THE MOMENT SHE HEARD the voice say “hello” on the other end of the line, Nadine thought how familiar the sound of the voice was, how distinctly, achingly familiar. A voice she had known so well before, and loved before. The voice of a man she had spent a considerable time of her life with – five years – though in a rather brief, sporadic fashion.
Somebody she had spent what seemed to be a lifetime, too, of thinking if he was the man she was to eventually spend the rest of her life with.
“Nadine? It’s Ramon.”
“Hello,” her voice echoed. “Yes, Mon. How are you? You’re in town?”
“Yes, we all are. All the family’s here.”
And she too, she thought, she’s there with you?
His voice sounded rather strange. As though he was suffering from a cold. “Mama’s dead, you know. Two days ago. She died at the hospital. Cervical cancer.”
“Oh, I’m sorry, Mon. I’m terribly sorry.”
“You remember her, don’t you? She was fond of you, you know.”
It felt both flattering and strange, hearing those words. Flattering, the sentiments from a woman, now dead, who could have been her mother-in-law.
“I’m actually calling from the funeral parlor.”
She was fond of you, you know.
“Yeah,” she heard herself saying. “I’ll be going there. Will you be there? I don’t know what time today. But I’ll be there.”
THE WOMAN inside the expensive coffin, her hair in a bun, made up with funeral cosmetics, didn’t seem quite familiar. After all, they had seen each other only two or three times, and briefly, too.
Ramon had accompanied her to the coffin holding her arm. She bowed her head and spent a few prayerful minutes. Raising her head, her eyes fell on a big lovely wreath with a flowing, silky lavender ribbon on which was written: “For dear Mama, From Papa, Larry and Nini, Chito and Cora, Ramon and Liza and Gary.” Ramon and Liza. She felt strange twinge again. A quick, funnily disturbing feeling. As though it didn’t seem right that it was that name which was there.
Back on a bench in the air-conditioned suite, she took in the whole scene with a sweeping glance: the scattered groups of mourners mostly in black in hushed conversations or silently occupied with their somber thoughts; the bright eerie funeral parlor lights, the imposing, frosted brown coffin with the primary mourning wreath on top, and covering most of the walls of the room stood wreaths of all kinds seemingly competing with each other for size and elegance of design. The heavy smell of the flowers wafted throughout the room. She recognized his father instantly as she saw the figure of the man coming straight to them.
“My condolences, Papa,” she said, giving him a kiss on the cheek.
She was used to calling him “Papa.” She had called him “Papa” because once upon a time, his son was somebody who could have been her husband. She still did, even when it was all over between her and Ramon.
They would occasionally run into each other in Makati’s busy commercial area, and she would kiss the old man’s cheeks. “Hello, Papa,” and the old man would say, “Why don’t you come visit us in the house?” And she would say, “Yes, Papa, I’ll do that one of these days.”
THE FIRST TIME she went to the house in Parañaque was when Ramon brought her there five years ago and she was introduced as “Nadine, my very special girl.” She shook the hands of his father and kissed his mother’s cheeks.
The old man at 67 still wore traces of rugged handsomeness, in that dark, gently wrinkled Ilocano face of his. A man of his age exuding a debonair quality she found astonishing.
His mother was a thin woman, whom the years hadn’t been very kind to. Nadine had seen old family photos which showed how pretty she was in her youth. And even in her older years, she was still beautiful in pictures taken of her, wearing formal clothes, with her face made up and her hair elegantly coiffed.
Nadine developed closeness with the old man she herself was to marvel about later on, a closeness Ramon never suspected existed between the two of them.
As she looked at him now in a moment of grief, she remembered the outpouring which had transpired between the two of them. So spontaneously, so shamelessly shared.
“WE’RE OFF NOW, Papa,” she had said, over coffee and pancit Malabon at one of Makati’s small and cozy snack bars. “In fact, we have been off for quite a while now. Didn’t Ramon tell you?”
“No. But why?”
“Do you know that he was involved with a married woman before, Papa?”
“No, I didn’t know.”
“Well, he was. Before me. Immediately before me. And the crazy thing is that even during the time we were on, he continued seeing this woman. I found that out later on. He kept on saying she was a business associate. And I believed him, Papa. Oh, how I believed him! It never entered my mind to doubt him. Ramon, you know, has such a capacity, an incredible capacity to make a woman, all women I suppose, feel she is truly loved.”
“Are you sure he really didn’t stop seeing this woman while you were on?”
“Well, he did try, I heard. But the woman hounded him. And you know he was supposed to be really in love with her? And the woman was forty-five, Papa, forty-five years old!”
“How did you know that? Did he tell you?”
“No, he never did… in fact; he never admitted that they had a relationship. Oh Ramon, how he can dodge a crime, even if, I suppose, he’s caught en flagrante delicto!”
The old man smiled. Then asked, “How was it? Was it really such a serious affair?”
“Oh, yes. The woman – she’s a jeweler, Papa, a filthy rich Chinese-Spanish mestiza. Her family lived somewhere in Valenzuela, Bulacan. Separated from her husband. The eldest daughter is around eighteen or so. Anyway, she rented an apartment in Cubao which served as their trysting place, their ‘love nest,’ you know. Nights she wouldn’t go home to her family, she would be there in that apartment in Cubao, which served as Ramon’s second home, too. Oh, I understand if you don’t know about this. He has his own bachelor’s flat and he rarely goes home to your place in Parañaque.”
“How did you know he really was in love with her?”
“He owned it up to a mutual friend of ours. No, actually a friend of his, whom I eventually got to know. Later on, I gathered, he found the relationship too cloying, too constricting.
Of course! The woman was very possessive. She had tried to give him everything. Took care of his clothes, picked his suiting materials, his tailors, bought his socks, his briefs, his towels, blankets. Oh, Jesus, she was practically a wife to him. Ramon later on was supposed to have said he wanted his freedom back. Which indicated he was aware that he had sold it once, that he had given it up, for all the things he got out of this woman. It was quite an exchange, don’t you think, Papa? Very symbiotic, very convenient, indeed.”
“You have to be strong Nadine. With Ramon, you have to be strong. I’m not sure all is over between the two of you. I know for a fact that he respects you too much. For your intelligence. You know Ramon never lasts with a woman unless she’s intelligent, and I think that’s why he finds you irresistible. That and your independence.”
“Oh, yes, indeed. Me and my independence. I had given him the impression that I wouldn’t die for him just to marry me. And I think that he found that convenient. Attractive and convenient. Hah! Maybe, that was why he hang around for quite a while, too.”
There was a long silence, and then Nadine continued: “There were other women, too, Papa.”
“I know,” he chuckled, and then ruefully, “Ramon got it from me, you know. Ramon cannot keep still if he sees a woman. He has to do something about it.”
Nadine remembered: Ramon outrageously flirting, even with waitresses in restaurants. How he would give them that long, focused look, his eyes always on the verge of giving them a wink, finally casting his seductively innocent boyish smile.
IT WAS FUNNY and crazy about love. Five years after the breakup, which wasn’t exactly, truly, absolutely one, Nadine found it hard to define the exact nature of the relationship, that which had been, and still was going on; if they ever broke up indeed; if they did and came up with a series of reconciliations or near reconciliations. The nature of his subsequent job entailed long provincial assignments and nurtured once-in-a-blue-moon meetings of theirs, the sudden popping out of the blue to say, yes, indeed, he was in town, to attend a company conference, a social obligation – a relative’s birthday, a wedding, a funeral. And all along seeing her, and being affectionate to her, and for what exact reason she found hard to pin down, seeing her and maintaining his secrecy, his mysterious silences, dodging questions, laughing and smiling away all her questions and inquisitions.
How stupid, she thought that every time they did see each other, he would still display that fantastic devotion, which never ceased to move her. A very warm, affectionate and irresistibly charming kind of person, she had concluded from the start of their relationship; a quality, she was to realize later on, that he was very much aware of, and something he used fully to his advantage. And always, the moments of non-togetherness, of not having been with each other, would be obliterated by the quality of a single, brief encounter and, despite herself, kindle again and again, some kind of hope that, after all, they might make it yet together, that Ramon simply couldn’t decide, was just biding his time.
He would not, however, make a definite move toward a definite direction. To which she became more or less resigned. She knew there must have been other women. But she found it unnecessary to make a fuss about it, to accuse him. What for? They had ceased to have formal commitments to each other anyway. She would bring it up occasionally, though, in a light, bantering manner. “And how’s your love life?” And he would say, with an impish grin alternating with a somber, almost theatrical look: “Nil,” “Nada” “Awan”. And never even bothering to ask about her own.
Over the years, she would time and again come to a realization that indeed, she would not end up with this kind of man. These were moments when light finally dawned on her and she was able to grasp the absolute senselessness, the drifting directionlessness of their relationship.
How much she had felt for this man, how much emotion. How much sadly she had thought of this man, wondering at herself, sometimes cursing herself, recognizing what a stupid fool she had been in a lot of ways. How she had been cruel when she should have been kind, and kind when she should have been cruel. How many times in her mind she had felt cold indifference to this person. How many times she had said goodbye, truly, genuinely, she thought, curiously wondering how sad it was when we finally said goodbye to people we had once loved.
RAMON WAS TALKING now about his mother’s last days, which he hadn’t witnessed himself but only narrated to him, occasionally waving, acknowledging people who came to the wake. His mother’s last days. The last painful days. Nadine listened with her usual rapt attention.
“During a brief silence, she asked, “Where’s Liza?”
“Oh, she was here earlier. She went home two hours ago.”
“How’s married life?”
“Fine,” he said, rather curtly, dismissively. “How’s your dissertation?”
“Oh, still there lying around, notes and drafts all over my room. Needing an inspiration to tie it all up together.”
He smiled. Then he said: “A very easy thing, a very easy thing for you to do, my dear.”
WHEN SHE HEARD about the marriage, it still astonished her and it astonished her that it did. She had heard about it from a friend. The girl was from Bacolod and the wedding was held there. It had been very swift. Two months of knowing each other and then the wedding. The girl came from a very wealthy Visayan family, sugar people, old rich. She was a few years older than Ramon, Western-schooled, meaning Europe, her father having been in the diplomatic service. In Paris, my informant said, she ran around with a group of artists pompously espousing leftist ideology, fell maddeningly in love with a Filipino painter in exile, lived in with the man and a wedding was said to have been arranged which failed to materialize, however. The man had run off with a very young French art student from the Sorbonne. A few months later, back home in Bacolod and nursing a devastated heart, she and Ramon met in one of the art events in the city. The girl again fell maddeningly in love. Two months later, the wedding was held. No one among Ramon’s kin came to attend the occasion.
Upon hearing the story, Nadine tried to feel something, consciously tried to monitor what the event indeed meant to her, generated in her, and she realized that it meant nothing at all, and wondered why she didn’t feel anything at all.
Two months later, Ramon came to the house. Funny how he still hadn’t gotten over the habit – the once-in-a-blue-moon occasional, social call.
“Congratulations,” she said. “And how’s married life?”
“Yeah,” he said. So blandly said, so without emotion, she thought, and she couldn’t fail to note a sense of nervousness in his voice.
“Relax, for Chrissake. Well, how is it?”
“The same life,” he said, “except that now you share your room with someone, when you use to have it all to yourself.”
“Which you had always wanted, didn’t you? No commitments? No ties?”
I said, “You don’t sound joyous at all, my friend.”
He shrugged his shoulders. “How’s your dissertation?”
“Oh, I just came back from Nueva Ecija. Collecting data. The past two months have been terribly tiring.”
There were silences during which neither of them seemed able to think of anything more to say.
“How did you learn about it?” he asked.
“It’s such a small world, my dear. Haven’t you always marveled at my information network?”
His lips drew an enigmatic smile, and then he said, “Nothing has changed, Nadine, nothing at all”
He left, giving her a peck on the cheek.
A month later, she heard his voice on the telephone, announcing his mother’s death.
“NADINE, I’LL LEAVE you for a while,” Ramon said, standing up to meet somebody he recognized, leaving her and his father alone.
“How are you, Papa?” She asked.
“Well, an old man. Grieving. Unforgiven. Maybe just waiting for my turn to go.”
“Oh no. Don’t say that, Papa. In fact, you look healthier than the last time I saw you.”
The last time had been in a hospital bed, almost a year ago. He was sick. Pneumonia on account of viral complications. The old man’s face had been withered and pale. There were no other visitors. Nadine asked about his children and about Ramon’s mother.
“Oh, Nadine, they hate me. My sons – they all hate me. Mama, you know. I’ve told you about her before.”
For a long time, she had thought about it – the old man’s keeping a mistress for years, which had caused immeasurable pain and anguish in the old woman’s heart, and about which the old man could not seem to do anything.
How she had marveled at the candor, the openness of the old man: Ramon’s father pushing 70, woefully saying under his breath: “I don’t know if you’ll understand, Nadine.
But I needed it. I need it. And Mama can’t understand. I haven’t left her. Never have I left her. But she can’t stand me. She would go away, leaving me here, alone in the house, staying with her sisters, her sons, Larry, Ralph, saying all those harsh things about me, wanting all my sons to hate me. Spiting me, saying cruel words. All because she would hear about this and that rumor, about me and other women. Which were not true at all.
About the other woman – I just see her occasionally. Because I need it, Nadine, a man like me. Maybe you will not understand. And Mama, I wish she would understand and not hate me.”
For a while, she brooded about an old woman ripped by jealousy and hatred towards her husband, weeping convulsively, and thought how strange it was. She didn’t know old people could still be capable of such violent emotions over a subject matter she thought was the sole domain of youth.
She remembered Ramon – Ramon, and Papa’s words, “He took after me, Nadine….”
“SHE DIED WITHOUT talking to me, without forgiving me. How I wanted to be with her, if only to serve her during her last moments. But she wouldn’t allow me, Nadine. She passed away without allowing me to see her alive, without forgiving me.”
What was there to say? She looked down, then sought the old man’s eyes and patted his arm.
“Forget everything, Papa. Just try to forget everything. You’ll get over this. In the meantime, just think of her as being at peace now, finally at peace.”
Ramon had returned to the seat beside her. The old man excused himself, stood up and walked toward another group in the brightly lit room
“I must be going,” she said.
“Yes, it’s late now.”
He nodded his head. “Yes. And you must be tired, too. I feel tired. This is the third night.”
“You don’t look it,” she said. “You’re still oozing with charm.”
He smiled. “You and Papa were like two long-lost relatives.”
“We were,” she answered.
“Dear Nadine,” he said, pressing her hand. “My dear, dear Nadine.”
ALONE IN THE SPEEDING in the cab bound for home, she felt the chill of the October night. It was 11:30 in the evening. She was thinking about the funeral service she would attend the next morning at 10.