Lunching with Imelda on a December day

Anybody who says there’s no such thing as a free lunch got it all wrong. How I beat the odds may now be a declassified secret as I unstitch an incredulous tale that took place some six years ago.

I had been getting these successive invitations from someone I least expected to be my host and dining company. Thumbing down every unlikely offer, coursed through a newspaper columnist, gave me a fretful and uneasy feeling. Yet I also felt curiosity getting the better of me in the course of time.

To make a long story short, I agreed to come and lunch with Imelda Marcos in her Makati condotel on Dec 28, 2011.

The appointed time was set to a late Thursday morning. Welcoming me and my columnist escort at the Pacific Plaza lobby was Lito Gorospe, Imelda’s media relations man and DJ legend in earlier times. We elevated our way to the 34th floor and entered the sky-high residence, every inch exuding the occupant’s lifestyle with its fabled paintings and furniture set.

In a couple of minutes, she emerged in her trademark fuchsia ensemble, barely looking nondescript for her 80-something years. Pleasantries exchanged, the first thing she asked was my age. When I replied, she brushed her hand on my face, uttering me a compliment. Then and there, I understood why she wasn’t called Ferdinand’s charm ambassador for nothing.

Mrs. Marcos led me to the sofa where we proceeded to get down to business. It was my first time to be up close and holding a conversation with FM’s first lady, although while covering the pre-martial law Malacañang as a Sunday reliever for the regular Manila Chronicle reporter, I had a few unmemorable brushes with her.

She talked compulsively as if the power she once wielded never left her, her English unassailable and occasionally switching to Taglish. I appreciated her straightforward way of declaring why she called for the meet-up. “As you know, Mr. Malay, we believe it’s time to reach across the aisle to our former critics—and your family is one of them. We know the sacrifices your family of nationalist intellectuals had made opposing my husband’s presidency; that we greatly appreciate. Can we now reach closure and unite for the sake of rebuilding our country?”

I didn’t say a word.

She went on: “We care so much about our country’s future and my son Bongbong, in my view, is best suited to be the next president following in his dad’s footsteps. Mabait siya, respetado at matalino tulad ng kanyang ama.”

I politely lent my ear as she continued  pitching her son’s presidential bid.

She was never told that the enemies of her husband’s dictatorship are a stubborn breed ready to push back any attempt to restore the Marcos legacy.

The first lady shifted to lighter topics when we moved to the dinner table. The columnist reminded Imelda that my father and I were Upsilon fraternity brothers of Marcos. So was Ninoy, I added. “Alam mo yan si Ninoy,” she said, laughing, “niligawan ako nyan.”

“Bakit naman hindi nyo ho nagustuhan?”

“E masyadong madaldal, di ko type!”

Our sumptuous lunch was supplied by a big-name restaurant. My gracious host did more talking and ladling me with servings than herself partaking of the food. She had a buzzer on the table to call any of three attendants standing by in case she wanted anything brought out for me to see. There were albums of photographs showing her with world leaders, mostly men, and there were gold ingots that were in reality certificates from the US government bearing the inscribed name of Ferdinand Marcos.

Lift it, she told me, pointing to the ingot. I did so, with some difficulty—it was a 2-kilo bar—as her eyes watched in amusement. “So Madame,” I asked, “how much is the entire Marcos fortune worth?”

Her answer came without missing a beat: “Incalculable.” And where are they? “All over the world, in the banks.”

A  minute after tucking into my plate, she disclosed a little known tidbit about the Marcoses. “Did you know that we gifted Mao Zedong during our China visit and Ronald Reagan with our own money? That’s how rich we are, I’m telling you.”

Marcos, while still a university student, was already “obsessed with gold while I was fascinated with diamonds,” she added. “When we were a courting couple, he impressed on me the fact that fire damages diamonds. But fire makes gold purer. Now, who wouldn’t be astounded by his brilliance?”

During a London visit, Dr. Edward Teller had supposedly revealed to her that Benham Rise could make the Philippines the richest country in the world with its vast deuterium deposits. The American scientist, known as the father of the hydrogen bomb, was convinced that developing the “heavy water” would potentially turn the country into the granary that would feed the world. With the Marcoses’ “incalculable” fortune and Benham’s infinite deposits, Mrs. Marcos was telling me that the future of humanity’s survival lay in their hands.

What started as an 11 o’clock lunch was now heading toward afternoon tea. I looked out the window and saw the skies leadening for a rainfall. I was preparing to take my leave when Imelda suddenly recalled that I had a leftist background. Another anecdote coming up, I thought, and I was right.

While detained in New York in the late ’80s for fraud-related charges, she recalled being surprised to receive a phone call from Joma Sison. She claimed the communist party founder and now asylum-seeker in Holland had voiced admiration for her nationwide welfare programs. “I couldn’t believe my ears when he said ‘Had I known about your concern for the masses earlier, we wouldn’t be waging a revolution!’ I didn’t know that communist rebels would think of me that way.”

I looked at my watch and decided my day was done.

I rose from my seat and bade my goodbye and appreciation to Mrs. Marcos. I was home sooner than I had thought with the traffic-free roads—figuring out whether  those five hours spent with The Imeldific was the equivalent of a Gothic three winks in one’s unpredictable lifetime.

Six years have come and gone, and I’m still asking myself silly if fate had done me an uncanny number.

Ricardo S. Malay was a Manila Chronicle reporter in the foreign affairs beat before martial law. He was deployed in China and Europe by the anti-Marcos global movement and, after 18 years, rejoined his old paper as desk editor and columnist while teaching at the UP Institute of Mass Communication on the side.