Bitter gourd


The morning sun seared my skin as I stood next to an ATM machine. On it, a note: “Non-cash transactions only”.

Mamayang hapon pa po 'yan malo-loadan,” a guard said, unflinching.

I walked to an LBC branch five minutes down the road to get money that someone transferred to me Friday evening. A clerk rose from his chair. “Sira pa rin po ang system.” It's been three days. A poster on the wall read, “LBC. We like to move it.” They should really add "at a snail's pace" at the end of that tagline.

I tinkered with my wallet in all its paper weight. Two one-peso coins clanked inside it. The universe seemed to be conspiring, though not in a good way.

I commissioned a man at the tricycle stop to take me to the poblacion 10 kilometers away for an ungodly P100  – 10 times what I would pay a jeepney driver. He waited to get paid there.
___________


After running a few errands for Lia and the pets, I took a seat in a turo-turo in the poblacion. On my decrepit table, a cup of rice and half an order of sauteed bitter gourd rested. Afront of the eatery, people rushed to and from the hospital as I took spoon after spoon of the dish. It was bitter on the outside, quite sweet at the center. A metaphor for life, perhaps?

Thirteen years ago, I was one of those rushing in and out of medical facilities. I took eight to 24-hour shifts – always in a hurry, sometimes sound, a couple of times on the verge of inebriation. In my belly were two liters of beer, along with that gnawing feeling that I was not in the right place. The right place was nowhere to be found.

There have been great times in hospitals - also terrible ones. During my first few student shifts, whenever families swept the curtain to mourn their dead as nurses performed post-mortem care, grief swallowed me whole. I cried, and my instructors scolded me. “Nurses are supposed to be the rock for families. You are not being a professional one," they said.

In the midst of near-daily losses, I developed a love for emergency rooms, in all their grotesque realities and nerve-wracking adrenaline rush. We'd have frequent visits from men with their intestines hanging out of their bellies, mothers with heads bleeding from a car crash, kids with their bones protruding out of their limbs.

But in emergency rooms, you seldom get your heart broken. Patients come and go in a matter of minutes or hours. Our connection with them go as far as the emergent procedure they need – nothing more, nothing less. I won't wake up remembering their names and their sad stories.

In wards, however, conversations evolve from small talk during sponge baths to soul-crushing ones with senile patients who were left to die alone in hospital beds. I worked three years in total as a nurse – two as a student and one as an unpaid professional – and to this day, those painful memories remain raw.

People continued to run to and from the hospital frantically as I again counted the remaining bills I had. What if's flirted with my head. What if I just kept rushing in and out of those hospitals? What if I made the American Dream happen? What if I don't have to count bills because I had so many?

___________


My stepdad spent around P50,000 on local and international licensure examinations and paperwork, so I did what I had to do to pass all. Just shortly after, I received a couple of two-year contracts for convalescent facilities in New York, and Ukiah in California. Each of them offered to pay USD28 per hour. In a year, I'd make $53,000. That's over P2.6 million in annual gross income. My stepdad won't have to work for a day in his life. My mother and sister will be debt-free. In a few years, I would have that beach house I always wanted. I'd type away stories in that wooden one-storey house. A real writer, finally.

At times, I fantasized about living in Ukiah. In Mendocino County, they grew weed in their backyards. Maybe I'd stop by to see what a marijuana leaf looks like. The Golden Gate Bridge is only four hours away. On weekends, I will drive to central L.A. and eat in one of those diners with hefty servings of fries and grilled burger and milkshakes. I'd have Pinoy colleagues and we'd commiserate in our collective homesickness. Maybe it won't be so lonely. All I had to do was stay there for five years, so I can “buy” my freedom.



But  I didn't do it. I couldn't. Even with two degrees and international licenses under my belt, I was nothing. Those “accomplishments” were a hollow shell. Heavy resistance burrowed in my chest. One drunken night, I thought, “I don't want to go. I want to stay here and write. If I go there, I won't be able to write. I would be so tired from work, from my life that I'd stuff pills in my mouth again. And maybe then, I'd stuff enough that I wouldn't wake up anymore.”

So now, I have this. Instead of hearty burger and fries in a California diner, I have the bitter aftertaste of cheap bitter gourd and old rice in my mouth. Instead of making millions, there's the stale taste of loans; counting coins, not bills. Instead of driving an impressive car, I am driven by a rickety jeepney in this relentless heat, in this paupery, with a yearly income that doesn't even come close to a quarter of what I can make in the US.

___________

Roads and houses grew smaller as I made my way to Lia's school. If I took that path, would I be here? 

I know the answer well.

If I did, I wouldn't have Lia to fetch and bring back home. I won't be writing this. I would be out in the world but not truly living in it. I am here, alive, because I am now a mother and a writer. I didn't have to buy my freedom, after all. I just had to claim it.

I looked away as tears started to trickle. They weren't tears of self-pity but tears that dwelt in every kind of emotional shithole for 34 years. They were tears that know the guilt of abandoning plans for many, so I could allow the I to be led to where the heart leads.

A few say that my life is sayang, because I traded glaring wealth for something that "you could do after you become rich." In the Indonesian/ Malay vernacular, sayang means love. In my country, it connotes regret when something valuable slips out of your hand. Wasted, so to speak.

But these tears, they know that in that beat-up jeepney, knee-deep in trouble, I have no regrets. There's no sayang. This is the life I chose. To be in a place where, no matter how poor you are and how many what if's threaten to mess you up, there is nothing you would change about the now - not everyone has that freedom. And I have it. It may be Van Gogh-esque, but if there was a fuckup in the space-time continuum, I will still choose this. I will choose Lia and writing over and over again.

The tears slid down my lips. But unlike the bitter gourd I had for breakfast, they were not bitter. These ones tasted like sweet happiness. These are tears that know that after three decades of seeking, I finally found the right place. And now, I am heading back to it.

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