The Intervention

Jodi and Alex came out of their bedroom to socialize. I felt some relief that Paulie would have another outlet for entertainment that night. Jimmy and I had been exhausting ourselves trying to keep him company night after night when we got home from work—smoking joints with him, watching TV, drinking beer and lounging around on his sectional sofa. I noticed that Paulie sniffed a lot, blew his nose often, and took many quick trips to his bedroom and shut the door. His wife had left him, but we didn’t know why. The subject was off the table. He looked a mess—unshaven, his curly hair unkempt, face ruddy from the freezing temperatures, and thin. Very thin.

For some reason, Jodi and Alex didn’t experience the same guilt Jimmy and I felt when Paulie was left alone. They could whip up a dinner for two in the kitchen without asking if anyone wanted any, and take the feast to their room with their giant bed and own TV as if they lived in a boarding house.

One night, Alex and Jodi decided to be social. They fried up a plateful of something that smelled delicious. I asked them what it was, and they smiled. “Just try it.” And then we all started to ask.

“Chicken?” said Jimmy.

“Liver?” said Paulie.

“Just try it,” said Jodi.

I cut a small piece with my fork and tried it. Jimmy and Paulie did the same. We chewed in unison. Our eyes grew wide. Our heads nodded.

“Wow,” I said, as I grabbed another piece.

It had the firm texture of a mushroom and a meaty flavor. I didn’t know what it was, but I wanted the whole plateful.

“So are you going to tell us what it is?” said Paulie.

“It’s deer heart!” said Jodi.

“Like a deer’s heart?” I said.

Growing up, I’d seen all kinds of organs and slaughtered or dead animals that would end up on our table or on relatives’ tables in the Philippines. The cow brain sitting in a bowl of water in our garage sink before a big party. My task to burn the hair off a dead goat with a torch and use a steel wire brush to remove the burnt hair off its body in preparation for a big celebration at my auntie’s house. The home video of my relatives in the province plunging a sharp knife into a cow’s throat and letting it bleed to death slowly while drops of blood dripped into a bowl underneath, to be used later for sauce. The deep moan of the cow. Everything I’d witnessed growing up had prepared me for tasting this piece of deer heart. But now that I had, I couldn’t stop thinking about the animal.

***

On a cool spring Saturday morning, several months into our stay at Paulie’s house, Jimmy and I were in our pajamas watching TV on the couch. Patches of snow still lay on the ground, but I could begin to imagine bulbs below the surface preparing to sprout and push their way up through the soil. Living on the other side of the bridge no longer felt like a dramatic change for me. In fact, in some strange way, I’d grown used to crossing the bridge, leaving Poughkeepsie behind me, and entering into the wilderness of Highland. With the weather change, I’d hoped Jimmy and I would be able to explore some of the heavily wooded areas that I had avoided due to heavy snow.

Out of nowhere, the front door busted open, and a stalky man with dark hair pushed his way into the house, walked straight up to Paulie, grabbed him by the collar and slammed him against the wall.

“Get your shit together!” he said. “What the fuck are you doing?”

Paulie tried to break loose but the man held him close and slammed him hard against the refrigerator.

“Look at you,” he said. “Just look at you.”

It was hard to look at Paulie’s face, all crimson and full of embarrassment and shame. This was his house, we were his borders. Up until that moment, he called the shots. He made the rules. And we abided. But in a flash, he’d lost his position and was now at the mercy of this man.

It was at that moment the man looked around the house and saw Jimmy and me sitting there. Jodi and Alex had emerged from their bedroom. The four of us realized this was not an intruder, but a family member, perhaps Paulie’s brother, who’d come to sort him out. Paulie didn’t need our help. You didn’t get involved in family fights.

Jodi and Alex returned to their bedroom and shut the door. Jimmy grabbed me by the hand and led me to our bedroom. We put our ears up against the door and heard more shouting. Paulie was trying to explain himself, making a desperate plea for the man to understand. But the man just kept saying, Get your shit together. Mom’s worried. Look at you. Look at you.

We heard Paulie crying. The man eventually left and the house went quiet, much like my house growing up went completely silent after one of my dad’s violent outbursts. I was used to this silence, comfortable in it even. But I knew what it meant. Everything had changed. Paulie’s family had gotten involved. Perhaps they’d been planning an intervention ever since his wife left, and this man, perhaps his brother, volunteered to be the one to ambush Paulie in his own home. From the looks on the man’s face, he didn’t even know we were all living there.

In our room, Jimmy told me that Paulie had been doing a lot of coke at work, and that he snorted lines in his bedroom at home. It was the reason his wife had left him. Jimmy had begged him to keep it away from us since we’d both gotten in trouble with it in the past.   

Had I known that Paulie was doing lines in his bathroom, I would’ve insisted we move out. The last thing we needed was any sort of temptation. Jimmy and I promised each other we’d never touch coke again—not a line, not a toke on a pipe, nothing. If we were serious about quitting, we couldn’t do it halfway. Our bodies liked it too much. I felt angry that he hadn’t said anything to me about Paulie’s drug use, but understood why he’d kept it from me. We had nowhere else to go.

Jimmy went into the closet and pulled out our Hefty garbage bags and started packing some of our things into them. We didn’t even need to talk to Paulie about what had happened. Our welcome was over. Even so, I felt some slight comfort in what I had witnessed. A brother who cared. Someone who cared enough to bust into Paulie’s house and scream at him like a military sergeant. Someone who refused to let his brother carry on in a self-destructive way. Although Paulie seemed to be a mess at the moment, I had the feeling he would clean up because family members were going to watch over him. Maybe his wife would even return one day.

Jimmy didn’t have anyone in his family who would play that role. His mother and stepfather were too drunk to notice anyone else’s problems. His sisters and older brother had issues of their own, too. My family had tried to intervene in my life but that just drove me away, three thousand miles away. And now they were too far to try to stop me from doing anything harmful to myself. They weren’t going to jump on a plane and drag me back home. Was it because they knew I would refuse to go back with them or because they’d given up on me a long time ago? Would I feel better knowing they tried to come get me, even if they weren’t successful? Why hadn’t they made the effort? If they hadn’t come by now, they weren’t ever coming. There would be no intervention for me. No one from my family would be coming through that door at any moment, hoping to save me.

One morning, when we were living at Paulie’s house, Jimmy said we could car pool together to work since BF Goodrich and the dental office were both on Main Street, just a few blocks from each other. Later that evening, when I was running late with patients, Jimmy said he’d ride home with Paulie, and that I could drive the car home on my own. It was past seven o’ clock and I had just finished cleaning three exam rooms, tidying up the bay area and wiping down the x-ray development room. I felt tired and hungry, and walked alone to our car parked in the BF Goodrich parking lot. I was still in my white scrubs. As I entered the parking lot, a small group of three men started calling out to me. It was dark, with just the faint illumination from the dull street lamp above. There were no other cars left in the parking lot. The men were on the other side of the parking lot, so, at first, I didn’t feel too threatened. They continued to call out to me, and when I turned around a second time, they had moved much closer. They were briskly walking toward me, poised, it seemed, to take off in a sprint at any second. What were they doing? Were they trying to scare me? I’d experienced cat calls in the past but for the most part they’d been harmless. The trick was to ignore the men, to act as if you didn’t hear the whistling or the descriptions of what they wanted to do with or to you. But this was the first time that ignoring them didn’t work.

I picked up my pace and before I knew it I was running to the car and they were trying to catch up with me. The driver side door had been busted for some time, so we either had to crawl in through the window or enter from the passenger side door. But at this moment, I didn’t have time to fuss over how to get in. My hand shook as I got the key in the lock and managed to open the door. I looked up again and the men were just yards away from me, still making sexual remarks. I prayed the car would start. There were many times when it hadn’t lately.  

The loud throaty engine of our Super Sport Nova was the best sound I’d heard in a long time. When I fishtailed out of the parking lot, the men chased the car and my driver side door flung open. I grabbed the door handle and tried to slam it shut several times as I pushed my foot on the accelerator, but the door wouldn’t close. It didn’t matter though. I got out on to the Main Street and kept going without looking back. My whole body was shaking. I tried to drive straight while holding the door but I swerved back and forth, unable to multi task while speeding along toward the bridge. The chase was over.

My heart slammed around in my chest and I cursed Jimmy’s name for leaving the car in an empty parking lot at night, for an unreliable engine and a broken driver’s side door. I tried to calm down. At a red light, I open and slammed the door over and over again, trying hard to get it to catch just in the right place so it would stay closed. Still no luck. When the light turned green, I proceeded to the bridge. A man next to me rolled down his window and started screaming something at me. He made a motion for me to roll down my window. What’s going on? Could it be possible that another man wanted to harass me tonight? The man kept pace with my car, and then he finally held up a rope. “Roll down your window,” he said. I realized he was only trying to help. We both slowed down a bit, and as I rolled down my window, he threw a small rope into my car and sped away.

When I got home, I broke down crying to Jimmy. “I hate Highland, I hate living here.” It was because we lived with Paulie that Jimmy could find his own way home instead of waiting for me to get off work so we could ride home together. “I’m so sorry baby,” he said. “It’ll never happen again.”



This Isn’t the Only World

For Isso

I drove north on 101 in Santa Clara and took an unexpected exit. One of those exits where you need to get over three lanes to make it. It was in the middle of the day, so traffic was light. The book binder would have to wait. I’d called him earlier that morning to ask if he could bind my thesis, the one I’d mail back to University College Cork so I could finish my master’s degree and move on with my life. Don’t get your hopes up, I reminded myself. The process of finding a puppy could take a while. I’d keep going back to the humane society for as long as it took until I found the right one.

Three weeks prior, I’d visited that same shelter in search for a puppy. I had a Black Lab in mind, a Black Lab like the one my ex-boyfriend L’s sister had in Southern California. The same ex who’d gotten married shortly after we’d broken up and I moved to Ireland for graduate school. The same ex who delivered the news of his engagement to me over the phone, in a place where I had no support structure, no family, no close friends. The breakup, the marriage, the isolation of Cork, the racism, the pressure of writing a thesis proved to be too much—I left Ireland without completing the degree. It was during this time, while trying to finish my thesis back in San Jose, that I’d decided to get a dog.

Getting a dog would ground me in a way I hadn’t been grounded in many years. Getting a dog would mean I had to take care of something, had to think about something other than myself. Getting a dog meant I wouldn’t be moving abroad any time soon, I wouldn’t be picking up at any given moment like I’d been known to do and travel. Getting a dog meant something would be dependent on me to show up, to care, to be there, to help, to love. I’d killed all my house plants from neglect over the years. What made me think I could take care of a dog? “Remember, puppies grow up to be dogs,” my older sister said to me. Annoyed by her comment, I responded, “Duh.” I knew what she meant though. I wondered if I had it in me to care for something for the long haul, too.

When I saw ‘Max’ curled up in his concrete pen, he looked calm, innocent. He didn’t respond to me with that puppy energy. A chill puppy. I like that. He was a Black Lab, probably a mix, and a male. For some reason I wanted a male puppy. Perhaps to balance out my emotional side. To inject some logic into my life at a time when it seemed lacking. (An irony of this way of thinking: part of my graduate thesis focused on the limitations of binary thought, of embracing multiplicity, of blurring boundaries between what’s considered male, what’s considered female.)

I got in line to begin the adoption process. As I stood there waiting for my turn, I overheard the woman at the counter expressing interest in Max. Oh no. The staff member let her know the next step would be for her to have a 15-minute meeting with Max to see if she liked him. He escorted her to the back. When I got to the counter, I said I too was interested in Max but that he probably was no longer available. “Why don’t you sit in the waiting area while she visits with him,” the staff suggested. There were two of them helping me, a tag team of animal lovers. What I really wanted to do was lean over the counter and say, “I want that dog. I need that dog. You don’t understand.” Instead, what came out was, “She’s going to want him. Who wouldn’t want him? I’ll come back another time.” Together, they convinced me to stay.

The clock on the wall seemed to taunt me, every minute that went by reminded me that I was waiting for something I couldn’t possibly have. That it was a waste of time, especially since I had deadlines to meet, a thesis to complete, a book binder to connect with. What am I doing here? And that’s when it happened, whatever it was. First the sound of the room muffled. I could no longer hear the phone ringing, the staff coordinating visits with animals, people coming in and out of the automatic doors. Like all vibrations had been wrapped tightly in thick layers of cotton. Next came the sensation of warm water being slowly poured over the top of my head, starting at the crown, moving down to my face and shoulders, and spreading throughout my limbs, torso, legs, feet. And then came the voice. A male voice. Clear, soft, confident, calming. “He’s going to be yours.” To say it was a voice isn’t completely accurate though. More like a voice I felt than a voice I heard. I looked around the lobby, wondering if anyone could see or hear what was happening to me. But the staff went about their business, rushing around, filling out forms, trying to find animals a home. At that moment, I felt a sense of euphoria. Like everything had come into balance. Like people who were hungry got fed. People who felt lonely got loved. People who were hurting received comfort. All at once, all together.

I sat back in the chair. At a time of uncertainty in my life, I knew one thing for sure: I’d be taking Max home. It didn’t matter how it’d happen. (How’s it going to happen?) The details, I knew, were none of my business. I trusted this voice, trusted this process, even though nothing like this had ever happened to me before. As the daughter and granddaughter of immigrants from the Philippines, I’d grown up knowing this isn’t the only world. That we don’t have to see something to know it exists.

When the woman came back to the desk, I overheard her say she wanted Max. When the staff asked her to fill out the adoption papers, she said she wanted her husband to meet Max first. They lived around the corner, he’d be home in a few hours, at which time she’d come back with him and fill out the paperwork. “There’s a fifty-dollar non-refundable deposit to hold him,” they said. She waved them away. “I’ll be right back.”

As soon as the woman left the building, two staff people ran over to me in the waiting area. One put a clipboard in my left hand, the other placed a pen in my right hand. I hadn’t even had my 15-minute meeting with Max. “Sign! Sign! Sign!” I signed on the line. “He’s all yours,” they said.

Go back where you came from (For BP)

Go back where you came from (For BP)
By Tony Robles

Go back to the mountain
Of your heart
Carved with your poem
Your story

Go back to the
Skin scarred
Soil of your name
Before the teachers
Mispronounced it

Go back to the
Strong smell of who 
You are, lingering in
Pots and pans smouldering
In the fire that is you

Go back to when
Your words betrayed
Your throat in
A shadow of shame

And somebody
Else’s laughter

Go back and get it
Back, whatever it is
Or whatever it isn’t

Go back to your face

Will it
Recognize you?

Go back
Where you came from

Is it everywhere, 
No where?

Go back

(C) 2019 Tony Robles

Long After the War

On this 75th anniversary of D-Day, I share the beginning of an unpublished short story I wrote over a decade ago. It opens with a conversation I had in 1993 with my host father in Bath, England late one night while his wife was out in the pub with friends. (Reg and I were both homebodies and often stayed in to watch The Bill and other crime shows when everyone else was out socializing.) Reg had served in the Royal Army during D-Day. May he rest in peace and power.

Long After the War

     Samantha would remember years later the conversation she’d once had with her host father Reginald, who’d confessed to her that he was supposed to have married someone else before the invasion of Normandy.  Sam hadn’t thought about it much over the past fifteen years, hadn’t registered it as an important conversation in her life, until her long-term boyfriend announced his engagement shortly after they broke up.  I was the one he was supposed to marry, she thought.

     The conversation happened late one winter evening, several months into her stay in their home, when Sam had come down to take a break from studying.  They were sitting in the front room of the two-story townhouse, Reg on his wide recliner, she in grey sweats sitting cross-legged on thick, red carpet, taking in heat from the fireplace glowing bright orange with simulated flames.

     Blossom, said Reg.  He’d nicknamed Sam ‘Petite Lotus Blossom’ within weeks of her arrival in Bath.  It didn’t bother her.  Nor did it bother her when her host mother called her a ‘Palomino’ instead of a ‘Filipino.’  She didn’t have the heart to tell her that one was a horse, the other an ethnicity.

     Blossom, he said.  I was supposed to marry someone else.  He looked straight ahead at the TV, tapped his fingers on the armrest of the chair.

     What do you mean?  Sam asked.  She saw images of her host mother’s smile, bright white hair, and thought of her Welsh lullabies reverberating from the kitchen each morning.  They were planning to celebrate their fiftieth wedding anniversary that year.

     They gave us a short leave from the Royal Army, Reg continued.  They told us to go home, get married, kiss our mothers, for what might be the last time.  I’d been writing to a woman for two years while stationed up in Nottinghamshire, sitting under the Big Oak, telling her all about the American soldiers from the South, how they liked to put Tabasco sauce on everything they ate.  He laughed.    

     Her name was Claire, he continued.  We’d met in school before I enlisted; we fell in love, and promised to spend our lives together when I got out.  Shortly after the Blitz on Bath, her father had sent her up the country to Shropshire where her uncle had had a farm.  We wrote to each other everyday.  Everyday, he said.

     Small drops of sweat gathered on Reg’s forehead; he pulled a handkerchief from his pocket, lifted his thick-rimmed glasses, and rubbed his face. 

     He looked up at Sam briefly, shyly, as if he were reading her face to detect any signs of judgment.

     Sam sat still and quiet.  There were artificial flowers in a vase on the entry table, replicas of small Spanish plates on the stucco wall, and little brass figures on the mantel of a dog, a girl, and a boy, carefully placed next to one another to create a scene frozen in time. 

     Everything had happened so quickly, said Reg.  I hadn’t time to let her know I’d be coming home for a few days.  That’s all we got, you know.  Just a few days.  What can you do with a few days? he asked.      

     I imagine by the time she got my letter, he continued, I was already married.

     He pulled a small, faded black and white photograph from his wallet and handed it to Sam.  

     Are you still in contact with Claire?  she asked. 

     She looked over at Reg, and then beyond him, out the window, at the snow flurries coming down, covering all the flats in the circle with a hazy dust.

     No, no, he said.  It wouldn’t have been right. 

     Reg stared off into the television, picked up the remote, and started to flip through channels without stopping.

     When Sam learned of David’s engagement, she was a first year doctoral student living in Cork, in the southwest of Ireland, where she was beginning her research on the translation of Irish poetry.  The phone call from San Francisco came seven months into her stay, on a March afternoon, when she was finishing her work in the Boole library.  She missed her family, her friends. 

     I wanted to tell you first before you heard it from anyone else, said David.

     Is it the right thing to do? she asked.  She watched a group of students in the distance, clouds moved overhead.

     Yes, he said.

     Sam hung up before he could say anything else.  She took the train straight home to her flat and drew the heavy curtains.  On her bookshelf, she found When Things Fall Apart, a book she had picked up in Waterstone’s months earlier in anticipation of things falling apart.  Thoughts of David and another woman passed through her mind as she felt herself getting smaller and smaller. 

     For the first week, Sam prepared herself for the day as she normally did: yoga in the morning, a light breakfast before she settled down at her desk for the day, piles of books all around her, pictures of her nephews and nieces back home.  She would set out on the train for the library on Tuesdays and Thursdays, a schedule she made in the beginning of the year to ensure she interacted with the world on a regular basis.  It was easy to stay in the countryside, where, for the most part, the only noises she heard were the wind and slashing rain, and, at times, the cry of sheep nearby, or the idle whispers of the neighbors who gathered by the market, stopping to greet one another, talking about the same things they did the day before, and the day before that. 

     She thought about Claire, the woman who was left behind.  She too had been up in the country, tucked away safely in her uncle’s farm, when she received the news that Reg married another woman.  Sam saw an image of Claire opening the letter, worried and afraid for Reg, hoping he was still in England, and far away from the fighting in France, although she knew he wouldn’t be.  Not only would she discover that Reg had gone off to war, but that, in a haste to leave for combat, from which he might never return, he had married another woman.

     Sam looked out across the hills behind her flat — the rugged countryside and grey, jagged rocks.  She imagined Claire running as fast as she could through the grass, dodging in between trees, with letter in hand, as her mother and uncle chased her.  When they finally caught up with her, she would kick and scream and curse their names for bringing her to the farm, far away from Reg, out of his reach when he returned to Bath before heading off to war. 

     Sam tried to sleep, but she kept thinking about this woman, Claire, who she knew little about, who she had heard of on one snow-filled evening in Bath.  If Sam closed her eyes long enough, she could still see the photograph Reg showed her: a small black and white picture of Claire and her sisters sitting on a lawn, wearing large hats, long summer dresses, holding fans.  While her sisters were looking directly at the camera, Claire was looking away, as if in some sort of reverie.  She remembered a curious image on the picture of what resembled large droplets of rain suspended in the tree above them.  Thoughts of Claire and trees and rain filled Sam’s thoughts late into the evening.

     Several weeks had passed.  Since delivering the news, David hadn’t tried to reach Sam, hadn’t sent a card or letter, or left a murky message on her voice mail.  Or shown up on her doorstep unannounced with a look of love and confusion and regret and desire.  This time things are different.  The longer she went without hearing from him, the more it seared into her mind, into every cell in her body, that maybe this was real.  Maybe this wasn’t a hoax, or a temporary fling, but something more lasting and permanent.       

     Later and later each evening, Sam would finally pull the comforter off the couch to drag it across the wooden floors to her cold bedroom overlooking the weir, the sound of rushing water that used to relax her but now made her chest tighten.  There she lay in her bed, unwilling to read or keep the light on, fearful she might lie there again all night, just to get up for another hazy and unbalanced day, only to repeat it for the next night and the next.

     One morning, she took the train into town to visit the herbal shop on Patrick Street.  The girl behind the counter suggested pure lavender essential oil for her temples and rosehip drops on the tongue. 

     Maybe you should read a book, take a hot bath, drink some warm milk, she added.

     Sam looked her in the eyes.  Maybe she was in a good relationship, a happy one.  Maybe she’d never have to hear that someone she loved was in love with someone else.  She was one of those girls.    

     Alright? the girl asked.

     I need something strong, really strong, said Sam. 

     We don’t have anything stronger.  These things take days to take effect, she said.

     Days? asked Sam.  Did you say days?

     An image flashed in her mind: the girl lying on the shop floor.  Broken bottles everywhere.  Sam pulled out her wallet because she knew that at 4 a.m. it would be better to have something rather than nothing.  She stepped back out onto Patrick Street clutching her bag filled with useless products.

     Days later, Sam found herself in the student medical center near the south lawn of the university.  It was an old building with high, cracked ceilings, a dim chandelier in the entryway, pale yellow walls, a worn Persian rug laid over thin carpet and heavy wooden doors marked private.  Dr. O’Hara’s office had stacks of papers on her desk, piles of journals, and magazines, with more publications, worn and yellowed, lining the perimeter of her small office.  She had thin red lips and grayish brown hair pulled up in a loose, messy bun.  Everything around her seemed erratic, out of place.

     Tell me what’s going on, Samantha, she said, as she typed into small boxes in her computer screen. 

     I’m unable to sleep, unable to walk around town without feeling like people are going to knock me over, said Sam.

     How long have you felt this way? she asked.

     It’s been a few weeks now.  I just I learned that my ex-boyfriend in the States is engaged to be married.

     I see, she said.  Have you been eating?

     Not really.

     You need to eat.

     I need to sleep, said Sam.

     The doctor stepped out for a few minutes.  Sam looked out the window at the overly manicured, green lawn, the bare trees with their exposed branches that twisted and turned in painful patterns, and the muted circle of light in the grey sky, the dull sun, buried beneath layers of haze, fog and clouds.  Then she looked over at the computer screen, pitch black with bright green letters.  Her condition was described as ‘psychological.’  Before Sam could read more, the doctor came back to her desk without bothering to turn the monitor in the other direction.

     Samantha, I’ve checked in with Dr. Roberts, our resident therapist, who’s free tomorrow afternoon at two p.m.  He looks forward to meeting you.

     I don’t really want therapy, said Sam. 

     We can’t make you come back if you don’t want to, she said. 

     The doctor stood up to indicate the appointment was finished.  When Sam stepped outside, she saw the rain had stopped temporarily, but she could feel the dense clouds rumbling in the distance, plotting their next target, moving in toward her as they prepared to open up with a solid downpour. 

     I feel pain when you’re not around, said David.

     On one of their first road trips up to Mendocino, along the winding, curvy roads, he had said those words to Sam, and would repeat them often for the first few months they had dated.  She sat in the passenger seat of his convertible, a scarf around her head, with big sunglasses, just like in the movies.  The wind was cool against her skin, and although she had goose bumps up and down her arms, there was too much excitement to focus on the chill, too much energy to worry about small things.  Even the harrowing coastal drive, the feeling of swerving off the cliff at any moment, with one slight turn of the steering wheel in the wrong direction, didn’t affect her, as it usually did.  She even looked down the sheer drops, at the rugged cliffs and small curls of white waves below, and saw them at once beautiful and magical instead of deadly and frightening. 

     They checked in to a small motel in a tiny coastal town covered in fog.  Instead of heading back out to go wine tasting or to explore an antique shop they had passed on the way in, they dropped their bags at the door and simultaneously jumped on to the bed, where they had a laugh about the floral sheets that matched the floral window coverings. 

     You didn’t correct the man at the desk when he referred to me as your wife, said Sam.

     David reached over, undressed her, made love to her, and eventually fell asleep, clutching her so tight she couldn’t move. 

     When they woke up to venture into town in search of food, they found most of the restaurants had closed, with the exception of a narrow sushi bar with six stools.  They were the only customers there.  The sushi chef had a bandana with a rising sun tied around his forehead. 

     David greeted the chef in Japanese, bowing several times, eager to show he could speak the language well, having spent his first six years of school in Tokyo.  Sam and David drank flask after flask of warm sake, the liquid heating them up, enabling them to take off their heavy sweaters, while intermingled at the bar, her hand on his knee, his arm around her shoulder, sharing bites of fresh sea urchin, herring roe, and warm succulent grilled fish. 

     Are you Japanese, too? asked the chef.

     I’m Filipina, said Sam.

     Ah, Philippine, he said.  Very poor country.  But people nice, right?

     Yes, very poor but very nice, she said.

     Sam wondered what it would be like instead to come from a place like Japan, with its rich customs and traditions – the tea ceremonies, the temples, hot baths, fashion, style.  David had once mentioned that his parents and grandparents were only happy when he dated a Japanese girl, and that his parents would pay for his wedding one day if he married one; otherwise, he was on his own. 

     Back in the car, David and Sam sat in the front seat, the top of the convertible now up, sealed tightly, keeping them dry from the rain, which had started to come down hard while they ate.  They listened to the heavy drops on the hood of the car, the windshield, the roof.  Sam looked at the lights in the distance, the dim illumination coming from kitchen windows.  David sat next to her, his profile visible under the street lamp, smooth nose, prominent forehead, small, even lips.  He turned on the ignition so they could have heat, and then they continued to sit in the car together, watching the rain, looking out at the lights, reaching for each other’s hands.

     Back in the university medical center, as Sam waited for her appointment with the resident therapist, she thought about her conversation with Reg many years ago, and wished she had asked him more questions about Claire, about her family, friends, interests, fears.  Her last name, or some clue that might’ve helped Sam to locate her; perhaps she could’ve reached out to her one day, where she might’ve been living in a small, quaint cottage in Cornwall: retired, peaceful, pictures of grandchildren on the mantel. 

     Sam would’ve mentioned Reg’s name at her doorstep; an invitation for tea would’ve followed, where she would’ve let Claire know she wasn’t forgotten, was never erased.  She wanted this woman to know that her suffering was not in vain; that while she was rebuilding her life after the war, after Reg had married another woman, there would be afternoons and evenings when he still thought about her.  Sam wanted her to know that although Reg was a happily married man, she was never fully removed from his thoughts.  His memories of the war and Claire were inextricably tied; it didn’t matter how many children or grandchildren he’d had, or how many wedding anniversaries he’d celebrated with his wife: Claire would always be a part of his life that he would never let go.  If she could, Sam would tell her about the conversation she’d had with Reg on that snowy evening in Bath, and the image he kept close with him always: her dark hair, soft smile, eyelashes in the sunlight.   

Mini-Interview with Veronica Montes

My mini-interview with Veronica Montes, author of BENEDICTA TAKES WING AND OTHER STORIES, is up on #allpinayeverything. Thanks to Barbara Jane Reyes for curating this site!

You can learn more about Veronica here: veronica-montes.com. Buy the book–a copy for yourself and as a gift. Support your local Pinay authors.

Montes on silence and a lack of shared oral histories in Filipino families:

“The pockets of silence in my family seemed to come from a combination of our elders not wanting to upset the apple cart (everything’s fine, nothing to see here, move along!) and perhaps not fully grasping that subsequent generations would—as children of immigrants—grapple with their identities and be semi-desperate (or maybe that was just me?) to hear and know more.”

Frank’s Home

This memoir excerpt appeared in Southword in 2013.

I responded to an ad in the paper for a room for rent in the northwest part of Poughkeepsie, an upscale area with which I was unfamiliar. Frank Caruana, a shrunken, elderly Italian man, welcomed me into his home. He fussed in the kitchen over glasses of water and a package of cookies, which he placed between us as we sat at the table. The bright white cabinets and polished marble floor gleamed as if an industrial cleaning crew had just come through. I imagined there was once a staff of cooks preparing elegant meals for him and his family.

“My wife passed away six months ago,” said Frank. “It’s been very quiet here.”

He told me about his late wife, how they celebrated their fiftieth wedding anniversary before she died. And how he was a famous musician and conductor in Italy. Without asking any questions about my past or future, he launched into the terms of the rental agreement.

“No deposit needed. No smoking and no pets.”

I assured him we didn’t smoke or have any pets. My shoulders, which had been hugging my ears since the eviction notice, came down an inch after I took a long, deep breath. In the corner of my eye, I saw something wiggle in the package of cookies. A tiny, white maggot reared its head as if straining to participate in our conversation. It climbed up over the ridge of a cookie, followed by another worm-friend. Frank smiled at me through his thick glasses.

“I just rented the downstairs room to a nice man,” he said. “We’re going to have a full house!”

Three weeks before my visit to Frank, Jimmy and I sat on our frayed couch, pulled apart at the seams by our cats’ claws, with an eviction notice in our hands. We stared down at the low wooden table filled with foil, resin-stained glass pipes, mirrors, razor blades, rolled up dollar bills. The couch and table were the last pieces of furniture we owned, after having sold most of our possessions, including our TV, to pay off drug debts. Two freshly cut lines of coke, in perfect symmetry to avoid argument, ready to be snorted. We could hear our neighbors, with whom we shared a wall, screaming and banging around, the woman, Christina, yelling for help. This time we didn’t respond.

“Which line do you want?” asked Jimmy, crumpling up the eviction notice and throwing it across the empty room.

I looked over at him; he had grease on his hands and face, and wore a blue jumpsuit seeped in so much oil it no longer made sense to wash it. I could tell he’d been sleeping inside the hollow portion of the tractor tire at the garage where he worked. I’d spent my work day stealing as many naps as possible in the dark room while developing full-mouth x-rays for the dentist I assisted. Jimmy’s eyes, yellowish and glassy, focused on the part of the room where our TV used to be.

The can began to rattle, but, for the first time, we ignored it. Jimmy had rigged a homemade doorbell by filling an empty beer can with coins and attaching it to a telephone wire outside our kitchen window. How could we’ve known over a year ago that our friend, a dealer, would introduce us to coke and teach us how to free base with the knowledge that we’d be climbing the walls and selling our possessions to buy more from him? Jimmy and I looked at each other. We always had a connection. I’m not sure who blew first, but the next thing I knew, we exhaled, and tiny white particles flew up in the thick air.   

“The man downstairs is a pedophile,” I whispered to Jimmy in our bedroom late one night. We’d been in Frank’s house for a week, unable to sleep. Dreaming of a glass pipe filled with turbulent, yellow smoke.

“Don’t worry, baby,” he said.

The old man Frank explained to me that Ed, the new tenant in the basement, had lived only a few blocks away with his parents, up until other parents on the block grew so fierce Ed was forced to leave. His picture featured in the local paper, with an article about how he photographed neighborhood kids swimming nude in his parents’ pool. He had a hard time finding a room to rent, until he met Frank.

“He’s a nice boy,” said Frank. “Very quiet.”

Ed was hardly a boy. Middle-aged, he stood six foot, three inches tall and weighed over two hundred and fifty pounds. He reminded me of a wrestler with his dark, curly hair, barrel chest and thick legs. In the two years since I’d run away from home, I’d endured a lot with Jimmy. His fist fights in the middle of the night with his drunk stepfather; no heat in winter; the New York State Troopers trying to take me in as a minor until I proved I had just turned eighteen. Never once had I thought of calling home. Jimmy was my new life, my new family. Our theme song when we ran off together from California to New York was Bon Jovi’s “Living on a Prayer”.

“I want to go home,” I said.

“He’s not going to hurt you, geisha.”

“We’re living with a criminal.”

“Do we have a choice?”

To help pay down our drug debt, Jimmy took a second job at Jiffy Lube by the mall. He didn’t get home in the evenings until ten-thirty. After work, I’d go straight up to our room and lodge a chair under the doorknob to protect myself from Ed. I snuck my cats in from the car so I wouldn’t be alone. I avoided the kitchen altogether, in case Frank tried to offer me more infested snacks, so my meals consisted of takeout food from McDonald’s or Burger King. Slowly, my appetite returned. I set a goal to reach ninety-two pounds by the end of summer. Then I’d be only ten pounds under my normal weight.

One evening, around seven o’ clock, Frank knocked on my door.

“Just a minute,” I said.

I swept up both cats in my arms and placed them in the closet. And then I opened the window wider, snapped a towel to clear the air of cigarette smoke and sprayed several pumps of Poison, a bottle of perfume Jimmy bought for my eighteenth birthday. I cracked the door an inch, hoping the cats wouldn’t meow.

“Would you like to watch TV?” asked Frank, holding the remote.

“Sure,” I said.  “I’ll be right down.”

When I got downstairs, Frank motioned for me to sit next to him on the couch. He hadn’t turned on the TV yet. I flipped through a few channels until I came to Jeopardy!

“Is this okay?”

“Yes, yes, yes,” he said. “Anything. Perfect.”

My least favorite categories were Presidents, Sports and Science, things I knew nothing about. I preferred Literature, World History and Geography; even though I didn’t know that much about those topics either, I could at least guess and be right sometimes. Frank never tried guessing at all. I wondered if he understood how to play the game.

“You have to answer with a question, like “Who is” or “What is,” I said.

“Yes, yes, very nice show,” said Frank.

He encouraged me to turn the volume louder. The blue Jeopardy! screens reflected off his glasses. I thought about what it must’ve been like for him before we all moved in. He didn’t have any family nearby. His only son lived and worked across the country at Stanford University. I held an image of Frank sitting in the dark at his late wife’s vanity, still filled with lipsticks, pins and barrettes, staring into the same mirror she used to look into.

When Jeopardy! ended, he asked if I wanted to watch the next show, Wheel of Fortune. The thought of spending half an hour with Vanna White disturbed me but I didn’t have the heart to say no to Frank, so I sunk back into the couch and tried to solve the puzzles.

One evening, when Frank and I were watching Jeopardy!,  I heard the basement door open. Ed emerged from his cave, bowed his head and stood at the entrance to the living room with his hands in his pockets. He had court dates set and wasn’t allowed to return to his parents’ house. No one visited him and, as far as I knew, he never left the house at all. Frank said he was on disability but I didn’t know what for.

“Sit down!” said Frank, scooting over on the couch to make room between us.

Ed sat down just a few inches away from me. He smelled of sweat and gauze. I’d never been that close to an actual pedophile before. I took in a deep breath. Jimmy had assured me that if Ed really wanted to molest me, he would’ve tried by now.

At first Ed sat completely still, as if he’d be asked to leave the room for breathing or blinking his eyes. Then he started calling out questions in a soft voice, most of them right. He knew the questions before Alex Trebek finished reading the answer. Ed didn’t phrase the questions correctly, but I wasn’t about to call him on it.

During a commercial break, he turned to me.

“Do you know why your car doesn’t work?” he asked. “Because it’s a Nova,” he said. “No Va. In Latin, that means ‘no go’.”

I’d taken a few years of French before I dropped out of high school, and this sounded reasonably correct to me.

“So I should rename our car?” I asked.

“Too late,” he said.

Jeopardy! came back on. One of the categories, Biology, had the following answer for six hundred dollars: “The intestinal tract of these insects can break down cellulose.” I wanted to say “What are maggots?” but then stopped myself in case Frank got a complex.

Ed sat up, and, like a little kid, began screaming at the contestants, as if they could hear him, his hands in the air, “Termites!” “Termites!”

He got the answer right, the contestants got it wrong. Ed turned around and high-fived me and Frank, as if he’d just won the money.

For the next few weeks, Frank, Ed and I watched Jeopardy! every weeknight. We were mesmerized by the theme music, the categories in bold white letters, and Alex Trebek, smartly dressed in a dark suit, greeting us in his soothing voice. Sometimes I wondered if my Dad still watched Jeopardy! too. If he ever looked over to the couch, where I used to sit when we watched together, and regretted his violent outbursts.

One night, while sitting in our usual spot, I realized that if strangers drove by Frank’s home, they would see three heads – small, big, small – and assume it was a family sitting down together after dinner. I didn’t know the details of Ed’s case, and didn’t want to pry, but felt I could serve as a character witness, if needed, and talk about his gentle nature and knowledge of languages, science, history, philosophy. What if they had it all wrong? What if he truly loved those children?

Some of the color had returned to Frank’s face. I didn’t want to be the spouse left behind after a long marriage. I’d want to be the one who died first. Whether or not it was genuine, I felt proud of Frank for smiling again. And for getting up each morning, looking at his wife’s vanity, and still deciding to change into neatly pressed slacks and comb pomade through his thin, grey hair.

Later that night, Jimmy came home and handed me two un-cashed paychecks, the first time in over a year. Both of his jobs paid minimum wage, so it wasn’t much, but it was more than we’d had in a long time. I held the checks in my hand, tracing over the amounts with my finger. We could make rent and a small payment toward our drug debts.

“I’ll sign my checks over to you every two weeks, geisha,” he said.

He reminded me of why I ran off with him in the first place. Jimmy promised to take care of me, of us, and I knew he’d come through. I mentioned an opening for a weekend janitor at the dental office where I worked.

“I’ll take it,” he said.