Emma smiled. She was almost always smiling. I can’t recall many instances in the past when I saw her frowning. If not with her lips, she smiled with her eyes. She always seemed to be overflowing with life.
The books and flowers I brought her only added to her joy. Her happiness brimmed on her face and spilled over her eyes.
“Oh, Franz,” she exclaimed. “How very thoughtful of you. You have always been so, but this time you have outdone yourself. Flowers and books! How perfectly they go together. No one can top these as presents to a lady.”
“Please, have a seat,” she said, and I sat on the couch nearest her.
She straightened the fabric of her skirt. She was wearing a long, silky dress. It stretched down to her ankles, covering her toes. Its color, cream and purple, looked striking against the afternoon light.
“Are you going to a ball or something?” I asked in jest.
“No, I’m not.” She giggled. “I am merely trying this on. It once belonged to my grandmother. Can you believe that? It’s extremely old. It should be kept in a museum, but here I am wearing it.”
“It doesn’t look that old.”
“I know, right? It must be the fabric. I don’t know what it’s made of. It’s already antique and yet it’s still wearable. I love it. I love old dresses. I found it inside one of those ancient closets upstairs. I think I might just keep this.”
She lifted the bouquet from the table and inhaled its scent, then she held it above her lap, raised her shoulder, and affected an arch smile. “How do I look?” she asked.
She laughed before I could answer. Breath-taking, I thought.
“Let’s see, on Monday, it was mums, right? Then on Tuesday, it was daisies. Yesterday, it was carnations, and today, roses. What’s it going to be tomorrow, orchids? I bet you’re thinking of orchids. Are you planning on giving me a whole garden?”
We both laughed — she, delicately and I, self-consciously.
“Are you free tomorrow night, Emma?” I popped the question out of the blue.
“Why do you ask?” she said.
“I want to take you to the city.”
“Oh, you want to take me to the city? Do I have a say on the matter? Are you planning on asking for my consent first before taking me anywhere?” She was giggling again.
“Sorry, I meant, if you are free, of course. I can take you there if you have no prior engagements. I would love to show you my club.”
“I’m just playing with you.”
“Sorry, but I can’t.” She became pensive.
“Oh.” I didn’t think she’d say no. “How about Saturday night, then?”
“I still can’t.”
“I see. Busy?”
“No, not really. It’s just that, well, I barely have a week left and I hardly stayed indoors. I guess I just want to spend my remaining days here. I want to remember this house as best as I can before I go back home.” She sighed. “I still can’t believe I’m here. It still feels so surreal. Can you believe it’s been ten years since I last saw this place? I spent my happiest years here.”
“I can’t believe you’re going back so soon. Do you really have to go back next week? Can’t you extend your stay?”
She shook her head.
“I can’t believe it’s been a decade since we last saw each other,” I said. “We were so young back then.”
“Yes,” she said. “And look at you now. Look how well you turned out to be. Successful entrepreneur, popular model, product endorser?” Her voice sounded teasing. “I bet you’ll also go into politics, like your dad.”
Manang Linda, the house’s caretaker, entered the sala with a tray of suman and sikwate. The steam rose from the mugs and in an instant the air was filled with the smell of hot chocolate.
“You haven’t mentioned your girlfriend yet,” Emma said. “What’s her name? When will you introduce her to me?”
“Ay! Franz has many girlfriends, Inday Em, didn’t you know?” Manang Linda said.
The blood rushed to my face. I felt my cheeks heating up.
“What? No,” I said. “No, I don’t have a girlfriend.”
“Sure you do,” Manang Linda went on. “You have several.” They both laughed at me.
“I do not. They’re just my friends. I have many female friends, that’s all.” With my eyes, I begged Manang Linda to just leave us alone, but she wouldn’t take the hint. She was standing between us.
“Be careful with Franz here, ‘day.,” Manang Linda continued. “He’s something of a… what do you call that kind of person nowadays? A smooth operator? A player? Yes, that’s right. A player. He’s broken the hearts of so many girls here in Cebu and elsewhere.”
“Come on, Nang, you know that’s not true. Don’t you believe her, Em. None of that is true.” I tried to laugh with them, but my laughter sounded too forced and hollow. I was drowning in embarrassment. I felt like leaving the room. I was just about to stand up when Manang Linda exclaimed, “Ay, I forgot to turn off the stove!” And she hurried away back into the kitchen.
Manang Linda’s sudden absence left a vacuum between Emma and me. The silence was heavy and I felt her eyes on me, studying my every gesture. She was no longer smiling. I felt unnerved.
“How about Sunday?” I asked.
“What about Sunday?” Emma said.
“Are you free on Sunday?”
“No, I’m not free on Sunday, either.”
“Oh, okay then. Maybe Monday, Tuesday, or anytime before your flight?”
She picked up one of the books from the table and opened the hard cover. She flipped through it and the pages made crisp, ruffling sounds. A smile broke from her lips and I felt relieved.
“Have you read this?” she asked.
“No,” I said.
“Really? Why are you giving me a copy if you haven’t read it?”
“Because I know Austen’s your favorite author, and your mom named you after one of Austen’s heroines.”
“You should read her. Start with this.” She handed me the novel. I felt its weight in my hand and with my fingers I felt its texture. I opened it and skimmed through its pages. The smell of vanilla wafted in the air and I breathed it in.
“Is this your favorite among all her works?” I asked.
“I have no favorites. I love them all in equal measure,” she answered.
I tried to read the first few sentences of the opening chapter, but none of it made any sense to me. The language sounded so old and unfamiliar.
“How about tonight?” I persisted.
She rose from her seat, looking slightly annoyed. She went over to the open window. Her shoulders heaved as she took deep breaths. Outside, I could hear the soft crashing of the waves against the shore. A gentle breeze streamed into the house, carrying with it the smell of the sea.
She returned to her seat and looked at me.
“All right. I’ll go out with you,” she said.
Immediately my heart leapt inside my chest.
“But only as your friend,” she said, smiling.
My heart promptly plummeted down my gut.
“I’ll hang out with you as long as you’ll promise me that you won’t consider it a date. You’re my friend, Franz. We’ve been friends since our pre-school days. But,” she paused, “that’s all we’ll ever be.”
The pain in my facial expression must have been too apparent for her own expression changed quickly from that of gaiety to that of commiseration.
“Are the stories about you true?” she asked.
“What stories? You mean the ones Manang Linda mentioned? Of course not. She was only joking,” I said.
“My sisters, they said the same thing about you.”
“Your sisters!” I exclaimed.
I checked myself and looked away. I stared at the flowers on top of the pianoforte in one corner of the room. They were the same flowers I gave her a few days ago. Some of them still looked fresh, but many had begun to wilt and wither. There were petals scattered on the floor.
“They said you have a girl at work, another in your club, and another in this neighborhood. They said you have a girl in Manila, another in Davao, and another in Leyte. You have girls all over the place, it seems.”
Again, I forced myself to laugh. “And you believe what they say?”
“They’re my sisters. Are you saying they’re lying?”
Emma’s eyes peered into mine, and I felt myself jolted from a kind of stupor. It was as though for most of my life I had been asleep, and now, with her words stabbing the frozen surface of my soul, I felt finally alive.
“Are you saying that my sisters — and even Manang Linda, whom you and I both know so well — are lying? Are you saying they’re all liars?”
“I didn’t say that.”
“But that’s what you’re implying, isn’t it?”
I stood up and went over to the pianoforte. I ran my fingers along the polished wood. A portrait was hanging on the wall above it; that of a woman. Her eyes and lips were like those of Emma’s — deep, dark, elegant, and unfathomably beautiful. Like Emma, she, too, was a Spanish mestiza. In fact, she looked like an older, sterner, more serious version of Emma.
I paced the room distractedly. I concealed my agitation as best as I could by controlling the rhythm of my breathing. My steps were heavy and the floor boards creaked as I walked from one end of the room to the other. I looked up and saw the open door. I could just walk away and forget about her. I could just walk out of the room without saying another word and that will be the end of it. That will be the end of everything. But I had so many things I wanted to say to her. I had so many things I wanted her to know.
I looked at Emma. Her head was bent down. She was studying the lines on the palm of her hand.
“Emma,” I began.
She looked up.
“Emma, there’s something I have to tell you. I’m crazy about you.”
A look of alarm broke out of her face at once.
“Since that day I saw you at the airport, I have been thinking of nothing and no one else but you.”
“I can’t stop thinking of you. My days and nights are filled with thoughts of you.”
“There is not a single moment in my waking hours that I am not thinking of you. Even when I am asleep, I dream of you. When I’m at work, or when I’m in the club, or wherever else I may happen to be, I’m always, always thinking of you. I cannot not see you, even for a single day. Or even for a single hour. I’m steadily and surely going mad because I can’t stop thinking of you.”
“No girl has ever affected me in this way ever in my life. You bewitch me. You enslave me. You torment me with your eyes, with your face, with your presence, with your mind…”
“Enough!” she cried out. “Say no more. I’m sorry, but I have to be blunt with you, Franz. I can never love a man with questionable character. If I am ever to fall in love, it would have to be with a man who is above reproach. Someone who has integrity and principles. Someone who does not play or fool around with women. Someone who doesn’t trifle with people’s hearts. I like you well enough as a friend, but it ends there.”
Her words cut me to the quick.
“But I am not trifling with you, Emma,” I said. “I am serious. I mean every word I say. I’m mad about you, Emma, and I can’t bear to be far from you…”
She stood up again and walked away from me. “And that’s not all. I’ve heard of the other stories. Almost every day in Canada, we hear news about the Philippines, and they are almost always bad. I’m usually an apolitical person. Politics don’t interest me in the least. The news about corruption in our government have already numbed me, numbed all of us in our little community. But when I heard about your family on television, and learned about the reports, I was shocked…”
“They’re just rumors, Emma. There’s plenty of that in this country. When you belong to a political family, people will inevitably concoct lies about you to destroy your reputation. It’s just common practice. You know that. Rival political parties throw mud at each other all the time.”
“Are you saying that these stories and reports are not true?”
“Of course, they’re not true. How can you believe these things about my family, about my father? How can you even entertain these allegations? You, of all people. We grew up together, played together, went to school together. We were as close as brother and sister.”
“That was a long time ago.”
“My father earned our wealth through sheer hard work. We deserve every centavo in our bank accounts. To say that our money is ill-gotten is utterly ludicrous and insulting.”
“But your family used to be very modest. I was shocked when you showed me your mansions. And the luxury cars. You have a car for every day of the week; for every day of the month, even. It’s just like what we saw on TV.”
“Oh, that’s enough, Emma. That’s enough. You have said more than enough. I won’t listen to you insult my family anymore. Good day to you.” I took my jacket from my seat and quickly walked out of the room.
I went straight to my condo and shut myself in. I unplugged the telephone from its socket, turned off my smart phones, and just sat there, barely moving, staring at the wall of my room for hours. I couldn’t drive Emma out of my mind. Her face was almost visible on the white-washed wall. My blood boiled and I couldn’t stop loathing her, loathing her righteousness and indignation. And yet I couldn’t hate her for very long, and before I knew it I was murmuring her name under my breath. I pronounced it over and over again like a prayer. Then all of a sudden, my anger turned inward and I started hating myself. I hated everything that I have and everything that I am. I muttered curses against myself until I could no longer keep my eyes open.
The first thing I did the following morning was call up my brother to tell him that I will be gone for a while. I told him that I want him to inform dad that I will be going incommunicado for an indefinite period of time and that they can take over the businesses while I’m gone. I mentioned that I might be going South, maybe to Dumaguete, but that I might go farther than that. I cautioned him not to tell anyone, especially Emma. I didn’t give him time to gather his thoughts and make a coherent response. I just hang up the phone and turned it off.
Then I called them all up one by one. First, Cristina, and then Monica, and then Mira, and then Francine, and then Angela, and Maria. Then I called up Clarissa, and then Danica, and then Kaye, and then Sandra, and then Lea, and then Phoebe, and then Amanda, and Alexandra. Next I called Camille, and then Clara, and then Ava, and then Lily, and then Mia, and Nicole. After that, I rang Angela, and then Samantha, and then Aubrey, and then Audrey, and then Abigail, and Anna in Singapore. It was about noon when I finished my last call. Needless to say, each conversation wasn’t easy. In fact, each was every bit as excruciating as I had feared. But it had to be done. They had to know. At the very least, they deserved to know.
The calls varied a bit, but essentially they went like this:
“Hello, Cristina? Hey, baby. I’m okay. You? Great. I miss you, too. I adore you, too. Listen, babe. There’s something I need to tell you. There’s something you need to know. I’m saying good bye, baby. I mean, good bye forever. You know what I mean. Long story, baby. I don’t have time to explain. No, I’m not drunk. No, I’m not taking drugs. No, I’m not crazy. (Long, awkward pause.) Please, don’t cry, baby. Please. I hate listening to you like this. Baby, please. Yes, it’s Valentine’s Day and this is the worst day to tell you this. Yes, you’re right, I am a douche bag. Yes, I’m a jerk. Yes, I’m despicable. Yes, I’m deplorable. Yes, I’m a horrible monster from Hell. You are perfectly justified in calling me all these names. I understand why you are using expletives right now. I don’t have time to explain. Please, if you can just calm down a bit and stop screaming. You only need to know one thing. One thing only, baby – you are worth infinitely more than how I have treated you. Baby, you deserve a better man. You deserve someone who has principles and virtues and all that. Someone who will love you and you alone.”
After that, I took my phones apart and tossed the SIM cards out the window while driving over a bridge in the outskirts of the city.
I dropped by an ATM machine and withdrew all of my cash. Then I headed down south — far south. I went as far as my gasoline could take me. I passed by beaches and farm lands and mountains and rivers and lakes. I passed by century-old churches, cathedrals, and trees. The farther I went, the more beautiful and serene the roads and landscape became, and the smoother became my sorrow.
My engine died just as I reached the port of Bato. It was late in the afternoon and the sunlight had turned mellow and golden. The barge had just docked. I stepped out of my car and from where I stood I could see the silhouette of Negros Island in the horizon.
I locked the car and bought a ticket. Then I boarded the boat and climbed up the deck and sat on a bench next to a rusty metal railing. The smell of ship fuel and oil intermingled with the scent of the ocean. I laid back and took a deep breath.
It took about half an hour for the boat to fill up to capacity with passengers and vehicles. I peered down the deck. The space below was packed with cars, buses, trucks, and vans. I shut my eyes and tried to imagine Emma. Emma, sweet Emma. The always-cheerful Emma. The insanely pretty Emma. The angry Emma. The Emma who closed her heart to me and shattered my soul.
“Excuse me,” a girl behind me said. “Is this seat taken?”
I opened my eyes, turned around, and gazed at her. I was stunned.
“No,” I said, almost out of breath.
“Can I sit next to you?” she asked.
“Yes,” I answered.
She smiled and sat down beside me. She was holding a copy of Pride of Prejudice in her hand and she laid it on her lap.
“You forgot this,” she said. “I was afraid I’d never see you again. Can we talk?” The breeze was blowing against us and she brushed strands of her hair off her cheeks and forehead. Then she gathered them together and tied them behind her head.