My friend, the monk

LODESTAR - Danton Remoto (The Philippine Star) - December 18, 2015 - 9:00am

This morning at six, my cell phone rang and there was my friend, J., who has just returned from a monastery in the south, where he stayed for a month.

J. and I were good friends in college. He was one of the best writers in our class. He wrote poems and essays that had the clarity of water. He left us all biting the dust. And then in fourth year, he just vanished.

A month later, I had dinner with him. There were dark yellow blotches on his face. He looked pale, even bloodless. Then he told us how he had fallen in love with one of our straight, male classmates, who was his friend. When he told this friend about his feelings, the guy was aghast. He said that J. had planned this all along, feigning friendship so they would become close. Remember, this was the 1980s, when My Husband’s Lover was a nebula away.

J. was devastated. He went home, opened a can of insecticide, and drank it. He was rushed to the hospital, his mouth foaming. He was lucky: the heroic doctors were able to pump the vile fluids out of his system. So he survived and was recuperating and I met him.

He said wryly that the brand he used was weak. I just let him speak and continued eating my arroz caldo. He continued telling us his story. He was folding a piece of paper many times over, until what remained was one, tiny square. Then he began tearing even this tiny square into the smallest bits possible. And the paper – torn into fragments – fell down the dining table like broken wings.

“This,” he said gravely, “is my life.”

It all sounds so melodramatic now, 30 years to the day, but I remember that restaurant with its Tiffany lamp hanging above us and the cold air that chilled me as he spoke. Years later, I would tease J. about it, the melodrama that should sicken English Literature majors like us, his words that would make his favorite Woody Allen’s already-thin hair curl up at the ends. But we were teenagers then, caught in the grip of something we could not understand – anomie and angst, the whole sad confusion of being young.

After college, J. taught English at an exclusive Catholic high school for girls. As expected, he was a brilliant teacher. When I was still teaching fulltime,I met some of his former students, and they only had the longest adjectives to describe him. He was, they would tell me, their Clark Kent because of his eyeglasses. More like Lois Lane, I wanted to retort, especially when the day was gray and I had to check tons of student papers, but I would catch myself just in time.

But after two years, J. would quit teaching because he found out that intrigues and mediocrity also hound the profession. Hello, welcome to the real world, I wanted to tell him. Intrigues, mediocrity, why, even corruption! These are found everywhere, even in the Vatican, as Pope Francis announced months ago.

J. would later fall in love again, this time with his good-looking flat mate. I wanted to scold him. First, you fell in love with the hunk in college. Then you fell for the Mateo Giudicelli of the subdivision. But he told me never to worry, for this time, he never told his flat mate about his feelings. He just quietly left, and sought out other lodgings.

I would occasionally invite him to lunch or to the movies, but he always avoided me. I think he didn’t like people like me. I know the world is dark, but why dwell on it? I heard he was taking Prozac. When he did agree to meet me again, after several years, he looked different.

He had undergone therapy and begun reading books on the soul. He said he spent hours by himself sitting beside Taal Lake, watching the innumerable stars at night and waking up to birdsong. He finally said “yes” to me to my invitation for him to join a Lesbian and Gay National Convention at UP Diliman, and boy oh boy, was he an excellent facilitator! He told me after the conference, his energetic and impatient friend, that “Everything, everything has its own time.”

On the last week of April we met again and he said he was leaving for the monastery. My jaw fell. He told me it would be only for a month, and he would be a mere “observer.” He wanted to know if he could stay there, perhaps even forever? I wanted to tell him there is no such thing as forever, but I kept quiet and ate my soggy spaghetti.

And now he was back, after two weeks at the monastery, to pack his bags and, as he said, “bid you goodbye.”

He continued: “It took me a week to face you because I wanted to be sure. You know, Danton, you are nice and sweet, but we are all afraid of you because when we speak, you give us this unflinching look that will brook no nonsense. You listen, of course. But while we speak, you hold your eyeglasses, lower them, and then, you look at us again. You begin to resemble Angela Lansbury.”

I wanted to tell him his allusion is so ancient the young ones won’t get it, but I just listened to him and, yes, looked at him. At the monastery, he prayed a lot and sorted sacks of coffee beans. One day, he was sent to the faraway coffee farm with a cute monk (“he’s the resident tester,” I interjected) but they just sorted coffee beans until the cows came home. But he also told me his joy at waking up at dawn, when the sky is still sown with stars and the birds are just beginning to sing their crystalline songs. He is not yet sure about his calling, he said, but now he is calm, even happy.

When he dropped me off in my flat, I told him he would miss Nanay Cristy Fermin and the traffic and the politics. But what I wanted to tell my old and crazy friend is how I envy him, his life now hemmed in by neither ceilings, nor walls.

* * *

Comments can be sent to danton.lodestar@gmail.com


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