The Power of a Vacant House
by Monica Macansantos
Gene and I hadn’t seen each other in years when I heard about his mother’s passing, and I felt I had to visit him when the news reached me. I took a taxi to his house as soon as he texted me his address, hoping that my presence would bring him the same comfort that I had craved from my friends as I stared in shock at my father’s casket the year before. Perhaps I was merely trying to ease the loneliness I carried with me after losing my father, for the rawness of my own grief gave me a sense of solidarity with those who had just experienced it.
Gene and I went to the same high school, and though we were never friends throughout those four years, we became friends on Facebook years later, when he reached out to me after I had published my first short story in an American literary journal. The social hierarchies of high school had kept us from becoming friends, but social media gave us the chance to bond over our love for books and writing, as well as our shared resentment with teachers who had neglected to nurture our literary gifts. He confessed to me that he knew I was special when I delivered an impassioned report in our Filipino class that compared a chapter from Jose Rizal’s El Filibusterismo to a Rage Against the Machine song. “You were way ahead of us, which was why hardly anyone appreciated the things you did,” I remember him saying. In high school I had been made to feel unremarkable, even unintelligent, by teachers and classmates alike, and to learn that I had a quiet comrade during those years convinced me that somehow, Gene and I had always been friends.
Graduate school took me far away from the Philippines, and opportunities to meet were few and far between. But we spoke every once in a while, sometimes to talk about his struggles with the job market, sometimes to discuss how I would deal with an erring boyfriend. He read my work, and spoke about my stories as though they were fascinating tales I had told him over drinks. But we both became busy with our careers and partners, and by the time Gene’s mother died, we hadn’t spoken for more than a year.
I had finished my PhD and returned to the Philippines by the time I heard the news. My grief, coupled with my fatigue from having barreled through the final six months of my PhD while mourning the death of my father, landed me back in my hometown, where my mother continued to mourn while I found myself adrift in a culture whose mores felt alien to me. I felt at peace in my childhood home as I read my father’s books and reminisced with my mother about his life, and yet I had not expected to face as many difficulties reintegrating into a culture where I had spent the majority of my life. I struggled to make new friends, and it took some time for me to realize that people rarely broke away from their barkada, or group of friends, to form new friendships. My old friends from my hometown had either moved away, or were too busy taking care of their young families to spend time with someone they had not seen in years. Gene, by this time, was living in Manila, but when his mother died, he returned to Baguio, our hometown, for the funeral. He was a friend, after all, and I thought it was only right for me to pay Gene a visit at his mother’s wake, and comfort him as he reeled from the kind of shock that was painfully familiar to me.
The wake was held in their family home which, by all appearances, was in a regular middle-class neighborhood like mine. I told myself I had no reason to feel nervous about meeting his family as my taxi took me across town to the wake. I knew, of course, that Gene was a Muller, and that his family had once owned the grand colonial-era mansion facing Burnham Park that had filled me with awe as a child. Painted a tasteful shade of old rose, it seemed to have come straight out of an album of photographs from the American South, though the presence of the American colonial government in our city, and the arrival of American gold prospectors eager to make their fortunes in the nearby mines, made it completely possible for houses like these to occupy their own unique niche in our city’s landscape. It was a storybook house built on fortunes made by one American prospector named John Muller, who married an indigenous woman named Lan-I Ngaosi. He chose the best place in Baguio to build a mansion for his young family, since it directly faced the city’s central park designed by no less than Daniel Burnham. This three-story colonial revival mansion with arched porticos, sweeping balustrades, and Greek columns supporting an arched pediment bearing the family’s initial, M, was visible to any ordinary citizen of Baguio taking a stroll inside Burnham Park. It was a mansion designed not only to advertise its owner’s wealth, but also to cement his family’s status in a fledgling colonial metropolis.
When I was in high school, I knew somehow that Gene was a Muller, though I only made the connection between his middle name and the fairytale mansion facing Burnham Park when he told me about how it swayed, like a ship taking the beatings of a storm, when what became known as the “Baguio earthquake” hit our city in 1990. Apart from this terrifying memory, he said, he spent an otherwise idyllic childhood inside this house. The mansion had seen better times by the time I was a teenager, and whenever my father and I walked past its graying façade, my father would wonder if the house was unoccupied, and whether Muller’s descendants were trying to sell the property. As Gene confirmed, the entire clan sold the crumbling, fairytale mansion when he grew older, and split the proceeds between themselves.
In high school, I had no idea that Gene was wealthy, especially since our public science high school didn’t exactly attract the truly rich. Baguio’s truly wealthy sent their children to Brent, a private school originally established by the American colonial government to exclusively educate white students. Our public science high school had its share of upper-middle class kids whose doctor and lawyer parents paid for their expensive gadgets and clothes, but most of us were middle or lower middle class children who went to this school because our parents believed that its rigorous curriculum would eventually buy us the social privileges of studying at a top Filipino university. Gene wasn’t particularly flashy about his wealth, or former wealth, though I do remember that he wouldn’t forget to write down his middle name in all his quiz papers, and that our teachers, whose memories of Baguio’s history reached farther back than mine, would never skip over his middle name during roll call.
Gene’s childhood home came to house a hotel, a restaurant, and a bank for government employees, and these days a metal sign that reads “The Heritage Mansion” obscures the arched pediment bearing the family’s initial. The Mullers, by all accounts, have relinquished their ownership of this mansion to those who seek to profit from its storied grandness, and so it was easy for me, back then, to forget how difficult it was for them to renounce the prestige of their name. Gene was proud of being a Muller, though his easygoing nature oftentimes made me forget that he came from old money. When I took a taxi from the house my taxi driver-grandfather built half a century ago to Gene’s house in the outer suburbs, I hadn’t yet fully grasped how his family would cling to the power of their name, despite its banishment from a home that once gave it prestige.
Gene’s house in the suburbs was a simple one-story affair, and a group of young people were in the process of setting up a tent in their front yard when I arrived. A young woman answered the door, and let me inside when I said I had come to visit Gene. A group of middle-aged men and women were seated around a large dining table at the far end of the hall, and they raised their heads to look at the me before the young woman told them that it was just Gene’s friend. I smiled at the group as I sank into a living room couch, though they seemed to lose interest in me as soon as they knew who I was. Some turned to each other to continue a conversation I had interrupted with my arrival, while others stared into space.
Gene emerged from their inner hallway, red-eyed and distraught. I rose from my seat as soon as he saw me, and he spread his arms and pulled me into a tight embrace. He didn’t cry as we hugged, though it appeared, the moment I saw him, that he had been crying for some time. “Thank you for coming,” he said, as he loosened his grip on me. Visiting him on this day wasn’t such a bad idea, I told myself as we took our seats, even though I had come unaccompanied, with only him to ease my introduction into this tense and private space.
I could sense a loosening in him as he talked about how it had been so sudden, and how it was so easy to believe that his mother was resting in the next room, even if her body lay in a casket at the other end of the living room. “But I guess I have to accept it, if God willed this,” he said, staring into space. “I have to be strong for my niece who misses her.” I was taken aback by this, since I continued to grapple with accepting my father’s passing a year on.
We talked about how we were coping, and how, for both of us, it had been too sudden, too difficult to believe. Soon, were joking around and gossiping about our friends from high school. He was laughing, as was I, and for a few moments it was easy to forget we were at a wake. Our grief had made us vulnerable, allowing us to be particularly receptive to the joys of the moment as well as its sadness, and we laughed even as we talked about the parents whom we missed, about how frightening it was to adjust to a world in which his mother and my father had ceased to exist.
A middle-aged woman approached us as we continued to talk, and Gene introduced me to her as his aunt. He excused himself when he was called outside to help set up the tent in their yard. Left alone with his aunt, who had settled in the chair facing me, I asked her if Gene’s mother was her sister. “She’s my sister,” she confirmed to me, and I looked her straight in the eye as I said, “I’m sorry.” She gave a resigned, nonchalant shrug as her eyes darted towards the casket beside the door, and she said, with a sigh, “Well.”
The young woman who had answered the door for me entered the living room, and poured a bag of mints into a candy bowl before Gene’s aunt took her hand, and pulled the young woman beside her. “This is my daughter,” his aunt said, as she stroked the young woman’s shoulder. I smiled at the young woman, who seemed not to see me as her eyes scanned the room. “She went to City High, just like you and Gene, but she went to the special arts section instead of the special science section. But now she’s into the sciences,” she said, smiling at her daughter, who continued to look away from us. She didn’t appear to be anxious or fidgety: she leaned into her mother’s embrace as she crossed her legs and raised her chin, avoiding my eye with an ease that seemed practiced.
“That’s so interesting,” I said, thinking that a polite remark would put her daughter at ease, in case she was merely nervous or shy, but she continued to fix her eyes above my head.
“I came to comfort Gene because I’ve just lost my father, so I know how it feels,” I said.
“Oh, so you know.” The older woman smiled.
She asked me what I did for a living, and so I told her that I was a writer, and had earned my PhD in New Zealand the month before. “You’re so young, and you have a PhD?” she asked, sounding genuinely awed. Her daughter, who was still seated beside her, continued to look away. “What did you do your PhD in?”
I told her that it was in Creative Writing. She asked me if I was going to go back to New Zealand, upon which I replied that it wasn’t the best country to be a writer—though they had given me a scholarship to do a PhD, I said, it was a small economy with very little jobs.
“Excuse me, excuse me,” she said, cutting me off by waving her hand repeatedly. “Writers aren’t in demand anywhere. It’s like getting a degree in Political Science. What are you going to do with a degree like that?” she asked, with a smugness that challenged questioning.
“You could work in a think tank,” I said, as a knee-jerk response. I felt the inexplicable need to defend myself in the face of what I perceived to be a willful ignorance, and so I said, “In my case, I’m still getting a lot of freelance work. I was recently paid by a news company in Australia to write a series of articles.”
“But you can’t live in Australia on what you make writing those articles, right?” she said, with an amused smile. “You couldn’t possibly sustain yourself in Australia on that income, which is why you’re here.”
“I’m doing it to build my portfolio,” I said, confused by the direction in which this conversation was going. I didn’t expect her to lavish me with gratitude for coming to her sister’s wake, but neither did I expect her to make subtle jabs at my career after I had comforted her grieving nephew and offered her my condolences.
In the course of our exchange, which was by turns friendly and strangely acrimonious, I mentioned that I had lived in America, explaining, when she asked if I had been there for work, that I had gone there for graduate school at the University of Texas. I mentioned that I had gone to one of the top creative writing MFA programs in the US, and that it was already considered a terminal degree, adding that I had just done a PhD in New Zealand so that I could have more time to write. She interrupted me again by saying, “So let me get this straight, you did a PhD in New Zealand because they wouldn’t recognize your MFA?”
She narrowed her eyes as she said this, as though trying to assess the details I’d just given her about my own life with her private, distorted logic. I glanced at her daughter, who seemed as though she preferred to let her mother take care of this exchange by continuing to look away.
“They did recognize my MFA, and besides you don’t do a PhD in Creative Writing there in the hopes of getting a job in New Zealand. Even my Kiwi classmates weren’t doing it to raise their job prospects,” I said, feeling increasingly self-conscious as her dubious smile, and her daughter’s refusal to look at me, filled me with an odd sense of dread.
Their other guests would glance towards me, without really looking at me: their eyes would skim over the top of my head, and when I tried to return their evasive glances with a polite smile, their eyes would flick away, as though they hadn’t seen me at all. And yet I remained rooted to my seat, baffled by this woman’s rudeness, believing somehow that this strange arrangement would finally make sense to me if only I spent more time trying to understand it.
I felt a lingering sense of unease when I returned home, unsure whether I had truly done the right thing in visiting Gene that day. It was frustrating to acknowledge how his aunt had managed to get under my skin by confidently deploying her willful ignorance to humiliate me. She dispensed her insults effortlessly, without losing her poise, making me think that she did this out of habit to people she didn’t like. I wondered if these subtle intimations of my unworthiness were meant to put me in my place, since they made me feel like an intruder whose sympathies had failed to gain me entry into the exclusive space of this wake.
I texted Roy, another friend from high school, who had told me that he wanted to go to the wake but couldn’t figure out when he could come. I told him that I had just come home from Gene’s, and that Gene seemed glad I came. “He’s hurting, but I’ll think he’ll be okay,” I said, and Roy agreed. Then I added, “It felt weird in their house. Almost no one wanted to look at me.”
“That’s expected. They’re Mullers. They’re arrogant,” Roy replied. “Only Gene and his siblings are nice. His cousins? I can’t stand them.”
I told him that Gene’s aunt was particularly awful. “That’s why I didn’t want to go there alone,” Roy replied. “I was waiting for Ben to accompany me.”
I had held onto the foolhardy belief that Gene’s relatives would be just as generous and open as Gene, deceiving myself into thinking that our grief would momentarily ease the invisible barriers that separated us. It seemed that only Gene and I had reached across this barrier to find solace in our shared grief.
I stood to leave when Gene returned inside. As Gene thanked me for coming, his aunt also stood, and asked for my name. “It’s Monica,” I said, obliging her. She then asked me for my last name, which I haltingly gave her, wondering why she needed to know. She appeared to be startled, and asked me if I was related to the former Chancellor of the University of the Philippines in Baguio. “That’s my mom,” I said, hesitating. Her face lit up with recognition. “No wonder the name sounds familiar!” she exclaimed. Her face softened, and it took some time for me to understand what this meant.
Nothing I had achieved on my own, apparently, entitled me to her respect, but maybe, if she had known much earlier that my mother had once occupied a position of power, I wouldn’t have had to put up with her insults. It amused me to think that she’d confer so much respect to my family name when, in 2006, the our city’s elite had vehemently opposed my mother’s re-election as Chancellor of UP-Baguio, choosing a local optometrist, who had no experience in academe, to run against her. My mother won this race for obvious reasons, but it sticks in my memory how our city’s elite believed, despite my mother’s credentials, that she was unqualified for the position she held, for no reason at all other than the fact that she wasn’t one of them.
I paid my respects to Gene’s mother, whose peaceful expression behind a pane of glass bore no trace of her previous suffering that Gene had described to me. I regretted having had this as our introduction, because I would have liked to meet the woman who had raised Gene to be the man he had become. I could only guess how tempting it may have been to give in to the tendencies of her class, and having raised a son like Gene in this milieu was an achievement in itself.
“Tito’s going to sing for us later,” the young woman announced, and a large man standing near the dining table bowed as people clapped. I clapped out of politeness, and when I said goodbye to the group, even the family singer looked away from me, as though I had never set foot in their house at all.
Outside, Gene gave me another hug before we parted. “Let’s keep in touch,” he said. It seemed that I had done the right thing in visiting him, though it was time for us to go our separate ways.
(some names have been changed)
Monica Macansantos holds an MFA in Writing from the Michener Center for Writers, and a PhD in Writing from the Victoria University of Wellington. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in *Anomaly, failbetter, Another Chicago Magazine, TAYO, *and *SBS Voices*, among other places. Her nonfiction has been recognized as Notable in the *Best American Essays 2016*, while her fiction has been recognized with citations from the *Glimmer Train *Fiction Open. She has been awarded residencies at Hedgebrook, the KHN Center for the Arts, the Storyknife Writers Retreat, the I-Park Foundation, and Moriumius (Japan), and is currently working on a novel and story collection.