Imperfections

Jeff and I met at 3Com in 1995 when I interviewed for a job I was fantastically underqualified for in sales operations. I’d just graduated San Jose State with a bachelor’s degree in English and had been working part-time in the IT department at 3Com, a mid-sized global networking company in Santa Clara. In fact, half of my family members worked there, which is how I got the job—brother-in-law, his sisters, their brother-in-law, their brother-in-law’s brother, my sister and, eventually, my brother. At work, sometimes people would ask me how we’re all related, and I’d need to get on the white board to map out the family tree.

I knew nothing about computers, nothing about working in an office, nothing at all about IT. But because I felt so behind after having dropped out of high school and running off to upstate New York with Jimmy, I immersed myself in an unhealthy way in the job, learning as much as I could, as fast as I could, volunteering for everything and anything. (So much so that a full-time staff person once expressed shock to learn I was just an intern.) You need someone to work the midnight shift? I’ll do it. You need someone to answer the IT help line for East Coasters at 6 am Pacific time? I’ll do it. You need someone to sit in the frigid server room to monitor the servers for the entire company? That’s me. I was twenty-six years old, starving for experience, recognition, advancement—anything to catch up to everyone else around me. Before I knew or understood that we’re all on our own personal timeline. Long before I knew that one day I’d become a writer, and having a teenage runaway story would be something of a gift for me.

When I saw the job posting for the systems analyst position in the sales department, I had the balls to apply. No one in my family at 3Com, with one exception, had dared to venture outside of IT. It was like the Filipinos belonged in the support role, in the building in the back, not in any front-facing roles in the company. Behind the scenes. Unseen. Always accountable if anything goes wrong. This new role would be in Building 100 where the executives and sales and marketing teams sat. The most important and powerful people in the company where all decisions were made. That I had the guts to enter that building thinking I could work alongside them makes me smile today. There’s a reason we’re all naïve when we’re younger; that naivety moves the world, makes the impossible happen.

Jeff emerged from behind his colleague Kevin in the conference room on the fourth floor of Building 100 and shook my hand. I can only describe that moment as a white out, all my senses so activated my vision went blank for a few seconds. As if I knew on the spot my life would be split between pre-Jeff and post-Jeff. He had a dimple, fresh face, fit body. He exuded health and wealth. He was Asian. I hadn’t dated an Asian man in a long while. My current ex at the time was English. My serious boyfriend before him was Jimmy—the white, long-haired, drop out, weed smoking, motorcycle riding boyfriend I ran away with to Hyde Park, NY, his hometown. That men like Jeff existed excited me. That someone like him lived and breathed in the world and intersected with my life on that day felt unreal.

They proceeded to interview me about my skills and background, and I even got up on the whiteboard to show them how I would use software tools to replicate sales information nationwide and globally within twenty-four hours, back when real-time data didn’t exist yet. How I’d be the ideal liaison between the national sales team and IT given my 10-month experience in the IT department as a part-time intern. Later I would learn that Jeff said, “Her voice is mesmerizing. Let’s hire her.”

We’d spend the next seven years on and off in a serious relationship until he’d announce one day while I was studying abroad in Ireland for a master’s degree that he was engaged to another woman. Around the middle of our time together, I’d meet his family and spend time with his sister who had a Black Lab. I didn’t spend a lot time with her family or their dog, but somehow this animal made a strong impression on me. This dog linked me to Jeff, his family, our connection, our intense desire and attraction, my deep hurt and disappointment. After my total breakdown in Ireland after having learned of Jeff’s engagement, I’d fly home and recover for several months, including gaining the weight back that I’d lost. I needed a dog, a companion, something to take care of, something to ground me in San Jose and the Bay Area, something to think of other than myself. And the only dog that would do was a Black Lab. If I couldn’t have Jeff, I could have a physical being that served as evidence that we’d once shared a life together. Isso started off as that link between me and my ex. And over the years, he became much more than that.

At first, it bothered me that Isso wasn’t a full Black Lab, like Jeff’s sister had had. A Black Lab mix. Mixed with what? Shepherd. Border Collie. His nose longer than a pure bred, his body leaner. Little wings of hair grew out from the sides from his neck. When he was a puppy, I’d try to smooth them back, try to make him look more like a regular Lab. Tried to preserve the image of Jeff’s sister’s dog through my own dog. Until one day, when Isso was a few years old, I sat down next to him, slipped my fingers through his course hair on his neck, and pulled outward to fluff it up, giving him a stately mane that was his and his alone. For the rest of his long life, I’d continue to play with the mane, make it stick out as far and high as I could, accepting him for exactly who he was, loving the perceived imperfections so much he grew to be wholly perfect inside and out. Trying hard to accept my own self-created imperfections.

The Permanence of It All

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.

That’s What Friends Are For

Excerpt of memoir-in-progress titled RUN.

Joe Brady had no car, no job, and, sometimes, no home. When he wasn’t fighting with his family, Joe lived with his parents, grandmother and younger sister in a sparse, one story house in Poughkeepsie. Their front door gaped wide open, an invitation for a multitude of mosquitos and flies. On weekends, Joe and his parents hung out on the porch drinking beer and smoking pot while his little sister struggled to balance herself on a bike across their dried-up lawn. To piss off his grandmother, Joe often raced around the house in her squeaky wheelchair. He was adept at making sharp turns and doing long wheelies across the living room floor.

After one of his many explosive blowouts with his mom, Joe turned up at our doorstep on Roosevelt Court off Main Street in Poughkeepsie. Jimmy and I had just moved into our first apartment together. When the landlady first showed us the place, I told her Jimmy and I were married, even though we’d only just gotten engaged. I thought it would increase our chances of getting the apartment. It turned out half the building lived in sin and nobody cared.

Jimmy and I landed a top floor apartment in the three-story brick building. The kitchen window looked out on to a crumbling wall and the rear window looked down into an empty dirt lot with a broken chain link fence, but we held the keys to our own place—our palace. The apartment was scarcely furnished, but we had grand plans for it. We hoped to fill it soon with a lamp, a new TV stand to replace the stack of Bell Atlantic yellow pages and possibly a shelf that held framed pictures of us two smiling in each other’s arms. Jimmy got hired to change oil and fix flat tires at BF Goodrich, and I got a job as a dental assistant, even though I had no experience at all, because the dentist who owned the practice was, like me, a Filipina.

The night Joe arrived, I baked a large square pepperoni pizza I had picked up from Grand Union for three dollars. Jimmy and Joe sat stoned in front of the TV while they ate, a pile of Marlboro Lights butts crowding the ashtray. A small fan in the corner pushed the hot air around. A commercial with Crazy Eddie wearing a cowboy hat lit up the screen as he rattled off the latest car deals that could be had at his dealership. Finally, it was nearing midnight. Jimmy and I had to go to work early the next day. I cleared their plates, washed the dishes and performed my nightly ritual: I placed several Raid roach baits on the counter, small black discs filled with enough poison to yield a pile of carcasses the next day. I imagined a colony of roaches festering in the basement, though, reproducing faster than I could possibly kill them.

“I’m going to bed, baby,” I said. “You coming soon?”

Until we could afford a bed, we slept on an inflatable mattress in our dark, clammy bedroom. So many layers of brown paint had been slopped onto the wood floors of our bedroom over the years that they had a bouncy, rubbery feel.   

“Yeah, baby. Is it okay if Joe crashes on the couch tonight?” said Jimmy.

Joe had a tight, muscular body that gave the impression of him being firmly rooted in the earth, like an old tree. His delicate, pale skin and thin, light brown hair with soft, subtle curls clashed with his masculinity. A natural rouge on his lips made me want to kiss him.

“Sure,” I said. 

Several days later, our couch had transformed into Joe’s makeshift bedroom. Into one corner, he had stuffed a few shirts and pairs of socks. His boots lay at the foot of the couch where he’d thrown them, laces untied just as they were when he wore them. A thin pillow and blanket were folded over the sofa back. While Jimmy and I worked all day—he pumping air into patched up big rig tires, and me scrubbing dried blood off dental instruments—Joe slept in, watched TV, and got high. Then he’d light up again with us after dinner and stay up all night.

I browned the ground beef for the Hamburger Helper and toasted a few slices of Wonder bread. Jimmy and Joe ate in front of the TV watching Alf while I sat alone at the table. Around these boys, I played the same role as my mom had at home: feeding the men, making sure their needs were met.

“Hey, is it cool if a friend stops by?” said Joe.

“Yeah, tell him to ring the can,” said Jimmy.

Our apartment building didn’t have a buzzer system, so Jimmy had crafted a homemade doorbell by filling an empty beer can with coins and tying it to a telephone wire outside our kitchen window. When people stopped by to visit, they had to walk down a narrow alley to jiggle the beer can. Then, either Jimmy or I would run down three flights of stairs to let them in.

When Joe’s friend Daniel arrived, I knew we weren’t in rural Hyde Park anymore. Jimmy and I had lived with his alcoholic mother and stepfather in the sticks before we moved to Poughkeepsie; we’d never met anyone like Daniel out there. He sported slick dark hair and talked about friends in the Bronx and Brooklyn. Just the sound of the word when he said ‘Bronx’ made me feel like I was in a Kojak episode.  Daniel had close ties to New York City—a city only eighty miles south but, to me, so far from reach. I yearned to touch his sleeve, breathe in the lingering scent of Manhattan from his pores.  Like a sprinter who’d just competed in a race, Daniel radiated an energy that filled our apartment.

From his coat pocket, he pulled out a tinfoil packet and a razor blade. He rolled a crisp dollar bill into a tight straw.

“Got a mirror?” he said.

I found one in the Hefty garbage bags where we kept our belongings. Daniel poured a mound of white powder onto the mirror and began chopping it with quick precision, careful to work out all the tiny lumps. I’d never done coke before. The cat walked by, so I pulled at his ears and squeezed his tail until he ran off in confusion and hid under the couch. Once Daniel felt satisfied with the consistency of the powder, he cut four fat lines, one for each of us. Daniel did the first line in one quick snort, and then handed the rolled-up dollar bill to Jimmy.

“You want to go first babe?” he said.

“No, you go ahead.”

That’s what I loved about Jimmy. He always looked out for me, thought about me first. When he’d asked me to drop out of high school and run off to upstate New York with him, I had done it because I knew Jimmy would always take care of me. He sniffed up his line of coke like a professional. Had he done this before? I knew he hadn’t. Jimmy had perfected a street persona as a young boy.

Joe went next. When it was my turn, I pulled my long hair away from my face and rehearsed the phrase ‘Don’t blow out’ over and over in my mind. No one, especially Daniel, needed to know I was an amateur. I pushed my left nostril down with my index finger just like the boys had done and placed the straw into my right nostril. I wondered what I looked like at that moment. When I inhaled, I felt a sharp burning sensation followed by a numbness at the back of my throat. We all stood around the kitchen table sniffling.   

“This is some good shit,” said Jimmy.

Tiny angels fluttered throughout my body, up my legs, torso and arms, rising through my head until they were floating high above me. They multiplied by the thousands until they filled the entire room. The couch levitated as I lit cigarette after cigarette. If I could’ve smoked three at a time, I would have. And then an overwhelming feeling: complete harmony. The sound of crumpling paper. Horses walking on wet pavement. Fortune cookies. Rabbit fur. My sister Niche. Jimmy. Everything I loved, had ever loved.

“You alright, baby?” said Jimmy.

“Yeah,” I said. “Totally.”

Jimmy, Joe and I stayed up late that night watching Honeymooners. No one could sleep. I thought about how, as a young girl, I used to put on my mom’s high heels and walk down a cement path in the backyard that led to the side door of the garage. Click clack. I’d knock on the door and visit with imaginary friends in their make believe garage-apartment. Now, people came to visit us—in our very own place. The world I had dreamed about had come true.    

***

Joe’s girlfriend Tammy resembled a petite Olive Oil, with a thin, frail body, dark, shoulder-length hair pulled back in a low pony tail and light freckles around her nose. She clung to Joe’s muscular arm like they were navigating a haunted house together.

“You guys hungry?” I said.

Filipino custom dictated that you always fed guests in your home. No matter how far away I ran from my family, I couldn’t shake this practice.

Tammy never spoke to me directly, but, instead, whispered into Joe’s ear.

“Yeah, we could eat,” he said.

I put a frozen Salisbury steak in the oven and made instant mashed potatoes. In the cupboard, I brushed away dried up roach wings next to the can of peas. Although I’d just showered, a new layer of sweat had already begun to form. Joe and Tammy ate their meal in front of the TV. Jimmy and I sat at the table, where we stayed all night, as there was no longer room on our own couch.

Later that evening, Jimmy called me into the bedroom to let me know that Tammy needed to stay the night, too. She’d been in a fight with her dad and couldn’t or didn’t want to go home.  

“How old is she?” I said.

“About sixteen.”

Jimmy and I had just turned eighteen, our birthdays only a week apart. I remembered how many times I’d been an underage runaway in need of a place to stay, how many times I had felt thankful for a safe, warm bed in a friend-of-a-friend’s place.

“One night,” I said.

***

Jimmy whispered into my ear, “That’s hundreds of dollars’ worth of coke.”

Joe had invited Daniel over again. The five of us sat around the table all night, doing lines as Daniel carved them out for everyone except Tammy, who we all agreed was too young. It’d been over a week and Tammy still had nowhere else to go. We drank Genesee and listened to the Eagles sing about a dark desert highway. At one point, Daniel emptied out half the tobacco of a cigarette and sucked a line of coke into it. When I took a drag, a sharp, metallic taste filled my mouth. Don’t waste the precious coke this way. I want it straight.

***

“I want them out,” I said.

Joe and Tammy had been living on our couch for weeks. I’d been making them dinner every night. They got high and slept all day—Joe in cutoff jean shorts and no shirt, Tammy in underwear and a loose tank top with no bra. Their groans in the middle of the night kept me up; once I heard them, I couldn’t stop listening.

“Okay, baby,” said Jimmy. “I’ll talk to him.”

When I came out of the bedroom, Joe and Tammy had already packed up their things. I didn’t know what Jimmy had said, but he’d taken care of the problem. Jimmy could handle anything. I let Joe and Tammy borrow a grocery bag for their belongings.  

“See you guys around,” said Joe.

“Bye,” said Tammy. That was the only word she’d spoken directly to us during her entire visit.

Our apartment felt clear and spacious again. I draped my body over Jimmy’s on the couch.

“Do you think Joe’s still your friend?” I said.

“This is New York, baby,” he said. “People are your friend until they’re no longer your friend.”

***

As I took a bite of SpaghettiOs, the beer can rang. Daniel had returned. From the kitchen window, Jimmy yelled down that Joe was no longer staying here.

“Invite him up!” I said.

Daniel cut the first set of lines and handed a short straw to Jimmy. This time Jimmy didn’t ask if I wanted to go first. Instead, he took the biggest, fattest line. Did he really just do that? Why did he do that?  I’d never seen this side of Jimmy before. I didn’t know he had it in him to be so selfish. I glared in his direction but he wouldn’t look at me. Instead, he leaned back in his chair and closed his eyes. I snorted my ultra-thin line, tossed the straw on the table and got up to sit as far from Jimmy as possible.

Daniel talked about driving down to New York City that evening. Some “killer shit” would be arriving from overseas. In my mind, I pictured a secret cargo ship docking in the middle of the night. Tight packages of fresh cocaine unloaded into an unmarked car. Before Daniel left, he did something he hadn’t done on his previous visits—he wrote his phone number down. “Call any time.”

“See baby,” said Jimmy. “Joe hooked us up with a new friend.”

“Don’t lose that number,” I said.

Golden Pen

The ride on the donkey-driven cart came as part of the package tour of Tunisia. A few of us sat in the makeshift cart made of rough, splintered wood, taking in the heat and arid landscape with fascination as tourists do. The path wide enough to accommodate our cart only. I was on spring break from a study abroad program in Bath UK. The driver, a middle-aged man who looked much older than he probably was, covered in strips of cloth and various rags to protect his head and body from the heat. We were somewhere in rural Tunisia. It could’ve been another planet or a set from a Star Wars film.

Halfway through the ride, I pulled out my journal and pen and started writing. Probably about a guy back home I’d had a crush on but hadn’t heard from since I left for Bath. The old man turned around and with a flash of his eyes, I knew he’d seen something miraculous. My pen. Once he saw it, he couldn’t stop staring at it. Every few seconds, he’d turn around to glimpse it. I grew self-conscious as I wrote. As the minutes went by, he began to turn around for longer periods to watch me hold the pen in my hand and write in loops and curves, his eyes following every movement of the writing instrument.

“Be careful,” I said. To the right of the narrow path was a steep drop off.

Finally, he pointed to my pen the way you point at something repeatedly to a vendor in a crowded marketplace.

“Je veux ton stylo,” he said. “Pour mon fils qui va à l’école.”

“Oui, bien sûr,” I said. “Quand j’ai fini.”

His son could have it, this clear Bic pen made of cheap plastic, a pen that I could lose or throw away back home and never miss. The kind of pen that came in packs of ten for a few dollars at Walgreens. I knew what it was like to go without—or rather I have secondhand memories of it. My dad had to bring his own chair to school in the Philippines. My maternal grandpa, who emigrated to the US in his 60s, would stop his bike on the streets of East San Jose to pick up broken, run over, chewed up pens and pencils, clean them up best he could back home, wrap them tightly together in a thick rubber band and store them in the closet unused (my siblings and I would refuse to use them). Of course this man could have my pen for his son who goes to school.

It’s difficult to write a long journal entry as someone waits for your pen. I could feel the man’s distrust growing with every word I wrote. At any time I could change my mind. He turned around several more times and we repeated the conversation. He’d grown accustomed to being promised things that never materialized.   

“Je veux ton stylo,” he said. “Pour mon fils qui va à l’école.”

“Oui, oui, bien sûr,” I said. “Quand j’ai fini.”

Without finishing my journal entry, I closed the pen and handed it over to the man. He grabbed at it vigorously, placed it in a pocket near his heart, and held his hand over it as he drove the cart forward in the desert sun.

The Relay

This essay appears in Essential Truths: The Bay Area in Color (2021)

Late 1990s. I ran the first leg of three along Skyline Boulevard in the dark, gripping a baton in my hand, a headlamp lighting the way. To my right, the vast Pacific Ocean I could hear and smell but not see. Ahead of me, a long, empty two-lane road. My teammates had dropped me off at the handoff point, where I jumped out of the van and grabbed the baton from the previous runner: each of us with a hand on one end of the stick for a brief moment as one runner—tired, fatigued—let go so the fresh, well-rested runner could take over. It went like this for 24 hours until our team of twelve made it 192 miles from Calistoga to Santa Cruz to raise funds for charity. On my last leg in Ben Lomond, the lack of sleep, the cold and hunger had taken over me. Just when I thought about giving up, two exhausted teammates who’d already completed their three legs emerged from the van to run alongside me. Because of them, I made it to the handoff station, where the next runner grabbed the baton from me and hurried off.  

* * *

August 2020. I got the call late in the afternoon from Rose, a longtime housing worker and activist. It had been eleven long days since I started helping Anita, an African American houseless mother, and her four children ages two to nine. Her boyfriend, her niece, and her nineteen-year-old son were also part of the tight group that made up their family circle. All of them were living between two small tents in Oak Knoll Park at the bottom of my street near Lake Merritt.

I hoped my conversation with Rose would be the beginning of a months-long effort to get this family housed during a pandemic and raging wildfires that pushed Bay Area air quality to unhealthy levels. However, after listening to my story, she said, “The need is so great. Housing is just one of their challenges. You don’t know them; they didn’t come through “the system.” you don’t know their history, if there’s drug or alcohol abuse. I know this isn’t what you want to hear but I wanted to call to protect you. To make sure you don’t get too involved. The need is so great.”

It took me several minutes to process her advice. A part of me wanted to disagree with Rose, to let her know I couldn’t stop now. A two-year old girl in diapers living on the streets. And then, another part of me exhaled in the deepest way, as if Rose had given me permission to disengage myself from the difficult situation altogether. Something I didn’t think possible at that point, or ethical. A realization I mightn’t have arrived at on my own any time soon.

***

I first met Anita and her kids when passing out lunch bags to the houseless folks in my neighborhood, something I started doing when homeless encampments developed in my immediate area over the past year. It got to the point where I couldn’t run an errand or walk my dogs without seeing people in need in my own neighborhood. I’ve experienced secondhand trauma from my dad’s stories of hunger during WWII in the Philippines; his mother, my grandmother, died from starvation. I didn’t want to be another person looking away.

Each week, using money I would’ve otherwise spent on sushi, I bought Costco lunchmeat for sandwiches, chips, and chocolates. I packed the lunches on Sunday afternoons and distributed them until I ran out. Soon I started to include dog food as well. I asked for donations online so I could expand my operations. Never had I come across any children during my deliveries. That day Anita’s two-year-old emerged from the tent, followed by her four-year-old, followed by her seven-year-old, followed by her nine-year old, I couldn’t make sense of it. What are they doing here? How can they be living here? How can we (neighbors, passersby, the city of Oakland, the mayor) allow this?

Anita and I exchanged numbers. She asked me for multi-vitamins because the whites of her eyes turned yellow, something I’d noticed immediately. She pointed to her shoes to show me her swollen feet and said her boyfriend’s feet also were swollen. When I asked her what she needed most right now, she said a van that seats seven, which I couldn’t provide for her. “You need medical attention,” I said. She looked at me like I’d just said something in a foreign language. Her young kids crowded around me. I asked them what they wanted to be when they grew up. “Basketball player and scientist!” said the nine-year-old boy, with every confidence he could be both.  

Operation Dignity arranged to put the family in a motel for a week. I used the funds I raised online to buy food and water in bulk and delivered it to them along with Anita’s vitamins. She texted to ask for a hot plate for cooking, so I ordered one and brought it to their motel along with a large pizza and quarters for laundry. One generous person on Nextdoor paid for two extra nights when their motel voucher had expired and air quality worsened. I called every nonprofit I could find to ask about assistance for the family. Many said their shelters were full. Some offered food and diapers, and temporary shelter but only for Anita and up to two kids. All of them asked, “Is she in the system?” When I’d ask Anita if she were in the system, she would say ‘yes’ even though the case managers I spoke to at various agencies said she was not.

After intense efforts over a few weeks, the call with Rose woke me up. At the same time, Anita stopped responding to my texts, weary of my insistence that she sign up to a system that can both help and hurt her. “I don’t want to lose my kids,” she would say. I couldn’t reassure her otherwise because I knew it to be a real possibility. I knew the chances were high that they could take away one or all of them, something that needs to change if houseless mothers are to get the help they need without fear. Unfortunately, I never heard from Anita again.

***

My boyfriend once said to me that you can’t help everyone, but you can do small things to help make someone’s day better. I’ve realized that, although I couldn’t help Anita and her family in the way I’d hoped, I and my neighbors did make their lives better for a brief period. That we’re all in a long relay race, doing our part the best we can, and then handing the baton off to the next person who can help as much as they can, and so on. Every leg of the race counts, every gesture, however big or small, matters.

I’ve since left the Bay Area for a small town in the Sierra Nevada foothills. As soon as things open up, I’ll be ready to help again in any way I can.  

Higher Education

Wearing a pair of faded green cargo pants and red Ecco boots with their thick sole to protect from the rain, I notice the man in the seat next to me looking me up and down. “Where do you go to school?” I asked how he knew I was a student. “It’s obvious.” What I couldn’t tell him is that I had to leave my master’s program in Cork due to a breakdown, that I had to get an extension on my thesis, pack my suitcase, and fly home without a degree. It would be the first time, but not the last, that I would put my mental health before school or work. I say this knowing it’s a privilege—not everyone can drop what they’re doing to recover from a break. I also write this knowing that there are readers out there who will try to define me as someone who has broken down. To those people I say, go ahead and judge if you must. I’ve nothing to prove to you.

Before I tell you what happened, you’ll want to know the reason behind the break, the tightly wrapped reason that you can hold and see and feel. I can tell you the main triggering event: a long-term on/off boyfriend in San Francisco announced his engagement to another woman six months into my stay in Cork. That happened in March of 2002. I took the phone call on a land line in the Munster Literature Centre, located at the time in a classroom of an all-boy’s school. The full breakdown happened five months later in August. In between I read When Things Fall Apart twice and wrote critical papers on Irish poets and writers and shopped for fresh produce and fish in the English Market and continued on as a volunteer at the Munster Lit. That June I threw a birthday party that people still talk about today. I published my first-ever essay on racism in Cork in the Centre’s magazine. When my university said I couldn’t write my thesis on an Irish-language poet because I didn’t speak Irish, I travelled down to Dun Laoghaire to meet the poet in person, and she suggested I write about the differences between the literal translations of her work and the creative translations of her work by other poets. My new topic got approved. All I had to was write it.

If only the reason were that simple. A boyfriend got engaged. Today, I don’t even care about this person. There’s nothing I want or need to know. Those seven years of struggle had more to do with me than him. He’s just the person through which I worked out some issues. I know that now. A few weeks ago, I noticed that he’d been on my LinkedIn page, and I didn’t even care enough to block him. If he ever reaches out to me again, I already know I won’t respond. Thank god he married someone else. I always felt not pretty enough or rich enough or accomplished enough around him and his friends. I’m grateful for the lessons taken from that experience because they’ve brought me to where I am today. In all honesty, I would probably find him boring if we were to meet up after all these years. He absolutely hates technology and has built his life and career around it. What a yawn fest that would be.

The real reasons behind the break go so much deeper than him. But that’s not what I’m here to write about right now.

The symptoms started with insomnia and a headache that worsened over several weeks. I went into the herbal shop on Patrick Street for help and wanted to choke the woman behind the counter when she told me the rose hip drops on my tongue would take a week to take effect. I scheduled an Indian head massage on Oliver Plunkett Street but the tightness and pressure around my head didn’t subside. I tried to buy three items at Tesco’s but froze in the produce section holding an empty basket, unable to figure out how to find the items I needed, place them in my basket, and make it to the register to pay. Instead, I rushed out of the store and ran back to my apartment overlooking the weir. I cried on the blue couch. After a good long cry, I’d cry again. When I tried to read an article in the newspaper, the words jumped around on the page. I didn’t know what was happening to me. Nothing like this had ever happened before.

My boyfriend at the time sent me to see his doctor. I’ll always be grateful for that. The doctor diagnosed me immediately as having depression and anxiety. He wrote out a prescription and a letter to my university saying I needed an extension on my thesis. The medication started to work within hours. The feeling of the tight rubber band around my head slowly lifted and I slept and slept for days. After a few weeks on the medication, I tried to resume work on my thesis but still couldn’t concentrate enough. Academic writing confused me. I couldn’t synthesize my thoughts. My topic felt too complex. (Was it too late to just write another thesis on Oscar Wilde?) All in all, I’d lost a lot of weight that I couldn’t afford to lose.

Finally, I called my sister to let her know what I’d been going through. My plan, I said, was to stay in Cork as long as it took to finish my thesis. “I’m not leaving without finishing.” She agreed with the plan, probably because she knew I was too stubborn to come home without a degree. On that call, I broke down and let out a wail that scared even me. I asked her for my brother-in-law’s opinion, and in the background I heard him say, “Come home.”

I booked my flight home that day. I told myself, you can do this, but you can’t do it right now. Take care of yourself first. Your body and heart and mind want your full attention. They’re demanding it, in fact. It’s not so much that I gave up, it’s that I didn’t have a choice. To attempt to stay in Ireland and work on the thesis would’ve been self-destructive.

Back home, with the help of my sister and brother-in-law, I put on some weight over the next several months and recovered enough to start thinking about my thesis again. My mind felt clear, and my thesis topic excited me once again. I submitted it in the fall of 2004 and got my degree with upper second class honors (2:1). When I look at the hard-bound cover on my bookshelf, I feel the weight of that education.

Imperfections

Jeff and I met at a tech company in 1995 when I interviewed for a job I was fantastically underqualified for in sales operations. I’d just graduated San Jose State with a bachelor’s degree in English and had been working part-time in the IT department for a mid-sized global networking company in Santa Clara, the heart, or at least a ventricle of the heart, of Silicon Valley. In fact, half of my family members worked there, which is how I got the job—brother-in-law, his sisters, their brother-in-law, their brother-in-law’s brother, my sister and, eventually, my brother. At work, sometimes people would ask me how we’re all related, and I’d need to get on the white board to map out the family tree.

I knew nothing about computers, nothing about working in an office, nothing at all about IT. But because I felt so behind after having dropped out of high school and running off to upstate New York with Jimmy, I immersed myself in an unhealthy way in the job, learning as much as I could, as fast as I could, volunteering for everything and anything. (So much so that a full-time staff person once expressed shock to learn I was just an intern.) You need someone to work the midnight shift? I’ll do it. You need someone to answer the IT help line for East Coast users at 6 am Pacific time? I’ll do it. You need someone to sit in the frigid server room to monitor the servers for the entire company? That’s me. You need someone small to crawl beneath the floorboards of the server room to fix some cables? I can fit. I was twenty-six years old, starving for experience, recognition, advancement—anything to catch up to everyone else around me. Before I knew or understood that we’re all on our own personal timeline. Long before I knew that one day I’d become a writer, and having a teenage runaway story would be something of a jewel for me.

When I saw the job posting for the systems analyst position in the sales department, I had the balls to apply. No one in my family, with one exception, had dared to venture outside of IT. It was like the Filipinos belonged in the support role, in the building in the back, not in any front-facing roles in the company. Behind the scenes. Unseen. Always accountable if anything goes wrong. This new role would be in Building 100 where the executives and sales and marketing teams sat. The most important and powerful people in the company where all decisions were made. That I had the guts to enter that building thinking I could work alongside them makes me smile today. There’s a reason we’re all naïve when we’re younger; that naivety moves the world, makes the impossible happen.

Jeff emerged from behind his colleague Kevin in the conference room on the fourth floor of Building 100 and shook my hand. I can only describe that moment as a white out, all my senses so activated my vision went blank for a few seconds. As if I knew on the spot my life would be split between pre-Jeff and post-Jeff. He had a dimple, fresh face, fit body. He exuded health and wealth. He was Asian. I hadn’t dated an Asian man in a long while. My current ex at the time was English. My serious boyfriend before him was Jimmy—the white, long-haired, drop out, weed smoking, motorcycle riding boyfriend I ran away with to Hyde Park, NY, his hometown. That men like Jeff existed excited me. That someone like him lived and breathed in the world and intersected with my life on that day felt unreal.

They proceeded to interview me about my skills and background, and I even got up on the whiteboard to show them how I would use software tools to replicate sales information nationwide and globally within twenty-four hours, back when real-time data didn’t exist yet. How I’d be the ideal liaison between the national sales team and IT given my 10-month experience in the IT department as a part-time intern. Later I would learn that Jeff said, “Her voice is mesmerizing. Let’s hire her.”

We’d spend the next seven years on and off in a serious relationship until he’d announce one day while I was studying abroad in Ireland for a master’s degree that he was engaged to another woman. Around the middle of our time together, I’d meet his family and spend time with his sister who had a Black Lab. I didn’t spend enough time with her family to grow close to any of them or their dog, but somehow this animal made a strong impression on me. This dog linked me to Jeff, his family, our connection, our intense desire and attraction, my deep hurt and disappointment. After my total breakdown in Ireland after having learned of Jeff’s engagement, I’d fly home and recover for several months, including gaining the weight back that I’d lost. I needed a dog, a companion, something to take care of, something to ground me in San Jose and the Bay Area, something to think of other than myself. And the only dog that would do was a Black Lab. If I couldn’t have Jeff, I could have a physical being that served as evidence that we’d once shared a life together. Isso started off as that link between me and my ex. And over the years, he became much more than that.

At first, it bothered me that Isso wasn’t a full Black Lab, like Jeff’s sister had had. A Black Lab mix. Mixed with what? Shepherd. Border Collie. His nose longer than a pure bred, his body leaner. Little wings of hair grew out from the sides from his neck. When he was a puppy, I’d try to smooth them back, try to make him look more like a regular Lab. Tried to preserve the image of Jeff’s sister’s dog through my own dog. Until one day, when Isso was a few years old, I sat down next to him, slipped my fingers through the course hair sticking out, and pulled outward to fluff it up, giving him a stately mane that was his and his alone. For the rest of his long life, I’d continue to play with the mane, make it stick out as far and high as I could, accepting him for exactly who he was, loving the perceived imperfections so much he grew to be wholly perfect inside and out. Trying hard to accept my own self-created imperfections.

Higher Education (excerpt)

On the opening night of California Sushi & Grill in downtown San Jose, two blonde college girls, most likely from San Jose State, walked in and said they’d like to sit at the sushi bar. Isabelle, the elderly Japanese hostess, asked them what they were going to order.

“Oh, we just want some California rolls and some sake.”

The only two stools available on the busy night sat empty, chairs number one and two, closest to the sushi’s chef’s toaster oven at the right end of the bar. Not the prime spot—not seats three and four, right in front of Hiro-san and with a front row view of the fresh fish. Isabelle looked at the girls and glanced at the empty stools. Back at the girls, and then the empty stools. And what she did next is something I’d never forget.

“No, thank you,” she bowed.

The girls, confused, turned around and walked out of the double doors of the restaurant while looking back at Isabelle and me and the patrons having fun at the sushi bar. They even looked in through the oversized front windows of the shop as they made their way down San Fernando Street. As pretty, young blonde girls, they didn’t know what to make of the situation. Never in their lives has anyone closed a door on them. Isabelle then walked over and propped stools one and two against the sushi bar counter to indicate the seats were being saved.

“What happened?” I asked.

“They wanted to eat California rolls,” she said, in a tone that said many things about the girls, like ‘How dare they’ and ‘No class’ and ‘Don’t they know the sushi bar is reserved for high spenders’?

Those bar stools stayed empty for the rest of the night. I imagined the college girls telling their friends about what’d happened to them at the new sushi bar. This incident early on in what would be a years-long job showed me how Isabelle deals with people, sizing them up for what they’re worth, their bank account size, whether or not they’re worthy to be in the company of the wealthy and powerful Japanese businessmen sitting at the sushi bar. Is this the restaurant I wanted to work for? I imagined the sushi bar would be a hopping, exciting, and welcome atmosphere, not one of exclusion. I could’ve been one of those girls coming in with a friend for a sushi snack. By turning them down, she dismissed a whole demographic of San Jose State students, even though the university was just a few blocks away. Did the owners know she did this? Did they ask her to do this? What kind of restaurant did they want this to be?

I felt really bad that the girls were turned away and knew how confused they must’ve been. They could see the empty stools at the bar, they could see everyone else eating sushi and drinking beer and sake and having loud, boisterous conversations over the music. They could imagine themselves fitting right in. I felt at once sorry for them and also in awe of how Isabelle handled the situation. She didn’t explain why they couldn’t take those stools, she didn’t say they were reserved, she didn’t say, ‘Come back another time when it’s less busy.’ With three words and a shallow bow, she managed to convey that they weren’t welcome and she was under no obligation to provide them with an explanation, that the house had invisible rules they didn’t understand, and that their business wasn’t needed. It was a masterclass in subtle yet effective communication. I wanted to know how she did that, I wanted to be able to do that. Like with many contradictions, that scene left me both unsettled and intrigued by Isabelle’s actions.

Limp Tail

For my fortieth birthday, I had a pool party at my sister’s house in El Dorado Hills. Friends from the Bay Area made the long drive up to celebrate, but none of us ended up swimming because, ironically, it was too hot. The temperature peaked at around one hundred ten degrees, and no one wanted to be outside. I had Mexican food catered that day, and felt badly about that decision when one of my friends commented, “What, no lumpia?”

Parties have always been a source of stress in my family growing up for the massive amount of cleaning and cooking and prepping that had to be done. Filipinos, including my family, felt the need to put on a big show, to have an impressive spread of everything from lechon and pansit to homemade desserts like kutsinta with fresh coconut and bibingka. Part showing off (we have a lot of money (even if untrue) therefore we can afford to provide this much good food), part cultural (food brings us all together, it’s nourishing, and there have been times in our lives or our ancestor’s lives when food was scarce, particularly during war), part prevention (if we don’t make enough food, which in Filipino culture means enough for people to eat twice or three times and take leftovers home (god forbid anyone leave without a paper plate covered in foil containing piles of food), people will tsis mis about how we’re kuripot). By the time the actual party started, we’d all be worn out.

Determined to end that practice, I kept the party as low maintenance as possible, which meant no cooking by anyone. We almost don’t know what to do with ourselves when we’re not chopping and slicing and frying and baking and boiling and steaming. In making that decision, I was aware that I was having a more Western-style party; white people cater all the time. Why couldn’t I? Why couldn’t I just throw some money at the problem instead of sweating and toiling away near the stove? I had a good job at Stanford, I could afford it. But the uneasiness of the decision, the feeling that somehow I’d let myself and others down by not putting in ten hours of work for a party, stayed with me the entire day. I’d taken the easy way out, the first generation to do so.

Isso wasn’t allowed in my sister’s house (too big, sheds too much) so he must’ve been in the casita with the air conditioning on during the party. (I can’t imagine he would’ve been anywhere else in that heat.) That’s something always difficult to navigate—when your dog isn’t allowed in the house. As if they’re not family, as if they’re not an important part of whatever social gathering or party or celebration. I don’t blame my sister, it’s her house and she can decide whether large dogs are allowed inside, but, still, it’s hard to take knowing your best friend can’t be with you during a milestone birthday. He’s the one who stayed up until 3 a.m. with me as I worked on my stories or critical essays for my MFA program, the one who greeted me with so much love when I returned home from work in the evenings, the one who slept on my bed every night, sometimes at the bottom of the bed near my feet, sometimes right on my legs, preventing me from moving even if I was in an awkward position, and, a few times, right next to me with his head on the extra pillow. How do you describe this bond to a non-dog person? It’s inconceivable to me to leave the dog out of a party or celebration. They are the party, they are the celebration.

Once again, I found myself single on my fortieth birthday. I’d been dating someone casually, superficially, the worst kind of dating for me. Definitely not someone I could invite to the party, someone my entire family would scrutinize. To make myself feel better, I wore cute short shorts—black with a red medieval cross stitched on the back pocket and gold angel wings on the back waistband. I paired them with a shimmering gold bikini top with braided straps, my way of saying, Yes, I’m single but I can still get away with an outfit that some 20-year-olds cannot. That I exposed so much skin that day makes me uncomfortable now. That I felt the need to compensate in that way makes me sad.

The next day, it cooled down enough to spend the day in the backyard swimming. Relatives and a few friends had stayed the night, so, in true Filipino fashion, the party continued. With a dozen kids jumping in and out of the pool, Isso joined right in. He loved to swim, but mostly he loved to fetch. I’d throw a ball in the deep end of the pool, he’d madly circle around the perimeter, staring intently at the ball, blocking out all other distractions, noise, people as he made calculations in his mind on the best way to get at the ball. First, he’d pace back and forth near the deep end, and then sprint all the way around to the shallow end to see if perhaps this was a better way to get it. And then he’d make his way back to the deep end and propel his 70-pound body off the ground and into the water, keeping his focus on the ball the entire time. Once he retrieved it, he’d paddle his way to the pool stairs, jump out, find me, drop the ball at my feet, and assume his fetch position like a runner in crouch pose ready to start the race. If I weren’t available to throw the ball for him, he’d find anyone—a grandmother, a toddler, anyone capable of picking up a ball and throwing it for him. If the person didn’t throw the ball to his liking (not far enough, not fast enough), he’d abandon them in search of someone who could.

I made the mistake of leaving Isso to play with the kids in the backyard while I sipped cocktails inside. I could drink a lot back then, maybe three to four martinis or margaritas, and still hold my own. Never or rarely did I get sick from drinking, and never did I cry when drunk. I’m a happy drunk the whole time, socializing in a carefree way, unable to stop talking, laughing constantly up until the point I fall asleep or pass out. With quite a buzz on that day, I forgot to check on Isso regularly. I could see him playing in the pool with all the kids and knew they would watch over him or let me know if he needed anything.

In the early evening, after swimming all day, Isso’s tail went limp. In the five years since I’d adopted him, I’d never seen anything like this. His long black tail with the slight bend in the middle lay flat against his hind legs. I tried to lift it but it just dropped back into place. He showed signs of pain when walking and couldn’t sit down. I panicked and called the nearest vet to schedule an emergency appointment. When we got into the examination room, the first thing I said was, “His tail’s broken.” To which the vet replied, “His tail isn’t broken.” I felt so relieved. Still, I at once felt worried for Isso, bad that he was in obvious pain, and guilty that I’d been drinking all day and not checking on him. If I were a better dog mom, this wouldn’t have happened. If I were a better dog mom, I wouldn’t have drunk so much. If I were a better dog mom, I’d be a better dog mom.

“He’s got limp tail,” said the vet. He explained the condition as one that large dogs are prone to get when swimming in very cold water on a really hot day. Isso would need pain medication for the soreness and a bland diet for at least a week, which stressed me out knowing I was supposed to leave for Slovenia in a few days for my MFA residency. Do I cancel my trip? How could I in good conscience leave for Europe for two weeks when my dog needed care?

I brought Isso home to Potrero Hill, where I was living at the time with a roommate and her dog, and she promised to take good care of Isso so I could go away. After many hours of travel, I arrived in the small town of Škocjan, population ten, only to learn there was no internet access except at the local library that had very limited hours. So once a day, between 1 p.m. and 3 p.m., I’d make my way there to try to get online, sometimes successful, sometimes not, to get status on Isso. It was hard to concentrate and stay present on my trip knowing he wasn’t well. He occupied my thoughts on the plane, in my B&B at night, and during workshop during the day. It hurt being so far away from him knowing how much he needed me, not just for care but for the special comfort I give him by singing personalized songs that have his name in them. Only I could take care of Isso in the way he needed—physically, emotionally, spiritually. That’s the real bond between a dog and their person; the daily feedings and walks are the tip of the iceberg of an extraordinarily deep connection that gets formed.

After a week in Škocjan, I got the wonderful news from my roommate Kyrsten that Isso’s tail started working again! His pain had subsided, he could sit down and resume his normal diet. My Isso was fine. The news made me so happy, and I finally settled into my trip without worry or guilt.

Wake Up (Duck) Call

I started a Google Sheet to track the animals I’ve encountered so far since my move from Lake Merritt in Oakland to rural Cameron Park, a place few, including myself before relocating, have heard of. After sheltering-in-place with my sister’s family in nearby El Dorado Hills for most of 2020, I’d grown used to the expansive space, smaller crowds, and slower pace. The few times I returned to Oakland to check on my place and gather personal items, I noticed my stress level increase due to the noise, crowded lake and concentration of people and buildings. When an opportunity to buy a home in rural Cameron Park presented itself, I put in an offer, had no competition, and closed escrow in three weeks. I realized after I said goodbye to my native Bay Area that I’d actually checked out long ago. The only thing really keeping me there were my clients, and the pandemic made them realize I (and most people) don’t need to be there in person anymore.

Cameron Park is a small town of about 20,000 people you might pass through on your way to Tahoe from the Bay Area, just when you’re about an hour and a half away from the lake and need to rest or eat. In fact, one of the two exits for Cameron Park offers just those amenities—motels, gas stations, a Denny’s, Carl’s Jr., McDonalds, Taco Bell. It’s one of those towns whose names you don’t need to remember after you’ve checked out or filled up and headed back on Highway 50 on your way up to the Sierras. You need Cameron Park temporarily for what it can offer you during your travels—a transactional relationship and nothing more. There’s a man-made lake and a neighborhood with extra wide streets and homes with hangar-sized garages to accommodate the private planes flying in and out of the local airport, but these places aren’t enough to attract tourists.

So far, in my Google Sheet, I’ve recorded:

  • 7 deer
  • 1 coyote (panicked)
  • 4 wild turkeys
  • 1 bald eagle (cried)
  • 4 ducks (3 living on my back porch)
  • 1 black swan (enamored)
  • Descent of woodpeckers
  • Countless squirrels
  • Dozens of turtles
  • The sound of a bleating fawn (YouTubed to confirm)

The number of wild animals caught me by surprise, which I now realize is such a naïve thing to say. Of course, when you have a heavily wooded area, there’ll be animals. I just didn’t realize how many, and close they would be, and that they’d be knocking on my window, peering in as I sit on my couch. In the first month of living here, I did online searches for mountain lion and bear and coyote attacks. I bought mace and a loud whistle for protection. My neighbor is whittling by hand a walking stick to help me feel safe when I take my dog out. I’ve stopped nearly every dog person on the back country roads to ask if any wild animals have attacked their dogs (they haven’t). It’s been months of paranoia and fear and constant awareness of my surroundings. Friends have joked that I was safer in Oakland than Cameron Park.

And then a month ago, about four months into my move to Cameron Park, I had a talk with myself. I’m an animal lover, I’ve studied animal communication and can talk telepathically with dogs and cats and horses, I love nature. How do I channel my fear of the wild into something else, something more accepting and loving? How do I learn to co-exist with wild animals and appreciate them, even befriend them (without interfering in their lives)? I set my intention to embrace the wild animals around me, and suddenly things started to change. I started to research how various animals stayed warm in winter, what they hunted, when they mated. I’ve a lot more to learn but have discovered a newfound commitment to understand their world as best I can and use my tools to communicate with them.

I headed out to North Carolina for three weeks on my first trip since the start of the pandemic. Upon my return, a female mallard duck and two male mallards rested on the shady slope of my back porch. A neighbor had put out water for them and threw breadcrumbs their way in the morning. I knew they’d come from the lake across the street and was surprised to see them looking so comfortable. While sitting in my living room that day, the female mallard walked up to my sliding glass door and peeked in between the blinds of my plantation shutters, her little brown head bobbing up and down to get a better view of me. I caught her on video and posted it to Facebook. Soon after, two male mallards (drakes) decided to play voyeur as well, but instead of just looking into my living room, they began to knock loudly on the glass door with their bills—nature’s way, literally, of getting my attention.

It didn’t take me long to order a large bag of cracked corn for them, the same feed I’d used for ducks at Lake Merritt. Over the past few weeks since the ducks arrived, there’s been some drama. Once, I had to stop working in the middle of a tight deadline to break up a fight between three drakes who were trying to mate with the female (Esmerelda). By break up a fight, I mean screaming, “Hey! Leave her alone!” and opening my door wide to coax the female inside for safety. In my subsequent research I learned this is their mating ritual, and that they mate for a season and the female can get hurt. The next time it happened, I had to stand by and watch without intervening no matter how much I wanted to help the female, reminding myself that she could fly away if she really wanted to. She has plenty of opportunities. Still, I viewed those drakes as abusive monsters for a while before accepting once again that nature must takes its course.

Last week the female went missing for several days. I knew ducks mated for the season, so it worried me that she hadn’t come by. The two drakes fighting for her would turn up and look around, confused. They ate the feed I gave them in the morning, drank the fresh water in their bowl, and waited for her, nothing else to do with themselves when they had no one to fight over. When she turned up after three days, I found myself asking her, “Where have you been?” and “Are you okay?” and telling her I’m so happy she came back.

They’re outside on the grass as I write this. I’ll keep feeding and enjoying them for however long they plan to stay. I’m hoping I’ll wake up to little chicks one day, peeking through my window.