By TIMOTHY R. MONTES
1. Go there at an impressionable age—say, fifteen or sixteen. Go to college there and convince yourself you have come, not just for a degree, but also for a heightening of sensations. Enroll in Silliman University (the Vatican in Rome), in some benign program you can coast through without sacrificing the wave you want to surf: the living of a full life.
2. Say you hate it, the place and the people—give yourself six months to one year to wallow in your youthful angst. Hate the pedicabs and the tartanillas and the eternal sunshiny smile of the conformist inhabitants. The lazy, laid-back atmosphere of it—the smugness of people who have to go to church on Sundays, the brown Americans who have inherited the New Englandish traditions of the colonial missionaries. The Protestant predictability of it all.
3. But relish the Cebuano language you have to learn. If you feel frustrated or bored, bury yourself in books. Or watch every movie at Park and Ever theaters, the alternative secular cathedrals of a traditionally religious city. Gloat over the mediocrity of your teachers and classmates, tell yourself you are too good for the school and for the place. Glance sideways at the beautiful girls, practice the eyes of a short story writer to exercise “the art of the glimpse.”
4. After the last full show at Ever or Park, walk the streets. Note the desolate silence of the town after ten o’clock: only the tocino stands catering to drunkards remain open. Walk: it is the 1980s and there is no nightlife in the city to speak of.
5. Let a year of solitude pass by before breaking out of your shell. Then join plays at the Woodward Little Theater, audition at the Luce Auditorium. Run for the Student Government. Meet the geeks who will be your life-long friends and who will teach you to drink beer and experiment with marijuana as you talk of poetry and love and anything that makes you giddy with being alive. Hang out at Manang Siony’s tocinohan until the wee hours of the morning but drag yourself out of bed for your seven o’clock chemistry exam.
6. Top the exam. Push yourself to the limit, stretch those wings: read the most difficult books in the library, audition for the Men’s Glee Club, court the most beautiful girl on campus. Succeed. Fly.
Take note of the pink sky at sunset at Silliman Beach in March. That shade of color will come only once in your life, like the strange feeling you have as you hold her hands there at the end of the airport. Dumaguete sky pink when you’re in love at nineteen. Hold her tight. Violins.
7. Graduate with honors but maintain the arrogance of someone who knows he does not deserve it. Preserve a sentimental contempt for your diploma, tell yourself you got nothing from four years of studies there except memories of being drunk, of acting in plays, of singing in the glee club, of mustering the courage to page a name in the girl’s dorm. Never admit that you, in your self-deflating assessment, have fallen in love with the place. As the bus departs for your first job after graduation, as you leave the city behind, catch the lump in your throat. You are mourning for love, for a girl you’re leaving behind. The place has nothing to do with it.
8. Come back after six months for graduate studies.
“Hey, you’re back. Where did you go?”
“Couldn’t hack it in the real world, eh?”
As if Dumaguete is the Neverland for the Peter Pans of the Visayas.
Come back to school, be the perpetual student! Enroll in creative writing class, join the dreamers club! Spend the next ten years of your life in arrested development, reading fiction and poetry books while your contemporaries buy houses and cars, go abroad to get rich. Become a bicycle-riding college instructor in the school you used to hate.
9. Teach: it’s the best way to earn your bread while flattering your ego. Take midnight walks after hours of grappling with thick novels: disregard the string of nightspots emerging along Rizal Boulevard. You are still encased in the texture of the novel you haven’t finished reading.
10. Fall in love and break your heart again and again. Pedal to projects fringes the city, past Banica River, to the new grids of suburban housing projects where you may bring your girlfriends on long walks. On weekends climb up Camp Lookout in the mountains of Valencia for the satisfaction of looking down at the seaside city you have left behind: there, obscured by coconut crowns, the city of our dreams, your Paris, your New York. Climb down to the disenchanted.
11. Fail. Make crazy forays into law school in a bid become rich and famous, or respectable and useful to society. Fail but remain a believer. Write to your girlfriend: “But I believe in the power of words in the same way that I have faith in my love for you.” Aside from her, you have to convince yourself about this.
12. Wake up to realize you got your latest girlfriend pregnant. You’re thirty years old, you will need to feed a family—buy a house, get a car, join the rat race. Wake up, there’s life beyond college.
13. Leave the place a second time, this time without the urge to look back. You might turn into a pillar of salt.
14. Live in big, noisy ugly cities where, in the midst of the asphalt jungle, you can relish the memory of that city you left behind: the tang of sea air, the shade of acacia trees, waves breaking on the boulevard. The city of my youth! My Paris! My New York! Toil under the burden of this romantic hangover.
15. Let twenty years slide by. Bungle your marriage, bungle your writing. Adopt a cynic’s posturing. Disavow poetry, stop believing in love. That place, that time, was too good to be true. What’s real is the noise and traffic and grime of the big city where the self is crushed into ordinary dimensions. Dumaguete was a dream, a whiff of brine in the air, an echo from a passage of a Chopin nocturne. Don’t confront the fragments of your present life—the inane pop song blaring from a jeepney is the true test of taste and toleration. Don’t mind the beggar children tapping on the car window.
16. Meet the disillusioned writer friends who have gone through the same wringer: fell in love in Dumaguete, fell out when they left it. They wax poetic about something in the past: “Oh, yes, I was happiest when I was there…” and later they trail off into the vocabulary of the damned: “I don’t believe in love anymore…” Hogwash, opiate of the hopeless romantics. As if the place and the emotion attached to it have hardened into an embarrassing synesthesia. It had its place in our lives, but we have outgrown it.
Nod in drunken assent.
17. Revisit the place once in a while, nevertheless. Business, pleasure, whatever. An antireligious pilgrimage, you tell yourself. To brace yourself against the encrustations of romanticism. There is only one city and you have become a stranger to it. Think of it as the heart of the country, the hub of an airline map where all the colored strings converged. But you have settled for a tourist’s deal—a hotel room and hotel meals. The old school has shrunk in your vision and the dorms where you used to stay too seedy. Walk the same old streets in search of the old you. New sounds, new lights. There is now a twenty-four-hour heart beating in the place, thumping to the disco sounds of tourist hangouts along the boulevard. In the quiet bystreets, listen to the echo of your footsteps. Don’t be afraid of the shadow you drag along. Laugh when you remember the joke about a prostitute’s transaction. You have to leave as fast as you come.
18. Believe in miracles when you meet her again after two decades, she who made you feel giddy as a teenager while you held hands at Silliman Beach a long, long time ago. From the debris of both your marriages, walk past the gauntlet of cars at the Manila airport. Hold her hand, wait for the violins to swell again. Inside her car, stare at her and try to see what middle-age pain and suffering has cast on her beauty. It’s not the disjunction of what is remembered and what is perceived that bothers you. It’s the fact that you meet her again in another city, another time. You realize that all your life you have been in transit, and that city of your youth was not the hub of all your journeys but a mere stopover. And so you embrace her again after two decades, feeling like a child cheated out of his chance to say goodbye before the parents met a fatal accident. But it had to be in Paris, this reconciliation, if not in Dumaguete. You cry together as you tell each other’s stories, tracing the trajectory of your separate lives from some point of origin that is more time than place. Dumaguete was where you last saw each other almost two decades ago.
19. Go back, go back there with her. Try to reclaim what was lost. Walk the streets of the city again with her—two middle-aged lovers navigating the traffic of a modern city. The cell phone–toting youngsters don’t know it; the laptop-flaunting students in the old school overlook it. There, the simplicity of it, the clarity of it, the brightness of it. Yes, it’s there. But not in the slick Robinson’s Mall, not in Jollibee, for they were not there twenty years ago. Ask a security guard to do it for you, hoping he will catch it. Stand in the bright sunshine, a little bit to the right of the acacia shade. Smile. Post it later on Facebook.
It’s not a quotation you can post on your Facebook wall. You have to wait for an opportune moment to be able to say it. Maybe a cynical tipsy friend complaining about his wife has to ask a jokey question over bottles of beer and give you a chance at philosophical revisionism. “Love—does it exist?”
Let a second pass before saying it.
20. Write it down.
Yes. But only in Dumaguete, a place you carry in your heart.
Wherever you go.
Timothy R. Montes is from Borongan, Eastern Samar. He studied in the Creative Writing Program of Silliman University under the tutelage of Edilberto Tiempo and Edith Tiempo, and published his first story collection, The Black Men and Other Stories [Anvil] in 1994. He also co-edited, with Cesar Ruiz Aquino, Tribute: An Anthology of Contemporary Philippine Fiction, in memory of his mentor Edilberto K. Tiempo. He has been the recipient of various national awards, such as the Palanca, the Philippines Graphic Literary Prize, the Philippines Free Press Literary Prize, and the Writers Prize from the National Commission for Culture and the Arts. He has taught at Silliman University, the University of the Philippines in Mindanao, and De La Salle University Taft.
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