"our youth is where the only gods we ever created live"
Twenty-six years later, “Baguio City” are merely two words. Was there ever a house atop a mountain circled by an asphalt ribbon winding its way through happiness? Was there ever a husband, wife, eldest son, middle son, youngest son and middle daughter who was myself as a girl? Was there a housekeeper one pitied for a face so unappetizing she even would swallow an eight-year-old girl's insults? Because ugly women return only to mirror-less closets and collapse into puddles of cheap polyester. But if the eight-year-old knew that, did childhood really bear no fraying edges? (Was there ever a middle son who died too soon?) Was there really a Baguio City? Ferdinand Marcos: how you confuse me!
I believe I once skipped rope in the dining room, though it was forbidden by my parents. But they were looking for gold spilled by the Japanese in their haste to depart when their emperor bowed his head for the first time. And the servants retained vivid memories of aging parents in villages surrounded by dusty fields, empty ponds and mountains blackened by the fires of private armies searching for men who raped their beloveds. So I skipped rope all around our narra dining table until a fly—big and black—bothered me. Inadvertently, I let go of one end of the rope to swat the fly. It betrayed me and became a whip that lifted a vase off the table before smashing it onto the floor newly-burnished with halved coconut husks. And I heard my parents hailing, Hal-looo, as they entered the front door. Maria, the youngest maid, hearing the shattering crystal, had arrived in the dining room mere seconds before my parents. I can still hear the kitchen door squeaking as my mother dragged Maria by her left ear to banish her from the house. It was not the first time Maria took blame for one of my actions; but it was the last time and I remember my eyes were wide but dry as they watched Maria walk out of the door lugging a torn, plastic suitcase.
My father has the ugliest feet ever created. I inherited their mere influence and it's enough to make my husband point at my feet and exclaim, Oh, you're the missing link! whenever I displease him, say, by chasing yet another white-bearded artist. But I like my father's feet—when bared, they remind me of dead frogs: brown corpses with wrinkled skin and absolutely no hope of moving up the Karmic ladder. What good deed can a frog do except refuse to eat a fly? I like my father's feet because when they move I leave the vacuum of pondering the question of frogs and flies. This is why I wish my father would live forever. Because once his feet refused to move, how would I stop pondering the imponderable: that I, too, am mortal and there are sins for which I inevitably will pay?
Years later, in a country replete with skyscrapers, I will plunge deep into my heart and recall with awe how I never noticed my mother pinching pennies—rather, centavos. Why did I only have one doll? Why was she naked until my mother told one of the servants to sew her a dress from an old t-shirt? Servants—is that why I never noticed how often I ate rice with sugar and diluted milk? Because there were always people around sufficiently worse off that I could never do enough to make them stop brushing my hair one hundred times an evening? I felt unaccountable relief at pulling that dress over my doll, smoothing the fabric down past its knees. Why did I never learn to stop asking for more? I did not learn until after my departure that lesser developed countries fertilize strange ironies: when a country is too poor, even the poor have servants and this natural chain can regress forever until one might as well be an amoeba.
My mother frequently took me with her to see movies in downtown Baguio. Just the girls, I can hear her say in my memory although I know that in reality we were silent as we passed through the door, leaving behind my father equally silent as his dark eyes watched my mother's receding back. In the movie theater, I would watch my mother's legs instead of the torn screen whose stories about blonde characters never folded themselves around my kayumangi heart. I would watch her thighs—how, as she crossed her right leg over her left and, sooner or later, vice versa—her skirt would ride upwards. In the darkened theater, her stockinged thighs would gleam. I would pull her skirt down as much as I could until she pushed away my hands in irritation. Then I would content myself with looking about fiercely at who might dare notice my mother's gleaming thighs. Until my mother pinched me and whispered, Stop fidgeting. Then I would settle back into the same rigidity that turned my father back home into a statue. Except for my eyes—like my father's—flickering, watching for what shape the devil next would come in.
The schoolchildren wore uniforms: white blouses and dark blue skirts. Everybody knew to buy skirts with long hems that could be let down as the girls grew taller. No one thought to notice the pale horizontal lines that came to mark the girls' skirts as they moved from one year to another, each parallel line marking a passage from first grade to second grade to third grade and so on. Anna was the tallest child in elementary school by the time she entered the second grade. By the sixth grade, her skirt had a hem the width of her mother's infinitesimal stitches and still, the skirt, failed to dip much below her panties. But even the black-robed nuns remained silent because Anna had six sisters and their mother was a widow. To this day, I can never wear a mini skirt. Anna's knees were knotted like old wood: rotten to the core like a dictator but quicker to buckle under pressure.
Every week we would be shepherded by nuns into a Catholic Church whose grey spires and cracked stained windows loomed over the plaza of our school. I hope never again to see children's faces as solemn as the sheets encasing my classmates' faces. A reflection does not allow for the honesty of a third-party observation. I believe it impossible not to pose in front of a mirror. I stroked the smooth mahogany of the bench while I waited for the children to flow through the confessional booth. And I would watch them stand in line, their faces battlefields for the attempt to concoct sins they could confess to the waiting priest. To be lacking in something for which the Church could play a role was to be lacking, even though its lack was supposed to be a virtue. Many would look at where I, a non-Catholic, sat, wishing to trade places or at least for an encouraging smile from me. I never met their eyes. I merely traced the smoothened wrinkles of wood and vowed never ever to be so fragile, like the little girls with solemn faces clad in dark blue skirts with undone hems marking their growth. They also wore white blouses, always pristine and usually threadbare.
Whenever we were visited by relatives from the barrio, I always had to share my bedroom. I would wake to old men and women huddled together on thin mats on the floor beside my bed. They were always grateful even when the first cup of coffee was too watery. My parents consistently offered visitors my bed, but no one would displace me—perhaps that's why my parents always offered, even if to my father's brother whom my mother despised. And where would the angel sleep, all would brush away my parent's offers. This angel had never known to be uncertain over her parents' offer to sacrifice her bed. How did this come to be—today I happily would give up my bed for the elderly. But the best I still can do about the homeless is pretend to ignore those shoplifting groceries. Where's the consolation? I've seen too many old men and old women sleeping on hard surfaces. How am I ensuring the certainty of never being displaced when what is lost becomes seamless into what is gained?
Black feathers, corn kernels so young their whiteness blinds, an unraveled sleeve, a weeping servant, my father's 30-inch waist, younger brother begging me to decipher a fish head, boiled bone marrows, rhinestones in my mother's eyeglasses, middle brother learning global geography by filling notebooks with foreign stamps, neighbors peeking through the fence, slices of green mango encrusted with salt, oldest brother practicing opera to the household's bated breath. AND behind an armchair, I sat silently, a naked doll clutched to my chest, persistently suckling one thumb in my mouth.
Hammer a chasm until it bleeds snow and gravel. Then you'll taste zinfandel by biting your lover's tongue. What does this have to do with me? I am short with flat hair and no flesh on my lips—I am stuck with critical tears. Others have tamed gorillas and hailstorms, rolled bodies safely under waves attempting to topple green-eyed bankers off their surfboards laminated with frozen lightning. Who weeps for discipline when the Midwest lines up to have their teeth blackened by double entendres? So hammer that chasm until the head falls off to bounce on a suture and undoubtedly hit me smack between my eyes.
Truly, I was a stupid child. How could I ignore any significance to the placement of my family's house atop a mountain. The views were munificent with magnificence—beyond the living room window one could stare into God's bedroom. Drop a gaze and one could consider the edges of the universe unraveling the suture against a godless black hole. The breathlessness of seeing! Such sheerness! Except for that shock interrupting the path from the bottom of the mountain up to the gates that opened onto my family's front yard replete with bougainvillea bushes. Halfway up and halfway down the mountain, a box leered with peeling paint, broken shutters, a mistress with a voice like fingernails scraping a blackboard and two humongous black dogs with snouts as long as a dictator's lie. I felt such relief at being attacked by those dogs. I had waited so long for the inevitable. But my family never moved from the view into God's bedroom, despite my bandages continuously sprouting red blooms whose petals insisted on widely unfurling. Just when one heard God opening his curtains, a man in Manila mugged the country we shared. Then and only then did we leave that house atop a mountain. Did we overlook so much as we tilted our eyes upward? Like the ants whose nibbles irritated dogs or distracted my family from earthly issues? Like how children define "HOME"?
I never experienced an orgasm in Baguio City. I used to consider this significant until I recalled how I stopped coming when I evolved into a married woman. Is my husband Baguio City? Is that why I married him? No, I married him for his money. But we woke after our wedding night to his question: I thought you were the rich one. Then why are we celebrating our tenth wedding anniversary? Because he is Baguio City? Yes, with him, I am a girl again. He may be poor but he is a mensch: he can only take care of me. I followed him to Israel last year and it was no price to pay. If anything, to float on my back in the Dead Sea enhanced my debt to him. Of course, I have debts to Baguio City, too. I would love to repay those debts but I can never find my way to return. All those Imelda Boulevards, Imelda Highways, Imelda Avenues, Imelda Streets and they all lead me circling like a vulture over and around the city. But Baguio City, surely, is no stinking peace of dead meat? No matter how much I desire to land, Baguio City is closed to me. And I must simply make do with my Jewish husband whose sole word of Ilocano, Baguio City's language, is "kili-kili." It means, ARMPIT.
I grew up in a house enfolded by a balcony to maximize enjoyment of mountainous scenery. The air was as crisp as chicharron, fried pork skin. Below my nose a field of sunflowers sprawled on its knees. I never knew what those golden orbs were begging for. Two decades later, in a garden in Munich, I would be hailed by their cousins and marvel at how much taller sunflowers grow in Germany. Is it that Germanic air that lacks manana-time? The balcony ended before invading the air over the backyard. In the past I applauded that decision—in the backyard, a faucet monotonously leaked drops of rusting water. Occasionally, the leaks would offer a reprieve to our household, but when the puddles evaporated, their grief would remain through stained cement. Romance never lingered in the backyard, unless you count the feline strays who would pause to lick themselves. But now, I wish the balcony had run its length completely around the house. Then, perhaps, innocence would have remained, unable to unlock its handcuffs.
In Baguio City, I still cared so much. I didn't even balk when Sister Mary Agnes unfurled my clench and laid an empty notebook on my palm. She instructed that I make the pad overflow with descriptions of my daily good deeds. A Good Deed del dia. But why did certain things count and others not? Why did dieting evoke zero applause? Why did my mother wake a poor man around the bend of a path at 2 a.m. (after a party) to offer leftovers? Which act was made in sympathy, surrounded as we were by water buffaloes patiently pulling their masters' carts? Today I have no masters except poetry that turns my heart into a river during a monsoon. Except for those lapses, I don't care much nowadays. Though I regret being accustomed to the dig of my fingernails into the bellies of my palms. When I spill, I notice the stains instead of the diminished source.
I did not know then how cruel mini-skirts can be. Or that words can protrude. It's just as well I left Baguio City before I learned to weep at television commercials; at the same time, I understand why handkerchiefs have become old-fashioned. Sometimes, I console myself by noting my ability to linger on the curve of a woman's blonde breast. That's when my left shoulder laughs at me and replies, Your heterosexuality is convenient. Damn convenient.
The house next door has been occupied by a new family. It comes with a spoiled son. He was also the youngest and only male among six siblings. After thirty years of being spoiled he is a circle of a man with a dim and depthless belly. Baboy—that's his nickname from the neighborhood kids. Baboy. Pig. All this was of no concern at first; when Baboy arrived I was engrossed in collecting labels off canned goods produced by Marigold Company. For each ten labels, they would donate one centavo to my school. The nuns unleashed their whips. The principal, Sister Gloria Mantulukikulan, hectored us every morning through loudspeakers over the campus plaza where we lined up before filing into class. "Let us help Marigold Company finance new textbooks, children!" Sister Gloria's nose was red with her passion. "Yes, Sister!" our voices would float like balloons. My neighbor, Baboy, salivated over Linda, a sixteen-year-old maid Mama hired out of charity. Pssst! Pssst! Baboy consistently called through the fence when I had to walk by. Maganda! Who is your pretty sister? Baboy would query, his snout driving through the chain-link fence as he pushed his chin towards the direction of Linda washing my mother's underwear while enjoying the sun. I dutifully ignored him until he whispered, "I have Marigold labels for you." I introduced them, pinching Linda and ordering her to be polite as she reluctantly accompanied me to the fence. In the immediate aftermath, I used to console myself that at least Linda will never starve. Then things finally died down a bit and people stopped gossiping about how a young girl was compromised enough to marry Baboy. From such small beginnings, much can and did occur. This, after all, is a tale of hunger. There must be a reason why, two years later, Ferdinand Marcos successfully proclaimed Martial Law. And, now, an adult, I can't even comfort myself by the thought of new textbooks for my childhood school—those history books apparently have their facts all wrong.
Twenty six years later I am surprised by an old Filipino. He tells me that what I long assumed to be barbaric was actually a sign of sophistication. Nor was it unleashed as a means to extend a finite family budget as the practice actually was expensive. To think I sniffed my nose at it, only once allowing—the portrait of condescension—that its skin, at least, tasted okay after its fur was scraped off and then charred for three hours over a backyard fire. I don't believe I’ve ever tasted its ears, though I imagine the squatters against our backyard fence must have loved them pickled in vinegar and black pepper. It is fortunate that my husband detests cats; I tell him I need one in exchange for a dog he would love to have. Stalemate. I learned to tell the difference between food and a pet. But when I left Baguio to become an American, I left two behind: Brownie and Tigre. I must have known their fate—even though I let the word out in the neighborhood that I would return as a ghost to haunt them if they ate my dogs. What I had not realized was that some might mistake Imelda Marcos as my ghost. So the neighbors ate them anyway, in retaliation for Imelda and her husband tightening the means for an honest livelihood. I never thought Brownie and Tigre would roast over a spit. But, then, I never thought a greedy man would turn my birthland into a classic banana republic because the downtrodden would be unable to afford anger.
I recall the rains. Baguio is pronounced "bag-yo." And the Ilocano word, agbagyo, means "to storm." I recall traversing streets under an umbrella held over my neat pigtails by one of our maids. I often ducked out to quench a thirst—it was a mystery why my throat was parched by the sight of so much water!—only to be unslaked by those fat drops that loved to evade my opened lips. And I would try to satisfy myself by watching the rain slip-slide down my legs. Afterwards, Baguio City would be green and smell green. And the best part was watching the stall-owners return to Baguio City's open market. They would greet each other as if they hadn't seen each other just an hour or so before. And some would pat me on the head as we waited patiently for them to put their wares back out on display. Others would slip me candy, hushing the maid's faint protests. Soon, my cheeks would bulge like my eyes at the sight of rebirth occurring over and over again. Overhead, the sky would become blue, as it unfailingly did after every storm over Baguio City ended.
Ferdinand Marcos—your red rivers stained more than 7,000 islands. But you couldn't reach the blue blue sky over Baguio City. And now you are dead. In Ilocos Norte, your wife has ordered you chilled in a freezing room. The stupid woman has mistaken you for Lenin. But I know you are underground. And I know it's hot down there. Ferdinand Marcos: I see a blue sky over Baguio City. It could have been the floor of your eternity. Look up now, into my dirty sole childishly stamping on your long nose. And again, know that the sky is blue over Baguio City. The horizon begins with what looks like a cloud, but I know it is the tip of an angel's wing. I hammer you, the chasm behind the suture that is my heart.
Eileen Tabios has written 10 poetry collections, a collection of art essays and a short story book. In 2006, she releases a new poetry collection, The Secret Lives of Punctuations, Vol. I (xPressed, Espoo). She writes the poetics blog, The Chatelaine's Poetics, while steering Meritage Press .
My City of Baguio originally appeared in dis*Orient (Los Angeles, 1997).