As if the rain could read my mind.
I stepped out to a roaring downpour that instantly turned the Pinaglabanan Shrine into a shallow pool of dirt and mud that almost seemed unreal now, almost unrecognizable from the earlier scene of a bustling and breezy urban park under the scorching midday sun when I quietly walked in, unnoticed by anyone in the crowd about an hour ago. That scene and the crowd are now completely gone. Perhaps, I figured, the rain alludes to my own drastic mood swing from one of quiet purpose to complete emotional chaos and the message from the rain could only be one of two things – either it sympathizes with my sorrow, or it actually mocks my misery.
I said purpose because I just made a promise to myself earlier today that my search for Rosalie would end now. Not tomorrow, not tonight but now. Right here, right now. And then sad to say I got my wish.
I reached out to my briefcase and held the paper in my hand, scanning carefully every entry – the dates, places, numbers, notes, punctuation marks included – and still I can’t seem to come to grips with the reality of my heartbreak, if only people knew what I am going through and what all of this meant to me. For the past several weeks, the thought of Rosalie consumed me. Without any exaggeration, it was already a matter of life and death to me at this point.
The case of Rosalie was referred to me by a friend, through an innocent phone call that unexpectedly came while I was cruising EDSA on another rainy afternoon in mid-July. I vividly remember hesitating whether or not to take the call, wary of accidents that occur most of the time from the slightest distraction. Atty. John was almost frantic, struggling to catch his breath on the other end of the line while narrating the story of this family fortune that now lies at the center of a bitter and protracted lawsuit. And this is where Rosalie comes in. If we can prove that she is still alive, we might as well take a bite from out of all that bounty.
And so during the next few weeks, I live, eat, and think of that single thought and in fact even in my dreams, I dream of Rosalie. How is she now, how does she look like, and most of all, where can I find her. Every single day and every single hour of those past few weeks, I agonized over these thoughts, completely consumed by the great desire to know the answers to my questions. It was like a seed had been planted to the core of my soul. It was causing me so many sleepless nights. It was already eating bits off my health and I was sincerely terrified it might just be a matter of time before it robs me of my sanity.
Long hours of research and visits to government offices, meeting people, asking around, losing my way to where I am going, finding my way back again to where I’ve been, spending the last cent of my money, borrowing someone else’s money and spending it to the last cent, skipping several meals, and missing important appointments, I have to deal with all of that, which is really bad but not as bad compared to the fact that the progress of my search had been excruciatingly slow. Only bits and pieces of information would come out of the blue which do not even remotely compensate for the enormous amount of energy I was already expending.
This much I have learned. She was born sometime before the war. Married in the 50’s and after that, disappeared without a trace. And now, I need her with the urgency and desperation of one who lives his life for the moment that he finds the missing map to the hidden treasure, the one elusive piece of the puzzle that I will never ever forgive myself if I should let it elude me. That’s how obsessed I was.
I remember early this morning, my conversation with Mr. Horror Movie. He was at the stockroom of the census office in Times Street, and immediately upon seeing him I was prompted to relate the experience to something about movies. You know what, I have this habit of automatically connecting people, events, and experiences to the movies I watched or books I’ve read at some point in my life and on that particular moment, my reaction to the sight of Mr. Horror Movie was obviously unflattering. But what am I supposed to do? That meeting turned on the hidden switch. I couldn’t think of any other image or sentiment that would connect me to him except for the Nightmare on Elm Street. One of these days, I would have painful karmic lessons from having this aberrant behavior.
But there he was, in what I would call the dungeon of the census, a place that reeks of the stench of decay, the dim light mood does not help in any way to assuage my morbid mixed emotions when I walked in. As I turned left to one of the isles in between rows of bookshelves, he was there, smiling a wicked smile that almost made the hair on my neck stand stiff. But in fairness, he went about his work with the absolute dedication of the man who seems to honestly want to have nothing else to do with the rest of his life than this. I wouldn’t be surprised if his last wish is to get buried somewhere here.
I mentioned to him first the full name of Rosalie making sure I pronounced it right and gave the few details I have gathered about her life from all my adventures and just like that, Mr. Horror Movie immediately went to work scanning across piles upon piles of documents that connect to the past, frozen in time.
I was surprised to be left alone in the dim-lit room with the mixed scents of noxious fumes, dead things, the leaking sewer, and the unforgettable smell of paper mill that never fails to take me back in time to my old job as proofreader at the old Evening Post. I tried looking behind my back from time to time, expecting some rabid voracious beast to leap out of the dark and devour my intestines. In that brief interlude of time somewhere underneath the bowels of this scary old building, amidst shadows and secrets, I fought fear by retracing my steps back to that dark rainy afternoon in July when I received Atty. John’s phone call while driving in the middle of Edsa. One day, I was in Sta. Rosa Laguna, and the next day, I was flirting with the thought of taking the last plane trip to Davao but decided against it after a friend tipped that someone at the Civil Registry in Mandaluyong holds the key to my fortune. One moment I was at Quiapo underpass looking at magic amulets, and at the South Cemetery the next. And then there was that drinking binge with forgers, fixers and plain crooks during yet another typhoon-ravaged evening at some stinky bar in Claro M. Recto, when I had grown so desperate, too desperate that I seriously considered breaking the law if that is the only way to get what I wanted.
The introspection was cut short by Mr. Horror Movie’s sudden appearance from the dark, carrying a huge book that let loose a mighty spray of dust when he abruptly opened its pages. And there it was. Everything that I wanted to know about Rosalie. That yes indeed, she walked the aisle as a 21 year old bride in 1957. I wonder what gown she had, the scent she wore. Was she pure and untouched at the altar on that day? Afterall, those were the days.
And then, finally, I got the fact that I wanted to know. The one answer to my question, the one I've been waiting for. Immediately, I wanted to scream, I wanted to tear this building apart, I wanted this place to burn to the ground, tell it to bring its secrets to hell, and never come back again even in my memory. My instinct was to bid my farewell to Mr. Horror Movie, but as if on cue, as if to read my thoughts, he offered his hand, not saying a word, but I fully understand that what he meant was his job was done and I should be going. I accepted the handshake and it felt cold, like shaking the hand of a body that’s just been taken out from the morgue. When I turned my back and headed for the sunlight, I had to squint and blink to adjust to the sun until I realized I was in tears.
If my discovery from the dungeon with Mr. Horror Movie this morning was not enough to bring me down to my knees, my next quick stop – here at Pinaglabanan crushed my spirit beyond resurrection, by this time, the sun had absconded and left the whole of the heavens to the rain. So this is where the journey stops, I said to myself. Rain-drenched Pinaglabanan. As I held the paper in my hand – a reproduction of the microfilm entry that officially validates the record I just found at the dungeon – I was consumed with a totally different, incomparable kind of emptiness that I have never felt before in my entire life. Rosalie has become more than a ghost from the past. I realized she has taken her place somewhere in the deepest corners of my consciousness, a place that takes only the worst of emotions to enable me to sink deep enough to recognize that it actually exists.
I wonder what they made Rosalie wear at the funeral, her own funeral. I wanted to know if the mortician did a good job to conceal the ravages of tuberculosis that led to her untimely death at the tender age of 24, three years after her wedding. Maybe she was a beautiful woman, a lovely bride, but how was she when she laid there lifeless. Cold. Dead. It is almost unfathomable that someone I have never even met, someone I would never have the chance to know, someone who was there long before I came, and left already long before I had my turn to come to life, someone who is not and never will be a part of me except perhaps for a passing memory, or if not an obscure image in time, a speck in space, indeed unfathomable is the only word I can think of to describe the short, very short and anonymous life she lived and in the mysterious confluence of events that she found me, or rather that I found her, and then how one thing led to another until here I am questioning my purpose, my being, my own faith. I was grieving for someone I never came to know, someone from another generation far removed from the day the great force behind the order of things commanded that I come to life.
I am a man who had lived through many episodes of pain and grief but here, right here under the rain, while holding the paper that is already beginning to wilt in my hand, the suit I was wearing already a complete mess, and my spirit broken, and as I stood defiant under the rain, and completely soaked to the bone, I knew I had fallen down a new depth where I have never gone before. Another heartbreak like this would probably kill me.
Rest in peace Rosalie…