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)