One of my most vivid childhood memories is of 12-year-old me weeping alone in my room as The Animals’ “House of the Rising Sun” played softly in the background. For the first time in my life, somebody—'60s rock band though they were—understood and resonated with my internal struggle.
It’s been the ruin of many a poor boy
And, God, I know I’m one
My father was a gamblin’ man
Down in New Orleans
It was the morning after my sister’s 10th birthday, but her chiffon cake was left untouched, out in the cold. My mother, beaten and bruised at the hands of my father, was the furthest thing from untouched. She slept in the village clubhouse that night completely naked until a security guard found her, came back with a blanket, and implored her to file a police report.
You might be wondering what had happened the night before. Dad was so angry, he started kicking down the wooden door of the bathroom where my mother was showering—to this day, I can’t watch The Shining because that “Here’s Johnny” scene hits too close to home. He clutched the back of her head and slammed it repeatedly against the corner of our narra dining table. He took a piece of broken wood from our now-destroyed bathroom door and inflicted multiple wounds on her arms and thighs. He punched, kicked, slapped the living spirit out of her until she was devoid of the energy to scream for him to stop.
My dad was a monster, there’s no denying that. But my mom was a monster, too. My mother was the gambling man.
She was working on a cruise ship in Amsterdam when she found out she was pregnant with me. She could have killed me there in the Netherlands two decades ago, at the behest of her employers who were reluctant to see her go. She decided against it. The initial plan became to have me, and then leave me to be raised by my father’s side as she pursued greener pastures in Japan. But she held me in her arms and fell in love.
Chalk it up to the wrong friends. A long-distance marriage. In-laws who despised her. Hundreds of thousands of pesos sitting in a joint account with nothing to spend it on. Whatever the cause, my mother took to the one-armed bandit, and she couldn’t find the strength to let it go. It started out with 200 pesos per play, until she bumped it up to 1,000, 5,000, 10,000, 50,000...It was like a parasite that fed on her weak links until it chipped away at her core, and along with it the supposedly ironclad financial nest my father had been working so hard to build. And so, for the next half decade, while Dad was abroad rising up the ranks as a seafarer, my mother would spend days and days at the casino, planting the seeds of our eventual undoing.
I began to wonder why we didn’t have bacon for breakfast anymore. Eggs were better, she said, for our health and our savings. My neighbors would pull me aside and call my mother a dangerous woman. “She sold a fake deed to a house and ran off with the money.” “She owes us millions.” “She had two people killed.” But I was too young to understand. After 12 years in Cebu, my mother urged that we move to Manila. That city is too small for a wanted felon to stay hidden forever.
Manila was a fresh start until it wasn’t. Mom fell deeper and deeper into debt, and every year my dad would come home astonished that we were living extremely below our means. He would lay hands on her and they would scream at each other, but after a few days, they would play it off as if nothing was wrong. He knew about her addiction, but he loved her too much. Even as she accrued crime after crime. Even as she would steal money from her own children’s wallets. Even after we lost, by my count (and I have counted religiously all my life), 10 smartphones, 5 laptops, 2 DSLR cameras, 2 academic semesters (hating kapatid: one for me, one for my sister), 3 residential lots, 14 SUVs, over 15 million pesos, and the trust of countless family members, friends, and business partners. Their relationship was so excellently abusive, it was almost impressive. Well-meaning friends would joke, “Yan ang totoong pag-ibig!”
Last year, we nearly became homeless. The condo unit we had been living in for a month, I discovered, had not been paid for. My mother had emotionally manipulated the original owner into letting us move in without a deposit, because that’s the kind of scheming, conniving, morally bankrupt person she was. After I saw the eviction letter, I asked my mother how much money she had left.
“20,000,” she replied. Just days ago, she had 200,000, which my overly forgiving dad had wired to her account instead of mine.
We needed 75,000 or we’d be out on the streets. We have no family in Manila, and no friends who would lend us this much on short notice. My mother put her hands on my shoulders and said we had no other choice. We took the bus to a luxury casino in Pasay that same night.
I held P20,000 in chips in my hands like my life depended on it. Because it really fucking did. It fluctuated dangerously in the first few hours, but by some miracle, my mother was on fire that night. A crowd began to surround the table where she played baccarat. Slowly but surely, we came up with the money we needed for rent. I snatched the chips from her hands and cashed them in immediately. I made a promise to myself that that was the first and last time I was ever going to gamble.
As my siblings and I navigated our teenage years, the building blocks of our identities still impressionable, we had been overexposed to the radiation of our parents’ toxicity. My brother’s black humor and underhanded sexism is no coincidence. Neither is my sister’s severe depression and suicidal tendencies. As for me? I’ve gotten so good at being the strong panganay, the voice of reason, the real parent in the house, that I am no longer capable of feeling actual feelings. There appears to be no line between the act I put on amongst my peers to the hollow, cynical shell of a daughter I have become on the inside. Hardly anyone thought to ask me if I was okay. As a result, I conditioned myself to be okay by default. I have to be, because this is literally the only thing I know to feel.
That’s what happens when you see your father wrap his hands around your mother’s neck so hard, her skin turns blue. Or when your mother comes home, 100,000 pesos poorer, after spending 72 straight hours in a neon money suck with no windows so you can’t tell what time of day it is. Or when you see them holding hands and giggling in the front seats of the car, looking back at you incredulously as if to say, “Why aren’t you happy? Look, we are a family.”
I took it upon myself to shatter their suburban Stepford fantasy. I graduated with honors. I started working immediately. And I declared that I would be moving out. My siblings, who considered me their real mom and dad, declared the same. And our collective refusal to live in that toxic household opened my dad’s eyes to the truth. We scattered to the winds. My sister is studying in Cebu under the care of my dad’s side, and early next year, my brother is leaving the country to become a seafarer just like my father. My mother lives alone, subsisting on a minimum legally-required allowance. We haven’t seen her in months, and we plan to keep it that way. Financially, we are recovering in leaps and bounds. Emotionally, the relief we have all felt is priceless.
After 11 years, we finally sucked the poison out of our lives. That marriage brought out the worst in my dad. His behavior back then was equally inexcusable, but today he is taking steps to be the father we deserved from the beginning. Mom has shown no such intentions. None of us have any interest in getting married or having children. We’re too scared we’ll fuck them up the way our parents did with us.
Last night, my mom sent me a Facebook message. My dad, brother, and sister have her blocked. I am her only family left. She wished me well and hoped I was okay. “I still love you, baby,” she said. I stared at her empty words and hummed that same old Animals song as I watched my screen turn black.