love in gilded cage
i nearly asked mang fred to turn the car around once i saw the mammoth house where the party was being held. only one word came to my mind -- regal. surrounded by trees sparkling with christmas lanterns. its tall windows all lit up, like fireflies seducing the darkness into submission.
before that, a long drive on a tree-lined pathway after passing through an unwelcoming overwrought iron gate, tended by a sleepy guard in a blue and white uniform, who saluted mang fred as we entered.
this is his world, i thought, and a chill ran through my whole being. i was never afraid of anything. but tonight i wished i had a prayer with me.
mang fred, in his immaculate white uniform, opened the door of the car for me. i have gotten used to it now. it used to make me uncomfortable, even distraught, to let someone else do simple tasks like opening the car door. but we get used to everything, especially when we were doing it for the ones we love.
a smiling woman greeted me at the front door, three uniformed maids behind her carrying drinks on a tray. they offered me one, but i refused. mrs ablelardo's arms opened wide, as though she wanted to swallow me whole. she was tall, elegant in a black, figure-hugging dress; her long, dark hair held at the back and swirled into a lovely bun. she was him. the huge, glinting eyes, the generous mouth, the pointed nose.
"welcome jake..i am glad you could come," she said in her french accented english. then she hugged me and i was enveloped by her warmth, enamoured by her expensive perfume.
"thank you for having me, mam," was all i could say as i could not think of something else. i had always been intimidated by her presence. should i compliment her coiffured looks? her dress? she kissed me on both cheeks when i handed her the bouquet of yellow roses that francois mentioned was her favourite. i bought them at her favourite flower shop.
as though she was waiting especially for me, she held my arm and led me to the garden, right across a huge living room that looked like the lobby of a five-star hotel. at the garden, a small crowd was gathered in well decorated tables accented with neatly-arranged, expensive looking flowers that made the bouquet of roses that mrs. abelardo was clutching dearly like their poor cousins, picked from a neighbour's garden.
when i saw how everyone was dressed -- in fancy suits for men, and tailored gowns for women sewn by well-known designers, i felt like an unwanted visitor. i wished i had bought a new suit. you see in my world, women wore off-the-rack dresses from shoe mart, and the men put on dark jeans and rented jackets for formal events like weddings and debuts.
francois rushed towards me as soon as he saw me. leaving a small group of friends, who all looked at me, making me even more anxious. he probably noticed how uncomfortable i was in his mother's company. as usual, he looked sharp in a dark blue ralph lauren suit and yellow tie that we picked up a few weeks ago in hong kong.
in contrast, i was in a simple black dinner jacket, yellow shirt, and dark blue denim jeans. but he didn't seem to mind. he was used to seeing me dressed like this, lost in the confusion of dress codes: formal, white tie, black tie, semi-formal, lounge wear, smart casual, and what-have-you.
"i am so glad you are here," he whispered. so close, i could smell wine in his breath, and his favourite annick goutal summer scent. i wanted to kiss him, to ask him to ran away with me. to leave all these strange people behind.
"you look great," i managed to say, unable to hide my wrecked nerves. unable to conceal my admiration for the way he looked.
at the table, talking with two similarly fashionable ladies and three gentlemen, wines on their hands, were celine, francois's girlfriend, and anet, his younger sister. celine was wearing an emerald green grecian gown, exposing a little of her ripe breasts. nothing vulgar. anet was in her usual understated number, an audrey hepburnish black gown.
it was anet who greeted me first. her warm smile reminding me of her mom. helping ease my anxiety.
"thank god you are here," she said. "i needed someone i can have a drink with and share the latest gossips."
"you have no idea how relieved i am to see you," i replied and grabbed her arm, as though for support, as francois went straight to kiss celine, who was looking at me. sizing me up. a waiter offered me a glass of sparkling white wine, which i drank straight, to the amusement of anet. don't mind her, i thought. she was just jealous.
"relax," anet said, squeezing my hand. as though reading my mind. "you are in good hands."
celine came up to me and hugged me. then kisses on both cheeks. just like anet and mrs abelardo, she was wearing an expensive perfume. i couldn't tell which. but it was divine. reminding me of flowers and citrus.
"great to see you here," she said, and i could almost swallow the sarcasm in her voice. but her face was all smile.
francois introduced me to the rest of the group -- all foreign sounding; the we-go-to-capri-for-summer and play-polo-on-weekends names. they looked like models from tom ford. tall. slim. dark, well groomed hair. unblemished tanned skins with no pores.
how did i end up here? i thought, as we took our seats while dinner was being served. a string quartet serenaded us with music i usually heard played in an opera. waiters dressed so perfectly, they made me feel underdressed, started serving food.
it was a beautiful, starlit, december evening, with the cool christmas air helping me relax a little, freeing me from the agony that i invaded francois' world. that whatever i do, however i dress up, no matter how successful i would become in the future, i never belonged here.
despite the smiles, the friendly whispers, mrs. abelardo's comforting, seemingly approving gaze from a distance, somehow i could smell a conspiracy in the air. a secret being passed from ear to ear. it mixed well with the cool december breeze that made the leaves on the trees shudder. even anet, seated so close beside me, was not in her usual relaxed self.
and i thought --i should have worn a thicker, more comfortable jacket. like an armour.
the first time i saw francois, i knew he was extraordinary. his demeanor reminded me of society's so-called creme de la creme. but i never imagined he was this rich!
it was twenty after ten in the morning and i was running late for my interview with the ceo and president of one of the country's biggest banks, who promised to give me a scoop about a deal he was negotiating with a foreign bank involving the sale of a 20 percent stake. i dashed towards the elevator that was about to close. unfortunately, before i could catch and touch the "up" button, the doors shut.
fuck, i thought. i was already twenty minutes late for my ten o'c clock appointment, and i had eight missed calls from his office. his secretary, ms. santos, earlier told me to come early because mr. gonzales had a string of meetings that morning. plus he was a stickler for time. he wanted everyone and everything to be on time. always. he was known to berate people, even top executives, for coming in late for meetings.
i was ready to die right there and then (i know i was such a drama queen), when the doors re-opened. i rushed in and murmured "thank you" to nobody in particular. inside were four people, all dressed in suits. bankers, i thought. one of them smiled at me. probably the same age as me (mid--to-late-twenty's). he was taller though. smooth face, well-cut suit the colour of the sea, tie in a muted colour. he had dimples too, deep, as deep as coffee in a latte.
"where have you been?" ms. santos, in a stern voice, asked the moment she saw me entering the office. i've known her a few years ago, when she used to work for another banker, one of my trusted sources in the industry. i liked her and i think she liked me too because she always let me interview mr. gonzales, even on the phone.
"the taxi i was riding was hit by another car. i am sorry. i have to walk from buendia all the way here." i said, fixing my hair. wiping some sweats. "sorry i didn't answer your calls because i was running along ayala."
"it's alright. you are lucky his next meeting was cancelled. and he is in a good mood. the central bank just approved the share sale," she said, and ushered me inside her boss's office -- all glass, carpets, expensive, thick curtains, fresh fruity scent, well-arranged fresh flowers on every table, overlooking makati. it was at the top floor of the 36-storey building, one of the newest in the country's main financial district.
as soon as mr. gonzales saw me, he smiled. he stood up from his desk and extended his hand. warmth emanated from all over him, from his smile and hand shake, calming me down. i apologised for being late and told him briefly what happened.
"are you alright?" he asked, concerned. i nodded my head.
mr. gonzales was in his mid-50s, but looked younger. fit. clean cut. benevolent eyes. dashing in a black tailored suit. when i grew old, i thought, i wanted to be like him. he reminded me of paul newman. or robert redford. he had always been fond of me, even during the first time i met him at a party a few years ago, when his bank launched a new credit card for the super wealthy.
there were rumours that he was gay. but i dismissed them. i knew he was married with two grown up children. just because the man had expensive tastes, didn't mean he was gay. his table was neat, well-arranged. with photos of his wife and children. monets on the walls, the most prominent one -- a woman in a parasol, right up there at his back, lighted softly, overlooking the entire office.
he had told me before that the painting was a gift from his wife. during one of our earlier interviews, he said he wanted to be a painter and admired monet. rembrandt. but his father, who owned the bank (and his grandfather before him), wanted nothing of it. so he took up finance in wharton even if his heart belonged somewhere else. like an obedient son, he worked in the bank, starting out as a clerk during summers. but in his spare time, he painted. collected paintings.
"before we start, can i ask our new pr head to join us?" he said, staring at the small recorder that i placed in front of him. on his desk.
i said yes. i was eager to meet the new public relations person. as journalists, pr people help make our jobs easier. we can call them anytime for comments, help us fix interviews with their bosses.
he pressed a button and ms. santos, in a powder blue corporate attire, complementing her dusky skin, came in. with her were two waiters dressed in black pants and neatly pressed white long-sleeved shirts. upon seeing them, both tall and good looking, i realised i was dressed like them minus the aprons on their waists. they brought sandwiches, cups of coffee, and several bottles of evian.
"please ask francois to join us. so jake could meet him."
ms. santos smiled, nodded her head, and left. without saying a single word. the waiters set up the snacks on a side table.
a few minutes later, francois came in. my heart skipped a bit. the blue suit guy in the elevator, who smiled and winked at me, was standing right in front of us. tall and elegant. lighting up the entire room. clearly, i thought, he brought the sun with him.
mr. gonzales introduced us. he was his nephew. he just finished a business degree in penn. i was even more nervous. my hands were cold.
it was april and summer was young. and so was i; and i just met the man of my dreams. i was happy. i was in love. i was nearly thirty.