The Jaime An Lim story is the second to last in an anthology that’s taken self almost a decade to finish reading: The Best Philippine Short Stories of the Twentieth Century, edited by Isagani R. Cruz.
This story, which was awarded first place in the Philippines’ most prestigious short story competition, the Palanca Awards, “explores the life of a Filipino academic in the United States. The central character has to deal not only with the sense of alienation due to not belonging to the foreign culture, but with the alien nature of many American norms as well.”
Self admires the cool and lucid prose, the unflinching depiction of acute loneliness. This is how it begins:
After their divorce his wife promptly married her American lover of ten months and moved out of Bloomington, Indiana, to the East Coast, taking their ten-year-old daughter along.
The story moves back and forth in time. The life of Tomas and Edith prior to the divorce feels very familiar. Both are graduate students at Indiana University in Bloomington:
Tomas and Edith, of course, never traveled during holidays, like most other foreign students on a strict budget. The Thai occupants of Apt. 312 were home, catching up on their term papers because you could hear a typewriter thoughtfully going tak tak – tak tak tak-tak. The Japanese couple in Apt. 301 across the hall were doing their spring cleaning and moving furniture with a lot of scraping. In Apt. 308, the young El Salvadoran couple, husband and wife, were sobbing again. Were they homesick? Did they leave small children behind? Had something terrible happened in their troubled homeland? It was ironic that, for all the vastness of America, Tomas and Edith, holed up in Campus View, had seen so little during their long stay in the States. They had gone outside the state only twice: once to Louisville to watch the Kentucky Derby and once to Chicago where they visited the Art Institute and the Museum of Natural History and went up the Sears Tower to marvel at the dark choppy waters of Lake Michigan that looked wide as the sea.
Tomas decides to call his wife, in her new home on the East Coast. The call does not go well; he feels himself begging. His wife says that perhaps she can take their daughter to visit Dumaguete. He falls asleep.
Later he woke up in the night, sweating, his left leg dead, his throat dry, as though he had been breathing through his mouth or pleading in his sleep. When he got up for a drink of water, tiny needles pricked his numb foot. He looked at his watch. Three o’clock. Outside the window, the world lay sleeping. Lights lined the streets, but in Campus View almost all of the apartments were dark. Only the insomniac in Apt. 511, pursued by some private demon, was still pacing the floors. Bluish shadows leaped and scuttled around his room. The rest were in bed, breathing quietly in the healing dark.
Can self tell dear blog readers how much she loves the writing here? The descriptions are so utterly precise, the tone so unrelenting and bleak.
Stay tuned, dear blog readers. Stay tuned.