An excerpt from the story commissioned by the Cebu LitFest 2015...
Manong Rocky was 28 years old when he found himself bound for Cebu City to seek his fortune. He was told this was the reason, and Mother had decided on this for him, and very quickly—Marcos had just fled to Hawaii a few days prior, there was remarkable jubilation in the air, and there were many yellow ribbons being hung from trees and everywhere else along Dumaguete’s streets.
“Do I have to go?” he asked Mother.
“You must,” she said. “This can’t happen again.”
He was quiet.
“There’s nothing here in Dumaguete for a man with an Agriculture degree, ‘noy,” she said.
Manong Rocky nodded.
He lived, for a while, in Visitacion Street, near Jones Avenue, in a compound a certain Mrs. Esperas ruled with the relentless solicitation of a dowager empress: her house, a white clapboard contraption with two floors, was embraced on all sides by smaller apartments she rented out to young professionals—doctors, teachers, lawyers, salesmen—all young men, all without families of their own. Mrs. Esperas saw my brother coming in with a For Rent flyer in his hand, just newly arrived in Cebu with one bulging suitcase, and she quickly sized him up. “There’s a room in the second floor of my house. It’s big enough for you. And lots of sunshine,” she said to my brother. “Is that okay for you?”
“Yes, ma’am,” my brother said.
“Good,” Mrs. Esperas replied, flashing him a quick smile, and went back to her mahjong, her daster with flower prints cascading around her generous body. “Jobie!” she called on the household help, “Show your Kuya Rocky the room upstairs, the one where your Kuya Manuel used to stay.”
“Kuya Manuel is not coming back, ma’am?” Jobie asked.
“Kung mubalik pa ‘to sya, patyon ‘to nako,” Mrs. Esperas said under her breath.
Manong Rocky soon found work as a sales rep for Zuellig Pharma, for which he was given a secondhand blue Ford Laser to drive around, which had the habit of breaking down on the road at the unlikeliest times. His job was booking products assigned to him by his company—mainly Nivea skincare products and Tang TruOrange—and taking orders and receiving collection in a regular routine that became the sum of his life as a young man in the big city. He knew he was not completely happy. The intriga at work got to him, and there were personal grudges from the other sales reps he couldn’t brush away with inattention.
Every day his route was a constant stream of pharmacies and little shops dotting the commercial enclaves of Gaisano Metro, Gaisano South, and Gaisano Main, all of them along Colon Street, in downtown Cebu, where business thrived in an electric pulse. It was near the end of 1986, and much of that pulse was the rugged optimism of a country suddenly freed from a dictator. My brother trudged along, making do with a job he scarcely cared for. For him, this was life in the big city: scores of deadening department stores in crowded downtown, as well as assorted boticas along Gullas, Magallanes, and Manalili Streets. Among them, Majestic Pharmacy was easily his favorite, because they bought a lot of Nivea—and because he liked how the salesgirls there flirted with him.
We would visit often, Mother and I—and when we first came in to visit Manong Rocky, in 1987, we regaled at the fact that my brother had a car, although he was careful not to mention its tendencies of breaking down once too often. The traffic startled my mother.
“This is Cebu, Ma,” he would say, explaining the crawl of cars, tight along city streets.
“Yes, it is,” Mother would reply, slowly, understanding that this was a strange new world, and it was best that she learned to embrace its progress.
I would sit at the backseat of the Ford Laser, all of the twelve-year-old in me in perfect awe of everything about Cebu City that loomed large, bigger than the biggest thing in Dumaguete, everything quite intricate and embracing in their big city intimidations.
“You want to listen to the radio?” my brother asked, swerving with such daring in and out of Colon traffic.
“As long as it’s not all talk shows,” Mother said. “I’ve had enough of radio mouths blabbing all day long.”
Manong Rocky made a ceremony of turning on his car radio—a car radio!—and then flicking through the dial to get to some FM station, and soon I’d hear the static easing out into melody. An unfamiliar song washed over me.
I … I was a game he would play He brought the clouds to my day… Then like a ray of light, You came my way one night. Just one look and I knew…
The song somehow reminded me of Stephanie, but I don’t tell Manong Rocky that. Invariably, it proved a serenade of lasting recall for me—and years later, all grown up to the worldly ways of adult life, I’d realize it is with this song I’d attach a perfect soundtrack to the sheer awe of being a little boy, recessed deep in the comfortable darkness of the interiors of my brother’s car, humming along to a catchy melody with a full view of passing neon signs and bright lights and city streets teeming with a sophistication I found alluring and frightening. It would become a song I’d always associate Cebu City with—and haunting me still, because in the many years to come, I’d find myself in the metropolis in some taxi bound for Ayala Center or elsewhere, and the taxi driver would turn on the car radio, and out would always come “You Got It All” by The Jets.
You would make everything clear, Make all the clouds disappear. Put all your fears to rest, Who do I love the best? Don’t you know, don’t you know… You got it all over him, You got me over him. Honey it’s true, There’s just you. You must have been heaven sent, Hearing me call you went Out on a limb. And you’re all that he’s not, Just look what I got. ‘Cause you got it all Over him…
When would I get over him? I thought, the movies flickering in my mind.
I’d soon find that Manong Rocky’s haunt after each work day was Ding Hao along Colon St., at the back of Manalili, where he bought pork steamed rice, siomai, and lumpia for our dinner. Ding Hao would become the place I’d ask to go to in future visits—its dim sum an immediate bridge to memory.
Sometimes, when he was feeling adventurous, Manong Rocky would take us to Sunburst Chicken near Mango Avenue, in an area people were beginning to call “uptown,” and here we would have our fill of fried chicken—which was quite a delicacy then, in the late 1980s, when fried chicken was perfectly only for those with upper middle class pretensions.
In other visits, I’d insist on spending a day in the air-conditioned comforts of Robinson’s near Jones, right across the park where people went roller-blading. And he’d insist on taking me to the highest point of the city, at night, where we could see the sprawl of the metropolis twinkling like a million promises.
“This is it,” he’d say.
“It’s not like Dumaguete at all,” I’d reply.
“Not at all.”
“’Nong, do you think you’d ever want to come back home again?”
He looked out into the beckoning meshes of light down below, and never answered my question.
I’d find out in later years that Manong Rocky had a very simple idea for a nightlife in Cebu, what a young man could find in 1987: Boulevard Resto was where he would go, again uptown, because it had a regular band playing. And sometimes, for variety, he would go to Food Street right across Boulevard Resto. The bars in these two places were the placed you’d go to be seen, he said. Of course, there was also Robinson’s and Rosita’s around the same area—but that was where you went for upscale shopping and for groceries, away from the grimy masses of Colon.
On each payday, he sent home to Mother half of what he made, promising more when he could.
And on weekends, he said, he would go to Lapu-Lapu for some beach time—where he’d remember Dumaguete like a slowly vanishing thought, and sometimes he wished he was back home again, with Efeb, with Mother, with Father and his crazy politics, in that strange little apartment in Tubod.
And sometimes, he didn’t know what else to wish for.