On seeing her

I have some vivid mental images of her. We were in second grade. It was a humid June morning; my section felt uneasy in our seats confronted by a foreign being that didn’t look like most of us. Our grade two teacher, Ma’am Ureta, was staring at her while her mother was explaining to our class adviser why her daughter missed the enrollment. After roughly 15 minutes, she was asked by my teacher to say good bye to her mother and to occupy the empty seat three desks from where I was seated. She was wearing a lavender shirt, a pencil cut skirt, and a backpack made from woven rattan strips. She looked so different from your usual public central school kid. Her skin was a lot fairer, her face radiant unlike most of us then who looked sullen if not hungry having missed breakfast or were too poor to afford it. She looked well-fed. I, in particular, was a few strands away from looking malnourished. I am not sure if we instantly clicked, but our friendship spanned nineteen years. In a year’s time she looked like most of us, public school kids. Playing under the midday sun with us charred her skin, the sweat left her hair sticking and reeking in that quintessential odor of kids unaffected by life’s many hardships that luckily only the adults worry about.

Today, I saw her again. This time, her face looked even more, I am not sure, luminescent, I suppose. She looked happy and content. Tired, yes, after having gone through the rigors of med board reviews, but there’s something that seemed to well up from within her.

And I love what I saw. I am very happy for her. I envy her in fact. She has within her the best gift a woman can ever have.

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Paths

Last Monday, I saw her again after eight long years, right in the middle of a morning train rush to work. My last glimpse of her, she was my seatmate in our fourth year, was during our high school graduation in 2003, crying, like all high school students do when it dawns on them that the road from this point on radically diverges and that they’re bound not to see each other ever again.

I was standing, holding the still-warm metal handrail when I heard a woman say my name, ‘Fev’, a couple of times. The timbre of the voice did not register. Nobody calls me Fev anymore except those people whom I spent with most of my childhood and teenage years. Seeing her after many years brought back memories of the better times  in the province. We were classmates in fifth grade when she, along with a handful of her classmates, were distributed among the 13 other sections in grade five after their class adviser died of cancer in the middle of the school year. They were from section 6. She performed really well in class, did even better in subjects like Filipino and Civics than my section 1 classmates. She silently made her way  and consistently maintained her good grades. She remained my classmate from then until our last year in high school. I learned from former classmates that she studied Fish Technology at Mindanao State University in General Santos City then moved to Laguna after graduation and eventually to Manila. We planned to meet once or twice when we began working but it never materialized.

I looked to her direction, she was seated between two old men. She seemed to have aged well beyond 25. I saw gray hairs peeking through her coarse crown. “Kamusta na ka, Fev?” It took me a while to recognize her. I simply blurted “Janice!” We did not talk as she hurriedly got off at Ortigas station. She was carrying a tote bag that dwarfed her small frame but this did not keep her from ambling confidently and joining the crowd scurrying out of the station, and getting lost in the plethora of strangers.

People indeed pass us by in a matter of seconds to say ‘hi’, or if we’re lucky, minutes, and for some of us who are not very fortunate, without us even realizing it. Our paths, though at some point may fortuitously converge, remind us that whatever we have now is ephemeral, that however we wanted to chat and catch up with a high school classmate we have not seen for almost a decade, we all must proceed with our own journey and just be hopeful that in the next train ride we can ‘stop and talk a while’, says a line in a famous commercial for coffee in the 90s.

On exactly the same day two years ago:

While ridding my computer of useless and redundant files, I found these pictures dated 3rd of January 2009. I was with my Vietnamese friends visiting the port city Hai Phong, 100 kilometers from Hanoi. It was the height of winter and the shivery breeze from the sea exacerbated the chilling effect of the bitter weather. I was suffering from a breakout of pimples, flaking skin, asthma, and scores of discomfort associated with cold January. But those didn’t keep me from enjoying the trip and taking thousands of pictures which some just ended up, like souls do in the now defunct purgatory, in the recycle bin of my computer.

With Le at the gate of the Cathedral of Hai Phong. The city is one the few cities in the country with a sizable Christian population. My friend, Le, practices ancestor worship.

With Le’s cousin, Chi Anh.

By the seashore several meters from the Hai Phong Harbor, the biggest in Vietnam next to that of Saigon. The sea was unfortunately too murky, and without expounding on the thesis, too cold for swimming. But had I brought trunks, I wouldn’t let go of the opportunity to wade in the water in the dead of winter.

Masseur

When I was a little boy, my mother used to coax me to massage her pair of massive legs that are as big as Giant Sequoias before she would go to sleep every night. This continued until I was old enough to reason that it was wrong to punish me for my wrongdoings with something as traumatizing as kneading her cellulose-laden limbs using a greasy green concoction that advertised itself as a cure-all liniment. It stank really badly that my childhood nightmares became very graphic and real-life that they included odor of my mother’s mysterious liniment. I would squeal while running my little fingers up and down her veinated legs.

Or in order for me to escape the inevitable I also had to use my very minuscule gift in theater by acting my way out to evade her requests by feigning sick, demented, or the least effective but which I remember using once, being maliciously poisoned by our neighbor whom we suspect a witch disguised as a rumor-monger.

Tonight, for some strange reasons, I remember both my mother and our neighbor. This after feeling a slight pain in my nape and I got no one to give me a massage, sadly.

Madonna and baby

I was on a jeepney that was waiting for passengers in front of Miriam College when this woman and her beautiful, though a bit pensive, daughter climbed up the rusty and rickety jeep going to UP. I secretly took their picture together. The baby and her pretty locks reminded me of Heidi who is running about her Swiss Alps, hair fluttering and all.

The beautiful and brainy Filipina

One runs the risk of being labeled gay if he talks eloquently about beauty pageants. A man, specifically a macho man, in the Filipino society is not supposed to be passionate about 80-plus women strutting in long gowns or skimpy bikinis, unless, of course, this passion is erotic in nature, otherwise he is either automatically categorized a homosexual, which is more likely, or a sociologist, which is not very bad, only a covertly homosexual sociologist, that is.

But labels will remain very practical and utilitarian, and they will remain so no matter how smart or dumb they sound so long as people think these labels function to simplify what could have been things too complicated and complex for them to comprehend, so long as people think that not thinking is the next best thing by letting labels think for them, instead. Stereotypical labels are for the intellectually inelegant.

Now allow me talk unabashedly about our obsession as a nation with beauty pageants. While in some countries these spectacles that ‘celebrate’ the sublime beauty of a woman are shunned for being exploitative, shallow, or vacuous, in the Philippines, these spectacles continue to feed the masses’ quixoticism and give the needed affirmation that they can also be beautiful, especially if a representative of the Philippines reaches the top 15, then the top ten, down to the final five contestants.

Seeing their supposedly beauty-and-brain Miss Universe contestant sauntering, traipsing, and walking like a de-legged praying mantis is like seeing themselves on-stage, surmounting whatever challenge thrown to them — tripping on-stage because a portion of the gown caught in the 9-inch hill of the shoe, donning a 200-kilogram national costume, or answering a question from an obviously racist and unqualified judge — all  in the name of bringing honor to the country. Nothing triggers the Filipinos sense of nationalism other than international beauty contests, boxing fights of Manny Pacquiao come to a close second.

Filipinos define being beautiful as having the features of a mestiza (although this is slowly changing), tall, slender, with a 36 (or even bigger)-24 (or even smaller)-36 (this is usually fixed) body statistics.

And because Filipinos have these delusional tendencies that they are smart, they also expect that their beauty queens to be not only freakishly beautiful but also abnormally smart and articulate.

Being brainy, on the other hand, means being able to speak in English complete with all the trappings of accent and twang of a native speaker. As for the substance of her answer, a beauty contestant can always rely on canned responses prepared for her by her trainers, proven through years of experience to always impress the judges whose tastes on beauty are very discriminating and irrevocable; these judges are the final arbiters of the very philosophical question: who is the most beautiful? and by induction, what is beautiful?. Or who gave the smartest answer? and by induction, what is an intelligent answer?.

Regardless of the flaws in the definition of these abstract concepts, a Filipina sent abroad to compete in a beauty contest must possess these two. It’s beauty-and-brain or nothing. Non-negotiable.

So when their beauty queens choke during question and answer, give downright pathetic responses, or let go of grammatically suspect sentences, the Filipinos back home cringe and cry foul.

My pity goes to these women whose major, major mistake is joining these tired competition.


This old kid in the block

She was peeping from the edge of the table when I saw her that day. I and my friend were eating when she passed us by with her swaggering gait and feigned not seeing us. I jokingly gave her a piercing stare just so she’ll know where to properly place herself in the grand scheme of things. This was something I would have to regret seconds after.

She went running for help from her camp, asked for a back up force, and whispered something akin to devilish murmurs to the two girls behind the counter. She then feigned crying like when she feigned indifference when she saw us earlier. Her camp composed of her sister whose adipose tissues in her body rivaled only that of the grease where her ‘pork adobo sa gata’ floats and a thinner girl who wore a pink-colored visor a-la Jollibee food crew; both gave me that look of pity for somebody whose accidentally spilled a liter of tasteless Coke Zero on his immaculate white Gucci shirt. Then this look changed to a blank but an even more painful one, something that demands answer to a rhetorical question: What does a 5 foot-eleven, 24-year old man with muscular arms and chest doing bullying a frail, skinny, grossly malnourished, two-year old defenseless little girl?

I raised the white flag, and declared my unconditional surrender. She won and capped her victory with an impish smile. I swear could hear her laughing out loud that sounded like that of Ursula’s when she finally persuaded the Little Mermaid to give up her beautiful voice in exchange of a pair of legs.

I went back to our place downtrodden and distraught. I saw the two-year old’s malevolent smile plastered on the white walls of the room, on the face of that poodle a womanly transvestite in the building walks with every afternoon in the lobby. I saw her Cheshire cat smirk on the suspicious look from the guards of the building who do not bother greeting anyone unless he is a blue eyed, white-skinned Caucasian, or a suspicious looking hoodlum (for questioning. I obviously do not fit the first category, but perfectly suit the description of the latter so I get questioned ‘What’s your unit number?’ every now and then).

I even saw her face beckoning on me from the busy streets ten floors below whenever I was in the balcony hanging my wet socks to dry.

She’s being called by this onomatopoeic diminutive, Len-len; in fact, I love the sound of her name. It reminds me of a childhood playmate three years older than I am whose idea of fun was to bully the younger kids in our neighborhood, which included me. She ruled our street until we reached high school when I decided I had enough and withdrew altogether from street politics she ruled unopposed. She’s now working for a multinational company that cans pineapple, i heard the last time I went back to our hometown.

No, there was no such thing as transfer occurring here. I sure am a mature individual who knows the difference between a bully from my past and an innocent girl downstairs. I have no intention of demonizing Len-len. She’s a nice little girl, only that she’s a bit sneaky and scheming.

Her older sister told us that Len-len wants to study college at UP which stands for ‘yupian ng lata’. But she seriously wants to study in UP. At least she knows what a good university is.

Little by little, Len-len and I are starting to become friends. Allowing me to take her pictures using my phone is a sign enough, I think. But I maintain my distance. Who knows what this two-year old girl is capable of doing. Whenever I see her around, I know I will not afford to be lax. But yeah, we’re on our way to becoming good friends.

But my guard is up.