Downsizing (Part 2)

Fiction by | March 8, 2020

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


Downsizing (Part 1)

Fiction by | March 1, 2020

The last ten years had come to this, with her crammed on the old sofa in a box of an “apartment,” her body aching in various points from having slept in odd positions and where the springs poked through the couch’s thinning faux leather cover. This dying piece of furniture and a couple of carton boxes plus two duffel bags were all that was left of her marriage to Jacques.

Ten years had come to this. Just this. Sally could have kept everything they’d acquired together. Jacques would not have put up a fight. She could have taken the imitation bone china that she dearly loved, bought four Christmases ago on a visit to Strasbourg. Or the luggage set they had bargained for less than a hundred Euros in a street market in Venice the summer after their wedding. Authentic leather. Better than Louis Vuitton, really, the seller had said, his accent thick like the many cups of ciocolatta calda they had shared on that trip. She could even have taken Levin, their overweight beagle mix who, she now realized, would not have fit in this new space anyway.

Sally stretched her arms, careful not to knock over the stack of boxes that stood precariously overhead; her eyes, sticky and sore from oversleeping, adjusted with difficulty to the harsh midday sun that seeped in through the only two windows of the apartment in one of the many obscure little alleyways snaking through Uyanguren.

She gave her new home a sweeping look, examining the water stains on the ceiling and the imprints of dried up adhesives on the wall, feeling alien and gigantic in this tiny space. It is no wider than the full length of Jacques’ arm span; in its entirety it amounted to just a little over the size of their conjugal bedroom. Not that the house she had shared with her almost ex-husband was big – it was a humble two-bedroom bungalow in Ulas that they had moved into right after their wedding. It’s just that this room was small. The couch would have to go if she ever wanted a bed.

On one corner was a plain, industrial-looking aluminum sink with two floating cupboards above and two underneath, and next to it the door leading to the toilet and bath so small there was no point buying a shower curtain. On the other end of the apartment was a small built-in cabinet with a few layers of shelves on one side and a narrow space for hangers on the other; at the bottom a lone, boxy drawer with a missing handle. The closet left barely enough space for the door to open fully.

And on what little space she had left on the floor was her assortment of odds and ends, boxed and bagged remnants of her recently ended marriage. It had been days since she moved in. Her luggage was still strewn on the floor in various stages of disarray; next to it the heap of her used clothes, exposing the haphazard abandon with which they were tossed. There were a million things to be done – the cupboards were empty, the closet dirty, and she did not have a working internet connection. She needed to get some pans, maybe find a bed and some real pillows to replace the neck pillow she’d been using, buy a refrigerator that would fit, change her digital passwords and get her own bank account – things that a couple of years ago had excited her so as a young girl fresh out of college. She had felt like a true adult for the very first time then, going through the aisles of the home needs section of the old NCCC not far from where she now lived, carefully calculating and stretching what her first job’s salary could get for her first apartment. Doing these things filled her with dread now, imagining what people must think of a nearly middle-aged woman buying cutlery and tableware for one and the smallest rice cooker on sale, filling a house that was not even a house. She dreaded it so that she had settled only for whatever the supermarket offered her by way of home trappings, leaving the rest for when she had gathered enough confidence or need, whichever came first.

He had insisted that there was never an affair; that he never even touched her beyond polite handshakes and friendly hugs. This, even when they had spent many out-of-town trips to the South, and late nights together at work. He had described her only as a friend, a new colleague at the firm where he worked as a consultant for an international NGO. Yet, no matter how generic and harmless his descriptions of her were, there was no denying the twinkle in his eyes when he spoke of her, betraying the smile that his mouth had managed to conceal.

And then there was the silence and his inability to look her in the eye when Sally had finally summoned enough courage to ask him if he loved this woman. That was all she needed to see.

You should have tried harder to keep him, she was told. Should have been more adventurous in bed. That’s what white men love. As if coital acrobatics were all that was needed to secure a marriage’s success.

Maybe you’d let yourself go – foreigners get bored with plain wives, they said. You should have shown him you’re fun and liberated, wore more revealing clothes. It’s always the losyang ones who get jilted. And yet in the same breath they also said, but did you cook him great meals? The way to a man’s heart, you know. They choose Pinays because we are traditional and domesticated.
“Like submissive lap dogs?” she had wanted to ask.

Did you fight for him, tell him you’d love him better if he picked you? Did you even give him a chance to choose? He would surely have picked you, he is too decent not to!

And yet, they also said, Sally, you’re so lucky you can actually divorce him. Getting annulled in this country is its own circle of hell.

“Lucky. Yes, I must be lucky,” she thought.

Did you try therapy? They pried some more.

They did. They spent thousands of pesos on couples’ therapy sessions. Sex heals, the therapist had said. Try it when you’re ready. She was just short of telling Sally to fuck her husband back to loyalty.

Still, they tried. She and Jacques had spent one long evening in the middle of those tumultuous months, lying side by side in bed, hands just close enough to feel the other person, before Jacques made a move on her. He touched her, his long, bony fingers gently sliding along her forearm. Up and down. Up and down.

And then they kissed, first in small reluctant pecks on the shoulder, the neck, then on the mouth, like two teenagers exploring the act for the very first time in their lives, seeking and calculating before succumbing to ones of more animal greed, of tongue against tongue and skin and hair.

Then Jacques stopped and sobbed. His body shook as he clung on to Sally, his fingers gripping her bare clavicle. Sally laid there under Jacques’ clutch, half-naked and motionless, fat tears rolling down her face in full recognition of this finality.

To be continued…


Hannah Rae Villarba was born and raised in Digos City. She currently works from her home office in Davao City.

The Last Will

Fiction by | September 18, 2011

“If there’s a will, there’s a way…”

My teacher’s voice resounds in my head as I look at my father’s lifeless form inside his white coffin. Here is the first man who broke my heart, and the only man I think I have ever truly loved next to my grandpa. He’s dead now, but he was as good as dead to me in his lifetime.

I stand there, idly, looking at my father’s dead face. I trace with my eyes the contours of his face – I have his nose, too ‘Filipino’ from every possible angle; I have his jawline, mine a softer version of his. I feel eyes boring on my back, piercing gazes from the audience behind me, their hushed gossips an orchestra playing at a small rural town wake. I don’t care. I stopped caring a long time ago. I don’t even know why I’m attending his wake at a house in the middle of the fields where cicadas are the only things you hear at night. A good five-hour drive from home. I should blame my boyfriend Alex for this.

Somebody approaches me—my father’s eldest son, who was a mere nine months younger than me, and offers me coffee. I refuse. God knows what sort of bacteria is infesting their water, or their unclean cups.

My father’s wife, Maritess, hasn’t spoken to me since I arrived. For some reason, the woman who caused my parents to separate has the guts to play bully on me. She stares at me wildly, bearing with it a story worth more than twenty years of hatred; I reply with my arctic stare. She looks away. And then does it again later. It’s been a game of tug-and-war between her and me since I got here yesterday, and for some reason, I always win. What a cowardly bitch.

I have long forgiven the fact that my parents never made it to a real relationship because, in my mother’s own words and in my father’s unsaid agreement, Maritess got Papa busy with her when Mommy was busy attending to her rising career and to a newborn me some twenty-five years ago. I just don’t understand why she should be that mean to me. She’s dumb, I conclude.

I heard her complaining why I was there when I arrived yesterday. Dumb and plain stupid as she is, she never had the guts to tell me that to my face. She’s too dumb to put the blame on me when it was Papa’s siblings who called me and asked me to come to his funeral. My supposed half-siblings told me I could stay at their place. I boldly said, “No. It’s gonna cause your mother more grief than she can handle. I don’t want her to die from my presence.”

I knew they are not rich. I’m not either. But I’m out to show them I never needed their—I mean OUR—dad to help me out. And I turned out more than okay without him in my life. They don’t need to know of the troubles my boyfriend goes through once every while because of the trauma I had from my father. They never will. My boyfriend and I rented a car and stayed at a hotel instead of staying with one of the relatives (that’s saying goodbye to the Boracay trip altogether) all because I needed them to know that I turned out better than any of them. Because Papa left us. Because Papa never cared for me like he did for them.

“Fuck you Papa…you’re a man-bitch,” I whisper into the cadaver. The angels will be mad, but I never got the chance to be this close to Papa; never got him to be this silent and not talking about all the good and happy things he has to say about his life.

Someone approaches me again, Nancy or Nene or Nena or whatever, one of my father’s sisters. She touches me on the back, below the shoulder that is bare from the white tank top I am wearing. Right where my koi tattoo is. I can tell that she is feeling my tattoo, maybe to know if it’s real or not. What a hypocrite gossip. She tells me I should stay at her place for the night, all the while she is feeling my back with her rough hands. She could use some lotion. Maybe I should leave her my Victoria’s Secret. It could make her happy, maybe. I say, “No thank you, Auntie. We have a hotel room.”

“Your boyfriend can stay at the hotel, you stay with us. You know, it’s not very good for an unmarried couple to share a room and a bed…” she says, a bit cautious about saying the unmarried bit. I retorted, “We are living together Auntie. And besides, Papa fathered two children from two different women within a year. I don’t see why I shouldn’t be sharing a room with my boyfriend of two years.” I keep my voice low and sweet—and that is to be my best Madeline impersonation of all time. I win.

Auntie N bites her lip. She looks down on her plum-colored toenails then shifts her gaze to my aquamarine ones. “We have to talk about your father’s last will,” she says bashfully, like a first grader on her first day of school. What a fucking hypocrite. I heard her yesterday talking with Maritess about my tattoo. Loud and clear, she said I look like a fucking whore. I just rolled my eyes and whispered to my boyfriend, “I could fax them a fucking copy of this whore’s diploma.” I laughed off my own remark, and Alex laughed harder. I said, “Do they even know what a fax machine is?”

“We can stay late if you want. We just don’t want to stay here,” I tell her. She nods and leaves. She’s probably gonna report to the rest of my father’s brood how distastefully disrespectful I am. I’m laughing my super evil laugh in my head. And then I turn to look at Papa again. My schizophrenic mind tells me he is frowning. He’s probably unhappy over how I treated his little sister. “I don’t care Papa. I. DON’T. CARE.”

Papa still has the stubbles I used to love as a kid. On those rare visits of his, with my mom’s consent of course. I remember loving the feel of it on my baby cheek. This small town is barely five hours from my family home, but he never cared to visit me more than twice a year. In my first ten years of life, Mommy was always careful about saying only good things about Papa. She never really wanted me to bear hatred on him, even if they split a little after I was born because of his infidelity. He did make the occasional calls, missed my birthdays by a day EVERY SINGLE YEAR, and sent postcards with my name misspelled. For a time I thought that was charming and misspelled his name on my letters too.

I knew the situation I was in. He has his own family—that’s why we couldn’t see each other as often as we should. As a kid, I still ate up his reasons of being too busy and of visiting being too expensive. Of course he is Papa. He was infallible.

And then logic tells me there’s no excuse for visiting the expensive new mountain resort north of my city with his family and not dropping by to see me. There’s no logical reason for him to be on a trip to Cebu with his only other daughter apart from me on her birthday, and not calling on mine. Everything fell into place in one of my English classes in freshman high school. Clichés. Example: IF THERE’S A WILL, THERE’S A WAY.

“You never willed it, Papa. You never wanted to see me. You broke too many promises. You broke my heart ten million times. Even Alex can’t fix it. I wonder what you’d tell God when He asks you about me. I could be your ticket to hell. That and the way you treated me. You never loved me, AT ALL. I was just the product of some good orgasm and your pretense at love. You don’t know how to love. Neither do I, and it’s all your fault,” I say to Papa. I can feel my eyes burning. The first time since I learned of Papa’s death that I felt like crying.

Papa died of a bus accident. What a pity. He was the only one who died from the accident; and he died because he panicked and had a heart attack. Everyone else in the bus didn’t get anything worse than bruises. He was on his way to see me.

“Fuck you papa, you bitch…” I tell him again. My evil laughter is ringing in my head, and the first teardrop for my estranged father makes its way to my cheeks. ”You’re always late. This time, you’re too late…”

And then Alex comes to my side and holds me. He kisses me by the ear and whispers, “they wanna talk with you babe.”  He then wipes the lone tear on my cheek and presses my hand.

In the kitchen, the wife, the four legitimate kids, and the five siblings of my father huddle around the dining table. The dirty dog they call pet is half asleep underneath. I can smell its putrid dog smell. I keep wondering how they can stomach it.

“Good that you’re here,” one of Papa’s brothers exclaims. “We are going to settle your father’s properties. He didn’t have much, but I’m sure he wanted all of you to have something” he announces with an air like a lawyer.

“Uhm, aren’t we supposed to do this with a lawyer? Like, this is legal shit,” I say. Their eyes widen as I said the profanity.

The eldest child, Rafael (or was it Raffy?) intervenes, “Papa left a letter to me, Ate. I think, we all think, this is enough. And besides, we cannot afford hiring an attorney,” he says. He got shy over the last bit.

So I shut my mouth and stop myself from embarrassing any of them any more than I already have. They continue with all the gibberish about who’s getting the what and the where from my father’s loot. My ears stand in attention as Raffy (or Rafael? whatever) says my name. He takes out a sheet of yellow paper and reads a letter, apparently, from my father to me.

And then he stops midway into the “how are you” part. He says, “I think you should read it by yourself, Ate. That’s the letter he was bringing with him on his way to see you—before he died.”

“Dear Melissa.”

To the very end, Papa never got it right. What’s so hard about M-A-L-I-S-S-A? Sigh.

Papa, as usual, is saying a lot of shit in his letter. I am struck only by the last paragraph.

“I love you my little Princess, my firstborn. I love you Melissa. I always have. And I’m writing this because I know I can never will myself to say it to you…because I’m scared. I’ve become too scared of your success, of your smarts. My child is more intelligent than me just like her mommy. I’m as proud as I’m scared. But I love you baby. Remember that. I am so happy that Alex is none of the scaredy cat that I have been.”

My hands are cold. My feet are cold. My mind is in a panic mode, willing for Alex to come get me, or at least come and bring me my inhaler. I can’t cry, much as I would want to. Fuck you, again, Papa. Fuck you, and your last will. You never really made it.

Hannah is a 21-year old graduate of AB English from the Ateneo de Davao University and is currently working as a content writer for a local BPO Company. She was under the tutelage of such Davao writing greats as Dr Macario Tiu and The Don Pagusara and is in the process of finding her “own voice” in her pieces. 

My Father Drowned in Soup

Nonfiction by | December 14, 2008

My Father drowned in soup.

I was around four or five when my aunts and grandma taught me that. It was their way of explaining why, unlike other kids, I had no Papa. We would rehearse every once in a while among ourselves, or in front of my come-and-go seafarers for uncles, and I would be delighted to see them amused at how great I was at it.

In my young mind, I would often wonder how my Father drowned in soup. It was not as if I had not seen him at all. Maybe, at that age I had been with him twice or thrice, though I am not sure now. I would imagine my Papa with his big, chubby body, his arms flailing, and his entire head submerged in a bowl of chicken tinola he was having for lunch. What a sight!

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Mga Mama ug Mga Papa

Fiction by | June 22, 2008

Nag-away na pud si Anna ug ang iyang Mama, maong sa coffee shop siya nagtambay. Ang hinungdan ang iyang pseudo-stepfather. Nahibal-an man gud ni Anna na magpakasal na sila. Nagdagan-dagan pa sa utok ni Anna ang tubaganay nila sa iyang Mama samtang naga-order siya sa counter, hangtud paglingkod niya sa table dapit sa bintana sa shop.

“He makes me happy! Nganung dili man na nimu makita? Ug nganung dili man na nimu masabtan?”

“Happy? Happy ka na mabawasan imung love para sa akoa tungod sa iyaha?!”

“You know that’s not true anak!”

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