Fifth

It was a rhythmically pleasant gnashing song coming from that moment of impact of the tip of the needle licking my skin, kissing it, biting it, then violently withdrawing, until droplets of reds oozed out only to be wiped away with a ballad of balled sterilized cotton. This happening thousands of times, as many number of times as the stated rate per minute on the label of a tattoo machine attached to a mini-transformer. This small device from where that beautiful pain emanated was held confidently by my brother.

He did two out of the four. Make it three out of five now.

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There’s no story here. He called the pattern ‘Samoan,’ but I did not feel like checking Google to verify his claim. He said it without trying to fake the depth of his voice. He never saw doubt in my face. I said let’s go with it. I will not wail if one day I find out this is in fact Rapa Nui or Inca.

Or just anything.

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Picking dry leaves

I still can vividly recall a recurring scene at the backyard of our old house some 18, I’m not sure, maybe 19, years ago.  It’s an image of my four siblings and me (our youngest sister was born several years after) picking up dry leaves that had fallen from an old Jackfruit tree.

This was our father’s “assignment” to us which we did with dedication every five in the afternoon after coming home from our classes in a nearby public elementary school. Our eldest sister, Mae, was 10 then. I was 8. Des, my brother born after me, was 7. Sef was 5; he attended kindergarten in the morning and at five, after sleeping the whole afternoon, already ready for play or to take part in any physical activity with us. And Gemini was 3, already an able ambler.

It was a task we took seriously, too seriously in fact that it became an opportunity for the five of us to compete with each other on who could pick the most number of dry leaves.

We had a method to this madness.

Before coming home, Mae, Des, and I passed by the stand of an old woman selling barbecued plantains (which we called sinugba nga saging because my parents are both Ilonggos, but which our schoolmates called saging ginanggang because they were all Cebuanos. The five of us never bothered speaking their language. As a generic term we called this snack banana-Q, which is not accurate since deep fried plantains in brown sugar were also called with it).

These barely cooked plantains were brushed with margarine and rolled in white sugar then skewered (I doubt if this is the appropriate word for it) using bamboo sticks that were sharpened at the tip.

To this day I cannot understand why our mother did not keep us from buying that snack, as everything about it was clearly a deadly weapon.

The plantains looked dirty after having swum in the ashes of the charcoals the old woman used to barbecue them. The margarine was without a brand name, and it was conspicuously colored in striking yellow similar to those used in emergency road signs. The brush used to envelop the plantains in that margarine-from-hell was a paint brush, and a used one, as evidenced by the chipping green latex paint on the handle. The sugar that stuck onto the bananas seemed to be from the same batch of sugar used in the previous weeks because it looked more like beach sand than sugar; individual sugar crystals could not be distinguished from the ashes that got mixed with it. Our taste in food, apparently, was very sophisticated. And lethal.

Lest I forget, the bamboo stick, which I remember using as arrows to target shoot the banana trees of our neighbor that stood in a community garden beside a small Catholic chapel. Legend has it that a grade four pupil in our elementary school was killed after having stepped on a protruding barbecue stick. That pupil’s ghost remained in the school to haunt students and teachers alike, or something that went like that, depending on the temperament of the storyteller.

After having our fill of that unforgettable delicious afternoon snack, the five of us proceeded with the operation.

We used those bamboo sticks sharpened at the tip to pick those fallen Jackfruit leaves in our backyard. The idea was simple, we punctured each leaf until they accumulate into a bunch of stabbed dry leaves. Each of us had a base camp where we stockpile our Jackfruit leaves “barbecue”.

The one who picked the most leaves won.

I don’t remember what we did with the leaves after, what the winner got as prize after winning, or what happened to the Jackfruit tree when we moved to a new house years after.

What I vividly recall, though, was our old backyard that was free from those fallen dry leaves.

And our father smiling at us.

An old photo

Thanks to Facebook and its subscribers who almost instinctively upload pictures unearthed from their files or old family albums and tag everyone in the picture, I am happily reminded of how malnourished-looking I was when I was very young, how my older sister was much taller than I and darker-skinned, how my younger brother was so fat and cute, and, most importantly, how straight my hair was. It was shiny and straight then, now it’s nothing but frizzy and thick and can only be controlled by having it shaved too close to the scalp.

This picture was taken during a birthday party of my second cousin, the kid in blue shirt at the center of the picture. My sister and I always looked forward to his birthday because it meant balloons, spaghetti floating in sweet ketchup sauce, and lots of sweets and toys given away. Images of that party, far removed from my memory until now, is very vivid I can almost taste the fruit salad, pancit, and lechong baboy; hear the laughter of children my age and the conversations of adults; feel my childhood that passed me by so fleetingly.

And see the piercing look of my sister if she finds out this impertinence–my posting here of this horrifying reminder of a past best kept hidden in memory.

The day my brother brought home a little boy

A picture I grabbed from brother’s Facebook page showing him and the little boy he brought home last Christmas, rastafied.

He asked permission first from me if he could bring the son of his girlfriend to our house in the province. Since I was paying for his trip, my opinion mattered, and I made it clear that I did not want to have anything to do with that boy, much less be responsible for the welfare of my brother and that boy as we still had to travel for three hours by bus to reach our hometown.

He was taking the Iloilo-Davao trip and I was coming from Manila. I did not want to be inconvenienced by that imp as I wanted nothing but to rest while on the bus. I told our mother that if he insisted, I’d leave him and that little boy in Davao and take the trip home alone. I imagined the boy of three as the devil in flesh–perpetually hungry, throwing tantrums every five minutes, defecating at whim, and in need of everyone’s attention.

For some unexplainable reason, I was persuaded by our mother to let him bring that boy. Probably it was my mother’s pleading, and eventually screaming, tone while she’s explaining to me that she has seen the boy in one of her visits to Iloilo, that the ‘baby’ was adorable, and how our house had become so gloomy after all five of us left for college, save our youngest sister who is in her sixth grade, that it needed some ‘apple of everyone’s  eye’.

I retorted that we have our youngest sister who can do that. ‘She’s already twelve, for crying out loud!’ Well, she did not exactly use this line, but she said something to this effect. The matter was settled. The ‘baby’ was to spend Christmas and New Year with us.

Since my flight was set three hours earlier, I arrived in Davao at 6 in the morning, I had to wait for them at the airport. Davao Airport, is not exactly a modern airport. Despite being a gateway to the biggest city in Mindanao, it does not have a decent waiting area for people waiting for arriving passengers. So I had to camp outside, downing as many as five cups of coffee at a nearby tapsilogan, waiting for my brother and his adopted son. The idea that he’s bringing somebody else’s son irked me more. I was thinking of making him feel my unrestrained fury the moment I saw him.

At 9am, I heard the public address system, which sounded hoarse after decades of use, announcing their plane has touched down. Fifteen minutes later, I saw my brother waving at my direction. He lost weight, probably because of poor nutrition and pressure from his school work. On his back is a big mountaineering bag that seemed to have dwarfed him, and in his arms was a yawning little child.

He was clinging to my brother like a newly-born chimpanzee to its mother. His right thumb stuck in his mouth, his head rested on my brother’s shoulder. He straightened his body when he saw me and gave me a puzzled look.

‘Yan, si Seth.’

Then I knew why my other younger sister who stays in the same apartment with my brother in Iloilo was silent the whole time when usually she would badmouth my brother’s girlfriends, why my mother defended my brother’s decision to bring home that ‘baby’, and why my father conspired with my mother.

Seth scratched his nose, looked at me, and gave me that short and innocent smile. His eyes looked droopy and tired because of the trip but he gamely showcased the tricks my brother must have taught him such as saying ‘Halong’ when somebody says ‘Ba-bye’ or gesturing sex with his fingers when my brother ask him what Seth wants to do, and a lot more that I already forget. Right there and then all the preconceived notions I have of any creature that are of Seth’s age got demolished like a stack of gambling cards made to stand on top of each other. If I were to have a baby of my own, I wanted it to be exactly like Seth.

Unlike most kids of three I’ve seen, he’s not megalomaniacal. It never crossed his mind that he was the center of everyone’s attention, he was, though. He did not cry a lot during his stay. He’s quiet most of the time. He did not look revolted whenever we requested him to show off what he has learned from staying regularly in my siblings’ cramped apartment. He made me want to have a kid of my own.

But what was even more endearing about Seth was the closeness he has established with my brother and how this has changed my brother. I didn’t know my brother knew how to change diapers. While we all ran away whenever Seth pooed, my brother would come to the rescue, wash him, and pat him dry. While we only wanted to play with him when he’s laughing and smiling, my brother would do funny faces to make him stop crying. More than three-fourths of the space inside the big bag he carried home was used to contain Seth’s clothes, diapers, feeding bottles, and infant formula. My brother didn’t leave the house during their stay except to buy milk at a grocery in the poblacion.

While he used to think only of himself, he’s found a new reason to be a better man by being a responsible ‘father’ to Seth.

And we, doting uncles and aunties.

General-cleaning with Gem and Sef

After a back-breaking scrubbing, sweeping, and washing, Gem and Sef’s place in Lapaz is now squeaky clean, better smelling, and definitely more habitable than the jungle that it used to be. We threw away the decade-old linoleum floor cover, opened the perpetually closed window that gave us a view to the neighbor’s antique window grilles and rusty, obsolete, Korean-made air-conditioning unit, and dusted the ceiling that forced-evicted several colonies of tarantulas and black widow spiders. We had to cover our mouths and noses to keep us from inhaling noxious fumes and fungal spores that have accumulated in the room since the house was built in the 70s.

At first, it appeared to me that Gem and Sef did not have any intention at all to clean their room because both looked contented and happy enduring its familiar gloom and comfortable darkness. But this afternoon, the temperature and humidity soared to impossible levels. The small room, measuring 6 feet by 10 feet, was suddenly transformed into a malfunctioning, overheated sauna. It was the desire to let in more air and light by opening the window that led to this major general-cleaning project.

One thing led to another. First it was the closed windows, then the cobwebs looking too inviting to let go, then the topsy-turvy books on top of the cabinet, then the sad-looking floor, until everything was turned upside-down and it became morally scandalous to return them to where they normally were found without dusting them or washing them.

I told Gem to throw away those useless stuff we accumulated since we all started going to college. I was surprised to find our eldest sister’s photocopies, my high school identification card, the clown costume that my brother next to me used to wear in his part-time job, and other things we thought were long gone or lost.

Although I thought it was a more intelligent idea to set the room on fire and start from nothing, this proved very challenging and eventually dismissed as infeasible since my sibling are only renting the place. My sister brushed this idea off as insane. I thought it was fun and out-of-the-box. My younger brother gave me his full support.

But my sister, who is, by default, the matron of the room, prevailed.

However, because I am the most senior among the three of us, it was not difficult to boss them around and give them irrational orders such as transferring an indoor plant and placing it just outside the windows to add more vitality to our sad room. Only that the smallest indoor plant around is three feet taller than my younger brother and twice as heavy as my sister. This could not be done by them and I did not want to over-exert my muscles for something as commonplace a task as lifting an indoor plant several meter from its original point of origin. We abandoned the plan. Or waxing and scrubbing the floor until it reflects more light than the shard of the mirror I broke but which Gem found a better use of and glued it on the wall rather than wait for me to buy a replacement for the one I accidentally broke. They said this task of polishing the floor was Herculean in difficulty. I said nothing is impossible to determined spirits. Theirs, they told me, are not determined. Case closed. Further counter-argument is unwelcome.

At around 5:30 in the afternoon, the room started to look like a real room of two college students and less like a slaughterhouse. Of course, it was still hot and humid but not anymore as hot and humid as it usually was before we cleaned it.

We were greeted by a gush of fresh air from our neighbor’s air-conditioning exhaust. This was better than nothing at all, our indefatigable spirit told us.

To reward ourselves, and because I am their eldest brother, I felt compelled to go out and buy ourselves something for snack. I crossed the street facing West Visayas State University Medical Center and bought five sticks of banana-Q. We downed this with ice-cold Coke and some hearty conversation and laughter.

I felt good knowing that I’ll be leaving my two younger siblings with a clean, comfortable, and livable room at least for the next five months. This made me truly happy.

Good-byes

I’m waiting for my 5:50 flight to Iloilo this time (how boring it is to begin an essay with this insipid line). Since I already booked my return flight on Monday, despite the hesitations, I know I have to be back here in Manila on Monday and will start living the newest chapter of my life as a college instructor at Ateneo de Manila University. This trip to Iloilo is for me to say hello and good-bye at the same time.

As an older brother to my two siblings, Sef and Gemini, I’ll have to make sure that, in my absence, they’ll be comfortable and safe, not that they were when I was still with them. But this is something I promised our mother. She has a lot of apprehensions regarding this drastic decision I am taking and I completely understand her. I had to reassure her over and over again that I’ve made worse decisions before and it’s not as if I have not prepared myself to fail, and I quipped, ‘Ma, I always play to win.’ Despite my cocky statement, I am scared. Nonetheless, I’ve had numerous experience of diving head-on with my eyes close, this isn’t the first and I have no intentions of making it the last. I’m scared, but who isn’t?

As a former member of the faculty of the University of the Philippines Visayas, I have to ask forgiveness for this ‘selfish’ decision. Nevertheless, however I look at it, this decision is the most rational decision somebody of my age can take had he/she been in my position. And I hope this is something the university that has nurtured me for the past eight years will understand. Yes, I have plans to go back one day, and I’m sure I will, that is, if UP Visayas is still willing to take me back.

And as a good friend to a handful of people, I need to say my good-byes and thank yous and to tell them that distance is relative and transcend-able. I have few people I consider my friends and I am sure they’ll all remain loyal to me no matter what. I have come and gone before but nothing seemed to have changed, except for some battle scars here and there. This one will not be any different. So I know a little catching up over a cup of brewed or instant coffee will be all right.

Not wanting to sound overly-dramatic this time, it occurred to me that this trip is also to say adieu to the most beautiful city in the world.