By VICENTE GARCIA GROYON
In the end, it was the matter of the car. It was not wrecked; it had only been dented in some places and various parts inside had been thrown out of alignment. The problem was not how or where to get it repaired, or even how much it would cost, for then, as now, money was never an object. The problem was how I had gotten it into that odd position to begin with. To my father, it was enough. He decided, after a long string of last chances (the last being my successful orchestration, as Soiree Committee Chairman, of that year’s Senior Soiree) that I was irresponsible and a delinquent, and decreed that I would attend college not in Manila, or Cebu, or even Iloilo, but in Bacolod, where he could keep me under his thumb. I’d been lobbying for his blessing to escape his clutches for the better part of two years, but after that night, he was unswayable.
It wasn’t even I who screwed up the car, even if I had parked it too close to the edge. There were five of us in it that night, my current sweetheart included, where there should have been just two, and Justo, who came in his own car, made the mistake of slamming the back door after he rescued Tina, the other female passenger that night. If I was to blame, so were the others. Most of all Justo.
But even now, decades after the fact, this suggestion seems even more implausible than on that morning when I stared at the front end of a Mercedes Benz poking up from beyond an embankment that plunged down to the Bacolod Strait as the sun rose over a gleaming chrome front bumper. That morning, as my father stood around making rueful noises along with the other parents huddled in the cogon and barking suggestions to the soldiers who had come to pull the Benz up, but instead were looking at it in goggle-eyed amusement, I was fighting off first desperation, then despair, by racking my brain for loopholes, ways that I could shift the blame to someone else, anyone, away from me, and leave me spotless, basking in the glory befitting the Committee Chairman of a Soiree that had been, if not completely successful, a lot of fun. But he looked at me once that morning, just once, with utter contempt and disappointment, and I knew that it was over for me. From then on he never held back, expressing his displeasure over any choice I made, whether it affected him, as when I apportioned some of our sugar land to corn-planting, or not, as when I bought my first brand-new car. It was with great reluctance that he turned over the reins of the farm to me, and even then it would be years before he finally stopped meddling in its operations, content to grumble in the background if the returns were below standards (his, of course) and to dispense favors in between games of golf to the older obreros who would, while he was alive, continue to regard him as the Señor. Even after he died I continued to be Señorito.
To this day I wonder if things would have been different if I had opted to borrow my mother’s functional, roomy VW van instead of my father’s sedan. Or if I had simply doubled with Dondi and Tina as we had planned.
As far as anyone could remember, there had been only two instances when the Senior Soiree was held in February, and these were the two years after the high school department of St. Martin’s School for Boys was established. The Seniors of the following year prevailed, and from then on the Soiree was held in January, when everyone was still prosperous from the Christmas crop of cash gifts. By February all that money would have been spent in other ways and on other parties, and that month, with its connotations of red valentines and puppy love, was unacceptably trite.
As a matter of tradition, the Seniors looked forward to the Soiree more than the Prom or the Graduation Ball because these two were official school functions. The Soiree, on the other hand, was held off-campus at the Rolling Hills Village Clubhouse and organized entirely by the students. This was the most controversial aspect of the affair, because that meant that although we had come together as the boys of St. Martin’s, the school had nothing to do with the event. The funds were taken from a pot that made monthly rounds among the Seniors from June to December. The only chaperones at the Soiree would be a handful of cooperative uncles or older cousins, who usually repaired to the Clubhouse bar after dinner anyway. In all the years that the Soiree was held, there had never been any trouble—the Seniors understood that the affair’s reputation and future rested in their hands, and behaved.
Over the years, the process of finding escorts for the Soiree and other formal functions had evolved into an efficient procedure. As a matter of tradition, St. Martin’s boys paired up with girls from Our Lady of Peace, which was the only girls’ school in Bacolod on the same level as St. Martin’s. Boys who were going steady had no problem, but the unattached would have to prevail upon a matchmaker, of which each year level at Our Lady had at least one, usually a plain but well-connected girl through her own plain but well-connected boyfriend. Together, they exuded the well-meaning solicitousness of a married couple who wanted nothing more than to marry off their unfortunate single friends. In my experience, the girl usually reminded me of nothing more than a brothel madam as she went over a list of prospects: “She’s perfect for you. No? Well, true. But this one—she is a great girl.” The transaction was usually carried out at an ice cream parlor, with the boy footing the bill, over class photos or a yearbook.
The year I turned Senior I was secure in the knowledge that I had a ready date for the Soiree—Lizette and I had been going steady since the schoolyear began. I had carried out the courtship for most of the summer, and she had accepted me after the first week of classes. It was a given that I would attend the Soiree with Lizette, and as early as November when the Soiree Committee was formed she began making joint plans for us, without so much as any mention of the event from me. The first thing she asked me was if I would drive the car myself or get a chauffeur, reasoning that she had to know even then because her choice of gown depended to a great deal on whether she would be alighting from the front or the back seat of an automobile. Caught off-guard by the ease and simplicity with which we had slipped into thinking of ourselves as “a pair,” I was oddly pleased by her presumptuousness.
Our arrival at the Clubhouse that evening was something of an anticlimax—just three hours before, Lizette and I had been fussing over the evening’s details, skulking in the kitchen, hovering over the table settings, and fretting at the combo’s late arrival. We raced home as the sky began to turn pink, and after half an hour I was at her house, where I naturally had to wait more than twice that amount of time for her. Despite our going “steady,” I always found waiting at her home uncomfortable. Her parents seemed a touch too solicitous of me, treating me with deference when social roles prescribed that I was to be the fawning, respectful one. Her house was modest but not shabby, and in it I could never shake the feeling that I was a prized catch, not to be allowed to escape at any cost. True, Lizette’s parents were not rich, but her father made enough working at a bank to keep them comfortable and ensure that Lizette got the best of everything. Nevertheless, they laughed too easily at my witticisms and were always a little too attentive to me.
But I endured it, because it was the Soiree—your date waited at home in her evening gown and you came to pick her up, driving a car (for in those days, as now, it was child’s play to acquire a driver’s license before attaining legal age), and she kept you waiting while you made small talk with her parents and when she finally came downstairs there was the business of the corsage, and the instructions from her father, and then you got in the car, both of you in the front seats, and rolled up to the Clubhouse amid a sea of glowing taillights and glinting fins and surrendered your car to the valets before making your grand entrance through the lattice doorway. It was a grand, old-fashioned night, no matter if no one slow-danced anymore and the music was rock ‘n’ roll rather than romantic. The point was it was a fantasy, and in those days we were young enough to believe in the fantasy.
By the time Lizette emerged from her bedroom, assisted by her mother, I was ready to scream, but my exasperation with her father disappeared when I caught sight of her. We posed for photos with her parents and then were finally, mercifully, off.
At the clubhouse entrance, we paused to inspect ourselves and smooth away traces of the car ride, and I admired Lizette’s foresight—upon alighting from the car she only had to give her fluffy skirt a single brisk shake for it to fall into place. Anticlimax or not, I felt a rush of pride upon entering the ballroom, where all the colored lights had been lit, the candles laid out on tables, and seeing that it was somehow no longer the place where three hours ago we had been running from one end to the other in a self-important panic, that it had undergone a transformation, just as we had once we had washed the day’s dust and sweat away.
The ballroom was not even half full yet. While Lizette beamed and waved at her classmates who had arrived before us and were already seated at tables with their St. Martin’s counterparts, my gaze settled upon the various components of the evening, inspecting each in turn for anything amiss. The waiters were serving drinks and hors d’oeuvres at tables and filling water glasses, since dinner would not start until I gave the signal. The combo we had contracted for the evening was dressed in matching green suits and were drinking punch beside the stage, since they were not to start playing until eight-thirty. Their instruments had been set up on the stage in front of the sequined cardboard letters that spelled “The Soiree” in elegant flowing script. In the meantime, Felix was playing records in the far corner—he was stag tonight, as usual, disdaining the stuck-up formality of events like the Soiree but not one to miss the big night either. I was sure he had a bottle of something nice and strong with him—I caught his eye and grinned at him, ensuring that I would have a sip or two once my duties for the evening were done. It seemed that the instructions we had been issuing all afternoon had been followed by the clubhouse staff, and that made me rest a little easier. I felt sure there would be nothing but good news for my father tomorrow morning, and concerning the matter of my choice of college, he would be putty in my hands.
I naturally wanted to study in Manila. All the best universities were in Manila, and there one could acquire an ineffable air of urbanity and worldliness that came with having lived elsewhere, anywhere other than just Bacolod. We owned a house in Quezon City that we lived in whenever we went to Manila for a vacation. Often it stood empty save for an elderly couple that my father had transplanted from Bacolod to act as the house’s caretakers.
However, we had no close relatives in Manila—perhaps a more responsible cousin or two who was also studying there—and hence there would be no responsible adults to look after me while I was there. Hence my father’s hesitation. I began socializing at eleven, accompanying older cousins to parties and the like. By the time I was thirteen I knew how to smoke and had developed a taste for cognac. None of this escaped my father’s attention, including my frequent disciplinary transgressions at St. Martin’s. On the matter of my academic records, though, he could not say a word—I was never an honor student, but I wasn’t a laggard either—except to remark that while my marks were good, they could have been better.
I imagine my father entertained disturbing visions of me running wild in Manila, acquiring all the bad habits I had failed to in the last seven years of my acquaintance with the night and spending all of his money on the pursuit of pleasure with nothing to show for it but merely acceptable marks. I don’t think he ever considered the idea of me studying in Manila at all, except during the months when I threw myself into my role as Soiree Committee Chairman. I knew I was capable of being responsible and trustworthy, of achieving something important and worthwhile. Although I had given up on the yearbook staff upon realizing that there was a qualification exam, I knew that the socialization that my father so frowned upon would be put to excellent use in organizing the event of the year. As I led Lizette to the table reserved for the organizers, nearest to the stage, I did so with the air of a triumphant emperor entering the conquered city.
I nodded to Dondi and Tina, who were sitting with us at the table, as we sat down. Lizette and Tina immediately dove into a huddle. Although she had never been close to Tina, Lizette had formed a bond with her ever since we started going steady, only becoming friends since Dondi and I were, and continue to be, as close as brothers. Dondi leaned over the table to murmur about some detail or other; I was only half-listening. At most social events, I have found, much of the small talk is inconsequential—it exists to give whoever may be observing the impression that one has, at the very least, acquaintances at the function. It also diverts attention from your rapt observation of the others in the crowd. I murmured back the usual reply at him: “Oh really?” and scanned the room, searching for an opportunity to perform my official duties of the evening. There was none.
By seven-forty, when most of the couples had arrived, I called over the head waiter and told him that his crew could begin serving dinner. At eight-thirty the combo began to play as scheduled. Everyone made a show of listening, applauding, and murmuring to each other about the musicians. Having chosen that band with great care, I was confident that no one had anything to complain about. Still, the dance area remained conspicuously empty.
Up to that point I didn’t notice that Justo was absent—not until he made his entrance two hours later. I knew who had RSVPd for dinner, but even when I was drawing up the seating arrangements I found his absence unremarkable. Justo was the sort of fellow that you didn’t notice much. He excelled at nothing, not even in delinquency or buffoonery; nor was he so poor at anything as to elicit comment. He didn’t come from a distinguished or wealthy family; nor was he so poverty-stricken as to be one of the charity cases that St. Martin’s relegates to “scholar” status. He was not at the absolute periphery of the social world of St. Martin’s, but in that sizeable gray area between outcast and popular. If not for that night he would have been doomed to suffer today the anonymity of the unfortunate whom I do not recognize or remember in our yearbook. But Justo had chosen that evening to emerge from the haze in the fringes of class photos, from the dim corners of school corridors, from the backs of classrooms. He was about to be noticed, whether by his design or not I still don’t know, and my life, as a result, would never be the same again.
At our table, we all glanced round at each other. Dondi took the initiative and led Tina to dance, and the rest of us at the table followed. We lasted one song and retreated when we realized that no one else was dancing. Then Lizette took Tina’s hand, and together they made the rounds of the tables, asking everyone to dance lest the Soiree be decreed a failure. I relaxed in my chair and watched Lizette taking charge of the matter. Again, this had taken no prompting on my part, and it pleased me.
As the evening went on the bursts of dancing became less and less sporadic. By the time the combo took a fifteen-minute break at ten, no one was seated. This was my cue to fill the gap with a little speech—the Committee Chairman’s privilege.
I must emphasize that it had been going very well up to this point. If the events that evening had proceeded according to their trend, who knows what or where I could be right now? As it happened, my life was altered. It was partly my fault. I see that now.
As I paused before the microphone to scan the expectant faces, rendered pale and featureless by the spotlight shining in my eyes, I saw the door to the ballroom swing open to admit what looked like, to my consternation, a beyond-fashionably-late couple. I lifted a hand to shade my eyes to confirm my impression, and naturally all the expectant faces turned away from me, in the direction of my gaze, to Justo, who had arrived—surprise enough for us—with a date.
I was too stunned to do anything else, and the list of key points I had drawn up to cover in my speech fled my mind. I stared, along with everyone else in the ballroom. A hubbub had erupted in recognition of Justo, but died as they walked among the tables in search of a seat. They seemed not the least bit embarrassed by the attention, which would have been proper, but returned everyone’s gaze in a manner that could be called brazen.
Justo even wore the appropriate pleasant half-smile, nodding here and there to the few who didn’t turn their heads when he looked their way. It was clear that the girl knew no one in the room—while she looked about with friendliness, she greeted no one, and to me her demeanor bordered on haughtiness.
I believe it must have taken them less than a minute to find unoccupied seats, which happened to be near the dance floor, but that night those moments seemed to take forever. I continued to stand at the microphone, shading my eyes and watching as Justo pulled out a chair for the girl and eased it closer to the table as she sat down. I saw him glance once more about the room as he unbuttoned his jacket and took his own seat, and then he looked straight at me.
It was but natural, as I was supposed to be the center of attention at that moment, yet I remember marveling at his impudence, his presumptuousness, to now graciously direct his own attention to me after taking everyone else’s. I lowered my hand, becoming aware as I did that some of the faces were once again turned towards me and more were following suit.
Lizette told me later that my speech had been wonderful, nice, but it was nowhere near what I had planned to say. Once I regained command of the room I tumbled through the rest of my remarks and stepped down to a polite wave of applause. Even the musicians were taken aback; no doubt they had expected their break to have lasted a bit longer. Not wanting to be a spoilsport, I motioned to Felix to play something to fill the silence. Once I was back in my chair, I felt Lizette’s small cold hand squeeze my arm as she gushed over my speech. I don’t remember a word she said, because I was too busy inspecting Justo’s date.
I had never seen her before. I think no one ever had, before that night. Of course she existed; it would be silly to suggest that Justo had conjured her up for the occasion. What I mean is I had never seen her—not at any of the parties, nor at any of the restaurants or moviehouses that we frequented. Even if she did show up on the odd occasion, I doubt I, or any of my set, would notice her. She was obviously not from Our Lady, but neither was she public school material—while her gown’s color was a shade too loud to be tasteful, it evidently cost a pretty penny. She wore a slim gold chain with a jeweled pendant that I could not make out from where I was sitting, and no other jewelry. Her coiffure had obviously been constructed in a beauty parlor, although she must have had to go to the parlor and then return home with her head wrapped in a scarf, rather than having the stylist service her at home. Her skin was fair, and her eyes were rounded and deep-set, but her nose lacked the narrow, refined mestiza cast and her lips were a tad too full to be elegant. Her long skirt made any inspection of her legs impossible, which was a shame, because it was much easier to determine class by the absence of insect bite scars and scratches from playing in the streets. No, she was not low-class at first glance, but closer inspection revealed her to be not high-class either. My own guess was Fatima College—the convent school that had been forced to accept boys to maintain their enrollment levels. I would learn later that she was from the Chinese Catholic high school at the edge of the Chinese business district. Its stately grounds and art deco chapel jarred with the boxy rows of wooden stores that lined the two parallel streets of Bacolod’s little Chinatown. Their students were an aggressive, bookish sort, and until that night I had only encountered them at inter-school debates, spelling bees, and other academic contests. While the St. Martin’s boys generally won these competitions, the boys and girls of the Chinese school were the closest competitors around, besides the occasional overachiever from Our Lady.
The girl and Justo would presently scandalize everyone with their carrying on, but even in the interval between my remarks and the combo’s second set, she already raised my eyebrows. She disdained the plate the waiter presented to her, sipping instead from the glass of soda that came with the dinner and helping Justo with his own food—yes, taking her fork and feeding him something off her plate, or sometimes out of her own fingers. Her placing the napkin correctly on her lap did nothing to improve my opinion.
She chatted with Justo, leaning into him, touching his arm, in a manner more befitting the bantering between chums at a soda fountain. She laughed with her whole body—she threw her head back, opened her mouth, and clapped a hand to her chest as if to contain her outburst. The gesture did no good, for her laugh was full, loud, horsy—masculine, almost—and entirely inappropriate. Justo himself seemed frightened by her enthusiasm, but on the whole, he just looked pleased with himself for being quite the hit with his date. The few moments they weren’t cooing at each other, he hunched over his food, while she draped an arm over the back of his chair, cupped her chin in her hand (elbow on the table!) and surveyed the rest of the room. Where her gaze swept, a sea of faces turned away. She appeared not to notice.
Everyone was watching them; it was hard not to. The loudness of her laugh, the easiness of her manner, saw to that. Lizette herself kept up a litany of the girl’s social faux pas, hissing each one to me as they occured. Dondi and Tina were likewise engaged, and had enlisted the support of the rest of our table. I, despite my own outrage, limited myself to a few well-placed, wry, patronizing remarks about Justo’s “luck”. Certainly nothing could be gained from paying any sort of attention to them.
But at one point I caught Dondi eyeing me while I stared at Justo and his date, and for a moment I feared that he had seen through my detachment and sensed my own fuming. In spite of our closeness, I would never have admitted to him, not at that moment anyway, what was going through my mind. But I saw his eyes glaze over as he held my gaze for a moment longer, then turned away. I knew then that we were thinking the same thing, and he had recognized it in the envious way that I looked at Justo and his date.
It wasn’t that she was particularly attractive—she was not—but that she seemed relaxed, and therefore fun. This was a girl unfazed by formality, by the stiffness of the evening’s proceedings. She would have been just as comfortable at a bowling alley. She could be a flesh and blood friend, rather than a porcelain date you escorted gingerly, and that made her infinitely more desirable than any of the well-bred beauties in the Clubhouse that night.
What fascinated me most was the casualness of Justo’s physical contact with her, how it was taken for granted, forgotten. In those days, there was as yet no notion of “personal space,” but it applied in the case of one’s sweetheart: Only bad girls could be touched, would allow themselves to be touched, and they certainly couldn’t be brought to formal occasions. The boys of St. Martin’s understood that to do so was to be a fool for handling used goods.
Therefore, Justo should not have been in such an enviable position. Yet he was, because although he had broken the rule, he looked like he was having fun and would not be the worse for it. In failing to conform to the code of conduct, he had made all of us the fools, for putting up with our stuck-up porcelain dates.
In contrast, I could remember every instance when Lizette and I had ever touched each other—a hand to help her down the stairs or out of the car, her arm in mine as I escorted her to a function, her hands and waist and the small of her back during a dance—every contact associated with and mandated by some social occasion. Otherwise it was as though a layer of impenetrable transparent material surrounded Lizette, and whenever I had to touch her, my hands would settle first on the barrier, and from there see if it would yield to my pressure, if I could continue. My hands would hover around her, guiding her into a room or into a seat, whispering close to her skin or the fabric of her dress, but not once coming into contact.
There had only been one instance when any improper contact had been made—once, in the car. I interrupted her while she was saying something. We were parked on the Cliff past ten, as were several other couples in their own cars. This was in the good old days when stick shifts protruded from the steering column and the front seat was as good as a sofa. I had my arm on the seat back and just leaned into her and placed my mouth on hers. She made a slight noise, raised a hand to ward me off, but allowed the indiscretion. Her hand remained upraised, and her body remained bent in the same stiff angle, and her mouth, caught in mid-utterance, remained open at about the same diameter, only more rigid, like the end of a pipe. She allowed me a few moments, suffered my hands groping from one breast to the other as my other hand clamped her neck in position (not that there was any need to). I say allowed and suffered because this is what it felt like—nothing in her demeanor indicated any participation from her beyond that. Then she pushed me away. My mouth released hers with a small sucking sound, and I breathed an apology as she dabbed at her lips with a hanky. And it was over.
I caught Dondi staring at Tina while she observed Justo and his date, yammering the entire time. Again, Dondi and I were thinking the same thing.
The combo had begun to reassemble in the meantime, and presently Felix and the bandleader exchanged nods. Felix waited for the song to end, switched off the turntable and ambled over to our table as the bandleader introduced the second set.
“Would you look at that?” Felix drawled, sliding a chair behind me and Lizette. “Who would have known?” He was enjoying himself. I was still playing Prudent Percy and pretended not to understand. The girls at our table rose to Felix’s goading, though, hackles raised. Justo’s date was torn to shreds at our table, starting with her gown, proceeding to her coiffure and make-up, and then her behavior and possible background. Dondi refused to meet my eye and I knew that he knew that the girls had sensed our envy of Justo. Perhaps we didn’t recognize it as envy at that point—too many things had yet to happen that evening—but it was there, along with a destructive resentment at Justo for doing what we all longed to do ourselves.
Couples began to file obediently into the dining area even before the drummer began his count. Despite the hubbub no one failed to note how it was the girl who stood and tugged at Justo’s jacket sleeve. Justo beamed up at her, his cheeks bulging with food, and swiped a napkin at his mouth before taking her hand—taking her hand—and moving to the dance floor, chewing as he went.
The band had struck up a lively boogie, and the hall came alive. Our table opted to sit this one out, and thus we discovered that Justo and his date did not know how to dance.
Oh, the girl seemed to know a thing or two, but Justo was impossible. He studied the footwork of the person next to him and launched into an arrhythmic veering and careening, dragging the poor girl with him and ramming into anyone who came too near. The grunts and complaints didn’t bother them in the least—they erupted in peals of childish laughter. Soon there was a sufficient space for them to carry on whatever it was they were doing—those who had not left the dance area fuming gave them a wide berth in which to perform.
And performing it seemed, for to the rest of us they were playing it to the hilt, throwing their insolence into our faces and milking the moment for all it was worth. We played along, much to my eventual regret. I felt the anger building up at our table and the rest of the hall, as Justo and his date, the couple of the evening, carried on.
The hours of dancing lessons and practice sessions on display on the dance floor that night seemed not to faze the pair in the slightest. They laughed at their own mistakes, broke step to study each other’s clumsiness, and exaggerated their difficulty at following the beat. Often the girl would collapse breathless in Justo’s arms before resuming the dance position. And to my growing consternation, the contact of their bodies through it all was unrestrained, comfortable. Justo handled her as though he was accustomed to fondling her everyday, stroking the small of her back, holding her hands, her waist.
The combo had noted their delight and played to them, doing two more boogies back-to-back, a mambo, and a cha-cha, all of which the pair bungled without the least bit of shame. By the second boogie many couples had left the dance floor, only to be replaced by others who had stalked off earlier, having decided not to allow the daring duo to ruin the occasion for them. Lizette urged me to tell the bandleader to play some slow ones to put an end to the sideshow, and I made a few half-hearted attempts to signal to them from my seat. The truth was, I was afraid that Justo was not about to let anything get in the way of his having a grand old time, and were I to put a stop to it, he would cause a scene and embarrass me. I was too distracted that evening to notice how the tables had turned.
When the combo finally decided to change tempo, something else happened, proving my impression of the girl right. As the first notes of a slow drag began, Justo’s date stepped back from him, fanned herself, and began to undress. Her gown came with a little short-sleeved waist-jacket, which she took off in the middle of the dance floor, revealing bare shoulders and generous portions of back and bosom. She strode to her chair to drape the jacket over the back, oblivious to the collective gasp that came from all over the room. Justo remained on the dance floor, his arms dangling at his sides, nodding sheepishly at the other dancers staring at him and graciously looking away when they refused to acknowledge his greeting. The girl was on her way back by this time, and it was at that moment that everything turned for me.
I had been staring at Justo all that time, and suddenly he caught my eye. When he grinned at me and waved, it was too late to look away. I caught myself smiling in return, and my hand had already begun rising off the table when Lizette slammed it back down. Before I turned to Lizette I saw that Justo had seen the little incident, and his face registered the first signs of realizing that he was perhaps not completely welcome at the occasion.
Lizette glared at me and as I felt my face reddening she stood up and dragged me to the dance floor by the hand that she had just slapped down on the table.
Tina and Dondi followed, while Felix snuck off to take a nip out of his flask, and we found ourselves joining the ring of couples circling Justo and friend, albeit at a safe distance. All of us exhibited perfect dance form, but Justo had folded himself into the girl, who wrapped herself around him. I watched his hands pressed firmly on her back, his arms hugging her sides, his face nuzzling the bare expanse of her nape. Lizette had begun to jerk under my hands, and I saw that she was craning her head about, searching for a chaperone. No one was looking, naturally.
I don’t know if or when Lizette exchanged signals with the other girls on the dance floor—I wasn’t looking at her, because none of the boys looked at their partners at dances. But I soon realized that we had somehow drifted closer to Justo, as had the other couples, forming a tighter ring around them. The other pairs were doubtless led by the girls, as I had been. Only they could have found the thought of moving closer to such an intimate display logical. My own impulse was to look elsewhere and go as far away as possible.
But we were closer to Justo and the girl, who remained oblivious to our increased proximity. As soon as I realized this, I heard the girls speaking—addressing themselves to no one in particular, but the direction of their heads indicated for whose benefit the words were spoken. Their voices rose above the smooth tones of the crooner.
“This is a formal occasion!”
I had never known Lizette to be so confrontational, and yet here she was, practically straining at my arms as though to launch herself at Justo and his date like a tiger. When I looked around, I saw a ring of glaring, grimacing, dolled-up girls twisted in the arms of their dates, just barely maintaining the proper dance frame, circling ever closer and closer to Justo and his date, who remained engrossed in each other.
The girl showed a slight reaction, just once. Now, I think if she had remained ignorant of the room’s general sentiments about her, things would not have gotten out of hand. But she lifted her head and opened her eyes once, just once, and looked over Justo’s shoulder into the angry eyes of at least 20 debutantes who glided past her in the arms of escorts who must have resembled frightened sheep at that point. She did nothing at first, just met their contemptuous stares and perhaps heard the whispered invectives. But then she broke the look. She turned away first, shut her eyes, and inclined her head towards Justo’s again. She certainly realized that she was on unfamiliar ground and it was likely that in her mind she had done the right thing by maintaining her dignity while deferring to the dominant females circling her. She could not have made a more serious error of judgment.
The song ended, we all stepped apart from each other, and the bandleader took the opportunity to engage in a little patter. The girl whispered something to Justo. As they headed off to the refreshments table, Lizette dragged me after them at a safe distance.
We congregated in a corner of the hall—me, Lizette, Dondi, Tina, Felix, and a few others who would not figure in the events of that evening. Lizette and Tina led the discussion.
“We have to do something,” they said almost at the same time. The ‘something’ they spoke of was difficult to ascertain; to be honest I don’t think we were entirely sure of what we wanted to happen, much less what it was that had provoked such hostile behavior. I suppose it must have been Justo’s stepping out of bounds by becoming too comfortable at the Soiree, although I could be correct and say that they were mocking all of us by carrying on so scandalously.
No one had a response to the girls’ assertion. We were still watching the pair guzzling punch, fanning themselves. It didn’t occur to us to let them be. Things could have been that much simpler, after all.
Felix finally broke the silence. “I know what to do.” Again I wish I could have stopped him then. But it had to happen. We watched him walk up to the punch bowl, nodding to Justo as he approached, and help himself to a cup of punch. He was faking drunkenness, and doing a poor job, but he managed to teeter convincingly to one side and then trip, spilling his drink all over the girl’s gown. There was a startled Oh! and Justo naturally rushed to her defense.
The punch had run down the front of her dress. Felix aggravated it by moving closer to her, emptying the rest of his cup’s contents with more accuracy. He pretended to fumble with the cup and his hands found the sides of the girl’s breasts and her upper stomach before she realized what he was doing and pushed him away.
For once that evening, Justo didn’t know where to put his hands, so when he rushed to her side all he could do was wave them around as he fussed about her. He caught her black look at Felix, and Felix’s own leering grin, so he decided to slam his hands on Felix’s chest and push him away. Felix sprang right back and shoved Justo against the buffet table, which shifted a foot or two without overturning. The top of the four-foot floral centerpiece quivered, but remained upright. Justo was no less skinnier than Felix, but physical combat was an alien activity to him. He remained bent over the table for a moment before launching himself at Felix, swinging his fists blindly. The girl had laid aside her worries about her dress and sprang between the two boys. This was how Justo’s fist connected with her shoulder, throwing her backwards into Felix’s arms. With the perfection of a choreographed boogie maneuver, Felix caught her under her arms and clamped each outspread hand over the girl’s breasts. Everyone was watching, by this time, to Felix’s obvious delight—his smile clearly told us that he was pleased with himself.
Justo was stammering apologies to the girl, who extricated herself from Felix and gave him a slap that echoed in the hushed ballroom. The combo had stopped playing to watch, so we all heard the slap followed by our collective gasp. Nothing like this had ever happened in our polite decorous lives, and I for one was not entirely sure about how to respond to the situation. My first instinct had been to alert a responsible adult present, until I remembered that there were none. The combo and the waiters could hardly be counted upon to settle this matter. The club’s manager would have to be summoned.
As the girl fled to the powder room, some of the waiters had the foresight to rush to the scene and surround Felix, with the intention of leading him away. Why they didn’t restrain Justo is still a mystery to me—did they think that Felix ought to be protected from harm, being rich? In any case, they waited for Justo to rush Felix again, this time clipping him on the chin before being surrounded himself and dragged to a safe distance.
What I remember most clearly about those moments is that apart from Felix, Justo and the waiters, no one moved. The girls had all shrieked, hands had fluttered to cover open mouths, but we all remained rooted where we stood, transfixed at the unfamiliar scene unfolding before us. I also remember glancing at Lizette and being completely stumped by the expression on her face. I suppose it was just the shock at recognizing bloodlust in the eyes of someone who would have gone faint at the sight of blood and who could never think of lust.
Justo backed off, probably realizing that he was in well over his head. Felix continued to yell out challenges over the shoulders of waiters who towed him further and further away from the buffet table, which was now being restored to its original position.
Justo headed for the powder room, and Felix joined us. Lizette spoke up first. “Good for you.”
The others indicated their agreement, patting Felix on his back. I laughed nervously, unsure of whether I should join in or maintain the distance that I had assumed for most of the evening. The atmosphere in the ballroom, I noticed, had been restored.
Perhaps it was because the combo had resumed playing; or perhaps because Justo and the girl had disappeared from the room. Perhaps it was just me. But the chatter in the room had returned to the moderate, relaxed, lighthearted levels they had been at before everything started to happen. Doubtless everyone was discussing what they had just seen, but something had been released, and now things were back to normal. I glanced around the room at the bright happy faces and knew that the Soiree had been saved. It had taken an ugly scene and the threat of violence, but I was not going to become the chairman of a Soiree that flopped. I turned back to my group, who were still congratulating Felix.
“Serves him right.”
“They were being downright bastos, even.”
“He knew he was in the wrong. That’s why he didn’t bother.”
I felt I had to say something.
“You did the right thing.” I nodded at Felix. “Everyone knows that the Soiree is a formal occasion.”
Lizette backed me up.
“We had every right to get rid of him. They were disrupting the Soiree.”
I noted how she had appropriated what had been a generally solo decision by Felix, but I let it pass.
“Where are they now?” Tina was craning her neck in the direction of the exit.
The door had a narrow glass panel, and we all moved towards it. The doors to the men’s and ladies’ rooms were visible along the corridor, but there was no sign of the two. The corridor was a dead end—a divan and wall mirror were at the far end, throwing back the sight of us crowded into the narrow glass panel, like in some Three Stooges movie. Lizette pushed the door. “Let me check.”
She walked to the powder room, but before she could enter, the door opened and Justo stepped out. Lizette stepped back in surprise. Justo glanced at her but dropped his eyes as his date appeared in the doorway. He looked at her and said something which we didn’t hear, and came straight at us, with Lizette in pursuit.
We backed away from the door, expecting him to charge Felix again, but he avoided our eyes. When he passed us, Felix couldn’t resist another goading remark that I didn’t catch. Justo ignored it and marched to his table where he retrieved the jacket that the girl had draped over the chair.
“They were in the ladies’ room together!” Poor Lizette was too stunned by the audacity of the situation to say or do anything else. It was beyond her conception of a polite, proper world where boys and girls were neatly segregated and classified.
Her mouth hung open as Justo breezed past us back to his date and helped her put on the jacket and pull it closed over the stain. His hands were alarmingly close to her breasts and I’m sure he brushed them as he helped her do up the rosette clasps down the front of the jacket. All with the same casual ease with which he had touched her, they had touched each other, while they were dancing.
Again I glanced at Dondi and Felix and knew what they were thinking. This much was obvious, considering what happened next, because no significant words were exchanged among us from that moment up until two days after that night, when we finally saw each other at school and found a moment to go over what had happened instead of why we had done what we had done. We certainly knew why, but the reasons were difficult to admit, especially to each other. We would never discuss the why, because we would be forced to admit to weaknesses we did not care to acknowledge.
My fate was determined in the next few seconds. Through the door I heard Justo say to the girl: “It’s all right, Mary Ann.” She seemed reluctant to re-enter the ballroom, but Justo took a firm hold of her hand and led her out, past us, and through the ballroom, past the tables and the curious, contemptuous eyes of everyone else present, and out the arched doorway through which they had made their grand entrance less than an hour before.
As for us, we remained where we were. Dondi, Felix, and I looked at each other, and I think it was I who moved first. I took Lizette’s hand, Dondi took Tina’s, and we all began walking to the exit without a word having been exchanged between us boys. The girls’ questions were ignored, and they stopped asking. Within five minutes we were all crowded into my father’s Benz, following Justo’s old Chevy through the dark streets of Bacolod City.
That was it—that was how I was set on my collision course with destiny, as it were. In retrospect, it seems even more difficult to assign blame. No one had actually said, “Let’s follow them and see what happens,” much less articulate why we should or what we had to gain from doing such a thing. I assume we were bored, despite the Soiree’s importance in our high school lives. I remember thinking that we would only be gone for half an hour to an hour at the most, after which we would return to finish the evening in the safe, prescribed manner.
I couldn’t tell what the others were thinking while we sat in the car. The girls would, from time to time, resume questioning the nature and purpose of our expedition, but in the lulls I could tell they were just as excited as the rest of us. In the rearview mirror I could see Felix and Dondi craning their necks for a better view of Justo’s car up ahead, which I kept at a safe distance to avoid detection. As we passed streetlights, the passing sweeps of light would illuminate expressions of glee and morbid fascination—the sort of expressions one sees on the faces of spectators at a fight, or at the scene of an accident.
What it boiled down to, as shameful as it is to admit, was sex. Dondi and Felix would never admit to this, except in jest. I knew them well enough in those days to know the truth, though. The three of us had been a tight trio through most of high school, with others attaching and detaching themselves as time went by. The three of us took our tentative steps into manhood together, each one trying to outdo the other without leaving them too far behind—we all were aware of the loneliness that awaits the one who outgrows the others.
Many of the steps, the most memorable ones, anyway, involved previously forbidden vices—alcohol, tobacco, firearms, gambling, and sex. This last was the most pernicious by far, for once we had exhausted the novelties of self-stimulation it became necessary to involve a consenting partner. We had all sampled the delights of Dewey Street, Bacolod’s red-light district, and the various houses on Lizares, del Monte, and behind the electrical plant. The ladies there were convenient, but it was quite another matter to take a girl to bed without paying her first. To my knowledge, not one of us boys in the car that night had ever had non-commercial sex—not even Felix, who had generally taken the lead in matters of sexual initiation. His father had bought him a woman when he was 13, and it was he who had taught us the ins and outs of the flesh trade.
My attempts with Lizette had been nipped in the bud several times before, and I knew it was the same with Dondi and Tina, because he would have told me otherwise. We hadn’t discussed having sex with our girlfriends in a long while, mostly out of embarrassment, and we took refuge in a smug demeanor that said, “I’m above such petty matters.” We weren’t, of course—many double dates had ended on Dewey Street after Lizette and Tina had been safely, chastely deposited at their respective homes. My lovemaking with the prostitutes on such occasions would be frantic, furious—the release of four or five hours worth of pent-up sexual longing.
And then there were the furtive escapades on Felix’s farm. One summer, the three of us spent a weekend there by ourselves, and on our way Felix had been promising us a treat. That evening a field worker came to the big house and led us into the fields to a shanty where the workers rested during the day. There, three girls were waiting for us. Farm girls—cousins or even sisters of the boy. We drank tubâ with them before we picked our partners—no argument, since given their appearance, one was as good as the other—and took turns in the shanty. All three girls got pregnant, we heard, but no one came knocking at our doors, because they apparently had sweethearts of their own who were conveniently willing to marry them.
But now, here was Justo, whose date was obviously “easy” but also neither a prostitute or a farm girl. The joint humiliation they had undergone at the Soiree could be used as the pretext for some highly emotional conversation which, if handled with tact, could lead to intercourse, or something close to it, and this was what obsessed me, us, that night. Justo could be on the verge of making love to someone within his social class, and while we could assume that Justo was not skilled enough to accomplish this, since we ourselves felt more inadequate in this area than we cared to admit back then, we simply had to see if he would pull off that feat which we had been, as far as I know, anyway, trying to accomplish unsuccessfully thus far. That night, my father’s Benz was redolent of the creeping dread of the possibility that Justo, an inferior, would outdo us all. As time has shown, this has proven to be my downfall.
The five of us cruised into the night. In my concentration I did not realize that we had drifted into the poorer side of town until I realized how quiet everyone had become. In those days, the crime rate was modest enough to be shrugged off by a group of unchaperoned teenagers in an expensive car, but it was cause for concern. We were headed deep into the port area, further away from the plaza, the downtown area, past the old mansions, the cemetery, and the newer suburban tracts. We were still on the paved highway, but we passed long stretches of untended vacant lots and sugarcane fields, before coming across the odd hut or shanty by the side of the road, their numbers increasing as we neared the island’s main wharf. This was where the fisherfolk lived, in dense clusters blossoming outward from the pier. I remember imagining how appalling it would be if Justo’s date lived in one of those huts. She didn’t, however. The Chevy eventually turned off the highway into a dirt road that disappeared into a canyon of cogon grass.
We stopped at the turn-off. I was wondering if it was foolish to continue, and Felix answered for me.
“Turn off your lights and go slowly.”
Her house was a good hundred yards from the highway; there were others like it along the way and beyond, for the road seemed to go on indefinitely. There were no lights in the windows of the houses. It was past 11, and the people living here undoubtedly woke up before dawn to begin a day of honest work.
I stopped the car five houses down. We were just in time to see the girl walk through the bamboo gate, up to the front door. She fished in her purse for a key and let herself in. Justo followed.
Before this fact registered, I had time to note that she had her own key—something completely alien to me and, I am sure, to my companions in the car. A honk of the carhorn at any hour of the day or night would bring a servant, usually a young boy, trotting dutifully up to open the wrought-iron gates of our houses. A doorbell would summon yet another servant from within the house to let us in, that is, if they weren’t already holding the car door open as we alit. The prison-like reality of my home never escaped me in my teen years—I was at the age when freedom was the great ideal, always out of reach—but I always took it for granted that everyone else lived this way as well. Seeing this girl carrying her own key, letting herself in, made her seem more dangerous, and increased Justo’s chances, it seemed, of scoring on that night.
We sat there for a little under an hour, according to the dashboard clock. The boys didn’t speak much, concentrating on the house, waiting for signs of life. A light had gone on in one of the front rooms, but nothing else.
It was quite clear that the girls had a different perception of our expedition’s purpose, judging from the running commentary they kept up. Lizette was fearful and called our attention to sinister or unsightly details in the neighborhood. I found myself examining the wooden houses, realizing that I had never been this close to a house of this class before. Many of them were unpainted wood, most with simple fence posts joined by lengths of crisscrossing wire. A few had two stories; all of them had narrow aprons of weedy earth that served as front yards. The one we were parked in front of had an assortment of tin cans lined up along the street side of the fence, each one emitting a sparse cloud of greenery.
Tina in the back seat grew more and more combative, wondering aloud why we were missing the liveliest part of the Soiree. We had done away with the coronation of the King and Queen of the Night this year, but there was an informal poll going on anyway. Tina no doubt wanted to be there, afraid that her absence would put her out of the running.
It seems a foolish waste of time now, but every minute that ticked past on the clock, my wristwatch, Felix’s and Dondi’s wristwatches, vexed me. Every minute that went by was another minute in which Justo could be getting the better of us all. I had the impression then that the sex act took half an hour—that was certainly how long it seemed to take on Dewey Street—exclusive of the preliminaries and getting dressed. When the minute hand twitched past the half-hour mark I agonized, thinking, not only was he getting some, he was actually good at it.
I decided to take things a bit further by starting up the car and driving past her house slowly, with my lights off. We saw the same things—same light in the same window in the same front room, same Chevy parked in front of the same bamboo fence. I pulled up a little closer to the house, but further down the road—as it turned out, the correct move, for Justo would drive back up the same road later.
When they emerged, I leaned forward to study them for signs of sexual contact. I knew Felix and Dondi were doing the same. The girl had changed into a simpler dress—shorter, yet more modest—something she would wear on an ordinary evening date. Justo was still in his white jacket and bow tie. He didn’t seem the slightest bit ruffled or disheveled, and I allowed myself a silent sigh of relief. Still—anything was possible. We didn’t know anything for sure. They weren’t touching or holding hands—also a good sign.
Justo led her to the driver’s side and pushed her in and over to the passenger side before following her in. For some reason, this struck me as being fun—a fun thing that you could do with a girl you were absolutely comfortable with. I also told myself that Lizette would never do such a thing; it would have seemed tomboyish, even loose, to her.
What frustrated me was my inability to confirm my speculations with either Dondi or Felix, owing to the presence of the girls. I had felt sorrier and sorrier that I had brought them along. This was no place for them. It was similar to the time Dondi and I had taken them to a nightclub—one of the more ill-reputed ones (though not the worst of the lot—Dondi and I had seen to that) at their insistence. The hostesses were tactful enough to stand back when we entered with our dates on our arms. It had been satisfying to play the worldly gentlemen, answering their questions on whether that girl was a prostitute or not, did that doorway lead to the upstairs rooms, did sinful things really happen there, and then shaking our heads like grandfathers at their appalled reactions. They looked at us suspiciously, accusing us of being frequent patrons, but we shrugged them off, pleading common knowledge. To be honest, it made me feel powerful, gave my persona a danger that Lizette could only speculate about. She looked at me differently, gave me odd looks, it’s true, but she played her part and kept her peace. This would be a pattern with my two subsequent girlfriends before Margie—we both knew I wasn’t fooling anyone with my lies about any men-only activities, but they all looked the other way for as long as I remained attentive, solicitous, and affectionate, which I did, up to a point.
The Benz remained unnoticed by Justo, hidden as it was in the shadows further down the road. When they pulled out we were able to follow almost immediately with headlights off. They headed towards the downtown area, to my relief, for I don’t think I would have wanted to go further into the port area in the Benz. Nor would I have wanted to go beyond towards the outskirts of the city, on the way to the coastal road that curved inland towards the mountains. There were still stories of attacks on planters by tulisanes, Huks, and other rebels. It would have been way too dangerous.
I felt more confident now to narrow the distance between the two cars. This way we could see that their heads—Justo’s and Mary Ann’s—were closer than they should have been. She had slid over nearer to him, and had one arm on the back of the seat, probably with one leg tucked under her. She would have been an agreeable companion, and again I felt my envy surge. Acting “proper” had its moments, but it became taxing after a while. I don’t think I ever enjoyed myself with Lizette more than I enjoyed being with Felix and Dondi.
It should be apparent to anyone that I was dissatisfied with my relationship with Lizette, and I was, although like many other truths that played themselves out that night, this was no easier to admit than any of the others. Lizette was precisely the sort of girl I should have been courting, precisely the sort of girl I should have been thinking of marrying, precisely the only sort of girl suitable for a young man of my social position. This was only a few years before the full flame of the American 60s and 70s warmed our shores, and the behavioral patterns of those days still apply to this day, probably because we, the generation who came of age then, are still alive. As I look around me at the young people today, I can’t help but fight the feeling that they are just waiting for us to die out, so the whole world can finally move on. I dislike being a hindrance to progress, try as I might to move with the times. My age betrays me, with its ingrained habits of genealogy tracing and net worth assessment, its collective mind forever attuned to sizing up the rest of the world in terms of position within the social structure.
Still, I see the habits being passed on—parents younger than myself followed by a long succession of heirs (heaven forbid that they even think about birth control or planned parenthood) behaving in the same loud arrogant way, their eyes looking you over, sizing you up—Should I defer to you? Are you an equal or an inferior? Can you be rendered inferior? Should you be a friend? Can you be a friend? Are you useful to me?—all this determined in an instant, before their eyes pass on to the next person. And I want to shake them, slap them, bring them to their senses.
Naturally nothing comes of it, the feeling passes, and I too move on. I move on in the hope that they will come to their own senses, see for themselves, someday. I find my own faith in the new generation touching. My own cynicism kills my sincerity, and I am reduced to yet another of my own kind—those who have given up.
Justo’s car stopped at Lim Yueh’s General Trading in Little Chinatown, near the school that I assumed Mary Ann attended, which was often open all night, as it got most of its business from liquor sales, where they both got out of the car to buy something. I would be belaboring the point here were I to say that Lizette would have remained in the car, scrunched down to avoid detection. They emerged five minutes later with a familiar bottle in a paper bag, and got back into their car.
By this time, our voyeurism occupied us completely. We watched them greedily, our occasional comments only reiterating the obvious: “They’re getting out.” “They’re going to buy drinks.” When they drove off again, there was no more discussion about what to do next. I put the car into gear and drove off; no one objected. I had no sense of whether or not this adventure was going to end any time soon, but I had to see where it would lead next. We all had to.
Justo cruised through downtown, most of which was locked up for the night. He seemed to be driving without purpose. When he turned back onto the highway, though in the direction opposite to the pier, we knew he was heading for the Cliff.
The Cliff was a make-out site whose location was closely guarded among the boys of St. Martin’s. It was nothing more than an open clearing that overlooked the sea, the platform tumbling down a few feet to some rocks. At high tide, the sea would come up to almost the edge of the platform. Certainly not as dramatic as its name would have one believe, but it was useful, thanks to the field of tall cogon grass that you had to drive through before getting to it. The grass and the downslope hid any activity taking place on the platform from the highway, and gave it enough privacy for trying anything there. If legend were to be believed, the entire 1955-56 graduating class of Our Lady’s had all been deflowered (on separate occasions) by zealous members of their counterpart class at St. Martin’s. That particular batch of girls had tarty reputations and were famous for keeping the nuns preoccupied. The Senior batch of St. Martin’s often had the knowledge of the Cliff’s location. It was a sign of ineffable coolness for a Freshman to know where it was.
At any rate, the mood in the car perked up when we realized where he was going. The boys and I realized it first, for I’d never brought Lizette there, and Dondi had never mentioned bringing Tina there. Felix patted my shoulder, and I nodded, smiling. In the rearview mirror I saw him and Dondi exchange glances. I believe we were actually excited for him, for Justo, poor lonely outsider Justo, who never merited more than a cursory glance in the hallways of St. Martin’s, and now had us all in the palm of his hand, rapt and eager, waiting to see what he would do next. He had no idea that for this night he was finally popular beyond belief.
He didn’t turn left at the narrow dirt road off the shoulder at Kilometer 23, though, continuing past it instead. I heard Dondi’s slight “Huh?” and Felix’s knowing snicker. Perhaps Justo wasn’t as in the know as he’d appeared to be after all. A kind of relief set in, but I couldn’t deny my disappointment. After all that he’d put me through that night, after all his carrying on, I was, strangely enough, rooting for him. I wanted him to succeed.
He turned at another road, this one barely discernible from the overgrowth. I passed it, saw the two red taillights receding into the cogon. I continued past to a safe distance and made a U turn, killing my lights before pulling to a stop at the corner of the road. The Chevy’s taillights had disappeared.
“Where does he think he’s going?” Dondi spoke up.
“He’ll know he made a mistake,” Felix said. “Back up and he’ll come out sooner or later.”
“What is this place?” Tina wanted to know.
I looked over at Lizette, mainly to see if she was all right. Her gaze was steady, clear, but blank, and she stole the words from my mouth.
“He knows about the Cliff.”
Tina immediately began yammering “What’s this cliff?” but I couldn’t take my eyes off Lizette, nor could I respond to her statement. Her tone of voice had been neutral, but her face had a subtle mocking challenge to it. I didn’t like it at all. I’d always found it difficult to “read” her, and at that moment she seemed to be telling me several conflicting messages at once. Her statement and the way she said it told me that she’d known about the Cliff, that she recognized it, and the mere implications of these facts, whether real or imagined, stunned me, and forced a number of other questions to follow—questions I wasn’t sure I wanted answered.
She turned her head to look up the dark road, the waving cogon. The neat waves of her coif and the nape of her neck offered as many answers as her face had.
“Let’s go see what happens.”
Felix and Dondi had sunk back in their seats, watching us, to see what I would do, or hear what she would say next. Even Tina had been silenced by the grim authority in Lizette’s voice.
She must have known all that time what we were up to—our behavior must have seemed sadly transparent to anyone—but there are moments when you believe you are getting away with something, and moments when you underestimate someone quite unfairly. At any rate I never found out how much she knew or understood or how she came about such information—the events of later that evening eclipsed everything else, and I would never find the courage to bring it up with her. She kept her face averted, and so without glancing at the others in the back I backed up the car a bit and turned into the dark road, into the cogon.
We didn’t know how far into the field we had to go, or in which direction. As with all forays into unfamiliar territory, it seemed to take forever. The trail was narrow. If we had stopped in the middle there wasn’t enough room to open the doors to get out. Blades of grass slapped and slithered on the windows. So much for sneaking up on them—we were making so much noise, and the Benz growled as it negotiated the bumpy path—for all we knew we would happen upon them in the next moment.
One more turn and the grass opened up to a wide rocky apron that ended in a sweeping vista of the ocean. Stars glittered in the sky, and a sliver of moon had just begun to rise. I braked at the opening to peer out my window. Justo’s car was parked way down on the far end. The windows were rolled up, and there were no signs of life. I scanned the rest of the place. No one in sight.
“They’re in there.” Felix had hooked his arms over the front seat. “Park over there, quick!” He indicated a spot on the opposite end of the Cliff. I thought it appeared too close to the edge, but by this time I was too excited about being near the end of the night’s adventure to worry. The grass on the apron came up to our calves, making parking tricky, but we had to get in a spot that would make it least visible to the occupants of the other car. That meant the opposite end, behind where the taller cogon swooped into the apron a bit.
I shut off the engine and we three boys alighted, crouching. We had forgotten about Lizette and Tina. I do remember them saying some things in little frightened voices that seemed to come from far away. I also remembered motioning for them to follow, all pretenses at societal niceties and gentlemanly behavior forgotten. I never even looked to check if they had followed; I was too intent on the car sitting on the other end of the Cliff.
We kept close to the wall of cogon, where the shorter grass of the apron was tall enough to blend in with. Thoughts of snakes, spiders, and other creatures of tall grasses I ignored. It was barely within my power to keep from giggling like a madman.
We moved as close as we dared to the car, a distance of about 15 feet, and stopped. The sound of our rustling and trampling silenced, we finally became aware of how quiet it was. It wasn’t really quiet, of course—the cogon hissed and rustled, and from beyond the Cliff’s edge came the surge and hiss of the ocean attacking the rocks below. Beneath all that, weaving in and out of the noise, was music. A muffled, tinny song was wafting towards us from Justo’s car.
From where we crouched, I duckwalked towards the Chevy, so as not to ruin my trousers. I felt exposed when the grass gave way to sandy gravel, and I had to slow down to minimize the crunching sounds my shoes were making. The song grew louder, and nothing stirred in the car, but I kept my eyes on the windows anyway, ready to bolt at the slightest movement from within.
Two feet away from the car door, I stopped. My breath was coming in long, fast gusts and my heart was pounding so hard I could barely hear anything else. I glanced back and saw Dondi’s and Felix’s heads bulging out of the grass, not moving. Neither of them gave any movement or made any signal. Very helpful. I turned back to the car.
All I had to do now was raise myself to the window and peek in. I was afraid of touching the car, for fear an alarm would go off, or that I would shake the car and alert its occupants to my presence. As I raised myself my legs began to complain. Searing pain ran through my calves, thighs, and ankles. My knees began to buckle. I kept my mouth closed and tried not to breathe too loudly, but my whole body was quivering from the effort of standing up. My head inched higher and higher, and in degrees I saw more of the car’s interior: the rearview mirror, the door lock plunger, the top of the steering wheel, the top of the seats, the top of the dashboard.
I didn’t know what to make of the first scream when I heard it. The sound was so faint and faraway, and so brief and unfamiliar. I had never heard a real human sound of fear before then. I froze in mid-squat and turned my head to where it came from. There was a moment, then another longer scream.
There were fumbling sounds from inside the car and I saw shadows pop up from the back seat. I fell backwards, forgetting about my formal clothes, and clawed my way to the cover of the grass. Dondi and Felix had retreated, neither of them offering me any help.
I shot a glance back at the car and saw that Justo had alighted. His jacket was off and his shirt open, and he was looking right at me. I ceased all attempts at hiding, scrambled to my feet, and ran, with Felix and Dondi a couple of bounds ahead. Justo called out a hostile “Hoy!” from behind us, and I was praying that it was too dark for us to be recognized, and that he was too frightened to chase us. Another scream.
The blood rushed out of my face and neck when the Benz came into view. Lizette was standing beside it and resumed her screaming when she saw us, for half of the car had backslid over the edge of the Cliff. The rear wheels were resting on a small outcropping just beneath the edge, and the front wheels were about a foot off the ground.
In a panic, Dondi turned to me and shouted the obvious: “George, the car’s going to fall!”
Felix took a flying leap and slammed his torso down on the car’s hood, rocking it and causing it to slide backwards a little more, and lifting the front wheels even higher. Dondi and I both let out startled grunts and climbed onto the car’s hood together and hugged it as though we were soothing a carabao threatening to go berserk. The car’s front sank slowly with our weight, like something had deflated underneath, and stopped moving.
Lizette was yelling for Tina in the back seat to get out. Tina had stopped screaming when Felix landed on the car, but she was now whimpering with her hands clasped at her mouth. It was hard to tell in the dark, but it was at least 10 feet from the edge of the Cliff to the first line of rocks below, and there was a little rocky slope before the sand and the ocean. She probably would survive the fall if the car went over, but not without serious injuries and a big scare.
The car felt stable for the time being, but we must have been all afraid that it wouldn’t last. We all began yelling at Tina to get out, which only rattled her further. She didn’t change her position, although her face grew even more contorted behind her fists.
Justo came running up, peering at our faces but betraying no surprise at recognizing us. He went to the edge of the Cliff, planting his feet among the rocks, and gingerly opened the rear door of the car. The car’s front end bobbed every so slightly, prompting the three of us on the hood to plaster ourselves even more firmly to it. Mary Ann had come walking up as well, hugging herself because of the wind.
Justo began speaking to Tina in a low reassuring voice, calling her “Miss,” and telling her to take his hand, which he stretched out to her, the other one holding the heavy door open. Only Tina’s eyes had moved in all this time; she was studying the boy who spoke to her with a grown-up’s authority. Lizette offered shrill encouragement from the other side of the car, but Justo continued talking to her with that voice, his eyes never leaving hers, and the hand steady, palm up, slicing the air between them.
Finally, Dondi screamed, “Tina, just go!” from where he was, and Tina finally unclasped her hands to reach out to Justo. Obeying Justo’s gentle instructions to go “Easy—slowly,” she slid over to the door and extended a leg outside the car, seeking firm ground and hiking up her skirt. We all fell silent as she eased her weight to that foot and stepped out of the car. Once out, she clung to Justo, who staggered a little, sliding down the embankment a bit, and gently lowered the door until he could let it go.
Tina refused to release him, so together they clambered back up the embankment like participants in a three-legged race, Justo’s open shirt flapping around the two of them. When they were safely back up on the Cliff, we all released a collective breath. Almost instinctively, Dondi, Felix and I relaxed our necks and lay our heads on the Benz’s hood at the same time. The lightened Benz reflected the tiny shift in balance with a groan and a disproportionate rock. Our heads snapped right back up, accompanied by the girls’ squeals of terror.
“Hoooooooo,” Dondi said.
No one wanted to be the last to get off; the three of us began inching our bodies down the hood. Our knees hugged the polished iron, vainly trying to get a grip. The car shuddered with every wiggle. As we got our bodies bent over the front, our feet kicking in search of the ground, I felt the car begin to slip backwards, but very slowly. Then the tip of my shoe touched gravel and I transferred my weight to that foot and stumbled back. The car began to slide faster, with Dondi and Felix still squirming on it. Dondi managed to fall off and roll clear.
I heard myself shouting at Felix not to get off, to keep his weight on the car, oblivious to the fact that if the car went over, Felix would go with it. No one noticed my callousness, least of all Felix, who managed to jump off, but tried to obey my orders by hanging on to the fender and digging his heels into the earth as thought he could pull the car up himself. The car kept right on moving, and Felix’s wing-tips left grooves in the soil.
I heard everyone shout Let go! and I remember suppressing the urge to say No! Hang on to it! Felix released his grip and his body snapped backwards. His buttocks thumped heavily on the ground just moments before the Benz’s front wheels lifted off the ground and the car made a thundering departure over the edge of the Cliff. We all cringed as it did, making that high sound in the middle of our throats. Metal rattled and thudded as the car hit rocks on its way down. But just as the car was about to disappear from view, there was a tremendous crash, some rattling, then stillness. We could hear the wind and the waves again. The car had come to rest on a narrow ledge down the incline, and stayed that way until the police and the fire department came to pull it back up later that morning. Felix and Dondi glanced at me a few times, but I couldn’t meet their eyes. I looked no one in the eye until Papa arrived and stood before me. I realized I had collapsed into a sitting position on the grass, with my hands limp on my knees. I remembered to close my mouth as I stared at the car’s underside, but other than that I didn’t move for a long time.
I don’t exaggerate when I say that things never were the same after that. Dondi, Felix, and I remained tight buddies after that night, but I sensed a withdrawal from them—I was no longer the infallible leader I once was. Lizette and I broke up the summer after graduation. She had other boyfriends after me, and finally ended up with, of all people, Felix. They’re happily married, as far as she’s concerned, but Felix and I continue to go out on night sorties regularly. Dondi and Tina never split up, and they turned into a model couple on Bacolod, very visible in the charismatic movement.
As for Justo, he disappeared into the vocational college after graduation. He never came to the St. Martin’s homecomings either. I didn’t care, most of the time. Perhaps I wondered what became of him and Mary Ann a few times, but otherwise I didn’t want to know. We did meet up again, though, sixteen years later. This story wouldn’t be complete without a coda.
Felix brought his name up casually while we played pelota at his home. Margie and Lizette were there, and two other couples. Lizette remembered the night. It was another opportunity to bring up the Soiree and the car again, but Felix mercifully cut the retelling short. Without going into detail, he mentioned that the new Texas Disco downtown belonged to Justo. This disco was, as usual, a front for a brothel, and Justo was said to be managing it along with his long-time girlfriend, a woman who used to work at another nightclub. Lizette asked Felix how he had come across the information, and he fed her a plausible account of their mechanic’s friend who worked at an auto supply store next to the disco. I was as certain that this was not the truth as I was that Lizette would ply him with more accusatory questions later, in private.
A week or two later, Felix told me the real story as we headed for Texas Disco in his car one evening. He had been to the place himself once, and had been given a hearty welcome by Justo himself. I was rabid with curiosity about how he had turned out, and surreptitiously checked out my own appearance in the side mirrors of the car. My hair had started to gray in college, then stopped, leaving me with a distinguished salt-and-pepper head. Felix and I had grown matrimonial paunches and the beginnnings of jowls. I asked Felix what Justo looked like now, and Felix gave a vague stock response: “He got fat, man.” I was still wondering how fat when we pulled up to Texas Disco.
It had a deceptively modest frontage—a standard unit in the middle of a three-story commercial building that housed a hardware store, a glass-and-aluminum store, and the auto supply next to it. Its sign was framed by incandescent bulbs, and its name was spelled out by a writhing lariat, with a cowboy boot and ten-gallon hat dancing beside it. The unit’s outside walls had been painted green, making the rest of the building look even older and seedier than it was. We were not in the good part of town, because establishments like this never pretended to cater to the respectable men of Bacolod’s elite, but welcomed all patrons. The only attempt at exclusivity was the standard “No slippers or sando” sign next to the narrow glass door.
Inside, there was a curtained foyer where a courteous bouncer frisked us under dim red lights. Beyond the black curtain, the space opened up dramatically. The disco had appropriated the back rooms of its next-door neighbors, which made for enough floor area to contain several tables, booths along the walls, a bar with stools, a sizeable thrust stage, and an afterthought of a dance floor off to the side. The place was half-filled with shadowy male forms hunched over beer bottles, and several brightly-lit, half-naked female forms slinked back and forth across the stage to a loud, tinny ballad.
Justo emerged from the shadows before I was ready to face him. He was just suddenly there, shaking Felix’s hand, patting him on the shoulder, calling him “Paré” with a salesman’s grin. Felix pointed to me: “Remember George?” And Justo was all effusiveness and warmth again. I played along, laughing at nothing as we exchanged how-are-yous. He led us to an empty booth, “unless you want to sit next to the stage?” and ordered beers from an obliging waiter.
Still standing, he laid a hand on our shoulders. “Welcome to my place. You guys have a good time, OK? I’ll be back.” He went to murmur to the bartender, and then to the cashier, and disappeared behind a curtained door next to the bar. He was no longer the shy, tentative square who failed to fit in. He moved as though he knew everything he came across would part to make way for him. His shirt was shiny and expensive-looking, and his slacks were tailored. He had put on some weight, I noted with relief, but no more than Felix or I had.
Felix told me that the curtained door led upstairs, where there were cubicles for quickies. The dancers had numbers printed on cardboard circles tied with ribbons around their ankles, because in the course of their performance all fabric was gradually removed from their bodies. This was a far cry from the other clubs, where only bras came off, if at all, and breasts were covered with cupped hands or forearms. There, as here, you could call a dancer by her number to your table through the waiter, and you were required to buy her at least one drink before taking her upstairs. You paid a standard rate for the room and the girl, and tipping was mandatory. If you wanted to take her somewhere else, you had to pay a hefty fee to the disco and wait until the club closed.
It was an ordeal to make conversation with Felix, and later Justo when he returned to our table after our beers were served. He and Felix got along like old friends, guffawing, slapping each other shoulders, leering at dancers. Felix was being himself, acting interested in every girl who came onstage, and Justo obliged by citing each one’s assets and promising an even better one who would come on later. Justo cheerily confirmed that he was living with an ex-prostitute who helped him run the disco. I couldn’t find it in myself to join in the ribbing about what kind of sex he was getting. All I could manage were polite, serious inquiries: How much do you make in a night? Where do your girls come from? Who did you have to bribe at City Hall, and for how much? Justo answered my questions with equal gravity, and I knew he could sense my discomfort.
Then he said, “So, I hear you married Margie Jarabas.” I stammered affirmation and launched into an ill-advised recitation about how I met her, how we got married, how many kids we had, and how the marriage was. Justo paid close attention to every word I said.
It was clear to me even then that Justo had really won, because I was jealous of him, of his seedy nightclub, his outfit that tried too hard, his very skilled girlfriend. He had grown up outside the rarefied circle of the respectable and admired elite of Bacolod, and now he flouted the order with his unacceptable but very public business, because he knew it was more fun to be free. Felix and I would have to lie about where we spent the night to our wives and the rest of the world the next morning. Justo would roll onto his back and get a blow job to start his day.
Justo treated me with deference the rest of the evening while I concentrated on my drinking. Felix selected the same flamboyant, randy girl he had chosen on his previous visit. Justo introduced me to a fair-skinned, elegant-looking girl that he claimed was my type. I scrutinized her in the dark trying to figure out what he meant.
We took our girls to rooms upstairs, where I managed to offend the elegant Melanie (stress on the second syllable) by asking if Justo slept with his dancers. She defended him, saying that he treated the girls like his own sisters, and what nerve I had to think so lowly of him, and of her. I still got laid, because it was her job. My worrying about whether she would tell Justo what I said kept me from getting an erection at first. I rewarded her with a generous shut-up tip and told her I was only joking about Justo. She looked puzzled for a moment, then understood and grunted, giving me a dry peck on the cheek.
When we came back downstairs, the bartender informed us that Justo had gone home. Felix and I were presented with the bill. As I fumbled for my wallet, I noticed scrawled on the bottom of the receipt, in the unmistakable St. Martin’s penmanship (but larger and looser) the words “50% discount” underlined twice.
Vicente Garcia Groyon was born in Quezon City in 1970, but has roots in Bacolod. His novel The Sky over Dimas  received the Grand Prize from the Don Carlos Palanca Memorial Awards for Literature, the Manila Critics Circle National Book Award, and the Madrigal-Gonzalez First Book Award. He has published a collection of short stories, On Cursed Ground and Other Stories (2004), and edited anthologies of short fiction. He has written four film scripts, including Agaton and Mindy (2009) and Namets! (2008), and directed several shorts. He holds an MFA in Creative Writing from De La Salle University-Manila.