Negative


This is the time for reckoning.

It has been more than three months when I vacated that apartment. The history of the universe lies on top of the history of time; Marlon Brando stares at Laurence Olivier, both now rendered biographical. More books lined up the stairs going to two unused rooms. For days in January, huge rats would slid down the stairwell. The two never confronted me then. As there is no one there at present, the two and their children and grandchildren rat must be running the place.

I miss my place. I miss the rats. I miss anything that is alive, moving.

It was the 12th of March and the news was Manila would be locked down. Loida, ever updated with the latest gossip and the news, asked me what that lockout meant. I did not know. She looked at me, her grin caught between feeling equal with me for the first time and trying to make sense of my newfound
ignorance.

I did not know that would be the last time I would partake of her barbecue, legendary in the Scout area of the city. It is true what those gilded cinemas of yore show: sad actors never get to say goodbye when the world is about to end. Only in bad films could we grant a character to move around to say goodbye to all the characters who peopled his dull life.

Now I wish I were in a B-movie, I would have gone to my favorite café, the one that I wrote about always. The one that would play old tango music at 7 in the morning, as the world outside stopped, and the salad and bread hinted of the hands of angels. There was always strange joy in that café when the baristas could not tell which was more bitter—the Americano or the brewed.  Always, I ended up having the bitter earth without retaining the name of the origin of this non-sweetness.

Where are those young men and women tending the coffee shop? One had a home in Bulacan; another in a barangay in the hinterlands of Tanay. They have lost their jobs and perhaps their motorcycle. Without salaries, what kinds of coffee do they drink in their homes? I can see on the damp table near an open window a plastic thermos, and a collection of 3-in-1s. Looking out of the garden is depression.

I miss the officious ticket sellers and guards on the floor where the cinemas of this great mall were. The guard in particular always looked at the ticket you handed to him as if he could, one day, spot a fake one. The ticket sellers—two of them anyway—were grumpy always especially when grumpier senior citizens wanted to be served immediately. Are they more officious now that Covid-19 is officiating the events of their lives or the absence of events in their lives? Are they still able to buy those floats when they are on breaks? But why should they be enjoying breaks when they have no jobs anymore?

That night of the 12th I travelled by bus from Manila to Naga. No one knew in that bus what awaited us for the next week. It is true then what they recall in history—people who were driven to their death did not feel anything because they did not know where the journey would end.

We did not know the weeks would turn into months and, god forbid, into a year.

Unlike in my past travels when I composed rhapsody about the night and the towns all asleep, there was nothing in the night and in the travel deserving of my pain and pen. It was a night that refused both poetry and prose. It was also an odd, lazy drive. The driver and his co-driver were on the lookout for checkpoints. There were none. The country and its leaders were still clueless a few days before lockdown.

Who would ever think they would be clueless for the next three months and, god forbid, till the end of the year?

When we reached the last town before the city, the bus stopped. Drivers from buses that arrived earlier came onto the bus. They were talking about the “epidemic.” That was the first time I heard the word uttered by people not tasked with delivering the news. One of the drivers was making fun of the name of the virus—corona. Bragging, he quipped if one got sick with the virus, you ended up having a corona of flowers.

They all laughed.

These drivers were used to making a return trip. They started counting the days. If we leave tonight, we are in Manila tomorrow. Could we still drive back and be home here? One driver assured himself, ah that is fine. I can manage. The older driver was brave enough to ask: what about our salary?

Eventually, everything stopped. The buses stopped being seen on the highway, their colors recognizable for either efficiency, courtesy to passengers or reckless driving. Many drivers got stuck in the big city, with its big crisis and hunger. After three months, some of them got a free ride home. Those buses brought with them passengers and the virus further mutated.

Did that night bear no foreboding? I was not looking. Was the moon the “dead dead” moon of Federico Garcia Lorca? Maybe it was, but the journey night may have waylaid my eyes and saved my heart from lying, or negating the happiness that is around even when the world is ending itself.

E-mail: titovaliente@yahoo.com

Image credits: Jimbo Albano



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