You can’t really believe most things you see on the surface. Take her, for example. One look at her, and something tells you what you see is just bull; that if you drill a hole through her walls, you’ll find a little girl just dying to be understood.
And usually, her beef is all about small things.
Something strange is happening to me. And me talking like this is “strange” in itself; people who know me would eagerly attest that you haven’t heard and seen weird things in your life if you haven’t met me; and that’s not a “self-compliment”; I’m not trying to be cute like Woody Allen. To be even brutally honest about it, people with whom I’ve closely worked long enough eventually discover how disagreeable I am.
But the thing is, these recent days, certain discoveries bubble up on the surface of your life, discoveries that tell you that somehow, fuck-ups as large as Mt. Everest began life as a pocket lint.
And when these small things get bigger, you’re left wondering like Tony Leung in Wong Kar Wai’s In The Mood For Love, asking dear Maggie to help him imagine how their spouses’ betrayal began: When did it start? And how it must have felt?
Some months ago, a nursing student committed suicide in her room because her mother didn’t give her P500 to buy a medical textbook. The mother was devastated—everybody was—when they discovered her body, but even more so when they read her suicide note. Suicide. Because of five hundred pesos.
Oh, the humanity.
Somehow, I blame soap operas.
In Alice Walker’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, The Color Purple, Celie’s a black woman who has never had anybody care for her as a human being. She grows up and gets married to a man who treats her like livestock.
Celie’s not so smart, but she knows enough that to survive, you need “therapy”, even if it’s self-administered: so she ends each night of her life whispering the line, “Dear God,” to the empty space. Each night, she tells the shit of her day to the darkness.
One day, however, someone comes along to buy her a new set of clothes.
A new set of clothes, Celie asks in disbelief, just for her? And she chokes on her tears.
Sometimes, things like that hit closer to right where I stand. There was one afternoon I’m working at home when this old lady came knocking and asking for food. I was annoyed; I thought she was one of those slackers who’d suck the fruits of somebody else’s industriousness. I’ve never been a “good” person, and that afternoon, I was up to my neck with work. So you can imagine how deep I probably was in my vicious Marilyn Manson mood.
And to get rid of her fast, I fished some money in my pocket and gave her the first bill I found—only to realize too late that I was handing her something bigger than I had intended, something like fifty pesos.
Yeah, fifty pesos, when I only meant five. But suddenly, she gazed at the money on her palm, and she wept. Right there, she wept and almost knelt before me in gratitude. I tried telling her that it was nothing; I even laughed to prove it meant nothing to me. But the truth was, I laughed because it shamed me, if a monster could be shamed. I felt cheap.
After she was gone, when nobody was around, I was tearful, too; there was something about the way she broke down that I couldn’t forget it. It felt so real and so staggering, like somebody bashed me in the face.
And Jesus, I thought, I’m so nice. All those kids whose asses I kicked would never believe this. All those people who hate me, they’d come to my house now and shoot me right in my moment of vulnerability.
Before Celie, before the old lady, I never realized that the things I don’t even count could become powerful enough to make somebody break down and weep. Before films like Zhang Yimou’s Not One Less, I lived with a very limited set of beliefs when it came to the question of what mattered.
I had been so fascinated with things that had nothing to do with people’s desperation that for a long time, the stories I attempted writing belonged to that great hated category I’d call, “The Pretensions.”
Well, I’m not there, yet. I still tell friends I’m a bleeding work in progress, and maybe I won’t ever be complete. But being fully aware of the crap I do is probably a nice start. As nice as seeing the small things for what they are, but having the liver to wait there at the end of the road, knowing and accepting how these small things might grow up and devour me in the end.
But I don’t really mind. Like I said to that girl with ten thousand issues I met months ago, I’ll just enjoy, dread, even long for the small things that make up my crappy little life. I’ll enjoy them before they’re gone and leave holes in my heart.
And maybe like what Galileo asked the Vatican about its angst over heliocentricity, I’ll start identifying these small things by asking myself the same brilliant question:
What exactly is your beef?
[Originally from 2006]