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Intricacies of intimacy

Well-chosen is the title story in Noelle Q. de Jesus’ Blood: Collected Stories, published by Ethos Books of Singapore and recently made available locally.

The short story “Blood” details the day a girl of 11 experiences her first menstruation.

Anna loves her “Mommy” (“… a small woman, but she stands tall, like she is someone important, no matter how small she is.”), who is often in conflict with older daughter Sheila, receives little regard from oldest son Joey, and still cares lovingly for four-year-old Johnny who has yet to speak, and whom the sassy Sheila dismisses as a “retard,” much to Mommy’s objections.

They live abroad, since “Daddy” is a foreigner, with whom Mommy has also been having frequent arguments of late, and who shouts at her, “Dammit, speak in English!” when her verbal polemics shifts to “Tagalog, sharp and jagged, she uses words I’ve never heard before.”

When Mommy speaks in English, she assigns a gender to objects, calls an ashtray “him” and Anna’s obligatory homework “her.” She is also fond of dispensing old-folk superstition that is deemed crazy by the rest of the household, such as never go to bed with wet hair else go blind, never cut one’s nails at night else face bad luck, never be photographed in a group of three as the one in the middle will die… Daddy used to laugh over all these, but not any more.

On the day of Anna’s first “monthly,” Mommy offers yet more advice that she considers sage.

“’This,’ Mommy said, ‘this first blood, this is the secret to being beautiful.’” She insists that it guarantees clear skin, that she did it herself when her mother told her to. Anna finds the idea “Eeew...”

Daddy has called to say he’ll be home late again. Mommy gets into another shouting match with Sheila, in the middle of which Joey bounds down the stairs and goes off into the rain, slamming the door shut.

“… Sheila taunts Mommy with her hands on her hips like she is the mother.

“That’s when Mommy gets more upset. She starts talking in her own language. Her words are all mixed up with English, her voice shakes with anger. First, ‘How dare you!’ and then I can’t make out the rest. Sheila just stands there. I know she is listening for words she can understand… just the way I am.

“’What kind of daughter—and what kind do you think? It’s not my fault—and what about me?’ And then there are more and more words and sentences in Tagalog. It gets louder and louder. It gets angrier but also sadder. The sadness is what hurts me deep. Soon, there are no more words left in English, no words left that we can understand.”

But the argument reaches a climax.

“… When Sheila calls Mommy a fool and a know-nothing, Mommy rushes at her, a shadow darts quickly on the wall. I hear the sound of a stinging slap as Mommy hits Sheila.”

The older sister runs off sobbing to her room, while a still distraught Mommy responds to Johnny’s crying by cradling him in her arms. When Anna flicks on the light switch in the kitchen, Mommy orders her: “Close—the—light!” It’s dark, with lightining hissing outside, thunder exploding, but Anna obeys when her Mommy dares her: “What now? Sige, just do what you want. Be like dem. Be like the others.”

Plaintively, the young girl says no. Anna loves her mother, wants to tell her so, that it’s not her fault, that “She is beautiful and I won’t ever scream or fight or slam the door, I want to say. But I can’t say anything.”

Instead, she goes to the bathroom and cries. And convinces hereself of her loyalty to Mommy.

“I touch myself. I’m soft and slippery-wet. I look at my fingers. The red is no different from watercolor or finger paints in art class, but it smells sharp of rust and salt. I tense my belly, and reach down with both hands, and more blood flows. I smear my face with it. I rub it onto my cheeks and my forehead, making dark streaks everywhere. And I leave it there. I leave it on until it is clear and dry on my pale skin.”

Pardon the spoilers, but it’s the only way I can propose that De Jesus’ prose is decidedly superlative, with structural aplomb and adherence to telling minutiae constantly buttressing the basic strength of her narrative skills.

All the stories in this collection are bloody good reads — from “flash” pieces of two to four pages to the longer stories that similarly dwell on domestic relationships, the intricacies of intimacy, alienation in foreign settings, immigrants’ experiences, the Filipino out there in the world, struggling with language and the cold.

Of the short shorts, “Merienda” tells of a chef who loves to feed his partner, a fashion model, until she balloons and he leaves her for a petite singer.

“Games” has a nameless lady who introduces herself as different women whenever someone else answers when she calls her male partner at his office. He always recognizes her voice when he comes to the phone. One time she uses the name of a former girlfriend of his. He slips, and laughs it off.

“’Hey, I love you,’ he said, lowering his voice so no one else could hear it but her. But even as she said she loved him too, she wondered at the sound of her voice, and ached, because he never once said her name.”

The two-page “A Happy Marriage” has an adulterous wife giddy with happiness that her husband is at first “amused by his wife’s mood, as much as he is surprised by it.”

“… And yet it is irresistible, even infectious. Nights, he takes hold of her with urgency and newness, and his greedy, wordless passion is astonishing even to himself….

“The truth is she is in love. And the story is so old and so stale and so tawdry, it leaves a bad taste in the mouth.”

The dalliances with a younger man who professes his love “in heated whispers, in the cool darkness of rented rooms at noon” are what fill her with gaiety. At dusk she races home to embrace her children and reads picture books to them.

“Later in the evening, freshly showered and safe in her own bed, she lies limp as her husband reaches for her once again. She smiles and sighs and lets herself be taken, thinking there may indeed be a thousand women like her, all around the world at this very moment. Such lucky, beautiful blessed women, this much loved, this much adored.”

But that is not yet the ending passage, nor of how “when her husband cries out, she kisses him fondly on the top of his head and then pushes him off her body.” But this: “Beside her, he works to catch his breath, wanting to say something… but what? There is nothing to say, why, nothing at all. He turns over and as he falls asleep, he wonders briefly why he is afraid to tell his wife he loves her.”

Rife with irony and insights, amid the complexity of relations between diverse if familiar characters that are effectively fleshed up, these stories have been crafted from imagination and the understanding that personal experiences can be reworked into fine fiction.

Technique, too, is paramount, whether brought to bear on the long story of dysfunctional families or the Filipina’s acceptance of conjugal relations that aren’t necessarily forced on her, but which she settled on for reasons of practicality. Often featured are aspects of mothering, the quality of grandmothers’ care, conflicting plans on the need (and proper time) for procreation.

Cora marries a German farmer after a pen-pal introduction and raises their daughters comfortably. Occasionally she pines for home and tries to reconnect by escaping to a concert of the touring Madrigal Chorus, only to find that tickets are sold out.

A childen’s book author pining for a socialite who has left her husband in the States has to endure weekend writing sessions with her precocious if bratty daughter.

A Filipino couple hosts an American one in a beachhouse, where in the wee hours of the morning, each pair does their thing. But for Cara, there is no equivalent tongue for the desire that keeps sexual partners together.

A futuristic story is set in Singapore, where a young man is prodded by his grandfather to join him in a hunt for a cache of bottled water.

Noelle Q. de Jesus has done much of her writing in Singapore where she tends to her own family. Weeks ago she read a few of these stories in front of Fil-Am and American audiences in California, to much acclaim. More recently, she was back home in Manila for a literary session at her alma mater, the Ateneo, and another launch-reading with Singaporean poet-friends in Solidaridad Bookstore.

I didn’t manage to catch either affair, and am also sorry to have taken so long to go through her book that I had acquired much earlier. Finally going through it has been a delight. I now entertain the hope that Noelle soon takes up the long form, and writes that epic novel on the Filipino diaspora. She is eminently equipped for this enterprise.

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