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Saturday, January 01, 2005

FAILURE TO PUNCTUATE





She prefers to be addressed as "Ma'am." She is not a teacher. But the people, mostly women, who come to her get one of their biggest lessons in life. No, this is not another Tuesdays with Moron rip-off, though encounters with Justine Kaye Llanes are all about life and death.
Ma'am JK is the unofficial head of the University's abortion corps.
There she is, getting off her bike. She has just come from the clinic, known to those in the know as "Room TBA." She's wearing jogging pants and a t-shirt. Her coat and white pants are in her backpack.
She opens their gate, pulls her bike in, and rushes inside.
It is high noon, hours before she's supposed to be home. Just before lunch break she almost sent a student to the same place she had put her fetus.
Diarrhea problems.
She kicks opens the door of their boarding house's comfort room. She fights through her roommates' panties, hanging from a makeshift clothesline, and drops her underclothes as she drops on the toilet bowl. There is a spurt of shit. JK sighs and looks at her watch. Plenty of minutes before she is needed at the clinic. She grabs a pail of water and cleans up.
She steps out of the cr. Nikita, she knows, is at the library. Leonida, at her boyfriend's. "Only God knows where Mikaela is." She shares a room with these three women. She is the only one who is not a student, and has performed an abortion for all except Leonida. It is a small house, the only other bedroom being their landlords'. Mr. and Mrs. Kero know about JK's job. They have a daughter who is studying nursing at Manila. She stays at her aunt's house, and has been promised a free abortion, if ever it is needed.
JK gets her cellphone from her bag (no messages) and sits on the sofa at the sala. She thinks about texting Juanito. Instead she checks her sent items and rereads the greeting she gave him this morning. A good morning, an I love you, a see you this afternoon. They will meet at the Sunken Garden, at the benches in front of the College of Law. That is the plan. He has not replied.
He has been behaving badly lately, punching posts, kicking cats. When they do meet he is silent, when she caresses him he tells her he is thinking about his classes. He is a junior Education major. She met him when he brought his former girlfriend to her clinic. Nerissa? Marrisa? Charisma? Whatever. A timid girl, glasses, braces, shoulder-length hair. Newly rebonded then. She backed out at the last moment, she was already on the table.
"They were only freshmen." It was the start of the second semester. They had a fun sembreak.
She died in childbirth. So did the child. Juanito was at an exam. Math? Who cares? They buried her and he blamed himself. When JK met him again he was down drunk near a bench at the Sunken Garden, in front of the College of Education. It was where the girl agreed to become his girlfriend.
JK jogs the academic oval every afternoon. She wasn't supposed to stop and help him. In fact, she would've stepped on him had she not recognized him. It was a good day, three abortions and three happy women. She earned enough to buy a bike. Pay It Forward. So she did. She took him home, and her three roommates patched him up, sobered him up, filled him up with food and got the whole sob story out of him. Afterwards they became friends. He would drop by the boarding house, bringing oranges and bananas and pirated VCDs. Sometime he would drop by the clinic and they would have lunch or dinner together. This was what, a year ago? Yeah, probably a year ago.
Today is their third monthsary.
"Just my fucking luck falling for an eighteen year old." JK pockets her cellphone and grabs her bag. She closes the door, gets her bike, locks the gate and pedals to the clinic. A patient is waiting for her. She pops an Imodium and aborts the student's twins.
It is three in the afternoon, she is at the lounge drinking coffee, when Juanito arrives. A bouquet of roses and a box of chocolates. His hair is in a ponytail, his torso in a tight-fitting Duffy Duck shirt, his legs in elephant pants, his feet in leather shoes.
"I have another patient waiting."
"Give her a pro-life pamphlet and tell her to think it over." He touches the tip of her nose and smiles.
"Lazy doctors don't get to buy cars." She kisses him on the forehead. "I'll wrap it up quick."
He nods and she goes to the girl.
"For the love of God Neferti, use modern methods next time." The operating room is cool and comfortable. JK's heart is happy.
"Yes Ma'am..."
She begins, and finishes quickly. It is Neferti's third abortion, the last two times with JK as attending physician. It is a different man each time. Neferti is a Fine Arts major, and writes poetry on the side. "I'm so Goth I'm dead" get-up (black leather, silver piercings), face perpetually wet with tears (even, so the second fucker told JK, while fucking), both parents working abroad (father Engineer at Saudi, mother care-giver at Canada), students like Neferti are the life-blood of the clinic. The flood of these middle-class asses is the reason why Dr. Ciracio "Sir" Dimagiba, JK's uncle and mentor, was able to transform Room TBA from a pile of plywood into a concrete complex. A year ago JK was skipping lunches and aborting left and right so she could afford a bike. Today she picks her customers and has enough money for a Crosswind downpayment.
"I mean it Neferti, I don't want to see your face again." They are back at the lounge.
"Yes Ma'am..." The girl was holding hands with her boyfriend ("He's the one, the one Ma'am" she told her back at the operating room). A jock, this time, "UP yours Fighting Morons" his jacket said. The first one was a sculptor. The second, a teacher at the College of Mess Communications.
"Very well. Take care now. E-mail me, okay?" Juanito takes JK's bag and together they leave. "Where to?"
"Two destinations. Just follow me."
She is surprised by what she finds at the parking lot. "Your father is going to kill you."
He picks up her bike and places it the back of the pick-up. "Relax, I borrowed it from him."
"You told me that the last time," she says as she steps inside. The scar on his forehead reminds her to doubt.
"Trust, trust," he says as he starts the car, "isn't that what you tell your patients?"
"Whatever," she sits back and sighs, "with a shadow."
Room TBA lay at the outskirts of the University. The pick-up traverses CP Garcia swiftly. Juanito makes a right into the University Avenue, turns right at the sight of the administration building, then a left. Following the flow of the academic oval he makes another left and then another before turning right into the parking lot to the left of the College of Law. From the backseat he gets a picnic basket and blanket. It is December and the sun is making another early exit.
The two walk to the center of the Sunken Garden.
She watches as he lays the blanket on the grass and sets up the food. He motions her to sit.
"How's class?" She begins chomping on a banana.
He is sipping on a Sprite in can. "The Creative Writing class is great." An English subject, it's the last he'll be taking outside his College. "Our teacher had his friend give a talk. He's a real writer, published, award-winning. He has this story where a guy offers to buy the soul of a street urchin. For twenty pesos. The kid signs a contract and the guy takes her picture. Isn't that funny?"
JK spits a hard part out. "Isn't that kind of sick?"
"Well..."
"I swear, the things you find amusing."
He finds an apple. "Look who's talking..."
She growls. "A fetus is part of the woman's body, it..."
"You watch Bubble Gang! You take part of a show that parades skin! You enjoy it when Michael V. makes fun of Diego, calling him ugly and stuff. You revel in slapstick!" He takes a huge bite. "Besides, I meant 'funny' in a deep way, like profound, ala Apocalypse Now."
She finishes her banana and starts peeling another. "Okay, fine, you win. You always win."
"I'm sorry," he drops the apple and cups her face, "I didn't mean to insult you, or beat your head in. I just wanted to tell you about the interesting story. That's all."
"Forget it." She kisses him smack on the lips.
He kisses her. It is longer than a smack. Inside her hand JK's banana is squeezed out of its skin.
They spend the rest of the hour holding each other, silent, eating fruits and sipping softdrinks. When sky turns black Juanito stands up.
"Let us go, then." He reaches out his hand.
She fixes the blanket and puts their garbage into the picnic basket. "Where to?"
"Secret..."
She grabs his hand and lifts herself up.
Humming they head for the parking lot.
They do not find the car.
Juanito takes the picnic basket from JK and throws it down the asphalt road. "Who would steal a pick-up?" He starts jumping up and down, kicking and punching in the air. She watches him for a while, then brings out her cellphone. He begins attacking a young tree, grabbing its leaves. Passerby stare at them. "Did any of you see the fucks who stole my car?"
The UP police finally pick up. She talks to them for a while. "Juanito..."
"My father is going to skin me!"
"Juanito!" He persists in wailing. When he gives the heavens the finger she hits him on the shoulder. "Juanito!"
He turns to her, looking constipated. "I'm sorry, but I really will die..."
"The police are coming. Compose yourself, you look like you would steal a pick-up."
He sits himself on the street and starts crying. She takes a seat beside him.
The police arrive in a long owner painted with "Mayor Sonny Belmonte" on both sides. A Laurel and Hardy team, the fat one interviews them while the thin one declares he will walk around the College of Law. This takes him thirty minutes, enough time for fat boy to repeat "And you parked it where?" three times. They take Juanito's number and leave, the owner belching a cloud of carbon monoxide.
She attacks his tears with her handkerchief. "You want to drop by the boarding house?" It is just a few blocks. "That'd be a romantic walk..."
"No, no," he takes the handkerchief, gives his face a huge wipe, and gives it back to her. "I'm taking you to meet my father. That's the plan anyway. But if you're against commuting for some reason..."
There they are, getting into a jeepney headed for Pantranco. It is quickly filled, and Juanito rests his head on JK's shoulder as the ride begins. "Hush my love, hush." Meet the Parents scenes flash in her head. She shudders.
At Philcoa all but an old woman and they get off. The driver gives them back their fares and they are forced off the jeepney. Juanito, hand and cellphone inside JK's backpack, texts his father. A Quiapo arrives. There is space only for one passenger. Juanito is forced to hang by the railings at the entrance of the jeepney. A man in a trench coat gets off in front of Wild Life and Juanito barrels in, plopping down beside JK. His sweat is milk-white.
"God, I almost lost hold when he accelerated at Visayas Avenue."
She laughs at this, punches his shoulder and kisses him on the cheek. "I love you," she whispers.
"I love you too."
This does not reassure her. From his stories, JK knows that Juanito's father is not a nice person. It is probably true that he will skin him for losing the pick-up. They are a family of six, and all of Juanito's brothers took up Engineering on his command. Only the youngest was allowed to follow his bliss. "Father wants everybody to become an Engineer. No doctors, no lawyers. The world will be a better place if everybody becomes an Engineer. He probably thinks Mother wouldn't have died had she been an Engineer."
Mrs. Romualdo. She was a teacher, right up to the day she died. She and JK met, at the University, lunch at Chocolate Kiss, back when she and Juanito were still only friends. He told his mother she was a teacher, at the College of Home Economics. Mrs. Romualdo taught at an elementary school, when she was young she dreamt of teaching at the tertiary level. She called JK "Ma'am." JK liked it, and told everyone that was how she was to be addressed from then on.
Mr. Romualdo, in the three times she called through their landline, sounded like he wanted to eat her. In the pictures Juanito showed her, he looked like a cross between a Filipino porn star and a polar bear. In the stories Juanito told her he was worse. He told his eldest son's girlfriend, to her face, that she was fat and ugly. He was in a good mood then. His other brother's girlfriends Juanito's father did not even allow to enter their house.
What will he think of her? He does not seem to be impressed with the lie about her being a teacher, how will he react when he finds out she is an abortionist? Will he call her fat and ugly? Will he even let her step inside his fortress?
JK is chilled at the thought his father will forbid Juanito to see her. She has seen enough telenovelas and talked to enough sobbing patients to know that that happens in real life. She does not want to lose him. She wants only to be with him, hug him, kiss him, tell him how much she loves him. He is the only man she has met that did not vomit upon finding out about her profession. No one, not even the Archeology professor who proposed marriage on their second date, no one chooses to stay with her the moment she tells them the truth. She loves Juanito. And more important than that, he loves her.
In her mind she sees his father, shouting at her, calling her killer murderer perpetrator of the rape and slaughter of children. She sees Juanito crying, saying goodbye, going to Holy Cross cemetery to visit his dead but moral ex. Her stomach rumbles in fear. "I love you," she repeats in her head. "Stay with me."
A family of skeletons gets off in front of the Children's Hospital, producing more space for their asses. The two of them sit in the middle of the left side of the vehicle. Traffics stops at the Agham-Quezon Avenue intersection. There seems to be an accident. The honking around her causes the beating of JK's heart to accelerate.
A street urchin gets on the jeepney. She drops on all fours and, crawling forward, starts wiping at the passengers' shoes with a dirty rag. JK pulls her feet away when the child approaches her. She sees a strange grin form on Juanito's face.
Wiping the last pair of shoes the girl stands up and holds out her hand. She stops in front of them. JK squeezes Juanito's shoulder and looks away. Moments pass but still she feels the child's presence. JK returns her thoughts to the inside of the jeepney. She finds her boyfriend in a staring match with the kid. He is holding out a fifty peso bill, gesturing to his legs, sticking out his tongue. The kid is nodding.
What the hell?
The girl drops once more to the jeepney's floor.
Realization comes seconds before the street urchin begins licking. JK, with the other passengers, stares in horror as saliva shines Juanito's leather shoes. An ambulance blares outside. They will find out later that someone died in the accident.

24/7: Walang Panahon: The 2004-2005 Philippine Collegian Anthology, edited by Carlos Piocos III (Quezon City: The Philippine Collegian, 2005)