Small Talk

My literary nonfiction piece, “Small Talk,” got published in the 23rd (October) issue of Kritika Kultura. I’m not proud of it because I think it remains self-indulgent (despite what it might be saying about self-indulgent talk), but I found the process of writing it engaging as much as it was painful, and I learned a lot from the depth of the introspection demanded by that process. I began writing it when I read an excerpt from Autoportrait by Edouard Leve featured in The Paris Review as “When I Look at a Strawberry, I Think of a Tongue” and decided to try a similar exercise in identity-construction by way of “objectivity” and fragmentation. I posted the first draft here as “After Leve.”  I continued to write it in part because people who can go on and on and on about themselves in “regular conversation” (i.e. not on Facebook or Twitter and the like, where self-involvement is the norm) amaze me. I wonder whence comes their apparent belief that fascination inheres in the minutiae of their everyday lives, such that even casual acquaintances would be thrilled to listen to their talk. I usually keep mum when I find myself caught in such conversations, which often concern things of little import or relevance to people outside the talker’s self and circle of intimates, but which, it seems, many people feel impelled to talk about. Why? Is it because we wish to be understood, to be admired, to have others experience ourselves the way we experience ourselves or how we wish to experience ourselves? I also wonder about the distinctions between “personal” and “private,” “self-aware” and “self-concerned,” about whether navel-gazing deserves all the flak it gets and the reasons for that derision. “Small Talk” doesn’t try to answer those questions, but to perform them.

Oh, another thing I learned in writing that piece: how swiftly things change, and how blindsiding it can get. :)


After Leve

When I was five, after a scolding, I ran out of the house to the front yard, plopped down on a heap of stones, looked up at the stars with tears streaking down my cheeks, and asked God why I had to live. When I was six, my grandfather died. I tailed my mother for months afterward because I was convinced that she would meet a terrible accident and I’d decided to perish with her. At seven, I dreaded the night. I dreamt of being swallowed up by the earth or falling into quicksand. I dreamt of following strange creatures in the moonlight and never being seen again. At eight I sneaked out of the house on December evenings to sing carols with other children in the streets. I walked fast, expecting to be snatched away by hooded men at every turn. I have seen a man point his gun and shoot another in a melee. I have seen a man’s bloody head under the wheels of a bus. I did not see the body of the student who jumped from the top storey of the mall. I did not see my high school senior squashed between a jeepney and a truck. I did not see the body of my cousin hanging from the spiral staircase of their home. I find comfort in musing about the manner of my dying. I am more afraid of aging than of death. I identify the former with helplessness, the latter with rest. On my third day of no sleep during the hell week of my senior year, I fantasized about getting run over by a car in front of my college building. I have written down a long list of directives for my wake and funeral. I once told my mother that I wish I’d never been born and she refused to talk to me for a week. I will never have children. I do not plan to get married. Even if I do get married, I intend to keep a separate room to house my solitude. I like to think of myself as a wanderer, but I need a place to call headquarters, if not home. I do not dread dying alone. In large parties where I don’t know most of the guests, I stand in a corner, take out my phone, and pretend to text to evade small talk. I would rather be in pain than be bored. When I am sad, I wish to dissipate in the atmosphere or sink underneath the floorboards. I do not like to impose my loneliness on other people. I prefer listening to talking. I am touched when friends long for my company. When they tell me that they love me, I am surprised. I do not think that I am likeable, and I am fine with that. I do not care about pleasing other people, but I am loath to be found wanting. I think that I am finally in love and I don’t know what to do. When in doubt, I am paralyzed by overthinking. I have kissed a stranger in a faraway place to forget the taste of another tongue. I have been kissed on a hanging bridge overlooking the city skyline by someone I wish I had never known. Constellations and distant lights fascinate me. I prefer dusk to dawn because I anticipate nightfall. I take long walks in deserted streets past midnight. I have walked barefoot on asphalt at three a.m. with someone I hold dear. I have walked from Manila to Quezon City in high heels under a drizzle, crying. I have clambered up and down the steep slopes of two mountains in a day, muttering a litany of curses. I feel happier in places where I can see mountains, sky, and ocean. I think the city is only beautiful when half-erased by rain. When I feel crowded in, I have difficulty breathing. When a stranger brushes past me in the street, I growl. When I ride the MRT during rush hour, I imagine meter-long steel spikes pushing out of my skin, impaling anyone who comes near me. I have plunged a knife into the flesh between my left thumb and forefinger. I have slit my right forearm on broken glass after pushing against a windowpane. I have burned my right leg against the exhaust pipe of a motorcycle. I have fallen backwards down a flight of stairs and landed with my derriere up in the air. I have jumped off a cliff into the sea without knowing how to swim. I have not learned how to swim because I panic once my feet lose contact with the ground. My expression looks forbidding in stolen photographs. Being photographed unnerves me, because sometimes I do not recognize myself in the shots. Until I was twenty, I found myself fat and ugly. Now I just find myself fat. On most days I put effort into applying eye makeup. When I intend to intimidate, I put on lipstick, too. My weight does not bother me unless I try on a dress that does not fit. I never want to faint or get too drunk to walk, because the idea of having to be carried repulses me. When I am plastered I laugh a lot and speak too much and too loudly with a Valley Girl accent. I do not like to drink alcoholic beverages if they are not sweet. When someone is sweet to me, I get suspicious. When someone calls me “sweet,” I cringe. Receiving compliments embarrasses me, even when I think that I deserve them. I am seldom upset by criticism from others because they are never more caustic than my criticisms of myself. I am prone to brooding and melancholy. I think things through before offering my opinion. I usually think that I am right, though I don’t mind being proven wrong. I derive the highest pleasure from learning. I enjoy teaching because I get to compel others to engage in nerdy discussions with me. I believe that I have found the kind of work I would like to do for the rest of my hopefully brief life.

talksick: relationships

It goes without saying that one should not get into a relationship[1] for the sake of having one. Though one may believe that, as the Beatles proclaimed, “All you need is love,” this need may be fulfilled through a variety of avenues, such as friendships and family ties, work, or the other, myriad wonders of one’s own ecstatic existence. Yet this does not prevent the well-intentioned[2] from suggesting, with utmost tact,[3] that perhaps one ought to venture outside one’s quarters more often and meet new people[4] and forge potentially meaningful and gratifying connections,[5] and even offering to set one up with certain gentlemen. If one declines[6] such offers by citing reasons like, “I’m too busy”[7] or “I enjoy being single,”[8] these are decried as apostasy. But isn’t it more objectionable to plunge into a relationship one feels uncertain or conflicted[9] about? Maybe one is not yet ready[10] for commitment, especially in the long-term,[11] or does not know or has not realized the potentials of oneself or the other[12] well enough. In any case, there is no need to rush—one spoils one’s experience of a thing by too eagerly applying a label to it. One should rather allow it to unfold before attempting to parse its reality. Rest assured that there will be time and space[13] for love—when one decides[14] to make time and space for it.

[1] Of the romantic kind, obviously, because that’s what seems to matter most in the dominant discourse of your social circle largely made up of young adults who regularly read Thought Catalog.

[2] Which includes, in your case, most everyone and his cat, from Mom and Dad and Little Brother Bear to your friends, students, former thesis adviser, landlady, random creepo on the street, and the “beauty technician” who threads your eyebrows every two to three weeks.

[3] As in, “You still don’t have a boyfriend? At your age? What is wrong with you?”

[4] Never mind that your social network encompasses people not only from your neighborhood, work, and schools, but also those you met while travelling* and joining all sorts of clubs for your numerous hobbies, from drawing to dragonboat paddling.

*far and away from the tremors of people and what they lay waste to

[5] If you know what I mean.**

**because the G-spot is somewhere between your ears, he makes his way with words, that he may have his way with you

[6] Not with a nervous giggle—remember where*** that landed you before?—but with a firm “No, thanks.”

***sitting on a wooden table out in the yard at half-past midnight, staring across the street at nothing, asking why and what-the-fuck, over and over

[7] …to be bothered with emotional card games. The key to precluding fuckwittage** is inaccessibility.*

[8]Solitude will break you with its yearning,” she said. But you desire no one, and therein lies the problem. You reach out to touch air.

[9] ***

[10] You’ve realized that loving demands great effort, patience, and generosity, and is not for the emotionally puerile.

[11] …and that often, regularity breeds insipidity, then discontent and restiveness, and you’re always poised for flight.*

[12] Getting into a relationship is like taking a long course on someone, until that someone decides to dissolve classes or you drop out, either of which may happen at any time, blindsiding you both.

[13] in a universe of dying stars, a cosmic loner

[14] But what does it matter if you’ve decided on him, if he has not decided on you?