The night-out we were having was crucial, a reunion of sorts, and it would determine if I’d been a fool or just half a fool to have come back to General Santos City.
My cousin Dondon waved goodbye to our grandmother. “Don’t worry, La,” he said. “We’ll take care of your favorite grandson.”
“You better,” Lola said. “I know Ramil is a good boy, and you two are tonto!”
“La, that’s no fair!” Thirdy, another cousin of mine, complained, smiling at Lola. I’m sure it’s the smile he used to charm the local beauty queens. “We’ve never done anything that tainted the name of the Esguerras.”
“Hala,” Lola dismissed us with a wave of her hand, “you kids do whatever you want. You are all old enough.”
Lola closed the opened leaf of the double door, straining a bit in its weight. The large door, made of narra and carved with intricate eagle figures, was a reminder that the big house had once accommodated people who came in droves, when Lolo was still alive and ruling the city as mayor.
Thirdy closed the gate of the family compound. “We thought you’d forgotten Gensan,” he told me. “How long has it been, fifteen years?”
“Fifteen years,” I answered. “I was just ten when we left.” When Papang was killed here, Mamang brought me with her to Manila, and I had never set foot in Mindanao again until hours earlier.
“It’s good you still know how to speak Ilonggo,” Dondon said. “We expected you’d be Tagaleg and all when you came back.” He gave me a mocking grin.
Thanks for the welcome smile, I thought. It makes me want to stay here for another second. “No,” I told Dondon. “I haven’t forgotten the mother tongue. I was already ten when we left. I’m Ilonggo gid. Besides, every so often, Mamang and I speak Ilonggo at home.”
There was silence at the mention of my mother.
“How’s Auntie?” Thirdy asked after a while.
I could tell from his face he didn’t really want to ask the question. But he knew his not asking the question would mean there was something wrong with the topic. So I played along. “Mamang?” I said. “Good . . . she’s good. Still in Manila.” I made sure I pronounced Manila with a long e and stressed last syllable, the way Ilonggos usually did, in case Dondon was listening intently. “Still working in a bank,” I added. “She remarried six, seven years ago. I have two little sisters now.”
Thirdy nodded solemnly, as though what I told him was some profound adage from Confucius and he was going to reflect on it before he’d go to sleep tonight. He knew, though, that we’d spent enough time idling around. He turned to Dondon and asked, “So where are we taking Ramil?”
“Where else?” Dondon said. “To a strip club!”
The three of us chuckled. I didn’t mind if they’re kidding or not. I’d never seen a strip show before, except in movies and online porn clips, so I thought seeing a live one wasn’t a bad idea. Besides, I wasn’t really expecting my cousins to bring me to a mall to catch the last full show of the latest movie, or to Osmeña Circle for an evening stroll.
Parked beside the road were two scooters, their silver engines gleaming in the dimness. Thirdy came to the humbler-looking vehicle and gripped the handlebar. “We have another TMX at home,” he told me, pointing his mouth inside the compound. “It’s my bro’s. You can have it for tonight if you want.”
“Can you drive?” Dondon asked.
“No,” I said, trying my best to be nonchalant, putting my hands in the jeans pocket.
“You’re missing a lot,” Dondon said, mounting the sleeker scooter. “It’s easy to learn. Just like riding a bike.”
“Much easier even,” Thirdy said.
“Yeah,” Dondon said. “No pedals and all that sh*t.”
I hoped the light from the nearby lamppost was dim enough so they couldn’t see my face getting red. I was more annoyed, however, than embarrassed. I can’t ride a bike, and you know it, scumbags! I didn’t get the chance to learn. When we were still kids, only Dondon’s parents could afford to buy a bicycle, and the spoiled brat would only let Thirdy borrow it, afraid “Ramil the klutz” would make it land on a ditch.
Thirdy slapped his motorcycle’s seat. “Just ride with me, then.”
“No,” Dondon said. “Ramil will ride with me.”
You fighting for my oh-so-cool company, or just want to show me who’s the better racer?
“Okay,” Thirdy said, shrugging.
It was not a strip club Dondon and Thirdy brought me to—not yet, anyway—but a roofless bar on top of a five-story building. From our table beside the railing, tricycles plying Pioneer Avenue looked like toy cars. Sarangani Bay in the distance seemed to mirror the sky, as boats and ships, with their flickering lights, formed their own constellations.
Thirdy took out a cigarette pack from the pocket of his shirt. The white letters stood out against the red paper: More. “Want one?” He asked Dondon.
“I’m good,” Dondon answered. “I’ve got mine here.” He took out his own pack. The red letters stood out against the white paper: Marlboro. He picked one stick and proffered the pack to me.
“Ramil doesn’t smoke,” Thirdy said. “Don’t influence him, Don.”
I don’t smoke, but I never refuse when someone offers me a stick. But I opted to go along with Thirdy. “No, thanks,” I told Dondon.
Dondon didn’t seem to mind that I refused. He and Thirdy lit their sticks and puffed, the smoke swirling in my face.
Thirdy said, “I was expecting you’d bring a hot Manileña with you.”
“Nah,” I said. “Haven’t found the one yet. I’ve been vacant for almost two years now.”
“You must be picky, cousin,” Dondon said. “Don’t look for someone smarter than you, you’ll have a hard time.”
“No, don’t rush in,” Thirdy said. “Don’t follow us yet, married life’s hard . . . Well, not for Dondon, he’s a secret millionaire.”
“I’m not,” Dondon protested, in a lame voice and grinning. I could tell the bastard likes being teased for his money.
I smiled, and I hoped it wasn’t obvious I wasn’t impressed. I knew Dondon’s secret money was dirty money. Lola had earlier filled me in on all the latest family news. She told me, rather proudly, that Dondon’s a finance officer or something in a government agency. He was earning a decent wage, but the real dough was coming from his lending scheme. If it’s any consolation, he’s not dipping his hands into public funds (not more than the other officials, anyway); his capital came from his father and some businessman friends. But still, without his position, his direct control of the payroll, he wouldn’t be able to lend money to the other employees and collect from them.
I did not ask Dondon about his money. Instead, I asked, to no one in particular, “How many kids do you have now?”
There was silence. Dondon fidgeted in his seat and said, “I’m not so lucky in that department. You know my wife, she’s a lawyer—you should meet her, visit us tomorrow, our house is just two blocks away from the compound. Anyway, my wife, she was still in law school when we got married. All that stress probably. We’ve been trying for years, but . . .” He shook his head.
“Oh,” I said. “How about you, Thirdy?”
“I have three.”
“Three! All of them eldest?”
We laughed, even Dondon. I was pleased with myself for coming up with that old joke.
“No,” Thirdy said, “just with my beautiful wife, of course. But we were about to have four . . .”
“We took it to an old woman, for seven hundred.”
Thirdy said it as if he and his wife just went out for a movie. I don’t know which surprised me more: what he’s said or how he said it.
I managed to say, “Well, sometimes we have to make a choice.”
Thirdy shrugged as I gulped my beer.
“What seven hundred?” Dondon asked.
Thirdy explained that his wife found out she was pregnant again, which was non-news as far as the people in the compound were concerned, but the news was, they had it aborted and paid the traditional midwife seven hundred pesos.
Dondon said nothing. I suddenly realized how awkward the topic was for him. For years, he had been pumping like a dog without result, and here was his pig of a cousin telling him he’d had enough of fertilized eggs like fertilizing eggs was the easiest thing to do on earth.
“Aren’t we going somewhere else?” I said to break the silence. “I thought we’re scouring the city.”
“Yeah,” Dondon said. “This place is lame. We’ll take you where the real action is.”
Dondon paid the bill. I wanted to chip in, but I didn’t want Thirdy to feel uncomfortable, so I didn’t offer. Lola had told me Thirdy was not able to finish college because he eloped with his wife. He’s working now as a security guard in the city hall.
Then they brought me to another bar, where Dondon told us his dirty little secret.
We had downed a case of Red Horse between the three of us when Dondon started bragging about his nineteen-year-old “girlfriend.” She’s a nursing student, and the rich bureaucrat was paying for her tuition.
“Just look at that!” Dondon showed us the girl’s photo in his phone, tilting it more to Thirdy than to me.
The girl could be a model for glutathione soap. She would have looked angelic if her eyebrows had not been plucked too much and she wasn’t wearing hoop earrings. I let out an appreciative “whoa!”
“Sweet thing,” Thirdy said.
“You bet,” Dondon said, grinning as if he possessed the most potent sperm bags in the world. “But she’s sweeter in bed. We have—” He leaned forward. “We have a scandal.”
“A sex video?” I asked.
“A sex video,” Dondon said.
Thirdy shook his head. “Man, you better keep your phone safe.”
“No.” I chuckled. “You should be proud of it. Spread it!”
“A**hole,” Dondon told me, but still grinning. “Wanna see it?”
Thirdy grabbed Dondon’s phone and started fiddling with the keypad. “What folder? How many positions did you perform?”
The video was only less than a minute long. It showed Dondon humping the girl from behind. He’s apparently holding the phone, and at first the screen showed his face, grinning. Then the screen showed dizzying lines as it moved to the girl’s head. “Face here, sweetie!” he said, and the girl obliged. Her half-turned face showed no expression as it shook left to right, in sync with Dondon’s thrusts. Dizzying lines appeared again in the screen as it moved down her body and stopped where she and Dondon met.
Thirdy exhaled aloud. “Man, she’s lovely.”
“If I were a movie critic,” I said, chuckling. “I’d give it an A. Are you sure you don’t want to spread it?”
“I want to,” Dondon said, grinning. “But my wife’ll kill me.” He inserted the phone back into his pocket. “Seriously, though, I love my wife . . . and I’ll love her forever. This is just a fling, it’s harmless.”
It must be the drink that seemed to have displaced the feminist ideals in my head. “Cheers to that!” I said, raising the glass. My cousins nodded, grinning.
More toasts followed when the floorshow started. I thought the girls would all be tall and have big breasts, like the Vegas strippers you see in American action movies. They somewhat came in all sizes and shapes. There’s one girl who could move her butt like Jennifer Lopez, but she’s among the earlier ones to perform, I guess because she’s short and muscular. I felt sort of sorry for her.
Between ogling at the women and pouring beer drown our throats, we talked and talked.
“Hey,” Dondon said. “Do you remember when we went to this old miser’s house, then stole tamarinds?”
“You mean when we got chased by a dog?” Thirdy said.
Of course, we could all remember it, especially me. I went with them then because I was crazy about ripe tamarinds—I’d eat them until my mouth was sore. Thirdy and I picked the fruits up above the tree and stuffed them on our shirts, while Dondon waited below, leaning on his bicycle, more like a master than a lookout. When we heard the dog’s bark, Thirdy dropped all his tamarinds and climbed down fast. I followed him without letting go of my shirt’s hem, cradling my loot like a baby.
I dropped the fruits all the same. When I reached the ground, Dondon and Thirdy had gone off in the bicycle, without waiting for me. I ran but the dog caught me and bit me in the butt, although the owner came before the son of a bitch totally mauled me. The two little traitors, meanwhile, escaped the canine but not a stony pothole. The three of us had to be brought to the clinic, but I had to go back several times for the painful anti-rabies shots.
“Fuck, the stitch is still here,” Dondon said, pointing behind his ear. His speech was starting to slur. “I fell headfirst on this small sharp stone—”
“And you cried ‘Mamang, Mamang!’” I cut in. I paused, thinking Dondon might be offended. It’s true, he’s the most mischievous of us but he’s also such a cry baby, and he easily got sore whenever he’s taunted about it.
Instead of getting mad, Dondon said, “Yeah!” and chuckled.
Thirdy showed us his elbow. “I’ve got a keloid from it.” He turned to me. “How about you, man? Where’s your remembrance?”
I grinned. “It’s still here.” I held my pants and acted as though I were pulling it down. “It has turned into a gorgeous dimple.”
Thirdy and Dondon laughed.
We talked mostly about the crazy boyhood we’d shared, when Dondon had little horns and Thirdy was his faithful Sancho Panza and I was almost always at the receiving end of their cute tricks. They would hide a dead rat inside my bag, stole the cheese in my sandwich and replace it with trading cards, or jumped at me in the school playground, proclaiming they were Hulk Hogan while pinning me down.
They made cruel jokes at how pitiful I was. I just laughed with them—and made more cruel jokes about how pitiful I was. Until we’re all clutching our stomachs with laughter.
“Now that we’ve reminded you, Ram, of all we did before,” Dondon said, “I’m sure you’re now thinking of ways to get back at us.”
I laughed. “Nah, cuz. For Christ’s sake, we were just kids then,” I said. “But try doing it again . . .”
“What?” Dondon said. “You gonna put us in a cage with rabid dogs?”
“No,” I said, “worse . . . I’ll cry ‘Mamang, Mamang!’”
Once more we laughed. We hung around waiting for the floorshow’s finale, when the girls would strip, but by one o’clock, the stage was emptied without the girls removing anything. “F*ck, we waited for nothing,” Dondon said. He called a waiter and inquired, and the waiter explained that the girls only “go all the way” on Fridays and Saturdays. Cursing, Dondon paid the bill (again).We went out of the club, and ended up in what must be the cheapest joint in the city.
The place looked like an extra-large chicken coop—yellow light bulbs, bamboo tables, dirt floor. The ceiling and walls were made of tinadtad, weaved African palm, a common and cheap replacement for wood in these parts of the country.
“When are you going back?” Dondon asked me.
“To Manila?” I said. “Not anytime soon, I’m on indefinite leave.”
“That’s great! We can go to Lake Sebu. Or to Gumasa. You haven’t been there, have you? The place is now developed, its white sand beaches are really awesome. We’ll take my Fortuner—”
“Or we can motorpool,” Thirdy butted in.
“Yeah,” Dondon continued. “I’ll teach you how to drive.”
You will what?
“Man, scooter is fun,” Thirdy said. “Especially when you’re giving a chick a ride. You slam the brakes, and her boobs bump into your back.”
They gave each other high-fives.
Thirdy pointed the glass in front me. “It’s waiting, man.”
By this time, I was feeling quite sick. I wasn’t too dizzy, but I felt like beer had clogged up my entire digestive system.
I reached out for the glass, but Dondon beat me into it. “I’ll take this,” he said. “This is what cousins are for, you know. To save one another.”
“Man, that’s cheesy,” Thirdy said. “Just tell us you’re a drunkard.”
I snorted a laugh.
After drinking, Dondon wrapped his arm around my shoulders and lightly slapped me in both cheeks. “You’re wasted.”
I tried to say something, but what came out of my mouth were garbled words. Thirdy and Dondon laughed.
Thirdy reached out and ruffled my hair. “I just love this cousin of ours. He’s probably the smartest Esguerra, you know,” he said.
“Too bad, he doesn’t seem to be smart with girls,” Dondon said. “But don’t worry, man. We’ll teach you.
“Yes, we’ll find you a girl.”
I just grinned. Thirdy and Dondon continued drinking, skipping my turn.
I put my elbows on the table and leaned forward against my palms, as though I were praying on a pew. I don’t know how long I stayed in that position. I closed my eyes and breathed deeply, trying to calm my esophagus.
I thought of the reason I came to hate my cousins. It’s not the bullying alone. Truth is I never minded much their mischievous acts. I kind of accepted my lot and thought it normal. I was quite fond of Thirdy and Dondon. My perspective only changed when Papang died and Mamang brought me away.
Papang was a Customs official in Gensan. A hitman, allegedly hired by a Chinese immigrant, shot him one day on his way out of someone’s house—his mistress’s house, Mamang and I found out later, in the most melodramatic way. The woman came to the funeral, and my aunts, in their belated concern for Mamang, drove the woman away. A shouting scene ensued, and Mamang was able to put heads and tails together.
Papang had been extorting illegal aliens, threatening them with deportation. This he did to provide for his mistress’s caprices, while scrimping on his legitimate family. He got her a house in a subdivision while Mamang and I lived in a small room attached to Lola’s kitchen. All the adults in the compound had gotten wind of Papang’s affair, but blood being thicker than water, they kept mum about it.
Perhaps you can say Mamang brainwashed me against Papang’s family. She called them crocodiles, Grandpa being the fattest croc of all. He had been mayor of the city before he died, and through his connections, his children landed good-paying posts in government offices. Even for his grandchildren, the old patriarch’s name had been a boon. Take Dondon’s job, for instance.
I removed my hands from my face, and saw a girl beside Thirdy. He’s leaning close to her, whispering in his husky voice. I closed my eyes and opened them again, wider.
I ignored them and tried to sleep, but I couldn’t shut out the voices of the drunks and whores, and the stink wafting from a nearby toilet. I was pulled back to consciousness almost every minute.
Dondon finally shook me, saying we’re going home.
As I took the back seat of Dondon’s scooter, I noticed someone riding with Thirdy—the girl from the joint. I didn’t know what to make of it.
The scooters ran several blocks, and parked in front of a lodge.
I didn’t ask why Dondon and I had to tag along. When they all went upstairs, I followed too.
Thirdy and the girl went inside a room. After a brief moment, he stuck his head out. “Ramil, come here.”
I got in, and Thirdy told the girl, “Take care of him, okay?”
Before I could say anything, Thirdy was out of the room, closing the door behind him.
The girl had taken off her clothes and was sitting on the edge of the bed. She’s young, barely legal it seemed, and didn’t look too bad. She stood up and came to me. She was short and a bit flabby; she seemed to have given birth before and her breasts had nursed an infant.
She pulled my shirt up, and almost on instinct, I took it off. Her hand moved down to my crotch, singular in its purpose. “Jesus!” I uttered. Of all things to say!
It had been a long time since I had a soft, warm body with me in bed. I had almost forgotten how it was to lead. I allowed myself to be led.
The girl took my skivvies off, turned the lights off (but left the one in the toilet on), and sheathed me with the rubber.
In the dimness, however, I saw another girl—Dondon’s girlfriend, the creamy-skinned girl in the video. She pushed me to the bed, climbed on top of me, and guided me into her.
It was another of their nasty tricks, my cousins. They would never do a whore. Lola had said most of Thirdy’s dates had been local beauty queens. Heck, he married one. It’s a practical joke—and I fell into it just like when we were kids.
I felt not anger but quiet desperation. I gathered my clothes and put them back on. The woman was in the toilet, and I could hear the hollow trickling of water into a pail.
I went out of the room and saw my cousins sitting on the stairs, smoking. Now laugh at poor Ramil! Oh, how he fell into our trap. Same old Ramil.
They glanced at me and resumed their conversation.
Confused, I came to them.
“. . . forgotten what Lolo had done for them, the ingrates,” Dondon was saying. “They turned their back on Papang, all because he’s Ilonggo? F*ck, half the people here are Ilonggo! I don’t know what got into them, passing themselves off as Cebuano, and voting for a Cebuano.”
I realized they’re talking about the recent elections. Dondon’s father had run for mayor and lost, and a devastating loss it was. He got the lowest votes among the five candidates.
Dondon was still ranting when the woman came out of the room, clothes back on. “Hey, where are you going?” he asked.
He led her back into the room and closed the door.
I stared at it, wondering if I really saw Dondon go inside.
I turned to Thirdy. “Got a spare smoke?”
He’s surprised, but didn’t say anything. He took out another stick and gave it to me.
We puffed in silence.
After a while Thirdy said, “Dondon’s father can no longer run next election.”
“Why?” I asked.
“He had lost three consecutive times. His term had run out.”
I realized what he had said was a joke. I snorted a laugh.
“The problem with Uncle is,” Thirdy said, “he’s not very smart. Well, he’s also notorious for being a financer of Last Two and unable to take his hands off young women, but people don’t care about these things, do they? What’s doing him in is he can’t speak. All he does on stage is remind people of what Lolo had been—in broken Cebuano, Ilonggo, Tagalog, and English. Who would be able to understand him in that?”
“Someone has to bring the Esguerra name back in local politics, and know who can do that?”
I chuckled. “Me?”
“Yes, you. You’re smart. Of course, you’re too young and still need some grooming. For starters, you can enroll in the law school here. I know you can do it.”
“That’s crazy. I have no political ambitions. But I might be staying here for some time . . . and even for good. I’ll start scouting for work.”
“Huh? How’s your work in Manila?” Thirdy asked, and probably realizing that he had been goading me to stay just moments ago, he chuckled and said, “Well, that’s great! Dondon will be delighted to hear this, too. Ask him if there’s a vacant job in his office.”
“Nah,” I said. “I’m not civil service eligible. I have never taken the exam. I prefer working for a private company.” In other words, I’m afraid of working for the government because the corruption, red tape, and what-not might just disillusion me.
“What will your Mamang say to this, your possible moving back here?”
I shrugged. “She knows I’m old enough . . . I think she wouldn’t mind much. I’ve been living on my own since college, in dingy boarding houses. She knows that in Manila she’s my only family there, but here, here I have a bigger family.”
Thirdy didn’t say anything, as if taking it all in.
We’re about to finish our cigarettes. Thirdy’s hand went inside his shirt’s pocket, but came out empty. “I thought I still had . . .”
“Let’s just buy later,” I said.
Dondon came out of the room, fumbling his belt back in place. Thirdy flicked his cigarette butt, stood up, and went inside the room. #
Jude Ortega was born and lives in Sultan Kudarat Province. He’s been published in the Philippines Graphic, the Free Press and Philippine Daily Inquirer.