The University Belt
I WILL NEVER forget how Mr. Rosales, my music teacher in 2nd year, vanished. My parents, convinced at that time that I had a degree of hidden musical brilliance, engaged him as my tutor every Tuesday and Thursday night, in addition to my regular class under him on Fridays.
Mr. Rosales came from a small town in Negros, from one of those places whose names the mind finds impossible to recall, the ones where moths, wings tipped in poisonous dust, trail after would-be suicides. He was a peculiar man who talked about his life to anyone who would listen. After private lessons at my house one evening, he told me how much he loved music but felt that his entire life was a failure. I remained quiet, out of respect. But it was true.
Against his lips, the flute acquired an altogether different aspect, lilting, rising, falling, persuading, leading all who heard it almost but not quite to the precipice of utter joy. But consistently, at the precise moment when the next note would transport his audience of students to an unearthly paradise, he’d falter, reversing in mere moments the experience of delight and replacing it with a cacophony that could only rouse an exasperated sense of regret, enveloping those of us within earshot with the fading echoes of his desperate longing.
One Friday afternoon in class, right after another truncated recital that ended in the manner all his performances did, Mr. Rosales walked out of the music room, in tears. My fellow students and I followed him at a cautious distance down the corridors, past the classrooms where voices expounded on genes and peas, down the stairs past the glass-enclosed trophies that proudly attested to the school’s victories in volleyball, origami and spelling, and out into the pristine and uniform-length grass of the quad. It was there that he turned to us and said, “I’m done with this – and with all of you.”
The whirlwind that engulfed him appeared out of nowhere. It came as an inverted cone, swirling with the tip on top, ten meters tall, colored mostly green and smelling strongly of crushed leaves. It just covered him, like a cup in a shell game, and was simply not there the next moment. The fascinating thing about it, in fact the very last thing that everyone who witnessed Mr. Rosales’ leave-taking remembered, was that the entire event took place in silence. There was none of the expected sounds associated with a whirlwind, even a completely unexpected one. It just came, upside down, covered him completely, and vanished, all in silence.
Mrs. Flores, the teacher who replaced him, was less memorable.
I think she taught piano.
EVENINGS AT SHIRO SHIRO were usually a happy time for most of us. Except for me. Tonight I just sat there, listening to each of my friends relate all their current and prospective creative work (“For profit or for the soul”, as DM, the loudest and the most prolific of us, put it). As each person rattled off all their plans and schedules, I kept silent, knowing I was nowhere approaching my expected output as a member of our circle of writers and artists.
“I’m thinking of the male nude for my exhibit, but very harshly lit,” Tony said, passing a handful of Polaroids around. “No shadows, no textures, no mystique. I think I can pull it off. I’m thinking of getting really old guys, grandfathers, you know, people like that. Hairless, wrinkly. I’ll get them drunk or high and give them a fistful of razors. I’m thinking about what lies beneath all of us – or them, in this case.”
It was not a matter of whether or not I had ideas. I did have them, I recall finding a few quite exciting, perhaps one or two even astounding in their potential. But they remained pure ideas, unexpressed, as I permitted myself to be mired down by the mundane circumstances of my life. Normally, even the humdrum everyday would be a source for me to mine and craft, set down into words, but I’ve been unable to pursue my thoughts to their multi-path endings, unable to commit the time and effort to actually create. The very thought of writing immediately drained me before I even started.
“Of course, all the thirteen stories will interconnect and are all true – I researched the police files myself,” Susan was explaining, a little too loudly as usual. “It’s all about the intertextuality of sexuality.” She was telling the group about her book deal and the risks she was undertaking, pushing her personal literary agenda when all that the publisher wanted were short romances in Filipino. “Without risk, we cannot create,” she said, pausing for dramatic effect. “It would just be empty fireworks. I’m setting the themed collection in a school for the blind. The challenge is to articulate what these characters cannot see – the onrush of heartbreak. Imagine these kids groping each other, fucking around while they make their stupid paper no one buys.”
Her words reminded me how my own thoughts came in staccato bursts, like pyrotechnics that rose and flared, abruptly lighting my consciousness before just as quickly fading into the quiet of my mind. The longest piece I’d had written in recent memory was a fractured poem of three verses in first person with no imagery whatsoever. When I was finished I knew I was guilty of setting monologues as prose poems with no hope of truly creating anything; just wanting to write something, anything, to have something to show the others, to burn away time.
“You know those old ‘Choose Your Own Adventure’ books,” Andrew asked, gesturing to the group. “You know, you make choices and get different endings and shit? Remember how they could have been so cool? Well, I’m writing one on my blog, hyperlinked and all, so there’s an actual experience of moving away once a choice has been, you know, made. I’m working out linking it to this sad, sad blog I hacked. There’s this woman who’s been abandoned by her husband, and everything she writes is just pathetically exquisite. She exposes everything. She thinks he left her because she’s fat and ugly, and she’s absolutely right. She has a picture and, oh man! One of the links goes directly to her- and she won’t know.” His idea made most of the group laugh and sit up as they contributed memories of the old book series.
“She’s her own tragedy,” Marge giggled.
“That sounds great,” DM said, bestowing a dazzling smile of approval upon Andrew. “Finish it and we’ll think about how to protect it from plagiarists. I like the conceit applied to the web, but I don’t trust the assholes online.”
When it was my turn to speak, I just coughed twice and proceeded to be studiously engrossed with my cell phone, letting the painful moment of anticipated response pass by in bullet-time, before Marge, the purple-haired poet next to me, saved me from further embarrassment.
As I listened to her announce the publication of yet another of her collections of angry-young-woman-who-makes-the-mistake-of-falling-in-love-with-her-mother poetry, I thought about how my own ideas and plans just sat in the still corners of my mind, perfectly transfixed, like the plastic displays of menu items in the Japanese restaurant that DM insisted upon so he could light up and smoke his noxious clove cigarettes.
“So, in the end, my collection says, in a nutshell, ‘I have nothing more to say to you, Mama – go find someone else to go down on you.” Marge sat back, exhausted by her own vitriol.
“I love it,” Susan said, raising her glass of Strong Ice to Marge before turning to look at me. “What about you, Trish? I didn’t hear what you’re up to.”
“This and that,” I muttered. “Nothing much.”
“I’m sure you have something,” DM said with a small frown. “What happened to the novel you’re writing, the one about Spanish friars in Cebu?”
“I have something cooking,” I replied. “I have the words.”
“You’re just being lazy, Trish,” DM said with an exaggerated frown.
“Whatever,” I said. I composed a text message and sent it to myself.
Get out get out get out
When the message arrived, triggering the beep of my cell phone seconds later, I stood up, excused myself and drove back to my house.
I headed directly to the fridge. I ignored the giant candy-shaped aluminum foil that contained the remains of last year’s aborted writing and instead took one of the baby blue tupperwares, peeled open the cover and looked at all the words I’d been cutting out from various books, newspapers and magazines for past several months.
In a clean skillet, I tossed the words in, added a little water and soy sauce, twisted the heat to low, waited for the text to simmer and hoped for the best.
The Housing Projects
I WAKE UP from a troubling dream and realize my wife has left again without telling me. She’s dealing with the anxiety of our inability to have a child in her own way – there, I’ve said it, it’s out in the open. Seven years of trying nearly everything wears anyone down. I check near the window and see she’ll be back before the sun rises. She’s never completely gone.
Unable to return to sleep, I decide to go out for a drink and a massage, leaving at just past midnight. I lock up, walk a bit in the gentle drizzle, and wait for a cab.
Once in a while, I do this: find a friendly bar, have a couple of beers and just vegetate. It’s important that I’m alone. I do not want or need conversation and I certainly don’t want to think. On occasion someone comes over to talk. I don’t respond. I am not in the mood for someone else’s story, whether it is as banal as a prostitute with a heart of gold, as artless as a philandering man, or as half-flattering as some guy who thinks I’m cruising the bar for some action. I wear a mask of stupidity, of being unable to comprehend complicated sentences, and radiate a zone of general antipathy in the blue cloud of my cigarette smoke.
After I pay for my drinks, I take another cab. The dark streets offer no traffic, glistening with the dull sheen left behind by the superficial rain. At the Korean bathhouse I frequent, I check in, strip and take a bath while sitting on a small wooden stool. Then I immerse myself in the hot waters of the main pool, oblivious to the amiable argy-bargy of the other men around me, Filipinos and foreigners, simultaneously exposed and cloaked by steaming water. I soak until I feel the alcohol in my system flushing out via sweat. Then I go for my massage, hoping that the lady I like is present. She is, and soon her iron fingers wedge themselves into the knots of my aching back, shaking my body’s dalliance with sadness with redemptive pain.
Afterwards, I go up to the bar in my robe and have a glass of Shiraz, mellow and with a hint of tartness, and look beyond the glass walls and out into the street below. I think of nothing, not work or children. For a while I pretend to be consumed by nothing, no cares, no worries. Just for a while.
Before 5AM, I ride a third cab home to the condo. I check to see if my wife is back but she isn’t. The lower half of her body is still standing where she left it, next to the window, wearing only the floral patterned panties I don’t like very much. I look out the window of our 33rd floor unit and see the grey skies slowly changing hues.
I know she’ll fly back. She’s on her way home.
I realize that I am desperately hungry, that everything in my system since midnight has been smoke and alcohol. I make scrambled eggs the way I like them (heat the pan with a little oil, dump the eggs, whisk briskly to separate the mass, then on to a plate – the entire process takes only a few seconds) plus a couple of links of sticky longganisa.
My wife arrives in a rustle of wings. I look up from my early breakfast and she is there, framed by the bedroom doorway, flushed and glowing with perspiration.
“You’ve been out,” she says, kicking out the kinks in her legs which had gone asleep while she was away.
I nod. “A couple of beers and a massage.”
“Good, good,” she says, moving to the kitchen counter for a glass.
“Hungry?” I ask, pointing to my half-eaten meal.
“No, thanks,” she says, filling her glass with water from the dispenser. “I just ate.”
Later in bed, after she showers, I lean over and kiss her.
“You want to try again?” I ask, tracing the contours of her face with my fingers.
In the light of dawn, she turns away to hide her tears.
For Ian Casocot
“Six from Downtown” was first published in Philippines Free Press, June 2006, and subsequently in Philippine Speculative Fiction Vol.2, December 2006. It received the Philippines Free Press Literary Award for Short Story in 2007, as well as an Honorable Mention in the Datlow/Link/Grant The Year’s Best Fantasy & Horror 2007.
Dean Francis Alfar is a leading advocate of speculative fiction in the Philippines, as co-editor and publisher of the annual Philippine Speculative Fiction anthology. His novel Salamanca(Ateneo Press) won the Book Development Association of the Philippines’s Gintong Aklat as well as the Grand Prize Don Carlos Palanca Memorial Award for Literature, joining nine more Palancas, two Manila Critics’ Circle National Book Awards, and the Philippines Free Press award. His short fiction is collected in The Kite of Stars and Other Stories (Anvil). He has been published in venues both national and international, including Strange Horizons, The Year’s Best Fantasy & Horror, Rabid Transit: Menagerie, Latitude, A La Carte, and the upcoming Exotic Gothic II. He is the founder of the LitCritters writing and literary discussion group, husband to fellow writer Nikki Alfar, and father to daughters Sage and Rowan. He maintains a regular online presence at Notes from the Peanut Gallery.