Friday, November 10, 2006

Untold Pinoy Story No. 1

The Heart of the Matter
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It was meant to be just one of those late afternoon trips to National Bookstore in Rizal Avenue hoping for a great book find. I was browsing through the books on sale which were piled up on a big table on the second floor. I was alone for sometime until the corner of my eye caught a shadow beside me. I didn’t look but I figured that it was a man. He spoke to himself.

It was here yesterday”, said the voice.

I didn’t take the bait. I just ignored him. Having grown up in a small town, I was always reminded to be wary of strangers. Downtown Manila was full of crooks, my folks would always say.

The man continued shoving the books, painstakingly peering at the bottom of the pile.

I wanted to avoid him so I decided to browse through the regularly-priced books while waiting for the man to leave. As I started to move away, I looked up. I was astonished. I’ve seen that man before. I couldn’t believe it. Was that really him?

Only a few years ago, I dragged my sister to Fort Santiago to watch a stage play. But more than the thrill of watching a stage play directed by Lino Brocka and starring Lolita Rodriguez, Charito Solis and Philip Salvador in the flesh (so close that you could literally touch them), was the chance to see what many considered as the greatest Filipino stage play ever written. The play’s author did not even finish high school but he was regarded as the greatest Filipino writer in English. I have seen the English play’s film version but I had been dreaming of seeing it on stage even if it had been translated to Pilipino.

My sister and I waited long hours on the concrete bench outside the open-air Rajah Sulayman Theatre. Before the play started, Lino Brocka graciously signed my copy of the play’s program with these Latin words: Contra Mundum!

But when I saw the play’s author, I couldn’t contain my excitement. I did not pass the opportunity to request for a photograph with him. As I pulled out my old reliable vintage 50s Kodak camera with rotating flashbulbs, some clueless kibitzers wondered who that man was. I was the only one who gave him that kind of attention. Upon my request, he quietly signed my copy of the book of his play. Ever since I read his story about a woman who looked at the mirror to see her future husband, I had been hooked into his works. I bought all his books: novels, stage plays, reportage, poems, children’s stories. He had always been someone bigger than life to me.

That afternoon at National Bookstore, I stood catatonic halfway through the shelves of regularly-priced books as I came to the realization that the man standing before me looked like the author of the stage play which I saw with my sister at Rajah Sulayman Theatre a few years ago. I was speechless for a moment. Then, I summoned all my guts and asked him if he was the man I thought he was.

Yes”, said the man, barely looking at me as he continued rummaging through the books.

Which book are you looking for?”, I asked, still in awe of his magnificent presence.

The Heart of the Matter. I saw it here yesterday”, this time with warmth in his voice.

My eyes joined his search for the book. No one spoke a word.

After a fruitless search, he slowly moved away from the table and headed for the stairs. I looked up. He stopped and grabbed the stair’s balustrade, then smiled at me. He raised his right arm and motioned it in the act of drinking. I couldn’t believe it. This man whom I adore so much was inviting me for a drink. And we only met today! He doesn’t even know my name.

I was very na├»ve and afraid at that time. It was getting dark outside. Besides, I haven’t tasted beer in my life. I would not be able to hide the stench of beer when I get home. I politely shook my head. He was gone in an instant.

After a year, I saw a copy of Graham Greene’s The Heart of the Matter at National Bookstore. It was on sale again. I immediately bought the only remaining copy.

Later, I saw the man again in Rizal Avenue. But I didn’t have the guts to approach him. He was walking briskly with a young boy in school uniform. His nephew, I surmised.

To this day, I couldn’t help but wonder what could have happened had I joined him for a drink that late afternoon. Who knows? He could have shared with me his writing secrets and I would have been a celebrated writer by now. Or perhaps, things could have turned out differently. The elusive and unpredictable writer that he was, he once took a cab all the way from Manila to Baguio.

But I have to admit that I feel a sense of regret at having passed up that rare opportunity of sharing a bottle of beer with a national treasure who remains on top of my list of writing inspirations: Nick Joaquin.
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And you know the rest of his story.
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Image from amazongroup.com
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Next: Musical Chairs in High Places