Hail was showering like bullets upon Bagiuo City as I stepped out of the campus and into the streets. Little pellets of ice constantly smashed themselves against my umbrella, only to drip into the pavement as liquid water. It reminded me somehow like the Japanese kamikazes of the Second World War, except these ones had neither a sinister nor a noble cause to die for; they’d simply evaporate with the sunrise and ascend back to the heavens whence they came. I was skipping on the side of the road, occasionally meandering to the middle, for I was playing a game of dodge-the-jeepney, dodge-the-car, dodge-the-motorcycle, and so on. A part of me wanted to lose that game, but every time I came too close, the vehicles would honk at me with a fury I couldn’t ignore. I would simply step aside. This vexed me. I wanted to die and I wanted someone else to suffer for it.
My name, by the way, is Maria Sorokina. I am thin to the bone, probably because for the past two months, I have been surviving on Jollibee and bubble tea alone. My face was not one you would call pretty, with its gauntness and my flat nose. But I do have bright hazel eyes, monolid in shape. Men always liked to stare into my eyes. One such person told me it was the window to my soul. But I was too mature by then to believe in such fantasies as souls. I never spoke to him again.
Upon stepping into my dormitory, I was soaked from head to heel. As the hail ceased to fall, the vile winds swept the rain sidewards. My umbrella was rendered useless, and I was so annoyed that I wanted to let go of it and watch it whisked into the overcast skies like an unwanted parachute. That’s the problem. The world has turned against me nowadays. The sun never smiles upon me, nor does the moon shine over my nights. My counselor told me that it was only in my head, that if I changed my perspective I shall finally see the light at the end of the tunnel. What nonsense! What lies! I am being tormented, and it is not a matter of opinion.
That night, I had dinner with the landlady, Miss Anna Roque. Silence hung heavy over the cramped garret that served both as a sala and a dining room. It was just the two of us then. All the other girls had gone home to their families to celebrate the Christmas season. It was a disheartening feeling, yet I tried to forget that by staring voraciously at the spaghetti on my porcelain plate. I was about to stab at it with my fork when Miss Roque slapped my hand.
“Ow!” I quickly pulled my hand. “Aling Roque, I am hungry.”
“You are being ungrateful! The lord has given us this meal. We must thank him.”
The landlady made the sign of the cross, whilst I folded my arms in silence. I believed in a god, whether or not that makes sense to you. But I am also at war with him. Of course! No supreme being with any semblance of benevolence would condemn me into this void I am living now. I, an innocent soul, whose only crime was being estranged from my parents.
“When are you leaving?” asked Aling Roque, her hands still clasped together.
“I don’t know. I don’t know. I don’t know. Why don’t you ask mama?”
“She came here to visit you when you were sick, don’t you remember? You turned her away.”
Aling Roque smiled and patted my head. “Young woman,” she said, “I want to help you with what you are going through.” Her smile had faded. “Would it hurt for you to tell an old woman what’s going on?”
My head felt as if it was locked inside a block of ice. “I don’t really feel like talking.”
“That’s a start.” The landlady grinned with enthusiasm. “So why don’t you feel like talking?”
“Because no one understands me. And I just want them to leave me the hell alone.”
The next day, Aling Roque shook me awake. Light spilled languidly into my bedroom and I felt as if my eyes were being pierced with a blunt knife. I stared at her in utter bewilderment, into those big brown eyes that seemed black from a distance. I wrapped myself with my blanket and shut my eyes but she shook me again, this time more vehemently.
“What?!” I demanded with fatigued anger.
“You have a visitor.”
Upon getting myself dressed, I rushed down the stairs and into the sala where I found my visitor waiting. As soon as I saw his face, I knew that I was not in a position to talk back. Professor Alejandro Santa Cruz was known for his pragmatism, and his apparent lack of empathy towards his students. This reputation was reinforced by his intimidating demeanor. He was rigid and tall, possibly being over six feet. His face demanded respect, with his straight nose, and cheekbones that resembled horns. I had often fantasized about pushing this man off a cliff.
“Good morning, Miss Sorokina,” he said, rather predictably.
I squinted at the man, not deigning to say a word.
“You must have an idea of why I’m here, no matter how vague,” the professor continued.
All I could give him was a brief nod. I knew what he was about to say next.
On the night that followed, I skipped dinner and went straight to bed. Darkness had never been more beautiful, with the moonlight cascading through opaque windowpanes like gleaming white water. I gazed at the silhouette of the dresser, wondering what madness had once caused me to believe there was a monster lurking behind. As my eyes began to weight on me, I heard a soft creaking noise. The door opened. It was Aling Roque, bringing me a bowl of mushroom soup.
“I’m not sick,” I told her, almost indignantly. “Not hungry either.”
“Don’t ruminate too much, dear. You might not be graduating with your batch, but you’ll still finish your studies.”
“What’s the point? By the time I graduate, I’ll probably be twenty-seven. What firm in their right mind would want to hire me?”
Aling Roque set the bowl on the side table and sat on the bed. “I think you need time to heal, away from the campus, away from all that toxicity,” she said. “Away from Bagiuo even.”
“You’re right,” I replied in a deadpan voice, wiping my tears with the back of my hand. “I must go back to Manila.”
When I stepped off the bus in a crowded, suffocating station along EDSA, I felt a great deal of regret and despair. I was no longer numb; I was in agony. Professor Santa Cruz’s declaration was clear: that I was no longer welcome in his class, and that all the other professors have dropped me. I can hardly blame them though. I had been absent for six months, all because I was too forlorn to get out of bed. All I ever did was eat and sleep. I hated myself for that, and I was certain that mama would feel exactly the same way.
I took several jeepneys on my way home. I was tempted to rush into the nearest train station, so I could jump right into quietus, as some approaching train, its driver oblivious to my plans, would run over me and maybe even butcher my body beyond recognition. But I couldn’t do it. The thought of permanently traumatizing the unwitting passengers, the innocent bystanders was too much for me to bear. I headed straight for home, the last place on Earth I ever wanted to be.
Our house was a modest one, with two stories and a sloping metal roof that was beginning to rust. We had two bedrooms on the second floor—one for mama and papa, and another one for myself. I rang our doorbell, anxiously biting my fingernails. Within seconds, mama emerged with a smile that spanned her face, a smile that only served to irritate me. I hated her almost as much as I hated myself. Then, as if to add insult to injury, she wrapped her arms around me and kissed my forehead. I was tempted to smash her head against the concrete wall that surrounded our home like a fortress.
“I was worried sick,” she said, finally letting go of me. “As soon as you stopped replying to my messages I knew something had gone wrong in Bagiuo.”
I sighed, refraining from meeting her eyes. “Leave me alone.”
“Good heavens, Maria. I can’t leave you alone. I won’t leave you alone. I am your mother.”
“Then I will be staying at my friend’s house and you’ll never bother me again.”
Mama looked appalled. “You’re not the cheerful, polite young woman who left us to study law in Bagiuo. You are but an impostor and I want my daughter back.”
“Well then, disown the impostor for all I care. I shall find a job and live on my own.”
“What happened to you?” asked mama, placing her hands on my shoulders. “Tell me, please. I only want to help you. I only want what is best for you. You know that.”
I buried my face in my palms. “Leave me alone, mama. You’re better off just letting me die.”
Three weeks passed and very little of any significance happened in my life. Most of my time was spent sleeping, and in the brief, fleeting moments when I was wide awake, I would mourn my failures, soaking my pillow with tears cascading like rivers spilling into the sea. I would go on for days without eating, unless there was either adobo or sinigang. Mama noticed this. She had been covertly conspiring with a psychiatrist, though I didn’t know of that at the time.
One Thursday evening, two days before Christmas itself, I finally had the energy, the will, the power to get out of bed. Not only that, but I dressed in my finest clothes and began to wander the streets nearby. Dense rainfall coupled with the vicious winds turned the streets into rivers, murky and grey. I did not bring an umbrella; I didn’t want to. Let the rain wash away my sins. Of course, you can call it a baptism if you like. I don’t really care anymore.
I passed by a shuttered bank on my way home. I began laughing like an absolute maniac, not in contempt but in consolation. The security guard had fallen asleep on his chair, snoring like a pig. His pistol was set on the center of the tabletop, almost like he was waiting for some delinquent young man to snatch it and hold him hostage. I narrowed my eyes at the gun. Then I heard it spoke, and I shuddered.
“Take me away,” it told me. “My assistance I shall give you. Your slave I shall be.”
That was it. I would’ve said that my prayers have been answered, had I actually been praying. So I tiptoed my way up the marble steps, approached the table, and claimed the gun for myself. It must’ve been an eternity since I ever felt this triumphant. I slipped the pistol into my panties and quietly walked away. If you happened to have seen me in the streets that night, you probably would’ve thought me giddy or even blissful. The finale of my suffering was nigh, and no one could stop me.
The next day, as the dawn was breaking, I awoke to the sound of muffled screams and blaring sobs. I got out of bed and rushed towards the door, peaking through the keyhole.
“How dare you?” cried mama, clenching her fists. “You have a wife!“
Papa furiously rubbed his forehead. “I love the bustling city of Manila and I love the clear shores of Bali,” he said. “Why can’t I love you and Miguel?”
“Do you understand how humiliating this is?”
“I never stopped loving you, Ella. I mean it.”
Mama whimpered. “Then prove it,” she said, indignantly. “Get rid of Miguel. Never meet him again. Cut off all contact with him.”
“I cannot simply do that, can’t you see? And besides, Miguel is a good man. Tender, even. If only you would set aside your prejudices, I know the two of you would get along just fine.”
“I don’t care,” replied mama, her fists trembling and her stare cold as ice. “I don’t care that you’re gay. I am livid that you’ve been lying to me for the past ten years of our marriage. That I cannot accept.”
“Please, Ella, just give this arrangement a chance.”
“Not while I’m still breathing. Take your shit and never come back.”
I turned the knob and gave the door a slight push. I sought a more ample view of what was happening. Papa sat on the rocking chair, his arms folded and his lips pursed. Meanwhile, mama sat on the stairs, weeping into her palms like I had never seen before. Then she stood and towered over papa.
“And in case you still care,” she said, “your daughter is suffering.”
Papa lifted his head and let out a deep sigh. “I never wanted a child to begin with.”
That night, I locked the door of my room and pulled the shutters over the windows. I had just eaten dinner with mama and neither of us could utter even a single word. I ought to have been devastated, but I merely laughed at the revelation, almost ravingly. My family was falling apart, and I was caught in the middle of it tall. Or was I? Being twenty-two years of age, I was free to leave mama to suffer on her own. Mayhaps someday she’d want to kill herself too.
The gun was in the drawer. Somehow I felt like it has always been there—calling to me, nibbling, laughing, beseeching me to sow lead into this beautifully chaotic brain of mine—even when it wasn’t. The knife was in my hands. I had used her to draw pretty red lines, weeping into my elbows where my wrists gave way to my palms. Such pale, colorless skin I have nowadays, not like that brown, melanin-tinged complexion I had before returning to Manila, manifesting like some sly disease that only came when death was nigh. The red of my blood stood out like ink against my insipid skin. Was there even pain? Well, I must admit that I’m not quite certain. I should be dead now. I should be dead now. I should be dead now. That was the only thought in my head. Soon enough, perhaps.
Pulling that god forsaken drawer was simple, but to wrap my fatigued, trembling fingers around the grip of that pistol was something else entirely. So then I thought, I’ve been wallowing in this misery long enough. It’s time to put and end to this farce. A damn simple plan.
“Die!” I mumbled to myself. “Die, die, die, and die.”
I held my arms up against the light of the window, studying the cuts I had created. They weren’t deep enough, I realized to my dismay. If I truly wanted to die, the gun was always mightier than the kitchen knife. It took all the courage I had in me to even graze the pistol with my fingertips. I began to wonder, did fate lure me towards that bank? What it fate’s doing that the guard had fallen asleep on the job? Perhaps god was indeed doing me a favor. But if we are fated, then we aren’t free. Thoughts raced in my head like several bullet trains, speeding all at once into collision. There was nothing I could do to calm my delirious mind. Am I choosing to die or am I fated to die? Long ago I firmly knew the answer.
Before I knew it, I was clutching the gun with both of my hands. I hesitated, as I always did. I did not want it said that Maria Sorokina had died without accomplishing anything worth remembering. Before my sorrows had abducted me from academia, I was studying to be a lawyer. My ambition was to become a politician, one who champions the masses over my own selfish interests. The plan was to obtain a master’s degree from either the University of the Philippines or Ateneo de Manila. But that dream was no more. I had flunked every class that I had as an undergrad. A shame, it was. A real fucking shame. This was why I was never worthy of being alive.
As I was about to cock the gun, to pull the trigger, a sudden jolt of pain paralyzed me. It felt as if an entire colony of ants, the red ones that bite with fire, were feasting in my cuts, crawling and biting and gnawing, peeling off flaps of my pale jaundiced skin. I endured it, pointing the pistol to my head.
Knocks on the door followed, soft and measured like that of a lady of elegance. I threw the gun back whence I took it and snatched my knife instead, like that would somehow calm mama when she saw me. I opened the door, like the fool that I was. Before I even knew what was happening, two women—both nurses—took hold of me, twisting my arms like a pair of wrestlers would. They weren’t as tall as I was, but what they lacked in height, they more than made up for in brawn and sheer force. Fuck it. I stood no chance. I should have pulled the trigger whilst I could.