My first love never let me down

This is an essay my sister, Irene, wrote for New Slang almost four years ago. I can no longer recall exactly why we didn’t publish it, but  I do remember there were some sensitive (read: nepotistic) issues at hand, with me being on board as an editor at the time. The last time my sister and I worked on something together was with the now defunct satire blog, The Pro-Life Wife, which we took turns writing and illustrating. Because I miss her and she is a talented human being who deserves to have her work shared, I am posting this here.

Irene’s now in Texas, working as a therapist, while I’m here doing my wankademic work (got the acceptance letter for publication today, so I can actually avail of that title). She has written two books, both published by anvil, Spinning and Tabon Girl. The last time she came back to the Philippines was in mid-October of 2012, when she both launched Tabon Girl and got married at a legal ceremony arranged by my grandmother (one of the last things she did before she passed on in December of that year, less than two weeks after my sister’s birthday), and became Irene Carolina Sarmiento-Mier. 

Irene and my dad
Irene with my dad

My First Love Never Let Me Down

By Irene Carolina Sarmiento

This is the first “love story” I have ever written. I was eight years old when I first truly fell in love.  I remember the moment clearly, knowing for certain this was it.

It was a fragile time and my heart needed something. My parents were on the verge of separation. My father had the first floor of the house to himself, while the rest of us stayed in the upper quarters. I remember, whenever I was having a rough day, my father  would ask me, “Why are you sad?” and regardless of what my answer was at the time, he would play “I Feel Pretty” (West Side Story), “Whistle a Happy Tune” (South Pacific), and other Broadway songs on his old phonograph. And when I would go downstairs to ask him, “Why are you sad?” he would play “Nowhere Man” (The Beatles). I didn’t really know what to feel back then, not that I do now.

Outside of my home, things were no better. I was flunking second grade at a traditional (let’s call it “Trad”) Catholic all-girls’ school and I had to transfer to one that was progressive (“Prog”) and co-ed. So I went Prog and it was okay. We spent fewer hours in class as compared to Trad. I had my crushes, whom I shied away from. I had my girl friends and we’d trade stickers and stationary, guess the colors of each others’ underpants, have our petty quarrels, then make up afterwards. It was in Prog that we had Writers’ Workshop all throughout elementary and high school. In second grade, the idea of making up stories in class was new and exciting. Though my imagination was already all over the place, I decided to write a short piece titled “My Little Sister and I” about my sister, Alice. I remember focusing on my work and feeling genuinely happy for first time in months. As I handed my story in, my teacher read the simple language and rhyming lines with honest approval.

It was a few months later that my Mom had learned about a writing competition for children. She brought home the standard contest entry booklets for me and Alice. I copied my first story directly onto the clean pages with a blunt pencil. I made the drawings as “realistic” as I could and as my 36 crayons would permit. When we went to submit our work, I was confident that I had a sure shot at winning the contest. Then my heart sank. The other submissions were all on a table: some were made using magazine collage, some had unicorns and mermaids on the cover—for sure, more creative and original then a story about sisters, some were written in cursive—cursive! Worse yet, some had even printed their stories out before laying the text cleanly on the pages. My mom browsed through the other works and made a comment about how I should have made my work neater.

As the stereotype about love goes, I had never felt the desperation of wanting something so badly until the moment I had first felt the threat of loss. Later in my teen years, and even now, I would still feel echoes of that yearning in different loves personified. At 8-years-old, I didn’t care much for the recognition or the award itself, something in me just wanted to be a writer. Also, I wanted to be loved by writing. It was as if this competition was only symbolic, my own rite of passage, in the same way being in love with someone has its own rites of passage that could lift one’s soul into acceptance or cause it to plummet into heartbreaking rejection.

I knew my odds were low for both writing and illustration. Meanwhile, our family was just as shaky as it was at the start. It was in these months that, along with my Mom and siblings, I had moved in with my grandmother. Still, I needed to keep focused and pray for the impossible. I remember clearly that I walked into my grandmother’s empty bedroom one day. I got on top of the bed, lay face down and put another pillow on top of the back of my head, as if I were crying—not that I was. With the world shut out, I prayed that by some miracle, I’d win for both categories: writing and illustration.

There isn’t much of a need to elaborate what happened in the months that came after my prayer: at some point, I had already assumed I’d lost.

It was on a weekend that we were visiting my father, when my mom called to say that yes, I did win for both writing and illustration. The results had just taken long because of the overwhelming number of entries. I remember the sense of elation I had felt. I jumped up and down and danced around the way children do when they feel genuine freedom. I truly was in love with writing, passionate about it, and like being in love with someone, there still was a degree of unexplainable pain, there was still the knowledge that this feeling, as with all these earthly things, these things, these things, may be fleeting.

As I grew older, I set my goals as they presented themselves. In my early teens I started submitting fiction to the Philippine Graphic and Philippine Free Press until I won second place in the Free Press Literary contest at 19 for my coming of age story “Manananggal,” in which the manananggal is a metaphor for sexual awareness.  Still, what I had really wanted though was a Palanca Award by the time I turned 20. So after submitting stories for about three or four consecutive years, I finally got my wish and won in the Futuristic Fiction Category for “They Don’t Bite,” which is about how the Philippine government turns the country into hunting grounds where tourists can pay to kill the locals for sport. So I used the money to buy a laptop and kept writing. Last year, I published my first children’s book, “Spinning,” which is about a boy with autism.

Yet the sense of elation never flooded my bloodstream in the same way it did as when I was eight years old. It came in trickles, yes. Perhaps it was because every victory in writing seemed to follow heartbreak, betrayal, or a letdown. In the same way “My Little Sister and I” was written as my parents had ended their war and parted ways, the other stories, too, were written after some painful personal event. A couple of months ago, just one day after a particularly messy and disappointing something, I was commissioned to write a children’s book on a National Artist for the Ayala Museum, which I am sincerely happy about—but only now.

Other than the events in my childhood that preceded my first story ever, it never occurred to me to write out the specifics of what preceded the other stories. Mostly these were simply personal failings and relationships that died. I suppose reliving the dead past in your memory once in a while is normal. I know a lot of great artists who make fantastic work about their former loves and experiences and personal failings. But personally, I feel that to immortalize what is dead to me would be masochistic.

Still, things get better. I’m pretty sure I am at the point where I don’t have to put myself through something painful before being able to write.  But if it happens, it happens. As Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. says, “And so it goes.”

At the very least, I can still be thankful for the written word. From being a source of joy to one of catharsis, my first love is still here for me. I am still in love with writing, and it doesn’t even have to love me back.

(January 2010)

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