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.

Mini-Interview with Annie: Urdaneta City, Pangasinan, Philippines

Annie

Age: 37

Status: Married with two children ages 3 and 6

Hometown: Villasis, Urdaneta, Pangasinan

Current Job: Receptionist at nail salon, City Mall, Urdaneta City

***

While getting a mani/pedi at City Mall in Urdaneta, my nail technicians started talking about their lives. One of them had been abroad several times as an OFW (Overseas Filipino Worker) and was preparing to go overseas again. The other had never been but longed to go. As we chatted, Annie, the receptionist at the front desk, joined our conversation. She, along with the technicians, make 300 pesos per day ($6 US). Eventually Annie stepped out of the salon for this brief interview, leaving her post vacant even with streams of customers coming in and out.

Editor’s Note: I compensated Annie for her time.

***

Beverly: What would you like to do if you could work anywhere?

Annie: I want to work in a hotel overseas, but I don’t have domestic service qualities.

Beverly: So what else can you do?

Annie: Work in Dubai as a merchandiser or saleslady.

Beverly: What do you need to make that happen?

Annie: I need a passport, a visa, and certification and training.

Beverly: Would your husband go with you?

Annie: No. I’ll stay for only a year to earn money for a business.

Beverly: What kind of business?

Annie: I want a food business. I want to learn how to cook, make pastries and bake. I want my own shop. There’s a lack of money so it’s not possible as of now.

Beverly: What does your husband do?

Annie: He’s a salesman for Yakult. Do you know about this? It’s a yogurt. He works in Cabanatuan City. I only see him twice a month on weekends.

Beverly: Do many of your friends work overseas?

Annie: Most of my friends want to go overseas, especially as factory workers in Taiwan. It’s good money. There you can get 35,000 to 40,000 pesos per month. Here you only get 10,000 pesos a month. They send money home [to help their families].

Beverly: What about working as a DH – Domestic Helper?

Annie: I don’t like [to work as a] DH. If you stay in the house of your employer and they don’t like the quality of your work, they’re going to hurt you. They’ll lock you inside a room or won’t feed you.

Beverly: Has this happened to people you know?

Annie: Yes, I have a friend who was locked up by her employer. They took her passport away. She went to the embassy to get help. They were able to help her.

Victory Joe

This story appeared in Warscapes in 2013.

Author’s Preface

This story takes places at the end of the Japanese occupation of the Philippines during World War II in a small town approximately 100 miles north of Manila. The Japanese occupied the Philippines from 1942–1945. My father, who was six years old when the war started, lived with his family under Japanese rule in their village until fighting between the Japanese and American forces became so fierce they were forced to evacuate to a small shack in a remote rice field. 

During the evacuation, my paternal grandmother, Anastasia, gave my father most of her limited allotment of food. As a result, she grew ill and weak from starvation and eventually contracted tuberculosis. She died within six months after the war ended.

I’ve seen one picture of my grandmother, and the only other image I have in my mind is one of my father, as a young boy, combing and braiding her long hair when she was bedridden after the war. Growing up, my father used to comb and braid my and my sisters’ hair, and it never occurred to me, until I was older, that it was somewhat unusual for a man to know how to braid hair. Only later did I make the connection about how he learned to braid.

I wrote this story to explore what it might have felt like for my grandmother to return home after the war. It’s my attempt at accessing her world during this time, getting to know her in the only way I know how. I wrote this also for my nieces and nephews, the next generation, who are even farther removed from our family history than me.  

Victory Joe

They entered the town square of Urdaneta around sunset, amidst a long procession of returning evacuees, and there were met by two lines of American soldiers waving American flags. A blur of red, white and blue. Their caravan inched down the middle of the parade as Anastasia lay on a wooden cart pulled by a starved caribou. The music and the cheering woke her from her nap. She shifted in her loose housedress, wet and clammy underneath, trying to get comfortable. When she attempted to sit upright, pressing her palms against the cart and lifting her head an inch, her arms trembled and then gave out, so she rested back on the cart, defeated. The sky was a hazy pinkish-brown, not the bold blue sky she imagined they’d have for the return home. But they were free. Thank you, Lord, she thought, clutching her rosary.

Her nine-year-old son Roberto and the other children broke away from their caravan to join the festivities. They jumped and screamed as American soldiers tossed bubble gum and candy high into the air. Grab as much as you can, son, thought Anastasia. The children rushed the soldiers, pulling at their threadbare uniforms, begging for tobacco and cigarettes. “You’re too young to smoke!” shouted one of the soldiers, as he tossed more sweets in their direction. Roberto climbed on to his father’s shoulders for an added advantage, and the other children followed suit, hoisting themselves on the shoulders of friends and strangers. Everywhere Anastasia looked, Filipinos held their arms high, making the peace sign, chanting “Victory Joe!”

As their caravan made its way through the town square, Anastasia noticed the checkpoints had been removed. Filipinos no longer had to show their IDs or bow to Japanese soldiers who had had the power to shoot them on the spot. She would never have to say ‘Konichiwa’ again. She wept uncontrollably, which lead to a bout of cough so violent her whole body shook. She hacked for several minutes until she finally came to a rest. Her chest ached and her throat felt prickly hot. When she spotted blood on the white cloth, she bunched up the handkerchief and buried it deep in the pocket of her dress.

When they reached their ancestral home on Bayaoas Street, Anastasia gasped at the magnitude of the destruction. Their street, once lined with mango trees and delicate white orchids, was now littered with broken glass, shrapnel, empty bullet shells and pieces of detonated grenades. Blood was everywhere. Anastasia released a loud cry, the most she’d been able to muster in a long time. She reached for her husband Sylvestre’s hand but he pulled away. Without saying a word, he approached their house and shook each bamboo stilt hard. Anastasia wondered how much strength he had left in him. Satisfied that the foundation of the house was intact, he climbed the dilapidated steps and entered.

Anastasia asked Roberto to help his father. The Quindipans and Ortizes said their goodbyes from a distance, unwilling to come too close to Anastasia. They had joined her family two years ago when they fled their home in the middle of the night, and had hidden with her family in the small, two-room shack in a remote rice field. Now, the women held handkerchiefs over their noses and forbade the children to approach her. They backed away from her cart as they thanked her for saving their lives, and then ran off to inspect the state of their own homes.

She heard the shuffling of furniture and the crushing of broken glass. A small group of young men walked past the cart, and she called out for her oldest son. “Guillermo.” The men looked down at her but continued to walk, kicking objects out of their way. Guillermo, her eighteen-year-old son, had been called to active duty at the onset of the war. The last time Anastasia saw him, he’d been ordered to join troops around Manila, the Japanese stronghold. Before he left, she placed a medallion of St. Christopher around his neck, ensuring his safe return.

Sylvestre collected Anastasia from the wooden cart and carried her upstairs to the living room, where he’d set up a makeshift bedroom. Slowly, he placed her on a low, sunken mattress. The walls were marred with bullet holes. Anastasia looked around the narrow room, which was at once comforting and strange to her; while she recognized it as her former living room, where she and the family had spent most of their leisure time, it’d been stripped of all that was familiar. She’d need to reacquaint herself with it in the same way one reconnects with an old friend.

Anastasia smiled when she saw the faint picture of Jesus hanging above the bed. Although it was worn, she could see the soft outline of his face, his long, brown hair, and the sacred heart in the middle of his chest: large, pinkish-red, wrapped with thorns and adorned in a golden crown. How had she managed to leave this behind?

She embraced Sylvestre as he lowered her to the bed. It was the closest she’d been to her husband in a long time. His body felt much smaller, his arms weak and unsteady. He smelled of sweat, sun and tobacco. An American soldier must’ve given him a cigarette. Anastasia tightened her arms around her husband and began to weep. She held on to his thin body as he tried to pull away. With all the strength she could find, she locked her hands together to hold him as close as possible.

“We’re home,” she whispered.

“There’s plenty of work to be done,” he said.

Later that evening, Roberto came into her room and lit an oil lamp. The moon was low and yellow. Large mosquitoes bounced in through the small window that faced the road.

“Daddy said it’s my job to take care of you,” said Roberto.

“What did you do this evening?” she asked.

“We burned broken furniture.” She held Roberto’s hand. “Tomorrow we’re going to set fire to the overgrown rice field. Daddy says we’ll catch the mice as they try to escape.”

Roberto produced a comb and began to work the tangles out of Anastasia’s hair. She loved the feel of the bristles against her scalp. It made her moan with pleasure. Crickets sang their mating calls in the distance. The low hum of an American jeep patrolled nearby.

“Count to one hundred,” she said.

Roberto stroked her long black hair with the comb as he counted. Anastasia melted into the mattress, the first one she’d rested on in two years. She looked up at her young son, who resembled his father so much. Roberto had thick, furrowed brows, narrow black eyes, warm brown skin. She would never regret giving him her portion of food when they were in hiding. In the beginning, she’d given him a small amount from her ration of mango leaves, sweet potato and other root vegetables they’d manage to unearth by hand, but, over time, as the war progressed and Roberto began to show signs of weakness, Anastasia increased the portions until there was little left for herself. It was what any mother would do. Most of the other mothers had done the same. No matter how much Sylvestre had argued with her to eat, she hadn’t listened. At thirty-six-years-old, Anastasia had had a full and happy life. She grew up on a farm, married Sylvestre by an arrangement her parents had made, and had given birth to two strong sons, although she’d lost two daughters in between. What Anastasia hadn’t understood was how Sylvestre could eat his full portion knowing Roberto went to sleep each night, hungry.

“Braid my hair, anak ko, my child,” she said.

Roberto pulled on the strands to weave them tightly together.

“It looks pretty, Mommy,” he said.

Feeling drowsy, she said, “Blow out the lamp before you leave.”

In her dream, Anastasia came upon Guillermo in the woods. He leaned against a rock, shaking with malaria. Next to him was a thin American soldier with sunken eyes who placed a cigarette in Guillermo’s mouth and lit it for him. Her son looked frail and defeated. Surrounded by Japanese soldiers with guns, the American gripped Guillermo by the shoulders, trying to hold him still. “Guillermo!” she called out in the dream. But he didn’t respond. The louder Anastasia screamed, the harder his body shook. A cigarette hung limp from the side of his mouth, a long ash balancing in the wind. She reached out to him but her body felt submerged, as if weighted down by a large sack of grain. Guillermo’s eyes rolled in their sockets. She continued to scream his name. Giant lizards and monkeys crept along the forest floor. Anastasia threw rocks at them. She threw every rock within reach. The American placed another cigarette in his friend’s mouth before Guillermo fell over and died.

“Guillermo!” she screamed.

Roberto rushed into the room and lit the oil lamp. Anastasia pulled him to herself, weeping.

“My son, my son,” she cried. She looked up at Roberto in confusion, feeling the contours of his face.

“You never leave me. Do you understand?” She pressed her fingers deep into his arms. “Never.”

Anastasia took small bites of the mango leaves Roberto had gathered for her in the fields. Her bones felt like a network of hollow tubes running throughout her body, her muscles soft as a baby’s. She regretted eating shortly after she finished; the weight of the food settled in her stomach like a pile of stones, making her feel more sluggish than she already was. She took quick shallow breaths, in out, in out.

Although she couldn’t see the road, she heard passersby as they headed to and from town. The sound of their feet kicking up the dirt and gravel. A group of women and children stopped briefly in front of her house, and she overheard the words “sickly” and “disease.” By now, everyone in the neighborhood and across the town knew Anastasia was unwell. News travelled fast in Urdaneta. If locals were good at nothing else, she thought, they excelled at gossip.

Anastasia examined the small room, the four walls she’d be surrounded by until she was well enough to walk. The bamboo floors had suffered deep scratches and bruises. The sliver of space between each hardy bamboo pole, through which she used to sweep dirt and crumbs, seemed wider than before. If she looked long enough, she could make out the dirt patch below the house. She wondered how long it’d be before a cow would be living underneath the house again. How long before they could taste its fresh, sweet milk.

Against the wall on her left, where her couch used to be, Anastasia counted seventeen bullet holes; some holes were clean and solid, while others were surrounded by small, frayed slivers of bamboo, with thin hairline cracks that ran the length of the pole.

She thought about the many afternoons she’d spent sitting on the couch with her neighbors Anna Quindipan and Elma Ortiz, sipping cool coconut juice, fanning themselves in the heat. The three of them were known as the town beauties, cackling and gossiping as they strolled in the town square with their heads held high. Anastasia, a former Miss Urdaneta crowned at a town festival when she was sixteen, was the prettiest of them all. Her high cheekbones and tall nose bridge revealed her Spanish ancestry. She was both admired and despised for being a mestiza—admired for her lighter skin and supple complexion, despised for not being a pure-bred Filipina.

The opposite wall, where her wooden cabinet once stood, somehow escaped much of the damage. The thin bamboo rods held together tightly, their ridges smooth and polished. In her mind, Anastasia traced the outline of where her cabinet used to be; now, there was only a ghost of the furniture. It had contained her most valued possessions, many of which Sylvestre forbade her to grab when they fled in the night: a Spanish vase from her mother when she got married, and items from her wedding ceremony, including the cord, veil and unity candles.

Anastasia gazed up at the tightly woven thatched roof. She admired the perfect symmetry with which the dried palm leaves had been tied together to form a watertight canopy. The plot of land the house stood on was once a flat, grassy patch surrounded by coconut trees. Sylvestre and several neighbors had joined together to build their house, as he had done for others, collecting raw materials, setting the foundation and erecting the walls one by one. The men labored from morning until dusk, constructing the house in a few short weeks. That it had stood up in war time proved to Anastasia the care and craftsmanship with which the house had been built.

Roberto returned in the late afternoon and woke Anastasia from her nap.

“Mommy, look what I have!”

In his hands, he held pasta with yellow sauce mixed in with dirt.

“Macaroni and cheese!”

For the first time in years, she gazed upon a real meal. Not a combination of leaves and root vegetables mashed together. The curl of the noodles looked strange to her, the bright orange-yellowish sauce unnatural.

“There was meatloaf, too, Mommy! The Americans just throw it in the dumpster without finishing!”

“Thanks be to God,” she said, crossing herself. “I want you to go there every day and eat and eat.”

“I want to share with you, Mommy” said Roberto, offering the pasta to Anastasia.

Staring at the food in his hands, she hadn’t salivated or grown excited. Instead, she felt a vacant indifference to the meal before her. Scraps from an American soldier’s lunch would’ve been the equivalent of finding gold during war time, but, now, Anastasia lacked the appetite she once had.

“I want you to grow big and strong,” she said.

Roberto buried his face in his hand, careful to lick every bit of cheese sauce from in between his small fingers.

*          *         *

Sylvestre entered the medical tent at the south end of the town square. He’d come days earlier, when they first arrived home, but was instructed to return when Dr. Henderson was on duty. The tent, lined with two long rows of beds filled with wounded American soldiers, swarmed with flies and mosquitoes that landed on patients like they were raw meat in the open-air market. Sylvestre tip-toed down the center aisle, a sign of respect to the wounded. Soldiers with bloody bandages around their heads droned on in dull, deep moans. Others were missing limbs. A small group of soldiers who only had sustained minor injuries set up a card game in the back of the tent. They played poker using Philippine pesos printed by the Japanese government, now worthless.

“Dr. Henderson?” said Sylvestre.

“Wait out there,” said one of the soldiers, pointing to the entrance of the tent.

Sylvestre paced back and forth outside. How he’d longed for this moment. As Anastasia’s health gradually declined over the past year, he grew hopeless in the middle of the rice field. The most he could do was make his wife as comfortable as possible on the thin bamboo mat on the floor, and gently wipe the sweat from her skin when her temperature ran high.

In the evenings, when the women and children were asleep, he and the other men took turns patrolling outside the shack for any signs of Japanese soldiers. They operated in four-hour shifts from sunset to sunrise. It was during his shifts that he had started to pray.

Before the war, Anastasia chastised him for not praying enough; she had to coax him to church on Sundays. Sylvestre had come to see religion as a belief system more suited to women, having been raised with a grandmother and mother who held regular novenas in their home and woke at three o’ clock in the morning to attend nightly Mass for each of the nine days before Christmas. Even rosaries appeared feminine to him, with their colorful gem stones and sterling silver crucifix. But in those quiet evenings during the evacuation, he found solace looking up at the night sky, brilliant with stars, and having a silent conversation with God about his wife. “I’ll never ask you for anything ever again, Lord.”

A tall, lanky man with large glasses and a wiry beard approached Sylvestre.

“Dr. Henderson?”

The doctor looked at his watch several times, fussed with the stethoscope around his neck. He held his eyes open like someone who’d been forced not to blink.

“Before you start,” said the doctor, “we don’t have any medicine and the hospital has been heavily damaged.”

“Please, doctor.”

“I need you to go home and tell your neighbors, relatives and friends. It’ll take a while for the USS Sanctuary to arrive.”

“But you don’t understand.”

The doctor removed his glasses and rubbed his eyes.

“Yes, you’re right. There’s plenty I don’t understand.”

“My wife is still young. What can I do?”

“Be thankful she survived. Wait until they build a new hospital.”

Sylvestre dragged himself across the town square and crouched next to the crumbling church. He’d promised Anastasia everything would be okay once the Americans liberated them, and that the Americans would nurse her back to health with advanced medicines in a clean hospital that served warm food and fresh water. “Put your faith in the Americans.”

Across the square, young American soldiers hammered away at the roof and walls of the damaged school. Sylvestre covered his ears. Shouldn’t he be thankful for the construction? For all the Americans were doing to rebuild? But all of their energy directed to rebuilding the town took away from tending to the sick, he thought. What good would the town be without its people? These soldiers, with their youth and power, were capable of grand achievements—fighting against the Japanese in hand-to-hand combat, and in relentless dog fights in the sky, where American and Japanese war planes twisted and looped in the air, shooting at each other in rapid succession. Now, the Americans couldn’t bother to put their tools down for a moment to tend to his sickly wife.

*       *       *

“Drink,” said Sylvestre.

He towered over Anastasia in her bed as he offered her a small cup filled with a strange liquid.

“Is this from the Americans?”

“The American medicine is on the way. Drink this in the meantime.”

An old man, who claimed to be a witch doctor, had boiled a concoction of herbs and leaves for Anastasia to drink. As payment, the man accepted an I.O.U. of rice from Sylvestre’s first harvest. Anastasia took a few sips of the greenish soup before pushing it away. A cough formed deep in her lungs and erupted as a strange hacking noise.

“I can’t help you if you won’t help yourself,” said Sylvestre.

She looked into her husband’s tired eyes. It occurred to her at that moment how selfish she’d been, wallowing in her illness. He was right. She had to be strong for her family. Her mother, when she was alive, had once taught her to ask for what she wanted in order to make it come true. “Close your eyes and imagine it, and when you’re finished, ask the Lord for this or something better.”

Anastasia pictured an overabundant rice harvest for Sylvestre: rice over flowing from their sacks and from the large wooden storage bin in the back; so much rice they’d never go hungry again. She imagined welcoming Guillermo back home, as he made his way down the dusty street in a patched-up uniform. He’d settle into his old room he shared with Roberto, help his father with the farm, and eventually take a bride and give Anastasia and Sylvestre grandchildren. For Roberto, she held an image of him with a large bundle of school books in preparation for college in Manila one day. In secret, she’d always pinned her hopes on Roberto, her smartest son, to be the first college graduate in the family and the one who made his way to America, the land of the prosperous, and Cowboys and Indians. Once there, he’d find a job, buy a home and petition the rest of the family to join him. As she thought about what the future held, tiny goose bumps appeared on Anastasia’s arms.

Sylvestre lifted the cup to her mouth as she took in more of the dark liquid. Although it irritated her throat, she drank and drank until the cup was empty. She imagined the green juice as a type of magic, entering her bloodstream and destroying the disease one cell at a time. She held her husband’s hand, squeezing it lightly, with a promise for the future.

A month had passed since the war ended. Guillermo had not come home, even though two other young men who had also fought in Manila returned.  Anastasia pressed Sylvestre to question the men about Guillermo’s whereabouts, but they hadn’t seen him; they’d become separated at the beginning of the war and never met again. She sent Sylvestre to their homes day after day for more information until one day one of the mothers stood outside Anastasia’s window, screaming.

“Can’t you see my boy isn’t well?” she said. “Why do you continue to harass us?”

Anastasia wept for her son until her cries turned to wailing. She spent the whole afternoon longing for Guillermo. How she wanted to see his handsome face one more time. She’d been so proud of him when he joined the Philippine Army and went off to join MacArthur in the fight against the Japanese. Ever since he was a child, he’d always looked for ways to help people. She recalled how, as a young boy, he’d climb tall trees for the elderly neighbors who couldn’t reach their ripe fruit. And how he’d loved to fish with Roberto, teaching him how to make a fishing rod with a long branch and piece of string. She would never give up. No matter what anyone thought or said, Anastasia refused to believe he might be dead. This unsympathetic woman screaming at her window was only in a position to do so because her son had returned.

Anastasia continued to eat leaves and root vegetables, whatever Sylvestre provided for her. She even took a morsel of the American food Roberto offered to her, unfamiliar with the salty taste of corned beef in a can and floury biscuits. The witch doctor made Anastasia’s concoction several times a week, despite the fact that Sylvestre’s rice field had yet to yield a harvest.

The medicine was supposed to make her stronger, but Anastasia felt more fatigued than before. She struggled to keep her eyes open during the day. Even though the rest of her body had shrunk in size, layers of puffy flesh swelled over her feet and ankles to the point where she could no longer see her ankle bone.

During the day, the house was quiet. Sylvestre worked the land while Roberto and the other neighborhood kids hung out by the American soldiers in the town square, hoping to pick up a discarded cigarette butt on the ground or a scrap of food from their lunch.

Anastasia listened to the buzz of two mosquitoes that hovered over her arms. She was unable to move quickly enough to kill them. She watched as one mosquito rested on her left arm. In all the years she’d encountered mosquitoes, she’d never looked at one so attentively. The way its small body hunched over and arched its back in service of the long blood-sucking needle protruding from its head. Such tiny, fragile legs. Where did all that blood go? She laughed as the mosquito drank from her. “You too will become sick, my friend.”

The afternoon was hot and long. More mosquitoes entered her room through the window. A group of them hovered near her bed. One by one, they landed on her body. She learned to twitch her skin to make them leave. They would jump off for a second, dance around her, and then try again. She inhaled as deeply as she could and tried to blow them off her but their grip was too tight. Giving up, she sunk into the mattress and sacrificed herself to the mosquitoes.

“Mommy, I’m going back to school!”

Roberto rushed into Anastasia’s bedroom holding a book. The teachers who survived the war gathered together to announce they would begin lessons in a makeshift classroom underneath a house on stilts. All years would share a single classroom, and Roberto placed in second grade, the grade he was in when they evacuated.

“I’m so proud of you, anak,” said Anastasia. She stroked his hand. “Study hard so you can go to college.”

“Look, Mommy,” he said, as he flipped through his textbook. “There are stories here about Philippine heroes.”

Anastasia felt relieved. During the occupation, the Japanese had changed textbooks, had tried to change history, and Anastasia had pounded her fists hard on the kitchen table. For the past two years, when they lived on the rice field, there hadn’t been any school at all.

Later that evening, Roberto came to Anastasia’s room and lit the oil lamp.

“Let’s not talk tonight, my dear,” she said, as he combed her hair.

Although she wanted to talk to her son, to find out how he liked his temporary school, she didn’t have the strength to carry on a conversation with him. She wanted to close her eyes and feel the smooth bristles against her scalp, the gentle way in which he gathered her hair together in his hands as he prepared to braid it.

She thought about the day Roberto would rush into her room to share good news, only to find she was no longer there.

“I want to tell you something, Roberto,” she said.

He was busy placing one strand of hair over another, tenderly tightening the braid.

“I thought we weren’t going to talk, Mommy,” he said.

“Listen to me closely, anak,” she said. “One day, I want you to go to America.”

Roberto stopped braiding her hair.

“Promise me.”

“I promise.”

Three months passed since the war had ended. When Anastasia’s health declined further, Sylvestre brought in a stronger concoction for her to drink. There was a mix of berries and leaves this time, and the witch doctor was said to have placed a magic spell on the potion that was sure to heal her.

She found it hard to swallow. The liquid stuck to her throat, causing her to gag. It felt thick and pasty. A coughing spell ensued. She tried to push the formula away but Sylvestre insisted she finish it. He lifted her head and tilted the cup toward her mouth, but she couldn’t drink fast enough to keep up with him. Liquid oozed down the sides of her chin and onto her neck.

“Please, Sylvestre,” she said.

He reached into the pocket of her dress where she kept her handkerchief and discovered deep red blood stains all over the thin cloth.

“Why didn’t you tell me?” he asked.

“Put it back,” she said. “I don’t want Roberto to see it.”

Sylvestre stood up next to Anastasia’s bed and looked at her like she was a stranger. She felt his eyes take in every part of her body, from her long hair to her swollen feet. He hadn’t said a word. Finally, he turned around and left the room.

Out in the rice fields behind their house, Sylvestre chopped up broken chairs with a large Bolo knife. He held the knife high into the air before coming down to hack the wooden legs off, and then tossed the knife aside as he picked up each legless chair and smashed it to the ground. Pieces of wood scattered everywhere. He gathered them in a large pile, set it on fire and began to sob. The bright blue sky was blinding. Smoke rose up in a thick column before dissipating into the air.

*       *      *

“Mommy, they fixed the hospital. But the Americans said there’s still no medicine,” said Roberto.

“Where’s your father?” she asked.

It’d been weeks since Sylvestre visited her. At night, she could hear him shuffling around in the kitchen, washing cups, putting plates away. She called out to him several times, but he didn’t answer. Was it because he couldn’t hear her? Her voice had grown raspy and faint. A few nights ago, she thought she heard him breathing next to the entrance to her room, but when she begged him to come in, there was only silence, and then the sound of light footsteps.

Nearly four months after the war had ended, Anastasia lay in her mattress unable to speak. Roberto’s face was illuminated by the oil lamp. She blinked her eyes to let him know she could hear him. The Americans were rebuilding. Soon there would be doctors, and carts of medicine would arrive. Anastasia thought of the hospital filling with young nurses in white uniforms, tending to the sick. Soon, Roberto would be attending his regular school, the bullet holes on the walls patched up and repainted. He would go to church, too, and say his prayers, just like she taught him to. She smiled as she imagined the town square filled with bright parols during Christmas, and how the Americans would join in with the locals as they went caroling from house to house.

Roberto combed her hair, separated it into three strands, and proceeded to braid it all the way down her back. His grip was stronger, his fingers moved faster, and he kept the braid watertight along the way.

“Can I do it again?” he asked.

Anastasia blinked her eyes twice. Slowly, Roberto loosened the braid and began again.

Wildflowers

This story appeared in 2011 in Southword: New Writing from Ireland. 

When I arrived at the Chinatown address given to me by Hope for the Elderly, I pulled into the driveway and turned on my hazards. It was a cold Christmas morning in the city, with a layer of fog threatening to seep over the western hills. I sat in my car for a moment, wondering what would happen if I changed my mind—if I decided not to see this stranger after all. I wasn’t getting paid or under any kind of obligation. I didn’t like the look of her building, a large brick façade fenced in by tall rusted iron gates. Next to it was an elementary school with an empty playground; a swing shifted in the wind, as if a child had just leapt off.

There was a damp smell in the lobby and no working elevator. The thick layers of peeling, brown paint reminded me of an old building I lived in more than fifteen years ago, when I dropped out of high school and ran away to upstate New York. I expected to see cockroaches or a rat nearby.

I hiked up four flights of stairs, taking a break halfway up to readjust the bags, which were filled with turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes and the art supplies the old woman had requested. I knocked on her door but there was no answer. Her profile indicated she was bedridden, eighty-three years old and never married. I knocked a bit louder. Across the hall, an old black man with patches of white, curly hair opened his chained door a few inches and then shut it again.

“Under the mat, the key is under the mat,” said the old woman.

I lifted the corner of the frayed mat, found a single gold key on a small chain and entered the apartment. The hallway was narrow and dark. On my left, there was a galley kitchen with dull fluorescent lighting and a thick film of residue on the linoleum floor. The hallway led to a tiny, prison-like room, with the old woman in a hospital bed on the left and a sealed window on the right that revealed an intrusive view of the financial district. I could see directly into the offices across the street: each little window representing a person, someone who ate, drank, slept, solved problems, developed affairs, and suffered from loneliness or heartache.

The old woman sat up in bed where she must’ve been waiting for me all morning. She was white. I didn’t know white people lived in Chinatown. I looked around for a chair but couldn’t find one.

Her hair, long, silver, hung in thin, greasy strips over her shoulders. Her face was shriveled like a dehydrated apple. The hospital bed she lay in took up nearly half of the apartment, and broken art supplies were scattered around a table on the other half. A bedpan stuck out from underneath the bed. I breathed through my mouth, something I do whenever I enter a public bathroom.

The old woman lifted her cupped hands in the air and asked me to place mine in hers, but I didn’t move. I thought of the rough, scratchy surface of elephant skin.

“It’s so very good of you to come, my dear,” she said, looking up at me like a frail child. “What is your name?”

“Corrine.”

“Oh, what a lovely name, dear. You can call me Ruth. So nice to have you here. Can you stay with me awhile?”

I looked out the window to see if my car was still in the driveway, but the trees obstructed the view of the street. It was Christmas, after all, and I’d hoped the meter maids would be off work, or at least kind enough not to ticket or tow on a holiday, but there was no guarantee of any of that.

“Merry Christmas,” said the old woman.

“And to you,” I said.

“So how long have you lived here?” I asked.

“Oh, I’ve lived in this apartment for a long time. A very long time. About twenty years, I suppose. I lived in an SRO in the financial district before this, but some big shot came to town wielding his dollars around. You know the type.”

The old woman stared out the window, as I imagined she did for most of the day. On her lap, there was a gold-rimmed address book; when she flipped through it, I saw names, telephone numbers, names scratched out, notes in the margins, grocery lists and what looked like recipes.

“He bought the building out from underneath us,” she continued. “Some of the other occupants left for the East Bay and vowed they would never return to the city, even if she opened her golden gates wide!”

She laughed a hearty laugh, and then began to cough. I went to the kitchen, where I found three glasses marked with water spots. I filled one halfway with tap water and brought it to her.

“Thank you, dear. As I was saying, some friends headed out, but I decided to stay. A social worker helped me find this place. What was her name? Maureen. Yes, lovely girl. She said it would do until something else came along, but, here I am. I’ve made some good friends in the building, so I think this is it! This is home.”

“Well, it’s nice and cozy,” I said, looking around at the clutter and mess.

“I didn’t say it was nice, dear. I said it was home.”

“So I see you’re an artist,” I said, trying to change the subject. Above her bed hung a strange painting of a woman with short dark hair, a half smile, with a backdrop of red, orange, and brown swirls. The woman was solid, still, and unnerved amidst all the chaos of color behind her. The message below her read ‘Peace’.

“That’s one of my favorites. I had the building Super hang it up next to my bed so it’s the first thing I see when I wake up, and the last thing I look at as I enter the other world.”

As the old woman admired her own painting, I looked out the window. I’d been laid off from my sales job on the Peninsula and couldn’t afford another towing fee. When I walked back toward her, she asked me to stop so she could look at my outfit. I wore a fitted cashmere sweater, a red silk skirt, and black, knee-high boots. Ryan liked it when I dressed up. If it were up to him, I’d be in a short skirt and stilettos everyday. We’d been dating for the past five years, if you counted the breaks, affairs and triangles.

“I was once stylish and pretty,” said the old woman.

She asked me to turn around, so I did. And then she asked me to twirl a few times. When I looked at her quizzically, she said, “Don’t question the old lady, just do it.”

I twirled around and around. It felt awkward at first, but then I gained momentum, my skirt flowed around me, and I lifted my arms up high the way ballerinas do as they glide through the air. I could do anything I wanted to—dance like a chicken, flap my wings, crow like a rooster.

“Bravo!” she clapped. “Bravo!”

She held her hands to her heart, and smiled at me. I thought about the director’s warning during orientation: we weren’t to make any promises to return, no matter how much our elderly person begged us. Too many broken promises led to disappointments in the past.

I noticed an arsenal of medication on her nightstand, her crusty yellow nails and thin, pole-like legs under the sheets.

“Do you have family nearby?” I asked.

“No family. Just a few friends, but I don’t see them much anymore.”

The old woman flipped through the address book at random.

“Reg Hibberd. Dead.”

“His wife might still be alive,” she continued. “I don’t know. Her Christmas cards stopped coming a few years ago.”

The address book served as her one connection to the outside world; in it, she documented her friends and their contact information, and crossed out their names one by one with each passing. It was like a waste of a life. She would’ve been better off marrying someone—anyone—and having a few children. At least she would’ve had someone to visit her on holidays, and possibly a few grandchildren to help her. She wouldn’t have had to rely on the company of a complete stranger who watched the clock until the right time to leave.

“I know you must think I wasted my life,” the old woman said.

“I wasn’t thinking that at all.”

“Not everyone wanted to go to college, meet a nice boy, live in a big house filled with happy children,” she said. “Who says that’s the only way for a woman to be in this world? I wanted to paint, go to museums, travel for inspiration.”

She gazed out the window. I looked at my watch. We were at least fifty years apart in age and neither one of us had anything to do on Christmas. Ryan was an atheist, and I hadn’t been on speaking terms with my parents for years, ever since the day my father said Ryan was a waste of time.

The old woman asked, “What are you doing here?”

“I’m here to keep you company.”

“What are you really doing here, Corrine?”

Suddenly I felt put on the spot. A warm rush went through me. I thought about Christmas when I was young, our house filled with relatives, my parents chopping vegetables in the kitchen, a production line of me and my cousins rolling hundreds of lumpia.

“I got up early today and drove across town to sign up as a volunteer even though their website said registration was closed,” I said. “I was willing to come to Chinatown, a neighborhood most people won’t go to because of the parking situation, and Hunter’s Point. I figured, ‘who would shoot me on Christmas?’”

“That’s very kind of you, my dear.”

“Are you worried you might turn out like me one day?” she asked.

“What do you mean?”

“Most people are afraid to be old and alone. They come out of fear.”

“I came to give back to the community.”

“There’s lots of other ways to give back, Corrine.”

“Do you want me to leave?”

“Do you want to stay?”

“I’m supposed to stay for at least an hour.”

“Is that supposed to be long enough to prevent me from killing myself?”

“Do you want to die?”

“No, darling. If I wanted to die, I would’ve stopped taking my medication long ago.”

She asked me for the time and I let her know it was nearly nine thirty. She reached for her medication, lifted the cap off a prescription bottle and rolled a blue pill into her palm. And then a white one, a pink one, and a red gel caplet. With the half-empty glass of water, she swallowed each pill, resting in between doses.

“The white one makes me drowsy,” she said, as she closed her eyes.

 

When she woke from her nap, the old woman said she’d had a recurring dream she’d been having since she was a young girl.

“I walk through a house with warm golden walls, candles lit on the mantel and a sweet smell of cinnamon. As I make my way through the house, I land upon a set of stairs that lead me to an attic filled with paintings, drawings, pictures of all kind.”

It sounded like something I’d seen before in a movie, or an afterschool special.

“Do you have any recurring dreams?” she asked.

There were many recurring dreams, too many to count. Like the one where small bats the size of bumble bees attacked me, dive-bombed my head until they got tangled up in the nest of my long hair and died.

“I have one where I’m driving at night down a dark road when I come across a horrific car accident,” I said. “There’s an ambulance and police cars, their lights whirling in the night as I draw closer, unable to stop, my brakes pushed to the floor, my foot pumping harder and harder. When I run into the scene of the accident, I can see faces up close, the look in their eyes just before they hit my windshield.”

“Do you enjoy crashing into the accident?”

“What kind of question is that?”

“You must like it if you keep dreaming about it.”

“You mean killing people?”

“That’s not what I meant at all, dear.”

I’d met my obligation to stay an hour, and didn’t want to stay a minute longer. I offered her a meal before I left but she wasn’t hungry. Then I presented her with a pad of thick white stock paper. She held the sketchpad on her lap and complained that it was too big, too bulky for her to use. She liked the new color pencils, though. So much so that she wanted to draw a picture of me.

“But I need to go,” I said.

“It won’t take very long, Corrine,” she said. “Stand close because my eyes are starting to go. You need to stand close so I can really see you.”

I stood in front of her as she opened the new box of pencils and emptied them onto her lap. She rolled the pencils up and down between her hands, drew her knees to her chest, and began.

Every few seconds, she opened her eyes wider to swallow in a feature of mine, and continued to draw. Her thin, wrinkled fingers selected colors at random, first a brown, then red, and black, probably for my hair. She began to use colors I wasn’t wearing: blue, yellow, orange, and green. Her hand glided across the paper like a mad woman. At one point, it slipped off the sketchpad but she continued to draw the air like a conductor to a silent orchestra.

After several more touch ups of orange and yellow, she dropped the pencils back into her lap, sank into the bed and closed her eyes. There seemed to be long gaps between her inhalations and exhalations. She embraced the sketchpad as she slept, and it occurred to me at that moment that creating art was the love of her life, the way she warmed and caressed the pencils. This was her source of pleasure.

When she opened her eyes, she looked around, surprised to see me still standing in the room. One by one, she picked up each pencil, stroked it with her long fingers, and placed it back into the box. The drawing was complete.

“It’s time for you to leave, Corrine.”

She reached for my hands again. Her hands felt moist and shaky, the way mine feel when I’m on a plane that hits turbulence. She tore the drawing off the sketchpad. Before handing it to me, she made me promise to replace the key under the mat. I promised. I didn’t have to promise to return because she never asked me to.

I unfolded the drawing in my car. And then turned it over and back again. Was there some sort of mistake? It wasn’t me at all. Instead, it was a picture of a valley, lush and green, filled with wildflowers. So many wildflowers. I sat there for a long while, taking in the field of golden poppies, open to the sun, the endless field of radiant color.