Life was hard, love was easy

Carlo Gabuco, Patricia Evangelista
In San Miguel, Zambales, 74-year old Magdalena sleeps with her husband Julian under a tent under the stars

The Ramelo couple's sleeping quarters. Photo by Carlo Gabuco, 9 Feb 2013.

ZAMBALES, Philippines – The tent sits empty. It is empty most of the day, except for the few hours in the afternoon when the village children of San Miguel are let out from school. Then there is singing, the flower opens, the flower closes, sand sprays from a dozen kicking feet, while a ring spins around a giggling brown-cheeked rose.

Mostly there is only the tent, and the boats, and the long strip of beach. The tent hunkers square across the sea, tarps flapping against the bamboo stakes.

Julian stands on the beach. His wife says he is nearly deaf. He stands like a man waiting, or a man searching. Or perhaps he stands like an old man who has lived more than half a century on a boat at sea and wishes to set sail again. Sometimes he smiles. Most of the time he stands among the fishing boats, square across the sea, the tails of his shirt flapping in the wind.

Julian and Magdalena. Photo by Carlo Gabuco, 9 Feb 2013.

A long time ago, Julian fell in love. Her name was Magdalena, a 15-year-old slip of a girl with long black hair who lived in the house next to his. She was the daughter of a man and a fisherwoman, one of 9. Magdalena finished fifth grade before she went off to work as a maid for one of the village families. She fed the pigs. She washed the children. She fished for food in the river. She did not have dreams, because daughters of fisher folk grew up knowing dreams were impossible things. She could read, she could cook, she was not a burden to her family. It was enough.

Then Julian came along. Good-looking Julian, small and wiry, who hauled in buckets of fish and went up to the house next door to ask the fisherwoman and her husband if he could pay court to young Magdalena. They were married, although the kissing came before that. Just kissing, says Magdalena, no more was allowed in the year she fell in love.

Magdalena and her Julian. Photo by Carlo Gabuco, 9 Feb 2013.

Every night, Julian would come home from sea with the rest of the village men. Every night he would drag his boat to the shore where his pretty wife waited. Every night, he would kiss her, right there, on the beach, with a village watching and the small boys hooting. Julian was a romantic, says his wife. They had 5 children, one after the other, like steps on a stair. One died, and then there were 4.

Life was hard, says Magdalena, but love was easy. Julian was her first love, and he will be her last. She knew from the beginning. All she had to do was listen to the sound of her heart beating.

She is 74 years old today, her skin is like parchment, but there are blue rhinestones dangling from her ears. Her children are all grown, fishermen like their father who now make sure their parents have enough to eat.

Julian is 81 years old. He is ill and too weak to work. It is Magdalena who cares for him, who feeds him and bathes him and makes sure he is dressed for the cold when he walks out to watch the sea. It is Magdalena who bought the tarp for the tent that has stood for five years on the beach of San Miguel.

Magdalena and Julian. Photos by Carlo Gabuco, 9 Feb 2013.

Every day, at 5 in the afternoon, sometimes after playing cards with the village women, sometimes after cleaning their home in the village, Magdalena walks to the tent to meet her husband. They sit under the tarp and then they sleep, side by side. There are no more kisses or holding of hands, they are too old. Instead they watch the sun set. Love, says Magdalena, is making sure Julian is not too warm or too cold.

Magdalena does not know when Julian will die, but she knows it is soon. It is a constant awareness. Maybe it will take months. Maybe years. She does not know, but she is certain she will be left alone. She is glad she found him, glad she loved him, and when the last of his sunsets are gone, she will wait under the tarp of a tent that hunkers square across the sea, for all the other sunsets that he will miss while she misses him. –

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