“Ugh, Mang Ernie, I thought you said you got the A/C fixed!” I grouse as I sit, baking in the back seat of my mother’s old Mercedes Benz. I have to deal with this clunker since my own ride is in the shop.
“I did, Miss Matet,” says Mang Ernie with infinite patience, looking at me in the rearview mirror. “I guess it’s broken again. Even fine German engineering can’t handle this unrelenting Philippine heat.”
I’m being a total brat right now. Mang Ernie has just picked me up from the office of the charity arm of Salazar Worldwide in Greenhills. I was looking forward to taking a plunge into the pool at home… until I remember it’s under renovation.
Outside, it’s 41°C and maybe 97% humidity. I have all the windows open, which means I have to contend with all the ugliness and stink of this EDSA gridlock. And the noise. The beeping of the jeepneys, the voices of several street people selling their stuff, the jumbled mix of music from all the car radios, and jeepney barkers calling for more passengers. Miserable!
It’s hard to be a nice person in the Philippines. You develop a thick shield of scorn, doubt, and loathing for your fellow man and surroundings very quickly. It’s easier to ignore elderly beggars and children when you could hide behind the heavily tinted glass of your windows that you could easily raise up to cut off contact. Just with the single press of a button. But if I close the windows, I will bake like pandesal. I take out my fan from my Balenciaga purse and wave it quickly in front of my face. Ugh, I’m dying!
I hear a soft knock on the rear passenger door, the one across from the one I’m leaning against. I sigh. I see a little brown head with short hair, holding on to the car by the window. It’s a little boy, standing on the tips of his toes. He has a smattering of chicken pox scars on his forehead that looks fairly fresh. I groan. The car has advanced two meters in an hour.
I lean forward. “Hello, little boy,” I say with a sigh. “Can I help you?”
“Can I have fifty pesos, Ate? I’m really hungry. I haven’t eaten in days,” he says in his best Oliver Twist imitation.
“Fifty pesos is very specific.” I laugh. The kid does look hungry. I can’t even tell how old he is. Maybe five or six? He is wearing blue short pants, a dirty white t-shirt with a collar, and sandals. He is so skinny that a person would have to be a stone-cold bitch not to feel sorry for the kid.
“Miss Matet.” Mang Ernie is watching me in the rearview mirror again. “Don’t give that kid money. He’ll tell all his friends and before you know it, we’ll be besieged by the little bastards.”
“Hindi po!” the little boy protests. “I won’t tell, Ate. I promise. I just really want a siopao from ChowKing.”
I look at Mang Ernie and smile. “Mang Ernie, a siopao at ChowKing does cost fifty pesos.”
Our old family driver makes a grunt of disapproval and tells me to do whatever I want because no matter what he says, I’ll do it anyway.
I chuckle and reach into my bag for my wallet. I pull out a hundred peso bill and a chocolate-chip Luna bar, along with a bottle of water from a small cooler behind the driver seat. I fold the hundred and hide it along the folds of the Luna bar wrapper, so no one would see me handing money to the kid. “O, sige na. Here. You better not buy beers and rubber cement for you and your friends to get high on.”
The little boy laughs and takes my gifts. “I won’t tell, Ate. Promise! Thank you! God bless you!”
I watch as the little boy runs across the street and easily dodges a guy on a bicycle before disappearing into an alley. “God, I hope that kid doesn’t buy Rugby.” Rugby is a brand of contact cement that can supposedly get you high if you breathe in the fumes.
“Miss Matet, your heart is like a sponge cake,” Mang Ernie admonished gently. “That boy probably has a drunk for a father who beats him if he doesn’t bring in any money.”
“Mang Ernie!” I smack the back of the driver’s seat headrest with my fan. “That’s why we should help him. Ay, Dios mio. When is this traffic going to die down? I could get out now, start walking, and beat you home, I bet.”
The old man, tapping on the steering wheel with his fingers to the beat of some old Pinoy song, glances up at the rearview mirror and winks at me. “I’m not going to take that bet, missy.”
I laugh as my mobile phone pings within my cavernous purse. I take it out and swipe off the screen lock. It’s a text message from my sister Becks. “Boooored. Let’s gimmick tonight!”
Rebecca is two years younger than me and has just gotten back from living in the States for four years to attend UCLA. She said she spent her entire college life with her head buried in books, so she would like to have some fun for once.
I sigh. I know I should be spending time with Becks, but Boyett and I have a date tonight. I’ve been so busy at the magazine and managing the foundation that my boyfriend and I haven’t had a nice sit-down meal together in a month. I know he must be getting frustrated. He already complains that he doesn’t get out to see me enough because of med school and our schedules never match.
What the hell am I supposed to do about that? Time is the one luxury I don’t have.
By some miracle, Mang Ernie and I make it to San Lorenzo Ville before six pm. He drops me off right by the front door and I dash into the house. The blast of cool, fragrant air that hits my face as soon as I open the door drains half the stuff I was pissed off about. Kicking the door closed behind me, I lie on the cold marble floor of the foyer for a few minutes.
I don’t realize I’m making piggy, groaning noises as I roll my back side to side on the floor until Anna, one of the downstairs maids, comes up and looks down at me.
“Ate, are you okay? Do you want me to get you some water or orange juice?” she asks with a worried look on her face.
“I’m fine, Anna.” I lie still for a moment, then splay my arms and legs like I’m about to make snow angels. “I’m just enjoying the feeling of coolness against my back after sitting in traffic for three hours.”
But the little maid does not look appeased. “Ate, you’ll ruin your clothes. And you might catch pneumonia.” She is frowning disapprovingly at me. “Oh, and Kuya Boyett called the house phone. He said he left his mobile at home and he’ll be stuck in the hospital tonight. Sorry daw.”
I sigh. Frickin’ Boyett. I had to do some schedule somersaults to get this block of free time and he does this to me. He always does this to me. “Any other calls?” I ask with a resigned yawn.
Anna reaches down and skinny, little thing that she is, easily pulls me up with almost zero participation on my part. After a shitty interview
literally—the model only wanted to talk about her bowel movement
and some shenanigans at the foundation
because one of the assistants didn’t vet a charity properly
, I have maybe ten percent left of my will to live. Anna brushes my back briskly with the palm of her hand as if I had been lying in dirt. Impossible. Manong Berto keeps a clean house and takes pride in it.
“Cut it out, Anna.”
She sighs and shakes her head at me. “If I were you, I’d take better care of my clothes, you know.”
I laugh and give her a quick side-hug. “You know, Anna, I think you’d make a better rich person than I do. Maybe we should trade a day, huh? One day in your shoes for me, one day in my shoes for you.”
Anna, an eighteen-year-old girl who is the niece of our laundress Juanita, came to us last year from her province of Tarlac. She is very pretty with smooth morena skin, shiny black hair, and an adorable shyness about her. She is now looking at me with one perfectly tweezed eyebrow lifted. “Ay, Ate, you’re crazy. Do you want to start today? Your papa has me organizing your Mama’s shoes to see what can be donated.”
I shudder, feeling sorry for the girl. My mother’s shoe collection has now probably surpassed Madame Imelda Marcos’s haul. She has an entire room filled with racks of the stuff. “Hey, maybe one of them will have a genie, Anna, because it’s a magic shoe. You can wish to marry your favorite teleserye star and move to Hawaii with your billion dollars.”
The girl blushes a deep shade of red and giggles, covering her mouth. “Ay, Ate, you’re too much. Miss Becks is upstairs waiting for you. Her friends are up there, too.” She crinkles her nose.
Ugh, my baby sister Rebecca: the little monster.