Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Facester

My short story "Facester", originally published in Philippine Speculative Fiction III and reprinted (with some edits) in my short story collection "An Unusual Treatment." I am posting this here in its entirety per the request of some Ateneo de Davao students.

In a way, this story has come full circle. I wrote portions of it as a student in Don Pagusara's Creative Writing class in Ateneo back in 2007. And now -- gasp! -- they discuss it in Literature class.

I make no claims to the merits of the story. It has some flaws, certainly, and my only excuse is that it was written when I was a much younger writer. But I had fun writing it, and I like to think it's a fun read still. Enjoy!


That Saturday morning I was on my way to pick up my car from Manong Mario's repair shop in Mindanao Avenue. I dropped by a Jollibee to pick up a burger and fries for Myra. It was still early, but already the lines were thick with customers. If I were only buying for myself I would have skipped the prospect altogether, but it was Myra I had in mind — she of the smoldering don't-bother-me eyes and the full pouty lips and the grease-smeared-yet-kissable cheeks.

Once in line, I flipped open the book that I kept for these occasions. From the corner of my eye, I thought I caught a glimpse of a familiar face. Scanning the other customers, my gaze fell on a couple who could not seem to keep their hands off each other.

The guy had an arm draped around the girl's shoulders. Every now and then he would cop a feel of her breast. The girl, on her part, had her arms wrapped around his waist while her head rested on his chest. They were oblivious to the rest of the world.

The guy bent down to peck the girl's cheek. She tilted her head to catch the kiss full on her lips. That was when the horrible recognition struck me.

The girl was Myra.

I dropped my book. The smack its hardbound covers made on the floor rang throughout the restaurant. I felt everyone's eyes on me. Dumbly I stared at this lascivious couple.

Myra gave me a tart little squint and a dismissive sneer. Then she tossed her head as her new boyfriend gave her another kiss on her neck. She squealed loudly, a small mercy as they drew attention back to themselves.

If the guy were only a foot shorter....but who was I kidding? I was not exactly scrawny, but I thought of myself not as a fighter but a runner.

Running, I thought, was my best option lest I lose what little composure remained and started bawling in front of everyone. I picked up my book, turned on my heel, and dashed out of the restaurant.

I jostled past several morning strollers and ignored a couple of hellos from acquaintances. Dammed tears threatened to burst. Myra! How could you do this to me? I wanted to get as far away as I could as quickly as I could.

Three blocks away and many bemused looks later I was out of breath. I slowed down to a shuffle and considered things. Myra and I didn't really have a formal relationship. I liked her a lot, that much was painfully and embarrassingly obvious. And Myra? While she didn't really reciprocate, I didn't think she minded, so I held on to that shred of hope.

Now, if that other guy had won her over...well, that wasn't supposed to be any business of mine.

But the Myra I saw that morning was so unlike the Myra I knew: the halter top, the short shorts, the togs. Now that I had time to think about it, that was just the outfit that Myra wouldn't be caught dead in. Freesize T-shirts, blue jeans, and sneakers were more her style. And Myra like a vicious octopus around a guy?

But there was no doubt it was Myra I saw in line that morning. I knew every curve and dip and shape and bump of her face. I would swear on a stack of Bibles that it was Myra.

I broke out of my dejected reverie as I saw the familiar sign of Manong Mario's garage. If nothing else, he could fill me in on the guy who had won his daughter's heart. As if he was the type he would approve of, I harrumphed.

My blue Corolla was in the repair bay but there was no sign of Manong Mario. I sighed. Now that Myra was seeing someone else, the old man would probably wonder why my car suddenly needed fewer repairs.

“Manong Mario?” I called out.

“Not here. At breakfast,” replied a muffled but familiar voice. My heart stopped.

A familiar pair of beat-up sneakers stuck out from underneath my car, attached to pant legs from a familiar pair of blue jeans. The legs twisted this way and that as their owner slid out from the car on a mechanic's sled. The scowl on the face that finally popped out was one I knew too well.

It was Myra.

“Help me up, you jerk,” she said. Dumbly I offered my hand. The hand that gripped mine felt warm, and the tug on my arm felt solid.

“Geez, Dave,” she said, “your hands are cold! What's up?”

“But...didn't I just see you...how'd you get here...I could've sworn....” I floundered for words. I knew what I wanted to say but the relays between my brain and my mouth had shorted out.

“Get a grip, Dave!” Myra shouted, “You're white as a ghost!”

That was the last thing I remembered before my knees turned to jelly and Myra and my car and the garage spun into darkness as the earth beneath me gave way.



An hour later, we were sitting at Ching's Eatery, the noodle shop across Manong Mario's garage. I sipped hot coffee from a battered cup. The dumplings in front of me lay untouched. A shame, really, as this was Myra's treat, one of those rare occasions when she deigned to shower me with sympathy.

“Come on, Dave! You're fantasizing!” She tilted her head back and gave two loud unladylike snorts. I had just finished telling her about her doppelganger from Jollibee. As expected, she didn't believe me.

“But she looked exactly like you, Myrs...and heck, I would know!” I said. “Except her hair was cut a little different and she was dressed, er, like a...like a....”

“...like a lady?”

“No,” I grumbled. “Try bimbo.”

“Oh, this is rich!” Myra snorted. She was hysterical. “I'd like to meet this 'evil twin.' It should be a riot. Imagine me in short shorts!”

“Well....” My face felt hot. It wasn't because of the coffee. “Actually....”

“Ha! You wish! I'm not that kind of girl,” Myra insisted. “Never was, never will be.”

And, of course, she was lying. Six years ago, Myra was my date for the senior prom. I was to pick her up at her place. I arrived an hour early and so I waited in their living room. The loud argument that came from the room above as Myra wrestled with her mom was pure entertainment. “No, I'm not wearing that!” “Myra Zephira Lleynes, you are putting on this ribbon!” “Mo-oooommm!” Manong Mario cocked an eyebrow and looked at me sternly as I struggled to contain my bemusement, but I could tell he was only doing a marginally better job than I was.

But the vision that finally floated down the stairs? Aah, she was celestial. That was the first time I saw Myra with her long hair down, flowing around her bare shoulders and guided only by small clip bows. Her dress hugged her tiny breasts and showed off her slim curvy waist. She navigated the steps precariously balanced on heels.

Only Manong Mario clearing his throat made me snap my slack jaw shut.

The dress must've done some magic to Myra. When she landed in the living room, she said nothing, but only fluttered her eyelashes at me. She had the barest of makeup on, just a touch of foundation and lip gloss. It all only served to highlight her natural beauty.

Then she punched me in the arm.

“Just to let you know who you're dealing with. Let's go, Romeo.”

All eyes were on Myra that night. Hardly anyone could believe it was her. I had my hands full keeping away the evening's lecherous vultures. I ought to have done a better job too — Myra would have been chosen prom queen if she hadn't walloped an amorous junior over the head with her handbag.

Over the years, I secretly kept hoping that the Myra I escorted at prom night would re-emerge. Ever since Myra's mother died, though, there seemed to be little hope of that.



The clatter of the cup on formica and the splash of spilled coffee shook me from my recollection. I jumped up to avoid the brown tsunami coming down my edge of the table.

“Hey!” I cried. I saw Myra turn white, and caught myself. “Oh, it's alright, no damage done, see?”

But Myra wasn't looking at me or at the small accident she had caused. They were on the two girls who had just sashayed into Ching's. They both wore revealing mini-skirts and tight tank tops. Every man in the noodle shop tracked their entry.

One girl looked Middle Eastern — she had a sharp nose, wide eyes, full lips, and a dark complexion. The words that came from her mouth, though, were pure, unadulterated, irritating coed Taglish.

And the other girl?

The other girl was Myra.

It was Myra of a distinctively different sort. Her eyeshadow was too dark, her cheeks were too pink, and her lips had a dab of crimson. Her hair was a strange shade of cherry blond. She batted her lashes coquettishly at every guy in the shop. Not a few obliged with catcalls and whistles.

Though I had had my own Myra encounter earlier in the day, this one still prompted a double-take. My own Myra was wide-eyed and pale as she regarded her double. In a trance, Myra stood up and walked over to her.

When Vixen Myra saw the original come up to her, she only gave a mild gasp of surprise. She whispered something to her friend, pointed at my Myra, and laughed.

“Looks like you got the same face job that I did“, said Vixen Myra as she sized up the original from head to toe. “Too bad Dr. Mendres couldn't fix up your fashion sense.”

“You...have...my...face...” my Myra said.

A hush descended on the restaurant. Soup spoons stopped in mid-serving. All eyes were now on the two look-alikes facing off against each other. A couple of old ladies crossed themselves. Even Manang Ching stood up from behind her cash register.

“I paid for it like you did, sweetie,” Vixen Myra said.

“You have my face,” my Myra said again. With trembling hands, she reached out to touch the other's face.

“Hey, back off! You're crowding my space.” Vixen Myra swatted at my Myra's hands. “If your face doesn't go well with your frumpy outfit, don't blame me!”

Myra's hands struck like twin cobras. One hand pinched Vixen Myra's nose, the other hand at her cheek. Vixen Myra shrieked.

“Take it off! take it off! You witch!” My Myra was hysterical. “Give it back! give it ba-aaack!”

Vixen Myra's arms thrashed at the original, but my Myra's grip was unshakeable. Myra pulled at her double's face, tugging at it like a mask. Vixen Myra wailed like a police siren.

Pandemonium broke out in the restaurant as patrons jumped from their tables and ran for the exit. “Pay up, you rascals!” Manang Ching cried as she waved her chubby arms in the air.

I interposed myself between the two Myras. For my trouble, I got a scratch in the face, a knee in the kidneys, and a kick in the shin. The kick put me off balance. As our legs were now tangled, we three tumbled to the floor. Only then did my Myra let go of Vixen Myra's face.

Vixen Myra's friend helped her up and they both scrambled for the door. They left behind a sling bag and assorted knick-knacks: a roll of lipstick, a broken compact, calling cards, and a copy of Cosmopolitan.

“Did you see that, Dave?” Myra said. “That witch had my face!”

She put her hands up to her face and patted and pinched furiously. “Oh my God! Dave! I still do have my face, don't I? Don't I?”

The glossy magazine lay open where a brochure was stuck. I took a quick glance and handed it to Myra, right to the part of a two-page spread. It showed a well-dressed, bald-headed man beaming widely as he sat surrounded by a bevy of statuesque models. Each wore the face of perfection, one of whom — again! — looked like Myra.

In big bold yellow letters spread across the pages, it proclaimed:



Dr. Joey Mendres' Cara Nueva

A Whole New Look!

A Whole New Face!

A Whole New You!”



Early Monday morning, Myra and I were in the waiting room of Dr. Joey Mendres' chic clinic in a swanky high-rise in Fort Bonifacio. The mystery of the multiple Myras nagged like a persistent toothache. Even if Myra hadn't asked me to drive her, I would have gone by myself just to see firsthand what Cara Nueva was all about.

We arrived before eight, but already some twenty women were waiting in the lounge. A few tittered away in eager conversation, but most hid behind well-worn copies of women's magazines, pointedly ignoring the rest.

Today, Myra was “Jhenney Tubataha,” the name on the calling cards that her double had left behind. We figured on the ruse because we guessed that a customer complaint would merit quick attention. Who could tell, really? Technically, Myra was already wearing a Cara Nueva face. As it turned out, we called it correctly because the receptionist put us at the head of the queue, a privilege that earned us dagger looks from early birds.

While Myra fidgeted in the cushy sofa, no doubt thinking of the punishments to inflict on Dr. Mendres, I studied the promotional Cara Nueva video that looped on the widescreen TV.

Contrary to the aggrandized claims, Dr. Mendres did not actually invent the Cara Nueva process. Cara Nueva did not even come from Spain, as its name suggested. Dr. Mendres had simply licensed the technology from China and rebranded it under his portfolio.

The secret to Cara Nueva was an artificial enzyme that bonded to skin, muscle, cartilage, and fat. The screen showed a plain-looking woman taking injections at strategic locations of her face.

The injections made the face sensitive and pliant to certain wavelengths of radiation. Under one frequency, the skin would relax, and at another, it would contract. A computer-controlled laser could literally sculpt a new face.

On the screen, a large cylinder eased down on the woman's face. Light strobed from its edges. When the cylinder lifted, the woman now looked like a supermodel. The process and the result, I admit, were eye-popping.

I would have thought that people would use Cara Nueva to fix only minor blemishes. Some people, though, were not content with halfway measures.

“Dr. Mendres will see you now,” the receptionist announced.

She ushered us into Dr. Mendres' office. He sat behind an enormous glass desk, putting some finishing flourishes on something he was typing on his computer. He looked much like he did in the Cosmopolitan spread, but in person the flawless complexion was unnerving. He had on a thin well-trimmed goattee that ended at a sharp point under his chin. Unlike other doctors, he was dressed in tight-fitting black pants and black shirt to show off his trim body. The shirt was open three buttons from the collar, the better to show off an immaculately smooth chest.

“Ah, Ms. Tubataha! So nice to see you again,” Dr. Mendres said with a perfect toothy smile. “Sit, please! How is my favorite patient?”

On the way to the clinic, Myra and I had rehearsed what we were going to say. We were going to play it cool. All that went out the window as the seething Myra blurted out:

“You stole my face.”

Dr. Mendres blinked several times, the wide smile unmoving. “Excuse me?” he said, finally.

“You copied my face!” Myra repeated. “You put it on other women!”

“Now, Ms. Tubataha,” Dr. Mendres said, wagging a finger in the air, “you knew that was a stock promotional model....”

“I'm a promotional model?!” Myra shrieked.

“My friend over here is an original, Dr. Mendres,” I said. “I think you might have copied her features inadvertently.”

“My dear, you should be flattered!” Dr. Mendres threw his head back and laughed. “So many women want to look like you! You are our top-selling model! It's so wonderful to finally meet you.”

He raised a remote. The widescreen monitor behind him came to life. Women's faces filled up the screen and rotated to show off their features in three dimensions. They were all seductive stunners with full lips, perfect noses, and sleepy come-hither eyes. Among them, I recognized the Middle Eastern beauty from the other day.

At the top of the list, though, was Myra's face. Beneath was a label that said her face had been copied 47 times.

“I don't choose what my patients want to look like,” Dr. Mendres said, “they choose for themselves. And if they can't decide, we have paragons of Filipina beauty to choose from.”

“I don't get it,” I said, “why not choose someone famous like Ella Dulalia or Nicole Cruz?”

“Celebs are off-limits,” Dr. Mendres said. “It's a trade understanding. You, on the other hand” — a casual wave at Myra — “seem to have wasted what nature has blessed you with.”

“What I do with my face is my business,” Myra growled.

“I'll make you a proposition,” said Dr. Mendres, “half-price on a Cara Nueva treatment for you...if you're not happy with your face.”

“Now wait just a minute!” I said, “that's not fair! This is identity theft!”

“No identity theft here. These women keep their own identities. I just give them new faces, ones they can be really happy with. And if they should happen to choose some beautiful nobody's, well, I won't deprive them of that pleasure.”

He leaned forward and smiled that perfect smile. “Now, if you really want to talk about identity theft, we could start with the one that you're perpetrating right now....”

He pressed a button on the side of his desk. Through the door came two burly guards. Our interview with Dr. Mendres was over.

“I'll get a lawyer! I'll sue!” said Myra, now in near-tears.

“You can try, my dear, you can try,” said Dr. Mendres as he leaned back on his chair. The smile never left his face.

Our long walk back to the car was a downcast one, a stark contrast to the bright beautiful day and the gently swaying trees of Fort Bonifacio. Myra was totally deflated, but she made an effort to hold her head up high. I hugged her shoulders tight as we crossed the parking lot. She did not object, as she normally did, to this display of affection.

A spark of her old self reasserted itself briefly as we passed a shiny new yellow Jaguar. I thought it was the car that interested her, but when I saw the vanity plate number — DR MNDZ — I had to shake my head sternly and gripped her even tighter.

“What do we do now?” I asked her once we were in my car.

“I don't know.” She looked wistfully out the window. “It doesn't matter, I guess.”

“If it's any consolation: no one who really knew you could ever mistake you for one of those fakes. They're just too perfect!”

She jabbed me on the shoulder. I obliged with a yowl.

“Geez, you're such a crybaby,” Myra said. “Now you can take me out for burgers and fries. I feel like a McDo.”



If Myra thought it didn't matter, or if I thought that no one who really knew her could mistake her for one of the doubles, we were both terribly mistaken.

Three weeks after our interview with Dr. Mendres, we were seated in the far corner of Ching's Eatery, hidden behind the water dispenser and the utensil steamer. Myra tucked her hair under a dark blue bandanna. She wore dark sunglasses, both to hide her face and her puffy red eyes. From time to time, she would blow loudly into her handkerchief. I said nothing, and instead just rubbed down her forearm.

Where we had worried about the Myra doubles, we had learned to laugh it off. Eventually we forgot about it. Myra was back to her usual self, we were back to our romantic sparring, and that car of mine that really didn't need any fixing was back in her garage. All was well, or so we thought.

Then the sex video came out.

“Scandal videos” they called it. The performers were amateurs and the quality of the clips was poor, taken as they were with cellphone cameras. Whether the videos came from stolen memory cards or were purposely leaked, no one really knew. We already had scandal videos named after half the schools and malls in the country so that the shock value was largely gone.

This new sex video, however, stood out from the others on account of the female performer's creative acrobatics. So swore everyone who had seen it. The video sold briskly in bootleg shops, traded over the Internet, and beamed from cellphone to cellphone.

And the said female performer? Yet another Cara Nueva Myra face job.

A half-second's glimpse was all it took before I threw down the cellphone it was showing on. I didn't want that image of Myra — never mind if it was a double — stuck in my brain. But others weren't nearly so kind. I was deluged with lecherous emails and messages from many soon-to-be-former friends.

“If it was just me, I probably wouldn't mind so much,” Myra said. “But Dad...well, he's so upset he won't budge from his chair.”

“He knows it isn't you.”

“Well, duh! It just hurts so much, all this talking behind our backs. And the calls! I've had to take our phone off the hook!”

“Let's go check on your dad,” I said. I picked up my book and made a move to go.

Four tables away, near the entrance, sat three men who kept looking in our direction. They leered at Myra, but averted their gazes whenever I turned to glare. Then they whispered amongst themselves and laughed boisterously. I overheard a couple of rude words.

Myra's hand hovered dangerously over the fork on her plate. I held her arm.

“Myrs, let it go,” I said, “it's not worth it.”

We purposefully avoided looking in their direction as we passed their table. But as we did, the man nearest to me made loud sucking sounds. That brought snickers from his two companions.

I stopped. I turned around.

Now they were staring at me, stupid smiles still pasted on their faces.

I don't quite know what came over me then. I smacked the nearest guy on the head with a forehand using my hardbound book. I followed through on the next guy with a backhand. I was about to hit the third guy but he was already on his feet.

After that, it was a mess of tangled arms and legs and overturned tables and flying utensils and ripped pages.



The first thing I saw when I fully came to was the ceiling of the Lleynes' living room. I lay on their couch. My left cheek was swollen, my nose bent a little to the right, and I was missing a front tooth. My head was on Myra's lap as she pressed an ice bag on my cheek.

“Oooh, what happened?” I groaned. Myra helped me up. I saw Manong Mario seated across us.

“If you really want to know: we're banned from Manang Ching's for life,” Myra said.

“Like last time?” I said. “And those bastards?”

“What did you think, Mister Hero? Ran away, of course!” she said. “Whatever got into your mind to go up against three guys?”

Myra stood up, saying she wanted to get more ice. I was left in the living room with Manong Mario. I couldn't quite look him in the eye.

“Sir, I am so sorry. I don't quite know how to explain....” I said.

Manong Mario came to me and clapped his hand on my shoulder.

“You don't need to bring your car for repairs the next time you want to visit,” he said solemnly. “Come anytime you like...son.” And that was all. He left the room, just as Myra came in.

“What was that all about?” Myra said.

“Oh, nothing,” I said, beaming toothlessly. “You know when I told you it wasn't worth it? I was wrong. It was, it certainly was.”

She raised an eyebrow but didn't press the issue.

“I'm thinking of skipping town for a few days,” Myra said. “Maybe until the whole thing blows over.”

“And then what? Until the next time another double does something crazy and they'll all think it's you again?”

It was then that the brainstorm hit me. The solution, literally, was staring me right in the face. It was stupid, yes, but a problem like this could only be solved with very drastic measures. That reckless impulse with which I rose to defend Myra's honor must've awakened something in me, otherwise I wouldn't have even considered it.

“You know, Myra, the bum rap actually works both ways,” I said. “If you're up for some retribution, have I got a plan....”



It was two weeks after we hatched our scheme, and three days after we executed our caper. Both of us were holed up in a cozy hostel in Baguio, watching the aftermath of our escapade on TV Patrol, reporting live from the Makati police station.

It was like watching a big Myra convention. (“I didn't know there were so many of me,” Myra mused.) There were around thirty of them, all gathered in the Makati police station while Dr. Joey Mendres and the police chief argued heatedly. The doctor and the chief were both red in the face, gesticulating and pointing at each other and at the Myras. Some Myras put in their two bits into the argument, some fidgeted and paced, some cried. Most, though, sat stunned, hiding their faces from the diligent cameraman. As if that would help.

TV Patrol dubbed the story, “Attack of the Clones.” As far as the reporter could gather, Dr. Joey Mendres had just entered the lobby of his building when he heard his car alarm go off. When he turned, he saw that the doors were open. A young woman and her accomplice jumped into his Jag and hotwired the engine.

Dr. Mendres valiantly tried to run back to his car, the reporter said, but before he could reach it, the Jag had zoomed off. All in under five minutes, the reporter added, concluding that it was the work of professional carjackers.

(“Under five?” Myra scoffed. “Liars! The whole jack took all of two minutes! That was my best time yet!”)

Dr. Mendres had been hesitant to identify the woman. It didn't matter, the reporter said, because they had the woman's face on security video.

In a rare display of law enforcement efficiency, the police captured the female carjacker the following day in Pasig City. And then they captured her again in Makati. Within hours they had apprehended two more in Pasay. Then came arrests in Cubao, Marikina, Quezon City, and as far away as Tagaytay. This was the first time, the reporter said, that the police had solved a case with a 3000 percent arrest rate of positively identified suspects. As of news time, more women (and a few transsexuals) answering to the description were being apprehended. It was unprecedented!

When it turned out that they had all been Cara Nueva patients of Dr. Joey Mendres, well, the good doctor had had a lot of explaining to do. Already the police chief was leaning towards a combination of an inside job and insurance fraud.

“Shame about the car, though,” Myra said, “I really wanted to keep it. It was a Jag, Dave!”

“Had to be done, Myrs,” I said. “Hot car like that is hard to hold.” We had taken the Jag down the South Superhighway, turned off into a deserted road, and set fire to the car before rolling it off a cliff. Then we doubled back up north in my Corolla. We didn't stop until we hit the City of Pines.

The “Attack of the Clones” segment gave way to the latest political scandal. I switched off the TV and turned to Myra.

“So here you are, on the run with a criminal mastermind,” I said. “Whatever would the neighbors say?”

Myra wrinkled her nose, then said, “Oh, I don't know, I've always been partial to bad boys.”

She tapped a finger on her cheek. I bent over to kiss her, but at the last minute, she turned her head so I caught her full on the lips.