Cristina Legarda was born in the Philippines and spent her early childhood there before moving to Bethesda, Maryland. She is now a practicing physician in Boston. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in America magazine, The Dewdrop, Plainsongs, FOLIO, HeartWood, The Sheepshead Review, Coastal Shelf, and others.
When Lia was introduced to Tomás on his first day at the hospital she noticed he did a double-take. This surprised her, because in her experience she was not noteworthy, or even noticeable, to most men. She expected a man of his obvious charisma and much-sought-after academic expertise to hold court with eager, young residents and nurses toward whose rapt attention he could funnel his virility – and hold court he did, but never without a gracious acknowledgement that Lia was the attending physician on service, and he was but a consultant offering opinions.
The hospital, San Roque, and the new medical school nearby were the crown jewels in the efforts of the Guerrero family – the northern branch, not the southern - to thank the Lord for their son’s survival of dengue fever. Their daughters survived too, but it was for their son Rocco’s patron saint that the hospital and school were named. They allotted part of a plantation for the project, boasting sustainability and respect for the nearby tropical forests as virtues of the build. Already a small economy was beginning to boom around the hospital, with a bustling nearby town whose inhabitants could enjoy a spaghetti meal from Jollibee or a croissant at the “French” café whose bakers, naturally, also produced ensaymada and sans rival.
Lia’s residents were always relieved to have her as the attending physician on their service because she was completely benign. If she asked a question on morning rounds and the resident didn’t know the answer, despite the fact that public shaming in school often wound up being a natural extension of the kind of disciplining these young adults had endured at home, Lia would never scold, mock, or punish the hapless doctor, who had likely been up all night checking labs and tracking urine output. Instead she would hint or coax and only as a last resort turn to another resident for the answer. The only rule she was strict about on rounds was that her residents present all their patients in English, which she had noticed over the years was in steep decline.
They were grateful for this rule when Tomás appeared. A Spaniard by ethnicity, with his light eyes and fair skin, they thought that he, too, would prefer the language of academics to the speech of the ordinary citizen, but the truth was his Tagalog was even better than theirs, thanks to a family whose embrace of their homeland was more fervent than that of most indigenous peoples. He was as gentle with the residents as Lia was, but somewhat more playful.
“After-work drinks for everyone if you can name the stigmata of hepatic failure. But only if Doctora Herrera is available to join us,” he would qualify, showing off a perfect rolled r with a wink at Lia when the hands of the women in the group shot up at full speed to answer.
Given the obsequy with which the nurses would jump to carry out his orders and his obvious hold over the residents and medical students, Tomás found Lia’s reluctance to socialize with him mystifying. When she arrived at a meeting or lecture after him, she would seat herself at the opposite end of the room or out of his line of sight. If he arrived later, he would cross the room to join her at the conference table but she would only greet him politely and frown all the harder at her laptop screen or journal article until the meeting began. When they discussed patients in the corridor, he could not help but lean every muscle toward her, but though she would not pull away, and met his gaze without a hint of fear, she would always make sure not to linger.
“Don’t you want to try that new noodle place after work? I know you love ramen as much as I do.”
“I would love to,” Lia would say, “but I have to get a paper out by Friday,” or, “my mother is having a luncheon in Manila this weekend and wants me to come.”
“Great – bring a date. I can do all the driving.”
But Lia wouldn’t budge. As she walked away Tomás would observe the friendliness with which everyone she passed would greet her, from the janitor sweeping the floor to the radiologist who had just read a film for her. “Hi, Doctora,” “Good afternoon doc,” “Uwi na, Doctora Herrera?” He envied them even those small moments. Their stolen conversations were never enough.
He started dating others, never for very long, and never for the conversation.
Lia didn’t want Tomás to know about The Stain. The Stain was a large, red starburst that would appear on her body without warning. It was like a spider’s web of crimson blood vessels visible through her skin, with a red so bright it almost glowed. It sometimes appeared on her abdomen, her inner thigh, her chest, her shoulder, and it burned from within as if each curling tendril were on fire. The pain was just bearable enough to be able to hide. Lia’s mother had spotted it once when Lia was a small child, just before Lia’s father died. She brought Lia to the doctor, who called it a hemangioma. It disappeared soon after.
Lia first noticed it in medical school, during her pediatrics rotation. The hospital she was in at the time had a large pediatric cancer ward. Every time she walked into San Roque and detected the smell of the ether with which the hospital’s surfaces were cleaned, she was immediately transported to her time in pediatrics for a moment. The experience had almost driven Lia to despair. The Stain appeared frequently in those days, and a particularly large manifestation of it spread across her belly like a map when she grew attached to a 5-year-old who looked 85, whose cancer so widespread that her abdominal scan was an unrecognizable jumble of tumor crowding out every mass of tissue.
After that rotation The Stain disappeared for a while, but once again during her oncology fellowship, when one of her elderly patients, a sweet man who had wooed his wife with a guitar and some home-made steamed pork buns, developed a reaction to his chemotherapy infusion. The Stain appeared on the inside of Lia’s upper arm. One of the nurses caught a glimpse of a tentacle of redness creeping down toward the bend in Lia’s arm when Lia took off her white coat at the end of the day.
“Are you okay, Doctora? You have, like, a rash on your arm.”
“Oh it’s nothing – I just scratched it on a bush in my mother’s garden.”
She tried once to see a doctor about it, but by the time she arrived at the appointment it was gone, and she felt sheepish even explaining the reason for her visit.
Only one person besides Lia’s mother knew about The Stain, and that was the hospital chaplain at San Roque, Lia’s closest friend, Father Franco Fernandez, whom the nurses called FFF and whom Tomás referred to as the Jolly Jesuit. Franco even had nicknames for the thing. “The Fireball.” “The Death Star.” And his personal favorite, “The Rose By Any Other Name.”
One day, after Tomás was paged overhead in the hospital cafeteria and had to leave Lia and Franco at the lunch table, the Jesuit put down his spoon and looked at Lia without speaking.
“What?” she said.
“When are you gonna give Dr. Esquivel a break?”
“What do you mean?”
The priest rolled his eyes, picked up his spoon, and started in on his dessert, a rather sad little mound of chocolate mousse.
“The man is head over heels in love with you and all you can do is talk shop?”
“Tomás is dating about three different nurses right now.”
“Because you won’t give him the time of day. All because of The Red Thing?”
“Puwede ba, could you lower your voice? It’s a hospital. Ears everywhere. And that is not one of your best monikers, by the way.”
“Why don’t you just explain it to him.”
“Not a chance.”
“Lia. He’s pining. It’s so obvious. The way he looks at you.”
“You’re being ridiculous. Finish your mousse.”
Not long after this, after decades of avoiding church and eschewing any leisurely practice that could even remotely be called “spiritual,” Lia went to Franco’s parish when he was sitting in the confessional. He recognized her voice right away when she uttered the opening, “Bless me, Father, for I have sinned” and couldn’t suppress a smile and a shake of his head.
“It’s been…ten years since my last confession.”
“Are you sure about that?”
“I’m not here to recite a fifteen-year laundry list of infractions, Father.”
“Then why are you here?”
“I just want to confess one thing. I’m jealous. Horribly, painfully jealous.”
The priest remained silent, leaving space for her words.
“Every time I see him, even after a couple of years of working with him, my heart skips a beat. I try not to stare but I can’t help it. When he smiles at me or talks to me it’s all I can do to hide how happy I feel. When I see him driving off with a pretty woman my chest hurts and I almost can’t bear it.”
Franco pursed his lips inside the dark booth and fingered his stole.
“Why not replace the sin of envy with the virtue of honesty, then? Hasn’t the pretense of rebuffing him gone on long enough? I should just order you talk to the guy for your penance.”
“No. I’ll read one of the gospels in full instead. I’ll even say a whole rosary.”
“You haven’t said so much as a Hail Mary since we were in high school.”
“Is this still covered by the seal of confession? Even if it’s not a real confession?”
“What’s said in here stays in here.”
“I’m gonna go now. Thanks for listening, Franco.”
Franco sighed and muttered the prayer of absolution even though Lia had gone.
Sometimes Lia would go up to the terrace on the roof of the hospital, next to a helipad that was used only to transfer patients away from San Roque, to the larger centers in Manila. From there she could see both the ocean and the surrounding hills. The sunsets were glorious swathes of orange and red, followed by lavender all across the sea, and finally a deepening blue at dusk. The tip of the peninsula where she had built her house was just out of sight. She much preferred her life here to the chaos of Manila, though her apartment in Bonifacio Global City was high above the noise and filth. Here there was quiet, and less worry.
On a warm day in December Father Franco found Lia in her office at the end of the day. His smile was less jovial than usual. “I’ve been feeling a little tired lately,” he said.
“Sit. Let’s check your BP. Did you eat? What about water? You never drink enough.”
His blood pressure, pulse, and temperature were normal. They chatted for a while, laughing occasionally at the antics of a co-worker or exchanging opinions about local eateries. Franco finally left saying he felt much better.
Not long after he left Lia felt the dreadful burning sensation beginning in the small of her back. Instinctively she reached behind as if to squelch it. She could feel her heart beating faster. She locked the door to her office and took off her dress to look in the mirror. It was there: a burning bramble on her lower back, spreading its bright red branches upward across her spine and toward her rib cage. She put her dress back on, grabbed her purse, and ran out of the office. Franco had been gone for at least half an hour. She didn’t even know where to start, and she had to lean on the wall for a moment to deal with the pain in her back. She hurried to the far stairwell to go to her car.
Tomás was coming up the stairs to retrieve something from his office. He smiled at first but when he saw Lia’s face his brow furrowed immediately.
“What’s wrong?” He reached up as if to wipe the tear that was about to fall down Lia’s cheek but remembered himself and put his hand awkwardly on her shoulder instead.
“I’m fine. I’ll tell you later. I have to go.”
Lia hurried down the stairs, found her car, and drove to the parish rectory hoping to find Franco, but he wasn’t there. She left a message for him to call her and left.
When she arrived home there was a car in her driveway. Tomás was sitting on her front stoop waiting.
“I’m sorry. I was worried. And you apparently have no housekeeper.”
Lia sighed. “I do, but just on certain days.” She unlocked the door and let him in. “How did you even know where I lived?”
“You know how it is here. Ask enough people out there where the Doctora’s house is and eventually all the pointed fingers lead you to the right road.”
The entrance opened into a corridor tiled with terra cotta that led into a living area overlooking the ocean and a few small islands in the distance. Lia opened the sliding capiz shell windows to let the sea breeze in, and immediately the smell of salt wafted over their nostrils. Next to an arrangement of couches was a round dining table, and across from it a kitchen where Lia scavenged through the freezer for ice to soothe her back.
“Can I get you anything?”
“Are you having something?”
She poured two and sat on the couch holding an ice bag to her back.
“At least let me hold it for you,” said Tomás.
Tears started to flow from Lia’s eyes but she didn’t sob or make a sound. They sat in silence listening to the surf outside. When the ice bag felt more watery Lia laid it on the glass coffee table and leaned against Tomás on the couch. He put his cheek on her forehead and said nothing.
People think the point of no return lies in the heat of a moment, the crossing of a border. But giving in to trust, or not, happens before that moment, where the trespass is invisible, the almost imperceptible widening of a door ajar.
In Lia’s heart a sea breeze blew, and with it, the sound of a creaking hinge.
“Franco is going to die,” she said. The salt in the sea breeze hurt inside her. She knew she would tell Tomás, show him, how she knew.
Outside, the setting sun glowed red against a darkening sky. They watched as it sank beneath the horizon, disappearing from their sight.