A STUDY OF NINE YEARS



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 worked; 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.


2016





In the weeks leading to my self-imposed removal from Dumaguete, I would walk from my dorm in Laguna to visit the old cathedral across Quezon Park. I would, years later, write about sitting there, thinking about life after Dumaguete, listening to the murmurs of two women with heads hidden under black veils. 

Nine years since I first arrived, I’m back in the same cathedral listening to the murmurs of my mind’s collective defiance to blissful, uninterrupted silence. (Cathedrals here still hold the magic they’ve already lost in big cities.) Each visit always ends with lighting candles—yellow for courage, red for peace, brown for healing. Here’s to hoping that when I come back home, there will be fire.



2019