Life is simple, independent, and free.
You have the power to curl your lips in such a way that men would empty the contents of their wallets to please you, the power to laugh at men without them realizing they are being mocked. It takes a slight touch of a man’s arm, a soft squeeze of his shoulder, and a gentle, innocent smile.
But if it isn’t your touch, it’s most certainly your voice.
You would stand on your crate outside the church doors, and you would begin to sing. You are loud. You’re able to belt in Quiapo Square, and on a crowded day, people stop and listen. You catch them with their mouths agape, and as you sing, your lips stretch into a wide grin, and you feel like your feet were standing on the smooth floorboards of a stage rather than rough, splintering planks.
Sometimes, you croon old love ballads and wink at the men in the audience. When you take your breaks, some of them walk over and speak to you. They try to take you to sit with them during mass. They ask you to breakfast, to lunch, to dinner. The most daring ones propose to you, promise to whisk you away to a better life than singing in the Square for less than five hundred pesos a day.
You simply purse your lips, laugh curtly, and turn away when they said those things.
You’re too in love with yourself and with your songs to fall in love with a man.
But you wonder what falling in love with a man would feel like nonetheless.
Every day, you take your place in Quiapo. Before singing, you close your eyes, feel the early morning sun on your face, and listen to the murmurs of the vendors opening their doors and the children walking to school. You wait for a song to come to your mind, and then you would begin to sing. Softly at first, until you crescendo into a warm reverb you felt all the way to your toes.
You feel most free when you sing.
A good song takes you somewhere blissfully still—somewhere you don’t hear the voices in your head telling you to return back to the province and marry a man who could support you, telling you to go back to the dingy apartment and face your angry landlord about last month’s unpaid rent.
You came to Manila by yourself to sing. And whether it’s for an audience of ten ogling men in the square or thousands of people in Araneta Coliseum, you’re determined that singing is the only way you want to support yourself.
You have no one to go back to, no one who was wondering where you are or worrying over what you’re doing. Your mother—dead. Your father—God knows where. You know you have a brother somewhere in the city, but you’re in no rush to find him. As long as you can remember, your life has always been lived this way, even back in the province. You never knew family, and you know you’re odd that way.
But it’s okay because you have no one to answer to but yourself.
You once considered donning a nun’s habit to stop the men’s stares and advances, but you loved your own smooth, tan skin too much to hide it away in a black robe, and you wanted the freedom to wander the city alone. Granted, that means living with a few bruises, but you learned to hold out on your own in a fight. You learned the hard way which street corners to avoid, which shortcuts were safest to use to go home.
You vow never to become one of the women you see in those areas: provincial girls like yourself with the same beguiling smiles and come-hither eyes—but trapped and dependent on someone else. They stumble on their too-high stilettos and cling to the arms of leering, foreign old men who bought and owned their affections for a night. You wonder if their families know how those girls really earned the money they send back home.
You pity them—how they could not stand on their own feet the minute they came to the city, how they have to rely on men to provide for them. But even so, you envy them; you’re jealous of the name-brand presents and expensive clothes those women came back with, climbing out of the fancy cars passing through the Square. You knew those things would sell for the price of a month’s rent in the marketplace.
And you’ve thought about how easy it would be to go to the streets frequented by such men, how one night spent with one of them would make more than a month’s wages of hawking in front of the church. But then you think about those men’s wrinkled, bloated hands touching you—their heavy, sagging bodies pressed up against you in a strange motel bed—and you shudder in disgust.
Instead, when you became desperate, you resorted to selling candles, plastic rosaries, prayer cards, and flowers alongside your songs. You appeal to the passerby’s sense of duty to God—make yourself saintly by wearing white dresses every day. You hope they ignore how stained the hems of your dresses are.
They begin to call you Umaawit na Anghel—Singing Angel. And no man dared to try touch you after word of your newfound saintliness went around Quiapo. You become bolder in your business advances, sidling up the out-of-town pilgrims with ornate gold crucifix necklaces, offering to bless them with a song before they go inside—for a price. More often than not, they give in to your soft-spoken petitions, and you get a good stack of bills before the last mass service of the day.
On bad days, when the sun beats down on you, your throat is parched, and you don’t have enough money to buy any lunch, you take shelter in the church, and you stretch out in the pew closest to the door. You close your eyes, use a church bulletin to fan yourself, wait for exhaustion to lull you to sleep, and then wake up to the sound of the afternoon church bells.
It’s on one of these days that you meet him.
As you pass out that afternoon, you take no notice of the stocky, dark-skinned man in a wide-brimmed straw hat sitting directly behind you. When you wake up, he is sitting in your pew, rifling through the pile of cards and beads at your feet. Your first instinct when you see him is to kick his hands. You smack the beads out of his hands so hard they clatter across the ground. He lets out a throaty laugh and apologizes as he bends down to pick up the scattered rosaries. You sit up and gather the rest of your things, sorting through them in your lap, narrowing your eyes at him.
He grins and hands back the beads, saying you’re prettier up close. You immediately know where the conversation is headed. You don’t have time for this tonight—you want to get home before dark.
But before you reject him, he says he looks forward to hearing you sing tomorrow, then leaves without another word.
You begin to notice him when you arrive in the mornings. He comes to the Square earlier than you do, hauling his cart of fruit and snacks on a rickety bicycle. He never makes his way over to you, never is in your orbit of spectators, and never even looks directly at you.
Somehow, you know he’s listening.
He intrigues you, and when the audience and flow of buyers wanes, you observe him from your spot under the church’s shadow. Your fascination surprises you; he’s an altogether unremarkable man. But as you keep watching him, you notice how he gives pieces of dried mangoes to the children; he doesn’t seem to realize they would steal bananas from his cart right after he did so. You sneer as he smiles and chats with the old men who sidle up to him and reach behind his back to swipe coins out of his open cash box.
He is kind and earnest—and this made him both admirable and pitiful to you.
It’s an especially hot, slow, and desperate day. You haven’t had anything to eat or drink; perhaps he would be so kind to give you something.
He greets you cheerful, and with mock pompadour, presents the contents of his cart.
Name your price for anything, Anghel—he says. As you peruse his wares, he becomes distracted with another crowd of children.
You walk around the cart, and you spot the cash box. You reach slowly towards it while trying to keep a wary eye on him; he stepped away from the cart. You glance down at the box. There are a few hundred-peso notes, and you smirk as you grab two.
Suddenly, a large, calloused hand grips your wrist.
Nice try—he says. You want to slap the grin off him, but you could feel your own face heating up.
Let go, let go—you kick him, but he is unaffected by your blows. He wrestles the bills from your hand. You try to twist out of his group, but it’s only more painful.
Sing for me—he replies with a bemused face.
I will, I will, and then let go, yes, let go, please—you beg. Your wrist feels like it could snap if he squeezes any tighter.
Depends if it’s good enough—he says. He yanks you forward. The evening crowd of parishioners has already begun to mill around the square, waiting for mass to start.
You’re already feeling spent. But you take a deep breath, straighten up, and begin to sing an old song, even as your throat feels like it’s being shredded and your vision begins to spin.
He lets go of your wrist and catches you when you collapse against him of exhaustion and thirst. Even in your fatigue, you thrash against him as he lifts you and places you on his cart.
You woke up in the dark on your regular pew in the church. Your cards, beads, and money are stacked neatly inside your crate, alongside a bottle of water and a warm Styrofoam box. Your mouth waters as you open it—rice and stew, which you immediately devour.
Next, you count the money in the box.
You have two hundred pesos more than you counted yesterday.
At the bottom of the box is a note.
You read it and curse. You don’t want to owe him anything, but he gives you no choice, and you hate yourself for it.
It’s Saturday night, and he’s waiting for you by the church in a striped button-down shirt tucked into a pair of blue jeans. He appears flustered, different from the brute, confident man you encountered that past week. As usual, you wear a white dress but the night was cool, so you draped a loose black shawl over top. He says he’ll take you dancing, and you decide you’ll play the part he seems to expect you to be: the beguiling fallen angel, the girl needed rescuing.
You owe him anyways.
You smile graciously and take his arm when he offers it to you. You fawn at his efforts to look like a decent man. As you walk through the closing marketplace alleys with him, you laugh at all his jokes and listen intently to his stories of working as a cart-vendor, of his mother and father and sisters back in his own province.
All the while, you’re thinking about how you’d escape if the night took a turn for the worse. You remember the force with which he held you and you remember seeing a hardness in his face when he held you in place that day. You do not want to experience that again tonight. He is a brute, but as children scurried past you two, you recall he is also a kind man.
The square is alive with raucous laughter and lively music. You normally hate being in the midst of a fiesta, but as he spins you around on the plaza stones and catches you in his strong arms, you lose yourself in the excitement. He pays for your dinner—the same meal he bought you earlier that week—and you both have drinks.
The world begins to whirl and tip, but you laugh it off and cling to him for support. He clutches you to his chest.
This is not you. Your drunken state doesn’t care as you stumble away from the crowd with him into the darkness of a nearby alley. This feels like a different kind of freedom, but it is your own choice nonetheless.
He pins you against the brick wall of the alleyway and kisses you—gently, softly. You don’t expect that. You thought kissing would be like an argument between two lovers. Kissing him feels like whispering dark secrets, and as you slip your fingers between his collar buttons, your dress tears a little.
And then kissing becomes rougher, more what you expected, but instead of fright, you feel exhilaration as he lifts you off the ground and presses into your body more urgently.
You push him back. This is not you.
But he is stronger than you, and you are breathless and longing, so in that muddled state between drunk and sober, you let him take you back to his place. This is not you. He fumbles for the keys and leads you up the stairs to his dark apartment. It is darker and colder in the apartment, and you catch the whiff of old newspapers and rice. You pay no heed because every two steps, you feel the heat of his breath against your neck and in your hair, and you’re heady with the scent of his cheap cologne.
And now here you are, laying in his bed—a mattress with a scratchy bed cover and a single pillow—with him looming over you, a dark silhouette.
Life was simple, independent, and free.
“Soloista” is the second-place winner of our 2016 Foreign Setting Short Story Contest.
© Copyright 2016 Karen-Luz Sison
Karen-Luz Sison is a journalism student at Carleton University in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada. Originally from the Greater Toronto Area, she is a first-generation Filipino-Canadian. She has an avid passion for both fictional and factual storytelling through different mediums. While she enjoys writing literary fiction, Karen-Luz mostly writes articles for her university newspaper The Charlatan. You can read more of her work on her blog: weirdcityreport.wordpress.com.