Monday, April 21, 2008

special request

A former student from my very first year of teaching asked about my essay "How to Deal with Dying." It won third prize in the 2007 Free Press Awards, tied with a piece by Chari Lucero. I remember I promised relatives I'd give them a copy. So, friends and relatives, here it is.

How to Deal with Dying

Step 1: Do Some Post-Lunch Wallowing
Where: Your Grandmother’s Kitchen
When: 11 February 2000

You know you’re dying when you find a lump the size of a bean in your left breast, a small hard thing where your heartbeat should be. You found it there a couple of days ago, moving around like a pebble under the pressure of your searching fingertips. At first, you don’t believe it. And so you probe again and again, hoping every time you sink a finger into flesh that you would feel nothing. That you just imagined it. But twenty minutes later, your breast is tender, there are red crescent marks on your skin, and the lump is still there. Rock solid. A fact.

So you’re put under strict observation and a vegetarian diet that may help the growth to subside. But although you have faith in the healing powers of your stepmother and in Zen macrobiotics, you don’t feel any better. You know there’s still a big chance you might need an operation. The Big Chop-Chop. Slice you up like a fillet, pluck out the offending mass and sew you up to look like The Breast of The Bride of Frankenstein. You remind yourself that you will have to pay someone big money for the privilege of having all that inflicted on you.

Wow. Cancer. It’s hard enough being a wannabe writer in a country that doesn’t speak, let alone read, the language you write in. Now you have the Big C to deal with. The great-great-grandmother of all life-threatening diseases. It isn’t enough that you had quit your web design job in Ortigas just a month ago. And that you’re living on meager savings rapidly approaching bankruptcy levels. And that you’re not yet over getting dumped a week after your birthday by an idiot whom you had been planning to dump six months before but couldn’t – out of rocketing hormones and misguided pity. The good doctor has also told you to stay away from stressful activities. This bit of wallowing is giving you a fair amount of that.

So you try to calm down and think happy thoughts. You fail. You remember that it’s been months since you’ve written anything that passed the test of the Cold Harsh Clarity of Morning. Despite all the interesting nervous-breakdown-inducing things that keep happening, you can't seem to translate anything into good writing. So you go into the kitchen and make yourself a cup of hot chocolate, Mexican style. As you take out the tablea, the soymilk, vanilla essence, cinnamon and chili powder, you tell yourself that manual labor gets the creative juices flowing. But you don’t fool yourself.

You had spent the previous week systematically disinfecting your apartment in the hope of inviting a Muse, any Muse, into your writing life. All you got out of it was a spic-and-span house and a headache from staring at a flickering computer screen. You decide to focus on making your drink, whisking vigorously at the chocolate tableas you had dropped into a bit of simmering water. When it turns a smooth glossy dark brown, you whisk in the soymilk, vanilla, cinnamon and chili. You pour some into a cup, purse your lips and blow cool air over the liquid surface. The froth retreats under your breath, then floats back. It is dark, bitter, sweet, with a hint of sourness that stays at the back of your throat. Thick as mud. Just like your life.

You look inside your grandmother’s fridge and shudder. Food products pumped up with growth hormones—cheese and eggs, chicken and pork—all engineered to cause lumps to appear all over your body. You want to shout, to let your voice reverberate through the almost empty house like the voice of an ascetic carried by the wind across a red desert: Repent! The end is at hand! Instead, you close the refrigerator door. You sigh and realize your fingers are again pressing against the side of your left breast. You feel nothing. No lump near the bone where a cleavage ought to be. You press again, this time a little harder. You feel it there, and imagine it taking root beside your heart.

Step 2: Soak Up Some Family History
Where: Your Grandmother’s Dining Table
Date: 18 February 2000

It helps a lot to be visiting Lola Santa these days. Here's someone a lot more miserable than you are. Faced with a sad old lady with a big scary suppurating wound on her left foot, your self-involvement and your problems amount to just a hill of bean-sized breast lumps in this crazy world. She's bitter and sad about a lot of things. You decide to cheer her up by getting her started on how things were when she was a conceited tomboy with half of Laoag City's eligible bachelors chasing after her.

A portrait of a much younger Santa Pascua Batoon hangs on your grandmother’s bedroom wall. You can just barely see it through the half-open door from your place at the dining table. For some reason, it had always frightened you as a child. Looking at it now, you find nothing in it that should remotely evoke fear: an oval-faced young woman smiling impishly at someone behind the painter’s left shoulder. In the painting, she is wearing pink silk and pearls, her hair billowing behind her like a dark cloud, glamorous at eighteen going on thirty.

When you were six, you remember asking her if she got tired posing for the portrait. In reply, she showed you the black and white studio photo on which the painter based his watercolor strokes. You felt a strange disappointment when you first saw that photo because there her dress was cotton and had broad black stripes. In the studio on that sweltering 1930s Laoag afternoon, there were no pearls around her neck and she wasn’t smiling. It is the same small framed photograph Lola has asked you to place on her headboard earlier this morning. Could be a trick of the light but now you think the ornate silver frame looks too small for the woman inside. Her elegantly penciled brows hint at impatience, the flaring nostrils hide the beginnings of suffocation.

Since yesterday, your grandmother has insisted that ripe mango mashed with rice is the only thing she can and will eat. When she looks as angry as she does in the photo, you know better than to contradict her. Between bites of the sticky yellow stuff, her scraggly eyebrows waggling like geriatric caterpillars, Lola tells you that this exact same photo was at one time displayed in all the city shops Up North, in Laoag. The photo studio wanted to show off this newfangled technique called backlighting. It made her dark mane blaze with movie star electricity.

After seeing Lola gumming her mango lunch, her bird-bones quivering to reach a glass of water, you find it hard to imagine that this exact same body could once throw heavy projectiles at young men with ease. She had been an athlete at the Normal School before The War. Track and field, javelin and discus throwing kept her trim and shapely. You aren’t surprised that so many guys went for her. In all her pre-war photographs, hers always is the most beautiful face, and she always wears the most blinding smile.

These days, Lola Santa seems happiest when talking about her exploits as a maldita heartbreaker. She tells you of one particular guy who she says looked just like your idiot ex ("quite tall with curly-curly hair and very long kulotikot eyelashes"). Lola’s pre-war beau used to gather small hard green mangoes every morning, around which he’d wrap fevered love letters written the night before. At lunchtime, knowing she'd be there, he would toss these little bundles through the open window of Lola’s sala. All this effort, even if he knew that the feisty Santa kept a special basket of rocks to throw at him. She would throw back the green mango missiles as she chased him down the street, shouting Ilocano curses and shaking her fist the whole time.

Coming home from school, Lola would ride a calesa and Mr. Eyelashes would run alongside grinning, trying to catch her eye. One time, this loco nga lalaki even has the audacity to jump into the rushing calesa and sit beside her, batting his lashes. Lola, of course, looks the other way, pretends not to see him. Enchanted by her profile, he doesn't see her fist coming, only feels something solid smash into his chin. It is enough to knock him out of the carriage and onto the street. She never looks back. She doesn’t tell you any other stories about that brash young man. Maybe he died in The War.

Step 3: Don’t Let Them See You Cry
Where: Your Grandmother’s Wake
When: 23 February 2000

Your Lola dies at around 7 AM yesterday morning. The night before, she complains that she can’t eat. To avoid another bout of hypoglycemia, she asks you to open a can of sweet chocolate liquid. You are surprised that she gulps down everything in seconds, even slurping in the last drops before going to bed. You are roused early next morning by the maid. Lola cannot breathe, you need to call a doctor. The maid stands beside the bed, wringing her hands. Your aunt and your Ninang take turns thumping her chest, giving her CPR. You are afraid the exertions will collapse her ribcage. It is just a few minutes past 6 AM.

You can still see your grandmother heaving in the middle of her queen-sized bed. The sweat-soaked sheets like a parody of childbirth. Her hands are rough, dry like broken twigs. They are deathly cold. She convulses, tears in her glaucoma-cloudy eyes. She tries praying the 23rd Psalm but cannot get past the first line: “The Lord is my Shepherd... Apo Dios! Narigat ti matayen!” She wonders why it is so difficult to die. Your Ninang starts reading the Psalm from a leather-bound Bible. It feels too much like her last rites. You don't want to believe she is about to go. Someone takes Lola's hand from yours, feels her pulse.

Through the doctor’s gibberish, you manage to understand that her pulse is either very weak or has stopped. You notice that your Ninang has been crying. Your aunt has been quiet the whole time. They manage to revive her once or twice. But what is left of your grandmother is no longer lucid. Just a pair of unseeing eyes and faint moaning. Her death mask beginning to take shape. Finally, the effort of living becomes too much for her. She stops breathing.

It is only then that you realize a person dies little by little, in increments measured by the unmaking of molecules. Hands and feet are the first to go, being farthest from the heart. After this, death creeps slowly and silently, inward and upward, until all that is left is a cold mass of hardening cells. A routine check by the doctor shows that her blood sugar had shot up to 500 during the night. Apparently, too much sugar in the blood produces acids that make it painful and difficult to breathe. The doctor says it was acidosis that killed her. You will always think it is something else.

As you sit huddled on the pew closest to the casket, you can feel people looking at you. They are wondering why they don't see you cry. In this most spartan Presbyterian church, you are not expected to beat your chest, tear your hair out, or jump onto the coffin. But your quiet proves unnerving to a congregation used to seeing a trickle or two dabbed away discreetly with a cotton hanky. With the way your aunts orchestrated the program, you are close to doing just that. But you stop yourself. The entire clan has metamorphosed into a family of penguins decked out in white tops and black pants. You think it too silly for tears. Then you hear your cousin draw his bow across the strings. He begins to play Brahms' lullaby on his violin, a song Lola had hummed through the years as she put each of her grandchildren to sleep. This time you cannot stop yourself. You grab a tissue and run out of church.

Step 4: Look Through Your Inheritance
Where: Your Grandmother's Living Room
When: 11 March 2000

You think you got your inheritance early when you turned eighteen and was diagnosed borderline diabetic. It appears that is just the first installment. You find out yesterday that both great-grandmothers on your father’s side died of some cancer, ovarian or breast. The little growth you are cultivating in your left breast is actual testament to the endurance of family legacy.

You try out a pair of Japanese-style chopsticks at lunch today. You find them more difficult to use than the chunkier Chinese-style wood chopsticks. Yours are slick with lacquer, burgundy with delicate tapered ends. Inlaid with what you think is mother of pearl, they are part of your inheritance from Lola. You do not expect to get any of your grandmother's antique jewelry. Even if you want to, all that has been tossed out with the garbage a few years ago by your balikbayan aunt home for Christmas from Canada.

How it happens: Lola keeps all her pre-war jewelry in little dark medicine bottles. Tita Cherry decides to spend a post-Christmas December afternoon cleaning out Lola's closet and throws away most of the bottles of expired medicine. The ones that she does leave untouched in the closet turn out to contain the real expired medicine. Your aunt spends the rest of her vacation shuffling around the house with swollen eyes, peering hopefully into wastebaskets. Until today, she cannot forgive herself for throwing away what could have been a fabulous inheritance for all female Roldans to come.

There is a heavy necklace in bright yellow gold with a big letter S that is supposed to have been yours. You are six when your grandmother lets you hold it for the first time. It is heavy with gems that form the curves of the S, and bordered by small sparkling diamanté. It was the first time you felt glad to have been named Sandra, and not Michelle or Christine like all your other friends in kindergarten. Now you picture in your mind those precious little bottles being shattered from the weight of hundreds of tons of wet ripe garbage. You imagine the twinkling stones and gleaming metals drowning in unnamable cocktails of household and industrial chemical waste.

So all you get is a lacy sequined blouse circa 1960 that Lola used to wear when performing with her rondalla group. You lay it out on the sofa with the rest of your stash. There is also a beaded sequined evening purse that you try (but fail) to get dry-cleaned this afternoon. You get some pieces of lace tatted by Lola which you plan to stitch onto a nice sleeveless blouse you have yet to buy. You also get a broken Chinese sandalwood fan that Lola never got to use. She always set aside her nice things for when there's a special occasion or for "next time," which is how she calls the future.

Step 5: When You can’t Deal, Space Out
Where: In Front of Your Computer
When: 18 March 2000

You reach a new level of desperation. If there’s a face product called Hope in a Jar, why isn’t Health by Homepage downloadable from a friendly neighborhood website? You want to fix yourself but can't figure out where to start. You are tired of being this depressive hermit type who watches cooking shows all day on cable television. So you lurk through the Internet looking for answers. You go to a search engine but can’t think of a word to guide you. You type LUMP. Your dialup connection blinks into action and begins the slow search for LUMPs throughout the electronic realm.

Waiting for the results to appear, you imagine an appalling scene. You picture yourself five months from now looking the way your grandmother did right before she died. Loose scaly skin, wobbly teeth, desiccated hair, sharp bones poking out from everywhere. The only healthy, pulsing, living thing recognizable in you would be your lovely little tumor, by then a distended balloon of flesh protruding from the left side of your chest. It is true the human body can survive even under the most extreme conditions. It may really be true that left alone, some very unhealthy anatomies will find it most difficult to die.

Your grandmother knew what she wanted and what to do about it. She fed on sweet mangoes and drank chocolate flavored drinks until her blood sugar shot up to five hundred. She died sweet as all the spun sugar desserts you are no longer allowed to eat. You imagine the rest of your life. No ice cream, no cheesecake, no more dense dark bittersweet chocolate. Sometimes you get nightmares of gnawing painfully on your own bloodied arm to stave off the sugar pangs wavering over your tongue. You are too tired to read. You think this is all just about having nothing to look forward to. Then you realize it is the same thing that killed your grandmother. You feel hopeless. You log off.

Step 6: Invent Good Memories If You Don’t Have Any
Where: Your Grandmother's Closet
When: 22 March 2000

She always keeps the closet locked. You know she trusts you if she asks for help looking for something or another in her closet. Being the chosen one feels both like an honor and a nuisance because she would always forget where she had hidden the key. Is it behind the door or under the mattress? Sometimes you find it lurking in her coffee cup. Now you find it masquerading as a bookmark in the leather-bound Bible given to you after she died.

There were times when Lola felt she needed to read a Citadel Church worship service program circa 1991 because she liked that particular Scripture reading. By this time, she could no longer make the trip from the house on Bugallon Street in Project 4 to Citadel on Katipunan Road in front of Blue Ridge village. The church program would turn up only after digging through several mildewed leather handbags that invariably held loose change, broken fans, used toothpicks and crumpled tissue paper. You are surprised to find there photos of unknown people taken in the 1940s, all smudged with broken coral-red Revlon lipsticks that smell strongly of chemicals.

Usually, the thing she needed would just be a blanket in an overhead compartment that was too high for her to reach. You remember her telling you, as you dragged a chair before the closet’s open doors, that she used to be the tallest in school at five feet, four inches. Even taller when she wore heels with those stiff bell-like skirts with the petticoats. You remember groping through the bunched masses of bed linen while she talked about how it was an effort to keep her stocking seams straight when she was all dolled up like that, with silk cabbage roses on her party dresses. You still a shiver of fear that you, standing now at five feet, four inches, might also end up feeling as shrunken and unloved as the old woman looking up at you from the bed.

The blanket she wanted was always one of those big warm cotton things woven in La Union. She would send these by pao-it to Laoag to be laundered in the cold waters of the karayan. The blankets always come back stiff as cardboard and rough with starch. You always wondered how she could sleep at night without getting hurt. One time, she told you that as a child, she once threw a very heavy solid gold bracelet into that same river. It was ugly because it looked like a man’s bracelet, something a barbarian would wear. You asked why she could afford to throw away such a valuable thing. She laughed, saying that her father once owned huge tracts of land in Ilocos and Isabela, as far as the eye could see. She never talked about your great-grandfather after that, or how they managed to lose everything.

Your grandmother never threw things away. Her aqua-blue polyester public school teacher’s uniform hung in her closet twenty years after she retired. Your earliest memory of Lola was when she started teaching you how to read. She would sit beside you afternoons at the dining table wearing that blue polyester dress. Together, you would go over those mimeographed leaflets that read ‘Ba Be Bi Bo Bu.’ Slowly, laboriously, you went through each sheet, wondering if there was a secret message behind the squiggly figures and repeated vowel sounds. Eventually, you figured out they meant nothing and got bored with the routine. But you were too scared to tell Lola you wanted the lessons to stop. It just wasn’t done.

The aqua blue dress hangs in the closet beside a pair of bell bottoms the color of ripe eggplants on acid, a shade straight out of Sesame Street’s 1970s psychedelic cartoons—a bright purple that hurt your eyes if you look at it for too long. The only time you saw Lola Santa wearing those pants was in a photo. She is sitting in the garden surrounded by her pink bromeliad orchids and her beloved bonsai. Her curly hair is cropped short. There is a tiny baby in her arms, it could be your older brother. She looks down softly at her first grandchild. She smiles.

You see that picture again recently, searching through photo albums, looking for a certain plant with dark glossy leaves and pink flowers that no longer grows in the garden outside. As a child, when you still visited your grandparents every weekend, you used to pick a single trumpet-shaped flower the moment you arrived. You would look at the furry yellow insides before tucking it behind your ear, inhaling its scent of ripe bananas. Today, in this bright room, you look at the photo of Lola Santa and the baby in her arms. She is humming Brahms’ lullaby. You want to believe that the baby smiling in her sleep is you.

Thursday, January 31, 2008

coming soon

my submission for the soon-to-be-brilliant anthology Coming Soon, edited by kimi, egay, and chingbee. sana matanggap. heh heh.

Some Facts You Remember From Ten Years Ago
674 words

Everyone knows blood is a fluid that’s 55% plasma. That is, it’s water—with a lot of proteins, salts and other stuff dissolved in it. Hence, the lipsmacking salty taste much loved by vampires. The other 45% is made up of red blood cells, white blood cells and platelets floating around merrily in that clear plasma. What gives blood its iconic bright red color is the hemoglobin, which being iron-rich also explains that surprising metallic tang you detect when your tongue seeks out a tiny ragged cut on your lower lip, slightly left of center, in the fleshy part where he bit you.

The whole thing actually took less time (6 minutes, 48 seconds) than you thought (an hour at the very least). And it hurt so much more than you’d expected. But of course you knew about the pain involved—never mind what romance novels say about hearing violins and/or trumpets and/or the music of the spheres in the background—you’re not that dumb. You know that when something fairly large and rigid and bent slightly to the right forces itself into a space too tight even for a cute pink Playtex tampon with the diameter of a #2 Mongol pencil, something’s gotta give.

And that something is called a hymen. It’s a fold of mucous membrane much like the inside of your cheek. Said fold partly covers the external vaginal covering, sort of like your vagina’s way of playing peekaboo. In many cultures, it is physical evidence of chastity, the body’s rather flimsy way of keeping the enemy at the gate. Your gynecologist can tell you that hymens come in three popular shapes: (a) crescentic, with the widest part at the bottom and nothing on top; (b) annular, or ring-around-the-opening; and (c) redundant, with folds which may cause it to protrude like a third set of labia. In rare cases, the hymen is imperforate, stretched like a drum across and perfectly sealing the opening, requiring surgery to allow the menses to flow out. But you don’t have a gynecologist because you never actually needed one. Whatever form your hymen had been is now immaterial.

What’s clear is that it got torn at the exact moment that he was holding you down, both your thin bony wrists held above your head by his right hand and you were saying no no no no nnnmmfff muffled against his left palm, which smelled like those Marlboro Reds he chainsmoked at the rate of two packs a day. You tried to kick and/or push him off you but you just couldn’t move. Then again, he was significantly heavier at 168 lb to your 94. And besides, even your legs were pinned down and stretched wide open. And even if you could scream, there was no one else to hear you that night in his dark apartment along Esteban Abada in Katipunan. There really was nothing you could do.

But enough of that. Let’s talk about viscosity. Smart people say it is a fluid’s measure of resistance to being deformed by either shear or extensional stress, or resistance to flow. Normal people, however, percieve it simply as the thickness or thinness of a fluid. Either way, it’s not always easy to measure viscosity because some fluids are Newtonian (viscosity dependent on temperature but not on shear rate or time), some are not (opposite of previous).

Viscosity is measured in centipoise (cps), with water as the standard at 1 cps. Pork lard is between one to two million cps (extremely thick, almost solid) while honey is around 3,000 cps (quite oozy). Blood is, yes, thicker than water but not by much at only 10 cps. And so you wonder at the rate the blood is flowing from the inside of your thigh, down to your leg and onto the yellow tile floor of the shower. For a few seconds, you watch as your blood mixes with water: how the bright red spreads in slow wispy circles into the clear, into the wet. How it flows away from you. How it disappears.

Friday, December 28, 2007

Food and More Food

got this meme from the love of my life (paul, not kitty). am taking time off my busy christmas vacation to stay all day at gateway to shop (made lots of money off the naughty-and-nice christmas cupcake business gina & i had) and enjoy the free wifi. the signal is strongest on the 3rd and 4th floors but from figaro (where i was earlier) and from mandarin oriental cafe (where i am now), it's pretty good too.

the lack of posting here shows me just how insanely busy i've been this second semester. am hoping the rest of the sem will be a little more kinder to my nerves and my eyebags. i'm hoping i'm wrong but methinks i've only had 3 full nights of sleep this second semester. boo hoo. but i did earn more money. yay. but overall, i've had to deal with more dullards. boo. but in terms of food finds and takaw-mata adventures, the 2nd half of 2007 has been fabulous. the polymath and i plan to end the year with lunch at cafe ysabel. yehehey.

and but so... the meme:

What were you cooking/baking ten years ago?

shoot. i honestly don't remember. in 1997, i had yet to take control of the kitchen so i guess i wasn't cooking much back then. i remember much more clearly the culinary disasters that marby and i had circa 1993 involving excessive cornstarch, bad strawberry wine from baguio, and cream (mercifully, not all in the same dish).

What were you cooking/baking one year ago?
again, i don't remember. i must have baked something for christmas to give away to friends and relatives since i'm much too cheap now to go shopping for individual gifts. ooh, i do remember The Great Brownie Bake-Off. i needed to write something for my creative nonfiction class under neil garcia so i decided to compare the brownie recipes of alston brown (good eats), irma rombauer (joy of cooking), and nigella lawson (domestic goddess). i followed their recipes and served up samples during my workshop session to bribe my classmates as well as get flavor comments for the ending of my essay. kasi, when you bake 3 different batches of brownies in one day, it becomes hard to tell them apart after a while. the domestic goddess won, of course, for subtlety and best cleavage.

Five snacks you enjoy:
1) real camembert made from unpasteurized milk
2) kwek-kwek from UP
3) cheetos, especially the jalapeno variant
4) instant kimchi ramyon in a paper bowl (my korea survival food)
5) cold buckwheat noodles with zarusoba sauce from a bottle and fake wasabi

Five recipes you know by heart:
1) three variants of banana muffins (kahlua, rhum, and orange-splenda)
2) mixed dal soup (lots of ground and fresh coriander)
3) morocco-inspired ratatouille (lots of paprika)
4) bahala-na laksa (made with ho fan and whatever's in the fridge)
5) bahala-na pasta (again, using whatever's about to rot in the fridge)

Five culinary luxuries you would indulge in if you were a millionaire:
1) my very own kitchen stadium
2) monthly takaw-mata sessions abroad
3) become a cheese affineur in france
4) go to japan and have an edo-style sushi meal
5) foreswear vegetarianism and eat my own weight in jamon iberico

Five foods you love to cook/bake:
1) banana bread
2) brownies
3) soft-boiled eggs
4) chicken neck adobo and boiled pork bones for kitty
5) anything that will make the polymath happy

Five foods you cannot/will not eat:
1) people (they're filthy!)
2) dogs (because they constantly lick their nethers)
3) cats (siomiao)
4) rats/field mice (there are so many other things to eat, like bugs)
5) chicken heads (i prefer my food not to stare at me)

Five favorite culinary toys:
1) my calphalon pans (soooo pretty)
2) this little italian-made wooden peppermill i bought years ago
3) my microplanes (haven't used them yet, just like looking at em)
4) all my silicone bakeware and cookware
5) wooden spoons (just can't cook without them)

Five dishes on your ‘last meal’ menu:
1) cheese omelette made perfectly by the polymath
2) oysters in butter and garlic by tita daphne
3) perfectly ripe raw milk camembert with crisp grapes
4) one of those mini baguettes freshly baked in the vietnamese refugee village in the outskirts of puerto princesa, palawan
5) one of those ginormous plate-sized crabs papa used to get from the south when we were in grade school, heavy with bright orange aligue, with pinakurat vinegar as dipping sauce

Five happy food memories:
1) that first risotto the polymath and i cooked together, with really fat prawns imported from project 4 (courtesy of tita daphne's largesse). this, like most of our best meals, was the result of cooking-on-the-fly and pure greed. i remember we put the prawn heads in a blender with some hot water and actually giggled/groaned when we saw the mush turn bright orange from the fat.
2) eating lamb vindaloo and palak paneer for the first time with tenzin and kalinga at shankaranthi restaurant near crimson house in jegi-dong. the first of many many good meals prepared by ramu the pakistani cook and eaten with our hands (a huge no-no in korea). despite occasionally bumping into the crazy kazakh museum curator there, shankaranthi became one of our favorite haunts. it was dark, musty, almost hermetically sealed (read: bad ventilation) and sometimes smelled like cockroaches but we loved it dearly.
3) that dinner with eung hwa at mad for garlic restaurant near coex mall. as the name suggests, everybloodything on the menu (except for the wine, thank goodness) had garlic. my favorite appetizer of all time would be their roasted garlic fondue. how to eat it: squeeze out squishy cloves of whole roasted garlic on warm crusty baguette slices, dip into boozy gruyere-and-emmental fondue, and cram the lot into your mouth. try not to die of happiness.
4) the sagada picnic series with the polymath. honestly, this one deserves its very own blog post. even if it happened way back in april, i still feel happy remembering even just occasional minor details (the wine cork that refused to yield, chef aklay's magical quiche, the bread studded with nuggets of smoky etag, the macaroni halo-halo, the old people rehearsing their gong dance outside the episcopal church, dodging cow patties that dotted the baseball diamond, the random baked stuff bought from the co-op). i'm gonna cheat and also include here that first meal we had at the log cabin--a haven after walking through town in the miserable rain. we ate in the kitchen, or more precisely at the table by the kitchen. the perfect meal.
5) tasting spring food for the first time on a rooftop restaurant at ssamzi market (the open plan building/art gallery/shop complex) overlooking busy touristy insadong. it was part of one of the walking tours we had for the 1st seoul young writers festival. eating fresh sprout soup and cool sesame-seaweed salad with alejandra costamagna right after a visit to a knife gallery courtesy of the korean novelist whose name i can never remember is one of my top korea memories.

may 2008 be even yummier! woohoo!

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

the night before the first kiss

exactly one year ago, i was in my room in seoul doing some last-minute fiddling with my luggage. it's almost midnight there right now. i had stripped my room bare, almost exactly as it had looked when i moved in six months before, just filthier.

and this time last year, i was on the way home from tenzin and kalinga's new apartment somewhere in jongno. i almost missed the last bus back to anam because i gave a last impulsive hug to tenzin. good thing my friend ferdie was there; he called out to me seconds before the door swooshed closed and i had to run up the steps just before the bus lurched and started its slow way across the city, until the only thing i could see of tenz were the neon lights of jongno's bars and nurebangs bouncing off his glasses.

so tomorrow, the polymath and i will be celebrating that first awkward kiss at the airport, done lots of teeth banging and noses getting in the way, and an eye on the lookout for my dad who was late picking me up. "celebrating" for us basically involves cooking and eating. haha. ha. not sure yet what dinner will be though. maybe some vegetable risotto. i wonder if it's possible to make a guinness sorbet or granita. hmmm...will be fiddling with the ice cream maker again tomorrow.


Saturday, September 01, 2007

saved from the wrecking ball

so i recently revised this story that's been in suspended animation because the book project i wrote it for seems dead in the water. so i decided to revive it and see if it can be turned into a modern fable of sorts for another anthology. go see for yourself. and do let me know if it's any good.

The Safe House
Words: 2,125

From the street, it is just one box among many. Beneath red clay roof tiles baking uniformly in the sweltering noon, the building’s grey concrete face stares out impassively in straight lines and angles. Its walls are high and wide, as good walls should be. A four-storey building, with four units to a floor. At dusk, the square glass windows glitter like the compound eyes of insects, revealing little of what happens inside. There is not much else to see.

And so this house is in every way identical to the thirty-odd other buildings nestled within the gates of this complex. It is the First Lady’s pride and joy, a housing project designed for genteel middle class living. There is a clubhouse, a swimming pool, a tennis court. A few residents drive luxury cars. Neighbors walk purebred dogs in the morning. Trees shade the narrow paths and the flowering hedges that border each building give the neighborhood a hushed, cozy feel. It is easy to get lost there.

But those who need to come here know what to look for—the swinging gate, the twisting butterfly tree, the cyclone-wire fence. A curtained window glows with the yellow light of a lamp perpetually left on. Visitors count the steps on each flight of stairs. They do not stumble in the dark. They know which door will be opened to them, day or night. They will be fed, sometimes given money. Wounds will be treated, bandages changed. They carry nothing—no books, bags or papers. What they do bring is locked inside their heads, the safest of places. They arrive one at a time, or in couples, over a span of several hours. They are careful not to attract attention. They listen for the reassuring yelps of squabbling children before they raise their hands to knock.

It is 1982. The girl who lives here does not care too much for the people who visit. She is five. Two uncles and an aunt dropped by the other day. Three aunts and two uncles slept over the night before. It is impossible to remember all of them. There are too many names, too many faces. And they all look the same—too tall, too old, too serious, too many. They surround the small dining table, the yellow lamp above throwing and tilting shadows against freshly-painted cream walls.

They crowd the already cramped living room with their books and papers, hissing at her to keep quiet, they are Talking About Important Things. So she keeps quiet. The flock of new relatives recedes into the background as she fights with her brother over who gets to sit closer to the television. It is tuned in to Sesame Street on Channel 9. The small black and white screen makes Ernie and Bert shiver and glow like ghosts. Most of these visitors she will never see again. If she does, she will probably not remember them.

She wakes up one night. Through the thin walls, she hears the visitors arguing. She can easily pick out an uncle’s voice, rumbling through the dark like thunder. He is one of her newer relatives, having arrived only that morning. All grownups look tall but this new uncle is a giant who towers over everyone else. His big feet look pale in their slippers, a band-aid where each toenail should have been. He never takes off his dark glasses, not even at night. She wonders if he can see in the dark. Maybe he has laser vision like Superman. Or maybe like a pirate, he has only one eye. She presses her ear against the wall. If she closes her eyes and listens carefully, she can make out the words: sundalo, kasama, talahib. The last word she hears clearly is katawan. The visitors are now quiet but still she cannot sleep. From the living room, there are sounds like small animals crying.

She comes home from school the next day to see the visitors crowded around the television. She wants to change the channel, catch the afternoon installment of Sesame Street but they wave her away. The grownups are all quiet. Something is different. Like something is about to explode. So she stays away, peering at them from under the dining table. On the TV screen is the President, his face glowing blue and wrinkly like an old monkey’s. His voice wavers in the afternoon air, sharp and high like the sound of something breaking. The room erupts in a volley of curses: Humanda ka na, Makoy! Mamatay ka! Pinapatay mo asawa ko! Mamatay ka! Putangina ka! Humanda ka, papatayin din kita! The girl watches quietly from under the table. She is trying very hard not to blink.

It is 1983. They come more often now. They begin to treat the apartment like their own house. They hold meetings under the guise of children’s parties. Every week, someone’s son or daughter has a birthday. The girl and her brother often make a game of sitting on the limp balloons always floating an inch from the floor. The small explosions like guns going off. She wonders why her mother serves the visitors dusty beer bottles that are never opened.

She is surprised to see the grownups playing make-believe out on the balcony. Her new uncles pretend to drink from the unopened bottles and begin a Laughing Game. Whoever laughs loudest wins. She thinks her mother plays the game badly because instead of joining in, she always finds her mother crying quietly in the kitchen. Sometimes the girl sits beside her mother on the floor, listening to words she doesn’t really understand: underground, revolution, taxes, bills. She plays with her mother’s hair quietly while the men on the balcony continue their game. When she falls asleep, they are still laughing.

The mother leaves the house soon after. She will never return. The two children now spend most afternoons playing with their neighbors. After an hour of hide-and-seek, the girl comes home one day to find the small apartment even smaller. Something heavy hangs in the air like smoke. Dolls and crayons and storybooks fight for space with plans and papers piled on the tables. Once, she finds a drawing of a triangle and recognizes a word: class. She thinks of typhoons and no classes.

The visitors keep reading from a small red book, which they hide under their clothes when she approaches. She tries to see why they like it so much. Maybe it also has good pictures like the new books her father brought home from China. Her favorite is about different animals working together to build a new bridge after the river had swallowed the old one. She sneaks a look over their shoulders and sees a picture of a fat Chinese man wearing a cap. Spiky shapes run from the top to the bottom of the page. She walks away disappointed. She sits in the balcony and reads another Chinese picture book. It is about a girl who cuts her hair to help save her village. The title is Mine Warfare.

It is 1984. The father is arrested right outside their house. It happens one August afternoon, with all the neighbors watching. They look at the uniformed men with cropped hair and shiny boots. Guns bulging under their clothes. Everyone is quiet, afraid to make a sound. The handcuffs shine like silver in the sun. When the soldiers drive away, the murmuring begins. Words like insects escaping from cupped hands. It grows louder and fills the sky. It is like this whenever disaster happens. When a fire devours a house two streets away, people come out to stand on their balconies. Everyone points at the pillar of smoke rising from the horizon.

This is the year she and her brother come to live with their grandparents, having no parents to care for them at home. The grandparents tell them a story of lovebirds: Soldiers troop into their house one summer day in 1974. Yes, hija, this same house. Muddy boots on the bridge, guns poking through the water lilies on the fishpond. They are looking for guns and papers, ready to destroy the house. Before the colonel can give his order, they see The Aviary. A small sunlit room with a hundred lovebirds twittering inside. A rainbow of colors. Eyes like tiny glass beads. One soldier opens the aviary door, releases a flurry of wings and feathers. Where are they now? The grandparents say the birds are gone, eaten by a wayward cat. But as you can see, the soldiers are still here. The two children watch them at their father’s court trials. A soldier waves a gun, says it is their father’s. He stutters while explaining why the gun has his own name on it.

They visit her father in his new house in Camp Crame. It is a long walk from the gate, past wide green lawns. In the hot sun, everything looks green. There are soldiers everywhere. Papa lives in that long low building under the armpit of the big gymnasium. Because the girl can write her name, the guards make her sign the big notebooks. She writes her name so many times, the S gets tired and curls on its side to sleep. She enters a maze the size of a basketball court, with wire barriers making her turn left, right, left, right. Barbed wire forms a dense jungle around the detention center. She meets other children there. On weekends, the girl sleeps in her father’s cell. There is a double-deck bed and a chair. A noisy electric fan stirs the muggy air. There, she often gets nightmares about losing her home: She would be walking under the trees of their compound, past the row of stores, the same grey buildings. She turns a corner and finds a swamp or a rice paddy where her real house should be.

One night, she dreams of war. She comes home from school to find a blood orange sky where bedroom and living room should be. The creamy walls are gone. Broken plywood and planks swing crazily in what used to be the dining room. Nothing in the kitchen but a sea green refrigerator, paint and rust flaking off in patches as large as thumbnails. To make her home livable again, she paints it blue and pink and yellow. She knows she has to work fast. Before night falls, she has painted a sun, a moon and a star on the red floor. So she would have light. Each painted shape is big as a bed. In the dark, she curls herself over the crescent moon on the floor and waits for morning. There is no one else in the dream.

Years later, when times are different, she will think of those visitors and wonder about them. By then, she will know they aren’t relatives, were given names not their own. Although faces never really change, in a child’s fluid memory, they can take any shape. She believes that people stay alive so long as another chooses to remember them. She regrets that she cannot help those visitors even in that small way. She grows accustomed to the smiles of middle aged strangers on the street, who talk about how it was when she was this high. She learns not to mind the enforced closeness, sometimes even smiles back. But she doesn’t really know them. Though she understands the fire behind their words, she remains a stranger to their world. She has never read the little red book.

Late one night, she will hear someone knocking on the door. It is a different door now, made from solid varnished mahogany blocks. The old chocolate brown plyboard that kept them safe all those years ago has long since yielded to warp and weather. She will look through the peephole and see a face last seen fifteen years before. It is older, ravaged, but somehow the same. She will be surprised to even remember the name that goes with it. By then, the girl would know about danger, and will not know whom to trust. No house, not even this one, is safe enough.

The door will be opened a crack. He will ask about her father, she will say he no longer lives there. As expected, he will look surprised and disappointed. She may even read a flash of fear before his face wrinkles into a smile. He will apologize, step back. Before he disappears into the shadowy corridor, she will notice his worn rubber slippers, the mud caked between his toes. His heavy bag. She knows he has nowhere else to go. Still, she will close the door and push the bolt firmly into place.

Monday, August 20, 2007

what the starbucks oracle told me

i don't actually go to starbucks anymore as the polymath and i would rather get our overpriced beverages at the coffee bean at trinoma. but if i were forced at gunpoint to order a starbucks drink, i would get a tall decaf cappuccino with soymilk, mainly because caffeine makes me nauseous and insomniac, and cow's milk tastes icky sometimes.

now i stumbled over a starbucks oracle which aims to tell me who i am based on my drink preference. i'll let you draw your own conclusion. the last item rings true though. har har de har.

Behold the Oracle's wisdom:

Personality type: Hippie

In addition to being a hippie, you are a hypochondriac health nut. You secretly think that your insistence on only consuming all-natural products is because you're so intelligent and well-informed; it's actually because you're a sucker. You've dabbled in Wicca or other pseudo-religions that attract morons and have changed your sexual orientation a few times this year. You probably live in California. Everyone who drinks tall decaf cappuccino soymilk should be forced to eat a McDonald's bacon cheeseburger.

Also drinks: Beverages with lots of marketing that says they're herbal and organic
Can also be found at: Whole Foods, indoor rock climbing facilities

Monday, July 16, 2007

while i'm still happy about this

i finished writing a story about 2 minutes ago. it was written for the milflores anthology of flash fiction. i just emailed my entry to the editor a minute ago and i'm still feeling pretty happy about it. really hope it gets accepted. started writing the story around 7 p.m. sunday, and i finished it 1 a.m. monday. for the first time, i jumped into the writing without first knowing and seeing the whole story in my head. it's a scary approach, and i'm not sure i'll be doing that again soon.

Palm Sunday
740 words

She walks into Myeongdong Cathedral, a small wet cedar leaf in her hand. An old gentleman at the church door keeps the leaves fresh in a bucket of water, and hands them out in lieu of the customary palm fronds. Dressed in jeogori and paji, the traditional pajama-like outfits worn by monks and old people in Korea, the man greets her in English. He is the only person there to smile at her. Being the only foreigner in church, she stands out, and is mostly ignored.

Inside, the cathedral is more than half empty. The oldest church in Seoul was built in the gothic style, and remains unheated to this day. The air inside is damp and chill, the high vaulted ceiling is crowded with ghosts and echoes. The faithful are largely in their Sunday best: the men in suits, the women in traditional layers of silk reserved for special occasions. Their long coats and pashminas are their only concession to weather. Most matrons have lace veils perched like doilies over lacquered hair dyed in shades of caramel and milky tea. In their spring hanbok, the women bloom like rows of tulips, with teal, cerise, chartreuse, and mauve petals.

The mass begins with chimes and clouds of incense. An acolyte speaks from a lectern, the words ringing through the cathedral’s nave even without a microphone. As the cold seeps from the granite floor through her shoes, her socks and into the ankle bones, she realizes her mistake: the mass will be in Korean. Clearly, the English service for foreigners is being held elsewhere. Another look around confirms another suspicion: only she and a young Korean man on the pew behind her appear under fifty. With her brown skin and his fuzzy pink sweater, they are the only ones who look out of place.

The mass is in chumdemal, the formal language used to address authority figures and those of higher rank like parents, professors, middle management, and God. She knows this from the imnidas that regularly appear at the end of each sentence. This early, in her language studies, the most she can do is half-heartedly bow and mumble Annyong haseyo at anyone who pays her any attention. She doesn't understand the sermon but takes comfort in knowing that after the rumbling and the hissing, a soft imnida will be murmured at the end. Unlike the fluorescent-lit clap-intensive tambourine-and-guitar charismatic masses back in Manila, this one is a solemn affair. Every single utterance bears the weight of remorse, and the old faithful beat their breasts in a synchronized ritual that feels very pre-Vatican II.

She shivers. The thin wool sweater over her cotton blouse is no match for the damp chill that hangs in the air. The young man behind her seems uncomfortable as well. She imagines he is embarrassed. His shoes squeak each time he moves to kneel or stand along with the rest of the congregation. From the creak of leather, she knows he has dropped to his knees, like everyone else. She, on the other hand, has chosen to stay seated on the wooden pew, trying to keep warm. There is a rustle behind her, barely discernible from the murmuring all around.

A hand touches the small of her back. At first, just a fingertip tracing a few millimeters of skin between the waistband of her skirt and the hem of her sweater. Then a man’s palm, warm and rough, slides under her clothes to rest briefly on the deep curve above her hip. A moment later, it is gone. For more than an hour, she sits, then stands, then kneels. But she no longer listens for the imnidas, just waits for the unseen palm to touch her again. It never comes. A series of chimes signal the end of mass. She gathers the courage to turn and look at the man behind her. But he is gone. She walks out into the sun this early spring morning, and takes the long subway ride back to her dorm.

Years later, in her tiny Mandaluyong apartment, she will dream of a day in church. A warm hand against her skin and a man’s voice, rumbling and hissing in that language she no longer understands. She will wake up at dawn and see there is no one else in the room. As sunlight slowly filters through the curtains, she will tell herself over and over: it happened. It really happened.

Tuesday, July 03, 2007

an old friend

exactly one week ago, i met up with an old friend, whom i had last seen at a train station in seoul last year. it was great to see him again in warmer weather and happier circumstances. we had agreed to meet in UP, which he attended the same time i did. funny how we met only last spring in seoul, when we actually had a common friend back in college.

so this was how i saw him again: i was sitting under a tree at the sunken garden, across the street from the educ building. kitty, the love of my life, was peeing and pooping and snuffling at the grass all around me. we had both just come from the vet. then i see my friend walking from the direction of vinzons hall, smiling and waving at me. it's the smile that gets me every time.

i won't bore you with details anymore. but in that one day, it was like we were back in seoul again, just talking and laughing for hours over really good food. except there was no kimchi because he wanted filipino food. he was occasionally snitty at the wait staff, just as he was in seoul, when things were served less than perfectly. and there was also the dancing, not in a bar surrounded by old drunks and working girls, but at the phil stock exchange building on ayala avenue.

it was midnight, and the place was deserted except for the janitors and security guards doing their rounds. we had been sitting there and talking about saudade, that feeling of sadness and longing that you get when you miss someone or something you really like. i got out my palm and made him listen to a madeleine peyroux cover of leonard cohen's "dance me to the end of love" which i plan to dance to at my wedding next year. i told him to listen closely to the words and i watched his feet tapping while he listened with his eyes closed.

he didn't say anything at the end of the song. he just hooked up his ipod to his ear and then to mine, pulled me to my feet and started teaching me the salsa. quick-quick-slow, quick-quick-slow. there were was a lone jogger making his way down ayala avenue, past the line of taxis waiting for passengers. the only light came from the 24-hour mcdonald's across the street. at around 1 a.m., we ran out of songs and decided to call it a night.

between the quick hug and the slam of the taxi door: "you made me happy today." i don't know when or whether i'll ever see him again. either way, it was the kind of goodbye we both needed.

Sunday, June 24, 2007

a year ago

exactly one year ago, i made a call that changed my life. i was sprawled on the carpet of my tiny dorm room in seoul, struck down by homesickness, despair, and other unpleasant things. in short, i was crying like heck. calling my mom didn't help. neither did calling my sister. so i called the polymath, who was the actual source of my misery. snippet of half-remembered conversation:

him: o, what's wrong?
me: (waaaaah!) ... (waaaaah!)
him: take your time...
me: i feel awful. i'm just sooooo tired.
him: ...
me: i'm tired of all these guys around me. they won't leave me alone eh.
him: ...
me: they just won't stay away. i don't want them. i want you.
him: ...
me: do you understand what i'm saying? i want you. nobody else.
him: (makes hushing sounds) don't cry. tahan na.
me: but what's it gonna be like when i get back? i'm just so, so tired...
him: it'll be fine. we'll be fine.

on hindsight, i'm slightly suspicious about what i remember. i could be making up all that. it's like something from a movie. a really bad movie. heh.

Thursday, June 21, 2007

the cutest boy in the world

at least, according to me. haha. ha.