Space Man

“If a robot had a pussy, best believe I’d fuck that robot until its screws fell off,” said Mr. Patrick before breaking into a long playful howl.

This is how our conversations usually concluded. We were standing under a tree at the side of the local library, trying to dodge the blistering Texas sun. It was a busy mid-afternoon and a mother clutching on to her toddler’s hand overhead us. She shot us an icy glance and shook her head in disgust.

If you were to spot Mr. Patrick walking along the side of the road you would assume that he was a homeless vagrant. He always wore the same white muscle shirt and pair of gray sweatpants, which was always sprinkled with cigarette ash clinging to fibers for dear life.

mr patrick

Mr. Patrick moved down to Houston from New York and loved to complain about the ignorance here. “Man, I wouldn’t get treated like this back in Brooklyn,” he would say. Another school board had turned down his proposal for a rocketry after school program. He has a grand plan to “bring back science to the forefront of education.” Mr. Patrick believes that there are too many lazy, overweight kids with nothing else to do after school but get into trouble—or simply do nothing at all.

After school programs in general, and science-oriented ones in particular, have gradually been in decline over the last few years, and Mr. Patrick took it upon himself to change the statistics. He has brilliant ideas involving perpetual motion and free energy using electromagnetism, and wanted to pass this knowledge on to the younger generation.

“These high school kids,” he said, just as a group of teenagers from the local high school walked in to the library. “They don’t know jack about the basic mechanism of automobiles and airplanes. They don’t retain information that’s given to them.”

Mr. Patrick stepped a few feet from the entrance and lit a cigarette underneath a No Smoking sign. “I’m gonna change that. These kids are going to learn the fundamentals. If they don’t, then we might as well dump all of our engineering jobs to the Indians now, and get it over with.”

When he went on one of his long monologues, feverishly articulating an idea like a professor possessed, I couldn’t help but be captivated by his long, winding unbroken sentences to the point of experiencing something like a mental paralysis. I once had asked him where he learned all of this knowledge. He paused and nonchalantly said, “The aliens told me.”

He was only a child, maybe ten or eleven-years old at the time. His mother asked him to go to the corner store to buy some milk. While walking through the dimly-lit Brooklyn streets, this snot-nosed kid suddenly found himself bathed in an intensely bright light.

“Next thing I knew I was being probed and shit,” Mr. Patrick recounted. “It was real fucked up.”

It was after these alleged experimentations that the extraterrestrials taught him about their propulsion system and how to harvest energy from stars to power an entire civilization. I pointed out that this was the fundamental idea behind Freeman Dyson’s sphere.

“They probably probed him too,” Mr. Patrick replied.

 

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The idea of being abducted by extraterrestrial beings is a 20th Century phenomenon. It wasn’t until the 1960s that the claims of alien abduction came into the mainstream. Some researchers who study such cases claim that abductions have been going on for centuries, as “evidenced” in historical documents that describe extraterrestrial events, despite the vagueness of these ancient writings.

Psychologists, on the other hand, claim that “memories” of alien abduction aren’t real memories at all, but rather replacements for a much more traumatic real-life memory. It’s all up in the air at this point. Theories (and conspiracy theories) abound.

In any case, I can’t refute what I haven’t seen firsthand. If someone tells me that they were probed by gray insectoid creatures that travel in spaceships decked out with technology only a Trekkie can fathom or appreciate, I have no choice but to take their word for it.

Observing his speech and sifting through his stories, you do get the sense that he had a colorful past. Whatever lies underneath that stormy cranium of his, deep in the halls of his memory library, will probably remain a mystery—at least to me.

“They see a black man and suddenly they change their mind,” Mr. Patrick said as he slammed a thick spiral notebook on the steel bench. He had been talking to school board members from across the city and surrounding counties for the past few months.

He told me that the Houston Independent School District shot down his proposal without hearing the full presentation. However, he was most furious about the school he visited the week before. He had spoken to the board members on the phone and he explained, in detail, what his idea was. They were excited about it over the phone and had set up an appointment to meet him.

I imagined Mr. Patrick ironing his best suit; picking out a duo-tone tie with diagonal stripes that says, I’m all about serious business, but I’m not a social ladder-climbing corporate prick.

I asked him how it went. He recounted how the panel scrutinized him from top to bottom, trying to find holes in his program. In the end, they declined his proposal.

“Once they saw that I was a black man, they clammed up. They told me they didn’t want to do business with me,” said Mr. Patrick.

I thought he was over-exaggerating, but then again I have no right to question his experiences. I will never know what it’s like to be a black man in America. Personally, I’ve only heard a few blatantly racist comments growing up in the South, but interestingly, most of the racism I’ve witnessed were from other minorities.

I myself have not felt the sting of racism besides the time a black police officer pulled up to the side of my car and asked if I knew what “ching-chong” meant. After I told him that he was just speaking gibberish, he repeated the rhythmic nonsense before peeling off in the Impala cruiser I probably paid for with my tax dollars. My friend, who was driving, and I looked at each other and laughed. We were always mistaken for Latinos and we high-fived each other that someone finally guessed our race correctly. Our membership to the Oriental Gang had just been revalidated.

I wonder how Mr. Patrick felt under his own skin. Does he feel alienated? Like an alien? There are times when his patience for humanity reaches a boiling point, but I can’t blame him. This world is full of shit. I learned that when I was a toddler and experienced my first set of broken promises from my dad, mom, and just about anyone else who lied to save me from being hurt but was actually saving themselves from raising an unwanted child.

I could relate with him when he says he does not belong in this world. More often than not, I half-believe that I’m actually an anthropologist sent to this planet by my superiors on another planet. “Go to that trailer trash planet,” I imagined them telling before I embarked on my mission. “And find out if they’re as dumb as they look.”

However, there are times when his cynicism can be so overwhelming that storm clouds begin to form over my head. When that happens, I would ask him to tell me more stories about UFO sightings, and his angry facial expression would turn into glee. He had a lot of stories. I know all of them better than my own poetry.

After three months of sparring with board members, hundreds of hours of phone conversations, Mr. Patrick was still hitting the pavement, this time with a large stack of printed brochures. I read it and noticed a typo. His sister had loaned him three-hundred dollars for the printing cost. I didn’t tell him about the error.

I once asked him where he gets the drive to keep going despite numerous failed attempts and obstacles. “Those aliens told me that if we don’t change the direction we’re headed in right now,” he said with a hint of exhaustion in his voice, “then the next generation won’t have a chance for a decent life.”

I don’t know if these were the words of a wise extraterrestrial or the prophecy of a man who truly believes he can make a difference in the world. Whether as a black man or a space man, Mr. Patrick represents the selfless individual in a world where how you look, or how well your ideologies fit in with the beliefs of the majority, is placed at a higher value than good intentions.

Just ask those who are persecuted for their culture or principles. During the height of the Cold War, many law-abiding citizens were blacklisted during Senator Joseph McCarthy’s campaign to weed out suspected communists in the country. Talk to those who have been discriminated against for being a Jew; persecuted for being a Catholic or Muslim; arrested on false charges for being black; killed for being gay.

You don’t have to be an abductee to feel alien. In an increasingly impersonal world—ironically as instant communication becomes more accessible globally—the definition of what it is to be human becomes less clear.

Mr. Patrick walked into my study room at the library with a wide smile on his face. He looked clean and business-like.

“Good news?” I asked.

He said nothing at first, his smile getting wider. Finally, he told me what he was so damn happy about.

“A school on the west side of town says I can use their facility for the program. All I need now is to pass out these brochures and get enough students to sign up for it,” he said triumphantly.

I congratulate him and tell him that all of the toil and heartbreak was worth it.

“Oh, you bet. We’re making progress, but there’s still a lot to be done. In a year, we’ll be off to space, my friend!”

With that he was out the door again, hitting the pavement.

Down and Out in New York City

During the height of the 2008 economic recession, I spent a very brief period of time without a residence in New York City. It was a life-changing experience and it took me a while to realize that.

I spent a few nights taking short naps at the very top of an apartment building stairwell. It was the dead of winter and the cold air seeping through the rooftop access door didn’t allow me to get any rest. The concrete floor and cramp space didn’t help either. After a couple of days, I became paranoid every time I heard people open the stairwell doors below me. I thought the apartment security would find me and kick me out into the cold or call the cops.

I managed to make those sleepless nights productive though. I wrote poetry on napkins that I lifted from a Dunkin’ Donuts, and some of those poems ended up getting published a year later.

CIMG7825One sleepless night, after a close call with a security guard at an apartment complex, I took the F train to Rockefeller Center and walked to Times Square. It was 2 in the morning and the city felt so alive. I sat in the middle of the Square and watched humanity flow past me. I also made a few bucks taking pictures of insomniac tourists with my old point-and-shoot camera. There was a drug store nearby that had a photo printing kiosk and I just printed the photos with the little bit of money I had. I then gave it to the tourists waiting outside and they happily gave me $20 for 4 bucks worth of prints.

I bought a stupendously-greasy-but-delicious halal gyro and a can of Pepsi, and still had money for a pack of cigarettes and a couple of subway rides. The rates were a bit cheaper back then. New York taught me urban survival.

During the day, I spent hours at the Queens public library. I read books on philosophy and urban design; wrote shitty screenplays and short stories; slept on the comfortable cushioned chairs they had by the magazine racks; talked to strangers and librarians about politics; used their Wi-Fi to look for jobs on my busted Motorola Sidekick.

I also made up my mind that I was too proud to ask my family for help, and that I would rather hitchhike to South Florida because it was warm there. I had read somewhere that the Keys were actually “homeless-friendly” — whatever that meant. I figured I could at least sleep on the beach, wash up in public restrooms and hunt for low-wage jobs during the day.

After spending hours at the library, I would go to a Filipino restaurant a few blocks from the library–which, unfortunately, is no longer there–and sweet-talked the owner, in Tagalog, to let me eat lunch in exchange for cleaning the restrooms, tables and mopping the floor.

I gained 5 lbs. that day, because they practically gave me a feast. I remember eating a particular dish that my parents used to cook all the time and thought of home. When something that was once familiar to you fades away, it suddenly becomes sacred.

I eventually gave up trying to plot the logistics of my migration to Florida after realizing that job prospects were not looking that good down there either. I knew I had to look for shelter soon. My phone finally had enough of its miserable existence and committed suicide on the sidewalk. I was running towards the subway entrance to catch a train in Forest Hills when my phone leapt out of my jacket pocket and exploded into six different pieces on the pavement.

I suddenly found myself disconnected from family and friends. In a sense, I felt disconnected from the world. My life had become the parable of the modern man caught in a system, in a cold machine, that functioned automatically, and the moral of the story was a disheartening one: don’t ever think that you can control or destroy the machine.

My aunt and uncle used to babysit me when I was 7 years old, because my mom’s shift at St. Mary’s Hospital in Brooklyn sometimes overlapped with my dad’s schedule at the Marriott in Manhattan. I went with my aunt and uncle on errands, driving around the outer boroughs.

My uncle would tell me corny jokes, his eyes smiling at me through the rear-view mirror, as my aunt smacked his shoulder, yelling at him to focus on the road. Whenever we went to Pioneer — that endearingly dysfunctional “supermarket” where you could find cereal boxes with taped up rips and half-used tubes of toothpaste — we would always pass by a Catholic church that sat on top of a hill. As soon as we drove past the front of the church, my aunt and uncle would simultaneously make a quick sign of the cross.

I stood outside the church looking at the cross on the peak of the roof. It was very windy and my hands were completely numb. I knew the sanctuary was closed, but I saw a few cars out front and decided to try the office. I went to the side of the church, which is actually part of a large monastery complex, and opened the door. It was very warm inside and my blood slowly thawed out. I was greeted by a lady who was walking by. I asked her if I could use a phone and if she knew any homeless shelters nearby or in the city. The easygoing smile that she had turned into a look of concern and asked me to have a seat at what looked like a meeting or dining room.

A few moments later, a petite elderly nun walked in and greeted me. She introduced herself as “Sister Karen.” Right off the bat, I knew she was someone you did not want to mess with. Memories of Catholic school flashed in my mind and thought of the nun who I got into an argument with during Religion class about reincarnation.

She had piercing green eyes. She was friendly and showed deep concern about my situation. After explaining to her all of the intricate, spaghetti-plot details as to how I ended up on the streets, she offered to pay for my bus ticket home to Texas.

That was the last time I had hit rock bottom. I felt like such a loser, a complete failure as a person. She assured me I was a “gift from God.”

I cried harder than I’ve ever cried before.

The morning I left New York City, hours before I found myself at the footsteps of the church on top of that hill, I spent my last little bit of money I had to reload my MTA card with a single-ride subway fare. I rode the train back and forth, end to end, several times, going in and out of sleep, worrying about what to do next. The heater in the train was broken and the temperature outside was -10 degrees.

When I was passing through Brooklyn — the borough I once called home as a child — I looked out the window and realized we were on elevated tracks. The sun had just started rising, glimmering over brownstone buildings, illuminating a city that has given me so much love, so many memories, so much heartache, and I swear, it was one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen.

Mice and Men

It feels weird waiting for a defenseless mouse to die, especially when it’s slowly dying next to you. The two of you, one alive, the other on the edge of mortality, divided by a thin white wall. The mouse wasn’t much of a threat, but was an annoyance. Imagine being executed for being annoying. It’s terrible and unjust. But what’s more terrible is that my guilt highlights my hypocrisy, because I’m the one who set up the trap.

The trap was made of some adhesive substance spread evenly upon a square plastic base, like cream cheese on toast. I would have bought the classic mousetrap–that wood and metal contraption that delivers a quick death to its victim–but the local bodega is not known for its variety.

It’s a depressing end for a life equally as sad. What kind of life does a mouse lead anyway? Their lives are governed by instincts, not intellect. They scavenge for food, eat, and share the leftovers with the other mice living between my walls. They repeat this natural cycle in the same way I mechanically ride the subway train to my cubicle every morning. We work, we get paid, pay for food, eat the food, and we live another day. Repeat.

Our life revolves around food. Despite what scientists and philosophers say about the wonders of the brain; despite how many poets have composed sonnets about the heart, the stomach is the most influential organ in our body. You can live without the luxuries modern life offers you. You can even live without sex (although, you might go insane). But how long will you live before you die from starvation?

There have been cases where people have resorted to cannibalism when presented with no other choice. The risk of starvation can cause mentally healthy individuals to react in extreme ways. But just like the floor of my cramp New York apartment, our world is filled with traps, placed strategically by the property owners of our hierarchical society.

However, the contraptions we deal with on a daily basis are far more complex than wood, metal and springs. Their traps cost millions of dollars; tried and tested on focus groups and surveys. The traps are everywhere, in front of us, and yet we are clueless, blind and ignorant to the fact.

Just like the sticky adhesive that immobilized the unfortunate mouse, the traps of men will bring a slow, painful death. Just ask the guy over there, outside the federal building, smoking a cigarette, hair balding, dark circles around his eyes, lost in a flurry of thoughts, thinking of the next scheme to get out of his debtor’s pockets.

The body of my victim is rotting. I should throw it into the garbage so I can erase it from my life—my perfect life in my perfect universe. The stench is unbearable. It’s the stench of everything that is wrong in this world.

The Boys with Guns

During my high school year in the Philippines, I would take a passenger van to my cousin’s town every other month to hang out with him, his friends (who eventually became my friends), and smoke crystal meth every now and then. I was sent eastward to complete my senior year because I had accumulated multiple criminal and school infractions in Texas, and was on the verge of being expelled from my school.

I was still trying to navigate my way through a turbulent teenage phase and figure out if adulthood was for me. At that point in my life, the Philippines was a place that was both familiar and foreign to me. The province where I resided at the time was known as a hot spot for Maoist guerrilla activities, and military operations in the rural areas were very much active.

My cousin, the Filipino version of James Dean, drove an old-school Honda CBR with a mean skull airbrushed on the gas tank. We used to ride around town on that godforsaken creature, tearing up the quiet seaside villages.

One lazy weekend, I decided to visit him. He picked me up from the station and I hopped on the back of the bike. The roar of the bike’s engine meant one thing: I needed to hang on for dear life. We weaved through traffic at 60 mph, barely missing slower, less-reckless motorists.

The town was situated between a gorgeous bay and the Sierra Madre mountain range, so the roads snaked through different terrains and vistas. The geography provided two things: a high rate of road accidents—which benefited my aunt and uncle’s funeral business—and a perfect hiding place for the insurgents who have been battling the Philippine government for almost four decades.

In between prayers to my god, Jimi Hendrix, I howled in exhilaration as we defied death on every hairpin turn. Since traffic isn’t usually regulated by traffic lights in the provincial towns, driving in the Philippines could be described as controlled chaos at best. You can go from zooming down the freeway to a traffic jam within seconds.

After nearly colliding head on with another motorcyclist, we found ourselves behind a bus that was trying to maneuver its gigantic body on a very sharp turn. I used the change of pace to catch my breath and let the adrenaline disperse throughout my body like soda fizz. I suddenly heard the familiar sound of a diesel engine behind me and watched a military truck overtake us, the driver skillfully dipping into the opposite lane. In the back of the truck were about a dozen teenage boys dressed in green camouflage gear, with automatic rifles casually slung on their shoulders, staring back at us.

Some of the faces were pockmarked with acne and you could tell they spent a lot of time under the sun. They were probably only a couple of years older than me, but their stoic expressions made them look much older, with stress lines etched on their foreheads and bags under their eyes.

I tapped my cousin’s shoulder and asked him who the boys with guns were. He told me they were members of the local militia working with the armed forces in hunting down the guerrillas. Almost all of them came from impoverished families and the meager sum of money that the government pays them for doing the dirty work is practically a gift, especially in a country where even the educated middle-class struggles to find work.

The political situation in the Philippines and in many other poor countries affects the lives of the ordinary people who don’t really care about the war games politicians play; they’re just trying to survive. If it means that boys and young men have to pick up rifles and head out into the jungle, then there’s something seriously wrong with society, and it makes me wonder if we’ll ever see a day when there’s not a single war in the world, because how can you eradicate a social cancer in the next generation if it manifests itself at such a young age?

I could almost catch a glimpse of the violence they’ve seen and were a part of just by studying their gaze. The truck sped off and made a right turn on to a dirt road, into the jungle. I imagined them hopping off the truck, locked and loaded, ready for another round of scrimmage with guerrillas who were probably just as young as they were.

I could’ve been one of them had circumstances been different at the time of my birth. I could’ve been born into a life of poverty and hardship. I’m lucky to have won the cosmic lottery. Fate, or whatever you want to call it, gave me an easy path in life. There are times when I feel guilty for having the opportunities and resources that others could only dream of having access to. But I guess we have our own paths to lead and our own weapons to carry.

Sometimes I wonder if those boys are grown men now, with scars on their tan faces, and pictures of their babies in their wallets. Maybe some of the boys I saw on that road are already dead.

The Graveyard Shift

When I was 19, I worked the graveyard shift at a rehabilitation home for the elderly. It was an easy job and I didn’t have a supervisor watching over me. After the job orientation — which mostly consisted of sexual harassment videos made in the 70s with actors who looked like they were in subpar porn movies on the side — I found myself working alone in the back of the facility doing dirty, menial tasks.

It was only a temporary position, but I learned something about myself in that short period of time: I have a fear of living to an old age. If there was one specific moment when I came to this realization, it would be the time I saw one of the patients passionately masturbating in the TV room whilst a female patient, who had Alzheimer’s, sat next to him watching SpongeBob SquarePants, completely oblivious to his activities. It was as if an invisible barrier separated them despite being physically next to each other. They were both disconnected from reality.

I could imagine the horror on people’s faces if I pulled my wrinkled dick out at the meat market, and began pleasuring myself with vigor. Losing yourself at any age is a dreadful prospect and I saw a preview of what my future could look like that night.

There were many colorful people at the facility, most of whom were kindhearted despite their eccentricities. One resident, a 70-year old man named Bill, had the hormones of a 14-year old virgin at an all-boys school. The rumor that went around was that he had been sleeping with a young, beautiful Nigerian nurse. The rumor turned out to be true when the administration found out that Bill had been showering her with gifts and money, and that she willingly “paid” him back.

She wasn’t the only one who was in Bill’s radar. A nurse assistant nonchalantly told me — out of the blue during our lunch break — that Bill had approached her once with the same sex-for-goods proposition.

“He’s a disgusting old motherfucker,” she said in between bites of her vegetarian burger.

Bill was a generous fellow and not just towards pretty nurses. Every once in a while, he would make chicken salad in his room and share it with the staff. However, after seeing a large lotion dispenser and a box of tissue sitting on his bed stand next to a tub of freshly-made chicken salad, I consistently but politely declined to have a taste of whatever he made in his room.

Then there was Mr. Williams. He was a Vietnam War veteran and recovering heroin addict who stubbornly refused to quit smoking even though he had an oxygen tank fastened securely on the back of his motorized wheelchair like a flamethrower. His stubbornness reminded me of myself when I was 15 and my girlfriend at the time would lecture me on the adverse effects of cigarette smoking. I would just nod, step outside, and light another one.

One night, as I was walking down the hallway that lead to the back exit, I saw a trail of tiny blood drops perforating the shiny floor I had just buffed. I followed it and turned the corner to find one of the saddest things I had ever seen. Mr. Williams was in the doorway, hunched forward, a cigarette between his index and middle-finger slowly metamorphosing into a cylinder of ash. When I walked up next to him, I found out where the trail of blood had come from. His right foot had recently been amputated due to diabetes. The blood thoroughly soaked the bandage wrap. He was snoring and mumbling in his sleep.

He gave me medium-sized American and MIA-POW flags on Memorial Day. He left it at the nurse’s station with a note that simply said, “For Mike. God bless.” I have both of them framed, on my wall, next to a framed copy of the Declaration of Independence that had the immortal words, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal…” And yet Mr. Williams, a black man from the South, sacrificed his body and sanity for a country that continued to oppress people with his skin color upon returning home.

One night, I asked him if he had been a POW back in Vietnam. He shook his head. “Nah. But two of my buddies were taken.” He took a drag from his long menthol cigarette whilst I sat in silence, waiting for him to continue, but that was all he had to say about it. There were times when I would find him in his room, facing the window, quietly sobbing — private tears for ghosts of the past. Mr. Williams wasn’t the only one haunted by the dead. The entire place was a claustrophobic place filled with converging timelines, where the past and present are thrown in a saucepan and melted.

Mrs. Hattie, a 78-year old African American woman, once stopped me in the hallway, and, with complete emotional detachment, asked me, “Are they burning the kids outside?”

She stared at me blankly, waiting for an answer. I stared back, my mind still analyzing what I had just heard. And before I could even utter anything she casually walked away and went into the cafeteria.

I tried searching for any background information on Mrs. Hattie, but came up with nothing. I could’ve asked her family members, but I heard from the day staff that they rarely visited her. I was saddened when I heard that. These “homes,” the marketable term the administration liked to use, seemed more like orphanages for the elderly. There’s something about that idea which feels out of place in a civilized society, and yet it fits perfectly into the 21st Century life, where daily motion is fast-paced and everything is dispensable.

I crawled around the Internet in one final effort to find at least a tiny fragment of Mrs. Hattie’s past. All of the promising leads led to dead-ends. I did find a lot of articles on lynchings and other hate crimes in the South during the height of the Ku Klux Klan’s power. I stumbled across a few photos of young black men with swollen tongues hanging out of their mouths, a cattle rope constricting their neck, and tied to a large piece of branch. Arson also seemed to be the favored method of terrorism in those days. These were just photos — pixels on the screen. Whatever Mrs. Hattie saw, it was real and tangible

It doesn’t take a historian to guess correctly that many of these acidic events happened around the same time Mr. Williams was watching his buddies get ripped into pieces in the jungles of Southeast Asia. Like him, Mrs. Hattie became a bearer of a piece of American history — witnesses to a turbulent era in our country.

It wasn’t just the past that stalked the residents in the building. The future can also be scary if you’re not prepared for it. On my last night working there, a few of the nurses in one of the units threw me an impromptu farewell party. They just pitched in and bought a truckload of dollar menu items from the Jack in the Box across the street, and had also laid out an impressive spread of leftover cookies and brownies lifted from the cafeteria. There was always a stockpile of sweets since most of the patients were diabetics, which made me wonder if the kitchen staff just baked the goods for themselves.

I was particularly close to Maria, the petite nurse who always told me that she would set me up to marry her daughter. The other nurses didn’t really know me that well, but I invited them to our small party, too. They gave me genuine send-offs, such as “good luck.” One nurse enthusiastically and with a serious face told me, “You can be whatever you want to be if you believe in yourself!”

At the time, besides wanting to become a published writer, my only other ambition in life was to move to Brazil, become a dashing and daring scuba diving instructor, and marry a member of the women’s national volleyball team. That seemed more realistic than becoming a mildly-successful writer.

One of the nurses, a woman from Cameroon who loved to bark orders to all of the staff members, couldn’t even remember my name despite always asking me to magically vanquish the patients’ shit-filled diapers every night. Yes, it was part of my job, and I solemnly performed that duty each night, but she somehow felt that it was her duty to constantly remind me.

“What’s your name again?” she asked.

“It’s — ”

“Oh, oh, right. It’s Marian.”

“Uhm. Isn’t that a girl’s — ”

“Oh, sorry. No, it’s Malik isn’t it?”

“Michael.”

“Well, much luck to your future endeavors, Michael!”

“Thanks.”

She walked away holding a paper plate stacked with brownies. Then right before walking out the door, she turned around and said, “Oh, Michael, don’t forget to pick up the diapers in my unit, please. It’s starting to stink in there.”

“Enjoy your brownies,” I replied with a forced smile that any customer service rep would have been proud of.

Two hours before my final clock-out, one of the patients started buzzing the desk frantically. The head nurse rushed to the patient’s room, irritated that the phone conversation with her boyfriend was rudely interrupted. A few seconds later, the entire unit was filled with blood-curdling screams, ricocheting off the corners, and traveling down the halls towards the rest of the building. The nurse popped her head out the doorway and asked me to assist her. I ran to the room and saw the patient in the far corner, hugging her knees to her chest, screaming, “I don’t want to go!”

Her eyes were the definition of fear. She kept a sharp gaze directly on the opposite corner. She pointed at something only visible to her and demanded that we kept “that thing” away from her. My initial thought was that she was experiencing hallucination. None of the patients had psychosis, or even showed signs of schizophrenia, but with all the medication they consumed, I wouldn’t have been surprised if all those intermingling chemicals caused profound neurological effects. Yet something about her mannerisms and intense emotions told me that she was the sanest person in that room.

She said that someone was trying to take her away. She shouted at the top of her lungs. The nurse told me to watch the lady and help calm her down whilst she went to fetch some sedatives. This wasn’t exactly in my job description, but the unit was short-staffed that night. Plus, I only had a little more than an hour before I was out the door for good, so I obliged. I felt sorry for the poor old woman.

When the nurse left the room, the patient calmed down a bit, but kept her eyes on the corner as if she was waiting for something to pop out and grab her. I asked her what was wrong in the softest voice possible. She didn’t respond at first and I figured that she didn’t hear me, but after a while she simply said, “I don’t want to go.”

The nurse came back with some pills, but the patient refused to take any of it. Within ten minutes she was sound asleep, and it was as if nothing had ever happened. Just as with Mrs. Hattie and Mr. Williams, I will never know what she saw. Maybe the Grim Reaper dropped by to hand her a pink slip; a 2-minute warning at the fourth quarter.

When my shift finally ended, I said one last farewell to the staff and clocked out. As I was leaving the building, I noticed, surprisingly for the first time, the exit sign on the ceiling in the main hallway. I wonder how many patients saw that glowing red word as the paramedics carted them away in a stretcher, taking them into the unknown.

When I arrived home, I went straight to the bathroom and rinsed my face with cold water. I looked at the figure in the mirror and wondered if I would be able to look at myself in the eyes five decades later, and still recognize the person staring back. Would I be able to live with my past? Would I easily accept my fate? Or would I try to bargain with Death?

I don’t remember if I came up with any answers for those questions, but I do remember, vividly, the sky that morning. The sunlight was still a deep orange and the clouds were pink with shades of purple. I lifted the blinds, sat on the floor with my back against the door, and watched the day unfold.

The White Screen

“Cinema is the most beautiful fraud in the world.”

– Jean-Luc Godard

2

During my senior year of high school, I was what you would call a loner. I had friends and cousins whom I hung out with every now and then, but I lived in my own secluded planet most of the time.

I’m not a shy person whatsoever. You might even say that I’m an extroverted introvert. It’s just that I prefer to be alone half of the time.

I wrapped up my high school years abroad, in a land both familiar and foreign to me. I had voluntarily withdrawn from my school in Texas rather than having the word “expelled” stain my academic record.

I was going through a weird phase at the time, getting into petty trouble, and had the mindset of a kamikaze pilot spiraling downwards, sadistically wishing to decimate everything in one fantastic explosion.

That sort of anti-social mentality set me apart from everyone else, and increased the buffer zone that separated me from my peers.

One of the many things I learned during the time I spent abroad is the true definition of alienation. I never really fitted in with a specific type of crowd, and I had done a good job blending in with the scenery: a blurry figure in the peripheral.

But in a country and culture that emphasizes close kinship and being highly social, I stood out like really ugly wallpaper. Even when I actually made an effort to disappear in the background, I would attract quizzical stares.

“What’s with that guy over there? Is he crazy?”

I imagined another person whispering, “No, I think he’s a deaf-mute.”

One time, when I was walking home from school, my beefed up backpack embracing my body like a clingy child, my head bent down, a neighbor of mine told me that I was so depressing to look at. He joked that his heart ached every time he saw me walking down the street.

When I asked him why, he motioned for me to take a look around. I saw everyone else with at least one other person. There were pairs and groups all laughing, chatting animatedly, and enjoying the evening in each other’s company. I even saw a couple fighting in the park, yet I was still the saddest-looking person out of all.

I wasn’t the cloistered kind of loner. I was the loner who blended in with the crowd. I frequently went to places that you typically went to with friends: parks, bars, restaurants, and the mall.

As with the supermarket and the DMV, the mall is where you’re guaranteed to find individuals from all walks of life. There’s the young couple at the food court who haven’t said a single word to each other, chewing their food silently, avoiding each other’s eyes. At the lingerie store, an old man with a gold watch, itching with paranoia, lock hands with a girl who looked only 15.

Then there’s that one kid who spent hours upon hours at the internet cafe playing shooter games just so he could get away from his parents’ abusive hands. He had a new bruise or cut on his face every time I saw him. One time, his parents stormed into the cafe and dragged him out by his hair—his sneakers squeaking against the polished floor—until the mall security stepped in.

Amidst this chaotic, bustling circus governed by consumerism are private worlds. The mall, after all, is not only a place where you go to find a new pair of shoes or silk tie, but also a place to seek temporary distraction. What better place to forget all your problems but the mall?

A church, mosque or temple is too quiet. Silence is a blank canvas to paint your jumbled thoughts and fears upon. You need a place with noise loud enough to drown the one inside your head.

I had my own special place within the mall where I temporarily suspended my problems. It was in the form of a giant white projector screen. To me, the theater screen wasn’t just a flat, lifeless object, but a portal; a rabbit hole that leads to Wonderland. For an escapist loner like myself, the cinema was the perfect escape pod.

Once the lights turn dim, the speakers rattle your chest, and the projector beam pierces through the thick darkness, you forget about all the baggage you left at the entrance. You enter a synthetic reality.

The cinematic experience is similar to watching a magic show. You know it’s fake, yet you play along and allow your mind to be captivated by the illusion.

I went to the movies so often that the manager who knew me by name started giving me discounts on the tickets, which only fueled my addiction.

I watched films from a wide range of genres, whether it was a blockbuster or an independent film: action, horror, comedies, war dramas, and biopics. I consumed them all with equal glee.

One time, on Valentine’s Day, I took a chance on a thriller. As expected, the theater was packed with couples—from high school sweethearts to old folks who seemed just as horny as the teens.

On the seventh row, dead center, the guy wearing the gray hoodie and a dirty pair of Chuck Taylors, with both arm rests down, was me. Was it uncomfortable to be the only solitary figure in a theater filled with fluttering hearts and boiling hormones? Yes, but not because I ached for what they had—I was a loner by choice, not circumstance—but because the guy beside me was finger-fucking his girlfriend. Thank you, arm rest inventor.

When the film started, everyone else in the theater disappeared. Music seeped in slowly and the first scene materialized on screen like a Polaroid picture. Once you cross that line, you’re no longer here, but there in that fictional world that looks like our own, but just slightly different. You are an audience member and a participant in the way that an admirer viewing a painting is a link in its process of communication.

Sometimes a tiny moment of revelation in a film lasts longer in your memory than all your years combined. Once the film ends, everything goes back to normal, except you feel a residue of what you had just watched, what you had mentally ingested.

At a time when my future wasn’t looking too bright, films brought me a sense of confidence. Films made it seem like anything was possible and that I could be the protagonist in my own story.

Some actors claim they chose to act so that they could be someone else, even if it’s just for a short while. In the same sense, I spent many nights in the movie theater alone because I wanted to be a part of their great escape. Through the stories, the characters and hypnotic music, I became everyone and no one.

Unfortunately, I stopped going to movie theaters a long time ago. I’m still a film geek at heart and Netflix revolutionized the way we consumed media. Stream services turned everyone into film scholars in the same way Instagram turned everyone into photographers. Before, a random person on the street didn’t know what cinematography was. Now, they’ll give a move a bad rating if the composition wasn’t correct. It’s great to share my love for cinema with more people, both as a viewer and as a filmmaker.

These days, we have many ways to escape (usually the Internet). In a way, I’m still an escapist. The difference now is that I’ve realized that I’m not running away from anything or myself. Now I’m simply running towards the rabbit hole to embark on a fantastic adventure through the magic of film, even if it was fleeting.

Notes: The photo is part of my project B-Theory, which is a collection of superimposed photographs mounted on slides. That’s me at age 4 with my aunt overlapped with a picture I took of a mini pop-up theater at Contemporary Arts Museum Houston.

The Patron Saint of Vagabonds

It was three in the morning when the bus finally came to a complete stop. I had just arrived in the border town of Brownsville, Texas, on my way to Mexico for one of my solo backpacking trips. I was still Stateside, yet it felt like I had just crash-landed in a Mexican ghost town.

Upon planting my feet on the ground, the bus hightailed it out of there. That was when the surge of adrenaline flooded my entire body. I love the mixture of excitement, anxiety and uncertainty you feel before embarking on a journey. That’s all part of the thrill. I’m a nomad, always seeking new places to discover and different cultures to immerse myself in, and I figured it was a damn shame that I’ve lived in Texas for more than a decade, and yet I had never visited our neighbor down below.

I had spent the month before consuming travel guides, books on Mexican history, and crawling around backpacker forums online. I even thought of enrolling in rock climbing classes in case I survived a 50-foot fall and had to climb the side of quarry back to the earth’s epidermis. I was prepared for any scenario.

There were only a little over a dozen passengers on the bus, and even fewer actually ended up in the bus station. Most had family or friends already waiting for them in the parking lot. The bus station itself looked like a small diner that was converted into a transport hub. I could have traveled back in time to the 60s and the station would’ve looked pretty much the same.

I walked in and saw two young employees in plain clothes, with only name tags to identify them as the people who actually managed the joint. In the far corner sat an old couple with enough luggage to carry every item in my apartment. Next to the restrooms, on the pay phone, was a teenage girl talking loudly to a person on the other end of the line.

“What do you mean Daniel’s drunk?” she asked. “Someone better fucking pick me up!”

She continued to berate the person she was speaking with, her sentences abandoning commas and periods, using every profane word in the English and Spanish vocabulary, and then slammed the phone. She noticed that I was looking in her direction and quickly flashed a smile. I smiled back and took a mental note to ask her who her dentist was, because she had the whitest, most perfectly aligned teeth I had ever seen.

I sat down on one of those orange plastic chairs typically found in bus stations all over the world; the ones that feel more and more uncomfortable the longer you sit on it. I wasn’t waiting for anyone, nor was I on a schedule. I could’ve crossed the border anytime I pleased, but I wanted to marinate in the eerie atmosphere that enveloped the town. Also, I was teasing the excitement building up inside me. It’s just more fun when you hold off your impulses until the breaking point.

I loitered around the station, studied my maps and checked my travel documents. Gradually, the remaining people in the station disappeared one by one until I was the only one left. I took that as my cue to make my own exit. I went through the back doors and saw the pissed off teen with the immaculate set of teeth yelling at the driver of a heavily-tinted Chevy Impala.

“You fucking asshole!” she shouted. “Didn’t I tell you not to drink?”

The driver responded by mumbling a fragmented sentence soaked in alcohol. After a few more inaudible exchanges, the girl finally went inside the car. As soon as she slammed the door, the Impala took off — its bright tail lights drawing neon lines down the dark street.

There I was, all alone in the middle of the quiet downtown street. The border checkpoint was very much visible from where I stood. Its white lights were so bright that it took my eyes a few seconds to adjust to the contrast. Like a mosquito hypnotized by a zapper, my feet inched towards the border, but I immediately stopped myself. I didn’t want to cross yet, because the Mexican consulate was still closed and I didn’t want to sit outside their gate. Besides, the old haunted-looking buildings down the street were inviting me to take a closer look.

The facade of the structures had an odd discoloration and its huge impenetrable windows looked menacing. It was the kind of architecture I was into. Between the buildings was an empty parking lot, barely lit up by two light posts.

I walked down the main street, which was lined with old-fashioned lamp posts. I stood in the middle of the street and snapped photographs for a good ten minutes without any worries of getting run over. It felt like I was in a zombie flick and that a herd of brain-eating un-deads were going to turn the corner at any minute. Thankfully, I didn’t encounter anyone or anything, but I did bump into a guy who looked like an aging actor working as an extra in a zombie film.

He wore a green military jacket, had long, unkempt hair and sported a scruffy beard. He was loitering outside the bus station, examining scraps of trash that were scattered along the sidewalk.

He spotted me.

I waved.

He smiled.

If the profane girl’s teeth were considered a masterpiece of enamel architecture, then this man’s teeth would be the dilapidated house across the railroad tracks. Regardless, he had an aura about him that was warm and welcoming. I walked back towards the bus station. He gestured for a cigarette as I approached him. I took one out of my pack and handed it to him.

“Gracias, gracias!” he said enthusiastically. He gave me a thumbs-up.

His name was Pedro and had been roaming the streets for 15 hard years. We sat down on the curb and began a bilingual conversation that sounded like drunken banter between American and Mexican diplomats. Despite the language barrier, our conversation flowed naturally. There weren’t any push-pull mechanisms with awkward silences in between. We traded words back and forth as if we were old friends from the neighborhood catching up.

I asked him how he wound up on the streets of Brownsville. Pedro took a deep drag and began painting a picture in the air with his cigarette.

Pedro used to have a decent job and lived in a nice house in a tight-knit neighborhood on the outskirts of the town, a place where everyone knew each other by name. Then one December night in 1992, his whole life transformed into ash. The fire marshal later told him that it was an accidental fire. He said it was probably an old heater that caused the blaze. When I asked if he had a family, he just gazed into the distance. He was pretty vague when he talked about anything related to his family. I assumed the worst.

How can one carry on after such a loss? Everyone has a story to tell, but not enough people want or try to listen. I wanted to ask him where he gets the strength that enables him to move on with his life, even if that life is one filled with hardship, but before I could say anything, he answered my question with another smile. It’s the same kind of smile I’ve seen plastered on the faces of emaciated street kids in Manila.

Is pain and suffering a form of baptismal by fire? Maybe the Buddha had it right all along: this life, this world, is full of suffering and one must surpass all of that by accepting the struggle in order to reach a sublime state of being.

Pedro suddenly became excited and tapped my arm. He reached into his jacket’s pocket, fished around for a few seconds, and took out a Zippo lighter. On one side was a picture of Tony Montana clutching his beloved M-16 rifle, coked up as ever. It was one of those lighters that they sold at convenient stores, but Pedro held it like a sacred figurine. In a way, it is sacred. He showed it off; took pride in it. It was his most valuable possession.

I looked over to the border checkpoint, shining brilliantly like a Las Vegas show marquee. It resembled a glorious gate to the Promised Land — but promises can easily be broken.

People with broken hearts and shiny ambitions, hoping to materialize their dreams, come into the United States every day. We’re on the same landmass and all one has to do is cross a relatively short bridge to get to the other side, but just because you “made it” that doesn’t mean you’re immune from accidental fires or death.

Pedro looked up and I noticed that the sun was peaking above the horizon. He quickly got up and started speed walking down the street, smiling and waving back at me. I asked him where he was going. Apparently a local church — that humble sanctuary for the displaced and downtrodden — hosted a limited number of the town’s homeless population.

It wasn’t hard for me to identify with him and others like him. When you’re traveling alone in a foreign country, you’re practically homeless in a sense. The only difference is that no matter how far away my home is, at least I still have one, whereas Pedro doesn’t. The reality is that all of us can easily lose our home, whether due to fire or foreclosure, and wind up in the streets. Safety, wealth and mortality statistics are but an illusion. All of it can slip from your grasp as quick as a flash of lightning.

A vast majority of the sky was still black, but I decided it was time for me to get going as well. As I made my way towards the checkpoint, I didn’t feel so out of place anymore, and Brownsville no longer resembled a ghost town. I could say that I have at least one friend in Brownsville.

When I reached the Mexican side, I walked around the streets aimlessly, letting my curiosity lead the way. I met all kinds of people the further I went. I learned that when you looked past the superficial stuff and straight into the eyes, you will realize that we are unique products made of the same material. How else can a kid from the suburbs connect with a Spanish-speaking vagabond like Pedro?

While I was walking around a market in Matamoros, I saw a large painting of a saint. He looked almost like Pedro and I thought to myself, St. Peter — God’s border patrol agent; the guy who filters those departed souls hoping to get into heaven. Maybe that saintly man wandering around the Rio Grande Valley really was a saint.

Honestly, it wouldn’t surprise me one bit.