Dead People’s Things.
Today in the Star.
Dead People’s Things.
Today in the Star.
I always get depressed when my birthday approaches (Itâ€™s still months away, so thereâ€™s no need to console me). I donâ€™t mean clinically depressed/ catatonic/ tragically sad, just listless, low energy, kind of blue. Itâ€™s not an original or trendy conditionâ€”lots of people get depressed round their birthdays. Maybe itâ€™s the reminder of their own mortality, or disappointment at not having hit all their targets (win Wimbledon, write novel, win Pulitzer, marry and dump Colin Farell. And single-handedly end all conflict in the world), or the sneaking suspicion that this is as good as it gets and your life goes downhill from here. My theory is that when your birthday rolls around, you somehow relive the terror of being ripped out of the womb and thrown into an indifferent, inhospitable universe. Who would feel like blowing out the candles then?
Now there are good years and bad years, and 2003 was my year of horror. It was so horrific that I resolved not to be depressed on my birthdayâ€”it would be redundant. I would ignore the black pit opening up at my feet. Not only would I resist the sadness, but I would enjoy myself! Even if it killed me.
My plan was to start celebrating the day before my birthday. I invited a few chosen friends to dinner at a favorite Italian restaurant. I appeared at 7pm sharp and waited for my guests.
And waited. And waited.
I felt like I had wandered into a Molly Ringwald movie that I was way too old for. The abyss opened up and swallowed my foot.
Finally at 8pm one person, Elmo, showed up. Now Elmo is a fountain of fascinating, useless information, but factoids could not divert my attention from the harsh reality: My friends had forgotten that it was my birthday. We ate our dinner in a strained silence, then I asked Elmo to drop me off at Oscar’s place in San Juan.
Oscar was giving a Party For No Reason Whatsoever. It was held at his shop, where he sold T-shirts with ironic slogans, anatomically-correct stuffed toys, and the occasional fur-covered refrigerator. The party was clearly a success. The place was overflowing with humans eating chips and drinking beer in plastic cups. Everyone was so laid back they were practically invertebrates. I was trying to walk across the room without stepping on anyone when I spotted Something Out of Botticelli. He was standing by the CD player, flipping through the music choices with a look of pained disapproval. True, he was shorter than the average Renaissance angel, but this was a minor consideration.
I grabbed Oscar as he walked by with a tray of snacks. â€œWhoisthat.â€
â€œThatâ€™s Gianluca. Heâ€™s from Sicily. He’s beautiful, no?â€
â€œWhatshedoinghere.â€ When Iâ€™m curious I can say entire sentences in one syllable.
â€œI invited him.â€ Apparently Oscar had met him in a bar and chatted him up. Oscar collects assorted orphans of the cosmos.
â€œHeâ€™s straight,â€ Oscar sighed, as if this were a terrible tragedy. â€œGo talk to him, heâ€™s bored.â€
Before I could plot a course to that side of the room, Susan and Maria turned up. “We’re hungry,” they chorused, and dragged me off to a Chinese restaurant nearby. While we were perusing the menus the clock struck midnight. I was officially a year older. I was about to dunk my head in a bowl of noodles when my phone rang. â€œThereâ€™s a party at Bed,â€ Ernie said. â€œBert and I will pick you up.â€
â€œYou just stood up my birthday dinner!â€ I pointed out.
â€œOh, itâ€™s your birthday?â€
Ernie and Bert appeared at half past midnight. The sight of noodles reminded them that they hadn’t eaten, so they each inhaled a bowlful. Maria mentioned that the bar next door featured girls wrestling in chocolate. “We have to go!” Bert cried, but they only had the show on weekends.
“I once smooshed a mango on my sister’s face,” Ernie said. No one knew what to make of this information.
I don’t know where Susan and Maria went, but at 2 am we were back at Oscarâ€™s. The crowd was thinning out. Gianluca was on the front steps, smoking two cigarettes in each hand. â€œOscar says youâ€™re from Sicilyâ€”â€ I said. Apparently Gianluca was just waiting to be asked, because he didn’t stop talking for the next few days. He delivered a lecture on the misrepresentation of Sicilians in the Godfather movies, the Visconti adaptation of Lampedusaâ€™s The Leopard, and the revival of Italian cinema. When he paused to draw breath, Ernie invited everyone to Malate. â€œCome along,â€ I told Gianluca.
And so we were four. We piled into Bertâ€™s pickup trup, which had recently been in an accident so it groaned and wheezed like an animal in labor. Malate was shutting down by the time we got there, but Bed was still packed with bumping, grinding gay men. As we squeezed through the dance floor I got several declarations of love, which only happens when I am among gay men. We stoodÂ by the fire exit drinking beers while Ernie launched into his inevitable â€œMy first girlfriend dumped me so I punched a window, broke my hand, and needed therapyâ€ story. This was followed by Bert’s “I dropped out of school in New York and returned to Manila for a girl, and then she dumped me” story.
â€œI thought Ernie and Bert were a gay couple,â€ Gianluca said.
â€œNo,â€ I replied, which did not adequately explain why we were in a gay club.
Upstairs I saw a corporate executive I knew slightly, with a girl who looked to be a…professional. They were so wasted they found everything hilarious. “Is the bar still open?” Shrieks of laughter. “You’re a moron.” Hysterical laughter. There were two other girls with them, also pro, surveying the terrain for potential clients. Obviously not the sharpest knives in the drawer. Sure, some of the club habitues might be interested in them, but only for the purpose of doing a “Before” and “After” fashion shoot.
â€œI kind of like that girl,â€ Bert whispered.
â€œSheâ€™s a pro,â€ I pointed out.
â€œNo way,â€ Bert said.
â€œNo way,â€ Ernie said.
â€œWhy donâ€™t you ask her?â€ I suggested.
She said the charge would be ten thousand pesos. Bert lost interest immediately.
At 4.30 the music stopped and everyone went home. We walked back to the truck as street kids swarmed around us. Bert paid them to go away. Ernie offered to break their heads. â€œWelcome to Manila,â€ I told Gianluca.
On Roxas Boulevard Gianluca remarked that heâ€™d never seen the ocean in Manila, so we had to stop and sit by the water. We sat and watched the lights of distant boats while the sky turned from black to blue. If this were a movie this would be the part where the boy and girl watch the sunrise, make philosophical observations, and agree to meet in Vienna exactly one year later.
Except that there were too many characters in this scene, and the two extraneous ones wouldnâ€™t shut up. Also we realized that while Manilaâ€™s sunset is spectacular, the sunrise is no great shakes. Still later we ascertained that no mere female can come between Gianluca and himself, which was fine since so mere male can come between me and myself, either.
Then it hit me that I was five hours into my birthday and I wasnâ€™t depressed. In a bizarre, roundabout way, my plan had worked.
I’m giving a talk on The Personal Essay on Wednesday, 27 September, 2pm at the University of the Philippines in Baguio. There will be an open forum followed by a book signing. If you’re in the neighborhood pop over. Ambeth Ocampo will have a lecture and signing on the same day at 10am.
He was born in Minnesota in 1896, achieved massive success in his twenties with The Beautiful and Damned, became a Jazz Age celebrity, wrote The Great Gatsby but was also known for partying and diving into hotel fountains with his wife Zelda, moved to Paris with the so-called Lost Generation, wrote tons of short stories and the brilliant novel Tender Is The Night, moved to Hollywood, and basically drank himself to death by age 40, although the official cause of death was a heart attack. He left behind an unfinished novel called The Last Tycoon, said to be based on the life of Hollywood producer Irving Thalberg.
Good time to re-read The Great Gatsby. Plus it’s short.
Something I wrote for the Hong Kong Standard.
Jueteng, the local numbers game, is always a visceral subject in Philippine politics. It is arguably the issue that best encapsulates the enormous rifts and contradictions within Filipino society. . .
The teacher who said you would never amount to anything. For the sake of argument let us assume that she was right and you did turn out to be a worthless, pathetic loser. She would still be a bitch, not to mention an incompetent teacher. Teachers arenâ€™t just supposed to drill lessons into your skull, theyâ€™re supposed to inspire you to make something of yourself. No matter how crummy the raw material. Itâ€™s part of their job description, and the fact that teachers are horrendously underpaid, overworked, and unappreciated is beside the point. If youâ€™re a loser, itâ€™s partly her fault.
For being a rotten teacher, she is doomed to write â€œI was an incompetent teacher who ruined the lives of my studentsâ€ 100 times on the blackboard, and then erase everything and start all over again. For all eternity. With no bathroom breaks.
The class bully who tormented you in high school. High school was a preview of Hell, due largely to the sadistic tendencies of your personal demon, (PUT NAME HERE). He put gum in your hair, pulled your chair out from under you, called you names, vandalized your locker, and drew funny pictures of you on the blackboard. And being a real bully, he infected everyone around him so you had to deal with a school full of bullies making fun of you. Why he picked on you in particular, you have no idea. Maybe he secretly liked you (EEUWW, GROSS) or he was miserable at home or his parents beat the crap out of him.
It is comforting to thing that such bullies will get their comeuppance and become failures, but empirical evidence shows that cruelty and obnoxiousness are not obstacles to success; they may even be assets. Fortunately there is a Hell, and in it the bully is condemned to spend the next quinzillion years of so in a high school locker room, naked, drenched in the sweat of fear, running from nine-foot-tall bullies who kick him, snap wet towels at his ass, force him to clean the toilets with his tongue, and point and laugh hysterically at his shrunken bits.
The yaya who hit you then said that if you didnâ€™t stop crying the aswang/ bumbay/ inchik would eat you. Thatâ€™s great: smack a child, then pass your ignorance on to the next generation. Bring up racists and bigots. In Hell this yaya is condemned to run without stopping as she is pursued by creatures from lower Philippine mythology: manananggal, winged half-women who suck the viscera out of the living; tiyanak, demon imps disguised as small children; tikbalang, creatures that are half-men and half-horse; and mangkukulam, witches who cause live animals to grow in peopleâ€™s stomachs and eat them up from inside out.
The gym teacher who called you fat and encouraged everyone to foul you at games. She grows fatter and fatter until her enormous mass causes her to implode and become a black hole.
The cousin who broke all your toys then ran crying to her mother. There is some justice in this world, so this destructive little liar probably grew up friendless. Now in Hell, she is forever eight years old and walking down the endless aisle of the most wonderful, spectacular, supercalifragilistic toy store in the universe. The shelves are lined with every single toy ever invented, and some that havenâ€™t been invented yet. Each time she tries to pick up a toy from a shelf, the toy moves just out of her reach. She can never play with any of these fantastic toys. Occasionally a bunch of 8-year-old kids run into the store and grab toys from the shelves. When she tries to play with them, they break the toys on her head.
The teacher who ruined math/literature for you. His perpetual punishment is to recite from memory the complete value of Pi, down to the last decimal place, or the entire text of James Joyceâ€™s Finneganâ€™s Wake to a room full of cranky scholars. Every time he makes a mistake, he gets pelted from all corners with balled-up pieces of paper that weigh like boulders. Then he has to start at the very beginning. In the extremely unlikely event that he ever gets to the end of Pi or Finneganâ€™s Wake, he moves on the next assignment: mathematical proof of Fermatâ€™s Theorem, or Marcel Proustâ€™s In Search of Lost Time in the original French.
The neighbors who havenâ€™t stopped yowling since they got their karaoke machine. They are condemned to an eternity without sleep, trapped inside a smoky, reeking karaoke bar where the music is so loud it causes their brains to melt and run out of their ears. There they must sing without stopping while they are clubbed and poked with giant microphones by putrid demons requesting â€œMy Wayâ€.
The rich people across the street who detonate their New Yearâ€™s Eve firecrackers on your driveway for fear of accidentally blowing up their environment-raping SUVs. They are tied up, then barrels of petroleum are poured down their throats until petroleum gushes out of their noses and ears. Then when they are completely bloated, they are made to lie on the floor while devils jump up and down on their bellies. Meanwhile frisky little imps throw lit firecrackers at them, and if the pyrotechnics get into their mouths they explode.
The friend of the family who always noted how not pretty you were, and suggested you were adopted. Why would an adult take pleasure in making a child feel ugly and freakish, unless he was tormented by the knowledge of his own hideousness? In Hell he is perpetually pregnant. Every three months he gives birth to a monster who looks at him, laughs hysterically, and slithers away.
The girl/guy your high school crush asked to the prom instead of you. They marry each other and live unhappily ever after, alone with each other in a desert in Hell. Both of them wish heâ€™d asked you to the prom instead. They never speak to each other. Sometimes they attempt to murder each other, but they never succeed.
The 500 People You Meet In Hell, designed and illustrated by Ige Ramos, is now available at Powerbooks and National Bookstores everywhere.