Pfft-ssssss…

There went another one. It had been two hours, yet all that was on Jett’s monitor was the word The followed by that irritating vertical line flashing on and off. “Buset,” Jett muttered in a voice made raspy by the half-dozen sticks of Lights, the butts of which now piled up on the small tin tray. His hand dragged wearily down his face.

Somewhere from within the computer a voice that sounded much like that basketball…

(Number Six is out of the game ladies and gentlemen. Writer’s Block has been one hell of an opponent as we have seen so far tonight.)

…commentator on TV made fun…

(Coach Jett Baldomar is looking bleak and tired. Desperate, he sends out Cigarette Number Seven to try where Six has humiliatingly failed. Will Baldomar pull off a miracle? We’ll be back, so don’t go away!)

…of his inability to write.

Then it lay silent, watching with a grin and one brow sarcastically raised. With waves of radiation, it ate up its user’s brain at a rate of a million neurons per second.

At the other end of the room, Ian had been snoring since 8:30 on the upper bed of their wood-and-iron double-decker. Now, why couldn’t he be like that—sleep like normal people do and quit this foolishness he once considered to be his life’s direction?

Jett engaged the flashing cursor in silent conversation as cigarette smoke wafted through his callused fingers.

—Buset ka.

—‘Kaw rin.

—C’mon, spew out some words.

—‘Namo. Pa’no? You’re the one with the keyboard.

Jett laid his head on his arm, unable to take any more, but this just prompted another voice with more bits of ridicule.

Sleep is a new kid on the block, folks, but he is definitely threatening Jett Schumacher. While Schumacher contends with perennial rival Writer’s Block, the newcomer looks like he’s gonna give Schumacher another run for his money…

Jett groped for the AVR’s power switch.

He’s now behind the champ taking the shoulder as they go around the curve. Schumacher swerves in a desperate attempt to block the first-timer and… OH MY GAWD! Sleep’s brrrilliant driving rewards him with the lead! This is UNbeLEEvable, this—click!

“Zip it,” Jett said, and with that, he let himself fall asleep.

* * *

When Ian woke up, the sun was already high, sending hot beams through the blinds and unto his bare back. How he would love to welcome the rain’s freezing winds! It had been June ages ago but all that the occasional dark cloud brought were some slightly cool breeze and weak and sporadic showers. Big deal. Must be greenhouse, he thought, and cursed the U.S. reversal on the Kyoto protocol.

He inched his head over the edge of the bed to see if Jett had gotten up yet, and saw that his bunk had been made. Then he looked up and saw him still sitting before the computer, only Jett was not working but had his face buried in his arms on the table.

Ian sighed with pity, but this was stirred with a tad of sarcastic amusement. Climbing down, he called out, “Gising, p’re. It’s nine.”

Jett remained motionless. Ian noticed the ashtray beside the monitor and counted one, two… seven. Christ, his friend was reading too much about the lives of famous writers. Those people did the weirdest rituals for writing, from smoking to lying in coffins. Insanity begot insanity, and yet great, sane works came from the insane.

“Haay, what are you getting yourself into?” he asked, looking at the limp body in front of the Acer. Grabbing his towel from the bedpost, he proceeded to wake his oversleeping friend up.

“’Ey,” he said, shaking Jett’s shoulder. “We’re going to hear mass. Gising!”

Jett budged somewhat, and mumbled, “Mmmam’ya naaa.”

“What?” Ian asked. Not waiting for an answer, he shook Jett more vigorously. “Get up!”

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“I’m up, I’m up,” Jett answered, raising his hands in a stretch. He stood up and walked away from the table, to the wash basin. “Where are we goin’?”

“Have you lost track? It’s Sunday.”

“Oh. Okay.”

“Wash yourself up, and hurry. I’ll go next.”

Ian sat down on the bed. He watched as Jett, still only half-awake, almost stumbled over the extension cord that connected the voltage regulator to the socket on the wall across the room.

Ian winced, but his eyes stayed on their object, and he thought this is the guy from the next room, who binged last night, and entered the wrong room. But no, this was their room, that was his friend, who just happened to become more and more out of the ordinary each day.

Several nights ago, they went to this joint in Plaza Burgos. He was reading a novel about which a synopsis was due Friday, when suddenly the normally reclusive Jett coaxed him that they go out and have a few. He said he had nothing to wear because his laundrywoman had not come this week, but Jett said it was fine, he also wasn’t going to really suit up, so come on, “trip lang.” In the bar—good God—in the bar, they had hardly finished their second when he started shouting for louder music. And when a waitress obliged, he stood up and gyrated all over the place, which, of course, was not exactly known for disco trippings, especially of the raucous standing-on-the-table-and-taking-off-your-shirt kind. Goodness, if this was what writing did to you, maybe this Creative Writing course wasn’t such a bright idea.

“Are you done?”

“Yeah. Your turn.”

The phone rang.

* * *

“He what?”

“Yep, used to buy just a stick or two and he wouldn’t touch a cigarette for the next month.”

“But he quit.”

“He told you he quit before he really started.”

“Promise?”

“Would I kid you?”

“I guess not. Thanks for telling. So I’ll just wait for you guys at the patio?”

“Okay. Hey, no one’s with you? Where’s Annie?”

“She’s coming with her ma. I think they’re going to the same mass that we are attending. I’m not sure.”

“Damn.”

“Uuuuuuy!”

“Quit it, Rissa.”

“Guilteeeeee! Sige, I’ll see you na lang.”

“Okay. I’ll tell him you called.”

“Thanks. Bye.”

* * *

Rissa arrived at the cathedral at about 9:30 and sat on a stone bench in the patio to wait for Jett and Ian. She frowned, recalling how she and Annie would usually wait for those two clowns inside the church. During the sermon.

The 9 am mass was still only halfway through, so she couldn’t enter and stay where there were fans to ward off the heat. But anyway, these cold stone slabs, well under the cathedral’s shadow, penetrated the cloth of her capri and cooled her bottom.

Earlier, she called the guys on her cellular phone to tell them she was already at the church. Well, well, her soon-to-be boyfriend was smoking more heavily these days, eh? That’d make a nice topic when he comes to her house in the near future, perhaps after the mass.

She thought about Annie and Ian, and giggled girlishly, causing those passing her by to turn and look. When she was able to stop, she pondered a few things, chief of which was whether or not she should enter into a steady relationship with Jett. It would be her first in her entire life and she didn’t know how to go about it, mature as she thought she was. Of course, she consulted her friends, but all they said was everything would turn out right and everything would just flow smoothly so she should not worry.

Friends also talked about their boyfriends, and to these she played the expert, giving advice, comfort or just an understanding ear. Talking, however, was a far cry from the real thing.

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For sure, there would be a lot of holding hands, embracing, kissing, and maybe even sex. There would be strolls on Plaza Salcedo in front of the cathedral, where they’d sit under one of the mango trees or throw stones at the fish and lotuses in the man-made pond. After night-outs, Jett would bring her home where she’d invite him in for a drink of water, and there, they’d just start getting friendly. Sleepovers and getaways would follow, and soon after that they’d even start sharing toothbrushes or even underwear—these things were not exclusive to married couples lately.

Inside the Church, the people were already singing the Our Father.

“Where the heck are those guys?” Rissa asked no one in particular.

* * *

“We are going to be so late,” Ian complained as they waited for a tricycle. The sun was still two hours away from being directly above them but even then it was already beating down on them quite fiercely.

Jett contended, “Tell the driver to take that street parallel to Mena Crisologo. Smooth traffic in there all the way to Plaza Burgos. Then we just have to cross the plaza.”

“Hmm, haven’t thought of that.”

“Don’t be sorry.”

“I’m not.You’re saying I am not capable of thinking of that?”

“Where did that come from? I never said—“

“Forget it. Let’s just get ourselves to church.”

They both shut up. Ian was noticeably trying not to let his eyes flinch, irritated as he was from both dust and being with Jett. He kept looking at the empty road, waiting for a tricycle to rise over the horizon. Jett, meanwhile, went scouring for a sari-sari store, having felt a craving for a smoke.

Across the blacktop, a young mother was literally hauling her unclothed son, whose belly protruded so much it seemed ready to burst. Ian concluded almost amusedly that the mother’s maternity dress must have been the same she wore when her son was still a life-capable mass inside her womb. It used to be white too, probably.

So many things had changed since that fateful February day, when the people marched into the streets shouting hurrah we are a city. They were just fine as a town, thank you. Adding those two syllables to the name of a place didn’t herald its progressiveness, but its downfall. The title didn’t only bring in more buildings, food joints, playgrounds, and malls. It had become a harbinger of unemployment, constricted space, dumps, and more people like the mother-child pair he just saw. Tama na ang isang Manila, please.

And good Christ, what would happen to nature? In the next few years we would have to wear multiple layers of sunblock, or maybe they’d invent newfangled clothing material. A decade after, humans would have to find another Earth because the skin would fall in charred lumps, exposing your insides and making your blood—your life—evaporate the very instant you’re naked under the sun. With America’s humor not to apply the Kyoto protocol and to continue poisoning our atmosphere with a whopping 60% contribution of chloroflourocarbons, that would not be far from possible.

“You should be writing about those things,” Ian said as Jett was approaching, a lit cigarette between his fingers.”

“Hmm?”

“Here comes a tricycle.”

“You were saying…?”

“Ala. I said buy mouthwash. Your pie hole reeks of rotten tobacco.”

“Gaaago! “

Ian hailed the tricycle and they got in. He was muttering because of the fetal position they had to assume in the vehicle’s cramped space.

“Cathedral, Tata.”

* * *

Jett knew that Ian was getting worried about his becoming a little eccentric. He admitted that he acted a bit strange during the past weeks but was unsure about when and how it started. But he had a good theory.

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Last month he attended his first workshop and got exposed to various literary styles and opinions. He didn’t particularly care about the criticisms he got for the story he submitted. After all, he also thought it was pretty dumb. But it was the first story where he got bold in the use of language. He injected a lot of contemporary teen parlance and he knew that the senior writers, especially those who had the classics as bedtime stories, would go ballistic if they read the monstrosity disguised as a literary piece. But he submitted it anyway.

True enough, most of the panelists were aghast at the way the story was written. It was written in a way Jett knew would bother those who read it. The panelists indulged him, and instead of demoralizing him, the critiques left him yearning for more. This was his identity! To be different!

He came back from that workshop thinking enlightened was he who said writers are masochists so keep those critiques coming because I, Jett Baldomar, thrive on them! Ha!

The problem was he was getting too transformed into his writing persona. Rissa pointed this out to him the last time they went out. And Ian kept hinting on it for the past few days by getting easily agitated. It came to him that if he was to continue, he could become someone he himself wouldn’t like. Ian was right. He did stink of rotten tobacco. The days when he did nothing but smoke and type away at his computer were becoming more frequent, days that could have been spent with Rissa or at least taking care of his hygiene. Did he want that? Did those he loved want that? One day he would have to choose.

Realizations like this always caught you in the middle of addiction. Like a fire walker who gets burned in the middle of the pit because he comes out of meditation and realizes he has been standing on live coals, coming to think about the consequences of his transformation had temporarily taken all ideas out of his noggin. Writer’s block was both unmerciful and merciful, cutting of your intellectual lifeblood, but at the same time making you think about whether or not you really want it back.

When Rissa called earlier, he heard Ian talk to her about him, and he wondered whether his gradual change was pulling him away from them. He was expecting to hear a second sermon from Rissa after the mass. That and maybe a third from Ian.

The entire duration of the ride, he dared not to talk.

* * *

‘Sakto, the people were just coming out when the tricycle dropped them off at the church’s entrance. A few steps into the cobbled patio, a voice came from their right. It was Rissa, looking pretty in spaghetti straps that flattered her figure. She was waving from one of the benches in the corner. They walked to where she was.

“Finally, you decided to show up.”

“We almost didn’t, thanks to this walking chimney, who wanted to sleep ‘till kingdom come.”

“Gaaago. No foul naman, p’re,” Jett broke in.

“You’ve been smoking, haven’t you?” Rissa turned to Jett. She had the talent—an instinct, really—of finding out faults in boys she was interested in.

“We have to talk. Treat me to a burger after the mass and I just might be merciful.”

“Opo.”

“Ahem. We should be going in, now,” Ian interrupted.

Jett looked at his friend, then at Rissa. Right, they had to go inside and find some place to sit before people came in droves. He took Rissa’s hand and they went in. Whatever Rissa or Ian had to say, let them rant and ramble later. He just might listen to them, he thought.

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