“Mao lang man na iyang ginapalit,” Mama told Papa with a seemingly proud smile. “Mga libro.” I was already a teenager at that time when Papa asked why I had a lot of books. He did not know I loved—worshipped—books. What kind of father does not know his daughter’s hobbies? Well, I have a seafarer for a father.
He sounded like he was annoyed by the pile of books I had in my sister’s room. I had just bought more and that made him ask. Of course he would not know. He is basically a stranger, if you ask me. It would sound rude and it would surely hurt him but he is a stranger to me. As a seaman, he lives in a ship that travels around the world for nine months. That leaves him three months to spend with us at home.
I always remember the first time I met him. I was about four or five years old when we drove to the airport one day. Of course I did not know then that it was the airport or even what that place was for but I was with my mother and my sister. I remember holding Mama’s hand when a dark-skinned, tall, and buff man walked towards us. Mama enthusiastically asked “Sino yan?” The man wanted to give me a hug but I have always been afraid of strangers so I wailed and wanted to hide from him. It must have been embarrassing and painful for a father who was excited to meet his daughter for the first time after working overseas. I could have at least let him carry me or just stared at his face in wonder. Instead, I cried.
But he brought me chocolates and dolls. That was his bait. From then on, I learned the concept of wanting and needing a father. But my father always left. And I used to cry every time he did. Even at the age of seven, I wrote him a letter that asked him to work in the Philippines instead so our family would be always complete. I was willing to give up my toys and chocolates just to have him home.
Filipino TV shows and foreign movies told me that fathers should treat their kids like princes and princesses. I saw scenes where fathers carry their kids, tickle them, lift them up in the air and drop them just to catch them and hear them laugh. Fathers tuck their children in and they hush them when they cry. And when they grow up, fathers talk to them and they go home to more than one best friend. That was why I wanted my father to stay. I wanted what the books and the films showed to be real.
Since my mother was only one who took care of my elder sister for three years after they got married, the way she raised my sister was the same as how she raised me. We were guarded. I could only count the times when I was able to play at school after class because Mama always fetched me on time.
Most of the time, I stayed at home and I had no choice but to read. Well, I always spent time with my cousins who had a collection of Nancy Drew and Sweet Valley High books and they were my first influences. The books were my obsession when I was not allowed to play. Instead of running around and getting sweaty and having asthma attacks, I sat down and read books. I knew how to write letters even before I went to kindergarten so I learned how to read early. Books were suddenly the most amazing thing in my small world. I could see Nancy Drew and her friends collecting clues and catching suspects in every mystery and I wanted to be like her.
Soon enough, I started writing my own Nancy Drew mysteries. I spent long hours in front of our computer, just typing and imagining. I did not make sense then, most probably. But that was when I started writing. That was when I started keeping diaries and journals. Writing became a normal part of my life, just as normal as my father’s absence had been.
It must have sucked not being able to always hang out with friends because five o’clock in the afternoon was already too late not to be at home yet. But it was the only life I knew, my mother always complaining about me not leaving school immediately after class because our house is a bit far from the center of the city and getting home late is dangerous. We were Christians and she did not even allow me stay for Bible studies in high school.
I was not—and am still not—very good with talking to people. I gossip with them and talk about emotional stuff but I can write better rather than talk. I could understand things better when I used metaphors—“I was blue when my father left again for the nth time.” or “My father’s presence is a Band-Aid.” I could calm myself down with similes and hyperboles. I could make sense out of everything when I see them on the page.
My father’s absence probably had me always looking for something that I think is missing, something that writing could help me identify. When I was in high school, I was fond of writing sappy love stories. Even now, I still even prefer reading romantic books. Maybe because I do not know how it feels like to have a man with me every day? That is why I watch films that could give me an idea of how it is like. I write stories that could make me feel like I know how it is like.
I think it is because I know there is something missing in me that keeps me looking for it, making me purge everything in me until I know what I want to find. Maybe because I hate the way I was put into this kind of life. A father leaving every now and then, going “home” to a family he does not know. And he cannot even apologize because he will never run out of absences to apologize for. I hate having to pretend that it still saddens me when he leaves. He could wake me up at four o’clock in the morning to kiss me goodbye before his early flight and I could be half-awake and hear him leave and still feel indifferent. I hate having to pretend that I am excited to spend time with him when he comes home.
I hate pretending to be the daughter he wants me to be. I hate pretending that hanging out with friends until late night does not excite me or that reading books is still the only thing I love doing. I wear clothes that are not just a simple shirt and a pair of pants, I curse, I could spend the whole day just being inside my room, and I have opinions that are different from theirs. And he does not get that. I hate not knowing how it is like to have a father. I hate not knowing how to be a daughter. And I cannot apologize.
“I cannot do anything,” he said, sounding angry. “My voice is like this.”
He always sounds angry and I kind of hate him for that. He sounds like he is resenting me and that makes me scared of talking to him. I refused to eat dinner one night when my parents and I had a fight. The cellular network failed when I was out with my high school friends and I could not contact my mother to update her of my whereabouts. I went home to two angry parents who did not even ask for me to explain myself.
I had plans for the next day after that night. I was going to take my dog to the park with my boyfriend, and because of what happened, they did not allow me to go out. We ended up not talking to each other. When my mother saw me crying inside my room, I could not help but explain to them how unfair they were. She blamed me for their quarrel and I just sat there with my unheard words drowning my brain. She called my father and made him sit down and listen. And in every sentence I blurt out, my father begins his own as his defense. “You’re always angry,” I said. “You never listen.”
It was not my fault that I could not call them. I tried to tell them that but they had to wait to catch me crying inside my room before I could be asked to talk. And I hoped that my father, for once, would realize how scared I was of him.
“Sige,” he said. “If that’s what you think, I will never talk again. Everything I say is wrong.”
He stood up and walked out of the room. I never wanted to talk to him again.
So I write. I write like I can control things and people. I can write the kinds of lives I want my characters to live. I write like I am in control, like I have all the choices and I will never run out of them. I write to see different situations, to see that I am not stuck in my own. I write to meet people I cannot meet in real life. I write to keep myself grounded, to remind me of my reality and make me accept it.
I sometimes look at him and wonder. Reality failed to be like the movies and books. I do not have a man who scares boys who would break my heart or a man who scares boys who would ask me out. There is nothing but inevitable anger. It is like I was born with it. This is just a part of the pattern that I have been following for nineteen years.
His constant absence is a big part of my existence. At the age of nineteen, I have gotten used to being a college girl who is away from home most of the time. My circle of friends has become wider than ever and my principles have changed. Aside from reading books, I have grown to love other hobbies such as getting drunk and smoking. And I have lost old beliefs too, like my old obsession of worshipping God and believing in His miracles. I have come to the point when I have seen the other side of life. The life I promised myself before not to live because my family made me believe that it will not take me anywhere.
My father tries. He knocks on my door and greets me good morning like he used to. He talks during dinner like he knows the people in our lives. He tells us jokes like he knows what is funny or what is not for us. He listens like he knows what happened or what was happening. He tries to act like he knows how our lives work. He tries to be a father who knows his family. He tries to fit in. Like the way I try to make sense out of everything through writing. I try to find the words that fit, the words that could make the vague things clear. That is all we have left to do for now.
Julienne San Jose Batingal is a third year BA English (Creative Writing) student of the University of the Philippines Mindanao.