Published April 8, 2021, 9:00 PM

by Manila Bulletin

By Fae Cheska Esperas

It took five days before his body was found, floating in the Guadalupe delta of the Pasig River. He was immediately identified by the city’s search-and-rescue team, thanks to this odd-shaped birthmark on his face that nobody would ever miss.

His eyes were already popping out, the flesh underneath his skin too bloated to the point that they were ready to explode any minute. He might have been lying on the riverbed for quite some time now, and the forensics guy assumed he might have stayed longer underwater if not for a strong current bringing him back to the surface, getting him entangled in the overgrown kangkong shrubs that now serve as temporary dikes in that part of the river.

People flocked the docks of Guadalupe to get a glimpse of the corpse as he was being recovered by a team of men in orange quasi-Hazmat overalls, their faces covered with masks used in vain to prevent them from inhaling his stench.

Kibitzers, naysayers, rumormongers, men and women who said a thing or two about him but had never met him in person. A media van had just parked in one side of the street and started prepping their coverage of this scoop.

And in the growing crowd was me, stunned and frozen like a pillar upon seeing his body. I knew him—not personally, but I’d bumped into him a few times last year. He was that annoying hotel manager who lived in our neighborhood, Carlito Roces.

He used to brag about his family name, Roces, claiming that he and his folks came from this old rich clan who was instrumental in turning Manila into a cosmopolitan city back in the 1950s.

I could only raise a brow at him behind his back, because we all knew he grew up in the grimy streets of JP Rizal, near this slum area inhabited by the extended family members of Army personnel stationed at the then Fort Bonifacio. We were separated by just five or six houses—his in a small and crowded apartment unit made out of wood and cement, me and my family in a shanty of half-inch-thick rotting plywood for walls, worn out tarps for window sills, and a sari-sari store for a living room. On the same street Carlito and I drew what they would say was the thin line that indicated urban poverty threshold. He represented the lowest of the lower middle class. I was a poster girl for our neighborhood’s urban poor demographic.

Carlito and I grew up almost together, but we were never close. My group of friends loved to tease him for being so prim and proper all the time. For a public school kid he insisted on wearing a starched alabaster polo, equally lined khakis, white socks, and shiny leather shoes, and he’d get mad whenever he got dirty. He hated the dirt, the mud, the grime and sweat, and he always made sure he was clean and dry all the time. “Allergic ako sa germs! Kadire!” I once heard him say. No wonder he stayed away from us whom he called “dugyot.”

I remember his hair styled to a pompadour, and his skin smelling of Johnson’s baby powder, but rather than looking like a campus crush, Carlito somewhat looked effeminate.

Or maybe it was how he acted—soft and grumpy. He preferred to hang out with the kikay girls in school, instead of playing ball with the boys. Wait, he liked watching them play ball after class, either on the campus grounds after class or at the covered court in Masilang on weekends.

My friends would tease him for being a fag just for the heck of it, and he hit us back by throwing whatever he had on hand, such as a water bottle or a piece of paper crumpled to a ball.

I didn’t like Carlito, but I admired his air of ambition which my friends often mistook for delusion. I knew he wanted to take his family out of their lower-middle class “poverty,” as his mother told her amigas over rounds of bingo. “Magaling ‘yang anak ko!” She’d often tell them. “Alam ko talaga siya ang mag-aahon sa amin sa kahirapan!”

But among all of us “dugyot” kids, I was the one he loathed the most. While I wasn’t the most ragged, he wouldn’t dare go near me. He often threw me this judgmental look, the kind of look that made me feel worse than a loser, and I never understood why.

I remember his hair styled to a pompadour, and his skin smelling of Johnson’s baby powder, but rather than looking like a campus crush, Carlito somewhat looked effeminate.

“Ang baho mo!” he once called out when he chanced upon me in our sari-sari store. “’Tong bahay niyo ambaho, amoy pusa! Eww!”

“Anak, maligo ka na kasi!” My mother pretended to scold me upon hearing what Carlito just said.  She then turned to him, like a prisoner to a warden separated by iron grills, only that ours was a rusty screen that kept our hundreds of pesos worth of retail goods safe from petty thieves. “Ano nga ulit kailangan mo, Carlito?”

I started to see less and less of Carlito after their elementary graduation. He was two levels higher than me and, according to his mother, he received a scholarship to the newly established science high school in the city, which was situated beyond the west end of JP Rizal, the opposite of the public high school where I eventually graduated. While not a relief, I didn’t feel his absence in my life lacking. I was just a nuisance to him anyway.

I’d sometimes hear some of our childhood friends calling him out whenever they saw him walking outside his apartment, but it was rather a usual tease they never overcame. “Carlito bakla!”

He’d just continue with his way as if they never existed. Like we never existed.

I later learned that he eventually went to a top university under an academic scholarship, graduated, and started working for this big-name business conglomerate. I saw how his folks looked down on us as they stepped up the stairs going far and above the dreaded poverty line. His mother still played bingo with my folks, but she had become more annoying for beaming about Carlito, and how he was working on a way to move them out of JP Rizal and to a more decent community, hopefully a gated one with a clubhouse and a pool.

“Manager na ‘yang anak ko!” She once blurted to her bingo friends. “At ang ganda ng hotel kung sa’n siya nagwowork! General manager siya dun! Dinala niya kami minsan dun, naku, ang sosyal! Tignan n’yo o!”

She showed us pictures of their stay at the said hotel, their happy faces as first-timers jumping on a queen-sized fluffy bed, his sister acting like a porn star posing seemingly naked with only the white comforter covering her body, their bodies contaminating the kidney-shaped pool with their JP Rizal grime and, of course, the obligatory family picture in the hotel lobby, with Carlito dressed up in an Americana posing straight up like a sentinel. His hair, of course, styled with a mix of gel and wax.

“Mukha naman siyang bellboy!” said one of her bingo friends, and then everybody started laughing, much to her embarrassment. “Bellboy naman ata talaga ‘tong si Carlito eh!” I heard her retort with some cuss words afterward, and the next thing I learned she stormed off the place and left the numbers on her bingo cards waiting to be called.

Carlito went missing the day after his birthday. I remember that day—or more accurately, the night of his birthday—because it was raining so hard that I had to call in sick for work. But I couldn’t sleep not just because I was used to being wide awake in the graveyard hours—but because of this unusual noise coming from outside.

The cats. They were wailing and crying while looking for a shed to keep themselves dry. Or maybe they were wailing and crying because it was their time to mate, and frankly their own version of serenading their potential pairs was downright annoying to human ears.

I ended up half-asleep for most of the night. I tried to read a romance pocketbook but the intimate scenes were too graphic for my taste. I placed a bucket to take in the rainwater dripping from my ceiling, a problem I kept telling my father to fix but he always replied that we had no Vulca Seal.

I went to work drowsy the following evening, not being able to sleep well because of the feline concert and the pitter-patter of the rain inside my room. It was when I got home that morning when the so-called “radyo-bagtas,” a term we use to people spreading neighborhood gossip, started running on full blast.

Nawawala si Carlito!

His mother said he hadn’t gone home since the other night, after going out with his friends to celebrate his birthday. He hadn’t called or texted or even sent any of his folks a message on Facebook, nor had his social media accounts been updated since he left. They checked the hotel he worked at, but the management said he hadn’t reported for work yet, which was strange, because he was the model employee. They’d been calling his phone nonstop but all they got was an automated voice message saying “subscriber cannot be reached.”

“‘Yung baklang ‘yun talaga,” his sister ranted in front of her friends, her face dry and wary perhaps due to a lack of sleep. They were in front of our store sipping soda and munching on corn bits, seemingly taking a break from worrying about Carlito. “That’s the problem with him—he likes to meet guys in a bar and sleep with them afterward. Acting discreet even if everybody knows he’s a fag.”

“Hey,” my mother snapped at her. “You shouldn’t be saying those things about your brother. Kuya mo yun!”

“Eh Manang Lucy,” she retorted. “We all know he’s gay. Shut up lang sina Mama kasi nga siya bumubuhay sa ‘min. ‘Yang mga tambay sa kanto, sus, lahat yan natikman na niya!”

His family reported him missing that same day, and some of the male neighborhood tambays were even invited to the police station for questioning. His friends, particularly those he we were with on that fateful night, were likewise there, each allotted around 30 minutes for a Q&A stint.

His friends said they parted ways with him at around 3 a.m. They said he was the first to leave the bar in Makati Avenue because his ride arrived before theirs. He even messaged them a photo of the driver because he found him cute. But that was the last they heard of him.

Baka binooking niya si kuya driver!

Baka lumipat siya ng ibang bar.

Malamang may kinatagpo pa yun bago umuwi tapos…

Nobody saw them coming. Not even those who savored fabricating tales about Carlito’s colorfully muted double life. His family then had to come to terms with the skeletons that he had kept for almost all his life. Our childhood friends kept pointing fingers as to who had sexual encounters with him. My mother had already expressed her dismay upon learning he was gay.

They felt sorry for Carlito. But not because there was still no word from him, but about him hiding in the closet for so long, and I guess also for him being gay, and that these were the reasons that led him to becoming a missing person—and now resurfacing dead.

Anak koooooooo!

CATEYE-WITNESS Photo by u/ramier22 from reddit

It was high noon and the sun was beaming with pride that Saturday when Carlito finally showed up by the kangkungan of Pasig River, lifeless and decomposing. When the search team pulled his body from the waters, he was naked and full of scratches, and flies began feasting themselves upon his swelling indigo skin. One of the kibitzers in the area thought he must have played some sado-masochist game and ended up being tortured, while his mother, now looking drastically older than her actual age, ran toward his body. It didn’t bother her a bit that her son was nearly unrecognizable, or that he smelled like rotting meat.

She fell to her knees upon reaching Carlito’s side. She knew it was him despite his body’s ongoing decaying process, by his hair that despite being wet and dirty maintained that sharp crisp Neo-Nazi inspired cut, by the style of the Topsider stuck on his left foot, and I guess by the odd-shaped black hairy birthmark on his right arm that stood out against his aubergine skin.

She wouldn’t dare touch him, but she wailed with such grief that left us all frozen and numb.

Now ID’d, the next step was to find whoever it was that led him to such a gruesome, undeserved kind of death.

“Natagpuan na po ang bangkay ni Carlito Roces, manager ng isang kilalang hotel sa Taguig na limang araw nang nawawala,” I heard the news reporter open her spiel in front of the camera. “Ang nasabing hotel ay kasalukuyang viral sa social media dahil diumano’y sa pagdakip at pagpatay nito sa mga pusa na walang pahintulot sa komunidad…”

I suddenly felt a warm furry creature purr on my feet. Scratches, a white and gray tabby, who had been my pet for a year already. I picked him up and he snuggled down into my bosom, but not after looking at me for a second or two, with his eyes hinting that he knew more than all of us surrounding the dead that was Carlito.

“Meow,” he whimpered while kneading against my chest, as if saying it was time to go home.

Fae Marie Esperas, 34, currently resides in Cubao with her cat, Ramon.