The Chair to My Left

Sometimes, separation becomes bearable when memories abound. To the author and the artist, we hope to see you soon. Everyone is praying for you always. May God bless you and help you in this time of pain and confusion.
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Booming coughs echo across space as blinding flashes of crimson and silver explode in the night sky, clashing with green, blue and yellow fires that leap out of the earth to wrestle with the blackness in a fiery fandango of color and sound. In an instant, loud, inhuman screams rise into the air, muffling the explosions, soaring higher and higher, until finally, mercifully, crescendo and then fade slowly into the mist and smoke of the cold January night.
I stand next to mommy under the Kaimito tree, the one Kuya had climbed so many times in the past, with me and sis waiting expectantly below, plastic bags in our grimy hands, mouths watering, waiting for the shout of warning from above to catch the green-and-purple fruits in our hands like squishy, overgrown softballs. We were young then, not anymore.
“Wonderful, aren’t they?” mom smiles, the invisible lines beside her eyes and framing her mouth now etched deep and defiant in her placid-pale face. I nod with a quick grin and my head snaps up again, just in time to see the shower of green sparks shoot into the sky from Nana Karing’s house next door. It is answered by a pulsating ball of white fire that rockets straight up into the stars, twists one, two, three times as it changes from bright yellow to glowing green to neon blue, then explodes there, a supernova of red motes of light; breathtaking.
Dad is there in a second, his face sweaty and grimy, shirtless belly streaked with soot from the fireworks he had set up. His hard, scarred and callused hands come up in front of him, palms raised, shoulders shrugging, saying it was over. The last of our fireworks: gone.
The acrid smell of ashes mingles with the fog, stinging my nostrils. The aroma picks at my brain, reminding me of that day, ten months ago, of the cursed letter whose charred remains may very well be the soil beneath our feet.
“Yay, it’s time to eat!” sis exclaims, and everyone laughs, but I know what she really wants is to get back inside to the TV and her cell phone—if text messages had weight it would have been crushed flat by now.
We turn to the house, where Papang and Mamang have been watching through the window—the cold might be too much for them. I am greeted by a suffocating hug from Mamang, one as tight as her old bones could manage.
“Happy New Year, apo,” and
“May God bless you.”
Papang is less enthusiastic as usual, greeting me with a rough pat in the back, ruffling my hair as he would a favorite dog, his usually scrutinizing expression now cut by an unmistakable smile.
“Happy New year.” He says gruffly, owing more to the fact that he now has difficulty breathing than his indifference towards me, which is still there, mind. All these years I had come to accept that he favored Kuya more than me, even when he and Mamang were still in the States, he would be overjoyed just to hear at least some good news about Kuya. That ended a few months ago, when he finally found out what his favorite apo had done. I knew he was hurt, we all were. I just smile back.
Sis and I troop to the TV, grabbing our cell phones as we go. I sneak a peek at the glowing white rectangle of light between her hands.
“Ha, you only have twelve! I guess you aren’t as popular as you think!”
“Oh yeah? Well let me look at yours, you probably didn’t receive even one greeting!” she taunts me, her eyebrow cocked up like one of those Doñas in those Mexican telenovelas. A hand comes up to her waist to complete the look. I look her square in the eyes, my own eyebrows doing some acrobatics of their own. Then we laugh, our little play act so finely executed we could have Rosalinda and whoever-the-villain-was on their meticulously tanned and shaved knees in shame. But there is still something missing, like when a character in a cry-your-heart-out television show suddenly dies or goes missing; I know exactly who it is. I look quickly in my inbox, which is also packed with almost-identical greetings, but kuya, ever the indifferent big brother, didn’t even leave a cheesy New Year’s quote like everyone else.
“You guys, look at this!” Dad, now freshly showered and dressed, hollers from in front of the television, at the same time ogling at the fireworks display on TV. We join him and again I am transfixed by the exploding fireballs on TV, right above a street full of drunken partiers, who now, too, are rooted to the spot like witnesses to an alien invasion, their bare necks craning to see millions of pesos in fireworks practically being burned to ash over their heads.
“Wow.”
“Yeah, even better than ours.”
“Yeah…”
“Time to eat!” Mom’s battle cry freezes everyone on the spot. The two of us cooked the spaghetti earlier—though not as good as Kuya or Daddy did last year—and now it lay steaming and aromatic in six of Mom’s identical porcelain plates with the blue scroll pattern at the rims, the ones that only see the light of day during special occasions or with the presence of an important guest. On one side is the cake, a huge mound of carbohydrate and sugar, just waiting for its first victim, and next to it is the traditional basket of fruits, along with the smoked ham, the buko salad and a pitcher of cold Coca-cola. I sit on my usual seat, at my Dad’s left-hand side, the one I had picked since I was a child because there I had a great view of the sala’s television reflected on the glass of the great black bookcase across the room from it. To Daddy’s right sit Mommy, sis, Mamang and Papang, all neatly in a line around the table.
The chair to my left stands empty.
I look over to Mommy and see the hurt in her eyes, the same expression she had on that day, when all this started. No anger, no hate, only the helplessness of a mother whose little ones finally learn to use their wings, only to fly another direction. She had seen me looking at the chair.
“Okay, let’s eat!” Daddy declares, and everyone else tries to look as hungry and excited, as if nothing was wrong. As if the food, however delicious, could somehow fill the vacuum in our own hearts.
The sky outside is a dark, forbidding blue, the light from the distant sun still untraceable on its velvet face. Even the stars are invisible, veiled from our eyes by the swirling smoke from the myriad firecrackers that, just minutes ago, were popping about merrily, festively. Dawn is still very far away, but getting closer with every tick of the clock, with every breath, with every blink of a tear-soaked eye.
“Let’s say grace first. Son…?”
I nod and give a quick smile, then bow my head as I have been taught since childhood.
I do not have to look up to know that a tear is finding its way slowly, quietly down Mom’s cheek, that Dad is knitting his eyebrows together in an effort to stop his own eyes from watering, and that Sis is looking at me, a question in her eyes, expecting, almost praying that I might look at her with an answer. And I know that however I try to think otherwise, that chair will always remain as it is. But so will we.
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