Paulette watched Gabriel as he took his time with his ensaymada, sugar collecting in the fuzz above his lip as he asked her about how she passed the time in their home. Did she ever get bored, he wondered aloud. “I listen to my dad’s old records, and I read, and I knit,” she said, as Sam unfolded his chessboard on the living room coffee table and arranged the pieces on their squares.
Gabriel had accompanied Sam to their home in the midst of an afternoon drizzle, and he didn’t appear worried at all about being trapped if the rain turned into a full-on downpour. Her mother sat at the dining table as she went over an American glossy, peering through her reading glasses at a Bloomingdale’s spread. She didn’t steal designs from American jewelers, she often claimed; rather, she allowed herself to be inspired by their creations, although it was hard for Paulette to tell, as she looked at the gifts her mother had given her over the years, how original her mother’s designs were. Her mother had switched on the dinner lamp above her head, allowing a warm yellow light to pool around her as darkness gathered inside their home.
But the sky cleared, and as Gabriel opened Sam’s chess game by moving a white pawn to the center of the board, a ray of sunlight shot through the living room, and they all lifted their heads, receiving its benediction. Her mother closed her magazine, getting up from her seat to look through the French windows that opened into their backyard.
“I didn’t expect the weather to clear,” Paulette said from her kitchen stool.
“Neither did I,” her mother answered. Switching off the dining room light, she said, “Would you kids want to take a walk outside? It’s beautiful out.”
“We’re in the middle of a game,” Sam said, sitting at the edge of the sofa as he stared at the chessboard.
“Oh come on, you keep playing chess inside when you should be getting some fresh air. Besides your Ate Paulie could use some exercise.”
“Ma, you sure it’s okay?” Paulette asked. Gabriel glanced at her, and she hoped he hadn’t sensed the panic in her voice.
“Well you could just walk around the neighborhood if you don’t want to go too far. Say hi to our neighbors. They’d be happy to see you.” Her mother’s confidence in her friends, and in their neighbors, was unnerving.
In her room, Paulette donned one of her mother’s maternity dresses, a sleeveless button-down cotton dress with lavender flowers that lay cool against her skin. Over this, she wore a loose gold cardigan to disguise her belly in case the eyes of neighbors became too inquisitive for comfort. She did her hair up in a soft beehive and applied powder, a little blush on her cheekbones, a layer of rose-pink lipstick borrowed from her mother’s collection. No longer did she have to apply too much foundation, for her insect bites had faded, and she needed just enough to accentuate the freshness of her face to those who would see her for the first time in years. Staring at her image in the dresser mirror, she blotted her lips and blinked. She noticed the wrinkles at the sides of her mouth, the tiredness of her skin. Would the neighbors be as keen to protect her, now that the innocent, supple-faced girl whose appearance once gave them joy had aged? Maybe they’d see the swelling in her belly, and take pity on her. There were advantages to being an object of pity, especially in the company of one’s kind. They would know, somehow, that everyone made mistakes, and that at some point, they too would need the same amount of forgiveness that they would need to extend to her.
Her eyes smarted in the sunlight when Sam and Gabriel led her outdoors, and she found herself returning to her room to don a pair of Jackie O sunglasses that gave her face a subtle authority. Perhaps this would make her look like a battered wife hiding a black eye from view, but this, too, would make for a good story. Who wouldn’t take pity on a child of the neighborhood who was escaping an abusive partner who had the nerve to get her pregnant? She wondered what Carlos, Gabriel’s older brother and the father of her child, would think if she shared with him her methods of disguise, whether he’d laugh, or be incensed. These days, she couldn’t tell what he thought about the things she reported to him: his letters were difficult to transmit, and he couldn’t waste precious ink and paper responding to her jokes.
They walked past the Macaraeg’s one-story bungalow, where a greyer and thinner Mr. and Mrs. Macaraeg drank coffee at their front porch as their maid weeded the soil around their prized carnations. Sam waved at them, and so did Paulette, smiling when the Macaraegs leaned forward from their wrought iron chairs and craned their necks to gain a better view of what they had just seen. They walked past Doctor Carreon’s residence, whose only signs of habitation were a well-tended lawn, and the starting and stopping of piano music that drifted across the lawn from its windows. Paulette remembered that there was a pool behind the house, where she had shared her first kiss with the doctor’s son. Kenneth was in the States, said her mother, training to be a pediatric surgeon. Gabriel asked them if anyone lived inside the next house they passed—its garden was so well tended, its drapes looked so new, and yet aside from an old gardener who tended to the bougainvilleas that cascaded over its high concrete fence, it showed no signs of habitation. Sam and Paulette explained to him that it was a Manila politician’s summer home, and that it was one of two homes on their street that were only lived in during the summer.
“Didn’t Kuya Ricky talk about this?” Gabriel asked Sam, whose shoulder grazed the hedges of the Ortega fence. “How some families can afford to own houses they don’t even live in, while most Filipinos have barely enough to eat.”
“Yeah, he did,” Sam said, in a tired voice. He glanced at Paulette and said, “Ricky’s our cell leader.”
“Sounds like quite an enlightened dude,” Paulette said, as she walked on.
“A lot of what he says makes sense but Ma and Pa would disagree,” Sam added, before waving at Mrs. Palaganas across the street, whose purple tracksuit engulfed her petite frame.
“You’re back, hija!” Mrs. Palaganas chirped, raising a hand.
“Yes, I am!” Paulette said, before she felt Sam’s hand on her shoulder, urging her on.
“And you also have games and lectures at this center?” Paulette asked.
“Well, the games are there to instill discipline in us, which is necessary for effective teamwork. It’s a skill we can apply in real life,” Gabriel said.
“Sounds pretty much right,” Paulette said, wrapping her cardigan over her chest.
These were the same teachings of the revolution, which were now being used to lure young people into the dictator’s sphere of influence. And yet was there anything wrong in what the dictator had promised them? His motives may have been suspect, but the words, in themselves, contained truth.
“That’s a very pretty dress,” Gabriel said, as he sat across from her in the living room after they returned from their walk.
“Thank you,” she said, fingering its collar. “It’s my mother’s, actually.”
“She took care of it well, obviously.”
“Well it’s a maternity dress, so she didn’t wear it for that long. I think she only wore it when she had Sam.”
“If you get stronger, we could even walk to Camp John Hay if you like. Or we could take a cab so that you won’t have to walk too far.”
“I think I should stick to the neighborhood for now, but thank you.”
“The doctors say she shouldn’t strain herself,” Sam called out to them from the kitchen. Where did her brother learn to be such a good liar? The yarns he spun were more convincing than any lie her mother could concoct.
“And if you took her to John Hay, that’s going to be a lot of walking,” her mother added, watching them from the dining table, her hand splayed over a story about the British royal family.
“Yeah, maybe a walk around the neighborhood would be good, for now,” Gabriel said. She could feel his eyes linger on her, and realized he was no longer a boy.
“I learned a lot today about your neighbors. They seem nice,” he added.
“But you come here quite a lot. They probably know you by now.”
“Maybe they do, but they don’t greet me. Sam, they do. But when you were with us, it was as if they trusted me too.”
“It’s quite hard to tell when people’s homes are set back from the street, isn’t it.”
“Yeah. And when their fences are high.”
“It’s generally a nice neighborhood, but people tend to keep to themselves here,” Sam said, returning to the living room with glasses and a pitcher full of ice-cold water.
“There’s lots of piano playing too,” Gabriel said, as Sam filled their glasses.
“Do you play?”
“No, we don’t have a piano at home.”
“Do you still play the piano, Sam?” Paulette said, tilting her head towards their family Steinway.
“I haven’t had practice in a long time,” Sam said, picking up a glass of water for himself.
“Hay naku, ever since Sam got into chess, he has stopped playing,” their mother said. “You should play the piano sometime, Paulie. You haven’t played since you got back.”
Paulette glanced at the family Steinway, her eyes scanning the framed photographs assembled upon its lid as though to lay claim to its quiet civility. Paulette was in many of these pictures, her chubby fingers grasping at her father’s sweater as he carried her on his back, her arms encircling a younger, gap-toothed Sam as she beamed at the camera in a Christmas family photo from long ago. Gabriel was now fifteen years old, around her age when many of these family photos were taken. What was he yearning for when he set foot in this house? Was it merely a feeling of safety, the sense that he had a surrogate family in case his old one fell apart for good, or was it the subtle promise that his fortunes could change for the better? She thought again of his older brother’s shaking hands as he fastened the bracelet’s clasp around her teenage wrist, and the awe in his voice, years later, as he recounted the experience to her after having saved her life. Carlos the revolutionary, who had disavowed a life of material comforts, remained under the spell she had unknowingly cast upon him as a teenager. “You’re Paulette Hoffer,” he had said to her in the interrogation room, as she slipped in and out of consciousness. “That’s your name, isn’t it?”