By Eileen R. Tabios

—after “Untitled” (2016) by Isabel Cuenca

Isabel Cuenca, “Untitled” (2016). Acrylic on canvas, 48"x48".

Isabel Cuenca, “Untitled” (2016). Acrylic on canvas, 48"x48".


Once upon a time, she walked from sunlight into a grey building’s steel elevator.

“Well, yes,” she whispered at her blurry reflection against the steel walls. “I’m also just making memories that remain strong even when, in my last hours, I shall be dying.”

The stranger, though, would chide her “silliness.”

He left their bed to continue painting on the canvas he’d brought into the bedroom. He said, “Make memories for now.”

To clarify, he paused his brush, ignoring the scarlet drips to the floor, to add, “Tomorrows are just illusions.”

Jokingly, she reached for her notebook by the nightstand, as if to write down something about the moment. But when he turned back to his painting, she let the notebook slip to her lap. For the rest of the morning, the notebook page remained blank as she watched him. Whenever she lowered her eyes from his hands, her eyes tracked the painting unfolding beneath his feet—it was a coincidental painting, a side-effect of his unconcern over what fell between the paint brush and canvas. Years later she would admit she preferred the floor painting over what he created on the canvas in front of him.



Once upon a time, she approached a grey building.  No pots surrounded its austere entrance, pots from where flowers could have bloomed with thick, colorful petals perfuming the air with pleasing scents.  Later, when she observed this lack to the stranger, he replied, “Asceticism is freeing."

She turned towards the window so he wouldn’t see her frown. He saw through her effort.

“What do you dispute,” he asked without hiding the smile in his voice.

She sighed, then turned away from the winter sky for the grey in his eyes.

“I love roses,” she said.

His smile widened before it disappeared. No smile lingered on his face as he hugged her closer.  Against the nape of her neck, the stranger whispered, “Roses are ferocious.”



Once upon a time, a grey building contained a hallway of light that culminated into the interior of a steel box. The light was not at the end of the tunnel. The light left the tunnel to accompany her entering the elevator that would bring her to him. Wherever she would go within the building, the light would accompany her.

The light is with me, she thought even when she was on her knees before the stranger.

The light is with me, she thought even when the stranger kneeled before her.

She always felt joy, even when a mirrored reflection revealed her eyes damp with confusion.

She always felt joy, even when a mirrored reflection revealed her eyes damp with anguish.

She always felt joy, even when a mirrored reflection revealed her eyes damp with remorse.

She always felt joy, as she never saw a mirrored reflection reveal eyes flattened by indifference.

She always felt joy, even when a mirrored reflection revealed her eyes damp with pity.

The stranger never showed pity. 



Once upon a time, no grey building stood on the corner of 24th and Broadway.  For the grey building to exist, armies of workmen dug deep beneath the earth, excavating their way through layers of mud and stone to create a building foundation. The president of the construction company, anticipating his profits, exhorted his workers whenever he visited the building site, “To offer a haven let alone heaven to future residents, we must first dig through hell!”

Broadway extended the length of the city, but its corner with 24th Street was in a neighborhood unknown to her for reasons related to its nickname, “Tartarus.” Google will explain: Tartarus “is the deep abyss used as a dungeon of torment and suffering for the wicked and as the prison for the Titans.” 

The name repelled her, though gentrification had smoothened much of the neighborhood’s prior rough edges. The name repelled her because it seemed to her that she’d already spent a large amount of her education on the Greeks. Yet there she was, she chided herself, walking up Broadway through Tartarus.  When she reached her destination and felt joy as she raised a finger to jab at the intercom, she also couldn’t help thinking, What fresh Hell is this?

Later, when she revealed these thoughts to the stranger, the stranger’s hand paused before continuing to stroke her hair. 

“You do know,” he said as he caressed away sodden strands from her face, “the Titans’ only survivors are their poetry…”

She closed her eyes but immediately replied because she felt the answer would please him, “As it should be…"

But when she opened her eyes, she saw the opposite of joy in his eyes. In his eyes, she saw anguish rise. 



Once upon a time she entered a grey building, a hall of sunlight, a steel box, and a hallway whose ridiculous paisley carpeting she at first didn't see for the hallway mirror reflecting the years upon her.

She met the stranger as a 35-year-old infant.

Perhaps some interior decorator wanted to imbue cheer within the grey building's long dim hallways. But the ill-conceived decision made walking down the halls a dizzying experience. Pale green curlicues atop orange reflects nothing less than the ad nauseam aesthetic.

But perhaps, she would think years later, the dizzying effect had little to do with the carpeting and more to do with the nervous anticipation she felt whenever she approached the door to the stranger’s abode.

Sometimes, she felt as if she was wading across a sea floor as she walked down the carpet. The algae of memories. The coral of possibilities, sharply-edged in places. The water of Kapwa, the Filipino indigenous trait if interconnection.  All was a sensed logic—and consistent with what he observed to her many times during their enrapturement with each other, "Color is a narrative."

He also once said in a seeming non sequitur during an argument over something she could no longer recall, “Because color is a narrative, it’s best at times to use it sparingly. Orange, for instance, becomes more orange when it’s the only vivid tone in a palette.”

She met the stranger as a 35-year-old infant. She met him as someone with everything yet to be learned.

Eileen R. Tabios loves books and has released about 50 collections of poetry, fiction, essays, and experimental biographies from publishers in eight countries and cyberspace. Her most recent include THE OPPOSITE OF CLAUSTROPHOBIA (Knives, Forks and Spoons Press, United Kingdom, 2017) and AMNESIA: SOMEBODY’S MEMOIR (Black Radish Books, United States, 2016). Forthcoming poetry collections include MANHATTAN: An Archaeology (2017) and HIRAETH: Tercets From the Last Archipelago (2018). Inventor of the poetry form “hay(na)ku,” she has been translated into eight languages. She also has edited, co-edited or conceptualized 12 anthologies of poetry, fiction and essays as well as served as editor or guest editor for various literary journals.



Isabel Cuenca was born in Bacolod City, Philippines and is based in Houston, Texas. She received a BFA in Painting, with a minor in Art History, from University of Houston in 2012 and a MFA from University of North Carolina - Chapel Hill in 2014. She has shown her work at Inman Gallery, Lawndale Art Center, and BOX 13 Artspace in Houston, Oak Cliff Cultural Center in Dallas, Ackland Art Museum in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. In 2016 she had a solo show at Balay ni Tana Dicang in Bacolod City in the Philippines and is currently part of Filipino American Artist Directory's first exhibition, (De)Centered, in Washington D.C.