1. The nurse always came to him at two in the morning. Pohl Valerio knew because the nurse told him. "It's two o'clock," the nurse would always say, "time for your medicine."
Pohl's medicine was a big, bright, blue pill and a bowl of mashed meat, beef or pork he didn't know. The pill was bitter and the mashed meat was sour, but two years of cancer had taught Pohl that a bad taste in the mouth was better than the feeling of his bones breaking inside his flesh.
The nurse would spoon-feed him, like his mother did. After he finished the mashed meat, the nurse would hand him the pill and a glass of water.
Pohl might have thought that the nurse was a hallucination who always visited him when Pohl's mother couldn't sleep over at the hospital. But the nurse appeared in the daytime too, and talked to the doctor and the other nurses, and to Pohl's mother and sister or whoever was staying with him or visiting him. Still, it was a mystery to Pohl why the nurse never came when his mother did sleep over.
Most of the time Pohl couldn't speak, mainly because his throat hurt, but also because he didn't have anything to say. He had been confined in the hospital for two months now, and he didn't have the strength to read, or retain whatever thought the television stimulated in his brain. His mother and sister and his visitors, they talked for hours and hours, and didn't ask Pohl to talk back. But the nurse, the nurse was always asking him questions. Mostly inanities, like "How are you?" or "Feeling good today?" The nurse delivered these questions while feeding Pohl, smiling all the while, flashing his big choppers, his huge black eyes glinting.
The nurse was a bright light in Pohl's day, and after eating his meat and tossing the pill down his throat, Pohl always felt better. There were times when the pain in his bones was so bad Pohl prayed that his mother be given more work in school, so she wouldn't be able to sleep over, and the nurse could come with his medicine. These prayers were always answered.
Pohl wanted to talk to the nurse. He saved his strength, saved his voice. He eavesdropped on the nurse's conversation with the doctor and the other nurses and Pohl's mother and sister and whoever was visiting him that day, so he would know what topic of conversation the man was interested in. But they were always just exchanging pleasantries, talking about the weather, or traffic. And some goddam thing everybody was calling EDSA 3. Was it a new road? Was there an EDSA 2 already?
The cancer ate away at his memory, too, he knew, but what frustrated him no end was that he couldn't even catch the nurse's name. So finally Pohl decided to just introduce himself.
On the twenty-second day of the third month of his confinement, Pohl said to the nurse, as soon as the man arrived, before he could place the tray with the glass of water and the pill and the bowl of mashed meat on the table beside Pohl's bed, "My name is Pohl."
"It's two o'clock," the nurse said, "time for your medicine."
"That's p-o-h-l, not p-a-u-l."
"You feeling okay today?" the nurse asked, teeth and eyes bright, pulling a chair to sit beside the bed.
"I was named after the science fiction writer."
"Open wide," the nurse said, spooning a hill of mashed meat from the bowl.
"What is," Pohl said, "what is your name?"
"Let this one in," the nurse said, "and I'll tell you."
Pohl swooped down on the spoon. The sour meat made him salivate. He was feeling particularly strong that day and nodded, so the man would keep up his end of the bargain.
"My name is JR."
Pohl swallowed. "Because you're a Junior?"
"One more first." It was a mountain of meat this time.
Pohl did as he was told.
"Actually I was named after a fictional character. John Rambo. You know, Stallone, First Blood?"
Pohl shook his head. It had taken him more than two months to notice the nurse's dimples.
"It's just as well. Listen, you have to finish this quickly today." The bowl was still half full. "I have run into some problems."
Problems? What problems? "One last request. Please."
The man bit his lower lip. "Very well. What is it?"
"You," Pohl said, "you have to ask me a question."
The nurse nodded. "Interesting." He tapped the bowl with the spoon. "What do you want to be when you grow up?"
Pohl stared at him. Was this a joke? Was the nurse mocking him? But he decided that all those days of feeding him were not the actions of a man of cruelty. He answered, repressing his anger, "I'm already grown up."
The nurse shook his head. "You're 17. You have years ahead of you." It was a bright face. The man had a bright face.
"I want to be a doctor. Like my father was." Pohl sighed. His father had died of lung cancer.
The nurse nodded. He raised the bowl of mashed meat. "Then a doctor you shall be." Eyes bright, he said, "Soon you will be in your rightful place."
2. Four years before his recovery, when he still had pretensions of wanting to be a novelist, four years before he moved from Journalism to Biology, his mother was always telling him to go to bars. "See people," she would say, "listen to them. Feel their rhythm, feel them vibrate in their natural habitat." Eight years after his recovery, twelve years after his awful first year in college, nine years after his one and only, and failed, attempt to go to a bar, here he was, a doctor, actually inside a bar.
Everybody smoked. A couple was kissing by a piano and the walls were dominated by a series of eye paintings. Dr. Valerio tugged on his shirt collar. He smelled vomit, hair spray, pineapple. Sometimes he hated having heightened senses.
He was on a date, with a woman he had gone out with during high school. They had shared dreams of literary awards and book launches. She had taken her undergraduate studies abroad and now had a Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing. They had reconnected a month ago, via Friendster. The website that just a few weeks ago announced it was shutting down. She taught at what she called the "University for the Rich and Stupid." She had asked him out.
She wore a Che shirt and a Mao hat, and her two front teeth were as wide apart as Madonna's. When she spoke she also whistled.
Her name was Peñafrancia Purificacion. Friends called her France.
They sat at a corner table for four, under a three-eye painting. "So," she shouted (the live band was playing "Bohemian Rhapsody"), "seen any good patients lately?"
Dr. Valerio smiled and gestured to a waitress. "Do you have a screw," he said, "a screwdriver?"
The waitress nodded.
"What'll you have?" he asked France.
"Order for me," she said, standing up. "I have to pee."
"She'll have a," he said to the waitress, "she'll have a vodka. A bottle of vodka."
Dr. Valerio's smile faded. "Just a glass, please." She watched the waitress's behind wiggle away. At the counter, he saw what looked to be the bar manager grab her chest. He was a thin man, tall, with long hair, and a goatee that curled at the end.
Dr. Valerio shook his head and looked away. He reviewed the roads they had taken. They were at the Kamuning Road. All he had to do was go straight, then right at Anonas, then left into Aurora's traffic. Once through that it was another straight through Marcos Highway and then right to whatever street in Marikina her apartment was. He'd open the door for her, walk her to the gate, and go back to his car. The night had been a disaster since he’d picked her up at the University. He had seen her smoking with a student.
He hated smokers.
The waitress came back before France did. Dr. Valerio took a sip of his drink. It tasted like orange. He hated how it was his taste that hadn’t changed. He could detail the contents of a vomit by smell, see sixteen different shades of purple, listen to whispers shared by the couple by the piano, but he couldn’t tell the difference between oranges and lemons. His sense of touch was even worse. To him, everything felt rough.
He had never actually drunk a screwdriver before. He had learned of it in an episode of Frasier and had sworn that if ever someone asked him what he’d like to drink, it was what he would order. The only thing he’d ever drunk was red wine. He took another sip. It wasn't so bad. He tried to remember what twist of fate had brought him to this hellmouth. He recalled being excited when he saw her invitation to be a friend. And his heart had raced the first time they ymed. But he should have known through her Multiply page that she wasn't his type (and that he wasn't hers!). Her blog had been filled with photos of cats and video clips from French and Italian films, and her reviews were absolutely cruel. She made fun of local stars (Sarah Geronimo was a frequent target, especially her gloves), of other writers (the names of whom Dr. Valerio didn't recognize, he just knew they were Filipino because their works had been published by UST and, um, Ateneo), of politicians (another sore point, Dr. Valerio hated politics), and most of all of nurses.
But his mother was always asking him about his love life, always telling him that with his sister dead he was her only hope for a grandchild. So when France asked him out, he thought, why the hell not? It wasn’t like she was going to get him killed or anything, right? Right?
As soon as she sat down she downed her vodka. "Great place, yeah?" Her hair was a mess.
"Where is," he asked, "where's your cap?"
She touched her head. "What? Are you drunk?" She touched his arm. "Order me another drink, will you?"
He gestured to a waiter. His mind was made up. He was going to excuse himself, pretend to go to the comfort room and then head for the parking lot. The only thing to decide was how he was going to pay for the drinks. Dr. Valerio fished out his wallet.
When the waiter came she touched his arm. "Ma'am, Sir?"
He looked up from his wallet and saw his smile. His face was a searchlight in the fog of cigarette smoke. Seven years later and Dr. Valerio recognized the bright eyes and teeth. "She'll have a," he said, "she'll have another vodka. A bottle, please." Should he ask for lemon? Didn't vodka go with lemon? Or was that gin?
The waiter nodded. "Anything else, Sir?"
He didn't recognize him! No! "Do you have," Dr. Valerio said, "do you have any meat?"
The waiter just stared at him. Then, after a few seconds, raised his eyebrows and said, "Crispy pata, Sir?"
They served crispy pata at bars? Where the hell was he? "Yes, yes, that will do."
The waiter left. Dr. Valerio watched his behind wiggle across the bar. He turned to face France. "Excuse me," he said, standing up.
"Come back quick," she said, then added, whispering, "or not."
Dr. Valerio nodded. He headed for the comfort room.
He heard the mutter pierce through the band's shrieks of "Mama Mia." He kicked the comfort room's door open. And there was the waiter, the nurse with the smile, kneeling beside the bleeding body of the tall, thin man he thought was the bar's manager.
"Pohl!" JR said. "Don't just stand there. Be a good apprentice and help me carry the corpse!"
3. Dr. Valerio edged his Volkswagen into the parking garage. From the corner of his eye he saw JR, just sitting beside him, staring straight ahead, his face an ironed blanket. No, there wasn't a dead man in his trunk. They were in the basement of a motel, that was all. He wasn't an accessory to a murder. He wasn't a witness to a murder. There was no murder. The security guard was waving them in. They were going to fuck, that's all. There was no fucking body in his trunk.
At the lobby he sat on a corner couch while JR paid for their stay. He had been to this motel. Twice with a woman. Many times with a man. Once, alone. He found the personnel less annoying than the average member of the service sector. He jumped when JR gestured to him. He shoved JR aside and ran to the elevator.
At the room he lay on the bed and stared at the ceiling mirror. He didn't like his face. He was balding, and he had a big nose. Big nostrils, his mother said, an evolutionary advantage, to better fight against drowning, asthma, and assassins with pillows.
JR lay beside him. "How have you been, Pohl?"
Dr. Valerio sniffed. "I told you in the car, don't call me that."
JR's hand found his. "You really want to be called Doctor?"
"It's what I am."
"It's not who you are."
"Then call me Dr. Valerio." He slapped the hand away.
"Sure, but you have to call me Nurse Sagaray."
"You're not a nurse. And you're last name isn't Sagaray. It's Arturo. I know. I checked."
"Always a journalist. But if you knew my last name, why didn't you search for me? There's Google. Facebook."
"You don't have a Friendster account."
JR smiled. "I guess it's my fault then." He flipped to his right, his nose touched Dr. Valerio's ear. "You'll call me Nurse Arturo then?"
"You're not a nurse, at least not anymore. You're a murderer."
"I am so a nurse. And is being a murderer so bad if I only kill people like my sexual harasser of a boss?"
"If he committed a crime, he should have been sued. Not shot." He felt a tongue on his cheek.
"Doctor, Doctor. I keep forgetting, you were bed-ridden during the second and third EDSA. If justice doesn't work, you make it work, Doctor. And I didn’t shoot him, I stabbed him."
"So what are you, a vigilante?"
JR kissed him. "A superhero, more. You'll see."
"All I see is a murderer. And I'm not going to see much of him anymore. I'm taking you to the police." Dr. Valerio stood up. "Get your pants on, I'm sure they'll show you mercy if you surrender on your own."
"Mercy? The Philippine National Police? Didn't my meat cure you? I didn't know the cancer took your brains."
Dr. Valerio spat. "Your meat. All it did was mess with my ears. And my eyes. And my nose. It's taking so much fucking effort just to not smell your precum. How did it do this to me? What the hell was it, anyway?"
"It was a gift. That also messed up your taste. And now, you're going to eat--"
JR had one leg out of his briefs. "What?"
"Just the ears, eyes, nose. My skin, my tongue, they weren't enhanced."
"No, no." JR put his briefs back on. He picked his pants off the floor. "We have to go to your car. You have to eat--"
"I won't eat any more of your meat!"
"Don't be a fool, I know you understand. The meat, it's the source of your… advantages."
"I don't want advantages."
"You don't understand. I didn't give you enough. You’re the next in line, you must live. But your cancer--it's still alive."
4. Dr. Valerio looked at his watch. It was time.
He walked through the corridors with his head bowed, his hands balancing the tray. With his behind he opened the door.
He shook the child's shoulders, gently.
She opened her eyes, blinked a few times. "Doctor?"
"It's three o'clock. Time for your medicine."
June 11, 2011