Marred Air

Fiction by | April 24, 2011

The couple living across the street in the suburban village of Royal Hills seemed perfectly at home in the idyllic middle-class environment of American log cabin-themed homes on manicured lawns. Except for one thing. Well, two things actually. But the first thing that stands out is that at 8 AM, it is the wife who takes the car and goes to the office while the husband dressed only in plain brown house shorts waves goodbye to her while carrying and shushing their tearful one-year old daughter.  I only know the wife’s first name, Sally. In my head, I go, “Sally, that girl,” from the song with sexually explicit lyrics popularized by 2 Live Crew many years back.  I have not talked to the husband nor do I intend to.  He is a scrawny slant-eyed man who is fond of wearing nothing but short pants perfect for displaying his unappetizing bony body as he putters around in their unfenced yard.  He reminds me of the stereotypical characters in classic Chinese movies, like the distraught cook or the manager of the bar where the fights usually take place, so I named him Wang-fu.  The other thing that stands out about Sally and Wang-fu is how odd they look together.  In the mornings, Sally, with full breasts, slight belly fat, and generous hips and buttocks straining against her form-fitting office clothes, would kiss a practically skeletal and half-naked Wang-fu goodbye at their doorstep.  From Monday to Friday, variations of this same scene would play out before Sally gets into her silver 1.3 Toyota Vios that is decent enough for a bank employee except for its cheap dull magwheels. When Sally steps out in her three-and-a-half-inch patent leather heels and still wet rebonded hair reaching the middle of her back, I see a woman with a parochial air that cannot be shaken off even as she takes the wheel of her car. Her corporate attire screams department store and belies the sophistication she wants to project.  The epitome of a grim and determined worker who rose from the ranks, Sally hardly smiles, if at all.

Left at home with the baby and the house help, Wang-fu spends time glued to the Internet.  I find that this works to my advantage because I get a free ride on their Wi-Fi connection as I work on my computer. Unaware that I could hear him from across the street, he ecstatically brags to no one in particular that a girl he is chatting with thinks
he is just in his twenties.  A bit of commotion ensues when he could not make sense of the popular acronym LOL.  He initially thinks it is a derivative of the Tagalog word, ulol, which means idiot. I certainly thought of him as such at that moment. When he finally figured out that it meant “laugh out loud,” he laughed out loud.  I cringe and wonder what Sally sees in this man.

Coming home from my early morning jog, I meet Sally on the street riding a bicycle for exercise. Though our front doors are separated by a few measly meters of concrete and we can freely see into the other’s living room, we only give each other an imperceptible nod. Apparently, Sally and I have one thing in common.  Neighborly small talk is not our thing. 

One time, outside the community bank where she works, I happened to pass behind her car as she was stepping out.  I did not anymore wait to see if it really was Sally. The strappy sandaled foot laboriously coming out from the driver’s side of the car was enough identification. I hurried along so she may not catch sight of me and most likely be forced into an awkward neighborly chitchat. When I glanced back, the security guard was assisting Sally out of the car and deferentially opening the bank’s door for her. I got home just in time to catch Wang-fu in his trademark shorts go next door and heckle the players of a card game that has gone obscenely overtime.

Though a short plane ride away from the cosmopolitan financial capital of the country, Royal Hills Village is worlds away from Makati City. From high-rise condo living in a 30-square-meter studio to 270 square–meter house and lot in a suburban village, I thrive in the relative luxury of it. Though weeds have free reign in my yard, I am tickled to have four fruit-bearing coconut trees on the property. The path leading to my front door is lined with chest-high bushes that bear dainty purple flowers. My front door is directly across Wang-fu and Sally’s but aside from the garden hose they offered to lend me when they saw me struggle with a pail and dipper to water the plants, our interactions are limited to that imperceptible nod. Be that as it may, my cat and I make sport of quietly observing the comings and goings of their household. Something we never had when we were cooped up in our condo unit as nameless strangers to the people living behind our very walls.  Moreover, it seems residents here live on a predictable schedule. Sally comes home at 6 PM. Neighbor to my left only stays for the weekend and arrives on Friday afternoons in a white Pajero adorned with stickers  proclaiming the elite schools they or their kids have graduated from. Expensive education notwithstanding, they block my driveway and leave their unsightly garbage on the sidewalk. Neighbor to my right who owns last year’s Mitsubishi Lancer comes home at 6:30 AM and leaves again at 8 PM. 

When a noise like that of a crowing rooster getting periodically choked bursts forth from my backyard shrubs, I ask the head of village security to check it out.  I had this fear it might be the infamous snake known in the Mindanao provinces as “banakon.”  This legendary serpent is reported to sound like a rooster and devour unsuspecting children playing in the fields. However, the security chief calmly assured me that it was only a large bullfrog and gesticulated with both his hands a size I find revolting for a cold-blooded amphibian using my plants for shelter. “It just arrived a few days ago, ma’am,” he declared matter-of-factly. Apparently, even the schedule of the animals on the premises gets logged.

One breezy night, while my cat and I idly lounge on the sidewalk savoring the cool air, I see Sally and Wang-fu through their window in an uncommon moment of interaction and affection.  Sally is seated in front of their computer monitor trying to decipher something while Wang-fu is standing beside her giving inputs of his own to help solve the seeming confusion.  Eventually, one of Wang-fu’s suggestions must have done the trick for I see Sally’s face light up.  She then smilingly caresses her husband’s concave abdomen in an absent-minded gesture of appreciation while she continues peering at the monitor. My cat suddenly darts into the shadows after prey I could not see. Later, after having coaxed too many words out of my head and onto my own computer screen, I prepare to rest on the single bed that needs to get a little beating to unglue the stubborn gray cat hairs  trapped
within the sheets.  At first, the sound came as soft murmurs that wove into the night symphony of beetles, crickets, and frogs. Then sharp intakes and exhalations of muffled breaths.  A delicate keening seductively travels through the air and is interspersed with low grunting tones.  The keening rises to an offending crescendo punctuated by staccato gasps.  The normally genteel air is marred by these sounds coming from the house across mine.  Just when I think everything has stilled, the sounds become uninhibited, sharper, and guttural.  Before the final shuddering sighs, I roll over in my bed and pull the extra pillow close to my body.

Vida Mia Valverde Vida is aunt to mischievous Jacy who loves chasing her Persian blue cat named Pedro.

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