When Toning met Karina, he was 55 and about to retire. Long had he become oblivious to friends’ banters, ‘Magduda man sad ta nimo, Toning’ or ‘Napan-us na jud ka,Toning’. This, added with his sisters’ quiet sighs. ‘Nangapo nalang tawon mi, manong. Wala gyapon ka, sa imong kapilian’. Now, they just met him with quiet acceptance and concentrated on training him to become doting lolo to their apos instead.
That soon changed when he met Karina. She made budbud for the Borromeo family Toning also happened to be the odd-jobs man for. He didn’t know what it was about her that attracted. Perhaps it was her doughy arms that gracefully rose like waves when she rolled the rice into the banana leaves. Perhaps it was how the mole in her forehead frowned as well when she was concentrating on tying and bunching them up. Or perhaps it was the quiet way she said his name with a Spanish accent when they met each other in doorways.Toñing. Toñing. She would soon call out when they first made love.
Nevertheless, he soon found himself sharing his home to two grown-up stepchildren and Karina. The modest house was scrimped but that was the price to pay for family and for not growing old alone, he guessed. He soon got used to calling his two sons and Karina‘Ga’ for Pangga, a term of endearment that was handier than anything else.
Soon enough too, he found out he would not retire after all. He had hoped to park his bike finally and join his friend, Oscar, when he retired at the end of the year as they planned. But that was before he got married. He could not now. His two stepchildren barely contributed even when they ate voraciously, consumed electricity on videoke and spent the most in the bulangans. Somehow he had the feeling he was always being mocked at his back by the two of them.
And Karina, who seemed to achieve what she set out to do in the first place, to marry for convenience, had made it a point to merge with the scenery again, caring for her now ailing mother. Sometimes, her unobtrusiveness surprised him, so much that he didn’t even look up when she was around anymore. All he saw these days was her mole that grew bigger with time.
‘Naunsa naman ka, Toning, oi’, friends ask. His hands quivered. His face wrinkled. His body like a single bamboo shoot on his rickety bike. He was getting old. But never mind. It was the price to pay for family and for not growing old alone. He will be 60 soon.
On that particular day, he had felt a little more nauseous than usual. High blood perhaps or anemia. His stepson was there, sitting on their wooden stairs. ‘Ga?’, he says softly. He did not know what happened before or in between then. All he knew was what he could feel. A turned shoulder. A slapped face. A hand holding both his cheeks. A sucked–in stomach from a blow. And a voice, drunk and lyrical.
‘Ga? Ga? Ga!? Ga?! Ayaw ko tawga ana ha! Unsa pa lang huna-huna’s tawo natong duha!’
Karina stood there in the window. Her mole outgrew her face. She did not say anything. Toning takes his bike, as bent as he was, and flees.
In the morning, he would collect his things, those that remained in a house that was no longer his, sifting through the pile that accumulated when the family started. He looks for a semblance of his old life. His grandchildrens’ outgrown toys. Old clothes left behind by Amang and Papa. His own. His collection of work hats. Photo albums from his childhood days and those with his bosses and fellow workers.
He finds one of the two of them, Oscar and him in their early 20s, building a fence, laughing in the sun. His finger runs through Oscar’s younger face when he was still wifeless and carefree, and perhaps partly his. His thumb makes an imprint on Oscar’s goatee, blurred by moisture, and discards it in the box.
Somehow, through everything, he forgets what exactly it was he had been looking for. This ultimately, was the price of family and for not growing old alone.