Francis looked at the scars on his thighs as if seeing them for the first time, feeling the need to rehearse his response to all possible reactions. Pity. Shock. Disgust. He would squeeze his thighs together, like sealing an envelope of secrets. Some curious guy would part them gently the way one would do with the envelope flap he did not want damaged. The guy would examine the scars – keloid that spread across his skin, inching towards his knees but only touching them tangentially. Like some careless cartographer’s map, his scars enveloped his thighs without discipline, without any amount of beauty and symmetry, as if each extra skin was in disagreement with another. Raising his head, the guy would ask Francis, just as he expected, What happened?
This time, Francis would not hesitate to answer. He would not describe it as a childhood accident one night when the power was out and he was dumb enough to play with the kerosene. The guy would instead lie beside Francis and gently pull his face towards his chest where Francis could rest it, and with his trembling fingers tracing the hem of the thin, thin sheets where they tucked themselves in, Francis would take the guy to Sitio San Roque, where he spent most of his childhood.
Francis might be able to tell him several things about the place, but he would not want to digress too much, for digression had become his coping mechanism – an opportunity to piece together inside his head what he was supposed to say next or a chance to hesitate to tell the truth. He would strategically start at that moment when he sneaked out of his house the night of the fiesta to see the annual Miss Gay pageant.
How old were you then?
In the morning through the afternoon, the roofless gymnasium where the pageant was held was a drying place. Residents would lay politicians’ old campaign tarpaulins flat on the pavement. Then, they would spread cacao seeds throughout the surface, slathering cacao juices throughout the politicians’ smiling faces. Just before the sun finally set, when all the dried seeds had been gathered, and the tarpaulins had been rolled, the gymnasium was a basketball court – the same old rusty hoop and the same worn out Spalding whose original owner they could no longer trace, making it a communal property.
But Francis promised not to digress, so he would instead describe how the gym transformed into a runway during that night of the Miss Gay pageant.
They installed multi-colored lights.
Actually, those were just fluorescent lamps they wrapped with multi-colored water cellophane. The sitio did everything in the most economical way possible, and in this strict order: recycling, improvising, borrowing, soliciting, renting, never buying. The tarpaulin they used as stage backdrop was the same tarpaulin they had been using for five years. They only needed to superimpose the dates with cardboard cut-outs. The crepe papers that hung from the ceiling were the works of kids who attended the daily novena of the Flores de Mayo. The first barangay councilor sponsored the speaker, light, and projector rentals, giving him the right to open the pageant with a speech that was really nothing but early campaigning for the next local elections.
How many were there?
Francis was sure there were seven, but he would like to act as if he was not obsessed with the memory. But he was. His recollection never failed him: how each contestant went out one by one, crowding the stage with their extravagant costumes. Wings gigantic enough to hide the other contestants and high-heeled shoes that sent their wigs dangerously in contact with the crepe papers above them. Each one of them sashayed towards the mic stand like their dresses were extensions of their skin, for their garments, too, seemed to have lives of their own, swaying and twirling to the rhythm of the wearers’ flailing hands and “I am What I am.”
Then, catchy introductions, some overused, inappropriate ones that they still pretended to laugh at. How can you face your problem if your problem is your face? There were some surprises, too, like dresses underneath dresses or wings that spread with the pull of the wires by the hip. He looked at what was between their legs, and there was nothing, not a hint of a bulge.
Packaging tape, that’s why, Francis heard the ladies in front talk. He took a mental note, and the day after, when his parents were out for work at the nearby piggery, he would find himself in front of their mirror, pulling down his jersey shorts to admire his tucked penis. Oh, how he folded it successfully. Packaging tape, that was why. But this, he would not tell the guy. Otherwise, he would also be compelled to tell him how his older sister caught him and how it, until now, was still a revelation waiting to happen every rare family dinner. A blackmail that made him his older sister’s servant.
But he would, in the most detailed way possible, talk to the guy about the pageant’s talent portion during which he realized that if there was something that those contestants could do that others could not, it was that they could harness fire, control it, dictate its shape. He looked at them with so much awe: how they breathe out flame-like dragons, twirl a baton of flame, surround themselves with flame, jump in and out of a ring of fire as if to make a statement: this, this is how brave we are, and you can only stand there to watch. The stage smelled of gas, and the organizers were forced to strip off the crepe papers from the ceiling. But the show must go on. They contorted, split, backflipped, drop on the floor only to rise again from the sea of smoke. And as his wide eyes twinkled staring into the embers, he realized, this: this is how brave I must be.
You did it?
In their backyard, with the fire from the bunch of leaves and trash that his mother swept every afternoon, and using the gas they had been saving for another power outage. Maybe because the circle was not wide enough, maybe because he should not have knelt, maybe because his jersey shorts were too loose they caught fire. He tried not to cry. He tried to focus instead on the yelling of his mother, asking for a pail of water. His father’s cursing. Francis’ chest tightening as he felt a million shards of glass piercing through his melted skin. His thighs and the fabric of his shorts inseparable now. Before he completely passed out, it was his older sister’s face that he last saw: I told you so.
When he awoke, it was impossible to move his legs. It was impossible to stare at them. His father was pacing back and forth, murmuring. His mother’s face was blocking the fluorescent light. He wondered if she already knew he had been tearing pages of the men’s underwear section of her beauty product brochures. He wondered if she already knew he had cut off a pant leg, squeezed both his legs in it, and rolled on the floor, pretending to be a mermaid. He wondered if she already knew the only time he played with his toy soldiers was when he realized there was pleasure in caressing their well-formed plastic abdomens.
Francis opened his mouth to speak, but it was too dry.
His mother started crying, asking, Why?
He had been answering the same question for the rest of his life every time someone asked about his limping.
Why? The guy lying beside Francis would ask, too.
He would answer, I thought I was brave.
Francis had been staring at the scars on his thighs for so long he had memorized their details. Sometimes, he imagined them forming words or images the same way an old barren woman in their sitio once claimed to have seen Jesus’ face on a banana trunk. He wished he would see the same image, too, just so he can laugh it all off. Jesus between his legs. Anyone who would kneel before him during sex would be kneeling before Jesus.
Francis sighed and stared at the door. He was waiting for a knock, his thoughts racing. He was wondering if he was ready to share this piece of himself to someone, wondering if he was ready to go back to the place he had long abandoned.
Letting in the guy after waiting for more than an hour, Francis started rehearsing all his answers – the plot of his childhood story. He hoped that no matter how much information he would share, his storytelling would still eventually lead to sex.
But when they were already lying in bed half-naked, the guy went straight to turning the lights off, to torrid kissing but without much teasing, to taking his shirt off, then pants. The guy stared at his thighs for a while. He was shocked, Francis noticed. Francis was ready to answer his questions. But the guy just pulled the pants up, high enough to conceal his scarred skin but low enough to just let his cock jut out.
No questions asked.
Reil Benedict S. Obinque is a calculus teacher in Ateneo de Davao Senior High School. He has been a fellow to the Silliman National Writers Workshop and Davao Writers Workshop. Some of his works have appeared in Dagmay, the Philippines Graphic, Manila Times, and the Brown Orient.