This story appeared in Huizache, Fall 2012.
We drove down Gavilan Drive, past the corner house with roosters strutting in the front, picking at jagged crab grass with their sharp beaks behind the steel fence. I sat in the back, trying not to meet Dad’s eyes in the rearview mirror, although his glasses were so dark I couldn’t see them. Mom was in the passenger seat next to Dad, with her big hair. Grandma was in the back with me. Grandpa rode his bike to church, just like he used to in the barrio. Every time my parents used that word ‘barrio,’ I thought of a bunch of donkeys behind a wooden fence.
The hills were bare and straw-colored, with small patches of green where a standalone tree struggled to survive the heat and drought. The tall, rusted gates of the farm across the street on Quimby Road were wide open; I could see the blonde girls leading their horses around the property. It was odd having a farm in the middle of our housing tract, but maybe it was stranger that their farm, which was there long before us, was now surrounded by one-story homes with two-car garages, a driveway and lawn.
As usual, we arrived late for the noon mass at Most Holy Trinity. We sat in the back, near the end of the long red carpet that led up to the altar, where Jesus hung on the cross high above, his head leaning to one side, his loin cloth wrapped low and loose around his hips. I often wondered what was underneath it.
For the next hour, we stood, kneeled, sat down, sang along with the band, shook hands with people in front of and behind us, and, in my case, pressed my forehead to the back of my parents’ and grandparents’ hands to show respect. The priest mumbled on. When it came time for the breaking of the bread, I sat back in the pew while everyone else got in line to receive theirs. Grandma said it was a sin to take bread without first communion. She kept reminding Mom to schedule mine.
The choir sang Aaaaah-men, Aaaaah-men, Allelujah while a boy in the band hit the tambourine hard against his hand. I checked my purse to make sure the chain letter was secure. When Dad had seen me copying it over and over, he told me to stop.
“But I’m going to die if I don’t send it to twenty five people in three days,” I said.
When mass ended, I approached the altar and waited in line to see the priest. I’d never spoken to him directly and had never gone into one of those closet-booths for confession. He was more like a celebrity than a priest. There was a long line behind me of people who also wanted to speak with him. Up close, the cuff of his jeans showed under his long white robe. When it was my turn to see him, I handed him the letter, which he read with a serious look, shaking his head, staring up at the rafters of the cathedral ceiling. And then, without a word, he ripped the letter in half, turned it sideways to tear it again, and patted me twice on the head.
“Go in peace, anak ko. Say your prayers.”
“Salamat po, Father,” I said, offering him one of the few phrases I knew in our language.
Out in the parking lot, my parents socialized with their friends under the piercing sun. Dad told them about the chain letter and everyone looked down at me to laugh. I didn’t care; I was more concerned about the bees swarming in the rose bushes nearby. One landed on Mom’s red handbag so I swatted it away with the church newsletter. In the distance, I saw Grandpa wrap a rubber band around his pant leg and climb on to his red bike. Grandma smiled a big smile with her over-sized glasses but didn’t speak. She never said a word in public but could not stop talking once we got home. Mom and Dad invited their friends over for snacks at our house, so the two couples followed us caravan-style along Tully Road. At one point, we lost them, so Dad pulled over with his hazard lights on until they were behind us again.
The guests sat in our living room, a place we seldom spent any time unless we had company. Mom served ice water on a bamboo tray that had a colored illustration of the Philippine Islands, and Dad pulled her aside in the kitchen to tell her she should’ve made iced tea instead. So Mom went back in to collect the glasses so she could pour a tablespoon of instant mix into each of them. Grandma warmed up her homemade empanadas in the oven, and Dad made a comment to no one in particular about how we shouldn’t bake on such a warm day.
Mom brought out Avon books for the women to look through. They skipped around the pages, from perfumes to lipsticks to jewelry, before using their brochures as a fan.
“Make sure you order from me,” Mom laughed, covering her mouth with her hand. “I’ll give you discount.”
“A discount,” said Dad, disgusted. He was always correcting her English.
The women looked at each other. Uncle Rudy, who wasn’t an actual uncle even though I had to address him that way, sat at the piano bench pressing one key at a time. He started playing Chopsticks. Uncle Rudy worked as a chef at Round Table Pizza on Story Road. Once, we ate there after church and he showed me how he spins the dough high in the air before catching it with his closed fists.
“How much did you pay for this house?” he asked.
I was used to these questions by now. Filipinos always asked the price of things, how much salary you made.
“Not too much,” said Mom. “We have a rental near Tully Road, too.”
“Oh, you have another house?” asked his wife, Auntie Elvie. “They have another house,” she repeated, as she elbowed her husband in the ribs.
“How much are the renters paying?” asked Uncle Rudy.
“Oh, not too much,” said Mom.
“They’re good people.” said Dad. “Filipinos.”
He said this even though the renters had abandoned the house last week without paying two months’ worth of rent. We stopped by after church to see how they were doing, and to find out whether or not the man had found a job yet, only to discover an empty house with nothing but a few wire hangers in the vacant bedroom closet, swinging.
“Lourdes, why don’t you play something on the piano?” asked Dad.
Uncle Rudy moved off the piano bench and offered it to me.
“I don’t want to,” I said, sinking next to Grandma on the too-soft couch.
“We have company.”
“I haven’t practiced.”
“Your aunties and uncles are waiting.”
“I’ll be right back.”
I hid in the bathroom for a few minutes while the adults talked. I didn’t understand why I had to play the piano every time we had guests. If I stayed in the bathroom long enough, I hoped Dad would forget about having asked me to play. When I came out, Dad caught me in the kitchen eating an empanada, grabbed my arm and squeezed it hard.
“Don’t embarrass me, godammit,” he whispered. His voice was low and gravelly.
When he let go of my arm, I felt the blood rush back in. I followed him into the living room, where Mom had set up a portable fan that pointed directly at the guests. The women’s hair and pages from their Avon books whipped around in the strong breeze. Their drinks had turned to a dreary brown from the melted ice. I sat down at the piano, the one my parents had purchased when Dad was stationed at a naval base in Japan, and pulled out my song book. My heart was beating, my arm throbbed. When I began the piece, my eyes started to water and continued to build until I could no longer see the notes. With every wrong note I played, more tears came rolling down my face and onto my neck.
“Okay, that’s enough,” said Mom. “Go to your room now, Lourdes.”
The guests let out an abbreviated applause. In my room, I hid in the corner of my closet and slid the door closed. It was so dark I couldn’t see my hands. I wondered what would happen if I asked God to let Dad die in a car crash. I repeated the prayer a few times: “Please God let Dad die in a car accident,” but then I stopped myself because if it really happened, that would make me a sinner. I didn’t want to go to Hell.
The following day, Amelia came over to play after school, before Dad came home from work. He worked the day shift at the children’s shelter and Mom worked swing shift as a key punch operator, so they were never home at the same time, except late in the evening.
“Hi, Amelia Bedelia,” I said.
“Stop calling me that.”
Even though I hardly acknowledged her presence in class, I played with Amelia in private because she lived close by. She was easy to play with, she would do anything I wanted her to do—cut the hair off my Barbies, play tether ball in the backyard, where I would always win, make mud pies that baked in the hot sun, swing on the swing set. If I said, “I’m going to burn down a house!” her response would’ve been “Me too!”
Her last chance at finding friends at school was extinguished in a moment when the school nurse came into our class one day with white gloves and a small box filled with tongue depressors. She started in the front row, inspecting every student’s head, tossing their hair around with wooden sticks. Our teacher had informed us that someone in the sixth grade had lice, so all of us had to be checked. When the class found out it was Amelia, a rumor began to spread that she had cooties, and if anyone touched her they would get them, too. So became a silent agreement between us: she didn’t talk to me at school, and I would play with her when we got home.
We set up the Monopoly board for a new game, with me as banker who controlled all the money. I picked to be the shoe, which I’d always picked, regardless of whether or not Amelia asked to be that piece. Knowing she couldn’t have it, Amelia considered every other piece—the hat, wheelbarrow, car, deliberating over each one until I got so impatient I threatened to cancel the game altogether. Finally, we played in silence, following all the rules, counting our money every few minutes, collecting two hundred dollars every time we passed GO. She became flustered each time I bought a home on one of my properties, knowing the mortgage would soon bankrupt her, again.
“Do you know how to kiss?” I asked.
“No.” She rolled the dice.
“I learned how on the mole hill.”
“You’re going to get in trouble if the teacher sees you.”
“I’m not afraid of teachers. Tina Thompson said that all teachers really wanted to be something else but they weren’t smart enough,” I said. “Follow me.”
I pulled Amelia into the bathroom and locked the door. We stared in the mirror while I pumped my lips up and down. Then I tilted my head to the side and glided my hands up and down the back of an imaginary boy.
“Try it,” I said.
“C’mon, Amelia. Do it.”
“I don’t wanna do it.”
“You better or I’ll find someone else to play with.”
Amelia wrapped her arms around the air, closed her eyes and opened her mouth.
“Now pretend it’s someone you have a crush on,” I said.
“But I don’t have a crush on anyone.”
“You must have a crush on someone.”
“Boys don’t like me.”
“Mark Hopper likes you.”
“His nose is always running.”
“Don’t be so picky, cooty girl.”
“Don’t call me that, Lourdes. I’ll tell my mom.”
“Your mom is always camping with your stepdad. How come they never take you and Crissy?’
“They leave us TV dinners. Like Salisbury steak with mashed potatoes.”
“My Dad cooks all our meals.”
“We hear him yelling from our house sometimes.”
“That’s not him.”
“My mom said it was.”
“Your mom is never home, stupid,” I said. “Mind your own business.”
When Dad came home from work, I heard him empty his thermos in the sink, followed by the schlup of a beer can opening. He was a chef at the children’s shelter, which meant he cooked all day and then came home to make us dinner. I’d heard stories at the dinner table about how he served as a mentor to the kids, even helping pregnant teenagers. Once, when Mom and I visited him there, the kids crowded around him, tugged at his pants and shirt. “Come on Mr. Bernal, can I pleeeease have another soda?” It never occurred to me to ask twice for something I had been denied. The thought of those kids doing it made me nervous; I watched for Dad’s reaction, checking for the vein in his neck, the twitch in his cheek.
When he passed by my room, I put my head down and began writing furiously in my notebook. Mom wouldn’t be home until midnight. I had to keep quiet and look busy. Dad changed into shorts and a tank top before he set up a thawed chicken on a cutting board in the kitchen and hacked it up into pieces with a big knife. Before working at the children’s shelter, he’d been a chef in the Navy for over twenty years, and some of his dishes, like Shit-on-a-Shingle made it to our table. (Saying the name of this recipe was the only time I was allowed to swear in front of him in English.) He chopped green peppers and onions, which he browned on a skillet before stirring them into the tomato broth. I smelled the meat from my room, and heard the “click” of the rice cooker to indicate it was done.
I still had to solve ten math problems before dinner, but was nowhere near finishing. Dad came into my room to check on me in between stirring the machado and listening to a speech by President Carter on TV. I sat at my desk, the one made of a soft wood I could carve into with my pencil. There was a red lamp in the corner with a big white lampshade and a green frog pencil holder, one of my favorite possessions. I could arrange and rearrange the bouquet of plastic flowers on my desk, twisting and bending their wire stems so that some flowers were taller than others, some stuck out to the side while others stood straight in the middle. My math book was wide open.
“You embarrassed me yesterday in front of our guests,” he said, holding a large wooden spoon soaked in tomato broth. “Why do we even pay for goddamn lessons?”
I shrugged my shoulders.
“What problem are you on?” he asked.
“8 – q = 3/5,” he read aloud, over my shoulder. “8 – q = 3/5,” he repeated, as if saying so would produce the answer.
He stared at the problem for a while, and then asked to read the instructions at the beginning of the chapter. Dad had no patience for home work. Grandma once shared with me late at night that Dad had dropped out of high school in the Philippines so he could work as a tricycle driver to help support the family and send his younger sister to nursing school.
“8 – q = 3/5,” he repeated.
He checked the back of the book for the answer, and then proceeded to flip between the problem and answer, problem answer, problem answer. He wrote down a few numbers that were illegible, and then erased them so hard the paper began to tear. The stew simmered over in the pot, sizzling against the hot stove.
“Dinner’s burning,” I said.
With one full sweep of his arm, Dad knocked everything off my desk—my papers, books, frog and flowers. When the lamp hit the ground, the whole room went dark. I tucked my head into my arms and folded over. He landed a punch in the middle of my back, an explosion of pain moved up my spine. I sucked in air and tried not to cry.
“Stop it!” I begged.
“Pay attention in class, Lourdes,” he said, as he walked out of the room.
I sat in my chair for a long while after he left. It never felt right to move afterward. It felt like I was supposed to stay frozen for as long as possible or he would come back around and do it all over again.
The following day, Mom called the principal’s office to let him know I had a cold. She lifted my shirt to inspect the bruising.
“Say your prayers, Lourdes, anak ko, my only child.”
After Mom left for work in the afternoon, I closed my bedroom door, drew my curtains, and switched my lamp to the night light setting, turning my whole room dark red. I thought of I Dream of Jeannie, and how I wanted to transport myself to Jeannie’s bottle, with its pink and purple cushions, deep inside a tiny bottle.
I started to get that weird feeling I sometimes got. I didn’t know what it was, or if everyone felt it. I lay down on my stomach, placed my hands between my legs and pushed my palms into my groin. The harder I pressed, the better it felt. I buried my face into the pillow; my feet pointed straight out, like a ballerina’s, my shoulders pushed into the mattress. I moved my hips in a circular motion, in the same way I used to when I did the hula hoop. My hands grew soft and warm. I pushed harder and faster until I could feel friction between me and the bed. After a few minutes, my body tightened and then relaxed. I turned over on my back, out of breath, with my arms and legs wide apart. I lifted the pillow and began to punch it as quietly as I could, counting to ten and starting over again.
When Grandpa knocked on my bedroom door, I was still out of breath. He instructed me to go to his room and lie down while he heated coconut oil in the kitchen. After a while, he came in with a small brown vial, which had once been a vanilla extract container, and lifted the back of my shirt.
“Anak na lasee,” he said. “Your father is the child of lightning.”
He dabbed warm coconut oil on his index finger, made the sign of the cross on my bruise, and began to pray in a language I didn’t understand. In between each prayer, he blew on my back while making the sign of the cross with his hand. The combination of oil and air made me tingle.
When Grandpa finished, he gave me a piece of candy that seemed to magically appear from the palm of his hand. This was the only way he could help me. They were recent immigrants, knew no one in the States except us, and had little savings. They collected SSI, cooked and cleaned, and stayed out of Dad’s way.
Amelia came over after school to check on me and deliver my homework packet. She said, “You don’t look sick.” We locked ourselves in the bathroom, a mixture of steam and vinegar left behind from Grandma’s bath, and ripped the clothes off three Barbies and a Ken doll. We filled the sink with bubbles, and had them dive off the rim, splashing around, talking about suntans and surfboards.
It hadn’t been long before Amelia and I took our clothes off, too. I reminded her that if she wanted to play with me, she had to do everything I said. I pulled my denim overall dress up over my head while Amelia removed her Charlie’s Angels t-shirt and shorts. Our clothes scattered about on the floor, the dolls floated face down in the sink. We sat on the linoleum, cool and sticky. My back rubbed up against the red felt wallpaper. I tried to hide my bruise from her.
Her body was so white. Next to Amelia, my skin looked dirty. I traced the pattern of the wallpaper with my finger, feeling the scratchy soft velour. “Lie down,” I said.
Amelia had porcelain skin, a small sharp nose, and eyes that were a bit too close together. She wasn’t pretty. I could tell that she was sad, too. Her eyelashes fluttered like a moth trapped near the porch light. I pressed my lips on to her mouth. Her pink lips were soft and warm. I climbed on top of her and we kissed. She struggled at first, and then began to relax. Would Grandma get suspicious by the silence in the bathroom? I placed my hand on Amelia’s small breast; she closed her eyes and began to sing a song. It wasn’t one I recognized. Something about a cowboy and dusty streets. As she sang, her knees fell apart, slowly. I touched her in the same way I touched myself. We looked at each other without speaking.
Grandma banged on the bathroom door so we jumped back into our clothes.
“La La,” she called out, using a nickname she’d given me. “Do you want some snacks?”
“Don’t you dare tell anyone what we did today, Amelia” I whispered, wagging my finger in her face.
“I promise!” she said, crossing her index finger over her middle finger before running out the front door without looking back.
Several days later, when Amelia’s older sister Crissy came over to tell Dad what had happened, I wanted to drink a gallon of bleach.
“How dare you accuse my daughter,” Dad said to her. “Would you be here if we were white?”
Crissy threatened to tell her mom and stepfather about the incident unless I was punished and said sorry to Amelia.
“Listen, you white folks can’t come over here threatening me in my own house,” said Dad. It was one of the first times I was proud of him for standing up to someone. I liked that Dad was scaring Crissy. I could tell by the way she backed away from the porch.
After she left, Dad rushed into my room, picked me up and threw me against the back wall.
“I’m going to cripple you this time, Lourdes.”
He lunged at me on the floor but Mom held him back, hanging on to his arm like a monkey swinging from a branch while he tried to break free. Grandma and Grandpa clutched each other in the entryway of their bedroom. Dad broke loose from Mom’s grip, picked me up again, threw me on to the bed and pounded me with his fists. Everyone was screaming. I tried to protect my head by withdrawing into the smallest, tiniest ball possible.
“Go ahead and kill me!” I screamed. “Kill me! Kill me!”
I never used to talk back to Dad when he was having one of his outbursts, but when things got really heated, words just came out of my mouth like it was someone else talking. The more I talked back, the harder he hit me. It became like a game after a while. I was both scared of him and not scared of him during these moments.
Afterwards, the house remained quiet. No cooking, vacuuming, dusting, mopping, sweeping. No sign of life. Dad retreated to his room as usual. It would be hours before he ventured out again, his head hanging low, his eyes soft and apologetic.
After a while, there was a bang on the front door, red lights flashing across the living room curtains. A neighbor, probably Snow from Vietnam, had called the police. She and her husband liked to ask me a lot of questions, especially about Dad. I thought the policeman was here to arrest me. I considered climbing out of my window and up into the tree in the backyard, where I could look down on all the houses, the leaves shimmering in the wind. I thought about Cell Block H, and how the women wore thin gowns, slept in small beds low to the ground, and never washed their hair. They ate slop in the cafeteria and tried to kill each other with sharp objects.
The policeman asked, “Is everything okay here?”
“Everything is fine, Sir,” said Dad. “I’m a retired U.S. Navy Officer.”
Although I couldn’t see him, I imagined Dad saluting the policeman.
“What’s all the noise? Your neighbor said it’s been happening a lot lately.”
“Do you mind if I come in for a moment?”
The officer strolled in through the foyer; from my room, I noticed his night stick, big handgun and shiny silver handcuffs. He asked Dad if all family members who were present could come out. Grandma and Grandpa came out of their room, and immediately Dad explained to the officer that they couldn’t speak English, which wasn’t entirely true. Mom crouched behind Dad, and I emerged from my room with swollen eyes.
“How old are you?” the policeman asked.
“Eleven,” I said.
“What grade are you in?”
“Can you tell me what happened here today?”
I shook my head.
He was a large, white man, much taller than my father. His hair, reddish-brown, his arms spotted with light freckles. He looked enormous in our house; I was used to small, dark people shuffling around.
“I don’t want to go to jail,” I said, before starting to cry.
The policeman bent down to my level. His eyes were green and his breath smelled like mints.
“You’re not going to jail, sweetheart. Just tell me what happened.”
“Lourdes, nothing happened, right?” said Dad.
“Sir, am I talking to you?”
For the first time ever, someone stood up to Dad, someone more powerful. I waited for Dad to react, but he stood in silence while the officer spoke to me.
“Lourdes, what happened here today?”
“I’ll never play with Amelia again.”
“And who’s Amelia?”
“My classmate. And neighbor.”
“And what happened with Amelia today?”
“Nothing. I don’t want to go to jail.”
“Sir, what happened with Amelia?”
Dad gave me a tender look. I hadn’t seen that expression in so long, since the day he had dried my hair with a towel and braided it for church. He’d run a comb through the tangles, spraying a detangling mist into the knots; I looked up at him in the mirror, and met his dark eyes, which were warm and glistening.
A muffled voice came through the policeman’s walkie talkie.
“Sir, are you going to tell me what happened or do I need to take you down to the station?”
“Officer, my daughter and her friend Amelia made a big mess of the bathroom. They splashed water everywhere. My wife and I could be laid off from our jobs any day now, and her parents just arrived from the Philippines, which means two extra mouths to feed.”
“We have social security,” said Grandma.
“I thought she didn’t speak English,” said the policeman.
“Those are the only words she knows,” said Dad.
In Pangasinan, Mom told Grandma to be quiet. Even though I couldn’t understand what she was saying, I felt the threat run hard and deep.
“Sir, there are resources for new immigrants. I can put you in touch with a social worker who can help. I’m not going to pretend I know what it’s like to move here from another country.”
“I was a Chief Petty Officer in the U.S Navy for over twenty years, Sir. Have you heard of the USS Sanctuary? We were a hospital ship that gave humanitarian aid to underdeveloped countries all over the world.”
“And do you run your house like a ship?” he asked. “Your daughter isn’t one of your men.”
In a strange way, the officer seemed more upset at Dad than me. He leaned down to my level and asked me more questions.
“Did your Dad here get a bit impatient with you and your friend?”
“A little bit.”
“And are you going to be more careful next time?”
“Sir,” he addressed Dad as he stood up. “I’m not going to have to return anytime soon, right?”
When the policeman left, we all watched through the living room window as he drove away. A small crowd of neighbors had gathered across the street, so Mom drew all the curtains in the house. I wasn’t sure if I was supposed to thank Dad for saving me. He didn’t look like he wanted to talk so I didn’t say a word.
The sun was going down, giving us some relief from the heat. In my bedroom, I gathered everything I loved on to my bed—my Barbies, frog, flowers, Monopoly game—and held them all at once, in a frenzy to play with them all.
© 2018 Beverly Parayno