Archive for August 2015

Love After Heaven, Parts 21 to 25

“I don’t want to be a mistress,” Julie said to Frankie, as they were lying down quietly after making love. “When my husband was alive, I was a lover. You were my lover. But now that he is dead and you are still married, I am a mistress. I don’t want that.”

“I will kill my wife,” said Frankie. “Just give me time.”

Julie didn’t know what to think. It was bad enough that she was an accessory after the fact of her husband’s murder. She didn’t really want her husband dead. She just wanted good sex, which he was incapable of giving her. But she loved her husband. She loved the way he patiently listened as she talked about the problems she was facing with the teachers in the school, how the teachers wanted to experiment with new ways of teaching, how she wanted them to stick to what was already working. If it works, she would tell the teachers, why change it?

She loved the way her husband had taken time every Friday evening to treat her to a nice dinner in a fancy restaurant. It wasn’t the cost, although she did not mind being occasionally in the company of the rich and famous. It was the thoughtfulness. He would order her favorite dish, Teriyaki Tilapia with herb salad. She loved the way the waiters would stare at him, wondering if he had read the menu, where it was not offered. But since he was wealthy, the chef would invariably come out and say that, yes, they would prepare the dish and would they just wait a little bit?

She loved the way they shared jokes. He always found something funny to say about everything and everyone. In contrast, she would repeat only jokes that she got from Facebook or from old joke books in the school library.

In contrast, Frankie was good for sex and for nothing else. He had no interest in anything remotely intellectual. He couldn’t care less about education and children. Before and after sex, he talked of nothing else but sex, how good she was in bed, how good it was for him, how he wanted more, what positions they would try next time.

He would say he loved her, and she sometimes believed him, but not really. She had read enough romance novels to know that “I love you” was a mere formula for men to have what they wanted. The phrase had nothing to do with real love.

They had met in an alumni homecoming. He was there escorting one of her batch mates in college. Even at that time, she should have realized that he was not the faithful type, since he was already married then. But like every mistress or would-be mistress, she hoped that he would leave his wife and live happily ever after with her. Except that she was married at that time. Except that he was still married now.

Physically, her husband was not too different from Frankie. They were both tall, standing over six feet. They both had well-sculpted bodies, Frankie a little bit better than her husband. Frankie must have been working out regularly, unlike her husband whose exercise consisted only of a daily early-morning three-mile walk around the park near their condominium. They both had rugged looks, her husband perhaps looking a bit younger because he always shaved; Frankie always had a stubble even in the mornings.

Julie missed her husband. No matter how bad he was in bed, he was always there when she needed comfort or reassurance. When she once had to undergo an emergency appendectomy, he cancelled all his appointments and stayed with her in the hospital. Because it was not a laparoscopic appendectomy, she had to stay for three days in the hospital, but he stayed with her. They saw all the old reruns on the hospital TV and joked the whole time about how silly popular movies were. It made the hospital stay less of a trauma.

During all those medical procedures to determine why they did not have children, he was always with her, cheerfully kidding the doctors about how they had to study for decades just to help married couples do what came naturally. But he would never hear of changing his sexual positions, even if one sexologist had recommended it. He kept to the missionary position. She had to be with Frankie to try the positions listed in the Kama Sutra; they had not gone through twenty of the hundred positions, because she kept asking him to repeat positions she particularly enjoyed.

* * *

Saturday morning could have been the beginning of perhaps an overnight trip with Frankie, but Julie was just not in the mood. She had had her orgasm the other day, and that was good enough to tide her over the next couple of weeks. She had the urge and she fulfilled it. Frankie was good for that, but not having to lie to her husband about working in school must have taken partly away the thrill of a whole day or even the whole weekend with this married man. This married man who still refused to leave his wife. This married man who did not seem as attractive now that she was free to be with him.

She spent the morning putting all of her husband’s books into boxes, to be donated to some library somewhere. She had first thought of giving them to her own school, but she dreaded the thought of seeing them in the hands of the children to remind her of her unfaithfulness. She also put all of her husband’s clothes into boxes, also to be donated to some charity somewhere.

Her husband was meticulously neat. It did not take long for her to get the books and the clothes into several huge, identical boxes.

She wondered who would be interested in the boxes. Then she thought of Father Romy. He seemed like a good guy, rather attractive actually, a bit like her husband, tall, serious but with a little lightness in his eyes, unflappable. If he were not a priest, she mused momentarily, he might even make someone a good husband, or perhaps a lover, or at least a friend.

She needed a friend. Perhaps Father Romy could be a friend.

She asked the driver to carry the boxes to the parking area and place them inside her van, one of several vehicles she and her husband owned.

She would go to the parish and look up that priest who did not mind being bullied by her.

“I have books and clothes for your poor parishioners, Father,” Julie said, when Father Romy opened the door of the rectory for her.

She noticed that he had a slight limp as he led her into the reception area of the rectory. She had not noticed that when he was in her school.

“That’s very thoughtful of you,” Father Romy said.

“Where shall I put them?” Julie asked.

“Just put them somewhere in the garage,” said Father Romy. “The parish boys can take care of them.”

Julie stepped back to the front door and waved to the driver. She pointed to the area in front of the garage. The driver nodded, then proceeded to unload the boxes.

Julie returned to the reception area.

“How are you, Father?” she asked Father Romy, who was now sitting awkwardly on a chair.

“I’m good,” said Father Romy. “I really appreciate your thinking of my parish.”

“I thought that I should make amends for my interrupting your speech at my school, Father,” Julie said.

Father Romy winced at the memory. Yes, this was the woman who had both attracted and annoyed him.

“The children now say their prayers before meals a little bit more fervently, Father,” said Julie.

Father Romy smiled. He nodded. “That’s good.”

Julie had not yet sat down. Father Romy motioned for her to sit down. She did. He felt good that she had followed his will, rather than he following hers.

“I noticed you were reading the Bible, Father,” said Julie, pointing to the Bible that was open on the coffee table.

“It’s my bread and butter,” said Father Romy, not without some sarcasm.

Julie ignored the tone. “I also read the Bible a bit,” she said, “when I have the time.”

Father Romy nodded. Well, at least, he thought, she might learn something from the word of God instead of being so haughty.

“Well, Father,” Julie said, standing up. “I know you’re busy. I won’t keep you any longer. I know that my husband’s books and clothes are in good hands.”

“Give my thanks to your husband,” said Father Romy.

Julie said, a little bit too lightly, “Oh, Father, he’s dead.”

“I’m sorry to hear that,” said Father Romy, genuinely embarrassed by his gaffe.

“It’s okay, Father,” Julie said. “When God closes a door, he opens a window. Your parishioners now have a small library and some really nice clothes.”

“God has her ways,” Father Romy said.

Julie was puzzled by the use of a female personal pronoun, but she thought that, perhaps, the good priest was just not so good in grammar.

“Well, Father,” Julie said, “I’ll see you around.”

She offered her hand. Father Romy stood up and took the hand. It was such a good feeling, touching this woman, but the cilice bit into his thigh. He shivered.

“Are you all right, Father?” Julie asked.

“Yes, yes,” said Father Romy. “I’m okay. And thank you on behalf of my parishioners.”

“And thank you for coming to my school,” said Julie.

Julie wondered why their handshake was taking so long.

* * *

After officiating at Sunday Mass, Father Romy decided to have his lunch at a giant mall downtown. He loved walking around without children or pious women kissing his hand. It wasn’t just being incognito. It was also his way of experiencing what his parishioners did outside the church. He had read The Shoes of the Fisherman, the novel by Morris West, and he liked to imagine himself as Pope Kiril exploring Rome without anyone knowing he was the pope.

As usual during Sundays, the mall was overflowing with people. The mall had replaced the park as the venue for family outings. Very few people actually shopped in the hundreds of shops in the mall. Some people ate in the hundreds of food outlets. Most people, however, just walked up and down the malls as a respite from Manila’s overpowering heat and air pollution.

Father Romy was admiring a sound system that he wished his parish had, when a loud sound knocked him off his feet. He did not know that sound could do that, but there he was, on his back, looking up at the ceiling. He turned to his right side and saw that several people were also lying on their backs, presumably also knocked down by the sound.

He sat up and saw smoke rising from the central portion of the mall. There were people running away from the smoke. He heard screams from men, women, children, from everyone in the mall, even those not near the smoke.

He stood up unsteadily. He saw that some of the shop windows had cracked and broken glass was everywhere. He marveled at how the people did not go inside the shops to help themselves to the goods there. Perhaps the recent government campaigns about honesty had worked.

He looked up and said a silent prayer to thank God that he was still alive. He noticed blood coming from his left arm. There was a piece of glass on his arm. He pried it loose with his right hand and quickly placed his handkerchief over the wound. He remembered that he had undergone first aid training at some point in his youth, and he knew how to deal with wounds, particularly this superficial one.

He walked towards the smoke, the only one going there rather than rushing out the exits. He wanted to help whoever had been hurt, and there were a number. He first lifted up some small children who were crying and pointed them towards the exits. Fortunately, there were other adults there who did not think only of themselves but helped children move with the crowd.

He saw a young man, who could not have been more than eighteen years old, bleeding profusely from what looked like stab wounds all over his face, neck, arms, and legs. They were not stab wounds, of course, but wounds caused by glass and metal. There was blood all over his shirt. The young man looked up at him. Father Romy was not a doctor, but he knew that this man was not going to make it.

Suddenly, déjà vu. He remembered someone with stab wounds. It was himself! That was ridiculous, of course, he said to himself. He was never stabbed by anyone, and all he had from this blast, or whatever it was, was a small wound on his arm. But he clearly saw himself on the floor of somewhere dark. He was behind a car. His car? There was someone else there, someone stabbing him from the back, then from the front. He could not see clearly who it was, but he knew that it was he who was being stabbed. He could even feel the pain, the shock, the confusion.

Father Romy shook his head to rid himself of that vision, or whatever it was. There were wounded people around. There were dying or even dead people here. He was a priest. He had to minister to them, to give them the last rites, to make sure that they would be able to confess so they could go to heaven.

The thought of heaven brought a strange light into the mall. No, it wasn’t in the mall. That light was in his eyes or in his mind or in his imagination. Or perhaps he himself was afraid of going to heaven prematurely. He was a priest, for heaven’s sake. He was not supposed to be afraid of going to heaven. In fact, he was supposed to want to go to heaven. To die. To move from temporal existence to everlasting happiness.

Father Romy was a picture of calm as he walked around the people lying on the mall floor, blessing them, telling them not to bother mentioning all their sins to him because he was automatically absolving them. Whose sins you shall forgive, they are forgiven them. He forgave them all their sins.

Inside, however, Father Romy was a picture of chaos. He had seen someone very like himself being stabbed, dying, going to heaven.

* * *

Julie was having a really bad day.

The Department of Education had sent her a letter asking her to explain why her school was not following the new mandated curriculum. The new curriculum was differentiated. Each student was supposed to be judged individually. If a student excelled in one subject but was lagging in another, the student was not supposed to be treated like everyone else in the class, but had to be given special attention by the teachers.

Julie would not have any of that. She wanted everyone in Grade 1 to do exactly the same thing at exactly the same time according to exactly the same pace. She had majored in Piaget’s Stages of Cognitive Development for her education degree, but she did not like the flexibility of Piaget’s model. Instead, she wanted precision, not the vagueness of a period of concrete operations that lasted for five years or a period of formal operations that lasted forever. If a child was 10 years old, that child was supposed to behave like every other 10-year-old. That was procedure. Period.

Frankie was also always texting her. He wanted to meet her after work. Her work, not his. He seemed not to be working at all. Julie did not really know how he made his living. She never asked. More precisely, she never had time to ask. They were always having sex, or even if they were talking, it was always she who was talking. His end of the conversation was always, except for that remark about killing her husband and his own wife, about sex itself.

“I’ve read Lady Chatterley’s Lover,” he once said, in a rare mention of something remotely literate, “and they don’t talk about anything except John Thomas and Lady Jane.”

“Stop texting me,” she texted Frankie, but Frankie could not be stopped.

“Shall I stop fucking you?” he texted back.

Julie was annoyed and thrilled at the same time. The sexual talk was just so far away from her everyday life as principal that it served not as a comic relief, but as a reality check. She might have been a cold, untouchable principal on the outside, but in those secret moments with Frankie, she was what she really wanted to be – a sexually fulfilled woman.

Being conflicted in school and in her own body was too much for one day. Julie decided that she needed to talk to someone, to seek advice, to unburden herself. She did not want to go to a shrink. Manila was a small town. Everybody knew everybody else. There were very few reputable shrinks. It was going to be public knowledge soon enough that she was in a shrink’s clinic, waiting for her hour of non-directive counseling.

I can see that priest, she said to herself. Everybody goes to a priest. After work today, she would go and talk to Father Romy.

Love After Heaven, Parts 16 to 20

Father Romy faced the children in the auditorium. He was impressed by their behavior. They were absolutely quiet. Their faces were all turned towards him. None of them even shifted in his or her seat.

“Dear children,” he began, in a tone that he hoped would sound parental. The children did not react. They just sat looking at him, with no emotion that he could identify. They could very well be just manikins or robots.

“Dear children,” he repeated. “Good morning.”

All the children suddenly shouted in unison, “Good morning, visitor!”

Momentarily surprised, Father Romy wanted to laugh. He was not a visitor. He had been invited at the last minute by a fellow priest to conduct a recollection.

He heard the voice of the principal over the loudspeaker.

“Children,” the voice said, “Father is not a visitor. He is here to help you with your spiritual life.”

The children all fell silent.

The principal, who had a wireless microphone in her hand, approached Father Romy on the stage. As she walked towards him, he felt something stir inside him. As a priest, he was not supposed to react in any physical way to women. When women came close to him to take a selfie or to shake or kiss his hand, he never felt anything that he could call remotely physical. He knew that concupiscence was a common problem for priests, but he himself never experienced it, at least as far as he could remember.

Now, however, there was something. It wasn’t quite concupiscence. It wasn’t even what he would consider desire. But it was definitely something.

The principal looked like the stereotype he had in his mind about principals. She was tall and slim. She was dressed in a long-sleeved uniform, revealing nothing of her arms. Except her hands, which had long fingers.

Her skirt was way below her knees. He could see the stockings glimmer in the subdued light of the auditorium. They were nice-looking legs, what he could see of them below the skirt. He shook his head to remove the thought of even looking at her legs. Vaguely, he remembered the prohibition against “bad thoughts.” “If you fill your mind with bad thoughts,” he seemed to remember some older priest telling him, “there will be no place for sublime ones.”

He moved his eyes from her legs to her breasts. Although her uniform was designed so that she would not have to put a hand on her chest every time she would bend to pick up something from the floor, he could still see that she was not flat-chested. Again, he tried very hard to move away from that train of thought. Unconsciously, he looked up at the ceiling, hoping perhaps to find an angel or two hovering there to keep him from succumbing to the ways of the flesh.

“Father,” Julie whispered, thankfully interrupting his inner struggle with himself and bringing him back to the podium, from where he was expected to hurl fire and brimstone on the young children. “I apologize for the outburst of the children. They are used to answering ‘Good morning, visitor’ when someone from the outside greets them ‘Good morning’ in their classrooms. They will now listen attentively to what you want to say to them. Please continue.”

This woman’s authoritative tone bothered Father Romy a bit. He was a priest. He was used to telling his parishioners what to do. For this woman, this lovely woman, this strangely attractive woman, to tell him what to do was, well, unexpected. Not to mention that the two of them were on stage and she was not supposed to talk to him at all.

But Father Romy, drilled into obedience by what he supposed were years of training in a hierarchical church, continued as told.

“Dear children,” he said, for the third time now. “I want to tell you the good news.”

Julie interrupted him in what was now a loud whisper, “Father, I failed to mention that this is an ecumenical recollection. Please do not say anything that will offend the children who have Jewish or Muslim parents.”

Twice interrupted! Father Romy was a little peeved. But she was attractive. He could imagine touching those long, tapering fingers and being touched by them. He shook, then nodded his head. He could not possibly offend the children, he thought, because he didn’t have the proper words to say, anyway.

“Please continue,” Julie whispered.

Father Romy continued. “The good news is that there is a Supreme Being that keeps us alive.”

That was more like it, thought Julie. This priest learned quickly, she said to herself. No talk of any specific god. Just a Supreme Being.

Father Romy continued. “You will learn from your studies now or later that we human beings have been on planet earth for only a very short time. Before us, there were all kinds of animals, even dinosaurs. You have all seen drawings of dinosaurs, right?”

Julie whispered to him. “They have all watched the Jurassic Park series, Father.”

Now, this principal was really getting into his nerves, thought Father Romy. He was delivering what was supposed to be a speech to inspire and she kept talking to him. That had never before happened to him, at least as far as he could remember, which was admittedly not very far back.

Father Romy continued, “Can the dinosaurs or any animal or the trees or the waves on the sea be there without someone or something causing them to exist?”

Julie nodded. This was more like it.

“Did the Supreme Being create the universe and then just leave it alone? That doesn’t make sense, dear children, because we cannot, all by ourselves, cause ourselves to exist. The Supreme Being must still be creating us.”

Julie motioned to him. She whispered, “Father, please do not be philosophical. The children just need to be told that they should pray before meals.”

This was really silly, thought Father Romy. If that is all this principal wanted, she could have told them that herself.

As though reading his thoughts, Julie said, “They pray before meals, but they do not know why. Just tell them why, Father.”

Father Romy could not believe what was happening. He was being told what to say and what not to say. How dare this woman? But then again, how could she do any wrong when she was so attractive?

Father Romy continued. “So, my dear children, we have to pray before meals.”

He stepped back from the microphone and waved goodbye to the children.

The children shouted, in unison, “Goodbye, visitor! Have a nice day!”

Father Romy turned to get down from the stage of the auditorium. Julie shook his hand and placed an envelope of money in it.

Father Romy took the money, but it wasn’t the money that he was thinking about. He was thinking about how nice it felt to touch this woman’s hand.

“We prepared merienda for you, Father,” Julie said. It was customary to offer a guest speaker refreshments after a speech.

“I don’t really have time,” said Father Romy, following the Filipino formula for such invitations. You always first declined an invitation that you knew very well you would eventually have to honor.

“It’s just a small merienda, Father,” Julie said, continuing the prescribed social formula. “It won’t take up too much of your time.”

“All right,” said Father Romy, finishing the prescribed dialogue.

They sat down to the small snack with five of the teachers. It was small by Philippine standards, just rice cakes and hot chocolate. Most “snacks” after a speech were full square meals.

Father Romy politely took a small rice cake. He was not hungry, at least not for food.

“Father,” Julie said. “My teachers and I are worried about the spiritual lives of the children. We feel that they are growing up without the fear of God. They seem to spend all their time after school in the internet cafes around the corner or in the shopping mall. We don’t see them carrying prayer books or rosaries or bibles or anything at all that seems religious. We force them to say grace before their meals during recess, but it’s just mere routine for them.”

Father Romy nodded. His mind was not on what Julie was saying, but on how her lips moved while she was saying it. They were well-formed lips, almost like the ones in lipstick ads. They reminded him of movies where the actresses always had their lips slightly open, asking to be kissed. He clenched his right fist and hoped that no one noticed. It was his way of reminding himself not to think unthinkable thoughts.

Julie kept speaking. “The Bible says, ‘Suffer the little children,’ but these little children, and I know that many of them are not little anymore, these children cannot recognize Jesus if He walked into this campus.”

Father Romy was surprised, not only at Julie quoting a Bible verse, but at how low-pitched her voice was. On the stage, she was whispering and seemed to be in a panic. Her voice then was high-pitched, or what he thought was high-pitched. Now, she had what he and his friends in school called a “bedroom voice.”

Father Romy was surprised, this time by his having a memory of something that happened before the birthday party, which he thought was his earliest memory. Yes, although he was agitated internally by something stirring in his groin, he was thinking not just of this woman, but of his classmates in his boys’ high school. He was the youngest in his class. He had been accelerated four times in two years, because his teachers had found him too advanced intellectually for his grade level. He remembered how he had been teased all throughout high school by his classmates, who were at least four years older than him. He was still playing with toy trucks and toy soldiers, pretending to be a general in a land war, when his classmates were all talking about the girls in the neighboring girls’ high school and already engaged in the war of the sexes.

Perhaps his memory was coming back?

Julie’s “bedroom voice” made him stare at her well-formed nose. He remembered that, in the seminary, he had been conditioned to look only at people’s noses, not into their eyes or at any other part of their body. That maneuver was supposed to keep priests from being attracted to persons of the opposite sex, as they used to call women then. Another memory!

“Father,” Julie said, “is there anything wrong? You seem so far away.”

“He’s a priest,” a male teacher said. “His mind is always on heaven.”

There was subdued laughter. Father Romy noticed that Julie did not laugh. She just smiled, but almost imperceptibly. It was, Father Romy thought, forgiving himself the cliché, a heavenly smile.

 

As soon as he politely could, Father Romy left the school and returned to the rectory of his parish. He brought out his metal cilice and placed it around his left thigh. He felt the spikes bite into his skin, but they did not draw blood. It was something he could do to atone for the moments of weakness he felt in the presence of that woman.

That woman. He had to refer to the school principal that way. He did not want to pronounce her name, afraid that he would burst out into a song like that in West Side Story. The most beautiful sound I ever heard and all that. He did not want to single her out among the women who came too close to him, invading his personal space, ignoring his celibate status, making him relive the temptation Jesus Himself had in the desert or with Mary Magdalene caressing His feet or the woman found in adultery. He was not sure that he was as strong as Jesus.

Walking with a slight limp due to the cilice, he went to the small library of the rectory and took out a Bible. He knew that he must have read it a lot in the past, because he instinctively knew where to find the passages that would give him peace.

Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, he read, mouthing the line voicelessly. Thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.

What was this, Father Romy said to himself. When he read the line about the rod, he thought of his own rod, that appendage that he thought was going to be useless in his celibate life. The thought made him even more aware of the discomfort caused by the cilice.

My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me, Father Romy recited from memory, his eyes away from the pages. He brought his eyes back to the Bible and flipped the page back to Psalm 22, right before Psalm 23. Why art thou so far from helping me?

Father Romy had never been this conflicted before, at least since the birthday party. He felt physically drained by his spiritual battle with himself.

He suddenly remembered a debate he had with the Father Superior in the seminary.

“You can’t take the lines of the Bible out of context,” Father Superior had said to him.

He had retorted back, “But if each line of the Bible was written by God, then each line must be self-contained and true.”

Father Superior was a biblical scholar and was not about to agree with a sophomore seminarian.

There is no God,” Father Superior said. “That’s straight from Psalm 14. Does that mean that the Bible claims that there is no God?”

Father Romy vividly remembered that he had opened the Old Testament to prove to Father Superior that the latter was wrong. Father Romy – then simply Romy – had to think for at least five minutes after he read the complete verse in the Bible. The fool hath said in his heart, There is no God. He eventually learned in his literature class that literary critics in the middle of the twentieth century had written about that very verse. But literary critics did not see the Bible as divinely inspired. They read it the way they would read the Iliad, a well-written narrative but devoid of any transcendent meaning.

Father Romy marveled at how old memories seemed to be coming back to him. If he could only figure out what triggered these old memories, maybe he could remember where he was and who he was and what he was. Then maybe he would know where he was going.

* * *

Julie wanted sex. It was that time of the month. Her body craved it.

She had confessed and was, therefore, in a state of grace, but she wanted to give in to temptation anyway. She was still upset over Frankie killing her husband, but Frankie was the only one who would satisfy her monthly craving for an orgasm.

She did not want to do what she had heard other widows did. Widows, not just women who lost their husbands, but golf widows, or women whose husbands worked overseas. She did not want to order sex toys online and use them to simulate lovemaking.

She texted Frankie. “Come,” she texted.

It was, of course, much more convenient now that her husband was dead and buried. Frankie and she did not have to go to hotels or motels or anywhere where her co-teachers or – worse – her students might see her. Now, Frankie could just go to her condo unit. The guards and the maids, having been paid off, would keep their mouths shut and would not even gossip among themselves.

It would be the first time, since her husband’s death, that she would have Frankie in her bedroom. She had told him, frankly, that she did not want to see him again, did not want to hear from him, did not want to have him. She did not know that he was not joking when he said that he would kill her husband. But he had not killed his wife, which was the other part of what she thought was a joke. But she consciously did not allow herself to think that, perhaps, just perhaps, he was never going to leave his wife, never going to kill her, never going to go away to Hong Kong on that fantasy honeymoon.

She took a long, lingering shower, during which she touched herself, wishing that Frankie would touch her again as he used to. She put on some make-up and perfume – the best one her husband had brought home from a business trip to Paris. She chose a negligee that she had bought on a trip to New York; it hid nothing of her charms, which she herself – if she may be so bold, she said to herself – were not entirely unremarkable. She had only the negligee on, nothing else.

Frankie rang the doorbell much earlier than she expected. The maids let him in. He went straight to the bedroom that the maids pointed out to him, where she was waiting, pretending to not be too eager.

He took her into his arms, kissed her roughly, then carried her, yes, carried her, to the bed, where he slowly, oooh ever so slowly, kissed her neck, lingering there, not touching her breasts, then finally touching them, caressing them, kissing them one at a time, alternately, touching her down there, yes, down there, kissing her there, making her tingle with desire, finally removing her negligee and revealing what she had revealed to him so many times before. But always, with Frankie, every time seemed like the first time.

When she finally shouted “OH, MY GOD!” the face she saw with her eyes closed was not that of Frankie, nor that of her late husband, but of, oh my God, Father Romy.

Love After Heaven, Parts 11 to 15

Julie allowed her mobile phone to keep ringing. She had put it on silent but vibrating mode.

It was the twelfth time in the last hour that Frankie had tried to reach her. Not that she was counting. Okay, so she was counting.

Burning her husband in the crematorium had shocked her into rethinking her affair with Frankie. It was one thing to enjoy sex with her lover while her husband was at work or at home. It was quite another thing to see her husband being fed into the oven, with the flames rushing up to devour him.

She cried then, not the tears she pretended to shed in the funeral parlor, but real tears, tears of repentance, tears of guilt, tears of – yes – love.

She loved her husband. Yes, she did. It was the sex that made her cheat on him. The sex he never really gave her.

With him, it was always let’s do it, there it’s done, good night. With Frankie, it was always let’s do it, yes, but later, much later, meanwhile let’s kiss, fondle, touch, talk, enjoy the moments before I enter you, before I give you what you’ve been asking for for a whole hour now. With her husband, it was him loudly snoring immediately after, but with Frankie, they were always awake for yet another hour, talking about things that seemed to matter at that time though she could not really recall them now, except that she would reveal to him all the childhood anxieties she had, how she hated her parents, how she thought that they did not bring her up secure and happy, how they denied her all the pleasures of childhood, how she wanted to take her revenge on them by being principal of an elementary school that was secure, predictable, and solid because it had not changed at all but had stuck to the old ways of doing things, the way she herself had been brought up, how she had turned away anything that would disturb the universe of her school, like all those newfangled ideas about why children should be allowed to be themselves and about how the classrooms should not be designed like a college classroom with the professors talking down to students who would dutifully take down notes, how she had kept the school alive through her insistence on the old and time-tested values, how her job was her life, how Frankie was now her life, how she wished she had not married so young or at all.

She didn’t remember anything that Frankie told her, except that Frankie talked about killing her husband and then killing his wife and then the two of them going away to Hong Kong where they would live happily ever after.

She thought that it was just idle talk after one of their simultaneous orgasms.

Then Frankie did it. He went one day to the fourth floor of the parking garage of their condominium, waited until her husband had opened the trunk to put in his briefcase – which was what he did every day without fail on the hour – then stabbed his neck once, then his back, then when her husband managed to turn around, his chest, repeatedly, surgically, unhesitatingly, coldly.

Frankie left the parking garage as quietly as when he had walked through the fire exit from the second floor, where he had parked his own car. The guards thought that he had come to pick her up again as he usually did on Saturdays or on days the husband was away on a business trip. As the car exited the parking garage, they did not peer through the heavy tint to see Frankie’s hands all covered with blood. Her husband’s blood.

The driver of another car came upon the bloodied body of her husband. Miraculously, her husband was alive when he was brought to the emergency room. Alive, of course, was a figure of speech. He was in some sort of coma. He was kept alive by a multitude of tubes and drugs. The doctors argued about his being clinically dead, but Julie was too distracted to make the decision to pull the plug. She had to attend to a number of other serious matters.

She gave the guards a couple of hundred thousand each to keep quiet. She said that she did not want a scandal. Not the scandal of a murder, but the scandal of a prim and proper school principal having an affair with a married man.

She asked her two maids to give large envelopes of money to cops if – when – they came around to ask about the murder.

The case was not even reported in the newspapers. The police reporters got their share of the cash given to the cops.

Even the reporters stationed at the emergency room received gift certificates redeemable in appliance stores.

Only the doctors and nurses could not be bribed, but they were too busy with too many patients to worry about one stabbing victim.

Eventually, the line on the electrocardiogram went flat and her husband was pronounced dead, really dead.

The coroner erased the cause of death written by the doctors (“internal bleeding secondary to multiple stab wounds”) and simply wrote “cardiac arrest” as the cause of death. A month later, he and his entire staff went on a Mediterranean cruise.

The funeral parlor received a huge grant for its satellite building.

Everybody had been hushed up. Nobody else found out about the murder.

But today, after going to confession, she felt strangely peaceful. There was something about the voice of that priest. She couldn’t see him well through the perforations in the confessional box, but she heard his voice. It was a soothing voice. Almost familiar.

* * *

It was the usual regimented quiet after the Monday morning flag ceremony. Julie had trained her teachers well, and the teachers, in turn, had trained their students even better. All the students queued as they were supposed to, alphabetically within the grade levels, and walked to their respective classrooms in the kind of order that she wanted. No getting out of line, no talking, no veering away from procedure. Nothing to disturb the school universe.

Procedure. This was how Julie called the discipline she required of everybody in school. The teachers had to submit their lesson plans for the week two weeks in advance. The students had to be on campus ten minutes – not earlier, not later – before the bell rang. The parents who had brought their children to school had to be out of the campus five minutes – not later than that – before their children lined up for the opening assembly.

There was always an opening assembly. She wanted the children to know that, on Mondays, there would be a flag ceremony, where everyone would put their right hand on their chest and sing the national anthem, recite the patriotic pledge, and sing the school hymn. Yes, the school hymn with hand on chest!

On Tuesdays, everyone would do calisthenics. Sound mind in a sound body, Julie would keep repeating over the public address system, counting from one to eight and backwards to one.

On Wednesdays, everyone would pray. Julie was nominally Roman Catholic, since she was baptized when she was an infant, when she had no religious freedom. She went to church every Sunday, because her husband wanted her to. She did not really understand why people had to stand, sit, kneel, sing, nod at each other, or whatever, but she wanted her husband not to know that there was something wrong with their marriage. Besides, it was good for the parents to see her being pious.

Pious she was not, but during the times when there was no one in the principal’s office, she would read the Bible. She had read the entire book once, from cover to cover. Nowadays, she would play a game with herself. She would randomly insert a bookmark, point her right index finger with her eyes looking up at the portrait of the school’s founder – a young mother back in the fifties who wanted to have more children than the dozen she already had – and read the verse that her finger landed on. She used that verse as others used a horoscope or a fortune cookie.

She also knew that people had to have their faith or they would, as a Russian novelist once put it, be allowed to do whatever they wanted to do. She could not have that. She believed with her entire being that, if students and teachers and parents followed procedure, the world would be a better place in the future.

The Wednesday prayer was not Catholic, but ecumenical, all inclusive. Julie would intone, “Lord God, Yahweh, Allah, Jehovah, you have many names. We call on you to guide us in following procedure. Amen.” That was it. No long, memorized prayers that no one really understood. Nothing that she felt would offend anybody’s religion.

On Thursdays, everyone would stand silently for three minutes (no more, no less), thinking of whatever they wanted to think of. Julie would have preferred that they thought of nothing at all, since that was what she learned from a television show about meditation, but she didn’t know how to impose that, particularly on teachers who had to think of what they would do the moment the children would be inside their classrooms. So she contented herself with the three minutes of silence.

On Fridays, everyone would do what professional singers and theater performers did before performances – vocalize. She once tried having everyone do what she read on the Web –massage the temporal mandibular joints, stick out the tongue, yawn, sing “Ahh” going up and down the scale – but too many students ended up laughing. She now merely asked everyone to shout as loud as they could, then to whisper as softly as they could, then to sing the first two verses from George Frideric Handel’s Messiah. Five Hallelujahs made her Fridays. Even if they were sung off-key. Even if they were not exactly the lines of Psalm 117.

Saturdays, of course, were not for the children but for Frankie. She would tell her husband that she had to catch up with work in the school, but she would really either spend the whole morning in bed with Frankie or watch a movie with him on the days she had her period.

Sundays, after the obligatory Mass with her husband, were for pretending to like pottering around the house.

There was one thing she liked about her husband, though, that she did not get from Frankie. She and her husband would have seemingly endless arguments about some verse in the Bible. Like her, her husband loved reading the Bible. Unlike him, she looked at the Bible as a literary text and not as a religious document. Their intellectual debates were the closest she got to having simultaneous orgasm with her husband. In fact, it was the closest she got to having an orgasm at all with him.

Julie was beside herself. Everything had been planned, all details had been agreed and written down, the school was ready for the recollection.

She had convinced the parents who were not Catholic that the recollection would be good for the children. She had told the priest not to insist on anything remotely peculiar to the Catholic religion. She wanted merely that the children would learn to pray to some transcendent being. The objective was spirituality, not religion.

With barely an hour to go, the priest called in sick. He was profuse in his apologies, but Julie wouldn’t hear of it. She implored the priest to come in, even if he had very high fever and some rashes. What did she care if the priest died of dengue or lupus or whatever it was that he had caught? She needed a warm body to stand in front of the children in the auditorium and make them pray.

The priest said, not to worry, he was sending a priest who was certain to give the principal what she wanted. His name was Father Romy.

 

Love After Heaven, Parts 6 to 10

Now that he was dead, she was free to live with Frankie. No more taking a shower immediately after coming home to dear loving husband. No more pretending to be with the girls. No more asking the guard at the school to swear that she left the campus very late. No more glancing over her shoulder to check if someone she knew would see her going into a movie theater, or a dimly-lit restaurant, or a hotel, or a motel. A motel, for God’s sake. She never dreamed that she would be doing what her classmates were doing when she was in college, or that the adolescents in her neighborhood were probably doing instead of attending their classes.

All her life, she had followed the rules. No kissing until months after the first date. No petting in the balconies of movie theaters. No sex in the back seat of a car in parking lots. No nothing, except for occasionally holding hands though never in broad daylight. Only in movie theaters.

She was a virgin when she married him. Even while married, it was always the missionary position, the word she learned from reading novels. Never any “experimentation.” Never nothing. She was bored.

Now, he was dead. Soon, he would be cremated. After all the flowers and the memories and the nice words from childhood friends and the condolences, he would be buried. She could forget about him and go about her secret – well, not really a secret anymore – life.

Too bad she couldn’t marry Frankie, though. Not because there was a conventional one-year gap between being a widow and having a wedding.

Frankie was married.

* * *

“Forgive me, Father, for I have sinned. It’s been a while since my last confession.”

She looked vaguely familiar.

“I committed adultery. I committed murder.”

Father Romy had made the vow of confession so automatic that he actually never listened to the litany of sins that his parishioners recited. He pardoned them all, regardless of how grave or petty their sins were. He believed literally that the command to pardon sins – “Whose sins you shall forgive, they are forgiven them; and whose sins you shall retain, they are retained” – was absolute. He had absolute discretion on which sins should be forgiven or retained. But he wanted everyone to go to heaven, so he felt that he should not stop anybody from getting eternal happiness, even if it might not be their just reward.

But this time, Father Romy straightened up in his confessional box. Murder was not an ordinary sin.

“You killed somebody?” he asked.

“Well, not me, Father, but I helped someone else do it.”

Father Romy knew his theology. That was one thing he remembered well, even if he could not remember much of anything else. He remembered line and verse of the Bible that he quoted from every Sunday sermon, but he could not remember when he actually studied the Bible.

That was one thing he had asked the bishop. Why did he have amnesia of some sort? Why did he not remember his childhood? Or why he entered the priesthood? Or where he was, in fact, a year ago?

A psychiatrist had examined him and pronounced him perfectly healthy, at least in the sense that he could function very well. He could say Mass like he had said it presumably hundreds of times before. It wasn’t even mechanical. He really meant what he said every minute of the Mass.

He could remember whole passages from books, not only religious books but poetry books. He could do mathematical equations like even the psychiatrist could not believe. He had tested on the genius level, in fact, on the IQ tests that the psychiatrist had made him do. He did the verbal intelligence test. He did the non-verbal tests, the culture fair tests, matrices, personality tests, work values tests – so many kinds of them. He even  took English language tests and proved to the examiners that he knew all the intricacies of outdated prescriptive grammar. He did all kinds of physical examinations, MRI, tumor marker tests, even HIV tests, for heaven’s sake. Anything the bishop suggested he did. All the doctors, medical or doctors of philosophy, and not only the psychiatrist, could find nothing wrong with him.

Except that he had no memory whatsoever of what he was and where he was or who he was before a few months ago, when the bishop had organized a surprise birthday party for him at the Archbishop’s Palace. They had placed forty candles on the huge cake. They all had fun making him blow forty candles all at once.

He was forty years old, but as far as his memory was concerned, he was a newborn infant. He was literally “born again.”

“It was my lover, Father. He planned and did it.”

The woman’s voice brought him back to the confessional box.

The voice was vaguely familiar, but like every other memory, it was no longer in his mind.

“I’m married, Father. I mean, I was married. Then I fell in love with this man. He made me happy. And he said he wanted to marry me. So he planned to kill his wife. And he planned to kill my husband. But he didn’t kill his wife. But he killed my husband. I am so, so sorry, Father. I didn’t realize he was really going to do it. I could have warned my husband, but I also wanted him dead. I’m a murderer, Father.”

It was a very strange confession, Father Romy said to himself. He was sorry that he had not heard the whole story because he had been distracted, thinking of why he could not remember anything before that birthday party.

“Say a perfect act of contrition, my child,” he said, mechanically. “God is good and will pardon all your sins, all our sins. Go and sin no more.”

The woman left. Father Romy suddenly remembered what he must have learned in theological school. He should have told the woman to go to the police and tell them about the murder. But he did not even ask how the murder was committed. He knew enough – somehow – about people imagining sins and he consoled himself with the thought that, perhaps, there was never any real murder and the woman may have been confessing to an imaginary sin.

He was used, anyway, to women coming to him for advice, or for confession, or to do a selfie. He did not think himself handsome, not to mention that, as a priest, he was not supposed to think of himself as a sex object, but women did come physically close to him more often than they did to the other priest in the parish.

Behold, all is vanity and a striving after wind, he could quote from Ecclesiastes. He was not about to give in to vanity. Maybe he was indeed handsome. Maybe he was indeed, as he had been teased by the bishop, every girl’s crush. But he had enough trouble trying to remember who he was to be swayed by the adulation of women – and sometimes men.

Father Romy did not even bother to look at the next penitent who was saying, “Forgive me, Father, for I have sinned. My last confession was yesterday. I remembered that, when I was a little boy, I bad thoughts.”

What I would give to remember any thoughts at all, even bad thoughts, thought Father Romy. “Say one Our Father and sin no more,” he murmured, barely making himself heard by the penitent, who was all ears.

“Thank you, Father,” the penitent shouted, jolting Father Romy. “You are heaven sent!”

Love After Heaven, Parts 1 to 5

I shall but love thee better after death, one book says, but I don’t believe that. I’m dead and I don’t see Julie anywhere around. Of course, another book says that, after death, we neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like angels in heaven. Angels, my foot! I don’t have wings. I’m not playing a harp. In fact, I’m exactly as I was the day I died, except I’m not tied to that hospital bed with all those tubes going in and out of my body.

Heaven is grossly overrated. I thought that, when I died, I would experience unimagined happiness, like orgasms that last for decades or food that I can eat without having to go to the bathroom or music that I can listen to without getting tired. Or at least, something really enjoyable. I spent most of my life praying that I would go to heaven, even being sorry for anything that would endanger my life after death. I could have done all those things I was not supposed to do, but I didn’t, because I thought that life was hell, or at least purgatory, and if I had suffered enough on earth, I would not suffer in heaven.

What crap! Heaven is just like earth, only a bit cleaner.

I remember the day I died. They were all around the bed – Julie, my cousin Gerry, my sister Yoly, and four, maybe six doctors all shouting orders to three or four nurses scampering like terrorized schoolchildren in the background.

Code, someone kept shouting.

I looked at them from the ceiling, or actually through the ceiling because I could see in front of me the fluorescent lamp and the fire sprinkler. My body – it looked like my body, even with the grotesque tubes injecting all sorts of colored liquid into it – was jerking with every touch of the defibrillator.

I could see not just the bed where my body was lying, but right beside it, or maybe superimposed on it – I can’t be sure now – my condo apartment in upscale Global City. There were two or three cops there – it’s funny how I can’t seem to count properly here in heaven. They were talking to my two domestic helpers, the cook and the laundry woman. I half-expected Julie to be there, shouting at them to keep their hands off the antique blue porcelain plates, but of course, she was in the hospital room, like the dutiful wife that she wasn’t.

I could also see a room in a seedy motel in downtown Manila. He was there, the asshole, the guy that turned Julie against me. He was with a woman, or maybe a man, or somebody anyway. They were in the shower. He was sitting in some kind of contraption that looked like a trapeze swing. He or she or whatever that shadow was was hovering over him.

Then I found myself, without even a dissolve or a fade-away, here in heaven, sitting in this queue that must have stretched for miles.

Oh, yes, sometime – and here in heaven, time has no meaning, so I can’t really tell if this was long ago or just a minute ago – I went through a tunnel. There was a light at the end, the light that some guy in white was waving at my face to guide me through the darkness. I say it was a guy, but it could have been a woman, or even an animal, or something. Maybe an angel? But whoever or whatever he or she or it was, he or she or it had no wings.

But I knew I was in heaven because, well, it felt good to be here. Peaceful. Calm. With no more pain. Not as good as I thought it would be, but good enough. Better than having all those doctors forcing my body to bounce on the bed. Better than seeing Julie pretending to still be in love with me even when she was already sleeping with that asshole.

Boy, that sucks! That really sucks! Some guy with a long beard comes to me and apologizes that they made a mistake somewhere in the bureaucracy here in heaven. I’m not supposed to be here yet. I’m supposed to suffer some more down there on earth.

Okay, so I got carried away saying that heaven was overrated. Okay, so I used the word asshole here. But surely those are forgivable misdemeanors. Surely all my efforts at being good on earth were worth something. I thought that the bureaucrats here kept a ledger of my good deeds. Of how patient I was when I found out about Julie and that asshole. Excuse me, that person. Okay, that human being. Surely that counts for something.

I can’t go back to earth. I was the laughing stock of the entire corporation there. Everybody knew about Julie. Except me. Her husband. Her husband of twenty years. Twenty years of being faithful to her. Not even glancing at any other woman. Not even entertaining any thoughts of sleeping with anybody else.

I was a fool, for heaven’s sake.

When I did find out, I did not even confront Julie. I just went to our parish priest and asked him what to do. He said that I had to forgive her. She was a human being, fallen because of original sin. The devil made her do it. He asked if I still loved her, and I had to say yes. I couldn’t lie to him. He was a priest, after all.

I did love her. I still do love her. But I am not sure if that means anything to her. One thing I know, I don’t really want to see her again. When we got married in that grand wedding in that old cathedral, she promised to love me till death do us part. Well, death is a good way to part now. Though she did say, during our first anniversary, that she would love me better after death. She made me memorize that poem, for heaven’s sake. How do I love thee and all that shit.

No, please, do not let me go back. Please, no, let me stay here in heaven. I promise never to badmouth heaven again. Seriously.

Well, it looks like this guy listened to me. He now tells me not to worry. He will send me back, but not to the same body. He will send me back in a different body, as an adult. I do not have to be born again as a baby and wait so long to be as old as I am now. I will be resurrected – I think he used the word reincarnated – as a male, single, mature adult.

Maybe things won’t be so bad, after all. Maybe I will meet Julie again and she won’t meet that asshole again and maybe we can live happily ever after after all. Perhaps even meet here in heaven again. Perhaps.

What? Now, that really sucks! This guy with the beard says I won’t remember my past life at all, except in moments of great stress. How can I find Julie again if I won’t remember that we were once happily married, that I loved her even when she was unfaithful to me, that I want to be with her again? Holy shit!

* * *

Julie cried, as she had to. It was what she was expected to do. She had practised it at home, in front of the mirror. How to cry without ruining her mascara. How to cry like she meant it.

This man had made her life miserable by doing what she never expected him to do. He had ignored her affair.

He had kissed her like he always did when he would come home from work and she was in the kitchen, preparing their dinner. Except that she had not prepared dinner. She had dinner instead with Frankie. And not just dinner. Dessert. Dessert like she never had dessert before with this husband of hers.

But this man kissed her anyway. Did not even ask, never even asked, where she had been. She was sure that he could smell Frankie on her skin. He was not dumb. He was, in fact, very smart, the smartest in his group of business executives. He had not become a millionaire by being dumb.

She knew that he knew, but he never said anything. Just kissed her on the cheek as he did every evening of their married life. Their unexciting, boring, routine married life.

The only excitement – if she could call it that – was the anxiety of not knowing when he would finally let go and slap her, kick her, maybe stab her with that paper cutter he kept on his desk. But he never let his anger show. The guilt she felt was worse than even the ugliest scene she could imagine between him and her.

She could never forgive him for forgiving her her trespasses.