This won 3rd prize, Essay in English, Don Carlos Palanca Memorial Awards for Literature 2008
“I looked at Maria and she was lovely. She was tall…and in the darkened hall the fragrance of her was like a morning when papayas are in bloom.”
On our first Valentine as a couple, he gave me a bowl of white nondescript flowers. They had a distinctly sweet but faint scent. I had never been a fan of Valentine’s Day nor of love like a red, red rose; but that day, I became a believer. He told me they were papaya blossoms from his mother’s garden. At that moment, I knew I would one day marry him. We had started dating only three months ago, but I knew I would be Maria to his Leon. Why, he even had a younger brother the same age as Baldo! And even though they didn’t live in Nagrebcan nor owned a carabao, the town of Itogon, Benguet was remote enough for me. I have always enjoyed teaching the Arguilla story for its subversive take on the role that one’s family plays in a marriage; but having been born and raised in Pasay City, I had no idea what papaya blossoms smelled like. I imagined that my new boyfriend had read the story in his Philippine literature class and meant for me to recognize his gift as an allusion. In fact, I imagined we would defy societal norms and prove that love conquers all. Instead of a “theme song,” our relationship had a story to live up to. It was a disaster waiting to happen.
In the story, Leon brings his city-girl wife, Maria, home to meet his parents for the first time. His surly father orchestrates several tests of Maria’s suitability through Leon’s younger brother Baldo, who is quickly won over by her papaya blossom scent.
The first time I met his parents was on the wedding day of his eldest brother. By then, we had been seeing each other discreetly for seven months, somehow knowing that no one would approve of our relationship. In the midst of the beating of gongs and best wishes, his Kankanaey father only wanted to know two things about me: where I was from and what language I spoke. I gave the wrong answer on both points. I was a Manileña and I couldn’t speak Ilocano yet, having only recently moved to Baguio City to rebuild my life after becoming disillusioned with the institution that had once nurtured my desire to excel. But no love lost, I was only their son’s “gayyem” (friend), after all. It didn’t help that I was wearing a leopard print spaghetti-strapped dress, which exposed the tattoo on my back. I reasoned that the Cordillera culture has a long tradition of body art; so they should appreciate the significance of mine. None of us knew at that time that I was already carrying a half-Igorot child in my womb (which, I imagined, somehow made me an acceptable quarter-Igorot for the nonce).
Against better judgment, we decided to get married. We were under the influence of hormones, of pregnancy, of the Catholic church, of Manuel Arguilla. We would have gotten a quickie secret wedding if he were old enough, or I, wais enough; but by law we needed his parents’ consent. Which they refused to give. For perfectly good reasons.
They could have said, “You shouldn’t marry because he is too young” (and you are ten years older). Or “You shouldn’t marry because he is still studying” (and you were even his teacher). Or “You shouldn’t marry because he has a calling” (and you are snatching him from God).
But instead his mother said, “We can’t give you permission because his brother had just gotten married. In the theology of the Cordilleras, if siblings marry within the same year, one of the marriages will fail. The community will blame us if we allow you to marry.”
So I called my mother, who promptly came to my rescue, writing them a demand letter based on a fallacy: “If your child were the woman in this situation, you would rush to marry them!” I’m sure she was so eager to get me married off because she knew it was a fluke.
What was most ridiculous (though I refused to see it at that time), was that I was a self-proclaimed lesbian feminist. Despite all the tragic relationships I had had with women, I still believed that it was worth fighting for the right of a woman to love another woman. What business did I have getting married to a very young man? And for all the wrong reasons. Must have been oxytocin overdose sponsored by the baby in my womb. Or a planetary alignment exerting mysterious forces on my consciousness. Or, gasp—Love!
Whatever it was, it came to pass. My mother didn’t have to bring my grandfather’s rifle. But I had to do it all on my own: filing the license, finding the Judge, buying the rings, reserving a restaurant, paying for everything. It was a good thing his parents didn’t allow us to tell anybody about the marriage – that way I didn’t have to invite anyone — which lessened my expenses. I had to understand that they had spent all their savings for his brother’s recent wedding, where they had butchered eight pigs for a traditional Igorot wedding feast. And after all, lest we forget, we were getting married against their will. But hey, there they were, on hand to sign the marriage certificate in the sala of the Honorable Judge Fernando Cabato of La Trinidad, Benguet.
The ceremony itself was quick – but peppered with omens. First, when the court clerk asked for my mother-in-law’s name, I told her “Constancia” – because I figured that was where her nickname “Connie” came from. When I asked my nervous groom, he agreed. When the Judge confirmed the information, “Constancia” objected because her name is actually “Conchita.” Judge Cabato made the correction and lectured us about how important it is not to make errors in a legal document. Then, when it came to my father-in-law’s name, the Judge refused to believe that “Johnny” was his real name.
When he asked for the rings, my groom gave him the little box, but when the Judge opened it, it was empty. The elderly honorable Judge sat down and asked, “Is this a prank?” It turned out that the rings had slipped out of the box and were floating in my groom’s pants’ pocket.
When it was time for the wedding kiss, the Judge “got even” with us. He pronounced us husband and wife and then said, “No more kissing, it’s obvious there’s a deposit in there!” Then he laughed hearty congratulations. I wonder now how many times he has regaled a party crowd with our story.
At the reception in a Chinese restaurant, we occupied only one round table, with only ten guests. The pancit canton was very good. We didn’t get any gifts, except for a framed copy of 1 Corinthians 13: “Love is patient, love is kind… love does not keep a record of wrongs…” It wasn’t the wedding of my dreams, but the whole event cost me only Php 2,500. It was as do-it-yourself as DIY could get. That didn’t include the cost of the wedding rings, for which I had to sacrifice some of my old gold jewelry. The irony of it escaped me at the time; but for a modern woman on a budget, there was no room for finesse.
Thus we began our married life: full of contention, confusion, and concealment.
We couldn’t live together immediately; nor was I allowed to be seen in their little neighborhood, where everyone knew everyone. A very pregnant stranger ambling up and down the steep Upper Mangga Road would have been a conspicuous mystery. I continued to live alone in my apartment, with my husband staying weekends, and I pretended in school that my husband is from Manila. I’m not sure anyone actually believed the drama, but I was bathing in first-baby-love, so I couldn’t care less.
My other Igorot friends assured me that when the baby is born, my in-laws would finally accept me as the mother of their grandchild. But as I said, I couldn’t care less. I was a Manila girl – I truly believed that our marriage would succeed even without his parents’ approval of me. I was used to flouting norms and not needing anyone. And for his part, my husband argued existentially that we should live by the integrity of our own little family. You see, he was a Philosophy major under the tutelage of two young Jesuit-educated instructors, who had come to the mountains from Manila to indulge their fantasies about love and teaching (in that order). We, the migrant teachers, smiled at each other in the College of Human Sciences silently acknowledging each other’s foolishness; ignoring the fact that most of the other “native” faculty members looked askance at the three of us.
When our daughter was born, we decided it was time to move into the family home. In the innocent presence of the new half-Igorot baby, all would be forgiven. It seemed the most practical thing to do. But I soon realized how naïve we were. We didn’t take into account all the new wrongs that could be committed while sharing one household.
Before I got married, I had a dog – a black mongrel I had named “Sapay Koma,” which is Ilocano for “sana.” It is both a wish and a prayer – difficult to translate into English, unless in context. Koma was my companion throughout the two years I had lived in my dank, quirky apartment – the mute witness to the drama and dilemma preceding my decision to marry. We took him along with us in our move, of course. But the five other dogs in the new household didn’t like him all that much and they all raised such a nonstop racket, none of the humans could sleep, particularly the newborn baby.
The neighbors offered to buy him for Php 500. Igorots like black dogs because the meat is tastier. I was aghast. He was my dog, my loyal friend. If anyone was going to eat him, it should be family. So my husband invited his friends over to put Koma out of his misery.
I locked myself in our little bedroom with the baby, while they did it. But despite the closed windows, I could still smell the burning hair and later, the meat cooking. The putrid scent seemed to stick to my nose for days after, accusing me of betrayal. I wept for Koma and for all that was dying in the fire – all the wishes that had no place in my new life. I decided that this was the price for what Filipinos like to call “paglagay sa tahimik.”
It took two hours for the meat to be tender enough to eat and when we all sat down to dinner, I was glad they didn’t expect me to partake of the canine feast. Yet I did. I took one mouthful, which I swallowed quickly without chewing, so I wouldn’t have to relish the flavors. I may have had the stomach for it, but I didn’t have the heart. I only wanted to show them that I respected their culture, even though in fact, I would never belong. Also, I was hoping that this way, Koma would forgive me for having failed him, for offering him as a sacrifice at the altar of my marriage. This way, we could be truly together.
For weeks after, every time I overheard my husband reply “Aw, aw” to his father, I would shiver at the prospect that we would have dog for dinner again. They had five other dogs, after all. Luckily, it turned out that “aw” only means “yes” in their language, Kankanaey. Besides, they only butcher dogs on very special occasions. Ordinarily, there was always the savory chicken soup dish, Pinikpikan, which features a similar charred skin aroma and taste. I was quite relieved to learn that his father did not require beating the chicken to death with a stick before cooking, as is customary in the Igorot culture.
To this day, I have not been able to care for another dog. I do, however, have another child. By the same man. Accidentally. It happened on Father’s Day, when we thought having sex was a nice distraction from the confusion that arose from our growing discontent with the marriage. When we found out about the pregnancy, we agreed, albeit reluctantly, that it was Divine Intervention – a sign that we should keep trying to save the marriage.
It was not just the food that was strange. I couldn’t understand why everyday, some relatives would come over and expect to be fed. I had not been raised in an extended family, and even within our nuclear family, we pretty much kept to ourselves. In my mother’s house, we were trained to share through “one for you, one for me, then stay out of my bag of goodies.” You can imagine how I felt the day they served my Gardenia whole wheat bread to the “relatives,” who promptly wiped it out, because my peanut butter was delicious.
Not that I was being selfish. Aside from the fact that I didn’t have any bread for breakfast the next day and the house being a ten-minute hike uphill plus ten kilometers to downtown Baguio City, I fumed about not even being introduced to these relatives as the wife of their son. They would introduce my daughter and her yaya, but I remained a “phantom of delight” flitting about the house.
When I confronted my husband about the bread, he explained that in the Igorot culture, everything belongs to the community. So I took a permanent marker and wrote my name on my next loaf of bread. It was a Saussurean signifier of sorts – and it was unforgivable.
My father-in-law was a man of few words. In fact, my daughter was already two years old when he decided it was time to acknowledge my existence and say something to me. In the past, he would use an intermediary (usually my husband) if he wanted to get information from me. It wasn’t too difficult because by this time we had already moved to Manila and were living in my mother’s house – which was another disaster and another story. It was Christmas Eve and we were spending the holidays in Baguio City. He was watching a replay of a boxing match and I was playing with my daughter in the living room. He asked, in Ilocano, “Do you have a VCD player at home?” I was so shocked I couldn’t reply immediately. He repeated the question in Tagalog. It turned out he was giving us the VCD player he had won in a barangay raffle. That night, as the entire family sang their traditional “Merry Christmas To You” to the happy birthday tune, I felt I was finally getting a fair chance to prove that I was worthy of being in their cozy family.
In our six years together, I can think of more instances in which our separate worlds collided and caused aftershocks in my marriage. But none of it rivaled what I thought was the worst affront to me. My mother-in-law is Cancerian, like me, so her house is a pictorial gallery of her children and their achievements. She had a wall with enlarged and framed wedding photos of her children. Through the years, her exhibit grew, and expectedly, I and my husband didn’t have a photo on this wall. I figured it was because we had not had a church wedding. In fact, when we told them I was pregnant with our second child, they requested that we hold a church wedding already. They even offered to share the expense. But I preferred to save my money for the birth of the baby. However, given my theater background, I once tried to convince my husband to just rent a gown and tuxedo and then have our “wedding” photo taken so we’d finally get on “The Wedding Wall.” But he has always been the more sensible half of our couple.
One day, though, a new picture was added to the wall. It was a studio photo of his eldest sister, her American husband, and their baby boy. It wasn’t “The Wedding Wall” anymore; it was now the “Our Children and their Acceptable Spouses” wall. It was their version of the Saussurean signifier. The message was loud and clear – to me and to other people who came to visit.
I wonder now why it so mattered to me to be on that wall. I guess I felt that after all those years, we had been punished enough for defying the culture. Maybe I actually believed in 1 Corinthians 13. Or perhaps I also needed to be reassured that I was indeed happily married.
I confronted my husband about it and demanded that he finally stand up for me and our family. And he did – he wrote his parents a letter that made his mother cry and beat her breast. We each tried to explain our sides, finally coming to terms with the bitter past. They told me that they are simple folk and didn’t mean to ostracize me; that when they agreed to the marriage, they accepted me as part of the family, no matter what. I believed them. I told them I was never going to be the woman they had probably wanted for their son; but that I am a perfectly good woman, most of the time. We tried to make amends. Our family picture was up on the wall within three days. Our kids were quite pleased.
But it was too late. By then, my husband and I had been grappling with our own issues for the past five years. He had gotten tired of my transgressions and sought solace with his friends. After coming home late from another “Happy Hour” with them, I screamed at him, “What happy hour? Nobody is allowed to be happy in this house!” It was then we both finally realized that we had to face the truth about our marriage. By the time his parents were willing to start over in our journey as a family, we had given up on ours.
Most couples find breaking up hard to do. It was particularly hard for us because we had to convince his parents that it was not their fault. On the other hand, I had to deal with the fact that maybe my marriage did fail because of the “curse” of the superstition “sukob sa taon” – that maybe we were wrong to insist on our choice. Yet on good days, I am pretty sure it was a perfectly “no fault divorce,” if there ever was one.
“Kapag minamalas ka sa isang lugar, itawid mo ng dagat” goes the Filipino proverb. Perhaps the salt in the sea would prevent the bad luck from following you. So today I live with my two Igorot children in Davao City – fondly called “the promised land.” Everyone is astounded when they learn that I had moved even though I knew only one person here – who didn’t even promise me anything. I just wanted a chance to start over. When we moved into this house, it had a small nipa hut in the backyard. The kids enjoyed staying there during the sweltering hot Davao afternoons, especially when their Daddy called them on the phone. But it was nearly falling apart and was host to a colony of termites that had actually begun to invade the house as well.
My generous landlady soon decided it was time to tear down the structure. When I got home one day, it was gone. All that was left was a dry and empty space in the yard; yet everything looked brighter too. We missed the “payag;” but soon the grass crept into the emptiness and we began to enjoy playing Frisbee in the space that opened up. It was a Derridean denouement of sorts.
Last year, we spent our first Christmas without any family obligations. It was liberating not to have to buy any gifts for nephews, cousins, in-laws. All the shopping I did was for my children. I was determined to establish my own Christmas tradition with them. I wanted to show them we were happy. I wanted them to grow up never having to sing “Merry Christmas To You” ever again. I decided to cook paella for noche buena as if my life depended on it. I thought it was simply a matter of dumping all the ingredients in the pan and letting it cook – like the aftermath of a failed marriage. The recipe was so difficult I ended up crying hysterically, asking myself over and over, “what have I done?” My kids embraced me and said, “Nanay, stop crying na.” But I couldn’t. It seemed as if it was the first time I had let myself cry over what I had lost. I noticed though, that the kids did not cry. Embarrassed with myself, I picked myself up from the river of snot that was my bed and finished what I had set out to do – as I always have. It even looked and tasted like paella, despite the burnt bottom. But next year we’ll just order take-out from Sr. Pedro (Lechon Manok).
That night, my mother-in-law sent me a text message saying they are always praying for us to get back together, especially for the children’s sake. I do not know how to comfort her, except to keep saying that we had all done the best we could at the time; that we are always trying to do the right thing; that despite what happened, or perhaps because of it, we will always be a family. Of a kind. We are, after all, inextricably linked by a timeless story and “sapay koma.”
Each of us in this story nurtures a secret wish to have done things differently – to have been kinder, more understanding of each other’s quirks and shortcomings. But it takes less energy to wish it forward. Sapay koma naimbag ti biag yo dita — to hope that your life there is good.