While I walk her home, let me walk you through the bittersweet truths about illicit affairs.She is very particular about the shape of her walk. She is never uncertain in the circling measure on her gait, on asphalt, concrete, or any other landscape of the early morning.
It is 3 am, and Makati is mercifully quiet. I walk beside CB in silence, watching her green heels, waiting for the spindly click that tells me, each step she takes is one more toward the other side of the world. I follow the arc of her pale arms, resolute in the rhythm and direction of her other life: back and forth, back and forth, consistent as the loneliness of her frequent travels. Her narrow shoulders are slightly hunched, and I cannot see her neck and mouth; she keeps adjusting her flamboyant scarf, her fingers lean as a weaver’s. Under the glare of the streetlights, CB’s silhouette is made even more delicate.
Our usual route (one of her favorites, she says) is to complete the entire perimeter of Ayala Triangle maybe two or three times, and to cross Paseo de Roxas, to Valero, and onwards, to the other shaded streets of Salcedo Village. Tonight, we sit on the steps near the Ninoy Aquino monument for a few minutes of rest. We sit close enough that I can smell her particular fragrance, a blend of cut flowers and fresh fruits, made more potent after our exertions. The first time I noticed CB’s perfume, my arms had been around her waist, as we faux-danced across a rooftop bar in Poblacion. She had been teasing me about my distinct lack of fragrance, the sort of “no-smell” one acquires when trapped in air-conditioned rooms for more than ten hours a day. Unthinkingly, I blurted out that she reminded me of a fresh produce stand. She only laughed and said “I’ll take it. Better that, than a wet market.”
Car lights veer pass my field of vision. I glance at CB, and I cannot read the expression on her face. I can never know if this is the memory she associates with the perfume when she is with me; most probably, it is something else. At this taut hour, when we are tempted to believe that we can own everything, if only we speak—all the streets, all the stories, all the time in the world, and all the intimate gestures—we choose to remain silent. I can almost feel CB’s eyes orbiting my mouth and body, as though waiting for a signal to start. But I keep my face and body as impassive as hers. I give myself a reprieve and wait for her move.
Momentarily, we begin walking again. CB’s pace is slower now, more deliberate. She steps on fallen leaves and seems to be contemplating on a path only she can see. I follow behind her, watching the back of her head as I would a lodestar. She turns to me suddenly, as though ready for a confrontation or intervention, but only gives a calculating look at the distance behind me. She does not look at me. I’ve always wondered if her look was one that was meant to measure the distance we have forgotten behind us, or if it was a sudden mad challenge to some mysterious force: look at me now, see how far I’ve come without looking ahead.
We cross Paseo de Roxas, and enter Valero. The glare from the fastidious signs of 24-hour restaurants, cafes, and convenience stores casts a severe light on CB’s otherwise calm face. I remember when we would awaken in the middle of the night due to hunger, and proceed, almost gleefully, to the usual debates while we prepare a simple midnight snack: the inappropriate naming of fast food restaurants, and how some of them do not live up to the expectation of being named after a specific food item. But that has been many nights ago, and our appetites for each other have since been whittled down by time and domestic persuasions.
We are near the Goethe Institut when CB asked me the only question of the early morning. Who stays, and who moves? CB has a particular way of asking difficult questions in an innocuous manner. I see no sorrow on her face, no moving on, nor any kind of repentance. Just an adamant blending of the resolute and practical. We keep on walking, slower and slower. I have all the answers I’ll ever need, but none that I want to articulate in front of her. Or maybe I couldn’t. Maybe words falter as the body takes over. After all, I have agreed to this one last walk, to deliver her safely from intrigue to home.
Near Salcedo Park, CB finally holds my hand. She leads me to a garden hedge on the other side of her building, and we sit down. From this spot, I can clearly see her apartment.
I know her space well. The attraction had always culminated there, where the tall windows are framed by white bookshelves, oriental vases, and empty wine racks. There is the prayer rug from the Middle East, which we defiled after a night binging on amaretto sours. Hanging on the walls: three Japanese landscape paintings, which we re-named as “His Sorrow” “Her Laughter” and “Their Untouchable Place,” as well as fake Egyptian scrolls filled with hieroglyphic gibberish. Small tables have wood baskets full of incense from Bali, and Russian dolls and Chinese paper fans are behind glass displays.
Even with all the knickknacks picked up from travels with her husband, her space looks strangely unlived in, perfectly anonymous in its tasteful decoration. It was like having an entire world at our fingertips, and yet, we cannot escape the pull of realization that this world is something borrowed, and something we have to give back. Once, I told CB that it is like she is living in a museum. “Yes,” she said, “Like I’m only good for display, not handling.”
It is almost 4 am, the hour of dismissal.
The tiles we are sitting on feel moist. Our heads are bowed down, from the cold wind and prying eyes. We are careful not to let either shoulder or thigh touch. Our bodies cycle through various states of stiffness: cross-legged, cross-armed, hunched-forward, tight-lipped, closed eyes, closed fists—all the defensive maneuvers. We look straight ahead. Who is to say if it was the woman who started crying? Or the man? Or what was said that no other soul can overhear? The point is the gesture: first, a startled look of guilt, then sadness, then the look away. Within that cycle, there are uncertain glances in between. Our eyes are full of confession and admonition.
We both stand up. CB goes up to her apartment, and I leave for home. Nothing more is said between us.
This was our agreement at the start: when we are together, everything else can be promptly ignored. When either leaves, we do so knowing that affections may remain, in the periphery and in quiet corners of familiar spaces. Or perhaps not.