Chapter 1: A fine fix
It was a fine fix I was in, as Oliver might have said to Stan. I am 66 and my wife, if she had lived would be 37 today. Our marriage lasted ten years. The first nine were glorious. But cancer ravaged her that last year. We had just made the move back to her homeland, the Philippines; I had just retired from my job of the last 23 years. We had sold our home in Thousand Oaks, California for less than we had hoped to get for it ... oh if we had sold in 2007 and not 2010! But that along with a great deal more was water under the bridge, (or was it over the dam?). She, my wife, had been a stunningly lovely 27 year old, when we married. I was 56 and beating myself up for thinking I could/should marry a woman so young. I knew she would out-live me by decades. I felt as if I was a con artist and she was the mark. How could I do this to her? Still I loved her and she really did love me. That love held us tight and happy for most of a decade. And then the cruelest of God's tricks, he took her first! That should never have been. It should never have happened. It was beyond unfair.
In the years prior to my retirement, we had bought land, in her name, as I was not a citizen of the Philippines. We had built a home, a wonderful home. And now, rather than living out my retirement with the love of my life, I was inconsolably ... alone.
We had sold off everything we had in the States. There was nothing to go back to. I rambled around our house in General Santos City, without a plan, without an agenda, without companionship, and without a damned idea of what to do next. I did create a daily routine, partially just so I didn't go nuts and partially because things still needed to be done and there was no one else to do them.
Shopping for food was one of the daily things. Shopping in the Philippines is qualitatively different from going to Von's in the USA. You don't buy for the week and more at a time. You buy for the day or maybe two days at most. Fish is best when consumed the day it is caught. The fresh produce is best eaten right away. There are no preservatives coating things, no special packaging keeping triple washed salad green and good for a week.
Maybe just maybe something might be wrapped in cellophane, but mostly it wasn't wrapped in anything and you had better wash it before you ate it when you got it home because of the dirt not the chemicals. The quality of the food, with the exception of beef, was wonderful. So a trip to the market each day was the best policy. Sometimes that meant a trip to the open-air markets; sometimes it meant a trip to a supermarket. Sometimes it was a trip to both.
Bill paying also required trips. Bills had to be paid in person, not by mail or automatic debit card. I could pay the Socoteco (electric) bill at KCC mall. The PLDT phone and internet bill I paid at the PLDT office downtown, one block off Pendatun Street, right by the BDO bank and Jollibees. The water bill was paid at their office. I had to travel down Salvani Street cross the last paved road before the street becomes dirt, and then over the rutted route until it hits a paved cross street, where a right hand turn takes you to their office. Once inside, the guard gives you a number/ticket. There are rows of chairs and tellers behind cages for the average person and there is a separate window for Senior Citizens ... I qualify for that. Payment for the cable TV is at the SkyTV office on my way to two of the malls, the KCC and Gaisano. For most things, I prefer KCC but there are times when Gaisano is the better option. There is a new Robinson's mall that has opened but they seem too expensive and for some reason the place is off putting. SM is building a mall but it isn't completed yet. It will be closer to home when it is finished.
I'm rambling ... sorry. I tend to do that a lot these days. Anyway, as I was saying, I do get out of the house. It has been just forty-four days since I buried my sweet wife. We, she and I, knew that day was coming, but knowing hardly made it easy.
If you have ever been in a country with real and pervasive poverty, you have seen beggars. Such people are not unique to the Philippines. I gather it is far more of a problem in places such as India than it is here. Still you will find them. They will approach you on the street, when walking to store and even at times, when you are stuck in traffic, or parked or waiting for someone, like I used to do when waiting for my wife at the BDO office. It is mostly kids, ragamuffins, their hands out and hoping for a peso or two. If I had a peso in my pocket I would, if there were not too many of them, give a peso. If I had no pesos or there was a crowd of them, I would say, walá, which is Tagalog meaning 'nothing, ' or I don't have anything to give you. Unfortunately, many of those kids had never been to school and do not know Tagalog. I guess they might know Cebuano, but I don't know any Cebuano.
To say that these beggars are dirty is only to point out that they have no way to wash themselves. It is not a comment on their values or their standing before God or Man. The beggars in the Philippines are very dark skinned. That is not a racial matter. It is caused by the fact that they are constantly out under the sun. Caucasians tan, but Filipinos vary from a light café au lait, to dark, dark brown. Not every Filipino is as light skinned as the next one, but none are as dark by genes as a beggar appears to be. So, while the beggar is visible in a number of ways, none of the reasons are a matter of race or caste. The reasons are economic. Regardless, of the cause, they are desperate, but I cannot be every man's keeper and I can't raise every beggar up. That is the work of governments and NGOs, not a single human. And so while I might feel sorry for them, I do walk by them without stopping frequently.
I have been speaking of the past. It is my past, but not the long past. Day forty-three was yesterday. I need to talk about yesterday. I need to talk about how I got to where I am today. I need to do that because, for the life of me, I don't know what I was thinking and what the fuck I'm going to do now.
I had been to the supermarket at KCC Mall, which is either the basement or the first floor depending on your way of thinking about it I guess. Anyway, I had parked in the lower level parking facility from which I had close access to the supermarket. If you go there after 1:30PM and before 3:00PM it is generally possible to find a parking slot. Go earlier and you will be out of luck.
I picked up eggs, bread, tocino, beer (San Miguel Premium, ) fresh pork, garlic, onions, salted black beans and ampalaya. For supper I would fry up the pork, black beans and ampalaya in a light broth. Of course, it is served over rice, but I had a 20 kilo bag of rice at home.
With the groceries in the back of the Toyota Corolla Altis sedan, I traveled through the outlet drive underneath the mall, handed in my parking receipt (there is no money attached to the process but you get one when you enter and have to surrender it when you leave) and turned left onto the street as I exited.
As you do so, almost immediately you can turn left again, and drive by the front of the mall, or you can continue on and turn left at the cross street half way between KCC and Robinsons (and just shy of my car mechanic's shop). I drove to the cross street and turned left. A short hop to a light brings you to the Asian Highway where by literally going straight at the light I join the Highway going west through Gensan (General Santos City). That is my regular path to go back home. This was yesterday. It was 2:30PM and I was stopped at the light. Next to me on my left was a large delivery truck. Not a semi, but not a van either. He couldn't see me and I could only see his fender. Ahead of me were two large trucks. My windows were up and the air-conditioner was on.
I must have been in half a daze, waiting for the light and the trucks to move. There was a knock on the front passenger window. It startled me. She, it was a she, of that there was little doubt, could not have been much over 135cm (that's about 4'6" for those of us from the USA). She was beyond dirty. She was almost black. Her hair was a rat's nest. I was pretty sure the person was a 'she' for the simple reason that standing out in broad daylight on a city street, she was as naked as the day she was born. There on the other side of my window were two puffy little breasts and a completely hairless, if dirty, vagina.
It is what I did next that created the initial problem that I have been trying to cope with ever since. I took a P50 note from my billfold and put it on the dash right under the rearview mirror and then leaned over and opened the passenger door.
She looked in, warily, eying the note. I motioned for her to take it, which required her to enter the vehicle. She hesitated, as the light changed. She saw that and lunged in to the car to get the bill before I drove off. As her feet left the pavement and cleared the doorframe, I hit the accelerator, the door slammed shut behind her as I passed under the light, entering the Asian Highway. Her eyes were wild with fear. The P50 note was still on the dash. She was crouching on the floor below the dash, shaking and whimpering. Did she know Tagalog? Kalma ka! [you relax! or calm down!] I prayed she would understand. It seemed she did or maybe my harsh voice settled her down.
She was still in the foot well in front of the passenger seat as I drove on. I stopped at a street side stand selling sweet yellow mangos for P55/Kilo. I told her to stay in Tagalog and exited the car to purchased two kilos worth. Putting them in the trunk, I removed two bananas. Once back in the car as I was buckling up I handed the bananas to the girl. At first, she just looked at them, and then gently took them from me. I don't think I had gone more than 100 meters before the first one was fully consumed. The second one disappeared almost as quickly.
I turned right on Aparente Street and travelled to the Mercury Drug store. Once again I ordered her to stay before entering the store. I purchased shampoo and soap for lice, and various antibiotic formulations, plus a toothbrush, comb, hairbrush, and a bag full of chocolate bars.
I guess I was half surprised, to find the girl was still in the floor well when I reentered the car. Though I had just spent money on things for her, I was sure she would take the opportunity to run away. She had not. I handed her a chocolate bar. Her eyes widened. She looked at me real hard like. She took the bar, unwrapped it and bite by decisive bite she consumed that bar. And then, God help me, and then, she smiled. Salamat Po.
I was floored. Her very first words to me were 'Thank you, Sir' She had said Salamat Po. Now it was my turn to be stunned. It took a couple of beats before I managed to eke out, Walang anuman or 'You are welcome' and was rewarded with another smile. After the death of my wife, I had felt that I had lost every reason to smile. This girl's smile shook me to my core.
The rest of the drive home was quiet and uneventful. I pulled up at the iron gate, got out, unlocked the gate, and opened it. After driving in, I reclosed and relocked the gate. We were now safe inside the walled and gated compound of my home. As she exited the car, no one could see her save me. Grabbing the packages I walked to the front door unlocked it and motioned for the girl, to leave the car where she was standing, and follow me inside the house. She came.
The house is air conditioned, and I could immediately see that was a problem for the naked girl. Grabbing the bag of soaps and shampoos from the drug store, I took the girl's hand and brought her to the washroom. The room is only partially enclosed, and is open to outside air. It is next to the dirty kitchen and is not the regular bathroom. This is normally where the laundry is done. But it has washtubs, running water and it looked to be a good place wash the girl down. Seeing the big plastic wash tub and the soap that I pulled out of the bag, she, without prompting, took the soap from me. I started running fresh water into the tub as she squatted down next to it. She took a plastic ladle type of thing that holds better than a pint of water, and started pouring water over her body. With soap in hand, she started scrubbing herself vigorously and all over. Nothing was neglected and there was no sign of embarrassment as she washed her pubes, breasts and anus. Everything got washed right down to her feet.
I took the bottle of shampoo – that was promised to kill lice and an extra ladle. With water from the tap, I filled the ladle and poured it over her hair half a dozen times. Then applying shampoo to her head of hair, I went to work, shampooing her. She allowed me to do this, with what seemed like a little bit of a smile. I scrubbed her scalp good, hard, and long, finally rinsing her head of the soap. There was no conditioner this time, as I was warned against using it with the anti-lice medication in this shampoo. My reward was a scoop worth of fresh water dumped on my head and a giggling girl with a smile on her face.
Oh that face. Clean, a few shades lighter without all that dirt, she looked remarkably different already ... but now some real hard work was about to begin. I took the comb, prepared for an argument and maybe a few sobs as I tried to work the tangles out. But that is not what happened.
She took the comb from my hand and with great determination and patience, lasting a good 30 minutes, combed every knot out of her hair. While she attended to this, I entered the house and found one of my wife's pretty silk robes. All her clothes were still there. I had not yet built up the courage to give them away. For this girl, I chose a red and orange on white robe. It only came down mid-thigh on my wife. Once the girl put it on it came down to her knees.
Here is what I saw looking up at me. She was skinny but not scary skinny. Her face was sweet, angular with a good cheekbones and chin, neither too much, nor too little. Clear bright eyes, blemish free skin, a huge smile and she was pretty. I was dumbstruck. She giggled. She pointed to herself: Ako si Nene. Point to me she said: Ikaw? Bright eyes looking at me... Howard I said. Ako si Howard. I pointed to each of us and said Nene at Howard. Nene smiled again and said: Oo, mabuti! Nene at Howard! [Yes, good! Nene and Howard.]
Me: Kmusta ka, Nene?
Nene: Ok lang!
Nene: Talaga Sir Howard, talaga!
What had been said was, 'How are you?' She had answered, 'I am fine.' I asked, 'Really?' and she had answered, 'truly Sir Howard, truly.' For the rest of what I write here, I will write it in English for you, but we were speaking Tagalog.
Me: How old are you?
Nene: Fourteen Sir Howard. May I ask how old are you?
Me: I am sixty-six.
Nene: Wow you don't look sixty-six. You look a lot younger.
Me: Thank you Nene, that is a nice thing to say. All I can say to you is that you are pretty. It is hard for me to say if you do or do not look fourteen, but you are very pretty.
Nene: Why did you bring me here? Why have you done this?
Me: I don't know. And, in truth, I didn't have a clue why I had done it. I was stumped. Come, let's get you some more clothing to wear and then I will make some supper for us.
I had also snagged a pair of my wife's slippers, we call them flip-flops, and placed them at the girl's feet. She slipped them on and followed me into the house and the master bedroom.
When she saw my wife's clothing, Nene froze. Who is she? Where is she? Will she be angry I wear her things? I am scared to wear another person's clothing!
I just slumped down on the bed in our bedroom where we were standing. The air had been taken from me. It is my wife's Nene. My wife's. She died last month. She is dead, Nene. No one will be angry with you. I had not the courage to give these things away. I was not ready to say goodbye to my wife, who I love so much. These are hers and you may wear them, as I am sure she will not mind.
Nene sat down on the bed next to me, put an arm around me: It's OK Howard, don't cry. I am sure she loved you too.