Angels Weep at Noon
"Mommy, mommy, mooommmy, stooorrry!"
I blink and tear my eyes from the rivulets running down the windowpane.
"Sorry, darling. Once upon a time there was a Queen who had a beautiful baby daughter…"
* * *
It was cold and wet, drumming, tearing wet. Typical mid-July weather in Manila. Rain falling with a vengeance, thick heavy sheets slashing every tree, jeepney and building. I held my shoes in one hand, the other bunching up my skirt to keep it out of the swirling water around my knees. I touched the sidewalk with my toes, feeling for open manholes, and made sure of firm cement before putting my foot down.
Men tied the corners of their handkerchiefs around their heads, rolled up their pants and bent their heads to the wind. Students from the nearby university hugged their books and sloshed from one store awning to another. Street vendors hurriedly pushed their wooden carts loaded with boiled peanuts, fried banana rolls, barbecued chicken feet out of the rain, wiping the drops off their hair, arms and hands with a grimy face towel once they had found shelter. Three girls held hands, counted 1-2-3 after each step and laughed with their faces to the sky. Cars and jeepneys stalled, half-drowned on Taft Avenue. Teenage boys pushed what cars still ran across the flooded street, the drivers only too happy to part with a few pesos to be able to go on their way. Children frolicked in the rain, throwing empty plastic bags, watching them ballooning up, then sinking, a glimmer of pink, blue or yellow.
I turned my head and the window of a blue Mitsubishi Pajero slid down.
"Get in. I’ll take you home," Peter Beresford yelled through the window. He was an American consultant, spending three months overhauling the computer accounting program for the bank. His cubicle was beside mine. He was into his second week.
He leaned over and opened the passenger door.
I clambered in, dropped the shoes and pulled the skirt over my knees.
"Thanks. I live quite a ways from here though, in Makati. If you can drop me off somewhere along EDSA, I can take a jeepney from there. It’s only this bit that gets flooded."
"I live in Makati, too. Just tell me where to turn from EDSA."
He turned on the CD player and I heard the first yearning notes of a trumpet.
My shoulder-length hair was plastered to my scalp and my white blouse was soaked.
"Here, my gym bag’s in the back seat. Grab the towel and wrap it around you. Sorry, I can’t turn off the air-conditioning; the windshield will fog up."
I leaned over, unzipped the bag and took out a blue towel. It smelt of Eau Sauvage.
I rubbed my hair with the towel and said, "Stardust. Wynton Marsalis. My favorite." I looked at the CD jacket. "I love this album. But I stopped buying after this one. I don’t like his new stuff."
"Why not? Artists evolve. They take us on to new things."
"That’s just the problem. Their single makes it to the top, they make an album, then they decide to experiment. We like what we’ve got. So, stick with it."
"Ligaya, we’d still be lighting lamps if we followed your logic."
"That’s what I mean. We weren’t happy with lighting lamps, so we moved on to electricity but then we progressed, if you can call it that, to nuclear energy. Why can’t we leave well enough alone?"
"Other people like Wynton’s sound now."
"Who? You? "
"What’s that supposed to mean?" He turned and raised an eyebrow at me.
"Hey!" I stuck my hands out in front of me, shrugged and smiled.
He concentrated on the road. I looked at his fingers on the steering wheel, long and tapered, almost like a woman’s. His black hair curled around his small ears, and the round gold-rimmed glasses perched on a nose any Filipino would have given his soul for. His chin was square, his lips full.
The girls at the bank followed him with their eyes, whispered about him during coffee breaks and grabbed every opportunity to pass by his desk.
"Ang guapo ni Mr Blue eyes! You’re so lucky, Ligaya."
Everyone envied me.
"Turn right here. Then at Berting’s Sari-Sari Store turn left."
"What’s a sari-sari store anyway?"
"It’s where you can buy a cup of soy sauce, a stick of Marlboro, a packet of shampoo, a pencil, three beers, whatever. Handy. Nothing like that in the States."
"No, nothing like that."
The rain was thudding on the roof. I could hardly hear the trumpet.
"It rains like this till August?"
"September, sometimes October."
He shook his head. "Such violent extremes, such lightning changes. Sun, then all of a sudden, pouring rain. I’ve never seen anything like it. This must have been the kind of rain God sent on Noah."
"But doesn’t it make you grateful for rainbows? And what I love most is when the sun shines while it’s still raining. My mom used to call me to the window and say, ‘See, Ligaya. Angels weeping.’"
"But angels don’t cry, do they? They just play harps on their clouds or something, right?"
We looked at each other and burst out laughing.
"Here we are," I said through the laughter, "turn right at the Shell station and a few more blocks and the black gate, that’s it. Thanks, Peter. See you tomorrow. I’ll wash the towel and get it back to you."
"No, I’ll take care of it."
I put the towel on the seat, rummaged in my shoulder bag for my keys and waved good-bye. Home at last. It was small but it was mine. Everything was wood and rattan and batik. I locked the door and looked through my CDs.
"Play it again, Wynton."
I slow-danced to the bathroom and followed Stardust in my head while I showered and when I stepped out and could finally hear, I was just behind him a few bars. Not bad. One day, I’ll get it right.
The next day the sun shone brilliant; angels wept; then rain pummeled the city at dusk.
Peter and I worked until six, then he said, "Come on, I’ll drop you off."
He put Stardust on again, winking. "For the diehards."
"Thanks," I said sarcastically.
One night I said, "Want to come in? I’ve only got leftovers."
He grinned and parked the car.
"Coke? Beer? Gin and tonic? I make a mean one."
"OK, let’s try it."
He sipped and said, "Aaah! That hits the spot."
"May I?" as he stretched his long legs and leaned back on the couch.
“Ligaya, what does it mean?”
“My name? Happiness, joy. My mom was optimistic. She didn’t know what a handful I’d be.”
"You live alone? Not even a maid? That’s unusual for here, isn’t it?"
"Yes. My parents raised hell about me wanting my own place, but once I earned enough, what could they do? And I don’t need a maid. Someone does the housework twice a week and someone else comes and cooks over the weekend, enough dishes for the week. I just take what I need from the freezer. So, ready to try some home-cooked Filipino food?"
I smiled and stepped over his legs. I got the adobong baboy and the stir-fried cabbage from the fridge and put them in the microwave. I put the leftover rice in the steamer and turned the stove on.
He stood up. "Set the table?"
"Spoons and forks right hand drawer. Glasses up there." I pointed with my lips.
He laughed. "Is that a Filipino thing? I get directions with a jerk of the head, a moue. People greet me by raising their eyebrows."
"Hey, who needs words?" I jerked my head for him to sit. He laughed again and pulled out a chair.
“Mmmm, what’s this? I like it.”
“It’s pork marinated and stewed in soy sauce, vinegar and lots of garlic. Some people say it’s our national dish. I call it my no-fail dish. It never fails to please, especially first-time foreigners.”
He laughed. An open-throated laugh.
It became a regular thing. Drive and dinner. And Wynton’s trumpet.
"Ligaya, I need a new suit. Can you help me pick one out? Then we can have Italian at my place afterwards."
"You can cook?"
"Man of many talents. Try me," and he gave me a mock bow.
We headed off to Makati and the boutiques. The first one didn’t have his size; the second one was too conservative; the third one had a grey silk Armani. He went to the fitting room. "Ligaya, come see!"
I pushed open the black velvet curtain that led to the fitting room and saw myself walking towards him in the mirror. The room shrank to two pairs of eyes in the glass.
Then softly, "Perfect match, don’t you think?"
I was drowning in blue.
"Is it OK, sir?" The salesgirl called from behind the curtain.
Holding my gaze, he said, "Just what I’ve been looking for."
He paid and we ran to the car. It was raining again. He unlocked the door and helped me in. He got in, turned the key in the ignition and looked at me. I stared straight ahead. He sighed and put the car into gear.
He lived in one of the new expensive condominiums. His flat was on the 15th floor. Marble floors, leather couch, lamps on tables. Browns and deep oranges. Behind me, I heard ice clinking into glass. Felt eyes warm on my back. Too warm. I grabbed my shoulder bag from the couch and turned, back to the door, back to where I had come from.
"Ligaya, please." He was still. Everything was still. "Stay," a whisper.
I had not looked at him since the eyes in the mirror.
I held my bag tight against my side, my other arm across my chest, holding on to the strap.
"I make a mean gin and tonic."
I let go of the strap and the bag fell. I huddled on the edge of the couch. Feet, hands and knees pressed together, I stared at the mud on the toe of my right shoe. The sibilant hiss of a CD, soft yearning notes. He placed his hands on my rigid shoulders and gently pushed them back against the soft leather. I closed my eyes and his fingers combed my hair. A long time. Then I felt his weight next to me. He placed my hand in the palm of his and a finger caressed the base of my wrist to the tip of each finger. I opened my eyes.
"Sssh. I know. I’ll be gentle."
And he was, infinitely so.
In the shower, I told him to sing Stardust in his head and we would see who could follow Wynton closest.
"Shoot! I was in daa", humming high, "and he was already in daaaa," humming low. "Will I ever get it right?" I looked up. "And you?"
He shook his head, ruffled my hair and said, "Child and woman, and all mine."
I felt the heat on my cheeks, remembering. I buried my face in the towel.
He laughed and hugged me.
The days were too long, the nights too short. Time was running out. One more week. Then the day came. His flight was at noon.
I stared at the clock in my living room. As the hands marched to 12, I looked out the window. The angels wept.
* * *
"… and they lived happily ever after." I closed the storybook.
She snuggles down contentedly, yawning.
I smile, tuck her in and kiss her blue eyes shut.
All mine. And only mine.