*Note: I’m sure most writers have had the experience of finding an old notebook [non-writers might find an old photograph] which cause you to cringe at one thing or another. The grammar, your old style of writing, a painful memory. This essay being the latter. It was an English project that I turned in during a very difficult time. I was nearly homeless, and struggle seems to bring up flashbacks for me. So I wrote about a flashback from my trip to the Philippines and passed it off to my teacher. She actually cried. Nonetheless, my writing style has changed so much [for the better, I think] and I have matured a lot. So I’m even a bit embarrassed to show this, but it is an important memory, and an important piece of writing for me.
I am the Golden Airplane
“So why did you sign up?”
The question formed a mountain in my throat, making the stuffy tropical air even harder to breath. For a moment, the only sound was that of the trinkets that swung from the rear view mirror; two tiny bells and a Virgin Mary air freshener who wore a KIIS FM sticker over her face. “To help people.” I muttered. The lack of confidence in my answer made me blush. But John took no notice in my red face, nor my hesitant reply. I began to doubt that he had actually asked the question at all; maybe the heat was getting to me. I looked at him, admiring the big bushy mustache that made him look like my father; each wiry hair sticking in a different direction, gray and weathered as the cloud that now threatened the sky.
Despite the torrential rain, Dumaguete really was a beautiful place. Storefronts were painted brighter than traffic cones here, some coated with a minty green, some drenched in a yellow that rivaled sunshine itself. The smell was even better. Humidity held the scent of fried bananas and yams so thickly in the air that each inhale would coat your mouth in a sticky sweetness. Here, children could grow up happy, unaware of the worldʼs troubles. But thats why we had come. To take care of those world problems with an attitude of compassion and joy so others wouldnʼt have to. But that day, we rode in silence, wishing to be anywhere but this so-called paradise.
We knew the itinerary. Feared it, even. Our driver pulled up to the building, seeming quite unfazed as the horrific screams being belched from its innards mingled with the rattling of our old Mitsubishi van. I felt the color drain from my face and an icy chill resonated through my bones; My teammates looked no better. The tall gate in front of us swung open and a sign that hung across the right side beat against the iron bars, as if to free itself from its chains. I had to squint to make out the faded letters, the name of this hell. “Dumaguete Mental Facility” it read, “ est. 1989.”
Becoming a volunteer was not what I had expected. If you had told me a year before that I would be spending my christmas break crammed into an abnormally small van with twenty other high schoolers, I would have thought you were crazy. But I was doing just that, and even worse, I was about to enter the gates of a notoriously dangerous Filipino asylum. The driver stopped in front of an old wooden deck, its rotten planks barely holding up two sorry looking rocking chairs and a lopsided card table. At each end of the table sat a guard, or so it was assumed by their matching black dickies. ! “Mabuhay,” John said, “Weʼre here to entertain the patients.”
The guards laughed as John butchered the simple filipino greeting, but nodded us in anyway.
We were let inside without being checked. Four whitewashed walls surrounded a barren courtyard that sprouted random bunches of brown, crunchy grass in its otherwise bald surface. Settled in the courtyard were three heavy looking cell blocks. In place of a fourth wall each cell donned a heavily padlocked prison door. It seemed as if nothing could pass through those bars, and the morning light made no exception. I shuddered as I thought about what lay inside. The blocks disappeared behind us as were lead away to another building outside of the courtyard.
I supposed this room to be a recreation hall. About three dozen chairs were arranged around a roughly assembled stage at the front of the room, mixed in all different colors and sizes; each with a personality, I thought. A nurse escorted a small crowd of patients in who seemed, oddly enough, quite sane and composed. But for some reason, their blank stares made my skin crawl. The song group finished setting up and began the entertainment, which eased the tension a little. I quickly passed snacks around the audience and took post by the door, where I could watch the rest of the show.
Something struck me as odd about these patients. They seemed neither entertained nor bored. Not quite alive, but not quite dead. I snuck around the the front of the room in hope of getting a look at their faces. Eyes were dilated and unresponsive. Expressions were blank and void of emotion. Some even drooled from laziness of the muscles. They were drugged. Heavily sedated so they could “enjoy” the show. This institution was wrong, very wrong. I had heard about these places from the charity magazines my mom received in the mail sometimes. Treatment centers where the patients were drugged, abused, and raped, all because the family didnʼt want to take care of them. These were innocent people, betrayed by loved ones; stranded in hell on earth. I became terrified as I thought about what kind of people must have run this place. And then…I did something unexpected. Something that even to this day, surprises me. I slipped passed the nurse, out the door, and ran for the cells in the courtyard; I had to know what was behind those bars.
My run slowed to a crawl as I crept up what was labeled as Block C. Lying in the farthest corner of the cell, atop a raised chunk of cement, was a mangled lump of skin and bones. It was naked and wet, with grayish wrinkled skin that glistened from the rain. Its tiny ribcage expanded and deflated to catch shallow breaths, each uneven gasp emerging louder than the last. I felt sick to my stomach and had to steady myself against the pillar that stood between the two cells; tears streamed down my cheeks in helplessness. Suddenly my left hand became caught in something. Its harsh grip twisted and tightened around my wrist. And in one quick motion, I was pulled with full force to the neighboring cell.
My face was pressed against the slippery metal gate of the prison, shoulder aching from being forced through the narrow space between the bars. The figure said nothing as it held my arm taut, and I was too afraid to break the silence myself. Everything in me wanted to look away, but I couldnʼt. For at the other end of my limb stood a girl, naked and skinny; so much so that you could count each of her ribs from a distance. She was beautiful and ugly, her long black hair draped over her shoulders in a matted wet mess and the fear in her big brown eyes hid behind a wall of tears. My arm went slack but she kept squeezing my hand, her other hand was now lifted to caress my cheek.
“You are so beautiful, my golden airplane” she said in a soft voice, “You take me away with you, you take me out of this place.”
She was crying heavily now, desperate to go with me.
“I canʼt, please donʼt…I donʼt know why Im here. I donʼt know how to help, Iʼm nobody.” I pleaded.
My insecurity seemed to inspire her and she put both hands on my face, lifting it so our eyes met. She smiled with confidence now that I had come to save her.
“You have come to me, little light. You take me from death, sorrow, like flying golden airplane.”
I yanked my arm back and ran, angry that she did not understand I couldnʼt save her. I ran until I was out of the facility, past the empty card table, and into the back of the old mitsubishi, where I wept until the others returned.
! I barely ate or slept for the next four days. I was heartbroken and filled with hatred for myself, hatred for my nothingness. I was her only chance of life. But my lack of confidence caused me to run away and the guilt filled me with depression. On day five, I rode along with the team to do some daycare work at an orphanage.
“Come on, theyʼre all waiting for us!” someone yelled.
!Eric, one of the senior team members, shook me awake as the van rattled to a stop. I stretched and let out a big yawn, moving out of the van as slowly as possible. The group had already gathered near a large old tree, where each volunteer was supposed to choose a kid to buddy with. I walked up to a little girl that sat alone on a tree stump, playing with an old Russian camera that hung around her neck.
“Mabuhay” I said shyly.
She looked up at me with big brown eyes and the most beautiful smile I had ever seen; a smile made ugly by a cleft that showed off three yellowed teeth. I thought back to the beautiful woman in the cell, also scarred by her mistreatment. But why then was there a smile on my own face? I had forgotten my loneliness, my sorrow, my self-hatred; It was as if I was flying through the sky, high above it all. I picked the young girl up into my arms and smiled as she placed two skinny arms around my neck. I understood now what the caged woman had felt. Because in that moment, the little girl I held in my arms had taken me away. She was my little golden airplane.