Marianne Villanueva origninally published her short story "Silence", which was shortlisted for the O. Henry Literature Prize in 1999, in the Three Penny Review. Her collection of short stories Ginseng and Other Tales from Manila was a finalist for the Philippines' National Book Award in 1992 and her work has appeared in several anthologies and journals, including Charlie Chan is Dead (1993) and The Nuyorasian Anthology (1999). Villanueva works as an administrator at Stanford University and occasionally teaches.
Marianne Villanueva <E-mail the Author>
Teresa's husband liked to bang doors. So when it was silent, very silent in the house, she found herself holding her breath. Don't move, she would whisper to herself. The silence was delicious, pleasurable. It usually lasted for only a minute or two.
Her husband was always checking on her. He didn't like it when she closed their bedroom door, he didn't like not seeing her because then he would think, She is writing in her journal. It was true that she snatched at a little notbook that she kept tucked away under the bed. One day he cause her writing in it, even though she had tried her best to be discreet.
Once he read it without her knowing. She came home from work and he was waiting for her, red-faced. The sound that came out of his mouth was like a bellow. His eyes bulged. He was ugly, then. She though: How ugly you are. All she could do was bow her head and wait for those seconds of silence when his words were exhausted and she became the merest shadow at the corner of his vision.
At work, papers flew under her nimble fingers. The silence there was not around her but inside. Just under her heart, where no one could see it. Her heart beat painfully loud at times, but she was glad that the sound was dampened by layers of clothes.
People were constantly talking over her head (she was short), through her, around her.
The web site needed a coordinator, she heard someone say: She was very good at html. She heard her supervisor say, "Fine. Use Teresa at any time." She found herself grinding her teeth. No one heard the sound of her teeth grinding. If someone were to glance at her just at that moment, they might thing she was a little pale, that was all.
One day she was at a little Vietnamese noodle place where all the people from her office liked to go for lunch. She stood in front of the Vietnamese proprietress, who was doing something behind the counter she couldn't quite see --- frying egg rolls, perhaps? A hissing sound came from the stove. Though she stood there for what seemed like a very long time, the old woman never looked up. Finally, because she felt embarrassed at standing there so long, she asked the old lady, "Do you have a menu I can look at?" Perhaps she said it with an edge to her voice. She couldn't be sure.
The old lady seemed angry and threw her a brief, scornful glance. "There," she said, gesturing beside the cash box.
She reached for the blu sheets, her fingers trembling.
Later the same day, she went to the dry cleaners. Here the Korean lady was very busy examining the rows of clothes sheathed in plastic. She stood for a while, and finally she pressed a little bell ringer on the counter. The Korean lady gave a frightened start.
"Oh!" she said, "I didn't see you come in! You are so quiet!"
Once she was in New York City. It was the year her brother-in-law got married again, after her sister died. Because she was tired and needed to clear her head, she went for a walk. It was early evening. People were coming home from work, their faces blank, their arms full of packages. A block away from her borther-in-law's apartment, she saw a "Sale" sign in a clothing store, and went in. She looked only at the "Sale" racks. Finally, she murmured something to the proprietress and this led the proprietress, an Indian woman, to ask her, "Oh, are you a Filipina?" She nodded, yes. "I didn't think so at first," said the Indian lady. "You are too quiet to be a Filipina."
After that she bought a dress. A flowered dress with a skirt that swung around her knees when she moved. She did not want the proprietress to think ill of her.
Before she got married, her mother took her out to lunch with a friend she knew only as Tita Lydia. Tita Lydia had a loud voice. She had hair cut short like a man's. She was married to a handsome tennis instructor and had a beautiful house in Monterey and was raising four sons. Tita Lydia looked at her and said, "Don't let your husband push you around. Don't be too good."
When she met her husband, they were both in graduate school. She was very lonely. She didn't know how to cook anything because, back home in Manila, her family had an excellent cook who prepared breakfast, lunch, and dinner. In graduate school, in the high-rise room she shared with a very pale girl who had graduated from Bryn Mawr, she tried to make scrambled eggs by beating a cracked egg in a bowl until her hands hot tired. But the frothy mess refused to congeal into the scrambled eggs she know from back home. She was afraid to boil water, thinking she might set off an explosion. She tried heating dried noodles with hot tap water and they came out tepid and tasteless.
At night she listened to the sounds of her roommate and her roomate's boyfriend, making love in the next room. It confused her that the boyfriend was Chinsese but had a name like George. Also that he would prefer this pale white woman to someone Chinese. Her roommate groaned with abandon and she was embarrassed, as if she were doing something bad by listening.
After Teresa was married, her mother came from the Philippines at least once a year to visit her. During one of her mother's yearly visits, her mother asked her to drive to Carmel. Teresa agreed. They morning, the morning they were to leave, Teresa cooked her husband bacon and eggs and rice, his favorite meal. Then she said, "Come and eat." Her husband acted as though he hadn't heard. She had to say it a couple more times before he finally stood up and came to the table.
She didn't think anything of it, but when she looked at her mother, her mother's face was very red. Then Teresa was filled with a kind of nameless dread and wanted to get out of the house as quickly as possible.
As they were about to leave, her husband suddenly said, "Did you tie up the dog?" He had done this before: waited until she was rushing off somewhere, then asked if she had tied up the dog. She always said no, quickly, hurriedly, and he always shook his head as if she had been stupid or careless.
This time she wanted to placate him
"I'll do it now," she said.
Her mother put a hand on her arm. "Why not let him do it?" Her mother said. "He is not going anywhere."
"No." Teresa said, feeling frightened and confused.
"No!" her mother said.
This caused Teresa such fear that she bolted out of the house and into the backyard and tied up the dog with three very strong knots.
In the car on the way to Carmel, Teresa spent her time looking out the car windows at the cows grazing the green fields. Her mother suddenly began to tell her a story. It was not a nice story.
In the town of Iloilo, her mother said, when she was growin up, there was a mayor. And this mayor used to beat up his wife.
Teresa looked out the window. She thought the countryside reminded her very much of the pictures she had seen of England.
Her mother said, "He got so bad he would tie her up."
"And finally," her mother said, "finally he killed her."
It was really a very simple story, but the way her mother paused as she told it seemed to lend it unusual weight and significance.
Teresa felt something cold and black against her heart.
Why are you telling me this story, she asked her mother.
Are you trying to tell me I will be killed? Are you trying to say I will be tied and beaten up?
Her mother said nothing.
When they arrived in Carmel, Teresa was restless. It was a beautiful day. She told her mother, I will go shopping! Her mother had been very quiet in the car after telling her story, and it was important not tolet her continue in that mood she had been in. They entered a shop filled with incense and books about Buddhism.
How soothing it is here, Teresa thought. She picked up candles and though of burning them in her bedroom. Her mother said, "What's come over you? Since when have you liked going shopping?"
I tell you this story because nothing happened to Teresa. She continued to go to work and to hide her journal from her husband.
One day --- she couldn't quite explain it --- she wrote in her journal the word "separation," then accidentally left it open on the kitchen counter. When her husband came home that evening, he read it. A silence settled over his features. She was cooking at the stove and had her back turned to him. She listened carefully for the sounds of his footsteps retreating down the hallway.
When he came back to the kitchen, his tie was in his hand. He was standing there in the middle of the kitchen floor without speaking. She made herself turn around and look at him. She actually faced him with her whole body, her back to the stove. They stood facing each other like that for a long moment, neither of them speaking.
Silence appears in the Babaylan:An
Anthology of Filipina and Filipina American Writers
edited by Nick
Carbo and Eileen Tabios, and published by Aunt Lute Books, San Francisco,
California. Copyright 2000. It is made available online with the permission
of the author.