On the outskirts of the city at the edge of a subdivision called Bliss, Tacloban City Convention Center pokes into the bay. A big silo of a thing, concrete, stadium seating for a couple three or four thousand, ringed by two levels of commercial units which consist of half a dozen disco-slash-videoke bars, a few pretentious restaurants, a full-function fitness center. They call it the Astrodome. On your jeep ride call out “Astro” for short.
A week ago you learned the local word for abortion. Punyit. More precisely: “intentional miscarriage”. It is not in your dictionary but it is firmly planted in your mind. You learned it over lunch, co-workers talking chatting gossiping rumoring about a 2nd year high school student (i.e., fourteen years old) who got pregnant and then performed an intentional miscarriage. How did they know? Kuno. The wonderfully flexible catch-all word, so perfect for gossip. Kuno. “It was said by someone.”
It is already dark. A December Saturday, six-thirty, not exactly cool but empty of the yellow daytime heat that is the Philippines. Young people wander along the bay at Astro, another Saturday night in a long string of Saturday nights in a town in a place on the edge of Bliss that most of humanity will never know.
It takes someone who has sat in a whorehouse, participated in the conversation of transaction, the transaction of a body–someone familiar with the bravado of the whore, the self-possession in her shoulders, her eyes–to know if it is real confidence. Only a painter sees the spectrum of green. Only a Lazarus can really know his Jesus. Am I the prodigal son?
You are at Astro. Waiting for a friend. Heading to a party. You sit at the rim of a bridge, a strip of concrete that is the closest thing to a seat you’ll find. You aren’t smoking but for some reason you have a lighter in your pocket. Behind you the water of Tacloban Bay laps quiet, black.
What is the word for poison?
You’d seen her walking back and forth across the street as jeeps and multicabs and motorized tricycles whizzed by, all lights and engine roar, zigging through the moving maze. Distinctively thin. Short black hair, searching eyes, gangly legs. Jeans. Some kind of knit top exposing the shoulders.
When she approaches, dangling her long menthol cigarette in careless fingers, her eyes are bold. But her shoulder is hesistant.
“Excuse me. Do you have a light?” Her English is good.
“May-ada.” You are amazed to feel yourself reaching into your pocket for the lighter. Why do you have a lighter? You never carry a lighter.
You don’t smell her until she sits down next to you, cigarette lit. It is the common smell of a human body unwashed in days, but with the less familiar edge of feminine. The three-days’ body odor of a woman.
She is surprised to hear you speak the dialect.
She asks you what you are doing at Astro. At night.
You are waiting for a friend. There is a party.
Yes, American. You cross your legs.
She crosses her legs. Takes a drag. Mocks your funny pronunciation of the word. Amerikano. The all-important bravado.
Do you have a wife.
You don’t immediately realize why she sat next to you. After all, you’re used to strangers paying attention. But in time the details build.
You ask where she’s from. “Sogod,” she says. You know that’s five hours south. They speak a different dialect there.
You ask where she lives. A vague gesture in the direction of Astro. Does she have any work currently? No, usually she works downtown but there are no customers in downtown. So she comes here, to Astro, looking for customers. She takes quick drags on her cigarette. Turns her head now and then to spit out the taste into the river.
It is only when she asks you if you know what ‘customers’ mean that it all clicks. Immediate, ugly.
Yes. You stammer. Immediate, ugly. “Maaram ako.” I know.
What does it mean, customers. She doesn’t believe you.
“Maaram ako ano it karuyag sigdnon ‘customers’.” I know what ‘customers’ means.
What is it. She wants you to say it. Put it into words. Make it real by saying it. She is leaning forward. Her eyes are taunting, daring you to turn her into a whore.
It is when you, you… You stammer, searching for words. You know the word for whore–pok pok–but you refuse to say it. They will pay you…They will pay you for…
Alright. “Maaram ka.” She leans back. Takes a drag. You know. Spits into the ocean.
You ask her how old she is.
“Eighteen.” She says it in English. She could be eighteen. Then again.
She looks at you. Now she realizes you’re not a customer. Something changes. She begins to talk.
She tells you about her customers, foreigners, about how they promise her money, maybe 1,000 pesos ($25), but then after they are in the motel they deduct costs. The motel is 500 pesos. There is the alcohol. If she’s lucky she’ll get 200. About $5. She tells you about how she has been beaten. You don’t understand enough to be sure if she means the customers beat her or if she had a husband back in Sogod who beat her. Maybe both. But you know the word, ginkastigo. She knows you are not a customer. Something has changed.
You ask her: Do you have any children.
No. She spits into the ocean.
She spits into the ocean. She looks at you, taunting. She says–the passive-voice construction of the language has never lent itself more perfectly–she says, “Ginpunyit.” They are self-aborted. They are intentionally miscarried.
You uncross your legs. Teenagers walk by, staring at the two of you. Everyone knows you. You wonder if there will be rumors about you, next lunchtime.
All you can do is ask. There is something terribly honest between you now.
How. How do you do it.
She uses a word you do not know. It could be “poison”. It could be “hanger”.
You think of the risky business of pretty women. You think of Richard Gere and Julia Roberts, and all the stories–true and not–like it. You think of Florence Nightingale. You think of the ugly side of pity.
Why don’t you look for someother kind of work.
She spits into the ocean.
This work, this work is dangerous.
I don’t even use condoms.
You should. You should. That’s dangerous. You could get very sick. There are diseases.
Spits into the ocean.
Do you know how wash clothes. Maybe you can work in a laundry. What about being a yaya.
Yuck. I don’t want to be a yaya.
House help is good work. Safe work.
Yuck. Spits into the ocean.
Your friend shows up. You make introductions. Jenna, this is Rachelle. Rachelle, this is Jenna. There is nothing more to say. You stand up. You walk away.