Fiction by | September 19, 2010

Bismillah. I smoothen this cream liberally on my face covering every inch of skin, looking at the mirror for missed spots. I read the label on the product again and again. I wrangle with doubt. The cream is authentic. It is from Saudi; purely pharmaceutical. Unlike the intertwined reasons for my divorce. Katao. Maratabat. Hormonal imbalance. Our lack of blood relations. But I am still wearing my wedding band. As if I am still his wife and he will be at arm’s length at the slightest ruffle of my malong.

The walls at home box me in regret. I become a coward. I run somewhere else, slipping off convenience. I watch luxury slip away.

I brought nothing of the jewelries he gave except my ring after I left. It is mine to keep. I recall rules. All that was given me at the dialaga and for the sayat and let a igaan remain mine. But I have no use of jewelry here in Manila. The gold mocks the absence of my husband. The glitter of the stones only clashes with the composed face I feign.

I have agreed to a separation. But he has not signed the papers yet. Neither have I. Maybe he will, as soon as he finds a new wife. My heart skips. My wedding gown crosses my mind. I have transformed into a jar. I am about to burst open if nobody twists my lid tight. So I call my cousin Rohanna. She was widowed very young. She knows when to loosen a lid. Or tighten it. No space for air to get through the jar.

Stop crying. Come home and heal your spirit here. And do not be hasty. He could be thinking of a reconciliation.

The familiarity seeps through the telephone line. It contributes to the heaviness of my torment. I have distanced myself from family for a week now. It is no help to harp on resistance. What I need is clarity. And strength.

I muffle my voice by the blare of my radio transistor. My husband and I used to spend hours singing along to a variety of songs. I still call him husband.

One whole week of continuous muffling inside a room that I am now renting. The lease contract I executed is for two months. I am guessing that the landlady would be kind enough to allow me refund if I decide to leave earlier than the date I carelessly agreed to. I am guessing that she felt this loss I labor with when I inquired for any vacancy in her house. At their busy street, the landlady stared at my salimot. She said she has friends from Mindanao.

Routine suddenly cues. I am tired from hiding within the melody blanketing my staggering breaths. I shift to drowning cowardice through my pashbi. His name mixes with every prayer I utter. Each bead plucks a memory. It is draining to gather images, fractured and whole, while you bargain with God to fuel your sanity.

The color of the pashbi forces me to blush. Yellow. Like the one we used when we prayed together on our first night. We followed what the arati told us.

I study the lines of my right palm. Even if it is repulsive to faith I tried negotiating my future with a fortune teller in our town. The old woman frequents our house; she is a distant relative. She refused to read my palm at first. I said I was about to get married. I wanted a sign.

Be careful. Some are not in favor of your groom. Some may practice katao. This one is very potent. If you do not fight it with a stronger immunity then you might become a bitowanen. I blame sorcery. It gets a share of my marital mess. I avoided eating food from strangers or unfamiliar visitors during the early months of our marriage. I panicked that the katao could be lurking within the sugar or flour in the cakes given us. The fruits might have been grazed with potar. But the old woman was too ill to provide me counter potions or rituals. I was stuck. Ama said katao was too shallow a reason.

You bargained and your Ina and I accepted. That mama is not our relative. Not even by affinity. I do not want to berate you. But you insisted on love. What idiocy! It is always better to marry a relative. A relative values family. He does not run off to his mother and then refuse to sign the document to make the divorce official.

What good does ancestry do? I live in a house owned by the landlady and her lover. The landlady has adopted children; all are married now. Today I walk around downstairs. I see Buddha in bronze smiling at Mary dressed in purple. The holy trinity is artistically crocheted and framed, hanged on the wall opposite a mini bar. This is not a sinful place. Not until Ina hears of it and predictably asks what possessed me to succumb to desperation—to dip in an immorality as the landlady and her lover. I post a note near my bed. When Ina learns I will remind her about what worries me most. It is the stigma. Bitowanen. The term sounds slightly close to bitoon. A star. A bitowanen has no sparkle to invite a new relationship.

Maybe my hormonal lapses are part of this jigsaw. I cannot be barren. Regular OB-GYN sessions booster my hope to have a child. Timing. Wholehearted niyat for a baby. Readiness. I would hear these from everybody. Even the corners and the ceiling whispered to me. I threw niyat on their end. I want a child. I have no husband to provide me one.

Maratabat stays unfazed between my family and his. I weigh the consequences before I openly ally with it. Both sides tack pride along. Both make it visible for spectators to gauge. Our family carries the bruise because of the wife. His is flexible. He may gain sympathy. I am stamped. I befriend surrender. I console myself. At least there is no other woman. My fears outshine the jewelries I left.

Today I wake up early for Soboh. I know that the lover will knock at my door when lunch draws near. She will talk to me of the landlady almost like in defense. She says she only wants companionship. She says she is sixty-five, the landlady is sixty-two. She says Jesus does not like us to be sad. She divorced her husband abroad when she was my age.

I laugh at lunch. The landlady and her lover say sorry for the offensive smell of pork. They tell me that the chicken is halal. They go back to praising how tranquil my name is.

I am full. I excuse myself. My stomach is turning. My wedding gown crosses my mind.

The calendar above the water dispenser asks me to remember.

Katao/potar=sorcery; Maratabat==pride; Dialaga==engagement; Sayat==customary gifts to the bride during the wedding day; Let a igaan==also customary gifts to the wife during the first night of marriage; Pashbi==rosary; Bitowanen==separated; Soboh­==dawn prayer; iyat==intention; Arati==charm; Sakeenah==Muslim name for peace or tranquility

Arifah Jamil is a freelance writer aspiring to be a lawyer.

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