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.