“Undress me, okay lang.”
Ate said, standing on the wet
bathroom floor, holding on to me for balance.
I hesitated for she was drunk and married.
She was also my landlady.
I was the only one not so drunk
at that time, our landlord
dead drunk with the housemates,
snoring in the sala, seated with a smile
on his face for precaution.
“Undress me,” she repeated.
For how could I wash the vomit splattered
all over her body? She cooked for us earlier.
And no sign of a fight whatsoever.
No sign of tears on the pulutan
for we were all laughing, drinking and horse-playing.
I first had to splash a dipper of water on her.
She was about to doze off. And I’m a man.
I didn’t want to make her feel
that I wanted to see her naked
more than I wanted to clean her up.
But I had to undress her.
Her shirt, her shorts.
I could have removed her undies,
she didn’t care.
As if trust was her only cure
and I was peeling
every layer of her pain.
“P1200 and you have the room to yourself.”
The landlord said. All the while I kept staring at his wife.
She was young and pretty, wore red hair dye.
She reminded me of Aya Medel in that 90s movie
about coconut trees and sensual farm-life in Albay.
My eyes kept climbing up and down her body,
enjoying the coconuts ala-Villa,
but mother was with me,
Ate’s toddler playing in the sala.
“It’s just P3000 and I’m happy that you’re the one who found it.”
Ate said. I looked at the wet 1000-peso bills in her hand.
I almost regretted returning them.
I found them early that morning in the bathroom
beside the toothbrushes ridden with roaches.
“Now let me cook for you.”
She said touching my forehead.
I had fever. It was final exams and I thought
the soul of the female cadaver we dissected
had followed me home.
I was the only one nice to her,
even made a prayer for her, called her a special name.
Her body cut into half, the class brought home
some of her parts. One brought home a leg.
Another brought the other pair.
One brought home an arm, an organ.
I brought home her name.
“Naku, don’t you ever dare die in this house.
Too many ghosts here already.”
Ate said pressing iced-towel to my forehead,
smiling like a sister from the nunnery.
She was a Japayuki singer.
“Don’t worry about me being naked like this.
Imagine we’re at a beach resort.
Oh, your kuya does not love me,
does not love me anymore.”
She was crying now, seated down the wet bathroom floor,
shivering, shivering, like she was raped by the December wind.
“Your kuya, your kuya. “ She sobbed or hesitated. I wasn’t sure.
“He’s leaving for a girl he got pregnant.”
Her words felt like ice so I embraced her.
Then I washed her, scrubbed her clean
with soap and cold water.
* * *
I thought I saw a phantom at the cathedral on Good Friday.
It was right there, hanging like a black curtain blocking
the stairs leading to the belfry. It was looking down at us,
apparently, in its headless splendor. It hung right there,
as if a reminder of its own presence as the choir hammered
the air with melody, building a staircase to the clouds lined
with psalms. Was it really blocking the way? Or showing the way?
I could not tell for it wore a cassock, it seemed. Headless collar
gaping like a mouth in giddy laughter even when the priest said
something about“Consummatum Est,” the sacristans moving about in frantic frenzy, covering with black curtain the Archangel
Gabriel and other religious icons left exposed to the public eye.
I looked at it intently, marginalized as it was, in the midst of
the chorus of prayers and fidelity. Was it really there? I strained my senses and existence. It might hold the answer. Even as it hung right there like a black curtain left by some sacristan in a hurry.