Monday, October 31, 2011

The Crucible of the Idols

[Part 4 of the "Daemons" series]

TWO BEDEWED FLOWERS blossomed from the rubble, their delicate but bright yellow petals bobbing against a backdrop of dust and grey. The surviving wall staggered at an obtuse angle as it weathered the early morning light and the curtain of September mist that spread throughout the city. Fragments of old concrete littered a short stretch of the sidewalk, some reaching as far as the other side of Dimasalang Street. A pedestrian momentarily stopped to glance at the little hills of debris, and then continued to walk away from the vacant lot where my art gallery once stood.

With the way things have been, the land owner had more than enough cash to finance his European itinerary for six months while the archdiocese now had the space to build its sixth shop for the kind of art that praises the heavens more than anything else. Before the year ended, the new building was already three floors closer to god, leaving no trace of the dreams and nightmares born and martyred in that same earthen spot. In its immaculate whiteness, the mint structure was the immediate succor for pious art enthusiasts who always find reasons to celebrate the mysteries of their faith, wine glass on one hand, unleavened bread on the other, and a little sin in the pocket.

I sold some of the paintings at generous bargains and gave most of the framed sketches to friends and a few relatives who were willing enough to let my art grace or disgrace their walls like scars on porcelain skin. Either way, I had to find them a new home. Where I live during weekdays, there is just enough legroom for eight paint canisters, nine frames, four canvases, a rundown mattress waiting for the retirement it deserves after more than a decade of service, three biographies—Vincent Van Gogh, Ernesto Guevara, and Robert Johnson—two Orwellian novels, the King James Bible, a small collection of copper wires, and the wheel of a Volkswagen I stole almost six years ago after downing thirteen bottles of beer during an art exhibit. There was not much. On weekends, I stay at the art gallery. Unfortunately, I will never be there again.

Clara was already in Manila when she learned about the demolition. Her first few days in college were beyond trite. Breathing alone was already a challenge for someone enrolled in a university where students and professors find refuge and sustenance in prayers during scheduled hours of the day, fencing their selves with the grace of something regal and divine against anything noxious to their faith, and where everything fell under the censorship and blessing of the friars who, for reasons known only to them, thoroughly believed in their own illusions of impenetrable grandeur and all things supposedly worthy of the Eucharist. Her art, personal and impassioned as it has been ever since, was her only oxygen. But even that almost escaped her had it not been for her choice to overturn the impasse of indecision by pursuing her real interest.

Although Clara took business administration, it only lasted for a while. By second year, Father Pio could no longer rein her in with his words. The tirades kept coming, letters sent one after the next, each dispatch an annotation of the one that preceded it, longer and less diplomatic, but they failed to sway her. Maybe they were only efficient during Sundays in church before a flock of strangers thirsting for the promise of salvation premised on a prophecy. They were not as efficient a thousand miles away where all the noises of urban existence silence the voices of angels and saints suddenly finding their way in reveries, in pulpits, and in letters unanswered and left to stale in the drawers. With her firm resolve in tow, Clara transferred to the college of fine arts.

Even if he knew that he may have already lost Clara, Father Pio thought he still had the blessing of Rome. And he still had. At fifty-five, he was decreed archbishop. Some of the pious art enthusiasts were present in the celebration, yet again wine glass on one hand, unleavened bread on the other, and a little sin on the pocket. His brothers in the order who lobbied in his favor probably saw in him the spirit of someone eager to receive all the flak without sacrificing his pride before the surge of indignation. The year was 1988 and he had little time to waste.

Religious art began to flourish under the watch of the new archbishop. The church has found its contemporary apostle for the monuments of saints and the colorful murals and paintings in the person of Father Pio, ageing but now drawn more than ever to the lure of visual aesthetics. He had commissioned the finest artists in the archdiocese to refurbish the face of the church, even going to the fringe by ensuring the flamboyant inauguration of five museums solely dedicated to clarify the religious roots of Nueva Caceres. He became more than a vanguard of the art of the church. He was its visionary and chief patron. Too preoccupied with his ambition, Father Pio was unaware that Clara refused to finish her degree. The letters stopped coming. But whatever she lacked in the academe she made up for her artistic exploits far beyond the guarantees of a college diploma.

Since her last exhibit somewhere in Makati City, I have not heard from her in three years. But by thirty, she turned her self into a piece of the same art she has created. By then, her metamorphosis was complete, like pollens becoming two bedewed flowers that have blossomed from the rubble.

Part 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Visions Sans Sketches

[Part 3 of the "Daemons" series]

“THIS ONE IS the Infant Jesus,” Clara said as she held the sketch in front of her and Father Pio, her hand stretched high enough as though she levied her pride with it. Little streaks of moonlight poured through the fissures of the wooden windows, the tapers of white light skirting the shadows on the tiled floor like luminous sticks poking the amorphous darkness. The diffused incandescence from the lampshade caused the charcoal dusts to shimmer bleakly. Clara looked at Father Pio, her breaths caught between an air of calm and anxiety as her free hand tugged the linen sheets of her bed.

“That looks, well, nice enough,” he lied. The priest could only wager a nonchalant smile as he brushed her hair with his fingers, his confusion clawing away his steady mind, not knowing if he should take a longer look at the caricature or simply turn a blind eye at it. Her drawing betrayed his expectations about her innocence at the age of fifteen, for the picture was symbolic of a species of irreverence, the type that he has yet to completely rebuke by giving it a name. If the image resembled anything, it had almost nothing to do with the little Messiah. Amid the orgy of lines, the child she drew gripped its massive penis dangling between its legs, the scrotum having folds aplenty like the draperies of a drawn curtain.

“I learned that religion is a giant phallus clutched by the hand of God,” she said, eager to solicit a response from him.

“I can clearly see your point.” His smile was gone, in its place an emerging grimace. “But who told you that?”

“Some guy did. He also told me that religion nurtures feudalism and patriarchy, whichever comes first.”

Not another bastard of the great unwashed, he thought. “Who is he?” he insisted, his voice a pitch higher than his casual baritone.

“Felix. He’s the guy who owns the art gallery near school.” Clara set the sketch aside in a pile together with the small stack of caricatures on her bedside table. “Are you mad at him?” she said as she pulled the blanket to her chest, the tone of her voice plush with sympathy.

“No.” Father Pio kissed her on the forehead, his lips dried by age and countless litanies that usually fell on deaf ears and forlorn consciences, dredging what little piety is left in the gutter of their lives. “It’s time for you to rest, my child. Sleep, for you still need to rise early tomorrow for your exam.” He mumbled a short prayer — Clara prayed with him, her hands clasped like a dutiful nun — before he turned out the lights and shut the door. After several hours into the night, Clara still could not sleep. Father Pio, too, had the same predicament. But a few minutes before three in the early morning, they finally had their taste of slumber.

The day before he first set foot in my gallery, Father Pio and I met in a dream. It was not my dream alone, nor was it solely his. There were no two separate dreams, one the adjunct of the other. There was only one, and it was ours.

“Felix!” he called out several times. His tone was either boisterous or just plain angry. My spirit came to possess the self portrait I drew several years back. I spoke through it as if it was my phantom, a fitting mouthpiece for someone who could easily pass as a spare Christ had it not been for my very Filipino nose.

“You must be Father Pio,” I said, my voice drawing him closer to where I was. “Clara told me plenty of stories about you.” He further stepped closer, his pace gentle but resolute, white smoke trailing his steps, until he was only two feet in front. The Dominican shot a look of doubt, realizing a little too late that I am my own art. The frame is my bone and the paper is my skin. I smelled the scent of incense.

“You have to stop poisoning Clara’s innocence,” he said. “Your propaganda is not helping either her or your cause. I suggest that you just keep it to your self.”

“A priest is the hand of God that clutches religion as if it’s a giant phallus on full erection,” I said without any pretense of guilt. Admonition was much to be desired. “Did you like the idiom? I guess not,” I asked without waiting for his answer. I did not know if I made sense. I was held captive by the scent of incense pushing through my charcoal nostrils.

“Your heresy won’t save you!”

“Molested children silenced by the church orthodoxy, vows of celibacy gone awry, reproductive health notions as Jurassic as Adam and Eve — I’m afraid your messianic offers have no real use. The healer has trouble healing its self.”

Father Pio grabbed the frame, his frail hands defying the limits of its own strength, and lifted the portrait as though it had the weight of paper. He swung his arm and hurled the portrait. For a while, I was airborne. I felt weightless until I broke into several pieces. The crash on the floor had no sound.

“You don’t throw away the entire basket of apples just because of a few rotten ones,” he said before he vanished in the thick incense smoke.

I thought the dream was to happen again when Father Pio made his first actual visit to the gallery one Thursday afternoon. But instead of running amok, he simply walked inside, viewed the paintings and sketches on display, and left without saying a word.

Part 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5

Monday, October 24, 2011

The Virgin at the Gallery

[Part 2 of the "Daemons" series]

AS YOUNG AS ELEVEN, Clara already had this vague idea that there was something spectacular about the marriage between religion and art. She thought that, once consummated, it necessarily gives birth to eclecticism. To her mind, the two were equally divine, the yin and yang in the cosmic world of pious Catholics. Nothing was far more perfect than having both in one corpus.

Where she was born and raised, wooden sculptures and marble statues of saints occupied the vacant spaces beside the trellis. Portraits of the Last Supper, of Madonna and the Child graced the corridors, and colorful murals depicting heaven decorated the concrete walls and ceilings. Her more tender years were shaped inside that world where charity was certain to find its cradle any given day, Sunday most of all when Father Pio would celebrate mass and share the body and blood of Christ with his brethren. The great unwashed, he would often describe them in his private quarters during his evening retreat for spiritual contemplation.

It was in high school when Clara first chanced upon an unflattering fusion of art and religious icons. She was out for lunch on her first day as a freshman in an exclusive school for girls run by nuns since the 1950s or as far as I can remember. Some of the students were starting to make their exit from the first gate of Saint Agnes College, perhaps excited to explore the peripheries of Dimasalang Street. My small art gallery was barely ten meters ahead on the opposite side of the road. It was hard to miss, especially for one whose young age of twelve was betrayed by how ahead of her time her mind was.

“Wow!” That was her first remark, which sounded like an inaugural slip of the tongue, as she stood by the door, her feet immobilized by whatever it is that she saw before stepping inside the shop. Her apparent curiosity got the most of her at that moment.

“Hello there young lady, come in,” I said, waving my hand in the air not so much to ward off a new face, although I thought about it at that time. At first, she hesitated to approach.

“Did you make all of them, sir?” She briefly surveyed the plethora of paintings and sketches as she walked inside. “They’re all beautiful.”

“More than half of all the artworks that you see here are mine.” I followed her as I would follow patrons and enthusiasts who visit. It was instinctive rather than habitual. “The others were made by my friends,” I told her.

“The religious paintings and sketches look strange.”

“What do you mean?”

“There is not one that illustrates the traditional image of Christ.”

I took a deep breath. “What does Christ look like?”

“Not like any one of the faces you have here…”

“That may be true.”

“…except your portrait over there.” She was pointing at the small framed sketch gathering dust near the corner. She was right, it was my portrait — a pseudo self portrait. I drew it about two years ago and left it there to age in its own ferment of narcissism. I felt ashamed again.

“Ah, yes. That one,” I finally said.

“The hair, the beard, the mustache, the crown of thorns and the crimson from the wounds — everything screams Jesus,” she paused, “well, except for the nose. It’s very — Filipino.”

“I swear that is very uplifting for you to say.” My voice had its vigorous enthusiasm suddenly amputated from the rest of my ego.

“You are welcome,” she said, rubbing more sarcasm than what she must have first intended.

That was how we first met. In the weeks that followed, she would visit more often during lunch. She would ask many things about art, and I would answer, oftentimes much to my chagrin. I think I learned more from her than she learned anything from me.

Part 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5

Sunday, October 23, 2011

One Invisible Cross Less

[Part 1 of the "Daemons" series]

FATHER PIO cleared his throat with half a bottle of water. He leaned forward and looked hard at Clara, his bony fists clenched against the glass cover of his desk. Sweat filled the wrinkles on his forehead. Except for the distant rustle of leaves, his heavy breathing was the only sound to stifle the momentary muteness in the room.

“No! People like you have no right to desecrate the image of God! Who do you think you are?” His muffled voice constrained the force of his exhortation.

Clara sat still while she eyed the huge portrait on the wall behind the priest, as if her gaze pierced right through his cassock and flesh so as to fix itself on the canvas where the sunset cast a reddish hue. Between Clara and the painting, Father Pio was no more than a silhouette for the past thirty minutes, a voiceless preacher whose mere presence mocks all things divine. For a while, the words of the prelate were mere blurs to her ears.

“Blasphemy is never art,” the Dominican coughed, “and artistic freedom does not include the freedom to offend religious feelings. There is no such freedom, young woman. What you did was neither art nor the expression of freedom. It was perversion, Clara, perversion!”

Suddenly, his words became lucid to her mind. Clara met his bespectacled eyes. She was searching for faint signs of the visionary who once saw through those lenses almost fifteen years ago. Her stare suddenly made her unspoken indignation clear. As if to dodge an accusation that was yet to be thrown, Father Pio briefly bowed his head.

“You are already thirty, Clara, but you have yet to prove that you have already grown wiser,” he went on, wiping the sweat that dampened his patrician nose with his bare hands. Had it not been for the perfunctory blinks, one would have thought that two hastily sketched lines took the spot on his face where his eyes should have been. “It is you who does not understand. You do not know what other people can do to you for what you did.”

“You speak as if your church still maintains the Inquisition for heretics!” Clara countered. She felt the throbs in her temples as though each pulse was waging its own little insurrection against her mortal shell. Recoiling from her sudden outburst, she focused her attention back to the portrait. It was the image of a happy clergyman newly decreed as the archbishop of the diocese of Nueva Caceres, golden scapular on one hand and the Holy Bible on the other. Clara could still recognize her signature, a circular smudge of white acrylic near the lower right edge of the canvas. She perfectly knew who the younger man was, the idyllic subject of the painting, but not its older persona, the portrait incarnate who was now standing in front of her, tirelessly unfurling an unsolicited sermon on a Tuesday.

Father Pio finished drinking the water from the bottle but his thirst felt far from having been thoroughly quenched. “People change, even priests. The Mother Church, however, should be a constant,” he said after noticing for the first time how the portrait held Clara’s attention hostage. “It should always be there, sometimes at all costs.”

Clara fished a cutout newspaper article from her handbag, placed the small sheet on the table and pointed her finger at it. The priest read the headline and looked at her with no hint of surprise. “Your fascist interpretation of religion gravely injured my art and my career, old man,” she blankly confessed.

Without giving him the benefit of a rejoinder and a farewell, Clara stood and walked away. Neither prayer nor miracle could have stopped her. Before she reached for the door knob, Father Pio stretched out his arms and hands as if he was nailed to an invisible cross. With fragile limbs ravaged by gout, it was a strained gesture decrying its own biblical allure.

“My child, you have to listen!”

But the moment she shut the door was the last time he would see her in the next six months.

Part 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Wherever the Wind Blows

[Part 2 of 2 of the "Deuce Diaspora" series]

SUDDENLY, THE WIND from the southwest blew stronger. Twenty paces from where I stood, little Paulo held the kite with his frail hands and tossed it in frantic enthusiasm, causing it to glide alternately between left and right. The ascent was erratic so I had to run faster as I tightly gripped its string. It took a while before the kite finally made its slow but steady climb. When it was already airborne, I tied the string to a peg I burrowed halfway through the famished soil. I waved back at little Paulo as a sign of my gratitude. Shortly after I have last seen his silhouette in the distant trees, I was alone in the amber field again.

The sky was clear. From where I sat, the kite resembled a diamond sailing through the atmosphere and receiving firsthand the radial blessings of the afternoon sun. The tethered aircraft was finally at peace, its tail following its lead like an object dancing to a musical score. It was a lovely sight, but it was only a momentary spectacle. Some good things never last.

I fell asleep, I think.

HARVEST SEASON ended two weeks ago. The paddies that once nursed the rice stalks have turned into a field without grains. A hundred sickles have tended the grasses, turning them into what they are now — the remnants of a luscious harvest. The delicate breeze brings to mind the image of those who labored in the fields even after sunset. There was nothing left to do, so I flew my kite. With my back on the ground, I watched the aircraft stay afloat for what felt like two hours. While the sun surrendered its last light on the western horizon, I let the kite pay homage to the fading celestial glow. Before walking home, I cut the string to set the kite free.

Only the lamp provided illumination inside the hut as I took my dinner. Tens of moths feasted on the light source, creating shadows that dance on the lumber wall. The gentle creatures continued to flutter even after I have washed the tin plate. Standing by the door, I watched the quarter moon wrestle space with the passing nimbus. In this little corner of the universe, it usually rains during summer nights.

There was a drizzle. The patter on the roof was the only music to fill the immediate silence. As the cloudburst grew stronger, I returned to my childhood. Under the evening shower, I was twenty-seven but I felt like ten again. I ran through the fields, feet dribbling across small pools of water and mud. For a while, life was good. My shirt was soiled but I have never felt any cleaner throughout my life in that moment of aimless running. It was utter bliss. Father once said that water can cleanse the body but only freedom can purify the soul. I still believe him.

It was still raining by midnight, only harder. Inside the hut where I have lived for the last four years, the cool mist seemed to nullify the walls and the roof. I took warm refuge beneath the only blanket I was able to take when I left my family. At that time, I realized I should be a free man at the cost of losing my parents, my two older sisters, and my younger brother. Seven years of separation do not heal overnight. But looking back, the years felt like a lifetime dead long ago, never to be reborn.

I LOVED THEM but freedom is a jealous muse. Father had nothing to say that bedewed early morning. Perhaps, he already knew by some stroke of instinct that I had to leave eventually. Growing-up in our household was distressing, especially since mother had already plotted the course of our lives. For some reason only she knew, I was destined to be the first lawyer in the clan. Day after day she would nourish the dream — the dream that was never mine to begin with — by retelling her incantations like a dirge playing in infinite loop. It was as if she knew all the stories of success either firsthand or by heart. Her timing was perfunctory. She would deliver her sermon while we all share a bowl of noodles, insinuating that it could very well be our last supper. Doubtless, it was never enough to satiate the hunger of six bellies, but I was impelled to pack my bags not because of poverty. It was a different monster altogether that did.

Seven summers ago, two hours before dawn, father was already awake — or maybe he had not really slept at all — but he had nothing else to say.

“I will be leaving now,” I told him. He refused to return a word, only a look on his aging face that expressed an emotion somewhere between regret and sympathy.

“Farewell, father,” I finally said. As I turned to make my way toward the door one last time, I thought I heard him whisper goodbye son, his lips trembling at the very thought of surrender. With my decision to go away for good, the wrinkles on the edge of his eyes from a lifetime’s worth of suppressed sentiments must have folded deeper, but I will never know.

The others were still in a deep slumber when I was already on the street, walking with only my backpack and hope in tow. Maybe they were all too busy in their dreams or too tired to awaken from their restless worries. Perhaps my father could only stare in my direction while I slowly disappeared in the unlit distance, my tears never to glimmer in the darkness.

THE TOWN OF SANTA FE had nothing much to offer except a fresh start for a complete stranger. More than four hundred kilometers south of the urban malaise, the town seemed to be completely impervious to modern life, as if it is another universe altogether. It is a sleeping sanctuary eight hours away from the dregs of Quezon City. The very moment I alighted from the bus and took my first step on what felt like virgin soil, I knew I was home. I felt like I was the prodigal son the town never had.

I have heard more about the fields in the north than those in southern Luzon. The choice was easy — exploring the more familiar territory is inutile, so I headed south. I only know Santa Fe for the occasional tempests that rattle it by causing floods that engulf the farmlands. The town was a regular patron of the news headlines during storm season.

It was early summer when I arrived. The fields teemed with rice stalks, the intense orange of the twilight glazing them with dark hues of ocher. Already stooping from the weight of the grains, the stalks bent lower as the breeze hushed through. I thought they were ready for harvest in the next few days. In the distance, there were clutters of shacks. These humble and humbled abodes, I thought, have stood resolute in the face of modest living. With light feet and lighter heart, I approached the huddle of homes.

Mang Salome was sixty and little Paulo was only four when I first met them. The old man was the patriarch and the matriarch in their household of two. There was a kindred spirit in him.

“His parents left him in my care when he was two. They left for Saudi and promised to come back after three years, but I still haven’t heard from them.”

“The pastures there must be greener than the ones we have here,” I said.

“That’s what they all say about the other side, the younger ones most of all.”


“Quezon City. I’ve heard they take phone calls and speak to Americans every night. I believe they’re paid quite generously for helping them with their problems about many things.”

“Ever thought of going somewhere else?”

“I’m too old for that.” He rose from the wooden stool and went to fix two cups of black coffee. The aroma of the beans filled the small space of the shack. Outside, the night sky was a velvet carpet with nameless stars. Steam rushed through the kettle hole as Mang Salome timidly poured hot water into the cups.

“Why did you leave your home?”

“Because I’m young, Mang Salome,” I said with a meek voice. I remembered my father.

“How young?”


Little Paulo slept the whole time, oblivious to the conversation of two acquaintances, one with the kindness of a learned soul, the other with the frailty of a bud eager to spring forth from the bosom of the earth.

WHEN YOU COMMUNE with the earth using your bare hands, you feel the warmth of the soil and how it throbs with life. An arable farmland holds the dream of harvest, a dream shaped by farmers whose diligent hands cultivate the soil, without which it is just an ordinary earthen patch akin to a pot of dirt with not a plant coursing its roots beneath. Because Mang Salome’s flesh and soul depended on the land he has nurtured since time immemorial, he always understood its character more than anybody else in Santa Fe.

For three years, I was his eager apprentice and he was my patient master. He would answer some of my questions, but most of the time he would simply let my experience provide the answer after some days, weeks even. On many occasions, the answers would not come in haste. But each time they are revealed, a dark room in my mind is illuminated.

The water was never deep but our feet were partially buried in the mud, poking into the flesh of the earth like needles on that vast field of low greens.

“You have to be certain that the soil is loose just enough. That way, there is enough space for the plants to grow their roots. Be careful, though. Make it too loose and the seedlings won’t have any firm hold on the soil. They will wither even before they can start to grow.”

I listened silently as I watched Mang Salome demonstrate the art.

“But before you transfer the seedlings on the land where they will have to grow until harvest season,” he continued, “you have to let them germinate first in a puddle field. It is only after about a month when you can transfer them. Still, you have to trust what you have learned from long months of hard labor. Plants, like the seasons, make subtle changes. Each harvest is not the same as the last.”

“Why don’t we just plant them directly there?” I asked with hesitation, ignorant of the art I have immersed my self into. Mang Salome deftly retrieved one seedling after another from the earthen bed. After the last stalk, he straightened his posture and eyed the rest of the fields.

“You will understand soon,” he said.

PAULO’S FRAME IS SMALL for his age. He is eleven years young but he could easily pass for a six-year-old kid whose skin has been kissed by sunlight on many bright days. What he lacks in physique, though, he compensates with a curious mind.

Sitting by the field, we waited for the wind from the southwest to blow stronger one afternoon.

“Why do you love to fly kites?”

“I feel free each time I see my kite fly high,” I said.

“Why do you want to feel free?”

“Because life is too short.”

“Is it?”

“Well, maybe, but I hope to live long enough.”

“How long?”

“Perhaps eighty years.”

“And will you still be flying kites by then?”

“I hope I am already as free as a kite by that time.”

“Well, is a kite really free?”

“No, not really.”


“One, it’s tied to this string. Two, the rope also has to be tied to this peg after the kite has gained enough altitude. Sometimes, I will also have to control the direction of the kite by tugging the string.”

“But a kite can still be free, can’t it?”

“Of course.”

“I hope I can be a kite someday,” he said. I smiled at him.

Several minutes after, the wind from the southwest suddenly blew stronger.

IN MY DREAM, thousands of kites raced far above as they battled with the scattered clouds for space. For the first time, the sky was no longer blue throughout. But the clouds began to roll faster, larger. The threat of heavy rainstorm and lightning made the diaspora of the kites more imminent. When I woke-up, I thought I had wings, but I found out I was a kite myself. I was a kite lost in a distant rice field, lying flat on needles of amber after harvest season. For a vagabond found wherever the wind blows under the merciless sun, it does not matter who cut the string.

Part 1 | 2

Monday, October 3, 2011

The Other Side

[Part 1 of 2 of the "Deuce Diaspora" series]

IMAGINE A FIELD of flowers, the cosmic splendor of the afternoon summer sun washing them with all the light they need. With the celestial glow piercing through the clouds, it leaves as it does time and again a burst of ocher across the infinite sky. Miles ahead, the mountain slopes protrude from the earth in angular beauty. There is a fresh tinge of carnation in the breeze, a scent reminiscent of youthful days almost forgotten in this rural landscape of permanent sepia. But here is where nobody remembers anyone. Only a few memories have survived the seasons. There is no dirge to mourn the passing of the years. In this distant sanctuary, life truncates itself to mere existing, reducing everything to something — a dot at the mercy of a precipice that leads to a place nobody knows exactly where.

I’m not going back to that town, at least not in a thousand years.

MY DAILY COMMUTE in Quezon City consists of two short rides. Long after sunset, I rise from the din of my rickety bed, mind still bland, lips dry, and eyes too groggy to see through the windows that open to a thick wall of concrete. To prepare for the night ahead, I perform a simple routine: I eat three buns of bread, drink two cups of black coffee, smoke three sticks of cigarette, take a quick bath, and brush my teeth for two minutes — all these while I am naked, and not necessarily in that order. By the time I have already put on my jeans, polo shirt and leather shoes, I take a brief walk to the corner of the street and ride a tricycle. Most of the time, the driver is the first human being I see, if not a random peddler forced astray into my filthy community by a carpet of streets elsewhere. No crook in his sane mind would venture deep into that decrepit nook just to pilfer the wallet of an unsuspecting victim. I’ve always felt safe there.

The second ride I take is by passenger jeep. By ten in the evening, the terminal is still alive. A few honest people selling their wares continue to seek honest pay from the pedestrians. Others offer their flesh to patrons young and old, especially those who demonstrate their concept of pride by clutching their ambitious phallus just to foster an erection — a vain attempt to reach a remote orifice. By the corner, the elderly were able to assemble scraps of carton boxes into a design that could easily cause their paper village to collapse from its own weight. They call it home. The aging folks must have repeatedly implored the aid of an unseen divine force so that their improvised shacks will continue to stand on the only leg they all depend upon. For the past two years I’ve been in the city, they — the elderly and their homes — have stood their ground. It seems that arthritic knees and paper houses do not easily fold in this urban jungle.

Even if the jeep is almost empty after almost thirty minutes of waiting, it would leave the station and ply the main road. The highway is the main artery that connects all of the other asphalt lanes. Come to think of it, names do not really mean what they intend to say. Commonwealth Avenue is an oddity; it is an avenue where wealth is not all too common.

Some two kilometers after, I get-off and begin to trace the lighted path that leads to that imposing structure where I work. It looks strange enough to make the eyes sore. Five floors above, my office is even stranger. The building is nothing special. No one minds if it had been constructed barely five years ago. On the face of it, it’s what you may call an avant-garde edifice. But that’s all there is to it — the face of it. The architect must have melded his antiquated ideas with a design that inspires disbelief, like a set of udders that suddenly grew a whole cow.

Annie, the receptionist, waits by the lobby, checking the IDs of employees and strangers who usually enter the place as fast as they leave, some never to return; Annie, a strong woman with skin more tender than her age, drawn to this city of sour milk by the scepter of poverty hailing from a land where the foliage is thick and the fields are serene and lush with greens; Annie, the girl whose shapely breasts have long been the object of Raul’s abject fantasy.

“I swear I’ll milk them dry one of these nights,” he whispered one time.

“There’s a law against that,” I said.

“Not if she likes it just as well.”

Raul — the old man who, after all the months of bedeviled smirking, only grew a boner and never a brain. I wonder how he is doing in jail. There is yet a long time ahead of him in prison, not to mention his infinite chances of dropping the proverbial soap. His legitimate wife, for the life of her, must still be in a state of irreparable distraught. Three children after, all from different women, and he is still the same pervert.

MY OFFICE DESK is not really a desk. It is simply an enclosed space on a long table together with other enclosed spaces. Ours is a neighborhood of corporate slaves who crudely mimic foreign accents with the slightest twitch of the tongue. Sometimes, it feels as if the continents have been squeezed inside the four walls of the office.

Once there was an old American speaking from the other end of the line. He complained about everything that his mind can grapple, from the limping economy to Shakespeare’s conceptual immortality. I had to be patient with his proclivity for curse words. His verbal obscenity was perfunctory, as if being crass was his second nature, the first of which was being an American whose scrotum is latched high on his forehead. Of course, I had to obsequiously call his attention. All the while, he must have imagined that he was an untouchable inside a portcullis, able to plot the world’s destiny in broad strokes simply by dialing our number. He had a tart way of sieving my responses, though, as if he was the inquisitor and I was someone born to provide a willing neck for his guillotine.

“Fuck you and your measly outsourcing company!” His scream was enough to deafen my ears for a while.

“Thank you, sir,” I responded. “We hope to hear from you some time soon.” The line went dead, and I momentarily wished he did so, too.

He never called again and I almost lost my job were it not for the fact that I slept with my boss the week after the old fogey called. At thirty-eight, her body can very well enamor any man whose sexual urges have been left to stale in their solitary confines, probably between the thighs. For someone fourteen years my superior, she was still at the full blossom of her youth, as if she was built for all things carnal and clandestine. Perhaps she was waiting all this time for someone to fall into her fait accompli. She had the power while I tried to be astute by finagling with one corporate ladder. We tasted each other and I found out that she was delicious beyond her looks. I still have her underwear in my drawer.

I envy her husband.

“HOW DO YOU SURVIVE in this environment?” Rebecca asked.

“Simple. Don’t fuck around,” I said, tipping my cigarette by the railings of the office balcony. Some of the ashes fell straight down. “If you do,” I continued, “choose who you fuck around with.” Her eyes seemed to picture grief far out in the sky. Out there, there is only a dark tapestry littered with crystals.

“Well, it’s a start,” she said with a voice that sounded as if she has just ended reading a boring verse from another senseless poem.

Fifteen-minute breaks are short, so I usually try to hurry emptying my lungs with oxygen and filling them with poison. Most of the time, I’m able to smoke only three cigarette sticks. Not bad at all for a prime candidate for cancer, I thought. But that early morning when the sun was still two hours away from breaking into the eastern horizon, Rebecca and I were able to smoke ten.

“What brings you here?” I asked. “A college diploma from the top private university and four years after, you must have been poised to brave the waters of the corporate world.” I thought I spoke like the parish priest back in my town. And then the clincher — “But I don’t think this place fits you well.”

Her long silence was disconcerting. I killed the dying ember of my last stick.

“The myth of Sisyphus,” she finally said.

“I think I’ve read it somewhere.” I lied, taken aback by her sudden recollection of a story that must have been around for eons but which, for some reason, I have yet to hear. This is what I get for confusing fashion with intelligence.

“Sisyphus was condemned to push a boulder up the steep slopes of a hill for eternity,” she mumbled, lending tones of worry and submission.

“Yeah, that’s our guy right there,” I bluffed.

“He was the son of King Aeolus. Sisyphus was the craftiest of men but his dirty ways earned him his eternal curse.”

“Poor fellow,” I said as though I perfectly commiserate the fate of a man who may not have even existed. As for Rebecca, I could not feel an ounce of sympathy for whatever it is that she was trying to make me guess. Even if she asked me bluntly, my apathy will take its course. Five failed relationships down the line and I still cannot understand women, the younger ones most of all.

“Have you had a girlfriend before?” She asked.

I lied for the fourth time. Or was it the fourth? I could not remember. A pathological liar, my first girlfriend called me once, which was the same summer afternoon we talked for the last time. I’ve never heard from her since then.

“You’re lying.” Rebecca had a smile that seemed to lift her spirit and drag mine to some remote planet. Perhaps, she knows this carousel all too well, as much as she knows the stink of a lie that swells from the lips of a probinsyano.

“Fine,” I said, “and I don’t quite know the myth of Sassy Puss either.” The stress on the ‘Sassy’ made her smile linger a bit longer.

Fifteen minutes later, I was back at my false desk. Rebecca, though, went home. She never came back, just like the others whose names and faces I can no longer recall.

“SEE YOU tomorrow,” Annie said.

“That would be tonight, Annie,” I said as I walked past her desk, slowly waiving back at her.

“Right,” she quipped, realizing a few seconds too late that I have already taken graveyard shifts since last week. After what happened to Raul, every guy in the office has become afraid of her.

I wore my sunglasses the moment I took my first step out of the building. At nine, the morning light felt blinding. When I feel too sluggish to take two rides home, I ride a cab. Comfort is priceless, which is why I frequently find myself cursing after paying the taxi fare — it is a price that is not really less.

By the time I’m home, I would undress down to the last fabric and curl-up in bed, too sleepy to mind my stark nakedness. I imagine my self like a fetus nursing itself in a dead womb. I live in a humble apartment unit flanked by concrete walls. They keep the adjacent private lots away from view, empty and waiting for the scaffolding to pierce through the dirt and grime of the earth. In this city, there is an untold race to the heavens. The finish line is out there, and it stretches farther each time people try to reach it.

More often than not, I dream of Santa Fe. In my mind, the town is exiled in eternal summer, like a painting, an Amorsolo masterwork. The colors are indelible and they transcend the limits of visual sensation, all because of a plethora of brush strokes drawn by a steady hand. It is a canvass of gaiety that knows no sorrow, or one that refuses to recognize all tell-tale signs of blight even if the symptoms have already reached an irreversible state. Perhaps, there is no medicine that can cure this silent affliction of my frail town.

A land of promise, it seems, is just what it is. Maybe the cliché has some semblance of reality to it: art is a lie that makes us see the truth.

Part 1 | 2