Ledesma St., San Juan
It probably was a small house, but size throws off a child. What seems modest to an adult is extravagance to a little one. It was the world to me.
It certainly seemed ample then. There were three bedrooms, which we called blue, green, and aircon. Children’s names, these; one bedroom was painted blue, one green, and one had a new air-conditioner. I don’t remember what we called it before the air-conditioner arrived, but it was yellow, with a parquet floor and a deep dressing area. It was the room of my parents, which is why the new Sony color TV and Betamax were there. The old TV was in the living room downstairs, a Zenith in a large cabinet with doors that slid open. In front of it was a coffee table and the blue sofa where Tito Bing, when he was visiting, would sit shirtless, leaving a deep, sweaty impression on the vinyl.
My mother sent most of us to piano lessons, and soon enough, a piano took its place in our living room. We went to a music studio in northeast Greenhills, a short walk from the Greenhills shopping center. To us that whole complex was simply Unimart, where my mother bought groceries; then came Virra Mall, a modern marvel, not yet a seedy haven of smuggled goods. This was my small, well-traveled universe: Ledesma Street to Unimart; further down Ortigas to Meralco, where my father worked and where we played tennis on Sunday afternoons; and then on to Ateneo, where I had studied since grade school.
San Juan seemed pretty much the whole city then, because even my relatives were there. On M. Paterno Street, adjacent to Ledesma, lived Tito Pepot with my father’s parents. Tito Tito and the Litonjuas lived in another part of Greenhills, with Tita Letty and the Mendozas nearby on Mariano Marcos Street. Sundays we heard mass in Mary the Queen, where I would marry my wife years later.
The big round dining table was new, and I suppose like a lot of families, we experienced that moment of bliss when, having changed from a long table to this round one with a novelty called the lazy susan, we were liberated from the forced courtesies of asking people to pass this or that dish. I wonder though if something was lost, if the convenience of just turning an inner platform set on marbles until what you wanted was right in front of you did away with the learned cordiality, the togetherness with one’s table mates that taught you the give and take of community.
There were orange glasses and a matching orange pitcher, and at meals we’d have it and a blue one on the table. Tito Bing would pour orange juice into his coffee, forgetting that the water was in the orange pitcher, the orange juice in the blue one.
Ledesma Street was a short one, and quiet. Our house was unassuming, with walls of a modest height and a green gate. The gate opened to a long three-car garage. We’d play football there, and Bombit, the eldest, once fell on his wrist and broke it. On birthdays there would be parties, with folding tables from one end to the other, balloons, spaghetti, hotdogs, ice cream, and our painfully cute posing for pictures.
Our next-door neighbor made coffins, or so they said. I don’t remember seeing any. Actually, I don’t remember seeing anyone in that tiny gray house on our left. My mother says that some of the people there had gone insane. Somehow, coffin-making and insanity come hand in hand, as we’ve learned from old horror movies.
* * *
In high school I discovered the perilous thrill of chasing after girls. Going to soirées, meeting them, getting their phone numbers, calling them up – how crazy it all was, to daydream an entire afternoon away, my books on the living room coffee table, my head in the clouds. The studying could go to hell as my mind floated in its hormone-induced bliss. It was a heady time, reveling in the rush of taking risks, then wallowing in the crushing despair of rejection.
The Assumptionistas wouldn’t let you stay on the phone with them more than fifteen minutes. The Scholasticans would talk for hours, and I loved that. Niña and I would talk often, it would be daylight out, then it would be dark and I wouldn’t even get up to turn on the lights, and we’d talk some more. But I should have seen how that affair would turn out: she lived on Vito Cruz, way beyond my familiar orbit. At a certain point, we saw each other at a volleyball game in La Salle Greenhills, then asked "Was that you?" later in the evening when I called. When you don’t know what each other looks like anymore, the courtship has officially failed.
Then we transferred. It was 1984, I was fifteen and finishing my second year in high school. When we were about to leave, we felt the excitement of moving to a new house, a bigger one, in a more upscale neighborhood. It meant good things, that we were moving up in the world.
When We Were Rich
Heron St., Greenmeadows
There were no phones. For some reason, our application for two lines had been held up. Having just moved, I became acutely aware of the lack of communications, a serious shortcoming in the eyes of a fifteen year-old. In such ways were an adolescent boy’s inept attempts at wooing adolescent girls doomed before they hardly had a chance to succeed.
To communicate with the outside world I simply upped and went to a friend’s house, Gerry’s in Xavierville or Abe’s in La Vista. I would simply show up and take them by surprise. Was there some emergency? they would ask. Why had I gone all the way there? Then they realized that without the ability to call them, I had little choice but to pop up unannounced at their houses, ready to make myself at home and partake of their meals. Teenagers can get away with such blithe effrontery.
But even with its isolation, remedied a few months after we moved in when the phone company finally deigned to be of service, the house had its attractions. In fact, in many ways it was a dream house. It sat on some eight hundred square meters, more than twice the size of the San Juan house we left behind. And since the house my civil-engineer father designed used up less than half the lot, we had more room to roam than we had ever had, or ever would.
I was especially fond of the wide backyard. Half of it was concrete, on which we thrashed around playing our tortured brand of basketball with an undersized ball and a makeshift board and ring. The other half was a garden, green and expansive; all we had at the back of the Ledesma house was a patch of dark soil where nothing would grow. Afternoons I’d take the cover off one of the round patio tables and spread it on the prickly bermuda grass. I’d lie there on the thick tablecloth that was just long enough for me and gaze wistfully at a blue, blue sky. The open space of the backyard gave me a vantage point to the heavens I haven’t had before or since. Not a bad place to live in for someone who sometimes wanted to just ponder the sky, who wanted the occasional chance to escape to it.
I did that often, sitting on the sidewalk outside vigilantly watching the sun setting over what to me was Greenhills (where the girl of special interest to me lived), or lying on that tablecloth in the garden. Or sitting at the balcony that joined the rooms of my parents and Pixie, my sister, on the nights I’d suffer an insomnia attack; my sister asleep in the master bedroom, I’d bring a chair from her room onto the balcony. An insomniac, who sometimes has no choice but to be awake when the dark gives way to light, can always treat himself to the dawn sky.
For the growing teen, perhaps the most important thing about the new house were the bedrooms. For the first time I had my own room, no small thing in a household of five boys and one girl. An only girl must have her own room, mother reasoned, and we used to envy Pixie her privilege. When we moved, I, the third child, finally had mine. This was important. As a child staggers into adolescence, he grows increasingly ornery when it comes to matters of privacy. At last I had a place where my things, and thoughts, could be left undisturbed.
Late afternoons and early evenings I’d turn off the lights and play something on my stereo – Barbra Streisand’s "Somewhere" or Boston’s "More Than a Feeling" or "Amanda," U2’s "With or Without You" – anything that soared, and turn up the volume. I’d lie in bed facing the window. Or I’d open the window and sit on the sill, my feet in the plant box, and let the music take me up into the deepening darkness.
* * *
It didn’t take long, though, before I felt that I didn’t quite fit here. Neighbors can do that to you.
On the asphalted tennis court at the park I played mostly with kids from around the village, kids ten, eleven, twelve years old. And they were kids in their brash, self-absorbed way. I was never comfortable around them, and I put up with them only because I enjoyed the game.
On the basketball court things were worse. The brash, self-absorbed kids of the tennis court were replaced by brash, self-absorbed grown-ups. They found me quiet, but what was there to talk about? I didn’t smoke, do drugs, party till dawn, or fawn over cars. In my eyes they were moneyed men in the aimless, petty way I imagined you grew up to be if you didn’t see anything much that made sense beyond what you could drive, wear, eat, smoke, or screw. I had nothing to say to them.
I sensed that it was a matter of time before I had to leave. The land surrounding our house was empty, but for how long? Houses were going up all around the subdivision. How long until the banging and clatter of construction work drove away the quiet, the burgeoning houses encroaching upon us and obstructing our view? How long before the whole place was filled with the arrogant, chattering, idle people I thought my neighbors were?
The parish church didn’t make me feel any better. It was just outside the village, and Sundays we heard mass there with the rest of the subdivision and nearby villages. I never liked the church. I thought the immense bug-eyed statue of Christ above the altar, to which all eyes had to turn, was ill-proportioned and hideous. It only added to the feeling of strangeness I felt among my expensively coiffed, dour-faced neighbors. And then there was the sound. No matter what they did, no matter how they tried, an echo always bounced off the walls and made it hard to track the priest’s words. The word of God deserved better acoustics.
Maybe it was no accident that my crisis of faith occurred at about that time. It was hard enough grappling with soul-piercing questions of faith; it became tougher to hang on to God in a place that didn’t seem to want you to. How could faith smolder in a house of worship cold as this? I stopped going to that church, or any other.
* * *
I see now that such thoughts could probably weigh heavily only on the mind of a mid-teen, one grown attuned, excessively perhaps, to the hollowness of conformity. I was fighting my quiet rebellions, against family, school, social classes, God – the things that boxed me in and told who I should be, what I should believe in, how I should behave. I was concerned, maybe too much so, with the incongruence between who you were and who you pretended to be. It was too easy to judge.
And perhaps a teenager feels more acutely than others that he is an outsider. Was I one of them? Yes and no, and I squirmed at the contradiction. There I was in their midst, living a comfortable life in one of their cushy houses. I wanted the money and what it could buy (in a family of six children one feels that there is never enough to go around). But I spurned the accoutrements of such a life, the status symbols, the badges one wore to prove membership in what I thought was a vacuous elite.
I felt uneasy knowing I wasn’t poor, that my skin was pale, that I spoke in competent English, that my tastes weren’t lowbrow, that I ate well, that we had cars and maids and an eight-hundred square-meter house in a posh private subdivision, that I studied in an expensive exclusive school – that I was part of a narrow stratum of society that did exceedingly well at fending for itself. This was who I was, and it wasn’t all right with me. I had become what I scorned: a rich kid. It was one other thing to fight.
In the end, perhaps all this – the uneasiness, the awkwardness, the wanting to be both in and out of the club – was simply part of the growing pains, endured during an adolescent’s labored and fitful evolution toward a higher form of being. Perhaps I was simply suffering the displacedness one first comes to notice as a teenager, the universal feeling of not quite being at home anywhere, even in one’s skin. I’ve never lost that feeling. It’s probably just another part of the turmoil of living in a world that turns and turns without asking if it’s all too fast for you.
* * *
Soon enough, my father told us that we had to move out. He no longer wanted to stay in the construction arm of Meralco, which he had served for decades. He wanted to strike out on his own with a new company, with his own people. And that meant earning less. The house had to go, or rather, we had to let go of it.
In August of 1989, two months into my last year as an undergraduate in college, some five years after we first moved in, we trundled out of the house on our trusty old Hi-Ace and a small truck my father borrowed from the office. Years later, we would look back at the years we spent there and chuckle: those were the days when we were rich, the days of our brief but failed foray into the ranks of the wealthy.
When my mind wanders back to those days, I’m often back on the balcony outside my sister’s room, up at daybreak because I haven’t slept a wink, and I watch the darkness turn into a thin gray, then a blue that grows more and more vivid, the wisps of clouds streaked with red, herald of the arriving sun. "Night’s candles are burnt out and jocund day stands tiptoe on the misty mountain top," wrote Shakespeare. Those years in that house when I had a balcony seat to the break of day I knew exactly what he meant.
The House on Stilts
Mariano Marcos St., San Juan
We called it Ortega, but it wasn’t really on Ortega Street. It was on Mariano Marcos in San Juan, but we had called it Ortega all our lives, and Ortega it still is. That was how we called it, the way the house on Ledesma Street is "Ledesma," the house on Heron Street "Greenmeadows" (not Heron); the way my wife calls the Malate house she was born in "Vermont," though Vermont Street has been J. Nakpil for ages.
It felt strange, karmic in a bad way, that we were moving into it. My Tita Letty and my Mendoza cousins had stayed in that house all the years I was growing up, and they had just moved into a none-too-posh subdivision in Marikina, not like the grander ones in the Ortigas area we were leaving. We knew it was going to be a step down.
It was. From the surface sheen of Greenmeadows to this. The house seemed old, and more importantly, run down. It stood on stilts, as we kids called them, the house raised from the ground a few feet, in the style of older times for some purpose we no longer thought applicable. The doors didn’t have knobs, just handles and hooks. They closed because of springs attached at the top. You’d hear them bang, the springs squeak, when someone passed through. When typhoons hit, the house made a low rumble as storm winds made the doors and windows jitter, as if it all would finally come apart.
The interiors were tighter, the corridors narrower, and – perhaps the surest sign of our harder times – there were fewer bathrooms. There were no marbled floors as in Greenmeadows, just narrow wooden planks worn away at some places, and they creaked under your step. The windows weren’t sheets of tinted glass on large metal frames; they were made of wooden and capiz panels, in the style of old houses I see only in Manila or the provinces.
This house sat on an unusually shaped corner lot, with one road (Smuth, which we never did learn how to pronounce) rising sharply upwards from Mariano Marcos, creating a pizza-pie slice of land. At the thin end of the pie slice was the gate, which opened to a long driveway of concrete that was broken in some places. When it rained, opening the gate was a chore; it was low, water collected just under it, and my mother eventually bought boots and left them by the front door with an umbrella.
The plan was for us to stay here while our new house in Marikina, in the same middle-class village our cousins had transferred to, was being built. We didn’t know how long that would take, but it seemed to slow down when the Gulf War broke out and prices shot up. That was the attitude: we were here only in transit. When you walked into the master bedroom, you could tell we didn’t intend to stay. Together with my parents’ queen-size bed were single beds, a red sofa, and wing chairs, all refugees from the house on Heron Street that was no longer ours. They seemed to be biding their time, waiting to be restored to their rightful place, to a room more in keeping with their status.
* * *
The house may not have been much to look at. And commuting to anywhere was harder since it was a long walk toward the nearest jeepney routes. The drive to Ateneo was longer. But it wasn’t without charms. It had wide open spaces, for one thing. There was a garden, which wasn’t like the manicured, sculpted showcase in Greenmeadows; it was thick with grass green and wild, not prickly bermuda. The earth was soft under your running shoes. In the evenings I’d look out from the living room window at the grass shimmering in the ghostly moonlight.
At dusk fat flies hovered eerily in the air, after darkness had relented but before the sun had come out, as if presiding over some solemn ceremony in which the night gave leave to the day. I saw that strange but wondrous rite several times because of my insomnia attacks. One summer I suffered a particularly severe one. I’d go to bed at ten then be awake at two, unable to sleep anymore. I’d get up and play games on the computer, watch tapes, read. When my mother got up at dawn I’d help her heat some water for coffee, put ice in and fill the water jug, and sit at the kitchen table. We weren’t talkative at five in the morning, so we would just drink coffee. When it started to get light out I’d take a walk or jog, pounding the concrete and the soft earth and grass, making small circles in the yard, the fat flies that buzzed softly paying no heed. I’d come in and eat a heavy breakfast, sleep the whole afternoon, then go through it all again that night. Somehow, after weeks of this, I was finally able to fall asleep at midnight and wake at eight. I counted my blessings, old house included. chiffon for wedding
* * *
The end came soon enough. The owners of the lot had sold it to a townhouse developer, and we had until the end of March 1992 to move out. It had been nearly three years.
We packed up and started shuttling between this place and the next, but moving seemed like more work this time than when we left Greenmeadows. The trips to Marikina were longer than the ones from Ortigas to San Juan, and the traffic had only grown heavier. We’d be able to make only two, maybe three trips a day before pleading exhaustion. The Hi-Ace got worn down quickly. On our last trip we stuffed everything that would fit into the cars, just barely fitting into them ourselves, and drove out for the last time.
It was also my last day as a teacher in the Ateneo High School: March 29, Sunday, graduation day. I’d taught there two years. That last year I’d met Hilda. On my first date with her in the middle of August, I came home at six in the morning. We had been on the couch in her living room talking until two, fell asleep, and woke up at five thirty, my head still on her lap. My mother opened the gate, a look of worry on her face, as if afraid she’d lost me to someone else. She did. One week later Hilda agreed to be my girlfriend, my first ever. Five years later we were married.
After two years on probation at Ateneo High, my contract wasn’t renewed, and on that last day I stuffed what was left of my things into plastic shopping bags and, after the ceremony and a complimentary dinner, threw them into a car and drove off into the night. No job, new house, no teary farewells.
A few days later, my mother would go back to try to retrieve some more things. The gate was open, she said; someone had shit on the driveway. Faucets and other fixtures were gone, tiles torn out, the place a mess. I’m glad I never saw that. Then they torched the house, easier and cheaper than tearing it down, and I suppose that was good, as good a way as any to go.