I opened my eyes as I heard the distant crowing of the earliest roosters. It was still dark. I wasn’t sure if I had actually slept, but I got out of bed and stretched. My feet, seeming to have a mind of their own, carried me to the window which I opened to a gust of wind. I breathed in the scent of peace and quiet. It felt like Ramadhan, the peace and quiet. I continued looking into the dark, seeing nothing. I shivered in the cold. I could feel it coming from within my own body. I stood waiting for any sign of the first activities of the day, but it was too early. I decided to go out to the kitchen and pour myself a cup of coffee before the house stirred. I sipped on my coffee, realizing for the first time, after many years of coffee-drinking, how bad coffee tasted.
I went out to the familiar living room that had been witness to many unforgettable moments. My first big accident, when, running around with my little sister, I hit my head on the sharp corner of the marble-topped table. I’d never seen my parents as anxious and worried as they were at that time. My brothers were in complete shock and my sister in tears as they saw all that blood oozing from my cracked-open head. I felt everyone wanting to trade places with me as each knew how this would upset and anger my father. I was eight years old and I was my father’s favorite.
We were also seated in the same area when we, as one family, talked about and planned my eldest brother’s wedding. And my second brother’s. It was also in this place that my sister and I comforted each other as the news of our father’s untimely death came to shatter the strong wall that we all were leaning on all those years. Before that, we thought we were invincible. We thought we were untouchable. Yes, death has such a cruel way of making one realize that no one is really safe. My father was sure he would live until the age of ninety-eight. He would have done everything by then, he told me. He wanted to make a difference. But he died thirty-five years earlier. And this living room ceased to be a living room.
I stared at the cushions on the sofa. How happy they looked, all gold and pink. I noticed that I’d left my mobile phone on the sofa. I remembered reading the message some days before. Or has it been a month already? Three weeks? Two?
“I’m in town,” it said. “Coffee?”
I went to see her. Same place I had always taken her whenever she was in town. I ordered the usual. I couldn’t eat as I felt my insides churning with every bite. I wanted to throw up.
“Please…” she started.
She looked at me with imploring eyes. I held her in my gaze for a few seconds as I felt something build up at the pit of my stomach. But, I kept staring. Not answering.
I looked around and saw some people I knew. I started talking animatedly about the latest gossip about this person and that, not minding that she didn’t even know any of them. Did she know that an acquaintance, who happened to be seated a few tables away from us, had broken up with her boyfriend of three weeks? And, he’s the fifth boyfriend in, what, two months? Can she believe that? It’s all crazy, isn’t it? Crazy, that one!
“Can we talk?”
Tears were now slowly forming in her eyes and she blinked to fight them. She looked exhausted. She had dark circles under her eyes.
“Well, weren’t we talking just now? What do you want from me?”
I sounded more irritable and ruder than I had intended to. But, I kept on with what I was saying. I continued my tirade about what’s wrong with everyone and everything around me. Why was my beef randang as dry as paper? Why didn’t they have ice cubes? I always wanted my soda ice-cold! They should know that because I’m a regular! What’s wrong with this restaurant? I hope they’d close down soon! And, why on earth was the staff uniform such an appalling color? Was the owner blind? Utter cruelty! And the service? The worst!
She touched my hand; I instantly withdrew it. I looked at her pained eyes, without any emotion in mine. I gave her a look that she would recognize as a warning.
Later, as we got in the family car I had borrowed for that day, she held her head low and without looking at me, fighting tears again and with her voice shaking, she croaked, “Say no…” We both got out of the car as we reached the place where I was dropping her off. I gave her a quick hug. She looked me straight in the eye and muttered, “Do what’s right…”
I got in the car immediately and smiled at her. I told her that I’d be seeing her very soon. She slowly turned away and I stared at her in the side mirror until her form disappeared into the gate. I felt a sharp stab on my chest as I drew a deep breath. I turned the ignition on and drove away. I just drove and drove until it was dark and I honestly didn’t know where I was. I kept driving as though I didn’t know how to stop. I couldn’t stop. But I had to. I had to stop. And I did. I looked around me in confusion and recognized a landmark. I wasn’t far from home. It was funny because I thought I had been driving several hours. It seemed that I just drove round and round the city. Truth is I had no confidence to go far. I had no confidence to go out of the city just like that. I wasn’t one for that kind of adventure.
I blinked away the tears that were starting to form as I realized that I was back in the living room that wasn’t the living room anymore. I was back in this dark, peaceful morning. As I stood staring at my mobile phone, I heard the house slowly coming to life. My mother had awakened and she was happily humming as she probably was making her bed and preparing for Subuh, the morning prayer. My gaze stopped at her door and slowly I moved towards mine. People would start coming soon so I’d better prepare.
As I bathed, I felt my life, as I knew it, being washed away. Whatever tears and protests I had were drowned by the strong stream from the shower. I toweled off all my worries and apprehensions for the day, for what lay ahead. I smiled at my reflection in the mirror as I waited for my aunt who had promised to do my hair and make-up on this day, this special day that every girl in the universe dreams of. It was a perfect day. The weather was perfect. The date, according to tradition, was perfect. Everything was perfect.
“How do you feel?”
“Gosh, aren’t you excited?”
“Aiyeeee! I wonder who’s going to be next!”
“Hey, make sure to throw your bouquet towards me!”
My cousins were all shrieking with glee as they filed into the room. Everyone was bursting with excitement. I was seated in front of the huge mirror just recently placed in my room for this very purpose. My aunt stared at me, and either because she knew me very well or she just knew how to read faces, she asked, “Are you really okay? Is something bothering you? Why do you look like you’re…”
“I’m fine,” I interrupted her. “Just a little nervous.”
I gave her the widest, happiest grin I was capable of. I was never really the smiling type. Everything commenced and continued, everyone fussing over everything. It was so noisy in the room. My cousins and my sister were taking turns using my trusty pink table mirror. And, when my aunt was done, she proudly announced above all the ruckus, “Voila! The most beautiful bride I’ve ever seen!”
Everyone stopped what they were doing. Everyone stopped talking in mid-sentence, their mouths open. All eyes were on me as I grinned like a crazy kid. And, as sudden as they went silent, all the girls and women in the room burst out cries of appreciation and praise all at the same time.
“Oh, you’re so pretty!”
“What a beautiful bride!”
“You really look like your mom!”
“No, she looks more like her dad! If only he were here. Bless his soul!”
“It’s really true what they say, a girl is most beautiful on her wedding day. It really is your day!”
“Oh my God! You look like royalty! You look absolutely perfect!”
“Wow! Auntie did such an amazing job!”
“Hala! He will go nuts when he sees you, I tell you!”
I could only smile my thanks to everyone as I sat there feeling like a specimen in an experiment. Again, I felt the all-too-familiar bitter taste forming in my mouth. I wanted to throw up. I badly wanted to go to the comfort room. As I closed my eyes to keep it together, one of my brothers came knocking on the door announcing the arrival of the groom and his family for the formal batal, the ritual that would make me officially a wife. I braced myself and smiled as was expected of a good bride just as the door opened, admitting into the room the face of my handsome future swimming in an ocean of familiar and unfamiliar smiling faces and flashes of light from three different cameras. The videographer barked out his orders and apologies. As we walked on the aisle as husband and wife in the eyes of God and man, I clung to him as though my life depended on it. I smiled shyly at everyone.
“Such a beautiful couple!”
“They’re really made for each other, don’t you think?”
I saw my mother seated with my sister and sisters-in-law at the table fronting the stage. My mother was crying but also beaming with pride. This was all her work. I knew exactly what she was thinking. She had chosen this man for her beloved daughter. She had handpicked him from many who wanted to marry into the family. She had chosen well. Looking at her new son-in-law, she couldn’t help but feel very proud. He was nice, handsome, intelligent, rich, religious, and educated. She was sure the couple would live a comfortable life. They had so much ahead of them. Because both had good status in the society, they were assured of a successful, happy, and even much envied life. They will be respected by everyone. They will be a power couple! And he really liked her! What more could a girl ask for? She couldn’t have chosen a better man for her daughter. He was a prize catch. They were perfect for each other.
“When his family formally comes to ours to ask for your hand, I will readily accept. I want you to know that. He’s perfect for you. Your aunts and uncles agree. Even your father would if he were here. He’s everything you could ever want in a man.”
Those words I still remember. In the kitchen we had just tidied up after a meal, I was reading Kate Chopin’s The Awakening as I pretended to listen to the conversation my mother and my sister were having with my difficult spinster aunt when the topic suddenly veered to me. My mother turned to me, choosing her words without care. She told me to prepare for his family’s coming in a few days. I just sat there staring, looking from one face to another. I opened my mouth to say something, but she was already discussing something else.
I remembered all that as I looked and smiled at her face. I looked sideways at the collective smile of those gathered and I could hear the chorus of happy sighs from many sides of the hall. I discreetly took a peek at how the man of the hour looked and I saw the most genuine smile I had yet seen in all my life. He was happy. He should be. He finally got his wish. Looking at him, I couldn’t help but feel happy for him. Was happiness contagious? I wondered.
Walking by his side and smiling for the official photographer who was stationed just in front of the beautifully decorated stage, I looked around to see who were present. Then, the world suddenly stopped; everything came to a halt. No sounds, no camera flashes, no faces, nothing. I saw her. Just her. She was seated amid all those golds and pinks. She was all I could see. She was smiling. A smile that spelled surrender, resignation, defeat. She smiled at me and nodded as if prodding me to go on.
Before I knew it, we were in our seat of honor right at the center of the gold- and pink-draped stage. I felt a huge lump in my throat and I struggled to swallow it back. I felt it go down to my stomach threatening to form into something bigger. I wanted to throw up. I wanted to run to the toilet. My eyes traveled around the great hall and rested on the table where my friends were, all of them smiling. One seat was vacant. I looked for her, she was nowhere. She was gone. I searched for a familiar face, any familiar face, but all I could see was black. Darkness and quiet.
In the evening, when all the guests had left, I sat with my new husband in my room that was going to be our room. He wanted to know more about me.
“What do you like in a man?”
“It’s pretty simple, really,” I answered, “I like a person who can make me laugh.”
“Wow,” he declared, “Knock, knock…”
“Oh, not that kind of funny!”
He sat there grinning from ear to ear. I could hear the laughter in his voice as he said, “Come on, humor me…”
In the middle of the chit-chat and joking around, I felt short of breath, as though my chest was being squeezed by a giant hand. I went over to the window and opened it. I breathed the night air in.
When you feel the wind at night, know that I’m somewhere feeling it with you. When you hear the songs of the night, know that I’m somewhere singing for you. Always.
When we parted ways that day we met for coffee, as we bid our final goodbye, I whispered those words. She made no reply. She turned her back and walked away as I got in the car and stared at her disappearing figure from the side mirror. She was gone a few minutes later and I started to drive the opposite way.
I was absently staring out at the night, drowned in my thoughts. My husband came to my side, contemplating whether to touch me or not. He smiled at me and slowly asked, “Are you okay? Are you happy?”
With tears in my eyes and a heavy sigh that almost choked me, I replied, “Yes, I am. Happy.”
He tried to hold my hand just as I was turning away to head to the comfort room. I looked at my reflection. I stared at my blank face and tried to focus on the moment. I closed my eyes.
Now, after almost an hour, I’m still staring at my face. But, it is no longer my face; it is a face I don’t recognize. I close my eyes as tears start welling up. And, finally, I throw up.
Diandra-Ditma Aguam Macarambon teaches at the Mindanao State University in Marawi City. She has been a fellow to the Iligan National Writers Workshop.