Of Shadows and Boxer Shorts


My mind had been completely blank. There had been so much to think and write about, but I hadn’t found the motivation to engage myself to thinking and writing. I was sure something had been terribly wrong with me. And then out of the clear blue sky I met you. Almost as perfectly as a mother’s love all the words had since begun to flow like a river through its bends to its estuary—on paper (read: screen, for Twitter babies); the thought of you had since begun to smell of heaven it had awoken me so still and inspired all throughout the following nights to compose my thoughts—even in my dreams; the thought of you had since begun to breathe life to my ailing, hopeless, useless, dying spirit—my prose. Everything, from my senses to my purpose, had at last come to full flower again, as if the world were a ginormous, endless, eternal experience of spring in which sweetness was the smell and the sound I could only find, so sweet that all I could get my mind to think about was cake, ice-cream, soda, Nutella, Leche Flan, and that I was so ready and willing to surrender immortality in exchange for diabetes and obesity. Life was once more so much worth-living after a year, and so filled with meaning. And it had started the very moment I heard you ask me, “Pwede ba akong tumabi sa ‘yo?” (Can I sit beside you?)

It was humid that Friday afternoon and everywhere everything smelled of and looked like Good Friday. The cells in my body and the atoms in the air were seething, despondent, and confused, and behaving so tensely and tearfully it was like a celebration of All Saints’ Day on a scorching Good Friday noon. But the forces of nature had had some other plans for the sensual, rather forlorn, dispirited me. They had conspired to bring me to a place that was neither heaven nor hell but was both heaven and hell nonetheless. At first, I was torn between going in or leaving the place alone, the way I’d always felt my reasons fight with each other in a few times I’d happened to pass by the place. After a few good minutes of doing some in-depth conscience-examination and rationalization, I finally yielded to my humanness. I paid the entrance fee and, my blood on fire with moral perplexity, ran towards the door and went in apprehensively. Nature must have hidden a gem inside awaiting my discovery, I persuaded myself to believe. Maybe there I could meet Hume or Berkeley talking among the crowd. Once inside, I chose to survey the place with an owl-eyed curiosity, and stood for a few, long minutes in one corner. Immediately, almost as if I was seeing things for the first time, I was in awe to see the world unfold before my eyes, its rejects and not-so-beautiful beauty walking by, reflecting with accurate precision the ugliness I’d been keeping inside of me, reminding me of how quickly, and without too much thought on my part, my life had passed me by. It was entertainment of some sort, a dangerously honest one at that, a movie at which I was the sole audience.

There in that corner I stood a little longer, waiting for nothing but for time to pass. And then, when my legs could no longer bear me and the weight of my earthly concerns, I decided to sit in one of the chairs arranged like a stairway to heaven. Just as quickly as my decision to sit down to rest my tired feet, I heard some squeaking of chair behind me. It was you. One, two, maybe five, or seven, long minutes passed before you, with your back and head a little bent over for my ears, let out those Tagalog ice-breaker words, so beautifully spoken I can still see them as if they were dancing in the air. Strangely, I liked the sound and form of those words that I’d have normally found offensive and rude. The Fates must have performed a trick of the light and they served my gullibility quite effectively that when you moved next to my seat I tried so very hard to fake my aggressiveness in order to hide my anticipation. For a few seconds or minutes the world halted between us, no movements, nothing. Afterwards, courtesies and formalities followed. And we talked and stage-whispered. We joked and laughed. Before we knew it minutes and hours had flown. We forgot that not so long ago we’d occupied two different worlds—you were in the back, I in the front. We acted like we owned that whole sleazy planet—we couldn’t have cared less if our loud voices could wake up the dinosaurs and demons long dead. I kissed your hand and said, “You have the most beautiful candle-like fingers.” And then I heard your heart giggle, the way my heart did. I kissed once more, and I felt your spirit envelop mine. It was so good I’d rather die if I couldn’t kiss them one more time.

Days had passed since then. I was washing my boxer shorts when the memory of it came flying above my usual forgetful head. I don’t know why but the washing (the smell of detergent, the whirlpool sound, the darkening water) made me remember what had happened that Friday afternoon so very clearly—your face that had stayed hidden in the shadow yet looked beautiful in that scarcely-lit room, your touch that had felt in my hands and my back, your voice that had aroused me cerebrally. All of a sudden, I remembered everything.

Oh, while the memory stayed ablaze in my head, I heard some racket outside my room. While knocking excitedly at my door as loudly as her small wrists could allow, my niece of eight shouted at the top of her voice: “Tito, I’ve brought my medals with me to show you!” My brother-in-law and I drank to that achievement in the veranda while his daughter, my niece, who was seated beside me on a bamboo chair, played with her dolls. As the summer wind gently blew my boxer shorts neatly pegged on the washing line visually close to where I sat, casting shadows against the parched earth, I was all smiles.

I still am.



One Last Meow for Ming-ming


Today there’s a silent question for which everyone seems to be keeping an honest answer. The question is: What’s the better pet in terms of cuteness and utility—a cat or a dog?

If that question was asked of me three months ago my ready answer would’ve been a dog. I never really liked cats. Don’t get me wrong, they are both cute and useful in their own unique ways, no doubt about it. If I can grade them from 1 to 2, with 2 obviously being the highest, here’s how my score sheet would look like, something that’s kind of reflective of my personality, my very limited zoology background, and my observational skills. First, please pardon my use of masculine pronouns for dogs and feminine pronouns for cats. This is my attempt at comparing their energy and psychology in the same way that I compare men and women. I’d like to place too high an emphasis on the pronoun ‘my’ as chances are I may be wrong on all counts.

I think and believe dogs are instinctively the offensive type (2), and cats the defensive (1). Dogs have the never-say-die attitude (2); cats the I-don’t-care attitude (1). If you don’t feed a dog the worst case scenario is that he’ll bite you at the next opportunity; if you don’t feed a cat the worst case scenario is that she’ll leave your house, with a raised eyebrow. A cat can live her life in solitary confinement, and this will not have an immediate effect on her health (2). A dog, in as few seconds as five, will surely die of boredom (1). Dogs are attention-deficient and hyperactive: they are the rugby players who don’t care if they get slimed or dirtied (1). Cats are vain in their appearance and would join America’s Next Top Model if given the chance: they have picture-perfect looks they don’t even have to go to a trimming salon to achieve that (1). A dog can tear his master’s aggressor apart for something his instinct only knows what (2); a cat can tear a rodent into pieces for her own food, for her own good (2). When a cat sees you on the verge of being hit by an onrushing car, we can’t expect her to cover for you (maybe some cats will, but generally they don’t) (1). A dog—well, at least all the dogs we’ve had the good fortune of owning—is more like Kabang, expressive, loyal, and heroic. All our dogs have been exaggeratedly sensitive they would cry foul every time a friend of mine would tap me at the back during a drinking session with a force as negligible as one micro-newton (2). And the eyes? Oh, if there’s some truth to the trite aphorism that eyes can talk, then a cat’s eye can speak as voluminously as the entire Encyclopedia Britannica, and, oh, please don’t ask me to expound on this (2). All our dogs have feelingly communicated with us through their eyes, but they’ve been inclined to use their barking mouth (as all the others in the entire canine family) to express themselves and get what they want (in fact, they talk more than what’s necessary that their messages are often misconstrued, and I won’t retract this even if a pack of murderously angry wolves are out there to get me) (1). Maybe looks could really kill, as my paternal grandma had died earlier than scheduled, perhaps the downside to owning more than ten cats. My conclusion: A cat’s utility is accidental (1); a dog’s utility comes with the territory (2). One’s judgment of a cat’s or dog’s cuteness is a very personal matter, and in order to save lives it’s better to leave the question alone, like this question: Which is better—Islam or Christianity? Months ago the only cat or cat-like figure that I could admire and tolerate completely despite her imperfections, with or without furs, is the sultry, sexual napalm who calls herself Catwoman. And who couldn’t? Everything that Catwoman does, be it posing in that body-hugging leather costume or claw-climbing buildings (does she really do this?) or seducing Batman, goes beyond simple utility—it is epic!

My scores:  Dog, 13 points; Cat, 11 points.

In fact, I’d developed a strong aversion to cats growing up. As a kid I was very sickly I’d been advised to stay away from the things that could aggravate my asthmatic tendencies, and these included cats and, yes, you’re right, their furs. Maybe it is this fur legend (I’ve read somewhere that cats can be helpful to asthmatics in some ways) that has prevented me from being an avid cat fan. Years ago, somewhere in the Visayas, where my two sisters (I have five sisters) and I went to school for one year, at a time when I was very young and vulnerable, I had a grandma (the one I told you about a while ago) who owned cats I’ve forgotten how many. I didn’t get the chance to ask her why she owned so many. Sheer indifference? Perhaps. But I’m sure about one thing—those cats’ eyes had, in all those mornings for that whole year of vulnerability, been such beautiful hazel wake-up greetings to my sleepy, childish dispositions. Those eyes were the real deal! Even now that I’m old enough to know better, if election should be in order, I’d have easily voted cats to be the most photogenic in the entire animal kingdom because of those grr-uber-gorgeous eyes. Even if I agree that dogs remain to be the friendliest.

About three months ago, my mother went to my sister’s house, and when she came back she had with her a very forgettable orangey kitten, which she had placed in a small box on her way home. The first time I saw the cat, my first reaction was plain who-cares silence. I was nursing a broken heart to care for these little cares; after all, a mouse or two would casually roam the house as we sleep the night away, and the cat’s presence would be a perfect match to them. (We live in a twenty-acre village with ten houses and a gazillion amount of grassy spaces in between them.) The cat, according to my mother, was one of the three cats owned by my consistent first-honor niece aged eight who wailed upon learning that one of her cats was still not home a few days after that cat had been transported to us. If there was one consolation in keeping the cat in the house, besides providing threats to some late-night party-spirited mice, it was this—the thought that my brilliant niece had owned it and that she’d taken care of it in a very extraordinary way. Mik-mik, my niece, upon learning that her cat was in good hands, would make it a point to text and call me just to check on the cat’s meals and the cat’s sleeping condition, because she said, Tito, Ming-ming is easily cold. An eight-year old girl, keeping three cats (all three of them had just entered our house from nowhere, and, after days of service of regular meals by Mik-mik, they’d simply decided not to leave, said my sister, Mik-mik’s mother), attending to them personally, checking on their food and sleeping condition, Mikmik is doing extraordinarily for people of her age.

And so we in the house went about our daily business as if nothing had just been added to the family, the routine had to be cut short only during meal time—when we had to prepare two sets of food, instead of one, for both the dog and the cat. Because there were times I would be left alone in the house and had to attend to the house chores and the pets by myself, I had to learn to divide the food that I would’ve given all to the dog had Ming-ming not arrived. Every time I did it with the same seriousness as before, carefully separating from the leftover meal bits and pieces that in my best practical judgment would be tolerable and safe to the dog’s and Ming-ming’s tummies. For three whole months without letup, I carried out that responsibility when my mother could not, and that entire experience had cemented my fondness for Ming-ming, a relationship that developed from a seed to a flower rather than from a flower to a fruit. And then this fondness grew into something more special: I became more appreciative of the cat’s peacefulness, nuances, and mannerisms; I began to love them. I would even go so far as to scold our original resident pet (our dog) if I had to, in a voice that sounded like a rabid human snarl, like when the dog would try to steal from Ming-ming’s platter or snarl at Ming-ming when she would react intensely to the dog’s aggressive behavior. And, yes, Ming-ming—not just her eyes but the whole of her—became in so perfect a time an unforgettable loveliness that I found almost impossible to ignore. Even if all she ever did was meow, meow, and meow, and sleep with a pair of dreamy eyes in comfortable silence on that red rag especially sewn for her by my mother, serving as her bed in that corner of that veranda, her inner sanctum.

One night, right in the middle of all the noise and the world’s attention stirred up by a super typhoon, exactly a day after it had sown its terror all over the country, one incident made me ignore all the news on TV. It was a few good minutes past ten in the evening, the night still smelled of Yolanda, the aratiles tree tossed up and still giddy in the wind, when Em-em (my nephew of ten) called out to me in a voice so loud I’d never thought he was capable of producing. He is normally soft-spoken, and the only time that he would be full-throated is when out of exasperation he would tell his father on Skype that he’d like to play on the computer or log on to his Facebook account without anybody in another part of the world asking him every now and then the same old questions about his school, his crushes, his basketball, and whatnot. (His father would Skype all day, from six in the morning until nine in the evening every Saturdays and Sundays, and from six until eleven in the evening from Mondays to Fridays, a justification for all of my three nephews’ excuses to ignore his invitation to talk to him either on the cellphone or on Skype, as how could anyone miss a father that he or she sees the whole time? Don’t ask me how in the world their father manages to be online while working as a TIG welder in the middle of a desert in Saudi Arabia, for my theories may not be worth a dime of your time.) Even on that particular night Em-em’s shouting voice sounded smallish for me, as chink-small as the shape of his eyes.

Yes, Em-em shouted that loud and so I immediately went outside to see what was happening. In the terrace I saw what the shouting was about. There on the floor lay Ming-ming that had managed to run a few feet away from that sorry spot, inaudibly whimpering in pain, something like a cry for help, moving her head and feet in all directions in a desperate attempt to straighten her small, frail body that had just been rolled over right across her torso by my motorcycle’s front wheel. It was a picture of a helpless child, with bones inside her that you knew were either badly cracked or dislocated, to all intents and purposes dying and fighting with all her might to stare death bravely in the eye and to save her dearest life, a picture so hazed yet clear enough, its impression hitting me straight in the heart. That was what Em-em, being the sole witness to the whole tragedy, said so reluctantly, his unwillingness to point all the blaming fingers to his kuya showing in his face, while his brother Burns, older than him by six or seven years, the one who, between the two of them, is more capable of moving the motorcycle to a different position and of starting its engine. For one second that halted for what seemed like forever, I looked at Burns, the most deserving of the blame for this unspeakable crime despite Em-em’s silent disagreement, nodded in agreement to my probing eyes, his expression stone-shocked and his eyes the same look as a dog’s guilty eyes or a dog’s sad, pensive eyes that tell you he’s going through some kind of an emotional thing, afraid of the moment yet to come.

And then that moment came. Within the next few seconds, even before I could embellish my shock with expletives that were supposed to be hurled at my nephews for carelessly not minding the world around them so as not to be late in so an irrelevant basketball practice late in the evening, Ming-ming stopped heaving and all her movements froze, sending the message that Ming-ming had decided to quietly end her karma for the world. Or was it this: the world had decided to end its karma for Ming-ming. I don’t know which karma ended and who ended it for whom. All I know is that in this entire losing process something has been gained. I won’t go into the details of my experience as a witness to such a horrible suffering, because it really is beyond words. One thing I’m sure about— to see a cat struggling for and trying to hold on to her life and to be without the means to be of help to her was an unspeakable ordeal I don’t want to go through again. Instantly, I felt my tears welled up, which I wiped at once even before they could fall, even before my nephews could take notice of them and laugh at my version of flippancy. Right then and there, while I gazed at Ming-ming, her peace more peaceful than it had ever been, the detailed description of which would mean an untimely, violent inner death for me, I realized that the primary reason why most of us deliberately hide our pains from the world’s prying eyes is this: It has less to do with our fear to look pathetic before the world, and it has more to do with our unwillingness to see the world share in our sorrow. When we see that the world’s crying with us and for us, it makes our suffering all the more insufferable.

There in that very corner where she had dreamed a great many dreams of glamor and glitter, of herself doing some editorial pose for the cover of a feline Vogue, on the veranda floor that could very well pass for some convent’s brick-passageway, amid the swirls of Yolanda’s tail end and some eddies of hope being blown by the wind, Ming-ming lay dead. My pen, this paper, this whole article, I, my soul, and my whole family still are grieving for her loss. This is my one last meow (cheers) to our Ming-ming, the most beautiful cat in the whole universe.Image