Friday, September 2, 2005

There are stories that can be told a thousand times, stories with an awful weight that to relieve oneself one has to repeat the story over and over and over and over. I, however, do not know whether my story bears retelling. Perhaps I won’t even have the energy to tell it a second time. All I know is that I have to let this story go now, because it is all over. The weight that used to settle on my shoulders and had sometimes drawn blood is now gone. It has, throughout time, turned itself into a fine mist that has all but disappeared. Where has all the weight gone when I have kept it all to myself all these years? Only time, in its eternal jest, can know.

When I was very young my parents and I spent our Sundays at my paternal grandmother’s house. My cousins and I call her Bita, short for Abuelita. I do remember, very vaguely, a time when we called her Lola, but somewhere along the line someone in our family must have gotten the idea to call her in the Spanish. Bita lived, post-Bito (who died of a heart attack when I was a year old) in a large old rented house inside a residential compound that belonged to her friends, the Jordanas, in Naga City, near the San Francisco Church that was built in the 1500’s.

One afternoon, when I was four, I woke up from my nap and eavesdropped on my aunts through a crack in the door. My aunts and my mother and Bita were at the table, eating their merienda. The capiz windows were open, and sunlight was streaming through the opening in that watery kind of yellow-orange that slanted towards a large glass bowl of latik. Itas, the old crone that took care of seven of my aunts and uncles when they were babies, came out of the kitchen with some drinking glasses. At the table was Norma, who was the wife of Bita’s eldest son Herbie. Then there were Mita and Inez, both Bita’s daughters, who came after Herbie. There was also Shirley, the wife of Basting, and Irma, wife of Manolie, both also Bita’s sons. And of course there was my mother, Eden, wife of my father Eddieboy, who was yet another one of Bita’s sons.

“So when are you due?” Bita asked my mother.

I think I saw my aunts start ever so slightly. I heard a fork clink a little too loudly on a plate.

“August,” my mother answered.

“Have some more latik,” Irma said

“Does Eddieboy already know?” asked Norma.

“Not yet,” my mother answered, her lids lowered.

Bita looked up to the ceiling. “Joventino,” she called out in the general direction of the kitchen.

Joventino appeared, very tall and straight, very thin, and very old and pale, like a phantasm. “Yes, Senora?” he asked in a cold, thin voice.

“Joventino, there are cobwebs in that corner,” Bita said, an arthritic finger pointed steadily at a dark corner. How she could see cobwebs with her failing eyesight I could not understand then. “Don’t neglect it tomorrow.”

“Yes, Senora,” Joventino said, and then faded back into the kitchen noiselessly.

Mita poured herself a glassful of Coca-Cola from a pitcher. “I can’t imagine why Rosita would steal from me,” she said. Rosita was her daughter Bambi’s yaya.

Bita sighed, “Those pearls.” She clucked her tongue. “They were lovely.”

“Yes, they were,” Mita said.

“They belonged to your Tita Leonor,” Bita added, referring to Bito’s mother.

Mita shook her head somberly.

“It’s just dreadful. We just don’t have maids like we used to,” Inez said. “Like Nitang. Mama, do you remember Nitang?”

“Of course I remember her, hija. She was the best.”

All this time my mother was quietly eating her suman sa latik.

“Yes, she was,” Mita said. “Never a wrong crease, never a missed meal, never a speck of dirt on the children’s faces.” Then she turned to my mother. “You’ve never met her?”


“Of course she hadn’t, Mita,” Inez said. “When Eddieboy married Eden, Nitang was already bedridden and blind as a bat in Caraycayon.”

“I’ve met her, and she didn’t like me,” Shirley said.

“Shirley, stop that,” Mita said, and then she added a little too sweetly, I thought, “Nitang is a wise woman and is a good judge of character, especially of women.”

Shirley’s eyebrow twitched a little, and then she picked up her fork, her long, red manicured nails glinting in the watery yellow of the afternoon sun.

“Este, Joventino,” Bita called out again.

“Senora?” said Joventino, appearing at her side.

“There’s another one,” Bita said, pointing at a different corner of the ceiling.

“Yes, Senora,” he replied, then disappeared again.

“But Itas here makes the straightest and sharpest creases on trousers, and makes the perfect scrambled eggs,” Inez said.

“Mornings are practically a dream with those creamy eggs. And of course, Massing makes the best suman sa latik in the whole world. Don’t you think so, Eden?”

I saw my mother smile a little. Her fingers were short and stubby and the fork seemed a little too dainty for her hands.

It is amazing how we remember certain things so vividly for no rhyme or reason. I don’t even remember what else happened that day, or in the days that followed, but I remember that scene at the table as if it were painted in oil and then imprinted into my mind. My mother was wearing a drab brown blouse. Shirley was wearing a bright red pattern that showed her cleavage and matched her red nails. Mita was in black silk with gold buttons, fat as ever. Inez, always the classically stylish one, was wearing a blouse of an unremarkable color and simple design that drew attention to her perfect, oval face. Norma was in dark blue, Irma was in green, and Bita was wearing a floral muumuu. Bita’s lounging slippers matched her muumuu. And that sun, streaming through the open capiz windows in its watery state, rendered the women’s heads golden.

I remember when my mother was not always that quiet. I remember her in a long dress tie-dyed in various shades of yellow, her face red, and her voice loud. She was crying, alternately tearing at her hair, stomping her feet, and burying her face into the flabby chest of this huge, dark, ugly man in a long, white coat who seemed to be comforting her. She kept saying, “Nonoy ko! Nonoy ko!”

That moment was so unnatural that I felt like I was outside of myself. I think I could even see myself then, still so tiny, sitting on a little stool and wearing my tiny dress in the same fabric as the dress my mother was wearing. I remember looking up and behind me and seeing that my back was against a sort of tall table made of metal. It felt rather cold against my back, and I remember wondering what could be on that table that made my mother cry so.

Years after, when I was old enough to understand that I had a brother who died at that cold, tall table, I sometimes remember seeing my tiny self in a tiny tie-dyed yellow dress and sitting on a tiny stool, and wonder if death caused the remaining living to become more composed, more refined, less free with words and gestures. Perhaps it’s because of the accommodations that they have to make in order to move on. They have to put their memories some place, or at the very least subdue them.

When Joe, Mita’s diabetic alcoholic husband who smoked three packs a day, contracted lymphoma, cancer of the lungs, and a tumor at the back of his head, there was no mention of Joe dying. We knew what we knew and that was that. We sat at the table for merienda and partook of ibos, palitaw, bibingka, arroyo, binutong, balisoso, and the family classic, suman sa latik, and everyone talked about everything, but not about Joe. And sadly, not about Mita, either. Even Bita, who had survived Bito, did not talk of death, as if her loss rendered her inept at feeling loss a second time. And when Joe finally died, bald, emaciated, incoherent, and half-blind, there was just a slight reddening in the eyes of his wife and children. If there was genuine grief, it was lost in the food and the flowers. My aunts, traditional Christians, were respectfully silent, but their faces were blank. Even my great-aunts -- white haired, powdered, perfumed, bejeweled, Spanish-speaking dowagers as fat as the entire province of Camarines Sur was wide -- pursed their lips and clucked their tongues and fanned themselves at the chapel decorated with white flowers and talked about everything else but Joe.

“Este, Antonia, when is Joseling coming back from Australia?”

“No se, Tita. He said he was having too much fun with the mujeres there. Que barbaridad!”

And then, artificial laughter.

Candy was there. She was one of our second cousins, a granddaughter of Caruso, Bito’s older brother. Candy was thirty-two, single, and had cancer. She was at that time about to travel to Manila in a few days for chemotherapy. I saw her as different, not cold, bright with the passion to battle a disease that had a death wish on her. I wasn’t particularly close to her but I stayed beside her the whole time, trusting, hoping for her to say or do something, anything, that would take this pointless calm, this strange unearned normalcy, away. I wanted her to summon all the demons of pain and grief and despair to breathe down fire and ruffle the hairs and skirts of all those people eating ibos and palitaw and balisoso and suman sa latik amid the flowers. But there wasn’t even any breeze. Not a leaf stirred.

Gina, wife of Raymond, another one of our second cousins and a first cousin of Candy, sidled over to us with her plate of ibos.

“Hi, girls,” she said, her smile sweet as the tiny mound of white sugar lying beside her ibos on the dessert plate. “Care for some ibos?”

“I’m not particularly hungry, but thanks,” Candy said.

“I’ll go eat in a while,” I said.

“I have something to give you, Candy” Gina said.

“What?” Candy asked.

“It will change your life, I swear,” Gina answered.

“What is it?”

“It’s a book. The Purpose-Driven Life.”

I exhaled the heaviest exhalation of my life.

“Really?” Candy asked. “I’ve heard about it. Is it any good?”

Gone was the possibility of the demons of pain ever appearing.

“It’s very good, really. It changed my life,” Gina answered. I searched her face. She was wearing the exact same shade of lipstick she has worn every single day of her life since perhaps her marriage to Raymond.

I looked at Candy, her eyes large, dark, and deep, her teeth prominent in her wan face. She seemed sincerely touched. I excused myself and dipped my head and walked towards the table where all the food was. And after a while, everyone went home. Not a single word was uttered about the faithful departed. And to think that he was no saint.

“I’m no saint, Annie,” my husband said to me at three o’clock in the morning when I asked him where he’s been. “I do need to drink with my friends sometimes.”

“Sometimes,” I echoed.

“If that’s your definition of pure evil,” he added. He stood up from the edge of the bed. He seemed to fill the entire room with his bulk.

“Sometimes,” I said again.

“Don’t start, Annie. I’m not in the mood for this.” He walked over to the closets and started undressing. I could almost see the odor of cigarette smoke and beer wafting all throughout the room in sickly greens and browns, forming distorted, toothless faces with huge maws for eyes.

I could hear Bita shuffling from her bedroom to the bathroom. She did that almost every hour during the night. It was very convenient for my husband, who had someone to let him in during the wee hours of the morning.

In his crib, Chandler stirred and made small mewling sounds. I went over to him, wondering if he felt cold, or hungry, or was having a bad dream. I prayed that he could not smell the distorted green and brown faces floating around the bedroom. I prayed that he could not feel the tension between his father and me. I prayed that he never be involved in a lover’s quarrel, or ever be disappointed by a person he loves and trusts, or ever be made to cry over the lost era in time when he used to be happy, or ever feel his heart break so perfectly in all the right places that it doesn’t even really break into pieces but just separates into smooth fragments that fall to the ground so noiselessly, inevitably, as if they belonged there.

I heard my husband grunt. He was already in his nightclothes, and was rubbing the small of his back. I opened my mouth to tell him that he had to lose weight so as not to aggravate his back problem, and then changed my mind. It seemed that all I ever told him were things that he already knew. This was the irreversible fate of people who had made love to each other a thousand times.

Chandler stirred again. I picked him up and rocked him in my arms. Barely two months old, he still had to grow eyebrows, but his face was already perfect.

At times I felt that staying in this family actually required a kind of blandness of character, a certain sparseness of emotion. Everything, every single experience, had to be washed down with water and antiseptic before it could be digested by the frail, flimsy, sickly heart. It kept the peace in our meriendas, but I get the feeling that our hearts were never fully in the present but were constantly darting to and fro across certain times of our lives, filtering and re-filtering things, constantly making their accommodations.

“Before you marry, you should open your eyes wide, because marriage is the time to close them,” Bita said one afternoon when my cousin Bunny, one of Mita’s daughters who lived abroad, came by for a vacation. Our house was always first on her list of houses to visit because Bita lived with us.

“God, latik!” said Bunny. “I missed this so much.” She put three squares of sticky green suman onto her plate and practically poured an entire bowl of latik over them.

Bunny shoved a huge piece of suman dripping with latik into her mouth and chewed with gusto. I, on the other hand, chewed on a small piece of suman and let it stay in my mouth for as long as I could, even though it had turned tasteless. I was six months away from getting married, and nobody else in my family knew about it yet. I was to be formally proposed to in a week, with the parents present, but I was leaving telling them until the last possible moment.

“Sally still makes them,” my mother said, smiling at Bunny’s childish enthusiasm.

“Sally? Sally who?” asked Bunny, her mouth full.

“Oh you haven’t met Sally,” said Bita. “She’s the one who makes our latik now. She stays with your Tito Dindo in Malinao.”

“It’s Massing I remember,” Bunny said. “I remember her as –“

“Old,” interrupted my sister, who was sixteen and who would get pregnant when she was twenty.

“Yes, terribly old,” said Bunny, and then she laughed. And then she added, “Sometimes I feel like I’ve been gone too long, sometimes I feel like I’ve been gone just a few weeks.”

“She must have been close to ninety when she died, I think.” I said.

“It’s possible,” my mother said.

“Don’t speak when your mouth is full, hija,” Bita told me. I was happy to be finally marrying a man I loved, but when I swallowed my suman at Bita’s behest, somehow it caught in my throat.

I sipped Coca-Cola from my glass and glanced at my mother, who was telling my sister to wear a longer blouse that didn’t show her belly button. My sister said yes, but seemed both unsure and rebellious. Perhaps it was true that a woman, intuitively, knows what is to become of herself.

Bita clucked her tongue and looked towards the ceiling. “Conching,” she called out to one of my mother’s maids.

Conching waddled in, short, dark, and stout, wiping her hands on a piece of rag. “Senora?”

“Cobwebs, Conching,” Bita said, pointing at a corner of the ceiling. “You missed them.”

“Yes, Senora,” Conching said, and then waddled back to the kitchen. I marveled at the discretion of all the maids that have come to us. They seemed to have carried gracefully the tradition of acknowledging the presence of cobwebs that didn’t exist.
Bunny started telling stories about the places she’d been to, and the people that she’d met.

“Just remember, hija,” Bita said again, “open your eyes wide before you marry, because marriage is the time to close them.”
I wondered then if it ever occurred to Bita that that was exactly what Bunny was doing, opening her eyes wide. She was now past thirty, and she had remained single.

Bito’s womanizing was legendary. He lived at a time when it was usual for the sons of the haciendero to get their maids pregnant. I still have photographs of the hacienda, Mical Bical, which was built by Sebastian, Bito’s father, when he married Leonora. The photographs are in sepia, the color of secrets and regret. Only the people in the photographs knew the real color of the clothes they were wearing when the photographs were taken. There were no blues, no reds, no yellows. Nobody wore bright orange lipstick in sepia photographs, and no one had pimples, or wore crumpled dresses, or had on runny nylons. The sepia enveloped the eternal moment in an opaque dimness, much like the subterfuge of memory.

I wondered if Bita ever cried when she found out about those women. Way below her in social stature, they nevertheless shared the same man, received the same touches, kisses, whispered words, as if the very man who cast them into these opposite roles had erased the boundaries between and among these women and, even if just momentarily, rendered them all of equal potency. Bita’s face, wrinkled, freckled, and powdered, showed no traces of tears. Always she would appear very composed at the merienda table, supervising the placement of the dessert plates and the serving trays and the drinking glasses, an arthritic finger always extended to this place and that thing and those food, and towards the cobwebs that weren’t really there but which all of a sudden appeared at the periphery of her vision every time the conversation began to veer towards uncomfortable subjects. I could not ever imagine her crying over laundresses and cooks and their illegitimate children who would not even be allowed by law to use to Bito’s last name, although they would probably be followed by the shadow of their ancestry because of the vague resemblance that they bear to Bito and my aunts and uncles. I wondered how my aunts dealt with this issue with their own husbands. I wondered if they knew exactly how many women and how many children there were. But they don’t talk about these things.

I wondered how I myself would feel when, eventually, in fifteen or twenty years my husband’s illegitimate daughter would suddenly show up on my doorstep, smile, and introduce herself, wishing to partake of her father. I heard that her mother was small and dark, like a pygmy. I knew early on that my husband’s daughter would look nothing like her mother. Nevertheless, I wouldn’t know how to handle it. I had no frame of reference.

“Do I have to say it again, Annie?” my husband asked me. “You can’t go.”

“But don’t they let their wives go with them?”

“No. Why would they?”

“Well, haven’t you heard about men taking their wives out to meet their friends?”

“There’s a time for that,” he grunted as he sat on the bed to take off his shoes.

“When?” My voice was a little too loud, and I bit my lower lip.

“I’ll let you know.”

“Well, if ever I can’t go out with you and your friends, can you just stay home some nights so we could talk?”

“We’ve been married almost three years, Annie. We’ve already talked enough about things. And we’ve already talked about Chandler. What else do we have to talk about?”

“Well, stuff.”


“You know, like what you did at work today, or where we are going for Christmas, things like that.”

“You won’t understand my stories about my work, Annie. And I haven’t thought of Christmas yet.”

And like a dismissal, he stood up and went to the bathroom. I remember thinking that perhaps it really wasn’t a good time for him because it was already four o’clock in the morning and he was drunk.

I gained fifty pounds when I was pregnant. In the span of seven months that I stayed home to watch my belly grow, I felt like I was water constantly on the verge of vaporizing. I was not so much conceiving as being conceived. All the melted parts of me, my arms, my legs, my back, my head, my heart, my stomach, seemed to flow together into a deep, limpid pool of heavy water that seemed to grow larger, deeper, and denser week after week after week, until finally, it was all over. I did not cry during my almost ten hours of labor, and I did not cry in the delivery room until after I felt that blessed relief of Chandler and the placenta being pulled quickly away from me. Then, I cried so hard that I felt like I was being washed by rain -- torrents of rain -- and at the back of my mind I wondered if my mother felt like she was being washed over by torrents, too, when she was crying, in that dress, in that hospital, over my baby brother’s death. I had no way of knowing. But then the rain stopped, and then I felt solid again and it felt right, for after all, I had a son who was alive.

Suman sa latik was a family favorite. The suman was made of sticky pulutan rice wrapped in banana leaves in three-inch squares that are about half an inch thick. They were steamed in a huge pot, and what comes out is an unflavored sticky suman square colored a light green by the wrapping. Latik is very light brown, sometimes beige, and is a grainy, sticky sauce made of milk and sugar that sweetens the suman. Some of my relatives like eating both the suman and the latik when they are still warm. Some like the suman warm and the latik cold, and some like it the other way around. I like them both cold. Since I was a child, our suman sa latik was always made by Sally, who lived with Bita’s son Dindo and his wife Gilda and their five children in Malinao, Bita’s hometown. But it was Massing who had been in the family kitchen making latik for our family since Bita’s children were still little. From Malinao, in Bita’s parents rambling old house, where Great-Aunt Mary, Bita’s unmarried younger sister, and Emily, Bita’s unmarried niece, now live, Massing would make suman and latik by the cauldron-ful and have them sent to Tigaon, where Bita lived in Mical Bical with Bito and their ten children until the sixties. Before Massing it was Syria. And before Syria, there must have been someone. There was always someone far, far back in the past who begins these things.

“No,” my husband said to me when I asked him if I could take a job.

“But I can’t live like this,” I answered back, though careful to keep my voice low.

“This life that I give you is bad?”

I kept quiet. Nothing that I could have told him at that moment would have been something that was totally new to him.

“I need to get out of the house. Just a part-time teaching job. Please,” I said. I tried not to sound too pleading. I wanted to preserve a certain dignity through it all.

“What can you possibly teach?”

“Well, Economics. Taxation, too, probably.”

He shook his head slowly. I bit my tongue.

“What about Chandler?” he asked

“Chandler will be fine. There’s Yaya Meling.” Yaya Meling has been in our family since I was five.

“Only for a couple of hours a day,” he said.


“In the afternoons, when Chandler is asleep.”

“Okay. Thank you so much.”

“I have to go,” he said, taking his keys and his cigarette case.

“Where are you going?”

“I’m going to my parents. I’ll be there for the weekend.”

“Can’t we go? Chandler and me?”

There are moments when you just know deep inside your soul that the next words that will follow will change your life forever, or perhaps your life has already changed even before the words came, and you just didn’t know it, and you just felt the need to anchor that portent of change onto the words, for want of a handhold or a point of cognition.

“Not now, Annie. Not now,” he said. He closed the door quietly behind him when he left.

My days were filled with Chandler. My son was amazing. Born at 6.3 pounds, he nevertheless filled the entire house. His eyes, huge and dark, would sometimes stay on me for fifteen minutes and would not even blink that I felt flattered that I deserved that much attention. His lashes were so long and golden that I would long to touch them with my fingertip but wouldn’t for fear that they might turn to stardust. His hands, rolled into tiny fists, were so translucent I could almost see his fingertips curled inside them. I would caress his back while he slept and marvel at the perfection of his skin, pinkish beige, and when I would try to imagine him as a grown person, with coarse, dark hair on his chest and arms and legs like his father had, somehow my heart would grow heavy, and then I would will myself to stop imagining him ever changing, not wanting to ruin the moment. When I bathed him he would squeal, and pound at the water with his hands and laugh, cheeks all puffed out, pink gums revealed, and with not a tooth in sight. He smelled of milk and clean skin, it’s such a wonder that everyone smelled like that during the very first months of their lives, regardless of who they would become in the course of time. Having Chandler, seeing him in his perfection every single day, had somehow turned both of us into a dreamlike kaleidoscope, in which every split second saw a change in us, every breath different, every heartbeat distinct, every eye blink unlike the one before.

My days were incredibly unpredictable, but my nights were always the same. Always there was a bubbling anxiety in me at around dinnertime that perhaps my husband would be home, that perhaps at that very moment he would all of a sudden be filled with an overwhelming feeling of love for me and our son and a need to be with us and have dinner with us. Always I would glance out the window and believe that he would be coming in through our subdivision’s gates and approach our house at 30 kph, twice the speed limit, rushing to be with us. And always he never came. Always I would have my dinner without him, and my son would fall asleep without his father watching over him. My days were vibrant, wonderful, exciting, and never the same as the one before. But my nights were always the same, except perhaps when there were times when I forget what my husband’s face looked like.

He did not take the news well. When I told him I wanted out of the marriage, he pursed his lips, he sulked, he gave me dark looks. He even brought Chandler into the discussion.

“I’m taking him,” he said.

“And who will raise him?’

“I will.”

“You’ll have to stop drinking nightly for that.” I tried to suppress a strange little smile that seemed to bubble up from me.

“I can do that,” he said. I knew he couldn’t.

“Because he would have to be read to every evening, and he’s a light sleeper.”

My husband of three years looked at the floor, glanced at Chandler sleeping in his crib, and then looked back at the floor. Defeated men, I found out, did not always cry.

“Okay, maybe not now,” he said finally.

“Okay,” I said. But I knew I’d have Chandler for the rest of my life.

He took his keys and his cigarette holder and left. The next night, he moved out.

If I could tell my story in as few words as possible, that would be even so much more than what I would be truly capable of saying. For after everything has been done, words become irrelevant. Even if there is room for a thousand tellings, my voice, my mind, my heart, would have already sunk deep into the nadir of remembrance, and then after a while, would have gained immateriality. This is the accommodation that I make so that I could go on.

I now have nine aunts. Norma, Mita, Inez, Shirley, Gilda, Irma, Anne, Beth, and Charita. And then of course there’s my mother. Shirley, though, had stopped coming since I was in high school. They say she already has a new husband somewhere. The remaining ones are all fat, except for Charita and Anne, who I still believe will eventually succumb to the call of their womanhood and grow folds and flab that will finally declare them worthy of their intake of the thick, sticky, starchy meriendas that were part of our family’s tradition. Even some of my cousins have started to grow fat, too. Both Bambi, Mita’s eldest, and Michelle, Irma’s eldest, have humongous breasts and hips. So do Irma’s other daughters, except for Richie who, though conscious about her waist and stomach, still has the heaviest-looking legs I’ve ever seen. Charita’s eldest, Bea, is clearly in a struggle, although it is understood that she would temporarily win, being just in her teens and at the height of vanity. Trina, Norma’s eldest daughter, is constantly moderately plump, although she doesn’t seem to care. Inez’ only daughter, April, has rather thick legs, a portent of things to come. Being Eden’s eldest, and being older than Bea and Trina and April, I feel I am far behind, but somehow I know the genes and the food intake will have their way, in time.

Naty, our maid with the grizzled head of hair and the protruding lower lip, rouses me from my reverie to tell me that it is time for merienda. I close my book, which I wasn’t reading anyway, get up, and walk indoors. I breathe in the aroma of warm suman wrapped in banana leaves and the sweet, cloying smell of latik. Through the window I could see that the assembly at the table is well under way. Chairs are being brought in from the different rooms of the house for the aunts to sit on, and the entire room seems orange. When I enter I am motioned to an empty chair between Norma and Beth.

I sit, and take a plate and fork from Naty. I plop the sticky green suman onto my plate and smear it with latik. “This is good,” I say, chewing my food carefully. “Arrived from Malinao today?”

“Yes,” Mita answers.

“Don’t talk when your mouth is full, hija,” Bita says, and sips water from her glass.

I swallow. “Sally is the best,” I say, smearing another piece with latik.

“She is,” says Beth.

“But now she’s very weak,” Gilda says. “Just a couple of days ago she could not get out of bed. She has been working for so long.”

“She should be taken out of the kitchen,” says Joan, Anne’s daughter, who is set to be married this year. “She shouldn’t be making latik for us anymore. Someone else should do it.”

“It won’t taste the same,” says my mother.

“Latik is latik,” I say. “We’ll get used to the slightly different taste.”

“She never married, you know,” Charita says. “Sally.”

“Maybe she didn’t need to be,” I say.

“Maybe all she needed was to make suman sa latik,” adds my sister, six months pregnant. She licked the latik off her lips.

All around me I see my aunts’ heads bobbing very subtly up and down, some of them pretending to be chewing, some of them pretending to be nodding at something else other than what had just been said. Bita comments on the cobwebs she spies on the ceiling and motions to Conching to walk over to her. Beth invites Irma to try on a blouse that she bought in Baclaran. Anne tells Norma of her new hobby, cross-stitching.

I sip my Coca Cola, take another bite of suman smeared with latik, and realize that I will have to call my lawyer soon. Around me talk shifts to draperies and plants, and Naty waddles in to bring more suman and latik. I see the afternoon sun streaming in through the windows in a watery kind of orange, the slanting rays of the late afternoon touching the edge of the table near my mother’s plump white elbow. I am calm, in the company of women who have watched me grow up, who would keep me company at funerals and weddings and childbirths, and who would watch my marriage crumble and share their latik with me. After all those years that the smell of food wafted through our non-discussions and our trifling conversations, we have become our own most essential sustenance. We are women of silence and carbohydrates.