ANTONIO A. HIDALGO
Gladys always looked forward to Wednesdays, for that was the day of the week when she went to Robinson’s Supermarket in Galleria Mall to shop for the little luxuries that, for some years now, had been practically the only source of her family’s joy. Little things like a fourth-kilo of sliced Majestic Ham and a small bottle of Lady’s Choice Sweet Mixed Pickles with which to make sandwiches for breakfast, a small bottle of Lady’s Choice Creamy Peanut Butter, a small box of Magnolia Cheddar Cheese, and, sometimes even, what she liked best of all, a bag of imported Nabisco Oreo cookies. It strained her meager household budget, but she reasoned to herself, and once or twice to Rod, who had mildly questioned her spending on non-essentials in an upscale supermarket, that it really did no harm and gave her and the family some pleasure, not least through the act of shopping itself that allowed her to put on makeup, dress in her newest jeans and blouse and either in her black or brown pair of leather pumps, and step out of the house after Rod had left for work and Ralph had gone to school to spend the better part of the day in the fascinating Galleria that was always crowded with all sorts of people.
She alighted from the jeepney coming from Cainta just across Galleria and quickly crossed the street toward the beckoning mall. Gladys walked past the huge shrine of Mama Mary on the corner of EDSA, past the Mercury Drug Store and entered the side entrance of National Book Store. She briefly glanced at the local romance novels, then tarried at the shelves with the imported ones. She browsed through two of them for a while and got engrossed in one: “Snowbound Sweetheart,” by Judy Christenberry. She smiled at herself when she recognized the will-she-won’t-she-go-to-bed plot involving a fashion model and a hunk, but finally put it back with a shrug and decided not to buy it this time, as it was still a week away from Rod’s next payday. Maybe next week.
She left National through the entrance inside the mall, ambled through the crowded corridor stalls selling cheap imported knock-offs of designer casual clothes, cursorily examined a pair of mod splash-faded DKNY jeans and a lavender Polo blouse, and wended her way to the supermarket that, it seemed to her, was more brightly lit than either National or the corridor stalls.
There was a celadon-green Hyundai Starex van at the entrance of the supermarket. It was the grand prize in the coming Christmas raffle for the supermarket customers. One’s name, address and phone number just had to be printed on the back of one’s receipt, signed, and dropped in the collection boxes to get a chance to win the van.
Gladys asked permission from the salesgirl tending the collection boxes to get into the Starex van; the surly girl grudgingly nodded her approval and opened the front door by the driver’s seat. She sat behind the wheel and studied the dashboard, marveled at the tiny TV set, the CD changer and player, the array of indicators and controls within easy reach and thought of how much vehicles had changed since she drove the family Toyota while living with her parents decades ago. Like a child, she turned the wheel back and forth and briefly dreamed of family weekend outings to provincial resorts in the huge van with Rod and Ralph. She ran her fingers over the soft upholstery in a paisley print and primped herself in front of the mirror on the windshield visor. Then she alighted and thanked the salesgirl with a big smile. She made a note to herself to make sure to drop her receipt in the collection box later as she entered the supermarket. Who knows but she might win the van – stranger things had happened.
She went into the supermarket, past boxes of Synergy All Purpose Powder Detergent and IGA Tasteroos, Crispy Rice and Corn Flakes that were on sale, and headed for the wine and cigarette store on the left side of the supermarket to tarry over the neatly stacked wine bottles, reading the French, Spanish, American, Australian and Chilean labels. She had sometimes read in the romance novels scenes of evening repasts with fine wine, and intended to surprise Rod someday with a bottle with which to highlight their dinner, but had not yet gotten up the nerve to do it. Then she moved onto the shelves with brandies and other liqueurs and read their varied labels too, thinking that she might go all the way one day and get a bottle of good liqueur with which to cap their dinner before they retired for the night. Wouldn’t that really startle Rod? Maybe she’d do it for Christmas with a bottle of burgundy wine and Cointreau.
Gladys moved onto the supermarket proper and started with the display of deli goodies behind a refrigerated glass counter. There were so many meats, there was even the Tyrolean slab bacon that looked like preserved litson kawali; she remembered that the store had run out of this last week. She looked at the tag on the package: P375 for a fourth-kilo – too expensive a treat for now. It would have to wait. She gazed at the packets of large German franks and dark Hungarian spicy sausages and their prices and finally asked the salesgirl for a 300-gram packet of local Fat/Thin Chinese sausages that cost P90.50.
She loaded the sausages onto her trolley and moved to the shelves with the preserved sweets and snacks. Gladys carefully examined a cyclindrical box with a new flavor in Pringles potato chips: Wild Consomme, then studied a bottle of American peanut butter. Finally, she picked up a small bottle of Nata de Coco, a six-pack of A&W root beer, a box of tissue paper, two bars of soap and a small box of Kraft Cheddar Cheese and pushed her lightly-loaded trolley to the paying counter.
Gladys decided to have a budget meal of chicken, rice and a soft drink at the McDonald’s on the ground floor, which was usually not as crowded as the one in the basement beside the fastfood stalls. She was right about this and had to queue only briefly for her meal. After lunch, she went into the Marithe and Francois Girbaud store beside McDo’s to look at jeans and blouses. Then to Florsheim shoes to imagine how Rod would look in them.
She left the Florsheim shop, lugging her small bag of groceries, and intended to continue window shopping. She did not expect, at all – was most surprised, in fact, to see the strange stall right smack in the middle between Florsheim on her side and Celine on the opposite one.
“DREAMS FOR SALE – P100 FOR 30 MINUTES,” the sign said. She had never seen the stall before, though she was sure that she knew every single shop and stall in the mall. It tickled her curiosity and she approached the solitary man sitting behind a small desk. She took a seat across the desk and looked at him. He smiled reassuringly at her. He was middle-aged, balding, wore glasses and was dressed simply in a white short-sleeved shirt and dark pants.
“Do you really sell dreams?” Gladys asked impishly while she smiled back at the man.
“Yes, I do,” he answered evenly as he looked calmly at her with lively eyes.
“But what does that mean?”
“We will talk for thirty minutes and I will help you weave your dream.”
“What will I get at the end of thirty minutes?”
“And you’ll charge me a hundred pesos for that? A movie is only sixty pesos and it lasts for two hours.”
“Yes, but your own dream will be more satisfying and will last longer. It will be yours alone – it need not be shared with anyone.”
“I’m really curious. But it’s too expensive.”
“Tell you what: why don’t you try it? If you’re not completely satisfied with your dream, you won’t have to pay me anything. I only put up this stall yesterday and that’s my promo to get people to try my service.”
Gladys looked at the man’s face again. There was a reassuring quality about him – he didn’t look like a petty crook that would try to scare her into paying if she didn’t want to. She impulsively decided to give it a try.
“Okay, what do I do?”
“Just sit back and relax,” the man said. Then he stared intently at her face for ten seconds. Before Gladys could get uneasy, he spoke again in a soft, low voice that had a musical quality to it.
“Tell me, what do you dream of these days?”
“Winning the Starex van that is being raffled off downstairs at the supermarket. My husband and my son and I could go on weekend trips to out-of-town resorts in it. I could pack our lunch and we could have picnics every week.”
The man listened carefully, then he said: “You were seven years old when you skipped and ran around the beach near your house in La Union very early one morning, at sunrise, before your mother got up to prepare breakfast. You wove one of your first dreams then.”
Gladys was startled. This scene was one of the dearest in her heart. How could he know about it? She said nothing while she stared intently at him.
“A storm was coming. The sea was restless. But you were not afraid. You had slipped out of the house wearing only a panty to play on the beach.”
Gladys frowned. She crossed her legs tightly and folded her arms across her chest.
“The sting of salt spray on your face and chest awakened your senses. You enjoyed it a great deal. You felt one with the sea, the sky, with nature and the world. You dreamed of the freedom to roam and enjoy the world that would surely be yours when you grew up. You dreamed of living a full and happy life,” he said in a low, soothing, pleasant voice that instantly dissolved Gladys’s apprehension.
“How did you do that? Do I know you? Have we met before?”
The man simply smiled.
“You went back to the same place on the beach at sunrise when you were fifteen, one morning during your summer vacation in your senior year in high school. You had put on your bathing suit and had swum out to sea. You occasionally dived underwater to look at the fish and playfully tried to catch them. As you dried yourself with a towel back on the beach, you thought of your own impending adulthood with great anticipation; you were so certain that you would prosper and do great and important things, for nature is so abundant. Perhaps you would establish a tinapa factory and distribute your products throughout Luzon.”
“Yes,” Gladys said enthusiastically. “And I still dream of it. And when I finally do it, then I’ll buy the Starex van for my family.”
The man smiled beatifically and leaned back in his chair. He was silent for a long time.
Gladys broke the silence. “Is that it? Are my thirty minutes over?”
“Yes,” the man answered. “You can complete your dream on your own now, without my help.”
Gladys paid the man and walked to the jeepney stop with a light heart. She recalled and savored the two beach scenes in her mind on the ride home and felt, rather than thought, that the man was right. The roots of her dream were still somewhere out there on the beach in La Union.
After their dinner that night, when Gladys had washed and put away the dishes and utensils, she conversed briefly with Rod while they lay on their bed before they watched TV. She told him of the strange man in the mall who sold dreams and of her pleasant experience. She related in wonderment how he had lyrically described two of the childhood scenes that she especially treasured. And how those scenes, and the childhood dreams that they evoked, had, indeed, stayed with her all day and had made her very happy. This made the hundred pesos she had paid him well worth it.
Rod felt a bit bothered when Gladys told him of her experience. A strange man probing his wife’s mind, monkeying with her childhood memories and dreams, perturbed him. It was too intimate; it invaded his privacy as well as hers; it violated his sole right to intimate conversations like that with the mother of their child. But he saw that it had made Gladys happy and he decided not to ruin this by expressing his apprehension.
“I’m glad that you enjoyed it,” he said. “Hope it lasts you for several weeks, for we really can’t afford expensive entertainment like that too often.”
“Don’t worry about that. It was just a whim. He may be out of business next week, when I shop again. His stall is so strange, I don’t think he’ll get many customers.”
After watching TV for a couple of hours, for the first time in some weeks, Rod made love to Gladys before they went to sleep. She responded quite passionately because she was in a good mood and they slept very soundly that night.
Next Wednesday, Gladys went to Galleria again to shop, as she had done every Wednesday for years now. She retraced her route of last week from habit and bought essentially the same things from the supermarket. She ate at the same McDo’s outlet, except that she ordered a hamburger budget meal this time. Then she looked for the man who sold dreams.
He was there, sitting behind his desk, and there was no one else in the stall, just like it had been last week.
“Hello,” he greeted her warmly when she sat down. “How was your shopping?”
“Okay. Bought the usual stuff. Do you have another dream for me today?”
He looked at her intently for a few seconds, then he started the session.
“It was a hot and humid evening in early June. Your boyfriend was visiting you in your uncle’s house in Singalong. To make him more comfortable, you suggested that you both go up on the roof to enjoy the breeze and look at the stars. He was a bit surprised by this at first, then he quickly realized that this would give him more privacy with you.
“On the roof, you sat on the chairs you had brought and looked for shooting stars. You saw two, then you chatted intimately for hours about the stars, the universe out there, and your dreams in life. He talked passionately for some time about his plans to become a lawyer after finishing his accounting course. He wanted to help poor people attain a measure of justice in our free-for-all society, where the rich and powerful often step on the poor and powerless. You responded by telling him how, one day, you would set up a business that would provide good cheap food for ordinary people. And this business would allow him to donate some of his hours pro bono to poor legal clients.
“It was a good evening full of warm feelings between the two of you. He kissed you for the first time. Then he proposed marriage.”
Gladys instinctively touched her cheek with the palm of her hand and realized that she was brushing off a tear. “But how do you know these things?” she blurted out, interrupting the man.
The man just smiled.
“It was a great evening. A turning point in my life. The dreams we made that night will … live forever …” Gladys said haltingly as the man sat in silence. Gladys lapsed into silence too and was lost in thought for some minutes. The two of them just sat there, with neither looking at the other.
Finally, Gladys turned to the man, smiled, thanked him and paid.
She was sad and happy all day at home from the lost dreams that the man had retrieved for her, while she cleaned the house and, later, prepared dinner and waited for Rod and Ralph to come home. She thought of how Rod never did get to go to law school, as he had hoped. He worked immediately after graduating so that they could get married and then couldn’t go back to school. She quit her job as a secretary to have Ralph and then never went back to work. She never tried to set up a business as she had planned. But she was elated when she remembered their youthful selves full of hopes and dreams. And she thought that, maybe, it wasn’t too late. Maybe it was never too late.
After dinner, Gladys once more recounted her strange experience with the man who sold dreams at the mall to Rod as they lay in bed. This time, Rod got mad and couldn’t keep himself from chiding Gladys.
“But why do you share our most intimate moments with a stranger?”
“I didn’t. He knew all about our night on the roof. I don’t know how or why, and he wouldn’t tell me, when I asked.”
“How is that possible? How can I believe that?”
“But you must. Because it’s true.”
“Okay, I’ll let it go this last time. But you must stop seeing this man, for heaven’s sake. I can’t let him go on playing with your mind. He might be out to destroy our marriage for his own strange reasons.”
“Okay, if that’s what you want. But he has done no harm. He behaves very properly. And he makes me happy for days on end by reviving a part of you and me that I thought had already died.”
“I don’t think that’s what he’s up to. He is too strange. I’ll go see him tomorrow and talk to him.”
“Talk to him, if you must. You’ll see there’s nothing to be afraid of. He’s a kindly old man who’s nearly bald. Please don’t get angry with him. I’m sure he means well. I feel that very strongly.”
Rod did not make love to Gladys that night, for he was in a bad mood. Neither of them slept well.
The next morning, Rod went to work as usual in the accounting firm where he was a clerk. But he asked for a couple of hours off from his boss to attend to some urgent family business. Then he went to Galleria at ten to have it out with the strange man who pried into his wife’s dreams.
He methodically and precisely followed Gladys’s directions until he got to the front of the Florsheim shop, where he could see Celine’s across the corridor. But when he looked, there was no stall in the middle with a man that sold dreams. That area of the corridor was empty.
Rod went into the Florsheim shop, pretended to look at the shoes and waited for the salesman to approach him. He asked about the prices of a few pairs rather perfunctorily, then he inquired about the stall with the man that sold dreams.
The saleman looked at him quizzically and asked him to repeat the question. When Rod did that, the salesman simply shook his head vigorously and said that he had never seen or heard of such a strange stall before.
Rod went to Celine’s and asked the salesgirl there about the strange man and his stall. The girl laughed and said that there was no such stall in the mall and that she doubted if there was that kind of stall in any other mall in the country.
Thoroughly confused, Rod went back to his office and tried, rather unsuccessfully, to work as if nothing untoward had happened.
He really couldn’t concentrate on his work, so he went home early and quietly slipped into the house. From the tiny living room, he saw and smelled Gladys cooking his favorite Batangas bulalo with her back turned. She was dressed in a thin duster and desire stirred in him as he noticed that she had kept her good figure through their years of marriage. She paused from cooking to brush the hair from her ears. He glimpsed her naked pink ear. In that instant, he thought he understood what Gladys was trying to tell him by inventing the story of the strange man who sold dreams. He crept quietly behind her and kissed her ear.
She was startled and dropped her ladle. But she giggled girlishly when she saw that it was her husband. After kissing him back on the mouth, she asked: “Well, did you talk to the man who sells dreams?”
Rod laughed and said: “No, I changed my mind. You’re right, he does no harm. And whatever makes you happy makes me happy too. Listen, why don’t we catch a movie at the Galleria after dinner tonight? Let’s date, like in the old days.”
Gladys looked into Rod’s eyes. Then she hugged him tightly.
From A Song for My Brother and Other Stories by Antonio A. Hidalgo (Milflores, 2002).
This story won First Prize in the 2002 NVM Gonzalez Literary Awards.
Posted on November 22, 2008