by Arvin Mangohig
I hardly knew James. By the time I met him, his life was practically over, in the sense that he had decided upon his mission, his end, his own death to be witnessed by Sharon Cuneta. His decision carried within it all the impetus he needed to carry out his complex deathwish. I don’t know what long dark train of thought would lead him to such a choice, carried him through the mental wreckage of his difficult last month of stalking, of kidnapping, that impossible last week of preparing for his death before her very eyes.
I knew he was mad the moment I saw him. But to have desired her watch his freefall, Cuneta in restraints, her head unable to turn because of the three thick leather straps he had fastened across it, across her mouth so she could not scream, across her forehead, just her eyes showing, a type of Hannibal Lecter mask, eyes, forced into the shape of diamonds made of flesh, permanently opened by small steel grips suspended from the head gear he had nailed to the back of the chair, her eyelids stretched by the miniature clips, preventing her from blinking until I had removed them, and her famous million-peso tears falling down along with James’ body seven floors down, her tears mingling with his blood and saliva and brain matter.
His act had to be more than an individual’s mind collapsing under the weight of current celebrity culture. The pathology that moved him through, moved through him, could simply not be symptomatic of the formulaic decay of Filipino society. The act was to be, had to be, isolated from the Petri dishes of Manila’s undiscovered and undocumented underground cultures. It had had to have been created in the vacuum of his middle class loner’s madness. Even the anthropologists and sociologists at the nearby University of the Philippines Diliman campus where I taught were dismayed by the inexplicability of it all. It was so horrific even the poets of the campus were speechless.
The elaborateness of it suggested a Western serial killer’s obsession with details, a kind of ceremonies and rituals of death. On the other hand, his suicide spoke of a Filipino mea culpa streak, an Oriental leaning towards sainthood and suffering. It was a neurosis on a grand scale, or at least one wishing for a grand stage. Except that in the total summing up of his plans’ minutiae he would be both the murderer and the victim and she the witness. Supposedly the only witness. Except that I was there too.
He moved in exactly a month before his death. His unit was adjacent to mine, on the west side. Only after I read his stalker’s notebook did I realize that everything he did followed a schedule, everything regarding the week of her abduction, was in a planned timeline as elaborate as the star’s schedule. Day Thirty, his moving in to Day One, his fall.
Of course, not as elaborate as her former schedule. After her semi-retirement from show business, Cuneta’s life fell into a more regular pattern, which all the more made easier James’ abduction of her. Two days after his moving in, James had written down an entry in his notebook: December 8: her Christmas shopping. Blue caftan, black pants.
All the entries were written in heavy pencil. His handwriting slanted dramatically to the right, as if the letters were speeding to the edge of the page, speeding after his brain. Some were almost parallel to the lines. The consonants hardly had closure. One of suspicious nature would readily doubt the mental state of the writer. At a deeper level though, one also doubted if the handwriting pointed much too obviously at such a state.
Pressed between the page was a photograph of Cuneta, in the same outfit he described, skin a brilliant white, eyes flaming fiery red-orange. I do not know if it was he who had taken the picture. The peculiar angle of the photograph suggested it. I pictured James’ hidden camera’s flash coming from out of nowhere, coming from the bulb pressed tightly to his pounding chest.
On December 6, James knocked on my door for the first time. He was moving in to the last vacant unit of the seventh floor, the one beside mine. He needed help lifting some of the boxes which had been left by the moving men, upon his instruction, at the lobby.
It was my day off, unluckily, and could do nothing but help. Saturdays my brain functioned on low power and I could not think of an excuse from being good neighbor
My phobia of madmen tingled as he shook my hand and introduced himself.
“James De Vera.” Slightly balding, late twenties, medium build.
“Francis Ong.” Not balding, late twenties, of slight build.
My nose started to itch, as it does when I pass madmen on the streets. I would walk away from them, my senses abuzz. My phobia had developed in me something akin to spider sense. I scratched my nose after the handshake. On my hand, I detected the scent of newly-sharpened pencils. He looked at me as if he knew what I was thinking, recognizing in his eyes the dark spark of lunacy. His haircut though reminded me, strangely enough, of lawyers.
I spent the whole afternoon helping him carry stuff to the seventh floor, consciously keeping myself at arm’s length from him, avoiding meeting him as he climbed the stairs and I came down. The bulk of the work, the heavy furniture, had already been done by the moving men. But the smaller stuff, in boxes, were left to us. I watched him surreptiously while pretending to rest among the boxes. Nothing happened. I was beginning to wonder if my radar for madness had failed me for the first time. However, casually sorting through a very large box, I found a framed poster of Sharon Cuneta.
“Hello. You must be a big fan,” I said, lifting it out. It seemed to be a print from Bituing Walang Ningning. The big concert scene, I thought.
“Yes.” And then, in a flash, James had taken the poster from me and was hanging it up on the dining room’s empty wall. I walked up to him as he was trying to find the poster’s balance spot. He was looking up at her eyes, magnified at least five times, big enough so you could see the camera’s flash inside her dark pupil. I could hear him breath deeply, as if he was inside me.
“She’s so beautiful. Beautiful…”
He spoke this under his breath. His lungs heaved hard. I was looking at him sideways. Something in the way he had said the word sparked my suspicions again. Something in it had reminded me of another madman, another madness resulting from obssession.
I realized who it was. It was Gollum and the ring. It was too much. I made an excuse and walked out slowly. I could feel his eyes burning the back of my neck like two cigarettes.
The next few weeks I avoided James. Aside from his erratic schedule of leaving and coming home, nothing else suggested anything wrong with him. He was quite civil and curt when we bumped into each other in the elevator or the condominium lobby. Nanette Corpuz, the single single female on our floor, thought him quite cute. So did Joey and Charles, the gay couple across the hall from me.
They showed no interest in my observation of James. Nanette had laughed, neighing like a horse, when I suggested, insisted rather, that there was something wrong with him. We were eating dinner, me, Nanette and Joey and Charles, al fresco at the restaurant on the first floor of our building.
“Francis, you’re so cruel naman . Don’t you think you can do better things than make sira our neighbors?”
Nanette laughed again as she blew smoke into our table’s blue umbrella’s convex recesses.
“Besides, my sister went mad. I should know if James was too, you know.” She had said the comment in a manner which insulted me, so lightly tossed off, in the way the unthinking, un-self-possessed yuppie masses of Manila always offended me.
I turned to Joey and Charles. “Do you guys believe that some people can detect madness?”
“You mean like gaydar?” Joey offered brilliantly. Charles and Nanette snickered wildy.
“Yes! Exactly like gaydar!” I said.
At this, Joey became indignant and batted his eyelashes. His voice was all inflections.
“But Francis, that only works on the principle that ‘It takes one to know one.'”
That shut me up for the rest of the evening, my nose perfectly fine, not becoming itchy at all.
December 31st, Nanette came knocking on my door. Her permed hair seemed as frantic as she was. I was still groggy as she pulled me into her apartment. Her television was on.
The announcer from Channel 2 repeated something. “Police have confirmed that film actress Sharon Cuneta indeed has been kidnapped by an unknown man or men. Details …” There was a splitscreen of the announcer and the Pangilinan residence. I wondered at the label Cuneta was described with. I was debating with myself, the closet Sharonian, thinking that she was much more, deserved more than that title when I saw Nanette violently crossing herself. She kissed the artsy crucifix that hung around her neck. Her eyes were fluttering deliriously during the long kiss. She grabbed my arm all of a sudden. The pudgy pressure of her fingers on my arm woke me up like coffee. Her eyes were livid with spidery veins, like a madman’s.
“You see! You see! Those are the madmen we should be worried about! Diyos ko!” She screamed as if her soul or her aparment was burning. Joey and Charles, both still in boxer shorts, ran through the door. I made my escape into the hallway as she filled them in.
The elevator ding-ding ed. James stepped out, carrying two plastic bags of McDonald’s.
“Yes.” James walked past me. He avoided eye contact.
“Heard the news? Your idol has been kidnapped.”
There was a pause as he fished for his keys at the door. He looked at me almost with desperate eyes. I scratched my nose. He was waiting for me to disappear into my unit. But I made a feigned attempt at cleaning my door. I turned slightly to dust my unit’s number I saw James disappearing quickly through the threshold.
Of course, the office was gripped by the news. Channel 2 devoted hourly updates, which were mostly reactions of friends and family. A surprisingly touching interview of her senator husband. A phone patch interview from Paris to daughter KC. There was no actual news about the case. Real, solid news, I’ve always thought, was foreign to local television. She was last seen by her Yaya Luring and a driver who had been both knocked unconscious. This was in a parking lot of one of the nightspot strips of Quezon City, near ABS CBN’s compound. When the two awoke, Cuneta was gone. Only one of her shoes was left, a kind of ironic Cinderella signage to her fairy tale life.
Shots of her house alternated with shots of the location of her abduction. Film clips, show clips, and pictures of the actress in happier days were all that could be seen.
By noon, the city was in an abduction fever. Lesser, minor stars, fearing for their safety, had reportedly holed up in their secret residences, afraid that their stalkers would come for them. Fans shrieked in man-on-the-street interviews, gesticulating wildy, slapping the innocent air. It was melodrama for real.
That the New Year celebrations were to be overshadowed by the abduction was beyond me. Manila had gone mad. Or had it always been this way? Joey and Charles had decided to forego their yearly dinner and were solemnly glued to the tv. Nanette joined them, glumly cooking just one dish, a pasta thingy with pale mushrooms. Even the fireworks seemed to not want to partcipate, exploding halfheartedly across the sky. The inutile police force was blamed for the partypooping. I went home, grabbed the nearest book by my bed and fell asleep in the uneasy New Year stillness.
On January 5, the day before Cuneta’s birthday, a raid in a Pasay warehouse yielded no sign of the star. The police again looked dumbfounded, their irritating sound bites in stupid English forcing me to turn off the tv. I decided to finish off the bottle of white wine Joey and Charles had given as a New Year present. I stood on my tiny, tiny balcony. Seven floors up, the air was quite cool.
All throughout this pandemonium, I had unusually thought little of James. The crime had shifted my paranoia. I had also seen very little of him the past few days. I leaned out of the balcony and looked at his window to my left. The moon shining down on the facade of our building caught something flashing on James’ windowsill. It looked like a fish fin glinting yellow in the equally metallic light.
I turned, headed for his door.
I knocked once.
Strange sounds came through the door before James opened it barely halfway. Air rushed outside. I smelled something sourly feminine inside, like strong perfume left unwashed on skin for days. Beads of sweat studded James’ wide forehead.
“Hello. There’s something wrong with your window.”
From the hallway I could hardly see the window. I wanted to see the window.
James turned to the window too, almost nonchalant. Emboldened by the wine, I leaned forward into his unit. I felt like the proverbial soap opera contravida as I craned my neck, sensing, knowing that someone was behind the half-opened door.
Something made me lose my balance. I tumbled inside and I saw Cuneta, bound and gagged, facing the wall, eyes wide. James was holding her up with an arm around her shoulder. The heft of her body and shape of her face was unmistakable but it took a few slow moments for the whole truth to dawn on me. James rushed at me, right arm swinging down. Blackness seemed to follow him from above, a huge umbrella of dark.
When I came to, all was silent. I was numb and could not move. I too had been bound and gagged. The ropes were already eating at my wrist. James had removed the window glass and had already hoisted Cuneta, strapped in a chair of metal that was leaning at a forty-five degree angle, on the window sill. The chair was yellow.
The head brace had been nailed to the chair’s high back. I could see the points of the nails, three on each side, glinting in the moonlight. The brace’s special apparatus for keeping her eyes open James had used was three little alligator grips for each eyelid, the ones I had used for high school Science electricity experiments. For fear of Cuneta’s eyes drying out because she would not be able to blink for a few minutes, James kept spraying water right in front of her.
The chair itself was bolted firmly into place by a series of vises that grabbed both at the chair’s leg and the wall. It would not fall. The Third World makeshift-ness of the contraption stirred something like pathos in me, the way an elaborate slambook of a fanatic, with tabloid clippings in newsprint, would. This element also gave it the appearance of unbalancedness, an actual objective correlative of James’ mental state: over the edge, put-together, utterly haunting.
Cuneta squirmed in spite of the chair holding fast, a natural, prehistoric acrophobia making her breath jaggedly through her gagged mouth. This while the eye grips prevented her from blinking away at the horror she was about to view and suffer from for life. James climbed onto the window sill. He sat on the sill as if weighing his options still, an undecided yet already deranged Humpty Dumpty. And then he hugged her with all four limbs. The weight of two people did not faze the vises at all. They held steady.
From where I was, James de Vera and Sharon Cuneta at side view, I noticed James’ penis fully erect, almost bursting through the flat front of his pants, the buckle about to give in to the pressure of the erection. He was quite hung. Joey had been right.
I had heard that men who knew they were about to die, men on death row, men facing a firing squad, suffered from this erection of fear.
But the sexuality of the way he hugged her could not be denied. It was not as innocent as that of a death erection. This symbolic, unenacted rape of Cuneta was what most ravished my sense of security. More than the emotional raping or the psychological ransacking, this destruction of her public virginity ensured the ruin of her image of incorrigible sweetness.
I thought for a moment that James was humping Cuneta. But no. It was the wind blowing through their clothes that produced this hallucination.
Her freezeframed widened eyes met James’ dark ones in a final visual embrace. Her eyes became a kind of video compact disc, recording in essence the last moments of a man’s life. In their dark unspinning pupils, did he see the traces of the movie emotions faked and felt and faked again for every sequence, every shot they were filmed in? Did he, so up close and personal at last, see himself in the drying membranes, his two reflections fading away with the optic moisture?
Finally he let go.
The commotion caused by his fall ensured that we would be rescued. The condominium security guard was dumbfounded at the scene. I had removed my gag and barked for some water. The guard ran for the ref in a daze, released me and gave me the glass of water. I pulled the straps from Cuneta’s face. She gurgled. Some of the water had dribbled onto her face. I could hear the sirens slipping into the aural underwater atmosphere of the moment. I released her eyes from the clips. The eyelid flesh was raw and you could see where the teeth had been. Six red dots on the membrane.
James had recorded it. A small handheld camera securely taped to the wall had caught his death. For the next months of the new year, the footage became the most widely played on national television, video fodder equivalent to the magnitude and majesty of the 9/11 bombings. Some even saw James’ as more significant, ultimately more symbolic than the phallic fall of the two burning towers, a castration of capitalism. Whereas the catastrophe elicited public reaction when first seen, James’ death produced something internal, a private epiphany. It was life-changing to see someone clinging to Sharon Cuneta for dear life. Or for death. In a fascinated silence, the images altered Cuneta, ultimately altered you. Whenever I see the video clip I try to determine once and for all if James did dry hump her, a few jerks of his hip, a sexual biting of his lip from pleasure. But I never could.
In the end, James had done the impossible, dimming the brightest light in Philippines show business of the last twenty years, overshadowing it with the double cloak of the madness of scandal and the scandal of madness. The sheer magnitude of the national emotional roller coaster that lasted for a week leading up to her January 6 birthday was too huge that even Cuneta’s celebrity became merely a star in the constellation of the experience. Her star power amazing, but utterly altered by James’ life and death, it diminished almost to the point of a footnote. The legacy of her films and music was eternally colored and charged by the anti-matter of his pathology. While one listened to her songs, one saw her strapped, gagged and silent or singing through the cloth.
The one thing I had stolen from the scene of the crime was his notebook. In utter boredom with my life, I take it out of my desk and read it again like a well-loved classic. I take out the picture of Sharon Cuneta in her blue caftan and black pants. Her red lips are slightly parted as if caught in mid-sentence. It has become my favorite photograph of her.