LOVE IN MINI STOPS by ANDREA PASION-FLORES
SHE FELL IN LOVE WITH HIM during the monsoon season when she went out to get a bite from a Ministop store.
Even if the rains battered the glass walls of our 21st floor office, even if the winds sang a howling protest against the wisdom of their insistence to huddle under a black golf umbrella, they still went out for short orders of pork siomai, asado pao, and fried dumplings, crossing the street even if the umbrella could only keep their inner halves dry. In a storm, puddles aren’t really puddles but streams of water overflowing from the gutters to be leapt over with gingerly grace. Pia kept her hand tucked under the arm of her man as she skipped over streams on their way to, what one officemate referred to with snickering glee, their “dim sum delights.”
During monsoon weather in Manila, the skies turn a brackish grey and the southwest winds blowing from the Pacific turn potted palmeras, trees that are not quite trees, irregularly dotting the center island of Emerald Avenue, into fluttering fronds, like hands desperately calming the beating heart of a nervous bride. The Philippines is the only country in the world with no divorce, thus the words “till death do us part” sound ever so permanent. But at thirty-one, Pia was still unmarried though she was dating a man who was. Sean, the guy, was a stockbroker and a consultant for a holding company a couple of floors above ours. He was in his late forties with, I would guess, a couple of kids. But Pia doesn’t like talking about that.
Pia and I work for a call center and I used to be the one who lived on steamed or fried dim sum with her. We both have degrees from “reputable universities,” as the ad in the papers required, with Pia having the distinct advantage of a couple of semesters towards an MA in comparative literature. But degrees from reputable universities, even with units towards an MA, don’t guarantee people high-paying salaries in places like banks and multinational corporations—except in BPOs, like the one we work for, where units towards an MA actually impressed the manager, who thought Pia would naturally speak English well, which was probably why I was hired too. Who else would she have her flawless conversations in English with?
But really, it’s Pia who is the epitome of call center excellence. She very quickly perfected the friendly, impersonal tone that placates irate callers in New York—the worst of them with their hurried speech and their demanding-to-speak-to-the-supervisor tones. She counters with her I-understand-your-concerns or I-know-how-you-feel said in a melodious voice. To sound convincing, Pia speaks slowly, with an envied twang that remembers that a U has an “uh” sound and not the “ooh” of Filipino. And that, for Pia, was a lot considering she has never been to the US.
I was a June bride and, unlike the seasons in the West where June brides walk down aisles of flowers in garden weddings, I married during the monsoon. No garden wedding for me, just the one where the groom anxiously waited at the end of a church aisle, his inability to smile giving the impression that he was forced by circumstance to be where he stood. Unlike Pia, I believed in fairytale endings even if I did have a child growing inside of me that negated my happy ending and forced me to marry in a month of bad weather. At twenty-five, old enough but not quite ready to be a bride, I said the dreaded till-death-do-us-part vows. I do wonder, sometimes, if the words had not been heard through the din of rain drumming on the galvanized iron sheets of the church’s roof, do they count?
That was four years ago when, despite my misgivings, marriage and everything I thought it stood for beyond the white dress, the walking down the aisle, family crying in the pews, overshadowed all the doubts I had. With a love-conquers-all attitude eager to overcome the vastness of infinity that could not have been comprehended in a single moment, I clung to the stubborn belief that my new husband and I could weather everything till death do us part. Of course, we didn’t succeed. At least, I consoled myself, it was a slow parting; after about a year of mutual torture, he didn’t bother to come home at all.
But I’m fine. I tell myself that I can raise my son on my own, that I am strong, that I’m an I-don’t-need-a-man-to-define-me kind of girl, and so what if I do dial his number and hang up before his phone rings? And I still remember things like our anniversary, June 9. We chose the number nine because nine is a lucky number, the largest single-digit Arabic number, lucky because of love potion number nine. Many people thought I was lucky when Jason became my husband. The guy was a catch. He was tall and good looking, fairly well off with a condominium unit he was paying for, and a car to his name. He seemed decent, the kind of guy I hoped wouldn’t let a girl he got pregnant go it alone in the world. And, for a while at least I thought I had it made: I got the guy.
I’m two years younger than Pia, but I do feel older and wiser, capable of counseling her on matters such as falling in love in bad weather. Of course she doesn’t listen. I don’t blame her. I wouldn’t listen if I were in her shoes. Thus, despite my warnings and in the pouring rain, Pia fell in love over an order of fried siomai and a large Coke in a convenience store, a thirty-five-peso meal. I forgot to ask her if Sean had at least paid for her dim sum that day she thought he was the one but it would have been tragic had he not, so I didn’t ask.
All she said was that she noticed when he strode into the Ministop. She was standing in line to pay for her food as he made a beeline for the beverage refrigerators at the back before stopping by the siopao steamer to help himself to an asado pao. She knew it was an asado pao because that was the only variety that was ready that afternoon; the others, though already in the machine, were fresh from the freezer and still frozen. There were two cashiers open that day because it was relatively busy, and there were a few people who went inside to shelter from the rain, milling about the aisles of snacks, petite-sized toiletries, and magazines. He happened to line up at the other cashier and their elbows grazed each other. She doesn’t know if that was intentional on his part, but it was the moment she looked up and their eyes met. She looked away quickly only to look back up again, noticing that he had large brown eyes and thick bushy eyebrows and that he had not looked away.
“Nice weather we’re having.” He had a deep masculine voice, strong and in control, and it made her heart flutter. She noticed how thick his neck was, like it was straining out of his collar, fighting with a button and the knot of his tie that was begging to be loosened.
“The best,” she said. Then they were at the counter, where candies, chocolate bars and bananas fought for space with cigarette lighters and condoms. They didn’t leave right away because the rain was pouring in sheets and someone had wondered, she can’t remember who, whether work would be called off that day. So they stayed.
There is a smell that permeates every store, every single one within walking distance from our office. Some people are unable to place it, but those who frequent a Ministop would know that it’s the stink of used oil, of cooking balled up meats that might’ve qualified as street food except they’re not in the open polluted air of the city. The odor seeps into walls, suits, shirts, bags and even into a person’s skin so that there really is no denying having come from a Ministop. Like a tryst in a drive-in motel room that reeks of the smell of forbidden sex that can’t be hidden beneath swipes of Zonrox bleach or sprays of Lysol, the Ministop smell can’t be disguised with spritzes of Nenuco, which Pia keeps in her Louis Vuitton Speedy 30, an irrational purchase to be sure but it’s iconic, she assured me. I guess it complements her woman-of-the-world façade and the I-can-handle-casual-sex attitude, a persona she seems to be trying hard to perfect. It’s there and can’t be denied. I knew from the odor of used cooking oil when Pia had been downstairs on a break with Sean—just like when a fruity-floral smell accompanied her, it meant she had showered in her apartment with him.
When I used to come home somewhat regularly at 5:00 or 6:00 AM, I used to wonder if the excuses I made to my parents of having worked the night shift could cover the hours I spent with Jason in Pasig’s motel area. The eyes of the motel employees never meeting mine, speaking in whispers only to Jason of the room choices we had for a three-hour tryst, or a twelve-hour overnight special. I thought then that I could mask my guilt with dabs of cologne, or pretenses of being too tired to stay awake for breakfast. But then again, it doesn’t matter now because I have a four-year-old boy named JJ, after his father, a “junior.”
There is a kind of vanity to naming a child after a parent, I know. But I had another motive for agreeing to this arrangement. It’s as if the act of naming him after his father would compel the dad to make a commitment to the child, to the relationship. A child, after all, becomes more than the I-dos, more than the ceremony, more than the eternity symbolized by the ring. Sometimes, as in my case, it is the reason for being a couple after all, for a marriage. But even if that is argued as a flimsy excuse, then the naming of a child after the parent should be another reason to commit. Isn’t it an acknowledgment of paternity? The clichéd promise of continuity?
I had JJ in December, the real wedding season in the Philippines when the weather is cooler, the streets are lit with festivity, and people are filled with the hope of eternity. The cool dawn air is chilly enough for a light sweater and, if I wake up early, I can see my breath form a cool fleeting mist in the air, and I can pretend to be in the places the calls I process come from: Washington, New Jersey, New York, or California.
Pia’s dad lives in Los Anjeh-leez, Cal-fornya. When taking a call, we’re supposed to speak English with an American twang so that customers don’t suspect that their calls are taken by someone in a third world country. But they know. I hear it in the disdainful tone they use when they enunciate every syllable. If they didn’t like sending the call center business our way, they should just opt to hire the cheap labor found within their shores, like Pia’s dad for example. He left the country as a tourist and could not return to the Philippines unless he was ready to leave the US forever, armed, as was his promise to Pia, with enough money to live comfortably in Laguna where he had a plot of land to turn into a thriving business. But that was eight years ago. And, even if he worked as a supervisor at Home Depot, where he put his talent for carpentry and furniture-making to some use, there seemed to be little hope that he could turn an hourly rate into wealth to convert idle family land into a living, especially since, being an illegal, he wasn’t supposed to be working in the first place.
I know that, for a while, Pia had hoped her dad would get his green card and petition for her so that she could go to America and leave her dead-end love life behind; at least, that was how I thought her relationship with Sean was. But that was just my opinion because, according to Pia, it wasn’t like that, and Sean wasn’t like Jason. That would shut me up.
At first her dad’s calls were filled with promises of bringing her over. When that plan didn’t seem possible, it became the promise of returning home with enough money for everyone to live a comfortable life. Now, even that line seemed hollow. These days, when it comes to the topic of her dad, Pia just says she doesn’t care if he doesn’t come back as long as he sends her some money, which he does, albeit erratically: three hundred dollars this month, two hundred when he’s a bit hard up, like when his rent, car, and credit card payments are due, which is all the time. Once, however, she received five hundred dollars for her birthday, brought over by an aunt on holiday. And that seemed to make up for everything, while the money lasted—all of three weeks. It doesn’t matter I guess because, before long, our earnings were more than what Pia’s dad was sending.
Her mom apparently had long known that her dad had abandoned them. So she had taken up with another man, whom I thought had the decency to tell her up front that he had a wife and two kids he was never leaving. But then again Pia’s mom wasn’t exactly single, so that worked out, unlike Pia’s guy Sean, who was non-committal, who just had a lot of “Soon, I promise,” or “I am leaving her as soon as the kids are okay.” I would look at Pia with my you-know-better-than-that look but she would just look at me as if to say who was I to give advice? End of argument.
Sean’s wife was a salesperson in a company that sold everything from makeup to dishwashing soap, so was always traveling. According to Pia, it didn’t feel so wrong when the wife wasn’t in town. Sean would show up at her studio unit on Sapphire Street, a couple of blocks from Emerald, with a bottle of wine, a box of garlic and herb boursin and a loaf of French bread. And when he did that, Pia said it felt a little like being in a restaurant where they had real tablecloths with cushioned layers under the toppers so that the dishes and the wine glasses wouldn’t make offending clinks when the waiters set them on the table—and not a cold, quick snack in a Styrofoam box laid out on a printed paper menu on a laminated table. Sometimes he also brought jars of moisturizing cream that were the new products of his wife’s company, and that seemed to make things feel special.
Sean wasn’t like the guys at work, Pia said. He held the car door open instead of just lifting the automatic locks. He reached out for her hand across the table, rubbed her knee in the movie house, said he admired her independence and, well, maybe her legs, too. Jason actually told me that, that he liked my legs during one of those motel trips, during the part when he should’ve said I love you. But I might have equated it to mean the same thing so I believed him, the way Pia might have been convinced of Sean’s feelings for her by the moisturizing creams he brought her, though she shouldn’t have counted those because he got them for free, from his wife.
I didn’t have it that bad, Pia always liked to remind me. At least Jason still gave money for some of JJ’s necessities, even if it was only when I’d ask, of course. Never voluntarily. I would have to text him something like, “Need stff 4 JJ, cn u dep 3k in my acct?” He responds at least, even if they were digital grunts, like a “k,” or a “nxt wk.” It was enough. Well, not really, but if that’s this millennium’s idea of fatherhood, I’d best take what I can. This didn’t happen often enough to be called real support, but it did happen now and then. No complaints about how much he had to deposit, I only needed to ask and he would give it, as if to say, “Here’s the money, take it, and be gone.” At least he doesn’t complain, and if he doesn’t complain, it seemed incumbent upon me to do the same. Jason never visits, never asks about his child, never asks about anything, period. It’s just as well.
I know I should have reminded myself not to be too invested that day I told Jason I needed to meet him to get money from him personally because the need was urgent. I didn’t know what I was thinking. Maybe I thought there might still be a spark I could rekindle so that we might find our way back together instead of just ongoing messages about depositing the money in my account. Tomorrow night, if he didn’t mind. Ortigas area, I said, suggesting Florabel’s at the Podium where the food was a bit pricey but not that expensive. If Jason wasn’t going to foot the bill, I could whip out my Mastercard and think about the money later.
I wore a camel-colored jersey dress with a V-neck to show a little cleavage, making sure I do not look too desperate. The dress was ruched at the hem, and I paired it with black strappy shoes and a red clutch. I thought I looked sexy in a way that wasn’t trying too hard. It was a dress that was suitable for work, too, looking like I just threw it on in a rush and not like I tried on five dresses before I settled on it.
I was five minutes late for our seven o’clock. He was thirty minutes late, striding in in blue jeans and a blue T-shirt that had the insignia of San Miguel beer, Crocs shoes, looking, for all intents and purposes, like he just came from a car wash.
“Sorry, I’m late,” he said as he sat down, signaling the waiter for the menu. “Had to pass by Honda to have my car checked. What’s good here?”
“They have Angus beef burgers, steaks…” I answered, trying to calm the nervousness in my voice. The waiter stood silently, patiently waiting to take our orders.
“What are you getting?” He said, his eyes scanning the menu, his voice calm.
“I’m having the grilled lapu-lapu.” The waiter scribbled quickly. At 475 pesos, the dish was medium-priced and would not break my budget, I thought.
“I think I’ll have the foie gras burger,” he said. I looked quickly at how much the burger costs and noted that it was P780. With drinks, our meal would cost around P2,000 if we skipped dessert.
“Anything to drink?” the waiter asked.
“Just water for me,” I replied.
“A regular Coke, please,” Jason replied, folding the menu and pushing it towards the waiter.
I must say that I didn’t know what I wanted to happen, only that I wanted something to. So I asked him about his job, his family, and even his car. He grunted his answers and kept things politely moving along.
He ate fast but not too fast for me to think he couldn’t stand to be with me another second, which was probably why, in the middle of his sentence talking about his boss, I swallowed my lemon-buttery fish heavily seasoned with my pride and the fear of rejection that had me frazzled during the whole meal, and dared to stretch out my hand to cover his, lying brown and non-committal against the white linen. He stopped in mid-sentence and looked at me, first with a puzzled expression on his face, then something similar to a smile.
“So, you need some cash for JJ again?”
“Let’s not talk about that,” I said, hoping I conveyed in my voice and with the fingers gently rubbing the back of his hand that I wanted to communicate more than just through text messages. He must have gotten the message because he took my insistent hand, held it and leaned forward to say gently, almost like a promise, that we should get out of here.
I grabbed my purse to reach for my wallet. But he waived it away just like the old days and called the waiter for the check. When that was dispensed with, he grabbed my hand and, like kids who couldn’t get to the playground fast enough, we headed for his car. He drove towards the motel area in Pasig, picking one of the places we had gone to in the past.
It was awkward at first, like kissing for the first time. Then it was like a drink after walking the sidewalks of the city during a particularly hot and humid afternoon. It was frenzied and desperate and over quickly. We were both on the bed staring up at our images in the ceiling’s tacky mirror, where I could see our bodies separated by a foot of space I was wondering how to bridge. The blanket was up to his waist. I turned on my side to look at his face, his disheveled hair, his thick eyebrows, his nose in profile. His phone sounded: a message. He reached over to the side table to take it and started texting back a reply.
“Who is it?” I asked. I reached over to trace his face with my finger.
“My girlfriend, Linda.” It was probably the truth because the reply came fast and without hesitation. He looked at me sideways, like he realized his mistake. I laid on my back and stared at the ceiling telling myself not to make an embarrassment of myself by starting to cry. And I am your wife, I wanted to yell but didn’t.
“I’d like to go home now,” I said. I stood up, throwing the blanket behind me, looking around for my clothes, trying to put them on as fast as I found them. He got up, too, looking for the words to erase the awkwardness.
“Hey,” he said, as if trying to begin an explanation. “It’s not like we’re still together, right?” He was right. Before bringing me home, he stopped by an ATM machine. Then he dropped me off in front of my building.
“Umm, here’s the money for JJ,” he said, handing me a wad of 1,000-peso bills. I had the mind to refuse it, really. I know now it would have made me feel better if I did and made him feel worse, I’m sure. But I took the money and stuffed it in my bag and got off the car without counting it. He gave me 20,000 pesos in all, which wasn’t much, but it was much, much more than the usual. At least, I tried to console myself, he said the name of his child, which means, even if he was with someone else, that there might be that chance that he would come back for his son. Right?
Once I was in a store with JJ, buying a pair of rubber shoes when Jason came in with a girl. She wasn’t pretty, that much my own low self-esteem acknowledged as a fact. She also looked older than he did, which would mean she was older than I was. He was talking, distracted, and didn’t seem to have seen us before it was too late not to be noticed. It took him a few seconds to feel that I was staring at him. He looked at me and, for a moment, we stared at each other before his mouth hardened. He saw the child marching around the store trying out his new shoes. He feigned this look, as if assessing whether the salesperson had time to assist him, given the number of customers. Then, acting as if he saw that there were two too many, he steered his lady friend out the door. And that was the last time I saw Jason. I now always buy JJ’s shoes from that shop, hoping to bump into Jason again. It never happened. Unlike me, he seemed to consider the encounter a mistake never to be repeated, like the mistake of agreeing to see me that one time.
Then it came one day in the mail, a notice to answer a petition for the declaration of nullity of a marriage—mine. The law office where I brought the document was on the 28th floor of Winston Tower on Emerald Avenue. The air was thick with the smell of cigarettes. The glass walls met in a corner that pointed to Manila Bay in the smoggy horizon, the bright sun descending into the gray-blue waters in the distance created swathes of red and orange. Good thing Jason filed the petition in Mandaluyong, the lawyer said. Mandaluyong had judges who still granted annulments as a matter of course, he said, and everything would be okay if I just followed the path of least resistance—which was not to contest it.
An annulment, I came to learn, is the Philippine equivalent of a divorce. It can only be applied when one spouse (or both!) is declared “psychologically incapacitated,” nice legal mumbo-jumbo to mean the person is crazy. Of course the lawyer qualified this, saying that the “incapacity” may have shown up during the marriage even if a person seemed perfectly normal before the wedding. He explained that incapacity is essentially the inability to perform the duties of a spouse—give respect, support and love—which is a disease, apparently, a medical condition that is incurable. Thus, the lawyer said, his voice now slightly booming in the office, there was the necessity of an annulment. Having been fooled into a marriage with a spouse incapable of fulfilling these duties was an important factor—as if Jason had been duped into thinking that I was the kind of person he could spend the rest of his life with, and somewhere along the way towards this happy-ever-after I had failed him. Or vice versa, depending on who was willing to be the fall guy. This incapacity, the lawyer’s voice seemed to grow louder in anticipation of an enumeration of incapacities, could be seen in how the spouse may have acted like a mama’s boy or how he refused to support his child or if he used drugs or was an alcoholic or other signs of immaturity slash incapacity I might be able to think of. Choose your own adventure.
I was silent for a moment, wondering if I was about to ask an intelligent question: How about if he just didn’t come home one day? Isn’t that a manifestation of Jason’s psychological incapacity to perform the duties of a spouse?
“Well, not really,” the lawyer said, somewhat disappointed. He grabbed a pack of cigarettes on the table, making a show of pulling one out and reaching for the lighter, but he thought better of it and didn’t light up. “That’s just abandonment,” he told me, “and the legal remedy for that is just legal separation.” Being left alone holding the proverbial bag, in this case the wailing child, meant only that—being left alone. There must be something more than being abandoned, the lawyer insisted, like “a manifestation that something was wrong with him psychologically.”
“Wasn’t leaving enough?”
“No. You don’t want that.”
“I don’t?” Legal separation, the lawyer explained, his voice with its condescending tone, sounded more and more like a call I was processing, didn’t allow either of us to remarry. And marrying again, he presumed, was the option I most wanted. I must have nodded at this point, thinking to myself that, to the world, Jason must have had all his marbles intact when he decided to leave. In any case, the lawyer droned, having lost interest in the particulars of my case since Jason was the one filing for an annulment, not contesting might be the smarter thing to do.
“Let him pay for it,” the lawyer declared smugly. “You’re young. You will find someone again.” He seemed to consider that statement to be the best advice he had given the entire duration of our one-hour conversation. Getting married a second time, he said, unable to emphasize it enough, was something to consider after all.
Thus, even if I was raising our child, even if I wasn’t the one who left, even if I thought myself up to the challenge of being able to give respect, support and love, I resigned myself to the fact that I was the psychologically-incapacitated spouse because Jason was paying for the annulment. Going by the petition, my being a spoiled brat, overly-dependent, and scheming (having used our child to secure a marriage with him, not to mention how I deviously continue to use our child to extort money from him) all pointed to the fact that I was not okay in the head. Of course, this incapacity showed itself in telltale signs like my propensity to lie and my domineering behavior and of course, unfortunately for him, all this became apparent only after we were married. This said, he could not have known of my mental state before that rainy day in June. Worse, continued his complaint, I had become an unreasonable person, making demands on him for luxuries his meager salary couldn’t sustain.
“It’s not so bad,” Pia told me over her cappuccino at Figaro’s after browsing the 12-page document. “Says here he is willing to support your child, right? So, just let go, move on.”
I am all for moving on. So I kept an open mind as best I could while Pia changed the subject to talk about her dad. “He’s getting married.”
“I thought he already was.”
“He’s going to file for a divorce, marry a US citizen, get a green card and petition for me.”
I thought for a moment how seemingly simple that plan was, but I knew Pia’s dad needed a lawyer, like I did. And that lawyer might tell him that, because he’s Filipino, he should get an annulment like what I was doing so that he could marry a US citizen, as divorce applied to everybody else in the world but us. But I didn’t say that. Instead, I asked a stupid question. “Who’s the lucky girl?”
“He’s arranging something with a Suzanne, who is willing to get hitched for twenty thousand dollars up front and another twenty when he gets his green card. Then there are lawyer’s fees, expenses and all sorts of other fees.”
“How is he supposed to pay for all this?”
“Well, he asked me to help him sell our land in Laguna. Everything will be okay when he gets his green card, he promised. He’ll get a better job, a house, and all that, and he’ll be able to petition for me. As long as I stay single, he says.”
“Why do you have to stay single?”
“Because if I get married, silly, it’s as if I broke away from my parents to be on my own and I’ll have to do all this by myself. I mean it’s hard enough that I’m no longer a minor. Now that I’m an adult, the petition will take much longer.”
By which time, if it were even to happen, I thought, no one would want to marry you. But, instead of saying that, I just nodded my head and said, “Okay. And Sean?”
She shrugged her shoulders and looked at her coffee, perhaps the only clue she was willing to concede about the uncertainty of their relationship. “It doesn’t matter,” she finally said. “It’s not as if we were rushing to get married in the first place.” And she tossed her hair like she didn’t care.
“How is Sean?”
“He’s fine, I guess.” Pia shrugged. “Says it’s the time of year when he’s busy at work. He hasn’t been passing by in a while, actually.” Again, she tossed her hair, her fingers taking one end of hair to twirl.
I looked at Pia, wondering if I should probe deeper. It would be Pia’s birthday in two weeks. The other day she said she had asked Sean to get her a Louis Vuitton Neverfull GM bag. The large one described on the website was worth $900, she said with a giggle. She dropped subtle hints, like an email with a link to the website.
“That’s the spirit,” I told her. “Finally, a step above siomai!”
I told her it was as if she had given a long-time boyfriend an ultimatum: let’s take the next step or break up. Why keep at it if it seemed to be going nowhere, right?
She agreed. A LV bag might be considered this era’s equivalent of an engagement ring for relationships that do not fall within the till-death-do-us part category. She’d asked for the style that featured the trademark monogram of the brand. “It’s a classic,” she told me. “It’s like jeans or a Chanel 2.55 quilted bag.”
I just didn’t get it, Pia said. “The LV will age beautifully, with the vachetta of the handles and seams developing a honey-brown patina that will make it look more beautiful over the years.”
“It reminds me of a diaper bag,” I told her back in the office when she clicked on the link to show me the bag. “And why is the name Neverfull? I can fill that up easy.” I bristled at a promise that would easily be broken.
“That’s because you’re a mom, everything is babyfied. But it’s a practical purchase,” she said. “I can put everything in it and use it every day.”
I wondered how practical it would be for Sean to bring almost forty thousand pesos in cash to the LV store in Greenbelt because he couldn’t risk his wife catching the item on his credit card bill. After which, he would have to find a way to hide his purchase from the wife and deliver it to Pia.
Two weeks later, Pia was waiting for Sean to pick her up from her apartment. For her birthday, they were going to have dinner, he said, at the Top of the Citi, a restaurant with a stunning view of the Makati skyline. It was managed by Le Soufflé and did French cuisine well. She already knew what she wanted, she told me, as she had looked up the menu online. She didn’t want to seem like she didn’t eat in proper restaurants or that all she knew of her food was spelled out on the lit menu boards of convenience stores. She would get the French onion soup, slow-cooked onions topped with a slice of baguette and smothered with Gruyere cheese. She would also order the duck confit served with the échalote sauce reduction, with blanched veggies on the side. She would suggest he get the charbroiled rack of lamb in a garlic-rosemary jus, accompanied by blanched spinach and mashed potatoes. For dessert, they would share the sugar-free chocolate decadence, drizzled with caramel sauce. The dinner would be long and intimate, and they would talk about things that matter. So she told me she had dressed up for it: a silver, sequined dress and blue high-heeled shoes with rhinestones covering the knots of delicate bows at the peep toes. She was excited and giggly, and I imagined she looked like Christmas. I was happy for her.
She had been waiting an hour before finally deciding to call me. He’s late, she said. But she tried to sound cool about it. She kept the conversation light, talking about our new supervisor who replaced the one that didn’t last six months. She tried to sound like she didn’t notice that it was way past eight, but I can imagine her nervously twirling her hair while she spoke. It was apparent that Sean was not going to come through with his promise of a Le Soufflé dinner. I wanted to tell her that it was useless to hold on to this guy who might have another girl, someone he might’ve met in another Ministop. I wanted to tell Pia to move on. Instead, I told her to hang up since he might be calling and we weren’t helping the situation in any way by holding up the phone, as if mobile phones were yet to be invented.
She might have known the futility of carrying on with the dinner, and maybe even carrying on with Sean because when Sean’s call came past the hour of nine, she was still trying to be cool and worldly like a Speedy 30.
“I’m really sorry, baby.” He said he got caught in a meeting and would be a little late. Would it be okay if they ordered in instead? He was thinking of Pizza Hut’s stuffed crust barbecue pizza. It looked really delicious on the billboard, he said, and wondered out loud if she wanted to try it with him, in bed. He playfully made his voice hoarse and sexy, in a way he knew could make Pia tingle all over. I’m not sure if she finally smartened up, or if she just looked at her sequined dress and the strappy shoes with the little rhinestones and decided that, at thirty-two, when it was almost ten in the evening, she felt a little bit tired. So she told him it was late.
“I have a surprise for you,” he insisted.
“I’m not feeling up to it,” she said.
“Oh, you sound sick.”
“Yes, that’s it,” Pia said.
“Do you want me to get you something?”
“I’ll drop off my gift at the lobby, okay?”
“Happy birthday, baby. See you next week? I’ll drop by your office.” His voice sounded casual, like he had no intention of walking out of her life permanently. So she tried her best not to sound too disappointed. If someone were there watching her, she might have made a big show of saying it was nothing. But she just said okay, like everything was okay, the way people say okay when it’s really not okay.
Of course he didn’t drop by the office the week he said he would, or the week after that. It may not have been intentional, I told her, just a gradual forgetting that became a habit. This seemed to be the manner of telling that seemed most kind at the time, the way I might have wanted the truth about Jason told to me in lies because I would’ve waited just the same.
Sean, predictably, just stopped showing up. He didn’t call either, despite the many text messages she sent his way that did nothing to bolster her battered pride. After a few months, Pia and I slipped into the habit of going down for a snack together. Eventually, we stopped talking about Sean and, without having to say it, we avoided Ministop stores and found other places to spend our breaks.
But that evening when the guard knocked on the door carrying the brown paper bag with the name Louis Vuitton printed on it, I think Pia might’ve thought everything was indeed okay. And I thought so too when she called to tell me about his gift. She had carefully opened the soft dust bag that contained her new bag. The bag’s handles felt smooth and had a subtle new-leather smell. The body of the bag had the monogrammed canvas design she liked, sturdy enough to be impenetrable in the rain, and beautiful, she added, as she held it in her hands admiring the way the light reflected the hues of brown and yellow of the bag’s surface. It was a practical bag, a classic she could use forever.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
ANDREA PASION-FLORES was born in Manila. She is a graduate of the University of the Philippines where she received her degrees in Journalism, Law, and her MA in Creative Writing. Her fiction has appeared in the Philippine Graphic, Philippines Free Press, the UP Institute of Creative Writing’s Likhaan and Silliman University’s Sands and Coral journals. Her story collection For Love and Kisses was published by UST Publishing House, Manila, in 2014.