Pamela Punzalan Elective: Short Story Writing


Nathaniel Ibarra awoke to a half-empty bottle of martini, a sleeping lover, and a skull-splitting hangover. He willed his tired body to rise, ignoring the rallying protests of every muscle he knew of or only recently discovered at that moment, and reached over to the right table to get his first cigarette of the day. The flame of the lighter seemed weak and pathetic in the ominous darkness of his quarters, but he laughed at himself for thinking that. he was too old to be scared of the dark. He paused at that thought, as he sipped the nicotine and let the poison fill every ounce of his being. As a boy, his yaya had filled his mind with tales of monsters and demons and things that went "bump" in the night, creatures that would come to get him if he didn't finish his food or clean his room. As a young man, the aswang became nothing but childhood nightmares as they were replaced by a face of a girl who was beautiful enough to make the night with the moon and all its stars bow down to her. Suddenly, Ibarra wanted to laugh. He only found out that his wish came true when he realized that his shoulders were shaking from the sharp, rasping chuckles that ripped themselves from his throat. "Eight years, mahal," he muttered from around his cylinder of ash. "You win again." "What did you say?" the woman in his bed mumbled. "Nothing. Go back to sleep." Ibarra rose up, leaving the temporal comfort of a warm body in a messy bed and opening the blinds. He ignored the snarl of protest from his latest conquest, and chose to admire the pale mid-winter light that slanted down from the blinds, cutting shapes of brilliance into the carpet. There, miles away from a little barrio in the provinces, he felt some kind of Christmas in the cold and the lights and the snow. He remembered the day he had landed in America for the first time; it had been December, and the Statue of Liberty had looked some sort of beacon of hope to him with the artificial light from its torch blazing in the snow-filled sky. "That was before you left, mahal. This is now." Ibarra watched the snowfall down upon New York City for a while before smiling to himself, shaking his head at his stupidity, and heading for the shower.

The bottle of martini was still half-empty and the snow was still falling by the time Ibarra stepped out, looking fresh and professional even if it felt like trains were running tracks over his brain. He was on to his second cigarette. "Where are you going?" She was sitting up looking at him, holding the blanket over her heaving breasts and blinking her heavy dark eyelashes over her sleep-drugged eyes. There was nothing graceful about her, from the mussed up hair concealing part of her face to the careless angle in which she had twisted herself into, to better allow him to see her figure beneath the flimsy sheets. She was like every other woman he took to his bed: a shining, classy piece of trash that bore a phantom's face. "Work." Ibarra left the compound, running away from the memories in the darkness and the ghosts in his head.


Now that he was alone, he realized how much he hated the silence. There were no teary-eyed mothers throwing an emotional tirade, no bouncy assistants to chatter his ears off, no children to bounce all over the place and chatter about how snow days were wonderful, no secretary to trouble herself over nothing at all, no colleague to share a cigarette with and contemplate on the strangeness of the world. It wasn't that he disliked it when all was quiet. He always did express how much better he thought it was when no one said anything. Perhaps it was because it was in the silence that the memories returned to haunt him.

Laughter in the air, tinkling like silver bells. Silken fingers across the cheek, owners of the touch of an angel. Watching her, he momentarily forgot to breathe.

Upon shaking the memory away, Ibarra discovered that the words of the report he had been reading were now playing hopscotch before his eyes. With that the doctor coolly assessed the situation, and concluded that he must have been sitting there, paralyzed by the idleness yet bound by the commitment brought about by his profession, for quite some time. She would have laughed. The doctor pushed his rolling chair away from his desk and leaned back to stare at the cracks on the ceiling, feeling a little listless. He ran a hand through his hair, and listened to the clock ticking away at his desk. Tick, tock, tick, tock, tick, tock, tick, tock. One second gone. Two seconds gone. Three seconds gone. Four seconds gone. He felt a headache coming along. Ibarra closed his eyes, and found her memory standing there just beneath his eyelids, wordless and smiling just for him. He saw her as she had looked when they had first met, two bright-eyed young Pilipinos out to conquer the Americas. He remembered her as she had been before she had wasted away. The cracks on the ceiling were swimming before his eyes in a sea of pain. Tearing his gaze away, Ibarra swept his pack of cigarettes off the table (It's light. I need to get a new pack), perched one between his lips, and lit up. Or at least, he tried to. What ended up happening was that he startled himself with his inability to do anything, and spent a few fruitless minutes attempting to light the cigarette up and further poison his lungs. When he succeeded, it gave him no satisfaction. he ended up sipping the nicotine, watching the blue smoke curl up and dissipate, and wishing that he was somewhere else, anywhere else, but here. Here, with the memories.

"The snow. it's beautiful, isn't it?" "But it's so cold." "Eh?" "It's cold, and it's hurtful to touch. It covers the world up in a blanket of numbness, refusing to let the flowers grow. it reminds me that I don't have much time left."

His office. Immaculately clean, impeccably neat, noted and remembered for its unique, gaping vastness. It represented everything that he was, all that he strived to be. It was lifeless and cold, like the snow that wrapped the world in oblivion, like the lost memories that were wiped clean from the slate of the one that he loved so much it hurt. The room's emptiness choked him, smothered the warmth, and doused the reluctant flame that he lived by, leaving nothing but ashes. Ashes, and one too many unreachable stars. Intellectually, Ibarra knew that he was strong. He was strong, he was competent, he was handsome, he was intelligent, and he was good-looking. In that same fashion, intellectually Ibarra knew that he was quite rightfully going insane. Alone in the choking silence, the doctor raised the cigarette to his lips again and took a long drag, exhaling it slowly as though it was his sole wish to hold the killing smoke in and hope that it destroyed him, and soon. With preternatural slowness, he lowered his hand unto the armrest, taking the cigarette with him. The cylinder of nicotine goodness hung over the ground, threatening the tatami mats with burning ash.

"You shouldn't smoke, you know."

Ibarra laughed at that. He laughed, but his shoulders did not shake. It was mere laughter, amusement that lacked truth. He laughed because it hurt too much to cry. "I love you," she had said. "I love you."

The ash broke and fell away. His fists were clenched, and the iron clamp had closed over his heart again. "Eight years," he mumbled, like a mad man who wanted to nothing but to laugh at the rain. "Eight years." There was no one but an empty teacup to hear him. The silence became like a blanket, soft and suffocating. It echoed with her presence, her scent, her everything. all that refused to fade away. Ibarra rose to his feet with an urgency that would have startled him, had he stopped to think about it. Around him, the perfect little room echoed with the memories turned nightmares and the longing turned dreams. He left, daring the ghosts to follow. They did.

"Alicia, I'm taking off for the day. I grow tired of this." "Of course sir. Merry Christmas." His secretary's words made him want to laugh again.


Central Park was full of winter's revelry and loquacious children that dragged their beleaguered parents around to admire the snow. Ibarra paid little heed to his surroundings as he walked like a man possessed, moving away from the rest of civilization as rapidly as one would avoid the plague. The rabble of humanity became a distant buzz in his ears by the time his pace had slowed, leaving him in another place. He remembered this place, this narrow path lined by skeletal trees and fringed with the blinding white of winter. The whole place echoed with her voice. The ghosts had followed him. Ibarra smiled, shut his eyes and let the spirits come.


"Let's go outside," he urged her. "I'm tired of staying here." "Dios mío," she laughed, her eyes warm and fond. "Nathan, you really are a boy." Nathan. She always called him that. "All right," she said, smiling. "Let's go outside." She reached for her coat, slipping the white and impeccably tailored cotton over her slender shoulders. Now, in his turn, he watched her movements, feeling almost drugged, watching the play of light on her hair that reflected like auburn despite the ebony strands, watching her long-tapered hands move deftly as they fastened the clips on the coat. She drew up the fur-lined hood, and smiled again. She didn't need words.

Outside, the white snow stretched endlessly, from the city to beyond. No longer snowing, the slight cold had been replaced by a bone-chilling freezing wind that made the snowfall seem almost warm. He moved through it with a restless sort of energy, wading through the snow. He hated being cooped up all winter without anything to study; he hated doing nothing. He hated feeling useless, and at this very moment he felt very useless. She trailed behind him a little more slowly, pausing now and then thoughtfully. He swung around to face her, feeling something like a joyful abandon as he continued walking, backward this time, still facing her. He wondered why, of all the girls in the world, he had fallen for her. Her beauty was the kind many considered dangerous and untouchable; some even saw her features as arrogant. But she was learned, and she was training to be a doctor herself, and she was determined, and she believed in something. She really knew what she wanted to do, what she wanted to be. She was everything he was not; while she felt the differences between them keenly, all he felt was that with her, he felt he was striving for something. something. .Something that made life worthwhile.

She spoke suddenly, in the quiet silence of the park, smiling that certain, secret smile of hers, as if she knew something he did not. "When are you going to make up your mind?" she asked. "When?" He stopped walking at her words, looking at her and feeling very helpless all of a sudden. She had. that ability. to make him feel like that. to feeling confused and lost, not knowing what he was doing. "I don't understand," he said, helplessly. "Make up my mind? For what?" She smiled up at him, with that sad and rueful look she got whenever he acted the way he was. "It's. nothing. but you haven't done anything yet, Nathan. Things are going to change. and you haven't made up your mind about anything. What are you doing with your life, Nathan? What do you plan to do? Make up your mind; time grows short. you can't stay here. You don't belong here." "Why not?" he retorted, feeling the bitterness bubble up to leave a bad taste in his mouth. "I'm supposed to be the hero of my family, aren't I? I get sent over here to save the whole goddamned barrio because Papa does nothing but drink and they do nothing but farm." "Nathan," she urged, "don't say that." He was beyond caring. "Why can't I?" he exploded, his voice sending flurries of winter birds into the air. "Why can't Ibarra the poor boy do something he wants for a change? Why are you even asking me, Katrina?" he added with a sneer. "Is the mistiza princess finally willing to come down from above and mingle with the little people?" She grew angry then; her cheeks flushed, and she gazed at him with narrowed eyes. "I came to New York because I wanted do," she said flatly. "You really believe that." "Neither does my being here." "Then why are you here?" her anger dissipated as quickly as it had come. "You hate it here. You hate doing this. Why didn't you go back.?" She was so blind. Even with him there, holding out his bleeding heart in his hand for her to behold, she could not see it. The winter air was too sharp in his lungs, hurtful and cold like ice. He didn't answer; he didn't need to. All of a sudden, he did not care for the fact that he lived to fulfill his mother's dreams and she lived to see the world. It no longer mattered that he was a child of the sweat from his father's brow and she was a flower of the city. Fingers reached out blindly for the slight her figure standing in the blinding snow before him. The quiet part of himself cried, the part of himself that did things he would never do in action; it knew, as well as he did, that she was right. It wasn't right that he had chosen someone so far out of reach, but he crossed that gap and held her. "I'm here because you're here," he whispered into her hair as he held her close. "I'm here for you." She stared past his shoulder, listening to his breathing close by her ear. She regretted, sometimes, about the unexplainable thing that had made Nathaniel Ibarra fall in love with her; she regretted a lot of things. She closed her eyes and wished that he realized what he doing.

*** His cellular phone was ringing; it was that sound that brought him back to reality. Ibarra opted to ignore it, choosing instead to light another cigarette and mull over the past. Katrina had died within weeks after that conversation of theirs, having wasted quietly away in bed. She had always had a weak heart, they had said. She hadn't wanted to him to know. With her, his soul had died, and her ghost remained. A cardinal faltered in its song for so brief a moment that it was indistinguishable, but Ibarra heard it. "Come out. I know you're there." "I tried calling your phone after I checked your office," said the speaker as he stepped out into the light. "You weren't answering." "A good thing at that." "This is the kind of greeting I get after not seeing you for years, kuya? Really, I'm touched." "Don't be." Santino Ibarra's laughter echoed in the cold crisp air. "Do you remember Mama's bibingka pie? Old man Rhuell from down the street still comes around to buy some. he muttered something about me taking one along for you, since I don't have money for anything else." "Surely you didn't come here to speak of bibingka, Santino." "You're right," Santino replied after a long pause, "I didn't." "Tell me." "Will you listen?" "I'm here, aren't I?" "Very well. then I will."

Time found the two brothers standing side by side on the snow-covered path, listening to the echoes of their conversation on the wind. In this silence, Ibarra ran through the news his younger brother had given him. Papa was dying. Mama needed him. Since Katrina was gone, they wanted him to come home: New York was no good for him any longer. Come home. Santino watched him expectantly, waiting for an answer. Ibarra did not care. "I've made it all very clear to you before, and I'm not changing my mind. I'm staying here." Santino lost his patience. "What good comes out of staying here? There's nothing but her ghost, kuya. nothing but memories to haunt you!" "Go home, Santino," Ibarra quietly returned, turning away. "I won't repeat myself." For a long time, Santino was silent. Finally, all his confusion and frustration resolved itself into a single word. "Why?" "Because if I leave, I'll forget her." All the booze, all the work, all the cigarettes, all the women who bore Katrina's face. all of a sudden, it made sense. "That, Santino, is something that I cannot do." The snow began to fall on Central Park. Ibarra tossed his cigarette off to one side and walked away.


It was mid-afternoon by the time Nathaniel Ibarra had returned to his apartment. The woman was still asleep in his bed. Apparently, she had woken up long enough to drain the rest of the martini and open another. The doctor took off his coat, picked up the new bottle and sat down on the edge of the bed. He took a swig, lit up a cigarette, and drank to the memory of her.