He had just read in the wall post that she is “In a relationship” and, with that, his night and the next days, weeks, and months were ruined. He went for a walk digesting this information until he ended up in front of a convenience store. He went inside and stood in front of the liquor section, undecided whether to drink brandy, gin, rum, vodka or tequila. After minutes of indecision, he decided on gin chased down with orange-flavored Minute Maid (a mixture that he would be drinking for the next three weeks, consuming maybe his weight in orange juice and gin). While waiting in line at the checkout counter, he couldn’t help overhear the woman in front telling her kids that the condoms were not candies (“but it says cherry flavor,” the kids protested). Then he remembered a line delivered by a character in a movie about condoms being the glass slippers of this generation. As he walked back home, the daylight was receding into darkness; the sky taking the orange and red hues of a popsicle and from the mosques located a few blocks away were amplified reverberations as the worshippers prepared for their evening prayers.
The label slapped on the gin bottle has a picture, a poor copy of an Amorsolo original, of an angel suspended midway as it was about to strike a demon. The demon was at a disadvantage, his hands in a defensive posture as he was about to fall into the fires of hell. The angel looked self-conscious with the sword, while the demon looked resigned. It says on the fine print that this drink has kept people intoxicated since 1834 and that it was bottled somewhere in Laguna. The boy started consuming the drink, which promised a mix of sugarcane alcohol and select imported essences, and wonders what tales, alcohol-induced, have been told since 1834. The TV was on, entertaining itself with a soap opera in which well-dressed actors promised to obliterate each other.
Arabic prayers from the mosque’s public address system filled the air. It may only be a howl of sound, travelling through the air but on the page, were curiously attractive and read backwards. That was when he began, like these prayers that he doesn’t understand, as he drank the drink that boasted of a sweet smooth and clear experience, to look back on their past.
The past is a foreign country. It is always somewhere else. Its borders, unlike the lines marked out on the two dimensional representations of the earth’s surface, keep on redefining its territories every day as every now becomes a then. There is a black-and-white cowhide-patterned cardboard box inside his drawer. Inside it were the things she had given him, letters that she had written him, stuff that stood for what was missing; ziplocked like a schoolgirl’s snack, like evidence to a crime. These objects would be his trail of breadcrumbs; his white pebbles dropped along the road, his orange cones along the side of the highway, and his street signs to that past that is always somewhere.
An hour and a half-consumed liter of gin later, he began to hate television. A female news anchor read the headlines. Her modulated voice sounded as if she wanted to be somewhere else. Traffic situations were live-streamed in an inset at the bottom of the screen: the different toll roads, with CCTV footage from different toll exits, then a shot of a major highway in a huge rush hour traffic jam. The left side was a sea of car crash white headlights flowing in the opposite direction of the different red taillight densities. He once believed that commuters only shared one history— that of layered anxiety, as they leave and get caught in traffic, towards whatever people become as the evening grows. They had found themselves caught in traffic together a couple of times. Once, at the back of a van that coasted slowly along a lake in a city named for its reclining lilies, on the last week of summer (the year a couple of Filipinos reached the summit of the highest mountain in the world) as they tried to be on their way to a writing vocation. Then on countless times, as they spent a week in Davao, a few years after not seeing each other, as the ramifications of the different festivities of the Kadayawan festival reached the streets, especially when the host of a noontime show where people tell their tales too candid for comfort brought his road show there.
Then the TV created an analogue of what he felt the moment he read that she was now in a relationship. The silent rage that he tried so hard to repress, as he looked at her profile on that social networking site, where there is an icon of a black heart before the words “In a relationship” and the guy’s name after it. He has heard alcoholic stories before: of times when it felt like all the glasses of the world were half-empty; when it felt like the abuse was too big for its container; of intoxicated fugue, and of promises that would be enacted always after the next shot (most of the time shot into hell); of sad paeans to a lost love and betrayal by a friend or lover; of the spirit of the glass. Though the tone may vary depending on the protagonist, it would always be in the same heartbreaking voice. The news anchor then gave the cue for a news report. It was about a girl killed in her late teens, the same age as she was when he first met her. In the name of journalistic ethics, the show hid her identity by pixelating her features and giving her some generic name, the same name as hers, the one that she uses on the dotted line. The next thing that got spliced in the editing room was, and at that point, serendipity must have jumped a cog and decided to play a cruel joke on him, a few seconds worth of video of a boy, though technically not a boy, in his mid-twenties, the same age as he was when they first met. Then as if that wasn’t enough, the report would name the perpetrator. The same name he uses on the dotted line and, like an afterthought, the girl’s aunt would appear with a caption. The same name as that of the hotel where they were both billeted that summer in Iligan. What happened to the girl was something straight out of a trashy slasher movie: the boy just lost it one day and went out of the house and met the girl on the road. She was on her way to church. The boy took hold of her and with his bare hands eviscerated her. Her entrails splayed on the pavement, somewhere in La Union, as if he was trying to read his future with them. Eyewitnesses said that he ate her heart.
In that foreign country of the past, the distance between cities either contract or expand. Its citizens do things differently. In the center of each city is a big clock, where time is not measured in numbers but in moments that have passed, been wasted, and a citizen looks up to realize the futility of his endeavors, being left behind by time. Their places of worship were not cathedrals made by hands, but temples made with a series of words to form stories, in hopes that a fallible goddess would reside in it. The worshippers would erect shrines of relics that wouldn’t look out of place in a trashcan but venerated because these things had once touched their beings.
In the morning, he would liberate the contents of the cowhide-patterned box tucked in his drawer. He would take them out of the ziplocked bags, examining them in the morning light. The contents of the box: a popsicle wrapper which he had once brought her as they sat on the gutter that summer night in Iligan, telling each other tales of their childhood based on the pictures taken by the faulty cameras of the mind. A Chocnut wrapper, the peanut candy that she had brought with her when they agreed to see each other in Davao a few years later, because he told her that the brand is hard to come by where he’s from. The tissue that she had used to wipe off the chocolate stains on her lips, in a café with a logo of a cat somewhere in the heart of Davao; the bus tickets, convenience store, and Mc Float receipts of that trip; letters sent with the zip code of her last known residence somewhere in the city at the end of SLEX; notes written maybe with the left or right hand (she was ambidextrous, and can knot a stem of a cherry with her tongue); a stack of pictures: of the voodoo doll that he had given her in exchange for the teddy bear that hung on her cell phone, of herself in places where she had gone without him, in different cities where he has never been. A map that she folded in such ways that their hometowns would be just a jeepney ride away. A geological nightmare of biblical proportions if it really happened but what a gift that would be for them. Books that she sent him because the stories reminded her of the stories he had given her. Labels of all the alcoholic drinks that they had shared, pressed between the pages of the journal that he kept from the time they first shook hands, a perfect gesture to start a relationship, as the life lines and heart lines of a person’s palm touch the other’s. Reminders of the time when they both promised to see each other again, though they never agreed where, and when she kissed him, which felt like the ending to that Bogart and Bergman movie that they both loved, before walking away as the last call for boarding the plane bound for Manila was announced. A plane ride back to Manila, back to her job as a copy editor of history textbooks, in a cubicle wallpapered with Post-it notes, of deadlines and things to do, closing in on all sides like she was Poland and they were Nazis.
Geography defeated them. In her last phone call, her words sounded like the transmission that Princess Leia sent Obi-wan. They were like characters in a story, she said. A story where time is the conflict, the circumstances were shorter and much more complex, and the resolution is something she honestly didn’t want to know.
He walked around for days like a severed head that finishes sentences. As the light that illuminated this side of the country receded, he would find himself drinking gin and orange juice, smoking too much as he let himself go in the letting go of things. The things that he had kept for so long inside that box, he would burn. The things that were once how he measured time were now painful mnemonic aids. Ash and debris, which used to be stories they had told each other, letters that reminded them of those moments, of the promises they had made each other, would sail into the night. He would then follow them with his eyes. He would look at them not because they’ve lost all their meaning, but because they were the only ones that remained true.
Romel Villaflor is a graduate of the UP Mindanao Creative Writing Program. He has been a fellow at the Iligan National Writers Workshop.