MAR PUATU: PHILIPPINES WRITER


Mar V. Puatu

 

VENETIAN ENCOUNTER
by Mar V. Puatu



uick!" Albert takes his Nikon and aims it at the beauteous, be-gowned Duchessa of Venice. He pushes me in front of the costumed beauty against the "Bridge of Sighs" overlooking the Grand Canal flowing inside the Venetian Casino and Hotel in Las Vegas.


The elegant Grand Dame has just finished singing La Donna e’Mobile. She curtsies to the meager crowd and smiles. In a noble pose, she lets me come closer, takes my good arm and wraps it round her small waist. Albert snaps the picture, and thanks her.


"Buona sera." The woman winks and taps her fan on my breast.


"Thank you." I catch the fan, and give the gentle hand that holds it a light kiss. When I look at her face, I see the smiling image of a woman from Ukraine, a woman who married someone else because I missed the opportunity to say, "Marry me."


"Have a good time." The Venetian woman feigns a blush. She liberates her dainty mouth and out comes a Puccini aria, the melody wafting through Saint Mark’s Piazza. Soon other patrons gather around her. She wades through the crowd, luring them to the shopping boutiques, the art shops, and eventually to the casino. The scarcity of the gambling group gives the piazza a somber mood. Outside, the half-empty streets of Las Vegas with the American flags displayed on every building lend a mourning tone to what should have been a festive mood.


Albert finds a table at the Canaletto Café near the Grand Canal. He orders espresso for both of us, and we sip our drink in silence. A heavy frown covers his face; a sigh escapes his lips.


"Eva’s safe." He grinds his teeth. "She and our daughter were making a deposit at the Bank of America branch 10 blocks away from the World Trade Building when the planes crashed."


"Thank God." I touch my old friend’s shoulder. The attack on this bastion of capitalism, as well as the attack on the Pentagon, makes my hand tremble. My bones shake and my innards churn. At a nearby table, two men in black suits exchange information. They wear sunglasses, and they’re big and brawny like linebackers. Could they be bodyguards or something out for a coffee break…law-enforcement or FBI?


I ask Albert, "Security?" I nod toward these men.


"I hope so," my compadre says. "It’s tight now, after they let the mustangs out of the corral."


He finishes his expresso and orders another round. Looking at me, he must have seen the worry written on my face.


"Marlon won’t be able to come here soon." Albert is the godfather of my younger son. My petition for Marlon has been approved by the INS, but is being held up by the US-Manila Embassy. Their rationale: the Philippine quota this year has been filled.


"Yeah." I bite my lips. "He’ll probably wait another year." I sigh. "And still another year." Another sigh comes from deep in my lungs. "I have great plans for my son. He should meet Vasilisa."


"Vasilisa?"


"Svetlana's daughter," I say. "Ah, that's another story."


"It’s unjust," Albert spits out the words. "It took 13 years for you to petition him, but the attackers can come and go just like the…" He lets the sentence hang. His chest rise and falls, his breathing comes in gusts.


The lapping of oars in the nearby almost-deserted canal slaps the water. The boatman sings a Neapolitan love song, Santa Lucia, but its plaintive melody serves to dampen my spirits. Something…a candle snuffed within me. A light extinguished…Something…


Albert strains his eyes. He brightens up. A girl saunters to the Piazza, sees us, and heads towards our table.


"It’s Gina Leynes," Albert nudges me. "She was Marlon’s classmate in Manila."


"Oh, ‘classmate’?" My brows inch up.


Albert chuckles. "They probably had something going on."


"I hope not." I shake my head. "Wasn’t she one of the militants who wanted to topple Marcos-Cory Aquino-Ramos’s administrations?"


Before I can get an answer, the girl – Gina – approaches and smiles at Albert. "Manong Albert, how are you?"


Albert extends his hand and offers her a seat. "I’m all right." He motions to me. "Marlon’s father."


I shake her hand. The girl’s bony fingers grip mine with a strength belied by her thin frame covered by ragged jeans and a cotton blouse tied at her stomach. Her stringy hair falls down to her waist, and her eyes burns fanatically behind wire-thin glasses. At about…uhm… 5’10", she is tall for a Filipina. There is tautness in her body that makes her seem ready to run in the Boston Marathon anytime. Though severe, her face has a touch of Anne Heche—seductive as Mata Hari, hard as Arnold Schwarzenegger. Gina unhooks her backpack and lays it on a chair.


"How’s my classmate doing?" Gina’s thin lips disguise a slight smile. "I haven’t heard from him for a long time." She massages her sandaled feet.


I shrug. Good, I think, my son must have thought twice about this girl.


Albert turns to her. "What are you doing here?"


"I am teaching at Columbia, you know." She takes off her glasses and wipes them with the tablecloth. "I took a sabbatical."


I look at Gina again. It was wrong for me to categorize her as a "girl." Beneath her frail frame is a woman with an intense attitude towards life. She must be an intellectual who lives in the Towers of Academe, now judges real life as an experiment in philosophy. One look at her convinces me that my son Marlon ought not to associate with an assertive woman like Gina.


"Researching something?" Albert asks.


Gina nods. "You may say that." She accepts the ice tea that Albert orders for her, and drinks it noisily.


A brief silence interrupts our tete-a-tete. Then, Gina begins, addressing no one in particular. "You have heard the news, of course."


Albert sighs and looks down. "Who hasn’t?"


"Ewan ko, ha," she talks in Pilipino, "napaka-personal nitong…"


"Please," I interrupt, "in English, if you don’t mind."


"Why, have you forgotten your own language? Have you been truly Americanized?"


Her tone dares confrontation, and I gibe, "Have you been sanitized?"


Pretending it is just a joke, Albert chuckles and prevent the encounter. "Gina, when in Rome, you know…"


Her upper lips curl into a savage rebuke. "Okay. I talk Tag-lish to intellectuals like you—a writer, a publisher—to prove that we can still be proud to be a Fil…"


"I know," Albert cuts her off. "You were saying…"


Bad chemistry develops between me and the woman. I sense the heaviness of the chip on her shoulder, and I feel resentment scalding me. Could it be because I see in her the aggressiveness of my ex-wife?


Gina pushes her chin up, looking down on us, a pair of old comrades in rebellion against the tyranny of Marcos and his ilk. Now, to her, we have become softies, a victim of bourgeoisie existence.


"I was saying," Gina continues, "I just want you to know how I feel."


"About the bombing in New York?" Albert placates her. I don’t know why he has to. I feel the blood rushing to my temples.


"Yeah." The woman uncrosses her feet and straightens her back. She is so thin I am tempted to crush her and shove her down my pocket. My thought makes me guilty, but then she says, "You know, my reaction to the terrorist attacks against America?"


I open my mouth, ready to stop what I thought will be her harangue. Albert puts his hand up, halting whatever I had in mind.


Gina does not seem to be concerned and talks on. "Watching BBC and CNN and Fox, I was saddened. I felt goose-pimples all over my body. I even cried, dammit! But, then, I said…it’s a wake-up call because, lately, US has become too arrogant."


Blood in my head slowly simmered. Albert watches me from the corner of his eye.


"I am galled by their unprincipled backing up of the Judas-like Israelis… bullies and land-grabbers who actually believe they’re God’s chosen few.. but they are actually stealing Palestinian lands. They deal with their neighbors with arrogance and pride! The Israelis are arrogant and brave only because of the unconditional support of the US."


Blood in my head churns, ready to explode.


"Now," the woman who was never sympathetic at the start says with a vengeance, "the US is bombed and they cry crocodile tears. I have no sympathy. Has my heart turned to stone? Sorry. Very sorry. But when a nation becomes so arrogant, it deserves a slap in the face. That’s how I feel. I should feel guilty, but I can’t."


My eyes see red, the blood in my head erupting like Mount Pinatubo. Albert restrains me from getting on my feet and giving the woman a dose of her own prescription. I want to slap her. Man, I want to hurt her! How dare she talk like this! I breathe deeply, and look her in the eye.


"Miss Leynes," I measure my words. "Are you a US citizen?’


"Of course," she says. "I am, because it was necessary."


"You know," I start, my body rages, my bones rattling. "I can’t speak straight. But I think straight, and I would like to tell you…"


Albert forces me to remain sitting down, afraid that I will make a terrible scene in front of the diners. They stop gorging themselves with fettuccini and drinking chablis to listen. Albert says to me, "Relax, don’t take what she said seriously."


I caution my diplomatic friend. "Don’t worry."


The woman’s eyes narrow, aware of the eyes that gawk at her. "I didn’t mean to…"


"I want you to know that all the people here in America," I turn to her, my voice rising, "do not feel the way you do. If someone deserves a slap, it is you."


The woman’s face turns fiery-read. Her mouth falls slack as if in shock.


"Yes," I say, "your mouth is faster than your brain. You are quick to blame the US, while thousands of men, women, and babies lie dead beneath the crumbled Twin Towers. Conrado de Quiros—you know, the Filipino writer—said it for you: you "flash the V sign over the stiff bodies of people!"


"Well, I..."


"Has your heart turned to stone? Well, you said it. You are quick to judge. You assign blame to people of different religions, other than yours. Miss Leynes, if you must blame somebody, blame those who engender hate. You have sympathy for violence, and I cannot sympathize with your feelings."


"Wait a minute," the woman protests. "I don’t…"


"DON’T SAY ANYTHING!" I bang the table with my left fist. It startles the eavesdroppers. Some move away. A waiter moves toward us, but Albert waves him off, apologizing that everything’s all right.


My stomach knotted up, I say to the woman, "I pity you for the shallowness of your political ideas. I abhor your ‘arrogance.’ How would you feel if someone you love died in those planes that demolished the WTC?"


Gina sticks out her chin. "How about Hiroshima? Nagasaki?" Her eyes narrows. "Balangiga—the massacre?"


"What?"


She smiles with contempt. "You don’t even know your Philippine history."


"Okay..." I gnash my teeth. "I don’t dwell on the past, though I know it’s the foundation of the present. For me, that’s relevant, and the future."


"Those who don’t look to the past..." She lectures me.


"Are bound to repeat its mistake," I agree, staring her down. "You can always twist history to your advantage. This is an imperfect world, and this country owns up to its faults : slavery, racism, and others. The people here strives for equality, and how do they do that? They give you the freedom of speech. You have a right to your opinion, and thank God this country tolerates it. I, too, have an opinion. I think that people like you should think twice. Look to yourself and not blame others. For, who is blameless, after all?"


My long speech stuns the crowd who has been listening. It may have left the woman with a dried mouth and a cut-tongue. The two men in black near us stand, and walk away, but I see them sneaking a look at us. I cup my head in my hand, and close my eyes.


"You better go," Albert’s voice is insistent. He is talking to the woman. I open my eyes to see Gina pick up her backpack, and leave. With shoulders drooping and head bowed, she must not have expected such reproach from her kabayan, countryman. I hope she realizes that though I have left my heart in the Philippines, I owe loyalty to this country. Flawed though it may be, it’s the freest by far to me.


The woman straightens her shoulder, holds her head high, and kicks an empty water-cup someone has left on the Piazza’s floor. She murmurs something. It sounds like, "For every action, there’s a reaction. Just wait and see..."


The two men march six paces behind her. What is this—a scene from a spy movie? My God, are they following her?


"Oh, " I breathe. "When will this bombing end?"


"As long as there is hatred in the hearts of men," Albert amens, "never."


From the columns under Saint Mark’s Lion in the piazza where the Ducchessa of Venice disappeared, a Fool dressed in gold and black, clown costume enters, beckoning a few gambling stragglers from the casinos. He gives a mock bow, sheds invisible tears, and cries, "Ridi, Pagliaccio...Laugh, you Clown." -

~end~

Copyright 2005 by Mar V. Puatu. All rights reserved.

Writers Bio: Mar V. Puatu was a six-time winner of the prestigious Palanca Awards in Literature in the Philippines. Born in Manila, he immigrated to the U.S. in 1977 and resided in Sun Valley, California. He was the author and editor of several books, including the novel, Grandfather, the King (available at amazon.com) and The Girl with One Eye and Other Stories. In addition, he wrote, produced and directed for radio and television; and he also wrote for the cinema. Mar V. Puatu recently passed away in California. .

 



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