Growing up in Malabon in the ‘70s, I loved bringing home stray cats. Looking back, I think that was my way of gathering a family I could call my own—I was the youngest in a brood of four, cobbled together out of my parents’ earlier relationships. I had two half-sisters and a half-brother, each from my parents’ various partners. That made me the only child of my parents.
We all got along. I’d say we were quite happy despite the fact that Mama was always at work and Papa was little more than a cutout figure I saw every day but never related to. When I was 11, I found out the meaning of anger and how, in its purest form, the emotion could propel me toward my goals—and, in the process, set me on a collision course with near-fatal encounters.
One day, my eldest sister and her husband, who both lived in Olongapo City, spent some time in our Malabon apartment. “Cramped” would be an understatement—the couple shared the room I shared with my other sister. One night, I felt someone slip into our sleeping space on the floor. It was my brother-in-law, who promptly began to feel me up. I froze, not knowing what to do. I told no one about this. Then it happened again a few days later—this time he went too far with his fingers. All I could really do at the time was to fight him off as best I could while trying to make the least noise.
When I told Mama about it, she made motions with her hand for me to keep quiet about it. I was told not to worry my sister, who was due to give birth any day soon, with that information. Mama settled things by setting me up in the room of my brother, who moved elsewhere in the small apartment. As far as I know, she discussed the incident with my sister and brother-in-law, but no one apologized to me or attempted to make sense of the harrowing episode. It was only in 1998 that Mama said sorry for the way she treated me then—and, I’d like to believe, an apology as well for every other piece of “motherly” advice she’d given me when it came to my other turbulent relationships.
With that anger firmly lodged in my gut, I winged my studies in a private Catholic high school and then at university, where I took up Communication Arts. I was determined to get a job immediately after graduating so I could live on my own. I joined a Goth band. I got into rock and practically all music genres except pop. I joined street rallies leading up to People Power on EDSA in 1986. I remained a sensible girl with clear goals. I did no drugs and alcohol; I smoked cigarettes—what musician didn’t?—but I never once touched marijuana.
During college, I’d lock myself up in my room at home and sing and dance my heart out for all to hear. Music was my refuge. Neighbors remarked on my voice, but they rarely saw my face.
THE ABUSE WORSENS
I never entertained suitors. I didn’t trust men in general and relationships in particular. When I was in my fourth year in university, I met Rico*, a guy 10 years my senior, who would be my first serious boyfriend. He was into music like I was and worked for a magazine. I recall thinking that he was my ticket to a new life, so immediately after I graduated, I hitched my star to his wagon.
Some wagon it turned out to be. He asked me to quit the band, and I did. Close to a year into the relationship, he started hitting and humiliating me, and it was then that I realized he was doing drugs. The first time he hit me it was because I told him that I didn’t like seeing him flirt with other women. He hit me, he added afterward, to remind me that I was young and that he had all the right to be interested in other women.
At first I thought it was normal and, worse, that it was my fault. I also thought that if a woman was in love and in a relationship, it was customary to play errand girl; I was constantly delivering and receiving packages on his behalf. Or that maybe rape was part of being in a relationship, as was being treated like a plaything—when he was high he would cut off my hair; one rainy day he ordered me to put on a bathing suit and dance on the roof; one time he grabbed me by my ankles and dangled me from the top of the stairs. I even convinced myself that it was normal to be hit with a telephone or to have a thick phone book hurled at me.
Then I realized that I was being used as a drug courier when I read in the papers that one guy I’d been meeting regularly was actually a prominent drug dealer who was killed in a buy-bust operation near the street where we lived, the same street from which I would pick up and deliver packages. When I confronted Rico about it, he turned paranoid and he hit me again. I remember it in slow motion, him picking me up by the scruff of my neck, hurling me with incredible force on the bed, and the left side of my face being slammed onto the heavy wood headboard. He then scooped me up and locked me in the attic. Within seconds I could feel the left side of my face swelling like a balloon. A few weeks later my friends came to visit; they asked what happened—the left side of my face had turned dark green by then and was still swollen—and of course I lied, mumbling something vague about tumbling down somewhere. But they knew better, and one of them said before leaving, “Hey, stop kidding yourself.”
It took one more beating, four months after the lockup, for me to finally snap and flee. One late evening, Rico dragged me out of bed and yelled that he was hungry. I went out to look for some food, but when I returned home without finding any, he slapped me hard, sending me reeling across the room. While he was asleep, I left the house in tears, without slippers, money, or extra clothes, and proceeded to a friend’s house in Pasig.
MISTAKE NO. 2
I rebounded in no time. Up until then I believed that my youth served me well—it allowed me to get over bad patches hastily. In 1991, I worked in a fine-dining restaurant singing Broadway and light opera tunes. It was a good job that allowed me to engage in other small businesses on the side to augment my income. There I met Dan*, a fellow waiter who was attractive and reserved. His confession that he was the family breadwinner endeared him to me.
To save on costs, we lived together for almost two years. We got married when I was 23, but a couple of months later, we started quarreling about money; apparently he was always short on cash because he was a heavy drinker.
Once, following a big argument about money, he came home drunk. I threw water at him in hopes of sobering him up, but instead he hit me on the head. By that time I’d become quite an expert on being a punching bag: you don’t feel the pain immediately because you’d black out and turn numb. While I was down he started kicking me where he could. Tears welled, but I lay there paralyzed, slowly feeling the pain take hold. Then he told me to leave. I did.
I told Mama what happened, but she said that such things were part of being married. So we reconciled. But not too long after the incident, Dan was fired for pilfering drinks from the bar. I resigned in solidarity. I found a job as a medical representative and stayed with that job for a year and a half.
SOLACE IN MUSIC
In the mid-1990s I was invited to be the vocalist for an up-and-coming band. At first, Dan did not approve, but I convinced him that this was the break of a lifetime. He relented, and for the next four years, we were quite the happy couple. The band did well in terms of gigs, endorsements, and recordings. Dan was always with me. The beatings ceased for a while. In hindsight, I realized that he was always around, not because he enjoyed our music, but because he wanted to keep an eye on me. Being a roadie also became a good excuse for him not to get a job.
In time, the band scene slowed down, and so did our gigs. Money became an issue once more. The year 1998 is particularly memorable for its share of woes—Papa was very sick, and we spent everything we had on hospital bills, Dan’s kid sister needed a big amount to fund her thesis, and the band was in the grip of a bitter internal struggle. When Papa died, I was so sad because I realized that I never really knew him. I soon resigned from the band.
But I didn't stay idle for long. I formed my own jazz band, and I changed my name. Among my closest friends at this time were journalists and feminists. I enjoyed good press. So that when, after a gig at a popular bar in Quezon City, Dan, who by then was working as a waiter elsewhere, came marching in to make a scene—dragging me across the street to beat me up—my friends brought me to a “safe” house to discuss next steps. We went to the precinct later. Their faces fell when I merely reported the incident as a police blotter entry.
Why didn’t I file a formal complaint? I don’t really know. I knew, though, and I was right about what Mama would say: “He’s your husband, so make things work. Please don’t give me more problems in my old age.” So I didn’t and dutifully resumed my role as a wife. But I knew it that it was only a matter of time before I snapped again. After one particular gig, the waiters threw us out because Dan, who was drunk as usual, started feeling up some women on the dance floor. Once we were outside, he turned on me and accused me of being ashamed about being seen with him. Before I knew it he landed two solid punches on the side of my head. My guitarist held Dan back, as I stood up and ran toward another bar where the manager was a friend.
It’s been 10 years since that happened, and I’ve never looked back. Thanks to good friends who constantly pushed me to stand up for my rights, I’ve rebuilt my life. I’m busy singing jazz and helping to run a bar that gives jazz musicians a place to play their music. I’ve stopped thinking about the past. I have learned to trust men again. I have a new gig that I hope lasts for as long as there is music to play, songs to sing, and stories to tell.
*Names have been changed.
(First published in Marie Claire Magazine, First Person section as "Living in Fear" in May 2008; recounted to Jocelyn De Jesus; adapted for use in Female Network)
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