Cleopatra in Manila

by Victorino Briones

Madam María Perez Rubio had just ended her last performance as Cleopatra at the famous Teatro Zorilla and was entertaining friends and admirers inside her dressing room, when a nervous young policeman weaved through the crowd to approach her, cupped his hands around her ear and whispered that her husband’s body had been found floating in the Pasig river. Would she please identify the body in the morgue?

Her expression was impassive -- a surprise to the policeman, who often encountered shock, weeping or fainting after delivering similarly tragic news of death. María discreetly waved her right hand, signaling her mother to escort everyone else out of the room. María feigned a terrible headache. Regrettably, she announced, she would not be able to attend the party hosted by the mayor of Manila in her honor later that night. She was courteous enough to kiss and say farewell to those standing nearby and begged the mayor to convey her deepest gratitude to Ferdinand and Imelda—the President and the First Lady whom she called by their first names--for the flowers they had sent. After her friends had left, María draped a red shawl over her shoulders, kissed her mother on the cheek and held the policeman by his arm.

Let’s go, híjo,” she said calmly.

The policeman looked at her in awe. Still dressed as Cleopatra from her performance that night and almost six feet in height, she towered over him by more than half a foot. Her cheeks were covered with red powder, her eyelids painted blue and her hair sparkled with silver dust. A crown of two serpents rising into a kissing pose rested on the curls of her hair. Her fingers were wrapped in thick golden rings, her wrists entwined in jeweled bracelets.

Would you like to change first, Madam?” he asked.

For a moment she glanced in the dresser mirror and barely recognized herself under all her make-up and jewelry. An image of a sad woman stared back at her -- very much unlike the mischievous, playful and happy girl that she once was.

I’ve already changed so many times I don’t know who I am anymore, híjo” she replied.

María’s mother caught up with the two before they left the building and pleaded, “I should go with you, María.”

It will be better if I go alone, Mama. Stay here and attend to the guests, tell our friends that I love them all.”

Her mother hugged her, gave her two kisses on each cheek, nodded her head, and said farewell.

Three weeks earlier, her husband, Emilio, had left their hotel room at the Hotel El Oriente with little explanation other than that he was pursuing an important business matter in the southern part of Quiapo.

Contacts,” he answered back when she asked for details.

You always say that when you’re headed to gambling tables,” she said while clipping on her black pearl earrings. “I don’t mind so much that you gamble. Only I expect you to be here at least when I sing my final aria.”

Of course, mi amor,” he said lovingly, “I wouldn’t miss it for anything.”

Emilio landed a peck on her forehead and complimented her on her beautiful lips. He expressed amazement at how she seemed to grow younger every year—a comment he often used to distract María from her worries. Facing her and gazing into her eyes, he said, “I promise I’m not going near any card table or racetrack.”

They made love that night before he left. But it felt like a quick and cursory gesture, more akin to shooing away an annoying fly and quite unlike the languorous encounters they once had as young lovers many years ago. Afterwards he put on his business suit and black tie, found his hat, and promised to be back well before she was dressed as the Queen of the Nile. María might have been convinced by his words and the sureness of his voice, which seemed genuinely sincere, if only she had not heard the same promise spoken many times before, rehearsed almost to perfection. She knew he was lying. Despite all his assurances, she knew he was going to play cards or gamble at the racetrack or find a twenty-four-hour casino. She knew that by the end of the day he would lose all his money and find a bar and drink whiskey until he was drunk. He would return to her smelling of tobacco, alcohol, and sometimes even of expensive whores from Calle Gardenia. She knew all this because it had happened many times before in the ten years of their troubled yet wonderful marriage. She had always remained quiet and patient, resisting the hideous role of a nagging and dominating wife like a predictable soap opera villain and instead becoming a martyr suffering her husband’s indiscretions while she hoped and prayed that he would eventually mend his ways.

Emilio often lost money at the tables, though that was not what particularly worried María when he did not turn up for her performances. Unfortunately, as the years went by he found out how the pleasures of vodka and scotch merged perfectly with the pleasures of the casino— and the combined intoxication made the obvious temptations impossible to resist. Emilio forgot – if indeed he had ever learned -- how to quit for the night and come back to play another day.

A year ago, in a calculated maneuver, María had threatened to leave him if he did not stop all his vices.

I’ll cut you off,” she said to him one evening. “I’ve already talked to the bank and now no one can touch the money except me.”

Like a shamed puppy, Emilio relented at first. He embraced María while she sat at her dresser, and he buried his face in the soft ruffles of her skirt.

I promise, I promise I won’t do it again,” he said repeatedly. He cried and confessed that this time it would be different. He stopped gambling, whoring and drinking for three days until he learned to devise more convenient excuses and better lies. Eventually, when she discovered his various deceptions she followed through with all her threats, separating her own accounts from his debts and refusing to give him anymore money. She learned how to say no when he asked. One evening, she caught Emilio in what appeared to be an act of sheer desperation with a bread knife in his hand fishing for coins from inside her piggy bank. It was a cheap and hollow figurine she had kept since she was a little girl – a sentimental reminder of her humble beginnings.

Pitying him at that moment, she gave him five hundred pesos cash she had kept with her for just such a moment. She told him it would be the last time she would give him money, though she knew she was lying to herself again.

María’s rise to greatness had not been easy, and her accomplishments came only through hard work and perseverance. She was ten years old when one morning her mother pulled her out of a game of hopscotch and brought her to the local music teacher. The girl wore a pair of worn out slippers, her knees were scraped red from playing in the street, and her long black hair was braided into a tail. The day before, her mother had placed a bet with the neighbors that María would be accepted in the maestro’s elite church choir of angel-voiced boys and girls. As María stood in front of the maestro, who was at that moment painting a self-portrait with the help of a hand mirror, she sang the Ave María. After her short performance--abruptly interrupted by a wave of the maestro’s index finger--he took his long brush and dipped it in red paint. He drew a horizontal line across María’s slender neck.

If you are merciful, Miss Rubio, you will cut her here,” he instructed María’s mother.

Amused and chuckling as he spoke, he added that her daughter could spit out a violin but she would never sing any better than a rooster.

María’s mother lost her bet but not the illusion that her daughter was destined to sing in the Teatro Zorilla in Manila. As far as her mother was concerned, the family was descended from the greatest singers in the history of music, although when skeptical neighbors inquired for their names, she could not provide any. When they asked for the details of this famous ancestral background, she explained that it was all written on the palms of their hands, clearly evident from the discernible shape of the family member’s heads, and quite obvious from the bumps on their feet.

María inevitably became infected by her mother’s grand vision. She practiced her vocal exercises day and night. She strengthened her lungs by singing in bed with the weight of her school textbooks on her chest. While half-immersed in the bathtub, she loudly declaimed aloud passages she had memorized from the Bible; and every night she imitated the songs of the pair of nightingales that nested by her window until she could accompany them without shame.

With little or no professional coaching, but pushed by her mother, María joined festival contests, entertained at weddings and birthdays, and became a much sought-after mourner who sang the novena during funerals. Then she stepped onto a crucial point in her destiny when one evening she met her future husband, Emilio Esquivel.

She had just finished singing a lament during the funeral of Emilio’s mother, when he sat beside her and whispered into her ear, “I can make you queen.”

She was struck by how confidently he made this prediction. She felt amused that he could lay claim to such a promise without the slightest doubt or hesitation in his voice. Later that night she told her mother about the strange man.

María, remember that a man like that, a man that promises the world to you, has only sorrow to offer you,” replied her mother.

Emilio Esquivel was fifteen years older than she, charmingly mustached and smelling of tobacco and pomade. He played the piano, was educated in music from the University of Santo Tomas and knew most of the popular love songs of the day. Under his guidance she took music lessons, learned discipline, and understood voice technique refining her vibrato and word pronunciation. Emilio taught her the elegant ways of femininity, the wonders of love and the passion of books.

It was through Emilio that she was able to give her first formal recital in Manila where she was immediately hailed as the new Soprano Queen. Later on, when she played Juliet, mothers and daughters in the audience cried with her as she lay dying beside the dead Romeo. When she sang Delilah, fathers and sons feared her cunning ways as she cut Samson’s long magical hair that gave him strength. María bloomed, and as she wondered where it all came from, she only had to look at the hand that firmly held hers as she bowed to the crowd and realized that Emilio had become the catalyst to her marvelous change.

It was no great surprise to her mother when one day Emilio asked for María’s hand in marriage. What troubled her mother, however, were the rumors of Emilio’s gambling, his obsession with poker and with the casino in general, and most of all, his alarming streak of bad luck--which to her was the worst of all his vices. Rumors abounded that Emilio’s mother had died from heartbreak at having to pay her son’s debts. Nonetheless, despite her misgivings and her warning to María, she realized that her daughter was in love and happy. She could only give her a cautious advice.

Remember, María, if you put cards and yourself at opposite ends of the table and ask him to choose, don’t be disappointed when he sits down and starts dealing.”

At her final performance as Cleopatra at the Teatro Zorilla, when María did not see Emilio sitting in the audience, she told herself that something had gone terribly wrong. Earlier that evening she had informed the police of her husband’s disappearance, and now they had found him.

In the morgue, María was so nervous that she did not realize how tightly she was gripping the policeman’s arm until he begged her to release him. A man wearing a white gown appeared in the corridor. He introduced himself and told her he was the morgue assistant. He accompanied María to the end of the hallway, where the body lay in the middle of a white-tiled room. The man lifted the sheet to show her the face of the corpse.

She saw black blood, cut skin and muscle faintly human in shape and appearance. Her hands over her mouth, María stood in shock. Unaware of the cause of death, for some reason she thought that Emilio had committed suicide. Clearly, the mutilated body in front of her indicated murder.

This can’t be him,” she said. Needing to confirm that the body was her husband, she approached the white-gowned man and demanded, “Show me his backside.”

Surprised at her unusual request, the man refrained from interrupting her request convinced that he was following a command from a queen. He removed the white sheet and showed her the rest of the body. Both legs were broken at the knees, the right eye was buried hidden in a swollen and bruised purple flesh. The left ear was torn off, and there were numerous cuts on the chest made by a small knife.

Money-lenders are ruthless in Manila especially when the borrower doesn’t pay up,” he explained.

Most disturbing of all were the horrifying marks on Emilio’s neck. That same neck she had caressed and kissed during their years of lovemaking was now gray with pooled blood and marked with the scar of a thick rope that certainly had been used to strangle him. At that moment, she wished she could faint, erasing all the brutal images of torture that sprung into her imagination. At last, the man turned the corpse over. María nodded her head.

It’s him,” she said.

How can you be so sure, Madam Rubio?” said the policeman.

She pointed to a bluish stain with an almost undecipherable name and a street address tattooed on the left buttock. The policeman put on his reading glasses and attempted to uncover what remained of the smear. “Lurdes?” said the policeman.

His mother,” she replied.

As the morgue assistant helped her sit down on a stool, María cried into her lace handkerchief. She explained that when Emilio was six years old, his mother accidentally lost him in the marketplace. After praying twenty-seven novenas, she found him three days later shaking a rusty milk can with a blind beggar on the steps of Quiapo church. Afraid of losing her son again, she had had her name and address permanently tattooed on the left cheek of his buttocks.

María took hold of the young policeman’s arm again and asked that he take her back to her hotel. During the ride back, she looked out into the dark streets. The city seemed like a deserted land. With a sniff, María glanced at the officer.

Excuse my smell, Madam,” the policeman said, “your husband is my sixth body tonight, and I’ve been in the morgue all week.”

I don’t know how you can stand it,” she said.

Don’t worry about me, Madam Rubio. My future will not always be with the dead.” He explained how he has already saved enough money to purchase special tools and start a carpentry shop building chairs and tables. “And not just any chairs and tables, Madam,” he explained proudly. “But quality ones fit for the First Lady Imelda or for you.”

María only half-listened as the young man told her about the series of trainings he had undertaken and his excitement over his new shop; she was thinking more of her future. She would continue to sing, of course, but without Emilio by her side she felt unsure of her career’s direction. For a moment she envied the young policeman. At least he knew where he was coming from and where he was going. At that moment, she could not even remember where she lived.

As the car stopped in front of the Hotel El Oriente, María noticed a small yellow rose hidden under the policeman’s vest; the rosebud peaked out from the lapel of his coat like the head of a curious bird hungry for a treat.

The policeman handed her the rose and said, “This is the only thing I have, Madam. My wife gave it to me this morning for my birthday. I would like to offer you my condolences.”

She took the rose by the stem. The redolent aroma of the flower’s rich full bloom declared that his wife had given it to him with love. María said good-bye and waited by the side of the road until the carriage disappeared behind a curve.

Soon after the funeral, María felt a discomfort in her singing like an oppressive weight around her neck. Alone in her room one night, she tried to be a deceitful and scheming Delilah but she sounded doubtful and unconvincing. When she attempted to evoke passionate, youthful love as Juliet, she was cold and distant sounding like a girl with a tantrum instead. Even her mother recognized her weakened voice and remarked, “You must be getting a cold, María.”

One day a woman holding a three year old boy by the hand arrived at her doorstep. María was certain she had seen her before at Emilio’s funeral and suspected that she was one of her husband’s mistresses. She was not the first woman claiming to have accepted promises of love from Emilio. A week before, a woman with red hair approached María and demanded one thousand pesos in exchange for not telling the newspapers all about Emilio’s infidelities. María only laughed at her, informing her that the only scandal she should be worried about was her stupidity at ever imagining that Emilio was a faithful husband in the first place. The following week, another mistress met with María and claimed the same ruined role as the first. She asked for money, not for herself but for her mother afflicted with tuberculosis. Emilio, she explained, had stolen her life savings in order to gamble at the race tracks. Feeling sorry for her, María gave the woman money, though it was entirely possible she was being duped.

Now there was this woman with a small boy by her side. María studied the boy’s face, searching for remnants of Emilio’s features. Realizing what María was doing, the woman shook her head. “I’m sorry, Madam Rubio, but your husband is not the boy’s father,” she said.

María’s heart sank. For a moment, she wished otherwise. She regained her composure and confronted the woman with a coldness of a wronged wife.

What do you want? I don’t have any money to give you,” she said sternly.

I did not come here to ask you for money, Madam Rubio”

That’s what they all say at first. But the conversation leads eventually to financial hardships. Your sick mother, your invalid father. Et cetera, et cetera.”

I’m a great admirer of you, Madam Rubio. Emilio and I met because of you when I attended one of your performances. In a way, you are why I was attracted to your husband.”

María was at a loss for words. Here was her husband’s mistress sitting in front of her and confessing both her love for Emilio as well as her great admiration for her.

I came here to show you this,” the woman unfolded a letter and handed it to María. “The letter was addressed to me but the message it contains is as much yours as it is mine.”

The letter was from Emilio written in slow careful handwriting, which suggested that he was sober when he composed the message. He spoke about the truth of his true love: that he did not love the recipient but only María. “I must be honest to you as you have been honest to me. I am a miserable creature of the world and I love only my wife. I hope you will forgive me. I have tried to be a good husband, but I see now that that is not possible.”

Why did you show me this?” María asked.

You deserve the truth, Madam Rubio.”

I feel more heartbroken than ever.” Tears formed at the corners of her eyes. María handed the letter back to the woman.

Keep it, Madam Rubio. I feel that you have more right to its ownership than me.”

María stood quietly, pressing the letter to her chest. The mother and child left, but not before the boy turned and looked at María one last time and tugged at her mother’s skirt.

María had never really grieved over her husband’s death before. As she sat alone by herself at that moment, she cried. She pondered about her life with Emilio and his brutal death; she recalled the policeman who turned into a carpenter, the mistress who possessed Emilio’s letter, her mother’s dream to see her daughter become a famous singer in Manila, and all the other stories that had come to pass, and stories that have yet to be told. It all seemed so meaningless to her, a muddle of random events, godless and incomprehensible.

Then she saw her reflection on the glass window pane and knew that she had changed once again from the image she had of herself that night she heard of Emilio’s death. She did not know it yet at the time, but nine months after the last time she and Emilio made love, she would change once more with the birth of her new born daughter.

She folded the letter and tucked it in her pocket. She would read the letter again many times in the days and months ahead and imagine what Emilio might have been thinking and feeling when he wrote it. Many years later, years after she had retired from singing, long after her daughter had grown up and married and given María three grandchildren, decades after Presidents had come and gone and the whole world had changed around her, the letter would be lost, misplaced and then thrown out together with old newspapers. But by that time, it would not matter to her anymore because she had memorized every word and punctuation mark and had ruminated on its worth many times over. By that time, she had lived her life and had made up her mind about the meaning of it all.

© Victorino Briones is a scientist/researcher at the National Insitutes of Health at the National Cancer Institute branch. He works primariy in the field of Epigenetics, which in layman's definition simply means the study of DNA packaging inside the cell. He was born in the Philippines and reside now in Bethesda, Maryland. Several of his stories have appeared previously in Southern Cross Review.