When she heard the glass door creak and saw Carmen going out into the bright midmorning light, Maricar remembered the time they had dared each other to go braless under their blouses. That was way back in high school and it was also almost summer, and the heat made them do stupid things. What she could not remember was when they had bumped into each other last. She was sure it was several years ago.
Maricar thought it was almost supernatural how she had actually been thinking about Carmen earlier that very morning. She had woken up after two or three hours of sleep to pack for the trip. Before she got up she lay in bed for a while and idly wondered what on earth their old college friends must doing.
Maricar ran for the door and called out to her old friend. They quickly erupted into shrieks and giggles. Carmen also confessed that incredibly, she had happened to be thinking about her just the other day. No, it had just been the night before. “Imagine!” Carmen exclaimed.
“Arnold!” Carmen shouted at two figures walking ahead of her toward the cluster of villas. One of the figures turned back toward them. Maricar squinted at his face through the harsh daylight for a couple of split seconds before she recognized Arnold. By that time he was close enough to meet her cheek with his.
“Arnold’s here to play golf with his buddies,” Carmen explained. “That’s Ronald over there.” Ronald waved. “I’m sort of their babysitter today. Go! Go!” Maricar shooed her husband back down the path before he could say anything.
Though she felt no real inclination, Maricar felt she owed an old friend some background, at least, of why she was there alone. This summer was going to be another difficult one. The kids would be home and Rico, who was going to be in and out of the country, was not to be counted on to bear any of the weight of the household. So this was a vacation, the two or three weeks she felt she needed squeezed into three days. She had left the kids with grandparents and nursemaids and resolved not to call them.
Before the women separated they promised to keep in touch. They took out their phones to exchange contact info, and they laughed loudly again when they saw that they had each other’s numbers all along.
Maricar hadn’t counted on bumping into anyone she knew at the resort. It was popular back in the day, but now it was known mostly for being a faded shadow of its former self, and, really, the last option among a row of resorts and subdivisions along the coast. These days, “Your Pacific Paradise”—as old print ads promised it would be—welcomed more budget-conscious vacationers and last-minute holiday-makers. But its villas and casitas, though plainly furnished, were still well kept and the water was still kept warm in its pools.
There were fewer children clogging the poolsides, too, and there was also the consoling fact that she didn’t need to think much about what to wear. That morning she had simply put on the bikini she had bought a couple of days before for the occasion and groped in her closet blindly for something to go over it. The sky was just turning blue outside her bathroom window. When she made out her reflection in the bathroom mirror in the dim light, it turned out to be an old minidress that she had hardly worn. Rico had remarked once, maybe many years ago, that it was a bit too short.
Maricar went for a swim and splurged on a massage and killed some time looking around the shops, where she contemplated buying a wrap or a coral bracelet that would go with what she had on. She wandered into the activity center and saw Arnold and his colleague at the hoops, bending over and bending backward again and again to sink as many balls as they could. Carmen was sitting on the floor, her legs drawn up, her elbows on her knees, as she played with her phone. She waved Maricar over.
The men were too busy with their game to acknowledge her. Maricar felt the judder through the floor each time the balls hit the board or bounced hard against the hoops. The machines beeped and scored two points each time a ball went in. Arnold’s friend was losing, but not by much. She couldn’t help but fix her gaze on his little bald spot, pale in the middle of a nest of greying hair, as he went through his motions again and again, his breaths coming hard as he picked up the basketballs and threw them at the hoop. “Have lunch with us!” Carmen said, looking happy for the excuse to do something else.
They abandoned their game and headed out to the veranda. The cement posts and the handrails were shaped to look like they were made of bamboo. The waiters were dressed in white shirts, polyester vests and red clip-on bowties. Carmen ordered tinola, inihaw na liempo and special halo-halo to finish—“special” meant they would put a scoop of ube ice cream on top. “Arnold’s hypertensive and pre-diabetic—whatever that means—but I haven’t had this stuff in years!” she exclaimed.
Ronald excused himself from the table. When he returned, he was wearing sunglasses and had changed into a new shirt. He smelled thickly of cologne. “Pare,” Arnold asked him cheekily, “are you going to be flirting with the caddies again?”
When the food came, Maricar fished out her glasses from her handbag. “You should look into laser surgery,” Ronald said. She told him she had always been scared of laser surgery. She had heard too many stories about people whose eyesight got worse afterward.
“Everybody’s having it done,” Carmen said.
“Don’t worry about it,” Ronald said. “I know someone who does it really well. I can ask him to take a look at it.” Maricar made a smile that told him she would consider it, but she really didn’t. She had never felt tempted to have anything done, not on her face or her thighs or even her belly, whose softness she could never have imagined back in high school.
She couldn’t help but look at Carmen, who seemed in better shape than she was. Well, as far as she could see. She was sure she had had some work done. But it was good work. It was no secret that it paid off to marry well. She thought she saw in Arnold the projection of a carefree languor many wealthy men liked to think they deserved in their middle age. He wore a very nice watch, a little too big for his wrist, but it looked good against his color. She caught him once or twice idly rubbing the skin above his wrist, as though he were nursing a vague itch or a patch of roughness.
Arnold and Carmen were college sweethearts. He had courted her all through high school. Though he was certainly good-looking, Maricar had always thought that Arnold was just a little bit too polished for her own taste—maybe even a bit effeminate. She never had the nerve to tell Carmen, although there had been many times, when they were drunk, or high, or quarreling about one thing or another, when she felt like telling her this, and possibly more. It sometimes felt like they had been friends for far too long, even when they were still in college, and that there was nothing left to say to each other but the things they really couldn’t. But it had very much been a sisterhood, of course, and besides, Carmen was the only friend she had from those days. The best thing she could do about it was keep it steady.
Ronald ducked his head to look at the sun behind the veranda roof through his sunglasses. “It’s too hot,” he said. “Let’s tee off later and take a drive instead. I’m building something around the area and maybe we can take a look at it.”
Arnold had purchased his car from a clueless seller who had inherited it from his parents and needed the money to pay off gambling debts. He had patiently restored it over many months of scrimping and sourcing and shopwork. Maricar almost laughed out loud at the incongruous sight of the tiny two-door import in a parking lot full of vans and SUVs. Ronald opened the passenger door and pushed the front seat forward, and Arnold and Carmen grunted as they took their places in the back, awkwardly bending their bodies and folding their legs and turning their knees in sideways, wincing as their thighs touched the hot leather seats.
They headed out, through the decrepit arch that for three decades had thanked visitors for coming and implored them to come again, out into a sandy, unkempt road that Maricar almost didn’t recognize because it was still dawn when she had driven in. Ronald shifted gears as they entered the highway and Maricar felt the engine engage the road with a low howl. The road felt so close to her feet. She nestled into her seat and lazily followed the coastline with her gaze until it blurred and veered from sight and the car mounted the broad back of a high ridge, its fields burned pale by the high sun.
That was way back in high school and it was also almost summer, and the heat made them do stupid things.
Ronald reached across her to roll her window down, filling the cabin with the sudden roar of wind and the strain and groan of the engine. Maricar wanted to ask permission to bring the window back up but there was no use saying anything.
Ronald swung the car into a private road. A guard standing by an open gate saluted them through, into a small, hilly subdivision that held a loose sprawl of houses. They sped past bungalows and resthouses and stopped in front of a construction site. Ronald flicked the gear to neutral and stamped on the gas, the engine letting off a final growl before it went quiet.
Like Ronald’s car, it was small and low, but a peaked roofline lent it a semblance of tallness. “Wow,” Maricar said, if only to fill the ensuing silence.
It was a Sunday so there was no work being done. Ronald led them over the piece of thin wire that stood in for the property perimeter. He took them on a tour that began in an unfinished living room, past a dining area and a kitchen, and ended in a bedroom that looked out at a view of the sea.
“My kids were still in high school when I bought the lot,” Ronald said. “Now that I hardly speak to them, the plans have changed a little bit.”
The bedroom was a long narrow space that ran the breadth of the house. The long bright window, marked with large white Xs in masking tape, had let in so much of the heat that Carmen and Arnold retreated back into the living room.
Maricar felt compelled to give the view a quick look and stepped up to the window. She tried to adjust her sight toward the view. Again, she politely gave out an expression of awe. She pressed herself against the window and felt the sun beating on the glass. She remembered that summer long ago and how their white uniforms were especially starched by their yayas and ironed every early morning before class.
“You should come visit when it’s done,” Arnold said. “And please feel free to use this place whenever you feel like it.” She could smell his cologne now. It was so strong in that small room that she thought it would swallow her whole. Maybe it was true that when you lost the keenness of one sense the others compensated for it.
She remembered the time she discovered a perfume bottle that had occupied a permanent spot in the clutter on her bedside table. She had received it as a gift one Christmas or at one of her birthdays. She had sprayed some on her upturned wrist, given it a whiff, and quickly decided against using it because it smelled like something old women wore. She put it on her bedside table and it had never moved since then. It had gone unnoticed by virtue of its footprint, nestling so easy among her things: the frosted glass bottle and its chrome cap were in the shape of a long and slender cone, about six inches high, tipped by a tiny ball of chrome.
Maricar remembered how she had held the bottle with two hands and squeezed off the cap. There was a burst of fragrance, though she had fully expected only a trace of it, and she was surprised that she actually liked it. She put the cap back on and it closed with a click so soft and satisfying she was tempted to do it again. She closed her eyes, arched her back slightly off the bed and pulled her nightshirt up to the ridge of her ribs. She placed the bottle in the valley of her belly, lengthwise along the line of her body. She let go of the bottle and felt it rock slightly.
There was no breeze, but she felt her hair move against her skin. She had never changed it since college. It had always been long and cut straight across the back. Ronald had somehow moved closer to her without her sensing it. She thought about how low her dress was cut in the back and how tanned her skin might already have been. As she looked at the distant cliffs, speckled with houses, falling into the rough Batangas sea, she felt his hand gently touching her back. She heard movement from the doorway behind them, a scuffle of feet and the sound of a sharp breath or a sigh. It was too bright outside for her to see any reflection.
They drove a little faster on the way back because the boys had a game to play. They kept the windows down. Behind their sunglasses, Maricar’s eyes yearned for the rundown place she would call home for two or three days. She wondered if she had known somehow that something like this would happen when she woke that dark morning.