Finding Alberto (Chapter 9)
Nov 02,2013 0 Comments
Story by Joan Lopez-Flores and Rico del Rosario
It was August 26. Elena took a cab to Shangri-La Plaza Mall along EDSA. She wanted new shoes, a new bag, and a nice meal. She was feeling lazy to prepare lunch at home. Maybe she’d buy a new bottle of perfume. And, oh goodness! Her bottle of Alyssa Ashley Musk Lotion is dangerously low. She needs a refill soon.
That night, and although it was a Monday, Elena expected Alberto to knock at her door at six. Maybe they’ll make love first before dinner. Or maybe dinner comes first. Either way, she ought to be prepared. She preferred Shangri-La Mall. It was nearest. And although Greenbelt reminded her most of the malls back in California, she didn’t have the stamina to travel that far. Besides, she trusted Rustan’s with her Amex card, and she had almost half-memorized the location of all the shops in there.
But on that day, Alberto was somewhere else. He was in Luneta Park at the Million People March against pork barrel.
On July 12, 2013, newspapers were ablaze with an expose of a pork barrel scam, masterminded allegedly by one Janet Lim Napoles. This Napoles has had projects with the Philippine government since 2004, the papers said, and played a crucial role in the Fertilizer Fund Scam. In the current administration, Napoles’ company had defrauded the government of billions of pesos through bogus projects channelled through more than 20 sham NGOs. She did this not without the help of key names in the Senate and Congress, the bureaucratic cancer of corruption rooting down provincial congressmen and branching up to Malacanang.
And so, as the rally wore on until the evening of August 26, the disgruntled Elena, feeling much like a jilted lover, ordered pizza and ate dinner alone watching DVDs of Filipino romantic comedy films that Kapamilya and Kapuso in their infinite inanities churn out for the consumption of the masses.
Two days later, August 28, whilst Elena was at the gym busy burning out all those calories that pizza two nights ago must have added to her weight, Janet Lim Napoles was at the PNP taking her criminal mugshots, which would soon be proliferated all over the Internet for the consumption of the Filipino Facebooking netizens. She would be subsequently shuttled from hospital to prison to hospital to prison, due to diabetes and claustrophobia, which, while being broadcasted on an LCD TV on the bus home Alberto overheard an elderly woman cluck her tongue and saying, “Sakit ng mga mayayaman.” Alberto noted the rheumatoid fingers of the woman, clutching at gnarled eco bags.
Elena would hear less and less of Alberto. He’d pop by once a week, sometimes once in two weeks. The lovemaking was intense, but distracted. And he almost seemed to be checking his phone for important messages and furiously composing replies.
And on August 31, a Saturday, when Elena finally had Alberto accompany her to Shangri-La, and she wanted to buy gifts
for him, he simply refused, even as she noticed him spying the cost of a large mountaineering backpack, or counting the cost of corned beef muttering under his breath. Elena pretended she needed to go to the bathroom and returned with the purchase of the backpack for Alberto. Alberto turned red for an instant, and Elena was afraid he was furious at what she had done. But Alberto graciously received her gift and thanked her. And then he was his usual self again, talkative, full of stories, squeezing her hand.
That night, at about 2:15 a.m., Alberto rose from bed. Elena felt him leave for the bathroom, but five minutes later, when he had not returned, she seemed to hear the clacking of keyboard keys. Alberto must be using her laptop. Elena went back to sleep.
On September 1, Alberto told Elena he’d be gone for a while. Something important was his reason. Vague, and nothing clearer was offered. He may be gone for a few weeks. Just a few weeks. Elena trembled upon hearing this. Somehow she knew something was not right. The treadmill she bought from Shangri-La arrived two days after Alberto left, on September 3. The delivery men brought it up to her apartment and left it in her living room. She was surprised she had to pay the men extra, even after feeding them, to have them set up the treadmill.
Pounding on its steps she mulled over the reason of Alberto’s sudden defection. Was he really single? Is he hiding a wife somewhere? Does he have kids? Is he involved in some drug crime? Why was he so secretive lately? Or could it be that he’s back in the mountains among the NPA rebels? Was
that why he was counting the cost of corned beef? To bring it up to them?
Elena hopped off the treadmill and ran to her computer. She brought up her browser and went through the History of visited sites. There! Right there! She saw a website of a local airline for domestic flights. Reading through it she found a ticket booked for a flight to Zamboanga. Alberto must have booked himself a trip. But why there? Why now? What is down there that has caused Alberto to rush off and fly—Elena was afraid to admit it—away from her? And was there any reason that he couldn’t answer her calls on his cellphone? Or at least reply to her texts?
“He did say he’ll be back in a few weeks,” Elena told herself. And then she thought, “Kakayanin ko ba?” Elena let this go. She decided to amuse herself. On the coffee table in her living room are still DVDs of Pinoy films, still wrapped in clear plastic, waiting to be watched. And after seeing all these she can easily run back to Astrovision and get some more. What’s the big deal?
On September 4, after the 20 DVDs and her afternoon naps filled with soup dreams of John Lloyd, Bea, Marian, Dingdong and some other motley crew of Filipino stars, she decided she can’t hear another affected delivery of “Mahal na mahal kita” from her TV screen. She knew the only person she wanted to hear that from was Alberto. She booked herself the earliest flight to Zamboanga, which was on September 7. She felt pricked because she just missed a nifty airline ticket promo (70 percent off) had she booked 24 hours earlier. But that’s that. She was going to Zamboanga and… and… “And what? What shall I do there? How sure am I that I’ll find Alberto there?” At any rate, Elena thought, “If nothing else happens, at least I’ve visited a city I’ve never seen before.
I’ll be a tourist. And this can be a thing I can do, a hobby. Tour the Philippines.”
“More fun in the Philippines!” she said out loud to no one in particular, and laughed out loud. But how was Elena to know that a day after she arrives in Zamboanga, on September 8, that MNLF insurgents would erupt a confrontation against the military, initiating a month-long horrible nightmare for the citizens of that province?