The Scent of Powder and Peppermint
Today is Berty's last day.
At 9:43:06 pm, a piece of fat now coursing through his bloodstream is going to stop right as it reaches the artery leading to his lungs. The blood will try to push it through but the vessel walls will be too narrow. And the artery, swelling like a balloon filled with too much air, will burst.
Exactly 55.8 seconds later, Berty's heart will stop.
Today is Berty's last day, but he does not know that yet.
For the last time, Berty wakes the way he has for 28 of his 53 years.
His alarm rings at 6:30:02 am. Reaching out with a stout hand to press the snooze button, he knocks the phone out of its cradle. Groggily, he kicks the covers away from his body and sits up.
Beside him, his wife Leni is already folding the beddings. He watches her hands move the fabric this way and that-fold, smoothen, fold. He smiles, knowing without leaning in to check that her hands smell like powder and efficascent oil. Small wrinkles have started forming around her knuckles, loosening some of the flesh. But there, on the fourth finger of her right hand still sat the silver band he'd slid into place years ago.
"Come on sleepy head; you'll be late," she says, setting the blanket on her pillow.
He lets out a sigh. "I don't feel like going to work."
"Then don't for a change," she replies, reaching for his blanket.
"You know I have to," he says, putting his slippers on and making for the bathroom.
Leni doesn't look up.
"Hey." He plants a kiss on her cheek. "As of tonight, I'm all yours."
Not meeting his eye, she walks past him. It's time to make breakfast.
Exactly 5 seconds behind Leni's car, at 7:05:08 am, Berty leaves his house. Getting into the dark blue sedan he's driven for years, he puts his briefcase in the passenger's seat.
He listens to his favorite AM station as he drives out of their neighborhood. Today: 3 women killed in a fire in Mandaluyong, a traffic enforcer shot down by a taxi driver, a brothel raided, dead fetus found in a shoebox. He frowns; far too early for death.
As he turns onto the highway, the horoscopes come on and he listens for Scorpio. "Goodluck for Scorpios today; all your endeavors will be rewarded. Mind your health; avoid people with cough or colds on public transport. Lucky number 9, Lucky color gray." Berty is wearing a gray polo. He smiles and looks at his briefcase. His dissertation is almost finished.
Envisioning the congratulations he would get from his students and colleagues as next term he wrote "Dr." before his name, he starts to whistle. Turning into the university parking lot, he sees a number of available slots. He has a good feeling about today.
Leni fancies one of her students from her 09:00 am English class. Everytime she sees him, she is sure he can see her cheeks burning, can detect the quickening of her pulse. She doesn't like it.
David, the young man, is 25 years her junior: 18, on the baseball team, and sitting in the front row.
She catches his eye as she walks into the room. He sits slightly slumped in his chair, hair falling into his eyes.
He is watching as she unloads her things on the desk; first putting her tin pencil case on the right-most corner and then arranging her books according to thickness, the slim class record on top.
She notices from out of the corner of her eye that the blue shirt he is wearing today is loose. And as the fan blows, she catches a glimpse of the curve of his arm, toned from swinging that bat.
She feels a bead of sweat trickle down her back.
Leni clears her throat. How silly of her for thinking these things-the boy was an infant. What did he know about love, life, or literature, for that matter? He probably sat on a different girl's couch every night, toned arm slung around her as they watched TV. Then those arms would wind around her tighter until they-
"Okay class," she says. "Let's talk about tragedies. What exactly, differentiates tragedy from any other type of story?" She scans the room, avoiding the first row. "Anyone?"
David raises his hand.
"Yes. Yes, David."
"It ends in catastrophe," he says, not moving his eyes from her face.
David smiles. "Am I right?"
Berty's first class is his favorite. The students are participative bordering on argumentative. Always, they contest something he says; just the way he likes it.
Active discussion is, in Berty's opinion, proof of learning.
"So, tell me. Why does the mouse continue to turn left long after the food has gone?"
A hand shoots up in the air.
"It's all conditioning; he's been conditioned to turn right, expecting reward."
"Exactly. And how does this apply to real life?"
"In marriage, for example, sir; many couples stay together long after the actual feeling has gone out of it."
Berty thinks of Leni-fold, smoothen, fold.
"Good example, Rosie. Now class, we move onto-"
Another hand is raised. "Sir wait!"
"What about extinction in real life, then? When the mouse stops turning right?"
Berty looks at him through the rims of his glasses. "You haven't heard of divorce, Mr. Lee?"
David heads for the library, climbing the steps two at a time; he hopes he hasn't missed her.
Pushing the glass doors open, he tries to catch his breath. For a moment, he thinks he's too late; Ms. Leni is nowhere to be seen.
He frowns; all that running for nothing. Damn team meetings. Damn the long lunch line. He leans on the edge of a table wondering what to do with the rest of his break; go to an internet café? Have a few shots with some guys from the team?
As he makes his way to the exit, a white blur catches his eye. He turns abruptly and sees her-Ms. Leni- standing between two shelves, struggling to reach one of the books.
He watches as she leans forward, one leg on tip toe. Not moving, he runs his eyes along the curve of her arched back, and notices her blouse lift a little. Seeing a flash of skin untouched by the sun, he finds himself curling his toes inside his shoes.
Berty sighs. It is 4:30:05 in the afternoon. Only 50.5 more pages of graphs to correlate and he'll be done. His eyes feel weary from staring at the computer screen all day. Numbers and figures are making his head swim.
He glances at his watch. He and Lenina are leaving at 7:00 from their house. He's never going to make it.
A tingling sensation crawls across his chest. Berty ignores it. It happens every now and then, when he's stressed out. What he needs now, he decides, is a smoke. And maybe some bacsilog. He hasn't eaten lunch yet.
The day seems to Leni an over loaded montage of David running his hands through his hair. After class, he'd offered to help carry her things to the faculty room. A tingle had run down her spine as she handed her books over and their hands brushed against each other. During lunch she had seen him in the cafeteria, balancing his food tray on one hand, mussing his hair with the other.
And now he is in the library, reading a magazine.
She watches him toy with his hair as he turns the page. She leans on the shelf, pretending to look for something.
What is he doing here? Isn't he supposed to be with his friends or with some girl? Cursing under her breath, she sits as far away as possible. Or as far as she can sit and still see him.
She takes a deep breath, perspiring despite the air-conditioning. Her palms are sweating.
Looking down, she catches sight of the silver band on her right hand's ring finger. She and Berty are going away for the weekend. Off to those hot springs that sooth little aches and smoothen the skin.
She smiles, remembering Berty when they had first met. He'd had hair down to his shoulders, his frame lean. He'd gone to all the small piano shows she played back then. And sitting in the front row, always he would give her a little salute when she took her bow, raising two fingers to his temples gesturing toward her. Always, she kept her fascination secret, ignoring his little gestures.
Until one night he wasn't in his usual seat, and she'd missed that small act of congratulations. Worried that he'd gone she'd nearly tripped as she made her way off the stage. And catching herself, she looked up to see him standing at the foot of the stairs with a bouquet of red flowers.
"Mind if I join you Miss?"
Leni looks up to see David standing over her table, a half-smile on his face.
"Actually, you can have this table," she says. "I was just leaving."
At 5:25:09 in the afternoon, Berty decides he is not going to the hot springs with Lenina this weekend. 30 more graphs to go; he can't stop now. The PhD is so close. He can almost feel the diploma's weight in his hands; feel the rush of air has he stands there on the pedestal, looking down at the smiling faces of his colleagues and students.
And Lenina of course.
He picks up the phone and dials the number of the college.
"Yes, Santa Raphael's College, Literature Department," the voice on the other end of the line says.
"Mrs. Lenina Gonzales, please."
Berty sings along to the hold tune- an old nursery rhyme.
"Lenina, my love."
"Yes, sweet heart?"
"I don't think I can come to the springs this weekend."
"But you promised-"
"I'll make it up to you next week? I don't think there'll be a difference anyway-"
"Then why don't we just go this week? Please, Berty. It's that stupid thesis-"
"Dissertation," he corrects her.
"I don't care what it is. It's always your work; you'd think it was the one cooking your meals and doing your laundry."
"Hey, come on. No need for that tone, Leni. We'll go next week."
The busy tone sounds in his ear.
Lenina is furious. It isn't fair.
He is always doing this to her. Always. It isn't enough that he'd gone bald five years after she met him or that his belly is so big he has to wear suspenders, no, of course not. The man she'd married just has to be married to his job.
She chokes back a sob.
Inhaling deeply, she realizes she wants a cigarette. She'd stopped smoking years ago when Berty had said he was quitting as a sign of her empathy with him.
The small sari-sari store by the parking lot comes to mind. Maybe just this once.
Gathering her things, she storms out of the faculty room, down the stairs and to the parking lot, her heels clacking on the floor.
At the store, she buys a pack of gold lights and a lighter. Stuffing them in her bag, she makes her way to her car.
Once there, she tears the pack open, littering the passenger's seat with the plastic wrap. She starts the ignition. Opening the window, she lights her first stick in 15 years.
There is traffic on the way out. Leni has been sitting in her car for ten minutes and fifteen seconds. Out of the corner of her eye, she catches a glimpse of blue. She curses.
Looking out, she sees David walking under the late afternoon sun, the light turning his hair brown. He has a cigarette in his mouth, and is walking with his upper body slightly hunched forward.
After a moment's hesitation, Lenina rolls down her window.
"Want a ride?" she asks.
David looks up, squinting. Seeing who it is, he smiles. "I didn't know you smoked."
Leni ignores the comment. "Hurry up if you're getting in, the traffic light's going to change soon."
David smiles and gets into the passenger's seat. The stoplight turns green.
"Where are you headed?" he asks Lenina.
She shrugs. "I haven't quite decided yet."
"Not home?" He eyes the silver band on her right hand.
She throws the cigarette out the window. "No."
"Are you okay?" he asks.
She blinks, realizing no one has asked her that in the longest time.
"Park the car for a while," David says.
She slows down.
The car stops.
Lenina rests her head on the steering wheel.
She takes a deep breath. "This is so inappropriate."
David smiles. So that's what was bothering her. "Come on, you can tell me. As of last December, I am legally an adult."
That's the problem, Lenina thinks. She's been an adult for more than 20 years. "It's going to sound painfully cliché."
He shrugs. "My life is a cliché-- I'm on the baseball team, get average grades and like to smoke up on the weekends. You know how it goes. Both my parents are doctors who want me to drop my obsession with sports and focus on something substantive like medicine or law, but don't quite care enough to do anything about it. I am the under-achieving middle child. "
She plays with a loose thread on her blouse. "My husband is married to his work. All I wanted to do was to go away for the weekend; to feel special you know? Honestly; it's disgusting how upset I am especially since this has happened before. I should've known, is all."
David exhales. "You don't need those things to feel special."
"Easy for you to say."
"What do you mean?"
"You've got your whole life ahead of you," she says. "I- well, this is my life."
"Doesn't have to be," David says.
She smiles. "Thank you." Her eyes linger on his face-the creased eyebrows, the square jaw and those full lips.
"Going home now?" He tentatively puts his hand on her shoulder. Her shoulder is slender under his big hand. He recalls the flash of pale skin under her blouse. Tossing his cigarette out of the window, he longs to see it again.
She purses her lips. "Do you live with your parents?" she asks quickly.
David shakes his head. "My dorm's a jeepney ride away from school." His pulse quickens. He bites his lip to keep from grinning.
"Mind if we go for a little spin?"
Berty drives out of the parking lot at around 08:30:02.
Finally, he's finished with the data. He whistles, pleased with the results of his experiments. He can't wait to get home and tell Lenina. Yes, he knows she is mad at him but he is confident she'll forgive him. She always has. And anyway, he is doing this for them. A PhD also means higher pay.
The tingling feeling is back. He turns on the radio. "Tonight: President's private conversations leaked, dead body found in the Pasig River."
Maybe he was just hungry.
Berty stops at a flower shop and buys a bouquet of red flowers. Just like the first time, he thinks. In his mind's eye, he sees Leni's hands. Oh how he loves those hands. Peppermint and powder. Suddenly, he cannot wait to get home.
On the way, he gets a hotdog from the local convenience store.
In his veins, the tiny lump of fat travels, slowly traversing the circumference of his stomach.
Lenina runs her hands through his hair.
The car is parked in an alley, only partly illuminated by a street lamp's hazy light.
David runs his hands under her shirt and down her back.
Behind them, the clock ticks. 09:00:03.
She feels her bra snap off, replaced by David's hands. They are warm from smoking, and she can smell the nicotine in his breath.
"I've been dreaming of this since the day you walked into the room," he says.
"Yeah? Well there's a reason I put you in the front row," she replies, biting his lip.
He pushes her skirt up her thighs-
Leni's breathing grows rapid. She holds onto him, arms around his neck, feeling the strong beat of his heart.
"Lenina," he whispers in her ear. "Lenina, Lenina, Lenina."
When finally, she lets out a loud moan, she looks up and through the window. In the dim light, she swears she catches a glimpse of a man holding a bouquet of red flowers crossing the street. It is 09:34:06.
Lenina is not home.
Berty sighs as he arrives in their house at 09:31:03. The lock clicks as he turns the key in the hole.
He sets the flowers on the dining table, knowing that when Lenina comes home, she will put her bag on the table and see them.
Grabbing a beer from the refrigerator, he turns the TV on and flips through the channels. News, entertainment, movies. Settling on a nice basketball game, he rests the cold bottle on his stomach.
Taking a sip, he starts to feel drowsy. The tingling sensation is back.
He hunches forward as the tingling turns into a pang of pain. Hand clutching his chest, his beer drops to floor and the bottle shatters. A sound like he is choking comes from his throat.
Berty's eyes are still open but no longer watch the basketball game.
Lenina pulls into their driveway at 10:05:06. Checking her hair in the rearview mirror, she takes a deep breath and reapplies her lipstick.
There is a churning in the pit of her stomach and she feels terrible. Terrible for feeling justified. She had been looking forward to those hot springs so badly. What she did was wrong, she thinks to herself. But so is what he did.
She isn't going to tell him. She isn't going to tell anyone.
She slams the door of her car behind her and makes her way to their door. Berty, she practices in her head. I'm sorry for hanging up on you.
One last time: Berty, I'm sorry for hanging up on you.
She turns her key in the hole.