The Tenor of These Delusions - Chapter 1
Dreams hovered like mist after waking for Jess, like a night’s rain lingering as fog in the following break of day. Awakened by the flight’s turbulence he opened his eyes, and the half-sleeping recollections of Adriana seemed to linger, seeping from the airplane’s air-conditioning as condensing vapour.
It was midnight, and outside his window Singapore was a galaxy of streetlights constellating on the dark earth.
For rubber tappers prolonging fog was a simple matter. On an old tin can filled with bits of coal from a fire, one was but to drop some rubber trellis unto the embers. This was how his father drove out the mosquitoes. The smoke that would ensue, pungent yet soft to the nose, enshrouded the memories of his early childhood mornings.
It was not as easy, though, to drive away memories. This mist only invited memories of Yana.
As he walked out of the plane into the tube, he fixed his polo shirt and smiled ironically. Intriguing, but not altogether surprising: the experience of luxury, whether with Yana or with this executive flight to Singapore, was unmistakable.
Changi Airport was a world away from the rubber groves of his childhood as a tapper in Kidapawan. And yet the soft green carpet that ubiquitously covered the airport floor reminded him of the undergrowth of covercrop kept neat by regular rolling of steel barrels and goat grazing, and the dim midnight lighting of the hallways reminded him of the shade of the thick rubber trees that canopied over much of Kidapawan’s rural outskirts. He was thousands of miles and a lifetime away, and yet here he was, remembering his childhood again..
The portion of the fragmented Jimenez rubber groves in Kidapawan which Jess’s family had tapped for the wealthy Jimenez family for generations sprawled on one side of a national highway. Across the road was a smaller grove, owned by a branch of the Bacchus family. When Adriana Bacchus would come along with her father to this rubber plantation of theirs, he would play with her.
They played by sharing each other’s worlds.
He would take her around the farms and show her all kinds of wild and rural things she would not see in downtown Kidapawan. How to ride a carabao, how to catch dragonflies, how to climb a tree – this primitive world of the rubber trees always seemed new to him when he was with her, and with her he learned just how much there was to love.
Between games of taguanay and spider fighting, she would teach Jess phrases in French and tell him the stories of the books her mother bought her. She would hum to him the German and Russian pieces of music she was learning in piano school. She would talk about all the big cities to which her parents had taken her – Davao, Cebu, even Manila. He, who knew no other world at the time but Kidapawan, could only dream of these places. And in all these dreams she was there.
‘Singapore,’ she once waxed longingly. She had said she saw it on television, and one day wanted to go there. Waterfalls inside an airport, otters on the roads, a giant tower covered in plants.
‘But can they make the sky bleed clouds there?’ He had asked, unable to restrain the bravado.
When she asked bemusedly what he meant, he took her hand, brought her to the foot of a tall rubber tree, and told her to watch. Then, holding his tapping knife, he reached out to the overcast afternoon sky above, tapped the tree, and slowly, cloud-white sap trickled down the winding spout on the tree’s bark. The sky’s bleeding flowed down to the waiting cup made of a half coconut shell.
Yana giggled before giving the only kiss he had ever gotten in his life.
For as long as he could remember he was good at seeing metaphors like this. Dragonflies were keys to the sky’s unopened doors. Kuhol eggs on reeds were the little aquatic snails’ attempts to produce raspberries. Butterflies were exiled flowers, hovering from one stalk to another to look for the ones that disowned them. Spiders were fishermen of the air, with the dewdrops as bait. The patch of grass in the undergrowth, downy with spores, was pretending to be mist. The rubber seeds were little worlds, complete with continents in an ocean of brown..
But the morning sunlight continued to rain down on them in mottled rays from the clouds of the canopy above, and at seven years old all he could do was fall in love with her and tell her that if she married him, he would take her to this Singapore place. She giggled again and told him it was a promise.
How easy it was to see parallels for him like this: rubber sap and clouds, Kuhol eggs and raspberries, happiness and a future.
‘Singapore...’ he muttered as he entered a big atrium in Changi Airport over a decade later, breathing the cold airport air in. He was finally here, but she was long gone.
As he neared the end of a walkalator he closed his eyes and shook his head – no, he is here to forget, he must resist these delusions.
At midnight the airport was still crowded: on one side of the walkalator he saw two young Indian men on their iPads; on another a pretty young Chinese girl was sitting on the floor with a Caucasian young man, she asleep on his lap while he was reading. He was surprised to hear a lot of Tagalog spoken here and there – the uncalled for familiarity disquieted him. As he walked ahead, trolley bag and briefcase in hand, he could imagine the steel barrels his father would roll under the rubber trees to keep this green carpet a neat covercrop. He was amused to see an orchid garden, complete with a little pond with fish, inside the airport.
The place was familiar in a removed, deliberate way.
The immigration officer who checked his passport was a pretty Indian woman. In spite of the late hour she looked fresh and cheerful.
‘From Davao?’ she asked convivially.
‘And now in Singapore.’ And to this she giggled, handing him back his passport.
‘Welcome! Enjoy your stay!’
Yes, he thought as he went to get the rest of his luggage. He was in Singapore. It was not just some quip, it was him telling himself to leave Adriana Bacchus, to leave the very idea of her behind.
In this wonderfully strange, new land he will lose what little of her sacredness he had kept inside him.
The organizers of the conference had asked if he needed to be picked up from the airport when he got his invitation. His arrival was at an ungodly hour, he knew the room they got him was already very expensive, and Singaporean cab drivers were a tourist attraction of their own, so he had declined the offer. With nobody meeting him, he called a cab as he emerged from the arrival area.
After the driver (a Chinese man) helped him with his luggage, the driver greeted him a good morning and asked where to. He said his hotel’s name.
The cab took off, and he got his first luxurious glimpse of Singapore. An elephant of a raincloud loomed gray over the night sky, grumbling threats of rain and flashing tusks of lightning here and there.
The clean roads slithered beyond the horizon like giant concrete snakes, winding past groves of skyscraper trees with glowing barks of glass. At certain angles the acacias that lined the road looked as if they bore fruits of street or traffic lights.
‘Here for vacation?’ the cab driver asked.
‘Ah, not entirely,’ he answered, looking up from his papers. He had opened his briefcase to review his schedule. ‘There’s a conference I’m attending.’
‘At the Library?’
‘Yes, that International Rubber Conference. Heard of it?’
‘Oh yeah, yeah! I heard of that. I follow updates on rubber, fuel, and motor manufacturing industries. I need to keep this cab in shape after all. So you from Thailand?’
‘No, the Philippines.’
The Philippine rubber industry had until recently suffered from poor standards – rubber planters would hide stones in their latex blocks or mix bark in cup lumps. This left Philippine rubber the cheapest and least sought after in Asia, and with the global decrease in rubber prices due to Thailand’s overproduction, this has dealt a heavy blow Philippine rubber industry.
But three recent technological advancements by Mindanawons brought about a dramatic recovery for the local scene: the development of a cheaper and odourless acid for setting the sap, the discovery of the pharmaceutical and therapeutic potentials of burnt rubber trellis, and the development of a covercropping scheme that miraculously made the trees produce thirty percent more sap. The inventors, all from the Cotabato area of the Philippines, made significant headlines internationally. Jess, at twenty six the youngest among them, led the trellis fumes research. He was here to deliver a lecture on his findings.
‘Yes now I recall!’ said the driver after some time. ‘You were that young Filipino on TV. “Genius,” they called you!’
‘Jess Landim,’ he said timidly, extending his hand to the driver.
‘Ivan,’ And the driver shook his hand.
The conversation died comfortably from there, with Ivan quietly content at having someone of a celebrity onboard. He also noticed Jess rubbing his eye ridges and assumed the young man was tired.
In truth, the luxury of the urban scenario was making him wax romantic again – the urban skyline, dominated by the skyscraper trees, windows glowing with lives and loves inside, good looking and fashionable: how great it would be to look down from those hotel heights at them all with Adriana, embracing her from behind as the city’s constellation of streets glowed radiantly on her pristine face – impossibilities.
He was young in an urban playground, but how old he felt.
‘Listen, Ivan’ he said suddenly, trying not to think of Yana. The cab was at the corner of Simei and Changi roads. ‘I want to eat. Tell you what, if you pause the meter and take me to a good hawker centre, I’ll treat you.’
Ivan smiled and readily agreed. He turned left into Changi road and went straight ahead.
Jess chatted with the driver without saying too much. It was his first time here, and he was staying for four days (his sponsors the Jimenezes insisted he go have fun). Ivan recommended places he might want to go to: the Safari Zoo, Sentosa, Bugis and Orchard for shopping. He answered that he also wanted to visit the Botanical Gardens and try the street food.
As he listened to it all, he felt oddly alienated, as if he with his rough, rubber-tapper hands did not belong in all this urban luxury.
‘Your women are beautiful here,’ he said, as thoughts of his humble origins were threatening to touch on Yana again. A young Malay girl on the road had caught his eye. It felt awkward – he was never the type to remark aloud on a woman’s appearance.
‘Oh yes they are. And those that are ...available, they’re affordable.’ Ivan laughed affably.
‘Are they..?’ he asked , half curiously, half absentmindedly.
‘If you want, I have contacts…’
Jess laughed and, out of curiosity, asked for some sample pictures. Ivan took out his smart phone and showed him a picture of a very pretty Chinese girl.
‘She’s twenty. Oh I don’t do her, don’t worry. Wife will kill me. Just my neighbour.’
‘I’ll think about it.’ He replied, laughing.
They had reached a hawker centre, a homely but comfortable collection of hawker food stalls at the juncture of three major roads. Across the street was a row of shop houses, their pastel colours glowing in midnight street lights. Even at one thirty the food court was still filled with people.
They alighted and began looking around for food to order. After some time choosing, Jess ordered a bowl of Laksa, a plate of carrot cake, some Roti Prata, and a glass of Bandung, while Ivan had a plate of Rojak, some Kaya toast, and a mug of hot Teh-C.
Vivid red on opaque pink and white – the Bandung made him remember the time Yana had joined him tapping the rubber trees on their farm and he, not doing anything, decided to teach her. They were eight, a few months before she last visited their farm.
In her excitement she cut her hand with the tapping blade. He rushed to see how bad it was, but she just giggled it off. Her blood trickled on the coconut shell full of still wet sap. He was disturbed not at the sight of blood but at the sight of the pure white sap being stained by the blood’s intense redness.
Memories rushed to him with substance as he sipped the Laksa broth: the taste of piyo in the broth of coconut milk, chilli peppers and bagoong that his mother would cook for them when Yana came over. Yana loved that broth, and he could remember feeling his face grow hot when she told his mother she wanted to be part of the family.
He was doing this deliberately. He must stop it.
‘Though there’s no wedding…’ he said, raising the glass of Bandung.
‘You know a lot.’ Said Ivan, getting some carrot cake. ‘You sure it’s your first time here?’
‘I researched it. Bandung’s a wedding drink right?’ He laughed. ‘And how could I afford to have been here before! Would you believe Ivan, I’m just a rubber tapper’s son.’
‘Labourers in a rubber plantation, my family had been tappers for generations. We would wound the trees to let them bleed sap, then collect the sap in coconut shells. Definitely not the type of people to wear a coat and tie. My parents could only support my studies until high school, but a few years ago the landowners we worked for made me study and get a degree. Now I have a master’s in agricultural management and in Singapore trying Bandung.’
Ivan nodded with an impressed look.
Jess took a sip of the pink liquid and was taken aback.
Yana, as if afflicted by his beautiful delusions, once said that the roses that grew near her grade four class room in the Notre Dame of Kidapawan College campus had the fragrance of love.
But love when one tasted it will be more intense than one thinks it would be. Overwhelming, like condensed perfume, and too sweet for comfort. And yet there will be something hallow, cold, tasteless at the edge of all the intensity, as if reality diluted its fragrance.
Was this foreshadowing? He thought as he smiled back at Ivan. Was this telling him that once he got a taste of that which he had always held sacred – and therefore kept a distance from – he will only get perfumed emptiness?
As they set off again after eating, they fell silent in the cab.
His thoughts found themselves again in the past, nostalgia loudening to a reprising tenor. He recalled that afternoon when she suddenly told him the Bacchuses have had to sell their farm.
When she told him she barely looked at him, her eyes staring into nothingness with a seething wrath that in its silence resembled resignation. And for the first time he had realized that she was a landowner’s daughter and he was just a tapper’s son. He felt powerless, and she in her young and quiet tribulation did not even bother seeking comfort in his eyes.
Before he could even attempt to answer her, her father came back to the jeep, she went back in, the jeep started, and he would never see her again.
TO BE CONTINUED.
Artwork by Maya Angelou Nievares