Crackle. The crackle of an afternoon thunderstorm. The crackle of another summer fire in the city. The crackle of a freshly-lit cigarette. The crackle of a distant crowd’s laughter. The crackle of a tired bus plying EDSA. The sounds of the city sharper in sadness. The noise of the city ricocheting as I look for ways to stay on an even keel. Life crackles - echoing, resounding, fading into whispers, memories. And then, for the longest second you understand that pain, the very symptom of life, crackles: a tired spine, a scorned heart, a spurned mind.
There is an adrenaline rush in writing unique to its process: the thrill when an idea blooms in your heart, and begins to take form in your brain; the restlessness of the hands to find paper, pen, notebook, or device to record the first surge of ideas; the pleasurable misery in searching for structure; the bouts of mania interspersed by brief seconds of calm in the desire for eloquence; the victory upon completion; the vice of our quirks – music, silence, sea or mountain – enhancing the writer’s possessed state; the collision of courage and fear in a fevered display of unity – when time, space, existence all seem to merge. The result? A few words. Some verses. A book. A play. A way of life. A living, breathing material of man’s inundated consciousness.
How does one live life thoroughly? One who seems so capable of deep thought yet desperately unable to cultivate ideas that truly change lives. One who seems to adventurous in words, so romantic in prose, so overwrought by emotion in poetry, yet lacking in the experience that is the true source of all inspiration. How does one, lacking in the grace of the Divine, manage to avoid ruin when he runs on nothing more but unskilled emotion? One whose sentiments are often affected by vanity. One who is too eager to please.
a summer evening in manila
A summer evening crackles in the islands: clear, dark blue and humid, enveloping a city of expanded steel, forsaken patience, and summer dreams. The breeze at night is nothing more but a warm waft from a heated bay to the west, and the fevered exhale of concrete and asphalt roads within. It is a respite, a few hours of sunless anxiety that is squelched only by the grandeur of the celestial décor. The moth crowd the lampposts, the cicadas chatter aimlessly, the city frogs in the sewers croak hesitantly. Little bothers the trees. If there is any wind, it is brief, even pointless. Salt from the brewed sea makes its way to the windows of rooms burdening electricity lines with all sorts of cooling appliances. The less fortunate would have to fan themselves until their muscles ache, and their sweat dries upon its own volition.
Many remain sleepless in such hot and humid April nights.
For a few, a day’s end suffices.
Whenever I see a man I had loved – “had” meaning I had opted for something less than the whole bloom of my passions – I feel like dying. I wonder how time so easily devices a convincing amnesia of the heart. For a brief second, I look back to all things wondrous, all sweet feelings now rendered as past.
Like this neighbor of ours I had a fling with – not exactly a short-lived affair as it were a missed opportunity at intimate companionship. Perhaps five years now since then. He was, quite tragically for me, married. Yet I would like to think he was the first true man I ever loved with such incessant devotion, and with such promise of the words. Twelve years older, if I remember well.
I do not know if I should feel bad that I’ve lost majority of the words I had written for him; they were some of my best and to a certain degree, my longest and my most private. I reckon it’s all for the good.
I still see him being my neighbor, and his sight incapacitates me.
On hot summer days like today, I come out to the balcony stealthily hoping for a glimpse of him, brushing away the beads of sweat in my anticipation, my loose morals in the humidity. And when I do see him, he steals me away from the present, and returns me to the blistering lust of my teenage years.
He is older now like all of us. But he doesn’t look like it. He is still always without a shirt. He still smokes a pack a day. I wonder with such naivety what happened, and how one day I simply woke up exhausted from the impossible. No words were needed. No goodbyes.
Then there are the rare days that I see him up close with his wife and two boys, we pass by each other, but we’re nothing more than strangers. It doesn’t upset me. It kills me. It kills me not to feel anything. What a fool I was when I was eighteen. Yet I envy my younger self for having loved as much back then.
the part of night before we sleep
Another March evening, the first of impending summer nights. The heat is extravagant. Steam wafts from the day-heated soil, after the mid-afternoon thunderstorm. The cicadas are more alive. The curtains are looser. The winds less of a snob. The emotions, with more velocity.
In bed, I read myself to sleep. A pocketbook of short stories. In the midst of flipping pages and swinging somnolence, he arrives – drunk from exhaustion, hoarse from the day’s pleasantries and discomforts, tired from the travel. He comes in the room, a stealthy silhouette against the quaint diffusion of the bedside lamp’s light.
“Hi,” a measured baritone carrying the weight of a working day.
He slips into the bathroom. The noise when unmaking. The particulars of cleaning. Toothbrush echoes. Faucets leak. He comes out in a few minutes. Face is wet. Hands are glistening. Hair just moist. Too tired for a shower. The murmurings of a former stranger now undressing in the bedroom. He scratches his hair, reaches for his back, takes off the shirt, unbuckles the leather belt, and pulls down his jeans. A quiet routine in a corner, stripped to his briefs.
There is still the faint smell of his musky cologne, and the faint trace of chest hair trailing down his abdomen, to the places I’ve been. He climbs into bed, steers under the sheets, invades my space, holds my legs, caresses my knobby knees, kisses me – forehead and cheek –, and then chatters irresponsibly, until the open book in my hands is rendered obsolete. He sounds tired but relentless. Shirtless and noisy, a decade ago a complete stranger now company in sacred grounds.
He is beautiful. His eyes are gentle, his lashes frail. His stubble is unkept, his lips dry as he struggles to stay awake. His nipples are crimson, his abdomen lean, his clavicle dotted by the four exquisite moles long seared in my memory. I listen and laugh. I smile back obligingly. I agree in many ways – nodding, gripping his cool fingers, playing with his half-strewn hair of rich molasses. I forget the book, and it slips into the deep recesses of the bed. The stories fade into whispers, soft piercings in the room of private affairs….
Silence. The cicadas are gone. The wind has died. His eyes are closed. No goodnights. No I love you’s.
My spine tingles. He is mine. This beast of a man splayed on the bed. I have memorized every detail of his face, of his body, of his being. The features and accessories, the scars and the birthmarks. I know his pleasures. I know his sorrows. The woes which bruise him. The victories which strengthen him. The fluctuations in his eyes, the nuances of his voice, the varieties of his bodily vibrations…
I observe for the longest few seconds, the careful, mechanical up and down of his chest, the movement that tells me he is alive, and he is mine; the involuntariness of his beating colored rich by grace and serenity. Such unbearable beauty bound to the plagues of mortality, lost to the few hours of dark unconsciousness of something beyond and something odd. Lost to fleeting rest. Yet he is mine, and not mine.
In having him, it seems, I am both at my strongest and weakest.
This is nice, an unbroken evening. When I can wash and watch you shower. When I can laugh as you scrub the day off your flesh. When I can giggle, bite my lip, or pretend to close my eyes when you face me. When I can hand you a towel, and watch you pat dry the moist, wrinkled grooves of your skin, and squeeze out the shower dews at the ends of your hair. When I wait for you to come from behind and engulf me with your glistening arms. When a warm kiss is preceded by the friction of your stubble on my cheek… When a soft reminder of three words proceeds from little gestures and affections… When the pleasantries of romance are like rivets that keep everything intact…my mind, my insides, the safety of my bodily hollows.
I can go back to bed, watch you linger between varying states of undress, and slowly settle under the sheets, smelling like a baby, gleaming under the heady triumph of a bedside lamp, vulnerable in plain skin cloaked in cotton. The last few words for the day are shared in hush, the last few touches, until entwined, until enveloped by the stillness of the night.
Floating away in the unbroken evening…
Sometimes I feel like this world has lost its way the same way an all-encompassing truth has been shoved under the furniture of human progress. Whereas before, a few truths so universal maintained the balance of the earth, now truth itself is relative, fragmented, and compartmentalized. There are millions of truths scattered, fiercely defended, and buttressed against the roof of reality. It seems as if anything can be true, so long as an individual can persuade others it is. And that truth itself no longer needs to conform with its nature of veracity, fidelity, sincerity or loyalty, but could be anything convenient to an individual. Where once truth was unyielding, now it could be anything. Consequently, these new truths which have emerged are translated into a legal language of rights, terribly monopolized and politicized to further advocacies that no longer even make sense.
Of course, progress is necessary and fighting for causes and joining movements is integral to human enlightenment. But I’ve never been confident with mankind, and I don’t see the human being ever capable of understanding his purpose, his words and actions, and his universe. We are finite beings with finite minds. There will be improvements but the infinite desire will never be quenched. As new truths come to light, or come to be legislated, we find ourselves respecting them more and more, and thinking less and less. I do believe the single truth of everything is out there. We’re simply too afraid of the consequences we might face in recognizing and accepting it.
Gay meeting and dating sites – there is something lonely about them. Everyone posting their most attractive photos, putting their best foot forward or sometimes even best cock… It’s a terrible affair, one I’m guilty of joining, hoping maybe somewhere between the pretentious straight-acting sex-addicts, the obvious paedophiles, the stagy muscular hunks, and the misleading half-naked photographs of posers and scammers, there is love to be found in the cybersphere.
“Top or bottom?”
“Are you straight acting? Or discreet?”
“Do you have a place?”
“Looking for a long term relationship…”
These are just some of the few popular questions and statuses in the world of online homoerotic pseudo-romance, where for a few clicks, and some instant messages, you find yourself chatting with complete strangers, never knowing if they really just want to suck your dick or rim your ass, or fool you, straight-guys masquerading as callboys and masseurs, ready to take advantage of the lonely, single, horny queer. Cheap affections, frivolous exchange of sexual innuendo-laden messages, the hasty logistics of arranging for a meet-up, the possibility of a fleeting one-night tryst becoming a lifetime affair…
Vulgar, and layered – it’s a nook of the online world open to suggestion, judgement, and naivety. Here, the affected man can list down all his preferences, and create a delusional standard, when in fact he is bound to settle for something less than what he truly deserves.
When I find myself talking to someone, looking at their hardened cocks, salivating over their washboard abs, or infatuated by their supposed straight man tone, I realize that all I really want is to be happy. But between now and the happiness in the distance, there is only room for a few shots of lust, the fucked-up probability of finding something worthy of any person needing acceptance, in a sea so polluted by both specificity and ambiguity, by both the cordial and vainglorious, the presumptuous and the stupid.
Love is the middle ground. There is none in such sites.
South of the Pasig river is the Manila I love. Yes, Quiapo has its charms and Binondo has its quaint streets. And yes the hustle of Divisoria is the chaos I am always pleased to endure. But if pleasantness is all that matters, then Ermita is the part of town my affections are hardest to remove.
I’ve always seen the district south of Rizal Park as one of strangeness. Though I’ve been to this place countless of times, every return always feels like the first. It’s cleaner than most parts of Manila. Not as tourist-tidy as the more popular spots in central Makati, or even the suburbia-like communities of Quezon City. But the narrow streets of Ermita are generally well-kept, and thus, welcoming.
I imagine the place before World War Two. I read a compilation book once called The Manila We Knew and a few authors lived in the district before the Japanese occupation. The authors recalled trees of a variety – chico, atis, and guava – offering shade to two-story detached houses with backyards scented by sampaguita and fronts adorned by shrubs of rosal or gardenia. Passing through M.H. Del Pilar Street, I still see some of these old houses, sandwiched between residential suites and three-star hotels. They look forgotten now, irrefutably dusty, and almost impossible to clean. The shrubs are covered in vehicular smog, the gardens left to be irresponsible.
From the wider Kalaw Avenue, the side-streets would be mistaken as alleyways on American standards. But the establishments, and the jeepneys plying through, point to commerce.
This is where Ermita becomes strange. Colonial Catholic churches and schools sit beside seedy-motels and karaoke bars. Chinese restaurants occupy corner plots next to outdated travel agencies and 80’s manpower agencies, right across old condominiums which point out to what Manila was designed to be – a European city in the tropics, a Paris-styled metropolis near the equator.
As students and old ladies cross from one sidewalk to the next, they run into prostitutes and their mile-high platform heels and impossibly short shorts. Even in daylight, the whores and their melting make-up can be seen – passing by hole-in-the-wall thrift stores and art galleries, engaging in a never-ending hide and seek with hairy foreigners and their beer bellies.
Every now and then you see the Caucasian backpacking couple asking for directions, and observe the long lines of soon-to-be overseas Filipino workers with their long-brown envelopes in employment agencies. There are the multitude of gay men and their partners too, spilling from the queer-friendly Malate, into upscale malls and homoerotic bars. Sometimes, I can’t even distinguish between a male prostitute and a simple welder applying for a job in the Middle East. When you’re walking in Ermita, the men almost smell the same. I guess the brown envelopes are the giveaways.
To me, Ermita has always been the midtown of Manila, a place of uncertainty, neither the center of commerce nor the agreeable residential sprawl. With dilapidated houses sitting next to ignored post-war buildings of such huge architectural importance, the sense the past is forgotten and taken for granted is magnified. It’s a Filipino plight, sometimes both a blessing and curse. We tend to forget what happened in the past which allows most of us to move on easily, and take the worst of calamities with a stride. But it also finds us grappling with the incessant societal problems we can never resolve, because we never learned our lessons, and we’ve simply marched ahead without any plan.
It’s when night encroaches, and the thin asphalt veins choking in taxis and jeepneys are drenched in the neon-lights of whore houses posing as innocent sisig bars, that the sorrow of being a “pleasant” part of town revealed. The contradiction of Ermita is self-generated. The strangeness of the district is born from nostalgia. Where families gather in wholesome paella restaurants, the kids coming out may have noticed the five-six chinito in tight-jeans and tees, hand in hand with his Arabian prince, smelling of alcohol and lust, readying for an all-nighter in the motel nearby.
It’s as if this place is the microcosm of the country – one foot stuck in a past that it refuses to notice, another inside the door of a future that it desperate yearns for. All the while, the body is entangled in a vague present that is never understood, or is merely contemplated in a few whiffs of concern and ambition. There is lust, there is eccentricity; there is pleasure and pain.
The prayers in the churches resound. The sonic madness of the bars echo. The noise of the streets permeate into even the most airconditioned of hotels. And I see myself even more in love with Ermita. My affections are unguided but they are not shallow.
In the busyness of the district, I wonder if like me, this place ever gets lonely imprisoned in a broken time machine. Does it still dream of the upper middle class bayside community it once was? Does the valley of shadows cast upon by hotels ever frighten those who breathe the air of this part of town? It is limbow – not downtown bustle nor the sobered stability of the metro’s fringe suburbias.
The saltiness of Manila bay mixes with the freshwater paste of the river north of it. There is dust and there is sunset. Traffic lights flicker and the glow of lampposts douses the flame of the night. This is the Ermita I know, only half-understood for fear of resentment. But I ask myself, can this place be home to love, can it find love, and can it give love, amidst its strangeness and suspicions.