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

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