Look out the window. Glare at the contemptuous state in which the world presents itself before your inquiring eyes. Witness a feeble empire sprawled on top of the dying and the innocent, those who crawl despite the weight, or precisely because of it, pretending to be alive, their eyes trained to the sky, arms aiming for the last drop of sunlight. They call themselves professionals. Of what, exactly, nobody knows. Dusk settles slowly like a velvet curtain, its urgency lost in an irreversible decay, preaching the darkness as though the city is a church anchored on the bedrock of godlessness, the skyline its pulpit perched on defiled ground, all ears, deaf as it is from its own noise. There is trepidation, and it foams in the mouth of those who wish they could speak their own voice in the absence of words.
I am no longer sure if this is a massage. The masseuse gathers her woes, balls them in her fists, and presses them on my skin like a punishment long overdue. There is no permanence in sorrow, but the way her hands pummel my shoulders seems as if her agony is forever, or that the terror nesting in her heart is about to spawn the hatred that will transform her nails into talons. There is neither modesty nor caution in the force of her palms. None of it is my fault. I blame her father. Men who are womanizers deserve more than the excessive flailing that a vexed daughter can inflict within the reach of an uppercut. I feel some of her tears land on my back the way a drizzle would usher the heavy rain — without warning, unstoppable. I say nothing. My lips are busy cringing.
Listen: the Kulintang muffles whispers and whimpers, sounding off its protest at the artifice of the overhead speakers, as though an unseen musician is making a mockery of the incoming silence. There is a missing note in the song. One more, and then another. Mistake them for the faint coughing from behind the wall as it signals the onset of a tubercular symphony. Find them hanging at the edge of an ellipsis, or a comma, or a coma, because the difference between deep unconsciousness and pause between phrases is an arbitrary letter. Search where organized oppression tastes like the food that minimum wage can never afford, where demands for reinstatement are met with the iron fist of the capitalist, where fire safety is in perpetual absentia even at the unceremonious end of seventy-two lives roasted amid rubber slippers, where workers in liquor factories stand against someone intoxicated in his own wealth and power, and where progress treats human labor as a dispensable commodity. The machine prohibits the celebration of life. It loathes music, improvisation most of all, precisely because it worships the dullness of repetition. The Kulintang stops.
I sit on the foam bed. She positions herself behind, holds my shoulders with her arms, and extends my back sideways, almost to the point where my hips are about to jut out of my torso. I am almost tempted to say, “I am not your father. I do not deserve this.” But then we lose balance. She staggers, plants her arms on the floor, saves herself from further humiliation. I lie down. She laughs. Briefly. “Sorry sir,” she says. I realize how strange this place is, a Thai spa in the Philippines that offers Swedish massage coursed through the hard hands of a laughing and crying, bespectacled masseuse. After a while, she stops, stands, and leaves the room. She returns with a glass of cold water and a warm towel. She places both items on the floor, and, in a rush, leaves a second time. She does not return.
I lie on my back, feeling sore, wondering if I should leave now while I am still able to walk, or at least crawl.
I remember the birds zigzagging beneath the rust of the clouds, and the vanity of the concrete landscape as it continues to refuse to pray for the rain, knowing that the only sin that heaven would allow it is that of foolish pride. No one in this city keeps tab of humility. Certainly not the condominiums racing to meet the sun, their tenants notwithstanding. Everyone is his or her own messiah, or at least that is how they present themselves, and in their eyes all others are sheep in wolf’s clothing. This place is a jungle urging the summer to rush forth, except that everyone is prey and no one is a true predator. And so I remember the birds. The vultures. Circling above. Waiting. Their patience is humbling. Such is the clarity of the law that governs the modicum for survival among scavengers. I call it avian verba legis.
So I stand, weak on my knees and toes, my strength gone to some crevice I do not know, perhaps leeched out of my skin and into the earth way beneath my feet. I leave the place with the weight of her woes on my body, like a phantom limb that I have to carry as my cross, which is the only penance I can afford for all of the sins that still pelt my conscience to this day. Middle-class guilt, they call it. Which is strange, because I am not even middle-class.