Fade in, focus on me.
My name is Maria. What a nice name, people always tell me, Maria is a perfect name for someone so sweet. My parents say it’s because Maria is the name of the virgin, and they always remind me of this when they run out of things to say. I come from a poor family; my father is a slave in fields that are not ours, my mother is a servant in rich houses, and my older brother does nothing but stay out in the fields and talk nonsense to his carabao.
I’m very beautiful, of course, I wouldn’t be the star of this teleserye if I wasn’t.
In the throes of prepubescence, I meet a young boy playing in the rice fields. It’s just a montage, but I know he is the most charming, most handsome boy I will ever meet. Everyone else in our barrio will be substandard. We run holding hands, carve our initials into the bark of a mango tree, and he gives me a kiss on the cheek and a candy ring. But soon he leaves and I don’t see him again for a very long time. But I dream about him every day until the next time he appears.
On the third episode subtitled “ten years later,” I learn that I have to be a maid like my mother, in order to pay off my father’s debts. In the fashion of all leading ladies before me, I oblige and find out that I will be working in Don and Donya Fernando’s mansion. I have heard from the gossiping neighbors that Don Fernando is a polygamous old man. I have only seen his wife, Donya Anita, once when she was showing foreign investors around the property. She is an aspiring Imelda Marcos, hair included. When I get to the mansion she orders me to start cleaning; she and the Mayordoma hate me immediately.
Then the scene proceeds in slow motion as their son walks down the stairs, the wind blowing through his perfect, freshly waxed hair. “Ah, Jose Miguel!” the Donya exclaims. His full name is Jose Antonio Armando Miguel Crisostomo Gabriel Valera Fernando. I learn that he is balikbayan, recently returned from studying in The States or Australia or some other English-speaking country. Leading men rarely go to Europe, and they never go to Africa. Then and there I know that Jose Miguel and I will be married and we will live happily ever after by the end of the story.
Cut the scene to me running to tell my best friend, Carla, that I have met the man of my dreams. She is pretty, of course not as pretty as me, and she is envious that I work in the mansion while she sells vegetables in the market. She thinks I have the best job in the world, sharing oxygen with Jose Miguel. He is now very popular in our small town, as all leading men are, and has a gaggle of fans who squeal when he steps out of his Porsche 911. I have my share of fans too, understated beauty that I am; one of them is Tikoy who drives a tricycle and has big dreams.
Over at the mansion, things do not go well between the Donya and me. When she becomes angry she pours everything from fruit juices to martinis over my immaculately straight hair. Clumsy, useless, worthless Maria! But I don’t become angry; in fact, I seem to have lost the ability to do so, reasonably or otherwise.
I can only lean against the door and slide towards the floor while I’m sobbing and clutching my dirty apron, and everyone cries with me and I am the brightest star in the Western Hemisphere when I do. I never even swear or roll my eyes: those are traits reserved for Don Fernando’s mistress. She also seems to have all the vices; nobody else smokes and drinks like she does.
But whenever Donya Anita is her horrid self, Jose Miguel consoles me. He caresses my unblemished face and apologizes for his mother. He holds my overworked yet smooth hands, looks into my tired yet beautiful eyes, and delivers the lines on the idiot board like only professional idiots, I mean, wooers can. I fall in love with him, and he with me, in the time it takes to run the latest shampoo commercial.
We begin a clandestine romance only Carla knows about. One day we sit on a hammock and he tells me of New York, New Jersey, New England and New Hampshire in his best American accent; I tell him of my precious collection of pressed flowers and of my first love, the young boy I met in the rice field ten summers ago. I mention the candy ring. He nods knowingly and looks into the distance while my head is on his shoulder. And defying all rational thought, I only realize that it is him when he tells me. When he does it is a grand revelation, and the theme song plays extra loud. Maria, Maria, Maria.
“What are your dreams?” he asks me once or twice, and I say something like, “I want to lift my parents out of poverty, get married, live in a beautiful house, have a dozen children, lift my parents out of poverty, world peace, and did I mention lift my parents out of poverty?” He thinks it’s the most inspired answer he’s ever heard. Of course. Beautiful flawless, perfect Maria. He finds even my clumsiness endearing: without it, he will not have the chance to catch me when I inexplicably fall off the second rung of the cleaning ladder.
Sometime during mid-season, the Don and Donya find out about our relationship, because Carla tells on us in a fit of jealousy. It is during an important occasion, where they humiliate me in public. The announcement of a new business venture, where they also announce Jose Miguel’s arranged marriage to the daughter of another haciendero. They look at me like I am what their Persian cat coughed up and many angry Spanish words fly from their mouths. They insult me, threaten to cut Jose Miguel out of the will, and slap me hard on the cheek. I promptly fall to the floor again with my tears brimming. Helpless Maria. But he does not yield to them; he defends our relationship with more conviction than a politician lobbying for higher wages.
My mother and father empathize, but they are not happy. My father finally has that long-pending heart attack, and while my mother and I sit waiting for news she tells me to follow my heart. The Donya, on the other hand, orders me to be kidnapped by goons in leather jackets. They bring me to a warehouse and tie me to a post; they talk about raping me, but using terms the Movie and Television Review and Classification Board won’t edit out. They never get to it because Tikoy (remember him?) rescues me. But we are chased, and we get hit by bullets. Tikoy dies, but not before he confesses his undying love that spans two pages of script.
Jose Miguel arrives as I lie bleeding on the empty street. I tell him of my unconditional, irrevocable affection, my promise to meet him in heaven, and the location of all my pressed flowers. I let a tear fall for good measure before my eyes close and my head drops to the side. He looks at the heavens and screams, “Maria!”
The next scene is another montage. The ambulance rushing through traffic, me hanging on for dear life, my miraculous recovery from the bullet wounds, Jose Miguel standing in front of the altar, us kissing deeply and passionately. Jose Miguel and me, running across the rice fields of our youth, playing with our son, reconciling with the Don and Donya, handing my father the deed to his land, and finally, focus on me again, as I pretend to marvel at how well things turn out in the end…
But of course they do. I always get my happy ending. Barrios may become cities, haciendas may become malls, carabaos may become Chihuahuas with bow ties and pedicures. Jose Miguels may becomes Kurts and Nates, Marias may become Audreys and Rachelles, Donya Anita may die of breast cancer, and the Tikoys and Carlas may get better lines. Reels may crumble, and reality TV may overshadow me once in a while. But the story of beautiful, helpless, perfect Maria?
It will never, ever, fade out.