My father’s stories always make me uncomfortable.
These are usually told during mealtime, with his much-needed clearing of the throat, or random bursts of coughing which irk us, because we never know why he always needs to cough while speaking, and because most times he forgets to cover his mouth.
Only for meals outside of home: consent to sit elsewhere, but still always beside my mother
But the discomfort that I feel–youngest daughter, who upon reaching the earliest possible age that allowed her to argue back, insisted that she sit between her mother and father at the dinner table no matter what–goes beyond that, into the realm of the unsaid. There has always been the fact of the unspeakable in my father’s past, because it is something which, aside from being removed from me in time, tells of a life that the rest of us, my two older brothers and my mother, would rather forget. Poverty is something I designate with the masses; I insist, like the rest of my class, with what little privilege we have (but privilege nonetheless) that it must be alleviated.
But also when I say poverty and look out the car window and pretend not to see the leering faces of truck drivers, when I read real-life rags-to-riches stories or hear friends talk about their parents and their younger days, I always somehow think of my father, so that my throat and chest meet to constrict in ways cruel to my breathing. I dare not think of my father sleeping underneath the trucks he had to drive, or his boyhood days spent crafting cars from random materials because he didn’t have manufactured toys, or his having to give up college so that a younger sibling could go to school instead–indeed I do not dare, but it does not matter, because these are the images that stay with me anyway.
Sometimes when, in a blinding rage and having fallen victim to some personal injustice, I allow myself to think of my father as the solid figure of my childhood: with fitted shirts and thick sideburns and his own short version of the vernacular balbas-sarado, walking around the house with fists clenched and barking in anger at the smallest movements–one answered a question in a disrespectful tone, or forgot to seal a bottle; one arrived five minutes later than promised or couldn’t memorize a phone number as instructed.
A moment of pretension: there exists, too, the image of him behind the steering wheel; we’ve taken a U-turn where there is none, or we’ve been caught out on a day when the numbers on our plate say we should have taken other means to get where we need to be. Then the stiff, baritone of anger fades into illusion, as though my entire childhood were a lie. But this is not pretension, I think, this moment when he lowers his window and talks to the MMDA officer, who informs him of the mistake. My father really is apologetic; he really does not mean any harm. But he also knows the advantage of age, although perhaps not fully–how it has dressed to acquire his face which has now become smaller, with sallow cheeks and too-sharp bones. There is always a veil of exhaustion on my father’s face now, and his stomach has grown, while his arms appear weaker and softer. Altogether, something in his posture has changed in a way that cannot be anchored by the dead weight of language. But I have chosen to say posture because he holds himself much the same way he did when he was younger: proud and defensive, always suspecting that the other might throw the punch first. But watching him walk from behind, or clutching his arm as we cross the street, a fierceness takes hold of me, part confusion but also firmness, the way one fears a bonfire but wants to keep it burning.
At what point does the need to be protective transfer to the child, from her mother or father? When does a child realize that departure from home translates to leaving one’s parents unprotected? Sad? Together and alone?
I’m getting too old for this, I think, largely, about everything these days: Coffee with friends after work? Negative. Last full show of the latest critically-acclaimed film? God, no. An all-nighter on the same day that I woke up before 7AM to keep up with the mounting pile of work? I’d rather die. And on the other hand, to be filled with youth: to have passed the stalwart fragility of teenage years; to smile and shrug, helpless and apologetic for one’s early twenties when bravado and insistence on adulthood came in waves of infinite determination followed by spaces of ennui on one’s first job and the blank-faced awareness of logging onto social media only to see that one’s peers have become successful–to know, at this point, that sometimes the best approach really is to keep one’s head down; to reveal secrets like rare currency, to be shared on the black market with a network of agents who deal in the same emotional lacuna but who brighten at the mention of cheap thrills you like to call indulgence; to understand that working hours are an excellent derivative of opium, but that at the same time one must count the breaths taken between and tally them up to understand the depth of dissatisfaction with oneself and then wonder, automated, “What’s next on the to-do-list?” In other words: Not old, not young, my favorite writer says, but a viable-diable age.
Where does the disparity come from? I remember when I couldn’t imagine a boudoir of my own, when playtime meant I could climb on the office chair (or perhaps it was another kind? I remember we only moved an office chair in there sometime in my high school years) in front of my mother’s dresser and play with her jewelry, and take in the fragrance of her cosmetics which were, of course, really her own smell. Even now I know it: something soft and hidden, gathering years–although it was always new back then, because in those days my mother hadn’t yet sacrificed her career for us. In those days she still wore high heels and walked around Makati as easily as she now navigates, with her weak knee, the memorized paths of our small home–from the bedroom, down to steps and into the kitchen, from the kitchen through the dining room and into the sala, back to the kitchen, until night falls and she must rest after all she has done.
These days I have my own dresser, of strange varnished wood that smells sour even though it was bought years ago, and if my cosmetics and toiletries, my blush-on and lotions, my bottles of perfume have lent it a distinct smell, I can only tell you that sitting beside my bookshelf, it suffers the necessary inheritance of burden: dusty books I love and tried to re-read but failed to, in pursuit always of new things to read in the conviction that re-reading, once a favorite activity, now translates to a waste of time, a kind of fear of missing out; earrings I always promise myself I’ll store in their proper little jewelry boxes but which get lost eventually, falling to the floor and never to be found again; dirty mugs and glasses when I come home for weekends and drink myself to caffeine death chasing deadlines.
My whole life my father has scolded me about clutter. Surprisingly, this is one of the characteristics of my childhood that was not dictated by sex–my thanks to one older brother who, in his whole life, has also manifested the talent for living in complete disarray. But these days when, at home, I walk around the house with dark circles under my eyes, thinking of words I must write and meetings that clash with the precious time I would have wanted to dedicate to much needed cramming, my father keeps his silence, and on the days when I am away my mother tells me he goes into my room: not to revel in the disappointment of a messy daughter, but to clean up after me; indeed, to pick up the dirty clothes I’ve discarded in my rush to return to my life in the north. To fold the blanket I’ve tossed under, worried and sleepless the entire night. To gather the books and papers I’ve read through and stacked together in an order that makes sense only in the time I don’t have to arrange them. To do all this without complaint.
Nowadays he tells me not to rush; to take it easy and make sure to eat a lot when I’m away. Now he tells me, in moments when I want to give up on this much-acclaimed path to higher education and another thesis, to be thankful and to calm down–to adjust to those whose way of thinking can expect no more progress, because I am the one capable of change.
But no, I think. Change happens to all of us. There comes a point in our lives when change is no longer a matter of wanting to turn the proverbial leaf but a matter of Margaret sitting in front of her laptop on a Sunday evening crying, aware of the onslaught of the coming weeks and wondering why no one ever bothered telling her that by blight they really meant formless terror, the kind that hovers in the peripheral, always uncertain and so bound to happen and take shape when you least expect it. Nobody bothers to say that by blight they also mean the forgotten paper clip as much as the chance cab taken to work. Nobody bothers to teach the child that once was that it is the sharing of eyebrow pencils between mother and daughter, or the pain of her first real death–the mother of a mother–is heavier and more haunting than any heartbreak.
Several conversations in the course of perhaps only a few weeks have helped to form this personal compulsion, which is precisely what I hadn’t been wont to feel when it comes to writing lately. That’s the necessary collateral, probably, when you make your so-called passion your a means of living, although to say so here is of course, only a minor but necessary diversion.
One fangirl moment which is unique in that I feel I do not have to defend my literary politics or whom I associate with: months ago I thought that perhaps to finally enjoy my labor would paradoxically require some sacrifice. One Saturday, I thought; I can sacrifice one Saturday and attend a symposium on a critic I may never get this close to again, whose work I have read my entire life and with whom, at least internally, I feel I can manage to disagree with as I discussed him with my peers, imagining myself to be in the best formative years of my writing, no matter how illusory that “now” as the very moment may finally become.
It was a day, I think, of a generation I had much admired, and still do, in the only way that someone in my current age and position can admire them while looking at the crisis of my own times. It was a day of recognizing, not for the first time, that I admire old men the way I think about my father and the ghost of two grandfathers I never had the chance to meet. That is, with fascination and faint despair, and so therefore always, always, with sadness.
That day his wife talked about Escolta, and I found I could finally drop everything else I was tasked to do on a working Saturday and truly listen–the way that, lately, I can recognize discomfort over a meal and listen to a story and enjoy both, although not always with equal measure. My father grew me up on these stories which are horrible not because they were sad, or even because they are about him in particular, but because I can read nothing from them except nostalgia. But from the moment he started that habit he also ingrained in me the ability to read him between the lines of other people’s stories, so that when she, late in the afternoon begins to speak of old Manila I cannot help but remember my father and whatever errands he once ran there as a young man, or how he knows every nook and cranny and at seventy can still take public transportation or drive me around where I need to be, taking short cuts along side streets I wouldn’t trust were I with anybody else, only to re-emerge, sighing and relieved, in the middle of EDSA or somewhere along Makati Avenue.
Discomfort in your own home is so ridiculous because you feel like you don’t deserve it, but also because it rightly belongs only to you. Sadness exists in the narratives that you don’t recognize as your own until somebody else mirrors them and confirms: Those stories of your father are true. They are real; I was there too.