I swear this has already happened before. And this feeling, although somewhat surreal, seems oddly familiar. This is just the third time that I’ve felt like this in my 26 years of existence---and it always hits me while I’m shelling shrimps.
I’ve stayed in at least 15 different houses in the last decade: a relative’s house, apartments, boarding houses and dormitories and have gotten used to the transient lifestyle---moving to a new place every six months or so.
With each transfer it becomes easier and easier to detach from the people, situations, and memories one normally associates to a place of abode. It’s as though I can uproot and replant myself in a new patch of soil with hardly any effort or discomfort.
In a way, I am the proverbial rolling stone that gathers no moss. I have become so adept at moving that I bolt at the slightest provocation. And oftentimes I leave nary a trace of having once lived there.
But I digress, let me go back to my shrimp story.
The first time this alien emotion washed over me was in my parent’s house in Valenzuela. Pre-separation days, I was about 11. Mom left a small basinful of shrimps for me to shell for the pansit palabok we were set to prepare.
It was midmorning and sunlight was freely streaming through the window—the bunched up red and yellow and curtains cast shadows over the dining table where I stood hunched over the basin of ice-cold shrimps.
A hundred eyes stared at me from the table but I distinctly remember smiling as I picked up the first firm shrimp.
Peeling and shelling methodically, separating the pointed tip from the rich shrimp heads awaiting the consummation of their grim fates over mortal and pestle, I felt happy and secured.
Even the hungry wails of my newborn brother Robert did not disturb the peace that I felt within.
I went about my task until the last of the shrimps had been decapitated and stripped off their exoskeletons. The mound of shelled crustaceans was at the center of glass-topped table, sitting like a raw offering to the woman who brought me into this world—my mother, the goddess I could never connect with at any level.
Metrica Street, Sampaloc---My best friend Victoria rapidly chattered away her latest classroom gossip. It was a blistering hot afternoon and beads of sweat clung to my upper lip. We were in the small kitchen of the two-bedroom apartment we shared with several of her cousins.
On her way out, she handed me a plateful of prawns fresh from Mindoro. It was my turn to cook dinner---a repast of sautéed prawns and vegetables for me and my five housemates.
A loud thud informed me that Victoria had already left. I felt isolated, all alone with a plateful of prawns in a crumbling apartment. Outside, Sampaloc was buzzing with life. I, on the other hand, felt that welcoming sense of peace arrive as I began shelling prawns.
I was 16, a freshman, newly abandoned by a father who left for America, and very recently thrown out of the house by a goddess keeling over the collapse of her 21-year marriage.
I pondered on my uncertain future as I deftly shucked shrimps, wondering what to do with the countless days and nights that lay ahead of me.
I figured life wasn’t so bad. After all, I was on the Dean’s List, held the distinction of being the youngest varsity debater on campus, and on top of everything, I knew I had friends and relatives who looked after me from time to time.
As I held up a king prawn by the tail, I mused at how, devoid of their plastic-like coverings, they were just as vulnerable and defenseless as I was once exposed to life’s harsh realities.
That day, I resolved to grow an exoskeleton.
Like a continuing daydream, I found myself shelling a pot full of shrimps on this rainy Saturday morning.
Humming a tune as I worked on the iceberg of shrimps floating in tap water, I would stick my tongue out playfully to catch a few raindrops bouncing from the rain guards. I’ve always loved the sound and feel of the rain.
I was standing over the kitchen sink in our new house in Guiginto, Bulacan, when the surreal feeling began spreading all over me. Like an invisible embrace, the sensation was warm, welcoming, and all-enveloping.
I sighed and smiled as I snuck a peek at Dad sitting at his favorite spot in the living room, under the frame of Van Gogh’s Starry Night. I haven’t felt this way in years.
I’m now pushing 27 and shifted to writing advertising copy after tiring from a life of newspaper deadlines. Apart from shedding my old skin, I’ve also done away with my exoskeleton.
I have no need for it now.
A decade after Dad left for America; 10 years after the goddess evicted me from what is now solely her house; after living in more or less 15 different addresses all over Metro Manila and meeting hundreds of borders and housemates, most of whom are now nameless faces--- I finally realized what the odd but welcome feeling meant.
Just as my expertly shelled shrimp curled perfectly from neck to tail, I too have come full circle.
Blissfully, I pause to drink in my surroundings:
To the left was Green Estate’s famed green rice fields, to my extreme right was Dad’s prized garden---the yellow English roses bowing with the weight of raindrops on its petals; red and green bell peppers, purple eggplants and other plants all competing for space.
It was a patch of earth bursting with color and teeming with life---a place where I myself could permanently take root and thrive.
From out of nowhere, bullfrogs burst into chorus, and, startled, I drop a few shelled shrimp from the plate. Bending over to pick up the strays, I feel that warm feeling trickle in once again.
I prayed. May I never have to shell shrimps anywhere else.