By Agnes Marquez
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Sweat bloomed on her forehead the moment she stepped off the plane. Heat drowned her. For the first few minutes Aida found difficulty in breathing. Her body longed for the familiar cool air of Boston. She removed her scarf and put it in her carry-on. Pale-faced people greeted her. With her brisk pace, she passed those in front of her, not even bothering to thank an attendant who cheerfully welcomed her home.
She rushed down the incline, watching the way new arrivals craned their necks for beloved faces, anxious to be reunited after years, months, or even a week of absence. To her left, a rather portly woman, possibly in her forties, pushed a metal cart loaded with colorful toys. An orange plastic bat, a blue and red giant robot, a brown teddy in a tasteless tartan dress peeked out from a clear plastic bag, propped up by boxes of branded rubber shoes and sandals. The woman held a yellow and green polka dot handkerchief to her nose, and once in a while dabbed at the corners of her eyes. For some reason, Aida’s sudden and temporary asphyxia was heightened. By the foot of the ramp, the woman had broken into an almost run, waving to the crowd. Curiously, Aida watched as a group of teenagers broke through the throng of people to meet their mother by the taxi lane. The sun was high, and as the woman moved to hug and kiss her children, the sun played to highlight the streaks of silver in her hair. The youngest boy, looking far too old for the pasalubong, laughed good naturedly as he pointed to the toys being loaded into the trunk of the hired vehicle. Aida was waiting for the family to get in so that the line would move forward. From her distance, Aida could see clearly the touch of dismay on the mother’s face, which disappeared with the joy of reunion, and Aida wondered how long the woman had been gone.
When she sat at the back of the taxi, her only bag settled beside her, Aida rested her head and closed her eyes for the ten-minute ride to the domestic airport. Her thoughts tumbled in her mind, and in those precious moments she sought to clear her head. In just a few hours, she would have no choice but to face them all. For now, Aida would take the needed respite. When she arrived back home, she would pick up where she left off. Aida would return to the classroom and lose herself into her teaching. When she arrived back home, Aida would deal with checking papers. When she arrived back home, she would ask her class how the subject was handled by the substitute teacher. She hated leaving her students like this. The groups of children were her only family, and they came and went year after year, growing and often forgetting.
It was good fortune that she only had to wait a couple of hours for the next flight. She spent the time flipping through a magazine left on the white-backed seat. The rows of chairs looked new, as did the impressive glass walls and ice-shiny tiled floor. When she last came this way, Aida didn’t even have the chance to pay attention to the building. It had been a singularly blurred experience, and all attention was focused inward as she nursed her turbulent emotions and stoking the hatred that hammered through a young heart. Hopefully now as a mature woman, Aida had learned to see things from a larger view.
If the flight was any indication of how this trip would go, Aida reflected as she was walked on the tarmac and out of the small airport, then she would be on a plane westward without too much trouble. The fifty-five-minute flight was the smoothest ride she had ever taken. She had to remember to thank Temio for reserving her on that one, maybe pay him back if he would allow her to. It would not be too much trouble to slip him the money while the family gaily chatted over the dinner table, catching up with members who came from far away, forgetting for a while the reason they were all there in the first place. But even as she thought it she knew that they were false hopes. When she agreed to go back, she told Temio that she was doing it for her cousins. Yet though she desperately wanted to believe that, in her heart remained that overwhelming need to be there one more time.
The provincial airport was a far cry from Manila’s more modern facilities. Aida noticed the lone man waiting on a bench with his hat bunched in his hands. The man rose and nodded to her, seeming unsure. When he bent to take her bag from her, Aida broke into a grin. “Manong Andoy, how are you?” she greeted warmly.
“I’m good. You’ve gotten so big now.” The weathered face creased at the eyes and mouth as the family driver looked her over.
“You mean old, manong. I was big when I left. I just got older.”
The man laughed as he led her to a green ’72 Toyota that appeared to be still in fairly good shape. “I have a different interpretation of old, hija. Look at me.” Aida smiled and got into the passenger seat. The scent of sampaguita filled her senses, and when she glanced up, she saw a garland hanging from the rearview mirror, together with an old rosary made of shiny wooden beads. Aida settled back and glanced out. The sun blinded her, and she closed her eyes.
She reared her head up at the steady tapping sound. She had been drilling a hole in the garden with a barbecue stick because she wanted to see to the center of the earth. She was going to prove them all wrong. Jing thought she was smart when she said that it was hot there, just because that was what their teachers in elementary school told them. But Aida won’t believe her. She watched when Mang Justo and his sons dug for the deep well pump last week, and she saw it was water there. She firmly believed that deep, deep into the center was a huge pond where all the waters come from. Yes, even the water from the sea and the rivers and the lakes. So Aida decided to quietly dig the hole and show her older cousins that she was in the right. Except that they needed to be quiet while they played with the worms. Lolo and Lola were sleeping just at the other side of the wall, and when their grandmother saw the mess that they were making, she would grow all red in the face and yell at them to go inside and wash up. It was almost six and time for the padasal.
Aida industriously drilled her tiny hole, biting her lip and cringing when Maia’s giggles got a little too loud. She wanted to shush them, but that would be even worse, because Maia got even louder when checked. So when she heard the steady tapping, Aida looked to see what it was. Temio was standing up on tiptoes and tapping a coin on the capiz windows. And then Temio dropped the coin into his pocket and inserted his little finger into the hole and wriggled it to widen the destruction. Temio was laughing when he told his sister Jing that she could peer inside after him and see Lolo’s teeth in the glass, submerged in water on top of the dresser that was directly across the windows.
Aida wished she could see too. When she and her cousins played, Temio would tell them about Lolo’s detachable teeth, and Aida would have no idea what they were talking about. She dropped her stick when the sliding windows opened a crack, and she picked up her skirts and hid behind the santan plants as their grandfather’s silver-capped head peeped out.
A soft tapping woke her, and Aida started up on her seat. She saw Manong Andoy smiling at her from outside, an action that leant her courage though she would deny herself that she needed it. Her eyes shifted to the house behind him, resting on the black-clad clan gathered at the top of the steps. She took a deep breath and alighted, walking towards them. She faltered halfway to the house, terrified. It was as though she was a young child again. Standing so small in front of the big house, her palms grew sweaty and a chill ran over her spine. Dread choked her before she remembered that she was here for the matriarch’s funeral. And only then did the racing heartbeat slow; and only then did the blood pumping in her temples calm. For the first time in a decade Aida climbed the steps that led to the tall doors of the home she was raised in.
The family was as it had always been—rather disinterested yet exerting the effort because they all lived under one roof. The minutes dragged by, and for the hundredth time she questioned her decision to come, when it would truly not make any difference to the family. And for the hundredth time that knowing voice inside her head told her that she came for those few to whom it would matter.
Temio enfolded her in a warm embrace and led her into the house and propelled her to the corridor to her left. When they stopped in front of the familiar wooden door, she balked, but he urged her on. So she turned the knob and stepped in alone into the master’s bedroom.
Aida settled on the edge of the king sized bed, the cushion dipping under her weight. It was the first time she had remained in there for longer than the requisite kissing of the elders’ hands. For long moments she was cold all over. Memories of shuffling in the dark musky chamber with her cousins, lined up as they were after the annual padasal, plastic rosaries clutched in stubby fists smeared with dried coco jam while holding their breaths against the heady odor of the rheumatic balm, filled her head. She could recall the sharp recriminations, commands to watch her posture and rearrange her camisa. At that recollection her shoulders straightened stiffly.
The room had changed much. Temio, being the eldest of the cousins, had handed it down to Jing when their grandmother decided that she did not want to sleep there any longer without her husband. Temio had begun redecorating so when she came home from nursing school in Manila, she would arrive at a newly refurbished chamber. Aida noted that the biggest alteration she could find was the windows. No longer was it made of the capiz shells yellowed and darkened by time, to be mutilated by the children of the newest generation as soon as they were tall enough to poke their fingers through. A few years ago she was with Temiong when he offered to replace them. Their grandfather was furious at the young man’s insolence. He would not agree that the panes were decaying and out of date. No matter how much Temiong explained about how the replacement would be more durable and attractive, Lolo had insisted that capiz had served them well for so long and they already knew its worth. When the old man passed away a couple of years later Temiong was free to change the windows, because Lola was too deep in her mourning to mind.
It must have been Jing's preference that the ancient molave dresser remain at the far corner of the bedroom. She'd seen Temio eye it with disdain so many times before. Had he had his way, the dresser would now have been recycled into a baby's rocker, a knife holder, even several pieces of paperweights. So now, to see the dresser still looming in the room was a surprise. Jing had apparently salvaged the furniture in time. If it were her own decision, Aida would have cheered Temio on as he hacked it to bits. How many times had she seen her reflection in that mirror, tears streaking her face, nose red and eyes puffed up, as Lola reprimanded her for each red mark on her quarterly exams?
The high squeaking noise of the door opening indicated the need for repairs in the family home. Aida looked up to see Jing step into the room, a blue towel wrapped over her hair. She nodded her head towards her cousin. In contrast Jing's eyes crinkled at the corners, and she hurried over to settle beside Aida and enfold her in a warm embrace. "They didn't tell me you'd arrived. Welcome home."
"I hope you don't mind," Aida told her cousin the moment they pulled apart. No matter how many alterations Temio had done to the room though, she suspected she would always think of this as their grandparents’.
"Not at all!"
"Temio's right," Aida continued lightly. "Sliding glass panes are more pleasant to the eyes. The garden is a lovely sight from here. I can see that very spot where we used to play.” Now, little children whose names she did not even know have taken their place. Her cousins’ offspring, they did not seem to be aware of the loss the family suffered. Quietly, they scampered about, running to hide under bushes and behind trees. One crawled to the back of the well, while the taya called out numbers, counting backwards to let the others know how soon it would be before he began to look for them. “Lolo would have enjoyed this.”
“I do not recall Lolo being particularly fond of our games.” A smile touched Jing’s lips, as though the memory of constantly being told off did not sting her still.
“I meant that he would have enjoyed knowing that he could see exactly if we are getting wild in the garden. At least he can always see where we are, and he would not have to guess which part of the grounds to glare at.” At Jing’s soft chuckle, Aida shook her head. Her cousin’s approach and quiet acceptance seemed infectious. Before Jing’s penchant to allow the past to slip away as though it did not matter grew on her, Aida looked around for her lone bag and picked it up. “I brought you something from back home.” She handed her a small wrapped box.
Jing murmured a thank you. “So that’s home now?”
“Yes. I’ve been there for so long, Ate. And I enjoy being there. I can’t think of any other place that I would rather be.”
“How about here?”
“This is a wonderful place also, and I shall always cherish it as my childhood home. But I have a job there, friends.” Lest Jing come to think that Aida did not care for them, she hastened to add, “If I could, I would be delighted to stay. We had so many good times.” Her heart rebelled at the thought of remaining longer here, but Aida kept her smile in place. She had so few people who understood her really, and she would not antagonize one of them.
Jing's hand crept up over Aida's to give it a firm squeeze. Aida glanced up at her cousin, looking at her askance. "I did not go to college just to be a nurse, Aida. I know,” she assured her softly. “Sometimes our hearts long for escape. And though I chose Manila, I did not cut off ties with all those who love me."
The words tumbled forth, words that would not have left her lips had she been with anybody else. “I was humiliated."
She could play it back in her mind over and over, like a record at the old turntable when the needle became dull and rusty with age. The door slammed open and in Lola came, veined hand trembling with barely contained fury, eyes spitting fire as she came towards the bed.
Half naked, her right ear almost ripped off her head, she was dragged out of her room and pulled to the corridor, down the winding staircase and then pushed to her knees in the living room, with all her cousins, aunts, uncles looking on. There the old lady spat curses, piled names. Temio approached them with a shawl, and Lola screeched at him like some banshee, sending him scurrying away, using her as an example for the young children of the unrespectable.
Jing's voice brought her out of the prison the memory caged her in. "You did not fly to a foreign land just because of that, Aida. You've wanted to leave even before then. Besides, it was our own fault anyway."
"Ate Jing, you were aware of what I felt for him. And you have told me to love is never wrong. This is what I felt for him."
"The way you loved Lola's choker? You are different. You will never be satisfied." Aida was reminded of the beautiful piece of jewelry handed down to women in their family for several generations. She had first seen Lola use it when Temio married the capitan's daughter. From then on Aida had had her eye on it. At every opportunity she would ask for it, until finally it was hers. Wrapped in light blue tissue and handed to her on her eighteenth birthday.
"It was too tight."
Aida had been out that night with Greg. They had been sweethearts for half a year already, and Aida opted to spend her birthday dinner out with him. It had been the time of her life, and she was sure at the time that nothing in the future would be comparable to the evening. Looking back now, Aida recalled with wonder how different she was then, so easily contented, effortless to please. After dinner, they watched a movie at the local cinema, and she did not even care that it was a rather cheap action flick. Greg had handed her a flower when they met, and the single withering rose was all she looked at during the hour and a half they were inside the theater. They walked home and found her grandmother waiting at the steps of the house. The old woman had ordered her inside, not even returning Greg's 'good evening.' The new dress she had saved up for, the one she had requested made from the dressmaker, patterned after a magazine Jing had sent from Manila, caught Lola's attention. It did not take long for the lime green creation to end up as a burning heap in the yard. And Lola's choker to end up at the bottom of the garbage bin in her own room.
"Lola wanted you to have that choker. Everybody always said you looked like her. And she was very pretty wearing it on her wedding day. Have you seen the photographs?"
Aida had seen them hundreds of times before. She looked them over like fairy tale books at night. Lola was like a fairy princess then. Lolo was her prince. Even after she had fled their home, she still remembered that pretty choker. She was relieved when Temio informed her that he had found it in the trash and returned it to their grandmother.
"You had better change your clothes, Aida. We need to be at the iglesia by one."
"Ate Jing... will Greg be there?"
"Tio Domeng will let him off his shift early to pick up his wife and kids." Seeing the flicker of uncertainty in her cousin's eyes, Jing pointed to the closet and the dresser. "Freshen up. I'll send someone up to call you when it's time to leave."
Aida stood up and took the dress that Jing had hung on the handle of the closet and changed her clothes behind the Chinese screen at the side of the bed. And then she placed her used clothes back inside her bag. There was no use unpacking when she had made it clear that she would only be staying for the funeral. Aida settled on the chair in front of the dresser and pulled open the drawer to look for some powder. Her brow furrowed at the sight of blue tissue. Carefully she took it out and opened it to find the old choker inside.
The reflection in the mirror caught her eye, and she glanced up. Through the clear glass panes at the other side of the room, Aida saw Greg in the garden that held so many fond memories of childhood games, and her heart skipped a beat. And then slowly the buxom figure of a girl she had seen earlier that day helping in the kitchen materialized. He held her in his arms, his eyes holding that same old adoration he had back when they were eighteen. And desperately she wished that the glass windows would revert back to being capiz, and hide the image that seemed to shatter through the calm of her consciousness. Faintly the noise of rapid knocking on the door cleared the haze that had begun to creep up at the corners of her vision. Temio's voice from outside reminding her of the time.
"In a moment!" she called back.
Aida picked up the choker, holding it up and watching the dull winking of the gems as they caught and threw back the sun streaming through the windows. She clasped it snugly around her neck before rising to answer the door. Against the rapid pulse of her neck, the metal and stones were snow cold, and Aida wondered how long it would take until her skin would warm them.