The playground is a frenetic menagerie. Small, high-pitched voices pierce the air like the static of a TV channel that has signed off. Running feet make loud, crunching noises against the pebbles covering the ground. Everything is awash with the mid-morning sun.
Girls in pigtails stand side by side at the swings. Their skirted bottoms rest on the swing seats, sweaty hands clutch the rusty chain links, feet in black Gregg shoes ready to kick.
“One for the money, two for the show, three get ready,” they chant in unison, “and four we go!”
With synchronised kicks, all four of them take off, screaming with glee. Back and forth, back and forth, they swing, pushing against the dirt to go higher and higher.
Across from them, the seesaws teeter on their bases. On one, a girl in her blue-and-white school uniform stands on the center of her seesaw, arms stretched out on her sides. Her two friends sit on opposite ends of the same seesaw, alternately bobbing up and down. How does the acrobat in the middle keep from tumbling down and bashing her head on the rocky ground? It looks silly and dangerous to seven-year-old me.
Over at the conical jungle gym, a blindfolded girl stands trapped in the middle of the red bars, her arms outstretched. Her friends cling to the bars on the other side, heckling her.
“Marco!” the jailbird shouts.
“Polo!” her friends reply.
“Marco Polo, freeze!”
Everyone jumps on the bars, snatching their hands and feet away from the jailbird’s reach lest they get tagged.
The sounds, the colours, and the sunlight are too much. Despite encouraging nudges from teachers, I back away into my small, serene zone at one corner of the playground, content to just observe. Quiet is nice. Quiet is safe. Quiet is not confusing.
A bell rings. Recess is over; time to head back to the classroom. It’s on the ground floor of a four-story building; one of about 10 beige blocks in the campus of Saint Scholastica’s College in Manila. Founded in 1906 by five German Benedictine nuns, St. Scho, as we irreverently call it, is the school to send daughters to. (At least, that’s what our principal likes to tell us and our parents.) Scholasticans are known for their German discipline, Filipino values, and social and political activism.
Trained well, all of us students fall in two lines facing our teacher. Order is paramount. We have to stay an exact arm’s length behind the one in front of us. Talking is not allowed.
In the classroom, I sit on my wooden chair pulled up against my wooden table, as do my classmates on theirs. The teacher places balls of Play Doh on each table, instructing us to make something out of the clay. While we work, she plays Six Little Ducks That I Once Knew on the cassette player, as she does every day. Ten years later, the smell of Play Doh and the melody of the Ducks song would still fill me with inexplicable anxiety.
“Can I make my clay into a woman who has cans for arms and legs?” I ask my teacher.
“How about making a flower instead?” she replies.
The night before, I dreamt of a woman whose limbs were cans stuck together. For hands and feet, she had roller skates. She was running—rolling—after me through a forest, bent over and screeching. I drew her as soon as I woke up, fascinated.
But my teacher thinks a clay flower would be better. So, I make a daisy with a brown stem, green leaves, and white petals.
“Now, isn’t that beautiful?” my teacher exclaims. She gives me two pieces of wax paper to sandwich my beautiful sculpture. “Bring that home to your mommy. I’m sure she’ll love it.”
I put it in my bag, along with two extra balls of clay I “borrow” from my teacher’s basket. I will make the woman figure at home instead where I can keep it a secret so no one will say it’s wrong.
When class is over, I walk to a white van waiting at the curb. It’s my school bus service that takes me and four of my friends to and from school. The ride is a short one. We live in San Antonio Village, a middle-class neighbourhood about 15 minutes from school.
Madonna is playing on the van radio, as usual.
“Papa, don’t preach; I’m in trouble deep,” my friends sing.
“Papa, don’t preach; I’ve been losing sleep.” I sing along even louder than my friends.
Two weeks ago, on the way home from school, I started singing The Beatles’ Here Comes the Sun. But my friends thought the song was too cheesy. “Ooo,” they shrieked. “What’s wrong with you? My mother listens to that!” They didn’t like Billy Joel’s The Longest Time, either. So, I taught myself Madonna. And now, I can sing as loud and as long as I want to in the bus.
When I get home from school, I head to my special space.
My refuge is a garden the size of a tiny car. Flat, round stepping stones placed in a crooked line bisect the garden. Along one side are some colourful flowering plants protected by a dirty white picket fence. My favourite spot in this sanctuary is at the far corner where a shady aratilis (Jamaican cherry) tree stands. I like to sit on the wooden bench under the tree’s leafy branches because they mute the noise outside.
There, leaning against my tree, I read my Judy Blume books over and over while listening to cassette tapes on my Walkman and eating chocolate chip cookies.
Ten years later, this garden is still my sanctuary. I am 17. Stephen King has replaced Judy Blume, and I’ve swapped a portable CD player for my Walkman. The aratilis tree still provides a canopy of solace. All is well in my escape hub.
Then there is sleep. Did you know that it is possible to sleep continuously for days without getting physically sick? When you sleep, your body enters a state of fasting. Because you are not ingesting anything, your blood glucose level slightly drops. This prompts your liver to break down stored glycogen to sustain your body’s energy supply, keeping you alive even when sometimes, you may not want to be.
When things become too overwhelming and confusing, I sleep for days, confident in the fact that I won’t die of starvation. In my state of slumber, the world is a huge dreamscape and whether or not it makes sense doesn’t matter. Like my garden, sleep is my friend.
Sometimes, however, it is also my prison. With every REM cycle, the walls around me grow higher. The bricks of sleep do keep me safe, but as they pile up, life outside continues while I, suspended in my subconsciousness, do not. It is peaceful, but also lonely. I have no clue how to cross to the other side by myself.
I don’t ask anyone for help, though. How do you say, “I need you to get me out of the dark,” when you can’t explain what the dark is?
Besides, my parents have a lot on their plates. My father suffers from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (or COPD) and needs daily dialysis, which my mother administers. I don’t want to bother them and my older brother with my weirdness. I sometimes overhear my mother telling my grand-aunts (my grandmother’s sisters), who live in the same compound, that she’s worried about me but not sure what to do. Why should I insist they help me when they’re as confused as I am?
I have been asleep for three consecutive days this time. Auntie Baby, one of my grand-aunts, steps in.
Her real name is Engracia (En-grah-sha), but I call her Auntie Baby, as do everyone else. I have never met a 75-year-old who is funnier than her. Slightly built at five feet tall, she likes to take my brother, cousins and me on walks and tell ghost stories about the houses we pass. She’ll suddenly yell, “Tao po (anyone there)?” then hide behind a tree, leaving us kids to scramble away when the homeowner flings open the front door. But as wickedly funny as she is, Auntie Baby is also kind and generous, apt to give a barefoot beggar at the market the slippers on her own feet.
On this scorching April afternoon, Auntie Baby slips into my room and gently shakes me. When I finally waken, I see her looking at me with smiling eyes. She bends over me, her voice soft, like how a parent speaks to a newborn.
“Come on, it’s time for lunch,” she says, as if nothing were amiss; as if I hadn’t been asleep for days. She reaches over and takes my hand to pull me up.
Her voice shakes me out of my stupor; her touch jolts me. I get up and follow Auntie Baby down to our dining room, feeling like how Princess Aurora must have felt after waking up from her spindle-induced coma—a little disoriented but growing more alert by the minute. For the first time in months, my eyes are wide open.
The afternoon sun streaming through the staircase window is warm on my skin. I have to squint; after three days in my dark room, the bright sunlight assaults my pupils. Has it always been this sunny in Manila?
Downstairs on the dining table is a steaming pot of my favourite dish, which Auntie Baby has brought over from her house: sinigang na baboy—a traditional Filipino sour soup with pork, vegetables, and lots of sampaloc (tamarind) juice. I wasn’t hungry at all when I woke up, but I become ravenous as soon as I see the sinigang.
Auntie Baby sits across from me at the round dining table and ladles pork chunks, vegetables, and broth into my bowl. She pushes it, a plate of rice, and a cold glass of water in front of me. I expect to taste tangy sampaloc, juicy tomatoes, and tender, salty pork. To my dismay, the soup seems bland.
“I made that with real sampaloc; none of that powder flavouring,” she tells me, reading my face. “Give it time.”
I take another spoonful. And another. Auntie Baby continues to watch me, chewing on a dalanghita (tangerine).
“I saw Mrs. Dineros at the market today,” she says. “She asked me to help her do catechism for homeless kids every Sunday at our chapel. And I said yes. Imagine that; after 15 years, I’ll be teaching again.”
“That’s good,” I say.
“Hey,” she rolls a dalanghita towards me. “What did the orange yell before she jumped into the juicer? ‘The zest is yet to come.’” Auntie Baby’s chortle fills the room. It’s a familiar sound and I bask in it.
Nothing has changed since I went to sleep except for one thing; today, the border has been breached.