Now, if you're a 38-year-old gay man who's in the thick of mourning for your father while also wrestling with a blizzard of unexpected hurdles (bagyo, baha, brownout, delayed family members, a postponed interment, plus the draining legal, funeral and church paperwork) and you are repeatedly asked that question by well-meaning relatives--many of whom you're meeting for the first time in your life--WHAT EXACTLY DO YOU SAY?
It's not that they mean to pry. They arrive at that question already fortified with a sense of goodwill and cozy sympathy, having spent the last hour or so pouring out their condolences, recounting freshly dredged up anecdotes about how your father did this and said that and helped whom and when they last saw him, and at every turn exclaiming how you reminded them so much of your Papa. Never mind that nearly as many would say you looked exactly like your Mama ("And where is she palan?" "Na-delay po ang flight," ad nauseam).
Then: "How old ka na baya, hijo?" "38? Wala ka pang balak mag-asawa?"
Beat. Ah... Bring out the simpering smile. Lower the pitch a notch. Assume the most casual air, hoping the white lie about to follow would sound the least bit persuasive.
"Wala pa ho. Mahirap mag-asawa sa Manila, busy pa." Geez. Lame. How about, "Uhm, haven't met the right person." ["Person" talaga?]. Or the more orotund, "Ako na rin ho ang head of the family, okay na yun." Argh, defensive to a fault; milady doth protest too much.
A decade or so ago I could still lob an unassailable answer: "Bata pa ho ako." Now, 17 months shy of 40, I've been robbed of the one plausible riposte for men in queer positions like me. Poor liar that I am, the other excuses masquerading as answers wouldn't convince even me.
The relatives detect the tightening in your breath, the look of panic in your eyes, the stiffening of your neck, the smarmy gritted-teeth smile. They get it--at least some of them do, you think. They shut up in sudden discomfort, a mirror image of your distress. Frisson in the air, as the French would say. Then they gaily launch into another round of reminiscing, the topic of marriage and a suitable girl for the suspiciously single guy in front of them totally abandoned.
This was exactly why I decided, at 24, to come out to my parents--to spare myself, and them, the burden of the Big Lie. How long could I use the excuse of youth to ward off questions about settling down every time a family gathering came along? Better to come clean now, I thought, and let the pink (no, mauve) chips fall where they may. My folks, bless them, took the news rather calmly, and left it at that.
Relatives and townmates, of course, are another matter--especially those you're meeting only now and who tend to be all over you when expressing their sympathies. The shared grief at occasions of death in the family only heightens the sense of instant familiarity, spawning awkward questions and tongue-tied moments. One aunt asked my petite older sister, among other things, what her bra size was. I'm not making that up. Well, at least she could trot out figures. What could I say in the case of my own interrogation?
More than once I got the urge to shock everyone out of their chatty mourning mode with a loud declaration: "But Auntie, I'm a bayot!" Or a fairy, a fag, a fruit, a nelly--take your pick. This is the province, where baying until now largely means frizzy hair and swishy hips and prettified faces. I, on the other hand, dress regularly, is semi-bald, has terrible eyebags from lack of sleep, and has not wept or crumpled in grief, at least not publicly.
The surprise would be delicious. I imagined Papa, with that spiky sense of the absurd from which mine came, would have laughed and approved of my moxie. He, too, had little patience for the roundabout, the guarded, the elliptical. He'd have loved the jolt of plain truth, and seeing his second kid--from childhood the sensitive, quiet, bookish one--preferring the straightforward to the obvious fib. And I'd be silencing the queries once and for all.
I didn't. Throughout, certain of what to say but monumentally unsure about how to say it, I kept my mouth shut. I feigned nonchalance, listened politely to the chatter, then excused myself to laugh bitterly in private at the surreal mortification I was going through.
Until now I've no idea what the proper answer is to The Question, especially given the circumstances of candles and and casket and occasional crying that accompanied it. Lifelong navel-gazer that I am, I am seldom rendered stammering or idiotic-sounding when it comes to talking about myself. This one did, every time.