The man is wearing black goggles connected by a long wire to a small computer display screen like that of an ATM. Inside the compartment, which resembles a telephone booth, he is turning his heads slowly from side to side, as if he had been left disoriented after waking up from a vivid dream. He is like blind person trapped inside a coffin, she thought. He swung back, removed his visual device, and nod at her. She walked on.
Adjacent to the room is a space furnished with shiny wooden furniture. This must be the lounge, she decided. She settled herself in one of the mahogany seats around a table. Suddenly the man he met earlier entered. Seeing that there are no other people inside the room, he locked eyes with her and smiled shyly.
“My son won in tennis.” He said to her even before his posterior touches the seat. His eyes are afire with paternal pride. “My son won in tennis”, he repeated.
Elisa felt the sides of her mouth stretch, a muscular effort she hoped to appear as a gesture of politeness, a smile. A proud parent could go on talking for years about their child’s achievement, be it as seemingly small feat as defeating a computer programmed tennis opponent; and before a simple chat turn into a full-blown genealogical account of success and suffering, anyone who is held captive by that parent should find an immediate way to escape. Elisa pulls a pamphlet from a pile of reading materials on the table and skims over its contents with studied interest. Neuro Play Center—Philippine-first virtual reality rehabilitation, the first page boasts. A fun world of simulation for people with cognitive disability or developmental disorder…Autism Spectrum Disorder, Down’s Syndrome, brain injury…Programs for real life skills…Speech, eye contact, socialization…Integration to mainstream society…Partnership with big companies for employment program…
“Ma’am Elisa? I’m Gil. I called you yesterday.” A young man about her age, beaming in white polo shirt and sky blue pants, arrived in the lounge carrying a document case. He bowed slightly and smiled at her in a manner that is so self-assured yet a little bit theatrical, as if he practices it every night in front of the mirror—the same enthusiastic disposition she observed in the woman in a formal coat, who is talking to the man whose son had won in tennis. Congratulations! Your son has passed 16 of the 18 key areas of competencies, she overheard the woman saying to the father.
Gil extended his free hand for the visitor to shake. After the formalities he sat on the seat on her left and laid the case on the table.
After giving tribute to Raphael— shy, nice, well-loved by the staff in Neuro Play—he delivered the purpose of the meeting: Raphael’s grieving parents want to send you their son’s artworks to her.
“Sorry for the inconvenience. I understand you have classes today.” He gently re-arranged the cases on the table in a manner of a salesman presenting a product. “Stephen Wiltshire, Robert Wawro—do you know them? They were artistic savants. I like reading about them. I have this feeling that Raphael was one of them.”
She asked how Raphael died.
“An accident”, he said, at last, after an uncomfortable gap.
Six in the morning. The students were already lining up at the mess hall for breakfast. Raphael was still inside the boy’s quarter on the third floor of the building, alone in a bunk bed. He might have seen something fascinating outside the window, perhaps a scintillating airplane disappearing into clouds—no one could attribute any meaning to the event. Whatever it was, it made him lean out from the opening, his abdomen pressed hard against the ledge, his feet rising from the floor. A thud rang across the place—chatty noises across dining tables quieted down, spoons stopped short of entering mouths. Staff members rushed upstairs. When they opened the door, they saw a slipper on the edge of the window sill.
She did not know what to say; so she heeded the rule of emotional propriety and, using a low voice, said, “Condolences to his family.”
“These are really for you. His artworks spanning six years” He tapped on the paper tag.
A word is scribbled in thick, wobbly letters: EALESA.
The misspelling of her name conjures up an image of a hand holding a pen, a hand struggling to discipline tumultuous thoughts in order to contain them within the box of literacy.
Memory is ephemeral. It is meant to die. An insect bite, a buzz of the wind, a vibration, a minute chemical reaction, or any force from without passing into the sensory threshold, were sent into the brain, and then erased forever. A jolt, then nothingness. But there is one type of memory that has organs and blood of its own, and has a command of its own dormancy and resurrection: trauma. Under this presumption, Elisa’s memory of Raphael should be indelible. He used to hurt her.
She tried to remember the couple who adopted her when she was ten years old. Middle-aged? In their late 30s? Was the wife plump and the husband stick thin like caricatures in TV gag shows?
Elisa lived with the See family in 1998. She was ten years old that time. After his father deserted their family for another woman, her mother took her and her two brothers to Manila where she had a relative who could help her find a job. That relative happened to be the laundrywoman of the Sees, a middle age couple who had a child of Elisa’s age. There was no available work for her mother in the house. Instead the couple offered to adopt her for an undetermined period of time. Her mother agreed.
Raphael was a destroyer. Elisa had to trail behind his heels and clean after him. She had to pick up any fragments of broken objects he left on the floor, how ever small, like a spring from a clock. She had to mop trails of liquid from bottles of cosmetics he had squeezed. His hands knew no value; a decorative jar and a water pitcher could suffer the same fate in his hands, bent or smashed beyond repair. Some of the targets of his random aggression, like the stuff toys whose cotton-filled stomachs he gutted, would take an extra effort to mend.
He had also tried to break her. During the first week of her stay in the house she endured the following from him: punches, head butts, elbows, kicks. After suffering from his outburst, she would retreat into a corner and wipe her tears using the tail of her skirt. He was a towering threat ready to crush her at any given time. However, it was not his physical advantage that made her decide not to fight back; rather, it was because of his parents.
An abandoned child at the care of strangers could develop an almost extrasensory sensitivity to what is not being said. A change in voice intonation or a sigh could hold important information about the child’s place in the world. Any time she could eavesdrop on the couple’s conversation inside the house, for she was invisible to them most of the time, even if she was sitting with them around the dinner table. They talked about the telephone bill, misplaced keys, leather belts, the problems in “the department”, Raphael’s check-up with “Doc Gina”. From what she understood from the beginning, there were two arrangements for her: first, she would not attend school and, second, she would serve as their son’s “companion” while they were away at work. She gratefully accepted her place, as long as she could enjoy television and pancakes.
The major injury she ever got from Raphael was a bite. It happened when she tried to touch one of his Lego blocks. He kicked the toy away, grabbed her right arm, and burrowed his teeth into its flesh. The pain made her close her eyes and bit her tongue. She didn’t push him away. When she let out a cry, he withdrew from her and saw the blood oozing from her skin. After a few seconds he disappeared into another room and emerged from it holding a clothes hanger. He walked up to her and put the tool of revenge into her hand without looking at her face. He gestured to her: hit me. He offered his open palms to her. She shook her head. The game was called vindictive justice and he had learned it from his maids (normally a maid would stay for three weeks then quit), from his mother, his father, his relatives. Eye for an eye. It contradicted the idea of choice that she presented to him that day when he bit her; the idea that she, as a person, could decide not to hurt him. It was the first and last time he bit her.
They couldn’t do without each other ever since she gained his confidence. They had to maintain a system. Every day was an opportunity to do and undo things. In partnership they put their little world into checks and balances. She became the creator and he the destroyer. She makes miniature furniture set out of milk carton, he flattens it with his hands. She makes bubbles using dishwashing liquid, he pops each one of them. She makes a flower necklace, he untangles it. She make a robot of clothespins, he snaps them apart. She makes a wall of pillows, he plows it down. For all of her efforts that went to waste, she didn’t feel mad at him. They laugh together as they watch the things she made fall apart.
One day, she found out that he couldn’t even write his own name. His crayons were all broken and the coloring books were all torn up. When she asked him to write his name within the red and blue lines of a grade school paper, his pencil skidded like an amateur ice skater. All he could produce on a paper were tangled lines. She devised a plan to teach him how to draw shapes: connecting the dots. She thought he had to learn how to draw a circle first. When he tried to draw without guide, he finally managed to draw a perfect circle. She clapped her hands. He shrieked with joy. He drew dozens more.
His newfound ability led to days consisted mainly of two delicate sounds: the friction of crayon on paper, and the chirping of little birds outside the window. She became a mesmerized spectator to this sudden display of talent. Her role was to provide him with fresh supplies of papers from a cabinet full of old receipts and billing statements. She found the opportunity to study him closely during his state of fixation. She marveled at his ivory cheeks and soft wavy hair. He had puppy eyes with long lashes. His lips were pink and glossy, always apart, with pearly big front teeth showing. She could imagine the sweet sour smell of candies and rice inside his mouth. And look at her—she had wild hair with lots of lice, and there were many fresh scabs of wounds all over her thin legs. With the feel of soft mattress every night and scrub of milk bath soap every morning, she could achieve his looks.
Then she noticed something more: something dynamic was taking place behind his forehead as he drew; it could be inferred from the restlessness of his eyes. He wasn’t drawing circles—he was herding and aligning the shapes into an orbit, then stirring them into a spiral like bodies governed by the mysterious forces of the universe. The resulting pattern was like a close-up view of the center of a flower, spores afire with colorful hues.
There was also a curious outcome of his creative preoccupation: he suddenly lost his interest in destroying things.
She would show his artworks to Sir and Madam when they arrive from work. Very good, they would say to her. Very good.
“Do you want to try the goggles?”
He led her inside one of the compartments in the Viewing Room, and helped her put the device around her head. He clicked on something.
“What do you see?”
“I see seven people lining up to a cashier register with their baskets. They’re also wearing goggles like me. It looks like they are inside a grocery store. I see shelves full of milk boxes. The milk boxes are pixelated. Everything is pixelated. Are they inside a computer game?”
“What you’re seeing right now is a real-time view of our simulation facility.”
“Isn’t this place your facility?”
“No, this is just our corporate office. The physical facility is in somewhere else.”
She turned her head to the direction of his voice as if to encourage him to tell her more about what she’s seeing.
“At first look the pupils are just buying supplies in a simulated grocery store, that they are merely having fun with those make-believe milk boxes. In the process they’re using basic computational skills and learning how to budget money. They are learning practical skills needed to survive in society.”
“How long they’ll be staying in the facility?”
“Until they become eligible to our employment program. We have partnered with major corporations who are willing to give people with intellectual and developmental disabilities a chance to lead a normal life. In some cases their guardians opt to make them stay in the facility for an indefinite period of time.”
Indefinite. She wonders if the pupils can imagine the boundlessness of time. Are they like an average person who sees time as falling into neat categories of “old” and “new” and “long” and “short”?
“You can press here to navigate other parts of the facility.” He guided her left hand to a protruding button at the side of the device.
There is a classroom with boards and walls composed of small tiles of squares. The plants, the leaves and flowers, all have jagged edges, all made of squares. Ten adults are sitting on chairs. A robot teacher is reciting greetings like “Good morning, ma’am” and “Goodbye, ma’am”. Bright yellow bubbles with sad faces hover over the head of whoever is repeatedly caught not paying attention to the robot.
She traverses a laneway leading to a train station, to a bank, then to a sports oval. Feeling nauseous due to the illusion of motion, she clicked her way back to the grocery store.
“Let me show you something”. He adjusted a switch on the device.
In an instant the cash register and the shelves of milk boxes disappeared. The entirety of the space— the walls, the floor— was exposed in its flesh-colored bareness. The people in what was supposed to be a grocery store looked like pantomimes performing at a blank stage.
They found makahiya plants thriving in a vacant lot behind the house. According to the legend she had read to Raphael, makahiya used to be an abnormally shy girl. You could turn into makahiya because you don’t want to look people in the eyes, she warned him.
She had a challenge. Was it possible to touch the ultrasensitive plant without stirring them into folding?
With utmost concentration they poked their chosen leaves. But the botanical reaction was the same: the leaves folded like a book upon contact. They were not discouraged; they looked for more open leaves to play with. They treaded on a wild carpet of pointy grasses, networks of leaves and branches chopping sunlight above their little heads. Like giant invaders they slew every little life on the ground; and when they finished, a legion of defeated soldiers was scattered before them.
When the last makahiya leaf was poked, Raphael started to uproot grasses with his bare hands. The musk of the earth became penetrating to the nose as rock minerals and decaying bits of nature were brought out into the sunlight. She gasped at the sight of tiny shells clinging on hair-like roots. They were both happy.
Until red spots appeared across his nose, then on his arms.
When they returned home, Raphael was crying of itchiness. Mosquito bites, she explained to Sir and Madam. From Sir he received a blank stare, from Madam a frown. Sir removed his dark coat and retreated to the bedroom. Madam slumped on the sofa. “Ineng, get an ointment and a nail cutter,” she ordered.
What followed were scenes that broke her small heart. A mother clipping her son’s dirty nails. A mother applying eucalyptus cream on her son’s inflamed skin. A mother promising treats—ice cream, spaghetti, Disney Land. Bitterness exploded in her tongue. She bit her lower lip as she watched the maternal spectacle from a corner, unseen and uninvited like a ghost.
That night, inside his room, he slept on the mattress, she on the floor. Once she heard his breathing became regular and serene, she tiptoed across the room and knelt before his bed. The sheer expression of contentment on his face offended her. She wished he would never wake up. She wished him dead.
The next day she ignored Raphael’s demands for a new set of papers. No drawing for today, she scowled at him. She let him tear the curtains from the windows. She looked away when he emptied a bottle of hand lotion on the floor. She just walked over a nest of jumbled spools from cassette tapes. When Sir and Madam entered the house, she sought their faces and savored their helplessness before their son’s wreckage.
The next morning, she joined Sir and Madam on the table for breakfast. Raphael was still glued to his bed. After pouring hot water into their mugs, she sat down to her own seat and stirred a bowl of hot porridge. She looked sideways at Sir’s dark blue necktie, then at the large emerald button of Madam’s dress. She couldn’t look up beyond their chins. She avoided their eyes. She feared they might see right through her.
Only the smacking of lips and the rustling of table cloth could be heard. Finally, the two patted their lips with a napkin and stood up from the table.
“Ineng, don’t let him destroy things,” they reminded her before closing the front door behind them.
She remained on her seat, ears attuned to the signals of their departure—clacking of heels, jingling of keys, car door slamming shut, roar of engine fading away. When she was sure they were gone, she ran to the gate, stuck her head out, looked from left to right, then took tentative steps outside. Now she was strolling down the empty street, her arms matching the cheery cadence of her legs. From the gaps of thickly-curtained windows of the neighboring houses, there were few indications of private affairs, like flecks of lights emitted by televisions. Outside the square boulders of boredom, here she was, having the whole world to herself.
Just across the road, at the end of the street, there was a park enclosed by metal railings tall enough to prevent any stray animals from entering the area. She had never been there before; she didn’t even know it was there. The entrance, a towering arc garlanded with vines, so enchanted her that her legs started to move on their own accord. Aside from her, there were only two people in the park that time: a man walking a dog, and a woman wheeling an infant in a stroller in and out of shadows cast by tall shrubs.
There was a merry-go-round at the center of the park. She grabbed one of its iron handles, ran a little, then jumped into the circular platform as soon as the whole thing started to spin. Not satisfied with the speed, she lowered her right heel to the ground and propelled herself forward. The impact of the wind against her body—or the impact of her body against the wind—gave her an ecstatic feeling. She whirled and whirled and whirled like a top. The environment was reduced to a sweet delirium of lights and sounds. If only one could stay whirling forever…
A scream brought her back to reality. She lowered a foot to the ground, this time to stop the merry-go-round from spinning.
The man was now walking briskly and almost dragging the poor dog behind him. The woman was now standing motionless; one hand resting on the handle of the stroller, the other covering her mouth. They were both looking at something overhead.
Then she saw Raphael from where she was standing. He was up there, arms and ankles wrapped around an electrical post. A man in blue overalls was steadying a ladder on the column. Don’t move, he yelled at the boy. Don’t move.
She was determined to hide the mysterious case before her daughters arrive from school. By the time the honk of the motorcycle service echoed in the house, she had already accomplished her mission. The two girls entered the front door clawing at each other playfully like a pair of lion cubs, their ballooning dark-blue skirts flitting around their smallness.
“I will cook you your favorite corned beef,” she said.
When she went out of the kitchen after preparing their meal she stepped on a tattered bubble wrapping of the floor. She followed the trail of discovery and ended up inside the bedroom, where, huddled on the bed, the girls are peeling off a strip of scotch tape off a black document case.
“Can we open this?”
“Give it to me. Let me see it first.”
What could have possibly betrayed her to these nosy creatures? A trembling in her voice? A wrinkle of deceit around her mouth? An unnatural and suspicious enthusiasm when she said “I will cook you your favorite corned beef”? Goodness. She couldn’t be left alone in this house.
When she unclasped the case a faint whiff of acid met her nostrils. The case contained about a hundred letter size papers bound together by a steel clip. The first twenty or so pages have tentative strokes of graphite and hazy outlines of unknown objects. The sketches in the middle of the bundle have heavier and pointier pencil rendering; something a toddler might have produced during a temper tantrum. Only the last pages showed works of mastery and discipline— patterns of circles in different sizes and colors, as meticulous and refined as needlepoint embroidery.
“These drawings are bad. Except for the ones at the back.” The little critics decided unanimously. She forced a smiled.
All the drawings were undated; but the order of the creation could be deduced from the yellowing of the papers; therefore the bleached white top sheet was the last output of the artist before he died.
One of the girls pulled out the final page and held it at eye level.
“Mama, it’s a girl.”
Her daughters knew the trick: if the eyes look long enough to perceive wholeness from units, the magic will take its course. She tried it for herself. The background and foreground shifted like a puzzle and out emerged a single image from the complex pattern of circles. First, a pair of eyes. Then a mouth. Then a face.
It was a portrait of a girl with a ribbon above her right ear.
She started to leaf through the pages with such a speed that the drawings become animated. The sequence tells a story of spherical bodies suddenly breaking into a seizure of zigzags before dissolving into nothingness. She finally understood. Raphael was telling her what had happened to him inside that place. He killed himself.
She pictured him, now a grown-up man, lying on a silky drapery, framed by glass from head to toe, eyes shut, lips shut, fists shut. Raphael, a genuine artist, contained inside a four-sided space. Finally boxed like everybody else in this world. At last.
She got up from the bed and smoothed out the crumpled spot the girls had vacated; it felt hot in her hand. She must hurry. She imagined his husband: a commanding figure by the door, hands on hips, stomach out, necktie loosened, hair matted with wax and sweat. Cold water, he would demand.
But first she had to accomplish something. She hid the case inside an old cabinet. She wedged it in between boxes of discarded shoes.
She must have looked really morose to be leaving so early in the morning. A nun from the hospicio fished a ribbon-shaped hair clip from her purse and gave it to the sullen girl. After saying a few words, the nun bowed before Sir and Madam, her religious garb rustling as she moved. Then she led the way outside the gate where a cab commissioned to transport them to the bus terminal was waiting.
There was no peace in the house. Raphael was wailing and crawling on all fours throughout the morning. He started to bang his head on the gate. He was restrained; there were arms enfolding him, forming a letter X over his chest.
As she walked away she was caressing the hair clip and feeling the grainy texture of the glitters. She examined at her reflection on the shiny exterior of the vehicle, turned her face slightly to the left, and set the adornment above her right ear. She felt pretty. Soon she would find a new home and it would be the happiest day of her life.
Settled inside the car, she caught a glimpse of Raphael from the small mirror above the driver—he was outside the gate, squatting on the ground, looking at her direction, tears and mucus and blood all over his face. The new maid was prodding him from behind, wave goodbye to her, she seemed to be saying to him. Wave goodbye to her.