REPORT A PROBLEM
At the market, a little boy seems lost. Something in me suddenly feels about to break. I haven't gotten to half of my to-buy list but I need to go home now, be alone with this monster in my chest. The boy is crying now, and I walk-run, away from this loneliness, being lost, being left. In the cab I realize I left my bag of broccoli at the coffee bean shop. An explosion waits in my mouth, eyes. I open my door, and I take the sound of it closing as permission to let it all out.
If a person is gone from your life, your recurring memory of them is almost never about the last moment you spent together. Often, it's a random almost-memory: a rainy night when they held your hand unexpectedly in an awkward attempt at comfort; a summer afternoon when they were talking about the night market too much that you zoned out and they trailed off, you can see their mouth moving but your brain has shut out all sound; a garish parade of moments wherein you wanted to love them but chose not to. Half-remembered, muffled, washed out. There.
The cobblestone path leading to the church is almost dry. You know it rained a few minutes ago because fog is moving through the second-floor windows of shops lining the street. An old couple walks toward me, huddled, lost in a serious conversation. I step aside and the man murmurs an apology. I look back, smile, nod. I see the church spire silhouette in the distance, like a beacon and a ghost. Come here, stay away. I am walking forward but I feel like every step is two steps back to my home, where the memories are waiting.
A rusty bench sits forlorn at the church courtyard. From where I'm standing I can see parts of a jacaranda tree looming above it, like a parent ready to take a child's request. Kind, patient, there. I'm supposed to meet a friend today, confess, talk. He just sent a message that we'd have to reschedule. I head toward the bench and sit in the fog. Inside the adoration chapel I see a faint candle glimmering and a shadow, barely moving. I have prayed a thousand prayers in my lifetime, yet there is still one thing I dare not ask for.
Not because I'm afraid it won't be granted, but that it will be. When you finally get something, you realize you didn't want it all along, I learned this the hard way. And so I want to stay in this state of wanting, at least I have this, at least I can hold on to this. Once you lay your cards on the table, you've not only surrendered, you've also admitted you didn't want to win anyway—you were just there for company, to play, to see what the chances are. And what of it? Is losing really that bad?
I walk home and take the long route. There's a gas station along Marcos Hi-way that looks, to me, like a fairyland from afar when it's foggy like this. Have you read this—that gas stations are essentially land lighthouses? The first time I read that I scoffed, that was the cynical me who regarded anything whimsical as weak. I wish I can meet that me now, and give her a long hug. God knows she needed it. I come up the road and there it is, my fairyland, in my head the sound of a carousel plays. Peace.
My six-year-old memory box consists of purple sunsets, my small body on a swing, my mouth open and my eyes alive. My father behind me, arms ready in case I fall, his face a mix of alert and tender. We had these playground dates almost daily, while waiting for my mother to finish work. She would meet us there and we'd walk home, hand in hand. They'd talk in hushed tones. I could sense worry, comfort. Those dusk walks informed my idea of love. You can be afraid even when there is love, especially when there is love.
My father's old Toyota Corolla occupies more than half of the garage. It used to be white, now it's whatever the light wants it to be, or whichever memory I happen to attach to it on a certain day. Today it's my birthday in 1988, we are sat at a stoplight, silent, the sunset ahead. When the light turned green, my father stayed still, stared at the light. I look back to see if a car is behind us. No. "Pa, go." He lets go of the steering wheel and cups my face. "I'm sorry for what's about to happen."
Oh, you already know it somehow. Tragedy. We arrive home and he takes pictures of me with the cake. I blow the candle, wish for rain and toys, wish for my parents to talk again, wish for a sister. My mother goes through the motions, feeds my friends, entertains my aunts. At the end of the party, my parents clean up in silence. In my room I know what's about to happen, but at the same time I doubt myself, what if my inkling is wrong? What if everything is alright all along? At midnight I hear my father leave.
It would take years of therapy and tired conversations with my parents to address the trauma of a broken home. Operative word is "address", not "solve" or "eliminate", which are what I'm aiming for, unrealistically. It's important to note that even if my parents stayed my parents, apart, there were a lot of moments when I felt alone. I've compartmentalized these moments into "it's no one's fault," "everyone's doing their best", and "we can get through this." Positivity can go a long way, sometimes though I see the importance of allowing anger. Not so much, of course. Just a smidge.
For instance, today a black cloud suddenly enveloped me. I crumpled in front of my work desk, wondering how I can survive 10 a.m. Goddamn it was only 10 a.m. and I'm raring to go back to bed and live in my dreams. It was about an hour, living in that black cloud. Then I focused on the smell of my candle, the fan's white noise, my sore arms from yesterday's ill-advised workout. I pictured my sad self on top of a mountain, then a bigger me picking that person up and dropping her onto cotton candy.
The sky today is a blue I don't recognize. The clouds are almost red and my heart is trying to understand what just happened. You left not for the first time, but every time you do it feels like it. The pain's a dull thing now, but it's still pain. Familiar and like an old friend. I'm happy, see. Comforted, even. I'm used to it, is why. What an unfortunate thing to get used to, you would say. We've gone through this countless times to even think of identifying someone to blame. There never is. It's just us, parting ways.
Baguio today is in black and white. Snow has sneakily covered the city overnight and in front of me is the neighbor's house, curtains drawn, its two large windows looking like tired eyes that don't want to wake from last night's slumber. My coffee is cold now, I dial my mother's number, I wonder what she's up to in another time zone, maybe she can tell me something about the past and I can share with her what happens in the future. We are in the same world and time, yes, but it's safer, much preferable to believe we're not.
There's a large pine tree near my house. The neighborhood dresses it up during the holidays and it's one of our many sources of joy during that time. It's always featured in the city newspaper. I guess it's the way it just stands there with these large multicolored lights and shiny baubles. At night I like to imagine the whole street whispers a "thank you, good night" to it and it twinkles back in acknowledgment. Because I do. In fact I wish it's around like that all year. Maybe it's time I finally submit that proposal to the barangay hall.
After my father left, it was as if nothing happened. I was old enough to know I should expect some sort of disarray after a major change like this. In movies, the protagonist stays in bed for days and neglects chores. Save for a lonely glass of water and a half-finished soda bottle in the sink (presumably my father's?), the house was in order and my mother was chipper. In therapy I would look back on this anomaly as a factor in my confusion about how to deal with sadness. For so long, I thought it should never exist.
And so my father lived in Manila for a time; he visited me monthly. He told me he was on a quest for self-discovery; his separation with my mother relegated into a topic that should not be delved upon for more than 5 minutes, as if it wasn't the most important thing. Over time I saw my parents develop a friendship, something different from what they had before, of course—but somehow more comfortable and wieldy. In my late teens, my father moved back to Baguio and started a new family. By this time, I rediscovered what sadness is.
That's all over and done with, I can say this now. We moved past the murky and are now in a stable albeit distant relationship, as if we are not family. You can say we're friends, my parents and I. This is better, this is for the best. My mother is stateside, my father and his family moved back to Manila and for many years now this has been our situation. Apart. It's perfect, there's not much to expect, really. There's a version of myself constantly healing her madness, some nights I check in on her and hold her hand.
I'm sure the coming years will be more revealing. There are years that go on and on, plateauing and almost giving up, and then suddenly some years sneak up on us and force us to take stock. Isn't that a relief? To know that we are moving toward something more? The past year has been uncertain, but with it came some clarity for sure. I can hear one of my friends scoffing at the last sentence. "Why do you often juxtapose?" And we would laugh because I won't have an answer. It's just how I deal with life, I guess.
There are difficult days, of course. Everyone has those, yes? When we were children, we would eventually learn how to self-soothe. I'm not sure why it's become more tricky now that we are older. Certain triggers like someone leaving or threatening to leave would result in a number of stormy days—seeking shelter under blankets, shutting the drapes, living in constant darkness—believing we're safe from harm that way. Today's a Tuesday, I'm coming out of a 3-day fog. I hail a cab and plan to buy junk food, lots of junk food. I miss my bed already.
Come with me for a moment to a quiet highway. See this: We are parked by the roadside because my father needed a short rest. The sun is setting, the light is intense—but in a way that's almost liquid—that the inside of the car is awash with a warm saturated orange glow. I look at my father and see that the hair on his cheeks are the color of honey. He's singing along with the radio, something by Fleetwood Mac. I would then include this song in all the mixtapes I'd make. I love this moment so much.
There were two weeks, I think, when my best friend and I stayed at a posh hotel near Camp John Hay. All expenses paid, some office perk. Both of us wanted things neat all the time, so we were very happy. Any time one of us found an imperfection though, it would launch us into such an uncomfortable feeling that would last for a few minutes, leaving us immobile and annoyed. Hotels should be perfect—our unreasonable brains would say again and again. One of us would then realize we were being petty, and move on, until the next incident.
This is life, no? An endless cycle. Some things we can overcome, some things take us a bit more time, some things we just can't get past. We all know this, we all forget about this, we all remind ourselves this 100x a day. Today I walk to work with a full tank of Patience Gas. The patience is for myself. I get frustrated at myself most of all every time I allow myself to be affected by the slightest perceived inconvenience. I asked one of my officemates, do they feel this way every day, too? They said no. Huh.
As I write this, it's been a month ago since I ate fast food. Tempted to reward myself with a bag of chips. I know, right? Why's everything so heavy. I'm stood outside my dentist's clinic one afternoon, staring at the faded pink outer wall of the building. "I can repaint this in two days," I remember thinking. But why would I? I don't need to. Several times in a day I'm hit with an inspiration, a few seconds of feel-good that I still haven't figured out how to bottle up and save for the future. Soon, maybe soon.
It's raining, the quiet type that you'll only know is there once you step outside. It's been too cold for about a week now. My mother taught me to store loads of soup for days like these. I like that she did: Soup is good, soup is filling, soup is uncomplicated. From my bedroom window I can see a mountain range, forlorn and tired, perhaps waiting for the sun. Once the sun comes, we then wish for rain. We can't just appreciate what we have, there always has to be something missing. Some days are perfect though, maybe today is.
My crush from years ago is visiting the office today. He's still the same, mostly. He still rubs his nose twice every time he feels shy (he is still shy!), he still slaps his leg when he's laughing hard. At lunch, he sits next to me and whispers a secret: "I never really left." I respond with my eyes, look around to check if anyone else heard, and ask him if he's serious. See, it was a big deal when he left. All these years, we envied him somehow. "Where did you go?" "Stayed in Baguio." "Were you happy?" "Yes."
I'm spending the day with my 6-year-old cousin. We're at Burnham Park playground, muddy and littered with dry leaves. He doesn't seem to mind. I was reading a book and got so engrossed that I didn't notice him sulking by the taller slide. When I approached him and asked what was wrong, he crossed his arms and turned his back. He looked so cute, like it was his first time feeling this feeling, and he didn't quite know what to do. "I was calling your name, you couldn't hear me. I wanted you to watch me slide down!"
I can spend my life convincing myself that my parents didn't love me, but that's simply not the case. In some way, in their own way, in the best way they knew how—they did. Do? Take for instance my father and his knowledge of my favorite color. Every birthday, he would buy something quite useless and irrelevant to me as a person, but always it would be in my favorite color. Like he was admitting he's not the best at gift-giving, but hey "I remember what your favorite color is." This makes me happy. Sometimes I wonder why.
My mother, see, she wasn't a nurturer. In one of our talks, I told her I believe she shouldn't have been a parent. That was a good talk, because even if the things we said would have hurt each other, we were able to say and accept them with grace and some form of resignation. We were kind and patient. It was less a situation of us raring to be apart at last, but more of us exhaling and being okay with the fact that we tried, it did not work out, and now we say goodbye. Now we're friends.
It's good mood Friday. At the city library is a book called "Instructions for Overcoming Sadness". I've read it many times. My friend told me—like it was a newfound discovery—that many of us refuse to believe in gods and miracles because we're afraid to be vulnerable and disappointed. It's better to be constantly cynical. Better than what exactly? Here is my favorite memory of my mother: She's applying Vicks VapoRub on my chest and reminds me to put some under my nostrils. It's a faded memory, I'm not even sure it happened. But it helps with the sadness.
It's foolish to stay together for the children's sake. By all means, separate, if that's what will make things better. In my 20s I yelled at my mother: "You should have left, too!" I would've been much better-situated had I not had the false security of "still" having both parents. If they wanted to forget about the family, that's what they should've done. I say this because I'm angry, today in particular. Most days, however, I'm filled with affection for both of them. And the sadness of not knowing how to express so much love somehow makes me glad.
Baguio today is an oven. Tourists are stunned and confused. Locals are used to the city's temperaments, rain is imminent. I think of my parents all the time, I send missives to wherever they are. My forgiveness, my hopes, my 7-year-old innocence that had a great love for them. We are neither fully good nor bad, we just
. Sometimes we find kindred spirits who accept us, sometimes we don't. And that's okay. Baguio today is an oven; on some definite day in the future it will be cool and comfortable again. And so we wait.
The Tip Jar