I started in the kitchen several days before my older sister by two years, Janet, nicknamed Niche, was due to land at JFK for her first and only visit. It was summer of 1988. Vice President George H. W. Bush was running against Governor Michael Dukakis for the presidency. It’d been nearly two years since I last saw Niche when she dropped Jimmy and me off at SFO for our second trip back to Hyde Park, New York after another big fall out with my dad. Niche didn’t like to be too far from home, so I was surprised when she agreed to visit me.
One by one, I cleaned each grimy row of the blinds that covered the window on the front door of our studio apartment in Hyde Park. The thick film of grease combined with dirt created a sludgy mess with each circular motion of my soap-filled sponge. Blind by blind, I scrubbed until the original white color of the blinds began to show through. I needed my life to look presentable to my sister, who would be staying for two weeks. I needed to show her I was doing fine on my own and didn’t need any help from the family. Most of all, to report back to my dad that I’d made it after all, without his help and against his wishes. I’d created a home with Jimmy.
I had to go through the blinds twice to get them thoroughly clean. Then I moved on to the oven and stove. I sprayed a thick layer of white foam in the charred oven walls to help dissolve some of the grease and wiped what seemed like thousands of tiny drops of oil from the surface of the stovetop. What I hadn’t noticed before were the food and oil stains on the wall behind the stove. I tiptoed to scrub them off with a damp sponge. Hours into my cleaning session, I’d only made it halfway through our tiny kitchen. Although our studio apartment was only six hundred square feet, I knew it would take several more days to clean what I could and hide what I couldn’t.
All my cleaning sessions happened at night after I got home from work. When Jimmy saw the trouble I was going through to prepare for my sister’s arrival, he didn’t understand. As far as he was concerned, our place was fine as it was. He’d grown up in a white household. The news of friends or relatives stopping by sent a frenzy through our large house. Downstairs, in the kitchen, my immigrant parents and grandma assembled an orchestra of knives and utensils to chop, mince, dice and slice vegetables, meat and fish for frying, sautéing, boiling and grilling. A steady flow of steam rose from the rice cooker. My sisters and I vacuumed, swept, dusted, scrubbed, polished and shined the house from top to bottom, shoving any unsightly objects into the shoe closet under the stairs. By the time the guests arrived, we’d be exhausted, and our house would resemble a model home where no one actually lived and smell of bleach, Pine Sol, Windex.
Now, the refrigerator didn’t need as much work. I emptied out the peach wine coolers, Genesee beer, frozen pizza and hamburger and Steak-Umms to wipe the shelves down. In the junk drawer in the kitchen, I hid my ovulation chart, which never helped in our efforts to get pregnant. The last two chores I had left in the kitchen were to scrub the linoleum floor to remove a waxy layer of residue that had accumulated over many years (Jimmy’s sister, her boyfriend, and their two toddlers lived in the studio before us) and to straighten out the gold framed cantilever chairs that had bent back too far without the support of hind legs—a futile exercise since they’d bend out of shape again when the next person sat in them.
The bathroom was another issue. Our two cats, Snicker Allen and Trigger Marie, and our rabbit Scibbitt, shared the litter box. The acidic scent of ammonia pierced and penetrated the air. During my sister’s visit, the rabbit would have to stay in his cage. After I emptied and refilled the litterbox, I cleaned out the rabbit’s cage, which occupied the corner of the front room that served as our family room and bedroom. I held my breath as I rolled up the saturated newspaper that lined the bottom tray of his cage and replaced it with fresh newspaper. I looked around our living space, the small, rectangular room where Jimmy and I ate, watched TV, listened to music, changed, made love, entertained guests, got high, drank, fought. The threadbare red carpet worn so thin in certain spots that I could see the floor beneath it. No matter how clean the apartment was, my sister would take one look at the carpet and know that Jimmy and I were living in substandard housing. It would take a large area rug to cover all the bald spots, but there was no time or money to invest in something like that. The most I felt I could do in the front room was polish the coffee table, clean out one drawer of our dresser for Niche to use, dust the oversized, neon clock that advertised an oil company and whack the two couches with my hands as hard as I could to freshen them up. The heavy fiber upholstery on the large couch served as a scratching post for the cats. Loose threads frayed out from the sides, all the way up to the arms. The smaller sofa had lost its form a while ago. As a couch, its cushions sat lopsided; as a bed, the hard floor could be felt through the thin foam mattress. Niche and I would be sleeping on it during her visit, with Jimmy on the larger couch. There was no other option.
In the dark, long, double-door closet that ran the length of the apartment, I was able to store things like garbage bags full of laundry, shoes we didn’t wear, laundry detergent and old clothes. The closet ceiling, which was the underside of the roof of the house, slanted downward, so I had to be careful not to stand up or else one of the sharp, rusty nails holding the roofing down would pierce my head.
‘What? I can’t hear you,’ screamed Niche from the backseat of our bright orange Super Sport Chevy Nova.
We barreled up the parkway in our car with no muffler. I could see Niche staring at the skyline of New York City, her first time to see it, and that familiar look on her face—the same one I’d had years ago when I first arrived with Jimmy—as we drove farther away from the city and north toward upstate New York. Niche and I looked back at a city we wanted to immerse ourselves in, two girls from the Bay Area suburbs. I promised her we’d spend a day there before she went home.
Two hours later, walking into our apartment felt like entering a hot oven, although with a sticky dampness that made me break out in an immediate sweat. I reassured Niche that only the front part of the apartment was hot; Jimmy had hung a bedsheet in the hallway, which trapped all the cool air from the air conditioner in the main room.
As Niche looked around the kitchen, I felt relieved that I had scrubbed the apartment down for days, and also embarrassed by the ‘70s panel lining the kitchen walls, the blonde faux wood countertop clashing with the dark brown plywood cabinets. The apartment, a series of scrap pieces of wood, misaligned linoleum and grey walls mirrored my and Jimmy’s patchy relationship and uncertain future.
The chill of the front room tingled my spine and the forceful hum of the oversized air conditioner lodged in the window deafened me. The cats smelled Niche and her suitcase, and then proceeded to beg to go inside the rabbit cage. I tried to ignore their cries, dismiss them as if their request was unusual, but they only grew louder and more persistent, so I acquiesced. When I opened the door for them, Trigger Marie took a drink from the upside down rabbit water bottle dispenser, and then they both settled in for a nap, with Scibbitt looking on. All was peaceful in the cage for a while until boundaries were crossed, borders were violated, and the cage became a blur of black grey white fur whirled together like in cartoon fights. I had to break it up before anyone got hurt.
‘The rabbit climbs furniture and drinks milk,’ I said. ‘And the cats lick carrots and sleep in the cage.’
The fact that our animals were rowdy and confused summed up everything: we were White trash. Or White and Asian trash. Jimmy and I, by my family’s standards, were not doing well at all. In just a few short hours, I knew my sister had gathered enough evidence about my lifestyle that couldn’t be erased by a few clean blinds in the kitchen. A future image of her describing the state of my apartment to our older sister Julie late one night in her bedroom flashed through my mind. We’d grown up in a brand new, five bedroom/three bathroom house in the foothills of East San Jose. Six bedrooms if you counted the room not up to code that a bunch of old Filipino friends of my dad’s built in a few weeks as an add-on to the house. We moved into the house in 1978, when I was ten years old. Plush, wall-to-wall rust-colored carpeting, a popular shade at the time. Spanish tiles in the entry. A living room ceiling so high I couldn’t reach the top with my ball. An area so new we were surrounded by walnut orchards, housing construction, freshly tarred streets, bright white sidewalks, shiny streetlamps. We were cash poor but house rich.
‘Where’re we gonna sleep?’ Niche asked, looking around for the bed.
In one quick move, I unfolded the sofa bed to reveal the flat, sunken double mattress. I wondered if she’d regretted coming out here and how I could possibly keep her entertained for the next two weeks. I felt like a child who had a friend over from school and pulled out every toy possible to keep them entertained.
‘Want a beer?’ I asked. ‘We can smoke and drink in here.’
Those were two things I knew for sure she couldn’t do inside my parents’ house. She took a sip of her Corona and asked for a cigarette. We sat back on the couch smoking Marlboro Lights. For a brief moment, I felt like a grown up, taking long drags and dropping my ashes in a shiny glass ashtray on my polished coffee table.
A dark, mysterious luxury yacht sleeked by alongside us on the Hudson. Its windows tinted to the point where it was impossible to see inside the cabin. All the other yachts on the river—gleaming white with groups of people on board dressed in fashionable sailing outfits and drinking wine—stared at the black yacht just like us. It was the only thing we had in common: five of us crammed into our small, battered boat we named ‘Driftwood,’ blasting Run DMC and the Beastie Boys from cheap speakers, drinking beer, smoking pot and cigarettes. Jimmy had packed a few fishing poles but none of us wanted to fish, knowing our catch likely would be one of the long, slimy eels found in abundance in the Hudson.
‘This is so cool!’ said Niche.
Owning a boat gave us some capital, even though it needed to be sanded and painted, and the motor gave out every now and then. One day, Jimmy had pulled into our dirt driveway towing the boat from a hitch on our Nova.
‘It was only nine hundred dollars!’ he said. ‘Including the trailer.’
One of Jimmy’s friend’s friend had come up against hard times and needed to sell his possessions, something we were familiar with after having lost our apartment and most of our belongings in Poughkeepsie to feed our free-basing addiction. Without asking for my permission, Jimmy bought the boat on the spot and later convinced me that it would provide hours and hours of cheap entertainment.
‘All we have to do is pack beer and spend the whole day on the water.’
Although I got upset over the amount of money he’d spent on the boat—we were just starting to get back on our feet—I couldn’t get too angry with him. After all, I fell in love with Jimmy in part because of his adventurous side, a side of me that I’d been too scared to explore, and I knew that owning a boat, no matter how dilapidated, was something I would’ve never dared to do on my own. I’d only been on a boat once or twice in my life; Filipino parents had a tendency to steer their kids away from water and fast-moving toys like bicycles and skateboards.
As I looked out across the boat-filled water, I could see people on shore in the same spot where we would sometimes park, drink beer and fish, especially at night. And for the first time, it occurred to me that there were those on ‘land’ who stared out at others enjoying themselves on their boats, and those on a ‘boat’ who could afford the luxury of floating on the water on a hot summer day. I wasn’t used to being on the privileged side. A part of me wanted to pull the boat up alongside the shore and invite the land people on board for a ride. At the same time, I wanted to be seen by the land people, to feel, if just for a few minutes, what it felt like to be part of the upper class.
Jimmy’s friends Todd and Bob took turns steering while Niche and I hung out near the back of the boat. Between the sound of the motor and the loud music, coming through house speakers that Jimmy had rigged up, I couldn’t hear much else. Of all Jimmy’s friends, Todd and Bob were the most innocent and family-friendly. The majority of Jimmy’s friends were not allowed over while my sister was visiting. Unlike his other friends, Todd and Bob didn’t deal drugs or date underage girls. They each still lived at home and liked to hang out with Jimmy and me because we had our own apartment. If this were high school, Jimmy and I would’ve been with the cool crowd, and Todd and Bob would’ve been the nerds we made fun of.
After sailing on the river all day, our beer ran out and we decided to get back to land, freshen up and grab some pizza. We were all starving, and it would take some time to get back to shore and hitch up the boat. When Jimmy went to pull-start the engine, nothing happened. He tried again several times.
‘What’s going on?’ asked Niche.
The boys had us move to the front of the boat so they could collectively inspect the motor. Todd attempted to start the engine a few times before Jimmy scolded him that he was going to flood it with gas. They decided to let the engine rest a bit before trying again.
We sat there bobbing up and down in the water as yachts and fishing boats sailed past us, heading for shore. The sun began to drop and what had looked like deep blue water during the day started to resemble a murky green. What were we going to do? The responsibility of placing my sister in danger weighed heavy on me. Jimmy always knew how to get us out of a bind, but, this time, he sat there with us, staring out at the water.
Finally, he said, ‘We have to swim. We can push the boat to that pier over there.’ Jimmy pointed to the closest shore on the west side, the opposite side from where we departed. Todd and Bob said, ‘No way.’
‘That’s a terrible idea,’ I said.
‘We don’t have a choice,’ said Jimmy.
He pulled off his shirt and took off his high top Nike’s, which came off easily as he never laced them up, and dove into the water.
‘I wanna help, too,’ said Niche.
‘It’s too dangerous,’ I said.
Half-drunk and loopy on an empty stomach, she insisted that we help Jimmy. Niche removed her shoes as well and jumped in the water with a loud scream. The next thing I knew, I was in the water, too. I would’ve been a terrible host not to join her. Niche and I pushed the boat from behind, laughing and swallowing water along the way. When we were about halfway to the pier, the Coast Guard pulled up alongside us and offered to tow us to shore. They tied their boat to ours and slowly pulled us to safety while the remaining boats looked on.
As soon as the Coast Guard left, we had to figure out a way to get back to the other shore where the car was parked. Just then, Jimmy decided to pull the engine string to see if the boat would start. It did. We were all hesitant to get back in in case it broke down again, but he reassured us that once it started, it would be fine.
As we headed back on Driftwood, I apologized to Niche for what turned out to be a terrible experience.
‘That was awesome,’ she said.
And I realized it was only something a visitor could say. Her visit was temporary. She’d be heading back to San Jose on a plane, back to the grand house in the foothills, while I stayed behind with Jimmy for good.