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.

A Shared Place: Carlos Bulosan and the Dagupan Fish Ponds

For Filipino American History Month in October, I started to re-read Carlos Bulosan’s AMERICA IS IN THE HEART. In the first chapter, Bulosan makes reference to a stopover in Dagupan, my mother’s hometown, to see his brother before heading down to Manila. Dagupan sits twenty-four miles west of Binalonan, where Bulosan grew up. At age seventeen, he’d board a ship in Manila and sail to America in the steerage deck. He writes:

I had written him that I would pass through his town on my way to Manila, and had asked him, if he would, to stand in front of his house and wait for my bus. In those days there was only one bus a day from Binalonan to the train station, in the town of Dapugan. I could at least look through the window of my bus and wave good-bye to him.

When my bus came to the white saltbeds, I knew that I was nearing the place where my brother Leon lived. I saw the mango grove and the shining fish ponds beyond it, near the mouth of the Agno River that opens lazily into Lingayen gulf.

The fish ponds Bulosan writes about could be my family’s fish ponds. He could’ve been gazing at my family’s fish ponds before heading to America. I gave myself some time to take this in. I did the math. My mother’s side, the Paras family, has owned “hectares and hectares” of fish ponds in Dagupan, specifically in the barangay of Bonuan Boquig, for at least five generations. We still own them. We will never not own them, as my grandfather outlined in his will that our fish ponds should never be sold outside the family. When I travel to the Philippines in January, my mom will sign over a share of her fish ponds to me.

My grandfather inherited the fish ponds from his parents. I don’t know how much further back they can be traced to our family. When Bulosan would’ve been looking out at the “shining fish ponds” from the window of his bus in 1930, it is likely that those fish ponds belonged to my family.

Fish ponds in Dagupan, especially in Bonuan, produce some of the best bangus in the country. So much so that Dagupan is also known as The Bangus Capital of the Philippines and hosts an annual Bangus Festival. The secret behind the taste, my Uncle Ric once said, is in the water—the tide from the sea mixing with the river, which keeps the fish pond water fresh and flowing.

This same uncle brought me to our family fish ponds during my first and only visit so far to the Philippines twenty years ago. One day, during my two-week stay in Bonuan, Uncle Ric warmed up his jeepney, loaded the biggest bowl of rice I’d even seen, and drove at a slow pace down the dusty street. One by one, neighborhood kids jumped in the jeepney until it filled up. Then more joined in by hanging on to the sides and on the back. Just when I thought we couldn’t possibly take another passenger, kids climbed on top of the roof.

We parked at the side of a road and followed my uncle on foot along the raised mounds of dirt that served as a walking pathway to navigate the fish ponds. These pathways also served as demarcations. If you look at them on Google Earth, they resemble the hedges in the English countryside used to create boundaries in the land.

“Which ones are ours?” I asked.

“All of them,” he said. “As far as you can see.”

We arrived at a bahay kubo the workers used as a home base. Their jobs were to maintain the fish ponds, collect fish, squid and shrimp for sale in the marketplace and prevent poor townspeople from stealing. My Uncle Ric, however, had given one man permission to fish in the ponds so he could feed his family.

The workers caught an abundance of fresh seafood using a net and flash fried it in a steaming hot wok. My uncle brought out the bowl of rice and we squatted around the bahay kubo eating with our hands. Soon the neighborhood kids pulled out bamboo rafts and long bamboo poles for navigation.

“Shhhht! Don’t play in the pishpond!” said one of the workers.

The kids ignored him and so did my uncle. The calm waters of the fish pond turned into a makeshift battleground where you could get knocked off your bamboo raft if your opponent made you lose your balance. One kid fell in the water. And then another. They’d climb back on their raft and seek revenge, toppling other kids into the water while laughing and screaming.

“Come on the raft, Auntie! We won’t tip it over!” they said.

“No way. I’m not going in that water.”

I imagined brushing up against a slippery fish or getting a giant shrimp caught between my toes or having a squid stuck in my shirt.

How I got to standing on a narrow bamboo raft on my family’s fish ponds in Dagupan I’ll never understand. But there I stood, looking down at the brackish water. Watching the neighborhood kids have more fun than almost any kids I’d ever seen at play. Looking out across the horizon at our family’s business. One of the businesses that helped my grandparents send eight children to college. These are the fish ponds I’d heard about all my life.

All of the sudden, two boys swim underneath my raft, lift it on one side and flip it over. I scream like bloody hell as I land in the warm water. The kids laugh and cheer. For a moment, I forget about my hair and makeup.

“Do it again! Do it again!”

I climb back on to the raft, take a deep breath, and prepare to capsize once more.

Bulosan’s passage evokes the memory of this day. As he looked out on to the fish ponds, however, he faced an uncertain future in a place that would prove to be unwelcoming and harsh. I like to believe that the brief glimpse of our family’s fish ponds on his way to America came to be one of his fond memories of home no one could ever take away.

 

 

 

Saviour

This story appeared in Huizache, Fall 2012.

We drove down Gavilan Drive, past the corner house with roosters strutting in the front, picking at jagged crab grass with their sharp beaks behind the steel fence.  I sat in the back, trying not to meet Dad’s eyes in the rearview mirror, although his glasses were so dark I couldn’t see them.  Mom was in the passenger seat next to Dad, with her big hair.  Grandma was in the back with me.  Grandpa rode his bike to church, just like he used to in the barrio.  Every time my parents used that word ‘barrio,’ I thought of a bunch of donkeys behind a wooden fence.

The hills were bare and straw-colored, with small patches of green where a standalone tree struggled to survive the heat and drought.  The tall, rusted gates of the farm across the street on Quimby Road were wide open; I could see the blonde girls leading their horses around the property.  It was odd having a farm in the middle of our housing tract, but maybe it was stranger that their farm, which was there long before us, was now surrounded by one-story homes with two-car garages, a driveway and lawn.

As usual, we arrived late for the noon mass at Most Holy Trinity.  We sat in the back, near the end of the long red carpet that led up to the altar, where Jesus hung on the cross high above, his head leaning to one side, his loin cloth wrapped low and loose around his hips.  I often wondered what was underneath it.

For the next hour, we stood, kneeled, sat down, sang along with the band, shook hands with people in front of and behind us, and, in my case, pressed my forehead to the back of my parents’ and grandparents’ hands to show respect.  The priest mumbled on.  When it came time for the breaking of the bread, I sat back in the pew while everyone else got in line to receive theirs.  Grandma said it was a sin to take bread without first communion.  She kept reminding Mom to schedule mine.

The choir sang Aaaaah-men, Aaaaah-men, Allelujah while a boy in the band hit the tambourine hard against his hand.  I checked my purse to make sure the chain letter was secure.  When Dad had seen me copying it over and over, he told me to stop.

“But I’m going to die if I don’t send it to twenty five people in three days,” I said.

When mass ended, I approached the altar and waited in line to see the priest.  I’d never spoken to him directly and had never gone into one of those closet-booths for confession.  He was more like a celebrity than a priest.  There was a long line behind me of people who also wanted to speak with him.  Up close, the cuff of his jeans showed under his long white robe.  When it was my turn to see him, I handed him the letter, which he read with a serious look, shaking his head, staring up at the rafters of the cathedral ceiling.  And then, without a word, he ripped the letter in half, turned it sideways to tear it again, and patted me twice on the head.

“Go in peace, anak ko.  Say your prayers.”

Salamat po, Father,” I said, offering him one of the few phrases I knew in our language.

Out in the parking lot, my parents socialized with their friends under the piercing sun.  Dad told them about the chain letter and everyone looked down at me to laugh.  I didn’t care; I was more concerned about the bees swarming in the rose bushes nearby.  One landed on Mom’s red handbag so I swatted it away with the church newsletter.  In the distance, I saw Grandpa wrap a rubber band around his pant leg and climb on to his red bike.  Grandma smiled a big smile with her over-sized glasses but didn’t speak.  She never said a word in public but could not stop talking once we got home.  Mom and Dad invited their friends over for snacks at our house, so the two couples followed us caravan-style along Tully Road.  At one point, we lost them, so Dad pulled over with his hazard lights on until they were behind us again.

The guests sat in our living room, a place we seldom spent any time unless we had company.  Mom served ice water on a bamboo tray that had a colored illustration of the Philippine Islands, and Dad pulled her aside in the kitchen to tell her she should’ve made iced tea instead.  So Mom went back in to collect the glasses so she could pour a tablespoon of instant mix into each of them.  Grandma warmed up her homemade empanadas in the oven, and Dad made a comment to no one in particular about how we shouldn’t bake on such a warm day.

Mom brought out Avon books for the women to look through.  They skipped around the pages, from perfumes to lipsticks to jewelry, before using their brochures as a fan.

“Make sure you order from me,” Mom laughed, covering her mouth with her hand.  “I’ll give you discount.”

A discount,” said Dad, disgusted.  He was always correcting her English.

The women looked at each other.  Uncle Rudy, who wasn’t an actual uncle even though I had to address him that way, sat at the piano bench pressing one key at a time. He started playing Chopsticks.  Uncle Rudy worked as a chef at Round Table Pizza on Story Road.  Once, we ate there after church and he showed me how he spins the dough high in the air before catching it with his closed fists.

“How much did you pay for this house?” he asked.

I was used to these questions by now.  Filipinos always asked the price of things, how much salary you made.

“Not too much,” said Mom.  “We have a rental near Tully Road, too.”

“Oh, you have another house?” asked his wife, Auntie Elvie.  “They have another house,” she repeated, as she elbowed her husband in the ribs.

“How much are the renters paying?” asked Uncle Rudy.

“Oh, not too much,” said Mom.

“They’re good people.” said Dad.  “Filipinos.”

He said this even though the renters had abandoned the house last week without paying two months’ worth of rent.  We stopped by after church to see how they were doing, and to find out whether or not the man had found a job yet, only to discover an empty house with nothing but a few wire hangers in the vacant bedroom closet, swinging.

“Lourdes, why don’t you play something on the piano?” asked Dad.

Uncle Rudy moved off the piano bench and offered it to me.

“I don’t want to,” I said, sinking next to Grandma on the too-soft couch.

“We have company.”

“I haven’t practiced.”

“Your aunties and uncles are waiting.”

“I’ll be right back.”

I hid in the bathroom for a few minutes while the adults talked.  I didn’t understand why I had to play the piano every time we had guests.  If I stayed in the bathroom long enough, I hoped Dad would forget about having asked me to play. When I came out, Dad caught me in the kitchen eating an empanada, grabbed my arm and squeezed it hard.

“Don’t embarrass me, godammit,” he whispered.  His voice was low and gravelly.

When he let go of my arm, I felt the blood rush back in.  I followed him into the living room, where Mom had set up a portable fan that pointed directly at the guests.  The women’s hair and pages from their Avon books whipped around in the strong breeze.  Their drinks had turned to a dreary brown from the melted ice.  I sat down at the piano, the one my parents had purchased when Dad was stationed at a naval base in Japan, and pulled out my song book.  My heart was beating, my arm throbbed.  When I began the piece, my eyes started to water and continued to build until I could no longer see the notes.  With every wrong note I played, more tears came rolling down my face and onto my neck.

“Okay, that’s enough,” said Mom.  “Go to your room now, Lourdes.”

The guests let out an abbreviated applause.  In my room, I hid in the corner of my closet and slid the door closed. It was so dark I couldn’t see my hands.  I wondered what would happen if I asked God to let Dad die in a car crash.  I repeated the prayer a few times: “Please God let Dad die in a car accident,” but then I stopped myself because if it really happened, that would make me a sinner.  I didn’t want to go to Hell.

 

The following day, Amelia came over to play after school, before Dad came home from work.  He worked the day shift at the children’s shelter and Mom worked swing shift as a key punch operator, so they were never home at the same time, except late in the evening.

“Hi, Amelia Bedelia,” I said.

“Stop calling me that.”

Even though I hardly acknowledged her presence in class, I played with Amelia in private because she lived close by.  She was easy to play with, she would do anything I wanted her to do—cut the hair off my Barbies, play tether ball in the backyard, where I would always win, make mud pies that baked in the hot sun, swing on the swing set.  If I said, “I’m going to burn down a house!” her response would’ve been “Me too!”

Her last chance at finding friends at school was extinguished in a moment when the school nurse came into our class one day with white gloves and a small box filled with tongue depressors.  She started in the front row, inspecting every student’s head, tossing their hair around with wooden sticks.  Our teacher had informed us that someone in the sixth grade had lice, so all of us had to be checked.  When the class found out it was Amelia, a rumor began to spread that she had cooties, and if anyone touched her they would get them, too.  So became a silent agreement between us: she didn’t talk to me at school, and I would play with her when we got home.

We set up the Monopoly board for a new game, with me as banker who controlled all the money.  I picked to be the shoe, which I’d always picked, regardless of whether or not Amelia asked to be that piece.  Knowing she couldn’t have it, Amelia considered every other piece—the hat, wheelbarrow, car, deliberating over each one until I got so impatient I threatened to cancel the game altogether.  Finally, we played in silence, following all the rules, counting our money every few minutes, collecting two hundred dollars every time we passed GO.  She became flustered each time I bought a home on one of my properties, knowing the mortgage would soon bankrupt her, again.

“Do you know how to kiss?” I asked.

“No.”  She rolled the dice.

“I learned how on the mole hill.”

“You’re going to get in trouble if the teacher sees you.”

“I’m not afraid of teachers.  Tina Thompson said that all teachers really wanted to be something else but they weren’t smart enough,” I said.  “Follow me.”

I pulled Amelia into the bathroom and locked the door.  We stared in the mirror while I pumped my lips up and down.  Then I tilted my head to the side and glided my hands up and down the back of an imaginary boy.

“Try it,” I said.

“No.”

“C’mon, Amelia.  Do it.”

“I don’t wanna do it.”

“You better or I’ll find someone else to play with.”

Amelia wrapped her arms around the air, closed her eyes and opened her mouth.

“Now pretend it’s someone you have a crush on,” I said.

“But I don’t have a crush on anyone.”

“You must have a crush on someone.”

“Boys don’t like me.”

“Mark Hopper likes you.”

“His nose is always running.”

“Don’t be so picky, cooty girl.”

“Don’t call me that, Lourdes.  I’ll tell my mom.”

“Your mom is always camping with your stepdad.  How come they never take you and Crissy?’

“They leave us TV dinners.  Like Salisbury steak with mashed potatoes.”

“My Dad cooks all our meals.”

“We hear him yelling from our house sometimes.”

“That’s not him.”

“My mom said it was.”

“Your mom is never home, stupid,” I said.  “Mind your own business.”

 

When Dad came home from work, I heard him empty his thermos in the sink, followed by the schlup of a beer can opening.  He was a chef at the children’s shelter, which meant he cooked all day and then came home to make us dinner.  I’d heard stories at the dinner table about how he served as a mentor to the kids, even helping pregnant teenagers.  Once, when Mom and I visited him there, the kids crowded around him, tugged at his pants and shirt.  “Come on Mr. Bernal, can I pleeeease have another soda?”  It never occurred to me to ask twice for something I had been denied.  The thought of those kids doing it made me nervous; I watched for Dad’s reaction, checking for the vein in his neck, the twitch in his cheek.

When he passed by my room, I put my head down and began writing furiously in my notebook.  Mom wouldn’t be home until midnight.  I had to keep quiet and look busy.  Dad changed into shorts and a tank top before he set up a thawed chicken on a cutting board in the kitchen and hacked it up into pieces with a big knife.  Before working at the children’s shelter, he’d been a chef in the Navy for over twenty years, and some of his dishes, like Shit-on-a-Shingle made it to our table.  (Saying the name of this recipe was the only time I was allowed to swear in front of him in English.)  He chopped green peppers and onions, which he browned on a skillet before stirring them into the tomato broth.  I smelled the meat from my room, and heard the “click” of the rice cooker to indicate it was done.

I still had to solve ten math problems before dinner, but was nowhere near finishing.  Dad came into my room to check on me in between stirring the machado and listening to a speech by President Carter on TV.  I sat at my desk, the one made of a soft wood I could carve into with my pencil.  There was a red lamp in the corner with a big white lampshade and a green frog pencil holder, one of my favorite possessions.  I could arrange and rearrange the bouquet of plastic flowers on my desk, twisting and bending their wire stems so that some flowers were taller than others, some stuck out to the side while others stood straight in the middle.  My math book was wide open.

“You embarrassed me yesterday in front of our guests,” he said, holding a large wooden spoon soaked in tomato broth. “Why do we even pay for goddamn lessons?”

I shrugged my shoulders.

“What problem are you on?” he asked.

“Number three.”

“8 – q = 3/5,” he read aloud, over my shoulder.  “8 – q = 3/5,” he repeated, as if saying so would produce the answer.

He stared at the problem for a while, and then asked to read the instructions at the beginning of the chapter.  Dad had no patience for home work.  Grandma once shared with me late at night that Dad had dropped out of high school in the Philippines so he could work as a tricycle driver to help support the family and send his younger sister to nursing school.

“8 – q = 3/5,” he repeated.

He checked the back of the book for the answer, and then proceeded to flip between the problem and answer, problem answer, problem answer.  He wrote down a few numbers that were illegible, and then erased them so hard the paper began to tear.  The stew simmered over in the pot, sizzling against the hot stove.

“Dinner’s burning,” I said.

With one full sweep of his arm, Dad knocked everything off my desk—my papers, books, frog and flowers.  When the lamp hit the ground, the whole room went dark.  I tucked my head into my arms and folded over.  He landed a punch in the middle of my back, an explosion of pain moved up my spine.  I sucked in air and tried not to cry.

“Stop it!” I begged.

“Pay attention in class, Lourdes,” he said, as he walked out of the room.

I sat in my chair for a long while after he left.  It never felt right to move afterward.  It felt like I was supposed to stay frozen for as long as possible or he would come back around and do it all over again.

The following day, Mom called the principal’s office to let him know I had a cold.  She lifted my shirt to inspect the bruising.

“Say your prayers, Lourdes, anak ko, my only child.”

After Mom left for work in the afternoon, I closed my bedroom door, drew my curtains, and switched my lamp to the night light setting, turning my whole room dark red.  I thought of I Dream of Jeannie, and how I wanted to transport myself to Jeannie’s bottle, with its pink and purple cushions, deep inside a tiny bottle.

I started to get that weird feeling I sometimes got.  I didn’t know what it was, or if everyone felt it.  I lay down on my stomach, placed my hands between my legs and pushed my palms into my groin.  The harder I pressed, the better it felt.  I buried my face into the pillow; my feet pointed straight out, like a ballerina’s, my shoulders pushed into the mattress.  I moved my hips in a circular motion, in the same way I used to when I did the hula hoop.  My hands grew soft and warm.  I pushed harder and faster until I could feel friction between me and the bed.  After a few minutes, my body tightened and then relaxed.  I turned over on my back, out of breath, with my arms and legs wide apart.  I lifted the pillow and began to punch it as quietly as I could, counting to ten and starting over again.

When Grandpa knocked on my bedroom door, I was still out of breath.  He instructed me to go to his room and lie down while he heated coconut oil in the kitchen.  After a while, he came in with a small brown vial, which had once been a vanilla extract container, and lifted the back of my shirt.

Anak na lasee,” he said.  “Your father is the child of lightning.”

He dabbed warm coconut oil on his index finger, made the sign of the cross on my bruise, and began to pray in a language I didn’t understand.  In between each prayer, he blew on my back while making the sign of the cross with his hand.  The combination of oil and air made me tingle.

When Grandpa finished, he gave me a piece of candy that seemed to magically appear from the palm of his hand.  This was the only way he could help me.  They were recent immigrants, knew no one in the States except us, and had little savings.  They collected SSI, cooked and cleaned, and stayed out of Dad’s way.

 

Amelia came over after school to check on me and deliver my homework packet.  She said, “You don’t look sick.”  We locked ourselves in the bathroom, a mixture of steam and vinegar left behind from Grandma’s bath, and ripped the clothes off three Barbies and a Ken doll.  We filled the sink with bubbles, and had them dive off the rim, splashing around, talking about suntans and surfboards.

It hadn’t been long before Amelia and I took our clothes off, too.  I reminded her that if she wanted to play with me, she had to do everything I said.  I pulled my denim overall dress up over my head while Amelia removed her Charlie’s Angels t-shirt and shorts.  Our clothes scattered about on the floor, the dolls floated face down in the sink.  We sat on the linoleum, cool and sticky.  My back rubbed up against the red felt wallpaper.  I tried to hide my bruise from her.

Her body was so white.  Next to Amelia, my skin looked dirty.  I traced the pattern of the wallpaper with my finger, feeling the scratchy soft velour.  “Lie down,” I said.

Amelia had porcelain skin, a small sharp nose, and eyes that were a bit too close together.  She wasn’t pretty.  I could tell that she was sad, too.  Her eyelashes fluttered like a moth trapped near the porch light.  I pressed my lips on to her mouth.  Her pink lips were soft and warm.  I climbed on top of her and we kissed.  She struggled at first, and then began to relax.  Would Grandma get suspicious by the silence in the bathroom?  I placed my hand on Amelia’s small breast; she closed her eyes and began to sing a song.  It wasn’t one I recognized.  Something about a cowboy and dusty streets.  As she sang, her knees fell apart, slowly.  I touched her in the same way I touched myself.  We looked at each other without speaking.

Grandma banged on the bathroom door so we jumped back into our clothes.

“La La,” she called out, using a nickname she’d given me.  “Do you want some snacks?”

“Don’t you dare tell anyone what we did today, Amelia” I whispered, wagging my finger in her face.

“I promise!” she said, crossing her index finger over her middle finger before running out the front door without looking back.

 

Several days later, when Amelia’s older sister Crissy came over to tell Dad what had happened, I wanted to drink a gallon of bleach.

“How dare you accuse my daughter,” Dad said to her.  “Would you be here if we were white?”

Crissy threatened to tell her mom and stepfather about the incident unless I was punished and said sorry to Amelia.

“Listen, you white folks can’t come over here threatening me in my own house,” said Dad.  It was one of the first times I was proud of him for standing up to someone.  I liked that Dad was scaring Crissy.  I could tell by the way she backed away from the porch.

After she left, Dad rushed into my room, picked me up and threw me against the back wall.

“I’m going to cripple you this time, Lourdes.”

He lunged at me on the floor but Mom held him back, hanging on to his arm like a monkey swinging from a branch while he tried to break free.  Grandma and Grandpa clutched each other in the entryway of their bedroom.  Dad broke loose from Mom’s grip, picked me up again, threw me on to the bed and pounded me with his fists.  Everyone was screaming.  I tried to protect my head by withdrawing into the smallest, tiniest ball possible.

“Go ahead and kill me!” I screamed.  “Kill me!  Kill me!”

I never used to talk back to Dad when he was having one of his outbursts, but when things got really heated, words just came out of my mouth like it was someone else talking.  The more I talked back, the harder he hit me.  It became like a game after a while.  I was both scared of him and not scared of him during these moments.

Afterwards, the house remained quiet.  No cooking, vacuuming, dusting, mopping, sweeping.  No sign of life.  Dad retreated to his room as usual.  It would be hours before he ventured out again, his head hanging low, his eyes soft and apologetic.

After a while, there was a bang on the front door, red lights flashing across the living room curtains.  A neighbor, probably Snow from Vietnam, had called the police.  She and her husband liked to ask me a lot of questions, especially about Dad.  I thought the policeman was here to arrest me.  I considered climbing out of my window and up into the tree in the backyard, where I could look down on all the houses, the leaves shimmering in the wind.  I thought about Cell Block H, and how the women wore thin gowns, slept in small beds low to the ground, and never washed their hair.  They ate slop in the cafeteria and tried to kill each other with sharp objects.

The policeman asked, “Is everything okay here?”

“Everything is fine, Sir,” said Dad.  “I’m a retired U.S. Navy Officer.”

Although I couldn’t see him, I imagined Dad saluting the policeman.

“What’s all the noise?  Your neighbor said it’s been happening a lot lately.”

“Which neighbor?”

“Do you mind if I come in for a moment?”

The officer strolled in through the foyer; from my room, I noticed his night stick, big handgun and shiny silver handcuffs.  He asked Dad if all family members who were present could come out.  Grandma and Grandpa came out of their room, and immediately Dad explained to the officer that they couldn’t speak English, which wasn’t entirely true.  Mom crouched behind Dad, and I emerged from my room with swollen eyes.

“How old are you?” the policeman asked.

“Eleven,” I said.

“What grade are you in?”

“Sixth.”

“Can you tell me what happened here today?”

I shook my head.

He was a large, white man, much taller than my father.  His hair, reddish-brown, his arms spotted with light freckles.  He looked enormous in our house; I was used to small, dark people shuffling around.

“I don’t want to go to jail,” I said, before starting to cry.

The policeman bent down to my level.  His eyes were green and his breath smelled like mints.

“You’re not going to jail, sweetheart.  Just tell me what happened.”

“Lourdes, nothing happened, right?” said Dad.

“Sir, am I talking to you?”

“No, Sir.”

For the first time ever, someone stood up to Dad, someone more powerful.  I waited for Dad to react, but he stood in silence while the officer spoke to me.

“Lourdes, what happened here today?”

“I’ll never play with Amelia again.”

“And who’s Amelia?”

“My classmate.  And neighbor.”

“And what happened with Amelia today?”

“Nothing.  I don’t want to go to jail.”

“Sir, what happened with Amelia?”

Dad gave me a tender look.  I hadn’t seen that expression in so long, since the day he had dried my hair with a towel and braided it for church.  He’d run a comb through the tangles, spraying a detangling mist into the knots; I looked up at him in the mirror, and met his dark eyes, which were warm and glistening.

A muffled voice came through the policeman’s walkie talkie.

“Sir, are you going to tell me what happened or do I need to take you down to the station?”

“Officer, my daughter and her friend Amelia made a big mess of the bathroom.  They splashed water everywhere.  My wife and I could be laid off from our jobs any day now, and her parents just arrived from the Philippines, which means two extra mouths to feed.”

“We have social security,” said Grandma.

“I thought she didn’t speak English,” said the policeman.

“Those are the only words she knows,” said Dad.

In Pangasinan, Mom told Grandma to be quiet.  Even though I couldn’t understand what she was saying, I felt the threat run hard and deep.

“Sir, there are resources for new immigrants.  I can put you in touch with a social worker who can help.  I’m not going to pretend I know what it’s like to move here from another country.”

“I was a Chief Petty Officer in the U.S Navy for over twenty years, Sir.  Have you heard of the USS Sanctuary?  We were a hospital ship that gave humanitarian aid to underdeveloped countries all over the world.”

“And do you run your house like a ship?” he asked.  “Your daughter isn’t one of your men.”

“No, sir.”

In a strange way, the officer seemed more upset at Dad than me.  He leaned down to my level and asked me more questions.

“Did your Dad here get a bit impatient with you and your friend?”

“A little bit.”

“And are you going to be more careful next time?”

“Yes, Officer.”

“Sir,” he addressed Dad as he stood up.  “I’m not going to have to return anytime soon, right?”

“No, Sir.”

When the policeman left, we all watched through the living room window as he drove away.  A small crowd of neighbors had gathered across the street, so Mom drew all the curtains in the house.  I wasn’t sure if I was supposed to thank Dad for saving me.  He didn’t look like he wanted to talk so I didn’t say a word.

The sun was going down, giving us some relief from the heat.  In my bedroom, I gathered everything I loved on to my bed—my Barbies, frog, flowers, Monopoly game—and held them all at once, in a frenzy to play with them all.

© 2018 Beverly Parayno

Long Read – A Full and Complete Recovery

    

Alistair, her boss and lover, had been hit by a car while crossing Van Ness.  A woman drove east with the morning sun in her eyes.  He didn’t see her coming.  Cherry received news of his accident when her colleague Melissa announced it in a team meeting.  Cherry was frantic when she received the news, but had to negotiate her reaction carefully, showing a level of concern appropriate for the incident, but not too much concern, as she felt Melissa, and possibly others, was already suspicious of their affair.  Alistair, the new, young executive director of the non profit, and Cherry, an experienced database analyst stuck in an entry level job, had been dating in secret for the past year, and had just, four months before, taken their first trip together where Alistair introduced her to his mother in Scotland.  “It’s been a long time since I’d brought anyone home.”

In the four months since they returned from their trip, Alistair, it seemed, had been disengaging from the relationship—spending most of his times with friends, ‘forgetting’ to include Cherry in his social plans, not calling her when he said he would.  She felt the Scotland trip, the introduction to his family, the bonding with his mother over tea in a manor house, solidified their relationship; when in fact the opposite happened upon their return, Cherry thought perhaps she’d done something wrong.  Did she inadvertently allude to marriage on New Year’s Eve in Edinburgh, a chaotic evening she can’t recall after the third martini?  Did Alistair’s mother not approve of her?

When Cherry finally got off work, she found Alistair resting on the couch with the remote in hand, flipping through channels at high speed.  She’d spent the whole day in her cubicle with grey walls, sitting before her monitor with an open spreadsheet, as if analyzing important data, when in reality she attempted to contact Alistair by email, text, chat, wishing she could make up an excuse, any excuse, to leave work early without drawing attention to herself.

Alistair seemed quite normal when she arrived to his flat, unlike the romantic notion she held in her mind about coming to his rescue in his time of need.  She repeated the word helpless to herself, liked the sound of it, the feel of it.  Except for a limp in his right leg caused by a bruised thigh, where the car bumper had made its first impact, and a large abrasion on the left side of his forehead, which was covered in a thick clear cream and a white square bandage, he was the same old Alistair.  Cherry tried to contain her disappointment.

“You don’t have to stay long, Cherry.”

“Let me elevate your leg with pillows,” she said.

Cherry phoned her roommate to let her know Alistair needed her for the next few days, possibly longer.  Her roommate agreed to feed Cherry’s dog and take him on walks until she returned, which was a grand gesture considering her roommate had just lost her own dog to illness.

That night, after falling asleep with the aid of several cups of chamomile tea Cherry prepared for him, Alistair woke up confused and in pain.  She rushed to his roommate Rochelle’s bedroom for help but she wasn’t there.  Rochelle’d recently starting seeing someone new, so she was rarely home.  Her large, expansive room, a combination of what was supposed to be a living room and dining room, was dark; the only thing Cherry could make out were the masks on the wall and the round beanbag cushions on the floor.  Alistair and Rochelle could’ve had sex in here, she thought, and she’d never know.

The tech who responded to her 911 call asked Alistair a series of questions he couldn’t answer.  “What year is it? Who is President?”  Usually he was in charge, quick-witted.  He’d asked Cherry out within the first few months in his new position.  She’d been single by choice, or so she told herself; he’d just gotten out of a green card marriage.  Over martinis late one night, after an offsite filled with team-building exercises, he whispered in her ear, “Show me why they call you ‘Cherry.’”  She laughed.  Although for the first time she felt embarrassed by her family nickname—wished she’d reverted to her given name, Cheralyn, before they met.  ‘Cherry’ made her feel immature and fruitlike.

The tech repeated his question, “What year is it?” He held a flashlight to Alistair’s eyes, temporarily blinding him, scanning his pupils like a search light looking for a capsized boat in a vast ocean.

“He was hit by a car this morning, for fuck’s sake,” she said.

Alistair held on to the railing and the tech’s arm in preparation to move to the ambulance.  Cherry saw moisture gather in the crease of his eyes.  She grew excited, assured that her role, at least for the next few days, was to be his sole caretaker.

 

 

The last time Alistair had ridden in an ambulance was when he was eight years old, shortly after his father skipped out on his mother.  A boy older than him had pushed the carousel in the Council Housing playground too fast, causing Alistair to lose his grip, fall under the moving structure, where a piece of metal pierced his scalp.  In the hospital, the doctors placed Alistair under a thick, scratchy blanket before he smelled alcohol and felt a sharp sting on his head and passed out.  If he searched long enough, he could still find the small bald patch the size of a quarter in the back of his head that once held several stitches.

His mother, adjusting to her new role as a single parent, and pining over Alistair’s father who left for no good reason, panicked when Alistair got hurt.  It was her neighbor who called for a doctor, and it was the same neighbor who answered the doctor’s questions about his name and age, and watched Alistair’s four-year-old sister while his mother accompanied him to the hospital.

For many months after his father left, Alistair became accustomed to his mother’s new ways: she slept in all morning, got herself out of bed for a cup of tea, and then sat in front of the small television with poor reception until Alistair or his younger sister begged her for dinner.  Sometimes they missed school but she didn’t care.  He finally learned to boil water for macaroni and make cucumber sandwiches so they didn’t have to depend on their mother at all.  Every time he found the bald spot on his head, Cherry saw him rub it in circles with his index finger, around and around.

 

In the hospital parking lot, there were bits of torn paper and soda cans alongside the entryway of the emergency room, scruffy men drinking from bottles hidden in paper bags, the automatic doors leading into the hospital opening each time one of them passed by.  A security guard circled the lot, playing with his night stick.

The technician parked Alistair’s gurney in the hallway until a room became vacant, and asked Cherry to fill out paperwork at the registration desk.  In the rush to get him to the hospital, she hadn’t grabbed his wallet.  The clerk looked at the rows of empty boxes on the form.

“We don’t live together,” said Cherry.

After about an hour of standing next to Alistair’s gurney under the bright hospital lights, dressed in all black with red shoes, a work outfit she’d assembled earlier that morning to tease Alistair, she asked if a room would be available soon.

“Nope, there’s a full moon tonight,” she said.  “Thas when the fun begins.”

Another hour passed.  The doors of the emergency room opened and closed, opened and closed, as more patients streamed in, eventually parked in their gurneys alongside Alistair in the hallway.  He let out a series of load moans, so Cherry begged the nurse to at least give him something for pain until the doctor could see him.  His constant moaning in the hallway both upset and embarrassed her.  Why did it matter?  He was the victim.  Someone had hit him.

A young doctor dressed in loose scrubs came by to apologize for the wait as he filled a syringe with a clear liquid, stuck it in Alistair’s arm, and pushed the fluid inside him.

“Holy shit,” Alistair said, as his eyes rolled back and then closed for what would be a long sleep.

They wheeled a man with a bloody bandage around his head out of one of the rooms, and immediately moved Alistair in.  The same young doctor returned, and Cherry had to speak on Alistair’s behalf since he was too drugged up to communicate.

They stood on either side of his hospital bed, talking over him as if he weren’t there.  She wondered if the youthful doctor was an intern.  He looked mid-30ish, clean shaven, short, dark hair, even tan—the opposite of Alistair’s bright blonde hair and fair complexion.  The doctor asked a few questions, and then asked her to wait while he ordered a scan of Alistair’s head.

When the test results came back, the doctor let her know he suffered a concussion, and that it was okay to let him sleep, despite the myth that a person with a concussion shouldn’t.

“It’d be best to follow up with his regular doctor tomorrow,” he said.  “He does have one, right?”

“I’m sure he does,” she said.

“Well if he doesn’t, here’s my card.”

It wasn’t the type of business card you’d expect from a doctor.  It was his personal business card with a dark purple background and yellow neon lettering.  In addition to being a medical doctor, he was into energy healing, chakra alignment and Reiki.

“Can we call a cab?” asked Cherry.  It was nearly 2 a.m.

“Do you guys live in the neighborhood?”

“He’s in the Mission, and I’m over on 44th Avenue, near the Park.”

“You don’t live together?”

The young doctor gave her a bright, wide smile.

“Hang on to my card, just in case,” he winked.

Alistair dove into his bed when they got to his place, pulled the covers over his head, let out a few loud moans and then passed out for the rest of the night.  The bar crowds were dispersing in the streets, something she rarely heard out in the Avenues.  Cherry ran her fingers along his hairline, adjusted the covers while he slept.  There was an urge to look through his drawers, his shoeboxes filled with letters in the closet, old pictures of girlfriends he’d had in Berlin, London and New York, the last city he’d lived in before moving to San Francisco.  It was his fault she felt the urge to snoop—he never talked about the past or the future.  Finally, she turned off the light, unable to sleep, unwilling to let her newfound role as caretaker slip away.

 

Cherry called in sick the next morning.  She could almost feel the whispers in the hallways and cubes at work.  “Isn’t that a coincidence?”  While Alistair slept, she tiptoed from his bedroom down the long hallway leading to the kitchen to fix him black tea and toast.  His roommate Rochelle came out from the acupuncture room to search through her glass bottles filled with unmarked herbs.  By the slow and soft way she moved, Cherry knew she had a patient.  She never knew if Rochelle was certified but there were faded certificates in Chinese hanging on the treatment room wall.

“Hey,” she said.  “So like, how is he?”

She asked about him as if he were recovering from a hangover.

“I looked for you last night,” said Cherry.  “Could’ve used your help.”

Rochelle grabbed a handful of herbs.  “He’s sooo lucky to have you here,” she said, before hurrying away.

Cherry brought the breakfast things into Alistair’s room but he wasn’t hungry.

“Who’s President?” she asked.

“Fuck off.”

“Good, you’re feeling better.”

He asked her to take his suit to the cleaners, the one he was wearing at the time of the accident, and to pick up his prescription medication at Walgreen’s.  Cherry stepped into the warm streets, in awe of the way people went about their shopping during the day, the way the world moved when she was usually at work.  She passed a grocery store with loads of fruit stacked up under a striped awning.  Dance music blared from a clothing store that displayed three manikins from behind, who existed from waist down only, with large, plump asses.

“This gonna be extra,” said the woman at the dry cleaner’s when she saw the blood stains.

“But you know him.  It’s Alistair, the Scottish guy.  Looks like James Bond,” said Cherry.

“Sahrry, blood extra.”

“He got hit by a car yesterday.”

“Pick up on Tuesday,” she said.

When Cherry arrived at Walgreen’s, the pharmacist said it would take about twenty minutes to fill the prescription, so she wandered the aisles of the store, looking at the vintage candy, thinking about hot summers growing up in San Jose— Jujubes, Bit-O-Honey, Mary Jane’s, Abba Zabba, Bubblicious.  In the hygiene aisle, some of the fancier toothbrushes with bright colors, tilted heads, futuristic angles, were locked up behind a glass case, with a sign that said you had to ask for assistance.

When Cherry realized she’d been gone for nearly half an hour, she began to panic.  What if he passed out, or was unable to breathe?  She imagined his throat constricting, tightening.  When the medication was finally ready, she rushed down Valencia, across 23rd and over to Van Ness, with a level of excitement and fear.

She pushed her way into his room, prepared to make another 911 call if necessary.  But he was exactly the way she left him.  Curled up on his side with a pillow.  Cherry gripped the bag of medication, sat down on the floor and exhaled.

 

No one was sure where Alistair’s father went after he left.  There were rumors that he climbed a tall mountain in Scotland and never returned.  Other stories were that he sailed across to America where he likely lived in a shack in a secluded area.  He was a nature man who felt uncomfortable and uneasy in the urban, loud Council Housing units.  But the reason the family had to live in government-assisted housing in the first place was due to the fact that Alistair’s father couldn’t hold down a steady job.

His own father, Alistair’s grandfather, had abandoned his family at a time when Alistair’s grandmother had five small mouths to feed and another one on the way.  As told to Cherry by Alistair’s mother during their long, private lunch, Alistair’s grandfather got up one morning, had breakfast, patted the children on the head, as he’d done many mornings before, and never came back.

Alistair’s father was the oldest and therefore had responsibilities the other children did not.  At ten years old, he had a list of chores to squeeze in before and after school: wake up his siblings, prepare the toast, sort out any crying at the breakfast table, walk them to school, make their afternoon tea, help with homework and nudge his mother when she stared for too long at a blank wall.  He’d stopped going to school due to fatigue, and no one seemed to notice.  It would be years before Alistair’s grandmother realized he’d spent his days walking the hills and dales, fishing alone.

When Alistair’s father met his mother, they courted for a brief time before marrying.  His father had warned his new bride he was dead set against having children, that he felt he’d already raised a family well before his time.  She agreed and understood, but neglected to use protection because all she’d thought about as a young girl was having a baby or two with the man she loved.  She convinced herself that her husband would change his mind as soon as he held their child in his arms.  As she recounted the story to Cherry over lunch, she realized, as if for the first time, it was some type of small miracle that Alistair’s father had managed to stay around until his eighth birthday.

 

The following week, down in the café of the building where they worked, Cherry ran into Alistair, who was in a hurry for a meeting.  He stood in line to pay for yogurt and granola.

“Is that your lunch?” asked Cherry.  “You really should eat more.”

She reached for the scrape on his forehead, which was no longer a bright red patch but a series of light brown spots, and he backed away before she could make contact.

“Not here,” he said.

He turned his back to her as he rummaged through his wallet for cash, trying to balance his heavy shoulder bag with a large binder bursting with paper.  The café was loud and full of people; staff from four other non-profits in the building frequented it each day.  When Cherry tried to hold the binder for Alistair, to make things easier for him, he turned away.  “I’m fine.”

Cherry wanted to ask if they could have dinner together mid-week and possibly on Saturday, too.  She was working up to seeing him twice a week although he let her know once a week was the most he could do given his busy work, travel and exercise schedule.  But she was there when he needed her most and thought that should count for something.

“I’m in Vegas this weekend,” he said, before rushing off to his next meeting.

She’d forgotten about the Vegas trip.  When he mentioned it to her weeks before, he said it was a “male bonding” trip with colleagues.  She later learned at least two of the men decided to bring their girlfriends.  His excuse for not inviting Cherry to events was always one she couldn’t argue against—their colleagues would be there.

When she returned to her desk with a sandwich, Melissa knocked on her cube entrance to share the good news.  Melissa led the Development team and was known to kiss up to wealthy donors in hopes of landing in their will.  She once told Cherry, “I made it a point to compliment the Impressionist paintings in Mr. Fischer’s private art collection so he’d know I was a connoisseur.”

“Guess who just gave us a $500,000 check?” said Melissa.

Cherry was unable to guess who it might’ve been.  It was the largest individual donation she’d heard of in the five years she’d been with the organization.

“Adeline Scott!” she said.

Adeline Scott was the striking daughter and heiress of Abraham Scott who had made his fortune as a builder responsible for large-scale development in San Francisco.  He was the son of a laborer who watched his parents struggle to feed him and his brother over the years.  By high school, Abraham had dropped out of school to help his family, and was taken in by James Callan, as an apprentice on a construction site.  Mr. Callan, who had no children of his own, grew fond of Abraham and began to think of him as a son.  When he died thirty years later, he left a third of his empire to Abraham, a third to his wife, and the rest to charity.

Melissa held the check in her hand, smoothed it out several times, and thought out loud about what she would do if the money were hers.

“I’d stay in the top floor suite of the Hotel Paris in Monaco and order room service for every meal until it all ran out!” she said.

“Or I’d stay two weeks, and then fly to Rio, where I’ve always wanted to go.”

The longer she held the check, the more reality started to settle in.

“Actually, I’d just go to Hawaii for a week and invest the rest so I could live off the dividends.”

“That wouldn’t be enough to live on in the Bay Area,” said Cherry.

“Thanks for bursting my bubble,” she said.

Cherry texted Alistair soon after Melissa left to share the good news with Amy in the next cube.

He wrote back, “I know, I brought it in.”

If she could, Cherry would boast about Alistair’s talent, about his ability to get donors and volunteers excited about the agency’s mission to bring theatre to low-income, disadvantaged youth in the city’s poorest neighborhoods.  He could sell almost anything to anyone, she thought.  But she had to sit quietly with her pride in his accomplishments, at least until their relationship became public one day, which she hoped would be soon.

 

Cherry slept in Saturday morning despite her dog begging her to go out.  She tried to reach Alistair before he started his day in Vegas but was unable to reach him.  She adjusted her phone to the loudest ring tone possible in anticipation of his call later in the day.  Was he asleep in his hotel room?  Was he alone?  Thoughts like these had to be erased from her mind at once.  It wasn’t fair, she thought, not to trust him when he hadn’t given her any reason to.

Her roommate was away for the weekend so Cherry walked around in Alistair’s T-shirt and boxers.  First she made breakfast of dry toast and weak tea.  Outside the kitchen window, there was a small blonde girl and her younger brother, Cherry guessed, playing in the front yard.  The girl took her brother around in a wagon while he pulled on an imaginary cord that blew the train’s whistle.  They circled around and around in the small driveway, making use of the confined playing space that city kids had to adjust to.  Their mother knelt before a garden pulling weeds; every now and then she looked up at her children and smiled.

When Cherry first met Alistair, he said he wasn’t interested in marriage or in children, except when they turned twenty-one and were old enough to go drinking.  But Cherry knew he couldn’t have possibly meant what he said.  People like that spoke out of fear; she knew this from the myriad self-help books she’d read over the years.  She’d read so many, in fact, she felt she could open her own private practice to help people with their relationships.  A life coach of sorts.

She stood under the hot water of the shower for a long time.  Finally, she walked her dog to the park and threw pine cones for him, his favorite toy.  Above her, the wind moved through the trees, small grey squirrels chased each other across the twigs and leaves on the park floor before shooting up the tree and disappearing, only to come running down again and repeating the pattern.

Her apartment was quiet when she got home.  She flipped through one of her roommate’s magazines on running and wondered why anyone would do such a sport for fun.  It was times like these that she’d wished they’d ordered cable TV.  A little bit of background noise would’ve helped.  There was a substantial pile of laundry in the closet but she couldn’t bear to gather her clothes up and trek over to the Laundromat, even though it was only a block away.  Besides, her friend who owned the juice shop on the corner might see her alone; he let her know more than once that he didn’t like Alistair.  She didn’t want to have to explain why she was alone that weekend.

By dinner time, she still hadn’t heard from Alistair, nor did she hear from him the next day.  She started replaying their conversations in her mind about whether or not he said he would call.  He never actually said he would, she thought, so he wasn’t breaking any promises.  Cherry wished she could be a more understanding and trusting girlfriend; of course he needed to get away every now and then and relax: his job was stressful, unlike hers, he liked to remind her, which was a job that a monkey could do.  Cherry had no intention of staying in her role for as long as she had, and was close to submitting her resume to other agencies until Alistair showed up.  And now that they were an item, she couldn’t think of leaving, especially since the hour or two she glimpsed him in a meeting at work or in the café was the highlight of her day.

 

For the next several months, Cherry and Alistair met for dinner once a week, usually on a Tuesday or Wednesday night.  He liked to keep his weekends open, he’d explained, because every minute of his day was scheduled during the week.  So Cherry began to keep her weekends open, too, just in case Alistair rang at the last minute wanting to catch a movie or grab breakfast, which rarely happened.  Still, it was important to her to be there when he needed her, no matter what time of day.

One Wednesday night, while they sat at the bar at Tokyo-A-Go-Go in the Mission, Alistair let Cherry know that Ian, a childhood friend of his from Scotland, was coming to visit that weekend.  They’d planned to drive up to Napa on Saturday and possibly watch a soccer match at a sports bar in the Marina on Sunday.

“You should join us,” he said.

Cherry was excited to meet Alistair’s good friend; it confirmed for her that he was indeed serious about their relationship.  While she wasn’t invited to superficial outings such as happy hours in loud bars after work, he did make sure to introduce her to meaningful people in his life.  As long as she lived, she’d never forget the Scotland trip.  For the first time, she felt important and special because someone as smart and charming as Alistair wanted to be with her.  It meant the world to her that he’d paid for Cherry and his mother to have lunch in the manor house, just the two of them, so they could bond.  Why would he do that if marriage weren’t on his mind?

Ian came into town on Friday, and Alistair left work early to pick him up at the airport.  Cherry left shortly after him so she could rush home, feed and walk her dog, and take her time applying makeup and fixing her hair.  She had to make an impression.  The plan was for Alistair and Ian to drop off Ian’s bags at Alistair’s flat, and then to call Cherry as soon as they got to a bar.  She took her time in front of the mirror, blowing out her hair, section by section, before taking a flat iron to give it a shimmery, smooth look.  She used concealer under her eyes and over spots on her face, brushed on a light layer of powder, shaped her eyebrows and applied black mascara to the outer edges of her lashes.  She finished off with a deep red lipstick, perfect for an evening out with Alistair.

By 7 p.m., she hadn’t heard from him.  Cherry lay on her bed with her dog, careful not to move so as to keep her hair in tact.  A half an hour later, she rang him but it went straight to voicemail.  They must’ve been caught up in traffic, she thought.  Anything could happen on a Friday night.  Was it the last Friday of the month?  Maybe they were stuck behind Critical Mass or perhaps Ian’s flight was delayed?

By the time she finally reached him, it was past midnight, they were at a dive bar and Alistair was drunk.

“Sorry, dahling, we got caught up.  Haven’t seen each other in feckin’ forever.”

“But I’ve been waiting,” said Cherry.

“I’ll make it up to you, dahling.”

The next morning, she met Ian and Alistair for breakfast at his place.  She was still upset over the night before, but didn’t want to ruin Ian’s visit so she let it go.  Alistair ran to the local store to get some breakfast items, leaving Ian and Cherry alone.

“So what’d you think of Scotland?” asked Ian.

“I loved it.  Absolutely.  Could really see myself living there for part of the year,” she said.

“Are you planning to move there one day?”

“One day.  Perhaps when Alistair and I get married.  We could bring the children to see his mother.”

Ian choked on his orange juice.

“You’re not serious?” he asked.

“You never know,” said Cherry, shrugging her shoulders.  “His mother likes me.”

“The chances of this wanker getting married and having children is as likely as a volcano erupting in the middle of Edinburgh,” he said.

Cherry laughed, and then decided she didn’t like Ian very much.

Alistair returned with bags of groceries and made a greasy, gourmet breakfast for them, including mimosas, fried potatoes and eggs.  Cherry had three drinks and started to feel ready for a weekend with them.  When they were finished, Alistair explained that plans had changed.

“We’ve scrapped Napa,” he said.  “Instead we’re going to hang out with Mike and Donna from work.”

“But then I can’t—“

“Sorry, dahling.  I’ll make it up to you, I promise,” said Alistair, kissing Cherry on the forehead.

 

For the next week, Alistair seemed to be caught up in meetings, more so than usual, with his calendar blocked off for hours at a time in the afternoons.  When she hadn’t heard from him by Wednesday, or seen him around the office or in the café, she called him that night.

“Did you hear?” he asked.

“Hear what?”

“I’ve been placed on administrative leave.”

“They found out?  About us?”

“No.”

“Then what?”

“Let me call you from my roommate’s landline,” he said.  “I don’t trust this cell phone.”

He called back an hour later.

“What took so long?” asked Cherry.

“Rochelle was on her phone.”

“So what’s going on?  Are you okay?”

“Someone gave HR an anonymous tip.  They said I was sleeping with Adeline Scott, and that was how I got the big donation.”

“Is this a joke?”

“This is not a joke, Cherry,” he said.

After a long pause, he asked, “It wasn’t you, was it?”

“Fuck you, Alistair.”

“Sorry, dahling.  I just don’t know who to trust or what to think right now.”

He said, “Listen to me, Cherry.  We’re not to talk to each other or see each other for a while, until everything clears.  I mean it.  Don’t even look in my direction and don’t even think about calling me.”

“God, this isn’t happening,” she said.

“You can be sure as fuck it’s happening.”

 

The phone calls from curious and concerned colleagues and even Adeline Scott came streaming in the first week Alistair had been let go—resigned, actually.  The Board had given him two choices: resign with a clean record or fight the accusations, which could be costly for him, both in time and money.  Cherry was surprised when he chose the former instead of the latter; she felt he’d given up too easily and allowed the Board to push him around.

The first thing Alistair did was change his cell phone to a different number and unplug Rochelle’s landline during the day when she wasn’t home.  He sat on the couch in grey sweats, with the remote and a glass of wine before lunch.  Cherry was the only person he would see.  She stayed with him day and night, except when she was at work, where she no longer spoke to colleagues.  If anyone, particularly Michelle, who Cherry had suspected as the anonymous rat, tried to have a conversation with her about Alistair or any other matter, Cherry would ask them to send her an email.  Her eyes stayed fixed to spreadsheets as colleagues tried to communicate with her.  She hated Michelle and everyone around her for spreading false rumors about Alistair and Adeline Scott.  It took every bit of restraint for her not to stand up on a chair in the conference room and announce to all that she and Alistair were in a serious relationship, therefore rendering the whole supposed affair with Adeline Scott implausible.

Cherry suspected it was Michelle who’d done the damage because she had applied for Alistair’s position as Executive Director and was poised for the job until a recruiter, at the last minute, had sent in Alistair’s resume to the Board.  They flew him out from New York for a series of interviews and then decided, after much debate, that he was the right person for the position.  Michelle made it her priority when he first arrived to criticize everything he did, every opinion or idea he had.  Her jealousy couldn’t have been more obvious, Cherry thought.

Each morning, Cherry made breakfast in bed for Alistair before she left for work.  She’d call him several times a day, every hour on the hour, to check up on him once she was at work.  She missed deadlines, spaced out in meetings, searched the job postings for another position.  Without Alistair, it no longer made sense for her to stay at the agency.  There was no more anticipation of him turning up in her cube unannounced to ask about her weekend or to slip her a note that read “Take off your shirt.”  There were no more opportunities to watch him shine in the conference room as he spoke about the agency’s mission to infuse art into the lives of children who were otherwise headed for drugs, gang violence and early pregnancy.  Cherry felt others were simply doing their job, while Alistair was singularly focused on making the world a better place.  It sickened her when she thought of the poor kids who would go without art in their lives because the Board decided to play power games with Alistair.

Nevertheless, the world—her world—had finally turned into the kind of life she’d always dreamed of.  Alistair refused to meet or talk to anyone.  He trusted no one, except Cherry.  He even refused to talk to his mother in Scotland for fear she would pick up on something strange in his voice and know there was a serious problem.

“Let’s go to dinner,” said Cherry.  It was a Friday night.  She couldn’t remember the last time Alistair was available for dinner on a weekend night.

“We might run into someone.”

“You can’t stay holed up in your flat forever.  We’ll go somewhere dark and quiet.”

In the grimy El Salvadorian restaurant around the corner from his flat, a place neither he nor she ever frequented before, they sat in the back near the restrooms, with Alistair facing the door so he could see every person who walked in, could be forewarned if the need to hide in the bathroom arose.  He acted like he’d committed a major felony, Cherry thought, and was a fugitive on the run.  He thought his phone was tapped, and that he was being watched by someone hired by the Board to find concrete evidence that he was indeed shagging Adeline Scott.

“I’ll have another margarita,” said Alistair.

It was his third one in less than half an hour.  He’d hardly touched his food.  Cherry, on the other hand, had a good appetite.

“I was thinking we could try that new Peruvian place next Friday,” she said.

“I’m not on vacation, Cherry.”

He flagged the waiter to ask for a fourth drink.  The waiter looked at Cherry.

They sat there for a while with nowhere to go.  Alistair had been cooped up in his flat all day waiting for Cherry to finish work; she could tell he was relieved to be out, even if they were in a less than desirable place.  When he ordered a shot of tequila, Cherry didn’t protest.  “Get it out of your system,’ she said.

“My father would be proud if he could see me now,” said Alistair.

“Stop being hard on yourself.  Besides, your father left so he’s got nothing on you,” said Cherry.

“He was a good man, I remember.”

Alistair downed the shot and then sucked on a lime.

“The only thing he remembered about his own father was a pipe he used to smoke.  Can you imagine that?  Every time he smelled pipe smoke he’d stop what he was doing.”

 

Alistair drank progressively more each day.  For weeks, he fixed himself to the couch and waited for Cherry to get off work, where she found him unshaven and still dressed in pajama bottoms and a sweatshirt.  Finally, she quit her job so she could be with him all day.  He needed her more now than ever, she thought.

Four weeks after he’d resigned, on a warm day in August, Alistair had drank so much Scotch he passed out and vomited all over himself.  Getting sick was a good sign, it meant that he was letting things go, but she called 911 anyway in case he had serious alcohol poisoning.  In the emergency room, she saw in the distance the same young doctor who had treated Alistair after he was hit by a car.  Cherry felt excited.  She still had his card somewhere in her purse; each time she came across it when cleaning out her purse, she decided not to throw it away.

She applied fresh lip gloss.  Alistair moaned and opened his eyes for a second before shutting them again.  The doctor was coming their way.  He wore light green scrubs and a face mask dangling off the side of his chin.  As he walked, he consulted a file and spoke with a nurse.  He was more handsome than Cherry remembered.  If things didn’t work out with Alistair, she thought, perhaps she would call the doctor.

He walked past Alistair and Cherry in the waiting room, looked directly at Cherry and walked away.  Didn’t he recognize her?  She wondered if he was playing hard to get.  She let go of Alistair’s hand and followed him down the corridor.

“Excuse me, doctor.”

“Yes, how can I help you?”

She stood there for a moment, giving him a chance to recognize her.

“Miss, how can I help you?”

“Oh, I was wondering if you were our doctor.  My boyfriend is not well.”

“Just hang tight and a doctor will see him soon.”

He approached the registration desk and pointed at Cherry and the receptionist nodded.  Cherry stood in the bright lights of the hospital corridor as the young doctor turned the corner and disappeared.  She returned to Alistair, who had leaned over to the chair beside him.  A woman sitting across from them in the waiting room gave Cherry a hard stare.

 

The AA meetings the doctor had suggested for Alistair helped at first, but, more than anything, his disgust at the whole institution began to pull him out of his slump.  Cherry insisted that he continue to attend, that he needed it more than he knew, and that she would go with him for support.  He was more humble in those meetings, a different person almost, with her and everyone around him.  She’d never seen him show that kind of compassion towards other people.  Maybe with the low-income kids who participated in the theatre programs, but it was a different kind of sympathy he held for the other AA members.  But, after the constant check-ins and phone calls from other members started to increase, and they began to match Alistair with a sponsor who would help him through the program and on to recovery, Alistair refused to return.

“I’ll get my shit together on my own.”

For the next several weeks, Alistair woke up early, went for a morning run while Cherry was still asleep, and made a light breakfast of fruit and toast.  He spent the morning and early afternoon researching jobs, submitting his resume and speaking with recruiters about the types of positions he was looking for.  Cherry urged him to slow down, take it easy during this time of transition, and not to rush back to work.  Besides, it felt like they were on vacation together: she wanted to wake up late, watch TV in their pajamas, make love in the late afternoon, followed by a nap, and cook dinner together.  Cherry was hardly home these days, and her roommate had agreed to continue to care for her dog but now asked for payment.  Even though Cherry was no longer working and had little savings, she agreed to compensate her.

In all the time she’d been by Alistair’s side after the accusation and resignation, she’d never once asked him if the rumor about he and Adeline Scott was true.  The many times she’d felt the urge to ask, she was overcome by guilt for not trusting him.  There were many occasions when he went on trips or out with friends without Cherry, and so the opportunities were there.  What did he do all those Friday nights when she sat at home alone?  But she would never ask.  She wanted to hold sacred at least one thing in their relationship, and that was the deep trust she held for him.

 

“I’ve been offered a position in Europe,” said Alistair.

He was washing up dishes that evening and had hinted to Cherry that she should go home, freshen up, and spend a night at her place with her dog.

“Doing what?”

“I’d be a consultant to agencies throughout Europe on their fundraising models and organizational structure.”

Cherry wasn’t expecting him to find a position so soon, and certainly not one in Europe.  He’d just arrived to San Francisco, and their relationship was just beginning to solidify after many ups and downs.  Why change a good thing?  Of course he’d want to take her along, but was she ready to leave?  And would her dog be able to come without being placed for months in quarantine?  She wouldn’t be able to work in Europe unless they were married.

“What about us?” asked Cherry.

“I can’t think about that right now,” he said. “I can’t think about that at all.”

Cherry looked around at his belongings—his tattered couch from Goodwill, the light with no lampshade, finely pressed suits and an assortment of ties in his closet, and boxes filled with mementos from all the places he’d lived over the years and letters from women he’d dated.  His suitcase was stored at the back of the closet.  It would be large enough for him to fill it with everything important he needed, and nothing more.

© 2018 Beverly Parayno