From the closet in his room, Father Romy took out a scourge made of thick rope knotted at various points. The scourge was more of a symbol than an actual instrument of pain. On a scale of one to ten, ten being the highest, the modern scourge would inflict pain only on the two level at most. In ancient times, priests scourged themselves for self-mortification, as a punishment for their sins, or sometimes merely to remind them that their bodies were weighing down their souls. During the Lenten season in the Philippines, a number of grown men would walk around some coastal towns half-naked, scourging themselves with whips with pieces of broken glass attached, the better to wound their backs and satisfy ugly tourists hungry for proof that Filipinos were mere monkeys with no tails. At the end of such penitence, the men would jump into the sea, which would – many claimed – miraculously heal and remove all signs of bleeding backs.
Privately in the rectory, Father Romy used the scourge as mechanically as stretching his arms when he felt tired after spending most of his time reading or working on his computer. Father Romy knew that he was fooling no one but himself, and certainly not God, but self-mortification was part of being a priest. Being celibate was much more a part of being a priest, and the thought that he was actually physically attracted to a woman bothered him.
There was something about the principal that was familiar. He could not put his finger on it. When she shook his hand, something was triggered in his memory. It seemed like a familiar touch. But how could that be? He had met the woman only in the school during that awkward recollection. And he had listened politely to her educational philosophy. He had engaged in an unnecessary discussion about pronouns, for heaven’s sake. But it was the way she looked. She looked very serious, but there was a playfulness in her eyes, something that he thought did not seem suited to such a conservative, strong-willed principal.
As he did whenever he needed divine enlightenment, Father Romy opened his Bible and started to read at random. He read a verse from Song of Solomon. He preferred to call the book by its old name, Canticles, because it was really part of the Hebrew Bible.
“Pleasing is the fragrance of your perfumes; your name is like perfume poured out.” Hmm, thought Father Romy, maybe it was Julie’s perfume that seemed so familiar? “Is it perfume from a dress that makes me so digress?” he remembered the lines of T. S. Eliot. He felt, in a strange way, to be J. Alfred Prufrock himself. He did feel “like a patient etherized upon a table.”
He smiled at the fantasy. Could there be such a thing as a love potion, a magic spell, a perfume that would captivate a man and etherize him, make him unable to tell reality from dream, duty from pleasure?
He had read somewhere that jasmine could do that. He reminded himself not to drink jasmine tea. He had also read about vanilla. He reminded himself not to eat any more vanilla ice cream. He remembered someone talking about cinnamon. He reminded himself not to eat any more cinnamon rolls. He had to laugh out loud. These juvenile thoughts, these urban legends, clearly had no place in the life of a celibate like him, pledged to spend his entire life in the service of heaven.
He went to the kitchen to see if there was any papaya he could eat. Instead, he saw the box of jasmine tea on the table top and a box of cinnamon rolls. He could not contain his curiosity. He opened the freezer and, sure enough, there was a quart of vanilla ice cream there.
He fell on his knees, scourged himself, and prayed, “Dear Lord, lead me not into temptation.”
His mobile phone vibrated. He looked at it. There was a message. “Father, can I come see you this afternoon? Julie.”
It was only a matter of time before Frankie got shot.
After all, he moved in a completely wrong crowd. His friends – if they could be called friends – would all have been shady characters in novels but were highly respectable members of society.
As he was growing up in a squatter community living on the banks of the Pasig River where it skirted the affluent city of Makati, he played pick-up basketball with the rest of the undernourished out-of-school boys. He was gifted with a naturally sculpted body and great eye-hand coordination. He was spotted by a talent scout for movies, but not for professional basketball as he had dreamed about. Of course, he had to satisfy the man’s taste for semen, but he was given, in return for his generosity with his bodily fluids, an occasional role of a body double for movie stars who couldn’t run over rooftops or jump from the sixth floor of buildings.
Eventually, he was cast as a gang rapist in a blue movie. His stamina, both in maintaining an erection as well as staying awake through three straight days of shooting, attracted porn directors. Soon, he would star, so to speak, in videos meant for the thriving Web market.
It was during his long conversations with the real stars of the blue movies that he learned how to satisfy women.
“Do you feel good while we are going it?” he once asked an unjustly-famous lead actress during one of the long intervals between takes.
“No,” she replied.
“Do you, ahh, come?” he asked.
“Never,” she replied.
“Why not?” he asked, a bit offended. “I thrust into you again and again for hours.”
“Because it’s just a hole,” she replied.
He didn’t understand it at first. When he got the same answer from other unjustly-famous lead actresses, he became convinced that vaginal penetration was not the key to happiness for women.
“What, then, would give you pleasure?” he asked several actresses.
He got pretty much the same answer. Love, not sex. Imagination, not crude reality. Touch, not thrust.
Eventually, he gained enough courage to ask one of the actresses to spend a real night with him, not in front of a dozen film crew members, but alone, without having to perform.
The actress was very accommodating. She taught him how to use his fingers and tongue properly, tenderly, lovingly. She taught him where the most stimulating parts of a woman’s body were. Yes, the inside of the vagina was important, but equally important was the skin around it. Even softly playing with pubic hair, if not shaved, could excite a woman.
He was surprised that even licking the back of a woman’s ear could be pleasurable. He had instinctively grabbed the breasts of the actress, because that was what the blue movie directors had told him to do, but she had held his hand and showed him how to touch her breasts so she – and not only he – would get excited.
He learned how to take a woman from head to toe, or better, from toe to head. He learned to kiss, not like he was going to devour a woman’s lips like devouring chicken barbecue, but like enjoying ice cream or a good chocolate bar – slowly, savoring each moment, teasing, exploring, letting tongue touch tongue, lingering.
Soon, he asked other actresses to teach him more lessons. It took a while before an actress actually came while they were alone, but the first time that happened, he felt like a real man. He could make a woman come.
Like everyone else in the blue movie business, he had a very short so-called career, barely lasting six months. It was not his physical attributes that were a problem. It was the Interpol, which was getting better at tracking down sex sites. Once, he was cornered by local cops on the strength of an international warrant, but he was lucky to be brought to the precinct of a captain who, as his street friends would say, was fair game. He only had to enter the captain twice to gain his freedom and, more important, immunity from arrest.
When the wife of the captain saw him and wanted to taste him herself, he realized that there was a fortune lying in wait in the bedrooms of married women.
Frankie was not married. He had never married. He introduced himself to women as married, because he found out that married women wanted married men as lovers. It was simpler. Married men had something to lose if they were imprudent in public. Married men would never talk about them. Or so they thought.
After sleeping with quite a number of married women, Frankie eventually found three women who could maintain him in the lifestyle that he wanted for himself. The first, the wife of a city mayor, taught him how to put up non-government corporations without any capital or even actual office. The wife gave him a commission for every government contract that she herself obtained. The commission was in the hundreds of thousands. Once, it was even three cool millions. That enabled Frankie to buy a car.
The second, the wife of a Filipino engineer who worked in Saudi Arabia and came home only for birthdays and holidays, gave him plane tickets, hotel vouchers, and once, even a cruise ship ticket. That enabled Frankie to learn how to behave like one of the nouveau riche, a little loud, but knowing enough not to order soda in a fine dining place.
The third was Julie, a school principal who was not wealthy by herself, but whose husband was one of the wealthiest CEOs in the business district of Metro Manila. Julie had not given him money or trips, but she loved him, and that was refreshing. None of the unjustly-famous actresses loved him or even had any affection for him; they humored him with their lessons on making love and were in it only for the orgasms that he managed to give them. The other two married women did not love him; they just called for him when their husbands were not around.
Julie loved him. He even entertained thoughts of loving her back, but love was just not in his vocabulary. Of course, he said “I love you” to all the women he fucked. It was one of the pieces of advice he got from the actresses. “Always tell them you love them,” they had all told him, “especially after you have disposed of your load.” But he never meant what he said. In fact, he never meant anything he said. He just pretended that he was still in front of cameras, merely performing.
Killing Julie’s husband was no big deal for him. He had killed a number of other people before. It was one of what he called “odd jobs” that he had to do for the wife of the city mayor. The scam of fake non-governmental organizations was soon uncovered by the press. There were whistle-blowers who wanted to see their names in the papers. They saw their names in the papers, all right, in obituaries, after he waited for them when their police escorts had gone somewhere else.
He preferred knives to guns when it came to killing whistle-blowers. Guns were expensive. They could be traced through ballistic tests. If he had to throw them into Manila Bay, it was like throwing away cold cash. He hated wasting money, since he grew up without it.
Knives were untraceable. He just washed the blood away as soon as he got the chance. Then he threw them away or gave them to the little boys sniffing rugby on the streets.
If he had to kill someone in a mall, he just bought a hunting knife from one of the Big Boys Toys ‘R Us stores, used cash of course, then just dumped the knife into a trash bin after wiping away his fingerprints and the blood.
Killing people was not his main line of work, but he did it to keep the city mayor’s wife happy, not to mention out of jail.
Naturally, it was impossible for the city mayor not to find out about his extracurricular duties in bed. The city mayor was not that dumb. Two men riding tandem on a motorcycle watched him alight from his car in front of a mall. The man riding tandem opened fire. Eight bullets hit Frankie.
The motorcycle sped away. The security guards gave chase, but only half-heartedly. They were not going to risk their lives running after professional assassins. The guards brought him to a nearby hospital. Surprisingly, Frankie was still alive, though barely.
The hospital had a priest going around, consoling the patients. The Emergency Room nurses called the priest. His name was Father Romy.
Frankie could not speak, but his eyes could.
“No, it can’t be!” his eyes said.
He saw, not a priest coming to give him the last rites, but one of the men he had killed. He opened his eyes wide. Yes, the man the nurses called “Father Romy” was the man in the parking garage, the one he had stabbed many times, the man he killed because the wife wanted him killed.
He knew this man quite well because of all the stories about him that the wife would tell him after they had had sex. This man could not satisfy his wife. This man pretended to be interested in his wife’s woes about the school she ran, but he never did anything to help her in the school. This man talked a lot about the Bible, but he seemed never to apply what he had read to how he behaved.
Frankie had, of course, a much more ulterior motive in killing him. This man was keeping the wife from giving him the money that he hoped he would get. This man was keeping the wife from maybe running away with him and sharing all that wealth. This man was the one keeping him from maybe living happily ever after with a sex-starved principal who adored his John Thomas.
Father Romy, of course, had no idea what Frankie was thinking about. He could not know how shocked Frankie was, but Frankie’s eyes were eloquent. They were not the eyes of someone in pain, but in terror. Father Romy did not know anything about Frankie. All he knew was that he had to recite formulas that would help Frankie move to heaven. Father Romy wanted Frankie to go to heaven. Father Romy wanted everyone to go to heaven. Perhaps, Father Romy thought, this man lying almost dead in the Emergency Room had some big sins to confess but couldn’t. Perhaps, Father Romy thought, the man was contrite or was seeing devils or had suddenly realized that he was about to really, really die and wanted to be in good graces with the Creator. Whatever.
Then Frankie did something that the doctors said could not be done, not by someone in his state. He grabbed Father Romy’s arm with his own bloody hand.
Father Romy did not expect that. He recoiled instinctively. Then, he recoiled even more. Suddenly, it was not this man lying almost dead in the Emergency Room that he saw, but himself, lying also in a hospital, covered also with blood, stabbed. The vision made him step back, but the man’s hand would not let go.
The touch of this man made him remember something that could not possibly have happened. He had died before. He was certain of it. How or why or when, he could not tell, but he was sure that he was once also covered with blood, like this man whose name he did not even know.
Then a woman came rushing in. Father Romy was still in a daze because of his vision. The woman seemed strangely familiar. It was the principal!
Julie broke down into tears. When she looked up, she saw Father Romy staring at her.
“Father, I’ll see you later,” she blurted out. Then she rushed out the door.
Father Romy stared at her as she ran out the door. Then he looked back at Frankie. Frankie was dead.
All hell was breaking loose in heaven.
An angel was flying to and fro, frantically talking to everyone, angel or human being, s/he met.
“It’s that guy Steve Jobs,” s/he said. “Ever since he found the computer room and started fooling around with the programs, we’ve had all sorts of problems. People are here who should not yet be here and there are people still down there on earth who should already be here.”
“Why does God allow him to do that?” asked one recently-arrived computer scientist.
The angel looked at her with compassion, knowing that newcomers did not yet know the ways of heaven.
“God wants everyone to be happy,” s/he said. “You can do whatever makes you happy here. This is heaven, after all.”
“Ah,” said the newcomer. “And Steve Jobs is happiest when he upgrades computer programs.”
“But he doesn’t know that we don’t do apples here,” said the angel. “We’re doing pineapples!”
The newcomer did not get the joke. She did not know that angels were happiest when they were making jokes.
The angel went to the angel-on-duty or AOD at the gate.
“AOD,” s/he said, “you’ve got someone named Frankie who’s at the gate. He shouldn’t be here yet.”
The AOD sighed. “It’s been bedlam all eternity,” s/he said. “I’m running out of bodies to reincarnate the ones who shouldn’t be here.”
“What about Frankie?” asked the angel. God had apparently singled out Frankie among the thousands who had arrived that hour.
The AOD sighed again. “I made a terrible mistake. Or the computer made a terrible mistake. Frankie has been reincarnated, but not all of him. Only a part of him.”
“That’s not so bad,” said the angel. “Why do you look so distressed?”
The AOD sighed again. “It’s not that simple. Frankie returned to earth, but he returned not to a separate body but to a body that’s already reincarnated.”
The angel did not understand.
The AOD sighed again. “Frankie, or part of him anyway, is now merged into the body of one of the men he killed.”
“Which part are you talking about?” asked the angel.
The AOD sighed again. “His SQ.”
The angel nodded. S/he knew that, in heaven, SQ meant Sex Quotient. Of course, never having had sex, the angel did not really know what SQ meant.
Before going back to find Steve Jobs to make sure the guy did not cause any more trouble, the angel had to ask. “Whose body is Frankie in now?”
The AOD sighed again. “Father Romy’s.”