I KNOW, Filo I know," Paco told his imaginary self, "in a story it would be a cheap trick, and Nelson would surely deride it." But there it was! could he help it?--on the cab's front door was written, Great is your faithfulness. It caught him up as though it laid a mocking charge at his door, and as his heart tingled, he sensed that it was the last incident, entirely factual, which should illuminate the fiction of his past. But his own life story? "Ye gods!" it was farthest from his mind. And the last incident? why? The first day of the advertisers' conference had just ended and he was only waiting for Bianca at the balcony of Inday's candle shop, idly watching in Baguio's misty dusk the customers that came into the café below, when the cab drove in and stopped to let off someone. A pretty girl, her legs faintly luminous as she slid out, glanced up at him and hurried inside. It was the merest instant, lost at once. "How many such moments in a lifetime, ha Filo?" he gibed, but Filo only stared, wildly considering a moment's impulse… No, Paco didn't think the pretty girl resembled Bianca. Not at all.
Paco was creative director in the Asia-Pacific Ad World, Inc., and Bianca, his assistant, who took charge of the two biggest accounts with the company, Coca-Cola and Philip Morris. For quite a while now, whenever they had their coffee breaks and exchanged notes on the company's business dealings and enjoyed each other's bantering, he sometimes sensed a sweet yearning for her. She was young and alive, nice-smelling, pretty… But he would quickly repress it. "Ye gods, Filo!" he'd inwardly cry, "I'm past fifty and happily married. It's juvenile, your hankering after a lost youth, also called midlife crisis, haha! Bianca in her mid-twenties, could very well be my own daughter, and surely has not a few male friends, much younger, and not-unlikely, has a special affection for one."
In the hazy light from street and café Paco couldn't catch more of the cab's text as it drove away. It was surely from the Old Testament, the Psalms maybe, but surely too, this puzzling now was a distraction, a quick evasion. For some time he had wondered whether he could unravel to himself his own story. Then, perhaps, he might see into his future or, at least, the sort of person that he had become from which events still to happen must inexorably take their form. But what a strange notion, that if he were to contrive now his real life-story, just such a cab's message should happen just as it already has, as a twist to his past's fiction.
Paco smiled to himself. He was in fact, it seemed to him, always living his story, or that of his pathetic "other," Filo. Bianca had promised that she would join him at Inday's. He glanced at his watch, quarter to six. There were many things to talk over, they had agreed, but he wasn't eager to review them just now, he would as usual simply let things happen as they come. Filo would of course insist that he take control, but he knew Filo--at the last moment, he would draw back. No, certain things you just let happen, they take their natural course like the common cold. Sometimes, when you try to have it your way, things become a little perverse, as though they have a will of their own. The important thing is to avoid hurting anyone.
"Are you avoiding me, Paco?" Bianca had asked point-blank while they were having their usual coffee break in the office. "No, of course not, Bai," he had quickly denied. It was a lie, but what choice did he have? She had frowned but did not press. A simple denial was best, for explanations are like clouds, forming and dispersing, the words failing short, or worse, aghast to spell out the heart's agenda, embarrassed with its yearning items. There are simply no clear skies in human affairs, and so, how could he even begin to explain to Bianca?
Whenever he mentioned Bianca to his wife Agnes, usually over breakfast when they would relate some events the day before, he sensed that it agitated her although she never let on. An uneasy feeling would come over him, perhaps from the way Agnes looked, as though she had not heard anything, or as though on a sudden her mind were somewhere else, but her eyes would turn sad, as if a light there had been snuffed, and he would feel guilty and vexed at the same time. It would always make him vaguely apprehensive and irritable, her sad look, her silence, as though he had done her wrong, haunting him through his day at the office.
Agnes was the senior partner with four women friends in a law firm that they had put up. She often came home late, and after kissing him, looking up from his papers at his work table, she would quietly enter their teenage son Dylan's room and kiss him, already fast asleep, and later carry the laundry in her arms to the washing machine before she retired for the night. She called it a form of relaxation! She had a remarkable strength of character, managerial, down-to-earth, which often bared his pathetic inadequacy in practical matters, yet capable of gentleness, a rich warmth of affection and intense loyalty, but also to his secret discomfiture a fine, sometimes even caustic moral sense… Surely he had resented it at times,. finding no reasonable excuse, because he tended toward sloth and a happy indifference. Filo was poor refuge, just as well quite hid. O, he loved Agnes, and the future had often seemed bleak without her quiet affection, her cool efficiency…
What could be keeping Bianca? Paco lighted a cigarette. Maybe in a quarter or so, he could take a cab back to Pines Hotel to look for her. He leaned over the balcony and watched the small crowd below in the café's patio. A young man with unkempt hair swirling around his twin cowlicks, in faded jeans with a tear on the right knee, was sitting at one table, tuning his guitar and trying a few chords. A dark frail-looking girl sat close to him, indifferently watching the passersby on the street as she sipped at the straw into her bottle of Coke. The tip of her straw was stained a deep red… "What, Filo?" It was strange that Filo should be perturbed by the stain. "Maybe they're lovers, ha Filo?" he felt a twinge of envy. Maybe there was going to be a performance later, and would she be singing? Four guys were noisily talking and laughing over their bottles of beer and chicharon at another table, and rose as one with a loud cheer, "Rita!" as the pretty girl he was earlier looking at joined them.
A dèjá vu swept Paco to a familiar café, he had met Rita before! among other noisy customers, but as he looked closely at her, he was certain it had never happened. No, it was not possible, however Filo denied it. He looked again. Though the light from street and café struggled with the pervading dusk, Rita's face seemed to glow with a kind of companionable warmth. Just such bright almond eyes, too, and a full sensual mouth... Rita threw her head back and laughed, and Paco could hardly take his eyes off where the little delta between her breasts fairly glowed in the hazy light. Something snakelike too about her as she leaned over the table to touch familiarly an arm or push jestingly at one or the other of the flirtatious guys. "Like a snake, Filo?" however did he, Paco, get that impression? Filo sneered at Paco's recollection. He was only eighteen when he had gone up to Baguio for the first time and proposed to meet the woman caller at Star Café. She too had long dark hair and wore a tight dark red dress which showed her figure to advantage. No, she was not a Chinese mestiza like Rita, but she was not unattractive. Her name, she had told him over the phone, was Zita.
His parents didn't know at the time that he was attending the YMCA Summer Youth Leadership Conference. It wasn't right, they would have said, to participate in a Protestant fellowship. He went ahead of his friends Nelson and Deomund from UP Los Baños to see the city for himself the day before, enjoy the scenery freely wandering around, even perhaps write ardent verses under the pine trees for Deomund's sister, Celine, without the distraction of endless debates with Nelson on what makes a poem.
At the bus station--was it somewhere near Tutuban? he couldn't quite recall just now--after a hurried lunch, he noticed that his Dangwa ticket bore his lucky number: 7490. Neither could he recall where Nelson had read that 4 was in Chinese mythology the number for Death, but it had always seemed to him a good omen. He sat almost at the edge of his seat during the entire trip because he had an old couple for seatmates, an enormously fat woman with a can of La Perla biscuits on her lap where she would dip from time to time for a nibble, and a small, sickly looking man, obviously her husband, who was quite glum but would sometimes mutter and whine to himself. To keep from failing or pressing against the glum old man whenever the bus made a sharp turn, he would grip hard the bar on the back of the opposite seat across the aisle which had become cluttered with luggage and boxes. He decided the old couple wouldn't be pleasant company for six hours, and pretended to be dozing most of the time while keeping his grip with an outstretched hand on his bar. The fat woman never offered him a biscuit during the entire trip.
"Isbo! Isbo!" the conductor cried before they went up Kennon Road. The bus stopped at a roadside where, as the cloud of dust settled, he could see dark naked boys cavorting like nimble goats over the rocks and diving into the clear waters of a mountain stream that glittered in the sun. A number of passengers, among them the old couple, went down to relieve themselves among the scraggly bushes. It was a painful sight, the fat woman with her husband in tow navigating the cluttered aisle, stepping carefully over the luggage and holding on to the seats or the other passengers, as they made their way to the door. Outside, in the soft wash of five o'clock sunlight, the glum old man had to cling to the fat woman's neck with his left arm as he stood shaking, waited, and then blessed the grass and scatter of shards on the ground.
As the bus climbed the zigzag along the mountain slopes, Paco's ears seemed suddenly to have fallen deaf and then softly popped and filled again with the bus engine's roar and the passengers' incessant chatter. He felt buoyant and free, eagerly awaiting his first sight of Baguio as pine trees raced past the fat woman's dozing head at the window and flushed the cool mountain air with their fresh invigorating scent. His eye caught a waterfall dropping gracefully like a long, serene sheet of shimmering lace down a cliff crowded with desperate trees and shrubs. How he wished, as the sight vanished around a bend, he could get off there awhile to stretch his cramped legs and gaze at the silent marvel of clear mountain water leaping out of the sky! Was it perhaps an American colonial officer who called it Bridal Veil the first time that he climbed up to the site of Baguio from camp to camp on a relay of horses? Who was the bride he thought of--perhaps an Igorot maid, a village chief's peace offering… Paco dismissed his fantasy. Deomund would surely scoff: "So the past romanticizes itself to clear its conscience." When Paco saw the gigantic lion's head carved out of the rock over a cliff's edge, he knew they would he in Baguio soon enough.
They drove past villas and pretty cottages along a ridge amid their lush flowering gardens, a roadside café, a sprawling bungalow displaying its rich stores of woodcraft and woven things--Ah, here at last, thought Paco, the summer capital of government and the rich, the Shangri-La of honeymoons. The bus chugged tiredly on a narrow dirt road to its station, on either side a clutter of shanties and ramshackle stores, and ragged children playing among the litter of the poor--a squatter colony among pine trees vanishing down a ravine. Through the tall pines like towers lost in the gathering shadows, Paco glimpsed the dull gold-brown sheen of dome and spires, the Baguio Cathedral in the last light of day.
At the bus station, he asked for directions to Session Road from a boy vendor of strawberries in little rattan baskets. A cab driver offered to take him to Patria Inn, but no, he preferred to walk the distance, breathe the cool pine-scented air, and jostle with the crowd strolling pell-mell down Session Road as the city throbbed to life in the neon flood and blare of music and hubbub of trade and fellowship. He was in no hurry to get to his inn. His luggage was light, which he slung over his shoulder, and despite the long trip, he felt energized by the festive tumult around him. Neither was he hungry; perhaps he might just have a snack before midnight in one of those bars that he had passed. Never had he felt freer, it was as though he had all of life and the world to enjoy at leisure. He was glad when, at the inn, he was given a room that looked out on an empty lot, filled with the debris of a wrecked building but gazing out on Session Road so that, at his window, he caught still the strains of music from the bars and felt the quiet, undemanding companionship of strangers in the streaming crowd.
The phone suddenly rang, startling him. He hadn't told either Deomund or Nelson about Patria Inn. "Hello?" Perhaps someone had dialed the wrong number. "Yes?" A tinny rasp at the other end. "Who is it?" Standing by the large bed, he held the telephone set absently over the lamp at a low side table. "You don't know me," a woman's soft voice, "if you're lonely, I'm at Star Café…" Is it right to just--hang up' now? "Hello?" pretending he didn't quite hear. But she probably sensed his confusion. "Will you come?" So frank and direct a dare, and is he able? A listening silence like a spell. Who is she? "It's okay, I just got in…" at once he felt stupid. "I…" Yes, why shouldn't he just hang up, 'Sorry, ma'am'--a cruel touch! "Oh," a sigh, or so he imagined, "I'll wait, take your time." What lame excuse now? he'd be a silly "country bumpkin," in Nelson's words. "Alright," pretending casualness, a cool indifference. "I'll see you there." He heard a low nervous giggle, as to say perhaps how easily she had won! "Oh, how nice… I like your voice. Call me Zita." She twitters, and he is caught! but she cannot see, he had better have a hold on himself. "I'm Filo," the first name that came to mind "how will I know it's you, Zita?" Ah, what pretense, even the way he made his voice deep and resonant; he felt a tremor of adventurous daring. What will happen now? he had crossed over. "I'm in a red mini, with a white handbag," Zita's voice caught on a light mischievous note, "waiting at the counter by the cashier. Will you really come, Filo?" She was confidently teasing. "Yes," he was surer of himself now, "I'll have a dark-leather jacket on, and a blue cap," both which he didn't have, but he had already formed a plan.
She was indeed sitting at the counter on a high stool near the cashier, her long shapely legs catching the eye at once, and a glass of Coke beside her small white handbag. He dallied just outside Star Café to buy the Manila Times from an old woman vendor before he took a corner table at the foot of a stair where he took cover in the editorial page. Ostensibly reading--"Oh, just coffee, black ha," to the Chinese waiter who hovered above the page--he watched Zita cross her legs and lean her head a little on her left hand which she had placed behind her ear, her long dark hair flowing to the small of her back. She was not unattractive, just about his age, too, and she cut a nice sensuous figure in her red mini. He was glad he hadn't said, "Oh, so sorry, ma'am" and hung up. Something easy and nimble too about her movement as, she reached for her bag and took out a little mirror where she checked her face, frowning a little. This is for real, Filo, he thought, he wasn't imagining a temptress in a garden. Perhaps Zita earns her college tuition from tourists and vacationers. But now, what? Zita looked quickly around as she put back the mirror into her bag, then scanned three, four customers as they went in from the crowd of passersby and vendors on the pavement just outside Star Café. She straightened up, looked briefly in his direction where he slid between the movie pages and reached for his cup of coffee. For a split second there, did not her glance catch his eye, his solitariness suddenly suspect, as his hand froze at his cup? She must already have paid her bill, or perhaps, she was a favored customer at the café; pushing aside her empty glass, she spoke to the cashier, slid gracefully from her high stool at the counter, and left him stranded, somehow disconsolate, amid all the movies "Now Showing."
His eyes followed Zita's dark red form and quickly lost her in the crowd. But Filo still pursued her, calling her name. How he filled Paco with distaste. The milling crowd on Session Road suddenly seemed cheerless and indifferent. Passing by a bar called Melody, he thought a snack would feel like gravel in his mouth. Zita? probably his own fiction. Couldn't he just have walked casually up to her, confidently touch her arm on the counter, say "I'm Filo"… Now she was only an imaginary garden, and Filo the only live toad there, he could croak all night! He went up to his room and stripped to mock Filo in the bathroom mirror. Filo only hovers at the edge of critical moments, but does not live. At heart perhaps, give him breath and space for action, a schemer, and like all schemers, slinks away as the moment rises to its accomplishment. Ah, he was thoroughly punished for his empty daring.
"O, Paco, how long were you waiting?" He started at Bianca's cheery voice as she tapped lightly his elbow on the balcony's railing. She looked pretty and elegant in her plaid skirt, sky blue blouse, and a silken scarf around her throat. Paco was glad he hadn't gone back to the hotel to look for her. She always seemed to bring exhilaration to his accustomed solitude where Filo, he imagined, would just sulk in a shallow pond, his dreams awash in lichen. It was what drew him to her, not simply that hey enjoyed their imagination together in creating images and texts for their clients, it always seemed as though they were opening up worlds where they could be quite free, basking in their fantastic light; no, not only the free rein to their imagination, but her vitality, which seemed to sharpen a sad knowledge, long denied, that he had missed those tricky and delicious moments with women in his youth's dry and desolate solitariness; Bianca's was a kind of wild electric vibrancy which often expressed itself in youthful mischief, when she'd slice into his seriousness with some witty gibe or even play a trick or two on his projects, deliberately confounding the mathematics in some corner of the budget (but she always found a clever way for him to notice the absurd error).
"I'm so sorry, Paco, I had to help the girls run photocopies…" "It's okay, Bai, I was just watching Rita." "Rita?" Bianca's eyes squinted with mock envy. "It's a secret." He wanted to see surprise on her face. "Oh… you were dreaming!" she jeered blithely. "Look there… but keep your voice down. There, with those boisterous crooks. She's very pretty, no?" "So… you were dreaming." She looked at him, smiling, and he laughed. It was so characteristic of Bianca, scoring at once and taking charge, while he let things be, considering most as indifferent, and content to be left alone or merely jest and banter. "O, but I was also thinking, how do you steal an image from that scene for a Coca-Cola commercial?" "Right," she taunted, "how do you rouse a cliché?" "Maybe you'd like to look around in the shop?" "No, let's go somewhere else." "Neutron's?" Bianca nodded. "The evening's so cool, Paco, let's enjoy it and walk."
They took the spiral stairs down to the café. As they passed Rita's table, Bianca glanced at her, the way a woman swiftly appraises another, it always mystified Paco why women seem instinctively driven to it. As they rounded a corner of the street, she asked, "Did you just invent that name for her?" "No, I heard those guys call her Rita," "She's pretty," she concluded, "with a mole on her lip which makes her a chatterbox." Paco couldn't help but laugh, "Such a serious charge, Bai!"
As they turned another corner, they could see through the dark cascade of pine trees down a winding street, dimly lighted Burnham Park and its small glimmering lake, now quite deserted. Neutron's was a private cozy café on a hill that overlooked it. Only a few customers were quietly conversing at small round tables. Seeming to flow and tingle like a brook in air were soft strains played by a pianist behind a trellis of flowering plants. They took a table in an alcove and ordered drinks, creme de menthe for Bianca and vodka tonic for himself.
"Well, you start it, Bai," as they waited for their drinks, "you said we have things to talk over." "Okay," fingering her scarf around her throat, "you just seem a little distant these days. Is there something… wrong?" "Really?" but Paco knew it was coming, Bianca was always forthright, "it may just be something that worries me… in the family, you know." He lighted a cigarette. Bianca seemed to study him a while. "Dylan is asthmatic. But we've been to an acupuncturist, I think it'll cure the kid."
Paco considered his white lie. It would be indelicate to involve Agnes; besides, his impression of her odd silences on Bianca might really be quite spurious. He remembered Dylan's first attack of asthma a month back. The poor kid barged crying into their bedroom, breathing heavily. "It's alright, son," he tried to comfort him as he got out of bed and placed his arm around his son's shoulder, "you can sleep with us"--as Dylan used to when he was little. But he felt helpless before his son's anguish and could only wish it were his own affliction. Agnes went to the medicine cabinet and set up the respirator. She took off Dylan's shirt and rubbed some ointment on his chest as he lay in bed, gasping for breath. Through all that, leaning on the headboard, he kept gently tapping his son's shoulder as to tame his drowning, and as he watched mother and son, he felt a wave of tenderness toward Agnes…
"Acupuncture?" Bianca broke into his thoughts. "Yes," he pulled himself up, "Dr. Jesus Santiago, he's getting to be quite famous. He trained in China, I'm told, after Harvard medical school." "I sure hope, Paco, your son gets well soon. Can acupuncture treat insomnia, do you think?" "O, I should think so, but I'll ask next time we visit."
They fell silent awhile as a waitress in a light green uniform came with their drinks. She looked at Paco with a querying smile, Would that be all? and he waved her away, "Just ice water, please, and an ashtray, ha."
He looked earnestly at Bianca. "I think I need to be sure about something." "What?" teasing. "Does it bother you, Bai, when people talk, I mean, seeing how were often together, they'd be gossiping soon enough." "O, I would just ignore it, gossips are so empty-headed." "Trouble is," swirling the ice in his drink, "they don't know how else to fill up." "Too bad," shaking her head. "Well, as for me, I'd actually be pleased," said Paco, chuckling and looking slyly at her. "I think it would sort of improve my reputation." "Meaning?" her eyes lighted up mocking. "That there's danger in my character," Paco pursued quizzically, but half-serious, "not all milk of kindness, you know; it has a dark side." "So has everyone, but then," laughing, "as to that sleazy fame you want, you'd be using me." "Gads, I thought you said you wouldn't mind the whole town talking." "Now I do, because--why do you want a double?" "The dark side needs light." "Paco, you're being melodramatic. Are you writing a story?"
She was close. Filo, it occurred to him, was not quite man at his best--Paco smiled over his drink--no, yet deeper than he knew himself, with quite a pagan notion of sexuality. If Eve, he'd darkly say, were the first woman, then woman is life's very source, and man must connect with her or be less than human; man is the parasite, drawing his vigor, his machismo, from that source, her sex. Gads! how Filo's silly notions carry him away. He crushed his cigarette in the ashtray.
"Am I writing a: story?" he echoed. "Actually, at lnday's, I was thinking that." On a sudden he remembered the near fatal accident with Agnes two weeks back that he had told Bianca about, and a strange intuition swept through his mind, a sense that for one deeply troubled and in denial, something just happens or erupts as though to express the unnamed distress. But how really stupid of him then! as their old Ford stalled on a slope along Krus na Ligas on their way to a reunion of friends, how could he have let go of the handbrake!
"Did you write stories before, Paco?" "No… I only recalled just now that near accident with our car." "Ah, that was terrible…" Bianca waved her hand as though to ward off an imminent tragedy.
But Paco couldn't shake off his memory. It wasn't so much the terror of that moment that shook him, but an immense feeling afterwards of sadness, as though for the first time in his life he knew emptiness if he should lose Agnes. But what stark mindlessness! When their Ford stalled, he had put the hand brake on, gone out of the car, and walked to a mechanic's shop they had just passed. What luck, he had told himself, for he knew little about cars, and Agnes would sometimes reprove him for not reading the car's manual. The mechanic told him to release the hand brake, or so he thought he heard, and he did like an idiot! opened the car door as he stood on the street and released the brake. Of course the car slid down, rolling backward without direction, and desperately trying to seize it by its side, he fell on the road where he barely had time and space to duck as the open door swung past his head. He picked himself up and scurried after the runaway car, unmindful of vehicles driving past up and down on either side of the slope. All this time Agnes froze on the front seat, she told him afterwards that she closed her eyes when she saw a truck down the slope, and thought he would surely go under its wheels.
"Hello?" Bianca shook his hand. "Oh, sorry, Bai… I got distracted." The same feeling swept through him, a great inexplicable sadness, sweet to the soul as it suffered the sudden rush of memory and in a flash seemed to have at last fathomed a great mystery. Oh, a tired truism. it certainly is, how each day's familiarity blinds one, and the easy companionship devours the ardor of feeling, and one takes the affection freely given, and takes it, like the air one breathes without having to take thought. Filo could be cynical about all that, and stand back and jeer, but right now, now, as he remembered how the Ford caught on a tree stump where it would have plunged into the squatter's shanties across the shallow ditch, the sudden tide of sadness was suffering almost more than he could bear so that his tears seemed to well up where he stood shamed upon a crumbling strand of his life's own time.
"Paco… is anything wrong? You look…" Bianca gently pressed his hand. "It's alright, I…" Maybe this vodka, suggested itself; no, he must not lie again. He felt strangely pure with the sudden resolve, a new wholeness seemed to surge through him. How could he in his heart return to Agnes if he didn't face up his feeling for Bianca, make a clean breast of it, and let go? Now was the moment he had sensed at Inday's candle shop. "Have I told you about Zita?" "You mean Rita?" "No… it was my first time in Baguio…" "Ah, yes, that woman who called you at Patria Inn, you played a heartless trick on her!" "I was only eighteen, and I think frightened. Nothing really happened there, but maybe it struck me then… about sex and women, you know." Ah, there was no help for Filo now, so daring in dream, who wouldn't think of jumping like Basho's frog! "What?" she looked mockingly at him. "There's that need… maybe we guys joke no end about it to sort of make light of it." Bianca shook her head, smiling. "Oh, you're just thinking it, Paco, intellectualizing it. It's the normal thing, but," laughing softly, "it's just to start things." He laughed with her, but the moment had come, although he had a vague sense of its rashness. "I meant to tell you, Bai… I'm quite drawn to you, but…" But it isn't right, oh, he shouldn't have so foolishly blurted, what need to be so honest?
Bianca looked startled, and the mocking glint in her eyes blinked out. "I know, Bai, it's crazy." She was silent a long time. "But if the feeling is honest?" It was almost a whisper. "Oh, it's honest, Bianca," was all he could say as he stared at his drink. Couldn't he have found another way without hurt to be open and plain? He felt oppressed by a feeling that he had transgressed a silence between them where their light heartedness with one another had seemed perfectly natural.
"Paco," Bianca placed her hand gently on his. She sounded distant and looked beautiful and sad and inaccessible. I'm sorry, Bai, it's crazy of me, let it go, he wanted to say. "Maybe, Paco, it's really just Zita--like you have to make it up to her." She let her hand stay on his.
Was she just saying it? But, Yes, he thought bitterly, it might be
Zita, for she had become a creature of his disappointed memory; but
also, No, for it was rather with having to be honest with Bianca, by
a hurtful bridge of poor words, that he had crossed over a darkness.
He looked at her as though across a great distance, "You may be right,
Bai…" he said, and pressed her hand. What words more? I'm sorry, Bai…
anything more would seem to mock the silence that he had in foolhardiness
transgressed. She smiled at him and released his hand.
This story has previously appeared in print.