[ fiction - april 10 ]
I would I were a careless child,
still dwelling in my highland cave,
or roaming through the dusky wild
or bounding o'er the dark blue wave...
- Lord Byron
The day was burning hot as we stood before thousands of white crosses in the American War Cemetery, waves of gleaming Christian beacons and a sprinkling of Stars of David set against an immanent billiard table of mat green grass. Here the sky reflected countless auras reaching out from earth, shimmering bleakly in liquid gold and marine blue. I watched Johnson become a distant speck as he strode purposefully across the mirage-like zone of the breathless, perfectly manicured field. Manila City and its blighted stench leagues distant lapped the edges of a polluted sea - an expanse littered with rusting knives and spent condoms; broken concrete sidewalks hosted the humid, toiling masses under a spilt Coca Cola sky.
I joined Johnson inside the Monument, home to the Unknown Soldier. From its circumference bled the vast arc of crosses with its many plaques ‘known only to God' and the ghostly names of steamrolled youth crushed by speeches and the liberty bells of history that toll and toll. Words engraved, axes marked: embattled delineations of small terrors, each smeared by violence, a universe rent asunder. What happened to you, buddy? Don't I know you from somewhere?
- Makes you - Johnson's voice trailed off, an indistinct echo.
He walked out into the hot sunshine; vanished like a ghost in the white heat.
We mostly traveled by Jeepney and ferry, island after verdant island: Luzon to Puerto Galera and Mindoro - where Kinsichi Kozuka, a soldier of the Japanese Imperial Army, lived in hiding for 30 years, convinced that the War in the Pacific was not over. Onto Boracay and Panay. Israelis grimly partying at the end of military service, moody Germans, furtive dope smoking. We took a quick spin through Negros and across to Cebu. We saw Magellan's monument at Lapu-Lapu City that marked the Portuguese explorer's death at the Battle of Mactan in 1521 and the beginning of Christianity here.
Erecting his cross...
Johnson found himself a girl in Cebu City. The fun didn't last for long. After a few days we packed it in. The girl was still asleep in Johnson's room. He kept the fan on and placed a few crumpled bills on the dresser.
- Nice touch, I said.
He shot me a dark look.
We scored cheap air tickets to Leyte. A powerful earthquake struck Cebu City the day after we left. I couldn't believe my timing. Moving along compass points between the convent and the whorehouse, we converged upon Macarthur's huge statue. Corn pipe and shades. The waves splashed and withdrew from his concrete feet.
I have returned.
The weeks ticked by. Johnson flew home, back to the plan. I still had some time left and traveled alone to the provinces north: Aurora by way of Pagsanjan, retracing Francis Ford Coppola's footsteps through the drug and paranoia-laced locations of Apocalypse Now. I returned to Manila and found a cheap guesthouse in Ermita. I wandered the walled remains of Intramuros...up and down Amorsolo Street. I bought a tattered paperback at the American Bookstore in Makati: The Secret History of the CIA. Spooks and vampire attacks. Sweating, adrift.
Early evening restlessness - so hot, hot: hours left to crush. I lay down for a nap in my minuscule room. The tiny window of thick glass could not be opened. Heat. I writhed on sweat-damp sheets - the electric fan on the bedside table working overtime. How long had it been since I'd gotten laid? I closed my eyes and scrolled through my fantasies, took myself in hand...
Sex was easily available in Manila - it was sin city: Makati, Ermita strip, the International Entertainment Center. Apart from Johnson's little dalliance in Cebu, we'd mainly steered clear of this action. For reasons of health and principle, I never went in for Third World sexploitation. One fellow on the plane over recommended getting a blowjob with a mouthful of boiled rice. Yet it's all a matter of degrees. Later, when I witnessed European pedophiles in action on the beach at Panay - brazenly flouting their sickening perversions - it struck me that a blowjob with a mouthful of boiled rice, as long as the mouth belonged to an adult, was nothing.
Blackout. The fan stopped working. Swimming laps in pools of perspiration, the walls closing in, I listened to the pandemonium outside.
I had to get out of there.
Loneliness...it was loneliness. It got so bad I even found myself missing Johnson. I hit the bar action along Roxas Boulevard. The bars also constituted the girl action. Sex and beer were the only two products Manila manufactured. Of course, there were more upmarket joints in Makati: Blue Cafe, Planet Mars and oddities such as The Hobbit, where every waiter was a midget, and the famous folk singer Freddie Aguilar headlined most nights. Hell, I only wanted a beer, or thirty.
Walking up and down Roxas dodging the wake: bar girls, pimps, sailors, touts and transvestites. Wave after wave of whores. I saw one bar doing a laidback trade next to the notorious Firehouse, insinuating its operation on the sidewalk. It wasn't too crowded. I could pull up a stool, sit at the bar and still check out the sexual collisions on the street. I settled in, ordered a cold San Miguel, threw it down in a few seconds. A breeze picked up. I ordered another beer.
- Enjoy it, son, enjoy it.
American accent. I turned and saw an elderly gent parked on a nearby stool. He was waving girls away like flies. I raised my bottle; he asked me to join him.
I joined him.
- Welcome to my domain, young man.
- Come here a lot, do you?
- Live here. Manila is home now.
I thought there were only sex tourists in Manila, the odd Jonah such as myself, or everyday backpackers who arrived and got out fast to go to the islands. A foreign resident was something different. He said his name was Maynard - I never knew if it was his first or last name; said he hailed from Rochester, New York. He turned out to be a retired aid worker; well traveled, evidently reeking of wisdom.
- I was one of the original Peace Corps volunteers. Kennedy said: 'do not ask what your country can do for you but what you can do for your country.' People think that's hackneyed rhetoric now, but it inspired me, it truly did. My career has followed that line: UNICEF, non-governmental agencies, international aid bodies. I headed missions running food and irrigation programs.
- You must have traveled quite a lot.
- Indeed I have, he smiled. You name a place and I've probably been there. I've worked in many African nations. Five years in India, then Bangladesh. I've worked in Surinam, Papua New Guinea, Uzbekistan. I spent my last ten professional years in the highlands of China, before I retired to the Philippines.
- Rewarding work, I observed, feeling a momentary deliverance upon the lighthouse shores of a soul whose decency beamed through this sultry evening of jagged flotsam and jetsam. Pricks like this did exist; you just had to bump into them.
Maynard smiled kindly.
- You know, son, if you treat people decently and with respect, teach them the basic skills to look after themselves, well, any nation can rise above its shortcomings. It's a question of doing the right thing.
- Remember, too, he lifted his beer to his lips, that we rich nations must do our part. That's the parcel of our responsibility to these undernourished folks in the Third World. It's the pact we have with our fellow man.
He held out his hand and waved it across the crowd of bargirls and drunken patrons. These were his people.
- Lend a helping hand. It's my creed.
At that moment, several young whores dutifully trotted over to our table and began to preen. Maynard laughed in a kindly patriarchal manner and told them to scat. He suddenly looked at me as if he'd committed a faux pas.
- I'm sorry. If you were seeking female company, I'll call them back.
- Don't worry, I said. That's not my scene.
Maynard considered his beer for a moment.
- I don't often enjoy intelligent conversation.
I wasn't sure what he meant by that. He was doing most of the talking. Yet as the night wore on, and Maynard became more drunk, he dropped the subject of himself - which after all is every American's favorite topic during ice-breaking formalities, since any American has to be eminently more interesting than his or her immediate company, even if it's another American - and gratefully demurred to fling a few questions regarding my own case history. I mumbled a few details. There was little to tell.
I preferred to let him run the show. Maynard was older and wiser, after all. He talked on, if in a somewhat proprietary fashion, about the world and the way it should work; he spoke about his compatriots that fell on this island in past combat delivered freedom of choice in the sacrifice of their future. This was a kind of truth, but we also sense how the mechanics of power often run counterclockwise to such sentiments.
Yet on he raved, drifting occasionally into a stream-of-consciousness babble. Or at least it seemed that way. I was in my and he'd obviously gotten that way, too. The beer flowed like wine. We'd become members of each other's fan club. I decided to ask him something personal, since his choice of a retirement home in this tropical Sodom had me a little intrigued. I was still fairly naïve.
- I can't figure one thing, I said, tilting my bottle at the street that heaved with drunken men trolling for sex, sailors vomiting in the gutter, and nubile Filipina hookers swinging the length of its neon-lit meat market. You've lived in all these different places; you could have settled anywhere you wanted. Go back to Rochester; enjoy a peaceful life, the trappings of a hard-earned, righteous success. Why pick here of all places to retire?
Maynard smirked knowingly and clicked his fingers. A young girl clad in bikini top and hot pants - no more than 14 - swaggered seductively over to the table. He patted his leg and she got on board. He reached over her body with his flabby arm, ran it along her smooth brown back and around her armpit, resting his withered paw on her pert little breast. He squeezed. He sort of smiled. She smiled, sort of, reticently - the smile of an experienced victim.
- I'll tell you why, son, the old man broke into a leering grin. He ran his beer bottle lightly along the rippling contours of the girl's hungry ribs, and rolled his tongue along the inside of his wet, flaccid mouth.
He kept grinning.
- It's got the cheapest pussy on earth.