[I feel somewhat guilty for not posting anything here for a long time, so here's one of my old essays. Previously published, I just don't remember where.]
Somebody is raped, murdered, sodomized, robbed, mugged, destroyed. They are strangers all, and I find their stories in one morning, machine-printed on many, many pages of broadsheet. Their fates mar the serenity of my well-ordered existence—like dye stains on an otherwise exquisite arabesque, they disturb me with the magnitude of their senselessness, with the breadth and depth of how they crush my sense of order in the universe.
Every morning I die. Every morning some recurrent darkness overcomes me. There it is, the newspaper, settled innocently on my table, its silence ominous. The newspaper reeks of screams of mindless bloodshed, so thick you can perhaps cut the screams with a knife, pun unintended. And as soon as I muster enough courage to untangle the stories about the previous day, it shatters the fragile shell that weakly holds my sense of ought-to’s.
Each time I open the newspaper, I lose hope. And losing all hope, like what Fight Club’s Tyler Durden realized, is freedom. Hopelessness is freedom. You have nothing to lose, you have nothing to fear about. You just go around and run down the asphalt road, finding comfort in the fact that it matters little whether you are all-wheel-drive or not, whether your brakes are okay or not, whether you’re bulletproofed or not. Because in the end, life is just a matter of walking through a room bristling with Damocles’ swords; that because you have little to do about it anyway, it’s better to just let go.
In a way, it’s magical when terror actually becomes anodyne, relief, some sort of painkiller. Read all the bad news, and the senselessness of it all begins to turn around and becomes something that calms you down. Depression becomes euphoria. And Mondays become good days.
And when night comes I dream, and when I dream, I am actually shedding off all those useless and potentially harmful information that would have otherwise undermined my mental health (that is, if I can still be considered ‘mentally healthy’). I dream about social order because there’s no social order. I dream about god because there’s no god. I dream about peace on Earth because there’s no peace on Earth.
In dreams, my poor brain expresses the things I can never articulate in words. Other writers who came before me—intellectual giants who’ve won cool accolades like the Nobel or the Pulitzer or, in a lesser sense, the Palanca—have succeeded in doing so, but only to a certain dismal extent. Language is inert, it is dead, and words are cheap, wanting; there is so much in human experience that can never be explained in mere words, that can never be captured with the cold syntax of oral communication.
Maybe I will disappear without understanding what the world is really about in my waking life. I will understand it only in dreams, only in the blur of everyday images and sounds, only in the blink-of-an-eye flux of my sensory experience. In other words, the only way I arrive at The Truth is through the fluff of what can be considered as illusions.
But sometimes, epiphanies come when the right moment finds the right place, allowing me to slip through a shortcut to The Truth. I once found one such epiphany in a tragic part of Joseph Heller’s novel, Catch 22. Yossarian, the main character, discovers the entirety of human existence when anti-aircraft flak blasts his comrade, Snowden. Yossarian holds the dying Snowden in his arms, stares at Snowden’s entrails slithering down to the floor in a soggy pile and screams in horror. He sees Snowden’s liver, lungs, kidney, ribs, stomach and bits of the stewed tomatoes Snowden had eaten for lunch and right then and there, Yossarian realizes human beings’ real worth: “Man was matter... Drop him out a window and he’ll fall. Set fire to him and he’ll burn. Bury him and he’ll rot, like other kinds of garbage. The spirit gone, man is garbage. That was Snowden’s secret. Ripeness was all.”
The newspaper spills out Snowden’s secret each morning. And each morning, I struggle to find a place to inhabit its truth, no matter how bitter. And each morning when the magic comes (when terror becomes relief), I wait in my corner and watch the rest of the week fly by like mindless pelicans.
And after that, you know what I do?
I go home.
There is a strange new smell from somewhere, wafting through the half-open window. There is another crease on my mother’s forehead, and my father’s laughter has lost yet another almost inaudible strain of surety. And on a wall in my room, there is a spidery crack that I never noticed before.
I go home to a house that, like a long day, now feels rolling towards sunset. It is the house I’ve grown up in, my cradle for almost two decades. I know its every crevice, every flake of peeling paint, every chipped concrete off the wall, every amber-colored layer of age on the furniture. On idle days I walk about and make random taps on the walls or look closely at jambs and awnings and wonder how the house would look like long after we are gone. The house feels like a wife you know will outlive you, and you spend nights thinking about the next man she’ll love, the next man who will sleep with her in your bed. Would he be gentle with her, would he understand why she keeps trimming her nails and frowns when it rains? Would he patiently wait when she takes too long in the bathroom? Would he be brave enough to pretend delight when she botches a recipe?
I tiptoe up the stairs and touch the handrail as I would brush a woman’s skin. I turn the doorknob with the same gentleness I would hold the hand of a loved one. When it’s my task to clean the rooms, I pursue every lint and piece of dirt with the decisiveness of an avowed savior. I go out in our little backyard in the morning, the sun crisp on my skin, and look at the house’s crumbling lines and tangents and think, this house is a human being, the sixth member of the family, the silent witness when long ago I discovered I’ve inherited a biochemical defect that dooms my neurons and condemns me to be genetically stupid for the rest of my life.
The house has voices that echo about the walls when every other sound has died down: the ghosts of children’s laughter, good-natured banter of friends that came and gone, worried murmurs, Carlos Jobim from the phonograph, the long-ago hum of Sunday afternoons. When I enter it sometimes I am greeted by an odor that brings back the sweet smell of my mother’s bosom—the scent of some baby cologne she once shared with her kids, the scent that reminds me of when my mother was 31 and slim and beautiful and I was small and the de-facto defender of an even smaller brother.
The house is a squeaky stage where the five of us players continue to cling to our roles in our own little soap opera. Often, my role is inescapably escapist, the Prince of Denial, the last to believe when a sad fact descends—like how I still refuse to believe that my mother is now hypertensive and my father now struggles with his memory and judgment. When talks veer toward ‘necessary upheavals’ (weddings and us children eventually leaving the nest, for example), they are often attacked by nameless fears and a deepening sense of things getting narrower and shorter. And during such times, when my mother’s blood pressure shoots up and my father stammers for the right words to articulate his pain, I tell them everything will be all right. Then I go to my room and try to sleep, painfully aware that at such times, even the old house, our sixth member, loses its power to reassure and calm; that without us, it is after all an empty shell.
Sleep the sleep of the just, so they say. And now I think the crack on the wall is longer (an earthquake of enough intensity might soon tear my room in half). A song from somewhere rises thinly in the air like vapor. The song, Tracy Chapman’s, plays tug-of-war with what I’m thinking. “Sometimes a lie is the best thing,” Tracy sings. “Sometimes a lie...” I begin to hum along as I drift off to sleep, waiting for the magical anodyne twist, waiting for the mad laughter to kick in, waiting for the old house to come alive and tell me everything will be all right.