“The Typhoon” By Shakira Sison
Lila lived at the bottom of the hill where the streets would flood knee-deep when it rained. She didn’t know the storm was called Rosing until after she battled it inside her house, a patchy combination of wood and windows leaning against a painted wall, made pretty with vinyl tiles and curtains hand-sewn from remnants found in the college town’s fabric sale bin.
Carlo had promised to come. Thursdays were their regular days, afternoons when he would make the walk up the main road and down to Lila’s street, a secluded neighborhood inhabited only by retired schoolteachers and administrators. Mrs. Jimenez, the landlord, rented Lila her shed at what she called a “student discount” provided she painted and cleaned what was once her grandchildren’s playhouse. Lila agreed, although the house was small and flimsy, it was inexpensive and shoddy enough to gain approval by her parents’ bootstraps ways. Coming from sharing a 10-foot dormitory cube with three roommates and two bunk beds, she was ready for her own space by junior year, even if her mother sourly teased that it was so she could entertain men in her room.
She remembered this every time Carlo would come for their weekly date, scoffing at Mama’s outdated judgment. She knew by the way the wind rustled the bougainvilleas streaming across her window that he was nearby. Carlo would not knock. He had keys to enter in stealth, sometimes stopping by for something he forgot there while Lila was in class, leaving urine drops on the toilet seat which Lila’s youth sadly misconstrued as a deliberate message of love.
A stew would be cooking on the electric range her father bought because he was afraid a gas stove would burn her house to the ground. Carlo would arrive, set his backpack on a chair, and compliment her cooking while opening a beer can from the fridge, where Lila kept a case just for Carlo’s nights at her house.
There wasn’t much talk about the routine of dinner, beers, and staticky television from a second hand Taiwanese screen assisted by aluminum foil bunny ears. After TV, a freshly showered Lila crawled into bed with a dozed-off Carlo who would need to be awakened for sex, once more around 2 a.m. and again before Carlo left for home around seven. The way she saw it, Lila collapsed the week into a pancake, mixed within the entertainment, conversation and affection, like blueberries and banana slices she could joyfully pick out and individually recall whenever Carlo was not around.
She knew how to rationalize the part-time nature of their love, declaring herself too busy with schoolwork to fully engage or even demand a more visible relationship that was not bound by careful footsteps and walks after dark, much awaited weekends in obscure towns where nobody knew them the way they did at the University – Lila as an honor student with no shortage of suitors, and Carlo as an ambitious young professor, and also a married man.
“It’s not okay just because you’re too busy to have a boyfriend of your own,” a friend told her the only time she confided in someone about Carlo. Ironically, it was Carlo who would get jealous when Lila told stories of after-school study groups she hosted at her place, the occasional boy who would drop by to borrow a book in the evening, except of course on Thursday nights which were crossed off in her tabletop calendar for months to come.
It was an arrangement Lila wanted to mature enough for, to be brilliant and bright enough to engage an actual man with real responsibilities, and not some boy who would run out of his allowance in between extra servings of rice at the cafeteria and a pack of cigarettes he didn’t even know why he smoked. Carlo was wise, he carried a dog-eared Nabokov, he was able to answer Lila’s question about the scattering of light through water.
“Refraction,” he said. “It’s the same effect prescription glasses have on the eyes.” Lila wished she wore lenses like Carlo did. She wanted so much to feel that she appeared as wise.
“He’s just using you for your body,” Lila’s sister said when she said she was seeing an older guy, leaving out the part the he wasn’t quite available. So what if I want to be used, Lila thought, wasn’t that all the boys would do anyway? At least after the morning romp Carlo would break out and wow her with a memorized line from his book, and Lila would mock him and call him a pedophile.
“Okay, Lo-lee-ta,” Carlo would say before jumping out of bed into a routine of a rushed shower with a fervent scrubbing of his mouth. Its smell kept their secret that crawled down his body with the water and vanished into the drain. There would be no questions of a next time, it would be Thursday as any other days would be planned far, far ahead. Lila thought it was so grownup to delay gratification, to be brave and strong and feel flattered when Carlo said that only an adult knew how to wait for love.
Lila knew the conflict in men’s hearts well. Her father remained married to her mother and respected her role in the family enough to be discreet with his affairs. Although Lila’s mother never spoke of it, Lila knew that what their marriage had become was typical of her aunts’ and uncles’ relationships, ones borne out of youth and parental expectation, and never again rekindled after the first couple of children were born.
“There are more important roles for a woman,” Mama would say to Lila’s sister when she criticized her drive for her career. “After a certain age,” Mama said, “you become grateful to be freed of these demands to just focus on your home.”
Lila laughed at this notion and never felt that homemaking was all there was to look forward to. Her father believed she could do whatever she wanted, like he did. He pursued his dreams, although it became clear to Lila early on that Papa’s passion definitely lived outside the confines of their home.
It was through him that she knew that a man’s heart belonged to the woman who claimed his loins; who, by being its cause, truly owned the very peaks reached by his breath and the weakness of his spirit. While Lila (like Papa’s querida) could never be bound to her man on paper, Lila knew that it was her face Carlo saw when he awoke past midnight on the days he forgot she wasn’t by his side.
This is why Lila was certain when it started raining that Thursday that it was only a matter of time before Carlo walked through the door. Classes had been suspended in the morning so the town could begin bracing for another storm. Lila had defrosted the meat she had been marinating for a week – a square of well-marbled pork belly cured in a mix of vinegar and garlic – perfect for frying to a crisp when the weather was a little cooler, like it would be after the storm.
She prepared the evening’s entertainment by renting movies at the town center, foreign indie films Carlo liked to discuss for weeks after watching them on the VHS player he brought to Lila’s house one day. He walked in one night with the new machine and a couple of porn flicks because he couldn’t believe Lila had never seen one. That evening after dinner, Carlo put one on, and Lila analyzed the cleanly shaven genitals of the Caucasian cast, tried her best to seem involved but soon asked Carlo to fast forward through a number of scenes, before getting up to leave him alone.
“Don’t even get any ideas,” she said calmly, trying to remain casual about what she felt looked more like a battle on screen than a pleasurable exchange. She wondered if that was how Carlo wanted it, if that’s how he screwed his wife, or if it was okay for her to cringe at the mechanical nature of porn sex. She suddenly felt young and found out, for the first time entertaining the possibility that perhaps there really was a world she couldn’t understand the way adults often warned. But when she snuggled next to Carlo that night, she believed that her company, in its youth and innocence, must be the same kind of comfort his worldliness was to her.
The wind rattled the corrugated steel of Lila’s roof as she placed a bucket on the floor where she knew it would drip. She imagined Carlo dodging leaves and twigs flying his direction as he made his way to her house. It had gotten dark quickly and by the time rainwater started crawling down her wall, the electricity shut off and she lit the candles she kept for the blackouts that were common during storms.
She understood when the wind howled much stronger than she was used to that perhaps this was how Carlo calmed her, because to him nothing seemed entirely new. Her concerns were always familiar to him and he usually saw a way out of them, even if it meant sitting it out until it passed, much like she had to do for this storm.
A boom of thunder was followed immediately by a thud outside her window. Lila ran to see that a large branch of the rambutan tree had fallen by her door. Fruit still hung from it. Their red and yellow curled spines accumulated water between them like tears between lashes. Mrs. Jimenez used to leave Lila bags of fruit at her doorstep. She would eat as much as she could during the week and would share the rest with Carlo, who would take any leftovers home.
Lila was convinced her job concluded when Carlo left on Friday mornings, so she didn’t make much of Carlo’s thoughtfulness to take some rambutan home. She thought about his wife breaking the fruit in half and sucking on its meat. Lila wondered if she had any clue about where else Carlo’s mouth could have been. It gave her some kind of thrill that a piece of her would actually be in such close range, that if she breathed on the fruit, she would technically share a breath with his wife.
The door started shaking. In the space between the door and the floor she saw droplets of water rolling from side to side. She breathed in and shoved a dirty rag to catch the moisture that was coming in. It became clear to Lila that Carlo wouldn’t make it when she looked outside and saw that the water had almost reached the top of the steps where her floor began. The tree branch had been completely submerged. She thought about the previous storms, how the water would recede just as quickly as it rose, how Carlo once said that storms were necessary in determining the strength of everything’s grip on the ground. To Lila it sounded so unproductive to prepare for that kind of constant leveling, the way it made no sense to her how people in typhoon-prone areas evacuated their homes but eventually came back to rebuild them, year after year.
“What they protect speaks volumes about what they value.” Carlo said. “Always watch out for the first thing a person clings to when pushed to make a stand.”
Lila woke up the next day with the howls replaced by faint whistles and leftover gusts of Rosing’s breath. Lila discovered that the meat she had taken out the day before had started to go bad. There was no electricity to cook it or to refrigerate it, so she wrapped it and threw it outside, where the receded water made muddied mats on the walkways littered with fragments of plant life. She thought about the dish she wanted to make with it, the crispy pork skin that bubbled in the sudden shock of boiling oil, how it would produce a crunch that would have sizzled in Carlo’s mouth upon contact.
Lila walked up the hill and wondered how many times Carlo crossed it the past year, the steep incline that was as difficult to walk up as it was easy to run down. She pictured Carlo eager to see her and tell her stories, breaking into a smile when he smelled what she was cooking inside. If something had happened to Carlo, would anyone know to tell her? More importantly, was Lila even permitted to care?
There was a kind of stillness that Lila thought was only found after a tropical storm. Even the surrounding shrubs and grasses appeared defeated, not just the fruit trees that were uprooted from the ground. The kind of mess it made could not be manufactured by a random cutting of leaves and twigs. In the aftermath of a typhoon, there was always a hum. It’s as if the stray pieces had been yanked from someone’s arms.
Lila made her way to the telephone station outside the University. Her chest ached. It raced from not knowing what kept Carlo from coming that night. Surely he’d have found a way to reach her and made sure she was all right. But how could he, Lila thought, if there was no power and she didn’t have a phone? Was he stranded in a place that was submerged in a flood?
She dialed the number. It was written on a folded sheet that had been stuffed in her wallet for months. Their meetings had been so coordinated that there was never any need for her to use it for the only reason Carlo gave it to her – for emergencies. The line rang.
There was silence on the other end of the line. It dug further into Lila’s chest than the familiar way Fridays had felt to Lila in a while. Fridays always began the wait for his arrivals, ones that never seemed to give her enough practice for how he would leave. After taking some steps, Carlo finally whispered.
“Are you okay?”
And there it was, the question she needed. It made no sense to her why she had to make a call to be asked if she was alive. She had just spent a night waiting for his steps, for the sound of the chain lock on the doorframe, for the comfort she needed from those scarce arms.
“I’m fine. Are you –“
Carlo then spoke loudly, as if he were speaking to a buddy from across a busy street.
“I’ve been here since Wednesday, man. I needed to be home for the storm!“
But what about me, Lila wanted to ask, but she didn’t. It was a rule she thought she needed to follow, a regulation of propriety from which she previously felt exempt. She had believed that a schedule was enough, a set time when everything could be blocked out like curtains did for windows, like locks did for doors. She thought that the home she prepared for Carlo would protect them from the world.
Lila knew that Carlo recognized the shortness of her response. She also knew that his constraints would keep him from responding the way he wanted. Either way, she didn’t know what use she would have for more words. She hung up and began walking home.
When Lila reached the top of the hill, she realized that from that view one could never see the houses below. It hid lives well until a shove demanded its dwellers to make a choice. Lila took care not to slip on the wet sheets the leaves made on the slope. At its bottom she saw her tiny house was still sanding strong, needing only some scrubbing and a little drying of its walls.
It was the first Friday Lila didn’t begin a new cycle of waiting. It was then that she learned the purpose of storms.
In response to the Creative Prompt “War”
“You can no more win a war than you can win an earthquake.”