By Jean Claire Dy
(originally published in Sunstar Sunday Magazine 2003)
“In de nem ob Jesus Christ, ebil spirit lib dis body!” the young petite woman dressed in Hello Kitty pajamas fervently bellowed, her open palms over my head, her eyes tightly closed in passionate prayer. I tried to wiggle away from the two bodies clustered around me but failed. “In de nem ob— aaaayeeeeeh!” My fist landed squarely on her lower jaw. It was a perfect uppercut coming from someone who hasn’t taken formal boxing lessons, I thought. Before I could congratulate myself, the young woman grunted, grabbed her rosary and shoved the cross in my face. The image of Jesus on the Cross swirled crazily an inch away from my eyes. (I swore I saw Jesus give me a wink.) From the corner of my eye, I noticed the other two women standing in the farthest corner of the room, eyes wide in surprise, lips quivering. “Just get away from me! Leave me alone, you BIGOTS!” I snatched the rosary, threw a punch, went out and slammed the door behind me. The plywood walls of the boarding house quivered as though there was an earthquake as I sprinted down the wooden stairs skipping two steps at a time. Outside, the cool six o’clock morning breeze brushed my hot cheeks. I could imagine hot smoke coming out of my nostrils and my ears as I trudged to the wooden bench at back of the house. As soon as I sat on the wooden bench, I broke down in tears.
Above is not one of my nightmares. Nor is it one imaginary dramatic scene taken out of countless short story ideas. Above is one of my unforgettable memories of staying in a boarding house, alone, and away from the comforts of home.
Living in a boardinghouse or dormitory requires a rather rare view and understanding of the world. You have to have a certain eye for details, for defamiliarizing the familiar; in order for you to continue living a life less ordinary. This is what I learned the first time I lived in a boarding house.
One can say I didn’t have enough experience living with other strangers before I stayed in a boarding house. When I was in college, I begged my parents to let me stay in a dormitory because I thought it was the cool thing to do. But they vehemently refused, even when I began rebelling against what I used to call their “Puritanical system.” It was only when one of my friends succumbed to “obscurity” and melded into the square world of the dormitory that I realized that I wasn’t meant to be inside it.
In college, the closest thing I got to living with other strangers was when I attended workshops and conferences held outside the city I lived in. Once I attended a Southeast Asian Arts festival and had to stay with two Vietnamese in a cottage resort for almost a month. It was like a baptism of fire. I suffered culture shock when they started conversing with each other in Vietnamese; they talked in high-pitched voices that made them sound as though they were constantly arguing. The pillows on my big bed were of great help. I used them to cover my ears. But after a week, I was able to understand bits and pieces of what they said to me. “Ryu goinge to ert?” sounded like “Are you going to eat?” So we ended up getting along well. They shared Vietnamese food to me while I gave them one jar of bagoong and bracelets I made out of puka shells. At night, under the blanket of stars, I would lie on the grassy lawn outside our cottage and listen to them play music with their bamboo instruments.
But that was a short-term experience. We knew we only had a month to live together so we tried to make the best out of the stay. Besides, we were staying in a resort cottage with wide spaces enough for us to stretch our bodies or choose a corner where we could sit by ourselves and be in our own worlds. Where it was acceptable to say: “I need my space. My personal space.” And your companions would understand and leave you be. It was entirely different from staying in a boarding house or dormitory. There were no curfews, no busybody landladies, no monthly rent collections and no long queues in front of the comfort rooms.
My first and last boarding house stay was in Cebu. I lived with seven people in a cramped rectangular room where the only negative space was the one between the door and the nearest double-deck bed. My only space in that room was the narrow upper-deck (just enough to fit my entire body), which I rented as a bed spacer. Other than the bed, I didn’t own any space inside the room at all.
The first day in the boarding house was one excruciating experience. I had to force myself to adjust to the idea that I’ll be spending my private hours—sleeping, undressing and dressing, even farting, with six other people whom I didn’t know from Eve. As a person who was used to being awarded the luxury of having personal space and the privilege of speaking out my opinions and beliefs, the reality of living with people who apparently come from socioeconomic, political, cultural and religious backgrounds that may be totally different from mine was terrifying. My immediate reaction was to hold on dearly to what I could call my own—the bed I rented, my clothes, my books, and my thoughts. I was extremely afraid of melding into my roommates’ backdrops, of slowly being sucked into their individual boxes.
When one of them started talking about who Claudine Baretto was dating after Rico Yan died, I hastily fished Doris Lessing’s Briefing for a Slow Descent Into Hell from my bag and pretended to be engrossed in reading. When all of them gyrated to the beat of Britney Spears’ I’m A Slave for You, I put on my Walkman and feigned sleeping to the sexy voice of Nine-Inch Nails’ Trent Reznor. But when one of them came home with a blackeye and bruises on her body because her boyfriend beat her up, I came down from my ivory tower and started talking about women’s rights. I got a glare and quizzical, offended looks instead. The reaction was different from the ones they had during those jolly conversations and dancing sessions when they persistently attempted to include me in the communal fun. I was immediately branded as an eccentric, weirdo, crazy, madwoman who spoke about feminism, read Satanist books, and gyrated only to reggae, “the music of the addicts” as one of them pointed out.
However, my gradual acculturation turned out to be inevitable. Perhaps, every person, however individualist he/she claims to be, can’t live with dislocation and would still have a tiny part of him/her that feels the need to belong. Dorothy can’t be more right by saying: “Home is where the heart is.” Her words reverberated vividly as the image of her clicking red shoes. The heart does have ways of locating itself in the cosmic patchwork.
Eventually, after one hair-raising incident when my roommates tried to exorcise me, I began to meld into their lives and them into mine. When I could no longer endure one of my roommates’ sobbing during the wee hours of the night, I composed a song for her with a borrowed beat-up guitar and played it in one of their gatherings. “She’s got boarding house blues…. Listen to her sing,” I sung. Perhaps she realized that I was sincere in my concern for her emotional health and started listening to my lectures on women’s rights and abuse of women in intimate relationships. After two months of crying, she finally ditched her “batterer” boyfriend. When it was my turn to cry over traumatic memories, my roommates left me alone to wail like a banshee until my throat dried up and my eyes stung. Then they crowded around me and took turns talking about how healthy it is to release the welled-up emotions by crying or throwing things or speaking about how you feel. Somebody sang Cry by Mandy Moore, and to my surprise, I found myself singing along and laughing. Months passed. My book Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger became the favorite novel of one of my roommates. “Hala uy, makalingaw man diay ni no? And I thought Sidney Sheldon was the best writer in the world ever!” I, in turn, learned to appreciate Filipino soap opera and even attempted to write a textual analysis of it using a popular cultural studies framework. (Of course, I failed. Not having sufficient overview of the Filipino soap opera, I was bound to fail.) I started asking, “Hoy, what happened to Ina?” without cringing. By the time I decided to pack up to transfer to another interesting reality, almost all of them were listening to Nine Inch Nails (even the Bible-quoting ones), read books other than romances, and watched the news.
The day I left, they all helped me carry my bags to the waiting taxi. Each gave me remembrances to live on for the rest of this lifetime. (And I even received a blue rosary, the first and only rosary I got from a non-relative and who had the sense to give up converting me.) As the taxi rode away from the boarding house, I peered out the rear window and saw my roommates waving good-byes.
It was then that I realized that in this world what we call personal spaces do not exist in its ideal sense because these spaces are often sites of co-optation, assertion, conflict, and negotiation. If we look at our reality as a quilt, these personal boxes/spaces are intricately intertwined and linked in one way or another. In that brief time I spent with the women inside that cramped room in a boarding house, I realized that my experiences with them are manifestations of the interconnectedness of realities, of identities and the blurring of boundaries.