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Carlos Palanca Memorial Awards

The Best
Short Stories
in English
2010~2015

Three Kisses1
Ma. Elena L. Paulma
The Big Man20
Asterio Enrico N. Gutierrez
In Transit38
Rebecca E. Khan
Armor49
John Bengan
The Auroras61
Elisha Martinez
Phallic Symbols73
Exie Abola

Three Kisses
Ma. Elena L. Paulma

hese mornings, Nina awakened not just from the cold that
numbed her nose, but also from a deep sense of loss, of something
missing or forgotten, the cause of which took her some time to
remember, perhaps because she did not want to. The cold, although still
unbearable, she had learned to live with, but this new sadness which
greeted her even before she opened her eyes bewildered her, so that her
first consciousness was always that of confusion.
On this her first morning back from the hospital, she wondered at how
this bed she was lying on and the gray ceiling above her had remained
unchanged. Slowly, so as not to awaken the sleeping man beside her, she
turned her head a little so that her eyes just made out the closed door,
next to which stood the walnut wardrobe, brought all the way from the
old house. Inside would be clothes, his on the left side and hers on the
right, neatly folded and hung, carefully arranged according to their colors. Facing the bed was the window. Outside, the flower shrubs that lined
the path toward the entrance of the apartment building would be covered
with December snow by now, for the flakes had begun to fall last night
as they were coming inside. The half-light of the early morning filtered
through the coral blue curtains which she had chosen for this room, halfdrawn across the window to satisfy both her need for it to be pulled back
completely and his desire for it to be fully drawn. Ruben had packed the
1

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old beige curtains from the old house, but she had insisted that they buy
new ones for the apartment.
She turned her head away from him, sleepily aware of the hazy outlines of the nightstand to her left, on which resided a lamp and a small
picture frame standing a little askew. She had dusted and looked at this
picture so many times before that she could remember each detail even
without looking at it. In it was a photo of a couple during happier times, the
younger version of herself smiling up at the man who now lay beside her.
The glass surface of the picture reflected some of the glow from the
nightlight which was plugged behind the nightstand. Both of them could
not sleep in the dark. She had discovered this on their first night together
in the old house at Kessel-lo.
Can we keep this on? she had asked, pointing at the lamp that stood
on the nightstand, and speaking slowly, for he was just learning how to
speak in English. She had been dismayed when he shook his head, Nee,
nee. He bent down behind the nightstand, and there was a click. The sudden glare from the nightlight made his hair look whiter, tracing the smaller
wrinkles on his lined face. He turned off the lamp on the table, casting his
face in shadow, and for a moment, she had wondered if she had done the
right thing.
That had been all of two years ago, she realized with some surprise.
When they first met, she had been 62 years old and about to retire from
her third managing stint in another dying hotel in Cebu. The daughter of
Mrs. Borromeo, owner of The Penthouse, had already begun scolding the
staff about the baduy arrangement of the seats in the lobby, asking who on
earth had told them to put bougainvilleas on the steps leading toward the
entrance. Next, she had complained about the bottomless iced tea in the
menu. Later, it was the way the napkins had been folded during a wedding
reception. The staff had wanted to protect Nina, but they were helpless
against the irate questioning of Miss Boromeo.
Madam Nina told us to, Maam, they had to say.
She had been in a similar situation before. The wife, or sister, or daughter would note how well she got along with the owner and the staff, and
how much power she was given over the hotel, and the complaints would
begin. She had always been offered a job by one or another of the hotel
owners who had become her friends, but at her age, she was not sure anymore if she would still be offered another job in the same position. Ninas
friends, hoteliers like her, had set her up with Ruben, who was a friend of
the husband of a friend of a friend now living somewhere in Europe. One
day, she had received a letter from a Ruben Peeters, from 15 Stratenhaus,
Kessel-lo, Belgium.
We gave him your address!

They had all exclaimed at the emergency get-together that had been
arranged on account of the letter.
And your picture, added Susan, the one closest to her. Nina was
meticulous with her looks, making sure to dye her short curls and to dress
in the smartest outfits. It was mostly her vivacious warmth, however, that
drew others to her.
He must have been bowled over! cried another one, and everyone
had laughed.
You shouldnt have! she had scolded, looking at the fair-skinned,
white-haired, blue-eyed man in the picture that had been included in the
letter.
Dear Saturnina, she had read to her nieces gathered around her bed,
and they had giggled at the way she read her full name with a grimace.
One of them had grabbed the picture and said, Hmmm, not bad. And
hes young, Auntie, only seventy years old. And everyone had burst into
laughter as the picture was passed around. His English had not been perfect but she had answered the second letter, thinking it wouldnt hurt to
have a Belgian pen friend. Susans daughter had married a German. She
had sent Susan enough money to renovate their house. All of Susans
friends, including Nina, had gone to the house blessing, where Susan made
sure everyone saw the numerous pictures of her daughter in front of beautiful castles and gardens all over Europe. Said daughter had come home
looking very glamorous in her European clothing and make-up, handing
out lipstick and perfume, and treating everyone to a night at the Casino.
Nina was drawn to the Casino. She loved riding up to the Cebu Plaza
Hotel with her friends, alighting at the glass doors and taking the escalator
that led them to an arched entrance on the second floor where, in their
pearls and georgette blouses, they would stand in excited anticipation as
they surveyed the ballroom sized Casino, the green carpet on its expansive floor muting the clinking of trolleys that held chips for the card games
and coins for the slot machines over which hovered a haze of smoke. Nina
preferred the slot machines, even when the round tipped metal lever that
made a satisfying growl at every turn evolved into the red and green buttons that one could press at a higher speed. The excitement was the same,
as the images rolled on the round screen and the boxes fell into place, the
ding ding as the credits multiplied every time two or three of the images
matched. She often ran out of coins, and spent more than she had planned,
but she always came back for more because who knows, the next roll might
hit the jackpot, and she wasnt one to miss her chances.
Ruben had replied to her first letter, and began calling her long distance after three months. Somehow, she had gotten through the conversations, feeling exhausted after listening closely to Rubens thickly accented

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Flemish-English. When he sent her a ticket to Belgium, her friends had


shrieked in delight and inundated her with outfits, her nieces giggling as
she modelled them around the bedroom.
He looked shorter than she had imagined as he stood waiting for her
at the Brussels airport terminal, holding a placard that clearly spelled out
her name: Saturnina Dimaculangan. She winced at the unglamorous vowels, but gave him her dimpled smile nevertheless. They shook hands and
she had turned on her famous charm. Rubens face was red from laughing
when they arrived at his house. Some of his friends were there, with their
Filipina wives, to welcome her.
Hallo! They all gathered around her, shaking her hand. Some of the
wives laughingly showed her the Belgian kiss. Once, on the right cheek,
another on the left, and yet another one on the right cheek again. She was
delighted at their niceness, especially when she discovered that some of
them also came from the outlying towns of Cebu. After a while, Ruben
had taken her away from the excited Bisayan babble, and shown her around
his house, which was a sprawling bungalow with large bay windows that
looked out onto the green grass that surrounded it. She had been dazzled
by the perfectly mown front lawn lined with well-trimmed hedges. She
had looked in wonder as he showed her the back of the house, the grass as
perfect as the front lawns. Tall cypress trees marked what Ruben said was
the edge of a mini-forest. She had fallen in love.
The next day, he took her around Kessel-lo, showing her the lovely
bluegray-roofed Arenberg castle which stood stately pink amid the rolling
green university grounds. He took her for a walk around the Provincial
Domein, a huge park with tree-lined paths and white ducks swimming in
clear, green ponds. She was enchanted.
Will you marry me? Ruben had asked on the fourth night during
dinner at the hotel where she was staying. Ninas thoughts often came in
images, floating about, following no particular order, and she pondered on
Rubens proposal this way. She thought of the faded old house left behind
by her first husband, its windows perpetually closed to keep out the unrelenting dust and smoke from the busy highway next to which it stood, its
first floor well below street level after several highway constructions. The
house would be flooded at the merest rainfall for it sat next to a creek. She
thought of growing old all alone there in that house, for her son now lived
with his wife and four children, and her nieces and nephews would soon
be marrying and starting their own families. She thought of having to
hunt for another job and the slim chance of her ever getting work again on
account of her age. She thought of living on the pittance that would be her
SSS pension. Then she thought of living in Rubens sprawling house with
its romantic mini-forest right there in their own backyard. They would sit

in the red bricked patio, drink hot chocolate at night, and breakfast on hot
coffee and rolls in the morning. During weekends, they could stroll around
that nice huge park with the white ducks swimming in the clean ponds,
the tall trees waving above their heads. She thought of coming home to the
Philippines from time to time in her glamorous new look with huge balikbayan boxes, and how she would show her friends and family, and yes, even
Mrs. Borromeos daughter, pictures of herself standing in front of that castle Ruben had shown her, or in the middle of one of the gardens which she
would surely be visiting around Europe. Last but not least, she thought of
not being alone anymore. She had been a widow for close to twenty years.
Having someone nice like Ruben to talk to in the evenings and sharing
these growing-old days with was not a bad idea. Not a bad idea at all.
Yes, I will, she answered. Laughing, he had told her he had practiced
this question over and over again in English.
She had laughed with him, saying again, Ja, I will marry you. And he
had been delighted at her use of the Flemish word for yes.
He did not make any protestations of undying love, and she liked that
about him. She thought they understood each other better this way. It was
honest. These days, and at their age, it made sense to just be practical about
things. Rather than living alone apart, why not grow old together? She
vowed to use all her hotelier skills in cooking and housekeeping at Rubens
home. He would not be able to live without her after he tasted her special
lumpia.
Ruben had packed his bags and come home with her to the Philippines.
They got married at the Cebu City Hall, with Susan and her husband as
witness. Her only son had been nonplussed, her friends delighted, her relatives surprised but pleased, and she had been happy and excited. Everyone
was rolling on high expectations because a better life for one meant a better life for all. This was tradition. There had been a round of despedida parties after that.
Why are you always so lucky? Congratulations and happy trip! her
friends had cried, hugged, and kissed her on both cheeks, a touch of envy
in their eyes. Find us another one like Ruben! they had cried half-jokingly, half-seriously.
We will miss you, Madam Nina! her staff had written on a streamer,
some of them in tears as they gave their farewell speeches.
Her son and daughter-in-law, grandchildren, nieces, nephews, brothers, and sisters had gone to the Mactan airport to send them off. There was
a lot of crying and hugging and kissing at boarding time, Ruben included.
He, too, had been moved by the excess of affection all around, so different
from the Belgian way. He told Nina, when they were on board the plane,
that he would like to come back and visit again. His eyes were moist when

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Three Kisses

he said it.
We love you, Lola! We will miss you, Auntie! You take care and write
to us often.
As she lay on her marital bed on this cold Belgian morning, Nina swallowed the familiar lump that rose in her throat every time she remembered
her big, noisy family. She now turned her head to the right, and watched
the sleeping face of her husband. He looked old and tired. It had been a
long time since she had watched him like this. He was always the first one
to awaken, from a habit of waking up early for his daily duty as a policeman. She was used to waking up early herself, but these Belgian mornings
took a little getting used to, not even after two years. Their first quarrel had
been about the heater.
Turn it up! she had taken to using simple phrases so he could understand, gesticulating and pointing at the thermostat on the wall next to his
side of the bed. Nee, nee! he would answer, shaking his head.
She would get up in silence, put on more clothes, get back to bed, and
lie on her side with her back turned to him. Sometimes, he would sigh, get
up, and turn the thermostat up. But sometimes, for some unnameable reason, he wouldnt. These were the times when she would silently cry herself
to sleep, feeling like an unwanted guest in a strangers house, wishing she
was not so far away from home.
There was, however, a time shortly after they had flown back to
Belgium, when she dared not cross him in any way. This was after their
visit to the bank. She and Ruben had gone to the bank to check the safety
deposit box which held all of his savings. She had gone with him into the
inner room where there were rows of cabinets with rows of little numbered
drawers. There he was with his key before one of the drawers, telling her
how he had looked forward to finally enjoying the money he had been saving all these years, boasting a little about the banks security system. He
slipped the key into the slot, and drew out the box. When he opened the
lid, it was empty.
She could still remember his face, red creeping up from his neck as he
swore, she was sure, even though it was in Flemish. It was the first time
she had seen him lose his politeness, and it scared her a little. Ruben had
told her how much was in the box, and the money amounted to more than
a few million in pesos. First, he called to the bank officer standing outside the door, and spoke rapidly, gesticulating. The officer shook his head,
also speaking rapidly. She had followed Ruben as he stormed into a room
marked Manager, but after another fiery Flemish exchange, the manager
shook his head apologetically. Then they had gone to the police station.
Ruben had looked exhausted by this time, and the police, some of whom
were his friends, had patted him in the back, and spoken to him quietly

until he clamed down. He almost filed a case against the bank, but the
bank people had said that the safety deposit box could only have been
emptied by a legitimate holder of one of the keys. Only his previous wife
held the key and she was dead.
Nina, too, had been devastated. She had just gotten married and the
whole clan back home had already seen pictures of her nice new home and
her lovely new life. The images in Ninas mind mocked her: the balikbayan
box filled with Belgian chocolates for her grandchildren, European scarves
for her sisters, shirts for her brothers, and trinkets for her nieces, the dinner
of grilled, boiled and sauted seafood with the whole clan at Sutokil, her
treat. She sighed. There was always the balut at the Fuente plaza.
Ruben barely ate nor slept for a long time after that. Sometimes, he
would walk around the house opening drawers and closets, boxes and
bags, tapping on walls and floors. Sometimes, he would sit in the living
room without moving, just staring out the window. When he spoke, it was
always about what had happened at the bank, beginning in English, and
progressing to angry Flemish. Nina would learn that, owing to a deprived
childhood, Ruben had tried to live a well-planned and well-executed life,
in command of everything, from his career to his first marriage, right up
to his retirement savings. She learned of it slowly.
Dont wear make-up anymore. Youre just wasting your money and
eets not healthy anyway. Not goodt. She had said, Ja, and had stopped
wearing make-up, to humor him at this time of misery.
You should eat less vlees and more groente. Eets healthier. Vlees not
goodt. She had said, Ja, and had stopped eating meat, to placate him
at this difficult time, consuming more vegetables than she had ever eaten
while growing up in her fathers small farm in Liloan, Cebu.
She could not buy any food for herself anyway. Belgian husbands, she
discovered, did not let the wives handle the money. She had married into
the wrong nationality.
He was very impatient with her while he taught her the Flemish language. Goeiendag was easy to learn for thats what he would say every
morning while nudging her awake at exactly seven oclock, which was the
worst part of the day in her opinion. Soon, she was able to say, Nee, nee
in perfect Flemish fashion, with an irritable Alstublieft (please) when he
would persist and she was still sleepy. The phrase she liked best was Ik
begrijp het neit for it shut him up. It meant, I dont understand.
Nina looked upon herself as a very patient and fairly tolerant and forgiving person. But this individual she was living with would not let her
be. He was everywhere she was, telling her what to do and what not to
do, from the time she woke up to the last conscious moment before she
turned to the merciful blankness of sleep. She turned to her rags, wiping

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Three Kisses

the windows, the divan, chairs and tables in the living room, each crystal
droplet on the chandeliers, each rung, armrest and foot of each wooden
chair in the dining room, the surface of the formal dining table, the four
carved legs of the dining table, crawling down on all fours to wipe the surface under the table. She wiped the top of the kitchen sink, the sides of
it, the grooves between the tiles, every can, bottle, and canister she could
find in every cupboard. Ruben would follow her around, thrusting the
Windex spray for surfaces at her face and saying, Use this! Use this! to
which she would reply, Ik begrijp het neit, turning away from him to wipe
the kitchen table all over again. He would shut up with a perplexed look
because he had spoken in English.
Sometimes, she would stand by the window and watch the silent,
empty street outside, missing the jeepneys, the smoke and the dust, even
the stray dogs that plied the busy highway she had once wanted to escape
from. None of those who had married foreign husbands, even Susans
daughter, had spoken about the long, cold days that seemed to stretch and
stretch, one day merging into the next in a perfect pattern of sameness that
mirrored the uniform hedges lining the immaculate streets. Ruben was a
prostate cancer survivor. His doctors had told him to take it easy after his
trip to the Philippines, so aside from the few trips to nearby Leuven City,
they seldom went anywhere beyond the town limits of Kessel-lo. It was
not long before she stopped taking pictures of the single castle or watching
the ducks as they swam in the park pond, a perfectly bored look on their
beaked faces.
It took Ruben a long time to get over his loss. There was not a speck of
dust in the house, and all the cupboards sported perfectly aligned cans in
alphabetical order.
I worked hard and scrimped and savedand now the money is all
gone, just like that, he would moan in broken English, smattered with a
lot of Flemish, only a few words of which she could understand. Then, he
would call the bank and swear into the phone, in Flemish, but she could
tell from his tone. She felt his agony, oh how she felt it like it was hers.
This went on until she told him one day, Ruben, I am learning more
curse words every time you call the bank.
Really? he asked, using the English he had learned from her. Really,
she replied, and she proceeded to curse him in perfect Flemish.
Things had gotten better after that until the day they visited his daughter. Ruben seldom saw his son and daughter, and they rarely called. The
family came together only for Christmas dinner, and the gatherings were
always minus the son. On Christmas day, a few months after the discovery
of the empty safety deposit box, they had gone to Idas place. Ruben and
his son-in-law were drinking after-dinner beer in one corner of the living

room when Ruben stood up, so suddenly, that everyone turned to look at
them.
My wife gave the key to my son? Ruben had spoken quietly, his face
slowly reddening.
His daughter started to step out of the room, but he turned to her and
said, And you split the money between the two of you? Ida glared at her
husband, but she did not deny her fathers accusation. Then, as if making
up her mind, she turned to her father, showing all the bitterness she had
been hiding behind her polite smile. We had to. Otherwise, all of it will
go to your newwife. she had said in English, not looking at Nina. That
is our money, tooand....and so is the house! You better sell it. We want
our share. You better sell it or we will sue, so saying, she had stomped out
of the room. Nina could not remember all that was said. Ruben did not say
much, but his face had been very red. He just looked at them all, and they
all looked back at him in silence. And she just knew it was time to go.
I will face them in court, Ruben had fumed that night, cursing again
in Flemish. Ninas pride was hurt. She was not going to let them think that
she had married this Belgian for his money alone. Ruben, going to court
would be such a waste of money and effort on our part. We cannot maintain this place anymore, anyway. Why dont we just sell it, and give them
their share. Besides, it is too big for the two of us. We can always stay in a
smaller apartment. Easier to clean. Nina suddenly felt too old for all the
excitement that was happening. All she had wanted was a nice, quiet life.
Let us just get this over with and let us live in peace, she had said to
Ruben.
She had cried inside when the last of their belongings had been packed
into the moving van and they drove away from the place she had fallen in
love with. The apartment in Heverlee was smaller, just one among many
in a building which was occupied mostly by old or dying Belgians. With
this second loss, things in the Peeters household went back to what had
become normal, with Ruben following Nina around carrying his spray
and muttering in Flemish, as the apartment glowed from all the cleaning.
Time was the only thing Nina had in abundance. That, and a cranky old
Belgian husband. Too much time, in her opinion, for it made her think.
Nina had grown up believing in commitment and in saving face. Going
home a divorced woman, a poor divorced woman, at her age was unthinkable. It had a ring of defeat to it. And Nina had always been a winner, the
one with the better life than all her siblings, the manager of hotels in the
city, the wife of a dollar-earning seaman, the generous giver of gifts. No,
there was no way she could go home now. But the thought was there, peeping at her from behind her husbands white hair, lurking in the shadows of
their bedroom closet, beckoning to her in broad daylight as she stared out

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the window like a caged bird. Ruben and Nina perfected their politeness,
to each other and to the world outside. Often, Rubens friends would invite
the couple to their homes for early evening avondmaal. Whenever this
happened, Nina put on the clothes she had brought from the Philippines,
and the women would go ooh and aah, asking her where she had gotten
such nice clothes for there was not much to choose from in quiet Heverlee.
She quickly became friends with the Filipina wives who started calling her
Maam Nina even before a new arrival from the Philippines recognized
her.
Madam Nina! Claire had exclaimed.
Why, its Claire! Kumusta?
Claire had turned to the others and proudly said, Madam Nina was
my manager at the Hotel Miranda. All the others exclaimed at this for
most of them came from the barrios of Cebu. Nina shushed them, saying,
Lets have none of that here. She had meant it. Unofficially, though, she
became their Maam Nina, the one they turned to every time they had
problems of any sort. Nina obliged, used to a role which had always been
hers from way back home.
After one such party, Brent and his Filipina wife, Pacita, brought Nina
and Ruben home. She had told Pacita that she missed eating meat and
Pacita had wrapped a piece of biftek, placing it into Ninas bring-home
bag. Ruben politely asked them into the house for an elixir, but he was
in one of his moods, Nina could tell. She was grateful to whoever had
invented the unfailing politeness of Belgians, for it gave her some respite
from his picker-snicketing. But she found she had concluded too hastily.
Ruben had followed her into the kitchen after settling their visitors in the
living room.
Why do you have to take home food! It does not look good! Do you
want them all to think that we dont have food of our own? he began. Nina
was regretting having taught him so much English. She was beginning to
understand him.
It is a Filipino custom to give food to your guests after a party. Its
called bring-home, she had said, holding it up. He grabbed the paper bag
and opened it. Lifting the meat from the wrapper, he held it close to her
face.
I told you not to eat vlees anymore, so saying, he flicked on the disposal chute in the sink and looking at Nina, threw in the meat, bag, and
wrapper.
Nina gaped at him, unbelieving. She turned and walked out of the
kitchen, calling to Pacita who stood up from where she was seated in the
living room. Taking Pacitas hand, Nina pulled her towards the kitchen.
Ruben had followed her out, but he had to stay in the living room with

his guest because it was impolite to leave him alone for too long. Nina felt
like telling her husband where he could stick his politeness. As soon as the
kitchen door swung close, Nina turned to Pacita.
I wan to get out of here! she whispered fiercely. Pacita reached out to
hold her hands, saying, Maam Nina, whats the matter?
Di na ko! Di na jud ko! she continued, using Bisayan in both relief
and exasperation.
Is it Ruben?
I cannot understand him at all! Di na ko!
Why, what happened? Pacita asked, drawing Nina towards a kitchen
chair.
Nina pointed to the disposal chute. Thank you for the biftek. At least
one Belgian cockroach family will be happy tonight.
Hesusmaryosep! What has gotten into Mr. Ruben! But you know, my
first husband was like that also, Maam Nin. Okay, what can I do?
I dont know. I cant think.
Listen, Pacita began, Brent is coming over tomorrow. And they
had hatched a plan in the kitchen, the first of many.
Nina did not speak to Ruben that night, and he was quite eager to welcome Brent when he came back the next day. Pacita winked at Nina as they
entered the apartment. The two women went immediately to the kitchen,
leaving the men in the living room.
Are you ready? Pacita asked excitedly.
I am! But first, let me get my millions. Nina rolled her eyes at Pacita
as she reached up and opened the corner cupboard which held the coffee
beans. She took out a can marked Anheuser Busch InBev, a brewing company in the city of Leuven, where Pacita and she were planning to go. It
was a major city two miles from the town of Heverlee.
I had to fish this out of the garbage bin, you know. That husband of
mine is garbage crazy!
She pried open the can with a spoon and reached inside
Tadaaa! she cried as she proudly held out a hand filled with rolled
bills and some coins saved surreptitiously after market days. Juanita
clapped her hands, singing, Lets go shooopping! And they stepped out
of the kitchen.
Were thinking of making Tomates aux Crevettes! Pacita sang as the
kitchen door swung close behind them. Both men in the living room simply raised their hands and gave a thumbs-up sign because it was a favorite
Belgian appetizer.
Problem is, were out of fresh tomatoes and shrimps, Pacita
continued.
I think we have some in the refrigerator, Ruben said, his eyes directed

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somewhere between Pacita and his wife.


We checked them and theyre almost spoiled. Nina confirmed, looking between her husband and Brent. She had made sure to place them way
at the back of the freezer for she could not bear to dump them down the
disposal chute, which had been their first wild idea.
Then lets buy some, said Brent, turning back to Ruben. Ruben said
nothing.
So drive me to the shop, Pacita told her husband.
You know how to drive, dont you? Brent responded.
You know I cant drive when Im alone in the car. It makes me nervous, said Pacita. If you dont want to take me, perhaps Ruben can?
Brent and I are not finished yet. Why dont you and Nina go, Ruben
replied, beginning to sound impatient.
Is that okay with you, Nina? Pacita asked innocently.
Okay, said Nina, her voice calm and cool, as if she couldnt care less
if she went or stayed, as if her heart was not beating fast.
They walked slowly past their husbands as Pacita said, Oh, I hope
there will be some fresh tomatoes and shrimps at the town market!
I know. Last week we had to go to Leuven, Nina said loudly, putting
on her coat. I sure hope we dont have to do that!
Pacita opened the door. Brrr, its so cold outside! Pacita shivered,
intimating that she would rather have stayed inside. The men could see
her from where they were seated. She stepped outside, then suddenly, as if
she had forgotten something, she turned and called to her husband, Oh,
Brent, we might have to go to Leuven for the shrimps! Well be back soon!
and she shut the door, before anyone could say anything.
They hurried to the car and got in. Turning to each other, they did high
fives and cried, Yes!!!
The minute the car turned toward the main road, Nina and Pacita let
out a whoop. Nina lifted her arms and waved her hands at the sky, loving
the brown road, the wide expanse of green on both sides, the occasional
trees and buildings, the sheer absence of the insufferable man she was
stuck with.
These brief get-aways occurred more than once, especially during
the times when Nina felt the urge to run as far away from her husband as
possible. Pacita, who was two decades younger than Nina, became Ninas
accomplice. They enjoyed the planning and subterfuge as much as the trip
itself which had to last for but a few hours, with Ruben waiting for their
return. For Nina, these were reminders of earlier times when she could
just get up and go without having to ask another person if it was okay that
she step out for a while, without being asked, where are you going? for how
long? with whom? why? what are you going to do? why?

Midway into the second year of their marriage, Ninas grandson had
called to tell her he was graduating from High School.
He begged me to come home for his graduation, she told Ruben.
You will go home only for the graduation? he asked, hinting that it
was not that big of a deal.
It is a very important occasion for us Filipinos, she continued
Okay, we will go, Ruben relented after two days.
The next day over rolls at breakfast, Nina began, The graduation is in
April, which is a summer month, she had paused for it to sink in.
While they were eating lunch later that day, she said, It is very hot in
the Philippines during summer, you know. I hope they will think of putting up a tent.
Why, where is it going to be held?
Graduations are usually held in the open fields because there will be
many, no throngs of people coming in to attend, Nina knew Ruben had
developed rashes in the heat the last time he was in the Philippines, and he
hated huge crowds.
Holding out a plate of strawberries, Nina added casually, The program will surely start a little past noon time, maybe around 2pm because
graduations usually last for several hours. She glanced at Ruben who was
beginning to look worried.
Im just worried about your health, she told him with some concern
in the afternoon, as she was peeling potatoes for the frites.
Maybe we should not go anymore, Nina suggested as she bit into her
egg at dinner time.
Do you want more wine? and Ruben had silently handed her his
glass, deep in thought.
Why dont you go, and Ill stay. I dont think I can bear the heat and
the crowd. Its only going to be for two weeks, anyway, Ruben had said as
he climbed into bed that night.
Of course not. I wont go without you, Nina said before turning off
the lamp for the night.
The next day, Ruben bought a round-trip Brussels-Cebu ticket for one
Mrs. Saturnina Peeters. And that was how Nina was able to visit her family, without him. Nina could hardly sleep in the weeks that followed. She
cooked enough food for Ruben to last for a month, even though she was
only going to be in the Philippines for two weeks. Perhaps a part of her
wanted to believe that she was not coming back for a long time, or maybe
she did not want to think about what would happen once she stepped on
the plane that would take her home. She kept herself busy with her packing, careful not to show too much eagerness lest Ruben think that she was
excited to be leaving him. She was conscious of these thoughts, but less

12

13

Ma. Elena L. Paulma

Three Kisses

conscious of the fact that she was concerned about what he would feel.
It was only when she was on the plane to the Philippines that she
allowed the thoughts she had only been vaguely aware of while in Belgium.
Her mind took wing even as the plane lifted off from Belgian soil. She realized that she did not have to go back to Belgium. She could leave Ruben for
good. These thoughts came and went as she slept through half the trip and
attended to which gates and which flights she was supposed to be in during
the long, long way home. They lay half-forgotten at the back of her mind as
she was embraced and fussed over by her friends and family waiting at the
arrival area of the Mactan airport.
She ate all the lechon, afritada, and adobo prepared almost every night
for her. She hardly slept from all the midnight conversations, and the visits to the Casino. Ruben called everyday from Belgium, and Nina found
herself clearing her schedule around three in the afternoon, which was the
time he called. She thought she did this from a sense of duty, ignoring the
sense of anticipation that accompanied her waiting for his call.
Sometimes, Ruben could not get hold of her through her cell phone.
Uncle Ruben called! a niece would tell her.
He called on my phone, too! her sister would say.
And in mine! her son would pipe in.
Hallo! How are you? Ruben would begin every time he got hold of
her.
Im all right. And you? Nina would reply.
Oh, I was wondering how to heat up the lumpia?
He had many excuses for callinghe could not find his glasses, he
wanted to know how to heat up the ensaymada, he wanted to know how
the graduation went, and so on and so forth.
After one such conversation, she had decided that it was not fair to
Ruben if she was to desert him this way. The man was just helpless without
her. She was also beginning to realize how she had gotten too accustomed
to the neat Belgian life. She now found the Philippines too crowded and
too noisy, its streets too congested and its houses lacking in the amenities she had gotten used to in Belgium. At least, this was what she thought
as the main reasons for her desire to go back to Belgium. At unguarded
moments, however, she would recall with perplexity the way she had felt
when Ruben handed her that ticket for home.
He had gone to Leuven and come back in the afternoon. As soon as he
came in, he had handed Nina an envelope.
Whats this? Nina asked, opening the envelope. Inside was her ticket.
I told you I did not want to go to the Philippines without you,
Nina said, and had been surprised at what she felt inside. She had
meant it.

Although she tried to dismiss it, she would recall this feeling again
when she came back to Belgium, on one of her get-away trips with Pacita.
The trips had become less frequent after her return from the Philippines,
her need for it having become less desperate. She attributed this to the long
break she had just had.
It was but a regular moment in an ordinary day at Leuven, but because
of its singularity, she remembered that a little boy and his mother had
been walking by when it happened. She remembered the exact spot down
the layered, cobbled street where she and Pacita had been standing. She
remembered that a street sign on a corner signpost had spelled Munstraat.
She remembered how the afternoon sun had shown on a building marked
Oude Markt, the shadow of a nearby roof sharply outlined on its walls. She
and Pacita were on their way to their car, carrying their purchases, talking
about another Filipina whose Belgian husband had just died.
Maam Nina, Pacita always spoke in their Bisayan language whenever they were alone, are you going to sell the apartment when Ruben,
you know, goes?
When he goes? Nina repeated, as much to herself as to Pacita, surprised at the strangeness of this thought.
Yes when he goes, Pacita continued, oblivious to the sudden stillness
in her friends face. You know, it is very difficult for Brent and myself right
now. His siblings are contesting the will my first husband left behind. His
father gave me a share of the property, you know. Pacita had married the
son of her first husband.
Nina replied absently, Well, I noticed that most Belgians live to a nice
old age. Did you notice that? In our apartment, almost everyone is aged 90
years old and up. I think Ruben will live up to a hundred.
It was the thought which came after her words that Nina would often
recall for its oddness every time she was alone in the bathroom or when
Ruben was asleep, which were the only times she had to herself. She had
wished it were so - that Ruben would live to a hundred.
The man in her thoughts began to stir beside her, and Nina closed her
eyes, wishing to still be alone with her thoughts. She sensed him looking at
her, felt him moving away from her to the other side of the bed, very slowly.
His side of the bed inclined a little as he sat up, slid his feet to the floor,
and bent down, and she knew he was putting on his loafers. The mattress
shifted and was still as he left the bedall these done with a minimum of
movement. There was a moment of silence as the carpet underneath muffled his steps. Then she heard the door opening and closing softly. She was
grateful that he had not tried to wake her as he normally would, recalling
another morning about three months ago. His nudging had drawn a yelp
from her. From the wrist down, her right hand was burning with pain.

14

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Ma. Elena L. Paulma

Three Kisses

What is it? he had sounded scared.


My hand hurts. I cant move the fingers. She held out her hand awkwardly. Ruben had gone to the closet and started getting dressed.
Where are you going? she had exclaimed.
We are going to the doctor, he replied.
There was one thing that Nina did not like. It was going to doctors
while she was in pain, for they only made it worse with their prodding and
poking.
No, Im all right, really. Please do not let us go to the doctor.
But Ruben had insisted. As it turned out, she had needed an operation
for a vein had literally frozen from the cold. Ruben had done all the chores
while it was healing.
She moved to look at that hand now, but another pain stopped her.
As if it could not help itself, her left hand moved from where it had been
lying on the mattress. It crept across her stomach, up towards her chest,
and as if afraid of what it might find, it stopped. But she already knew, of
course, even as her fingers found the edges of the bandage that covered the
area where her right breast used to be. The truth startled her still, every
morning.
Had it only been two weeks since that first phone call? She pondered
at how such a significant loss could happen in so little time, and so quietly.
The doctor had called after their annual medical check-up.
Nina, this is Hans. Is Ruben home? Hans did not normally call after
a check-up.
Ja, she replied and silently handed the phone to Ruben who had
come into the kitchen.
Hallo? Ruben spoke into the phone. There was a moment of silence
as he listened to Hans on the other end. Nina had taken a seat in the
kitchen table, pretending to be busy mixing the eggs and cream for their
lunch a la flamande.
Hans, are you sure? Ruben whispered into the phone. Then he nodded. Ja, I will tell her. Shes right here.
Nina watched as he slowly placed the handset onto its base. His expression scared her. She did not want to hear what Ruben had to say, whatever
it was, and began to rise from her seat.
Am I dying? Nina joked. She wanted to be her usual cheerful self.
Ruben was silent. He looked like he was unsure of how to say what he
had to say. Finally, she whispered, What is it?
Ruben drew close and held her shoulders with his hand, as if to keep
her from falling. You have breast cancer.
Nina had felt her limbs go limp, as she dropped back to her seat. Ruben
sat down, too, and reached out his hand, as if to comfort her.

They had gone to the hospital where Nina underwent what the doctor had termed a simple mastectomy. Simple. She almost smiled at the
word. Had it already been a week since that first morning after the operation? Each morning since had felt unreal, six mornings of awakening with
this strange body and its missing part. There was something terribly funny
about her situation, on top of everything else, but she could not remember
the joke.
The bedroom door opened slowly, and a wooden tray hovered in midair through the gap. On the tray were arranged two cups of coffee, a plate
of steaming rolls, and a small slab of her favorite Namur butter. Next to
the butter stood a thin vase on which resided a single stem topped by a
perfectly yellow tulip, also her favorite. Above the tray was a face with a
tentative smile.
Good morning, he said.
Goeiendag, she said.
Nina watched as Ruben came forward carefully balancing the tray,
her eyes following his every move as he deposited the tray onto the nightstand to her left. She tried to raise herself, but he was there before she could
move, lifting her bodily but gently, so she could rest her back against the
pillows which he hurriedly propped up behind her. She didnt have to stay
in the hospital for a week, but Ruben had insisted that they wait until the
drain from her incision was removed from her body.
I can still move, you know, she said, trying to sound light-hearted,
but dank u.
She could not raise her right arm for her nightgowns and had slept in
her robe. She tugged at its edges now to hide her lopsided chest. He bowed
his head to allow her the slight movement, picking up the tray from the
table and gently placing it in front of her. He poured coffee onto the two
cups and held one cup toward her.
Dank u! she said, smiling at the cup.
Zonder dank, said he, raising his cup before bringing it down to his
lips.
Placing his cup on the tray, he picked up a knife and buttered a roll. He
handed it to her, then he buttered another one for himself.
You remembered, she said, lifting her eyes from the tray and smiling
at him, her left cheek dimpling.
Hunh? he said, chewing faster to clear his mouth.
She fingered the lace on the white cloth that covered the tray, her eyes
on him, the smile still on her face. She had told him to always place a cloth
over the breakfast tray.
Oh, hmm, hmmm, he nodded vigorously several times, still chewing, raising his eyebrows at the cloth on the tray, and rolling his eyes

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Ma. Elena L. Paulma

Three Kisses

toward her. The slight movement juggled the tray a little and he steadied it.
Oooops! he exclaimed, eyes widening, looking at her, and she
laughed with him. They finished eating in familiar silence. Afterwards, he
lifted the tray from the bed and placed it on the nightstand. Then he stood
up. Nina thought he looked tall from where she was.
Bath time, he said, smiling, in imitation of the nurse who had assisted
Nina with her baths in the hospital.
What?!
Bath time.
Nee! She looked at him, shaking her head Nee, nee!
Ja, ja.
He sat down next to her, and looked her in the eye.
Its okay, he said.
She bowed her head, fingering the edges of her robe. When she looked
up at him, he had not taken his eyes off her.
Its okay, he said again softly, lowering his head, and looking at her
steadily. Still looking at him, she gave an almost imperceptible nod. He
stood up, and bent down to gently help her up, as she slid first her left foot,
then her right, onto the floor. They slowly walked towards the bathroom
door, her left hand on his right arm, as on that day they had walked towards
the judge, and gotten married.
He sat her on the closed toilet bowl, turned toward the bathtub and
twisted the knobs. Nina concentrated on the sound of the running water.
Ruben turned to her. Nina was holding on to the edges of her robe, but
Ruben took her hands and lay them down on her lap, first one, then the
other. He began to unravel the silk knot that held her robe together and
again, she lifted both her hands to cover the ugliness of her chest. But he
gently placed his hands over hers and drew them down again. He drew
open the edges of the robe as Nina bowed her head, afraid to see the look
of disgust in his eyes. Her left breast hung old and wrinkled, the right part
of her chest covered with white bandage. She watched as Ruben slowly
removed the tapes that held her bandage and winced as her wound was
finally revealed. She lifted her head for she could not bear to look at the
drying blue-black tissues, the Frankenstein sutures on the puckered flesh
still red from the recent trauma.
Ruben met her lifted face and kissed both her moist eyes. He kissed
her right cheek, then her left, then her right again, in Belgian fashion, until
she smiled because it was ridiculous to be exchanging polite kisses there in
the bathroom with her seated on the toilet seat, one wrinkled breast hanging between them. Then he kissed her on the lips, softly, and it was his turn
to smile for she kissed him back.
Ninas eyes were on him as he knelt on the bathroom floor and bent

his head, the soft light from the bathroom lamp turning his white hair into
silver, gentling his blue eyes and casting a golden glow onto his lined face.
He kissed her left breast. Then very gently, he moved his head to place
soft little kisses around her scar.
The water continued to gush from the faucet, both hot and cold streams
mingling in swirls at the bottom of the tub, as the steam began to rise.

18

19

2010

The Big Man

The Big Man

The legend of the greatest Philippine basketball player

Asterio Enrico N. Gutierrez

blooded Filipino to play in the NBA.


Yet it was when his tribute audio video presentation ended and
then-commissioner Noli Eala stepped onstage to present his hall-of-fame
medal that the world got a glimpse of what exactly Bolado had accomplished. In an ill-fitting barong, a buzzcut, and an apologetic, even goofy,
grin on his clean-shaven face as he bowed, then crouched, then finally knelt,
just so the three usherettes could drape it around his neck, there was little
to suggest that he was the single greatest basketball player in Philippine
history. And even less that he was whats known in local folklore as a kapre.

hen the Philippine Basketball Association elevated its newest Hall of Fame class in 2007, what seemed the entire host
of local basketball faithful gathered at the Araneta Coliseum;
from the full-force Barangay Ginebra population, to familiar Premium
Box patrons such as Manny V. Pangilinan and Fred Uytengsu, right up to
basketball institution brass the likes of Sonny Barrios, Chito Salud, and
Quinito Henson. Before them stood legends such as Olympian Manny
Paner, the original skywalker Danny Daredevil Florencio, and the
singular Abet Guidaben, who, after more than a decade of epic battles
with Mon Fernandez, ended his career as the second-leading scorer and
rebounder in league history. Yet all eyesincluding theirswere fixed on
the immense figure literally casting a long shadow on all of them: the 76
Bolado de Makiling.
He is by far the earliest to ascend the pantheon, unanimously voted in
just three years after his final PBA game. Hardly surprising, after submitting a career built on Herculean feats. Rookie of the Year. Defensive Player
of the Year. MVP. All in the same season. The most points ever scored in
a game with 108, together with the highest season average at 64.3. The
most rebounds in a game with 57, to go with the top season average at 35.2.
The most blocks with 18, on top of his 10.1 season average record. And
then there is his most mythical achievement: becoming the first ever full-

The seeming obliviousness to his past figures in the hundreds of


features and documentaries on his career. Whatever the take on his origin story (if at all), it will almost always open with his descent from Mt.
Makiling with Norman Blackas if hed been born fully-grown, entering
our world already the fabled frontcourt force he would become. This is due
not only to the more interestingand ultimately more significantfact
of his career, but also to his well-documented reluctance to speak about his
family and their community. To this day the normally candid and genial
Bolado has politely declined to answer any questions as to where and how
exactly they may be found, giving reasons that seem reasonable enough:
first, he does not know if they would be as open to being revealed to the
world; and second, the last thing he wants is a swarm of scouts scouring
the forest for draft picks. Out of respect and perhaps a little protectiveness of the national hero, the publicand, surprisingly, even the governmenthave not prodded further.
Fortunately for sports historians (as well as folklorists), what little he
has said already reveals much, both of his origins and their lore. He was
born to Bunlaweg and Yagra in the early 70s (a ballpark date deduced
when hed mentioned being nine or ten when construction began on the
Philippine High School for the Arts). While their home, a patch of forest in
the heart of Mt. Makiling, conforms to myth, their love story does not. His
father was not the specter crouching in the trees waiting to snare a wife,
and his mother was certainly no innocent virgin wandering in the woods.
They were both simple (if that word still applies) kapres living simple kapre
lives, and in a charming turn, theyd actually met through a common
friend. More superstitions are debunked with every slice of their daily life
he has consented to share. They do not smoke tobacco but herbal cigars
rolled with a special assortment of cut-up plants and roots, and do so
strictly for health reasons. He has never heard of any invisibility-granting
belts, and does not recall them ever misleading travelers or stealing their
belongings. They have no preternatural strength or speed other than what
any tree-climbing seven-to-eight-footer would have. As for the mysterious

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Asterio Enrico N. Gutierrez

The Big Man

rustling leaves, its simply some catnapper almost lolling off a branch.
In fact, it is only upon his introduction to basketball that one bit of lore
is finally proven truethat once a kapre finds his true love, he devotes the
rest of life to it and never looks back.
For sports historians and critics, Norman Blacks fateful trip to
Laguna reads something between clich and archetype; made art by classics such as H. Rider Haggards King Solomons Mines and of course King
Kong, cheapened by Hollywood sports flicks such as Kevin Bacons The Air
Up There. Yet in the very real world of basketball, it is, if anything, nothing new. There was Hakeem Olajuwon from Nigeria, recruited on a tip by
Guy Lewis for his Houston Cougars in 1980. Then Dikembe Mutombo,
snapped up from Congo by John Thompsons Georgetown squad in 1987.
Even Philippine basketball itself has its own microcosmic take, with Joe
Lipa and Joel Banal digging Ateneos college program out from decline in
the early 2000s by recruiting from provinces as far-flung as Zamboanga
and Negrosa practice which has now become the norm.
From Miggy Escaos comprehensive feature in the Sunday Inquirer
Magazine, it appears Blacks own journey started no more auspiciously. A
year earlier, Black recounted, hed been re-hired by San Miguel to replace
Jong Uichico (who in turn had inherited the job from the legendary Ron
Jacobs, for whom Black had been originally eased out) and curb their
spotty championship record. While hed managed just one title at his
stints with Sta. Lucia and Pop Cola, a change in fortunes was expected
now that he was back with the franchise hed led to the historic 89 grandslam. Only thing was, Black explained, I had nobody. No Samboy [Lim],
Mon [Fernandez], Ato [Agustin], or even an Ives [Dignadice]. With half
of what starters he had out for the season with injuries, they not just missed
the play-offs, but finished last in the All-Filipino and Commissioners Cup
conferences and second to the last in the Reinforced Cup.
Yet in a remarkable case of kismet, it was precisely the disastrous
amount of losses that ended up dealing Black the ace he needed: first pick
in the 2003 draft. Certainly, it was no guarantee. Among those whod
already declared, while there were two or three genuinely talented prospectsUAAP MVP Mike Cortez chief among themthere were none
of the transcendent, once-in-a-generation players Black would need to
re-establish a dynasty. But perhaps that too was part of fate, given its implications on Blacks next move. I knew Id have to go on a recruiting trip,
he said. At least we had first pick, so whomever I discovered, [it was] finders keepers.
His first stop was Zamboanga, where other scouts had time and again
struck gold. But after three days, the best he could find was a 210-pound

streetballer who topped out at a scant 65. He turned to Surigao, visiting


the jerry-rigged courts by the shore where the Muro Ami kids played well
into the night. Good lungs, but once again not nearly enough size. Davao,
Cebu, Leyte, and Baguio all yielded nothing as well. By then I was getting closer back to Manila, he related, and starting to get a bit desperate.
This desperation led him to recall a dinner hed had with Bobby Parks and
his Filipina wife Shane years back. She told this story of eight, ten foot
monsters, like Filipino bigfoots, that were being spotted at Pampanga.
Bobby laughed and said if they were real, theyd make great centers. Black
laughed along as well that night, but on his tour, as it became more and
more apparent that he might have nothing to show for the weeks hed
logged and the tens of thousands hed spentand more alarmingly, no
franchise player to suit upBlack decided he had nothing more to lose
anyway and took the side trip.
Leaving nothing to chance, he collected everything hed read he
would need. The shirt to be worn inside out. The purse of the finest tobacco
he could find. Even the golden rope that, when put on the neck of a kapre
at night, would yield a pot of gold in the morning. Claiming a need for
utmost secrecy (more likely embarrassment), he left his rented vehicle in
town (more likely he didnt), refused the company of a local guide, and set
off for the long hike up Mt. Makiling. He did admit to being a touch nervousas well as the sole reason he persisted. Im thinking if theyre real,
Im face to face with an eight foot monster, he said. On the other hand, I
had a center.
At this pointmuch to the noticeable dismay of Escao, not to mention hundreds of historians and researchersBlack refused, and continues to refuse, to divulge more, citing respect for Bolados wishes despite
their later falling out (some are more skeptical; Tim Cone and Chot Reyes
claim Black just doesnt want to share trade secrets). He closes that chapter
by simply saying that his quest lasted three nights, after which he texted
assistant coach Siot Tanquincen that the trip was a success. He had found
their champion.
Barring the blank history page, the gem of the interview becomes the
two months more he would spend up the mountain, in which he molded
Bolado from kapre into serviceable big man. From his own pocket, he
gathered a team around Bolado, binding them with a vision of something
greater than all of themand, more importantly, ironclad confidentiality
contracts. He called in Gerry Buted, his acquaintance from the build-andsell Palanca contractors, to erect a makeshift halfcourt gym fitted with a
Germany-imported security system. While waiting, he asked in stylist
Eric Pineda, who trimmed Bolados scraggly, waist-length hair, shaved
his 13-inch beard, and replaced his leather loincloth with custom-tailored

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Asterio Enrico N. Gutierrez

The Big Man

6XL sweats and size 20 sneakers. Also called in was Dr. Felicitas Pado,
a UP professor who refined Bolados guttural grunts into rudimentary
English. Arriving on her heels was Luigi Bercades, a fitness instructor and
nutritionist at UA&P, tasked to get Bolados cardio and fine motor skills as
close as possible to the demands of professional sports.
Last to arrive was Benjie Paras. Since Black could not work with
Bolado directlyleague rules forbid teams from personally working out
with players before draft camphe rang the former Shell center, who,
luckily, was not employed by any team at the time. Black pitched him the
job, explaining the circumstances and wisely getting it in on record that it
was not official San Miguel business so he would get nothing for his trouble. Paras set foot at the makeshift gym a day later. Of his own initiative
(a point Black stressed again and again) the celebrated Tower of Power
drew up a crash course to equip Bolado with the skills he would most need
in the least amount of time. He spent a week on the rules, going through
the league manual and playing Bolado hours of tape. From there, they
moved on to rudimentary drillsrunning, backpedalling, side-stepping,
and then dribbling and passing. Finally, they came round to frontcourt
training. He armed the kapre with the drop step, the jumphook, and of
course, the dunka basic arsenal Paras himself had lived off on. After a
month of 16-hour training days, Paras blew his whistle a final time. Bolado
was ready.
All six accompanied Black and Bolado on their first trip to the San
Miguel offices. For all the giants potential, he was still supposedly a mythical creature, and Black expected anything from a drawn-out argument to
an outright battle with management. What he hadnt expected was what
actually transpired. After I played the clips Benjie took, he said, they
gave their buy-in instantly. [It was] the easiest sell I ever had to make.
Black didnt have time to stay astonished. The very next day, December
26, 2002, a retinue of Ramon Angs bodyguards accompanied Bolado
complete with legitimate papers Danding Cojuangco himself had procuredto the PBA office. To a dumbstruck press, he announced that he
was declaring himself eligible for the upcoming draft.
Predictably, everyone reacted as they would to a National Enquirer
story. A kapre? Seryoso? Sports columnists and bloggers all dismissed him
as a fraud. Some speculated it was yet another PBA marketing stunt, a desperate if creative attempt to parachute their free-falling ratings. Others
snorted that he was probably another Fil-Sham trying to get in through
the back door. Magandang Gabi Bayan analyzed the pictures of the cleanshaven, beaming big man and declared him a hoax. Saksi solicited the
opinion of Dr. Damiana Eugenio, the countrys foremost authority on
folklore, who proclaimed that based on her extensive research, she was

certain that whatever Bolado was, he was not a kapre.


Yet it was what followed that would turn out the strangest occurrence
of the entire stretch. Within weeks, the jeering died down and settled into
hushed speculationonly it wasnt about Bolados roots. In a true reflection of the mystical Filipino love for basketball, the question on everyones
lips was: Can he play? Sure the kapre is real, but is he for real?
The intrigue only intensified when Black and San Miguel refused
to divulge anything. They declined to make statements or release Paras
scouting videos. They instructed Bolado to hold back at the mandatory
draft camp. And as draft day loomed closer, it became clearer and clearer
that he was generating very real fear. In moves reminiscent of the injusticeand hilarious absurdityof the Nancy Navalta investigation, team
officials, led by none other than Chito Narvasa, filed cases for Bolados
disqualification from the draft. Whatever grounds they could dig up, they
raised: that the male qualifier in the rule Any Filipino male may apply
applied only to human males. That kapres may count time differently,
potentially creating a loophole to the at least 21 years of age requirement. That he may not be a kapre but a bigfoothence, not a natural-born
Filipino. Expectedly, every single charge was dismissed, and on January
6, 2003 Bolados eligibility was confirmed. A week later at the Glorietta
Activity Center, Norman Black himself handed Bolado his symbolic San
Miguel cap and jersey. And once the season began, opponents found out
that mysterious rustling leaves were the last thing they had to fear.

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25

At the time the PBA was in a dark period. Attendance and ratings were
at an all-time low. While they would not admit it, the reason was obvious
enough: Fil-Ams had overrun the league. Having cut their teeth in prestigious US college programs, and all bigger, burlier, and quicker than their
pure Filipino counterparts, they smashed local records, snatched practically every individual award, and divvied up the past four seasons 12 conference championships among themselves. The old guardPatrimonio,
Lastimosa, Codieraall issued statements against their invasion, but
well past their primes, they could not hold their own on the court and
were eventually forced to retire. Then-commissioner Jun Bernardino
made some small effort to turn them back, issuing indefinite suspensions
to Fil-Shams including repeat MVP Eric Menk, but he would also be the
author of new rules granting them easier entry, such as permitting teams
to directly hire one Fil-Am each. Asserting dominance both on the frontcourt and the front office, the conquerors, as Rafe Bartholomew labeled
them in his groundbreaking book Pacific Rims, ruled the league. And then
the stranger known only as Bolado came to town.
His first game, broadcast on the now-defunct Vintage Sports on

Asterio Enrico N. Gutierrez

The Big Man

February 23, 2003, became the most watched event in Philippine television history at the time. In a savvy move by newly-installed commissioner Noli Eala, San Miguel opened the season against the Talk n Text
Phonepals, which boasted of the leagues most dominant center, 68 FilTongan Asi Taulava. The very first sighting of Bolado in action is burned
into the nations collective memory. How without seeming to leave his
feet, he tipped the jumpball to their side. How Olsen Racela dribbled
upcourt and calmly raised a finger to signal a low post isolation. How
Bolado instantly stepped into his sweet spot and caught the perfect entry
pass. And how, with Taulava crouched low as possible to establish a seemingly immovable base, Bolado simply curled towards the baseline and with
hardly a hop, rattled the rim with a dunk.
The rest of the season became one big game in which every team
tried coming up with their own solution to Bolado. FedEx traded for a
two-center line up of Andy Siegle and Dorian Pea. Shell did them one
better with a frontcourt of Rudy Hatfield, Ali Peek, and Mick Pennisi. Red
Bull simply hired the dirtiest Fil-Ams left and hacked him at every possession. Bolado took them down one by one with a mighty arsenal of dunks
and hooks, while on the other end, he blocked shot after shot until every
team began settling for low-percentage jumpshots. San Miguel swept their
entire calendar by an average of 27.3 points to win the championship, and
Bolado was unanimously voted Best Player of the Conference.
The second and third conferences looked to be a different story. With
each team now allowed a full-blooded foreigner with no height ceiling,
the most formidable set of imports the PBA had ever seen began flying in.
Alaska signed up 71 Tahj Holden, whod just started for the Maryland
NCAA championship team. Sta. Lucia suited up 70, 260-pound Dejan
Koturovi of the 2002 Serbian FIBA gold medal squad. Talk N Text spent
six million pesos for former Chicago Bull James Dickey Simpkins to come
in a year earlier than hed been slated.
Black never blinked. For both conferences, instead of maximizing the
height ceiling, he hired 62 Tony Rutland, whod run Wake Forests Tim
Duncan-centered sets under the famed Dave Odom. As for Bolado, Black
brought him to none other than Mon Fernandez to develop the big mans
quickness and agility. And once again, San Miguel tore through everyone. Against the now taller and stronger opposition, Bolado combined his
height with his enhanced speed, exploding across the court to catch an
alley-oop or swat a lay-up. San Miguel swept both conferences to capture
only the fourth grandslam in league history.
When the smoke cleared, Bolado had averaged 64.3 points, 35.2
rebounds, and 10.1 blocks. Hed easily surpassed Mon Fernandezs revered
1984 27-point, 15 rebound, 9.9 assist statline, and had outdone Parass

Rookie of the Year + MVP debut by also winning Defensive Player of the
Yearlaying to rest even the most enduring achievements of his proverbial fathers. And not only did he set records in virtually every category, his
new marks eclipsed even the import records, which had traditionally been
separated from the locals. It seemed one of those improbable seasons in
a sports leagues infant years, with the rules yet to be refined, the playing
field yet to be leveled, freaks of nature yet to be foreseen. When he was
done, it was clear to everyone that Bolado was simply out of their league.

26

27

The first Filipino in the NBA was Raymond Townsend. A 63 175pound point guard, he played college ball at UCLA under John Wooden
and was part of the 1974 national championship team. He would be
selected 22nd in the first round of the 1978 NBA draft by the Golden State
Warriors, and eventually end his NBA career three years later with Indiana.
But despite the national custom of claiming anyone with so much as a
drop of Filipino blood, the opposite is the case with Townsend. As he himself has grumbled, hardly anyone knows of him. Several explanations have
been offered: the NBA was hardly televised globally; he came at a time
when black and white were the only races that mattered; more important
events were occurring in Philippine society. Yet what seems closest to the
truth is the simple fact that he was half-Americanand everyone knew
it was his American half doing the playing (some would even say it was
his Filipino half that kept him from lasting more than three seasons). So
despite having Townsend in the books, the nation waited before laying
claim to a Filipino NBA player.
It seemed that player had finally come in 1998, in the form of Johnny
Abarrientos. After leading Alaska to a grand slam and bagging the MVP
trophy in 97, every columnist declared that the 57 point guard could
be the first true Filipino with NBA potential. The chatter culminated in a
much-hyped offer from Charlotte Hornets scout Jon Bettencourt to participate in their summer camp. Abarrientos, however, declined. At the
time, he was the best player on the best team, with millions guaranteed,
and he wasnt going to put it all on the line for a try-out. And so the myth
of the Filipino NBA player remained a myth.
It was a myth that would lose its luster in the years to come. The
Philippines had long been on a string of disappointing results in international competition, and after another heartbreaking finish to the 2002
Asian Games, it seemed that even the Filipinos famed indomitable passion
for basketball was waning. The PBA declined to send players to the 2003
FIBA Asian Championships. A bloc of congressmen proposed bills to cut
basketball development funding to hardly any resistance. Columnists
even those whod churned countless prescriptions on what the Philippines

Asterio Enrico N. Gutierrez

The Big Man

must do to crack the international scenewrote that perhaps the disproportionate resources would be better spent on sports Filipinos were genetically better-equipped for, perhaps football and track, besides well-tilled
ground such as boxing, bowling, pool, and even chess. Quinito Henson
himself wrote in the Philippine Star, While I too dream of seeing our players make it globally, perhaps its time we treated the national past time as
what it really is: a past time.
The lone dissenting voice was longtime PBA sage Recah Trinidad. In
his Inquirer column, he came out with a bold, grand prediction:

was being sold as a strength. On the other hand, Bolado has the capacity to
join the worlds best at his own position, on his own terms.
The speculation ended (some would say truly began) on January 3,
2004. At a press conference at the Peninsula Manila, Bolado finally made
an announcement: hed received blessing from Danding Cojuangco to
leave San Miguel, and was taking the rest of the year off to train for the
NBA. And suddenly the public, as much it loved having Bolado around
he endorsed everything from Gillette razors to A.B.E. International
Business College, had appeared in a movie (Gil Portes Homecoming, in
which he became the first PBA player not to be cast in a comedic role) and
a slew of TV shows (most notably a unintentionally hilarious appearance
as a traditional kapre in GMAs Pedro Penduko), and most tellingly, local
boys were sporting his PBA jersey everywhere (something that wouldve
been too embarrassing with any other local player)could not wait to see
him go. Every imaginable kind of merchandise flooded tiangge stalls and
online stores, all with a Russian constructivist-style portrait of Bolado and
the line The Promised One.
His decision was not without its detractors. PBA old-timer Manolo
Iigo foresaw a Wang Zhizhi tragedy where Bolado would turn his back
on invitations to participate in the national team. Political analyst Alex
Magno predicted that after a few months of hanging out at Beverly Hills
or Manhattan with the likes of Jack Nicholson and Spike Lee, he would
eventually renounce his Filipino citizenship.
But there was none more vocal than Norman Black. With what can be
supposed is fear at San Miguels inevitable collapse (and, some quipped,
a mentality that reflected hed become truly Filipino), he was quoted by
Beth Celis saying, Hes good, no doubt. But the NBA? I dont know I
played there a couple of years Ive attended a few games and practices
recently. To be honest, I dont think he has the skills to make it I never
taught him any of that.
With that, Black exited frame on whatever his former wards future
held. Which would lead to the entry of perhaps the most critical figure in Bolados career: the enigmatic, heretofore unknown Wilson Tan.
Together they would show everyone that while theyd already watched
Bolado change history, the truth was, the world hadnt seen anything yet.

Despite the heartbreaking non-event of Abarrientos NBA bid and our


recent international disappointments, I believe our time will yet come.
One day, the Philippines will spawn a player with the right skills, the right
height, and the right heart to make it to the biggest league and restore
glory to Philippine basketball. I can only hope to see him in my lifetime.
Of course, no one took his words seriously at the time. Like Black when
Shane Parks had told him about kapres, everyone considered the idea ludicrous, agreeing with Henson that basketball was a past time whose time
had passed. That is, until December 15, 2003. That daythe day after San
Miguel sealed their grand slamSev Sarmentas Inquirer column would
famously read the headline, Why Bolado Can Make it to the NBA. In
characteristic Sarmenta rococo, he proclaimed:
He has not just height, but a heightened sense of height He has power,
but not just a gorillas brute strength, but the owls wisdom to know when
to bang it inside ala-Shaq, and when to feather it in ala-Hakeem He
isnt just graceful, he is also gracious; he does not trashtalk, not even after
smashing a dunk on someones face Finally, the Philippines has found
its Yao Ming, its Dikembe Mutombo, its King Kong. World, meet Bolado.
And just like that, the hope that seemed to have died with Abarrientos
flare-out had returned, this time stronger, louder, giddier. Everyone
weighed in with every kind of opinion, from Conrado de Quiross flighty
Ill be the first to admit, I was never a fan of the bloated support and attention thrown basketballs way. But I guess thats the real magic of Bolado.
With his Clint Eastwood-style annihilation of his PBA foes and now his
very plausible PBA bid, he has united a 7,107-island, 80 million-population nation, and lent some childlike hope to even the most cynical, cranky
opinion writers, to Bill Velascos scholarly To be perfectly frank, the difference between Abarrientos and Bolado is that Abarrientos was trying to
get in through the backdoor. What was a genetic shortcoming in height
28

Urban legends about Tan abound. Red Bull coach and Pampanga
vice-governor Yeng Guiao claimed he was a brilliant but disgruntled
assistant trainer to the Chinese National Gymnastics Team in the 80s.
BULGAR published a report about purported ties to Philip Medel. His
Wikipedia page contains speculations of antropophobia and agoraphobia.
None of these stories, however, cite credible sources; by all accounts, the
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Asterio Enrico N. Gutierrez

The Big Man

most accurate facts about his life have come from interviews with former
employees and business associates.
According to them, Tan was born in 1971 to Fookien migrants. A selfmade multi-millionaire, he made his part of his fortune from an empire
of small shops: toy stores, computer boutiques, appliance centers, snack
stalls. But in large part, it was from running the local NBA gambling syndicate. In the early 90s, hed read about the glut of European NBA signings
and predicted a global boom which could prove lucrative. He put up big
money betting circles and recruited ambitious Ateneo and Benilde students to run them. His forecast was spot on. By the late 90s, NBA gambling
was a multi-million peso industry, and Tan was its unseen (and reportedly
untouchable) epicenter.
As with most great kingpins, his success lay in how he was an obsessive student of his business. He devoured autobiographies, biographies,
books, magazines, DVDs, everything that had been or was being written
about the league and its players. He watched every game beamed through
his 3 satellite TV subscriptions, sometimes 8 or 9 at a time. He made regular trips to the US to sit in at training camps and workshops and catch live
matches. He anonymously joined hundreds of online fantasy leagues and
was abreast of practically every player of every team. Studiously observing
the game from his secluded mansion in Baguio, the bigger picture always
in sight, it is no wonder he was able to grow his pet enterprise so effectively.
And why, more than anyone, he was the best possible mentor to Bolado.
In 2006, the rarely-seen Tan appeared on Pia Hontiveross Shop Talk
for his firstand so far, onlyinterview. At his request it has never been
replayed by ANC, but for those who had the fortune of catching it, it is one
of the most riveting on-camera interviews in Philippine television history.
Hontiveros led off with the question that had been on everyones mind for
years: How did he land the job? It was simple, he replied with a backhand wave, as if it had indeed been the simplest thing. When I confirmed
rumors that he was announcing his retirement, I asked my people to set up
a meeting. I presented my plan, and named my price. No more, no less. He
signed on the spot.
Yet it was not the gossip that would be the most revealing part of the
interview, but the tale of Tans tutelage. When Hontiveros asked how
the camp kicked off, Tans ruthless perfectionist streak was immediately
apparent. He asked me to evaluate his strengths and weaknesses, he said.
I told him no. The first thing he needed to understand was that as far as
the NBA was concerned, he had no strengths. He pointed out the holes
in Bolados game: he had a single post move, could only play off isolations,
and his main weapon, height, was irrelevant: many others, including some
much taller than himthe 78 North Korean Ri Myong Hun, the 710

Yasutaka Okayama from Japanhad all met with rejection by the NBA.
I needed to destroy any idea he had of being successful and make him feel
small. Only then could I build him up to something of value.
The actual work-outs sound like a textbook intensive sports camp, as
well as a storybook Rocky montage. They began with basic biomechanics.
I believe that like the tallest buildings, the best centers are built from the
ground up, Tan said. So we started with his feet. From there, he painted
a picture of the first four months, in which Bolado performed no less than
50 different footwork and balance drills every dayand nothing else.
Furthermore, the drills were not limited to basketball. Tan had Bolado
master footwork techniques from other sports: chassing from badminton,
rompre, passe arrire, and saut en arrire from fencing, crossovers and fakes
from football, and even intricate plyometric patterns from hopscotch. The
tortuous sessions lasted from 6 am to 8 pm every day. After every session,
he would gourggghhhh! Tan recalled. Then hed wobble to the lockers and ice his feet for three hours.
When describing their ensuing regimen with actual basketball skills,
Tan displayed the terrifying extent of his basketball knowledge. In clipped,
rapid-fire English, he rattled off what seemed an entire glossary of basketball terms. For defense, Bolado did superman drills, six-and-in drills,
tap drills, hook drills, blocking out drills, then exercises on man-to-man
defense, zone defense, blocking the lane, covering the weakside, defending
the pick-and-roll, rotating, recovering, switching, reading fakes, and even
staying out of foul trouble. For offense, Bolado practiced set shots, jumpshots, lay-ups, bank shots, floaters, hookshots, scoopshots, free throws, as
well as what seemed every post-up move in the book, from up-and-unders,
spins, turn arounds, step-backs, drop-steps, to every possible two or threemove combination of them.
But it was when Tan recounted the final phase of their training that
the biggest revelation was bared: he was not just some sports trainer but
a modern-day Chironian tutor, shaping Bolado into more than just a
would-be NBA center, but a champion. I wanted him to beat even the
best of the best, he said. And for that he would need a special weapon.
What followed would become one of the greatest Philippine sports
legends of all time, immortalized in Paolo Villalunas 2008 documentary
Hook of Longinus. In 1997, Tan related, I had the chance to sit in at a
training camp with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in Chicago. I arranged to speak
with him after the session, and for a priceI mean a very big pricehe
gave me a demonstration of the Sky Hook. At that disclosure, even Pia
Hontiveros could only stare blankly. Certainly, even she had heard of the
Sky Hook; it was long held as the single most devastating move in basketball history, the one weapon which allowed Jabbar to end his career as the

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Asterio Enrico N. Gutierrez

The Big Man

NBAs leading career scorer. But it was also an ancient move no one had
seen in more than twenty years.
Tan went on to narrate how hed passed it on to Bolado. To impress its
latent power in his mind, Tan showed him endless tape of Jabbarboth
as a gangly rookie and a washed up 38-year oldfacing monster athletes
such as Chamberlain, Unseld, Malone, Walton, Parish, cutting them all
down with the seemingly magical move. From there, Tan taught him its
intricacies step by step. The critical footwork. The necessary quickness.
The feathery touch from any spot on the floor. Bolado, Tan said, needed
all of two months to master it. By then he was taking and making it from
as far as three and half meters. And the training that had started with feet
reached its conclusion with the ball arching perfectly from the tip of his
fingers and into the hoop.
The interview ended there, but the rest of the story is well-known. Tan,
it turned out, had one last brilliant move of his own. On September 21,
2004, he went on ABC5 for a live press conference. He introduced himself
as Bolados trainer, and revealed that for the past year, he had been preparing him for the NBA. Then in a stroke of business genius (and, some say,
what the entire arrangement had really been leading up to) he announced
that he was holding a two-hour demonstration event at the Fort Bonifacio
open field in a months time, billed simply as The Exhibition.
The entire nation was stunned. No one had ever seen or heard of the
stern, inscrutable middle-aged Chinese man to whom Bolado had apparently entrusted hisand the countrysNBA dreams. The mystery all
only added to the anticipation, and The Exhibition rolled on to become
the most bankable show of the decade. Dozens of multi-nationals signed
up to sponsor. Commercial air time was reportedly sold at 10 million a spot
while tickets to the live event were sold at 10,000, 30,000, and 50,000 pesos.
Everyone got their moneys worth. To a crowd of a size last seen at
Michael Jacksons 96 HIStory concert in Asia World City, Bolado showed
exactly where the time off had gone. For the first half, Tan had flown in 10
seven footers from China, all of them starters in the Chinese Basketball
Association, half of them past or present members of their vaunted
national training pool. In a skills demonstration, they ran various permutations of double and triple and even quadruple teams against himall of
which he beat back with a stunning new arsenal of both finesse and power
moves. In the defense portion, each of the Chinese big men tried scoring
against him in a football penalty kick format. He repelled them just as easily, blocking or altering even their craftiest shots. The second half was only
more astounding. Tan had assembled a squad of Americans imports from
every major Asian leagueall of whom had played no less than two seasons in the NBAto play a 40-minute full court game against Bolado and

the Chinese players. They fed him every possession and went at him every
time on defense. Bolado displayed yet another new skill at every turn. In
addition to powerful dunks and elegant whirls and pump fakes, he also
made pinpoint passes out of triple teams to speeding cutters and spot-up
shooters. As the final buzzer sounded, every one of the 60,000 in attendance got up for a riotous ten minute standing ovation. Thousands lined
up for the one-hour P7,500-a-pop photosouvenir session. Every piece of
merchandise hawked at the gatesjerseys, posters, t-shirts, bobble-heads,
even calendar-rigged ball penswas sold out.
Best of all, a day later Tan would receive a phone call from Rodney
Heard, who introduced himself as a scouting director for the NBA Atlanta
Hawks. Hed been very impressed by what he saw, he said, and was inviting Bolado to try out at their summer camp.

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33

Nothing made fact that he was starting from scratch clearer than the
press his arrival received. Once more, his origins came into discussion,
only this time, the skepticism hed already faced with the Philippine
media was laced with outright ridicule. Atlanta newspapers and tabloids
ran satirical press releases, features, and even comic strips, most riffing to
Eddie Murphys Delirious bit about Puerto Rican Bigfoots. The mockery
achieved national attention with a Bill Simmons Sportsguy column; in it,
he described about an imaginary interview with Shaq, asking him to create a nickname for the newcomer who was apparently the big foot of the
Philippines. Shaq, Simmons wrote, replied that If Im the Big Aristotle,
and Tim [Duncan] is the Big Fundamental, I guess he can take the Big
Monkey. (A quip for which predictably the Philippine government
demanded a public apology, which predictably Simmons never gave).
Yet once again, Bolados play soon made believers out of everyone.
A week after his first few work-outs, ESPN Insiders Chad Ford wrote,
Invited by the Atlanta Hawks to their summer camp, Filipino Bolado de
Makiling has been displaying the skills, and certainly the height to make
it to the NBA. CNNSI reported, After Japan and China, another Asian
nation just might make it to the big leagues. The 76 behemoth from the
Philippines has been knocking expectations out of the parkand seasoned vets to the floor.
Back in the Philippines, the hometown crowd gobbled it all, never
missing a line, hungry for any scrap of news. ESPN.com reported that
60% of its traffic was coming from Philippine-based URLs. TV Patrol
and 24 ORAS added special Bolado NBA Report segments. Atlantabased Filipinos attended training sessions and posted daily blog posts and
YouTube videos. And so everyone was ready on October 17, 2004, just two
weeks before the season began, when the news broke on the AP: Hawks

Asterio Enrico N. Gutierrez

The Big Man

sign Filipino center to one-year non-guaranteed contract.


A DVD of the entire season was released by Solar Sports in partnership with the NBA, which sold out within two months (and perplexingly,
has not been reissued). Entitled A Season of Bolado, it features every one of
his gamesto which, amusingly, the films writers each gave nicknames.
It begins, of course, with First Blood at Phoenix. Played November 3,
2004, it broke Bolados own PBA debut record as the most-watched event
in Philippine television history, and kicked off the trend of live sports
broadcasts becoming promotional draws at cinemas, bars, and even fine
dining restaurants. He entered the game in the second quarter. Alarmingly,
his first few possessions evoked memories of Shawn Bradley rather than
Yao Ming; he was easily outpositioned by Amare Stoudemire every time
and did not receive a touch. But as the half wound down to the final two
minutes, Bolado managed to jostle his way into his sweet spot, and was
rewarded by a quick entry pass. Before Stoudemire even had the chance
to lower his forearm, Bolado whirled to the center of the lane and lofted a
jumphook. It hit the bottom of the net clean.
While hardly anyone cheered at Atlantait was just another basket in
the second quarter, by a reserve no lessthe entire Philippines erupted.
Globe and Smart broke down for an entire fifteen minutes. Magandang
Tanghali Bayan was interrupted by a newsflash and never resumed. Both
AM and FM stations looped Bolados Magic Sing hit Tuktok ng Bundok
well past midnight. It would become one of those cultural watershed
moments, akin to the Eraserheads rising to the stage to the opening bars of
Alapaap at their reunion concert, and Charice Pempengco entering frame
on Glee. He would end up with four points and two rebounds; the game
ended up contested to the last minute, so he did not enter the fourth quarter to possibly pad his numbers in garbage time. But as the rest of the DVD
episode list showed, greater things were still to come.
There is the Breakthrough at Washington, his first double digit
game twelve contests later, followed by Double Double at Milwaukee,
which featured his 10-point 11-rebound effort against the Bucks. And then
there are his match-ups against the marquee centers of the time: Clash at
Denver against Marcus Camby, Battle in New Jersey against Alonzo
Mourning, Stand at Golden State against Eric Dampier. Yet by far the
most memorableand significantwas The Battle at Houston, against
none other than the 76, 305-pound Yao Ming.
It was, without question, his penultimate challenge. Yao was two years
removed from his rookie season, andwith Shaq entering his twilight
and Dwight Howard still a rookiewas slowly coming into his own as
the leagues best center. Even in Philippine newspapers, pregame previews
were grim: what could Bolado possibly have against the similarly fleet-

footed and fundamentally rock-solid giant? The answer came in the very
first quarter. Bolado started the game and to that point had limited Yao to
zero points on three bricks. But Bolado was being dealt even worse punishment. Hed been blocked twice by Yao, both on his trusted jumphooks.
On his other touches, he couldnt even gotten a shot off; Yao was simply
too big and strong to be backed down, forcing Bolado to kick the ball back
out. When he called for the next entry pass, the crowd began to cheer
clearly, he had nothing against Yao.
This time, however, he did not go to the drop-step or jumphook.
Instead he drove to his left, startling Yao, who shuffled to get back between
Bolado and the ring. But even his quick recovery could not stop Bolados
next move: he planted his left foot perfectly parallel to the baseline, and
then lifted his right leg. At the same time, he palmed the ball and raised it
with his right arm, which seemed to extend higher and higher and higher.
Hitting the apex of his reach, he coolly flicked the ball forward, casting it in
a perfect arch from his fingertips, above Yaos outstretched arms, and into
the waiting net. It fell in with a swish.
A whole second of dead air filled the commentary box. Yao and the
rest of the Rockets stood in their tracks, thunderstruck. The crowd fell still,
their mouths in frozen os as they stared at Bolado, as if trying to remember where theyd seen that moveor perhaps stunned they were actually
seeing it once more. A moment later, the stadium broke into respectful
applause.
By the all-star break, he was averaging 7.1 points, 4.1 rebounds, and
a block in 18 minutes of playing time, and had become the Hawks most
potent threat off the bench after fellow rookie Josh Smith. While he did not
make the all-rookie squad (once again causing public outrage and political
grandstanding in the Philippines), the snub only seemed to fuel him. In the
ten games that followed he turned in six double doubles, upping his season averages to eight and six, and began starting almost every game. After
a 21-point, 13-rebound performance against Tim Duncan and his San
Antonio Spurs, ESPNAtlanta columnist Kenny Fernandez remarked that
Bolados season had begun to mirror Yao Mings own rookie run, where
after a slow start he played a break-out game against the Lakers, and from
there ended the season with 13.5 and 8.2 reboundseasily making the
all-rookie first team and finishing second in the Rookie of the Year voting.
The hype was picked up by a host of national papers and websites, and
soon Bolado was being discussed in every US sports media outlet. SLAM
and Sports Illustrated ran features on his rise. 11-time sportswriter of the year
Rick Reilly dashed off one of his signature human interest pieces for ESPN
the Magazine. Mixes of his highlights popped up on YouTube. His replica
jersey cracked the NBA.com stores top-20 best-sellers. Bill Simmons him-

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The Big Man

self changed his tune, devoting an entire two-week, four-part article to the
similarities of Bolado to characters from fantasy genre films. Interestingly
his non-traditional origins had come to the fore once more, but this time
in a completely opposite lighthe was cast as a figure of fantasy, an epic
archetype, a heroic avatar. And then March 14, 2005 came.
Simply entitled Detroit in the DVD, they were up against the defending champion Detroit Pistons. Assigned to Bolado was reigning Defensive
Player of the Year Ben Wallace, the titanic anchor of their feared interior
defense. It seemed to matter little. Against Wallaces superior strength and
the Pistons vise-like double and triple teams, Bolado simply turned to his
nimble feet, slipping and spinning into position before they could smother
him. By the end of the first quarter he had eight points, six of them off
uncontested Sky Hooks.
As the second quarter started, he looked to do more of the same. Just
three possessions in, he managed to whirl by Wallace to catch an entry
pass once again, and wasting no time, he drove and planted his left foot
parallel to the baseline as hed done a hundred times. But this time, as his
giant left foot hit the ground, his entire body froze. A grimace split on his
face. A full second later, he crumpled to the ground. His mouth was fixed
in a mute scream as spasms of pain shook the length of his body. The camera quickly zoomed in, revealing his hands wound in a white-knuckled
grip around his foot. A referee called for an injury time-out, and the team
doctor scrambled to Bolados side. He pried the big mans fingers open and
pressed at the foot for few seconds. Noticeably paler, he asked Bolado a
question, leaning an ear to catch his response. Even before Bolado completed his sentence, the doctor had bolted up and was waving frantically
for a gurney.
The fall, broadcast live in the Philippines, elicited nationwide concern. Hours later, Ateneo and La Salle held joint masses praying for a successful MRI. GMA and ABS-CBN broadcast hourly reports and flashed
all-day update tickers. A contingent composed of Fr. Carmelo Caluag,
Congressman Miguel Zubiri, and Senators Robert Jaworski and Bong
Revilla got on flights to Atlanta. The entire nation held its breath, holding
vigil for their fallen hero.
The news broke at 7 a.m. the next day on CNNSI. Bolado, the report
read, had suffered a stress fracture on his foota major injury that often
afflicted oversized centers. Even more horrifically, not only was it season-ending, it was also potentially career-ending. The doctor revealed that
his feet had simply taken too much torture, both from training and from
having supported his extreme height and weight for so long. A week later,
Atlanta declared that they would have to waive himit was, after all, a
non-guaranteed contract (in an laudable display of magnanimity, Atlanta

management paid Bolado the remainder of his contract, as Chicago


had done with Jay Williams after his career-ending motorcycle crash).
Ironically, the burden his feet had endured to take to him to the NBA had
also led to his downfall. As big of a legend as he was, in the end he was
human after all.

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His last stand at Atlanta would be the last professional game he has
ever played. Sure enough, he was invited by the PBA to returnits been
said Danding Cojuangco offered to put up an entirely new league around
himbut he declined, and continues to decline every offer. He is well
aware that even with a bum foot he would be too much of advantage for
any team. As for those still hoping for a return, there is the vow he had
made at the press conference upon his arrival: on the long-awaited day
when the Philippines could make a serious bid for the Olympics finally
came, he would take to the court and do battle once more.
Until that day comes, he has plenty to occupy him. Last year, he opened
the doors of the Basketball Center for Big Men, with the goal of training
the next generation of centers. His vision, he explained, is for Philippine
basketball to be ready when the next seven-footer comes along. And from
the televised inaugural work out, it seems the future of Filipino big men
is in good hands. In attendance were Rico Espiritu, the 66 UAAP MVP
from De La Salle, Zedrick Tapang, the gangling 69 UST senior who
was Ricos junior division MVP Counterpart, and 68 Filipino-Chinese
Jedrek Lao, the second pick in the years PBA draft. As he drilled them
on the jumphook, whistling, correcting, whistling, correcting, he was the
consummate instructor, explaining the logic behind every minute movement, giving direction rather than directions. Best of all, he was teaching
by example; hyperbole has always been among the clearest ways to dramatize a point, and with Bolado, it doesnt get any more dramatic.
Still, it boggles the mind that anyone might actually match his
achievements. In a span of three years, he put in the most amazing career
any Filipino basketball playermany would say any Filipino athletehas
ever had. Much more than proving the myth of the kapre true, he proved
the myth that the Filipino basketball player can hold his own against the
world, without contextualization, without commiseration, without any
brand of affirmative action. Living up to his legend would seem impossible, except that once upon a time, none of us believed that kapres existed,
either.
2011

In Transit

et lag is slowly claiming my senses, and I could very well fall asleep
right here, right now, on this plastic bench. Ive become adept at stealing a nap while sitting upright: Ive done it in airplanes and airports,
trains and train stations, buses and bus terminals. Ive dozed off while
waiting to leave and waiting to arrive, these pockets of time I spend in
transit serving as precious opportunities to rest. I am again waiting now,
but not to get to another destination. I am waiting for news, and I do not
wish to sleep.
Im sitting next to my mother, my shoulder leaning against hers as she
does a Sudoku puzzle in todays newspaper. We are right outside double
doors with a sign declaring that the Cardiac Catheterization Laboratory
lies within, a special operating room for heart patients. I stare at the wall
in front of us. The gleam of fluorescent light reflecting off the glossy white
paint in this hospital corridor, combined with the frigid air-conditioning
blasting through the vents, reminds me of the icy sidewalks I was skidding across thirty-seven hours ago, when I was trying to hail a cab. I feel
colda constant feeling latelyso I am no longer regretting the thick
cashmere turtleneck I have been wearing for a day and a half now, the way
I had regretted it upon landing at Ninoy Aquino International Airport
earlier this morning, shocked by the humidity, reminded that February in
Manila no longer brought with it pleasantly cool weather.

Waiting in line at immigration, wool overcoat and pashmina draped


over one arm, I had constantly tugged at the turtleneck, pulling it away
from my damp skin, annoyed at myself because I had worn nothing
underneath it except a ridiculously lacy bra. In the pre-dawn queue in the
crowded arrival hall, I was surrounded by fellow balikbayans also complaining about the heat. The past several months of going back and forth
from Manila to Washington, DC had already taught me to dress prepared
for the changes in climate, so that I could peel off outer layers of clothing
as soon as I got to Manila. This time, however, I was in such a rush to leave
DC that I paid no attention to what I was grabbing out of my closet, my
thoughts focused solely on getting myself on the next flight out of there.
Chilled by the sight of snow falling outside my windowmy window?
Im afraid I cant lay claim of ownership over anything immovable nowadays, so I should simply say the windowI had reached for my warmest
sweater. Other than tossing my passport into my handbag, I didnt do any
packing before rushing into the street, frantically looking for a cab to take
me to Dulles International.
With uncharacteristic speed for a Manila arrival, I got here to Makati
Med within an hour of my plane touching down on the tarmac. The
immigration officer at the counter had wordlessly processed my passport,
adding yet another stamp to the growing latticework of ink cataloguing
my departures and arrivals. For the first time in my past three years of
comings and goings, I did not have massive checked pieces of luggage to
wait for at the baggage carousel, having come home with nothing but my
travel documents and the clothes on my back. Majority of my fellow passengers had family picking them up from the airport, which meant I was
first in line for a taxi. The lack of cars on EDSA at dawn on this Friday
morning had also helped me get here faster, but under the circumstances,
it still did not seem fast enough.
My father had been wheeled into the operating room just ten minutes
before I slid into the brightly polished corridor of the hospitals new wing.
This I learned from my mother half an hour ago, when I found her sitting
on this bench outside the operating room doors.
She did not expect to see me. She stared blankly at me for a moment, as
if trying to recognize who I was, before asking, Maya, what are you doing
here? When did you get here? She stood up with a jolt that matched her
delayed surprise.
I hugged her and sat her back down on the bench. Dads having an
operation. Of course Im here! I got in on the PAL flight that came in at
4:30.
How did you learn about your Dads operation?
Ria told me about it. My sister had mentioned it casually in her last

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Rebecca E. Khan

Rebecca E. Khan

In Transit

e-mail, which had her list of books to order from Amazon.com as its main
subject. Prefixed by a nonchalant btw, she had informed me that our
father was scheduled for an angiogram and possibly an angioplasty on
Friday, with the chance of bypass surgery if angioplasty was deemed insufficient to open up the blockages which the doctor suspected were there.
The news had hit me like a brick. I see you had no intention of telling me,
I said to my mother, gritting my teeth.
Well, this is all routine, and its a simple procedure, we figured there
was no point alarming you since you were so far away.
Mom! This is heart surgery. Any number of things could go wrong,
even if it is routine.
Well, why are you even thinking that something bad is going to happen? How could you even let a thought like that cross your mind?
I was too tired to argue with this reasoning, so, after inquiring where
my sister was, asking why she wasnt here, and being informed that she
had an early morning yoga class that she simply could not miss, I plunked
down on the bench beside my mother, feeling the exhaustion of travelling
for a day and a half finally setting in.
This trip home was particularly exhausting, not only because my
stomach was churning with anxiety all throughout, but also due to the
horrendous route I had to take getting here. From Dulles I had to fly to
Houston to catch a plane to San Francisco, where I could take the Philippine Airlines flight to Manila. Arriving at the airport three hours early to
get through the crazy number of security procedures U.S. airports have
nowadays, waiting in Houston for five hours for my connecting flight, and
enduring a seven-hour layover in San Francisco, meant that my time waiting in airports almost matched my time in the air. This tortuous itinerary
was my only choice, being the only option available during my last-minute
online search for an airline ticket.
There are no direct flights from Manila to Washington, and so I have
gone to and fro on a variety of routes through a multitude of cities, with
only one thing in common: I will always have a long layover or two somewhere. I have spent many hours waiting for connections in Hong Kong,
Nagoya, Inchon, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Detroit, and New York. I
have browsed through bookstores, sniffed bottles of perfume in duty-free
shops, eaten overpriced food, and napped in vinyl chairs in these cities, all
while trapped inside the glass-walled terminals of their airports. I wouldnt
be surprised if the time Ive been mired in concourses in the past couple
of years has amounted to a full week: seven days of being stuck on a dot
somewhere on that long imaginary line that connects point A to point
B, 168 hours of ephemeral existence in cities that hold no relevance for
me, ten thousand minutes of my life that I will never get back.

I suddenly realize that it is now the end of office hours on Thursday in


Washington, and that two entire workdays have blinked by while I was in
transit, without anyone at work knowing where I am. I have been missing
from my little cubicle at the World Bank for two full days without filing
any paperwork or even informing anyone verbally. Knowing I might not
be able to reach anyone at the office at this hour, I decide to call my officemate Djurdja on her mobile phone.
Maya, hi! I missed you at work today and yesterday. Are you sick?
Djurdja greets me with a worried voice. I used my U.S. mobile to call her,
and I guess the caller ID on her phone registered as if I was just in town.
She adds, I tried calling your phone yesterday, but no answer.
I explain that I flew home suddenly early Wednesday morning, after
learning that my father was going to have surgery. She asks me when I will
be back. I tell her it depends on the outcome of this mornings operation.
If the blockages in his arteries can be opened up by angioplasty, then my
Dad can be released from the hospital in a couple of days, whereas if he
needs a bypass it will have to be scheduled for another week. Im waiting
outside the operating room right now, waiting to hear what the doctor will
say after he does the angiogram. In my mind, I say a quick prayer asking
that open heart surgery will be unnecessary.
Well, I think its great that you are home. Your family needs you right
now. Good decision. Djurdja always says the right thing.
I thank Djurdja and ask her if she can inform our boss about what happened. I sure hope I dont get fired for this. I wasnt sure if I said that out
loud, though Djurdja tells me not to worry, and reassures me that I am
where I am needed.
I look over at my mother, quietly doing her Sudoku puzzle and not
looking nearly as overwrought as I do. I wonder if she does need me right
now. I wonder if travelling halfway around the world and risking losing my
job was justified by this routine surgery she had intended not to inform me
about. The attention she is devoting to her puzzle makes it seem like she
has become accustomed to not having me around.
The Cardiac Catheterization Laboratory happens to be at the end of
a hall lined with rooms of patients needing intensive care. As I was rushing to get here, I passed several people who had the same look on their
faces as I surely must have been wearing then, too: eyes filled with uncertainty, eyebrows raised in helplessness, lips pursed with anticipation. The
patients in the ICU are in such critical condition that their families arent
even allowed to be inside the room with them and breathe the same air.
All that their husbands and wives and sons and daughters can do is look
at them through large glass panels, as nurses adjust machines and tubes
and intravenous drips. Many of these people are simply waiting for the

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inevitable, and their faces reflect the knowledge that their loved ones have
arrived at their final destination. They look nothing like my mother, who,
having come prepared with her newspaper and a thermos filled with coffee, exudes the unfettered calmness of someone who is simply waiting for
her flight to be called for boarding.
Djurdja would have driven me to Dulles airport, of this I am sure.
Djurdja came to America from Yugoslavia, way back when there was still
a Yugoslavia. On a current map you would say that she hails from Bosnia,
but she has been in the U.S. for so long that perhaps it is more accurate
to say that she is from Michigan. She works in the cubicle next to mine
at the international trade division of the World Bank. Unlike me, though,
she holds a permanent position at the Bank. Probably because of the proximity and constancy of each others presence, and all the conversations
weve had while on our four-hour train rides to and from New York for
work matters, Djurdja has become my closest friend in all of Washington,
DC. In addition, I spent a year at the University of Michigan for my Master
of Laws degree before coming to DC, so I feel like my memories of Ann
Arbor, however fleeting, are something I have in common with her.
Ive learned a lot about America from Djurdja, because she has the
vantage point of both the inveterate local and the perpetual foreigner.
Among her observations is that while Americans seem so friendly and are
always asking how are you? when they meet you in the hall, very few
actually care how you are, or will go out of their way to extend the courtesies and favors that are customary back home. When she gave me a ride
to my apartment in her compact car after a party last year, having given a
lift to two other people as well, she pointed out that the Americans in their
SUVs all drove home alone without offering anyone a ride. I agreed with
her that where we both came from, such a thing would not have happened.
If Djurdja had any inkling that I would be heading for the airport on
Wednesday morning, she would have driven in from Bethesda instead of
taking the Metro to work, so that she could pick me up from my apartment
and drive me to Dulles in that little car of hers, without regard to the fact
that it was in a completely opposite direction from where she lived. This is
not something you could ask from an American, as it seems that the act of
driving many miles out of ones way is an act reserved for individuals that
one is related to by blood or marriage, or an impending relationship in the
latter manner.
Bryce probably would have come up with an excuse not to drive me
to the airport. I am just assuming this, but I think this would be the case.
While he didnt own a car, Bryce frequently rented a ZipCar when he
had errands to run, but I didnt even want to ask him for the favor, lest he
thought I was attempting to take our relationship to the next level: the level

where one drives several miles out of ones way, i.e. one level down from
asking someone to marry you. Bryce and I are nowhere near that level,
despite the fact that I know that when he is approaching orgasm, he makes
an announcement to that effect, or that he has inadvertently discovered
that I use napkins and not tampons when I get my period, the first woman
whose vagina he had become acquainted with to do so. Such knowledge
no longer delineates the boundaries of intimacy nowadays.
I met Bryce six weeks ago on the DC-bound platform of the Pentagon City Metro. I had just returned to Washington for the start of my new
contract with the Bank, and had gone shopping at the mall in Pentagon
City for things that my current apartment didnt have. It was late in the
afternoon and I was laden with shopping bags containing two dozen plastic hangers, drinking glasses, a hair dryer, and towels, while waiting for
the next train into DC. Bryce approached me and offered to help with my
bags, proffering his assumption that I was probably new in town.
When I agreed to go out with Bryce later that evening, I thought he
would be just a one-night stand. I was feeling as empty as my almost-bare
apartment, and it was nice to feel wanted, even if just for a while.
I probably wouldnt have been too affected if Bryce had never called
again after that first night we spent together, but my lowered expectations
for the evening were given a jolt by one of the first questions he asked
over dinner: he wanted to know how long I intended to stay in DC. This
was a question that had been asked of me by someone else, to disastrous
consequences. When I couldnt give Bryce a straight answer, going into a
drawn-out discussion about my consultancy arrangement with the World
Bank instead, I realized that the decision of how long I was going to stay
was not something I had complete control over, my continued presence
determined from contract to contract, the attainability of permanence
always seeming just a little beyond my grasp each time.
Perhaps Bryce wanted to know whether to invest time in me or not, in
the same manner one tries to decide between leasing and buying a home. I
suppose Bryces question was increasingly relevant in Washington, DC. It
is, after all, a city populated by transients: diplomats, foreign students, politicians, legislative staffers, international organization employees. People
with a specific, time-bound mission: get a treaty signed, obtain a degree,
see a bill passed into law. They come from all the cities in the United States
and all the countries in the world, passing through Washington for a few
years, before getting on with their lives somewhere else, somewhere they
planned to settle, to take root, to grow old. In my two years of living in
DC, I had yet to meet anyone who had been born and raised there, and
continued to live there. Everyone was in transit, even if their layover in
Washington was a year, or two, or ten.

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I am almost falling asleep on this hospital bench when my mother


suddenly looks up from her newspaper (she has moved on to doing the
crossword puzzle now) and says, Do you know that Diego called yesterday to ask how your Dad was doing? She states it like a question although
she is fully aware that she is delivering news.
I dont answer but look at her, waiting for her to elaborate.
He offered to drive us here last night, but I told him I could handle it.
I told him it was all routine and not an emergency, and that I could handle
it.
Well, that was nice of him. I try to say this as flatly as I can.
He didnt ask if you were coming home.
Hmmm.
Well, if he did, it turns out I would have given him wrong information,
that you werent. I had no idea you were already in the air as we spoke.
Diego and I broke up shortly before Christmas, when I came home
for a couple of weeks last December. We had been together since our last
year of law school, and when I left for graduate studies, it went undiscussed
that we would stay together. We met up in Miami during my winter break,
and he even joined my parents when they came over to Ann Arbor for my
graduation in the spring. He supported my decision to stay a few extra
months so that I could take the New York bar exam, but was perplexed
when he learned that I had sent out rsums to various places even before
graduation. I only informed him that I had done this after the stint at the
World Bank fell through. It was just a six-month contract, I explained to
him. Great for my credentials, and he agreed it was too good for me to
turn down. But when one contract led to another, his calls became less
frequent, his e-mails all but stopped completely. When I came home for
Christmas last year, we hadnt spoken in two months. Three days after I
arrived in Manila last December, Diego told me he didnt know how much
longer he was willing to wait for me to come back, was doubtful whether
I intended to come back even if I said I was going to. He said I was being
unfair to him, putting my career plans far ahead of our relationship.
I wouldnt even have given Bryce an encouraging smile had Diego and
I still been together.
Bryce was originally from Chicago, and had the Midwestern accent
to prove it. He is tall and blond and fair-skinned and blue-eyed. In every
physical respect, he is the typical American that folks here in the Philippines would consider typically American and greet with hey, Joe!
I last saw him on Sunday. I went to his apartment in Pentagon City
for brunch, taking the short Metro ride across the Potomac. In February
it was not pleasant to explore the cafs in Georgetown or Eastern Market
because it was too cold to be up and about. Most of our dates have been

spent indoors, and we had assumed a sort of accelerated domesticity by


default, on account of my aversion to winter.
Entering his apartment, I was greeted by the smell of onions simmering. Bryce was making an omelet and I was slightly disappointed to see
that cheddar cheese and Oscar Mayer ham slices were the ingredients that
were about to go into the beaten eggs. Despite his proximity to a gourmet
grocery, Bryce was not the sort to buy things like prosciutto and gruyere.
I suppose I shouldnt complain. The refrigerator in my apartment is
almost empty, because I dread walking to the supermarket during winter, and I avoid stocking up on food the way I avoid buying furniture. Its
just that, the more times I visit his apartment, the more I gather clues that
point to our incompatibility. The way we enjoy food is but one item on
a list of things we do not have in common. His preference for television
over reading is another thing. In Bryces one-bedroom flat, there are no
bookcases, the only reading material available being the current months
issues of Time, Sports Illustrated, and Mens Health. Occasionally there is
the previous Thursdays copy of the Washington City Paper, to help him
decide what event we should check out in the coming week. Because of the
winter weather, however, we mostly just stayed indoors and watched cable.
Bryce would be unable to pick out similar clues about who I am from
my apartment. I live in the basement of a rowhouse near Dupont Circle,
my favorite neighborhood in the District. It had been advertised on Craigslist as a month-to-month rental of a charming, fully-furnished English
basement. The online ad had adopted the language that realtors use to
describe the ground floor of a brownstone, more ideally suited as a storage
area, but conveniently having independent access from the house above it.
Living from contract to contract at the World Bank, not knowing whether
I would still have a job half a year from now, and having to exit the U.S.
between contracts because of some weird rules about visas for contractual
employees of international organizations, it was not feasible for me to sign
a yearlong lease in an apartment complex, or purchase furniture.
The basement, styled as a studio flat, came with a steel-framed twinsize bed that looked like it belonged in an orphanage, and an enormous
black leather sofa that was bigger than my bed. The sofa is where Ive ended
up sleeping. It sits across the room from an overly ornate mahogany writing desk that looks embarrassed to be seen with the shabby wheeled office
chair paired with it. Against the wall stands a tall plywood bookshelf that
someone had started to paint bright blue, but gave up midway through the
process, leaving two lower shelves and one entire side panel white, the last
lazy brush strokes apparent. There is a complete kitchen with a refrigerator,
a stove, and various small appliances that are probably the older versions of
the spiffier gadgets now upstairs. All these pieces had journeyed through

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the various apartments of the newly-married man and woman upstairs


during their respective days of singlehood. Now unwanted, these pieces of
furniture have settled in this basement like weary travelers.
If anyone who knew me were to walk into that room, they would
not have guessed that I was its occupant, for there was nothing of myself
in there. The rented apartment on Katipunan Avenue I had stayed in
throughout most of law school had been filled with books, and not just
legal commentaries for my studies. A bookcase had dominated an entire
wall, containing a collection ranging from literature to political theory.
Diego frequently came over to do some leisure reading when he, too, was
tired of reading cases all the time.
I would find it easy to fill the half-blue-half-white bookcase in my current living quarters if only I didnt have to worry about bringing the books
with me when the time comes to pack up and leave. Books are heavy, and
Ive discovered the hard way that just a few can make luggage exceed the
weight limit. The fruits of my bookstore visits, my frequent haunt being a
place right on Dupont Circle called Kramerbooks & Afterwords, have all
found their way into balikbayan boxes and onto my sisters bookshelves,
never staying in DC longer than it takes me to read them.
I have been sitting here with Mom for an hour and a half. Dads cardiologist comes out of the operating room and looks at my Mom with a
smile, reporting that he has just finished the angiogram, and has located
just one blockage. Opening it up can be done via angioplasty, and a bypass
will not be needed. Mom introduces me to the doctor and I thank him
profusely for the good news. He says hes going to go back in and insert the
stent now, and the procedure will take another hour or so. We thank him
again as he goes back inside.
I look over at my mom. She has put the crossword puzzle down and
taken her reading glasses off. She stares at the blank wall in front of us for a
full minute, then she looks at me. Thank God. Thank God. Thank God.
She repeats it like a mantra, and then I notice that tears are starting to roll
down her cheeks. I throw my arms around her and hold her as tightly as I
can.
This is the moment I flew halfway around the world for.
Diego comes into the hallway just as my mom stops shaking.
Maya. You came home. He says this tentatively, unsure whether I
am a fresh arrival or have been in Manila for weeks without telling him. I
am still hugging my mother, so Diego and I are spared the awkwardness of
whether we will greet each other with a hug, a kiss, or a cordial beso-beso. I
inform him I flew in before dawn. My mother releases herself from my grip
(which had turned tense and no longer qualified as a hug) and wraps her
arms around Diego, telling him the good news we just heard. Thats such

a relief, Tita, Diego sighs.


Whats all this? my mother asks, gesturing towards the bundle Diego
is holding in one hand. He has a portable DVD player and a stack of DVDs.
Tita, you said you would be here for three days, so I just thought Tito
would like to watch some old war movies to while away the time. He
shows her that he brought copies of The Bridge on the River Kwai, The Guns
of Navarone, and The Longest Day, among others.
Ay, hijo, how thoughtful of you, you remembered his favorites! My
mother beams at him then turns to look at me straight in the eye, her smile
frozen on her face. I stare back. Yes, Mom, I am aware about how thoughtful he is. Yes, Mom, I know youve come to love him like a son. Yes, Mom,
stop looking at me like that.
Right now, all I can muster is a Thank you, Diego, with an awkward
grin to match. My mother announces she is going to find a restroom, asks
Diego to look after me while shes gone, then slips away into the corridor
labeled Critical Care. My mother has never been one for subtlety.
I didnt know what else to bring for your Dad, and I felt funny about
getting him the huge pink-and-yellow get well soon bouquet from the
flower shop downstairs. Diego laughs at his own quip. He laughs when
hes nervous. He also has the habit of biting his lower lip when hes about to
say something, but is still thinking of how to phrase it. Ive seen him do it
during recitation back in law school, and during an oral argument in court.
Diego is biting his lower lip right now.
Diego is dressed for work, and I suppose he has a court hearing to
appear in somewhere this morning because he has opted for a long-sleeve
barong instead of his usual casual Friday pick of polo shirt and khakis. The
five-oclock shadow he allows himself on Fridaysand which he knows I
really likeis missing, too. With kayumanggi skin just slightly darker than
my own, hair that he keeps longish just within the bounds of professionally acceptable, and a semi-permanent attachment to his Ray-Bans, Diego
always looks like he is on the way to the beach instead of a courtroom. The
only giveaway would be the barong and briefcase.
At the sight of him, I am instantly brought back to our last trip to the
beach, back in April last year, when I was home between contracts. A photo
of the two of us from that tripour skin glowing bronze against Boracays
white sand, wide smiles splashed across our faces, and arms around each
others waistsis still on my desk at the Bank. I realize now, for the first
time, that it had not crossed my mind to pack it away when I returned to
my cubicle in January. I had kept the framed photograph there as if my
breakup with Diego was just a temporary matter, as temporary as snow on
the sidewalk, as temporary as my mismatched apartment, as temporary as
the employment contracts I sign every six months without any guarantee

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Rebecca E. Khan
there will be another half a year down the road.
If I knew you were coming, I could have met you at the airport. There
was no reason for you to have taken a cab. His free hand makes a movement to take mine, but he stops it mid-air and shoves it in his pocket.
Thanks. It was all sudden. I didnt plan anything. I just booked the
first ticket I found online. I dont even know how much trouble Ill be in
when I get back to work, for taking off so suddenly.
Your Mom and Dad must be so happy that you came home.
They had no plans of telling me about the operation. Mom was surprised to see me. Dad doesnt even know that Im here. I didnt come in
time to see him before they wheeled him in.
Well, Im sure hell be glad to see you here. Looking straight into my
eyes, Diego bites his lower lip again. Im glad to see you here.
My mobile phone rings just then. The caller ID doesnt work on this
side of the globe. Thinking it could be a work call, I tell Diego that I have to
take this. I answer the phone and am greeted with a cheery Hi, babe! How
are you? Its Bryce. I guess he didnt try calling for the past couple of days,
because there is absolutely no trace of concern in his voice.
I take a few steps away from Diego. Oh, hey. Yeah, I wasnt able to tell
you, but I had to fly out to Manila all of a sudden. I hastily explain that my
Dad had to get heart surgery but its all fine now, that I hastily booked a
flight without telling anyone.
Gosh, sorry to hear that. When will you be home then?
When will I be home? Perhaps Bryce has misunderstood what I had
just explained to him, and failed to comprehend that I was already in the
Philippines. Then I realize that Bryce was asking when I would be returning to Washington, DC.
Before I can answer, he adds, Maybe I could pick you up from the
airport.
Diego is waiting patiently, taking glances at me while pretending to
read the synopsis on the back of the DVD case of A Bridge Too Far.
Ill be back by Tuesday, I tell Bryce, and hang up, before Diego realizes that I am talking to someone who is more than a mere acquaintance.
2012

48

Armor
John Bengan

he week Ronnie was planning to die, one of his neighbors paid


him a visit. Ronnie had just come back from the seamstress, bringing home a newly mended sheath dress he would wear at the pageant, when Oliver showed up.
The Death Squad, Oliver said. Theyre after you.
Ronnie considered what reactions were possible. He would back
away from the Mylar-covered table where Oliver was nursing his coffee.
He would warn Oliver that he didnt appreciate this kind of joke, not
after bodies had been found in empty, grassy lots around Mintal. Instead,
Ronnie soaked up his neighbors silence, leaned on the refrigerator and lit
a cigarette.
Where was the Death Squad when he regularly handed out shabu to
the crew of wiry boys who had hung out at his beauty salon? They were
hired guns, the Death Squad, who used to go after drug pushers, but lately
theyd been taking down street gang members, crystal meth users, petty
thieves.
Oliver was talking to him about a list they had at the community hall,
a list of targets. Someone had tipped him off about Ronnies name being
in it. Oliver was telling him now so he could leave town before they found
him.
I dont even push, said Ronnie.
49

John Bengan

Armor

You bought from Tiago before he was shot.


Ronnie had forgotten how nosy the neighbors could be. He thought of
his stash in the pillowcase. Tiago, his go-to guy for crystal meth, was one of
those whod been killed. They said a man on a motorcycle stopped in front
of Tiago who was chatting with regulars outside his karaoke pub. The man
shot him through the lungs four times. He hadnt really known anyone
who got killed by these gunmen until that time. A day before the shooting,
Ronnie had seen Tiago in the same spot and theyd waved at each other.
I only got them for the pageant, Ronnie said. To prepare. You know,
lose some weight?
Youre joking, right? said Oliver, eyeing him as though he were a
stranger. In college, Oliver never fit in with Ronnies clique: sharp-tongued
bayots who thrived on banter. There was always something open and raw
about Oliver, as if he didnt have time to assume a pose, to make pretend.
Dont you have any confidence in me? Ronnie asked. Maybe this
year is my year.
After seeing Oliver out of the house, Ronnie resolved to stick to the
plan. Before the Death Squad entered the picture, he had already made his
decision. If the Death Squad were truly after him, they would have to race
him down to that stage.
The pageant, known to many as Miss Gay, was a competition among
cross-dressing gay men, a backwoods copy of international beauty contests
for women. Like the Miss Universe pageant, Miss Gay involved a sequence
of elimination rounds: national costume, swimsuit, evening gown, and the
Q&A. The pageant was held every year in Mintal on the eve of the Feast of
the Immaculate Conception, the towns patron saint.
As he was leaving his house to offer beauty treatments in the neighborhood, Ronnie found a young man squatting outside the gate.
Hi, gwapa! The boy got up, revealing a set of small yellow teeth.
Were looking so pretty today.
Ronnie knew him as Biboy, one of Tiagos former drug runners. Biboy
was wearing a lime-green basketball jersey and camouflage shorts, ringlets
of dirt around his neck. With his hard, nimble body and long wingspan, he
resembled a field bird with a handsome face.
Not buying today. I still have a few more left, Ronnie said.
Who said I was selling? said Biboy, pressing his body closer to
Ronnie. They took down Bossing Tiago. Havent you heard?
You should be careful then, Ronnie told the boy and moved on.

whom hed supported through college, had left to marry a girl hed gotten
pregnant.
Ronnie had to close down the salon and move to a boarding house
in a compound used mainly as an automobile workshop. To pay rent, he
started going door-to-door, offering makeup, hair styling, even manicures and pedicures. Occasionally he would choreograph dance numbers
for local government employees who needed intermission numbers for
their parties.
One afternoon, as he woke up to the sound of melting steel, Ronnie
decided hed had enough. He walked to the highway, the sunlight knifing
his eyes. He was about to fling himself before a truck hauling timber from
Lorega when he noticed a banner fluttering at the entrance of the gymnasium, its carefully painted words heralding a coronation.
The whole town would watch him compete again, hundreds of his
neighborswhod already written him off as a cautionary talewould
see him at his glamorous best, see him in a long gown, on that stage, spotlights beamed on him. Ronnie knew that he still had one thing left to do
before killing himself.

Three weeks earlier, his assistant had emptied the cash register and
split, taking boxes of expensive hair coloring products on the way out. The
betrayal came on the heels of a huge blow. Ronnies straight male lover,

After serving his clients, Ronnie skipped lunch to sign up for the pageant at the community hall. The deadline for registration had produced
chaos: people argued over who would get to be Miss Venezuela, Miss
Puerto Rico, and Miss Colombia, powerhouses in international pageants.
The organizers, who didnt anticipate the complication, resolved the matter by making contestants draw lots, to which most of the bayots grudgingly agreed. Flaunting a call-center-accented English, the most mestiza
of the bunch grumbled when he didnt pick Miss USA. One bayot, who
clamored nakedly for attention, literally sang with joy when he plucked out
Miss Philippines from the glass filled with nations names.
Ronnie had joined pageants in college. It was a thrill some bayots
chased, from tarpaulin-bordered basketball courts at small-town fiestas
to huge convention halls in cities. Together with friends, he had entered
every contest in Davao and in towns as far as Lanao. He was slimmer then,
naturally smooth, his drowsy eyes framed by a small hard-boned face.
Since hed come in late, Ronnie found himself at the end of the queue.
He took a strip of paper from the glass, read what he got, and quickly
thumbed it into his shorts pocket. He had fished out Great Britain, a nation
still winless in the Miss Universe contest, but he could live with it. Maybe
its time, Ronnie was thinking, that they bow down to The Queen.
What you have there? a bayot asked him. He had long, ironed hair
touching his bare shoulders.
Secret, Ronnie said. Youll have to see for yourself.

50

51

John Bengan

Armor

Chos! sneered another one, frail and much younger, with unusually
pale skin that was almost gray. When was the last time you joined? The
1960s?
Ronnie was going to say something lighthearted when he noticed the
way the youngsters were looking at him.
The one with flattened hair asked him, So how does it feel to be a
thank-you girl?
The phrase summoned the humiliating image of a contestant packing up his things after losing. You did not simply lose: you didnt stand a
chance.
Ronnie bristled. You carry yourselves not with poise but with vulgarity. Neither of you deserve any kind of crown!
When they didnt respond, he took it as the perfect moment to leave
with a final barb: You are still on your way, but I am already coming back.

I dont have time. Shoo, before my landlord sees you.


The boy skipped in front of him, blocking his way. He was so tall that
the top of his head almost cleared the iron spikes on the hollow block wall.
The grooves of his ribs showed through the jerseys large armholes.
Promise you Ill be good, said Biboy. Sige na, gwaps. If you want we
can arrange something. Im a very talented singer. Then he smirked, so
Ronnie would know exactly what kind of singing he had in mind.
Really, I have a lot to finish. He brushed the boy aside and opened
the smaller entrance.
Maybe I can clean your house, the boy prodded. Pick up your groceries. I only need a place to stay. Please, gwaps?
Ronnie was about to shut the gate when it occurred to him. He could
really use some help after all.
Quick. Before I change my mind.
Taking the bags from Ronnies hands, the boy followed him to the
house.
After peeping into the only bedroom, Biboy reclined on the rattan sofa
and shook off his flip-flops, propping his feet comfortably on a beanbag.
Small, but cozy he said. He found the sketches Ronnie had made for
the armored sleeve.
Whats this? Excalibur! Biboy chuckled.
Suit of armor, said Ronnie. Dont tell anyone. Thats my national
costume for the Miss Gay pageant.
What? This? You have a fever, gwaps?
Just the arm, Ronnie said. Ill wear it with a long gown covered in
sequins.
The bayot with the golden arm! Tripping!
Maybe you want to sleep at the market tonight.
Uh, yes, boss, said Biboy. As long as youre happy, Im happy.
Ronnie spread the materials hed bought out on the floor. He considered making three detachable parts to form the whole sleeve, following
his initial sketches. Perhaps he would get some mesh cloth, or something
rubbery. Or he could stitch the arm plates with wire, make an inner sleeve
that would look like chain mail.
You know, gwaps, I can help you with that, said Biboy.
Thats what youre here for.
Biboy tossed the sketches. I got a high mark in industrial arts. For
my project, I made an iron garden set. Compared to that, your arm plate
is peanuts.
Okay, Mister Industrial Design, said Ronnie. Theres chicken siopao
and orange juice in the fridge.

The following day he still couldnt figure out his national costume.
Desperate for ideas, he scoured old magazines, looking for icons, but he
couldnt find anything that inspired. Then, after lunching on a cup of rice
and one salted fish, he saw something on TV.
He was mindlessly flipping channelshis landlord was thoughtful
enough to share cable TVwhen a vision seized him: a model marching from the stage wing in a flowing couture dress, her body glimmering so brightly, she looked as though she was swaddled in flames. The
most remarkable part of the ensemble was her right arm. Cased in a gold
armored sleeve, the arm looked like it belonged to a knight. The warrior
queen stepped out of the tube and crossed into Ronnies living room,
blinding him with light.
He took out a pencil and a pad of yellow paper, moved closer to the TV
set, and began sketching. There it was, the gown that would send him back
to the Miss Gay pageant one last time. King Arthur, after all, was British.
Afraid inspiration would wane, Ronnie rushed to the hardware store.
He picked up aluminum sheets, wires, metal shears, tiny screws and nuts,
and a can of gold aerosol paint.
At the tricycle cab terminal, he saw Biboy again. The way the boy
beamed at him, it was as if hed been waiting for Ronnie to appear.
After you, gwaps. Biboy hopped in and sat beside Ronnie.
When they reached the compound, the boy got off and followed him
to the gate.
Let me carry that, he offered, grasping at the plastic bags in Ronnies
hands.
Ronnie noticed the boy was wearing the same green basketball jersey
and shorts.
52

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John Bengan

Armor

For the first time since hed moved into the compound, Ronnie got out
of bed early. The dusty shafts of light cutting through the windows made
it seem like he was in a different world. The dress for the Q&A segment
was ready, along with a one-piece red, white, and blue swimsuit patterned
after the Union Jack. Hed borrowed it from a woman friend who, in her
younger years, had worked as a choreographer in Brunei.
There was one competition left. He needed to build an armored sleeve
and pair it with an evening gown, which he had yet to secure. Biboy had
asked him to download pictures of medieval armors that they could copy.
The living room was empty, pillows and sheets heaped on the floor.
The boy had already left to shoot hoops. On the table Ronnie found a fistsize chunk of bread smeared with margarine. He swallowed it.
Hunger sharpened his focus. After conceiving his costume, hed
begun a breakfast regimen of pan de sal, two Fortune cigarettes, and black,
sugarless coffee. He would not have lunch until the afternoon when he
would buy Coke and a pack of crackers from the grocery chain across the
street. For supper, he would have a glass of water and a last cigarette. This
saved him some money, which allowed him to splurge on wardrobe and
accessories for the pageant.
Holding a sturdy nylon umbrella, Ronnie ducked out of the gate and
walked over to Mintals newest Internet caf. The caf had opened behind
the gymnasium where the pageant would be staged.
On that hot windless day the paved roads seemed to wriggle under the
heat. The streets of Mintal were fringed with brightly colored trimmings.
In a vacant lot not far from the church, a shabby carnival had shown up,
erecting a neon-lit Ferris wheel that loomed taller than any structure in
town.
The caf was full of high school boys playing online war games. An
attendant, who was playing along with them, pointed Ronnie to a vacant
PC near the bathroom.
He studied a photo of a knight in a suit of armor. The warriors torso
was encased in plates of polished metal, his helmet like a silver birdcage
perched on his steel-padded shoulders. The intricacy alarmed him; he was
relieved that he only needed the arm. But that alone had eight components, with sinister-sounding labels like Spaulder and Pauldron. He made
a mental note to build three attachable parts, covering the shoulder, elbow,
forearm, and hand. He could fix the aluminum plates over a thick materialfake leather maybe, or rubberwhich he would then spray-paint in
gold.
After surfing the Web, he moved on to the stalls of used clothing at the
public market. New items had arrived at the ukay stands just in time for the
crowd to go shopping during the weeklong festivity. He surveyed the line

of tents but couldnt find anything that pleased him. After nearly an hour,
Ronnie found himself sorting through a bin full of old drapes.
How much for these curtains? He lifted a beige sheet printed with
what looked like cascading spirals of purple dahlias.
The vendor squinted up at Ronnie. He was sitting on a plastic chair
made for little children. Twelve pesos per bunch, he barked. He was hefty
and sunburned in a perforated shirt and denim pants cut off at the knees.
He offered Ronnie a crinkly, mildewed lavender drape that probably had
been hung in a hospital. From US and Japan. First-class.
Ronnie wrapped the cloth around his torso and, with his other hand,
pulled another curtain from the heap. He draped it around his neck like
a scarf. In a desperate moment, he entertained the possibility of sewing a
gown out of these curtains, but decided to try another tent.
Inside, he found a teenage girl munching on corn chips.
Finally his luck turned. Dangling from the ceiling was a heavily beaded
serpentina dress, its bodice wrapped delicately in sequins and tulle. The
gown was displayed between a life-size orca stuffed toy and velvet halter
dresses that only the most unimaginative amateurs would be drawn to.
Using a long stick with a hooked end, the shopgirl took the dress down
and showed it to Ronnie.
He was close to tears. The silhouette was similar to what hed seen on
TV, the fabric in good condition, with only a few small tears, detailed with
swirling translucent beads, clearly made by hand, and the colorsaffron,
he decidedflattered his skin tone. Paired with an armored sleeve, the
dress would look stunning on him.
Elated, he didnt even haggle.
He stepped out of the tent, triumphant. Before going home, he dropped
by his trusted seamstress a few blocks from the compound.

54

55

He tottered through the gate, left the printouts in the sala, shut himself up in his room. He was about to doze off when the sound of an engine
made him jump.
He flew out of his room and peered through the glass window slats.
Bougainvillea grew in tangled profusion beyond the dismantled corpses
of trucks and cars in the yard. Neighbors had been talking about how the
vigilantes were closing in on Mintal after a rash of muggings and rapes in
the village. Witnesses had sworn that Tiagos hit man rode a motorcycle.
All these assassins, they said, rode motorcycles.
The engine roared. He wondered if the gate was locked. He wished
someone from the landlords house would come out and check.
What are you looking at? Biboy said, stepping out of the bathroom.
That noise.

John Bengan

Armor

Ronnie walked over to the kitchen and took a jug of ice-cold water
from the fridge. He drank it all in one swig.
See, gwaps. Biboy was holding out a scrap of aluminum. I copied
your printouts and made one for the shoulder.
The boy had cut and bent the aluminum precisely into an oval shape
that resembled a gold plate on a knights shoulder.
Show me how you did it, Ronnie said.
I didnt use a hammer. Just this. Biboy picked up a set of pliers from
the floor. The hammer wouldve dented it bad. Told you it was easy.
Yes, you did, said Ronnie.

pieces. Biboy had done an excellent job of painting the whole thing in gold.
Gently, Ronnie scooped the delicate thing from the couch. Made from
spray-painted aluminum and rubber pads, the armored sleeve was better
than hed imagined, three cylindrical parts perfectly fastened as a whole
piece.

He went back for his gown the next afternoon. The flaws had been
mended, the size altered. The seamstress charged two hundred pesos, but
Ronnie pleaded with her. Hed come to her shop hoping for a price cut
since shed been a loyal customer at his salon. The seamstress agreed on
condition that Ronnie would offer hairstyling and makeup at her granddaughters dbut, for half his standard fee.
But when Ronnie tried the dress on, the bodice squeezed his ribs; the
side zipper wouldnt close. The seamstress offered to give it another go but
he refused.
Its only a half inch, he told the seamstress. I drank a lot of water
today.
As he was leaving the dress shop, Ronnie noticed a man across the
road. The bald man was smoking inside an open-air canteen, observing
him.
He wore jeans and a military jacket, and he had one of those unfortunate underbites that sealed the face into a permanent scowl.
Ronnie carried his gown across the highway. From the corner of his
eye, he saw the bald man leaving the canteen. Ronnie hurried into the
crowded street fair, making his way through the snarl of carnival goers
around the booths. Surely they wouldnt take him down here, not with
all these people around. His breath quickened. Hed heard about targets
shot openly in daytime, on streets filled with motorists and bystanders,
at house parties before stupefied guests. He would be dead by the end of
the week, but only on his own terms. He pulled away from the crowd, the
dress still in his hands.
It was dark when he reached home. The boy was slurping instant noodles at his dinner table.
Gwaps, I finished it, Biboy said.
Indeed there it was, a copy of the object hed seen on television, fully
realized. They had been working on the sleeve for the better part of the day.
Ronnie had cut and shaped the aluminum, while the boy assembled the

On pageant day, Ronnie woke up to the sensation of little knives piercing his stomach. The walls were shifting. Two cups of coffee later, the pain
didnt go away, and his body was wracked with chills. He shook what was
left of his stash out of the pillowcase.
He held the resealable packet closer as if to smell it, then spilled the
content into his palm. The tooth-shaped shard of crystal was slightly
smaller than the nail on his pinkie.
Before lighting up, he installed a mosquito net in the living room. He
preferred to trap the smoke inside the net, ever so careful not to waste a
wisp of the stuff. Squatting under the net, he turned the TV volume up
to drown out the mechanics outside welding steel. He tuned in to CNN,
anticipating a current events entry during the pageants Q&A portion; a
paraphrased quote or two from a global headline would suffice. He poured
what was left of his stash on a neatly folded sheet of tinfoil, held the foil
gingerly over the flame, and with a tin pipe, began sucking the lush white
vapor of melting crystal. Smoke billowed to the edge of the foil. Within
seconds, he was vibrantly awake. He was again the most attractive, vivacious, irresistible creature he knew.
At 4:30 p.m., he prepared for battle. He strapped the first layer of tape
over his stomach, rolling it tight around his waist, folds of excess flesh inching up his torso. He donned two feminine panties, deftly inserting pads
over his behind. Carefully, he cupped his soft penis and testicles, folding
deep to reach the hollow between his buttocks.
To keep it flat, he wrapped tape around his crotch, then he threw on
one last pair of underwear, a silky charcoal black swatch of nylon. He would
try to fit into the Union Jack one-piece later for the swimsuit competition.
Ronnie then slipped on ten pairs of pantyhose; the thicker the layers, the
more the illusion of curved, shapely legs was achieved.
For breasts, he placed beneath a strapless bra two latex condoms filled
with water, which hed tied in such a way that the rubber bloated into small
globes. The tips of the condoms produced a somewhat realistic effect of
nipples.
On his face, he used a palette hed always relied on. Violet pigment on
the lower lids, copper line over the lashes, indigo eye shadow, slick scarlet
mouth. He applied false lashes using the milky paste from a star apple leaf,
for a lasting hold. The rest of his body he coated with liquid foundation.

56

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John Bengan

Armor

Under the glare of lights, the tone shimmered on flesh like porcelain.
He topped it all off with a wig, chestnut brown styled into petals, a gift
from a friend who had been to Dubai.
When he and Biboy arrived backstage, a few assistants were still strapping tape on their half-naked candidates, clipping extensions and spraying
products on hard tiers of hair. The narrow space smelled of armpits; the
floor was littered with tissue paper and torn fabric.
There they were: bayots jiggling their hands to make manly veins
disappear, while others, once their makeup was on, became stoic. There
were long-limbed girly boys with taut dancers bodies toned after working in pubs in Japan as entertainers or male Japayukis, bayots with large
breasts, bayots whose skin glowed from taking a cocktail of hormone pills.
A few of them gazed at Ronnie coldly like they were in a trance.
He wobbled as the boy helped him into his dress. The gown was still
snug; he sucked in his stomach until Biboy could zip him up. Stale, rancid air blew out of his throat. Hed had two boiled bananas and coffee for
breakfast and nothing since, but he steeled himself.
The boy took out the armored sleeve from a carton tied up in twine.
The bayots stared.
Dont mind them, gwaps, Biboy said. Next to you, they look like
clowns.
Ronnie slid his right arm carefully into the sleeve, Biboy securing the
last strap over his shoulder. After the metal clamped onto his skin, the
length of his arm sheathed, Ronnie felt large and supremely complete.
Lifting the sleeve close to his face, he felt like he could leap over the gymnasium and land on his feet.
With a soft, victorious smile, he strutted regally in full view of the
competition.
What a costume! said one candidate, whom Ronnie immediately
recognized as the flat-haired bayot who ridiculed him at the community
hall. He was in a catsuit speckled with tiny mirrors. Did you make that
yourself? he asked Ronnie. How much did you pay for it?
Is that real, Te? another contestant asked. Ava-ava-avant garde!
Their fascinated exclamations floated up and enveloped him.
Ronnie was practicing his angles before a full-sized mirror when a
contestant, looking petrified in a bright lavender kimono, startled him.
The bayot stood unsteadily on six-inch clogs, his round face a shock of
white makeup. He had on a wig of jet-black hair parted in three slick buns,
adorned with a cluster of pink orchids. A sash was pinned on one of the
kimonos giant sleeves, signifying the nation he represented: Japan, lettered in blue glitter.

Oliver shrank, bracing as though for a slap.


It struck Ronnie with equal amusement and anger, a gossip mongering
bayot trying to scare him out of competition.
So this is why you wanted me out of Mintal.
Dont flatter yourself, said Oliver. Liquid talc had begun to dissolve
around Olivers puffy jaw. His thin sideburns were perspiring.
A few contestants, whod been eavesdropping, descended on the
neighbors. Round OneFight! one of them cheered.
Ronnie gamely aimed his golden forearm at Olivers face, but somebody tugged at his elbow.
Gwaps, calm down, Biboy said.
The boys presence calmed him. Biboy was still there, the one whod
been with him from the start. He thought about where the boy would go
after all this was done. Ronnie slipped his bare arm around the boys back
and they turned away.
Contestants were forming a queue behind the stage wings. Before
leaving him backstage, the boy told Ronnie he would wait for him outside.
To wild cheers and a thumping techno beat, the nights twenty-six
candidates breezed onto the ramp, and forming a half circle across the
stage, performed an impromptu line dance. A makeshift runway, dotted
with lightbulbs on the rim, stretched toward the huge hall. Bamboo arches
from which hung loops of colorful metallic paper jutted out from both
ends of the platform. Four big spotlights radiated from the ceiling. Beyond
the stage was a hot, impatient swarm of people.
One by one the candidates took turns at the center microphone.
Welcome ladies and gentlemen, this is a tale as old as time! I am
Beautyand the Beast will follow. My name is Desiree Verdadero, seventeen years of age, and I come from the beautiful island of ice and fire,
Reykjavik, Iceland!
Seasons greetings! The family that prays together stays together, but
the family that eats together is probably a pride of lions. This dusky beauty
standing in front of you is Armi Barbara Crespo, and I represent the smile
of Africa, Namibia!
Buenas noches, amigos del universo! All things bright and beautiful. All
creatures great and small. All things wise and wonderful, the Lord God
made them all. This is Guadalupe Sanchez viuda de Aurelio, nineteen
years old, and I come from Caracas, Venezuela!
Then it was Ronnies turn.
He drifted across the platform, the saffron gown rustling on his manicured feet. His eyes swept past the faces of judges. In one corner of the
hall, he could see little children outside perched on the branches of a tree,
peering through the open vents like hairless monkeys. His face lit up when

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John Bengan
he spotted, near the edge of the second row, Biboy raising both thumbs
up. Ronnie posed before the microphone, and lifting his golden arm,
addressed the audience.
A pleasant evening to all of you! The Little Prince said, What is essential is invisible to the naked eye. My name is Maria Rosario Silayan, from
the land of King Arthur and Lady DianaGreat Britain!
The crowd roared. Sweeping the hem of his gown, Ronnie waved his
golden arm at them. This was what he had come here for, the chance to
tower in heels, look down with unbending grace at a crowd filled with awe,
to glide as though life were just as easy. After striking a last pose, he walked
back to where the other candidates stood.
While the stadium listened to the next contestant, Ronnie discerned
a figure rising from the middle rows, the thick body of a man getting up
from his seat.
It was the bald man, the very man whod been watching him the other
day, a pale vibrating shape trying to reach the front rows, elbowing people
on his way. Could he possibly expose himself to these witnesses? Ronnie
squinted, but there was no mistaking that underbite, the smooth hairless
skull. Suddenly he was nervous. This death, it turned out, would have an
audience.
But the bald man, instead of taking aim at the stage, stopped behind
where Biboy was sitting. He clutched the boys arm, forcing him to stand,
as if Biboy were a child hed been searching for all night.
On stage Ronnie tried to move. He tugged and heard a ripthe
armored sleeve had snagged on the hip of his dress. He fumbled to get the
thing off but his large fingers couldnt seem to close. He looked up and saw
the boys long narrow body being pulled toward the end of the hall.
Clasping the aluminum, he peeled the armored sleeve from his arm
and flung it angrily, a gold husk arcing out of the stage, smashing into parts
on the concrete, missing Ronnies target. The audience gasped. He could
still catch them, he thought, as he hitched the dress around his hips, kicked
off his high heels, and leaped from the stage. He landed hard on his knees
and palms.
But Ronnie got up, unfettered by his garments, his limbs springing
back to life. Refusing to believe that the boy was gone, he thrust himself
into the aisle. His body shimmering, he cleared the rows of bewildered
observers, ran beyond the exit, and stumbled into a sudden, cool night.
2013

60

The Auroras
Elisha Martinez

he most beautiful woman in the world, the newsprint on her lap


boasts, in the countrys grandest address. Aurora runs her hand flat
across the single sheet, thinking too late of the stain it would leave
on the gloves she was foolish to have worn.
Silk, Aurora now understands, does not belong in the homeland.
It has taken her eight years to know this for a fact. She rubs the tips of
her fingers together. Look at me now, Aurora thinks, Im a woman of the
world.
Aurora looks across at Armi, sees that her sister-in-lawher charge, as
Armi calls herselfis beaming. Im a fairy tale, Armi has said more than
once and to more than a handful of peopleher English lilting, the bowed
lips slow to form the words. Aurora knows Armis spiel by heart: a high
school girl from Muhos, Finland takes a chance, is rewarded. How does
it feel to be the first ever?, she is asked. There will be a second, a third, a
tenth, a twentiethbut me!, Armi replies. And then Armi almost always
trails off, laughing. She is so disarmingly young, Aurora thinks every time.
Jakobthis is her husband, her Jakobleans toward her and she
tells him, Look at that behemoth. She raises the flyer as the car pulls up
the drivewayimage and structure soon coalesce, the photograph in her
hand mottled by this mornings coffee, the hotel in front of her glaring
white against the backdrop of sky. Impressive, Jakob says. Not at all what I
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had in mind. Aurora can smell the sea just beyond them, sharp and tangy.
Already she feels late-afternoon mist clinging to her cheeks.
Armi, she notes, remains inviolate. Against sun, against sea breeze,
against the sudden, muted explosions of flashbulbs. Miss Kuusela, they
all call. Armi!, beckon the more brazen among them. Welcome to the
Philippines, Miss Universe! Their repeated summons has Armis smile
widening. Aurora catches her sister-in-laws eye and they both laugh. The
universe, they have both exclaimed in the weeks past. My face has laid
claim to the universe, Aurora. They have tittered over the presumptuousness of the title. Eighteen, Aurora thinks. This girl is eighteen.
Aurora brushes her hand against the back of her neck, now framed by
the small curls that have escaped the elaborate, if severe, hairstyle. She is
not one to wilt in heat, and Aurora wills her body to remember the press
of that heavy air against skin. It is just March, it will get warmer. This is
nothing, Aurora reminds herself. She is wearing her best cotton dress, in
the ecru she so likes. There is a comb in her hair, and it has long ago proven
itself stalwart against the drag of humidity.
Armi is in blue satin, her face is framed by her blonde curls. The most
beautiful woman in the worldnay, in the universeis helped out of the
car first. (Aurora waits for that telltale shudderthat kind when the body
is unable to hide from itselffrom the bellhop helping Armi alight the car.
Did they draw straws? Was this young, pockmarked man handpicked for
the job?) Jakob follows his sister out, and turns to Aurora, taking her hand.
Your castle awaits you, Madame.
The lobby, of course, is abuzz. A crowd has gathered around Armi and
Aurora lets Jakob stray toward it. Are you excited? they ask. Should we
expect a rivalry? And they all laugh. Aurora moves to stand by the wall, but
she is arrested by the ceaseless glint-and-glimmer of the chandeliers hanging heavy from the ceiling. A young girl runs across the expanse of floor,
weaving in and out of the herd of guests in their best suits, the reporters
with their unstarched cuffs, the women in their low heels and coral lipstick. There is an old man standing across the lobby; she sees first his halo
of gray hair, and then she sees his bare feet. Aurora looks away.
Jakob retrieves her, his arm snaking around her waist. Aint this grand,
he says. Have you ever been here before? Her husband, Aurora is sure, feels
warm in his suit. If she asks him to take off his hat, she might see his sweat
staining its inner lining, she might see his blonde hair turned dark. A timid
approximation of brown.
Of course I have, she says. Everyone has. Including, she reminds him,
Armi Kuusela. And Jakobs arm tightens around her for a moment before
saying, Yes, isnt that the coup of the decade?

She should have written. It is not too late; Aurora can say, I have
returned, and perhaps he will smile when he reads her missive. Or perhaps
not. She can tell him that her hair has grown even longer, though next to
no one ever sees it now; she can confess that she once thought of the skin of
the back of her neck as not unlike the glooming paper from a book that has
long remained unread. She can tell him that her palms remain roughened,
no matter the creams Armi brings home. She can tell him about her hipbones, that the dip between them remains. She can tell him she is married.
She can tell him she is here because her husbands sister wanted them with
her. It will be a homecoming for you, Armi said. And I get to give someone a crown! Imagine that, Aurora will write the Colonel: this adolescent
blessing the countrys most-beautiful-of-1953? I live with Finns, she will
write the Colonel; my children will be most assuredly blonde, and not
improbably blue-eyed. Manila, Jakob told her weeks ago, Armi by his side
letting the word trip from her tongue. Manila, Manilasay youll come,
Aurora. We have been sisters-in-law for only nine weeks, she will write the
Colonel, and it would have been bad form to say no. She is painfully young,
and I do love her. Can you imagine, she will ask the Colonel, we are here at
the expense of the state you so love, just to pick one beauty among many?
You must know Armi, she will write the Colonel, you must have seen her
alreadyshe is the most beautiful woman in the world.
Just your luck, her Manuel might write back.
Aurora Kuusela, he might say. Someone will name a flower after you.

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Hed walked up to her, that third time shed seen the Colonel beyond
the magazines her mother took home with her. He strode across the lobby,
with its floors still pockmarked, and asked her, You are keen on staying
here? The haze-and-drone of cigarette-roughened voices around them had
not faded when he spoke; laughter still burst and the first of the glasses that
had been brought out still came together in little, pinprick clinks. Aurora
looked up at the Colonel and almost murmured, Manuel.
I am, she said instead. She was sixteen then, she was wearing her best
dress. She wore that best dress for every day shed worked there. My name
is Aurora, she told the Colonel, and she marveled at how far back she had
to tilt her head to meet his eyes.
Brown, she realized then. Those eyes were brown.
Another Aurora, he said. When she began to smile, he told her, Keep
your hair pinned back, thats how its done. And then: Mother of God, you
are too young for this.
And then the Colonel pushed himself off the counterhow had she
failed to note how gravely hed leaned toward her?and he marched off.
No, he walked away. Aurora had wanted to run her fingertips against the

Elisha Martinez

The Auroras

marble surface, let her skin glance against its veins in search of his heat.
She told herself it was not a disappointment that he had not remembered.
She told herself this, as she reached into the pocket sewn into the folds of
the skirt of her best dress, fishing out her mothers jade-laced comb.
She and her husband are assigned a room overlooking the swimming
pool and, beyond that, the sea. The waters, at this time, have turned a
muted orange. I like being by the sea, she remembers telling Jakob nine
weeks agoon the night of their wedding. That out there is a lake, sweeting, he responded, an apology. On their bed, she finally turned to him,
murmuring, Never mind, and: I love you, you know.
Jakob is now puttering around the room, although Aurora has told
him that she can do his unpacking for him. But her husband Jakob has
insisted: You and I are here on vacation. Think of it as our honeymoon.
Below her, by the pool, a coupleboth young, from the taut curves
that she could see of their faces, from the glossy crowns of their hair
have their heads bent close. A shuffling of feet, a bracing of shoulders,
Aurora sees: the furious brows, the hard lines of their lips. The boy stalks
off, though he turns back one last time for one last word. The girl lights a
cigarette, moves deeper into the foliage. Her brow is wide and clear.
Jakob is saying, I have to check on Armi next door. And Aurora says, Of
course. Aurora tells him, I will be fine. Then, silence. Aurora allows herself
a whimsy; she tells herself her husband must walk up behind her, place his
hands on her shoulders that he may lean in close, and closer, and confess
that he has never found her so beautiful as she is now, watching a young
girl smoking in the aftermath of a lovers spat. Her husband does walk up
behind her, and he does place his hands on her shoulders. But he doesnt
pull her close to him. Her husband drops a kiss low on her nape, where her
spine rises, and he says, Lie down for a while, Miss Philippines, you must
be tired. Aurora nods, the motion rubbing her skin against his lips. Walang
asawa na makakatulad ka sa bait at sa lahat ng bagay, she thinks, almost in
sing-song.
When Jakob leaves, she climbs onto the bed, careful to leave her feet
hanging off the edge. She wonders if there are still canopied four-posters in
this hotelor was that too old-world now? She must ask Armi; if anyone
will have that romantic throwbackthose fussy curtains, the embroidery
on the underside of the canopy, the spindly pillars rising around the seafoam mattressit will be Armi.
She runs one hand over the bedspread, and she notes that no dust rises.
She may write the Colonel: The hotel has vastly improved in the years
that you and I have been gone. Someone has proven himself better than
you at this job.

What was she then? The too-young receptionist? Occasional chambermaid? The somber cooks erstwhile errand girl? Those days, though the
radio had already announced the surrender of the Japanese, anyone who
threaded their fingers through the air came away with soot. Those who
risked the pilgrimage back into the shelled building, they all saw her and
did not ask where her mother was. Aurora, some of them would call, not
there, that column might not hold. She accepted what kindness they could
give. Perhaps they knew, then, all of them. Perhaps they saw. She knows
now that all of them yearned for a reason to walk across the city, and only
then toward what once relentlessly lit up the bay. A comfort, more than a
citadel. At the very least, they were all like Aurora: quite simply, they had
nowhere else to go to.
The Colonel met them a week after he was assigned the task he would
much later describe to Aurora as Herculean. Theystray animals unable
to not keep returning to what has already been abandonedhad all come
out slowly, drawn to the man who stood still in the middle of the torn
lobbyright at the heart of their mass of makeshift shelters. They clutched
their rosaries in their hands, the photos of their departed. A chandelier lay
dulled on the floor right behind him. Aurora trailed after the crowd.
When they had all gathered, he said, I am the new General Manager.
You can all help me, the Colonel told them.
He marched down the line of ragtag helpand was he not, in those
moments, in top form? Was her Colonel not magnificent as he strode?
and he told them, We will find a way. He said it in English, and then he
said it in Spanish. His audience swayed, waiting for the softer susurrus of
the mother tongue. But the Colonel stepped back and with a nod, terse
the Colonel, their Stoic!he excused himself. She, of course, stared after
him, drawn by the line of his spine. It was the second time shed seen this
manand this meeting, that day, would go on. Blessedly.
But, ohhe was so angry when he caught her hours later. She had
wandered into the quarters upstairs, deposited herself on the forlorn mattress on the floor. The canopy had disappeared, but the posts had fallen
against each other, the fabula of a tent. She had been waiting for the sun to
emerge from the torn line of roof above her.
It was quiet; she could believe, then, in the peacetime.
The breeze carried the sea, and it stung her cheeks.
And then the Colonel came. He extended a hand toward her, he said,
You are not supposed to be here. She looked at him for a long time before
she slipped her hand in his. Her palms were rough, but so were his. Are you
trying to kill yourself, child?
She was shaking her head as she rose from the mattress.
She looked up at him, saw that the twist of anger, of panic, she glimpsed

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in his face had gone; the Colonel of the stolen magazines had returned. He
was not looking at her. He was looking at the bay too-clearly revealed. At
the wreckage around them, at the floor of the ballroom he should not have
been seeing from this high up.
Aurora slowly slid her hand from his grasp, and he let it go. She wanted
to say, Does it not look like Gods hand once emerged from the clouds and
merely swept away the walls of our hotel? She wanted to say, too, that she
was sorry.
Her hair had been bound so tightly, the skin around her ears ached for
days.
Eight years later, Aurora sighs at the remembrance of that pain.

again, darling girl too smart for her own good? she would say, maybe as
she was removing her earrings, paste they were. And then: Tama na muna
yan, anak. Kumain na tayo.
Its your fault, mother, Aurora would always reply as she uncurled herself to do her mothers bidding, and it was trueher mother took home the
books the guests had left, dazed by her song. Her mother liked to tell her,
Thats the only reason I have this job, you know. I lull the men into leaving
their books behind. And, yesAurora loved sitting by the curtains, just
behind the band. Her mother, impossibly tall, her back swaying. The men
with their hats on the tables, right beside their drinksand, sometimes, a
book. Huwag mo kong biguin, her mother crooned. Huwag kang bumitaw.
Aurora has asked for cigarettes from the concierge. It takes a while
for the drag to go down smooth, and for the first half hour of her solitude
she sat on the bed with her head between her knees. She could still write
the Colonel, she thought all the while: You should see me now, Manuel. A
woman of the world.

Jakob returns as her supper is brought into the room. My head aches,
she tells him. I cannot dine downstairs. The long trip exhausted me, I only
feel it now. She is not lying.
Her husband takes her hand and tells her, Armi is beside herself. The
President has asked to see her. Aurora smiles and says, Shes charming
enough to turn them on their heads. Jakobs brow furrows and she says,
Armi will be fine. Jakob says, Were going to a palace tomorrowthe man
lives in a palace! At this, Jakob bows his head, murmurs, I cant take you,
Im sorry. Aurora understands, of course. She is not supposed to be here,
after all. She is Jakobs wife, Jakob merely the brother-invited.
May I have dinner with you? her husband asks.
She has that comb, still. It is an efficient thing, light, un-gaudy. Jakob
likes telling her how beautiful it looks nestled in her hairthe pale of the
green peeking out of her dark, dark crown. He tries, her husband. Thats
very pretty, he tells her whenever she uses the comb. Again and again: Very
pretty, sweeting. Sometimes, he runs his knuckles against her bared nape
as he says it.
She used to wonder how this trinketit fit the palm of her hand
could gather thick hair, this long hair, hair she is still too vain to have styled
in the new way. Sometimes, she can forget that the comb is still in there, in
that mass somewhereuntil she lies down to sleep and she unravels and
her hair unfurls, and she wakes up the next morning to the comb mute
against their pillows.
Armi swept in this morning, and she pressed her palm against Auroras
forehead. I do not know you to be so fragile, my dear. Aurora said, Do say
hello to the President for me. Armi said, Oh yes, look at me, meeting presidents. Armi sighs. Books, dear, really?
Aurora almost says that Armi has just echoed her mother. Books
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Ten thousand of them, Manuel told her. All over this room. A wall, and
then another. The place was overrun. I dont know how the General ever
moved. It was madness.
Therehe would point to a grayed spot, the plaster having fallen off
that one, it said, Once upon time, the last bear in Luzon hid in a cave just at
the edge of Intramuros. Every night, the indios would offer it food, leaving
a basket at the mouth of the cavea spare chicken, the best catch from the
river. Some child would always leave berries, but they would be discovered
untouched the next day. Every night, the Spaniards threw their parties and
they drank their chocolate and prayed their rosaries, and every night, the
last bear of Luzon would rage. He paced the ground, he scratched at the
weeds.
Aurora waited for him to go on. The Colonel said, Thats all I read.
A handful of sentences, among ten thousand books?
Oh, look at you, the Colonel said.
The gardener, Manuel told her, had been so in love with the Dons
wife, he named a flower after her. The grounds were overrun. I bring you
the Doa Aurora, the men would tell their wives in the evenings, holding
fistfuls of the too-fragrant, stark white bloom as they crossed the thresholds to their homes.
Once, Manuel told her, I went with the Don to inspect a slaughterhouse. Half a pig hung from a hook on the ceiling. Aurora told him, You
will give me nightmares, Colonel. And the Colonel only laughed. He did
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not meet her eyes.


You were always so unsmiling in the photographs, Aurora told him.
This forbidding, tall mestizo hovering over Don Manuel. (She could never
tell the Colonel that she, younger still then, had thought him so handsome.) We always wondered where youd come from. Or, at the very least,
what it was that you did.
In answer, the Colonel says: I was not allowed here before, not even
when I was with Don Manuel. They barely tolerated him, the great leader
of the Commonwealth. The Colonel laughs. I was not American, you see.
But from outside the hall, the Colonel said, Waiting for the Don to come
back out, I could hear your mother singing.

me?and you did not look away.


The room around Aurora has frozen, she realizes. The old man she
saw on her first day backthe man shed looked away fromis standing in the middle of the drawing room, just between Miss Lastimosa of
the Tacloban Lastimosas and Mrs. Conde. His hair is a halo of gray. He is
wearing a white suit. His feet on the carpet are bare. He smells like lilacs,
Aurora notes, and the lines on his face run deep.
The man raises a finger toward her. I know you, he says.
Beside her, Armi giggles. How do you do? she says.
Burly men in the hotel colors come in, having been summoned by
an unseen hand. Aurora recognizes the bellhop that helped Armi alight
the carand, yes, his gaze lingers over the hem of her sister-in-laws pink
dress.
Mr. Hudson, the men say, you have to leave now, were sorry.
The lady sitting on the other side of AuroraMrs. Orosa, she remembersis saying, Father of a war hero, that Mr. Hudson. They could never
make him leave, and now see where that misguided hospitality has gotten
us.
Mr. Hudson is led away. He tells Armi, in inflected Tagalog, that it
was very nice to meet her, that she looks very fetching in pink. He looks
at Aurora, and Aurora hears: Huwag mo kong biguin, the man is singing.
Huwag kang bumitaw.
The room, almost as one, shakes its head.
Armi insists on a translation. And then, addressing the room at large,
she presses a hand against her bosom, and says, I do believe Ive been
courted, yes? The women laugh. Your charmers, Armi says. This country
is overrun by charmers!
Aurora does not know Mr. Hudson. Her hand buries itself in her
skirtshe will have to apologize to Armi for the creases. Aurora does not
know Mr. Hudson, not with his gray hair, not with his white suit, not with
his lined face. She closes her eyes, thinks of his bare feet. She thinks of
them in shoes. Aurora begins to giggleseveral beats too late, she knows,
from the chorus of the ladies around her. She must stop, she knows
there, they will start pointing, Miss Armis hipag.
Armi, her most-beautiful-woman-in-the-universe Armi, presses
a sweat-slicked hand on her bared arm, leans toward her, and says, Oh,
sweeting, I am sorry.

Aurora has borrowed a cream dress from Armi, for tea in the hotels
best drawing room. Women of the esteemed Manila are in the room with
them, and Aurora listened to the parade of names. The lady beside her was
craning her neck to look at Armi. Aurora leaned against her sister-in-law
and murmured, You realize half the room wants to shove me aside to get
this seat? Armi says, her voice not lowered, You are made of sterner stuff,
dearest. You will not throw me to the wolves.
Aurora looks around the room, reciting names in her head: Mrs.
Coron, Mrs. De Lucia, Mrs. Wainwright, Mrs. Pedrosa. The Misses
Torres, the Widow Navarra. At the far end of the room, by the window
that opened to a view of the gardens, stands the girlthe girl with the
brow wide and clear. Aurora wants to ask if she and her young man have
reconciled, she wants to caution her about smoking by the poolside where
any of the self-important (and, she allows, the truly important, too) guests
could see her. Aurora can see the girls awe over Armi. Today, Armi is in
pink. The girl is staring, too intently and too uncaringly so to be polite, but
no one notices. Mrs. Harrison has launched into a treatise on the merits of
aloe vera for ones sunburnt skin.
Aurora tries to meet the girls eyes.
She will write to the Colonel: I never told you this, Manuel, but I had
seen you once beforebefore you stood in the middle of that wrecked
lobby and waited for us to come to you. I was young, that first time, very
youngso young, I could hide behind my mother, and no one paid me
heed. You must remember her face, you must remember how tall she was.
President Quezon passed usin the lobby of this very hoteland in his
arm was his wife, the woman flowers were named for. And there you were,
in your uniform, your Hessiansyour dark hair slick against your skull.
How stern you were, Manuel. How you surveyed the crowd that had gathered around the Don and the Doa, how imperious you were. You met
my eyes, my dear Colonel, you looked at mehow could you have seen
68

Aurora never asked her mother where the comb had come from. Her
mother gave it to her at the height of the summer of 1945, saying, Please
take care of yourself, my toosmart girl. And her mother stroked Auroras
cheek. And then her mother left.
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Elisha Martinez
A handful of months after that, mere weeks after the Japanese had surrendered, when Manuel Nieto had caught her in the Generals quarters,
tracing the suns progress in the sky: Her hair had been bound so tightly,
the skin around her ears ached for days. She wanted to point this out to
him, wanted to say, Look at me trying. The comb had been buried in her
bound tresses, and she wanted to point this out too: Look, my mother gave
me this. Colonel, this trinket in my hair was her parting gift.
But the Colonel was looking out into the bay, and it was a long time
before he looked at Aurora again. He asked her, though, his eyes trained
to a point too far awaythat gaze so inward, so apparent in its lack of
involvement in her, she realized, it was a trespass to witness ithe asked
her, What is it you do here?
Nothing formal, Colonel, she said. She told the truth. I help around.
And then: Please dont ask me to leave, Colonel.
The Colonel said, They knock on my door and tell me to put this place
to rights. Or keep an eye on it. The Colonel, at last, looked at her. Do you
know who I am?
Yes, I do.
A good man lived here once.
Yes, Colonel, I know.
Did you know, then, about the ten thousand? The Colonel didnt wait
for her to answer. Ten thousand of them, he said. All over this room. A wall,
and then another. The place was overrun. I dont know how the General
ever moved. It was madness.
I dont know, Aurora began, how the General could have ever left this
room.
He looked at her, he said, I dont know where they are now.
He looked at the jagged tear on the floorGods hand, shed thought,
claiming and tearing asunder. You really shouldnt be here, young lady,
Manuel Nieto says.
Do not return here, please, the Colonel says, unless I am with you.

The Auroras
her hands.
Auroras hair was once again unfurled down her back.

Eight years ago, the Colonel gave her a letter. Written by a man named
Manuel, to a woman named Aurora. Patawarin mo ako sa lahat ng aking
naging kamalian sa iyo. Ang pag-ibig ko sa iyo ay hindi nagbago kailanman. Ang puso at buhay koy iyo lamang. Walang asawa na makakatulad
ka sa bait at sa lahat ng bagay. Ang buong kaligayahan ay tinanggap ko sa
iyo. Sa oras na ito ay paniwalaan mo ang sinasabi ko at manggagaling sa
kaibuturan ng aking kaluluwa. My darling sweetheart, the letter began.
I dont know what to do with it, the Colonel said. Im not supposed to
have it.
And he left her standing behind the counter, the letter trembling in

Armi and Jakob had gone to Baguio, with the rest of the party. More
politicians, Jakob told her last night, wanted to meet his sister up north.
In the mountains, he said, if youve ever heard a more ridiculous thing.
Baguio, Aurora told him, slowly releasing the wordyou and Armi are
going to Baguio.
Jakob came in late last night. He apologized. He reeked of smoke. She
did not mind, not really. She listened as he bathed, her hand running over
the bedspread again and again. He returned to the bedroom, a towel too
low on his hips, and he said, I keep taking baths, sweeting. I dont know
how you stand it.
And then: Give me a while, will you, Mrs. Kuusela?
She turned on the bed. But she already glimpsed the sheen of his
skinpale made ghostly, she was dismayed to note, by the white curtains
filtering the too-bright night outside. He is carelessly soft, her Jakob: no
reason to be taut around the middle, where she let her hands linger whenever he embraced her; his hipbones have all but disappeared against that
first give of flesh; his buttocks and thighs were on a descent into slackness.
She was embarrassed for her husband, Aurora realized. She burrowed her
head against the pillow and inhaled the fragrance of spring blooms.
The weight of Jakob, a near-negligible dip in the bed: No need to keep
the light on? The lamp clicked off, the room remained lit by the moon low
over the bay.
And now, Jakob has gone. In her hands, now, is a short note, delivered express at the expense of the hotelthe woman at the concierge is
keen on telling her this. Jakob has written that a Congressman, this rising
star, stood up during breakfast and told Armi, All of them are married;
youll have me instead. All the married men, including the President (him
again!), laughed. Armi did, too, Jakob says, but he is not worried about the
young politician. He is not worried at all.
When Armi returns, Aurora thinks, I will tell her: Armi, you are so
young, and so very beautiful. So very beautiful for your own good. Your
face has laid claim to the universe. Who will you love, Armi? Who may
take your hand?
The woman asks: Is there anything else I can help you with, Mrs.
Kuusela?
Aurora wants to ask her if she knows the girl who fought with her beau,
she wants to ask if the young couple has made up. Aurora wants to ask the
woman how old she is, and if she could guess how old Aurora was. Aurora
wants to ask, Do you think I belong here? Do you think Ive come home

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because I dont, I really dont. Did you know Tessa, the curlicues on the
womans nametag readsDid you know, Tessa, how the Americans put
their feet up on our old furniture, their boots sending mud flying, and their
cigars grayed our walls? Did you know about my mother, Tessa, how all the
men and women poured into the room whenever she sang, and how she
loved those dresses that made the matrons blush? Did you know, Tessa,
that in this very room, this cavernous room, I once met this tall man, this
handsome man straight out of the glossiesthis man with his polished
Hessians and his hair so precise, and his big, warm hands, those rough
palms, his story about the bear? Can you tell me about him, Tessa?
But Aurora thanks Tessa, asks that a pitcher of iced tea be sent up to
her room.
Have a good day, Mrs. Kuusela.

Phallic Symbols
Exie Abola

2014

ettina Galang said shed rather be dead than fat. Thats a bit
extreme, but I understand where shes coming from. If I think about
all the crazy things that could happen to me, yeah, getting fatas
in, really big mama fatwould be horrible. Id want to slash my wrists.
Well, no, I like being alive too much. Id slash my gut instead, hoping
the fat would spill out. But seriously, Id think about it. Bettinas worried
because her boyfriend Jobert had a string of really skinny girlfriends, all
models, and older than her too, before she came along. What if he thinks
shes fat? She isnt, not at all, but she watches her weight a lot. Shell eat half
a pizza for lunch then worry the rest of the day if it will show. (The other
half is mine, thanks.) The rest of the day its coffee and cigarettes. Long
weekends Charisse Cabrera and I go to Bettinas beach house in Batangas,
and she fills out a bathing suit better than any of us. She even looks more
like a swimmer than any of us on the swimming team. That taper down
her back, that flat belly, those slim, strong legs. Charisse said shed kill for a
body like that, and so would I, but then Id kill for pizza too. When Mama
had a TV producer friend over one day, I asked him point blank if I could
be a model or join a beauty contest. He looked me over, said Lose ten
pounds, then ignored me the rest of the day.
Joberts lucky to have Bettina, but you never know what a guy will
think. As if theyre all hotness and abs themselves. Maybe hell find another

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model-type girl and dump her, telling her he needs time to find himself.
Guys are assholes like that.
Which is why Im so grateful for lucking into Mikael. I didnt think
Id be his type. Hes already a sophomore in college, and hes handsome,
in a roguish, tisoy way, if you can see beyond the spiky hair and piercings.
I didnt know hed already picked me out in the crowd that night I caught
his band playing in a bar off Timog, the kind with cheap beer, no toilet
paper in the bathrooms (but in fairness theyre clean), and floorboards that
bounce like trampolines when you dance. Theyre called The Bad Bananas,
and he plays bass. Its a stupid name (supposedly a tribute to an old TV
show none of us ever watched), and they wear these ratty yellow shirts that
make them look silly (they all have spiky hair or chains or tattoos), but
their music is actually good. Well, if you like your rock music really loud
and fast with plenty of growling. Each song lasts maybe two minutes. You
cant even dance to them; you can only hop in place like a drunk pogo stick
(the bouncing floorboards help) and whip your head around till your neck
hurts.
That first night he walked up to me and Charisse between sets. I wasnt
sure if he was coming on to her or me, he gave us both such intense looks.
He speaks with a trace of a conyo-boy accent, which tells you how much
resentment he needs to expunge with that music. The next day he asks me
out, and we meet at a mall restaurant (safe, so its easy to abandon ship
if disaster strikes). He looks different. A navy blue button-up shirt, jeans,
sandals. He looks human, Charisse mumbles. A month later Im introduced to his home in a plush Ortigas subdivision (plush before the village got built over, too many big houses standing shoulder to shoulder),
and we soil his sheets before he drives me home.
I catch his band when I can, they play maybe once a month in small bars
in QC or Eastwood. After the last set, he packs his guitar in his case and
we walk to his car. (Actually, I walk him to the car, so he avoids too much
boozing, which used to be a problem. I feel like Ive been a good influence.)
Sometimes we dont leave right away, he just leaves the engine and aircon
running, and I put my hand under his shirt and he puts his under mine. In
bed hes such a cuddler, he gives as good as he gets, he doesnt stop till Im
happy, which is one reason weve lasted this long.
But nights out are getting to be a luxury in my senior year. Graduation
looms, and beyond that, college. I have no idea what I want to do, though
sometimes I think Id like to be a lawyer just so I can sue the people I hate.
Unbeknownst to her parents, Charisse has applied only to arts programs.
They want her to be an accountant, but shes worse at math than me. Of
course this will end well.

As Charisse and I walked out of the school gate and down the wide concrete sidewalk one day, we passed by a tree, one of those poor trees in a
square meter or two of dry earth with cement around it, with two men
sleeping under it with a jackhammer beside them. Id seen one only in cartoons. The instrument lay gleaming on the pavement. So this was what
made all that noise. We could hear it from our classroom on the second
floor this past week. Like a pogo stick. Red and dirty. A short handle like
on a scooter. And the bottom, long and pointy, with a shiny, snub-nosed
end, smoothened by all its work. Ooh! Charisse said, pointing a finger at
it. Phallic symbol!
Thats what Miss Maya Vallejo was talking about just last week. Phallic
symbols, she said, are objects that look like a male sex organ, a phallus.
Anything that looks like a phallus is potentially a phallic symbol, she
said, matter of factly. Tittering in the classroom. Phal-lus, phal-lus, phallus came from a row behind us like a whispered chant. She continued,
unfazed. Notice how in Dr. Strangelovewe watched it last month when
we read stories about warthe crazy general smokes that huge cigar. The
planes refueling in the opening titles, the one above extending that long
tube into the one below, romantic music in the background. She hums the
tune, sways her slender hips. We laugh. Miss Maya is a good teacher, and
she isnt afraid to look silly in class. She is young, pretty, and writes poetry
that gets published in magazines and wins prizes. I wouldnt mind turning
out like her.
But sometimes the things she chooses for us to read or watch make
me scratch my head. It didnt help that it was a Monday morning that we
trudged to the AV room to watch the movie. I was too groggy to get the
black comedy. But then Im groggy most mornings because of swimming
practice. I didnt even think it was funny. When I leaned over and asked
Lanie Dumiliang why it was a black comedy, she said it was because it was
in black and white. Stupid me, I believed her. For a few seconds, just before
Charisse cackled.
But when I thought about it and me and my classmates talk about it
later in the canteen, it makes more sense. The cigar, the rifles, the planes,
the nuclear bomb itself. All phallic symbols. All showing how destructive men are. (Funny how there are no women in the movie, except for
the secretary the general with the bushy eyebrows sleeps with. But shes
gone in two minutes.) We stab the longganisa on our trays. Phallic symbol! Connie Magno points to the Coke bottles on the table. Phallic
symbols! Margie Bermudez puts her hand on her bottle, her thumb on
the lip, and strokes it up and down, a lascivious look on her face. This is
what you do with a phallus, she says, moaning. She goes faster and faster.
Whoosh! Charisse shrieks. Margie sprays the table with the fizz, and the

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table explodes with laughter, even those who put their hands over their
mouths. Then Krissy Lambino holds up three fingers, her eyes wide, and
we clam up. Sister Irma TalumpatiSister Tatlongpanty, or Irma the
Impenetrable, Charisse once called her, and now the three-fingered salute
is enoughpasses by. Our math teacher who also happens to be the assistant principal for discipline cocks her head at us and gives us the stare that
can melt steel before floating away in her gray frock.
The next day, I have a question for Miss Maya: When is something a
symbol? When is something, well, just a thing? You could go crazy thinking about this. Which is what happens sometimes in Miss Mayas class.
If you look hard enough, Miss Maya said, anything can be a symbol. So
dont fall into the trap of hunting for symbols. Anything can be a symbol
but dont look for them? Well, that clears things up. Our English teacher in
third year did nothing but hunt for symbols. Sometimes we wondered, the
three legs of a stool cant be a symbol, right? Thats too much. But no! Miss
Guanio saw something in it. Of course she did. I dont remember what; the
Holy Spirit maybe. If you spit on the ground shed probably see the parting
of the Red Sea, or Jesus healing a blind man, or global warming.
Charisse and I get to the restaurant across the road. Its a small restaurant that serves good rice and pasta dishes. We sit in the corner, near the
fan. Theres a painting on the wall with one of those farm scene idylls: a
man, a woman, a carabao. The man and woman smile, which probably
doesnt happen much on farms in the middle of the day. The story we read
yesterday had those three ingredients, and it was boring as hell. Miss Maya
pointed out that the story lays out a scene of heat and drowsiness, yet love
blooms between the man eating his simple lunch in the shade and the
woman carrying water from the well. I couldnt get into it, especially when
the man draws water for her, and she watches him from behind and stares
at the muscles in his backwhat a ludicrous scene. Then Gina Wijangco
asked if the carabao was a phallic symbol. Gina wasnt shy about asking
questions, which, combined with the fact that shes not the sharpest knife
in the drawer, results in much needed moments of hilarity. The discussion went downhill from there. Charisse leaned over and said, sure, why
not? Its big, it has horns, it swats flies away, and when its happy, it just lies
back and sleeps. I have to admit, that was a riot. The back half of the room
laughed, then Jenny Dolor turned from her perch in front and gave us The
Stare. One day she will found her own order of contemplative nunsThe
Frigid Sisters.
I look at the spoon and fork. The fork has four tines. Thin and pointy.
Phallic symbols? And this big fat round spoon? Mels was long, even
pointy, with a tiny tip. More like the fork tines. Kennys was more like
the spoon, fat but a bit short. Couldnt go all the way in, which caused the

funny feeling of being filled up but not, and feeling you were supposed to
be satisfied but you werent, no matter how hard he pumped and pumped,
and he could keep pumping a long time. Ians was nice, long and a bit thick,
curving to the right. And he used it well, moving it slowly, slowly, no rush
baby yeah. Except when he finally got going he finished too fast. Hed say
sorry with his naughty grin, he wasnt really sorry, hed gotten what he
wanted, not caring if I did too.
Our orders arrive, fried chicken and buttered garlic rice. The leg on
my plate looks fat and juicy, and I take it with my fingers and bring it to my
mouth. I have to drive away a memory of Mom slapping my hand when I
ate food with my fingers at the dinner table. Its as yummy as it looks, and
I have to remind myself not to eat so fast. Charisse is daintier, splitting the
thigh from the drumstick with her knife and fork.
Its way past noon, and the lone waiter has disappeared into the
kitchen. No one else is in the room. I take the leg, pretend its Mikael, then
play with it with my lips, my tongue. Charisse grins and says, This is what
I do with Dennis, then takes her drumstick with her long fingers (God I
envy her pale, clear skin) and puts it almost entirely in her mouth. Lipstick
is wasted on such good Catholic girls.
What a delicious phallic symbol! she says, then laughs that bruha
laugh she gets scolded for, and its too late to slow down and eat the way
proper girls are supposed to.

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Miss Maya got a little tearful today. She confessed that she and her hubby
had been trying to have a baby, and finally, five years into their marriage,
she was pregnant. Then she had a miscarriage. The poor thing wasnt even
two months old. I went up to her after to say how sorry I was, but Jenny
Dolor was already there making these bleating noises about how terrible it
was but how she was sure Miss Maya and her hubby would be blessed by
God who is infinite in his goodness. I didnt say anything, and Charisse
took me by the elbow and we went to the bathroom.
A few months later Jenny herself was seen throwing up in a bathroom
(not the one beside our classroom, but one floor up, as if no one would spot
her there), and she said it was nothing, just something she ate. Except she
was doing it every few days. Charisse said, dont ask what shes been eating,
ask who. I thought, Jenny will take a few pills, grit her teeth against whatever it was in her tummy, then work her way to her rightful place as class
valedictorian. And if there was a bun in the oven, well, surely her doctor
dad could find a way to get it removed, no problem.
Jenny misses class for a week, and were sure we know why. The only
question is who, but its not hard to make a guess. For more than a year
now shed been going out with Hans, a football player from Ateneo. Hes a

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bit short, handsome in a dorky way, but at least hes built like a wrestler. I
wouldnt date him, but Id pay him to beat people up. They were at junior
prom together, and every now and then I see them at a coffee shop across
from school or lined up at the mall cinemas. Charisse told me they probably spend their dates reading the Bible. Yes, I said, then have wild, raunchy
sex with their guardian angels grinning invisibly beside them. Now shes
been gone for a week.
Melody Almeda asks if shell actually have the baby, and Charisse
says of course, it wont be a problem, the Frigid Sisters will have a whole
nursery of them anyway, those frisky nuns. Melody doesnt laugh. She asks
Charisse if she got pregnant, would she have the baby? Of course.
How about you, Felise? Melody is looking at me with her Madame
Principal glare. This is a pass-fail exam.
I wont get pregnant because Im on the pill. And because I tell every
guy I go out with, if I get pregnant, Ill slice his thing off with my balisong.
I have one, courtesy of Mikael, but the pepper spray is my idea.
Melody looks shocked and impressed. Flying colors.
Then cook it. And eat it.
Have it over pasta, Charisse says. Sarap! Then she laughs like an
overcaffeinated hyena. Sliced thinly over angel hair pasta, cooked in olive
oil and garlic, then sprinkled with a little parmesan, haha!
I add, Dont forget the lemon zest!
Melody stomps off, a hyena chasing after her.

She says yes, Jennys pregnant, but insists she really doesnt know by who,
no one does. Charisse has a cousin whos a teammate of Hans, and he
denies the baby is his. Is he lying? Is there a new boyfriend we dont know
about? No news arrives in the next weeks, so the rumors thicken and the
theories (alien abduction, immaculate conception, asexual self-reproduction) get silly.

In homeroom the week afterwe get thirty minutes of it first thing


Monday mornings, and Miss Maya is our class adviser as well as our
English teachershe tells us what doesnt surprise us: Jenny has gone on
leave of absence and wont graduate with us. Sheila Navarrete looks like
shes about to stand and clap; with three months left in the school year,
shes now the leading candidate to top the class.
So is Hans Catapang the father? Charisse asks. My classmates glare
at her, but not too long. They want to know too. With any other teacher it
would have been rude, but we know we can talk to Miss Maya about these
things. At the start of this school year I confided in her about wanting to
leave the house, I couldnt stand my parents anymore, and Miss Maya
calmed me down and helped me think clearly, so Im still at home with
my philandering father and enabling mother. But at least my ob-gyn mom
put me on the pill and makes me take tests every now and then. When she
handed me the first packet, she said, If youre going to do it, at least be
safe. Ill put that on her tombstone with eternal gratitude.
I dont really know, says Miss Maya, her face crimped. For the first
time I think shes lying to us. I go to see her at the faculty office after class.
78

Then its senior prom. Im in a short black dress that doesnt make me
look like a latik-slathered suman, and Im inside a hotel ballroom with
Mikael by my side. He calls his outfit punk glam chic, and I have no idea
what it means, but I love his shiny leather jacket, blood-red t-shirt, torn
jeans, and boots. Every teacher we pass glares at me. Irma the Imp tries to
dissolve my innards with a glance. Its my fault I have such terrible taste
in boys, they say with their arched brows, and you will burn in the fires of
hell. I cant get to college soon enough.
Hans is there with Twinkle Pantaleon, who looks like a toothpick next
to him. A tall toothpick in pink satin next to a dapper squid ball. I leave
Mikael with his schoolmates and walk across the ballroom to him.
So who got Jenny pregnant, Hans? I can actually look down at him,
hes that short and Im in heels. He turns away, as if he didnt hear me, and
tries to walk to the buffet table. I grab the lapel of his shimmery silver
jacket.
Is it your baby?
Hey! He swats my hand away.
You fucked her and got her pregnant, then you dump her? The music,
generic, thumpy techno, is loud and Im shouting down at him. What
kind of asshole does that?
He straightens up and faces me. So this is what he looks like angry.
Hes shorter than me, but he looks like he can throw me across the room
with one arm.
That family is messed up, he says, pausing after each word. Then he
shoves his face into mine and hisses, Messed up.
Mikael arrives and pulls me away, and Im glad to lean on him. Charisse
is right behind in a flaming orange sheath with Dennis, in pinstriped navy,
on her arm.
You actually asked him? she says. I nod. My God, Felise, your balls
are bigger than mine.
Final exams arrive, then we have a few weeks of nothing to doa
blessed, blessed timethat is, aside from attending masses and going to
confession (Charisse and I compete to see whose sins are the most elaborate) while waiting for graduation. The undergrads have a few more weeks
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of torture to endure. Miss Maya reminds us that we shouldnt do anything


to jeopardize our standing, since were technically still Sagrada Familia
students. We all promise to be good girls. Then some news: Jenny has had
a miscarriage. She spends a day in the hospital for a D&C then goes home.
We pray for her, and I actually do.
Then its the last weekend of March, and we graduate on a hot, humid
afternoon. A Japanese restaurant, Charisses house, and home as the sun
comes up. I wake up late in the afternoon, my head achy. I turn on my
phone, and the messages pour in. Jenny nearly overdosed on sedatives,
just as I was stuffing my face with raw fish and tempura. Her older brother
found her in time and got her to a hospital. I text Charisse: we should go
visit.
On the fourth day the doctor finally allows visitors. The neuropsych
ward is in the basement, and it is cold. Charisse and I get through three
sets of double doors, one with a sleepy guard, before we get to her. A nurse
brings Jenny to the last doors glass panels. She smiles at us and nods.
When we get in she gives each of us a big hug. Felise! Charisse! I miss
the Eeezzy Girls! Her voice is a little raspy, and she looks genuinely happy
to see us. I can feel her frail wrists on my shoulders when she embraces me.
We sit with her at a small round table. She seems weak and pale, but she
keeps smiling.
Kumusta? Thats the best I can do. How are you after you tried, you
know, to kill yourself.
Im okay now. Pause. It was bad for a while. Pause. But Im okay
now.
Then her mom enters with a red box of ensaymadas. Shes taller than
Jenny and stands rigid and straight. She joins us at the small round table
and hands each of us a bun wrapped in cellophane.
I cant stop eating, Jenny says between big bites. Im getting really
fat. She looks skinnier than ever, and her skin is white as paper.
This tastes so much better than the charcoal, she says.
Charcoal?
They pump liquified charcoal into you when you overdose. Part of
the detox process. The first time I was here I was unconscious when they
did it. This time I was awake. The taste makes you wish youd died.
Jenny, please, her mom says without looking away from her food.
So youve done this before, Charisse says. Mrs Dolor is not amused.
I crinkle my cellophane.
Then Jenny asks about me and Mikael. Were good, I say. She never
liked him. Then Charisse and Dennis.
I need to find a boyfriend who doesnt mind that Im fat. Are there
boys like that?

Of course there are, Charisse says quickly.


Youre not fat, I say.
Youre always making fun of me. Now youre lying to me. She is still
smiling. Daddy said if I got fat, no boy would like me. Buti pa si Angela,
my younger sister, she doesnt eat too much. Thats why shes thin. Thats
why Daddy he doesnt like me anymore. The smile disappears.
Thats enough, Jen, her mom says, finally looking at her.
Hans left me because I was too fat.
Hans is a stupid fucking idiot. I let it go before I can stop myself. Her
mom looks at her with stern eyes and grips her forearm.
Besides, Charisse adds, hes short and mayabang. You can do better.
I steer the conversation to safe ground. I ask what shell do this summer, what shes been reading, who else has come to visit. She says the
school will give her tutorials in the summer so she can get her credits and
finish in time for college.
Just a little later we say our goodbyes, and Jenny walks us to the door.
Im sorry about Hans, I say. About everything. I really am. I want
her to know this.
Do you want us to beat him up? Charisse cant stop chirping, and for
the first time in my life I want her to please shut up. We can hire someone.
No, but thank you.
Charisse goes through the double doors, but I stop and look at Jenny.
Really? He cant just walk away after getting you pregnant.
He didnt.
Im confused.
Its not Hans.
Then who? The words come out too fast.
For the first time that day she gives me her coldest look, the one she
uses when she turns in her seat to face us, to let us know what kind of morally deficient people we are.
Thanks for coming, says her mother, who is suddenly standing
behind Jenny, her withering look shutting the doors to my prying. Charisse
is back and looks at me funny, and Jenny and her mom turn away. I say
goodbye in my head and wish Jenny all the luck in the world then shoot
past the doors.
That night it takes me a while to sleep. I keep thinking of Jenny in her
bedroom, just like mine, a man entering, pulling the blanket off her. That
part repeats in my head: the man whose face I cant see pulling off the blanket, the one her mother would have put on her when she was a child. He
pulls it off, he is too strong for her. What if she had my knife under her pillow? I see her pull it out just as he descends, putting his weight on her. She
will not take it this time, not any more. She unfurls it and plunges it into his

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neck. Then Im the one in bed, Im the one trying to push him off me, and
its my hand plunging the knife into his neck. He bleeds but he wont die.
My body burns and I stab him in the neck, shoulders, chest, but he wont
die. Then I finally fall asleep all curled up.

places, I look up at the overcast sky. I half expect to see a bomb with a man
riding it as he waves a cowboy hat and shrieks like a madman falling onto
this spot, nuking everything to kingdom come. Jennys father standing
right there, where the bomb hits, the first to get killed. Obliterated. Then
rain, glorious rain, washing it all away. A bird flits across a gray cloud.
My feet carry me slowly past dark classrooms, places where time
stretched into forever, my life excruciatingly on hold. Silly me, it had never
stopped. I could have turned for a final look just before the gates. A part of
me had died and was buried there. I didnt mourn it then.
Once past the gates I have never gone through again I whip out my
cigarettes. I look up and down the street for Charisses car, but it isnt here
yet. Tomorrow morning were off to Batangas, for our last fling in Bettina
Galangs seaside bungalow, and I suddenly miss the swimming practice.
Not the thrashing around, just being in the water. And it finally happened:
Charisses parents found out this morning that she had confirmed with UP
Fine Arts and threatened to kick her out of the house if she didnt shift into
Business once school started. So she insisted on going drinking tonight,
and I need it too. As I puff away under the awning where the drivers and
fishball vendors would wait for the children to be unleashed, I grip the
knife through the leatherette of my handbag, making sure this weapon,
like many others I would come to need, is furled but ready for use.

When did you know? I ask Miss Maya, who is in the Faculty Room
with stacks of undergraduate exams in front of her. She looks glad for the
interruption.
Some time ago.
But why didnt you tell us?
Jennys mother asked the school not to reveal any details. And we
wanted to save the family from any embarrassment. Save the family from
embarrassment, sure. But dont save Jenny from her own depraved father.
What kind of man would do that to his own daughter?
The world is full of bad people, Felise. She looks like she is tired of
knowing this.
I feel so helpless. I want to do something, but I dont know what.
Me too.
I want to kill him.
She smiles a small, wicked smile, one I didnt know she is capable of
producing.
Me too.
I wonder if she can do something like that. Miss Maya, short and pale
and sweet-faced, a bloody knife in her hand, an evil, evil man at her feet
bleeding to death. Miss Maya smiling like a horror-movie heroine.
The school has talked to its lawyers, but the problem is, no one will
press charges. So theres nothing we can do.
There must be some way. He cant get away with this.
Our hands our tied, Felise.
My hands are tied, and I sit here in this cubicle, in the corner. Then I
struggle mightily, I try to pull my hands free. My lungs feel like they will
burst, my skin burns. Then the rope breaks. The walls of the cubicle collapse, I stand and clench my fists, I look up at the ceiling and howl, the
windows shatter, the bulbs explode, and the people stand staring at me,
unable to move, awed by my power.
He wont. Miss Maya puts her hand on my arm. We have to have
faith that justice will have its day. If not soon, if not in this life, then eventually. She looks me in the eye.
I dont want to be like her anymore.
I leave the room. Its quiet on the school grounds, finally. No kids
scampering down the corridors, clambering up the staircases. At the playground, with the monkey bars and swings, the grass worn down in many
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