It was the big day and Tino was running late. After hurriedly pulling on his pants, socks, and his leather shoes, he spared his reflection half a glance. He couldn't even think properly; his mind buzzed with blurred, half-remembered images and his wife's voice: don't forget your car keys! I prepared the documents for you -- Tino spun around, quickly dropping to his knees and checking under the bed for the slim brown envelope with his files. It wasn't on the bedside table, their marriage bed was a mess, it was nowhere in the room. I left it in the car so you wouldn't forget. Tino dashed out of the room and clambered down the stairs, nearly tripping over his large feet.
Just below the steep spiral stairs, his wife Gina stood waiting with a half-strained smile. The beads of sweat that marred her smooth forehead proof of how much stress and anxiety she felt. It was almost half-past eight and Tino's appointment was at ten in the city. It was a Monday so Gina expected heavy traffic, even after rush hour.
"Aalis na'ko" Tino said, by way of greeting. He gave her a quick kiss and, for a long second, laid his hand on her swollen belly, while drinking the juice she prepared, ignoring the rest of his cold breakfast. "Sana matanggap!"
"Galingan mo!" Gina called after him, sitting back down on the breakfast table. From the window beside her, she observed her husband drive off, their car trailing dark smoke and dust. Smiling serenely, the wife waved her husband off, even though she was aware he probably didn't see her. Tino missed the satisfied smile and the way she craned over the ledge, peeking between the precariously balanced potted plants, as though unwilling to let him out of her sight.
It was a short drive to the bank and on the way, Tino thought of nothing and no one else but Clara, his girlfriend, who was waiting for him after the appointment. They agreed to meet at their usual hotel. Lotus Flower Gardens was a tall building at the corner of a previously much-used highway. Cheap carinderias surrounded the vicinity. Abandoned shops gave off a foul odor -- decaying wood, rat droppings, and rotting meat -- that swept down the street with each gust of wind. Good thing all the Lotus' rooms were completely airconditioned, the windows hung with heavy curtains. In room 1L20B, Clara would wait for him to get back from the bank.
For once, his wife overestimated traffic and he arrived at the bank with half an hour to spare. The bank was near the Lotus -- only another ten minutes away -- and Tino rushed inside, already anticipating his time with Clara. She was only twenty-two, after all, and game for anything. In fact, she was responsible for setting up most of their meetings and rendezvous. She told him she liked him. Younger women nowadays didn't shy away from chance encounters or purely physical relationships. In fact, Tino mused, they had acquired a very male perspective on sex and love.
"Pare," Clara was fond of saying. "Hanggang kama lang tayo, okay? Bawal ang problema dito." She kicked off the thin blanket, her heavy breasts swaying. God, he loved those things. He loved the weight of them. Clara moved closer, spreading her legs, and pulling him on top of her. When she found him only half-hard, the girl pushed him up and tickled him with her mouth, her warm tongue sinfully sweet.
Tino couldn't wait. Woefully hidden behind a towering Chinese restaurant, the gray bank building cowered from the street and deep in the shade of three large Balete trees. Within, Mina, his wife's sister, greeted him with her usual frosty smile.
"Ang aga mo, ah." Mina had disliked him ever since her younger sister came home, headstrong and willful, declaring that she intended to marry him for the sake of their first unborn child. She was eighteen and their family's youngest. Mina, as the eldest daughter, felt duty-bound to disapprove of their relationship. Although Tino had never felt obliged to win her favor ("Bakit ba? Ginusto rin naman ni Gina, ah"), now he trod on thin ice. Mina was Assistant Branch Manager. And, that morning, aside from the guards, she was alone.
"Do you have the forms?" She used her bank-officer voice on him. She acquired an American accent during her training and she used it often when she wanted to impress her clients. Tino was familiar with it only because she slipped into the same voice during family gatherings to impress their older relatives.
Tino handed over the completed Soul Loan forms that his wife filled out for him. Mina looked them over but she frowned. "Sigurado ka ba rito?" He nodded.
"Yan yung sabi ni Gina, 'eh. May problema ba?" He asked, concerned. Tino hoped everything was in order. He wanted to finish as soon as possible.
"Wala naman. Halika na."
"Teka, ikaw na gagawa?" Mina was a small woman who complained of back pain. The Soul Removal Procedure, they said, was a fairly quick process but it required two strong men. One to hold down the patient while the other performed the operation. So it was with a lot of doubt that Tino followed Mina through a doorway to the backroom, formerly a storage facility, it had been transformed into a clean and sterile environment. Tino inhaled the smell of mothballs.
"Higa ka lang." Mina pointed to the uncomfortable-looking operating table. It had been covered with a white sheet, all ready for him.
"Matagal ba 'to?"
Mina didn't answer him. She pulled on long gloves and pushed back her long hair. For Tino, she looked especially plain. His wife, Gina, was made special only by her long lashes and plump lips. When she pouted, Tino's heart melted away but looking at Mina -- who looked enough like his wife -- had the opposite effect. He felt himself losing his temper. That was the effect of ordinary-looking women: it was a reminder, for him, of everything that could go wrong, of all the little inconsistencies of life. It was already half-past nine, he wanted to leave.
"Mabilis lang, wag ka mag-alala." Mina's cold hands were around his neck. "Huwag ka mag-alala. Relax lang." Clara never had cold hands. When she wrapped them around his neck like this, her hands were warm and soft, caressing him. She never touched his face but when she held him firm, Tino sighed. Her hands were warm, her fingers long, and she smiled at him like she liked how he looked lying prone beneath her. But it wasn't Clara now; Mina ran her hands over his eyes.
"Ngayon. Think happy thoughts." At her command, he summoned a picture of Clara, naked, grinning on the bed in their motel room. Almost immediately, his memory failed and Clara seemed to disappear. No -- Tino could see her, still, but she was another person. She was Clara but he didn't know her, felt nothing for her, imagining her usually roused him, elicited some form of excitement. Instead, he felt a strange calm so deep, he could not fathom its bottom or where it came from or how he was stranded in the middle of a desert. It felt like nothing; from all sides, nothing came through and nothing touched him. Tino felt subdued, like a pillow had been pressed upon him from all sides. He saw everything as clearly -- gathered the memories in his hands -- but it was like walking through someone else's house: he recognized everything but nothing carried the weight of meaning. He was complete, he had all his memories, but he felt light as a feather. There was nothing, nothing, he was being suffocated, he was alone in everything.
Confused, Tino opened his eyes just as Mina was poised to remov the needle. "Huwag kang gumalaw kundi mapuputol yung karayom!" Buried deep in his flesh, he saw something bright green seep from the wound. Mina waited a few minutes after she removed the first needle and injecting a new one.
"Tignan natin. Ang saya-saya mo naman pala, Tino." She smirked.
"Ang dami, oh."
Mina held up a jarful of water. It was half-full. Is that what souls looked like? Tino felt no different. He thought he would feel lighter or less human.
"Ganyan pala ang kaluluwa." He mused aloud, scratching the area around his wound.
"Hindi. Kung nagpa Soul Loan ka, nilalagay namin sa box yung soul mo. Mas madaling i-mail 'eh." A heavy feeling of dread began to form at the bottom of his stomach as the statement sank in. Mina was busy arranging the small laboratory, labeling Tino's jar, and returning the gloves. Somehow, the fear and doubt became full-fledged panic and fright, something he hadn't felt since he was very young, a boy who understood very little. The primal fear burst to the surface, screaming in his mind, something went wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong and it was all he could do to bite back from shouting.
"Teka, pero nag Soul Loan nga ako."
Mina stopped polishing the equipment and pushed Tino out of the room. In the front area, she gave him a receipt to hand to their tellers -- who had all arrived at some point during their short operation. Mina looked at him strangely, her drawn eyebrow high on her forehead. She shook her head and waved him to the row of tellers. Before he handed over the receipt, he saw that it read: Emotion: Happiness -- Php 5,000.00 only.
He followed Mina to her table, the anger boiling over. He slammed the receipt on her desk, unable to hold back. "Ano 'to, ano 'to, ano 'to?"
I decided to write another story with the same concept as Sold. Eventually, I hope to produce at least five stories from the same idea.