Tag Archives: pinoy

The Punisher’s Paradise

11 Mar

Contrary to type, one city in the southern Philippines is known for its clean environs, low crime rates and roguish mayor. But some question whether the ends justify the means.


If you are doing an illegal activity in my city, if you are a criminal or part of a syndicate that preys on the innocent people of the city, for as long as I am the mayor, you are a legitimate target of assassination.” – Mayor Rodrigo ‘Rody’ Duterte

Davao is not your typical Southeast Asian city. The air is clear and the pace relaxed. The Philippines’ customary – and customised – SUVs, motorbikes and iconic jeepneys queue calmly on the roads, freezing at crossings and edging slowly off the mark when the light goes green. Pedestrians stroll patiently on spotless pavements. Nobody in sight smokes or drinks due to an outdoor ban on these vices. After dark there is little nightlife in Davao, and all bars and liquor stores shut at 1am.

Such an orderly way of life has much to do with the stringent governance of the current mayor of Davao, Rodrigo S. Duterte, commonly known as Rody. His most controversial policy is what some call a “zero tolerance approach to crime”. Others, particularly human rights activists, prefer to term it an “endorsement of summary executions”.

From time to time, the peace and quiet of Davao City is disrupted by groups of men in baseball caps pulling over on motorbikes and stabbing or shooting a known criminal, often a drug dealer or juvenile recidivist. According to Amnesty International, about 1,000 people have been executed in this fashion since 2001, when Duterte came to power.

While “The Punisher”, as he’s been dubbed by Time magazine, denies any personal responsibility for these murders, Duterte’s public remarks make it clear as a bullet to the head where he stands on what is known as the Davao Death Squad. On his weekly TV show he told any lawbreaker watching: “You will not survive; you can leave either vertically or horizontally.” To the Philippine Inquirer he said: “Criminals have no place in the city, except in gaols, detention centres and, God forbid, in funeral parlours.” When questioned about an infamous rice smuggler, Duterte answered in homage to film director Sam Peckinpah: “Just bring me the head of Ryan Yu.” The local press have nicknamed him ‘Duterte Harry’. 

However, Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch, alleges that Duterte’s administration goes further than mere verbal threats – policemen and government functionaries are thought to train and arm death squad members, help them compile hit lists and tip them off as to the whereabouts of the target. The killers act with relative impunity thanks to a lackadaisical and complicit police force, as well as witnesses who are too terrified to testify, according to Roth.

So how does Duterte – a former human rights lawyer no less – get away with advocating the extrajudicial killing of his own constituents, some of them no older than 14? One answer is his broad popularity.

Luis H. Francia, adjunct professor of Asian American studies at Hunter College, New York, met Duterte in the early 1990s. “A lot of Filipinos like Rody’s charisma and they believe he brought down the murder rate,” he says. “People see him the way that, say, Wyatt Earp [a wild west lawman] would have been seen in Tombstone, Arizona.”

Moreover, Duterte’s fans span the political spectrum: from arch-conservative senators in Manila to Jose Maria Sison, the exiled leader of the communist New People’s Army. Duterte is also a shrewd politico, winning over those liberals and leftists who object to his stance on crime with other, more progressive social and environmental policies. In defiance of big business, he has banned mining across Davao City, “because it destroys our land and our forests”, and has created initiatives to modestly improve the health, education and social mobility of Davao’s poorest inhabitants.

Equally crucial is that many locals are inclined to agree with Duterte because they see a certain logic in vigilantism. The use of guns to settle disputes and vendettas is not uncommon in the Philippines, a nation where 3.9 million citizens own firearms and that ranks 25th in the world for per capita shooting crimes. Mistrust of the official justice system – blighted as it is by abuse, corruption and ineptitude – is pervasive. The law-abiding poor suffer the most from unchecked criminality and some are grateful for what Rudy Encabo, head of Davao’s Public Safety and Security Command Centre, calls “the rest-in-peace solution”.

Alfredo P. Torreo, a Davao taxi driver who works 48-hour shifts to support his family of seven, recalls the evening he got home to find that the gang who’d been terrorising his slum neighbourhood was no more. “One day they were there trying to sell drugs to my kids and beating up my friends, and the next [they were] gone,” he says. “It was a big, big relief for me to have this problem no longer.”

The question remains whether Davao’s extreme form of violent ‘justice’ simply engenders more violence. Encabo argued that the death squad has made Davao the most peaceful city in the archipelago. “We have had very low crime rates for the duration of the mayor’s terms of office,” he says. “Davao is surrounded by the troubled areas of Mindanao so it is critical that we keep our city safe for our people and for tourism.”

Kenneth Roth’s findings, however, are quite different. “Contrary to expectations, the Davao Death Squad has not reduced crime,” he writes in the Far Eastern Economic Review. “In the decade since [the squad] began operating, crime in Davao City has mushroomed ten times faster than the population.”

There is also a stench of hypocrisy about Davao’s ruling officials – who the local media accuse of misappropriation of public money, pork barrel scams and downright theft – engineering the deaths of penniless and powerless individuals who hold up 7-Elevens and pickpocket tourists.

As Red Constantino of the human rights group International Accountability Project puts it: “People who applaud extrajudicial responses to crime are the same people who will demand due process when it is their turn to feel the state’s boot on their neck.”

Whatever the impact of the death squad on Davao, crime will endure until the conditions of the most disadvantaged are radically improved and those on both sides of the law toe the same line.

“Real toughness can be found not in the person with the unholstered sidearm,” says Constantino, “but among officers and citizens determined to end the culture of impunity with the comprehensive, consistent application of the rule of law.” 

Originally published in Southeast Asia Globe (03/2015)

The Coconut Game

21 Jun

When I tell people that I still think of Doni as my best friend they laugh at me. ‘You haven’t seen or heard from him for six months,’ they say, ‘you don’t know a thing about him now.’ I tell them that that doesn’t matter. The important thing is that I still love him in spite of what happened and whatever he now thinks of me. Furthermore, I’m an idealist and my insistence that he is still my best friend is more a statement of hope than of fact, about how I’d like things to be rather than how they have turned out.

I first met Doni when we were 10 years old on a trip to Saud Beach, Pagudpud my family had organized for the long Bonifacio Day weekend. Doni came as a guest of a cousin I didn’t get along with. What brought us together that day was our distaste for playing with the other kids. Doni summed up the reason for this later on in our friendship when he said, ‘Well Carlos, we just don’t fit into teams or groups. We’re not ‘club-able’.’ So when it was time to pick teams for a basketball game under the palm trees, Doni and I found ourselves on the sidelines, the odd ones out. I guess it was natural that we should get talking. We decided to slip down to the beach, aware of the adults watching us from the picnic area where they were cooking barbecue on big black grills. At the water’s edge we invented a new game that was so challenging that, looking back, I don’t know how two 10-year-olds ever thought they could win it. The aim of the game was to throw a coconut far enough into the ocean so that it would be sucked away by the tide forever. In reality, though, our young arms were barely strong enough to pick up the lead-heavy fruit, much less pitch it beyond the first few meters of gleaming water. But we didn’t mind losing. It didn’t annoy us the way the kids behind us might have got annoyed about, say, missing a layup. On the contrary, we found this pitifully one-sided battle of man – or rather boy – versus nature hilarious; after three rounds of the game, we were contorted with laughter. Doni started doing this mad little dance while holding one coconut between his legs and balancing another on his head. I have no idea what the adults made of this. They must have thought we’d gone crazy. When it was time to go eat lunch, I remember Doni’s sudden change of mood as we headed back. His jagged brow and forced half-smile spoke of self-consciousness, even shame.

We sat together on the bus back to Cubao. I marveled at everything outside so much that Doni asked me if I were in fact a foreign tourist and not the Filipino I looked and sounded like. I commented on the candy colors of colonial houses and the lanterns swinging from domed chapels, saying that I could imagine the ghosts of Spanish conquistadors roaming such places at night. Doni nodded and said that that would be a great premise for a videogame. He then started talking about many of the videogames that were popular at the time, analyzing their design, playability, graphics and generic traits with a technical knowledge that was truly precocious. Not all that interested in the subject, I semi-listened to him, just about staying in the conversation with the occasional murmur of agreement. I was more interested in the scenery, in the low-hanging stratum of clouds flecking the horizon like sea-spume. When night had filled in the day, the sparks of peasant fires burst out of that same horizon, illuminating a space in the darkness above. With the same authority, Doni discussed other aspects of technology such as his favorite cars, motorbikes and airplanes. He went quiet when he realized that he didn’t have my undivided attention.

It was not until we came back to Pagudpud ten years later that we thought of the unimaginative title the ‘Coconut Game’. We were college freshmen, Doni majoring in computer science at Ateneo, me studying art at New York University. We’d been crawling from bar to bar all day, chasing SMPs with Fundadors, and trying less successfully to chase women. It had been the happy drunken day I’d hoped for, with Doni telling some good jokes and captivating me with his current intellectual passions, chief amongst them the Human Genome Project. Me being an artist and Doni a scientist meant that we complemented each other well, we filled in each other’s gaps. There would never be envy or competition between us.

In the late evening, Doni started talking about Ateneo. Not being ‘club-able’, he couldn’t fit in there, felt like he had nothing in common with his fellow students. He didn’t so much moan about this situation as lament it. I have always been naturally upbeat – certainly compared to him – so I offered a pep-talk. ‘Don’t worry about it. You’re good fun to hang out with. You’re smart, you’re funny. Besides, maybe you just haven’t found the right friends yet. Give it time.’ He gave me a blank look and got back to drinking.

At midnight, we staggered out to the same spot where we’d first played the Game, confident we’d play it a lot better now with our man’s arms and our man’s strength. Doni immediately cheered up. Things felt just like they had ten years ago. However, this time there was to be one crucial difference: there would be a winner of the Coconut Game, and the winner would be me.

I gathered a coconut to my chest and heaved it high over my head like a powerlifter. At that moment, the breeze that had been so soft against our cheeks accelerated, stirring twigs from dead camp fires into mini cyclones. I strained my eyes to watch the moonlight fragment across the freshly-disturbed water. My ears filled with the scratching sound of a banca’s moorings blown tense by the driving wind.

With a Neanderthal roar, I hurled the coconut with all my might. It was too dark for Doni or I to see where it landed. We didn’t hear the gulping splash we were expecting. Doni took out his torch, set it to full beam and shone it over a wide section of the sea. Then he walked the torch up and down the water’s edge. ‘Wow,’ he said when he returned. ‘It must have stayed out. It looks like we have a winner.’ He raised his hand for a high-five, but did it sadly and slowly.

I met his palm with kid-like enthusiasm. I felt like howling for joy but I wasn’t drunk enough to actually do it. ‘Hey Doni,’ I said. ‘Are you going to try and beat that? Maybe it’ll be a first time for both of us?’

Doni shrugged, turned and disappeared into the darkness.

Early the next morning, the telephone in our hotel room rang. Doni fought through his hangover to answer it. The volume at the other end was so loud that I heard everything the caller said. ‘Hello sir. After a good night’s sleep, a new day is dawning. New hope, new challenges. Let God be your guide and make your life wonderful. Sir, do you have time to discuss the bible with me?’

‘No,’ muttered Doni. ‘It’s 4 am. Fuck off.’ He slammed the phone down. This made me giggle so much that I couldn’t get back to sleep for an hour.

Later on I went into the hotel restaurant for breakfast and Doni was there eating tapsilog over his laptop. He didn’t acknowledge my arrival so I decided to go get my laptop as well. A lot of time passed with nothing but silence between us, our fingers doing the talking to an ersatz social circle. I soon grew tired of this so I went down to the beach to swim and talk to real people.


After we finished school, we didn’t see each other for a couple of years, although we kept up email contact. I stayed on in New York, getting a job in the marketing department of the Museum of Modern Art. Despite graduating cum laude from Ateneo, Doni wasn’t interested in pursuing a career in I.T. Instead, he moved back to live with his parents and ran the odd errand for his Dad’s microelectronics company. Doni’s family was rich so there was no real pressure on him to embark on a career. Thus he found himself with a lot of spare time on his hands, not having to get up in the morning, doing as he pleased. He revealed to me in his emails that he was filling this newfound leisure time by doing drugs, both at nightclubs in Malate, and at home, alone, playing online games. I too was ‘experimenting’ in the techno clubs of Manhattan at this time. Almost everyone I knew was into that scene.

Then things changed dramatically for Doni. His Dad suffered a debilitating stroke and Doni, as the only son, was expected to take over as CEO of the company. I knew this was stressing him out because he felt resentment towards him from certain employees who had been close to his Dad. His emails became less frequent and I took this to mean he had less time on his hands.

When I flew back to Manila for a visit, I suggested we take a break and was surprised to hear him agree; I figured that he wouldn’t be able to fit it into his busy schedule.

‘Where do you want to go?’ he asked.

‘Pagudpud of course,’ I said.

‘Why have you got this fixation with Pagudpud?’ he snorted. ‘Why don’t we go to a better beach in Boracay or Palawan or someplace?’

‘I don’t know,’ I said. ‘I have happy memories of Pagudpud. We’ve had some good times there. I find it more relaxing than Boracay.’

Doni stroked his chin pensively. ‘I guess it does have something about it.’

I wanted to take the bus so I could sketch the scenery. Doni disagreed, the techno-snob in him now demanding that we fly, especially as we both now had the means to do it. I accepted without protest. The important thing for me was that he should just get away from Manila and the method of transport didn’t matter.

We flew into Laoag airport and rode a taxi through the city and into the countryside. We were reminded that it was still off-season by the dripping walls of stucco beauty salons, the rotten complexion of electricity poles leaning at crazy angles and the moisture on the hides of caribous lounging in fields.

To my chagrin, the resort we’d stayed in last time had closed down. We checked into a clean beach hut with air-con and a hot shower. That night we rented a picnic booth and cooked bangus, spring chicken and Porterhouse steaks on the barbecue. It goes without saying that plenty of beer was also consumed. At first, Doni was talkative and entertaining. However, it did bother me that he didn’t say a word about his work, even when I asked him direct questions about it.

Much later on, a party of Ateneo students joined us after recognizing Doni as the older cousin of a friend of theirs. It was me who had given them the invite while Doni had shaken his head very subtly. I thought some socializing would do him good. I was wrong. He spent the rest of the evening saying nothing and hardly touching his beer. I tried to give him opportunities to re-enter the conversation, asking him to tell our new friends about himself or at least just tell a joke. It didn’t work. It was awkward to say the least. I recall now that Doni was looking sicker and sicker as the night wore on, his cheeks contracting behind his cheekbones, his sweat-sodden face changing color from red to white and back, over and over again.

At two am, when there were only 3 of us still up, he excused himself with barely a word and without looking at me. The remaining Ateneo kid mouthed, ‘Is he OK?’

I made a rolling motion with my hands, not unlike a gesture a basketball referee makes to signify traveling. To this day I’m not sure what I meant by it. Perhaps I was trying to tell the Ateneo kid that Doni was just moving on as best he could, dealing with life’s rich pageant and the good and bad things it pitches at the best of us. But inside I was scared. What was wrong with him? He’d never been exactly free from complications but this was something else. I’d never seen him like this, so ill, so weirdly-behaved.

In the morning, I persuaded him to walk down to the beach with me to play the Coconut Game. When we got there he changed his mind. He started sweating. ‘Let’s go and sit down in the shade,’ he murmured. So we did, under the fulsome canopies of the palma brava trees.

While I waited for Doni to speak, I looked first at the sand beneath me, then to where the tide whipped the shore and then to the great vast ocean itself, reaching out uninterrupted until Taiwan to the north, Hainan Island to the west and Mexico to the east. The land and the sea: these permanent, timeless features upon which all manner of day-trippers, surfers, sunbathers came, here today, gone tomorrow. But the land and the sea never went away, never changed. As I mulled this over, I noticed Doni staring at me with wide eyes.

‘What’s wrong?’ I asked. ‘You haven’t seemed yourself lately. At all.’

‘Disjointed’ is the best word I can think of to describe the exchange that followed. Rather than making clear statements, Doni blathered like a nutty old woman on the street, losing me in a stream of consciousness from which I could pluck out only the odd repeated phrase: ‘people want to know about me’, ‘gotta take care of myself’, ‘bad luck’, ‘I’ve won a bad lottery’. I lost count of the number of times I asked him what on Earth he was talking about. While he went on like this, he spread his legs and arms as far as they would go, so that his posture was as wide as his eyes already were.

Not until I shouted ‘Doni’ at the top of my voice did he stop. He relaxed his limbs back to their normal position. He wiped the sweat from his face.

‘Doni, I can’t do this,’ I said, regretting my loss of cool. ‘I know you have something to say to me but I can’t figure it out ‘cos you’re not making sense. Now let’s just try and narrow this down so that I can understand. You keep saying that people want to know about you. What people?’

‘I don’t know, Carlos, all kinds of people.’

‘People like me?’

‘Yeah, it’s possible.’

‘What would I want to know about you that I don’t know already?’

‘You might want to figure out if I’m still a cool guy, if it’s still worth hanging out with me.’

‘How might I do that?’

‘Well, I don’t know. I mean, there are things you already seem to know about me and I don’t understand how.’

‘Like what?’

‘Like, well, I mean, how did you know that some of my Dad’s old employees didn’t like me?’

‘Err, ‘cos you told me.’

‘I didn’t. I wouldn’t tell anyone a thing like that. That’s confidential stuff about my family’s business.’

‘So how am I supposed to have found out this stuff?’

‘There was a commotion in our garden the other night. That could have been someone snooping around.’ He squinted at me hard, as if trying to read my inner thoughts.

‘Are you implying that was me?’

‘It’s possible, Carlos.’

I could feel my cheeks heating up like I was being sunburned. ‘What would be my motivation?’

‘To, you know, like I said, maybe find out more about who I am. But that’s all right. That’s cool. I can deal with it.’

‘Dude, I’ve known you for twenty years. I don’t need to break into your fucking garden to find out anything about you.’

‘There was another thing. My Mac got screwed up by a virus the other day. In an email you sent me the day before that, you mentioned a virus.’

I had to think about that for a moment. ‘No, no, I told you that my sister had come down with a virus. That’s nothing to do with computers.’

‘Could have been to do with it. Like a code. It’s possible.’

His squint grew even more intense. It told me that he was manifestly not joking. I felt like bursting into tears. ‘Have you gone nuts?’ I almost shouted at him. ‘That’s totally irrational!’ I cooled myself down with some slow breaths, aware that anger could be counter-productive, could scare him away or worse, reinforce his suspicions. ‘How could you think such a thing was possible?’ I said, my voice struggling not to crack. ‘Me, your oldest friend doing something like that to you?’

‘It’s possible, Carlos,’ he kept saying.

‘Everything’s possible,’ I protested. ‘But we have to deal with what is probable and actual or we’d all go crazy worrying about every little risk, every little thing. We’d be… paranoid.’ I put my arm round his shoulders. ‘Look, man, I think you ought to go see someone.’

‘No, Carlos, I’m perfectly fine. I’ve just had some bad luck. I can deal with it.’

‘But you’re accusing your best friend of fucking spying on you. Don’t you know how strange that sounds? And how do you suppose I’ve been able to watch you? What evidence do you have for that?’

I could feel the tears racing towards their ducts. I wanted to run because I was too proud and masculine to cry in front of him. But I hesitated, hoping to God that he would start grinning and shout, ‘You’ve been punk’d!’ and it would turn out that this was a sick joke at my expense. But this never happened. Instead, he stroked his chin almost nonchalantly and said, ‘You know, Doni, I can deal with it.’

‘What do you mean, my spying on you?’

‘Yeah, I’ll adapt to it. It’s no problem. Maybe it’s not just you watching me, it’s a whole bunch of other people on the internet too. That’s cool. That’s the modern world. That’s CCTV and Facebook and chatrooms and shit.’

This was the most chilling thing he said to me during the whole saga. The idea that he could accept being watched, that it was no big deal, that he didn’t see it as a humiliation or an invasion of his privacy. I couldn’t help but shout once more. ‘I’m not fucking spying on you, Doni! I had no reason to come into your garden. If I had, your guard would have blown my head off with his shotgun. And you know damn well that I know nothing about computers. Now get real, Doni. This isn’t funny. You’re fucking scaring me, man!’

He stood up too and moved his hand from his chin to his forehead. I took this sentence of body language to mean ‘remorse’. ‘Look, man, I’m sorry. I’m just kinda mixed up at the moment. Had some bad, bad luck. I know you wouldn’t do anything like that to me. We’re best friends, have been for so long.’ He extended a shaky hand in my direction. ‘Just tell me everything’s OK and I’ll be OK. I’ll stop worrying. Promise.’

‘But I can’t do that. I don’t think you are OK. Besides, if things have got this serious, if you’re thinking that your friends are spying on you, I don’t think my reassurance will be enough for you.’

‘It will. Please just tell me everything’s OK, that nothing weird is going on, and your assurance will be enough for me. Please, Carlos.’

‘I think you need help, Doni. You need to see a professional.’

‘No way. Are you spying on me?’


‘Then everything’s OK.’

‘You gotta fucking see somebody.’

That night Saud Beach was hit by a heavy storm. It was like nothing I’d experienced. The foundations of our beach hut shook. The thunder was deafening. I imagined I was a Huk in World War II, dug-in while Japanese Type 35 Guns tore up the land around me. More than once that night, I feared that lightning would burn our hut. Doni slept through the whole thing.

In the morning I was awoken by the seething chirrups of frogs and the slosh of water seeping under the front door. This whole area of the beach had been flooded and when it came to check-out time, we had to paddle our way to the road, ankle-deep in murky water.

Later on in the airport, I went to the CR after we’d checked our luggage in. Doni followed me. While I was standing at the sink, freshening up, he stared at my reflection in the mirror in that wide-eyed way of his. No-one else was in the CR but us.

‘Nice one, Carlos,’ he whispered in my ear. ‘Fiber optics. Very smart.’

I turned round to face him. ‘Say what?’

His gaze stayed on the mirror and wouldn’t shift to me. ‘Fiber optics. Last night. In the mirror. In the hut. Very smart.’

‘What the hell do you mean?’

He side stepped away from me and the mirror and put his hands over his eyes as if the sun had just risen from the sink. ‘Well it’s possible. Everything’s possible.’

This time I could not suppress my anger. I shoved him in the chest so that his back was up against the wall. ‘Will you stop screwing around, Doni? Will you stop qualifying everything? If you are hinting that I was watching you through the fucking mirror then just be fucking man enough to come out and say it. Then allow me to tell you that I wouldn’t have the first fucking clue about rigging-‘ I put a halt to this line. It seemed that rationalizing wouldn’t work. I’d tried that yesterday and failed. ‘You said to me, you fucking promised me that if I told you everything would be OK then you’d be OK, and you’re not. As your best friend I am begging you. Get some help.’

We didn’t speak to each other for the whole of the flight. I tried to take my mind off things by watching the clouds, but I found myself unintentionally projecting my inner angst onto this bizarre terrain, discerning in that malleable whiteness the smooth sloping topography of Saud Beach. Other clouds resembled the waves we’d thrown our coconuts into, licking above themselves into the stark empty space of the stratosphere. Then, half-sleeping, I saw the anguished face of Doni etched into a vast cumulus like the Presidents in Mount Rushmore.

When I got back to Manila, I took advice from a psychiatrist friend who worked at St Luke’s Hospital. She told me that Doni was probably too far down the line of psychosis to heal himself. He’d have to volunteer for treatment himself and that would be the tricky part. He could only be forced into it if deemed a danger to himself and/or others, and that didn’t seem to be the case at the moment. I thought this attitude to madness was, well, mad. ‘So we just have to sit and wait for him to do something bad before he can get help?’ I asked my friend in disbelief.

I thought if I called Doni we might just argue, so I sent him an email restating how much I cared about him and pleading with him to come see my friend. He didn’t reply. I checked his Facebook account. There had been no activity since before our last trip to Pagudpud. I started to worry. I called his house and his Mom picked up the phone. ‘He went out for a drive all day,’ she told me hastily. ‘I don’t know when he’ll be back.’ I asked her to get him to call me. He never did.

A week later I called again. His Mom seemed even more like she couldn’t wait to get me off the phone.

‘Is Doni in?’


‘Do you know where he’s gone?’


‘Do you know when he’ll be back?’


She hung up on me without another word.

I decided to drive round to his home in Pasig. Just as I’d found a parking space near the front of the house, the family’s maid Juanita, whom I’d known a long time, stepped hurriedly out of the front door, almost ran down the driveway and raised her hands to me. ‘Sorry, Sir Carlos,’ she said with a nervous tweet. ‘Mr and Mrs Salazar have instructed me not to let any visitors in.’

‘But why, Juanita? Is there something wrong with Doni?’

‘I cannot tell you, Sir Carlos. Please just turn around and go. Please, Sir Carlos.’

What was going on? I felt like pushing past her and charging the front door down. I had a right to know how my best friend was. I calmed myself down. There could be a million other reasons for the Salazars to want their privacy right now. Perhaps I should just tell Juanita everything that had happened between me and Doni recently. If his condition worsened and he turned dangerous, the people he lived with, the people closest to him, ought to know. But then again, what if his family did already know? If that was the case, what had they done to him? Locked him up here or someplace else? Furthermore, my talking to Juanita might be construed as gossip and this could bring such shame, such a loss of face to the Salazars that I dared not think about it.

I can’t remember how long I waited there on the driveway having this internal argument with myself, old Juanita standing stoic before me. I finally decided to get back in my car and go home.

I used the occasion of my going back to the States as an excuse to call Doni’s house one more time. I was shocked that he answered the phone this time.

‘Shit, Doni, how have you been?’

‘Fine.  Just been very busy working.’

‘Oh yeah, how’s the business going?’

‘It’s going. We’re doing this and that. Been so busy I haven’t really been out socially.’

‘Look, I tried to come to your house the other day but Juanita wouldn’t let me in. Is everything all right?’

‘Yeah sure, why wouldn’t it be?’

‘Precisely ‘cos Juanita wouldn’t let-’

‘Just had all this work to do, real busy.’

‘It’s just that you haven’t responded to any of my emails-‘

‘I told you I’ve been busy.’

‘So have you been feeling OK? Nothing weird-’

‘No, I’ve been fine. Never better.’

‘It’s just that the last time we saw each other you accused me of some pretty far-out stuff. So, naturally, I’m worried about you.’


‘Yeah you did. I’m pretty shocked you don’t remember. I will remember it for the rest of my life. It frightened the shit out of me.’

‘Hmm, well, I was probably joking. You know me, Carlos, and my weird sense of humor, right? Don’t worry about it. All you need to know is that I’m fine, never been better.’

‘But I can’t believe that, Doni. Not after what you said to me. It was strong stuff and you didn’t mean it in a jocular way at the time, you seem pretty anguished. That’s why I’m still worried about you. You don’t just suddenly magically get over shit like this. You need to see a professional.’

‘Absolutely not. There’s nothing wrong with me. I’m having a perfectly sensible conversation with you now aren’t I?’

‘Apart from not remembering some quite important stuff. Look, do you think you might have done too many drugs back in-‘

‘Look, Carlos, I don’t know what you think you know about me but I’ve never done drugs. I’m a geek who loves his computer, not some clubber. Can you imagine me in a club? What’s gotten into you?’

‘It’s kinda insulting to my intelligence that you’re denying taking drugs. I mean, it’s well-known. You’ve told me about it yourself enough times. Mutual friends have seen you.’

‘Like who?’

‘Eddy Lim, Buck Defensor-‘

‘They don’t know shit.’

‘But you told me all about it yourself! Look Doni, my oldest friend, my best friend, you are a man of reason, of science. You’ve always been fascinated about how things work. It’s important to you to know what’s true, what’s real. Aren’t you therefore worried that your perception of certain things seems to be radically different to mine and other people’s?’


‘You don’t seem to be able to remember things that others know for certain and that can be proven empirically. Just a few weeks ago you accused me of spying on you, of trespassing on your property and setting up some surveillance system. You had no evidence for that but you seemed pretty serious about it. I think you have to accept the possibility that you might have a mental health issue-‘

‘I don’t!’

‘Well OK then. If you’re sure you don’t then what are you scared of if you speak to a professional? They can give you the all-clear and I will be the one shown to be crazy, or to have been spying on you, or whatever. I tell you what, why don’t we both go and see my psychiatrist friend together? I have nothing to hide. Do you?’

‘I don’t know what you’re talking about.’

‘Look, man, it’s nothing to be ashamed of. When I first came to New York I had these panic attacks on the subway. My doctor told me this was due to me getting stressed out by a strange new place. I saw a counselor a few times and I beat it. No big deal. So come on, just be honest with yourself  ‘cos the longer you deny it the worse it’s going to get.’

‘Carlos, you know, I’m getting sick and tired of this. If you’re just going to harass me like this then maybe we’d better go our separate ways.’

That was the last time I had any contact with Doni whatsoever. I resigned myself to having done the best I could to help him. It was in his hands now. I only hoped that my psychiatrist friend was wrong and he might conquer his demons by himself. After I returned to New York I asked those mutual friends Eddy and Buck to let me know if they saw or heard anything about him. The irony of me now getting these guys to keep tabs on Doni was not lost on me! After a week or so, Buck sent me a MySpace message about a rumor that had originated in the Salazar family business. Apparently Doni had more or less quit as soon as he’d taken charge of the company, unable to handle the workload. To avoid public embarrassment, Doni remained CEO in name only, while his Dad’s most trusted lieutenant ran the show for real. It didn’t take a genius to figure out how disappointed his Dad must have been in him.

Literally the day after this revelation, Eddy sent me a link to an Ateneo alumni blog post. It stated that Doni was missing feared dead, last sighted alone on Saud Beach drinking vodka. I thought that was odd because Doni always hated vodka. Anyway, this post went on to say that that night there had been a big storm, I guessed like the one that had struck on the final night of our last trip together. His parents had given it 48 hours and then reported his disappearance to the police. There was a mention of Doni’s ‘mental troubles’ which worried me, as I assumed this wasn’t common knowledge. I felt physically ill reading this. What if Doni had ended it all by playing a final, fatal variation on the Coconut Game? I called Laoag City Police Station for more information. They had never heard of a Doni Salazar. I got the same response from Batac Police Station up the road and several hospitals in Ilocos Norte. The puzzle was finally solved when Buck sent me another message later in the day revealing that the blog post was some sick hoax with no foundation in truth. It had now been removed by the site manager. I didn’t concern myself with what kind of demented asshole would do something like this. Apparently these kinds of prank are widespread, with the deaths of celebrities erroneously reported and so on. Their success depends upon people not bothering to fact-check them against other media like newspapers. And why would they? Everyone uses the internet now, it is our prime source of information about everything.

My fears were only fully allayed when I heard from Eddy that he’d bumped into Doni’s Mom shopping at Megamall. She told him, in her hurried manner, that Doni was ‘just fine’ and ‘working a lot’. So at least he was alive.

I suppose had Doni really given himself up to the tide, it would have been too apt an ending to the story. And we all know that real life doesn’t work like that. In real life, he will live a life socially paralyzed by fear, rarely leaving his home, his parents unwilling to get him help because they grew up at a time when there was such a stigma around mental illness. Doni might get better by himself, but it’s more likely he won’t. I really don’t know if we’ll ever see each other again. That’s up to him. As I said before, I remain hopeful. I will continue to regard him as my best friend as an expression of that hope.

First published in Taya Literary Journal 2010