Like most of you, I travelled to this meeting in the University of the Philippines, far from home and weary from the journey, with a story in my pocket and high hopes that whatever was in it would get me somewhere. It did not, in fact, get me anywhere; the public buses still do not accept compositions as currency, much to my wallet's dismay, and I was forced to pay the usual fee so that the driver could go about his regular business and try to get me and everyone else killed in a car crash (twice). Thankfully the train ride from Baclaran was far more pleasant, albeit a bit cramped.
Overlooking the fact that I almost died en route - again, twice - I am quite content to simply be here to relay this story, because it is a story that ought to be told. That is all I am, and what we all are at this moment: keepers of stories. And in my four years as a student working on my bachelor's degree in Psychology, I have spent a great deal of time recording stories. Not always to my liking of course, but worthwhile things are not always forged under comfortable conditions.
This account is about a particular breed of women, and of their area of employment: a brothel, a whore house, an institution that accommodates one of the oldest professions of humankind. It is a story of how they had found warmth in this den of Eden, and what we of greater privileges - or better luck, I should say - might learn from the inhabitants of this strange and bitter paradise.
There are few things quite as revealing of a culture as its dark underbelly, especially one that contrasts so sharply against a backdrop of an already two-faced reality made perfectly expressed in the glittering cityscapes looming over the inglorious filth that faces it on every turn. More than the arts, it is in the hushed tones of murky alleys and the echoes of the ramshackle underground - cities built from the scraps brushed off the master's table - that are truly representative of a society's condition, a diagnosis founded on the principle that a chain is only as strong as its weakest link. But I suppose one can see it as a work of art as well; a surrealist portrait if you will - with the pauper's blood as its pastel of choice - of a people's collective unconscious, the conflicted sentiments for a country that has become more caricature than nation made manifest.
This was my rationale for a project I had ventured into three years ago, motivated primarily by a requirement for one of our major courses but also by an admittedly misguided urge to seek out novelty. After all, a student of my chosen field was always expected to tear down mental borders - as well as the borders of our own comfort zones - in order to better grasp human nature, an expectation that is not always easy to live up to when tucked safely with the sights and sounds of an upper middle-class neighborhood. This is especially so when said neighborhood was populated with those who were more blissfully ignorant of the struggles of the lower echelons than I am. Not all of course, but just enough to make one wonder how disconnected we have become.
Convincing my professor to allow me to push through with the endeavor, however, was not as clear-cut. While I tried to stress its academic significance, its impact enhanced by the possibility of a worldview-shaping experience that would henceforth contribute to my growth as a human being - realizing, in retrospect, how silly that line of reasoning must have sounded - her immediate counterargument was to cite the obvious dangers this kind of activity would pose to a person like myself. By this she meant that I, sadly endowed with the features of a well-to-do Chinese teenager, fit the criteria for what the inhabitants of our penitentiaries called "jail bait". The thought of one of her students getting mugged, kidnapped, raped, or any combination of the three for the sake of a school project was not at all appealing to her; never mind the repercussions to her standing in the faculty and the lawsuit that would inevitably follow. This was my first great obstacle: persuading my professor that I would not be mugged, kidnapped, or raped.
This process of round after round of pleading and bargaining with our instructor - it is amazing how enthusiastic I was back then - lasted about five days, whereas within that time the rest of my class had already begun their own projects in less hazardous environments. Some went to their nearest barangay to survey the typical landscape of a Filipino community trapped in a state of arrested development courtesy of an uncaring administration. Others visited the numerous NGOs handling the rehabilitation abuse victims, bringing to the classroom their preliminary reports colored with anguish and the occasional shade of hope in-between. And others still, one of whom I distinctly remember sobbing midway into their recitation, chose one of the many dilapidated homes for the elderly, which have come to serve as convenient trash bins for those who have thrown traditional family values off a three-story window and have somehow come to the conclusion that it is perfectly okay to abandon their elders in some remote location. The threat to their physical wellbeing may have been at a minimum in the places they chose, but their excursions into the more depressing dimensions of our community certainly seemed to have a profound influence on the way they viewed social issues. I feel that students should have more opportunities to experience wake-up calls like these, especially those who are able to so easily afford greater luxuries. The comforts of life have rendered many blind to the cruel realities of their fellow man.
But while they were out working on their life-changing experiences, I remained frustratingly idle, waiting for my professor to let me be. But after a bit more prodding, I was finally allowed to go on ahead - provided that I was accompanied by someone who could look after me and that I brought along a concealed weapon for self-defense. I only listened to the second condition; it was a can of pepper spray. Unfortunately, I would never have to use it.
It is good to have a diverse assortment of friends who hailed from different elements of the public sphere; they offered you perspectives you are otherwise unable to formulate on your own, and also provide you with tools to dip your hands into things you would normally have no access to. This dictum proved particularly useful when, prior to being given the signal to push through with my project - and also in defiance of my professor's very specific instructions to find a safer focus for my research, like special children perhaps, though anyone who has ever worked in a school's special education department will tell you otherwise - I had sought out the help of certain friends to find a suitable venue to gather my unique set of data. I did not care to probe into their modus operandi (I did not even want to know), but needless to say they stayed true to their work and found me a brothel that would happily cater to my peculiar interests. Under normal circumstances, that statement would likely be interpreted in a far darker light.
And so the following weekend I packed my notebook, my trusty recorder, some spare change (in-case I do actually get mugged), and set off for my strange destination.
The venue of my project, the location of which I cannot disclose due to an oath of confidentiality, was set in an area that seemed to confirm all the stereotypes of a sleazy red-light district: bad karaoke, drunkards slumped against flickering lamp posts, the stain of cigarette smoke and God knows what else on every corner, the buzzing of neon signs calling out to the goons and lost souls to come inside for a drinks and a bit of something extra, and the occasional peddler of Viagra and other sex-enhancing drugs (none of them prescription, some probably illegal) littered the streets under the veil of a clear evening sky. It was as degenerate as one would expect, and already I began to feel deeply unsettled. One could not help but feel a little lost in such alien terrain.
The brothel itself, with only a small neon sign that read "Eden" in bright green to announce its business, was surprisingly pleasant to look at in relation to everything else around it. It was a homey ramshackle of a building: one could notice the strain age had put on it, what with its cracks and jagged edges where the wallpaper had peeled off, but there were visible attempts to keep things in working order. It called to mind the image of an old Spanish villa, a crumbling structure imbued with the charm of a dusty antique, but one is immediately drawn back to the awful truth of things by the dank smell of cheap perfume and detergent.
I found myself, for a brief moment, appreciating the unusual loveliness of the rundown brothel; or maybe I was simply desperate to find loveliness in a place so devoid of it. It is one of the oddest compulsions of the privileged - routinely disengaged from the darkness that has swallowed up those of lower birth - to cast the horrid fortunes of the poor under a sensitive and even romantic light, treating them more as the fascinating portraits of a gloomy artist subject to philosophical debate than as actual human beings. Detached from the state of affairs and conditioned only by pleasantries, the eyes of the fortunate seek to shy away from the wretchedness that so offends their sensibilities by viewing it through a kaleidoscope. One can scarcely imagine the starving vagabond seeing anything remotely beautiful about their current state of affairs.
My internal monologues were cut short when three women appeared at the other end of the hall, their soft gestures ushering me inside.
Promptly, not unlike ladies-in-waiting but sans the regalia, they asked me what a young boy like myself wanted to try. I politely declined (for more reasons than I am prepared to disclose at the moment) and explained that I was only there to hear their stories, partly out of interest and partly due to the looming deadline in my class. They eyed me curiously - I could have sworn one of them winked - initially unconvinced by my innocent request, likely due to the volume of foreigners that visited their establishment who were far more straightforward with their vulgar desires. A minute of awkward silence passed until the women realized that I was not fooling around as part of some bizarre sexual fantasy, and they began to talking amongst themselves in hushed tones and tight-lipped giggles. Finally they turned back to me with a smile and asked me to come and meet Eva - their nanay, the den mother of their wicked enterprise - and I, as an honored guest, obeyed.
I followed them through the hall just as promptly as I was received, knowing full well that my professor's worries could be realized at any moment, vulnerable as I was in all my lonesome save for the bottle of pepper spray tucked under my shirt. At that point I realized how absolutely stupid it was to go there on my own (and thank God it wasn't a lesson I would have to learn the hard way). But something about them made me feel safe, which was extraordinary given the circumstances. There was something about their eyes - such lovely, tired eyes they had. Perhaps they had all come to form a shared sentiment as "colleagues" in this ancient profession: a genuine sense of compassion for those who reminded them of their own helplessness in the days of their cruel youth.
The tiredness in the way they looked at me, which they attempted to draw attention away from with thick coats of eyeliner, was a feature imbedded into them early on by those naïve to their unfortunate line of work. What it must be like, one wonders, to be met with judging, unforgiving stares from all sectors of society; to be gazed upon with the same contempt one confers a murderer, if not more so. For a society dominated by shallow morals, the debauchery of the flesh - with a special, if not intriguing, emphasis on its sexual component - was a far more grievous affront to the infinite wisdom of a loving God. Rather than as victims of vicious circumstances, we had come to view them as little more than merchants of sinful pleasures, partly because it was far easier to box them into a single label than to consider the more reasonable alternative: that there was more to the story than that declared by the hoity-toity pulpits and the pompous bourgeoisie. For now however, they were content to simply wear more make-up.
They led me to a door at the end of one of the halls, which opened up to an office space with a few touches of cheap luxury: an antique lamp to the side, a bookshelf lined with magazines and the occasional novel, a statuette of the archangel Michael posing triumphantly over the fallen Lucifer, and a few old frames on the wall depicting small families and a number of individual portraits of a prominent young woman - who by that time was already staring at me from her position at the desk. Though wrinkled, her skin still seemed to shine with the lustrous brown shade of her younger days. The fitting irony of discovering the sterling image of the authentic Filipina beauty in a place like this, devoid of fair skin and the chiseled features of the mestiza, was not lost to me.
Combing her long graying hair behind her ears, the matron of the den looked over me and asked with a monotonous voice what I needed, holding a pen in her left hand as she drummed the desk impatiently with the bony fingers on her right. I promptly replied the same way I replied to the women who showed me in: that I was here to listen to their stories. I had to state my business to her a second time, as she was equally incredulous as the three women had been when I first entered the brothel. She being the eldest of their little assembly of suppliers of indulgences - her office space seemed to indicate that she handled the more technical aspects of their work - it was safe to assume that her more comprehensive experience in that industry of bodily excesses had left her even more suspicious of simple gestures that did not involve money or some other form of shady work. At least that is one thing that other sections of society can relate to: a burning distrust for anything that seemed too honest. The bayanihan spirit had taken on the form of a far-off mystery, its influence becoming the stuff of legend in the machinery of a nation oiled by ulterior motives.
She stared for a moment, apparently studying my features - or, just as likely, trying to spot any sign of jittering. Such deep eyes that old woman had - still keen and lucid despite her age - although I suppose they would have to be, out of aching necessity if anything else. A moment passed until Eva once again acknowledged my presence with a stiff nod, asking me to take a seat near her desk at the same time motioning for the three to sit on the small worn-out sofa across her. It was not one of their busier evenings, Eva explained, so they would have no trouble accommodating me - for a price of course. They were still offering their services, after all.
We began our storytelling in the cramped space of the makeshift office with Sophia, a woman with the highbrowed expression of a lady of noble birth, the curves of her tall frame accentuated by a tight red gown sporting a plunging neckline that revealed a fair deal of her voluptuous breasts underneath. A hardiness in the way she spoke - hardened no doubt by many a soirée with less than tender gentlemen judging by the bruises around her neck - she recounted how she was abandoned as a small girl by her father after having sired one too many children with one too many women and was forced to separate from her nine other siblings when things became too difficult. Sophia later described, powdering her neck as she did (she may have noticed me looking at the bruises), how she had pursued the typical course of a street urchin for a time, begging the customers of fast food restaurants for coins and leftover chicken one month and helping a random street vendor the next - all the while wondering who exactly her real mother was.
But for reasons never made clear to her, the father had never bothered to so much as mention her mother's name while she stayed with him. To this day, Sophia continued in an unnervingly casual tone, she often thought of who she was, what she looked like, or whether her mother would even care if she ever saw her daughter as a prostitute. Sophia mentioned offhandedly that she liked to imagine every now and then that she resembled her somehow when she looked into a mirror, although she insists that her daydreaming was not out of love by any definition. For how could she love someone who had left her for dead? Perhaps it was just a need for some form of closure.
I pause for a few seconds, having been stunned silent by her story, before speaking again to ask how exactly she had ended up as a prostitute. Sophia straightening her red dress and moved to a more comfortable position on the couch before responding, quite plainly, that she no longer remembered. She vaguely recalls finding herself in Eden one night and just choosing to stay.
However, she quipped, it was very easy to remember the faces of everyone she had ever rendered her services to; intriguingly, all the men seemed to take on the countenance of her own father. A perverse manifestation of her childhood anguish, no doubt.
We then turned to Annie, her short tousled hair pinned with shiny bobbles, who was decked in little more than a skirt and white blouse. Her countenance was less regal than Sophia's, almost feral in fact, though she had an air of loveliness about her. I had the peculiar urge to ask if Sophia was the younger of two, to which Eva responded with a chuckle. Annie was in fact a full decade younger, and I was deathly afraid that I had offended her with my mindless inquiry - but her only reaction was a flat grin. Life had not been kind to any of them, in more ways than one, and I got the impression that Annie had already come to terms with that. It may also be the reason why she did not bother, as her other companion did, with sparkling outfits; in the end, clothes just got in the way of what the customers really wanted. Their patrons had little taste for the finer points of seduction, where garments normally played a crucial role. They preferred to be quick, straightforward, and aggressive.
Annie did not fare so well in her story either, being the victim of poverty compounded by domestic abuse courtesy of a belligerent drunkard of a husband until she finally decided to run away from it all. She had herself confined in one of the women's homes for a time, going through the motions as she attempted to rebuild herself in the company of other broken souls, but somehow her life managed to unravel itself yet again and things did not turn out any better. For reasons Annie was not entirely sure of - her memory, like those of the others in the brothel, had become marred by the hardships of their profession - she found herself assaulting a roommate with a knife and for this was sent away from the women's home, she and her hopes once again thrown out the door and into the urban jungle with only shame as her source of companionship. Like Sophia before her, she too wandered for what seemed like an eternity of cold cement and discarded carton boxes before somehow coming to Eden.
With little else to say - what else could someone like me possibly add of any real substance to the narration? - I asked almost mindlessly whether the men who visited the brothel treated her any better than her husband did. She laughed at the question - not mockingly, but with genuine amusement, a dimple gracing her left cheek - as she bent over slightly to tie the laces of her sandals.
The customers were certainly much nicer, Annie answered. At least they gave tips when they wanted to get more physical.
We turned our attention to the last and youngest of the three, who had apparently just returned to the office with a tray and a few glasses of water. I did not even notice her leave, focused as I was with listening to notice the clattering of her shoes on the wooden tiles when she walked out to fetch drinks from the kitchen.
Maya struck me as no older than my brother, who was turning 25 that year. Initially it was Eva who spoke on her behalf - she was surprisingly timid for one employed in prostitution - and she went on to explain that she had a son they all cared for. Maya interrupted at that point to continue her own story, her gaze shifting away from the flooring, a vulture-like quality in the way she looked at everyone. She began to describe, almost angrily, how she was abandoned by her boyfriend at the age of 16 and was afterwards kicked out of home when her parents discovered her to be with child. She drifted from place to place looking for somewhere to stay, and was repeatedly turned away. Not even their local parish would take her in, Maya spat, as if her saliva spontaneously soured at the very mention of that house of worship which refused to open its doors to a girl with an infant swaddled against her small breasts. She had hoped to receive the Christian compassion often preached in the masses she attended week after week, and something in her just snapped when she was refused that night by that church. She felt absolutely betrayed, and rightfully so, by the faith she had stubbornly clung to when there was nothing else to reach out for. Though no tears were shed that evening, her soul grew cold like the stone steps of the church, its quiet agony coupled by the cries of a baby yet to be fed. She stopped praying altogether that night.
But unlike Annie or Sophia, she did not chance upon Eden's doorsteps on her own, and unlike the other two remembered very clearly how she had come to stay in Eden. She recounts vividly, emotions fresh like a gaping wound that refused to mend itself, how she limped through the noisy marketplace one morning in search of food for her malnourished baby - how absolutely crushing it must have been to have to dig for leftovers while the smell of fish and diced pork bombarded her from all sides - when she bumped into Eva, who at the time had just finished buying her groceries (the old woman enjoyed her vegetables). Apparently moved by her pitiful condition - perhaps she saw in Maya's crooked posture a mirror image of her own self - Eva took the two with her that day and had them stay in Eden until they were well enough to move on. They never did move on, and Maya had been there ever since.
I was naturally compelled to ask where Maya's child was, and how exactly they managed to take care of her son in a place like Eden. They assured that the boy was taken care of, and they made sure that he was either sleeping soundly in a distant room or was out strolling as far away as possible when they opened for business. They had no intention of exposing the child so soon to their dishonorable livelihood - most especially Maya. She had little pride in herself, but she refused to let her own son's sense of dignity be tarnished by seeing his mother do the things she had to do. The least she could do was guard his innocence, at least until he was old enough to understand. Understand "what" exactly, Maya was unsure, but she had a few more years to think about it. For now, she will do what she must.
But as for Eva - hers was the story I had become most excited about - she chose a narrative that was even less opulent than the others before her, and she refused to play with words. Taking a long sip of water from one of the glasses brought in by Maya earlier, the den mother explained dryly that her story was nothing extravagant or even worth looking back on; it had merely revolved around having had to do things she wished she didn't have to. She reclined in her seat and made no further comment.
Her brevity expressed a hard-earned wisdom, and I struggled against the urge to insist that she indulge us further. But as a researcher and a storyteller, the former by virtue of my responsibilities as a student, one is challenged with gathering insight from more than just the subject's self-reports. But to do this one must define the subject as one whose very being extends beyond the confines of the body, allowing the subject's nature to find expression in the things in close proximity. Essentially, it is to define the subject's individual form as being only a piece of the puzzle, the curios and background noise that the subject permits to exist around her forming the rest of the picture. The subject's world transforms into an extension of her self - in a sense, the subject becomes that world and everything in it - and the things that surrounded her becoming as much a part of her as the blood in her veins. In Eva's case, her identity extended to the portraits on her wall, the knick-knacks sprawled across her table, and the statuette of the archangel with his heel crushing the devil's neck underneath. They provided ample material to supplement her terse narrative.
But just like that, the night was over. I was asked if there was anything more they could do for me; and I answered, out of respect and a genuine sense of gratefulness, that they had already done more than I could have asked for. No intimate sentiments were shared: palms exchanged bills instead of handshakes, with little more than a nod and a few goodbyes to remember each-other by as I stepped out of Eden, the smog that had blanketed the streets slowly dissolved by the first rays of morning. Even the drunkards, still hunched against the lamp posts, seemed to be at peace.
I had classes later on and needed some shuteye, but my gut feeling was that I would be kept awake as I took everything in. Fortunately my gut feeling was wrong, and I would have my eight hours of sleep all the same. My reflections would have to wait.
One week passes. The deadline of our project loomed overhead with just a few hours to spare, and many of us were busy finalizing our work. Some, as you would expect from any class, scrambled at the last minute to forge their reports. I felt only pity for them, knowing all too well our professor's keen eye for fabricated accounts - and her intense displeasure for anything that was less than authentic.
I was also scrambling to complete my work, though much more quietly than the others. Besides our full research, we were required to write a brief reflection summarizing one important insight that we gathered that may not have been expounded fully within the body of our reports. It did not occur to me to work on this sooner, having spent so much time working on my research already.
I was fixed on this dilemma for a full hour and a half - with so much material to work on, how could I be brief about anything that was revealed to me in Eden? I was pressed for a provocative synopsis that I feared I would not be able to provide. And so I asked myself, head throbbing, that most painful of questions: what exactly did I want to say? What did I want the reader to understand?
And then, I began to write.
* * *
Theirs was a destiny bound by misery - each a Magdalene with neither a messiah to stand guard nor an angry crowd merciful enough to just kill them and get it over with, to free her from a sub-human existence to which she was inextricably bound - but their experiences shared a more tragic theme: loneliness. This was the mortar with which the den of Eden was built and kept strong, and it was this that mother had used not only to keep them in line but also to keep them from harm. Where paradise was so distant a dream, that brothel which she hated with every inch of her soul became her daughters' port of last resort. None of them could afford to abandon the slavery of their occupation, having become so accustomed to their despair and the hopelessness of it all. They had only each-other's loyalty - a virtue which one normally expects to be exclusive to nobler artisans - without which their den would crumble, and they would again be thrown, quite literally, into the wet jaws of a city that has never loved them.
It was not something they enjoyed; they themselves could not imagine anyone liking what they had to do to themselves every single night. But if it meant having a roof over their heads being in the company of those who understood - those who recognized their humanity when nobody else did - then it was not a difficult choice to make.
For old Eva and her Magdalenes, the den of Eden was their only source of warmth, a final refuge against the chilling gaze of a society eager to cast the first stone.