“SO, what happened?”
She had finally decided to ask the question. I had been wondering how long my Tita Loleng could contain her curiosity.
I continued to pick out tomatoes for the sinigang we were to have for dinner. I wasn’t usually the one who assisted my aunt with the cooking. She preferred my younger sister, Meg, for I knew far less in this area—not having the aptitude, or the interest, I guess—for remembering recipes. That didn’t matter today, though. This time, Tita Loleng wanted more than just an extra pair of hands in the kitchen.
“Nothing much,” I answered offhandedly. “We did what people usually do during funerals.” I reminded myself to tread carefully with her. Though I did not really feel like talking, I could not tell her off for she took offense rather easily.
I put the tomatoes in the small palanggana, careful not to bruise their delicate skin, and carried them to the sink.
“Did you meet…her?” Tita Loleng asked.
There came to me a memory of sitting in one of the smaller narra sofas in the living room in Bulacan. I faced a smooth white coffin whose corners bore gold-plated figures of cherubs framed by elaborate swirls resembling thick, curling vines. Two golden candelabras, each supporting three rows of high-wattage electric candles, flanked the coffin and seared the white kalachuchi in the funeral wreaths, causing the flowers to release more of their heady scent before they wilted prematurely. Through an open doorway, I could see into the next room where a few unfamiliar faces held murmured conversations above their coffee cups.
“Are you Liza?” A woman beside me suddenly asked.
I was surprised, for I had not heard anyone approaching. Most of the mourners preferred to stay out on the veranda for fear that the heat from the lights might also cause them to wither.
I looked up slowly: long, slim feet with mauve-painted toenails that peeked through the opening of a pair of scruffy-looking slippers; smooth legs unmarred by swollen veins or scars—so unlike the spider-veined legs of my mom—encased in a black, pencil-cut skirt; a white blouse with its sleeves too long for the wearer, causing the extra fabric to bunch around the cuffs; a slim neck whose skin sagged just a little bit; and a pale face that seemed like it had not experienced sleep in days. The woman looked to me like she was in her forties—the same age as my mother.
“Yes,” I had answered that woman—the same answer I now gave to Tita Loleng.
I gently spilled out all the tomatoes into the sink and turned on the tap. The water, like agua bendita, cleansed each tomato of the grime from its origins.
“What did she tell you?” Tita Loleng asked.
“Nothing much. She told me who she was.”
“What did she look like?”
“She’s pretty, I guess.”
She was. She looked like she had Indian blood with her sharp nose and deep-set eyes thickly bordered by long lashes. Just like Mom, she still maintained a slim figure though she already had children. The woman, upon seeing my curious stare, had explained, “I am Sylvia.”
All my muscles tensed upon hearing her name. It took all my self-control to outwardly remain calm and simply raise an eyebrow.
My reaction caused a range of emotion to cross the woman’s face before it finally crumbled and gave way to tears. Suddenly, she grabbed my hand from where it had been resting on the arm of the sofa. Her own hands were damp and sticky with sweat. She knelt in front of me—a sinner confessing before a priest so he could wash away the dirt from her past.
But I was not a priest. I looked down at her and my face remained impassive.
When her weeping had subsided, she raised her head and looked at me. “Everyone makes mistakes, Liza.” Her eyes begged for understanding.
It was a line straight out of a Filipino soap opera. I had a feeling that the whole situation was a scene from a very bad melodrama I was watching. I looked around to see if anyone had witnessed the spectacle unfolding in this living room, but it was as if an invisible director had banned all but the actors from the set. Except for us, not a soul could be seen.
I wanted Sylvia to free my hand so I nodded and pretended to understand. Apparently convinced, she let go and, to my shock, suddenly hugged me tight. My nose wrinkled as the pungent mix of heavy perfume and sweat assailed me. I wanted to scream at her to let go but I did not move away.
“Hmm, I think they’re washed enough na.” Tita Loleng said.
Turning off the tap, I placed the tomatoes inside the basin once more. Then, as an afterthought, I told my Tita, “I don’t think she is as pretty as Mom, though.”
Tita Loleng nodded understandingly. She gestured for me to place the basin on the table where she already had the knives and chopping board ready.
“Where was your Dad when she was talking to you?”
“Oh, he was sleeping in one of the bedrooms. Mom did not want to wake him up because they told her he had not slept for two nights straight.”
Tita Loleng snorted. “Haay, your mother talaga,” she said, shaking her head.
I had to smile at that before continuing. “When he saw me, Sylvia had already been called away to entertain some of the visitors.”
“Was he surprised to see you?” Tita knew that I had not wanted to go to the funeral. Actually, she was one of the few people who respected, and understood, my decision.
“No.” I sliced each of the tomatoes in quarters. The blade of the knife clacked fiercely against the hard wood of the chopping board. “He requested Mom to make me go there.” We both knew that I could never have refused my mother once she insisted that I attend. I had even gone out and gotten drunk with some friends the night before we were to leave just so I could have an excuse not to go, but my mom was inflexible. She had ordered my two sisters to wake me up.
Tita Loleng gave me a sympathetic look. “No choice then, huh?” She was forever baffled at the way my mother could be such a martyr when it came to my father and such a tyrant to her children.
Clack! Clack! The knife hacked violently against the board.
When my Dad had come out of the room, I remembered sensing it immediately—the same way an animal instinctively perceives when it is in danger. I had been looking at the face of my dead half-brother, searching for any resemblance between us. Chemotherapy had sunk his cheeks and had made his hair fall out, but even in this condition, I could see how handsome he must have been before his treatment. His framed photograph atop the glass covering of the coffin confirmed this. Lem took after my father so much that Dad could never even hope to deny that he was his son. I, on the other hand, had taken after my mother.
I knew my father was staring at me but I refused look at him. He approached and stood next to me. I remained silent.
“I am glad you came,” he said.
I gave him a non-committal nod, not even glancing his way.
Tita Loleng interrupted my thoughts with another one of her questions. “Did you cry?”
I shook my head vehemently as I answered, “No.”
I took the sliced tomatoes, surprised to find not even a splinter of wood with them, as well as the onions Tita Loleng had chopped and put them in a pot. “What next?” I asked her.
“The salt.” Then she went and added a heaping tablespoonful of salt to the pot.
“Is that all?”
“Uh-huh. Your Mom and I prefer it a bit saltier, but your Dad likes it this way.” Then she gestured towards the pot, closing and opening her fist like a baby flexing its fingers.
I started crushing the onions, tomatoes, and salt together with my hand.
“He was an acolyte in church,” my father had said then, finally splintering the silence I had adamantly maintained. “Father Mario said that we shouldn’t feel sad because Lem is assured of going to a better place because he was such a good child.” Good, I thought, unlike me whom he always called “Sinverguenza”, the shameless daughter.
I finally turned to him. There was only one question I needed to ask. “Why?”
He met my gaze. I waited but he would not—could not— answer me. He looked away.
My mask of indifference slipped. It felt like a giant hand was rubbing salt into me, squeezing and mashing, unsatisfied until all of me had been crushed.
“Stop it na, Liza!” Tita Loleng exclaimed. “Anymore of that mashing and you will be putting bits of your own flesh and bone in there,” my aunt warned. She went to the refrigerator and took out plastic bags containing vegetables. She placed them in the sink. “All of these will be needed for the sinigang,” she said. “Prepare them while you’re softening the meat.” Then she took off her apron, “You go and finish off here. I will just go to my room and stretch my back out a bit.” With a tender pat on my head, she walked out of the kitchen.
I breathed a sigh of relief. The questions had stopped, for now.
I poured the hugas bigas into the mass of crushed onions and tomatoes and added the chunks of beef into the concoction before covering the pot and placing it on the stove. I turned on the flame. The sinigang needed to simmer for close to an hour to tenderize the meat.
In the meantime, I started preparing all the other ingredients that will be added to the pot later on. Taking all the plastic bags, I unloaded their contents into the sink then washed and drained each vegetable thoroughly before putting them beside my chopping board.
I reached for the bunch of kangkong and began breaking off choice sections to be included in the stew. When I was a child, before Tita Loleng had chosen to stay with us, my mom used to do the cooking and she would have Meg and I sit beside her while she readied the meals. I remembered that whenever it came to any dish involving kangkong, I would always insist on preparing it because I loved the crisp popping sound the vegetable made whenever I broke off a stem. It was on one such occasion, I was in second year high school by then but still insistent on kangkong preparation, when Mom had divulged the truth about the boy who kept calling Dad on the phone everyday at home. Meg had also been there, breaking off string beans into two-inch sections. Neither of us had reacted much then, but between us, I knew I was more affected by what Mom had said because right until then, I had always been Daddy’s girl.
When the kangkong was done, I threw away the tough, unwanted parts and reached for the labanos. I used a peeler to strip away the skin—revealing the white, slightly grainy flesh—and then sliced each root diagonally. Next came the sigarilyas, and finally, the string beans. Once, I asked Tita Loleng how she knew what type of vegetable to put into sinigang and she said, “Well, one never really knows which will taste good until one has tried it. I mean, some people cook sinigang with guavas, some with kamias. It is a dish whose recipe would depend mostly on the taste of those who will do the eating.”
I got a fork and went to the stove where the meat was simmering. I prodded the chunks to test whether they were tender enough—and they were. After pouring in some more of the rice washing, I cleared the table and waited for the stew to boil. A few minutes later, the sound of rapidly popping bubbles declared that it was now time to add the powdered tamarind mix. I poured in the whole packet and stirred. Then I took the vegetables and added them, a fistful at a time, to the pot. As I did so, I remembered the flower petals each of my two sisters and I had thrown, fistful by fistful, into the freshly dug grave as Lem’s casket was being lowered into it. My dad was crying beside me and I recalled thinking, would he be the same if I was the one who had died? I glanced up at him and was surprised to find that he was looking at me. His hand, heavy with sadness, fell on my shoulder.
“I’m sorry,” he had told me.
I let the stew boil for a few more minutes before turning off the fire.
The sinigang would be served later during dinner. I pictured myself seated in my usual place beside my father who is at the head of the table. He would tell Mom about his day and then he would ask each of us about our own. I would answer, not in the animated way I would have done when I was still young and his pet, but politely and without any rancor.
Then, he would compliment me on the way I had cooked his favorite dish and I would give him a smile that would never quite show, not even in my eyes. Ω
This story is a BPSS original.