Change

You know what complete lack of criticism feels like? Indifference. Like someone trying hard not to see the bad things happening around them. And that’s a problem, because, you know, it won’t really end well for everyone. Have excessive tolerance and we would be surrounded by horrible things. This is why revolutions happen. This is why drastic changes had to be done sometimes.

I see nothing but change every time I look back at my seventeen-year-old self. And I know you’re now thinking that I shouldn’t talk about things I know next to nothing about, but let me tell you what indifference is like: it is like inviting a crazy person to do crazy things in your home. Maybe the crazy person is like a relative, your recently orphaned cousin. A victim of a mental illness he’s unaware of, let alone had control of. You tried telling your mother that this is a bad idea, that you want him out, but your mother wouldn’t hear it. Sound familiar?

You get into a slight argument with this person, and what does he do when he senses that you got the upper hand? He opens the fridge, tears the bag of cornstarch open and stuffs as much as he can in his mouth. He — for the lack of a better word — processes this powder in his mouth until it becomes a sticky, white-yellow paste, while you watch, dumbfounded. By the moment you collected yourself enough to yell “Stop that!” it would be too late. He already spat the sticky cornstarch paste on your face, and your tears now mingle with his morning saliva. You thought you also tasted a hint of phlegm in there, but you didn’t want to entertain that thought any further.

What does your mother tell you? “You shouldn’t provoke him.” Of course, it’s your fault. It will always be your fault. Once, on a breakfast table, you saw him spread butter on his tongue using the knife. You tried to tell him that it’s bad; he should stop. Besides it being gross, he could cut his tongue. What does he say? “Fuck you, bitch.”

You get into an argument. He gets angry and punches you in the gut then runs to your mommy.

You tried to explain the situation. All he got was “Lowell, what you did was wrong, okay, honey?” To you, she says, “I told you to never provoke him, Jenna.” Un-freaking-believable. What the hell should you have done?

Things went on like this for years. Always your fault, never his. Do you get what I meant now by lack of criticism? We were given a sense of judgment for a reason. Well, some people are fortunate enough to have the sense to use them, I mean.

You grew into your teens together. Being the only child, you went through puberty alone, without an elder sister to guide you through the changes in your body. Of course, your cousin was useless — you can’t really talk to him about menstruation, you see. Your mother’s there, but she was always so busy with work that she barely had time to explain that having blood on your vagina means you’re not pregnant. Yet. That’s the gist of it. But oh well, this is the age of the internet, and you learned what you needed to learn.

Your body… swelled in certain places. You got a monthly visitor. Suddenly, taking a bath was the most intimate thing; the most private moment you could ever have. You learned to… play with your body whenever you thought you’re alone.

You know how your senses are acutely aware of every little thing when you’re doing something… inappropriate? That’s how you almost knew. Almost. You were in the bathroom, rubbing your fingers on that sweet spot between your thighs, trying hard to suppress the sighs that you really want to just let out, but didn’t. All you could manage was a low “Mhmm-mhmm…” while on the throes of lust. You were close to finishing when you heard this quick, scratching sound.

In your panic, you stopped, trying to figure out what the sound was. You really didn’t see anything and so maybe you figured it was just a rat scurrying, feet scratching the ceiling. You brushed the thought aside and continued on with your business.

This was your life. School, home, masturbation. Oh, and taking care of a crazy cousin. You didn’t really have a lot of problems; in fact you had life better than most kids your age, but you felt like this cousin of yours is your punishment for being born into a well-off family.

You’re older now, and so your mom gave you some responsibility. You were asked to check if he wasn’t choking on some damned plaything while you were gone for school the whole afternoon. You prepared food for him and was forced to sit on meals with him because the company will “do him a lot of good.”

It was on one of these lunches that you found out. You were eating adobo with him and halfway through the meal this dumb-as-nails creature just casually blurts out: “I like your new dildo. Pink is nice.”

What. The. Fuck.

You would later find out that that scratching sound was made by your crazy cousin, who was crazy enough to bore a needle-sized peephole in the bathroom ceiling. Ever since that incident, he told you that he had been watching you do your thing — all while smiling like the complete maniac that he is.

You cried. You wanted to scream, you wanted to slap him, to punch his face a hundred, a thousand times. You wanted to kill him. This bastard, who gave you nothing but misery and pain all your life, had the gall to… treat you this way. To degrade you, to think that he is entitled to watching you cure his basest of needs. The thought of him…. the very idea of this beast in your home drove you nuts. It disgusts you. He disgusts you.

You were covered in shame, and it’s like you didn’t want to show your face in public anymore. Is being broken in the head a free pass to do… crazy things? You had insisted many times before that your mom should just leave him in a mental facility to rot, and what did she say? “Oh, let’s take care of him, honey. For your auntie Ida. Come on, he’s not that insane.” My god! He’s insane enough to peep in on me while I was taking showers, mom! you probably thought.

How long are you going to put up with this?

Turns out, not long enough. “This has to stop. I’m telling mom when she gets home,” you said to him. In the meantime you decided to go to your room and get some sleep.

You know you can’t really sleep, but covering yourself up with a blanket while in the fetal position helped. You were alone with your thoughts. You were alone, which is just what you wanted most of all, anyway.

At least for a few minutes. After that, you heard your door creak open. You saw your cousin on the door. “I locked that,” you said, confused.

“I have key,” he said in his low voice.

“What, how did you—”

“Jenna, you’re bitch,” he said. “You tell auntie Glenda I look at you? I know what I do to you, bitch.”

“Out! OUT OF MY ROOM, NOW!” you screamed.

“No, Jenna, I want now. You tell auntie Glenda, it’s over,” he said as he rushed towards you. Remember how you grew? Yeah, he did that, too and now his muscles are overpowering you, pinning you to your bed while his nasty form hovered above. “I want fuck, Jenna.”

Tears streamed from your eyes. You tried, but it was futile, you can’t really do anything now. “Lowell, no, please… please don’t…” you begged.

He tore your shirt apart and exposed your bra. Those came off pretty easily with a brush of his fingers, too, and your chest was exposed.

“Lowell, stop, please! I won’t tell, I won’t tell, I PROMISE!” you screamed, crying.

You can tell he wasn’t listening anymore. He was working his way through unbuttoning your pants.

“HELP! Please! STOP!” you shrieked.

That was when you heard the rush of footsteps on the stairs and a split-second later, the door opened. Your mom was standing there at the scene, aghast.

“Jenna? OH MY GOD, Lowell, what are you doing?!” Your mom ran towards the hunkering beast, grabbed him by the hair, and slapped his face, hard. “You bastard!” She screamed as she slapped his face again, and again, and again. All the while the imbecile was just shielding her blows, until he got far enough away to run out of the room.

I wanted to continue the story, but I don’t really know anything more after that because, as you know, you kicked me out immediately after.

I just wanted you to know that I remember everything after all these years, which I hope will give the purpose of this letter a little more validity, I mean, for what it’s worth.

But, yeah, I deserved being kicked out. It turns out that no matter how tolerant or forgiving she is, even tita Glenda can’t ignore the attempted rape of her daughter. Good on her, she finally had the backbone to send me away. But I still thank her that she did not leave me on the streets, and instead sent me to a mental healthcare facility. At least there are people here who actually know how to deal with me.

I was seventeen, then. A lot of advancements had been made through the years; my rehab has been going well. They actually found a way to teach me how to develop my motor and verbal skills. Social cues and context aren’t such foreign concepts to me now, as well.

They even allow me to write now, see? I’m coherent enough. And I think I wanted to use this newfound skill to first and foremost say that I am sorry.

I am sorry, Jenna, for everything that I have put you through. You and your mother did nothing but guide me, and be good to me, even through those final moments when I was at my most disgusting. I will not be hypocritical and deny that a part of me loved and enjoyed what I did, but I am thirty-three now, and please believe me when I say that that was not the person I am today. And I realize completely that everything my past self did was wrong, and I am sorry.

I know the things I did could be unforgivable, but I have to let you know how deep in regret I am… hoping to give you whatever little comfort it brings. My only wish is that you turned out well despite all of that. That you have a beautiful life right now. If you have that, then I’m alright, Jen. I can die smiling, I will have the redemption I’m looking for.

To tita Glenda, if you had the chance to read this, thank you for honoring your sister — my mother — long after she was gone. You took good care of me, and I never paid you the kindness you deserved. I have been but a burden, but right now, please let me know if there is anything I can do to make up for what my situation has done. I will do what I can.

It would be too much to ask for you to come and visit me, but… it would mean a lot to me. You are the only relatives I know. You probably hate me still, but I would really just love to see you both. You two are always on my mind.

So ends the very first letter I ever wrote. Hope this gets to you. Thank you for everything, and I hope you could forgive me.

Lowell.

***

— A. P.

Ballerina

Memory is a beautiful thing. A lot of things can happen in a year, and you could as easily forget about all of them. Those little moments on a day you really, really love, though… now, those are the ones you don’t readily forget.

Take for instance, this girl I’ll be telling you about. I met her one Thursday afternoon when I decided to spend my time on the rooftop instead of on the track. I would have loved to join the sports team, but my P.E. teacher wouldn’t allow me because of my asthma.

Nearly short of breath, I just sort of walked in on her when I opened the door to the muted five-thirty sunset. Her back was turned on me, and her long black hair was flowing freely in the wind.

I wasn’t really planning on talking to anyone, so I just walked to a corner opposite hers with my head down. My buttocks felt the mild warmth of the sun as I sat down on hard stone; the rooftop’s just cooled enough to be bearable.

She must have sensed my presence because as I was opening the book I was planning to read, she called me.

“Hey.”

“Hi,” I smiled. Her eyes seemed to smile back, but if she was happy for the company, her lips were not giving a hint.

“What’s your name?” she asked.

“Mark,” I replied. “What’s yours? Also, I’m sorry if I’m interrupting anything.”

“No, not really. I’m just not used to people being up here. I’m Ella.”

“What do you mean? I come up here all the time. I should be the one surprised,” I said.

She finally gave me a smile. “Okay, you got me. I have only started wasting time here since earlier this week.”

I nodded. “Well… okay,” I said, not really knowing what to say next. I started to turn my attention on the book I brought with me.

“I was checking out the perimeter,” she told me.

“Okay,” I replied, not taking my eyes away from reading. “I’m sure you found it nice.”

“It is, indeed,” she said. “So, what are you doing here?” she said as she walked to wards me.

“Would just read. I don’t have P. E.,” I said.

She sat a few inches in front of me.

“What’s it called? What are you reading?”

“‘Charlie and the Chocolate Factory,'” I said.

She chuckled. “You haven’t read it yet?”

“Not yet.”

“I like that story because it’s not about Charlie, and it’s not even about the Chocolate Factory,” she replied.

“Yeah?”

“Yep. It has always been about Willy Wonka, right? It’s like a coming-of-age story for people who did not have a chance to come-of-age.”

“Yeah, I guess…” and I do not appreciate your spoiling the story, I thought to myself. I closed the book, knowing that I’m not going to get any reading here today. “What are you doing here, again?” I asked.

“I’m checking the perimeter,” she said.

“That’s a weird word to use. Perimeter for what?”

“To practice my ballet moves.”

Come to think of it, she was not wearing the school uniform. She wore tights and I noticed that she was barefoot. “Oh, I see. And your shoes…?”

She pointed to a corner near the door to the stairs.

“So, you practice ballet here?” I asked, genuinely interested.

“Yeah, I try to.”

“Show me.”

“Nope, sorry!” And with that she turned her back on me, walked towards her shoes, put them on, and proceeded to go down the stairs, closing the door behind her.

I had no idea what to do after that, and I sure as hell wasn’t in the mood for reading, now. I stood up and rushed after her, hoping to catch her again. “Hey!” I shouted as I ran through the stairs. “Ella?”

Down, down, down… after working my way through five flights of stairs, there she was, waiting for me on the ground floor. “What?” she asked.

“I, uh… nothing,” I said. “That was weird, you just leaving like that.”

“Sorry,” she said. “I hope I wasn’t a bother. I knew you were trying to read,” she said as she walked away.

“No, no, it’s okay… Hey, are you free this afternoon? I was thinking we could get some ice cream,” I said.

She smiled. “Well, this is a surprise.”

“What do you mean?”

“Nothing,” she said. “Yeah, I guess some after-school ice cream wouldn’t hurt.”


“…and so there I was, scared as hell for my life while this mammoth of a snake had its way with my legs,” I said, telling her about the time when my friend showed off his pet snake. “I could feel myself shaking the whole time.”

Her chuckle was light, but it was not because she was trying to subdue it. I could tell that it was genuine mirth, and it’s not just about the ice cream, too. Never have I felt more confident around someone, like I could share the most ridiculous experiences I could think of and she would just laugh it off with me.

We sat in front of each other at a 7-Eleven, a white square table being the only thing that separated us.

“So… why did you decide to practice on the rooftop?” I asked.

She gave me a smile. “It’s for my last performance. I wanted to focus on it as hard as I possibly can.”

“Last performance?”

“Yeah, I had been taking ballet classes since I was a kid, but I figured it really wasn’t for me,” she said. “After this, I’ll quit.”

“Whoa, now… don’t give up that easily. If you took it since you were little, I’m sure it’s something you really love?”

She scoffed. “Yeah, sure, it’s something my mother really loved.”

I understood. “Hmm. Well. At least you got some ice cream for it?”

I sensed a sudden sadness, and a split-second later I saw it on her face. “I really, really hate ballet, you know. But I did not want to break my mother’s heart. This is her dream for me.”

I wasn’t really sure what to say. “You know what? You could just tell her. How bad can it be, right? I’m sure she’ll understand.”

Never mind their being mother-daughter, it’s just not right to force a person to do unnecessary things, especially if the person doesn’t really want to do it.

“I’ll get through it. As I said, it’s going to be for my last performance,” she replied. “Enough about me, though. What about you? Any hobbies other than stalking girls on rooftops?”

“Hey!” I said with a laugh. “You’re the one who invaded my space today! Right,” I added, “besides reading books, I love going to churches.”

She raised an eyebrow. “Hmm? Why?”

“Oh, uhm… yeah, our family is religious, but me, not so much. They took me enough times as a kid to get me fascinated about the way they’re built, though,” I said.

“I hope you weren’t offended; I was just surprised,” she said.

“Yeah, I get it. That’s why I only tell my closest friends about this.”

“Got it.” She leaned forward and added, “So, I’m one of your closest friends now.”

I met her eyes as I said, “That would be nice, yeah.”

“I’d love for you to take me to church one day,” she replied.

We talked about everything, as I was not planning on ruining an impromptu date by running out of things to say. I had expected that she would be silent for most of the time but no, she was never shy. It seemed like she’s used to dates, or talking to guys for that matter. She considered me an equal, not a potential suitor who asked her for ice cream because I thought she was cute.

She was very… mature, and she treated me like an adult. I loved that for once, I could hold a sensible conversation with another human being for so long.

I wasn’t really surprised that we did not end up being weird, or awkward. When we were finished, she stood up, grabbed her bag, and said “I really should go. Thanks for the ice cream!”

“It was really nice. Hope we could do it again sometime,” I said as I stood.

“Yeah, sure. Let’s exchange numbers?” she said. And why the hell not. I fished out my phone as we walked through the door.

I would have insisted on walking her to wherever she would catch a bus or jeep on, but I thought that that would be too much for a first date. Besides, it turns out that our homes were on separate ways.

But you know what? If I knew that I was never going to see her again after that day, I would have insisted.


I dreamt about her that night.

We snuck into the school very, very late, almost midnight. Just the two of us, trying to get to the rooftop. Our rooftop.

After what seemed to be like five infinite flights of stairs we found ourselves out there with the open sky; mild sweat glistening in the moon, catching our breaths, but smiling. She looked at me and said, “I’ve always loved it here.”

She took a few steps away from me. “Watch,” she said.

She raised her right hand as she arched her back, and how perfect her form was at that moment. She twirled once, twice, thrice and she drew closer and closer and closer to me until she was just a few inches away. And then she pushed me hard, my back against the door as it closed with a bang. She wrapped her arms tightly around my body… she was so close. Too close. I can feel her breasts pushing against my chest. I can feel her heart beating. I can feel the warmth of her breath on my neck. Her eyes gazed at me, as if those deep rings of abyss were trying to drown all of me.

And then she kissed me.

Her lips were soft, and so sweet… perhaps because of her lipstick. It was the most marvellous thing. I felt my body heat up as she let her tongue glide along mine. My mind was nursing a hundred-thousand explosions, my mouth but a slave to the movements of her very flesh. My eyes were closed and everything should be black but instead I saw splotches of color playing along the nothingness of my vision. I let my hand glide from her shoulders and cupped her breasts. Our lips parted for a moment as she gave a light moan.

Her left leg stepped back as she kissed me again, not letting go of me, urging me to follow. Another step back, her right this time, and I realized she was leading me into the most erotic dance I will ever experience in my entire life.

We spun. My tongue ran on her neck and she was wet and I was so lost in ecstasy that I did not realize we were nearing the edge of the roof top. I only opened my eyes because for the first time in this whole crazy thing she let my body go and pushed, and there I saw her, standing on the edge of the rooftop.

Smiling, like I just gave her the happiest night of her life.

“Thanks, Mark. It was beautiful.” She said. And then she jumped.

I was too shocked to move.

Everything went black.


The next day, I tried to go through my routine as usual, thinking nothing of the weird dream I had (although I woke up crying, scared as hell). Of course, I was looking forward to seeing her again but, as I told you earlier, that would never happen.

It turns out that she was not kidding when she said it was her last performance. She called me that afternoon, saying that she is scheduled to perform at an event at some mall, and after that, she’s not planning to go back to school. She explained that her aunt from overseas offered to take her for a year, and she saw it as a chance to get away from her mother, and ballet, for a while.

“It’s a now-or-never thing, Mark. Sorry, I really should’ve told you, but that would ruin what we had yesterday,” she explained.

“I understand,” I said. It made my heart heavy. It hurt. My ears rang.

“We could still call each other,” she said.

“Yeah. Hey, listen… I got to go to class soon,” I said. I just wanted to end it before she hears the slightest hint of a sob.

“Okay, bye. Call me later?”

“Sure.” I hung up.


We spent the next few months just talking to each other over the phone, trying to make… something, anything, work. Eventually the calls started to drop in frequency: from daily, to twice a week, to once a month… to never.

Six years later, she met her husband at an art fair she attended. It turned out that her passion were for paintings, and she met him at a time when she was just starting to discover that passion. They got married a couple years after that.

I sat at my rooftop with my laptop in hand, browsing through her Facebook posts. She has two kids now, a boy named Mark and a girl named Jayne. I couldn’t do anything now but be happy for her as I browsed through the pictures of their yearly family vacations. They planned to visit famous churches around the world every year. They went to St. Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican, saw the Westminster Abbey in London; this year they’re planning to see the Notre Dame in Paris.

Bittersweet, isn’t it? See, memory is a beautiful thing. It stays in your head, it lives, it takes up space, but you can’t really do anything about it other than… to remember.

I wonder if she still remembers me from time to time.

I wonder if she still remembers the boy who ended up chasing her off of a rooftop.

— A. P.

sky, 1904

i am riding a ferris wheel and i can almost reach the sky
but i am afraid of heights. i cannot sit idly, i will fidget
in the most subtle of ways. i will hide how scared i am
of the ground down below that i would not even dare peek,
that i am as much a hostage of fear that i would not share your fascination
of the open sky, the wind; i think too much of how
gravity would have my head if i had too much fun, and forget.
do you know? you should know: the mildest swing
could give me a heart attack. i would sweat, i would feel
light-headed, and i will want to forget that my feet
are not where they’re supposed to be; several breadths below,
in relative safety. i would fidget in the most subtle of ways,
but i will try. because maybe, maybe because,
while i am afraid of high places — high places make my head spin,
make me lose my train of thoughts, easy. i would hear
the rushing of my heartbeats, with imminent pain so close that you actually hear it
as ringing in your ears — while i am afraid of high places
i am not afraid of hands, a pair of extra hands to hold me
and tell me that it is fine, it is relatively safe and that
i have a bigger chance of dying in an airplane crash
(which is not true, by the way, because i don’t ride planes that much —
but it’s comforting all the same). i will fidget
in the most subtle of ways. i fear heights, after all,
and it’s not that easy to make that go away, but
i am riding a ferris wheel now and this is practice,
and it will be easier, because you will take me with you
on your frequent visits to the sky. you fear no height,
and your willingness to take me there and say
“everything will be alright” makes me actually believe
that ferris wheels are worth it, and heights can be fun.
i can almost reach the sky. i can almost,
and i will try.

— A. P.

saudia

ships sail on your freckle-misted eyes,
between them, messages come and go.
and i am like a meek litle errand-boy
in your presence; shy,
yet overly conscious
of spaces between your toes. why,
i am close to falling in love with a metaphor, and i
have already given up on fate: only yours, these hands,
and oh captain my captain, your wish:
my command, and more. i cannot wait i am agitated i’m excited i will die
but yours is a slow shore,
the winds being reminders of
how far we can ever go,
and oh,
how gently they comfort me.

— A. P.

The Summer We Designed

The summer we designed
Is the summer we desired,
The grating past the cinder walls,
The sun receding, tired.
The afternoons with coffee cups
Refreshed with new-felt ire,
The summer we designed,
A summer flower dried.

The laughter we mistook
As senses’ new delight,
Amongst the lines of books
And reading us by sight.
The summer we designed,
Unending in its thirst,
Unquenched in my desire,
I thirsted for you first.

The evening summers when
Your shadows bent and then
Enveloped me, and let me go,
Embraced me, then again
The restless dreams, and bedroom’s screams
The sheets that summer stained,
The lips that murmured sheepishly,
And wished for softest rain.

The summer we designed
Is the summer we desired,
The march of April, April may
Continue past July.
Yet afternoons, a drying kiss,
Replaced with drying tears;
A summer I remained to miss
For years and years and years.

— A. P.