ACT ONE: Homecoming
By a stroke of luck, or divine intervention, I had a pre-scheduled trip home to Mindanao and was already armed with a plane ticket for March 14th. I had been studying at a university in Manila, and decided in early February that I needed a short break from the rigorous academics. Because of that spur-of-the-moment decision, I missed getting caught up in the Manila lockdown by mere hours; my flight was one of the last they allowed to take off. My grandmother and uncle met me at the Ozamiz airport, expressing their disbelief at how close I had gotten to waiting out the pandemic alone and in a city that did not speak my mother tongue.
But I had only traded one prison for another – a cage of smog and neon lights for a cage of the over-familiar. The moment I returned to my hometown, they put me in quarantine – a kinder word than ‘house arrest’, though similar in its rigidity. I was lucky enough to live just ten paces away from my extended family, so though I was a prisoner, I had fellow inmates willing to spend their afternoons playing badminton with me. For two weeks, I was content with watching shuttlecocks arc gracefully over my grandmother’s garden while outside our gates, the town became quieter and quieter.
And then, on the fourteenth day, I was informed that one of the people on my flight home had tested positive, and so my sentence was extended. We waited to see if I would end up on death row.
I paced aimlessly, a nameless, nebulous fear breathing down my neck. The virus had been a distant thing – someone else’s problem – but now it was knocking at my door. All too suddenly, the panic and apprehension that I had only seen on the news were now my own. Obituaries were only words until you recognized the names.
Every small cough was proof against my innocence. My family watched from afar as I obsessively monitored my temperature – the numbers that would determine my fate. Through it all, I could not find comfort in their arms; I was Judas in the garden and my kiss could doom them all.
Eventually, I was cleared of all charges. I did not lose my sense of smell, I did not get feverish, and my lungs did not collapse. But the rest of the world did.
No matter, I thought to myself, trying to scrounge up some inkling of hope as I watched a lone tricycle driver pedal down the empty road from my bedroom window. No matter. This, too, shall pass.
ACT TWO: Perspective
It could have been worse. I heard it in the weary sigh of my dormmate, a probinsyano stuck in our sprawling dorm complex, doomed to numbly pace the hollow hallowed halls like an addition to its pantheon of ghosts and trickster elves. “I want to go home.” His voice cracked from the weight of his isolation. “I just want to go home.”
It could have been worse. I saw it in the unending march of Facebook posts across my timeline – ayuda, they called out in a colonizer’s language reclaimed, help. I send as much aid as I can to as many people as I can, and still here was another, and another, and another. Ayuda, ayuda, ayudame. Ayúdanos.
It could have been worse. I felt it in the despair of my fellow citizens. They wasted away while the government wasted time, occupied with senseless nonsenses (many of their own invention). The masses took to the streets – organized, following all protocols, armed with righteous fury and cardboard signs. They were dispersed by the boys in blue whose father’s crimes still go unpunished. And across the country, I languished alone, my nails digging crescent-moon dents into my palms.
ACT THREE: A Video Call
“I know, I know, I miss you, too. It’s been too long since—yes, yes, I promise, after the lockdown, we’re going—okay, okay. How’s your boyfriend? What? What do you mean you broke up? When? Four months ago? Why didn’t you tell me? You could have at least called, you know! … I’m sorry. It’s just… I’m not used to not seeing you every week, I guess. I used to know you so well and now it’s… yeah. Yeah. I know. It’s not our fault. It’s been tough for everybody. Don’t apologize. Don’t be sorry. No, please don’t cry, it’s—Hello? Hello? … Damned PLDT.”
ACT FOUR: Perspective (Reprise)
And life went on. Lockdowns were lifted. People strolled leisurely through the park, their words muffled by cloth masks. I looked outside my bedroom window one day and, for once, was grateful to see traffic. I paid tricycle drivers twice as much as the usual fare, and I toasted to my stranded friends’ homecoming.
And life went on. On my flight home so many months ago, the pretty attendant had gestured to the place above our heads where the oxygen masks would drop down in case of an emergency. “Please mind your own mask first before tending to others,” she’d told us then, repeating the instructions from the laminated manual I had not bothered to pick up. I now understood that, sometimes, the best advice you could ask for can be found on the back of an airplane’s safety information card.
And life went on. Classes were now held online, substituting blackboards with laptop screens, and chalk with Google Docs. I was hounded by deadlines and requirements, but it was better than being hounded by fear.
Still, some days, I found myself counting how many times my classmates got disconnected from a Zoom meeting. I counted how many times they apologized for slow signals and brownouts. I watched news of jeepney drivers begging for food, frontliners begging for hazard pay, teachers begging for time. Because life went on – but not for all of us.
ACT FIVE: Respite
We went to the beach last week. When our car stopped at the edge of the surf, my young cousins were quick to remove their clothes and stumble into the shallows, heedless of their mothers’ cries of, “You forgot your sunblock!” One cousin dove at the other, their small heads disappearing under the murky water for a few seconds before they resurfaced, guffawing. I couldn’t help but smile. I had forgotten how sweet laughter sounded under an open sky.
“Are you coming?” my grandmother asked.
“Maybe later,” I said, and kissed her cheek.
I sat back, watching her wade into the ocean, her little body cutting through the waves with ease. The sun was scorching my skin; I imagined it burning away the paleness I had acquired in my eight months of captivity. I breathed in, out, in, out. I tasted salt on my tongue, felt the sea breeze toying with my hair.
The sea stretched on, farther and farther, into the blue horizon. And though the tide had pulled away, I knew it would always come back to the shore.
Kyndra Lei “Kyle” Yunting is from Zamboanga del Sur and currently a BA English student of UP Mindanao. She credits her passion for writing to reading the Percy Jackson and the Olympians series at a formative age, and also to her high school paper adviser.