The Angel Gabriel
Daughters are born to punish their fathers.
This is what Eduardo Romero, M.D. remembered just before he burst into the delivery room where his wife was giving birth to his fourth child. He could not recall from whom he first heard this saying: Perhaps from his mother, Eva, who clucked her tongue when Eduardo announced his daughters' births, or maybe from his father, Titong, who shook his head at the news, and said, "Another girl." Eduardo's friends, all physicians themselves, joked, "You only make X's, Compadre, no Y's." They suggested he eat yogurt or drink herbal remedies or visit a hilot healer. One friend said, "Don't keep so many girlfriends." Eduardo's maid, Cet, had said "God gives men daughters to teach them a lesson. Through their daughters' pain, men realize the pain they have sown on other women."
Eduardo had every reason to love his three little girls. When he came home from work, they always ran to greet him, clinging to his white lab coat and showering him with kisses. They fought with each other to sit in his lap after dinner and play with his hair. He paid the high tuition for their private girls' school, and didn't argue when his wife wanted a grand piano, and then the weekly music lessons for the girls. He let a tailor make all their dresses, and he pinched the bridge of their noses each night, massaging the cartilage together, to make them pretty.
But Eduardo wanted a namesake, someone to make him proud. As he stepped through the delivery room doors, knocking over a tray of surgical instruments with his thighs, he prayed he would not be disappointed again.
Maria Romero lifted her head from the O.R. table. The worst was over; her body had not split in two along the seams of her birth canal. She was trying to keep awake, fighting the lull of sleep and waves of paralysis that always came over her after she gave birth. Her newborn was upside down, its back facing her, and she could not get a good look at the sex so she nudged the delivery doctor with her foot.
The delivery doctor held the newborn's slippery ankles in his right hand and was raising his left to slap the baby's wet backside when he was startled by two events: the noise of steel instruments tinkling as the cart crashed to the floor, and his patient's foot in his groin. The patient's husband, one of his esteemed colleagues at the hospital, was walking towards him. Trained to be always pleasant and polite, he let go of the baby's ankles to wave hello.
As the baby fell, head first, to the floor, the delivery doctor would later say, "I watched myself from outside." Although it was the baby's life in peril, the delivery doctor saw his future flash before him: He saw himself in a jail cell, being raped by prisoners waiting their turn in line, wearing only his lab coat, which was bloody on the edges. He saw his silver, bulletproof Mercedes sold for parts. His family eating fly-infested rice from a trash bin.
He had never revealed this secret to anyone before, especially not his wife, but the delivery doctor's religion was science. He believed in fact-based arguments and hard evidence. He went through the motions of Catholic Mass and celebrated the Sacraments because it was easier than arguing with his family, his friends, the whole damn country of Catholics.
But when he watched the baby slip from his hand and drop head first to the floor, he said, "Oh, God."
We have all heard the stories of superhuman powers: A mother lifts a car to set her child free; a father holds his breath for two minutes to rescue a drowning son; a twin communicates with telepathy to save the other from a fatal mistake. The scientific method fails to explain the outcome, and we find unsatisfying answers in adrenaline, the supernatural, or God.
When the baby's skull was inches from the floor, about to spill open as if it were an anthill flooded with boiling water, time stopped. The baby hung in the air as if suspended in gluey gel, and the delivery doctor reached his hands out, squeezed his hands around a leg and an arm, and plucked the body back.
Maria knew women-her mama, her sisters, and aunties--were the only ones who would believe what she had just witnessed: an angel, a man with wings, hovering at her feet, its tongue long and red, wrapped around her baby's torso, holding the body still in the air as if her newborn were a piņata hanging from a tree at fiesta. The men would say that she was delusional, suffering from wish fulfillment, and only dreaming of the Angel Gabriel, whose image was posted on prayer cards in every room at St. Gabriel's Hospital in Manila. But Maria was certain of her vision, and this gave her courage.
When the delivery doctor placed the baby into her arms, Maria held the silent body to her breast and covered its ears with her hand so it would not hear her husband screaming at the delivery doctor.
The delivery doctor stammered, "I, I, I," and then ran from the room and straight for his car, ordering his nurse to cancel all appointments.
Eduardo, his face red and sweat streaming down his neck, gripped the edge of the table, and asked, "So, what is it anyway?"
Maria pulled the baby's mouth from her nipple and turned it on its back where it cried and gurgled, kicking its legs apart in the air.
"Christ," Eduardo said.
Eduardo stroked the baby's head and before his wife could say anything to him, he left the delivery room. His girlfriend, a night shift nurse, was waiting outside the swinging doors, and he grabbed her hand and they left for Sunset Dunes, their favorite love motel.
That evening, after disappointing her husband with the birth of their fourth daughter, Maria rested in her hospital bed. She asked her maid to turn the radio dial and then the television channels, but all the programming was the same: President Marcos announcing martial law. Hospital workers were running home to be with their families and everyone was waiting news from the government about what to do and how to act. No one dared to say "dictatorship" aloud because those who did were arrested.
From the hospital window, Maria saw Army tanks and green jeeps and soldiers with machine guns patrolling the empty streets. She was living in a new country. She worried for Eduardo and hoped he was safe at home. Although she was disappointed that he left her side so soon after delivery, and she often cried about all the ways he was not a good husband, Eduardo was her life.
Maria did not know how things had gotten so bad between them. At one time, she was in so love with Eduardo-with all the hope that new love brings-that she was willing to give up everything to be with him: her family, her home, becoming a doctor. She let go of her family's hand and took Eduardo's.
They met six years ago, when Maria was a first year medical student at the University of the Philippines. He was her first boyfriend, but they hadn't courted in the traditional way. He didn't come to her house on Sundays and make formal conversation with her parents in the sala. He didn't go on dates with Maria to watch American movies and eat merienda at Max's Fried Chicken with a niece for a chaperone. As a young girl, Maria had spent many Saturday afternoons accompanying her older sisters as a chaperone on dates, and was bribed with pastries and sugar cubes to keep her mouth shut while her sisters held hands or kissed with young men.
Eduardo was different from all those mestizo boys from the burgis class that her mama introduced her to. Eduardo was from Tondo, where gangs roamed the streets and criminals hid from the law. He grew a scruffy beard and sideburns, and he always wore black. Maria later found out it was because he was in mourning for his mama, but at the time, she thought Eduardo was the Filipino James Dean.
Eduardo was a fourth year medical student and president of his fraternity. Maria didn't think someone like him would notice her, but when Maria arrived at the first dance mixer of the year, one of Eduardo's fraternity pledges met her at the door and gave her a bouquet of surgical gloves, blown up with the fingers painted to look like flower petals. There was a note pinned to the stems that said, "Dance with me."
When she walked into the dance hall, she saw that instead of paper streamers, gray intestines stolen from Gross Anatomy lab hung from the ceiling. Eduardo sauntered up to her and said, "These are in your honor."
Maria was flattered. None of the suitors her mama had brought to the house ever did anything this interesting. They gave her gifts of pili nut clusters and jars of coconut jam, but none of it was as sincere as this gift.
She danced with Eduardo all night.
After a month, Maria let Eduardo take her to a love motel near the Pasig River. They started meeting at Golden Palace love motel weekly, and no one, except the clerk who checked them in each week, knew what they were doing. Eduardo had been with many other women, but during those moments when Maria rested her head on Eduardo's chest and listened to his murmurs as he napped out the rest of the hourly rent on the room, she thought they had invented love.
Even though Maria knew reproductive biology, she was after all, a first-year medical student, she believed Eduardo, a fourth-year medical student, when he informed her that she could not get pregnant because he always ejaculated outside of her body.
It wasn't until the physical signs couldn't be ignored, when the baby was weighing heavily in her body, pulling her down to the ground, making her back ache and arch, when she felt kicking inside of her; that she knew the truth.
Maria met Eduardo at the love motel to tell him the news. He sat down on the bed heavily and covered his face with his hands. "Shit," he said. "We were careful. What about Hilot massage?"
Maria gasped. The thought of killing this baby, aborting it, was unspeakable. She couldn't believe that Eduardo would even suggest it. She would go straight to Hell and the baby would languish in Purgatory.
Maria began to tremble and suddenly she was crying. "Aren't you a Catholic?"
"Of course, but it's not a good time. My family doesn't have any money like yours."
Maria wished for the aswang then, and for once in her life, she hoped that it would come to her. She wanted it to smell the baby in her womb, alight on her windowsill, and suck her problem out.
But there was only one thing to do, and even Eduardo knew it. That same afternoon they took the bus to Baguio, the mountain resort town, where no one could stop them.
The bus was not air-conditioned. Dust flew in from the windows and Maria bounced on the seat and held onto Eduardo's arm even though he hadn't said a word to her since they boarded the bus. The air cooled as the bus made its way up winding road to the top of the mountain. Maria closed her eyes because she couldn't see anything, but clouds and blue sky in front of the bus it turned the sharp corners. Maria couldn't concentrate enough to pray the rosary and just fingered the beads in her hand. She prayed the bus would go over the edge of the cliff.
Later that evening, in front of tourists snapping photos, Eduardo and Maria were married by an Igorot judge who recited the ceremony wearing only a G-string that covered his groin with a colorful woven flap. There was a metal can, guarded by a small boy, in which tourists were supposed to drop coins for looking, and a few extra pesos for taking a photograph. Maria counted the feathers in the Igorot's headdress because she didn't want to look at his bare chest and legs.
This was not how my wedding was supposed to be, she thought.
Maria called her house when the ceremony was over. The connection was very bad. Her parents had only recently installed a phone inside the house. They were the first family in the neighborhood to have a phone and people were always coming to the compound gate, begging to make "emergency" calls. "I'm calling you from a phone," they would say, and not much more.
Maria's sister answered the phone. "My God, are you in the family way?"
"No," Maria lied. "I just wanted to get married."
"Get on the next bus and come home. With your husband. We will work it out here."
Maria hung the phone up. She wasn't sure what she was going home to, or if they would even let her back inside the compound gate. Eduardo was staring at the stars, his hands tucked under his armpits. Maria shivered. She had never been this cold.
"The stars are so near," Eduardo said.
Maria felt as if she were looking at him for the first time. She imagined how her parents and sisters would see him. His black clothes looked cheap and she realized that he had taken old clothes and tried to make them look new by dying them black. His jeans hung above his ankles two inches. Earlier, she thought this was for style, but now she realized that he wore his pants two inches above his ankles because they were old and ill-fitting, hand-me-downs from his brothers. His jacket had a tear at the collar.
For the first time, Maria didn't see a fraternity president or a fourth year medical student or a rebel, she saw a boy from Tondo trying to better his class by becoming a doctor, the kind of man who was so proud, so mayabang, he thought could keep two gamete cells from colliding and making a baby.
Maria didn't quit school when she learned she was pregnant, although her parents encouraged her to be a full-time mother and wife after allowing her and Eduardo to move into a small apartment in the compound. Maria was afraid she would never finish school, get settled into married life, and become a socialite like her mother and sisters, all her years of studying and dreaming, wasted.
That first pregnancy was small, and after Maria returned to school a married woman, she was able to hide her condition from her schoolmates and professors until her eighth month. Her parents paid for a nanny to watch her daughter while Maria continued her studies. Everyone expected Maria to drop out, but she passed her first year.
In her second year of medical school, a year later, Maria was pregnant again, this time with twins and her belly stood out so far that she had to sit a foot from the desk by her second trimester. Twins almost always came premature and, if they decided to be born six weeks early, they were due at the time of Maria's medical boards.
During the written exams, the medical board proctor had said, "We'll make a special provision for you, Miss." He saw Maria struggling to lean over her belly to reach the desk where her test was. He wore thick glasses that dented the sides of his nose with their weight. With those glasses, he could see anything going on in that room. A good quality for a test proctor, but not so good for meeting girls. He smiled at her with crooked teeth and handed her a clipboard, which she rested on top of her stomach like a pillow.
"Thank you sir," Maria said. "You're very kind." In the fifth hour of the exam, Maria's water broke. She said, "Ave Maria," and checked to see if anyone had noticed the fluid that soaked her skirt and dripped quietly to the floor. She hoped the test proctor couldn't see it, even with his thick glasses. Luckily, in the heat, her water evaporated quickly, leaving a sticky stain on her skirt.
Maria rubbed her belly and said, "Give me a minute, here. The sooner I get through this, the sooner you get out." She finished the last sections with breakneck speed, the answers clear and sure. She shook as she filled in the little circles with her pencil. The contractions were still half an hour apart by the time Maria left the exam.
After the twins came home from the neonatal intensive care unit, Maria learned that she passed the exam with the fourth highest grade in the nation and the highest score in history for a woman. She had never been anything, but average, and later, when the twins were old enough, she told them that they must have given her the correct answers during the exam.
"Three brains are better than one," Maria told them.
"But mama, we didn't know anything yet," they answered. "We didn't even know our names."
Throughout grade school, the twin girls showed a natural affinity for science and scored the highest grades. They struggled in language arts and quit piano lessons. Behind Eduardo's back, Maria gave them medical journals and textbooks to look at instead of picture books and fairytales. Although Maria still practiced medicine, what was most important to her now was her children. Only they could fulfill her dreams.
Machine guns sputtered outside the hospital window as Maria watched the orange and purple Manila sun set on a new Philippines. Her newborn, named after the Angel Gabriel, the patron saint of the hospital, startled at the noise, and Maria hugged her tighter. Maria watched how the newborn's mouth opened and closed, looking for something to suck. She placed her nipple in Angelina's mouth and felt the small streams of warm breath against her skin, the tiny swallows in Angelina's throat.
As Maria held the squirming, perfect body against her breast, she knew that the safest place was inside of her, and she wished all four of her daughters could swim in her womb forever, and never be hurt.
Grace Talusan earned an MFA in fiction at the University of California, Irvine, and a BA at Tufts University. Grace was awarded a Massachusetts Artist Grant and other grants to support research, travel, and writing. She has published fiction in various anthologies and nonfiction in Asiaweek, the Boston Globe, and the San Diego Reader. Currently, Grace is Scholar in Residence at Tufts University and serves on the board of directors of the Writers' Room.