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Of half-remembered, embellished memories
I'm three. My aunt had just given birth and I'm at the edge of her bed. I remember yellows and whites. My uncles' voices, my aunt's sleepy laugh. I tug at the hem of my dress and somehow manage to tumble off the bed onto the cold, hard floor. I hit my head. Maybe. My uncle picks me up and hugs me. I hear my mother's voice: "Brian is on some roof, he wants to jump, like Lito Lapid, he said." Somehow everyone is calm. Everyone is safe. Maybe.
I'm four, almost five. Frog legs for lunch. Our helper tells me no one could walk me to school as everyone's at the hospital, tending to Ma. She's just given birth to my brother. I feel like crying. Trepidation. "I'll walk alone?" That's never happened before. I'm abandoned? Because there's a new baby? Somehow I make it to school. Afternoon class. My teacher knows my mother's at the hospital. She asks me to share with the class what's up. I stand up and I begin to cry. "She gave birth." They "oooh" and I'm terrified. I don't understand this emotion.
I'm seven. Afternoon nap. Our helper nudges me. Gown fitting for Auntie's wedding, she says. Did you forget? As she continues to wake me. I'm awake but I pretend to still be sleeping. This is hard. I hear my aunt shuffling. Is she awake yet. No. Trin. Trin. Wake up. I don't budge. I don't want to go out and fit a gown. I'm not in the mood. Leave it, my aunt says. It's hard to wake a person who's pretending to sleep. I am that obvious? I worry she will dislike me forever. I don't want that. I stir.
I'm 8, Kuya's 11. At the old house, there's a narrow set of stairs out back leading to a small concrete yard. Whenever it rains we rush out. We like laying down on the warm concrete as rain pours on our faces. It's comforting. We are happy, doing this. We look up and memorize the sky. We don't know yet that when we get older we will carry this knowledge and often be right. We can tell how long rain will last just by how the sky appeared. Too gray? Too cloudy? Still with a hint of sun? Quite clear?
I'm six, Kuya's nine. It's our joint birthday celebration. There's ube ice cream and monay. Ma is at the table, filling mugs with ice cream. Papa's holding the camera. He asks, do you already have a photo wearing that? I have on mint green terno with Snoopy print. I say no. He says, sit beside your Ma. Hold up the mug. Smile. Kuya's busy with his gift. Some robot thing? Lego? Papa whisks out my gift. A Barbie swing set. I'm too excited I lose my balance and sit on them. Most of the pieces break. We eat our snack.
I'm nine. It's maybe the first time Papa's coming home from being out at sea. I wear a black top and neon floral leggings. We are supposed to pick up Ma at the hotel before going to the airport. We lounge at the poolside and are given iced tea, with calamansi on the side wrapped in white mesh. This is clever, I say to myself. I hope Papa likes the Welcome Home sign we made. Next thing I remember we're at the house, taking photos in front of the sign. Papa looks happy. My brothers excited. I just look relieved.
I'm five. Patintero outside with Kuya and Pia, plus other neighborhood kids. Chinese Garter when the girls get bored playing with the boys. I misstep and gift my shin with a piso-sized gash. My grandmother applies pulverized penicillin and reminds me to apply Sebo de Macho when it begins to scab. I go outside again. Boys are now playing Gera Patani. Someone waves me over and instructs me to pick gumamelas for a bubble mixture. I do it and I'm struck with a deep feeling of contentment. I don't know it yet, but this day has been a good one.
I'm 14. I shoplift at a National Bookstore. Small hair bows, a Snoopy backpack, some stationery. I have with me a large used NBS bag. I stuff my haul in it, even as I see a man across me, possibly aware of what I'm doing. I ignore this warning and head out. That same man is waiting at the exit. He escorts me to the back office. I plead with them to not call my mother. I offer my gold ring—I'll go home and get her, just please let me be the one to tell her. They say no.
I'm 10. It's my classmate's birthday. I look for the comfort room at their house, there's a row of doors and it's hard to know which is which. I open the third door and I see a man lying on a couch, playing with himself in front of the TV. He doesn't see or hear me as the door is behind the couch. It's only a few seconds I'm sure, but it feels longer as I make sense of this thing I'm seeing for the first time. It will be years later when I would understand, it's a private thing.
I'm six. Fleetwood Mac on the turntable. I know now that my memories of this house will consist of the color brown, capiz window shutters, melted crayons on the first floor roof. The red TV. Papa eating longganiza in front of it. Hot rice. I'm sleepwalking. I know and I don't know. I see my hand grabbing the rice. Papa is startled; he slaps my hand. I wake up with a vague recollection. Years into the future I will remember that night clearly. But my brain will gently guide me to the color brown, capiz window shutters, melted crayons. Safety.
I'm 12. In a few months I'll be a HS freshman at St. Paul. Passed the exam, cash deposit paid. But for now I'm in sixth grade and it's our final exams. The whole class has devised a way to pass answers around. We're cheating. Our adviser is also the elementary principal. She's out somewhere and can't watch us. There's an unspoken agreement that no one's going to squeal. However someone will go with her conscience and tell on us. I still remember her name. So the whole class gets a red a mark in deportment. St. Paul rejects me.
I'm 38. It's raining. I'm in a van with two other people. Outside is framed by this forlorn van window—droplets and lampposts' soft yellow glow. We're nearing McKinley Hill. There's a McDonald's at the turn. Expectant, shy red and yellow. It's usually busy at this time, still. This particular 8 p.m. is peculiar. No one's walking around. Might as well turn off all these lights. Rain. This is a new memory. It's quiet. Storefront lights seem dimmer than usual. Or maybe it's this window, filtering the outside world like it's an old movie. Foggy, wet, cold, tentative, unbelieving.
I'm nine. It's my first summer at my auntie's. I meet Noriel and tell him my name is Carol. Not sure why there's a feeling of transcience, like we wouldn't meet again anyway. Turns out I'd be coming back there for the next 2, 3 summers. Eventually he'd know my real name. We fall in (puppy) love. During the school year we'd exchange letters, talk on the phone. He'd call me from a cranky payphone and we'd get frustrated when he runs out of coins. Then suddenly I'm 18, he's 20. We talk. He tells me about his (real) girlfriend.
I'm seven and in second grade. My closest friend from first grade is in another section. I learn that she's in the afternoon classes and we may never see each other this school year. How do I reach out, say Hi, tell her this saddens me? The next morning I leave a note and a bag of chips on her desk. I know it's her desk because her name's on it. My memory's hazy now but I think before I left for the day I changed my mind and brought my offerings home instead. I was afraid to show love.
I'm 10. We had a misunderstanding. She used to be a good friend. I forget now, but I think she was mean to me or something, or had found new friends. It was almost end of school year and whatever happened between us scraped my ego badly. I said nothing about it and let it be though. But on this particular day I'm feeling vengeful. She had an accident. Soiled her clothes. Used to be I'd help her reach the comfort room without anyone noticing. Clean up. Today I announce to the whole class what's happened. She cries. I smirk.
I'm 31. This is not the first time this kind of day happened. We are confronted with the frantic need to leave a situation good, benevolent, without friction. We say the right words, do the right things. Today I'm obsessed about leaving the house in good terms with my father and brother. Smile, light shoulder pat, positive words. Disregard the fight this morning—I would be at the office for the next nine hours. I need to know we're okay and we don't feel anger toward each other. I need to love you in case this is the last time.
I'm 37. "Have you seen Love, Simon?", my friend asks. "You get to exhale now, Simon." She recites this line to me as if it's scripture. I don't get it at first. Not fully. I watch the movie and cry at that scene. I report back to her. She says: "We need to hear that every now and again—that we get to exhale now—I know I do." Many will relate with the look of relief on Simon's face. Our life is one constant holding of breath, waiting for the other shoe to drop. We're underwater, waiting for relief.
I'm 11. My grandaunt is in the kitchen, preparing my younger brother's merienda. Byron's gonna be here any minute. Dada Gaudio anticipates this every day. He's her favorite boy. Today she's cooking Lucky Me pancit canton. She doesn't know the seasonings aren't to be added while noodles are cooking. I watch her make this mistake and say nothing. Or maybe I'm misremembering? Maybe when I walked in the kitchen the deed has already been done? I forget now, but maybe we tried to salvage it or maybe I helped her prepare a new batch. Takes only 5 minutes max. Easy.
I'm 10. It's my first time in Baguio. We take the night trip. Marcos Highway. Dark. I see soft orange orbs on a mountainside. The bus navigates the bend and for a few seconds I believe I'm seeing fairies walking slowly, carrying small torches. I justify this belief by telling myself fairies have poor night vision. Where were they going, on this trek? This is my first real memory of Baguio. I've loved the city ever since. At the bus station we call Tita Ebong. She announces she made strawberries and cream. It's cold, foggy, comfortable. I like this memory.
I'm 3 maybe 4. We have 2 neighbors—men about the same age as my father—who like teasing me. For some reason I usually take my underwear off, even when outside the house, because it makes me uncomfortable. On some days when I don't do this, these neighbors do it themselves. It's like their way of saying hello, an endearment. That was how I perceived it. I wouldn't know until I'm older that this is wrong. I'd have general indiscretions of my own along the way, mostly re: boundaries, consent, respect. Some basic personal relations I'm still learning now.
I'm today years old. It's Father's Day. At the lunch table I become petty because of a usual slight. I'm passive-aggressive, petulant, irritable. It's a wonder how people remain patient (or indifferent?) around this attitude. In my head I apologize for my behavior. Expressing love in this house is an everyday challenge. It's 1 p.m. as I write this. There's x remaining hours before the day ends. There's an eclipse; it's the summer solstice; it's an extraordinary day. On the radio there's news about everything, except us. How we've unlearned our connection, how we're close yet distant. *sleeps*
I'm four. I dream of elves conversing with me from our barandilla. I pick up one of them. Their clothing is powdery, sort of rough, like starch. I set him (her?) down. We talk about something—I forget what about now. I wake up and from then on become obsessed-fascinated with anything miniature. I refuse to eat mushrooms because that's where my dream-friends live. I don't tell anyone about them. Maybe they come back to me a few more times but the first dream is the only one I remember. In my mind's eye I still see them.
I'm six. Mama keeps our pantry stocked, we always have snacks. Munchees, Kornets, string cheese, Funwich, ice candies, liverwurst, ham ensaymada, Pen stones (chocolate-coated cornflake cupcakes), Chips Ahoy!, instant noodles. Us kids always share; we're excited whenever someone opens a new pack of something. For breakfast we usually have hotdog, eggs, pan de sal. For lunch Mama always makes sure there's a vegetable dish. For dinner we eat before 7 so we can be in position once the teleseryes start. One of us (me) often sleeps through TV time. Someone will nudge me. I will go to bed happy.
I'm 19 and home in Manila for the summer. The abrupt weather change from Baguio cold always wreaks havoc on my body. "Mahina talaga ang pulmon niyong tatlo," Papa says as I'm coughing at the upstairs bathroom. I nod. And I realize that yes, my brothers get sick quite easy, too. He hands me a bag of oranges. I feel loved, seen. Years from this day I will still go back to that sentence from him. That's the last thing I remember of him saying anything that comes near to being fatherly. I get my "care quotient" from this memory.
I'm 24. Beside me is an African-American little girl eating pink candy floss. Bright pink sugar bits cling to her cheek. She looks up at me, smiles. I fight the urge to wipe the sugar off her cheek, at the same time can't stop staring at how beautiful she is. Her mother is in the row across us, looking over, also smiling. In my ear Dave Matthews is singing about ants marching. I forget now how many days I've been here in Las Vegas. All I know today is that this memory will stick. I smile back at them.
I'm 13. A sophomore high schooler. New girl. Another school year of new classmates. There's a clique that often whispers among themselves. I try to ignore this. I'm not sure what they're on about. I find my own friends who turn out to be the ones to eventually bully me. I forget now what our disagreement was about. I just suddenly find myself taking my recess and lunch break at the library, because I'm not allowed to join them at the cafeteria table. All the other tables are occupied. This will go on for months. I always feel like crying.
I'm 16. I'm excited coming home because I have great news. Ma is at the dining table poring over some papers. "I passed the UPCAT!" I say as I bounded through the door. I stand near her, waiting for a reaction. She looks at me, says "Ok," then goes back to her papers. I stand still for a few more seconds and it feels like hours. That's it? In a rare outburst I ask her, why aren't you more excited than that? She calmly answers: "That was expected of you." Still, I feel hurt. I go to my room crying.
I'm 27. She's at the edge of the bed, telling me she's fallen in love with someone else. "Are you breaking up with me?" She nods. I let out a small cry and storm off into the next room where I somehow hide inside the closet. She follows, stops at the doorway. In movies breakups are noisy, violent even, like an explosion. In real life they're almost imperceptible. They happen in a few seconds and that's it. All seven years done and over with. I ask her to leave. I call my best friend and cry and cry and cry.
I'm 30. Ma and I are at a crosswalk. She always holds my hand when we cross the road, like I'm a little girl. When we reach the other side sometimes she lets go, sometimes she holds on as we stroll. Today she's holding on. We're quiet. She does this thing with her thumb when we're holding hands—she traces the outline of my hand, all the parts her thumb can reach. Gently, slowly, like she's memorizing it. I dont think she realizes that she's doing this. All these years I've never thought to point it out. I like it.
I'm 37. My nephew Brysen had just arrived from Guam. I'm at the bottom of the stairs, watching him greet his grandpa and tito. I'm prolonging our time apart. I like staying in this anticipation of hugging him. It's a good place. As if sensing that I'm in the room, he turns around, sees me, and smiles. A warm smile. He walks toward me with purpose, I squat down and spread my arms. We hug. His hug is tight. Long. We still haven't said anything. I would like to live in this hug. Brysen, I love you the most.
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