The end is the beginning
I knew I had to wear a plain white shirt that day – the one that missed ironing and lost that faint smell of fabric conditioner. The more creased it was, the better. I found the shirt from a pile of pullovers. It was twice my size and I would have drowned in it. And it would make me look like that I had already lost my bearings.
The invitation for today’s excursion came from a text message last night that I didn’t answer. “The final results are out. Please come with me,” said the sender, whom I met six months ago. I looked at myself and the shirt that I was to wear—if I smeared charcoal on my face and on the shirt, I would appear as if I had totally lost it.
I didn’t bother replying to Eric. I was on my way anyway. The clinic was about 50 meters away from the place where we first met—a club where men showed off their torsos with only white towels draped around their waists. The club, as the patrons referred to, was actually called the white house by the old timers in the area. It was a two-story wooden house painted with white latex from its stone façade up to its roof, with wooden doors and windows that were all locked up, and a lanai surrounded by thin strips of bamboo curtains. During daytime, it looked like just any other house on the street in a city named after an old chieftain’s daughter. But late at night when families were about to sleep, discreet gay men from bears to twinks flocked the club until dawn warned them that time was up.
I was at the club’s gym area where I chose to lift weights, away from the gutted dark rooms upstairs with glory holes and pulsating house music. The sound that passed through the hollowed wooden walls made its male members strut carefully: walk straight to bare the chest and stimulate the puffy nipples to make them hard. Make eye contact while biting your lips and if that doesn’t work it, on to the next guy who might actually take your bait.
I had been doing the incline bench press and lifting a hundred-pound barbell for a quarter of an hour when Eric began surveying the area around me. He looked like he came out of a history book on the Filipino indigenous warrior—brown skin and dark nipples, flat abdomen, and a bulge that outlined his package down there. The facial features were, of course, acceptable. His hair was not parted on one side but grown and trimmed well to highlight his chiseled face—a sculptor would have made his jawline his template. His lips were wet and his eyes exuded an air of sympathy. He must remove that towel for his eyes to have that total appeal.
I wasn’t there like everyone else—I was just elated after losing fifty pounds off my usual weight. Years of wearing a pair of sized 40 khakis never received a second glance from anyone, let alone from men hanging around in the club. The validation I received from the patrons of this place was more constant, immediate, and had a direct effect. Them brushing their arms against mine. Those grins and smirks made those times when I chose to consume whole wheat bread over butter loaf worth it.
Eric approached me after doing my last set on the incline bench, not with the usual code of smirk-and-grab of the regulars but by making a comment. “You’re lifting the weights wrong.”
“You mean I’m not lifting the weights correctly.”
He nodded and pointed to the bench by pouting his lips. “May I?” I looked at how he lifted the barbell, his chest getting bigger and arms getting firmer. Each repetition was followed by an inhale and an exhale that smelled of his mouth on mine.
In a place like this, it wasn’t necessary to divulge the truth, especially of one’s personal background. There was the exploration of each other’s physiques and, depending on the people involved, it started by touching each other’s faces. But if the room rented the night was too dark, they could go straight to removing their towels for easy access. Eric followed me to the locker area. He was watching me getting dressed while rolling a cigarette between his thumb and index finger. “Smoking area is at the lanai,” I told him. “I’m just playing with it. You’re making me nervous,” he said.
He started asking how old I was and if I was working in an outsourced business processing company like everyone else. I said that if he told me his real age and where he lived, I would answer his question. As I was putting on my shirt while looking at his mirror reflection, he said that he was 28 and living north of Manila, in a city that was underdeveloped and crowded with candy and slipper factories. He took out his wallet and showed his social security ID.
“There. I’m not lying to you.”
“I didn’t say anything.”
“I just don’t want you to think that I’m like everyone else.”
When he asked for my number, I sat beside him and tied my shoelaces. He observed how I did the circle technique of letting the laces fall to either side of the shoe then taking both laces and threading one lace over the other.
“Basic knot is easier,” he said. “Will you give me your number when you’re finished?”
I was tempted to put on a jacket over my white shirt but decided to leave it. Halfway through the clinic, I thought about that time when Eric and I were already two months into going out and I was assured of exclusivity. In the middle of the food court, swarmed with people chatting and buzzing like insects while carrying trays of food, our table was covered with pamphlets and brochures on how to protect ourselves. “I’m literally laying my cards on the table,” I told him. I had to spell the words for him: use of condom is an effective way to stop the spread of the virus. Gallons of saliva of an infected partner will not transmit the disease. He said that the last time he did it was with a guy whom he barely knew. The guy was also from the club, he claimed, but he clarified that they did it a week before we met and they used protection.
“Any other guys?” I asked. “None that I can remember that was unsafe before I met you,” he said.
The brochures were immediately stashed back into my backpack and we went on with the usual routine of the previous months—Saturday night at the mall, dinner in any restaurant, and a walk around the park afterwards. Eating with him didn’t take long—thirty minutes were enough for us to finish a plate of chicken and spaghetti and, afterwards, we would observe the surroundings while drinking soda. Thirty minutes that could have been extended to an hour but Eric already talked about his family during the first two weeks followed by his work as a programmer. The following month, he went on talking about how he’d wanted to take me out of town—a place where everybody had been to and was only an hour away from my place. “But it’s still cold there,” he would insist. Then he would plead that we go to that theme park in the province. I nodded in hesitation each time he wanted a picture with me in that carousel.
Late evenings were spent walking around the city just to stretch and to give what we had a chance to elevate the discussion over personal details. “This park,” I told him, “can fit about ten government buildings. All ten buildings could have been built, but there was a change of political alliances,” I said and pointed to the monument of a man in the middle with two guards in front. “That was the only thing that was built aside from those three neo-classical buildings.” He seemed to be looking at the monument. This was good, I thought. He was observing, and it likely meant there was potential for discourse. There was a figure of a woman covering her face and sprawled on the ground. He focused his gaze on the figure.
“Is she crying?”
“Maybe. It depends on how you interpret it,” I said.
“You’re the landscape designer. I’ll leave the interpretation to you.”
I was always hoping that he would elaborate but the discussion would falter down to a rough road and never recover. I had tried to pique his interest on different topics and general ones like sports and movies. But a day of talking about whey proteins and the next Batman movie took its toll when I admitted to him that I never really liked going to the gym and watching all of the Marvel movie franchises. I preferred swimming over lifting weights and Spanish films over Hollywood flicks. Each time we left the cinema, we were like acquaintances introduced just an hour ago, walking in silence until we reached the waiting shed where we hailed two separate taxis that would take us home.
The clinic was inside the city hall crowded by government employees all eager to press the Bundy clock and the rest of the public like me checking out all the signage on each door: land management division, city treasurer’s office, tourism division. The health department with the clinic inside was down the hall, lined with flickering fluorescent lights covered with cobwebs and dust from the ceiling. The moss green walls made the corridor look narrow. The door to the right had a signage: “Please use the other door. Health Department office under renovation.”
I was told by the nurse that Eric was already inside the doctor’s clinic. When I opened the door and saw him, he wasn’t looking at my shirt. His eyes pierced right through me though it was tamed, almost apologetic. A sealed white envelope was pressed between his hands. He was wearing his Saturday get up of shirt with sleeves folded up to his elbow and dark pants with loafers.
“I was waiting for you so I can open it.”
“I never said I was going to come.”
“I would’ve still waited for you. You have the right to know.”
The doctor’s table had a desk calendar with the mayor’s face beside the month. I glanced at the date: April 15, 2009. It had been two weeks since the initial results came out when Eric finally agreed that we both get tested. I came out negative. And while Eric was still inside the injection room, I asked the two nurses if I could already have sex with him again. They both looked flustered and asked me to delay and wait for the results.
When he came out positive during the pre-testing, I stormed out of the clinic and he ran after me in the corridors of the city hall. It was almost noon. The smell of cooking from nearby food stalls permeated through the lobby that was started to get crammed by government workers punching on the Bundy clock for their lunch out. I was getting drowned by the crowd, but I knew that Eric was just behind me, elbowing others, or if he was still in the right mind, uttering “I’m sorry” and “Excuse me” for the people to give him way. I looked behind me and saw him apologizing to an elderly in front of him. I stopped and looked as he made gestures of reparation to the woman holding a cane, nodding at him for helping her exit through the other door.
He caught up with me later on and just stood in front of me–his eyes getting watery, brimming like a kettle in its boiling point. “I didn’t know.” That was the only thing he told me. I didn’t reply. I resumed my walk as I sought the shade of a mango tree. The onlookers, mostly pedestrians and cigarette vendors, were seated behind us and seemed to be aware of the unrest between us. They were probably waiting for us to throw gabs at each other, but all I could provide them were audible groans, along with the tapping of my shoes on the pavement that was getting toasted on the midday sun. Eric lowered his head, his jaws trembling, his lips pouted, restrained from saying something that might aggravate his claim that he wasn’t aware that he already got infected.
The succeeding nights prior to the final tests involved a series of passive-aggressive responses, mostly from my end. All his attempts, all his pleadings for us to talk were immediately turned down by my stoicism. I knew he wanted to explain what happened that night, why that particular instance when he was fucked bareback was against his will; that he was just ashamed of it, that the food court was not the appropriate place to narrate such a moment in his life when he lost it and passed out, and that man in a muscled shirt took this opportunity by bringing him to one of those dark rooms of that bar on the second floor. I let days pass by without responding to any of his text messages begging for us to meet. I replied only once, and that was when I told him that he lied to me.
I thought about that night when I laid the brochures on the table in the food court. When he sent that vibe of assurance that he was clear. Then I looked back and scanned all the men that I’d been with before him—there was a player, a self-conceited film maker, and the last a white-collared pathological liar. Maybe he was one of them. As they say, history repeats itself. That social security ID was probably reproduced in one of those inner streets downtown, he was 38 and not 28, and he wasn’t a pro-grammer but a clerk in one of those slipper factories.
The probability of getting infected crept in. The thing was, anger came first, followed by the delusion that Eric might turn out to be negative in the final results, and then anger seeped in again and I would lash out by calling him in the middle of the night. He would just listen to me and allow me to spew what ifs and what could have been. What if the condom broke? What if I ignored you that night? All I could hear was him breathing on the other line and saying “I’m sorry.” But when he said “I really didn’t know,” my anger resurfaced and I repeated all the questions that I had already asked.
The envelope was so thick, what kind of results could have been inside of it? I let him open it. Each peeling was followed by a sigh and I had to hold his hand to make it steady. He read it first and showed it to the doctor. “Would you like to see it?” she asked.
The doctor said that we needed to go to the national health center and bring the envelope for the next procedures. There was a mention of monthly medical check-ups and antiretroviral drugs, taking multivitamins regularly, and sleeping at least seven hours a day. “Nowadays, it’s just like diabetes,” the doctor said. There was a suggestion to join support groups except Eric wouldn’t hear of it. “We’ll take the train,” I said. “But I’ll get off at Central Station. I have to do my laps in the pool.”
I was walking on the street, him on the sidewalk. It was almost noon when we realized that we hadn’t had proper breakfast. The street merchants around us were selling baby clothes in pastel colors, all neatly lined up and hanged in a rack. There was no food in sight, not even food carts of fried fish balls or bananas deep fried in rancid oil. As we sliced through the crowd on our way to the station, I saw him take out his handkerchief. It had talcum powder between each fold. He applied the powder on his face and it caked on his cheeks. Was he perspiring or crying? I never saw him tearing up after finding out the results. When I saw him about to take his handkerchief out again, I gave mine and told him he can use it because it didn’t have powder in it.
The train coach was not crowded so I let him sit while I was standing in front of him. He placed the envelope in his backpack while I looked at the buildings outside. He asked me what I was looking at and told him that the two-story house the train passed by had a sculpture of a woman on the pediment. I described to him that the woman was on the heavy side, holding a bunch of grapes on one hand while her other hand was free.
“Which hand would you pick?” he asked.
“The hand holding nothing,” I answered.
“Wouldn’t you like to finish a bunch of grapes?”
“Where do you get off?” I asked
“Bambang, sixth station from here,” he said.
“I’ll get off at Bambang, too.”
“I thought you’re going for a swim?”
“Laps. It’s not a leisurely swim.”
He nodded in defeat. There was no rebuttal, no appeal to say that swimming and doing laps were almost the same. I looked at the row of stand-alone theaters as the train passed by.
“Dilson,” I uttered mockingly.
“I know you’ve been there,” he said smirking.
“That theater smells of stale semen all over,” I said.
“Tell me more.”
As we approached Bambang Station, I saw the expanse of the national health department. I admitted to him that I had been to Dilson Theater before. But I told him that I had only been there once several years back. I told him how it smelled not just of semen, but also of sweat and dried saliva on a towel pressed on your face. When I told him I held my breath inside the theater the whole time I was there, he gave a suppressed laugh. “How about the guys inside? What were they showing?” he asked. “You meant the movie or the exhibitionists?” I asked back and he laughed a little. I told him that it was a B-list soft porn entitled “It’s a Long Night” which was about a girl who was office worker by day and sex-starved nymph at night. The patrons were mostly middle-aged men in loose tank tops, shorts, and slippers who stood behind the last row and weren’t really watching the film. “There was one who was quite a looker,” I said. “Tall and muscled like you. But I refused his offer to join him in the toilet just because…”
The high noon sun scorched its heat on the people going in and out of the health department’s public hospital. There was a pungent odor of a nearby sewer. Children in tattered adults’ clothes ran around a burger stand. A mother who came out of the hospital was dragging her two sons—one had a patch on one eye and the other was crying. “No more dogs for the two of you!” shouted the mother. The weeping boy was pointing at the burger stand but the mother grabbed the boy’s hand away.
“Are you hungry?” Eric asked.
A young woman wearing a white apron and a sun visor was flipping four burgers while putting on mayonnaise on the buns placed on one side of the flat frying pan. Eric sat on a stool and looked at the familiar selection of burgers. He pointed at the tarpaulin poster that said “Buy one, get one.”
I looked at the banner Eric pointed at. It was a picture of two identical burgers, though they hardly looked appetizing at all. They were set against the background of harsh red, hovering, like two cutout made by a child. The buns were flat, the patties pale, lumped in together with something suspicious looking; if it was cheese or egg, I couldn’t tell.
“We’ll share the two burgers,” Eric said.
While the two burger patties were being cooked, I thought of us five years down the road. Eric would already be staying at my place for almost two weeks, borrowing my shirt, shorts, and underwear, and sleeping next to me, holding my hand and staring at the ceiling until he fell asleep. I would wake up earlier than usual and boil water for the spaghetti noodles. When the pasta noodles had been cooked and the butter and garlic sauce was ready, I would get the salted eggs and tomatoes, still wrapped in plastic, from the fridge and leave them on the table. In case he didn’t like the pasta, there would also be cooked rice in the microwave.
But I also thought about the monthly visits to the health department, waiting for him in the corridor, and sitting on one of those wooden chairs with no arm and back rest. I would lean on the unpainted walls, his backpack pressed against my chest. I would also regularly hear him say his CD4 count slightly dropped and that he needed to start taking ARVs. I would encourage him to avoid stress and then we would start arguing about me not understanding his circumstances because I am not him and I wasn’t the one who got infected. Then I would answer back by admonishing his past, telling to his face that he was being ungrateful. I’m certain that he would ask me to leave him if I was just going to berate him for his lapse of judgment that night when the virus was passed on to him.
The two burgers were cooked just right, toasted on all sides, the oil dripping on the bun. Eric put on more ketchup on his burger—it was like blood glistening on top of the patties. He was about to hand the other burger when he said, “Careful with the ketchup. It might stain your shirt. By the way, isn’t that shirt oversized for you?”
I had fallen silent and only gave him a smirk.
“This is all I can offer for now,” he said.
I looked at him again, standing under the sun, half smiling while holding those two burgers. There was a slight blowing of the wind that cooled the surroundings and stopped the children from playing with water from the gutter. More people approached the burger stand and the young woman removed her sun visor to wipe the sweat off her face. The bread buns were browned from slight toasting and the patties were falling off from too much ketchup. “You shouldn’t have put ketchup. I like my burger plain,” I told him. From the looks of it, those burgers couldn’t be that bad.
Jeffrey Pascual Yap. ‘The end is the beginning’. Queer Southeast Asia: a literary journal of transgressive art Vol. 1. no. 1, October 2016.