Waking up starts with the 5:15 alarm.
I rub away the sleepiness by lighting a cigarette – the foolish man’s breakfast – and staring at the ceiling, as if any moment now, it will come to life and run away. There’s a glass of lukewarm water on my bedside table. I take a sip, partly gargle it the way I, in my unrefined ways gargle coffee, before I rise to take a shower.
The first blast of water is usually warm but after a few seconds the shower becomes frigid and shocks away any drowsiness left in my skin and bones. Sometimes, I smoke too inside this elbow room, naked and unashamed, bruising my lungs in this gradual suicide. For a moment, I ponder about death and its inevitability, and any desire to go back to bed is taken away by the prospect of my expiration. Life’s brevity either drives you back to sleep or jolts you to the point of needing a glass of wine to forget the world.
I look at the mirror, still glazed in a sheet of shower, and pat myself dry. The cabinet is full of clothes but I sigh in disappointment because I still have nothing to wear. Our times are never satisfactory. We never seem to have enough, and even when things do suffice, there’s a nagging feeling you still need more: more shirts, more pants, more underwear, more phones, more television series, more pillows, more socks, more food, more books, more cars, more money.
Even in plenty, real breakfast is often just a cup of coffee. Everyone is in a hurry these days, and yet everyone still, is late. I have no time to chew. When I do, it’s because I woke up before the alarm, and found time to kill. I’m scared of such allowances. When you have enough time, you tend to spend it thinking about thinking, and never really enjoying the present because it’s too dull or scary.
The commute is a chaos.
Home to the office and office back to my home – hours are spent on the road, stuck inside rickety jeepneys driven by reckless drivers, or jam-packed buses with more reckless drivers. Sidewalks barely exist, overrun by vendors who all sell the same: sticks of cigarette, candy, tabloid newspapers with scantily clad women on the front page; sometimes a cooler full of Cobra or Sting energy drink, bottles of soft drink, some junk food, biscuits, and plastic-wrapped meals for the day. Both the middle and working class patronize them, and so despite the choking pedestrian walkways and footbridges, complaints seem futile as dependencies validate presence.
There is something poetic about the insufferable state of public transportation in this country. Roads and highways can no longer carry the sheer volume of vehicles plying them. The MRT is dying. Jeepneys and buses are unsafe. Traffic rules and regulations are blatantly disregarded. Accidents jar the rush hours only to be forgotten and never remedied by improving the infrastructure of movement. Piecemeal remedies are all that the government can think of, that I fear waking up at 5:15 in the morning would no longer be early enough in the future. Everything seems to be going to different directions, fact and fiction intertwined.
It’s a violent ride, and the seasoned commuter knows patience is not much of a virtue. Commuting is a physical effort, and at times, a real suffering. If the shower woke me up, the traffic lulls me back to sleep. And if I don’t get a seat on one of my rides to work, then I have enough time to imagine a better planned city, or nourish thoughts of leaving this country for a while, finding job in some modern metropolis where rather than losing my hours on the road, I can live a life which affords me more of my liberties, improve my standards of loving, and simply battle homesickness.
But it isn’t that easy.
I am always surprised how even when I am immersed in thoughts which dislocate me from reality, I never seem to lose my way. Walking to work or back to home, my mind wanders ahead of my own feet, and yet I am still capable of crossing intersections or passing roadblocks with sharp awareness. There are two lives in my mind – one that undertakes this daily routine and another which dreams of breaking it, maybe escaping it. It exhausts you, wears you down, this present. But it’s the only one available, and alternate universes are just theories for those who prefer evasion rather than challenge.
On my commute home, I find myself in the same chaos as the rush hour. The evening scramble as they call it. It sounds delicious, and it makes my stomach churn as I am crushed inside the MRT, or as I stand for almost an hour inside the bus plying EDSA at a snail’s pace. Everyone looks tired. Some are sleeping. Many turn to their phones to forget the stresses of work and the unmoving traffic. There is chatter. There is laughter. But mostly, there is silence, pierced by the evening news from the bus’ TV, or the conductor barking while collecting fairs.
In the tiredness of people, there is also beauty: a bead of sweat glistening as it trickles down a furrowed forehead; hair sticky; business attire crumpled, often unbuttoned; the general neck-down posture; mostly eyes on their phones or gazing at the evening’s traffic outside; some random woman preaching about the world, the bus her pulpit.
When I get home, it’s late in the evening. I go straight to the kitchen and have a full glass of water before I have my dinner, or proceed straight to the shower when the traffic has devoured my appetite, and covered me in grease. Sometimes after the evening bath, I go to the darkness of the terrace to smoke naked, while having a bottle of cheap wine or even cheaper beer, to regain my appetite or to completely douse the pangs of hunger with sleepiness. No one sees me. No one pays attention to silhouettes, even the borders of my skin. In this moment, only the night is my cloak, as an ember flickers unnoticeably and the smoke traces the stars. As the cigarette’s toxins encroach my lungs, so does the evening – humid, windless, devotedly summer in her ways. I check if the alarm for the next day is ready, read a few pages of a book, make an account of my day, and lay in bed looking at the ceiling, still fearing it will run away.
Daily affairs, in their plainness, in the poetry of waking up, travelling, working, and returning home – daily affairs are so incredibly bittersweet. In bed, fighting sleepiness to make the most of the remaining useful minutes of the day, I can finally think more clearly, even if it all appears fleeting. But this ephemeral quality chips away at the sorrows too, burying them even if only temporarily, in the past where my memory – weakened by age and our age’s overflow of information – can abandon it. It frees me from the manacles of my own disenchantments, and encourages me to rise again and follow the routine. It wears off the stains on the skin and the spirit.
How brief life is to be tied to sentiments and nostalgia anyway. The 5:15 am alarm waits patiently for me to rise again.