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Finding Alberto (Chapter 8)

Titilaok Oct 02,2013 0 Comments

Story by Joan Lopez-Flores and Rico del Rosario

Elena was doing her groceries when Alberto called. “Hey, Elle. Where are you?”

“Rustan’s. Why?” She was among jars of salsa, and choosing which one to go with her large bag of nacho chips. Her cart was full of greens which she planned to toss into a salad.

“I think I may have a lead on the whereabouts of Mr. Perez. One of my kumpares may have located him.”

“Where?” Elena said.

“Gates of Heaven. It’s a cemetery in San Miguel, Bulacan.”

“Oh.”

Elena was silent for a few moments. Then she said, “How will we know how to find him?”

“My kumpare said to ask for the caretaker. So, you want to visit him?”

“Okay. Of course. Yes, let’s do that.”

“How about this Saturday?”

“Saturday’s good,” Elena said, making a mental note to buy flowers first.

“It’s quite a drive, so I’ll pick you up at ten in the morning? We’ll arrive in the afternoon.”

“Sounds good.”

“Great. See you,” Alberto said and hung up.

Elena was a bit surprised at the speed with which Alberto accomplished her request. It was just a few days ago when he climbed back up into her apartment after dropping her off there. They had just been reunited at the batch reunion Fifi arranged. Alberto took off his shoes and left them by the door. He went over and sat on the couch while she went to the fridge for some cold Coke and ice.

Elena thought, glancing back at Alberto every now and then as she got some glasses, “How easy he sits on that couch. Like he feels right at home. Like he fits. As if he owns the couch and has sat there every day after dinner.”

Alberto sat back into the couch, his broad back resting back, his legs open and feet on the floor. He put his arms on top of the couch like an eagle stretching his wings. Elena remembered, when she saw him, how she thought he looked like a sexy bachelor.

Elena came back with a tray of drinks and sandwiches. In between bites and sips they talked about Mintsy. Elena thought hard whether to tell Alberto about Mintsy’s confession in the park that night. How Mintsy’s dad molested her when she was a child. How Mintsy never told anyone except her. Elena didn’t feel comfortable about telling Alberto all that. It felt like a betrayal of trust. So she didn’t.

Alberto and Elena talked for a few more hours. At one point, Elena got up to get more Coke from the fridge. When she returned, Alberto was already asleep on the sofa. Elena remembered that Alberto did say he came from some rally before going to the reunion. He must have been very tired.

*

The next morning, when Elena woke up, the couch was empty. The blanket was neatly folded above the pillows. There was a breakfast of bacon and eggs waiting for her on the table, and a note. The note said:

I didn’t want to wake you up. Thanks for letting me stay for the night. I’ll call you soon.

A.

Elena picked up the pillows and buried her face in it. The fragrance of Alberto’s neck still lingered.

*

When Alberto knocked at Elena’s apartment door at ten A.M., she was ready. She took one last glance at the mirror and got the bouquet of flowers she bought this morning. She planned to lay it at Mr. Perez’s tomb.

When she opened the door, Alberto noted the bouquet but didn’t say anything.

The drive to the cemetery was uneventful. Elena kept noting the many changes, in fact, the signs of progress she saw in Metro Manila. “The jeepneys are larger and longer… There are more buses… I’d like to try the MRT… Look at all these malls side by side!” She kept saying in spite of herself. When the turned to NLEX she enjoyed seeing wide expanses of greens on each side of the expressway.

“Iba talaga pag nasa sariling bayan,” she said. Alberto smiled. They went to a Burger King drivethrough for lunch.

When they got to the cemetery, it was almost empty. There were no visitors, except themselves. Elena imagined how busy the place would be on All Saints’ Day. Today, it was pristine and peaceful like a large garden, although it was quite hot and humid.

Alberto found a parking spot under a tree for shade. When they got out, they walked around a bit. Elena began to worry. She certainly did not want to spend the rest of the afternoon hopping from one grave to the next looking for the one that belonged to Mintsy’s father.

“Come,” Alberto said. “Let’s go look for the caretaker.”

Elena followed Alberto as they walked, looking around for the office. She cradled the bouquet about her chest. Alberto soon found what looked like the administrator’s office. All the glass windows were closed. Secretly, they both hoped it was air-conditioned inside. But when they entered, the air conditioner was off, and an electric fan was blowing hot air all around the room. On a desk, a small TV was showing an afternoon soap drama. Beside it were several lotto tickets and an unopened bottle of Tanduay.

“Ano po `yon?” asked an old man who was sitting behind the desk.

“Kayo po ba yung caretaker?” asked Alberto.

“Ako nga po.”

“Uh, we’re looking po for Mr. Perez,” Elena said. “Mr. Henry Perez.”

The caretaker was stopped short. His eyes were suddenly wide and round. He stared at Elena. “Ako nga po.”

It slowly dawned on Elena that she was, in fact, talking to the very much alive Mr. Henry Perez, Mintsy’s father. She looked at him with a bit of surprise. Yes! The same ears and eyes as Mintsy’s! Mr. Perez’s thin hair was gray, and his skin showed he’s been out in the sun too much, like a gardener’s.

Elena slowly realized her mistake. She thought Mintsy’s father would be six feet under and she’d be placing flowers at his tombstone and saying a few words. Now he’s right in front of her, in the flesh. Her heart skipped a beat. She remembered Manang Opa the medium’s words from Mintsy: “Tell father.” Absentmindedly, she placed the bouquet on the desk.

“Magandang hapon po,” Elena said. “Ako po si Elena Duffy. Nakasama ko po si Mintsy—si Michelle—sa abroad. Pareho po kaming nars.”

Mr. Perez interrupted. “Eh bakit mo sa akin hinahanap? Hindi pa naman umuuwi ang anak ko.”

Elena was surprised that Mr. Perez didn’t know. She hated that she had to be the one to break the news. “Pumanaw na po si Michelle.” No emotion or reaction registered on Mr. Perez’s face. It kept its stern gaze, like he distrusted these two who came upon him unexpected. Elena was afraid he didn’t understand what she said. She repeated, “Patay na po si Mi—”

“Patay na pala, eh. Anong pinunta niyo rito? Magpapa-party ba kayo? Unless may iniwan siyang dollars na pinapaabot sa inyo.”

“Wala po syang iniwan.”

“Eh di wala na tayong dapat pag-usapan, `di ba?”

Alberto reached for the small of Elena’s back and gently led her towards the door. Elena allowed herself to be led out, but when they reached the door turned to Mr. Perez and said, “She knows. She knows what you did to her when she was young. She knows it, and she knows it was wrong. And you know it, too. You know it was wrong.”

Elena walked out of the office with Alberto. They never looked back at Mr. Perez, who trembled in his seat as he reached out for his bottle of rum.

When they got to the car, Alberto held Elena close in a gentle hug. Then he asked, “What was that all about?”

Elena wiped a tear. “Let’s go,” she requested.

They were driving down NLEX back to Balintawak when Elena told her Mintsy’s story. She told him everything, and what Mr. Perez had done to his own daughter. Alberto remained quiet, but he gripped the wheel so tight hisknuckles turned white.

When they got back to Elena’s apartment, as Alberto was parking the car, she told him, “Dito ka na mag-dinner.”

Alberto nodded. They got out of the car and into the apartment building.

As soon as they entered Elena’s unit and closed the door, Alberto said, “Elena.”

“Yes?”

“I just wanted to say… you were very brave, doing what you did earlier. Standing up for your friend.”

They stared into each other’s eyes. Their lips met. Alberto’s hands reached around Elena and held her body close to him. Elena ran her hands up and down Alberto’s muscled arms. They found the couch somehow. Alberto began to undress Elena.

Dinner had to wait.

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