THE AFTERNOON WAS RATHER SULTRY, so I stepped out of the studio and smoked a cigarette. I also felt I needed a drink, so I bought beer from the store nearby. It was already almost seven in the evening, and yet many students were still passing by. I perched on the seat under the flickering lamppost and listened to the cacophony of the city. I took a grateful swig of the beer, and then let out a deep sigh. Exhaustion caught up with me, maybe because I failed to take my siesta. There were only a handful of people who came to have their photos taken on that day, and my earning was just enough to cover my rent for the small studio. My next wedding gig at St. Clement’s was scheduled the next Sunday.
“Is the studio already closed, Nong?”
I was startled and nearly fell off my seat when suddenly a woman stood by my side.
“I would like to have my picture taken,” she added. “Do you mind?”
I usually closed the studio at six and took an early dinner so I could binge-watch my downloaded TV series. It happened that there were still a couple of graduating students who pleaded to have their portraits taken before I closed down, as they really needed those photos for their yearbook.
I had already shut down the AC as well as my computer. My body, too, was aching for some rest, but the young girl’s voice sounded like she was begging for mercy, and her beauty was already winning her appeal.
“I could pay some extra cash on top of your usual rate, Nong,” her request was earnest.
“Are you going to use it for your yearbook, too?” I asked. I took another gulp of my beverage.
“No, Nong, this is for the job I am applying for.”
“Could we just have it tomorrow?” I hesitated to ask the question. My brows furrowed as if I were dismissing her, but the truth was I wanted to photograph her.
“I feel shy coming here in the morning. Too many people.”
“All right then. But we’ll make it quick as I still got errands to do.”
I opened the studio once again and the young lady followed me inside. By her uniform, I figured she was studying in a Catholic university, though I could not really be sure as she was not wearing her ID. A red cravat hung below her collar. Her red-and-green-stripes skirt was down to her knees and her long black socks covered her calves. Her heels were two inches high. The heat was suffocating inside the studio so I immediately turned on the air conditioner, as well as the small electric fan.
“Just a moment. I will just prepare the lights.” I skidded to my storage room where I stowed my large soft boxes.
“Go ahead, Nong. I’m just going to retouch my makeup too.”
She was fair-skinned. She had fully blonde hair with tips curling up like leaves. She had an aquiline nose and a mole dotted the tip of her left eyebrow. Her gold necklace with a cross pendant that hung around her long neck glinted in the light. Her sheer white uniform revealed a hot black brassiere underneath.
“What background color would you like?”
“I think that grey one would be perfect.” She pointed with her florid red lips the muslin cloth that hung on the stand. I could tell by her voice that she was getting more comfortable as she had also stopped addressing me “Manong.”
“How long have you been doing photography? Did you actually study this craft?” she nonchalantly asked as she dabbed some liner on her long eyelashes. “I haven’t noticed that there’s a studio here until lately. I think last month this space was still occupied by a computer shop.”
I was busy cleaning up my Canon 35mm F-1.4 lens and I missed what she was talking about. But she did not mind repeating them.
“Matagal-tagal na rin. It’s been three years now since I started doing this,” I said. My tongue slipped again.
“Oh! And now you’re speaking in Tagalog,” she teased. She was grinning in front of her small mirror.
I STUDIED FOR TWO YEARS at the West Visayas State University for the degree Bachelor of Arts in Physical Education. I got a scholarship for being part of our volleyball varsity team. I never wanted anything else in my life except to teach or coach students who were into sports. But before the end of my second year, some Jesuits came to our school inviting some students to enter the seminary. Even before I got into college, I already felt a tinge of calling for the priesthood. I was a member of my local parish’s altar servers when I was in high school and I thought about trying the life of a seminarian. Together with some friends, I went to a search-in at St. Vincent Ferrer Seminary in Jaro. I managed to pass the interview and exam, but unfortunately I was not able to find some benefactors who would support me financially, so I decided to forego with my plan. The Jesuit seminary was in Quezon City and everything was for free, except for our plane ticket going to Manila. Who would turn down such invitation? And in Manila at that. I thought of the opportunity to meet some movie personalities and “blue-blooded” Ateneans. And so, even as my parents did not approve of my decision, I left for Manila on my own.
Aside from studying Philosophy for two years, part of our assignment as aspirants was to teach basic catechism in some schools. We worked together with some lay Jesuit volunteers. I could play the guitar, so I was also tasked to train the members of the youth choir. That’s when I met Lora. She had a lovely voice, but even more so, she was the quintessence of selfless service. Lora was quite approachable, unlike some other Ateneans who exuded an air of haughtiness. She knew how to relate with people, especially with the kids. She spoke in her American accent with her classmates, but she could be fluent in Tagalog too when she conversed with us “ordinary citizens.” After three months of working together, we took fancy of each other. We secretly exchanged text messages and furtive glances during work without letting my co-seminarians know about our relationship. I would not say that I went through some vocation crisis as I knew that marriage was also a noble calling. We waited for the right moment to disclose to our friends and acquaintances that we were together. And besides, she had not finished her studies yet. She was on her third year as a Film and Media Studies student. She relentlessly pursued the course, much to her parents’ consternation. She came from a family of Chinese merchants and so she was considered a bane to their ilk.
When I finished my course in Philosophy, I finally decided to abandon my calling to the priesthood. I never went home to Tubungan for a vacation; instead Lora and I went to Baguio for our summer getaway. In Baguio there was no one around guarding our actions and we were free to be intimate with each other. The biting cold of the place only inflamed our love. That’s where I also developed my liking for photography. Lora taught me how to use her Digital SLR camera. In a very short time, I learned to adjust the camera’s aperture, shutter speed, and ISO in order to get the photos I wanted. She enthusiastically explained to me the Rule of Thirds and other camera tips in order improve my composition. She also showed me how to edit the raw files in Adobe Lightroom and Photoshop. Right away I was enthused to invest on my personal DLSR and a few lenses suited for taking portraits, the kind of photography I wanted to do. We planned to put up a business that would offer photography and same-day-edit videos for weddings.
For two years, we kept our relationship a secret. Everything was only exposed when Lora got pregnant. Her parents immediately decided to send her to her aunt in Australia. And that was the last time I saw her. Even on Facebook I could not find a trace of her. Five years ago, I bumped into her cousin at the mall in Makati and I learned that Lora was married for ten years and that she already had three children. Twelve years have already passed. I was not sure if there was a part of me that still loved her. I worked in various places and companies: as a teacher and coach in high school in Pasay, a call center agent in Mandaluyong, and a graphic artist in a publishing house in Novaliches. But no woman had ever caught my heart, or maybe I myself did not even take the effort to find someone.
Aside from our high school grand reunion, I returned to Tubungan last December to be with my parents for the Christmas celebration. There were only the two of them living in our house. My sister Aida had been residing in distant Lambunao, together with her family. In one gathering, I met one of her closest buddies, Andoy. When he learned that I worked as a freelance photographer in Manila, he immediately offered this place to me.
“What are you going to do in Manila anyway? It’s chaotic there. Just by the traffic alone, you lose almost a day of your life. Also, the cost of living is high. Here in Iloilo things are a little laidback. Besides there are only a few who ventured into photography with the dexterity and ingenuity as you have,” he tried to convince me between gulps of beer. “And because I owe big time for letting me copy your answers in our English test back in high school, I’m going to offer you a 15% discount for the studio,” he offered enthusiastically.
I mulled over Andoy’s words. I could not deny how muddled and grueling life can be in Manila. I was not even sure if my career was going to thrive there. I did not see anything wrong about accepting this opportunity. And who knows, I would find someone to marry here. The day before my flight back to Manila, I called up Andoy regarding the space for a studio. Good thing he had not yet given it to another person, who was interested in setting up a clothing outlet.
HER QUESTIONS zoned me out for a long while. An air of sadness dawned on my face then I shivered in the artificial cold. Maybe I missed the city of Manila despite the distressing life I had there, or maybe it’s just pathetic to think that at the age of thirty-three, I still had not yet figured out what I wanted in my life. I then went behind the backdrop to turn the thermostat knob down.
“Yes, I’ve been doing this for a long while now,” I replied. “Most of the things I know I only learned from watching YouTube videos.” I moved the backlight to the left side and unfolded the reflector on the floor. I then made some test shots to check if my flash was working. “This is just going to be a 2×2 ID picture, right?”
“Hmm… not exactly.” Her voice sounded tentative. “I needed something like this.”
She shoveled out her iPhone 7 from the back pocket of her Jansport backpack and showed me some photos that would serve as our pegs. She swiped around eight photos of women in their lingerie. I was slightly astonished with what I saw but I simply nodded my head as if I did not mind. It was not my first time to do boudoir photography. The first and last time I did it was with a model whom Lora knew in Manila. She was Lora’s actress in a short film she submitted for Cinemalaya.
“Can make you the background a little blurry?”
“Amo lang ra?” Our eyes met for the first time. Hers were melancholic even she when smiled.
“C’mon! All the while, I’ve been trying really hard to speak in Hiligaynon, and only to realize that you also speak in Kinaray-a,” she jeered. Then we burst out laughing.
Her quick-wittedness was appealing. Silence fell between us as I changed the position of the octagon-shaped soft box. I knew quite well that flat lighting would not work in this sort of photography. The right amount of shadows would show her cheek bones.
“We’ll be having our exam in the next two weeks. My parents have nothing to send me as payment for my tuition as vegetables do not sell quite well these days,” she disclosed to me her sentiment.
I did not say a word regarding her plight. Instead, I asked her, “Are you ready?”
“Just a minute.”
She fixed the straps of her heels, combed her hair, stood up from the boxy chair, and sashayed to the center of the studio.
“Can you take something I could use as a profile pic?” She put her right hand to her waist and stood in one leg, with her body facing to the right. She flashed a smile at the camera. Then, I noticed her charming dimple on her left cheek. Right off I pressed the shutter button. The shot was slightly overexposed.
“One second.” I cranked up the shutter speed to 250 frames per second, focused on her face again, and took another picture.
“Exquisite,” I said, turning my head left to right, stupefied by her beauty.
“By the way, for the next photos, please do not include my eyes. Just from my nose down. And do I have a pimple right here on my chin. Just Photoshop it,” she said, endearingly.
“Sure. But the files won’t be ready until tomorrow if you really want me to retouch these in detail.”
“If that were the case, then I’ll just come back tomorrow around lunchtime.”
She had the knack for posing. I shot in continuous shooting mode to capture the quick changing of her hand positions and eye directions. She opened her chili pepper red lips as if she were moaning in her sleep. But I heard no sound except the whirring of my AC. She slowly unbuttoned her uniform down to the middle. The edges of her bra were lined with laces. She stretched her back, revealing the shape of her bosom; they were not plump, but firm and perky. Her nipples seemed to be peering at me. She continued her artistic poses as if she were a professional model. I could feel my blood flow increasing throughout my body. My manhood stiffened. My hands sweated and my armpit perspired. I felt like turning the thermostat up. Then she turned her back to me and lifted her skirt. She also wore lace up panties. Her butt was full and gleaming.
I had some difficulty breathing. But I continued shooting. Usually in weddings or magazine projects, I would direct the model on what to do. It would be quite frustrating and exhausting when they could not follow my instructions. But this time, even when the things seemed to take their natural course and without delay, I could feel my energy draining just the same. Every time the studio flashes burst, the girl seemed to suck the blood out of my body. But I carried on until my batteries died.
“I think that’s enough. You must have taken thousands of photos and I could not afford to pay them all,” she said as she buttoned up her blouse.
“Would you like to have some dinner at the restaurant right across the street?” I was taken aback by the words that spilled out of my mouth. One of my business principles was to be professional in all my dealings with my clients. No emotions attached, lest my business would go into liquidation. But on that night, I plucked up the courage to face whatever consequence my negligence would have.
“I don’t usually say no if it’s for free,” then she guffawed with so much abandon.
I left the air conditioner on and closed the studio door behind me. We were about to cross the street when out of nowhere three motorcycle-riding guys zoomed past us. She could have been sideswiped by the bike’s mirror had I not grabbed her arm and yanked her to the roadside.
“My! Those riders were a real showoff. They got themselves a ride and thought they also owned the road.” My ears were burning. I felt like swearing.
“Right! Before this night ends they would surely meet an accident. They seem to be in a hurry to go to heaven.”
“That is if they would actually go to heaven.”
The road was virtually unusable, not because of cracks and potholes, but because it was undergoing some repair. And with the elections not far away, the politicians had hacked once again their traditional sliver of the highway with their caravans and horns A jeepney going to Ungka glided to a stop and the waiting passengers elbowed their way in. We made our way through the cramped crowded street and stepped into the restaurant. We were lucky to find a vacant table. We sat across each other and hailed for the waiter.
“What do you want? Don’t be so modest. You might end up starving.”
“Truth is I am fasting today.” Then she said to waiter, “Can I have some crispy pata? And pancit canton. And please add a grilled catfish too? You serve unli-rice, right?” Her smile was like that of a milkfish’s. The lady waiter simply nodded her head.
“Do you actually go to school, or do you work in construction?”
“You’re so mean. I am feeling ravenously hungry because of the photoshoot.”
Then I looked up to the waiter. “I’ll just have one serving of chicken linagpang and a bottle of Red Horse.”
When the waiter left, I noticed how young she was. I could not believe that she was the same lass I photographed a while back.
“Are you really going to pursue that job application?” There’s a hint of disapproval in my voice.
“Honestly, I have already started working last week. The photos are for formalities’ sake, and also to increase my customer base—well, that’s according to my boss. Everything is online now. But this would just be temporary. If my father gets some hefty proceeds next harvesttime, I don’t have to do this anymore,” she explained.
“I’m sorry, you don’t have to disclose everything to me. We’ve just met anyway.”
“I don’t know, I just feel comfortable talking to you. And you don’t judge me as a person.”
Our orders arrived. We did not exchange a word since we started eating. We just listened to the music spilling from the speakers inside the restaurant. I did not know if I should be charmed or feel pity or be stunned by her. After I had paid the bill, I accompanied her at the waiting area, just right in front of the eatery. When the jeepney came to halt, I slightly stroked her back and said, “You take care.”
She flashed a smile and it dimpled her face. There was a scintilla of love in her glance. “Thank you,” she answered.
I strode across the street back to my studio, which also served as my abode. We parted our ways that night without introducing ourselves to each another. Lying on my sofa to get some rest, I wondered if there was a sense of intimacy in anonymity. The thought lingered in me. The two bottles of Red Horse I had consumed must have kicked in that I dozed off to sleep not long after I had settled down.
I dreamt of Lora. We took a pilgrimage to the churches in Ilocos and ran free beneath the windmills. A toddler was chasing her and the former giggled as she was still learning to walk by herself. Suddenly the kid stumbled and fell on the sand. I rushed to pick her up. I wiped off a trickle of drool from the corner of her mouth and dusted off her hands. Then I skipped toward the shore, stood there, and contemplated the dusk. Lora suddenly wrapped her arms around my waist, while the kid looked up to me with a grin. The child’s face shimmered as white as a silver light. I closed my eyes and kissed her forehead. When I opened my eyes, I saw the face of the teenage girl in the studio.
The next morning, I woke up to the noise of cars zinging past the street outside. I immediately hit the showers, prepared some coffee, and opened the studio. I reviewed the photos on my camera. I was enamored of every image I saw. But instead of transferring the files to my computer to begin editing them, I decided to delete all of the girl’s photos. I waited for her as I recited again and again in my mind the lies I would tell her when she would come to get her photos. Sunset came. But even her beguiling shadow did not turn up.