Miryam sighed as she dropped the last box on the ground. "Okay, Ma, you're all moved in."
Esther looked at her sadly without saying anything. Miryam noticed and went over to her.
"I'm sorry, Ma. We really tried to get the house back, but there just wasn't enough. And you know my apartment is too small and you don't even like the city and--"
"It's okay, darling," Esther said softly. "It's like when your father and I helped you move into youy university all those years ago. It's a new adventure."
Esther feigned a smile, and Miryam kissed her mother's head. "I'll bring the boys to come visit you this weekend. Try to have fun, okay?"
Esther smiled, but didn't say anything. Miryam wrapped her arms tightly around her, and then left. Esther heard the door slam behind her then looked around her new unit. She had to admit, the nursing home was nice, even though she didn't want to be there. An orderly had helped Miryam hang paintings on the walls. Photos of her and Paul on their honeymoon in Barcelona and family photos of the pair and their children against generic blue backgrounds smiled at her. Esther hadn't smiled since the doctors diagnosed Paul with heart disease. He'd held on after the first heart attack, but by the third, she knew she'd have to pull the plug on her husband. She couldn't tell her children by then, so the house's refinancing was poorly done, and she ended up here in Maple Grove.
A knock on the door pulled her from the photos. She stood from her husband's recliner, the only thing she had left of him, and went to the door. A smiling blonde lady was waiting for her.
"Hello, Mrs. Kirchner. I was wondering if you'd like to come to craft night. We're knitting mittens."
Esther had never knitted before, but she knew that Miryam would be upset if she didn't at least try to muscle through. So, Esther smiled politely, wrapped a shawl around her shoulders, and walked down to the large lounge room with the orderly and few other old men who ogled her as she walked. The room smelled of mothballs and was filled with fould-out grey tables. Old people were scattered around the room, expertly wrapping yarn around sticks and pushing out mittens and booties. Dread filled in Esthers head. She went to a corner of the room, grabbed a few knitting needles and yarn and tried to copy an older woman across the room who was about halfway through her third pair of booties.
She had made a few knots, cussed in Arabic quite a bit, and was about ready to throw the needles at the orderly who kept telling her she was doing a good job when she heard a voice next to her.
"There aren't too many Latin people here. Are you new?"
She turned to see a woman looking at her. The woman did not seem to belong in the nursing home. She was old, but not as ancient as most of the people there, and greying black hair that was in two long braids that framed her face. The woman had almond skin and a nice smile with a gold tooth. She was holding needles and thread, and was looking at Esther with these intense black eyes that made Esther feel like an ice cream cone in July. She hadn't felt this self-conscious since middle school when her friend had remarked how her legs looked in the gym shorts.
"Uh, no. I--uh--Palestine."
"Palestine. That's the place with the war, right?"
"Aren't there a lot of places like that?"
"Good call. I'm from Venezuela, and there's a war there too. No one notices though. It seems like there's either outright wars with bombs or secret wars with drugs and people disappearing from their homes."
"Mhm." Esther tried to unknot the yarn from her needles without seeming too awkward.
The woman giggled. "You are struggling."
Esther nodded, though she didn't stop trying to untangle it.
"Here." Esther felt the woman's hand touch her own and her heart felt as though it lagged for a second.
The woman took the needles from her hands and quickly detangled them. Esther watched in amazement.
"What?" the woman said asshe began to start her own pair of mittens.
"You're good at that."
"Oh yeah, I've been here awhile. Me and Agnes used to have a contest to see who could make more mittens for the preemies at the hospital but, she died so I have all this knitting ability for nothing."
"How do you even do this? Why do they think everyone over sixty likes to knit?"
"They don't know what we want. They just know that if we sit in our room until we die, they get sued, so they make us do anything in their power for us to be happy."
"Well do we do anything else? Do we swap war stories on Tuesdays and talk about when we didn't have houses on Wednesdays?"
The woman laughed and patted Esther's arm, sending warmth radiating around her rib cage.
"You are too funny. Though hearing the homosexual Vietnam stories is pretty entertaining. No, we have board games though. That's on Thursday nights. And sometimes they have manicures on Sunday. The Asian ladies hate it."
"I feel like high school all over again," Esther joked. "Only my mom isn't here to yell at me and tell me to stay away from boys."
"My mom never had to tell me that. Hell, she was always praying for a son-in-law."
"Yeah. Luckily, I've always been a disappointment so she wasn't too broken up."
"That's sad. My mom wasn't happy about me bringing home a black man."
"She would've probably had a heart attack if you moved in with a female friend and lived with her for thirty years and raised two children with her."
"Yeah, they don't do that in Palestine."
"They don't in Venezuela either, but that's why we came to New York, right? She hated when I told her that."
"So, what happened to your friend?"
"Suicide. She got Alzheimer's and didn't want to fight it. Not even for me."
"Yeah. What happened to your black man?"
"Yeah, me too."
"Well, I'll be here to keep you company. I pissed off my son's wife one too many times and my daughter is somehow uncomfortable around my gayness, believe it or not, so the only way I'll get out of here is in a wooden box or an urn."
"Oddly comforting. Thanks, um..."
"Nice to meet you, Esther. Would you like me to get those knots out again?"
Pinky Promises by the Koi Pond
College isn’t as simple as people make it sound, you don’t just pack up your stuff, say “Later” and walk out of your parent’s house. It’s much, much more difficult, especially if it means going to college, separates you from the one you love by thousands of miles.
I started to notice you distanced yourself from me about a week ago, you quit texting and talking to me. It all happened so fast and painfully so you can imagine the anger I felt when I showed up at your window for answers.
I wanted to yell and cuss but the unfamiliar look of sadness on your face caused me to shut my mouth quickly as I gently helped you down the tree leading to your bedroom window.
“What’s going on?” I asked, voice soft. Your eyes were bloodshot as if you had been crying and the dark circles under your eyes could hold one of those gross hairless chihuahuas the ladies carried around.
“It’s not going to work and you know it, we won’t work far away,” you said quickly as you wrapped your arms around yourself for comfort. I knew just as well as you that we would both be going to college on the opposite end of the world, but I didn’t understand why we couldn’t work? We could call, and text, and when holidays come around we can visit each other. It doesn’t seem so bad to me...
Knowing you, I was aware of this not being the only reason, something bigger was at play. It could be your parents, with us being both guys, they aren't the most supportive people in the world. So with that being said I took your hand in mine and said, “Why don’t we go somewhere only we know?”
Smiling slightly you nodded and grasped my hand tighter and allowed me to pull you along to my car for a quick drive to the park we used to hang out in. The night was cold and the bugs were loud, the only light source was the full moon that seemed to watch us like a breathtaking movie. We climbed over the mini-wall that kept the little kids from straying and we passed the swing set I got stuck in that one time.
We walked by the balancing beams and jungle gym until we reached the pond where the koi fish could be found. It was lite blue with LED lights and the moon, and the fish seemed to move slower as if they were waiting for morning boredly.
Sitting down on the bench I turned and smiled before asking you, “Are you afraid?”
I knew I was blunt when your eyes widened and you stared for what seemed like hours until I said something. Lifting my hand up to meet your face I said again slowly, “Are you afraid? Cause I am, I am terrified because I don’t want to lose you... I don’t want to lose the most important person in my life.”
Saying the words made your face scrunch up and your eyes well with tears until they fell, being swept away with my thumb. I pulled you closer and settled to have your head on my shoulder and my arm over the bench and your back.
“Im so afraid.” You said after a minute and I hummed to let you know it was safe to continue.
“What if my parents make us part? What if you find someone better while you're gone? What if we forget each other or end up not knowing who the other is anymore?”
“You focus on the “what-ifs” too much. We are both eighteen, love, your parents are not going to split us up and if they try, well then I'll give them a piece of my mind later. And I'm not gonna “find someone better”, did you not hear what I said earlier? You truly are the most important person to me so don’t forget it. And we aren’t gonna forget each other because I will be calling you every. Single. Night. Plus we aren’t gonna be separated forever, I will visit you and I hope you’ll visit me,”
“So don’t worry okay? We will be okay as long as we trust each other and communicate.” I finished and turned back to watch the koi fish swim around and avoid each other. I particular bright white fish caught my eye and I wondered if it knew it was so beautiful. I turned back to you when you held your shaky hand in front of me.
“Promise?” you asked.
“I pinky promise,” I said back and hooked my pinky to yours, the koi fish seemed happier now.
The Nomadic Flowers of My Green Dress
And because I had saved enough money, I had the surgeries done from where the first successful surgeries happened years ago, at the John Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore. .
It was a time of flowers because it was spring.
The skin of my penis was grafted to use for my vagina. It was a safe procedure and they were already used to doing these surgeries.
I could feel myself turn into a woman. The removal of my penis and the surfacing of a clitoris was the first success of my life. There were a lot of grafting done but I lived through it.
Breast augmentation was the pinnacle. I could feel myself whole and beautiful beyond belief. The point was to be beautiful. I felt like a Georgia O’ Keefe painting of flowers, all of them petals, flaming inside me. Before each surgery, I would find a particular flower to nestle in and I would curl within the inner pod wondering, wondering how to turn into a flower. How I would feel, where I would turn and spin and eddy upon the stream of life.
It was a process I witnessed as time unfolded like a scientific experiment as a gift to myself. Each process was almost a process of grief and pain and an unfurling of joy that was so gradual and slow, I could almost hold the guilt in between my palms to show everyone. I want this. I am sorry. But why apologize. During the initial stages I would eat by myself in the hospital cafeteria with my hair still short with a diaper between my legs.
My name is Salome. I am a Filipina and since birth I have been thought as beautiful and almost wondrous but like a wrong turn God has forsaken into the family. I loved to dress up in frilly clothes from the markets by the sea now sealed with concrete to create malls, condominiums and office buildings. Baclaran drove me in a shopping frenzy. I bought cheap, shiny maroon shoes I dipped my feet into with tiny heels that cracked after some time. I would weep because they were so beautiful and could never be replaced by time Or that green, dress no one understood from the college where I studied Communications. It had gold tipped collars and a splash of nomadic flowers because they seemed to migrate and travel as I wore them.
Green is my favorite color: the bright acid temperament of grass, the fields in my grandmother’s rice farm, so soft and beautiful to touch. Also, I loved the word beautiful because I was, still am, to be and is a beautiful woman.
I wanted to be a gift. I wanted to be a gift for the love of my life. I haven’t met him yet but I see them watching me, wondering, wondering how I could be so beautiful and untouchable because how could it be with a man? And so, I waited, saved enough to have it done.
There is so much I want to say, but I will call myself a work of art as I slowly unravel like a government which has had its time and a new one comes forth so that during the day the government did topple down I was on the streets with every person a version of her true self. The government had to stop this crazy travesty that did not fit with democracy and why should it, when it did not give us what we needed, the freedom to say what we choose, the freedom to be who we want to be, and to call on the people of the world to watch us: look we are differing, we are changing, we are evolving, we are in the throes of awakening.
And I woke up after my first breast augmentation surgery. Time stood still. The pain was a killer. But I woke up. And my breast felt like mammoth hormonal cocktail of weight. I felt deliciously voluptuous and alive.
To be a woman takes pride and I have crossed to become one of them, although I wasn’t quite sure yet. Is this me? Is this really me? I am walking down the street shouting: Ibagsak ang Rehimeng Duterte, with my breasts shaking in rhapsody.
II. The Woman of Olongapo
And there was a woman, dressed as a woman because she was still a man who went out on a date with an American Joe.
They danced, which was common enough, to dance with a beautiful Filipina who captivated him. It was always that way for him, for the GI, to dance, shimmy his way up her skirt and find that pearl of the orient that captivated him, always.
Instead, he felt something, bulging and big and not unlike his own. It was a huge temerity of ridiculousness that he couldn’t have known. How could he have not known? What was wrong, with him? He was the one who felt wrong and not wronged. He felt her up again and he could see her laughing and laughing as they swayed to the swirl of the music. The music was what began to be insulting. How could he have been wrong? That was when he felt insulted by her laughter. It was as though, she, were laughing at him. She smiled like a grinning skull, an animal he caught in the woods and roasted wherein the teeth remained, grinning at him. He wanted to roast her then, as animals were sought and caught and grilled for meal.
He dragged her to the toilet which was at the back of the curtain where the band was playing. She must have thought, no she thinks he is going fuck her. She had a boyfriend in Norway, why would she have to do this. She just wanted to dance tonight. She didn’t mean to be unfaithful.
She grinned at him as they drew away from the crowd and went to the back room toilet.
Inside a cubicle that stank of urine and feces, he stripped her top and found silicone cups that covered her chest. She removed them and looked at him earnestly. That was when she realized he was angry.
She knew what it felt to be with a man who was angry. She grew up with them, at her school, in the streets where she lived. She grew up being second star to women whom she dressed up even though she wanted to be the star someday. Her own star. Someday.
Time came when the internet gave her access to men who wanted her. Men who visited her here in the Philippines, dated her and made love to her. She was given love, jewels, interesting gadgets, stuffed toys and flowers because she was the star of their lives.
Finally, time had caught up with her and they were making love because she was loved. She was invited by the Norwegian guy to marry in a ceremony of sorts and waited for her papers to pass. He was coming for her all in a matter of time. Because he found her beautiful. She was finally beautiful with long black tresses on chestnut shoulders. She lived in Olongapo to escape her family and live with a group of friends who were equally beautiful in their own particular way.
They dated soldiers and some of them truly wanted her. There was no travesty. They were liked for who they were. Their golden asses, their fine penises and oh, how beautiful they were in long gowns at night, glittering like stars. They were even more beautiful than women. They were fascinating.
But this one didn’t seem to know one thing about her and the realization froze her like an animal caught in a net that held her trapped.
Let go of me! She cried because he was angry. She didn’t want an angry man. She wanted a loving man. Someone who wanted her for who she was.
He kissed her, she slapped him and he mocked her. He kissed her again and she could taste the alcohol in his mouth. She tasted beer. She slapped him again. He grabbed her hair and tried to shove her head against the throbbing penis within his pants.
You bitch! He laughed and then he cried.
Hey, are you alright? She asked and raised herself. She instinctively ruffled her hair and tried to negotiate some kind of peace with him. This night could still be fixed. It doesn’t have to end like this. She stroked his hair and he started laughing again. He sneered and grabbed her hair again. This time he took no time in sparing her what he was about to do. He shoved her head inside the toilet bowl and held her head in the water long enough for her to stop struggling.
She stopped struggling because she had no time to think, to pretend she was dead. She never felt more dead than she was as she struggled against the water in the bowl. She was dying. She felt the water clog her nostrils and her throat. She was not going to go through with her marriage to Tom, her Norwegian boyfriend and felt ashamed. Yes, she still had time to feel ashamed because there was time, a long time before she felt her hair ebb behind her back, her head turn into a mask and it was only her face in the water. Her face and the water combined like two spirits that were forced to go against each other. She remembered fondly the soft brine of the sea where she swam as a child in a girl’s swimsuit. This water was dirt but it was still water and she was held towards it against her will. She became angry and struggled, but his grip was loaded, trained to kill.
There was nowhere to go but die and so she led herself to stop breathing for as long as she could. The enemy was not water, the mother’s sac that nestled her inside her mother’s womb, the depths of the sea, the drain and life of wine, kindred spirit to whom she shall return.
He held her there until he felt safe. He knew he was a gonner when he felt her stop against his grip. He knew that she knew, he was the enemy, not the fecal, urinated water. He was the odd one who loved and betrayed her, as though he were not the one who betrayed himself in the first place. It’s alright, he told himself, the bros, the upper command would not let him down. He could pass this and they would all even make a joke about it. He was delirious and left the john to bum a cigarette until he heard the screams from the back of the curtain, where she was.
III. Beauty Queens and Princesses
I wasn’t thrown on being a beauty queen at some pageant. No matter how I felt I wanted to prove, I was beautiful. I was thrown into books. It happened during high school when my classmate made a picture book by filling a notebook with illustrations and words that conjured a young girl who was being bullied and found herself a male friend from a parallel universe. It was actually a wall she crossed over. She found a house with a burning hearth and a man reading a book by the fire logs beside a lazing dog.
It was profoundly and poignantly beautiful for me that I had to make one of my own. And so I started drawing and writing a story.
A fairy princess meets a pauper whom she shuns away for his dinginess. But through some desperate sorts, she becomes enmeshed in love problems, falling in love with fake princes who just wanted her money and nothing about her true self which was a fairy princess with powers to love wholeheartedly. She spent her money on these series of princes who wanted her money. Eventually, she was left penniless and sold all of her wealth including her kingdom.
And so, she was left with nothing but a library of books which nobody wanted to buy. Inside the library, which she had never known to exist in her castle, she met the librarian and recalled him as the pauper whom she shunned at some point of her life. Ignoring this fact, she was too proud to acknowledge him but went on to read the books he suggested she read. He gave her books on economics, bartering, negotiations, finance, psychology, magic potions, and love.
And the more she read. Eventually, she grew intelligent enough to make a plan on how to get her kingdom back from neighboring kings. They were kind enough to negotiate giving back what she owned for a reasonable price. They were amused at the transformation of the beautiful fairy princess whose only powers back then was to fall in love. Now she knew more and could hold a kingdom on her own.
Little by little she grew to own her power and she became the wisest ruler of all. However, she still retained that one glorious power she had which was to fall in love no matter what. And so she looked back and found him who gave her powers back in ways she never realized was possible. The pauper was quietly returning books to the shelves when she visited him and asked him if he had any books on love because she felt, she had the wrong notions about it after all. The pauper went down the ladder of the library and approached her.
He held her hands and kissed her on her fine, red lips and to her amazement she found that before him was a prince in his finery though still humble.
I, too, am a prince who had once fallen in love badly. But I learned about the fairy princess whom I thought would have the powers to see through my clothes. I did not know you were still innocent then. Now, I know you well. I have educated you and I have fallen in love with the real you. The one I created by educating you.
From drawing flowers and princesses, I drew this book in a lined notebook with ordinary pencil, crayons. It was my first novel and I loved writing from then on.
My first job after my Communications course was to inevitably become a writer, a journalist for the online newspaper Knucklers. I stayed because I knew this was where I would inevitably derive what I would write as a novelist which was an ambition and a dream I knew deep inside my gut was what I wanted as much as to be beautiful.
And so I encountered the story of the woman transvestite whose head was shoved down the toilet. I was given the assignment and off I went to Olongapo to cover the story.
I saw the toilet where the poor lady’s head was shoved into. I touched the water and felt what she had gone through. The water was soft and clear now. I waded my fingers through the water and wondered over days I had been to an island and felt the smooth, briny sea. I knew this was how she felt. We were always close to the sea. The sea was always home to us Filipinas and to a transvestite, it was closest to feel in being a sirena calling for the friendships of sailors. Beckoning was always our talent. The lady beckoned him and he was mesmerized. He must have been so angry, it must have frightened her.
I wrote the piece, describing the history of Americans who derided our land for more than they have claimed to have colonized us, claiming they have given us our independence when all along they have claimed this base in Olongapo much to the chagrin of Filipinos who wanted it back.
The soldier who drowned her in urine and feces was found guilty but was given a very unfair good treatment having a bunk of his own in the base before he was bound to be shipped back to American soil.
The lady’s Norwegian boyfriend rallied with her family to have him shut in a prison along with everyone else in Filipino soil. But he was given special treatment. No matter, we all had to shoddily agree with the lawyer who fought for the woman’s rights. He was found guilty and in America he was not to be given any special treatment there.
IV. Online Dating Sites
I met you online on one of the dating sites.
You explained you were a bisexual and still loved women, although you could not resist knowing me. You said you’d arrange for us to meet and that you would take me to a hotel and make love to me for days, maybe weeks, months, years. LOL
You are an Arab who never used emoticons and I thought who never uses emoticons these days? You are a chemical engineer and asked me to make him name every chemical on the chemistry table. You were cute on Skype as you kept pushing your black framed eyeglasses back to your prominent nose. I noticed that there was sand in the rim of your eyeglasses and that the glasses were dusty. I wanted to wipe the sand off your glasses. You kept giving me fly away kisses that reached me down to where I now have feelings from nerve endings that were delicate. I have never met anyone do this to me. But I kept my distance because I might lose you. Even then, I felt less alone in the world. I wanted to marry you, because that is how women felt, after all.
You opened a door for me of delicious feelings I have never known. First I tasted a tingling because you were so pure and forward to know me. I could feel the heat coming through the screen of my laptop as we talked of how you felt. You needed someone who understood you because it was a secret you had problems holding under.
Have you had a relationship with a transgender before? I asked.
No. You are beautiful and I would like to know you more.
I wondered if you meant a fling. That you never meant to have a relationship anyway. I was saddened by this, in a way.
You had a flair for speaking your feelings beginning with an I. I want you. I want to see you in Manila because I miss you already. I want to make love to you.
I thought, his Is were very masculine and, dominant and yet also vulnerable. I wondered if it were an Arab thing. I didn’t know any Arabs who were gay, let alone know any Arabs at all. I squeezed my legs together as though to hold in every I you speak about because they held a promise for me.
You said you had a friend, a girl who was just desperate to have you and that you couldn’t anymore because you had me.
And you said you gave her my photograph and she just stymied this progress of affection you had for me and began a litany of curses against you. You laughed and I felt sympathetic to the woman. At last, I was the one who engaged you over a real woman and I felt sympathetic. That was a first. I told him you have to tell her the truth, that you have to end your friendship with her because your concept of love was for someone else and of a different orientation.
I guess, you said. But you laughed and I became angry at you. telling you that if you ridiculed the woman I would have to end this.
You capitulated and said he wouldn’t stop being her friend because she needed you. Obviously, you said, she was very sad about everything and disappointed.
The woman became a point of our conversations. I would ask about her from time to time. She was Indonesian.
I felt that I should not pursue a relationship with you, because you seemed callous and even unfeeling. Tell her that you love her too, but in a different way. As a friend, I instructed you not wanting the woman to fall into pieces because of me.
Oh God, I want you now. You replied. And the tingling feeling came back.
I remembered dressing up my female friends on prom night. How jealous I was because there was a boy at the end of the gala. I wanted to scream the night away, as I sat at the table of my friends and was cajoled by the boys to dance in which I had to smile slyly at them and scream go do something productive with your lives because you’d have hell to pay for when you get them impregnated tonight!
I remember that night so well, I could scream again.
But this poor woman was deeply in love with you, Amad. I thought it would be unfair and terrible if something were to happen to her.
You are my queen. You replied. Alright, for you I will take care of the girl. I will make sure she is fed and clothed and not suffer from thirst like a plant in the desert. I promise to love her as much as I love you.
I was satisfied by this. I didn’t know if it was the right answer but the deal sounded well enough.
Is she beautiful? I asked, founding the old edges of jealousy coming to the fore, although it was faint now. If I were to love this man, I would love the woman as well until she finds herself someone to love as well.
Every day we spoke on Skype and I could feel that each time I spent with you, time was taken away from the woman and that she knew and that her anger was growing into a tempestuous storm gathering like clouds darkening in the sky. I felt uncomfortable about this, as though we were in a room and she were listening to every spoken word passed between us. When he was with her, she would know about me and she would hate me. Hatred from a sister was something I did not anticipate. I was not a sister. I was loved because I had traversed my season of belonging. I transfigured because I wanted to be made love to. I was physically someone else because I needed to be touched the way a woman is touched. And yet, I was not a woman. I was loved for becoming past a man to become a woman.
The Indonesian woman must feel that in the first instance, an inferior woman has climbed over on top of her right to be the only woman of her kind and that someone who had surgeries done is a fake. Even if she were someone who felt she must feel a certain intelligent kinship to the transformations of her day, she would also feel an ancient right to be considered the one whose throne had been taken from her.
I understood all that and more. And yet I stood my ground. He is mine and that is the fact. I will claim him, because I am a woman now, I am human too and I am falling in love with a man who knows how it is to drown in the desert without water.
And so you came. For real.
I met you at the airport with a garland of sampaguitas that smelled and looked like small Jasmine flowers.
You were much taller than I imagined so that you had to bow your head for me to slip the garland over your head to your broad shoulders. You were dark as though the sun penetrated your skin each day you worked in Amman, Jordan. Your features were soft and bracingly handsome with limpid wide eyes behind your glasses and a high nose over a strong mouth that still maintained that you were masculine. You immediately kissed me on my lips which surrendered the words: hot blooded Arab.
We stayed at a boutique hotel in the heart of Makati. You brought a black backpack and a black travelling bag that resonated with the color of your hair.
Immediately upon arriving at the hotel, you found my mouth and kissed me hard and passionately. It was deep and sensual, I had not yet gotten over it when you led me to bed, peeled my dress, undressed yourself from your sports shirt where I found your skin. I kissed the skin on your chest and was swept by the engulfing entrance of your manhood in between my legs. My eyes opened wide and saw the ceiling painted with cherubs and clouds on a moonlit night. You were heavy inside me and I met you with equal fervor as I slid my tongue on your shoulders that tasted of salt and a certain acidity of sweat. I could smell your cologne heavy with a mingling of spice. I tasted your culture in a complete instance. You stayed inside me for a long while and came. I came and wondered at the completion of desire in one single moment. I knew I was in love and that I would desire you for all my life.
You turned from my shoulder to kiss the tips of my breasts and kissed my mouth completely. You went down and kissed me, smelled me where I was alone. I wrapped my legs about you and desire overcame me as I arched my back and felt you getting stronger again.
I have never made love before. There was pain, yes and yet the pleasure overcame the pain with a strange twist of sweetness in valleys and crevices of my body. You never spoke a word, instead you moaned, a hollow deep guttural cry from the pit of your body. Your voice came from somewhere deep inside you and not from your throat as I imagined it would be. You made love to me without trying to impress me, but then, what do I know.
We pressed our bodies each time and each time I would feel you so close to me as though words had never been invented and that they could mean so many things if uttered. I learned to scream when you penetrated me deeper each time and you watched my face each time you saw me climb that peak I never thought possible.
Away from your glasses I gazed at your eyes, that were so warm and liquid, I felt as though I were swimming in the ocean tide because you never veered away but looked at me with such control, only water could have that quality because it never could, you see, and that was the point. Never to feel control and yet pulled together like being in the middle of a boiling water that sucked me inside a vortex.
I couldn’t utter it, but you did, because you felt it too. I love you.
I love you, I replied in hushed tones that echoed up to the ceiling of cherubs and ambulatory clouds. I love you. Mahal kita.
The sampaguitas emanated a scent among other scents we emanated from our skin, our breath, our genitals. We smelled a mixture of our bodies that enmeshed and congealed between us. We embraced and you found me again and again and again.
You made love to me as though you had been in the desert for so long and was thirsty for love. You might as well be drowning. I almost cried because I loved you so much.
I doubted I could love this much again. I could write novels now, I thought, somehow feeling completed. I was vital and particular in this world filled with love and uncertainties that I felt lucky to have found a certainty in my life. To be certain, was a cure for feelings that the world was a whole block of meaningless things lumped together with no particularity. I felt like a specie of my own and I have found that one particular specie that complimented mine.
When you woke up I was wiping your spectacles with my dress.
We dressed up for dinner and we ate at the hotel restaurant in silence. You would look at me when I was sipping my soup or drinking my wine. You would look at me when you thought I couldn’t see you, which wasn’t true because I saw you everywhere. I could see your mien from the mirror beside us, through the glass I was drinking, from the glare of the silverware as I dipped it to my soup. I could see you with my eyes closed.
We went to the mountains of Baguio and stayed at a remote hotel. It rained all the time and we could hear it pelting upon the glass of the window. Sand washed away from your spectacles. Wine hydrating your thirst.
And then time caught up on us and we had to leave.
VI. Perdition and Insecurities
The Duterte government is wild with perdition and insecurities. No one knows what to do. We have a president who spirals out of control, even his daughter cannot control him. He kisses women on a dais for the world to see. He says things, things like raping dead women, gunning down the genitals of women rebels and the like. He curses as though it would rain putas in our land someday. Worst of all he worships no God. A man without a God is a dangerous figure. He does not have the faith to lead a country and will give up soon because of the mess he’s made and not just trampling on a puddle of his own making, he has created a hole for himself that he cannot get out of.
The sordidness of our government has reached heights that those who do not complement it are thrown into jail for all to see. He has released the demons of our land to spread a maelstrom of deceit and lies where there was once peace and a certain kind of knowing, that the worst is over.
Through my balcony, I could hear the laughter and chortle of a woman when he was elected president as though this new one would make things more interesting in this mad world we live in. As though amusement was on the way, brace yourself, this one is the wild card that would wash away the problems of our land: drugs, addicts, runners with what: Baygon. A retinue of policemen who would shoot on sight anyone suspected of drug running, including children.
A child, no older than a boy was turned over to a dark, dank corner and shot with such speed and stupidity, the whole world watched aghast. He was called to run during his funeral. Run back to God before the Caloocan police catches you again. They told the dead.
I am telling you this, my Arab lover, because we do not know what to do.
At first there was amusement. Slowly, there was an unraveling. Stories came up.
A strip of mall in Makati was taken over by the government from a prominent family who had held the mall for years. For nothing. A University was transferred to the hands of the former dictator’s son. For nothing. The Marcoses was now in power again. Former dictatorship was null and forgiven, or forgotten. Activist professors were exterminated from the university strip in Recto, without reparation.
The former dictator was allowed to be buried in the Libingan Ng Mga Bayani, all done in a matter of a day, so quick it was meant to outwit the people who toppled them in the first place. It was a new generation now who lined the streets to blockade the burial of a thief, despot killer. Marcos was buried like a thief in the night. This was declared by the Vice President Leni Robredo who was gradually being stripped of her powers. We had corrupt presidents before, why could we not take away this one? Why is all our work against the current government so feeble, like throwing pebbles against a great slab of rock. Were we not decisive enough? Was the Vice President too weak to handle the President? She was our strongest hope and people were behind her but the President stood strong in unwinding every accusation hurled at him as he built a fortification of people of people who protected him and themselves. They profited and feared his wrath. The Supreme Court was infiltrated and no one could be the wiser. The ICC could not infiltrate the system because the president haughtily pulled out reasoning : do you want us to turn into another Cuba?
Journalists were harassed and arrested for exacerbated reasons that were culled from excuses ranging from not paying taxes, to being dictated to write by Western sources. The president had a stance against the West and ingratiated China to the point of slavery raking in Chinese workers over and above Filipino workers in our own country.
Now, the elections for senatorial candidates lined up in a parody of characters so ludicrous they could have been playing clowns in a carnival. The daughter of the former dictator proclaimed herself a Princeton graduate in a fake passport to ingratiate the intelligentia’s hearts and minds but was found out and brought out in the open. However, she knocked the wind out of everyone by ignoring the facts and pursued her work doing her assignment in economic reforms as governor of her region.
I was certain the election was rigged with celebrities leaching the government flashing their shiny asses to the masses. The president was voted without rigging the votes. But who have known the torrent he would unleash.
I was given a column to write for the Knucklers. Each day, I got reports of anomalies and brashly reported them in my column. I was not alone. But when you get to some point, the government notices and then, you might as well be alone or you’d need money to get your ass out of jail through expensive bails. Luckily, my paper kept pulling me out until I realized, the government meant business and I was at my final straw.
VII. Jail Bound
How are you?
About to go to jail again.
For something you wrote? Why do you keep doing these things? Come over here.
My friend told me to hide this time around. Exile. Exile was not on my list. I wanted to keep writing. I thought, they could keep me out of it for some more time. There was much to do, I didn’t want to go anywhere.
How are you? I asked.
You spoke in plain English when I’d had thought you’d have a lingering Aussie accent for having been raised there. I had no idea why you ended up there but your English is a quaint lonely mishmash of accents from places where you’d lived. Like a man who watches movies alone a lot. It was deep and sonorous.
You are in New Zealand now for a scholarship on bio mass. I had no understanding of chemistry or what you keep finding. My subjects just fell on my lap. This horrible storm threatening our land. You have your oil, and mines to study in deep reverie. I could only surmise that bio mass was another advocacy you held deep within your heart.
I researched on bio mass and found out about fossil fuels and the need to find alternatives before we mined too much of them and it would be too late. You are a scholar as I am just learning about things from books, the internet, podcasts, cable TV, news. My background on communications made me a deliberate person to broadcast what I know and found wrong. Perhaps one day we could talk about what you do and I could write about it in our paper and have people in our country be aware of such things and not be distracted by nonsense politics.
I can almost see you among the forests of New Zealand, meander the tapestries of color and light shining on leaves of trees and shrubs. The glistening patina of rain on leaves. The gushing waterfalls meant to be something. Energy. Dams to satiate a thirst that your country could not provide. You came to study, the waterfalls, the rivers, the streams, the very eddy of life. Water.
You were never interested in politics, you said and yet each step we eddy is known to be sourced in some partiality for one’s compulsion for a better life.
You were bunked in someone’s home and didn’t delve much on what you did.
I didn’t ask who you were seeing this time, nor about the girl from Indonesia. I knew how fickle men can be for you seemed out of it and never mentioned the time we spent. I never mentioned it either. You simply said it was beautiful there and that there was a pretty Filipina trans in your class you’d like to get to know more. I felt pangs of jealousy and yet you invited me to your place to escape the tedious wrath I was encumbered with here in the Philippines.
Why don’t you ask her out?
It isn’t allowed, you sighed.
The administration. Hey, I have to go now, lots of work to do.
Yeah, me too. I have to get back to the paper.
We did not speak again for a long time. I just imagined you going about your laboratory results and recording them on top of some mossy rock. You could be dreaming of the Filipina right now and planning to date her.
New Zealand seemed so far away but I didn’t know it was near your home in Australia. I thought you lied about where you lived and if I went there I would have missed you after all. After all the lies and deceits I have on my plate writing each day, I felt most alone if you would lie to me. But I researched on a world map and realized you could commute to Australia that fast. I wondered if you had a family there in Australia. I wondered about you a lot. I thought I shouldn’t keep you tethered to me. I mean, we had our fun, who am I to you but someone you found fascinating for awhile. This did not comfort me and I felt like the Indonesian girl you talked about. This may have been how you began with her and finally shifted to being who you truly were. You were gay inside and wanted to come out and be free. I knew in Europe you could do things much freer than your country in Jordan and I couldn’t blame you for trying things out. Maybe I inspired you to like Filipina divas, which wasn’t so bad. At least I had influenced you to have a liking for my kind.
Bio mass, hmmmm, I typed on my laptop- residuals from forest resources such as wood and garbage turned to fuel. So you were interested in fuel.
I wanted to understand why you were interested in fuel. Perhaps it was an oil-Arab thing, a need to find some other source because your resource may be unhealthy for the environment or it was going under. The oil price hiked due to a very unfortunate event concerning the death of an Arab journalist who was allegedly ordered to be killed by the Saudi Prince. Jamal Khashoggi. Word was that Khashoggi was Taliban and CIA when he went into exile in the United States leaving his family behind. Yikes. I didn’t want that happening in my watch and to die that way. It was as though the Prince wanted it obvious that he had him killed in the worst way, with a chainsaw.
I became a fan of Jamal Khashoggi as soon as news broke out about his death. I wanted to know more about him and how he tried to convince the prince of reforms even as he was settled in another country. Perhaps it was possible. Perhaps it was the only answer. But what I didn’t want to do was to disturb you. You were obviously enjoying yourself out there and I could just turn out to be a nuisance.
But I missed you so much. My body ached to feel your skin upon mine. You had grown pale, seeing you on Skype and you’d gotten into the habit of wearing checkered shirts which made you look like a professor. No matter, your eyes were still the same behind your new blue glasses. You still looked the same.
I was driven to hide. I took to the mountains of Benguet where a group of rebels took me in. Nothing much to do but from there I could write as much as I wanted to and was still published by Knucklers.
I washed the rebels’ dishes and spoons at noon and at night after they came home from their fight. It was not as though I had no choice. I wanted to know them too. I wore a malong at night and as I bathed. They had connections to Palestinian forces and I wanted to know more about that too. I only knew about the Israelis side, the Arab in me only knew you. They knew the whole demographic order with Joma Sison, their leader in Netherlands directing their every move. There is a lot of negotiations and the president dismissed all talks with the rebels and no one was the wiser. His talk about shooting rebel women soldiers in their genitals was not taken very well.
The rebels were kind to me. They respected me and that was important to remember.
The forest was lit by firelight which could easily put out when government soldiers came in at the middle of the night. We sang soft songs at night and gongs were played as well as flutes which simmered like smoke coming from the small blaze. These people were hungry and the rations were small so I ate as little as I could.
Eventually I received word that you were in the city. I had to see you. Wearing a hijab I came down from the mountains and met you at a restaurant in the old quarters of Manila. My friend from Knucklers, my connection, ordered a small meal of adobo and sinigang with slivers of pork and chicken.
What are you doing here? I asked holding your hand. My female friend from Knucklers left us for awhile as we conversed. You held my hand and looked deep in my eyes. It was moist with faint tears and I could only surmise you wanted to cry.
Are you deeply in trouble? I mean, what is this? You are in hiding already?
He caressed my inner palm with his finger. Oh, I remember. My heart beat fast and faster still. You wore a checkered blue shirt and seemed to have lost weight.
He was now a friend more than a lover.
I want to take you out of here. Come with me.
I can’t. I replied. I won’t get past security in the airport. Everyone is looking for me.
Who is looking for you?
The police. I am to be arrested for writing against the government. I simply replied. I released hold of your hand. I didn’t want you involved. You would be in trouble not only in our country but also with your own. You could be taken into custody, here and there in your country. You might even be uncovered as a homosexual and be beaten in your country. I could not risk that. You are here yes, but you are there far away. I told myself as I released my hand from yours.
I have fake papers made. You can come with me.
What about your new Filipina friend? I laughed and you laughed as well. You are too kind. I didn’t know you would go to such lengths to find me and do things to take me away from here.
You looked around and pulled an envelope from his duffel bag. There was a sheaf of papers inside. You placed it on my hands. I read it. There was a fake passport and documents with the name Olivia Casteldon.
Okay, I won’t exactly be sitting beside you on the plane but these papers can bring you to me where I shall be waiting for you at the end of your journey.
I will be there, you continued. Trust me. You reached out for my left hand again and pressed it with fervor. You will die here. Are you getting death threats? They will kill you before you can end up in jail.
That was true. I had gone to such lengths already.
I can’t take this, you will be put at risk as well Amad. I stood up and left the papers on the table.
No, I am not leaving until you come to me.
I sat down again and looked at him with alacrity.
Alright. I will take these. But you must promise to leave now and go back to New Zealand. I will meet you there.
Good girl. You said.
I put the papers back inside the brown envelope and surreptitiously slipped it into my own bag. We stood up and I embraced you beside our table.
Inshallah. I said.
I realized you had put on a lot of money to get these papers done and I wanted to scream. I stayed in the city for awhile and was hidden in the attic of my friends’ house in Tagaytay mountain. I looked at the papers and cried painful tears. I could risk everyone. Already, Knucklers was under pressure to close down. It was owned by an American foreigner and that could hold things for awhile. Our editor in chief was holding her own fort by trying to explain every step of the way that her paper was clean even if with a foreign investor.
Alright, I decided. It was time to bail out. I had to run.
I was always running. I ran away from my family because they didn’t want me, who I had become, after college. My operation was another way of running away. I escaped being a man. I wondered if I would always run away. Would I run away from you too?
I took the papers, the plane ticket and ran. I switched the plane ticket to fly to New York. I didn’t want you involved in whatever I was in. You didn’t deserve my problems. I rode the plane with the memory of my first kiss with you.
My mind eddied on the time I had you in my arms.
I waited for take-off. Then the plane flew from the tarmac and I could have sworn my heart leapt anticipating someone from security or the police to climb up the plane and pull me away.
Suddenly, I felt safe. I wracked my heart from the guilt of not going to you. I would be alone in New York. I had friends there but I would be too hot to take refuge with anyone of them. My friend from Knucklers brought me to the airport and we embraced. She would be the last person who would know me as Salome. Now I was Olivia. A man who turned to be a woman now another identity as another woman.
God knew, I didn’t have the money to get away and you made sure I could. I took your help but I felt there was a line somewhere to free you from my past.
I would love you, forever and yet I couldn’t have you.
I could not afford to have you or anybody for that matter. I had plans on having a new identity in New York. Perhaps fall in love again. I was and will always be looking for love. That was the core of who I was.
I remembered my first tale of the princess who kept falling in love. That was who I am. I would always love. I just wish the tale would cycle and find you at the end of my journey as you promised you would be. But it was not to be. I was running away from you as well. Because I did not trust myself enough to keep you safe. Perhaps somewhere inside me, I felt I didn’t deserve to be loved as well.
IX. A Strange Twist
I arrived at JFK airport and you were there.
No! I cried inside myself. I can’t love you this way. You must be delusional to think this was some reparation for having left me in Manila. The past is over.
You slowly came to me and embraced me. I held back for as long as I could. I pounded your chest. This cannot go on. I loved you too much to hold you back.
Alright, I’ll let you go if you want me to. But when I turn my back you would never see me again. You explained.
Yes! Go away! I cried.
Okay. You heaved. You turned to walk away.
I looked at his back and saw a man who loved me enough to come back, not just come back but to find me on the face of the earth. My friend must have told him.
I dropped my bags and ran to you. I jumped to cling to you with all of my reconstructed body. I was truly a woman and I loved you. To be loved so much, how could I turn my back on you.
I was blooming flowers inside me. All of me, Georgia O’ Keefe flowers flaming inwards, outwards, you must have felt the heat wicking from my skin. I was flushed with joy I could not contain anymore.
You kissed me passionately on my lips. I kissed back, remembering all of you.
Everywhere there were flowers from people waiting for their loved ones and I could smell them. I was emanating pheromones.
There is an old cliché where time stands still.
New York was the old and the new. I had been here before and what I noticed were the lights at night. The city that never sleeps. But I slept, like a baby after months in hiding in the mountains. You kept me warm with your skin beneath the sheet. I would kiss your arm and you would turn to kiss my lips. I would beg you to take me again and again and you would give me what I wanted. You were still angry that I would have turned you away at the airport. I wanted to satiate your anger. You were always angry, I discerned. You, I realized, was a cynic after all and that what you gave me was your anger. You insisted every corner of the world was crazy with corruption and lack of awareness of how to make things work towards something right.
I was your receptacle for the anger you felt for everything. And you loved me underneath this sheathe of anger, you were a man for me and we made love as though I were truly a woman. You did not make love to me the way you would to a man. You are strong as you knew I was strong. My muscularity had softened and yet I felt there was a man in me that reciprocated your need for a man. I wasn’t confused. I was a man who turned into a woman and that was how we made love.
I took a job at a small newspaper writing lifestyle pages. You took a job as a teacher at a local school from where we lived, a small apartment which we painted with flowers. After work, I’d buy bread and flowers from the roadside. When tired, we’d sleep and make love in the middle of the night.
I bought things I liked at thrift stores. A couple of chipped mugs that were centuries old. I wanted the imperfect but lasts through time, now mine. We bought paintings from street corners and hung them on our walls. Mostly they depicted flowers and children. I’ve never felt so happy in my life.
Finally news broke out that the Democratic, Liberal Party won a majority in the senate. Soon, the people were in the streets of Edsa to conflagrate the Duterte government.
We bought a small TV and had it connected to the Filipino channel. I could not repress my excitement. I felt I had to go back and join the movement against Rodrigo Duterte. News was that the Duterte family had amassed wealth all of a sudden and couldn’t explain this new wealth. The people were now becoming suspicious that the president they voted was not immune to the shimmer of money.
News came out from Knucklers with his own compatriot spilling the truth for everyone to know. The Editor in Chief of Knucklers was arrested and all the more the people stood up against her arrest. The Duterete government was ridden with nepotism which became too glaring to ignore.
They released the editor in chief of Knucklers to satiate the hunger of the people to pull the government.
I flew back to Manila promising you I’d be back as soon as things stabilized in my country.
I was given my old job as columnist in Knucklers and I was just happy to write again. I went back to my old apartment and drew aside the curtains.
The light came in a sharp relief into my dusty old apartment. Shafts of light with motes of dust eddied into my room. There was much to do, I thought while dusting the place.
I peered though my window and found children playing in the streets. I could smell the isaw barbecuing below and heard the sounds of jeepneys blaring along their paths.
It was a new day.