Archive for Fiction in progress

Love After Heaven, final parts

The doctor in the church pulled Julie away from Father Romy. The doctor asked him where he was, what the date was, what his name was, but he would just grunt. Then he became completely unconscious.

“He’s dead,” said one man. “No point going to the hospital,” said another. But the doctor insisted on calling an ambulance. The ambulance came, but was delayed because of the traffic.

Romy did not regain consciousness until he was in the Emergency Room. He saw that they were all around the bed – Julie, his cousin Gerry, his sister Yoly, and six doctors all shouting orders to three nurses scampering like terrorized schoolchildren in the background.

Julie was hysterical. “I’m sorry, I’m really sorry,” she kept repeating.

There’s a pulse, said one doctor. He’s alive, said another.

Julie hugged him. “I’m sorry, darling,” she kept whispering.

It took a week before Romy could speak. The stab wounds still hurt, but he could now move his limbs.

All that time, Julie stayed by his bedside. Romy could not speak, but he could hear her talk about not seeing another man ever again.

On the television set, there was news about an unidentified man being killed by two men riding in tandem. Julie hardly looked up.

 

 

 

Six months later, Romy and Julie went on the pilgrimage they had been talking about for years. It was really more of a honeymoon than a pilgrimage.

They would spend the day on their knees in some church or other in Santiago de Compostela. At night, they would spend hours making love. Julie could not believe that Romy was even more vigorous than Frankie.

Soon, Julie forgot about Frankie. She also forgot about the troubles in her school. In fact, she forgot everything else except this reignited love for her husband.

The angels resumed their work, happy that everything was as it should be in heaven and on earth, with people dying when they were supposed to.

Love After Heaven, Parts 36 to 40

In the chapel, Father Romy felt something jump down there between his legs. He had never experienced that before, at least not since he lost his memory.

There was also something else. He felt like going to the refrigerator in the rectory and throwing out all the papaya. He felt a distinct distaste for the fruit that had saved him from many a temptation. For some reason now, he couldn’t stand the sight of the yellow antidote to all dirty thoughts.

He also felt a little taller. That can’t be, he said to himself. He went to the mirror in the sacristy where priests would fix their stoles before kissing them. He looked pretty much the same, except perhaps for a barely noticeable sudden growth of a stubble. He touched his cheeks and his chin. The stubble was rough. He remembered shaving just that morning, not to mention that he really did not have a stubble before.

Crossing himself, he walked quickly to the confessional box, hoping to get some advice from his fellow priest, who was scheduled to hear confessions that day. There was no light in the box. That meant that there was no priest inside. To check, he opened the center portion where the priest would sit and, sure enough, there was nobody there.

Suddenly, the light turned on. That’s strange, he thought. Perhaps his opening the door triggered the light.

He felt a strong urge to open the penitent’s side. Inside, he knelt down, only to rest his wobbling legs.

“Yes, my son,” came a voice from the priest’s side.

Startled, Father Romy blurted out, automatically, since he must have done it hundreds of times before, “Forgive me, Father, for I have sinned. My last confession was . . .”

He stopped. This is silly, he thought. There is no one there. He must have imagined the voice.

It came again, this time much louder. “Yes, my son.”

Father Romy stood up, almost bumping his head on the low ceiling of the confessional box.

The voice came. “Relax, Father Romy, I am here.”

“Is that you, Father?” Father Romy asked. Priests referred to each other as “Father,” the way doctors called each other “Doctor.”

“No, I am not a priest.”

Father Romy’s goose bumps could have made him explode.

“I have come to tell you what’s what.”

Father Romy remained speechless, but his knees did the talking, as they kept hitting each other. He knelt down.

“You are reincarnated. You died before we were ready for you.”

Well, Father Romy thought, that’s original, even for his fellow priest, who was notorious for practical jokes.

“Unfortunately, we made a very bad mistake, Father Romy. We reincarnated someone else into your body.”

Now, this was really weird, thought Father Romy. He couldn’t even begin to grasp the concept of reincarnation, and now he was being told about someone else in his own body.
Father Romy stood up.

“That’s enough, Father,” he shouted. “You’re really freaking me out. Enjoy your laugh.”

He went out the penitent’s box and opened the priest’s compartment. There was no one there.

 

 

There was something different about this priest, Julie thought, as she watched Father Romy walking on the driveway of the rectory. He was walking straight, not a little bit stooped as she had observed him in the school. He also had a longer stride, she thought, or perhaps imagined.

“Hello, Father,” she said.

He must have been in deep thought, she thought, because he seemed startled.

Of course, she must be imagining it, she thought, when he looked at her strangely, as though he had known her for a much longer time.

“Oh, it’s you,” Father Romy said, moving towards Julie. He offered his hand.

Should she kiss it, she asked herself. She had seen the schoolchildren kissing his hand as he walked past them.

Instead, she took his hand and shook it.

“I asked to see you, Father,” she said.

“I know,” Father Romy said.

Julie waited to see if he would mention the hospital, but he didn’t.

“Come,” Father Romy said, not letting go of her hand. It was awkward, because she felt like a little kid being led to the principal’s office. Except that she was the principal.

She withdrew her hand.

Father Romy put his hand over her shoulder. He was a bit taller than she was. He seemed taller, in fact, than before.

She let him lead her to the reception room of the rectory.

“So, what did you want to see me about?” Father Romy asked, when they were seated across each other.
“It’s a problem that has been bothering me, Father,” she said. “No, it’s not about my late husband. It’s about someone else.”

Father Romy stood up and sat beside her.

“Do you want to go to confession?” he asked.

“No, Father,” she said. “This is not confidential. In fact, I think everybody knows.”

Father Romy did not know but suspected whatever it was that everybody knew.

“I’ve been having a, what, special friendship,” she said.

“Say no more, my child,” Father Romy said. He put his arm around her shoulders.

Then she broke down, cried like she was indeed a child, put her head on Father Romy’s chest.

He lifted her face to him.

Then he kissed her.

On the lips. Long.

She kissed back. It was instinctive. She hugged him tight. Very tight.

Then he moved away. Shaking.

“I’m sorry,” he said. “I don’t know what came over me. It won’t happen again. I’m sorry. Please forgive me.” The words kept running over each other.

She stood up without a word, and walked quickly out of the rectory.

He fell on his knees, covered his face with his hands, then cried, aloud, much too loud, “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?”

 

 

Father Romy took the hosts gingerly in his hands. They were already consecrated, and he knew that dropping them to the floor would mean that he would commit sacrilege, the unforgivable sin. He closed the tabernacle door, genuflected, and faced the people lining up for communion.

For some days now, he felt bad handling and handing out the consecrated hosts. Nobody knew it, of course, but he was no longer in a state of grace. Last week, he had done what he had vowed never to do – kiss a woman.

Of course, she was no ordinary woman. He had Googled her name and discovered that she was not an ordinary principal of an elementary school. She had won an award for Outstanding Principal from a Non-Government Organization that specialized in giving awards. Of course, there was something odd about the award. She had to shell out money to attend the awarding ceremonies. It smelled of a scam. But the award being a scam or not, her being an Outstanding Principal looked good on her résumé.

She was known to be a no-nonsense principal. Nobody in school could disobey her, or her rules, no matter how arbitrary they were. No talking during recess. No eating after recess. No smiling during tests. No climbing the trees unless it was zoology class. No running on the grass unless it was football class. No lying down on the lawn unless it was astronomy class and it was night, which it never was, since school ended at 3 p.m. sharp. No texting, no calling, no playing on mobile phones. No nothing, really. Everybody was completely stifled and devoid of imagination and excitement. That was the way she liked the school – and life. Everything predictable. Everything in its place. No surprises. At least on Google.

Except that kiss. Father Romy could still taste her lips. That was silly, of course, because the kiss was a week ago. More precisely, it was six days, nineteen hours, and five minutes ago.

The boy stuck out his tongue. Father Romy put a host on the tongue of the boy. The man behind the boy, probably his father, cupped his hands, asking for the host to be put there instead of on his tongue. Father Romy obligingly placed a host on the man’s cupped hands.

It was like this every Sunday, even every day. There were always a number of people that wanted to receive communion. He could not deny them their spiritual sustenance. Although he knew better. Theology had changed radically since the new pope did his latest encyclical. The more things changed, the more they remained the same. Father Romy’s parishioners continued in their old ways. He could not disillusion them. He knew that, next to sacrilege, the greatest sin was scandal. Do not shatter the faith of those that believe in me, Father Romy could almost have heard God Himself one night when he was praying hard after reading yet another theology book.

Then, there she was, in line to receive communion – Julie, the principal.

He knew that he could not deny her communion. For all he knew, she had gone to confession and was now completely ready to receive the Lord. In any case, she was not to blame for the kiss. He had initiated it, and she was merely the passive receiver. Not too passive, he remembered, but still not the initiator. Not the sinner. Perhaps only the sinned against.

She opened her lips to receive the host. He saw those lips and wanted, not to put the host into her mouth, but his tongue.

He shook so violently that he collapsed on the floor, the consecrated hosts still in his hands.

“Oh my god!” shouted the women on the front pew.

“I’m a doctor,” said a woman a few women behind Julie. “Let me through.”
“I can give him CPR,” said Julie, and knelt down beside Father Romy.

39 The Fall (Oct. 5)

It happened in slow motion. I had my tongue out and my eyes closed. Then I heard a really loud thud. I opened my eyes, and there he was, on the floor, on his back. His eyes were staring straight at the ceiling.

It happened in slow motion. She had her tongue out and her eyes closed. Then I fell. I heard a really loud thud. It was my head, hitting the floor. There I was, on the floor, on my back, my eyes staring straight at the ceiling.

I knelt down, instinctively. I cradled his head in my arms. I had taken classes from the Red Cross and was certified for First Aid / Cardiopulmonary Resuscitation / Automated External Defibrillator. I said, “I can give him CPR.

I could not see who it was who was cradling my head, but I felt that it had to be her. I heard her voice, that unmistakable voice, “I can give him CPR.”

But someone was saying behind me, “I’m a doctor. Let me through.”

But there was another voice, also a woman’s. “I’m a doctor. Let me through.”

I put my lips on his lips. My hair covered his eyes.

But her lips were on my lips. Her hair was on my eyes and I could not see her. But I knew it was her. It was her lips.

Then, suddenly, I knew.

Then, suddenly, I knew.

 

 
Lord called a general assembly of everyone in heaven. There were zillions there, from millions of planets.

Steve Jobs was in front. Everyone thought that Lord would be angry because Jobs had messed up heaven’s computer system.

Lord smiled. “Now that you are in heaven, you should all know better. Anger is a deadly sin, and I cannot sin. I may be omnipotent, but that’s one thing I cannot do. I cannot sin. I cannot be angry.”

Some human beings started to talk among themselves.

“I sent one of my sons to you, didn’t I? He made it very clear that what you called the Old Testament was just a preparation for what you called the New Testament. All that talk about me being angry was just, well, human. You human beings had this thing about Old and New. Now you are in heaven and you now know that there is nothing old or new because everything is Now. But I cannot send too many of you back to earth to tell them what’s what. It will just confuse everyone there, and I don’t want confusion. Confusion leads to sin, and I don’t want sin. I cannot hate sin, because hate is a combination of envy and pride, and those are also deadly sins. I just don’t want sin, I just tolerate it, because it’s part of the system. It’s a bug. You understand that, Steve?”

Jobs nodded. He knew when someone was smarter than him.

“I called all of you because I want you all to know that the computer system is back to normal.”

The angel who had put Frankie and Romy into the same body waited for the ax to fall.

“Not to worry,” Lord said to the angel. “I forgive everything. I stepped in and fixed the computer myself.”

Because this was heaven, there was no need for further explanation, because everybody knew what everybody else was thinking or feeling. The geniuses, led by the human named Leonardo da Vinci, immediately figured out all the implications of what Lord had just said, and everybody immediately understood.

The Facebook and Google creators were going to congratulate each other because they were the first on earth to dare think that everybody should know what everybody else is doing, but Lord stopped them.

“That’s pride, humans,” Lord scolded them. “There is no place for pride here.”

The Facebookers and Googlers bowed their heads. They knew, however, that they had been forgiven, because everything was forgiven in heaven.

“How will you solve the problems the computer glitch caused?” one angel asked, not able to control her curiosity.

The Lord smiled. “I just reversed time.”

Jobs smiled. He understood what rebooting meant. Everybody else, therefore, immediately understood it, too.

Love After Heaven, Parts 31 to 35

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.”

Love After Heaven, Parts 26 to 30

In the reception area of the rectory, Father Romy listened very attentively to Julie as she poured out her frustrations with the government. She wanted to run her school the way she thought it should be run, but the government was always interfering. She wanted an old-fashioned school, run exactly the way her own school was run when she was a young girl. She wanted everyone to be disciplined, to grow up knowing and following the rules, to not rock any boats. She wanted the girls to grow up and marry, have kids, take care of the house, live happily ever after. She wanted the boys to grow up and get jobs, provide for their families, become model employees in big corporations, remain faithful to their wives, live happily ever after.

Father Romy did not agree with anything she said, but he was a priest, and he knew that his role was to listen, not to pretend that he knew how to run somebody else’s life. He could only quote from the Bible if he had to give advice, but he had nothing to say if he were to depend only on his own experience. In fact, he thought, he had very little experience to bank on, because he could only remember things he did after that birthday party. Except for those strange memories or visions or whatever they were of him being stabbed.

“What do I do, Father?” asked Julie.

“Jesus said that we must give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s.”

“That’s Mark 12, 17,” said Julie, unable to stop herself from interrupting.

“Yes, and in your case, the government is Caesar. Let the government do what it has to do. That is not God’s territory,” said Father Romy, knowing very well that he was talking nonsense.

“You are talking nonsense,” said Julie, reading his thoughts.

“That is the word of God. She never makes mistakes,” said Father Romy.

There it is again, thought Julie. He’s using the feminine pronoun to refer to God.

“Father,” said Julie, this time more politely. “May I ask why you refer to God as a female?”

Father Romy straightened up. “Because she is female.”

“That’s nonsense!” said Julie. “How can you say that? You’re a priest, for heaven’s sake. You know as well as I do that God is a man, an old man, with a beard!”

Father Romy did not want to laugh. He vaguely remembered meeting an old man with a beard sometime. It must have been one of his parishioners, he thought.

“No,” he said. “The Bible is very clear. Genesis 1, 26, says that God said, ‘Let us make mankind in our own image, in our likeness.’ Mankind is both man and woman, both male and female. Surely you cannot say that women are not made in God’s image.”

This stumped Julie for a few seconds, but not for too long.

“That just means that we look like God, not that God looks like us.”

“An image is an image. If you look in a mirror, you see you, not someone else,” said Father Romy.

Julie was not dense; she caught that. So the good father is telling me that I should look in the mirror and see who I really am, she thought.

“Maybe God is not a female,” Father Romy continued. “But God is certainly not male, or not only male. God made mankind in her own likeness.”

“Then you should say that God is both male and female, Father. You can’t keep using she and her to refer to God if he is both male and female.”

“Well, yes,” admitted Father Romy. “That’s true. But I like to balance the habit of referring always to God as male. So I refer to him or to her as she.”

“Father,” Julie said, instinctively and unthinkingly taking the priest’s left hand in hers. “I came to ask you to help me think through what I should do with the government directive to change my teaching philosophy. I did not come to talk theology or bible studies or anything like that. You’re the expert in the Bible. I read the Bible, but I am only an amateur. But I am an expert in education and I know that what the government is asking me to do is not good for the children.”

Father Romy could not think. There was something about this woman’s touch that made him lose his train of thought.

Father Romy withdrew his hand. “I am sorry, Miss, but I am not expert in education and I can give you no advice about what to do with your school.”

“Then I have wasted my time and I have wasted yours,” said Julie, standing up abruptly. “Good day, Father. I am sorry to have come.”

Father Romy stood up, too. “No, you did not waste my time, even if I have wasted yours. Please come any time. I am here to help in any way I can.”

He couldn’t help himself. “And I enjoy your company.”

Julie smiled in puzzlement.

“Well, Father,” she said, “I shall be going. Please text me if you need anything.”

She gave him her business card.

Father Romy watched her as she walked down the stairs. He could not help but marvel at how her figure was as lithe as that of an angel.

Being sexually attracted to a woman was an occupational hazard for Catholic priests. A man did not lose his libido when he was ordained. Many are called, but few are chosen, went the rationalization of priests who, in typical religious jargon, “go astray.”

Father Romy vaguely remembered that lesson he must have learned in the seminary about how to counteract “the wiles of the devil.” Or perhaps he just read it in a book. He had to pray before sleeping, so he would not have wet dreams. He had to have a rosary handy when his sexual organ started to react to the physical presence of a woman. Or a man.

Routinely, he had to eat papaya at every meal.

Why papaya? Because it was called “the fruit of the angels” by Christopher Columbus. Because it was touted as a miracle fruit, able to prevent heart attacks, strokes, macular degeneration, rheumatoid arthritis, and even prostrate cancer. That part about the prostate was important, Father Romy remembered from reading a book about aging males. A celibate did not have the natural immunity against prostate cancer that a sexually active man had. Whether urban legend or medical fact, orgasm was supposed to keep the prostate active, making it able to kill any cancer cells that might be lurking in it. By implication – although Father Romy was intelligent enough to know that the logic was dubious – papaya deadened the sexual urge.

Father Romy went to the kitchen and got himself a papaya. He sliced it, scooped out the seeds, and downed the whole thing in twenty seconds flat. He also silently chanted a prayer, echoing Jesus berating the devil in the desert. “Away from me, Satan!”

If Julie were Satan, however, Father Romy thought, she was about as different from that fire-breathing monster as anyone could be. She smelled like an angel, not a fallen one, but a real angel, perhaps his guardian angel. Of course, Father Romy had to smile at himself. He didn’t really know how an angel smelled.

Or did he? Suddenly, without warning, Father Romy seemed to see before him an angel or what looked like an angel. It was some person in white waving a light at his face. There was a tunnel of some kind, a very dark tunnel. Father Romy shuddered. I must be losing my mind, he whispered.

When he shook his head to get rid of the vision or whatever it was, Father Romy saw that he was alone in the kitchen, with what was left of the papaya still in his hand. He got another papaya and sliced it open, threw the seeds out, and almost choked himself with it.

He saw himself in a mirror in the kitchen, and he had to laugh. His mouth was overflowing with papaya. His face was distorted almost comically. He still had his collar on. He was a priest, a priest forever. Julie or no Julie, he was going to be faithful to his vow of celibacy.

But his sexual organ seemed not to share his resolve. Father Romy decided that, even if he had not given in to temptation, he should avail of the sacrament of reconciliation. He went to the church to line up at the confessional.

Father Romy was glad to see that the light in the confessional box was on. That meant that there was a priest there, waiting for penitents to list all their sins. Although he was a priest or perhaps because he was a priest, Father Romy had to go to confession like any other Catholic. He could not forgive his own sins; another priest had to do that. Catholic doctrine was even more strict than the unwritten code of medical doctors. Medical doctors could self-diagnose and self-medicate, even if they could not listen to their own heartbeats nor think objectively about their symptoms, but a priest had to have another priest to give him absolution.

There was nobody else in the church except Father Romy and the priest in the confessional. Father Romy waited for a few minutes, just to be sure that there was no penitent inside the confessional box. He knelt down inside the penitent side of the confessional box. “Bless me, Father, for I have sinned,” he began. “My last confession was a week ago.”

He did not know and he did not care if it was the other priest of the parish on the other side. All priests were bound by the seal of confession, and even if they would talk later on at dinner, his fellow priest would never mention anything said inside the confessional box. Sometimes, priests from outside the parish would come to hear confessions; that would be even less awkward later.

“I had bad thoughts, Father,” Father Romy said. “In my mind, I looked with lust at a woman’s breasts.”

It was quite a struggle for Father Romy to say the word breasts, but he wanted to describe his sin as precisely as he could.

He could see the shadow on the other side nodding. He himself, when he was hearing confessions, often fell asleep. Hearing people being sorry for their sins was the most boring duty of a priest. He could not pay too much attention to the sins, he could never talk about them to anyone anyway, he wasn’t even supposed to remember them after giving absolution to penitents. He remembered vaguely someone confessing to a murder, but he could not remember who it was.

“In my mind, I undressed her, Father,” Father Romy continued. “I imagined myself embracing her, kissing her.” He could feel a hard-on coming, even when he was just trying to repeat what he did in his mind. Or what he thought he did. He could not even remember whether he did fantasize about Miss Julie when she was in the rectory or whether he was fantasizing only now.

“I am also guilty of the sin of pride, Father,” Father Romy said. “I argued for the sake of argument. I did not think of the welfare of others. I did not think of the principal who could maybe even lose her faith. I thought only of myself, of how I was conflicted, of how I wanted to touch that woman.”

Father Romy spoke faster and faster, his voice matching his excitement in remembering or not remembering, in fantasizing then or now. In his mind he held a portrait of Julie with lips parted.

“Please forgive me, Father. I need absolution. I need your blessing.”

“Go and sin no more,” came the hardly audible voice.

Father Romy stood up and left the confessional box. He stayed in a pew just beside it. He said three Our Fathers and three Hail Marys.

He glanced at the confessional. The light was still on. There were no other penitents around. He was the only one in the church aside from the priest in the confessional box. Then the light turned off.

Father Romy waited for the priest to come out of the confessional. It took a while. Father Romy became bothered. Maybe something happened to the priest. Maybe he really fell asleep, or maybe he even passed out.

Father Romy went to the confessional box and opened the priest compartment. It was empty.

Had his eyes and ears been playing with him? Father Romy was perplexed. He was sure that there was someone in the confessional box. He was sure that he heard a voice saying that he should go and sin no more. True, the voice did not sound at all like that of the other priest in the parish. Nor did it sound like that of any other priest he knew who would visit the parish to hear confessions.

Father Romy went back to the pew and knelt down. He buried his face in his hands. Was he losing his mind? Was he starting to hear voices? There were those visions that he couldn’t explain, visions of him dying. Snippets of conversations, debates, arguments. Some guy in white. He wondered if he should return to the psychiatrist that his bishop had referred him to. But, no, he had already been pronounced perfectly sane, though suffering from total amnesia. Maybe he did imagine the confessional box to be occupied. Maybe he did imagine the light being on and going off. Maybe he felt so guilty about thinking about a woman that he convinced himself that he was confessing to a confessor.

Father Romy looked up at the statues that adorned the altar. “Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth.” He remembered the verse from chapter 20 of Exodus. He knew that, as a Catholic, he was not bound by that commandment. Jesus had said explicitly that the old commandments no longer held, that there were now only two commandments. Love God and love your neighbor. And what was that about love? Could he, a Roman Catholic priest with a vow of celibacy, love a woman? What was he thinking about? He barely knew this principal. He couldn’t possibly already like her. In fact, he positively disliked her, her haughtiness, her self-importance. But there was her sexy body.

Father Romy smiled at what one of the young men in his parish had told him just a few days before, apparently quoting something from social media. “Father,’ the young man had asked, rhetorically, “Is it true that the best way to fight temptation is to give in to it?

Father Romy had taken offense at that remark. Of course, he knew that it was rhetorical, or even a joke. The young man was definitely merely teasing. But he scolded the young man and told him not to quote such nonsense.

Maybe, just maybe, Father Romy said to himself now, the advice is good. The best way to face this temptation is to face it head on, not to give in to it but not to turn away.

He dialed the mobile phone number on the business card that Julie had left with him.

A man answered. “Yes. Who is this?”

Father Romy stuttered in surprise, “May I speak with Julie, please?”

The man said, “Who is this? Why are you calling?”

Father Romy said, “I’m Father Romy. I need to talk to her about her school.”

The voice on the other end said, “Oh, you’re a priest. Okay, Father, you may talk to her. She’s just, well, occupied.” Father Romy heard the man whispering, “It’s a priest.”

Julie got on the phone. “I’m sorry, Father, this is a bad time. Can I call you in a couple of hours?”

“Sure, Miss,” said Father Romy. “Thank you. Goodbye.” He should have said, “God bless,” he told himself after he had hung up.

Julie turned to Frankie. “You shouldn’t have answered my phone.”

“Well, you couldn’t have answered it, since you’re on your knees and I’m standing up and I’m inside your mouth. I’m sorry. I thought you had another lover.”

“What?” said Julie, standing up. “How dare you think I have another lover?”

Frankie grabbed her ass and pulled her towards him. “You’re right. My Thomas is more than enough for your Jane.”

Back in the rectory, Father Romy opened his Bible to the eighth chapter of John and read, “He who is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her.” He did not want to judge, that he may not be judged, but it still rankled that a man answered Julie’s mobile phone. A mobile phone was as private to a person as the person’s own body.

She had told him that her husband was dead. Who, then, was this man?

Julie was completely conflicted. She did not want to do it with Frankie anymore, no, not anymore, not after she had met this priest who seemed so holy, who seemed to live in another world, a more peaceful world, a higher world, who did not say anything about her sexual desires, because, perhaps, he did not know, perhaps could not imagine, the strength and the urgency of the desire of a woman to have a man inside her. He did not want her, the way Frankie wanted her. He did not want her, not even in the way her late husband wanted her. No, he was not attracted to her. He was not like those principals of other schools who would ask to take selfies with her in their educational conventions, just to be able to post her photo on their social media pages. No, he was not like anyone she had ever met.

She could not get that priest out of her mind. Not even while she was occupied with making Frankie come. Frankie had come to her door, unexpected, unannounced. She did not want to let him in, but she could not stop herself from letting him in. Frankie had pushed her to the floor. She found herself on her knees. She knew what Frankie wanted and she wanted to give it to him. Yes, she wanted him. No, she did not want him. Oh God, she said to herself, what shall she do?

Then, as if on cue, that priest called. Did God plan it so that the priest would call to stop her madness? Was being with Frankie madness? Was she mad, with her husband barely in his grave?

She went through the motions with Frankie. She did not come herself. She couldn’t, not with that priest on her mind, not with the guilt that the phone call had caused. Frankie would not leave her unless she came, so she pretended to come.

Soon after, she was alone again in her bedroom, yes, the very same bedroom where she and her husband would have conversations about her school, about the latest revolt she had put down among the teachers, about his many companies, about the latest products he had manufactured and was now selling, about what it would be like to go on yet another cruise, about whether they should adopt a child. Her husband would kiss her, never passionately, just the required conjugal kiss, then perhaps have quick sex. He would snore and she would stay awake, unsatisfied. Yes, this was that very same bedroom.

She broke down and cried, cried like she never cried before, cried because she missed her husband, yes, missed him, for all his lack of feeling, missed him, even for the little sex that she had with him, missed him, especially for the conversations about the Bible, the passages that they argued about.

The thought of the Bible brought back the image of Father Romy. She smiled at the memory of the priest abandoning his prepared sermon when she interrupted him repeatedly during the recollection of the children. She raised her eyebrows when she remembered how he had held her hand a bit too long for a polite handshake. She frowned when she remembered how they had an argument, well, just the beginning of an argument, about whether to use the male or female personal pronoun to refer to God.

She realized that, yes, perhaps, only perhaps, she was falling for this priest, this unreachable, this untouchable, priest.

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.

The Jeepney Murders, Chapter 17

Chief Inspector Johnny Santos was still furious at his subordinates for not having told him that it was the driver who spirited out Dean King from the hospital right under his nose.

Santos had a real problem with that driver. He once wanted the driver to confess to being a courier of the country’s drug godfather. It was only a matter of time before the driver would cave in after a few sessions of the usual “routine interrogation.” If not for the call of the Undersecretary of the Interior, Santos would have gotten a signed confession. That would have been enough for him to do what he wanted to do, which was to leak the confession to the media and get media to force the Secretary of Justice – he wasn’t sure if the Secretary was on the payroll – to go through the motions of inspecting the National Penitentiary, discover or pretend to discover the drug factory right in the middle of the maximum security compound, and deny the drug godfather income for at least a few months. That was all Santos could hope to do.

The drug godfather was already serving a life sentence. Since the death penalty had long been abolished, another life sentence would have been absurd. In fact, the drug godfather had twice rejected a presidential pardon: running the drug trade outside prison was much more difficult than running it from within fortified walls with free government-provided security and guaranteed three meals a day. The drug godfather had built himself a suite inside the prison compound, complete with air-conditioning, a huge television screen, a Jacuzzi, and a gym. He had even asked, and of course was granted, three nights a week with various models of varying ages and sexual experience. Santos could never shut down the drug trade, since the drug godfather was certainly going to be able to rebuild his empire, what with the prison warden, most police officers, the port and airport authorities, and even many of the President’s staff all being paid monthly “allowances” or being scared of being shot by professional killers riding in tandem on motorcycles.

But at least, for the few months that the media would pay close attention to the issue, Santos would have had his revenge.

He could never forget the day he opened the door of his daughter’s room and found his daughter – the only child of his legal wife – dead of drug overdose. At that time, he was on the payroll of a small-time drug lord, but his daughter’s death made him reject any more drug money. He shot and killed the local drug lord and ironically received a million pesos from the drug godfather in gratitude. He could not return the godfather’s money without becoming an ingrate and therefore an obvious target of assassination, so he used the money to take a cruise around the Mediterranean with one of his mistresses. He thought he could forget about his daughter as he walked around the ruins of great empires, but he could not. He was haunted by his obsession with smashing the drug trade, the modern world’s great international empire.

Because he needed money to replace the drug allowance, what with five too many households to maintain, he asked and was given a portion of the weekly protection money being given by the gambling syndicate. At least, he rationalized, the gangsters running the illegal daily lotteries did not kill people with their drugs. They even allowed poor people a chance to win big money. Of course, since they would always choose as winning numbers only the numbers that had the fewest bets, these syndicates raked in money hand over fist. What did it matter to him anyway if everybody made a lot of money, as long as he himself got his unfair share?

At breakfast, Santos got a lot of ribbing from the other Chief Inspectors at the Officers Club in the headquarters of the Philippine National Police. “You let a woman outsmart you,” they said. “She was right in front of you and she vanished from your sight.” “You’re losing your touch with women.” “You could at least have fucked her before you let her go.” “Why didn’t you handcuff her at once?” “Don’t tell us you assumed she was innocent until proven guilty?”

“What the fuck!” he bellowed at Efren later that day. He pointed to a blind item in a column in an afternoon tabloid. The columnist had written that “A multi-awarded police officer allowed the main suspect in the serial killings of jeepney drivers to leave the country.”

“Who forgot to pay this son of a whore?” Santos cursed in the vernacular.

Nobody said anything. They were used to their chief’s temper tantrums. They all knew that he was just letting out steam. They knew about his daughter dying of drug overdose. In fact, they were keeping an eye on him, making sure that he did not get very far in his quixotic quest to rid the country of drugs. After all, they also needed money, and the take from the gambling syndicate was not enough. The drug trade paid much more.

All the men and women under Santos kept quiet for another reason. They had been sworn to secrecy by the driver, to whom they had mentioned the impending arrival of Dean King on board a Thai Airways plane. Like Santos, they assumed that Dean King was guilty because she had flown the coop, but her being guilty or not was not particularly important to them. After all, they had put a number of the usual suspects in jail just because the media were after them to act quickly on some murder case.

Sometimes, when coffee money ran out, they would stage a fake arrest, stopping an expensive car in the middle of the street, throwing a bag of methamphetamine, which they called shabu, inside the car when the driver would open his window, then scaring the shocked rich woman in the back seat about having to spend overnight in the police station while they investigated why the bag of shabu was in her car. Invariably, fearing scandal or rape, the woman would give them whatever cash was in her purse. They would then demand that she hand over her bank ATMs and give them the PINs, with a threat that if the PINs were wrong, they would raid her house, taking with them television crews, and embarrass her in front of her high-society neighbors. It was such a common police operation that there was even a local term for it – hulidap, a portmanteau of the Tagalog word for arrest (huli) and the English word holdup.

After she left the country, Santos became doubly sure that Dean King had killed all those jeepney drivers. How she had done it was not a question that he had to bother with. That was for all those know-it-all prosecutors to worry about. His job was to identify and arrest a suspect. He would have pursued her all the way to her condo in Makati, but that was a different jurisdiction. He had to inform the Chief Inspector of the Makati police about the suspect before he could go to her condominium. The Chief Inspector of Makati, however, could not be located, because he had left strict instructions not to be disturbed while he was dancing in his favorite gay club. As a result, Dean King had been able to take a flight. Santos was too late the hero when he got the hold departure order the next morning. He did not even know, at that time, that Dean King was no longer in the country. He felt like a real fool.

Despite being corrupt and a human rights violator, Santos still vaguely remembered the original reason he went into police work. He wanted to stop crime, put criminals in jail, give justice to victims of crimes, make the world safer and better. As he went up the officer ladder, however, he gave in to the Filipino trait of pakikisama, a distorted version of being a team player. To be promoted, you not only had to kiss ass, but you had to do as the Romans do. If your teammates got protection money, you had to get protection money, too, or when push came to shove, they would not protect you. They would not give their usual false statements when Internal Affairs or Congress investigated you for shooting handcuffed criminals who were “attempting to escape.” They would frame you for all the false arrests they had made planting drugs and guns in the cars of innocent people. They would feed you to the gossip columnists, who would put up sex videos on the Web, with your face professionally superimposed on the faces of the professional sex performers.

Santos developed his own personal moral code. He considered accepting bribes from drug lords as immoral, but accepting bribes from gambling syndicates as moral. He considered shooting unarmed witnesses immoral, but shooting unarmed suspects as moral. He considered prostitution as immoral, but he considered his own one-night stands with prostitutes as “research” and, therefore, moral. He considered violating women’s human rights as immoral, but he considered beating up his legal wife and his mistresses as moral. He considered the kind of carnage that was 9/11 or the beheading of journalists in the Middle East as immoral, but he considered the water treatment, electrocuting the balls, and cutting off a fingernail as moral. With his complex but not so unique moral code, Santos was able to live with himself.

In the beginning, Santos really wanted to make a difference, but when he discovered that one cop could not take on the whole government bureaucracy, he fell in step. Since he couldn’t lick them, he joined them. Soon, he could no longer live without the bribes sent by the small-time drug lord and, after his daughter’s death, by the gambling syndicates. The prostitution rings gave the least amount of protection money every week, so he ran after them to get his citations, medals, merit increases, and public acclaim. He wasn’t too greedy; he had to draw the line somewhere. He was, after all, AIP.

He was elated when the Singapore AIP officer texted that Dean Grace King had been arrested in Bangkok and was going to be turned over to him in a couple of hours. He did not know that his staff had already been alerted by airline officials about Inspector Lee and Dean King. As in any other office, the boss was always the last to know.

He immediately called the police reporters hanging around waiting for something to write about.

“Come,” he told them, “Let’s go to the airport. I shall show you how quick justice is because of AIP. We arrested the serial killer only two days since she escaped. Write this down: Chief Inspector Johnny Santos is the sole AIP officer in the Philippines.”

The reporters dutifully wrote down the Who in the Who-What-When-Where-How lead paragraph in the news story that they were going to file to meet their quota for the day. “Chief Inspector Johnny Santos, the sole AIP officer in the Philippines,” they typed into their mobile phones, and left the rest of the sentence for the night to fill in. They got their video cameras ready, took a few sandwiches each from the station commissary, and rode in their respective media cars. Santos took one voluptuous policewoman with him, “the better for the media coverage,” as he put it.

At the Ninoy Aquino International Airport, they waited until the Thai Airlines plane had landed. When Inspector Lee came out of the passenger tube, his hand holding the arm of Grace Lee, Santos beamed. This was going to be yet another of his medal-winning ten minutes of fame.

Unknown to him, however, in one corner of the airport just in front of the immigration counters for non-ASEAN citizens stood the driver. He had been alerted by the same policewoman that Santos brought to the airport. They will bring your boss to Terminal 2, she had texted him.

The driver was there, way ahead of the police. He had talked to the airport police, who were also beneficiaries of his largesse with the drug money. After all, drug mules could not enter or leave the airport without the consent of the airport police. If all went as the driver planned it, Dean Grace King would be able to slip out of the dirty hands of Chief Inspector Johnny Santos.