I learned to read time when I was eight. My family had gone to the beach one Saturday, and I had elected to stay home. We had just seen “Jaws” (1975) a few weeks earlier. A leg underwater without a body, guts in the dismembered section as gnashed up as raw steak in a grinder, quelched my appetite for surf and sand. I was excited to be left alone. The housekeepers were at my beck and call, and all I called for from morning to dusk was munchies. The TV provided me adequate company: “Sesame Street,” Hanna-Barbera cartoons, and Filipino variety shows where the hosts would summon audience members to the stage to chaff.
Home was a mixture of design elements from a hacienda and a Disney mansion. A circular threshold in the veranda led to the garden, across of which stood a bamboo hut. A balustrade with Doric columns bordered the front porch. Cement walls were white, and the upstairs floor was wood. I spent the day in my parents’ room with a view of the driveway. Shingled roofs and windows to neighboring houses peaked out from high gates, and leaves on trees that lined the street were a collage of varying green hues against blue skies. Oscar the Grouch was never that grouchy, his garbage can of a lodging no more than a tin shield to an amiable heart. Scooby and his gang of teen sleuths proved that we kids could outwit any miscreant, any day. As crude as the jokes were on daytime TV about a game contestant’s age, weight, or height, no offense was taken. (Happiness, to the Filipino, is the modesty to laugh at oneself.) This was my childhood, life in a dollhouse.
Then came “Jaws.” The theater was packed. Viewers sat on the stairs, stood in the aisles and against the walls. I shared a chair with my father. Forget fire hazard regulations. A film that would define the word “blockbuster” was on screen. We were in the midst of history in the making. “Jaws” is scary and it is sexy. A man and a woman strip on the beach. The moon silhouettes their naked bodies. He falls on the dunes, into an intoxicated sleep, as she dashes into the ocean. Our shark lets its victim in on her fate by dragging her around in a carousel of intimidation, with occasional dips underwater. She screams. She cries. She’s a hot chick in deep shit. We all know a shark doesn’t treat a meal in this manner. It torpedoes towards its target and gobbles it up in one go. Then again, most sharks are not subject to the directorship of Steven Spielberg. The showman knows that to unleash an adrenaline rush he must tease the audience.
The opening scene to “Jaws” is box office foreplay.
“What time is it?” I would continuously ask the maids when half the day passed on the Saturday my family went beach rollicking. With every answer, I’d look at the clock on the night table, calculate the amount of rounds the short arm made and where the long arm was positioned in relation. The thrill of having to myself every room and a back yard pool diminished with every quarter minutes that elapsed. Made-up beds, empty chairs, and the air silent of the splashes and playful screams of a weekend swim instilled in me one thought: a shark. I couldn’t rid myself of the vision from “Jaws” of a leg sinking to sea bottom. It belongs to a father out boating with his son. In an earlier scene, a boy close to my brother’s age back then, 14, disappears as panicked beach revelers are summoned back to shore. All that remains of him is an inflatable raft adrift on reddening water, and with the boy as minced meat in a shark’s belly, his mother is left alone in a summer paradise turned hell, staring into the azure horizon as if, by a miracle, her only child would rise from its depths. Our bloodthirsty fish tears apart families. I wanted mine back.
Not only did I learn to read time that Saturday, but I also realized that the world could be a dangerous place, death possible at any moment, by any means, and without so much as a forewarning, I could be abandoned to fend for myself. I paced the living room, the kitchen, and the den, where hung pencil portraits of my brother, sister, and me. We were the first family to occupy the house. When we had moved in two years prior, it was near the end of its construction. Workmen in the dining area were putting the finishing touches to wall shelves. The aroma of paint wafted throughout, making me reel with its newness. Its pungency assured me that home and family were forever. We had returned to Manila from Tokyo. Back in the land of my birth, I discovered things I never knew exist. “Look, Mommy, tiny crocodiles,” I said of lizards on the bathroom walls. Cockroaches fly at ankle height, and the 7,000 islands cultivate 80 varieties of bananas. Every day was another chapter to a story in progress that I shared with mom, dad, brother, and sister. An ending was too soon.
Come back. Come back. Families must never suffer the senseless loss of a loved one. And yet, they do. We never know what news awaits us on TV, in a letter, or on the internet. We can be sure of one thing only, that the next disaster is an hour away. Malaysia Airlines is jinxed, so people say. In 2014, the company attracted global attention thrice with fallen commercial carriers that produced a combined fatality count of 699. Jyoti Singh Pandey, a 23-year-old woman, died after six men on a private bus in New Delhi sexually assaulted her with an iron rod, placing India in the spotlight in 2012 for its lax laws against rape. Just last month, a driver, allegedly drunk, plowed into spectators at the Oklahoma State Fair, killing a handful of people, including a three-year-old infant, and injuring 47 others. The woman was 25. “That’s not who she was. That’s not who I raised,” Floyd Chambers said of his daughter, Adacia, amid the media mania. “She was kind, caring. She loved music. She was a wonderful artist.” Too bad. None of the spectacular things her father claims her to be matters now.
The great white shark exists in different forms, whether at sea or on land. It can leap out of nowhere with the speed of a bullet, and in an instant, someone is dead – a sister, a cousin, an uncle… So that our parents and children be less wide open to danger, we have people like Police Chief Martin Brody (Roy Scheider) and Oceanographer Martin Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss) in “Jaws,” both who team up with shark hunter Quint (Robert Shaw), to put an end to the slaughters. They investigate aviation accidents, picket against the violation of civil rights, and penalize those who cause havoc at the wrong swerve of the steering wheel. Life is sacred because a life lost is a family’s loss.
Amity Island regains its reputation as a summer paradise. The sun smiles. The breeze sings. The ocean dances. Outside my parents’ window, a honk and a creak of the gate sent me into a spin. As the family car rushed up the driveway, I anticipated full chairs at the dinner table. The five of us would continue as before – Sunday church, sugar and melted butter on toast, “The Carol Burnett Show,” and karate lessons in the park. Every hour from dusk onward promised the security of the familiar.
This was 40 years ago. Today I reside across the Pacific, and my father walks with a cane. The head count at the dinner table on Christmas has increased to 11, and my mother turns 80 in three months. Placid as life has been through the decades, an undercurrent of trouble brews, a shark that threatens to snatch those I love whose days on earth grow ever more tenuous because of age and ailment. So be it. I hail from a sturdy stock. Come what may, the force of family will never die. It has embedded in me the ability to endure.