Thursday, November 04, 2004

chapter 2, part 1

Ilocandia is another country. Arianna had often told herself this, mesmerized by the unique flora that thrived in this land’s arid climate, the sand dunes that seemed incongruous as one beheld them from inside an airconditioned bus that traveled in a cloud of dust, and the massive stonewalls and bricks so characteristic of the region’s architecture, as preserved in the awe-inspiring baroque churches that eloquently attested to the country’s rich Spanish past.

As the hotel porter took care of her luggage, Ari smiled absently and remembered the first time she had stayed here at the Castillo Morocco, this vast modern hacienda that had sprung up seemingly overnight in the desert, some say as fully formed as the Goddess of Wisdom when a particularly excruciating migraine of Olympian proportions had given birth to her.

Arianna had fallen in love at first sight with the Castillo, particularly the beautiful fountain in the middle of the winding pathways that led to the hacienda’s modern wing. Like the great fountains of Europe and the more humble ones throughout the world, that of the Castillo encouraged visitors to throw a coin and give voice to a wish, that their hopes and dreams might be fulfilled, just as those of a beautiful young couple whose guests filled these halls during the Wedding of the Century -- the urgent need that brought to life this happy marriage of Castilian and Moroccan aspirations in one of the great Spanish empire’s colonies.

"Ari! Great to see you again. And how was your flight?"

Arianna laughed and exchanged kisses with Felice Andion, managing director of Version Control. Version Control was the political image and new media consulting firm Malacañang hired a few years ago, which many credit with the success of the President’s image as a champion of information and communications technology.

In a conversation over drinks where Felice had made Arianna swear seven times that anything she said as they got drunker and drunker was totally off the record, the head of Version Control chief had talked at length on the need to insulate the Chief Executive from the public and the public from current events with different versions of reality.

"See, that was the secret of Reagan. That’s why they worshipped him as The Great Communicator, because he wasn’t communicating anything. But he sounded great, didn’t he? He inspired confidence. He oozed with charm. People thought fondly of him. And at the end of the day, he survived Iran-Contra because his handlers had convincingly shown the public that he had no idea what was going on, that someone as kind and as jolly as the Gipper couldn’t have been involved in anything shady," Felice explained.

Arianna had to admit that she liked Felice, even though many people, particularly her fellow journalists, thought the always smiling, high-strung, workaholic chief of Version Control, was, in the words of a male editor who had voiced the opinion with a suspicious hint of bitterness, a "frigid bitch."

Arianna supposed that was the price many successful women had to pay.

"Come on, don’t worry yourself over your room and luggage. I’ve already taken care of everything. Here, let’s go, I’m hungry," Felice said, leading the way to the Castillo Morocco’s Villa Ilocandia restaurant.

Happily savoring the exquisite bagnet, the deep-fried pork rinds that Vigan in Ilocos Sur had made famous as a heavenly counterpart of the more widely known lechon kawali, Ari regaled Felice with her latest tales of the scandals in the newsroom and exchanged opinions on the "PC Power" program of the government, which aimed to equip all the classrooms and libraries throughout the archipelago with a computer. Felice wryly noted that she hated the name and that she had done her best to persuade them to change it, but at the end of the day it wasn’t something that was worth going to battle over with the proponents.

"Some people still have Edsa on the brain," Felice quipped as she sipped her dalandan juice. "Diyos ko, some of these people even still keep talking of the 'information highway.' Hay naku, bagay nga ang Edsa, kaso nagkaka-letse-letse din ang ICT natin sa trapik, hahaha!"

Both had taken out their Tablet PCs to quickly check their e-mail messages since the restaurant was a wi-fi hotspot. Arianna also ended up showing Felice the video clips from Insanely Great Software’s latest out-of-town symposium, as Felice ooh-ed and aah-ed at the sight of some mutual acquaintances and the beautiful beaches of Phuket.

It was at that Phuket symposium that Arianna had met Greg, who was one of the owners of an Insanely Great tech partner firm in the Philippines. Trish, one her closest friends among her fellow tech journalists, had been the one to introduce them during the socials on the first evening.

"Hey Ari, I’d like you to meet Greg, VP for Tech of Web First. Greg, this is Arianna -- she’s my best friend in the whole world and she has no boyfriend. There, now it’s your move."

They all laughed and soon Greg had persuaded Arianna and Trish to a friendly game of 8-ball. Ari was actually a pretty good pool player, while Greg ruefully admitted that he was only good when playing the PC version.

"Jeez, Ari, why’d you have to beat me? Now I can’t show my face to anybody! I’ve been beaten by a girl!" Greg said with mock despair after Ari pocketed the eight.

"Male chauvinist oink-oink! Buti nga sa ‘yo, ang yabang mo kasi," Trish said, laughing loudly.

Ari and Greg had ended up dating when they got back to Manila. She found him funny and sensitive, someone you could share conversations with without really getting into the serious stuff. Just talking, laughing.

"Hey, you take care over there, OK?" Greg told her as they were driving to the Centennial Terminal for Arianna’s flight to Laoag. "I really wish you’d tell me exactly why you’re going there. Not that I’m jealous, OK? Uh, you’re not meeting your lover there, right?"

Arianna couldn’t help but burst out laughing. So Greg, she thought. She found herself wishing she could tell him, but she had promised Felice. Off the record. Need to know.

"Sorry, I can’t say. But don’t worry, I’m not meeting anyone I’m romantically involved with," she quipped.

"Ah, but how about someone you’re sexually involved with?"


Felice was now also laughing out loud as Arianna recounted that last exchange to her.

"Ay naku, I envy you, Ari. Looks like you found yourself a really good catch."

"Hindi ko pa pinag-iisipan ang ganyan," Arianna said with a smile. "Nothing serious. Ayoko na ng commitment…"

Inwardly, she sighed. She didn’t think it would still hurt, after all this time. She couldn’t save Ian. You couldn’t save anyone if he didn’t want to be saved.

"I’m not interrupting, am I?"

A dashing middle-aged man in a white barong Tagalog was smiling politely at Felice and Arianna. Arianna recognized him as Peter San Diego, one of the partners of the law firm on Version Control’s retainer.

"Peter! The meeting ended early? You know Ari, of course."

"Of course. A pleasure to see you again, Ari," Peter said as he sat next to Felice.

They exchanged a few more pleasantries, and then Felice suggested that they hold the meeting in her room.

After closing the door, Felice gave Arianna her audio scrambler as she and Peter wore theirs as well.

"In case the software’s buggy," Peter deadpanned.

"So Ari, thanks again for accepting my invitation. I know that it was such short notice, and I’m really grateful you’re here," Felice said. "This is going to be a huge story and they specifically asked for you. They don’t want to talk to anyone but you."

Arianna shook her head and wryly smiled. "Felice, if it were anyone else, I wouldn’t have flown all the way here without even knowing what the story is or who I’m going to be talking to. I hope you won’t let me down."

"Of course not! I never do… well, not when it really counts anyway."

Peter coughed. "Yes, well. To echo Felice, our sincerest apologies, Arianna. The request was unusual, to say the least, but I assure you the circumstances demanded it."

"You know Father Constantino, don’t you Ari?" Felice said.

Arianna was taken aback.

"Of course. He’s the head of the Marcos cult."

Felice and Peter exchanged looks. The lawyer cleared his throat.

"Well, yes, he’s the Bishop of the Iglesia ng Maharlika. And he would like to talk to you."

"Why? And what does Malacañang have to do with this?"

Felice stood up and started pacing.

"Officially, nothing yet. But through informal channels, the Palace has agreed to back their project, in exchange for their support," Felice said.

Arianna remained silent, her arms folded as she considered what Felice -- what her friend -- had told her.

Feeling uncharacteristically guilty, Felice sat down beside Arianna and held her hand.

"I’m sorry if you think I’ve put you on the spot. You can still change your mind, Ari, and I’ll respect that. But we really need your help. I need your help. And this is really important."

Arianna smiled and said in a gently mocking voice, "And the election is only a year and a half away."

Felice laughed.

"Yes, I know, it all boils down to that. It’s shitty but someone’s got to shovel it. Sometimes I wish it weren’t me, but I’m good with shit."

The three of them laughed.

"You’re going to like him, Ari, he’s really a very charming man. Very powerful mind. He doesn’t even look half-bad."

"Except he’s a crazy guy who thinks Marcos is a god and is waiting for the Second Coming," Arianna said. "No thanks Felice, I’m happy with my geek."

Peter smiled. "Ah, but that really is the fascinating thing about these people. Most of them aren’t crazy -- at least, not obviously. And there are more and more of them..."

"Giving them a lot of political clout," Arianna finished his sentence for him, "Yes, I know the numbers game. Not to mention the fact that his children still rule this part of the country."

Arianna considered for a moment, then shrugged: "Fine, I’ll do it."

Later that night, as she stood in front of the fountain, Arianna wondered why life insisted on being complicated. She loved the sound of the water, the cool evening breeze that softly caressed her body as it made its way through the gardens of the Castillo Morocco.

The crescent moon was shining in the sky, just as on that night when she and Ian had stood on this same spot some years ago, her heart rejoicing with the kind of foolish, heedless giddiness of someone who had fallen in love for the first time.

She supposed she was a romantic, and it seemed to her now that this scene from the past was more real than the moment she was now experiencing, that she had known the real Ian that night and the man who had turned against her and run away was a stranger, a usurper, a lonely lost soul that had taken the form of her lover in the hopes of finding someone it could love and that would love it back.

"I’m not the right guy for you, Ari. I love you, but I don’t think it’s healthy for you to be in love with me. I don’t deserve it. I’ll only disappoint you," Ian had said.

She had silenced his protests with a kiss. She loved him, she told him, and that was enough for her. This was their night, she told him. No one could take this moment away from them. She would always love him.

Arianna felt the tears welling, but she proudly held her head high and thought of what Felice had told her. She must think of her story. She must think of the questions.

You bastard, you always were so weak! Why couldn’t you just accept something good and beautiful? Why do you always have to run away?

Night had fallen on the Castillo Morocco, and the crescent moon kept watch over a solitary figure.