Slap, Slap

Marguerite Alcazaren de Leon

Slap, Slap Toby was on the bus to work, slumped alone on a three-seater towards the back, when the song from his earphones was cut off at its chorus and replaced by a most majestic baritone. Toby? Toby? When he was younger, Toby used to have a set of cartoon Bible tales on Laserdisc, which he loved particularly for its Creation story as it provided beautiful, bounteous Eve, smiling and sinning from behind maddeningly placed flowers and ferns, to jack off to after school. The video also happened to acquaint him with the stately, splendid voiceover of God, and thus, with much foreboding, he tugged his earphones off and looked to the sky. He waited for his name to boom this time from a single, sundrenched cloud, to be followed by an extensive list of his transgressions, a hideous penance, and a customary forbidding crack of thunder. In a way, he had been expecting this moment to come. He had gotten away with so much shit in recent years that retribution was likely overdue. He wasn’t sorry for what he’d done, but, understandably, he feared punishment all the same. But all he could hear were the cars crashing on the onboard DVD, and the conductor prowling down the aisle for fare. The conductor had great big breasts that joggled as she tore off tickets in quick succession, which was poor consolation for her fresh buzz cut and old beer gut. Toby had ogled, albeit out of horror, but he managed this time to keep his eyes to the sky. When whole minutes had passed without incident, he slowly stuck the earphones back on. The song was on pause. He checked his player’s screen for the faintest reflection of hellfire, but there was nothing. It was early, and he was hallucinating. Wait, don't move. Don’t say anything. Just stay there, wherever you are, and listen to me. Toby froze, his panic reverted. To steady himself, he stared at the seat in front of him and silently read the cellphone numbers scribbled across the vinyl, digit by digit, his heart pounding harder and harder. He thought of ugly, poor people lying alone in their beds, texting each other about ‘first times,’ degrees of ‘experience,’ and other tawdry topics in their crude, callow game of seduction. Look, I’m not God, I’m not an alien, I’m not from the future—that’s fantasy nerd crap and I hope you know better. My name is Mon. I’m your conscience. I know we haven’t communicated this way, but it’s a new thing I’m trying out. It still needs work, though. I can’t hear your thoughts. I can’t even see you. I can hear you well, at least. You’re on a bus. There’s a conductor, she’s female, she’s probably lesbian, and she’s been holding off everyone’s change. Later, we’re going to figure out a system where you can talk back. Something that won’t make you look that crazy. And this voice—it’s a prototype. Yes, I know. Don’t mind it. The important thing for now is that I’m getting through to you. And I’m using your actual hearing, Toby. Actual, conscious hearing. Can’t mess with your thoughts, can’t use any of that all-powerful stuff anymore. Like going analog, sort of. Now, do you understand how desperate this is? I’m not supposed to need your body. Talking to you this way—I mean, I feel like we’ve hit bottom.
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Marguerite Alcazaren de Leon

It’s just that you haven’t listened to me in years. Just because Paola Samson got you sloshed, gave you Viagra, said it was Valium, and rode you against your will? Fine, it’s terrible. It’s humiliating, it’s demeaning. Rape is bad. You didn’t deserve it, and yes, you only let her do it because you couldn’t shove her off of you. You know, because she’s fat. If you doubted I was your conscience, I hope that’s proof enough. But you had to turn into an asshole. Really, Toby? What’s this crusade you’re on? Bad enough that you fuck around, but the shit you tell these girls? Oh you have bad teeth, oh why’s your nose so big, oh you should trim your bush. And right after sex? Seriously? Then you say you did them because you felt sorry for them? And you do it over and over, like a serial killer, like it’s some big mission of yours to be a total dick to womankind. Can you hear how stupid that sounds? Did you get that from a fucking comic book? Toby slumped back in his seat. “She told everyone,” he snapped. “And she made it sound like it was my idea, so everyone just thought I fucked her for kicks. But I got raped. That’s what really happened, and nobody believes me.” Several heads turned in Toby’s direction. The man in the two-seater across the aisle coughed. “Nobody believes me!” a boy cried from the backseat. The bus snickered. I heard them, Toby. That’s what I’m talking about. You just don’t listen. I said we’d figure out a system, but then you just go and do something moronic, right? Now here’s my idea, Toby: I do all the talking. I do the talking, and maybe I’ll ask you a question from time to time, but it’ll be a yes or no question. And then you’ll answer by tapping your thigh, like you’re listening to music—one tap for yes, two taps for no, three taps for I don’t know. You don’t care if people hear what you’re saying? Well, tough shit. It’s just better if you don’t talk, Toby. You’ll find out why in a bit. Okay, Toby? Do you understand? Turning towards the window, Toby slapped his thigh once, and hard. Good. Now, I need to see regret from you, Toby. I need to see that you feel genuinely shitty about what you’ve been doing. You’re not getting off this bus ‘til the end of the line, and if you still haven’t shown a shred of humanity by then, or if you dare take off your earphones at any time, you will be hearing from me everywhere—earphones, car stereos, TVs, intercoms—right before every stupid thing you’re about to do for the rest of your life. Slap. Slap. Well, it’s not like you have a choice. It’s called self-preservation. You don’t even know it, but you’re doing this to yourself. The bus had reached Ortigas, where Toby was supposed to get off. About a third of the passengers got up, inched their way groggily to the door, and stumbled off at the designated stop—a strip of concrete beneath the flyover which, by way of rickety steel overpass, led to the mini-metropolis where Toby strove each day towards normalcy. There, on the sixth floor of an old office-condo, he edited grade school textbooks for grammatical errors. There were days when he couldn’t fathom how marking dangling modifiers with orange highlighter was a viable career option, but these were outweighed by the days
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Marguerite Alcazaren de Leon

when he knew doing so meant a small studio apartment, a steady supply of corned tuna and take-out rice, the option to take the airconditioned bus, and the occasional night out. He was even tempted to photograph his new, liveable life and email the shots to his parents, like a big ha-ha, to show them that their punishment was for naught, that wayward spawn such as himself could maintain their misbehaviors and support themselves at the same time. But they were plenty sad enough. He imagined his father staying ‘til odd hours at the King Kitchenware Corp. main office, though there wasn’t much for a VP of Finance to do in the middle of the night. He imagined his mother locked in the silken cavern of the master bedroom, reading self-help drivel, inhaling Bizu macarons, and weeping. A fresh batch of commuters trudged into the bus, the first few slipping greedily into empty window seats. Toby, who was staring out at the only visible scrap of his office condo on the horizon, feeling both regret and relief, felt someone plopping down next to him. He turned to find a girl about his age—24 to 26, maybe a bit younger without that veil of early morning despair—fumbling for fare in her shoulder bag. She was okay. Light brown skin; no acne; a small, round nose; a plain ponytail. Her lacy black blouse filled out just enough; her fingernails were short, bare, yet buffed to a sheen. She could be liked; she could be overlooked. The bus spurted on, and the conductor clambered her way down the aisle. “Evangelista,” the girl said, her voice full but soft, handing money to the bearwoman as it loomed over her. Toby noted her pronunciation—hard enough to be deciphered by most anyone on that bus, yet soft enough to connote a far superior educational history. He then spied a button pinned to her bag: “Justice for Filipino Journalists!” Good! There’s one already. Is she pretty? Toby, wondering what “one” meant, exactly, was just about to answer out loud when he stopped himself with a cough. The girl glimpsed at him blankly then looked away. Slap. Slap. Slap. Would you do her, though? Slap. Toby badly wanted to explain, however, that he wasn’t particularly picky, just as long as they looked free of communicable disease. But he couldn’t, and he started to imagine thick, immaculate sheets of glass clamping down around him, muffling him. Still, he would humor Mon, if only because he didn’t know what else to do, and was too disconcerted to think any further. If Mon wanted to reduce his life to a string of brute sounds, then so be it. The slapping. Does she notice it? Is it ticking her off? The girl had made herself comfortable on the three-seater, stretching her legs out and hugging her bag like a pillow. Her eyes were locked on the screen up front, casually consuming a kiss between an action star and his tramp. Slap. Slap. Good. Okay, here’s what you’re going to do. You need to chat her up. Make conversation. Just simple talk, like you’re bored and you just want to talk to someone. Just start if off, maybe the weather or something, and I’ll guide you along, okay? The

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Marguerite Alcazaren de Leon

objective is to get to know her better. You know, to give you perspective and stuff. Do you understand? Yes? Can you do that, Toby? Toby, who had never had a problem with stupid dares involving girls, felt nauseous. Slap. Great. Go, do it. Taking a deep breath, Toby leaned a bit closer to the girl, as if to get a better view of the screen. “They should stop making sequels to this,” he began, tone dismissive, eyes bolted to the action star hiding behind a scrap metal hill. “Yeah,” the girl said softly, throwing him the quickest half-smile. Automatic civil response accomplished, she resumed total silence with ease. “Name me three action movies with no sequels.” The girl, realizing that she was still being talked to, looked at him directly. “Go on,” he continued. “Three action movies. It’s not easy.” “Why are you talking to me?” she asked with eerie calm. “I don’t know you who you are.” Toby stared back in response, wondering if he should smile or— “—Don’t tell me you just want to make conversation,” she went on. “That’s basically a lie. Sure, a lot of girls have probably fallen for your act just like that—” She snapped her fingers crisply, like breaking a twig. “—but I’m not that desperate.” Toby usually steered away from such easily provoked, potentially feminist types, but in this instance, he figured there wasn’t much of a choice. “Why are you mad?” he replied. “I just like talking to people. You could have been anyone. I wasn’t trying to do anything.” “Yes, you were.” “I wasn’t. “No. I’m not stupid. You were.” Wow, what a bitch, Mon cut in. But you know what, Toby? It’s okay. I mean, you need to stick with her if you want to get this over with, right? So, let’s see. How about this—how about you tell her that you used to be an asshole, but you’ve changed your ways? Right? Okay, Toby? Yes? Girls like that honest shit. Slap. Slap. Tough luck. Go, tell her what I said. Tell her that you felt bad for everything you’ve done and now you’re trying to be a better person. That’s why you started talking to her, because you wanted to be nice for once, blah blah blah. She’ll eat that up. Go, say it. “Look,” Toby said, feeling more and more ridiculous. “You were right to think that I’m the kind of guy who just picks up girls whenever he wants to, because I used to be that guy. But I’ve changed a lot this past year. I’m trying to be a good person for once, and I was hoping that I could have a nice, normal conversation with someone on the way to work. You happened to sit next to me. You looked like a nice person. It was just small talk, okay? It’s what people do.” “Why are you telling me this?” She scooted to the edge of the aisle. “I don’t care about your life story. Please stop talking to me.”

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Marguerite Alcazaren de Leon

Toby felt like a hostage in a bad movie, weakly bluffing the authorities with a gun prodding his back. Mon was a lousy conscience, which he supposed shouldn’t surprise him. In any case, Toby certainly didn’t want some burdensome baritone bullying him for the rest of his life, and he knew he had to rid himself of it somehow. This nice guy bit was a dud. What is wrong with this bitch? Slap. Slap. Slap. Shit. I thought this through, you know. You talk to someone, get to know them, see the error of your ways. That’s how it goes, right? It’s supposed to work that way? Slap. Slap. Am I missing something? It’s a bad plan, isn’t? Slap. There was a long, pained pause, after which Mon’s deep timbre turned pensive. Is it really my fault, though? Because, I mean, today’s a really big deal for me, you know. In the first place, I never thought I’d be talking to you this way. This directly. I know it’s a bad way to start your morning, but you have to understand that it’s hard for me, too. Like, I feel like I’m in a box—it’s cramped and it’s dark and I don’t know what’s going on. I’m not used to this, you know, to this orchestrating. I mean, I’m not hands-on. I’m your fucking conscience— As Mon spewed forth its anxieties, Toby looked out the window and listened halfheartedly, hoping this crisis meant ignoring the girl for good. The bus was slogging its way towards Ayala with everyone else. Blocking the horizon was the big beige brick of an MRT station, and Toby felt a sudden urge to just leave his music player behind, shimmy out of the three-seater (not without knocking his legs forcefully against that hateful shrew’s knees), get off at the station, and let the next North-bound train spirit him away. As for Mon’s permanent Jiminy Cricket ultimatum, wasn’t there a chance that vulgar, velvet voice was bluffing? It was his conscience. There was only so much it could do. —and I feel like shit. And the worst part is, none of this would’ve happened if you weren’t an idiot. You could’ve just looked at the pills! You know you can tell the difference. But you can’t even blame yourself for that, can you? The station and its corresponding bus stop was a second away, but Toby suddenly stayed put, annoyed. Slap. Slap. Of course you can’t. Because at your very core lies the biggest asshole I know. And you were like that even before Paola Samson. Having lingered for half a minute beneath the sooty shade of the station, the bus crawled back into the sunlight. Toby, blinded by the sudden sweep of brightness, and unable to shake off Mon’s disdain, had lost the urge to bolt. You know what your problem is? Your problem is, you’re a cliché. That’s what it is. Slap. Slap. Technically, there’s nothing wrong with you. Your parents are alive, for one. And even though they’re loaded enough, they brought you up pretty well. Spent lots of time with you. Didn’t just dump you on a yaya and buy you all kinds of shit to make themselves feel better. And they didn’t spoil you or anything. You had to study; you had
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Marguerite Alcazaren de Leon

to do your chores. They gave you that responsibility crap, but nothing you couldn’t handle. So they were good to you, right? Slap. And your school, Toby. It was fine, wasn’t it? Toby? Slap. Right. Honor kid all the way through. And it’s not like your friends were losers or anything. They were popular—like that basketball guy, and that guy who did that Chippy commercial when he was six—but they were nice. They went out and had fun, but they didn’t snort coke or anything. And your girlfriends! Pretty, smart. They liked sex, but they weren’t sluts. Rica went to Vancouver; you and Sam, you guys just faded out, ran your course. Sure, your heart got broken, but only so much. Am I right? Slap. Okay. Now, based on everything I just said, could you honestly say that your old life sucked? I mean, was it too clinical? Was it going nowhere? Slap. As if to mock Toby further, the bus approached Magallanes, where it would cross the ashen strip of Pasong Tamo. Just a few blocks down this road, burrowed amidst the chalky commune of crude office buildings, small factory lots and other weary, weatherstripped structures, was one of the uppity guarded entrances to Cheska Ocampo’s village. Crazy Cheska was the rail-thin blockmate who slogged through classes with her sunglasses on, took unsettlingly long washroom breaks, wore lacy, hot pink bras beneath gossamer tank tops, and had been boned by many, though no one was stupid enough to admit it. She introduced Toby to E during the block’s weekend trip to Cagayan de Oro to celebrate graduation (though she herself had several units to go). He was the only one who deigned to really talk to her on the trip. The other boys, giddy with the thought of new beginnings, chose to lurch in the direction opposite her, as if certain she could jinx the respectable, well-financed futures that had taken them four years of faked footnotes, rowdy Starbucks study parties, and small-talking professors at cigarette breaks to acquire. Toby, on the other hand, had decided that if he were to become a proper deviant, there was no better place to start than with the block’s nutty slut. And he was right. Endeared by his belated eager beaver-ness towards rudimentary misbehavior, Cheska made it a point to bring Toby with her to all the basic locales—the right clubs, homes, bar-slash-art galleries, and parking lots—as well as acquaint him with her bevy of licentious female friends with whom she was happy to share his clamorous cock. Soon enough, like a toddler taking hold of its motor skills, Toby began navigating his own way slowly but surely through the glistening swamp of self-indulgence, snorting and cavorting of his own volition, until he had fully transformed into the wayward youth he never was. And then came Paola Samson, lumbering through his favorite club’s doors and into his life. The bus crossed the road. Toby slipped a peek past the girl and out the twoseaters’ windows, as if he might actually catch a glimpse of Cheska flirting with the truck drivers huddled by a ramshackle store, or at least strutting down the sidewalk, sticking out amidst the blanched, barebones buildings in her bright green babydoll dress and eight-inch yellow stripper stilettos. But it was all grit and grey.
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Marguerite Alcazaren de Leon

You had it good. You’re supposed to be a nice guy. Why would you want to fuck that up? Whatever your reason is for becoming this way, I think it’s not enough. Toby was too busy mulling over Cheska to take Mon’s words in. Out of habit, the two met for sex about a month after that Paola predicament, and a week since his parents booted him out. His folks were horrified by their son crying rape—a blatant cover-up, no doubt, for defiling that darling Samson girl, so fat she couldn’t hurt a fly. Their decision was backed by Toby’s sudden devolution from satisfactory spawn to this waxen, red-eyed thing that crawled to bed at 8 AM, flew off minutes before midnight, and sucked their emergency account dry. After hammering each other’s privates that afternoon, Cheska had fallen asleep straight away, sprawled out gracelessly on her four-poster bed. Toby was left to stare at her for as long as he wanted. While she wasn’t strikingly beautiful, everyone, Cheska included, agreed that her breasts—pert C-cups with brown, five-peso-sized areolas, made public via Bluetooth and MMS—were exquisite. And they certainly were in the near-viscous, late afternoon light, like rare fruits suspended in honey. But the longer Toby stared at those breasts and the rest of Cheska’s smooth, bare body, the more certain he was that he loathed her. The figure comfortably corkscrewed before him was responsible for the rotten turn his life had taken. She was ruining him for fun, and it wasn’t his fault he couldn’t tell at the start. He was innocent then. Naïve. She had exploited him. He had been made weak. The fact that he was lying there on her bed, ogling her luscious frame when he should be looking for a job and a place of his own, was all part of the bitch’s pastime. Cheska’s eyes slowly opened. She noticed Toby’s forceful gaze and smiled. “Wake me up in 10 minutes,” she said. “If I’m still sore, I can suck your cock.” “Something’s not right,” he blurted out, as if he hadn’t heard her. “I mean, they’re not right.” “What, honey?” Cheska, still sleepy-eyed, propped herself up on her elbow. “What did you say? What’s not right?” “Yeah, that’s it. They’re not right.” Cheska sat up groggily. “Who’s they? Who are not right?” Toby frowned and clicked his tongue. “Your boobs. I mean, at least your right boob. Did you know it’s lower than your left?” he asked flatly. “What?!” Cheska’s back straightened in shock, her perfectly even breasts in full display. She then cupped her fleshy teardrops in her hands as if they’d been wounded. “Like it hangs lower?” he continued. “But just a little bit. I guess. About half an inch? I mean, is that why one’s kind of—” “Kind of what?!” “Kind of longer? Than the other?” Cheska flew to the full-length mirror across the room. She stared at her breasts at length, her panic morphing slowly into pure, unbridled horror. “You see it?” Toby asked, tone still nonchalant. “Oh my god!” Cheska cried, unable to look away. Her gaze was so heavy, it had managed to pull down the breast in question, and she could no longer see her tempting twins’ true symmetry since. “Oh my god! Shit! Shit, you’re right!”
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Marguerite Alcazaren de Leon

“Hey, it’s okay. It’s no big deal,” Toby offered. “What?!” “I mean, some people have funny moles, or big ears or feet or whatever. So your boobs are kind of like that. It’s just bad luck. I mean, if you have sex, sure, the guy’s definitely going to notice them. I mean, they’re there. But it’s not a tragedy or anything, and I guess you’ll get used to it.” “So you mean they’re ugly?!” Toby was finding it harder and harder to keep his face straight. “Well,” he began, his gaze dramatically dropping to the carpet. “I’m just saying they’re not symmetrical.” “Why are you telling me this?!” Cheska was near tears. “You think I like hearing this shit?” “Come on, you’re overreacting.” “But you didn’t have to say anything!” “It was just an observation.” “Oh my god, I have the shittiest luck.” Toby sat up and looked her in the eye. “Well, not really,” he said, still calm. “But I probably do, you know.” Cheska turned away from the mirror. “You’re bringing up that rape thing again?” “Look, Paola was only at Crave that night because it was her birthday. It’s not like that hog goes clubbing. And she was desperate; she could’ve chosen anyone to fuck over, and she chose me. Worse, nobody believes she did it. They think it’s my fault. You think it’s my fault. Now that’s shit luck.” “Did you just come here to piss me off?” “Kind of,” Toby replied, his tone dry again. “But it’s more about the sex, you know. I mean, I had bad luck once, but you’re a lonely whore all the time. I should at least help you out.” At my last count, you’ve ripped girls apart the exact same way 17 times. Is that about right? Toby snapped out of his reverie, Cheska’s look of sheer helplessness swapped for the Winston Lodge in Pasay, across from which the bus was mired in traffic. He looked away from the motel. Toby, is that about right? Slap. And it felt good each time? Slap. And you have no plans of stopping? Slap. Slap. Shouldn’t you the pay for the room, at least? Leave cash on the— Slap. Slap. Wow. And you think you can get off this bus? Slap. Huh. You don’t believe I can fuck you up? You think I was lying? Slap. You’re a moron.
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Marguerite Alcazaren de Leon

Slap. Slap. That wasn’t a question. Slap. Slap. What? Slap. Slap. Slap. Toby, what ar— Slap. Slap. Slap. Slap. Slap. Slap. Slap. Slap. Stop! Tob— Slap. Slap. Slap. Slap. Sto— Slap. Slap. Slap. Slap. Slap. Slap. Slap. Slap. Slap. Slap. Slap. Slap. “What the hell are you doing?” Toby stopped. The girl had turned towards him, staring at him as if he’d been bleeding out of his forehead. “What are you doing?” she repeated. “What was that?” Toby stared back in panic. Shit, Toby. “What? What do I tell her?” Toby said out loud. “Huh? Tell who?” The girl looked even more perturbed. “Who’s ‘her?’” “Mon, what do I do?” Oh man. Let me think. “Mon?” The girl looked around. “Who’s Mon?” How about this: tell her about all the shit you’ve done with all those girls. Just tell her about it. “What? Why would I do that?” The girl had fallen speechless. She looked around the bus for empty seats, only to find a whole drove of office folk spilling down the aisle from the sidewalk, filling in all of the empties in seconds. Exactly. Tell her the truth, and I guarantee she’ll give you shit for it. And I don’t mean all that whiny, hurt crap all the others say. You never did anything to this one. And she obviously doesn’t care about you. So, when she goes off about what an asshole you are, it’s going to sting for real. It will. But you think it won’t, right? You think you’re so used to all that screaming that you’re a dick or a shitbag or you should bite off your cock and die or whatever, but it’ll get to you. It will ‘cause it’s an honest opinion. From someone who has no beef with you. And you know that. And when it does—ZAP! I’m gone, man. That was the deal. Regret, and I leave. That was the deal, right? So go! Do it. Get rid of me, Toby. I want out as bad as you. Toby, tired, turned to face the girl. She was eyeing the corner of Taft Avenue, one slim foot sticking expectantly out the aisle. He didn’t believe what Mon had just told him. The girl would give him an earful, certainly. She seemed to possess the vocabulary required for a proper nut crushing. But no matter how spiked her tongue, he wasn’t going to feel a thing, let alone find that Mon had fallen mute for good. Still, doing Mon’s bidding was far better than having to hear it gripe about how he didn’t. The bus neared the stop. The girl hoisted herself up. “Miss, wait.”
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After a heavy pause, the girl made a show of dropping back in her seat. When she leaned towards him, Toby noted a glint of real expectation in her eyes, the kind people get when they’re driving past a fresh car wreck, waiting to wince in horror. “Let me explain,” Toby went on. Her look of impatience sharpened. Her eyebrows crept closer to each other; her lips parted by millimeters, their viperous contents lying in wait. Toby suddenly felt embarrassed by her attention. He decided that she was, in fact, a properly pretty girl despite that scowl, and had a great personality to boot—fierce, smart, and perceptive of bull, yet forthcoming to her own curiosity. A catch in a past life, maybe. But he would have to get her all riled up now, and he didn’t enjoy the thought of thoroughly ruining her day, convincing her that people could have such a boundless, barefaced desire for ill will. It wasn’t regret he would feel, however, but pity. He felt sorry for her, for the fact that she would be like all the others, seeing him in such an unflattering light when he was, in truth, worthy of some kind of admiration. He’d been living on his own terms. He’d managed to do the things he felt like doing. He hadn’t kept himself from experiencing the world, which was in reality such a luscious, bracing, visceral kind of place, ready to share with you its vigor if you were savage enough. She wouldn’t be able to grasp that, really. But he told her the story anyway. Putting on a grim face, he started from the very beginning, describing to her in detail the cordial sterility of his childhood—the recognition awards at school, the family vacations to Hong Kong or San Diego, the violin lessons, the barkada at Kids (and later, Teens) for Christ. A decidedly happy childhood, whatever he could recall of it. His adolescence was only quickly mentioned, fraught only as it was with harmless teen highlights: copious acne; a longer, stronger body; and some cute yet perverse introduction to the elements of sexual desire (in his case, the aforementioned after-school specials with celluloid Eve). He then went on to his college days, when things were technically still great, and told her about the restlessness that had slowly germinated from within. Everything was going too well, he told her. His grades had never slipped, his break-ups hadn’t stung for long, his friends weren’t opportunist deadbeats, his dad had gotten him a sweet stint as head copywriter of King Kitchenware Corp.’s Product Marketing Department (a job Toby had actually wanted as his entry-level spot, and hadn’t seen as a parental power trip). He would never call his life perfect—the long nights studying, the occasional hankering for a warm body, the friends who scoff at his nepotism—but it was certainly lacking in hardship, and the longer he lived his sound life, the more convinced he was that something was wrong with it. Specifically, that something had to go wrong with it. So then, finally, Toby was at his tale’s key segment. He started by telling the girl his decision to just latch on to Crazy Cheska and see where it would take him. While Cheska’s world was the extreme opposite of his own, he explained that it was this very disparity that made it so easy for him to embrace this world. Things there were so different, they were hard to take seriously; he felt no need to hesitate from anything since none of it seemed all that real. But then, of course, he ended up mired in its haze and couldn’t see through it, couldn’t clamber back into his old life anymore.

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Slap, Slap

Marguerite Alcazaren de Leon

It was somewhere in the murk of this new life that Paola Samson did her despicable deed. It just happened, just like that, just like all the other acts of aimless transgression that now made up his days, except that it was worse, and led him to be absolutely, deliberately horrendous to women on a far more regular basis. It somehow made his life tangible again, Toby explained, although this time around, it was genuinely interesting, extraordinary, definitely not the pristine, predictable pathway that had been engineered for him by birthright. He didn’t think of it as a wrong turn taken. Yes, it meant living in relative squalor, it meant a soulless job, it meant being the image model for hatred and degeneracy and the annihilation of ethics. But if it also meant a life solely in his hands, the kind so raw and unpredictable, others feared and envied it all at once, then all those other details weren’t really a problem. He was his own, fascinating being. He had to be proud of that. Toby, a bit winded, ended it there. He slumped against his seat, as if he had just run a marathon, and gave the girl a quick, tight-lipped smile. He hadn’t looked away from her the entire time he was talking, and wasn’t about to now. He liked what he’d just said. He’d meant every word. It felt fantastic to be bracingly honest, to say something that must be so disarming for other people to hear. But the rush only lasted a few moments, and now, he would have to face the girl’s impending ire. He’d just better get it over with. The girl’s eyes had dimmed somewhat. And her body, which was hunched in anticipation earlier, now leaned limply against the seat. She looked pissed. She looked preoccupied with a thousand troubled thoughts, and didn’t know which one to sound off first. As Toby kept his gaze on her, he began to feel a bit more anxious than he’d expected to be, as if he feared that she would physically hurt him. She seemed to be resting up for the first blow, or contemplating which parts of him to maul. She sat up straight. “Really? That’s it?” she asked. Toby blinked, confused. No sarcasm in her tone, for once. Was it an actual question? “Seriously? Because you’re bored? That’s why you’re an asshole?” Toby parted his lips, as if to speak, and then closed them again. “The ‘poor little rich kid’ story? Who uses that?” she went on dryly. “You’re a bad movie, whoever you are.” Finally, the bus reached Evangelista Street. The conductor called out the stop, her throaty voice particularly strident. Toby watched the girl sling the strap of her bag over her shoulder, throw him a look of utter dismissal, and rise from her seat. Toby felt his heart flip over. It was going too fast. She couldn’t leave just like that, with everything so suddenly and monumentally vague, her biting words still in the process of being deciphered by his tired brain. She was supposed to stay longer. There was supposed to be further explosions of emotion, or at least some conclusive conversation thick with tension, and they were supposed to be stuck in that bus ‘til the end of the line. And that was supposed to be the only reason for them to part. Because the bus driver would eventually pry them out of their seats, and once they’d find themselves standing in the middle of some drab, dusty bus lot at the edge of the metro, it would occur to them that they had best end things then and there, and they would calmly go their separate ways,
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Slap, Slap

Marguerite Alcazaren de Leon

each convinced that they were right and the other was dead, dead wrong, and life would inevitably go on. That’s how it was supposed to happen. Free of distractions, Toby would finally find a way to rid himself of Mon, and he would look back on that tortuous, torturous morning with pride, relief, and little else. “Wait,” Toby blurted out. “Don’t you want to know who I was talking to?” But the girl had made her way to the hissing bus door, and she stepped right down to the sidewalk. And when the bus rolled on forward, she wasn’t yanked along with it by some karmic harness. She didn’t even look back or pause in bewilderment, didn’t acknowledge the strange bond she now had with this big box of metal and the crazy within, nothing. She just started walking. Even from behind the cracks and streaks of the bus’s windows, it was very clear to Toby that her face bore no compelling expression. Just a very normal blankness, the default look most everyone would put on while walking down the street with somewhere to go, and before he knew it, she was officially far, far away, unquestionably untethered from his here and now. Toby didn’t know what to do. He felt horrible, although he wasn’t really clear on why his guts were curling in on themselves. He couldn’t settle on a single thought. “Now what?” he asked Mon out loud. “What do I do now?” Mon didn’t respond. A cement mixer went by, a seism on wheels. Toby pressed his earphones further in. “Mon,” he said a bit louder. “Your plan is shit. What do I do?” Mon still refused to speak. “What is this? You don’t want to talk to me?” Toby rolled his earphones’ cords between his fingertips, which usually coaxed the sound out when his current pair was on the fritz. No crackling, no staccato speech. He let go, clasping his hands worriedly. “Mon. Are you there?” The conductor waddled by, her belt bag jangling with change. A taxi bleated. “Mon,” he said even louder. “Hey! Are you there? Mon?” Nothing still. A few heads turned in curiosity. Toby gripped the ragged pleather of his seat and took a deep breath. One by one, he plucked out his earphones and set them on his lap. Strewn limp across the mounds of thighs like thin black weeds, they seemed purposeless, irreparable. Toby decided that they were. Then, he noticed how the sounds around him had become far sharper, bolder, more imposing, how he had been spoiled by the cushioned cocoon his earphones had created, which he now realized had provided an excellent false sense of security. He felt too raw now. He was maybe even lonely. The conductor called out the next stop, some place Toby had never heard of. He looked out the window and saw drab buildings he had never seen, store signs he had never read, street islands whose scruffy saplings he had yet to belittle, and he felt fear. There were no buses speeding in the opposite direction, although maybe it was just at that moment and they’d eventually come, but Toby wasn’t sure. The bus swerved to the sidewalk and stopped, but he couldn’t bring himself to get off. He didn’t know the area; he didn’t know where to go. It didn’t occur to him to just ask for directions. Soon enough, the bus was pulling back out to the road again, and the

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Slap, Slap

Marguerite Alcazaren de Leon

city started spooling out once more, slowly at first, and then faster, and faster, and faster. Toby closed his eyes and leaned back against the seat. He would not see where he was headed. ●

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