Archive

Monthly Archives: November 2014

Screenshot from In the Mood for Love (2000), dir. Wong Kar Wai. Thanks to Nicole for helping me pick this photo out! 🙂

The most effective way to test a bridegroom’s resolve (to finally, after so many years of watching and wishing and waiting, leave the careless playtime of childhood behind and know with exact experience that you have become an adult) is to bring an old love to the bachelor party. Though Andy learned this firsthand on the eve of his own marriage, it was at the same time one of the bigger secrets he kept in his life. Even in his older years, he thought that the whole incident was best kept between himself and the girl and no one else, and he committed to this, hoping that the girl had done the same on her end as well. He often hoped that the incident would sink into the depth of obscure memories where all childish things eventually end up. Someday, the memory would be forgotten or at least, half-remembered.

From time to time he found himself closing his tired eyes as he sat by the pool, blocking out the sound of his grandchildren running around him or cannonballing into the water, their laughs fading into the grand noise of, as one of his favorite books precisely captured it, “adults pretending to be children pretending to be adults.” He remembered seeing behind his closed eyes the glimmering of orbs of all sorts of colors. On the night of his bachelor party, he was tracing his vision over the shoulders of his groomsmen, no longer minding them or their petty arguments on the history of ideas. They were not interested in going out. They would not last the night. Andy scanned the faces all around the bar, anticipating one whose sustained occupation in his thoughts made her face clearer and clearer. He was hoping that if she just happened to be there, there was a chance that he might relive an even older memory. His eyes stopped as he looked across the pool. It was fortuitous. She was sitting on one of the lounge chairs alone, looking around as well as if she were waiting for someone. She looked exactly as he remembered, exactly as he had been picturing her in his mind. It was uncanny. He held his breath, forced back a smile, and stood up.

And he opened his eyes because he felt his arms shaking, and there were his grandchildren, asking him to join them. He would smile, decline, and tease them, which satisfied him. He longed to close his eyes again. He could never make them imagine the noise that he imagined and still remembered, so that it felt like he was hearing it there and then. He was imagining that the noise of parties that burst muffled from nearby. They were as old as he was. And even when there were parties at the hotel, it came to him no different from the way it sounded when he first heard it as a child. Whenever he heard a party, especially a marriage party, he realized that it was impossible to forget, that what happened that night was forever tied to him.

Andy had seen a number of weddings pass through the hotel in the days leading up to his own. Along the Cebuano coastline, there were dozens of neighboring resorts, and Andy knew from experience that his could not have possibly been the only one hosting nuptial celebrations. The beaches of Cebu were popular for that kind of thing. He personally knew two of the married couples that week, and he paid them visits to extend his congratulations, even to offer a gift from the hotel. As he shook hands or spied the couple entering the hotel having been wed, he paid attention to how the grooms looked, a strange pattern emerging. The grooms receded in age, beginning with a sexagenarian who was thrilled to be coupled with a short brown woman almost half his age and ending with a clean-faced man just a year or two younger than Andy, eyes gleaming with the promise of new life, new beginnings. This last groom was one of the two that Andy knew, one of his juniors from high school. They did not know each other that well, considering that Andy was not a very social student in those days. He attributed this to differences in taste, Andy usually being satisfied with what many of his peers considered a quiet night. In point of this fact, Andy was aware that the young groom’s bachelor party was spent at one of the popular dance-clubs on the other island. Though he had never entered it, Andy had been very familiar with the place. Several times the club had been redesigned or renovated with fancier, curvier architecture, and was slapped with a new name with each facelift. There seemed to be a need to make the club sound like it was more and more the seat of comfort when to Andy it was really anything but that. From then until now, the dance-clubs were where most of the kids went because most of the kids liked going there and they all liked being seen by each other. There was no room for any talking or any sense of real intimacy. Still, Andy shook the man’s hand, exchanged smiles and compliments, and wished them all good luck.

Now that that party was well underway, he started to head back to his room, his mind reeling in the nostalgic familiarity of walking past well-dressed men and their dates, and he remembered a certain night that he lived through as a young man. He was himself dressed up, but not for any wedding. That night, it occurred to him to dress up for himself. He was celebrating his solitude, he recalled. A solitude that would be broken that same night. He stopped in his tracks. He realized that familiar as the evening felt, this night ought to be different. It was the night of his bachelor party. He headed in the direction of the rooms to track down his groomsmen. They were planted in their respective rooms, and whether they had any surprise plans, Andy really had no impression or inkling. It seemed to him that their plan was to simply remain there. He asked them if they wanted to step out of their rooms, hoping to have a drink, even if just there at the hotel bar. Andy’s groomsmen were selected from his bunch in college, a group that was not particularly used to drinking as an activity but used to talking of things that did not involve other people’s business. Andy had had quite enough of that in his pre-college days. The times he spent with them he welcomed, and perhaps that was how he considered them his best men. They each had a beer, beginning to joke about the state of the evening’s affairs and then veering away to talk of theory.

Is it still alive or is it already dead? One of them asked in relation to Schrödinger’s cat.

Perhaps it is a matter of semantics, another suggested. It is alive, but we consider it to be dead, therefore it is indeed both.

But you are suggesting that only theoretically. Making its death a condition in the mind removes the paradoxical quality of the experiment. It must be dead – really dead as it is really alive – or else the experiment is settled…

            If we cannot find an answer, what is the point of posing the question in the first place?

And that was the exact moment he saw her.

The door to Andy’s room yawned open. He stood in the doorway, eyes not quite ready to call it a night yet. He flipped on the light switch and found that he was no longer alone, that he could see

I.

two teenagers already inside, the boy – a younger shadow of Andy himself – in a dinner jacket and the girl (what was it? Her name. What was her name again) – who had been attending a wedding that night – in a dress, standing by the shelf across the door. The girl was unusually talkative.

“I have this friend who went to Germany recently for her older cousin’s wedding. She said that couples who want to get married over there have to go through this thing to bring about luck for the future. It’s nothing at all like a bachelor party. I mean, you can still have a bachelor party, but if you want, you can also do the porcelain breaking thing. Anyway, they get together with all this porcelain and one night, in front of everybody, they just smash all the porcelain and then they clean it up together and I think she was saying that the porcelain is usually porcelain that the guests bring, so they’re bringing all kinds of porcelain, like jars and vases… Don’t they sometimes make toilet bowls and bathroom sinks out of porcelain? … What are you thinking about?”

“This isn’t weird, right?” Andy asked, walking into the room, pulling his jacket off. “I mean, it’s a nice room, even though it feels kinda seedy…” He felt guilty saying this. His aunt owned the hotel, and she was very welcoming to the idea of Andy pitching his tent up there. He had been staying in that room a lot lately. His parents had been going out-of-town regularly now that their business was earning a reputation; negotiations had begun on franchising the establishment up north. He had been given the same room to stay in since he first came over. It was a convenient distance from all the other hotel amenities.

They had bumped into each other as she was walking out of the reception hall, hoping to escape the noise. She was headed toward the swimming pool. It was funny that Andy had happened to meet her on his way back to his room, and he explained the circumstances of his staying there, which led him to invite her up. They had met before when Andy had volunteered for a play that her school was staging. She may or may not have been aware that Andy had developed quite a crush on her then, and it made him nervous to find her there in his hotel. He was bent on impressing her and that night was just the latest in a series of efforts. She immediately texted her parents to let them know that she had come across a friend with whom she wanted to catch up. Though she did not specify who the friend was, she did indicate that the friend would be taking her home.

Andy walked up to her. “What do you think?”

She didn’t seem to be listening. Something had caught her on eye on the shelf hanging across the door. It was a statuette of a man standing behind a woman, his arms gently pressing her belly. She looked at the expressions of the man and the woman, trying to tell how they felt while locked in the eternal embrace. They appeared to be sleeping. She put the statuette back on the shelf horizontally to see if this was true.

“Really?” she picked up the statuette again, holding up on its side to Andy, rotating it slowly to make its lewdness less elusive. He was standing in front of her now. “No kidding. This doesn’t look seedy to me at all. What is this? Porcelain.”

“Well, just because some funny-looking statue has tickled your fancy doesn’t mean—”

It slipped through her fingers and he remembered it crashing slowly, as if it had frozen before it could come apart completely.

*

Andy was shaken out of memory’s grasp once he heard the crash. He looked around and the teenagers were no longer with him. He was suddenly nervous. What had he done? He was no longer a teenager, but there was something about what he was doing that felt so young, so full of wild carelessness. But he was not planning to sleep with her or kiss her or take her when she was not looking. He had only come to the room to get his car keys.

Andy’s car slowly traversed the winding road that went up the hill. The way was poorly lit and every now and then Andy had to be mindful when a truck suddenly leapt out from a blind corner. Nonetheless, he was thrilled. He had always wanted to do this because he was very fond of going up the hill as a child, and he had always hoped that he could share the majesty of that view with someone. Naturally he wanted to go with his fiancée, Eliza, if she weren’t so busy trying to make sure that things came through for the wedding. Their original wedding planner had dropped out a month before the wedding once she found out that her mother was dying of cancer in the United States. Andy and Eliza agreed that they would harbor no hard feelings toward her, but it seemed that Andy had forgotten to bless himself infallible as well. As she took the reins over her own wedding, Eliza seemed to dump her frustration day-after-day upon Andy, who, as much as he wanted to get back to work, had forced himself to accommodate her. He was well aware after all that if he didn’t bear this small cross, he was not off to a good start as her future husband. Attempting to engage himself into a supportive role, he offered to split the work with her, so that she would have less to worry about. Much to his surprise, this set off another bomb in her mind, and she refused to speak to him for a week, though she eventually apologized. Eliza noted that it was indeed very unusual behavior on her part and rather immature. As a future wife, she wasn’t off to a good start either. Since then, she had confided her rants to him less frequently, perhaps to compensate for the one week.

On the week of the wedding, Andy seemed completely mystified as to what Eliza was up to. When the week began, he asked once again if there was anything he could do to alleviate the stress. Her answer was simple and obvious: “Just be there on time.” After that, he had seen so little of her that week that it was almost as if she had flown back home. She was really just running back and forth all the time between places. It was practically a miracle that Andy had the car to himself that night.

“Did you hear that?” Andy asked, referring to the buzz that was coming from inside the otherwise silent car.

The girl leaned forward and opened the glove compartment, where a phone was violently buzzing. It almost fell out onto the floor, but she caught it and managed to read the name. It was Jamie, Eliza’s maid-of-honor.

“It’s Eliza’s phone,” Andy said, reaching out for it. He took the phone and explained to Jamie that Eliza had left her phone in the car. She then proceeded to tell him to tell Eliza about some situation with the cake, that it had collapsed while they were putting it together or something. Andy told her that they just had to relax and try to put it back together as best as they could. In the meantime, they were to make use of the smaller cake because at least that one was finished and okay. The upside to it, he told her, was that no one was going to know what the cake was supposed to look like anyway. Jamie answered okay, but she didn’t sound very sure of herself, and hung up.

When he put the phone down, Andy sighed and remarked that the two cakes would have killed him in college, both financially and physically. It astounded him now that he could afford to actually have two cakes served at his wedding now that he no longer relied on the false income of youth.

“At my wedding, we had a cake made entirely out of macaroons,” she answered. It was good that they were approaching a stoplight when she said that.

“When did you get married?”

“A year before my husband died.”

“Jesus.”

“You didn’t know?”

“I had no clue. I’m sorry. I haven’t seen you in a long time.”

“Well, looks like they were wrong about gossip spreading fast.”

They were quiet for a moment.

“He was already dying when we got engaged,” she added.

They reached the top of the hill, where they came across a flipped-over funnel-shaped structure that turned out to be a small cemetery. They stared out over the city, a view which had rarely changed since their childhood, and then they drove out. Nobody said anything. Suddenly, the view was not at all interesting. Many of the places they had grown up around were still there. The hotel on the hillside, whose ownership and brand had changed hands during their lifetime. The Mormon temple standing on the lot behind Andy’s old school. The tower on Osmeña Boulevard, where you could pay to walk over glass on the top floor. The two of them walked away from the ledge over the hill, as if walking away disappointedly from a window display. Nothing new, one supposes.

II.

Shards bring luck. That’s what it’s all about, my friend said. The word itself means something like ‘to make a lot of noise in the evening’ or better yet ‘the evening of noise.’”

“Will you help me clean this up?”

She completely disregarded him, and leaned down so that her face was close to his. “Let’s go see a movie.”

“I hope they don’t charge us extra for this.”

“Nah. Actually, this feels like a pretty swanky hotel. I bet celebrities come here all the time. They probably always come and go breaking things around the room. Who knows? Maybe it wasn’t even porcelain.”

“Well, whether it’s porcelain or not, it’s still broken and it’s still theirs and it’s still their prerogative to char—what are you doing?”

“Keeping one.”

“Why?”

“I already told you. Shards bring luck.”

Andy said nothing to this.

“What’s curious about the whole thing is that even when the porcelain is still whole, they still call it a shard. It’s just as much a shard as all the little ones.” She smiled. “As far as we’re concerned, we just made them a hundred tiny statues!”

Andy didn’t find this joke particularly funny. He continued to sweep up the pieces of statuette. An arm here. A lip and cheek there. He thought about putting it back together then and there if only he had some glue.

“And besides,” she went on, “Your aunt owns the place, doesn’t she?”

“Yes, she does. But that doesn’t mean I can just go on and rip the entire hotel to shreds. This place has a reputation, and it’s practically the family business.” He sighed. “Who knows? Maybe I’m going to run this place one day, maybe even get married around here, too.” He sounded very certain about this.

“Well,” she then said, bending down across him and picking up one of the larger arm pieces. “If that’s your plan, I should help you clean up then.”

*

They had returned to the hotel swimming pool. Instead of staying at home, Eliza had decided that it was for the best that she and Andy stay at the hotel closest to the church so that it would be faster for them to move back and forth. Andy’s house was on the other island, roughly thirty minutes away. Yet for some reason, Andy had gotten wind from his mother that Eliza was staying over at their house tonight. He hadn’t a single clue why she would even do that. Whether she was expecting Andy to come back or not, he really wasn’t sure. He wasn’t planning on going back. It was too late for anyone to be awake, Andy included, so there was not very much risk of them being seen together. He was giving her a summary of what had gone by for him since the last time they had seen each other. Particular topics of interest to her were what he had done after he graduated, what sort of work he was doing, and how he met Eliza. He was not so keen on telling her, partly because he was afraid that he would fall asleep telling his own stories. And besides, having to drive back and forth between the bar and the hotel had tired him enough already. Eventually, he would have to drive her home too.

“Now I want to go see a movie,” he finally said.

She laughed, but said nothing. Now was probably a good time to get that beer. He stood up and said that he would look for the bar. Coming back, he held two bottles of San Miguel Light, and noticed that her eyes were open a little wider now and her body had tensed up. He immediately asked her, “What’s wrong?”

“Just keep your eyes on me, okay?” she said hastily. “Sit down. Put the beers on the table.”

“What’s going on?”

“Do you see the table on the other side of the pool? That fat white guy in the Hawaiian shirt? Look quickly, but don’t stare. I think he may be looking at us too.”

Andy afforded himself a quick glance, and noted that there was indeed a large man sitting at one of the tables on the other side of the pool and he was indeed wearing a Hawaiian shirt. But he wasn’t looking at them.

“What about him?”

“I’m going to pick up my beer and walk to the car. In five minutes, you will fol—”

“Wait, before we do anything, do you mind explaining to me why you want to get away from th—”

“Don’t gesture at him!” she whispered. “He’s only going to know we’ve been looking at him. Just get in the car and let’s get out of here.”

“Uh…” he thought for a moment about all that was happening. He looked again at the fat man, who was minding his own beer. “Okay, okay. Go ahead. I’ll follow you.”

“Okay,” she said, standing up. “I’m sorry for this.” And then she slapped him right across the face and strutted back to the parking lot. Andy looked across the pool in disbelief. The fat white man failed to notice anything.

III.

“Let’s just lie down for a while,” she said.

The bed was comfortable.

He had an idea of what was going to happen next. The time was ripe for him to say something. But the more he thought about it, the more he realized that he didn’t want to suggest anything. He didn’t want to overstep any boundaries or ruin everything. Everything was perfect now.

“Do you ever think of what life’s going to be like five, ten years down the road?” she asked, looking at the ceiling.

Andy turned his head to look at her, but she didn’t notice. He fixed his gaze on the ceiling as well. He answered: “Yeah, all the time.”

“But I don’t mean what we’re going to be like in the future, but everything else. The world around us. Like, what if five years from now somebody discovers the technology for flying cars and then ten years from now, that shit is patented? And then whenever you go to Tops to look at the city, you’ll see all these things in the sky?”

“Or like what buildings are there and what buildings are gone.”

“Yeah, exactly! Like, how do we even know this hotel will still be here five years from now? I mean, to us, it’s a hotel, it’s a place, but really it’s just a building and there’s probably a great, unstoppable force that’ll come in and take it down. I’ll feel terrible about that. This is a beautiful hotel over a beautiful spot. I don’t want it to ever change.”

“Don’t get me started on dance-clubs.”

“Right, right. I mean, those clubs come and go, and they’ll always be the same even though the names change.”

“You don’t find that boring?”

“I do! It’s just that what you’ve just said makes a lot of sense to me now. They’re always there, but they’ll always be boring because they’re always there. It’s like saying that what makes something exciting is that threat of… destruction, I guess.”

“Well, consider your world five years ago. What’s different between then and now?”

“A lot of things, probably. But back then, I probably didn’t notice what would go and what would stay. I mean, five years ago, I was just a kid.”

“We still kind of are.”

“… Yeah, that’s true! But, you get what I mean right?”

*

When they got in the car, they didn’t talk about the slap or the fat white guy or why she was scared of him or where they were going next. She just made Andy drive and drive. Every now and then, she would point out something that inspired her nostalgia. She seemed content with just telling him these stories, not even expecting him to answer. He was unsure why she was doing this. After all, he had grown up here too. Why was she talking as if she were a tour guide?

When they had reached the main island again, she started giving him directions without telling him where she wanted to go. It took Andy a while to figure out where they were going, and he sighed to himself, realizing that perhaps the night was at an end. Eventually, they were deep in an informal suburban area when she told him to stop. Across the street was a one-story house encircled by a garden. No light came from the house. Weeds had overtaken the front lawn and had even peeked over into the driveway. The gate was ajar. She told him that this was where she lived when she was growing up. No one had been living in it for years now. They stared at it for some time before she decided to open her door and get out. Andy followed after her without asking anything. They stepped through the gate and shone light through the windows to make sure that there was nobody inside. She stopped particularly at one window, and tried to look deeply inside. They tried the door and went through it. They carried their beers with them the whole time this was happening.

In the room, she sat on a dusty old bedframe and sipped from her beer. There was no mattress and no other chair in the room. All the room had was the frame.

The long silence went on between her and Andy, and she waited for Andy to sit down next to her. Then she said: “After we moved out of here, I started dreaming about the day when I’d buy it back, and I’d live here with my family and raise my kids in here. I kind of hoped to marry someone rich, or someone who was willing to live in this place as much as I did. And I’ve been looking for a long time.”

“You couldn’t do that with your husband?”

“Hm?”

Andy regretted the question for a moment, and turned back: “But there’s still time for that, you know. For moving back.”

“No, there isn’t… Someone bought the lot last month. The lot, but not the house. They don’t want the house around here.”

They sat in silence for a long time.

IV.

They lay in silence for a long time.

There were many things he wanted to say to her. In retrospect, he could have told her what he should have, and that would have made everything different. In fact, he thought about it and wondered if they would have done anything about it if he told her. But he was equally aware that it could have ruined the night, if she didn’t feel the same way. No, all he really wanted was for the night to go on forever and ever. Even when he knew that it wouldn’t, unless he said something about it.

So instead, they lay in silence until sunrise, until it was time for him to take her home.

*

Andy carried her back to the car. She had fallen asleep on his shoulder, buzzed by the beer and exhausted by staying awake. As he fastened her seatbelt over her, she muttered the words: “Take me home…” and he answered her that he would, even though he knew that she couldn’t hear him. When she had fallen asleep, he thought he heard her whisper, “We have to clean it up.” He wasn’t sure if she had actually said that. He closed the door on her, and stared at the house once again. He entered it one last time.

As he drove back to the hotel, he started to ponder on the night that had just passed—the circumstances of their meeting that night, the flight from the hotel, the conversation at her house. Whenever she spoke, his vision adjusted to the darkness of the room and he started to become aware that it wasn’t empty after all. Aside from the bedframe, there was in fact a foot stool, a broom, a shelf, and on that shelf, the statuette of the man and the woman. It looked like the exact same one, but he couldn’t be sure of it. The floor was littered with crumbs of paint that glowed when moonlight shone through the windows. Well, they were either crumbs of paint or the old chips of broken jars.

When Andy re-entered the house, he stood across the shelf with the statuette, confronting it, wondering if he should take it or not. There it sat, waiting to be broken again. She never mentioned the statuette the whole time they were there, never drew his attention to it, never gestured or pointed it out. He only noticed it when they were silent, when she had fallen asleep. And yet, she had left it there twice, both when she moved out and when she had visited that night. Why would she leave it behind? Did the statuette mean nothing to her now? In the end, he took it because he knew that it would mean nothing after all because of all the things it implied between everyone involved, it only really meant something to her. It was the memento of a memory, which she was leaving behind in an even bigger one. He decided that it was the last time something would be ruined. No superstitions, no spells or magic or tradition. Just decisions.

He thought a lot about the things that had changed over the last five years. She was not the girl that he had developed his life’s great crush on because she had been changed so much by her circumstances. Or perhaps she had not changed at all; he just barely knew her back then. She was now the end of a trajectory that had been set five years ago (or perhaps she was still in the middle of that trajectory). He wondered about the strange man across the pool, and what he must wanted from her, or if she had made the whole story up to get out of that hotel. He wondered about her house, now he realized that she was visiting it perhaps for the last time. He wondered about her husband, who he must have been and what had killed him so early. He could tell that she was sad now, sad that many things didn’t turn out well for her. She had sacrificed her expectations, and in return she was sleeping now in the passenger’s seat. Perhaps five years ago, when they had that conversation, she had no way of seeing that her life would end up this way. He didn’t even know where she lived now.

The sun was rising as he crossed over the larger bridge that connected Cebu’s two islands. The night of the bachelor party was over now and it was the day of Andy’s wedding. A large oil-tanker, bigger than any of the ships that had crossed through the island when Andy was younger, blew its horn. The skyscrapers of Mactan’s business district, the sight of which he had never really admired until now, glittered. He suddenly became conscious that this building was not actually familiar to him; it hadn’t been around at the beginning of the century, when Andy was still growing up. Moreover, many of the routes he took to get to the bridge passed by the familiar landmarks of his old life, many of them now coming to him as having changed significantly over time. Some of them were even places he had gone to with the girl sleeping next to him in the car. The old seaside mall going decrepit, having been forgotten after the completion of its much bigger, much fresher replacement. The park over the old airfield was now completely urban, no greens. Roads were much larger now. Many parts of the city now had proper sidewalks and a number of overpasses and underpasses. A bus system boasted drivers that were more professional, more polite on the road than the jeepneys that ruled the streets back then. The last of the bars and clubs of their high school days were now completely gone, and in their place, new bars and clubs and restaurants and diners had risen. In many ways, the city now resembled very much the city up north that Andy found so exciting when he lived there in his college days. Andy’s feelings were changing as well. Instead of being utterly repulsed by the idea of living there, Andy could now imagine himself settling down. He had searched outside for many years, and now having finally stopped and looked, he knew that he had reached it, home, with someone whom he knew would be just as happy to call it home too. It was not so much that he had been bored with Cebu. It just took it time to catch up with him. It was a city that fit him perfectly now, and he was not afraid to think that he fit in just as well.

Somewhere, at this hour, the girl he was about to spend the rest of his life with was waking up, as she usually did, and for the first time in an entire month, she was going to feel relaxed that everything would turn out alright. Andy knew that she harbored no fears about their marriage. Neither did he, and he was certain about this every time she suddenly appeared to him. Eliza was not the sort of person who made up expectations for herself. She was so frustrated by the ruining of expectations that she barred herself from making any. She took each day as it came. Perhaps that’s why she was so dedicated to him, so willing to give herself up. When they were still dating, he had simply taken her to this small off-the-road café that she had never heard of. They had good coffee and they talked for hours. At the end of it all, he asked if she liked the café, and she answered him, “What are we doing tomorrow?” He had realized it back then the moment she said it, and it came to him even stronger now: he had given her something to look forward to every time, whether he knew it or not. And she had done the same too. She was someone that he could talk to forever and ever.

In a few hours, he would have to wake his friends up. They would have to have brunch and start getting dressed. The wedding was supposed to happen in the middle of the afternoon, which means they had to be in the church just after lunch. When he reached the hotel, the sun was still in the middle of its rising, which meant that only the pool boys and a few maids were walking about, not minding Andy who was carrying a strange, unconscious woman back to his room. The security guards even offered to help bring her to her room in a wheelchair. He lowered her unto the bed with no fuss, and she slept soundly and peacefully as he wrote the note telling her that if she woke up while he was gone, it was because he was getting married. But then, it occurred to him that this was something that she already knew, and he would rather not remind her. He crumpled up the note, returned to the car to get the statuette, and placed it back on the shelf, wondering if she would notice. He stood at the door and looked at everything in its place almost as it was many years ago, and without really saying anything, wished her good luck for the very last time.

For all the suffering that the three (well, two really… or… three?) Cooke siblings Lowell, Fern, and Rosemary go through growing up, you can’t help but feel that none of them should really be blaming each other. That’s pretty much a given in Karen Joy Fowler’s We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, which was recently nominated for the Man Booker. In this way, Fowler’s novel is a prosaic Royal Tenenbaums, a story about three children who would have grown up alright if not for the royal mess started especially by their father without much regard or remorse for the repercussions. Unlike Tenenbaums however, the Senior Cooke fails to atone for his sins and emerges largely as the overarching antagonist of the novel. Ironically, he achieves this while remaining mostly absent from the novel itself; Rosemary underlines this when she makes an effort to remind us of her father’s name, which I recall being Vince, but I’m not so sure anymore. How we remember that guy is telling of who he really was more than anything else: a psychologist.

The other great difference between Fowler’s novel and Tenenbaums is that Fern, the “middle child”, is a chimpanzee, and like Rosemary, I must stress here that you’re probably already thinking that Fern isn’t part of their family at all. Actually, convincing the reader that Rosemary and Fern are sisters (and to some degree, identical twins) is probably one of the novel’s greatest strengths. As we go through Rosemary’s reflections on her college years and her struggles to remember her childhood with Fern, we are presented with an organic relationship whose moments of tension are deeply felt, especially in the novel’s final pages. I myself admit that the final scene is particularly memorable as it carries with it not only the resolution of Rosemary’s strained relationship with her sister, but her turning to Fern as a result of her strained relationships with pretty much everyone else.

Interestingly, much of the book’s tension relies on Rosemary’s unreliability as a focalizer-narrator, rather than her strained relationships. Though she appears to have complete control over the order of events (she begins her story in the exact middle, as it were), Rosemary is conscious of her own mind’s capacity to trick itself; time and time again, she explains psychological concepts old and new to conveniently remind you that she may not remember everything exactly as it happened. You begin to question whether or not Rosemary’s recollection of an event is faithful to its reality. Otherwise, it may be a watered-down version.

Simultaneously, crucial scenes are withheld for later dramatic effect. This was one of the things that didn’t quite work for me. Rosemary tends to make open references to these events without showing them to us. Instead of tension, the novel sparked up some confusion. I found myself going back and forth, wondering, “That happened already? How could I miss that?” Rosemary also has a tendency to ramble, to digress, which, though appropriate to her character, lost my attention sometimes. A number of background characters seem to lack relevance or are simply convenient to the plot, and Harlow, though the catalyst for Rosemary’s re-evaluation of her relationships with her siblings, is annoying as hell.

Perhaps the novel’s best parts are the Cooke family members’ confrontations with each other, both in the past and in the future. I pored through the first few parts, which presents Rosemary’s early life, struggled a bit through Rosemary’s college years, in which her family seems almost totally absent, and enthralled by the novel’s final third, which brought Rosemary back to Lowell, to her mother, and to Fern. Rosemary’s encounter with her runaway brother Lowell in her college years signals the beginning of her true empathy with Fern. It becomes apparent that while she was aware of her similarity to Fern, she was never aware of her sameness with her. The middle absence is thus fitting, meant to underline Rosemary’s sameness/twinness with Fern, her being thrust into a completely different, hostile environment than the one in which she grew up. The time Rosemary spends with her mother after college is also quietly emotional as Rosemary finally comes to terms with the truth, having obtained her mother’s journals from that early, unobtainable part of her life with Fern. Suddenly, her mother’s attempts to bring the truth to light become her own conscious act of atonement. This prompts Rosemary to fight against a world of cruelty in her own way, which puts her somewhat in the same line of work as Lowell albeit less radical. It might be said then that the family business has changed largely, still dealing in the same market but going in a different direction entirely.

Earlier today I tweeted a link to an article on The Atlantic in which Azar Nafisi, author of The Republic of Imagination: America in Three Books, discusses a James Baldwin quote, which she chooses as one of her favorite written passages. The quote, taken from Baldwin’s interview with Studs Terkel, Chicago, 1961, reads:

You read something which you thought only happened to you, and you discovered it happened 100 years ago to Dostoyevsky. This is a very great liberation for the suffering, struggling person, who always thinks that he is alone. This is why art is important. Art would not be important if life were not important, and life is important.

It reminds me largely of another quote, much younger than this one, that I first heard in the film adaptation of Alan Bennett’s The History Boys (2006), which goes like this:

The best moments in reading are when you come across something – a thought, a feeling, a way of looking at things – which you had thought special and particular to you. And now, here it is, set down by someone else, a person you have never met, someone even who is long dead. And it is as if a hand has come out, and taken yours.

I have no doubt that the former must have been the source to Bennett’s line. For the longest time, I was in the belief that Bennett had originated the idea, not yet having heard of Baldwin in high school. Nonetheless, whether Bennett was the first, Baldwin was the first, or someone else did it entirely, the general idea behind these two quotes is pretty much been the rationale for my desire to teach Literature. I don’t necessarily mean this in a formal classroom setting, but even in the general encouragement of reading among my peers.

Those of you who encounter me in school or visit me in my apartment have likely taken note of my abundance of extra-curricular readings, and, especially if we are friends, my suggestions as to which book you should pick up next. I am typically eager to lend my books, even when I have not read them yet myself, and while I have regretfully lost track of some of them, I hope that they are picked up again one day and loved by someone else. They will serve their purpose. If you have ever wondered why I have chosen Literature my life’s labor, over anything law or medicine or business or anything else, it is encapsulated in the two quotes above and the Nafisi article.

Stories have a very certain power, and Nafisi notes that the power only begins once a reader starts connecting with the book. She even suggests that the connection can even be negative; you can hate the book you’re reading, but that already proves you have a connection. In high school, I struggled through several novels before I felt a real connection with the book. One summer, I decided to pick up Golding’s The Lord of the Flies and finished it realizing that I did not like it as much as I would have wanted. I could not feel a connection with the characters, the poor young boys who transform into savages. But there was an inkling of that connection. I continued to read again and again and again through different books and places and times, and then one day, I discovered Junot Diaz. I opened the first pages of The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, not really sure of what about to happen. And curiously, I found myself in one who was not myself. I felt that I could relate, at last, to a boy growing up somewhere he didn’t think was home and seeking the comforts of science-fiction and fantasy not exactly to escape, but to deal with harsh reality. I read over two days, followed this brief, wondrous life, and ended it, feeling finally that solid connection, a tugging at the heart.

Among my peers, I’ve observed a general dislike or an apathy for Literature. Some even detest the activity of reading, dismissing it as either ‘just not for them’ or ‘something that could drive them crazy.’ Indeed, the popularity of technology, multimedia, and even film adaptation as a cinematic genre (well, one might argue a watered-down genre of adaptation nowadays) hint at a turning away from the written word, whose associations with other words are meant to form the images that generate the films in our heads. Criticism on the youth today with regard to their cognitive skills can be summed up into either a lack of imagination or the presence of an imagination albeit a lazy one. I would like to think that the members of the youth who claim to detest reading have not experienced that connection yet. They have merely been made to accept reading as one in a series of requirements, tedious as many of the other subjects they detest. They have been unable to separate the idea of reading as an activity from reading as a classroom subject. Hence, when they are presented with opportunities to form a connection, they fail to do so because the concern is rather academic than personal.

Curiously, though I was able to form the connection with Diaz’s novel, as I grew older, I became more conscious that the book was not necessarily written with someone like me in mind. How did Diaz even aim for me? I realized that the miracle of Literature was that I turned out to be a lucky reader, one in a million that picked up the book and found myself forever changed. Nafisi herself points out that this is how literature brings the reader into a “republic of imagination that transcends space and time.” I am a Cebuano-Manileño post-adolescent living between both cities, and the person who best expresses me is a Pulitzer Prize-winning Dominican professor who teaches at MIT. “That gives you a sense of hope, a sense of connection and camaraderie,” Nafisi writes. “It is one of those moments when you’re glad you’re human.”

As I grew older, I also became aware that I was not merely discovering myself in books, but that I was more importantly learning how to discover other people. Just as much as I was noting the similarities, I was noting the differences, the points where Oscar and I would not connect. I drew the line between Oscar and me, and that helped me to know him better as well. I think this is essential for writers. As Nafisi puts it: “It is so boring to constantly talk about yourself! And that is the message of fiction—you can’t talk only about yourself. You to understand and give voice to everyone, even people unlike you, even the villain—because even if you’re fighting the villain you need to understand him first.”

And as I grew older, I felt a similar connection with other books, other authors, other characters, and even other literary genres. To name a few, I felt the connection in Nicole Krauss’ The History of Love, Dante’s Divine Comedy, Elizabeth Bishop’s poetry, Yates’s “When You Are Old”, David Ives’ “Variations on the Death of Trotsky”, and most recently, Ruth Ozeki’s A Tale for the Time Being. Writing this essay now, I think of all the characters that have sprung from these works and inhabited my mind. They still live there, fondly interacting. Oscar looks up to Dante, and the speaker of Yates’ poem meets up with Leo Gursky and Nao Yasutani regularly for an afternoon walk. These are all fictions, but they all stand for something and they have meant something to me. One day, I hope that they can be important to my kids, or at least, they’ll be the first to open the doors for them, so they can read their own stories and then go tell me about it.

10744682_10152333401996793_122907597_n

Each of Wong Kar Wai’s films require multiple viewings to appreciate deeply. I didn’t even enjoy In the Mood for Love (2000) completely the first time around. However, I convinced myself to try it again, and now it’s one of my favorite films, each successive viewing yielding new insights or new favorite shots. One stylistic feature of WKW’s films is his mastery of pacing; WKW’s films are long, but deliberately so. With each successive viewing, the impression that everything seems completely necessary becomes stronger, and attention is focused especially on slow shots that indicate not only an emphasis, but a lingering upon the subject, which wonderfully tie in with WKW’s thematic obsessions, including the transience of time and the subsequent persistence of memory.

vlcsnap-2014-11-02-08h52m40s160

The Grandmaster (2013) would be your standard WKW package if it didn’t heavily rely on its historical background to enhance its effect and set it apart from his earlier films. While history often makes its presence felt in WKW’s other films (the mise-en-scene and even the quality of the image contribute to the impression that In the Mood for Love is much older than it really is), the history of Ip Man serves as the overarching frame of WKW’s latest foray, beginning with Ip Man’s rise to power over the martial arts schools of China to his final years as a teacher in Hong Kong. At the same time, the film avoids the trope of most bio-films by zeroing in on Ip Man’s passion for kung fu and how that passion is affected both by the tides of change and Ip Man’s personal ambitions, an approach similar to that of David Fincher’s The Social Network (2010) which I favor.

The film attempts to color the telling of Ip Man’s (Tony Leung) journey through contrast the other characters’ stories, most notably achieved through Gong-Er (Zhang Ziyi).1 I was surprised to discover that Gong-Er was WKW’s own invention, considering that Gong-Er’s story dominates the film. Her quest for revenge against Ma San (Zhang Jin) and the reclamation of her family’s honor is set against Ip Man’s relatively quiet life. While Gong sets out to overcome her personal challenges, falling to decline and eventual death in the process, Ip is unable to overcome being separated from his family despite his survival of the wars and revolutions. Setting these contexts up against their meeting and conversation in the latter part of the film renders the dialogue rich and full of tension and double-meaning, for which WKW is stylistically famous. Gong and Ip’s respective foils, Ma San and The Razor (Chang Chen), figure into the film by presenting how the two characters might have turned out had they continued through their lives without certain key qualities. Ma San is Gong Er with too great an ambition and too little the discipline and integrity to achieve it. The Razor is simply Ip Man in different circumstances; he is just as skilled as Ip and heralds his ultimate fate except that he has been exiled to Hong Kong much earlier, before he can expend his potential. The dynamics between these characters draw out themes of possibility and yet the inevitability of fate to overtake the desires inspired by the realm of possibility. At the beginning of his challenge to Ip Man, Gong Yutian (Wang Qingxiang) suggests the role of fate in their meeting. This is echoed in Gong-Er’s final meeting with Ip, where he suggests after Gong reveals her regret over her unrequited feelings for Ip that her regret cannot be a result of choice but their diverging fates.

The contrast between the concepts of fate and possibility are consistent with many other contrasts thrown out into the film. The very start of the film features Ip Man describing the phrase ‘kung fu’ as the combination of two contrasting characters: horizontal and vertical, the former referring to the fatal mistake and the latter referring to the victor. What arises is the utilization of kung fu as an extended metaphor for life itself with victory and defeat being echoed the fates of the characters presented. Gong Er’s many personal victories culminate into regret and the deterioration of both her person and her skill, and she ends the film ultimately accepting her defeat. Ip’s foresight is careful and allows him to survive, but at a great cost. He too realizes the sacrifices that Old China will have to make in order for kung fu to survive, but he is the only one who actually carries it through to Hong Kong. Ip lives out the principles of kung fu even in a mundane aspect. Many descriptions of kung fu and turns-of-phrase are applied to Ip’s gestures and minimal interactions. One particular allusion sticks to mind, beginning with the description of kung fu as being “all about precision”. Later Ip Man is offered a cigarette, and extreme close-ups are made on the hands of each man before presenting a fantastically precise tableau of two men lighting a cigarette.

vlcsnap-2014-11-02-08h50m44s46

Of course, while the film contains loads upon loads of thematic clashes, the other great contrast presented in the film also serves as its commentary on the culture of kung fu: the struggle between the regret of the older generations against the promise of the newer ones. While the film begins with the hope that Ip and his contemporaries will take kung fu beyond the Chinese borders (as Ip expresses in his reply to Gong Yutian), it ends with that same sense of hope that the new generation will be responsible for taking kung fu far, realizing that despite all their skill and power, Ip’s contemporaries have not done much to achieve the goals they set out to do to expand kung fu’s influence. Many images throughout the film suggest that this is a matter of reflecting upon what the older generations have done to contribute and what the new generations ought to do, given their passage. The characters reflect upon the ruins of their cities and even the links that their traditions create to the past. It should come as no surprise that the greatest link to the past suggested by the film is kung fu itself. At the end of the film, Ip recalls Gong telling him: “… all encounters in the world are a kind of reunion.” A montage follows of Ip’s later life, teaching new students in Hong Kong. As he watches them practice, he pensively recalls the life that has passed him by and the China that no longer is. The final shots mirror Gong Er’s memorial of her father, and the shadows of statues on the wall form the literal spectre of the past that looms over Ip as he passes on the tradition to a new generation.

vlcsnap-2014-11-02-08h55m50s42


1. I must admit here that while I was able to appreciate the film more on this viewing, I still found myself relying on this extra-textual source, which collates interview answers by WKW, to inform my reading.