“…So that man pinches his nose as he examines himself, and along with Pope Innocent III disapprovingly draws up an inventory of his repulsive characteristics (‘unclean conception, disgusting form of nourishment in the mother’s body, base quality of the material from which man develops, appalling stench, secretion of saliva, urine, vomit’)”Friedrich Nietzsche, On the Genealogy of Morals (Translation by Douglas Smith)
The organ drooping from his groin looked like an animal embryo without eyes and ears. Boxed by the light coming from the lamppost outside the window, it glowed like a weird specimen in a dark laboratory. So this is what it looks like in real life, she thought. She had seen it from pornographic videos. This man’s part—it really looked like a dumb ancient life form in real life.
They were silent. She tried to make out his face in the darkness; but it remained an oval void, an immaterial blackness. He pulled the bed sheet to him and hid his nakedness under it. He rolled around the bed in a sulking manner, with his back to her, then scrolled up and down his phone, the rectangular glare emitted by it illuminated the outline of his ruffled head. She could finally wipe her mouth, one hard swipe using the back of her hand. From the smear emanates the menthol tang of cigarette, not strong enough to overpower a hint of putrefaction, she imagine tiny shreds of week-old meat lodged imperceptibly in between his teeth. His saliva was poison. She could kill this guy, she thought. He is disgusting as fuck.
She put on her blouse and panties. The mattress was stiff and thin so it didn’t squeak as she got off the bed and went straight to the door. She stood just outside the wooden frame with a sense of waking up from a dream—yes, I am in Rick’s apartment, yes, that’s the staircase, I’m going down, I am going to the bathroom, I will wash myself, I will wash off the smell. With a hand still around the door knob, she steadied herself, somewhat scared the square of tile she was standing on would give way. Dots of light started to dance before her eyes—probably because of the prolonged exposure to darkness—and there was a ringing hollowness in her ears. How long since I’ve been here in this place? As if jerked forward by an invisible string, she jolted away from the door.
Two or three cockroaches started to scramble away into hiding as the sound of her footsteps drew nearer. Apparently the bugs had been feasting on that night’s pizza leftover; the takeaway box was left spread out on the square plastic table—an old dining fixture in mint green, likely to be a discard from Rick’s parents, its surface freckled with yellow brown islets of cigarette burns. Her heart was thumping in cadence with the dripping of the leaky faucet; the snout slightly greenish with moss. In the air was a division of smell: the whiff of soap and shampoo emanating from the bathroom, and the sulfuric odor of the LPG tank and the gas stove; the cooking equipment being just a breadth of wall away from the toilet bowl. The flaps of an empty box of spicy noodles on the floor were trembling with an unending string of ants. She peeled off a cockroach wing plastered on the sole of her foot then flicked it off.
On the little heart-shaped mirror hanging above the ceramic washbasin inside the bathroom, she examined her face. On her right cheek there was a barbecue mesh pattern, possibly an imprint from the banig sheet of the bed. There was a tiny flake of dried tear on the corner of her left eye. Her pores were tensed and large and there was no shine of moisture on her pale face. In these past few years she had been feeling like an outsider in her own body; her materiality becoming nothing more than an empty shell. When she was making love earlier (if she could call it that way) she became a spirit hovering over her own physical form; and while floating up the ceiling, she saw her persona locked in a pretzel-knot with a stranger in the bed. She thought it was a pity to see and it needed to stop. The body on its own knew how to mimic intimacies derived from erotic movies, but the mind—her mind—had no idea how to connect to the flesh. Is it only a global marketing, the unconscious rapture of the merging bodies? But she became as conscious as ever, never forgetting herself! And now this mirror image of hers became a silicone android head animated by the self-loathing of the person it had been taken after. A dent appeared in between the sweat matted brows. The corners of the lips curled downwards. It opened its mouth, and, with its forefinger, hooked the left side of the lips, stretched it, nail against the inside of the cheek, and exposed, shamelessly, a rotten molar; the unsightly tooth was her reassurance that time had really passed, that she really had an organic form that could disintegrate, that she had a past and a story as a child who once ate a lot of candies. She is real.
She thought about what had happened earlier. The first thrust had been painful for her. It was her first time. She pried him away from her body using her arms, then put her legs together. She almost punched him in the face. She said: I want to go home. He clucked his tongue: tsk. Then the thing went limp. There was guilt in frustrating male physiology when it was at its peak (she read about it when she was in college studying psychology, the term “vasocongestion”, the role nitric oxide plays in it, Masters and Johnson’s sexual response cycle…etc.) Should she make it up to him? Curl up in his arms, babble like an infant, start all over again? Should she say sorry to him? Why? Was it her fault? Was there something wrong with her?
A thick layer of invisible grime made her skin feel heavy, but the sight of the glistening pail of water did not excite her now. To try to rouse delight in herself, she turned on the faucet and placed a hand under the spout; the feel of the gushing water used to make her giggle when she was a little girl. But her hands felt like it didn’t belong to her. Bowing, she held the dipper over her head, one hand wiping the cascading water from her eyes. An itchiness that was not physical, this senselessness, this nothingness, this meaninglessness. She knelt down and embraced the pail of water, dipped her whole head into it, held her breath in it for a few seconds, emerged from it panting, her mouth in perfect O after the suicidal feat. She stood up, hair dripping wildly like leaves amid rainstorm, made a passing glance at the mirror, walked out of the bathroom.
Ten foot stamps of dark wetness stained the floor, a trail starting from the bathroom and ending near the small sofa where a maroon shoulder bag was perched on its armrest. Like a mystical eye a 40-inch flat screen TV screwed on the wall reflected on its black screen the ghostly lingering of her movements; she had the stealthy move of a house burglar. I want to disappear, she said.
On WikiHow her recent search had been “How to Disappear Completely (with pictures)”. Choose to leave in a responsible way if you’re an adult, the first entry stated below a graphic of a blond female in candy pink sleeves and blue jeans opening the door with her back to the reader. The slice of white bed cutting the view of her legs was a clue to her relationship status: its practical bareness suggested she was in a temporary accommodation, probably in a cheap hotel or in a boarding house. The uprootedness of a single and childless woman in the city—you can’t call her anything, she’s not a “wife” or a “mother”. She is a wraith trying to become everything. And this Wikihow girl was trying to build something she could call her own. The sleek luggage she was dragging behind her suggested she was a woman with her own means. Must have been twenty-eight years old like her. Marshmallow blue scarf wound around her neck, this girl had an interesting wardrobe. In the pastel colored world, the aspiring hermit, who she imagined to have been a fashion blogger taking a break from bullies on the internet, had been advised by an invisible moral judge to give consideration to the legal implications of hiding, and to think about the feelings of her family and friends in her mission to disappear. You would have to pay the cost of a search mission if the world had initially thought you had been kidnapped.
You will need money, the how-to website also said.
Money. Police. Feelings of other people. The hassle of ceasing to exist.
Her jeans, a cocoon she had been forced to shed behind as she was sucked out by the heat of lust, were splayed out on the seat like a passed-out drunk lying on a ditch along the side of a road, and bleached by the mellow light coming from the thinly curtained window. She scooped it up and put it on.
— Hi. You are?
The paper mache teats on the ceiling representing stalactites were studded with tiny bulbs projecting blue and yellow beams crisscrossing over fifty heads, giving them sick green sheen. The center of the floor, which had been cleared of tables and chairs, was marked with a large pentagram; an indication that something grand will happen on that spot later that night. At the third table at the back, there was Pennywise the clown with a plate of nachos on his frill-cuffed hand, and at the fourth table, Annabel the doll, posing with her peers in front of a camera. The darlings of Americanized culture, the snob dismisses them. If you want something classic, be archetypal, allegorical, folkloric, biblical. Black and mysterious and elegant. To still appeal to the modern, the cape that is part of the costume should have a slit high enough to allow the “accidental” flashing of the stockinged legs of the wearer.
— And you are?
— Just Rick. He winked and chuckled.
Plain Rick with no caking zombie prosthetics or blood-colored tears, just a grey T-shirt over his leanness. Pudgy fingers, arms not muscular but not chubby, no strong fragrance, round jaws, chin-length hair. He looks neat. Ummm…okay.
In his right hand, deep caramel black bottle of liquor, in the other, cellphone. He sat on a chair opposite hers, cross-legged, the tip of a foot pointing at her direction. Take note of his non-verbal language, she thought. She had read somewhere it was a surefire sign of flirting (10 BODY LANGUAGE SIGNALLING A GUY IS INTO YOU).
— You think I have no costume, but I have one. I am the absurdity of life. He raised the tip of the bottle to his stubbly upper lip.
For his comic effort, she put a hand behind her mouth, drew in air, then produced nasal sounds—snort, snort, snort—with her shoulders trembling. Rick’s eyes shone, the inner light of pleasure of making a girl laugh. He, he, he—he laughed, too, then took a swig straight from the bottle. She turned her head left and right, right and left, then she smoothed out imaginary creases on her black skirt. Her fear of her lipstick wearing off makes her squeamish in her seat; she wanted to check her reflection on her compact mirror but she didn’t want to appear vain before her acquaintance.
— Well, Kamatayan, what are you thinking?
He might have sensed her discomfort, she thought.
— Look around, they’ve all ended up as mass produced Hollywood merchandise.
— Exactly my thoughts…
— By the way, what’s your real name?
— Well…you can call me—
— Do you fear death?
— No. I think death is not the opposite of—
— That’s true. I’m comfortable with the idea of dying, I mean, in a Zen way. Why do you think people fear death?
— Shall we find another place? Too noisy here. He pointed the bottle toward the other tables. The one in wolf costume there, yes, the one with the shaggy head and fangs… that’s the event organizer. What a suiting costume when you control the funds.
Her tongue began searching for the rotten tooth. Its tip feeling the ragged edges of the damaged enamel, the exposed root, the fossil of pre-pubescent neglect that had clung into her until adulthood.
— Excuse me, Rick.
She put her scythe inside her bag and stood up.
— No problem.
She followed a procession of girls and ended up in the comfort room where there is a bustling retouch sessions of mummies and murderers—a fresh press of powder here and there, a replenishing eye drop here and there. She had a full view of her face on the mirror. Her lipstick had been fine. Solid, matte, berry red. She was fine. That guy, yes. He wasn’t really interested in her, she decided. We’ll see! She went out of the comfort room.
Instead of returning to the table where Rick was waiting for her, she went straight to the Wolf, who, upon seeing her, thought she had mistaken him for someone. The Wolf raised a hand to his friends and gave his whole attention to her.
— Yes? He smiled.
— I will join the challenge. She said.
— Very well, come and register.
Thirty minutes into the party, the music faded out. The murmurings died down. Lights zeroed in on the neon pentagram at the center of the dance floor.
— Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to the visceral fiesta challenge. Happy Halloween!
A coffin-shaped tub was wheeled in; in it was a naked man swimming in thick red spaghetti sauce. He was wearing a necklace of longganisa. In no time, liquor-scalded stomachs grumbled unanimously, longing for meat, longing for bestial satiation. There were four competitors, including her, whose task was to collect as many golden coins as they could within twenty seconds using their mouths. The coins were scattered all over the man-salad.
She combed her hair upwards using her hands and knotted the heap into an explosive bun at the back of her head.
— Look, she’s tying up her hair! The host jeered.
— Eat the meat! Eat the meat! Eat the meat!
She shoved her face into the marinated flesh on spotlight with her hands behind her. The horde formed a circle around the make-believe cannibal spectacle and raised their smartphones over their heads. If they would just stand in quiet solemnity, if they would just focus a little, they would hear from her tongue the dainty sound of life without its sublimity–shlerp, shlerp, shlerp. They raced to capture the moment in their gadgets, and, after just a few minutes, hundreds of people who weren’t even there at the venue knew what she did.
The red sauce, thinned by tap water, snaked into the drain and left a faint smudge on the white tiles, living an impression of a careless murder cover up. She dried off her refreshed face with a ply of rough tissue then re-applied makeup, snail face crème as primer for the BB cream, then dewy strawberry lip tint to sooth her cracked lips. When she was sure there was no trace of the night’s revelry left on her, she exited from the comfort room. Some chairs and tables were already stacked up. Five people were huddled together on the floor, all drunk and in intense discussion on whose house they would sleep in over night. She just brushed past the Wolf who is busy talking to someone on the phone.
The real dark world outside was glistening with wetness. The skyline was obliterated by skyscrapers, with tiny windows glittering like the eyes of nocturnal animals merging in the silhouette of the jungle. Stirred by an earlier rain, the city’s air particles, big enough to be seen by human eyes, were exposed by the light beams coming from lampposts; she was like that right now: an atom suspended in the lacuna of reality, light and very contented. A lot of people tried to talk to her after the challenge. Some simply smiled at her. She relished on the memory with one arm hugging her trophy: a plastic lion figurine spray-painted in bronze. She had been hailed as the night’s “Visceral Queen”. The ecstatic feeling made her forget everything for a while; about Rick (who immediately left the party after getting her number), about a job interview tomorrow, about…Chabelita.
Oh no! It was cruel of her to leave a pregnant animal imprisoned in the house for the whole day with nothing to eat. Chabelita had been fooling around with neighborhood cats recently.
A 24-hour convenience store is a romantic addition to this story; for its round-the-clock accessibility means the character could always find what she’s looking for at any given time of the day. Be it a can of tuna for a cat a few minutes to midnight. The process of canning and distribution of the fish had started a few days ago, beginning in an ocean hundreds of nautical miles away, and ending in the shelves, staying there until the character reaches for it. That’s why it’s special: it is meant for her. We add a faceless and nameless male crew holding a barcode scanner, shove him behind the counter and make sure he attend to Emma’s purchase, the can of tuna and two bags of potato chips (something to snack on when she settle on her bed and read Facebook and Twitter comments about her “cannibalism video”). Then, when she return at the venue of the party, make sure a white sedan was parked at the other side of the street. Her Grab driver, waiting for her.
Glory to the world. To the world that is pre-arranged, predictable, accessible, kind.
She arrived to her unit one o’clock in the morning. There was a folded paper rammed under the door. Notice of disconnection from Meralco. She slid the billing statement inside her shoulder bag. Ticket price of the event, Maybelline Super 24-hour matte lipstick, sexy Halloween costume she ordered in Lazada, fare to and from Quezon City—that week’s budget, all gone to the costume party. Will her mother lend her money to pay for the electricity?
She unlaced her three-inch platform heels. She unlocked the door with her keys then pushed it open. She almost stumbled to a pyramid of empty cups of instant ramen on the floor before reaching for the light switch.
She held her nostrils high. The smell was not nice.
There were clothes scattered on the floor, and at the middle of the disarray, Chabelita was licking her right paw gracefully like an aristocrat dabbing her lips in fine dining. The spectacle of pet misbehavior seemed to have been the work of a sinister ghost strong enough to topple the laundry basket and tear the curtain off the window during her absence. The diabolical gloss of Chabelita’s black fur, now enhanced by the florescent light, completed the supernatural feel of the moment.
The animal looked up, the pupils of her yellow-blue eyes constricting into reptilian slits as they brave the light.
— What have you been eating?
Chabelita’s feast was scattered on the floor. At first glance they looked like severed fingers of a human adult. Look closely and see the four newborn kittens, flesh-pink and delicate, all headless and speckled with black ants.
The cat was fast enough to instinctively jump from thing thrown at her by her shocked owner. The lion figure, the keepsake from the party, bounced from the floor then lied dumb and paralyzed.
She rushed to the toilet and locked herself inside. With a trembling hand, she fished her phone from her bag and dialed her mother’s number.
— Hello? Mama, please, come over…come over, please…
— My God, what is happening there?”
— He-help me…hu-hu-hu!
In between the sobs, she explained what happened. She was assured by her mother that she will drop by tomorrow to clean up the massacre.
Her cape and skirt bunched up at her waist as she squatted on the toilet seat, her inner thighs in obtuse angle, her elbows resting on knees. She wiped off her tears with her hands. Outside the door, faint meowing. What could have gone wrong with Chabelita’s maternal instincts? Was she that hungry? She didn’t want it anymore, that evil thing.
WHY CATS EAT THEIR OWN BABIES—she was typing on the Google search bar on her phone when a notification popped up.
Bing! Swipe down. A Facebook request from Rick. Adding a potential lover on social media needed a special kind of budget. She uploaded a photo of her cat lying languidly on a pillow, front paws crossed.
For sale: cat, female.
But maybe, she could try to disappear only this time, just only this time. But in consciously trying to disappear, she still feels the nagging sense of self, ever present, ever aching. Maybe she could do something different. An experiment: to “transfer” invisibility to someone else, as in a mental super power. Instead of herself, she will make her male acquaintance upstairs disappear (surely he was now asleep by now). To do that she needed to forget him immediately. Existence is just memory.
Her wet shirt was plastered on her body like a vacuum-sucked plastic bag. She put on her jeans, reached for her bag. She unbolted the front door. Chill air burst from the gap.
She closed the door behind her. Once you let yourself to be just lonely, and to just step out there in the open space, unthinking, brave, you will smell, for the first time, the metallic stench of the rock and soil and decaying bits of nature under your shoes. You become a dog, or any hunting animal you like, in this hyper-sensory state. Once outside Emma breathed in the air. She closed her eyes: she “located” a nearby ditch where a particular smell was coming from.
She hadn’t checked the time; maybe it was around ten in the evening. She passed by three houses, all quiet, except for the ruffled murmurings of television. She was led by her nose to the right side past the first street lamp, to a narrow canal alongside the concrete sidewalk, where, beyond iron gratings flow all imaginable household residues made creamy by sediment dregs of rainwater. Look down through it, see the twinkling satin of blackness. She sniffed. Rotten egg cured in wood smoke, to describe the smell.
Using her nails, she plied open the back casing of her smartphone, it broke off in a crisp rasp. What was the last message on her Messenger inbox? Fourth house. Bring food. And from unknown men who watched her video from the Halloween party: Hi, sweetheart…or, Eat this (photo of penis attached).
With her back to a lamppost, her shadow ballooned on the wall enclosure standing in right angle across the length of the canal, a six-foot sheet of corrugated iron scarred with peeling posters of candidates from the last municipal election; opposite her was a half-torn face of a man with one eye gaping at her. Seen from afar, she looked like she was vomiting on the sidewalk, and her bent knees implied agony.
With one hand keeping her hair away from her face, she carefully slid the disassembled gadget into the reeking darkness like a piece of meat for a sewer alligator.
She had made holes on an empty electric fan box using a barbecue stick, tucked in the folds of the other opening and made an X over it with a thick masking tape to secure them. For three days leading to her sale, Chabelita lived in this dark tunnel, an inmate isolated for her scandal. For three nights leading to the sale of her cat, she had had nightmares. The recurring theme of her dreams was escape. She was trying to find the exit of an abandoned building, trapped inside the eerie grayness that spoke of incompleteness, with rusty wires festooning the cracked ceiling like vines. She didn’t know what she was running from.
One day she peeped into the cat-cave to check on the animal. Claws fanned out, forearms straight, the cat, like playing a piano, was gently pressing her paws on the rags she was lying on, her eyes closed, her mouth making sucking sounds. She shook her head.
Cat. Oh, her cat. Around a thousand pictures of her cat now gone: her cat in the sink lapping tap water, atop the bookcase seeking adventure, in the bed grooming herself. Her phone was gone, too. The phone she paid in installment for twelve months, and was now traversing the artery of a residential waste-blood.
The cat was not normal, her pathology kept secret from the buyer. What kind of mother would try to eat their own offspring? But then, she couldn’t deny a feeling of sympathy for her cat: whatever “disease” her cat had been suffering from had also infected her. She knew in her heart, if she had been impregnated by that guy, she would have also eaten her own babies.
CAT KNEADING BEHAVIOR REASON—she typed on the search bar one day. Then the results. They are reliving the memory of their kittenhood, the god-expert said. When they were safe and warm as they massaged mama’s nipples for a squirt of milk.
When the traffic went to a halt, she had a moment of watching a road construction in progress through the jeepney window. An excavator was breaking the surface of a concrete section, the drilling sounded like a successive blasting of a machine gun. The arm of the machinery was the tail of a gigantic scorpion with the venom-needle at its end jabbing repeatedly the hole of the earth. She shuddered and squeezed her bag, which was nestled on the nook of her arms like an infant. When she got home, she undressed and took a long bath.
The next day she did something she had been meaning to do for many years. She secured an appointment with a dentist. The clinic was located in a small commercial building along the McArthur Hiway in Bocaue. It was easy to spot because of its bright green facade, she was told on the phone (newly bought). At the second floor, a narrow glass door was wedged between a secondhand clothing store and a computer shop; displayed outside of it was a fading posters showing different crookedness and alignment of teeth. The conspicuousness of the place gave an impression of quackery; but the sight of a woman in white coat walking to and fro inside dispelled distrust.
Lying on a reclining chair bathed in glare was the psychological equivalent of a twelve-year-old boy undergoing circumcision, fearful but consoled by masculine pride. Within us there’s a medieval sense of glory in gore, especially if we willfully subject ourselves to hurt. After all, it is the supreme sense of being alive we are after.
— Open please…just tell me if it hurts…
The stab in the gum was blunt. She closed her eyes. Her fingernails dug into her palms. Her head was tightly held in place by the assistant’s tender hands. The procedure was painless due to the anesthesia; but even if her nerves had been dulled, she keenly felt the aggression of a metal instrument inside her mouth as it tried to tear the tooth out. The dentist crooned softly as she pulled the tooth.
A stream of nervous excitement swelled from her abdomen, concentrated on her groin like a hot energy, then it branched out into her hips and legs, and when it reached her feet, her toes fanned out like bird wings. Pure being burst forth. She let out a long muffled moan.
It was over. Her eyes were glinting with happiness, her mouth dripping with saliva and blood.