Moral Drift

I’m pleased to announce my first professional fiction credit: my short story Moral Drift, featured in the January 2015 issue of Philippines Graphic. A big thank you to my literary editor Alma Anonas Carpio.

by
Tony Ahn

The American had that feeling again; the one that crept up on him when he thought he might not live much longer. It was a feeling of…seriousness, like reality was extra-real. He wondered if he’d finally taken one risk too many in life.

They were all around him, in the four-room concrete block house that the twelve of them lived in: the entire family, some sitting, some standing, at least one between him and every possible exit from the sala they occupied. As if the menace of their numbers and blockade were not enough, one of the teenage sons quietly cleaned a machete in the corner. The American had lived with this family for two months before moving back to Manila and had never seen any of them clean their farming tools at midnight, until tonight’s visit.

He didn’t speak Kapampangan, and only the eldest son and eldest daughter, both in their early twenties, spoke enough English. That son was standing in the middle of the room translating for everyone. That daughter was seated next to him, holding his hand. It didn’t assuage his anxiety.

“We’re still getting married,” the American explained in conciliatory tones. “We just want to move the date of the wedding a few months. I need more time to save money.”

“Just have a small wedding here in Arayat,” the eldest son said, on behalf of his father, a small, wiry man who sat quietly and watched him with glittering eyes. “It won’t cost much.”

“No, I need to invite my friends and business associates from Manila and bring them here. We’re still getting married. What’s the problem with moving the date from November to February?”

The son’s eyes narrowed. “If you were a true man, you’d do what you said you were going to do.”

The implication struck the American as something that might shame a Filipino. “We’re not getting married in November,” he said quietly.

“But if you were a TRUE man—

“We’re not getting married in November.”

The son’s face contorted in frustration, and the father spoke angrily.

“Why is it we have to do what you say, and follow orders as if we are servants?” the son translated, as the father and two of his other sons stood up. The American watched them rise carefully and did not move. A quick glance at the face of his fiancée told him that she had no idea what was about to happen.

He spoke with resignation, his eyes darting to the open door behind the father. “We’re not getting married in—

The father lunged at him, shouting in Kampapangan. His two sons held him back, as the American’s fiancée burst into tears. No translation was made. It took everything he had to remain seated; every fiber in his being wanted to stand up and assume a defensive posture, but he knew the simple act of standing would virtually guarantee a fight. As the father struggled against his sons, the American’s eyes darted around the room, his mind racing to identify potential threats. Where is the brother with the machete now? There he is…he’s still holding it. Damn.

As the father’s rage ebbed, the son spoke. “He said you are not leaving here, until this is decided. You will sleep here.” The American did not argue. That meant at least ten more hours of life. He now had time to plan his next move.

Bedding was brought to the bamboo bench he was sitting on. The family members retired for the night, and curiously, the three eldest sons went outside. He heard the door on the bamboo hut that served as a toolshed creak open, and after a couple minutes clack shut. But they did not re-enter the house.

He dug out his cellphone and dialed his best friend, a Canadian back in Manila.

“They freaked,” he explained in a hushed voice. He spoke with as much slang and as many idioms as possible so anyone listening would be unlikely to understand. “Yeah. They said I can’t just blaze trails. One of the teens was cleaning a frigging sword right in front of me. The message was clear. What? I can’t, man. Even if I give them the slip, it’s a long way to where I can get transpo back to the crib, and there’s only one road. They’ve got wheels, and I’m on foot. If they catch me hoofing it down that road, I’m going to be fertilizing a fucking corn field, man! You don’t understand. There are no cops out here. Nobody would even know where to look. I’d just disappear. I can’t tell you exactly where I am, because the streets don’t have names! I don’t know what’s going to happen tomorrow. I just wanted to let you know where I am and what’s going on. Oh shit, I heard something outside. What? No. I think they’re staying up to watch the house to make sure I don’t leave. I can hear them talking outside the window. They’ve got weapons man. It’s a farm! There’s sharp shit all over! No, they didn’t ask for money. This isn’t about money. I’m telling you. This is about honor, and people kill for honor way more often than they do for money around here. Erika’s three oldest brothers are outside. There are three more younger brothers sleeping. Teenagers. No Erika isn’t with me. She’s sleeping in the bedroom with her brothers and sisters. Hey I’ve got four percent. I should run. Yeah, thanks, I will. Hey, if you don’t get a text message from me every four hours, call the police or something. Ok, bye.” When he hung up, he texted [i’m in Arayat, barangay san mateo, purok three. The family’s name is caballo -later].

He didn’t sleep much that night. The next morning after a tense breakfast of tocino, eggs, and rice, the eldest son announced “We’re taking you to see the Barangay Captain, where you will be made to sign in the blotter that you promise to marry her. If you do not, we will file a case against you and have you jailed.”

The American agreed. It bought him more time and a chance to talk to potential rescuers! Surely the barangay head would not allow him to be held hostage; this is a government official after all.

On the way, he thought about how he came to his present situation; the slow slide into moral ambiguity followed by bad luck that brought him to where he now found himself. After yet another bad breakup in Las Vegas, he decided he needed a new life. A friend of his who had lived in the Philippines sold it like paradise, so he landed in Manila with $2,500, no friends, and no plan. He was finally living a life of adventure, and that was exciting.

It was pretty exciting ripping through his first $1,000, but he wished he’d made it last longer than two weeks, as he scrambled to find a permanent place to live. He started at $30 a night in The Clipper Hotel, which managed to exude an air of respectability even though it was situated at the edge of a red light district. He pretended not to hear the ladies when they called out to him in the evenings as he walked home. He felt good about the fact that even outside the USA, where making social statements is always fashionable, he still maintained his personal code; he’d never pay money to support an industry that exploited women.

His moral stance did nothing to stem his curiosity however, as questions rose to his mind. “Do the girls who offer massage on the street just give massages? Why do I only see foreigners going in and out of the girly bars here? Do Filipinos not go to these places?” He never asked the friends he was beginning to make. He didn’t want the Filipino ones to think he was a stereotype, and the Americans he’d met seemed like they had no morals whatsoever, boasting a seemingly encyclopedic knowledge of bars and girls in several cities. He listened quietly when they’d talk about it, but always declined their offers to go. Even if he’d wanted to, he couldn’t afford the cost of a night out.

He was having trouble getting job interviews, as his tourist visa didn’t allow him to work and no employer wanted to shoulder the considerable expense of securing him a work visa. Social isolation was taking a toll on him. The speed at which he was running through money was going to leave him homeless in another month. Anxiety became his silent, suffocating companion. And then he met Erika.

It was an accident, really. He’d been on the way back to his hotel from a late dinner when a group of Westerners piled out of a cab on the sidewalk ahead of him. “Hey bro,” one of them said. “You look like you live here. Where’s a good place to go?”

His loneliness accepted before his morals could decline: “Follow me.”

He took them to a girly bar he’d never entered before; in fact he’d never been inside any of them. But he’d heard it talked about enough in the foreign social circles he orbited that he seemed an expert to the ignorant: “This is one of the cheaper places in Burgos,” he told them. Beer is 100 pesos, ladies drinks 250.”

They enthusiastically followed him in. Blue neon light was splashed liberally against the walls. Black faux-leather couches wrapped around cocktail tables to form booths. Girls dancing to 90’s dance music on a stage backed by a mirror in a cold, smoky room. Most of them were chatting with each other between dance moves or watching themselves dance in the mirror; rarely did they seem to notice the patrons. The patrons! His mind recoiled as he looked around the bar. Koreans in one corner laughing and talking, one with his hand up a topless girl’s skirt, who was laughing along with them. A tan, grey-bearded foreigner in a Hawaiian shirt making out with two barely-legal girls, each straddling one of the great loafs of fat he called legs. The other patrons were a blur after that. He had the distinct feeling he was somewhere he should not be, and tried to say his goodbyes to the foreigners he had led there.

“Come on, man! We’ll buy you a drink.”

He started to protest, but then she came out of the back room. Her innocence struck him first: he couldn’t imagine what she was doing working in a place like this. She had the girl next door look. Like a college senior studying the social sciences because she “wanted to help people one day.” She noticed his dumbstruck look and smiled. He managed to smile back through his stupefaction, watching her come toward him and extend her hand in greeting. The other foreigners had ordered and were requesting girls from the mamasan, but it felt like that was happening far away. He didn’t notice his beer when it was placed in front of him.

His stupefaction lifted somewhat and they got to talking. He told her he didn’t go to places like this, but was just helping these guys find a bar. No, he didn’t know them. He told her his story. She told him she just started working there and was from Pampanga, a mostly rural province to the north he’d never heard of. Her parents were farmers. They thought she worked in a restaurant. She asked him to buy her a drink.

“You get some of the money if I buy you a drink, right?”

“Yes.”

“How much do you get?”

“One hundred pesos.”

“Here,” he said, handing her two fifties. “I don’t want you to lose money by talking to me instead of another customer, so you take this for your time. But I don’t want to support the bar.” 

She seemed to like that he wore his ideals like merit badges, said she thought he was sweet. As they continued to talk, he made sure he was very respectful. He didn’t put his arm around her, or stare at her minimally clad body. He asked her about her life, and told her about his. He was excited when she told him her real name was Erika. Finishing his beer, he ordered another.

“I’m sorry, I have to go,” she said.

“Why?”

“I really appreciate what you gave me, but the mamasan is looking at me. If you don’t order me a ladies’ drink, she’s gonna make me move to another table.”

The prospect of her departure and loneliness’ return propelled his hand into the air, and he ordered her a drink. They talked for another hour before he departed. She gave him her number. She was too good to work there. Maybe he could save her from her life and give her a better one. But he still hadn’t figured out how to get a better one for himself.

They met outside the bar. She said she had a good feeling about him. He was honest with her about his lack of job and dwindling money. She liked him anyway; he treated her nice and didn’t look down on her because of her job. They started dating, and she helped him find a room to rent for just 4,000 pesos a month. He found short term jobs here and there, teaching English online or over the phone. They fell in love. He proposed quickly, and she accepted even more quickly. He planned to get a good job after he was a permanent resident and didn’t need a work permit. He met her family, and eventually moved into their farmhouse to save money on the rent; they only charged him 1,000 a month for the hammock they provided. He loved the peace and beauty of the countryside. He found the pump in their house and tabo showers novel, and harbored secret fantasies of “going native,” but found that with the reduced Internet access rural life brought him he was less able to make money, so he eventually moved back to Manila. 

After a couple months, the excitement of being with Erika was beginning to slow down, like the clutch in their relationship had popped into neutral and he couldn’t get it out. He thought she was beautiful and devoted to him, vowing to quit the bar as soon as he could support her, but the fact that they had little in common began to wear on the relationship. She seemed to feel they didn’t need to understand each other deeply as long as they loved each other. He wasn’t sure that was possible. He had also come to realize that she wasn’t quite as innocent as he had assumed by her looks, being unwilling to quit the bar until he could support her.

She wasn’t the one, but now he was afraid to brave the Philippines without her. She was the only one who was there for him. Yet the wedding noose was tightening, so he stalled for time. Erika was okay with a three month delay, but she told him he needed to inform her parents. That’s when the bottom dropped out and he found himself in his present circumstances.

They had arrived at the Barangay Hall, a one story concrete block building with paint peeling from every wooden windowframe. He was told to sit in a plastic chair next to a desk. Erika’s parents went into an office. They returned five minutes later following a large man with greying temples. His gait and manner resembled that of a silverback gorilla. He smiled and spoke softly to the American. “I’m the barangay head. What seems to be the problem?”

“Hi, there’s no problem. Erika and I are supposed to get married next month, and we’ve decided to move the wedding back to February, so that I have more time to save money for the wedding. I need your help. These people held me against my will last night.”

The captain slowly sat as he replied, facing the thinner white man. “You have to understand. Her parents are very upset. She is my constituent and so I have to protect her.”

The American rolled his eyes.

The older man stood so violently that his chair upended and crashed to the floor. “Don’t FUCK with me! You’re in a lot of trouble, do you know that?”

“Hang on a sec, sir. I’m an American cit—

As the captain’s palm flashed across his cheek with a sharp crack, it occurred to the American that ironically at the barangay office he was still beyond the true rule of law, but what terrified him was the look of fear on the faces of the family members. The situation, which they had initiated to control him, now appeared to be out of their control as well.

“Would you like to see my jail?” the captain asked, his voice soft again.

“No sir. I’m sorry sir.”

“Let me see some identification.”

He surrendered his Alien Certificate of Registration.

“You’re on a tourist visa.”

“Yes, sir.”

“It is not legal for you to work here. Have you been working?”

“No, sir.”

“Erika’s mother told me you moved back to Manila because you were working.”

“They must have misunder—” An idea stopped him mid-sentence. “Yes, sir. I work in Manila.”

The captain’s chest swelled in victory; he had found the additional leverage he wanted. “Illegally. I could have you jailed for that.”

“If I go to jail, I’ll be deported when I’m released, and then there’s no wedding at all.” The older man studied him carefully, like a predator sizing up another it was encountering for the first time. The American kept his eyes lowered to the unfinished concrete floor, where he noticed the dark spots created by his fiancée’s fearful tears, one after the other. She never made a sound. He was afraid to hold her hand, not knowing how it would be interpreted.

“We’ll have you sign the blotter with your promise to marry her in November. But the barangay blotter is not sufficient. You need to sign the city hall blotter tomorrow when they open. You will stay here tonight.”

“I’m sorry sir, if I’m not at my job tomorrow morning at 9am, I’ll be fired. If that happens, I will not be able to support myself. I’ll be forced to fly home to America. No wedding possible.” He tried not to notice Erika’s look of confusion when he mentioned the imaginary full-time job.

The captain managed to look magnanimous when he announced “I will personally ask your boss for a day off for you.”

“Great. Let me get him on the phone.” The American bent to his mobile device, tapping out a message to his Canadian friend: [I’m with the barangay captain right now. He said he has to hold me until tomorrow. I told him that if I did not show up to work tomorrow morning, that you might fire me, so he told me he’d personally ask you to give me the day off .]

The reply came back: [put him on the phone]. The American dialed and handed the phone to the captain.

“Hello, yes. I’m the barangay captain for San Mateo, in Arayat. Your employee is here, and we need him to stay until tom—Uh huh.  Right. Uh huh. Yes. I understand, sir.” He lowered the phone and handed it back. “He’s not going to give you a day off, so we’ll have to let you go. But you must promise to return next week.”

“Yes, of course,” the American answered, trying desperately to contain the joy and relief exploding in his chest, lest it betray the ruse. “I’ve got time off on Wednesday.”

“Why did they bring me to this place?” he asked Erika as the family left the barangay hall.

“I’m so sorry. I never knew this would happen. They thought you would sign the blotter,” she explained.

He returned to Manila, knowing he could never set foot in Arayat again. He used the situation as an excuse to end the relationship. “You told me that when I marry a Filipina, I marry her family, and I can’t marry a family like that. I was in real trouble there. Your father tried to hit me, the barangay captain slapped me. I’m sorry.”

***

“That’s the story of my first six months here,” he said to Chad, the twenty-something American he’d just recently met and invited out for a drink.

“Yeah, I’m like you,” Chad said. “I’m not down for hookers or anything like that.”

“Well I’m not so uptight anymore. Americans are very moralistic. You learn after you’ve been here a while. Here’s an example: you’re not down with hookers because why? Because your pride tells you that you don’t need to pay for it, right?” 

“Well that’s one reason.”

“You ever meet a girl in the States and take her back to your place right away? No. You’re buying her coffee or a meal, or seeing a movie. You’re paying. Even if you go dutch you’re paying with your time and energy. If that exchange didn’t happen, she wouldn’t sleep with you. The dumb thing is that when you pay in the States, you don’t know if you’re going to get lucky or not. Here, that’s guaranteed.”

Chad looked uncomfortable. “Well that’s just one reason. I also don’t want to exploit women. No hooker actually chooses that job because they like the work.”

“Yeah, well, nobody works at a fast food restaurant back home because they really like the work either. Poor people take jobs out of necessity. Does that mean they’re being exploited? When a woman in poverty has hungry kids and no other way to feed them, what right to we have to judge? Could you look hungry children in the eye and tell them it’s more honorable to let them starve then feed them through prostitution?”

Chad looked even more uncomfortable.

“I’m sorry man. I just made your black and white world a lot more gray. I know, I was just like you when I got here.”

Unbeknownst to the American, Chad had a hard time believing the pathetic profligate sitting across from him was ever like him.

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