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High Blood

Of friends, ‘komiks,’ etc.

12:06 AM May 30, 2016

“WHERE DID you learn to speak ‘Tagalog’ so well?” My friend’s father was curious. It was a valid question considering that I was not raised in Manila and I did not hail from a “Tagalog”-speaking place either. I am what you might call a bona fide “promdi” (from the province).

The query summoned cherished childhood, summer memories.

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I owe my seeming “proficiency” in what is now formally referred to as the “Filipino” language to what was then generally referred to as the “Tagalog” komiks—Hiwaga, Klasik, etc. Poring over the weekly issues of those reading materials of my youth honed me in the national tongue. My Manila friends used to tell me that I speak Filipino with nary a distinctive, “non-Tagalog” intonation or accent.

Komiks were an indispensable part of my formative years in the province. With rigid regularity I rented them from a nearby sari-sari store for 5 centavos each. It guaranteed me material for overnight reading. The serialized stories kept me hooked on komiks three days a week. Writers like Mars Ravelo had me craving for more, week after week—more of the suspense, love triangles and poor girl-rich boy courtships that usually ended happily.

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The komikserye, as I now call my relationship with komiks, was the closest I came to watching a teleserye, when telenovelas were still nonexistent in my neck of the woods. And when I would miss a copy (because somebody beat me to it), I would rush to the house of my best friend Feling, who kept stacks upon stacks of back issues of my most sought-after reading material.

There I would immerse myself in reading—to my heart’s content—Dyesebel’s (the mermaid) riveting story. My heart sank each time I would reach the page which ended with abangan or itutuloy. Which led me to yet another agonizing and suspenseful week.

There was another reason I loved going to Feling’s house. Which meant defying my father’s standing order for me and my siblings to take a nap after lunch and sneaking out past my yaya’s watchful eye. I was unmindful of the possible dire consequences of my escapade for as long as I got to see the pet tortoise of Feling’s family “cry.”

Old folks claim that if you cry or even just feign crying in front of a turtle, it will shed copious tears. A child’s insatiable curiosity prompted Feling and me to check if the old folks were right.

Thus, one day, we sat on the floor for a face-to-face with the hapless reptile and then made sobbing sounds as we stared, without blinking, into its tiny eyes. In a matter of minutes the tears started rolling down the reptile’s scaly face, nonstop as our sobbing.

This new “discovery” started a regular ritual for Feling and me every time I would go to their house. Until one time, her mother popped out of nowhere to find out where all the sobbing was coming from.

Caught in the act, we could not offer any excuse. She admonished us to stop stressing out the poor creature. Totally unaware what stress can do even to a reptile, we obeyed her bidding. Looking back now, of course, who wouldn’t get stressed out if one were made to cry for no apparent reason?

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(My inquisitiveness did not end there. Recently, while surfing the internet, I chanced upon a heartwarming line that a tortoise lover posted, which put my wonderment to rest—tortoises are “hard on the outside but soft on the inside.” Is that why they cry?)

On days when I was not with Feling, I was with my other childhood friend, Lorna, who would usually fetch me from our house with her bike. Lorna made several attempts to teach me how to bike by myself—to no avail. We would pedal all over town oblivious to the summer dust and the searing heat of the noonday sun. But fear and my balancing problem got in the way. And I took the safer route—riding tandem. I must be a hopeless case because I never learned to ride a bicycle, something I regret to this day.

After graduating from elementary school, we went our separate ways and eventually lost touch with each other until we finished college and started working. By then, we were all married.

Lorna and I occasionally bumped into each other as she was in Manila often to be with her children. But after the usual hi’s and hello’s nothing came of the accidental meetings even as we promised to touch base regularly. We had more pressing concerns.

Weakened now by age, a more sedate activity preoccupies Lorna—“videoke” at home; singing is a side to her I never knew. Biking over rocky roads in wild delight is now consigned to the past, but it left us with a lot of fun moments together.

Feling, on the other hand, was completely out of my radar (not that I did not make efforts to locate her) until 18 years ago when we met by chance at a fund-raising for our town’s church. Ties were renewed. The friendship was rekindled, like old times.

We joined a prayer group that met once a month. The prayer meetings went on for years. But Lorna decided to go back to the province for good when her children migrated abroad to find their place in the sun.

Still, the bonds of friendship that kept us together in our childhood days remained securely glued and strong as ever. I stood as sponsor at their daughters’ weddings.

Feling and I, in between text messages and telephone calls, continued to meet regularly at the prayer meetings and during special occasions. And we were there for each other when we lost our respective husbands. Then a dreadful thing happened on her birthday. She succumbed suddenly to aneurysm.

The prayer group kept vigil. Our priest-spiritual adviser, who officiated in one of the Masses at her wake, asked her friends to say a few words about Feling. I narrated the tortoise story, and this time my tears were for real.

Romana F. Gella, 69, puts a premium on friendship.

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