I first saw her at a friend’s thanksgiving party not too long ago. She was his classmate in high school. We are probably of the same age. I remember the very first moment I saw her. She arrived late that night and she was wearing her office uniform. I observed her from afar as she greeted my friend.
“Mia’s here,” the middle-aged woman who sat next to me said. “She’s late.”
“She’s always busy, isn’t she, Sara?” said another woman who sat opposite her.
“Oh yes, she’s been very busy lately. She’s managing five branches now. She’s having trouble with a couple of them. Low sales, I think, or something like that.”
“She must be very tired. I’m glad she made it here tonight.”
So that was her name, Mia. She did look tired. From where I sat I could see the strain on her face, even though the light outside the house was dim. The dinner party was held out of doors because the heat inside the house was oppressive. I saw her walk towards the long table beside the garage which was over-laden with food and drinks. She held a paper plate and a plastic spoon and fork. The other guests were already at their tables.
Once she got her food, she went over to our table and greeted the woman who sat next to me.
“Oh, there you are, Ma,” Mia said, smiling wearily. “I didn’t see you earlier.” She took her mom’s hand and pressed it against her forehead.
“You look tired, day,” her mom said. “What time did you leave the mall?”
“Nine-thirty, Ma,” Mia said.
They talked for a few minutes and then Mia excused herself. “I’m going to sit over there with Jimmy and Anna, okay?” And she kissed her mom on the cheek and walked away. She did not once glance at my direction.
Tita Sara smiled at the woman in front of her. “Yes, she’s always very busy. Poor child.” She took a slice of her maja blanca and took a bite. “But she’s planning to quit soon.”
“So I’ve heard. Is her decision final?”
“Yes, I think she is really serious about entering the convent.”
I looked down at my plate.
I observed her as she sat next to Jimmy and the rest of their friends. They chatted for a few minutes but she was soon standing up again, looking a little restless. She shuffled between the other guests’ tables to help the caterers serve the beverages to those who were still eating. She had an air of command about her.
“She forgets that this is not her party,” said her mom, while glancing at her. “She’s still on work mode.”
I noticed her cheeks, they seemed to glow. Maybe it was her make up, or maybe she was just flushed for some reason or other. In any case, her cheeks looked rosy. Her eye lashes curled up in a pleasant way, too. But more remarkable than all of these were her eyes; they were something you felt compelled to stare at. I wondered why not more people were looking at her. I gawked at her, looked away, gawked again, and looked away again.
I wanted to ask Tita Sara this question: “Tita, is she absolutely sure she wants to become a nun?” but it seemed awkward and redundant. And who was I to ask that question? I was only a very recent acquaintance, and it seemed too personal an inquiry. So I engaged her on other subjects. We talked about religion, the religious community that they belonged to, and the particular order that they were sponsoring.
“Where is the brothers’ congregation located, tita?” I asked.
“In Carmen, up in the mountain,” she answered. “We go up there two to three times every month to help the brothers out. They’re Franciscans. We helped them build the chapel and the adjoining dormitory, assisted in the renovation of their seminary, and provide food for them every Sunday after Mass. They really need our help.”
“That’s great, tita, what you are doing for them,” I said. “Very noble. Where in Carmen is it situated exactly?”
“I forgot the name of the barangay. It lies outside the town proper — about 1o kilometers from the highway, I think. The road going there is not cemented so it’s a bit difficult to pass through, but once you get to the place, the sacrifice is all worth it.”
“Ten kilometers, that’s quite far.”
“Yes, very far. The poor brothers hire motorcycles every time they have services outside Carmen. That’s why we also sometimes help them out with their transportation. You should come with us one of these days.”
I took a spoonful of sweet and sour cream dory from my plate and tried to think about mountains.
“We’ll return there next Sunday. Would you like to join us?”
“Really, tita? I’ll check with my schedule first, tita.”
“It will be such a blessing, Sara, to have a nun for a daughter,” said the other woman.
“Yes, that’s very true,” Tita Sara said.
I nodded. “Does she have any siblings, tita?”
“No, she’s our only child. But, you know, a calling is a calling. I support her decision wholeheartedly.”
“Yes, tita,” I said.
My friend Jimmy was in high spirits throughout the evening. He entertained all of the guests and thanked them for coming. He barely ate, but he moved about energetically from table to table.
I stayed for a few more minutes and only left when I couldn’t see Mia anymore.
“Welcome back,” Jana said when she saw me at the office the following morning. I’ve been gone for two weeks. “How was your vacation? And what’s with the beard? You look so… butch.”
“It’s my new look,” I answered.
“You look old.”
I laughed. “This is my new image.”
“And what image are you trying to project?”
“That of a tough-guy. I figured, since I deal with the drivers daily and handle the maintenance regularly, I might as well look rough and tough. Besides, I love going down on all fours and getting my hands dirty, so I might as well look unkempt.”
Jana took some folders out of her bag and placed them on her table.
“I would look out of place if I were clean-shaven. Plus, I also want to look like a writer,” I continued.
“Writers don’t sport beards,” she said.
“Some of them do.”
“But like I said, it makes you look older.”
“I’m only 25.”
“You look 45.”
I stroked my mustache and goatee. “I like this look. I’m keeping it.”
She sighed. “Suit yourself.”
I spent the rest of the week away from the office. There were tons of work to be finished in the yard, so I had to report there every single day. We did have a depot near the port, a rusty 20-footer container van which was converted into an improvised office a long time ago, but I hardly stayed there. Most of the time, I was out of doors inspecting the trucks, vans, and trailers. I did most of the trouble-shooting and minor repair work myself and delegated the major ones to our mechanics. I finished late almost every night. The terminal and the streets would be awfully quite and dreary. That part of the city slept early, and for good reason. Once at home, I’d read a little, listen to Bob Dylan or Mozart, or write a few lines in my journal until I’d feel drowsy.
At the end of the week, Jana called and invited me to go out with her to visit this new club in Lahug.
“It’s a really cool place,” she said. “You must see it.”
“I’m not sure, Jan,” I said. “I’m too tired to go out tonight.”
“That’s why you need to come with me. You need to unwind.”
“Who else is going?”
“Michael and Chelsea cancelled, so it’s just you and me. You must come, I can’t go there alone.”
So I said yes. I got dressed, took a taxi, and met her outside a building in I.T. Park. The structure was newly-built. It had that fresh smell that new, modern buildings often have. The first 20 stories were occupied by a BPO company. The club was somewhere in the 21st or the 22nd floor, I can’t remember which. It was very late and I felt sluggish.
When we got to the club, it was already filled to capacity with fashionable-looking people. The lights were no different from the other clubs in uptown Cebu, but the interiors and the furnishings were very stylish and luxurious. As it turned out, it was opening night, and they invited a female DJ from Germany to headline the event. The drinks were ridiculously expensive. I settled for a couple bottles of local beer. Jana ordered cocktails. She was dressed in an elegant blue dress and she wore a pearl necklace. Her eyes were dark and penetrating, and she moved about in her usual mysterious and nonchalant way.
“This is a bit weird, don’t you think?” she said, her voice barely rising from the steadily increasing intensity of house music. Beams of red, green, gold, blue, and purple lights flashed and danced unpredictably on her face and arms and shot to different directions inside the room. Cool, artificial smoke rose slowly from the ground, adding enigma to the atmosphere. A few people were edging us a little further into the platform where the DJ was mixing.
“What’s weird?” I said, my voice equally loud.
“This, you and me.”
“Oh,” I said, without really understanding what she meant.
My legs were hurting, so I waded out of the crowd and looked for a couch where I could just sit and observe the people. I found a lounge sofa near the glass window and sat down. I sank into the indescribably soft cushion. It was so comfortable that I nearly fell asleep when I laid back and closed my eyes. I scanned the room and looked for Jana. She was still standing beside the table, talking to some guy in a black jacket. Minutes later, she spotted me and went over.
“Hey, you left me,” she said.
“I’m sorry, but my legs hurt,” I said. “Who was that?”
“Oh. I didn’t catch his name.”
“What did he want?”
“He offered me a drink and invited me to sit with their group in the next table. I declined. A typical flirt.” She took a sip from her lipstick-stained glass.
She sat down beside me. After some time another guy approached her and asked her if she wanted to dance.
“No, I’m with my boyfriend,” she said and dragged me back into the middle of the floor. Then she warned me, “Don’t get any ideas in your head about what I said. I said that merely to get rid of him.”
And we danced. My vision was not very steady and she looked a bit tipsy. The music was rising into a climax and I had the feeling that I was being swallowed by this gigantic wall of sound from which there was no possibility of escape. Inside this giant wall was a small space where I found some peace and quiet. I stayed there for a while, but Jana brought me back to my senses. She wanted to order more drinks.
“Alcohol is bad for you,” I said.
She burst out laughing. “Are you kidding me? I didn’t come all the way out here to not get drunk.”
We finally left the building at 2 in the morning.
“I’m hungry,” she said. She held her high-heeled shoes with one hand and with the other tried to maintain her balance as she tip-toed at the edge of the sidewalk.
“What happened to your shoes?”
“Not my shoes, my leg. I tripped somehow.”
I didn’t notice earlier that she was limping. I supported her arm and helped her walk steadily.
“Army Navy is still open,” she said.
“No, they close early,” I said.
“Trust me, they’re still open.”
She ordered a breakfast burrito and I had some coffee. The music and the noise of the crowd were still ringing in my ears. I closed my eyes tightly and massaged my temples and forehead.
She finished her food, wiped her fingers with a table napkin, and said, “Come closer.” I leaned forward, bowed my head, and she began to knead the back of my neck.
“Feel better?” she said.
I nodded. “Thank you.”
We walked back to her car quietly. I drove her to her place and took a taxi home.
I was too tired to sleep. My brain was exhausted but my mind was still running, chasing something. Thoughts and ideas flowed like a river inside my head, and I had to toss and turn countless times before I found the most comfortable sleeping position.
I awoke and my room was still dark. The ringing that I heard was not a dream. I picked up the phone beside my bed and Jimmy answered from the other line.
“Bro, sorry to wake you up,” he said.
I glanced at the clock on the wall, it was half-past six in the morning. I grunted. “What’s up?”
His breathing was heavy. “I’m planning to go to Carmen today.”
I tried to make sense of his words. Somehow, his sentence did not immediately register in my brain.
“Hello?” he said.
“Yeah, still here,” I said.
“Can you come with me?”
“Carmen? Why are you going to Carmen?”
“Where’s Carmen again?”
“It’s right after Danao.”
Images of Danao City flashed before my eyes from the time I last visited it many years ago. I remember the bay, the fish port, the plaza, the district hospital, and the old, abandoned factories and sugar mills.
“Is there a church there?” I asked. I can’t seem to remember a church.
“I think so. But I’m not going to the church, I’m going to a chapel on top of a mountain.”
“A chapel on top of a mountain?” I repeated. I sat up and yawned. “Where are you now?”
“In Abellana. I’m jogging.”
“On a Sunday?”
“You caught me in a bad time, bro. I can’t come. I have a terrible headache.” And it was true, it had been some time since I had a hangover.
“In that case…”
“Maybe next time, bro.”
I plunged right back to bed. “Are you going by yourself?”
“Yes, but I’m meeting Tita Sara and Mia there. They invited me last week. I almost forgot.”
“Okay,” I said.
“Okay what?” he said.
“Okay, I’ll come with you.”
“Great. I’ll pick you up.”
Jimmy arrived at around 8. It took us over two hours to reach Danao. We were silent most of the time. He was listening to a Mandarin course on his iPod and he did not want to be distracted.
Danao hasn’t changed much. The town center, public hospital, and government offices still looked the same.
We turned left to a small road a few meters from the town proper of Carmen. It took us around forty minutes to reach the top, and all the while I marveled at the trees that covered the whole mountain and which lined our path. Everywhere we looked, there were pine, mahogany, narra, and acacia trees. At the foot of the trees were beds of ferns and other wild plants. The further we went, the thicker the woods became. The tress were so tall and the leaves were so thick that they formed canopies above us. It was eleven in the morning, but it felt and looked like late afternoon. The road also became narrower and more difficult to traverse, but eventually we managed to get to the chapel on time.
We parked in a basketball court that was partially covered with moss. Then we went down a flight of stairs to where the chapel and seminary stood.
Tita Sara greeted us as we entered the doorway. The architecture was pretty and quaint. The caretaker, Tita Ina, later explained to us that the seminary was once the ancestral home of the Villaflores clan. They were a political family; and the present mayor, she pointed out, is the nephew of the Villaflores patriarch, who passed away many years ago. The family donated the land, several hectares in total, to the congregation.
I found myself standing in the balcony of the seminary. There were pine trees below the veranda, and still more pine trees down the hill. Mahogany and acacia trees abounded further off. The crickets chirped from the trees and they filled the seminary with their noise, which sounded like music to our ears.
Portraits of saints hung on the wall outside the library.
Tita Sara was standing at one end of the balcony. She was talking to a lady. It was Mia.
She looked so different that I didn’t recognize her immediately. Maybe it was just my absentmindedness, or maybe I just had a long week and it felt like I hadn’t seen her for months. Or maybe it was just the way in which she was dressed. She wore a simple black blouse and a long white skirt that reached her ankles. I saw her eyes, cheeks, and eye lashes more clearly this time.
After a quarter of an hour, all of us proceeded to the chapel. I sat next to Jimmy on one of the pews in the middle. Mia sat a bench away to our left. From that angle, her eye lashes and cheeks were more striking. A few times she turned to her right to look at something or someone, but I didn’t have the courage to meet her glance. She then placed a piece of cloth on top of her head and secured it with a pin.
The priest soon entered the chapel, preceded by the altar boys who held candles and thuribles. The scent of the incense soon spread throughout the chapel. I inhaled it deeply. The smell had a soothing effect on me. I felt at peace. The smoke rose and faded away before it reached the ceiling. The sun shone through the stained-glass windows, casting red, blue, and yellow lights on the golden altar in front of us. Fresh flowers — white carnations and lilies — adorned the altar. A large, golden cross hang above the candlesticks. The choir sang their songs solemnly. One brother played the piano while another played the violin.
After the Mass, we all gathered in the balcony. Jimmy and I helped prepare the lunch for the presiding priest and the brothers. Everybody greeted everybody, and everyone were all smiles. I sat at the far right of the long dining table. Jimmy sat opposite me and Tita Ina sat to my right. Tita Sara sat further off to my left.
I saw Mia sitting in the next table, her back to us. Then after a while she transferred and sat beside her mom. I glanced at her every once in a while, curious about what she was doing or who she was talking to or what she was saying. I couldn’t hear her words, but I caught the tone of her voice. She was conversing with her mom, dad, and some of the brothers, and a few times she glanced at our end of the table. But I couldn’t see her face clearly for between us, placed in the middle of the table, was a bonsai plant.
Then she stood up from her seat. By that time, we all had finished eating.
“Excuse me, Jim,” she said. “Let me take your plate.”
“Thanks, Mi,” Jimmy said.
“Excuse me, Tita, let me take your plate also,” Mia said.
“Thank you, Mia, very kind of you,” Tita Ina said.
She placed the empty plates on top of each other.
“Let me take your plate, too,” she said, addressing me this time. I looked up but she was looking down at my plate, her hand already on the table.
“Oh, no, I’ll take it to the sink myself,” I said, surprised.
“It’s okay, I can take it, tito,” she said. My heart sank.
“No, it’s alright, don’t trouble yourself. I’ll do it.” I stood up and offered to help her with the other plates. At first she refused but eventually she relented and handed them over to me.
“Thank you,” she said without looking at me. She smiled and slowly walked away.
I deposited the plates inside the kitchen and went back to my seat. I didn’t feel like talking, so I just sat there quietly, barely moving. I felt weak. My knees were wobbly. I made a mental note to ditch my beard.
After our lunch, we went over to Tita Sara and said our “Thank yous” and “Goodbyes”. I kissed her on the cheek. On our way out, we passed by the chapel and I saw Mia sitting there on one of the pews directly in front of the open door. She was alone. She glanced briefly outside the door but she didn’t see us. She looked reflective. Then she faced the altar again. That was the last time that I saw her.