*Image: “The Thrill of Her Slipperiest Flesh” by Bill Wolak, Collage
By Noelle Q. de Jesus
Through this long summer, I’ve been desperately and quite pathetically in love with Eloisa Tuason, our neighbor from down the street. From the start, it’s been more than infatuation. Any man, married or not, can pass a woman on the street and think she’s gorgeous, and by the time he gets to wherever he’s going, he’s forgotten her. This wasn’t that.
When I first saw Eloisa, when I first spoke to her even, I was just struck. Even in my memory, she did not fade.
There have been times when my marriage was in a worse state than it is now. Elizabeth and I have been together almost eighteen years. We were college sweethearts; we had ushered each other through mutual temptations, petty flirtations punctuated by angry, jealous sulking. In the early years, it was always a power struggle. Elizabeth and I constantly pulled each other in opposite directions. Now, we are at a kind of equilibrium—no more sudden thunderstorms of fury, no more huge, hot quarrels, no more angry words. Instead it’s placid, unremarkable weather—just tedious conversation about children, money and logistics, and comfortable, if predictable, sex, once a week, sometimes twice.
Forever is a very long time, and of course, I care about Elizabeth. But it’s not what it was. It hasn’t been for a while. We might have gone on like this, had no one else ever come along. But now there’s Eloisa.
She started out more as Elizabeth’s friend than mine, in that banal manner that wives move in on wives and husbands are left with no other choice but to befriend the corresponding husbands. Weeks after they moved in, she started playing at the tennis club in town, even joined Elizabeth’s team. My wife described her as a strong player and rather sweet.
“Everyone else is kind of a bitch.”
I believed it.
And then there was the happy surprise that Eloisa was a runner, like I was. We both ran, three days a week, just as the sun was coming up. Some days, our routes overlapped. Sometimes it worked out that we could do the last minutes together, keeping pace. I lived for those few minutes. For a few seconds daily, I fooled myself into thinking that this time, I would only wave. I would not run with her. I would not talk to her. You do what you have to do. Play the games you can to try and fool yourself. Dismiss the silliness of putting on aftershave for morning exercise, combing your hair, choosing your running shirt with care.
I didn’t have to wait long before Elizabeth invited them over for dinner, along with another couple in the neighborhood. My wife has a very strict sense of the right thing to do socially, and she takes pride in it.
“They seem like a nice family. You’ve seen the wife, haven’t you? She’s very pretty.”
I made a non-committal sound…half cough, half hmmm. I knew exactly what she was talking about.
She prepped for the dinner like it was a party. She threw open the French doors to the side-yard where the apple tree stood, and citronella candles burned in corners to scare away the summer bugs. Frosty pitchers of sangria stood alongside red tinted glasses on the red-checked covered table, and she had crudités and chips and dip. Dinner was Hungarian chicken paprika and potato salad with beets.
When the guests arrived, I played host the way Elizabeth liked me to. I did my best to draw Eloisa out, who seemed not so much shy as quiet, in a thoughtful way. Manuel, her husband, was the very opposite of shy. “Call me Manny!” he said rather loudly. A tall man, built large in the shoulders, he sported dark hair that seemed stiff with hair product. A consultant with one of the large investment banks in the city, he was a smooth-talker, completely at ease. He was an MBA — had gone to Columbia, and referred to the move here as a kind of coming home. The man seemed to expect my attention, take it for granted that I would prefer to talk to him over Eloisa. On his seat in the patio, he leaned back, perfectly relaxed, and gestured expansively. Every now and then, he’d call to Eloisa, asking her to agree or disagree.
“Di ba? Isn’t that right, Eloisa?”
She’d smile and acquiesce, murmur to attest his correctness, agreeable and somewhat submissive. Manuel seemed to patronize her, sometimes treating her more like a daughter than a wife. I sat across from Eloisa, and we were thrown together as a Pictionary team. Conversation with her was easy. She seemed to really listen to me. I was eager to know the person she was, noting character traits and expressions I could link to the way she looked, later on when I was alone. I was taken, hopelessly, and much too fast.
She told me about herself, her home, her children, Paolo and Rafael and Michaela. The non-profit she worked for in the Philippines that built proper homes for those who lived in slums. We spoke as well about my pediatric practice, and I suggested that she could bring the children to see me for their school medical reports.
I relished the way she spoke, the irregular cadences and peculiar pronunciation: un-com-fort-able with the accent on the third syllable instead of the second. Her “a” sound that more closely resembled a “u.” I noticed little things — the fuzz on the nape of her neck, how she covered her mouth with her hand when she laughed, and the lustrous pearl earrings that made her delicate ears seem like the oysters they came in. I enjoyed watching her eat, the way she pushed her potato salad into her spoon with her fork, and then spooned it into her mouth like there was nothing in the world that tasted as good.
Frequently, she interrupted herself, exclaiming at her own talkativeness, feeling like she’d said too much, and then flushing red. In this, as in so many things, she was pretty to watch.
“Oh don’t listen to me,” she said, pushing the air with her hands. “I don’t know anything.” But I wanted to hear more.
When my wife brought out her three berry pie topped with a painstaking lattice-work crust, Eloisa clapped her hands.
“Elizabeth, you are so beautiful, and this pie is so beautiful!” Eloisa said. She then confessed she had never tasted berry pie, let alone one made with three berries. She made it a point to repeat the words — blueberry, blackberry, and raspberry — in a way that was delightful to me. Such sincere praise from one woman to another woman was unexpected, at once confident and vulnerable.
After dinner, I opened a bottle of wine, and Elizabeth brought out fruit and cheese. I showed Eloisa pictures of our son Josh who was out with friends, and our daughter Trish, a freshman at UCLA. Eloisa said Josh looked like me, and Trish looked as lovely as her mother.
I said Trish had opted not to come home this summer, to stay in school, take a class, and work part-time.
“You must miss her, no? Your son is here, but a little girl gone away, that’s very different,” Eloisa said, not looking at me but at another photograph on my desk, almost like she was talking about something else entirely. It was one of me and Trish, she in her high school graduation cap and gown. I could only nod, overcome with a sharp, sudden loneliness. I sighed, and Eloisa looked up. In her eyes, I saw the same melancholy I felt, a kind of gloomy fatigue.
We both were startled when Elizabeth called us back into the living room.
“So there you are!” Manny exclaimed when he saw us. Something flashed across Eloisa’s face at his words that I did not understand.
It was near the middle of August when Eloisa brought her three children in to see me for check-ups and the official medical reports they needed for their schools. Just the thought of her being in my office sent me into a flurry of sensations more appropriate for a love-struck crush. The low tremble of her voice in the waiting room made my heart swell with quick, neat, little breathless beats. I had the children come in one by one, but of course, Eloisa stayed in the examining room the whole time. The oldest boy, Paolo, was nine with poor posture. He had his hands in his pockets, and his shoelaces were untied. I spoke to Eloisa about pre-teen vitamins, how an adolescent growth spurt would start soon. Rafael was seven and already wore glasses, which needed new lenses. Little Ella had her thumb in her mouth. I lifted her in my arms and smelled her tawny brown skin salty damp with summer sweat or tears. I pointed to Dr. Teddy, the giant bear that sat in my examining room. They were all a little fearful of me but happy to take the gummy bears my assistant Hilary handed out. All three would need to come back for flu shots before school started.
“Now, what do you say to Dr. McKenzie?” Eloisa prompted. She pronounced my name with an extended “a”—accenting that first syllable. Mah-Kensy. The boys mumbled their thanks and nearly tripped over each other getting out of the room. Little Ella, whose eyes were her mother’s, dark and almond-shaped, whispered, “Salamat.”
“Michaela, in English please?”
The child held tightly to the candy, turned away and rubbed her face into her mother’s tight white skirt.
“I’m sorry. She doesn’t want to speak English at all.” Eloisa shrugged her slim shoulders in apology. “She’s having trouble sleeping, like she’s still jet-lagged, and it’s been months already. She’s always out of sorts.” Then, as if she’d said too much, Eloisa looked at me and said, “It takes time, I guess.” A wan smile spread across her face. The ligaments in her neck were stretched out, tense and distinct as ribs on a malnourished child. She looked like she might say more but did not.
I watched her, and up close, the wear and tear of adjustment was clear. Around her already dark eyes, there were shadows, and she seemed thin.
“What about you?” I asked, afraid to say her name. “How is the mother doing?”
Eloisa reached for the back of her neck, rubbing it. It was a nervous, unconscious gesture.
“I’m fine, good, just not myself…” she contradicted herself. “I haven’t been sleeping well either.”
Hilary came in and waved Michaela over. The boys were in the waiting room watching the cartoons on TV.
“Someone needs to stand on my scale,” Hilary sang. Eloisa nudged the baby, and Michaela reluctantly toddled over to Hilary.
I held out my hand toward my examining table, as if this were normal and I treated my patients’ parents all the time.
“What seems to be the problem?”
“I guess I’m tired all the time. I have aches and pains and lately, my energy is very low.” I put her hand on my stethoscope and had her slip it in between the buttons of her blouse with her own hand. I listened to her rapid heartbeat. I took her hand.
“I’m so sorry,” she said suddenly. “I should make an appointment with a GP.”
“Your temperature is normal. So is your pulse,” I said, business-like.
As gently as I could, with both hands, the way I handle infants, I lifted her chin and with my fingertips felt along her jaw for lymph nodes.
“You have the touch,” Eloisa murmured.
“My father was a doctor too, a pediatrician, just like you—”
“I’m sorry, can you stick out your tongue for me? Thank you.”
She did as she was told, then closed her mouth and swallowed. I saw the tremor in her throat.
“He used to hold me, just like that. I was always sickly, but he had a healing touch. You have it too. It’s a touch that makes you feel safe. I’m talking too much. The thing is, I always feel like I’m coming down with something, but I never do…” Eloisa said, her voice rising in a plaintive note.
That’s when I saw a bruise on her left cheek, hiding beneath a tendril of hair. I noticed the same discoloration on her upper arms, and one was apparent on her collarbone. Faint and partially concealed by her natural coloring, but to me they could not have been clearer.
“Eloisa,” I said. “How did you get these bruises?” I asked, struggling to keep my voice calm.
I witnessed her face shift from an emotion that resembled fear to one that was completely blank.
“Bruises?” She stared at me with her wide, dark eyes.
“You have bruises—on your jaw, on your neck and on your arms.” I slid her dark hair away from her face with my hand, wishing I could take her in my arms. “And here,” I said, finding another one, small but distinct, on her cheek by her left ear.
She jerked her head and pushed me away, and then she shrugged.
I thought: the bastard. How could he do this to her.
“These are from tennis. And that one was from playing with the boys.”
Paolo had returned, tired of waiting, and I knew Eloisa was thankful. Relief restored the prettiness to her features.
“Thank you for this.” She slid herself off the table. “We’ll see you in a couple of weeks?”
That night, I asked my wife about Eloisa and Manuel, and she was quick and happy to respond. It was the kind of conversation that Elizabeth always enjoyed—gossip and speculation about the different people we knew. Before I had been afraid to even mention the Tuasons, worried that even the name might release tell-tale emotion in my face.
“What is Manuel like? Does she talk about him?”
“Oh, he’s nice enough. Always friendly and polite, but Eloisa is quiet, not really into small talk. Anyway, you met him. A bit talky, a bit self-centered. They’ve been together twelve or thirteen years, I think that’s what she said.”
“I couldn’t really get a peg…” I leafed through my magazine, feigning interest in the results of a recent National Pediatric Convention.
“Why so curious?”
“Nothing, except that I feel like I know what she’s about, but not so much him. And she brought the kids for a check-up today…”
“She did? She is quiet to start, but every now and then, she does come out of her shell. She’s a good person.”
My wife smiled at me. I hurt a little for her. I knew that at one time, I loved her, but now, it was only a tender friendship. What is it about love that it stops and starts so unpredictably, and when had I stopped loving Elizabeth that way? She made her way to the bed from the bathroom, still rubbing cold cream on her face. The mattress made a sagging sound beneath her weight as she sat.
“If you ask me, I think there’s some trouble in that marriage,” she said, now smearing body lotion on her elbows and knees. “Eloisa just seems unhappy to me.”
“What do you mean?” I asked, feeling like I was finally scratching a persistent itch.
“They argue a lot, it seems. She has admitted she’s not very happy here.”
“That doesn’t mean trouble in the marriage,” I said, tossing the magazine aside.
“No, you’re right,” my wife conceded. I liked how agreeable she was; nothing could hurt her. She needed nothing. I watched her brush her hair and then sniff under her arms. “But she is sad. And she doesn’t talk about Manuel. And she doesn’t ask what you’re like.”
“And if she did, you’d say I’m a prince among men?”
Elizabeth giggled, turned out the light, and then I felt her slipping out of her nightgown. She reached for me in the dark. I turned to face her. It was quick and mechanical, but when I closed my eyes and tried to think of Eloisa and her body, all I saw were the bruises on her skin.
Long after Elizabeth had settled into heavy sleep, I stayed up, worrying, and the more I worried, the angrier I got, and I could not sleep. I thought about calling the police. But then what? No proof.
“I suspect my neighbor is abusing his wife.” Did people even make such calls? I would describe the marks, by now likely no longer visible on her jaw and neck. I recalled the hardness in Eloisa’s expression, her stubborn resolute strength. She fell down, she would say. She hit herself with her tennis racket. No one would believe me.
I sat up and got out of bed, taking care not to wake Elizabeth. I cracked open the window to let in the night air and gazed out across the dark empty street to Eloisa’s house. Moonlight tripped over the lamp posts and tree branches, making shadows on our walls.
All at once, I became certain that leaving Elizabeth and making Eloisa happy would bring me the greatest joy of my life. With Trish in college, and Josh leaving soon, would it be so horrible? All these emotions sprouted in me like vegetation from some chance thrown seeds, now thickly overrunning what was previously an orderly and well-tended garden plot.
It was lunacy, and the feeling only seemed to glow more fiercely in the dark of night. I knew I needed to put Eloisa Tuason out of my mind and heart, and yet all I could do was think of her. Coming home from work, I’d look toward their house, hoping for a glimpse of her working in her garden, wishing I wouldn’t see her. I imagined she had begun to turn toward me like a summer blossom.
When I finally fell asleep, I dreamed I was hitting Manuel, sending my fist into his amiable face in my own living room, and then I was taking Eloisa into my arms. The sound of my voice in a moan woke me, along with my wife’s hand tapping my hip. “Bad dream, bad dream.” But it wasn’t. I had the woman I loved in my arms, and it made me cry out with joy.
The next week, I saw her in the office once more. This time, Eloisa chose to wait in the waiting room, flipping through magazines like the other mothers. I gave the older boys their shots, but at her turn, the little girl called out for her mama. Eloisa was there instantly, smiling over her baby’s head. Yet no sooner had I finished than she was ushering the kids out of my clinic.
“Wait, Eloisa,” I said.
I wondered why she was calling me doctor, as though she could not say my name. Her face had that same wan, sad air. The circles under her eyes were no less apparent. But the bruises were gone. Had I imagined them? She felt me searching her face and turned away in a rush, in anger, I imagined.
“How are the aches and pains? Have you made an appointment with a GP?”
She nodded. “Yes, I have one for next week.” She glanced through the open door at Hilary, who was rifling through patient files. This was clearly for her benefit, a courtesy Eloisa was extending for the presence of a stranger. For an instant, our eyes met. And then she refused to look my way again. The little girl whimpered, tugging at her mother’s straight skirt. The boys were already outside.
But I persisted. “Still homesick?” I pressed the point, even as I felt the idiocy and futility of my words. She did not reply. I went on, careless. “I want you to know, Eloisa, if there’s anything you need—”
She looked at me with anxiety in her eyes. I wanted to touch her, take her in my arms, stroke her neck. I wanted to smooth the furrow between her eyebrows with my thumb.
“If you are running into—any problems, any trouble…I’m here.” I stopped abruptly. Like Eloisa, I sensed Hilary outside as well.
“We are here—we’re your neighbors, after all,” I finished rather weakly.
Eloisa seemed relieved at this reference to Elizabeth, even if her name was not mentioned. Her expression relaxed and she smiled.
“Mommy—” The baby prattled on in Tagalog. I did not have to understand the words to know she wanted to go home.
“Thank you, John.” She reached out on an impulse, offering her hand, which I welcomed in both of mine. I squeezed hers small and soft, thrilled to hear her say my name.
“So maybe I’ll see you tomorrow, if you’re running, that is—” I looked down at her extended arm and froze. There was an ugly red-violet bruise on the inside of it. Before I could say a word, Eloisa had pulled away and was out the door. Quickly, I followed her, startling the mothers in the waiting room. I caught up to Eloisa in the parking lot, right by her car. The children were already inside, squirming against the heat of the leather upholstery.
She turned around.
“Please. It’s nothing…really…” She held her arm with her hand to cover the mark.
“Eloisa, you have to tell me what’s going on…listen, I’ve been wanting to tell you…I think I love you…let me—”
She stared at me and then shook her head and looked at the ground.
“You don’t know me, John.” Her hair fell out of her scarf and onto her face. Her voice was low. “Please, my children are waiting.” Then she changed her tone.
“Say goodbye to Dr. Mahkensy.”
The children chorused with a dutiful, “Goodbye!”
As they drove away, the little girl pressed her nose to the glass, watching me, unsmiling.
Later that evening, I got out of my car and saw Manuel Tuason on the street, outside his house, watching his boys shoot baskets. He had also just arrived home from work and was still wearing his tie and jacket. When he saw me, he smiled and made his way to meet me.
I held up my hand to stop him. Confusion spread across his face. I turned away and entered my house.
I needed to see her. We needed to talk. I would keep her safe. I would leave Elizabeth. The next morning, I waited for her to come out for her run. But she did not appear. I kept thinking she was watching me through their curtained windows.
That evening, I knew Elizabeth had a tennis match. I volunteered to drop her off at the club, fabricating errands to run. She was happy to have me come along. I found some excuse to walk her to the courts, and I scanned the women there, but Eloisa wasn’t among them.
Keeping my voice calm, I asked my wife where she might be.
“Oh, didn’t I tell you? Eloisa quit the team. She hasn’t been feeling well. It’s not been—” She looked at the other women knowingly. “It’s been a tough time.”
As I pulled the car into our driveway, I saw their lights were on. I crossed the street and made my way alongside their house. I was going to catch the louse in the act and save her. Save her and her children too.
Crouched behind the bushes that lined the wall of their house, I crept to one of the windows and peered in, trying to keep low and out of sight, hidden in the shrubbery. Dusk was beginning to break, and evening shadows were creeping in. All at once, I could make out voices, the sound of husband and wife, arguing in Tagalog, at first low, and then louder. I strained my eyes, trying to make out the couple’s shapes through the blinds that were turned up halfway. Careful to keep hidden, I struggled to quiet my breathing and kept still, squatting down in the dirt. I just watched.
Eloisa stood in the center of the room, in a day dress, with her arms folded across her chest. She spoke rapidly and angrily, but I could not understand a word. Now and again, Manuel said something, his tone questioning, pleading, reasoning. Eloisa’s tone was accusatory and shrill. Her voice got higher and louder. She stamped her foot and threw up her arms, started to pace, and still she kept talking, almost shouting. I kept watching Manuel for signs of violence, but instead of raising his hand to strike her, he was slumped down on the floor, leaning against the wall.
Eloisa now wept as she spoke, and I could understand nothing, only that she was miserable. She pleaded and she argued. And then I heard the word “sorry.” She said sorry, again and again and again, all while weeping. I couldn’t crouch any longer—my legs ached, so I knelt on my knees now. She reached a fever pitch, and with a piteous cry, yanked her hair furiously as the tears streamed down her cheeks. She sobbed like an unhappy little girl.
Then Manuel came forward. I stiffened, ready to spring through the window if I needed to.
“Eloisa, please…” the man said. “Please, don’t.” He reached with gentleness for his wife.
Eloisa pushed him away with such a force, Manuel had to step back, off-balance. Now furious, she resumed the tirade.
And that’s when she started to beat herself. With clenched fists, she beat herself on the arms, on her chest, the sides of her face and then bent her head so she could strike her own neck. Then she slapped herself across the face with stinging blows. I watched her pain, helpless.
Manuel came at her again, trying to grab her hands and gently pull them away to stop her.
“Enough, Eloisa. Tama na! Please,” Manuel said, firm but quiet, as he was finally able to catch hold of her wrists.
She dissolved in hysterical tears, and he held her close and rocked her. Her sobs softened and slowed to rhythmic whimpers.
I stayed where I was even now that it was dark. I stayed there and watched Manny put his wife to bed, take off his tie, and finally leave the room. I waited a little while longer. When the rise and fall of her chest grew regular, I crept away.
I cut across another neighbor’s lawn to get to my house, which was still dark. No one was home. I stood at my door for a while, not moving, still shocked by what I had seen. Night had fallen. I turned and went to my mailbox to pick up the mail, not knowing what else to do, my insides in a confused turmoil.
“Hey Doc!” Manuel called from across the way.
I had not seen him in his front yard, hadn’t noticed him walk out his front door to get his own mail. I turned, nodded, raised my hand in a wave. But he gestured me over. I worried; had he seen that I’d come from his yard? I walked slowly over, still holding my mail.
“So Doc, how are you doing…?”
I cleared my throat. “I’m all right. You?”
“I could be better. Nobody home at your house too? The kids are with my brother’s family in the city; we pick them up tomorrow afternoon. Eloisa’s gone to bed early with a migraine. Have you eaten? Join me for leftovers?”
I fumbled for an excuse but couldn’t come up with anything. So I just shrugged and nodded.
“Come on in…” The man ushered me into his dark house, flicking on lights as we passed.
“Won’t we wake El— your wife?”
“Nah, she went to bed with ibuprofen. She’s out.”
Manuel flicked on the kitchen lights, and I sat on one of the stools around the island and fidgeted with my bills and trash mail. He turned to open the fridge, and I heard clinking bottles. He shut the fridge door with a thud, looked through the drawers and cupboards, and then he opened the fridge again.
“Aha, here we go. The perfect thing.”
“Really, I’m not very hungry…” I murmured, my eyes moving everywhere else to avoid his, but he wasn’t even paying attention.
“Not to worry. This will hit the spot.”
I did not even look his way, thinking again of Eloisa, replaying in my head the way she had wept, her long hair disheveled, and the violent, miserable way she had struck at herself with anger and self-recrimination. And now, here was her husband clanging and banging in the kitchen, chatting comfortably, his back toward me. And here I was sitting in their kitchen, half afraid she would come out and see me.
Finally he sat and set a frosty bottle of beer on the table in front of me along with a glass mug filled with ice cubes.
“Here you are, Doc.”
He poured beer into his ice, but I just took a swig from my bottle.
He offered a toast with a small smile. “Here’s to having happy wives and happy lives!”
I drank my beer and listened to Manny start to talk about their life in the Philippines, and the conversation was strangely soothing. He talked about their having to move here, acknowledging that Eloisa was having a tough time adjusting. He had no idea that moving here would so difficult for her.
“It’s ironic. So many Filipinos want to leave home and come to America. So many are forced to, and here we are, and my wife doesn’t want to be here.” The man shrugged.
Soon, a familiar, breathtaking, warm aroma filled the kitchen.
“It’s ready…” Manny said with a genial smile.
In minutes, he set a dish of butter and the salt shaker on the table. And then he laid out a platter of corn on the cob, about eight of them. The kernels on the cob were all in neat little rows, in about three shades of yellow. Manuel took a big slab of butter with his knife and spread it on his corn.
“Come on,” he said. “Let’s eat…”
We ate ears and ears of that freshly boiled sweet corn, slathering on more butter and shaking on more salt. It was too good not to.
Eloisa never came out of the bedroom. And for hours, Manuel and I just sat in that kitchen and ate together, not even talking toward the end, until there was nothing left on the platter. He brought out more beer, and we drank in silence. I never thought about my wife or where she was. I forgot why I was there or even what I once felt. I didn’t think about what I would do once I reached home.