The affair had reached a full simmer by the time Socorro discovered her husband was cheating on her. She had never been the sort of wife who hovered nearby when he took an evening call, nor did she riffle through his pant pockets for incriminating receipts. She knew that with a husband like hers, such surveillance would have been an exercise in futility.
Amado was clever, you see. He often said, “Socorro, when it comes to white-collar crime, the smoking gun is in receipts. It’s the paper trail that trips you up.”
So he never left one.
He had all cell phone bills, bank and credit card statements mailed directly to his office. Short of breaking into the law firm’s filing cabinet, she would never have learned of the daily calls to the Loft at Power Plant, the cozy dinners at Paseo Uno, the splurge on a pair of champagne-hued South Sea Pearl earrings that would never grace her lobes.
And yet Socorro discovered his infidelity without the confetti of a hundred trysts. She sensed something was up the moment his appetites changed.
* * * *
Shortly after she began taking orders for Galantina and Pastel de Lengua, Amado mentioned that they’d been asked to host the law firm’s Christmas dinner once again.
“It’s that time of year, hon. Can you put together a dinner for the partners and their wives next Saturday?”
Socorro shrugged and poured herself more coffee. Organizing a 5-course sit-down dinner with wine pairings was all in a day’s work for high-end caterers like her. The Secret Chef’s number was on the flash dial lists of savvy Manila hostesses who had neither the ability nor the cook skilled enough to prepare Filipino haute cuisine.
“I might as well – if one of the other wives was hosting, I’d be called to cater anyway. Just remember, when you make senior partner I’m sending them a bill for all these free meals.”
Amado barely looked up from his chorizo.
“Sweetham. We get paid back every time they give me a raise, you know that.”
Socorro scowled into her sinangag. She resented her husband’s cavalier attitude. Although the couple had never discussed it, her catering had undoubtedly fueled Amado’s rapid ascent to partner at his law firm.
The ploy that had distinguished him from the other young Turks was his habit of conducting business over dinner at home. Meals for deals he called them. Even the most obdurate clients mellowed when negotiating contracts over Socorro’s Bacalao a la Vizcaina. By the time the mango panna cotta was brought to table, his guests weren completely disarmed and ready to comply with all the terms Amado had presented between first and final courses.
Word of Socorro’ culinary prowess spread and the Pelaez home quickly became the preferred site for the firm’s social events. On the surface Socorro and Amado seemed to complement each other perfectly. Closer examination would have revealed their marriage was just beginning to curdle.
* * *
On that Saturday evening midway into Misa de Gallo season Socorro was graciously pouring Sangria for Amado’s colleagues at Samson, Punzalan and Santuico, the Manila affiliate of a major New York law firm. The partners were uniformly middle-aged executives with minor paunches, discreet comb-overs and respectable golf handicaps. Each lawyer affected an air of jovial authority that enabled him to be alternately reassuring or threatening when dealing with clients or opposing counsel.
There was more variety when it came to the wives. Soledad Punzalan was an outspoken marketing executive who had recently returned from a trip abroad sporting an alarmingly taut, heart-shaped face. Lillia Samson was a peach of a matron who directed a preschool for the progeny of Manila’s best familes.
Bea Santuico was a Bacolod mestiza who created fanciful jewelry from excavated gold and semi-precious gems.
Socorro had never felt completely at ease with these women for unlike their families, hers was neither old- nor even newly rich. Nevertheless her catering business had gained her unique entry into their rarified circles: at many parties Socorro was both guest and hired help. Consequently Socorro’s immediate payoff for hosting company dinners was the knowledge that in her own home at least, she would always be the de facto alpha female.
She was serving a second round of drinks when Inday ushered in a latecomer. The men automatically sat up and drained their glasses, practically smacking their lips at the surprise appetizer the cook presented. For far different reasons the wives also scrutinized the newcomer, whose sleek honey-skinned figure appeared to have been decanted into a short black sheath then garnished with pearls. She was at least 15 years younger and as many pounds slimmer than the other women.
This made it impossible to like her.
“Socorro I hope you don’t mind, we invited a colleague who’s visiting from head office.” Miguel Punzalan raised his glass in a toast to the new arrival. “This is Cassandra Villareal, just in from New York. She and Amado are working on the telecommunications merger this year. We wanted to welcome her with a Filipino feast.”
“How nice of you to come,” Socorro handed her a drink. “You look too young to be a lawyer -- did you grow up in New York?”
“Chicago, actually. My father was a doctor who migrated from Manila in the ‘60s.”
“I knew you were Filipino. It’s in the eyes, always the eyes,” Bea cooed, stretching out her vowels in her languid Ilongga way. She clearly intended to peddle her baubles to this expat before the year was out.
“Actually I’m only half Filipino, my mom is Greek-American. That explains the clunky name.” Cassandra swirled the glass of sangria with a slender, ring-free hand. “So please, call me Cassie.”
“Doesn’t Cassandra mean catastrophe in Greek?” Soledad teased.
“Not quite. It means ‘She who entangles men,” Cassandra replied.
“Consider us warned,” Socorro wagged her glass at the other women. “Shall we go in to dinner?”
Bea launched her charm offensive as Inday ladled out the pancit molo. “So Cassandra, how long do you plan to be with us? Don’t let these men bore you with work, there’s so much to see outside of Manila….”
“Oh, but I enjoy the work and anyway I’m still getting to know the city. Amado was kind enough to give me a quick tour of the Glorietta at lunch the other day.”
“How very kind of him,” Soledad raised an eyebrow at Socorro’s husband, who was chasing a dumpling around his soup bowl.
* * *
By the time Socorro began delivering heart-shaped tortes for Valentine’s, Amado’s appetite had begun to wane. At first he declined dessert, claiming he had to lose the extra pounds he’d gained over Christmas. Second servings were the next to go. Soon after that he simply stopped coming home for dinner. By March Inday had stopped asking if her Ate was dining alone and simply set a single plate for Socorro each night.
And yet in spite of Amado’s claims that the late nights at work were running him into the ground, he seemed remarkably chipper. Socorro often overheard her husband humming Tony Bennet tunes while shaving in the morning. One day Socorro discovered him preening before her full-length mirror, sucking in his gut and craning his neck to diminish the double chin that threatened to engulf his jaw.
“Give it up, Ading,” she teased. “Those extra pounds aren’t going anywhere. Middle age is upon us.”
“Speak for yourself, Socorro.” He sprayed cologne on both palms and rubbed his neck. “I’m not ready to enter the golden years just yet.”
Amado picked up his briefcase. “Don’t wait up. We have a conference call with head office. I doubt we’ll be done before midnight.”
Socorro leaned over to steal a kiss but her husband was already reaching for the door. Glancing back, he sighed.
“Really Socorro, maybe you should take Soledad’s lead and get something done. Just because you’re middle-aged doesn’t mean you have to look it.”
And then he was gone.
Socorro avoided looking in the mirror that had earlier lied to Amado. When had her husband turned into Peter Pan? How could he think she had overtaken him in the race to senescence? She took a deep, calming breath….And why on earth did their bedroom suddenly smell of lavender, sage and rosemary?
She glanced at Amado’s dresser and understood. After a decade of Grey Flannel, her stolid husband had switched to something called Egoiste Platinum. By Chanel.
Amado, whose machismo had been nurtured by Jesuits and toughened by a fraternity would not have been caught dead sampling cologne at the Chanel counter, no, not even in some foreign Duty Free emporium far away from his hidebound peers at Samson, Punzalan and Santuico. This could only have been purchased by the sort of woman who wanted to smell summer in Provence whenever she nuzzled Amado’s no longer young neck.
Who could confirm her suspicions, Socorro wondered. The good lawyers at Samson, Punzalan and Santuico would never betray a fellow partner. In any case pride prevented her from investigating her husband, acting for all the world like the stereotypical jealous wife.
It was a pity Amado preferred to drive his own car; a driver could have told her his daily itinerary: where he went for lunch, if he stopped anywhere after work; if a woman had shared the ride. After splurging on a late model Jaguar, Amado now felt compelled to drive himself everywhere. The man could barely stand to surrender his trophy car to valet parking.
Socorro decided she needed something more solid than aftershave to prove her husband was cheating. Meanwhile, she strove to maintain a semblance of normality, catering Easter dinners, Mother’s day brunches and wedding banquets as Manila simmered in the sultry summer months.
* * *
Her patience was rewarded by Amado himself, who had not shed his habit of clinching a deal over food – in this case, lunch. Socorro was rushing to meet a client at Glorietta that Friday when she spotted her husband through the glassed-in patio of a bistro. Ducking behind an oversized box planter, she proceeded to spy on her husband and She-Who-Entangles-Men.
Cassandra was leaning rather too closely into Amado’s shoulder. He must have said something amusing, for at that moment she giggled, cupping his cheek with one hand and pulling him into a brief kiss.
Socorro could not bear to see more. Turning hastily, she nearly fell over a passing stroller. The uniformed yaya pulled back with a yelp before Socorro trampled her sleeping ward. Socorro hurried off, hoping her sunglasses could provide sufficient cover when the dam broke.
* * *
Once indignation had overtaken grief, Socorro spent some weeks brooding over her situation. On the one hand, the marriage had gone rancid. On the other, she now had the trump card with which to claim the one thing Amado had never given her: a child.
At 40, she was aware that the odds of conception were dismal. Nevertheless, there were procedures that could significantly improve these odds, procedures that could now be paid for with the guilt money she intended to extort from her philandering husband.
She laid the groundwork by performing due diligence. She visited a fertility specialist, had her hormones measured, discussed the results with her doctor. Within a few months, she had gathered all the evidence needed to make her case.
* * *
The monsoon was intent on drowning Manila that Sunday. The rain’s rhythmic drumming enveloped Socorro’s kitchen in a cocoon of warmth, scented by lamb shanks stewing in a pot and herbed potatoes roasting in the oven. She had given the cook the day off so that she could personally prepare a meal for the deal she hoped to clinch with Amado.
“Something smells good. Are you catering tonight?” her husband strolled into the kitchen.
“No,” Socorro stirred olives into the stew. “I thought we could have a nice Sunday dinner for a change, just the two of us.”
“Ay Socorro, you should have told me earlier. The New York office wants some paperwork faxed over, first thing Monday morning,” Amado dipped a wooden spoon into the pot and fished out an olive. “I’m going to have to go into the office tonight to make their deadline.”
He slurped up the olive. “Mmm… tastes like you’ve been cooking this all day. Maybe I can take it in for lunch tomorrow?”
Socorro snatched the spoon from him and tossed it into the sink. “When will you stop lying, Amado? You’re not really going to the office tonight, are you?”
“I don’t know what you mean, Sweetham. Where else would I be going?”
“Maybe I should ask Cassandra.”
“What does Cassie have to do with it?”
“What does ‘Cassie’ have to do with you?”
“If you’re implying that –“
“How stupid do you think I am, Ading?” Socorro reached past him and pulled a large chef’s knife from its block. “I know all about the two of you.”
Keeping an eye on the blade, Amado replied with the coolly impersonal lawyer’s voice he used on his most recalcitrant clients. “You don’t know a damn thing about --”
“Don’t patronize me, Ading. I saw you. Kissing her in broad daylight at Café Havana two months ago. I saw you.” BAM! Socorro slammed the knife broadside against the chopping board with her fist. The garlic clove beneath popped neatly out of its skin.
She took more cloves from a bowl and smacked the knife blade over each one as Amado slowly backed away from the counter.
“I asked Lillia the other day -- she said she’s known about it for months… just like everyone else at your office knew. Apparently you were the last partner to pick up a querida. Pues better late than never, no?” Socorro was furiously mincing the garlic into a paste.
“Can you blame me? All you think about is food – creating these feasts for people you barely know, then helping them eat it! Have you looked at yourself lately?” Amado waved at her stained apron.
Socorro didn’t bother to glance down. She was well aware that her body had expanded along with the catering business. After all, what credibility could a skinny cook claim?
“How dare you make my weight an excuse for cheating. What did you think would happen after all those dinners I catered for your partners, your clients, all those meals for deals? I worked just as hard for your career as you did,” Socorro grabbed a fistful of parsley from her herb basket and hacked it into a chiffonade.
“Don’t you lay that guilt trip on me – you wanted to host those parties, you said yourself that every event opened the door to more referrals.” Amado ran a hand over his thinning hair and glanced out the window. The wind was hurling sheets of rain over his Jaguar. He would have to end this spat quickly if he wanted to make it to dinner with Cassie by seven. “If you think…”
“You obviously don’t care what I think,” Socorro put down the knife and wiped her hands on her apron. “So let me tell you what I want.”
“If you think I’m going to leave Cassie –“
“’Punyeta Amado, I’ve heard enough about her. From now on it’s going to be all about how you are going to make it up to me.”
She pulled a folder out of a kitchen drawer and held it out to him. “There they are, Dr. Rabassa’s report, my lab results, the FSH levels, the hormones, everything you need to know about getting me pregnant.”
“You can’t be pregnant,” Amado waved the envelope away “…We haven’t—“
“Oh, but I intend to be,” Socorro stepped forward, nudging his chest with the folder. “These lab results show I still have a few viable eggs. If we did In Vitro…”
“Do you know how much that’s going to cost?” Amado exploded, slapping the folder out of her hands, its contents scattering on the floor. “At your age, we’ll have to do it more than once. Hundreds of thousands of pesos wasted on lousy odds. No Socorro, we had this discussion ten years ago. I’m not doing it. You can’t blackmail me into doing this.”
Turning, Amado grabbed his keys. “Too bad you wasted all this time cooking. I’m not cutting any deals off this meal.”
As he turned to leave, Socorro reached for the nearest object and flung it at him. The canister shattered against the doorjamb, showering Amado with shards of glass and rock salt.
“Do you really think your hysterics can stop me? Not even this storm could keep me away from her.” Amado brushed salt off his shoulders. “Now that everything’s out in the open I can stop pretending. I’ll sleep in the guest room tonight. Tell Inday to move all my clothes and shoes over there.”
“Move them yourself, you bastard!”
But Amado was already sprinting through the rain to his car.
Socorro sank onto a bar stool and stared out the window at their sodden driveway, ignoring the dinner she would again have to eat alone.
* * *
As Socorro’s stew gasped on its last drops of broth, a sports car swerved to overtake a bus along Epifanio De Los Santos Avenue. It hydroplaned wildly over the flooded freeway then careened into a divider, flipping like an oversized skateboard and landing heavily on its roof. The bus driver and his passengers later described how the Jaguar’s momentum propelled it several yards until it rammed into a stalled jeep abandoned by the curb.
* * *
Shortly after midnight, the driver’s widow was shown into the hospital’s morgue. She stood at the head of the table on which the corpse lay hidden beneath a clean white sheet. The female doctor on duty raised the sheet long enough for Socorro to confirm that deceased was in fact Amado. She closed her eyes briefly and nodded, letting out a slow breath.
“Mrs. Pelaez, I’m so sorry for your loss…” Dra. Benedicto murmured, keeping a respectful distance from the widow. “No one should ever have to see a loved one in this condition. He couldn’t possibly have survived that crash, but you know his injuries would have been less severe if he had strapped on his seatbelt.”
“No seatbelt? I’m not surprised,” Socorro shook her head. “He drives that Jaguar like a teenager. The day he made partner, he went straight to the dealership and ordered the latest model. ‘Liquid Silver’ – that’s the fancy name the dealership gave the color of his Jaguar.”
“It’s his favorite toy, you know…I mean, it was his favorite toy,” she faltered. “I’m sorry. I really should stop talking as though he were still alive.” Socorro absentmindedly patted her husband’s sheet-covered head.
Dra. Benedicto jumped at this rare chance for chitchat; it was usually so quiet down at the morgue.
“Mrs. Pelaez, you may not remember me but my name is Chona, Bea Santuico’s niece? You catered at my despedida de soltera last year – perhaps you knew me by Dayao, my maiden name. I married a Benedicto from Bacolod…?”
Socorro recalled the November dinner, silverware and leaded crystal goblets gleaming beneath the fairy lights that garlanded the estate’s acacias.
“Ah yes, your Tita Bea introduced us at her daughter’s debut, I remember now, hija.” She smiled. “You and your fiancé made such a lovely couple.”
Socorro looked beyond Dra. Benedicto to the shrouded figure and her smile faded. “Strange how life changes, no? Last year I helped celebrate your wedding, and now here you are, showing me my dead husband.”
“Naku Mrs. Pelaez, I’m so sorry, this was the wrong time to bring up my wedding, forgive me.” Dra. Benedicto touched Socorro’s elbow. “Please, if there’s anything at all I can do to help …”
Socorro stared at the earnest young doctor as the seed of an idea sprouted in her mind. Walking halfway down the table, she lifted the sheet. Most of Amado was barely recognizable, but his private parts were in pristine condition. She turned to the young doctor and framed her request as delicately as possible.
“You know, Amado wanted to be cremated. Pero hija, I loved my husband at least as much as you love yours …and the thought of every last bit of him going up in smoke,“ Socorro wiped away an insincere tear. “It’s just too much to bear.”
Anticipating a storm of tears, Dra. Benedicto stepped toward Socorro ready with her stock phrases of sympathy, but the widow rambled on.
“We were not blessed with children. After the funeral I will have nothing to remind me of him.”
“I know this is highly irregular but please hija, could you give me this one small piece of my husband to take home? It’s the only part of him that still looks whole…” Socorro raised the sheet high enough for Dra. Benedicto to see Amado’s limp penis.
“I just want to bury it in our garden, under his favorite mango tree.”
Startled, the doctor drew back but Socorro pressed on, lowering her voice as though afraid that the neighboring dead would overhear.
“Please Chona, do this for your Tita Socorro. The other doctors don’t have to find out. It’s the middle of the night, the morticians are coming in the morning and I will explain the missing … portion to them. I promise you won’t get into trouble.” Socorro grabbed the doctor’s hand. “Please indulge this old widow.”
“Well, I suppose it’s just a simple dissection…” Chona extricated her hand from Socorro’s crushing grip. “All right, Tita. Ordinarily I would never do such a thing, but for you…Let me find a scalpel –“
* * *
The widowed caterer had declared a hiatus from cooking during her period of mourning, but after the ninth day of prayers Socorro returned to her kitchen with a vengeance.
The day after his cremation, Amado Pelaez’s ashes filled a heavy silver urn that claimed its place of honor atop the dining room credenza. The balance of his remains sat on the butcher’s block, waiting to enrich the entree Socorro was preparing for her sole dinner guest.
Socorro sliced the shaft and scrotum into anonymous cubes then stirred them into a thick stew of chicken thighs, pig’s feet and mashed black beans. The pot muttered portentously, exhaling breaths redolent with anise and garlic.
It had been relatively easy to summon Cassandra to this intimate dinner. Socorro simply enlisted the aid of the partners’ wives, who nagged their husbands into insisting the junior associate attend a despedida dinner before she returned to New York.
And so it was that barely two weeks after the tragic accident, the two women sat across from each other, Amado’s ashes perched just beyond the cabisera.
“You really shouldn’t have gone to all this trouble,” Cassandra murmured, as Socorro ladled a generous portion of stew onto her guest’s plate.
“No trouble at all, hija, cooking is my therapy. Amado always spoke so highly of you and your...” Socorro handed Cassandra her plate, “…work. I know he would have wanted to send you off with a little despedida. Please, try this. It was one of his favorite dishes.”
Socorro watched mesmerized as Cassandra speared a cube of flesh and slid the fork into her mouth, chewing with obvious relish.
“No wonder Amado liked this – it’s so tender and hmmm I don’t know savory in a kind of…pungent way. I’ve never tasted anything like it. You really are an amazing cook.” She saluted Socorro with her glass of wine and took a sip.
Socorro nodded graciously and drank with her. “You know, I was just wondering, when was the last time you saw my husband?”
Cassandra swirled the wine in her glass, seemingly fascinated by its blood red hue. “That would have been on Friday afternoon at the office.”
“But wasn’t it one of those weekends when you both had to pull extra hours at the firm? There were so many of them…”
“Lord, no. It was raining so hard that Sunday, I refused to leave my condo. We ordered Chinese take-out for dinner.”
“We?” Socorro looked at her quizzically.
Cassandra speared another chunk of meat with her fork. “I had a visitor.”
“Anyone I know?” Socorro was smiling but her eyes were cold.
Cassandra’s fork paused midway to her mouth. “If you don’t mind, I’d rather not talk about it. It ended badly.” She slipped the fork into her mouth and chewed vigorously.
Socorro picked at her mango salad and patiently watched the younger woman finish her dinner.
Bite. Chew. Swallow. Bite. Chew. Swallow.
They ate in awkward silence until with a discreet burp, Cassandra made a feeble attempt at chitchat.
“So is this a Filipino dish? It doesn’t taste anything like adobo.”
“Actually it’s a similar stew called ‘Talunang Manok.’” Socorro dabbed at her mouth with a napkin. “The local tradition among cockfighters is, when a rooster is killed in a cockfight, he isn’t simply tossed into the trash bin. The sabungero takes him home and cooks him for dinner that night. We Filipinos hate to see anything go to waste.”
Socorro folded her napkin, carefully smoothing the wrinkles around Amado’s monogrammed initials.
“In other words Cassandra, what you are eating is the defeated cock…he lost, you see.”
Cassie looked momentarily confused. “I could have sworn I was eating pork just now.”
Socorro gazed at her dead husband’s lover with unexpected pity.
“You’re right, of course. He really was a pig.”
Marivi Soliven has taught writing workshops at the University of the Philippines and the University of California at San Diego. Stories from her 17 books have appeared in anthologies and creative writing texts in Manila and the United States. She won awards for her children’s fiction in 1991 and 1992 and the Grand Prize for the Novel in 2011, all three conferred by the Carlos Palanca Memorial Awards for Literature, the Philippine counterpart of the Pulitzer Prize. That novel, The Mango Bride, was published by Penguin Books in April 2013. Grupo Planeta released a Spanish translation in October 2014 and National Book Store is currently developing the Filipino edition. In June 2014, the San Diego Book Awards named The Mango Bride Best Contemporary Fiction of 2013. "Talunang Manok" was originally published in a fiction anthology, Spooky Mo.