By ROSARIO CRUZ LUCERO
“Obey your husband willingly, trust in his guidance, and never show a pained or resentful face. Put up with your husband’s faults, no matter how bad they are, always remembering that the body, even when ill or rotting, still clings to its head, however ugly or confused this may be.”
~ Urbana to Felisa
Diva recognized the voice on the phone right away, though she would have been happy if she hadn’t heard it again in her lifetime. It was the only voice she knew whose Ilonggo inflection sounded like it was made of wind chimes pitched too high. “Divina, is that you?”
She had never cared for that name either. “Divina”—it had been her school name, and it only pointed mockingly at her clunkiness. “Diva” was her first symbolic break from the Bacolod childhood that she had been eager to turn her back on. After high school, she had gone to a university in Manila and blurted out this nickname on her first day in the freshman ladies’ dorm, when a roommate had asked her name. “Nice name,” the roommate said indifferently as she unpacked her suitcase. “Easy to remember.”
Now, decades later, Diva was suddenly Divina all over again.
The voice at the other end of the phone belonged to Lita Montinola, a high school classmate. Rene had died three years ago, she said, and she was just coming out of mourning. Would Diva like to come over and keep her company? She had a house full of empty rooms and Diva could pick any room she liked—even the one farthest from Lita’s own if Diva was still anti-social. Mwahahahaha!
It was the same hearty laugh of 35 years ago that, if it came from another woman, would have been called coarse. But only Lita could make such a laugh part of her guileless charm. It burst out of her to everyone within hearing range into her personal space. Even the way she asked her questions was not out of any uncertainty but was simply her way of gauging how much the world would need to bend over to accommodate her. And if it refused, well, she’d shrug her shoulders and go on to something or someone else more pliable.
Lita’s invitation was a surprise to Diva. They had never really been friends in school. In fact, Diva couldn’t remember if they’d exchanged more than ten words with one another then. There had been—she suddenly remembered—the one time twelve years before, when Lita and Rene had treated her to a buffet lunch in Bacolod’s most popular restaurant, but that had happened purely by accident. And even then, it was Lita who’d done most of the talking. Maybe Lita had remembered that day and thought that Diva had seemed to enjoy their company.
So it was desperation that must have goaded Lita into offering her hospitality. After the solicitous attention the other classmates had poured on her at her husband’s wake and funeral, life had to go on for those that death had as yet no claim, so she was left to deal with her bereavement her own way.
Diva had gotten trapped into that lunch with Lita and Rene twelve years ago, when she had slipped into Bacolod for a weekend seminar on real estate. She saw Rene first as he came out of the bank, his head bowed, frowning down at a sheaf of papers in his hand. She was about to brush past him, pretending not to know him, when he suddenly stopped in his tracks and they collided.
“Hi, Rene,” she said.
She didn’t know where that had come from. She had meant to say, “Sorry” and then gone on her way. But she’d already said his name and couldn’t now pretend she’d mistaken him for someone else. She watched as waves of various expressions washed over his face. Puzzlement as he tried to place where they’d met before, apology at his failure to recollect it, the slow recognition of her name as she introduced herself, and finally astonishment at his inability to match the name with her face. They stood on the sidewalk and made desultory conversation until she realized they were both genuinely interested in what each had been doing all these years.
“Look, Lita will be happy to see you again. I’m meeting her for lunch at Bob’s. Come with me,” he finally said. He was already pressing buttons on his cellphone to tell Lita that Diva was with him.
Rene had warned her that Lita had filled out somewhat, but he hadn’t prepared her for the giant beach ball that came bounding across the restaurant and enveloped her in a pair of elephantine arms. It felt like being cocooned in a padded cell.
Lita brushed aside Diva’s awkward attempt to hide her shock at Lita’s prodigious size. “Of course you didn’t recognize me! I’m so fat. This is what happiness does to people. Mwahaha!”
Lunch at Bob’s Restaurant was an eat-all-you-can mongolian barbecue. People were already milling around the buffet table, choosing which vegetable dishes they wanted to go with the tenderloin strips. But Lita was heaping nothing but red meat on her plate as she instructed Diva, in a voice loud enough for everyone to hear, “Don’t bother with the veggies. This way it’s an eat-all-you-can steak dinner for half the price.”
“But isn’t that sort of . . . bad faith?” Diva whispered. “I mean, doesn’t the management mind? After all, this buffet price is a steal; maybe we should just return their goodwill.”
“Hay, Divina.” Lita sighed and shook her head. “You may have been the class genius but you were never street-smart. Why, do you think these restaurant owners get rich on goodwill? We don’t owe them anything.” She still didn’t bother to keep her voice down. A few of the other customers were already beginning to follow her lead.
Rene and Lita were smiling at each other conspiratorially, but Diva saw that Rene’s plate held equal portions of meat and greens. She herself decided to leave out the meat and eat a purely vegetarian lunch, in some vague attempt to even out what Lita was doing.
Lita was laughing as they sat down at their table. “I can outsmart the best of them, can’t I, Rene?”
“I keep telling you,” Rene said, caressing Lita’s cheek with the back of his hand, “you can be very, very smart when you want to be.”
This was how it would feel, Diva thought, if she stumbled into their bedroom and witnessed something that not even husband and wife should be able to look each other in the eye about the next morning.
“Well, Divina,” Rene said, turning to her as if suddenly remembering that they had company, “are you here to solve our problems?”
Problems? Anyone who’d been married for almost twenty years certainly had their problems but what business was it of hers? Rene waved around at the people at other tables, from where they could hear snatches of conversation about harvesting and milling and sugar prices. Somebody was talking vehemently about pole vaulting.
“Pole vaulting.” It seemed that throughout her life in Bacolod, Diva had heard this phrase uttered always in vehement tones. Hacenderos, driven by desperation during the sugar crisis, used their bank loans to vault from one expense account to another. A long time ago, Diva’s mother had hurled it accusingly at her father when he came home from his numerous nocturnal excursions. It was the measure by which claims, in Negros, shrank.
Diva had once told her husband Ed about how meanings had accrued to the phrase, ranging from hacienda to domestic discourse, and he had replied, “There’s more than one way to skin a cat.” She couldn’t tell if he understood what she had meant.
But Rene knew exactly what Diva’s raised eyebrows meant when he laughed and said, “Me, pole vaulting? I haven’t gone that way yet. At least, I have other resources.”
“Ay, ambot ah!” Lita exclaimed as she shook out Rene’s napkin and laid it on his lap. “You two stop being so serious. You know how that song goes, ‘Don’t worry; be happy.’ That’s my philosophy in life. So let’s just talk about happier things. Do you know who just bought her mother a townhouse?” And without waiting for either of them to reply, she said dramatically, “Lenny.” Her salary, Lita went on, pointing her steak knife at Diva for emphasis, could buy her a brand new Toyota car every month. Yes, Diva agreed, they’d always known Lenny would be the class achiever.
“But you, Divina,” Lita went on, “when Rene told me just now that you were in real estate, I was quite surprised. Why, I always thought with your brains, you’d take up something like chemistry and become the president of an oil company like Shell or Petron.”
“Well,” Rene said, “I, for one, always knew Divina’d be very good at getting people to do things they wouldn’t otherwise do.”
He must have been just covering up for Lita’s tactlessness, for that was surely what he thought it was. What Diva had always seen since their schooldays as Lita’s streaks of meanness were to men simply her winsome airheadedness. She picked up a cube of tofu with her chopstick and said, “You know how it is for people who don’t finish college. It’s either insurance or real estate. I’ve done both.”
But Lita’s virtue was that she was so involved in her own thoughts that she often failed to recognize what might have been a juicy bit of gossip. Her mind had already wandered off to other classmates. Remember Tess? She had married so well! She had joined the Bayanihan while still in college and had bagged a European ambassador on a tour. And they were still married! She was now living in a castle in Vienna. Imagine that! What a long way it was from living in a rented old house with eight younger sisters and brothers, and her father just an accountant. Hay, Tess was so very, very blessed.
“But you’re very blessed yourself,” Diva said. “You have three beautiful children, a loving husband, and a very comfortable life. What more could you want?” And Lita herself had risen from the same middle-class origins. By her own standards, that would have been the greatest blessing of all.
“You’re right,” Lita sighed. Then she turned to Rene. “I do have only one regret. I know I’ve tried everything in my power to be the best wife to you, Rene. But I’m so fat gid. I wish I could lose all this weight.”
Rene laughed and said nothing.
Lita turned back to Diva. “Everyone else has been trying to get me to stop eating. But not Rene. He lets me eat as much as I want, because he knows how much I love to eat.”
Rene said, “Well, after all, she feeds me so well, I think she should eat whatever she wants to. You should try her mango cream pie, Diva. Nothing like it in the world!”
“The secret is in the butter. It’s got to be Crisco. Never settle for anything less, not even Anchor. It’s worth the expense, believe me,” Lita said emphatically.
Diva’s fellow activists during her student days had conducted their group discussions with the same degree of conviction. She looked from one to the other. It seemed to her that Rene’s smile was trembling at the corners, as if it was too much weight for his facial muscles to bear.
“You’re so lucky to have such an indulgent husband,” she said and arranged her face so that it would look properly envious.
“That’s why I worship him gid ya bala. He’s so kind and protective. He never burdens me with worries about the hacienda and he never criticizes me. He loves me as I am. I’m very blessed. God is so good to me. Mwahaha!”
You had to believe in that raucous laugh, Diva thought. No laugh so raucous could be less than sincere. Or else you would have to lose your faith in the inherent goodness of humanity. “Redeeming grace” the Sisters had called it. Everyone had their “redeeming grace.”
The waiters were clearing away the buffet table and one of them was putting up the sign “Closed” on the table. They had run out of meat thirty minutes earlier than usual.
The evening of Lita’s call, Diva told Ed over dinner about Lita’s invitation to stay the weekend with her in Bacolod. She was halfway through the story of her chance encounter with Rene and Lita twelve years ago when she noticed he wasn’t really following. Even the refrigerator was staring at her blankly. The beef stew had already fallen asleep.
Ed moved from the dining table to the TV set and watched CNN as he said, “Go ahead and keep her company.”
“But I’m surprised she thought of me at all. We were in two entirely different worlds back then and I can’t imagine what we’d have to say to each other now.”
“People change. Some for the better, some for the worse. Others just change. That’s life.”
She was already sorry she’d said anything. It was remarks like this that gave her a clear idea what Mrs. Aesop’s life must have been like. “Oh yes,” she said dryly, randomly picking from his personal collection of aphorisms, “the road to hell is paved with good intentions.”
He nodded and took a swig at his beer as he switched to the Discovery channel. A female simian chattered around her mate that was lying on the jungle floor and studying islets of sky through the canopy of vines and leaves. The world was full of lonely creatures. The problem was that they each chose to be lonely with someone else.
Ed had been her political officer—P.O. they called it back then—during the student revolution in the ‘60s. Now, after 33 years of marriage, his end of their conversations still sounded like he was pulling quotes out of a book. At least, they were no longer confined to Mao’s, Marx’s, nor Lenin’s, Diva thanked god for that.
She had married Ed at a time when his common sense seemed exotic among people whose every conversation was an argument over some Monumental Issue. He was an ardent lover and came home every night to her, although sometimes he came home tipsy but not drunk enough to be disgusting. Diva wasn’t sure if the solidity of their marriage was built on total trust or simply the absence of supervision. As far as Diva knew, he was faithful to her, which was incredible, considering the macho culture that Philippine society encouraged. And so she did not boast about it to friends, who at some point or another suffered from a husband’s infidelity. They would merely have raised their eyebrows and dismissed her for her gullibility.
Ed and Diva’s togetherness that her friends envied was simply a prolonged state of polite suppression regularly punctuated by explosions of mutual lust. Diva had long ago accepted that this was the natural order of things. Surely marital fidelity was all part of the cosmic order, for the cosmos was nothing more than the black hole with peripheral meteor showers.
Within the first ten years of their marriage, Diva had discovered the secret to a happy marriage by the process of elimination. She had raided her mother’s armory for the weapons that she had then hurled at Ed: logical argument, recrimination, the sulks, emotional blackmail, silence, and withdrawal. One night, in the middle of another of her somnambulist nights, she had realized, in one epiphanic flash, that her marriage was turning out no better than her mother’s—all exhausting, aching effort, like blowing into a rubber balloon that, once let go, went out of control, flying round and round, whistling derisively. Then she scoured women’s magazines, self-help books, dog training manuals, reading them upside down for the answers to the quiz at the end of each article and chapter. Good communication, breakfast in bed on Sundays, anniversary celebrations—she had claimed all these as the wife’s right until it finally dawned on her that all these formulas were merely part of the Great Hoax that made Marriage Encounters brisk business. Finally, the only thing left was SEX. Sex sex sex sex sex sex sex. It was the fulcrum to the ritual checks and balances that kept their marriage plodding on. Afterwards, Ed would gather her in his arms and murmur, “I love you.” Or, for variation, “my voluptuous sweetheart.” He would be more than half asleep; his eyes would be closed, a hand wandering indifferently over her surfaces. She might have been any woman.
The morning after Lita’s call, Diva’s boss called her into his office and said, “Pack a bag. I’ve got a good one for you. There’s a resort that’s up for grabs in Bacolod and we’ve a client here who’s interested in adding it to his resort-hotel chain.”
Bingo! Diva thought. A working vacation. She’d do her good deed by Lita and earn her commission in the same week. That night, as she packed her bag, she told Ed jokingly that she was going back to her hometown to recapture the innocence of her youth. Of course the irony escaped him entirely, and he agreed with her, himself adding sagely, “The state of grace, that’s where we all start from.”
In Bacolod, as she emerged from the airport, Diva immediately recognized Lita, whose 51-year-old figure was as slim and firm as it had been when they were still wearing the convent school uniform of baggy blue jumper and white blouse. She had sloughed off a hundred pounds since twelve years ago and bore no trace of whatever punishment her body must have taken as it seesawed on the weighing scale. Not an inch that skin sagged anywhere; there weren’t even any stretch marks to signal that the body had once fallen into gluttonous times. She was wearing hoop earrings, and a big plastic butterfly held back her shoulder-length hair, the Color of Wella Copper Sunrise. The only sign of aging on her face was the crows’ feet at the corner of each eye, and only a faultfinder would notice them. She was right; God was good to her.
As they drove from the airport, Diva gazed out of the car window. The past twelve years had shaken the island’s monocrop system into a diversified economy that had changed the landscape. What had once been a swath of earth corduroyed by sugar plantations stretching interminably on up to the horizon had been colonized by commercialism. Standing on a former canefield was Golden Fields, which was a cluster of restaurants dwarfed by a casino hotel rising majestically at its hub. Sugarland Hotel, which belonged to an earlier era, tried to hold on to its dignity but its jagged top gave it the comic look of a rectangular bottle cap turned upside down. This was where their class had held their high school prom. Lita explained that its upper floors had been lopped off when it was discovered that it was too dangerously near the airport runway.
Before they reached the heart of downtown, Lita pointed to the circumferential road that drivers took to avoid the traffic snarls. Traffic snarls in Bacolod? Diva was incredulous. She remembered her adolescent eagerness to escape the city because its chronic somnolence had weighed her down unbearably.
Diva was pleased to see a workers’ rally going on in front of the provincial capitol, although it was a just a small group of about a dozen men. They were holding placards and listening to someone holding a megaphone. A red streamer bore the hyphenated name of the local trade union and its national counterpart, like a woman declaring her independence despite her married status. Snatches of their leader’s speech reached Diva through Lita’s chatter. The phrases were familiar: “minimum wage law” and “amelioration law” and “SSS benefits.” People walked past without pausing or turning to see what was going on.
Lita swung right into a four-lane highway that cut across another former sugar plantation and stretched around the circumference of the city, like Life that had suddenly gone off tangent and then decided to take a meandering route to its destinations. A road sign read, “Don’t stick your elbow out to far/It might go home in another car.” It must have been the mayor’s most inspired moment in his term when he’d hired a modern Aesop for the Traffic Management Office. Here was at least a moral lesson with wit and rhyme, never mind if the spelling was flawed.
Suburban villages, gated and guarded, were just beginning to spread but were obviously taking a while to fill up, like batter slowly filling up the little squares on the waffle iron. The numerous empty lots were overgrown with cogon grass. But what few houses there were had a neglected look to them.
As Lita drove on, the old ruins of a mansion loomed up behind a row of these empty lots. Diva suddenly recalled having come to explore these ruins in the middle of prom night with Lita and Rene and another boy named Tony.
“Oh look!” Diva exclaimed. “It’s the Duertas mansion. Remember we had such a hard time searching for it, when there weren’t any houses near here?”
Lita looked at her blankly for a few seconds and then saved herself. “What a photographic memory you have! You know what a scatterbrain I am—I can’t remember anything beyond a year ago.”
Lita’s indifference was quite understandable. Prom night had happened 35 years ago, when the real estate business had not yet eaten into the sugarcane. They had sneaked out of the ballroom to confirm for themselves the rumors that such a mansion existed hereabouts. But bankruptcy, land reform, and time had stripped the ruined mansion of its mythical cloak. It was now just a heavyset straggler in full view among the streamlined specimens of modern architecture.
A full moon had helped Diva and her three companions glimpse its distantly small silhouette from the highway, but it was mainly Rene’s determination that had compelled them to find the old dirt road that led to it, despite the undergrowth. Fray Duertas’ marble statue still stood in front of the ruins, although weeds and vines had sprouted from cracks on his head and chest and tumbled down his sides. The first and second steps of the stairway leading from the ground were split apart by a sugarcane plant obtusely growing through them.
They’d made a pact never to reveal their secret find and to visit it together every year thereafter until they died. Of course, after graduation, Diva’s life had completely veered away from theirs. She had buried the memory of Prom Night along with that of all her other adolescent disasters. The mansion hadn’t been significant enough for Lita to remember it either.
The car turned into a gated driveway as Lita explained, “I want to show you what Rene and I worked on together just before he died.”
They stopped at a three-storey building whose façade had a large plastic sign on it that read “Nirvana Spa.” The building had a deserted look but Diva guessed that it was too early yet for anyone to be around, not even the staff.
They had built the spa together six years ago, Lita said as she guided Diva around the grounds. After they’d sold the farm, Rene had had more time to devote to the charismatic movement. Then their prayer group leader had offered them the construction job, with Rene as contractor and Lita as the supplies purchaser. God surely knew how to provide, to Him be the glory. And then, when the spa was built, Rene had such wonderful ideas about how to run the business that the owner had asked him to stay on as its manager. But Negros was no longer living on sucrodollars. The hacenderos were having to make hard choices. Were they willing to give up the golf and country club for the spa? Would their wives prefer a year’s pampering at the spa to the occasional trips to Hong Kong?
“It must have been the pressure of his work here that killed him,” Lita said. But Rene did leave her a priceless legacy. He was the only person who could make her feel so intelligent and competent. He had trusted her with the financial side of the construction and had given her the self-confidence to deal with the hardware suppliers, who would have cheated them every chance they could if she hadn’t had the nerve to stand up to them. She had cut the construction budget to more than three million pesos.
And, in the same reverent tone with which Lita acknowledged Divine Providence for every turn in her life, good or bad, she said, “But of course, Rene coached me every step of the way.”
The next day was Sunday and that morning Diva was watching Manang Ine fix breakfast. The cook dropped some oil into a Teflon skillet whose surface had peeled off in patches, like reptilian skin. Then she laid several slices of bacon on it. More oil oozed out of the bacon. The smell of it was as thick and sharp as that of burning tire.
“Hay, Inday,” Manang Ine said, “everyone was so surprised gid when Toto Rene suddenly died. But he and Inday Lita were celebrating his championship that night and she cooked him all his favorite dishes. I think bad wind must have entered his stomach while he was eating, and he forgot to belch before going to sleep. That is how people die, you know. My husband and I made itot one night and when he withdrew, the air blew into his pitoy and he died.”
Diva was still digesting this bit of elemental wisdom when the cook added, “Te, now I have to go and dust the flowers. Just call if you need anything.”
Lita was still in her room. Ever since she joined the charismatic movement six years ago, she spent her first waking hour vouchsafing her day to God. Now she was dressing to go to church. There had been a moment of awkwardness when she had emerged and reminded Diva that Sunday mass would be in an hour. Diva had distracted her by remarking on her lipstick, which she thought Lita had accidentally smeared on the area around her lips. Oh no, Lita said, pleased that Diva had noticed. She had discovered the new style in which lipstick was being worn these days. You painted outside the line of your lips for that pouty, come-on look. Ah, Diva said, it was woman’s revolt against Nature’s stinginess. And the shade was called Celebrating Vanity, Lita went on, choosing not to hear what she couldn’t comprehend. Wasn’t that so imaginative? Make-up was no longer being used merely to color one’s face; one could actually put on a new one over one’s skin. But now she had to go back to her bedroom to put on the rest of it.
Alone in the kitchen, Diva looked around for a teaspoon for her coffee. As Diva pulled open a drawer, it erupted with table napkins, each with a dainty cross-stitched pattern on one corner. More drawers revealed more of them, piled in rows according to sets of flora, fauna, days of the week, nursery rhyme characters. It was a whole aviary of folded linen set upon by hands maniacal with purposeless activity. Diva was pulling another drawer open when Lita came in and, seeing her coffee mug, pulled out the drawer where the spoons were kept.
“I’m sorry you have to fend for yourself,” Lita said as she handed Diva a teaspoon. “My other maid quit last week when I scolded her about letting the dog out of the gate. It got run over by a truck and I was so angry I shouted at her. Of course I was sorry for it afterwards and immediately went to confession. But the next morning she quit.”
She opened a cabinet and showed Diva the cans of dog food still stacked there. She had bought this particular brand because the dog’s picture on the label had looked like her own poor dead Sputnik. Oh, how she had loved that dog! And it was so expensive too. So, could anyone blame her if she had lost her temper at that maid? Ay abaw, these maids gid ya, they were so different these days. Imagine, their amo saved them from a life of hardship as farm girls by bringing them to the city. But this was how they repaid such kindness, she mourned.
“I know charity begins at home, but it’s so hard to be charitable sometimes. They are ka pilosopo na gid ya bala! Can you explain it to me, Divina?”
Because you’re the class enemy and charity is a matter of praxis, Diva was tempted to say. But now she just wanted to pursue the question, What breed of dog was it?—so she could empathize with the depth of Lita’s grief. Here she was, barely out of mourning over a dead husband. And now, there was a dead dog. Was there a difference?
“Oh well,” Diva murmured, “let sleeping dogs lie.”
She was a good person, Diva tried to convince herself. She had the fear of God in her and she did favors for the less fortunate. Somewhere else, people were numbing each other’s brain to the same degree discussing truth and justice. Or gorillas and guerillas.
Diva waved one embroidered napkin and exclaimed, “But there must be hundreds of these embroidered napkins in all these drawers! Did you do them all?”
If there could have been a basis for solidarity between the two of them, it was that they had been the two girls in school to whom Sr. ingeberta had frequently exclaimed, “Oh you lazybones! I pity the man who marries you.”
And she would hold up Diva’s and Lita’s sewing projects as harbingers of failed marriages. It was because of this that Diva had never picked up needle-and-thread nor pot-and-pan for any man. But Lita had gone the opposite way and made it her mission for the rest of her life to prove Sr. Ingeberta wrong.
“Oh, I did all that sewing whenever I waited up for Rene to come home,” Lita said. And she painted a picture of a 28-year marriage spent cross-stitching and crocheting while sitting at her bay window. She had done most of the waiting the year just before he died, when he had spent more and more time at the spa. That had been a very trying time for him, marketing it to the locals, so he had to find a way to attract foreign tourists to Bacolod… Lita’s voice trailed off as she stared at her coffee—as black, Diva imagined, as the nights she had stared at from her window during her married life.
She couldn’t complain, Lita said. Rene had been such a good provider. He had made sure she was secure for life. The house was fully paid for and they had savings. And then, of course, there was his insurance. With these altogether, Lita could still travel at least once a year. He had sold the hacienda just in time too—just before the sugar crisis had hit the region. Now that the hacenderos were desperate to sell, it was too late. Who would want to buy an hacienda, with all its problems?
Problems. This was a new word in Lita’s vocabulary. Perhaps her widowhood had finally forced her to take on matters that used to be Rene’s sole burden to carry. “What problems were you having?” Diva asked.
“Ay, ambot ah!” Lita said. “I don’t know anything about that. I just know that Rene worried about it for a while until he finally managed to sell it. I’m so stupid about such things. But when it comes to my family life I’m proud to say I made very few mistakes. Basta, at home I made him relax and absolutely forbade him to talk about his money problems. I really knew how to keep Rene very happy till the day he died.” And she let go with her trademark laugh.
Everybody just wanted the chance to take centerstage and sing their aria in the key of Me: me me me me me me me! Do re Me fa so la Me do! All Diva had to do was give them the cue to burst into it. But this was the first time she had ever listened to an aria that switched willy-nilly from Me major to minor and back again.
“That’s quite a feat, you know, considering the Ilonggo hacendero’s playboy reputation,” she said. “Some of them are found dead of a heart attack on top of some other woman not their wife.”
Lita shrugged. “Maybe he had his queridas too. But this I’m very sure of, Divina. He would never have left me.” She had been the perfect wife to him; her only regret was that she had been at her ugliest when he was alive but never looked better in her life now that he was dead. Pero te, she had lost all that weight because she had deeply, deeply mourned him gani.
“The funny thing is he was the one who kept himself fit. He played golf regularly. Hay, we never really know what is God’s plan for us.” And Lita led her out of the kitchen to point overhead at Rene’s trophies. They were lined on a shelf running the length of the living room walls beneath the ceiling. Tendrils of plastic vine curled themselves around some of them and hung from the shelf to soften their masculine effect. Manang Ine was as already standing on a chair and wiping the dust off their leaves.
“But he wasn’t eating right,” Diva said. “With his heart condition, there must have been a lot of things he wasn’t allowed to eat.”
What good was exercise if Lita clogged her husband’s arteries with fat and sodium? Diva knew this type of women. They cooked and baked and jumped at their husband’s call and made him a present of such devotion and self-sacrifice that they sucked all the power out of him. And the husband, if he was a decent man, was grateful for this servility but felt guilty for feeling trapped by it. Women like Lita made their home an impregnable fortress of expectations which their husband had the moral and emotional obligation to fulfill. Now could Rene resist Lita’s lechon kawali and mango cream pie? She had even eschewed the social life that a cooking class might have provided, taking a private tutor so she could concentrate solely on his favorite dishes. How could Rene not love her back?
“Hay, Divina,” Lita sighed. “You know naman men.” It was a loud, theatrical sigh, meant to convey affectionate exasperation with the object of their conversation. But it was overlaid with her amused sense of superiority over Diva’s failure of understanding.
She had once tried to regulate his diet, but it had only annoyed him, she said. He had asked, What was life worth living for if he couldn’t enjoy it? She had no argument against that, because she agreed with him entirely. If she had tried to stop him having what he wanted, he would only have looked for it outside. Surely Divina knew where that would have led to. One day it’s mango cream pie they’re looking for in Manila hotels, the next thing you know they’ve got some fashion model or starlet that they’ve picked up there. It was a wife’s pious duty to keep her husband happy. Hay, these men! Lita sighed again. Besides, it was probably sunstroke that killed him. The night he died, it had been the hottest day of the year but he was playing for the championship in the golf tournament. There was a pause as Lita struggled with some decision she was trying to make.
Suddenly she gave a nervous giggle. She had a secret she was bursting with but couldn’t find anyone open-minded enough to listen without blaming her for Rene’s death, she said. But Divina had always been the one person in the world who was impossible to shock anyway. Lita paused—for dramatic effect or for the right words, Diva wasn’t sure. The confession finally came out in one staccato spurt.
“We’d made love that night.” But Lita’s voice went one decibel higher instead of lower as confessional tones were supposed to go. What was this sudden unearned intimacy with Lita supposed to signify? Was Diva supposed to thrill to it, be touched by the tender emotions the imagined scene was meant to evoke? She felt the same kind of discomfort that she had once felt the first time, as a child, she had seen a pair of dogs attached to each other on.the street outside her bedroom window.
“When I woke up the next morning, he wasn’t breathing. And was that. Oh, I felt so guilty. But my only consolation was that he died in my arms.” Lita’s eyes were beginning to well with tears. One rolled down her left cheek and Diva reached out to wipe it off with a cross-stitched Little Miss Muffet and her spider. “A lot of other wives weren’t as blessed as I was with such a good husband. It was truly a marriage made in heaven. I miss him gid ya bala, Divina. I worshipped him so much.”
Despite herself, Diva was moved by the desolation in Lita’s voice. The only thing sadder than remembering a past full of a loved one’s presence is imagining a future full of their absence. But suddenly the sparkle in Lita’s eyes and her brilliant smile were back. “But you know, throughout it all, I never lost my faith in God. I really believe in the power of prayer. After all, pain is pain but you create your own suffering.”
She was doing it again; she was pole vaulting from somber to chirpy to platitudinous and back again. Listening to Lita was like sitting through all the messages in one’s answering machine.
When Diva asked to be dropped off at the real estate office on Lita’s way to the church, Lita did so without question, except for the raised eyebrow that questioned why anyone would be working on the Lord’s day. She had never been one to show interest in anything to do with anyone’s preoccupation except hers. Anyone who didn’t know her would praise her for minding her own business.
Mr. Santos, the branch manager, drove Diva to the property that she had been sent to Bacolod to sell. She was not very surprised when he turned off the main road into a gated driveway and stopped at the building called “Nirvana Spa.” Diva could not pin down exactly when she had begun to see that Lita never did anything that was coincidental or unplanned.
“Let me warn you it’s not as good as it looks,” Mr. Santos said as he unlocked the door. “The building is barely six years old but it’s falling apart already. I don’t know if we can sell this at the owner’s asking price.” They walked around the reception area and he pointed at the boarded windows and at the cracks running like lightning jags along the walls. Very few of the windowpanes were still intact. The whole place had the disgusting smell of public latrines.
“All the toilets are clogged,” Mr. Santos said, shaking his head. “The plumber who was called in said that the pipes for the toilet bowl were so small not even pigeon shit could squeeze through them.” The purchaser had scrimped millions of pesos on the construction budget by buying inferior materials and then pocketed the money, Mr. Santos went on to explain, with his vocabulary getting more and more colorful by the sentence. And of course, the contractor and purchaser always worked as a team. They were an incompetent pair of cheats, obviously. No finesse. Sus! Ka bahol gid ya. You could tell they weren’t used to doing it. They got away with it only because they and the owner, Mr. Tony Ramas, were in the same prayer cell in the charismatic group, so Tony trusted them completely. It was just as well the contractor had died three years ago, just when all the structural defects were beginning to surface, or he’d have been criminally liable.
Diva said, “Maybe it was the waiting to be discovered that killed him? He must’ve been out of his mind to think he could pull this off.”
Mr. Santos shrugged. “Or suicidal.”
He added, “It gets worse,” and led her to the wing of the building that contained the suites. He opened the door to the first room but didn’t look in. He was looking at her face instead as it registered shock at the paintings on the ceiling and the walls. They were the kind of paintings that Diva guessed one would see in brothels or theme motels in red-light districts. They were arranged in panels, like a giant cartoon strip without the speech balloons but with a storyline leading up to a graphically obscene punchline.
She could, not stop herself from uttering a sharp cry, which Mr. Santos could only assume had something to do with moral squeamishness. But it was Rene that Diva was seeing on the walls. Rene trying to keep his land by taking bank loans and paying them off with other bank loans until all the unpaid debts finally caught up with him. Rene paying the mortgage on his house with the sale of an hacienda that was itself in danger of foreclosure. Rene with arms raised and eyes tightly shut, hollering Lord save us! and To God be the glory! and silently praying that Tony Ramas his best friend and fellow charismatic would give him the construction job though he had never built anything in his life. Rene saving millions on Tony’s construction budget and siphoning them into his account because the hardware suppliers had convinced him everyone did it anyhow and he had three children still in college. And when the building was finished, Rene presenting Tony with business proposals for the spa so that Tony would hire him to manage it because where was Rene going to get the money for the children’s tuition and the upkeep of the house and the cars and his mother’s dialysis treatments? Rene promising Tony that the business would break even soon he had fresh new ideas for it no one had ever thought to combine the spa and the convention business just give him three months and they would tap Japanese and Australian businessmen as their main clientele. Rene explaining himself to the Catholic Women’s League and to his own charismatic group and finally to the Bishop who was glad to distract the people’s attention from the rumors that he himself was being sued by a basketball player for molestation. Rene striding from one green to another whacking at golf balls because he was going crazy from not being allowed to pace up and down his bedroom that was also Lita’s.
“What happened to the purchaser?” Diva at last asked Mr. Santos.
“She was the manager’s wife. The owner feels it’s awkward to be going after the grieving widow now. She’s in his prayer group as well. It was probably the husband who plotted it all anyway, and she just went along with it. You know how Bacolod wives are—they try to be the supportive partner but they never interfere.”
Mr. Santos drove her back to Lita’s empty house, where she intended to stay just long enough to take her bag and simply vanish from Lita’s life again. But as she rolled her bag out of the room, she knew she first had to ask the questions teeming in her head. Lita had come upon her sitting in the living room, staring out the bay window. “You knew I was coming into town even before I did, didn’t you?” Diva asked.
“You know there are no secrets in Bacolod,” Lita said.
“How did you think having me as your houseguest would help?”
“I wanted you to see what we were really like, Rene and I—what it was like for us those last few years. If it hadn’t been for me, we would have lost everything. The hacienda would have been foreclosed if I hadn’t nagged him to sell. He was so sentimental. He wanted to keep it because it has been in their family since encomienda times.”
“You could have lived on the hacienda sale. But you were living above your means. He had to scrounge around for money because you were clinging to your affluent lifestyle.”
“Don’t make him out to be more than he really was, Divina. He liked the lifestyle. He—and all his other women. I would have lived a thrifty life if the two of us were doing it. But why should I have to scrimp while he was throwing whatever we had left on that model he was keeping in Manila? And before that there was the starlet, to whom he was sending child support. And there was the farm girl—the one I know about. I don’t know how many other farm girls there were. Believe me, I know what pole vaulting means.”
Lita’s laugh this time was bitter. “What do you think was playing on my imagination during all those nights he spent at the spa?”
“Well, you weren’t much competition.” Diva was horrified to hear herself sounding like the gossips in an aerobics class.
“You don’t know how many diets I tried all our married life. Cabbage soup, Herbalife, Slimfast, Scarsdale—I tried everything. All he had to do was take me to a restaurant and my willpower would vanish.”
“You weren’t much help to his heart, either, with your cheap little tenderloin trick…”
“That was long before he had a heart condition.”
“… and your what-me-worry-philosophy …”
“And how does not worrying aggravate a heart condition? … Wait a minute.” Lita’s brows furrowed as she struggled to catch a thought and hold it. “Didn’t you have a crush on Rene?”
Diva didn’t answer. A lightning flash had ripped open the past and Lita had had a sudden glimpse of a ghost in it. Lita went on, “Why, yes of course. Our yearbook labeled you the class’s hormonal retard. But you were just hiding behind that mountain of books because you had a crush on Rene.”
“Rene was a good man, Lita. When I knew him, he was a good person.”
“He was, Divina. So was I. We were both good persons.”
At the airport the next morning, they managed to hug each other, and Lita made her promise to stay with her whenever she came to Bacolod. Diva said yes of course. Both of them knew they would never hear from each other again.
As the plane slowly taxied forward, Diva watched the ground and felt that she was moving backward—like she was moving away foul something—while the plane stood still. She had almost completely forgotten, until yesterday, Rene’s big-brother kindness 35 years ago and the diffident way he’d offered to be her prom date, as if she had the option to refuse him. At the prom, he’d sat out all the dances with her after he’d felt her agony during the first dance, and he was careful not to let his gaze linger on her classmates. They were all Twiggy-thin in their ball gowns after putting themselves through weeks of excruciating hunger spasms. And they were dancing with an ease that belied all the grim determination they’d put into practicing the boogie and the slow drag.
He’d brought her physical stupidity out in the open so she could laugh at it. “Okay, Divina you’re not. How about if I call you Diva? One day you’re going to be so rich and famous you’ll be too big for this little town. And you’ll forget all about us.”
Then he drew out of her what she could do best—conversation. It was when they were talking about ghosts and kapres that they’d almost simultaneously thought of sneaking out of the prom and looking for the ruins in the canefield. Lita was several tables away with Tony, but she must have noticed Rene helping Diva into her coat. She and Tony had joined them to make it a foursome, wherever it was Rene and Diva were going.
Rene had been the persistent one even when Diva herself was ready to give up the search for that elusive mansion. Lita and Tony, after seeing the shadows of the ruins in the moonlight, were content to sit on a rock at the edge of the canefield and wait for them there. As soon as Rene found the pathway, he raced along it, the sugarcane plants level with his head. Then he turned and waved impatiently at Diva as he waited for her at the top of the mansion’s stairway. But she had to pick her way though the field, because she was wearing high-heeled shoes; and the serrated leaves of the sugarcane plants occasionally caught at her skirt. Besides, there were things half-buried in the ground that were gleaming in the moonlight, and she wasn’t sure if they were pieces of discarded sugarcane or the bones of the dead.
Diva was jolted back to the present when the plane finally took off. Ed would be at the airport at the other end, munching a hotdog sandwich while waiting for her. He would ask as he took her overnight bag from her, “How was the trip?”
And because they were husband and wife, because she had no one else to tell her story to, she would tell him about the many ways she’d learned a man could die of a heart attack. She could almost hear him say as he concentrated on his driving, “Ah well, dead men tell no tales.”
But then again, sometimes he could also surprise her with something specific to her story, like “Some things about a person you’re better off not knowing.”
Rosario Cruz Lucero was born in Manila but grew up in Bacolod City, Negros Occidental. She earned her AB, MA, and Ph.D. degrees from the University of the Philippines Diliman. Besides the Palanca and Philippines Free Press Literary Awards, she has also won the Manila Critics Circle's National Book Award and the CCP Gantimpalang Ani for the short story in Filipino. Her books include the short story collections Herstory , Feast and Famine: Stories of Negros , and La India, or Island of the Disappeared , and the historical romance Dungawin Natin ang Kahapon (Look Back to the Past) . Her literary criticism is collected in Ang Bayan sa Labas ng Maynila/The Nation Beyond Manila . She teaches Philippine literature and creative writing in Filipino and English at the UP Diliman.
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