Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Mahogany Water

Mahogany Water

Julian has had so many pets die on him (hamsters, fish, a spider, a bird) that I worried he, only eight, might think life so inordinately flimsy, full of sad surprises: someone you care for turning stiff. I sat him down once, talked about life’s bumps and grinds, about cycles and seasons along the endless line of time. I carried on like I was Ecclesiastes until he picked up a ball, bounced it off the wall and followed it out the door.

In October, with his birthday money he got himself a rabbit. Fine with me. White fur, twitchy nose. He is not discouraged, only resolutely more watchful. He put the new pet in an old birdcage where Eaglet, his maya, had lived and died.

He’d always named his pets with a kind of no-nonsense logic: the first pair of hamsters had been Hammy and Hammer, and then there were Hammy Jr. and Hammer Jr. The fish, just guppies in a glass bowl really, were Swimmy and Dive and Orbit and Slimy and Sharko; the spider’s name was Spy. (It’s not that he doesn’t have a vocabulary. He says ‘stupendous,’ ‘acquisition,’ ‘reverberate—Touch this, Mama, feel it reverberate. He’s a genius!) I suggested Snowball for this rabbit, as it tucks its head in and curls up into a ball when it sleeps, but he said, “That’s sissy.” And so he named it Buddy. Buddy Rabbit, like sinusitis.

We take Buddy with us, now two months old, to Punta Fuego. Takes me and Julian forever to get Francis to come along, a roundabout series of arguing and bargaining and cajoling, come-on-Daddy, please-Daddy, until finally Julian and I win, and we all go, for private Christmasing with Gracie and her kids. It’s the best time to go out of town, too; all those rabid holiday shoppers making traffic crazy, why deal with that? And Gracie is balikbayan—and not just back from the States, but back to her old self.

The last time Francis and I saw her was three years ago in McLean where she lived, when she was newly-divorced, losyang and pudgy and weepy. Not like her at all. She took us to Arlington cemetery in D.C. where she cried as if JFK was her ex-husband. Wiped her cry-snot with her pashmina like it was tissue.

What’s with your friend? Francis asked me, as if he needed establish whose friend she was.

“My friend just got divorced, heartless.” I said.

I took Gracie out to Red Box Karaoke the night of her arrival, just last week, the two of us. Her old shine is back; she looked sharp: jeans, tank tops, a short jacket, Blahniks. A fox! “Why are we singing alone in this tiny room?” she said. “Where’s the audience?”

We had big fun like we did when we were skinny and clueless and boy-crazy, back in the days of Mahogany Water, that song-and-dance trio we put together in our all-girl college to meet boys. I was Patti Austin; she, Pauline Wilson. The good-time, big-hair mid-eighties. Our third member, Weena, played guitar and did anyone from Roberta Flack to Whitney Houston, as well as, for laughs, Imelda Papin. We got the name Mahogany Water from Weena’s father who made us drink a concoction of steeped mahogany seeds he got from his caddy at Aguinaldo. Awfully bitter. The taste, we used to say, of boiled golf shoes. It was supposed to make us invincible. Weena’s daddy, 5-star general, what a quack! He stomped his feet—tiny little stomps, like a boy throwing a tantrum at a toy store—as Weena was being lowered to the ground. Dead at 21 from a steering wheel lodged in her chest. Vincible.

Gracie and I tour our borrowed Punta Fuego house, a humongous Rubik’s cube made of glass with some corner quadrants lopped off. It’s shamelessly large for a weekend retreat; eight huge bedrooms spread over three floors. The bits of detail—stone, wood, glass, leather—smell of over-the-top money. Every twelve-inch plank of wood makes me think of landslides in Quezon, but I don’t tell Gracie that, her sister owns the place, so I tell her, “it’s so L Decor.” I must admit it’s very pretty, though. The design is so open, as if the ocean and sky are part of the house, and darn it, I like it. I like it so much I attempt to compute how many million episodes of telekomedya and gag shows I have to write for ABS, how many thousand tax cases Francis has to lawyer for to buy us a trophy like this.

“Heeey. Does this make you feel like Master of the Universe or what?” I say to Francis, whom we find at the second-level terrace, standing in the hammering ten o’clock sun. He’s wearing his new shorts that Julian and I got only the day before (Look, Mama, Speedo Voyager swimsuit shorts!). Francis hasn’t gone swimming in years, and though he’d still fit in his old blue-and-white-striped Lycra trunks—and he’d wear them, too!—that would be too funny for Gracie. I mean, let’s be in vogue here, right? He has widened around the waist, just a bit—the practice of corporate law doesn’t make for much aerobic exercise and he’s near forty already. He’s looking out at the spectacular 360-degree view through Julian’s spyglasses and I know what he’s thinking. He’s thinking God and binoculars. Magnificent and magnifying. He’s into humanities and gadgets and Discovery Channel. A giant boy in shorts loose like a skirt.

Across the water on the north side where the ridge curves, there is a larger house, large like Alcatraz even in the distance, and Francis points to it.

“Whoa, that one’s a biggie,” Gracie says. “Isn’t it weird, all these estates, and outside, those kids?”

In front of barrios along the stretch of highway leading to Punta Fuego we saw children, some half the size of Julian—they’re babies!—waving Merry Christmas placards, asking for money. A bit of in-your-face guilt they fling to the rich on their way in. Gracie’s half-American kids thought they were there simply for the goodwill, for the cheer! Like little brown ambassadors. You too, you too, Merry Christmas!

“That house has a telescope you can count moon craters with. Wohow, someone’s watching me watching him,” says Francis, stepping back. We see a flash of light from that direction. A glint of sun deflected from a mirror, maybe, or something flashy like a Rolex.

“Wave,” Gracie tells me.

“I don’t see him,” I say.

“Wave anyway,” she says; smiling brightly, her hands already up in the air.

Gracie has always been the most ebullient one, forever effusive and showy, not to mention the prettiest. She got the most attention, and, even as I’d rather drop dead than admit it, she was the chick; she was Mahogany Water’s main attraction. Back in the day, I had issues with that—called her names to myself sometimes. I remember Ricky. Boy-of-my-dreams Ricky, for whom I did all my tricks onstage at the La Salle College Fair, practically sang to his ear, and still he blew wolf whistles for Gracie. You’re the funny one, Beth, he said to me. Pucha! Weena had a few mishaps like this happen to her would-be loves, too. And this—this wide-armed lunatic openness to people is what puts Gracie ahead.

“Come on, wave!”

“Stop it already,” I tell her.

Gracie’s kids, Bianca and Kevin and Carlos, they look almost as American as their father, as Gracie is tisay to begin with, 25% Russian—don’t ask me how—with an unspellable middle name. “Ma, they’re foreigners!” Julian said when he met her kids. Now they are all splayed on the living room floor, looking in on the rabbit cage. I could make out their teeth in their reflections on the hardwood floor.

“Nobody take out Buddy from the cage,” Julian tells them.

“Why you the boss of the rabbit?” Carlos asks him. Carlos is four and must be dying to hold the pet.

“It’s his rabbit, Carlos,” says Bianca, running a forefinger on a cage grill. She is older than Julian by a year. “Why can’t we take him out? Don’t you ever take him out?” She has green eyes.

Julian turns, belly up, resting his weight on his elbows. He looks around, catches my eye for a moment and I give him a wink but his eyes are too fast, he misses it. He’s looking for potential rabbit hazards, so I look around as well, imagining his thoughts. Buddy can ram his tiny head on the huge glass windows all around, he can overrun the terrace and land in the swimming pool below; or, he might get blind from all this ocean-side light.

“I don’t know,” he says, standing up.

“I think it’s okay for him to run around here,” says Bianca.

“I don’t know,” he says again. “Pets die easy. ”

“No, they don’t. My cousin has a golden retriever and it’s two…wenty-four years old,” says Kevin. Hearing this, Gracie raises her eyebrows at me and grins. Kids embellish! They exaggerate!

“A retriever’s not a pet,” says my boy.

“It’s a animal,” says Carlos smartly.

Julian nods his head. He thinks for a bit and then he says, “A pet is something between insect and animal.“

My turn to grin. “Come here, Jaloosh,” I say.

“Why?” he mouths.

“Come here, gimme hug,” I say, and he walks over and wraps his skinny arms around my neck. “I love you, Jalooshkins,” I whisper to his ear.

“I love you too, Mamooshkins,” he says.

“But I love you more!” I say.

“Na-ah. I love you more.”

“That’s not possible,” I say, and he runs back to his rabbit, saying, “it’s possible, its possible,” as he goes.

“That’s cute,” Gracie says.

“It’s a script,” I say. We say the same lines to each other everyday like prayer.

Gracie is having it really good here: two yayas for her kids, a cook, a chauffeured SUV, pantry to put Santi’s Deli to shame, and this graciousness of her sister’s cascades down to me and mine. Having brought nothing but my Magic Sing and a bagful of kangkong for Buddy, I’m feeling like I’m queen of Sheba here, fresh from a swim, eating shrimp salad with a silver fork in the brightest dining room on the planet. The yayas have set up a kiddie table where the children are having spaghetti and fried chicken, and where Bianca, precocious like her mother, carries on like she was some chairman of the board. Or like Gloria Arroyo on a good day.

“We’re going to call us the Secret Society Club, and I’m the president and so you listen to me, okay?” she says. The curls of her hair bounce like coil springs.

“Who’s the boss of the rabbit now?” Carlos wants to know. A yaya wipes the edges of his mouth with a linen napkin.

“This is not about the rabbit, Carlos!” says Kevin.

“Okay,” says Bianca. “Julian, you’re the boss of Buddy the rabbit, but you have to let all of us hold him three times a day. Kevin, you will be the vice-president, so you have to follow me because I’m president. Okay?”

“Sounds like democracy,” says Francis. I reach over and pinch his arm to silence him, accidentally toppling a knife to the floor. The kids turn their attention to this little commotion in our table, and I signal Gracie to pretend to be oblivious, but she can’t help herself from giggling. When she giggles, her eyes squint as if to let the light into her face so that she glows, it looks like, from inside her skin. And she shows a lot of cleavage between the V of her turquoise top that I suddenly feel nervous, and pucha, I need to watch my husband’s eyes.

“We have to have a secret spot. Every secret club should have one,” says Julian, glancing at our table. “There are spies everywhere.”

“Yes, the billiard room downstairs will be our secret spot. And, we will always stick together, of course that’s our motto of the club.” Bianca is whispering now, though we can still hear clearly.

“Even sleeping time?”

“Sleeping time, swimming time, eating time, we’ll stick together,” says Kevin.

“Yes, no matter what happens, we will stick together,” says Julian, mouth bursting with enthusiasm and spaghetti. He’s a joiner. He likes clubs.

“We can’t speak when our mouth is full of pasta, Jool,” I say.

He looks at me from the corner of his eye then turns to his friends, says conspiratorially, “Unless problems, such as adults, happen.”

Gracie laughs hardest. I’m laughing, too, but then I see Francis’ eyes flit from her boobs to his shrimp and back again and I feel the room darken a bit. “We’re going to behave ourselves, aren’t we?” I say, looking straight at Francis with my eyes popped.

There is no access to the beach. Between the houses and the water is a scraggy ridge to negotiate which you have to be either a mountain climber with a rappel rope or a skydiver with—well, wings. No wonder there’s a swimming pool. This set-up, it’s funny—it’s all for show, a pretend beach house. The ocean? Untouchable! How jokey is that? Ooh, the rich and their funny vanities.

“I’m sure there’s a way down there somewhere,” Francis says. He is on a hammock, reading with his shades on, his six-foot frame bent like a pretzel. Gracie is face down on a mat beside the pool just a few feet away—an ogle away—the two swells of her butt peeking out of her bikini like twin blimps heralding the start a major adult problem.

“Why’re you here?” I ask Francis, pushing the rope above him with enough force so that half of him tilts in, then out. He lowers a leg to the floor, putting his swing to a stop. He takes off his shades and cocks his head to the side, showing the angle where he most resembles Julian, like he is Julian thirty years from now. He opens his mouth to speak but words don’t come out so he just gapes. I’ve seen this gape many times. It’s usually followed by something like, “What’s your problem, Beth?”

I don’t know where my panics come from. Wifehood, motherhood, they make me crazy. I stand at the gates of the grade school, picking up Julian, and a horde of them mini-Jesuits come charging out and they all look the same so I can’t tell which one is mine and that fills me up with dread. What if he doesn’t see me, and he panics and he runs all the way to Katipunan and gets run over by a maniac truck driver? “I won’t get lost, Ma, I’m eight,” Julian has said to me four times already.

I stay where I am, beside the hammock, blocking my husband’s view of Gracie. He is reading Clinton, and he says “I’m on the Lewinsky now.” I’d just showered and my hair is dripping on my dress, which is a beach tunic in blinding orange; it’s way too short. Someone’s pasalubong from Boracay. I didn’t think I’d ever wear it—it’s too Joyce Jimenez. But it’s something Gracie would wear. It’s a Gracie kind of look.

“Is that new? It’s nice,” Francis says.

“It’s a gift. Isn’t it too short? Too orange? Really, you like it?”

He reaches under the hem of it, slides his fingers beneath the lacy elastic of my panties. “Let’s go upstairs,” he says.

“Now?” It’s only half past three.


Sometimes after sex I think of my mother. I can tell she had sex all the time—she gave birth ten times, once every two years. Ten girls until she was fat and confused. Couldn’t say our names off the top of her head. But to imagine how she behaved in bed? I can’t! It must have been, what, facile? Perfunctory? As methodical as baking a cake?—Tonight, we’re going to try to bake a BOY. Was she even awake? I can’t think of my mother doing the things I do with Francis. No way.

I was the sixth girl, come at a time when the disappointment had given way to disgust: Babae na naman? Relatives, friends, the whole stretch of Pinaglabanan is saying the same thing. Another girl? The whole city of San Juan!

We were all mistakes. We should have been boys. My sisters and me were all screwed, trying all our lives to be the best disappointment Daddy ever had. Daddy with the stingy, stingy heart.

We had a spinster aunt live with us, what with all those girl-babies and wedding cakes Mommy had to make. Auntie Paz told me—she told me many times—that my father refused to look at me after I was born, left my mother at the hospital and got drunk and smashed somebody’s face, so that if I didn’t eat my sitaw my Daddy “will give you to the bumbay who will grind you into paper money.” And Daddy will not miss me. I swear to God that’s the first thought that came to my head.

A month before my wedding, I stopped speaking to Daddy altogether after my mother—what was she thinking?—did me some girl-talk, and said, “Anak, men are faithless.” She said I had better accept that as a fact as early as I could to save me a lot of misery.

“Was Daddy?”

“That’s beside the point.”

“Does he have a bastard boy?”

“That’s not the point, anak.”

What Francis does after sex is sleep. I leave him alone in his apnea and walk around the house again, dispelling the residues of passion, shaking off the happy guilt of broad-daylight sex in someone else’s bed. I see the yayas outside the billiard room like a bunch of groupies, banished by the Secret Society. They’re nibbling on butong pakwan, slipping the black spit-soaked peels into the pockets of their uniforms, afraid to make a mess. They won’t sit on the Italian-leather sofas.

Gracie, fresh from a shower, is talking to her sister on the phone, lying on a divan in the living room with both her legs up on the wall. “What are you now, a Lladro?” I say. I look up to the second floor veranda to see if by any chance she could be seen from our bedroom upstairs.

“Pee-la-teees,” she says, cupping the receiver.

The stairwell comes alive as four kids run up the stairs at once, a curious formation: Carlos and Kevin in front, Bianca and Julian at the back together, holding either end of the rabbit cage. What, she blinks her green eyes at him and he’s in love with her already? Three yayas trail behind, my lieutenant, yaya Lengleng, included, their rubber slippers flip-flopping on the wooden steps. I follow the kids to the kitchen, and I hear the tail end of a sentence being spoken by Bianca, apparently a suggestion (as can only come from a girl) to wash the vegetables before giving it for feed.

“Hey, baby!” I say.

Julian spins around, a clear ripple of disgust washing over his face. He mumbles that shush, he’s not a baby.

“Oh, sorry. I forgot, you’re an attorney,” I say, sing-song. They are raiding the fridge, Bianca giving orders to the others like a mother in a supermarket. “Don’t get that. Get this. Take that one.”

Without gel on his hair his bangs keep falling into his face and he jerks his chin up constantly to flip them away—the handsomest boy in the world. He keeps glancing at Bianca like a boyfriend, holding a bouquet of kangkong.

I will not have any other child. He’s enough. He’s plenty. Takes all my time, all my heart. “Come here, guapo, gimme hug,” I say.

“Tsk,” he says.

He approaches me, and I stoop down to welcome his embrace, my lips already puckered. But he goes for my ear and whispers, “Ma, can you stop please?”

When I go into shock my face feels numb and lines of songs go off in my head. I feel the earth move. Shake, rattle, roll. Say you love me. Shanananana.

Gracie and I keep in constant touch—I write her long emails full of exclamation points. We’ve been face-to-face only five times in fourteen years, and each time—but for the last—is a regression into an earlier age. (The last visit kept us in the dire divorce-wracked heaviness of her present.) With the kids caught up in their merriments and Francis watching the whole Godfather series on a wall-mounted plasma television, Gracie and I sing and reminisce and drink wine until well into the night. We have these little memory snippets like coins for a jukebox time machine that returns us to a time we are Mahogany Water again and we hate Madonna and everything disco. We are jazz. We are wearing penny loafers and smelling of Anais Anais and Weena is alive. The happy, the superkaduper fun parts. The days of giddy hope and pointless imaginings. We will all be, someday, in New York where Weena will hang her panties on Kenny G’s saxophone and I will marry Woody Allen and Gracie will be Grizabella in Cats.

The memory of all that.

The next day, Buddy is dead. Dead, it appears, from a couple of siling labuyo the children had fed him the night before. Dead from lethal ingestion, I whisper to Gracie. As hot as a Playboy buddy, Francis says. The kids are quick to point fingers, going into a vigorous exercise of blame and accusation that strains the fragile threads binding their day-old society.

“I told you he didn’t need a midnight snack!”

“I told you that wasn’t a baby carrot!”

“But you fed it to him first!”

“It’s not my fault.”

“I told you pets die easy,” Julian says solemnly and us adults stop joking around. This is the tender and exquisite grief of the young.

We have a burial ceremony for Buddy at noon in the vacant lot beside the house. We watch as Francis lowers what looks like a fur shoe into a shallow hole. Carlos is sobbing beside Kevin, who is wearing a scowl on his face, the top of his lips beading with sweat. Even Bianca is looking grave. She is murmuring something to herself, perhaps a prayer, the act of contrition.

I cringe with sympathy for him as I watch Julian’s quiet sadness. I haven’t said a word to him since he rebuffed me yesterday, and now he looks at me and our eyes lock for a while, a secret exchange of grief between him and me, a look that says all that needs said: I’m sorry, it’s all right, I love you.

He looks away first, looks down and starts pushing dirt onto the hole with his foot.

Buddy’s burial leaves me in a benign mood all afternoon. I have no wish to swim or crack jokes or make love. I sit alone on my borrowed bed and look at the sky through the glass walls and think of Weena—not the sunshine rah-rah Weena but the Weena in a box and all the grief it stands for. I remember the debilitating envy I had of her father’s love. Grieve. I can do this all day. Through the night, I could. I’m good at feeling sorry—I moped and cried and stayed in bed for weeks after Weena’s death—I can do this forever. But Francis comes in and takes me by the hand to the terrace. ”Look,” he says.

Julian and Kevin and Bianca and Carlos are playing in the pool, chasing, splashing, diving in and flapping about, screeching like dolphins, laughing like birds. Having fun. “They’d forgotten.”

At the rim of the pool, Gracie, queen of fools, dances to Jingle Bells. I look away. From the house across the water I think I see a glint of light flash for one brief moment and I wave. I fling my arms like crazy.

This story won First Prize for the Short Story in English in the 2006 Palanca Awards

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