1 Essay by Ria Valdez
THE BODY IN SHADOWS
When my lover undressed me for the first time, I told her to turn the lights off. I was a senior in college and she, a freshman. Everything about her screamed youth, from her giddy fingers to her curious eyes. When she asked me what was wrong, I wanted to say that my body had always been touched in the dark. But instead, I crossed my arms and leaned forward, almost into a fetal position. She wrapped her arms around me and whispered “I want to see you.” At that moment, and for a long time when we were dating, I believed her.
I met Iska in college. She was the representative, or the iska, of her degree program for UP Mindanao’s Isko and Iska pageant. This pageant is celebrated during the annual Freshmen Night where the whole UP Mindanao community gathers to watch the different courses doll-up their representatives. The year Iska had graced the stage, my org-mates and I sold pastil, a little rice meal wrapped in a banana leaf, to generate funds for our org. I was among those sweaty and irritated members of the audience whose eyes were on her as if they had expected her to return their stares. For me, she shone brighter than the spotlight itself with her porcelain-like skin and radiant smile. We have been dating for more than a year now and I still feel like she had never left that stage.
I felt like lived in a different world from her. She was a numerical person and believed that A happen because of B. Being a struggling writer, I found comfort in metaphors. While she had a lean figure and could pull off a denim shorts paired with a plaid top outfit, I have never felt confident about the body I hid behind a cartoon shirt and khaki pants. I was always on the borderline between being fat or skinny. The truth was, I never felt that I owned my body. I felt like I lost it a long time ago like loose change in pants pockets.
My first boyfriend liked putting his hands in his pockets whenever he saw me. I thought it was a gesture of shyness, as what I’ve read in girl magazines I bought for guilty pleasure. But he just wanted his hands to be always warm. I met him when I was in second year high school. He was smaller than most boys in high school and his face had that permanent look of curiosity. He was a child in my eyes. His skin was white like powdered milk and his eyes were the color of caramel. The next thing we knew, we were exchanging numbers because my best friend wanted us to get together. She said we would make a cute couple because we were both small for our age.
He was my first male kiss. He told me to close my eyes, as if it were a surprise, before he leaned in and planted his lips on mine. I didn’t even remember how his lips felt like. Before him, the only person who had kissed me was a girl from kindergarten. I could still remember how soft her lips were. Like marshmallows. Kissing boys felt rough—like kissing sandpaper. I felt like I had to kiss back because Miggy had pressed his lips so hard on mine that I had to kiss back to get him off my face. There wasn’t any warmth between our lips, only friction. My lips weren’t wounded but it felt like they were.
There was one time when Miggy and I were left alone in my house. I was excited to share my favorite film with him but he asked me to take my shirt off instead. When I refused, he held my wrists so hard, his knuckles turned white. I took my shirt off out of fear. Miggy was the first person to see me naked. He even took a video of that moment even after he promised he wouldn’t. I had found that out from a common friend.
I hated him for asking me one time if it was okay to take a video of us naked. I said no because this was supposed to be an intimate moment. Miggy had a little tantrum about filming us naked. He said it wasn’t about the intimate moment but watching that moment again and again, whenever and wherever. Was my body like loose change that he’d fumble for inside his pocket when he was asked of it? I could imagine that video being passed around like fare among the passengers in a jeep towards the driver. I felt I was being held by different hands. So I stood my ground and told him my decision was final.
When Miggy took his clothes off, all I thought was how I wanted to be familiar with a boy touching me to forget the girl who kissed me in the cubicle she dragged me into. It was like I had left some part of my body for her. I even wanted to tell Miggy how much I had thought of her while he touched me like a child trying to figure out how his new toy worked.
I didn’t want him to take my virginity so he did whatever else he wanted. Part of me still believed in the Catholic concept of remaining a virgin before marriage. I made him keep his head between my legs. We were just using each other: he needed pleasure from me while I needed him to distract myself from thinking of girls.
After he slobbered all over my body, he got tired and eventually slept. When he was sleeping, I saw a little glint just below the TV that was more than a meter away from the bed. It was a camera. He had hidden it so that I wouldn’t notice he was taping me. I never forgot that blinking red glint of the camera. The red light blinked like a cursor on the screen, waiting for the next word I that will come out from me. I just stared at it for the whole time, knowing that blinking lights would now leave me speechless.
I hated my body. Most of it was coated with his saliva. I felt grossed out by how filthy I was. I hated how he would see it whenever he wanted to, and so would his friends. I could just imagine my body being judged and being compared to god knows what. But what I hated most was how he continued to do what I told him not to. I wondered what I had looked like on the video. Did they mistake my closed eyes for pleasure and not fear?
But I didn’t delete the video. I thought of how tight his grip on my wrists were. I didn’t even want to confront Miggy about it. Even though I was afraid he might harm me, I knew I could crush his pride easily by saying he never gave me pleasure. Still, I believed Miggy and I could work out. I felt it was better for me to stick with him than explain to others what he had done. I couldn’t help but think what others would think— how my body was used in this way and that. If I had another lover, would that person still look at my body not as a barren land with garbage dumped on it?
I had always told Iska that I liked the way she thinks. I envied her logic because I was too emotional. That was one of my weaknesses in my undergraduate program where we had to find insight from the demons of our past to piece ourselves together. She studied Economics and she treated my creativity as supply and my writing deadlines as demand. I wished it was that easy to explain what I feel in two lines in a graph. She was my Other—the one who fills my lack. Because of that, I had grown dependent of her.
For my birthday she gave me a lamp she made herself. It was a cylindrical bamboo lamp, with glass marbles on it, that was suspended on a bamboo frame. The lamp was almost half a meter tall.
“I made it with wood glue and twine. My papa helped me with the light bulb,” she had said. At that time, all I could do was hug her because I couldn’t even muster a word that made sense. “Now it will never be too dark anymore,” she continued. I turned it on and the light was a warm yellow like an afternoon sun. It didn’t flicker and I was glad.
That night, we held each other close under the sheets with the light of the lamp casting our shadows on the wall. I held her hand and watched the shadow of our entwined hands look like a single fist. My Other, I thought. She leaned in for a kiss and murmured “Don’t mind the shadows.” We kept that lamp on every night but I still look at the shadows Iska and I made.
Talks under the light of the bamboo lamp became my favorite part of the day. We would talk about anything from politics to our favorite fried chicken in Mintal. There was one night when we talked about our own sexuality and when we knew we were queer. She told me about her past lover while I told her I was six years old when a girl taught me to kiss with her tongue. After saying that I began to cry. I remembered how that girl dragged me to the toilets during recess without a word and made me join her in a cubicle. The next thing I remember was how she was pushing her tongue inside my mouth and telling me to take my skirt off.
Iska suddenly slapped my arm. “Bakit hindi ka nagsumbong? You should’ve told your mother!” I stifled my sobs and watched the shadows on the wall grow larger. Iska didn’t seem to mind me looking at the wall so she continued “You always have a choice, Ri.” Choice felt like a needle stowed in a dark attic for me to find. And I’ll only know I found it when I hurt myself. The light of the lamp seemed to flicker and it reminded me of the red glint of the camera Miggy used years ago. I shuddered at the thought of Miggy towering over me, his hands grasping my wrists like he’d fall off a cliff if he didn’t. I decided not to think about what Iska said. But her words remain like lingering shadows on walls.
The next time I saw Miggy was six years after he took that video, years after blinking light had not been the same. I was waiting for a jeep to Mintal I Roxas, near ADDU. Iska and I would meet for dinner so I brought her favorite slice of chocolate cake. Suddenly, a heavy hand rested on my shoulders and its weight felt familiar. The hairs at the back of my neck stood up.
It was him. He didn’t say anything, we just looked at each other as we were searching for something in each other’s eyes. The he raised his hand in a hello gesture before he walked away. I was shaking so hard after he left that the cellophane containing the cake slice rustled. It had been so long yet his touch reminded me of blinking red lights and knuckles turning white. Since he had seen my body, I showered every night, no matter how cold it was, because I felt filthy. Then after showering, I would rub the towel furiously to dry myself, making my skin so dry, it cracked like a rice field in drought. Then I would curl into a ball before I sleep, letting this body be engulfed by the shadows made by my bamboo lamp. Sometimes, I would wake up in the middle of the night, crying because I pitied myself.
I trusted Iska with my body the moment I agreed to turn the lights on. I figured if she was my Other, she would fill the emptiness I feel with my body. She kissed me slowly, her lips taking the time to travel on my neck down, then back to my lips again. I felt like I was exploring my own body with her. I felt her kiss different parts of me that I didn’t know could be kissed: my left eyelid, the crook of my elbow, the birthmark behind my knees, and the space between my ankle and my heel. I felt her breath on every kiss she gave me. It was as if she was breathing life on me, like my body had been dead for a long time and she was trying to resurrect it with her breath. It felt like my skin was producing new skin, shedding the old ones that Miggy had slobbered on and that girl from kindergarten had pinned against the cubicle wall. For a moment, I felt like I owned my body again.
There was a night when we had a talk under the light of the bamboo lamp once again. I thanked Iska for making me love my body and that I had a hard time doing so because I was an abuse victim. The word “victim” felt heavy on my tongue is if my tongue turned to cement.
Looking back on it now, I didn’t realize that what Miggy and that girl from kindergarten did to me was abuse until I wrote about it. A teacher I had in college defined abuse. As I recalled, abuse is a situation where one feels uncomfortable. Abuse also entails a struggle where one person wants something from the other who doesn’t want to give in. Both of them abused me. And as much as I hated to admit it, I realized I was a victim. I didn’t like to be called that since it sounds heavy and I was afraid of what other people would say about me knowing that I had gone through this. As if the very word had its own gravitational pull on people, making them drawn to the person labelled as such. I didn’t need pity but clarity. I had carried this fear of dominance with me since then.
Iska flinched at the word “victim” the same way I used to shiver at it. “Bakit ka kasi pumayag? This wouldn’t have happened if you refused.” Her words rang like church bells in my ears while my mouth became a cathedral where my “Why’s” remained as unsung psalms.
“May choice ka talaga i-defend ang sarili mo,” she grunted. Her reply was a responsorial psalm when I talked about my abuse. Sometimes I didn’t believe her nods while I talked. I doubted she even listened. If my Other, the one who fills my lack, wouldn’t listen to me, who else will? Being a victim meant being put in a spotlight in a pageant for the rest of my life. I felt that I wasn’t safe because being placed there meant being seen but not being heard.
Since then, when Iska turned off the lights in my room and turned on the lamp, I would see her shadow grow. She hovered over me and there was a part of me that felt cemented to my bed. She filled my lack, she made me feel I had a new body. All this time I treated her as a light but I never realized she was making shadows of my past linger. And I treated those shadows as ghosts who haunt me and tell me I have done something wrong. I have done myself wrong. Iska made me feel that way and I guess that was what being a victim entailed to be.
Iska and I dated for almost two years before we broke up because I was busy with work and she was still in school. I’ve been single ever since. It was hard to find a lover who would not separate me from the shadows of my past. Until now, I still sleep to the light of that bamboo lamp even if I was alone with my shadows. I would watch the bamboo lamp before I sleep, feel the warmth of its light like the afternoon sun that was meant to set, and hope that the shadows of my past will too. But for now, my body is in shadows. I have yet to find my light.
Ria Valdez is a graduate of Bachelor of Arts (AB) in English, major in Creative Writing, from the University of the Philippines - Mindanao, she currently teaches senior high school Creative Writing and Creative Nonfiction subjects at Davao City National High School. Her poems and creative nonfiction are published in Dagmay Literary Journal, Payag Habagatan: New Writings from the South, and “Press: 100 Love Letters” (University of the Philippines Press, 2017), among others.