Elsa smoothed her hair as she got to the university entrance. A glance at her watch showed it was 4:55. Just in time for her regular 5pm Saturday mass. It was actually an anticipated Sunday mass. She made it a habit to attend this schedule to allow her to loll in bed the whole Sunday while watching TV or DVD’s. Given the possibility that the priest might give a long homily, she would be out of here by around 6:15. Then she would take a tricycle ride and still catch up with her favorite TV program on showbiz news.
But the chapel seemed full as she came near it. Definitely, this was not her day to show off her fashionable get-up to full advantage. In the past, she would usually walk down the center aisle and head towards the front seat near the altar, her head held high. Reluctantly, Elsa walked towards one of those plastic chairs set right outside the chapel’s door. She found a corner seat beside a small artificial pond. She glanced furtively to her right. Good, there was still an empty seat between her and the other churchgoers. She was about to place her small bag there when a young girl hurriedly sat down.
A glance at her seatmate made her pull away her chair as far as she could to her left. The girl had whitish, scaly allergies that seemed about to fall off from her arms. Elsa’s eyes quickly scanned the area for a place where she could transfer. No such luck. The other chairs in front and behind her were already occupied. Praying that she would not get infected, she remained in her place. She thought: what person in his right mind would still go to a public place with that skin disease?
The entrance song started and everyone stood up. Elsa cringed when the girl’s arm bumped against hers as they stood up simultaneously. Hurriedly, she took out her perfumed hankie from her bag and wiped her arm. The girl beside her coughed. Instinctively, Elsa covered her mouth with her hankie, but suddenly remembering where she used it, she reluctantly returned it to her bag. She got instead her flowery fan and covered her face.
“Purihin ang Panginoon, umawit nang kagalakan…” the whole assembly began to sing. But her thoughts were on soaking her hankie in Tide with bleach as soon as she got home. What about her arm? Frantically, she searched for her usual antibacterial lotion in her bag. She placed a liberal amount on her arm and brushed away the imagined germs.
Presently, she turned her attention to the lector. She knew her. She was a student who had dropped out when her boyfriend got her pregnant. She had gained weight, presumably due to childbirth. She wondered silently why the priests allowed her to be there in the first place. And as a lector! A sneer crossed her face.
Everyone stood up to honor the Gospel. Elsa allowed the girl beside her to stand up ahead of her. When she finally stood up later, she was very careful not to brush even slightly against her seat mate. All throughout the words of the Lord, she was very conscious not to allow any minutest part of her being to touch the person standing beside her. Vaguely, she heard the priest “Blessed are the poor….”
The dreaded homily did come. The foreigner priest’s accent made it hard to understand him. As he droned on and on, Elsa’s bowed head started to droop. Her fan dropped on the ground. She was jolted awake. “Ma’am, your fan…” Horror of horrors! Her seatmate had picked it up! Elsa snatched it back. Inwardly, she fumed. How dare she hold her fan? She glared at the girl but she did not seem to notice at all.
Elsa was conscious not to touch the basket anymore during the offertory. She swiftly dropped her one-hundred-peso bill into the basket without holding it, a far cry from her usual style of waving the violet bill for everyone to see how much she could tithe. She would always take pains to integrate it into her monthly budget – four hundred pesos per month for the church. It ranked next to her anti-aging cream in her prioritized monthly budget. The latter usually cost eight times more than her regular tithing. But she had always reasoned out that God would understand that at age 38, she must take pains to keep looking young while waiting for her Mr. Right.
As the body of Christ was raised, Elsa muttered, “Lord, please spare me from any contagious disease.” That was her first real prayer for the day.
Elsa shivered. If she ever got infected with her seatmate’s skin disease, how would her flawless skin look afterwards? And how much would she be spending on consultation and medicines? Mentally, she tried to calculate how much money she still had in her bank account. Fortunately, she did not give in to her board mate’s persistent plea for a loan to pay her tuition fee. Or for her sister’s request for a cake on her niece’s birthday. Now, she might be the one needing the money after all.
The priest’s words got her out of her reverie. “And now, with confidence, let us all pray the words our Lord has taught us….” In her frantic avoidance of her seatmate’s hand, Elsa leaned too much to her left, lost her balance, and fell into the artificial pond beside her. Tears of humiliation and regret welled up from her eyes as she started to get up, dripping all over and feeling sore on the left side of her body. Her seatmate could only stare at her in surprise.
Carmen Sabino is a Tagala, but has lived in Davao since 2003 due to her husband’s job. Her academic training and work experience as a child psychologist led her to early childhood education, an NGO for abused kids, then writing. She was a fellow at this year’s Ateneo de Davao Writers Workshop.