Subtitled: This Year’s Birthday Post
You’re aboard your car or some public transport, and you’re on your way to somewhere fearsome, something momentous.
You know the drill.
Your chest feels like it’s getting drilled. You gulp down inordinate amounts of saliva, and it feels as if a swarm of pupae hitched a ride down into your stomach where they would metamorphose into the proverbial butterflies. You try to distract your edgy self by staring at the world whizzing past the window, but your mind always recoils and fixates on one question. Will I fail the exams? Will Tito survive the operation? Will I impress the boss? Will She accept my flowers?
I’m not spared from these oh-God-let’s-just-get-this-over-with days. The nervous days in my life are as rife as the nerve endings of my body. How-I-Can-Change-the-Philippines elocution contests, ABS-CBN tapings, puppy love Valentine’s Days, thesis presentations, writers’ workshops.
And I’ve always got the most adrenalin-inducing, aorta-pumping start to this kind of days.
The moment I step out of our quinquagenarian apartment (read: fifty years, I just wanted you to hear the hoof beats in that word), I already feel like a soon-to-be-tested warrior. The swirling dust of Cordillera Street is the dust of the battlefield, and the overhead sun coaxes the sweat from my tense skin. (Of course, this poetic image is washed down when it’s the stormy season, but hey, the sleek curtain of raindrops more than makes up for it theatrically.) The noise and the blur of vehicles in front of me add to the atmosphere, making me hear war drums and making me see charging knights and scurrying squires.
I then flag down my stallion (or should I say, pony?) – one of the hundreds of tricycles plying Galas. “Boss, Quezon Av,” I thunder.
With that command, my warhorse (quinquagenarian-quinquagenarian-quinquagenarian) kicks into action, sometimes with a proud BROOOOOOM!, and sometimes with a meek brukdukdukdukdukduk. Especially when the stallion’s quite robust, I cling to the seat or the metal frame in the same way I would cling to my mount’s reins, and I imagine myself carrying a waxed, glinting lance into battle. Unfortunately, the lance is but my dirty shoulder bag.
A few gallops and I pass by Doña Aurora Elementary School, and the sight of the children adds to my anxiety. Not because I fear their being collateral damage in the battle I’m going to, but because they resurrect a lot of nervous moments from my having-to-wear-a-uniform years, such as my flag ceremony role of reciting the Panatang Makabayan (Patriotic Oath) from memory in grade school and my ‘fabulous pretty boy moment’ as the Helen-snatching Paris in the annual Iliad play in PSHS. Remembering past nervous moments in a current nervous moment is akin to beating your brain like an egg.
To make matters worse for my nerves, right across Doña Aurora is our parish church, and like a dutiful crusader I make the Sign of the Cross. I say my prayers, ask for His blessing, ask for Jesus’ guidance, and ask for the Holy Spirit to give me courage. In truth, like a dutiful crusader willing to charge headfirst into death, I’m just making peace with my God while struggling to make peace with my guts.
Soon I cross E. Rodriguez Avenue and my steed’s speed is racked up a notch. The thrill of the wind and the sensation of leaving everything behind to eat my dust make me feel energized and eager to take on the “somewhere fearsome, something momentous” waiting for me. Somehow, the ride helps untangle the bundle of nerves.
When my stallion, er, tricycle finally screeches to a stop, the stifling corridor of Cordillera Street gives way to the vast expanse of asphalt known as Quezon Avenue. It’s like I rode out from a narrow valley and into the wide plains where the battle will be joined.
And I feel ready.
In some days, the action plays in reverse. The “somewhere fearsome, something momentous” is not in a far-away place I have to commute to.
Rather, it is home. And my nervousness builds up while returning from the far-away place to the place near to my heart.
Nah, don’t be expecting some tragic, horrific, secret family story to suddenly pop in here. Most of the time, my tenseness is over ‘petty’ things – a street dogfight whose story is told in a black eye and a bleeding nose that I can’t hide, another flunked Math subject that I have to report to dad, a clandestine tryst with my special someone in my bedroom for the first time.
But there are times when the word ‘petty’ just can’t apply and when the anxiety is amplified. These are not the times when I don’t know what to expect upon stepping inside our old apartment. Rather, these are the times when I know what I’m going to see and what I’m going to feel. Sometimes, it’s harder that way. Knowing.
Story in point: while on a ‘literary field trip’ in Marikina, I get a surprise call from my father on the cellphone. I’m stepping on the Marikina River’s banks, and the fresh wind from the water soothes my face as I receive the bad news.
We have just lost someone very dear to us.
Prior to the call, I and my writer-friends were having a great time and we were looking forward to a night of booze and revelry. We were like pirates enjoying a triumphant end to a bloody battle on the seas (a day-long of poetry lectures) by partaking in the loot and spoils of war. Now, the phone call has suddenly swept all the fun off the deck and into Davy Jones’ Locker.
I flag down a taxi. Oddly enough, the driver takes his time and the ride is a leisurely one, even if the traffic is fairly light. There are few vehicles on the roads and the sun is setting. The car windows are showing me a silent ocean bereft of warmth and company.
As thundering fast my knight-charges were in the tricycles, this particular taxi ride is a slow and gloomy sail back to my home port.
And so the more I feel like a corsair returning home from a victorious quest on a far-flung shore. How glorious that quest was doesn’t matter, because the corsair is returning home to death, to loss, to pain, and I wasn’t able to do anything, a single thing, a little thing about it.
My ship makes the turn and the wide avenue is confined by the channel of Cordillera. In a few heartbeats, the school beckons to my left. The place looks desolate, with only a couple of children remaining, and even they are going home. To my right, the church looks asleep with none of its lights turned on. I make the Sign of the Cross, not only to pay respect, but also to knock, “Hey, God, are you really there?”
I go through the motions. “Stop the taxi.” Fingers wade into wallet and pocket. “Keep the change.” Open the car door. Open the gate. Open the house door. Kiss my dad on the cheek. Pat four dogs’ heads. Dump my shoulder bag somewhere.
Go into the kitchen, near the backyard.
I see Fischer, our seven-year old Dalmatian pet. No, not a mere pet. A family member. Pride of the dog-zoo on Cordillera Street. No – pride of Cordillera Street. He is lying on the floor, unmoving.
I pat his body battered by years of epilepsy. I whisper goodbye.
Still, in a select few days – very rare, very special days – I get really restless without going anywhere. There’s no need for the charging tricycles-cum-warhorses nor the tortuously slow sailing of my taxi-cum-ship.
These days fall in May. These days fall on the tenth of May.
These days are my birthdays.
I don’t celebrate them. Maybe I would, if I had just happened to pop out of the air and fall on the doctor’s (or the priest’s) hands, with matching Haaaaaa-llelujaaah! and heavenly light bursting from the skies.
However, May 10, 1985 wasn’t just a milestone for me; it was a milestone for a certain woman, too, a woman who isn’t here by my side and hasn’t been here for a long, long time. In fact, the last time I celebrated my birthday with a cake – a cliché cake, a cake with icing and candles like all others, a cake only made noteworthy because my name was on it – was also the last time I spent my birthday, our shared special day, with her.
That cake was a long, long way back, I guess fifteen years or so.
Since then, I’ve been spending my birthdays in a more mundane manner – sitting at home, in my room, in my quinquagenarian haven along Cordillera Street.
I sit, and I reflect and I rebel. I don’t know if I feel like a wise sage who shuts himself in a dark cave by choice, or a vile crook who is shut inside a dank cell by force. (Yes, I suppose my haven is dark and dank.)
Whatever the right analogy is, the most intense hours of looking at the clock, of reliving failure and success, of hearing the tick-tock-tick-tock, of wheedling with angels, of doubting, of wrestling with demons, of hoping, of feeling nervous happen in the few hours approaching my birthday.
It’s in these hours that I look down at my belly and bellow at my guts, “What are you doing?” It’s in these hours that I look up at the altar and cry at the crucifix, “What are You doing?”
But the question I’m really asking is, “What am I doing?”
For all the “somewhere fearsome, something momentous” I have to confront in distant places or in my very house, what have I been doing with and for myself? For all the years added to my age, what in me have aged so beautifully? Or badly?
May 10 is a day of crossroads, where my past, present, and future meet in one day, one hour, one minute, one second. And I don’t mean “meet” in a poetic manner – in the split moment that I turn twenty-three now, I am physically my past, my present, and my future. And all of my regrets, fears, dreams, nightmares, smiles, and tears merge into one entity.
Because I usually lean toward the half-empty glass than the half-full, this entity is almost always an entity angry at the past, absent in the present, and anxious of the future. Hence, my yearly tradition of guts revolting and my revolt against God.
I wrote, almost always.
This year is a bit different from the past ones. Hours ago, there were still the nervous moments before the clock struck twelve. However, the entity that emerged from the merger of emotions leaned toward the half-full glass: it is proud of the past, present in the present, and pining for the future.
I can’t pinpoint the reason for this change. Maybe the twenty-two years of going away nervous and coming back nervous and staying put nervous made me fed up with the cycle. Or maybe because these past months, I’ve gotten what every human wants and deserves – to feel mightily appreciated, to feel that I have a place in the world, to feel that I have to do something in the world before it’s all over. Positive literary workshops, one-line compliments that carry the weight of gold, positive new friends, ten-line text messages that carry the weight of my world – these are some of the things that may have done the trick.
Oh, and death and loss and pain, too – the passing away of my uncle, three cousins, two pet cats, and Fischer in the span of just about a year.
Of course, this isn’t a perfect 180-degree turnaround; I’m still not celebrating my birthday because of the past. Especially celebrating it with a cake.
But it’s a start. A good start.
Now, I would’ve loved to end my piece at this point. But I’ve got to be truthful to this day, and so I just have to add another story:
Exactly an hour before my birthday technically begins (8:52 PM) but after a dozen persons have greeted me and I’m halfway through this essay, my dad opens the door of my room. His face is blank.
“What?” I ask.
“Jackie’s finally dead.”
He is referring to one of our half-Dalmatian dogs and daughters of Fischer. She was six years old and had been fighting through liver disease since the turn of the New Year. Medicine and several trips to the vet weren’t enough. The doc himself told us to just “get a new pet.”
My father leaves, and once he is out of earshot, I say to myself, “So I won’t be staying put this day, this year, after all.” In Taglish, may I add.
I have to go out of my haven. In this day of life, I have to go somewhere distant in my home.
I leave my room and go down the stairs.
There’s a slight tingle in my guts, but I feel more prepared than ever before in my life.
I open the door to the backyard. Jackie’s bloated body – bloated head, bloated neck, and bloated stomach – greets me. Spittle drools down from her mouth. Beneath her eyes is a dried rivulet of some reddish liquid, like a tear of blood.
I kneel down and stroke her still-warm head and body.
I whisper, “Thank you, Lord.”
I give Jackie a last pat.
I leave my dog. I go up the stairs, back to my room.
Yes, happy birthday to me. You can also consider the creative nonfic piece above to be a preview of the manuscript I’m trying to put together to submit to UST’s Center for Creative Writing and Studies. With some luck, I may have a…!
So, yes, I’ve been gone since January. What have I been doing? Three things:
- I went home to Aklan for our family’s international reunion.
- I got sworn in as one of the two newest members of the LIRA Filipino poetry group.
- I got accepted into and I completed the 9th UST-CCWS National Writers’ Workshop. So after almost a year of exclusively writing in Filipino, I’m back with English. Actually, I’m now full-steam with both languages — bilingual pawah.
I know I’ve not shared on this blog much about what happened in my LIRA days, much more with the UST workshop (both were definitely career- and life-changers). In the weeks ahead (here I go again), I’ll put up two posts, one for each workshop.
See you soon.