Skip to main content

Self Portrait Three

It is Thursday, August 16, 2012. There is nothing particularly special about this day but it is a day in the life and sometimes that’s enough. Almost two years ago to the day, I entered a passageway through an Airbus A300 and we 146 Peace Corps volunteers flew from one assassinated leader to another: John F. Kennedy International Airport to Ninoy Aquino International Airport, Manila, Philippines.

It is Thursday, August 16, 2012. Look around. There is nothing particularly special here. I wake up, as usual, at five, while Elaine, another volunteer who was passing through and needed a place to crash, dozes till seven.

A day in the life. I wake up, fall out of bed, drag a book across my head. Murakami’s 1Q84, page 553.

That night, Aomame stepped out onto the balcony in her slippers and gray jersey workout clothes to look at the moon. She was holding a cup of cocoa. It was the first time in a very long time that she felt like drinking cocoa but the sight of a can of Van Houten cocoa in a kitchen cabinet had suddenly inspired her. Two moons–a big one and a little one–hung in the perfectly clear southwestern sky. Instead of sighing, she produced a tiny moan. A dohta had been born from an air chrysalis, and now there were two moons. 1984 had changed to 1Q84. The old world had vanished, and she could never get back to it.

Elaine wakes. I take my coffee, Elaine takes her tea. We eat cinnamon roll and a pineapple roll and I confess that my usual breakfast is tomato paste mixed with oatmeal. Elaine wrinkles her nose. I explain that, in comparison to most, I don’t care much about taste. I have fully functional tastebuds, sure. But I eat to eat. “I hate to compare myself to Mohammad Atta, the mastermind behind the 9/11 bombings,” I start–

Elaine stares at me.

“But. Well apparently he didn’t care about food taste either. He would get a bunch of potatoes. I forget where I heard this. He would get a bunch of potatoes and make a huge thing of mashed potatoes and put it in the fridge and when he got hungry just take spoonfuls of the stuff, like that.”

Elaine and I leave for downtown a little after eight. She has to stop by the bank, then go to the Department of Environment and Natural Resources where she works on developing eco-tourism. I have my Mythology and Folk Literature class.

In the trike Elaine says this: “Oh. I forgot my towel at your place.”

“See, you should have taken me up on that offer for the free spare towel.”

We part ways.

In Mythology & Folk Literature we discuss Odysseus in the land of the Cyclops. I nudge my students toward forming some contrast between Eastern and Western myth. I show videos: Polyphemus eating Ulysses’ men, Grendel eating Hrothgar’s men. I stop the frame on Grendel’s fearful face as Beowulf turns the tide and confess that part of me begins to pity the poor monsters who always must lose to the mythical heros.

My students stare at me with half smiles.

At lunchtime I download test questions my co-teacher made for our first periodical exam for fourth-year English. The test starts at 2pm and it is my self-imposed task to compile her items and mine, and make an answer sheet for quick grading. This is purely my suggestion, since grading 94 tests with 115 items each takes so much longer when the items are splayed anywhere and everywhere over a six-page exam. So much quicker, so much less paper, when there is a one-page sheet with bubble-in multiple choice, blanks for fill-in questions, and space for the essays. There is no time for lunch. I’ll grab lunch after I give the exams to the secretary for photocopying.

I give the exams to the secretary for photocopying. A second-year student comes up to me. Asks me if I have my laptop today.

I do.

Asks me if she can borrow it for her science presentation on diffusion.

Why not. Give her the laptop. Help her set up. Go get some food. But moments later student fetches me. There’s a problem. Student can’t open her Microsoft Office Powerpoint 2010 presentation on my laptop.

I open LibreOffice, the open source compatible software. The student begins reading about diffusion. Random molecular motion. Solutes settling to a place of greatest maximum distribution. I sit in the back of class, listening. I’ll eat lunch at 3, when my co-teacher is set to teach.

Moments later Science class is disrupted when the teacher is called to minister to a student who has seen a ghost. In the balay kubo behind the Science Building there is a mannequin. The student apparently watched this mannequin turn from white to black. Now the student has gone white, stiff.

I stand in the back of class, facilitating my first ever high school science lesson. We discuss phagocytosis, or cell feeding. I ponder whether predilection toward eating is akin to phagocytosis.

At two, the English exams are photocopied and 47 students spread out 47 desks to the maximum distance in a small room. I stand in the corner by the door, the best position to guard students from cheating. I ponder molecular diffusion.

I get a text from my co-teacher ten minutes to 3. She has a meeting. Could I please teach the class today?

I recall Hesse’s Siddhartha. He could do three things well. He could wait, he could fast, and he could think. I go to the canteen, get a coke to hold me over, and teach a class on Pindar’s Ode XII-10. It’s about celebrating victory. I ask students how they would celebrate a victory. I teach them about trochees and dactyls and iambs. We clap out the beats. I ask students what it literally means to be an Olympian. To be like the gods on high. I tell students to write a collaborative poem, about victory. One group has just topped the entrance examination into Ateneo University. Another group has just won World War IV. Another has successfully proposed to his/her girlfriend/boyfriend. The last group has won the gold medal in banig-making.

Students count dactyls and iambs.

At four it is English periodical exam again. 47 more students arrange 47 more desks. Molecular diffusion. I sit in the back of class because I still have to prepare a script for our Theatre Club workshop at five. The topic is “timing and emphasis”. I have a video from Amir Khan’s 3 Idiots, and I type the dialogue out. Students will practice the dialogue using various timings and pauses.

At five we collect exams and I search for my Theatre Club students, who are nowhere to be found. Everyone is busy preparing for Friday’s Aquaintance Party. I silently postpone the Theatre Club workshop.

It is past five and I should eat lunch by now but I have little desire. I can wait, I can fast, I can think.

I wander out to the back of the Science Building, near the balay kubo with the ghost mannequin, and supervise the handball team’s practice. We now have both a boys team and a girls team. There is supposed to be a tournament this Saturday but tomorrow I will be informed that it will be postponed one week. I stand on the sidelines and chat with John Kim. I ask him about the English periodical exam. It was long, he says. But it was a little bit easier since I’d let him borrow my book and review figures of speech. John Kim has poor attendance but he wants to do well in class. You can feel it.

At six I wander toward my jeep stop home. For the first time in a very long time I eat Bicol express and one serving of rice in the canteen at the corner and then I board my jeep.

Aomame closed her eyes and continued to think: I have probably been drawn into the passageway of the “force opposed to Little People” created by Fuka-Eri and Tengo. That force carried me into this side. What other explanation could there be? And the role I am playing in this story is by no means small. I may even be one of the central characters. I am in the story that Tengo set in motion. In a sense, I am inside him–inside his body. I am inside that shrine, so to speak.

The role one plays depends on the story one reads. For me, the author of the story is quite umambiguously the Philippines. I am not a central character. But I am inside her, inside her body, drawn through a passageway two years ago, reading about my role day by day.

I saw an old science fiction movie on television long ago. It was the story of a small group of scientists who shrank their bodies down to microscopic size, boarded a submarine-like vehicle (which had also been shrunk down), and entered their patient’s blood vessels through which they gained entry to his brain in order to performa complex operation that would have been impossible under ordinary circumstances. Maybe my situation is like that. I’m in Tengo’s blood, and circulating through his body. I battled the white blood cells that attacked the invading foreign body (Me as I headed for the root cause of the disease, and I must have succeeded in “deleting” that cause when I killed Leader at the Hotel Okura.

Now, the Philippines is written on my heart, a jumble of geometric veins on my chest. I am simply the transcriber, taking poetic license here and there.

To continue with the blood analogy, I should soon be drawn into a vein, spent, having served my purpose. Before long, I will be expelled from the body. That is the rule by which the body’s system works–an inescapable destiny.

It is Thursday, August 16, 2Q12. Instead of sighing, I produce a tiny moan.

But so what? I am inside Tengo now, enveloped by his warmth, guided by his heartbeat, guided by his logic and his rules, and perhaps by the very language he is writing. How marvelous to be inside him like this.