To each his own

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“Each to his grief, each to
his loneliness and fidgety revenge.
Nobody knew where I was and now I am no longer there.”
—Gwendolyn Brooks, “Boy Breaking Glass”

*Photo by Paul Medalla; edit by moi

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On Smoking

The first time I smoked, I was in Los Banos, partying with college friends. I was 22 and felt like I was no longer doing anything new with my life, and I wanted new, I craved new. So I went to the biggest, baddest smoker in the group and asked to be taught.

That night, I had seven cigarettes.

The habit didn’t kick in until a month later. I was living alone in a room for rent that smelled of cat piss, overlooking the damp, gray city that was QC. With melancholia seeping through my brain, and with loose change in my pocket to burn, of course I found myself knocking at the window of the nearby sari-sari store. It was sixty pesos for a pack of Marlboro blue.

And for the first time ever, all alone, I lit one up.

And I puffed.

And blew.

And puffed.

The smoke was icy air going down my lungs.

I blew.

I held the cigarette between my stubby fingers the way any 1950s femme fatale film character would. I was not wearing makeup but I had red lips and a cat eye. I was not trim, but goddamnit, I was gorgeous.

Today, some 20 months later after I lit my first one, I am tentative about quitting smoking. For a few days now, I’ve been having difficulty breathing and the doctor had already asked me to get an ECG and a chest x-ray. It’s a bitch to be sure, not being able to breathe and all that, but I am hesitant about drawing the line between my pack of Marlboro blue and me because I don’t want to give up something that made me feel—

Beautiful.

I remember creating a character who talked about why actors smoked in scenes during dialogues in movies. I got the idea from a professor in playwriting back in college, who hated characters who smoked. I gave the script to a friend and he said it reminded him of Ayn Rand, whose female characters all smoked because it was empowering.

Empowering.

Fashionable.

Those were the words he used.

Pair that with the stereotypical image of the Western European artist, with deep-set eyes, full lips, and a cigarette between his bony fingers. It must be my fault for watching too many French films, that I’ve held in high romance for so long the image of the smoke-inhaling, crisis-plagued, self-destructive, madly creative and yet constantly misunderstood artist. But in my mind, it was everything I wanted to be.

I want to be.

I want to look.

Feel.

Like art.

Sometimes I wonder why I don’t have what others have.

We are not ruins, we told ourselves. At least not in the way most people imagine it.

It’s been three days since I last spoke to him. Three whole days, seventy-fucking-two hours. The last time I saw him, he walked right past me to the bathroom without so much as a look. In a house as small as ours, you’d think that the walls would push us to get sick with each other’s presence. Except he’s been cooped up in his studio for the past three days. The sink is half-full with dirty plates and I cannot be bothered with dish-washing when there are words, turns of phrase, that I cannot wrench out of my head.

He understands.

I understand.

There’d be days like this, we tell one another, when we would get lost in our respective worlds. There are healthy breaks for and from people sick with images constantly darting back and forth in their heads. We are balls of energy, too much exposure to which can cause nausea, mood disorders, and even mental derailment. This is also why we don’t keep too many friends.

One of these days, he would finish his art. I would know it when he finally summons me for a reason as to why the house is a filthy mess. I would crawl up to him with a piece of paper in my hands, three days’ worth of words that would never fit the proper meter. He would read it and kiss my forehead. I’d look at his work and tell him that it’s the best he’d come up with so far. We would never ever come to terms with our worth.

This is how we are.

We’re down to our last five hundred pesos with two weeks remaining till the end of the month. Money has never run stable in this household with the couple of us never really learning how to spend like proper adults. We splurge on sudden cravings, five-course dinners washed down with the finest merlot. The following week, we’d hoard the cheapest noodles and the cheapest cans of tuna for the charity case that was ourselves. There are times when I feel like money is the root of the evil that will eventually lead to our ruin.

We are not ruins, we told ourselves. At least not in the way most people imagine it.

There are nights when he would come home to silence and consequently find me in fetal position on our bed, my arms a crisscross of red lines and my skin a patchwork of black and blue. A number of men had left me to die but he would look at me as if I was the most beautiful piece of art to ever breathe. I look at his ability to hold me despite my constant breaking as tragic. He would make love to me like our lives depended on it and they did. A few hours later and we’d be laughing over plans of moving to India or Brazil.

Sure, there’d be days when memories of childhood dreams and the mainstream definition of the words “happiness” and “success” would eat at his heart. He would cradle my neck in a choke and would curse the day he says I destroyed his dreams of becoming something else. I’d scream my own frustrations into his ear and share with him the horrible adjectives I reserve only for my self. His mouth is cruel, seeking to pain, but the fire in his eyes would assure me that we’re good and we would be moving to Cambodia or Cuba. This is our music, our art, our lives, ours.

One Christmas eve, I got him the present of a black eye.

He sent me to the hospital with a broken wrist.

We spent the next week apologizing with sheets upon sheets of love letters. My mother, she worried over the bruises, the unpaid bills, and the absence of a grandchild. I laughed and told her that she could never really read me even as a kid. When I smiled, I wondered if she thought me as beautiful as I felt.

If you had asked me at fourteen what I wanted to be when I turned thirty, I would have told you that I wanted to be a respected journalist. If you had asked me at twenty-two, I would have told you that all I ever really wanted was a home. If you’re going to ask me now if I think I made it, I’ll just tell you that I feel like I finally understand everything I sought to understand. From where I’m sitting, the words are clear on my notebook in the exaggerated loops of my handwriting.

“Let love be the name of their lie.”