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Sea before streets

by Phillip Yerro Kimpo

What was the sea like before streets?

This is how I essayed a recent attempt — one of many — to make sense of my ceaseless search. I’ve always looked for the sea, especially in the context of having spent almost my entire life, all measly 27 years of it, in the grip of the muscular and towering city, a city without gentle and genteel water, a city both literal and figurative. I’d take the sea in any of its many forms — an expanse of beach, sudden slices of blue in between trees and houses zipping past the car window, a liquid tendril crossed by bridges, a far-off glimmer viewed from a mountaintop, a seawall.

This pursuit is driven by the same force that stirs the waves of nostalgia in André Aciman’s book of essays, False Papers. It’s a book that loves the prospect of splashing in pools of the past, but takes a roundabout way before taking the dive — if one dives at all. I was struck by how we share the obsession to seek the water, to indulge in wistfulness, to relish the brink between longing for intimacy and keeping the distance, to confront the sea yet cower before its immense immanence.

Why the sea? Why this often-used and abused image, a terribly common desire? The sea is everywhere, especially in poems. The sea, some would say, is a catchall metaphor. Which womb are we hankering for?

Aciman’s sea would be the city of Alexandria, his lost hometown along Egypt’s Mediterranean coast. I have to admit, my sea is far less Mediterromantic, and much more mundane. My sea is my mother. You know, just like everyone else has one. The one who bore our weight for months, labored for us to see the light, probably breastfed us, sat with us on some seawall, celebrated our birthdays as if these were also theirs, groomed us every morning before we went to school, sympathized with our heartbreaks, and so on.

My story, however, stopped with that seawall. “I love it because it was lost,” Aciman writes. Well, when mother left some 20 years ago over the sea, she took that sea with her, and the seawall, any seawall, became a throne for my governance of memory.

* * *

Two years ago, when mother came home — scratch that, dropped by for a visit — she chose to rent a condo unit in Ermita with a view of Manila Bay. The road beneath our window led to a segment of the seawall along Roxas Boulevard. It was the view’s vanishing point.

My search had come full circle. Mother and I were slated to visit the seawall soon, the same seawall we sat on just before she left me as a toddler. With that act, I was expecting the disparate halves of my life to be reunited — the pater city that sculpted what’s there of my brawn and brain, and the mater sea that has always, always called out to the blood flowing through the four chambers of my heart. The wall would disappear, pavement and primeval would be one, and the ideal would be magically restored.

With that act, I was also fearful that a personal concept that I had built up throughout the years was going to be demolished — the concept of the threshold, or hanggitna, as I call it in Filipino.

In Aciman’s book, he makes mention of Matisse, and how the sea is always present in his paintings, whether as “incidental patches of blue” behind French windows, or as a bowl of sea anemones. He shares the painter’s ardor for this kind of sea — “staggered, deferred, delayed, distanced, recessed.”

My own Matissea would be the threshold, and this would be present in every poem or essay I write. The peak of a mountain of trash from which a scavenger kid could better gaze at the stars. An open doorway. A mangrove tree nourished by both starlight and seawater. The moment of undressing or being half-dressed. And of course, beaches and seawalls. To be in between doesn’t mean indecision, fence-sitting. To be in the hanggitna is to be in eternal control of where to go, to be the hegemon of both sides. And I’d like to believe that I earned this right to react, a rampart against past and future leave-takings.

* * *

The sea before streets. In the end, it remained that way.

I shouldn’t have feared anything. For good or for bad, my mother’s tight schedule didn’t allow us to revisit our seawall. As she packed her things, I could only stare at Manila Bay through the window. My threshold still stood, solid and stolid.

Aciman would have savored the situation. After all, he wrote, “That, in the end, is how I love the sea. I love it from across the street. I need distance, obstacles between me and what I want.” As for me, it’s a mix of things. I love the sea from this window. I love the sea while riding a paraw at the mercy of the swelling water. But above all, I want it to be under my command. What I love, I need to own, even through a token measure. Will I ever own the sea? No. But its seeming submission on the shore, as it rubs its foam into the spaces between my toes, is a gesture I accept.

Thus I’ll never be able to love the past, for it’s beyond my dominion. The future, on the other hand, is a dark ocean. But the present, this temporal verge, is well within my powers. And so right after mother’s visit and re-departure, I resolved to reinforce my edifice of the threshold.

After bringing mother to the airport to fly over the sea and take it again with her, my aunt and I returned to the condo to pack all the remaining stuff. Tita was the first to leave the unit. I lingered in what had been mother’s room for the past days, scanning for leftovers of the erstwhile presence. Standing in the corridor outside of the unit, auntie called out to me. Did your mom leave anything behind?

I walked to the room’s doorway before looking back at the window, at the distant seawall, with the sea laid out behind it. I called out to assure my aunt.

No, it’s all good. Walang nalimutan. Walang nalimutan.

Phillip Yerro Kimpo is the editor-in-chief of Kalatas. This essay was first published in The Philippine Star on January 13, 2013.

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