Another version here.
I share a tiny apartment on the fourth floor of a low-rise with my partner and three cats. It’s a one-room affair, far from ideal for two people attached to too many things, though it seems a pleasant enough set-up for the felines—there are shelves to scale, books to perch on, infinite sheaves of paper to poke and pull and rip and shred, a shape-shifting terrain of clutter that lends variety to their daily routine of chasing after each other. We live near the university where I teach—two quick jeepney rides, there in twenty minutes. This proximity is hardly useful to me now, though I continue to think it makes up for the tiny space and the insufferable landlord.
It must’ve been some time in May when I mindlessly switched on my commute playlist while doing laundry in the bathroom sink. It wasn’t a good idea, I realized five seconds in, but my hands were already wet and turning my phone off too complicated. So I stood there, washing a couple of shirts and masks, and followed the songs back to early March, down the four flights of stairs to the corner of our street, to Kalayaan Avenue on a speeding jeep, to the store in Philcoa that I liked to stand in front of while waiting for my next ride, its sentinel cat sitting still by the candy jars, to the breezy route around campus and the jeepney stop nearest my building that I could never be quite certain of, not since stops kept getting relocated to adjust to all the construction projects in the university.
On what turned out to be my last day of teaching on campus, I remember having a somewhat uninspired American lit class on Nella Larsen’s Passing, which I resolved to make up for the following week.
The nook I claimed in our studio to have a semblance of privacy in an un-private space is farthest from the doorway, nearest the bed. It includes the larger of the apartment’s two windows, which looks out to the street, two apartment compounds, and a jaundiced mid-rise. This egress window leads to the fire escape—a steel ladder that gets you to the awning above the building gate. Since March, birds have been docking daily on this ladder, sometimes mayas, always Maria Capras. It’s become routine for a visiting bird to flutter about and for the cats to stalk it, both parties slamming against the glass. By the window are other watchers—a gold solar-powered lucky cat waving two paws, a yellow papier mache horse, a garden gnome picked up on our way home from La Union early this year, the news of the Taal eruption reaching us as our vehicle entered Manila.
These days I barely leave this nook, stumbling to the couch from bed first thing in the morning, rising only to get to the fridge or bathroom. Within arm’s length I keep a small wooden folding table I use as a laptop desk, a plastic storage cart on wheels for files. I am the fixture around which the cats trade sleeping spots. Behind me, shelves of books. Before me, shelves of books. A cocoon within a cocoon that the screen sucks me out of.
After the shock of staying put, the shock of going on, the shock of scaling down work to the fit the screen, the shock of the tape peeled away from the camera and the camera switched on, the shock of the screen awake at all hours, an unblinking eye, the work an endless stream. After decades of textbook-resistant pedagogy, I am compelled by the powers designated to manage education under the current crisis to convert immediately to regimentation as the only approach compatible with remote learning. In each pandemic-era course I construct, I struggle to imagine a life of teaching writing and literature not completely hijacked by learning outcomes and study guides and bullet points and checklists. Asleep, I sink into the disciplinary logic of rubrics and rehash losing arguments against copyright compliance. I begin each workday working my way out of dreams of work. I will my mind to construct a flimsy partition to subdue the chatter of a podcast emanating from the other side of the shelf, the background noise my partner needs to focus. I assemble myself for the screen, open multiple windows I hopscotch around, keep up with the news dispatched by the second, the ever-rising numbers of the dying and the dead, the reckless, ruthless counterinsurgency script. In my correspondence, I apologize and promise, I hope and understand. In front of the camera, I am well, thank you. Whenever possible, I am a blank screen among screens—off camera, on mute. I would also rather stay off the record, but the pressure to document often prevails over the anxiety of surveillance. In this joyless version of interaction, I ask my students how they are doing—their college life unceremoniously ripped from the pleasures of campus life and reduced to schoolwork done in isolation. When I assure them that we are “in this together,” I wonder what good this is to the names blinking on and off the screen, distress calls across the ether.
When the Faculty Center burned down, taking with it a sizeable portion of my personal library, it also took away parts of my job that I loved: the privacy of my own office, spontaneous visits from students, cheap pancit bihon from the cafeteria. I learned to hold impromptu consultation hours immediately after class, while walking from the classroom to the classroom-turned-department office, learned to plug in my earphones and play wordless albums on full blast to get work done in the space shared with colleagues displaced by the fire. Now, newly displaced from our four-year-old makeshift common office, I realize that things could be worse. I consume hours composing in writing what would take minutes when said out loud in a classroom setting. My exhaustion grows with every stuttering discussion facilitated by the mute button, every monologue delivered to a grid of black screens. Are you there? Can you hear me? I miss students casually co-piloting class discussions, all the thinking paths unexpectedly taken because somebody blurts out something that just occurred to them. There are no sidelong glances, no conferring with the one sitting next to you, no “we were just talking about this” to preface a response to a text. I miss eye contact, laughter, the unremarkable presence of ambient noise.
The fear of becoming a casualty of: sickness, sadness, loved ones unseen, vendors unmasked, second jobs, unpaid bills, air-conditioned vehicles, cops on the road, laws passed, SUVs bulldozing their way down bike lanes.
I move between window and screen to monitor the super typhoon, the strongest to hit the planet in 2020. The typhoon coincides with reading week, the mandatory break from classes to give everyone time to catch their breath. If it isn’t one disaster, it’s another. I normally ease my fatigue from the screen by looking out the window, but today they are one and the same, the catastrophe on the news pounding on the glass, the glass turned opaque by rain.