I. Sharp Instruments
The clanging of woks and harried calls from the cooks seemed louder that Sunday, the bustle carrying a more frenzied air. Sophia felt like a caged animal. She looked up at the ceiling, wishing to float above the flood of noise. Across the table, her parents sat straight-backed and elegant--they dressed up on Sundays for mass. At this dim sum place along Fraser Street, they were familiar faces to servers who were used to serving them efficiently. Her father always brought them to the same place after the service; he enjoyed the anxious, deferential treatment. Sophia wished everybody would just slow down, that the plates of deep-fried rolls would land on the table without that haphazard clink, the tiny steaming bowls set down with some care. The world lacked in grace. There was no need for all this hurry.
There was also no need to talk so loudly. Sophia marvelled at how her mother's excited voice surfed above the noise level in the restaurant, while Samuel and their father hungrily served themselves with the newly arrived delicacies. What was it with men that could make them so indifferent when everything around them was chaos?
"There might have been a fight, some confrontation. " Her mother looked to Sophia for confirmation. During last night's Skype call to Manila, every single detail had been dissected, with Sophia's mother embellishing with things remembered from the past, and Auntie Mila correcting her faulty memory, happy to fan the same topic as it kept at bay the other usual subject, which was her perpetual singlehood. They had harmoniously called it an accident. Sophia, who had been eavesdropping, missed the kindness of the word, its blamelessness, now that her mother was adding fresh angles to her younger sister's juicy gossip. "Maybe it wasn't an accident. Who knows?"
Thee feast on the Lazy Susan gave off the aroma of sesame and pork fat, all of which ordinarily made her day. Sophia had a voracious appetite. Adrian had once said that she wasn't like other beautiful women who ate like birds.
That morning she didn't feel like a single bite.
"Your Auntie Rosy," her mother waved her chopsticks at Sophia on your, stressing that the woman was just someone Sophia called Auntie, not a family relation, "has not seen a customer since the accident. The ale left with an unfinished haircut and a bleeding cut on her cheek. Fight or no fight, Rosy must have been drunk!"
Her father shrugged. "What's going to happen now?"
"For sure, she's going to lose the business. It's so sad. " But her mother didn't sound sad. She sounded cold, satisfied even.
"Where did Auntie Mila hear this?" Sophia made her voice sound skeptical, poised to dismiss the story.
"Everyone in the neighbourhood is talking about it. I'm surprised you haven't heard. "
"I haven't been in touch with them. " She avoided her mother's gaze by looking up at the server who put down a fresh teapot on their table before hurrying off with the empty one. He brushed against another server pushing a cart that carried towering piles of bamboo steamers. Sophia herself felt like a tottering container in danger of falling to the floor, her secrets tumbling out like meat filling from a breached dumpling.
How generous she had been back then, sending money and packages filled with salon supplies and gifts to Manila. It had been three years, but Sophia was remembering all of it too clearly. How, at the beginning, it hadn't felt like a burden. Every amount she signed off, every package she sealed and shipped, left her with a nostalgic glow from paying homage. It hadn't been hard to keep these charitable efforts from her stingy parents--as a child, Sophia had harboured bigger secrets. That Auntie Rosy was grateful to the point of tears every single time only spurred her generosity. Being left to run Cine Star after Aling Helen's death had made her fragile and resilient at the same time. Such contradictions were the stuff Auntie Rosy was made of. Perhaps the end had been inevitable. Their friendship couldn't have emerged from their dreadful misunderstanding unscathed. When everything finally blew up, Auntie Rosy no longer wanted to speak to Sophia, who had been irked but ultimately relieved by this outcome. Through all of it, her family had been unaware and uninvolved. As always.
Outside the skies were bright, the leaves vibrant in the late-September showdown between summer and fall, but all Sophia could see were the smudges on the glass window, swirling traces of mist where the cleaning cloth had been. A cut on the cheek. Auntie Rosy had been a stylist for decades. What had taken so long, Sophia thought, for something like this to happen?
The scene played out in her head: the woman storming out of Cine Star, hand cradling one side of her face. Murmurs rising among onlookers lined up at the next-door pawnshop and the bakery at the other side. Auntie Mila would have pieced the story together from plenty of sources. Her account was so detailed that her mother, who knew nothing about the people living next door to their Collingwood area townhouse, would talk about it for a long time.
But it was Erwin's version that Sophia wanted to hear. It had been months since they had last spoken, but from what she could tell from his Facebook and Instagram posts, her childhood friend still lived in the same neighbourhood, worked at the same call centre outfit. Heard the same rumours. Erwin was Sophia's remaining link to Auntie Rosy.
By the time they left the Chinese restaurant, the morning's sunny skies had turned into a defeated shade. "It might rain," Sophia remarked, looking through the window of her father's Honda. Next to her, Samuel had earphones plugged in his ears, his slouch disguising his springing height. He looked thirteen instead of nineteen. As her mother went on questioning Auntie Rosy's life choices, Sophia found herself agreeing with the prevailing belief within the family that her brother was the clever one.
"Mila says Rosy and Soledad are still tight. They are still seen together at nights. "
Aling Soledad! Sophia had not thought of her for years. When she was growing up, the rumours about the woman swirled around their neighbourhood like a swarm of bees. Back when she believed that being beautiful brought a woman a lot of trouble. The string of boyfriends. Affairs ending stormily. The next man a step down from the last. Sometimes a baby in their wake. Sophia wondered if Auntie Rosy still styled Aling Soledad at Cine Star like the old days. For free.
"She should be locked up," her father huffed. They were stopped at a red light. An old lady with a walker ambled across the pedestrian line. "Both of them. "
"Vincent, naman. That's too harsh. " Sophia's mother rubbed his shoulder. For the first time that morning she had reverted to her mellow and tremulous voice, which Sophia guessed was used at her job as a receptionist at the community centre. It sounded like she was shivering and was concealing it by being friendly. Polite. Auntie Rosy's accident had resurrected the loud, commanding voice she had once wielded against noisemakers as a college librarian.
The light turned green and the car eased forward, leaving the topic of Auntie Rosy's accident at the intersection. Sophia waited for something within her to settle, her heartbeat or the food in her stomach, but her pulse had been fine and she had eaten very little at the restaurant. Her sigh created a cloudy patch on the car window, which looked out to hardware stores, parking lots, obscure office buildings rushing past. It was all familiar landscape, but what went on behind those vandalized stucco walls, those glass doors advertising hours of operation? Something always lurked behind the surface, every wall knew of some drama. Her father drove faster and the shops flew past with their untold stories, leaving Sophia with her faint reflection floating along the pavement. A lady's face with shapely eyebrows and lips, not belonging to the little girl she had felt like a few blocks ago.