Jacques begged her to stay, for them to try harder, for a chance to make it up to her. He apologized, even offered to quit his job though Sally knew that it was more for his sake than hers. It would have been easier for him to avoid this coworker altogether than to wrestle with the urge to act on his feelings just so he could come home to his wife with a clear conscience (or at least as clear as the conscience of any who had fallen out of love for their spouse).
Her Nanay cried on the phone when she told her. But why? What did you do? She needed to know where her own daughter could have possibly fallen short in the wife-hood for which she had carefully prepared her. You have to give him a chance, Sally! Your luck runs out after a certain age. You can never find one as good as Jacques! Marriage is about commitment, not bailing out at the first signs of trouble. It’s about trusting. Compromising. Forgiving, her mother said.
Sally was not sure where falling-in-love-with-someone-else-but-not-acting-on-it and self-preservation fit in her mother’s creed of marriage.
I left him, ‘Nay! I packed my bags! Sally wanted to scream back at her but bit her tongue, afraid of upsetting her mother even more. I told you so, her mother said, never trust other women around your husband. He’s a catch! Any girl would take every chance they can get to snag a white man, her mother said between sobs.
Their next-door neighbor, whom Sally had only befriended on account of a shared fence, concluded that it had to be their childlessness. Did you try to send orayer petitions to the nuns over at Pink Sisters? They work miracles for those hoping for a child, she said as she watched Sally stuff her boxes and bags on the back of a rented truck. Men stay when there are kids, she said.
Her friends had been less merciful when they learned about their separation. You should have beaten the shit out of that bitch, they said. You can never trust any woman these days. And, you could at least have kicked Jacques in the balls, Sally. That would have shown him to keep it in his pants.
Oh, but he did. At least he said he did.
And whose fault was it, really, that her husband fell for someone else? Her barren ovaries? Her modest sexual preferences or her aversion to contour makeup and lingerie? And suppose she changed to fit these ideals, would it have been enough for Jacques to love her again? To make love to her without imagining another? For him to really want to kiss her without wishing it were someone else he was kissing instead?
For the better part of the last three months, she oscillated between feeling angry and sad, trying and failing to find anyone or anything at which to direct her emotions. She had refused to talk to Jacques, and he had started coming home less frequently, taking more out-of-town assignments. And when he did come home, they played a game of hide-and-never-seek, always in rooms where the other was not. Once, they laid in bed sobbing quietly together, grieving the death they could not prevent.
Finally, a month ago she made her intentions known: she was moving out and needed two weeks alone at home to prepare for her leave. They sent the dog away to one of their friends and Jacques rented a transient unit to give her all the time and space she needed.
In those two weeks, Sally avoided sleeping on their bed, preferring instead the discomfort of the ratty couch in the living room. The old sofa had been kept for sentimentality, a piece of the old apartment from before they got married. They had watched countless movies there together, shared take-out food when she was too lazy to cook and made love on it during the happier seasons of their lives.
Jacques had insisted she keep the house. It was hers legally, after all. But how could she? Jacques was everywhere and all over. The paint stains on the bathroom tiles when he painted the shelves. The squeaky door hinges he had never gotten to greasing. The dent on the wall from when he moved the ottoman to the bedroom. She wondered whether Jacques would feel the same about living in the house without her, felt a twinge in her heart at the possibility he would not.
When she was packing her things, she spent more than two hours just staring at their clothes in their shared closet. Throughout their marital woes, Jacques had meticulously kept it neat; he folded and hung everything as he had always done on happier days. He had always been proud of how great he was in the art of folding clothes, a skill he had mastered from working part-time in a clothing store while in college. Their trousers and shirts looked like they belonged to a store window.
She scanned the length of their closet, avoiding the white box that laid at the bottom-left corner. In it was the white dress she had had made especially for their city-hall wedding and the restaurant-reception that followed. There were many happy tears that day, every single one in attendance overcome with joy that they had finally tied the knot. More than that, there was an air of relief – from her friends who thought they had taken too long, and especially from her mother who could now breathe easy knowing that her daughter no longer had to sell herself short by living with a man without the security of marriage; that though it was a “bargain wedding”, it was still a wedding nonetheless. Even the Mayor, an old friend of the family’s, expressed relief when he ordered Jacques to finally kiss his bride.
She took just a few pairs of jeans, some shirts, and all of her work clothes, and stuffed them in her duffel bags, leaving the souvenir shirts and winter jackets untouched. And yet, even without most of her things, the closet looked like it always had. As if everything that belonged to her was never part of it to begin with.
With her clothes already picked, Sally moved to the spare bedroom which they had turned into an office, intending to fill the cardboard box she had marked BOOKS.
Their tables stood next to each other, his tainted with overlapping wet rings and scratches, hers neat and organized with its color-coded folders and pens arranged in cups. They had shared many quiet nights here: engrossed in their respective paperwork or filling each other in on the things they had missed while they were apart, looking every bit content in each other’s presence. It was the image of picture-perfect coexistence. She wondered whether there had been signs of decay in there somewhere, micro-ruptures and subatomic holes that she should have seen.
She turned her attention to the two shelves lining the walls, both bursting with the books they had acquired together over the years. Some of the layers sagged under the weight of their contents.
It was impossible to know whose books are whose; everything was labeled Mathieu. Some had SAM for Sally Annabel Mathieu, but most were simply labeled by their shared last name; she and Jacques both had a penchant for desecrating books with their names and dogears. She ran her fingers on the spines of their paperback collection, feeling the creases from being read and reread.
Out from the corner of her eye peeked a hardbound book, its jacket missing, tucked under Jacques’ copy of a Madeleine Albright memoir.
Sally immediately recognized the book and grabbed it. It was a used copy of ‘Alice in Wonderland’ she had bought at someone’s going away garage sale years and years ago. Before she had met Jacques. Before she became Sally Mathieu. And there on the first page, just under the neat longhand of its original owner, she recognized her own handwriting: Sally Anabel Gomez.
She bought the unillustrated, unabridged copy though she had read the Ladybug illustrated edition countless times as a kid. It was the only book from her old collection at home that she brought over when she moved in with Jacques.
That time seemed so long ago now. When Sally was just Sally, when she did not have to consider Jacques’ opinion on the particularities of things bought and discarded. When her name was just her own.
She took the book and packed it with her clothes, the labeled box left empty in the middle of the room.
The unbearable noontime heat snapped her out of her reverie, forcing her to stand up and turn the air conditioner on. She scanned the length of the apartment, arms akimbo, and decided that she had to start somewhere.
So, she grabbed a piece of rag from the package that laid on the sink, filled a basin with soapy water and proceeded to wipe the closet, gray from years of neglect and desolation. Clearly this part had been overlooked by the landlord who had promised to prepare the unit for her arrival. The water turned the color of mud as she wiped the shelves, dust bunnies dissolving into gunk and mush and sediments floating in the basin. Several rags and a couple of swipes later and out emerged a clean pale-yellow shade, inching closer to what she imagined was its original off-white paint. Better. Much better, she thought, smiling contentedly at her work.
A staccato of raps on the door broke the lull of the errand. When she opened, an official-looking man in grey polo-barong and black trousers greeted her.
“Mrs. Sally Mathieu?”
The identification card pinned on his lapel said he was from the embassy. Jacques’ lawyers. This must be the divorce papers.
Sally took the manila envelope from the messenger and tucked it under her left arm with one hand, and the man’s clipboard and pen with the other. On the dotted line under the label Received By, she signed, Sally Anabel M… then scratched the M with a single line, writing instead the familiar strokes of a name she had not used in years.
Sally Annabel Gomez.
Hannah Rae Villarba was born and raised in Digos City. She currently works from her home office in Davao City