I was born in this city. I grew up in this city. I left the city for a few years, but I always come back. And now, I think I’m back for good. Or at least while there’s still a pandemic.
I’ve memorized the streets and sceneries of this city as well as I’ve memorized the church songs I sang over and over and over again when I was a kid. Sure, a lot of things have changed in this city since then, but despite the changes, everything is still familiar. The way I’m sure that a triangle has three sides. Or the way I know that when I put two teaspoons of sugar and a dab of milk in my coffee, there’s no mistake, that I’ll have the best damn coffee of my life.
Even if the streets and sceneries are familiar, they feel different. Now I’m seeing this city through a different lens; the way a book touches you differently when you read it a second time, two years apart. I am now seeing this city in a different angle, from a different context.
Looking at the city through the eyes of my 15-year-old self, the city gave me a sense of security. I felt secure in the comfort of my home. I wasn’t pressured with much responsibilities. I wasn’t disappointing anyone with their expectations about me. Sometimes the city felt too secure for my liking, it was almost boring. There were times I wanted so badly to escape this city; to abandon it; to fall in love with a totally alien city altogether. But I knew that I would crave for this city. I would ache for its crisp air and the shocking sight of cramped houses on mountains that always look magnificent with the star-like brightness of their lights at night.
When I was 15 years old, I was oblivious to the chaos of the world—a true marking of a selfish teenager. I knew that someday I’d have to care about what was really going on around me. But as a teenager, I didn’t feel the need to. Leave that to the adults, I would always think. I knew that someday I’d have to carry the weight of the world on my shoulders. But at least for now, while I’m 15, I should be allowed to enjoy the carelessness and freedom brought about by sweet, sweet youth.
Back then, I used to walk around the city a lot. I’d always choose the longer route on the way home because I loved walking and appreciating the lights when the sun hides away, allowing the street lights work on their magic once it starts getting a little dark. I didn’t mind wasting time walking. I felt I had all the time in the world. I never felt like I was running out of time. The only thing that mattered to me back then was to savor my youth, savor the moment when not much is expected of me. And this included taking in every scenery for its mere beauty, being in awe with the city, and enjoying the freedom of non-responsibility. I appreciated every mundane detail of the street; every soft curb leading to a different direction; every small flower working its way through clumps of soil; every smile or random hints of kindness by my fellow city-dwellers. The world, or at least the city I know so well, seemed the least bit hostile.
Fast forward ten years later, it’s as if I’m seeing this city through the eyes of a different person. And maybe I am a totally different person from the oblivious, carefree 15-year-old that I was. Now, I feel the heavy weight of the world on my shoulders. I care way too much about the things going on around me; so much so that sometimes I lose sleep from being worried about how we’ll ever get to recover or rise from the misery we’re all going through today. The city still has aspects that are beautiful, but now I can obviously see its damages. And it’s not only the city that seems obviously damaged to me; it’s also the people, my fellow city-dwellers. It’s as if the people have grown weary, sad, and tired together with the city. Maybe it’s me, or maybe people are having lesser and lesser reasons to smile these days. Now, I see these people for what they really are: human beings squeezed dry from work and endless problems and responsibilities.
But it’s not only me who has changed. The context of the bigger world in which the city is a part of today, in the year 2020, is under no favorable condition whatsoever. There have been a lot of movies, a lot of studies predicting that someday a virus will break loose; but no one, most especially in this country, bothered to take it seriously. And this city, my hometown, was not saved from the damages, from the heartbreak, from all the negative effects of this virus. In the eyes of a 25-year-old, now I see the world as a sad, scary, and bleak place to exist in. But the pandemic has made everything even worse—worse than my already neurotic mind can imagine. Now, in this virus-ridden world, the streets and sceneries of my city are bombarded with endless signs reminding everyone to keep their distance, to wear a mask and a face shield, and to cough and sneeze properly. The everyday posters of malls are now trotted with people wearing the ubiquitous face masks, exercising social distancing. And the people, my fellow city-dwellers, are not spared of the anxiety, fear, and weariness that are results of this pandemic. Because of the mandatory wearing of face masks and now even face shields, I only get to see their eyes. And I crave to see these strangers’ faces. I crave to see their tired, forced smiles. Right now, the closest I can get to seeing people’s expressions is by peering into their eyes, under those uncomfortable face shields, wedged on top of face masks. I yearn to ask how they’re doing, how they’re coping in the middle of this pandemic. Are they doing all right? Do they still have a job? Are they still able to feed their children? Do they tumble and turn in their beds in the middle of the night, worried senseless about what will become of the world?
While I’m awake, I struggle not to think too much about the current state of society; the current state of my city. The question that constantly looms over my head is: how have we come to this? I wonder if the heaviness I’m feeling towards this city is brought about my age, of the awareness that comes with being an adult; or the damage and fear that came forward from the pandemic; or is it both? Will I ever get to see the city again through the eyes of my 15-year-old self: which looked so beautiful, soft, a place of security? Will I ever get to see this city with the same awe, wonder, and lightness as I saw it ten years ago? Or will I forever be aware of this city’s damages, perpetually haunted with the heavy feeling whenever I walk around its streets and try to take in its scenery? Will my fellow city-dwellers ever be refuelled with the same zest and warmth as I saw them when I was 15? Or will they always look listless and tired, constantly looking for meaning in this turmoil of life?
I do not know the answers right now. All I can do is live through all the upcoming events, and hope to see this city the way I saw it when I was 15.
Patricia Villar is a teacher and a writer. She lives for stories—both real and made-up. The way she sees the world drastically changes depending on the latest story she has heard or read. She shares, as often as she can, other peoples’ stories and her own daydreams through her own words.
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Stories and images in the time of COVID-19
An anthology of the struggles and hopes of Filipinos during the global health crisis of our time.