On the night her husband left her, Mrs. Antonio Samson could not sleep. It was not the first time she had committed an indiscretion. In the past few weeks she had lied to him and acted as if she had always been the faithful wife that he believed in, and she had easily gone to sleep feeling sure that, even if her husband found out, he would not be able to do anything about it except, perhaps, make a nasty little scene. She was sure of him and of his reactions, just as she had long grown accustomed to the taste of his mouth, his smell, and the contours of his body. It was a comforting knowledge, and it gave her a sense of power and security which grew out of an intimacy that transcended the clasping of bodies and the living together. She had always been very intuitive, and when she occasionally looked back, she knew that everything fell neatly into place-her meeting Antonio Samson in Washington, his diffidence, and her final acceptance of him springing not out of human necessity but out of curiosity and the need to be possessed by someone who did not care if she was Carmen Villa.
But tonight, alone in the big room that had been their real sanctum all their married life, for the first time she was nagged by a pang of regret and remorse so sharp and intense it actually hurt. All her life she had been pampered, had everything she desired. The things she valued were never those that could be bought, but those small tokens of truth and dogged fidelity that she, herself, could not give to anyone. It was not the first time that she would sleep alone; there were the times her husband had gone on business trips, and she had gotten used to such absences knowing that they were not permanent, that he would be back. Tonight, however, she was not sure. She had tried reading the books from the shelf by their bed-some anthologies, journals, and pocketbooks that her husband always had close by, but her mind could not latch on to anything she could retain. She stood up and, noticing the torn bits of paper with which her husband had littered the floor, started picking them up out of curiosity more than anything, and read the old, yellowed pages of the book that they had brought back from the Ilocos. It was in Latin and, of course, she did not understand. Then, as if she remembered that these bits of paper were important, she scooped them up and placed them in the shoe boxes that lined one of the closets in the room. The work tired her a little but still sleep would not come. For the first time, she was afraid that Tony Samson would never return, that when he said good-bye the parting was permanent, as final as death itself.
When she did fall asleep it was almost light and the east was already gray. She slept briefly but well, and when she woke up she immediately missed the arm that was usually flung across her breast, the warm nearness of a body she had known. She was angry at herself without quite knowing why, and when she drew the curtains, the sunlight that flooded the room hurt her eyes; she looked at herself in the mirror and, without her makeup and lipstick, she told herself that she was becoming a hag; the dark lines around her eyes, the beginning of a double chin, the start of wrinkles around her neck--these brought to her the presence of time, the enemy. She had once told her husband: I won't mind growing old, I won't mind really, as long as I have you always beside me and doing what would make me happy.
But he was not by her side, and shortly afterward her father knocked on the door and told her in a flat, toneless voice that her husband was dead-a horrible accident at the tracks in Antipolo Street-and remembering this later on, she marveled at her presence of mind, how she took the news calmly as if it was the most natural thing to have happened. Her first reaction was of disbelief, it was not true, he had just gone off somewhere, to sulk, to let his jealousy pass;
he was not dead, he was coming back, and not only because with her he had finally been freed from that dreary place where he had come from. This would be just one reason for his return, of course; the real reason would be because he loved her and would take her for all that she was-good and bad, sinner and saint.
But the past is irreversible; the funeral she attended together with her parents was nothing but a blur; she did not want to believe that the man she had loved, who had possessed her and lived with her for more than a year, was in that beautiful, sealed mahogany casket, never again to talk with her, to share her gossip. And somehow, being aware of this at last, of the finality of it all, she felt that she could not bear the loneliness, not so much of being alone but of knowing that she had perhaps driven him to his death.
When the funeral was over she decided for the first time to visit the place where he had lived; she bad extracted the address from Tony's sister, who was clear-eyed and stony-faced throughout the funeral service, and she had driven the sister and her husband back to Antipolo Street. They showed her that portion of the tracks where they had picked up the mangled pieces of his body, and she stopped and touched the earth and the rockbed of the tracks, which were still stained with blood, and as she did something within her snapped. The last time she saw his blood was in the winter past; they had gone out for a walk in the fresh snow in Central Park and he had sneezed violently; he had a nosebleed, not a cold, and the blood speckled the snow, brilliant crimson against angel white, and even in that awful moment he had paused before the pattern and "claimed, "How beautiful"
They took her up the narrow alley, lined with people and children who stared at her, to their clapboard house and up the narrow flight to the small room where Tony had lived. His two suitcases were placed on one side and she asked if she could bring them back to their home, but they did not want her to; they wanted to keep something that belonged to him, to remember him by; she offered them money but they would not take it. There must be something he left behind, they said; and she said, yes, there were many things, but mostly memories. She looked around her; she had never been cooped up in a place as small as this, and yet, somehow, it did not depress her as she was sometimes depressed at home. She looked down the window, at the tracks again, and along the tracks more shacks fronted by patches of camote and greens, and suddenly she could not stand another moment in this place, in this Antipolo where Tony had lived. She went down, trembling and sweating in the morning heat, and to each of the youngsters in the living room she thrust paper bills. They took her to the car she had parked at the other end of the alley, and to their mumbled apologies about their inability to entertain her in the best way possible, she whispered a listless thank-you and then drove off, a thousand accusations tormenting her. The whole wretched city now seemed one vast prison closing in on her and she would no longer be someone apart, with an identity all her own, but a member of the nameless mass, an insignificant fragment of the crowd. It was different when Tony was alive, for he had given her not just love and devotion but, in a very real sense, a personality that she had not known was there: he had been very honest with her, sometimes too damning in his criticism, but always, in the end, ever lavish in his praise. Her virtues stood out-her capacity to see her role as a woman, her indifference to the vulgar tastes of her crowd, her own rebelliousness not so much against her family but against what her family had stood for: the vaunted privilege, the snobbery, when these were never real in a society as wide open as Manila's.
In her own room she pondered these, for she now understood them. But there was something that never quite got itself spelled out clearly, and this was how she had given herself to him. She had always valued chastity not so much as a prize to be won but as a gift of love to be given in complete abandon to him whom she could trust, to a man with whom she would not mind a life of captivity.
This was the sole mystery that she could not solve. Maybe it was his fluent conversation-she always admired men who could express themselves clearly, who could argue themselves out of nooses, and Tony seemed capable of that without being boorish or pedantic. Maybe, as he had told her once too often, it was the tedium of being alone in a foreign land, unable to draw the cloying attention that she had always been used to.
Or maybe she was drawn to him as evil is drawn to virtue and all that is good-as Tony was. What he had told her was true, after all-that she was hopeless, and her family, too, and all of them, her father's friends, her friends who vacationed in Spain to polish their accents and, perhaps, to bring home some peasant they could afterward pass off as some impoverished member of the aristocracy.
Was it also true that they were all beyond redemption? She had laughed when he first told her this; it had seemed so funny then, for she had understood corruption to mean committing malfeasances in public office, in pocketing government money, accepting bribes, and that sort of thing. Even if she did commit an indiscretion, it was not really that bad; she had not, after all, left him the way Conchita Reyes, the daughter of Senator Reyes, had left her husband and gone to Italy chasing a bogus count. She had returned to Pobres Park and to her husband, who took her back as if nothing had happened, and they had rejoined the same cocktail-cum-dinner circuit as impeccably gracious as ever. In her own way, Mrs. Antonio Samson considered herself faithful. While most of the women in the Park, particularly those in her circle, changed husbands more often than their monthly visitations, she had done no such thing. She had played around only with Ben de Jesus, who, after all, had proposed marriage to her earlier. She had acceded, yes, but with a feeling of guilt not only toward her husband but toward Ben's wife, who was her best friend.
She could, of course, justify what she had done with her modern, "liberated" background. Besides, her husband was the sporting kind; in bed, when they were going through the habits of conjugal love, he would often think aloud about how it would be if he went to bed with any of her friends, and she would egg him on and tell him what her friends thought of their own husbands, how they told her of their extramarital experiences, and he had been delighted, of course, listening to her stories. It took some time, but she did realize later that he was really no more than a provinciano, charming in his own barrio way, who must be protected from his own simplicity.
SHe visisted her husband's office the day after the funeral; she had become curious about what he might have left there, the mementos that were to be recovered and permanently treasured. Tony had a way of putting down on paper his ideas and all the minutiae that he came across; this was part of his training as a scholar, and the habit had been deeply ingrained. If she had not bothered herself before with knowing about what he wrote or the thoughts that often went unsaid between them, now she wanted to know all that she could about him, the wellsprings of his strengths and weaknesses, the visions he had of himself and the future. Perhaps, in the process of learning and even discovery, she would stumble upon the primordial reasons for life and death.
Her husband's secretary had been most efficient; she had filed all his papers with skill and precision and told her where everything was, even the bills that had to be paid. She was stunned by the tragedy, and she told the widow that she had never worked for a man as dedicated to his job and as understanding of people as Tony. She was handsome in an antiseptic sort of way, and Carmen wondered momentarily if her husband had ever flirted with her or had appreciated the fact that she had broad hips.
"I want to be alone," the widow said. "I would like to go over all his things, so please do not let anyone disturb me."
The secretary delivered to her all the keys to the drawers and the filing cabinets and Carmen riffled through them. She examined the expense vouchers and the receipts that Tony had assiduously kept and smiled, remembering again how Tony had lived as honestly and as frugally as always, within the limitations her father had mentioned, although such limitations had never been defined.
Then, at the bottom drawer of his desk, she found them-the ledgers in which he had written in his clear, precise longhand a sort of diary. Five of them, and four were filled up; the fifth was half full, and the last entry was three months ago. He had not written anything for a long time, although in the others he had something-a paragraph, or even just a line every day. The entries in the last ledger were about things she knew very well-her family, her husband's work, his impressions of people he met. Here was Antonio Samson at last-raw, honest, and without pretensions. And yet, he could have told her everything he had written down, if she had just shown an interest, even the slightest. He had even brought his journal home-she remembered this clearly now-and had started to write one evening, but she told him to attend to her rather than to his memoirs. And now that he was gone, these ideas, these thoughts were suddenly alive; she could hear his voice as she read what he had written about himself; his most secret thoughts. The last entry, however, was what interested Carmen most, for it pertained to her, and in a way, it was prophetic. Antonio Samson wrote:
I must now ask myself the purpose, the meaning of my life. Once, long ago, this was never clear to me. If I thought about life's purpose at all, I did not think of it as something beyond crassness, of which I was terribly ashamed. I did not have the means to think otherwise; I did not enjoy the luxury of contemplation, although I must admit that even in my youth I could be capable of questioning, for instance, the presence of God and the grand design wherein some are exploiters and the rest are the exploited. In those days, my only thoughts were of survival-the stem, physical kind that occupies the soldier when he is on the battlefield. Then, all that occupied me were how to finish school, get a job so that I could earn something to keep myself alive; and keeping alive meant three meals a day, a roof over my head that did not leak, a pair of shoes, clean clothes. It is all changed now and these objectives to which I addressed myself in the past are no longer my objectives. Does this mean then that I have gone very far? Economically, yes. My earliest desires were all economic, the most elementary of needs. Now, I have raised my objectives a little higher. This again is natural. No one really needs six meals a day, or two dozen pairs of shoes; to be crude about it, a man can eat only so much, wear so much. To be dross about it, a man-unless he is a superman or a sex maniac--can have only one sexual intercourse a day, or at the most, two. So what do I want out of life? I want to be justified. Whatever I do, in my heart, I want it to be right, I want to say I did it because it had to be done. I may be proved wrong, but it does not matter; at least, to my own self, I must be true. No Hamlet here, just the simple fact of a human being wanting for himself the integrity that everyone desires in his deepest thoughts, in his fondest dreams. This should be clearest to her who is my wife, who knows me now as no mortal has ever known me, for it is to her that I have voiced my understanding and, most of all, respect. God knows how much I have tried to earn her respect, to have her see that I am a person and not a thing, to have her feel the importance of the ideas, the ends that I have set for myself in the past; they are still valid even if no longer within my grasp. I have tried to define for myself what honor should be, but now it has become vague and formless. I clutch at the air, hoping to hold on to something real, but there is nothing there. And every day seems to be pushing me farther and farther away from what I want, which is not my wife's body, which is not her family's regard for me, but the justification that I am doing what should be done in this wretched and despicable land. I see the estrangement although I will not say that it is inevitable. I will not say it is written in the stars, for fate is not as constricted, as unswerving, as all that. I only wish that someday I will be capable of doing something heroic, a deed that would ennoble me not only to myself but, most of all, to her who has accepted me for what I am. If I could be sure, however, even just for one instant, that she chose me because she loved and respected me, then I would know that there is at least one human being to whom I have some value. Otherwise, it is a bleak world indeed where I have paused, and the sooner I leave it, the better.
SHE WENT over the last journal as avidly as she did the first dirty book Conchita Reyes gave her, and when she was through it seemed as if some heavy burden had been lifted from her shoulders. It was as if she knew not only her husband but the whole mystery of life; she was alive, she could pass her palms over tabletops and feel the smoothness; she could feel a dry martini scorch her throat, smell the fumes of traffic, hear the minutest tick of the clock, the scampering of some lonely cockroach across the bedroom floor. She was alive, she could explain herself, her father and mother, all her friends; she could understand why they breathed the same foul air every day, but she could not understand why Tony was dead.
Then she remembered the torn manuscripts that she had packed in the shoe boxes, and she fell to sorting them out, arranging them
page by page. For days, she worked at it feverishly, barely eating anything while she was at it, not accepting condolences or telephone calls. But when everything was ready, taped, and arranged, she was as much in the dark as ever.
One evening, during a dinner at which she had not spoken a word, her father asked if she was feeling well. Her mother had been concerned about how little she had been eating and had ordered the cook to stock her room with fruits so that she could nibble on something if she were hungry.
I am all right, Papa," she said, turning to her father. She noticed at once that he looked tired, that there were deepening lines in his lean, handsome face.
"I just don't have the appetite I used to have," she continued lamely.
"We were all under strain, hija," Manuel Villa said languidly. "I hope you realize that. Oh, it's not money problems-how wonderful it would be if all our problems were about money! They wouldn't be difficult to solve, you know. But you and I, we understand each other clearly."
She smiled at him and continued toying with the broiled tuna before her.
Don Manuel Villa brightened up. "I am tired of fish. The sauce is not good, and tonight I feel like having a good piece of steak." He turned to his wife for approval. "I have a suggestion. Let us go to Alba's. I hear there's a new flamenco singer, too."
She did not really want to go out; she would have preferred to go up to her room and reread the ledgers her husband had left, to know him better now that it was impossible to know him in the flesh; but there was a hint of pleading in her father's voice, and her mother, too, had looked at her as if her very life depended on going out. She stood up with some alacrity and went up to her room to dress.
They had, as usual, the best table in the supper club. The floor show had already started, a mimic from Europe who did imitations of Charlie Chaplin, Charles Boyer, and Humphrey Bogart. Their drinks came when the Spanish singer appeared on the stage--a short, olive-skinned woman accompanied by a lean, dark guitarist. She did not start with the flamencos for which she was famous, as spelled out in neon on the marquee. Her voice was metallic and yet there was a polish and mellowness to it, particularly when she lingered on the upper notes. She was not a trouper; she did not play with the microphone or emote with her hands; she just stood upright and pronounced the words clear as parchment. Her first number was inconsequential-unrequited love, death without end, God's reward to those who have suffered. Applause was polite, but even then, Carmen knew she was listening to an artist, perhaps not a showman and an egoist, but one who could carry a message of love or grief straight to the heart. The guitar spoke again, and this time the singer's words were meant only for her and for no other; these were the words Tony had uttered to her, the only Spanish song he had known and sung to her long, long ago, and it all came back--the memories of summer, the quiet walks under the elms, the unspoken acquiescence, the almost sacred tenderness, and all the love that now seemed wasted. There is no time, there is only eternity and the implacable reality that even life can be ephemeral, nothing more than a season, another summer grown cold. And with the sunlight gone, night is here.
Yo sin su amor no soy nada
Deten el tiempo en tus manos
Haz esta noche perpetua
Para que nunca se vaya de mi ...
The words were like the ringing of a bell, then they faded, slowly, very slowly; the singer's lips moved but no sound came forth; the guitar was muted although the fingers still strummed; there came this silence, vast and sepulchral and so frightening, she could feel her arms and legs become clammy, her whole body taut. She strained her ears. This is not true, this is not real, she told herself, but the club was dead, and the whole world, too. She opened her mouth and she knew she was speaking but she could not hear herself. She turned to her father, shouted "Papa!," and her father bolted up. But there was no sound. She screamed again, twice, but nothing, nothing but this silence. Her father rushed to her and slapped her hard across the face and she fell into his arms, sobbing, while her mother solicitously went to her and they took her out.
At home her father gave her a couple of pills and warm milk to drank. She fell asleep shortly after. She woke up in the morning, afraid and cold: the world, for the first time, was deathly quiet and still. The room had suddenly become alien to her; the clutter of magazines on the writing desk, the line of cosmetics at her table, her open cabinets and her clothes spilling out assured her she was indeed in her room, but she missed the old, familiar feeling of security, of being safe, as in the past when her husband was here, padding around in his shorts or snoring in bed. No living sound came from the life beyond the glass windows or the locked door.
The maid came in with a glass of warm milk and, shortly after, her parents, as solicitous as ever, came inquiring about how she felt. She cupped her ears and shook her head. She was not hearing anything, not a whisper, not a stir in this big and empty room.
Her mother helped her dress while her father made some hurried telephone calls. They drove to Ermita, to Dr. Clavecilla, an EENT specialist who was a friend of the family. He was very charming; he had traveled extensively in Europe and he greeted them affably, even made a joke as was his style, for her father and mother, as she could see, were laughing. She must now learn how to read lips if she wanted to understand or, at least, be part of the human race. But the effort that she must make would be great, and as she dwelled on the thought, it repelled her. The doctor led them all to his clinic-a room with all sorts of impressive-looking equipment-and in the background two nurses stood at ease ever ready to jump at the doctor's bidding. She was led to a chair, much like a dentist's, and the doctor probed into her ears, poked something cool and smooth into them. He talked desultorily with her parents and they shook their heads at each question. Then the doctor wrote on a pad and showed it to her: Have you had streptomycin injections recently, in huge quantities?
She smiled and shook her head.
The doctor called in the receptionist, who took down notes in shorthand, and after a short while the receptionist returned with the note neatly typed.
She read it slowly: "Deafness can be caused by a hundred reasons, almost all of them having to do with the eardrum and the auditory nerve, which relays sound to the brain. Sound that is received by the external ear and relayed via the middle ear to the internal ear may be blocked by wax. Many who complain that they are deaf usually have too much wax in their ear canal. The eardrum may be perforated and, therefore, can no longer record sound. Perforation may be remedied. There may be infection, too. Neither of these affects both your ears. The auditory nerve may be destroyed by an overdose of streptomycin or a severe disease. This is not so with your case. I can have X-rays made but I do not think this is necessary. I am quite convinced that your sense of hearing is normal but that there is something-perhaps in your mind, I am not sure-that is blocking your sense of hearing. People can be deaf because, in their subconscious, they do not want to hear."
She read the note twice, then she asked for a pen and a pad. The nurse took her to the doctor's table and she sat down and wrote with deliberation: "I know now why this happened and I also know what else will happen soon. I will lose my sense of smell, and after that, my sense of touch. Then I will lose my sight, I will be alive but only because I will still be breathing. I realize there is no cure for what ails me."
She paused and wondered if she should put down the monstrous thought: I wish I were dead! But it was better not to state it. She turned to her dear father, who waited patiently before her, and the bleary eyes that met her gaze were beseeching. She could see the same troubled expression on her mother's face and she wondered how deeply worried she was about her. Her mother had always seemed too detached from human travail; her tragedies were parties that did not turn out dazzling enough, the extra folds of fat on her stomach, thighs, and arms that she could not get rid of. Once, Carmen herself was nagged by the thought that she, too, would develop into the tub of lard that her mother was. Now, both her parents seemed like two ordinary people-familiar, yes, but without any special attachment to her, without any niche in her heart.
She handed the note to Dr. Clavecilla, and as the three started to read it, she wondered what they would do now that they knew what had truly ailed her all these years. If only-the thought crossed her mind briefly-if only they, too, could realize what was wrong with them!
Excerpted from The Samsons by F. Sionil José. Copyright © 2000 by F. Sionil Jose. Excerpted by permission of Modern Library, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.