The Day I Met Juan Luna

Fiction by | August 19, 2012

It was a crappy, crappy day. My client for a vegan website had just requested a revision of all one hundred articles I sent him, simply because we could not agree on two points: he thought eggs were fruits, and I thought he was crazy.

No matter how hard I insisted that eggs were animal-based produce, my client still wanted me to rewrite everything. He wanted to encourage his website visitors to include more eggs in their daily diets. With much gnashing of teeth, frequent head shaking, and finally, inevitable resignation, I inserted positive (though inaccurate) snippets into all one hundred articles about the benefits of consuming eggs every day for all vegans to read.

After that, I felt like creating my own website that would educate the world about the simple truth that eggs are not fruits, and that these shelled products actually emerge from the posterior of chickens, thereby making them animal-based. I had planned on dedicating the website to all vegans and crazy clients alike.

However, that would have proven to be an exercise in futility. So instead of being passively aggressive to my crazy client, and passing up the chance to jot down one hundred ways of knocking sense into someone using eggs as the weapon of choice, I decided that it was time to get some food shopping done. I made a mental note to buy real fruits, preferably ones harvested from trees and not from the posterior of any animal.

I was still very much preoccupied with the eggs-are-fruits debate when I arrived at the grocery section of the mall. I noticed a raggedy man on my way in. He wore a heavy black coat that looked several sizes too big. He approached people with what looked like a small slip of paper.

Many ignored him as I did. A few passing pedestrians made great effort to avoid him altogether. I also remembered hearing a group of men giving out catcalls and jeers in the raggedy man’s direction.

The man slipped out of my mind as I perused the fresh produce shelves. I was feeling vindicated to find that there were no eggs in the fruit section. Instead, the eggs were right beside the dressed chicken stalls…right there in the animal produce section where they ought to be.

After my impromptu food shopping spree, I boarded a jeep home. The driver of the vehicle, however, refused to get going until he had filled all the jeepney’s seats.

I sat there for more than fifteen minutes, fiddling with the handles of my grocery bag, hoping not to bruise any of my newly bought fruits. That was when I noticed that the man in the oversized black coat was making his way towards the jeep…approaching one pedestrian at a time. From my vantage point, I could see the frayed collar and ratty hem of his coat, the badly worn elbows, and pockets that hung on by the barest of threads. Underneath the coat, the man wore a graying polo shirt that might have been white once. His black shoes were old and cuffed, the tips mottled brown and white. The only somewhat decent thing that he wore were a pair of high-waisted jeans, which he belted with a cord of pale green plastic twine right under his rib cage.

What fascinated me most: he was holding out that piece of paper to everyone he approached. When people tried to take the paper to examine it, he would yank it back and start anew with someone else.

Such strange actions also aroused the curiosity of the other passengers in that darn jeep. After all, we had nothing better to do than to wish for the driver to finally get moving. At any rate, it was much better than another eggs-are-fruits related request from my crazy client.

The older woman sitting beside me started wondering aloud, guessing what the raggedy man was up to. Someone else pitched in and soon a very loud and lively discussion was in full swing inside the jeep.

Someone said that he must be a beggar asking for money. But we all saw that the man in the black coat wasn’t taking any coins. Someone proposed that our subject was probably an overzealous preacher, but that still did not explain the piece of paper he was showing everyone. I heard the words, “nabuang” (gone mad) and “binuangan” (insane) frequently.

The raggedly man came close enough to the jeep that we could actually see what he was holding out to people. It was an old, crumpled postcard that had already frayed at the edges from too much handling.

The older woman sitting beside me then (very boldly, I thought) called him over and asked what he was doing. The man, probably in his 40s or 50s with a long, lean, and lined face topped with a crew cut, peered through one of the jeep’s windows and started babbling gibberish.

His voice was oddly high-pitched. His tongue seemed much too large for his mouth. All we could really hear from him were words that sounded like “wah-ta-twa-fa-fa-wah” repeated at irregular intervals. He kept pointing at himself then at the postcard which, upon closer inspection, bore the facsimile of Juan Luna’s iconic Spoliarium.

The young woman sitting closest to the window tried to hand the raggedy-looking man a few coins, but he refused them vehemently. He then focused all his communication efforts on the older woman sitting beside me. And there ensued something like a game of Twenty Questions. My seatmate would ask and the man in the black coat would say yes or no.

The first question was blatantly offensive. “Are you crazy?” The man said no.

“Do you want money?” Again, the answer was no.

Referring to the postcard, my seat mate asked, “Is that yours?” Now the answer was a vigorous nod and a large gap-toothed smile.

Pretty soon, the other commuters in the jeep were offering suggestions to the woman. Questions were sometimes acute, other times irrelevant, and given in a jumble of the Bisaya, Filipino, English and combinations of all three.

“Do you have a family living nearby?”

“Have you taken a bath today?”

“Why doesn’t ice cream melt in the North Pole?”

All the questions were met with either a nod or a shake of the head, a few “wah-ta-twa-fa-fa-wah” thrown in, but always with that continuous and incessant referral to the postcard in his right hand. Finally, it came to a point where it seemed he was trying to convince us that he had painted the Spoliarium himself.

“Ask him if his name is Juan Luna,” I whispered to my seatmate. The answer was a definitive “yes!” The man in the black coat applauded and gave us all the thumbs up, while laughing and yelling: “wah-ta-twa-fa-fa-wah.”

For some unknown reason, all of us sitting inside the jeep were compelled to applaud and cheer as well. A few even managed to say something similar to “wah-ta-twa-fa-fa-wah” while a couple of commuters returned the thumbs up sign to the raggedy man.

As the man in the black over-sized coat walked away, his mission of apparently identifying himself to the general public accomplished, I had my seat mate ask him a parting question.

“Are eggs fruits?”

The answer was a definitive “No!”

Finally the jeep started moving. The long ride home was filled with that happy chatter among strangers thrown together by chance, aided by a strange fellow in a black coat who believed he had created the Spoliarium. Someone commented that only a handful of people could claim that they have met Juan Luna in the flesh, and that we should be proud. I had to agree.

More than anything though, I felt vindicated once more. If Juan Luna says eggs are not fruits, then it must be so. I intend to tell all vegans and crazy clients of that simple truth. After all, who would dare argue with the great Juan Luna? I could still see the man in my mind’s eye, nodding in approval, applauding and giving everyone the thumbs up sign.

Ms. Lee is a fellow of the recently concluded Ateneo National Writers Workshop. She lives in Davao City and works as a freelance online content writer.

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