Four Students - 2
Sonny was standing alone in a place called Banqueruan named after the fisherman who rows a banca to cast a net into the fishpond. Banqueruan is located at the periphery of Maliwalu City - a place so sharp a contrast - Banqueruan is devoid of movements and its sound is that of crickets alone while Maliwalu teems with millions of people and sounds. The barrio stretches from the back of San Agustin church up to the nearby town Sesmoan. Banqueruan is so silent and tranquil, one could hear the splashes of mudfish and milkfish. These fish end up in the marketplace of Poblacion. The marketplace is dominated by the animosity of the fisherman who buy and sell their catches.
Coming from Maliwalu towards Banqueruan is like strolling around barren Matabungkay and arriving in Divisoria in a matter of seconds. It may be shocking to one unaccustomed to sharp geographical and social contrasts, but for Sonny, this provides him an inexplicable comfort, he grew up amidst unexpected and rapid changes in the modern world.
He has been standing here for fifteen minutes now, mesmerized by the waters of fishponds. His mind is incessantly working, digging his past and weaving his future. His eyes are directed towards the sky as if expecting God's face among the silver clouds. Good thing he is alone because to one who had never seen him before, he looks like the poster boy of confusion in the early morning.
He stands five ten, of moderate physique. In high school, they were tasked to assume foreign nationalities. His classmates chose an Indonesian for him which he, accordingly, best represented. He resented this, not that he had anything against Indonesia, but you see, Sonny has the illusion of having gotten European looks. Is the surname Bustamante not enough proof?, he angrily asked. "I've got Spanish blood.â€
He has fair brown skin, thick eyebrows, thin lips, sunken nose, round eyes, thick and curly hair as Southeast Asian as one can be. Nobody, except perhaps his grandmother, thought him as handsome. He is the hero of his grandmother. Her influence in his mind has helped nurture and complicate his upbringing. He is conservative, as illustrated by, for example, living six to six, meaning, he can leave at six in the morning but must be back at six in the evening. One time he tried to join his little bastard friends, as his Lola says, and decided to have a beer session with them in an empty rice warehouse. By six o'clock in the evening, as was expected, his Lola got worried, informed the entire neighborhood, formed a search party and was already seeking the help of the town's police department when her flashlight beamed through a tiny hole in the warehouse where Sonny was huddled with friends, her tiny voice calling for him, much to his embarrassment.
And now at six in the morning, he finally decides to go to Manila to study. He is contemplating on how a kid like him would survive the big city, him being deep, dark, and steep. In other words - a nerd with the most undeveloped social skills. Based on his diaries, he claims himself to be difficult to dig, to see, and to climb. His best friends in this town include the corps commander of his highschool military training, who decided to take priesthood. And the nuns of Santa Clara's monastery. Well, how happy and colorful can one senior graduate get with friends like them?
What is he going to do now? Shall he leave Lola Sabel for college or stay back here? He wondered if that question was correct. Should he use â€˜shallâ€™ or â€˜willâ€™? Like, Shall I get married, have children, and die? That's what everybody is doing in this town.
Or follow Billy to priesthood, imprison himself in the church, reverently swallow hosts every hour, drink wine. That sounds okay but wouldn't that require preparing sermons everyday? And wear the cloth or cassock and never, ever bear children.That doesnâ€™t sound fun. How about joining the military? Wow. And die young in the hands of the communists, left decomposing in some garbage dump.
Sonny, at least in his young mind, will do something grand. And this grand goal, this grand crusade, this grand enterprise will not be as ordinary as taking a college degree; not as stupid as marrying at the wrong time and age; not as dangerous as joining the Philippine Armed Forces. He'll do something to be remembered forever for.
And he can do it. Sonny doesn't have big problems in life unlike the jobless and lazy stand by's in front of Lola Sabel's variety store; unlike the squatters of Smokey Mountains and Dagat Dagatan. At present, his parents are citizens of the USA. They are waiting for him to finish college so he could be petitioned as an immigrant there.
Really? But how can he leave Lola Sabel who is eighty years old now.
Lola Sabel seems ready to take another fifty years. She survived the history of the Philippines. Born at the time the Americans colonized the Philippines, she was a young girl
during the Commonwealth period which she fondly calls "peacetime. That was the time when a ganta of rice cost ten cents. She often relates to Sonny, with nostalgia, the time when the kind Americans would run after children like her, tied them inside nipa huts called elementary schools and taught them how to read and write.
"Those were the days", she recalls, "when life was easy". Sonny knows she had kept silver commonwealth coins over the years, stuffed in the ceramics buddha which is displayed beside the altar of Cristo Rey. She saved these coins since the time of the Americans. Valuable in terms of time and antiquity. Many collectors in the past have dropped by her house and offered to convert her rare coins into big cash but she would have none of it no matter how desperately they pleaded. She is set to keep her coins inside the ceramic buddha.
Her coins survived the Japanese times. Lola Sabel narrates how she was the only Filipino in their barrio who never experienced hunger and hard times during the Imperial Army Occupation. She was an expert cook, a skill the Japs loved her for. Her cooking tickled their taste buds. And she was practical. Name her two sided.Or two faced. She fed the Japs while secretly delivering military information to Filipino guerillas. She reasoned she played safe. In the middle. So when the two sides started bombing each other, she didn't care if everyone jumped into his or her own dugout. She stayed in her backyard, smoking her mango trees, unfazed by the risk of getting caught in crossfire or being hit by stray bullets. The next day, she would pick her fruits, put them in a basket and sell them in the marketplace without, of course, a care whether it was a Jap or Pinoy who bought her produce. Bah, it is their war, what will I gain from it?
Despite all these, her grandchild Sonny is her exact opposite. He is demure and modest; a small blast from a tiny firecracker would make him jump . However, looking at him closely, one would see his resemblance to her physical features.
He also got her religiosity, conservatism and industry. Added to it is his deep thinking, geeky nature. The deep thought is not from his grandma, he wrote in his diary, it was the result of his extreme loneliness. His parents left for the States when he was barely seven years old. At a young age, he wondered why his father, a successful engineer, and his mother, a well respected principal in the elementary school left their country. As a family, they led a wonderful, contented life. They never experienced hunger. They even had regular picnics at Banqueruan on Sunday afternoons. His father is now a simple carpenter and his mother is a nursing aide in the States. And they're proud of it. It puzzles him even more that the people in their barrio admire his parents for their decisions to emigrate to the US. His mind kept asking why it had to be that way. It is true they earn dollars, but will they ever find fulfillment in being a carpenter and a nursing aide? Worse if one considers the outcome in the nature and looks of his brothers they tagged with to the USA. They turned into brown jeprox or hippies and whatever he is not. It is good Lola Sabel fought for his retention. In their last days before they departed to the USA, Lola Sabel castigated them, "Hoy, Roberto and Rosario, if you want to falsify your blood and race, do it yourselves and don't tag along your children to your stupidities. Do you think your noses will turn sharper and your skin will turn whiter in the States? Never."
"But Inang", pleaded his mother, "What future will Sonny have in this country? Will he also plant mangoes and guavas in this land just like you? Will you let him grow without even seeing the difference between Makati and Quezon city?"
"Rosario", yelled the war-friendly bullish grandmother, "You won't finish your Education degree without those mangoes and guavas. Tse. You are humiliating my guavas when these are the ones you took in treating your diarrhea. That's not all. What did you use in treating your colds, stomach aches, fevers? You pretentious little woman, why canâ€™t you admit these are still your medications for your problems?"
"I use guava leaves because there is not a single doctor in this damn barrio", answered the daughter back.
"Do you know how people like you end up in the States? You'll end up like Puring who dreamt of teaching in New York. What happened? She attempted all types of monkey business. She picked up fruits and cultivated hard soils with other illegal immigrants. Sold her body for survival. She turned a whore on the streets. What is she called now in this damn town? Purikang. So degrading".
That was the last conversation between his grandmother and mother. The two parted in a not so cordial manner. Needless to say his Grandma won and he was left under the surveillance of the strict old woman. He still canâ€™t decide if he'd be thankful or regretful in staying behind. In a way yes, since Lola Sabel didn't miss a thing in bringing him up. But, there is a big BUT here, her system is a little cheap - meaning - a little outdated. For example, she detests the use of drugs and medical science in treating ailments. If you were a doctor, act like a quack and she'd listen to you better. This is one reason why he'd to take up Medicine. Lola Sabel also abhors the latest trends in technology. What does she prefer? Firewood stove, melted candles mixed with kerosene for floorwax, old fashioned clothings. All these earned him the unwelcomed tags of baduy, cheap and bakya in his barrio.