by Claire Betita de Guzman
Her father was dead, but people were laughing at the wake. Laughter was what she first heard when they pulled up that morning in front of the salmon-colored gate: staccato bursts of it rising above the muffled roll of mahjong tiles. It sounded more like an afternoon party, and at first, Carmen wasn’t sure they’d come to the right place: the gate was wide open, the red santan flowers by the driveway were in full bloom, and there was a terrace spilling with people.
But her mother was already alighting from the car with purpose, pausing just outside to root into her bag for the pink mirrored compact she always carried. It was the third instance she’d fished it out since leaving their house, and this time, as she reached for the compact, her dark glasses came tumbling out of her cream satchel causing a thin clatter on the cracked pavement.
“Putres,” her mother muttered, but made no move to pick up the errant shades. Instead, Carmen watched as she flicked open the compact and frowned at her tiny reflection.
She often heard her mother curse like this when she was stressed. When she had a fussy client or was late or when their Honda CR-V wouldn’t start. It felt more like an utterance of betrayal than anger, all that venom and frustration packed into a two-syllable word, her mother sounding as if the very air she was breathing had somehow maltreated her. “Putres,” Carmen knew, was short for “putang ina,” another bad word but one that provided less cause for alarm. It sounded like her thing, the one down there, though she suspected it really meant something else. Her mother used putang ina easily and more often—usually with a resigned sigh or a bitter laugh—during smaller catastrophes.
Carmen shoved her soft, yellow-haired doll under one armpit and bent down to retrieve the black plastic, pausing to check if the greenish lenses had cracked (they hadn’t). For a split-second, she considered propping the sunglasses on the doll, which she’d named Greta. Her mother rarely wore sunglasses, but she did today, sniffling and crying behind the wheel like a broken gangster as they inched through the traffic-clogged lanes of Manila’s South Super Highway.
Carmen knew this pair of shades had come from the bottom of a drawer in her mother’s desk, the ones with the smudged Hallmark cards and faded photos of her father. She’d done the requisite excavations, on the long afternoons that her mother was out, when Nani, her babysitter, thought she was napping. Her favorite was the tattered-edged photo where her father looked like a farmer, wearing a floppy straw hat and smiling as if it was the very first time he was getting his picture taken.
“Thanks, sweetheart. Give me that.” The spindly glasses were swept off her palms, replaced by the clamminess of her mother’s hand, as Carmen heard another fierce sniffle.
She looked up just in time to see her mother lifting her chin, sweeping the stray hairs from her face. Her nose, Carmen, noted with dismay, was still a mottled reddish-pink despite the powder she’d patted on from that compact, twice—first before they left the house, and second, just after they’d parallel-parked on the sidewalk across from the open gate. Carmen wanted to tell her that her eyes were swollen and that her face looked fat, like when she’d slept too much or too little, or drank too much beer.
Maybe she should. “Ma?”
“What, Carmen?” Her mother tightened her grip, just a tad. “What is it?”
“Your nose, your—”
“Not now.” She gave Carmen’s hand a sharp pull. Her mother sounded like she had a bad cold and was pissed about it.
To her relief, no one paid attention when they walked, hand in hand, through the gate. And once they went past the thick, decorative cement railing that separated the terrace from the front garden, Carmen realized she’d been too hasty: not everybody was laughing. There was a row of forlorn-faced aunties on one side, looking like dark Virgin Marys as they sat swathed in black tunics, heads draped in inky shawls and clutching rosaries with bony hands. Teenagers in white were solemnly ferrying trays of empty cups and dishes through a side door. Carmen spied a toddler whimpering in a corner, buttons of her overalls undone, snot dripping from her nose. At the far end where the terrace ended, a circle of men in singlets and slippers took discreet swigs from amber-colored bottles and threw them curious glances. They were perched nimbly on green, upturned plastic beer cases; San Miguel Brewery, Carmen read in upside-down, fancy lettering that looked like it was made for kings.
The laughter, she realized, was coming from a group of four playing mahjong in the middle of the terrace. They were seated around a square table, peering with gleeful focus into the tidy row of white and green tiles set in front of each of them.
“Pong!” a man in a brown fedora cried, to the amused chuckles of the crowd behind him.
“Todas!” A leathery-skinned woman declared, beaming as she toppled her line of tiles in one swift, clean motion—the grand reveal of her triumph. Several people cheered and Carmen felt an excited ripple run through the small crowd that had gathered behind her. The woman laughed as she collected coins and crumpled bills.
Carmen knew this game; it was one of her father’s favorites. He had a mahjong set stashed in a cabinet in her mother’s living room, packed neatly in a slim, faux-leather box. She’d once taken out the smooth, rectangular tiles and built herself a miniature fortress on the floor. Carmen suddenly wanted to pee.
“That’s her! The querida.”
It wasn’t a shout, but it was louder than a whisper and she felt her mother give a start. Carmen whirled to see who had said it, bumping into the jean-clad butt of someone who’d moved away too quickly. And what was it that he (she?) just said?
Her eyes fell on a teenage girl leaning languidly against the frame of an open doorway, the one that led to the house. A girl older and taller than Carmen, ethereal in pink and white, with hair that settled in graceful waves on her shoulders and a smile that was pretty and familiar, and not really that friendly. Still, Carmen couldn’t help thinking that she’d always wanted hair like that, though her mother insisted on an austere bob for her every time. Carmen, too, would have wanted to wear the same clean-cut white shorts and baby-pink tee, a sparkly scrunchie on one wrist like a fancy, outrageous bracelet. She watched as the girl turned on her heel and went into the house, leaving Carmen with a view of what was inside: a room full of flowers, bright bulbous lamps on tall stands, a white casket. Her father.
The bodies seemed to have stopped moving, replaced by curious faces only starting to realize that there were strangers in their midst. Voices, outraged and accusing, seemed to jump out from the crowd.
“I can’t believe she actually would—”
“It really is her, the querida—his mistress, right here! The gall!”
“Where’s Norma? Still in her room? Somebody fetch her, for god’s sakes.”
She had seen her father just last week. Her mother had organized a birthday party in their garage, and Carmen was thrilled she’d been commissioned to help in transforming the grey, stuffy space into a rainbow wonderland of crepe paper, balloons, and a streamer that said “Happy 7th Birthday, Carmen!” Her mother’s white CR-V had been relegated to the sidewalk.
Neatly laid-out on two Monobloc tables was a glistening chocolate cake, stacks of tuna sandwiches on colored bread, and tubs of spaghetti laced with condensed milk, just how Carmen liked it. Bright-red hotdogs were skewered on sticks with pastel marshmallows and hefty cubes of cheese. Her mother insisted they all be stuck to a pineapple, and though Carmen had protested, she had to admit that it turned out looking like a big, sassy flower. She couldn’t wait to attack the donkey piñata her mother had ordered online.
Her father had arrived late and had stayed until the last kid was cajoled into going home. He avoided the hotdogs but kept going back to the fridge to fetch a can from the six-pack of San Miguel her mother had stored there.
“The last one,” he kept saying, with a conspiratorial grin and a finger to his lips, on the two times that Carmen had trailed after him.
She understood. This was her father: quiet, affable, very much a possessor of secrets. But he’d come that day wheeling a brand-new bike, bubblegum-pink with white wheels and a nifty basket at the handlebars.
“You like your birthday gift?” He asked her now, looking out to the garage where her mother had gone to deliver another tower of sandwiches, before swiping another beer—his third one, Carmen noted—from the cool confines of the fridge.
Carmen giggled. “I love it, Dad.”
“Shh, okay?” Another exaggerated finger-to-lips motion. He tipped the can towards her, a surreptitious toast.
Carmen smiled. Of course. The real gift, she knew, was this latest secret. The most precious one for this year’s birthday, because it was theirs.
He was found in the bathroom, slumped on the floor with drool at the sides of his mouth, his head limp against the toilet paper holder. That was what Carmen overheard her mother telling their neighbor, Mrs. Ong, at six the next morning when she’d woken up to the sounds of teaspoons clinking against coffee cups. Mrs. Ong was sixty-five, a retired teacher who took early morning walks in her slippers and floral duster, and who stopped by on Saturdays when she knew that Carmen’s mother was home. But today was a Thursday and still, she had come.
Norma wasn’t even there, Carmen heard her mother say from the kitchen, her voice low, almost bitter. Norma was out when it happened, having merienda with the neighbors. She just couldn’t live without her afternoon snack, could she?
Her mother sounded once more like she was having the worst cold of her life. Carmen pulled the comforter over her head, wanting to block out the sliver of yellow light slipping through a crack in the bedroom door that her mother must have left ajar. But there were chairs scraping against the floor, water running in the sink. And there was no sound from the normally gregarious Mrs. Ong, which alarmed her.
“We were asked to leave,” she heard her mother say. “They were…not unkind. But we were—they said it would…upset Norma. We were there for less than ten minutes.”
The wake. They were talking about the wake. The wake-party.
“…his daughter.” Her mother again, and Carmen strained to make out the words. They were talking about her.
“I don’t how she’ll cope.” A catch in her mother’s voice. “To lose her father…” Carmen heard her choke back a sob.
Carmen closed her eyes. For a moment, she almost forgot what had happened yesterday at the wake. How helpless she had felt, how weak and exposed and how she’d started to feel a dull, empty ache inside her that even she couldn’t explain. But right now, her heart went out to her mother. Her mother was thinking of her—Carmen—worried, fretting, crying and anxious. She laid back on the pillows and let out a breath, attempted a little prayer: Please, God, help my mom feel better.
Mrs. Ong was finally mumbling something.
“But she was smiling,” her mother was saying now, sounding composed once again. Recovered, wiping off her tears. “All grown-up.”
Carmen opened her eyes.
“She cried.” Her mother’s voice turned brisk and matter-of-fact. “Bawled right there, in full view of everyone. She must have seen the old ladies, weeping into their handkerchiefs.”
Audrey. That was her name. The smiling girl, standing by the door. The “daughter” her mother was talking about. The daughter of her father, and now Carmen understood why she’d looked familiar. After she’d gone, Carmen was seized by a sudden squeezing in her chest, as if a hand were stuffing it with something thick, white-hot and persistent, and so she had cried. Burst into tears in the middle of that crowded terrace—crying for what, she still didn’t know—until her mother grabbed her and dragged her out through the gate, all the while muttering, “putres, putres.”
Carmen found herself unable to go back to sleep. She didn’t want to think of Audrey, smiling—and of herself, crying. She didn’t want to think of how her mother had scolded her inside the car, her nose turning a more sinister shade of red, her eyes running so black it looked like those of an unhappy, raging raccoon’s, the very ones she despised in her cartoons.
Instead, she thought of her father. She imagined him strong and robust, crumpling and curling softly on the wet, tiled floor, as if it were a soft bed that had become too irresistible. She pictured the mysterious Norma—the one everyone was talking about in that house with the salmon-colored gate, as if it had been her wake—seated at some neighbor’s airy terrace, just like her own, drinking hot chocolate from a mug and cutting a sticky suman into two. She imagined this Norma dipping a bite-size piece in sugar, offering an ebullient take on a morsel of neighborly gossip, before popping the sweetened rice ball into her mouth, all as her father decided to sleep forever on the bathroom floor.