The Story She Wishes to Tell, an Abaca Weave, a Warp and Weft of Numbers
The story Magsalin wishes to tell is about loss. Any emblem will do: a French-Tunisian with an unfinished manuscript, an American obsessed with a Filipino war, a filmmaker’s possible murder, a wife’s sadness. An abaca weave, a warp and weft of numbers, is measured but invisible in the plot. Chapter numbers double up. Puzzle pieces scramble. Points of view will multiply. Allusions, ditto. There will be blood, a kidnapping, or a solution to a crime forgotten by history. That is, Magsalin hopes so.
At her uncles’ home, she props her legs up on top of the ancient Betamax machine as she settles down with the manila envelope. Who should she call to help that brat get to Samar? Magsalin is a sucker for anyone interested in the ruins of what she likes to call her home, though the country disavows her affection. Her uncles do not question her reasons for visiting them. However, their silence is off-putting. They welcome her to their rambling house in Punta, amid the reek of the Pasig River, in a section of town where goons sleep on mats with their guns stuck in their flip-flops right next to them on the floor, so that they breathe metal, Johnson’s Floor Wax, rubber, and foot ache in their sleep.
Fortunately for Magsalin, her uncles have modern beds, though they prefer their old straw mats on the floor. It is good for their spine, they say, but in truth, Magsalin thinks, at night the return to childhood comforts them. They have deep friendships with petty thieves and drink with police. They are friendly with all the barangay captains from Tutuban to Paco: in the wisdom of gamblers, it’s the local chiefs who count. Their wives are in Jordan dry-cleaning the gowns of royalty and in Italy nursing right-wing Catholic buffoons. Her uncles leave Magsalin alone. Theirs is a community of men: tolerant of one another’s error, foolhardy, and as ready to corrupt their neighbors as to save their souls. They cherish the material world. Every day they tell her to stay indoors and listen to their well-kept vinyl records of John Denver and Burt Bacharach and, wrapped in mite-bitten plastic from sooty shops along the Avenida, Elvis, of course. Her gifts from Bleecker Street now have prime space on their altars to the seventies. They cook her special breakfasts made from their long-hoarded Spam, and they tell her to watch the noontime shows starring nine-year-old drag queens and twitch-perfect lip-synchers of Mariah Carey and Adele.
Just stay home with us and sing the karaoke, every night after dinner, her uncles tell her, wait for us when we come home from work and relax and take up our microphones and sing.
No, no, no, they say – do not go out. Do not bother to go to Samar.
They themselves left their province, Leyte, long ago for Manila – for their jobs on the docks or as guards in the banks or selling at the wet markets. It is an honor to survive in the city’s jungle. Everyone leaves places like Leyte and Samar, they repeat, even its governors and mayors, who are supposed to live there. During those first few days, Magsalin sits obedient in her uncles’ home watching their TV. She knows it is an affective fallacy to feel the sublime in the exuberant precision of a scrawny kid who can copy Michael Jackson, just so, exhuming the dead singer in an eerie display of late homage – how beautiful is imitation, she thinks, when its vessel breaks the heart.
Her uncles own these faithfully preserved Betamax tapes of bootlegged boxing matches and duets of Dolly Parton and Kenny Rogers. Their home is filled with antiques from the globalization age: Walkmans with Eagles cassettes still in them, a TV with an antenna and no remote, two pre-iPhone Sony videocams, clunky and clunkier. She takes one Betamax tape out from the bottom, a scratched but well-dusted one, the single word Thrilla handwritten with care on its spine. She pushes it into the machine. It’s a tape of a tape, and for a moment she thinks she hears her mother’s voice in the background mocking her three brothers for filming the match they were in fact watching on TV.
Then Magsalin sees the actual TV – the home video zooms out to her mother’s living room in the house along San Juanico Strait. She thinks the blur in the video is her mother’s hand, clowning around with the lens – she sees a floral housedress moving away, like her mother’s. It is odd because Magsalin thinks it should be 1975, the year of the match, but the room has the vulgar look of their later, modernized home in Tacloban – American-style glass jalousies have replaced the capiz-shell windows, and the old grand piano is not in the frame. Then the cameraman has gained control, and abruptly she sees Muhammad Ali in black and white, grainy, young, and unutterably beautiful, holding the length of his arm out toward Joe Frazier’s brow, and because the tape starts in the middle of things his outstretched arm toward the smaller man in the opening angle looks like a benediction.
But it is a bruising, killer match. She experiences each punch with a dim sense of herself as a child watching with a crowd in Tacloban at the windows of the appliance store downtown, on Gomez Street, during that time of martial law. Her uncles took her to the sidewalk show. Her mother had banned the bout from the house. On the day they had rewatched this tape and she explained the day to him, Magsalin’s husband said he admired her mother for her ethical stance against the dictator’s regime.
She had met her husband at one of those drunken grad-school parties, watching World Cup soccer in a cramped, unfurnished place that turned out to be his writing studio – then much later, in nonalcoholic moments, she convinced him to live with her back home.
‘You could call it ethical,’ she told him, ‘but I think she just did not like the blood.’
Her uncles had brought their own footstools to watch the original match in 1975. One uncle carried a kaguran for a chair, an old coconut grater carved to look like the body of a lizard, with its extended amphibian head. She remembered she liked to sit on this kaguran, on the lizard’s belly, to watch the traveling movies sponsored by Coca-Cola at the public basketball court. During the fight, Tio Exequiel collected the crowd’s bets. He put on a bet for her, for Smokin’ Joe, just in case. Everyone was an Ali fan. Now she realizes this tape must be a telecast from decades later, an anniversary presentation. The tape was a simulacrum of the bout she had seen in 1975: she knows who was with them at this later screening, who was watching the bout from the opposite sofa, with the giant spoon and fork on the wall above his curly-haired brow, grainy, young, and unutterably beautiful. He
is revived in the shadows of the frame.
She can delete, if she so wills it. Erasure, too, is a blessing.
And as she watches the tape, she instead finds herself looking out at the audience for the dead filmmaker and his wife, as if now she and Chiara have this bond of memory.
She watches Joe Frazier go at Ali again, one more time, in one more rope-a-dope. No moment is too small not to have contrasting attentions. The existential condition of sharing the universe every day with strangers hits her as Magsalin watches Ali in Joe Frazier’s soon-to-be blinded vision and Frazier is glimpsed from the frame of Ali’s not-yet-Parkinsoned arms.
She thinks she sees her – Chiara’s mother, Virginie Brasi – updo-ed and uptight, clutching an unlit cigarette in the toxic stadium, so hot in the rising heat that hell would be a relief that morning in Araneta Coliseum. A well-shod woman with a starving look, cigarette in thin hand, staring entranced but also distracted as the camera pans over the tense, fluorescent crowd. It’s a traitorous aspect of empathy, Magsalin notes.
The slightest connection suffices.
She turns off the tape before Joe Frazier goes blind.
Her uncles think her plan to go ‘cutting,’ as they call the land trip to Samar, insane.
‘No, no, no,’ says Tio Ambrosio over dinner – air-dried tocino marinaded in Sprite. Its sugary glaze picks a hole in her brain. Every night at her uncles’ dinners she eats too much – stuffing herself with luxurious and unhealthy nostalgia.
‘Do not go out,’ Tio Ambrosio repeats – ‘Do not go to Samar.’ ‘Or why not take a plane? Or even the boat,’ says Tio Nemesio. ‘You should take first class and watch the islands in the stream. That is what we are. How can we be wrong? No one in between! And we rely on each other, ah-ahhhh! I always wanted to watch the islands, Mindoro, Cebu, Siquijor, all pass by from the window of a first-class cabin on the MV Sweet Faith. Waste of money, but why not?’
‘You can make her pay, you know,’ meditates Tio Exequiel, toothpicking as he rocks on his butaka. ‘Double the price of the plane ticket and pocket the money! Earn four thousand pesos!’
‘No, no, no,’ says Tio Ambrosio. ‘Do not go to Samar.’ ‘Yeah,’ says Tio Nemesio. ‘Why Samar?!’
‘And anyway, do not go cutting trip!’ says Tio Exequiel. ‘My God! You do not know what you are talking about, taking the cutting trip to Samar. Go straight on a boat, not cutting!’
At first, she thinks her uncles speak out of concern for her safety. Maybe it is avuncular habit, or sexism. It has slowly dawned upon her that her uncles voted for the current unspeakably perverse despot. Every night they gravely nod their heads, like wise and worldly Stoics, at the words of their leader, the drug-war-obsessed macho who has vowed to kill every criminal in sight.
‘Only addicts are harmed, don’t you worry, inday,’ Tio Ambrosio tells Magsalin as once again they watch more news of the dead bodies after dinner, piling up at the garbage dumps, in the slums, near schoolyards, and on all the monotonous commercial streets of the country – bodies upon bodies. ‘Are you a criminal? A drug lord?’
‘No,’ she says.
‘Then nothing to fear, inday! He is doing it to keep us all safe!’ crows Tio Exequiel.
‘Bah,’ says Tio Nemesio, ‘he is just a bastos – a bastard!’ ‘True,’ says Tio Ambrosio, ‘but he is a bastard who is Bisaya, like us.’
Magsalin’s uncles keep explaining the country to her as if she does not know it. They read the news with the sureness of those whose political persuasions lie in their personal relations. She realizes her uncles make her stay home not because they are afraid for her safety – they know enough barangay captains to put a hex on all goons. No, they make her stay home because they believe she is stupid, an alien, having been abroad for too long, though they have nothing against her for that – no, no, they do not question her decision to stay away all these years, even when her mother died, no, no, inday, of course not, we do not question.
We understand, her uncles never say, though she knows what they mean by their polite lack of words.
No one in her family will ever blame her for leaving. The job of a family is to support (though that will not keep them from gossiping).
For her uncles, she realizes, it is as if ever since she left the country for New York City – for nothing! not to send money home but just to ‘galavant!’ – ever since she left she has relinquished her right to her memory of home, and she should not be left to her devices or she will bumble through the nation like a witless tourist who cannot speak its languages, though in fact she code-switches in three of them, puns in five, makes money in two, and dreams in one.
No, no, inday, do not go to Samar! Why Samar?!
But Magsalin also knows that, if she asks, her uncles will call up their crew despite their misgivings about Magsalin’s project with that flat-chested blondie who looks like no María Clara.
They will do everything she wants because it is what uncles do.
Magsalin thinks – this is why she has returned home from New York City to work on her book: everyone at home will accommodate her will. It is what families are for.
Magsalin is sobered by the thought. That her life of independence in Manhattan has been, all along, wishful thinking. She believes she is at home in the West Village, treading the streets of Diane Arbus and e. e. cummings and watching comedy shows in the same cavern where Bob Dylan first played. She keeps saying her job fulfills her, having created her own company when she returned to America years after graduate school, finding her niche, as they say, translating credits in the movies or instructions for computer terminals. She dabbles now and then, in fits and starts, in the history that she had studied at Cornell. She watches the seven-hour-long films of Lav Diaz in crumbling mansions on the Lower East Side and imagines that such communion with Third World streets from her distance gives her the cachet that art bestows. She does not go home for her mother’s funeral because the prospect of return – the mournful winding road out of metropolitan Manila through the wastes of Luzon into the Bicol peninsula, then on to Samar’s powerful desolation and across the strait into Leyte’s monotonous green – gives her insomnia. She splurges on a coat from Miu Miu instead.
She has no childhood trauma, she likes to tell her friends – just a willful desire to be herself, in a way that home does not provide. The immigrant’s tale is also one of agency, you know, not just misery. That is what she claims in New York. Instead of returning, through the years, every time she finds a book about the Philippines, on AbeBooks or Amazon, she buys it. She searches eBay for old Spanish-galleon doubloons and American-era war medallions with the words philippine insurrection 1899 circling the rim. Occasionally, academia.edu tells her an old monograph, say, her commentary on the middle name Jose Rizal gave to his hero Ibarra, has been uploaded, and the message gives her a pang. She has an eclectic collection of memorabilia, on the paleology of Butuan, fruit trees of the archipelago, travels of Midwestern women to Manila in the years of the Thomasites (1903 to 1935), those prim Protestant teachers to a wide-eyed Catholic country where the foreigners’ faith failed but their tongue triumphed, and above all, she owns carefully curated prints from the Library of Congress plus historical picture books and stereo cards of the war of independence against the Americans.
Lately, the New York Times has been sending items to her inbox three or four times a day. It used to be, reading news items on a place like the Philippines or reviews of novels by actual Vietnamese or Laotians or other such peoples bombed or invaded by America was like finding elves in Central Park – the idea of their centrality in the news was preposterous. But she kept reading the flurry of articles as body counts rose in the archipelago, and out of this self-inflicted disaster the old colony gained renown, or was at least the target of an outcry, usually bombastic, in the American periodicals that were incurious about how the current times of one included the past of the other, or vice versa. Magsalin was fascinated by the ways her own knowledge gave her insight that was useless, on one hand, but terribly urgent on the other. Before she got the email from Chiara Brasi, her tinkering with a mystery novel was at best a phantom: a haunting.
She tells herself that her decision to return home has everything to do with art, nothing to do with grief. Her husband was gone. Just like that. She had left Tacloban at his death, never to return. Not even for her mother’s funeral – a black mark on any child, even if you are not Filipino. She has settled in a new country, borne a new life. Her mother’s recent death, by long, lingering breast cancer, does not impel her voyage – no sentiment is attached.
‘Do not come home,’ her mother had said to her on the phone as she lay dying. ‘I understand. If you feel you cannot do it, inday – do not return.’
Magsalin dislikes sentiment – self-pity and regret and remorse and such. What need is there to bare the heart? What is broken is broken. No, her return bears the burdens she prefers. A solution to a writing block takes her to this longed-for place she still calls home.
How will she get that brat to Samar?
Her uncles call their cousin Guling, an army colonel who will lend them his old-style, new-model Mitsubishi Pajero. The man’s old-fashioned in his cars and his sense of command. Guling also calls a pair of privates first class, Edward and Gogoboy, both on duty in Mindoro but happy to return home to Samar for this sudden expedition. Chiara will look upon their military escorts with reasonable trepidation. They look like corner louts in borrowed uniforms, spitting out their phlegm in tandem, one holding an Uzi, the other with a Colt revolver hanging from a holster on his fatigue pants. The Colt man has the smooth yet unhealthy, taxidermic look of a sufferer of diabetes or gout without the funds to treat his ailment. He has no hair. His limbs look swollen. Chiara will stare at the flesh of his ring finger that bloats around his wedding band. Worse, the soldier’s name, Gogoboy, will not inspire confidence in his calling.
The other, Edward, has the chiseled cheeks of the malnourished, a recent army draftee, or so it seems, his childish ears sticking out, with the trace of Manila’s diesel grime in his earlobes, Chiara notes – that chiaroscuro shading of black dust that bedevils everyone who takes public transportation in Manila. Back at the Manila Hotel, Chiara had kept finding this mysterious grime on her fingertips no matter how many times she washed her hands. Every time she touched her body – the backs of her knees when she sat down to dinner amid the pearled chandeliers, her nape, the curve of her elbow when she reached to slap a mosquito as she crossed poolside – her fingertips kept blackening. In the toilet where Douglas MacArthur had once or twice taken a piss on the country, whenever she blew her nose, the tissue was also smudged with her nostrils’ black dust.
‘That’s what you get for traveling semi-naked all around Metro Manila,’ Magsalin says, as she watches the filmmaker dust herself off, alighting from her taxicab in the harsh daylight of Punta.
Ladies in their corrugated office uniforms, nunnish taupes and dull beiges, stand by under the pleated roof of the barangay shed, waiting to catch their jeepneys to Makati. The shed is emblazoned with a politician’s name: clearly the shed is the afterthought and the name is the point. The maid in the house next door has come out to sweep the dead leaves, tin cans, and cigarette butts from the culvert sunk deep in the Pasig’s muddy esteros, like a dinosaur’s spine abandoned by the city engineer’s office. As the maid sweeps, she stares at Chiara with a candor Magsalin appreciates. She, too, is surprised at Chiara’s presence – her promptness, her perfect composure in this unknown place, a city still improbable and fantastical, even to Magsalin.
Chiara is carrying an aubergine and olive duffel bag and clutching her Hermès. Her shades rest on her carefully disheveled hair, and her bronzed look catches light in Private First Class Gogoboy’s Ray-Ban sunglasses as he, too, stares from his perch in the Pajero.
‘Diesel fumes hide in the body’s cavities, you know,’ says Magsalin, ‘in elbows and in the folds of your neck. Those long-sleeved cotton camisas buttoned up to the clavicle are not just affectation. Nor is the dreary umber or brown every working woman likes to wear, have you noticed, despite the heat: warm colors hide the grime. That is what I discovered when I came here for the university. Everything has a purpose in Manila.’
Chiara looks down at her outfit – a camouflage-style safari suit more or less the colors of her tongue, an ocherish thing that she sticks out at Magsalin.
‘I got that.’ Chiara pouts. ‘I changed for the trip. No need to lecture. So I scrubbed myself all over last night, and sure enough, the soapsuds were black, too.’
‘Tough,’ says Magsalin. ‘But on the way to Samar, don’t worry. We will be out in the open country. On the road, we will leave the diesel smoke behind. Won’t we, Edward?’
‘Usually,’ says the sorrowful guard, raising his Uzi as if in shy agreement.
Chiara hops into the Pajero, behind Gogoboy, the diabetic driver, who spits out his gum in a practiced way, wrapping it carefully in its silver foil, then he spews out, one last shot, his well-seasoned phlegm, before he revs the engine.
Everyone has his ritual.
Magsalin also notes that Gogoboy has a bandage on his non-driving foot instead of a shoe, but Chiara has already put on her earbuds and adjusted her sunglasses, casting out the morning’s eastward glare.
With his look of despondent respect, Edward, the malnourished guard in his baggy fatigues, gestures with his Uzi for Magsalin to get in.
She lifts her duffel bag onto the back seat.
‘Ha,’ says Magsalin, ‘that’s funny. Our bags are identical. Did you also buy it from that shop in Soho that’s forever closing out?’ ‘Come on, Thelma,’ says Chiara, whose easy acceptance of the presence of armed guards, depressed-looking and diseased and all, belies her preconceptions of the country: no travesty seems to give her introspection – ‘Road trip! Haven’t been on one of those since 1977, when I traveled with my mother in Antibes.’
‘Geez, Louise,’ says Magsalin.
But she is suddenly thrilled with this prospect, of traveling on the roads that lead to her old childhood home.
‘Geez,’ Magsalin says, ‘you’re the trip, Louise!’
This is an extract from Insurrecto by Gina Apostol, available now from Fitzcarraldo.
Artwork © Bianca Weeko Martin