The arena

I spent the entire morning sleeping, and the rest of the afternoon trying to stay awake while my conscious mind struggled to remember what day it was and to figure out the placement of the thin line that demarcated awakeness and sleep. I found myself fully awake at 7pm when my cat awoke me from my stupor with his shrill meows. I recalled I pulled myself up at 10am to feed him, but he must have downed the huge dollop of wet food quickly, that by seven he’s hungry again.

My cat, Tumi, in the liminality between awakeness and sleep.

My cat has been my constant companion for several years now. He’s witnessed the ebb and flow of my life, and I may have been in a relationship with quite a few, but he seems to have been the only constant in my life that’s characterized by endless shifts.

He has not left my place since I brought him here more than a year ago, sedated. My cat can be a little springy with strangers as he’s uncomfortable with weird scents so his transfer could only be made possible by having him injected with a powerful sedative administered by his vet. My condominium proscribes owners from keeping pets other than aquarium fishes, but who will heed this rule amid the loneliness of city life?

Given that he can only move about my studio of several square meters and his inability to ruminate on the concept of freedom (I adopted him when he was still a kitten and took him with me when an ex and I had decided to part ways); I believe he is also not a very smart cat—but being his dad, I’ve long resigned to this fact because I love him unconditionally—hence I cannot imagine him capable of introspection much less question my decision to keep him in my studio, albeit all his basic needs are provided for.

It’s interesting to know how his entire day goes and maybe derive some insights on freedom from his experience. On the one hand, my cat has been indoor his entire life that the idea of roaming the streets to find food or mates is foreign to him (I am of the opinion that he is one very handsome tomcat—big, sturdy, and muscular—that he would be alpha if only he were given the chance), and on the other hand, here I am forced to stay home indefinitely because of the pandemic that’s claiming people’s lives and sanity outside. On normal days, I’d spend most of my time working then come home in the evening to be with my cat, read a little then off to bed. Even during weekends, I’m seldom home the whole day.

The author with Tumi, his favorite cat among many.

Now, however, my cat and I are on the same boat. And I am beginning to take cognizance of the fact that it’s tough, that it takes a certain set of personality traits to endure this successfully. To be confronted by thoughts I’ve ignored for too long and to have no one to talk to about them or to have exhausted all possible modes of distraction I was afforded before this pandemic, the four walls of my studio is now becoming an arena for a fight till the end between me and my destructive thoughts.

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.

Friends from a long time ago

We all are a member of some sort of groups on Facebook whose members are people we have not seen for ten years or more. Aside from the occasional informally organized reunions that take place once every two years during the Christmas season, we ‘ve never truly caught up with most of these people because we’ve already moved and treaded on with our own individual journeys. Holding on to the past will simply slow down our ply forward.

I’ve recently received notification on Facebook about a photo taken more than eleven years ago of the Delta platoon of my high school CAT program. It was a very old photo taken by our high school’s official photographer scanned for the sole purpose of being uploaded on Facebook. For throwback Thursday said one of the hash tags.

delta

I was not in the picture but was tagged by one of the private cadets on the photo who’s a classmate. He is now working in the Middle East. He’s a family man. His profile picture on Facebook is that of his beautiful daughter, smiling innocently at the camera. Had I taken a similar path as this classmate, I would’ve already had a child of my own, and my Facebook page would be less a celebration of  the self than about my child.

I was my high school CAT corps commander. The conversation about the photo revolved on an incident that happened one Friday afternoon more than eleven years ago. It’s a funny banter about a control freak corps commander who found them hiding in one of the classrooms of first year students, foiling their effort to evade the unforgiving 4pm brigade formation under the still scathing afternoon sun. Of course they never forgot to mention the number of push-up they had to perform as punishment for their act.

I joined the happy exchange. My tone was that of a nostalgic old man looking back with a satisfied smile at a past long gone.

Versions of the story varied a little; some people I couldn’t recall to be there had sworn they were. Our memories being less stable than the ground we tread on shake uncontrollably most of the time. Every time we retrieve data stored in the mildewy recesses of our minds we struggle to recall. But we always allow for so much leeway, for some inconsistencies in details, for contradictions because this is how memory works. We invent, recreate, imagine. However, we seldom care. The past is for all of us to define.

But what bothers me more than the many versions of that incident is the apparent feeling of distance. My participation in the conversation on the page felt forced. My fakeness was so palpable I was ashamed of myself. The language they used, the slang from eleven years ago which they still pepper their sentences with sounded dated. Nothing changed it seemed to most of us.

That classmate who posted the photo said I was furiously shouting at them that afternoon. I was very mad, he wrote.

I laughed. How could I be so passionate about something that my memory has failed to store?

This is what eleven years does to all of us.

Nhọ and Tẹt

Caught in my made up and self-declared ‘tumultuous’ daily existence, I tried to distance myself a bit from thinking too much and writing in the past week. But realizing that I can only survive without writing and blogging for five days, at most, I thought of having a line up of things to write about so that when finally I find enough time to write the things on my mind down, they’d come handy.

So a week ago I asked my Vietnamese friend, Chi Le, to send me pictures of her cats. In her email she promised to give me as pet her newest cat she named Nhọ, meaning ‘dirty’ in Tieng Viet, if I one day decide to live permanently in Hanoi.  Nhọ is a stray cat in the neighborhood whom she and her mom adopted.

And to make sure she’ll remain true to her words I’ll use this post and that email she sent me to remind her someday that she made this promise, that is, if I eventually decide the Vietnam is the place for me.

Nhọ looks like Puss ‘n Boots in Shrek. And who wouldn’t fall for a cat as cute as this cat? And besides, this cat does what chi Le’s other cat should have been doing but failed to do: ridding the house of mice.

Meet Tẹt:

Tẹt, her only cat that time when I was still staying in their house, was by default my favorite. This aging fat cat has grown too old, too fat and spoiled by my friend and her mother, Co Doanh, that it has completely abandoned its responsibility of catching little mice in the house. According to Chi Le, Tet has come to feel more superior now because of seniority, and he’s more than willing to show Nho who’s boss in the house.

Tet used to stay in my bedroom located just beside the kitchen except for times when my friend would carry the lazy cat upstairs. In the cold Hanoian winter of 2009 he stayed most of the nights with me, together with the big but docile dog, Gau. Tet always made it a point to sharpen his vestigial claws at midnight and gave out those scary wails to signal he’s in heat and ready for romancing (he’s a castrated cat, by the way). Still, I tolerated him.

This gave me enough confidence that if bad comes to worse and worse comes to worst, he’ll give up her old mistresses for my warm embrace. But I was wrong. No matter how much I goaded this black cat to take my side and come with me to the Philippines, he didn’t bother to consider my proposal and even thought of it as absurd by giving me that tired yawn and proud grin. He, of course, chose to live a comfortable, shielded, and lazy life in my friend’s house until this day.