THE STEEL BRASSIERE by Iris Sheila G. Crisostomo

AT first I thought I was hearing the wind whistling through the termite-infested wall of Tiya Anding’s house. Wind on a hot summer afternoon? Dismissing the noise as coming from rats slipping through hidden holes and crevices in the old house, I rummaged through the remaining boxes for things worth keeping.

My visit to Tiya Anding’s house on J.P. Rizal Street was prompted by a public notice from the city engineer’s office that the property was scheduled for demolition to give way to the construction of an annex building for the town’s health clinic.

Tiya Anding was a friend who had no living relatives. When she died, her house and the 300-square-meter lot reverted to the government. With the impending demolition, I had hastily driven to that humble abode hoping to save a few memories of a past life.

One of the queerest things I recovered from the pile of old clothes was an old bra. It wasn’t fit for any young lady’s breasts because it was made not of soft cotton or lace but of cold and hard metal. A steel bra. What was it doing in Tiya Anding’s box? I thought to myself.

For several nights, my thoughts were on the brassiere. Two cones of stainless steel with straps made of hammered wire. I tried it in front of the elongated mirror in the bedroom after I made sure the door was locked and the children had retired to their beds. I knew Lindoln wouldn’t be home until midnight.

I laughed when I saw myself with the bra covering my breasts. I looked like a character from a Mad Max movie. The bra looked like pointed armor ready to deflect an ax or a lance from the enemy–a sure protection for the delicate female flesh underneath. I remembered Madonna in her skimpy get-ups, net stockings and all, her tits in similar, pointed cones.

After a while, the cold of the metal against my skin produced a strange eerie feeling. The bra properly belonged to an ancient warrior-princess yet I felt I was too weak to fight my own battles.

“YOU’VE been to the old house again,” my husband’s voice boomed from the bathroom. He had just finished shaving. I said nothing as I handed him the towel like I always do each morning. “I called the house at 3 o’clock and the maids said you went out,” he continued while wiping his chin dry.

“I was at the house all afternoon,” I replied, seeing no reason to withhold the truth. “The house will go down next week. I just took home some things.”

I thought I saw a smirk on his face when he remarked, “It’s about time they do something about that house. It’s rotting, anyway.” I wanted to walk out of the room in protest but didn’t. I was too kind–too foolishly kind.

Sunlight was streaming in through the open window. The curtains lifted in the breeze. It would have been a beautiful day if not for the conversation.

AFTER breakfast, I asked him for money because I would be taking little Gina and Jonathan to the park that afternoon. He took out P500 then changed his mind and gave me P300 instead. I whispered “Thank you” loud enough for him to hear but my hand was crushing the bills inside my pocket.

I had been married to Lindoln for eight years but it felt like I’d been living with a stranger. He was the champion debater in my class and he won me over an argument why two people needed each other to live: “A man needs a woman to take care of his needs and the woman needs a man to support her.” Later I wondered about the role of love which was supposed to be the reason why two people share their lives.

Lindoln was a good provider, the sales manager of a pharmaceutical company that paid well. He gave me a big house with a lush garden, a dutiful maid and an excellent cook. There was nothing more to ask but I felt I really had nothing.

“Stay home. It’s best for you and our children,” he told me after I gave birth to Jonathan. He thought he was relieving me of the trouble of working outside the home but he was really closing a door and locking me in.

I took the children to the park to see the great fountain that squirted water 50 meters high. With each squirt came sounds of innocent wonder as little heads looked up the sky, following the burst of crystal liquid that disappeared for a moment then fell back with a great splashing sound. There were shrieks of glee and the patter of little feet running to get nearer for a closer look each time the fountain squirted water once more.

“Mama, the fountain!” cried eight-year-old Jonathan. He was holding his sister Gina by the hand and leading her to the edge of the fountain.

“Take care not to get wet,” I called out. He nodded. I could see him smiling in the distance. He had his father’s winsome smile. I finished my ice cream, my second helping.

Later in the afternoon, we wandered through the playground and spent time pushing one another on the swing. Twin metal chains fastened the swing to a horizontal steel bar and once again the feel of the cold steel between my fingers made me think of Tiya Anding’s breast armor.

As the swing swayed back and forth, I closed my eyes and my hand went over my chest, remembering how the hard metal felt against my flesh. The wind was brushing against my face with every swing and I felt like a warrior riding with the wind, charging towards the enemy. Then I felt a drop of liquid on my cheek. Was it a tear? Was I crying?

As I felt more drops, I realized a drizzle was starting. I called out to the children and we ran to the parking lot but it was a long way getting there. I stepped on mud and slipped on the pavement made slippery by the rain. Jonathan came back to help me but I was already up and laughing at my own clumsiness.

The rain was now falling harder and I was dripping wet. Trotting to the car with the children, I found myself in a playful mood, enjoining them to guess which key will open the car door. There were about twenty keys in the chain and it took me several minutes before I finally opened the door.

By that time, we were soaked to our skins. Jonathan made faces as he pulled at his baggy pants heavy with rain. Gina was laughing as she changed into an old T-shirt she found in the car. It turned out to be a clean rag but she didn’t mind. She was just glad to be out of her wet clothes. I knew it was foolish to play in the rain but I felt no remorse.

As expected, the children came down with a cold and Lindoln kept me up all night with his how-to-be-a-good-mother lectures.

“Haven’t you any sense at all?” he asked, slamming the closet door with a loud thud. “No mother in her right mind would permit her children to play in the rain. And what’s worse, they did not even ask to do it. You actually invited them to play. So what do you call that?”

“I’m sorry,” I replied flatly. “‘Something just got into me. It will never happen again.”

“Unbelievable. The kids get into more trouble when they’re with you,” he barked then crept into bed with his back turned to me. I lay awake for what seemed like an hour before I heard a faint snore. Then I went to the balcony for some air. I wanted to cry. I wanted to scream. I wanted to laugh if it would help. For the first time, I felt nothing. Lindoln’s words which used to bother me into sleepless nights didn’t mean anything anymore. I looked up the sky but saw no stars. I felt no fear. I felt I could do anything and still remain unfeeling.

Then I remembered Tiya Anding. We used to walk together along stretches of empty streets with nothing but towering lamp posts above us craning their necks as if eager to listen. She would tell me about her husband, Tata Fernan, who used to berate her about her smoking. Tata Fernan hated her smoking. But Tiya Anding brushed aside all his words aside calling him a coward because he feared for her life.

“That old man just cannot live without me;” she said with a smirk on her face.

“And you?” I asked.

“You can say the feeling is mutual. We go a long way back. Had lots of fun together. He was never a bore. So how is Lindoln?” Tiya Anding always had a way of shifting our conversation to my husband. She remembered Lindoln whenever she spoke about Tata Fernan.

“Always too busy,” I answered.

“If that man could just slow down a bit, he wouldn’t be missing out on things.” Tiya Anding said, making a round billow of smoke in the air.

I WATCHED as the demolition team tore the house down, clouds of dust and dirt went flying everywhere. I thought of Tiya Anding’s similar emissions as a heavy smoker. I watched as wooden planks were pried from the walls and the old, rusty roofing pulled down. Doorposts fell like giant toothpicks against the heavy arm of moving machines. Besides myself, children from nearby shanties were standing by, watching the men operate their giant toys with ease.

When the entire structure finally torn down, I felt like I had lost a part of myself–an arm maimed or broken off in an injury. With a heavy heart, I headed back to the house thinking about Tiya Anding and her words: “That old man just can’t live without me.” Can I say the same about Lindoln? And can I live without him?

After lunch, I helped the maid get the laundry from the clothesline. After a few minutes under the hot midday sun, I went back inside to the kitchen for a cold glass of water. The feel of the cold pitcher in my hand made me think of the cold metal I once wore against my breast. The feel of the steel brassiere was as comforting and reassuring as the ice water running down my throat.

The sound of the ringing phone brought me back to my senses. It was Lindoln.

“Hey, Pareng Jimmy will be coming over for dinner tonight. Can you prepare his favorite rellenong bangus?”

“What?” I asked, still holding the cold glass in hand.

“I said Pareng Jimmy will come for dinner tonight…”

“Call again. The line is bad. I can’t quite hear you.” I put the phone down and leisurely walked to the bedroom.

And the phone rang again and again and again.

Sunlight was streaming in through the open window. The curtains lifted in the breeze. It would have been a beautiful day if not for the incessant ringing of the phone.

©2000 by Iris Sheila G. Crisostomo

This story has previously appeared in print.