Wednesday, June 25, 2014


The dream happened at home. There on the couch by the corner, curled up like an unborn, wrapped in a blanket for an amniotic sac, a house within the house, a room within the room, impervious to the cold of the night, she slept. She slept peacefully. I stood a few steps away from where she was, like a shadow camouflaged in the darkness, a sentry watching over her for some time. But even in the promise of her birth, the place felt empty, like a lifeless womb.

The door creaked ajar, then it swung open, revealing my neighbor sprawled in drunken stupor beneath the awning. Light gushed into the room like blood from a wound, only that it was white. He tried to crawl his way inside as though he was bleeding from the brightness, but I closed the door, forced it shut with my left foot. He kept pushing from behind, outside, knocking and banging his fists like a prisoner of freedom begging to be let back in his jail, in the comfort of incarceration. A dog barking for its leash. The struggle lasted for a while, until there was silence.

Exhausted, I sat on the floor, between the door and the couch, my back against the wall. The noise must have shaken her to wakefulness. She woke up as though finally she decided that she must now be born, delivered by way of a motherless, painless birth. She got off the couch, walked a bit before retiring on the floor, and laid her head on my left thigh. I combed her hair with my hand. Combed it over and over. I told her “Will you believe me if I tell you that - ” but she cut my words off and said, smiling, her lips revealing her teeth, her eyes to the roof, “Yevchenko. He’s such a bad boy, but he’s handsome.”

I didn’t know who Yevchenko was.

It was then that I woke up from the dream. It was 6:45 in the evening, June 21, the same day I first met her eleven years earlier, which was also a Saturday at 6:45, except that it was in the morning.

I got up from bed. Ate cold dinner, or what was left of lunch. Took a bath, the longest one I can remember. Fixed my things in my room. Shaved. Skimmed through the bland television shows. Drank coffee. Pet the dogs. Pet the coffee. Shaved my things in my room. Ate a cold bath, or what was left of the television shows. Skimmed through the bland dinner. And the dogs, the longest ones I can remember. But through it all, amid the clarity and confusion, confusion more than clarity, the question won’t rub off, won’t wash itself away, like a bad memory plastered on my skin: Yevchenko?

I turned on the computer and did a quick online search. Of the many things that somehow made sense, one caught my attention — Valeriy and Alena Yevchenko: Sacramento (California) Wedding Photographers.

“A sign,” I said. I looked around, wondering what the universe was trying to say in its conspiratorial silence at nine in the evening.

A praying mantis clung to the edge of the table. On the floor, the decapitated head of another mantis stood still, the rest of its body nowhere to be found. A dead male, I thought, who had to pay the steep price of life in exchange for something as momentary as mating. Sexual cannibalism couched in the lofty jargon of ‘reproduction.’ In pursuit of his carnal desire, in his attempt to satiate his virility, the male mantis had to lose his head. The female mantis, ripe with the promise of pregnancy, held on to the edge of the table, triumphant and remorseless, as though in the animal kingdom she was the epitome of greatness, the beacon of life and death praying three feet off the floor, praying perhaps that she be cleared of her sin and be spared from damnation, praying with her scythe defiled by the blood of her victim, to which one may say that it was a justified death, an inevitable sanction ordained by the law of nature, and that therefore she was innocent.

He’s such a bad boy, but he’s handsome. And so, by virtue, or vice, of marriage (to which Valeriy and Alena Yevchenko will later have the marital evidence to show for), he had to lose his head. A dog barking for its leash, but a leash without the neck to wrap itself around with.

“Why are you looking at pictures of praying mantises on the internet?”

My younger brother was standing behind me, awakened from his sleep in the bedroom, his groggy eyes at the computer screen. His unannounced presence startled me. “Because I want to be a bad boy,” I said, heart thumping.

He stared at me before walking toward the bathroom, perhaps thinking that I’m beginning to lose my head, and that it’s quite unfortunate for him to have an older brother about to lose his grip on sanity like a block of butter in my palm. Along the way, he stepped on the decapitated head of the mantis, the sound of the tender thorax crunching beneath the weight of his slippers like a faint and dismal echo in the universe that he was not obliged to notice.

A few minutes later, my brother emerged from the bathroom. Before he went back inside the bedroom, he said, his face to the door, “But you’re not even handsome.” He laughed, and disappeared into the darkness.

The praying mantis, too, retreated into the shadows.

They say that dreams are the opposite of things.

Saturday, June 21, 2014

Far and Near, Or the Language of Distance

“What is Far?”

“Far is the distance between our lips that, I’m afraid, may never kiss again. It is the space between your Tokyo and my Manila, and the minutes and hours that have bloomed into eleven years, like a flower thirsty for the rain and sun,” I said. “What is Near?”

“Near,” she said, “Near is the distance that all hearts need to cross. It is the space between your hand and my hand, which is quite like the ocean between us. The seas have different names but they are the same waters. Wherever we are, Near is the day after eleven years of waiting.”

“But Far is the sound of a phone call, the ringing at the other end of the line, the dial tone after we have emptied our hearts with our words. It is my I Miss You for your How Are You.”

“Yet Near is your voice that I remember very well. It is your every sigh, too, and every unspoken word, every second that you are silent I might as well be deaf.”

“I will talk then for as much as you would like me to.”

“When does - ” she paused “ - when does Far end?”

“It started when you left, therefore it ends when you return,” I said. “Where does Near start?”

“It always starts wherever you are.”

“I am where you once were,” I said.

“And so you are Near.”

“Which is just as Far.”

“But not for long,” she said.

I thought I heard the rain over the phone. “Is hope a good thing?”

“It is,” she said. “Most of the time, it is.”

“Like six days a week.”


“Except,” I said, “except for that one day that feels like forever, when everything feels - ”

“ - Far,” she said, “the way Sunday has to wait because Monday has just begun.”

“And yet no day skips its turn, so they say.”

“Which is why all things have their proper time, no matter how Far they seem.”

“So there is hope.”

“There is,” she said. “Trust your heart the way I have trusted mine all these years. The heart knows the things that are worth the wait.”

“Maybe I can wait for another day,” I said, “but I cannot see myself waiting for another you.”

She was silent for a while, then she said, “You sound so Near I can almost hold you.”

I wanted to hold her so bad I wish I can telephone myself from Manila all the way to Tokyo. I could hear her breathe. “Near can never be that Far, right?”

“Yes,” she said, “never that Far.”

“Even if...”

“Even if?”

“Even if sometimes Near is not near enough?”

“I... I don’t know,” she said, “I won’t know until you’re here. Or I’m there.”

“One or the other. There is hope.”

“There is,” she said.

“Wait for me.”

“I will.”

Saturday, June 14, 2014

What the Weatherman Did Not Say

For the first time, the weatherman was right. Exactly three hours after he delivered his weather forecast over the radio — his voice a guttural baritone permeating the static, punctuating his report with his usual sigh as though time and again he knows beforehand the mistake he is about to make — it began to rain that early Sunday morning, the sudden drumming on the roof the sky’s affirmation of his report, insisting itself on the rusty metal sheets overhead like a million hurried nods gestured before dawn so that, to my mind, the deluge can evade the warmth of sunlight and prove him in the darkness that he was right, as though his prediction was something to be ashamed of, something better kept hidden in the gloom, a belated attempt to begrudge him of this one small but momentous truth in his life, because for once he is finally correct, and for which now I must pay the price.

There was nothing in the previous night that suggested the coming of rain. There was a calm in the air, gently ushering the whispers of the leaves beneath the moonlight. The crickets sang their ode in intervals. I sat on the gnarled roots of the acacia, its dense foliage blocking the stars, and as I let my thoughts wander it felt like I was patiently waiting in the shadow of a memory big enough to eclipse the sun. Only much, much later did it rain. Although the weatherman finally got it right, there were other things he did not say.

Of all things, the weatherman did not say exactly why it had to rain today. He did not say why it had to when he should have known by now that a weather like this, a downpour as unforgiving as any storm quite like this, only reminds me of the girl, of the only confession I was willing to risk that afternoon I held her hand had my brain refused to stand in the way of my heart, and of what could have been between us but which now will never be.

The weatherman did not say precisely why it had to rain the whole day. He did not say why it had to when the warmth from the sun may just as well take the place of the sympathy I need to help me get by, to live this day as if it was a new chapter in another book, less estranged from reality, and far more sensible than the girl’s “No” when I asked her if she ever wished for the clouds to steer clear and always give way to the sun, to which she said “I’d rather wish for rain. I love the rain,” and when I asked her “Why?” she just kept walking and said nothing more. But not once, never, have I seen her want to bask in the rain. She always had an umbrella, or a raincoat, would step aside and seek shelter at the first sign of nimbus. What she loves, she does not want to be a part of — replace the “What” with “Who” and the difference may just as well be the same.

It did rain. It rained all of a sudden, without warning, as though the ocean was dropping from the sky, unscheduled, perhaps not even by god, and that day as with all the other days the weatherman did not say why. I sat by the open window, staring blankly at the silhouettes turning grey, as if the rain was slowly erasing them from view. I kept looking at nothing in particular, as though I was searching for the answer caught behind a thick curtain of needles impaling the ground, because maybe the rain had a better intention than to simply drown me in my reverie. And I remember the question popping in my mind, quick as the rain on that afternoon long ago, the girl standing beside me under the awning of the cafeteria, observing the flowers in the garden a little ahead as though they were the only ones left to be seen in the rain. Then I held her hand. She smiled but she did not look at me. The words were clawing their way from my heart to my lips: “I think I love you, do you love me too?” but just when I was ready to speak, my brain stood in the way of my heart. You’ll lose her if you tell her that, my brain said. I let my chance pass. I let it slip away. In five minutes, the rain was gone. Perhaps my courage went with it.

Why it had to rain today, the weatherman did not say — just like the girl, for when she left for another country before the end of the second semester, she, too, did not say why. Not a letter. Not a note. Not a word. Not a sigh. Only three years after was I told that she had gone to Japan. Somewhere in Japan. “That’s all I know,” my friend said, giving me a pat on my shoulder at the end of the graduation rites, as if to remind me of the weight of the burden I now had to carry, ending my life in college with a yoke on my heart. So it goes, brain, so it goes: I did not tell her that I love her, and I did not ask her if she loved me, too, and yet I lost her anyway. That late afternoon I ran under the rain, my toga flapping in the wind, my shoes drenched, my eyes more so. I ran as fast as I could, not knowing where to go. It did not matter where my feet would take me. It felt like anywhere was as good as any place to lose myself.

And so the weatherman did not say why the clouds have to be cruel first thing in the morning, like a thousand scythes striking my heart before I can have my breakfast if only because my body can feel only half of the hunger in my soul; as if it was their job to drag me back to the past the same day I was ready to let go, returning me to my proper place in the universe without explaining why; as if heaven and all its saints conspired to mock my solitude, the sinner that I have become without her, and deprive me of the freedom I think I rightfully deserve, not because I have suffered long enough, my penance having been spent on eleven years of nothing but regrets, but simply because I still have a life to live. For the hundreds of times that the weatherman was wrong, forecasting rain when there happened to be none at all, and for which I believed him through and through, much to my dismay, he did not say why he had to be right today.

But I think I know why: sorrow is its own surprise.

Saturday, June 7, 2014

The Letter From Tokyo

[Part 6 of 6 of "Once There Was Anne"]


I hope you’re doing fine by the time you get to read this letter. It’s been a week since I arrived in Tokyo. So far, things are going well, I suppose. I went to Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden the other day, and I found out that I was just in time for the start of the cherry blossom season. There’s no other way to put it: it was white and pink almost everywhere. There were a lot of people, mostly tourists I think. Generally, I try to avoid crowded parks — agoraphobia? — but yesterday was an exception. I’m afraid I’d soon get used to being surrounded by a lot of strangers, in parks or anywhere else, especially in a city such as this one, which I now think isn’t so bad. I’m starting to realize that I shouldn’t allow this fear to outlive me. Besides, it’s not as if the people here know who I am.

It’s a lot colder here than I was expecting, what with having lived a large part of my life in a tropical country, and the weather here might just as well be enough fuel for poetic license. No surprise: Tokyo, of course, is not a city without its own army of poets of some kind, and quite a few are more cavalier, or insouciant, than the rest. They thrive here. They seem to feed on the perennial promise of snow. I met one four days ago. Her name is Hinata, which, according to her, literally means “sunny place,” or “in the sun,” in Nihongo. I asked her if she finds any irony between her name and her winter-inspired poems. She said she doesn’t give a damn because a name is just a name. Nothing more. They really don’t mean anything. “Like Anne,” Hinata said, and she didn’t sound like she was kidding.

Which reminds me: Japan seems to have its own brand of humor. I’ve seen parts of it in the television set in the room where I’m staying. Many of the commercials are too funny and too strange that I don’t quite know how to describe them in detail. I get a good, momentary laugh from them, and sometimes I wonder if the occupants of the adjacent rooms get bothered by my guffaw, especially in the middle of the night. No complaints so far, though, so I guess it’s all good. Maybe they know why. Maybe they’ve already had a hearty laugh from those commercials long before I came here, and perhaps they’ve already been accustomed to their own humor that they no longer find it funny or, least of all, amusing. Talk about people getting desensitized. Which probably explains why the commercials keep getting stranger and stranger; they need to keep up with the build-up of callus among the viewers.

Anyway, I’ve just returned from Odaiba, which is an island in Tokyo Bay. Actually, it’s an artificial island built during the 1850s. Artificial. While I was there, though, I didn’t notice. It looked like any other natural island, like the one in Nasugbu. Perhaps a century is enough to turn something artificial into something natural, or quite close to being one. Strange what the passage of time can do. I’ve heard that there’s a lantern festival in Odaiba during summer. At night, the paper lanterns by the beach would light up the place, they say. I think it’s quite a spectacle to behold. Perhaps it’s as if some of the stars have decided to sit by the shoreline at night so that they can understand how beautiful the sky will always be for as long as they’re in it.

And then there’s University of Tokyo. People call it Todai, which is short for Tokyo daigaku. It’s beautiful and strange at the same time — beautiful because it looks just like UP Diliman, which is what makes it equally strange. For the first time in my life I knew what it meant to see something so foreign yet so familiar. It felt like standing in two places at the same time and not knowing what to do. Or worse, it was like being stranded in a rift between two different hours of the day in the same place, like day and night, and not being sure if I was awake or dreaming. Poetic license? Perhaps. Perhaps Tokyo has already gotten into me. That fast. Like a disease. An incurable affliction deep in my veins.

Stranger, still, is that Tokyo seems to have been trapped between the old and the new, as though it can only move forward by dragging its past with it, and for this dissonance alone I’m starting to believe that this is no mere city. It can’t be. It’s an organism. It’s alive, or quite alive, as if it’s always on the brink of being born an old man. Everywhere there are temples from years past. Everywhere there are modern structures that seem to race to the sky, if not the future. Maybe that’s the secret of this city, as in life: the only way to move on is to move with the past, not away from it. This schism is confusing, I understand, but so are the most salient lessons I’ve ever realized.

I wish I can stay here indefinitely, but that would be asking too much. I don’t have much time, which is one of the many luxuries in this world I can barely afford. I’ll write to you again soon, though I don’t quite know exactly when. Ki o tsukete (take care).



P. S.

My hands are sweating too much while writing this, and I feel like I’m becoming water. I hope you’d still be able to understand the parts where the ink seems to have been smudged. My bad. I’m sorry.

Tokyo, Japan
April 13, 1991

Part 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6

Friday, June 6, 2014

I Told Them So

[Part 5 of 6 of "Once There Was Anne"]


That was the first thing my mother said when I told her about it.

“Anne,” I said, “the girl you first met in my apartment back in college, remember her?” She placed my slippers on the floor by my feet, and said “I don’t know who you’re talking about. Now put these on before you dirty the carpet with the sand on your shoes. And don’t forget to put those clothes in the laundry basket.” My mother returned to the kitchen where she was preparing lunch, as though the momentary interruption of having been placed at the receiving end of a silly story was the least of her concerns at that hour. I sat on the couch. Confused. Holding Anne’s clothes.

I spent the previous night by the beach until sunrise, leaving my spot only once, at around midnight, to swim to the lonely island, my body against the current as the tide rolled in with the strength and haste of a restless man chasing a seemingly familiar shoreline under a full moon, a man navigating the darkness with his memory for his guide. Reaching the island, I fell on my back. Small waves, these remnants of the vast ocean where they came from, they lapped at my feet, and as I lied beneath the starry sky I couldn’t help myself but say, “Well, here I am, Anne. I’m crazy, sure, but aren’t we all,” and I thought I heard Anne whisper in my ear, “I don’t know, I don’t know.”

For many years I’ve been to different places, and each time I’d ask I’d be told the same thing, as though someone set the answer to my question in eternal playback: “I don’t know who you’re talking about.” Like Nathan, the boy, now a man, whose nose got a good beating from my fists, though on the day I met him again the scar was no longer on his face, as though it has been wiped clean by the same skin that I bruised and broke a long time ago. “Anne? I don’t know who you’re talking about,” he said as we stood by the exit door of the mall. When he said what he said, I was almost tempted to break his face again for forgetting not only his sin that wore down a girl’s heart but also and above all the girl herself no less, as if she never existed. What appeared to me then as his wife and two children soon emerged from the sliding glass doors, so I let the subject go and bid him goodbye, his nose intact.

Then there was Jennifer, Anne’s cousin whose eyes reminded me of Anne’s, though it was only when Jennifer removed her sunglasses did I realize the stark resemblance, as if all of a sudden I was looking at the same eyes that saw Tokyo for a day until the city itself became just like the one Anne left behind for the rest of the six years that she was overseas. “Anne? I don’t know who you’re talking about,” Jennifer said, and no matter how much I wanted to make her remember the day she found Anne and I at Rizal Park when we were supposed to be attending our classes, the same day Jennifer asked if I was Anne’s boyfriend, to which I became as confused as Anne was, muted by a question that was loaded enough to change the course of our lives forever, no matter how brazen I wanted to make Jennifer recall she just shook her head. I left with a heavy heart and an even more baffled conscience.

The last seventeen years have been a long and tiring chase, and it seemed to me like an unending affair of approaching and talking to people Anne and I have met once or many times: former professors, friends, librarians, acquaintances, and the countless faces whose names I can now barely remember. They would all say, as though there was a conspiracy: “Anne? I don’t know who you’re talking about.” It felt like I was chronicling the lost years of my life, searching far and wide for the stray pieces that will at last justify my nostalgia and confirm my hope that, even to the last of my days, once there was Anne. Many times I’ve been called a fool, but not once did I entertain the thought that I was one, for if I ever was a fool I do not know the kind of insanity that they have acquired for failing to understand that it is incumbent upon those who have been left behind to search for the missing ones and only them, never those who are as present in real life as the mortal coil they present before the world as the sum of their lives thus far. I’m crazy, sure, but I’m no fool.

I’m afraid I’ve suffered long enough to warrant the liberty that my heart so desires, but in the back of my mind I know that the rest of this lonely life is just about to begin.

And I was right, because all the same, I knew I was born to prove everyone wrong, and quite certainly because an hour ago a letter from Tokyo arrived. “It seems someone writes to you, after all,” the mailman said, surprised at his discovery, belated as it now were, his forehead visibly aged by the years of tending to letters waiting to be sorted and delivered to their intended recipients, until the birth of the internet began to show him, without the slightest hint of remorse, that nothing in this world lasts, that the time has come for the old to give way to the new at such a delicate chapter in his life when there are only so few things left for him to do during his waking hours. “I told you so,” I said.

Part 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6

Thursday, June 5, 2014

The Dignity of A Woman's Heart

[Part 4 of 6 of "Once There Was Anne"]

BECAUSE IT’S BEEN SEVENTEEN YEARS since the day I last talked to Anne, some people might start to believe, my mother the first of them, that, perhaps, I have already learned my lesson, as though by some unknown device or artifice time became the greatest teacher the world has ever produced and I am but another willing apprentice. Sometimes, though, I reckon I was born to prove everyone wrong every minute of every day, Anne most of all, because when I told her who I was supposed to be in her life she could not help but smile and cry at the same time. I thought she didn’t believe me.

“I’m supposed to be the only reason in this world why you’re turning into water,” I said. Today, I wish I never have allowed those words to escape my mouth. Yet I’m fairly convinced now, however, that reality will eventually have its way regardless of what I’ve actually told her that day.

The following afternoon, after the day when, under the acacia, I saw her cry for the first time after a long, long time, Anne and I were back in that beach in Nasugbu. She insisted. There was something rather strange about her that day. I couldn’t quite put a finger as to what it was. Perhaps it had something to do with her hair, cut down to her shoulders, which was, as far as I can recall, the first time she ever did so. Maybe it had something to do with the make-up on her face that she rarely ever wore back in college, to which she said, “I want to be the most beautiful girl today.” “You are, Anne,” I said, “you’ve always been.” Or it could have been the way the skin on her hands was unusually soft and moisturized, enough to make one think that there never was a time when she had to lift her fingers to perform even the most rudimentary tasks in life, as though she was born barely an hour ago. And when we reached the shoreline where we once were before she left for Tokyo, the first thing she said was “So, do you now have the name of that island?” “Of course,” I said, “I decided to name it after you.” Then she said, “Not bad for an excuse,” and we walked along the shoreline.

That moment, we no longer talked about her life in Japan. I tried to breach the subject early on, asking her if she ever had a boyfriend there, but it seemed clear that she was not willing to make another excursion down her memory lane about a foreign place that used to be her home for some time. Instead, she preferred silence, and kept walking.

Sometimes it’s unbelievable how several years can undo a place. Small cottages stood near the waters where nothing but rocks used to be, as were the wooden fences in lieu of the mangroves that were few and far between. Flags of different colors flapped like confused wings against the backdrop of coconut trees spread out as though they were yet to take further root underground despite their apparent maturity. In the distance, the faint sound of slow reggae music shared the air with the song of the waves, but nobody was dancing. Certainly not the seagulls that were nowhere to be found, nor the trees that were cleared in order to give way to the enterprise of the times. It was only then that I realized that it was no longer the same beach we were afoot.

Anne stopped on her feet. I turned around, saw a sad look on her face, walked back to her, and when I was in front of her she hugged me. I didn’t know what I did to deserve that embrace other than to be the same person I’ve always been — the boy who was just as confused as her and who was too shy to say anything in the face of her cousin’s question: “Are you her boyfriend?”; the boy who wrote and sent a hundred letters, maybe more, expecting a reply other than the one from the mailman, the perfunctory “It seems no one writes to you”; the boy who bruised his fingers to break another man’s face who broke the dignity of a woman’s heart, and who, in the end, would lay the blame on the stairs that will never be built; the boy who, after confessing that he loves the girl, got his reprieve by way of a sigh. I didn’t know. Only Anne knew.

“Herson,” Anne whispered, her head pressed against my chest, repeating my name over and over. Her embrace was tight. Tighter. And tighter I could almost feel my life escaping through the pores on my skin, my lips on her forehead, Anne sweating profusely but for the life of me they had no taste, not salty, none, and her skin seemed to be losing its color, her body becoming pale, soft, softer, until the last light from the setting sun began to pierce her as though she was becoming invisible, and I saw that she was, her body fluid as the sea, and then she became water slipping through my fingers and hands and arms until all I was left holding were her clothes, wet as though the waves have sent them over from the lonely island across the waters. Like a souvenir. A memento for someone — of someone — who will no longer return. It was at that precise moment when she was finally gone for the rest of my life. But if my mother is to be believed — or just as well, if all of them are to be believed — there is nothing fancy about this even if, all the same, there is no finality in something that is yet to happen.

Seventeen years later, I have yet to learn the lesson they think I deserve.

Part 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

A Collision of Worlds

[Part 3 of 6 of "Once There Was Anne"]

IT BREAKS MY HEART to see Anne that way. “I’m sorry,” I said. I sat closer to her, tried to wipe her eyes with my handkerchief, but she brushed my hand away, as though I had no right to undo my mistake. “Tell me, Herson,” she said, “who are you supposed to be in my life anyway?” It felt like I was sucker punched. I thought about her question for a while, not knowing what to say. Under the majestic acacia, sunlight broke through the leaves like a thousand bright needles supporting the weight of the tangerine sky, and somehow I wished they’d disappear and let heaven and all of its saints fall so that they could understand how it is to be a mortal in the presence of someone whose divinity is put into question by her own tears. There was a faint chill in the January air, but the people strolling along the university oval didn’t seem to notice. Then I remembered the day we were in Rizal Park, and to her question I couldn’t help but finally say, as if to recall an ancient memory that just won’t die a forgettable death, “I don’t know, I don’t know.”

Except that I knew, or I knew who I was not. I was not the one who broke her heart at the age of eighteen, two years into college, though on bitter days I wish I was the one. And boy did I break his nose when I learned that he dumped Anne just like that, changing women as frequent as he changes his clothes. “The fuck is your problem?” I said, confronting him with an inexplicable rage forming in my hands like molten iron, as though I was some kind of a hero out for sheer vengeance, and when he stared down at me, just as he was about to spit on my eyes I threw my fist on his face, another on his left eye for good measure, and then a few more, the sound of bones breaking, the world around me a wild blur, until he fell flat on the floor like a vegetable I could have scooped him up, served him on a plate, and quickly finished him off like soup.

I didn’t tell Anne about the incident, though she looked a bit worried when she noticed that I had bruises on my fingers that looked like they’d never heal again. “What happened to your hands?” she said. “It’s nothing,” I said, “I fell from the stairs at home.” I took her out for a movie later that night, if only to console her. But in her silence she kept crying from the start until the credits rolled, and I was powerless, barely able to think of any way to comfort her at that moment. When we were about to part ways, she said “I don’t want to go home yet,” so I asked her if she wanted to stay at my place for the rest of the evening. “OK,” she said. When we got to my apartment, she stopped at the door to my room, looked around, probably wondering. She gave me a curious look. I knew what she was thinking: but there are no stairs. A little later, she slept. I was awake until sunrise, watching over her.

And I was also not the one who introduced Anne to my mother. My mother did that for me, because the following day she paid me a surprise visit, and I wasn’t quite exactly sure what to say when, returning to my apartment after class and upon opening the door, I found her talking to Anne in my room, sitting side by side on my bed where Anne slept overnight and probably half of the day. “Hello ladies, did I miss anything?” I said, proceeding to take a seat by the table, somehow still able to walk across the room in the most normal way I can despite being sleepless with weak knees, aching hands, and a trembling heart. Anne smiled. She said, “I’ve explained everything to Tita, don’t worry.” “She’s beautiful,” my mother said, “I wonder who in god’s name would make the fatal mistake of dumping someone like her.” Anne was blushing.

When Anne went home a little later, my mother said “I won’t be surprised at all if you happen to like her and good lord what happened to your hands?” “It’s nothing, ma,” I said, “someone just made a fatal mistake, I suppose.” Arms akimbo, my mother shook her head in disbelief.

“She didn’t tell me about th - ”

“Because she doesn’t know, ma,” I said. She doesn’t know about the bruises in my hands, the same way that she still doesn’t know who I am supposed to be in her life the day she returned from Tokyo after six years. Or perhaps she only pretends not to know, feigning innocence behind her tears, posing the question so that I can give her the answer that she already knows.

“Or maybe I’m not sure, Anne,” I continued, my eyes to the edge of the shade beneath the acacia, myself imagining where things should begin and where they should end, “but if I tell you anyway, will you believe me?”

She looked at me, wiping her eyes with her hands. With a faint quiver in her voice, she said, “I will, by the dignity of this woman’s heart.”

I held her hands. They still had that characteristic feel that I have grown accustomed to whenever Anne is extremely worried, or very happy, or some other kind of emotion that she finds hard to contain, as though she was a balloon about to burst. Her palms and fingers felt moist, and I have long known that they are neither sweat nor tears. They were tasteless, without any scent, more like water, pure water, as though she was melting and becoming one.

Part 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Caught Between Summer and Autumn

[Part 2 of 6 of "Once There Was Anne"]

SHE SAID IT WAS only after she walked past Todai gate did she realize that she was finally at the place where she always wanted to be. Ginkgo trees flanked the path that led straight to the Yasuda auditorium, and they wore different colors at such an auspicious moment in her life. To her left, everything seemed green, and to her right the view was golden, as though the sun melted on the plush leaves and spilled itself on earth and concrete. The first day she was at the University of Tokyo, she said it felt like she was caught between summer and autumn. “But somehow,” she continued, “moving forward along that path made little sense. I’m not sure how to explain it.”

I’ve always wondered how it is to live in a country ruled by all four seasons instead of just one long summer that is broken every once in a while by the occasional rain. The day between summer and autumn must be a confusing but lovely time of the year. I can imagine the countless trees shedding off their leaves in anticipation of the promise of winter, as though being completely naked under the sky is the only way to get dressed for the upcoming snow, and the cool breeze insisting itself upon a thousand itinerants who have their own reasons why they are where they are. I can think of a million flowers about to sacrifice their hues and petals to the shifting of the seasons, and a million other shops blooming under the full moon, ready to receive their patrons and guests for another night of commerce. And in the haze and daze of it all, they tell me the same thing in my mind: once there was Anne, as though I was a day too late for the transition of the seasons, for summer is gone and it is already autumn. Or in everyday parlance: Anne has moved on, and of all the things in the world that make sense it is not one of them.

A week after she left for Tokyo, I wrote her a letter. Looking back, there wasn’t much in that missive. I told her I miss her, plain and simple, apart from what seems to me now as the common courtesies one is allowed to ink on paper because, perhaps, distance is always a good excuse to put your life at the mercy of snail mail. I guess there wasn’t really anything of particular significance that I needed to tell her at the time. I waited for her reply. One week. Two weeks. A month. Three months. Nothing. Everyday I’d ask the mailman if there was any letter for me, and each time he’d say “It seems no one writes to you” it always felt like I wrote to someone from another universe and that it will probably take countless light years before I get to hear from her, by which time we’d both be long dead.

On the third month, I sent her another letter, with it a photo of us together in Rizal Park when we were still freshmen in college. “Just in case you miss me, too,” I wrote, “and, of course, the day when we decided to skip our boring lecture class and spend the rest of the afternoon in a place where you thought no one knew us, although you were wrong because, as it turned out, your cousin was there and, surprised that you were with a boy she doesn’t recognize, she asked you if I was your boyfriend and all you could say was I don’t know, I don’t know, and I was too shy to say anything because I was just as confused as you were, and since that day we never looked at each other’s eyes the same way again.” After another three months of waiting, the mailman told me again, “It seems no one writes to you.” I said, “You can be wrong one of these days,” though somehow I was not convinced of what I said myself.

One rainy afternoon in December 1991, I sent her another letter. “I wish it would also begin to snow here like in Tokyo,” I wrote, “though most days Diliman feels just as cold.” By March, I’ve sent her the fourth. “It’s almost summer here,” I said, “but maybe I can live without the sun for another month.” June and the fifth letter was on its way. “It’s been a year. How are you?” In two years I wrote her a dozen letters or so. “It seems no one writes to you,” the mailman said, as always, his smile now replaced by the look of pity. I lost count by the third year. In August 1995 I was ready to tell Anne that I’ve already saved enough money and that I’d soon be able to visit her in a month or two. My hopes were so high I could already see myself in an airplane a thousand feet above the earth, across the sea, with a week’s worth of clothes, four years’ worth of waiting, and a heart I’d rather carry by hand.

But fate had another plan. Giddy with anticipation, I almost had to carry my heart by hand when I suffered from a stroke, the kind that took my father’s life when I was barely ten. The doctor said I was lucky I was still alive. “Yeah, doc,” I said, “fuck my life.” I had to settle the hospital bills, the medicine expenses notwithstanding. It felt like a plane steered off course, saw me as a blip in its radar, and decided to crash, of all places, right smack into my heart. I couldn’t sleep for days. By the time I’ve slept, I dreamed of Anne and Tokyo. Eventually, I had to wake up.

I must have slept for six long years and have only woken up when Anne returned to the Philippines.

“As the days went by, Hongō campus felt more and more like UP Diliman. The buildings, the classrooms, the trees, the people. It’s as if I haven’t left at all,” she said. “Which probably explains why only once did I forgot about y- ” but she stopped there.

“D-Did you receive my letters? Did you... Did you even read them?”

Silence. Then, “Yes and yes,” she said.

“W-Was I not worthy of... of a response? N-Not even one le- one letter, a postcard... a postcard perhaps?”

“I was busy Herson.”

“But of course, Anne! Of course you were!” I felt my blood rush throughout my body, as though another airplane was on its way to my heart.

She bowed her head. Her hands were on her face.

Part 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6

Sunday, June 1, 2014

How I Remember Her Before She Left for Tokyo

[Part 1 of 6 of "Once There Was Anne"]

THERE ARE MEMORIES I wish I can just let slip through my fingers like water, stubborn as they are like my restless hope that there will be years far better than the ones that went before them. As I look back, these fragments of a time long gone feel as if they have lingered indefinitely, and the more I think about them the more I remember the day when the sun seemed to have been trapped by the sky, a suspended ball of ancient fire refusing to sink far west, which was the day Anne and I were close to the sea. At the time, I thought that that Saturday in 1991 will never end. Looking back, I wish it never started at all.

What brought us there was the handiwork of chance, or perhaps that is what I have led myself to believe all these years. She said she wanted to go to some tranquil place before leaving for Tokyo the following morning. Without much thought I told her “We can go to Batangas. I know a beach in Nasugbu.” “OK,” she said, “though I don’t feel like going for a swim.” I said, “We don’t have to.”

A little later we were at the terminal, inside the bus with not much to say save for the occasional “Are you OK?”, nothing in tow but her purse for her bare necessities and I with a heavy heart for a baggage I was less than willing to haul around, as if heading to the clear waters some seventy miles away was the most normal thing to do before Japan and a master’s degree change her forever into someone who will return six years after, a woman with all kinds of apologies for everyone for her protracted absence but none for me whatsoever, not even a trivial sigh for an excuse. I don’t remember now why, of all places, I had that beach in mind. I have only been there once, a fine morning when I decided to skip classes, two days after that incident when I bruised my hands so bad I thought they’d never heal again. From here I must admit that I am rarely in my best whenever I take spur of the moment decisions. As things turned out, the day I brought Anne to Nasugbu would not be any different.

Two hours after what felt like an agonizing eternity on the road, we had the beach all to ourselves. “It’s nice here,” she said, walking to the edge where the earth meets the sea, hands in her pockets, the wind tossing her hair, her eyes probably gazing at the stretch of pristine blue beneath the sky, as if in search of something that should have been there. A distant memory, too, perhaps, but now gone, sunk by the tempests of our time. I followed her to the shoreline, as I always had wherever she went. Where she goes, there I find myself, like a shadow at the mercy of the sunlight.

She turned around and said, “Do you go here often?” and I said, “Just once,” although what I really wanted to tell her was Yeah I go here often so that I can forget you, at least for a while, or just before sunset, perhaps before you leave for Tokyo, because by nightfall, as with the countless other previous nights, there’s nothing else I can do but to think of you again until, slowly, you creep into my dreams, the only welcome intruder in my sleep, and then I’d be helpless again, overcome by a desire so strong it’s practically pointless for me to resist.

“Just once,” I repeated myself instead.

“What is that island’s name?” she said, pointing at the barren hill that seemed to have risen from the depths of the seafloor to catch its final breath. “I don’t know,” I said, “but would you like for us to swim there and find out? C’mon, let’s go.” I held her hand, tried to pull her away gently from where she was standing, and she said “No no no you’re crazy!” She laughed, and I said “Well aren’t we all?” But she did not budge. Instead, she sat on a large rock in her attempt to dissuade me, convinced as she was, perhaps, that I meant what I said, so I gave up and sat beside her. After all, it was enough for me that she believed, just like the day when I told her that I’d visit her in Tokyo after I have saved enough money for the trip that no doubt will cost me a fortune. To me, the price I had to pay matters least. If a lonely island by the fringes of the sea can surface and gamble for a breath of air, I saw no reason why I should not have mine, in Japan or anywhere else in the world where she might be.

As the waves scurried to the rocky shoreline and muffled the sound of her laughter, her back to the setting sun, I brushed her hair behind her ear, hoping that nothing in the world will mute my words the moment I tell her that I love her.

I told her.

She looked at me, her eyes suddenly amused at something I cannot explain, in them a glimpse that seemed to force itself into my heart straight from her pupils. She smiled, bowed her head, sighed as though, at last, she knew that she was right, a confirmation of what was obvious right at the outset, and I had to repeat myself because, truth be told, there were so few things left for me to say when everything I ever needed in my life was already right in front of me, holding my hand as if to pardon my unfortunate errors in previous years, like a promise that one can hold and has no intention of being let go, and her touch felt so reassuring I could have momentarily forgotten who we used to be before that day. Her hand felt moist, and, strangely, it was as if she was water slipping through my fingers.

The sun seemed to hover over the horizon forever.

I waited but she did not say anything in return, just like the many other times I told her that I love her, a question cloaked as a declaration that grovels for the only preferred response, the pain of waiting in that extended silence almost unbearable, and that is how I remember her before she left for Tokyo. When she returned six years after, Anne told me something that continues to haunt me to this day.

“Of all the two thousand one hundred and ninety one days I lived in Japan, I forgot about you only once, and I don’t know why.”

“When was that?”

“The first day I was there.”

Part 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6