Notes From The Shadows:
The Animal Years
(Early draft of the first 5 chapters)
She’s smiling. She’s smiling at me. I have seen her once before. Just in passing in a gig once. I have heard of her. I have heard about her. And from what was said to me, she never smiles to strangers. I heard she’s this shy unassuming woman who loves nothing more than to amaze people with tragic songs that she wrote herself. Or freak them out. Perhaps both at the same time. I heard she suffers from a delinquent form of stage fright, something that, I believe, just does not make sense, considering the way she weaves words. I heard she’s a transplant from Cebu who may or may not have run away from the vehicular manslaughter of a supposed ex-lover. I heard she was a nun before she burned the convent she lived in to the ground over an argument regarding the use of whole wheat bread. I heard she once snorted a spoonful of chili pepper on a dare that, if I heard the rumor correctly, she made to herself.
There were all these supposed true stories that swarmed her. Whether they were true or not, no one really knew. From what I can surmise, either she made those stories herself to hide some deep dark secret or people just made shit up to explain her erratic behavior. One thing I know for sure about her is that she never smiles to strangers. I mean, who would? Right?
So when I see her smiling at me, what comes to mind is a case of mistaken identity in her part. Or maybe her vision is impaired by the whiskey bottle she and her friends were downing earlier. But as Marvin leads us to the table where they are, I notice that her big bright eyes are fixated on me. It’s unsettling. She stands up, attempts what seems like a clumsy embrace, and falls. I haven’t had anything impairing to drink yet, so I manage to catch her. She wraps her arms around me, perhaps for support since she’s too out of it to stand on her own. But then she maintains her hold on me even though it feels like she’s back on her feet. She presses her lips on my ear, whispers something.
Marie. She says her name is Marie.
Marie, with her arms still around me, pulls me towards a dark corner of the bar. The unsettlement I felt seconds ago is suddenly replaced with dread. I wonder what she intends to do. Will she make out with me? Will she tell me secrets that only her priest or shrink know about?
“So what’s your story, my good man?” she says. Yells, more like, even though the bar’s PA system isn’t too loud and her words are audible. She notices the confused look on my face and repeats herself while her pinky finger spells out a word on the dusty framed photo on the wall we’re leaning on. I try to read it, but keeping away from her eyes makes it extremely difficult. I attempt the impossible and invent a whole other life in the span of what would be an applicable amount of time to respond.
“My story?” I reply.
“Yeah. Your story. Surely you have one! Everyone has one, you know!”
“I don‘t know how to answer that question,” I respond after much hesitation. I don’t feel like entertaining the drunken musings of a beautiful stranger. Especially when our faces are inches away from each other. God she smells good.
“Well, tell me your name, then.”
“My Good Man Michael Mike, thy name is Marie.”
“Yeah, you told me already. And it’s just ‘Mike.’”
“I did? When?”
“When you were in my arms, My Good Woman.”
“’Good Woman?’ I like you! You think I’m good!” she says as her eyes open wide. She waves her index finger, points at me, then to herself, “…but I am anything but!”
“You seem like a good woman, Marie.” I lie. She’s right, everything about her is anything but. Even her appearance belies what I just said.
Marie’s an imposing 5’9’’. Her wide proportioned face almost aggressive when you see her for the first time. Deep brown wavy hair that covers half her left eye. My arm raises itself to pull it back to her ear so I can see her face in all its glory. I command it to stop for fear that she might misread the intention. I’m not flirting. I’ve got no intention to. But I just want to see her whole face. I just need something good in my life right now. I just need beauty in my life.
“Well? Don’t keep me hanging now! What’s your story?” she says.
“You’re not gonna let up, are you? Why are you asking for my story, anyway?”
“I’m really not! You seem interesting! I saw you earlier and I had the impression that you’re running away from something!”
“What, you’re a detective now? I thought you were a musician, Marie?”
“’Musician?’ You’ve heard of my stuff? Oh no no no this is embarrassing!”
She looks down on her feet and buries her head in her palms and says “no no no” a few more times. I lost count after twelve. The way she says it is too adorable, like a child who finds her favorite stuffed toy in pieces. She raises her head again and does this peek-a-boo thing with the space between her fingers. I think she’s looking right at me. Can’t really tell. She elevates her hands, and as her fingers comb through her hair, my heart gets shattered into a million pieces.
I’m looking at her face in all its sweaty glory. Rosy cheeks (from the embarrassment and liquor) and all. Note to Self: thank Marvin for dragging you out of the house.
“Why are you embarrassed?” I ask. “You’re good! I really like the songs of yours that I’ve heard!”
“Uh, yeah! Reminds me of early Cat Power. I like Cat Power.”
“Me too! She’s one of my influences! Wait, you really like my songs? You’re not shitting me, are you?”
“Marie, I shit you not. Oh God, you know who I am, don’t you? You know what I do?”
“And let me guess, you’re not really drunk?”
“Just tipsy. But I’m getting there. Sorry for the theatrics, Mike.”
My reputation has preceded me again.
I work, aside from doing online freelance writing jobs, as a music “journalist” slash “critic” for a music website. Pay is adequate, but I love it. I get in gigs for free. I get drinks for free. I get to see live bands, get to hear awesome music. What’s not to love?
Here’s the thing, though: Everyone hates me. Everyone who has ever picked up a guitar or has written a song hates me. Every musician in the Metro and in the country hates my guts. I understand why. I understand the hate. Why the hate? I don’t hold back on what I write. I don’t like a certain band’s performance at a gig I’ve seen? I write that I don’t like a certain band’s performance at a gig I’ve seen (in a nice way, of course.) I think a track by this shitty band is shitty? I write that that a track by this shitty band is shitty (again, in a nice way.)
There are, however, those rare instances wherein I write positive reviews. If I see a reason to speak highly of reviewees (and offer them my soul because I love what I’ve heard from them,) I would. I’ve also written a gig review of a band I’d seen live where I indicated that I’d name my first born after their bassist because their performance sent me to a semi-cathartic state. They contacted me and said that they’re holding me to that.
“What’s with the charade?” I ask.
“It’s, uh…it’s nothing,” she says, “it’s kinda pathetic, really. Just forget it!”
“I’m sure it’s not pathetic, Marie! Spill!” I say, smiling to ease whatever hesitation she might have.
“Alright alright, fine. I wanted to thank you for this one review you made months ago. November 18.”
I vaguely remember where I was in certain times the past week, let alone what I wrote in my pieces from last year. But that date, November 18, that one I remember with such clarity and fervor that I wrote that date down on my Top 5 list of Days to Lock Myself In The Bathroom All Day While Drinking A Bottle Of Whiskey And Drowning Myself In The Bathtub.
“It was memorable! I think I’ve memorized every line from it. ‘When everyone has given on you…’” she says. Those words leading me to gulp the triple shot of Jack I was nursing.
“’…you can count on the unwavering fact that the soundtrack to the demise of your very existence will not…’” she goes on. And on and on and on. She repeats the very words I wrote that night. I’d be turned on if those words weren’t a reminder of what transpired hours before I wrote the album review.
She ends my forced trip down memory lane and says that it was her then boyfriend’s band’s album that I lambasted. An ex-lover who cheated on her with her then occasional rhythm guitarist.
“I read it and it changed my life! It wasn’t even a review of my EP, but it did! Isn’t it crazy! If it wasn’t for you and what you wrote, I’d have stuck with the asshole even after he screwed me twice over! So here, Good Man Mike, please accept this offer of gratitude and tight hug as restitution for your literary eye-opener,” she says as she hugs me tightly, the warmth of her breast and neck warming up the coldness my skin was bearing. She adds, “What made you write those words, Mike? I could feel the bitterness in it! I still do! I felt everything! I felt the pain and the unconscious forthright bluntness of it all! I felt the madness!”
I immediately storm out of the bar, leaving without an answer to Marie’s question. I’ll look her up tomorrow, explain myself, and answer her question. I don’t want to seem rude, but storming out seems like the impulsively right thing to do.
Moments later, I find myself catching my breath four blocks south of the bar. I feel like I’m trapped inside a Sonic Youth – pre-Goo era – song. “I Dreamed I Dream,” perhaps. It’s raining. It’s freezing. It’s two in the fucking morning on a Sunday. I don’t want to live inside a song called fucking “I Dreamed I Dream.”
And to think that seven hours ago, all I wanted to do was stay home, open a bottle of red, put The Velvet Underground’s The Velvet Underground on, all while watching Conan on mute. But no, I had to be dragged along to watch some undeserving band waste my time, get half to hammered on whiskey, and talk to probably one of the most intimidating (note: beautiful) woman I have ever come across.
Seems like no one ever sleeps in this part of the Metro. The street kids are still playing coin toss in front of the convenience store that I occasionally pit-stop to for a spare pack of ciggies. The rain doesn’t seem to bother them. Or maybe they’re just too used to it. Doesn’t matter. I wave at them, search my pockets for spare change. None, so I resort to something I have only done once in my life. I take out my wallet, grab a crisp five hundred peso bill, and hand it to them. Their eyes widen as they thank me. One of them says that it’s a fake bill. A man in his 50s, their handler, approaches us and grabs the money from one of the street kids. He looks at it, runs his thumb on it, raises it, the neon lights of the stripjoint beside the convenience store becomes a backdrop to the inspection. He pockets it and walk away, leaving saddened faces on the urchins he looks over. I hand the kids 20 bucks each.
I’m inside by now, basking in the coldness of the AC unit. At this point, pneumonia was far from my concern. I grab a fifty as the cashier reaches for my usual ciggie. I leave.
The cab smells of Philip Morris and, for some strange reason, fresh sweat. I am too out of it to even imagine who the hell sweats in the middle of a downpour. I take out my phone from my pocket, 7 MISSED CALLS. Five are from Marvin. Two are unfamiliar to me. I thumb on the green icon beside “Marvin Da Destroyer.”
“Hey, man, sorry for leaving so abruptly.”
“What’s wrong? You feeling alright?”
“Yeah, yeah. Just not in the mood to converse tonight. Just bring my car to your place. You still have the spare keys, right? I’ll get it when my head’s straightened out. Sorry.”
“Ok, ok. Hey listen, I know you get freaked out when an unknown number calls you, but the other one who cal-”
I tell the cab driver that I’ll pay extra if he gets me home in a fraction of the usual travel time from Makati to Ortigas. I have no intention of passing out in a Philip Morris smelling, sweat stinking cab. I motion to him that I was going to light a cigarette, he nods in what seems like a giddy agreement that scares me. I light my Marlboro Lights up for two reasons: my lungs are getting cold, and I need to breathe in something familiar to me.
Marie. Nearly Drunken Marie. Marie and her whiskey mouth.
Marie who, for a short amount of time, became my much needed disruption from the weight of a tragedy that I chose to carry the brunt of the past five months. Marie who then inadvertently became a reminder of said tragedy, sending me back to where I was before I finally agreed on joining Marvin and leaving the comfort and safety of my apartment.
I wake up with a headache that probably bested the one I had the day after Hannah left. My clothes are still wet, same with the bed sheets. The clock to my left says 6:30am. But I know better. Its batteries have been dead for weeks now. I have used the amount of sunlight in my room as a sort-of timepiece even before the clock died out. If it rains, well, expect me to be late at meetings.
That sweet aroma of bitter black coffee catches my nose. Heavenly. I have two guesses as to who the delivery person is. The first one is very unlikely to intrude in my sanctuary at the current stage of our relationship. The other one…
“Oh, good! You’re up! The car’s in the garage. You’re driving me home,” Marvin says. “Got you something. Consider this an apology for last night.”
“Coffee’s not gonna cut it, Marv. But thanks.”
“Welcome. Hey, there’s one more person who’d like to apologize to you. But she said she prefers to do it in person.”
“Hannah?” No, not the banshee who ruined my life.
“Marie. Has she texted you yet? I gave her your number. She hopes to meet you today.”
I grab my phone. Blank. “It’s off. Forgot to charge it,” I say as I rise up to grab the coffee he’s handing to me. “Thanks. Thanks.”
“Oh, well, regardless, she wants to meet to-”
“Shit, wait…what did you tell her?”
“Marvin! You were already drunk when I left! You were already drunk when we went to their table! You talk a lot when you’re drunk!”
“I swear, I told her nothing!”
I head to the bathroom to wash my face, hoping that the sudden burst of cold water would awaken me, or to snap me out of – of whatever my half asleep half dead brain is screaming at me.
“Alright, fine. I told her about Hannah,” he confesses. “Look, she was freaking out over whatever it was she said. She was worried. She thought you guys were hitting it off-”
“Jesus Christ, Marv! It wasn’t a date! Fuck.”
“Sorry, man. She wanted to know what she did wrong. She said that she told you about that article you wrote when you and Hann-”
“And, let me guess, you told her everything?”
“Give me some credit here! I didn’t tell her everything. Nothing specific, Mike. Just the gist of it.”
“Sorry, Mike. I really am. I can get you another Venti if you want.”
“I’m good, thanks.”
“So we’re good?” he asks. “We’re good, then?”
“Yeah, Marv. You’re just looking out for me, I get it. It’s just that the past few months have been-”
“I know. I know. I’m glad you went out last night, though. And I owe you, I’m seeing my latest soulmate again on Tuesday.”
“Me too. I had fun, until…you know. Glad to know that my presence, regardless of how short it was, had a positive effect.”
“So you like her? Marie?”
It’s been five months since I proposed to Hannah and she said no and then left. She never came back. I proposed to her after being together for five years. I proposed to her in this apartment. In this room. We’ve lived together here for three years. Suffice to say, there are memories here. Memories were made to life here. Memories breathe and live here. Memories made a life for itself in here. And I’m merely squatting. I have become an afterthought compared to all that was brought to life in here.
Last night was the first time I ever got out of the apartment to hang out with anyone since she left. Marvin and the rest have been consistently inviting me to have a night out to get my mind off of things. Invitations that I said “sure, why not” to but quickly reneged just as I’m about to exit the door. In recent weeks, I knew that I did have to put a stop the self-imposed social exile. I knew it wasn’t doing me any good. I was torturing myself, forcing myself to relive the memories. Forcing myself to drown in them and the bottle.
Marvin got the brilliant idea to hit the town, just the two of us. He knew that strength in numbers wouldn’t be effective on me. He knew that I had to be eased into the present. Talked me into it. And so I agreed. His act of kindness, as I found out on the ride to the bar last night, had two intentions: One was to save me from the emotional tsunami that I bathed myself in since November. The second one, and it shouldn’t have surprised me but did, was that he needed a wingman to help him out with a girl he’s been fawning over for weeks. Some girl named Colleen.
I have to admit, last night, barring Marie’s orchestra-like conducting of past shadows, was exactly what I needed. Marie. Helluva girl.
“I do, yeah. She’s nice. A little crazy, but she’s nice.” I respond. “Why’d you ask?”
“Shower and get dressed, man. You’re seeing her in an hour for lunch.”
Marvin hums an unfamiliar melody. The hum becomes an actual song:
I’ve got an arrow and a bow, quiver is almost empty
I got to make every shot count now, take aim ever so slowly
Breathe in, out, release.
“You can’t sing for shit, Marv. Sounds nice, though. Whose is it?” I say.
“Who do you think?”
I stare at the watch on my wrist and pretend that it’s stuck to thirty minutes ago. Marie’s late. I’m hungover and impatient. I make up stories that could explain her tardiness. “I’m sorry I’m late! There was a tiger that escaped the zoo and it’s causing havoc on the streets!” “You’ll never believe it, but I was running away from that serial killer that’s been on the news all week!” “I slept in a tent last night, couldn’t unzip the damn zipper! Couldn’t get out!” All possible reasons that would solidify her unfortunate reputation of being a woman whose backstory is a mystery to everyone.
“I am so sorry, Michael! A melody popped into my head and I had to work on it for a while.” She says as she rushes towards me. I stand up to acknowledge her presence, and she hugs me and kisses me on both cheeks. “You should’ve seen the excitement on the cab driver’s face while I was singing it! He wanted to join me for a duet!”
“It’s alright. You’re here.” I say. No serial killing tiger that cornered her in a tent in a jungle somewhere. I’m mildly disappointed. “The song any good? I’d like to hear it.”
“Oh, no no no! It’s still raw! I’m still undecided if it’s good or not.”
“Yeah! Shouldn’t we be the ones to decide if what we do is good or not?”
“You know what I do for a living, right?”
“I’m aware!” she declaims and laughs, too loud, in fact, that we create a mild ruckus. It gets the attention of the wait-staff and she walks towards us, asking for our orders. She orders a tuna sandwich and with a side of mashed potatoes and an iced tea. I order another cup of coffee. “I don’t aim to degrade what you do, okay? As I see it, you’re the vanguards that hold the keys that opens us artists up to the masses. You can say that Band X’s album isn’t good, and you cough up empty absolution in the form of sentences that provide critical compliments to improve our works of art, and it’s up to us to rectify what we might consider flaws in the art. Music writers like you are a necessity in the industry.”
“The necessary evil.”
“If you choose to see it that way, then sure!”
It’s condescending, really, but I agree with her. “I see. You have a point, Marie.”
“I’m sorry if I’ve offended you, but I’ve been told that speaking the truth is paramount. I’m sorry, really am.”
“It’s fine, I’m just glad to get out of the house.”
“Yeah, about that…”
“Yeah. Yeah. Now it’s my turn to apologize. I didn’t intend to be rude last night. I was just reminded of-”
“No no! You don’t have to apologize! Marvin told me about your ex. I didn’t know. I’m sorry. I empathize with you, Michael. I’ve been there. I know what that’s like.”
“Hurts like a bitch, but what can we do, right? Shit like that happens.”
“Even to the best of us. Especially to the best of us.”
Her order arrives and she immediately devours it like a lion devouring its prey. “Sorry, I’m really hungry,” she says, her teeth still gnawing on the sandwich. “You’re good with just coffee? You’re not eating?”
“Not really hungry. Watching you eat is enough. It’s like you’re eating for the both of us!”
“Okay, now I’m embarrassed!”
“You shouldn’t be! It’s cute!”
“You mock now, but wait til you see me eating a steak!”
“You wanna get out of here when I’m done eating? There’s a Sunday Market-type gig that a friend of mine has in a few. She’s good! You’ll like her music! We can talk some more there. Is that alright?”
“Yeah, no problem. We can hang there. I won’t be staying long, though. Have a meeting at six.”
“A meeting on a Sunday? No rest for the wicked, eh? Who’s the fellow who’s taking you from me?”
“Just some guy. It’s not important. I don’t even know what it’s about.”
When she’s done ravaging the poor sandwich, I ask for the check from the wait-staff whose inattention is obvious. Marie stops me as I’m about to slip my credit card on the wooden tray the wait-staff hands me and insists on paying for us both. “Are you mad? You didn’t even eat!” she says, “I got this!”
“No no, it’s fine! I got full from watching you eat!” I say as I push the tray to the wait-staff’s hands. “And besides, I owe you.”
She shoots me a warm smile. Not a smile like the ones I’ve seen on Marvin and Trina and the rest. Not a smile of pity or apprehension. Not a smile stained by icy sadness that I’ve been accustomed to lately. It’s a genuine, flattered smile, and I’m appreciative of the gesture. “Thank you, Marie. Really.”
“You’re welcome. And please call me ‘Cath.’ Everyone calls me ‘Marie.’”
“Got it. Thank you, Cath.”
After a half hour drive where we talked about the crazy weather (the sudden thunderstorm last night,) the unwilling drug mule who had a proverbial last minute reprieve from execution (an argument over death penalty ensued, she anti, me pro) and the serial killer that was still on the loose (she said she knew a guy who knew a girl who was one of the victims,) we arrive at the Sunday Market, one of many that has sprouted all around the Metro like mushrooms after a rainy day, and Marie’s – Cath’s – friend is halfway done with her second and last set. Her friend, a tiny delicate creature of a singer/songwriter with even more delicate vocals and sparse guitar playing, is sheltered from the scorching summer sun by a tent, hiding her from the light while she exorcises the darkness she needed released.
Cath’s prediction was right. I do like Mae’s music.
I’ll always be in awe of singers like Cath and Mae. It takes a certain kind of courage to expose yourself up on stage, baring your soul to people who could turn on you in the next chord or verse. There’s trust involved in the relationship between songwriter and fan. Betray that trust and they’ll leave you and you’re left wondering where you went wrong or who did the damage, you or them. It goes both ways, of course.
I’m at the refreshments booth left of the stage for two overpriced bottles of water and I watch Mae singing her finale at the performer’s tent. Cath is on the opposite side of the stage, her eyes closed, taking it all in. Breathing it all in. If the summer heat on our heads and shoulders and bodies are burning her up, she didn’t let anyone catch on. She sways her body, dancing along to the voice coming from the fragile singer, almost hypnotic. And I am. I am hypnotized.
Run, run, run far
Run, run, run away
Run darling, run
Run far far from me
Mae sings the last note, a long resounding “meee-eeeeee” floating in the air. Cath cheers her on even before the reverb trailing from the speakers reaches its end. She yells “more! more!,” to which Mae faux-angrily yells back “I’m out of songs! You’d have heard more if you were early!” and they laugh in concert.
Cath heads to the makeshift stage and assists Mae in packing her guitar and equipment up, but not before the two exercise a familial embrace like they haven’t seen each other in years. “You’re excellent, my dear, as always!” she tells Mae. She points to me and accuses, “that man over there is to blame for my tardiness! He drives slowly! He drives like an elderly man on the throes of death!” in jest.
She waves me over and I approach. I hand her a bottled water. “You’ll never let me pay for anything, will you?” she says. “Mike, Mae. Mae, Mike.”
“Hi Mae, nice to meet you!” I say. “I’m sorry we’re late. Although I have to mention, what Cath calls ‘driving slow,’ I refer to as ‘driving safe.’”
“No worries! Nice meeting you, Mike!” says Mae.
“Michael, be a gentleman and carry Mae’s guitar case off stage!” Cath says. “Be her roadie for the day!”
“No, Cath! It’s fine, Mike, let me!” Mae says as I reach for the guitar case’s carrying handle.
“Please, allow me. I don’t mind one bit.” I insist.
We end up walking towards a coffee shop two blocks away. The weight of the guitar case is almost tearing my arm off from its socket. I want to scream “I do mind! I do mind now! I don’t have the upper body strength for this Herculean task!” but I can’t afford to have them think less of me. As juvenile as it sounds, I want to make a good impression on both women.
I let Cath and Mae walk in front of me to let them talk in private. The height discrepancy on the two resembling the space that’s filled with years of memories and battle scars and the obvious sisterly bond the two share. In between their giggles and indistinct chatter, I imagine a conversation between them:
Cath: he’s cute, right? Cute in a brusque kind of way?
Mae: he’s alright. You like him? When did you meet him?
Cath: I don’t know if I do yet. Last night at that shit bar that’s got the worst sound system ever.
Mae: ah that one. You’re bound to meet the worst kind of people there, Cath!
Cath: he seems nice enough to like!
Mae: he could be a serial killer for all you know!
Cath: he’s not! He’s a music writer!
And then, as if on cue, Mae looks back at me, lifts her gigantic aviators up her eyes, and says, “You’re a music critic?”
“I listen to music and write about it,” I say. “I occasionally go to gigs and write about it, too.”
“He’s him, Mae,” Cath says. “He’s him!”
“Him? Which him…?” Mae says. “Oh my God, you’re the Scourge!”
“The what now?” I ask.
“You don’t know? Oh. Then please kindly ignore the-” Cath says.
“The Scourge?” I press on.
“Uhm, after you?” Cath says as she opens the café door for me, to which I walk in feeling a little bit embarrassed.
Cath rushes to the counter and says “I’m not letting you pay for me this time, Michael!”
“Very well. The Scourge appreciates it.” I say, then hushed laughter from both women.
I bring the tray with what was ordered to a table outside the café, where the two are enjoying a shared cigarette. A chicken wrap and an ice blended coffee for Mae, another ice blended coffee for me, and a hot latte for Cath. Hot latte on a hot day. Leave it to someone as wild and eccentric as Cath to do things that don’t make sense to me. ”So, ‘The Scourge?’” I say as I hand the orders to the two.
“Pay no mind to it, Michael! It’s just something we coined to describe you.” Cath says.
“Who’s ‘we’?” I ask even though the answer is already obvious, given my reputation.
“Just…you know…we.” Mae says.
“Alright, alright, I get it,” I say. “I’ll add that to the list of nicknames that I’ve been given. It goes after ‘Selfish Prick’ and before ‘Swine’!”
“That’s the spirit! Just make light of it!” Cath says as she laughs.
The conversation that Cath and I had in the car is rehashed to include Mae. Cath also reveals to Mae about her victory that came from the album review I wrote about her ex’s band’s album. It’s a secret that she kept from everyone, apparently. Much to my delight. Like it’s something that only she and I share. That the words I wrote that night, despite the source of its vehemence, was the precursor to a courtship that I’m still undecided on acting upon. A twisted love letter of sorts.
I bid farewell to the two in the middle of a conversation about a song that Cath has been working on. Her ‘masterpiece,’ as she calls it. I asked her if I can listen to it when she’s done, and she says, calmly and coolly, “…it will never be done, my dear Michael. It’s the song about my life.”
I drive to the meeting at an address that’s not on Google Maps. It’s a good one and a half hour drive far down South on a forgiving Sunday traffic. I listen to Cath’s latest EP on Spotify, my phone connected to the radio unit by an AUX cable. Wires upon wires upon wires. Endless wires. But nothing is ever endless, as I’ve learned months ago. A lesson that I had to learn the hardest way possible.
The last track of the EP, “Goodbye, Cupid,” is a minimalist piece with only Cath’s voice and an electric guitar. Her breathy delivery of the lines almost whisper-like, until the chorus where her raspy voice rises up without breaking. Definitely much much better than Marvin’s version this morning. The guitar mutes on the second chorus, only her voice is heard. A bold move.
I suddenly get the urge to stop the car and write a review here and now. Haven’t written one since my love letter to Cath, anyway. It does seem appropriate that the first one after my hiatus is of Cath’s. But I have an appointment to keep. And I don’t know if I have it in me to write one. Hannah’s abrupt departure exhausted me, drained me of that will to write. Besides, there are some things that are better left unwritten. There’s also a probability that Cath won’t speak to “The Scourge” ever again.
I make it to the address, a three-story mansion painted off-white with hints of gray, in just under the calculated time. An elderly woman pops out of a blue door as I pull up on the long driveway that’s got seven cars parked on. Seven cars amounting to around P40 million. My 11 year old beat up car suddenly feels inadequate at the display of excess. The elderly woman waves at me and motions me to just enter the home, leaving the door open as she walks back in.
I linger in the car for a while, thinking if I should go in or not. I got an email January regarding a writing job. It was vague, to be honest. I don’t know what I’ll be asked to write about. I’m assuming that it’s related to music since that’s what I do. I kept saying no to the meeting, but the sender, bluelines81@gmail, was insistent. Every email as vague as the initial one. “A writing job.” “Handsomely rewarded.” “Please reconsider.” “Utmost importance.” “Life and death.” I finally acquiesced last night before Marvin and I went out. The “life and death” part piqued my curiosity.
I walk inside the house and I’m greeted with loud music, the scent of marijuana and cigarettes and cigars and cheap perfume. As I walk through the haze of smoke a few steps further, the house revealing the living room, a paper thin man in his seventies, donned in a trilby on his head, lit cigarette in his mouth, faded jeans, and a screaming blue shirt that says “Rock N Roll, Bitches!” stands up from a sofa and greets me. The crowd of twenty four or so, varied ages, looks up at and to the uninvited guest that just crashed their private party, then goes back to snorting coke lines and fondling their bought and paid for dates. “You’re here! You made it! Rosa! Bring our new friend a bottle!” the elderly gentleman, who I recognize, says. “You find the house okay? It’s off the map, but that’s why I bought it!”
“I did.” I say.
“Rosa! The bottle!” Phillip Sanchez, a residue from a forgotten era of the local music scene, yells. “Take a seat, my man! Take a hit if you want. Sammy! Share your heavenly gift from the heavens! Draw a line for our new friend here! Rosa! The bottle!”
“I’m good. Thank you. What bottle is it?” I say. Sammy, a man in his 50’s who’s dressed like a man in his 20’s, pierces me with his red eyes.
The elderly woman whom I saw earlier, Rosa, walks in with a bottle of a twelve year old scotch. “Here, Sir,” she says as she hands the bottle to the rock star caricature.
“Mike, right? Your name is Mike?” he says.
“Uhm, yeah,” I say.
“Here you go. Every new guest gets one!”
“Thank you, but this is too much.”
“No no! Take it! It’s got your name on it! Well, it’s got a name, but that name is yours now!” he says as he shoves it to my hands.
“Thank you, I guess. You’re Phillip Sanchez.”
“I am! I was! I am the man who was once called Phillip Sanchez!”
“And what are you called now?”
“Phillip Sanchez!” he says as he bursts into laughter. “Come with me, my man. Let’s talk in the patio. It’s quiet there.”
I stand up to follow his lead and some of the faces of the guests suddenly become familiar: Another residue from the same era of the local music scene on the corner lovingly caressing a weathered sunburst Japanese Strat. A married Senator in the couch across me with a working girl giggling in his lap, his right hand up her skirt. Two high profile businessmen in front of an untouched fireplace arguing about God knows what, coke residue just below their noses. Sammy, Samuel G., a club and radio station impresario, face inches away from the mirrored table. The nameless ones, I’ve seen from television and in society websites. The others, I have to assume are other prominent members of the Metro’s elite. Shit, I voted for that Senator.
“You can’t tell anyone about what you’ve seen and will see here, my man. This is like Vegas! Vegas rules apply!” he says when he notices my eyes scanning the stereotypes in the room.
“The house always win?” I say in jest. My phone rings and it’s Cath. I reject the call and put my phone on vibrate.
“Yeah, yeah, I like that. Let’s go with that, my man! I’m not kidding, Mike. Tell anyone what you see here, well, you know the power that those people hold,” he warns.
“Yeah, I get it. It’s not the first time I’ve been thrust into a situation like this. I know what happens when word gets out. ‘See no evil, ignore evil.’”
“Correct! Correct! I like you, my man! I like you! I knew you were the man for the job!”
I’m led to the terrace overlooking a sufficiently vast garden. The money that must have been spent on the garden alone is a quarter of the total of the mansion. There’s a small hedge maze that I want to get lost in; a favor I’d do for a 6 year old me. “Nice place you got here, by the way,” I say. “Speaking of job, what’s the job? You weren’t specific on the email.”
“Ah, this house isn’t mine, Michael. Not all mine, anyway. See those people in there? This house is ours! It’s an investment we made long ago. And I take care of it. I am the ‘caretaker,’ if you will.”
“I see. I see. And the job is?”
He pulls out a cigar from his pocket and lights up. He asks if I mind, I say I don’t, and I light up a cigarette. His face turns sour. “Yes, yes, the job,” he says. “What’s the longest piece you’ve written?”
“Hmmm aside from a thesis that I never got around to passing, I did a week long ‘A Day In The Life Of’ type article on this asshole singer some time ago. Wasn’t my choice, but I learned a lot.” I respond. It’s a total fabrication. The longest piece I’ve written is a ten page breakup letter to a now ex. I just don’t think it’s relevant here.
“Look, Michael. I’m sure you’ve heard stories about me. I’m sure you’ve heard about how I’ve lived my life thus far. Mostly true, sure, and I’m not gonna make excuses for it all. I love how I’ve lived my life. I do whatever I want. I do everything to make me happy. That’s what life is about, correct? But I’m nearing the end. I’m old. My health isn’t what it used to be. True, I’ve abused my body and my innards. But do I have any regrets? Fuck, no! This is rock and roll! Anyway, the years of abuse is catching up on me, finally.”
Everybody lies. That’s one credo I subscribe to. Although there are certain moments when that credo fails me. When I was in love, for one. When I’m in love, rather. I still feel the weight of Hannah leaving. It’s not as much as her leaving, but how it ended. I thought we were fine. I thought we were on the same page about our relationship. I came home to our apartment to a candle-lit dinner that she labored on. The four-course meal must’ve took hours to prepare. We rehashed the past, as they say, in that dinner. We reminisced about Day 1 of our love story to that night, good parts and the bad. Everything seemed fine. We were laughing. We were happy. I was going to propose to her the following day. Set everything up. Marv and the others were gonna help out. I sent him a text cancelling the plan. Said that I’d do it then and there because the opportunity presented itself.
And then the moment came. That moment when I thought that the stars were aligned. We started talking about where our relationship should go. I got down on one knee, pulled out the ring, orated a long drawn out speech, and…and she asked me to stop. “Mike, I’m sorry, really really sorry, but we’re breaking up,” she bluntly said. “This is where I get off. I don’t love you anymore. I haven’t loved you in months. I can’t be there for you in the end. I just can’t. I thought I could stick with you til the end, but that’s just not for me. I’ve thought long and hard about it, but…I just can’t deal with it. You and everyone can think less of me after this, but I have to think about my future, too.”
Just that morning, she said those words to me. “I love you.” See, everybody lies.
Phillip Sanchez is lying about a regret. Everyone’s got that one regret locked up in a basement somewhere. I just don’t know what. Wouldn’t put is past him to deny an accidental death. He seems the type. “You’re dying?” I ask. My phone vibrates. It’s Cath again.
“You need to get that?” he asks.
“Nah, it can wait. Sorry, where were we?” I say as I reject the call again.
“You sure? Seems important. Must be a girl! Your face is lighting up!”
“It can wait. We’re in a meeting. Have to be professional.”
“Good man! Where were we? Oh yeah. No, no, I’m not dying. Not that I’ve seen a doctor or anything. I have no confirmation of any life threatening ailment that’s brewing inside me. I could be, for all I know, but aren’t we all dying in some way?”
“True. We are. In some way, yeah.” I say, smoke blowing out of my mouth and nostrils into the clear night Tagaytay sky.
“I’m gonna cut to the chase, Michael. I want you to write my biography. I need you to write my biography. I’ve lived a long life. It’s time. And there’s no other person I’d prefer to pen the words to my whole life.”
“Yeah, sure.” I say, my head tilted upwards, eyes still fixed at the smoke disappearing into the heavens. “I’ve still got time.”