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Op-Ed

5 Ways women empowerment in churches can prevent HIV & AIDS

The fact is, gender imbalances worsen the impact of HIV and disproportionately subject women to unequal power relations, violence, discrimination and poverty.

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The HIV epidemic is recognized to be gendered. In most countries half of the number of all people living with HIV (PLHIV) are women. However, in the Philippines, the gender breakdown of PLHIV has changed over time. In 1984–1990, 62% were female. From 1991 to the present, only 6% are female, although the absolute number of cases among females has been increasing. This situation is largely driven by gender inequality.

Perhaps not surprisingly, a 2015 National Council of Churches of the Philippines (NCCP) study found that mainline Protestant churches strongly support women’s empowerment, with almost all key informants supporting the equality and non-discrimination of women as safer practice for HIV and AIDS prevention.

The same study provide five ways churches can help prevent HIV and AIDS.

1. Understanding why Filipinas become vulnerable

Darlene Marquez-Caramanzana, former program secretary on Ecumenical Education and Nurture of the NCCP, added that gender imbalances worsen the impact of HIV and disproportionately subject women to unequal power relations, violence, discrimination and poverty.

“For Filipino women, negotiating condom use with their partners remain a challenge. Women also fear and experience violence and rejection from their partners or husbands, making them reluctant to get tested for HIV. Women as care providers of families also carry the burden of deaths from AIDS. We at NCCP commit to providing a space for both males and females to challenge harmful gender norms to reverse the negative impact on women and girls,” said Marquez-Caramanzana.

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2. Historical push for gender equality

“We are an open-minded church that gives women equal footing with men – may lady bishop na kami (we have a lady bishop). We have more female leaders than male leaders,” said a clergy from a NCCP member church in Luzon.

The ordination of women in mainline Protestant churches in the Philippines is seen as a milestone for gender equality.  At the 20th anniversary of women ordination of Iglesia Filipina Independiente, Rosalina Rabaria, the first woman ordained a priest in 1997, said the acceptance of women as part of the clergy is a “historical victory in the struggle against biblical patriarchy [and] church hierarchical and cultural biases.”

This milestone has been a key event in improving women’s key role in their faith communities.

The ordination of women in mainline Protestant churches in the Philippines is seen as a milestone for gender equality. This affects decision-making including in dealing with HIV.

3. Mainstreaming women’s empowerment

The NCCP study has shown that churches already have women-centric efforts, including hiring women as leaders, gender sensitivity trainings/workshops, and formation of women’s organizations within the churches. One key informant even said that to promote women’s rights within the FBO, they include discussions of Republic Act 9262 (The Anti-violence Against Women and Their Children Act of 2004) in existing programs, teaching female churchgoers that “puwede ka mubalibad sa imong asawa (you can refuse your partner’s advances).”

4. Building alliances outside the church

With this inclusion of women empowerment in existing efforts, the study showed that are at least some resources allocated by most churches on this, including all KI from Metro Manila and 63% in national offices.

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To implement existing efforts, or if there is need for efforts to be developed/implemented, all key informants also said that they already formed alliances to promote women’s equality, or are willing to ally to show their support for the promotion of women’s equality as a safer practice for HIV and AIDS prevention. Some of these allies include inter-faith organizations, local government units, and women’s organizations (e.g. Gabriela and Babae Plus).

5. Providing and advocating for better care and support

The Board of Women’s Work of the United Methodist Church (BWW-UMC), an NCCP member church, already started a partnership in assisting women living with HIV with their PhilHealth insurance enrollment and other medical expenses.

For Phoebelyn Carreon, former HIV program coordinator of the BWW-UMC, there are women-specific needs that existing programs fail to respond to.

“Women living with HIV tell us that finding obstetric and gynecological services in their treatment hubs is a challenge. While antiretroviral medication is provided for free by Global Fund, health services for women are not all the time free or affordable. While we educate our church on HIV and AIDS prevention, we do what we can to raise funds for the needs of women living with HIV, who mostly are unemployed,” Carreon ended.

A registered nurse, John Ryan (or call him "Rye") Mendoza hails from Cagayan de Oro City in Mindanao (where, no, it isn't always as "bloody", as the mainstream media claims it to be, he noted). He first moved to Metro Manila in 2010 (supposedly just to finish a health social science degree), but fell in love not necessarily with the (err, smoggy) place, but it's hustle and bustle. He now divides his time in Mindanao (where he still serves under-represented Indigenous Peoples), and elsewhere (Metro Manila included) to help push for equal rights for LGBT Filipinos. And, yes, he parties, too (see, activists need not be boring! - Ed).

LIFESTYLE & CULTURE

Moments when hashtag activism really worked

Every now and then, a new cause encourages users to send in a flurry of social media posts, all backed by a common tag used to grab the users’ attention to the issue. While some campaigns have backfired, some have really, really worked creating defining moments.

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It’s been more than 10 years to the use of this so small and unprepossessing symbol – #. Little did its users know that it would contribute to changing the world. It’s emerged as the prelude to every important online conversation.

While some campaigns have backfired, some have really, really worked creating defining moments.
Image by irfanahmad from Pixabay.com

The phenomenon of using this symbol is popularly referred to as hashtag activism. Every now and then, a new cause encourages users to send in a flurry of social media posts, all backed by a common tag used to grab the users’ attention to the issue. While some campaigns have backfired, some have really, really worked creating defining moments. Let’s take a look at some of them:

1. #DressLikeAWoman

When President Trump was alleged for asking his staff to dress like women, the internet was flooded with suggestions and opinions. Gendered clothing is available everywhere but unlike hashtags, their purpose is to only divide. Some women voiced their preference to dress their best for work while some pointed out how black is the new black. The campaign received extensive female support for obvious reasons.

2. #StopFundingHate

This UK-based campaign aimed at taking action against the anti-migrant position of several British newspapers. It started somewhere around 2016 and has repeatedly gone viral several times. It has also made some great victories in the process. For instance, Lego ended its agreement with The Daily Mail and now does not offer any promotional giveaways with the newspaper.

Every now and then, a new cause encourages users to send in a flurry of social media posts, all backed by a common tag used to grab the users’ attention to the issue.
Photo by KoalaParkLaundromat from Pixabay.com

3. #YouAintNoMuslimBruv

The British respond to tragedy with both class and honesty. In fact, the Londoners like hashtag activism because it always keeps to the left. The #YouAintNoMuslimBruv campaign was the reaction to an incident that took place a few weeks before Christmas 2015. A man suffering from paranoid schizophrenia cut the throat of a passenger at a London tube station. The judge denounced the act to be motivated by Islamic extremism and sentenced him to life imprisonment at a high-security psychiatric institution.

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However, before the papers went all gaga over Islamophobia, a young man gave the perfect reply to this religious criticism since the culprit was arrested by a Muslim policeman.

4. #HeForShe

Gender equality has been talked about for generations. It affects everyone. The HeForShe campaign is just about that. The UN Women Campaign, supported by Emma Watson and Justin Trudeau, encouraged men and boys to support the women in their lives and actively involve themselves in the struggle that had previously been regarded as a ‘woman’s thing.’

Several countries participated in the campaign with their pledges and commitments to support the cause. Some of the leading countries worth mentioning are Rwanda, the UK, the US, Mexico, and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

The hashtag has emerged as a prelude to every important online conversation.
Photo by Lum3n.com from Pexels.com

5. #WomensMarch

The Women’s March in 2017 was a powerful campaign as women across the world united to fight for their status-quo and optimistically change the future. It focused on demanding an equal footing in society. The uniting power of the hashtag proved that women are not alone and can create a euphoric moment that will change history.

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Op-Ed

Death by inaction and misaction

If the people supposed to serve us are failing to do so, even if they know they can do something if they really, really want to, then I can’t help but be sad… and angry… and speak out.

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Photo by Cristian Newman from Unsplash.com

By Stephen Christian Quilacio

In March 2015 – just over three years ago – playwright, author and longtime gay rights and AIDS activist Larry Kramer gave a blistering speech. Dubbed “Cure!”, he likened HIV to a “genocide inflicted upon gay people.”

To wit, and I quote part of his speech:

“Thirty-four years. HIV/AIDS has been our plague for 34 years. We should have known more about this plague by now. 34 years is a very long time to let people die.
I think more and more about evil. I believe in evil. I believe evil is an act, intentional or not, of inflicting undeserved harm on others. Genocide is such an act. I believe genocide is being inflicted upon gay people.
Genocide is the deliberate and systematic extermination of a national, racial, political, or ethnic group. Such as gay people. Such as people of color. To date, around the world, an estimated 78 million people have become infected, 39 million of whom have died. When we first became acquainted with HIV there were 41 cases.”

Then – to stress his point – he (aptly) added:

“I no longer have any doubt that… government is content, via sins of omission or commission, to allow the extermination of my homosexual population to continue unabated.”

I am bringing this up now, though this time to highlight what it’s like to be HIV-positive in the Philippines.

See… I am a Filipino living with HIV. I’ve been HIV-positive since 2013. And though hailing from Northern Mindanao, I have since moved to Metro Manila; and I am now based in Taguig City.

My life as a Filipino with HIV – from the start until now – continues to be extremely challenging. And in many instances, this is due to the inaction and misaction of service providers, including (if not particularly) the government.

READ:  HIV+ men with undetectable viral load do not transmit HIV to their partners, says new study

Take for instance the continuous running out of supply of antiretroviral (ARV) meds in the country.

This has been an ongoing issue, first loudly raised in 2013 and then “denied” by the Department of Health (DOH) in 2014.

At that time, Dr. Rossana Ditangco, research chief at the Research Institute for Tropical Medicine-AIDS Research Group (RITM-ARG), one of the treatment hubs in the country, said that the limited ARV supply was “because of the delay in the delivery of (ARVs) to the Department of Health (DOH).”

This was belied by Dr. Jose Gerard Belimac, head of DOH’s National AIDS/STI Prevention and Control Program, who claimed then that there is no delay in the procurement of ARVs, just as there is no “official pronouncement from the DOH to the treatment hubs to control (the distribution of ARVs) because of a delay in the procurement (of ARVs),” he said in an exclusive interview by Outrage Magazine. Belimac stressed then that “for now, all the ARVs that we promised to provide to the patients are available.”

The ‘missing’ ARVs of the Philippines

The denial makes one angry though, because – while still in Cagayan de Oro City at that time – we who were accessing meds were not getting our steady ARV supply. We had to “borrow” meds from other PLHIVs just so none of us would skip our dosage; though ending missing meds all together when the supplies didn’t arrive.

READ:  I was there

It was as if we were being told we were lying (by claiming there’s a shortage) by the very body that is covering up its erroneous system/s.

And then just a few weeks ago, I was informed by my doctor (this time in Metro Manila) that my meds may have to be changed because there is no supply of Nevirapine (what I have been taking). Apparently, I ain’t the first (and perhaps not the last) whose meds may be changed NOT because it’s necessary but because… the DOH’s supply system is problematic.

“I write this piece not because I want to, but because I need to. Because people continue to suffer and even die, and your efforts continue to be wanting.”
Photo by Elijah O’Donnell from Unsplash.com

Looking back, I also remember not even knowing of viral load (VL) for years while in Mindanao. The hub I used to go to only offered CD4 count (not VL); and – come to think of it – this wasn’t even regularly done because the CD4 machine may not have been working or there was no reagent or… other such reasons were given to us.

To date, many PLHIVs from outside Metro Manila (and even those here) do not know their VL or CD4 count.

And this is even if the amount we paid PhilHealth was the same as everybody else; and the services we were supposed to be getting (based in the OHAT package) was supposed to include this.

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I am not sure if there is reconsideration of DOH accreditation being done… but non-offering of paid-for services is, for many of us, an “accepted norm.” We actually pay for services that we don’t use.

Last July, 30 people died from AIDS-related complications in the country. And since January 1984 (when the first case was documented in the Philippines) to July 2018, a total of 2,735 deaths were already reported in the country. Ninety percent (2,462) were male.

Since we already have 57,134 reported cases (as of July 2018), the number of deaths seem… small. But – of course – this is ONLY those that were reported; I am certain that many more were unreported.

But note that even now, approximately only half of the number of Filipinos with HIV have access to life-saving meds. And – as repeatedly stressed – access isn’t even regular because of problems with the supply.

There comes a point when we have to say enough’s enough.

I write this piece not because I want to, but because I need to.

Because people continue to suffer and even die, and your efforts continue to be wanting.

Part of Kramer’s closure for his lament reads:

“Allowing people to die is evil and genocidal. Yes, I believe in evil. 78 million people have become infected, 39 million have died…”

I may sound melodramatic, so call me “drama queen” if you want.

But if the people supposed to serve us are failing to do so, even if they know they can do something if they really, really want to, then I can’t help but be sad… and angry… and speak out.

Because at this point, I see where Kramer is coming from.

And to his point, let me add: I know what he’s talking about.

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Op-Ed

How to organize a ‘community dialogue’ when you don’t want the community to go…

After the Department of Health (DOH) was criticized for holding a beauty pageant even though it supposedly has limited budget, a rushed “community dialogue” is scheduled, which won’t be surprising if the target community does not participate.

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Photo by Mathew Schwartz from Unsplash.com

Yesterday, I was speaking to a close HIV-positive friend whose Nevirapene supply is already running out. “Giatay (I’ll be damned),” he said, adding that he was told that like a friend of his who is taking the same meds as him, he may have to be shifted to LTE already because THERE IS NO SUPPLY OF NEVIRAPENE.

This is yet another issue that the Department of Health (DOH) should be focusing on, instead of its recently-concluded beauty pageant.

So it should have come as a “pleasant” development that a “community dialogue” is being held with the DOH.

To be honest, I almost feel sad for the Department of Health (DOH). ALMOST.

First, it was criticized for holding that beauty pageant even as it laments that its budget is getting cut. Walang pera, supposedly; but may pang-pageant (There isn’t any money, supposedly; but there’s funding for a beauty pageant)…

On beauty pageants and messed up priorities in dealing with HIV in Phl…

And then now, to respond to the criticisms hurled its way, this “open dialogue” is supposed to happen so that “PLHIVs and other advocates (can) gain better understanding of the plans and programs of the government relating to the HIV situation in the country”.

If you are interested – or, perhaps even more importantly, if you are in the area – this “dialogue” is happening at the 3rd floor of DOH Bldg. 14 in Tayuman in the City of Manila on October 3 (Wednesday) from 3.ooPM to 4.ooPM.

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But while this seems like a “good” effort to appease the critics, let’s be extremely blunt here: This seems like a thanks-but-no-thanks “effort”.

Why so?

Info about this “dialogue” was only posted online 15 hours ago (by 10.10AM of the very day of the gathering).

The info was (solely) shared on Facebook; and so – if you don’t know anyone who saw this post – you won’t even become aware of this gathering.

Even if you forget the rushed organization of this “dialogue”, the people behind this are forgetting that:

  1. Not all PLHIVs or HIV advocates who may want to attend are near the area – e.g. there are those in the Visayas and Mindanao;
  2. Many of those who are adversely affected by existing policies/practices re HIV are NOT even from Metro Manila – e.g. no CD4 count and VL machines in many DOH-accredited hubs in Visayas and Mindanao; and
  3. Even Metro Manila-based PLHIVs have work (or other things to do), and they can’t just drop everything in such short notice.

This really is a no-win situation for the DOH for now. And by extension, a no-win situation for the HIV community in the Philippines.

If the intent is true, it may be best to (among others):

  1. Release a financial statement on the pageant that just happened;
  2. Release DOH’s plan/s re HIV in the Philippines, particularly concerning numerous issues I am sure they already know/repeatedly hear about;
  3. and THEN call for a REAL (and non-rushed) dialogue.
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The life-or-death issues – as already repeatedly stated – are numerous.

ARV shortage/stockout.

DOH-accredited hubs that collect the PhilHealth money even if they do not render the services required of them anyway.

Access to pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP) and post-exposure prophylaxis (PEP).

Absence of Filipino Sign Language interpreters who can assist Deaf Filipinos to get tested for HIV; and – if they test HIV-positive – access treatment, care and support.

Exclusion of life-saving meds in the OHAT package (e.g. Cytomegalovirus retinitis/CMV retinitis).

And – as already stated over and over and over again – I can go on and on and on…

That close friend who is, himself, experiencing the running out of ARV is NOT in Metro Manila right now, and he laments this fact. And for him, “kneejerk reactions are fucking up HIV-related responses.”

Earl Monroe once said: “Don’t rush. Be quick, but don’t hurry.”

Now this sure isn’t that…

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From the Editor

On beauty pageants and messed up priorities in dealing with HIV in Phl…

After encountering a young PLHIV who has to prostitute himself just to access ARVs, Michael David Tan finds it infuriating that the Department of Health saw it fit to allocate lots of money to HOLD A BEAUTY PAGEANT. For him, from the get-go, this approach needs to be closely looked at.

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Photo by Valentin Salja from Unsplash.com

I am chatting with a person whose HIV rapid test only recently showed he’s reactive. He was told by this satellite clinic in Mandaluyong City that he can actually proceed to get the meds; though only if:

  1. He pays his PhilHealth; and
  2. He pays for all his lab tests.

The problem is, this young person – who did not even finish schooling – is unemployed.

So he is chatting with me now to “manghiram ng P100 (borrow a hundred pesos) so I can go to a client who will give me P1,000; which I can then use to pay for my lab tests.”

Yes, he is resorting to selling himself. To access life-saving medicine that is supposedly – and ERRONEOUSLY claimed to be – “free”.

It is cases like this young person’s that make it infuriating that the Department of Health (DOH) saw it fit to allocate lots of money to… HOLD A BEAUTY PAGEANT.

In a pageant-obsessed country like the Philippines, at least superficially, this seems like an “intelligent” move.

But from the get-go, this approach needs to be closely looked at and reconsidered.

  1. The pageant is supposed to create “HIV advocates”. BUT only those who fit specific qualifications can enter – e.g. age limit, height limit, vital stats requirement of participants (with the candidates even told to ‘model’ in swimwear as part of the screening process). So now – with this ‘move’ – what is being insinuated is that you need to be young, beautiful/handsome and be willing to strut in your bikini first before you can be considered an HIV ‘advocate’…
  2. We are supposed to dismantle this lookist society; to recognize people’s worth NOT based solely on how they look. Pageants – by their very nature – promote the status quo (of lookism) by giving “positions of power” only to those who “fit” socially-constructed standards of beauty and attractiveness.
  3. The country has a lot of REAL advocates who do for free what should be DOH’s job – e.g. community-based HIV screeners who go from barangay to barangay without any payment. There are those doing community-based HIV screening (CBS) who are RUNNING OUT OF RAPID TEST KITS, so they are now unable to serve; unable to be advocates. Seriously now, if there’s money for a beauty pageant, surely there’s money that can be given to those already working on the ground, or even to buy life-saving paraphernalia used in battling HIV in the Philippines.
  4. One of the supporters of this beauty pageant told me that Pia Wurtzbach’s effort to bring the spotlight to HIV is a good example of the “relevance” of a beauty pageant like this, as it could “create another Pia”. In a marketing standpoint, this is not a well-thought response; mainly because if you wanted to “create” someone to be like Pia to promote HIV awareness in the Philippines, then… JUST HIRE PIA HERSELF!
    Besides, as a friend aptly said: You can’t just “create” a Pia. She “works” because she’s unique.
  5. If you need a crown, a title and the prize money before you start advocating for HIV-related issues in the Philippines, then you’re not really an “advocate” and what you’re doing is not “advocacy”.

PLASTIC CROWNS
There remain many life-threatening and urgent issues concerning HIV in the Philippines. And if you try bringing these issues up (e.g. to government people, or NGOs), you’d more likely be told “there’s no money”. But apparently there is. Just not for the urgent ones…
Photo by Pro Church Media from Unsplash.com

The fact is, numerous HIV-related issues continue to plague the country.

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We get 31 new cases every day now.

A growing number of those getting infected are getting younger and younger (e.g. in July, 28% were from the 15-24 age bracket).

The ARVs in treatment hubs are OLD – e.g. many have expired, and the Philippines still uses meds already discontinued in Western countries. Don’t get me started with the shortage that the DOH continues to deny is happening.

We still don’t have widely-distributed pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP) and post-exposure prophylaxis (PEP).

Newly-diagnosed PLHIVs – like that young person at the start of this article – are still unable to pay for their baseline tests; and so they can’t proceed to the next steps (including starting their ARV therapy). And even if they can get the lab tests done, their ARV supply is compromised because they can’t pay their PhilHealth.

There are treatment hubs that do not have viral load machines, so that PLHIVs do not know their VL years and years after they tested HIV-positive. And this is even if they have been paying the same PhilHealth amount that should give them that VL test. DOH accredited these hubs; they need to monitor if the hubs comply with policies related to their accreditation.

There are accredited hubs that do not even offer CD4 test. This is accepted as “normal”, and again, this is even if the PLHIVs in these hubs still pay the same PhilHealth amount that should grant them the CD4 test. Similar to the above: DOH accredited these hubs; they need to monitor if the hubs comply with policies related to their accreditation.

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There remains lack of updated knowledge even among existing service providers – e.g. try asking them about U=U, and you’re more likely to encounter internalized stigma and discrimination, largely because… this is not even openly discussed in the Philippines, including by DOH.

There are no Filipino Sign Language interpreters who can assist Deaf Filipinos to get tested for HIV; and – if they test HIV-positive – access treatment, care and support.

I can go on and on and on…

But just try bringing these issues up (e.g. to government people or NGOs) and you’d more likely be told “there’s no money”.

Well… apparently there is money; just not for these…

DOH is complaining about the pending budget cut, but – the way I see it – it shouldn’t/can’t/ought not to complain about any budget cuts when it can spend money ON A BEAUTY PAGEANT. This may sound harsh, but words that immediately come at least to my mind include misuse, squandering (with a friend going as far as using the word “misappropriation”) or words similar to that…

As it is – and yes, I recognize this – I’ve already been repeatedly told that I’m too… negative.

I’m not sure I’m being “negative”; instead, I am being more “realistic”.

And the thing is, as long there are PLHIVs like that young person who has to prostitute himself just so he can access life-saving meds and services even as a big amount of money is spent on a beauty pageant, I say we all should be…

READ:  HIV+ men with undetectable viral load do not transmit HIV to their partners, says new study

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Literary Pieces

Both Eyes Open

Some members of the LGBTQI community live in the shadows. Until they and the people they love start to get hurt.

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Photo by Harry Quan from Unsplash.com

The ticking of the clock was the only sound you can hear in the living room. That large, wooden clock Father brought home from Frankfurt last year was particularly loud. Spring has come late to our village, and people are a little antsy about how to put together a festival in such short notice. The cherry trees will begin to bloom soon. My parents were off in the town hall to attend one of the many meetings with the council preparing for the influx of tourists who are sure to come through town in a couple of weeks.

Everybody was in a bit of a rush, since they haven’t exactly finished putting up the observation decks at the public causeway lined with cherry blossom trees, nor the small collection of food stalls that the local merchant guild was planning. The first few groups of tourists have started to arrive and our inn was starting to fill up with guests.

I poured myself a drink at my father’s bar and I sat in one of our overstuffed settees.

“Touma?”

I see her walk in, dressed in a simple linen robe, her hair down, preparing for bed.

“Will you wait up for Mother?”

I nod. She approaches and quietly refills my drink.

“The children are sleeping. Should I draw you a bath before bed?” I nod. She smiles and gathers up her robe.

“Hana?” She looks back and I see her small smile once more. “I am sorry for missing the New Year Festival again. I must really get control over my work schedule. I will make it up to you and the children during the summer.” I placed my drink on the lacquered table beside me. “I have booked us all a trip to the city to stay at that hotel in the city that you like, we can go shopping and get the kids some new clothes and toys. The boys seem to be growing much faster than ever before.”

“I think that is a wonderful idea. Thank you. And don’t worry about my birthday: It was work. It really can’t be helped.” She turns around and stops at our family shrine. She reaches out and gently touches a Daruma doll she placed there about three years ago, its single eye looking at her, slightly askew.

I look at the clock on the wall. Of course she understands, Hana has always been very understanding.

***

Konnichi wa.”

I look up from the guest ledger and see this ruddy faced foreigner with a grin that stretched from ear to ear.

Konnichi wa, and welcome.” I reply. I bow slightly, and see him return the greeting.

“I made a reservation, it should be under Phillip Thompson?”

I scan through the names on the ledger and find his reservation. I enter his arrival in the log and hand him his safebox key.

“Thank you.” He picks up his bag and smiles. I look at his face, fair, with a splash of freckles across the bridge of his nose, between wide blue eyes. He had a set of straight white teeth behind a big, bushy beard, the color of straw. “When will the cherry blossoms begin to bloom?”

“Maybe within the next couple of days: We’ve already seen some trees beginning to change color.” I open a small door and pick up his suitcase. “This way please.” I lead him down the hall towards his room.

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“This is my first time in Japan during the spring, but I’ve heard such beautiful things about this season.”

“Yes, it is beautiful in the spring. And the weather is so much more forgiving, especially in this area. Once the trees turn, I will arrange to have a place for you along the causeway. Do you prefer viewing the cherry blossoms in the afternoon or at dusk? They set up the park with lights at night and I could prepare some traditional Japanese confections for you to enjoy during your viewing.”

“Oh, that would be great! I think an evening viewing would be best.”

I set his suitcase down and kneel to slide open the paper screen that leads to his room. “Would you want to bathe before dinner? We have our own onsen, and you can try it out. I can also prepare your bed while you bathe so you can rest before eating. You must be tired from travelling.” I move into the space and put away his bag off to one side of the room.

“Yes, I would like that very much.” I open one of the closets and take out a robe and hand it to him. He changes into the robe as he makes more idle chatter. I take down his bedding and check to make sure it’s fresh. I absent-mindedly turn around to set the bedding on the tatami mat. He had his back turned towards me as he slipped his arms through the sleeves of the robe, and I had a brief glimpse of his broad shoulders. I feel a familiar sensation that stirred at the bottom of my belly.

I push it down. And drop my eyes to the floor.

Photo byFernando @cferdo from Unsplash.com

***

“I see that Mr. Thompson has checked in today.” Hana looks over to me as she reviews the guest ledger. “I heard from Akane-sama that the pavilion opens tomorrow for the viewing. Shall we make arrangements for him?”

I put down the paper I was reading, and I look at her. Yes, I reply. He wants to arrange a nighttime viewing.

She picks up the phone and begins to organize a private viewing for him. I go back to reading the paper, though, I was only skimming the words on the page. My attention is lost among the fog of my thoughts. The clock on the wall ticks on and on.

“Touma?”

I look up at her again.

She’s sitting there, cradling the small Daruma doll in her hands. She traces her finger along the edge of paper that came away from the body of the doll. She takes some paste from a drawer, and gently pressed the paper back in place.

“I have asked the kitchen to prepare a bento of sweets for tomorrow night, but I won’t be able to accompany Mr. Thompson to the viewing. Would it be alright if you go with him? I have some things to attend to.”

I put the newspaper down. “We have discussed this already. I do not understand why I must attend to the guests.”

She sits there silent for a moment. “No games, Touma. I just can’t go. That’s all.”

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“Fine.” I got up and poured myself a drink. She sets down the doll on the shrine and went back to writing. I look at it, the red paint has faded significantly, with one forlorn eye staring out at me.

***

“You weren’t kidding! This place is amazing!”

Phillip and I walked along the banks of the small river that cut through the park. Paper lanterns lined the path that reflected off of the gentle ripple of the water. There were groups of people in colorful robes, weaving through the trees, admiring their foliage, or sitting on low benches enjoying their bento boxes filled with cakes and dumplings.

You can smell the aroma of roasted fish and other foodstuff from the collection of stalls on the other side of the stream. We didn’t have to go though; the kitchen has outdone itself in preparing both savory and sweet boxes for us to enjoy this evening.

We reached a low hill in the middle of a bend in the river where the view was particularly breathtaking, and set down our dinner on the bench that sat under a tree. Viewing the cherry blossom trees this early in the season meant that no cascading petals would go in our food. And you get to fully appreciate the magnificent foliage at the pinnacle of their glory.

“I have heard a story about how the cherry blossoms represented fallen warriors during the war.” Phillip sat down on the opposite end of the bench, looking out at the stream and the trees that lined the opposite bank, lit by soft hues of yellow and mauve. I offered him a bento filled with rice, grilled sea bream and pickles. He took it and he started to eat. “How can something so beautiful represent something so sad?”

I sat beside him, and started to softly play a tune on my shamisen. “Cherry blossoms represent impermanence in our culture. Like the cherry tree that is so short lived, it serves to remind us that nothing stays the same forever. We live, we bloom, and we die.” He was looking at me as I say this, and I see him look out into the water again.

“Once there was a man who had a cherry tree in his backyard. He loved the tree he grew up with, playing under its shade for many years as a boy. As he lived, his children played under the shade of the tree which gave him much joy.” I see him close his eyes as he listened to my story.

“As he lived, and as time passed, his children grew up, his wife passed away, and one by one his children had families of their own, moved away, and died. However, death would not come for the old man.” I struck a sad note. He opens his eyes and looks at me.

“He lived for so long, alongside his beloved cherry tree. Till one day when he went out into the garden to sit under its branches, as he has done countless times before, he found that the tree had died.” Phillip looks at me intently. “Overcome with grief, the old man wept and called for death. He took his sword and took his own life under the dead boughs of the cherry tree he loved. As his spirit escaped his body, it bonded with the tree, and it bloomed for one last time.”

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“That was beautiful.” Phillip wiped the tears that welled in his eyes. “Sad. But beautiful.”

“Just because there is suffering, does not mean the story is sad: The old man lived a full life and in the end was granted a beautiful death. He was blessed with this fate, and death did not rob his life of its meaning.” I sat beside him and looked out into the water. The river started to fill with light. We sat there in silence, watching the cherry blossoms dance with the gentle breeze.

“Why did you come here, Phillip?”

“I missed you so much. I didn’t know how else to reach you.”

I felt his head gently rest on my shoulder.

“Hana doesn’t know.”

I hear him sigh. “I know.” He said under his breath, his voice was like an echo of mine over the surface of the water.

Photo by Jenna Jacobs from Unsplash.com

***

The clock ticks on, as I sat there reading the paper. Hana comes in with a glass of whisky on a small tray. She walks over to me and places it on the lacquered table beside me.

“How was your viewing?”

I put the paper down. “It was beautiful.” I reply. I can taste the venom in my voice.

“That’s good. I wanted to join you, the trees are particularly splendid this year, but I was kept busy here at home. The children needed tending.” She picks up the Daruma doll and sets it down on the desk in front of her.

She uses her finger to push it forward, and it rolls forward and settles upright. She pushes it from one side to the other, its wobbling making soft noises as it recenters itself in front of her on the polished desk.

“Did Phillip enjoy his stay?”

I can feel it. That coiled snake in my belly is moving.

“Why do you do this? Why did you do this?”

She doesn’t look at me. But still I know she was crying.

“Why? I don’t know.” She wipes away the tears on her pale cheeks. “I’m tired, Touma. Just say it so I can go to bed.”

“You are impossible. There is nothing to say.”

“No.” There’s a cold fierceness in her voice. It sounded like steel. “No. I see how you look at him. At  them. It kills me every time I see it. That’s why I wrote to him. I asked him to come. I just… I needed to see it for myself.” She took a brush and started to grind some ink on her inkstone. I kept quiet. I know. I know it’s wrong. I know.

“Hana. Don’t do this. Please.”

“No. I’m tired Touma. Now I truly understand.” She takes her brush and dips it into the ink. She takes the Daruma doll and paints a big staring pupil on the other eye.

“Enough. No more secrets.” She stands up and leaves the room.

And there, on the desk, sat her Daruma doll, staring at nothing at all, with both eyes open.

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Literary Pieces

I Am Here

Have you ever been “lost” in a labyrinthine gay bathhouse? Here’s a poetic glimpse at its nerve-wracking – yet intoxicating – appeal.

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Photo by Toa Heftiba from Unsplash.com

I stood there in front of that door for God knows how long. Staring at that small sign that says “Pull”, I felt my heart pounding as I fumbled for my wallet in that harshly lit alley in downtown Tokyo. I knew I shouldn’t be there, which explains the hesitation, but I couldn’t bring myself to walk away. This is a mistake; I mutter under my breath, it’s been too long-much too long.

It’s getting cold. This is ridiculous. Go in or go back to the hotel.

I reach out, and all of a sudden the door opens. Out pops an old man in a greatcoat, about 60 years old, his hat pulled down low on his brow, with flushed cheeks and brandishing a briefcase. He takes one cursory look at me as he brushes past me and starts to shuffle towards the train station down the block. I could hear a man’s voice coming from inside, gruff and clipped. I don’t speak Japanese, so I feel this sudden (though not thoroughly unfounded) jolt of guilt that I was wasting their heat since I stood there holding the door open like a frozen doorman. I quickly found myself inside.

There they stood, peering at me. These two men, one significantly older than the other, stood there and bowed. The younger of the two smiled, revealing a toothy grin. “American?”

I shook my head, no. “No, no, Filipino.”

“Ah! Filipino! Welcome, welcome.” He put out a cup of steaming barley tea and motioned me to drink. I cupped it between my hands to warm them and breathed in the nutty aroma wafting from the small ceramic cup. “Manila?” He asks. “Yes.” My voice was tightening in my throat. “How much?”. He smiles again and points to the ticket machine off to the side of the door. The machine had a laminated sign on it that says ¥2,800. He went over and took the money I fished out of my wallet and fed it to the machine. It spits out a ticket, and he hands me my locker key on those elastic bands not unlike the vintage phone cords I played with when I was younger. I slip it on my wrist, and follow him as he led me past the split curtain and into the locker room.

***

Photo by John Baker from Unsplash.com

I open my eyes. It is pitch black.

My eyes slowly start to adjust to the darkness and slowly, shapes begin to form around me. Undulating bodies, slick with sweat, they writhed under my touch. In this surreal landscape, I could feel my mind slowly melt away, along with the stress built up on the knotted muscles on my back.

I feel it, the hot breath on the back of my neck as I slowly rise from where I lay my head, rising from the warmth of some faceless chest that served as my pillow for the past half hour, as the rest of the room pulsed with lust. I felt two strong hands suddenly grip my arms as I steadied myself to stand.

“Wait. We’re not done.”

“I need to freshen up, aniki, and I need a smoke.” I watch as Touma stands up, his muscular bulk slowly rising from the floor. I feel him approach and pull me into a deep, long bear hug. “Don’t take too long. I might not find you again.” He growled into my ear. “You are mine tonight.”. I feel him stiffening against the inside my thigh, and I knew he wouldn’t last too long, with or without me. I noisily breathed in the smell of his musk, kissed his neck, and he lets me go.

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I wind my way out of the maze of corridors lined with men of all shapes and sizes, obscured by the dark. I can feel their eyes on me as I brush past them, their hands “accidentally” brushing against my body. I feel the cold draft coming from the shower area, and I close my eyes against the light that greets me as I open the door.

***

I opened up my locker and started to undress, the guy from reception looks on as I peeled off the winter gear I had on. The guy from reception steals glances at my little awkward striptease. I ask him if I need to be totally naked.

“Yes. Or underwear.”

I stop pulling down my boxers, and I start to close my locker. He says something in Japanese again, and holds up a strip of fabric. A fundoshi. Oh no. I slowly removed my boxers, and neatly folded them. I placed them inside the locker and closed it, I stood there and reached for the fundoshi, and he smiled.

“After bath.”

Of course. This is becoming more and more embarrassing as each moment passes. He hands me a small washcloth and goes back through the door to the reception area. I stood there for a moment, looking at the calligraphy scrolls that adorn the walls of the space. I slowly make my way towards the long corridor where I could hear the faint sound of water. I wonder where all the people were.

I enter one of the shower stalls and begin to wash off the stench of the city.

***

I settle down in one of the hot tubs, my washcloth folded neatly on my head. I relish the feeling of being almost lulled to sleep by the gentle rippling of the water, and the almost iridescent heat of the stone tiles on my skin.

Why do I do this to myself?

I breathe in the heady mix of steam and jasmine. I am getting much too old for this. I know. I’ve seen the looks the younger ones give me. How they see the wrinkles that have appeared almost overnight. Not that I care much. I have always been very cavalier about my appearance, even when I was younger. Partly because I have always been unhappy with how I looked. Only later was I able to think of my features as mildly attractive to others.

The door opens and he stood there, staring. I see a hint of surprise and a slight pink flush to his cheeks, and a towel in his hand. I smile slightly, completely unaware of what my face was doing. He takes it as a positive sign. He walks towards me slowly, his body well-proportioned and well put together. He had a sexy, compact and stocky build, with thick arms and calves that are covered by coarse hair. I move to make room as he steps into the tub and sits across from me.

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I took the time to study his face: Those eyes that seemed to me so full of curiosity, as if they were drinking everything in. That thick beard that came away from the sides of his face, filled with crystal droplets that dripped down to his chin and fell one by one into the tub. I could see the swirling patterns of the hair on his back and shoulders. I see him looking at me.

He can’t resist. He can’t fight it.

***

Photo by Jakob Owens from Unsplash.com

He stood up, the water washing down his lithe body making it gleam under the soft lights of the bath. He gracefully steps out of the tub, and I can’t help but look at him in awe. He takes a towel from a small squat table and proceeds to dry himself off. I don’t know if it was the heat, or the heavy scent of flowers that pervaded the room, or just a deep longing that I feel at the pit of my stomach, but I can’t help but watch transfixed as he seemed to move in slow-motion.

He walks back towards the tub, and he sits on the edge. His hand reaches down and runs his fingers through my beard, and traces the outline of my jaw. I smell the subtle scent of vetiver on his wrist as he does this. I feel my anxiety start to subside in my gut as this gorgeous stranger continues to trace his fingers around my face, across my brow, down my nose, and against the side of my neck where my pulse was racing. I closed my eyes in delight.

“Izumi.”

“Anton.”

I feel his hands move to the back of my neck, gently feeling the tense muscles he found there, and moving his fingertips in small circles. I don’t think he speaks English. With my luck, he probably doesn’t. But as it always happens, right now is not the time for words. I got up from the tub and step out. He got another towel from the table and began to slowly dry me off, taking his time with fascinating precision. After he dried my legs, he lets the towel drop to the floor.

There we stood.

He says nothing. Just looks at me with a perfectly still, handsome, inscrutable face. I feel his hand in mine and he silently leads me into the void.

***

I see nothing. I don’t need to.

My hearing picks up where my vision left off, and I hear the soft padding of his feet behind me as I move further into the maze. I sense the other people hiding in corners, their eyes moving faster than their bodies, as they watch him with either hunger or cold, dispassionate ambivalence. I find a little empty corner just as my eyes begin to get used to this twilight world once more. I push him against the wall and look at him.

Handsome. Within and without light.

I feel his forearms, my fingertips lightly brushing against the strands of hair, until I reach his broad shoulders. His averted and while it may first seem impossible to explain, I feel the heat of his blush. I lean in and kiss him on the lips, a number of small tentative kisses that lead to longer, deeper ones. He was hesitant at first, but he began to return the kisses, gripping my arms tight and pulling me closer to him: obliterating what little distance there was between us. He spins me around and pins my hands above my head on the wall with an audible smack that the people around us turned towards us. He’s strong, I think to myself, I fight back somewhat but he persists.

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His hands felt soft against my skin, and they burned with warmth that surprised me.

Why do I do this to myself?

My mind snaps back to here. I feel his chest under my palms as he busied himself under me. I feel the fur under my fingers like I was riding a wild beast. This emptiness inside me is lost in the thrum of excitement I feel deep in my belly: the same soft thrum that slowly sets my mind adrift, makes my body convulse, and makes me feel as if my joints have come apart like wax.

***

Photo by Rene Böhmer from Unsplash.com

I open my eyes.

“Tea?”

The guy from reception smiled as he offers me another cup of barley tea. I look over to the other end of the room where a huge guy was sitting, dozing off. I check my watch and realize that I would need to take a cab back to the hotel. I never noticed the first time I walked in, how graceful the small stone garden was, and how intricately carved the big stone lion was on the entryway. I picked at my fingernails nervously as I waited for him to come out.

He comes out of the locker room into the reception area, his hair slicked back, and dressed in a wrinkled shirt and a slim tie. He returns his locker key to the reception desk. He looks at me, and smiles.

“Izumi?”

I see the big guy get up and start gathering his things. He looks at me, and gives a slight, almost imperceptible bow and put on his coat and hat. He looks back at Izumi and motions for him to follow, saying something in Japanese before heading into the street. I look back at Izumi, and he smiles. He gives a little bow, and opens the door to follow the man outside.

I stood there for what seemed like forever. Quite unsure what to think or feel. I smell the light scent of vetiver left hanging in the air.

“How do you like?”

I like him very much.

The guy from reception grinned at me from behind the desk. I come over to return the locker key. Everything is great, I said. He puts back the key on the hook, and thanks me again, looking at me with those knowing, but soft, brown eyes. He gives a bow and asks me to come again. I put on my coat and after one last sniff of that perfume, I step out into the brisk cold of a clear winter night.

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