Along Emerald Avenue is a small park, one with trees and benches and green grass. On most days, a lot of people pass by, either to smoke or to lounge around as they wait for friends. But today feels different and I am all alone save for the stranger sitting beside me.
Her perfume is thick as if concealing another scent. Her features are a perfect ensemble: from smooth white skin, a curvaceous figure, and eyes that are slanted just right to give her that exotic look that hints at both Asian and European ancestry yet confirming neither.
At first she ignores me and I her but one tires easily of listening to the wind. She relents first, looks at me, and asks a question.
“Can I tell you secret?”
When I glimpsed her at the edge of my peripheral vision, she was pretty. Talking to her now, face to face, she is stunning. I feel a sense of relief that I did not have to initiate the conversation. I nod, unsure how to react to such intimacy.
“I cheated on my fiancé.”
As soon as she says these words she smiles, stands up, and scurries off, embarrassed but pleased.
The following day, I sit on the same bench. I keep an eye out for the woman I met yesterday, hoping for some closure. She never arrives and in her place is an old Chinese man wandering the park. He is wearing large black glasses, a loose white shirt, and worn-out sandals.
He flashes a smile at random people, revealing the lone gold tooth in a forest of stunted bridgework. When he faces me, he takes on a melancholy demeanor and I wonder why he took great pains to hide it from everyone else.
“Can I tell you a secret?”
With yesterday’s events still fresh in my memory, I simply want to run away. I hoped to talk to a beautiful woman, not a weird old man. Yet the words have left his mouth and I do not want to be rude, even to someone I have no formal relation with. Maybe he is secretly one of the local taipans, and I wonder what fortune-increasing wisdom he might impart?
“I beat my wife.”
Before my eyes register my shock, the old man leaves. A part of me wants to call out to him and shout “wife beater!” but guilt assails me and I feel it is a larger crime to divulge his confession.
All I can do is pray that he doesn’t return.
The succeeding days are a cycle. A mother breast-feeding her newborn babe tells me she is in love with someone else. A young boy who sneaks away from his nanny informs me that he plays with his sister’s dolls. A student in white polo and black pants claims that he wants to stop studying but fears the wrath of his parents. I have no idea what attracts them to me; I check the mirror if there is an eldritch signed embedded on my forehead but I find none. Every day I visit the park, I tell myself that it will be different.
Of course the truth of the matter is, a part of me relishes the attention. I never imagined myself as a voyeur but my self-confidence increases with each confession. The pettiness of my own secrets–cheating in an exam, lying to a friend, a prank here and there–do not seem like an aberration amidst the background of what everyone tells me. I’d like to think my actual sins aren’t as grievous as cheating on a fiancé or beating a spouse. I can’t help but wonder if this is the hidden thrill of a priest who conducts the Act of Contrition, his own virtue evident when compared to the failings of his parishioners. I try to appear reluctant with each stranger who sits beside me and I tell myself I am powerless to prevent them from blurting out the truth.
Not every secret is incriminating. Some sound trivial: I like daddy more than mommy; I spelled my co-worker’s official designation wrong; my boyfriend’s name sounds funny.
Eventually, I encounter a secret that haunts my dreams. An unassuming man–one with a neat haircut, oversized glasses, and whose taste in clothes is quite formal–sits besides me and asks if he can tell me a secret. I sigh but he takes this as a sign of confirmation.
“I killed my brother.”
He doesn’t mention the details but my imagination fills in the rest. Before I could betray my panic, the man quickly leaves. I start wondering whether the man is having second thoughts at his confession. There’s a good chance he’ll hunt me down.
I stop visiting the park, instead exploring other haunts. At the bus stop, a boy tells me he is in love with his twin brother. At the sari-sari store where I buy a drink, another customer informs me that his wife has cancer and that he hasn’t told the rest of the family yet.
I start worrying that I’ll run into a secret that will get me killed. It might be a politician who confesses. Or an army general. Or a terrorist.
I stop leaving the house, claiming one sort of sickness or another. My only companions at home are family and these are people I’ve known my entire life. I doubt if they are keen to share their most intimate secrets with me and would probably go out of their way to conceal it.
One day, the phone rings and I answer it. Before I can ask who’s on the line, the other party blurts out secrets in a variety of voices: I have a crush on Jenny; I shoved my brother down the stairs; Aunt Isabel’s favorite snack is cheese.
I tell myself that indirectly receiving other people’s confessions is better than making eye contact with them. They do not know who I am, they do not know where I live. I am merely a hotline in some perverted entity’s directory.
That changed when the other night, a rock wrapped with a note was thrown against my window. The glass did not break and when I picked up the rock and unfurled the note, I read “I touched her breasts” scrawled in red crayon.
I returned to the park and the notes, letters, phone calls, emails, and text messages stopped following me home. I’ve determined that if I was to be this living focus, it would be under my own terms. Home would be my haven while the park would be my office. I search the house for an appropriate receptacle for these secrets–one that would keep my conscience burden-free. I settle for an old mayonnaise jar lying around in the kitchen. There are bits of the original wrapper still on it.
Every morning, I remember to carry the glass jar with me along with my wallet and keychain. Whenever I see someone who so much as hints at approaching me, I open the lid. My solution seems to work because when I return home, the only moment that lingers in my memory is that of a pregnant woman sitting beside me and telling me something. I can’t recall her exact words although I do remember her nasal voice.
I do this for the next few days. I know I met someone today and that they told me something important but the specifics elude me. One night, I become curious and wonder whether this is all an insane, paranoid project on my part. I place my ear by the jar and I hear various whispers: I had sex with the driver; I helped sis with her homework; the office is missing a stapler.
I stopped listening to the jar after that, content with the knowledge that the secrets were indeed contained inside. A new predicament arose when I realized my jar was getting full.
How did I know it was full? It was during one of my trips to the park that a dark-skinned woman whose veil covered her hair told me that she left the house without her husband’s permission. The fact that I remembered it, even with my mayonnaise jar open, told me so.
I purchase a new jar but it too fills up as fast as the first. I purchase a new one and another one after that. Jars start to collect in my room and I discover that the size of the jar has little effect in determining how soon it gets filled up. I opt for tiny, more compact ones.
The jars are on my shelves, replacing my books, my dictionaries, my clothes, my Bible. I start to take pride in this collection although my parents think I’ve developed an unnatural fetish. Still, they indulge me and for my birthday, I receive a jar as a present. My aunt also gives me a jar for Christmas and soon, it is a whispered secret among family members that I have become some sort of jar aficionado.
I did not initially use the jars given to me by my relatives and I’m not quite sure whether that was folly or not. In the meantime, my abilities develop: people did not need to speak to me anymore to share their secrets. They simply sat beside me and I opened the jar. No words left their lips yet I received a brief mental imprint before the memory was taken by the artificial container I held. The moment I sealed the jar, it was the cue for my patrons to leave.
Soon, proximity stops being an issue. Even sitting at the back of the bus, I could sense and incoming secret from a passenger just boarding the vehicle. While pissing in the rest room, secrets seep out of the urinals, the toilets, and the faucets. I am tempted to open my jar and store all of them yet containing these secrets somehow seem unclean. They lack the potency of people personally approaching me. I let these secrets flow past me even as they promised titillation: who made out in the company restroom? Who has a foot fetish? Who are the billboard fantasies of bus conductors?
The park becomes my very own confessional box. Secrets I overhear elsewhere remain unanchored and drift into the ether. Because of my newfound abilities, I can immediately pinpoint who is interested in availing of my services and who are simply wanderers. A businessman is simply out for a smoke but his secretary wants to confess to me her illicit affair. A young Korean woman is out for a stroll but the jogger who’s out by sunrise wants to tell me the details of his previous night.
I finally pick up one of the jars given to me by my parents. It is purple and appears like a strange amalgam of plastic and glass. The moment I touch it I feel a tingle and almost drop the jar. I receive visions of father sharing a kiss with an unfamiliar Japanese woman. I hear mother’s voice constantly disbelieving that she is pregnant, saying that she does not want to have this child. I receive numerous scenes both familiar and unfamiliar: how bored father was during my first Communion, or how mother had sex with father after the fireworks during the New Year. There is a memory of father engaged in a fist-fight with someone younger than him and mother chatting with her girlfriends as she puts on lipstick in the women’s washroom.
I grab another jar but it seems I have exhausted my supply and the only jars left are the gifts from relatives. Auntie Marie’s jar contains images of her copying notes from a classmate as she studies for a licensure exam as well as her first visit to the pharmacy to buy a condom.
The jars are apparently filled with secrets of their own and it is only with my newfound awareness that I managed to detect them. All these secrets seem repulsive to me, especially since they involve people I know and talk to on a regular basis. When I see mom at breakfast, I recall her making love to dad–a scene I wish I could burn from my memory. When Auntie Marie comes for a visit, I know where she keeps her condoms, and it is a piece of knowledge that draws a peculiar and unwanted erection.
I immediately leave the house even if it is already past ten in the evening. The sari-sari store is closed so I head for a convenience store in hopes of purchasing an untainted jar. I settle for a good old Lady’s Choice mayonnaise spread and dump the contents before I reach home. A washing or two and this would be a serviceable jar.
The following week, I wake up to the sound of human voices: I want to get a divorce; I wish I had more tax breaks for having a dependent; why won’t he get a real job?
At first, I thought it came from the jars but when I look at them, they are sealed shut. I go down to the kitchen and find mother cooking some eggs and bacon while father his sipping is morning coffee. They are unaware that I can hear their thoughts, that mother put less salt than the usual in father’s omelet while dad is meeting with a friend later that day in the hopes of finding me a real job. The latter looks up at me and disguises his intentions with a greeting.
I force a smile despite knowing what was left unsaid.
I find a way to excuse myself but even as I prepare to leave the house, I hear the secrets of my neighbors, my best friend, my relatives, my acquaintances. From my room I carry as many jars as I can, all the while hearing whispers from strangers.
I search for a quiet, secluded, voice-free spot in the city–and for someone who knows everyone’s secrets, finding directions is not difficult–but every corner is filled with confessions: it was just a few thousand pesos; I’d like to punch that arrogant intsik; our savings account is empty.
I try to outrun the voices but I eventually trip and drop my jars, some of them breaking and cutting me; others crack but remain intact. If this was a movie, I’d be seeing my own reflection in the jars, but they are not reflective enough. Instead, I see my own blood, some from my cuts, others from the knee I scraped.
This triggers a new transformation within me and I suddenly realize that my accident was the result of a mild earthquake rather than clumsiness. Other revelations begin to flood me, such as the number of people dying at that very moment, the remaining years the planet has, and what lurks in the afterlife.
I learn too late that there are some secrets which are too burdensome. I want to cling to hope, to cling to faith, yet omniscience prevents me from fooling myself. For example, I know that you are reading this but do not believe. I’m telling you my secret yet you’re thinking this is simply a story.
Charles A. Tan’s fiction has appeared in publications such as The Digest Of Philippine Genre Stories and Philippine Speculative Fiction. He has conducted interviews for the Nebula Awards and the Shirley Jackson Awards, as well as for online magazines such as SF Crowsnest and SFScope. He is a regular contributor to sites like SFF Audio and Comics Village. You can visit his blog, The Bibliophile Stalker, where he posts reviews, interviews, and essays.
Artwork by Nelz Yumul.