Sunday, June 17, 2012

a family portrait

Cristina barely smiled when I walked in. She pretended to re-arrange the stack of glass coasters on the coffee table. I walked towards her. She straightened up and looked at me like I was a complete surprise which of course I wasn’t: they were expecting me. I extended my hand to shake hers, “How are you, Cristina ?” I said.

She limply took my hand, like I was some kind of a leper or something.

“Fine.” Despite the 35 degrees heat, I felt her coldness.

“Okay,” I said, pretending to ignore her icy reception. I looked around the small living room, examined the furniture and the frames hanging on the walls.

"Who should I shoot first?" I laughed to emphasize I was joking.

Benjamin looked at Cristina as he took her hand and made a shooting gesture towards his chest; his lips in a playful smile.

“We can start with Cristina or me first or both?” he said, more like a question rather than a statement.

“Good. Both of you stand right there,” I said even though I felt a small fang of jealousy gnawing inside. I tell myself I musn’t feel jealous. For God’s sakes, they’re married! I was just the ex-girlfriend, I reminded myself.

I asked permission to move the coffee table to one side. Benjamin quickly did it for me. I got them to stand together with the sunlight coming from the window to their right. It gave a soft shadow on half of their faces: Benjamin enthusiastically smiling, Cristina stretching her lips feigning a smile.

I took a few tentative shots and checked them on the monitor and showed them to Benjamin, who gushed at every shot, but Cristina showed no interest at all. I set up my tripod on the opposite end of the room and gave instructions to the two of them: smile, look at him, look at her, your arms around her shoulder. At some point I took Benjamin’s hands to put on Cristina's shoulder just enough to make his fingers visible in the photograph.

After several minutes, Benjamin left the room to get the grandkids. I sat beside Cristina on the couch.

“Cristina , I’m not your enemy nor am I here to take Benjamin away from you.”

"I know," she said.

"Couldn’t we forget about the past? Or, try forgetting it for a while? I’m really here as a friend. I really want to be your friend, too, not just his."

She looked away, I thought I saw a tinge of guilt but when she spoke, in her halting English and Tagalog, I saw the hurt in her face.

"No, you’re not the enemy," she said quietly. "I am." She pointed towards her chest, her heart.

"I don't understand." I felt quite puzzled.

"He might have married me, but I know he never stopped loving you. You’re always there between us." She turned to look outside. "I feel it, I know it." Outside the roofs of houses nearby seemed to spew steam. Manila was searing in 35 degrees heat.

"Ben and I are just friends, that’s how I feel about him. Honest."

"But that is not how he feels about you. He thinks of you every time. He tells me in more than words. He reminds me by his actions. I know when you’re near, even when he doesn’t know you’re in town. You are like an impending storm in the horizon. You send the breeze of your presence just before you show up. You have this effect on him that I never understood. That I could never equal, that I could never match."

I deliberately did not say anything, trying to digest what I just heard.

"And yet," she continued after a brief moment, "I want him to be happy and if that’s what makes him happy, that is enough for me."

"You are lucky," I said. "You have him. You bore his children. You make his breakfast every morning. You lay beside him in bed every night. For more than half of your life. I never had that. All I have is memories of us when we were young. And there’s not a lot of those memories."

"That maybe so. How would you feel when, in a moment’s passion, your lover calls another woman’s name?"

I pulled my upper body away from her, my one eyebrow arched upwards, and examined her face. “You’re kidding me, aren’t you?”

"All of our thirty five years together, Cynthia."

I sat beside her with my mouth open. I did not know what to say.

Just then a little boy more or less three years old, came rushing in and ran straight to Cristina's arms. She took him and hugged him and kissed him then hugged him again. The boy stared at me and smiled. I saw Benjamin’s smiling eyes in him. I got up and checked my camera. Cristina now smiled as I took three shots. Benjamin came in and sat beside her and the boy slipped from her to Benjamin’s lap.

“Smile!” I said, peering into the eyeview finder of my Nikon. Benjamin and the little one both smiled. But I was surprised when Cristina stole a kiss on Benjamin’s forehead as I pressed my shutter.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

A Secret (revised)

I didn't know she was home. The apartment was quiet. Her bags weren't in the usual place beside the sofa, and I thought I was alone. I sat on the sofa and settled my feet on the ottoman, shoving a fresh issue of Architectural Digest to one side. There was an eerie quality to the quietness, but I supposed it's the gray of the skies reflecting through the windows.

I shut my eyes and for the first time in so many days, I felt I could fall asleep. I was on the verge of this sleep when I thought I heard faint sobbing. I opened my eyes and got up. The sobbing came from Jeanna's work room. I walked slowly towards it and the sobbing gradually became more audible. It was Jeanna.

The door was ajar and I pushed it open. I saw her kneeling down on the floor, in front of the lowest drawer of the tallboy, the drawer that was always locked and only she had the key. Her head almost touched the floor, her back to me, her shoulders moving as she sobbed. I heard her speak, as if in prayer. Then I heard the words "I love you! I will never stop loving you." I noticed she was hugging something.

"Jeanna?" I reached down and touched her shoulder. "What's wrong, darling?"

She jumped in surprise. She turned her face towards me, eyes red, face wet with tears. Then I saw what she was holding: an old frame. It dropped from her hands in her panic. The glass broke into small pieces. I reached for the light switch and flipped it on.

The photograph was old. In the photograph, a good looking man with dark blonde hair and crooked teeth, was smiling. This was the secret hiding inside that locked drawer. I looked at Jeanna. She had wiped her tears and her eyes blazed.

"What are you doing here? Do you not know how to knock?" There was no mistaking the coldness in her voice. She was a different person than the Jeanna I knew as my wife.

"Well," I started. "I heard a noise, sobbing really. I didn't know you were home." I could feel her intent gaze as I spoke, my eyes focused on the photograph on the floor, at the smiling man. "Who is that?"

She darted towards me. I heard broken glass cutting into flesh, her feet. There was blood on the floor. Her eyes still blazing, she started to pound my chest with her fists. "You have no right!" she yelled. "Why can't you leave me alone? You have no right to see me like this! You're not supposed to see me like this!"

She pounded and pounded and I let her. Only then did I understand: all these years, there's a man in a locked drawer in my house who actually had her affection, her heart. All these fifteen years. She had it well hidden in that locked drawer. I respected her privacy and even when she had left the drawer keys dangling from the lock that one afternoon in May, I fought the temptation to open it and find out her secret. Yes, I had often seen her, on her knees, staring inside that drawer. To me it looked like she was saying some kind of devotion to a hidden diety. But she said she loved me, so many times, and I believed her, even when sometimes I knew the words were empty.

She stopped pounding and fell on the floor. The pieces of broken glass unkindly cut at her knees, her legs and her hands. She wailed as she looked at her hands, blood running like crimson rivers down her arms.

"Who is this person, Jeanna?" She reached for the photograph, palm right smack on the man's face, now all bloodied. "Goddamnit, I demand to know who this is!"

"No one," she yelled. "No one!"

"But you're crying because of him. Why?" I thought of the "boyfriend from another lifetime who had died"; at least that's what she had always told me. What was his name? Erick? Jandrick?

She held the blood-stained photograph to her chest. On the floor, broken pieces of glass scattered like diamonds and rubies.

"I loved him so much. He was the only one. HE IS THE ONLY ONE," she muttered. "And now he's gone. He died last night."

It doesn't make sense.

"I thought you said Jandrick died a long time ago."

"No. He's been alive all this time."

And I thought I was competing with the memory of a long ago dead boyfriend.

"Why didn't you tell me?" I asked. That was when I felt the stab in my heart. It had been there for a long time and I only noticed the pain now. Maybe it was I who had died a long time ago and I just didn't know it. It was then I realized our marriage was a farce; or maybe there was even no marriage at all.

I left the room. I pulled out an overnight bag from the hall closet and went inside the bedroom. I threw in some clothes. I refused to stay in this house of pretend love and dead emotions.

As I opened the door, I heard her say, "Where are you going?"

I looked at her and said, "When I come back in two days, I want you out of here. Bring the photograph with you."

I started to leave. "And oh, yes, you should call your lawyer."

I walked out and didn't look back.