A Quarter Canvas

Borja St., Caritan Sur:

The last of the moving van left.  I had spent the morning running around the bungalow that had been home to Harold and me.  I wandered through the house to see if anything precious was left behind.  No, nothing was forgotten.  Except for the potted mums that lined the curving pathway.  They were newly-watered and weeded.  Looking up the heavens in colorful blooms.

My “sunny side up” house echoed in silence.  The sunshine yellow house earned that monicker because of my penchant for the color.   Inside, no single bric-a-brac that had filled up every nook and cranny was left.   The miniature windmill replica I bought in Bangui, Ilocos Sur, the rattan hammock that had hung in the verandah, the butaca that had soothed my aching body and soul – all were spirited away in the giant snails called “Aloha Moves It.”

Outside the house, the children played “tumbang preso” and “sha-tong.  Summer was when children played these indigenous games of tag.   Every now and then, the patpat flew in the air and the children scampered to catch this thin sliver of stick.  The morning air was punctuated by gleeful shrieks from the children. So carefree and dead to the cares of the world.   The reality reared its ugly head when an ambulant peddler hollered “taho” in the distance.  While the neighborhood maglalako shouted off her paninda for the day.

Ano ba Totoy?  Kay aga-aga magtatambay ka na naman dine sa tindahan ko?” Manang Luning’s voice boomed inside her sari-sari store.  She was asking for the nth time why Totoy loitered early in front of her store.  “Hala, dun ka sa DOTA.net magtambay,” she shooed away the teenager.  Like swatting a fly off of one’s food.

“Naku naman, Aling Luning, hindi po wi-fi area itong tindahan nyo,” Totoy retorted. He sheepishly lumbered away from the store.

A dog barked at an unseen cat.  The hum of a washing machine had started a neighbor’s day.   A balmy air blew and the clothes that hung from the clothesline flapped about madly.  They made snapping sounds.    In my mind, I had hung clothes out to dry in that clothesline, too.  I had carefully slipped shirts into plastic hangers.  I had clipped pants onto the line so they dangled there like rows of people doing headstands.  They evoked images of torsos, their arms and heads chopped off by some unseen hands.

I stood near the window for a while listening to these familiar sounds.   It seemed a cacophony of loved and hated realities of Borja Street.    As I stood in the window, I knew my co-teacher Ethel was getting ready for work.  Armed with her shoulder bag and a luggage that carried her instructional materials, she waited for the tricycle.   Nearby, George was displaying wares in his e-bookstore.   It promised another busy day for him.

Rousing myself from the reverie, I dusted off the dust and cobwebs that clung to my skinny jeans and tattered halter top. How did these silky threads reach me? I wondered.   Tracing the source of the cobwebs, I stood transfixed for a moment at the intricate web.  An industrious spider might have spun from one window grill to another when we were not looking.   I suddenly noticed the errant tears on my cheeks – and hastily wiped them.

My feet led me to the master’s bedroom – just my OC self doing her work.   I unlocked the built-in drawer I seldom opened.  I cannot even recall what was in it.  I took out a set of keys and tried each one of them.   I finally inserted one and the lock clicked open.   The air of many years escaped the moment I opened the drawer.   It was strange how the years can seep into thing.  It called to mind sepia pictures taken by a photographer who had to cover himself together with the huge camera.

A silent gasp escaped from my parched throat.  There, hidden in the back panels of the drawer, forgotten and tucked for what seemed to be ages, was Samuel’s painting.  It was a “thank you” present he gave me.    Weathered and old, the canvas smelled musty.

I took the painting out of the drawer.  I gingerly touched it, fearful by doing so it might crumble or smudge off.   It seemed cool and soft to my touch.  I turned it around.  I squinted to read the scrawled note on the edge.

“Dear Ma’am Rose, you were the powder keg that sparked my life.  Till we meet again. Your errant student Samuel”

How long has it been since the painting was given me?

Cagayan National High School, Tuguegarao City

The acacia-lined campus was abuzz.  Everywhere, academic discussion and multiple intelligence tasks filled up every classroom of the landmark high school.  I sauntered proudly to my room in the Special Program in the Arts building.  It seemed another ordinary day for me.  I looked forward to some colorful exchange of ideas with my budding artists and grandmasters.

Mune kamu ta balay na artista yra” greeted me in the stairwell.   It welcomed everyone to the abode of the SPA students.  A peep into the rooms was like a show window of aspiring dancers, singers, painters, writers and media practitioners.  It had always seemed like a preparation for the annual arts festival. Or of the local Pavvurulun.

“Yeah!!!! SPA rocks!!!” Samuel slurred as he strutted inside my classroom during recess.  Bloodshot eyes, fleeting eye contact, tottering steps- tell tale signs of intoxication.  His arm had wounds which were probably self-inflicted as he was wont to do.   I worried at the ease of how he sneaked in.  After all, “The Terminator” was known for his hawk-like vigilance at the gate.

Seeing me as I enter the classroom, Clarice my student, intercepted me.

“Teacher, amoy alak po si Samuel,” she muttered under her breath.  But it was loud enough for me to hear.   He was telling me that Samuel reeked of liquor.  Even without this information, I knew Samuel was drunk.

As if on cue, Samuel noticed my presence.  With pleading eyes and a plaintiff wail, he whimpered, “Teacher, may I just talk to Giselle? Di po nya kasi sinasagot ang mga text ko.”   He informed me of their usual lovers’ spat. Gisele had refused to answer his text messages again.

He staggered towards Giselle’s seat but he tripped on his shoelaces.  Just as soon, he vomited.

“Oh no!” Giselle screamed in embarrassment. Her scream was like a clarion call for chaos.  The class turned into a bedlam.  Everyone tried to avoid his outstretched flailing arms.  And the gooey puddle of his lunch.  Some ran to the back of the room.  A few climbed my table.  Others rushed out to call the guards.  All the while, I stood in the middle of the surging tide.

Samuel was plastered on the floor.  The room hushed into silence.  Then, like a torrent of rain, his tears came unbidden.  The silent and shameless tears that he seemed to have kept at bay fell.  It stained and wetted his immaculate uniform.   He was curled like a baby inside his mother’s womb and he sobbed inconsolably.

Trying to put some semblance of order inside my classroom, I pulled him up.  All 65 kilos of him was forcibly pulled by my small hands.  The force – or lack of it, I did not notice- sobered him.  He looked lost and embarrassed all of a sudden.  He turned to look at the faces of classmates who gawked at the spectacle.

“I am sorry.  Oh I am so sorry,” he repeated.

A whistle was sounded. The class was a Red Sea that parted to let the rushing “Terminator” in.  Two others were in tow.

“Teacher Rose, are you okay?” he asked while he surveyed the situation.  The ruckus had reached the guard house and the guidance services.  Poor Samuel, he reminded me of a prisoner walking towards the guillotine.  His shadowed face cast me a forlorn look.

“Honey, are we set?” my husband Harold’s voice brought me back from that day. Back to the present where I now sit and listened.    I smiled sheepishly for being caught unaware then I replied,” Yup, just about.”

I reached for his hand and I stood up.   As if hearing his voiceless question, I added, “It’s just that I wanted to double check the house before we left.  Then here, I remember the painting given by a former student,” I added.

Harold, noticing the cubism painting in my hands, reached out and brought it into the light.  He examined the painting of a mysterious lady with a poignant sad look on her eye.   An empty rattan crib before her.  The painting seemed to echo my disillusionment of trying to conceive for the longest time.  It seemed a dirge to my failed attempts at motherhood.  Bittersweet and the pain unfathomed.  A silent scream that I have quieted.

“Dear Ma’am Rose, you were the powder keg that sparked my life.  Till we meet again. Your errant student Samuel” Harold read.  He stood silent for a few moments.  Lost, too, in the message that the painting whispered.

“How long has it been since he was advised by the school to transfer?” he asked.

Again, nostalgia beckoned me.  A wave that rushed back to shore after straying in the ocean.   The memories came back unbidden after five years.

After thorough investigation and several “call parents,” Samuel was advised to leave the school.  He violated rules and regulations.  His classmates were somber on the day he said goodbye.  I had a fleeting remembrance of him when he first came to my freshmen class.  All innocence and raw Ben-Cab talent.  I knew then that with proper tutelage and constant practice, he would be a grandmaster later.  But where had all the innocence and that raw talent gone?  What happened in between, I sadly pondered.

I recalled the week after he transferred school.  I had my classroom all by myself.  The periodic exams were set for the next day hence classrooms had been thoroughly cleaned.  Classes were shortened for the purpose.   The smell of newly-applied floor wax hung heavy in the air.  The armchairs were one seat apart.   All systems go for the exams.

I sat to enjoy my late lunch of lechon carajay, eggplant omelet and tomatoes laced with boneless CK bagoong.  An iced cold soda perspired beside my Tupperware.  And the chewy yema I made the night before promised sweet heaven.  That sumptuous feast of deep fried pork and fish sauce plus the caramel could lull one to sleep on that balmy afternoon.

The birds chirped on the ancient acacia trees that dotted the campus.  The lilting melody of the ice cream vendo machine could be heard in the distance.  The orbit fan hummed and it joined their symphony.  Ah, one of life’s simple pleasures, I sighed.

Suddenly, I heard a soft- it not, timid- knock on the door.  Samuel stood outside it.   He entered the room carrying a big package wrapped in newspaper.  He looked his usual old self – immaculate but different school uniform, polished black leather shoes, sun browned face and Gatsbied hair.   He walked his cocky walk and a shy smile crept on his lips.   I saw a glimpse of the freshman that he was three years before.  He came near me and off-handedly gave me the package.

“What is this?” I asked in surprise.  I reached for my soda to wash down the last of the carajay.

“It’s a gift, teacher.  Open it,” he replied.

“Oh you shouldn’t have bothered.”  I felt uneasy for what looked like an extravagant gift. But I fumbled to unwrap the gift.  I looked at him.  He gazed out of the windows –avoiding my gaze.  I waited for him to say something.   I knew he had much to say.

“I thank you for never giving up on me, Ma’am” he went on after what seemed like forever.  “I realized now that I needed your criticism and your pieces of advice. You kept on at me, despite the others giving up.  That had kept me grounded.  It put some sense into my muddled head.”  He smiled shyly when he said this.

“Oh, that’s what teachers are for,” I replied.  I might have sounded flippant to him.  Disbelief on the sudden change probably showed in my face because a cloud flitted on his black eyes.  But he regained his ground and continued.

“Maybe, God wisely designed the human body so that man can never kick his own self nor pat his own back. Through my rebellious period, you were my parola.

I tried to swallow the air that blocked my throat.  Emotions rendered my tongue immobile.  To be compared to a lighthouse echoed in my head.  I tried to say a wisecrack or a sensible advice.  Nothing came handy.

“Oh by the way teacher, the painting is mine.”  With those words, he walked away as quickly and as silently as he entered.

“Earth to Rose.  Paging my dear Rose.   Whoever saw my sweet Rose, please direct her to where I stand.”

The voice of my husband reverberated in the silent room.  His voice and his smiling face jolted me from my reverie – the second time that day. I noticed that I have been revisiting the past.   I laughed so happily that he couldn’t help but join me in my laughter.

“Tell me honey,” I asked Harold, “What did my student mean when he said I was a powder keg?”

Kissing my hand and holding me in his arms, Harold answered, “Maybe because you had stepped on stage in his darkest moment and had led him out of the dark, then you stepped down and watched him move forward.  But your single act of gesture has become the ember that will keep him on the right track wherever life leads him.”   That made sense.

“And maybe, just maybe,” he said sotto voce, and with a twinkle in his eyes,” because you never seemed to grow old, a fresh red rose ever since.  The guidance you showed had ignited his passion to live.  And hopefully, his passion for the visual arts because he seemed to have lots of promise.”

A wistful sigh escaped from me.    In the distance, a bus sounded its horn.  A neighbor’s dog barked at the playing children.  Manang Luning’s voice competed with the local radio station.  The din sounded so familiar that it brought back memories of happy years spent in my “sunny side up.”  I don’t know when I started thinking of it as my “sunny side up” home but it always warmed my heart.

The memories came back so vividly.  A movie reel that had gone backwards.   I could hear the sounds and see the pictures again.   It brought to my mind the nights when there were power outages.   Everyone was outside his house and just sat under the moonlit night.  The mosquitoes were swatted as everyone swapped local tales and rumors. The balut vendor would pass by and offer his pampalakas ng tuhod  na balut or penoy as aphrodisiacs for the men.  The ubiquitous barbecue stood laden with barbecue, hotdog, isaw, betamax, and iud.  I saw the children playing hide and seek or san pedro till fatigue and sleep beckoned them.  The Portable Play Station and the PC games were unknown then.

It replayed scenes during summers where the popular halo-halo stands dissipated the sweltering heat.  If not swarming these ice havens, the children used to have a grand time climbing up the fruits trees. They would help themselves to Lolo Ifan’s mangga, duhat and kallupit.  The old folks would do their siesta under the trees or played tong-its.

 Again in my de javued mind, I recall Nino, Julius, and Jessem playing ungoy-unggoyan while Chloe and her sister Jiya straddled their trainer bikes.   Everyone seemed unmindful of the impending rocket launch of North Korea that was predicted to affect Cagayan, Isabela and Polilio Islands.   Everyone, except the local officials who made frenzied media interviews.   And issued the call for the no sail, no fishing and no fly zones.

But it was time to move into our new home a block away from the old one.   It was time to savor the good life after a couple of years eking out a living.   It was time to quit renting the “sunny side up.” And it was time to leave the painting to the new lessee of the house – Samuel’s long lost father.

Sometimes, life is serendipitous. Who would have thought that the man who wanted to rent the “sunny side up” was his father?   Again, I looked back on that meeting with Samuel’s father.   Seeing him again who accompanied his father earlier that week – pieced together the puzzle.

“My wife and I parted ways.  Looking back, the blow was hard for Samuel to understand,” he broached.

“So he rebelled,” I said softly. My heart aching for those children caught in the crossfire of dysfunctional marriages.   It was sad how more and more families throw in the towel and quit the fight for family.

Talking to him for some time that day opened the door.  It answered the questions that crossed my mind when his son stopped painting and quit being top student.  It filled the gaps of those times when nobody responded to my “call parents”- those letters that requested parents’ meeting.

Samuel that day, a picture of his old self, reassured me,” I am okay now, Ma’am. Life may not be fair but it is still life I would like to live.”

In my mind, I watched them walk away together.  A father and a son trying to be family despite being a far cry from the ideal.

We had spent our days and nights in this house.  I had slept on my butaca, its rocking motion soothing me on those turbulent nights when I had to come to terms with my miscarriages.  The motion was like my mind, moving from today to yesterday and back.  But the present has a clearer purpose now.

With light steps and a radiant smile brought about by knowing I had helped a poor child get his acts together despite his dysfunctional family, I hooked my arm onto Harold’s arm.  We walked out of the old house and headed east to where our new “ube-ice cream colored” house awaited us.  In the distance, I saw the sun diffusing its yellow light on the world.  I looked up and welcomed it.

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