You are never as different as you feel
I know now this is the last chance I’ll have to tell my story. This isn’t the whole story, but it’s the only real account you’ll probably hear. I need to tell it now because I think my waiting is almost through.
You know I’ve lived so many lives that I’m not even sure now if this one’s my real life, but I know it’s my last. And because I’ve lived so many lives, I know one thing for a fact; there’s freedom in not caring. When you don’t care, you can do anything you want. Anything, because you don’t care about the consequences.
I know I never cared about the price of freedom before. Just yesterday, I was planning to head straight to Mexico before they found me. But I think now I changed my mind. I’m too weary to start over again in another strange place, listening to another foreign language I don’t understand and knowing that one day when I’m not expecting it someone will spot me. Besides, where do you run to when you run away from a place that’s heaven compared to so many other places in the world?
Now I’m just lonely and worn-out, sitting here and waiting. The memories are unwavering; they cling to me demanding attention, in an endless loop. I awoke as soon as the light started streaming in this morning. I sit on my bed and stare out of the dirty window in my tiny rented room downtown. Yesterday I sat here all day. I didn’t realize I did until I saw that the sky turned dark. If I pass through this day again, I’ll finish another bottle, and go back to sleep to wait for another tomorrow. Somebody will show up for me eventually or I’ll take the easy way out and shut down those memories forever.
Maybe once you’ve heard how it all happened, you might even see it from my point of view; but I shouldn’t kid myself; you probably won’t. I am sure though, that you’ll most likely agree with me on this; I’m really no different from anybody else locked away doing time. The blue uniform and the badge let me collect a paycheck and whatever other advantage I could grab. In exchange, I kept my mouth shut and my eyes turned away just like I was told.
Actually, you could say that I just continued down the path I’d already begun in another place far away, when I was someone else. Who you really are doesn’t change, no matter what you look like on the outside. So, in the end, I realize you won’t feel much sympathy for me once I finish telling you how it all happened. Really, you shouldn’t, because I’m sure I’d do it all again if I could start over.
When I was a little boy and we lived on the outskirts of the slums near Manila, my mother used to point her finger at certain people to single them out. “You see him?” She’d demand glaring down at me and shaking me with her free hand to get my attention.
I would follow her thin brown index finger pointing to a drunk who had passed out in his own vomit or one of the prostitutes with blackened eyes and a ripped dress, carrying her scuffed up stilettos in one hand and staggering under the weight of her abused body. “They were born bad.” She assured me with a shrug of worldly wisdom. “Even if they weren’t poor, they would live like that. Don’t ever feel sorry for any of them.”
She would spit over her shoulder in their general direction as she dragged me and my sister Florencia, down the alley, toward the dump to see what we could find to sell. We went regularly then, when she didn’t have enough customers to pay rent. The dump was really a large cesspool, a dumping ground for the cities’ garbage and broken, unwanted items. We collected mostly plastic bottles, pieces of cardboard and sometimes scraps of metal that we fished out from the stinking garbage.
On good days, we sold what we found to an old man, who was missing all but his two bottom teeth and one of his ears. He separated out the better finds and bagged them up in large trash bags. He dragged around a large wire cage mounted on bicycle wheels that he used to transport the bags to another man who sold them to a recycling plant.
He was different from the other scavengers at the dump, who were left to sell whatever wasn’t stolen from them by force at the end of the day. The other scavengers and thieves avoided him as if by non-communicated understanding. People said he recovered ten times more than what he paid us for our trash, because he had witnessed the man who ran the recycling plant, murder somebody high up, who worked for the government. My mother said that he would be getting his hush money for years to come.
Those kinds of opportunities were few and far between. Everybody envied him. If he hadn’t had that stroke of luck, he’d be picking up trash just like everyone else that scavenged in the dump. The only one luckier, was an old woman, in her late sixties, who trudged around with him in a man’s dirty work shirt and beat-up work boots when the days weren’t particularly steamy, which were about the only times she could walk bent over with her crippling arthritis.
Rumor was that she had some kind of “inside connection with the local charities,” and was able to get her hands on the used clothes that were donated to the children in the orphanage. She sold them in the street as secondhand rags. I heard my mother talking sometimes about all the corruption. As best as I could understand, it was just the way the world operated and at least I understood the reason things were the way they were. Even then, I tried to take advantage of what I could learn in a situation and not ask anyone for anything. As far back as I can remember the rule was; if you wanted something you had to get it any way you could.
My mother taught me two important things in those years; she said often and loudly, “You’ll never meet anybody whom you can’t speak badly about.” This is something I took to heart and followed through the years. The only problem was I didn’t speak badly about them soon enough.
She also taught us by example, how to wait around endlessly, just watching the people you knew, waiting for somebody to slip up or let their guard down so you could rush in and grab something you needed.
Although most of our waiting was in long lines for some charity hand-out, being able to wait for an opportunity to take advantage of someone is a straight up skill for survival and not just a requirement for living when you’re poor. If I stop and think about it, it always worked out that way for me.
Even at that age, I decided that what my mother said about people “just being born that way,” must be true, because my sister, Florencia, who was younger and the ugly one…they all said so, was quiet and never caused any trouble. She hardly ever said anything and never complained even when we were hungry. She was that way as far back as I could remember, a small ugly brown baby lying in her basket, watching and waiting. She always reminded me of a little field mouse with big ears and small eyes, except she wasn’t as cute.
And me? I complained and talked back all the time, no matter how many times they told me to shut up or smacked me in the face. I kept arguing, insisting on what I wanted, even if it didn’t do any good. I didn’t just argue and talk back; I struck out and hit or kicked my mother or any adult who tried to bring law and order into my young life. I didn’t care if I got the worst beating later. The point was that I’d left teeth marks in some adult’s arm. That was satisfaction enough for me.