Winner Takes All
Rose Francess S. Raymundo
She was traveling with too much luggage. Dressed in a black A-line skirt and a green cowl neck shirt with sleeves, she began to count her loose change. She discovered that she didn’t have enough on her, for the overweight baggage tax that the airline lady was asking her to pay. She asked one of the airport ground staff, a man, for assistance. She had to remove the heavier things from the cargo box that she had planned to take along. He was glad to be of service.
“Tell me if you’d like to have some of these. Really, it would be such a waste if you aren’t to take some of what I’ll be leaving by the trash cans. ”, she heard herself tell him.
She wasn’t thinking of her words. She spoke without truly meaning what she was uttering. In fact, she didn’t know all of what she was saying.
“None of these, matter.” This was everything in her head. “None of these, matter.” It was just this one sentence. She pronounced it in her head, by fashion of an unending loop.
The thin coffee table with its top that had once been part of a tree bark, the set of china painted with those intricate rose colored orchids, the bundle of linen polo shirts in assorted colors, the collection of books about Mindanao which had cost her a month’s salary and most of the clothes that she had wanted to wear in another country: none of these mattered. She left them by the trashcans at the lobby. There were only 8 left of the 12 linen polo shirts for men. The ground staffer had taken 3. It didn’t matter to her.
The sky stretched in front of her like a panoramic photograph. Outside, rain had started and she watched as it slowly stained this picture of the horizon like how spilled coffee from an over turned mug would drown the ink of the unfortunate words on the paper that was underneath the cup. From where whiteness and brightness used to be, comes in order to replace what was there once, are the spirals and swirls of a melting harmony where color turns to gray and matter- straight, edged, or sharp- happens to curl. It was the clear photograph of the sky in front of her that was now melting because of the rain. She was seated way up front of the departure hall, watching the rain and thinking that tea must have been in that mug, not coffee. Few people were waiting for their flight numbers to be called. She was hungry and wanted to eat a light meal before the plane ride but she didn’t have any money left for a sandwich before the 6 hour flight.
The departure hall had a distinct odor that spoke of its character in the same way that a particular perfume tells things about who chooses to wear it. The faint smell of burning incense served as the top note of the area’s scent, mothballs and floor wax punctuated as middle notes and the base note was extracted entirely, from window glass cleaner. The woman’s name was Rosa, and she was about to meet a man, for the very first time. This man had offered to marry her. They were separated by 7 hours and 1 sea.
There were other men who had wanted to marry her, in the past. This wasn’t the first time that she had seriously contemplated an actualization to a mere prospect of marriage.
Three years ago, she was almost someone’s wife. He was a journalist for the newspaper they both worked for and he had called from an island in Indonesia while he was working on an assignment. It was a brief call with an even briefer message. He didn’t want to marry her anymore. She eventually heard from a common friend of theirs that he had adopted a new religion. He had turned to Buddhism, and was now working hard so that one day he’d be a Buddhist priest, with many followers.
The paper had printed a feature article on this man that she was going to meet. This man lost a great amount of money at gambling, a few months back. He had wagered a fortune on dogs and spiders. Most of what he owed was because of the spiders. She had asked him before what a spider fight was.
‘I gamble with the old folks in our village”, he had answered; ‘on two of the largest spiders to be found, at a time. They’re together on a web, and we wait for them to kill each other. Sometimes it’s the venom on the other that does the job. Most times, the other gets severely wrestled into dying.’
She didn’t ask him why he gambled. For in his large debt, there was an opportunity like no other. Rosa had seen what was hers to find, in what he owed. It had taken some time before they were able to discuss the subject of marriage. Each conversation with him was an exhaustive use of most words in her vocabulary, but the words were well spent.
‘I’ll marry you, Rosa; if you’ve got the money to pay off my debts, here. I’m bankrupt and I don’t want to go to jail. You’ll finally be able to get out of there, and I can go gambling again.’ She had listened as he said this, over the phone. She had paused long enough to think of how he didn’t say anything with the word, “husband” or “wife”, in it. Just then, she had uttered a brief prayer, for their mobiles to disconnect abruptly. A silent request from her, aimed at the heavens for one of its tricks. But on that day, the heavens weren’t in the mood to act in a way that would benefit her, in any sort of manner.
In response to what he had said, she had this to answer, ‘I have enough in the bank, Mr. Tan.”
And this was his reply, ‘How soon can you come?’
Of course, she was bound to get cold feet. She could have been acting nervous on the plane because of how she might have wanted to back out from it all. But there was nothing to return to in Manila. Nothing at all.
Her pink plastic watch flashed the arrival of a new minute. It was a digital announcement of the 31 minutes which remained before the plane could land on a runway in Mr. Tan’s country of birth.
He was a fine looking man, with gray eyes and black hair. Rosa couldn’t take her eyes off his magnificent curls. His dark brown skin was equally irresistible, in as far as a single physical attribute may define a man’s appeal, but she was only able to feel wonder for those curls of his. ‘Selling everything that I own, to free this man from his ridiculous debts must have been the craziest thing that I’ve ever done’, Rosa thought to herself.
She was about to tell herself a few other things but he spoke to end her thoughts and said, ‘Do you mind handing over the bank check to me now, Rosa? Rather, have you prepared it? Please say that you have. You see, there’s a man come over to get it, from me here. If it’s in cash, that’s not a problem. He takes cash. Do you have it on you?”
Rosa had purchased all the ringgit that she could get her hands on, back home. She’d even asked a friend to help her get around the price that they had for them at the black market. She didn’t think that she was ever to return to where she had been born which is why she’d chosen to travel by way of the cheapest airline. The ground staff of this cheapest airline, based at the low cost carrier terminal, always pretended not to mind what was in one’s carry on luggage.
She was able to carry all that money with her on the plane. She could smell the stench of it reeking through the canvass material of her bag, for all of the 6 hours on that plane. When she took her red lipstick out of the hand carry luggage, so that she could re-apply her make up before their meeting, she noticed that most of the money bills were worn from too much use, too much handling, and too many exchanges.
‘All I have is cash, Aldin”, she quietly told him.
‘That’s alright, Rosa,’ he answered, ‘The man’s in a awful hurry. The sooner that this business is over, the better it would be, for all of us. Could you give me what I’m marrying you for now, please. I’d be very grateful if you would. There’s not a minute to waste.’
Rosa gave him the bag without speaking. He looked at her in a searching manner and asked, “Does he have to count it? Is it all here?”
‘ Yes, Aldin. It’s there. All there. Why wouldn’t it be?’
** * * *
Aldin Tan was a tailor. He was in his early forties. He worked in the suburbs and he was a tailor for the royal family of the state. He used thread of real gold, and it was he, who made the golden thread.
When the paper had made a serious blunder in its feature about Aldin and his work, he had spoken to Rosa about the corrections that had to be made. They quickly became friends though they had not met. She had mailed him a picture of her and he had sent her a book about his parents, with a nice dedication, in return. His late father had also been a tailor to royalty. Aldin’s father was the one who had taught him how to turn gold into sewing thread.
Rosa Pascua finally became someone’s wife because Aldin had confided in her, about his gambling problems, one night, out of his own desperation. A few weeks after she had given him that canvass bag, with all that money it, Rosa had changed from being a miserable, female in her early thirties, working as a copy editor for a Manila daily to being the miserable spouse of an impossible Malaysian.
** * * *
Aldin had taken her to live with him in a provincial state. He’d left his mother in the suburbs, in the care of a younger cousin. She met her mother-in-law, once. Aldin’s mother was a pleasant woman who seemed ignorant of her son’s personal life though his marriage to Rosa didn’t shock her. His mother managed to tell Rosa, ‘I’m glad that he’s come around to marrying you,” and, ‘He has talked about you for years, we feel like we’ve known you for far longer than just today.’ What Aldin’s mother had said was but very little compared to what Rosa had expected.
After her first month with him, she wrote to the friends that she’d left behind, in the Philippines. She asked them for some money to help her put up a fruit stall. Most of them had wired her the money that she needed, as their wedding gifts since she mentioned in her letters that she had married abroad. The money that they had sent wasn’t much but it was enough for Rosa to start selling mangoes, bananas and durians at the village market.
These days, Rosa’s husband was preoccupied with a new gambling sport. He was now betting on beetle fights, but Aldin could only wager 5 or 10 ringgit, at a time. He couldn’t ask his wife for more money to gamble with because she didn’t have more than what he could take from her earnings, to give.
Her husband did not want to work. Aldin refused to work. He didn’t want to have anything to do with work and after fourteen weeks of marriage, Rosa knew very little about the man that she had married. For many months now, Aldin would spend the mornings, by the sea, singing with an ancient guitar that had three strings and four pegs. When nights came, he’d be at the local pub, drinking with all the old men of their village. He was hardly ever at home, the home that he shared with Rosa. There were days when Aldin would smell awfully of strong wine. Rosa could smell the cheap alcohol in his breath when he’d speak to her.
Sometimes, when she is starting to fall asleep, and there’s no one beside her on their bed, she thinks about her husband with some amount of longing, but only some. She wasn’t longing for Aldin, the man. Rosa longed for knowledge on his character and personality. She thought him to be, more of a companion than a lover.
Her husband had kissed both of her cheeks when the officiator had pronounced them officially wed, and not much else of the like. She didn’t feel and she didn’t think, that this absence of intimacy between them was a good enough reason to ask Aldin for a divorce. Rosa had a great excuse to stay married to her amazingly dysfunctional husband.
A young boy, a teenager named Hassan, brings her home from the market on his scooter at the end of each day when the sun is about set. Hassan is Aldin’s nephew. Her relative on paper was Rosa’s great excuse.
‘Mrs. Tan, Mrs. Tan. Thank you, Mrs. Tan! Goodnight, Mrs. Rosa Tan. Sweet dreams. Please take care of my uncle. See you again tomorrow! In’ch Allah. In’ch Allah.” their nephew would exclaim every night. It was his way of bidding her good bye and wishing her a nice evening ahead. He’d shout the words and would never make a mistake. Her great excuse was also Rosa’s simple reason for staying. She liked the way that ‘Mrs. Tan’ sounded.
It’s important for Rosa to hear herself addressed as ‘Mrs. Tan’ everyday. It means the world to her. Because of it, she’s able to think nothing of the hostile and malicious looks that the women of their street give her, when she passes by their houses.
These women used to bother Rosa. They’d whisper between themselves and gossip about her and Aldin whenever they saw her walking towards them. Their behavior was enough to make her feel that though they were her husband’s friends, they weren’t her friends, and this made her sad. Then, Hassan started to bring her home, each night, from the market and she’d taken to the way that her nephew-in-law says, ‘Goodnight.’ to his aunty-in-law.
‘Mrs. Tan, Mrs. Tan. Thank you, Mrs. Tan! Goodnight, Mrs. Rosa Tan. Sweet dreams. Please take care of my uncle. See you again tomorrow! In’ch Allah. In’ch Allah.”, Hassan shouts.
She remembers her neighbors, and says this aloud, ‘Because I am Mrs. Tan, I shall be alright.’
Whenever Rosa utters these words, she looks around the house. She always finds that, again, her husband is nowhere to be found.
** * * *
Today, she is thinking of ways to make her life better. She’s been married for twenty one weeks. She has felt love for her husband for a hundred and forty seven days, and she’s known him for about thirty five hours. Fifteen of the 35 hours was from that night when Aldin fell ill because he’d consumed an entire jar of fermented sea urchin, for a bet.
Her husband had come home to her, drunk and delirious. When he was in bed and calling on Death with such poetry, beseeching for Death to come and take him away, Rosa sat on a chair beside their bed, with a big plastic pail on her lap and a large bottle of beer. The beer was made in China and it was for Rosa. The big pail was for her husband’s vomit.
Rosa didn’t drink but because she had a feeling that Aldin would be sick, well into the next day, she had decided on how her husband’s current state was an occasion that called for her faithful presence. She had to be the serviceable wife who was trying to drown her discontent with the help of an alcoholic beverage.
Although she can’t remember how long she was able to last before she, herself, succumbed to the call of intoxication, Rosa remembers what Aldin had said to her when she’d awakened, ‘ My dear Rosa, how were you able to finish that bottle? Did you know that it didn’t have any beer in it?’. This puzzled her and so she had asked him, ‘What was in it, then, Aldin?”
‘Mango vinegar. Hassan and I were trying to make mango wine months before you delivered me from all my debts, but we’d only managed to “create” vinegar. We used an empty bottle that was left over from many Christmases ago. I’m sorry that I didn’t tell you. Somehow, I’d forgotten about it. Besides, I thought that you didn’t drink.’
After he had said all of what he’d said, Rosa saw the look of disdain that he gave her when he’d realized that she couldn’t tell the difference between wine and vinegar. It didn’t matter to him if she’d been there beside him, whilst he was suffering the effects of food poisoning. She’d made the mistake of showing him that she could be foolish.
He did not say anything else and has not been home to see her, for forty nine days, now. So, today, Rosa is thinking of ways to make her life better. She is starting to believe that she’d soon find herself without a husband. Aldin didn’t marry her, out of love for her; he didn’t marry her because he was attracted to her looks, but he did mention that it was always a practical choice for a man to marry an intelligent woman. Forty nine days ago, the look of disappointment from him meant that he was somehow able to see that he had made: the most impractical choice.
** * * *
‘Please, Hassan. Be quiet. I’m trying to think.’, she told their nephew.
‘What is the matter, Aunty?,’ the teenager asked. ‘Did my uncle make you cry?’
‘No, he didn’t make me cry, Hassan. I don’t know where your uncle is.’
‘I know where he is, Aunty. He’s living in a cave near the shore. The crown prince, he came to visit uncle, the other day. The prince heard that my uncle had married and he’s asked uncle to work for him again.’
‘ Really, Hassan? How did your uncle respond to this invitation from the prince?’
Hassan didn’t answer Rosa’s question.
It was 2 in the afternoon and no one else but the vendors were in the market. Hassan was busy warding off fruit flies from their stall, batting them away with a rolled up newspaper. He was a gangly boy, with straight hair and a pale complexion, who was always in a loose collarless shirt, denim pants, and sneakers. He wore eyeglasses and he was always pushing his glasses up the bridge of his nose, to keep them from falling.
Rosa’s fruit stall was with the other stalls which were standing on an open space. That afternoon, the ground was the color of ash and she could see where new palm trees were starting to grow. The market was surrounded by thick bamboo and the leaves of the bamboo grove were brushing against each other because of the strong wind. She was hearing the sound of waves from these leaves. Rosa looked up, and there was lightning that flashed from the center of the thin slates of clouds above her. When it had become clear that no one else was going to come to purchase any durians, mangoes, or bananas from her, she asked her nephew-in-law, for a favor.
‘Hassan, please bring me to where your uncle is. I want to talk to him.’, she said.
‘But Aunty, I promised my uncle that I wouldn’t take you to that cave.’, the boy answered her.
‘Please, Hassan. I’m going to ask him, if you can still call me, Mrs. Tan.’
‘I can’t understand why the 2 of you married, but I’ll bring you to him. He’s not going to like it, I’m telling you, Aunty. Do you know how my uncle behaves like, when he’s mad?’
Rosa wanted to tell this boy, ‘I don’t know anything about your uncle.’ or ‘I don’t know how your uncle loves; I don’t know how your uncle hates. How would I know how he gets angry at someone else?’. She didn’t tell these to Hassan. Instead, Rosa told him to make sure that he’s able to securely close their stall since it was going to rain hard, soon. She told him to hurry because she really wanted to know how his uncle was doing.
‘Ok, but he’s not going to like,’ said Hassan. He kept saying this when she was seated behind him on his scooter, from when they had just left the marketplace up to when he said, ‘See you tomorrow,’, by the mouth of the cave where her husband was staying.
It was the first time that Hassan didn’t call Rosa, ‘Mrs. Tan’.
Aldin wasn’t in the cave. The cave was a mile long and it was very dark in there. She had reached the end of the cave and was very tired. Rosa wept with much abandon when it dawned on her that she was alone in the cave. She couldn’t call Hassan because Rosa didn’t have a mobile phone, anymore. She couldn’t ask him to turn back and fetch her. She couldn’t walk back home, it was too far.
Rosa began to think that perhaps uncle and nephew had planned to mislead her like this. She wept and wailed loudly for she was thinking, ‘ I know that Aldin can’t afford to send me back home, but I didn’t know that he could be this cruel. I didn’t know that he could be this insane.’ She was very tired. She was very upset. She was hungry. She was wearing a cotton skirt and blouse set, and didn’t have a sweater, a jacket, or a shawl. She felt cold. She felt very cold in there.
Rosa wept in aguish until she couldn’t breathe well because the air which had collected deep in her chest started to feel like a block of concrete that she could not expel from her lungs. Lightning from outside flashed on the walls of the cave; and Rosa fell into an unconscious state, as the sound of loud thunder, beat against the large rocks which were all around her.
** * * *
‘Hassan, I mean it. Stop telling me that I’m going to lose my wife because I’ve been an idiot. You’re not old enough to know how to talk to me about this kind of situation. Most important of all, you’re not old enough to call me an idiot.’
It was Aldin’s voice that woke her, and even if she heard what he had said, the thought of being in the same room with him was a terrible thought. It was too frightening that it made her rise from the bed she was in. She ran towards the blurry vision that she had of the room’s door. Of course, she wasn’t well enough to do what she’d just been able to do. Rosa passed out again.
** * * *
‘Yes, Hassan, thank you. Thanks for telling me that your aunty is awake. I noticed this, too. Now, can you leave the 2 of us? You’ve been enough of a nuisance, to me, for the past few days. And could you stand outside, by the door, please. She might try to run and we can’t have that happening, can we?’
This time, Rosa didn’t try to stand from the bed. She lay there, against the soft pillows, looking at Aldin with nothing but a vague sorrow in her eyes. It looked like he hadn’t shaved in days. He was wearing a powder blue polo, and the curls in his hair gleamed because of sweat, grease, and most probably because of all the tears from Aldin’s own weeping, as he watched over Rosa for many days. He looked disheveled and burdened but she could still see the same beautiful man that she had married. That Aldin was a strikingly handsome fellow, no matter what state he’s in, made her sad to think of how she was the wife that he couldn’t love.
Then she spoke, ‘You can talk, and explain yourself. I’ll listen.’
‘It’s Hassan’s fault, Rosa. I told him not to bring you there because I’d decided to go home to you. I wanted to start treating you better. I’d realized that I’ve been a married man for quite some time now, and that my wife hardly knew me. That visit which I had from our crown prince, made me think that I’d lose you, if I couldn’t be a lesser kind of idiot. Even our nephew calls me an idiot. I don’t blame him. And I can’t lose you, Rosa. I don’t want to. I happen to like you very much. I like how you agreed to marry me. I like how you sold everything that you owned, in the Philippines, to pay my debts. I like how you’ve put up with me for far longer than any woman can or will. I like how mango vinegar gets you drunk. I like how Hassan started to be respectful towards women since you became his aunt. I like how you’re probably the only woman who’d ever love to be known as Mrs. Aldin Tan’s wife. I know; Hassan told me. I’ve not even said a third of what I have to say to you. All because I want to tell you about just how much I like you, Rosa. You can’t imagine how much I’d like to stay married to you.’
She smiled at all of what Aldin had said. She asked him to stop talking.
‘Will you return to sewing clothes for the royal family again, Aldin?’, she asked.
‘Only if you want me to go back to doing that, Rosa.’, he answered.
** * * *
She’s been Mrs. Aldin Tan for three hundred and sixty two days. He’s shown her how he sews with golden thread, and she has seen that what he uses resembles a jeweler’s copper wire. She’s touched the thread and she knows that it’s as thin as sewing pins.
Today, Rosa’s husband came home from work, on Hassan’s scooter, but without their nephew.
‘Aldin, where is Hassan?’, she asked him.
‘ I told Hassan that if he’s betting that my wife won’t let me embrace her once I’m done with my day, then his ride is as good as mine.’
‘So, I ask you again: Aldin, where is Hassan?’
‘He agreed to lend it to me, for the day. What do you say, Rosa? Shall we have me lose my lowly bet with that boy, our nephew?’
‘Only if you want to lose, ‘Din. Only if you want to lose.’
As the tailor, who uses thread fashioned from real gold whenever he sews clothes, embraced his wife for the first time in 362 days, he said, ‘Since I married you, how is it that I can’t lose big, whenever I gamble?’
‘Hold me closer, my dear husband, and let me tell you how you can win even more.’, This was Rosa’s answer.