Love and Other Rituals
by Monica Macansantos
The sun was setting when Kardo slid from Rene’s arms and lifted a pair of threadbare jeans from the hook on the door. “I have to go home,” Kardo said as he pulled on his pants. As it always was whenever he was about to leave, his back was turned to Rene.
“Don’t you want dinner? There’s beef caldereta on the stove,” Rene said. He let out a sigh as the sweat of their lovemaking sank into his skin.
“It’s getting dark. I have to go home,” Kardo said as he pulled his pants on.
“Stay for a while. You’ve only been here for thirty minutes. I’ll heat the caldereta. It’s my mother’s recipe.” Rene got up and plucked a T-shirt and a crumpled pair of boxer shorts from his metal bedpost. Kardo drew the curtains and looked out the window, his gaze far away.
“Elena shouldn’t already be back, should she?” Rene put a hand on Kardo’s shoulder.
Kardo placed his hand on Rene’s and fixed his eyes on the corrugated iron roofs of the neighbor’s houses. “It depends. She could be delivering laundry at this hour. The kids are at home by now, though.”
“Oh, they know how to take care of themselves. Don’t worry.” Rene wanted to stroke Kardo’s hair, to plant a kiss on his warm, moist nape, but Kardo’s mind was somewhere else.
Kardo set the table as Rene switched on the stove and stirred the caldereta in its aluminum pot. When it was time to eat, Kardo sat facing the TV screen. He laughed with his mouth full when a girl in a fuchsia-colored bikini slipped into a tub of bubbling water and a gangly game show host did an awkward jig. Rene had moved his television set to the dining room, noticing that Kardo hovered around it like a moth whenever he paid Rene a visit.
“Dance, Nene, dance,” Kardo sang as he clapped.
“Have more ulam. You must be hungry,” Rene said.
Kardo nodded, got up, and piled another mountain of rice and caldereta onto his plate. He sat down, mixing the orange-red sauce into his rice and hunching over.
“I have a question,” Kardo said.
“What is it?”
Kardo put down his fork and spoon and leaned back in his chair. “One of the boards on our wall was blown off by the last typhoon, and we’ve been using a sack to cover the hole. Elena’s working extra to have it patched up but we don’t have enough money to buy plywood to cover it. My children sleep near that hole at night and I’m worried they’ll get sick.”
“Why didn’t you tell me earlier? I would’ve given you money for repairs.”
“Well, you know po, it’s so shameful. We ask for money from you all the time.”
Rene tossed his head and struck the air with his palm. “Hay naku stop saying that. You say that all the time and ask for money anyway.” He reached for his wallet, opened it, counted his money, and handed Kardo a wad of bills. “Here’s one thousand pesos. If there’s anything left over, buy your family a good meal.”
“Thank you.” Kardo took the bills, counted them, and pushed them into jeans pocket.
“Kardo, I just gave you money. Why do you look so sad?”
Kardo shrugged and smiled.
“You’re cute when you’re being shy, but it can get annoying too.”
“You naman, don’t be such a drama queen.” Kardo’s voice melted into a whine and he got up, approached Rene’s chair, put his arms around Rene’s shoulders and dabbed his lips on Rene’s cheek.
“That kiss costs one thousand pesos,” Rene said, fingering Kardo’s arm.
“You know that’s not true.”
Rene closed his eyes as Kardo’s fingers curled against his chest. During moments such as these, Kardo’s callused hands could feel so warm and promising. Then the hands fell away and Kardo returned to his seat.
Rene stared at Kardo’s bowed head. I would’ve given you the money anyway, even if you didn’t ask, he wished he could say. It was easier on the tongue than “I love you”, and less cloying too. But he was ashamed of sounding petulant, and Kardo was too busy feeding himself to listen.
Whenever a boy’s beauty caught Rene’s attention in the introductory Calculus class he taught, he’d recall a conversation that he’d overheard in the office years ago. As the years passed, it would come back to him in snippets.
“I heard he invites them to his apartment.”
“And these kids allow him to do whatever he wants with them?”
“Fuentes, don’t tell me you didn’t know anyone in college who sold themselves for tuition money.”
“Or for grades.”
“So you can do anything you want when you’re tenured.”
“Why, you’re thinking about it too?”
He would’ve wanted the other details of that afternoon to slip away from his memory, but they lingered in him like the ghosts of physical pain: the conspiratorial snickers that emerged from the office kitchen; the silence he walked into when he entered the tiled room and saw three of his colleagues gathered near the water cooler. They were young and untenured, just like him, and when they saw him, they lowered their eyes. As he smiled at them, pretending he’d heard nothing, he slid his hands in his pockets, clenching and unclenching them. He struggled to squeeze out the mannerisms he knew his colleagues couldn’t wait to encircle and dissect: the telltale softness of his wrists, the suspiciously delicate touch he used to pluck pieces of chalk from the blackboard tray in front of his wide-eyed students or to comfort a distraught colleague.
He felt the months, then years, pass before he could say with some certainty that they weren’t waiting for him to provide them with juicy morsels of scandalous behavior. It wasn’t that he lacked desire—it was just that he didn’t want his yearnings to be laid out on the faculty kitchen table to be examined, trivialized, joked about. Despite their suspicions, he wasn’t one to compromise the efficient, sanitized relationship he maintained with his students.
He was working in his garden on a cold afternoon in January when he heard a tapping at his gate. Strangers often knocked as he worked in his garden, selling fruit, rice cakes, and sometimes labor. He bought their fruit and ate their rice cakes, but he rarely hired people to clean his house or trim the hedges of his garden. He was afraid of the questions they’d ask once he allowed them to step foot in his house: why he lived alone, whether he had more money to spare.
“What is it?” he called out.
“Do you want to have your garden fence fixed?” It was a male voice, and a stodgy, sunburned hand emerged from behind the gate to point at the wooden fence that separated the garden from the driveway. Rene turned to look at it, and noticed the holes that riddled the graying planks, the old nails that bled rust into the wood. A carpenter whose name and face he had long forgotten hammered it together years ago, and it took a stranger to spot these symptoms of neglect.
Rene returned to his work. “I don’t see anything wrong with it,” he said, gripping the stalk of a stubborn weed with his gloved hands.
“It doesn’t match the beauty of your garden, that’s what’s wrong with it.”
Rene sensed a teasing lilt in the man’s voice, and he raised his head to look at the face that peered at him from behind the gate.
It was a young man who smiled, revealing a set of crooked teeth. He had the dark, round eyes of a child and the calloused hands of a working man. Rene remembered the hands of his father, a man who never wore gloves when he plowed his field. Rene’s parents never left the farm where he grew up. He sent money to them whenever he could, even after his father stopped speaking to him years ago. Rene could never be the son that his father wanted, no matter how persistently he wrote checks. He still hoped that they’d show up at his gate one day, if only to ask for money. They had nothing to be afraid of.
Instead, a stranger stood at his gate, grinning.
Rene walked through the arched gateway of his garden and approached the front gate. He took note of the man’s crooked nose, the scar under his left eye, the smile that could easily be mistaken for a sneer.
“Or maybe you need help digging. Or cleaning your house.”
“I’m not looking for a houseboy.”
“Please, sir. I just lost my job and my wife is pregnant.”
Rene took another look at the man’s face. Looks like he’s been in a couple of fights, Rene said to himself. And yet there was a youthful glow in the man’s fine, unwrinkled skin, and a warm, almost cheerful look in his eyes.
“Why should I trust you?”
“I’ve never stolen from any of my bosses, ever.” The man looked at Rene’s bungalow as though he knew what lay beyond its clapboard cerulean façade.
Rene sighed. “I have to think of what you can do for me.”
“We could start with your garden fence.”
Rene looked at the broken fence and saw the weeds that sprouted around it. He was growing old, and even this young man noticed. Could others assume, then, that he could easily be swayed by their sob stories? He remembered the young man he once was, a man who needed help but was too ashamed to show it. He pulled off the gloves from his hands, lifted the latch of his gate, and ushered the young man in.
The man showed up at eight in the morning the next day and Rene gave him money to buy wooden planks and nails. When he returned from the hardware store, the man handed back Rene’s change before he dismantled the old fence. Rene insisted that the man dine with him at noon. When he gave in and sat with Rene at the kitchen table, he ate the food spread before him in silence. His name was Kardo, he said when he was asked. Rene could tell he was hungry by the heaps of rice he piled on his plate, but he slowly worked through his food as though he were ashamed of his own hunger.
“Do you also have a garden at home?” Rene asked.
“Our land’s just big enough for our small house,” Kardo said.
He told Kardo to come for work on Saturday mornings. He couldn’t leave the new boy unsupervised, he told himself, and Saturday was the only time of the week Rene could be at home the entire day. One never knew what could happen if one’s back was turned. .
On Kardo’s next visit, Rene sipped his morning coffee as he watched Kardo lower the roots of a tree sapling into a hole in the ground. Rene cooked lunch for two people, coaxed the young man into his house at lunchtime, and sat by the living room window when Kardo returned to work. Having a stranger touch the leaves of his plants, water their roots, pull out the weeds that sucked the earth dry, was easier than Rene thought it would be. Once, Kardo glanced at the window and caught Rene’s eye, and when he waved, Rene nodded back.
Later that afternoon, he handed Kardo a five-hundred peso bill and watched him walk through the gate, wondering how a day slipped away whenever he wanted it to trickle slowly through his fingers.
When Kardo came to work again, they sat at Rene’s kitchen table at noon, finishing a pot of fish sinigang Rene had cooked that morning as Kardo worked. Rene opened the kitchen windows to let in a warm wind, and their hinges rattled as he filled Kardo’s bowl with soup.
“How is your wife?” Rene asked, taking his seat.
“She’s all right, but she gets tired a lot these days. I guess I have to look for a full-time job so that she won’t have to work too much.” His wife was a laundry woman and was sometimes hired to clean the homes of the families she worked for.
“You could come here on a weekday, if you need extra work.” Rene didn’t have much more to give, but Kardo’s husky, timid voice coaxed forth his pity.
“What else do you need me to do?”
“I’ll have to think about that,” Rene said, drowning the rice on his plate with spoonfuls of soup. “You could scrub and wax my floor. Or dust the knick knacks in the living room.”
“Come on, I know you want more than that.”
When Rene raised his head, he thought he sensed a sneer flicker across Kardo’s face. The young man’s insensitivity struck him cold—Rene had expected him to respect his quiet admiration, to exercise tact. He stood, walked around the table, and slapped Kardo’s face. Stunned, Kardo cupped his reddening cheek in his hand.
“Sorry, I just thought you were—“
“Get out of my house,” Rene said, pointing to the front door.
Kardo stood and brushed past Rene, leaving a faint trail of warmth on Rene’s skin. “You’d understand if you were in my place,” Kardo said before closing the door behind him.
Rene threw Kardo’s unfinished meal in the trash, cleared the table, and ran water over the dirty dishes. In the days that followed, he had nothing else to look forward to after work beyond the solitude he had once treasured. When Saturday came and Kardo didn’t show up, he found himself working alone in his garden and eating a meal meant for two people in his empty kitchen. He heard a rapping at the gate, and when he rushed to his window to see who it was, a woman with a fruit basket on her head pointed a wrinkled finger at her produce and asked, “Would you want to buy fruit?” There was too much food in his refrigerator for him as it was, and he waved the old woman away.
His nights were filled with a vacuum-like silence. In one dream he shared a bowl of wonton soup with Kardo, licking clean the spot where Kardo’s lips left a mark of sour moisture. One night, he dreamt that they lay side by side in bed, a cold wind whipping their bare skin.
The next Saturday afternoon came, and he jumped from his kitchen seat when he heard a knocking at his gate. He spotted Kardo standing behind the locked gate. Kardo had never seemed so small to him before: this time Kardo slouched, avoided Rene’s eye.
“I’m sorry,” Kardo mumbled, when Rene came to the gate.
Rene straightened himself and folded his arms. “Is that all you can say for yourself?”
“It was a misunderstanding. I’m sorry.”
“Is that what you think of us baklas? That we’re all Miss Moneybags?”
“It’s not like that. I just thought that you were about to make an offer. My other bosses have done it before.” Kardo scratched his head.
Rene looked into Kardo’s eyes. Was his restraint so uncommon, so farcical? He was punishing himself, holding himself back when there seemed to be no reason to do so. He knew this man wouldn’t give him what he truly wanted. But what he needed right now, as he stood behind his closed gate, was a temporary balm for an ache that lingered.
Children walked home in groups that afternoon, dribbling basketballs down the road, jostling with each other, soaking themselves in their own petty rivalries. Elderly women tapped the ends of their umbrellas against the pavement as they inched down the street, and Rene ducked as they passed. When the last gray-haired woman disappeared beyond the bend of the road, he unbolted the gate.
Kardo stepped inside and stood before Rene, waiting, as always, to be told what to do.
“What kind of work do you expect me to give you? I watered and weeded my garden. I’ve had enough time to clean my house. Don’t tell me you’re going to cook for me this time.”
“I don’t know where else to go, Sir Rene.”
“Come to my bedroom, then.”
“What?” Kardo’s face fell, as though he had come unprepared for this.
“Isn’t this what you wanted to do?” Rene opened his front door and held it open for Kardo. Kardo hesitated, but then followed Rene inside.
“Second door to your left. Go inside and sit on my bed.”
When Kardo disappeared into Rene’s room, Rene hurried to his kitchen, opened his cupboard, and took down a bottle of virgin olive oil he had received as a gift from a colleague at an office Christmas party. Sweat gathered in his palm as he clutched the neck of the bottle, and in his mind he went over the notes he had picked up from movies, from the magazines he had read in quiet, private moments.
Kardo was in his briefs when Rene walked in, sitting on the edge of the bed, eyes averted, rubbing his arms as the cold settled inside the room. Rene placed the bottle of oil on his nightstand and turned his back to Kardo as he pulled off his T-shirt, wriggled out of his boxer shorts. “If I could help you with that by showing you a Tanduay girl calendar, I would,” Rene said, shivering as he eased his naked body under his sheets.
Staring at the floorboards, Kardo pulled down his briefs and tossed them to the floor. Rene got up as Kardo turned to face him, and felt an ache between his legs when his eyes fell on Kardo’s exposed protuberance: an ugly, veined, and vulnerable thing.
“Come closer,” he whispered, picking up the bottle and unscrewing its cap.
Coated in virgin olive oil, it tasted a little less revolting when his tongue fluttered around its tip, ushering forth a faint moan from Kardo’s lips.
Rene patted Kardo’s chin when it was over. As they were leaving the bedroom, Kardo’s face tensed when Rene’s lips came in contact with his skin.
They had dinner in silence afterwards, and before Kardo left, Rene handed him a one thousand peso note. Rene knew Kardo needed much more money than that, but he needed Kardo to come back for more.
When Kardo left, Rene sat down to watch the evening news, more aware of the strange tingling in his body than the images of scam artists, Senate hearings, and traffic-clogged Manila streets that formed a colorful, unending blur. Had he known it could happen so fast, he wouldn’t have rehearsed the event in his mind as though it were some fearful, life-changing experience. There was shame that accompanied the act, but that only came afterwards. In the thick of it, he’d forgotten everything else, and allowed his pleasure to take over him. He’d never had a man inside him before, and he’d never expected to take joy in his own breaking, his own humiliation.
Kardo visited Rene, unannounced, on weekday afternoons, appearing at the gate after Rene parked his car in the driveway. Rene took Kardo’s hand as he led him into his bedroom, and drew the satin curtains before they unbuttoned their clothes and made love on his bed. Rene gulped down his moans so that the neighbors wouldn’t hear, and covered Kardo’s mouth if a grunt escaped from his lips. In the privacy of his bedroom, this young man took him back to the earth, to the rankness of his own body, and his heart soared.
When Rene opened his front door, a girl with sun-darkened skin stood wide-eyed next to Kardo's lanky figure. It had taken Kardo a week to visit him since their last meeting, and Rene was about to give Kardo a proper scolding when he spotted the girl.
“I had to pick up my daughter from school today. Elena’s still cleaning Mrs. Cornejo’s house. Can we come in?” Kardo asked.
“I guess,” Rene said, pulling the door open. He had never expected Kardo to deliver a part of his life, much less a daughter, to his doorstep. As she entered the house, the girl turned to look at the olive green curtains, the cabinet of fine china, the high ceiling, the angel figurines displayed on the divider.
“And what would your name be?” Rene asked, looking at the girl.
“Her name’s Cecile,” Kardo muttered, letting go of his daughter’s hand. “Is there food? I’m hungry.”
“I was about to make tinola. Can you wait?”
Kardo winced. “Can I have a sandwich first?”
The frayed hem of Cecile’s sleeve caught Rene’s eye. “Yeah, there’s bread in the bread box. There’s leftover hotdogs in the fridge, if you’re really hungry.”
Kardo strode to the kitchen and opened the refrigerator. “Your uncle Rene is a rich man. He has a lot of food in his house,” Kardo called out from the kitchen.
“You’re my uncle?” Cecile asked.
“If you can wait, I can cook tinola for you two. You might want something hot,” he called out to Kardo.
“You’re my uncle?” Cecile repeated.
“Ah, yes, I’m your Uncle Rene. You must be hungry too.” Rene took her hand, which fit snugly in his, and led her to the kitchen.
Kardo sat at the head of the table, legs spread, munching on a hotdog wrapped in a slice of white bread. He pulled up a chair and Cecile sank into it, staring at the plate of cold, wrinkled hot dogs and the bag of bread set before her.
“What do you want to drink?” Rene asked.
“What I want to drink?” Cecile asked, puzzled.
Kardo pierced another hotdog with his fork and dropped it on his plate. “He means juice, soft drinks.”
“Do you have Royal Tru-Orange?”
He didn’t, and he wished he did. “What about orange juice?”
Cecile watched as he walked to his refrigerator at the corner of the kitchen, opened it, and pulled out a box of Fontana. He took a glass from the dish rack, uncapped the box of juice, poured the juice into the glass, and set it beside Cecile’s plate. Cecile took the glass with her two hands and tilted it until the juice inside touched her lips. After taking a few sips, she lifted the glass from her lips and smiled at Rene. She had a thin moustache of orange that Rene patted away with a napkin.
“I would’ve licked that off,” she said, giggling and kicking her legs.
“You don’t use saliva to clean your face, darling,” Rene said. It was a long time since he met a child who could be so easily pleased. As long as this little girl was fed and entertained, she wouldn’t ask questions. Perhaps she would even come to like him. He wrapped a slice of bread around a wrinkled hotdog and set it on her plate. She took the sandwich and closed her eyes as she bit into it and chewed. Inside, Rene breathed a sigh of relief.
After Rene changed into his house clothes, he worked near the kitchen sink, dressing chicken, plucking malunggay leaves from their spindly stalks, peeling the green, watery sayote fruit he had harvested from his backyard. He watched Cecile as she wandered to the parlor and stared at the angel figurines displayed on the divider. She found a plastic stool and placed it at the foot of the divider, stood on it, and took a blushing cherub from a dusty shelf.
Kardo’s eyes were glued to the TV set, its sound a curtain he drew around himself.
“Kardo!” Rene hissed.
Kardo gave a start, and looked at Rene. “What’s wrong?”
Rene eyed Cecile, who had sat, Indian-style, on the floor, and was cradling the angel in her palms as though it were a tiny baby. He had wanted to tell Kardo to keep an eye on Cecile, but on second thought, it seemed better to let her be.
“Did you get that hole in your wall fixed?” Rene asked, turning back to Kardo. The alarm on Kardo’s face receded, and he smiled.
“Yeah, I patched it up yesterday. Thanks for the money.”
“And is your family eating well?”
“Actually, that was what I was about to tell you. We’re running out of rice.”
“Sige, I still have lots of rice in the dispenser over there. You can get as much as you want,” Rene said. He pointed with his mouth to the plastic box at the corner of the kitchen. “There are bags in the cupboard. Whenever you need rice, you just get here ha?”
Kardo grinned. “Sus, you’re so kind,” he said as he got up from his chair. Rene was afraid that Kardo would make the mistake of kissing him on the cheek in full view of Cecile. But when Kardo walked straight to the cupboard and pulled it open, Rene glanced in her direction and was relieved to see her playing with the cherub in the next room, too self-absorbed to notice them.
The cherub danced in circles as Cecile balanced it on her hand, and Rene was about to shout, “Careful!” when the cherub rolled off her palm, shattering on the floor. Kardo sprung from his seat and peered through the doorframe that led to the living room. “Naku Cecile, look what you’ve done! How shameful you are!” Kardo yelled, storming into the living room and grabbing Cecile’s hand.
Rene dried his hands and ran to the parlor, watching a frightened Cecile as her father tugged her arm. “Don’t worry, Sir Rene, I’ll take care of this,” he said as Rene approached them. He took off his rubber slipper, lifted Cecile’s uniform skirt, and gave her buttocks a quick, forceful slap.
“Please, stop!” Rene yelled. Kardo paused, letting the hem of his daughter’s skirt fall.
Rene stared at his fallen angel. Its wings had fallen off and its body had split in half, exposing its hollow insides. Cecile’s head was bowed, and she used the worn sleeve of her blouse to wipe her eyes. Rene approached her, took a handkerchief from his pants pocket, and patted her cheeks dry. She avoided his eyes.
He rubbed her back. “Don’t cry, dear. We can easily replace it.”
Kardo scratched his head. “Well, I thought you were angry,” he said.
Rene looked up at him, and said, “She’s just a child.”
After a silent, awkward dinner, Rene handed Kardo a wad of bills, “to buy more rice, and to have a new school uniform sewn for Cecile.” Kardo clutched the bills in one hand and the bag of rice in the other. Whether he had given these out of pity, or because he wanted Kardo to come back, Rene wasn’t so sure.
While shopping at the Chinese bazaar, he bought two angel figurines: a female angel with flowing blond hair, silvery blue robe, and large, gold wings, and a pink-skinned cherub that held a harp in its fat arms. The adult angel took the place of the cherub that had been broken, while the new cherub was to be Cecile’s. Her hot tears emerged from Rene’s memory as he wrapped the gift. He could not protect her. It wasn’t his right.
When Rene had bought his first car, he’d found a shortcut to work that skirted past an open field dotted with sunflowers and squat banana trees. As the years fled past him and Rene grew older, immigrants from the countryside gradually invaded it, building rust-colored shanty homes that seemed to sprout from the land like mushrooms after a heavy rain. Smoke from their aluminum chimneys mingled with car exhaust from an increasingly busy street. Wet underwear hung like heavy flags from their window grills, reminding Rene that modesty was one of the many luxuries not everyone could enjoy.
This was where Kardo lived. It was a familiar eyesore that grew in size every year, and the people emerging from its closed doors were indistinct in their squalor. Rene expected it to be a neighborhood where gossip, like the smell of sweat and fried fish, spread quickly.
These thoughts filled Rene’s mind as he sat at his front porch in the afternoon, waiting for Kardo’s return. A week, then two, passed. As monsoon rains saturated the soil in his yard, he paced from one end of his now dusty porch to the other, wringing his hands, wondering if he had been too harsh in rebuking Kardo. He knew Kardo couldn’t possibly love him, but he missed the way Kardo announced his presence at the dinner table by switching on the television, the way he laughed when Rene brushed against him, complimenting him for the way he made his garden—their garden—flourish. Kardo had no reason to be ashamed of his ardor—he had a daughter, yes, but did that matter? He was beginning to grow fond of the girl too.
He began to picture how Kardo went through the motions of life inside this shantytown. Kardo babysitting his children as his wife went to work. Kardo coming home at night in a crisp white uniform, setting down a bag of roast chicken on a plastic kitchen table. Kardo was good-looking enough to be a salesperson in the newly opened mall downtown. Even if the pay wasn’t good, at least his wife wouldn’t need to worry about sharing her husband with another man. Maybe it was only right for Rene to give Kardo back to her. Like a tenant in a boarding house who had overstayed his lease, it was now time for Rene to return his key to the tiny, cheap room his money had once afforded him.
The sun came out after another week of rain, and as he drove home from work, his eyes fell on the familiar cluster of shanties, and he clutched at the steering wheel, unable to drive any further. Rene parked his car by the curb and stared at the shantytown, wondering if it really had to come to this. He then got out of the car, and his own reflection in the car window caught his eye. His hair was slicked back, his white polo shirt was rolled up at the sleeves, his shirttails were tucked beneath the waistband of his slacks, and his leather belt hoisted up his growing belly. He took out a handkerchief from his shirt pocket and wiped away the sweat on his forehead and nape. What would Kardo’s neighbors think if they saw an older man looking for him? Regaining his composure, he turned and began walking.
Two girls in school uniform leaned against the walls of an alleyway, sucking popsicles encased in plastic.
“Sir, what are you looking for?” one of the girls asked, revealing her crooked, yellowing teeth.
“Do you live here, hija?” Rene asked, doubting she’d appreciate his politeness.
“No, we live in that mansion at the top of the hill!” The other girl exclaimed. The girls exchanged looks, and burst into a harsh fit of cackling.
“We live here. Why?” the girl with crooked teeth asked, regaining her breath.
Rene hesitated, but since he’d already been ribbed by these girls, he felt he had nothing left to lose. “Does Kardo live here?”
“Kuya Kardo? Yeah. Why, are you his boss?”
She was making it easier for him now, and yet he stuttered. “Yes, I, I am.”
“My dad says he’s sick. Are you looking for him?” If she were an older woman, he would have found her tone accusatory. If she were his daughter, he would’ve scolded her for her impoliteness.
“Yes, I have to talk to him.”
She turned her back to him and walked away, and her friend followed her, looking at Rene and shrugging her shoulders. Just when Rene was beginning to think they were pulling his leg, the crooked-toothed girl looked over her shoulder and wiggled a finger at him, as though she were beckoning a small child to follow her lead.
The ground underneath them was muddy and uneven. Rene stepped around the rocks that littered their path, careful not to scratch his leather shoes. Wet T-shirts and blankets hung from flimsy plywood windows and flapped in the wind. Women squatted in the alleyways as they scrubbed their soiled clothing in plastic tubs, while shirtless, potbellied men sat on wooden benches outside their houses and smoked. The smell of damp and sewerage was everywhere, and he resisted the urge to cover his nose, for he was afraid of what these people could do to him when slighted. A troupe of chickens crossed Rene’s path, and they flapped their wings and cackled when a young man in basketball shorts stepped out of his house and chased them away with a stick. He spotted Rene and, stunned, straightened himself.
“Are you looking for anyone, sir?” The young man asked.
“He’s looking for Kuya Kardo,” the crooked-toothed girl said.
“Are you his boss? He had to be rushed to the hospital two weeks ago.”
Rene felt relief wash over him—Kardo hadn’t abandoned him, he had just gotten sick. Who wouldn’t fall ill in a dump like this? he thought. It was as though he were learning, for the first time, that Kardo’s body could succumb to illness. “What happened?” he asked.
“Typhoid fever. But he returned from the hospital yesterday. He’s still in bed I think,” he said. “Elena!” he yelled, walking past two houses before pounding on the door of a two-story shack.
“What’s that?” A woman’s head emerged from a window on the second floor. A pink plastic clamp held together her long, straight hair, and she brushed away the stray wisps that fell across her oily cheeks. She had the face of a teenager, and Rene felt sorry that her figure had to be framed by rotting wooden planks.
“Is Kardo in there?” The man yelled. The two girls wandered away, throwing glances at Rene as they sucked their popsicle sticks.
“Where else do you think he is?” Her harsh, high-pitched voice did not match the softness of her features.
“His boss is here.” The man pointed at Rene with his thumb, slapped the door, and sauntered back to his shack.
Elena stared at Rene as though he were an apparition.
“You’re Sir Rene, right?” Elena asked.
Her face twitched in panic. “Kardo’s been sick and couldn’t go to your house. We’re so sorry. Please don’t fire him.”
“Hija, I won’t,” he said, hesitating. Seeing the doubt on her face, he smiled, tried to regain his composure, and asked, “Is there anything you need?”
“You don’t have to worry about us. Have you eaten yet, sir?”
It was an offer he hadn’t expected, and he didn’t know how to politely decline it.
“Please come inside. You came all the way here to visit us and you won’t even have anything to eat? How shameful of us to let you go.” She shut the window, clambered downstairs, and opened her front door. “Please come in, Sir. Our children aren’t home yet from school.”
She stepped back to make way for him as he entered her house. It was surprisingly clean—the linoleum floor had been mopped and swept, and the plastic table at the center of the room smelled of Lysol and boiled rice. A poster of a bikini-clad woman caressing a bottle of Tanduay Rum hung from one of the plywood walls, next to a plastic reproduction of The Last Supper.
Shutting the door, she said in an embarrassed voice, “Our humble home.” When he turned to look at her, she gripped the plastic door handle, bit her lip, and giggled.
There was a crib at the corner of the room, next to a long plastic bench, and as soon as Rene sat down, a cry emerged from the crib’s netted walls.
Elena rushed to the crib and took the baby in her arms. She bounced on her heels, patted its back, and cooed into its ear. The baby turned to look at Rene and grimaced, as though it had read his thoughts, before letting out another pained cry.
“If you want to see Kardo, he’s in our bedroom on the second floor. But he’s still asleep.” The baby’s cries slowly ebbed, and when it fell asleep, she lowered it into the crib.
“Is it a boy, or a girl?”
“A girl. Didn’t Kardo tell you?”
Elena walked to the kitchenette at the other side of the room and opened a sideboard. Rene waited for her to speak as she emptied a pack of instant noodles into a pot, filled it with water, and set it on the stove.
“You don’t have to make anything for me,” he said, as she turned to face him.
“No, it’s fine. You’re our guest.” She smiled to herself as though amused by what she had just said, and then sank into a chair near the kitchen table. “I’m sorry that we couldn’t tell you what happened. You were probably worried sick.”
“I wasn’t worried sick,” he said, the annoyance in his voice becoming too sharp for polite conversation. “I was just worried.”
She had to stop apologizing, for it was hard for him to maintain his calm. She seemed so sincere in her generosity; to take anything more from her would be criminal.
“But then you came all the way here to visit us,” she said.
“Do you think he’s the only reason why I’m here?” He couldn’t admit to her that he hadn’t been generous with his love, that he given all of it to her husband without knowing that she’d expect something from him, too.
“What else would bring you here?” she asked, her voice faltering. Then, avoiding his gaze, she got up and glanced at the pot on the stove.
“I’m sorry if I have nothing better to serve,” she said, lifting the pot cover and stirring the soup with a small fork. “When Kardo was well enough to work for you, we had fried chicken for dinner almost every day. We were eating three times a day.”
Rene got up and pulled out his wallet from his back pocket. He took out four, five-hundred peso bills and placed them on the kitchen table. “You’ll probably need more than this. I’ll come back tomorrow and give you more.” He felt trapped by this woman’s unflinching hospitality, and he prepared to leave.
Elena stared at the money. “We haven’t done anything to earn that much. I could clean your house or do your laundry.”
“You’ve done enough for me, Elena. Enough is enough.”
“All right. Kardo will be well enough to work next week.” She nodded, as though she could read his thoughts and was giving him permission to have them. He stared at her, not knowing if he was supposed to apologize or to mention the unmentionable.
The front door opened and Cecile walked in. Her face lit up when she saw him. “Uncle Rene!” she exclaimed, skipping towards him. He found himself laughing in relief as he bent down and caught Cecile in his arms.
“I have a gift for you, but I left it at my house,” Rene said, stroking Cecile’s hair.
“Sir Rene, you shouldn’t have,” Elena said.
Rene turned to Elena. “And why not?”
A boy, smaller than Cecile, walked through the front door and took a step back when he spotted the unfamiliar guest.
“Nicolas, this is your Uncle Rene, a friend of your father’s. Ask for his blessing. You too, Cecile.”
Rene got up and the two children pressed the back of his hand to their sweaty foreheads. Nicolas ran up the stairs right after letting go of Rene’s hand, while Cecile skipped away.
“Don’t be noisy! Your father’s still asleep!” Elena yelled. She laughed, and looked at Rene.
When her children had disappeared upstairs, she said, “There was this rich couple who came by the other day. They were offering me ten thousand pesos for Cecile and the baby. They said they’d raise the children as their own and send them to a good school.”
Rene was shocked. “What did you tell them?”
“I told them I couldn’t do it. It’s not as if I haven’t thought about it. I just don’t know these people. Who knows what they’d do to my babies?” Elena switched off the stove, took a chipped bowl from the cupboard, and poured out the noodle soup. “I didn’t want so many babies when I got married, but I keep on getting pregnant. Sometimes you have no other choice but to love what the Lord gives you.”
She set the bowl at the center of the table, slipped in a spoon, and drew a chair. “Let’s eat, Sir Rene,” she said, nodding at him.
“I could feed Kardo if he’s awake. I have so much food at home. You’re making me feel guilty,” he said.
Elena shrugged. “All right, if that’s what you want. I’ll come with you upstairs.”
He cupped his hands around the bowl. It wasn’t within his powers to do what was right—to walk away from this woman’s husband, to stop exploiting this woman’s desperation. It seemed that Elena depended on him to not walk away from them. He had offered to feed her husband, and now she was waiting for him to do it.
“You’re very concerned about him,” she said, her head bowed.
The soup’s steam warmed his face. It felt heavy in his hands, and he put it down on the table. He couldn’t look at her. Closing his eyes, he said, “Hija, you don’t know what you’re talking about.”
She said, “But I understand.”
He picked up the bowl with his two hands and followed Elena upstairs, to the bed she shared with her husband, knowing there was no turning back. This was probably what Rene had wanted all along.
Monica Macansantos was born and raised in the Philippines, and spent her early childhood in Delaware. She holds an MFA in Writing from the Michener Center for Writers at the University of Texas. Her work has appeared in The Masters Review, The Fictioneer, Five Quarterly, TAYO Literary Magazine, and Your Impossible Voice. She is currently pursuing her doctorate in Creative Writing at the Victoria University of Wellington in New Zealand, where she is working on her first novel.