[travelogue] Coming Out of My Cage (And It Feels Just Fine)

A/N: Submitted this as an entry to World Nomads’ travel scholarship competition. I didn’t win, but it felt like a piece of travel writing worth sharing.

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It’s June.  The night is humid, glowing amber in the lights of Armenian Street.  I’m twenty-three, and girls much younger than me have done this before—wandered off at night in search of adventure—but I’d always been the “tame” one.  At home, they call me tita (aunty), lola (grandma). The girl whose idea of partying is having tea in bed after work.

Certainly not the girl who’d be rounding the corner of a graffiti-covered alley at half-ten at night, the remnants of a sangria buzzing in her blood.  But it was my last day in Singapore, and I’d found myself wanting to live a little.

Emphasis on a little.  There would be no shared drinks with strangers.  Instead, I was looking for new music, and Timbre at The Substation was supposedly the best place to find it.

Back home in Manila, I balanced a responsible, serious job as an agency strat planner with a self-proclaimed “career”—profitability be hanged—as a singer/songwriter for a rock band.  When my bandmates heard I was traveling to Singapore, they’d filled my head with stories of underground gigs with inspiring acts.  It was this promise that got me to wander a foreign city at the oddest hours of night.  I’d tried to find it in Clarke Quay, but the bands there sounded professional when I was looking for raw.  A quick Google search for “indie music gigs Singapore” pointed me in the direction of Timbre.  

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Several attempts at a cab ride later, I’m elbowing my way into the dark, open-air club, dodging a bunch of finance-looking bros nursing beers.  I grab a stool near the bar and, just as I catch my balance, there’s that familiar screech of an electric guitar being sound-checked.  Then, the mics crackle to life as a raspy mezzo-soprano (just like me) launches into the familiar first line of The Killers’ hit, Mr. Brightside.

Soon, it’s midnight. Though the sangria’s worn off, I might as well be drunk. I’m dancing in my seat, shout-singing along with those finance bros through a series of pop-rock hits. Later, I’ll notice my phone battery is dead.  Later, I’ll catch my first ever bus.  Later, I’ll huddle, scared, at a deserted taxi stand in a different part of town (How did I get here?!) until an off-duty cab takes pity on me and brings me back to my hotel.  

Later, I’ll wonder what possessed me to wander around at night, in an unfamiliar city. But, with rock music blasting from crackling amplifiers, later hardly matters.

For the first time, I’m coming out of my cage, and right now, it feels fine.

~aRT~

 

What’s In a Name?

Plenty of people hate (or at least, dislike) their given names.  It’s understandable.  As you grow and change, the name your parents gave you often stops feeling anything like the person you are, and so you default to a nickname that you feel better represents the person you’ve become.

This is not the case for me. I’ve been Frankie, essentially, since I was born. My mum gave me the nickname, deriving it from the 90s movie starring Michelle Pfeiffer and Al Pacino, an adaptation of Terence McNally’s play Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune.

For all intents and purposes, “Frankie” might as well be my given name.  But it’s not.  Instead, the name on my birth certificate is Francesca Nicole.  Francesca, pronounced (but never spelled as) Fran-ches-ka, is Latin/Italian, meaning “free one.”  Nicole, pronounced how it’s spelled (certainly it’s common enough not to be misspelled), is Greek-based, meaning “victory of the people.”  Both incredibly bold names, especially when considered together.  And I have no problem with Nicole; in fact, I plan to name my son Nicolas, after my maternal grandfather (which is where I get my name).

But I’ve never used–and will never use–Francesca. In fact, no one who really knows me, not even my mother when she’s upset (and you know it’s serious when even your parent won’t call you by that whole name when she’s mad), uses my first, given name.  The only people who do are people from my high school, which frankly only compounds the PTSD from that part of my life.

The reason? I hate my first name. And I promise it’s for a very good reason.

I remember hearing once, at a parenting seminar (I’m not sure why I was attending one of those), that the name you give your child represents the first blessing you want for them, sort of like how the fairies in Sleeping Beauty blessed Aurora with beauty and grace etcetera etcetera.  But if Aurora had Flora, Fauna, and Merriweather, I only had Maleficent: my dad, whose intentions were, if not less-than-pure, horribly misguided.

My dad and I don’t have a great relationship. I’m frank enough (hence, Frankie; good one, Mum) to admit that. While I want to love him, there’s a lot of childhood baggage stemming from his few appearances during my formative years (my parents split up when I was three; the annullment finalized when I was thirteen) that gets in the way. Part of this baggage is something he and I have in common: we say things without thinking. A lot.  It’s why I took to writing, because putting thoughts on a page forces me to go over them.  

Unfortunately, my dad isn’t as literarily inclined as I am (though he does fancy himself a critic, dismissing my fiction as “too verbose” at one point, which it probably is but like you aren’t the same, Dad). Where he does excel, however, is telling tall tales about my childhood. I call them tall because, well, let’s just say there are reasons to consider him an unreliable narrator. My dad’s memories have always been foggy and rose-tinted, at best. Even today, I’m not sure the story of how I got my name is actually true, but if the facts aren’t straight, at least the intention is, and the intention is all that matters in this case.

I’ll jump straight in: my dad named me for another woman.

Before I get accused of defamation, let me clarify: she wasn’t his mistress.  I’m not sure he was capable of having one, to be honest.  (He had girlfriends after he and mum split, but they never stuck around for long.) Instead, this other woman was an officemate, a law firm secretary, to be exact (Dad’s a licensed attorney).  By all accounts, he didn’t know her very well, but he seemed to be very…impressed (for the lack of a better term) by her.  Enough, at least, to take her name and give it to me.

Sounds innocent enough, until you get into the reason for why he was so impressed by this first Francesca.  From his own testimony–which, caveat, he probably won’t remember giving; like I said, his mind’s not completely reliable anymore–this Francesca was “…sweet, charming, very friendly. Not too bright, but everyone liked her.”

Whether or not the actual Francesca wasn’t bright is still in question, since it took my dad years to recognize that he couldn’t pull the wool over his Game of Thrones-watching daughter. What’s important is the fact that he thought she was so, and, by his own admission, this collection of traits was why he decided to give me the name Francesca.

Basically he wanted me to be sweet, charming, attractive, and not too bright.

(As if I needed any more reason to be proud of being an abrasive, antisocial cactus.)

Francesca is a beautiful name, with a beautiful meaning, and on any other girl I’d embrace it. But when it comes to me, that name comes loaded with my dad’s intentions: to have a docile daughter, a people-pleaser, an attractive and non-threatening little lady.  Everything I’m not, and honestly, don’t want to be.

Frankie and who I’ve grown to become have always been a good match.  I’ve tried re-nicknaming myself, for radio and college and a bunch of other things, but no name’s ever stuck quite as much as the one my mother gave me. Her intentions, I know, were better: among other things, the name Frankie sounded like Punky Brewster, a feisty, smart-alec of a kid with enough fighting spirit to survive whatever the world threw at her. Punky, based on the Wikipedia synopses and Youtube clips, was still quite a bit more likeable than I am, but she wasn’t likeable for likeability’s sake.  

No, she was likeable for being unapologetically herself.

Between my dad’s picture of the First Francesca and my mum’s image of Punky Brewster, it’s a no-brainer which one I’d choose.  I choose Frankie, every time, because with it comes my mother’s first blessings: courage, resilience, and the capacity to be unapologetically oneself, even if that self is very weird.  I am not, and refuse to ever be, that docile and pliable, non-threatening Maria Clara stereotype.

The fact is, I’ve always been Frankie, not Francesca. My legal first name is a person none of you–including myself–would recognize. No matter how much I’ve tried to hide it, or change it, or tone it down (well, at least the toning it down helped), I’m Frankie. I’m Frankie. 

And I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Tl;dr, seriously high school/Chinese community people, my name is Frankie Torres.  Stop trying to make Francesca happen; it won’t happen.

~aRT~

#LoveLettersToLiteraryCharacters: Henry Tilney

I was supposed to send this in to a Fully Booked contest, but I forgot. The Little Prince won, which hurts a bit because of…reasons and boys and boy-reasons.

But I still have this letter. And I hope you guys might like to hear a bit about why I love Henry Tilney.

~*~

#LoveLettersToLiteraryCharacters

My dearest, Henry,

Everyone chooses Darcy. Everyone swoons over brooding, stately, and passionate. And why shouldn’t they? Who doesn’t want to be the woman who unlocks that heart, that teaches that serious face to smile?

I don’t. I never did, Henry, not since you.

 When I first picked up Northanger Abbey, as a teenager in high school discovering Austen post-Pride and Prejudice required reading, I knew I was a goner. I was–still am, though perhaps I might be a bit of Emma Woodhouse too–Catherine: nervous, a little socially-shy, looking for a friendly face, if not a friend. And there you were, laughing and smiling and cracking jokes and making silly comments, willing to make yourself look like a half-wit if only to put a girl at ease.

From the first dance in the pump room, I knew you were special. No, you have neither the austere, irresistible arrogance of Darcy nor the constancy and charming good-sense of Knightley (another favorite), but how many men really do? No, instead you were everything a girl needs in a literary hero: kind, charming, and real. You are far from ideal–you were hurt when Catherine seemed to ditch you for that prat Thorpe, and snubbed poor Miss Morland the next time you saw her–but that’s part of why you are so charming. You act like a real person would be expected to act, and thus, is it not too far-fetched to believe that a real Henry Tilney might exist?

Perhaps it is. The truth, after all, was never meant to be as strange as fiction. But Henry, I hope it isn’t. I hope there is someone willing to be patient with me when my imagination runs away. I hope there is someone willing to laugh instead of scold when I’m being ridiculous. Not that I would mind the scoldings, Henry, really! Because when you do tell Catherine she’s being foolish, your words are gentle. You are, first and foremost, a friend teaching a friend.

I think that’s something the world has lost in the mad shuffle for finding love, Henry. Too often we look for brooding passion or the grand gesture, but yours and Catherine’s story, as dramatic as the ending is, had a workaday beginning: a boy meets a girl, doesn’t like her (at first), but through conversation and shared interests and, above all, friendship…feelings take root and grow. Real feelings, founded on a real knowledge of the person, instead of an Udolpho (or, in modern terms, Fifty Shades) fantasy.

Henry, more than anything, you are an amazing friend. You’d be someone I’d trust to have in my corner, and I’d be so honored to be in yours. Good sense, intelligent conversation, friendship, and a few fun flights of fancy…what more might anyone ask for? What more might anyone need?

Thank you for being an unconventional hero in the way that Catherine is supposedly an unconventional heroine. Thank you for that workaday love, that friendship set on fire. Darcy, for all his wealth and pomp and splendor, could never hold a candle to your laugh.

With love,

A Roaming Tsinay