Those mah-jong nights. They had a lot of it during those times – Rowena, and her friends in the Village. Rowena enjoyed the games. Maybe because she needed the company of her dear neighbour-friends. Maybe she really enjoyed the games. She was born into it. She would remember the game being played by her parents and their friends during weekend nights in that beautiful town of Liliw – setting of many childhood scenes, where she experienced years of wonderful youth with her three beautiful sisters. It was a cloistered childhood they had, her mother overly conscious of her children being exposed to neighbours who were not exactly like them, different from them. The grade school years with her sisters in the nun’s school at the Poblacion, the summer trek to Baguio and to the grandparent’s big house in nearby Quezon. Rowena grew up very wary too of their neighbours. As she was made to be well aware early on, that only the well-to-do in the barrio could have their children – their daughters – sent to the exclusive nuns’ school where, indeed she and her sisters were chauffeured to and from.
She needed it, yes – the mah-jong nights. Because Celso had started to come home very late, in the wee hours of dawn, and there they were – she and the girls, still energetic with the thrill of the game. She would rise up from her seat with a jolt, rush to the door as soon as she heard the screech of Celso’s Mitsubishi on the pebbled driveway, give him a long, tight, dreamy hug; and then, with a huge smile on her face suddenly all lighted up, she would turn to the girls in the mah-jong table, whose attention would all be transfixed on her, and announce playfully in her loud, husky voice accompanied with a naughty wink in her eyes: “Ok, girls, session over, night is over. Love is here!”
She knew how fascinated her friends were with them as a couple; fascinated by her stories of how she loved him – absolutely, crazily; and how the song ” Madly, Truly, Deeply,” would in fact describe her love for her husband. It had long been a given in her life – something which she would admit to anyone, without batting an eyelash – that she thought she had always loved Celso more than he loved her. Not that he could be faulted for anything. Not at all. He was a very good man, had been an ideal husband. She thought that they exemplified the belief that opposites attract. True enough: Celso’s silent, serious, passive, unobtrusive, personality to her vibrant, aggressive, joking, life-of-the-party persona. They had led a yuppie couple’s life for years. She was certain that was how the neighbours and friends saw them. Which was what she wanted to believe herself.
The first time she saw Celso in a Santacruzan one summer many years ago, in her old beloved barrio in that old beautiful town, she thought to herself “I am going to marry this boy.” He was looking like a Greek god as he strode down the fiesta-lit streets that summer night in May playing Prince Constantine to the town’s beauty queen playing Queen Helena. She wondered where this handsome boy came from. It was to be her last summer before she went to Manila for college.
Propinquity. They were neighbours, several houses away. Which they never got to know until later. Of course, they wouldn’t have bumped into each other with the sequestered way her mother was bringing them up. They met that same summer, in a wake – of all occasions – which she and her sisters were obliged to attend. He was playing the guitar, accompanying a group singing songs sang in wakes. They were introduced, and seeing him face to face in that room incandescent with the funereal lights, confirmed her conviction that this boy was going to be her husband.
College years were Celso years. Unbelievably lovely, loving years. Regular telephone calls at the dorm, weekend strolls, movies, occasional concerts. He was pursuing an Engineering degree in a reputable engineering school not so very far from her own. He also wrote her letters – to-die-for letters – which she simply adored, which he sent by post, during days he couldn’t come, or which he handed to her. He was not a talkative man; maybe that was why he wrote well, surprising her, considering that he finished in a public high school in their town. His college was on a scholarship, as his poor parents found it hard to send so many siblings on their farmers’ income. How she loved and cherished those letters, kept them in a box up for a long time.
Ten years after she caught sight of him during that Santacruzan night, they were married, in what was to be deemed a luxurious wedding not to be forgotten in a long time, courtesy of her parents. It was a magical time for her, as magical as Camelot. As King Arthur and Queen Guinevere. She saw Celso as both king and knight, both Arthur and Lancelot. And it was supposed to officially begin her “forever. “
They had each started and established on their careers in plum government agencies: Celso as an investment analyst, and she as an information writer. They transferred to an upscale village in hilly Antipolo seven years after their marriage, by which time they had saved enough to say goodbye to apartment living and start life in a subdivision of lovely Mediterranean-type houses surrounded by luxuriant greenery with equally lovely neighbours, to boot, a few of whom she was able to inveigle later to play mah-jong with her. Life was very leisurely outside the workplace: dine-outs, interminable movies and concerts out-of-town road trips with friends.
Their being childless was never an issue in their marriage, everybody believed, including her, certainly. She never heard Celso complain about it. Nor wished it – to have a child. Anyway, it was not something she talked about among friends. Everyone took it as a given, as normal, that they were childless. And that it really didn’t seem to matter. Rowena exuded nothing but gaiety in life. And seemed too, to have forgotten, or buried in the recesses of her memory that two years into that marriage she was operated on for total hysterectomy and was categorically told that she wouldn’t be able to bear a child.
It was many years later, having settled into a comfortable life with the comfortable neighbours that Celso started to come home late. That was also the time he started to hand in to her more money, a lot of money – like money was flowing from a well. Sometimes, it would come nightly, or in the early morning when he would come home: initial deposit, partial or final payment for a project done. He said his group in the office had thought of forming their own consultancy which would do investment feasibility studies to cater to certain business interests who wanted to do big time investments and didn’t know a single step on how to go about it. They had rented a small office along Ortigas where they would meet with the clients, do the brainstorming, the actual job.
It was manna from heaven nobody could resist. The money could have served as capital for their own investment, maybe for their own retirement. But nothing of the kind entered their minds. But indeed, there was so much money, Celso admitted, that they had thought of investing in a bar somewhere along Kapitolyo in Pasig. So, there was the bar to hang out in, let alone manage, this being another reason for his coming home horrendously late, just in time for the rooster’s crowing.
It was a kind of knee-jerk reaction that Rowena hired an architect and had her house redesigned and renovated, the furniture changed. She roamed the nooks and corners of Rustans and Shangrila for quaint and expensive house decors and accent pieces. She joined her office friends and did a three-country trip to Hongkong, Malaysia and Singapore and came home with all sorts of souvenir items thoughtlessly given away.
And thus started the nightly sessions of mah-jong, in her well-appointed living room. Celso coming home early in the morning had become regular. He would come in silently in the morning, three, four o’clock, when the mah-jong friends had long gone, and she would be in their room, her heart pounding from endless waiting. She would go down and he would hand her the usual envelope of money – which at this point she would joylessly receive. She would hug him and tell him almost in a pleading voice that maybe he should get out of that group now? They had no need for that kind of money.
The lateness of the hours started to really cause her anxiety. She resumed an old habit she had during their early marriage, when she would call up Celso in his office wherever she was, whatever she would be doing. Sometimes, she would suddenly break up a session and ask the mah-jong friends to accompany her as she hurtled along Ortigas, Edsa and Buendia hunting for Celso’s car in the group’s supposed bar. It was always there.
And then the questions started to float – the what-ifs. First they came as innuendos, hypothetically posed by the mah-jong group: what if Celso had a mistress? What if he had a child? She didn’t hear them, those innuendos floated around every time they were together – but mostly during the mah-jong nights. It wafted in the air she breathed, and astonishingly she was able to defy the reality of its existence. She would put on a dead-pan face, or a deadly smirk which put a resounding end to the conversation.
Which, however, did not cease. This time, she noticed the seriousness in their voices when they asked it. And how they analyzed it. Their childlessness. It could be the reason. It was no longer tenable, they said. Also, their source was unimpeachable. She heard the word “bar-girl,” “GRO,” “being housed,” “sent to school.” It was something that seemed to have been going on for a long time.
Her world tittered. The uncertainty of it made it more mercilessly cruel.
One early dawn, her mind and body seemingly sensitized from the unceasing suspicions, thoughts of betrayal which needed an answer, she waited for Celso her nerves all tensed up. But as soon as he came in, she said in a terse, measured, eloquently phrased pronouncement: “Now, look at me straight in the eye, and tell me that what I have been hearing all these past many months – that you have been deceiving me, that you have, in fact a child by your mistress of years whom you have housed in an apartment not far from this place – tell me all this isn’t true.”
“It’s true”. He said it without a tinge of emotion, with a shocking sense of confidence. “My boy is two-years old. She’s pregnant with another child. Six months.”
Suddenly she saw her husband with the coldness of emotions; saw him as a cold, total stranger. Finally, a confession. A final knowledge, and a final certainly.
“What are your plans” she managed to ask.
He said, he felt he should be with this child; had a moral obligation to be with his child.
“Was it the child, tell me, was it the child? Which I couldn’t give you, which kept you away from me? Then, we could get him, we could get your child and I could be mother to him. We shall be one family; I will still be your wife.”
Silence. Celso didn’t seem to know what to say. And then she said something which shocked her as soon as she said it: “Okay, she can have your weekdays; can I have my weekends? with you? Will that be fair enough?”
A limp nod from her husband. Rowena could only be grateful for such small mercies.
For a while, they tried it. But Rowena still hoped that Celso would have a change of mind. That he would agree to her notion of having a self-contained family with her and his child; no problem with her, she assured him; she would love the boy as though her own. And she believed for a while she had got it all well laid out: neat and clean.
Two weeks. It took her only two weeks to realize it wouldn’t work. Celso appeared silent and tense all during those two weekends. They would have breakfast Rowena meticulously prepared, go to Mass – she was a devout Catholic, having been schooled by the local nuns, she would dress up and talk to her red and golden–garbed, trinket-laden image of the Nino Jesus by her bed every morning without fail – see a movie at the nearby mall, order a sumptuous lunch afterwards, during which a deafening soundlessness would suffuse the dining room and they would leave half of the food untouched. She would wait for him to suggest another activity they could do, another venue to go to, but none would be forthcoming, stabbing her heart to fits of bitterness. They would walk toward the car in the mall parking lot – all steps well known and calculated and familiar – like two wooden statues separated from birth but trudging the same direction.
On the evening of Sunday of the second week, she faced him to say: “I think I will go by what you desire. Stay with your mistress and your child. Don’t mind me. I’ll get by.”
To her surprise, Celso immediately went through his drawers and closets, collected the few shirts and pants he still kept in the house, loaded them in the small suitcase always on standby in the room, and rushed down the stairs to collect his treasured Beatles DVD collection.
She had lost. She knew she had lost him. Lost his heart and soul. And there was a limit to the humiliation one can take.
Or was it me? Tell me. Of course our friends do not know all of me. All that they know is how much I love you, how I could be subservient to you. No, they don’t know. Even if some of our friends, especially our neighbours have witnessed my outbursts, my impatience, my obsessive compulsiveness, my rage at people’s stupidities – at YOUR stupidities which I also cannot tolerate sometimes. But they do not know that. All that they know is that I idolize your intelligence. I kept telling them that, how awed I am by your intelligence, what a top performer you are in your office, how you have been sent to this and that training/observation trips abroad. But they don’t know how I raise my voice at you, lash at you, even for simple, excusable mistakes. Especially during those waiting nights. As you have no idea how mad, how crazy you have made me, there at the mah-jong table, my face trying to keep a false equanimity while waiting for you to arrive – all the while my mind whirling with images of you and your woman and all the things, all the acrobatics you could be doing with her. Can you blame me if I lash out at you with all my shameful and shaming vulgarities as soon as you step into our living room, some of which some of our neighbours, I’m sure are able to catch?
They’re saying that too. I know. My dear lovely friends here in the neighbourhood, more than my mah-jong friends – they are my salvation, my life support. But they’re saying that too, behind my back. . That it wasn’t so much your fault as it was mine. Maybe more of mine? Oh, yes, they know of men having had mistresses, going home late, spending much time with their girl-toys, their love-child – what a sweet, decent phrase for dirty little bastards – whom they pledge to support and do support. BUT, they never leave their wives. In fact, they are known to be more considerate to their wives because of the transgression they have done.
No, they don’t leave them. If at all, they spend whatever little time the wife would allow them to their other one.
Oh, unimaginable. What treachery. How could you, my poor little barrio boy do this to me? So full of confidence I am, huh? A marriage where it was me always calling the shots?
But maybe you do not deserve me at all? Maybe we do not deserve each other! All my madness and intelligence and articulateness considering? But oh, to have exchanged me for a tart – how tasteless can you get, my poor dear Celso? How cheap and tasteless can you be to have exchanged me for a bar girl – who when I finally encountered her and asked her why she chose to hook a married man, answered with that beguilingly innocent, dumb expression in her idiotic barrio-maiden face: “Because he was so nice to me.”
Her grief resounded throughout the Village. She thought her wailing leaped over from her gravelled driveway to every single driveway of the neighbours, floated to each and every well-appointed interiors of every well-appointed dwelling in the hilly and verdant neighbourhood, reached her friends who could be babbling about her now. And what could they be saying of her, of what happened to her marriage? That maybe she deserved it? No, actually, she did not care. She did not care a whit what they thought.
It was the daily pain, the daily assault of excruciating pain that she had to live with, the kind of pain that drivelled to every single pore of her skin, which she felt eroded every single shred of self-respect she had for herself. Did it have anything to do with her pride? Her conceit? Her overbearing confidence?
The mah-jong girls proved their mettle as friends, always by her side, at her beck and call. It was not hard for them to persuade her to go to a retreat house in a cool, verdant town in Laguna with rolling hills and mini-falls, where she spent a month in the company of a congregation of nuns. Immersed in a realm of prayers, silence and contemplation, Rowena felt, for the first time in her life what it meant to have God by her side. After which she joined a healing ministry recommended by one of the elders in the neighbourhood into which she poured all her time, efforts and energies.
Not too long after, during a long telephone conversation with one of her sisters in California, the idea of moving over to the US, initially as a tourist, subsequently as an immigrant, came about. It seemed to be the most logical and practical thing to do now, even if it never entered her mind before. It was enticing as well. Visa application was no problem. Four months later, she took the PAL flight to Los Angeles en route to San Jose. Finding a job was no problem either. She worked for a long time in an NGO doing health extension work in the area. She would occasionally hear some snippets of news about Celso. He had opted for an early retirement from the office for reasons which were never made clear to her. He found it difficult to find another worthy job. Not too long after, she heard he and his family – his wife and three children – were living in hard times, that he was finding it difficult to keep his children in school. Most of his friends had disappeared. The next news she heard was really bad – Celso was in a hospital, fighting for his life. Three months prior, he was found to have cancer of the colon, the prognosis was that he would not last six months. The cancer had metastasized to his lungs and brain in no time. A few of his relatives thought of calling Rowena for a possible final peace, thinking that this was what was hindering Celso from crossing over. She acquiesced. Even if a bit reluctantly. She dialled his room number in the hospital. She heard the whizzing of life support machines, a laboured breathing, then a flat, lifeless “hello.” She waited. Nothing more was added. She said: “It’s okay. I have long forgiven you.” And she hung up.
He died a week later. Friends in Manila received an email from Rowena announcing his passing, asking for prayers for the repose of his soul – “for this man, on whom my world revolved – for 27 years.”