8th

One wakes up at 5:30 in the morning, looks outside the window, and begins to contemplate the life he thinks he chooses for himself. His cat is by his side. Then he looks at his right thigh and asks whether the beauty of his newest tattoo is worth all the pain he had to go through and is going through to have it. The question is moot.

I’ll remember 2019 as one of the most trying, dramatic, worst years of my life. I spent most of the year merely getting by, hurting people, getting singed in return, finding out that I made other people’s lives hell, breaking up, getting back together, finally ending it. To have survived 2019 but still remain intact was, to me, a miracle.

I’d go to work like a zombie, not knowing what day it was and crashing. So to celebrate the year that’s about to end, I decided to get a set of three tattoos that will, hopefully, remind me to still feel grateful. The first of the set is this skull tattoo of a Native American chieftain.

The feather headdress is majestic. The skull is there as a constant reminder that death is lurking in the corner, and what better way to welcome it than to make sure I get the most out of life so when the day of death arrives I can proudly show it my enormous middle finger.

Break

This Christmas break, I plan to just stay home with Tumi, visit my three other cats who live with my ex, play three high-stakes games of Scrabble, paint, and lift heavy at the gym.

Sometimes, when something ends, I tell myself I will not make it, but I laugh inside knowing how many times I told myself this.

I feel better now, unburdened, calm. I’ve always wanted to feel this secure and not always drowned in anxiety. That part of my life is behind me now.

I’d remember 2019 as one of the worst years of my life, but I’m lucky to be saying good bye to it still intact, at peace and will welcome the new year happy and not alone.

Old photograph

This photograph was taken during our last brigade tactical inspection when I was in high school. I found it in between the pages of a book I read eight years ago but have decided to read again because the memories of Coetzee’s prose reminded me of conversations with someone I met recently.

I was sixteen years old turning seventeen when this picture was taken. That time I knew the world was going to be my oyster, that I wouldn’t be spending the next four years of my life at home but somewhere far. I haven’t been home since except for Christmas or the death of my maternal grandmother.

It was a funny pose; I thought I was the snappiest brigade commander in all the high schools in the area. Lying on my bed right now, looking at this old photograph, I can’t help but laugh at my ignorance and youthful naïveté. I was bony and looked like I was suffering from an extreme case of kwashiorkor and conceit.

Last trip

(Part 1)

From my place, we left at 2 in the morning on his 200cc Kawasaki motorcycle. We had a backpack that contained all the things we needed for our four-day sojourn. We took MacArthur Highway. We passed by the provinces of Bulacan, Nueva Ecija, Nueva Viscaya, Ifugao, and Mountain Province until we reached Kalinga, a day and a half after.

It was an epic journey of two men wanting to get a glimpse of the countryside, a culture they will not comprehend in this lifetime, an aspect of a culture they will never grasp fully, but they journeyed nonetheless because the experience has to be lived.

We took the National Highway going to San Miguel, Bulacan and had to stop at a motorist inn for a couple of hours to catch a nap. We woke up at 8 and head to Nueva Ecija for breakfast. At a McDonald’s in Gapan, he was beginning to show fatigue, and were not even 20 per cent of the whole trip. He suggested we find a bookstore to buy notebooks, pencils, coloring pens, and crayons for the Butbut children of Kalinga. These school supplies added an additional 6-7 kilos to our combined weight.

At noon, I told him to pull over so we could nap a little; it was a private mausoleum in Nueva Ecija that I chose to be our resting place. The sun was unforgiving. I found a shade near two above-ground burial. We did not talk to each other. His thoughts were somewhere; I was too exhausted to probe–I imagined he was doubly tired, but I did not dare ask.

After an hour, I told him it was time to go and suggested we have lunch at 3pm in Nueva Vizcaya. Despite the sun, the way to Santa Fe snakes on the side of the mountain–the wind was cool, diluting what could have been a very concentrated 1-pm sun. I held tight to him every time a truck approached our way. We stood no chance if he had made a mistake, lose control, sending us careening towards these monster trucks. But he was as dependable as the Kawasaki we’re riding.

At 3, I tapped him on the back and told him to stop at a nearby 7-eleven. My skin was five shades darker. His was red. He sat on a table and finished his yoghurt while I excused myself and went to a burger stand a hundred meters away. I was starving, but I also wanted to be away from him for a while. It was a bit too much being at that close a proximity from him with as little movement as possible for more than eight hours on a bike.

From across the road, after devouring two sandwiches that tasted similar to paper I used to chew when I was 8 years, walking toward him, I smiled at the fact that his was the most handsome face. I gave him a coy smile only an infatuated 14-year old could make. We had to get moving or we’d be driving on meandering roads in darkness, I declared. The front light of our motorcycle is angled too upward, lighting the trees along the way more than the road in front of us. This worried him, but this fact did not keep him from driving, what I thought, faster that what was safe.

At around 6 we reached Ifugao Province. The view looked more familiar. Young men in their 20s can be seen on the side of the road chewing and spitting moma. He told me to have dinner after we passed by Ifugao State University. He did not have appetite. I was more interested in the cat of the owner of the place than the food they served. He told me to focus on eating and to leave the cat alone.

After a 30-minute dinner (I eat too slowly he’d always complained) of igado, rice, and a very salty vegetable dish, he goaded me to hop on the bike to continue our journey. He still had not eaten anything.

We travelled for another two hours, the temperature dropped precipitously because he’s driving faster this time, and the water from the rain seeped into my thin windbreaker. Notwithstanding the helmets we’re both wearing, I whispered near his ears, “We’ve known each other for almost two years now, M.” He tapped my knee. He is never good at expressing emotions; that singular tap was for me sufficient.

At 8, I told him we spend a night in Banaue. We found a roadside inn after confirming with their caretaker who spoke perfect English that they have hot shower. The hotel looked like a setting of horror movie in the 90s – the hallway was dark and the wooden floor creaked. Standing from the balcony of our room, the lit houses standing on the mountains and below looked like faint stars on a cloudy night.

The next day, we went down to the town for breakfast. We ate at the place for breakfast, seated at the same table, and recalled the intensity of our arguments more than a year ago in that same spot.

At 9, we began our journey to Bontoc. Kalinga is four hours away of zigzagging roads from Banaue. The view was that of pine trees, vegetable gardens, farmers tilling the soil, small waterfalls that flowed onto the roads, months-old rockslides, and his face reflected in the side mirrors of the motorcycle.