This short story first appeared in The Library Underground.
His forefinger hovered on the backspace button for a few seconds before he pressed it – and the three hundred words which took Martin Miguel Reyes Tajonera five hours to write instantly disappeared.
Because: how does one exactly start a letter to a father you haven’t seen for twelve years? If only there was a template on “How to Write a Letter to my Dad Who was Kind of a Dick for Leaving Us”. Not that there was a lack of people in the world who’d been abandoned as well – a quick Google search, and all the stories would pop up – stuff which Martin found funny or amusing or sad, but nothing which precisely expressed what he felt.
He scratched his head, grasping for the right words to say. Everything came out cheesy and too contrived. He felt like he was writing a Hallmark card. A really long Hallmark card with lots of sappiness and fits of suppressed teenage angst enough to make a Simple Plan album.
The cursor blinked on top of the page like fingers hammering on a table, waiting for him to type again. He minimized the document and then watched funny Youtube videos. He got up from the chair and paced around the room. He went downstairs to have a glass of water. And another glass. He opened the refrigerator door and had two Krispy Kremes. And a bite of Snickers. He brushed his teeth. Finally, he scooped the 12.50 pesos in loose change on top of the refrigerator, hoping that lola’s sari-sari store wasn’t closed yet.
“Martin?” The sharp voice came from the room upstairs, across his.
“Are you going outside?”
“I’m buying something ma.”
“Lock the door. And take the key, Martin.”
His ma wasn’t exactly happy with him smoking. One Saturday while doing the laundry she discovered inside his pocket the cigarette butts he put in a crumpled receipt. “Do you smoke, Martin?” There was disappointment all over her face. He didn’t have the heart to lie so he said yes. He was ashamed of himself.
“It’s bad for your lungs. When did you even start?” He told her it was one of those stressful review nights for their long exams that started him on the habit. He had a hard time remembering so many details then and he needed something to keep him focused. His best friend Patrick offered him a stick. He felt dizzy at first but soon after he was having one stick after another. “Buy your own pack,” Patrick joked. That was two years ago and he hasn’t stopped ever since. His ma hasn’t forgiven Patrick for it.
Martin was disappointed to find the store already boarded up for the night. He was quite fond of the old lady manning it, how she was always trying to make small talk: How’s your mother? When will you graduate? Where do you plan to work? My grandchild works at Canada now as a caretaker. Martin said he wanted to go to Singapore and become an architect there. Lola thought it was a nice idea. How much is the exchange rate now? Around 30, Martin said. Really good money, the old woman opined. Their conversations usually headed nowhere and he always left without saying goodbye. One time he looked back and he saw lola smiling at him.
He left the store and continued walking along Libertad. There were homeless people everywhere sniffing glue, eyes darting left to right. There were hookers too, or at least he thought they were because the way the girls puffed their cigarettes were like how he imagined people who traded sex for money looked like. Their eyes glistened in the dark like little black marbles as their lips made smoke circles and hearts, ephemeral halos hanging over them. It was engrossing, watching them puff, like when you stare at the television for too long and it’s night and there’s really nothing on the picture tube anymore but white noise and you begin to think it’s telling you something but it’s all in your head. He remembered his eight-year-old self too busy staring at the television, trying to make figures and shapes out of the specks of light buzzing on the screen, to even notice his dad stepping out of their house, never to come back. His dad took care of him while his mom worked at the office except he did a very poor job at it by abandoning Martin. Martin had been sitting in front of the screen when his mom came from work one midnight and asked why he was still awake and where his dad was. Martin didn’t know. His mom found a note and cried. She threw the note away. Martin never understood what happened. He would ask her before but his mom would brush it off and change the topic until he eventually grew tired trying finding out.
It was twelve years after when he heard from him again, on his twentieth birthday, which was an unspectacular August Monday, just a week ago. To celebrate, he had lunch with Patrick and Patrick’s girlfriend Clarissa at Bellini’s, this hole-in-the-wall pizza place in Cubao, and after he went straight home. His mom was at work and they agreed to eat out together this coming weekend instead of that night. He had a lot of studying to do anyway since finals week was drawing close and he wanted to keep his grades up. He was expecting to graduate this March.
What he wasn’t expecting though was the postcard that came in that day. There was a picture of Manila City Hall’s clock tower on one side, and scrawled behind was “HAPPY BIRTHDAY, I’M SORRY. I LOVE YOU – DADDY.” The address was a Makati P.O. Box number and there was an e-mail added below, obviously written in a hurry.
An apology comes in three parts: acknowledgment, remorse, and reparation – the thought flashed in his mind, an article read somewhere while browsing through the net, or perhaps a Facebook status update by a friend passive-aggressively writing about an ex. If sorry was a flavor, this particular sorry was as bland as cold chlorinated water, the taste coating your tongue as you gulped it, the liquid sliding down your throat, filling your empty stomach, making you retch, the bile rushing up. He mulled it over, flipped the postcard over twice, thrice, four times, and considered how he felt, what he thought. He wanted to make sense of it but there was really nothing coming out, not even a hypothesis, only acceptance. When he was eight his dad left, twelve years passed – and now this letter.
He studied his dad’s penmanship, the inelegant handwriting with hurried jots and arches, and imagined a man scrawling on a table in a Starbucks somewhere in Makati, writing “I LOVE YOU – DADDY”, probably pausing mid-sentence to consider those words, or maybe not, maybe he went ahead and wrote it without conviction, a trite phrase he felt was necessary to put in. Except, for all his imagining, Martin couldn’t quite figure out what face to give that man in his imagination, how Martin’s dad grimaced or laughed, how he composed himself, the way he stood or ordered coffee or leaned towards his chair. What kind of clothes did he wear? Did he have a cigarette with his cappuccino? Did he wear false teeth? Was his nose hair trimmed unlike most middle-aged men? Was he dashing and crisp, or more rugged and outdoorsy? Was he the kind of guy who’d let kids sit on his lap when they cried? Or was he the kind of guy who made kids cry?
But all he could remember about his dad was the stranger in the photo albums: in a suit posing with a friend on his wedding reception at Sulo Hotel, a mustached man eating burger in McDonald’s while Martin sat on a high chair beside his mom, the topless guy in a beach somewhere in Batangas.
He kept the postcard in his underwear drawer and told himself over and over just before going to bed to look for his dad in his dream, to search for a fragment of his dad that was buried in his subconscious, flitting in sequences, a distant solitary figure that popped up when Martin was asleep. His dad never showed up even once.
“Hoy pogi, sa’n ka papunta?” one of the girls shouted at him as he paced quickly, farther away from them. He heard cackling and jeering from behind. He sheepishly glanced back, seeing faint silhouettes of lips and eyes behind the veil of smoke and darkness, like film noir happening right before his very eyes, and he said “Mystery” to himself out of nowhere. It felt weird now that he thought of what he just did. He kept walking, his eyes fixed on the cement sidewalk, avoiding more glances along the way, counting the lines which he avoided stepping on – 25, 26, 27, 28 – slowing down and cursing to himself as he belatedly noticed a line he stepped on, starting at one again, two, three, four…were they still looking from behind? He should really stand taller and look surer of where he was going. Did they think he was cruising at this hour? The thought was unnerving.
And so what if he was cruising? Of course they won’t judge him: they made a living out of people who cruised at this hour! But still – it horrified him that they might have thought he’d leave his house in the middle of the night to hire people for sex. I was trying to write a letter to my dad and it just got so frustrating that I needed a smoke but lola’s store was closed! My dad left me when I was eight and I deleted three hundred words, if you press Ctrl+Z on my netbook you’d see all the words I deleted.
Martin eyed the first open store since leaving his house a couple of meters away from where he stood and wondered if it would’ve been easier to write “Fuck you for being an irresponsible parent” had his dad left when he had already been fifteen. Or he could just not write at all. Come to think of it, it wasn’t as if the postcard demanded a reply anyway. The email his dad scribbled below though was like a worm dangling on a hook, taunting him – “I dare you to write back. GO MARTIN!!”
What did he do to deserve that in the first place? It was a cruel mind trick birthday gift, totally uncalled for. He flicked his Zippo’s cover open – a gift from Patrick – and lit the cigarette the girl from the store handed to him, then played with the lighter, watching the flame burst out of the windscreen and then die as he covered it, and repeated it again as he took a drag from his cigarette, the smoke sputtering out of his mouth, scattered, ugly, without form, unlike the ones the girls from awhile back made.
“Do you know that smoking causes cancer?” He heard his mom’s voice inside his head and he felt a rock sinking inside his stomach. “Why would you want to get sick? Why would you do that on purpose?” He didn’t know. Maybe he was like his dad. Maybe he was a jerk and he never really thought about the consequences of what he did. Maybe he never thought about how his actions hurt people he loved, or maybe he never really cared. Because we’re all selfish right, and it’s equally selfish to demand people to do things for us because we loved them, yes? Wasn’t love all about acknowledging the simple fact that we never really own anyone, and that we should always be ready to let go, mom?
Exactly what a jerk would say.
You worry about things too much, Patrick would’ve said exactly in this situation. His best friend mouthing those very same words after last semester’s finals during a panic attack: he remembered skipping items 20 to 35 after he blanked out on Cauchy’s integral formula.
“Are you sure you didn’t answer it?” Patrick asked him.
“I can’t, but…you think I can retake that part if I explain to Sir Contreras that I was stupid to forget?”
“So you’re not sure?”
“Then you worry about stuff too much,” Patrick laughed. “Besides, that’s just ten percent of the exam – you could’ve gotten sixty percent. That’s still more than a passing grade anyway.”
“And if I didn’t?”
“Then what’s the point of worrying?”
Everything! Because things won’t go right unless you worry about them and think of how you can make them better! If we were all complacent fools humanity would’ve been wiped out of the place of the planet! He was arguing with his mind-Patrick and had a laugh when he realized that this all began because he overthought what his mom said to him. He then put his hand in his pocket, and realized that he forgot to bring the keys.
He started the walk home when the figure caught his eye – dashing from the periphery, a blur of white that disappeared into the darkness. He followed the desperate belling that pierced through the indecipherable noises that night: an animal sound, wild and out of place in this city with its cars and electric buzzing.
He saw the creature at the corner of Calbayog and J. Fabella. It was an albino fawn, lost and shaken, tottering through the stretch of the road. He called it, stretching his hand, whispering “Puss puss puss” like how people would call a cat, but the fawn skipped further down the street, farther away from Martin.
Martin puss puss puss-ed the deer from behind, hoping to catch its attention, as the animal continued its belling. He wondered where it came from, or if there was a zoo somewhere missing an animal, or if this was a pet who escaped. What was it looking for?
It kept skipping until they reached the highway, and then the creature stopped. The fawn looked even more lost, stepping, taking its feet back, unsure if it would go ahead or stay where it was, ears rising in alarm whenever a car honked from a distance, perhaps wondering if a hunter or predator was somewhere lurking in the darkness.
As Martin drew closer, the animal jerked away to the middle of the road. Martin called even louder, but not loud enough to scare the animal, just enough to get its attention. Martin didn’t know what he would do if the animal approached him, if he even wanted to keep the animal or take it to a shelter somewhere, but all he knew was he needed to get close it, he needed to save the animal.
Finally the animal stared at him, its large pink eyes locking with Martin’s brown-black ones, and for a moment he saw a glimmer of fear, of worry, an overwhelming helplessness in the face of something strange, a longing for somewhere – something – someone familiar.
Martin walked closer to the fawn. It stayed where it was, waiting for him, the lumbering beast approaching it. It blinked warily.
From nowhere, the beam from the headlights of a Honda Civic cut in between them. Martin with a start jumped back but it was already too late when the animal realized what was about to happen. He watched the animal stare straight into the light like it had stared at him from seconds back, and in a split-moment he heard a sickening crunch as the creature’s body flew from the impact.
He heard a screech as the car swayed a bit and then stopped a few meters away. The driver stepped out of the car and inspected his hood, then stared at Martin and the broken mess left behind. Martin heard a slurred Putang ina and then laughter – both from the man and someone inside the car.
The Civic sped off afterwards.
The street was empty, only him and the albino deer under the flickering yellow light. Martin crouched and stretched his arm, running his hand on the poor fawn’s head, and felt how real it was, how gone it was already – this thing that wasn’t lost anymore, still bleeding on the road.
HELLO, MY NAME IS EVAN TAN.
I'm a writer and communications professional based in Manila, Philippines. Outside of my regular job, I like to travel, work out, volunteer, watch movies and plays, go to art galleries/ fairs and museums, read books, and eat vegetarian food.
More about me here.