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Bree Jonson and the outrageous pursuit of hope

By REGINA BELMONTE Published Oct 13, 2021 1:11 pm Updated Oct 13, 2021 1:12 pm

Sometimes I’m afraid that the sound of her laugh is beginning to fade from my memory as early as now, which is absurd because it was such a distinct, goofy laugh, and it came out of her mouth so often when we were together.

That’s one of the things that frustrates me most about the conversation surrounding my friend Bree — that so much of what heartbreakingly little noise there has been is coming from people who never had the privilege of knowing her, instead of the ones who loved her and actually knew her. That some of the loudest voices hazarding guesses at their version of her story have the audacity to make such damaging assumptions and insinuations about her character when she can no longer defend herself.

That the people whose responsibility is to find the truth could so casually toss out words like suicide, justified by phrases like psychosocial disorder, or she was afraid he was going to leave her for Europe/another woman/flimsy excuse of the day, as if Bree didn’t have her condition fully managed through therapy and medication, as if Bree wasn’t a consummate survivor and so proud of the fact, as if Bree wasn’t one of the most fiercely independent and self-sufficient people I knew, as if Bree didn’t have so many plans that were about to come into fruition, as if Bree would ever do such a thing in the presence of her cat Atlas (let alone from a showerhead with either his chain or one of the scraps of sheer fabric she purported to call a bra, whatever the story is today), as if Bree wouldn’t first turn to the huge support system around her, as if Bree would give up her dreams over something as paltry as the affections of some guy she’d only been dating for two months — and what beautiful dreams they were, all within reach of her incredible talent and drive.

She just really, really cared.

As if Bree weren’t excited about everything she had to live for.

Sometimes I look at my phone and still think that maybe she’s just about to text me. I don’t know why I still hope. But I do. “Hey babe!”

As is typical of the Manila Underground, I can’t quite pinpoint when exactly I met Bree, except that it was probably on a dance floor somewhere, which is where I met most of the friends I’ve made since 2014. In Manila, if you go to the same places and know the same people, it’s usually an indication that you’ll get along, even become good friends if circumstances bring you closer than the usual "hi, hello" of Manila social life.

In our case, circumstances was a mutual friend who had the delightful habit of adopting and nurturing girls she thought were cool. This fairy godmother of the scene brought ten of us together, recognising (correctly as usual, because Leah is always correct) that there was potential to create something special. We all knew each other casually, but after the first time we really hung out together and bonded, we realised that there could be so much more between us than the fleeting friendship of the dance floor.

It blossomed into real camaraderie, support, trust, and understanding. It was a girl gang of zero judgment, but a lot of sassy comments when you were making stupid choices — always, always delivered with love and affection, followed by tons of solid advice that came from a collective wealth of experience and perspective. With a few truly inappropriate jokes thrown in, of course, because we were all such irreverent people in the best possible way. It was a group you could run to for anything and everything, a tribe that made you feel loved and safe, suffused with warmth, laughter, and so much joy. We just got each other.

We didn’t hang out 24/7, or talk 24/7, but you always just knew that the Bad Girls would be there for you when you needed them, and often that was enough.

Bree, though, never failed to make her affection abundantly clear on a regular basis. I’ve spent a lot of the last few weeks going through all of our old chats, just trying to crystallise her in my memory, and the thing that has really stood out is that in nearly every conversation, Bree never failed to say "Miss you!" at the beginning, right before asking how I’d been (and really meaning it!), and "Love you!" at the end.

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When I was in the hospital with pneumonia earlier this year, she would message me for updates every day. She just really, really cared. She took very good care of herself, so when I would complain about the state of my health, she was happy to share the methods that worked best for her. We were forever forwarding each other silly memes — things that we knew would make the other laugh. I’d post a lot of my cooking, so she was always asking me about the vegetarian recipes I was trying because she was a healthy eater. She knew I was renovating my new place, so we were constantly sending updates about appliances, decorative elements, and design.

She knew what she wanted out of life, and she knew exactly how she was going to get it. Things were looking bright. She was hopeful.

“I can’t wait to taste the things that come out of your kitchen!” I sent her every picture I had of my rabbit, Pony, because she wanted to paint him for me as a housewarming gift. We were talking about doing Bad Girls No-Occasion Costume Dinner Party when my building allowed guests again. She told me once about a strange nightmare she had in which someone was offering to purchase her for ten camels. (She declined.) She once refused to get in a picture with the Bad Girls until one of us lent her some black eyeliner to put on. She was trying to convince me to get a cat. (“A Maine Coon, like Atlas!”)

But beyond the fun, we talked about our hopes, our healing, and our dreams. We were there for each other when things were hard — and we had a keen understanding of what the other was going through because we both battled (and continued to battle) our respective mental health conditions, and we were both winning. I finally had my depression truly under control, and she had extracted herself from a challenging personal situation with renewed energy, ambition, and optimism. She knew what she wanted out of life, and she knew exactly how she was going to get it. Things were looking bright. She was hopeful.

We were making so many plans to spend time together. It was always just a foregone conclusion that we would have enough.

She wasn’t only like that towards friends, though.

Bree had that rare gift of making anyone around her feel at ease, which is funny considering how intimidating she appears when you first meet her, which is even funnier because she is such a tiny slip of a girl, and I just realised that I slipped back into present tense there because there really is a part of me that hasn’t come to terms with the fact that she’s gone. She still looms so large in my perception. I miss her every day.

Beyond the black eyeliner, bold red lipstick, eternally black clothes, and her refusal to ever smile in pictures, she was one of the most engaged and engaging people I knew. She could (and would) strike up a conversation with anybody — and it would never be small talk, because Bree was the kind of person who was really fascinated by the way other people viewed the world. She was always interested in the dreams and passions of others. She wouldn’t waste your time with meaningless babble; she’d get down to the essence of what makes you tick, and then push you gently to pursue it. She believed in the dreams of others as fervently as she believed in her own. She wanted you to believe in yourself as much as she did. She was one of the most loving and supportive people I knew.

After Bree passed, in the Bad Girls Telegram group of which she is the only Admin, which means we can now never migrate from it, we began to mobilize. Sam mentioned needing someone to bring red lipstick, Cy volunteered to bring hers — a shade of Chanel red that Bree was the last person to wear.

It was surreal, almost as though it was all happening to someone else. Not me, not us, not Bree.

I don’t think we gave ourselves the time to really grieve in the wake of what happened. Across multiple group chats, everyone who loved her had a job to do. Someone was collecting funds for the wake in Manila. Someone was putting together a video with all the photos, clips, and media we pooled together. Someone was sorting out the flowers. Someone would go to her apartment and choose clothes for her to be dressed in. Someone was printing the giant portrait; someone else was lending a big easel from their gallery. Someone was organising the food. Sam was coordinating everything.

I offered my makeup artistry services because I knew we would need more than red lipstick to bring our Bree back one last time, and I also knew that she would never forgive us if we sent her into the next world in the baby pink lipstick and frothy white dress that most morticians default to.

“Mumultuhin niya tayo! (She’s going to haunt us!)I texted her good friend and sometime housemate Rae. “I’m actually willing to receive her multo presence. Bare face na para hindi tayo tigilan! (Give her a bare face so she never leaves us alone!)”

It was surreal, almost as though it was all happening to someone else. Not me, not us, not Bree.

On our way to the chapel on Thursday morning, Sam told us that she’d brought some of Bree’s favourite black clothes to dress her in, but that she chose yellow underwear over black as a final joke on our beloved friend. “Bree, sabihin mo samin ngayon kung okay ka lang sa yellow panty! (Tell us now if you’re okay with the yellow panty!) Send us a sign!” A yellow dragonfly started flying around the car, and we all erupted into shrieks of laughter and tears.

Bree, with all her tenderness, her spirit, her boundless talent, and her infinite warmth, wasn’t really there. Just her shadow, and the pieces of our love.

We began setting up the chapel in preparation, doing production design as things continued to arrive, as we were waiting for Bree to get there. Even until the end, perpetually-late-to-everything Breanna Patricia Jonson Agunod still managed to find a way to keep us all waiting. Classic.

When we were finally told that she was ready for us, Sam and I made our way downstairs. We brought some small speakers and played techno, which I think Bree would have loved, and which helped fill the ringing silence. And as we all feared, she was in a dress that looked like a baptismal gown, in a shade of foundation that was simultaneously too pink and too tan, and in bright pink lipstick that didn’t even follow her actual lip shape. She looked like a completely different person. That wasn’t our baby girl.

I prepared my things as Sam dressed Bree in black Marni and Margiela, looking through pictures of her while mixing shades of makeup on my palette, ready to sponge gently onto her sleeping face. The two of us, her final glam squad.

I don’t know how long I took, really. I think a part of me blanked, and single-mindedly just wanted to work to bring Bree back to us in whatever small way I could. Her pasty complexion, the slight hint of peachy colour in her cheeks (from dancing), her signature red lips — painted as full as they were in life. I managed to put the winged liner on one eyelid before breaking down into tears because suddenly I could see my Bree again. Until that moment, there was a part of me that still didn’t believe it could really be her. But here was the proof. I pulled myself together for the second swipe of eyeliner. This was the last service I would ever get to do for my friend. This was the last time I would ever be able to touch her. I finished the job.

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And then I let go. Sam and I sobbed into each other’s arms. Here she was, one last time. Our baby Bree.

Before we went back up, I brushed out her bangs, which had been sideswept with gel, to fan as they always did across her forehead, which for the first time in the time I’d known her was no longer sweaty. I painted her hands and her wrists, too — once so slender and delicate, which had in life created such beautiful art, in death swollen beyond my recognition. Well, apart from her chipped black nail polish that I left untouched because chipped polish is just so Bree.

Sam put a hair tie around one of her wrists, because Bree was always asking her for them. She tucked a note from Leah into her trouser pocket, and Cylynne’s Chanel lipstick. Bree’s mom placed one of her small silver hoops in Bree’s earlobe, and I took out my own silver stud to put in the hole next to it. I have its twin in the same spot on my earlobe now.

What they don’t tell you is that all the softness is gone. We dressed only the shell of the person we loved that day; smooth, cold, hard, and hollow. Bree, with all her tenderness, her spirit, her boundless talent, and her infinite warmth, wasn’t really there. Just her shadow, and the pieces of our love.

I don’t know what to write next, I think because this isn’t over yet for me. There are still so many questions to which there are no answers. There is still no justice. I don’t know if I have even properly grieved the loss of my friend because I am still so angry.

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Angry at the picture being painted of her as a suicidal, desperate, troubled, and clingy girlfriend, because I never knew her to be any of those things. Angry that they are weaponising the fact that she had a PWD card, that she took medications, when they were actually signs that she was working to help herself. Angry at the ignorance and irresponsibility of strangers on the Internet saying surely she must have killed herself because ‘they saw photos of her and she looked disturbed’. Angry that her case appears to have been swept under the rug, buried by the news cycles. Angry that I have no faith in this country’s brand of justice because I know it can be bought. Angry because Bree deserved — and still deserves — so much better.

Angry that she will never send me stupid memes again.

Angry that I will only ever hear her dorky laugh in video clips, and never again in life, never within the walls of my future home, over a delicious meal, surrounded by our friends.

I miss her in the small things. I miss her in the silence. I miss the Bree that I knew, but inexplicably, I also miss the Bree I will now never get to know. I will miss her always.

And if you only knew her, I just know you would miss her, too.

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