By Rosalinda Flores and Ben Crisp
The coffee was still too hot, so I cradled the foam cup between my knees and lit my last cigarette.
My last ever, I promised myself, as I had done the day before.
The park was mostly empty. The sun had not yet crept above the horizon, to burn the dirty greyness from the dawn sky, and it would be at least an hour before the rest of the city left the their homes to brave another miserable taglamig day outside.
There had been reports of another journalist shot in Manila. I had long grown used to such news, acknowledging it with a kind of postured indifference that my ex-girlfriend had found no comfort in. It didn’t matter to her that I was relegated to the smallest sections of the sports pages; I was white, and besides, could not an outraged sports fan be just as violent as a vengeful gangster or deranged terrorist? She was probably right. Still, I found comfort in my own sense of insignificance. Speaking barely a word of Filipino, and – some had argued – only just enough English to get by, I would never rise to the ranks of martyrdom like my braver, more talented brethren. I may have been white, but with no money, no connections and no friends I was worth nothing to anyone.
A familiar figure appeared from behind the trees that formed the arched entrance to the park. She always wore yellow dresses, or perhaps the same yellow dress, that danced beneath her knees. She was pretty, or at least she gave an impression of prettiness from across a distance too far to know for sure. She meandered, indecisive, between the benches scattered beneath pines that brushed the air in the morning breeze, before choosing the one she always chose.
It faced the statue of the Madonna that stood upon a plinth in the centre of a small pond. It was a simple carving, as they all were; achieving no greatness in aesthetic or skill. The virgin’s head tilted to one side, serenely, eyes opened wide and her hands stretched out in blessing - not, as it had always appeared to me, shrugging as if to say: what?
To the pinay in her yellow dress she was captivating. She sat before the statue, alternating between long, lingering stares and moments with head bowed, eyes closed, I guessed, though I was too far away to know.
I sipped my coffee and watched her watching the Madonna, killing time as I waited for my day to begin.
There was no place to go, but here.
I was raging as always, to imperfections. As such, at least, be perfect in front of this holy woman.
Something stirred into my memory, while I uttered chants I couldn’t even understand. So, this holy woman people called their mother, and the Catholics believed to be the mother of Christ, had always stunned me. No, she did not stun me like ghosts scared, but her benevolence scared my sins and inspired me to hope. At least, in this way, I could re-organize my undecided life.
At least, I’d be prim in front of her, confident in front of her; complete. Apart from my whoring affairs to get money, I wished some guy would come back for me, as my yellow dress meant waiting.
In a few weeks, my boyfriend, a married man, would decide whether to marry me and annul their marriage, or leave me for his wife. Of all the men in my life, I just got into material quests so I could sustain my falling business, but this married man was different because he thrilled my every need, other than desire.
We’ve been on and off this love affair for two years now, and I could see how he craved for my being, because of his maid wife. “My wife compared to your diplomas is only good for a housekeeper,” he told me.
And so, I summoned him. “You must choose between me and your wife.” In a few weeks, I hoped, he’d be back to cuddle me and present me a diamond engagement ring.
A yellow dress would be good to wear all the time! I’d go for this good luck hype.
“Oh, would you always come back for me, Madonna?”
In my thoughts I chanted, “My boy friend would come back for me; heaven might let the maid wife curse me, but what can I do? I have to steal something to love me, or else I won’t stop whoring. Who would come back for me? Maybe, a thousand other men, to prance on my neck and mark it “Hey, I’ve got your ass, too.” Will I be punished for ruining a sacred matrimony or stealing a father?
In this place, was something more real and tender. “Love me tender, love me sweet… Oh, my love complete,” I hummed. After my love affairs, here was the only concrete and beautiful thing.
Across the benches, of this, which I called a sanctuary, were a few others who breathed solace like me. Perhaps. One could be on a fitness program, another read a newspaper, and still another guy, sipped his brew. This guy, sipping his brew, could be thinking nuts like me. Or could he be thanking the magnificence of another day, while he looked up the sky, bowed low for his cup, and darted again, in front this Madonna?
Or would he look at me, too? His gaze was flaming hot. For what thoughts, he could have sensed my urgent pleading to this holy statue, sublime in simplicity and honesty. “Well, we’re flesh and bones, but if for moments, we could be holy,” an old priest said that during the mass I had attended when I was younger, so once in a lifetime I had been serious in the temples; so once pure, I was, before I came into this labyrinth. Would my pleadings echo around?
I caught him looking into nothingness, unconscious maybe, when he glanced into my space and my confused efforts. That time, when he raised his cup, swallowed and sipped again, I thought he was a handsome bum.
It must be nice, I thought, to have some sort of certainty in life.
To be able to look to a faith to guide you when reality – that deluge of chaos that tears at the flesh and soul – is inescapable. Or maybe she just liked the statue.
More people began to trickle into the park. The illusion that this was my place began to fade, like it always did, as the sun drew long shadows on the ground; soon it would be time for work. Once I had enjoyed the anonymity of living in a big foreign city. Now, I feared, solitude was decaying into loneliness and I felt myself disappearing into the crowds that lined the streets each day.
She finished or paused whatever thoughts had held her and stood up to leave, as though in a sudden hurry.
Was this my life? Watching others from outside a window like a child at a pet store?
It took a moment for me to notice the sliver of yellow beneath the bench. Curious, I stood and walked slowly across the park to the space in the front of the statue. The impassive Madonna did not turn to look at me as I entered her periphery, and when I stooped to inspect I saw it was a silk summer scarf that had fallen from the bench; that same canary hue of the woman’s dress.
She was already at the end of the park, turning left out of the gates without looking back. The scarf in one hand, my other reached into its pocket to retrieve my phone.
comedwn sick. mybe flu. srry. tlk 2morrow.
I had taken three sick days in four years. Whatever else that devotion to such a badly paying job might be called, I reasoned, it wasn’t the symptom of a well man.
I quickened my pace not quite to a jog and scanned the streets when I reached the gates. For a moment I thought I had lost her until I spied a flash of yellow amidst a crowd of pedestrians moving across an intersection two blocks down. The traffic closed after them like parted waters and I waited, tense.
Overloaded trucks and bikes whined past at high speed in the dangerous dance of weaving engines that only the Filipinos can survive. A group of wiry children aligned at the curb next to me, chattering like squirrels, watching the road with unblinking eyes and gesturing to each other with their hands. They were preparing to cross. I watched them watching the cars, and when they darted out I sucked in a breath and ran with them.
Horns blared all around me, and I felt the thundering slabs of steel rush by close enough to feel the heat from their choking and spluttering motors, but after a few terrifying moments we were across safely – the children giggling and pointing at the idiotic white man.
The woman had vanished from sight, and I spent a few moments striding between street corners, standing on the tips of my toes as I scanned the faceless crowds for her. Then the yellow dress peeked out through gaps in the crowd ahead of me, and I moved again in her direction, pushing my way past the suits and the sneakers and the cell phones and sunglasses.
I followed her to a street lined with townhouses – the angular, rendered townhouses for people with the money to pay others to choose their tastes for them. I had gained enough ground now to call out to her from the other side of the street, but I caught myself when she stopped in front of a high stone wall to push the button on an intercom panel.
She spoke for only a moment and waited for a response, then the courtyard door must have been unlatched from within because she pushed it open quickly and stepped inside.
I was alone, on that lush and empty street, the scarf still wrapped in my hands.
As the days had been stressful, good times were numbered.
Friends came and disappeared. When people smelled you could not give enough, they stayed away. If they could not get anything from you or suck anything from you, merry days would be over; you would be out of the circle. See I’m out? They smelled they couldn’t get much from me.
“Good morning, Miss!”
Where is he?
“Please see him in the living room.”
He was sitting in his wheel chair. He was reading the newspaper and a glass of water was on the table. Postcards were scattered, a record book, and medals of his faith. He was supposed to be a priest, but due to weak health, he didn’t get it through. Instead, he ventured on a business that earned him a fortune.
I always borrowed from this man, and he was the only one who didn’t tax me. As people could see outside, he lived in luxury – but his heart, it was benevolent to any creature who would seek his help. The only thing that he asked from me was to help him on his records and choose medals for him, which I really liked. He collected stones, as well; precious and non precious; even diamonds.
“What’s the problem?”
It is the same as yesterday.
“The love affairs...”
Yes. And he will be back for me soon.
“Could you be happy...”
Yes, you know I love him so much. I danced in front of him.
“You are must be mad.”
Yes, I am. I thought we could be married.
“Next time he would sell you for a gold coin.”
We sorted out the medals. Some were very, very old. Some were new. Some were uniquely precious and of great value. In a while, he got something inside his fist and told me.
“Close your eyes. Give me your hands.”
Nah, you will play up on me.
“I’m serious now. I have something for you to drive evil spirits away.” He teased me.
You and your fart! I laughed out loud. My sad laughter filled the quiet room.
“I said open your hands!”
Okay, Sir, here it is.
I closed my eyes and slowly he dropped the object in my hand. “Magic, here!” My palms were excited and cold, just like when one student told me to open my hands across snowy Japan, then surprised me with a Sakura. She told me, she liked me a lot, offering me the national flower of her country. And now, was another guessing moment.
Is it another precious gem?
“Hold it carefully and see for yourself.”
That time was special. I could see his face full of compassion for someone weary. I felt it was an act of consolation to blow zeal to my broken spirit. It was as though a magic clock made me a princess or sent me somewhere in another time like, Alice in Wonderland. What I held in my hands was dear to my heart, and the feeling was all of a child so loved dearly: free and happy. It was a gold heart locket; an old one, embed with red tiny rubies. Inside was a picture of the Madonna. He knew I liked the Madonna. My throat tightened and my eyes blurred with clouds of water. And then, his hands came gentle on my cheeks. He smiled and hugged me, tight.
I was certain I would get a chain for this. My ringing phone intruded. He told me, “Go now.”
“Why do you want me to leave? Am I disturbing your holy hours?”
“No, you need to go and find what will make you happy. And that boyfriend? Stay away from him. Do you think he’ll marry you for real? He has got a wife.”
Before I left his house, he’d always tell me the same reminders. That was what I evaded. I couldn’t let any one, not even my family or closest friends mock my boyfriend. It was time to leave again.
“Thank you for the Madonna.”
I hurriedly kissed him and went out of the house. I didn’t look into my phone to check, nor answer it. My boy friend was always exciting, as there might be something confidential – not business, not updates, but the tweets and yearnings of him.
Outside, when the gate was closed, I dialled his number. He was the one who called. Was he meeting me? I waited. He wasn’t answering the phone. I tried calling him again, but still, there was no answer. I texted, “Plz answr ur phne nw. I miss you so much.” As I walked the empty street, the air glistened to me. I was reminded, of my separation with him, my incompleteness, and that I was only, waiting for crumbs.
As I looked the next post, I saw that same white guy, walking and holding something that was mine. Was it my scarf?
“Yes,” I said, gesturing pointlessly down the street as I crossed to her. “I… you left it at the park.”
“Thank you,” she said, reaching out a hand to take it. She brushed a loose strand of hair back and squinted at me. “I have no money, sorry. But thank you.”
“No, you don’t… I didn’t want a reward. Are you alright? You look upset.”
She turned away, and I wondered how I could be so direct to this perfect stranger.
“I’m sorry,” I said. “I’m inquisitive.”
“OK,Yankee Steve. I have to go now,” she said, and started to walk.A stupid, mad chuckle escaped my mouth and I caught it quickly in my hand as I chased after her.
“No, not… it means I’m nosy. I’m curious, sorry. Like a cat, you know.”
She stopped and squinted at me again, as though wondering whether to smile at this insane white man or not. Then she pointed at my nose. “Curiosity kills the cats.”
“Yes it does,” I said, nodding. “Do you want a coffee?”
She turned and started walking again. “If I had money I would give it to you, but thank you for bringing my scarf.”
I chased after her. “No! No, it’s nothing to do with… I want nothing from you. I just thought you looked like you could use a coffee.”
Her squinting tortured me. I had no clue what was going on behind those stern brown eyes, and not knowing this little thing was vanishing all that I did know; every instinct was fading from me.
“I’m a journalist, I’m not…” I said helplessly, and shrugged. Not what?
She shrugged back.
“Your boyfriend’s house?” I asked as we sat at a table beneath a red canvas umbrella.
“Why do you think that?”
“The locket.” I pointed at the little golden heart turning restlessly between her thumb and forefinger. She snapped it into her palm defiantly.
“The scarf is from my boyfriend,” she said, pulling it from her neck and resting it on the table as our coffees arrived.
I tore open a sugar packet and tapped it into my cup. “I’ll bet you chose it. It matches your dress.”
She checked her phone and did not answer me. I was right.
“You drink too much coffee,” she said at last, after she had sighed and tucked her phone away again. “Caffeine is bad for the heart.”
I shrugged again. “Everything is bad for the heart these days.”
We sipped from our cups and ventured into the silence that filled the air around us. Empty, silent air; it choked me more than smoke. Was that why my fingers reached for last cigarette after last cigarette after last cigarette?
“May I see?” I said, and held out my palm.
She stared at me through steam rising from her coffee, a cradle of warmth between her two soft hands; then lowered the cup, unfolding her fingers to proffer the locket.
It was of the yellow gold I had never admired, adorned with rubies that might have been real, or might have not; and not knowing made them seem worthless. A tiny clasp unhinged its two halves, splitting the fragile little heart in two, revealing a miniature biscuit-tin print of the veiled Madonna.
“Lucky charm?” I asked.
“She is pure. Perfect. Everything else is dirty in the morning.”
“Nothing’s quite as pretty as Mary in the morning,” I sang in my best Elvis voice, but she did not smile. A digital chirrup sounded beneath the table, and she withdrew her phone swiftly, reading the message with that same familiar squint.
“Boyfriend?” I asked.
She reached out and took the locket back, standing as she did so.
“I have to go. Now.”
Her voice had a tiny tinge of urgency to it. I stood too.
“Thank you for the coffee,” she said as she started to walk away.
I was about to remind her that I hadn’t actually offered to pay for her drink, but changed my mind and dropped a handful of coins on the table instead, following her.
“Your scarf,” I said, offering it to her. She snatched it from me with a little noise of annoyance – at herself or at me I was not sure. “It’s Michael, by the way.”
“Violeta,” she said.
She began to murmur underneath her breath as she quickened her pace. I was almost jogging just to keep up with her, my hands in my pockets as though we were just two friends in a mutual hurry. She was praying, I realised; every other word of the rosary filtered from her lips through the noise of the traffic – into which she suddenly stepped, waving her hand at a Corolla with barely readable taxicab printing that skidded to a halt beside her.
“Where are you going?” I asked.
She glanced at me like an impatient schoolteacher as she grabbed at the door.
“Hospital,” she said.
“Then Michael hop in! Or would you leave now?” So we boarded the Corolla.
I didn’t know what this guy wanted from me, but I didn’t care less because my thoughts were horrible. I knew something would happen, and whatever fate again would present to me – as to my friend Hannibal’s wisdom was to be happy and free. I assured myself that what could happen to my boyfriend was reality, like the shifting of clouds – we just couldn’t stop their movements, only God can. The next thing I felt our hands were tightly locked, and Michael’s gaze trying to seize my brokenness.
“Is there something I can do?” he asked.
“Nothing. Thank you.”
Lane upon lane, track upon track; my mind whizzed the clouds, the nothingness, the coldness of my fright, the fallen hopes, the waiting, my single life of faith. At this time, the locket...
“Don’t worry. We’ll get there.” Michael asserted.
And then, in my bag the phone buzzed again. I grasped the phone firmly, but my hands were weak so the phone dropped down the cab floor. Michael got it and read the message.
I did not mind his resolve. The driver was silent with only the twist of his wheels. The air was cold and my heart pounded heavily like rocks on my chest breaking for mercy. “Oh, Maria!”
Silence in the cab, in the air, near the afternoon... Michael didn’t say any word, but searched the locket for me and put them in my hands. He held me close and I did not resist the comfort of his arms around my bereft shoulders that needed warmth and flesh.
“We’d go to the back office of the hospital, Violeta. The staff will give us instructions...”
I paid the driver as she sprang from the taxi.
My only thought during the ride was that I could not remember the last time I had hugged someone out of the simple instinct to comfort; when had the act of touch become so foreign?
That’s all the second text had said.So whatever disaster had befallen him had not restricted his use of a phone. I hated myself for the unkind thought. Had my ex looked as Violeta looked, whenever I had told her I was ill?
The nurse at the back office desk glanced at the clipboard hanging by her side. Emergency. Bay 212. Violeta hurried ahead and I followed, helplessly, at a distance. I thrust my hands into my pockets and peered through the gridded windows on the doors as we walked the length of the corridor, my lungs filling with the smell of disinfectant. The figures in the beds looked so small and vulnerable. As Violeta stopped ahead of me I realised they were children. The realisation shook in me, and my fingers closed around something in my pocket. The familiar scratch of a paper curl on skin. A forgotten cigarette.
I stood behind her. Through the window in front of us I saw a dimly lit room. A woman leaned forward in a chair, her back to us. Her hands were clasped around the hand of a boy who lay motionless in the hospital bed. From where I stood I could see his eyes were not quite closed, fine red lines crossing his face around them. Machines surrounded him, their cables disappearing under his sheet, electric green and blue lights winking and flickering softly.
Across the bed from the woman stood her husband. I recognised him. I had seen his face in newspapers; a politician, maybe. He was short, dressed in a dark business suit. His hands were deep in his pockets and he stood, slumped, staring at the boy with a strange look on his face. It was the look of a man for whom the curtain of life had been pulled aside, and he saw nothing behind it.
His glassy eyes drifted from the boy across the room to the door. He saw Violeta. He saw me. I glanced at Violeta, her eyes now welling. Across the space, through the glass, the two of them were sharing a look filled with all the sadness, the sweetness, the tenderness and heartache that I had ever known love to be about. It was then I felt alone, as the lonely will do, rain soaked neighbour to the world of the loved. A world for those who felt the warmth of others even when parted, and who felt another’s pain.
I felt pain. I felt Violeta’s, as she felt her lover’s, as she felt and he felt the pain of his son, and the mother did too, and I; all of us there in the chapel of pain, Our Lady of the Sacred Heart Hospital.
He looked to his wife, and Violeta turned from the window, her hands to her mouth, eyes searching for some solace in mine. I curled an arm around her shoulder and walked her to the stairwell at the end of the ward. As we rose, step by step, I heard the rooftop doorway humming a mellow chant between the cold conditioned inside air and the free and humid day outside.
On the roof we stood and stared, listening together as the yellow scarf fluttered in morning eddies, and I saw… I saw, across the avenue, beyond the cries and howls and mirth of the city streets, through a border of bricks and bolts and steel, perched on a plinth in the centre of a pond, the concrete Madonna.
Perhaps love was not pure, but stained. Perhaps love was not harmony, but discord. Perhaps love came in all the shades of earth and grime, and in the moist and dirty breath of the taglamig air that brushed our faces on mornings such as this.
Violeta prayed in silence beside me, and I lit my last cigarette.
My last ever, I promised myself, as I had done the day before.
First published on Conversations Across Borders website
for the CAB Project (2012/june) : Air