be Single

[Part 1 of "The Manual" series]

Imagine pleasant things, like a moment of sex that is so good you wish you had it then and there. While at that, allow your lips to gently bite themselves. Feel your fingers tremble, your pupils dilate and your chest heave. Watch your hands reach for something, probably a part of your body between your thighs. Allow it to lead you to a familiar place somewhere between heaven and earth. Suddenly recognize a desire waiting to burst out of its cocoon, a monster peering at the back of your mind, then dream. Fully awake or restlessly sleeping, it does not matter. Yours will be a lonely battle. But that's exactly the point. You are single, or just another star in the nebula.

Beer is a mighty ambrosia. It makes you invincible and brave enough to test every water. It toughens your skin into timber. It washes your soul. It will be a bath you have never had before. Let it skim through your veins like a tractor clearing the land, cleansing it of its own life so that you may die just a little bit more. Lose yourself in the thick of haze. The following morning, find yourself in a different bed. Believe Milan Kundera when he wrote that with death comes the possibility of immortality. But don't die just yet. You have the rest of your life to do that. Say a brief farewell to your sleeping partner—your prey and predator—but do not leave a note. Then, walk away.

Forget whatever happened last night and the other night, just like the rest of the nights that went before. Memory is cruel. History is a sleeping beast, an ogre. A heart, no matter how malevolent, also needs a break from every heartbreak. Let it breathe, even for a while, because you will never know when it will breathe its last, which will be a surprise you will never get to witness.

Take a ride. Take a long trip to anywhere where a map and a compass are not needed. Your primal instincts will help you get lost. In your journey, take sixty-eight random photos. Scan the images. Wonder why the photos are more beautiful than the amber fields, the trees, the afternoon sky and the people you've never met before. Recall that memory is cruel. Pictures are there to help you remember because you always forget. Your mind is a catacomb.

Go to a beach and wear your skin against the wind, the moonlight, the sea and the sand. Drift with your feet along the shore while tender waves reach for your ankles. They will let go eventually. Find a spot where the high tide won't reach you. Encamp and make fire. Eat a banana. Sing. The rest of the night will be cold and lovely. Read a book, a novel pretending to be a tutorial about how to survive in the mountains.

Climb a mountain. Marvel at how small the earth is six thousand feet above itself. Check if the book you've read is right. If it is, you will return to your apartment in one piece, most likely three days and two nights after. Otherwise, you're lost. Awaken a few minutes before sunrise to the sound of birds fluttering close by. The beach is still there; you never left. Before seven, you have to decamp. Leave the whiskey behind. A stranger might need one.

Go to a crowded mall and wear your face on the outside for the first time in a long time. Buy a cup of coffee even if you don't really drink caffeinated beverages. Sit and wait. Pretend to read the same book about surviving in the mountains, not knowing the difference, if there is any, between cities and earthen protrusions. Wait for thirty minutes more. Steal glances at the lovely stranger at the opposite table. Get a pen and a sheet of paper. Write her a letter because you don't know her name and you want to know. Address her as "beautiful stranger" and smile at the silly thought. She will look at you and wonder what you are writing. Before you could give her the letter, she will leave. And she will leave behind the same bottle of whiskey you abandoned several days ago. Keep it.

Hand-over the letter to the lady barista. Don't forget to smile and to watch her smile back. Leave quietly, still wearing the face when you arrived. You begin to think that the lady will wait for your return. Of course, you won't come back. And of course, you thought wrong.

Buy a hamburger. If there's any, separate the cheese. Throw it away. When you're single, you don't want anything that has something to do with cheese. You only want two things: meat and buns, preferably warm.

Understand that nine o'clock in the evening is not the best time to go home. It's too early and too late for everything. Debate with yourself. You'll win the argument at the cost of losing it. Thereafter, patiently wait in line. The train station is dense with countless other single men and women. Suddenly, you are home again, imagining pleasant things.

Part 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Against the Light

It is summer and a thousand and more flowers have already blossomed, their colors a motley of pleasant hues. There is a sweet scent in the air that invites the senses to a festive treat of lush greens, vibrant and lovely from the distance where they dwell with the gentle creatures of the fields. Bluer than her eyes, the sky extends almost infinitely, as if it is one with a universe that is strangely familiar. Back then, she thought I love her. She was right, not because there was no reason not to love her but because I simply do. My name is Paulo and I still remember both, the girl and the memory of her, together with all the warm kisses that were never given for reasons my humble heart cannot fathom. I have always looked upon this day to write about her. Then again, I might as well not. The rest of summer awaits. Today is nothing more than the sinew of a future shaped in the past.

But I miss her, still.

From where should I tersely cull the full memories I have always tried to forget? I have tried before and yesterday was the last time I did, only to discover each time, then as now, that she can never be found again, perhaps not anymore in this lifetime. All I have now are shards of that ever so brittle history of ours. They are little pieces that seek to dignify themselves by flailing my conscience, hurling themselves against my understanding of what our lives have once been. To this day, I still bear the scars if only to prove my point. They go beneath the skin and hurt just as bad.

She is always against the light in my mind, like a portrait of her covered in a translucent veil. Her face and who she was before refuse to reveal themselves in full glory, as if they have finally found their sacred refuge in that bright scepter behind, her being now as complete as she has always wanted herself to be. I try to remember her like an incarnate subject of stills but all I see are underexposed frames of a woman who has probably lived long enough to witness a man turn the world inside-out, all in her name. Or maybe it was, at the same time, short enough to barely witness the same man suffer a voiceless cry once. The second time she no longer heard, for the dirge I sung was meant to be the first and last.

I stared at the distant sun, its radial blessings shining forth, piercing through the nimbus and causing an explosion of ocher. I do not know where she is, her flesh having returned to the elements. Heaven knows where, if at all there is one. Perhaps, she has become a nymph guarding these fields where I first held her hand. Maybe she is someone else, the daisies having already pushed themselves up two years ago. But even floral beauty cannot last forever.

At least thrice every May, I return here. What I practice is a pilgrimage, with her memory, or what remains of it, as my scapular—never held by my hands, only remembered by my mind. Sometimes when I write here, I think I hold my heart instead of my pen. The world is my blank slate, patiently waiting for the words to be forever etched in stone. Soon, I would start professing feelings that, time and again, have been evenly wrung from the recesses of a passionate longing, unspoken but always throbbing with life, its pulse having its own way of wrenching my solitude with—to borrow a line from a song—more loneliness than any man could bear. But before I could finish the first paragraph, I always find myself losing the strength to write the last word because I would suddenly recall that last Thursday of her life.

Had it not been for the rope, I thought she levitated in her dark room, her hands reaching for the ground, feet pointing to the floor. There was that unmistakable madness in her method, and so with the method in her madness. I held her down and embraced her just the same. Her body had the fading warmth of dying ember.

"You cannot move-on if all you do is move around in one place," she told me once, to which she added, "I want to break your heart someday." When she said it, her smile was beautiful, her eyes more so.

I met the girl with pale cheeks and lips to die for in a summer sunset long ago. Her name is Aubrey and I remember her.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Please Be

Once, she vigorously asked if I have a love life. With the way her voice cajoled my sensibilities and her fingers touched mine, I found it difficult, even if tempting, to refuse to answer her question. I looked at her and declared what I had to say. Some of the times, I said, I have a love but I do not have a life. In some other times, I do not have a love but at least I have a life. It is bad enough that I cannot have both worlds; the north and south are opposites almost impossible to meld in a single plane unless you flatten the world by pushing those polar extremes together. Worse, which is most of the time, I do not have either. I cannot force the world to reduce itself into two dimensions, or a surface pure and simple. After my prolonged verbal exaltation, I found my lips cruising her collar bone. For the life of me, I cannot recall what happened in the middle. Everything happened like an essay without a body, only an introduction and a conclusion—like this one you are reading right now. Nothing made any clear sense, except for the four words I've heard from her before our lips touched.

Let me be both.

Friday, April 8, 2011


Like couples, the subject and the verb must agree. Singular subjects go with singular verbs while plural subjects go with plural verbs. Say He is wrong, and you are right. Say He are right, and you are wrong. Say She is right, and you are right. Say She is wrong, and, well, you will unmistakably have a sentence—a death sentence. I was told that women are never wrong. In any case, as in most cases, a man is destined to commit all forms of irreversible errors because he is never right, but that is quite something else. As for subjects and verbs and relationships, the rules are not clear as to who gets to play the role of the subject and who gets to play the role of the verb. Perhaps it depends on who wants to do what or, to be more precise, it depends on what the woman wants. The man has one of two doctrines to follow: either he agrees or he cajoles himself to agree. The difference is the same.

As to the when and the where, the confusion is even more staggering. Maybe it is as confusing as menstrual cycle, the type that is so regular in its irregularity that just tracing any pattern out of the messy chaos for twelve long months is enough to drive you insane. No wonder some women have an animosity with their own vagina. Maybe there is a sane reason why tampons were invented. But I do not know; I have never used one in my life. Is it a machine with ballasts? How do you operate a tampon? Do you have a remote control for that? Is it alive? Those are just some of the questions that have absolutely nothing to do with the title of this post, which is Love and Grammar. Or maybe I should just switch it to Love and Grammar and Tampons because two is a company and three is not a crowd but an orgy. Four is porn, five all the more, which is not necessarily merrier. I digress a lot.

Going back, the active voice is a curiosity. We are told to refrain from using the passive voice for arbitrary reasons that do not really make sense. Unless you count Strunk and White as gods, the rules were never given by the immortals of grammar, and that independent clause—and even this independent clause—will be neutered by an editor because both clauses are in the passive voice, as if the world will be a better place if every spoken and written sentence portrays the subject as the doer of the action. There is nothing worse, they say, than a long sentence written in the passive voice and interjected by an em dash. Unlike in general romance and romancing, the paradigm in formal writing is this: the shorter, the better.

Stated differently, less is more. Climb the heavens with just a ladder. Burrow through the earth using just a shovel. In between, you will find her. Fall in love a thousand times in seven years—with the same girl. Because to love her more is to love her less, you will have to lose her. Curiously enough, she will never be yours to begin with, which means you lost no one in particular but everything you thought you had in general.

Maybe John, Paul, Ringo and George were right: all we need is love. Maybe grammarians just need more of love and less of grammar. Or maybe they just need the touch of a warm body every once in a while, like a break from thinking too hard and feeling too little. Papers and words can be as cold as glacier and they will hardly comfort your skin when all you want is a hug to end your solitary evening. All the same, there are only so many words that one can edit. Unfortunately, there are not enough phrases and novels that will actually breathe love into the chambers of any lonely stranger's heart, and all that morning cheese for my daily bread.

This sentence should be wrong, this is a comma-splice. It happens when you force two independent clauses together with only a comma to separate one from the other. One way to salvage the sentence from its own demise is to wedge a coordinating conjunction between the comma and the subsequent clause. It is a nifty panacea. An "and" will do, as in he likes her, and she likes him as well. The trick is to remove any pretense of independence from the other, one that is feigned by deploying a mere symbol to create the illusion of a safe distance, as in She can live without him, and he seems to be satisfied with his life.

So there.

Monday, April 4, 2011

There and Back

When I opened my eyes, I was suddenly fifty. Blurred sight comes with age, and the velvet sky offered no visual comfort that autumn evening. Inhaling the cold misty air, I thought of the twenty-five years I have missed, of the strangers I could have possibly met, and of the worries that gave birth to the wrinkles on my aging face. From where I was, the earth seemed to momentarily stop spinning on its own axis just to be able to grasp the reason why it even had to revolve around the sun. The sallow grassy knoll received the moonlight; it somehow sparkled in the distance with the rest of the stars in the backdrop. I closed my eyes and tried to retrace all the lost years, as if I was about to make a fool of Nietzsche when he said this: if you stare into the abyss long enough, the abyss stares back at you. I scoured the recesses of my frail memory and found nothing. It was a vessel that was as empty as a meaningless word. Nothing stared back, and then I knew Nietzsche was right.

I opened my eyes the second time; I was thirty, all poised in the middle of a church wedding inside a grand Gothic structure, blessed perhaps by all the known saints in the world. It was ten in the morning when the bells rang, and from where I stood the bride was as lovely as a mystic apparition, the kind that exceeds beauty more than anything else I can recall. Many times in my life have I seen faces, but hers was entirely something that can mend and break any tensile heart. I thought she was looking straight in my direction, and so my heart skipped two beats: one for her and one for my soul, and the subsequent chain of events transpired like movie stills flashing before the entourage one frame at a given time.

The first frame was nothing picturesque as it was austere. I simply braved my way through the crowd, pushing against the walls of warm bodies pressed together tightly they refuse light from passing through. By the second frame, I was standing in front of her, meek but slightly undaunted by her divine presence. My knees were about to jerk off from their sockets, sending a childish tremor down a floor tiled with two inches of clay slabs so as to hide the earth that, from time to time, also had its own moments of trembling. Had I known the name of my bride, I would have called it out.

To say the least, it was the first time I met her. Of all the strange occasions that I found enchanting, it was by far the most captivating. I was immediately drawn to her for a reason that is yet to be given a name by the dictionary. I felt all the emotions in my being suddenly finding their way to the pores of my skin, so I kissed her by the third frame with as much passion as a man seeing the love of his life for the first time in a very long time. All the while, I was perfectly aware that I would be spending the rest of my life with her. Our lips met. But I suddenly felt her iron fist land on my left cheek by the fourth frame, at which moment things became crystal clear, similar in many ways to the clarity of the devastation after the dust has settled down.

I was not her groom. Then and there, I closed my eyes, partly because of the searing pain and partly because of the misery I felt. I had to escape to another phase in my life.

The warm afternoon breeze was rather kind. I opened my eyes and saw myself riding the bicycle for the first time. I was ten and, under the aegis of my father, I pedaled my way on a narrow street flanked by fields of amber on both shoulders, fearless of the gentle slopes that invite a mishap on the slightest miscalculation of balance. It was one of those Sundays of summer and my father was a happy man at thirty-three. In spite of how his hands and body have aged faster than most husbands his generation, he had the spirit of perpetual youth. I tried to drive the thing faster but my father would run after me and would tell me to slow down. The pleasures of riding a simple bicycle, like life, are not always to be found in speed. So I closed my eyes again, slowing down at the same time while still hearing the voice of my dear father. I thought of how much I miss my childhood days when the world was still big enough to worry about its own problems. In that brief moment of inspired darkness, I was free again.

I opened my eyes and I was back at twenty-four, never too old to dream but never too young to keep my feet planted on the ground.