Hans and Gretchen: A Love Story
Hans Christian Fontanilla was the kind of person whom one would have great hopes in. An all-time achiever, a music prodigy, a good-looking fellow with that certain James Dean swagger. He had deep, brown eyes that used to know how to smile genuinely. He had fair complexion, long hair, long limbs and his arms were filled with visible green veins that branched out into many directions, like they were intentionally drawn to form this beautiful green procession of cords and threads. He was the kind whom one would expect to live fully and die young only because he was too beautiful to grow old. In fact, he’d always wanted to die at 27, just like all the rockstars he’d wished to become.
He was born on July 4, 1979—a Martial Law baby. He came from a small, conservative Catholic family whose only concern was to be good Filipino citizens. Mr. Fontanilla never got himself involved in politics. Actually, he didn’t like talking about it at all, unless it had something to do with religion, in which case he passionately spoke up for the Church—“Like any good Christian would,” he’d say. Mrs. Fontanilla hardly talked about anything and Gretchen, his younger sister, only liked talking about books. Hans was the odd ball in the family, the sore thumb, the black sheep, so they say. He was Plato’s philosopher who got out of the cave. If it weren’t for one huge mistake, he would not have been banished from the Fontanilla household for as long as he lived. And he lived ever so briefly.
When he lived, though, he lived like there was no tomorrow. He was the guy who did not hesitate to have fun. In fact, “too much fun” was not in his vocabulary. When he began grade school, he already knew how to play several pieces with his first guitar. Fresh into high school, and he got to join a band with a bunch of college dudes. He was into guitar as he was into singing as well as drums, a bit of the violin, and the piano was his plaything. He also got into painting after he was made to leave the family. In fact, he painted a whole series of portraits of Gretchen and sold them all just to get by. Whenever his buyers asked him who the girl was, he’d answer “No one.” And his chest throbbed like hell every time he said that.
Hans didn’t like forgetting. He made music to remember, he painted to remember, he smoked and drank to remember, he got high to remember—until the memories didn’t hurt. But there was always something about Gretchen that killed him slowly. No matter how much he played or sang, no matter how much he drew or smoked or drank, no matter how many sniffs he took, Gretchen haunted him like a ghost. In the same way, he was a ghost to Gretchen, too. They were brother and sister but theirs was a love story that neither began or ended only because it shouldn’t.
Hans lived life on the edge. He tried to go as far as he could but his wallet would only take him as far as the country’s capital. His dream was to go to the Himalayas and never come back. He heard he’d find heaven there somewhere, the kind that would still take him in, despite what he did. And so, he worked hard to get to those mountains, the “top of the world,” never really admitting that he worked hard to return for Gretchen. But every time this came to him, he’d always shrug it off like it was somebody else’s idea that wasn’t supposed to intrude upon his own thoughts in the first place. In short, Hans lived a life of lies and ghosts. His friends were his music, his art, his drugs, the women who never really roused in him what it was like to love. And he died at 27, just like how he’d always wanted. He had a drug overdose that he knew he’d never regret because twenty fours before he succumbed to his demons, he saw an angel in the nearby coffee shop. She wasn’t wearing her ponytail anymore but she still had a book with her as she read Paulo Coelho’s “Veronika Decides to Die” on that particular afternoon. And she didn’t notice the man with the long hair and beard across the room who was watching her read the book until the very last page, until she got up and left a P20-tip on the table, until she walked out the doors and faced the late sunshine during that last orange dusk. Hans painted the girl who was reading, right before he killed himself and he called the portrait, “Gretchen.”
The family never really spoke about it. We weren’t supposed to. It’s been ten years now but there really is no mention about him, like he didn’t exist. It happened only once. And after that, it didn’t happen at all.
Kuya Hans had everything going for him. At seven, he could already play “Blackbird” on his guitar. Papa taught him that because he was such a Beatles fan but even he could attest that Kuya Hans could play the instrument better than he ever could. At 13, he was already doing the rhythms for Jailhouse Funk, a band that was initially formed by some college boys in our subdivision and they all called him Sly. But he wasn’t just good at playing strings. I told him once that their vocalist, Kuya Jeremy, was no match to his voice at all. No, Kuya Hans sang like Ely Buendia—high pitch, suave, no fuss, no frills—I loved it when he sang. I haven’t heard him sing in ages, he hasn’t been home since it happened (although nothing really happened). I wish I can hear him sing again (what I’d give to hear him sing again).
I am four years his junior. He’s always been the talented, outgoing, handsome and lanky young man in the family while I was the shy, little girl in a ponytail who didn’t talk much except if it was about books. My classmates used to call me all kinds of names: dork, bookworm, nerd, librarian, hootie (I’d glasses), and other really mean stuff but Kuya Hans would come to my rescue. “Run while you still can, you rascals,” he’d bellow but in a strange, cool and calm way—as if he were God summoning the dawn of light or something, except that he had that devil-may-care kind of stare (those eyes, those deep, brown eyes that weren’t anything like mine)—and all the bullies would leave, never to trouble me with their labels again. That’s my brother (I shiver at the word), that’s my Kuya (that, too). My hero.
Mama and Papa raised us to fear God, to always stay on the right track, to never stray. It wasn’t like the loving, fluffy kind of parenting we got from them. It was more of them laying out the path before us without ever really presenting any other paths in the first place. There was one right kind of living and that was it. We weren’t the sort who talked a lot over meals as I’ve noticed my friends’ families who did (and I wonder whether they also have secrets of their own). They always told Kuya Hans and me to love each other but they never really brought us together that much. I already had my own room since I was seven or so and he went out on trips with Papa and I’d have to stay home with Mama all the time. “You can’t join us camping out there, Gretch. It’s no place for pretty little girls like you,” Kuya Hans would tell me, caressing my cheeks, perhaps trying to comfort me. It did comfort me, except that it comforted me to an extent that it also left me a tingling feeling that was supposed to bother me. And yet, it didn’t.
For many years, that was how Kuya Hans and I would be like. Siblings, but not really. We lived in the same house but there was this wall between us, like it should be there for us to establish respect for each other or something, and he’d earn my respect. Of course, he did. Kuya Hans earned my admiration in every way (in every way). Mama and Papa were incredibly proud of him. I still am.
I was 16 and he was almost 20. He was home from college then (I remember how much I missed him every time he went to university and how excited and nervous I was when he was back for vacation). He grew his hair up to his shoulders. Mama and Papa disapproved of it (I thought it was quite becoming). I was pretty grown up, too. My period began three summers ago and the changes were already surfacing (I bet he noticed when I caught him staring one time with those deep, brown eyes of his). We were supposed to clear out my room because he was going to use up some space for his college stuff that didn’t fit in his room anymore. I remember it was a really hot Sunday afternoon and we thought Mama and Papa were taking their siesta. It happened in my room. It only happened once. And after that, it’s like it never happened at all. He never existed.