I SAW LORETTA again after about five years. I was walking leisurely along the pavement off Makati Supermart where the fountains splashed too strongly sometimes, wetting the stone benches with its mists. I saw her walking the same probinsyana walk, gawky, bow-legged and all, her feet sporting what seemed to be her favorite type of footwear – dark-hued sandals baring her long bony untrimmed toes. She was pregnant again – how many times had I seen her pregnant before? – wearing a maternity duster which did seem strikingly natural on her, and tugging along a girl who must have been between eight and ten.
The first thing I noticed, though, at close range now, was how miserably aged she looked and thought again, as I must have had a thousand times: why should people who marry and bear children look so old beyond their years? She must have been only two or three years older than me.
But her eyes, despite the unmistakable aging that time inflicts on all of us, were full of life as they wrinkled into slits of brightness and warmth.
“Corky!” she exclaimed, pinching my arm. “How are you? You look so good!”
The niceties. The familiar, expected niceties. But, yes, she had heard about me going from one hotel PR job to another, read about my supposed promotions in the papers’ corporate news round-up, heard about my pursuing and finishing an MBA and later taking some postgraduate training at some American university.
She seemed to be very happy about it. After all, we had been together when we were still very young. How many years ago was that? Ten years, more or less. When we were young girls fresh from school, striking it out in life, finding out for ourselves if there was life after school, or if life actually started after school.
She was a thin, gangling Cebuana with a business degree from one of the schools down South, very easily awed, very excitable, she punctuated every other sentence with “Ay, Ginoo!” during break time when most of us would be smoking one stick of Salem after another over card games of PEKWA or Blackjack or Forty-one.
Those years. Oh, those years! When we would spend overnights at a friend’s place but mostly at Karen’s who occupied an apartment behind Stella Maris College with a brother who was a Geology senior in the University and whom all of us girls were eyeing, but to whom girls at that point in his life – I was to rationalize later on – must not have held as much fascination as rocks, stones and rock formations did. Anyway, it was a time when one way of spending our weekends was overnighting at some officemate’s place and all of us crowding the small kitchen area, cooking our dinner or else buying cooked Chinese dishes at Hong Ning or Cup and Saucer or Bamboo House in Cubao and whiling the rest of the night swilling half-filled bottles of Smirnoff Vodka, Yellow Label Gin and Johnny Walker Whisky pirated from somebody’s father’s bar and listening to badly scratched records of The Bee Gees, Chad and Jeremy, The Association and Brazil ’66. It was also playing Spirit of the Glass, maddeningly trying to know the initials of the guy we hoped we would end up with, or if something was bound to happen between this guy and that and Maribelle and Mabeth and Annavic, etc., and sharing disconsolate stories about our “tragic” love affairs and stamping our foot in anger and dismay over somebody we couldn’t trap into our web. Wicked, wicked plans which we were never able to carry out because we were, after all, not of such mold. For we were, really, a group of proud, chauvinistic femmes. Except Loretta. Naive little Loretta whom we loved to be with us because she was so innocent, so guileless, so unthreatening.
WE HAD GONE to SM’s basement food court, and had our orders placed. I threw a look at her beside her daughter and noticed how her face still had that plain, scrubbed look I associated her with. Seeing the tell-tale lines, however, which had been so mercilessly etched on her face, especially under the eyes, I felt a twinge of guilt and at the same time a perverse kind of joy and, therefore, more ripples of guilt as I dwelt on what I perceived as horrible “oldness” in her face, and thanked my blessed angels that I was spared such punishment as yet. Who would think we were contemporaries, that we belonged to the same generation although admittedly I was blessed with a face and body which looked ageless, as some friends would begrudgingly concede, thanks to my supposed pixie features and a body which used to be reed-slender in my youth, and only now had started to fill out.
And now she was saying it, proclaiming in that breathless manner of hers what I already knew, had heard so many times, during reunions and other such events it had gotten to be a mantra of some kind:
“My God, Corky, you never changed. You look as young and as sexy as you were!”
“Some people age gracefully, you know.”
“What’s your secret?”
“I read the Bible most nights.”
“Honest, Corky, honest.”
“And other nights?”
“Ummm, I read Erica Jong.”
“Who’s Erica Jong?”
“Oh, some best-selling pornographer. In our time, it used to be Miller.”
“I mean creams, lotions, Corky.”
“Oh, I use Noxema, which her Highness, Princess Caroline of Monaco, supposedly cannot do without. Satisfied?”
And now, she was finally asking the inevitable question which women, especially married women, so love to ask unmarried friends bumping into them along the by-roads of life.
“I know. I should know now,” she said sounding as though what she would say was a dramatic prelude to some great discovery:
“You’ve gotten married. Finally. Right?
“You mean you’re not married yet?”
She looked horribly disappointed when I said I wasn’t.
“But why not?” she drove on, aghast, disappointment in her face, as though to have remained single was something listed in the list of crimes one could commit against oneself. “Aren’t you thinking of it at all?”
I smiled a vacant smile.
“You’re so particular, that’s why. So choosy and particular up to now.”
Her voice had taken on a punishing, condescending tone. I turned to her daughter appreciably and Loretta’s face brightened up. Did I know she had four of them now? Two boys and two girls. The one she was presently pregnant with would be her fifth.
It was my turn to be horrified. “My gosh, Loretta, you aren’t helping any in controlling our population, are you?”
To which she dismissively countered: “Oh, I don’t believe in that family planning thing!” And I thought how she and her husband must be really relishing the connubial state to have produced such number of brood.
“Would you believe Pinky here is now in the second grade?” she continued, beaming with pride, pointing to the girl beside her busily smacking the strings of Bolognese spaghetti into her mouth.
“Great,” I said.
“Aren’t you envious, Corky?” she pursued, asking me pointblank.
What could I have said? Could I have told her there were other things in life than being a mother? That it might be most women’s notion of fulfillment because that was what had been fed to us, in the first place? That in fact, that notion was passé? As passé as the Volkswagen we used to abuse in our joyriding at night although the Volks then wasn’t the Volks they were producing now?
“It’s nice to have kids, Corky. Don’t you just adore kids, like everybody else?”
I looked at her but said nothing.
Then she asked where I was now connected. The same consultancy group, I said, thanks to my MBA and no thanks to the five Godawful long years at our former office which obviously she was still working for.
“You must be making a lot now, Corky. I can imagine.”
“Oh, nothing spectacular. Just enough.”
“Oh, Corky, you don’t have to tell me. Me, I’m still doing that encoding routine. Remember? Only I have graduated to being a supervisor now.”
“It’s been five years since I left, Loretta. Surely, your salary must have gone up now.”
She displayed that familiar smirk of hers when disgust filled her and went into a litany of how certain favored groups were getting the usual bigger slice of the pie but never her group. I wanted to ask why wouldn’t she leave, for Chrissake, but I didn’t have the heart to ask, knowing I wouldn’t receive an answer that would satisfy my ever rational, seeking mind. How certain people were simply doomed by sheer inertia in their bodies, by sheer circumstances in their lives, by wrong kinds of attachments. Or a combination of some such factors. Till it was too late to make any kind of decision at all. People not knowing, never knowing when to leave, when to make their exits at what distinct points in their lives.
Now her face took on a bitter, disillusioned look. She was talking like a typical harassed housewife about how her life was made miserable by the oil crisis, inflation, high prices.
How she hated it that her husband hadn’t had any really significant promotion in the industrial firm he had been with all these years, how she was finding it so difficult to make both ends meet, hated it that she couldn’t send her children to better schools, that they were still staying in that cramped apartment in Kamuning.
Now her talk switched to other officemates: who had left for what office, who had gotten promoted to what positions, who had made what kind of acquisitions. Renee had bought a house in Magallanes, had I heard? Celeste’s husband, formerly with the military, was now with the Ayalas raking in a lot of dough. Cristy and Ramon had migrated to the States where she had found a job as a computer operator in a big department store. And did I know that several former officemates had migrated to Australia? Yes, programmers, systems analysts, EDP people were very much in demand Down Under.
“There is now an Australian chapter of our EDP office, Corky, haven’t you heard? Ed and Tina are there, Letty, Cynthia, Meg.” And then, as an afterthought, she asked, “Why don’t you go abroad, Corky?”
I shrugged, saying it was never my cup of tea at all, never my ambition, never my kind of ego trip to work abroad.
“But surely, you would love to go places, wouldn’t you? You’re so brilliant, so accomplished, so …”
I had a mind to tell her I was scheduled to go out of the country this summer for a European package tour, and that a travel agency had in fact started the processing of the travel papers.
“I might,” I said, “just for a while, just to relax, see places as you said, enjoy the views.”
LORETTA’S ICE-CREAM was melting. She had been talking a lot, gesturing as she did, the veins in her neck pulsating with every deeply felt emotion her voice registered. By now, she had changed into another topic again. Or rather, went back to pursue the marriage thread again. She was asking when I was getting married.
“This Sunday,” I answered with a sweet smile. “And be sure to be there.”
“I’m serious, Corky.”
She looked like she was pleading. Her voice, that sweet Cebuana voice was supplicating. I kept on smiling, looking at her and smiling at her. Suddenly her face brightened up as though she had finally come to the unraveling of a mystery. She asked with such curiosity and eagerness what “had really transpired” between me and Mandy. Mandy of so long ago, my eye! It was funny. It was insane. Loretta remembering Mandy – he whom I had almost forgotten – and perceiving him as my one great love, indeed, he who, in the long and convoluted history of the men in my life, did not even figure at all.
Could I tell Loretta about all of them? Those myriad involvements and entanglements which concededly would run the scale from major to minor, elegant to prosaic, satisfactory to not so very, every single one of them, nevertheless, having helped me grow as a person, as a woman? None of which left any reason for me to have any kind of regret whatsoever, even if not a single one of them led to the permanence of marriage? That intimacy and security could be had even without that signed piece of legal document? Could I share with her all these thoughts and not shock her sensibility, traumatize her values? And would she understand at all?
“You should have taken him back when he was coming back to you. Don’t you think so, Corky?”
She wanted me to regret it. That minor thing about which there could simply be no question of regret. But my poor friend wanted me to regret it.
“You must marry, Corky. Do you think your achievements get in the way? That men find you terribly overwhelming?”
“I don’t think so, Loretta.”
“It’s not going to be easy when you grow old, Corky, you know. Who will take care of you?”
“I have nieces and nephews, you know.”
“But they’re different,” she said in a tone which had gotten more vehement. “They’re not your own.”
“It doesn’t matter, I guess.”
And I thought: there will always be people dear to me, people I love. Because I love, I will always be loved. How sure are you, my dear Loretta, that marriage will bring about children, and if children come, that they might not turn out later to be too busy managing their own lives to bother with their parents’ lives? Haven’t you heard of such cases, Loretta? And worse, of children even abandoning their parents? So, what’s so fool-proof about your formula?
“….. and it’s terrible to be old and lonely, Corky. Not all the money in the world can buy off loneliness.”
I looked at her long and hard, and kept silent, thinking to myself: What makes you so sure people who don’t marry are going to be lonely?
WHEN THE BILL CAME, I pulled out a crisp hundred peso bill and waited for the change. The waiting seemed to take an eternity. The atmosphere suddenly had taken on an oppressive air. Loretta had gone strangely silent. As I must have, too. Suddenly, there didn’t seem anything relevant or interesting to talk about anymore.
When the change came, I took it, put it inside my handbag and fished for the car key. Then we stood up, almost simultaneously. “Well, Loretta, it really was so nice seeing you again.”
“Come and visit us sometime, Corky,” she said perfunctorily.
We strode out in silence. Out on the pavement, I took a deep breath – it was fresher air – and said, “So long Loretta,” and was about to walk in the direction of the parking lot when I felt an urge to look back, and saw the young girl, Loretta’s daughter, tugging at her mother’s long, almost faded-looking maternity dress. I reached out my hand and fondly mussed her hair: “Be good to Mommy in her old age, okay?”
The smile she gave was very disarming.