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CHAPTER ONE – PEACE SEEKER
Sometimes when the noise gets too loud in your head and the pressure makes you restless, you seek a place where the only sound is the low thumping inside your chest and the passage of air in and out of your system. But, here in the city where the lights never dim and the streets are seldom empty, it is almost impossible to get out of the glare to find a peaceful spot.
—Zechariah ‘Zeke’ Dipasupil
What could be more peaceful or romantic than walking along a beach and watching the sun dip into the horizon, the sky a beautiful haze of yellow, orange and purple? It was like watching the end of a play with the lights dimming slowly, the curtains being drawn, and the stage a glistening body of water—rolling and flowing. It seemed like it was applauding the end of the day with soft clapping sounds as the sun bid the day goodbye.
‘Don’t you just love the sound of the waves?’ Zeke’s mother said as she parked herself on the shore with her son and a picnic basket in tow.
Her eyes closed; she held her head high to get a better feel of the salty breeze blowing against her face. She smiled as a feeling of calm exhilaration washed over her entire being.
‘Yes, Mama,’ Zeke replied, like any other child agreeing with their mother.
As a young boy, Zeke loved to stroll on the beach with his mother. He liked its raw, salty, pungent smell that somehow cleared the passage to his lungs and helped him breathe more easily. Zeke liked the feeling of his wet feet. Occasionally, his mother would even let him take a dip in the shallow waters near the beach, a pastime he especially loved. There was always something interesting to see at the beach.
Zeke wouldn’t miss the white seabirds for anything. With his camera, he would snap at the low-flying birds with their matchstick legs almost touching the water. The birds made him feel dreamy if not wistful; their presence made him feel like something magical was about to happen. But then his thoughts would be disrupted by a soft meow. How could he forget the cats! There was always one looking straight at him, begging for scraps. In fact, a sizeable number of them would be roaming among the open-air cafes like free spirits, getting food from the pet-friendly and ‘shoo-shoo’s from the zoophobic. But the cats weren’t afraid of Zeke. They would rub their furry bodies against his leg, seemingly asking for a fraction of his attention. They would purr softly and present themselves as adorable. But for someone like him hoping for a miracle in dreamland, the cats—so associated with everyday city life—would zap him back to reality rather quickly and unwillingly.
Before their trip back home, Zeke’s mother would buy him some ice cream, chocolates, or cotton candy from one of the many stores that dotted the bay walk. These would always sweeten his tongue and memory like a memento of a good trip.
Growing up in Tondo, one of the old districts of Manila, Zeke never got accustomed to the noise surrounding him—the zooming sound of jeepneys plying the streets, the shrieks of neighbourhood children playing, and the rattling sound of the light rail transit. Even the hawkers never seemed to sleep, their echoing cries reverberating through the bay area—pandesal at the break of dawn, taho at mid-morning, and balut at sunset.
Though these things robbed him of peace and quiet, Zeke accepted them as a part of the daily rituals of his childhood, a source of comfort and joy. Zeke couldn’t imagine breakfast without pandesal, half-dipped in coffee or with fried eggs on the side.
Like most snack-loving children, Zeke too got a kick from hearing the taho vendor passing by. He would look forward to savouring the soft and sweet goodness of taho rolling in his mouth, or tucking into a typical supper with balut. He was especially proud of eating it without cringing and would never forget to top it off with a dash of salt and spicy vinegar—the spicier, the better.
Despite all the commotion, the sea was also a source of comfort for Zeke. It offered him solace, and he enjoyed every minute he spent near it. Like his mother always said, a body of water brought peace—its sound and smell, and especially the breeze that blew over it; all of these things created a sense of calm that healed tired nerves and rejuvenated the spirit.
Zeke never outgrew his fondness for a quiet place. With mounting pressure at work as a news editor and managing director of the city’s largest daily newspaper, Zeke sought refuge in quiet places whenever he got the chance.
On a lucky day, he found such a place right in the heart of the city. Situated several stories high above the ground and adorned with plants and vines hanging on trellises, this was the rooftop of the newly constructed skyscraper—the Everglade Tower. It provided the perfect hideaway for anyone searching for some peace and quiet in the middle of a concrete jungle
Zeke was attending a press conference at the tower and during the break, he enquired about where the smoking lounge might be. The building attendant, a lethargic man with tired-looking eyes, looked at him rather impassively. But upon recognizing him as a prominent journalist, stood up straight, cleared his throat and tried to respond respectfully without sounding offensive, ‘Sir, other building tenants were clamouring to have one, but the building owner decided against it—for environmental reasons. She wanted the new building to be clean.’
‘Oh! That’s a shame,’ Zeke quipped, while taking a deep breath in an effort to contain the growing frustration inside.
The media conference had started early. It was organized by the Chief of Staff of Senator Lustro to announce the good senator’s bid to run for vice-president in the coming elections.
From an outsider’s point of view, Zeke was there as an esteemed member of the press. Nobody knew that he was an unofficial member of the senator’s payroll, a ghostwriter for the senator’s speeches and his weekly newspaper column.
Personally, Zeke never liked the senator. The man had always been crafty and manipulative. Zeke first met him while covering a golf tournament that was organized to raise funds for children living in conflict-ridden areas in Mindanao.
Zeke hated the permanent wry smile on the senator’s face— the same smile he had on when he coerced Zeke to draft an essay of sorts for him about the tournament and the importance of sharing one’s resources with those who need it most.
‘What’s one essay?’ he remembered the senator saying. ‘It’s all for a good cause. Think about the children.’
After that essay came another, and another, and before long, the senator had been invited to share his thoughts and ideas on a weekly column called ‘A Good Cause’. And, with that, Zeke’s fate as a de facto member of the senator’s communication team was sealed.
As with all his writing assignments, Zeke barely had any sleep the night before. The senator sent several sounds of revisions to his speech, so much so that Zeke had lost count.
The brewed coffee at the snack table was not helpful at all. He was still sleepy and couldn’t stifle a yawn. He needed a quiet place at least for these thirty minutes. Plus, his hands were quivering for a cigarette. He wanted a smoking lounge. No—he needed one badly. Otherwise he might become unreasonably irritable.
Before he turned to leave, the building attendant noticed his disappointment. He took him aside and whispered, ‘Sir, if you want, I can lend you the key to the rooftop. It’s the only place without a smoke detector.’
Zeke didn’t see that coming. He felt embarrassed. He felt like a little boy throwing a mental tantrum who was suddenly pacified with a lollipop.
So he took the key as discreetly as possible but not without returning the favour. He handed a folded bill when he felt no one was looking.
Since that encounter, the rooftop of the Everglade Tower had become a secret hideaway for Zeke whenever he wanted to be by himself. He would look for Rey, the building attendant. In exchange for the lolly, he would give Rey something. Sometimes when he had no cash on hand, he would give Rey a box of red- labelled cigarettes or some really nice mint candies, the kind that comes in small tin boxes.
But given the increasing pressure of his workload lately, which made him frequent the rooftop and cause the receptionist to eye him suspiciously, Zeke had to devise some sort of dialogue.
‘May I speak with Rey? Got a little problem only he can fix,’ Zeke would tell the building receptionist with a little look of anxiety, just for effect.
He would feel curious eyes staring or meddlesome ears wanting to know more about what his problem might be. And when Rey finally came to meet him, he’d blurt out, ‘This is a bit embarrassing! My … uh … mother-in-law’s toilet is acting up again.’
The moment he said this, all curious eyes and ears would return to their former preoccupations, oblivious and unconcerned.
For Zeke, smoking was more of a ritual, not a whim. Unlike the others, he smoked only when he needed to think something over. So he referred to the nicotine-infused rolled-up tobacco leaves stick as his ‘thinking stick’ and the rooftop as the perfect ‘thinking spot’.
Whenever he lit a ‘thinking stick’, he sent a signal to his brain to drop everything and focus all neurons towards one thing—that one thing that needed to be dissected, scrutinized, and thoroughly examined a million times over before a decision could be made.
Among his friends, only his best friend Kit didn’t understand the concept of the ‘thinking stick’. She was the level-headed type, not one who is easily swayed.
One time he tried to reason with her, justifying why he smoked by himself on the roof of a building. ‘Smoking eases the nerves and relaxes the muscles, which helps the brain concentrate better. The elevation from the ground is a factor too. The higher you go up, the better your chances of thinking straight. I’m not sure if it is the thinning air or the weaker pull of gravity. But whatever it is, there is something special about high places that clears the mind and fortifies the spirit. Even Jesus took to the mountains to get away from the crowd!’
When Kit gave him a I-am-not-buying-that-crap look, Zeke tried another route. He tried to sound a bit philosophical if not altruistic. ‘Smoking also taught me to take in only a puff, just the amount you need and breathe out as much as your lungs will allow. When you give more than what you take, fate will be kinder to you.’
He couldn’t forget the way Kit rolled her eyes before giving him the sweetest smile to show him that she was doing him a great favour by keeping the friendship alive despite him being a pain in the ass.
With Kit’s firm stand against smoking, Zeke tried not to smoke around her. Still, he kept a few sticks in his office drawer to help him whenever he felt that certain predicaments needed a good think before a solution could be found for them. And if nothing else, at least the stick made the situation bearable.
Listening to Senator Lustro speak at the media conference was a form of torture, which Zeke felt could be relieved by a few puffs. It was unbearable. The man’s craggy face with his skin furrowed like a bulldog wasn’t a pretty sight. But despite this, the senator, who was running for the second-highest position in the land, was a sweet talker. He had memorized his speech so well that Zeke could have sworn that the words were actually his, a sincere outpouring from his heart and not penned by someone else. But knowing the senator’s devious character and the many shady transactions associated with him, the disparity was undeniable. His speech sounded like a farce.
Really? Zeke couldn’t help but raise his eyebrows in disbelief. For several weeks now, since he was made privy to the senator’s plan to run for vice-president, he wanted out. The campaign trail would require a great deal of planning and execution, not to mention a large number of speeches, slogans, scripts and other material that would need to be penned. On the upside, he need not come along but knowing the senator, his phones and inboxes would definitely be burning and sleep would be an extravagance he couldn’t afford.
Quitting was not an easy choice, especially these days. Zeke needed to rethink this matter a million times over because if he quit, he would lose the monthly retainer fee, which was a hefty sum. A large chunk of it funded school fees, books, and lunch money of more than a hundred indigent students in Mindanao who couldn’t afford them. In short, the amount was for a good cause.
A small chunk, of course, went to his thinking stick! His thrifty ego wouldn’t allow him to burn his own money. So, he got a benefactor instead.
Am I quitting to save myself the trouble, annoyance, and discomfort of working for this man? Will quitting do good to those kids who were trying to get some education?
He let out a sigh. For now, he just had to find the strength and fortitude to put up with this charade.