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Fiction, Short Fiction
I hid the bottle of pesto behind bottles of water when he told me he was coming over. It was my best batch to date. Made from a combination of Bagiuo, Italian and Thai basil, carefully removed from their stems, slightly-grilled, and hand-shredded. Extra virgin olive oil from Italy, roasted peppers from Tagaytay, organic garlic from the health store, sun-dried tomatoes from my mother's garden in Tagaytay.
I lit parafin lamps to absorb the smell from my kitchen, wiped the counters, washed the utensils, took out the garbage. I knew that if he saw one little sign that I had been cooking, he would ask to be fed.
And I wouldn't be able to say no.
I opened a bottle of wine so I wouldn't feel too guilty.
When he arrived, he smelled of cologne. He was wearing a new black shirt, a clean pair of jeans and newly-shined shoes. Somewhere in Manila, some woman was making herself extra pretty for a night out with him.
"So, have you been to that new bar in Libis?" he asked, when I opened the door.
"The one with the African theme?"
"Yeah. I heard it's pretty good. Is it? You know more about these things than I do." He looks around the small apartment. I fight the urge to run to the fridge and guard it, bodily.
"It's ok. It could've done without the African theme though. Most of the stuff they have's not even authentic African. The food is good though. Not African but not bad either. And yeah, the beer is pretty cheap." I was there several nights ago with some guy from work. I think it was a date.
"Lots of drums and Youssou N'Dour singing. I think I heard them play Gloria Gossman that night I was there. It's a nice date place. It's not so noisy so you can actually hold a decent conversation with your date." I hand him a glass of red wine and bite my tongue against adding that decent conversations were never really a dating requirement as far as he was concerned.
"Date? Who said anything about a date?"
"The cologne you're wearing did. Not to mention your clothes. I swear, you could cut yourself with those perfect creases in your jeans."
"Fine, fine. Is it too much?"
"No. It's fine."
I lead him to the sofa before he starts rummaging through my fridge - something he almost always ends up doing. I get a stack of CDs for him to choose from to keep him busy.
"So what brings you here? You wanted validation that you look good enough for a date?"
"I'm kind of nervous about this date."
Mental sigh. "Why?"
"It's with this girl I really, really like. She's perfect. From work. It took me months to work up the nerve to ask her out, and I really, really want to make a good impression." He takes a big swallow of the wine.
"Well picking her up drunk may not be the best way to make a good impression, you know."
"You're right. Do you have coffee?"
"So you'll be more nervous? I don't think so."
"You're right. Water. I'll settle for water." He makes a move to go to the kitchen to get himself a glass of water.
"NO! Uhhh... I'll get you your water. You just sit here and look pretty, ok?"
Portishead's Sour Times was playing on my CD player by the time I brought him his water. Damn. He wasn't leaving soon. He always finishes that album.
"What time do you have to pick her up?"
"In an hour and 20 minutes."
"So you're going to that bar?"
"I think so. She might like it. You know what? I think you just might like her. She's not like my other girlfriends."
"That's good. It means you're growing up."
"No, seriously. She reminds me a bit of you... You know, smart and all that."
Mental snort. "That's nice. It means you really are growing up. What are her vital statistics?"
He shoots me a withering look and makes a face. "It's not like that. I told you, I like her because she's smart and funny."
"Yeah, yeah. Vital statistics? Is she tall? Voluptous? Model-thin?"
"I rest my case."
"You know, you could be a real bitch sometimes."
"So what do the two of you have in common?"
"I don't know yet. That's what tonight is for. To see what we have in common."
"No. Tonight is for you decide if she has enough for you to go on. Tonight is for you to see her up close and check out if her looks are worth another date with her. Tonight is for you to find out how long 'til you're going to score with her. Tonight is for you to find out if she fits your girlfriend mould. Tonight is definitely not about finding out what you have in common. That's beside the point."
"Who died and made you a bitter old hag?"
"Ha! Resorting to name-calling so soon? How typical."
This could go on all night. If he didn't have a date with Ms Perfect, it probably would have. We've been through this before. He'd come over with news about his latest romantic interest, he'd try to prove that she's different from the others, I always end up proving that he's wrong. Not that it ever amounted to anything. It never did stop him from dating women who were carbon copies of each other: nice, sweet, pretty girls he could bring home to mom -- or be happy to take to the newest bar.
In a perfect world, this stupid cycle would've stopped a long time ago. In a perfect world, he would not have a parade of beautiful girls. In a perfect world, two people who had so much in common would end up together. In a perfect world, all those nights, those years, spent talking about Murakami, the solution to the Third World debt, Morcheeba, and deconstructing social binaries would have been enough. In a perfect world, something inside his brain would shift and I, in my oldest sweatpants and t-shirt, would suddenly be the Ms Perfect.
But it's not.
Thirty more minutes before he has to leave and pick-up Candidate Number Who-Knows-What. I pour myself another glass of wine, light a cigarette and think about whether to use spaghettini or fusilli with the bottle of pesto in the fridge.
I was on my fifth round of beer when he entered the bar. He sees me upon entering, flashes a big smile, and points me to the woman he's with. She looks at me and smiles. They make their way to my table.
"Hey, these seats taken? Can we join you?"
Before I could answer, he pulls out a chair for her and they seat themselves. He makes introductions and she keeps smiling at me. A genuine smile. A smile of relief, I believe. No doubt about it, she's heard of me from him, and was probably imagining all sorts of wonderful things about me. Now that I'm right in front of her, she realises that I'm not what she imagined me to be. I am one of those women who always put other women at ease. Not because I'm extra nice or anything like that. I have a non-threatening look and feel about me, I guess. I'm not a threat. I'm not competition.
I really should be happy about that.
"Long time no see. Where've you been hiding?" he asks.
"Same old places, I guess."
"You with anyone tonight?"
"I was, but not anymore."
"Did he get too fresh and you grabbed his balls until he turned blue?"
"I think I bored him to death."
"So what excuse did he use for leaving?"
"I think he had one of his friends call up his cell to tell him that there's a family emergency or something like that. Oh well."
"And you're not upset?" Finally. The woman speaks.
"One gets used to it."
"But that's insulting! If I were in your shoes, I'd be horrified and I would make sure that man never gets another decent date in Manila ever again."
"Well, I was kind of relieved to have him leave. If his friend didn't call up, I would have gladly called him up and told him he had a family emergency and he had to go home right away."
He laughs out loud and shakes his head. "You're amazing. I swear, you don't let anything get to you." He turns to her. "Didn't I tell you she's got a block of ice where her heart should be?"
It must have been the beer I was drinking but for some reason that hurt. A lot.
"Don't be mean. I'm pretty sure she's upset about the whole thing. All this nonchalance is just some sort of defence mechanism."
Jesus Christ. He's dating a girl who reads self-help books. He steps on my foot hard, glaring at me to keep my mouth shut. I ignore him.
"You took up Psychology in college?"
"I took some courses. But my degree's in management."
"You read Ivannah Savant?"
"Yes! She's the best. I have all of her books."
"Vincent Peale as well, huh? And Everything I Needed to Learn I Learned in Kindergarten."
"Yes, but I liked Life 101 better."
He kicks me under the table and glares at me again. I shut my mouth. I rest my case.
A block of ice where her heart should be.
After the beer wore off, that stuck. And still stung.
I could've brushed it aside with some intelligent reasoning I'm sure my brain could've supplied. I could've let it roll off my back. It wasn't the worst thing anyone has ever said of me. It wasn't even the worst thing he has ever said about me. But I genuinely felt bad about my behaviour that night. I wasn't very fair to her. Sure, I was polite and friendly, but in my head, I judged her. I judged her in the same way she judged me. She saw me as non-competition. I saw her as fluff. At least her judgement was true. Harsh, but true.
I watched Carrie three times then I invited the two of them over for dinner.
This time, I will behave myself and be nice - even if it kills me.
I called up Gerry, a guy from work I was semi-dating, to join us for dinner. He was nice enough and could do small talk for hours. The way I saw it, if there were only three of us at dinner, one would feel left out. She would be left out if the two of us got into one of our discussions; I would be left out if she and him started cooing at each other. Gerry was necessary. And he never turned down free food.
I thanked her for the cake she brought.
I gave her a quick tour of my small apartment.
I showed her my CD collection and asked her to be in-charge of the music for the night.
So far, so good.
I asked the men to set the table while I organised the food: a cheese platter, rustic bread, seafood risotto, baked chicken breasts marinated in lemon and wasabi, and the cake she brought.
He comes up behind me as I was putting the chicken on the table. "Thanks for this. I really appreciate it. I want the two of you to get along."
"Don't mention it. You know how much I love having new guinea pigs for my recipes."
He looks at me strangely for a moment. I flash him a big smile and head back to the kitchen to get the cake.
"Did you make all this?" she said when she saw the spread.
"Risotto is pretty hard to make, isn't it. Of course, I don't even know how to cook steamed rice."
"Well it's taken me a bit to get the risotto thingie mastered. I swear, the rice I've wasted in the effort could've fed a small Third World country."
"Oh no. No mention of the Third World during dinner. Let's not get into that." That was Gerry.
"Ummm... newsflash, Gerry, we are in the Third World." that was him. He looks at me and rolls his eyes.
I turn to her and ask her about the blouse she's wearing. She tells me she bought it on sale at Theme. I say wow how lucky of her and tell her that I'm pretty horrid at shopping. She laughs and offers to take me shopping sometime. I laugh and give a non-answer.
During dinner, I actually managed to find something to two of us could talk about that didn't make me want to break out into hysterical laughter: travelling.
"The only thing I hate about going to different places is flying. I hate flying." she said.
"Oh, I love flying. I love how everything has been prepared for you by someone else. They make you sit in one place, herd you through transits, feed you at proper times, make you watch films, shut the lights off to hint that it's time to sleep. It's like being a baby all over again. To me, it's like the only responsibility you have when you're flying is to get where you're going to - and even that is beyond your control."
"Hmm... that's an interesting way of putting it. I think it's because you've got so many responsibilities in your life that you welcome having someone else at the helm - literally."
I let that psychobabble pass and ask her if she's ever been to Chatuchak in Bangkok.
Gerry was wonderful. He butted in when there were lulls in the conversation, buying me time to think of things we could talk about: movies, new places to dine-in in the city, her work, the best Erap jokes, skin and hair care. By the time the cake was served, I was a pro at small talk, she was at ease, Gerry was in his element, and he was looking at me strangely and wasn't bothering to hide it.
"What?" I asked him while we were doing the dishes. We drew lots and the two of us ended up having to do dishes while she and Gerry hung out in the living room.
"What the hell is wrong with you?"
"What the fuck are you talking about?"
"Did someone reboot your operating system and forget to install your old applications?"
"Did someone programme you to make lame computer jokes?"
"What gives? You've not been yourself."
"Oh. You mean my block-of-ice-where-her-heart-should-be self?"
"You know I didn't mean that."
I didn't bother to reply.
"What's up with Gerry? Are the two of you serious?"
"When am I ever serious?"
"So basically, it means you're just sleeping with him."
"Basically, it means it's none of your business."
I hand him the last dish to dry and head to the living room for more small talk.
They didn't stay long after coffee. Gerry had plans to meet up with some friends. He herded her out as soon as he finished his cigarette.
She gave me a warm hug and an air-kiss before leaving. "Dinner was wonderful. Thank you so much for inviting us over. One of these days, let's have dinner at my place,ok?'
"Sure, let me know when."
I was planning to be very busy when that time comes. Don't get me wrong. I had a good time and I particularly loved myself more for making this effort to be nice to her, but I really don't think I could handle dinners like this on a regular basis. I don't want to set a pattern here. All I wanted was to make up for my horrible behaviour the other night. I've accomplished that quite well, I think. And I should leave it at that.
This dinner ensured that I have a seat at their wedding and that I will be the god-mother of their first-born. Of course, I plan to be very busy when those days come too.
It's four in the morning and someone is ringing my bell.
"Will I ever find out if you have been possessed by some stranger?" he said when I opened the door.
"Will you ever stop assuming that I would be home - or alone at four in the morning?"
"You're always alone at four in the morning and home too, unless you're out of the country."
"I'd love to see your face when you come over at this ungodly hour one of these days and the door is opened by a naked guy."
"Ha! Are you planning to move to another place?"
I head for the kitchen and start a pot of coffee.
"And you're here because...?"
"I couldn't sleep. I want to know what happened during dinner."
"Nothing happened during dinner."
"Something did. You weren't yourself."
"Meaning, I behaved like a decent human being. News flash. I am a decent human being."
"I never said you weren't."
"If you don't think I'm a decent human being, then why can't you believe that dinner happened without any glitches?"
"Remember the first time I introduced you to a girlfriend of mine? When you ended up making her cry for being so shallow and she ended up dumping me?"
"Like you would ever let me live that down. We were 15 at that time! Get over it. Besides, she was shallow - and a wimp, too, if I could get her to cry in less than two hours."
"You've never been this way to any of the women I've dated. I mean, ever since I stopped introducing you to them. To be honest, I wasn't sure I was going to introduce you to her until we ran into you at that bar and the decision was out of my hands."
"Geez. Thanks. Now I know who to turn to if I want a self-affirming, feel-good assessment of my character."
"I'm sorry. I keep saying the wrong things, don't I?"
"Oh well. One gets used to it. You've never said the right thing, ever."
"I'm just trying to figure out why you're suddenly nice to a girlfriend of mine? Nice is an understatement here... The dinner, the tolerance for small talk I know you hate. What gives?"
I shrug. "Maybe I'm just tired of being the anti-hero in the story. Maybe I'm tired of being called a bitter old hag. Maybe I'm tired of being told I have a block of ice where her heart should be. Maybe I'm tired of playing the big, bad best friend to your sweet, nice girlfriends."
He looks at me for a full five seconds, really looks at me. Then he lights a cigarette. "I have got to be one of the stupidest men on earth."
I light a cigarette. "I won't argue with that."
"Why didn't you tell me?"
"There were only two scenarios that come to mind whenever I think about the time when you find out. Scenario Number One has you gently but firmly telling me that it could never work. That I wasn't good enough, pretty enough, girlfriend material enough. Scenario Number Two has you reciprocating the feelings out of charity, out of friendship, out of guilt, out of pity, out of a genuine concern for my well-being. Both scenarios hold very little appeal to me."
"And it never occurred to you that I might actually feel the same way?"
"If you felt the same way, you would have said so a long time ago. You've never hesitated about these matters before."
"If it meant a lot to me, I might have hesitated."
"So what are you saying? That you feel the same way but were too afraid to blurt it out because it mattered too much to you?"
"Bullshit. This is Scenario Number Two, I believe. Thank you for your kindness." I head for the door and open it.
He takes the hint and heads outside. "So what happens now?"
"Nothing. This is nothing new to me. I've had years to deal with it. I know I won't be getting the perfect ending. Some days, there's nothing more I want than that. Some days, it stings more than others. But one does get used to it."
"You know what's tragic? You've made your decision even before you saw how I would react. You've decided that I could not possibly love you that way and that even if I told you now that I love you, you would assume that I was doing it out of friendship, guilt and kindness. You will never know if I meant it."
"I can live with that."