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[This novel excerpt is about a young man’s encounter with a professor who was once a member of the Communist New People’s Army during the Marcos dictatorship in the Philippines.]
Jungletown Road was a narrow street made narrower by homeowners whose properties threatened to spill onto the road. They had built their cinder-block fences as far as the sidewalk would allow them, and did not seem to like trees or shrubs, preferring instead to maximize whatever available space they had to build extensions of what were once humble, one-story wooden bungalows. These aged, sagging bungalows now clung, like forgotten appendages, to three-story monoliths, or else were dwarfed by concrete second floors that could have used an extra layer of paint and a couple more finishings. Those who could afford to buy cars parked them on the road, having forgotten to allocate space within their property for a driveway or garage, turning what was once a two-way street into an unofficial one-way lane.
Gabriel slowly drove down the street, taking note of the house numbers until he drove past a green gate with a silver “14” embedded beneath its mail slot. He parked right beside an overgrown hedge of bougainvilleas across the street, and took note of number 14’s flower pots arranged in a neat row where its concrete fence ended and the sidewalk began. Anthuriums and palm fronds. An admirable attempt at gardening, within such a constricted space.
“You sound just like him,” Celeste had gushed on the phone. He was not his brother, but surely she needed someone to talk to, someone who knew Carlos, who would not just listen to her out of a guilty sense of obligation.
“I don’t know if he’s ready to meet you yet, but it would be nice to get to know an old friend of my brother. He doesn’t have that many friends in this town, as far as I know,” Gabriel said on the phone, glancing through his office cubicle’s glass pane to check whether anyone was listening to this call. “If it’s all right with you. I don’t mean to intrude. It’s just that I have a lot of catching up to do with my brother, and I thought that you might help.” He was pleasantly surprised when she invited him to her house.
“I tend to hold back, especially since I have tons of former comrades catching up with each other at Dainty these days,” she said. “They’re everywhere, and I try to avoid them.”
In her semi-detached home that she rented from a retired city engineer and his wife who lived next door, she served him a piping hot mug of native tablea chocolate, served with crushed peanuts and condensed milk. A pregnant calico cat rubbed against his legs as he took his first sip. He lowered his hand to pet it, and it stretched out its head to reciprocate his touch.
“She’s ready to pop,” he observed, noticing the cat’s swollen belly as he savored the rich, bitter taste of native chocolate on his tongue.
“That cat’s so flirty,” Celeste said, standing beside her small stove, where she tended to a steaming pot of hot chocolate and another pot of rice. “I wonder how many boyfriends she has in this neighborhood. The last time she gave birth, she had five kittens, all by different fathers I’m sure. After she gives birth this time I’ll have to spay her.”
“Did you give them all away?”
“I had to. Would you want a kitten, by the way?” She said, glancing over her spectacles at him like an eager schoolmarm. On her kitchen table, a pile of blue books rested beneath a mug that bore a faint trace of lipstick on its rim. He noticed a failing grade scribbled in angry red ink on the topmost blue book, and then returned his gaze to her, hoping she hadn’t noticed his wandering eye.
“I would love one, but we have a baby right now. She might be allergic to cats,” he said.
“Oh, is it a boy or a girl?”
“A girl. Isabella,” Gabriel said, watching the cat as it wove through his legs before padding away into the sunlit living room crammed with books, Igorot carvings, and framed Balinese prints. He wondered if Celeste had children, or a husband—there were framed pictures of children in her living room, but no sign of a child living in this home, or a partner. He glanced at her chubby fingers. She did not wear a ring.
She seemed to have noticed him observing her fingers, for she paused to look at him, then laughed. “There was a time when I wanted kids. I have nieces and nephews though, and they like coming here on weekends or during the summer break from Manila. In the meantime, I just keep myself busy with this cat.”
“What’s her name?”
“Simone. After Simone de Beauvoir.” She must have noticed the clueless look on his face, for she erupted into a sharp, hearty cackle. “French existentialist philosopher. I teach her sometimes, although what I teach is Political Science.”
“I’m sorry. I don’t think we took her up in my philosophy classes at Saint Louis.”
“That’s because what they teach you at Saint Louis is theology. All right, maybe they do Phenomenology and Existentialism too, but did you take up any female philosophers?”
“I don’t think so.”
“That’s what happens when you don’t allow women into the priesthood. I suspect the Catholic Church just hates women.”
“They did support Cory though.”
She sighed. “They support the elite, and Cory is a Cojuangco. Don’t get me wrong, I’m glad Marcos is gone, and I did vote for Cory unlike many of my former comrades. But that was because I was desperate for Marcos to be gone. Otherwise, I just feel like power has been passed on from one oligarchic family to another.” She took her mug from the countertop, blew into its rising steam, and brought it to her lips. She rolled the chocolate on her tongue, swallowed, and said, “You might disagree with me, though.”
“No, it’s what I feel too.” He was relieved that he could make this admission to her, and with her his confession acquired a comforting, intimate weight.
“But she did free Carlos. Aren’t you glad?” she asked.
“Of course, of course.” He grinned at her, and lowered his eyes into his cup as he drank.
“So he’s not yet ready to talk to me,” she said, staring out of her window, as though contemplating a distant memory that did not belong in this kitchen, or to this afternoon.
He lowered his cup onto the kitchen table. “I don’t want to make excuses for him, but it was his very first day outside when we met at the department store. He was probably in shock when he saw you.”
“Maybe I shouldn’t be that surprised that he pushed me away like that,” she said, her mind far away.
“So you were friends back in the day.”
“Comrades,” she said, nodding. “Yes, friends too.”
“In any case, I’m sorry for the way he behaved.”
“Don’t be sorry. It’s him, not you.” She continued to observe him as he fiddled with his mug’s handle.
“He doesn’t have that many friends in this town to begin with, and if he’s pushing away the few friends he has, then that’s cause for concern.”
“I’ve been wanting to get through to him for so long.” She sighed as she leaned against her kitchen countertop. “I even wrote to him once, while he was still in jail, but got no response.”
“So he’s been avoiding you.”
She shrugged. “Maybe. But who knows.”
“In any case, you want to talk to him now.”
“Yeah. He’s out of jail, Marcos is gone, and I don’t see why he wouldn’t come to see me.” She glanced at him and said, “Does he know that you’re here?”
He could have lied to her, but even hiding the truth seemed futile at this point. “No. I came here on my own.”
“You must be worried about him.”
“I am. Very much.”
She pulled up the nearest chair, and took her seat before him. “If you have any questions about him, I’m not sure if I’m the right person to answer them. If there’s anyone who has the answers, it’s him, and not me.” She tapped the kitchen table with her fingertips, and pursed her lips.
“I just want to get him back on his feet, that’s all,” he said, before taking another sip of his hot chocolate. “As you said, Marcos is gone, he’s out of jail, and it’s all over.”
“Just like that, it’s all over,” she said, laughing to herself. “As it turns out, all it took was a snap election to end this nightmare.”
“But it’s over. That’s all that matters.”
“When we were in the mountains, he worried about you all the time. That you weren’t taking his defection well, that he couldn’t be there to tell you the truth.”
“Of course,” Gabriel said, sighing. “It wasn’t him who was the bad guy, but Marcos.”
She winced. “The way you just said that, it sounds like you’re unconvinced.”
Gabriel sighed. “I guess you’re right. Marcos did some terrible things.”
He waited for her to respond as she closed her eyes to the pot’s steam.
“Why did you write him while he was in jail?” he asked.
“You really want to know, don’t you?” she said, opening her eyes as she turned to him. “That’s why you’re here.”
“It’s just, the way he treated you at Country Mart,” he said, knowing that there was no turning back.
She turned away from him, and touched the wooden spoon’s handle with a gentle tentativeness. “His wife in the movement was my best friend. You might know her. Her family’s quite prominent here.”
“This is Paulette that we’re talking about.”
“So you know her?”
“From my mother’s stories. Also, she was my high school best friend’s sister.”
“And so your mother knows.”
“Of course. Carlos told her about Paulette. They had a child together, so she had to know.”
“Such a beautiful child,” Celeste said, as she stirred her rice. “Looks just like her mother, with some of her father too.”
“It was a complicated situation,” he said. “He told our mother about her while he was in jail, but it looks like he wants nothing to do with her.”
“It was our mother he was talking to while in jail, not me.” He laughed, amazed at how he had turned this woman into his confessor. “So I didn’t know about the situation with his kid until he was released, and he came back to live with me. We met the kid by accident a week ago, in Burnham Park, and you could see that she really wanted to talk to him. But he just got up and walked away.”
She sighed. “Gosh, the way our lives have turned out. Paulette dead, her daughter growing up without her parents, and Carlos not wanting to talk to any of us. I wish I could make sense of it all, but my fear is that only Carlos can.”
“They say Paulette died in an ambush.”
She shrugged. “That’s what they say. But I wasn’t there, so who am I to know.”
She glanced in disappointment at Simone, who had returned to the kitchen, mewing. She switched off the stove, and opened the cupboard, pulling out a pair of floral-edged plates. Onto these, she ladled their dinner, wincing in concentration as she shaped their food with extra care.
“You didn’t have to,” Gabriel said, smiling as she set his plate before him.
“No, no. I invited you to dinner.” Taking two glasses from the cupboard, she said, “Despite whatever took place between me and your brother, I was really happy when I heard that he’d be freed. I dreamed of cooking for him here while reminiscing about the old days.” She set a glass of water before him, and she sat down before her plate.
“This must be a disappointment for you, then,” he said, picking up his fork.
“At least his brother came,” she said. “And it’s good to get to know you, too.”
He put a spoonful in his mouth, and savored the delicate, herbal flavors of her cooking as it settled on his tongue. He had never tasted rice that was prepared like this—it possessed the subtlety of a complicated, foreign meal.
“This is very good,” he said.
“Thanks. Have you had risotto before? It’s an old recipe I picked up from a roommate in graduate school.”
“Yes. It’s where I learned to cook,” she said, lowering her eyes as she picked up her fork.
“Anyway, I apologize if I’m not nearly as interesting as my brother,” he said, as she stared at her plate and chewed her food.
She swallowed, and laughed. “I’m sure you are, but in a different way. You said you work in insurance?”
“Business must be picking up, now that Marcos is gone.”
“Pretty much. Parents are becoming more optimistic about their children’s futures, and they’re buying up educational plans. There’s just more optimism in the air, which is good for business.”
“I get that feeling too, from my siblings with children. They’re all so relieved that their kids won’t have to live under Marcos anymore. If I had a child, I’d feel so relieved too,” she said, waving a hand in the air. “Maybe it’s why I didn’t have kids. I couldn’t imagine making another human being suffer through those years.”
“I have the same feeling about my daughter. That she won’t have to go through what we went through.”
“You must have been through some hard times.”
“Yeah, but we pulled through.” He chewed on his rice, thankful that his mouth was too full for him to speak in detail about his own life.
“I guess that’s how we survived,” she said, cradling her drinking glass against her chest and staring into space. “By just pulling through.”
“Some of us sold insurance, while some of us went to grad school.”
She raised an eyebrow in thought. “I was just running away, really.”
“From the hills to America,” Gabriel said, in between mouthfuls of rice.
“You’d be surprised, but that’s where a lot of us ended up. I was on break from school, visiting an aunt in San Francisco, and I ran into one of my comrades. The last time I had seen him, we were planning ambushes together. He pretended not to see me.”
“Is this something that happens a lot, whenever you meet a former comrade?”
“Yeah, which is why the way Carlos behaved didn’t exactly surprise me, although I do have admit I was hurt. We weren’t just comrades, but actual friends.”
“Do you think he’s hiding something?”
“It’s why I wanted to talk to him,” she said, playing with her food. “But he’s avoiding me, and by the looks of it, he doesn’t want to talk about it with you either.”
“Does it have anything to do with Paulette?”
She fixed her eyes on him. “Of course it does. She’s the missing piece.”
He shoved another spoonful of rice into his mouth, and avoided her gaze as he chewed.
“I haven’t stopped wondering, all these years,” she said, watching him as he ate. “If the Hoffers aren’t wondering how their daughter died, their granddaughter will, at some point.”
He swallowed his food. “So you don’t think she just died in an ambush.”
She pursed her lips. “I’m sorry, Gabby. I shouldn’t have brought it up. That’s not what you came here for.”
“No, that’s all right. We’re getting to know each other, that’s all.”
“But is that what you really came here for?” she asked, leaning back in her chair as she narrowed her eyes. “To get to know me?”
“You were a part of Carlos’s life at some point, and now that he’s living with me, I just want to know him a little better.”
She finished her glass of water, and her eyes widened in relief as she took her last gulp. “Maybe the revolution is truly over. All of us just want to move on with our lives. Including your brother. My former commander, I saw just a few months ago while I was at the Camp John Hay Commissary. He was with his wife and kids, shopping for American PX goods just like I was, when we had all wished death upon America when we were younger. He wouldn’t even look at me.”
“Well that’s ironic,” Gabriel said, in a feeble attempt to lighten up the conversation.
She laughed. “Yeah. It is. It’s as if the revolution never really happened.”
“I wish I knew how to read Carlos, but truly, I don’t.”
“You seem to have had a complicated relationship.”
He shook his head. “It’s hard to explain. I was fourteen when he defected, and I didn’t understand why he did it, or what was going on. All I understood was that he ruined our family in the eyes of people, and when my dad lost his job, I blamed him too. So when he surrendered and was sentenced, I had a hard time bringing myself to visit him. At first I was just mad at him, and then later on I just got busy with life.”
“You were trying to move on.”
“Yeah.” He tapped the handle of his empty mug with his fingernail, as though to flick away a thought that continued to pester him. “I’m sorry. I probably seem heartless to you.”
“No, not at all. It’s just natural. I feel sad for him, of course, and for you too, but I understand.”
“If only I knew what happened to Paulette, I’d tell you what I knew.”
Her lips parted. A look of suspicion swept quickly over her face as she fixed her eyes on him. “But you wouldn’t know what happened to her. You were a kid. You were far away from the action.”
I saw her firing a gun, he found himself on the verge of saying. She made it look effortless.
But instead, he merely dabbed his mouth with his napkin as Celeste watched him in anticipation.
Filipino writer Monica Macansantos holds an MFA in Writing from the Michener Center for Writers at the University of Texas, and a PhD in Creative Writing from the Victoria University of Wellington. Her work has recently appeared or is forthcoming in Colorado Review, failbetter, WSQ: Women’s Studies Quarterly, Lunch Ticket, Anomaly, Vol.1 Brooklyn, the Pantograph Punch, Katherine Mansfield Studies, About Place Journal, and Oyster River Pages, among other places. Her work has been recognized with residencies from Hedgebrook, the Kimmel Harding Nelson Center for the Arts, the Storyknife Writers Retreat, the I-Park Foundation, and Moriumius. She has completed a collection of short stories, and is at work on a novel, an essay collection, and a second story collection.