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Bonsai

As I’m planted in my seat, I could feel my toenails slowly burrow past our ceramic tiles, pushing into the cement until it cracks.

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Artwork by Ana Victoria Ereno/TomasinoWeb

For the past year, my body has been conditioned to sit in front of my computer screen, and I have no choice but to obey, as if my body has a mind of its own and I am but its vessel. 

In the middle of Zoom lectures, my fingers tend to stick on the keyboard as I type my notes. But as my eyes melt the longer I stare at the blocks of profile pictures and sea of words, I try to hasten my pace only to drown in them. As I’m planted in my seat, I could feel my toenails slowly burrow past our ceramic tiles, pushing into the cement until it cracks. I’m afraid it would reach the kitchen downstairs. My mother would notice and ask me to wash the dishes or water the wilted plants outside. 

Had I finished working on the thousand origami cranes I started the day after Paskuhan, I wouldn’t wish to attend with a date next time. Instead, I would just wish for a normal school day, to laugh with my friends while arguing where to eat between Angkong or Dimsum Treats, and study in the library. 

But months have passed. I ran out of paper and my fingers are strained from folding. 

Only when the academic year ended did I realize that my body is tethered to the things I’ve been accustomed to. A weary sigh escapes from my lips as I tip my headthe only part of me that I can freely move. My eyes spot the shrub that’s been there half my life. It’s nestled beside the window, at the far end of my room.

I try to move, but my feet are stuck from the shackles it made on its own. I grit my teeth as I attempt to break free again from the fetters that prison me in this chair, not minding the blotches of red and purple forming on my wrists.

Dead on my feet, I stare at the computer screen, tasting bile in my mouth and feeling my stomach churn. I shut my eyes tight, my shoulders heaving from the sudden pressure on my chest before shifting my stare at the window.

I couldn’t remember how long it’s been inside my room but I envy how it’s just planted there, never moving an inch. A surge of resemblance sweeps inside me as my eyes flicker before staring down my feet.

At least bonsais grow.

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Literary

A Letter to a Young Thomasian

To the new UST student reading this, in the near future, I hope you see the same things I did. But today, I write to you in hopes that you become less alone.

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young thomasian
(Artwork by Ched Janelle Bautista/TomasinoWeb)

Given all the circumstances, those of which I am sure all of us are tired of hearing, much less remembering, I still hope this letter finds you warm and well. 

There are things I will say here that may or may not stir something in you: an invitation of excitement for what may come after all this ends, anger for what could have been, sorrow for all that is. We know how strong words are, what they can make us do, and what they can become. But they aren’t enough in letting you know what I know, to see the things I’ve seen, to have what I had. Words cannot compare to first-hand experiences, but as of now, this is all I have left.

First and foremost, I’m sorry. Not that I had anything to do with the pandemic—I don’t think anyone should be held accountable for how it all started, but I’m sorry about how it escalated to such an extent. I’m sorry it’s happening to what should have been a year for freshmen like you to make new promises and be compelled not to break them. I’m sorry you still refer to the directions as north, south, east, and west, and not the way we have been trained to do during our time in PE: España, Dapitan, Lacson, Noval. Sorry about the street names, you would have liked walking through them: crossing roads and keeping your eyes alert for a potentially speeding car, an alarming stranger, a stray cat, or a friend. 

I’m sorry you are reading this when you could have been hearing it directly from me. I’m sorry the voices you will be compelled to listen to are transmitted from your device or deterred by a buffering screen. I’m sorry we won’t get to meet, not for a little while. Sorry for apologizing so excessively. There is so much of UST in me that, if I could, I would pull it out of my chest, wrap it inside a box, and give it to you, free of charge. It would be our little secret.

It must come off as awkward, maybe a little ridiculous, to think of the university as a secret, as big as it is: a walled-in city of 21 point five hectares, curated specifically for dreamers, romantics, free thinkers, future heroes, and every person in between. Yet there are things only we could know, not through sardonic gatekeeping, but by virtue of shared experiences—both good and bad. 

You will be accustomed to bouncing between lectures through Zoom and Google Meet links for some time. But there’s a pedestrian lane in the street that separates the Hospital building and the Carpark, jokingly (and somewhat affectionately) called Shibuya Crossing, that you will have to get used to before meeting your colleagues. You may or may not be the unfortunate victim of water droplets in an infamous spot in Dapitan. 

You could be the proud owner of a pack of pastillas, sold to you by a very convincing vendor. The “pop” of the fountain behind the main building might be just what you need to wake you up at seven in the morning. The diverse cast of statues scattered around campus might be of some interest to you—from a well-known saint and philosopher to a very familiar looking figure, carrying what appears to be a globe. This and this, it all belongs to you as it does to me. Thomasians, like alchemists, know how to turn mundane things to gold. We know how to take things from the past and turn it into something else.

There is the matter of a Thomasian’s complicated relationship with the rain—rain that could be a blessing from the sky or a punishment to everything urban, depending on who you ask or on which side the coin lands. Drizzles come and go, gentle kisses upon the earth, but Manila downpours are unforgiving. They are relentless, churning streets into rivers. Nothing floods as much as UST, which seems to suck the water around the city like a sponge. It used to flood so much that it is baffling Thomasians don’t grow gills through natural selection. It used to be so bad that we took umbrellas with us like an extension of our bodies, and accepted the fate of our ruined textbooks, damp socks, and bricked phones. 

I remember always hating the overcast. But today, every time I look above and see grey, all I could think about is my second home, that I used to be part of something bigger.  

I know how hard university is, and I know how harder it will become when you experience it exclusively in front of a screen. It is draining, difficult, and devastatingly lonely. No one likes the situation we’re in, and I’m going as far as to say that everyone despises it. 

The UST I write about is not what you are experiencing now. If our roles were switched, I’d think of you as someone not quite all there in the head, that we cannot be in the same school, that everything you have written and will continue to write sounds like a fever dream. It’s not. If there’s room for it in your heart to trust me, I pray that you do. 

Things are not where they should be now: the leylines are rearranged and the stars have realigned. But like all things inherent to nature, it will get better. To become a Thomasian is to become a conqueror of solitude—which is why we have the welcome walk, why we attend Paskuhan and Agape, why we wear yellow on game days, why I am writing to you now. To the new UST student reading this, in the near future, I hope you see the same things I did. But today, I write to you in hopes that you become less alone.

Maybe this is just how Thomasians are, what we become, what we unconsciously morph into. We turn into schools of fish to swim our way to safety, we become the stoic trees in Lover’s Lane, we become like statues. We flock to each other like birds, lick each other’s wounds like dogs. A dreadful part of me, bordering somewhere between realistic and pessimistic, believes that this current set-up we are forced to do might continue for some time. A year at the least. Maybe even more. But a hopelessly romantic, sad, and desperate part of me continues to believe that it will all end earlier than we initially thought. 

Until then: drink water, keep a blanket around your shoulders, and stay away from the rain (or, after reading all of this, bathe in it all you want). I can’t wait to see you soon. 

With love,

A Thomasian student

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Literary

To Tiger, Thomasian, or Whatever

Throughout your journey here, I hope you have found something that you can keep forever.

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Gillian Robles/TomasinoWeb

It’s cliché to compare people who are graduating to birds that are finally leaving the nest, but the idea itself is not wrong. After all, the act of graduating is an act of departure—leaving something behind, all set and ready to take off to who knows where. 

Bidding farewell to our alma mater starts the split second we enter the final year of college. There is a hint of realization that after this, where we are and what we do, will finally come to an end. 

Lectures, quizzes, exams, pulling up all-nighters, ranting about a lesson, crying over stress, gut-wrenching nausea before a defense, and gulping that mug of hell week coffee will be done one last time. And at that moment, when you submit your final paper, when you write that final answer, and when you hear the question, “Ano sagot mo dito?,” it would almost feel as if you are already walking towards the stage with your blockmates’ cheers filling up the pavilion, ready to close your chapter of España. 

Graduating is not limited to receiving your diploma, exiting the Arch of the Centuries, or even becoming a part of the sea of lights during the Baccalaureate Mass.  It is more than that because it also stretches out to graduating from the experiences that shaped you into who you are right now, whether it be good or bad, horrific or blissful. 

The memories made with friends who we met along the way will turn into stories to be shared in the next ten years. Maybe some of your professors will become your colleagues. And maybe you’d even return to the campus, wiser and much older. 

They say that college is where you’ll discover parts of yourself that will last; and I think whoever said that was right. Throughout your journey here, I hope you have found something that you can keep forever. May the little things in between those years remain with you. If not, well, I wish you the best of luck for the world has to offer you what you truly deserve. 

So, congratulations, Tiger, Thomasian, or whatever nickname the university has bestowed upon you. You made it

Soon, you’ll be making your own nest, picking up the twigs yourself, creating your own space. And when you soar over what lies ahead of the metal gates of UST, they are sure to be conquered by you.

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Literary

What the cards failed to consider

When Leah asked Aileen if Jacob would ask her out for Valentine’s Day, she drew the nine of swords.

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(Artwork by Meghan Castillo/TomasinoWeb)

When Leah asked Aileen if Jacob would ask her out for Valentine’s Day, she drew the nine of swords.

Leah didn’t know what the card meant. Aileen was the go-to reader in her block, who read palms and cards under the table, so that was her job. When she glanced at the design below her desk, it was the print of a man, sitting upright on his bed, with swords struck horizontally against him, one pierced through his chest. Aileen didn’t need to say anything. Leah already knew.

Aileen scooted over to peek. Her face fell. “Oh. Oh no.”

Expecting the worst, Leah nodded. “It’s bad, isn’t it?”

“The design isn’t very subtle, huh. Maybe it’s just a warmup. Want to draw again?”

“Isn’t that unprofessional?”

“Who cares? Maybe you’ll get the lovers card this time. I thought you wanted to date him.”

Leah did—er, sort of. Jacob was a marketing student she met in Antonio, where she went to in the afternoon to smoke. He just happened to be there and also just happened to carry a lighter. Leah pulled out a stick of Marlboro, and Jacob was ready to light it for her.

He wasn’t a conversationalist. Jacob used his mouth to puff out smoke more than he did words, but Leah could look past that. She just had to look at him. At his broad shoulders, at the way his yellow sleeves curled between his biceps, at his neck. His face looked good, sharp-nosed and thick browed and full-lipped. The car key hanging on his belt helped a lot, too. They hit it off pretty well. 

They exchanged numbers and went out irregularly to get some food and to smoke, but it stopped there. They didn’t sleep with each other, or kissed, they didn’t even hug. Leah didn’t know what they were. She just liked to look at him. Jacob liked being seen. In the presence of the tarot card, that looked glum between her fingers, she felt nothing. Maybe a little relieved.

She sighed. “Lunch?”

Aileen took the card from her hands and sheathed it into her deck, shuffled it, wrapped it with a cloth, and tossed it into her bag. “God, I’m starving. Carpark?”

They hopped out of Saint Raymund’s and walked through the school grounds. Aileen was the block’s tarot reader but she was also Leah’s confidant and best friend. 

In the student-filled aisle that trailed from the parking lot to the fast-food chains, Aileen stopped in her tracks and shoved an elbow against Leah’s ribs. Aileen pointed. Leah looked.

Jacob had wrapped his arm around someone else. A girl. She was smiling, a bouquet of flowers in one hand and a string of pink balloons in the other.

Oh. Leah thought. So that’s what the man in the tarot card felt when the sword struck through his chest. Oh.

Aileen grabbed her hand and, in a split-second, they dashed through the crowds of students, their feet kicking off the asphalt as they went. Leah was too dazed, her head clouded with Jacob and the girl––at the way he was grinning, midway through a joke, and at how the skin of his arm was touching the girl’s nape. At how they looked at each other. Leah didn’t know he met someone else. 

Aileen led Leah next to the trees where she could sit. “I’ll be back,” she said and disappeared. When she returned, paper bags in hand, she smiled at her.

“Hey, hey, listen, I bought you food.”

Leah blinked, collecting herself. “What?”

“Forget Jacob! Forget him, hey,” she pulled out a cup of iced coffee, placed it next to Leah, and brought out a pair of sandwiches. “He’s such a loser.”

Leah felt a tear trickle in one eye. “He is…and boring and smells like Axe perfume, and honestly, really dumb.” 

Aileen laughed. Leah wiped her eyes and pierced the coffee cup with a straw. She took a sip—it was her go-to order: Caramel macchiato with the whip stirred. She was just about to ask something when Aileen replied, “Soy milk, with two additional shots of espresso. I know.”

Leah peeled the wrappings off of her sandwich—it was a BLT with no cucumber and no onions like she usually ordered. 

Jacob didn’t know her favorite drink or her favorite meal. Jacob didn’t even know Leah’s favorite color. He didn’t know anything—but Aileen did. She knew everything.

Leah looked up at her best friend now, her chest wrung out of anger, filling up with warmth. In the sunlight, Aileen biting out of her sandwich, she started to glow. What the cards got right—Leah wasn’t going to spend Valentine’s with Jacob. She was never going to see him again. What the cards failed to consider was that there were other people. Better people. 

What the cards failed to consider was Aileen. 

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