By RAYMUNDO T. PANDAN JR.
In this excerpt from the Palanca-winning novel Bittersweetland, we witness the homecoming of the protagonist Aaron Guillermo, an exile who has just returned to Bacolod City from New York, readying to attend his father Bill’s mañanica. It is the early 1980s, and the sugar crisis is crippling the island of Negros and the death of Benigno Aquino Jr. has become a political specter, making this particular return home perilous. The novel explores Aaron’s fate as it is tied up to the fate of his country, and tied up as well to the peculiarities of his being a reluctant sugar heir, even as he also grapples with a failed marriage and his fruitless attempt to finish the novel he has been writing for years.
Bill Guillermo would have missed his mañanica had it not been for the roar of the plane taking off less than a kilometer away. He started up at past three and remembered that he was supposed to be in Montecielo. He had slipped out of bed without disturbing Baba and made his way to the Range Rover. I’ve become so damn careless, he scolded as he tip-toed to his bedroom and slipped into his pajamas. Fidela did not stir. He fell asleep the moment he hit the bed. I should get a separate bedroom.
Aaron had caught the first flight in time for the mañanica. He eased back into his seat, trying to remember the songs; he had been singing them, at least before his exile, for most of his life. Bill’s fiftieth was going to be Bacolod’s party of the decade, a day for keeping track of your proper rung in the social ladder. Only his father would be unimpressed by the ostentatious display. It has been so long, Aaron smiled as he dozed off, nodding off to the hum of the jet engine.
Three in the morning, Adrian’s room reeked of San Miguel as, guts boiling, head in a funk, he stumbled off to bed. The report went as planned, Fernandez praising his work, good job, Aaron. Always the mistake with the name. My name is not Aaron Guillermo, he had exploded at the surprised class, who had always seen him as taciturn and unaffected. I am Adrian Guillermo, battering the desk with his hands. And he had to tell that oddball what he could do with himself and his parents besides. Sometimes, if I try hard enough, I could be a prince, he now scolded himself, tilting his lava head, sensing danger as he listened to the clatter of his father’s arrival. It was his father’s birthday and had to get up early for the mañanica. Seriously.
Aaron woke up as the steward was announcing, in a sleepy native lilt native, the plane’s initial descent. How long has it been? Five years of exile, self-inflicted. He had threaded the earth as a belly-gazer, dreamt the world revolving around his pusod. Home, finally, he said aloud as Bacolod’s mist rose up to obscure his sidelong look, his eyes edging toward a blurry space, as if conjuring up a ghost. Outside his line of vision, dawn was a flux of city lights, oscillating in intensity, blossoming into a hazy field as the plane weaved and bobbed into its terse final approach. He glanced at the shoreline bordering the runway, just coming into sight, a myriad of boat-shapes and fish-pen enclosures shuddering upward to greet the plane’s screeching underbelly. Bill would get the surprise of his life, Aaron glowed. Fidela, not so her, had been insistent on the phone.
Thursday morning, he had been puttering around in his robe, recalling who he had lured to the pad the night before and what had become of her, when the jangle of the phone poked through his hang-over, a dull peeling knife.
“Aaron, how are you?” The voice, strangled by distance, rasped.
“Blanche gave me your number.”
“Anything wrong?” He slumped into the rattan chair, his temple throbbing.
“No. Nothing’s wrong.”
“Why did you call?” Aaron gasped in horror as the blanket stirred. Mike’s secretary. He had not even asked her name.
“Aaron, is anything the matter?”
“No, no.” Fucking Buñuel dirty martinis! He filed away a mental note to stop clowning around with the vermouth.
“Aaron, its Bill’s, it’s your father’s fiftieth. Saturday.”
“I know. I sent a card.”
“It would be nice—”
“Mom, I have things to do.”
“It’s his fiftieth birthday.”
“Who’s there with you?” Aaron heard shuffling over the phone. “It’s Blanche, isn’t it? What’s she doing there? It’s only Thursday.”
“It’s some holiday.”
“It’s those rallies, isn’t it?” he asked, shaking his head.
“Do you want to talk to her?”
“I’ll call back in the afternoon.” He ran a hand through his hair. The bed creaked. A leg poked out of the thick blanket. Pretty toes which started all this anyway when he visited Mike’s law office.
“Robertito’s in Bacolod.” His favorite uncle, the Jesuit.
“I had lunch with him the other day.”
“Are you coming home?”
“Yes. And Bill’s not to know about this.”
“Catch the commercial flight.”
“How’s the book?” Fidela asked, relief in her voice. A name came to mind, but he was not sure if Mike said it was Mina or Mira. M something.
“Fine. I’ll be home—“
“Please make it in time for the mañanica.”
He replaced the receiver with a hasty goodbye and glared at the Amorsolo etching of women bathing, realizing this bucolic hallucination had greeted him every morning for almost a year. That long. Shit! He panicked as he picked up the phone. Before she could wake up, he called Mike to ask him his secretary’s name.
Aaron drove the car despite the protestations of Enteng, the gray-looking family driver. Both of them rolled down the windows, allowing the October morning to sweep into the car. The sharpened wind made Aaron shiver. He drove the Mercedes with his feet light on the accelerator, the diesel engine a soft whirr in the quiet near-dark. Traffic was non-existent. From Araneta, he turned left by the City Hall, down San Juan, so he could pass by the reclaimed area. There were no new buildings. A few nipa sprouts and a wooden complex—Enteng said this was the Manokan, famous for its roasted chicken—were scattered along the shoreline. He turned right by the gloomy-looking cathedral into Rizal and then, Lacson. He smiled, seeing how the skyline had remained the same. The tallest structure was the Philnabank Building, half a dozen stories poking the gathering light. The roads were better, small consolation.
Five years was long enough but even before his self-imposed flight, he had only come home during semestral breaks and Christmas vacation. He had not seen Bacolod in nine years. He chuckled and the driver stirred beside him.
“How are they?” he asked the driver.
“’to?” Enteng looked surprised. He mumbled assent, slouching back into his seat. The black Benz continued on through the lightening dawn, trackless, unmindful. He sighed, realizing he would see Montecielo in a minute.
“’nong, don’t you miss us?” He remembered Blanche asking him. It had started, all these questions, after he had arrived from New York and from failure.
“No, I don’t think so. You know how I feel about strong attachments.”
Blanche sighed, her eyes brimming.
“That may not sound right to you, but that’s how I feel,” Aaron said. “I’m sorry, Blanche.”
He had apologized then as he would apologize whenever Blanche changed tack to talk about “family.” She was the only one he saw regularly, always propping her girlfriends against him. She was always around, although he didn’t seem to miss her but for his regular shot-in-the-arm.
Aaron whistled as he steered the car left toward the seafront. The narrow concrete road was bordered on both sides by ipil-ipil. The last time he had visited Montecielo, his father had worried about these trees. Nearby squatters were cutting down the incipient branches for kindling. The trees had survived, he smiled, as he scoured the darkness ahead for the familiar stone wall hugging the contours of the hill. He looked at the car’s digital clock: half past five.
He spotted the low adobe wall before he saw the house, set on a small hill, and the pavilion, set on another. He followed with his eyes the wall climbing up a soft slope, broken by a white wrought-iron gate.
As he turned into the flagstone pathway leading to the house, Aaron nodded to the dozing guard. Fidela, just awake, stood on the veranda. Peering over her left shoulder, Blanche waited on tiptoes. Home! His hands trembling as he killed the engine. Patting the driver on the shoulder, he eased himself out of the car. His mother, hands behind her back, was smiling as she greeted him. Blanche waved vigorously.
Above the doorway, a large, yellow sheet of cartolina caught Aaron’s eyes. Blanche’s practiced schoolgirl scrawl greeted: WELCOME HOME, MANONG AARON. He looked at his younger sister, deciding she would never grow beyond her hair cut short, her pixie-like frame belying a strong, distinctive will, an acquiescence to love, yet acceding to the possibility of harm.
“You didn’t have to do that,” Aaron scolded her sister with a smile. He glanced at his mother, in a light cotton blouse and shorts. Borrowed from Blanche. A forty-five year-old woman couldn’t possibly look better than Fidela Guillermo. No worry lines creased her forehead despite her abjuring of surgery. She would never go under the knife; that would have been too painful. Aaron watched the slim figure flit into the living room, wondering where his mother threw away the dark secrets and lies. Where did these women keep the emotional reserve that allowed them to wear their hair short, fit into their daughters’ dresses, and look like their sons’ sisters?
Aaron followed Blanche and Fidela, his eyes growing accustomed to what was vaguely familiar in his mind. They were suffused with a warm glow, the large mahogany dining table, the light-bay colored sheen of the panels, the off-white rug stirring under his feet, the incandescent reflection of light against the French windows that swung open to the pool area. The years of exile did not erase those scraps of his past still extant in these objects.
A congenial sight, of children rehearsing for the mañanica, made him nod. By the pool area, a cleric in a Yankees baseball cap Aaron remembered as their ex-parish priest was encouraging the children. Blanche waited for Aaron, hanging on to his arms, and led him to the poolside. Bernadette, the elder Guillermo daughter, was sunk into a rattan chair, as dark, and as cross, as she had always been. Her plumpness was masked by the chair’s shadow, under which she bore the proceedings with a frown. Her mouth curved into an unaccustomed smile when she saw Aaron.
Aaron turned to a familiar, restive voice. Adrian, much taller than when Aaron last saw him, and no less angrier, was scolding a boy who insisted on dipping his foot into the water. Adrian saw Aaron and, holding the struggling child with his right hand, extended the other in firm, almost mano-a-mano, greeting. Adrian disported the awkward taste of his age, his untucked and outsized shirtsleeves and his skewed grin a slop of what, to youth, must seem most important. Aaron looked at his brother’s sockless feet and old Top-siders, remembering his own, as his uncle Tito called it, “age of misrule.”
“O, ‘nong. Glad to see you,” Adrian said. The boy broke loose and scrambled into the arms of an old dumpy woman smiling at Aaron.
Aaron smiled back at his old yaya. “Miss!” he called out, waving at the old maid who had served the Guillermo for twenty-five years, now their middle-aged mayordoma. She had been flat and stringy when she arrived and was now with a serious paunch. This had people gossiping that she was pregnant, which would have been a miracle as she had never been married.
“Crispin, that is your Manong Aaron,” she whispered to the boy, the dialect lilting even beyond its usual sonority.
“Crispin?” Aaron asked. Of course, Crispin. Blanche had told him …
“He’s not even supposed to be here,” Adrian muttered.
Aaron stared at the small, curly-haired boy who was his youngest brother, born in his exile. A five-year-old brother he had never seen. Somehow, that made him feel he had been gone forever. He is as old as Billy would have been, Aaron decided, even if there was no point bringing that up now.
The pool area began to fill. A few government officials and Bill’s business associates arrived, some with their wives and children, each one apologizing for their tardiness. The Guillermos streamed in. Mariano Guillermo and his wife Angela, Amanda (her mother’s namesake) and her husband, Junior Lacson. Aaron paid homage and his disinterest did not go unnoticed, Fidela sighing as she flew past him to wake up Bill. His cousins, he greeted with more relish. He exchanged banter with Junie Lacson and his wife Millette, greeted Andy Guillermo and his wife, Lisa, both his saving grace in New York. How things would have turned out if Andy had not hurried home after finishing his MBA. Aaron looked with wonder at his cousins’ children, Andy’s eldest, precocious CJ, named after his great-grandfather, the original Guillermo Guillermo and Junie’s Miguel Jr. and Carlos.
“Pads!” Aaron greeted his uncle Tito, at forty-four, the youngest Guillermo heir and the only one in soutane. His impeccable combed hair still jet-black, Tito looked too much like a banking executive to be mistaken for anything but a Jesuit. Even if they didn’t come closer than sixes and sevens over any subject, Aaron still looked up to his uncle, academician and sociologist, as his doppelganger. Tito shook his hands warmly and introduced him to Monsignor Golez, an old family friend, who always gave the invocation, and who Aaron had not seen since he officiated at his confirmation.
The din heightened as the other Guillermos came in, the older children shouting familiarly, the younger ones scrambling, screaming as harried yayas fussed over them. Aaron looked at his watch, his demeanor unruffled by the noisy going-on. It was already six o’clock.
Turning around, Aaron spotted his father. Both smiled as Fidela pointed out her son. Bill Guillermo, except for the hair peppered with gray, was Aaron older but not by much. He hasn’t changed, Aaron thought, as Bill kissed Fidela on the cheeks. He strode forward and grasped Aaron’s hands as the children wheezed out a sentimental Ilonggo song.
“Happy you’re home, Aaron. Damn glad!” Bill growled. He looks the same, Bill thought, after five years, more gaunt but still too serious. Aaron had his father’s wavy golden-brown hair, the high nose and dull-gray eyes. Bill could see how familiar Aaron’s waddle was, even after all the years. It was his own. They called Aaron “Ducky” in school but the past years had replaced Aaron’s flab with muscles.
Bill did not think Fidela could still surprise him after 25 years of marriage. She’s a good wife, a good woman and I wish I could be home more often, Bill thought as he led his wife and son to a table. They sat down, listening to the children as they swung into a Bill favorite. It was “The Days of Wine and Roses.” Bill smiled and sang along with the children, clapping his hands as they sang Berlin’s “Always.” Aaron peered at his watch again. Not much longer. The last series was sung, the voices soon straining with the impatience. “Hindi Kita Malimot” and then, Bill rasping it out on the microphone, “Moon River.”
Bill gave his salutations, Monsignor Golez led a prayer for peace, the hubbub continued as the strains of “Happy Birthday,” off-beat and loud, accompanied the exodus for the buffet tables. As the birthday song faded, a boy, his hair slicked back with cheap pomade, started singing the theme from Man of La Mancha, his thin breasts thrust forward as he scaled the higher keys (dis is mi kwes, to palo da star, no mater haw hoples), his fervor befitting the peculiar accent with which he sang the moment’s hit.
“Now that I’m fifty, they might take a pot shot at me,” Bill joked. Aaron, hearing rumors about his father’s political ambitions, laughed at the reference, not unusual as the seasonal storms approached and the country was passing through the eye of a political and social typhoon.
Less political talk, more appreciative mumbling around the board. You picked through a monolith of blue, pink, white and green puto stacked on silver plates and served with kesong puti, carabao curd, or you sipped hot chocolate, digging into services of Spanish omelet, wafer-thin slices of Chinese ham, Chorizo Bilbao and Chorizo hamonado, while the children continued singing, watching with wide eyes, waiting for their turn at the overcrowded table.
The chill was disappearing, the sun starting to weave shadows on the grassy knoll beside the pool house. Bill had his arms around Aaron, both waving away each offer of breakfast, Fidela standing behind them, small in their shadow. Aaron thought, how prescient it was that he was standing here in the season of rain, this October month, this too-early Sunday morning, in this perilous hour of homecoming.
Raymundo T. Pandan, Jr., who is known as Rayboy to friends and associates, hails from Bacolod and has practiced law for more than 30 years. He served as Dean of the College of Law at the University of St. La Salle from 1998 to 2010, and continues to teach in the law school. He was the research director of the Supreme Court’s JURIS Project on mediation from 2004 to 2008. He was fellow at the Silliman University National Writers Workshop in 1984. His poetry collection Illuminations and Sonorities (2006) and children’s poetry collection The Ocelot and Other Poems (2012) won the Palanca Awards, while his first book of poetry, Days of Grace: Selected Poems and New, 1984-2002, was a finalist for the National Book Awards. He won the Cirilo Bautista Prize for the Novel in 2015.