Love manifests in many forms. Even ones that hurt.
He was waiting for her in the bustle of the Mactan Airport's domestic terminal, trying to keep his dignity as he mopped up the sweat from his forehead and neck with a designer handkerchief while his big, heavy Rolex wiggled loosely on his wrist. The sticky air swirled with the fumes of taxis and vans and the odor of uniformed porters. He was about fifty years old, with a high forehead and thinning, gray hair, wearing rimless glasses with thick lenses. He was dressed in a blue safari jacket and slacks, an outfit that brought Arthur C. Clarke in steaming Sri Lanka to mind.
The girl he had apparently been waiting for arrived. She was tall, wearing a thin dress that showed off her legs. Though her clothes were clean, they were obviously old; the dress was short only because it was too small for her. Her black leather shoes were too heavy-looking and save for the revealing dress, she looked like a poor country girl in her Sunday best. Still, she had a freshness to her that turned heads. Since she had just gotten off the plane, her make-up had not yet begun to streak in the heat. Her already-pretty face lit up some more when she saw the Engineer, who smiled back uncertainly.
People looked on at the scene of the meeting, trying to figure them out. Men and women idly watched them with strangely mixed feelings.
Despite the evidence before their eyes, the men knew instantly that the poorly-dressed girl was the old man's mistress. She had clearly been bought by his money. It was a classic story that everyone should know, but the actors never learned its lessons. The men all imagined themselves as the leading man in the story, learning the lesson ever so slowly as the rest of the world watched on with pretended superiority.
The women responded to the young woman's attractiveness, recalling the days when they had almost as much to trade on, and they cocked their heads and looked down their noses at the girl for trading on it. The young hussy, traveling on an airplane looking like an Ermita habitué! But her sugar daddy--isn't that Engineer Whatshisname? For shame!
"Engineer Lamberto?" the girl said, her eyes twinkling.
"Please sir, you can call me Becky. Glad to meet you, sir," she said, and impishly stuck out a delicate hand. Her accent was thick, her speech innocent of the irritating up-and-down of colegiala singsong, so that if he hadn't known better, he would have doubted his ears as to whether she had said "Vicky" or "Becky." He shook her hand gingerly, aware that everybody was watching them.
"I knew it was you, sir," she said. "Paul look just like you."
"Let me take your bag for you. Aren't you going to get your luggage, as well?"
"I brought only my bag."
They left the terminal in a white, chauffer-driven 1970s S-Class Mercedes with bright, untinted windows that put everyone and everything inside the car on display, like an aquarium.
They didn't speak until they were crossing Mactan Bridge on the way to Cebu.
"I never travel in an airplane before," she said.
"But you've been to other provinces before," he said.
"I come from Quezon Province. I didn't grow up in Manila. Paul, he tell me so much about Cebu, although he say he didn't want to live here anymore." She realized she had said something inappropriate, and fell quiet. She looked out the window past the railings of the bridge at the sea below.
Engineer Lamberto's house was of 1920s vintage, with a big lawn and a white fountain in front. The house itself was a big wood-and-stone affair with high ceilings. A long flight of steps led up from the driveway into the second-story living room, while ground floor level itself was meant only for the garage and servants' quarters. Since it was so old, it was not located in one of the plush Cebu subdivisions that Becky had heard so much about. In fact, it was located on a street that had become busier and busier in modern times, but with the front lawn so big and the house so far back away from the traffic and its dust and noise, it was still a nice house. The house reminded her of Casa Manila; Paul had taken her there once, on a tour of Manila's museums.
After she had been shown to her room and had freshened up, Becky and the Engineer had coffee in the living room. The German-made grandfather clock said ten past three. She expected the floorboards to creak as the maid came and went with their coffee and Danish butter cookies, but they didn't.
"I'm sorry my Tagalog is bad," the Engineer was saying.
"That's all right; you don't have to be sorry. I'm already used to talk English with Paul."
She had brought her little red handbag with her to the dining table. From it she pulled out a pack of Philip Morrises. She didn't ask for permission to smoke. She offered him a stick, which he graciously declined. She lit her cigarette from a box of matches she had. She seemed ill at ease, and only half-finished her cigarette.
The sight of her bright red lipstick on the no-longer pristine-white filter of the cigarette made the Engineer's stomach queasy. She stubbed the cigarette out on an ashtray of Austrian crystal which only guests ever used. The Engineer remembered some tobacco-related prejudices that he had been told about some years before. In Cebu, he was told, Philip Morris Menthols had a reputation for being "pang-hostess"; while Hope Menthols were "pang-banyo." He knew that Philip Morris suffered no such stigma in Manila. He kept this piece of frivolity to himself.
"So how did you meet, Becky?" he said, in a tone that he hoped was gentle but casual.
"In a bar."
The Engineer fell quiet. He looked at the discarded cigarette in the ashtray, and watched stinking fumes rise from a surviving glow in the tobacco.
"Was it a church wedding or a civil wedding?" he finally managed to ask.
"Church," she said. "Paul insisted. Actually it was a chapel. Paul didn't like to marry before a judge. He said he like to do right by me, and marry me in a church."
This last she said quietly, as if she didn't want the volunteered part of her answer to be heard. Since they had met for the first time a few hours before they had exchanged a little more than a dozen sentences between them. They had gotten down to the basics rather too quickly.
"So you stopped, ah, working, after the wedding?"
"Yes. He also insisted on that. Heaven knows how we get by, but we get by."
She couldn't bear the turn the conversation had taken. She got up and wandered in the direction of the shelves. He tried not to watch her swaying backside.
"Oh," she said. "You have so many records."
"Those aren't records," he said, breathing in with some relief. "My records have all been boxed up and shut away. I've gotten used to CDs by now. But those are laserdiscs."
She pulled one out from the shelf, puzzled. "This is a movie?"
"Movies, yes." He got up and joined her at the shelf. "What kind of movies do you like? I suppose you go for the Sylvester Stallone/Arnold Schwarzenegger type of movie," he said in an attempt at light conversation.
She didn't answer. She was engrossed in looking over the movie titles.
The Engineer realized something strange: she recognized the movie titles not by their stars, but by their directors--Hanif Kureishi, Stephen Frears, David Lean, Richard Attenborough, and so on. The other directors rang no bells--Kurosawa, Truffaut, Fellini. Only Spielberg and George Lucas she recognized from the non-British directors.
I'm surprised you like British film, the Engineer was about to say. And then he closed his mouth as he realized that it wasn't such a big puzzle after all. It's Paul's influence, he realized. But why the narrow range?
For a moment he saw a wistful look pass over her features, beautiful despite the garish make-up. It was a strange look to see on the face of someone so young. And then it was gone. She laughed as if in recollection of fond memory.
"Paul and me, we go to the Wednesday British Cinema at the CCP religiously. It was not far from the school where he was teaching."
The Engineer was on playback again.
"But you're so good with math. You've always topped your math classes. Why waste your natural talent?" the Engineer asked his son. "Look, son, give this a chance. You're still young. There's time for you to get a degree and take over the office."
"Pa, I've spent four years earning my AB in Philosophy. I haven't changed my mind in all this time. I like Philosophy. I love Philosophy. There's nothing wrong with Philosophy. If you knew half of what you were talking about, you'd know that there is no philosophy without mathematics. Besides, I'd also like to spread my wings a bit, get into the arts. As a matter of fact, I'm talking to people about publishing my novel, and I've even been very active in the theater--"
"The arts!" the Engineer exclaimed in disgust. "Architecture. Architecture, then. You'd be both engineer and artist. Why not combine the two?"
"Listen to yourself, Pa. When you say `the arts' you sneer. For all your talk about admiring Kafka and Van Gogh and Schubert you probably wouldn't give them the time of day if you bumped into them in the street."
"How dare you talk to me that way."
The son was silent, ashamed, but he still held fast to his convictions.
"Don't expect me to subsidize your Bohemian lifestyle," the Engineer said, "because I'm not going to stand for it. The moment you come to your senses about your vocation, I'll promise you my whole practice, the sun, the moon and the stars, the shirt off my back. Until then, you're on your own."
The son said nothing. "And how are you going to support, that, that, your girlfriend?"
"She has a name, Pa. Her name is Stephanie. We can both work," he said uncertainly.
"You can both work," the Engineer echoed mockingly. "You give your philosophy lectures in your two-bit downtown university, while that woman dances in the bars?"
"Stephanie's not a dancer, she's a waitress, Pa."
"There's a difference?" the Engineer said, but the fiery flash in his son's eyes made him regret it immediately. "And if she gets pregnant?"
"We'll manage. I have so much to teach Stephanie, Pa. She's willing to learn everything I have to teach her."
Again the Engineer forgot his counsel of prudence to himself. "Oh, so she's your very own Galatea, to mold and to do with as you please, heh? This is going too far!"
"Pa, this conversation isn't getting anywhere. I'll come back to talk to you when you're feeling reasonable. Goodbye, Pa."
They didn't get that other chance to talk about it. The next time Paul came home, he brought Stephanie with him. And that was the beginning of the end.
The girl told the Engineer that they never had any money, but made it a point to go to the CCP for the free film showings of the Wednesday British Cinema. Once in a while they could go see a play or a piano recital with complimentary tickets cadged from his acquaintances in the theater. Once, she said, they had even seen an opera for free. All she could remember about it was that it had a hunchback in it, it was very long, and that throughout she was feeling very sleepy, like much of the audience, until that familiar tune came out, the one that people sing with the words "Hopiang di mabili." Anyway, after the Wednesday movie showings that they'd go downstairs to the CCP canteen for some Coke and the sometimes stale empanada, and then sit on the seawall and talk about what they'd just seen.
The girl smiled fondly, and the Engineer saw a bit of what his son saw in her. "How he could talk and talk," she said in her fractured English. "He know so many things about movies, and many other things also! I think, is he like that also in his class?"
"Tell me, Becky," he said.
"Sir," the girl said. He didn't correct her. He felt that it gave them a bit of distance between them, and he felt more comfortable about it.
"Did you ever get to meet a girl named Stephanie?"
"Oh," she said. "Stephanie is before me. But Paul, he didn't like talking about her. She was, he called, a `non-topic.'"
"Oh," it was the Engineer's turn to say. Of course it would be a "non-topic." "So you and Paul have been together for--?"
"One year and one half. But then we get married, so we are married for one year. I tell him, I know you don't like me to be a hostess still, but we need to have the money. And Paul, he is so hard-headed, he always said no. So we are always hungry. But we are also happy. I did not become pregnant, so maybe that is for the good thing." She seemed embarrassed for a moment, and then recovered herself.
"How old are you, Becky?"
After a pause, she said, "You have so many books on the shelf. Have you read all of them?"
They were still standing in front of the shelves. The Engineer scanned them. "Yes, I have. Over the years. All of them."
Becky was impressed. "It is no wonder your eyeglasses are very thick."
"I'd be wearing eyeglasses anyway. Years ago, when I was still in high school, my optometrist--my eye doctor--told me that my eyesight would have deteriorated in any event, and it'd stop when it reached a certain point."
"Do you really remember everything you have already read?"
"For the most part. Actually, all I've been doing for the past two years is re-reading my library. And reviewing my movie and record collection. I've turned in on myself. I'm turning into an old fart." He smiled at her.
Becky didn't understand the word, so he straightened up the expression on his face.
"Why do you go back to read again your old books when you have read them already and you remember them? It is boring to read something you already know, no?"
The Engineer smiled. This was not a person who would be interested in shades of meaning, evolution of outlook and of attitudes, and maturity over the years. So he only said, without condescension, "No, not at all. Not at all."
Over the next few days, the Engineer stopped by the office less than he used to. Sometimes he would stay for a few hours before or after business lunches; on some days he dropped by for only fifteen minutes. Most of his spare time he was accompanying Becky on her shopping. Encouraging her to shop was something that he felt driven to do, because Becky was obviously being crushed by boredom in the house.
At the start, the girl bought little trinkets like costume jewelry, but improved her mind by paying close attention to fashion magazines, the type with heavy, glossy paper. She was a fast learner, though, and pretty soon it showed in her shopping patterns.
In the matter of sunglasses--"shades"--she shunned Versace, dismissing the designs with a laugh as "matronic." Her skin received the loving attention of concoctions whose brands she mispronounced horribly: Estée Lauder, L'Oréal, Almay. In the space of three weeks she promoted herself from Johnson's Baby Shampoo through Ivory Shampoo up to Clairol Herbal Essences. And soap-wise, eventually only Neutrogena was good enough for her.
Becky grew in confidence, and stopped asking the Engineer for permission for each and every purchase. The salesladies gave knowing funny-looks at the Engineer--again, it was that mixture of contempt and pity.
He endured it all. He felt that his conscience was clear on this point, and that the girl, although undeniably attractive, was not an object of his desire--he had bedded several women of at least equal beauty, but of impeccable family, breeding and education. Two of them had been other men's wives; one of them had even been happily married.
No, his guilt lay elsewhere entirely. But it still had to do, indirectly, with the girl.
One night, as he passed her door on the way back from the kitchen to get a glass of water, he noticed her door partly open.
He was touched. It was an old-fashioned way for a guest to behave--not closing the door on one's host before one is actually about to sleep.
She was applying astringent to remove her make-up. For a suspended moment, he did not breathe, and he saw how different she looked. She was very beautiful. He almost didn't recognize her.
She saw him looking through the door. She stopped swabbing the cotton on her face, and nodded politely. He wished her a good night. He heard the door closed and locked as he walked into his own room.
Then, that dream again, for the nth time. The Engineer was in playback again, but with less control than when awake.
His son and Stephanie insisted on spending the night together in the house. They picked a bad time to arrive--he was entertaining important guests.
The Mayor was in attendance; there was a sprinkling of Cebu's "beautiful people," and of executives from Europe and the Middle East.
The Engineer had wanted a string quartet playing on the lawn, but he hadn't been able to make the arrangements in time. So he had to make do with his dual mono tube amps playing canned Horowitz and Ashkenazy.
Fortunately, the absence of live chamber music aside, everything else was just as he wanted it. The caterer was given instructions that the party was open bar; the guests were sophisticated enough be trusted with the Möet et Chandon. Indeed, so sophisticated were they that even the Arabs graciously partook of the champagne, while no eyebrows were raised at this breach of the strictures of the Qur'an.
From the lawn the Engineer saw Paul and Stephanie arrive in a clunker of a taxi, tugging at their luggage up the front stairs before the maids, horrified, hurriedly bustled them and their battered baggage up the stairs, out of sight into Paul's old room.
The Engineer forebore, for the moment.
But later in the evening, Stephanie came down to the kitchen dressed in slippers, sando and the briefest of shorts to get a glass of water. The Arab guests practically licked their lips at the sight.
In his dream, the Engineer left his guests for the moment, and marched up to the room where his son and his girlfriend were spending the night. Even before he was a teenager Paul had always been partial to making bold statements and drastic gestures, and finally this drop had overflowed the bucket. The Engineer's tolerance caved in.
He knocked, and the door was opened. Icily, he told them that they were to leave immediately.
They did so, packing their clothes back into their single suitcase. As the Engineer led his guests out onto the lawn, with the fountain all lit up, his son and his son's girlfriend were ushered out through the back door by the maids and the driver. The driver took the couple away in the Toyota Crown, and the guests barely noticed the car drive away.
In his dream, the Engineer watched this. There was a sense of relief, that he had done the right thing. Thank God, he thought, I kept my temper. Thank God I didn't humiliate him in front of the guests. But I had to show him that I was angry, that I would not suffer his insulting behavior. But at the back of his mind, the relief was hollow, for some reason. He could not put his finger on it. Then he woke up, the dream began to fade from his befogged brain, and with it, the sense of relief.
It didn't happen that way. He wished it had. Because it would still be possible to have a reconciliation; it was even entirely possible that the son would have come back to him, of his own accord, to ask for forgiveness. For forgiveness! It could have been that way. Or, the Engineer would have eventually swallowed his pride and come to his son, asking him to come home. It would have taken a little longer, but he would have done it. No matter how grave the insult, a father has no business standing on his pride if his own son needs him--even if the son doesn't realize it.
But no, what had happened was that he had lost his temper, and after being sassed by his son's girlfriend after he had reprimanded her for coming down so unsuitably dressed--or undressed--he lost his temper, and went up to the room after the girl. Before she could close the door behind her, he had held the door open and with gritted teeth, told them to get the hell out, now. Although he hadn't exactly yelled, he hadn't exactly whispered, either. The guests who were in the house became very quiet downstairs. And when he personally heaved their still-unpacked luggage out of the window onto the manicured lawn, even then he knew he had more than paid back the insult in the same coin.
The maids picked up the luggage from the grass, and the driver drove them out of the house in the ghostly-quiet Toyota Crown. The guests were gracious about their host's profound embarrassment, but the party broke up within twenty minutes.
When the driver got back, the Engineer was too proud to ask him where they had gone.
It took a long while for the Engineer to build up his courage to ask Becky the things that he had really wanted to know.
When, a year after the Stephanie incident, he inquired by letter after Linus at his University, he was referred to Linus' address in downtown Manila. Becky ended up answering the last of the Engineer's persistent, inquiring missives, in a letter of her own written in barely decipherable hen scratches. Her name was Becky, she explained, she was Paul's wife, and she was writing to him, Engineer Lamberto, without having opened the letters he had written addressed to Paul. Paul was gone, she wrote. Beyond that she would say little else. Or rather, if she had written anything of significance beyond that, the Engineer didn't understand it.
Several more letters from the Engineer, this time addressed to "Mrs. Rebecca Lamberto" herself, eventually persuaded Becky to quit her job and come to Cebu, to stay with the Engineer indefinitely.
One evening, after dinner at a fancy restaurant at the Cebu Plaza, they sat in the living room drinking coffee. The traffic noise in the distance had died away to inaudibility, and the faint sound of crickets and cicadas in full riot elsewhere in the distance filled the silences between their words. The Engineer could sense that the girl was vulnerable tonight; his experience with women had taught him that much. He decided to press his advantage. So, after aimless small talk involving their common hostility against grade school teachers, the Engineer steered the topic to Paul.
"When Paul told me wanted to teach, I was dead set against it. Maybe I shouldn't have been so harsh on him, if it was what would have made him happy. Even you, he considered you his student. I know he was happy teaching you the things that he knew."
"Yes," said Becky. "Maybe though I am not a very good student. Because he leave me, he have a new student maybe brighter than me." The Engineer let her go on without interrupting her. "One of his students, she was even ugly, with pimples and a crooked teeth, one day he started talking about her about how intelligent she is. Since I already see the girl I did not worry. She have literary interests, Paul said. He called her a blue socks--a blue--"
"A blue stocking. Yes."
"He said, `She understands my poetry.' Of course, Mr. Lamberto, Paul always recited his poetry to me, sitting on the seawall after the Wednesday movies especially, but I did not understand it. I tell him I like his voice reciting his poetry. He told me, `Never mind what the words means, just feel them.' "
The Engineer looked at Becky, in her fashionably cut dress, her long black-stockinged legs stretched out and crossed at the ankles, with her expensively done hair. With a haughty demeanor, chin in the air, she would have been perfect for a fashion shoot; instead, she was leaning back in her couch across from the Engineer's chair, a hand under her nose to hide the fact that she was biting back her tears. Her blinking gave her away. This girl is little more than a child, the Engineer realized not for the first time, but he had to be merciless.
"Where did they go?" he asked finally, when the words would not come to her and the tears rolled freely. "Where did they go?"
"Davao," she said. "I think the girl flunk many of her other subjects. `Not good at math, not good at math,' Paul said. I remember. Later, Paul was always angry at me for anything that I did. I did not understand him. One day he left our apartment, he left me a letter saying that his student was going back to Davao to continue her college there, and that he was going with her. He call me a slut because I always want to go back to work at the bar. Mr. Lamberto," she said, facing him full now, "I miss him so much."
She was crying now, and the Engineer was afraid the househelp would hear. They had seen much in their day, with the comings and goings of the various women in his life over the years, but they didn't have to see and hear everything if he could help it.
He moved towards her and knelt at her feet. She moved her face closer to him, tears streaking her make-up, her face in great pain. She was shaking with silent sobs. "Mr. Lamberto, please, I miss him."
Gently he shushed her, and brushed back her hair from her eyes. "Did he leave an address?" He repeated the question even as he wiped her tears. "Do you remember his student's name?"
She tried to kiss him, smearing the lenses of his glasses.
"Becky," he said quietly, "do you remember the student's name?"
"No!" she said loudly through her crying. "I burn his stupid letter. His stupid goddamn letter. I don't remember her name. I go back to my old job because I have to. I am not like what he says." She raised a hand to his face. "Mr. Lamberto," she said, and tried to kiss him again.
He slowly pulled his face away from her. He held her face in his hands, looking steadily into her eyes as she made a long, uneven moaning sound that was lower than her speaking voice. He shushed her again, patiently, and when the low of pain had subsided, he gathered her up in his arms and carried her to her room.
Though she was thin, she was tall, and he was not prepared for her heft. It had been a long time since he had carried a woman in his arms; the unbidden memories gave him no pleasure. He was aware that a pair of eyes--it was one the maids, certainly--was watching them from the little glass window of the swinging kitchen door.
In her room he did not turn on the light, and navigated by the yellow light from the hallway which flooded in through the open door. He laid her down on the bed, and with tender hands stripped her down to her underwear, while she did not resist. Then he pulled a thin blanket over her, turned on the electric fan, and left, closing the door gently behind him.
In his own room, fully clothed, with his shoes still on, he lay down on the counterpane of the bed. All he took off were his glasses and his watch. He knew he was not going to get any sleep tonight. He waited, eyes wide open and staring at the high ceiling, for the sun to rise.
It was a summer afternoon when Becky left the house. On that day the weather was of the type that always occurs during power blackouts: the air was hot, sticky and windless. But the lights didn't go out that afternoon, the Engineer remembered. The decorative, wooden ceiling fans only swirled the humid air around. The exotic, powerful vacuum-tube sound system that took pride of place in the living room was silent; the Engineer never played music while reading.
He sat in his favorite leather chair, a genuine La-Z-Boy he had had shipped in from the States after attending a convention. Where his body touched the chair it was damp, even through the clothes. On his lap lay, open face down, his favorite paperback of English Romantic Poetry, cracked along its spine from age and use.
They were sitting together stewing in the living room, with the folding doors the length of one entire wall open to the garden, because the only room with a working air conditioner was the Engineer's. To invite her into the bedroom, which was big enough and had enough furnishings to have been an apartment in itself, would have been inappropriate; and he felt that to stay inside by himself enjoying the chill would have been rude to his guest. His old fashioned sense of gallantry was coming to the fore, although it was mixed with confusion about what would be the right thing to do.
The girl sat on the sofa opposite him, fashion and interior design magazines scattered all around her. She kept sighing, but the Engineer didn't notice. His mind was a haze, and thoughts had difficulty forming. He was trying to prolong this state, to control it so that he could stretch it out. He was trying to prevent thought from taking form, and with it, memories and guilt. He didn't move. It was a state of mind precious for its illusory peace; it didn't happen too often.
Boorishly she broke into his tenuous peace. It was like a boulder being dropped into a still pond. "I can't stay here anymore."
He started, not immediately understanding the words she was saying. He echoed them mechanically. "You can't stay here anymore?" he said, not grasping what he himself was asking.
"I'm sorry, Engineer Lamberto, you are very generous to me since before. But I think it is like we are waiting both of us for your son to come home. Sir, he's gone. He will not come back to you or to me."
The Engineer didn't reply right away. "You are still his wife, and I am still his father."
"It doesn't mean anything," she said. "He is not here anymore." She didn't go on and say, It's like he is already dead, and there is nothing that binds us anymore. The Engineer felt that that was what she wanted to say, but she kept herself back. He was grateful for such mercies.
"So where do you want to go?"
She looked at him, biting her lip, eyes unsuccessfully trying to hide guilt. For the briefest moment, the Engineer saw again how his son had seen Becky. Right now she was a bit like a beautiful, naughty favorite child trying to fool a parent. "Somewhere."
The Engineer's heart sank. It wasn't the thought that she was leaving. It was the thought that he had failed to reach out to his son, to make up for things, no matter how indirectly. Whenever he began talking to Becky freely and honestly about his feelings about what had happened between him and Paul, she would tune out. Perhaps it was because she had had enough pain of her own. Or maybe it was because she thought that he should be a man about the whole thing, and bear it in silence and with dignity. Or, the Engineer thought uncharitably, this girl is exactly what she appears to be: uncouth and callous, badly educated, a vain and silly creature whose only saving grace, aside from her youth and her salacious beauty, was that she had fallen in love with Paul; that she could at least begin to appreciate him for what he was, and more difficult, for what he tried to be. It took a lot to love Paul, he knew. Anybody who loved Paul, in all his obstinate, impractical and heedless romanticism could not honestly be accused of being shallow in feeling. And he felt ashamed of his contempt for the girl.
A week after she had left, the Engineer was practically useless around the office. Everybody in the office knew that his mistress had left him, and there were giggles that a man of his age could still be driven to distraction by the baser part of his manhood. At one point the Engineer thought he heard as he left the room one of his engineers murmur, "Thinking with his nuts."
Another week passed, then another. Finally he had no choice. He could not keep his mind on anything, not his work at the office, not his movie collection, not the cable TV, not his music collection. He had to do something, anything. It didn't necessarily have to make sense what he was going to do--as long as he did something.
He flew to Manila, and rented a tired early-model Sentra from there. He bought a road map from a National Bookstore branch in Makati, and after studying it, gave up trying to fold it back the way it was when it was new. The huge map stayed partly open on the passenger's seat beside him, and at 6:30 in the morning, so as not to be caught in the humongous Manila traffic, he set off for Quezon Province.
Quezon was a drive three and a half hours south. He took the rented car through the tollway and beyond, down narrower provincial roads. In addition to being in bad shape, with a very heavy clutch and a tendency to lurch even at cruising speeds, the car was badly designed, with impossibly heavy steering for such a small car.
But the drive itself kept the Engineer wide awake. It had been a long time since he had been on such a long drive.
He persuaded the car to follow along a winding road that looked down precipitously from the hill through which it wound--the road was nicknamed bitukang manok because its wild twists reminded motorists of a gutted chicken's intestines. When at last he got back to level ground at the end of the road, he saw a garishly painted statue of a mermaid in the water some yards from the shoreline. He knew he had arrived in Becky's town.
Eventually the countryside scenery gave way to a busy town full of one-way streets. He asked for directions, naming the local elementary school and the courts as the landmarks, and eventually found himself pointing the car up a steep hill with a dirt track. He eased the car upward, and went past a public school where children were arriving in droves, dressed in their uniforms of printed white T-shirts with dark blue skirts or shorts. The children made way for the car, but the dirt track was so narrow, and his traction so unsure, that the Engineer prayed he would not accidentally hit any of them. Nightmare visions of the car slipping on a backward tack crushing a bag-toting child chilled his fingers.
Further up on the opposite side of the road was the courthouse, beside which a big, yellow grader was parked. The workmen who were working on paving the dirt road came up to help. Their gentle manner as they worked to get the Engineer's car out of the rut struck the Engineer pleasantly; he reminded himself that he was in the provinces again. Gratefully he pressed some money on the men, which they took, shyly and reluctantly.
At the top of the hill, he stopped. He didn't know where to go. There was nowhere to park the car, because on either side of the dirt track the terrain rose up like a grassy, muddy embankment. The Engineer left the car where it was and slogged to the nearest house to ask again for directions.
The house was an amalgam of old and new. The older part was made of now-dark unpainted wood, and had windows of seashells ground to translucent thinness with thin curtains hanging limply in the windless, overcast mid-afternoon. Clumsily grafted on to the older part was an extension made of concrete, with a roof of corrugated iron and windows with jalousies of frosted glass.
There was movement from within. Voices issued in agitation. Becky stepped out of the house. She wasn't surprised to see him. She had seen him coming, with the noise that his car was making.
"Mr. Lamberto," she said, with what seemed to be displeasure on her face.
The Engineer stopped. Now he was here. He realized he hadn't thought of why he had come. "Hello Becky," he said, looking up at her. He had to make his voice carry between the twenty feet of distance between them. After a while he said, "I came to visit you." Better than "May I come in," thought the Engineer. It sounded less suppliant.
"Come inside," she said, making room for him in the doorway even as he trudged up the hill, unsure of his footing. Perhaps he had been imagining her coldness.
He had barely sat down on the wooden bench in the living room when he stood up again, to greet Becky's mother. The Engineer was introduced to her as "Paul's father." Becky's mother then bustled about in the newer part of the house, in what was evidently the kitchen, complete with sky-blue tiles and a new Korean-brand refrigerator. She emerged with glasses of weak iced tea.
"I'm surprised you are able to find my house," she said with a smile. He had been imagining things.
The Engineer's mind worked double time, thinking of the right thing to say. It's a small town was all wrong. And to tell her I remember you talking about your house near the court and the public school seemed to be an admission that he had been paying attention to their small talk, unconsciously filing away for future reference little nuggets of information she had given him. "I asked around," he said.
Voices came from the kitchen. First there was Becky's mother, slowly talking in single-word sentences. "Visitor," she was saying. "Becky. Visitor." Then a man's voice wordlessly vocalized sounds signifying comprehension.
Becky fidgeted. A tall man wearing a T-shirt, shorts and slippers ducked under the low doorway and entered the living room. The Engineer looked at him. A foreigner, light-skinned, slit-eyed, probably in his late thirties. Judging from the style of the glasses the man was wearing, the Engineer guessed he was Japanese. He was not handsome, but his smile seemed to point to a mild nature.
"Mr. Lamberto, this is Kazue."
They shook hands and sat down.
"I just came to pay a small visit to my daughter-in-law," he said uncertainly to Kazue. Kazue looked at him attentively. The Engineer wasn't sure he had understood. "I'm sorry, do you--?"
Becky hesitated, then started speaking in Japanese to Kazue. Kazue listened and nodded, smiling. The Engineer listened in surprise, and wondered just what she had told him; a diplomatic lie, perhaps. Her Japanese sounded smooth, but then the Engineer would have been the last person to judge fluency in foreign languages.
For the next few minutes there was an attempt at conversation among the three of them, during which Becky tried to keep the flow of meaningful information to a minimum. Kazue was an ordinary sarariman. Becky had learned her Japanese from a Japanese-language school on Avenida. Kazue had been in the Philippines twice before on business, but now he was in the country for only two weeks, on vacation leave. There was not much else besides that. The Engineer felt more and more uncomfortable. The feeling grew in him that whatever it was that he had come to do, it wasn't going to happen. Finally, he got up, making sure that Kazue understood he was going to leave.
"Well, Becky, Kazue, it's been nice chatting with you," smiling a smile he did not feel. He shook hands with the Japanese.
As he was stepping through the doorway to get back to his car, Becky spoke suddenly, in a low voice that didn't seem to be meant to be heard. "I'm going with him."
The Engineer stopped. He didn't seem surprised. "To Japan?"
"Are you getting married?"
Becky looked at Kazue. "If he wants."
The Engineer felt a chilly sadness descend on his shoulders. Gently he kissed a surprised Becky on the cheek. "Goodbye, then," he said. He took leave of Becky's mother, who saw him off with customary effusiveness. To the Japanese he nodded politely, receiving in return a slight bow. He found himself hoping that, even if just this once, people appeared to be what they were, and that a kindly face meant a kindly soul.
There was nowhere to turn the car around. The Engineer had no choice but to go down the road backwards, past the court, past the grader, past the public school, all the way to the main road, the transmission whirring with a hydraulic sound that one hears only in reverse gear. He got to the bottom safely.
He realized he hadn't even looked back at the house as he was backing up. He couldn't see it anymore from the bottom of the hill.
The Engineer pointed the car north.
Armand Gloriosa (email@example.com) was born in 1968 in Cebu, Philippines. He worked hard for years to become a lawyer, and when he did become one, regretted it. He married his first girlfriend, didn't regret it, and now has two children to show for it.
InterText Copyright © 1991-1999 Jason Snell. This story may only be distributed as part of the collected whole of Volume 8, Number 3 of InterText. This story Copyright © 1998 Armand Gloriosa.