Mambusao, Capiz / Western Visayas / Philippines
We weren’t planning on having breakfast in the apartment that was built on the pulpit of the old church. Our mission that morning – having no choice but to accept it – was to book passage to Manila later that evening, whether it be by plane, train, or automobile. Please God, I prayed silently, by any means except for the latter two. Such had happened the last time we were in the Philippines less than a decade prior, and after losing and subsequently finding my passport, I didn’t think I could handle the excitement a repeat would surely bring this time around.
The travel agency had closed early the evening before (due to it being Sunday), and this morning was our last chance to ensure we would be able to get to Manila in time for the meetings I had lined up in Makati the next day. We needed to arrive in Manila no later than 10:00 PM to ensure we were in Antipolo by midnight and rested up for a busy day in the city the following morning.
Tito Guenie’s lot was right along market square, in the heart of the excitement that took regularly took place just outside the town’s center. It was on a street marked by a statue erected in honor of a man no one gave a shit about, surrounded by loiterers passing the time in air-conditioned pharmacies and tiangges (the one right by the lot being owned by the mayor’s sister), sputtering tricicads waiting for their next pasahero, and manokan after manokan, calling out after passersby to indulge in “the best rotisserie chicken in Capiz.”
The lot had a church sitting right on top of it, and Tito Guenie had begun renovations on the crumbling building the spring before, turning the pulpit into a two bedroom apartment, the sanctuary into a workshop, and the foyer into a series of little shops for lease. 2Go Travel Agency occupied one of the small shops; the one to its right being a banking center, and the one to its left vacant (with a gigantic sign in front of it that said, “Bawal Umihi Dito!” – Urinating Here Prohibited). I followed Mom as we walked towards the travel agency, unexpectedly passing it up altogether and instead turning into a small alley I didn’t realize was there between the agency and the shop everyone wanted to pee in front of.
“Ooh, ‘Doy!” Mom called out in greeting, throwing her voice into the dark corner of the alley. I scanned the alley quickly to realize it wasn’t an alley at all, recognizing it instead as the makings of its own little specialty shop. Shelves of parts and tools lined each side of the space, and beyond it was a makeshift bridge that took one from the parts store into my uncle’s own expansive workshop.
My uncle’s head popped up from behind a motorcycle he was working on, squinting in response to the morning light we had let in. “Ooh, ‘Day, Jell!” he exchanged, nodding his head to welcome Mom and I. “Have you had your coffee yet?” He motioned for us to follow him over the bridge, turning around after . Not one to turn down coffee of any kind at any time of the day, I made my way behind him and over the bridge that had been assembled out of large, smoothed planks of wood I wasn’t familiar with, uncharacteristically sturdy for the shapes in which they had been sanded. Philippines, #amirite?
We made our way through the cluttered church turned workshop, rubble under our feet and a congregation of various tools all around us, some completely deconstructed and others fully assembled, ready to be leased for short term use. The workshop was just as dark as the alley had been, save for what little light was able to sneak through the once-stained glass windows that had survived the building’s reincarnation.
The door into the apartment was almost hidden, much too narrow to be called a proper door (if you could call anything pertaining to building construction in the Philippines “proper”). He pushed the hidden panel aside, opening a path into the unfinished kitchen with gray, concrete slab walls and unstained counter tops assembled from naked wood. An island that someone had inserted in the middle of the kitchen was covered with tissue thin plastic bags full of sweet breads and pantry goods. Either someone was clearly expecting someone else, or the expected someone had already arrived.
On cue, Tito Guenie’s wife, Auntie Monie, emerged from the woodwork as a petite ray of sugary sunlight might from the horizon, heralding the start of a bright, new, exciting day. I hadn’t seen her in ages, unable to recall if I had even seen her in anything other than photographs the last time I visited the Philippines. Time and wear had not been able to make their mark on my aunt’s beauty, her face just as I remembered it with its fair, clear and glowing skin, her proud and strong features soft and feminine yet standing just as confident, defiantly laughing in the face of the last two decades. I was most pleased, however, to learn that the thing I had always loved most about my Auntie Monie— her sharp witted tongue, always bubbling with an opinion to share— remained unchanged after all this time and was irrevocably, irreversibly, and irreverently in tact. She was the yang to my Tito Guenie’s yin: uninhibited and unapologetic where he was quietly reserved, spontaneous and capricious where he was regimented and always on a schedule.
She fluttered about the kitchen, a butterfly dancing around in an excited panic as she made the cups of coffee we had been promised. Short, flowing phrases punctuated each step of the dance, a gentle percussion comprised of—
“We were tricked by a man
Our bus was too full
He said we’d have seats, that was a load of bull—
These walls aren’t painted
There’s no woman’s touch
Please forgive us in the province
This mess, it’s too much—“
Her train of thought was periodically interrupted by the bark of a puppy she had named after President Duterte— “Digong! Stop! Digooooong!” — and she only lowered her voice to let us know her sister had also come, that she wasn’t feeling well and “tending to it currently in the comfort room.”
Within moments, we heard the groan of the restroom door’s hinges as Tita Rosa slowly crawled out, her porcelain shoulders elegantly hunched over like the wings of a swan as she delicately and deliberately said,
“Hello, I would kiss you, but I have just been sick.”
We finished our cups of coffee (“with evap milk – it’s much better with evaporated milk,” Auntie Monie insisted) around the unstained island, this conversation much different from the conversation my mother had had with her other sister-in-law the previous day. Not one to allow social graces to bar her from discussing any topic she wanted, Auntie Monie updated Mom on the city and town gossip and everything else that came to mind, including equal opportunity employment (which did not exist at all in the Philippines – “good luck working at McDonalds past 40”) and knock-off purses at Greenhills Mall in Manila. Tita Rosa stayed quiet, steadying whatever urges fought within her, speaking only when she felt she absolutely had to.
Such a moment occurred as I prolonged the final sips of my instant coffee with evap milk, mindful of Mom’s rush to get to the travel agency and make it to the airport (which was almost two hours away) in time for our flight, but not wanting to say goodbye just yet. But goodbyes with Auntie Monie— as cliched as it may sound— aren’t truly goodbyes, but cyclical whirlwinds of color full of affection, recognition of worth and meaning, and propositions of immediate and future plans, some serious, some wishful thinking. She said she’d go to the travel agency with us “but maybe not,” that we would connect with her children in Manila and the United States, “you know, if God is willing,” and just as Tito Guenie had said the day before, “sana you should stay a little bit longer.”
Tita Rosa on the other hand, party to this display, turned to bid goodbye to my mother first, nodding my way and saying, “She is your youngest, yes?” in Bisaya.
Mom shook her head. “Hindi. The oldest of my two, aking anay.”
Tita Rosa nodded in approval. “Yet so beautiful. And smart.”