The Return of Chicco
By Paolo Siopao Paredes
I Francisco Conte, 29 years on this earth have started painting again. After almost three years of working with digital art as a freelance designer cum photographer, I have picked up a brush and rediscovered my old passion. Started Monday and I haven't stopped since. Painted for three days straight with only coffee and nicotine to sustain me. Locked myself in my little studio apartment with art materials, cigarette butts, take-out remains and coffee stains removing any notion that somebody actually lived there. I've been living here on my own for over a year. Wasn't always like this, by myself, there's just enough room for two people to squeeze in semi-comfortably.
The flat isn't really that big to begin with, just a bit over twenty one square feet, yet it suddenly seems too bare these last few months with just the necessities like a bed, a television and a kitchen/dining area taking up the empty space. Math really, two minus one equals more space. But with the addition of sketchbooks, old paintings (some of which were unfinished pieces) and other miscellaneous art materials scattered about, the place actually looks more "alive". Indeed along with the take-out cartons, empty beer bottles and a fine carpet of cigarette ashes, these few square feet's now a far cry from the antiseptic ambience of bare essential living.
It's been a long time coming, telling myself to try and get back to my old creative habits. Forced back to it really, been trying to get my art materials together for some months now, buying new brushes and paint or going back to my parents' house to pick up old materials still useful but haven't found the time to actually start on a project. Three days ago I found myself in bed staring at the ceiling for hours after finding out that I was no longer wanted. No cries of anguish or flashes of crimson, only the ceiling existed at that moment of truth. The ceiling a haven from the maelstrom of which I fear. Nothing to look at really, just old faded glow in the dark stars I super-glued up there that have long ago lost their power to illuminate. Yet the multitude of discolorations, the stains of old age and old dust seem a world of their own, ready to be discovered. And I, the entranced explorer of the plastic stars, yet afraid to move forth and discover. Why does someone have the need to discover stars when he was already part of the universe' center? Was.
That lasted about forty-five minutes, I then decided to get my hands dirty and start painting. As there was a shortage of clean canvass at the moment, I sanded my little round coffee table removing the cracking old paint and the numerous battle scars accumulated over years of servitude which defined it to it's lot.
The sanding left it naked before me, submissively ready to receive whatever change I would instill in it. I proceeded to work on it, opting to use ink on this particular piece. Didn't want to use oil just yet. The choice of medium defines the state of mind I am in and the direction the piece will go. With ink, the work I is a lot more controlled, needing a little bit more precision and concentration than oil. I don't think oil will cut it this time I'd probably just make a mess with a mediocre piece. Oil was my medium of choice when I was painting almost everyday, before I joined the ranks of the eight hour crowd. I liked the feel of malleability of oils, somewhat like sculpting on canvass. You can constantly reform your idea, swirl it around and change direction as I am wont to do, me being an over-thinking creature. A sense of numbed calm ensues when working with a medium like ink that calls for more control from the artist. That was what I needed, to be numb to the world and lose myself with every stroke of the brush on my willing subject, battling away thoughts and images that seem vent on crushing my mind. With every new stroke on the table, I am kept safe.
By the third day, my hands were starting to cramp, my back ached and I felt exhausted. "Maybe I need some air, yeah that'd be nice." I mumbled to myself. "A good meal and a beer maybe, what time is it anyway?" Checking my phone, (which took a while to find as it was under all the mess) I see that it was a little bit after nine-twenty in the evening. "A late dinner, then." After a nice invigorating shower, I proceeded to get ready trying not to notice that I had too many toothbrushes while I went through some half hearted grooming routine.
I breathe in the cool night air, which was a refreshing change from the smell of stale cigarette smoke and sweat. It was just a short walk to the restaurants across greenbelt park. I lighted a cigarette and started walking. The park was nice this time of the evening, absent are the daily commuters milling to and fro work or home like cattle on a never ending cycle of the mundane. The park was dimly-lit with yellow lamps which cast dark shadows creating small inviting spaces ready to embrace you, to protect you. I stayed away from the central commercial area. I wasn't in the mood for a crowd. I headed towards one of the office buildings along Aguirre, towards this little known locale I knew would be safe from the "Gimmick Crowd".
"Clannad" was one of those pubs usually frequented by expatriates but shabbier. It was decorated to look like a warm local Irish pub, the kind where you'd know everyone. Darkly lit with candles on the tables, old yellowing photos of Irish immigrants, a couple of football team's posters and other Irish pop memorabilia adorned the walls. I was half expecting to find a little Leprechaun greet me when I entered, instead a waitress named "Maryfe" opened the door for me. I stood there in the middle of the room taking it all in. A nice relaxed atmosphere hung in the air. It was quiet with today being a weekday (as I was surprised when I checked the date on my phone), there were about four people, including Maryfe and myself present at that time. Two foreigners where at the bar having a conversation about their Filipino wives or girlfriends from what I could hear. They looked forty-ish and had their coats draped on barstools next to them apparently they must have just come from work or something. The blonde haired one, at least it was blonde from what I could see as he was balding, was laughing at what his pudgy friend had just said. I shuffled myself into one of those counter tables at the corner of the bar as soon as they noticed me.
I had a light meal of honeyed chicken and rice to accompany it. The chicken was a bit dry for me but at least I finally got a full freshly cooked meal into my stomach. I asked for a Pale Pilsen from Maryfe and lit up a cigarette, relaxed in having a somewhat satisfactory meal. With the remains of my meal taken away, I indulged myself in looking at the other decorations around the pub (while I had my Pilsen). I noticed that aside from the two foreign guys at the bar, opposite of me, at the other end corner table was a woman.
I wondered if she had been there before I got in my seat. "I think I would've noticed that" I thought and casually, I stole glimpses of her. She had shot curly hair and wore a yellow sundress that fit perfectly her frame, showing off her beautiful shoulders and neck. She was reading a book in the dim candlelight, seemingly oblivious to her surroundings. I ordered a second beer and stared at my hands. There were still remnants of ink on them. I didn't bother to clean them thoroughly knowing I'd be back at my place going at that coffee table again. This momentary lull in time was opening enough for the gremlin thoughts to come swimming back into my head. My hands melt into a photograph of two people in a loving embrace, the man giving the woman a kiss on the cheek as her eyes twinkle and her face flushed red dissolving yet again to an image where their faces contort into surreal expressions, a mixture of pleasure and pain as he moves inside her, his sweat dripping on her back...and she moaning maniacally" and my heart beats from inside my chest to their rhythm. With every succeeding pump growing stronger and stronger, threatening to break my ribs, burst open my pectorals and erupt out of my body"
Then I look up and right in front of me is that woman in the yellow sundress. I stare at her emptily half noticing her mouth moving. "Were you the one moaning?" I thought.
"I said, is it alright for me to join you?" she says. I can see she is wearing a pout.
I snap out of the episode and my eyes focus on her at last. Lost for words, I merely nodded. "Thanks" she says smiling. "For a moment I thought you were going to tell me to get lost there". Finally regaining my composure I stood up and offered her a seat. "No problem, go right ahead" I answered.
She was taller than I thought, around five foot five, she stood with an air that she posed an intimidating figure, yet didn't care who noticed. The boots she wore rose to just below her knees. These were no lady's boots; they looked more like army boots worn by punk bands. The whole ensemble was a battle of contrasts, with the yellow sundress giving off an air of delicate brilliance, and the boots warning that they could stomp on one's face at a moment's notice.
"Sorry, I just had to get them off my back." Indicating the two white guys. Rolling her eyes she told me how "Pudgy" had come up to her and tried to buy her a drink and her falling short of telling him to go screw himself. She paused and asked for a beer from Maryfe who was giggling as "Pudgy" had directed his flirtations on her instead.
"I do hope you're an artist, otherwise those fingernails would be too gross", she said nonchalantly.
"Yeah well I try" I answered "I was just getting a bite to eat before going back to work" "So what are you working on?"
I was initially irritated as how this person would invade my privacy, I had a mind to just get the hell out of there and leave her to the sexual advances of the bar patrons. Yet I found her extremely interesting, with her "devil may care" attitude. I wouldn't exactly call her my type, but I could sense we had some things in common. Social misfits living on the fringes of normalcy. One could tell she wasn't your typical Manila Girl. Or typical Filipina, for that matter. I proceeded to explain how I had no preconceived notion on how the coffee table's mutation would turn out, on how I was painting more on the grounds of clearing my mind at the moment and slowly building up a composition as I went along.
Maybe it was the alcohol or maybe I was afraid of those terrible images entering my mind again but after about seven beers into the late hours and I was still captivated by our conversation. I was able to piece together that "Bree" was originally from Bicol and had moved here to Makati two years after graduation, got a desk position along with taking odd jobs on the side and have been living alone (in between boyfriends) in her condo unit in Makati. She had a preference to foreign men as she felt that her attitude and intelligence had an intimidating effect on the typical male Filipino. I went on a fiery tirade to the defense of my/our race to which she replied: "Well guys like you are rare around here". We talked about conformity, alienation and the latest call for attention of Madam Auring. The conversation was random at best, but it was alright. Order seemed to be trivial in this particular chat.
We ended up going for coffee before calling it a night. "I'd like to see it", Bree said, stirring her cafÃ Americano. For a moment I had no idea what she was talking about.
"Wha-" I started. "That coffee table, I mean." She cut in. "Obviously you're in this predicament because of a girl. I'd like to see what kind of work could come out of that mindset."
I showed her in and made a lazy attempt to clean up the mess just enough so we could walk around the place. While she stood there in the middle checking around the room, I plopped myself down on my bed and lit a cigarette. "It's over there, just be careful I don't think it's totally dry yet". "Jeezus! I'd think you'd have the impression I wasn't dumb by now?" She shot back. "Well you do seem to be full of surprises, so I'm not dismissing the possibility" I said with a smirk. She rolls her eyes. Funny how that particular eye movement, or mannerism seems a lot more attractive than the usual eye sparklings et al. I had been accustomed as being requisite for classic beauty. She stood there awhile, holding a cigarette, frowning down upon my child-table, my creation.
"I don't like it", she said, her back to me. "You're intents, being overly romantic, and all, is just that, romantic. It doesn't mask it being third rate work, in my opinion".
I stumble. Then I stood up and stepped behind her. "Well I'm lucky to be privy to your creative, almighty criticism", I said louder than I intended. "I guess it's time for you-" "but I like you" she said as she turned around to face me. She had on a devilish smile and her face inched towards mine. Our eyes locked, I inhaled her breath as she whispered "you're too easy".
And I whisper back, "And you're a maelstrom".
I wake up to find her gone, as I walk to the kitchen to make some coffee I realize that I didn't even get her number or anything that could mean us meeting again. It was a bright morning where you could see the specks of dust float in the sunlight, full of promise. "So she's gone and left me as well" I say to myself. I light up a cigarette and glance at the coffee table. "Yep it looks awful", I say laughing to myself "Now where's that sandpaper?"