Growing up, I was obsessed with the apocalypse. Put the blame on the movies I saw back then: films like Armageddon, Deep Impact, and The Day After Tomorrow. My father liked to buy those single-DVD collections of pirated movies, and because he was never anything beyond a regular Philistine in film (for him, anything that was loud, had explosions, and a death toll of at least five qualified as good), we pretty much had them by the dozen. When I’d seen everything we had before he bought a new collection, I’d make another run through my old favorites. At this point, I can no longer count how many times I’ve seen Bruce Willis in a space suit, about to press the detonator they’ve set up on the asteroid that’s about to make impact with Earth, while in the background Aerosmith wails the lyrics to I Don’t Wanna Miss A Thing.
I was fifteen and crazy. Those days I daydreamed through my classes about building a solid bunker under our house and filling it with food rations and emergency kits in case a nuclear winter broke out. Nevermind the logistics and the cost of actually building a bunker, I just knew I had to build one pronto, before the conflict between the Soviets and the Americans reached its inevitable climax. I didn’t even know that the Soviet Union was already more than two decades dissolved. I walked down the streets of our city in a daze, wondering what sort of response I should have in case I made a turn into a badly-illuminated corner and a zombie crouched there were to jump at me. Or suppose I reached the highway only to find the ground beneath me breaking up as a catastrophic tremor took hold.
I had all sorts of hunches for how the apocalypse would be – supported by data collected from Grade-B films and awful misreading of high school Physics. I even hypothesized a scene all my own, one that I hadn’t seen in any of the films or National Geographic documentaries, and that I was so certain was going to be it because it was the one we hadn’t expected: sunspots, armies of them, like cancer cells gradually eating up the surface of that great star, until it was nothing but a black ball suspended in space and Earth was thrown into an endless night. Then the zombies will come. Even to me it didn’t sound plausible: but see it’s always these things, always these occurrences we reject from the realm of possibility, that eventually get us.
For all my hypothesizing of how the world would end, I completely miscalculated. I was so sure the world would end with panic: all the TV channels replaced with emergency news coverage on the gradual decimation of the planet; churches making frenzied house visits asking everyone inside to repent, the end is nigh, the kingdom come; scientists going on special broadcast interviews to remind the public to stay calm, stay put, everything is under control; and the government disappearing into a secret bunker or aboard an escape pod that will take them to safety in Mars. I imagined lots of screaming, and lots of blood and severed limbs. I imagined pandemonium.
Let me tell you what it sounded like: it sounded like bebop jazz. The TV was turned to a music channel: no emergency news coverage, just the Thelonious Monk Trio playing Rhythm A Ning in a Berlin concert. It sounded like the scraping of utensils on plates during dinner suddenly going quiet. It sounded like a conversation dying of stroke. I sat at a round table with my mother and father. There was no hint of brimstone or burning corpse: just the aroma of beef steak. The scientists did no interviews, and they stayed within the safety of their bindings on the bookshelf beside the TV. My dumbfounded mother stared at my father, her mouth agape, and the only great flood that came poured forth from her eyes, in needle-thin currents made black by her mascara. I didn’t know what they’d been talking about before the impact. I was too busy deciding whether I should put a pool table in the bunker for my friends to use while waiting out the left-over radiation from the A-Bombs. But I knew the tension that came with catastrophe and could tell precisely when it came. There was no screaming. There were no broken limbs. As for the government – well they’d disappeared a long time ago anyway, after the elections, like they do every term.
Let me tell you what it sounded like: it sounded like muffled sobs storming out of the dining room with heavy footsteps, and those same heavy footsteps ascending up the stairs only to come back down a minute later accompanied by the kind of runaway jangle only car keys could have. Then that night’s only explosion – quite a cold and distant explosion, with no accompanying pyrotechnics, but one that would rock my world with a ferocity to contest that of a supervolcanic eruption, and one that I would remember all my life: my mother slamming the front door closed, with a force that for a moment shook the house down to its very foundations.
And then it sounded like the utensils beginning to scrape on plates once more, as my father resumed his dinner. He didn’t even stop her.
I could swear the house looked like Earth in every post-apocalyptic film. It looked like The Road. It looked like The Book Of Eli. Everything smoldered: the floors, the walls, the furniture. The banisters looked like the railings of some fallen bridge. For a week the lights in the bathroom didn’t work and no one would replace it.
It was also deserted: though the three of us would continue to live there for two more months, it was as if the population had been wiped out by radiation, maybe a virus outbreak. My father came home from work as late as ten, often groggy and reeking of alcohol, cigarette smoke and some other weird, funky smell. Meanwhile my mother, though she came home from work early, would spend the afternoon regarding her sunken cheeks and her bloodshot eyes through the mirror in their bedroom, and the evening after dinner knocked out by the sleeping pills she took by the handful. In the rare occasion that the three of us were actually home, they wouldn’t stay in the same room. If she had anything to say to him, or he to her, it had to go through me, like I was a scout mediating between two estranged bands of survivors.
Tell Mama that Tito Rody was hassling me about the rent again today.
Tell Papa that if he would only give me money for the rent, Tito Rody wouldn’t have to hassle him in the first place.
Tell Mama she has her own job: she can pay the rent.
Well, tell Papa if he wants it that way, he can move out.
Bullshit, you tell your Mama….
For two more months I would come home from school to a wasteland without gravity. Everything floated in air: the carpet, the couch, the TV, the plates. Sometimes there would be screaming, and the plates would fly towards the wall. There were nights when I lay awake in bed – floating, as was my nightstand, my closet, the bookshelf – unable to sleep through the curses and the shrill, birdlike shriek of plates shattering into a million little pieces. The same wall, perhaps, where our family photo hung in its frame. And one morning, as I was getting ready for school, I accidentally stepped on a shard of broken plate. Everything floated but the shards. They seemed to wait on the floor for me to step on them, the way I used to imagine zombies waited to jump at me in badly-lit street corners. This one had been too big, and it had cut into my foot too deep, that my mother had to bring me to the infirmary.
It’s these memories that have seared themselves into just about every tissue of my brain. At nights, when I’m up late and channel surfing on the TV while waiting for my girlfriend to come home from duty, I’d run into another airing of the Thelonious Monk Trio’s Berlin concert, and I’d come back to the utensils suddenly going mum, and the door slam that almost tore apart the house. Sometimes I even smell smoke in the upholstery. In college, I would read in Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 the part where a character says, “You ever seen a burned house? It smolders for days.” I thought Bradbury must not have known much about burned houses, for what he said wasn’t true. A burned house smolders forever.
A house without gravity could never stay intact. Ours struggled for two months before it fell apart. All that time the war raged on: sometimes silently, sometimes viciously. Until they had dropped all their bombs and radiation made the air so thick, I could no longer imagine it ever having been filled with anything light, like laughter. Or love. By then the screaming stopped. Everything still floated, but the plates stopped flying to the walls. The shards remained on the ground though, but by then I’d learned to navigate our house like traversing a mine field. And like some cruel joke, the family photo still hung on the wall. I thought it’d have been smothered by then, but it was hardly even scratched. The three smiling faces looked foreign to me. It looked more like a stock photo of strangers that came with the frame.
The air in that house suffocated me. I hated the weightlessness inside, the way the debris lay suspended in mid-air. I kept out of there as much as possible. I went to my friends’ houses, and stayed until their parents started giving me looks. Or I’d go to the library to bury my face inside books. I started reading more, and actually ditched my movies because the catastrophes in them looked too much like home. In time the teachers began to suspect as well, but when they found out how it was really like back home, they stopped bugging me about staying too long in the library after the last bell. Hell, if they could have arranged to get a bed for me there, they might have.
Then, out of nowhere, my mother woke me in the middle of night. First I heard the familiar runaway jangle of her car keys, followed by my father’s wails from the living room. My mother’s face, glazed with tears, glistened in the glow of my night lamp. We’re leaving, she said, and without waiting for a response she yanked me off the bed, down the stairs, and past my father in the living room. Before we could get to the door, however, my father had grabbed me by the foot and I almost fell on my face to the floor. Only my mother had me by the forearm, and thus prevented the collision. For a moment I was suspended two inches off the floor like that: my dad holding me down by the foot, and my mother pulling me up by the arm. There’s an old execution method in which a prisoner’s body is quartered by having his limbs pulled by horses. I think I got a good approximation of how that might have felt like.
It was the first and last time I’d heard my father cry. His face was wet with snot and tears. He was rambling through an apology, but my mother would have none of it. The bitch just left, she said, because you’ve drunk yourself broke. He had what by then had become his signature scent: Red Horse and Winstons, and all the way to the cab I could smell it.
The Nuclear Winter carried on even after we had absconded all the way across the city, in a tiny flat one of my mom’s brothers got for us in an anonymous university subdivision. They had me continue schooling at the university – they had a bigger library so I was without complaints. The subdivision had a tiny supermarket. Twenty four hours a day, all the doors and windows in the neighborhood remained shut, and visitors couldn’t get in without an ID. In other words, it was the perfect place for refugees like us. My father couldn’t have bothered us if he tried – throughout all that time, I wondered if he did.
Regarding films that deal with the aftermath of an apocalypse: people never really watch them expecting a resolution. Sure, there’d be a resolution story-wise: a band of survivors might escape entrapment in a place overrun with zombies, or lovers separated by the fallout might reunite, but at best these are futile resolutions. The planet is still decimated, and the rest of the population remains dead (or undead). No one expects the zombies to be cured, because everyone knows there is no reversal to an apocalypse. Everything that comes after is but a gradual spiral into the drain. Even at fifteen I knew this.
So when the fallout came, the movies had taught me better than to expect a resolution. It would take another year for me to fully understand what had gone down between my parents, but I knew enough to understand that, whatever it was, there was no coming back from it. In the interim, I was surprised to find myself forced to act as an adult. It was just my mother and myself then. She took longer hours at work while I managed all the housekeeping.
I noticed that even after fleeing here, we seemed to have brought some of the radiation with us. Sometimes the furniture and the plates would float a little. Sometimes the air would thicken, and the walls would begin to smolder. At times my mother would refuse to speak for an entire day; whenever she heard jazz of any kind (even just swing or a Miles Davis performance), she would lose it. We learned to move on, though. Like worthy survivors of a nuclear fallout, we’d learn to live among the wreckage. Before we knew it, she was getting promoted, and I was taking college entrance exams.
That brings me to the last time I saw my father. I had gotten into UP Manila, and was coming home after my last class. I was on the northbound platform at the Pedro Gil station, when I noticed an all-too-familiar face regarding me from across the station. He was southbound, maybe headed to Taft. He was standing beside a woman, who was carrying a baby no more than a year old. He had his usual professor’s gear: polo with elbow-length sleeves, tight-fitting jeans, and sneakers. How many lectures had I seen him deliver clad in that exact combination? He regarded me with this apologetic look, the face he gave his students when they failed his classes. But no words passed between us. There was no need for them. Not anymore. In return I shot him a look that meant to say, It’s okay, I understand now. In no time their train had pulled into the station, ready to take him out of my life for the last time.
Dominic Dayta is a fiction writer, essayist, and statistician. Numbers man by day and literary trash by night, he divides his time (somehow) between Hilbert and Goethe. He comes from Manila, Philippines, where he is currently working on his first novel based on his recent travels in Japan.