“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.