A short story from the prolific writer and journalist Jessica Zafra, a Manila local. The fractured structure mirrors the intensity of life in the megacity, whilst the taxi-driver draws attention to one of the great themes of the megacity: traffic.
The city of Manila yawns, coughs, and awakens to the crowing of roosters, the sputtering of tricycles, and the screams of “WATER!” as naked citizens covered in soap turn on their showers and get…nothing. The artery- clogging smells of pork sausages and leftover rice fried in grease and garlic waft from open windows and mingle with the grey exhalations of cars and factories. The sun comes out, but a big dark cloud in the shape of a suckling pig hangs in the sky—it may rain or it may shine, probably at the same time.
Announcers bellow from AM radios, their voices full of cheerful foreboding—Armageddon is coming right after the commercial break, but everyone will get a free beverage! “Good morning! In the news! Hostilities in Mindanao enter a new phase as Army troops and Moro rebels trade insulting text messages by cell phone!” Housemaids and tough-looking guys in “Espirit” and “Hello Katty” T-shirts line up for hot pan de sal at a bakery, while the last remaining stragglers at a neighbor’s wake put away their cards and make their way home. What’s a Filipino wake without a little friendly gambling? What’s a Filipino funeral without keening relatives threatening to leap into the freshly-dug grave? This is a wake alright, but there will be no funeral: the dead man is not related to anyone on the premises. The “widow”— the enterprising woman who rented the corpse—counts the proceeds from her business venture.
A lone teenager who should be getting ready for school is practicing free throws in the makeshift basketball court— a hoop nailed to a lamppost. When a basketball game is in progress the street is effectively closed to traffic. Meanwhile the radio announcers cry, “Television personality Alma Aranas denies that she is romantically involved with basketball player Boyet Bola. ‘We’re just good friends,’ declared Alma, who has a two-year-old daughter by shopping mall tycoon Charlemagne Chan.”
Maximilian Ubaldo, University of the Philippines College of Music ’91, emerges from a hotel and flags down a taxi. He vaguely registers the name on the side of the taxi: Lamentations 5:23. He tosses his guitar case and backpack onto the back seat and sits in front. “Cubao,” he tells the cabbie. A plastic statuette of the Santo Niño, the Infant Jesus of Prague, is glued onto the dashboard. It is flanked by miniature liquor bottles. The cabbie scratches his head and makes clucking noises. “Boss, I’m going toward Baclaran,” he says, for in Manila you do not tell the driver where to go. He informs you of his desired route, and if you happen to be traveling in the same direction, he might do you the honor of letting you ride his vehicle.
“I’ll add fifty bucks to whatever’s on the meter,” Max says. He’s not in the mood to assert his rights. His reserves of patience have been depleted by the tireless silver jubilarians of Something or Other High School, with their endless requests for the greatest hits of Barry Manilow. If Max had to play “Mandy” one more time, he would beat himself to death with his own bass.
“Cubao it is,” says Quintin Maalat, 46. Max leans back and closes his eyes. For the thousandth time he resolves to decline gigs at class reunions. He resolves to finish writing a song. He resolves to form a jazz band. He falls asleep with his mouth open, drooling onto the cracked upholstery.
Quintin presses the rewind button on his cassette player. He had made this tape for his wife Mameng, a domestic helper in Hong Kong. The tape whirs, then Quintin’s voice blasts forth, tremulous and off-key: “Ohhhh my luuuuuv, my daaaarling, I hunger for yoooour touch…” Max’s skull cracks against the window, and as Quintin lifts his voice in a duet with himself, Max is fully awake.
In the long line that snakes in front of the United States Embassy, Rowena Dipasupil, 26, nervously re-reads her answers on the visa application. Purpose of visit, there’s a tough one. To seek better career opportunities? To be in a place where, if you worked hard, it didn’t matter that you had no influential relatives? To get the hell out of this city where each day felt like a kind of punishment for sins she didn’t know she’d committed? Maybe to meet a guy who would regard her as an equal, and not the inadequate replacement for his mother? Good thing only a short blank was allotted for the answer. There wasn’t enough room for melodrama. “Vacation” would have to do.
Someone taps her on the shoulder. “Is this your first time to apply for a visa?” says a middle-aged woman with blonde streaks in her hair. She doesn’t wait for an answer. “This is my third application. I want to visit my daughter. She lives in Wisconsin. Her husband is a retired army man. She’s doing very well.”
“That’s nice,” says Rowena, who does not possess the Filipino trait of congeniality, or even the ability to feign interest in the lives of total strangers. “Oh yes,” the woman continues breathlessly. “I hope I get a visa at last. I brought all sorts of documents. Why are you going to the States? Are you marrying an American?” “No,” says Rowena. “I’m sure you’ll find a husband easily,” says the woman. “You’re very…uh…you have a good personality.”
Rowena flinches, recalling the last time she’d heard that description. She was auditioning to be a TV news reporter. Her incisive reportage was no match for the California accent and mestiza looks of the girl who got hired. What did it matter if Miss Fil-America’s IQ was lower than her bra size? How naïve of Rowena to think that the news was about, well, the news.
Inside Baclaran church, the priest delivers a fire-and- brimstone sermon. “Adulterers should be denied Holy Communion!” he thunders, while the faithful bow their heads in rapt contemplation. It is not the sermon they’re contemplating, but the words appearing on the tiny screens of their cellular phones. “C U L8R AT STRBKS K?” reads one message. There are dirty jokes, jokes about the President, invitations to street parties and “underground” raves sponsored by multinational clothing manufacturers, greetings, gossip and, occasionally, useful information.
Before a Station of the Cross (“Jesus falls for the second time”), a young woman kneels and asks God to send her more customers, preferably Japanese. It is a known fact that prostitutes are among the most fervent churchgoers. This makes perfect sense, for who needs forgiveness on a regular basis? When politicians go to church there are cameras to record their piety.
Veronica Fulgoso, 31, actually listens to the sermon and ponders its practical applications. How is the priest supposed to identify every churchgoer who cheats on his spouse? Will scarlet letters be tattooed on their foreheads? Veronica’s mother Consuelo, 70, has been to church nearly every day of her life, except for sick days and the worst parts of World War II. Veronica considers herself a DIY Catholic—cut out the middleman, talk to God direct—although she once had a religious phase. It was back in the third grade, when she saw a documentary on the Blessed Virgin Mary’s apparitions at Garabandal. She had believed that if she did not go to church daily, the world would end. When she got the measles and the Apocalypse didn’t happen, she was seriously disappointed.
“Give me your arm,” says Consuelo, who has grown more fragile by the day since Veronica announced her intention of taking her master’s at Harvard. “However am I going to survive without you? I’m too old to be alone.” “You won’t be alone,” Veronica points out. “You have a cook, a gardener, a driver and a nurse. Your son lives next door to you.” “But he has his own family,” Consuelo says. “It’s not the same. And I don’t like the thought of you living alone. God knows what sort of men you’ll meet. How do you know they can be trusted?”
“Mom, I’m thirty-one years old,” Veronica says. “I’m not an idiot” “Don’t be impertinent,” says Consuelo. “I know what men are like. They’re after only one thing, and when they get it they leave.” “Really?” Veronica says. “And what would that be?”
“Gruesome Sacrifice!” scream the tabloids in red letters three inches high. A freelance journalist has appealed to the terrorist group Abu Sayyaf to release their twenty- one foreign hostages. The woman lopped off the top of her ring finger and sent it to the terrorists, along with a note written in her own blood. Beside the headlines is a photograph of the amputated digit, preserved in a jar of rubbing alcohol.
Dressed in a white shirt and white trousers, Arcadio Pamintuan, 42, boards a bus and stands next to the driver, blocking the TV screen showing a pirated copy of the movie Gladiator. Boos and hisses from the passengers. “Brothers and sisters,” Arcadio begins, “I’ve come to share good news.” “Shut up!” someone yells, “We’re watching the movie.” Arcadio is undaunted. He has been booed, spat on, insulted, threatened with a gun, and twice shoved out of moving buses. “I understand your fascination with movies, for I was once an actor. You may remember me as Arnel Azcarraga.” Two or three passengers recognize the name. “Yes, I was a movie star. A bomba star. I appeared in smutty movies. I took off my clothes and fornicated for money.”
As Arcadio launches into the tale of his iniquity and eventual enlightenment, Hector Ronquillo, 19, tries not to look at the couple across the aisle. Tourists, from the looks of them: the ratty T-shirts, dirty shorts, sandals, greasy ponytails, the huge backpacks shoved into the luggage rack, the gamy aroma. They are kissing so avidly that from where Hector sits, the man appears to be devouring the woman. “Don’t look,” Hector tells himself. His fingernails dig into his palms.
Arcadio is getting warmed up. “When they told me to strip, I said, Why not? I come from a poor family. We needed the money.”
Hector is in trouble. He didn’t return to The Residence last night, and for that he will be punished. When his adviser finds out that he spent the night with a girl he met in an online chat room, he may even get expelled from The Residence. For a moment he considers making up some story about an accident. That’s it, an accident. Wait, he didn’t have any injuries. Maybe he could throw himself off the bus…
“Later I needed the money. For drugs,” Arcadio says. He’s really getting into his speech—there’s a slight quiver in his voice, and his volume is just right. The audience is turning away from the computer-generated Roman Colosseum on the screen and watching him. It’s like being a movie star all over again, except that he gets to keep his clothes on. This time he gets to be on the side of righteousness. “To overcome my shame at being a whore, I took drugs.”
Or a family emergency, Hector thinks. That would be more believable. But why didn’t he call The Residence to inform them of his whereabouts? Well, he couldn’t get to the phone because his father’s condition was serious…
“I sank deeper and deeper into the pit,” Arcadio says. “And when I thought I had hit the bottom, I was arrested and thrown in jail.”
Hector shakes his head. In the corner of his eye he sees the man swallowing the woman’s face. He can’t lie. He’s done enough already. He knew that the chat room was an occasion for sin, and still he flirted with Marimar. A complete stranger. When she asked for a meeting, he said yes. And when she suggested that they check into a motel…
“I thought my movie friends would help me, but they left me to rot in prison,” Arcadio cries. “Then in the depths of my despair, I found Him. He forgave my sins and washed me clean.”
Everyone staying at The Residence had sworn to remain chaste until they married. Then they would do their duty and raise as many children as the Lord saw fit to grant them. But Marimar was so alluring, even if she wore too much make-up.
Two months ago, Hector had been to a play where the lead actress took off her shirt. The sight of her small, perky breasts had troubled him. He reported this to his adviser, who prescribed a course of self-mortification. Flagellation, ten strokes a day, and as the bits of glass ground into his back he was to contemplate the weakness of the flesh. Chicken wire around his right thigh, once a week, and as he bled onto his pants he was to beg the Lord for forgiveness and the strength to resist temptation. Sometimes, as he wielded the whip, he was overcome by such a powerful sensation that he would forget to count the strokes. He forgot everything—his sin, his guilt, the sharp pain as the whip bit into his flesh—as his body was wracked with ecstasy. The pleasure was so intense that he would cry out. His neighbors thought he was flogging himself too hard. Hector did not report these occasions to his adviser.
“The Lord will smite the sinners, as He did Sodom and Gomorrah,” Arcadio says. Hector pushes the Stop button and glances across the aisle, where the woman’s head is disappearing into the man’s gaping mouth. Arcadio produces a large plastic envelope and waves it above his head. “Brothers and sisters, in order to save the sinful I need your help. Your love offerings will go a long way in aiding my mission. Remember, God loves the cheerful giver .”
The bus jerks to a stop. As Hector lurches down the bus a taxi hurtles past him, missing his foot by two centimeters.
“I know a shortcut,” declares Quintin, and Lamentations 5:23 careens into a narrow street. “Isn’t this a one-way —,” Max starts to ask, just as the taxi hits a deep, wide pothole. Max is thrown forward, and the last thing he remembers before losing consciousness is the scepter of the Infant Jesus coming toward his eye.
“Meanwhile!” bellows the AM radio newscaster. “A manananggal has been seen on a rooftop in Fairview, Quezon City! The monster, a woman with huge wings and no legs, was reportedly attempting to suck the fetus from the womb of a pregnant woman named Luz Cruz! The manananggal had lowered its tongue through a hole in the roof and was preparing to attack the woman’s stomach, when it was spotted by neighbors! They shouted and threw stones at it, scaring it away! The flying monster was said to be heading towards the Senate Building!”
Sherilyn Adapon, 35, examines the dark circles under her eyes and wonders if the time has come for cosmetic surgery. She still has the face and figure—give or take ten pounds—that won her the second runner-up crown in the 1985 Pearl of the Orient Princess beauty pageant, but one can always use a little help. She would’ve been the Pearl of the Orient Princess, too—she was definitely prettier than the winner—if she hadn’t gotten such a tough question in the interview portion. “If you had to give up one of your five senses, which one would you give up, and why?” It was hard enough standing in a skimpy bathing suit in front of a thousand drooling strangers without having to remember all five senses. What did that have to do with real life anyway? Real life meant looking after her aging parents, putting her brothers and sisters through school, supporting assorted relatives, and staying beautiful so her boyfriend wouldn’t complain about paying her bills.
She takes the tube of Preparation H from the medicine cabinet and smears it under her eyes. Just an emergency measure, in case Wally shows up without warning. He’s in Manila on official business, and while that battle-axe he married squanders his money at the casino, he may drop by. Maybe, if he’s in a good mood, she can ask him about finding a job for the nephew of the wife of the cousin of the godfather of her parents’ next-door neighbors in Leyte. She looks at the mirror and giggles. The things you have to do to look good: treat your face like a hemorrhoid.
It’s Baby Girl’s fault she hasn’t had any sleep. Baby Girl promised she would come to the house at 8 p.m. for her fortnightly tarot card reading. Baby Girl had never been punctual—her perception of time was different from other people’s, that’s how she could see the future—but who knew she would arrive at 3 a.m.?
Baby Girl, age unknown, hasn’t been the same since her 19-year-old boyfriend Jomari shot her in the head. The bullet ricocheted off her forehead and buried itself in her bedroom wall, right next to the poster of dogs playing billiards. Baby Girl declared that if she hadn’t been wearing the magical amulet which her late grandfather had dug up on Good Friday fifty years ago, the bullet would’ve shattered her skull. Instead it left a noticeable dent on her forehead, which she conceals with a red bandana. “I will prepare a charm for you,” Baby Girl announces, shuffling the cards. “A special charm. I have to wait until the moon is at its fullest. The charm will protect you from people who have evil intentions.”
“Which people?” Sherilyn asks, alarmed. Baby Girl might not have all her marbles, but she is the best fortune-teller Sherilyn has ever had. “A woman,” Baby Girl says. “She is wearing dark blue. Her hair is…brown. Her gums are…black.” Her speech is slurring and slowing down—she sounds like a tape recorder running low on batteries. “Her name…has the…letters 1, A, and…D…” She slumps face forward on the table. “Baby Girl? Are you alright?” “Huh?” Baby Girl says, lifting her head. She blinks several times. “It was a black dwarf. It tried to take over my body.”
Suddenly someone is banging on the gate. “Sherilyn Adapon!” a woman screams. “Come out here, you slut!” “What the…” Sherilyn goes to the window and draws the curtain. A woman in a dark blue dress is standing outside her gate. “I am the wife of Walter Palomaria,” the woman shrieks. “Bring him out right this minute! Walter! You cheating bastard!” She pounds on the gate and starts wailing like a police siren.
Max wakes up with the worst headache he has ever had. He is slumped on a hard plastic chair in a strange room. His face feels wet, and when he touches his forehead he realizes he’s bleeding. He’s in some kind of clinic. “Excuse me?” he says to the nurse at the counter. “Where am I?”
“A taxi driver brought you,” the nurse says. “He says you were drunk, and you cut your face on the Santo Niño in his cab.”
“What?” Max cries. “That bastard, it was his fault.” He remembers the pothole, and the Infant Jesus moving toward his eye. Good thing Baby Jesus didn’t put his eye out. He did have a giant gash above his left eyebrow, and it was bleeding like hell.
“Can I see a doctor?” he asked the nurse.
“In half an hour. He’s attending to the previous patient!” She hands him a piece of paper. “You need to buy this at the pharmacy before you see the doctor!”
“What’s this?” Max asks.
“Medicines. Anaesthesia, thread for your stitches. The pharmacy is on the ground floor.” Max continues to look bewildered. “This is a public hospital,” she says briskly. “We do not provide free supplies or medication.”
Holding his bleeding forehead, Max staggers to the pharmacy.
Edgar Saturnino, 24, pulls his shiny fuchsia mini over his muscular thighs and darts from behind the lamppost where he has been trying, unsuccessfully, to conceal himself. “Taxi!” he cries. The taxi roars past him. Stupid, stupid, stupid, Edgar berates himself. You shouldn’t have overslept. You shouldn’t have spent the night with that boy. But Hector was so sweet, so naïve. He actually believed Edgar was a woman named Marimar. “Taxi!” he calls. Why won’t they stop? By the time he gets home the neighbors will be awake, and if they see him dressed like this—.
A taxi pulls up at the curb. On its side is painted the improbable name, Lamentations 5:23. “Where to?” the driver says, looking him up and down. Edgar ignores him, he is desperate to get a cab. “San Juan,” Edgar says.
“Three hundred pesos,” our old friend Quintin says. “What?!”
“Three hundred pesos,” Quintin shrugs. “You won’t be able to get another ride at this hour. Certainly not dressed like that.”
Something in Edgar snaps. Years of being derided and misunderstood all come to the surface, dredged up by a mean cabbie who wants three hundred bucks for a trip that usually cost sixty. I’m not a bad person, Edgar tells himself. I don’t hurt other people intentionally. I have a decent job. So I like to put on high heels and a little dress. Does that make me a monster?
“Are you riding or not?” Quintin says. Edgar opens the cab door and drags Quintin out onto the sidewalk. Forgetting his long, fake, red fingernails, he starts beating the crap out of the taxi driver. The city swirls around him: the honking of car horns, the shrieking of sirens, ringing of cellular phones, bellowing radio announcers, easy-listening muzak, and ten million stories all happening at once.