A Study in Bliss

Fiction by | June 14, 2009

It is youth’s felicity as well as its insufficiency that it can never live in the present, but must always be measuring up the day against its own radiantly imagined future.
—F. Scott Fitzgerald, “A Diamond as Big as the Ritz”

For now, Rico is rinsing the soap out of his freshly-washed sheets. He puts on a particular effort into wringing each blanket and bedcover so that the muscles on his arms become perceptibly taut and sinewy. He is aware that his guest, a Jane, is nearby and is giving him as much concentration as her sideway glances would allow her. Sitting on a monobloc chair, she is making a show at pulling a hangnail using her teeth.

The fact that he is earning a comfortable income writing online had given him the confidence to invite her over to his apartment; that he has never spoken to her before – except to remind her of a deadline – made her accept. As the inviting was done via text messaging, prompted by Jane’s unpleasant lunch with another boy, they are now at the rooftop of Rico’s apartment while on the none-too-romantic task of laundering.

Above, sheets of misty-grey clouds congress and get denser. His mind momentarily strays out of its preoccupation with Jane, and he thinks that if he hurries he would have enough time to dry the blankets. It is Saturday tomorrow and he hates to compete for space with the other tenants. He straightens up, lifts the washbasin with the wrung sheets and carefully places it on a vacant stool beside her. “Here,” he says, then apprehensively adds, “You don’t have to.”

Earlier, while talking about his life, he was driven by the desire to erase what unappealing image he might have had in the four years they have known each other. He waved towards the city. “This,” he said, “This is just a start, you see? I’ve done what I had to. I’m going to be something.”

The boy struck Jane like no other. He had made her conscious of the lack of progress in her own life. It was a gnawing feeling. For this, she, whose underwear is washed by the maid, requested that she hang his laundry. With glee after the task is done, she rewards herself with a cigarette.

Rico thinks – although it is likely just his imagination – that she is moving with an added sway. Ignoring the more aggressive voice in his head, he asks if she would like to go to his room for a drink (or something). Jane, familiar with such tactics, acts surprised, stands still, and makes a face.

So it comes that on this Friday afternoon, with a view of Davao’s northern metro, a drizzle falls on this young couple, wetting again the now smoke-scented bed covers. Rico, leaning on the washer, watches Jane in her comical attempt to keep her cigarette alive and thinks that after such a long time he has remembered how it is to pray.

Two years later, this same couple will walk along the fully lighted street of San Pedro in December and confess that, yes, at that moment, each sees the prospect of spending the rest of their lives together not entirely unattractive. Soon after she graduates, she will live with him in his apartment – to the resentment of her family – and they will still be at a point where one always knows where the other is, and, whenever possible, be there to hold hands.

“It was the first time I did something like that,” swears Rico, remembering the awkward rooftop invitation. He has been the appointed as the teacher’s runner and class photocopy distributor. He is no genius — but he is awfully diligent.

Jane says, “I might have said yes if I expected it.” She is a five-time class muse and has never submitted an assignment on time.

Walking, she keeps reminding him how much she is enjoying this frolic, how unfortunate that she has never been to this part of the city. He listens, giving different replies each time, while half-consciously scanning the sidewalk for any items for the apartment — preferably something that didn’t look too cheap.

On their way home, they come upon a lamp post and – on a joke of challenging the post to get out of their way – they silently dare each other to let go of the other’s hand. It is Jane who pulls away, but it is also her who reaches for him as soon as they pass the light.

After another year, Jane will go home to find the bedcovers replaced although they had just changed it the previous week. He spilled some beer on it, Rico explains, and, will she please remember to unplug the TV the next time she goes out? Because Rico had also replaced the pillow covers as well as the blankets, she will look for these things on the wash-basket. She will find that they are, indeed, damp.

That night, after Rico makes love to her with unusual fervor, he breaks the good news of his getting hired as a segment writer for one of the local TV shows. Later, still, Rico talks in a childish and embarrassing way, addressing her stomach. He muses about his best laid plans. He is thinking of building a house on an upscale village in Toril, the used Kia on sale (what does she think about it?), and does she know that women who give birth in their twenties have lower chances of getting breast cancer?

This time, Jane does not stop herself from saying that he’s said that before. She is hardly listening; pondering on the wet sheets that did not, at all, smell of alcohol.

Before their fifth year together, Jane will be working at a call center and her Dad will be undergoing chemotherapy. She will take the graveyard shift for its extra pay and Rico will take the task of driving her to work. He will be thinking about the scripts he still has to check when he gets home and that the hard rain falling is not improving his mood.

“I can’t see why you have to do this,” Rico says, “We’re earning enough to feed a family.”

“Rico,” Jane replies, “You know about Daddy.”

He blows his horn at the car ahead; and Jane makes an effort to keep her breath steady. She feels the world is moving on without her — even Rico is moving on plane that she can’t seem to catch.
When they kiss goodbye, Jane places her hands on Rico’s face and keeps their lips locked, communicating. When they break apart, he looks at her with yearning; he searches for something that seems to have been lost in their slow, unrecognized struggle.

“Do you really have to work?”

“Call me when you get home,” she answers.

When he calls her, it is from his mobile. After she hangs up, Jane calls home but nobody answers. She takes a moment to apply some make-up then she goes to her manager’s office. She asks if there is anything behind his hints of a salary increase; and he tells her to close the door.

Six years after the wind-blown afternoon at the rooftop, Jane will meet Rico at G-South Mall because it is the least likely place for her to bump into Samuel, her husband. Sam, once a promising local celebrity, is no longer doing very well in his modeling profession. He hosts the show where Rico writes; and within a month after he finds the guy in a compromising position with Jane, Sam will lose his job.

Rico invites Jane to come to his place. Jane says no and he, then, asks her to go to a motel. Another no. Heads turn as Rico draws up a ruckus over why she cannot at least watch a movie with him. Jane finally says yes – but a movie that will not draw an audience, one that’s on its last run. Jane thinks, on the way in, that she might as well find some comfort in having agreed. She holds Rico by the hand the leads the way to the uppermost row of seats beside the projection room.

The seats look overused and the floor is rather sticky, but both experience a brush of delight as they near. It is not the prospect of a repeat that makes Jane smile, or Rico chuckle; it is the remembrance of an act – a reminder of a beautiful thing that has passed. It does not take them long to relive what they had.

They kiss. However, Jane grasps only the cold armrest and Rico goes only as far as her bare arms; but the breathy exchange creates a halo over them and they are lost. The moment breaks when the projection booth operator suddenly opens the door and, finding the couple in an embrace, shuts it so that there is only a momentary flash of light. It is in this suspended space in time that Jane starts feeling the weight of all her decisions and she begins to mourn for a loss that is about to come. She exits the cinema, unable to look back.

Jane does not answer Rico’s calls after that night and, eventually, he believes she has had changed her phone number and that she has decided to have a life elsewhere.

Two weeks after, Rico’s heart will start racing. On one idle Sunday he will decide to finally refurbish his apartment and he will receive a phone call from an old friend offering sympathy. On the fifth page of local paper will be Jane, who had died in an attempt to terminate her pregnancy.

For four days, Rico will wander aimlessly around the city, spending most of the money he so ardently saved. He accepted the few condolences offered to him without gratitude. On the fourth night, Rico will be with a young prostitute in one of the small upstairs rooms of Club8. He will go through the motions and the girl will do her job the best she can, knowing that the eyes that rested upon her had not torn themselves away from her rather protruding belly.

In an hour, Rico will be crossing Claveria Street and, sleep-deprived and intoxicated, he will hardly feel the taxi hit him on the side. The vehicle is not even moving fast enough to cause any major bruise, but his head will hit the ground hard and the sound of his skull cracking will call the attention of the other hookers who have yet to do their jobs. And as Rico is splayed on the road, the labyrinthine conduits in his brain will conjure the full memory of that rain-cast afternoon at the rooftop. He will remember nothing else: none of the maddening days before his mother’s death, none of the meaningless affairs he had, or the little triumphs he’s achieved. There will be room for the memory of the rainy afternoon — nothing more.

At this moment, Rico will feel bliss, the ecstasy brought on by the rain that touched them like a soft, thin blanket. The clouds in the horizon will thicken unevenly so that at various points there are moving patches of light. From the street will come the rousing scent of moist leaves, dust and the cooling earth punctuated with the smell of laundry soap and cigarette smoke. On the left, the sheets will gather, having been blown by the wind. She didn’t hold the plastic clippers to the wire, he will think.
Mindful of the rain and of his stare, Jane will touch her face and utter a silent “thanks” that she had not put on any make-up. “If you’d like to,” he will start, gesturing to the stairs going down. She will shake her head.

That’s all right, he will think. Right here’s good enough. He will fix the tangled sheets in the clothesline, feeling relaxed and telling himself: There’s no need to hurry things now. I have a lot of time. Oh, yes, I have all the time in the world.

Gabe is a senior student of UP Mindanao’s Creative Writing Program. He spent his summer attending the Dumaguete and Iligan National Workshops.

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