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Mathilde’s Absence

She forgot where she’d put that goddamned lipstick. Rummaging through the drawer, cursing at everything, dewdrops of sweat forming on her brow, she was all the while harboring a vague suspicion that the dark universe was intent on heaping misery on her without letup. Deaf to her exhortations, her husband sat on his haunches by the door, staring blankly into the orange pall of the afternoon, smoking the last of his Champion cigarettes, drinking weak coffee. Every now and then, the thick cesspool stench from the river nearby, where children swam with abandon amid floating diapers, broken twigs and dead cats, would rise up to her nose and make her stomach lurch.

A termite-infested door framed the silhouette of her husband, whose back was turned to her, puffing smoke, making him appear as if his hair had caught fire. Faint ripples formed on the surface of the coffee when he put down the cup on the floor to his left. Neither she nor he paid attention to their infant son who was bawling like an agitated monkey in their cot.

She was already running late; at this rate, she would not have enough time to change into this days’ outfit before Mr. Arcega, her employer, arrived home from his office. Quitting the search, hoping she’d left that lipstick somewhere in Mr. Arcega’s house, brimming with unspent fury, she picked up her bag and went out of their shanty, a whirlwind upsetting her husband’s cup, her face half-made up, lips contrastingly pale—a sullen, charging mask.

The heels of her stilettos stabbed the dirt road, leaving a trail of punctures on soil wetted by the recent rain. She could not shake off the image of Mr. Arcega flying into a rage on account of her failure to follow everything to the letter, and she shuddered at the prospect of getting fired. Preoccupied, her eyes cast down, she traced a beeline on the path from which the entire world seemed to emerge before morphing into a wall of incoherent blur, and this was why she didn’t notice the dog lying in the middle of the road. She was jolted back to reality by the creature’s growls and barks, and the first thought that crossed her mind was how ugly it was. Emaciated, whatever was left of its fur was crawling with ticks and fleas. It was barking madly at her, trying to bite into her flesh, as if by doing so it will be able to transfer some of the excruciating pain.

Then a gate opened to let out a fat lady who started shouting at her, “Slut! Slut! Go away, you slut!” and called the dog by an invented name. Whimpering, the dog turned back and limped toward the fat lady, who then gave her the finger. Dazed, catching her breath, without any idea what to feel, she proceeded to cover the remaining distance to the street corner, where she flagged a jeepney that would take her to Mr. Arcega’s house.

Strange forms and frenetic shadows reeled, recoiled and collapsed unto themselves inside her mind, unveiling a terror more horrifying for its indeterminacy. A malevolent sheen was cast on everything, pulsing to the rhythm of her nervous heartbeat, imputing cruel intentions to otherwise innocuous people, places and things. For the duration of the trip, she kept avoiding looking at her fellow passengers and kept her eyes glued to the floor, except when she swept a glance over the jeepney’s innards after settling in a seat at the rear. Opposite her, two teenagers still in school uniform held each other’s hands, the girl’s head propped on the boy’s right shoulder. On the seat nearest the driver to her side, she heard a faint rustling inside a perforated box and then the subdued cackling of hens. An old man with white mustache who was sitting at the right-hand side of the driver was coughing loudly, spitting a mixture of saliva and phlegm out of the open side of the jeepney. She felt their twisted grins aimed at her.

She calculated the time left for her to prepare everything before Mr. Arcega arrived: a little over ten minutes for the rest of the jeepney ride, less than an hour to prepare dinner, thirty to forty minutes to look for that lipstick, freshen up and change into that dress. She was thinking: perhaps, there’s a chance, however slim, that she would make it just in time.

With the key Mr. Arcega gave her, she let herself inside his three-storey house, a house that she only saw in dreams and magazines, which she can now embrace with a twisted sense of appropriation—because, why not?—although she still lacked the vocabulary to name everything in it (and thus, in a sense, cannot entirely possess all the fixtures, the odds and ends, the wistful luxury). Throwing her bag onto a chair, she wasted no time and proceeded carefully to scour the house for that lipstick (called Bobbi Brown or something, she must check with the long note Mr. Arcega gave her, in case she couldn’t find it and be forced to buy another one). She finally found it inside the bottom drawer of the Hoosier cabinet on the third floor; she remembered now that she put it there yesterday because that’s where she placed the clothes she took off upon arriving for work, making a mental note to pick it up together with the clothes when she heads for home.

When she finished cooking dinner, she fetched her bag from the couch, fished out her makeup kit and, proceeding to the first floor bathroom, retouched her face, although she now emerged with the bright red smear on her lips taking out the sullenness from the mask. From her bag she got out a wig fashioned into a light brown bob and went upstairs to step into the red chiffon dress she took from the wardrobe. She looked at herself in a tall mirror, smoothened the creases on the dress with the flat of her hands, and saw an elegant woman smiling sweetly back at her.

When she heard the wheels of a car crunching gravel as it was being parked in the garage, she quickly ran downstairs, opened the door to a man in a business suit—Mr. Arcega—kissed him on the cheek and gestured toward the dining table, where a steaming banquet was already prepared. He asked, “What’s for dinner?” even though he had perfect knowledge of what to expect when he came home every night. With slightly trembling hands, she unfolded a piece of paper and ran a finger from the top of the page to the point where a list indicated what to serve for today’s dinner; afterwards, she laboriously recited a long string of food names, her tongue tripping on most of the French.

It was the musky smell of his perfume that alerted her to his discomfiting closeness: soon there was his hand caressing hers, then his embrace holding her in place from behind, then his lips playfully grazing the back of her neck. She said, not in so many words, and as softly as possible, that he must be already tired, that it was better if he eat first and then take a quick bath. They settled in their seats, with dinner conversation consisting mainly of her tentative questions and his patronizing answers. She kept consulting the folded piece of paper—she hasn’t reached the stage yet where she could extemporize with confidence—but she was starting to learn, or at least that was what she told herself.

Hand in hand, they went upstairs, toward the master bedroom. While Mr. Arcega was taking a bath, she could hear drizzling water from the shower; it was like a well-played nocturne dedicated to things to come. She cast her gaze on the window, where a segment of the city’s scaly hide appeared to be trapped forever, although it was accorded that illusion of agency with a multitude of variations—night and day, drought and flood, sin and virtue, filth, crime, birth, old age, death—all of which, when one comes to think of it, are in fact truly inescapable. She approached the window to pull down the curtain, and, turning to the dresser, picked up a framed picture, traced the borders of its frame with her forefinger, the cover glass glinting from the fluorescent light overhead, distorting the image inside In the picture was a beaming Mr. Arcega, two to three years younger, his arms wrapped around his wife’s—Mathilde’s—waist. Mathilde, who was captured in the picture smiling a week before the fatal car accident, was wearing the same red chiffon dress, her hair the same light brown bob of her wig.

Her lips twitched to form an imitation of the woman’s smile in the picture—the smile of the dead. The resemblance was uncanny.

Soon it was time, and today was one of those days. After Mr. Arcega stepped out of the bathroom, she walked toward him, and with one swift motion removed the towel from his waist and began to dry his hair, his chest, his waist, past his growing member to dry his legs, his feet, and all the while she was peppering him with kisses, the coldness of the water droplets on his skin and the warmth of his flesh meeting at the juncture of her lips, which in turn smeared with bright red the territory it has explored and taken as its own. While all these were happening, Mr. Arcega mumbled his wife’s name, softly at first and then later with urgency. The name soon took over her, enveloping her like some invisible amniotic sac, compelling her to smile in response, a smile that, obscured partly by shadows, was a perfect replica of the woman’s smile in the picture.

Yet that night, something happened for the first time in their relationship, or whatever it was fit to call their setup. In bed, both of them now completely naked, she felt something hard, warm and throbbing entering and leaving her being in rhythmic fashion. She froze in terror, muttering her protestations, but quickly a hand stifled her cries. The world now seemed to be all grunt, heave and push, and the world now seemed to be an enormous paper-like creature with folds and creases that has come to crush her under its weight, and the world was now a-shudder as he came inside her. She felt empty, as if her soul has been pounded out of her, and after an hour or so she lay there, staring at the flitting shadows that swept the ceiling (which seemed to be closing in on her), oblivious to Mr. Arcega’s panting and a faint but lingering smell that suggested ammonia.

Perhaps something inside her should have revolted, in fact during her first few days she had almost quit, but now there was no recourse other than to accept everything as part of the natural order of things. She got out of bed and staggered toward the bathroom. A steady stream gushed from the faucet and swirled in the sink down the drain, and with her cupped hands she brought water to her face. Gasping, she looked at her naked self in the mirror, yet only managed to capture her reflection for a split-second before it was blurred by gray tears.

She dressed, now in her usual clothes, and went downstairs to get her bag, and, as a matter of course, to take the one thousand-peso bill Mr. Arcega has placed under the conch shell that served as paperweight on the cabinet near the grand piano. The early morning air greeted her at the door, cold, biting cold.

Unknown forms and shadows still stalked her on her way home, but now she didn’t feel out of place; instead, she felt certain there was a place for her in the darkness. She imagined the world being bent into her will, the universe existing merely as a piece of paper that can be crumpled or folded into shape. She walked past the street corner, past the limping dog and into her house, retrieved her husband’s bolo under their cot, looked long and hard at the two figures sleeping soundlessly under a threadbare blanket, and again went outside to meet the newborn day.

Shortly before dawn, the fat lady woke to the sound of piteous howling. She scrambled out of bed and through the window saw someone, a woman, hacking repeatedly at the body of a dog.

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