Make Your Own Rules: On Long-Distance Dating During a Pandemic

After a few months of dating, my boyfriend relocated to North Carolina to be closer to his mother and stepfather, and to leave behind San Francisco—Frisco—his birthplace and where he has spent most of his life in its schoolyards, bookstores, on its streets, on muni and BART. The move had been a year in the making. As a longtime poet and housing activist, he, along with many locals, witnessed his beloved city turn into a tech playground, a place he no longer recognized, a place he could no longer call home. It’d been clear from the beginning that this move would not be temporary, did not serve as a break from the city, but a permanent relocation across the country, never to return except for occasional visits.

The anticipation of his departure two weeks before his scheduled train ride across country proved to be harder than I thought. In fact, the anticipation of his departure was harder than the departure itself. Counting down the days … 9, 8, 7. Not really knowing how things would play out. Whether or not he’d like it out there. Whether or not we’d stay in touch.

For the past year or more, I’d experienced a similar feeling—anticipatory grief. A term I learned from Meghan O’Rourke’s memoir The Long Goodbye about her dying mother. My beloved dog and best friend Isso whom I adopted at eight weeks old had turned sixteen, and although he didn’t have significant health problems, or any health problems, really, I knew the chances of him making it another year would be slight, especially since he’d already blew past the expected life span of a 70 pound dog. I tried to prepare myself for what his decline in health might look like, but it only gave me anxiety. I tried to imagine him no longer around, but I couldn’t. It turned out that all the anticipatory grief I’d experienced didn’t help; that time would’ve been better spent being with my dog in the moment. I embraced each health challenge as I met it. I had to put him down exactly two weeks ago as I write this, just ten days before his 17th birthday.

As soon as my boyfriend got on board the train, the text messages and pictures and audio clips and video clips started to fill my inbox. I’d been wondering about how much we would keep in touch once he arrived in North Carolina, never really imagining that I’d be along for the train ride to his new home. Our communication got stronger with the distance. After a few months, I went out to visit for the first time. The weather in western North Carolina was in the process of turning to fall. He introduced me to his mother and stepfather, his uncle, and a few new friends he’d made. A few months after that trip, he came to visit me in Oakland and we attended a literary festival and took a trip to the ocean, something he missed being in a landlocked place. I got to meet both sets of grandparents at their grave sites, which he cleaned with much respect as he told me about his memories with them. I returned to North Carolina in winter for the holidays. And then again in March to throw a reception for him as the newly named Carl Sandburg Writer-In-Residence.

During the reception, he disappeared for a while. When he came back, I could tell something had happened. We said goodbye to our lovely guests, and on the car ride back to his place, he said his residency got cancelled due to Covid. No reschedule date. No further instructions. Just cancelled.

Just two weeks prior, I had attended a 400+ person gala at the Fairmont Hotel in San Francisco for one of my clients. It seemed impossible that so much could change in just a few short weeks. That Covid could affect our lives in this way.

When we said goodbye at the Asheville airport in March, I knew that it’d be a long time before we could meet again. No one knew what we were in for. I’d be flying back to the Bay Area on the first day of the shelter-in-place mandate. To make certain we’d meet again, I left behind a rosary my mom gave me, one that I carried in my purse always (if I changed purses, I moved the rosary to the new purse). Wrapped safely in a small leather pouch I’d purchased long ago in Venice. It now sits in his living room near his TV.

For the past seven months, we have kept in contact through Facebook Messenger, SMS texts, video calls, audio clips, email, cards. We send each other small things in the mail. Together we attend readings and workshops on Zoom. We have date nights with sushi and wine. We’ve argued, made up again. Sent each other ridiculous pictures of ourselves with graphics from our phones like two teenagers. In the time since Covid began, we would’ve met two or three times, but events got cancelled and flying became a scary, and even foolish, thing to do.

I’ve been reading up about how other people are managing with a long-distance relationship. Lots of tips about how to keep it fresh, alive. And when I read these tips, some resonate with me and others do not. I’m finding that two people must figure out what works best for them. For example, many sites recommend having at least one meal together every day. I don’t like eating when I’m on video. When I’m eating, I want to focus on my food. When I’m on the video call, I don’t want to be chewing. Other tips say to watch a film together. That’s something we would do together in person, so it makes sense to transfer that to the virtual world. But that hasn’t really worked for us. What works better is reading the same book (not necessarily at the same time) and discussing it. What seems to work for us is spontaneity, not previously scheduled video calls. I get video calls in the morning when I look like hell, and then video calls when he’s on his daily walk through the streets of Hendersonville trying to get home before the next rain, and when he’s picking up a sugar-free dessert at the local bakery on Main Street that we both love and turns the camera around so I can say hi to the staff. Some days like on a Sunday, we might communicate very little or not at all. Even we need a break. For me, this lack of schedule has kept our communication alive. I never know when we’re going to see each other virtually, but I always know it’ll be soon.

Lately, we’ve been breaking down all the different scenarios on airline travel. If we should do it, how we should do it, who should travel, what precautions we’d need to take regarding quarantine once the person who travelled arrives. I’m dizzy from reading articles on the topic, where some experts say the risk level of getting Covid from a plane is low, and other experts say they wouldn’t dare get on one. Every time I read one article that makes me think it’s okay to travel, I read something else that cancels that one out. For now, we don’t have a plan, and maybe not having a plan will end up being the plan. Neither one of us is comfortable flying right now. Winter is coming, the flu season is coming, so travel during those peak months will definitely be out of the question for us both. The desire to see each other is there, and hopefully that’s enough to carry us through this pandemic.

Ghost Candy

This morning, as I sat down at the oversized island in my sister’s kitchen, eating a bowl of fried rice my brother-in-law made, picking out the bits of sausage in the dish—the only dish I’m willing to do that for as a pescatarian, I noticed a handful of Werther’s Originals in a bowl in front of me. Enough to catch my attention. Enough to distract me from my breakfast. The shiny golden foil wrapper resembling the color of 18 karat gold covered in yellow-tinted cellophane. The candy’s unique oval shape. Its recess in the middle where the groove of the tongue fits nicely. The other side smooth as a mirror glaze on a cake on the Great British Baking Show.

I used to carry Werther’s in my purse all the time but stopped a few years ago after I read the obituary of my ex-husband’s girlfriend of two years (may she rest in peace). My ex-husband and I had dated for three years before getting married. The marriage lasted less than two years, the same amount of time it took us to finalize our divorce in 2015. Not because it was contentious, but because neither one of us knew how to deal with the matter at hand. The paperwork from the agency handling the divorce would arrive and sit at our respective places unsigned, unreturned. At one point they checked in with us to see if we still intended to dissolve the marriage. We’d meet up as friends over dinner, sharing meals and a bottle of wine, looking like a couple to anyone who would’ve been watching. Our friendship confused my sister and my family. If you’re still friends, why not stay married? They would’ve done anything for me to stay married. Anything to avoid bringing the disgrace of divorce into our divorce-free Filipino family.

She had passed suddenly. They’d just moved in together after dating for a few years. She was his first serious relationship since we finished. I had yet to have a relationship as serious as his, so I felt behind, as if it were a competition. She came from a famous, wealthy family so unfortunately the gossip columns took hold of the story. My humble, gentle, innocent ex-husband suddenly on the pages of tabloid magazines. Nothing could be more disturbing to me.   

I knew nothing about her. Knew nothing of her personality, interests, likes or dislikes. But when I read about how she was known to carry Werther’s in her purse to distribute randomly to friends, I felt like I knew her. Because it’s something I do, too. Well, something I did. I’d buy a pack of the Werther’s hard candy (not the chewy caramel ones, yuck), a pack of Butter Rum Lifesavers, and would often have a Heath Bar tucked away somewhere as well. My boyfriend says I like old people candy. He does, too. In fact, when we first started dating, he pegged me as a Butter Rum Lifesaver person. Without saying a word, I got up, grabbed my purse in the other room, and presented him with an opened roll of that exact flavor. Once, I offered my niece, a teenager, a Butter Rum Lifesaver. She looked at me and said, “Who buys that??”

My love for old-fashioned flavors must’ve begun in childhood when my maternal grandfather, who’d emigrated from the Philippines with my grandmother to live with us in San Jose, would pull them out of his pocket like a magician and inconspicuously place them in our hands like we held some great secret. He’d cycle to Alpha Beta, the local grocery store, and buy the Brach’s butterscotch candies in bulk. Back home, he’d wrap them in a plastic bag, and then place that bag in another plastic bag, wrap a dozen rubber bands around it, and store it in a dresser drawer. To get at the candies became a small project that took several minutes of undoing and unwrapping and unwrapping again.

Right after my ex-husband and I got married, his mother (may she rest in peace) passed down several items to me from my ex-husband’s paternal grandmother, who had raised him. The items included fur and mink, which I had to respectfully decline given my love for animals. One of the items, to my surprise, was a vintage Heath Bar box that contained jewelry. His grandmother loved Heath Bars too? At the time, I took it as a sign that we were meant to spend our lives together. Without having known his late grandmother, I knew a lot about her through her candy choice.

Just like his late ex-girlfriend who I knew nothing, yet everything, about. People like us who are drawn to old-fashioned candy are nostalgic, (overly) sensitive, domestic, deeply loyal, honest, giving of everything we have, appreciative of small things, aware of the subtle changes in moods and emotions in people when others are not. We can be reflective, interior, grounded, yearning for simplicity, and seekers of silence and solitude. Werther’s and Butter Rum and Heath Bar aren’t just candy, a way to satisfy a sweet tooth; they’re a way of life.

The fact that my ex-husband’s late girlfriend used to carry them in her purse like me shook me enough to stop buying Werther’s. In my mind, the candy has been redefined and in some ways is no longer mine. For now, the ghost of the candies rest in my purse, knowing that they’ll always belong.

Awareness

A kidnapping isn’t really the ideal subject for me to be writing about right now as I grieve the recent loss of my dog Isso, who has been my best friend for the past 17 years. But as I took a walk alone in my sister’s neighborhood this afternoon, part of my grief ritual, something about the scent of fresh tar that had been laid down in large square spots on the streets by maintenance workers reminded me of home—of East Side San Jose, the Evergreen area where I grew up. It reminded me of walking home after school from Quimby Oak Junior High, sometimes alone, sometimes with friends. Passing the homes of friends and acquaintances along the way, like the Perales home where I spent many nights with my close friend Carmen and her family, the Sato house—a family of mixed race (Filipino/Japanese?) and a boy my age, Jeff, who would never look me or anyone in the eyes, Jimmy’s house—a Filipino guy who frequently could be seen in his driveway cleaning the louvers on his Trans Am and driving his mother around in it, Harry’s house, my Black friend who lived with his older brother Terry and their kind, gentle father (no one knew where his mother was or why she wasn’t in the picture). More Filipinos like us closer to our home, on the same side of the street, across the street, around the corner, up the road. Filipinos everywhere.

Fresh tar, so thick and dark. The darkest black you could ever see. The temptation to step on it, to stick your toe in it to see if it had dried yet, was always there. Before you could even see the tar, you could smell it. Like burnt tires, but deeper, smokier. Much thicker. It brought with it a feeling of renewal, of newness, a reminder that someone (the city?) kept watch over us, and just when we got used to the faded, sometimes crumbling old tar that made up our streets, they’d lift our spirits with a new fresh coat. That new fresh coat could shock with its contrast to the worn color of the washed-out street we’d all grown accustomed to. It reminded me that we could get used to something less than, something mediocre, and forget that improvements were possible.

During this time, a girl at my school named Jeana Rodriguez got kidnapped. I didn’t know her. She was a year younger than me—a sixth grader—the grade that seems to be forgotten in a junior high school. (Why anyone would choose to go to sixth grade at a junior high school and be invisible instead of going to an elementary school and be top of the class I never understood.) Sixth graders wouldn’t be welcome to hang out with the seventh and eighth graders at break and lunch. They wouldn’t be seen hanging out on the oversized cement steps watching people in the courtyard below. They wouldn’t be moving their heads and snapping their fingers to “Start Me Up” by the Stones at lunchtime, a makeshift DJ station taking up space in the defunct locker area behind a chain link fence—an idea a student came up with and somehow got approval for. I wouldn’t know Jeana if she walked right in front of me.

The flyers featured a big black and white school photo of Jeana with the words “MISSING.” It described where she was last seen (walking home just blocks from the school), what she wore, and offered an award for any information on her whereabouts. Flyers covered the school (classroom doors, bathrooms, girls locker room, administration office, on the ground and stepped on as students shuffled to class), the neighborhood street lamps, the community bulletin board at Alpha Beta and other stores in the strip mall at the intersection of Quimby and White. Her kidnapping was all over the local news and then the national news. Front page of the San Jose Mercury News. The picture showed a young Latina with long, straight hair, big eyes, a shy smile. I imagined she had a soft voice and could harm no one. A part of me felt bad that I had never known her, had never noticed her.

It didn’t seem possible that a kidnapping could take place in our neighborhood, with its new tract homes at the base of Mount Hamilton. We were the first neighborhood to have cable (which meant we had MTV before our friends did), to have underground electrical lines so you could no longer see the so-called unsightly crisscross of wires, some taut and some sagging, connecting our homes to power and telephone systems. Nothing remarkable ever happened in our neighborhood. Parents went to work, some on the assembly lines in companies located in what would one day become Silicon Valley. Kids went to school, hung out at the new Carl’s Jr. or at 7-11 across the street. Great America on weekends, riding The Tidal Wave and the giant carousel. Middle-class immigrant families keeping it honest and real. All the neighborhood kids on my street, Winwood Way, playing together until sundown.

Jeana’s kidnapping would be my first awareness of the serious dangers that existed outside the home. (Inside my own home, I felt the danger of an impatient, violent father.) The strangers lurking, waiting and ready to take you when you least expected it. Like my parents who experienced the brutality and suffering of hunger and war as children during WWII Philippines, the children today who run safety drills in school to prepare for active shooters, whose lives have been disrupted by a global pandemic and who bear witness to nationwide and global protests against police brutality, kids in California and the West Coast wearing masks to avoid COVID-19 and unhealthy air levels as smoke from hundreds of active wildfires burn out of control due to climate change. The same year of Jeana’s kidnapping, 1981, we’d had some alarm when the Mediterranean fruit fly began to devour crops in California, leading to nightly sprayings of malathion from helicopters flying low and close to our homes (cover your cars and keep pets inside). The pilots so clear in their cockpit I could wave to them from my bedroom window. But this was nothing compared to a girl gone missing.

And yet school continued as normal, as if one of us wasn’t missing, hadn’t been home in months. As a cheerleader, I attended basketball and football games, both at home and away. I sang in the choir. My parents had arranged a Filipina piano teacher to come to our home every Wednesday for piano lessons. Sometimes I remembered, sometimes I forgot. Slam books still circulated and people signed them. I’d had crushes on boys like John and Edwin and James—all Filipino boys, the younger siblings of the boys my older sisters hung out with and had crushes on. In some ways, it felt as if we were safe; the kidnapper certainly wouldn’t be as bold to take another kid while he had Jeana. I stopped noticing the flyers around school and in the community; they’d become background noise, the same picture, the same word “MISSING” in bold across the top of the page. I don’t recall our teachers talking about the kidnapping. Perhaps they were instructed not to bring it up, not to cause panic. But you think they would’ve done the opposite—scared us shitless and told us to walk with friends—never alone—and to stay aware of our surroundings and avoid any suspicious people. So on top of this newfound awareness of the dangers outside the home, I also learned that something as horrible as an abduction could occur without any significant change in our daily school lives.

Five months after she’d been taken, Jeana showed up to the front door of her family home. Rumors went wild on campus. She’d been molested. Her kidnapper was a creepy loner. He’d held her in an underground dungeon. She’d carved her name into a wall in the dungeon so that one day she could prove to police that she had in fact been held captive there. She didn’t return to school that year. Most of us thought she’d never return after what’d happened to her. That she’d switch schools, move far away, maybe out of state. And then she turned up for seventh grade. The innocent girl on the flyers had changed. Jeana had a short pixie cut with long bangs in blue and purple streaks. She wore low-cut tops, tight jeans. Walked around holding her books close to her chest. In many ways she’d tarred over her old image with a new, provocative one. The innocent Jeana no longer visible under this protective façade. She watched people from the corner of her eye, head down, knowing we were all looking at her and wondering what had happened to her. I could feel her silent rebellion, see her I-don’t-care-what-you-think-about-me mannerisms. The shock value of her new look didn’t match her inner fragility. Conscious of fashion at the time, it felt like the equivalent of pairing my favorite pink houndstooth Guess jeans with my bright rainbow sweater. A complete mismatch.

People wanted to know the worst treatment, they wanted to know exactly what had been done to her and how many times it had been done to her. None of us (as far as I know) had been sexually active yet. I didn’t really know how sex worked except on a theoretical level. So for someone to be among us who’d had sexual experience already, even though it wasn’t consensual, made her somewhat of a celebrity. But also broken, tarnished, loose, a whore. Kids didn’t gather around her in a protective circle welcoming her back; instead, they (and I) watched her actions, movements, and behavior, wanting to see the effects that a kidnapping could have on a young girl. How much psychological damage this man had done. She’d been outcasted by the very students in her school who should’ve been protecting her, helping her heal.

When I look back, I’m not proud to have been one of those students who said nothing to her. I didn’t know how to even if I wanted to. My friends, a tight circle of Pinays, had been insular. My whole family insular within the Filipino community. To me, it would’ve been obvious that the only reason I was trying to befriend Jeana was because of what had happened to her, and that made be too embarrassed to even say hello. Perhaps another awareness occurred: my ability to blend in with the masses who chose to stay silent when silence was the last thing Jeana needed.

Media coverage on Jeana Rodriguez’s kidnapping:

https://www.upi.com/Archives/1981/08/06/A-kidnapped-12-year-old-girl-who-suffered-repeated-sexual-attacks/6679365918400/

https://www.upi.com/Archives/1981/09/16/Four-minutes-after-a-12-year-old-girl-had-begun-to/2807369460800/

Letter on Animal Communication

Dear T–,

I would love to tell you all about it. Animal communication has changed the way I move in the world. I didn’t think I could do it, although I had aspirations to be an animal communicator for many years now.

One day in 2018, I just signed up for the beginner’s class with well-known and respected teacher and master animal communicator Marta Williams, thinking, I’ll give this a try, and if I’m no good at it, at least I can say I tried! 

I first heard about animal communicators when Isso was about two years old (back in 2005). I hired one as a birthday gift for him and was amazed by the reading–his insights, thoughts, feelings, wishes–all available to me in writing. There are things the animal communicator picked up on that she could not have known about. For example, I started closing my bedroom door when I left for work because Isso and my housemate’s dog would have what looked like a wrestling match on my bed each day. I’d come home to discover sheets and pillows and the comforter all topsy turvy. Well, during his “talk” with the animal communicator, he said, “I need access to my room. I need to be able to go inside my room.” From then on, I kept the door open and came up with another solution: I covered the bed in a fitted sheet so they could play on it all day without disturbing the bedding below. Without the animal communicator, I wouldn’t have known that access to our bedroom was so important to him. I was hooked! There are many, many more examples over the years when various animal communicators I worked with provided me with information I would’ve never known. 

Learning animal communication is something anyone can do. We all have intuition and it can be cultivated. It’s telepathic communication, the same process psychics use to read people. (In fact I can read people, too, now.) The process to me is very similar to writing–you open up, connect to your inner core and universal knowledge, let yourself express whatever comes to you without judging or filtering. The information can be accessed/conveyed in several ways–through a voice, an image, a feeling, taste, touch, smell. In the very first class, I got really nervous when Marta said we were going to read her cat. I thought, I don’t know how to do this! But on my first try, I was able to connect with the cat based on a picture Marta shared with us and talk with the cat. Marta was able to verify our findings and it turns out my reading was spot on. This gave me confidence so I continued taking more classes a la carte and am considering signing up for her master certification program. All the information is on her website below. Because I have a day job as a freelance grant writer, I don’t really need animal communication to be a source of income for me, but many people who take Marta’s master program do go on to build their own businesses and are quite successful. Right now, I’m doing readings for friends and family pro bono so I can practice and improve. If you want me to read any of your animals, please let me know. 

Marta did ask me if I had any family history of healing, spirituality, psychics, etc. My maternal line is all healers, including my mother. I’ve grown up used to (and comfortable with) living partly in the physical world and partly in the spiritual world. I’ve been seeing mediums, psychics, dousers, healers, chakra cleansers, reiki masters–you name it–all my adult life. As a child, my maternal grandfather did all the healing with Latin prayers and coconut oil right in our home. We only went to the hospital for emergencies. And as a creative person, I’ve always been a daydreamer and have experienced an out-of-body experience at least once. So I’m a good candidate for animal communication. Perhaps even natural at it. 

Anyway, it has opened up a whole new way of being in the world. I get immense satisfaction by talking to animals and helping their person better understand what they need and want, what they enjoy, their hopes and fears. Animals are incredibly wise, generous, loving souls. We almost don’t deserve them 🙂

That’s a lot, and perhaps more information than you need, but I really wanted to express how learning this skill has changed my life. I want to get better and better. And as I mentioned in my previous email, one can learn to read animals in spirit. I took that class and have spoken to a few animals in spirit and will be speaking to my Isso. I had a beautiful reading with him just 30 minutes before he was scheduled to be put down on Tuesday and the advice and gratitude and love he shared is the most wonderful gift I’ve ever received.

Here’s the link to Marta’s website and also a link to an interview I conducted several years back. 
https://www.martawilliams.com/

Much love to you, Beverly

Mini-Interview with Patty Enrado

I first met author Patty Enrado via an online introduction by Tony Robles, and then had the pleasure of meeting her in person at the 5th Filipino American International Book Festival in October.

Recently, Patty posted on social media about an award ceremony she and her family would be attending to accept the bronze replica of the Congressional Gold Medal on behalf and in honor of her father Henry Empleo Enrado, from General Major Eldon P. Regua, U.S. Army (retired).

I wanted to know the back story for this award, and reached out to Patty to learn more. Below is our email exchange. What I learned from her responses is that her father was not only brave, but also humble about his military contributions.

***

Beverly Parayno: What was your father Henry Empleo Enrado honored for? 

Patty Enrado: In 1946, Congress passed the Rescission Acts, which revoked veterans benefits and payments to the Filipino soldiers, and denied them their U.S. citizenship, which had been promised to them in exchange for their service. Public Law 114-265, signed by President Obama in December 2016, recognized the Filipino veterans’ “outstanding wartime achievements and honorable service to the U.S. during WWII.”

My father served in the First Filipino Infantry Regiment as an automatic rifleman. He was a scout in New Guinea and fought in the Battle of Leyte. He was also the recipient of the following citations: WWII Victory Medal, Asiatic Pacific Campaign Medal, American Campaign Medal, and the Good Conduct Medal. I wish we had them, but my sisters and I never knew of their existence and don’t know what happened to them. We only found out about these citations from his honorable discharge paperwork.

Beverly: How did this award come about? Were you/your family involved in the process of making sure your father received recognition? Also, how long was the process?

Patty: I belong to two chapters of FANHS, and one of the chapters forwarded information on the award application. You can access the application from this link: https://www.filvetrep.org/application. We submitted the application in November 2017 to the Filipino Veterans Recognition and Education Project. We received word in May 2019 that our application had been verified. But it was another five months before the Congressional Gold Medal ceremony took place.

My sisters and I took turns pinging our contact to find out the status of the application. Given that there were 260,000 Filipino veterans, and this is a volunteer, community-based national initiative, we remained patient throughout the entire process. I’m not sure how many have been recognized nationally, but in the state of California, some 880+ veterans have been officially recognized. So there’s a long way to go in outreach and getting all 260,000 Filipino veterans recognized.

Beverly: What does this award mean to you/your family?

Patty: It’s a great honor for my two sisters and me and for our children. Our father sacrificed the quality of his life in service of his adopted country. He suffered PTSD, which was not diagnosed at the time, and even our family didn’t realize fully this until after his death when we spoke to his first cousins and they let us know that he was not the man that we all knew before the war. So, his sacrifices were great, but he was very patriotic and proud to be an American citizen. And I know he would be so proud for this achievement.

***

Patty Enrado was born in Los Angeles and raised in Terra Bella, California. She has a bachelor’s degree in English from the University of California at Davis and a master’s degree from Syracuse University’s Creative Writing Program.  She writes about healthcare information technology and lives in the San Francisco Bay Area with her husband and two children.

Divorce Triptych

This essay appeared in Bellingham Review (2019).

I.

Auntie C—, my mom’s eldest sister, lived in a bahay kubo on Tondaligan Beach with her son and his several children. Somehow they’d dissected the small hut into four or five separate rooms: tiny bedrooms with bamboo mats on the hard floors and a front room where Auntie C— sold chewing gum, cigarettes and offered gambling such as blackjack. The house always won. 

When I met her for the only time, on my first visit to Pangasinan, Philippines over twenty years ago, she might as well have had a large “D” imprinted on her smooth, brown forehead. Growing up, that’s one of the few details I knew about her: she’d gotten divorced. Or she lived the life of a woman who’d been divorced if such thing were legal in the Philippines. 

Perhaps that’s why she lived in squalor compared to her younger sisters who owned homes on Gonzalez Street. Homes with proper floors, walls, roofs. Without a man, she lost whatever value she’d had as a person, a family member. A dilapidated hut on a littered beach mirrored what the rest of our family, and the local community, thought of her. 

My grandmother had despised C—. That’s the word she used— ‘despised.’ As an eight-year-old hanging out in my grandparents’ cramped bedroom in San Jose, California, shortly after they emigrated to the US, I couldn’t have known the meaning of the word, but from the tone she used whenever she said it, I knew Auntie C— was no good. The mention of her name made the corners of my grandmother’s mouth turn downward as her eyes grew wet behind her oversized glasses. 

Once, as a young girl, my mom overheard me say ‘divorce,’ and immediately seized upon me to say that that word, THAT word, under any circumstances should never be repeated. A rare viciousness in her eyes and voice made me take her more seriously than I usually had. And so I worked for years to erase it from my brain, to act as if the word didn’t exist in the English language. Not a difficult chore to do when no one else in our family or community ever went through one. To erase the word is to eradicate the possibility of any serious marital problems between two Filipinos. 

When I felt bold one day, I asked my grandmother why Auntie C— had gotten a divorce. “Her husband was a drunkard who beat her up.” I waited for an explanation, some expression of sympathy for my Auntie C—, but none came. The story goes that he just walked away one day. An image in my mind of a thin, brown man staggering down a dusty street at dusk with a bottle in his hand. He doesn’t look back. No one ever sees him again. Auntie C— meets another man, with whom she has several more children. So in addition to being a ‘divorced’ woman, she’s also a cheater and a whore. 

For three days in a row during my visit to my mom’s hometown, Auntie C— turned up at the front gate of the family home where I’d been staying, her hands outstretched, asking if my missing balikbayanboxed had turned up yet. “Come back tomorrow, Auntie,” I’d say. 

By the time she passed away, years later, I felt some relief. For her. The whispers would finally end. People could focus on something else besides how she ruined her life by telling her abusive husband to go. Now that she’s gone, I overhear my mom and her sisters talk about how her son continues to have children, so many children he can’t afford to support, so many children they’re spilling out of the makeshift windows of the bahay kubo. It must be his mother’s fault, I hear myself think. 

II.

Cousin A— and I share the same age. When my maternal grandparents left the province to emigrate to the US and live with our family when I was eight, A— cried and cried. Letters on see-through onion skin paper arrived on a regular basis. My grandparents would let me read them, but it always felt like a violation: they left her behind to live with us. I stole my grandparents from her. I shouldn’t be reading her most intimate writings about how much she missed them, how she’s taking care of their German Shepherd for them until they return. My grandparents, in their lifetime, would never return. 

Sometimes we wrote to each other. But these letters felt forced. They weren’t actually letters to each other; instead, they served as letters for our grandparents, especially my grandma to see. Pieces of paper with ‘Via Air Mail’ written across the envelopes to prove that my cousin A— and I had formed a new friendship despite being thousands of miles apart. 

When I thought of A—, I thought of a small girl like me, sitting on a fence in the barrio. Surrounded by carabao and trees filled with coconuts and mangoes. Expansive fish ponds in the background, one of several of our family businesses. 

Eventually the letters stopped coming. Years later, my grandparents would eventually get stolen away from my family by my auntie in San Diego. I understood the deep loss A— must’ve felt. 

And then complete silence. Did A get married? Did she have children? It’s as if she’d never existed. No updates reached me. Not that I sought any updates. I’d run away from home as a teenager. By the time I returned at age twenty-one, I focused on school and work—nearly killed myself with trying to get ahead, to make up for missed time. To catch up with everyone who’d somehow done life right. 

From years of no news about A— came big news. Really big news. She’d met someone in Saudi Arabia, or whatever country in the Middle East she’d left the Philippines for to work in as a domestic helper. Or a nurse? Either guess leaves a fifty/fifty chance of being correct. I don’t have any details about her affair, but can fill them in for myself: she left the province in search of better opportunities, to send remittances to her family, to put her children through school, to help pay for the education of poor cousins and neighbors who wanted to study, to help her adoptive (within the same family) mom with daily expenses and household needs. I wasn’t there and no one told me so, but I know they regarded her as a hero on the day she left. She and her husband cried, laughed, promised to write, and call although not always possible due to the expense. She’d taken her paycheck and sent as much as she could back home. Perhaps after several years of saving up, she could afford to go home. And her employer let her. And when she got there, the one place she really wanted to be, everything had changed. Her children had grown, she had to get reacquainted with her husband—mentally, emotionally and physically, she was expected to share her experiences living in the Middle East but could find no real words to explain what it’s like to have one life but live another. 

Back in Saudi Arabia, it started out as a prolonged look. She looked away. He didn’t. And wouldn’t. No one understands how lonely it can be. No one knows how alone you can feel. When she started the affair, she knew it’d never get back to her family. How could it? She edited her life like a well-crafted essay, only showing them what she wanted them to see. 

The remittances continued while the letters and phone calls became less frequent. I’m busy. I’m tired. As long as she kept up her end of the deal—to send money so everyone else can have a good life—why couldn’t she have a good life as well? 

(Sometimes I wonder if the innocent girl from the barrio who longed for her grandparents could’ve ever imagine she’d grow up to have a lover in Saudi Arabia.) 

Somewhere, as I write this, she’s in the arms of another man. People act shocked. And stunned that she won’t be coming back. I imagine her husband back in the Philippines in a house she bought. Her children educated thanks to her ability to pay their tuition. Our family and her neighbors labelling her husband a cuckold. 

Somewhere, as I write this, she’s walking to a Western Union, or opening her Venmo app, to send her hard-earned money back home. As their bank account fattens, she turns to her lover who she can never marry for more reasons than one and says Kiss Me. 

III.

The psychic, a Filipina who we’d never seen before, sat on the living couch with my mom, whispering predictions as my mom nodded. My sisters and I lay on our stomachs, looking down from the second floor, through the railings, as they spoke. When the medium left, my mom came upstairs. She gathered the three of us in front of my bedroom door and delivered this news: “She said one of your daughters is going to get a divorce.” It’s going to be me. At twelve years old, I don’t know how I knew this, but I did. I had no doubt that this would happen, and that this most taboo of acts would fall on me. 

Thirty years later, when I delivered the news to my oldest sister over the phone that my husband and I were having problems after just over a year of marriage, she said, “Marriage is forever. You have to make it work NO MATTER WHAT.” Her fist pounded the oversized granite counter in her giant kitchen. To my surprise, my parents showed sympathy and understanding. When my dad said I shouldn’t stay in a marriage if we weren’t happy, I let my sister know that dad’s opinion trumped hers. And that was that. 

“Don’t tell Auntie you’re divorced,” said my dad, whispering in a corner at a party at my brother’s house. The news was fresh, the idea of having a divorced daughter hadn’t settled in yet. I kept the news to myself. Separately, my mom approached me at the same party, but in a different corner, and delivered the same message. I know I know I know. 

Now, it’s been five years since my separation, three years since my divorce. In January, I’ll be travelling to the Philippines with my parents to see relatives and take care of family business. Without having discussed it with my parents, I know when relatives ask why my asawadidn’t come, I’m going to pinch myself hard and say, “He’s working Auntie.”

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.”