Derelict in space ruled by a strange law of motion, I while away the time sketching the idle cartography of a new world. -Resil Mojares
If other gay men have absent fathers, overly affectionate mothers, or long-lost unmarried uncles to account for their “difference,” I knew very early on that there was nothing else to blame other than my childhood wallpaper. White, and old, and covered with vines that seemed to begin and end nowhere, in a style that must have been extremely popular in the garish seventies when our house was built, my wallpaper was filled with flowers. Yellow dahlias alternated with rhododendrons the color of mauve. Roses formed arcs around a bouquet of petunias. Petals lined the edges.
Not that my mom and dad were firm believers of an alternative parenting style that sought to foster the anima in young boys, or that they had such faith in their youngest child’s masculinity enough to throw him into the midst of the highest ranks of feminine excess. But because I was the youngest and in this case unexpected, that’s the way it had to go.
In the first place, my parents had a hard time having children. My mother had to undergo numerous sessions of what then were the leading methods of reproductive work-up. My father was godfather to countless baptisms of their friend’s children. I imagine that both of them had to go through ten years’ worth of silent acceptance of the fact that they would end up being one of those couples who would grow old with dogs but not with children.
So when my brother was born in 1972, just when my mother had returned to the Philippines, stopped taking pills, and started getting used to the fact that her love for her husband would have to last her whole lifetime in order for their marriage to last, my brother was considered a miracle, a gift from heaven. He was the toast of the town.
Out of our twenty family photo albums we have strewn in our living room, he occupies fifteen of them. Many of the huge extended family portraits have him sitting near the center, surrounded by a throng of cousins. He was the first baby to be born in a newly opened city hospital so they would send him birthday gifts every year. He was named after my dad, a junior of a junior. Number three in the promising line of Gerardos.
My entry into the picture six years later, then, was definitely an anticlimactic epilogue for my parents. My mom was 38 and my dad 39. And although they were far from guilty of any crime of negligence, they were certainly past the prime of innocent, unabashed parenthood. Many of our family trips were already filled with a deep sense of nostalgia. Visits to the zoo seemed like reprises of my brother’s earlier trips. The gorillas were old, the cages rusty, the canteen of water that we brought for long hikes had already sprung a leak. It was the second season of a hit first season. It was a surprise sequel, a restaging of a play. Everyone in the cast had become such bad bad actors, by this time.
And because they had already built the house meant for a three-member family at the end of the third street in a subdivision optimistically called “Paradise Village,” they had nowhere else to put me but in the guest room. It was the room at the south east corner of the house and it faced an ivy wall. It also had a view of the garden, and in many ways the floral wallpaper seemed like the artificial mirror of the world outside.
Which brings me back to my point, that if ever there was any clear indication of my coming fate of insecurity at ever “belonging” to the family (or to the rest of the world, for that matter), and my impending (or predetermined) sense of otherness and overdramatic alienation, it had to go back to that wallpaper.
It didn’t help that I turned out to be not only gay, but the only gay person in the village, in the immediate family, and in the close-knit circle of families of my parents’ friends. The closest image I could relate to was Wonder Woman who appeared in our black and white TV every Wednesday. Other than that, I was the odd kid out, the unclassifiable, not only a freak, but a surprise freak. And in as small a community as Cebu, where everyone’s either a relative, a friend of a friend, a brother of a classmate, or a patient of my doctor-father, conformity was the rule and any deviations from it entailed the most horrible consequences: word got around.
Oddity of oddities, I was the boy who played with girls, the street corner’s champion at Chinese garter and jackstones, the silver medalist at piano. I was the too-avid dancer at school programs who memorized the steps too well. I was the last boy whose hoolahoop fell at a Christmas party, and only because the song had ended.
Nannies used to argue with each other if I was bayot (gay) or not. I was spared most of the taunts in school because I seemed to be the smartest boy around (and therefore potentially handy for a future math assignement) but there were giggles all around. I hated basketball, and in grade school, if you hated basketball, and had no legitimate excuse for it, such as blindness or a missing leg, then people automatically considered you gay.
If word had gotten to my mother about any of this (or if she had seen this herself), she never brought it up with me. My father once told me not to “speak funny” and to “speak straight”. (To which I stuck my tongue out, slammed the door, and found himself being spanked with a folded newspaper). But there was nothing from mom or anyone else in the family.
All of this should not have come as a surprise to my mom though. I don’t know what the religious books have to say about this, but I’ve always believed that the hierarchy of the blessed has always favored pregnant women. First in line, eternally deserving of that extra seat in a crowded train, bringer of the good news of the extension of the progeny pregnant mothers seem to always, always, get their wishes. And so when my mother wished for a girl, and she … well, she got a boy, she wasn’t entirely denied her request by fate.
Of course, I knew this periled fate very early on, even if many of my friends have a hard time understanding how this self-consciousness could have come at a very young age. I knew it. And I think my mother knew it. And I think for many other gay kids, they know very early on too. How can one not know? Especially when at four years old, I would go to my mother’s study every morning after breakfast and have her draw mermaids. Over and over again. Of course, I knew it.
I try to describe this almost inherent sense of otherness by likening it to having green skin, underneath the more obvious flesh, or to having one’s voice hit the lilt at an octave higher, when one was surprised or angry. Or ike speaking a different language (without the gift of tongues), or allowing the body to move differently. As if when the body wanted to walk or run, it insisted on skipping. The throat did not speak, it sang.
The body, yes, in third person. And yes, the throat too. Because although it would take me years before I encountered, in my philosophy classes such grand declarations as: the Body is our body but not really our body, I knew this fundamental fact of the body’s betrayal instinctively. I was surprised one needed the rational eyes of adulthood to explore this when it was the first sure thing I knew.
Any gay child’s sense of otherness stems from this keen awareness of the body’s inherent tendency to secession. The body lied, or distracted, or revealed itself both falsely and honestly at the same time. And it was less about desire (although we like to think of gayness as a form of sexuality), than it was about gesture, and voice, and eye, and frozen in the corner of a hall not wanting to move. I remember seeing differently.
Playtime in kindergarten. Once a week. And because the world assumed that even in play, and perhaps especially in play, it was necessary to delineate, classify, dismiss, and deny all other “aberrant forms of gender”, play sessions in school were to be divided by gender.
Since I was to everyone else’s eye a boy (softer, quieter, swishier than most? but nonetheless male), I was herded into the boy’s play period every time. A thin, wiry old woman called Tita Tootsie was our “play teacher” and although she was nice and kind and smelled of sandwiches, I doubt if she in any way realized what ideological earthquakes those innocent sessions entailed. Out with the cars, and the blocks of wood that were meant to form buildings, and the tractors expected to be skewered, and dismantled and destroyed, and the steel cars: Oh wonder of god, those wheels!
What boredoms these steel miniatures brought me! What tortuous hours of pretending I had fun! To while away the time, I pretended to know what deep pleasure was meant to be reaped from the meeting bumper-to-bumper of the ambulance and the fire-truck. I hit the matchboxes once. Twice. Three times. Nothing. Was this what was meant to play? As a boy? To presume pleasure from destruction? Everyone else seemed to get along fine.
In the meantime, all I could imagine were the people inside the cars: an old woman, with a heart attack, and her one remaining son holding her hand while the siren wailed her wail throughout the city, doctors scrambling for the syringe that had been flung by the hit, a husband on vacation who would hear this news only after this news was done, and old, and cold. Firemen and their hoses, a couple walking the dog, arguing at the side of the street, a child at the back of the car already wanting to go home, but he was not yet home, so he slept.
And always, the house. There. At the corner of the room. The doll-house, with its teeming flock of guests at a party, and the napkins folded, and the food served, and everyone waiting for the host to arrive. Only the host couldn’t get in. He, who owned this pink two-storied doll house. Because it was locked; the windows closed. And no one was allowed to approach its porch, not especially that young boy in the corner holding the trucks with such dainty fingers, thinking the point of the game was to have the wheels as clean as they had started, and the bumpers flawless, and the cars arranged in neat lines to form a village. In play time. On a bright Wednesday morning. For the boys.
In one of our house’s old closets, I once found an old doll, thin and dusty and in a black and red kimono. And although I knew it was owned by none of us, I also knew it was mine, or at least meant for me. It had long hair and small eyes—lines that were merely drawn on a wooden face. I didn’t know what expression it held: joy, delight. Dolls were meant to be delightful and their owners delighted. I had found it so perhaps the delight was meant to be mine, or at least wished for me.
Apparently, a friend of my mom’s had heard she had just given birth, so she sent her a gift. She had thought the new child was a girl, so she had sent this doll. How did she know? This invisible godmother who lived miles away from any reliable news to reach her, except the news of a birth, and only in its strict generalities: that it happened. Her friend had given birth. Certainly any child born with eyes would seek a replica of itself. How did she know? How did she know that I would seek this shape?
People knew; they always did. Actually, it only took just a few moments. In the case of this young boy, that he was one of those odd ones: sons who appeared in some families, whose movement was shaped less by muscle than by dream, less by time than by music. Whose face was one’s mask, studded with jewels. Here, the arm was not an arm but a long beautiful sash, and the head not a head of hair, but of lights. And silence and stillness was merely a prelude to a startling performance. Our bedroom hall, was not just a hall, it was a runway.
Long before the runner leaps at the sound of the gun, there is a crowd waiting. There is a line waiting to be crossed and a gun that marks the beginning of a long trek toward the end. What was to be done? And how? And why did I know perfectly well, at the start my error? The outsider is always preceded by the rules that shape its transgression. The body, its beholder. The boy and his mistake.
People knew what they saw. They knew what they could not see. And I knew what had been seen because of this, by this trick of the mirror. I was not part of the picture. If ever I was a part of it, I was not even landscape or background, but the red smudge behind the tall full figures, the one that allowed the aimless viewer of the world to distinguish between human and tree, son and daughter, far and near. I had become perspective, nowhere and everywhere, necessary, and invisible.
Simple rules of the simple world! How could one not know this: where to put spoon and fork, how to speak, move. In a party of families, where the unwritten seating arrangements for the ladies and the men were, and who were expected to be left standing and waiting for their turn. Marriage and progeny and religion and the long list of uncles and aunts in whose wombs the lines ended, whose one persistent question in family reunions would be: so where is the girl? Yes, where is she.
Here was a body that was not a body, because it moved differently. That it wanted differently is another story.
I tried ripping the wallpaper once, when I was seven. A classmate had accidently entered my room and thinking he had entered the room of a girl’s, asked me why I had never mentioned I had a sister.
I started with the edge of the wallpaper that was nearest my bed,t he one I would see at night when I turned to the wall when I was about to sleep. I wanted to start with the orange petal whose edge was already beginning to peel on its own volition, whose own wish seemed to be to unfurl, waiting for me to begin, to finish the task of this long, surreal withering.
But I didn’t want to see the mess this rip would make. In a fit of tears I started to tear through the imagined foliage, but I couldn’t bear to see what lay behind it: the cement wall, scarred where the paste had touched it, dirty and cold, impartial in its judgment of this room and whatever it was that held this house together.
I could imagine the distress this disaster would make. My mother in a rage. My father baffled. Everyone wanting an explanation I did not want to make. I could not. My brother, silent.
To be a guest at one’s house is to have a new set of sheets everyday without ever having your name on it. To have a room of one’s own but only temporarily. You had a seat at the feast but only at its edge.
From here, everything has always been crystal clear: you knew the rules of the game, because you had failed it. Its proper joys. Its strict and measured applauses.
Although nothing here belongs to you in their proper names, you know them all too well: the red roof, its high beams, the door’s edges. The room at the corner where the sun at dawn hit it brightest. The house. This one.
You also know the correct directions for your return. Because to be a guest in one’s house is to live in a room knowing you will lose it. To face a mirror that has memorized your shape enough to break it. To know the right time, the perfect time to leave it.
First published in the Philippines Free Press, January 2007. Received second prize in the Philippines Free Press Awards (Essay).