It’s amazing, I tell my friend. He gapes at what I’m handing him.
His runny nose has already made a permanent yellow-greenish pair of mucus canals from his nostrils to his mouth, and there are times I wonder how it must taste.
It instantly killed that plant, I say.
I point at the plant, which is all wilted under the sun. It really looks very dead.
We can conquer the world with this, my friend says, in his hand is the bottle of the brew I’ve “invented.”
This is 1984. I’m in second grade. We stand in the sweltering afternoon heat of the school yard of Bacoor Parish School. I just made my first “invention”: a bottle of a strange reddish liquid, a mere drop of which could kill an otherwise healthy plant.
Now, how did I invent such a potent thing, in the first place?
We owned a small grocery store in 1984, and one day, I found a small box brimming with all sorts of medicines past their expiration date. There were blister packs of red and green pills, white tablets, frothing cough syrups. The moment I saw the cache, my eyes gleamed with delight; I had just seen a movie where there was this scientist with all sorts of colored liquids in tubes, and he did some very cool things like shrinking somebody to be small enough to swim into a woman’s vagina (years later, I would see something similar in Pedro Almodovar’s Talk to Her).
The scientist in that movie impressed me so much that afterwards, whenever the adults would ask me the Shakespearean question, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” I’d say, I want to be a professor or a scientist, never mind that I didn’t really know what kind of teeth-gnashing those vocations involved.
I wouldn’t usually blink when I'd say that. It became an all-consuming ambition, although later, I’d change my mind over it many times. Of course, in the present, I’m far from being a scientist, but I’ll talk about that kind of shit maybe in another post.
There was this one time we were in a jeepney, and my mother’s friend asked me that same question. You have to realize that I loved being asked that question; deep inside it made me feel good just giving my answer. As if just giving the answer already made it real and true, like some sort of self-fulfilling mantra.
So I gave the stock answer; and I was so caught up in my reverie that I didn’t realize my hand was already resting on the knee of the girl beside me. I realized it only when the adults around me were chuckling and staring at me as if they’d seen a pervert. It was a good thing that the girl, some hottie in her teens, merely found it amusing that some eight-year-old would find her knee attractive enough to be “lost” in it.
But back to my invention. This strange brew, I created it out of some white tablets, multicolored capsules, and some bottles of cough syrup mixed together. Before I showed this to my friend, I had tested it first on my mother’s cat. Well, the cat survived for some reason (she had nine lives, anyway), although she limped away while giving me what seemed like the feline version of a “scornful look.” But I took it as sufficient proof; I interpreted it as my brew’s potency. I went to school that afternoon with a bottle full of that strange brew. In my heart, all eight years of me, I had already “arrived”; I was already a frigging “scientist.” Dang!
The first thing I did when I arrived at school was look for some unfortunate test subject. And because there were no cats at school, and because I was afraid that if the cat died, it would be hard to conceal the evidence, what I did was sneak into the schoolyard, choose some scraggy bush that nobody cared about, then poured some of my brew on the poor thing.
And to my horror and amazement, the plant wilted before my very eyes.
I was ecstatic; I ran back to the room crazy with the thought of world domination.
And so, my classmate with the perennial runny nose, gazes now at my bottle, then asks, “Which plant did you say you poured this on?”
I point at the plant in the corner.
His face follows my hand. He stares at the plant long and hard.
“That?” he says. “That’s the plant you killed?”
Yeah, I say.
“But that’s not dead. That’s a makahiya*.”
I just stand there, not comprehending it. He walks over to the plants and begins touching each one of them, and each one, after being touched, “wilts” so dramatically. I’m stunned. I feel so foolish, but I hide and swallow my embarrassment. I’ll never admit to this kid that I now know how stupid I am.
Oh my God, I say, you have magical powers? You can kill them with your touch?
I flash him my best shit-eating grin.
He gives me a look that years later I would learn to mean “fuck off.”
Then he walks away, my dirty, impressionable friend.
Makahiya’s scientific name is Mimosa pudica. This plant “wilts” when touched, the compound leaves fold inward and droop, re-opening within minutes. Its ability to “move” has fathered the self-awareness of countless kids with delusions of grandeur.
For similar posts, see Backtracks and Fast-forwards.