A thousand lives

It is nearly four in the morning on a Saturday night. (Okay, technically it is Sunday morning.) Typically, you would find me on a dancefloor somewhere — Future, Black Market, TIME — but today, I’m packing up what amounts to half my life because we are moving in two days. And about 80 percent of that life has been books.

We moved into the house we currently live in when I was entering high school. I was already a voracious reader then, but not yet the kind earning her own disposable income (that will happen at the age of 17, when I get my first newspaper column), or the kind being sponsored generously by National Bookstore (because publicly acknowledging your nerd status does have its perks — let that geek flag fly). So naturally, the design Mom decided on for my room didn’t really incorporate a lot of shelving. (This is debatable. But no one else in this family reads like I do, so I tend to lose the debate.)

Mom gives me this exasperated, despairing look every time I come home with what is clearly another bag of books, but honest to God, I did not plan to own so many. (I’ve piled a small portion of them on my bed — as seen in the image above — so that I can’t sleep until I’ve packed them away. It was both a brilliant and terrible idea, but I digress.)

In hindsight, I should have seen this coming. It’s always been in my nature to want to disappear, to want to be someone else. I don’t know where my self-loathing comes from, but it’s there, and it has always been there. (My shrink, lovingly referred to as Dr. Sam, says it’s clinical, a chemical imbalance in my brain that I need to stop blaming myself for.) Those who know me well, or those who have been reading my writing long enough and are particularly perceptive, know how caged I’ve always felt. I live a wonderful life that I am grateful for (it’s just myself I’ve never learned to love, tragically), but all things have their trade-offs, and this was one of them. Books are an escape. A book is another life. Running away into a book is disappearing into another world for a few hours, where you are not yourself, and the world is not your world (sometimes it is a better world, sometimes it is worse, but always, it seems more interesting), and the problems are not your problems, and on occasion, there are actually happy endings, or at the very least some answers, closure.

You don’t always get that in real life. Real life tends to leave you hanging, worried and wondering about what’s waiting for you around the bend. Real life is uncharted terrain, and you have to just figure it out as you go along, without any assurance that the destination will have even been worth the journey. With any luck, you’ll still manage to keep your moral compass along the way. (Too many people tend to drop that somewhere early on.)

So I have all these books, and I have lived (and am living) all these lives in lieu of my own (although I’ve lived my own much more often in recent years — the stories I wish I could tell, but must keep to myself…). And I really feel like books have taught me empathy, and for that, I’ve always been grateful. Empathy’s not something that a lot of people appear to possess. You kind of find this out the hard way if you’re on the Internet long enough, and I’ve been around since 1999. But a book allows you to step into someone else’s shoes for a while, live their lives for a while, know their hurts and happinesses, their loves and their losses. A book helps you understand someone who is a complete stranger to you on an incredibly intimate level, and I feel like the more you read, the more inclined you are to take these experiences and bring them into real life. You’re not so quick to judge because you know that everyone is so much more than what’s on their cover. There’s a complex story in there, a heart, a whole life, countless moments leading up to this moment in which you cross paths, an entire context that you can’t possibly know about; all these things that create a living, breathing, feeling human being.  A world.

That is why I read so much. That’s why I can’t bear to part with any of my books, even though I know I will have to because I already know that I won’t have enough space for them. Even though some of them are really stupid and I’m kind of ashamed to own them. They have been friends. They’ve understood me.

And they’re always just there, ever reliable, waiting patiently for me to pick them back up when I miss them or when I am lonely, curl into a comfortable position on my bed or on my chaise, and return for another visit; come back home.

Essays, Non-fiction


“Regina, every morning, when I wake up, I take my clothes off, I stand in my underwear, and I look in the mirror to make sure they’re still there,” she tells me as I take a sip of my Lagavulin. “Every morning.”

I had a feeling this would be the kind of conversation that would require Lagavulin. It is the strongest scotch on my shelf and I only bring it out for goodbyes and for serious conversations requiring serious alcohol. My assessment was right.

“Make sure what’s still there?” I ask her, pouring another finger into the glass, topping it off with the smallest splash of water.

She pulls her shirt straps down to show me her collarbones. “These. My clavicles. The proof that, after all these years, I am finally coming close to getting the body I want,” she says. “I’m finally going to be hot. Revenge body.”

I have watched her for months; watched her eat like a bird, watched her slow but steady disappearing act. I have watched her make herself small, quietly. A part of me wanted to tell her, you don’t need to do this, but a bigger part understood why.

“All my life, I wanted to know if this was the only thing holding me back from everything I ever wanted,” she says. “Think about it, the people who have everything — they’re thin, they’re beautiful. What’s a brain? What’s a personality in this day and age? What is kindness?”

Everything, I think. It’s everything.

I rest my cheek onto my palm, and I look at her with softness. My eyes say, continue. These are the things she will never tell anyone else, and I know she needs to say them. We have always had this uncanny ability of communicating without actually speaking. She knows I am listening.

A hint of a smile graces the corner of her mouth. “I have to admit that it’s been really gratifying to be told by practically everyone that I look great now,” she jokes. “Who knew fifteen pounds would make such a difference, right?” I quip back. “Twenty, actually.” She shrugs, and I can feel the mirth fade away.

“It’s been great, but I just—” she trails off, looking down at I know not what. Maybe her hands, hands that have always been slender. “I just need to be beautiful so I know that it’s not why they always leave me,” she finally admits. “Nobody ever gives me a chance to love them. They go right when I’m finally ready, to someone else. It’s another possibility crossed off that checklist I have in my head of reasons that no one ever stays, you know? One less thing that makes me not good enough to love. It’s one less thing that’s wrong about me.” She looks at me imploringly, eyes watery with tears I know she will not shed because they are a weakness she will never allow. Not even in front of me.

There is nothing wrong with you.

I could say it, but I know she won’t believe it.

Because late at night, every night, right before I slip into my bedclothes, I check for my bones, too.

I don’t tell her. I don’t have to. We know each other too well.

I wrap my hands around my glass. I drink.

Essays, Non-fiction

Like no one’s watching

The first thing I noticed was that everyone was watching. Keen eyes took note of everything — your outfit (something from Greenhills), your purse (also something from Greenhills), your shoes (there’s a pattern here and it’s spelled Greenhills), your makeup (inexpertly applied eyeliner), your hair (a mess), your companions — and did the mental mathematics required to place you properly on the social hierarchy. Or at least that’s how I perceived it, back then. It wasn’t so much a dancefloor as it was a zoo, panes of glass between us, invisible, as we observed, observed, observed. And I hated being watched, but I watched right back. What else could you do?

They watched us from the main floor; the people who lined up, risked rejection at the door, and paid their dues once they were deemed worthy of entry by the Amazonian door bitch who’d been known to turn girls away for wearing the wrong shade of nail varnish. We watched them from the raised VIP ledge; we who got in by virtue of having the right pedigrees, the right friends, the right money, the right combinations of face and physique, the right power.

There is a thrill that settles when you are young and impressionable — sixteen, seventeen, severely lacking in self-esteem — and you find yourself on that side of the glass, swilling expensive alcohol that’s been paid for by the butterflies of the night who have, on this evening and many others, taken you under their gossamer wing. I’m one of these people; maybe I’m beautiful, too.

But in spite of the inebriation, you find yourself unsettled soon enough; aware that you are not so much a butterfly as a moth, drawn to their light, but not truly among them, not colorful enough. Longing for that vibrancy, wise enough to be wary to come too close lest you catch fire and burn.

Those places were never for dancing. At least not for people like me. I hated being watched. I was the kind of girl who always wanted to disappear.

Almost a decade later, I found myself in a small, kitschy bar in Cubao, the Version 2.0 of a place in Cubao X that I used to watch from Mogwai, across the street, a corner spot walled in glass that I was too afraid to enter. It seemed the kind of place that required one to be real, themselves, just like it unapologetically was, and those were things I wasn’t yet. Strange, to straddle the line between artifice and authenticity and find yourself lost, and without a place to call yours, clinging again from one person to another, borrowing identities that never quite feel your own.

But there I was, between Cebuana Lhuillier and Capitol Pawnshop on General Malvar Street, nervous to be new, but there for a boy.

It was Valentine’s Day, or at least an hour into February 15th, and the bar’s owner’s brother, who I had just been introduced to but would come to know well over the coming year, said: “Are you going to fuck him?” Embarrassed and scandalized, I laughed off the brazenness of the question; my ‘date’ covered my ears.

I kept going back. For him, yes. But more and more, for me. I could feel myself shedding the old skin of who I had been, of all the people I had tried to become, and I could feel new skin growing in that felt right. And that place, it kept me, even after the boy no longer did. It gave me time to figure myself out. It gave me the love, and friends, and patience I needed to discover which parts of myself I wanted to keep, which parts I wanted to burn, which parts I wanted to build.

It gave me their DJ booth — where I learned to love music again.

And it gave me their dancefloor, where, for the first time in my life, I learned to be free. Oh, I will admit that my fledgling steps onto that space, my drunken flailing, my laughter, they were all initially an act. Who wants to look heartbroken? I was determined to look happy; fake until you make. And I think Future knew, and took me lovingly by the hand, and let me slowly find my way back to joy, spent, sweating, and finally smiling real smiles again.

When I am on that dancefloor, I want you to watch me. Because on it, I am real. Because on it, I don’t care what I look like. Because on it, it is my space. Because on it, they understand. Because on it, I am who I am, and I am not ashamed. Because on it, I am neither moth nor butterfly; I am the sun.

(Photograph: Joseph Pascual)