My column for this Sunday is giving way to a true story written by my friend Telly Bernardo, a retired advertising executive.
Telly wrote it based on an album full of memories of his friend, a publishing executive, also retired. Telly sent it to me for comments, and I found the story moving. It is a unique story of love that is humble, sad and durable.
It started during the Japanese occupation. Her otherwise wealthy family had been reduced to selling bukayo. She herself, the eldest daughter, delivered the stuff to the Japanese ration station. She was 15.
He was 17, an orphan, the only survivor after his family was massacred by the Japanese. He was living with relatives in the Tondo slums. He had to line up every day for their ration.
He should have been busy surviving. But in between worrying where their next meal would come from, her image kept coming to mind.
It never occurred to him that it would be amiss to talk, much less befriend her. He was just naturally friendly. He was born in Macao, where his father was a fireman. His mother was Mexican. When his paternal grandfather died, his father’s inheritance was left in trust with an aunt, who married a good-for-nothing local lothario, who promptly squandered her money—and the inheritance in her trust. So when they went back to the Philippines after his father died, they came home to nothing.
His parents had taught him well. His vastly changed circumstances notwithstanding, he carried himself well. That he was mestizo, tall and handsome, she couldn’t ignore.
By the time he met her parents, she must have told them a lot about him already. Her mother was so taken by him that she offered to take him in as one of the family.
It never varied. He visited her every Sunday. But he made sure he did not overstay his welcome. He always left promptly after 30 minutes. Sometimes she would ask him to stay longer; sometimes he gave in to her request. When he did, that meant he would spend the night at the Japanese checkpoint on Ayala Bridge. He never told her about it.
By 1945, the war was over. Her family succeeded in reactivating its businesses and was soon back to its old opulence.
The unspoken courtship continued. It still had not occurred to him that the social gap between them had now become a chasm.
“I can help you get a well-paying job,” her mother told him once.
He declined the offer, ever respectfully.
THE BIG DAY was coming. She would be 18. It was duly noted in the society pages. Of course he would be there as he promised. Their house was at the far end of the street. Each side of the street was lined with cars. He didn’t even have a gift for her.
“It’s all right,” she told him. “What’s important is your presence.”
Despite three years of closeness, he still developed cold feet every time he visited her. But now it was more than just cold feet. He began having pain in his abdominal muscles. He broke into a cold sweat. Now, he was really sick.
Three years of anxiety, the tremendous stress he had tried to wear lightly, now overtook him. What he subconsciously suppressed all these years now exploded.
“I do not belong here. No mas,” he said. Acceptance. Resignation. He walked away.
But he wouldn’t just walk out of her life. He was a gentleman. He was an atchoy, for that was what he was in his aunt’s house, but he was a gentleman. He owed it to her to tell her. He saw her the next day. He spoke steadily, as usual. He had always been articulate in English and in Spanish—an articulateness born out of sincerity and goodwill.
“This will be the last time I’ll see you. But who knows? Perhaps we’ll meet again someday. Perhaps we’ll talk of the old times. I don’t know. You’ll always be in my prayers. I’ll always remember you.” (Here, no man has spoken so truly.) “I wish you all the luck in the world.”
She took it all calmly. Of course, she said she was sorry it had to end this way. Of course she wished him good luck, too; and, yes, who knows? They might meet again.
On the night of her debut, high society claimed her.
“I WILL ALWAYS REMEMBER YOU.” He did not say “I will not forget you.” Remembering required doing. Not forgetting merely means filing something away in one’s memory.
Every day, for the next 40 years, he had a five-minute ritual upon waking up. He would picture her in his mind, remembering every detail.
On Valentine’s Day, during Christmas, on her birthday, he would drop by Alemar’s in Avenida. He would look at those big, big greeting cards; the very special ones even had gold-plated necklaces. Someday he would buy her those—on her birthday, on Valentine’s, on Christmas. Someday. Yet another covenant.
One day he read in the papers that she was getting married. To her kind, of course.
He bore it all in silence. It was only 36 years after, retelling it to a friend, that he allowed himself the salve of tears, when he had freed himself from the bondage of all those years.
It took some time, but move on he did. At six-foot-two, he was tall for his time. He could be a basketball scholar. He became the star player of his school’s team.
Among his fan mail, there was one he couldn’t ignore. It came almost weekly. He had to answer it.
They met. She was studying in an exclusive school for girls. Soon, they were dating. He liked her. She loved him. They became sweethearts. Our basketball star, the gentleman that he was, was not one to play around. It was not honorable. Besides, he did not want to hurt this woman who loved him very much and whom he came to like very much. He might have even loved her—enough to marry her.
And so it came to pass. After graduating from college, he found a good-paying job, married her, had three children, and they lived happily. Relatively.
For he never quite forgot his first love. All these years, he had kept tabs on her, from a distance, although the urge to reconnect became irresistible sometimes.
She had long been a widow. Was that reason enough to finally approach her? It wasn’t against good manners, was it? Good manners were not exactly on his mind. To be exact, it was not what was in his heart.
With some trepidation, he came to see her one day. To his surprise, she wasn’t surprised.
“What took you so long?” she said. That almost floored him. What now? Should they shake hands? Should they embrace? Beso-beso seemed to come naturally.
They had so many things to catch up on. The 30 minutes he allowed himself were too short. For both of them. More visits were called for. The next visits were still not enough to fill up their hunger for the times they missed.
More and more, the visits were getting to be painfully insufficient. There had to be more than just visits. He was 71, she was 69.
That night, he told his wife everything. “I can no longer live with this deception. It’s wrong, I know. It’s always been her all these years. I never really, ever, forgot her. My body is here with you, but my heart, my soul, my whole being is with her. Please forgive me. Please tell the children I’m terribly sorry. Please ask them to forgive me. Please pray for me as I will for you.”
Fifty years ago, on the night of her debut, he realized he did not belong to her world of high society. But now…
“I’m sorry,” he said to his wife. “I belong to her.”