“So how’s everything?”
If only one could establish a pattern from its movements, he could perhaps assume that it is perfecting a complicated terpsichorean sequence. “Mmm… Okay.”
“Well, I will just tell the guys you’re coming home during the sem break. Perhaps you will have news to tell by then.”
The black fish in the bowl moved to the right wagging its tail as if calling attention to its translucence. “What? Ah, yah, sure…bye.”
It hurled upwards. Its mouth formed a small “o” while meeting these brownish crumbs its owner, the eldest son of the landlady, was sprinkling into the bowl.
So much like Ruel to give him a flurry of chronicles about his life. (The embarrassing encounter with a fag who mistook him for an Arab! The unthinkable thing he did to his mother! The excitement of trekking Mt. Apo again!) And to ask a half-hearted so-how’s-everything afterwards, which was just his concession to unspoken ethics in friendly conversations. But what has he to tell anyway? he thought.
His eyes, however, were still transfixed on the fish which was now circling the bowl for what remained of its food with a languor in its pace that expanded the confines of the bowl or emphasized its solitude.
Seven-fifty. He was now waiting outside the classroom. He could hear Mr. Sarno wrapping up his discussion with a bawdy joke to the delight of his male students. Jerry watched through the bars and felt slightly repelled by the sight of his colleague whose amusement at his own joke was reflected in the mad glint of his eyes and the trace of unintended spittoon on the side of his mouth now emitting barbaric guffaws. The sound of the teacher’s laughter proved to be too disconcerting because he could notice the three girls on the front row squirming in their seats while the ones who laughed at Mr. Sarno’s joke were now laughing at him. Jerry hummed God Bless the Beasts and the Children while Mr. Sarno walked out of the room giving him a hardly audible grunt as a gesture of acknowledgment. He saw him heading to the gate. He noticed Mr. Sarno in his office only once. He was standing, fist on his table, figure hunched, and head shaking at the sight of what seemed to him a pile of composition papers left unchecked.
His own students were now pouring in. He saw others still talking outside, oblivious to his presence. At this period of the semester, he was past muttering invectives. He went through the motions of writing on the board the notes in his index cards, scanning for missing faces that might still be vegetating in the bedrooms and asking his students to get one whole sheet of paper.
“One half, Sir?”
With his hands dangling from his sides, he let his body fall, back splashing on the water. At first, he floated on the water with the easy buoyancy of an inflated tube. But then, from his peripheral vision he noticed long black vertical lines. Only then did he realize that he was replicating a TV commercial for indeed he felt somebody watching him. Upon arriving at this bizarre realization, his body dropped underneath, his feet frantically flailing. Then he saw before him a bloated Mr. Sarno who was sitting on a chair shaped like the trunk of a tree, his mouth spewing bubbles while bursting into what he knew was manic laughter; but the bubbles were not Mr. Sarno’s but his. He tried to swim upwards and break through the enveloping waves and what felt like fiberglass. He awoke with a sticky dampness on his back, the stale taste of saliva in his mouth and a vow to swear off fish bowls altogether.
Jerry Jerry dear…will you contribute a teeny-weeny something that will help tear the shackles of oppression…shatter the bondage of…What could have prompted Mobie to go underground and write this way? Why Mobie, of all people? The same one who rattled off names like Abesamis, Minnie O., Vreeland and give you this snooty snort if she saw you picking your nose. The same Mobie who eschewed carinderia food was now chewing indigestibles in some unknown boondocks and swatting flies and mosquitoes? The Mobie whose shrill laughter and wild curly locks that were always calculated to capture the attention of the new AISEC heartthrob…even if she had to harass the class for a “teeny-weeny amount” just to have the “subtlest red on my bangs.” That she could stand the demands of her newfound beliefs despite the pestilence of insects, was it a triumph of vision or sheer myopia? With this troubling perplexity, he put the letter back to its envelope and looked at his reflection in the mirror—thin grayish hair and a little heavy on the rest. He didn’t use to walk with a thud.
“He was quite drunk already when he left but I figured he could manage. You know Ruel, he is just as loud, drunk or sober, in his car or out of it but…”
“Yes, he is always in control…”
“The next thing we know he was already in the hospital, bandaged and all, with a cast on his left hand and on one foot.”
“Guess you won’t push through your plans of climbing Mt. Apo. It would be different without him.”
“Think again, Jerry kid. You know Ruel. He now intends to go some falls somewhere in…forgot where…said to have recuperative powers. In his hospital bed he was still as loud as ever flinging his hands this way and that until it hurt him.”
It was getting late. He couldn’t help but squint his eyes and stifle a yawn every now and then. Already, he had given more than a dozen Fs. Even if the restlessness of his class often annoyed him, he still found their juvenile thoughts difficult to crush especially when he could sense that there was no effort at bluffing and the only serious impediment was linguistic. In life, we can be what we want to be because God has given us free will…wrote Bennie D. He suddenly recalled with a start that moment when he overheard a revered professor’s comment at his first attempt at verse (“All form, no substance.”) that time in college when he was in a cramped cell along with angry young faces sitting on a pile of placards they spent a wanton night to spray black and red paint on. His companions still wore grim and defiant faces after being questioned by the police officers who reeked of Tanduay, while he broke down in uninhibited childish sobs during his turn where he was made to strip and God-knows-he-did-not-want-to-remember-what-else. If only we believe in ourselves, the irrepressible Bennie D. continued, and he thought of Ruel, one leg in midair, recounting his near-death experience, occasionally staring at empty space to look for a missing detail that will make his storytelling more compulsive. He stopped checking. Sleep was indeed beckoning. But oh, he had to see whether the front door was locked.
What caught his attention was the surprising brightness of the fishbowl. He went forward and tried to find out what caused it. A foot away, the ebony fish looked luminous but upon closer inspection, he could tell that its owner had just changed the water and made the contents of the bowl clearer to the eyes. The fish seemed to move a little friskily, with eyes popped out like plastic buttons while it roamed around its limited orbit. Luckily for some creatures, they ignore the bounds. His forefinger clicked a switch, putting the light out.