Book Excerpt: 'The Descartes Highlands' by Eric Gamalinda
Eric Gamalinda (L), author of "The Descartes Highlands" (Akashic Books, 2014).
Eric Gamalinda is a leading voice in the Filipino American literary world. He has been writing and publishing poetry, shorts stories, essays and novels for over 20 years in the U.S. and the Philippines. His stories have been published in Harper's Magazine and in various collections, including Manila Noir; Charlie Chan is Dead 2; At Home in the World; Bold Words: A Century of Asian American Writing, and Flippin': Filipinos on America, and his poetry has been widely anthologized. Although he has published four novels in the Philippines, including My Sad Republic, winner of the Philippine Centennial Prize in 1998, The Descartes Highlands is his international debut novel, published by Brooklyn-based Akashic Books.
On Monday, December 1, at Asia Society New York, Gamalinda and writer/filmmaker Jessica Hagedorn will talk about on his work and writing across cultures, accompanied by dramatic readings from The Descartes Highlands by actors Alexis Camins, Jennifer Betit Yen, and Ben Mandell. A book sale and signing will follow the program.
The Descartes Highlands tells the stories of two young men who are unaware of each other's existence even though they share a family secret: they were sold for adoption by their American father shortly after their births in the Philippines during the chaotic months leading up to Marcos’s declaration of martial law in 1972. Following is the opening chapter, which introduces Jordan and the mystery of his biological father “Mr. Brezsky.”
We are held in place by gravitational forces
My mother and I used to play this game when I was growing up. Every time I had a question she couldn’t answer, she made me write to my imaginary father, Mr. Brezsky, who lived on the moon. I would later learn that Mr. Brezsky was my biological father, but he could just as well have been Santa Claus for all I cared. In fact, in 1976, when Santa Claus was down with the flu, it was Mr. Brezsky who left me a mechanical train.
My letters were addressed like this:
The Descartes Highlands
Mother and I always sat out in the backyard whenever the moon was full. It seemed bigger and brighter in Westchester, where there was not much else to see. Among the dark patches of the moon were the peaks of the Descartes Highlands, where the Apollo 16 mission scooped samples of rock and soil. You could see the tracks left by the moon rover with a telescope. She told me they were left there in the year I was born. Man’s tracks on the moon, she said, were like my Bethlehem star. They were going to be visible for a million years, and a million years from now they would remind people that I was once on earth.
I’m eight years old, and the school principal pulls me out of class one afternoon and says my mother has come to pick me up and take me home. Mother told them it was an emergency. They’re all nice to me, thinking some- one died. My English teacher slips a Hershey’s bar in my hands, nodding quietly as I accept her gift, tears welling in her eyes.
Inside the car, Mother rolls the windows up, takes a deep breath, and tells me the truth: “Jordan, I am not your mother.”
That’s when she begins telling me about the real Mr. Brezsky.
“It was September, 1972. He was a very young man. He had no money. He sold you for 30,000 dollars. Five months later, he wired the money back. Then he died. That was his story.”
From then on she never stops talking about him. Now that she’s opened up the subject, it seems like everything is all right, and she’s never going to keep any secrets from me again.
Every time she retells the story, some new detail is amended, but Mr. Brezsky remains as murky as ever. I finally have to ask her why she even bothered to tell me the story in the first place. She replies, “Frank has moved to the Dominican Republic with his girlfriend. They’ve set up a new clinic there.”
That seems to her enough of a reason, and from then on she tells me the story even more frequently, in fact way more often than necessary. Here’s another version:
Andrew Brezsky died at the age of 19 or 20 in a military prison in Manila. She got that one from ex-Communists in Manila who had tracked her down through the Life Crusaders’ hit list and wanted to talk to her for a report on human rights violations around the world. Through the years, and several more calls from them, that version acquires even more details, some incongruous, others simply incredible. In prison, anti-American students allegedly beat up Andrew Brezsky and left him for dead. In yet a later version, some petty criminal or corrupt police officer assassinated him for his money, which, if you put two and two together, he must have earlier wired to us to get them off his back. Always the ending is sudden, violent, unresolved, and likely doubtful.
In time, I catch on and realize a lot of it is probably just made up. It’s as if she’s trying to figure out, in the redundancy of the telling, if this Andrew Brezsky was unknowingly pivotal in her life, if that one brief encounter sparked off a karmic chain reaction whose repercussions are still felt today. And by repeating the story over and over, she will finally realize that there was some detour she failed to see, signs that could have told her where to turn.
“He was such a beautiful boy,” she says. “You could tell he was going to die young.”
One night, while she’s in bed with Frank, the phone rings and she picks it up. The caller immediately hangs up. The same thing happens for the next three nights, and on the fourth Frank himself grabs the phone. He doesn’t say a word. He keeps the receiver pressed against his ear, listening as though he’s trying to catch the faintest rumor of some mysterious, important missive. And then for a fleeting moment he looks at her, and she sees something she’s never seen before. Something inexpressible. Such sadness in his eyes. Not just sadness but fear. Not just fear but her fear conjoined with his, a mesmerizing mirror in which she can only see a self-reflected horror.
That is when she decides she wants to have a baby.
She’s read that at 45 a woman’s biological clock is a ticking time bomb; it’s now or never. The next day she visits a gynecologist, a friend of Frank’s. That evening, with Frank still out in the city, she finds a message for him on the answering machine. The message is very brief, Please call back, please, but the desperation in that woman’s voice is so immediate, so apparent, that she feels something apocalyptic churning in her guts, and the next morning, when the gynecologist tells her she is incapable of conceiving a child, she thinks for a moment, Frank made you tell me that, but she doesn’t say anything, and the word barren keeps whirring tauntingly in her mind like a chain saw. Barren barren barren. Frank comes back that night. He’s just been with a friend, a lawyer who could help them file a lawsuit against the Life Crusaders who have been harassing them to leave town. Et cetera, et cetera. Barren barren barren. His voice sounds disembodied, out of sync. The sooner we take care of this, the better, he says; no more mysterious calls. She says, “You’ve been fucking someone.” She doesn’t actually say it. The words fill her mouth, she can taste their bitterness, and she feels like choking. Frank asks her what’s wrong. She says, “That young patient of ours, that eighteen-year-old girl who’s coming from the next county, I want to keep her baby.”
She is well aware that that’s not going to happen. The girl is suffering from hysterical fits and has to be sedated for the abortion. Under the drug, she has delusions that the baby is crawling through her veins, contaminating her blood, and that she will burst open at the pores, like a fruit exploding. There is no way she would ever make the hard decision and forego the procedure.
Abortion, Frank reminds her, is an act of desperation, arrived at either after agonizing deliberation, or in an emergency. In almost all cases, there is no way they can save the mother’s life without sacrificing the fetus. That’s what they’ve always tried to tell the countless Christian lunatics who frequently come to spit Jesus in their faces.
The clinic in Dobbs Ferry has had its share of troubles. Several nights, from the two-bedroom apartment above it where they live, they can hear streams of cars passing by, the drivers yelling at them to burn in hell.
Frank himself doesn’t want any more children. His own haven’t spoken to him in years. He hardly talks about them, and whenever he does, it’s always as if he’s talking about an ancient, unhealed wound. He hardly ever mentions their names. Sometimes he even seems to have forgotten he has any children.
Obviously, the only alternative is adoption. There’s Romania, Russia, Sri Lanka, Thailand. But adoption is expensive, tedious, and complicated by corrupt bureaucracies of donor countries. Just to find out for sure, she applies with a couple of agencies. They immediately deny her application upon learning of the kind of work she does. There you go, says Frank; that’s the kind of people you’d have to deal with.
Then she hears of a couple who’ve come back from the Philippines with a perfectly normal, legal, healthy Amerasian boy. They bought the baby through an underground adoption ring operating there. The baby was handed to them just a couple of days after its birth, a scrawny creature, pink and hungry and full of need.
She invites the couple over one evening. They seem to have been transformed by this new presence in their lives, and they come with all the accoutrements that signify that change, an unwieldy baby carriage and FAO Schwarz bags brimming with bottles, diapers, and silly toys. They say they feel like a closer couple now, their relationship made more meaningful by a kind of aegis, a holy trinity. They talk of themselves no longer as individuals but as a single unit, a family. Suddenly their lives are mapped out more clearly, with plans for the next 10, 20, 30 years. It’s cloyingly sweet and she loves it. She holds the baby in her arms. It’s soft and small and breathtaking. She is unaware of the growing anxiety on Frank’s face, even when she turns to him and says, “I know what I want. I know what to do.”
On the Delta Air Lines flight to San Francisco, she reads a story in the New York Times that Frank told her about earlier that morning, before she boarded a taxi to JFK. A certain Arthur Herman Bremer shot the governor of Alabama, George Wallace. Doctors have said the governor will be paralyzed from the waist down for the rest of his life.
Neither she nor Frank cares much about the governor or his would-be assassin. But Frank says there you go: that’s the kind of world we’ll be bringing a baby into.
She transfers to a Japan Airlines jet in San Francisco, and as soon as the attendants start rolling dinner out she sets her watch 12 hours forward to Manila time. She realizes that by doing so she has just jumped into the future. She looks out. The moon is a flat disk of light. Just less than a month ago, two humans were out there digging dirt. She closes her eyes and tries to imagine what it must have been like, but there’s a constant hum in the plane that she finds distracting. She is awake all through the 16-hour flight.
She has the name of a contact given by the couple who had adopted earlier. It takes a few weeks for someone from the adoption ring to call her back. The couple had told her this was normal. They would be doing a background check to make sure she wasn’t just some decoy.
An “agent” meets her at the lobby of her hotel apartment in Manila. The transaction is informal. It makes her feel like she’s just purchasing a line of home products from a traveling salesman. It’s also simple. All she has to do is put some cash down. One of their women has already been impregnated, and it looks like the father is American. The agent hesitates at the word impregnated, and apologizes for not knowing a term less vulgar. He is a middle-aged man in a business suit that seems too heavy for this weather. He is constantly dabbing his forehead with an already soppy handkerchief. She feels sorry for him and offers him a drink, which he declines. He seems like he’s in a hurry to get this business over with. He says the mother is expecting in a couple of months. There is obviously no way to tell if it’s going to be a boy or a girl. But here is a rundown of her possible expenses:
Cost of adoption: 210,000 pesos
Processing fee (documents, etc.): 7,000 pesos
All papers, he adds, are going to be arranged through contacts with the local authorities. Mentioning this, the agent’s face suddenly seems transformed by what she thinks is a hint of personal pride. “You have nothing to worry about,” he says, smiling broadly. His teeth are stained red with tobacco and betel nut. “We know people. We take care of all the bribes.”
She hands him the down payment, mentally calculating the equivalent in dollars. With the peso quickly sliding down nearly seven pesos to the dollar, that would be about 30,000 dollars and an additional 1,000 in fees.
After that, she waits. It’s like going through an actual pregnancy herself. The next couple of months are unbearable. She calls Frank every day.
The hotel is surrounded by sweltering alleys, which fan out to the boulevard and the expanse of the bay, wide and open like a sigh of relief. This is all she can see from her apartment, the postcard-pretty sunset and the coconut trees lining the boulevard. This is all she wants to see. Cities terrify her, and Manila seems more hostile than any other. Just a few blocks away, the streets are littered with trash. Peddlers and pedicabs and commuter jeepneys fill every single space. Beggars and homeless children are everywhere, crowding around cars stalled in traffic, their passengers rolling up their tinted windows to shut out the heat and the miasma of human suffering.
The weather in Manila flips from torrid summer to torrential rain. The alleys turn into muddy rivulets, waist-deep, which some intrepid souls maneuver on makeshift rafts — planks of wood and rubber tires. A sheet of monsoon gray blurs Manila’s huddled skyline — a small stretch of midsize hotels. This is a city used to constant erasure. Lives and homes are lost, but disasters come and go like clockwork, quickly forgotten when the next one arrives. Beneath the veneer of hospitality reserved for tourists, she senses an overwhelming self-contempt and a simmering hatred.
In August, floods wash away several farming villages just a few miles north of the city. A group of peasants march to the president’s palace to ask for aid. They are met with teargas and truncheon-clubbing police. Sometimes the hostility boils over, touching even foreigners. From her terrace overlooking the bay, she watches students lob Molotov cocktails at the American embassy nearby.
In September, in the middle of the worst tropical storm of the season, Frank calls to say he is having second thoughts.
“About the baby?” she asks.
“No,” he says. “About you and me.” He has a hard time trying to tell her exactly what’s wrong. There’s a fuzzy sound coming from the other end. She realizes Frank is crying. He says he feels awful, he doesn’t know what to do. He’s been seeing someone else, a nurse from Montefiore, down in the city. She’s 23.
When she hangs up, she sees something spectacularly eerie. An entire coconut tree has been uprooted by the storm. It’s hovering just outside her ninth-floor window, as though suspended by an invisible string.
I am delivered to my mother on a day when the entire city goes dead.
All TV stations are off the air. Only a quivering cackle of white noise emanates from the screen. The radio sputters an otherworldly hum. There is an unnerving quiet in the streets. The students have stopped marching down the boulevards. No bombs are being thrown at embassies and hotels. It is a warm, bright late-September morning.
Someone knocks on the door. A young American looking for Mrs. Elizabeth Yeats is holding a bundle in his arms. He hands it to her. I am seven days old.
The quickness and informality of the exchange confuses her. She fumbles in her purse for the exact cash amount she’s set aside, the balance that has to be paid. The young man stuffs the money in the front pocket of his Levi’s. She asks where the agent she met has gone — she needs to have the legal papers he promised.
The young man smacks his forehead and says sorry. He looks extremely boyish and awkward. He has dark-blond hair and eyes somewhat an indeterminate shade between blue and gray. (She may be mixing this information up. In the redundancy of the telling, the story’s details get incrementally embellished, and I would not take anything at face value, especially as that description fits me.) The papers are in his back pocket. They’re all there, he assures her. The people she had talked to have other matters to attend to. He sounds vague about it. He has nothing more to say. He looks like he’s in a hurry himself.
As he turns to go, she can’t resist asking, “Are you the father of this child?”
He replies, “Get out with your son as soon as you can.
This country is going to blow up.”
You have the blood of many nations in you, she always says, to remind me of my unusual origins. The Spanish and the Berbers, the Jews and the Arabs, Europe and China and the Malaysian islands. A self-contained universe, the sound of the sea, of winter, of equatorial storms. The glorious reign of Charles, ruler of the Holy Roman Empire, and his son Philip, duke of Burgundy and emperor of half the known world. Galleons that skirted the oceans, looking for souls and gold. America and its vanished tribes. And the brave ones who built upon their absence these cities, towers, bridges, highways, and all manner of preparation to make way for your coming.
She says those words to lull me to sleep. To assure me that even though Frank left her, I have always been wanted; she always wanted me. To remind me that life still offers much good, and I am chosen.
Too bad she never believed it herself.
“If you never actually saw him again after he brought me, how did Mr. Brezsky know what my name was? Why did he wire the money specifically for Jordan Yeats?”
“You’ll have to write to Mr. Brezsky to find out.”
Mr. Brezsky never answers that one, but it’s all right. I grow up with one singular talent: the uncanny ability to detect a lie. Brezsky is our Holy Ghost, the missing angle in our unlikely trinity. He is our religion, the beautiful lie that she has to believe in — and, for her sake, so do I.
On my twelfth birthday, Mr. Brezsky sends me a telescope. For the first time I can clearly see the craters of the highlands where he lives. I write him a letter.
Dear Mr. Brezsky: I know you don’t exist. But thanks a lot anyway.
Excerpt from The Descartes Highlands by Eric Gamalinda. © 2014 by Eric Gamalinda. Excerpt courtesy of Akashic Books. All rights reserved.