A lighted matchstick, a novel-in-progress

I am writing a novel based on what happened to me and to Ang Ladlad in the days before, during and after the last elections. I am having a grand time writing this. Let me caution you that this is fiction. Oh, yes, indeed.



“Power is like a lighted matchstick.
The closer your fingers are to it, the more you will get burnt.”

--Tu Fu

Chapter 1

The Commission on Independent Elections (CIE) was housed in a three-storey wooden building erected right after World War II. Its dark-brown paint was peeling off, and the musty interiors were hardly lit by bulbs filmed with dust. One hundred meters away to the north, the Manila Cathedral sat on raised ground. Its round gray dome could be seen from the Manila Bay, and the long central aisle towards the grand altar had already exhausted many old women who walked to the altar on their knees. In front of the cathedral was the plaza built by the Spaniards. When the wind from the bay began to blow, the fire trees would move like waves touching each other. The orange-red flowers of the caballero trees lifted the hearts of the newlyweds as they walked down the stone stairs of the majestic cathedral.

But the poor country cousin that was the Commission on Independent Elections was never to be bothered, and continued with its merry way. Its three commissioners served eight-year terms, which meant that they oversaw the election of two Presidents, who served four-year terms. And being a Constitutional Commission, the Commissioners were exempted from the threats of dismissal, dissolution, or impeachment coming from the Philippine Congress—that honorable Chamber that God, in His or Her Infinite Glory, had filled with cobras, vipers, and scorpions whose venom could send government officials shaking in their half-boot shoes.

And on the last midterm election that I ran for public office, the Commissioners were composed of three middling lawyers. Jorge Luis Borges, the chairman, was a balding man with bee-stung lips and an accent so thick you could freeze it overnight and use it to fry the next morning’s cold rice. His associates included Italo Calvino, who had a face was as dark and thick as carabao hide and a voice as sibilant as the hiss of a snake; and Gabriel Garcia Marquez, with a body bigger than a Kelvinator refrigerator that his staff would, behind his back, of course, snicker that the Commissioner should walk sideways, like a crab, so he could enter the main gate of the decrepit building.

Chairman Borges was a former activist during the time of the dictator Ferdinand Marcos. When Angel Aquino, I mean President Cory Aquino, kicked Marcos out of the Presidential Palace, she appointed Borges as the Officer-in-Charge of a sleepy town in the southern island of Mindanao. Borges lost no time in cutting down the huge trees that grew on the mountains nearby, and thus became immeasurably rich.

Calvino was a former speechwriter of Marcos who, since his skin could molt like a snake did, slithered his way into the circles of power in Cory Aquino’s time. Garcia Marquez, bless him, was a former military general in charge of Procurement during the time of Marcos. He went with Da Real Macoy in the dictator’s exile in Hawaii, and was with him when Marcos’s Madame Tussaude-remade face and figure returned to Manila, for burial. With a monkey-like agility nobody would suspect he had in that rhinoceros of a body, he was able to grab a branch and bound into the middle of the circle, and have himself appointed.

The only thing I wanted to do was to run as one of the Congressional nominees of Coming Out, the gay-lesbian-bisexual-transgender party, sit for one term in the venomous Congress, pass the anti-discrimination bill, and return to my quiet life teaching English to rich brats in a Catholic university.

But the three Commissioners, their Friends in the Presidential Palace, and perhaps God Himself or Herself had other plans for me.

Chapter 2

Three years ago we formed Coming Out, and started chapters in major cities from, as they say, Aparri to Jolo. We have gay members working efficiently and well for Manong Chavit in the North, for Ate Bombo Grace in Luzon, for Inday Susan in Bacolod, and for Governor Adel Tamano in Mindanao. In short, we had the whole country covered with our dainty fingers.

Our members had livelihood programs courtesy of Mother Ricky Reyes’s Isang Gunting, Isang Suklay, Hanapbuhay, which trained both gays and non-gays alike to wield the power of a pair of scissors to earn their keep for the day. We had medical missions courtesy of Doctor Joey Montemayor, who is our magnet to those med reps (many of them gay), who gave us tons of free medicines. And lastly, we had literacy and reading programs courtesy of Nanay Coring, The Lady with a Bookstore, who gave us free children’s books so we could teach the young to read before they entered elementary school.

And every year, we also held the annual Pride March, to celebrate our Pink Power.

I had always worked behind the scenes, as chief fund-raiser of the annual Pride March. I would call up my rich and bored classmates at the Ateneo, and ask them for ten thousand pesos each to fund the floats and the costumes. If they were abroad or haven’t withdrawn yet from their trust funds, I would go to Mother Ricky, Kuya Boy, and Ate Fanny; I would badger Direk Joel, Manay Ichu and Tita Armida, for donations. With my begging bowl I went around shamelessly. I wanted to make sure that we had costumes fabulous and floats to-die-for, that we had a small but brilliantly-lit stage, with a sound system loud enough to broadcast the Pussycats’s “Don’t Cha” into the blasted air.

During the last Pride March, I was besieged with calls up to the night before the march itself. One of the callers was from Manila’s Finest, a corpulent policeman on his motorcycle, who would escort our marchers from the Royal and Pontifical University of Santo Tomas, down to Quiapo, and our eventual destination, the Square of Democracy called Plaza Miranda.

The cop on wheels said, “Ser, we need two pulismen. Lash year, you paid us one thousand pesos. Dahil may e-vat na dish year, you should pay us one thousand five hundred per pulisman. So ser, three thousand ol in ol, payabol bepor da march.”

“Okay,” I said, since we still had extra funds from the donations.

The next caller had a very soft and a very slow voice. It seemed to come from someone on his last legs. “Elow, ez theze Danota, da organizer of da Pride Marsh?”

“Yes po,” I answered.

“Ah, this is Gloria.”

Huh? I thought. The Vice-President of the country?

“Gloria Manila. Remember me? I waz a zinger in the 1970s.”

And then I remembered Gloria Manila, the Queen of Philippine Impersonators. With her curly eyelashes, high cheekbones and rubbery lips, she did not lip-sync but sang all the hits of Motown. She was Dionne Warwick and Diana Ross and Tina Turner rolled into one. She pouted and gyrated and jumped, and then dropped to the floor in a perfect split.

“Of course, I remember,” I said quickly, dismissing the thought of how painful that split could be. “What po can I do for you?”

“Ahhh, I am with the Golden Gayz of the beloved Councilor Justo C. Justo. May we join your Pride Marsh tomorrow? I also want to sing.”

“Ah, that is okay po, Madame Gloria.”

“How long is the march?”

“Around one kilometer po. You can just wait for us in Plaza Miranda, if you like.”

“Ay shempre, no,” Gloria Manila said. “We want to join the marsh, but we are worried that with the heat, our makeup will melt.”

“Ahhh—“

“Actually, our oldest member, Mama Chuvaness, also wants to join. Pero she is already 85 years old.”

“Oh, maybe she can wait for us na lang in Plaza Miranda?”

“I think zhe will do that.”

“Eh, where po si Mama Chuvaness now?”

“Ay, she went to her friend in Santa Ana. She will borrow a white ballroom gown for tomorrow’s march.”

“Ahhh—”

“O sige, Danota, zee you tomorrow, ha?”

Chapter 3

Maria Orosa and Julio Nakpil were the names of two streets in bohemian Malate. They were not very long, but they formed what was known as Manila’s gay enclave. The Library karaoke bar was still there, on nearby Adriatico Street, and from there to Orosa and Nakpil was like liberated territory. Every guy who walked was either gay or a rent boy, and the eyes, of course, spoke a language of their own.

The White Party was held every June. The dukes and duchesses of Big Business fell into a swoon and would hang big tarpaulins of their products all around. After all, the Pink Peso was one of the few profitable marketing niches in a country that had long ago gone to the dogs.

But the bitches were still there, taking various forms.

One of them was the Marketing Manager of a bar whose cultural pretensions included poetry readings, film showings, and such. The bar sat beside a dance club; both of them were owned by ten guppies (gay urban professionals, so-called). The cultural chi-chi was held on the second floor, which our Marketing Manager made sure would be colder than a morgue. I did not know what it was about Filipinos in a tropical climate that made them put their air-cons on full blast. You were supposed to condition the air so the customers would feel cool, not let icicles form and drip down their chins.

Once I read my poems in this Center of Culture, for which I was given a free drink of tepid gin tonic. That was all right. But then our Marketing Manager asked me to write about their place. I tried to eat the food he served – indigestible meat from some poor tamaraw in Mindoro – and of course, I did not write about their place.

When I came back and asked him to hang the tarpaulin of Coming Out in front of their bar, he said “yes.” But he did not hang the tarpaulin – and even promptly lost it. The tarpaulin cost all of one thousand pesos. If it were my money I would have just listed it under “bad debts” and forgot all about it, after asking my psychic to put a hex on him. But since it was bought from donated funds that had to be audited, I texted, e-mailed, and called up our Marketing Manager. The man with the forked tongue hissed “yes,” “yes,” “yes,” but he never returned the tarpaulin. So I wrote to one of the ten owners, a man I had known at the State University many years ago, when he was younger, thinner, and poorer. He sent me a frosty text message: “Send messenger.” No “please,” no apologies. I sent the messenger to collect the money that did not belong to me, and promptly struck the owner off my list.

I did not what it was about gay people who were making money from the suddenly booming Pink Peso and never, ever returned anything to the community. The ringing cash registers of the Pink Peso transformed them from starving fresh graduates and intellectual social climbers to people whose gym-buffed bodies were splashed on the back pages of the glossies, in photo spreads labeled “Events of the Month.” They ran gay joints that tried to imitate the ones in London and New York, but without the comforts and the civilization offered by the originals. Cigarette smoke swirled in their clubs: you literally parted the smoke with your hands as you entered. And inside, you would have a crowd packed tighter than sardines in a rusty tin can. Not only did you have the seeds of lung cancer implanted inside you, you also suffered from the threat of suffocation. There was a fire exit, of course, but it was on the second floor and was tinier than the hole that swallowed up Alice in her Wonderland.

Another bitch used to own a bar in Malate. He told me he would make a donation of three thousand pesos to the Pride March, which I could collect any time. So I advanced my own money, used his donation to help pay for the printing of the souvenir magazine, but when it was time to collect, he was always absent. He would text me to go to his bar and collect the money, but he was nowhere to be found. One time, the waiters said he was in Puerto Galera, the next time he was in Boracay, the third time he was in Phuket. He seemed to be getting farther and farther away from my grasp that I just forgot about it, listed it under “bad debts,” and asked my psychic to put a boil on his buttocks, so that the next time he sat on the beach the boil would burst and bring him to paradise.

The third bitch was the Advertising and Promotions Manager of one of the country’s biggest underwear and clothing brands. Began 20 years ago, I used to buy their products since I wanted to help local brands. But after a month, the bands of their underwear fell. After two months, their shirts lost all shape. And after three months, the blue dye on their jeans simply paled. I complained to one of my former columnists in the Philippine Daily Planet, a guy our publisher’s niece hired when I was still editing the Satureday Special section and who, unbeknownst to me, also did PR for the underwear and clothing company. After hearing my complaint, the PR Twat simply said, “Ikaw naman, you know their products are for the local market, what else would you expect for such cheap prices?”

My jaw fell. Since I counted all my hard-earned centavos, I just stopped buying their products. But with a savvy marketing campaign that featured the hottest and newest bodies as models, this company was soon making billions. Their shirts became tighter, their jeans more low-slung, and their underwear ads catered most obviously to a gay market.

And so, when I was raising funds for the Pride March, I wrote them to ask for a donation. No answer. After I filed for the party-list registration of Coming Out, I wrote them again. No answer. Okay, all right, no skin off my nose, I said to myself, then taught my Freshman English students the virtue of arsenic poisoning in William Faulkner’s “A Rose for Emily.”

But on this White Party, there he was, the Advertising and Promotions Manager of the company. He was all done up like a horse. His newly-dyed aubergine hair was made to fall waywardly down his head. His face belonged most succinctly to the equine kingdom. He was older than me, but since he had just gone through another round of botox and cosmetic surgery, his forehead and cheeks were so tight you could see the capillaries like small rivers on dry sand. His collagen-implanted lips were puckered and he could barely speak, much less laugh. Speech and laughter would have ripped the stitches done behind his ears.

And so when he saw me he was apologetic and almost curtseyed. He said he had gotten my letters but his slim wrists were tied. “You know naman how my Chinese bosses are. They are such tightwads,” he simpered.

I just looked at him, my eyebrows reaching my forehead rivered with lines.

“But I promise you, we will give you all the T-shirts and tarpaulins you need for the campaign of Coming Out Party List.”

I smiled without showing my serrated teeth.

“I am just an e-mail or a text message away. Don’t be a strangeh,” he muttered, before curtseying again, almost, and joining the noise and the lunacy around him.

Of course, he never delivered. Before the 90-day political campaign started, I texted and e-mailed and wanted to collect on his promise of “all the T-shirts and tarpaulins you need.” But all my messages were coldly ignored. He must be sitting somewhere, in a cabana on Kho Samui, or a sofa in Dr. Belo’s, or on a bench in Quiapo, looking at the newest designs of their shirts and jeans. More like a bench in Quiapo.

Chapter 4

Many people thought it was foolhardy for me to run for public office. I did not have a political machinery, I did not have money, and I had heard it said of me, within earshot, that “he’s just a mere English teacher.”

I would just smile my Mona Lisa smile of the aching molar, and clamp my teeth shut. They did not know that my father was a military officer and a lawyer during martial law, that I grew up in Camp Aguinaldo and mother was a brilliant Music teacher at the State University. My father came from a poor family in Bicol and finished high school by taking night classes for what seemed like a century. Then he took the entrance exams at the Philippine Military Academy, passed it and finished in the top ten of his class. When already a young lieutenant, he was assigned in Camp Aguinaldo and promptly enrolled himself in Law School at the Far Eastern University. And so after work, he would change into his civilian clothes and take a series of jeepney rides that took him to F.E.U., where he read tomes and listened to teachers who seemed to be drugged by the sound of their own voices. He finished, passed the Bar, and was assigned at the Judge Advocate General’s Office.

I was born in the military camp, studied in the public high school there, and got a scholarship grant to study at the Ateneo during the height of the martial-law years. My classmates were scions of the rich and famous, and went to school in their Bang Bang jeans bought in Hong Kong and Espadrilles from Madrid. I wore shirts from Ali Mall in Cubao, and trousers whose textile my mother bought in Divisoria. My shoes, of course, were from Marikina.

My only similarity with my classmates was that we were all ferried to and from the university by cars. My father was already a colonel by then, and he had ordered his driver to bring me to school every morning, and pick me up by five o clock, after Theology classes. And so Sergeant Avelino Reyes, whose hair was always short and who never smiled, would steer the black Toyota Crown with red government plate numbers to and from the university, to my great embarrassment. I had told my father I wanted to take the jeepney, but he gave me a look that meant “No.” Later, he explained to me that it was still martial law, and the children of military officers were ripe for the picking by “undesirable elements,” who roamed the land.

My father opened his vast library to me. There, I read Sun Tzu’s The Art of War and Machiavelli’s The Prince, the bloody plays of Shakespeare and The Analects of Confucius. My mother made me read Antoine d’ Saint Exupery’s The Little Prince, and warned me, with a wicked smile, “not to believe everything your father makes you read.” Then she would remind me to return to my piano lessons, which I had abandoned, because it seemed so much easier to read books on how to win a war without firing a single bullet into the air.

Which was like winning an election without the millions of pesos required of your usual politicians. Aside from the 4.5 million solid, ethnic votes from the Bicol Region, I could also count on another 4.5 million from the military bases – officers, soldiers, their families, their friends, the friends of their families, the families of their friends. In this country, blood was thicker and more expensive than gasoline.

After college, I also wrote speeches for Minister of Public Information. I got the job not because of my father. I saw the posting for vacancy in the university, I applied, and was happy to know my boss would be the fiction writer Jose Antonio Rotor. Johnny, as he was called, taught me to write with concision and wit, even if you were just writing speeches for the Minister, which he read every day and which I would sometimes catch being reported on the late-night news. It made me wince, the idiotic Minister reading my polished prose and mispronouncing them, but I gave myself a year in the job.

We also made publications on demand, which meant the First Lady would go to Brazil and needed a nifty brochure about the Philippines that had a lot of pictures (sun, sea, sand), which we had to produce in a fortnight. The First Lady, of course, never went to Argentina because (unlike Evita Peron), she said, “I was never a prostitute.” Or President Marcos would visit the United States, which meant producing a handbook whose photographs were color-separated in Hong Kong, printed on coated paper in the Crown Colony, and bound handsomely there, in black leather.

Which meant that, after the Marcoses had fled the country and landed in Hawaii and not in Paoay, Ilocos Norte, I still had links with the dictatorship. Such that when I ran for public office, all I had to do was to ring up old friends, who promptly called up the First Lady’s brother who had reclaimed the ownership of a big publishing company – and lo and behold!, I had all the campaign posters, leaflets, fliers, and sample ballots I could distribute in the 7,107 islands of the archipelago.

And since I looked young and had taught college students for 20 years, I knew I also had the youth vote down pat. Young people would vote for you if you spoke their language – wala lang, they just did not like the traditional, old politicians, sobra, they really looked older than God, ha! If you were talking of the youth vote, you were talking of 75 percent of the electorate. But Senator Dick, who had the gift of gab, blithely told me in a press forum at Café Fernandina that, “No, Danota, you’ve got it all wrong. There is no youth vote because they are all busy texting, or watching MTV, or drinking coffee at Starbucks.”

I just smiled at him, and wanted to ask when was the last time he talked to the young? Yes, they send interminable text messages, but some of them are the nastiest political jokes about the last election. They watched MTV, yes, and MYX too, but their current favorites were the nationalistic songs of Rivermaya or Sponge Cola. And no, they rarely drank at Starbucks, because it was expensive, and if they did, they never drank coffee, but iced tea.

And what about the Left? After I resigned from writing speeches for the Minister, I began reading books by Teodoro Agoncillo, Renato Constantino, and Jose Maria Sison – books that my Philippine History teacher at the Ateneo never asked us to read, busy as she was with reading about dead names, dates, and places from the pages of her ancient notebook. I attended discussions, listened to the poems of Amado V. Hernandez recited at the old Heritage Art Gallery, read the memoirs of Pablo Neruda. I met Satur Ocampo in a book launching, asked Fr. Luis Jalandoni to sign a book about the Left written by the unsinkable Ninotchka Rosca, danced to a New Age hymn with Bobbie Malay-Ocampo during the birthday party of Gilda Cordero Fernando at the ballroom of the Marikina Riverside Hotel. Once, I joined a protest rally for Agrarian Reform but I never signed any paper and never carried any card, except the membership card at the Moro Lorenzo Gym at the Ateneo. The only thing I wanted was to gain weight.

That was why I was so pissed with my father when he met me one night and threw at my face what he said was my dossier with the military. “Why are you consorting with the Left?” he had demanded. He had already retired and his hair was already graying and we were living in Industrial Valley near Blue Ridge. And I wanted to laugh, because earlier that day, I had attended a book launching at the State University. The book was a posthumous collection of stories written by Roberto Tarroza, the former Executive Secretary of Mr. Marcos, before he joined the government. They were elegant and poised stories, but Mr. Tarroza stopped writing when he joined the Cabinet of Mr. Marcos.

The function room at Balay Kalinaw was clearly divided into two. On the right stood the family, relatives and friends of the late, lamented writer who had worked for the Marcos government. On the left stood the faculty of the State University, many of whom were former political detainees who were jailed and tortured, allegedly, by the Marcos government.

I stood squarely in the middle.

I had gone to the Mrs. Tarroza earlier – another brilliant writer – and congratulated her on her husband’s book. I also greeted Mrs. Castrence, the wife of a general who was one of my father’s best friends. When I returned to the canapés at the back, Charlson, one of the young literary lions at the State University, pointedly asked me: “And what were you doing consorting with the enemy?”

I told him I liked Mrs. Tarroza’s sardonic books of fiction and Mrs. Castrence’s husband was one of my father’s best friends. Then he continued, “So where were you during martial law?”

“In Camp Aguinaldo,” I answered, “swimming in the pool at the Officer’s Club, or practicing golf in the driving range.”

6 comments:

Jade worldwide said...

"the unsinkable Ninotcha Rosca"- pwede ba? she hasn't written a good book since state of war

MLQ3 said...

hindi naman grey ang dome ng cathedral!

Black Ink said...

A new novel is nice, but what about releasing that novel Iceberg we've been reading about for years? Not to mention that long overdue short story collection. The country needs a senator like you, but I won't vote for you since i want you concentrating on your writing instead. You've been talking about that novel for almost a decade now, and you weren't involved in politics then. What more if you're elected?

The Zen Bitch said...

wow. looking forward to reading the rest of this novel. happy writing!

Nick Pichay said...

Wow. Talk about the definitive roman a clef to this, our dysfunctional system of checks and balances. Well, done. I'll buy the book.

cesario minor, jr. said...

hahaha. any more magic realists' names like mario vargas llosa, jorge amado and isabel allende would drive me nuts!titleholder!:)