I stood there, leaning on the stone guardrail of the unfinished road by the sea, water crashing upon the seawall, sky transitioning into a burst of hues – peach, cherry, flame. The deteriorating, faux gold replica of Michelangelo’s David stood proudly behind me; his eyes towards the horizon, perhaps watching me, too. I reminisced the countless times I had seen the blood flow from my flesh, from every notch of the blade marking every day and degree of suffering. In the ninth grade, it started with a couple of shallow ones just because of a petty argument about failing grades, thin as a strand of hair, yet it stung like a papercut. Slowly, I grew accustomed to seeing my own blood out of my veins as though it were never meant to be kept in.
I imagined death to be a dream, but not because I believed in a heaven or reincarnation. It was a dream because it was nothingness. It was freedom from a world that always had something. I wanted to escape the world that was slowly being consumed by fire. The same one from which all civilization began. The plight of people hopelessly toiling in a system that let the rich buy hectares of land for revenue while everyone else could barely pay rent or witness their makeshift houses torn down for business or estates became mine, too. The woes of others burdened me. I heard them, looked them in the eyes, with my dull eyes. Sad, hopeless eyes.
I thought that nothing could be done to save us.
A recurring thought lit up in my mind – something I had always wanted to say. I inhaled sharply, ready to speak, to take the rebuttals for my cringeworthy sentiments, accompanied by furrowed brows and eyerolls, by laughter – by a smile. I turned to my right where he always stood when we went to Baywalk, and at that brief interval between front to side, a pang to the chest struck me – for it was but an empty space.
And the memories came rushing in.
We studied at the same university, same course, mostly the same subjects. He was a year higher, though, but Kuya Macoy was the closest friend I had at the university. I met a few people before him, but they were more of just people-I-can-talk-to rather than actual friends. Most of my barkada were studying pre-med courses at San Pedro College or Ateneo de Davao. The lucky ones went off to Manila to study at their “dream school.” And I was at Mintal. A Creative Writing major.
Usually, I kept to myself, only speaking when asked. I took the seat nearest to the corner at the far back of the room, ate quietly in solitude, and spent most of my free time where the chatter of the other students blended in with the whisper of the rustling trees. I didn’t really know what Kuya Macoy saw in me or what ran through his mind as he walked towards that weird kid in a black hoodie, attempting to freehand sketch a goat that was grazing by the parking area.
“Hi,” he said, squatting next to me. “You’re Tonton, right? Marquez?”
“Opo, kuya,” I said, smiling bashfully.
“Don’t call me ‘kuya,’” he said, laughing. “It makes me feel old. Just ‘Macoy.’” A millisecond-too-much of silence passed before he pointed at my rough sketch. “Nice! Sana all talented. You know, the style reminds me of Van Gogh. I know it’s a bit cliché, but I like his works.”
I had a hunch he would mention Van Gogh. I said he was one of my favorite artists, during one of the class introductions. But that became a window to many other topics, and one just came after the other. We parted ways much later that afternoon than I had planned.
We started hanging out, eating together during breaks. Sometimes, one or two (or more) of his friends tagged along, but I would mostly be silent, only initiating conversations with Kuya Macoy and only talking to the rest if they talked to me first. Within a span of a week since the day we met, I had become acquainted with many of his friends, mostly org-mates, who were also higher-ups. I had recognized some of them from Facebook posts, in photos where they raised placards with “Stand with the Lumads,” “No to Militarization,” and “Save Lumad schools” written in bold, red strokes, standing alongside native men and women dressed in their woven and beaded garments, red like the color of the rebels they were accused to be. Maybe that was why Kuya seemed familiar, too.
A couple of weeks later, he would invite me to his place to loosen up after he found me crying in the comfort room after my professor berated me in front of the entire class when I was unable to answer the questions regarding the reading materials he gave a few days ago. He rented a small, condo-style house all to himself further north from the campus.
“Beer?” he asked as I entered the common room that evening.
“I don’t fancy beer,” I replied.
“Smirnoff, then? I mean, for starters, anyway. We’ll break out the bad boys later,” he said, popping the cap off the bottle he took from the fridge and handing it to me.
I downed the drink instantaneously, tears forming in my eyes as the fizz seemed to prick my throat, but I kept at it.
“Huy! Take it easy, Ton,” Kuya said.
“I wanna get drunk,” I replied, like a child who wanted pink cotton candy instead of blue. “It’s all so frustrating, ‘Coy!”
“We’ll deal with that later, Ton.” From the kitchen counter, he produced a bundle of pastil. “Here, I made this just a while ago. At least have something in your stomach before you start going wild.”
As I took bites of the rice and shredded beef, we talked about ourselves. We did not have these conversations much. We would mostly talk about nonsensical things: chismis about professors, random trivia which were cool but unimportant – those things. I had always noticed and loved how he spoke: animated, with a bit of an Ilonggo accent. He grew up in Sultan Kudarat, preferring to spend more time in his family’s farm than in the city.
“The fields have a beauty that no mall or skyscraper could ever surpass,” he said, emptying his third bottle. “But,” he shook his head, “many people don’t realize that. Oh, the stories to be told!”
When we had our fill of pastil and the mild drinks, to my surprise, Kuya Macoy started to bring out and mix my, and probably every barkada’s, love-hate cocktail: Sprite, Pink gin, and powdered strawberry juice. The conversations would make twists and turns after a few glasses. He would tell me how weird he thought I was, being so far apart from everyone despite being in the same place at the same time, like I was in a bubble of impenetrable energy. I would reply with self-derogatory remarks as I expressed how I was amazed by his confidence and advocacy, his activeness in the university, the flame in his eyes when he spoke on a microphone – and he would say he was none of that. And no matter how hard I tried to explain why I thought of him that way, he would always come up with something – a weakness, an experience, a psychological theory – just to invalidate my claim. He would do this even after today, never accepting the good I would say, but I had faith that I would get to him, in time.
A few drinks more and we came to the point where we just stared at each other blankly for a while, then suddenly burst into laughter. Then, silence again. Then, we talked about the professor that yelled at me, and how he disliked him too. He told stories of how Sir Villalobos was feared and hated for being so strict and harsh with his students yet appreciated for being good at teaching.
“He should still consider our feelings, though. It doesn’t mean that just because we’re under him, he could treat us as though we’re incapable of emotions, of hurt; as though we have no other responsibilities … families to tend to … friends to see.” He downed another glass and sat in pensive silence. Then, he suddenly asked in slurred speech, “How long have you had them?”
I found him staring at the scars on my exposed forearm – the keloids, some discolored lines. I froze. I was silent, looking at him expressionless, but the thoughts raced in my head, caught in a tornado of sensations and memories. I did not know what to say. I did not know where to start. Should I even start?
“I’m sorry,” he suddenly said. “That was rude and uncalled for. The gin,” he shook his head, grasping his hair with his hand. “You don’t have to answer. I understand it’s … a personal thing.”
“It’s okay,” I replied, consciousness feeling adrift. And I spoke.
I did not know what I saw in Kuya Macoy since the moment he came up to me as I sketched that goat in the parking lot, distracting myself from that time our eyes met again during class and in the hallway, recalling the times when I sat where the chatter of the crowd was indistinguishable from the rustle of the leaves and I would find him with his org-mates passing by, catch a glimpse of him – a swift glance and then … press on. Why was I so drawn to this stranger when I kept distance from everyone else, that I immediately surrendered the moment he mentioned the cliché Van Gogh but dismissed everyone who attempted to tame me with discussions on human freedom or how everything was a social construct – things I loved to think about? Why did I feel so at peace when he rubbed my back as I cried recounting every instance in my life that felt like I was a child lost in an Ayala Mall, afraid of everything, unsure of everything – when my parents found me, would they embrace me or would I be greeted with mother’s scolding and father’s belt because I was so stupid for not keeping up with them when everything around me was too much in motion? Well, it was always the latter.
I told him, through eyes overflowing with tears, breath reeking of strawberry-gin, nose sounding like sandpaper against wood, how that one moment with Sir Villalobos became a key to a pandora’s box, and everything started coming back and I was feeling everything all at once. And then I told him that the world was never going to get better because human beings were wretched creatures – but he and my friends were divine.
The entire time, when I only sobbed, he said my name, gently. Softly, he said “Hey, it’s okay … let it out. I’m here for you.” His eyes looked weak from the alcohol but were filled with worry. His ears, nose, and cheeks were reddish. His lips and his moustache were stained pink by the cocktail.
He hugged me. And I wept some more.
Since then, we have become inseparable.
The days passed and we were nearing the end of second semester. We had done much together since then. We went strolling at Baywalk, jogging, eating those salted red nuts sold by “Manong Vendor” whose smile gradually widened the more we bought from him, until the mere sight of us almost instantly brought a grin to his face. Sometimes Kuya and I watched the dusk skies, sometimes the dawn when we did not have class – the rising and setting sun, the silhouettes of bancas and their humble captains. On Valentine’s Day, I gave him bright red gumamelas I picked from a nearby garden with a note that said “So everywhere you look, you’ll be reminded of my love. Char!” If only he saw the smile on his face.
He brought me to places I never thought I would actually be – the verdant mountains of Bukidnon and South Cotabato, the slums of my hometown hidden under the shadows of towering condominiums and structures that screamed “progress.” He nudged me forward and, before I knew it, I was doing things I never thought I would be given the chance to do.
In the highlands where we taught basic and secondary education, I listened and felt in the voices of the Lumad elders and youth alike the rage, the sorrow, and the fear that grew within them as bombs turned their schools into ruins and combat boots of uniformed men trampled what remained as they marched onward. I felt the pang as they spoke of how the rich land, where trees that watched generations grow and wither thrived, had been reduced into a barren pit to extract ores like gold and copper.
“Our rivers, our streams have become a sickly yellow,” one elder said. “As much as we could, we didn’t dare touch that water. Why would we? Delikado.”
“And they didn’t really do anything, did they, ‘Tay?” Kuya Macoy asked calmly, but I could feel the subtle anger in the firmness of his tone.
“We sat and talked and rejected their offers, countless times. We refused to let them desecrate our ancestral land. Next thing we knew, they became even more dedicated in forcing us out, accusing us of being communists much more aggressively than before!” The elder shook his head slowly, and in a low, hopeless voice said, “But we’ll keep fighting. We have to.” He fell silent, looking down at his cup of coffee, and took a sip.
Back in the city, in the narrow streets of the slums, I served hot meals and gave bundles of goods, alongside my dear, Kuya, to families that ate “just enough.” Sometimes, they said, it was “enough na lang.” Some kind folks invited us into their homes – simple structures. Some were built of plain, painted hollow blocks, some of old wood, some of kalakat, all under red or silver, sometimes rusty, sheets of metal for roofs or flat cemented rooftops where colorful clothes on nylon wires gave the impression of banderitas. We were served pan de sal and coffee, but the stories these people had to tell fed our thoughts to the brim. Much so that we had forgotten our hunger and fatigue, that the cup half-full had gone cold and the remaining bread had become stiffer than they were moments ago.
“They said my son was a drug dealer because of the tattoo on his arm,” Aling Puring, one of the residents, said as tears started to fill her eyes. “They said he was thin because he used shabu.” She showed us a grainy photo of her son, who was, indeed, a skinny boy. “But what do they know about my son? What do they know about his health? Had it even crossed their minds how food – a basic necessity – is scarce for people like us? God!” She held the photo near her heart. “He’s been gone for two years now, but the thought still bothers me if they even hesitated before filling his chest with bullets.”
I had always heard stories like this in the news, mostly in Facebook and Twitter, but never one personally and up close. I never thought of the difference between reading something like this from a wall of words on an article or looking at grayscale photographs or at already hair-raising videos, and actually hearing it from someone in the same room. The feeling was different. It was more intense. It was deeper. It was sharing not only the same physical space with the pining folk, but also the emotional atmosphere.
I watched as Kuya Macoy moved towards her, offering a pack of tissues from his bag and consoling the weeping woman. It pained me to see Aling Puring still so hurt, as though she had lost her son only yesterday. But it warmed my heart to see the love in Kuya Macoy’s eyes as he spoke to her – this woman who we barely knew and only knew today – and allowed her to seek refuge in him, in us – total strangers. Then, I stood, tears welling in my eyes, which I managed to stifle, and from my backpack, brought out the bottled water I had saved for later, opened it, and handed it to her. When she had drunk half its contents, her breathing stabilized. She drank some more, and she was calm. The pain of seeing her in tears began to subside, and a light feeling started to grow in my chest as she started thanking us for staying with her. She bore a sweet smile on her face as we bid good-bye and this light feeling poured and filled my chest. It was a good feeling.
I travelled with Kuya to places I never thought I would reach. I always thought I knew enough. I was wrong. There was more to the rich taking from the poor for profit. There were stories of natives, of mothers, and the struggles and losses they had to take, which had never really pierced my bubble of comfort – until Kuya Macoy.
“These are the people we have to protect,” he said, on our way home from Aling Puring’s. “We are so privileged, Ton. We should use this privilege to help them.”
“Macoy, why can’t we just start a revolution?” I asked.
He heaved a deep sigh.
“Haven’t we learned enough from the happenings of the past?” He suddenly coughed from the smoke from the barbeque stands by the street. He covered his nose with his arm as we walked past the smoky air. “Think of the sustainability. It’s not. Think of the losses, the chances of defeat.” Past the smoke, he inhaled deeply the fresh, evening air. “There are still other ways, Ton. There are better ways where the short and long-term damages are minimal. We have democracy. We just have to remind everyone ‘up there’ and ‘down here’ that we have our rights, that they should be upheld, and that we should exercise them while we can. Let our feet shake the streets as we march. Like a dance. Not like ballet, but like the dances of our people with soles stomping the ground, parang knocking on the doors of the gods to hear our pleas for good harvest. For redemption. Then, we’d let our voices be heard like earthly chants resounding in the heavens. That sort of thing. It’s not gonna be easy or immediate, Ton, but compared to a whole uprising,” he shook his head and pursed his lips, “it’s the better option.” After a few steps further, he started to laugh. “I’m so wordy, no? I’m sorry, ha-ha-ha!”
I smiled and said, “Nah, it’s okay. Relevant naman ang mga pinagsasabi mo. It’s … enlightening.”
“Sus!” he said teasingly, placing his arm around my neck as we walked.
I glanced at him. I loved listening to him talk. I learned so much.
We dedicated ourselves to outreach programs and teaching children in places where life was harsher, and education was distant for many and a dream for most. We also attended seminars and protests. Just a few weeks ago we attended a rally at Freedom Park. The fervor in his eyes emboldened me. “Mamatay na kayo! Communists! Mga terorista,” some passers-by exclaimed, but the strength he exuded did not falter. Pictures of us were being taken by journalists and some civilians, like that fleshy, capped man who seemed to frequently look our way, as we stood with placards and statements written on pongee cloths, keenly getting a shot of us.
Kuya did not come to class three days after that day.
He was not responding to my messages and calls, so I came to visit him after class. But all I found were police lines, a patrol vehicle, and some personnel right outside his house. I walked by, hearing only my heart pounding against my chest, glancing at the faces of the police officers leaning on the vehicle door, talking casually, laughing, but I could not take my eyes away from the traces of red that seemed to have been missed in a cleanup. There was an inconsistent and odd pattern, as if there was a splash or a trail that used to be there. I knew that red all too well. It stained the tiles of my floors and walls in my episodes of melancholia when I had a blade in my hand, not so long ago. The door was ajar. A few people were inside, but he was not there.
As my mind stirred, walking past a gumamela bush, the voices of a few children by an old house slapped me back into consciousness.
“Poor guy. Screaming last night and then … bang!”
“Kuya!” a little girl cried.
“They say he was a terrorist.”
“Really? Nagra-rally siya?”
“Serves him right! Momma said that they’re always up to no good.”
“They should just put them in a room and just— ra-ta-ta-ta-tat!” one of the boys said, fists shaking in front of him.
I walked faster, holding back a shout, holding back tears. I was silent, but the thoughts raced in my head, caught in a tornado of sensations – and memories of him.
His friend told me that his body was brought to his family. I was not able to visit him in the morgue, but his friends did. I did not even know if I could bear to see him “black and blue,” they said. “Swollen,” they said. “With a bullet hole on the temple.”
Just the thought of it made me cry again. I lost count how many times I cried, the times he came into my mind through footages of rallies and the faces grieving mothers and persevering Lumads. He came to me through gumamelas and salted nuts, through strawberry-gin and pastil, the sky at Baywalk … and through the face of that fleshy police officer whenever he came on television to talk about some recent crime. I recognized him. Oh, how my blood boiled when I recalled when I last saw his face as I watched him on that screen. I stood there, by the stone guardrail of the unfinished road by the sea at Baywalk, watching another sunrise alone. The recurring thought loomed over me. The words were there, wafting in my head. I did not tell him enough how he meant to me … and now, there was no way to do so. He and his dreams – young, ardent soul – gone, wiped off like the bloodstains. But I carried on. I promised to myself, to his spirit, that I would; that although the world was engulfed in flames, just like he taught me, we would dance until the rain would come, chant until the raindrops would fall, and witness the dawn when the fires that burned our land and people turned into lush gardens and pools of life, when death ceased to be a dream and the something the world always had in store for us no longer included suffering.
This literary piece is part of Katitikan Issue 4: Queer Writing.