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Camille, Camille…how my husband loved you!
You are forever a part of him…

Indeed, he loved Camille with such a purity of affection that, even at my most exasperated moments of their affair, I found it difficult to begrudge their relationship.

The sight of a man of my husband’s age strolling through Santo Tomas with the adolescent Camille could have been misconstrued as a matter of economics—how else to explain an otherwise illogical December-May affair with the added colonial insult of the parties being an American male and a Filipino female?  But for my husband, Tom, the issue truly was one of spiritual engagement.  Indeed, he loved Camille with such a purity of affection that, even at my most exasperated moments of their affair, I found it difficult to begrudge their relationship.

Once, strolling through the open-air market of the nearby town of Candon, Tom paused by an array of ribbons laid out like fragments from a rainbow on one of Nana Deling’s old bedsheets.
“I think Camille would enjoy the pink one; she is quite girlish after all,” Tom noted to the old lady squatting among her wares.

Nana Deling lifted her good eye at Camille who was rooting among the ribbons, spat a wad of tobacco at the ground, but otherwise said nothing before concluding the sale.  Everyone in the area had heard of my visit with the ‘kano husband.  Perhaps due to the local esteem given to my grandmother, the locals were reluctant to criticize Tom and remained silent on what Tata Bino called his “idiot-syncracies.”

No one in the area commented as Tom lovingly tied the ribbon around Camille’s prematurely-wrinkled neck.  I concentrated on avoiding other people’s eyes—I cringed at how I imagined them pitying me for suffering through my husband’s infatuation with a younger Filipina.

Tom and I lived in New York.  A few years ago, my parents started returning annually to the Philippines.  We often stayed with my grandmother in Santo Tomas where I was born 40 years ago.  I usually accompanied my parents on my own given Tom’s heavy workload as a Wall Street lawyer.  For this visit, however, Tom tagged along to see the land of “luscious Filipina women.”  He would hastily add, “Judging by my lovely wife, of course!” when I gave him that look—yes, my husband possessed many “idiot-syncracies.”

Ever since Auntie Lina introduced Tom to the Filipino delicacies Mama never mastered—lumpia, pansit, adobo, pinakbet, tinola, paksiw, sinanglaw, etc.—Tom would compliment Filipinas with adjectives I would prefer he reserved for food: “delectable,” “appetizing,” “delicious,” “mouth-watering” (this particular one was utilized for infant Josie who peed at him).

“Ooooooohhhhhh, you yummy little thing.  Look at those dark sparkling eyes.  And such a pink nose you have,” the idiot, I mean, my husband, started crooning at her. 

“Thomas!“ I would declaim, my feminist ire blazing. “Thomas— stop objectifying Filipina women!”

But my husband wouldn’t stop the practice until, he said, I would learn to cook Filipino food.  I didn’t cook.  I was proficient in dialing the phone for take-out Chinese.  And since Mama never learned how to cook, I saw no reason to change my (lack of a) cooking habit.

In any event, Tom discovered Camille as we explored my grandmother’s neighborhood.  Several of the houses were not bordered by fences and we sometimes found ourselves walking across a neighbor’s yard.  We approached Tata Bino’s house to admire his tall mango tree.  I saw a stick propped by its trunk and hoped to dislodge a few of the globes I loved to eat with salt or baggoong.  I knew Tata Bino wouldn’t mind as he remembered my passion for green mangos.  He had been among the villagers who welcomed us during our first evening in Santo Tomas.

Hija, you still like those mangos?” he had asked after recalling how he used to feed them to me when I was a child.  To my delight, it was mango season and he said I should feel free to avail myself of the fruits within his garden.

I began to show Tom how to dislodge a mango by catching its branch within the carved V tip of the pole, then twisting the pole until the fruit fell.  Tom was not as enthused as I was over mangos and quickly became bored.  Looking around the yard, he spotted Camille peeking shyly at us from behind Tata Bino’s kitchen door.

“Ooooooohhhhhh, you yummy little thing.  Look at those dark sparkling eyes.  And such a pink nose you have,” the idiot, I mean, my husband, started crooning at her.  “Come over here where I can see you better, you little dumpling.”

Camille gave a sound that seemed a cross between a snort and a giggle.  Slowly, she approached my husband as he continued to spout off, “That’s right you little delectation…come to me, come to me.  Why, look at your belly—how nicely your tum-tum curves.  I bet you are fed better than my wife feeds me.  Come over here, you yummy matzo ball, you scrumptious pot sticker, you mouth-watering bit of salami, you tender teriyaki.…”

Susmariosep, I thought and turned to thwack him on the head with the stick.  That’s when I noticed him cuddling her.  “What’s your name?” he asked, his face an inch away from hers.  Camille’s cheeks were pink and covered with a slight fuzz of hair.

“Eileen, if you don’t learn to cook food like this I’ll keep objectifying Filipinas with adjectives that will offend your feminist sensibility!”

“You can name her whatever you want,” Tata Bino yelled down to us from his bedroom window over which he had watched the scene unfold.  Later, Tom would whisper to me, “That’s outrageous.  Tata Bino didn’t even name her.  What kind of a callous attitude is that to a member of his household!?”

Thus, did Tom name her “Camille” because “Camille sounds French and doesn’t she also remind you of a Napoleon pastry brimming with cream?”  That time, I did thwack Tom across the shoulders with the stick but the name stuck.

*****

Camille, Camille…how my husband loved you!  You are forever a part of him…

*****

Since most of the days of our two-week visit were marked by plenty of abundant dinners, Tom’s obsession with Filipino food didn’t abate.  It began with our first evening in Santo Tomas.  I wasn’t surprised by the feast that awaited us.  But, oh, I was moved by the fact that the banquet apparently was a belated wedding celebration.  Tom and I already had been married for seven years but my friends and relatives wanted to celebrate with us in person.  I ended up sniffling my way throughout the evening as I felt the affection of the residents of my childhood town.  In the middle of the dining table was a tiny pedestal highlighting a wedding cake Baroquely festooned with cream ribbons and roses.  The wedding album we had prepared years back was displayed on another table so that everyone could go through its pages again.

Beginning with that first night of our Santo Tomas visit, Tom would turn his wet face towards me after blissfully sweating his way through his dinner and promise, “Eileen, if you don’t learn to cook food like this I’ll keep objectifying Filipinas with adjectives that will offend your feminist sensibility!”

Idiot, I would think in response as I considered how unappetizing he looked with his sated, dripping face.

*****

Camille, Camille…how my husband loved you!  You are forever a part of him…

*****

...both my grandmother and Tata Bino were moved on separate occasions to take me aside and advice, “It’s just a short innocent infatuation.  It’ll pass.”

Tom became particularly enamored with a beauty mark, an inch-wide black mole sprouting a five-inch hair, on the left side of Camille’s nose.

“At first I thought it grotesque,” Tom said as he twisted the giggling Camille’s face this way and that to take a close look at it.  “But it actually enhances the loveliness of her complexion, her otherwise pink face.  Don’t you think?”

This, from someone who once promised he’d never look at another female again after our first date.

“It’s a matter of contrast, you know,” the fool continued.  “Were it not for this mole, this flaw, the delicate rose tinge of Camille’s cheeks would not be so obvious.  Wasn’t it your beloved Baudelaire who once noted the importance of contrast by observing how the sky sighted between two chimneys offers a more profound idea of the infinite than a great panorama seen from a mountaintop?”

Oh puh-leeeeeaaaazzzze, I thought, disgusted.  Now he’s quoting a French poet!

Still, I would have thought it beneath my dignity to display my misgivings over Tom’s new obsession.  I kept silent, but must have failed occasionally to hide my misery as both my grandmother and Tata Bino were moved on separate occasions to take me aside and advice, “It’s just a short innocent infatuation.  It’ll pass.”

I counseled myself that there was no point in doubting whether my husband would cease his obsession; I knew our visit to Santo Tomas was due to end in several days and, thus, managed to remain silent over this latest of Tom’s “idiot-syncracies.”

*****

Camille, Camille…how my husband loved you!  You are forever a part of him…

*****

However, I was not a Saint.  After days of watching Tom spend much of his time accompanied by Camille, I lost control one afternoon.  Tata Bino’s sister, Nana Adele, invited my parents, Tom and I to a lovely lunch.  Nana Adele was a widow who lived by herself in a small lime-green house surrounded by rice fields; reaching her house required a two-hour drive.  Tom insisted on taking Camille with us.

Even my saintly mother was provoked enough to hint, “Tom, Camille may not like long jeepney drives.”

“As a matter of fact,” my mother continued as she turned to Tata Bino, “didn’t you say that Camille gets dizzy if she has to be in a vehicle for more than half an hour?”

Not a sound could be heard for miles as we breathlessly observed Tom gulp, then ask in a high-pitched voice, “What’s that?”

Unfortunately, Nana Adele was long-renowned for her dinardaraan, which happened to be Tata Bino’s favorite dish.  Most people cooked this meat dish, redolent with vinegar and spices, by using pork; to Tata Bino’s delight, Nana Adele used dogmeat.  Thus, did Tata Bino reply, “Well, yes.  Camille, indeed, gets quite sick.  But not if I’m there to soothe her.”
Quickly, Tom leapt at the opening.

“Excellent, excellent!” he said, a grin splitting his sunburnt, peeling face.  “You must join us, Tata Bino!”

How did I end up with this tomato, I thought.

They all looked at me.  Ooooops: I had uttered my comment out loud.  I stalked away rather than apologize.  Nonetheless, I reminded myself that only three more days remained before we had to return to New York.  New York—where we obviously could not take Camille with us, I thought and, thus, reined in my temper.

Just as Santo Tomas had welcomed us with a banquet, they sent us back to New York with another major feast.  The afternoon before my family was scheduled to go to Manila and hop on a plane back to the United States, everyone contributed to a marvelous potluck celebration that Tata Bino hosted in his newly-cleaned yard.

All of my favorite foods—and those that Tom claimed to be his favorites, a claim which everyone laughingly dismissed as they all had come to learn that Tom would eat, and love, anything— were displayed on three long tables.  But the obvious highlight—proffered on a large painted ceramic plate—was a suckling pig.  It laid atop layers of banana leaves on a plate centered on the table.  Under the tropical sun, it gleamed with a radioactive glow.  The lechon skin had turned amber from Tata Bino’s secret glaze recipe.  To memorialize our family’s return to the United States, an imported red apple was stuck in the pig’s mouth.

“Tom—you must have the first bite of the lechon!”  Tata Bino proclaimed.  I had never seen before a crowd of Filipinos become unanimously silent.  They also seemed to have deferred breathing as they watched my grinning, red-faced husband shake hands as he sweated his way through the crowd.  With clear expectation, Tata Bino awaited him.  Not a sound could be heard for miles as people watched Tom approach the middle table. Not a sound could be heard for miles as we witnessed Tom take his first sight of the pig.  Not a sound could be heard for miles as we breathlessly observed Tom gulp, then ask in a high-pitched voice, “What’s that?”

Dispassionately, I noticed how being roasted for hours didn’t eliminate the mole from Camille’s cheeks.

“Ahhhh!  This is lechon!  Roasted pig!  A prized Filipino delicacy!”  Tata Bino enthused.  He pretended not to hear Tom gasp as he poked a knife through the pig’s side.

Tata Bino twisted the knife and hooked out a piece of pink meat attached to a piece of amber skin.  He placed the morsel on a small plate and extended it to Tom.

“As someone who has honored us by enjoying Filipino food, you must have the first bite!”

Not a sound could be heard for miles as Tom looked at the morsel in horror.

“Since you so loved Camille, I thought I must give her to you!” Tata Bino added gleefully.

I let my eyes pass over my beloved friends and relatives.  As each felt my stare, each looked back blandly.  We all knew: the tiniest piece of a smile, the subtlest wink, the briefest choked-off laugh, would unravel our conspiracy and we would collapse to the ground with robust, eye-watering, belly-clutching, heart attack-inducing laughter.  We could never be so rude to the visiting American husband of someone whose family was held in high esteem—a family who just had donated funds to build a fence around the church courtyard.

But having been the tortured—and, worse, pitied—wife for nearly two weeks, I spoke.

“Honey,” I said in my most honeyed voice.  “Everyone has worked so hard to make this banquet the most memorable you shall ever experience.  And now they are honoring you by offering the first bite of Tata Bino’s prized lechon!”

Tom turned his face towards me.  I met the panic in his lovely green eyes with the steel of a bolo knife.

He gulped, whispered “Yes, dear,” and raised a hand to accept the plate Tata Bino was offering him with an expression of utmost innocence.

Tom gingerly picked up the morsel, closed his eyes, and popped Camille’s flesh into his mouth.  I noticed that he didn’t chew.  He simply swallowed quickly.  I had never seen him swallow anything so quickly.

The crowd erupted with much applause and toasts for a good life—Mabuhay!  Grinning so hugely his blackened molars showed, Tata Bino swiftly added another succulent piece onto Tom’s plate.

“You like my cooking, hah?  Please have another!  I can tell you really like my cooking!” Tata Bino proclaimed.

Faced with otherwise insulting Tata Bino, Tom reached again for the morsel, closed his eyes and popped another piece of Camille into his mouth.

I looked around and asked innocently, “Anyone have any tapey?  I bet my husband would love to try our potent rice-wine.”

Thus, did everyone finally give in to their laughter.  The crowd roared and roared as if they had never ever in their entire lives heard anything as funny as my query for tapey.  My grandmother shook her head, giggled into her handkerchief, then motioned for one of the men to offer a glass of tapey to Tom.

“As for me,” I yelled, quieting the crowd.  “Tata Bino—please cut me some choice pieces off that baby.  I’ve wanted to get my hands on Camille for a long, long time…”

*****

Camille, Camille…how my husband loved you!  You are forever a part of him…

[First published in Bamboo Ridge]

© Eileen R. Tabios

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