Essays, Lost in the World, Non-fiction

Extra, extra

“Reg, are you free on Monday?” my Italian friend asks me on Messenger. “Yes, I am, bella. Why?” I reply. “I am trying to help my friend find foreign-looking people to be extras in a teleserye.”

She tells me the talent fee I’ll receive for being in the background for a day (the fee for afams is reportedly P1,000 more than locals get, and because I’m not with an agency, no one gets a cut), and I figure to myself that it isn’t as though I’ll be doing anything anyway, so I may as well make a little pocket money by doing nothing somewhere that isn’t my bedroom. It’s more than I’d make writing a feature for a magazine, and the money is handed over in cold, hard cash immediately after the shoot.

That, and like many others I know, I’ve always had a not-so-secret fantasy about being an artista. (I used to seriously want to audition for Big Brother to see what would happen. “Don’t,” was the advice I received from a friend who was actually a Housemate in one of the Celebrity Editions. “As in, do not. It’s terrible.”) This would be my opportunity to see what that world is really like. For that alone, I just have to say yes.

Our call time is nine in the morning, and upon waking at exactly nine in the morning, I try to back out. “Don’t worry,” I’m told, “these things never start on time; you can still make it.” I arrive at the location — an events venue in Quezon City — at half past 10 and recognize some legitimately foreign friends lounging outside the Sbarro next door. “What’s happening?” I ask. “Nothing yet,” they say, although we have all already made ourselves up and dressed in black. The scene we’re shooting today is a formal-ish function, and we were instructed to dress for a black and white party. The small but air-conditioned changing room — like a glorified Portalet — is set up on the sidewalk by the road, next to the show’s catering service, housed under a rental canopy, and a tent that serves as a holding area for other extras’ things, but not the extras themselves.

At 11:30, we are all antsy. It’s an incredibly hot summer day, and we retreat into Sbarro to enjoy their air-conditioning under the guise of buying drinks. Some of us leave to grab a bite to eat. (They ultimately do not return.)

At 1:30, we find out that taping starts in half an hour, and that we will be expected to remain on set until taping for the day ends. “Sometimes it is just a few hours,” my friend tells me. “Sometimes, it is until early morning.” But one of the main actresses for this particular show has a clause in her contract stating that she will not tape past two in the morning, so at the very least, we know the worst case scenario. This is the point of no return — do I commit the next 12 hours to this endeavor, just to sate my curiosity about what life in showbiz is actually like?

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Essays, Journal, Non-fiction

Becoming

It is July 2015.

I am in Berlin for my 28th birthday, crashing on a friend’s couch for the next 12 days. I’m on my own across the world from my parents, something I’ve never been allowed to do before now, but I’ve never really been allowed to do a good number of things by Millennial standards anyway, so it’s a gift I appreciate all the more. (I suppose getting your heart broken and your pride wrecked by someone who gave you the idea that he wanted to be more than a summer fling does have its perks.)

The feeling is like being underage and getting drunk for the first time: like I’m doing something I’m not supposed to, and it’s the best thing ever. Except this time, I’m doing it with a lot less guilt and no fear, because there will be no repercussions — no one is watching; I don’t know anyone here. I can do whatever I want, and there is no place for doing that quite like this city.

No one watches in Berlin. No, that is wrong. They glance, and then look away politely; they do not document, and they do not judge. There’s a respect for privacy and individuality here that I never thought possible, which is unsurprising because Manila is the polar opposite, and Manila is the only place I’ve ever truly known. In Manila, there are no strangers. There are whispers, and whispers spread like wildfire, so you tread carefully.

In Manila, you either disappear or do your best to fit in, which is essentially the same thing. There’s this homogeneity to it. Ironically, despite the need to blend into the wallpaper, there is also a need to be seen, but not necessarily for who you are, unless who you are fits into the preferred social mold. If it doesn’t, you trim bits of yourself off until you do. So many give up personalities to become Personalities. Go where everyone goes. Wear what everyone wears. Do what everyone does. So pretty, so clean, so #GOALS. But it is all surface, surface, surface.

I came from a time less policed, when people felt more comfortable baring their souls to strangers who would eventually become real friends, which is probably why I still sometimes do, although things have changed considerably since then. But I have no right to judge if those who came after that era choose not to make themselves vulnerable; that is their prerogative, as this is mine. And perhaps theirs is the better choice in the end; there is less of them available for scrutiny, for judgment, for the condemnation of strangers who will most certainly not be your friends. But almost everything is so thoroughly sanitized. We present only the best of ourselves, the idealized and aspirational, and it turns into a never-ending cycle of everyone else trying to do the same thing: bury our grit in the dirt and pretend at perfection. It’s safer that way.

Berlin is gritty, and it is dirty, and it is all the more breathtaking for it, and within 12 hours of landing exhausted at Berlin Tegel, taking a quick nap, grabbing a bite, and being dragged out by friends to two clubs thinking that not wearing a bra under my backless tank top might be the most scandalous thing I have ever publicly done — my God, it’s nothing here — I already know I will leave this place irrevocably changed, because for the first time in my life, I am going to be allowed to learn — or decide, or discover — who I am, what I really want, and what kind of person I am capable of becoming outside of Manila’s gilded limits, in a place where everyone is free. The cage is open; I am about to fly.

No, that is the wrong metaphor. The abyss is before me; I am about to jump.

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Essays, Non-fiction

Dichotomies

“What is it like?” she asks me.

“What is what like?” I ask back, not understanding.

We are in Starbucks, decidedly not having coffee cognoscenti-approved third wave beverages. I sip on my very basic mocha frappuccino with absolutely zero shame and plenty calories. (It’s cheat day anyway. On cheat day, you are allowed to cheat not only on your diet, but on your high-brow pretensions as well.)

For some reason, real talk is easier in Starbucks. There are so many of them these days that you’re unlikely to run into anyone you know, and depending on the branch of your choosing and the time of your visit, it can be so crowded with the noise of strangers that you need not worry about anyone overhearing — let alone caring about — anything particularly sordid or sensitive that you intend to discuss.

“What is it like? Well. You know.” There is the shrug of shoulders and a quick quirk of the head. “Spending your entire adult life trying to figure out who you are and what you want, and finally getting there,” she replies. “It must be pretty damn good, right?”

I laugh at her incredulously. “Mel, I’m not even 29 yet. If I’m at all lucky, I still have some time to go, and a hell of a lot to learn.” There is a lot of world yet to see, and even more than that to experience, and I feel as young and wide-eyed as I ever have, except with more of the freedoms that come with age, and I may not look it or feel it, but I am aging.

I pause to think. It is not an easy question to answer. “It depends, I guess,” I tell her. She arches a perfectly groomed eyebrow at me. “‘It depends’? The hell kind of answer is that? What does that even mean? ‘It depends.’” She rolls her eyes.

“It depends on what you find yourself becoming, in the end, and how easy or otherwise it is to continue to be that,” I reply.

“Explain.”

“It’s the best and worst thing in the world,” I say, “to start to determine for certain who you are, who you want to become, and what you want your life to be like. Because once you hit that point, there’s no going back.”

The look on her face is quizzical. “Why would you want to go back? Isn’t it a good thing, to definitively know who you are?” she asks me.

For her benefit, I try to give myself an approximation of the Manhattan once-over for emphasis. “Look at me. Do you have any idea how difficult it is to be different here on a superficial level, let alone in terms of principle? To, I dunno, swim against the current with the knowledge that it would be infinitely easier for someone like me to just go with the flow and become what everyone thinks and expects I should be, yet also knowing that to do so would kill me inside?” I ask her in return. “I’ve tried. I’ve tried to be that girl. It’s for other people, but it’s not for me.”

She laughs. “You and your Goth/fetish aesthetic,” she jokes, glancing at the leather collar I’ve taken to wearing lately. “Yeah, name five other people we know who can pull this look off,” I smirk back at her.

Sometimes I think I am resigned to this, to always being the oddball. Sometimes I resent myself for it, for not trying harder to realign myself and my interests and my attitudes, for not trying harder to fit in. I resent myself for the isolation I feel; the loneliness. (“He said you had too many issues for him,” I was once told by a friend about another friend with whom I had briefly shared a mutual attraction. And at first, it hurt like hell to hear — would I ever have a chance at love? would I have to make myself basic for it? — but when I was composed enough to think, I realized, who doesn’t have issues? Ours were likely just as incompatible as we were, and all the better to have discovered this early on.)

When I look past the internal conflict, though, mostly I am content. I have compromised, in some ways, as we all must, but I have never truly compromised myself.

“I’ve spent the greater majority of my adult life warring with expectations, real and imagined,” I tell her. “One time, I was at this very Starbucks with my friend and former co-worker Irish, and we got to talking about our time at Cosmo, and she straight up told me, ‘Mads, we always used to wonder why you were even there in the first place. Why did a girl like you even have to work? And you worked so hard, and never let anyone help you.’” I laugh, mix my fast-melting drink with my straw, and take a sip. “That’s just one of the things people thought of me — entitled little Daddy’s girl, which of course I sometimes am, but when you give me a job to do, nobody will do it better. Others thought I’d run straight to Dad and get a cushy job at the newspaper handed to me, which is the last thing I wanted, so I applied to Summit after graduation without anyone’s knowledge and worked my way up from the bottom for years.”

“And you’ve avoided politics like the plague,” she adds.

“Like the fucking plague! Yes!” I exclaim, laughing. “There was a point where I could have still been molded for that, but those years have passed, and nobody would ever vote for this anymore.” I am a little too strange now, a little too immovable, a little too uncompromising. Far too idealistic. Politics would destroy my spirit more than society ever could, and society has done enough.

I nick her fork and take a bite from her slice of Oreo cheesecake. “Is it so rich girl problems?” I ask her.

She smiles at me sadly. “To people who don’t understand, and most don’t, or won’t even try to because they can’t fathom that people like you have the right to have issues, yes,” she replies. “But you understand, right? You understand that this is the context you were born into. You didn’t choose it; this is the subset of planet Earth that you just happened to materialize in, and you’re only doing what you can with your life and everything you’ve been given. You just happen to be lucky to have been given a lot, and you can’t be blamed for that.”

I look down at the palms of my hands, and promptly press my face into them, grateful beyond belief that someone gets it. I feel her hand rubbing circles on my back. “You feel guilty, don’t you?” she asks me. “That’s the worst part, isn’t it? You feel guilty for being born into the world — the life — you were born into; something you had no control over. You feel guilty for things you shouldn’t feel guilty for.”

I turn to face her and look her straight in the eye. I am trying not to cry, but I’ve always been terrible at that. “Mel, I’m clinically depressed and I’ve never felt lonelier in my life, but at the same time, I wouldn’t trade this life for anything in the world,” I tell her. “Because it’s mine. Because I’ve done what I could with it. Because I actually get to choose what to do with it from this point on.”

(Photograph: Joseph Pascual)

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Essays, Non-fiction

Signals

In the early 2000s, it would be the flashing of the bottom-most light on our intercom — my personal line, indicating a call — that would set my heart to racing. Only a handful of people ever knew that number for the thirteen years it existed, and for the life of me, I can’t remember why my parents even gave me my own landline to begin with when the advent of cell phones had already begun. But it would be that light, blinking, and I’d know there was a conversation ahead with someone who meant something to me.

I can no longer remember what it was like to talk for hours upon hours on the telephone, like I used to almost daily for years. Nobody does that anymore. What did we talk about, when we still used to talk?

Ten years later, advancements in technology changed the art of communication completely and my landline went mostly unused, partly because smartphones and the Internet made messaging more efficient than long chats on the phone, and partly because I had parted ways forever with the person who last used that number.


I use R2-D2 ringtones on my iPhone for receiving messages because I am a proud nerd, and also because so few other people do that I almost always know it’s my phone ringing.

The first is a frantic string of beeps and bloops — Artoo sounding adorably panicked — that I’ve set specifically for members of my immediate family. ‘R2-D2: Curt,’ it’s called. It’s the perfect choice for them, because they typically only text me when it’s important, and theirs are the messages I can never miss, never ignore, and never not reply to unless I want to get into more trouble than I’m already in, so the sense of urgency I’m immediately launched into upon hearing that particular tone is ideal. It puts me right in the “Oh shit, what have I done now?” mindset — I am instantly ready for action, or snap into the creative writing zone I need to be in so that I can come up with a logical, reasonable explanation for whatever it is I’ve done wrong. (Usually it has something to do with my curfew, which I believe has finally been abolished.) I remember when my brother still had a BlackBerry, and the indicator light in the corner would flash in multiple colors every time it was Mom messaging or calling, like mini disco lights. “It’s so I know it’s you and I can start freaking out,” was the logic behind it, just like mine, though I get the feeling he received far more angry text messages typed out in capslock than I ever did. (And probably still does.)

The second is a fairly standard series of R2-D2 chirps; cute, brief, and cheerful. ‘R2-D2: Happy.’ It’s the tone I use for everyone else, and it is what it is: functional, pleasant, and nondescript. It could be anyone, it could be anything.

And there is a third one that I only used once, and have not since. It is called ‘R2-D2: Tri-tone,’ but the name doesn’t do it justice. It is three happy notes, bright, excited, and thrilled; precisely the way I would feel every time I would hear it. The only time I ever used it was for a boy, and the sound of it would send a jolt up my spine. I imagine I must have had the dumbest smile plastered onto my face every time it would beep from my purse or pocket, but I just loved hearing that tone and knowing that there was something waiting for me from him, even if it was only a hello or a how are you? It made me light-headed, like a schoolgirl with a crush. (I certainly wasn’t a schoolgirl, but I did have a crush.) “O, who is that? It’s him, no?” Raymond or Milan used to say in the office on closing days, when I’d zone out of work and zoom onto my screen with a self-satisfied little smirk on my lips, fingers tapping out a snappy reply. I would just smile back at them after hitting send.

The last time that tone beeped was when I got The Message from him — the digital equivalent of The Talk, the one every girl dreads, the formal apology and the ending of the affair. And after that, I set his tone to the same one I used for everyone else, and he became just like everyone else again, too. Anyone, anything. No one, nothing. I didn’t realize how much that small action would hurt until I actually had to do it, but it hurt, like having hopes dashed, like defeat, like potential gone kinetic, then come to an abrupt and unexpected stop.

And the silence afterwards was deafening.

I briefly toyed with the idea of using that tone again for the next one who seemed like he was serious (for some reason, it’s when you transition from online messaging applications to actual text messaging — even though iMessage is essentially the same thing — that things start to feel a little more serious), but I had since learned caution, and in the end, that lesson paid off. It was one less hurt to handle when that, too, came to a sudden, unforeseen end.

It has lain dormant among my selection of sounds for almost two years now. Part of me thinks I may never use it again. But the smaller part that still knows what it is like to hope is just quietly waiting for someone who will deserve those three utterly delighted notes, that much joy.

(Illustration: Ralph McQuarrie)

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Non-fiction, Vignettes

Vicarious

(Note: This was written in April of last year. It still applies today.)

“I’m worried about him,” my mother says of my youngest brother, fourteen and taller than all of us, but so young for his age, innocent. She and I sit at the dining table, running the gamut of conversational topics like we do every day. We’ve discussed interior decoration, local showbiz, her friends, mine, the state of our extended family. As is always the case with us, the subject matter grows closer and closer to home until we get down to business: analyses of my brothers, of me.

Neither of us thinks my youngest brother is equipped for the real world, a place of which he and I have always had a more limited understanding because of our limited interaction with it. He attends a small school with a handful of equally oblivious classmates who are probably out of touch with reality. I am the only daughter. Sheltered as we have been all our lives, and sheltered as I still am even in my late twenties, our ignorance of human nature, of people and their darkness, comes up regularly in these conversations between my mother and I. He and I, we are too soft for this world.

“Maybe it will help if he reads more books. It helped me,” I tell her. And it’s true; what I lacked in real life experience, I made up for by living vicariously through people in pages, fictional and non-fictional alike, living less comfortable but more colorful lives than mine. I’ve always believed that reading teaches empathy. I lived hundreds of lives before I even began to live my own.

“I think it helped you too much,” replies my mother in Filipino. “You’ve always been so sad.”

She switches gears. “I got his grades today. They’re outstanding. His lowest grades are in English, but I can’t even complain about them because they’re still good,” she informs me. This is not a surprise; my youngest brother has always gravitated towards maths and sciences. “He has the vocabulary of a writer. He just isn’t one because he doesn’t use it to embellish. All he sees is what’s there, and he will use the barest minimum of words to tell you exactly what that is,” I explain.

In this family, the realm of seeing everything except what’s right in front of my face belongs to me.

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