This Side of Paradise

Like a little package from the sky, you are ribboned onto a paraglider, with half a kilometer of space before you hit the earth's surface. Up here, your view is dominated by a pair of legs, attached to a pair of shoes, blocking a faraway scenery of a tropical island ringed with white sand and then the cobalt blue sea. For all you know you are a child in an incredibly high chair, your feet dangling in mid-air.

Of course, you don't fly alone. Behind you is Gory, an Ati pilot with kinky hair and skin as black as earth. When you crane your neck around, all you can see are the white of his eyes and the white squares of his teeth. Gory doesn't smile, no. He grins, his lips stretching to the back of his molars. "Boracay is different from this side up, yes?" he says. His English is sensible, butchered with the thick accent of Inati.

As the wind picks up at 25 km per hour, your tandem glider hovers over a kilometer of deep blue sea, separating Boracay Island from the larger island of Panay. Pumpboats ferry tourists across that strait below. Scattered around are tiny fishing boats shaped like rice grains. Gory snaps a black finger at the islets on this strait, saying, "Laurel Islands! The collective name of Crystal Cove Island and Crocodile Island. One is a stone-age park, the other a dive site." The islets look like jagged rocks hurled by a giant into the sea. "Have you tried diving here?" says Gory. You say, "No." "You know the movie Nemo? Lots of Nemo fish here, and sea snakes and sea urchins. Delicious!"

As you enter Boracay's territory, two cream-white beaches are fringed with coconut trees and flecked with more pumpboats. "The jetty ports of Cagban and Tambisaan," he says. "Tambisaan is where we unload cargoes of vegetables and fish and shrimps and crabs from all over the Visayan Islands." Straight ahead, Boracay covers a little over a thousand hectares of land, shaped like a dog bone lying diagonally to the left. Both ends are wide, hilly, and green. The island slopes down to a flat narrow center. Brown huts and low-lying houses with iron roofs pepper along the roads.

Gory points at a road thick with passenger motorcycles and tricycles. "That's the main road," he says. The main road loops around the island like a go-cart racetrack, interconnecting the island's three barangays. "Below is Barangay Manoc-Manoc," he says. "That's Barangay Balabag in the center, and Barangay Yapak up north." From the center of the island, either end is just 3.5 kilometers long and a fifteen-minute tricycle ride away.

Your pilot tugs a riser line and you drift across the commercial center of the island. Vegetation thins out down this neck. Coconut trees and tropical palms are pushed out to both sides of the island. "This here is D'Mall," Gory says. Moving under your feet are matchboxes of different sizes and colors, making up most of the 200 establishments, restaurants, bars, and resorts and hotels. A number of them have little blue puddles of water--swimming pools--with tiny people jumping into them. Meanwhile, greenish murky water makes up the mangrove swamps at the east. "That's the Dead Forest," he says. "Salt water leaked from the sea and murdered the trees." The swamps come together to a channel whose mouth opens into the Sibuyan Sea.

As you float over this neck of the island, you see the infamous four-kilometer stretch of talcum powder-white sand at the west. "Look, White Beach!" Gory pipes, but you know that already. The beach is sprinkled with ant-like humans, and dotted with shops, restaurants, and bars facing the Sulu Sea. Farther out, motorboats tug along, through an invisible string, tiny multicolored umbrellas--parasails--up in the air.

"Back when Boracay was our ancestral land," Gory says, "my grandmother used to tell me that a pirate ship heavy with gold and gems would dock over there." Through the thick sound of the wind Gory says, "Girls as beautiful as Anne Curtis would step down from the ship and sing melodies that made fishermen crazy." Today, there is no pirate ship on the beach. The myth of the pirate ship died when the island became popular in the 70s. Instead of ships, White Beach is now littered with triangular sails puffy with the wind. "We call them 'paraw'," your guide says. "They're native to the Visayan Islands."

Opposite White Beach, on the other side of the island, lies a 2.5-kilometer strip of coarser white sand. "That's Bulabog," Gory says, "otherwise called 'the back beach'." While this side is often grim with seaweeds and docked with fishing boats, Bulabog is popular to itinerant adrenaline junkies, the seasonal kiteboarders and windsurfers. White Beach and Bulabog Beach are just two of the 14 beaches on the island. Clockwise from White Beach, Gory names the rest of the beaches: Diniwid, Balinghai, Punta Bunga, Bunyugan, Puka, Ilig-iligan, Lapus-lapus, Lugutan, Tulubhan, Tambisaan, Manoc-Manoc, and Cagban Beach.

Gory pulls the control lines and your glider swings over to the quiet northern hills of the island. Your eyes take in the cool shades of green: the lush vegetation of shrubs, wild vines, and trees. Your pilot pulls another handle, and you swerve to the northeast, almost kissing the highest point of the island. "It's a small zoo and a view deck," Gory says. "At 100 meters, Mt. Luho is really just a hill, not a mountain." After Mt. Luho are pretty manicured hills that comprise a 180-hectare 18 hole par 72 championship golf course.

As you near the northern end of Boracay, there lies the provincial idyll. Nipa huts peek out from the sprawling forest, whose ground reeks heavily of guano. Bat caves hide beneath a thick tangle of vines and trees at the northeastern part of the island. "The caves are the roosting ground of three species of bats in Boracay," he says. "The one that looks like a flying vampire dog, the endangered Golden-Crowned Flying Fox, is endemic to the Philippines." Later he adds, "Best meat on the island, this flying fox."

You reach the northernmost tip of island, where dreamy shores glimmer at you with a melancholic goodbye. "We are at the end of the trip!" the pilot says. "This is where we land, on Puka Beach." Waves roll on the beach and slam against limestone walls. As Gory tugs the brake lines and your glider swoops towards land, you hear the waves, you hear the water crashing, you hear the spray. Landing here, you hear the pulse of the island. Before you know it, you and Gory are running on the beach, the glider wing falling behind you like a giant jellyfish.

"You will fly again, yes?" Gory says. As he stuffs the deflated glider into a backpack, it strikes you how short he is. He could be under five feet. You remove your helmet and emergency parachute and say, "If you give me a discount maybe I will fly again." "Why don't you buy one of our gliders? It's used but cheap. Very sturdy!" "Oh I don't know if I can operate that in Sweden," you say. "I don't even know if I can operate it by myself!" "It's easy," Gory says. "I can teach you in three hours." "I'll think about it," you say. "If you leave me your address maybe I'll come visit you tomorrow." "About that," Gory says, zipping the backpack. "I don't have one. I rent a small room in an old red boat. Everything in this place has been sold to outsiders." "Tell me where it is anyway," you say. "I would like to visit an old red boat."

Instead, he hands you his calling card, with three mobile numbers, each under a different phone carrier. "I don't have a house. But I have three phones." He grins. All you see are the white of his eyes and the white squares of his teeth. "Text me," he says, "I'll teach you to fly. If you're tired of the beach, you can have Boracay sky." "Oh, I will, I will," you say. You tuck the card into your back pocket. "I would like to have a piece of this Boracay sky."

Later in the hotel shower, you catch yourself singing 'Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds', humming and whistling along lines that escape your memory.

// Oct 2014

Black Hole in My Bellybutton

Finger exercise, born from a fourteen-year-old boy who dared me to write a short story with that title.

One morning, I woke up and found my bellybutton transformed into a black hole. For months I had felt the black hole inside my belly and thought I was just imagining it. It was a black hole of no return: everything that I tasted, sniffed, heard, read, watched, felt, all of them were vacuumed into a chasm. I felt nothing. Inside my skin there was nobody. I was empty.

It came as a relief that my intuition was right. There was nothing wrong with feeling empty; I was empty and continuously emptying. I'd always wake up with a hunger to consume, to swallow my meals whole, drink liquids and poisons in gulps, listen to music in blasts and orchestras, sniff every scent until drugged, read books in astronomic speeds, watch street and movie scenes until my eyes expire, shop until I drop, masturbate myself nutty. The urge to consume gnawed at my very being. I was insatiable.

That morning, I found myself shirtless in bed. What was I wearing the previous night? It was a red shirt with a tribal art of a Tausug at the back. I woke with the cold from a downpour--the wet season had begun in the Philippines--and felt my belly instead of my shirt. When the downpour subsided, there remained a whooshing sound. In the beginning I thought it was the wind howling outside. Everywhere I took to hearing it, from the windows, the doors, the drain, the toilet, every hole in the house, I leaned my ear over and found the sound constant. It was everywhere. Even in the mop room, the doorless and windowless claustrophobia of the mop room, the sound was there. I bent over only to find out that the sound was coming from my belly. The sound was coming from my bellybutton.

Still shirtless, I groped for the bottom of that hole. There was none. My finger disappeared inside it. I consulted a mirror, and there before my eyes was a pitch-black hole, a speck of the universe that had always mystified me. Pretty soon, I was amused of putting things at the rim of my buttonhole. I watched in astonishment how paperclips lined up, as if by magnets, and disappeared inside. I lost all my pens and pencils to my bellybutton. Now my car keys disappeared too, and so did my house keys, my wallet, my IDs and ATMs and credit cards. Now I no longer had a spoon to eat with, a remote control to turn on the TV with, a zippo to light my cigarettes with, and shoes to walk on. It was incredible at first, and then I was furious. Everything that I possessed, eventually, my bellybutton sucked them all like spaghetti.

Cold and confused, I staggered outside, naked as the sun was naked on my skin. Everybody gawked at me. I tried to hail a cab but every driver wouldn't stop and just passed me by. So I did the remaining thing I was capable of doing. I ran. The soles of my feet hurt in the asphalt. I ran on the pedestrian lane when there was a pedestrian lane. I ran on the grass when there was grass. I ran on dirt when there was dirt. I ran along the road when there was nothing else to run on. People stared, hooted, honked, cursed. They called me names, they cursed my mother, my father, my past, my future, my imagined life inside and outside my skin. I reached the hospital in about an hour. My feet hurt, but were not bruised. I looked like I emerged from the rain, covered in sweat and pollution stains, my heart a shamanistic pulse inside my chest.

In the emergency room, I was a spectacle. Everybody's head turned to me and stared and laughed. There was a commotion. "I need to see a doctor," I told the very first nurse that walked by. "What seems to be the problem?" she said. "Seems?" I said. "Isn't it enough that I am naked in front of all these people without a choice?" She took a step back, almost frightened. Everyone was watching, anticipating the next words. "But why are you naked?" she said. "Is there any problem?" "Yes," I said, "I'm sorry I startled you. But it seems that I have a hole in my bellybutton." The noise in the room intensified. The nursed glanced at my bellybutton, at my face, and then at my bellybutton. "I'll just call a doctor," she said, bewildered, seemingly not knowing what to do.

Behind white curtains an ER doctor examined me. He was a large-eyed and large-lipped young man, chinless and double-chinned. "The nurse told me you have a hole in your bellybutton?" he began. "It isn't just any hole, doctor," I said. "It's a black hole that sucks things in." The doctor bent over and peered at my bellybutton. "Why don't I get you something to wear?" he said, disappeared, and came back with a hospital gown. I crawled into it. The doctor continued with a series of questions whose answers were already narrated above. Curious questions he had: "How do you feel?" "What's left of you?" "Why do you think it's [the black hole] there?" At the end of the examination, he was about to poke his finger into my bellybutton when I yelled, "Don't! Don't do it, doc. You will disappear and won't be able to come back!" The doctor referred me to a psychologist on the fourth floor.

"You might think I'm nuts," I told the psychologist before she had the chance to say anything, "but my bellybutton is a black hole." She smiled calmly and told me to take a seat. For the second time, I narrated the events that led to my running naked to the hospital. She chuckled and listened with rapt attention. "That's one hell of a story!" she said. "I thought so too," I said. She let me remove my hospital gown and lie on a couch. She bent over and looked into the black eye of my belly. "Looks fine to me," she said. I was confused. "Don't touch it, okay?" I said. She took a pen out from her breast pocket and poked my bellybutton. Before I knew it, the pen was gone and so was she. Sucked in like spaghetti. God, what have I done? I thought. Did I kill her? I felt like I had an incredible power to undo everything that God created.

I put the white gown back on and ran out the hospital building. I had no money, no possessions, no place to go. It was exhilarating to have nothing and yet be alive. Does my house still exist? I thought. It was a twenty-minute jeepney ride away, on the hilly outskirts of Davao City. I missed my house and the comforts of consumption. Then the hunger came back to me. I was starving. I went to the nearest possible place to eat, a buy-one-take-one burger joint. I ordered two cheesy mushroom burgers, two chili hotdogs with pickle relish, two chicken sandwiches, two large french fries, and a bottle of coke to wash them all down. "That will be P196," the attendant said, who secretly eyed me during the entire wolfing down ordeal. I flashed my naked belly at him and said, "Touch my bellybutton and see if my stomach is hard enough. If it's not, I'll eat some more." He poked it with a finger, and then he was gone. Sucked in like spaghetti like the psychiatrist several minutes before. I stepped inside the burger stand and raided the fridge. I could've fried myself in the tropical heat while cooking dozens of burgers and fries and kikiam and fishballs and squidballs and chickenballs. After the heavy meal, I closed down the stall and slept on the cramped floor. It was a sleep that gave me visions of marvelous futures. I didn't want to wake up.

The following day, I was awoken by a loud rap on the door. My eyelids flew open. It took me a split second to figure out where I was. I opened the door. It was a uniformed young girl with a sun visor and a bright purplish pink lipstick. By the casting of the shadows, it was probably noon. "Where is Naldo?" she demanded. "Who are you?" she said. Behind her were three brown boxes that had pictures of buns of bread. "I'm David," I said. "I'm afraid your friend is inside my belly." "You ate him?" she said. "No," I said. "He was sucked into my bellybutton." She laughed hysterically. She had one missing tooth at the back of her mouth. When her laughter died down, she slowly stepped away, eyeing my hospital gown. "Don't go," I said and then whispered, "Naldo is hiding behind the fridge." She tiptoed inside, towards the back of the humming machine, and frowned. When she looked at me I was already naked. I lunged at her and embraced her to my belly. She yelped and thrashed in my arms and was gone. Now I had three boxes of bread that could last me three nights and three days. My miserable existence continued as such. The only difference was that before, I only consumed things. Now I also consumed people. What difference does it make? I thought. People are made of things, aren't they?

Two weeks in, I began to stink. Inside my filthy hospital gown, my body reeked as far as I could be heard. I headed to Bankerohan River one late afternoon to wash myself and my dirty clothes, and maybe steal something to wear from someone's clothesline. The river was wide and brown from the silt that was washed down from the mountains. Farther off, its mouth disgorged its brown water into the blue ocean. I took my clothes off and jumped in the river. I was rubbing my skin with a smooth black stone when I noticed the water receding. The moment it reached my waist, the water surface was spiraling into a vortex before my eyes. My bellybutton was feeding on the brown river and its fish and garbage, a maelstrom that began to pull in the blue waters of the ocean. Frantically, I swam to the riverbank, crawled back into my soiled clothes, and ran away to anywhere, away from the river.

In one of my aimless prowls in the city, I heard the news from a TV in a Muslim eatery. The news spoke of persons missing tracelessly in Davao. The toll now hiked up to 62, mostly from small-time restaurants, cafeterias, dingy bars, convenience stores, and poverty-stricken households. Families disappeared overnight, and so did several of their belongings. Is this a mass exodus to the unknown? Is there an alien spaceship hovering in the sky? Is this God's way of punishing us? We'll be back for more after this commercial break. "Hey you," a busgirl said to me. "Get away from here." "Can you give me food?" I said. Slowly, her eyes began to glow with horror. She too disappeared that night.

In the weeks that followed, I grew restless and weary. Restaurants and eateries began to close down, and so did my sources of food. I became more creative, stealing nicer clothes from laundry shops, and raiding pawnshops and jewelry stores. People began to be alarmed of the escalating disappearances, which now raked up to 312. Residents started to ransack grocery stores, shut themselves in their homes, and waited for the evening news. "What is the sense to all this kidnapping spree?" one commentator said in a midnight TV discussion. "Whatever group is behind this, it made a mistake of taking those two Europeans." The news rippled in a shock wave around the globe, of the missing hundreds of Filipinos and of the missing two white men. Embassies published red alert warnings against traveling to Mindanao. Philippine soil gained the reputation of creeping with discord, violence, mass murders, and unbridled corruption. God, what have I done? I thought. Not only do I consume people. I alter the destinies of nations.

Nausea fell over me. I began to get sick in the stomach. Clutching my belly, I teetered my way to Bankerohan River, where moonshine glimmered in the blackness of the water surface. There I disgorged torrents of water, fish, garbage, more garbage and things, and then hundreds of bodies. The water whooshed, spiraling outward in a maelstrom as it had once been sucked in. Surprised by their sudden gushing out of my belly, my victims flailed and screamed and tried to keep afloat among the discarded things that bobbed on the water surface. Some managed to swim to the riverbank, while some drifted helplessly to the bottom of the water. In the midst of it all I waited for the survivors to pounce on me, to flog me with smooth black stones and reduce me to pulp. Instead, they walked off in glimmering wet clothes, leaving drips of water towards the many places where I had once found them and consumed them. Without waiting for them to find me, I jumped in the river, almost expecting the water to recede. It didn't. I swam on my back and closed my eyes, trying to wipe away memories of my bellybutton and the black hole from my life. When I opened my eyes, there was the view of the night sky, the full moon shining perfectly round and perfectly bright. I still had no money, no possession, no place to go. But I was alive, and that made all the difference.

// Jun 2014

My Love Affair with a Monster

I am in love with a monster and his name is Manila. When you first see him from the airport window, don't judge him by his bad posture, his bad manners, his ugly tattoo. Don't judge him by his round potbelly, the gritty nails on his hands and feet, the gritty hair brushed back into a ponytail. Don't judge the monster by the way he looks. Beneath his filth and stink he never fails to crack me a smile.

The monster is a chain-smoker, sucking on diesel, and belching pollution. Every morning, a thick blanket of smog rises among his skyscrapers of glass and concrete, shielding the metropolis in a drowsy gray haze. Clogged with 12 million people, Manila wakes up early in this kind of morning, demanding buttered pandesal, instant coffee, and Fortune cigarettes.

Without brushing his teeth, his tongue is a thick carpet of the unthinkable. Animal innards find their way in iffy food stalls among the mouths of his city streets. Grilled pig intestines, pig's blood, chicken heads, chicken feet, fried chicks, boiled duck eggs pregnant with dead embryos--they make me cringe but not as much as want for more: I crave them.

But when he begins talking, his American English is almost perfect, his native tongue colored with Spanish profanity. Puñeta. His struggles with his American father may have brought him pots of gold: the legions of call centers rising on top of the global wi-jacking industry. But his battles with his Spanish mother carved him the scars of bitter history: the 400-year-old ruins in Intramuros, the bomb craters in the ghost town of Corregidor.

Down his throat and into his potbelly is the weight of decades-worth of beer drinking. Drugged with cheap liquor, cheap cigarettes, and cheap prostitutes, this monster is chasing after diseases. But the beer: they come in different flavors, with varying shades of malt, always ice cold, always satiating my thirst against the dizzying spells of the tropical heat. He knows my weakness is in a bottle of beer on nights I can't sleep.

Tattooed on his left arm is a bad needleprint of the thorned Jesus. His idolatry for Christianity sends him into an annual frenzy of 10 million souls grappling for a touch, a brush, of the Black Nazarene. His churches are immortal, rebuilt over and over after wars, earthquakes, floods. They never fail to rise again. One of them, the gothic San Sebastian Church, is built entirely of steel. If only he could show me the same devotion, I wouldn't have to leave him again.

I always leave him, I never fail to leave him. Because he reeks. It's a disgrace that his armpits are bridled with 42 truckloads of garbage every day. They are jammed with plastic bags, polystyrene, cigarette butts, soiled diapers, unpaired shoes, food wastes of comparative woozy smells you can taste them in your teeth. Take a hike to the shady wastelands of Tondo, Payatas, or Navotas. See for yourself.

But the horror lies not in his garbage dumps. The horror lies in the monsoon rains, when his canals are choked with junk, he drowns in his own flood at least two-floors deep. I saw Manila for what he really is, this naked Manila. With your eyes shut tight, just the smell would send you packing and leaving and never looking back. But I come back, I always come back. I always come back to this monster.

Every time I do, he licks his lips and combs his gray-white hair into the roots of his ponytail. He could be getting old. His legions of aging, ponytailed men in Chinatown and Divisoria scuttle with corrugated boxes on their shoulders, heavy with China-made wares, fabrics, dried fruits, dried fish, faux branded clothing, and disposable gadgetry that will soon swamp city markets in a breeze. I hate the monstrosity of his China-driven economy, but I like the new Blackberry.

But Manila isn't entirely a monster. Look at his hands and you will see the hands of an artist. His hands are vampire-white, clammy with sweat, and green with thick veins. Not only are his hands good at touching shadows, he's good at driving my hunger for art. Libraries, galleries, and museums are tucked in his nape, behind his ears, on the folds of his knees, in between his toes. You may not find them, but they're there.

His hands are the force behind the brush strokes in the National Museum's Spoliarium by Juan Luna, the hand-carved dolls in Ayala Museum's Dioramas, the polished ivory of the Metropolitan Museum's Sleeping Santo Niño, the naked Cordillera idols in Marikina's Ethnology Museum. I feel his hands in the scene cuts of the yearly Cinemalaya's indie films; in the gestures of dance performers at the Cultural Center of the Philippines; in the pained strums of the guitar among short-lived Filipino bands; in the line breaks of manilacentric poets writ and abandoned in moldy libraries' anthologies; in the spontaneous spraypaints of graffiti worms boring through the cracked walls of broken-down buildings; in the abortive MMDA street murals; in cagey pedestrian fences, the hypercolored metal overpasses, the quivering a cappella of blind children in a Quiapo underpass. Quite impossibly, I cannot appreciate his beauty if it not for his beastly deformities.

Beyond his hands, his athletic feet are avatars of strength and courage. When I see the monster dressed in traffic jams, slum networks, beggardry, and long lines of garbage trucks, I also see the knight leading the Philippine Revolution against the tyranny of Mother Spain. I see him carved in stone in Luneta, the sprawling urban park dedicated to that amateur novelist and national hero, Jose Rizal.

It is this intellectual, Rizal, that lights up the fire in my monster's eyes and strikes me with some sense of intimacy. Manila's freedom began with a writer. And like The Oblation throwing himself naked to his country, Rizal welcomed Spain's gunshot behind his head. With his death, he sealed his destiny as a pop culture icon. Exploring Manila without seeing Rizal is not the same.

But I am not in love with a hero. I am in love with a monster. He is a monster with an orange cyclops eye sinking in the horizon of Manila Bay, watching me, one among his 12 million love affairs in the city. Perhaps if I leave him again, I will leave him for good. After all, he is my springboard to other love affairs in the Philippines--its lonesome islands, its hostile ridges, its ghostly Hispanic fortresses. When I leave him, I might as well love again with abandon. But if this monster ever dares to claim me back, he can call on me, his libertine mistress, his monstrous monstress.

// Apr 2014

Sniffing PGH

You rubberneck at the towering Oblation from the outside: a statue of a naked man facing the watery gray sky, palms up, arms spread like an eagle. It says outright: Look at me! I'm free! And I'm naked! Except for the leaf covering my genitals.

It just rained. The street is wet and muddy. Vehicles speed by to splatter black mud droplets on your pants. An ambulance siren is wailing distantly farther away. Vendors have claimed property of the sidewalk. Around you is the mixed smell of vehicle exhaust, roasted peanuts, and boiled sweet corn.

Inside the gates are oxygen-generating trees. The air is cooler and nose-friendly. There's the overcrowded parking area bordered with rusty chains. The main building of Philippine General Hospital is redolent of Rome's Pantheon. You step inside the grand entrance, tread on red carpet reeking collectively of people's feet, and begin working on your olfactive sense. The guard greets you a pleasant morning and frisks your bag with a magic wand.

Instantly there is a whirlwind of people shuffling around and queuing from teller windows. They smell of sweat, cheap cologne, and bathroom soap. The walls are painted haystack-yellow, hanged occasionally with oversized paintings. There's a whiff of sneeze and Jollibee hamburgers. A middle-aged woman dragging along a little boy approaches you and says she needs P18 for fare home. But you don't hear what she says. You're attention is focused on her missing upper teeth. I'm sorry, what? you say. She walks away.

You realize your bladder is about to burst so you scuttle to the nearest restroom. You queue before five women all covering their nose. The restroom is badly lit, five out of six fluorescent lights broken, and it smells like a stockroom of hoarded piss and roach droppings. Your turn, the toilet is at floor level. You notice a string of a mop's thread on the floor in between your shoes. You unzip your pants and sit to piss. Upon closer inspection, the string isn't really from a mop's thread; it's actually a dead brown worm.

Your consultation with your surgeon is an hour away, and you dawdle along the corridors to kill time. You pass by the Obstetrics and Gynecology ward which reeks of talcum powder and breast milk. Two maintenance men block the doorway rolling out six giant garbage bags while saying, Makikidaan lang. May trabaho din kami. The four people walking against them flatten themselves on the wall.

The walkway to the next ward is filled with the dull hum of air-conditioning. A uniformed boy mops the floor and the odor just reminds you of a claustrophobic locker room cramped with unwashed monster mops. You pass by the Trauma Division ward and your nose is stuffed with the stench of rotting fish and undusted mattresses. An autistic young boy plods on the corridor, seemingly spellbound by the sound pattern of his heavy leather sandals. Two doctorate interns talk conyo, one of them wearing a sunday dress beneath a lab coat. Her face is freckled, melanin-deprived, foreign, but she speaks with a thick Filipino accent. She has the height of a beauty queen, and her skin is as white and soft as toilet paper. She appears the perfect lady to take home to mommy. That is, until you see her horribly hammered toenails.

At your left is the morgue, its glass windows obscured with grime and protected with metal wires. A stone appears to have been hurled at its glass exit door, leaving a hole where you can peek into. You shut one eye and lean toward the peephole. Inside is a morgue converted into a kitchen. Next to kitchen sinks and stoves heating giant pots and pans are the morgue drawers. The ceiling fan filters the light casting fluttering shadows everywhere. People in dark uniforms roam around staggering like zombies. Kick in some satanic chants and a zombie soundtrack and this could pass off as a cannibalistic horror video. You move along.

Contrary to popular belief, Philippine General Hospital doesn't smell entirely of antiseptic, isopropyl alcohol, and festering open wounds; only the Emergency Room smells that way. Some wards smell of scented air-conditioning and oxygen tanks. Some smell of lemon and hand wash. Some smell of wet paint and concrete dust. At a particular ward, the Pediatrics Department, there is the omnipresent smell of soiled diapers. And there standing on one bed bunk, a kid with protruding ribs and a swollen belly is dancing while singing the Madagascar theme song: I like to move it, move it. She likes to move it, move it. He likes to move it, move it. I like taaah. Move it!

The hallways have the incessant stench of wet earth and those filthy rags used for wiping tables in restaurants. The canteen smells of fried rice, silog variants, and sizzling salisbury steaks. Occasionally you come across someone with a balloon neck or someone with a tube plugged up his nose. Then a polio-stricken doctor passes you by like a macho dancer trying to walk and wave his body at the same time.

You glance at your watch and figure you still have fifteen minutes left. Straight ahead are two ATMs, one being refilled with bills ten inches thick. Three gorilla-faced bodyguards wearing black combat suits stand feet apart looking for suspecting assailants. Tied at the nozzle of a guard's rifle is a misplaced white ribbon. What is that innocent white ribbon doing there? The owner of that rifle stares at you staring at the ribboned nozzle which is pointing at the other guard's foot. The guards look at each other, look at you, and you all look away.

You head toward your surgeon's office at the next building and pass by the Immaculate Conception chapel. A broken car horn is blaring forever from the parking area. There's the smell of rubber and plastic flowers. You glance at the altar and notice the pot of tulip flowers looking like a congregation of sex organs. The Jesus on the cross is Caucasian, and his abs reminds you of an abs-toning curling machine from Home Shopping Network. The priest is saying, Do not wait to get rich to help others! Do not wait to win the Lotto to donate to charity, to the orphanage, to this chapel! Do not wait to get rich before you start helping people because you can start helping right now!

Then you realize it's raining again. You take a folded umbrella from your bag and press a button with a flop. But the moment you step at the wide open space, the rain stops. It doesn't even grant your umbrella a bloody raindrop. This pisses you off, but you move along anyway.

// Feb 2009

Anatomy of a Penis

The first thing you ever do is kneel before him. He is your god and you are his minion. You strip off his pants and underwear and bow down to worship the phallus that completes the hole in your cunt.

The first thing you ever write is the title Anatomy of a Penis. You are not a scientist. You are not a biologist. You have nil knowledge about anatomy, much less a penis. But you do know "penis" derives from the same Latin etymology of "pen" and "pencil". The penis is the fountainhead of all generations of humans since the Big Bang. The pen is the fountainhead of all literature spilled from its infinite inkwell. The penis is the extra body part that fulfills your missing body part. The pen's ink fulfils the blank pages in your head.

You take his balls and put each one in your mouth. You nuzzle it. You lick it. You sniff it. It smells of stifled sweat, hot breath, and heavy groin mist. It tastes salty and acidic, its texture soft with many folds of skin. This is the factory of the millions of sperm cells that has bred mankind.

Of the pen and the penis you must choose only one. Either you satisfy the hole in your head, or satisfy the hole in your cunt. Back in ancient history, the pen and penis were one and the same: the prolific instrument of men. Women were banned from writing. Their sole function was domesticity. To cook and clean and scrub and wash the dishes. To watch their stomach grow and tip their swelling breasts until the water breaks and their vagina is ripped open. To nurse babies and raise and nurture them without question, without denial, just because they are also made from your own blood and bones and flesh. You suffer twenty, thirty, forty years. Pump out more babies, who will pump out more babies, who will pump out more babies. Then once again you turn to your blank sheets of paper. But before you know it, it's too late to write. Your children have sucked all the juices. You are barren and empty and useless. The thought of a wife-mother-grandmother-writer is just unacceptable. It's not just unacceptable, it is impossible. You are a female writer, and your immortality lies one way: to swell and burst with babies, or to swell and burst with ideas. Either you follow the normal course of life: working, breeding, dying. Or the one you have in mind: living, writing, publishing. You can't choose both; either bear children or be an artist. You have a calling.

You take his penis and wet it with your mouth. You lick from the balls up to the head. You are a kid and this is your first ice cream. You lick it slowly, but instead of melting, it hardens. His penis is the darkest part of his body. It has the same color as your lipstick. The color of your lips represent the color of his penis. And in the art of fellatio your lips and his penis are one and the same. Inseparable. Fused. Liquefied.

You are what you eat. You are what you dream. You are what you daydream. You are what you wear. You are the films you watch. You are the music you listen to. You are the books you read. You are the places you go to. Everything that you do is a reaffirmation of who you are. He wants to settle down. You don't. He wants to get married. You don't. He wants to spread his genes, have babies. You don't. You can't be a housewife and daydream instead of cooking dinner. You can't read books instead of cleaning the house. You can't develop your writing instead of looking after your kids. You can't think of revolutionary ideas instead of jumbling grocery items in your head. You can't express your creativity through the recipes you experiment with. Your taste buds lack the sophistication of your vocabulary. Words are your world. A family is not. Ideas make you excited. Sex, only temporarily. The pen is an extension of yourself. The penis you are sucking is not. The idea of children just doesn't appeal to you. They're no more than an unwanted responsibility, a termination of your freedom. Who ever told you you should live your life just like everybody else?

The most sensitive part of the penis is not the head but the frenulum, the strip of skin at the underside of the head. It looks like the skin beneath your tongue. You hold the shaft and trace your tongue up the underside of the penis. He begins to relax. He closes his eyes. The penis elongates and stiffens. The veins around it thicken and become more bulbous. You circle the head with the tip of your tongue, clockwise, counterclockwise, reverse. The head pushes out, its skin smooth and taut. Behold, the penis rises.

You are to give pleasure to this phallic god. He is your muse, your object of obsession, the phantom of your dreams. No matter how ordinary he appears to be in other people's eyes, he is your religious icon, the paragon of your superstitious idolatry, always powerful, always dominant. You want this penis more than anything in your life. You want to be a man not because you're a lesbian but because it grants you the right to become an artist. But the closest thing you can ever have a penis is to put it in your mouth, the opening right next to your brain. Your mouth functions what the pen cannot. But in the act of fellating, your mouth is elevated to the status of some superficial purpose: to make him come. Semen, like speech, flies in the air for a moment, and dies. Words on paper do not; they are immortal. Words will outlive you long after you are bones and ashes underneath the ground.

You encircle the shaft with your fingers, your middle-fingertip connected to the tip of your thumb. With your free hand you fondle his balls. You caress them, tickle them, tease them. You wet the entire penis by putting it in your mouth. You will not gag. You will not choke. You will not vomit. You glide your fingers up and down, and twist your wrist as you do so. You suck the penis in and out, while massaging his balls. You follow this rhythm with the internal clock of your heartbeat. It looks easy but it's actually more complicated than you think.

You are not a slut. You are not a whore. You are not a prostitute. You are simply a lover. The greatest pleasure you can ever have is to give pleasure to someone else. His pleasure is your pleasure. Together you complete the yin and yang of hedonism. Your submission is your domination. He moans and forces his eyes open; he is under your spell. You are liberated, but for a moment you are his slave. Freedom and slavery are blurred out of focus. But really, freedom is all you ever want. You don't want to be attached to anything, to anyone. You have no concept of possession and possessiveness. But the contradiction is that you are attached to this man and his penis. Your pen is the height of your freedom. His penis is the height of your slavery. And the only way to merge them together is to write something like the anatomy of his penis. P is for pen. P is for penis. P is also for procreation, pleasure, pride, and power. Unfortunately, P is also for pregnancy, which is the loss of control over your own life.

Think of multitasking: your hands, your lips, your tongue, your mouth, your heartbeat, and your brain are all at work. Up and down your hand, in and out of your mouth, the penis slides at the roof of your mouth and at the tip of your tongue. It turns into a moment when nothing else exists. Every second is amplified such that even time ceases to tick. Both of you are in heaven where everything is pleasurable, eternal, pure, holy. Suddenly, you cream on your pants.

Sex is the closest thing you can get to immortality. It's not health. It's not youth. It's not beauty. But the worst part is that writing is your salvation, the only thing that can cement and seal your immortality. His penis' semen is not the same as your pen's ink, however you want to fuse them together. Sex is power the same way words are power the same way wealth, health, youth, and beauty are power. What humanity wants is power, except that power manifests in different ways. Virility is power, stability, force, and muscle. Femininity is impotence, instability, submission, mood swings. Or so the stereotypes say. The term female writer has words that cancel each other out. You are in your twenties, with raging hormones, perpetually horny. You are a nymphomaniac and you are a writer. How do you compromise the two? The thing is, you can't. Writing is a calling that equates to priesthood if you have a cunt.

After enough rhythmic sucking, the penis hardens in its full glory inside your mouth. It thickens in a diameter that your fingers break off its circle. Its head puffs up like a balloon that's about to burst. He represses his moan, and all you hear is his heavy breathing, his heart palpitating, all his blood rushing to the tip of his penis. His breathing synchronized with your sucking synchronized with your heartbeat. It goes in a loop that ends with his penis spouting jets of semen in your mouth. You suck his penis dry of all its contents, and then you swallow.

The real problem with you is that you mustn't go on always trying to adapt to men's theories of what a woman should be. A woman should be soft, sensitive, compassionate, understanding, yielding, emotional. You are phallic, narcissistic, castrating, domineering, rational. You don't possess any female quality, except for having breasts and a cunt. Long after you've realized you can never be a wife, a mother, a grandmother, domesticated and always homebound, after you've decided the pen is mightier than the penis, after you've accepted this and let go of this man and his procreating instrument, after spilling your thoughts and creativity on sheets of paper, will it be worth it? How could you compare domesticity with being a writer if you haven't tried both? But then you take the option all other women won't. It's worse to do what you hate; worst you can do is nothing.

// Dec 2008