Short story selected for the 2013 New Asian Writing Short Story Anthology
Plane rides were a rare commodity for Consuelo. An old woman of sixties, she remembers her last being a domestic flight more than five years ago. The weather then was sunny and the sky clear blue, she nonchalantly managed the ninety-minute flight.
However, in a day’s worth of travel time from Manila to Toronto, it was her first encounter with turbulence. Her stomach churned on the bouncy flight that felt like a carnival ride. It had been a relief though, when a stewardess had walked along the aisle, in the attempt to calm agitated passengers. Those who were evidently anxious either demonstrated unnecessary movements such as tapping a foot on the floor, or remained abnormally still, arms folded tightly. One of them was Consuelo, who had a tight grip on the armrest as the stewardess bent over to assist on the seatbelt. She tapped Consuelo’s shoulder, for any added value it could have had.
The whole duration of the flight Consuelo pondered – in between her brief uncomfortable slumbers – about trivial things she had temporarily left behind, such as her dog howling each night, not sparing the neighbors sleep, her peers in the church choir singing in the yearly concelebrated feast mass, or whether the silk cloths that hung over the carts gracing the procession didn’t need repairs. When she ran out of things to worry about, she reached for her handbag, peered at a neatly folded sheet of paper tucked in its inside pocket, trying hard to piece together the reality that awaited her in Stratford.
Consuelo was a woman brought up by a traditional Filipino Christian family, raised to live by its highly conservative set of values. Any delinquency equated to reprimand, or worse. As a child, she had knelt on a bilao spread with green monggo beans with her arms spread, a book on either palm; all for coming home late.
She, too, had tried to raise her only daughter, Florentina on the fundamentals of her upbringing, except that it was rather democratic. For the record, she never laid a hand on her. Nevertheless, she did not attribute that to why her daughter grew up quite an oddball in her devout culture. In fact, Consuelo considered this the reason Florentina had gained so much respect for her. And she, in return had been trying hard to be her daughter’s unwavering safeguard from the palpable harshness outside home.
The day a postman rang the doorbell for a delivery, Consuelo had been sewing upstairs. The second floor of their ancestral home had a large window overlooking the street and had been her working area, as it was well-lit, ventilated, and had a view of people passing by. After all, her husband had been gone for a decade, while Florentina had been in Canada for seven years and, overlooking familiar faces of friends and neighbors made her feel less alone.
“Mrs. Consuelo Madrigal,” the postman called out from the street, “a delivery from Ms. Florentina Madrigal.” “Yes, yes, I’ll be right down” Consuelo called back, excitement painted on her face as she descended the stairs.
Unlike the sociable old woman, her daughter was quieter, not usually vocal. Even her letter hardly filled a third of the page. Her words were brief, yet so hard to take in.
“Ma,” she began. “I couldn’t be sorrier for my happiness crushing your heart.” With that blunt beginning, Consuelo’s heart pounded in nervousness. “I would totally understand if you would hate me for it,” she continued, her eyes slowly moving through the words and the tears started welling.
Consuelo never imagined ever hating her daughter. Since she was little, Florentina had never given her serious problems. She didn’t ace her studies, but she never gave any reason for a teacher to summon Consuelo, such as failing grades or causing any trouble at school like a kid would once in a while. At a young age, she would calm her mother when her husband Roberto, who thought being an alcoholic counted as a profession, would hit her for nothing. And when Florentina was old enough to fend for herself, she had done the same for her mother, as her father demonstrated the same cruel demeanor up until his old age.
“The past three and a half decades, you had been patient and had loved me unconditionally,” Florentina’s letter continued. “And even for that alone…I couldn’t ask for more,” it concluded, leaving tears uncontrollably rolling down her wrinkled face. She peered at the envelope which contained a quarter sheet of perfumed cardboard – seemingly the confirmatory note she had been quite avoiding her whole life – Florentina’s wedding invitation.
Of course Consuelo had the gut feel of a mother. She had known the reason Florentina had been unmarried for so long.
In high school, Consuelo had noticed Florentina’s tapering interest in big group of friends. There was mostly one friend she’d hang out with after school. It was a classmate, a pretty girl whose fair skin and hazelnut eyes spoke of her mestiza blood. They would lock themselves up in Florentina’s room and when she passed by the door, she wouldn’t hear a thing. Yet high school girls normally watched romantic movies and loved to giggle. But Consuelo had never asked why. When the girl migrated to the U.S. for college, it was the first time she had seen her daughter sulk for quite a while, locking herself more often in her room.
Up until the day Consuelo received Florentina’s letter, she had been praying hard, in great anticipation for her daughter to change, and marry a good man someday. But there in Canada, where it was accepted, her daughter was going to marry another woman. And it had left her weeping the whole day; she wasn’t able to finish hemming the laces on a curtain she had been sewing.
“Mareng Consuelo,” Norma, her next door neighbor, called out, as her footsteps ascended the stairs. As her head poked into the living room, Consuelo motioned her to enter. Obviously, she was still doing the finishing touches to Norma’s curtains.
“Don’t worry, I’m not here for the curtains yet,” Norma began. She lingered, watching Consuelo sew for half an hour, all the while talking about Rosing’s daughter who was to marry a tricycle driver. After working in Manila for five years, rumors were that Rosing’s daughter had a lesbian lover who, just that morning came all the way from Manila to Batangas to retrieve her. The resistance of the whole family resulted to a commotion that culminated outside the house, with Jose, a retired policeman and Rosing’s husband, pointing a 45-caliber gun at the unwanted visitor.
Consuelo couldn’t help but think about her daughter. “Would surely learn a lesson from that,” Norma declared, though Consuelo wasn’t quite sure which party her neighbor was referring to. But on second thought, Consuelo realized it sooner, before the other concluded her premise “would never have the balls to ever come back again.”
“Anyway, how’s your daughter?” Norma shifted. Ironically, she just turned to be the last person Consuelo wanted to be openly communicating with in terms of her daughter. As if it made a difference with any other person in their barrio, Consuelo thought. “She’s fine,” she vaguely came up with, and managed to fake a smile as she led her neighbor to the door, promising the curtains first thing in the morning.
When Norma had left, Consuelo thought of Rosing’s daughter and many others, coerced to marry for the wrong reasons. There was her distant relative, Lourdes, who, turning away from her mother’s will, fled to some country in Europe. With her mother’s persistence, she had agreed to a fixed marriage to a son of a family friend. And after postponing the wedding date every three months or so, Lourdes managed to earn a sum of money for her escape. Though rumors gushed through the barrio that it was another woman Lourdes had eloped with, her mother had been steadfast on her word that her daughter had chosen a higher education abroad over marriage.
And how can she forget her own experience. Decades ago, her parents very much approved Roberto for a husband because he had fairly a lot to offer. Though hers wasn’t really the telenovela story where there was another party, the doting poor young man who would tumble on yet another misfortune in not winning the woman he loves and who loves her back. It was just that, during her time, women were marrying earlier and if she turned down the flamboyant lad, who always brought her flowers and something else – a smaller bouquet for her mother, a box of cigar or a bottle of wine for her father – her parents feared he was such a big catch to let go. And so they married, and she had learned ways of loving him. But she never regretted what she had gained from it all – Florentina.
Unable to gather concentration on her work and many other things, Consuelo excused herself a couple of times, feigning sorts of illnesses – headache or arthritis – when Norma or the others came to see if she was well enough for choir practices. Consuelo didn’t much fear the choir disbanding without her, as there was still Portia, who had some undeniable skills with the piano.
“Ala eh,” Norma would usually say on the consecutive days she had attempted to fetch Consuelo for practices. “Have you gone to a doctor? How are you flying to Canada in that state?” She would throw questions one after the other and when she would leave, Consuelo would find a bit of amusement in it, even though she would weep afterwards. Also, she wasn’t accustomed to lying; yet it was as if necessitated by the circumstances. Norma, her other choir mates, and even neighbors knew well she was off to Canada for nothing more than a plain visit.
A few days after, Consuelo had gone to a neighboring town’s church for a confession. It was so hard to do that in her church. With too much familiarity, she was afraid of being recognized, even by the priest, who was amiable to the devotees, but had a reputation of being selective. Consuelo had witnessed it herself when the same priest denied communion to a widow whom everyone in the barrio knew had turned herself into a wedded man’s mistress. She had also witnessed the priest’s same treatment to Tarsing’s son, who welcomed his college freshman year with plucked eyebrows and curled lashes.
“Uh-hum,” the unfamiliar priest cleared his throat, when a little while after the door of the confessional shut, there wasn’t a sound from the other side of the wooden partition. “Father, forgive me for I have sinned,” Consuelo began, though she wasn’t actually sure whether she had, or had been sinning, apart from her lies. “I….I actually don’t know.” After exhaling louder than normal, which she was pretty sure he heard, she whispered through the tiny holes “I don’t feel it is right to just watch my daughter marry the wrong person. It…” grasping for words, she paused and continued “…breaks my heart,” though the words that were forcefully prodded by her Christian upbringing were quite different.
Kneeling on a pew, she silently said the series of prayers the priest had said she should, and hurried home.
Nevertheless, the following week, she found herself sewing Florentina’s wedding dress, and in a couple of month’s time was boarding that plane to Toronto.
When the pilot, Consuelo assumed, announced their arrival at the Pearson International Airport, Consuelo marched to the arrival area. Gliding her small wheeled luggage, her excellent vision captured fifty meters away, two familiar faces waving at her. Florentina took hold of her right hand, bending a little to let the back of it touch her forehead. Consuelo was quite stunned when the other woman, a foreigner and Florentina’s companion, had done the same to her.
The first time Consuelo had seen Ashley, was about six years ago, in the pictures Florentina had sent her. It was Florentina’s first encounter with snow. She stood, looking comfortably snug in her thick clothes, on the front yard covered with snow, behind her, a small bungalow. She was looking at the sky, her hands raised above her, catching snow. There was a snowman and a fair-skinned woman with blonde hair beside it, taller than her, who was patting the snowman, as if applying finishing touches to it.
Consuelo remembers how – as if the natural instinct – she showed less and less of the pictures to her neighbors and friends as Ashley appeared more and more in them.
Consuelo clutched Florentina’s arm as they walked towards the shuttle to Stratford, while Ashley managed to take away the old woman’s baggage.
It was dusk when they arrived at the brick bungalow Consuelo saw in pictures. The summer had exposed the green lawn split in the middle by a concrete pavement leading to the patio. Consuelo had known her daughter being quite disorganized, leaving her bed unmade almost every time, but inside the house, it was neat and clean. The living room was vacuumed, the bed sheets smelled of soap and the bathroom was almost sparkling white.
“Tin cooks most of the time,” Ashley casually initiated a small talk, as they waited in the couch while Florentina prepared her chicken adobo. “Oh really,” Consuelo replied, seemingly in deep recollection. “The last time I checked, she went as far as buying us take out arroz caldo when I had a bad flu.” Consuelo lightly added. “But I had actually smelled burnt rice not long before,” she blurted. They talked for a good half hour covering Ashley’s day job managing her own little bookstore, Consuelo’s services for the church, and sharing with each other a couple of recipes Florentina loved.
There were a few days before the wedding, but Florentna had to be on duty at the nursing home, which left her mother at home, or at the bookstore with Ashley. She didn’t fear the two not getting along because she very well knew them both – with their natural sanguine characters, running out of things to talk about wasn’t to be a problem at all. True enough, on that short span, Florentina noticed her mother exuding a demeanor of being comfortable with Ashley, though she couldn’t be absolutely sure. She knew how her mother was also capable of reflecting an emotion contrary to the actual, like when she had always told her she was okay, though some bruises on her arms Roberto had placed told her otherwise.
At the bookstore, she gladly introduced Consuelo to her frequent customers as her newly hired manager. And Consuelo actually enjoyed her role, being able to come up with a comment or two on the scant classics she had read or watched. At the end of the day, she was able to realize what she was more interested in. To further transpire the homey feeling of the little bookstore, she had promised Ashley a set of warm-colored curtains for it. The truth was, Consuelo couldn’t find anything to unlike about Ashley.
As Consuelo had much enjoyed her first few days in Stratford, the night before the wedding went quite different though. Since Consuelo landed, the three of them hadn’t said a word about the wedding or the relationship per se, as if it were some unspoken taboo.
Right after dinner, Florentina took her wedding dress out of the closet, hung it on the stairway beside another white dress. “Beautiful, aren’t they?” Florentina turned to her mother and Ashley who were seated on the couch by the stairs. And it was all it took to burn down the walls Consuelo had incarcerated herself in since she had landed.
“Well,” Consuelo started, twisting her lips from side to side, in her futile attempt to hold back the brewing weight in her chest. “You two would have made perfect brides,” she continued. “Ma,” Florentina immediately cut her mother, “we will be.” Consuelo tried to regain herself, managing a sad sort of smile at Ashley and her daughter, “Well, I didn’t come all the way here to spoil everything, did I?” “Of course not Ma,” came her reply “you’re presence has been the best gift.”
The civil wedding was a simple and brief ceremony with two witnesses – Consuelo and Emma, a very old woman from the nursing home who had regarded Florentina as her favorite caregiver. Emma had heard from Florentina that her mother had sewn her wedding dress. Sincerely marveling at the fitted sleeveless knee-length dress overlaid with a chiffon fabric, and further adorned by a few intricate beadworks, Emma complimented Consuelo’s creation with much adoration.
For the past couple of months, Consuelo’s emotions had been fluctuating more than her blood pressure. Sometimes, she felt phantom pain. Of her lost daughter? But unlike any amputated body part, never to rematerialize, her daughter was there – is there. And it had brought Consuelo to once again think of the wedding dress she had envisioned since Florentina was little – a floor-length version of that dress with a twelve-foot trail embellished with crystals and beads. She would slowly walk it along a church aisle, together with Consuelo and Roberto on her either side.
That very moment, Florentina and Ashley – in their knee-length white dresses – were pronouncing their promises, which could have come from any wedding script. But the look in her daughter’s eyes – the sincerity and grasp of never letting go no matter what – conveyed the profundity of where it had been rooted.
Holding back the tears she thought had dried up after shedding a bucket on Florentina’s letter and a little the night before, she managed to smile a sincere smile, gathering a reply to Emma’s compliment on her daughter’s dress. “It doesn’t happen everyday,” she whispered, and added, “a rare opportunity not every mother could have, her lifetime.”
On the way to Manila, Consuelo hadn’t given much thought about her dog, or her choir mates or her neighbors. Instead, she thought of the whole idea of staying. For a nature-lover, it was hard not to fall in love with Stratford. She had seen its beautiful gardens – lush evenly cut grass carpet joined by the widely colored flora and a white gazebo for a centerpiece – she had walked along the Avon River with Florentina and her wife. After all, her migration documents had been waiting for her for quite a while.
Still, there were myriad reasons to come back to the Philippines. Inevitably, her arthritis had been married to the tropical weather. The smell of Batangas brewed coffee in the morning in her peaceful province had always been home. That place had been where she was born, and where she had wanted her grave to lie.
Reasonably, she was an old woman who had really nothing to contribute to a foreign land, but a liability to its taxpayers. But in her home land, her wholehearted services had been meaningfully catered to neighbors and friends.
As the plane ascended, Consuelo had been less afraid of turbulence. She knew better now, to stay calm, and fasten her seatbelt. She partly thought of Florentina. Amid the denials and derisions of the place she called home, that could have been the source of a rough and bumpy ride for her daughter, Consuelo could afford a smile. Because Florentina was very far away – where she is, and will be, happy. And that was all she needed to see, to grow older and finally rest, contented.
adobo: a popular Filipino dish of meat marinated in soy sauce and vinegar
ala eh: a Filipino expression commonly used by people in Batangas
arroz caldo: porridge
barrio: a smaller unit of a town, more of a countryside
bilao: a shallow basket
Mareng/Mare: used to address female friends
mestiza: a person of mixed races
monggo: a type of small green beans
telenovela: Spanish term for primetime soap opera
About the Author
Mary Antonette “T-net” Quiring is a graduate of Economics in the University of the Philippines. At 27, one of the things she is passionate about besides coffee and the love of her life is a less cruel society for gender minorities in the country she calls home – the Philippines – where tolerance at the very least could be demonstrated, if acceptance is much a boulder to start with. She dedicates this story to those who, despite a rough and bumpy ride, still choose to love. This is her first published work.