Pares-Pares*

On sultry afternoons or evenings during brownouts,
someone would take out a deck of cards and we’d play,

the still-warm ironing board dragged near the edge
of the bed so we could use it as a table— Nothing

complicated, mostly a game of matching pairs, one
card conveniently hidden away under the pillow.

That’s how we learned how much stock was placed
on finding the other half to make up a pair,

so as not to wind up the monkey, the tsongo,
the odd one out— Unpartnered in life, soltera

just like Ms. Concepcion Atienza who lived on the corner
of Palma and gave music lessons to us but did not know

how to iron a shirt nor boil a pot of water to steep
her own tea. But she has servants, my cousin reminded,

triumphantly fishing out the last pairable card
from my hand before flushing the Queen out in plain

view— And she took trips abroad, I knew: to Spain,
where she bought that cologne she liked to wear

that smelled of violets. She came from old stock,
a family with an estate somewhere in Batangas. Still,

everyone pitied her, though she knew music, both scales
and solfeggio, and therefore, now I think, more than

a little math— Only embroidery and crochet
besides piano, and no English at all though times

had changed. Our fathers and mothers brought us to her
so she could add to our repertoire of skills to fluff out

at some appropriate time: our coming out? some grand
debut? She led my fingers through exercises

on the weighted keys, the first of many teachers
in succession until at fifteen I played in my first

solo recital. By then, we heard she’d died, more alone
than in her former life, after a season of wasting

away on a hospital bed in the capital. And by then
I’d grown weary of the discipline of only scales,

abandoned dreams that others had for me of entering
conservatory. I longed to plunge ahead into that more

open field called college, where I’d glimpsed
flashes of other lives I might perhaps slip into;

and, after the silences of the library, the dim
musk of folk-houses filling after dusk with smoke

and tambourines, plaintive with Dylan or Simon and Garfunkel
—music against which our bodies strained to find each other.

* By pairs

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