present and flashback

Perdono

As the downpour splattered and splashed back on the black sampietrini or cobblestones, she immediately stepped her heels, tapping towards the nearest glass door of the usual trattoria or restaurant in that corner. Her beige trenchcoat got some water stain by the shoulders, creating obvious patches and her well-coiffed hair, in an up-do bun, got drenched. Some strands even loosed their way down her face.

 She went straight to the powder room and fixed herself.

When she was done, she examined the intensity of the rain through the clean, transparent wall. It is still too strong to brave through. She thought. And, it looks like it will not stop yet in any minute. She sat in one of the empty wooden stools near the door.  There were six of which, surrounding the small service ledge in white marble where two have been used by two grizzled males who are babbling about the last week’s Brazil and Italy FIFA match. The latter won and the frenzy took over each Italian, from every trattoria or osteria she knows. She noticed the service crew, who is a teenage male lanky, walked towards her and before he could come near her, she exclaimed, “Un cappuccino per favore!” Her standing index finger emphasized an amount of one.

                She surveyed the display at the back of the countertop while her coffee was being prepared. The tiny and red stacks of brick wall was adorned by five old pictures, flat framed in wood. They appear as the trattoria’s centrefold to where any new eyes will hold a long stare because of the tiny string lights hanging horizontally above, accentuating the cosy presentation. The photos vary in sizes and one of which features the service crew in a denim romper to some place that looks like a stock farm. She beamed warmly. That fetch a memory of Carmen’s Eatery. There are also copies of smiling faces hanging on the back of its counter, only that these are backdropped by a century-old white curtain where dried and stringent splatters of food sarsa or sauce were screaming to be noticed as well .

Carmen’s food stall appeared as an extension of the squatter residences behind it, shuffling with their structures of houses in rusting tin roofs and cardboards. The eatery is even as nasty as the murky waters in the duct, running inside the scullery where ingredients are being cut and prepped. But nobody minded, people go there for the cheapest lunch. And she went there for work. Before.

 She brushed off the spark of another fold of memory.

She took a deep breath to regain her focus and she opened her pressed powder to take a quick preen. She needs a well-mannered version of herself to meet the boss that she needed to impress. She really needs the job! THAT big job in a seaside restaurant in Livorno, Tuscany, so she can’t afford a huge blast-from-the-past distraction that can hinder her to a dream of basking her tan skin under Tuscany’s golden sun. Funny, how she used to despise her natural shade back there in the Philippines where she received jokes from her aunts for being dark. She always get compared to her other female cousins who kept white complexion for using Papaya soap. She tried to do the same, envying their ivory glow, but it did not work on her. Her childhood scars went subtle.

   She looked back at herself in her mirror and fell satisfied at her stubborn curly locks pressed tightly up her head already with the help of bobby pins—kept for almost a month in her purse-- and at her lips, shimmering in ruby red.

“Sei bello.” You’re beautiful. She taught proudly with an excitement that had never left her chest. She cannot wait anymore to live in Tuscany. The sun, the beach, those are the things she anticipate.

She surreptitiously glanced at the door through her pressed powder mirror when some flustered gentleman got inside. He might be also caught by the unwelcomed attendance of the rain. She looked up his face. All of a sudden, her senses were caught off-guard. She gaped. Her heart throbs in breathless beat and it seemed like the air went thin. She was gasping for it.  Sweat also began to blister out her temple.

                She frisked for her hanky on the left side pocket of her coat and got it out instantly, dabbing her widow’s peak.

She could bet all the subtle heat of Tuscan sun that that gentleman is Alfonso. ALFONSO. The thick brunette strands, the deep-seated eyes, the drooping lower lip, and all those jaws: those could sum up that face she HONESTLY knew six years ago. The grandeur of those traits will never be stolen by another identity; even, through the luxury of the coat he used over his body or the gold-plated wrist watch on his left arm.

                She followed Alfonso with a look to a table at her back, launching down to a wicker chair.  When he was about to reflect his eyes on her tiny mirror, she snapped it close. How could the world serve that human being in this huge Italia? How could he crept his way inadvertently on her life again?

But that was the past! Warned her mind. It shouldn’t bother her anymore. Her life now is far-fetched from the pity that she was from their history page.

Be brave, Annita! That’s another attempt at consolation.

                Her coffee arrived in a ceramic cup over a saucer, placed neatly before her. The aroma suffused to fill her nostrils and the whole delirious trattoria. It gave some spike on the happening that she would have never thought to happen. But silently, and she cannot deny that in the back of her mind, she did hope for. She scoffed with that tinge of delight. After all, Alfonso can still thrill her, just, after all, the anguish she buried for years in the Philippines. She was a bit disgusted with herself and twisted the upper lip in lop-sided manner. She then turned her wrist to check the time on her silver-plated Seiko watch. She’s still an hour away from the interview on the third block from the place they are in.

                It has been five years. She thought as she turned her gaze again, outside the thrumming precipitation. The dark clouds that brought the rain cloaked that side of the street as if it will come to dusk.

 Italy, the land of shoes, leathers, beautiful clothes, coffee, pizza, pancetta and cheese brought her a different world, different from the balmy Carbon street were most people are in seeding and tattered shirts, making their  earnings in slippers, partly just to take a grip at fried chickens sold in the corners. The present has almost been devoid completely of the old life and sentiments she felt she has forgotten. And, got rotten under all heaps of hope. 

Nothing will hurt anymore. She calmed herself. Nothing will even happen to be dragged again to that old self of hers, to the old fool Annita. Even if she is caught to the day she has prayed to avoid.

 If she’s a bit glad, she agreed, it is that she has seen an old acquaintance. It’s like that feeling of seeing one Filipino you knew in Italy. And she believes, the guy deserves a “hi”.

                She inhaled to muster all courage in the world and turn herself slowly to the left side to greet Alfonso. There. Just when her eyes landed on his face, he seemed enthralled to be searching on her face too. His mouth opened in surprise and he looked like more than happy to have seen her in the most unexpected place of the most unexpected time.

                “Annita?” He worded almost soundless.

                She smiled from ear to ear. Her heart skipped a beat, the kind she felt six years ago when she was all-possessed by that mad love. Is she prepared for another damnation? So her smile hang there dry and in wary of what could happen after a minute or two with HIM!

                He swiftly moved out his chair and before she knew it, he already landed in a stool on her left, still in amazement.

                “Is that really you?” He asked on that kind of huskiness in low baritone that only Alfonso can exude. Then, each good old, sweet thing from their past came flooding inside her. It was so strong she is slinging some harsh, loud curses against it in silence.

                “Y..yes!” An amount of uneasiness almost stalled her single word.

                “That silly Annita you knew from Cebu.” She added, nodding. She could feel her inhalation by that second.

                “God! I never thought I could still bump into you!” He gladly exclaimed.

                “Me too.” Then, she could not agree more.

                “And in Italy!” He exclaimed. He could not contain his disbelief on the wildest circumstance that brought them together.

                “Yes, in Italy.” She repeated.

                “We can really never can tell.” Alfonso, still bedazzled, checked all the corners of her head as if it is still like a dream.

                “So how are you? It’s been like,” she paused.

“Years.” And turned to her cappuccino, taking it in her lips. Some uneasiness crawled in her, remembering how it had been and how they are now. Then, in a moment, the well-lighted corner of their past starts to dim again. And, the skeletons shook out from the shadows.

“I’m doing great. Remember that stout Italian I had for a boss in Ayala?” Alfonso conspicuously manifested his jubilation over her and that unprecedented meeting while she is slowly fumbling down the darker tunnel of memories.

“Per favour servi il mio caffe qui.” Please serve my coffee here. He called the attention of the person in the counter.

“Yes. Francesco. You kept texting me about him being dear to you, but, on the other hand, disgusted on how you cook his Bolognese ragu.”

“Still best memory you got there, Annita. That mind is like a pot of brilliance.” It was impressive.  His dark eyes squinted.

“Well, he made a real good Italian cook out of this handsome boy.” He quipped and that got her a little tickled. They laughed together while hers got to be feigning at the end of the momentum. Nothing has changed. He is still a master of tongue-in-cheek bragging. She learned that Alfonso’s kitchen skill got him in Italy when the good, old Francesco opened five successful bistros in South East Asia and eventually owned two in Roma. He posted Alfonso in here with a great deal of salary to look over them while he could be fluttering away in some Asian countries.

“Wow.” That’s all she could say. Her thoughts hang on how unrealistic life had turned itself just to put glory on the hands of Alfonso. After finishing her cup of cappuccino, she calmly placed it back to its saucer. Who would have thought that THIS GUY, who used to cajole his charm on her to steal in an impoverished eatery in Carbon Market for his vice, will look as sleek and count-like after years of grinding off his abrasive and shabby self.  

“I know, Annita. It is amazing, right?” She looked at him as he threw a glance at her. That glanced that his eyes flung that could stick unto her soul. She shivered, but he did not notice. She quickly contained it.

“But really, we can never can tell. And look? Look at you, too.” The thrill of pride came rushing with his utterance.

 She served a thrifted smile on her lips. Unable to give empathy to its hilt. Yes. What has become of her too? She was once jailed for a day for him, for theft. It was like this, on a rainy day, only that it was before the restaurant closing, when she has to make an account of the day’s earnings and Alfonso rallied from the door and went straight to her. He was wearing a soiling shirt with white “TIDE” detergent as its front marking.

“Oh! Here you are again, pestering Annita!” that was her Aunt Lucy, boorish for eternity about her good-for-nothing boyfriend. She also worked in that carenderia as its cook. She was carrying some empty cauldron she got from the wooden counter, covered by yellowish oil cloth that was festered by houseflies.

He threw a glare at her aunt who jostled at his glare and went straight to the kitchen in an up-chin. Alfonso went back at her, shifting into a rueful face she cannot bear to take. It got her. Again.  She does not know how he can make her heart swing or fall to a plunge, as if the only thing she can care are his hands that will hopefully,  catch her from a dangerous trip.

“I need money, Annita. The police are cracking down the dens and Roger needs his money back.”

She was taken aback. Fear crept into her nerves, for Roger rang thousands of bell for being the notorious crystal meth peddler in their area. She knew stories about him, most were disgustingly atrocious, confirmed by the .45 calibrated gun he always carries on his tattered sling bag she once saw.

“I don’t even have any centavo here..” in soft trembling voice, she answered in sympathy.

“But, Roger’s going to kill me!?” He cut her through that hiss in between his teeth. His eyes were furious to where trouble is spelled, specifically in his dilated pupils.

She sighed in trouble. Her mind is on a battle to untangle the snare that Alfonso put them in. Then, her sweat glands opened wide to release sluice of sweat, intensified by Cebu’s balmy weather. The white towel hanging from the back of her shirt is serving more its purpose.

“I will lend money from Carmen.” She pertains to the owner of the eatery.

Alfonso moved his eyeballs from left to right, fidgeting for unknown reason.

“When is she going to come?”

“About an hour from now.”

“Annita.” He whispered, leaning himself over the counter.

“Just get two thousand bills now. I don’t think she might notice it.” He glanced at the bills mounded through a rubber band on her left hand..

“I cannot do that, Alfonso. That is stealing!” Indignantly, she raised her voice.

“Shhh Shhh,” He cut her again anxiously. All the nerves on his throat furrowed due to his strong reaction.

“But Carmen might not let you borrow anymore. Remember you still have thousands of loan from her.” He whispered again as if fearful of anyone eavesdropping from them.

Yes. A five thousand loan to be exact because of Alfonso, too. All those went to his odious vice. His work as “kusinero” or cook in the next door’s carenderia will never be enough to sustain his support for his old  parents in Talisay and most of all, his exploit in sniffing grams of white substance.

As long as she could remember, he was taintless when she first met him. It was five months ago when he was just employed, during the end of their shifts, when both of them were walking in the dark and muddy alley through the shanties. It is the only shortcut she can use from work than going around the highway.

She dwelled there all her life while he just bedspaced in one of the dilapidated boarding houses.

“Good evening! Weren’t you afraid to be walking alone here?” He broke the silence while he was at her back, tailing on a narrow space in between the shacks.

“Been here all my life. What to be afraid?” She tried holding her balance on her foot, stepping on a protruded stone in a murky puddle.

“Good for you.”

“Well, I just moved here. What’s your name?”

It was when she arrived at the opening. The lighted tiny street was still full of bystanders loitering in some sari-sari stores and children running to and fro.

She spun and faced him with eyebrows buried towards the center, implying curiousity. 

                “I think I could use some few more friends.” He added. Then, the light from the side street light hit his face. The man was way taller than her and she could not understand, suddenly, her heart is slipping from its usual beats. Instantly she knew, from that very moment that she got attracted by this handsome moreno she hasn’t known yet. All she could do now is to welcome him through a warm smile, just as it exploded inside her.

                “Annita.” She told him her name, neverminding the enchantment she might have shown to him.

                “Alfonso.”

He smiled back, presenting his teeth. Those were not perfect, but the dimple, the wrinkled eyes, and his defined jaws made them a million-peso worth.

                They immediately became friends, and she became his secret admirer. That started the going-home an excitement for her. Even an hour before 9 p.m., she will be all prepared from parting the eatery, restless to meet Alfonso in the alley. There are times that she would miss him on the dim shortcut for reason that he was seeing Martha, but that fact never stopped her from liking him in a deeper, unfathomable reason.

                Things moved fast. After a year, Alfonso and Martha broke up. She was there for him in all the tormenting days that he could not bear from happening. They will stay late in Prosesa’s Sari-Sari store. He, inebriated in his Red Horse beer was being waited by her through munching all the Chippies and Corniks. She will be waiting for him to be totally drunk and eventually, ask him to go home.

                She did not get tired. Who gets tired when you got a loving heart, the strongest muscle in the human body? It can endure all the blows of jealousy and punches of neglect as long as its longing is suffice--to see and to talk with him every single day. She was hoping that it will lead him to divert his affection towards her.

                And it did happen. They became more than friends. But Alfonso was still on his deepest sea of remorse, unable to be salvaged, recuperating through her and through a vice that put him into another snare.

                “Yeah. Time has changed me into this.” She would like to let confident supercede on each word she pronounced, but that failed. Her voice was weak that it broke instantly to silence. Blame the deluge of loneliness from the flashback. She bowed her head down and put her lips together, pulling them inwards. She felt her drying lipstick. It has chapped itself in this chilly weather.

                “I’m sorry.” He wistfully said, and a deep sigh followed. It’s as if he read what she always had in her mind.

                It was the moment when time learned to stop for her. After all those years, starting when she fell for him up to the time she entered this tratorria, time, finally, was kind for her. It gave her the words she had frustrated to suffice down her stomach for the longest time. There are those people who had done her various mistakes, but the grave that Alfonso dug for her was the thing that she could lie back in some of those nights after she was bailed out from jail.

                “I understand it is the reason you moved out the squatters and disappear. God knows.. I looked for you in any way.” He continued in a remorseful tone.

 But, Alfonso did not came when she waited on that dark and scalding concrete corners of the fetid cell. The pickpockets, the drug pushers and the users who were still in the spur of psychedelic effects, and the squeaking rats were her frightening companions. She could not bear remembering that night when all she could do is whimper in one corner, exhausting out the dismay of crumbled expectation about Alfonso—that for once he will suddenly come to save her. Just for once.

“I was lucky enough that your Aunt Lucy’s teenage son was unaware about “us” and gave me your number. But, you never replied, Annita.” There was pain on it. There was pain reflecting on his eyes when she faced him.

He could endure a lot of pain, but he was too coward to iron out the intricate mess she made for her, or it’s just that she was NOTHING to him after all. So when she was forgiven by Carmen and freed, she decided to meet Alberto, her persisting septuagenarian Italian suitor whom she met online. She settled with him, five months before he succumbed to cancer.

                “I wished to see you. You know that.” He broke her wallowed thinking.

                “I know.” She remembered how his message suddenly popped up on her analogue phone during those time she departed already from Cebu. He was talking about how he changed and got a new cooking job. There was that surge of emotions when it happened, but she needed to remember the rotten jail and the neglect he had made her feel. It was one big fight she lost in a moment and won for a long time. Since then she promised, she would never put herself on that self-demeaning bout anymore.

                She inhaled and held an amount of cold, fresh air on her lungs. She bet that that has cleared her from the webs of doubts from the past that clang on her insides. 

                “Un altro capucinno per la bella signora.” One more cappuccino for the beautiful lady. He told the service crew.

                “No. I’m already fine.” She turned to him.

And, gave a breath of relief.

                “It was all done, Alfonso. I’m fine now.” It was her response for his sorry.

He got it right, as it got him alarmed.

                “Thank you.” She added and smiled warmly.

Annita put her right hand over his which held the cup.

                “I think I need to go now.”

                “But can’t you spare a time for me?” Alfonso demanded with troubled grim written on his face.

                “You gave your sorry already and I am forgiving you. It was all I ever wanted since then and I think it should end there.”

                She paused. It will be her last time memorizing his face.

                “It was really nice seeing you again, Alfonso.”