By Melencio F. Turao
THE FEEELING I HAD at the airport was one of relief. A
big one. I had just gotten fired from a teaching job; I
was considerably broke; and understandably mad. So the
letter I had received weeks earlier from the Creative
Writing Foundation was a much needed fix. Randy, a
colleague who was likewise fired because of tardiness (and
perhaps because of bad hygiene: he'd skip taking a bath
for days having missed paying water bills in months), saw
me off to the airport. We had a gentleman's agreement a
day before my trip. He'd share with me his flat somewhere
in Mandaluyong as soon as I come back from Dumaguete. I
slept over his place the night before.
I sat quietly by the waiting area. I took out my wallet and ran my fingers through a miniature address book my Korean student gave me. I looked for Bambi's number. It wasn't there. When I turned for my green bag (the hand carried one; the one which could be easily slung over my shoulder) I remember having logged in Bambi's complete address in my organizer, which was another gift from a student. Fidgety, I untied the bag's strings and rummaged through underthings, a roll-on, a Cuervo, cigarette packs and colognes. Finally the organizer showed its shiny black back like the milky flesh of temptation. I grabbed it out. Turning my head this way and that, I spotted a telephone booth to my right and rushed where it was. She must be awake by now, I thought. She said she'd be. Someone picked up the phone, and I called for Bambi. "She's still asleep. Who is this?" I gave her my name. She might have recognized it as she apologized and felt sorry. "Please tell her I called," I said almost pleading. Then I hung up.
Bambi made my last days at the school miserable, without her knowing it. She thought we were just friends - close friends, that is. Or we both thought we were just friends? It was a long story all its own.
I got to know Bambi, or Kristine Charlotte (I'm not
sure of her second name though), through her frequent
visits in her alma mater. But the truth was she had to be
there. From school she'd be driven home by either the
driver or her mom. Her mom was a concessionaire at the
school cafeteria which was-and still is - famous for
being home to the longest chain of food stalls on a
campus. Students call it the "LRT" canteen.
Bambi's food station was at the gym, a privileged site
because it was near the pool and because it was the only
one that was not part of the chain. Besides it served
Bacolod chicken and liempo at any time of the day until 5
in the afternoon. Bambi's family comes from Bacolod,
therefore we had no language and cultural barriers.
She would drop notes for me written in Taglish, though I insisted on either English or Ilonggo. I was being testy. Which might have worked to her advantage because later she'd send me copies of her stories just so she could prove to me she liked writing. I didn't tell her that nor did I coax her into writing. That was her impression of me anyway. She might have read about me and my pursuits when someone from the school paper published short features on new teachers. I don't remember telling her I was an English teacher. But one day she came and teased me of my being one. It was reasonable: She never had a male English teacher in high school. Add to it, of course, the common perception of male English teachers to be homosexuals. I have no problem with this. I have nothing against gays nor male English either. Honestly speaking, however, there's some degree of truth to it as I can see from my own experience. In most English departments gay teachers (male or female) are as common a sight as unchecked term papers left for dead.
In her stories (which appeared to have been directly culled from a Stephen King or Graham Green) Bambi never sounded Filipino, she'd write about murders, crimes of passion, family feuds, which were either set in the U.S. or some other parts of Europe France and Venice were her favorites). Then she'd ask me for comments. What would I possibly say? I could neither flatter nor criticize her. Instead of remarks I gave her photocopies of my favorite stories: Kafka's; Barth's; Faulkner's; Malamud's; among others. I wonder if she ever enjoyed these. I never saw her later works because our meetings became less frequent in the months following her failure in one subject. She was advised by the dean to shift to Org Comm. That was in the third trimester.
Back to school were I was teaching third and fourth year English, I had to tame myself down a bit. Or so said my subject coordinator. She understood me. (I hate this part of the story: I have to justify why somebody, who might be my neighbor or my colleague or my father or my students or my friends, has to understand me. Am I something of a freak or what?) Yes, she said she knows how it feels like to live in your own world. She said she knows how it is to be a poet. But I never said I was a poet! Gives me the goose bumps. I might be accused of being snobbish (of the reverse kind) with these statements; or might be dismissed as one who is still trapped in his ivory tower high-mindedness (off the reverse kind also). To me such an honor is reserved only for the chosen few. And I'm far from being one, with my innate flair for things worldly and temporary.
Val, my coordinator - without anybody telling me how - I reckoned, was gay. She had likewise to tame herself down a bit - if not for good - for having joined the Opus Dei. I could sense this with her choice of clothes (she never wore skirts), color (I never saw her wearing pastel), motif and accents (she was a minimalist), and nickname (check out the Norse mythology) - which spoke best of her "other". These are not entirely reliable signs, but if she found it all too east to identify me as such, I thought I could identify her all too easy, too. Perhaps that was our meeting point, our common ground, for aside from our given ambiguities we shared our love for the written word. She would lend me all of Garcia Marques; I'd give her copies of my poems. It was some kind of mutual understanding, which was never worked out because when the assistant principal called my attention to so-called weal classroom management skills, Val wasn't able to defend me. She couldn't even say comforting words to me. She knew I ha a secret pride, which I made manifest in our coffee table talks about art and people's lives. I didn't know enough then; nor do I know enough now.
So that when word had it I washed my briefs in the high school faculty's rice cooker nobody came to my rescue. Not even my drinking buddy Nestor, who was the seniors' head teacher at the time. We would attend our student's birthday parties till the wee hours of the morning and would go home - sometimes sleep over - dead drunk. We each had our own blooper stories to tell. For instance, he once feel asleep on the couch while drinking was at its peak; he never bothered to throw away his cigarette, therefore his lips got burned. I, on the other hand, had more than once puke in my student's car. Things like those.
I was not once alarmed. I couldn't walk around with my head up high any more, to quote Raul in the movie "Dangerous Minds." All of a sudden I found myself turned into the talk of the town in such a bad light. It was nearing graduation day. But all of these are no secret to Bambi. A couple of months into our casual acquaintance, she proposed that we share a diary. It would stay with her for a week; for another with me. I confess to being excessively detailed in my journal entries such that a great bulk, for instance, is wasted on evoking the feeling to loneliness. And I'm afraid Bambi might not have liked what she gleaned from those morbid moments and abysmal absences I amateurishly wrote in our diary. She'd return our lives' weeklong chronicle with teenage admonitions such as "Take Care of Yourself", "I'm Always Ready To Listen", "Love Lots" and the like. I never bothered to read into these. Until our last meeting before I left for Dumaguete.
Except for her parents, only brother and close friends, perhaps I was the only person who could claim considerable knowledge of Bambi's business. She was basically a homebody. A rich girl who lived within the resolutely guarded wall of Ayala Alabang Village. She knew very little of people who live on the streets and their hostility to signs of authority and power; such as cops and BMWs. Bambi's imagery is of long walks on the cobbled streets in historical Milan; sunbathing in the Caribbean; conflict of interest on Fifth Avenue; or any of these scenarios' disparate permutations. That was Bambi's world - a world so much unlike mine. Though I considered myself of the city, my world was closer to the slums than to Ayala Alabang. On hindsight now, Bambi may have found in me that she did not have, which is arguably a psychological fact. By then (when word about me got around, that is) some teachers thought Bambi and I were lovers. They'd see us together by the faculty waiting area; if not walking together on the corridor at late hours of the afternoon; at the cafeteria; and on her 18th birthday. I did not know she'd make me personally circulate the invitations. I had to distribute cards to her teachers-guests, whom she carefully selected. It didn't mean anything to me - you know, doing a kind thing to a friend is always an easy job, one that doesn't need any amount of payback. But when Bambi's brother announced that I'd be one among his sister's eighteen roses I was flattered, not to mention surprised. Must be the child in me.
On that special night I wore my grooviest. After all I never expected to dance the waltz. Bambi's brother called me to the floor, which made me shake my head three times. I really found that message hard to digest considering that I had, minutes earlier, ordered for beef instead of the mild table wine which was part of the menu. Somebody snarled I had to pay for my drinks. I was wearing long sleeves which friends thought would have been better worn if I were on the Caribbean. I was also wearing a pair of Philippine-made (imitations in fact of) Doc Martens; and a nicely trimmed goatee. I was in for some real good time, man.
When I was called to dance the waltz even my friends were shocked. I rose from my chair and just gave them a smart wink and headed off to hold Bambi in my arms. I was her 17th rose.
On our last meeting Bambi knew I wouldn't be back for good. She also knew I got fired because I washed my briefs in the high school faculty's rice cooker and that I had poor classroom management. We never talked about this. I don't recall her asking me a question about my sanity either. Nestor, whom I thought was a sensitive friend., disclosed that the guidance office was on the brink of considering me a psychological case. I didn't take this seriously. Bambi and I met for the last time at 9 sharp one day in April 1995. She managed to smile, despite her muddled sentences. The ones I said did not even have objects, if you have to think about it. They were verbs, action words like " Miss you remember can't forget this " kind of thing. Finally she said one thing that kept me thinking up to this day: "Mel, please buy me a ring." She turned her back and walked toward the parking lot; and then drove away. That was the last I saw of her - the car's elegant rear flashing the sun and a magnificent name as it turned the curve out of the school's west gate.
I saw this as I put off another thought of calling Bambi the second time. She slept through my trip, I'm sure. She slept through my trip.
The truth, however, was I'd come for the workshop already with a friend. I had known Chingbee Cruz months before we knew we were taken in. Chingbee's elder sister, Cindy, happens to be the better half of Cabring, Datu's Tribe's far vocalist. And Cabring taught the same subjects as I did at that time. We two plus another radical guy named Edge formed part of the English Department - with Val at the helm, of course. Cabring might have put in a good word for me Cindy came to school one day and sought my word for her graduate work on magic realism. She was teaching at Assumption in San Lorenzo and so it took her a short walk to get to our school. I think she wanted me to interpret Kumkum Sangari's "cultural simultaneity" which I readily simplified without having to think twice. I think Cindy dropped that class. Not because she failed the subject, but because she devoted her time to telling stories to kids. (I'd come across her summer activities in newspapers and in the "X Manila" section of the Sunday Inquirer magazine). Chingbee and I were formally introduced (and I'm not making this up) just an hour before the second Dredd Poets' Society reading. Cabring, Cindy and I fetched her from hr dorm near U.P Manila where she was a freshman Intermed student. I remember having to go up two flights of stairs just so we would get to know each other. "She writes good poems," Cabring whispered in my ear as he stealthily stabbed my back with his fat forefinger. "She's Ricky De Ungria's pet," Cindy echoed. On Cabring's car I tried to talk to Chingbee - to no avail. She proved to be too shy.
I kept my mouth shut all the way to Club Dredd. That night, I downed two bottles of Red Horse before reading a poem. But I saw Bambi's words instead of mine.
I spotted Chingbee a few minutes later. She kissed her mom and dad goodbye, and then she deposited her big bag at the luggage check counter. I called out at her. She recognized me at once. I came to her help, though there was nothing, which either she or I could think of getting done at the moment - but I came over anyway. We exchanged words and realized we had to sit right next to each other on the plane. (To be continued)
.APRIL 29-MAY 5, 2001
REAL LIFE ISSUES
MEMBERS OF THE SUN.STAR WESTERN VISAYAS NETWORK