On the first day of April, we moved to a row house in a subdivision carved out of the Antipolo hills. A row house is a nice word for houses that somehow managed to fit into 120-square-meter lots. They looked like matchboxes, really, built near the riverbank. The larger houses, of course, stood grandly at the center of the village, in front of the chapel. We’d be renting the house from the mayor’s mistress, one of three houses she owned there.
The living room of the house spilled over into the kitchen. The house only had two tiny rooms, but it was enough for us. The owner of the apartment we had been renting in Project 4 wrote to us (in pink stationery with the letterhead “Dr. Antonina Raquiza, Ph. D.”) to say that she’d raise the monthly rent to five thousand. If we couldn’t agree to her new terms, we’d have two months to leave. Mama glared at the letter, then said something obscene about our landlady’s father. A day later, she began poring over the ads, looking for cheaper rent in the suburbs. Papa’s monthly remittances from his engineer’s job in Saudi would not be enough if the landlady raises the rent, since he was also sending some nephews and nieces to school. Noblesse oblige is how you call it, but it was actually more oblige than noblesse. And that was how we moved to Antipolo.
It was a long, hot summer. The days were dull and endless, a desert that stretched into infinity. During the afternoons, the heat fell on your skin like a whip. The water in the village water tank began drying up a week after we moved in, so our housemaid Ludy and I had to fetch water from the fire hydrant in the street corner. Even though I hated studying in summer, this time, I actually looked forward to the first day of summer classes at the university.
But since Ludy also went home to Albay that summer (to look for a boyfriend and dance in the baile), I did the chores myself. Mama left the house every day for her piano tutorials. I did the laundry and fixed lunch. In the afternoons, I gathered the laundry so easily dried by the oppressive heat up here in the hills. I folded the clothes, then sorted them while watching old Nida Blanca and Nestor de Villa cha-cha-chas on TV. Sometimes, I would read the stories of Estrella Alfon (Ay, Magnificence!), or sketch faces and places on my drawing pad.
Then in the blue hour before dusk, I would pick up our red plastic pail and walk five houses away to the street corner to fetch water.
I would line up before the wooden carts full of drums, pails, and recycled gasoline containers. I carried only a pail, but I was too timid to elbow my way to the head of the line. The short, stocky men nudged each other’s ribs and exchanged stories: “Pare, Vodka Banana did it again in her latest penetration movie, Only a Wall Between Us.” The women gossiped about their movie idols: “Sharon’s legs are like a washerwoman’s paddle,” said one, whose varicose veins strained on her legs like netting. After a long wait, I finally reached the fire hydrant. From its open mouth gushed water whose pressure was so strong that it swirled round and round my pail, the foam spilling on the dry earth. Then, I walked back to the house where I carefully poured the water into the drum. Then back to the street corner. Again.
On my way back, darkness had already settled on the hills. The chickens would be roosting on the branches of the star-apple trees, and the cicadas would begin their eternal buzzing. When I reached the street corner again, a young man was standing at the head of the line. He wasn’t there when I left earlier. He must have asked his housemaid to stand in for him, and returned only when it was time to fill his drum.
Dusk slept on his rumpled hair. Smooth, nut-brown skin. Eyes round as marbles. He wore a maroon T-shirt silk-screened with Mapua College of Engineering. Cut-off denims on long legs, then brown sandals from Our Tribe.
When he saw me at the end of the line, he walked to me and said: “Uy, pare, you can go ahead, since you only have this pail.” Cool, deep voice. “Thank you,” I said. Then I smiled at him and followed him to the fire hydrant. I kept on looking surreptitiously at his hairy legs. When he looked at me, I would shift my attention to the water beginning to fill my pail, swirling round and round, until it flowed over the lips. I thanked him again, and then gave him my name. He mumbled his name. I smiled, and then walked away. I walked away because I was afraid that any moment now, I would tell Rene I liked him not only because he was considerate, but also because he had such well-muscled legs and clean toenails.
That summer, the Bermuda grass in our lawn turned brown. We had hoped for friendly neighborhood, similar to the one in Project 4, but we were disappointed. A young childless couple lived in the house on the left: Both were working, holding down two jobs each like everybody else. We only saw them at Sunday Mass. On the right lived an elderly couple with an only child, a teenage daughter named Maribel, who liked to bike around the village in midriff shirts and very abbreviated shorts. Her father was a big man with the face of a bulldog, his voice booming across the yard when he barked, err, spoke.
The minibus station in Cubao slouched on the street right after EDSA. It was housed in a big, abandoned garage. On the hard, earthen floor, the spilled oil looked like lost, black continents on a map.
That summer, I enrolled in two courses: Business Statistics and Financial Accounting. I took up Business Management in this Jesuit university because my father said it would make us rich. And so I signed up for the course, although the only thing I wanted to do in the world was to draw. Pencil to paper, lines forming faces. Or watercolor to paper, letting the paper soak up the rainbow of colors, forming oceans, skies, the infinity of blue.
But I had to go to business school. And so I left the house at one o’clock in the afternoon, after lunch, preferring to take the minibus rather than risk my life in those jeepneys whose drivers think they are Mad Max. More mad than Max, actually.
During the first week of classes, I was still adjusting to the hassle of commuting from house to school to house again. It was much easier in Project 4. I would just hop aboard any Cubao-bound bus, get off behind Queen’s Supermart, and then walk all the way home.
But here, I would have to wait for the minibus to fill up with passengers before we could leave. The street would be choked with hawkers selling everything: freshly-sliced squash and okra good for pinakbet, apples from New Zealand, jeans with fake brand names sewn on the back, tabloids with their headlines in red ink blown up to 72 points Times Roman (“Boa Constrictor in Dept. Store/ Dressing Room Swallows/ Up Female Customers”). Food stalls offered everything, from cow’s entrails floating in lemon-spiked congee to day-old chicks smothered in orange flour, then fried to a crisp brown. And in the air, a cumulus of black exhaust fumes while the Marcoses bled the country dry. Him with his decrees; her, with her diamonds and tears.
Oh, how I wish I could just flee from all of this. There is nothing here, really, in this city and in this country except a big, black hole that sucked you in and drowned you in its ooze of oil. I wish I could go away, but to where? To forestall what W.H. Auden called thoughts of “elsewhereishness,” I just fixed my eyes on my textbook, even if I could not read by the faint light of the minibus. I was doing this one night and when I raised my face, Rene was just coming in. His white shirt was tucked in his baggy jeans. His shirt revealed the curve of his chest. He carried a T-square in one hand and two thick books in the other. His wide forehead was furrowed. Must have had a bad day, I thought, moving to the right side of my seat so I could see him better. I wanted him to sit beside me, I wanted to feel the warmth of his hand and thigh against mine, I wanted to comfort him. But a man with halitosis sat beside me instead.
The driver finally came. The engine sputtered and roared, then crawled slowly out of the narrow street. Near the street corner, the air became smokier, loud with the cries of hawkers vending barbecued chicken’s blood, barbecued chicken’s entrails (IUD), barbecued chicken’s feet (Adidas), and barbecued chicken’s head (Helmet).
The shrill sound of a policeman’s whistle rose above the vendor’s cries. At whistle’s cry, the hawkers picked up their wares, then scattered madly in all directions, the charcoal embers glowing eerily in the dark.
I was sitting in our front yard, admiring my mother’s orchids, whose saplings she had asked from friends and which she had nurtured with uncommon care, now fully grown, the leaves shiny, with the texture of skin, and the flowers mottled with magenta and amber, the petals opening themselves layer upon layer to the dying afternoon sun.
But as the petals opened, I felt myself entering a forest of limbs. Hair like seaweeds embraced those limbs. The thighs of the men were smooth like river stones. The V-shapes of their bodies glistened with sweat. Leaves like eyes covered their crotches. But under these leaves lay breathing things.
I bolted upright with a start. I looked at the clock. The luminous hands pointed to almost midnight. My back was beaded with sweat, and in the room there was only unbearable heat. I remained motionless for a while, as my dream slipped away, and I was alone, again.
I stepped out of the room and headed for the kitchen. I turned the light on and made myself a cup of rice coffee—toasted rice turned into coffee. Cheap—and good for the heart.
Cup in hand, I opened the front door. My skin brushed against the dry, brittle air. I sat down on the stairs. The cement was cold. To my left, the skeletal branches of the neighbor’s alibangbang tree cut the moon into many, fatal fragments.
I first smelled rather than heard the oncoming rain. The sound seemed to come from so far away. It was like a voice calling my name. The sound grew louder and louder by the second. I left the cup on the stair landing, stood up, and then ran barefoot in the yard. The whole house, the whole yard, the whole village was tense, waiting.
And then it came, puncturing holes in the night sky, rattling on the roofs, pelting the flowers and the leaves: Agua de mayo! the first rains of May!
In the darkness, the rain’s fingers caressed my hair and my face. It began licking my eyelids, earlobes, and lips. I opened my mouth and let the rain’s tongue roam inside me, while its fingers traveled downward, on my inner arm and my chest. Its lips went around my nipples and navel, laving my warm, innermost spaces.
Like sunlight, heat rose from the earth, musky heat that entered my soles, warmed my body, and then broke out of the pores of my skin. It was brief but it pierced me beautifully, suddenly.
I knew now what I would do. I would soap myself in the bathroom, rinse my skin clean, change into fresh clothes that smell good and are crisp to touch. Then I would look for my sheets of Oslo paper in my drawer. I would run my fingers on my sketches of Rene. The rumpled hair and the dark, melancholy eyes. How can I tell him that there is nothing else in the world I want than to be with him? Ludy said that Rene would soon join his mother, who was working as a nurse in the States. Many departures, few arrivals. But now, I have him: He is here, contained in the purity of my ache.
I would turn the lights off, plunging the house in darkness. Then I would turn myself over to the arms of sleep. Outside, the leaves would still be moist and breathing.
This story won Third Prize in the 2005 Philippines Free Press Literary Awards