Anna Miguel Cervantes

September Excerpts

The long, L-shaped counter is attended by female contractual workers with cracked, caked-on foundation that does not match the tone of their arms. They wear a red pout ready to turn into a scowl, tinted the color of lipstick sold for the same price as six Marlboro cigarettes. The lipstick probably contains more lead than the lightning speed production of toys that sparkle, bark, and jitter during the peak of Christmas season.
All this remains an afterthought. First, the glass double doors had to open.
The stench of the stockroom out back diffuses a musk of half-eaten stale bread and open bags of local junk food. Whatever it is, it stinks. And it does not stink in a special, unique way—all branches from this convenience store smell the same, no matter where you go from opposite ends of Davao City. Mintal, Buhangin, Jacinto Extension. . .


--


A woman with a pair of forceps is tugging at a spot in my arm. She stops to wipe her forehead with her folded elbow. Next to the cartoon figures of her scrubs are blots of scattered sweat stains.
Here I was, shivering on a thin mattress of a cold metal bed. The bones of my jaw are clenched to silence my chattering teeth.
She takes a large syringe from a metal pan next to her. With the needle taken out, she sprays a clear liquid on the thumbprint-sized open, bleeding flesh on my arm. "Sakit?"
She digs the long tip of the shiny forceps underneath my skin, disappearing inside a small horizontal opening about the same size of the hole on a 5 centavo coin.
The clinic was a concrete room that can be walked from point A to point B with less than six giant steps. Above the small operating table was an air conditioning inverter blasting unforgiving breaths on my limbs already riddled with goosebumps.
I shake my head first. I wished she also asked if I was cold.
"Dili man."

--

Filed under non-fiction

Watchtowers, Closed Spaces

The sound of two women in a dizzying dream-babble chant fills my thoughts. I sat a few pews behind the pair in a church older than my great, great, great grandfather. Outside, Campanario de Dumaguete gathers a hoard of tourists who found it near impossible to approach the belltower without being peddled by pesky locals to buy colored candles or veils of small, sweet smelling flowers. In the 1800s, the belfry was once a watchtower that guarded the entire city from pirates and no-good men with big intentions. Today, the tower of stone is guarded by a stationary Virgin Mary in blue and white.  

The prayers were bound with the strictness of scientific precision: a dull, mechanical routine: like a language spoken by those who knew how the world works; yet brought to life with romance: falling in love, a whirlwind of uncertainties and dark, twisted fantasies, like a language spoken by daydreamers. In reality, they were speaking in mother tongue: a softer, localized variation of Cebuano, the language spoken by people living in between modern disintegration and rural decay.

When they moved to clutch their rosaries in a different manner, facing a different saint this time, their gray veils fluttered over their thick lace dresses.

This was five years ago. 

Dumaguete is a city lost to me. For some time while living there, I dragged my feet around the empty halls of my old university. I wandered in circles through the usual seaside thoroughfares where kids drink, smoke, and fuck themselves senseless. Once, I was in an absinthe flurry and going home somewhere else. He drove around with the top down in triumph: Here's my trophy. I was staring at the white ceiling, tinged to dark blue from a source of light that escapes me now. Nobody knows this, but there was a bigger wall that enclosed us other than the pillow I used as a soft but unmoving barrier to stop him from moving over to my side. (Almost a year later, he would tell the story differently. So I lived in Dumaguete through the whispers and gossip of the dead-bored and lonely: I was another trophy. What else could we have done?) In the morning, with a clarity that hit me hard: I continued to feel: there is nothing for me here.

So it was that I beelined myself out of there with tongues lolling and people laughing awkwardly from a joke they made in disbelief to me leaving. One dared me to. I still remember her, and remember her face when she said it. It is the only remaining mental picture I have of her. I do not like to be dared.

I still came back, but like before, I always left. 

If somewhere is too good to be true, somewhere that does not oppose you or rip you to pieces or scare you, then leave. That somewhere will be too easy to conquer—watchtowers or without.

Unpacking

There's an empty paper box that used to contain half the things we used to say in secret. Half of them are dust and paper lint; others are just pressed trees with letters, numbers, and scribbles on it. All of them are in a language written by fools to make time go slower.

Fast forward to when you dragged me to a moonlit graveyard. Above us, the clouds dance to make pictures against a deep, knowing backdrop where shooting stars pretend to hide. Twice, you counted. Thrice during the night, you woke me up like the child you are.

Backtrack to when I was plying my way though work while you were doing work that's less serious, except only that we joked that it will one day be the death of you.

There are things you took without my knowledge, but were yours all the same.

Ahead

Days like these are the best. Half an hour ago, my clothes were hanging to dry in a dirt patch of rocks and potted plants. Now, the sky is graypregnant to burst open with large, painful drops of angry rain.

My cat chases a dried leaf brought to life by south wind. Above, birds fly fast away from a storm that's going to fall in a little while.

The days are unpredictable.

Silver Bullet

I am eating lunch with my co-workers at a small, local cafeteria we frequent. People sporting collared shirts with logos of the three different media giants are sitting in tables next to us. A woman I recognized as a radio talk show host and news anchor is talking loudly on her mobile phone. Her calm, crisp voice is assuring someone else on the other line that they have a story in their hands.

A few hundred meters away, a man is lying in a pool of his own blood from a bullet wound meant not to scare him, or have him crying for mercy, but rather to end his life then and there. There was no car chase, and the men in uniform on the scene seemed resigned to catch the hooligan on the prowl for another daylight murder. (Two days before this incident, "three unidentified youths" were killed in the same manner.)

When we approached the commotion, yellow tape was being glided across to deter an invisible crowd. The real crowd was far away from the body. They whisper and speculate and only days later did they confirm: good riddance.

My vegetable dish tasted oily, bitter. The media crew leave in groups and say goodbye to each other. Life moves on.

I did not catch the news report of the man whose body lies cold under the scorching summer sun. I already knew the story.