I was with Nora for about two years, but there was never a day in that brief relationship when I did not feel like it was the last one I would be spending with her. And I do not mean this in any romantic way. The feeling bred not an exciting sense of danger, but a terrible sense of insecurity and utter worthlessness.
I met Nora shortly after her parents died, although I learned of this fact only a year after she moved in with me. When I asked her why she never told me such an important thing, she stared at me for a long time before getting up and taking out her black folio. Then she started talking about her experience in the field, about how the attitude of non-grieving people towards grief only makes grieving an even more painful and difficult experience for the survivor. She went on to tell me about heavily militarized communities that she often went to, and described the impact of media coverage and military presence on people have who lost loved ones. She showed me photographs that did not make it to the mainstream presses which, Nora said, put out only those images that manifest grief in ways that people easily understand.
She spread out on the table several photographs of women sitting in corners, hanging colorful clothes to dry, or standing by trees and lampposts staring into a distance. There were pictures of gaunt men huddled in groups or going about what looked like ordinary tasks, feeding roosters, chopping wood, things like that. And then there were photos of children playing, and actually laughing, looking like any ordinary, happy children. I looked and looked at the photographs and did not find anything to help me understand her point, though I tried very hard to convince myself that I saw what she saw – various manifestations of grief.
Those photographs, the way she dealt with my question, haunt me to this day. Clearly, I was tested and I failed. I was accused and I had no valid defense. To be accused – for it surely felt like an accusation – that I had no capacity to understand and empathize with her, rankled. I am, after all, what many would call a sensitive guy, someone who’s in touch with his feminine side, having been brought up by a household dominated by women. I may have never experienced as profound a loss as death in my immediate family, but I had a very deep well of reading and viewing and listening experience to draw from. I should have been given a chance to feel, at the very least. Her utter lack of confidence in my capacity for empathy should have warned me. Everything about her should have warned me – she was older, worldlier, and wiser. She was also strikingly beautiful – long limbs, luminous skin, huge eyes, and breasts so full and shapely they make you forget about the other attributes I just enumerated.
I met Nora in a segunda mano thrift shop along Kamuning. I was there negotiating with the owner, Valentino, to let me go through his collection of 1960s beauty pageant photos, and to let him lease out to me the unit above his shop, so I could turn it into an apartment. She was there to look at post-war Manila photos of someone called Teodulo Protomartir, and to convince Valentino to lend her the negatives so she can have them scanned for a book. Nora had a keen interest in photographs and in wars, I later learned. She was a correspondent for a foreign press agency. I had a keen interest in vintage photographs as well, especially those of beautiful women, and in finding an affordable apartment for myself. I was an instructor of Freshman English in a mediocre state college.
When I met Nora, she was on a brief break from work which required frequent travels to Mindanao, or to wherever the insurgency was most heightened, wherever mortality rates were highest, as part of her regular assignments. For my part, I was then involved in a protracted war with my sisters and my parents whom I had been trying very hard to convince to let me live away from home, or at least somewhere outside Roxas District where I had lived all my life, as part of my bid for independence. She was thirty-five. I was twenty-five. It was a match made in second-hand heaven, witnessed by a man who called himself Valentino.