WAYWARD AND FANCIFUL: Out in the open. By Gail Ilagan

In front of me was a burly truck driver. He had taken his shirt off and had loosened his belt. He undid the button and zipper to his shorts and sat down on the chair facing me, smiling in greeting. I grinned back.

I meant it, too. I was getting an hour of gentle massage out there in the open and the manang masseuse was making me feel like smiling.

All seats full now. Still, people came and sat patiently on the benches and planters waiting their turn at the soothing ministrations of the members of the Holistic Therapeutic Blind Masseurs, a SEC-registered association of trained reflexologists who had been given this side of the plaza to ply their trade.

“Manang,” I said to my ministering angel, “you are not blind, are you?”

“My husband is,” she replied, pointing to the white-clad therapist now kneading the truck driver’s lower back.

She told me that the association members trained in Cebu. There are only 15 registered members, but they had also taught their family members to do reflexology massage. I asked if the therapists working the square between Jollibee and Banco de Oro belonged to the association, too. She said no. I thought not. They charged the same – PhP50 for half-body, double that if you wanted them to get to your toes – but the HTBM people were in uniform and there was a receptionist here in their section of the plaza who kept the line flowing in an orderly manner. 

A young man came up behind the driver and sat on the planter next to the notebook left by the receptionist. He picked up the guitar and plucked away. The haunting strains of Angela Bofill’s You Should Know By Now filled the air. Manang adjusted the rhythm of her kneading.

“My nephew,” she said. “He’s usually around. He doesn’t like staying at home. It’s good to have him here so we can watch him.”

She said they’d pack up at around 2:00 am.

A barefoot young woman came to rest at the foot of Borja’s statue. For a moment, her eyes met mine. I had a feeling there was nobody there behind her blank gaze. She lay down on her side, pillowing her head on her left arm. She fell asleep, unmindful of the rest of us.

“She had slippers yesterday,” Manang observed. “Someone stole them. You’ll never get to heaven if you steal something that belongs to someone who is not right in the head,” she intoned ominously.

“Where did she come from?” I asked.

“She’s not from here,” piped in the truck driver in a deep baritone. “I pick up some of them on the road. I drop them off in Bukidnon. It’s funny because some weeks later, I’d find them on the road again. So I’d pick them up and bring them to Bukidnon. She’s not violent,” he added, nodding at the sleeping girl.

“She’s not violent, alright. She just gave birth. I wonder where her baby is. The government ought to take care of people like her,” opined Manang, now working the soles of my feet.

“Women?” I asked the driver.

“Men, mostly. Women, too. Some of them are very young,” he said.

“Why do you bring them to Bukidnon?” I asked.

“That’s where I’m going,” he replied with a shrug. “In the city, the social work people round them up in the morning and make them bathe in the river. Then they are given clean clothes and sent back out on the streets again.” 

“Yes. Maybe that’s how she got pregnant. She did not smell so bad anymore. Look at her. Someone made her wear a diaper. She must be bleeding still. She’s not violent. The poor girl. You can’t get to heaven if you force sex on someone who’s not right in the head,” opined Manang in a disapproving voice. She gives my foot a farewell squeeze and slid my slipper back on.

I walked over to the sleeping girl. What does it mean when one sleeps on her left side? What kind of dreams visits her in the night? 

I noticed she had a bunch of paper clutched in her right hand. She is actually the first mentally imbalanced person I’ve known to pick up scraps of paper off the pavement. Fliers, order slips, cash register receipts, pages torn from a notebook. On one side of her stack, I noticed that the edges were neatly aligned. Here was her monumental attempt to make order. My head ached to see her trying.

Unbidden, an image came to my mind. It was something I had tried to make out earlier that day. High up on the left wall of the Cagayan de Oro cathedral is an old stained glass window depicting the angel of the Lord appearing unto Mary to tell her that she would be the Mother of God.

I’m no angel of the Lord, but this girl could very well be named Mary.

I walked away. It felt strange to be walking away from someone I can’t help and not feel like railing at the gods. Maybe I’m growing up. Maybe I’ve finally come to believe that life is not fair. Maybe I’m wise enough now to know the difference between what I can and cannot change. There, too, is solace in powerlessness.

Or maybe this newfound detachment came with that sweet-smelling lana manang masahista rubbed onto me. 

Who knows perhaps some time in the next life, there will be somebody there named Mary behind those blank eyes now closed in blessed slumber?

The haunting guitar strains pining for love trailed me as I walked past streetpeople bedding down for the night on park benches, past buttoned up evangelists quietly but emphatically praying over some troubled soul, past prowling hiphop boys in black. Heading where I’d been was the occasional workman just seeking to ease his aching back.

(Wayward and Fanciful is Gail Ilagan's column for MindaViews, the opinion section of MindaNews. Ilagan teaches Social Justice, Family Sociology, Theories of Socialization and Psychology at the Ateneo de Davao University where she is also the associate editor of Tambara. You may send comments to gail@mindanews.com. "Send at the risk of a reply," she says).