"Ugh, Mang Ernie, I thought you said you got the A/C fixed!" I grouse as I sit, baking in the back seat of my mother's old Mercedes Benz. I have to deal with this clunker since my own ride is in the shop.
"I did, Miss Matet," says Mang Ernie with infinite patience, looking at me in the rearview mirror. "I guess it's broken again. Even fine German engineering can't handle this unrelenting Philippine heat."
I'm being a total brat right now. Mang Ernie has just picked me up from the office of the charity arm of Salazar Worldwide in Greenhills. I was looking forward to taking a plunge into the pool at home... until I remember it's under renovation.
Outside, it's 41°C and maybe 97% humidity. I have all the windows open, which means I have to contend with all the ugliness and stink of this EDSA gridlock. And the noise. The beeping of the jeepneys, the voices of several street people selling their stuff, the jumbled mix of music from all the car radios, and jeepney barkers calling for more passengers. Miserable!
It's hard to be a nice person in the Philippines. You develop a thick shield of scorn, doubt, and loathing for your fellow man and surroundings very quickly. It's easier to ignore elderly beggars and children when you could hide behind the heavily tinted glass of your windows that you could easily raise up to cut off contact. Just with the single press of a button. But if I close the windows, I will bake like pandesal. I take out my fan from my Balenciaga purse and wave it quickly in front of my face. Ugh, I'm dying!
I hear a soft knock on the rear passenger door, the one across from the one I'm leaning against. I sigh. I see a little brown head with short hair, holding on to the car by the window. It's a little boy, standing on the tips of his toes. He has a smattering of chicken pox scars on his forehead that looks fairly fresh. I groan. The car has advanced two meters in an hour.
I lean forward. "Hello, little boy," I say with a sigh. "Can I help you?"
"Can I have fifty pesos, Ate? I'm really hungry. I haven't eaten in days," he says in his best Oliver Twist imitation.
"Fifty pesos is very specific." I laugh. The kid does look hungry. I can't even tell how old he is. Maybe five or six? He is wearing blue short pants, a dirty white t-shirt with a collar, and sandals. He is so skinny that a person would have to be a stone-cold bitch not to feel sorry for the kid.
"Miss Matet." Mang Ernie is watching me in the rearview mirror again. "Don't give that kid money. He'll tell all his friends and before you know it, we'll be besieged by the little bastards."
"Hindi po!" the little boy protests. "I won't tell, Ate. I promise. I just really want a siopao from ChowKing."
I look at Mang Ernie and smile. "Mang Ernie, a siopao at ChowKing does cost fifty pesos."
Our old family driver makes a grunt of disapproval and tells me to do whatever I want because no matter what he says, I'll do it anyway.
I chuckle and reach into my bag for my wallet. I pull out a hundred peso bill and a chocolate-chip Luna bar, along with a bottle of water from a small cooler behind the driver seat. I fold the hundred and hide it along the folds of the Luna bar wrapper, so no one would see me handing money to the kid. "O, sige na. Here. You better not buy beers and rubber cement for you and your friends to get high on."
The little boy laughs and takes my gifts. "I won't tell, Ate. Promise! Thank you! God bless you!"
I watch as the little boy runs across the street and easily dodges a guy on a bicycle before disappearing into an alley. "God, I hope that kid doesn't buy Rugby." Rugby is a brand of contact cement that can supposedly get you high if you breathe in the fumes.
"Miss Matet, your heart is like a sponge cake," Mang Ernie admonished gently. "That boy probably has a drunk for a father who beats him if he doesn't bring in any money."
"Mang Ernie!" I smack the back of the driver's seat headrest with my fan. "That's why we should help him. Ay, Dios mio. When is this traffic going to die down? I could get out now, start walking, and beat you home, I bet."
The old man, tapping on the steering wheel with his fingers to the beat of some old Pinoy song, glances up at the rearview mirror and winks at me. "I'm not going to take that bet, missy."
I laugh as my mobile phone pings within my cavernous purse. I take it out and swipe off the screen lock. It's a text message from my sister Becks. "Boooored. Let's gimmick tonight!"
Rebecca is two years younger than me and has just gotten back from living in the States for four years to attend UCLA. She said she spent her entire college life with her head buried in books, so she would like to have some fun for once.
I sigh. I know I should be spending time with Becks, but Boyett and I have a date tonight. I've been so busy at the magazine and managing the foundation that my boyfriend and I haven't had a nice sit-down meal together in a month. I know he must be getting frustrated. He already complains that he doesn't get out to see me enough because of med school and our schedules never match.
What the hell am I supposed to do about that? Time is the one luxury I don't have.
By some miracle, Mang Ernie and I make it to San Lorenzo Ville before six pm. He drops me off right by the front door and I dash into the house. The blast of cool, fragrant air that hits my face as soon as I open the door drains half the stuff I was pissed off about. Kicking the door closed behind me, I lie on the cold marble floor of the foyer for a few minutes.
I don't realize I'm making piggy, groaning noises as I roll my back side to side on the floor until Anna, one of the downstairs maids, comes up and looks down at me.
"Ate, are you okay? Do you want me to get you some water or orange juice?" she asks with a worried look on her face.
"I'm fine, Anna." I lie still for a moment, then splay my arms and legs like I'm about to make snow angels. "I'm just enjoying the feeling of coolness against my back after sitting in traffic for three hours."
But the little maid does not look appeased. "Ate, you'll ruin your clothes. And you might catch pneumonia." She is frowning disapprovingly at me. "Oh, and Kuya Boyett called the house phone. He said he left his mobile at home and he'll be stuck in the hospital tonight. Sorry daw."
I sigh. Frickin' Boyett. I had to do some schedule somersaults to get this block of free time and he does this to me. He always does this to me. "Any other calls?" I ask with a resigned yawn.
Anna reaches down and skinny, little thing that she is, easily pulls me up with almost zero participation on my part. After a shitty interview (literally--the model only wanted to talk about her bowel movement) and some shenanigans at the foundation (because one of the assistants didn't vet a charity properly), I have maybe ten percent left of my will to live. Anna brushes my back briskly with the palm of her hand as if I had been lying in dirt. Impossible. Manong Berto keeps a clean house and takes pride in it.
"Cut it out, Anna."
She sighs and shakes her head at me. "If I were you, I'd take better care of my clothes, you know."
I laugh and give her a quick side-hug. "You know, Anna, I think you'd make a better rich person than I do. Maybe we should trade a day, huh? One day in your shoes for me, one day in my shoes for you."
Anna, an eighteen-year-old girl who is the niece of our laundress Juanita, came to us last year from her province of Tarlac. She is very pretty with smooth morena skin, shiny black hair, and an adorable shyness about her. She is now looking at me with one perfectly tweezed eyebrow lifted. "Ay, Ate, you're crazy. Do you want to start today? Your papa has me organizing your Mama's shoes to see what can be donated."
I shudder, feeling sorry for the girl. My mother's shoe collection has now probably surpassed Madame Imelda Marcos's haul. She has an entire room filled with racks of the stuff. "Hey, maybe one of them will have a genie, Anna, because it's a magic shoe. You can wish to marry your favorite teleserye star and move to Hawaii with your billion dollars."
The girl blushes a deep shade of red and giggles, covering her mouth. "Ay, Ate, you're too much. Miss Becks is upstairs waiting for you. Her friends are up there, too." She crinkles her nose.
I nod in commiseration. Even from where I stand, I can hear the ear-piercing shrieks of the girls from my sister's wing of the house. Some of them haven't seen Becks in years, so understandably, they're all very excited. It's going to be a long night. "Anna, can you have Millie bring a gin and tonic to my room? Bombay Sapphire with calamansi, okay? Just buzz me when dinner is ready."
The girl gives me a saucy salute. "Yes, Ate."
I trudge to my bedroom suite, which is down the hall from my sister's. There used to be five of us in this wing of the house, but my sister Louisa got married five years ago and has children of her own now, my youngest brother Juan Miguel is in Boston studying engineering, and my brother Giancarlo has a bachelor pad in Alabang. I guess living with his parents at thirty was cramping his style.
Even though my movements couldn't possibly be heard over the din of loud music, gabbing girls, and giggles, I push open the door to my bedroom very carefully and sneak in, quietly shutting the door behind me. I just really want to stay home and watch a movie. I have a ridiculous amount of movies on video, a lot of them horror films. I especially enjoy Italian horror, like the classic Dario Argento stuff. Boyett thinks I'm super morbid. Suspiria is one of my favorite movies. It's basically about an evil ballet school. I love Suspiria like people love Terms of Endearment and the Notebook. It's my comfort movie.
I shed my day clothes like a snake shedding its skin, leaving them on the floor, and wrap my favorite velour house robe around my body before getting on the bed, stacking a bunch of pillows behind me, and lying down to relax. I had just pressed play to start my video when my bedroom door flies open and Becks is suddenly standing in the doorway, her hands on her hips like she's some conquering heroine.
"What the hell, Becks?" I groan. I throw a pillow at her, which she expertly dodges. "Get the hell out of here. I'm not in the mood, all right?"
My younger sister gives me an exaggerated pout, her lower lip pooching out. "Ateeeee... why don't you want to hang out with meeeee..."
I stare at my twenty-one-year old sister in disbelief. "What do you want me for? You have your girls with you, right?" I gesture for her to move out of the way as I see Millie coming up behind her with my drink. The maid puts the gin and tonic on a coaster on my bedside table before quickly leaving my room. "Thanks, Mills!" I call out after her.
Becks lifts an eyebrow as she watches me take a sip from my drink. "A little early to be getting sauced, eh?"
So refreshing. I swallow a couple of mouthfuls before turning back to my sister. "Hey, no judgment. I had a hell of a day, all right?"
"If you say so." She shrugs insouciantly. "Come on, you have to come with us. It's the grand opening of Venus, this super chic nightclub owned by Savannah's major hottie English cousin. I promise, we'll be in super VIP and you won't have to mingle with the masses."
I look at my sister in disgust. Just another rich Manila girl with her highlighted hair in a side ponytail, Free People peasant dress and BCBG tights. Not to mention the oversized platinum hoop earrings, Alex and Ani bracelets, and black horn-rimmed eyeglasses. Was I ever so young? "And for what, Rebecca? So we can sit in Super VIP for a couple of hours, lording our superiority over everyone, and blowing smoke up each other's asses?"
She rolls her eyes at me and crosses her arms across her chest, pushing up her breasts. "Oh my God, you fucking communist. Can you please enjoy being a rich person just once, for one night. When you turn thirty, you will be free to sign over your trust fund away to all the charities you want and live like Mother Theresa. But for once, Matet, can't you just have fun?"
Hours later, I am standing on the second floor of this brand-new, exclusive nightclub-- the super VIP section, natch-- sipping my third gin and tonic of the evening. At least the music is pretty good. Savannah's cousin went all out and hired a brilliant London DJ who's currently playing a mix of classic trip-hop, Marseilles rap, and electronica influenced by world music. The motif of the club seems to be Victorian opulence. It looks like a classic Doctor Who episode. Like a bunch of time travelers from the future crashed a ballroom party in 1850s England and brought dramatic lights and kickass music and ridiculously expensive cocktails. Seriously? A gin and tonic for five hundred pesos. That can feed a small family for a week.
I'm not entirely miserable. The music is brilliant, the drinks—albeit expensive—are strong and tasty, and the ambiance has that forbidden, illicit element of an old-fashioned opium den for some reason. There is just something about the place that feels... wicked. I have no doubt that Boyett would hate this place. He's kind of like an old man that way. The sheer opulence would offend his conservative sensibilities.
He would probably hate my dress, too. I had nothing club-worthy to wear tonight, so I had to borrow something from Rebecca's closet. I put on her most modest dress, which to me, is still pretty frickin' naked. First of all, it's a black satin number and satin is a pretty unforgiving material. Second, the hem hangs several inches above the knees and the neckline is practically at the navel. Lastly, the back, save for a solid bit to cover the butt, are crisscrossed satin cords that start from the small of the back to the base of the neck.
And so I couldn't wear a bra or panties. This is the reason I am not on one of the six dance floors with my sister. I'm afraid that if I moved wrong, I'd be flashing my goodies to everyone in the club. I've gone commando before, on the days I'm feeling adventurous, but it has never gone further than that. It was enough for me to know that nobody else knew that I was sitting in a board meeting not wearing panties. It was exciting.
I have a feeling someone is standing behind me. The air around me has changed and I can smell sandalwood. Sharp, clean, smooth. I loathe to turn around to see who I might find there. I set down my almost empty glass on the ledge and wrap my hands around the cold railing of the balcony. I hold my breath as he lowers his head towards my ear and whispers, "Hello."
His voice is sonorous, a silky baritone that slides across my skin.
His lips brush the shell of my ear and for some reason, all of my sense of self-preservation melts away and I don't try to escape him. My knees have turned to rubber and it is only because I am holding on to the balcony railing that I'm still standing up. I feel him trace my spine with the tip of his finger ever so lightly and my breath comes out shakily.
"Would you like to come with me?" he says, biting my earlobe lightly.
British. Very posh. Commanding.
I shiver, tell myself I should shove him away, knee him in the balls or something. I open my mouth and to my surprise, my voice says, "Yessss..."
"Mang" (Tagalog) - Mister
"Pandesal" (Tagalog) - breakfast rolls
"Hindi" (Tagalog) - "No"
"po" (Tagalog) added to the end of each sentence when speaking to an older person or higher authority out of respect
"O, sige na" (Tagalog) - "All right, then"
Até (Tagalog) - older sister or what you call a female who isn't much older than you as a sign of respect
Kuya (Tagalog) - male version of Até
daw (Tagalog) - a very short word for "or so he/she/they say/s"
Manong (Ilocano) - Mister
Teleserye (Spanish/Tagalog) - soap opera
Calamansi (Tagalog) - a very small citrus-like fruit similar to lime