There was a long line up for the bus that would take me home. It wasn’t the same scenario on the other side of the street, where they were just waiting for the last passenger to fill up the vehicle before it could leave. It was a whirlwind decision to cross the street and get myself on the bus that would transport me two hours to Pampanga.
It was ten in the morning and I had just gotten off work on a supposedly no-work Saturday, trying to finish off a report that was due for presentation that coming Monday. I preferred working on Saturdays even though I knew it was the worst workplace habit to have. I had the whole place to myself. I liked to work in quiet, not being disrupted by the incessant ringing of the phone and redundant departmental meetings.
As I reached the bus, the driver was just finishing in his collection of fare. He spread his palm toward me. From the front pocket of my jeans, I took out the folded money I always readied as fare. Getting on board, I would of course find that if there was one last seat available, it had to be at the tightest, innermost spot in the back row. I didn’t usually mind as long as I was seated next to a girl. I did not want to be caged in a corner seat with a guy whose eyes, instead of focusing on the road or better yet idling on snooze, would be viciously ogling my chest.
“Miss, may kulang ka pang bente.” You still owe me twenty.
Embarrassed, I fumbled to take out more money from my wallet. It had not consciously come to me that it was an hour and a half more than my regular homeward bound fare.
Soon after, the driver was weaving in and out of the traffic of Manila. I had not told Mama, who would be waiting for me with home cooked lunch, about my whimsical trip for the day yet. I suddenly needed a place for quiet. Not necessarily a new one that was waiting to be explored. Although that would have been a tempting idea since everything and every place then seemed to stir up memories that have been shared with the ex-boyfriend. I just wanted a place to visit; go someplace that had the potential of only vaguely reminding me of him. I was willing to take my chance.
As I rubbed my eyes lightly and forced myself to settle on my seat, which I uncomfortably shared with three other passengers, my mind drifted back to the workplace. I must be honest that the reason that I had been off my mind lately was, in its entirety, work-related. The story actually ended and started in that same place. The then-boyfriend had broken up with me six weeks ago through email. We had a chance to meet up outside to talk after that email. But I had not yet found the closure I wanted. My head had been in an ugly, messy swirl ever since. I didn’t know what closure I wanted.
There was not a day that I went to work that I had not stared into the vacant cubicle across from mine and was not reminded how a fool I had been. To date a co-worker, how dare I? How could have I been so easily swayed by the emails he would send because he was bored and had nothing better to do other than bug an equally seemingly bored officemate like me? He knew my number before I even got a hold of it, when I had applied for a company mobile phone. Because of the fact that I was among the usual early birds, I started noticing him coming to work earlier and earlier than normal. He timed his smoke breaks with my coffee breaks.
Later on, he would become a latte lover and I a casual smoker. In spite of the rumors that have been going on ever since I started there, about him and another co-worker, I had given in after a long, serious talk over coffee and a pack of menthol cigarettes. I should have seen that as a serious forewarning. He had not even bothered to ask whether I liked coffee in the evenings or if I actually liked smoking menthols. But then again, when he offered them to me, I did not tell him otherwise.
Being the ever persuasive one, he handed out his one-month notice before I even had the chance to consider resigning from the job. Although we would afterward agree that it was the easier route, I still thought of his act to be so full of self-interest. Of course, I would be bitter and furious and insecure. When he said he wanted to spare us the chismis so he was choosing to saunter away, he thought he was doing me a favor. He thought that if he left without a word and did not let everybody know that he was the one that broke it off, I would have saved my own face. We simply had an agreed falling out, he wanted me to say. Instead, I chose to remain quiet after he packed up his binders and a box full of love notes and drawings and poems. Because clearly, I did not see any opportunity to lie. If somebody had simply asked me a direct question, I would not have lied. How could I? What he did not understand was that his resignation itself was a literal, blatant show of his walking away from me and from my life.
Of course I had to endure coffee and smoke breaks and meetings that orbited around me even though I was not physically a part of the circle that did the discussions. I wasn’t intrinsically there, but my presence lingered especially among the clerks when they took their ride home together aboard the company shuttle. I heard names being dropped. At one point, my best office pal Teresa had made a suggestion that may be, it would be good for me to confront the ex-boyfriend about the other names that were starting to be woven into the story that originally just involved him and I. I told her firmly that such confrontation was not the closure that I had been wanting. She did not know the whole story, I told her.
A few minutes later, the bus was out of city traffic. I pulled my iPod out. Normally, a book or a journal was my best company in travel, but I knew I made a better choice then when Jewel’s “Daddy” jumped out of the earphones and thumped encouragingly into my throbbing head. Her music always reassured that I didn’t have to feel alone, even in my most uncertain state of self. “I’m sloppy, what’s that say about you? I’m messy, what’s that say about you? My bones are tired, Daddy.” I never hid my contempt for my father. I wore my hatred for him on my sleeve, sometimes even very smugly. It was a story I carried wherever I went, in soirees, night-outs with the girls, drawing and writing contests, school paper brainstorming, detentions, prayer rallies, confession boxes, retreats, open forums, even in meetings with the school principal after she had seen me do a drawing of a girl in a boat, casting off a lifebuoy and trying to jump on it, as if to escape.
Even then, when I was all grown up, already working, and supposedly getting into and out of relationships my own, I had still placed my father in the center of all the monstrous habits and hang-ups that kept duplicating themselves in maddening cycles. I always pointed the finger to my father – who had always been a distant, strict, absent father – which was easy for me to do. When I was worried or scared or felt myself incapable of doing a certain task, I blamed my father for not teaching me and not allowing me to experience and learn things, growing up. Everyone has his own neuroses, but my father’s scrupulous ways taught me not to overcome my own, and instead let me get overwhelmed by them.
I didn’t have any other male figure in my life. Except for my father, I was mostly surrounded & looked after by women. I finished primary and secondary school in an exclusive-for-girls Catholic institution. Going into a University with guys was a different experience for me. And this fact about me being awkward in the presence of men was always evident in my interactions and relationships with them. I did not know how to flirt because I had no clue what men liked to hear. I could not give them the look that would have shown my curiosity and yet not give me away as being easy. I knew they could tell that I was only focusing on the bridge of their noses and that I wasn’t really seeing. So, I always ended up bordering into the extremity of concealing my interest. I had broken the hearts of a few good guys who – if I were to truly search within the recesses of my heart – I also felt strongly for. Ivan. Nick. John. Richard. I did not know how to respond to pick up lines and compliments because I did not see myself worthy of their praise. As soon as they started showing me attention, I would be sneaking out the back door in hasty panic. Sometimes, I wondered if they thought I just plainly detested men, in general. I did not know how to say “I love you” because I did not know how it was to feel that towards them. I had no idea if loving a guy was any different from loving the women figures in my life.When they asked for my phone number, I always said my father was strict. And that wasn’t entirely a lie.
Even though I was still blaming him for the break-up until the last minute, I knew the ex-boyfriend had gotten the worst end of the deal. True, I would have not said yes if he had not pushed, shoved, and insisted. But it was mostly me that allowed myself to be swayed when I knew I was not ready. That night that we talked over coffee, I had originally planned of running away from home after an ugly row I had with my father. Instead, I met up with my then would-be boyfriend. After all the rage had been released and pacified, he thought it the best, fitting time to ask me formally. I decided to commit to a relationship with him because I thought that if it weren’t that time, there wouldn’t be another time. I thought that sooner or later, I would be ready. But I never was. I did not realize then that ready wasn’t a future state, it was, at all times, a present state of being. I could never be ready later. To be ready meant I had to commit to the now. In that certain situation, I had to commit to the then.
And even when I was starting to recognize that I wasn’t ready, I was too stubborn to let go. I gripped onto the ropes even though I knew we were spiraling down in cavernous, rapid motions. My thoughts were, if I could hold on to something, anything at all, may be something good would come out of it. I would eventually discover the hard way that I could not give what I did not have. I was like a drinking well, which could not share water, for the life of me, because inside I was all dried out.
Thirty minutes later, the bus was approaching the toll that expanded into the express way. By this time when I was younger, as I was often reminded by Mama (because I was an anxious traveler she said), I would have been miserably crying and puking in the vehicle, being cradled and juggled from one arm to the next until one of them found the magic word that would pacify me, if only temporarily – Look at the cows, o. Ay, the carabaos are bathing, see! Oo, anak, we’re almost there, Auntie Maria is waiting for you. Tahan na, nagagalit na si Daddy. It was often the latter one that would make me stop, Mama said. Stop crying, Daddy is getting mad.
I got off the bus and hailed a passenger jeepney that would take me to the barrio proper. I had not gone by myself, let alone commuted, in that town before. But knowing where to catch the next ride was easy for me, like it was my hometown, the ways of life and set up of which never changed in the many years that I have been away from it to live in the big city. I could not say I grew up in that town because I wasn’t born there and have always lived under excessive settings of flickering neon lights and the grimy buzzing of transportation and street traffic. Although I could say that every time my family got away from city life on random weekends or on planned trips to mourn the loss of a relative, I always brought home with me a piece of the small town – whether in the form of a cut (that would stick around as a permanent scar) which I acquired playing in the bukid or a sunburnt forehead, proof of the grandest time spent with my cousins, Kuyas and Ates, chasing each other on hanging bridges or watching carabaos as they bathed by the river down below. The charm of the small town I would silently carry in me, through the marks that would be left afterwards by my father’s whipping.
As I plopped myself down to seat, I scrambled for coins to pay for my fare. I had to talk in the most articulate accent I could muster to not give myself away. “Pasudeko mu pu.” Just by the sugar mill. I tried my hardest but still felt alienated, especially when the driver talked to me in a broken city accent. “‘Indi ka taga-dito. Taga-Menila ka ba?” You’re not from here. Are you from Manila? I let out a bashful “Opo”. Yes. I could feel the other passengers eyeing me with curiosity, but I didn’t want to give a chance to unfamiliar faces to start fabricating stories as to what I was doing there, so I averted my gaze to the teenage boys who were peddling Christmas lanterns outside the church. (The town was famous for those festive lanterns, so a visitor must be forgiving if they ever see Christmas ornaments being sold in the heat of the summer.) I felt a compulsion to make a sign of the cross, like I was used to doing as a child whenever we passed by the town church. Once, we passed by a building which seemed to me like a house of worship because there was a big metal cross welded on the main door, I had made the sign and had gotten scoffed at by my Ate – “Sira, di nagku-krus ang mga Born-again”. Silly, Born-agains don’t make the sign of the cross.
Within the ten-minute ride to the barrio proper, childhood memories started drowning my thoughts that I found myself short of breath. I was not sure if it was because of the air that carried the pungent scent of sugarcanes being stripped down, shredded, and refined into mounds of sugar which I could smell from miles away; but against my will, I suddenly felt droplets of tears escaping from my eyes. Ironically, it was the smell that calmed me down as a child, anxious to get off the vehicle, because I knew we were there finally.
“Keni na ka. Maka-intindi kang Kapampangan e wari?” You’re here. You understand Kapampangan, don’t you? Again, all I could make out to tell the driver was a soft yes. “Wa.”
I got off the jeep and crossed the street towards the barrio’s bus stop. A parade of colorful tricycles showed itself to me. The first one in line had its stereos blaring out Eagles music. It was eerily familiar. At pre-school, I was already humming to the tune of “Hotel California” before I even learned the full lyrics to “Twinkle Twinkle Litte Star”. If I could, without causing discord among the drivers, I would have passed by the first tricycle and jumped onto the next one in line for the reason that I did not need to be followed around and slapped in the face constantly with my father’s partialities, habits, and bearings. My disposition changed a little as soon as I read the placard that was screwed on to the front of the tricycle’s cab – Sake na, abe. Ride, my friend.
“Sona singku pu.” Zone five please. The driver pushed on the pedal and the vehicle geared itself into a chasm of smoke and ash, dusty remnants of a catastrophic past. When predictions for Mt. Pinatubo’s eruption started coming out, many unwillingly relocated to safer grounds, in the early nineties. But many chose to stay; out of unguided faith that they will be spared; out of mere stubbornness, in their want to look after their land or crops or farm animals; or some others, out of a proud admission of surrender, if it was the time for the good Lord to take their lives, His will be done. On the day that the volcano had erupted most violently, my father was just, just driving out of the province. He had escaped, in a manner of hours. I did not know what to make of it then – if it happened in good fate or not. The rest of the family would not be spared from lahar, which flooded all the towns over weeks and eventually almost erased the whole province off the map. I never did find out why my own family chose to stay behind.
“Nanung lagyu?” What’s the name? I had forgotten. There, you just mentioned the family name to know which house to drop you off. No street names or house numbers necessary. In the scandalous roar of the engine and tires flying off the unpaved road, I shouted “Garcia.” “Ah, Ingkung Pasyo.” They would know the name of the patriarch, of course. My grandfather was probably among the few ancient folks that withstood the test of time and the grotesque display of mother nature’s temperament. He would be turning ninety-eight in November that year. He had evidently outlived the young national hero, Bonifacio, after whom he was named.
As I found “Hotel California” humming in my head, I realized that I could not get away from my father because it would be an impossible, ludicrous idea to even think about getting away from my very own self. I was not that desperate yet. So there I was, in my father’s hometown, carrying his partialities, habits, and bearings inside of me. And in a matter of minutes, I would come face to face with the force itself, the ultimate source of it all.
The sun was scorching, apparent in the heat that was still steaming off the leather seat that I was sitting on. The humid air was making it worse, not allowing my body to completely sweat off. When I was younger, I often had nosebleeds when I played outside and Mama always attributed that to the humid weather. Aside from the other ridiculous reasons originated by my father – you will get picked up by a Bumbay – my sister and I were often forbidden to play outside because of that, especially in the mid-afternoon. Those rules especially made me an irrationally fearful child. I did not understand head-on that the one person I should have been running away from was not the East Indian man that collected five-six loans every afternoon, it was the man whose snores disrupted my dreams every night.
The volcanic eruption turned the barrio into a barren land. Apart from the shrubberies that sprouted here and there, I could not see any sign of the trees of my childhood – makopa, banana, mango, and camachile, all of which have always been among my personal favorite fruits because I liked having them for afternoon merienda and I grew up picking them off the backyard where my Lola mostly spent her days. At least I could still spot coconut trees, which I never did climb as a child, but the fruit of which was my topmost favorite. Prior to the eruption, I knew the exact count as to how many houses and coconut trees we would pass by before we got to the family’s humble abode. I knew which houses had the nicest verandas, owned by Spanish-speaking families, or those owned by relatives, which for us included cousins of our cousins. Post-eruption, I would be lucky to see two houses standing one after the other. For the most part, houses now were at least five acreages in distance. And that is why I did not know it was time for me to get off the tricycle until the driver pulled into a front yard that my eyes did not recognize but exuded with vague feelings of familiarity.
A rush of emotion, which I could not identify at that time, overwhelmed me so that my feet remained magnetized on the stainless steel flooring of the tricycle, rusty as it was. Everybody would be surprised, not in a dreadful way of course, for I was that side of the family’s favorite niece. It had always been Auntie Maria, my father’s eldest sister, who looked after me whenever Mama was busy running the family textile business. Auntie Maria was easily my favorite Auntie and I, her easy pick for favorite pamangkin. And everybody said I reminded them of my late Lola Ibyang, from whom I apparently got my high forehead and fair complexion. And although I only had an indistinct memory of my grandmother, I prided myself with knowing that everybody saw a piece of her left in me.
I did manage to get off the tricycle, even though I was in a bit of a daze. May be it was the heat; may be it was hunger; I wasn’t sure. If I were asked about the purpose of my visit, I knew I was going to have a hard time breaking it down to them. Why was I there? In a dismal breakdown, I would have to say it was really because the ex-boyfriend broke up with me. Oh, anak, we’re sorry to hear that. I am, too. You can stay here for as long as you want. Thanks, but I can’t. Idleness is my enemy. You will find someone else who’s better than him. Someone who will love you and who will be worthy of your love. They would never understand the situation the way that the ex-boyfriend had really understood it. As a matter of fact, I had only gained a comprehensive understanding of it because of him. How could I admit to them then that finding love with another person was last, down the line?
The ex-boyfriend’s email had eloquently stated the reason he was breaking up with me – he felt I could not love him the way that I cross-my-heart-promised I would. Of course, I had argued my case with him and pleaded for him to believe otherwise. He dismissed my petition with such candor and presented his own case very diplomatically that I had no option but to concede (I would have even gladly volunteered alimony if that was a divorce proceeding). He said I could not give him love unless I found love for myself first. He pressed on – I could not find love for myself unless I found love from my father. And he kept pressing on – I could not find love from my father until I had made sense of the cruelties brought about by my father’s own childhood. One of us must be willing, he wrote in his email. And since it didn’t make sense for him to volunteer my father to make him the willing party, the ex-boyfriend took it upon himself to tell me that I must take the initiative. I was not given time for counter propositions. His arguments were sound and were heavily supported by evidence. To rest the case, so to speak, I decided the one person that I needed to talk to was my Lolo Pasyo.
I stalled outside longer than I typically would. I looked at the unfinished construction in front of me. The unfinished foundation seemed to give the house ample support. The tin ribbed roofing that temporarily crowned it was a complete eyesore. The only reason I could tell there were people living on it was by the line of clothes that was drying at the side of the house where a huge papag also was; that wooden bed where as kids, we would take a mandatory siesta.
My Auntie Elena who was at that time the most capable among the siblings of having the house finished was on hiatus. The house used to be my father’s, before the tragedy. He had spent a ridiculous sum of money on the lighting fixtures and marble flooring alone. When disaster hit, he was on his way to Manila to haul more supplies to finish off construction. The most number of times we had slept on the house was probably five at the most. It took a long time for my sisters and I to mend broken hearts over the loss of our favorite childhood photos and toys. Alongside those, my father’s fantasy of retiring into country living was buried thirty feet under. The money and time that he had spent building the house, I could liken to the floods of lava that had flown without a good cause and had turned everything they touched into solid rock.
I had been standing there outside, a few degrees away from having a heat stroke, when I saw Auntie Maria peep through the window. I had not found time to make out the reaction she had on her face when I saw her rushing down the front steps to give me a tight, restful embrace. “Boy ku, lalagu kang lalagu.” My love, you are getting lovelier and lovelier. As a child, I was my most confident self when I was with Auntie Maria.
After we had exchanged pleasantries, she ushered me into the house. “Kilub ta na misabi. Balu ku mapagal ka sigurado.” Let’s talk inside. I know you’re tired, for sure.
Inside, it was all bones and no core, too. Major appliances and furnishings were present, but the house let out an atmosphere that it had not been lived in.
“Your Lolo is taking a nap. We’ll let him know later that you’re here. Do you want tamales? I know that’s your favorite. There’s a couple of wraps left. If I had known you were coming, I would have made an extra batch just for you. How about puto seko?”
A widower with thick-rimmed glasses, grey hair and all, my Auntie Maria was still the best maker of those delicacies. People came from all over the barrio to order those goodies from her. Between looking after the house and tending after a family who came by and went whenever they pleased – composed of two bachelor brothers, one abandoned nephew, one unmarried son, three married children and their spouses, and ten grandchildren – I did not know where she got her energy to still do orders day after day, at a mighty age of sixty-five.
“I’m not really hungry, thank you po, Auntie. I have to let Mama know I’m here, anyway.”
As I dialed home to tell Mama of my spontaneous visit, Auntie Maria prepared a glass of water for me. I told Mama I was going to return home that same night. She probably knew what I was up to. It was unusual for me to act on an impulse like that. But she did not prompt me for more details. And it was unusual for her not to reprimand me. She normally did that to my sisters and I, not because she wanted to or because she was callous that way, but because she wanted to prepare us for our father’s would be hostile reaction. After both Mama and Auntie Maria exchanged kumustas through me, I hung up.
I took the glass of water from Auntie Maria and took a careful sip. She led me out so that we could sit by the papag. I traced my fingers on the uneven arrangement of bamboo poles threaded together to make shift as a bed and reminisced how I used to love sleeping on it in the evenings. Under mosquito netting, being lulled to sleep by the cool, nighttime breeze and by the sound of the crickets was worth enduring the backaches come morning.
“Where is everybody, Auntie?”
“Work. The kids went with your Kuya Jun-Jun to see the touring peria in San Fernando. They will all probably get here late. Which I don’t mind. It’s nice to have quiet time once in a while.”
She took off her eyeglasses and looked at me in an unblinking, knowing manner.
“Nanung buri ning boy ku?” What does my love want? She asked in the most tranquil, most loving manner, that I lost my composure right away, let my head fall on her lap, and wept, defenseless. She stroked my hair, like she would when I was a kid and she would be nursing me back to health, feeding me with rice soaked in the broth of homemade chicken sopas, the only thing I would eat every time I was sick.
“Ssshhhh, boy ku.” My love. “Everything will be okay.”
When I was younger, I believed it was the soul of my Lola Ibyang that always prompted my Auntie Maria to the front door of our house in Manila when I would be out of school for days, down with a nasty flu. She always seemed to know when to pay a visit.
“How time flies. I’m too old to come to you when you need me. Now, it is you that has to come see me first.”
Eight straight years of not having seen each other and she could still read my thoughts. We heard weak coughing from the inside of the house.
“We should go see your Lolo now.”
I straightened myself out. We came into the room and saw Lolo lying in bed, all bundled up in a light cotton blanket, up to his chest. I had never seen him that tired and wrinkly. I cautiously walked to his side and offered to take his hand for a blessing.
“Bless po.” He did not lift a finger. I insisted in getting his blessing so I raised the back of his hand to my forehead. His whole hand was frigid, but something close to a needy feeling showed when his pinky finger twitched as I touched him. I was determined to change how things would have normally gone. There was a purpose that needed to be carried out.
“Kumusta po, Lolo?” He looked past me, as he turned his gaze toward the window where a blazing patch of the afternoon sun shown. I glanced at Auntie Maria, who was just looking away, very uneasily. I settled into the reasoning that Lolo must have liked basking in that glorious display of hope that had been spared for him to enjoy in the confines of his room, no matter if it was in the smallest amount or stray. And then I noticed him slip back into slumber. He looked extremely weary. But the crook of his nose looked wicked and frightening, more than ever. Auntie Maria leaned toward me to talk in a hush.
“He had a stroke three months ago, anak. Never spoke a word ever since.”
I wasn’t surprised by the news. His stroke had been a long time coming. Not that everyone had been wanting for that unfortunate thing to happen, but it was going to happen, one way or another. For as long as I could remember, he was always ridden with diabetes and heart problems. Neither did his non-talking surprise me. My Lolo was not only a man of few words; he was the ultimate personification of terror. Every time we would see him, my sisters and I only asked for his blessing – and only because we were forced and threatened to do so – and left the talking (or the non-talking) to the elders. Usually, it was only Mama that took the time to talk – small talk. But the news upset me just the same, not only because it was rotten news, but because I knew my undertaking had been a failure. How could I resolve things with a person who could not talk or refused to be talked to?
“It was a big discussion among us here if we should tell your Daddy. If it were just up to me, I would have let him know. But the rest thought it wouldn’t have made a difference if he knew. That he wouldn’t care anyway.”
And a sudden wave of frustration rose up in me and threatened to burst through the redness of my face. I had to step out, Auntie Maria following immediately. She tried to calm and sit me down on the hard, bulky narra chairs that regaled the living room. I sulked stubbornly and cupped my palms around my head in a frantic motion.
“Why would they think that way? He is still Lolo’s son! He has a right to know! How can they say he wouldn’t have cared, if they had not tried?”
My Auntie Maria had never seen me in such anguish before; I could see her eyes begin to water. And in a distracted realization that I was actually siding with my father for the first time in my life, I started crying again.
“Has Lolo ever been mean to you, Auntie?”
“No, anak, Lolo was never mean to me.”
“How about to Auntie Elena? Uncle Eduardo? Uncle Rodolfo?”
“It is a shame to say it, but he was only like that towards your Daddy.”
I knew that as a fact; evidence of that detestable relationship between the two was my father’s nascent indifference to us, his very own children; but I didn’t know the reason behind it. None of us kids did. Nobody bothered, until now.
“He blamed your Daddy for Ima’s illness. We had all found out about her cancer of the ovaries during delivery. It was at its terminal stage at that time. The doctor said that they could not have operated on Ima anyway because she had your Daddy inside her. Of course, there was never medical proof from the doctor that it was your Daddy that had caused the cancer. But that’s what Tatang believed in and he stuck with that. Four months later, Ima passed away.”
There was a discomfited air that lingered, which was made even more obvious by an exchange of muted sobbing. Auntie Maria and I were all worked up by that time.
“Has Daddy ever been mean to you and the rest?”
“Not to us. And he wasn’t mean. Just different towards your Lolo. Honestly, I don’t think he ever felt any anger towards Tatang.”
I tapped my memory for those twice-in-a-year visits to the bank that my father would make – around Christmas time and on the eve of Lolo’s birthday. He never sent out cards. He never phoned to drop Lolo a greeting. But through rains, storms, and floods, he would personally deposit money into Auntie Maria’s account to give to Lolo. It didn’t make sense to me before and actually, even up to that point of quiet recollection, because I was certain that Lolo was not my father’s most favorite person in the world. My Auntie Maria never revealed to Lolo who the benevolent donor was. Neither did she tell Daddy that Lolo never knew who the donor was.
“I am going to make this easy on you. Your Daddy loves you, anak. He might not be capable of expressing it, but I know he does.”
I was confused. How come Auntie Maria was seeing that, when I could not?
“You’re probably not aware that I already know the reason you came here. Your Daddy knows what is going on with you even though he often acts like he does not care.”
My father apparently phoned Auntie Maria as soon as he figured out what had happened to me. He did not have to ask Mama about the breakup, he had confessed to Auntie Maria. He just noticed me more and more at home – more sullen, more miserable, more irritable especially towards my baby sister – more time spent locked up in my room. He saw dark circles forming in my eyes. He had phoned Auntie just to tip her off.
“Did you also know that it was your dad that would travel three hours and back to pick me up, just so I could be with you each time you were sick and delirious and asked for me?”
Of course, I did not know that, too.
A few years ago, cysts had begun forming in my ovaries. I thought that was normal until, Mama finally decided to have me confined in the hospital that one semester I had missed more than a couple of my classes in university because of excruciating stabs of pain in my abdomen. If I was missing out on my favorite Literature classes, Mama thought that couldn’t be normal anymore. The doctor found out that if not treated right away, I might grow the kind of cysts that could turn into cancer. I had seen my Dad walk out the hospital room, just as the doctor was discussing the results with Mama. He didn’t care and that was fine by me. The next day, I would hear from Mama that Daddy had gone to Pampanga.
“He drove here that very same day, crying. I had never seen your Daddy cry before that. He said he could not be responsible again for losing a loved-one. To the same lethal cause, no less.”
My Lola Ibyang had died of the cancer and for the past two years, I had been preparing myself to sharing her fate. I could only wish people would think of me the same manner that I had always remembered my Lola, whose real name was Beatriz, which meant “a voyager of life”.
Auntie Maria said Daddy had thought it was already too late to change things around. He had said that he could feel me slipping farther and farther away from him, day after day. And he said he could not blame me for that.
I excused myself and told Auntie Maria I needed a breath of fresh air. I felt the urge to pull out a cigarette but I suddenly remembered how I quit right after the breakup. As I was grabbing my purse on the way out, my phone rang. By habitual reaction, I answered the call, even when I was not in my best frame of mind. It was Teresa.
“Hey, Tere, sorry! I couldn’t wait for you earlier. I only put in two hours at work.”
“That’s okay. Paul and I made a quick getaway.”
“Why, where are you ba exactly?”
I could sense the pause and the despondent quality of her voice.
“Guess who we just saw?”
I did not have to make a guess. I was sure who she was talking about.
“I know the full story now. It happened right before my very eyes. Do you believe me now?”
My head started spinning in a slow, steady rate.
“Sorry, somebody had to break it to you.”
“Salamat, Tere. Thanks.”
“And you know, I couldn’t hide something like that from you.”
“I don’t know what else to say.”
“The earlier you learn about it, the sooner you’re going to get over it. Dito lang kami, okay?”
A hot gust of wind blew through my face. I was all cried out by that point in time, so that all the wind could do was leave a burn where my tears had already dried up on my cheeks.
It might have been true that I was nowhere near being the perfect girlfriend, but a breakup wouldn’t have had occurred if there was no impulsion that made him do a comparison, Teresa had once told me. Besides, if he was just strong enough to resist the pull, inflicting pain on me in a disloyal way could have been prevented. I refused to listen to Teresa then. I guess there had always been a nagging hunch that I just snubbed because I was so preoccupied with the story that he had so carefully staged, may be to let me down kindly, may be to cover up for his mess, may be to push me into wanting to become a better person, who knew.
I dialed the ex-boyfriend’s number in haste. I did not want to lose momentum. The phone rang for what seemed to me like forever.
My heart thumped in my chest with such fierceness, I thought I was going to have an episode.
I scanned the desolate terrain that was before me. Regardless whether the adults had forbidden a few places for us to explore, we considered the whole barrio to be our playground. I could remember when I was about five, my Ate, my cousins, and I went to the palaisdaan after having been forewarned and sternly told not to. Being kids that we were, we went on a stubborn tramp to the other side of the barrio, in hope of catching tilapia. I literally had to give an arm’s length – scraping the whole of my left arm when I slipped trying to get a hold of a ten-inch tilapia – but we were triumphant in our goal. There was a birthday celebration that was going to be held that evening so we thought it was the most perfect timing to come home with a bucketful of live fish.Upon seeing the ugly form that my arm was in, my father went on his usual rant about how much we deserved a licking for being disobedient. Normally, the nagging was succeeded by an actual licking. But before he even had the chance to unbuckle his belt, I had stepped forward to speak in behalf of the lot.
“Sorry, Daddy. We thought you’d like tilapia for your birthday.”
I did not see, for I did not dare move to see. But I felt that all eyes had shifted on me. I did not know at that time of course, how strong my words really were. Yet I could feel that some kind of power had lifted and dispersed in the air; to where it transferred, I wasn’t exactly sure. My Ate, my cousins, and I had all been spared from the licking, anyhow.
I heard a hesitant hello from the other line. I half expected for him not to answer.
“I just phoned to say that everything is clear to me now. Thank you for opening my eyes.”
And just like that, I hung up. My heart was still making the motions, only that time; it was giving out empty thunk-thunk-thunks.
In the land where my Lolo had started a family, the land where my Lola had given birth to my father, the land which my father had chosen to leave in wanting to raise a family of his own, and the land whose appeal had never left my being, I felt something being carried toward my direction by the ardent tropical air – a presence smaller than God’s but nonetheless majestic – the presence of forgiveness.
In an immediate surge of coldness towards the ex-boyfriend, I had found the smallest of space where I was able to forgive my father. I could not handle too high a degree of indifference for one person, never mind two people. Soon, I knew I would find it in my heart (as he always liked to say) to completely forgive the ex-boyfriend. But at that moment, I also found the need to forgive myself, most especially. In an epiphany, I recognized that it wasn’t just me that was the problem. We all had a part to it – Lolo, my father, Mama, Auntie Maria, the ex-boyfriend, and I. We were running in the same circle after all – being chased after by guilt and chasing after forgiveness – it was expected that our lives were going to impact each other the way that it had over the course of years.
It was a bitter pill to swallow. But it made the most practical, most perfect, sense at that time. If it was genuine, forgiveness would not ask questions, would not doubt, and would not ask for details. It would just give and give without expecting anything back.
I did not realize that the entire time I was looking for a place to revisit, what I needed was to search within myself. I had also learned that in order for forgiveness to start and take place, one must be determined from the beginning to end everything with it, too.
Auntie Maria came barging out the terrace door. One hand partly covered her mouth in a nervous angle that I could hardly make out what she said. My head was still buzzing and my heart was still thunking.
“Your Lolo just called your name.”