ONCE again, she is trapped in an ankle-deep flood, picking at her fingernails’ cuticles. The water is black, reeking with floating things only God knows what. Already she can see diapers floating, and she scrunches her nose as the putrid smell hits her. It is her second time this week to be stranded, and she doesn’t like it. Everywhere jeepneys are full, and even if she rides one it does not guarantee that she will make it home. At the rate the traffic is going, she’ll be lucky if she even gets home tonight.
She takes a break from plucking her cuticles and wipes the sweat off her face with her handkerchief. What was once a white handkerchief turned into pale yellow, seemingly stained with indelible urine. As it stopped raining, she began to feel the warmth emanating from the dull street lights. The bodies of other stranded people pressed close to hers, coupled with the heat of the engines of the vehicles stuck in traffic. She peers at the watch of the middle-aged woman beside her, and it shows 8:15. A sigh escapes from her lips as she adjusts her bag in her shoulders.
She continues picking at her cuticles unconsciously. Her cuticles are now sticking out from her nail beds, like white wisps from the inside of the skin of a dalandan. It has become a habit of hers, most evident when she’s bored. Sometimes the cuticles are too attached to her skin, but she continues pulling at them, neither hesitating nor even cringing at the pain. She has learned to stand the pain. After all, her hands have gone through a lot more pain than this. Once, when she was seven years old and cutting vegetables to be cooked by her mother, her right ring finger had been cut accidentally, leaving her with a permanent diagonal scar about an inch long. As early as five she had been helping her mother in washing the dishes, which is the reason why at 18, her hands are already rough, even calloused, from all the writing she did for school and for the bookkeeping in their little sari-sari store.
Realizing that standing with all these people in the middle of the flood and waiting for a jeepney to take her home will do her no good, she decides to cross to the other side of the street and start her long trek home. Normally it will only take her 30 minutes by jeepney to go home, but walking is different. Breathing deeply, she raises her already wet white uniform, protecting it from the flood, and starts walking slowly to the other side.
She feels the ground first before taking a small step, careful in case she falls into an open manhole. As she goes further it gets deeper, but she does not notice this as she is so intent on her footing. The water then reaches just below her knees.
Suddenly she steps on an uneven road and she loses her footing. She almost stumbles, but a hand catches her, keeping her steady. A voice of a man in her ear drowns out the noise of the traffic. “Hey miss, are you all right?”
She looks at the man holding her elbow firmly, a student like her. He is not from her school, but his white clothes tell her that he’s a Nursing student, just like her. But unlike her, he probably comes from a rich family. His face is not striking, a face that does not emboss in the mind, but not bad-looking either. He is also sweaty and wet like her.
“Yes, I’m okay, thank you,” she replies. She is aware of the smoothness of his hand on her elbow, so contrary to her own. The man has a white complexion, and beside him she feels inferior in her mocha-brown tan.
“Come on, hold my hand until we reach the other side,” he says rather impatiently, but she senses a tinge of concern in his voice. They lock hands, and together they traverse the other side, slowly but surely.
She thinks of his hands in hers, as smooth as the skin of the apple she wanted to buy yesterday, if only she had money. She is pretty sure that this man beside her has not had a taste of hard labor, has never been made to do anything heavy in his life. Taking a glance at him, she can tell that although not the boy-next-door type, he is pampered. He is given anything he wanted. Why he crosses this kind of flood, she does not know; surely he has a car somewhere. How she envies him suddenly, the life that she deems he has.
After a while they reach the other side and the man releases his hold on her. She stares at his hand and notices how fine it is, how well-taken cared of. The nails are covered in transparent nail polish, shining as the pale yellow street light hits it. If the hands were the only ones seen in the body of this man, she would say they were of a woman’s.
“Well, I got to go. See you around,” the man says, waving her off.
“Thank you very much. Yes, see you around.” She watches him as he walks away from her, toward a rain-drenched car parked nearby. So that’s his car, she thinks. She isn’t wrong in guessing he is a rich kid. He enters the car, and in a while the vehicle joins the traffic, its engine joining the steady groaning of all the other vehicles.
She starts walking to her home. Looking around, she sees the church, illuminated by a lone fluorescent light outside. People are already flocking inside, hoping to find refuge in its blessed corners. She joins the people whose similarly coarse hands are clasped in a fervent prayer, asking God to take them home.
She walks toward the back of the church where the faithful light candles. She picks up an unlighted one from the candelabrum and lights the burnt wick through the other lighted candles. Keeping it close to her breast, she closes her eyes and utters a fervent prayer, not noticing the hot wax sliding down her fingers, cooling and hardening, like distorted protrusions of her nails.

Montage Vol. 10 • December 2006


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