An Unexplained Kindness
Anxiety was always good for business. For Gabriel Arguelles’s new clients, many of whom were his parents’ age, he was a source of calm; a young, fresh-faced agent who had been too young to witness the carnage that took place on the streets before Marcos declared martial law. To them, he was a baby-faced businessman who was unburdened with memory, who grew up not knowing what to fear. He’d offer them a seat before his desk, and their stiff shirts gave off the sickly scent of starch and sweat as the leather chair cushions creaked underneath the weight of their bodies. All of them glanced over his head, at the sunlight pouring through the window behind his desk, and he could sense in their wistful smiles, in the way their eyes twinkled in admiration as their gaze fell on him, that he was their golden boy. And he knew that when one is making a sale, one mustn’t refuse to be the person one’s client imagined one to be.
They’d open their mouths, tell him that a friend, or a neighbor, had spoken about life insurance plans, and make a coy, giggling reference to their age as they adjusted their ties and touched their salon-styled hair with wrinkled, ringed hands. As he asked them about their families and the ages of their children, their eyes would wander off to the window behind him, to the view of the street below. They would think of their homes, their families, the possessions they could never give up, the lives they sought to protect. One of them feared that a mob of Cory loyalists were on the brink of burning down their town and stealing their possessions. “You’re probably too young to know this,” said a man who came into Gabriel’s office one day as he folded his hands in his lap and gave Gabriel a wrinkly, condescending smile. “When you were a kid, there were teenagers picking fights with the PCs at every street corner. If Marcos didn’t proclaim martial law, this country would’ve descended into civil war.”
Gabriel was their younger self, the self-assured, confident teenager who hadn’t seen enough of the world to know that evil existed, and that bad things could happen to anyone. He didn’t have to tell them his story when they supplied one for him. He listened to them and gave them what they wanted: the promise that everything would be fine.
When he came to his office on a Tuesday, well into the week, he realized that only half of his colleagues had bothered to report for work. As he strode toward his glassed-in office at the end of the fluorescent-lit hall, he saw the few remaining were gathered around a large stereo, normally used for office Christmas parties and karaoke sessions. Their branch manager had pulled this out of his office the previous day, when word had reached them that a group of young officers had defected from Marcos’s military and were now hiding out in a military camp in Manila. Gabriel had a report to finish and a secretary to rein in. He had no time to listen to a gravelly voice from some apartment in Manila telling Marcos that it was time to go.
His secretary, Mrs. Magbanua, had drifted away from her desk in front of his office and was standing near the stereo, right next to Miguel, an underwriter who occupied the office next to Gabriel’s. The report he had asked her to type up concerned a fire that had gutted a downtown restaurant where he sometimes brought his wife. He couldn’t imagine the owners setting it on fire intentionally, since their business wasn’t showing the usual signs of bankruptcy. The tablecloths were always crisp and white, the champagne glasses were crystal clear when held to the light, and the waiters were friendly, attentive, and well-dressed. It was the type of place that made you self-conscious about your table manners, and held the subtle promise, beneath its domed ceiling, that one could always change for the better. The Continental was a restaurant that one never thought would meet a fiery, untimely end, and Gabriel’s line of work depended upon that reality. Although things happened that were beyond anyone’s control, there were certain measures one could undertake to insure oneself against such losses.
He approached Mrs. Magbanua, a mousy, gray-haired lady who had been working for the company for more years than he had, and whispered into her shoulder, “You can listen to the news after finishing the report.”
This made her jump, and when she turned to face him, she placed a hand on her heart and said, “Hijo, you almost gave me a heart attack. You shouldn’t sneak up behind an old woman like that.”
The others turned to him, their fury washing over him in waves.
“Come on, man. History’s being made, right at this moment, and all you worry about is a report!” a junior underwriter said.
Miguel leaned against a desk as the radio blared, and said, “Cory has just been sworn in.”
“Did you vote for her?” Gabriel asked.
Miguel raised an eyebrow. “Why, didn’t you?”
Gabriel was about to blurt out, “I didn’t vote this time, it wasn’t worth it,” but both of them were soon shushed by their colleagues, who leaned towards the stereo as they listened to the widow’s speech. In a voice so forgiving and feminine that it failed to convince Gabriel of its newfound power, Corazon Aquino spoke of how justice could only be served once democracy was restored. She couldn’t have been speaking of anything but the justice due to her husband, the leader of the opposition who was gunned down at Manila’s international airport upon his return from exile. But others, including his mother, believed that the term “justice” as Cory used it, extended to their loved ones who were languishing in jail. In the Philippines, blood ran thicker than water, and people could only feel the sorrow of strangers in relation to their own personal tragedies. This was why Gabriel avoided discussing the snap elections with his mother, or even with his wife. No matter how he felt about this housewife who had no background in politics and ran on the flimsy platforms of justice and freedom, her loss hit too close to home.
Gabriel’s boss and a small group of agents erupted in cheers. His officemates were celebrating their dissent in public—just a few weeks ago, no one would’ve admitted out loud that they had voted for Cory.
“Your mother will be pleased,” Mrs. Magbanua said.
“You should check on her,” Miguel said. “At the very least, you could invite her down here.”
“I haven’t seen your mother since she went into her office,” Mrs. Magbanua said, touching Gabriel’s sleeve. “I thought she’d come down here to listen to the news with us.”
“She’s probably just busy.”
Although she was his subordinate, Mrs. Magbanua had a way of putting Gabriel in his place. Slipping an arm around his and leading him away from the radio and towards the door, she said, “Now’s not the time to worry about work. You tell her that, ha? No one’s going to go after her if she doesn’t get any work done today. Same with you.” She released his arm and gave him a light push towards the glass door.
On the second floor, Aurora Arguelles occupied an office where filing cabinets were arranged in a neat, gray expanse across an entire wall. She was listening to the radio, its volume switched on low. Her frosted-glass door was open, and Gabriel knocked before peering in. He saw the silk shawl thrown across her shoulders, and realized, as he caught a glimpse of the diamond-set pearls dangling from her earlobes, that she had dressed her best. A transistor radio rested on her desk, words and static rising into the air like insects taking flight. She held a pen in her hand, its tip resting on a ruled line of an accounting book as she listened.
Lifting her head, she said, “Cory was just sworn in.”
“So I heard downstairs,” he said, resting a hand on the doorframe. “How are you?”
“Fine. I thought I could get some work done today but here I am, listening to the radio.”
“They’re doing that downstairs. Nobody’s working today.”
She put down her pen. “I never thought I’d see the day.”
He laughed. “People aren’t that afraid anymore, I guess.”
He stepped inside and took a seat in an empty chair beside the window. The same commentator from downstairs was now telling Marcos jokes, some of which Gabriel had already heard in recent weeks.
“It feels so strange,” he said. “I never thought a President could ever step down.”
“They’re supposed to, you know.”
“I’m just wondering why everyone wants him out now, when they could’ve done this long ago.”
“Everyone gets tired of being scared.”
“Do you think Marcos will really leave though?” Gabriel asked. “He has the support of the military, right?”
“That’s why I can’t stop listening to the news, even though I have so much work to do,” his mother said, leaning back in her chair. “Just one misstep, and we’re through.”
“Everyone downstairs is talking about Marcos as if he were gone already.”
“I can understand their excitement. I can’t wait for this to be over myself.” She folded her hands over her lap and stared at the radio. “If Cory succeeds, then Carlos is coming back.”
He glanced outside her window, at the tranquil waters of Burnham Park’s man-made lake. There were no rowers that day, no tourists coming up to their mountain town from Manila to disturb them with their uncouth laughter, their far-reaching, spitfire Tagalog. Perhaps they were in the streets of Manila that day, leaving the inhabitants of Baguio in peace while placing themselves under the illusion that they themselves could make history while the rest of the country could only dream of catching up with them.
His mother rose from her seat and switched the radio off. “I was prepared to be disappointed by these elections, and I’m still preparing to be disappointed by her if she fails to keep her campaign promise,” she said, sinking into her chair.
“Have you decided where to put Carlos if she gives him amnesty?” he asked.
“I’m afraid of having him stay at our house.” She fixed her eyes on her desk. “I know it wasn’t his fault for what happened, but just because your father can’t talk anymore, doesn’t mean that he’d enjoy living under the same roof with your brother.”
He would’ve been surprised if his mother hadn’t drawn out a plan in the weeks leading to this.
“I need your help in this. I can’t do this alone anymore.” Her eyes were fixed on him, steadying him in a pool of guilt.
Was there a possibility that Marcos would refuse to step down, that these crowds would lose hope and go home? He had been around for so long, the thought that he would even consider leaving was odd, to say the least. Gabriel understood why people wanted Marcos to leave, but he wasn’t sure if he was ready to see Marcos go. The man had been such a permanent fixture in his life that he felt an odd sense of loss at Marcos’s pending departure. He couldn’t yet imagine life going on without Marcos—and his life, somehow, would’ve been quieter if he didn’t have to worry about Carlos returning, and reopening old wounds.
“It’s the least you can do, Gabby.”
He hadn’t foreseen his brother’s return, which was why he hadn’t bothered to prepare for it. It wasn’t as if he felt nothing for his brother—it was just that he feared that meeting Carlos again would do more harm than good.
“Your brother isn’t a criminal.” His mother rose from her chair and paced behind her desk, gripping her sides with her veined hands. “Stop treating him like one, Gabby.”
“All right, all right,” Gabby said, raising his hands in surrender. “I’m sorry. I just never expected that this day would ever come.”
A lone sedan trundled down the road, and the cathedral’s bell rang clear as Gabriel escorted his mother outside the office’s glass doors and down its stonewashed steps, into the bright and empty main street of Baguio. They walked side-by-side, past barbershops, the ice cream parlor of his youth, and a shuttered department store. He almost felt as though this so-called revolution was being waged inside homes and offices, or rather, inside the radio transmitters that people in this city gathered around, as they listened to faceless voices chanting “Cory, Cory!” through radio static.
Dainty Restaurant remained open for business, and his mother chose a booth near a wooden staircase. They allowed a genial silence to overcome them both as they took their seats and ensconced themselves within the hum of conversation that rose from the tables around them. As they ordered bowls of beef wonton soup, Gabriel glanced over his menu and spotted two underwriters from his office seated at the bar, who grinned at Gabriel and formed Laban signs with their fingers. Behind them was a transistor radio, turned to the church station. Two middle-aged waitresses hovered near the radio, arms folded, mouths pursed in concentration, as the Cardinal called upon the faithful to flock to Camp Crame in Manila and protect the brave soldiers who had dared defect from Marcos’s troops.
“Sometimes I wonder whether your brother defected too early, or whether the church should’ve stepped in earlier,” his mother said as she went over her menu.
The dining hall teemed with old men hunched over linoleum tables, their eyes darting to the radio behind the bar. After their waitress took their orders and pushed her way through the maze of tables and chairs towards the swinging kitchen door, he turned to his mother and said, “It seems like the entire city’s in here.”
“All the men, you mean.”
“I’m sure there are some women in here,” he said, looking around. He spotted a group of young women in office clothes hunched around a table near the street, laughing over a joke, and a pair of elderly women in their Sunday best at a smaller table near the bar, going over sections of a newspaper in between sips of coffee. While the young women in the first group seemed unencumbered by worry or doubt, the old women of the second table were in no mood for celebration.
“A woman is leading this revolution,” she said. “They should all be out here.”
Their orders were served. Piercing a wonton with his fork and drawing it out of his soup, he said, “It would be a shame if she turns out to be a terrible president. I guess that’s what her advisers are there for.”
His mother sighed, picked up her spoon and said, “She’s going to be better than Marcos, that’s for sure.” She ate her soup with deliberation, every spoonful seemingly a punctuation of thought. Gabriel devoured his wonton soup, allowing his own hunger to overcome him as the air around him buzzed with the energy of unfinished business. Chewing the last of his wontons, he watched her reach the bottom of her bowl with her spoon, bok choy leaves pooling around the spoon’s tip like seaweed. She saw him watching her, picked up a fork, and brought a leaf to her mouth.
“I was worried you wouldn’t eat your veggies,” he said.
“I don’t know what I was doing,” she said, speaking as she chewed. “I just kept drinking my soup.”
“You were at it like a machine.”
“I must’ve been very hungry,” she said, bringing another leaf to her mouth.
“You’re just nervous,” he said. “Don’t worry, Ma. We’re safe here.”
She sighed and said, “When were we ever safe?”
He hadn’t noticed that the volume of the radio had been raised, and that within the radio’s speakers, a crowd was praying the Hail Mary, their voices gaining fervency as they found solidarity in its recitation. He had been convinced, at first, that the chatter around them had grown louder, and realized, as he lifted his head, that the dining hall had grown silent around the sound of the radio. Everyone was listening to the radio, even his mother. A group of female voices interrupted their silence by lending themselves to the chant, and he saw that it was the two old women with newspapers spread before them who were merging their voices with those men and women who prayed in the streets of Manila. Soon, more people joined in, even his mother, and he found his own mouth moving in unison, his own voice finding safety in the company of others.
“Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with you, blessed are you amongst women and blessed is the fruit of Thy womb, Jesus.”
The young women sitting near the entrance were getting up from their seats, some peering out the window, some rushing towards the door. The faraway sound of drums did not silence their voices, but carried them outward, into the streets. Gabriel rose from his chair as the band drew closer, filling the walls and abandoned tables around him with its inexorable, onward march. Their waitress nudged her way through the crowd at the doorframe and rushed into the street, and the crowd thinned as they followed her outside, laughing, cheering as the city high school band marched past them, their street clothes allowing them to merge with the crowd that moved down the street in their wake. He followed his mother as she got up from her seat and ran into the street, and before she could lose him, he placed a hand on her shoulder and said, “You sure you’re joining them?”
“Why not?” she asked, her voice betraying annoyance and surprise. She turned away from him and stopped at the edge of the sidewalk, her face turned towards the Philippine flag that flapped in the wind as it led the band towards the bottom of the street. His eyes followed hers, towards the gold-tipped flagpole, towards the hands that held it aloft, and he spotted a familiar head of gray hair, a familiar, beak-nosed profile. He hadn’t seen Paulette’s father in years, and had avoided that house on General Lim Street, whose nooks and crannies were as familiar to him as those of his childhood home, ever since he had heard of Paulette’s death.
“Ma, stay right there,” he cried out. “Don’t move.”
She turned to him, her eyebrows furrowed, her jaw clenched. “Who are you to tell me what to do?”
“What if they start shooting?”
“Then they should kill us all.”
She stepped from the sidewalk and into the crowd. He had no right to grab her—people were watching, and he was afraid of what they’d think, what they would do to him if he opposed the mob. No longer were they praying the rosary, and they now chanted the name of the martyr’s wife as though her name could deliver them to safety. With their hands they formed L signs, the first letter of the word Laban, fight, the battle cry of the opposition. His mother fastened the edges of her shawl against her chest with one hand, and with the other hand she formed an L sign. He could hear her voice above the crowd when she yelled, in a voice that quavered in its jubilation, “Cory!”
He pushed through the crowd that had massed near the edge of the sidewalk as his mother moved farther away from him. A helicopter hovered in the cloudless sky, rumbling in the distance as the crowd’s chanting swelled to fever pitch.
“Ma!” He yelled to her, as the helicopter began its slow descent. “Ma, get back here.”
The crowd’s chanting eased as windows shook in their frames and the ground beneath them vibrated. The helicopter’s beating wings drowned out the voices of those that dared raise them as it hovered close. The Philippine flag that had led this march, held high by Paulette’s father who wouldn’t budge from where he stood, flapped in the wind as the mechanical beating above them measured their heartbeats and stilled their thoughts.
Get out of here, Gabriel wished he could yell at the procession. Marcos isn’t gone yet. What are you waiting for, proof that his bullets can kill you?
The crowd stood still, their silence anticipating death. The helicopter’s hatch flew open and a cloud of yellow, the color of the opposition, escaped into the sky. Like snowflakes, bits of what looked like yellow-colored paper floated and dispersed through the wind, and some closed their eyes and shivered in fear as confetti landed upon their heads. Streaks of yellow brushed across the sky as the helicopter swerved down the street, sending down more plumes of yellow paper. Like a bursting dam, the crowd erupted into cheers. A man in goggles peeked through a crack in the helicopter door and flashed the Laban sign as the crowd’s cheering swelled into a roar.
A woman grabbed Gabriel and sobbed into his breast. He raised his hand to pat her slender shoulder, not sure whether she needed his reassurance. There was relief in knowing that their lives hadn’t ended, but why did it have to happen today, of all days? Surely there had been a reason for all those years of waiting, for all those sleepless nights and the lingering fears that his family wasn’t off the hook, that the constabulary would come knocking on their door on a quiet night, just when they felt they were safe. Even as an adult, he remained cautious in his friendships, in the opinions he chose to share. Surely there was supposed to be some form of reward for all those years of careful living.
The woman parted from him, wiped away her tears with the back of her hand, and laughed. “It’s over, it’s finally over,” she said. “I can’t believe it.”
“Neither can I.”
He suspected that the crowd that danced and laughed and embraced that afternoon were merely testing the boundaries of their newfound freedom, and that they’d soon settle down and return to their quiet lives in which such celebrations of freedom were unnecessary. He himself would return to his job, to the life he had built with his wife, to the child that slept in her crib, her yaya sleeping in a separate room, ready to help if she woke her parents with her cries in the middle of the night. As he walked down the confetti-littered streets, past grandparents hoisting their grandchildren up and college students dancing shoulder-to-shoulder, kicking up their legs and singing “Auld Lang Syne”, he wondered why he didn’t feel the same lightness that would allow him to share their joy.
His mother wasn’t too difficult to find. She stood on the sidewalk, teary eyed, forgetting to brush off the bits of confetti from her hair or clothes. He was nowhere to be found in the dream she was having, where her desires were granted in the form of paper strips that bore the answers to her wish, that his brother be freed. He placed a hand on her shoulder, and when she blinked, he said, “I didn’t expect this at all.”
“This is the happiest day of my life,” she said, drawing him close. “If only your father were here with us.”
“You can tell him all about it later.”
The old man could neither speak nor lift a finger, and even if he could make sense of this day, as his wife would describe it to him later that night, would it cure his body and free him from his chair? His father’s eyes would light up in anger when Gabriel least expected them to—when his mother teased him about how his grandchild, Isabella, took after him, or when Sandra touched the handles of his wheelchair, turned towards the living room window, and said in a honeyed tone, “Isn’t it a wonderful day?” It was their kindness that would kill his father, for kindness was a consolation prize given to the incapacitated when they could no longer rise from their seats and feel the chill of the earth on their skin or the sound of their voices in the wind. Telling his father about what had just happened today would only break the old man’s heart, if it hadn’t been broken already. His body had surrendered before the battle had been won.
“I’m not just happy for Carlos. I’m happy for us, for you and Sandra, for Isabella,” she said, touching his hand.
“It’s a new day,” Gabriel said, trying, as best he could, to agree with her.
Monica Macansantos holds an MFA in Writing from the Michener Center for Writers at the University of Texas, and a PhD in Creative Writing from the Victoria University of Wellington. Her work has recently appeared in failbetter, WSQ: Women’s Studies Quarterly, TAYO, Another Chicago Magazine, and takahe, among other places. She has also been awarded residencies at Hedgebrook, the Kimmel Harding Nelson Center for the Arts, Storyknife Writers Retreat, The I-Park Foundation, and Moriumius (Japan). “An Unexplained Kindness” is the opening chapter of her in-progress novel, People We Trust.