Carina hadn’t noticed the letter right away. She had gotten up early, earlier than usual, not having slept much. It was a night of troubled dreams, sleep had come fitfully when it did, and she was already wide awake when daylight slowly sharpened in her room. When she finally threw off the blanket, it was past six o’clock. She puttered about the living area of her condo, sipping absent-mindedly at her coffee. The wedding wouldn’t be until five p.m., and she had plenty of time to get ready and think how it was even possible that this day had arrived. A day she had waited for all her life was now upon her, and for years she had steeled herself against the ever-more-real possibility that it would never be hers, and now that it was hers, now that she knew an unfortunate soul like hers could still find true love and get married at the ripe old age of forty-two, something deep within her softly rippled with apprehension.
Her coffee was nearly done, she had padded around the small living area barefoot in erratic circles many times, the fog in her mind slowly dissipating, when she noticed the letter. It was on the narrow shelf in the alcove by the door. There she left her car keys, a small dish of coins, and bills and other mail she had retrieved from the lobby but wasn’t going to entertain just yet. The letter leaned against the faux brick surface of the wall, upright and attentive amid a small pile of other envelopes. Oddly, the only word on it was “Carina.” The name was scrawled, in fairly large, fluttering letters by a hand that seemed nearly too weak, too young or too old, to write.
She looked again at the shelf. Mail she had brought in the night before when she arrived after an early dinner with Ding. The porcelain dish with a spiral as if swirling in water, with the key to her Civic in the basement. A small pair of cheap scissors. The brightly laminated pine beneath them all. Then the letter that stood above them. It certainly hadn’t been there when she plopped the bills there last night, and Mayen, the cleaner and laundrywoman who came over once a week, had left hours earlier; the place had looked spotless as usual. No one had been in since. Perhaps Mayen had snuck in very early today? But Carina would have heard the door, and the wind chime too, as lightly as she slept.
Could it have been slipped under the door? No, it was standing among the envelopes, and neatly. It would have been some mighty wind blowing under the door to push it onto the ledge four feet above the parquet—and then to stand it against the wall. And such a wind twenty-three floors above the ground in this condominium in the heart of the Makati business district? Surely no force intelligible to the human intellect could have done so.
She took the small scissors beside the pile of bills, cut an edge on the envelope, then pulled out the paper. It was a single sheet, blank save for crosswise lines of a muted blue. It was a sheet of writing paper, those pads of lined paper she used in school as a child. Nothing had been written on it and it had been folded twice. She peered into the envelope; it was empty. She looked back at the sheet. Now she noticed: it wasn’t new. Tiny dark spots, brown and gray, mottled the entire surface. She put it to her nose. It had a ripeness to it, as if kept away for years. She looked closer. The sheet seemed rumpled, or at least passed over by human hands, not recently torn off a pad; it would have been smoother. And it was blank. What did it mean?
She took it away from the dimness of the alcove and brought it to the window. In the vivid daylight the blank sheet of paper—it was too generous to even think of it as a letter—looked even more out of place in her condo. At her feet the strips of light wood burnished to a rich, earthy yellow. The modular sofa in russet, the wooden chest she had brought home from a business trip to Indonesia, the small chandelier made of sleek metal hoops encrusted with bulbs like gemstones. The clear, glass panes framed in dark metal giving on to a view of tall buildings shimmering in the middle distance. Sweeping a glance across the room reassured her of who she was and where she was, and the sullen missive in her hand clearly identified itself as the intruder.
She thought about what it might mean. She could think of no good reason why it might have arrived. A prank, perhaps? But it wasn’t funny at all, if it was meant to be funny. And what was the message?
Her mind wandered to other thoughts. She scanned the years: offices bleached by white light, vacations here and abroad, nights in loud and smoky bars, damp hotel rooms, loves and disappointments, days before hope was snuffed out like a dying candle. The boys—how hard it seemed to refer to them as men—who got close to her, close enough for her to let them know that she wanted them, too. The ones who left her, lost interest, found someone more beautiful, more vital. The ones who made her feel like a ghost, a shadow. There was a long, somber parade of them in a dim corridor in her mind, some of them looking away, some glancing at her with an ingratiating grin, many with faces that were little more than dark blurry ovals. She had walked down that corridor many times, the resentment and fear giving way to surrender.
But that place seemed to disappear into some inaccessible suburb of her brain after she had met Ding. Eight years younger than her, scruffy and kind like a lost dog. He had been in Accounts for years, pulling in new clients at a decent pace, never deserving a promotion or a kick out the door. With the last round of hires and fires, he had found himself older than the rest by at least half a decade.
So how had he singled her out? Ah, it was clear to her, though she let him think otherwise, that it was the other way round: she had zeroed in on him. At an office party one Christmas she had taken too hard and fast to the vodka, and she had asked him to walk her to her building. The air was cold but humid; she had wrapped a shawl around her but perspired through it. Ding had walked with her at a hovering distance, close but respectfully separate, and ready to fling his arms out at her slightest wobble. She looked back at him and took his hand.
She put the sheet of paper on the kitchen counter. She took a breath, shot a glance at the clock of polished metal on the wall, and remembered that she was going to take a long, hot bath in the morning. She took out the two steel kettles, filled them, then put them on the stove; the water heater was busted again. As the two shiny domes reflected the light and images in her snug kitchen she thought of how they had heated water this way at home, in the smelly and dank kitchen of a small, dim house she was too glad to have left the moment her salary allowed her. The water heater was among the comforts she had most desired, and now that it was busted—it simply turned on without actually heating water—and she didn’t have time to have it checked, she passed by the department store after doing the groceries one day for the kettles. She chose these pert, shiny things, which put to shame the bulky and dented ones of her youth.
Later, in the bathroom, she took off her clothes then gazed at her image in the mirror above the sink. What did Ding really think of her body? At first their lovemaking was urgent, sometimes spectacular, her body shuddering and shimmering at his touch. Why had it taken all those years before life had allowed her such pleasure? Then it became more familiar, learned, like a show you put on one too many times.
She filled the tub, poured the hot water, then got in. It would be a few hours before her sister Anne would arrive to help her get ready for the wedding, and she lay in the warm water letting her mind flit from thought to random thought. The stillness of the water and the quiet of the room soothed her. The wedding would be wonderful, the ceremony simple and lovely, the reception understated and elegant. A small circle of family and friends would be there, and they would know, though the intervening years had seemed to prove otherwise, that yes, she was beautiful too, and yes, she could be loved too.
She sat up briskly, splashing water out of the tub. Something was in the water. It had touched her thigh, like fingers or a hand. But the water, sudsy but clear, showed only the whiteness of the tub and her pale refracted flesh. She hadn’t noticed it right away, only feeling a faint grazing near her knee she thought was merely the water and its small circling currents. Then it climbed slowly up the back of her leg, then onto her inner thigh, and it was going to move higher before she realized what was going on.
And what was it, anyway? She swished the water with her hands. Nothing, only water and bubbles. She grew calm again. She was going to lie back but stopped and stiffened: a boy. The image came into focus. Dark hands, skin and bones beneath a threadbare shirt, a mop of short, thick hair on his head. What was his name again? His mother the housekeeper, Lina or Lisa. She was eleven or twelve. Summers they would walk around the cracked and dusty roads of the neighborhood far away from Manila (where she determined she would one day escape to), kick a deflated volleyball against a wall in the derelict park, where the playground was overgrown with weeds, weeds bursting through the concrete of the basketball court where the men played shirtless then guzzled beer.
They would meet behind the house, in the nook behind the clotheslines, where the fat laundry woman squatted, before they were discovered and he and his mother were sent away. That was exactly what had happened one drowsy summer afternoon. They were behind the wash, and he had traced just such a line with his fingers on her leg and up her skirt, until his mother had come bellowing his name. They scrambled away in opposite directions, and a day later he and his mother were gone.
His face? What did he look like? She strained to reach back through the long dark years. Standing outside the kitchen door. His face like a blotch in a photograph, a shadow refusing to come to clarity. She said: stay. His reply: I will come back for you. Promise me! Yes, I promise, even if it kills me. Then the angry mother pulling him away down the driveway. She wept into her pillow the entire night. A week later she began to bleed. Sitting still in the water she holds the image in her mind: the low gate with rusted grill, the gray concrete driveway. The sunlight beating down on them, though for some reason much of the image is swathed in darkness.
A few years later she was told by one of the helpers down the street that he was dead. Typhoid. The mother had spent her meager savings on hospital bills, and he died anyway. The woman had spoken the words to her through the gaps in the gate as Carina looked outside. It was a lazy weekend morning, and she was in high school and had forgotten about that dark and skinny boy, his memory replaced by the urgency of other boys, the ones from expensive schools she met at parties. Her thoughts were filled with furtive glances, kisses away from prying eyes, lingering caresses, and other gestures charged with meaning and expectation that only deepened the disappointment.
Now it was he who tore through the long line of disappointing and disappointed suitors, his face more blank than the others but gazing at her, she knew it, with a look of gravest betrayal. In her mind his hands reached out to clutch her.
The paper! She rose from the tub, toweled off madly, and hurried to the kitchen. The sheet of paper still lay there, open and mysterious. Yes: he could draw. He had stopped going to school, so Carina gave him books and pencils and paper. She would buy these pads of lined school paper from the sari-sari store at the corner and give them to him, and he would fill them with his drawings. She went to the bedroom and rummaged through her things, the boxes (she was proud to have kept so few of them, in which she crammed the belongings from the house she had left behind) with the items from her childhood. She threw off the top of one and dug her hands in: greeting cards from best friends, letters from boys who could not be trusted, photos with graying images of a much younger self with friends she had long lost track of. There, near the bottom, she found a plain brown envelope. She pulled it out and opened it. Drawings in an unsteady hand on lined paper. Trees. Birds. A gate with a car parked nearby. Finally, her. At twelve years old. A mere child with boyish hair and eyes more striking than they actually were. At the bottom, the signature: Ruben.
She stood, naked and damp and nervous, summoning the face. It would not come to her. Her cellphone rang, and she started. She went to the kitchen where she had left it and answered; Anne was nearby. She let out a breath, glad for the company, then put the phone down. The blank page lay before her. She thought awhile, then grabbed a pencil and wrote, “Is it you, Ruben?” She was afraid she would tear the sheet, it was so frail. Then she stopped and scolded herself; he’s dead, and it was so long ago. She chuckled to herself, folded the sheet, and left it under her phone on the counter.
After a quick lunch—she hadn’t been able to eat more than a light sandwich, which Anne attributed to wedding-day nerves—and a stop at the salon, they returned to her condo early in the afternoon. In a few hours they were at the church, in the rental car outside the main door. Ding had tried to talk her down from getting a limo, but she argued, why spare the expense? Here it was, the back seat roomier than she had imagined, with enough room for the voluminous skirt of her gown and her companion for life.
There was time to spare, and the priest wasn’t around yet. The driver was somewhere taking a smoke, and Carina and her sister were alone in the car. She asked Anne if she remembered the laundry woman and her son.
“Manang Lena? Why, what about her?”
“Why did she leave?”
“That was a long time ago, Careng. Why do you ask?”
“I don’t know. I just thought of her this morning. And her son.”
“I think she stole some of Papa’s sweaters.”
“I remember the son. He was nice.”
“What was his name again?”
“Ruben, I think. We used to play with him. Didn’t we? Go to the park.”
“You two did. I was too young, Mama wouldn’t let me out of the house.”
“I just remembered him this morning. For no reason. I liked him.”
“He was nice to you.”
“I mean, really nice.”
“What do you mean?”
“Of course you know what I mean. You remember, don’t you?” Anne twisted in the front seat to face her sister. Carina wore a puzzled look. “Oh my god. You really don’t?”
“Mama explained to me later. I think I was in high school. It was when I started going to parties. She told me to be careful with boys, that whole talk. She said it was the reason she sent Manang Lena and Ruben away.”
Anne turned back into her seat to face the dashboard, and her voice softened.
“Ma said he . . . did something to you.”
“What did he do?”
“Careng, you don’t remember? At all?”
Carina shook her head.
“Ma said he had been taking you behind the shed, hidden by the wash on the laundry lines. You had gone along because you were a foolish girl. She told me . . . she told me not to be like you.”
This from Anne, who had been going out since high school, one reason she and Mama fought a lot. Shouting, glasses and plates thrown. Anne, who met a boy in high school, who she went to the same college with, who at twenty-one was married and pregnant. Who was now at thirty-six the harried mother of four boys. Be careful with boys, so Mama had told her. Don’t be like your sister. Ha.
“Car, why did you think of him today, of all days?”
“I just . . . I don’t know. I just did.”
A phone rang. Anne reached into her purse.
“Father Lorenz is here! I’ll go greet him. Don’t worry, I’ll tell him to hitch with Monchie to the hotel.”
The door shut, and there was only the sound of the quietly whirring air-conditioner. The noise of people scurrying around preparing for the ceremony came in a muted rush, as if occurring far away from her. She couldn’t bring herself to tell Anne what she had found in her condo this morning. How would she have explained it? That this boy from long ago, who “did something to her” and who was now resting his eternal rest, was sending a message from somewhere beyond the grave?
And what had he done to her? Why were her memories so vague? She closed her eyes and summoned that day to her. Wet bedsheets and towels, the brown twine strung from one wall to wooden posts, the smell of detergent. The day he had put his hand on her knee, gently, reverently, as if discovering a substance new to the earth. It was coming back to her. There he was. He stood in front of her, yes, he had been there, but bent over slightly so that she saw past his head. The fingers slowly climbing her leg, the tingle shooting up her body from places no one else had ever touched. The hand reaching up her skirt. The other hand, where was his other hand? On her waist, under her sando, a hand that too moved upward to other tender places of herself, there, oh there. He could feel his breath on her chest. Her own hands, where were they? By her sides, immobile. Then finding the nerve to clutch his shoulders. He straightened up, and they looked at each other as if something wonderful or dreadful might happen next. But why can’t I see his face now? We looked into each other’s eyes, but I can’t remember his face. Then the mother bellowed, he shot past the wet bedsheets, and she hurtled in the other direction, behind the house, over the low fence they shared with a neighbor, out into the uneven street, running in her slippers until her feet ached.
She felt exhausted, enervated. Why hadn’t she remembered this before? The memory seemed so remote yet so fresh and immediate, as if forged long ago but stored in her mind only yesterday. And then they were sent away, mother and son, and Mama never spoke a word to her except to scold her for her short skirts and skimpy blouses.
She grinned to herself. Who knew Miss Carina Velayo had such a sordid episode in her past? What would her officemates think? And anyway, wasn’t it a comfort that she was once young and foolish? And ultimately, what was the harm done by these impudent youths?
The blank sheet of paper without a word—her mind returned to it. That was no harm, but it was certainly real. Maybe she had sleepwalked, pulled out an old sheet of school paper from some box kept away, put it in an envelope, then left it where her waking self would find it? Carina smiled at the preposterousness of it all. But yes, maybe that was it. She had needed to remember that boy, that was all. Now she had, and all was well.
She reached for her purse in the front seat, which Anne was to carry while the ceremony unfolded. She unclasped it to retrieve her phone. The relief that had just washed over her dried up, and her body grew deathly cold. The paper! It was next to her phone. Hadn’t she left it on the kitchen counter in her condo when she put her phone in her purse before rushing out the door? Yes, of course. She was sure of it. Yet there it was, tucked in among her things. It was nothing, she had probably grabbed it with her phone, another moment of absentmindedness. She plucked it out then unfolded it. The words she had written were gone. In their stead was a sketch of her face, not the child’s face as in the drawing she had retrieved this morning, but the face she had now, her older woman’s face, the face that would launch no ships, enchant no men, make no one take a second glance. She flung the door open and stepped out of the car, finding it suddenly hard to breath.
“Careng! What’s wrong?” Anne came rushing to her.
“Nothing.” She leaned on the car with one hand and put the other on her chest. Her gown unfurled around her. “Nothing. Just . . . had a little trouble breathing. This gown is really tight.” She pulled at the beaded bodice.
“Aw, my sister’s getting the jitters just before her wedding. How cute! I didn’t think it would happen to you, at your age! Hey, get back in the car. Ding’s not supposed to see you in your beautiful gown yet.” Anne smoothened her veil. “We’ll be starting soon,” she said then skipped away to the small group forming by the church entrance.
Ruben, Ruben, she whispered. Where are you now? Why can’t I remember your face? Show me your face.
In the distance she saw a man walking briskly toward her. She started, her nerves on edge. Then she relaxed; the tulle veil had blurred her vision. It was the driver. She bunched up the skirt with her hand and got back in the car. The driver’s door closed with a soft thud. She felt better to have another human being in the car, one with no connection to her or her past. He sat there impassively, not acknowledging her presence.
Then he started gunning the engine.
“Why are you doing that?” she asked. She looked toward the church. “Look, the wedding’s about to start.”
The car began rolling forward slowly. Before she could protest, the sheet of paper beside her caught her eye. Again it was different: it was now a drawing of two faces, hers and a devil’s. Horrified, she lifted her veil and leaned forward to demand that the driver stop, but when she glimpsed his face in the rearview mirror—it wasn’t his face anymore, not of the man who picked them up at the condo, but someone else’s, a face she had seen before, not in this way exactly, but a long time ago, she knew how it once looked, there, she finally remembered the face, now so terrifyingly familiar, a face that showed her, to her everlasting horror, that, yes, eternity does indeed exist, the promises we make can hold fast over many years, and those who think themselves unworthy of love can be proven oh so wrong—she was thrown back by the sudden burst of speed. And then she remembered to scream.
Her family alerted the authorities, but it was no use. She was never found, or the driver. But the car did turn up, abandoned far away from the city in a neighborhood of rundown houses, beside a particularly decrepit one, with a rusted grill and low fences, where weeds, in their indefatigable striving to live, shot through the cracks in the driveway. It was odd, the police said, because according to forensics the vehicle showed no signs of struggle, they found only scraps of paper, threads of fabric, and nothing to suggest that anyone but the woman and her sister had ever been in the car. Nothing more was heard of them. It was as if, having gotten that far in a mechanism of human design, the two continued in another, in what direction nobody knew, to embark on one last journey together.
Exie Abola teaches English and creative writing. His first book, a collection of essays, is forthcoming. He is working at a collection of short stories. “The Promise Of Love” is his first attempt at genre fiction, and was inspired by and adapted from “The Demon Lover” by Elizabeth Bowen.
The above image is from here.