January 11, 2014
She thinks it is dust, wipes it with her hand off the leg of the old piano, determinedly, vigorously, piqued that she missed this spot when she did her morning cleaning.
But it is only baby powder, clean-smelling and fresh, and somehow she is ashamed.
A thud from the room upstairs and she is at her feet, ears cocked. One thud and he could just be adjusting his weight, two or three thuds and he may be playing, four and more, he would be upset, angry. Angry with what, she never knows, he cannot tell her, he will never have the means to tell her what he feels or thinks.
The thumps continue. Her steps pound on the stairway, and she is all over him, Shhh, I’m here, mama’s here, what’s wrong? He thrashes on the bed, ramming his long, thin legs against the railing, and his arms flail, adding another bruise to her arm.
She gathers him to her, using her full weight to hold back his tempest, Shhh, baby, it’s okay. She pats his back, a gesture meant to be calming, but her hand descends heavily and it angers him, and he grabs her hair.
She hums above his animal sounds, her head still pulled to one side, her eyes drawn to the window over his bed. I have to replace those broken jalousies, she thinks, the rain comes in through the slats, and the railing around his bed, I should really make time to fix it, he has kicked off some of its rails, he gets stronger as the years pass.
Her humming matches his tempo, and he quiets down somewhat. His diaper under his shorts feels dry, and she sighs, thank God he didn’t shit in his pants. Maybe his toilet training is working after all, maybe he understood her repeated attempts, This is the potty, and we shall sit here after breakfast, and try, baby, let’s try to poop just once a day, in this particular time of the day, diapers are expensive, a dent in our budget. He had thought they were playing—he always thinks they are playing—and he had chortled and pummeled her with delight.
The clock downstairs chimes, too many times, and he struggles anew. She really must remove that big clunky clock, transfer it to the kitchen hallway maybe. The hourly chime bothers him, and he would whimper as his sight follows the swing of its pendulum, to and fro, to and fro, even she is drained by its ticking, it tolls louder at night when she lies down with her son. But her husband laughs at her worries, he often does. He refuses to take it down, he says it belonged to a Japanese soldier, a conversation piece, people say, Wow, that is an old clock, it must be valuable, as their eyes make a short sweep of their belongings. Besides, her husband declares, it is the only time his only child can get both his eyes to focus on anything, but she detects no pride when he says that.
Her throat is dry from her humming, and she lowers him, her movements taut and calculated, as if she were arm wrestling. Her husband would be better at this, she thinks, if only he would help, if only he would realize the boy needs him too, if only.
Her son doesn’t release her hair, she has learned to keep her head pressed to his grip to avoid pain. Her face hovers near his armpit, his body odor, his pungency confronts her, assaults her, Why do I forget to use a deodorant on him? The onset of his puberty last year startled her, it wasn’t called for.
Baby, she says, breathing through her mouth, Remember what mama taught you, close, open, close open. She brings up her left hand nearer to his face, Come on, you try it. Close, open, close open, and he giggles at the rhythm, Close, open, close open, but he opens the wrong hand.
She closes her eyes, Okay, now try the other hand. Close, open, close open, maybe this time he’ll let go before it’s time for lunch, close, open. Maybe I should cook sinigang, she thinks, except that I forgot to buy tamarind, her husband insists on tamarind, he detests broth cubes, if only he would tell her when he chooses to dine home, I should really get a maid but the maids nowadays, they don’t want to work hard, they wouldn’t understand, and besides we barely have the money, diapers are so expensive.
And she says, Closopen, stringing the words together, closopen, closopen.
The doorbell rings, a sound he doesn’t hear often and it startles him, loosening his fingers, and she sits up. Closopen, she says.
He doesn’t enjoy the intrusion, and he cries, a primeval sound, half grunt, half howl. The doorbell rings again, Shhh, she says to the bell, to him, and runs down the stairs. His sounds follow her, and she stops, Shhhhh, she says to the stairs, loudly. And to her surprise, he stops, suddenly, and she wasn’t ready for the man standing at her door, a man with a big black briefcase looking down at her, saying, Good morning, ma’am, oh wait, it’s almost noon, Good noon, good noon. He smiles.
His teeth are even and white, she is not sure if they’re genuine, like my husband’s, she thinks, except that my husband’s are bleached.
Yes, she says.
What were you doing this beautiful day?, the man with the briefcase says, and she wants to say something interesting but the man doesn’t wait. He says, This is your lucky day, I bring you power and beauty, a miracle straight from the wondrous waters of the Dead Sea, do you know where the Dead Sea is? No? Well, it doesn’t matter, what matters is today I introduce you to the marvels of beauty enhancement. He peers down at her, You have beautiful skin, just a few sunspots, freckles, I have just the thing to remove those freckles, he smiles, if you’ll let me come in?
She doesn’t want people in the house, there are too many explanations to be made and she isn’t as clever as her husband in parrying their questions. Besides, her husband wouldn’t want her speaking to strangers, and she doesn’t want him angry, It’s a crazy world out there, he would say while reading the tabloid, no sense, neighbor killing neighbor, the bare female flesh makes everyone crazy, best for her to stay home, to keep out.
But the light turns this man’s hair a deep copper shade, and her husband isn’t home, he rarely is, and she steps aside.
Ahhh, the man with the briefcase says, your little home is beautiful, beautiful, and he smiles, It fits you. She twists her fingers, should she thank him?, but if she thanked him he might think she was thanking him for thinking her beautiful, that is what he meant, isn’t it?
The man reaches for his briefcase, Today is your lucky day, he says, working to open the clasp, I have some fabulous beauty enhancement products—not makeup, mind you, not those crayons and watercolor that you paint over your face, covering it—this, this is a beauty enhancer that you work into your skin to bring out the beauty buried underneath the years, one of my customers, she’s very smart, she calls it cosmetic surgery in a jar.
She looks at his arms handling the briefcase, the muscles moving, and she grips her loose housedress, wanting to tell him, I really look better than this, smell better than this, and covers with her hand the stain of long-ago food.
The man finally pries his briefcase open, and a profusion of scents fills the room, and she remembers something, a touch, a color, a movement, fleeting, like a line of a song one used to love.
This, he says, holding up a small jar, is mud from the Dead Sea, imported, he stresses, imported all the way from Israel, beautiful place Israel, you know where that is? Yes? He smiles, You put the mud on your face once a week, like Cleopatra—beautiful lady, you know her—for your pores and crow’s feet and laugh lines, removes the warts, all the skin ailments of your face, everything.
He hardly pauses, his words almost fused together like in a song, and she listens, following his rhythm and cadence. And this, he says, this beauty enhancer you should use daily, it protects your skin from the harsh sun, covers blemishes, removes dead cells, and oh-what-a-miracle, it even massages your skin as you wear it, that’s right, massages your skin, no other enhancer can ever make that claim, science is grand, isn’t it?
Yes, she says.
Here, the man says, opening the jar and dipping his index and middle fingers, let me put some on you, reaching for her face, and she steps back, Oh no, no, she says. I have done this lots of times, the man smiles, this shade is perfect for your skin, it will bring out the glow that’s within, trapped underneath, people say a man shouldn’t be selling beauty enhancers but I say only a man really knows beauty, for it is for him that woman wants to be beautiful, try it, I will be gentle. And he smooths the mixture on her face.
The fragrance envelops her, feminine, soothing, yet stimulating. The mixture feels cold, and he keeps his promise, his touch is warm and light, making little kneading circles on her skin. She is startled by his tenderness, how can a man’s hand be so mild? She wants to close her eyes but she can’t, he is too near. You have a mole near your lip, she says, Yes, he says, my mother says it means I talk too much, which is good because I am supposed to talk a lot.
Yes, she says.
A trace of man-sweat rises from him, and she rushes into speech, I don’t really wear makeup but I did years before when I was in college, it wasn’t that long ago, now I hardly put on makeup, no sense in doing so, sometimes I put on makeup when I attend mass, but that’s not very often, I don’t have a maid you know, she says.
An angel in the house, he says, your husband is very lucky. She feels his thumb tracing her cheekbone—to even out the shade, she tells herself—and her breath comes through her mouth. We don’t have much money, she says, and he says, Who does? The little that we have we spend on those that truly matter. He looks into her eyes, But surely, surely, your well-being is important to your husband? She doesn’t know how to answer that, not when is he staring at her that way, as if memorizing her face, smiling—did he call her angel?—his hand pausing from its motions and resting on her shoulder, and she feels the weight of her eyebags and lifts her head, hoping to lessen their bulge.
Beautiful, he says, and her heart skips, Here, take a look, see the difference, I only made up one side, and her face jumps out from the mirror held before her, one half smoothened-out, the other baggy and uneven, like a mask, like a doll whose face is peeling off. His face joins hers in the mirror, dark and male against her, she is drawn to the contrast, Like it? he asks.
Yes, she says.
Their eyes meet in the mirror, and she is afraid to move, to break whatever it is that joins their eyes, perhaps it is something strong because it does not break when his hand finds her back, but she may never know because a thud from a room upstairs jolts them. One thud, two thuds, three.
The man moves away, her face becomes smaller in the mirror, How many of that will you be buying, he asks, I recommend three of each, good for a year’s supply, best to store many since you cannot find these products in the stores, buying in the stores is so impersonal, nothing like door-to-door home visits.
Yes, she says.
He piles some small jars on her hands, his hand big enough to cover her two, it looks safe and strong. Careful, he says, don’t let these fall and break on the floor, he is looking at her, her hands are still in his, secure.
The thuds upstairs continue, and she says to his eyes, Wait, please, and she backs up the stairs, Wait, please, she says, clutching the jars to her chest, up to the room.
What, she says to the bed, what do you want? Her son picks up the stress in her voice, pauses, and then pounds his arms on the railing, gnashing his teeth, grinding, grating, a sound that always frightens her, she feels his teeth would fall off or be damaged, surely it hurts with a sound like that.
Shhh, she says, putting down the jars and holding back his arms, Shhh. He jerks and thrashes, an uncontrollable mass of arms and legs, and she pinches his arm, gently at first, and then hard, pushing her nails together, Stop that, she is almost shouting. He shrieks, lets her go, and she says, Well, it’s your fault, don’t blame me, and don’t cry that way, it’s not as if you don’t deserve it.
Maybe I should go, I think you are busy, the man with the briefcase says behind her, he had heard the keening. She doesn’t face him, she is embarrassed by the spectacle, her son is murmuring, unintelligible, his eyes rolling to one side. This is my son, she says, her hand gripping the bed, what else can she say.
There is silence—has he left?—she can hear the clock downstairs. And the man says, A superwoman, you do everything. His voice is gentle. She wants to cry, he understands, he does, oh God, someone understands. You don’t have to go, she says, she turns to him, he is smiling, his eyes creasing, and she raises her hands, blindly, and he moves to her.
His lips are warm and dry and he moves his tongue to lubricate their kiss, he tastes like fruit but salty. She feels her body accept him, moving to rhythms almost forgotten, fulfilling a long-ago promise. He cradles her back as he lowers her to the adjoining bed, slowly. This man is all mouth and hands, she thinks of nothing else until he yells, suddenly, his head thrown back and dragged in between the broken rails of her son’s bed. The man’s throat is pressed to one side, he gasps for breath, his hair is pulled, the man’s arms cannot reach beyond the railing, are too big for the railing, her son gets stronger as the years pass.
No, let him go, she cries, Close, open, closopen, and she pinches her son, but he does not notice, the man’s screams are more interesting, Closopen, closopen. She slaps his face, hard, something a mother shouldn’t do but she has no choice, does she?, and she slaps him, again, again, and he lets go.
The man slumps to the floor, red-faced, his breath in spurts. He staggers to his feet, his hands to his hair, and he kicks her son’s bed, Fool, he says, and walks away without looking at her. I’m sorry, she says, running after him, He doesn’t know what he’s doing, he’s just a baby, it’s the palsy, he thinks you—he thinks we—were playing, please you have to understand,
He’s crazy, the man says.
She lays a hand on his sleeve and it falls as he moves, he is packing the jars into his briefcase, his movements swifter than before, Our collectors will be here in thirty days for the first payment, you can pay in four gives, only 1% interest per month, he says, and he leaves, just like that. His head is copper in the sunlight, getting smaller and smaller, Please, she whispers, and he suddenly turns back.
Here, he says, scribbling some figures, I forgot to give you a receipt, sign here, his hand is careful not to touch hers, and he leaves. She looks at him until he turns at the corner, gone, and she looks at the receipt. There are too many numbers in it, how can that be?, and she gropes for a chair.
She does not notice the thuds upstairs until it is quiet, too quiet, she can hear her thoughts, and the crash that follows is almost welcome. She moves automatically, this is how a mother cares, and sees the broken jars. His hands are streaked with mud from the Dead Sea, beauty enhancers stuffing his mouth, and he giggles at her, gurgling, happy.
“Closopen” is Janet Villa’s second published short story. It won a Special Prize in the NVM Gonzalez Award for Best Short Story on November 2005. It was published in “Best Filipino Short Stories,” ed. Gregorio Brillantes (2007); in the anthology, “A la Carte: Food and Fiction,” ed. Cecilia Manguerra Brainard and Marily Ysip Orosa (2007); Philippine Graphic (2005)
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3 Comments on “Closopen”
Short fiction: “Closopen” | Using a Borrowed Language says January 13, 2014 at 3:08 am
[…] Saturday, Manila Speak will publish a story or essay of mine. This week it is Closopen, written for my first creative writing class (with Prof. Butch […]
Janet Villa: featured writer for Manila Speak « Messiah College – Philippines says January 15, 2014 at 10:39 am
[…] Janet Villa, a part-time Fil Lit and World Lit Professor at Messiah College is currently the featured writer for the “Living Literature” section of Manila Speak. Each Saturday, Manila Speak will publish one of her stories. Currently, her story “Closopen”, written for her first creative writing class, can be viewed on their website by clicking here. […]
Lily Collins says July 25, 2016 at 4:06 am
What isbthe summary of the story and what is it’s moral lesson or what does it want to say to the readers?