Fast forward two years later.
I was with my uncle, Dado Roa, long an established name in radio, playing popular ballads on the turntable for his many fans tuning in to listen in that hour every day, all year round.
There was a sharp rap on the glass window enclosing the radio booth. It was that Mr. Castro waving at him. The same odious Naldi Castro who brazenly ogled me across a pool table.
As he called out to Dado, elder brother of another uncle, the late Pete Roa, first husband of the actress Boots Anson-Roa, Mr. Castro turned his head and saw me. He stood there for what seemed like an endless moment and stared into me. Again.
I had both my feet resting on the centre table, with my skirt folded just above the knees. I felt the heat from his invasive stare sear through the window. I hastily put my feet on the floor and pulled down my skirt to cover my legs.
Dado Roa, happy to see his friend Naldi, called it a day - and off they went. So, I thought, good riddance to that awful, disgusting Mr. Castro.
But when I went to the cafeteria, there he was again, with Dado and other disc jockeys. As I walked to join office mates at another table, I could feel his eyes follow me, piercing through me. I sank into a chair, my legs weak. I wanted to turn around and call out to Mr. Castro, straight to his face, “Bastos!” Instead, I drank my coffee quickly, then stood up and left. Taking hurried steps, almost running, as far as I could from the leering Mr. Castro.
Many years later, when we were already, finally together, I reminded Naldi about that look he gave me, that so discombobulated me, at first sight - outright intrusive, so forward, blatantly aggressive! Hair-raising!
“What could I do? I liked what I saw. But I have big eyes,” said he.
Those eyes! When a guy who used to take me out saw Naldi with me one time, he nudged me, smiling, “So, Corito, that’s him!” Surprised, because I never told him about Naldi ever, I asked him how could he know.
“it’s the way he looks at you.” I must admit that getting to know Naldi through the years, I saw only tenderness and affection in his eyes. Naldi told me many times, “I can never take my eyes off you.”
Then there was Baguio. And my world turned.
In June of 1978, there was a big storm that ravaged the countryside. I remember a June in the end of a summer that rained and rained, flooding rice fields in the Central Plains. But I had to go up to Baguio for an office assignment. My father raged at me as I packed, telling him I would be gone from home for about a week, that I would be staying at Lola’s house in Leonila Hills, which is not exactly in Main Street Baguio. Lola’s house was our large, extended family go-to summer place, the happy repository of childhood dreams and adventures, as well as scrapes and pranks.
Ok, go if you must, my father thundered. Don’t worry, Dad, I assured him, I asked a girlfriend to come with me. “Still,” he insisted, “you will bring a yaya with you.”
Up I went to Baguio in a Dangwa bus, with our young kasambahay and a lady friend from the workplace.
After bringing our bags to Lola’s house, we took a jeepney in the afternoon drizzle to see a friend named Omar, to ask him to buy us dinner, if he could, please. As he once had promised me, if ever I found myself in this mountain town - and we were hungry and tired. In those days in the 1970s, a trip to Baguio took more than five hours and during that stormy June, there were landslides along Kennon Road amid pouring rain.
I told Omar we didn’t know just where to eat. He was sorry, apologetic. He didn’t have the money to treat us to dinner, he said. Not to worry, I replied, let’s all go out Dutch treat. But he had this bright idea. “I have a friend who can afford to treat all of us to a big dinner!” Omar was already dialling his desk phone before I could stop him and ——
He came. The loathsome Mr. Castro. He looked me up and down, like a heat-seeking missile. I stared right back. This encounter, I thought, would be close quarters combat. I steeled my nerves.
Everybody - Omar and the two ladies - rushed to his car, chattering excitedly among themselves. Naldi held the car door open as he waited for me, plodding slowly and woodenly to what would become the inevitable ride of my life, with Destiny in the driver’s seat.
As I sat behind him, Naldi adjusted the dashboard mirror and the side mirror as well - and our eyes met. No way escaping him behind his back as he drove us around Baguio: the Good Shepherd convent for the famous Ube jam and peanut brittle; Mines View Park for well, the sweeping view of steep cliffs and valleys, the Baguio market for walis tingting....
He remarked, a big smile on his face, “You’re making me your chauffeur!” I smirked and made a face.
We had an early dinner at, if I recall, a Barrio Fiesta at Burnham Park, where he ordered kare-kare, bulalo, adobong kangkong, and steaming rice, which Omar and the ladies promptly demolished. I picked on my food. Well, I ate primly and barely said anything to our host, now expansive and a little flirtatious with my friends from Manila, giggling at his jokes.
As day turned purple into deep night, now threatening driving rain, Naldi brought us to the old Pines Hotel (before it became SM), where we loitered in the lobby with a fireplace unlit, then meandered into the hotel disco - to relax, unwind, drink our beers and sangrias, and maybe dance away our cares, as he put it.
He asked me to dance. For the life of me, I didn’t know why ——
But there I was, putting my hand in his, being led to the dance floor. There was soft music and it was going to be a slow dance. He held me firmly, his hand lightly pressing the small of my back, while I pushed a distance away from him, a wide enough chasm between us. He laughed a low drawl. “Wow! Ang layo naman!” Then he did the unthinkable.
He tugged at my bra strap. I stopped the dancing, pushed him further away. But funny, I wasn’t angry (he expected me to be raving mad). I was ... amused. (He expected me to slap him.) But I was not - hooha! - going to indulge him by raising an ugly scene for his benefit, so I told him to bring me back to my seat and ——
Suddenly, there was nobody there. Our table was empty. Nobody in the ballroom with twinkling lights already fading in the shadows. Not a single soul. Except for the two of us. I grew afraid. Of him. Afraid of being alone with him in the dark.
I stood up and rushed out, Naldi following in my heels. Just outside the heavy Narra doors, in the brightness of the hotel corridor, our friends gazed at us. They were smiling from ear to ear, knowing looks in their eyes. I wanted to shout: Nothing happened!
Naldi drove us home, dropping Omar at his house along the way. When we reached Lola’s house, the rains receding into a gentle patter, he invited himself in and I found myself serving him coffee and then ——
We were talking, just talking, as the long night stretched into dawn. He did most of the talking and I found his voice soothing, beautiful even. Low, husky, sexy. And I then realized only one man I knew could speak like him. The same deep voice timbre. Perfect diction. My dear, old Dad.
With Naldi talking, laughing, just engaging me in friendly conversation - I could listen to him all night.
Then he yawned and asked to sleep in the sala. He was just too sleepy to drive, he said. He wedged two Ottomans together for a makeshift bed and before he dozed, he looked at me. “Kiss me!” he commanded, but softly...
Horrors! I did! Just a quick, brief, innocent peck on his nose. He smiled as he closed his eyes. As he slept, I watched him warily, mortified at what I just did - for a peck, really, is still a kiss.
Naldi Castro was the enemy. But where was the war?
As day broke, he woke up. “I should be going,” he said. We stepped outside, walking into a beautiful crimson dawn. There was just a hint of rain now, the leaves of the few trees in the little garden shivering with dewdrops, a golden chain of yellow roses trailing up along the vines hugging a wall. Naldi plucked one golden rose, brought it to his nose, and took a deep breath. For you, he said. That single yellow rose, now dried, brittle, brown petals, have survived the years and I have kept them.
He came to fetch us in the evening in a gleaming Benz with soft leather seats. I was annoyed. Annoyed at everything about him, reeking of means, of privilege, new Benz, the works. “What do you do?” I asked him. He proffered a humblebrag answer. “Odds and ends,” with a shrug of his shoulders. I looked around his new toy Benz and shot back, “Hmmm! Let me see. You must be a used car salesman!” I knew I was being nasty. My turn to be mean, hah! Mr. Castro blanched, his eyes wide open. And then he gave out a big, hearty laugh.
It was at that point, he told me much, much later, when he swore to himself. “I must have this girl!”
He had a little bar with a piano in the basement of a boutique hotel near Camp John Hay. After dinner someplace I have long forgotten, he took us there. Where he tried to lay a trap, to draw me into his web, like the wily spider in the children’s poem, laying on the charm offensive, seduction bombs here and there.
I refused to bite or give way to his hints. I pretended I didn’t know what the heck he was talking about.
Exasperated, he stood up, crossed his arms, glancing at me sideways. “Someday, I promise you, Corito - you will fall in love with me!” I laughed out loud. “What cheek you have!” He came closer to say, “Be careful! My middle name is Dangerous!” I grinned. That’s an old, tired line I’ve heard before, I fired back.
He spread his arms, asking,
“Don’t you like that? You will fall in love with someone Dashing!”
I quickly replied, “Debauched!”
He countered, “Distinguished!”
I hit back, “Dissolute!”
He punched my way, “Devastating!”
I was now smiling. I knew I was going to win this word game. I went for the kill. “Devastated!” We both ended up laughing. I knew, he knew, we both were enjoying this little battle of wits between us.
Still, he went on needling me, teasing me. At turns, he made me either exasperated or angry. At one point, I stood up, calling out to my lady friend and kasambahay to walk the hell out. But my knee clumsily bumped the little round table, which started to keel over - glasses of beer and wine about to topple down as well. But Naldi caught the teetering table just in time.
He said, with a mock growl, “Look at you! That’s what I call prim and fumble!” I had to sit down. This guy could make me laugh! That was the moment I began to like him. Really like him. I didn’t know it yet. There would be no turning back.
The third night, however, took a darker turn. He took us to town with some of his Baguio pals. But he was in a foul mood. He was insistent as he incessantly asked, demanded of me,
“What? What?” I ignored him completely.
At Lola’s house, close to midnight, I invited everyone for some light snacks. Everybody went down his car and made their way to the house. Except him. He sat in the car, his hands on the wheel, an angry look on his face. I leaned over a window. “Aren’t you coming down?” He stared straight ahead, as he said, “Corito, one question, one answer. Or you will never see me again. WHAT?”
I exhaled, irritation in my voice. This, my reply to his What, “What do you think of me? Some instant coffee?”
He gunned the engine. I jumped back as the wheels screeched and grated on gravel and stones on the driveway. He backed out, turned the car, driving away at a fast clip, leaving his friends without any ride back to town.
They had to hike uphill to hail a jeepney in the dead of night.
Right there and then, I made the decision to cut short my Baguio assignment and head for home. We hastily packed our bags and locked the house. Lola’s caretaker hired a jeepney driver who took us to the Dangwa station. On the ride down to Manila, my companions were telling me - I had stars in my eyes.
After a few days, I went back to work, and as usual, I paid my Uncle Dado a visit. Just as I opened his office door, he was putting down the phone. He turned to me. “That was Naldi. He said he is sorry about how he behaved. He would like to apologize.”
Inexcusable, I told my uncle. He laughed, “Naldi said he could hardly sleep. That, at last, he met his match. That he must be falling in love with a very smart girl.”
He chuckled, “Girl, you’re learning how to tease a man!” Well, I told him, what should I do? Dado Roa, wise in the ways of worldly, sophisticated men like Naldi Castro, gave me this advice: “Do not fall in love with him. Naldi is spoiled by women. He will just charm his way into your pants.”
Sobering words. A dose of cold reality. But, said my uncle, “You can enjoy him. Have fun with him. But, Corito, do not fall in love with him.”
But, in my heart, I knew that would be a very hard thing to do.
There was something about our Baguio in that moment in time. Something indefinable. It did not happen before Baguio, in the places where we crossed paths - across a pool table, the radio booth, the office cafeteria. But this time, it was something that lingered way after. That something was MAGIC - and it held us together throughout the years and years of breaking away and making up; of separation and distance; then finding and rediscovering each other; and finally, reconciliation and closure in the one beautiful year we shared before he went.
And there was my father, Charlie.
On the first date we had, a week after I came down from Baguio, Naldi told me he loved me and sent me a vase of big, yellow roses the day after.
My father sat me down as I held the vase of Naldi’s roses to give me a little sermon. Is he married, he wanted to know. Separated, I answered. Do you love him, my father asked me.
I looked at my father and in a soft voice, I said, “I don’t know, Dad.”
Then, he told me, listen to me.
“It is better to be a FULL, SINGLE WOMAN than just be HALF A WIFE.” A reminder I took to heart every time I found myself with Naldi. My father never talked to me that way again. And he did not stop me from going out and falling in love with Naldi. He was a very wise man, Charlie Fiel.
During that short lecture with my father talking about how a girl should love in one sentence pregnant with meaning, my mother silently watched in the background, worried questions in her eyes. Then, my brother, Cholo, appeared out of nowhere, doing a football tackle, swiping Naldi ‘s roses from my embrace. “Kung ayaw mo, sa akin na lang! For my girlfriend!” He and the roses disappeared before any of us could make a move.
I told Naldi about what my father told me and he was initially dismayed, a little angry with parental interference, however light. But as he came to approve of my father’s pointed reminder, he would say, “Your father won!” He did go up to my Dad to say how much he loved me. “What did Dad say to you?” I asked Naldi.
Naldi said that Daddy just smiled. He was happy I followed his advice. And, as Naldi said, that if there was this battle between my father and the man who loved me, “how could I ever win?”
I once wrote of Naldi in this very same space on a Valentine’s Day - that he was the man so very right for me but with all the wrong reasons. He once asked me why, of all the men who liked me or courted me, why it was him - with all his tired baggages, his checkered past - I fell in love with.
I thought long and hard. “Because of How You Are With Me,” I told him. There is this example of a typical Naldi, aside from his sharp wit. Always, without fail he would bring me to my door. I remember one night he squired me home. Reaching the door, he danced me away, singing in his husky voice, whispering in my ear, “I’ll take you right back to your door and take you out again!” He whirled me round and round and made me step on his feet as I clumsily held onto him. Yes, he brought so much joy into my life!
And romance. Many times, he would sweep me in his arms and dance with me in the moonlight, the smell of jasmine planted by my Lola wafting in the air of our old house in Otis.
Love, I read somewhere, is also wild and passionate and dangerous. I had quite a ride with Naldi, with so many turns and detours and peaks and valleys, troubles and trials. I didn’t know whether I was coming or going. Neither did he.
But because we had magic, we weathered the storms. And I will say this: of all the men I’ve met in all the world, he was just so exquisite. My magnificent Naldi - he loved me with all his heart!
Corito Fiel started her journalism career when she wrote a "Letter to the ConCon Delegates" in 1971, which was published in the front page of The Manila Times. Through the years, she has worked as feature writer and columnist for various Manila newspapers and magazines. She was a Philippine Daily Inquirer columnist and, during long home visits, worked as copy editor for BusinessWorld Magazine (now defunct) and for ABS-CBN Publishing. Corito is now back in Manila to, as she puts it, "test the waters".
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