By Jov Almero
My dentist sticks as many fingers as she can inside my mouth while I listen to Sade. She scrapes the root canals of one of my upper molars with a ribbed metallic stick smaller than a toothpick. Her goal is to remove the deadened nerves and blood vessels. After six previous appointments spread over six months, the super potent potion she has been injecting the insides of my gums with has finally succeeded. The abscess has succumbed. This was the good news she declared with a toothy grin after taking an x-ray of my mouth, before the whole poking session. My tooth is saved, hallelujah!
Thing is, before Doc Elaine, I did not trust dentists. In fact, I never visited the same dentist twice. I thought they were as deceitful as lawyers. They sabotage their patients so that these poor souls keep coming back, keep their business going. But Doc Elaine is an entirely different creature. She doesn't walk. She tiptoes. She likes wearing these printed dresses under her white dentist's coat which does not look too white anymore. She has this big unruly hair which she refuses to tie in a bun. She smells of cigar and she herself has bad, stained teeth. Most importantly, she calls me Mister. According to her assistant, Doc Elaine is 43 years old. I'm sixteen. Six-foot-one, but still, you know, sixteen.
During my first visit, still making myself comfortable in the dentist chair and the glare of the halogen lamp just a few inches from my face, the first question Doc Elaine asked me was not something routine like what my name was or where I come from or what my parents do. Instead she asked me who I was listening to. I removed my earphones and told her I was listening to Eraserheads. She had seen them live back in 1998. I was floored. She was already going to concerts when I was still a speck in my father's balls.
You see, I was supposed to just have my teeth cleaned. Something routine. But Doc Elaine noticed the discoloration of one of my upper molars and had to do an x-ray. She discovered the tooth was beginning to rot. It was either I go through multiple sessions of root canal treatment or risk losing the tooth. I had read about root canal treatment before, during one of those warped nights online when one thing leads to another and a Google search of Ariana Grande nude somehow ends with obsessing about Mumbai's Dabbawallas. Between Ariana Grande and the Dabbawallas, there was root canal treatment. When Doc Elaine mentioned it, my balls shrunk into the size of a poppy seed. But she has a way of convincing you that it's okay and there's nothing to worry about. Before I knew it, my mouth was wide open, ready to receive whatever Doc Elaine's fingers had in store for my cavities.
Then something curious happened. Doc Elaine dropped this thing she was poking the insides of my mouth with. When she bent over to pick it up, her big hair brushed against my crotch. I was wearing one of my Loony Tunes boxers, the one with Speedy Gonzales. They were birthday gifts from dad. Speedy Gonzales rose to the occasion and when Doc Elaine's face emerged from down there, she smiled at me. It was one of those I know and it's okay kind of smiles. As soon as I got home that day I demanded mom to buy me tighty whities. For my next appointments, I ditched Eraserheads for Sade.
Cavities, that's what I inherit from mom. All of her teeth are crowned with veneers. Even her healthy teeth she had chipped off to accommodate veneers. If you removed her veneers, she would look like a gutter rat, with small pointed teeth. But she'd be a gutter rat with the most beautiful voice. You see, mom sings. Professionally that is. She performs in jazz lounges in swanky hotels along Roxas Boulevard. She covers Etta James and Billy Holiday. When she's feeling less snooty, she sings Amy Winehouse. Dad plays the piano for her. They call themselves The Sisons. That's our family name, by the way. They have gigs six nights a week and rest on Mondays, during which our house becomes a house of fog. House of Fog. That sounds better than The Sisons. But then again, The Sisons brings food to the table, pays for dentist appointments, and keeps my parents' pipe stoked, so maybe The Sisons is okay. You see my parents think of themselves as hippies. I don't know how to feel about that.
Not knowing how to feel about shit, that's what I inherit from dad. I remember when mom received that call about my grandfather dying and relayed the message to dad, dad burst into laughter. Mom was pissed. Who wouldn't be? Here you are talking to your sister with whom you haven't talked for years, about what is probably the saddest news of your entire life and your partner can't stop laughing as if he's watching Jimmy Kimmel Live. I would be pissed too. I mean mom wasn't entirely chummy with grandpa when he was alive. In fact, she rarely visited him even when he was already bedridden at the hospital. But still, her dad died. The news must have wrecked her. I was there the entire call, without my earphones on, and I was confused as fuck as to what was happening. On one side of the room there's mom crying, wait, more like howling, saying things on the phone I could barely understand. Then there's dad almost bent over in pure glee like he inhaled gazillion tons of laughing gas. At one point mom threw a wooden ashtray at him which he caught with his right hand and which he then threw at me. I caught it with both hands. Dad stopped laughing and told me one day I'd find something practical to do with my highly evolved reflexes. That was when I started laughing, too. Because the way dad said it, he sounded like Bruce Lee, saying something profound like be like water. Also, he looked like the Dalai Lama. You see, dad is bald. Maybe that's another thing I will inherit from him. While I was laughing like I inhaled gazillion tons of laughing gas, bald dad frowned at me, and veneer mom frowned at me, like seriously frowned at me, both of them, and again I was at a loss as to what was happening.
I'm listening to The Wombats but I only have an earphone on my left ear. With my right ear I listen to Doc Elaine. She tells me I'm lucky we were able to detect the problem early enough to have it remedied. She tells me I should take care of my teeth better. She tells me I should floss regularly. On her dentist's pad she writes a prescription of painkillers. She tells me to visit her if something out of the ordinary happened. I am tempted to ask what she means by out of the ordinary but I stop myself before saying something dumb. You see, when I'm with Doc Elaine, I become an entirely different person. I cannot come up with even the weakest one liners. The persistent hard-ons don't help either.
I leave Doc Elaine's office at around five in the afternoon. I go straight to the drug store for painkillers. I have always wondered about the persistent long lines in drugs stores. Are many people always sick at the same time? It's a sad, sad thought if you think of it really, really hard. The massive number of sick people. At the same time. In fact it's not something you would want to think about, especially on a Friday, especially on a cool summer afternoon. Like somewhere, someone is in so much pain and here you are just trying to make the most of your last days of summer, of your weekend.
Drug store musings make me switch from The Wombats to Coldplay. I mean early years Coldplay, the broodiest Coldplay. Yes, the Amsterdam kind of Coldplay. I'm listening to Chris Martin complain about his swerving out of control when Emma the pharmacist finally finds time for me and asks what I want. What I want, mind you. Not what I need. Like people in pain want painkillers, like it's a choice or something. I hand her my prescription and she walks over to where the shelves stand. I see her poke around boxes. She returns to the counter and tells me they ran out of 500 milligram capsules. I remove one of my earphones and she takes this as her cue to repeat herself all the way from the beginning. Thing is, I heard her even when I had both my earphones on, taking one off is just my trying to be polite. So again she tells me they only have 1000 milligram capsules which I can cut in half and which will work pretty much the same as 500 milligram capsules. She asks if I'm okay with it. You see, I've always been good at math and I don't really need the lengthy explanation on how taking half of a 1000 milligram painkiller has the same effect as taking a 500 milligram painkiller. Sure I'm sixteen but for sickness's sake, I'm six-foot-one.
I tell Emma I'm cool with it and she walks back to her shelves. This time she doesn't poke around boxes. She knows where to find what she's looking for, for what I want. She takes my painkillers to Michelle the cashier. You see, even if your items are already with the cashier, ready to be cashed out, there are still queued items with the cashier which means more waiting. So the entire process goes like this, you wait for your turn with the pharmacist, the one who looks for whatever it is you want, and then you wait for the cashier to make your purchase legit. After five, or maybe ten, minutes, my purchase reaches the end of the line and Michelle the cashier puts the items through one of those laser scanners. Emma returns to the counter to tell me the amount of my purchase and I give her one thousand pesos which she passes on to Michelle the cashier. Emma the pharmacist walks back to the counter and hands me my painkillers and a change of 800 pesos.
As I turn to leave the drug store I see an old lady talking to another pharmacist. She is holding what looks like prescription paper and her hands, they are trembling. I look closer and I see her throat go through one small wave after another, like she's desperately trying to swallow her own spit. She looks like she's about to completely melt and disappear. Meanwhile, the pharmacist seems too pleased with herself, pointing her fingers repeatedly to the paper on the old lady's hand, mouthing words I have yet to entirely hear. I move closer and remove my earphones. The pharmacist is explaining to the old lady that her money is not enough to buy all that's listed in her prescription. I am close enough to touch the old lady's shoulder and she notices my presence in no time. The old lady gives me a look that sends my guts to a sudden panic.
You see, dad was right. I reach inside my pocket for the 500 hundred peso bill from Michelle the cashier and give it to the old lady. At first, she is hesitant to take it. Maybe her reflexes are not as good as mine. But I guess she does not have much choice so she takes the money anyway. She then asks what my name is. I tell her my name is Frank, after Frank Sinatra. She tells me her husband loves Frank Sinatra. She says thank you at least five times and gives me a long tight hug. I quickly put my earphones back on and tell her it's okay and that it's not my money anyway. I then make a dash for the exit and walk as fast as I can to the nearest Starbucks.
I'm listening to Phoenix as I give my order to Tina the Starbucks barista. She repeats my order, Iced Hazelnut Macchiato for takeaway. I give her 200 pesos and tell her to keep the change. You see, it's not my money anyway. Tina asks for my name and I tell her Frank, after Frank Sinatra. As I walk over to the prep counter I hear a guy scolding James the prep person. He complains that he's been coming to this shop for years now and they still can't get his name right. He shouts his name over and over, Luis Luis Luis and not Luz not Luz not Luz. The baristas try to hide the smirk on their faces while this happens. I, on the other hand, can't stop laughing that Luz gives me the what the fuck is your problem look as he storms out of the shop. You see, he is, at most, five-foot-three.
I hear James the prep person call Frank. I take my coffee and as soon as I'm out on the street I check what Tina wrote on my cup just to make sure the name's spelled correctly. The name on my cup says Frank Sinatra. This makes me happy. Or maybe Phoenix is making me happy. Sometimes it is difficult to be entirely sure about these things.
Phoenix and my Hazelnut Macchiato keep me company as I walk from Emerald all the way to EDSA Shang. I only have a hundred bucks on me and taking a cab isn't an option. After twenty minutes of strolling, I reach the air-conditioned comforts of Shangri La Mall and ride one escalator after another to reach the fifth floor where the Cineplex is. The queue looks like a queue for an interplanetary transport before the end of the world. Everyone looks like they are in pain and want painkillers.
The film I want to see is called Dancer in the Dark by this filmmaker called Lars Von Trier. It stars Bjork which by the way shares the name of my future firstborn. I have seen the film on my laptop before. I just want to see it on the wide screen this time. Thing is, I like Bjork. But I don't like Lars Von Trier. You see, I've seen a few of his other films and I don't exactly know what to make of them. Dancer in the Dark is an entirely different creature. It's a musical.
A guy wearing a sweat-stained black shirt takes the spot behind me and taps me on the shoulder. I turn to him and remove the earphone from my left ear. He asks for my name and I tell him Frank, after Frank Sinatra. He then asks how long I've been in the queue and I tell him I've been here for almost an hour. He asks if I think we'll be able to get tickets and I tell him I'm not sure. I tell him no one can be entirely sure when it comes to these things. I ask him if this is the first time he's seeing one of these free festival films. He says yes and that he's never had time for these things before. His wife died of cancer just a few months back. I'm listening to The Weepies with one ear while I'm having this conversation. I remove the earphone from my right ear and tell him I'm sorry. I really am sorry. Thing is, when people talk to you about cancer, there's no other way to feel but sorry. So I tell him I'm sorry and I try to look sad so that my face, too, looks sorry, because, well, I really am sorry for his wife dying of cancer. You see, I am sorry that cancer exists. My endless apologies prompt this guy to extend his right hand to me and introduce himself as Henry. I laugh and I cannot stop laughing and the more I try to stop laughing the funnier the whole thing becomes. I see Henry become more and more confused and when finally he smiles, the weakest I've ever seen in my entire sixteen years, again I tell him I'm sorry I'm laughing too hard, and that I remember something very funny and it's not even about him.
You see, Henry shares my tone-deaf grandfather's name. Grandpa Henry owned stacks of vinyl records. When he died he left his vinyl records to my aunt who could not care less about music. My mother was furious when she learned about grandpa's will. She could not care less about the farm in Batangas or the house in Pasay. All she wanted was those vinyl records. I wanted those vinyl records, too. What I don't want is Grandpa Henry's name.
The line starts to move and Henry and I move along like longtime buddies. We reach the box office and May the ticketing lady tells us they ran out of tickets. We can still queue right outside the cinema just in case there'll be available seats. You see, they reserve seats for VIPS and when these assholes don't show up they give the seats away to those who are patient enough to wait. I'm not patient enough to wait any more than I already have. So is Henry who asks me if I would like to see real dancers in the dark. It's nine on a Friday evening and the summer is almost over and I'm not yet ready to go home. So I say yes and cut Fiona Apple short.
The bouncers, way taller and bigger than I am, let us in without question. We enter this dimly-lit expanse of a room with tables separated from each other by low walls covered in leather. At the far end of the room, where everyone's gaze is fixed upon, is the stage where a girl in a Japanese schoolgirl uniform dances to the tune of Britney Spears. We occupy the table closest to the stage and are served a bottle of Scotch just after a few minutes of landing our bums on the cushioned seats. This makes me feel VIP.
The girl on stage does not take anything off except for the ribbon on her hair, her shoes, and her printed socks. She teases us with her cute little toes before walking off stage. Another girl, this time dressed as Betty Boop, appears on stage and dances to the tune of Westlife. Henry asks me if I've been to this kind of place before and I tell him I haven't and that I'm not even of legal age to be here. He then asks how old I am and I tell him I'm sixteen. He laughs and tells me I must be kidding.
More girls parade on stage after Betty Boop. They all have this absent look to their eyes while they dance away their three minute turn in the spotlight. As much as I want to I just can't wrap my head around the logic of the sequences. After the teenybopper playlist, another batch of girls dances to a medley of divas. Mariah Carey and Celine Dion and Whitney Huston segue into each other and at one point the DJ is able to throw Sinead O'Connor in the mix and to this I laugh so hard. Laugh at the randomness of it all. After the Sinead set, a girl with orange hair appears on stage wearing a little black fishnet dress over orange undies. Yes, like the unholiest Holly Golightly. She starts to dance to a rather suggestive remix of Bizarre Love Triangle. Thing is, unlike the girls before her, this girl dances like she's on stage at the Araneta.
Henry must have noticed the way I look at Miss Bizarre Love Triangle that while she's still on stage, Henry calls for a waiter and whispers something to his ear. After her set, Miss Bizarre Love Triangle walks straight over to our table. To this apparition my mouth opens wide but not as wide as when Doc Elaine was poking the insides of my mouth. Miss Bizarre Love Triangle greets Henry with a kiss on both cheeks and sits next to me. Henry smiles at me and tells me something I will never forget. Never fall in love with girls you meet in dark places. In response to Henry's wisdom, Miss Bizaare Love Triangle flashes her middle finger to a random spot on the ceiling. She then asks if I always wear my earphones around my neck. I answer yes and she asks who I usually listen to. I tell her Frank Sinatra.
Miss Bizarre Love Triangle's name is Samantha Robinson. She is a twenty-five-year-old sophomore Mass Communication student from Olongapo City. Samantha saw the Eraserheads' reunion concert a couple of years back. She loves her job and she thinks it is the easiest way to earn money, aside from being an artista of course. You see, she can easily become an artista with her good looks and even better moves but I guess she prefers dancing in this place. She says it's the most liberating thing she has ever done, and how she is able to send herself to school and not bother her parents for money, she has absolutely nothing to complain about. Truth be told, I am expecting a sob story. But, the thing is, Samantha is far from destitute. She even puts her right hand on my left thigh and let it rest there while she alternates between sipping from her glass of Scotch and playfully teasing my ears with her lips, like it's the most normal thing in the world.
After an hour of bizarre love triangle between Henry, Samantha and I, Samantha whispers she has something in store for me and excuses herself. On stage a half-naked girl with oversized wings is dancing to Regine Velasquez. As soon as Samantha's gone from our table, Henry tells me Samantha is the most popular girl in this place and that there have been many instances when guests fought over her. Samantha has launched countless broken bottles, flying ashtrays, and upturned tables. I ask Henry if he too likes Samantha and he tells me he does but with girls like her, it is best to pretend as if you're not interested. You see, I am only ever capable of either complete indifference or complete obsession.
Henry pours Scotch into my glass as Regine Velasquez belts her last note and the girl with wings and exposed tits exits the stage. Samantha walks back on stage and I almost flip when I hear the first few notes of Frank Sinatra's My Way.
Samantha starts her routine by bending over with her butt up in the air facing the audience. Her orange hair dangles from her head and her pretty face is framed by her long legs. She scans the guests and winks when she sees me. She goes back to an upright position, turns to her audience, and parades herself on stage in movements that send my guts swirling. Come the third verse, she slowly takes off her little black fishnet dress. Seconds before Frank Sinatra reaches his iconic line, Samantha's back is once again turned to her audience and while old Frank proclaims he did it his way, Samantha begins to unhook her bra.
With Bruce Lee moves, I slither from our table onto the stage and the guests cheer me on including Henry who whistles three times. I dance next to Samantha, trying to be as cute and seductive as I can be at six-foot-one. At first she gives me the what are you doing are you fucking crazy look but when she realizes I'm not about to let her bare her soul alone on this godforsaken stage, she gives me the most encouraging smile. We dance side by side and I start to actually enjoy myself. You see, to borrow Samantha's words, it is, well, liberating.
By the fifth verse, Samantha has stripped down to her orange panties and I, my tighty whities. When Frank Sinatra is down to his last few lines, I notice Samantha touch the waistband of her panties and pull it down little by little. I stop dancing and try to catch her eyes. She keeps on with the littlest movements of her fingers and when our eyes meet I beg her not to do it by mouthing the words please don't do it. She shakes her head and gives me the I know but it's okay look so I too start to pull down the waistband of my tighty whities little by little. Before I can fully expose myself to a horde of strange men, amidst the cheers and the whistles, one of these perverts decides to run onto the stage and give me one solid punch after another.
I am out of it for a few minutes and when I wake up the first thing Samantha asks me is whether I'm crazy or something. I shake my head and she tells me the guy who attacked me has been escorted out of the club and Henry is talking to the manager to let me off the hook. She tells me I'm lucky Henry is one of their most prized customers otherwise I'd be in big trouble for causing a scene. I am still in my underwear and I start to feel cold. Samantha helps me put my clothes back on and takes me to the men's room to have me tidied up. She asks me if I'm okay and I tell her I've never been better. She finds this funny and she tells me I'm so fucked up and she laughs and she laughs so hard I'm not sure whether I should get offended. I search for my earphones but they are not in any of my pockets so I ask Samantha if she has seen them and she tells me my earphones are the least of my concerns. I ask her to leave and I tell her I can manage on my own.
The men's room is rather fancy with at least five cubicles and a wide, well-lit mirror. I lock the main door and walk over in front of the mirror. There's a bloody gush above my left eyebrow and a cut on my lower lip. Two of my front teeth are badly chipped. They make me look like a gutter rat. I smile.
I hear Henry knock on the door, calling Frank. But, you see, I am sixteen. And I am six-foot-one. But there's no Frank in here. There was never a Frank in here. So I ignore Henry's calls and I take my painkillers from my pocket and I pop one capsule without bothering to cut it in half. In my head, a Simon & Garfunkel starts to play, on repeat.QLRS Vol. 14 No. 3 Jul 2015