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.”

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.