February 3, 2014
Dad plans to bring me to the Baracuda, the bar he used to own.
“Are you sure you don’t want to come out with us, Mom? ” I ask one more time before we leave. “We don’t need to go to the bar. We can go somewhere else.” After hearing the consequences of Dad’s drinking from Paring, the prospect of spending time with Dad in a bar is daunting.
“What do you mean? Of course we have to go to the bar,” Dad says. “Don’t you want to see the Baracuda? It’s my handiwork, after all.”
“Of course, but how about Mom? ” I ask. “We can just stay in together.”
“Really, princess? ” Dad asks. “You’re in Boracay and you want to stay in? ”
It doesn’t help that Mom’s already turned the TV on to Little Sister – the Philippine version of Big Brother—and the reality show brings back all the mediocrity of our life in Canada. It’s depressing to think of amidst of this luxury.
“Go on,” Mom says. “It’s good for you and your dad to spend some time together. Just don’t do anything I wouldn’t do.”
“Then we wouldn’t be doing anything at all,” Dad says, but eases his comment with a kiss. “Don’t worry, darling. I’m just showing Benni the sights.”
Inside the bar, hanging cloth lanterns tie-dyed pink, blue, and yellow provide dim lighting for the small space. The lanterns serve as the only other company besides the bartender. The bar’s walls are panelled with chalkboards boasting the number of shots guests could down in a row.
Dad points to his name on the wall. It’s faded and dusty, but still there for anyone to see.“It says I could do twenty-five here, but in truth I can do at least thirty. I was going easy that night.”He approaches the bar. “Hoy, Chris, two tequilas for my daughter and I, and a B&B each to chase it down.”
“Dad, I’m fine. Just a coke for me.”
“A coke? ” Dad asks. “You’re coming to my bar and getting only a coke? ”
“Why not? You can get one too.”
“Are you kidding me? This is our night together, princess.” When I don’t respond, he asks, “Have you ever even tried a Bénédictine and brandy? ”
“No. I can’t stomach brandy,” I say.
Dad lets out a hearty laugh and hands me an ice-filled glass topped up with a rich amber liquid. “Take just one sip,” he says.
“I’d really rather not. How often are we out together, Dad? It’d be a shame to get drunk.”
“Drunk? Whoa, princess, who said anything about getting drunk? One celebratory shot and a glass of B&B will not get us drunk. We can go after that.”
Dad’s words are so earnest, and his look so genuinely eager for us to spend time together, that I wonder what harm one drink could do.
I cheers Dad and we down the tequila followed by the B&B. Both drinks burn my throat and numb my tongue, but the B&B leaves a rich taste behind that lingers on the roof of my mouth.
Dad laughs as I cough.
“Dad, that’s the foulest chaser ever.”
“We can get you a sweeter one.”
“No. No more shots and no more chasers. Let’s go and see the sights.”
“What’s the rush, princess? The night is young. Besides, I want to chat with Chris for a quick second, okay? ”
I sit by as Dad asks after the wellbeing of old friends and business connections. I sip my B&B, growing accustomed to the taste. Chris keeps Dad’s glass topped up as they talk. I can’t keep track of how may top-ups Dad’s had, and Dad brushes off my entreaties to go until my hearing has grown dull and I realize with a start that I am beyond tipsy from my far-from-watered-down drink.
I get up, surprised to find I can hardly stand. Friends in Canada used to tease that I was a cheap drunk. I used to boast that it saved me money, but I regret it now.
“Dad, we should go.”
“Go? ” Dad looks at his watch. “Princess, it’s only 10:30.”
Despite the number of refills Dad has had, he looks more sober than ever, albeit with slightly more rosy cheeks. In that moment, I hate myself for not paying enough attention, and even more for wanting to leave.
“How often do we get a night out like this? ” Dad asks for the fifth time tonight.
The statement is so true that I want to cry. I take a deep breath, nod, and sit down, determined to cut myself off and monitor Dad. As soon as I sit, though, Chris refills my glass.
Dad holds his glass up for a toast. “To being here. I’m glad you’re here, princess. I’m glad we’re all here together.”
“For sure. We haven’t done this in a long time. We hardly ever see each other anymore.” I’m still sober enough to see how my statement subdues Dad—the sides of his mouth tip down and a look of dissatisfaction crosses his face.
“Aren’t you going to drink? ” Dad asks. “It’s bad luck not to drink after a toast.”
I take a small sip and, not wanting to ruin the night further, change the topic. “It’s nice being here, Dad. I’m learning a lot. I never knew about Sarah, for example. Talk about an oversight.”
“An oversight? ” Dad laughs. “What do you mean? Why would I tell you about a girl I used to date? ”
“You always talk about girls you used to date. You just told us about that chick you crashed your motorcycle with.”
“Oh, but she was nothing,” Dad says.
“Unlike Sarah,” I say.
“Unlike Sarah,” Dad says. “For a long time, Sarah was everything. I really did love her. I didn’t feel right for a long time after we split up. Heartbroken, y’know. The word’s not a cliché for nothing.” Dad shakes his head and looks at me. “Are you seeing anyone, Benni? Anyone I need to carry my shotgun for? ”
“Dad, you know the answer to this already. I was seeing Tom.”
“You guys split up ages ago. You’re not seeing anyone new? ”
“We split up three weeks ago, Dad.”
“Tom was nothing though. You dated for all of two months, didn’t you? ”
“I wish. We dated for two years. I only thought we were going to get married. I’m only a bit heartbroken.” I laugh, trying not to sound self-pitying, and take a gulp of B&B so I don’t have to talk more.
Dad snorts. “That guy? You never seemed to like him much.”
I choke on my drink. “Are you kidding me? Tom was great. He was a lot like me, and he made me feel like I belonged.”
“Princess, you have no problem fitting in. You don’t need someone to help you belong. Let’s be honest here; what’s really bugging you? ”
I stare at Dad with glazed eyes, trying to focus. Something he’s said has stood out for me—one of those moments where you want to pull out a pen and put an asterisk beside it. I’m trying to puzzle it out long after Dad’s lost interest in the conversation and ordered us a second round of shots.
I study my father’s face, taking note of the greys peppering his hair that I hadn’t noticed the last time I saw him—a long time ago. I don’t have the heart to say that I finally realize I’d been trying to fill the gaps he’d left—the sense of not belonging he’s given me, and the feeling of never being enough to stick around.
I leave the bar when I am finally too drunk to speak. I stumble out onto the sand, blinking as though the millions of faraway stars are too bright.
I ask Dad to join me, but he tells me to leave without him. He wants to stay and beat his personal best.
I don’t turn to say bye when I go. I don’t want to see him sitting there with his sandy toes clutching tight to the weathered bar stool, his heavy arm and moistened palms nursing a sweating beer bottle, his eyes open but seeing nothing.
At that moment, I prefer to see nothing too.
The sea is only a few strides away, but remains unseen beyond the light of the bar’s front door. I stumble towards our suite. Occasionally, I veer too far to the left or right. On one far detour left, I feel water on my feet. The sea, which barely touches the tops of my toes, lies before me in an unseen sheet of blackness. I could be standing in tar—that’s how dark it is.
I wade out into the darkness, seeing nothing and feeling only the clothes on my skin and the wet sand under my feet. I keep wading. The water doesn’t reach any higher than my calves. At one point the land dips and I wade in beyond my knees, but soon it levels out and I remain ankle deep.
I spot a white blur in the water and approach it, drunk and without fear. It’s a white buoy, which during the day is too far out to see.
I gaze around. “The tide’s gone out,” I say to no one in particular. “I’m standing in the middle of the ocean.” I look around again before lying down on the sand. “I’m lying in the middle of the ocean!” I yell, my voice thick with alcohol.
The stars are infinite from this position, studding the sky as far as I can see. The water is warm from the day’s sun; it washes into my ears, cradlesmy neck, and fans my hair out beneath me. I imagine this spot in the day—hundreds of meters below the crushing waves. I’m usually scared of the ocean, and I shiver imagining the water returning to bury me the way Moses buried the Egyptians as they crossed the Red Sea.
But here, Dad and I soared well above the tallest tree on the island, and now I lie on the ocean floor.
Here, I am invincible.
I return to the resort well past midnight, still tipsy and dripping wet from my rest in the ocean. Our resort’s section of the island is populated with older tourists who sleep rather than party at night. The effect is one of eerie silence, as though Boracay has become my own personal island in truth.
To amplify the feeling of seclusion, our building is the only one lit along the surf, standing out amongst a sea of shadowy black as though to beckon me home. As the light washes over me, I watch my white shirt and pale limbs come into being from the shadowy, far-flung world.
“Home, sweet home,” I mumble. “It was a good night.” I think of Dad sitting alone at the bar, shake my head, and say again, “It was a good night.”
“If you’ve had a good night, you can’t let it end yet,” a man’s voice says.
I look up to find five men. They’re locals, judging from their dark skin and dusty clothes. It’s as if they, too, have just materialized, though I realize they must have been part of a larger group on the resort’s patio that I failed to notice. The light that’s beckoned me forward hasn’t been for me, but for them where they gather. I offer up a polite smile. I don’t know what they want, but the beach has been friendly all night. My beach.
“Hello, beautiful,” the closest man says. His words are slurred, his gait uneven. The other men are similarly glassy eyed, stumbling through a reek of alcohol. I haven’t seen these men at our resort before, though I notice one of them is clad in the tropical uniform used by resort staff. “What are you doing tonight? ” he asks.
Despite my alcohol haze, I realize that I am only one woman among many men. “I’m on my way back to meet some friends,” I say. “I’m expected now.”
“Is that so? Your friends are lucky to be here with a beautiful woman like you. You should join us instead. We promise we’ll be nice—especially to a woman with those legs, those lips, and that—“ he stares at my chest”—dress.”
I see now how ridiculous I am—exposed and unprotected. I am wearing a nearly-transparent shirt, clinging skirt, and am standing on a dark, empty beach where foreigners keep their windows closed and shuttered. My beach? Ha. Their beach.
I cross my arms over my chest.
“What are you doing? Why are you covering yourself? You could be a real artiste. The only question is: can you perform like one? ” He winks and I remember what Mom said about the country’s movie stars: they’re beautiful, but whores—all of them.
He steps forward just as someone yells, “Stop!”
Dad strides past me and plants himself between us. “What do you think you’re doing? ” he asks.
The man pauses, confusion and resentment on his face.
“Do you know who this girl is? ”
The other men start backing away.
“Do you know who I am? ” Dad yells. “Benni, go upstairs,” he says to me.
Though he’s well outnumbered, I know he’ll be okay. His tone commands authority.
The men hear it too, and the leading man’s resentment gives way to worry.
I slip unmolested towards the resort, though I have to pass the men on the patio to go upstairs.
Dad singles out the resort’s staff in the crowd. “Your boss is going to hear about this,” he says, pointing at the man, whose brow beads with sweat upon realizing we are customers at his resort. “That’s right. If you come back, I’ll have my men on you. Scram! Don’t mess with the King of Boracay!”
“And then he said, “Don’t mess with the King of Boracay!” and the men ran away.”
Dad sits proudly beside me. The night’s events, in the sun and heat, feel like nothing more than a dream.
“Dad, you’re my hero,” I say, pretending to swoon.
“The King of Boracay? ” Mom asks. “What if those men pulled out knives? ”
“But they didn’t,” Dad says. “No need to worry, Mother Superior.”
“Or what if someone had a gun? ”
“But no one did.”
“Or what if they come back? ”
“But they won’t. Relax, Maria, it’s our final full day in Boracay”
“It’s comforting that you’re so confident, your grace, but why was Benni alone in the first place? A young woman, foreign to the Philippines, who has no understanding of the language, and has never been to the island before. Why was she alone in your kingdom when she was supposed to be out for a night with the king? ”
“I . . . ”
“You what? I would love to hear your answer.”
“I was . . . ”
“You were what? ”
When Dad doesn’t reply, Mom stands up.
“You’re lucky those men were probably just as drunk as you were. Idyota,” she mutters as she leaves.