photo by Huy Proshoot
My dad told me that I was the Isaac to his Abraham over dinner. He was looking at me across the dining table and scratching his beard absentmindedly. Then, without any change of expression, he started crying into his rice–real soap opera quality tears. It scared the shit out of me.
“Did one of your sheep die?” I asked.
“No, my son. I just hope God doesn’t ask me to sacrifice you.” He wiped his nose on the sleeve of his robe.
“I hope he doesn’t, either.”
My mom couldn’t even put on an amused expression anymore, which, in all honesty, was a relief because her smiles rollercoastered from sympathetic to frozen in a really stomach-churning way. She looked at me with worn-out eyes, but there was no alarm in them. My dad had never tried to tie me up and stick a knife in my throat, and I didn’t think he could even manage it. He was skinny as the beggars who knock on your car window while you’re stuck in Manila traffic. My dad used to roll down the window and grab their wrists while insisting that God would provide for them.
“Don’t fear death for the gates of Heaven await you!” he would shout, often still holding on to their arms while the car drove off.
Later, he began giving them his business cards with his name and information about his weekly outdoor sermons. They were the same ones he had previously printed up for the Philippine presidential elections in 1986. My dad was what they called a nuisance candidate, but he really wasn’t that much of a nuisance, though. He didn’t make a racket like the real pests, the ones who handed in their applications at the Comelec office accompanied by musicians and aging movie stars so that they could be in next day’s newspapers.
My dad did make an entrance in his white robes, leaning on his staff and carrying a lamb in one arm, but he didn’t stay around for interviews. He just calmly handed in his certificate of candidacy and got back in the car, where my mom and I were waiting with the engine running.
The next day, my mom got our helper, Nora, to buy a copy of every local newspaper, but my dad’s pictures only appeared in a couple of tabloids, and they got his name wrong. My mom hugged me in relief and said, “I’m sorry,” but I was still pissed off at her for letting my dad do it in the first place. I spent a week after that making a point not to eat my lunch and enjoying the look on her face when she opened up my lunchbox to see the food she’d made spoiled and untouched. I had to stop though, because my friends’ leftovers sucked.
I was ten then, and I’d only recently realized that there was something wrong with my dad. Maybe I was just dumb. Maybe it was because I’d already known too much about the world or maybe not enough. Or maybe it was just that other adults didn’t seem that normal, either.
Take my high school principal, Father Cortes. During Friday confessions, he always made us tell him how many times we’d masturbated during the week, and we had to describe what we did before he’d let us go with a dozen Our Fathers. Once, I told him that I hadn’t done it at all that week. He called me a liar and punished me by handcuffing my hands together for an entire day. Good thing I never took dumps in school.
I didn’t lie to Father Cortes, though. The Sunday before, I’d overheard my grandmother speculate that my dad had masturbated too much when he was a kid, and it made him weak in the head. Since I started masturbating when I was twelve, it meant I’d been regularly ejaculating my brains out for four years already. That whole week, I was afraid to even wash my dick because I didn’t want to mess up whatever was left in there.
The day I got handcuffed, I checked out the Encyclopedia Britannica in the library with my friend, Macbeth Lim, but someone had torn out the pages on masturbation and reproductive systems. Macbeth suggested asking the guidance counselor, but Mr. Banayat called my dad “troubled” once, so he’s obviously a moron. You could call my dad a lot of things, but he wasn’t troubled. It’s other people who were troubled by him, especially Mr. Banayat.
Mr. Banayat called me into his office so often, you’d think he had a crush on me. He would sit there with his coffee breath and tell me it was okay to feel embarrassed about my dad.
“I know. Isn’t that part of being a teenager?” I said. Everyone in school was embarrassed by their parents. Macbeth couldn’t stand that his father still wore his clothes from the 70s because he was too cheap to throw them out. The only time Macbeth got so mad that he tried to punch me was when I called his dad Mr. Riptide because of his moustache. Macbeth was sweating and his glasses kept fogging up, and I laughed so much, I thought I’d puke.
“Some more than others,” Mr. Banayat said. He had a way of smiling and nodding without looking into your eyes, kind of like a dolphin. “It’s okay to admit your feelings, Ozzy. You’re not betraying your father by being honest. After all, isn’t there a reason why you never use your full name?”
If Mr. Banayat were completely wrong all the time like Father Cortes, I probably wouldn’t have cared. But he kind of got me there, except he wasn’t exactly right either, and that made me furious. It’s true my dad could have named me something other than Hospital but I knew a pair of twins named Rolls and Royce, and come on, Macbeth. The problem is that once you’ve got it in your head that there’s something wrong with a person, everything they do becomes suspect.
I said just under my breath, “Fuck off.”
Mr. Banayat acted like he didn’t hear anything. He kept nodding and smiling at me, like he knew something secret about me. But I was the one who knew an actual secret of his, that he spent ages in the faculty room combing over his bald spot and spraying his hair in place. I put on my grimmest serial killer face, and after a few minutes, Mr. Banayat wrote something in his notebook and said, “You can go, Ozzy.”
I tried to read what he’d written but couldn’t figure out his prissy handwriting. It didn’t matter; it’s not like he knew anything important, and I didn’t care, anyway.
I worried about going crazy for another few days, but my anxiety burned out mostly due to laziness. It’s a lot of work to stay stressed, and besides, my best relaxation method was to masturbate, so I went back to my regular schedule. I also figured that everyone else was jerking off as much as I was, maybe even more. So if my grandmother was right, then I wouldn’t be the only one with scrambled brains when I got older. And who knows? Maybe my dad’s problem was the exact opposite. Maybe he didn’t masturbate enough when he was young. Maybe all that stress built up in him and then turned into the religion bomb that exploded all over us.
I decided to ask my dad about his masturbation habits when he was a teen. I could always talk to him about all kinds of things as long as I didn’t expect a straight answer.
He was tending to his small flock in our backyard when I found him. Back when I was a kid, he had more than a dozen sheep, but they stank and left shit everywhere. My mom put her foot down and said my dad had to take responsibility for them, which meant cleaning up their shit, feeding them, and sometimes, grooming them. Although it was impossible to get my dad to do anything he didn’t want to, he gave the sheep away one by one until he reached a number that he could handle by himself.
My mom must have shocked him when she got upset over the sheep. She usually never got in the way of his interests. My grandmother was pretty grateful to her for not leaving my dad when he started wearing a robe and preaching in the mall. But what else could she have done? Of course she had to stay with him, she already had me, and there was no way she could raise me on her own.
“Dad,” I said before touching my dad’s elbow. He was jumpy sometimes and would whirl around with his staff ready to knock you on the head, but not today. All he did was look up from the sheep he was grooming and beam at me with “My son.”
The thing about my dad, he always seemed surprised and happy whenever he looked at me, like I was a puppy he was allowed to keep.
“Dad, did you masturbate a lot when you were my age?”
My dad closed his eyes and frowned. He said, “Onan’s sin was one of disobedience.”
“So, did you?”
My dad suddenly grabbed my hand and pulled me down to squat next to him. He said urgently, “I was sinner for a long time, Hospital. And I’m still a sinner, it never ends even though I try so hard.” My dad began to cry. “The sins don’t stop accumulating.”
I patted my dad on the shoulder. “It’s okay, Dad. Sins happen.”
He wouldn’t be comforted, though. He kept crying as he sat among his sheep. “I’m sorry. I don’t want to disappoint you,” he sobbed out.
Maybe I hadn’t masturbated all my stress away that week but out of nowhere, I felt a slap of anger. “It’s too late to disappoint me, Dad. I was born disappointed.” I didn’t even know what I meant by that, it just sounded cool in my head. I’d never lied to my dad before, but this felt close.
My dad nodded like he understood. “You didn’t cry when you were born. That’s how I knew God had chosen me. You were the sign.” He smiled through his tears.
“Dad,” I said. I started pinching him on his arm the way I used to when I was a kid and I wanted him to stop carrying me. He flinched from the pain but didn’t move his arm away.
My mom arrived from work then and came out to check on my dad. She told me to go into the kitchen for a snack while she stayed outside to talk to him. I ate the corned beef sandwich that Nora had made and watched my mom’s expressions develop like the plot of a short story. Introduction: patience, rising action: mild irritation, climax: anger, falling action: guilt, ending: resignation.
When she came into the kitchen, she said, “Don’t upset your father. Just because you’re angry at him doesn’t mean you can make him cry.”
“I’m not angry at him.” I was getting tired of how adults were always telling you what your emotions are even when they’re wrong. “Don’t blame me for what you’re feeling.”
My mom stared at me as though she was looking for someone who wasn’t there anymore. We usually talked about mundane things when it came to my dad, like how I had to get him in for a bath or convince him to trim his beard. We never talked about what we thought of him or wondered to each other if he would ever change.
One time, my mom did tell me what my dad was like when they just got married. He’d always been a little weird, but she said she found him entertaining and different from everyone else. She hadn’t wanted a regular Chinese Filipino husband, she told me, but she didn’t specify what she ended up getting instead.
All of our old family pictures were happy ones, though: my dad still with a regular haircut and clothes, my mom smiling, and me just being a kid. My relatives said that during that time, everyone could already tell that something was wrong with my dad. But if it was so obvious, then how come I couldn’t see anything until it was too late?
Maybe I should have realized sooner that most fathers didn’t go outside wearing robes and preaching to beggars. But no one told me that it wasn’t normal, and no one still could give a good reason why my dad should stop.
It wasn’t like my dad went around yelling gibberish because his sermons were actually pretty good. He considered them more like motivational speeches, and he put a lot of pressure on himself to write meaningful ones. He told me all the time, “Jesus is the most successful motivational speaker in history.” Depending on the day, this made him feel either really enthusiastic or really depressed.
The sermons took place early Sunday mornings at Rizal Park where a lot of homeless people gathered. It was my mom who made him agree to the place and time, and at first, my dad got upset when my mom told him that he wasn’t allowed to preach anywhere else.
“You’re interfering with my mission! It’s my duty to share the Word as much as I can!” He sulked for a week, then he seemed to forget about it, and the sheep were groomed and clean once more. Of course, my dad didn’t actually stick to the agreement. Nora was pretty religious and believed in things like faith healers, and she was sure that my dad was an actual saint, so she let him sneak out to preach at other places.
A few days before my fifth attempt at running away, I saw him preaching at the Nayong Pilipino cultural park. I was there on a school field trip, which I usually skipped, but this was a special one because we were going with girls from St. Margaret’s Academy.
Macbeth and I managed to evade our teachers and tag along with a group of girls that included Rachel Co, who let me walk so close to her that our hands occasionally brushed against each other. Each time it happened, it was as though I’d been tickled for hours until I felt like I was being cut with knives–the entire process compressed into one moment.
We were heading towards the replica of Mayon Volcano when I heard my dad’s voice. He must have been feeling confident that day because he was giving a new sermon about Job that he’d only practiced a couple of times before.
When we turned the corner, I saw him in the middle of a group of old people with Cottonbud, the smallest and most docile of the sheep. Macbeth said casually, “Hey, let’s go somewhere else, there’s too many people here.”
But the girls had already seen him, and one of them said, giggling, “Who’s that?”
It’s always the ugly fat ones who are dumb. “That’s my dad, bitch,” I said.
The girls faced me with uncertain smiles, not sure if I was joking. I met Rachel’s eyes, and the corners of her lips dropped.
“I’m going to talk to him for a minute.” I started walking towards my dad, and I heard Macbeth call out behind me, “Ozzy, come back.”
The crowd was denser in the front, with a bunch of old ladies holding prayer books and rosaries nodding along to my dad’s words. I guess he had fans.
“Dad,” I said loudly. A few people shushed me, and I raised my voice even more. “Dad!”
My dad turned his head towards me, still talking about Job’s faith, and his expression didn’t change as he stared at me.
“Dad, I’m here,” I said.
My dad’s eyes stayed on me for a few moments, and then he looked away without a single pause in his sermon. I wasn’t sure what to do so I stayed for a little longer, waiting to catch his attention again. I thought about calling out to him once more, but in the end, I decided to just return to where Macbeth and the girls were still waiting. I kept glancing back but my dad never looked in my direction.
Rachel asked me, “Is that really your dad?”
“Yeah.” Suddenly, she didn’t seem as pretty as she used to, and our hands bumping together as we walked was as irritating as accidentally touching a stranger’s sweaty back. “Sometimes.”
Like the previous four times I ran away, my last attempt was something I decided on the spur of the moment, although I made sure to do it before exams so I wouldn’t have to study. Since I wasn’t mentally prepared, I took too long deciding what to bring–Nirvana, Slayer, Metallica, Pearl Jam and the Smashing Pumpkins CDs, The Killing Joke, The Dark Knight Returns, The Watchmen, Uncanny X-Men issues 207, 212 and 213, the copies of Sandman that I hadn’t given back to Macbeth, my complete set of Belgariad, bankbook, passport, towel, extra socks–and I had to eat my breakfast in the car while my mom drove me to school.
“Why do you have two backpacks?” she asked when she dropped me off.
“I have to return some things I borrowed,” I said. I had no problem with lying to my mom.
Macbeth asked me the same question in class. I hadn’t planned on telling anyone, but I didn’t see anything wrong with telling him since we were supposed to be best friends. “I’m running away again.”
“Where are you going this time?” I think it was the third time I ran away that I stayed over at Macbeth’s house. His parents drove me home the next morning, and no one really believed that I’d run away because I was only ten then. They thought that I’d just wanted to sleep over but hadn’t asked permission.
“Uh…I might go to Batangas and live on the beach for a while.” I actually hadn’t decided yet, which was why I was still in school. I figured that I could just disappear after class was done for the day.
“What are you going to do there?” Macbeth looked envious. He didn’t have the balls to do anything drastic. The most adventurous thing he’d ever done was cheat at Dungeons & Dragons.
“Swim, learn to scuba dive, meet some girls…maybe I’ll finally write my comic book.”
I should have been more careful that day, but the thought that it would be my last day of school forever made me reckless. I kicked Jefferson Tan in the back after lunch period for saying that I shouldn’t read too many comic books because I might try jumping off the roof wearing a cape around my neck since I had a family predisposition for being crazy.
He fell forward and hit his face on the floor and got a bloody nose. For a moment, I considered just leaving then, grabbing my backpack–the one with the important stuff, not the one with my schoolbooks–and jumping the wall. But everyone else was too afraid to help him, so I had to take Jefferson to the infirmary myself.
I didn’t think he’d say anything about me running away to the school nurse, but I guess he was too much of an ungrateful asshole to worry about being beaten up again.
Mr. Banayat came for me during Chinese Language class. Kelvin Ang, the guy who sat behind me, woke me up with a poke and hissed, “Banayat’s here, better act like you have a stomachache and make a run for it.”
I did think hard about escaping as I got up. The year before, a freshman had jumped out of his classroom window, climbed down a tree and managed to get halfway across the soccer field before the P.E. teacher caught him. I’d outrun Mr. Santiago before, so I knew I could make it out of the school. But I didn’t do it.
Everyone in class stared at me, some in sympathy, most in curiosity and a few shitheads smirking behind their composition notebooks. Teacher Lin mumbled blearily, “What’s going on?” in Mandarin to the class.
“Mr. Banayat said he wanted to talk to Hospital,” Miguel Mangabay explained helpfully. He was the best Chinese speaker in class, putting the rest of us to shame because he was pure Filipino and didn’t even speak it at home.
“Why is he disturbing my class? Can’t he wait?” Teacher Lin grumbled as he turned back to the blackboard. “In my youth, we didn’t waste any time with this talking nonsense. You used a cane on naughty children and then back to lessons.”
Teacher Lin started writing again, pausing whenever he had to fart. He had a gas problem, and you could always tell when he was farting when the chalk started to stutter in his hand from the force of his expulsions. Teacher Lin would freeze until he was done and then continue as usual. I didn’t laugh at him like other people. At least he was honest about what he was doing.
On the way to his office, Mr. Banayat cheerfully said, “I heard that you’re planning to run away. That’s quite a serious decision to make.”
I didn’t respond, just looked straight ahead. What was the use of making conversation? It didn’t matter what I had to say, anyway.
Mr. Banayat opened the door to his room, and my mom was sitting in my usual chair. Her eyes were red and she teared up again when she saw me. “Ozzy,” she crooned. “Ozzy.” She only ever called me “Ozzy” when she wanted to remind me that she loved me. She never pronounced it correctly; she made my name sound like “Hossy”, but then maybe that’s what she meant.
“No one’s angry at you,” my mom said.
“Why would anyone be? I didn’t do anything wrong.” Then I thought about Jefferson but he deserved it.
“Of course, of course,” Mr. Banayat said hastily. He sat behind his desk and beamed at me, and then my mom, like he could only smile at people one at a time. “The important thing is that Ozzy knows that he doesn’t have to run away from his problems. What you need is communication.” He waited expectantly, as if I was going to suddenly break down and confess.
“What do you want, Ozzy?” my mom asked.
Yes, let’s start with that. I wanted a girlfriend. I wanted Rob Liefeld to quit drawing chicks like he’d never seen one before and guys like they were made of balloons. I wanted Macbeth to return my notebook with the stories I wrote about the Transformers back in Grade 5. I wanted easy things. There wasn’t anything else worth wanting.
“I want to eat something,” I finally sighed. “I just felt like having an adventure, but I’m not going to run away now.”
Mr. Banayat looked disappointed, and my mom looked relieved. She said to Mr. Banayat, “If it’s okay with the school, I’ll just take Hospital home now. His father is waiting in the car for us.”
She explained to me while we were walking to the car that my father had been too afraid to go to Mr. Banayat’s office with her. “He was worried that you’d already left the school. He didn’t want to wait in the office only to find out that you were gone. He didn’t think he could handle the shock.”
I guess my dad was lucky my mom could read his mind because there was no way he could have said all of that. I slid next to him in the backseat, throwing my backpacks in the passenger seat. My mom must have been in a rush when she picked my dad up because his hair was uncombed and his robes were dirty. My dad jumped and said, “My son has returned! My lost son!”
He hugged me and put his hands on the sides of my face, earnestly saying, “God has punished and then blessed this wretched man. He has returned you to me to show me that I am forgiven for my sins, Hospital. We must slaughter a calf to celebrate!”
“Okay, there’s a drive-thru McDonald’s over at Greenhills mall,” I said.
My mom started up the car in silence. I knew she was waiting for me to say something, so I said, “I left most of my comic books behind. I was worried you’d throw them away.”
She said, “Your dad would have wanted to keep them.” She looked at me in the rearview mirror and added, “He’s good at taking care of things.”
“Yeah,” I said, looking back at my school as we drove away. There would be a lot of questions tomorrow. I was sure no one was paying attention in class at all; they were all probably speculating on whether I was going to be hauled off to a military school somewhere. Teacher Lin was probably telling Miguel to make everyone shut up.
My dad was talking to himself softly about the sins that he still had left and what he had to do to be forgiven for them. He was holding my hand, and I eased it out and began pinching the underside of his arm, and the little red marks looked like bites.
He winced and winced until he took my hand and began to pinch me back, but his fingers didn’t leave a single trace, kind of like love.
A Glimmer Train Family Matters 2012 Honorable Mention