“She’ll be all right. Finish your dessert and I’ll join you for drinks.” The words were muffled, reaching Oscar through the nearly closed door: Victor evidently took the time to give the door a slight shove before leading Emily to bed.
Oscar swallowed the last mouthful of fruit salad left on his plate, then walked to the living room and stood by the window, lighting a cigarette as he did so. Seen through the haze of his cigarette smoke, the already dull October evening, heavy with the smell of rain hanging close overhead, seemed even duller. He had spent several evenings here before, yet none of them had the portentous quality of this one.
It began pleasantly enough. Emily had whipped up a good meat dish. It was called something or other—he had asked what it was, mainly to please her, but hadn’t paid much attention to her answer. As a rule he didn’t much care what a dish was called, or how it was done, as long as it tasted good.
Halfway through the dessert, Emily had turned pale and begun to shiver. “I think I’m coming down with flu,” she had said, trying to laugh—even her laughter was shaky. As Victor led her to the bedroom, she looked back at Oscar, a sharp frightened gleam in her eyes.
Oscar threw out his cigarette stub and turned from the window. He liked to think his uneasiness was caused only by the chanting coming from the house next door.
He took out his cell phone and called home. Kathy’s voice came on the line. No, she said, Mama wasn’t home yet, she called from work, said she was working on a report due tomorrow. No, she didn’t say what time she’d be home, but yes, she said she’d hurry back as soon as she could. Her Aunt Millie was helping her with homework.
Oscar put the phone back in his pocket and took a deep breath, hoping by doing so to blow away the cloud of resentment that threatened to spoil his mood. He wished Lydia would bother to tell him whenever she’d be home late, so he could make a point of coming home early for Kathy’s sake. He doted on his little girl, and had almost forgotten that, since he and Lydia had decided early in their marriage to have only one child, he had wished for a boy.
Some moments had passed before it came to him that he had not told his wife anything either about coming home late. The cloud drifted away and he sighed, feeling like an old fogey.
In times like this he couldn’t help but envy his father, who never had to tame his anger, who never felt he was unreasonable for losing his temper over a missing button, or a late dinner. Oscar could even imagine his father having another woman and not feeling guilty about it.
Well, Oscar once had a guiltless fling with a bright, articulate lawyer he met in a national lawyers’ convention. The affair, though intense, ended with the convention, and Oscar’s exhilaration while it lasted was equaled only by his sense of relief when it ended. The woman herself considered the whole affair as an earthly moment that made no claims beyond its own fleeting absoluteness.
He had been content, after that, with exchanging innocuous banter with women he met at parties. His secretary at the law office looked like what he called a “hot number,” but he had always considered men who slept with their secretaries as somewhat lacking in imagination.
Emily, who headed research, had treated him with a mixture of mock disdain and tolerance that she seemed to reserve for things and people she couldn’t be bothered with. Her indifference had made him curious, and it was easy enough for curiosity to evolve into a tentative fascination. Still, Oscar could have sworn nothing much would have happened had they not been thrown together by an official trip to Cebu, and billeted in a hotel by the sea. On their first evening, as stars shone mutely, their bantering friendship swung into a mind-reeling romance.
Their minds stopped reeling as soon as their plane landed in Manila, but the affair endured, much to the surprise of them both. It was almost perfect: Emily was as guiltless as he, having suffered from Victor’s incorrigible bed-hopping, and their love was deep enough to free their lovemaking from the manacles of scruples.
It was Emily’s guilt that clouded their affair. She fell into the habit of cross-examining Oscar about the excuses he palmed off on Lydia every time they went out, and the white lies rankled.
“Well, for God’s sake, when I tell her where I’m going I am not under oath,” he said. They had just bought a new black silk dress for Lydia, a wedding anniversary gift from Oscar, and were on their way to their favorite haunt, a small café called Paradiso. “And why this sudden compunction, anyway? We’re not doing anything against the law.”
“You are not,” she said, without emphasis. “I am.”
She was right. He kept quiet.
“You really think duplicity is a virtue?” she said after an appreciable interval.
“In this case it’s called kindness.”
“Yes, sure, what she doesn’t know won’t hurt her. Thank God for clichés, they make self-forgiveness so much easier.”
He bristled. “May I ask where you get your extraordinary assurance about your values? And since you seem to think you have a monopoly on honesty, why don’t you tell Victor about us?”
“I already did.”
He had to make a sudden movement with his hand, as if to ward off an insect, to disguise the wave of panic that washed over him. Emily stopped walking and turned to him. Her gaze slid from his face down to the ground, as if following the path his blood made.
“Don’t worry,” she went on, “I didn’t say you’re the one, so you haven’t lost a friend. After all, he only had to know how things are, because it’s a situation that he, too, has to face. We’re not the only ones involved here, as I’ve always been telling you.” She turned away and walked toward Paradiso again.
He did not know what to say. Making his relationship with Emily known to Lydia meant having to choose between them, and although he was not inclined to give up Emily, leaving his wife and daughter was simply out of the question.
“I know,” Emily, without altering her pace, and Oscar wondered, with a shudder, if he had said his thoughts out loud. “I’m leaving him. I’ve accepted a teaching job in Baguio. It’s something I would have done a long time ago, if I had not persisted in the delusion that Victor would change his ways.” She gave a little laugh. “He thinks I’m going there with another man. Oh, he can think what he pleases, I’m just so tired.”
“But what—what about us?” he stammered, his heart sinking.
She stopped and gave him a look of hard, still gravity. Her smile perched precariously between sympathy and derision. “Someday, Oscar,” she said, “you’ll find someone who will love you in spite of yourself—selfish, underhanded, insensitive. When you do find her, hold on to her, for you may never find another one like her.”
Before he could say anything, she was gone, leaving him in front of Paradiso’s door. Her words puzzled more than angered him. Selfish? Insensitive? Why, those were the same words she’d used to describe her husband. How could she put him in the same class as that fusty bookkeeper, who had as much imagination as a sedated rat?
Emily had kept their communication on a professional level after that, but her bantering tone remained, making the transition back to comfortable camaraderie easy for them both. And when Victor had invited him, through Emily, to one of those occasional poker-and-drinking sessions, he had felt relieved, almost grateful.
He felt rather than heard Victor’s approach. Oscar took one look at him and thought: whatever had happened, it would never show on this man’s face. It was doubtful, really, if anything unusual could be reflected on Victor’s face, so limited was its range, so inert were its features.
“Will she be all right?” Oscar asked. “Just what’s wrong with her? I’ve never seen her so pale, and shaky.”
“Nothing that a little rest cannot cure,” Victor said. “She’s asleep now. I think she’s upset over the reorganization you’re having at the office. She can get all worked up over things like that, things which beer can easily settle for us. And speaking of beer,” he added, and led the way back to the dining room by way of finishing the sentence.
Oscar balanced himself on the edge of the wicker chair, as if he were prepared to leave any time. “Drink up,” Victor said, handing him a beer, whitely cold, from the freezer. “There’s more where it came from. I always say when a man’s extremely cautious about his drinking it’s because he can’t be trusted when he’s drunk.”
“Thanks,” Oscar took a swill from the bottle. “But I really can’t stay too long.”
“The ball and chain’s waiting up for you?” Victor laughed. Remaining on his feet, he poured himself a drink. The light from the capiz lamp beat upon his lean figure; the shadow of a wooden eagle hovered hugely like a black canopy over him.
He took the seat directly opposite Oscar. There was a dry glitter in Victor’s eyes, and a firm set to his thin lips. He looked like a man who had done a lot of waiting. A creature, thought Oscar, of infinite patience. A bookkeeper’s virtue, he reflected, not without contempt. Looking at him, Oscar thought there was something old-maidenish about Victor, and decided it must be his ascetic face. He imagined that girls in college would not have given Victor a second glance, but he was now vice president for finance of a big pharmaceutical company, and even if for Oscar it was little more than a glorified bookkeeper, the guy was earning a lot, enough to dazzle women.
“We’re between maids now,” Victor said. “I usually entertain my guests in the living room, with Emily bringing in the drinks, but now this is more convenient. I should learn to do without her. I mean,” he hastened to add, as Oscar gave him a sudden look that was just a shade lighter than panic, “you know, she may not be feeling quite up to the mark in the next few days. I should let her rest, take it easy.” He tapped a cigarette on a matchbox and prepared to light it. “Emily can never understand the satisfaction I get out of beer and cigarettes,” he said.
A guarded “yes” was all that Oscar could say.
“In fairness to her,” Victor went on, undismayed by his guest’s coolness, “she makes an effort to tolerate what she cannot understand. She’s an accepting woman, my Emily.” Oscar tried not to wince at the offhand use of the possessive pronoun. “Except when it comes to other women.”
To his surprise, Oscar heard himself laugh. He could relate to that. “Yes, of course,” he said. “Lyds, too.” He felt a bond forming where the ice had been.
Victor nodded vigorously. “I remember the first time she discovered I was fooling around. She went running to her folks. Her mother and sisters advised patience and tolerance, and even thought up excuses for me. It’s because we didn’t have a child, they said. Oh, they were sympathetic, but they told her they’d endured miseries more terrible than hers.”
“Typical,” Oscar made a dismissing gesture with his hand. Despite the remark’s lack of originality, Oscar felt it carried them both a long way toward reciprocal understanding.
“Right,” Victor agreed. “But it’s really more than that. You see, I don’t think her family would be so tolerant if I were an absolute monster.” His voice assumed a new softness. “I’ve been better than most husbands, if I may say so myself. Her career grew and flourished, and I never complained. Of course, I always came first. When I woke up in the morning, everything was ready. My cigarettes and the morning paper beside my coffee cup; it was enough to make me believe God was at work while I was asleep. When I came home after work, there was cold beer in the fridge, and a new pack of cigarettes and the evening paper on my coffee table.”
“Enviable,” Oscar said, quite sincerely, remembering how, in the first years of his marriage, every detail at home spoke of needs anticipated, of wishes met even before they had been expressed. But that seemed as distant as the Middle Ages.
“Yes, I guess you can say I really had no reason to complain. None, that is, until I learned about the other man.”
The words were so casually said, without roughness, without haste, that a few moments passed before their meaning hit Oscar like a vicious uppercut. He forced himself to look at his host, who smiled at him lazily.
Oscar’s heart pounded. He broke out in gooseflesh and cold sweat. He resisted an impulse to loosen his tie. The bastard, he thought. I should never have come. I should get out of here before he could make a fool of me. Yet he could not move. Victor’s eyes seemed to impale him. Finally, with what felt like an actual wrench of the muscles, Oscar dragged his eyes from Victor. He lighted another cigarette, both to blur the other man’s face and to hide his own. A poor wretch on a witness stand couldn’t have felt worse.
“How did you know?” Oscar finally found his voice, then knew right away it was the wrong thing to say. Never admit, Victor himself had told him once, even in the face of the strongest evidence, always deny.
“You’ll never believe it,” Victor now said, “but Emily herself told me. Not his identity, though. She only said there was another man. Although I had known it long before she deigned to tell me.”
Oscar held his breath to suppress a deep sigh, afraid to betray an overwhelming sense of relief.
“In fact,” Victor went on, “I should have suspected it right from the start, right from that Monday months ago when she said she had worked over the weekend, and came home with her sandals gritty with white sand.”
Their tryst in Boracay! The guy had more sense than he’d given him credit for. Fear gripped Oscar again, sending prickly chills along his nape and iciness in his gut. But Victor’s monotone gave him fresh assurance. Oscar took a big swig from his mug, and regained his self-possession almost at once; years of lawyering had trained him to quick and masterful control of face and voice.
“What would you do if Lyds had an affair?” Victor asked.
With a soundless laugh, Oscar made a gesture of slitting his throat with his forefinger. Victor nodded emphatically, like a teacher who got just the answer he wanted. Tilting back his chair, he said, “I’m glad you see it my way. My sisters wanted me to sue Emily, but no, I’d sooner die than make this public. So I did what I thought was best. I am your client now.”
“I—I’m not sure I know what you mean. If you don’t want to go to court…”
“Oh,” Victor waved away his protest. “Of course, it’s only to make sure. I’m very methodical. I don’t want to leave any loose ends.”
This cryptic remark drew from Oscar, in the state of his nerves, a flash of impatience, but he chose to wait. A shiver rippled through him, no longer caused by fear but by a sense that some mystery was about to unfold.
“I used ricin,” Victor said. “It’s deadlier than cobra venom, but virtually impossible to detect. An autopsy would attribute the death to a stroke, heart attack, or uremic failure. Emily’s family has a long history of heart ailment. She herself had heart murmur. So I don’t even think we’d get as far as an autopsy. I’m almost sure you won’t have to work for me, but in case you have to, you won’t have a difficult time keeping me out of jail. I’ve made things easy for you. I’m the ideal client.”
The chanting next door ceased suddenly, as if stopped by a wave of a conductor’s arm. A vast silence followed, and Oscar could have sworn the intricate clockwork mechanism of the universe had ceased ticking. Victor consumed his beer in a series of big loud gulps, as though his long narrative had parched his throat.
“So, Counselor,” Victor’s voice cracked in a valiant effort at jollity. “Can I count on you? Do we have a gentlemen’s agreement?” He extended his hand for the handshake that would seal their pact. The look he gave his guest was uncertain, then, as Oscar accepted his hand in silent consent, Victor leaned back, his arms dropping to his sides, suddenly looking very, very tired.
Oscar looked at his new client with an air of indecision. His heart had begun behaving normally. He raised his mug for a big swig, but his arm stopped in mid-air, and he felt his blood congeal with what seemed like belated horror. He murmured a flurry of apologies to Victor, who didn’t seem to hear him, and dashed out of the house, straight out into the black, rain-smelling night.
Only later, much later, after Emily’s funeral, could Oscar admit to himself that his horror that night stemmed not from his client’s crime, but from the fact that he did not, could not, blame the poor guy.