I was never the tough sinewy man, physically or otherwise. One evanescent glance at the ribs protruding like bars of corroded steel between my chest and my stomach is all you’ll need to agree. But it wasn’t just that. I was also lacking in confidence, lacking in will, lacking in tenacity, lacking in all the traits girls ﬁnd attractive. You can knock me down and kick me into the grit or into the mud, or heck, into a fucking beehive—and you’ll need not fear me getting back on my feet to give you what you deserve. I hated and hated and hated myself for that. The only times I ever felt like an alpha male are when I’m bruised or scratched or bleeding. Ah yes, blood. I found myself thinking of them as tears. The last I ever cried was ﬁfteen years ago, when I was six and my first dog died in my arms. If I ever wept since then, I’ve already forgotten.
There comes a time in our lives, however, when we can either be obnoxious but durable or be pushed and be beaten and be humiliated by the world around us. For me, that time came one strangely invigorating December evening. The breeze was cool and gentle that night. But it wasn’t cold, for I live in the Philippines, where it could only be sizzling hot, moderately hot, or unusually crisp all year round. Not unless you lived in Bagiuo or Sagada, of course. It began like any other December night for me. I was in a club exclusively frequented by aﬄuent dirtbags like myself. We were dancing and singing and geing drunk out of our minds. One of my friends, Sami, was so wasted, he walked to one of those soft and expensive leather couches, unzipped his pants, and started to piss. It would have been an infuriating sight, except I had done it before, just in a more intimate setting—in my then girlfriend’s walk-in closet. We had only began dating a day before that and we haven’t spoken since.
Even as midnight was approaching, the party (which had been going on since 5 pm) was far from done. This is one of those places that only pull the shutters as the morn starts to dawn. My friends and I all had white-collar jobs that required you to be utterly sober. If you came to work bawling, slurring your words, or crashing every time you tried to stand, you’d be lucky if they only ﬁred you. But of course, it was Friday and the holidays were nigh. I was working as an accountant at this insurance company that my mommy owned. Mom being mom, she’d probably just see how hungover I’ll be in the morning after and allow me a sick leave. Regardless though, I am set to resume college after the Christmas break. That boring job will be done and over with. Another excuse to celebrate.
Seated at the corner by the restroom was Sarah Fonseca, the prettiest girl I knew, her face resting on her palms as she stared vapidly into the black, varnished tabletop beneath her. She was not alone. Two of her friends each sat beside her—Mika de Silva to her left, and the Russian exchange student, Alina Rostova, to her right. But they were not speaking at all to each other, or so it seemed from our table. My friends Sami and Roberto had been pushing me to talk to one or all of them all night long. By the time I mustered the courage to do so, it was 10 pm. I swaggered towards them, my collars popped and my hairy chest exposed, like I was trying to be El Chapo. I brushed up my hair with my ﬁngers, and leaned by the wall like a fool.
“Hey,” I said. “Why so gloomy?”
Alina squinted at me, then faced Sarah. “Who’s this asshole?” she asked her friend.
Sarah studied my face, her eyes bright as stars. “Oh, nothing. Just my high school classmate.”
“My name is Rafael Schiavone,” I said, oﬀering a handshake. “But call me Rafa.”
The Russian girl gave me a curious look. “Are you half-Italian or what?”
“One-fourth, to be precise. Dad is half-Italian and mom is a full-blooded Filipina.”
At that point, I had the strange feeling that I was being played for amusement, so I turned my head and stole a glance of my friends back at my table. Sami, as usual, was close to passing out and had his forehead locked between his palms, as if that would help him the moment he starts vomiting. Roberto, on the other hand, looked composed as he ever was, with a hand on a napkin, and another one at his drink—a can of non-alcoholic beer. If anyone was playing me that night, it certainly wasn’t them. I turned towards the girls once more, thinking of what to say to them.
“Sarah,” I called. “So what are you gals having tonight? Beer? Champagne? Tequila?”
“If I told you, will you promise not to tell your friends?”
“Yeah, sure,” I said, rubbing my palms together. “Sami’s wasted and Roberto won’t give a shit.”
She smiled at me in silence for a bit, as if her lips had been sewn shut.
Her Russian friend stood, pursing her lips as she studied my face. Though I initially didn’t realize it, that girl was about an inch or two taller than I was. She made me feel puny, though I was 5’9. In the Philippines, I was gigantic or at least it seemed I was. Finally, she sighed, looked me in the eye, and said, “We’re doing coke.”
I played dumb. “Coke, as in Coca Cola?”
“No, Rafa. Coke as in cocaine.”
Part of me saw this coming a mile away, but I was shocked nonetheless. For the past month or so, I’ve been hopelessly tied to a life of sex and drinking. But that was it. Rodrigo Duterte became our president before I could take any illicit drugs. Don’t get me wrong though, the man’s presidency did nothing to quell the supply of narcotics that were circulating throughout the country. Especially cocaine. Yet his War on Drugs still succeeded, at least in my personal experience, in instilling fear. He made me afraid. I would often sit on my bed at night, watching the news and it would be nothing but drug users being brutally murdered. I’d bite my ﬁngernails and think to myself, “This could happen to me if I’m not careful.”
As Alina sat back down, Sarah stood and took my hand. “You can join us if you want.”
Mika, who’d been silent up to that point, also stood. “Yeah but call Branson first so he won’t feel cheated.”
I knew who Branson was, and I knew he wasn’t a person you’d want to be talking to. I stole a glance of the man for a split second or shorter before turning back to Mika. “He’s a drug dealer,” I told them. “He’ll only feel cheated if you gals haven’t paid him for all that coke.”
The girls looked at each other and started laughing.
Alina clasped her hands together. “Look, Italiano boy,” she said. “Branson gave us this pound for free. He’s like that with girls.”
I felt like an idiot not having realized that right away. “Okay,” I said. “But he didn’t lend it to you; he gave you the pound out of generosity. I’m sure he wouldn’t mind you sharing it with someone else.”
“Cool then. You’ll deal with Branson if he gets pissed, not us. He loves us too much for that.”
The powder looked like snow from afar, but nearby it was more salt and sugar. Sarah had scattered it on a literal silver plaer where it had been meticulously arranged into lines that they could snort continuously without having to immediately worry about overdosing. They seemed used to this, like this was their lives. But not me. I simply rolled a ﬁve hundred peso bill, then lifted it high enough when I snorted that it seemed like I was doing it but not really since not a single speck of it would enter my nostrils. While we were at it, Sarah would narrate to me her whole life story like I was some ghost writer doing her autobiography. It felt strange to me, because while we had known each other since eighth grade, our conversations never went beyond the usual, “Hi” and “Hello” and “Excuse me.”
According to Sarah, her actual birth name is “Imelda Fannie Fonseca,” which I assume is the reason her senator father ﬁled a petition to have it changed to “Sarah Maria Fonseca” when she turned seven years old. Hailing from a prominent political dynasty of Spanish origin, she was the “it girl” in the high school we attended. That was, until her family came back from a holiday in Colombia and she developed a cocaine addiction. Yet even then, she was a nice girl in every sense of the word. In addition to being highly attractive—with her curvy waste, bright hazel eyes, brownish black hair, and blemishless white skin—Sarah was happy and polite and and gentle, and if you’re one of her best friends, nurturing. Take out her substance abuse issues, and you have an angel. I know that because every single person in the school would say so. One of them was my friend Sami. He has been trying to take Sarah out on a date for the last ﬁve to six years. He failed each and every time. But with every rejection, she also gave him advice on how he could ﬁnd himself another girl who would say “yes” to him. That was who she was… and still is.
At exactly 2 am, the music suddenly stopped playing. All the lights turned on at once. Everyone froze where they stood and the next thing I heard were sirens wailing like some dying elephant. It went on for a few minutes before the police came streaming into the club. “Get down!” one of them yelled. “And put your hands where I can see them.”
Shit’s going down, was my first thought upon hearing that. Someone had fucked up. As I folded my arms over my head and ducked, I couldn’t help but wonder who that person might be. It was certainly not me, nor could it have been any of my friends with me at the time. Sure, Sami has admitted to smoking weed a few times but he isn’t nearly dumb enough to get high on it in a public place. Then there was Roberto, who was probably the most sober man in the room at the time, a man of high ideals and principles, who wouldn’t even share a dance with any of the chicks Sami and I have been tirelessly working up the whole damn night. That left my acquaintances—Sarah, Alina, Mika, and Branson. Fucking Branson. The man who introduced my crowd to this whole hedonism thing. There was before Branson and after Branson. Sami, Roberto, and I were outcasts, a bunch of computer geeks and virgins who wouldn’t even do as much as to drink anything harder than beer. Then we were in Filipino Degrassi. That was Branson’s doing. It always was. But it could still just be Sarah Fonseca and her posh friends.
“Someone’s filed a report,” announced one of the policemen. “This club is being used as a drug den.”
That was when I began to tremble. “For fuck’s sake, just take Branson!” I wanted to tell the police. But that will only give that asshole a reason to pull me down with him, so I uttered not a word. Since Duterte won the presidency by landslide back in 2016, any suspected drug pushers (and users) were subject to mob violence. Even if the police doesn’t take you or execute you themselves, a vigilante surely will. To add insult to injury, they’d even plant a gun in your fucking corpse just to prove that you’re a dangerous criminal and that they had no choice but to gun you down like a dog in the streets. It was insane, but until now it felt remote. Being as aﬄuent as I was, I treated Duterte’s War on Drugs like I would the Syrian Civil War or the Rohingya Genocide in Myanmar. I felt safe and untouchable behind the walls my family had aﬀorded me. Yet for better or for worse, this once remote war is now at my doorstep.
“Speak up!” The policeman raised his voice. “Or I’m taking all you coños to spend the week in jail.”
Now I was truly terriﬁed. Don’t worry, I kept thinking to myself. You’re one of the good ones.
Roberto, who seemed the calmest out of everyone, stood. “Sir, we’re just having a night out.”
“Give me names, señorito, or you’ll be in handcuﬀs like everyone else in here.”
“N-n-names?” Roberto’s face turned redder than an apple. “I only know a handful of these people.”
“Then stop wasting my time and give me fucking names.”
When Roberto’s lips began to tremble, his eyes soaked with tears, I realized he was in more terror than I was in at the time. “Branson Rodriguez,” he said. “Sarah Fonseca and Mika de Silva. Oh, and the white girl. Her too.”
The policeman really just wanted names, as it happened. Everything unraveled too quickly for me to properly comprehend at the time. Roberto pointed out Branson, Sarah, Mika, and Alina with his ﬁnger, and everyone moved aside so the police could put handcuﬀs on all their suspects. The bastards didn’t even look for proper evidence. All they wanted was a good bust to make it seem like they’re doing something. I wouldn’t be surprised if tomorrow the place would be aswarm with cops looking to harvest the very evidence they had sowed the night before. That’s how it works here now, apparently.
As soon as everyone were on their feet once more, I too stood up. It’s done, I told myself. They have gotten whom they want and you’re not one of them. I sighed, stroking my numbed face in relief. When the police began to march their suspects out of the club, Roberto wiped oﬀ his tears and approached the policeman who appeared to be the commandant of that force. He closed his eyes and said, “Wait.” It almost looked like he was the victim of this whole mess.
The same policeman scratched his head. “What now, kid?”
Roberto took a deep breath, then swiftly pointed at me. “I saw him snorting coke as well.”
Shit, I thought. My own friend ratted me out. And worse, I wasn’t even doing coke for real. I was only pretending to do it so that Sarah would talk to me. One thing I learned from all the men she’s rejected, is that she is looking to date someone on the same level in life as she was, someone who understood her plight. I only wanted to be that man for the night, or at least I acted like it.
“No!” I squealed, as they took me by my arms. “This is a mistake. I was only pretending to snort that coke.”