Writer shuffling between New York, London, and Manila. I like to keep work and romance geographically separate from the rest of my life.
‘I have gone out, a possessed witch,
haunting the black air, braver at night;
dreaming evil, I have done my hitch
over the plain houses, light by light:
lonely thing, twelve-fingered, out of mind.
A woman like that is not a woman, quite.
I have been her kind.
I have found the warm caves in the woods,
filled them with skillets, carvings, shelves,
closets, silks, innumerable goods;
fixed the suppers for the worms and the elves:
whining, rearranging the disaligned.
A woman like that is misunderstood.
I have been her kind.
I have ridden in your cart, driver,
waved my nude arms at villages going by,
learning the last bright routes, survivor
where your flames still bite my thigh
and my ribs crack where your wheels wind.
A woman like that is not ashamed to die.
I have been her kind.”
― Anne Sexton, To Bedlam and Part Way Back
He says he loves how beautiful I am in the morning.
And I can almost see what he sees: a girl barely awake, hair in disarray from sleep, barefoot and looking for a discarded bra while the early light streams gently through the window. She looks lost and innocent and pure. I am unmade and unmasked.
But I don’t want to be loved when I’m vulnerable.
Love me when I’m strong. Love me when I’m wielding my weapons. Love me inspite of my shields. It’s too easy to love someone who needs to be loved. I don’t need you, but love me anyway.
And I will love you like no one else can. I’ll tend to the monsters you like to keep. I’ll laugh with all the demons you’ve befriended. I will take you as you are, and you will never have cause to hide even the ugliest of your pieces. I will show you the world.
And when it’s all over, I promise, you will always remember me.
For Cece, Anette, Mila, Hazel, Apple, Cassandra, and all the girls whose real names I will never know, but who let me in their lives regardless.
Tonight, we’re sitting on a bench, on display. We are in our slutty best: the shortest skirts, the most diaphanous tops, the laciest lingerie under carefully kohled eyes and blown out hair.
It’s just like a night out, a pretty blonde, an actress from Australia, tells us. The striking girl beside her, a painter with wild curly hair, laughs.
Artists find their ways here too easily, I often think. We tend to be less scrupulous, more used to bending ideals to fit the day, more flexible with morals. I suppose we’ve had to be. Empathy is our drug, and we’re all of us addicted. We see too much, feel too deeply, to keep to black-and-white.
Another girl rolls her eyes. I haven’t had a night out in three years, she says, and I’m definitely not counting this as a replacement. There is an edge to her soft voice, like cotton candy gravel, that the rest of us are careful to skirt around. She’s been doing this the longest - for almost as long as she’s had an autistic son.
Under the table, we are a knot of limbs. We are so many bodies crammed together, just flesh to be picked over, bought and sold. Sometimes I no longer know which pieces are mine.
But this is my last night here. The last night of three months. I have enough for a downpayment on a rental, and to pay off debts, and get me solvent again. Enough. It’s not enough to hit the ground running, but it’s enough to stop in my steps, to coax my legs out from the routine of gyrations. It’s enough to find my feet, and I’m grateful.
It’s strange, isn’t it it? Most of us come in seduced by easy money, and visions of Louis Vuitton bags, and dinners at Nobu, and medicine for sick sons. Yet we leave thankful that we can even find our feet.
It’s only when the world collapses around you that you really get to see what’s been holding it up. It’s when you see your foundations, the pillars on which the essence of you rest.
Because the slow collapse is every bit like the striptease I’ve taught myself to do, to withstand on a nightly basis. The extraneous things make everything pretty and exciting, but they don’t matter, in the end. Most men don’t even remember the color of your bra - and if you’re doing your job right, maybe they shouldn’t.
What matters is the bravado. The smile. What matters is the absence of your debris on that dance floor, because you kept it together. In the end, it doesn’t matter what keeps you up. It only matters that you don’t fall apart.
It could be worse, one of the veterans shrugs. She speaks as if worse was a gradient on which our lives must necessarily fall.
We take things for granted sometimes.
That the world won’t change too much in the morning. That homes will be sanctuary. That trust given will be returned. That friends won’t die.
Roughly four years ago, Alexis and his girlfriend were murdered in their home during a burglary that was carried out with the help of one of their maids.
Alexis was passionate about film, and was one of the leading advocates of Southeast Asian cinema both in and out of the region. He was an honest but generous critic, a thoughtful writer, and a vocal champion of the artistry of film. He had just started a promising career as a film professor at the University of Asia and the Pacific.
Today would have been his 32nd birthday.
Anonymous asked: Wait, wait. You and The Brit broke up? I'm sorry, I don't know you, but I've been following, lurking, blog-stalking you for the last 3 or so years, so I do really feel some dismay over this. You don't have to tell us (me) what happened, just confirm that it did happen, and that I haven't misunderstood... say it ain't so! PS- I sound a little heartless, but I do feel bad. PPS - I think I will miss all the entries dedicated to The Brit. Just the way you named him The Brit made his sound so
So what??? I made him sound so what??? This is really getting to me, anon. Please satisfy my curiosity and post the answer in the comment box. ;)
But to answer you (and everyone else who sent my inbox the same question), yes, we are officially broken up, and have been for a while. It was just one of those things. We still talk though, and we’re, errr, aggresively working out the kinks in transitioning into platonica.
Anonymous asked: Hi, I just wanted to say that I love reading your thoughts and ramblings here... and I just realized that sounds a little creepy so, I'll just go anon. As for my question: What would you say is the most apt english translation of "kilig"? This is something I've struggled to explain to my non-Filipino friends. And I just have this feeling that you have the cred to actually have an answer for this. Hah. Thanks!
Aww, thanks. You don’t have to worry about being a creep though. I think we’re all a little creepy these days. :)
But it’s such a coincidence that you should ask this, as I use ‘kilig’ to illustrate the incongruities between Tagalog (Filipino) and English all the time! I don’t think there’s a literal translation, but if pressed, I think the closest analogue would be twitterpated.
Of course, twitterpated (a fairly new word in the English lexicon; word on the street is that it gained popularity because of that Bambi movie) is much more related to the idea of ‘spring fever’, or the kind of romantic frisson that allegedly goes with it, while kilig is season-less, and actually describes a very specific emotion that cuts across a very broad set of conditions, some of which are not necessarily and/or directly linked to romantic love.
We can be kilig about movies and songs and books, for instance. And we can be kilig for other people. It’s a very nuanced term.
I’m going to stop here because I don’t want to bore you with my prattle, or weigh you down with an answer that’s more convoluted than necessary. But yeah, twitterpated. Probably. :D
1. I really hate looking more stupid/ignorant than everyone else.
If remedying this situation means clandestinely borrowing research materials from the company library (hey, I brought them back before anyone even noticed they were missing), and reviewing models like a maniac, and calling my best friend (yay for his phd in Economics!) at some godforsaken hour just to make him explain regression theories, then so be it.
I can forsake a social life and run on caffeine and sugar for the next few days; I absolutely cannot stand feeling like a moron.
2. Telling hedgefund boys you’ve been to the Playboy Mansion is a great way to break the ice.
In my previous life as a so-called ‘nightlife journalist’ in the cultural and intellectual wasteland that is Las Vegas, I was called to cover many, many events that bring me much shame. I covered Bobbing for Boobs (girls bob for apples, winner gets new implants). I covered Crazy Horse’s Ladies’ White Mud Wrestling (exactly as it sounds - girls in bikinis wrestled in, errr, white mud). I covered Paris Hilton’s parties and Kanye West’s many descents into bacchanalia. And a few times, I was asked to interview guests at the Playboy Mansion.
What can I say… it was a mansion. There were girls. The underwater grotto was pretty nice.
3. If you’re Asian, some people really do think that math is your superpower.
It isn’t, let’s just make that clear right now. At least it isn’t mine. I’m not better at it than the average person, believe me. I just have a tad bit more stamina. And I’m more willing to humiliate myself (to people close to me, and within reason) for the sake of learning and knowledge. In other words, I’m much more open to subjecting my brain to things it was never meant to do.
4. In my office, if you’re female and you look young, an older man will inevitably ask you vaguely inappropriate questions OR ask you to make coffee.
Smile, correct them gently and firmly, and don’t make a big deal out of it. The fact of the matter is, these men still wield the power, and they already view you - consciously or not - as a little bit weaker than everyone else. You don’t want to encourage the stereotype by crying foul at every turn. Bide your time. Choose your battles. Brush it off and get back to work.
More mental torture tomorrow. I’ll let you know how it goes.
“To read is to cover one’s face. To write is to show it.” - Alejandro Zumbra
Sometimes, you find a place in the world where you can just step in and you’re immediately part of it, integrated almost seamlessly, as if its memories have always lived in your skin.
In my early twenties, that was New York. I landed in JFK for the first time in 2002, and stepping out of the airport, the shock was not one of cultural dissonance, but of cultural familiarity. Somehow, even then, I felt I belonged, even without really understanding what it was I belonged to. It seemed like the city had always been waiting for me; I was home in a place I had never been to before.
I didn’t really think I would feel that way about any other city again. But I did. At the onset of my thirties, it was London.
In London, I almost always find myself taking on this odd iteration of my identity. I’m perceived as American, but I’m not. I didn’t grow up there, I have a different values system, and I know I’m still very much a product of my Eastern upbringing, nevermind how many times I may have re-colored my facades. So I’m incredibly conscious of inhabiting this intersection between how I see myself, and how I must come off to others. Yet even as I say that, I’m also aware that inherent in my personality is the need to adapt. It’s a thrill, I suppose, this penchant for wearing other people’s worlds, as if I were living in some convoluted masquerade created only for myself.
In London, I can hear my words crisp up, starched like soldiers’ uniforms. My vowels suck in their stomachs. My consonants sharpen their collective edge. And the rest of me always follows. Maybe that’s why I’ve always liked it here.
When people ask me when I’m coming home, I never know what to say. Home, perhaps to someone like me more than any other person, is theoretical, an idea that grows ever more vague.
A confession: more often than not, I feel as if home is the point from which I’m constantly away.
Many times, I’ve been asked about homesickness and settling down. And I answer that I am always homesick, wherever I am. And I am always settling, in one form or another: I empty my pockets, and I find coins of various currencies, cards from far-flung laundromats, receipts from cafes in cities that feel fictional and unreal, train tickets to places I barely remember. I have keys to rooms I may never see again. My palms still carry the faint weight of hands that have already moved back to routines I can only watch from a distance. The sediments of me have settled in many places. These are my pieces. This is my life.
(And do you see how I’ve planted these tiny pieces of myself, how I’ve spread my insides across so much space? I can never be gathered in one place now. But perhaps that’s just what it means to grow old.)
Still, while my geographic allegiances are inconstant, my personal loyalties are not. I don’t always remember places and faces, but I remember trust. I remember kindness. I remember comfort and concern. I remember the way my face can fit in the curve of someone’s back. I remember the shelter in someone else’s skin.
(I write you down, and I remember.)
In my way, I commit to people - to friends, and lovers, and mothers and sisters - in ways that can baffle. Perhaps, more than anyone I know, I take my friendships seriously. I’m loyal, almost to a fault.
Let me tell you something: the people I’ve let in are never let out.
And this tribe I’ve collected, these people I’ve fit into my spaces, they will tell their stories if you let them: how I drive across cities to rescue friends from bad decisions, nevermind what I may have been doing, nevermind that we haven’t spoken in months. How I cross continents simply to offer solace. How I always forgive, how my loyalties transcend morality, how my understanding and empathy can wrap around the world.
The longitudes and latitudes of me are ephemeral and elusive, but I’ve always been willing to go the distance. I always show up when needed. Nevermind where I may be when you make the call.
Because here it is, what should already be evident to all of you, even if I’ve never said it out loud: you are my roots, and you are my firmaments. I have spread myself across your landscapes; If I must settle down, then I choose to settle down in all the many grooves and gaps you’ve left for me.
This is what we do, over and over. We seek out people who resonate with something within. We find them, and we pour time and effort in the gaps between us, building bridges one coffee cup, and text message, and smile at a time. But sometimes they don’t last.
Sometimes where we’ve put in the bricks of us, they’ve only poured in sand, and the center cannot be expected to hold. Sometimes we fill the gaps in the memories we keep with too much hope, and in the end they deflate from lack of substance. Sometimes where we see a bridge, there’s really only a wire strung on poles, and the crossing is a tightrope act on which we fail and fall.
And we walk away, and they never call us back. So we fragment the line, disconnect the dots. We pull out in reverse. And instead of connections from you to me, we are left with these abandoned points in space. They are the saddest things, I think, these little worlds we’ve created and then marooned in what has become the emptiness between us.
They could have been epochs of an alternate history, the memories of love, or friendship, or something in between. They could have been the highlights of a life we could have lived in tangent and in tandem. Instead they float in the gray, with nowhere to go, and nothing to be, simply waiting to be forgotten.
I sribbled this down on the train ride home. I hope it makes you smile a little, knowing that this was, in some way, inspired by you. I wish you well.
Like the people who only have those thin mirrors in their homes —-
Mirrors that make you look thin, I mean. I kind of admire that sometimes.
You admire self-deception?
Well, is it still self-deception if you’re an active participant in it? I mean, maybe that’s their big fuck-you to the world. You know, “I choose to live in a world of my own making, and in this world, I’m about ten pounds lighter. And I will commit to this and act accordingly.” I can’t help thinking there’s power in that.
New York, you’re crazy, but sometimes I love you.
Like most of the vaguely sheltered, rigidly uniformed, wide-eyed catholic schoolgirls of my youth, I used to read a lot of Austen. (A confession: I read her still.)
Back in those days, I thought her romantic, and like countless impressionable girls before me, I daydreamed about the fashions at Bath, and the picnics on the lawn, and the carousing about in balls. I daydreamed about the posh romantic leads (my favorites were Tilney, from Northanger Abbey and Knightley, from Emma, who always struck me as the smartest of the lot). I daydreamed about the outdated courting, which, to be honest, as a Catholic schoolgirl in Manila, didn’t seem that outdated at all.
Now I think of her as incredibly funny. I don’t think people appreciate her sense of humor enough.
Pride and Prejudice, for instance.
Like most females, I liked Darcy well enough. He was a bit too cold for my tastes (he’d insist on separate bedrooms in different wings of the house, I’m almost sure), and really had no sense of romance (or fun), but he did hold himself up to a certain code, and I’ve learned to respect men like that.
The thing is, I was never quite convinced that Elizabeth Bennet saw beyond that emotional austerity. So I’ve always found it hilarious that she only realized she was truly in love with Darcy AFTER she saw proof of his large fortune by way of his amazing house.
But you know, if the man who had once-upon-a-time proposed to me, and who had feelings for me still, owned a house like this, I might just suddenly realize that I was in love with him too.
After a reading in Dublin, a squat old man, in a chunky cardigan as gray as his hair, went up to the mike, ostensibly to ask me a question. He uttered a line that has since been simmering in my head instead.
“You have such a unique voice, it’s almost like a different kind of English.”
I’m quite the lax grammarian - a quirky thing to be, when you’re a writer. I’m much stricter on others, especially when teaching or editing (and in business, of course), but for myself, I’ve always been more concerned with the demeanor of language rather than the rules that should govern it. I suppose this partly has to do with growing up bilingual, and speaking Tagalog, a language so dynamic and so fluid, that it has hardly any rules at all.
In Tagalog, sentences are constructed by feel rather than by grammatic law. Spelling allows for variety. And we routinely make up words; we pepper conversations with strings of sounds that can only live in specific moments, words that will likely never be useful again. Disposable units of language like choogoog, Numonora Aunor, chumecheke. And sometimes I think this is because we find that there are experiences and emotions so endemic to a moment, or a place, or to certain groupings of individuals, that the right terms for them have simply never come up before.
I wonder if this isn’t how words like kilig or gigil came to life, words that don’t seem to have analogues in other languages. And more questions: if a language lacks these words, what happens to the emotions/things that these words define? How are they perceived? What is subtracted or altered in a person’s world view? While I’m certain the things being defined still exist, I find myself intrigued as to how they might be comprehended and processed, since there isn’t any space in the cultural vocabulary for them.
And on the flipside, what happens to a culture when you layer a completely new language on top of it?
Everyone I know in the Philippines is bilingual, albeit to varying degrees. Even my nanny, who never moved beyond sixth grade, spoke to me in English sometimes. Both English and Filipino (the politically correct term for Tagalog) are mandated mediums of instruction in all schools across the Philippines; both are official languages. In fact, English is still the language of both business and law, and with labor being the primary national export, it’s not surprising that the country is actively encouraged to be bilingual.
Sadly, that’s not always a good thing, because in less than ideal learning environments, bilingualism can skew. When competency in the foundational language isn’t strong enough to take on the additional layer of a second language, fluency in both languages begins to deteriorate. You end up not mastering either, speaking instead in a sustained form of code-switching. And when forced to a monolinguistic structure, you find yourself floundering. The duality of linguistic systems in your head turns inhibitive, dissuading you from becoming a true participant in more advanced levels of conversation/communication. Instead of adding another dimension to how one might perceive the world, bilingualism becomes subtractive.
It’s a problem we’re seeing more of. We have speakers who can grasp advanced level literature and absorb complex lectures in either language for instance, but who might struggle with getting their own points across, especially when the convolutions of their thoughts begin to outstrip their control of language. One can only imagine the frustration inherent in that kind of intellectual confinement.
I don’t know which language I learned first, to be honest. It’s as if my mental processes have always had this duality; English and Tagalog were always double-helixed in the DNA of my mind.
Maybe it’s the lack of a clear allegiance in terms of a foundational language that has allowed me this unhampered access to two linguistic/cultural paradigms, without one language eating into the other. I regularly use words that have no correlation in the other language, and I’ve been known to pepper my conversations with borrowed terms, but I can still speak both languages without code-switching, because in my mind, they’re still separate and distinct. The learning of one was not hinged on the foundation of the other, so they never had the chance to turn parasitic. And happily, instead of being subtractive, bilingualism has absolutely made my internal landscape that much richer. It means I have an instinctive, intuitive understanding of words like cynical, and angst, and nostalgia, even though they don’t exist in the Tagalog lexicon. And I understand all the nuances curled up in the universe of kilig, or nabati, or tabi po.
My friend and I were talking about this, and I told her that because I was privileged enough to have grown up in a space that was populated with people who had the same linguistic abilities, it was easy to develop a third language - a language that was not only an aggregation of the other two, but more importantly, actively worked to fill in their gaps, and even flourished this way. In slightly mathematical terms, instead of a third language that reduced the first two to their least common denominators (which is a much too simplistic way to explain subtractive bilingualism, yes, I know), this one throve on expanding from highest common multiples.
I can’t help thinking that all of this has contributed to how I speak and write, and how my voice has developed. Hah. Yes, ultimately, this is just me trying to console myself. (Hey, it’s my blog, I can write whatever I want.)
Because maybe transposing some ‘Tagalogness’ - and this pertains less to words than, as mentioned before, the demeanor of the language itself - into my English isn’t such a bad thing. Maybe I do speak a different kind of English, but maybe there’s space in the literary world for that. Maybe there’s a niche for an imagination that has celebrated and explored these kinds of linguistic ‘gaps’.
Or maybe I should stop being so damn sensitive and just move on. Whelp.
Sometimes, I just churn these things out.
Scent has memory. Your earthy, pointed smell lingers in the tiles, in the towels, in the twitching of the air. Not pungent enough for me to recoil, but deep enough, and dark enough, that I shiver just a little whenever the tilt of my head contrives to bring it close.
Scent remembers, and its memories imbue my own, whether I want them to or not. Scent trails me with pieces of my past, like broken lace on asphalt, like tattered silk on muddy soil.
And the yesterday of this musk that whispers into my skin, it speaks- confusedly, chaotically- of sweet sweat trapped in layers, tired bodies encased in soft cotton, unwashed hair denting pillows, dreams of peppermint oils and a sheen of old vanilla.
I wanted to forget you. Yet instead I find myself stalked by the smell of you, by the whirls of awkward fragrance you have somehow deposited in the grooves of my floor.
One night I steal my roommate’s incense and burn it; an exorcism, a prayer to the god of memory. A sad red glow crawls through the thin trail of jasmine, and for a moment, it is all that I breathe. I inhale the absence of you deeply, desperately. It tastes sweet, like ripe strawberries, like starlight. I close my eyes and I feel myself smile.
I take it all in - all of it - and then, without hesitation, I release the air in a gust that stalls the ashes, and blows the fire out.