Jen’s Tito owns a pool hall. I did not know that. Jen hadn’t told me much of anything, and that first full day in Iloilo was full of surprises.
After taking my first tabo bath in six years, and eating breakfast, our party of twelve – eight adults, 4 babies – piled into Jen’s Kuya’s minivan to round-up the rest of her relatives. There was no AC, so we opened all the windows, the wind blasting my face as we sped down the main road, under the blistering midday sun. Out of the window, the countryside of Oton whizzed by. The greenery was a welcome remedy to the largely grey and dull concrete jungle of Metro Manila. I saw cows, karabaw, and chickens in a field, who each had a little wooden shelter, like miniature versions of Eeyore’s house, for shade. I’m a country boy at heart, and seeing provincial life on this island warmed me as much as the tropical sun.
When we got into town, it was all narrow streets lined by sari-sari stores and food stalls, colourful banner ads strung high on their facades. Construction slowed us to a crawl, as parts of the road was being repaired.
We made it to the coast. At gaps in the trees and houses I could see children and families frolicking in the surf. The car made a right turn down a sandy lane just wide enough for our vehicle to inch through, finally arriving at the house of one of Jen’s relatives – her uncle, she informed me, after we had alighted. After I was introduced, I stood around awkwardly as everyone spoke energetically to Jen, then five minutes later we piled back into the car and head to the next destination, which ended up being the pool hall.
I was glad to be indoors; the sun unable to penetrate far into the pool hall, it’s unglazed windows allowing what little breeze there was to slink through. With 8 people in the car, the open windows had barely quelled the tropical heat; my leg was slick with sweat where it had been leant against Jen’s. I also felt more relaxed in the hall. Though I stood out, people were too occupied to give me the stares I usually got when out on the street. Plus, I was with the owner’s niece. I didn’t need to feel so self-conscious.
Around us, many young adults in white naval uniforms, apparently from a nearby college, were playing pool. Others were sat at the computers in the corner. One guy with no shirt was watching anime. Another pair played NBA 2K on the Xbox.
Jen’s Tito handed me a glass bottle of Sprite and a pool cue, and set up the table. A boy of about seven took up a cue and proceeded to break. Apparently I was playing against this kid, and the kid was good. He was pocketing balls left and right, sometimes using only one hand when he couldn’t lean over the table. I hadn’t played pool in years, but I couldn’t help feel a little sad about being destroyed by a small child.
“Who is this kid?”, I wondered aloud.
“That’s my cousin”, Jen informed me.
So he was the owner’s son. No wonder he was so good. We played a few more frames and by the end he was giving me handicaps and coaching me on where to strike the ball, my performance clearly warranting sympathy.
Lunch was served, just as I was starting to feel the hunger pangs one gets after an hour of sucking at pool. We sat down with Jen’s grandparents, who were preparing oysters fresh from the ocean to eat with rice, and though it was my first time trying them I savoured the brine-soaked slime balls as I hadn’t eaten in hours.
Jen and I were bored with Pool, so we took her super tubby, super energetic nephew to get ice cream, then sat down by the fan when we returned. Her young cousin/my new pool coach appeared to be interested me, asking copious questions:
“Where did you get your shoes? Your hat? Your glasses? Your phone?”
He didn’t seem to care about the answers; he just wanted to talk. He also took a photo of me, for which I posed with an awkward smile, my posture slightly hunched, not sure how to handle all the attention. A few days later, Jen showed me that he’d uploaded it to his Facebook.
For the last half hour, we were tasked with babysitting – mainly making sure that the two babies, Jen’s cousin and nephew – her younger sister’s second child – stayed sound asleep. Jen was ready to pass out too, laying on a mattress on the floor, her right arm raised to shield her eyes from the light, as my pool coach and I sat with our phones, making use of the wi-fi.
Jen and I joked that this was a snapshot of what her life might have been like had she never moved to England: a young mother of two before she was truly ready, depleted of energy, possibly married to a cheating bastard.