by Leo Baltar

I never set foot in our home for six months. It was my own choice. I moved out last year and decided to live with a close friend I had known since high school. In a time of a pandemic, it might strike someone as odd to move out, especially when the government is keen on reminding people to stay at home (if there is a home to stay in in the first place). But I had to do it, even if it was just temporary, to keep the last piece of sanity I was barely holding on to at the time. 

I moved out because I could no longer endure the gnawing apprehension of having to live in an unbearable place that was our home and deal with the people in it. In fact, at the start of the year, I had a heated argument with two of my brothers, who were terribly drunk during that time. I had just woken up before the altercation ensued, so one could imagine how bad the timing was. It happened near the kitchen sink while I was trying to clean my face. I could no longer recall the root of the argument, or perhaps that traumatic moment was already buried deep in my subconscious that I couldn’t care less. I could only remember what my brothers said. Words I never expected would come from the people I call my family. “Nag-UP ka lang, akala mo ang taas-taas mo na,” one of them said. Hell, he was good at rubbing it in. “Ganito ka lang kaliit, ganito lang,” he shouted at the top of his lungs while using his fingers to demonstrate how small of a person I was to him. “Akala mo may narating ka na,” my other brother would later say. 

It’s ironic how they relentlessly use this remark against me whenever we disagree over something yet claim how proud they are of me for making it to UP, boasting it in front of their friends during their drinking sessions. Aware of the fact that I could never win against them, I only let out some swear words. That and dead silence. I only managed to shed tears when I was already in the bathroom. Indeed, what a way to welcome the new year.  

That same day I made up my mind to move out. But it took me a couple of days to ask my close friend Saimon if I could live with him for a while. I saved some money at the time for doing freelance work. I’ve been supporting myself ever since I began college. For some reason, I didn’t bother to ask my family for help. It was not pride. I was simply aware that my parents couldn’t provide for my studies, while my siblings, who were already working, had their own lives that, one way or another, excluded me. I was OK with it.

When I finally moved out, there was a sense of relief because, for the first time in my life, I no longer needed to stay inside my dark, small room and contemplate how our home never really felt like one. Of course, it wasn’t easy, especially for my mother. She was the only one who helped me pack my things. She even gave me her lone suitcase where I stored my belongings. When I had already gotten onto the tricycle and was about to leave, I saw her standing outside our gate, earnestly looking at me; tears welling in her eyes. I had never seen that profound sadness on her face before. As the trike’s engine started, I tried not to look back because I knew it would only break my heart, and, days after settling in, it did. 

Saimon and I lived in a one-story house with a single room. It was situated within a compound owned by his grandmother with four other houses, where his other family members lived, and a separate row of rooms reserved for tenants. Saimon offered me the lone room. It was not that huge, but I felt more space staying there. During my first night, I struggled to fall asleep because everything dawned on me only at that moment. In hindsight, I ask myself if the decision to move out is just a rush of uncontained emotions.

Saimon and I were best friends in high school, and although the BFF label changed, we stayed in contact throughout the years. We are the type of friends that don’t talk much online but still deeply connect in person. I think that’s healthy because it doesn’t put too much pressure on our shoulders. So I thought living with Saimon would be smooth sailing. But I still had to adjust, which was not his fault. Living with him taught me to compromise and communicate better, especially when we had disagreements. I’ve been so used to bottling up my emotions that I tend to isolate myself in times of conflict. Slowly, I outgrew this. Every dinner time, we shared the table and talked about how our day was. Sometimes our conversations would last until 2 a.m., articulating our thoughts about a song by Ariana Grande, a book we both read, our career frustrations, the dysfunctional Duterte regime, the perpetual question of the end of the pandemic, anything under the sun. I never had those kinds of conversations in our home.

In a sense, staying away from my family for all those months allowed me to discover something new about myself. I broke out of my writing slump and began to craft poems again. I submitted them to literary journals. Some of them got published, and some of them didn’t. But that was OK. I even joined a poetry writing contest and won. Then I started reading again and realized how much I missed it. Every book I consumed brought me back to memory lane. They reminded me why I dreamed of becoming a writer, however uncertain the future may seem. I just wish our country had more public libraries than malls because access to literature remains scarce in the Philippines. I also discovered the beauty of cinema. I watched and watched until my eyes bled. I would often see the movies with Saimon or with our friend Divine whenever she would come over and spend quality time with us. I also wrote about my viewing experience, thanks to Letterboxd. Cinema, it occurs to me, is a space that allows us to understand ourselves and others better.

This pandemic had stolen so much from us that we had already forgotten the things we used to love doing, the things we treasure the most. I reclaimed those things, and I had never felt more alive. Moving out taught me to be more independent. I paid my bills, washed my clothes, and prepared my own food. It opened me to things I thought I never could achieve on my own. It enabled me to appreciate the value of taking good care of oneself. Most importantly, it helped me find another reason to carry on amidst this time of abject precarity. Maybe what we all need is a fresh start, but I know this sentiment also comes from a place of privilege. Moving out made me realize that it was alright to move past the people or things that held us back, even if it was our own family. Healing not only takes time but courage as well. 

Unfortunately, those six months, which felt like the longest I invested time for myself, came to an end. Saimon and his family got infected by COVID-19. I was the only one who tested negative. Since the family wanted to isolate themselves due to complications experienced by Saimon’s grandmother, I had no choice but to return to our house right after I finished my 14-day quarantine. Just when I thought I was already in a better place, I was back in the hellhole and again forced to confront the trauma. I wonder, what is it with life that keeps surprising us?