She hoped the crisp warmth of the morning would persevere until early afternoon, aware that only on warm days do Manang Yna’s therapeutic massages work best. Mai needed a particularly potent dose for tonight: Jun, her husband, was coming home early. She made sure of it during breakfast when she seasoned his fried eggs with salt and a pinch of finely ground mermaid bones.
“I’ll cook dinner tonight. You don’t have to bring home fast food or pancit.” Mai smiled. Jun almost missed it on his way out. He looked back at her through the aluminum screen door, anxious to be gone.
“Magluluto ako ng ulam pang hapunan.” Mai winced as the door shut. After that, she phoned Manang Yna.
The retired nurse was gifted with the ability to reform her clients’ appearance and reinvigorate their bodies. Over the phone, Mai explained: last night, she found her husband’s collection of naughty videos on their computer. She must have sounded defensive, she apologized, she was looking for recipes for sinigang na sirena.
The older woman was completely sympathetic. Masahe lang iyan, iha, stressed ka lang. Mai refused to regret poisoning her husband, setting a trap for him, and preparing, even now, to seduce him as revenge. Hindi ka naman papatay, diba?
If Mai described girls in her husband’s favorite videos, could Manang Yna mold her face into a passable replica, for a fee? Mas mahal yun than the regular massages she enjoyed to maintain her figure and, sometimes, to enhance her breasts. Pero oo, syempre, para sa’yo. Anong oras ka pupunta rito?
So, tonight, her husband would come home to a woman he enjoyed and the women he loved could finally, finally enjoy him. But she needed him to come home.
The bellyache should begin an hour or two after ingestion and increase in intensity as the day wears on. A large, proud man, her husband will finish his eight-hour shift despite the stone grinding in his stomach and the large weight in his gut crushing the breath out of him. At the end of ten hours, the pain will subside and he will feel nothing below his waist. Except for the throbbing. Mai giggled at the thought of Jun, her husband, in some public bathroom, sitting on the toilet, toying with his flaccid manhood. He will feel it in his hand, like a slick, nameless eel. He will feel it only in his hand.
With this image to fortify her, Mai cleaned the house and afterwards sat with a plate of boiled plantains and a round, handheld mirror. Today, she was wearing her favorite floral house dress. The dark leaves of giant gumamela splayed across her chest and abdomen, heedless of her white arms, legs and the streaking thin, green veins prominent against her skin. The thick, dark red petals on yellow fabric made her feel large, empowered. She had taken to wearing bold, floral prints – the same ones her own mother favored – to hide the dark brown oil stains on her arms and to distract from her own wilting…
Looking at herself – a peeled saging na saba in her hand – she imitated the women’s expression: neck stretched taut, her hard face angled, mouth agape, and eyes half-closed. She will tell the Manang: ganito ‘ho. Pero mas maganda pa. It surprised her that her husband preferred amateur pornography: most were low resolution videos with titles akin to “ex-girlfriend’s last morning”, “between breakfast and lunch with Nina”, and “Sam’s early Saturday”. Was he ashamed of it? The images were pixelated, the videos often blurred, and the audio cracked. Bakit siya mahihiya?
It was a different shame Mai felt, being here every morning, ragged from Monday through Friday, her body growing heavy and slow, eventually unraveling as the years wore on. Smothered by the fumes of cooking oil, her skin had begun to sag. Everyday her flesh tugged heavier upon her bones. Bakit siya mahihiya?
At half-past one, Mai arrived at Manang Yna’s house. It was early afternoon and the Manang’s spacious living room was cluttered with magazines, dirty old pillows, picture frames.
“So, tell me about him.” Manang Yna said, by way of greeting.
The thick lens of her glasses hid deep set eyes. She was wearing a sleeveless shirt, collar curdling from too much washing. When she reached for Mai’s forearm, she gave a little reassuring squeeze and her hands were comfortably warm, like she had been holding a plate of newly cooked rice. She led Mai up a short flight of stairs to an unused bedroom. Mai was familiar with Manang’s procedure: she undressed and, naked, climbed onto the bed while the Manang arranged four or five bottles of fragrant oil on a little table.
The blessed oils helped, Manang Yna insisted, when she massaged her clients who wanted their skin to glow like candlelight. She stored the oil in several cheese-spread jars and she enjoyed holding them up against the light. She told Mai about coercing different priests – one was not enough, she insisted – to dip their fingers, sometimes their entire hands and wrists, into a small tub of cooking oil until it acquired the faint scent of flowers.
“So, anong nangyari kay mister?” Mai allowed Manang Yna to spread oil on her throat. A tingling heat spread to her chest as Manang Yna cupped a breast: tignan mo, she said, I told you, your breasts would never sag, and here they are. Mai giggled, her small breasts bouncing.
Manang Yna turned to Mai’s fleshy arms. The first few times Mai visited Manang Yna, she refused to allow her to spread the blessed oil over her extremities. She was fickle with oil, unable to put her skepticism aside.
Manang Yna reached up and drew her hands down over Mai’s face, a soft gesture to help her relax. Mai gratefully closed her eyes. Yna unfurled her fingers, easing the tension between each joint.
When Manang Yna rubbed oil over her neck and collar bones, she said, “Ang tanda ko na pala”. And Yna smoothed away the loose skin on Mai’s neck, the frown lines from her mouth, and the half moon circles darkening under her eyes. Mai felt herself grow warm and glow.
She missed the cruel, sharp lilt in the Manang’s voice when she said: “Mamaya, talagang aayusin ko pa yan.”
Mai related Jun’s disinterest, the way he seemed to escape from her every morning, when he left for work, and the way he slumped through the dinners she prepared. On more than one occasion, Mai noticed him slipping either rice or chicken back into their cooking pots.
He seemed to have lost half his appetite.
Ibang putahe ang ihain mo mamayang gabi, Manang Yna’s eyes grew hard as she smiled. To comfort Mai, she worked on her shoulders for fifteen minutes. She smoothed Mai’s thick arthritic fingers, raised the palms to her pockmarked cheeks to gauge the texture. Manang Yna, in all her wisdom, told Mai the only way to get Jun back was to become a different woman, if that’s who he wanted. Who was Mai, Manang Yna asked, but the wife he left at home to clean?
Mai reported: Jun had begun wearing his old button-down polos, the ones she had retired to the back of his closet when they first got married. He had stopped requesting for three servings of rice and he slept before midnight. Suddenly, he began combing his hair back and away from his face. He said he had been tired too long.
Manang Yna clucked, squeezing Mai’s arms. She massaged until the flesh was warm and tight, until Mai bit her lip in frustration and pain.
“Hindi pa tayo tapos,” Yna reminded her. Flies buzzed around them, attracted by the fragrant oil. The room was warm, dark, heavy curtains drawn over the windows. Now and then, Mai grunted under the Manang’s ministrations. Her skin had drawn tighter around the bone so her arms were stiff, her shoulders sore but she had no bruises to show for it. The Manang was a mountain, moving from one side of the bed to the other, now and again having her stretch her arms to gauge their size. One shouldn’t be smaller than the other. Once satisfied, Manang Yna moved to Mai’s misshapen legs. She tightened Mai’s thighs, removed the disfiguring lines that ran down her legs.
She twisted the flesh there, pulled it back and held on until Mai’s thighs shrank. Manang Yna took off two to three inches until the flesh seemed to glow, until they were pink and blushing, hot blood underneath skin worried thin.
“Sandali,” Mai sat up, examining the Manang’s work. Her stretch marks had disappeared. “Kulang pa” and she smiled.
“Sabi mo eh,” Yna laughed to hide her irritation. With her hands, she twisted and twisted until Mai’s legs were scrawny things.
“Anong bang gusto mo mangyari?” Yna squeezed her thighs, her fingers dark against the flesh.
“Iretoke niyo na ang itsura ko.” Yna grinned, already unscrewing one of the oil jars. A strong, musky scent filled the room. Manang Yna opened a window, swatting at the flies. She spread a thin layer over Mai’s cheeks and the oil burned. Manang pulled at her skin and in the obtrusive heat of the early afternoon, the oil seared the flesh over Mai’s bones. Ganito ho, gusto ko ng matangos na ilong. Manang, Mai implored, I want high cheekbones, large eyes, yung lips dapat kissable! Gusto ko yung mukhang model. Yung legs ko, puwede bang balikan? Puwede niyo ba akong patangkarin?
Manang Yna’s hands were strangely smooth. “Sa tagal ko na’ng ginagawa to, napudpud na yata ang mga daliri ko.” She said she no longer grew fingernails. She no longer had fingerprints. Her hands were entirely empty.
When Manang Yna finished, she told Mai to bathe in cold water and breathe in the steam that rises from her body.
“Lutuin mo muna yung katawan mo, bago ihain kay mister,” she warned, while Mai counted out the payment. One hundred and fifty for both arms and two hundred for her legs. Another three hundred for her new face.
Mai rushed back home, already anticipating Jun’s excitement. It was almost seven in the evening when she began cooking dinner: pan fried mermaid meat in breadcrumbs and gravy. The oil was too hot and she burned her new fingers. Boils erupted on her new, white skin. She prepared soy sauce and calamansi juice dip, just in case.
Unsteady on her new, spindly legs, Mai was clumsier than ever. She stained their tablecloth orange while stirring a tablespoon of mermaid saliva – the antidote for her domestic poison – in a pitcher of juice. She felt like a stranger but in this she rejoiced. Her husband, after all, seemed to dislike the familiarity of her former body. She came to think of herself that way: the wife muffled and trussed up in a newer body. A better model. Wife version two.
Standing still, Mai could almost feel the old bones rocking. She only frightened herself when her clothes wouldn’t fit. Dressed in a small shirt and an old pair of jeans, she settled down by the rough dining table piled with a platter of fried mermaid meat and miniature bowls of dipping sauce.
Pandan rice cooled in a pot on their tiled counter. She waited only half an hour, which she spent in the bathroom. A tin drum collected water from a gushing faucet and into this she climbed and squatted, her body shining and hot like candle wax ready to set. Calluses on her hands and feet shaved off so it hurt to stand or turn the rusty tap. The exultant wife filled her lungs with the steam that, sure enough, rose from her feverish, glowing skin. She inhaled grilled mermaid – salty and vicious, all muscle and no fat, easy to spoil over the flames – roasted onions and beneath, barely detectable, a sweet crisp smell like caramel.
Examining herself in the mirror, Mai discovered hollow cheeks to reveal naturally high cheekbones. Her eyes were so wide, she looked perpetually surprised. Her lips were red and plump but she could no longer smile without wincing in pain and risk tearing the stretched skin.
After her bath, Mai found a stranger leaning over Jun’s twisted body. The stranger’s shirt damp with sweat, neck and chest sodden with vomit, he approached Mai with a hand outstretched in appeal and supplication. Misis? Picked up somewhere in Ortigas – below a bridge, underneath a busted streetlamp – Jun swayed on unsteady legs and clutched his stomach before climbing into the taxi. He retched in his seat on his way home until, still heaving, the cabdriver peeled him off the wrecked upholstery and carried him inside.
The cabdriver surrendered the keys he found in one of Jun’s pockets. When she pressed an extra bill into his hands, Mai noticed they were cold but soft and he spared her no backward glance or judgment. In fact, Mai thought, the way he told the story had been well-rehearsed, his tone steady and practiced. He had met too many wives and, along the way to Mai’s door, finally given up trying to understand the way their face crumpled and fell or the anger that invaded their stare.
Jun on the couch: awake but incoherent. Jun, Jun. A glass of cold water, a warm damp towel, armed with a caressing voice and all the endearments Mai remembered, she approached and knelt to press her cheek against the nape of his neck. Jun? Jun? He responded only with a deep groan that began in his chest and picked its way out. Mai heard it clatter blindly with the junk in his lungs. Jun, jun. Carefully Mai arranged Jun’s body, straightened his legs, removed his shoes, and began to unbutton the ruined, stinking shirt. Her husband threw an arm across his eyes so she fumbled with the living room light and continued her task in the yellow glow from the kitchen reflected on glossy tiles. She felt him shift under her ministrations, shifted to unbuckle his belt, turned his head to sniff the breeze wafting in, and lifted his head onto her lap. Jun leaned into her touch as she combed back his hair, damp towel pressed to his lips. Hello. Both eyes slits through which he stared at her tumbled hair, his breathing even and quiet. He reached up to twirl a strand of hair around his thumb.
Kamusta? It was Jun who asked, smiled, and angled his head. He took the cloth from her hand and let it drop. Mai saw that he squinted to see her and concluded he must still be dazed. Sorry, nakatulog yata ako, soft and spoken with an appealing lilt. Her husband pressed a kiss to her wrist. Mai held the shiver in the pit of her stomach until it passed and her husband pulled her fast into a kiss. Deliberate and slow like a declarative sentence. Hello, she said back, hushed but vibrant. She must have blushed but it was dark so it did not matter. Jun? Jun. I’m glad you’re home, Mai said, but her husband heard wrong. Hindi, hindi ko pa kailangang umuwi. Jun sat up and pulled her toward him. Maybe he even purred when he discovered her body had become wholly strange. Maybe this excited him. Mai lifted herself onto his lap. When she looked in the mirror after her bath and barely recognized herself, it was a relief. Bakit siya mahihiya?
I can stay a little longer, Jun murmured with Mai’s hair in his mouth, dito muna ako, while his wife wondered, briefly, what could happen once she turned on the light.
She decided, only, to kiss him back.
For her family.
Kyra is currently pursuing an MA for Creative Writing at UP Diliman. She promises to write better stories.
The above image is from here.