It was the topic of discussion, the day he took me to sit in his Elementary Statistics class. He had on his signature look: slim-fit polos with elbow-length sleeves, jeans, and sneakers. He looked closer to a student than a lecturer. In his class, the boys yawned at the sky out the windows while the girls regarded him with glassy eyes and flushed cheeks, asking question after question, swooning at his careful answers. Everything about him was measured: how he smiled, how he modulated his voice, how he angled himself at the chalkboard. Whenever he went to the teacher’s table to check his notes, he would hold his hair at the forehead while he looked down. From the back of the room I watched him man his class like a blockbuster performance.
Five years later, I would go through my own Elementary Statistics class, the same lecture: measures of central tendency. The mean, the median, the mode. But by that time my Numbers Man was gone. On the night that formally marked the end of his presence in my life, I was roused from sleep first by the runaway jangle of my mother’s car keys, and then by her hurried whispers. At the door, he bargained and plead, thrashing his arms about and slurring his words. The precision in his act was gone. There was no formula to the despair in his voice as he staggered through the words sorry and stay, or in the way he angled himself as he kneeled before my mother. There was no formula in the horrid smell of cigarettes and booze exploding from his mouth and shirt, or in comingling of snot and tears on his face. Nothing was measured. What I witnessed, instead, was the randomness of desperation.
Parents are the convergence points of their children. They may rebel, they may run away, but a parent’s traits determine a confidence interval into which the child will always regress. In my case, I found myself gradually being drawn into the study of numbers. Despite failing grades in grade school arithmetic and high school geometry, in the end I found my home in means, medians and modes like my father before me. Perhaps it was the memory of sitting in his class when I was eight, of the elegant formulas he had written down on the board and that would take me another five years to completely understand, let alone appreciate.
Or maybe it was the memory of my father’s desperation while he tried to stop my mother from running away and taking me with her. Maybe it was watching my mother drown herself in sleeping pills every night after the fact, when we had absconded like war refugees into some secret neighborhood. I found that Mathematics could uproot the sharp teeth of emotions. It turned tragedies into statistics: 55 percent of marriages worldwide end in divorce; between the years 2007 and 2001, the number of pending annulment cases in the Philippines has jumped by 75 percent; and about 18 percent of children from broken homes resort to suicide.
It was the randomness of desperation, of human emotion that scared me into the certainty among cardinals and ordinals. So, I built my home among their company, training myself in the philosophy that if you can’t write a formula for it, then it doesn’t exist.
Years pass and I grow into a resemblance of him. Sometimes my mother would regard me while I’m crunching numbers on my laptop and say, “My, how you’ve grown hijo, you look just like…” Her voice would taper off at the end of that sentence, weighed down by the word, by the name, that came after. Words unsaid are always the heaviest, as I would later learn. I still see him every now and then, though not in the flesh. He shows up on TV a lot every time there’s an election going on. Personalities like Jessica Soho would invite him to their shows to discuss election statistics and forecast the results. All this time and they’re still his favorite words: mean, median, mode.
So where does this all take me? That would be in the living room of my apartment, sitting across the coffee table from my wife and a man I’ve only ever known from her stories. He’s wearing a tattered Nirvana shirt, quite apt for his long hair, and she’s not wearing her ring. She’s talking to me about moving away. With him. He regards me silently with a face halfway between smug and sorry. There’s no child anyway, she says, so it wouldn’t hurt anybody. And besides, she’s always questioned whether I loved her. All I seemed to care about are numbers.
Guess what, she says, you can’t write a formula for everything.
A ball hurtling through the air was parabolic function defined by the parameters of gravity and the initial velocity of the kick that sent it flying. The stock market’s movement was a function of economic policies. A drunkard’s walk was random noise. But certain things the language of numbers wasn’t made for, like love, or hurt. So I regarded his indecisive face, and her quivering lips, with a level of uncertainty much too high for a statistician to be comfortable with, feeling within myself, exactly under my chest, a God-sized void and wondering what its shape should be, or what it used to shelter. I tried to find it in the mean, the median, and the mode, until it was too late, and my wife and her new lover were out the door.
I remained on the couch, staring at the deadbolts in the darkened living room. It simply didn’t compute.