JOJO was idly tracing arcs and swirls on the rooftop of the Faculty Center. He was alone and his urine fizzled slightly on the pleasantly warm concrete with the hiss of rain. As in the unforeseen workings of mimetic magic, there did then arise from the heat-swollen earth, the vapors of a slight precipitation to come. Jojo felt triumphant, a personal sense of accomplishment. Maybe he was some kind of shaman, and he didn’t even know it: a still untapped power which was his by right of his Indo-Malay cultural heritage and through the divine workings of that mythical hole in the sky, the same one through which government subsidized psychics during the fabulary Marcos regime had discovered supernatural powers streamed forth. Maybe it was because his was an astrological water sign, Pisces, that he could make water with such skill, channeling through well-considered sphincter and priapic muscle control, the purposeful and selective release of his electromagnetically charged bodily fluids, delicately balancing the rise and ebb of ions and protons in the atmosphere. A few minor adjustments and with enough practice, he could raise up a storm or even a light summer drizzle. He bestowed a genial benediction upon the acacia trees whose susurrant leaves and splayed, interlacing black branches always made him grateful he had gotten into the Diliman campus.
Another name for acacia was raintree. Miss Farrin, his third year high school English teacher in Masbate had taught him that. She had asked him to read a sentimental love story about rain trees set in Baguio. Jojo had been aware that she was watching him read all the while with a moist, intent earnestness as though she had handed him a treasured memento, a part of her soul, and now wanted to see how he would receive it. With a lazy spitefulness, he’d told her that acacia timber was also known as monkey pod wood. A hint of pained distaste creased her perpetually anxious features. It was as though he had profaned a shrine, so he had considerately added that he liked the name raintree better. She had tremulously pronounced him sensitive, telling him that she sensed in him from the start a special vibration and had asked him to walk her home as she had all the five sections’ final quarter exams and reports to carry.
It had rained, just like in the story they’d read, and he had to wait it out in the little room she rented behind the provincial bus station. After helping her arrange the piles of test papers and book reports according to section and in alphabetical order, they had sat side by side on her army surplus cot with the faded, blue-flowered Chinese cotton coverlet and the line of troll dolls and stuffed toys. Neil Young was wailing away on her portable audiocassette player and she had leaned gently against him, her frail body redolent of Wrigley’s Spearmint Gum and Johnson’s Baby Cologne and told him of all sorts of insights she’d had into his character that he had never even realized were there. Then for lack of anything better to say or do in response to her utterances, and wanting to see besides how she, an older woman and a figure of authority, would react to such overtures, he had boldly grabbed her, suddenly turning and landing so heavily on her, he practically squeezed the breath out of her as he pressed her against the thin mattress. The bedsprings shrieked while his smooth large hands cupped her bony buttocks through her nylon bikini panties.
“Sus ginoo—Arru-uy! Agu-uy!” Miss Farrin had interjected, forgetting the carefully enunciated English that she had cultivated all those years since she’d been a Rotary scholar. And that had been Jojo’s first time, when he was just a boy of fifteen, and he was proud of it. They had done it three times that afternoon. He was proudest though of not having had to pay for it and that it was with a woman who was eight years older, had been baccalaureated in a Manila university and passed the government licensure exams. It was as though being with her would allow some of her accomplishments to pass through in some weird form of capillary action into his own underachieving being.
Miss Farrin gave him money to take a tricycle home, fussing over him with a reverent and diffident tenderness that made him want to laugh. That was also the first time he’d been kissed on the ears. He didn’t like that part, and had recoiled at her tongue lathering warm saliva along the ridges and hollows of his ears. The next week, Miss Farrin bought him two T-shirts from the town viajera, genuine Bossinni and Giordano, and black hightop Converse sneakers. They had gone on seeing each other for a while until she left to take up post-graduate courses at FEU. Miss Farrin had written to him hopefully several times during his senior year and sent him more T-shirts. She must have heard that he was in Manila, too, but he had never gotten in touch with her there and expected that one day, when he was home on vacation, he would learn that she’d married, or even better, gotten the teaching position she’d dreamed of in Guam or Brunei.
On hindsight, Miss Farrin’s judgment may have been as good a reason as any for Jojo’s decision to be an artist, besides not being smart enough to get into one of those quota courses on the UP College Admission Tests. He had gotten in on a certificate course but had planned to shift to a bachelor’s degree program later. During the talent test, they’d been asked to draw a human figure in charcoal, a detail from a calendar reproduction of Luna’s Spolarium. He’d noticed the college dean staring intently at him and had insolently spread his legs, adjusted his crotch and stared right back. The old man’s mouth had made a little “o” of schoolgirlish surprise. Later, all a-dither with avuncular good will, he’d offered to give Jojo a private scholarship. Jojo accepted. He had been quite an innocent then. The only gay men in Masbate had been, as expected, hairdressers and dressmakers and the Boy Scout Master. He’d never expected to meet one in such an exalted position and was frankly curious. Besides, the dean always made it a point to be seen with young girls at discos and to be photographed bussing some high society lovely at an artsy event.
The summer before that freshman schoolyear, Jojo had gone with the dean and his current favorite, Ferdie Danao, to one of those gay Santacruzans in Malabon. Ferdie, a somewhat pudgy bemoustached mestizo who looked like a Super Mario Brother (he was also an advertising model) and had tried to paint like Anita Magsaysay-Ho, had chattered cheerfully about this up and coming couturier who had a heavy crush on him. Dean Batumbacal’s skin rash shone through the layers of his makeup foundation under the acidic gleam of multicolored incandescent bulbs strung along the streets. Several times, he discreetly rubbed his paunch against Jojo’s rump, and just to tease him, Jojo had wriggled ever so slightly back. That was as far as he went for now. He believed there was integrity that on principle, he would never do it with another man although he enjoyed their unabashed admiration. Otherwise, he was bored. The spectacle of these urban queens with their well-defined, overarched eyebrows and tricolored hairdos, demurely parading in clouds of lime and fuchsia organza and ruffles, or black satin sheathes and tulle was disheartening. It was so safe, so predictable and provincial, looking for all the world like a Masbate cotillion. This was his first outing with the beau monde and it was like he had never left home.
Jojo wasn’t even supposed to be up on the Faculty Center roof. Too many horny kids and freaks were using it to make out, to drink tequila or vodka and to smoke grass, so the Blue Guards had hammered a waist-high wooden barrier at the foot of the stairs. But so what—there was no door at the top anyway—it had long been ripped off its hinges—so everyone just climbed over that practically useless fence. Right now though, it was still broad daylight, so he had the place all to himself. He’d just been to a screening of a French documentary about that American expressionist artist Jackson Pollock who’d killed himself way back in the fifties. Jojo wondered why Filipino artists so rarely committed suicide. A deficit of angst? Offhand, he couldn’t think of even one.
On one of the walls of the Faculty Center roof deck, someone, probably a colegiala, had scribbled some lines from Saint Exupery’s The Little Prince in a wavery, sensitive colored chalk script. Miss Farrin had been gaga over The Little Prince and had been disappointed that he hadn’t shared this passion. She’d insisted that everything in the slender little book had some deeper esoteric symbolic meaning, including the three volcanoes on the Little Prince’s planet. The one that was dormant, she interpreted to be his sex drive. Jojo couldn’t remember what the other two were supposed to be and wondered why it was even important that they be about anything. Those academics who were forever analyzing and categorizing and setting limits and gradations on thought amused him. The integrity of their footnotes and their bibliographies left him cold. He had no qualms about stealing other people’s ideas if he could. He had no respect for intellectual property, especially not Third World intellectual property. He wondered how someone from Masbate could be such a snob and was amused by his own presumptuousness.
Jojo tapped the head of his dick expertly and the last tiny drops spattered close to his foot like a signature. With insouciant grace, he zipped himself up. He had given up wearing underwear because it saved him money, was less laundry for him to do and more of a turn on for some girls. It worked for him that he resembled a bulol icon with his angular features and the glints of verdigris in his skin, an effect he’d since learned to emphasize with layers of brass slave bracelets that reached midway up his sinewy forearms, rings strategically pierced through one earlobe, and tattoos around his wrist. A real chick boy, agreed the guys who had called themselves S.M.E.G.M.A.—Ang Samahan ng mga Egoy at Gago na Matitigas ang Ari. Ginayuma mo ‘ata, p’re, they joked with a trace of envy and admiration. He never had to pay for it and even had to avoid them when they waited for him, uninvited at his dorm. Since Miss Farrin, there had been more girls than he could count on his fingers and toes. Not bad for a guy who was not yet eighteen.
AS he left the building, Jojo mulled over a project proposal to cover the entire rooftop of the Faculty Center with the bodily fluids of one hundred Filipino artists in celebration of the Centennial, sort of like a liquid Cristo, that Greek guy who he’d heard got Fortune 500 corporations and governments to give him a lot of money just to wrap things in tarpaulins or parachute silk. Bodily fluids being as ephemeral and transient as time and serving as a metaphor for the corresponding illusory nature of our freedom and nationhood, which were likewise ephemeral and transient, ever changing and impermanent and all that, along with some kind of profound statement about political and artistic consciousness in the Third World being as ephemeral and transient as bodily fluids etc. He just needed to find the right Derrida-ish—or was that Foucault?—diction for it and hoped Mr. Beltran the art theory professor had the right texts.
The guy in the movie had piously divided Pollock’s work into style periods: le drip, le dribble and le splatter, and he really meant it. The French are so serious about everything especially high culture. A very attractive man, Pollock, Jojo decided and wondered if it was true that he had swung both ways. Ferdie Dayao, being half-white himself, claimed that although Caucasian penises were generally larger, they were not as stiff as Oriental ones. He had preened prettily before Jojo during their last outing, when they went skinnydipping at Pansol. Jojo had looked on politely, with detached curiosity. He wondered if piss, puke and spit would pass for a project as hallowed as the coming Centennial. To enhance the whole project, he would put in a background of ethnic music and maybe some tribal dancers. Then he could call it a multimedia experience.
Once he’d asked Mr. Beltran what the whole art thing was all about and he’d stared coldly back at him, like a bilious fish through his rimless oval reading glasses then rumbled deep in his narrow scholar’s chest, his rounded shoulders hunching up aggressively: “What do you think it’s about, Cruz? I’m sick of all these pretentious pseudo intellectuals who read art reviews then pass off the opinions in them as if they were their own. What about it, Cruz? Why don’t you tell me what you think it’s all about?”
“Well, sir, I guess I’m just another pseudo-intellectual myself,” Jojo had softly said, and he really meant it. He was not insulted. That sort of got Mr. Beltran off balance, like by a mental jiujitsu trick. Jojo was not about to get into a discussion with a guy who probably jerked off to Art News. He felt that it was a really Zen experience, except that if he could say it, then it probably wasn’t, and he probably was not Zen either. But it was good just the same to have everybody slapping his back and giving him high fives after the class, and saying “Okay ka, pare,” like he’d done something really heroic. What a lot of shit that was but still kind of fun anyway.
In one instance that was meant to partake of an unaccustomed confidence, Mr. Beltran had told his class in his gruff, somewhat muffled voice which was his normal way of speaking how he had been turned on to painting by those photo essays in Life magazine about the New York art scene. That had been just after the Second World War. There were no glossy art magazines in Manila then. It was not unlike seeing the world by the light of dead stars and Jojo had found it all quite touching. It reminded him of how it had been for him in Masbate, how he had rented used books and remaindered magazines and had devoured TV shows at the only home with a satellite dish in those years before cable TV. He tried to imagine Mr. Beltran as a young man like himself in the throes of a just revealed passion, albeit an intellectual one and only vicariously experienced from the pages of a pictorial weekly. Or had Mr. Beltran as a young man been as turgid and stultified as Mr. Beltran the old man, parsing his opinions, measuring his reactions, calculating their correctness against a standard greater and higher than any known of in Masbate, or even Metro Manila for that matter.
“It was this whole idea of flatness—the flatness of the actual painting as well as the flatness of the mechanical means used to reproduce it, meaning the photograph,” Beltran had tried to explain himself. He always seemed driven by the need to hypothesize, to formulate a theory which was why they must have had him teaching art theory anyway. He was made for it. Every M-W-F, Jojo came into the classroom to find paragraphs culled from art critics, painstakingly printed out in neat block letters on the chalk board. Like a mother pelican feeding its young, Mr. Beltran had thoughtfully distilled and regurgitated these for their edification. They should have been more grateful to him and tried to understand him instead of speculating on his sexual orientation and gossiping about his ostensible mates.
This girl that Jojo really liked also took the Art Theory class. He always came in after her so that he could sit in the row behind her, a little to the side where he could watch her profile, the soft curve of her slender young arms. He had to keep his sketchpad or a jacket on his lap because sometimes just looking at her made him hard. Makati girl, he called her in private. That was his way of saying that she was everything fine and above him. She wasn’t even from Makati but Jojo just thought that she had real style and class just the same.
Funny, but her friend Aenid Blanco who had won the Miss Photogenic title in one of the past year’s beauty pageants thought it was she whom Jojo liked. She assumed that all heterosexual men desired her above all other women. She was from Silay and was always volunteering details about her privileged upbringing. For one thing, the servants in their household outnumbered the family members.
“You know, it’s so different where I come from. We have three cooks because my mom and dad are gourmets. Then there’s a gardener for the orchids and a gardener for the lawn and the other ornamentals,” she said in her irritating singsong. Every now and then she would pause expectantly, waiting for the usual exclamations of polite awe. She knew that most of them did not even have maids. She made no secret of it that she was drawn to what she saw as feral and lumpen in Jojo. She thrilled at the contrast he presented to the somewhat soft exclusive school boys with their puerile speech.
Makati Girl was genuinely nice to talk to. Jojo had never heard her start a sentence with Shit! the way the other girls say it with the short “e” sound in the middle which he found especially contrived and irritating. She didn’t punctuate her sentences with Fuck in that coy and petulant way the other girls did when they wanted you to think they were cool. Makati Girl laughed at the stories and jokes that the other guys would tell—stories that would gross out the other girls who had all these hang-ups about their being colegialas. She lacked the convoluted prudishness that afflicted most. When the Figure Drawing class had to submit their life-size nude self-portraits, she was the only one who did hers with full frontal nudity. Even the boys in class coyly masked their genitalia with carefully placed hands or a bent leg. Jojo felt his insides churning as he looked at the way she saw herself. She was so honest, she had drawn herself with one breast slightly smaller and higher than the other, and the lotus labia of her tender pudenda clearly outlined through the fine fronds of her pubic hair.
Makati Girl talked to just about anyone. There was a coño kid who was so in love with her, he would come all the way from De la Salle to Diliman in his rich father’s Beemer just to look at her and to tell her about all the shit he was taking and the sinkhole that his life had become. Jojo seethed whenever he saw them together, Makati Girl sitting on the cream colored stone ledge by the library steps, framed by bamboo, santan and hibiscus blooms, like a virgin in a grotto, and the junky standing a little below her, leaning on the ledge, looking longingly up at her. He was telling her how ashamed he was about being so deep into drugs. She listened to him with such a rapt, solemn and gentle look, that he had to go and get stoned because she actually made him feel worse about himself. All the metaamphetamines and cough syrup had clogged up his lungs and pitted his nose and cheeks. He sniffed constantly at a mentholated inhaler. She had such perfect skin and clear, calm eyes that still held that pure, direct look of childhood. She hardly wore any makeup. That poor junky just wanted her to stay pure forever. He never touched her. Jojo was almost certain that she was a virgin and the thought was alarmingly poignant.
A CROWD was milling about the College of Fine Arts lobby. It was odd because artists generally do not mill. If anything, there was a customary desultoriness, a muted fragmentary quality—almost like single-stop animation—about their movements. Then Jojo heard: Benny Grajeda had killed himself. It just blew his mind. There he had been, just a scant half hour ago, mulling over why so few Filipino artists were suicidal and now one of his classmates had actually jumped off the top floor of the Palma Hall and left some of his teeth embedded in the asphalt below. Boboy Encantado, the aged madman of Mt. Makiling, was down there now, trying to pry Benny’s bicuspids out of the hot sticky blacktop with an etching stylus. He wanted to use them for a retablo that he had conceptualized as an installation piece.
“Jojo, you knew him, didn’t you? You were friends,” it was Makati Girl actually talking to him.
Jojo felt a rush. It was one thing to piss and conjure up an afternoon drizzle, but this was actual life and death. He nodded. “He was always kind of weird.” he said. It sounded lame.
Now a Filipino artist was dead, although Benny wasn’t famous and was barely half-formed as an artist. Actually, Jojo thought his paintings really sucked, no disrespect intended for the dead, not that it would matter to him now anyway, or even then, as pig-headed and tasteless as he was. Reasoning that retro was in, Benny had been into this pattern painting thing, all precious-like with the masking taped grids and the airbrushes. Boring blah blah statements about the qualities of color and light. The kind of stuff you see in the reception rooms of people who think they’re so slick because they’ve got abstract art, and to go with it all this dark leather and bright chrome Bauhaus style furniture set against distressed paint finishes, soapstone sculpture, shiny Italian granite tabletops, onyx obelisks, faux ionic pillars for pedestals, all for what their decorators hoped was a post-modernist effect.
“I feel so sad for him. Maybe he just didn’t have anyone to talk to, to share his thoughts and feelings with,” Makati Girl said, and she really looked like she meant it about being sad for him. Jojo felt his heart going out to her and casually positioned his sketch pad before his groin.
And then again, Benny was basically a bastard, a real sadist, and everyone at the College knew it. Every time it rained, he would be down by the lagoon, systematically stomping with his steel-toed boots on the little brown and green frogs that came hopping out of the rank matted talahib. Those frogs must have been evolutionally unprepared for such an unnatural enemy as Benny because they were so easy to catch and to kill. They never knew what hit them. Benny even had a pet, a rhesus monkey with a belt and chain around its middle. He would swing it around and around way over his head while it screeched in wild terror. That tiny emaciated creature was so scared of him that whenever it saw him coming it would vomit and defecate in mindless panic. Jojo wondered what would become of the monkey now that Benny was dead. If he had known that in some African provinces, they made monkey meat into a kind of tapa, smoked or salted and air-dried, what vile recipe might he have come up with?
Just two months ago, Benny had brought cat meat asado siopao to the college on the occasion of his eighteenth birthday. He was mechanically inclined and had made a machine to electroshock stray cats so they’d pass out, then he would skin them alive. He’d sniggered over his cleverness as he’d told his disbelieving classmates how there really was more than one way to skin a cat. He’d handstitched the cat fur into a Davey Crocket style cap, except his had three stringy cattails, instead of a fat coonskin one hanging from behind. Some of the fur, he’d made into watercolor paint brushes. On what turned out to be his last birthday, he’d come to school, wearing his catskin cap and with his cat meat asado siopao in a green plastic sando bag, looking very pleased with himself. At least he was decent enough to tell them what was in the siopao.
The girls were so upset and offended by Benny that one of them reported him to the Assistant Dean, Miss Caymo. However, Benny was perversely pleased at getting so much attention on his birthday that he stapled a Kotex pad to the fly of his blue jeans. He declared that this signified his solidarity with women and his realization of the female principle inherent in every man. The little provincianas just walked past him with averted eyes. He gave them quite a giggle though in private and something to tell their friends back home about how bad and crazy the Manila boys were. Then a husky frat guy threatened to make Benny eat the Kotex pad and push all his cat fur paintbrushes up his ass, so he took it off that same afternoon. Miss Caymo was at a loss about what to do with him. The Kotex pad had been flushed away, and bringing asado siopao to school or wearing a fur cap were not causes for disciplinary action. She’d tried to share the Gospel with Benny instead believing that he may have been possessed by Satan’s minions. When he killed himself, she was more than convinced and asked the Jesuit priest at the parish office to bless all the premises that Benny had frequented in his short troubled existence in order to make sure that he would not return to haunt them. Miss Caymo was also going to have all the locker doors painted over as Benny had covered these with poetry fraught with ill feelings and apocalyptic images of death, dismemberment and the coming chastisement. For diminishing the number of starcrossed artists, his death had a kind of purpose and nobility after all.
“I think we should go to the wake after classes,” Makati Girl now said, looking appealingly at Jojo. Of course, he would go with her.
“Yes, let’s,” echoed Aenid, looking at him, too. Inwardly, Jojo rolled his eyes, not feeling ready for Aenid just then. But still it was a chance to go somewhere with Makati Girl. Also he was curious to see what Benny looked like after a fall like that.
BENNY was laid out in his high school graduation barong, with his catskin cap on. They had left the coffin open even if he had lost most of his teeth in the fall. Jojo was amazed at how ordinary Benny’s family was: the dad, a civil engineer who’d gone to Saudi; the mom, a math and science teacher at an exclusive girls’ school, the other three siblings, forgettable and unremarkably plain. They smiled wanly at their condolences but seemed cheerful enough, if a bit baffled about his sudden death. They seemed to have no idea of what Benjamin had been really like. Only the first page of the guest book had any writing still. Miss Caymo had sent a mass card but no one else from the College had been there yet. The three of them stood in respectful silence looking at Benny in repose. Makati Girl then went to kneel at a pew with her head bowed. She must be praying for poor Benny. Aenid asked Jojo to stay with her outside while she smoked. She was the most pruriently suggestive smoker Jojo had ever seen, continually tossing her head, shifting her hips and arching her neck backward to call attention to how she had left the top three buttons of her shirt undone.
After the wake, they decided they’d go to a movie. Aenid gave Jojo some money to get her a kilo of lanzones from a fruit vendor at the pedestrian flyover. She was full of coy gratitude when he returned and acted as though it meant something special and intimate had transpired between them. She took his arm and placed it around her waist while they walked through the mall, as she giddily swung the bag of lanzones. Jojo gently disengaged as they stepped onto the escalator, Aenid on the higher step and himself just below her. Then Aenid turned, and with a melodramatic flip of her pre-Raphaelite curls, lunged at his throat and shoved her pointed little tongue in his mouth. He was nearly bowled over. They were quite a spectacle, Jojo striving to keep his balance as they rocked back and forth. Aenid had twisted her limbs around his, and entwined her fingers in his hair while the plastic bag of lanzones that she still held went wumpph-wumpph against his nape. He practically had to carry her off the escalator. Makati Girl looked puzzled and stooped to pick up some of the lanzones that had rolled out of the bag onto the tiles. The fruit were brown and bruised from all the excitement.
“What’s the matter with you?” Jojo asked Aenid, in exasperation and alarm. Just as abruptly, she composed herself. The people sitting on the benches to one side were smirking and whispering among themselves.
“What are you looking at?” she tartly asked them “Don’t you have anything better to do with your lives than to mind other people’s business?” Then grabbing Makati Girl’s arm, she walked on in quiet dignity to the theater with Jojo following behind them. They each paid for their own tickets. No one spoke throughout the movie. Jojo’s only consolation was that Makati Girl sat in between Aenid and him. After a while, he was able to discreetly press his leg against hers and she did not draw away. It was less than perfect. If Aenid ever came on to him again, he guessed he might give her a tumble. She was a good kisser, after all. Also, her father was an haciendero and she did have a beauty contest title and that was worth some points. It would be a shallow triumph getting to her first. Before that Chinese casino operator who was nearly twice her age got to her anyway. Her mother was trying to diversify and expand their financial interests through marriage now that the sugar trade was down.
To make up for the escalator scene, Jojo offered to take Aenid home. Her eyes brimmed with tears but she let him. They rode the taxi in silence to her condo. She kept her arms around him all throughout the ride, with her hands clasped as though she were praying and her face pressed against his chest. Occasionally she mumbled what did sound like praying. His hands rested limply on her hip.
In bed with Aenid, he pictured Makati Girl as he usually did even when he was with some other girl and felt a little weepy. Instead, he banged away even harder so that beneath him, Aenid arched her back, clawed and bit him. She wailed despairingly that she really loved him, no matter what happened. When it was over, he shut his eyes, trying to imagine what he would do if he had Makati Girl with him instead of her best friend: how he would hold her, how she would look up at him as she lay in the crook of his arm. They would laugh about nearly nothing in that irrationally happy and secret way that only those who are very much in love do.
Mostly, they’d just kiss. Ω
©2001 by Menchu Aquino Sarmiento
This story has previously appeared in print as “Arcs and Swirls.”