This much is known:
The first time she ate at The Hot House, Sophia Decena was served chicken bloodier than a menstruating vagina. Grilled, the menu said. Grilled without heat probably. Sophia swallowed every piece of flesh, and would have done the same with the bones had Tyrone not raised an eyebrow.
She had been giving him the eye the whole semester, but he only spoke to her last Tuesday, a week before Finals. She had thought her nose got in the way. It turned out he was just biding his time.
A day of texting, three nights on the phone. This was their first date.
Lunch, he had paid for lunch. He was every bit as poor as her. They were aliens at the College of Mass Communications, where the prevailing Weltanschauung went like so: "I've seen you in the get-up already. You wore that last month."
Sophia stared at him as he fruitlessly tried to cut his pork barbeque with his plastic fork. He had, he told her, a part-time job at Burn, a Katipunan restaurant that specialized in sizzling sisig. She, on the other hand, worked as a student assistant at the Department of Journalism at the CMC.
He was wearing pants full of holes, as she was, and mojos covered with dust. She was in her dead brother's rubber shoes. His polo shirt, of a brand with an unpronounceable name, was a gift from his sister he said was a caregiver in the United Kingdom. She was in the "UPyours Fighting Morons" t-shirt she bought with her first salary.
The Hot House was located at the back of the Main Library of the University of the Philippines. As regular classes were now officially over, nobody ate lunch during lunch time anymore. They were the only customers.
Sophia could not understand, surely the management knew about UP's academic schedule, why did they cook so much food? Mechado, asado, adobo, sinigang, tinola, paella, eggplant with bagoong, salted egg with tomato, grilled meat of various leanings and denominations. Nobody was buying anything. Around them were empty chairs and tables, bored table cleaners and barbeque cooks.
“I’ll get us some water.”
Sophia smiled at Tyrone. He did not have enough money for soft drinks.
Watching him walk toward the water dispenser she could not help but sigh. He was brilliant in their Comm 100 class, exchanging barbs with their coño classmates, parrying their power-tripper teacher with insults so subtle she knew she was the only one who understood. “We’re just two lost souls,” Sophia sang in her head.
He came back and gave her her glass. She nodded a thanks and as she drank she noticed that it was not only The Hot House but the whole campus that looked abandoned. The soccer players usually seen at the Sunken Garden were nowhere. There was only grass there, dying under the sun.
There were no jeepneys too, Sophia recalled. Tyrone was a bit late coming from Molave dorm, he said he waited ten minutes before giving up on the idea of getting a ride.
She had come from Kamia residence hall and had walked, it was only a short distance after all. “But, but, but,” she thought, “I didn’t see anyone while walking.” In fact, she remembered that as she headed for the dorm’s exit, Ate Lucy, Kamia’s receptionist, was not at the counter, where she should have been. Neither was Ate Diamond, their security guard, at the door.
“Sophia? Sophia?” Tyrone brought her back to earth.
Silly musings, really, irrational. It’s because she was with him, that’s why she could not see anybody else. She knew, the moment she saw him enter their classroom on the first day of class. He was late and Prof. Tolentino berated him for his clothes (anybody else would have melted then evaporated from humiliation but not him—he had a quip ready: “At least I don’t look like I’m in a funeral” and everyone laughed), she knew she loved him.
“Sophia? Are you okay?”
She had been holding the already-empty glass to her lips. She put it down. “I’m okay. Just thinking, that’s all.”
“Yeah,” he removed something from the tip of her nose, “you’re always doing that.”
It was then that she smelled the burning barbeque. She looked up and saw that no one was manning the grills. The smoke of charred meat obscured the sky and filled up her lungs. “What’s happening?” she asked. “How come?” She looked around but did not see the table cleaners who were supposed to be there. “And where the hell are those street children who are always asking for money?”
Tyrone seemed oblivious to their surroundings. He kept on forking the piece of pork on his plate. He was muttering as he did so.
“Just use your hands.”
He gave her another raised eyebrow.
“It’s okay. I don’t mind. And who’s here to see?”
He did not say “Okay” or smile or even nod, he just took the meat and shoved it into his mouth.
Sophia forced a chuckle as Tyrone gathered the rice on his plate onto his hands and stuffed himself. She could not help but wince as he chewed loudly, grunting, with the occasional barbeque bit spilling out.
She licked her lips. She tasted blood.
Up her body stood, like a knee jerking from a doctor’s mallet. “I have to go to the comfort room.” Oh God! The Hot House did not have crs. She would have to go use the Main Library’s. “Excuse me.”
Tyrone did not react.
Sophia grabbed her backpack and practically ran to the stairs that would, she hoped, lead to somewhere sane. But as she walked she saw that the Varsity Christian Fellowship tambayan was empty, and, in front of it, so was the Rifle Pistol Team’s. She felt something drip down her chin. She had no handkerchief so she wiped it with her hand. Viscous liquid. She took a look at her palm.
Sophia took her cellphone out. It was a 3200. It used to be her sister’s. She died because she did not give it to the man who threatened her at the alley some blocks from her boarding house in Blumentritt. The man slashed at the Cynthia’s bellybutton. He did not get her cellphone.
“No signal, one bar battery,” Sophia said out loud. “And the inbox? Empty?” She did not bother to find out.
Back it went into her bag and up the stairs she rushed and found the library’s entrance without security guards. Kuya Robert, the man assigned to the bag counter, whom she sometimes flirted with, was not there to give her his usual smile. Around her the computers used for finding books and call numbers, each always with someone researching on it, were bare. Sophia did not bother to glance at the Social Science library, the one beside the males’ cr, and she covered her eyes passing by the General Reference section, which was to the left of the females’ cr.
She knew they were empty.
Inside the comfort room she tried to wash her face. Not only did the mirrors fail to reflect, but the more water she splashed, the harder she scrubbed, the more blood came from her mouth. With her stained hand she took her cellphone out again, and again she found it useless for communication.
She tried to speak but couldn’t. She wanted to scream but there was only blood.
She fought back her tears but could not help but fall to the floor. Her ass felt wet. She looked down too inspect the tiles, and found the blood from her mouth had flooded the comfort room.
She got up. Her pants were wet now. Her shirt was too, thanks to the continuous flow from her mouth. With all her might she opened the door and ran from the Main Library. Outside she turned right, toward the UP Chapel.
Her vision was blurred. She concentrated on the ground beneath her running feet. The world around her did not matter anymore. It was empty and she was dripping blood.
“At least I don’t need to look both ways before crossing the street.”
The College of Engineering was mute. The College of Social Work and Development did not exist. Sophia could only pray that the Chapel would be where it was supposed to be.
It was. But the gates of its gardens were locked.
“This cannot be.” Still, she accepted what she saw and jumped over the spiked sculpted fences.
She made a sign of the cross.
The walls of the Chapel where murals of the suffering and resurrection of Jesus were painted on, Sophia found blank. Blank, not even white. Not even black. Just blank. And the back to back sculptures of Jesus, one on the cross and one come back from the dead, must have been taken to heaven, for Sophia couldn't find them.
A line from a comic book she read long ago echoed in her head: “Father in heaven, get me the hell out of here!” Only Sophia’s thoughts remained strong. Her legs were wobbly and her back ached. As she climbed over the Chapel’s fences she slipped and fell on the road.
She could not stand up.
Right in front of her, just a few meters away, was the University Infirmary. Surely if there was a place she could go to, that would be it! “I can make it,” she told herself.
And she crawled.
The blood from her mouth streamed down the streets. She broke her nails on the asphalt and the holes of her pants ripped. She persisted. She may have gone insane, but she still had determination.
She made it.
It was some time after twelve when she met Tyrone for lunch. The sun was down by the time she reached the infirmary.
A nurse met her at the entrance. At least she looked like a nurse to Sophia. She wore white pants and a white t-shirt. And a smile. And a nurse’s cap. Plus, she had a clipboard.
“Help me.” The words remained in Sophia’s head.
The nurse said, “Of course, that’s what I’m here for.” She lifted Sophia from the ground and onto her shoulders. “Come right in. You’re my last patient for today.”
Of the nurse’s face Sophia could only see the nose. Large and flat, with nostrils evolved to survive the severest asthma attack, akin to hers.
She was taken to a room that did not look like a hospital’s. Of course, she was at an infirmary. But why were the walls black? Why was the bed hard? Where were the other patients? This place was made for every member of the UP community, there weren’t supposed to be private rooms. Yet Sophia found herself in one.
The nurse took off her bloody clothes and put her into a hospital gown. She put a pillow under her head and a blanket over her body. “Wait here. I’ll go get the serum.”
Doubts still lingered in Sophia’s head, her eyes following the nurse’s fading figure, but at least her fear had given over to hope.
She fell asleep.
When she woke up the walls were still black and the bed was still hard but she was not alone. The nurse offered a glass of water with a straw. Sophia took a sip.
“Listen now. The serum stopped the bleeding. But getting back to a world where other people exist is up to you.” The nurse took Sophia’s palm and put a red pill there. “You decide if you want to drink.”
The pill was heavy on her palm. She could not imagine herself swallowing it. Once, when she was twelve or thirteen (she did not want to remember), she was attacked by an unknown illness. Astronomic temperature, lungs filled with phlegm. Her parents brought her to a doctor who, after touching her face and stroking her hair, instead of a prescription, gave them a bottle of special tablets. Bought at an astronomical price, Sophia drank her medicine religiously. But she didn't get better. The first bottle was soon empty. They bought another one. Sophia held on to her faith, believing she would soon be standing and playing. That she would soon go back to school.
It did not happen.
When she had swallowed all the tablets of the second bottle she told her parents she would drink no more of the special medicine.
That day she began to recover.
The doctor was a fraud, it turned out. They found out that they were not the only ones who were fooled with, investigations showed, salt tablets.
After that episode Sophia vowed never to believe in anything other people told her was the cure. Not even for headaches. Not even for dysmenorrhea.
After that she was unable to trust anybody. People would befriend her. People who proclaimed care. She let them come. She embraced them even. But always she remembered the doctor. And always she sent these people away.
She frowned and let the pill fall to the floor.
“I understand. I’ll come back with the same proposition tomorrow.” The nurse left, leaving Sophia to stare at the door she left open.
Sophia tried to sleep. She couldn't. When she closed her eyes all she saw was the empty campus of her yesterday and the blood that had burst from her mouth.
Her eyes went from the ceiling to the walls to the corridor the nurse had, Sophia thought, left open for her.
Most of the time the corridor outside was empty. But sometimes, sometimes, it was filled with visions. A boy who could not be older than eight hopped and skipped as he passed by, wearing a doctor’s uniform, complete with a stethoscope. A man (a woman?) in silver armor wearing a green cloak marched by from time to time, once glaring at Sophia’s direction.
The sight that disturbed and elated her the most was the woman in red, the sight that Sophia saw the least, the sight that she waited for. The lady in red always passed by with pride, her stride was sure. In her many weeks at the room, Sophia came to admire the woman who walked with dignity.
The vision that she saw and dreaded the most was the green giant. He was always slow and muttering something under his breath. Always he punched the walls of the corridor as he passed by.
Sophia did not understand why, perhaps it was because of her idleness, but she came to believe that the lady in red and the monster were the same being.
She saw these visions seldom. Most of the time she daydreamed, putting her hands in front of her face to block any other sight. In her daydreams she made projects. Plans about her career in journalism. Plans for a family. Memories of her dead siblings. Forecasts, schedules, deadlines, recollections, lists. Incapacitated as she was on the bed, these plans remained plans.
Everyday the nurse came, everyday Sophia declined the promise of recovery. Everyday the door was left open. All this time the nurse’s face remained obscure. Sophia decided it had something to do with her cap.
One day, after Sophia had dropped the red pill to the floor, the nurse took the glass of water she was sipping from and poured its contents all over her loins. Shivering, Sophia shouted in surprise. This was how she found out she had regained her voice. She was about to express her gratitude when the nurse spoke: “Don’t you want to live? Why accept this paralysis?”
Sophia was about the express her anger and confusion when the nurse stormed out. The next day she came back minus her daily offer. They did not exchange words. The day after that Sophia spent alone. She howled but no one came. More days passed but the nurse did not come. The visions came more frequently. Sophia shrieked at the boy doctor, at the cloaked figure, at the woman, even at the green giant. They paid her no mind.
When the nurse returned along with a glass of water she had a red pill with her. And a frown. “You are upset? Speak.”
Sophia sighed. “You left me knowing I was alone. That’s torture. Evil.”
The red pill flew into the air and landed on the nurse’s palm. “You focus too much on the pain. You torture yourself.”
“You do not know the shame of being covered in your own blood.”
“On the contrary.” Off went the nurse’s cap and for the first time Sophia saw her face.
It was the visage that UP’s main library failed to reflect. It was her own.
Sophia saw her mouth open. Only it was not her mouth, it was the nurse’s. Words were heard. It was only then that Sophia realized they shared the same voice. “Trust.” The red pill was put on her palm. “Drink.”
Sophia could no longer lie to herself. She swallowed it, followed by the water that washed the blood that was long gone from her mouth but remained in her mind. She had run for her sanity, she had crawled for her life. She needed to go back to the real world.
Sophia felt her eyebrows grow heavy.
“Good. You’ll be better when you wake up. Then you can get out of this hell hole.”
Sophia could not help her yawns. “It’s not so bad.”
The nurse snorted.
Sophia closed her eyes. “I’m thankful.”
The nurse walked toward the door. For the first time she looked like she was going to close it. “Don’t be. You helped yourself.” The door was closed.
Sophia nodded to the darkness. She understood everything. As sleep came, she hoped that she would wake up to Tyrone’s voice, that they would be eating at The Hot House on their first date, that her mind had only fell asleep for a few moments.
Specifics of what happened next are scant. It is known definitely that Sophia’s hopes were dashed when she regained consciousness. It is known definitely too that she did not die because Tyrone’s voice was not the one that awoke her. It can be conjectured that she began reconnecting with the real world, with those who disappeared the first time she ate at The Hot House. It may be hoped that she began executing the plans that she daydreamed about. It would not take much to imagine her repeating the nurse’s words in her head, resolving to find what was lost and never eating chicken raw again.
May 9, 2005