After the chemo, the doctor advised that she take up a hobby. For some reason, it was painting. I myself didn’t know about this interest of hers. It was sudden, like a speeding truck hitting a plant box beside the highway. I bought her brushes, and cans of paint, and the old nursery became her little studio.
For a few days, she was back on her routine: smashing things whenever she felt frustrated. The first time this happened, we were both younger, and she didn’t get the job she wanted. Apparently, she failed one of the tests, and upon arriving home, she grabbed a forlorn flower vase from the living room and with the strength of a mason armed with a sledgehammer, smashed the vase on the tiled floor. It shattered to a million pieces, one of which darted towards me and grazed my leg. Bleeding, I bandaged the wound before taking a broom to sweep up the mess. She went to the kitchen cabinet and pulled out tin cans of sardines, tuna and corned beef and threw them all to the floor, crying and shouting all the time. I stared at the shards of the vase and it looked kind of melancholic to me. They produced the monotonous cacophony of broken xylophone teeth as I put them in the garbage can outside. She was still crying when I went back inside the house. “I’m sorry,” she was saying. I didn’t say anything, but I started putting the cans back on the cabinet. I sat beside her on the sofa, embraced her, that everything was fine. I told her I have work, that I can provide for us, that there were other opportunities waiting for her, all of it out there, countless possibilities, endless, endless choices.
She never listened to me. I remembered when we received the doctor’s prescription. I told her to follow the dosages religiously, told her that it was the only way to get better. She’d nod her head like a child being lectured on the good things and the bad, but when I got home, the pills lay complete in its foiled packet. She told me she forgot. But I knew: she never wanted to get better.
“I make mistakes all the time,” she told me.
We all do, I assured her. Just the other day, one of my students corrected an error I made in my lecture, a proof that they also read their books. And other books, for that matter. Lesson learned: stock knowledge does not always work. One has to perpetually review.
“Our mistakes define our lives,” she told me.
Sure, I answered her. When I told my parents I would take care of them, I was a young boy clinging to their arms, a young boy thinking about nothing but toys and journeying to the moon. When I grew and started to get to know things better, I understood that some form of responsibility would dawn to me, sooner or later. And it was not my fingers stuck on their arm. I stepped outside, fell in love countless of times, had my share of friends, and women, and got married.
Thinking about it, although of course I would never know for sure, her greatest mistake in life was getting married to me. I loved her, she was my wife. And maybe, she loved me too. I wanted it because I was thinking about the baby, and maybe she wanted it too. Maybe she wanted it because society demanded it, or whatever. She never told me anything. And I never pressed her, because I know she wanted it. She said her vows with the enthusiasm of a soldier being sent to a secret mission deep in the jungles of Vietnam. When we went to Palawan during our honeymoon, she held my hand as if it was the end of the world while we sat on the beach and watched the sunset. I had lost count of the sunsets we loved. She mostly counted dawns, though; the sun rising and all she saw was my thin body beside her.
When we returned to the city after our honeymoon, she filed her resignation from her contractual work and stayed in our apartment in Quezon City while I taught History to high school students. She would send me text messages about the food she would like to eat, or stuff that she would like to do once I get home, and we’d do it. I set aside some paperworks and we’d eat, or watch a movie or a TV show. She took up reading Murakami while I was at work, and when I got home she’d talk to me all about it. We would share insights and compare our favorite bits of Murakami’s novels or short stories.
I knew: she loved me.
After the funeral, she hardly spoke to me. Her words produced a bland taste, and it passed through my ears as a deafening monotone. She went out with her old friends and went home late. When I asked her about it, she told me she needed to forget. I understood. I myself started writing poems with the sole purpose of forgetting. How it helped, I never really knew. To me, writing became some form of release. Some form of letting go. There was something about words that opened itself to me like tiny pockets. I stuffed my sorrows in it until the pockets turned to minimalist curtain-less windows where, from behind the glass, shadows of my past emotions waved at me.
One weekend, she was smashing plates while I was wrestling with metaphors. She was crying, her heart seemed broken like all those sharp fragments lying on the floor. None were sharp enough to pierce all the sadness in the world. When I held her, she shook my arms away. That was when I noticed that she was no longer wearing our wedding ring.
When she calmed down, she spoke to me. “I went to the doctor.”
It was followed by a series of papers full of complex medical terms, all of which confirmed one thing.
I was happy when she told me that she would be taking art classes. At least she could get her mind off things.
“It’s more of a crash course,” she told me. “We won’t paint a thing. We’d just look at paintings and interpret them. Or so the flyer says.”
I agreed. I thought perhaps she gave up painting and was content at just looking and giving meanings to them. She wore a bandanna every time she went to her classes. I bought her a bottle of shampoo that should help her hair grow faster. She loved her vegetables every Friday.
I went to her studio in the house one time and it was a messy den of wasted paint, paper, and canvas. A splash of paint on one, a splash of paint on the other, hues and clumsy strokes forming a vortex on a surface of white, nothing discernible except its own pure nothingness. She and I went to an art exhibit back in college, a conceptual one. I remember the title of the exhibit: “Capital Shavings”, and it contained mostly Happy Meal toys painted black, glowing in a gloomy countenance; Bento boxes painted with the letters “MLM” or “BUY ME, I’M BROKEN”, among other things. The curator hinted that everything that was on display were products of the capitalist surplus. She didn’t like it, and it was the last exhibit we ever went to. That was why I was puzzled about the sudden surfacing of her interest in art.
The schedule of her classes were M-W-F. One time she told me that she met some cool people, and they hanged out in this cool bar which sells cool drinks, and after classes they’d go there and talk about cool stuff. I told her she was starting to sound like one of my students. She gave a slight laugh, amused perhaps about what I said while at the same time thinking that I was probably insecure because she gets to go out and have fun. It was not the case though. I simply wanted her to have the time of her life now that she was well and all.
“Just follow the doctor’s prescriptions…religiously,” I told her. “And take it easy on alcohol. Didn’t the doctor tell you that?” And she’d nod as if I just asked her if she wanted another round of Margarita. I checked the pills on our medicine cabinet and they were sitting there, good as new, no sign of anybody even thinking about taking them. I told her about it, and she promised me would take them. And she did. Bit by bit, the pills disappeared like orphans finding new homes, somewhere.
It was our anniversary and she told me to pick her up from her art classes. I had a cab waiting outside a stout building along Quezon Avenue, and finally she came out with some of her friends. She introduced me to them, and truth be told we felt like we were their parents. They were young and looked so full of energy, while the two of us were in our mid-thirties.
“Let’s go with them for a while,” she whispered to me. “Then we’ll leave afterwards.”
We went to the bar they frequent. I ordered them some drinks and snacks. The bar has a wide selection of craft beer. I’ve always wanted to taste one, so I ordered two before going back to our table.
They were talking about Claude Monet. They spoke of the desire to break away from conventions, to do something new, to keep the spirit of deviation alive. I listened to their words all the while I took swigs from my IPA, which tasted so good I knew I would want to drink it all the time. Next they talked about Dadaism and all its revolutionary tendencies. They said that art should be the salvation of the masses from their oppressors. Others argued that they make art for the sake of making art. I just listened even though most of it hardly made any sense to me, after all beauty was subjective. It might be non-existent for all I care. If art sought to replicate beauty then the true meaning of beauty, whatever it meant, has diminished. Repetition was the key to fading away. Like when you hear a joke. It was funny the first time. But hearing it again and again, the punch of its punch line disperses into nothing, as if it never made any sense in the first place. Go to the store and buy an iPhone again and again, buying a new one in time with a new version’s release, and the purpose of the commodity diminishes. You no longer need an item for communication. You want it to take some form of meaning, something different from its true purpose. If beauty is all the time reproduced, replicated, then all beauty fades into nothing. It sounded somewhat sad, but I refused to give it any more thought. When my bottles were empty, I glanced at my wife, and nodded my head forward.
“Why don’t you go ahead?” she whispered to me.
“Go home. This is important, you know? I—I’ll get home afterwards.”
I didn’t say anything at first, and waited for her to explain further. But when it seemed as if she wasn’t going to say anything anymore, I asked her to come home again.
“You go ahead. We’re gonna order another round for all of us, and we’ll talk some more. It’s pretty boring, huh? But that’s understandable.”
I slammed a palm on the table. The table shook, and our present company jumped. “It’s our fucking anniversary!” I bellowed. All eyes were on me as I stood. I mumbled an apology before I went out the bar. I took a cab home and watched the evening news. A bomb exploded in Davao. Ten people were killed by the blast, and 60 more were injured. I dozed off and woke up to find the TV already off. I walked to the kitchen for some water and I found my wife sitting there, a cup of coffee in one hand.
“What time did you arrive?” I asked as I took a glass from the dish compartment. I opened the fridge and took out a pitcher of water.
“Around two in the morning,” she replied. I glanced at the window in the kitchen. It was still dark.
“You should be getting some sleep,” I told her. “Coffee’s not gonna help you.”
“What will help?” she said.
I shook my head. Not because I didn’t have an answer but because I didn’t know what the answer was anymore. I tried thinking about it. Oh, fuck, I tried so hard.
She told me she would quit her art classes. I didn’t ask her why. I asked myself if I felt happy about it. Maybe.
One Saturday, she was smashing things again. I went to her room and found haunting images littered on the tiled floor, a kaleidoscope of paint forming eccentric patterns.
“I can’t do it,” she was weeping. “I can’t fucking do anything.”
Me too, I told myself. I took the mop and some water and tried wiping off the colors. They merely faded. She took a scrub and helped me with the stains. We were not successful in cleaning the floor, but we came to the point that we were tired of cleaning and scrubbing that we just sat on the floor and stared at the remaining stains and mess as if it was some abstract painting made especially for us.
“Let’s smoke,” she said. And I agreed. I went outside at the local store and bought a pack of Marlboros. She was still in the room when I got back. She barely moved. I gave her a stick and together we smoked in the room.
“How many more years do you think we can go on bullshitting ourselves?” she asked.
“It depends. How did you last ten years with a shitty person?”
“I fucking survived cancer,” she replied. “But this?” She blew a straight stream of smoke that wafted in my nostrils.
“I did,” I replied. “Or at least, I tried.”
“We had a baby,” she told me. “It was my work. Our work.”
I didn’t answer.
“I was trying to paint how he might have looked like,” she continued. “Did he looked like you or like me?”
“He definitely looked like you,” I told her, thinking about nothing in particular.
“I hate how I look like,” she said. She stopped for a few seconds before continuing. “And, honestly, I never knew how you looked like, either.”
With a sigh, she crushed her cigarette on the floor. To me it appeared to be a forlorn gravestone, a solitary marker to something that once physically existed, and exited this world without anyone caring.
I let mine burn away before crushing it just the same.