I started burying the cigarette butts in the potted soil in my balcony. It has been quite some time since the four o'clock I planted died and now it was just a pot of soil that I water once in a while to simulate the smell of rain.
My mother, despite everything, is still a traditional woman. She equates smoking to rebellion, the way she equates sexist barbarism to mental illness. She forgives easily because it was in the Bible, to forgive seven times. Or was it more? She forgave my father five times already. The old man still has two mistakes left. And still she uses the word "crazy" for my father, rather than "asshole."
My room doesn't smell of cigarettes or stale food or existential crises. I bought enough Lysol for that. I have plenty of scented candles, too, smelling of newly minted dreams and sunshine and church walls on Sunday mornings and wedding petals from childhood memories of being a flower girl or the little bride.
The walls, I painted sky blue and the closet doors, melon pink. The bedroom and the balcony door were both lemon yellow, and so are the cut-up cereal boxes that hold random things. Everything looked like a unicorn-themed coffee shop threw up happiness all over. Pink and violet furry blankets with cartoonish Eiffel tower prints, my room can almost call itself a Disney princess, save for the big black guard dog in the corner—quiet, watching.
The black dog, I call him Winston. When on certain days his fur looks particularly blacker, like the nothingness of black holes or twilight, I call him Winnie. You know when they give names to typhoons? The stronger the gust, the more endearing, like Sendang or Loleng, like friends who are close enough to call ridiculous names with? You call them by their names to nudge a favor. Be gentle, Yolanda, they say, as if calling on to a diety, or an old lover. I say, "Winnie, not now. I need to go to work."
I haven't left my room in three weeks. But no boss is bugging me. I work once a week, on Fridays, teaching Modern Philosophy, in an old seminary in Novaliches. The priests do not bother much. They do not seem to care whether I teach atheists philosophies or not, or if I teach at all. After all, technically, I have only been absent for three days. They do not require me to attend faculty meetings because they know it is not my thing. Neither are lunches or coffee conversations. The people who are worth their time and attention are the sinners, and the saints. The godless are invisible because neither are they worth praise or prayers.
This is an old three-storey house, squeezed between two buildings, one a challenge to the other. The house on the right is a successful architectural experiment. 6 floors of alternating triangular edges and patterns, like a Fibonacci sequence made into an architectural dedication. The house on the left is an art deco house that looked like Salvador Dali's mind. Round windows and marbled floors and 70's patterns and yellow and red Mexican-styled foyers melting under the Manila sun.
This house, on the contrary, is old and its planks made of wood thick enough to give you a hard time driving home a nail but thin enough to hear mice move under floorboards and inside the walls. They are little annoyances trapped in between the physical manifestations of changes.
I sometimes wake up from dreaming of rats and cockroaches and worms, all spilling from my sky blue walls. In my head I hear the wood crack open, the crispy flutter of cockroach wings and the whip of the rope-like rat tails crawling out from where they were safely tucked at night. They wake me up, and I wonder if it had happened already. And I go back to bed feeling like the pests have already crawled underneath my skin. I feel them in my arms and legs and nape and ears.
In the morning I sweep the floors clean of cockroach legs and broken wings and other nightly terrors. At night, they begin all over. Winnie blends into the darkness, the pests creep out of hiding.
When I go out, I keep my head down. I have always felt like people are looking at how much space I was taking, in train ride seats and round table meetings. I wanted to compress myself, flat enough to tuck between book pages, small enough to slip under one’s door.
I used to work at the same university I graduated from. I spent the years I was there looking for a place to hide: a small corner in an unnoticed room in the library, in a table in the coffee shop at the back of the hospital lobby, the misplaced park bench tucked between unused access ramps and locked comfort rooms, narrow passages and meter-wide alleyways from one building to the other, emergency exits and back stairways. I have memorized exit routes for when the world gets too up close. I would sit at the park bench for hours, watching.
The day I lost that job, I lied in bed and listened to the world. I heard the colors drip from the world I created. Everything seemed to lose traction. For the first time, I did not need to block the noise anymore. It was gone.
Once, I rode the train from one end to the other on a weekday rush hour. Bodies against bodies, squeezed and packed into one small space, and I felt nothing.
Space, they say, is therapeutic. A physical distance from the ordinary is necessary; a literal escape from the figurative monster. A walk or a bus ride is always a meditation in movement, like waves withdrawing from the shore.
There were days when I feel like a dead engine in a jeepney ride in the middle of the road.
I used to love the sun and the dry days. They remind me of childhood summer boredom, of hay thrown into the air through tractor chutes, and old songs on the radio. “Sad movies, always make me cry,” or “Oh yes, I’m the great pretender,” my grandmother singing along, while hand-sewing old rice sacks for the next harvest.
At night, when the crickets outside my grandparents’ house would start chirping, the tip of my grandfather’s cigarette would light up somewhere, at a distance. I would close my eyes to barely make out the muffled words. Every night, he did that: he would talk to Mercedes, his carabao, preparing her for the heavier load the next day.
There were only two instances I saw my grandfather cry: when my grandmother died, and when he had to sell Mercedes.
The last time I cried was when my grandfather died. Things that happened afterwards didn’t seem to be a crying matter anymore; I have grown. He was the last piece of my childhood.
My father's most vivid story was that of his mother in her silk night gown; she was standing over Buntun Bridge, staring at the dark blue green water. Her curly hair danced lightly in the wind while her seven small children sing "Oh My Darling, Clementine" inside the van her husband bought a year before.
"She stood there for a long time, I didn't quite understand," my father always ended the story with that.
The silent is always more difficult to understand.
I covered the cigarette butts and ashes with soil, and sprinkled some more water into the pot. I sniffed. The smell of cigarette smoke lingered. I sniffed again. A little more and I can convince myself it’s rain.
Gian Carla Agbisit is a Philosophy student in University of Santo Tomas, Manila, Philippines. She believes that more than academic writing, creative and/or experimental writing better articulates philosophical ideas and their affects.