“I like your tattoo. Is it real?” We’re in the middle of a noisy conference hall. My feet already hurt, and I’m not even wearing pumps. My skirt is a little too tight. She has long straight hair, an earnest beautiful face, winning smile. She looks like a Filipina soccer mom.
I always want to say no, not real. I like to rotate temporary tattoos. It’s tempting. I forget people don’t always like tattoos, or seeing them. “Yes.”
We talk about tattoo work and color. Tattoo colors are different colors. They are black and gray. Colored. Watercolor. “It fades,” she says. “After a few years, if you’re not careful. Keep out of the sun.”
“I have one too.” She says. It’s secret. Most women tend to get tattoos in secret places: hip, rib, back of leg, top of thigh. Other women tend to get tattoos in small places: wrist, ankle, the tiny place just under the back of your neck, the tip of your spine. “But I don’t show the others.” Conservative culture sometimes makes for conservative rebellion.
We continue to wait for the meeting to go on break. It’s hard to be different here. They remember differences, even after the years pass: the girl with blue hair, the two people who kissed in the parking lot (but they were married to different people), the Japanese man who went mad in his office, shut himself in. This, that. They call you siga, like you wade into things to wage war. I think of the dozen tattoos I seriously wanted, and how they lurk under my skin, waiting.
“If I was a bit…” I want to say brave, or dumb, but being brave or dumb isn’t defined by the body art you wear, or the armor you carry. “Crazier, I guess. I would have covered my arms now.” I make this gesture, like pulling on sleeves.
She tells me about her friend — always a friend, the ultra Amazon, tattooed goddess type friend. I wanted to be that girl, I want to tell her but I don’t. I don’t really know this woman. For a moment there, I even forgot her name.
“We will not stop until the last drug lord, the last financier and the last pusher have surrendered or are put, either behind bars or below the ground, if they so wish.” – Philippine President Duterte, on drug enforcement.
A partial transcript of the speech is here if you want to read it, but it doesn’t contain his adlibs. It was vague, meandered up and away so he could score some comedic points and left me wondering. It feels like populist propaganda to me. But he is the populist Dirty Harry president everybody loves. So why not.
The good points included a nicely scaled down event, no mega-fashion show as with previous years. It’s funny that all it took was a short statement banning it. PNoy must be shocked. I guess vague economic promises, a “ceasefire” and basically a whole of it “it will be like this” without actual statements on what they will do count kind of counts.
Nothing about the China Sea ruling, which for me is a pertinent issue since they are building on the contested land. Nothing regarding the Marcos burial.
Scapegoats are nice. Drugs have always been a nice scapegoat for governments. Nixon knows this too. After all, he was the original “war on drugs” president. A declared war on drugs feels a lot like state-sanctioned propaganda.
Drugs are a pervasive societal issue that affects people at all levels. There’s no one-off solution to “solving” drug smuggling, use and abuse. But it’s easy to please people through a show of force. And it’s easy to please people who are all to happy to hand it over to a president who has a reputation for taking action.
In this context, I can’t help but think of Richter Baykin, the 16-year old student killed in a buy-bust in Baguio. (Buy-busts in Baguio are a laugh and a half, let me tell you.)
What about Jefferson Bunuan, the young scholar shot dead in his sleep next to his cousin. Police say they started a gunfight, so they shot them. Witnesses say they were asleep. Maybe people hide guns under their mattresses these days. In a country where a gun costs more than a month’s salary. (Legally, of course!) Illegally, well.
Do we have a concept of reasonable force in this country? Or is force reasonable because you have the authority to wield it?
Not all cops. Not all pushers? Do we have that kind of hashtag? #druggielivesmatter Every life matters? Or they only matter if they make national news, but if you classify them as no-lives, worthless lives that don’t deserve the basic things other people do, because “human rights cannot be used a shield or an excuse to destroy the country–your country and my country. (Duterte, again in the same speech”.
If so, what other reason can be used? 400 estimated dead due to extrajudicial killings. Of course, some of them were committed by vigilantes in the name of justice.But you have the dubious blessing of The Man in Power.
It’s easier to kill than to prove guilt. He does talk about rehabilitation later on. You can’t put the dead in rehab, though.
Full of faraways and farewells, because for you it’s true. People change. If they don’t, the circumstances they face make them change. You know this now because you are old enough to know that it’s the truth.
It’s weird how easy it feels now. People move away, come back. They come back different, thinner, older, with different interests. The girl who used to hate motion now loves yoga. The boy you knew in college tells you, quietly, he really really likes boys and maybe he always did. You’ve changed, but you don’t admit it. You move quietly. You don’t feel that young urge to make people like you. But you don’t laugh as much as you did.
You try to make it better by thinking, oh, I’m not the only one in the world saying goodbye, or hello again. Or asking how someone is over miles and miles.
“Hold still, I’m taking a screenshot.”
“Okay. Do you know the sun sets at 9 pm over here? It’s crazy!”
You spent a part of your life submerged, thinking maybe this is it for you. There’s nothing else, because you can’t imagine anything else. You’ve ended too. It feels like you cast paper into the water and when you made a grab for it, it disintegrated. You can’t put anything back together. You feel like you barely remember it. But it’s not true.
There are so many of them. In your hometown, you only ever went to six and that was when you were flush. You rotated them depending on your mood, the day of the week, how much gasoline you had or what kind of cheeseburger you were craving. Manila bars are flavored with the different cities and the different people who inhabit them. It’s a smorgasbord that pleases the alcoholic in you.
Here you travel hours to sit outside a bar in a corner alley, observing the boarded pawnshop front and thinking vaguely of stealing the books for sale on the shelves in the wall. Inside the walls are lined with disco balls, the beer is cheap and people dance in front of this impeccable, tiny DJ booth. This week a friend tells you that “The disco ball fell off and shattered. I think some drunk bastard pulled it down.”
Here, on a hot night your friend tells you, “I know a secret whiskey bar. You need a password to get in. Let’s get a few hotdogs.” You have no idea why she says hotdogs, and then later, dining on one covered in pickles you feel like your life is so good, so delicious. They keep the whiskey in a recessed, temperature controlled shelf. The odd pleasure you feel when you see it is new. So you find yourself in a corner booth with genuine leather seats your thighs keep sticking to, and you run up enormous tabs.
Your favorites are the converted houses that keep cheap booze stocked — just beer, an effort to look a bit more festive, an aloof and distant waiter. You like these bars because they feel like someone’s house. They feel like your old house, and that all your friends might just come over, if you asked.
“I hate cats.” He tells you. It’s hot and you can feel his thigh pressed against yours. This is a cat city — stray dogs don’t seem to last long enough. You spot felines everywhere, slinking through stairways, licking themselves on stoops.
Earlier that month after a long dinner, M spots a stray small cat without friends, and both of you try to rescue a kitten hiding in some bushes. You’re both unwilling to keep it, but it jumps to a ledge and hisses, and you both give up and turn away.
You miss K walking into the office and asking for coffee, and you would eat plantains and eggs that you buy from the same vendor in the street corner. You think of K hustling in Seattle, and make notes to call. You forget to call.
You want to tell her that the girl who sometimes watches the sugared banana stall gave birth, and that the baby is a boy. That the office is very empty now compared to before. That nothing much has changed in the corner of Manila that you work in. It’s still hot, the trains still don’t work. Sometimes early in the morning you can smell the coffee burning when the doors of the 7-Eleven open.
Your energy drink addiction is showing. So you always hide the evidence, but then who are you hiding it from? You buy the sugar-free Monster drink, the big blue-black one that you can drink in one sitting. You tell yourself the sugar-free thing is a good thing. For some reason, all you can think of when you drink these drinks is that terrible computer shop you used to hang out in so you could play World of Warcraft, the one next to the tattoo shop you eventually got one of your tattoos in. You think it’s probably still there, under another name. Still, there’s a plastic bag in your car full of energy drinks, and when people say your car smells sweet you tell them it’s your perfume.
Instant Coffee Mixes
Everybody in this city drinks this terrible instant coffee mixes that you secretly love. It’s not even coffee. It’s sugar, coffee flavoring and assorted flavors. You try not to drink them, stick to your principles. In the morning, if you’re alone and you wake up early enough, you brew yourself a cup of coffee and sit. You feel very adult, but you’ve been an adult for a long time.
A never again, in your book. Crossed out forever.
Is inevitable — don’t waste time complaining. Leave earlier or later. Make playlists to sing along to. Keep a movie to watch, or an audiobook ready. Make sure you always have gas. Drive without fear, drive like a pro. Make sure you catch the eyes of truck drivers when they try to squeeze all of the 8-wheeler bulk into the sedan-sized space in front of you. Reserve the finger for really special occasions.
Traffic Annex A: Bathroom Breaks
When in dire need, turn off engine and leave car stranded in the middle of the lane. It has been 30 minutes since last movement. Thank God you’ve been running. “We have no women’s bathroom.” The attendant says. You think of the Isuzu truck behind you plowing your car out of the lane once the lights turn green, if they ever. You think of waterfalls.
“I don’t care.” You tell them. “I don’t care.”
Traffic Annex B: Flooding
The only person who knows that you were screaming is you, and the guy sitting in the jeep in front of you who looked vaguely like he understood, but also that he was afraid. You broke out in a cold sweat when you had to maneuver the car onto this steep slope, handbrake, manual, clutch for life. Grip on the steering wheel turning your knuckles white. No one knows why you were screaming, not even you.
Puddles glint as the streetlights dim. Cabs and cars whoosh by. We spill out of the bar, but it’s more of a gradual meander into the night. I want to close my eyes and blend into the darkness.
I want to stop and stand still.
The houses doze like small cats on the sidewalk. They stare us down. We ghost by them, laughing. The rain is fine and misty, it has not yet morphed into the full on storm. Above us 90-year old trees loom. The rain releases the smell of greenery, ripe mangoes and the deep, dark smell of acacia. Our shadows stain the pavement, flicker and disappear. Water gushes into the gutters.
It is pleasant: the long strides we take, the burn of the alcohol, the quiet city night. It is simple: new friends, old friends. Our voices falter as we speak. Our throats clog with memories of loved ones as one of us tentatively shares the grief. Later, we will toast to our dead and to the past and to time.
We shove each other and run up the streets. We are waiting for dawn, I think. Waiting for the light to burn away the memories of grief and love.
I have a sensation, and it’s an old one. I want to look over my shoulder. I am certain ghosts are following us.
Some months it’s hard to write not because I cannot, but because I feel drained at the end of the day.
I write this from the corner of a tiny apartment in the hottest city in the world, famously referred to as the Gates of Hell. To make myself happy, I show you photographs of my hometown and my home. The city I love. I’ve been away for a month and I feel sucker punched. Homesickness is a punch to the gut. Manila makes me feel like I want different things, that other people don’t want.
I miss the sound of the bamboo. The wind literally runs its fingers through bamboo, and you can feel it shiver on those long windy days.
The trees. This city has no trees. They exist like afterthoughts, or discoveries. Carefully cultivated into parks. Sequestered.
It’s the mountains and the city, and the never ending rain.
I hate hipster glasses. I hate girls who wear fake, clunky, coke-bottle frames. I hate boys who wear fake hipster fake tortoiseshell glasses. If you don’t need your glasses or wear glasses without lenses I automatically hate you.
Glasses are cool now. Yeah. Now.
In Grade 2, glasses were a death sentence. They killed your social life. Even if they were fake tortoiseshell.
My mom noticed that I was sitting a little too close to the TV and that I tended to squint. I also tended to get headaches after reading. These symptoms meant a trip to the ophthalmologist and the epic cool sight test. I think my doctor realized pretty quickly that I was pretty bad.
My clearest memory of that trip to the doctor is of the hot air balloon. I sat down and placed my chin on a machine that vaguely resembled square telescope. I had to look into the binoculars and tell the assistant if I could see the balloon clearly. The yellow and red hot air balloon floated above green grass, fading in and out like movie transitions. The assistant in a lab coat tweaked it for me. All of a sudden the balloon popped out — utterly defined, so colorful I remember feeling shocked. I felt a sinking sensation in my gut.
Something really was wrong with me.
The first sign of my world changing were the steampunk glasses: heavy metal glasses that ophthalmologists place on their clients to test various grades. At first the world was a bitter blur as the doctor deftly placed in lens after lens.
“Is this better?”
“How about this?” She slipped another lens in and everything was illuminated.
I now had an intimate understanding of what clarity looked like. I understood that I had been living in a blur! The floor was tilted! Why did I feel dizzy? Plus, I could choose whatever frames I wanted! How cool was that!
I think I chose Mickey Mouse frames, cause you know, Mickey Mouse is the epitome of everything awesome when you’re 8. Or Snoopy. I was really into Snoopy.
My mom was asking if I felt okay and I said yes. My mom wears glasses too, you see. And my mom, even in her pajamas, manages to look fabulous.
At first, I was happy. I stared at our pine walls, fascinated by whorls. I saw leaves in detail. I was blind and now I could see! I could read without sticking the book in my face.
Then I went to school.
It was all pretty much downhill from there. Glasses are a sign of weakness. They were a sign that I, at age 8, would have been sabertooth food in the wild. I wouldn’t have been able to see the sabertooth, much less run from it. All the other kids knew this — and it didn’t help that in my memory, I was the only kid with glasses in the class.
Other kids automatically began to taunt me, to pull the glasses off my face, to pretend wear them.
“I’m blinnnnd.” One would say while he flailed his arms and pretended to run into walls. Whenever they pulled the glasses off my face, I would follow, because the lanyard attached them to my neck.
One charming individual placed his fingers in front of his mouth to imitate buckteeth. I don’t know where he pulled the image of a nerd from, but it was succinct and changed my social standing forever. From then on, my world shifted. It felt like the world was divided into glasses wearing people and non-glasses wearing people.
Glasses, in their small way, made me see the world clearly. It made me realize how easily your appearance can change things. I also realize that a lot of “hipster culture” is mostly about rediscovering retro or finding off-the-beaten path interests. Pabst beer, whatever, I really don’t care what you do with your clothes, your music and your life.
But I really draw the line at those glasses. I really do. Because if they’re fake, they are just fake. Hipsters (in my opinion) want the good stuff, the good memories without all the bad crap that comes with wearing glasses. They want their lovers to take off the glasses before the first kiss. They want their glasses to mist up when they cry. They want to give an impression of deep thoughts and late nights up reading thick books.
They want someone to say, “Oh, wow, you look…really different.” Because Clark Kent was right to use glasses as his only mask! People look different without them!
But they have never been teased because their glasses could be used as a magnifying glass. They have never been called four-eyes, bug-face or any variations of this term. They have never been late for appointments because they misplaced their glasses and were disabled and couldn’t see! Couldn’t see. Essentially disabled, until they realized it was under the pillow and thank the particular deity you worship.
These coke-bottle wearing fakes have never been hit in the face with a volleyball so hard the frame cracked in two. They have never gathered shattered glass lenses in their hands, shaking and crying in terror because mom’s going to throw a fit, the frames were so expensive.
They have never been called nerd, when it hurt to be called a nerd. They have ever walked around with the soft part of nose of the glasses missing, the tiny metal prong digging into the bridge. Never had to endure taped frames because they broke and well, the new pair wasn’t ready yet. This means they do not deserve the other, nicer things about wearing glasses. Like when someone who loves you takes them off because you feel asleep with them on.
Go subvert some other culture or pretend you like that really terrible indie band. Please. Just stop fake-wearing glasses. Just. Stop.