Thursday 1 January 2015

Post Tenebras Lux

I hold her hand, transparent parchment, and trace the thin blue veins with my forefinger. The beep beep of monitors behind me go about their business, signaling life in blood, lungs and heart.

I look at her face, a sea of wrinkles, the eyes closed. For how long now? A milky gaze, even when they are open. Everything is slack, the skin, the mouth, the forehead, the chin, even the eyebrows. The neck is leaning to the left.  Should I move her head? Will she notice? Does she care?

I get up. I fluff the pillows. I put her head straight. I do it for me, not for her. I’ve been here a month, visiting every day. 

“Hey, how is she?” The door opens and Barb, my older sister walks in.

I shrug. I look at her, bustling in, with a big bag of food, crossword puzzles, books. Ever the practical one.

I came with nothing and stare at the body that is my mom. I grit my teeth to say, “is.” I am so tempted to say “was.” 

“Where is she?”

“Huh?” Barb turns around after putting the pen on top of the crossword puzzle.

“She’s there. I know she’s there. I just can’t see it. I want to see it!” I sob.

Barb holds me close, rubbing her right hand up and down my back, saying nothing. Like when we were little, sporting pigtails.

I pull away gently and give her a weak smile.

I walk towards the window. It is raining. The drops make rivulets on the pane like tears. Tears I cannot, will not shed. I can still hear my mom saying, “What’s the use of crying?” She was never one to give in to tears. She’d do, do, do instead. I will be a good girl now. Dry-eyed.

I sit by her bed.

Barb says, “It’s ok. Go ahead and cry. She won’t know.”

I shake my head and look at her and we burst out laughing, tears running down our faces.

“We cheated, Mom,” I say and look at her pale, sleeping face on the white pillowcase.

Barb smiles as she wipes the tears from her eyes.

“You remember what she said, about how she wanted it to end?”

“Yes, I can give it to you word for word. She said it so many times, waving the wooden spoon she was baking with or the rag she was dusting the shelves with, or the pen she was holding. How could I forget? She said, ‘We all have a beginning and we all have an end. Is it because we make so much of beginnings - all those baby showers and hugs and congratulations and oohs and aahs-that we no longer know how to make beautiful endings, that we hide the drooling, the incontinence, the vacant stares, the smell of disinfectant?’ She said that about having an end but she never said how she wanted it to end.”

Barb looks down at her hands.

I look up at the blinking machines.

We look at each other. A long time. I see the corners of her mouth lift. It echoes mine.


Published in Kaleidoscope, Writer’s Abroad Anthology 2015 (Oct. 2015)


The breeze stirred restless fingers in my hair and molded the loose cotton dress to my scrawny eleven-year-old frame. I stood very still and pressed my ear to the wall.

“It’s white blood, silly!” Manding said.

“Eeew! it smells awful!” Lisa said.

“That’s how it is a few days before you get the real thing.”

“And why do my breasts hurt so?”

“It’s all part of it. Listen, there’s a trick to…. What was that?”

I had leaned against an empty gasoline can that was against the wall, sending it crashing to the floor. I ran behind a coconut tree and hid.

Manding opened the door and peered out. Seeing no one, she shrugged and went back in.

It wasn’t the first time I had eavesdropped on their conversation. Manding and Lisa worked in our hardware store. My parents and I lived on top and the salesgirls lived in a nipa hut at the back. A thatched roof and woven fronds for walls, a hut made for easy eavesdropping. I had not meant to go on doing it but as new worlds unfolded through the pictures they painted, each night I stole out to listen. It became my bedtime story.

Every night I waited for the next episode. I glued my ear to the wall, frantically but quietly shooing away the mosquitoes that left little red bumps on my skin.

Mama never knew anything of these escapades. She wondered about the mosquito bites on my arms and legs every morning. She would take out “White Flower oil” and dab it on all the bites. I can still feel the cool sting of the oil, its eucalyptus scent overpowering. That was my first perfume.

One Sunday afternoon Manding headed for the communal bathroom.

“Manding, wait!” I rushed upstairs to get a towel, panties, T-shirt and shorts.

Manding put her clean clothes on a shelf on the bathroom wall. She reached for mine and put them beside hers. Under the shelf hung a row of malongs, long, wide pieces of brightly-colored printed cloth the girls used to wrap around themselves when bathing.

The small bathroom had cement walls and floors, gutters running around the four walls to serve as a drain, a naked bulb hanging from the ceiling. The faucet dripped into a plastic pail in one corner; a tabo, a plastic dipper, floated on top of the water.

I liked Manding best. She had thick, black, shoulder-length hair, not like my chopped bowl-cut; big brown eyes, not chinky like mine; lashes to die for, none of my short stubs, and lips like the rose on the calendar in Mama’s office.

She unzipped her dress, slid the sleeves down and using her chin to hold the dress against her body, she unhooked her bra. Reaching for her red malong, she wrapped it around her, tying a knot in front. The dress and bra fell to the floor. She picked them up and put them in a basin of soapy water. I stripped to my panties and put my green T-shirt and denim shorts in the basin. She squatted, filled the tabo with water from the pail and poured it on her hair. She shampooed and rinsed, then massaged coconut milk into her scalp with brisk, circular motions, carefully working it through each strand of hair. Wringing out the excess milk, she twirled the thick wet strand into a knot on her head and stuck a thin wooden stick to hold it in place.

Laughing, taking my hands out of my hair, she said, “Jingjing, not just the hair, silly; the scalp, go down deep and rub. Here, let me.”

“But I was following every step!”

“Yeah, sure.”

Her fingers moved lightly, firmly, expertly. I closed my eyes in delight, feeling every pull, my scalp warm, tingling.

“Now, let the coconut milk do its work.” She scooped water from the pail and splashed my body and hers. She stood up, and under the malong, the shruup shruup of the soap under her arms and between her legs. Wet pink panties came out from under the cloth and landed in the basin. She rinsed the soap and gave it to me. My nylon panties were wet and I soaped all over and around the panties, took them off and put them in the basin.

“Tsunami!” She squeezed her palm against the faucet, spraying me with a wall of water.

Sige ka!” I grabbed the tabo and hurled water at her, slipping and sliding on the floor.

We laughed so hard I was hiccupping from water I had swallowed and Manding’s neat wet knot of hair had come undone.

“Let’s get down to business.”

She reached for a small pumice stone and vigorously scrubbed her legs and arms, taking longer at the elbows and knees. I wrinkled my nose at her. She gave me a knowing smile as I skipped the stone and started rinsing. I tossed the tabo to her and as she rinsed I watched the malong cling to the high curve of her breasts, the small waist, the wide hips. Now I knew what the boys at school meant by Coca-Cola body.

She tossed the last taboful at me. We washed our clothes, got dressed and came out smelling of Lifebuoy and coconut oil. Manding balanced the basin of clothes on her hip and sauntered out to the backyard. I handed her my T-shirt, shorts, her flowery dress, our panties and she hung them on the clothesline. I chatted about school and friends; I stopped and looked around. I grabbed her arm, pulled her head close to mine and whispered, “There’s this boy, Gil, in my class. Ka cute kaayo iyang dimples!”

Uy! In love si Jingjing, da!”

“Sssh! Ayaw’g saba!”

Manding smiled, looked at me and put her index finger in front of her lips and crossed her heart.

The cook banged the aluminum plate and we rushed back for supper. Yum! The smell of fried mackerel made my mouth water. The salesgirls always ate together on plastic stools around the table. Their food was simple: fried fish, sauteed vegetables and rice.

My mother, father and I ate at a separate table and had an extra meat dish. My father, worried about the price of copra, frowned at his meal. My mother, thinking of the payroll, dispatched her food. And I, I ate with gusto and watched the salesgirls. They used thumb and forefinger to pick off some mackerel, added rice and vegetables, squashed it to a lump and put it into their mouths.

I ate quickly and slipped out of my chair and joined them. I squeezed in between two girls. I enjoyed watching their faces; mouths smiling, eyebrows arching, eyes crinkling with laughter.

Clanging their aluminum plates, they got up, gathered the dishes and did the washing up. I went up to my room, washed and put on my pajamas and said good night to Papa, who was in bed reading the newspaper. Then I went downstairs to say good night to Mama, who was working on the books.

Now I was free. No one to bother me. I stole out through the door and crept to my usual hiding place.

“So he told me to meet him next Thursday in town,” Manding said.

“How’ll you get off work?” Lisa asked.

“I’ll just say I have to go back to the province, that my mother’s sick.”

“They’ll never believe you. Besides, it takes too long to get to your place. How can you be back the next day?”

“I’ll ask for two days.”

“What? That’s two days off your paycheck. Is this guy really worth it?”

“You bet.”

“How did you meet him?”

“Oh, the usual, you know.”

“No, I don’t. So tell.”

“I promised I wouldn’t. So, good night.”

Lisa pestered Manding, asking for more details, asking for every detail, was he tall or short, dark or fair, fat or thin. Manding baited Lisa, leading her on, only to leave her no better off than when she started. After a few more tries, Lisa gave up, very disappointed. So was I.

It was Monday. I heard Manding ask for leave. Mama was skeptical. She’d heard it all before: the mother was sick, then later in the year the father, then the sister, then the brother…. But she always ended up letting them go.

Papa was away on business. He came and went as he pleased. Mama packed for him. If I was awake before he left, he would run his fingers down my cheek. His hand, soft, warm, light.

I was in awe of my father. I was afraid of him; everybody was afraid of him. He reduced a salesgirl to tears for selling a spare part at the old price. He yelled at Mama for selling copra at the wrong time. He bawled me out for spilling fish sauce. Yet he would dance with me, teach me the tango, joke with me.

I was glad Papa was away. Mama would let me go to town on my own. I knew my way around.

It was Thursday. I told Mama I wanted to buy Nancy Drew’s latest mystery. She gave me money for the jeepney fare and the book. I went to the girls’ hut. Manding was packing I asked, “You going home? Taking a jeepney? Can I come?”

“Whoa, one question at a time. Yes to all three, but I’ll be busy.”

“I’m going to get my favorite Nancy Drew! We can go together.”

“I don’t know about that. I have to buy…”

I cut her off, “Oh, I won’t shop with you. I just want to go into town with someone.”

She sighed, ruffled my hair and said, “OK.”

She finished packing. I put my hand in hers. I looked up at her.

Kagwapa nimo!” You’re so beautiful!

She smiled. Her short-sleeved dress had tiny pink flowers all over it, a scooped neckline that showed off her long, smooth neck, the hem ending a couple of inches above the knee. The folds played hide and seek with her body. She smelt of crushed roses.

We hailed a jeepney and got in. We were squeezed tight against the other passengers. The music was blaring. I noticed some of the men glancing at Manding when she wasn’t looking. After a while, she yelled, “para!” and we got off. It was the center of town, where the banks, stores and hotels were. She took me straight to the bookstore, dropped my hand and hurriedly said, “Here you are. Gotta go now.”

I watched her from behind a revolving bookrack. I gave her a head start. I blended in with a family with four kids; I hid behind a man carrying a huge sack of rice; I stood behind a post. But I needn’t have worried. Manding’s feet were flying, her long black hair swinging, her whole body straining. She was tinglingly alive. She stopped at the Las Islas Filipinas Hotel. My heart beat faster. “Wow! They saved up for this!”

She took a quick look at her reflection in one of the glass windows. She flicked her hair back, turned around to check her dress and straightened up. She took a deep breath and pushed open one of the swinging glass doors. I sprinted across the street, raced to the door, pressed my nose to the glass. The doorman had just been called away. What luck! Just like a Nancy Drew story!

Manding looked straight ahead, crossed the lobby and walked towards the elevator. She went in, turned around and pressed a button. A tall man followed her. Just before the elevator doors closed, I saw him run his fingers down her cheek.

The doorman got back just then and said, “Hoy, hawa diha! Scram, kid.”

I backed away, bumping into an old lady. I ran to the jeepney stop, elbows shoving at anything and anybody, seeing only the fingers down the cheek, down the cheek, down…

I was off the jeepney before it came to a stop. Mama looked up from the calculator, surprised, “Hey, back so soon? Where’s your Nancy Drew?”

“I hate Nancy Drew!”

Angels Weep at Noon

"Mommy, mommy, mooommmy, stooorrry!"

I blink and tear my eyes from the rivulets running down the windowpane.

"Sorry, darling. Once upon a time there was a Queen who had a beautiful baby daughter…"

* * *

It was cold and wet, drumming, tearing wet. Typical mid-July weather in Manila. Rain falling with a vengeance, thick heavy sheets slashing every tree, jeepney and building. I held my shoes in one hand, the other bunching up my skirt to keep it out of the swirling water around my knees. I touched the sidewalk with my toes, feeling for open manholes, and made sure of firm cement before putting my foot down.

Men tied the corners of their handkerchiefs around their heads, rolled up their pants and bent their heads to the wind. Students from the nearby university hugged their books and sloshed from one store awning to another. Street vendors hurriedly pushed their wooden carts loaded with boiled peanuts, fried banana rolls, barbecued chicken feet out of the rain, wiping the drops off their hair, arms and hands with a grimy face towel once they had found shelter. Three girls held hands, counted 1-2-3 after each step and laughed with their faces to the sky. Cars and jeepneys stalled, half-drowned on Taft Avenue. Teenage boys pushed what cars still ran across the flooded street, the drivers only too happy to part with a few pesos to be able to go on their way. Children frolicked in the rain, throwing empty plastic bags, watching them ballooning up, then sinking, a glimmer of pink, blue or yellow.


I turned my head and the window of a blue Mitsubishi Pajero slid down.

"Get in. I’ll take you home," Peter Beresford yelled through the window. He was an American consultant, spending three months overhauling the computer accounting program for the bank. His cubicle was beside mine. He was into his second week.

He leaned over and opened the passenger door.

I clambered in, dropped the shoes and pulled the skirt over my knees.

"Thanks. I live quite a ways from here though, in Makati. If you can drop me off somewhere along EDSA, I can take a jeepney from there. It’s only this bit that gets flooded."

"I live in Makati, too. Just tell me where to turn from EDSA."

He turned on the CD player and I heard the first yearning notes of a trumpet.

My shoulder-length hair was plastered to my scalp and my white blouse was soaked.

"Here, my gym bag’s in the back seat. Grab the towel and wrap it around you. Sorry, I can’t turn off the air-conditioning; the windshield will fog up."


I leaned over, unzipped the bag and took out a blue towel. It smelt of Eau Sauvage.

I rubbed my hair with the towel and said, "Stardust. Wynton Marsalis. My favorite." I looked at the CD jacket. "I love this album. But I stopped buying after this one. I don’t like his new stuff."

"Why not? Artists evolve. They take us on to new things."

"That’s just the problem. Their single makes it to the top, they make an album, then they decide to experiment. We like what we’ve got. So, stick with it."

"Ligaya, we’d still be lighting lamps if we followed your logic."

"That’s what I mean. We weren’t happy with lighting lamps, so we moved on to electricity but then we progressed, if you can call it that, to nuclear energy. Why can’t we leave well enough alone?"

"Other people like Wynton’s sound now."

"Who? You? "

"What’s that supposed to mean?" He turned and raised an eyebrow at me.

"Hey!" I stuck my hands out in front of me, shrugged and smiled.

He concentrated on the road. I looked at his fingers on the steering wheel, long and tapered, almost like a woman’s. His black hair curled around his small ears, and the round gold-rimmed glasses perched on a nose any Filipino would have given his soul for. His chin was square, his lips full.

The girls at the bank followed him with their eyes, whispered about him during coffee breaks and grabbed every opportunity to pass by his desk.

"Ang guapo ni Mr Blue eyes! You’re so lucky, Ligaya."

Everyone envied me.

"Turn right here. Then at Berting’s Sari-Sari Store turn left."

"What’s a sari-sari store anyway?"

"It’s where you can buy a cup of soy sauce, a stick of Marlboro, a packet of shampoo, a pencil, three beers, whatever. Handy. Nothing like that in the States."

"No, nothing like that."

The rain was thudding on the roof. I could hardly hear the trumpet.

"It rains like this till August?"

"September, sometimes October."

He shook his head. "Such violent extremes, such lightning changes. Sun, then all of a sudden, pouring rain. I’ve never seen anything like it. This must have been the kind of rain God sent on Noah."

"But doesn’t it make you grateful for rainbows? And what I love most is when the sun shines while it’s still raining. My mom used to call me to the window and say, ‘See, Ligaya. Angels weeping.’"

"But angels don’t cry, do they? They just play harps on their clouds or something, right?"

We looked at each other and burst out laughing.

"Here we are," I said through the laughter, "turn right at the Shell station and a few more blocks and the black gate, that’s it. Thanks, Peter. See you tomorrow. I’ll wash the towel and get it back to you."

"No, I’ll take care of it."

I put the towel on the seat, rummaged in my shoulder bag for my keys and waved good-bye. Home at last. It was small but it was mine. Everything was wood and rattan and batik. I locked the door and looked through my CDs.

"Play it again, Wynton."

I slow-danced to the bathroom and followed Stardust in my head while I showered and when I stepped out and could finally hear, I was just behind him a few bars. Not bad. One day, I’ll get it right.

The next day the sun shone brilliant; angels wept; then rain pummeled the city at dusk.

Peter and I worked until six, then he said, "Come on, I’ll drop you off."

He put Stardust on again, winking. "For the diehards."

"Thanks," I said sarcastically.

One night I said, "Want to come in? I’ve only got leftovers."

He grinned and parked the car.

"Coke? Beer? Gin and tonic? I make a mean one."

"OK, let’s try it."

He sipped and said, "Aaah! That hits the spot."

"May I?" as he stretched his long legs and leaned back on the couch.


“Ligaya, what does it mean?”

“My name? Happiness, joy. My mom was optimistic. She didn’t know what a handful I’d be.”

He smiled.

"You live alone? Not even a maid? That’s unusual for here, isn’t it?"

"Yes. My parents raised hell about me wanting my own place, but once I earned enough, what could they do? And I don’t need a maid. Someone does the housework twice a week and someone else comes and cooks over the weekend, enough dishes for the week. I just take what I need from the freezer. So, ready to try some home-cooked Filipino food?"

I smiled and stepped over his legs. I got the adobong baboy and the stir-fried cabbage from the fridge and put them in the microwave. I put the leftover rice in the steamer and turned the stove on.

He stood up. "Set the table?"

"Spoons and forks right hand drawer. Glasses up there." I pointed with my lips.

He laughed. "Is that a Filipino thing? I get directions with a jerk of the head, a moue. People greet me by raising their eyebrows."

"Hey, who needs words?" I jerked my head for him to sit. He laughed again and pulled out a chair.

“Mmmm, what’s this? I like it.”

“It’s pork marinated and stewed in soy sauce, vinegar and lots of garlic. Some people say it’s our national dish. I call it my no-fail dish. It never fails to please, especially first-time foreigners.”

He laughed. An open-throated laugh.

It became a regular thing. Drive and dinner. And Wynton’s trumpet.

"Ligaya, I need a new suit. Can you help me pick one out? Then we can have Italian at my place afterwards."

"You can cook?"

"Man of many talents. Try me," and he gave me a mock bow.

We headed off to Makati and the boutiques. The first one didn’t have his size; the second one was too conservative; the third one had a grey silk Armani. He went to the fitting room. "Ligaya, come see!"

I pushed open the black velvet curtain that led to the fitting room and saw myself walking towards him in the mirror. The room shrank to two pairs of eyes in the glass.

Then softly, "Perfect match, don’t you think?"

I was drowning in blue.

"Is it OK, sir?" The salesgirl called from behind the curtain.

Holding my gaze, he said, "Just what I’ve been looking for."

He paid and we ran to the car. It was raining again. He unlocked the door and helped me in. He got in, turned the key in the ignition and looked at me. I stared straight ahead. He sighed and put the car into gear.

He lived in one of the new expensive condominiums. His flat was on the 15th floor. Marble floors, leather couch, lamps on tables. Browns and deep oranges. Behind me, I heard ice clinking into glass. Felt eyes warm on my back. Too warm. I grabbed my shoulder bag from the couch and turned, back to the door, back to where I had come from.

"Ligaya, please." He was still. Everything was still. "Stay," a whisper.

I had not looked at him since the eyes in the mirror.

I held my bag tight against my side, my other arm across my chest, holding on to the strap.

"I make a mean gin and tonic."

I let go of the strap and the bag fell. I huddled on the edge of the couch. Feet, hands and knees pressed together, I stared at the mud on the toe of my right shoe. The sibilant hiss of a CD, soft yearning notes. He placed his hands on my rigid shoulders and gently pushed them back against the soft leather. I closed my eyes and his fingers combed my hair. A long time. Then I felt his weight next to me. He placed my hand in the palm of his and a finger caressed the base of my wrist to the tip of each finger. I opened my eyes.


"Sssh. I know. I’ll be gentle."

And he was, infinitely so.

In the shower, I told him to sing Stardust in his head and we would see who could follow Wynton closest.

"Shoot! I was in daa", humming high, "and he was already in daaaa," humming low. "Will I ever get it right?" I looked up. "And you?"

He shook his head, ruffled my hair and said, "Child and woman, and all mine."

I felt the heat on my cheeks, remembering. I buried my face in the towel.

He laughed and hugged me.

The days were too long, the nights too short. Time was running out. One more week. Then the day came. His flight was at noon.

I stared at the clock in my living room. As the hands marched to 12, I looked out the window. The angels wept.

* * *

"… and they lived happily ever after." I closed the storybook.

She snuggles down contentedly, yawning.

I smile, tuck her in and kiss her blue eyes shut.

All mine. And only mine.

Hot Siopao

It was 2:30 in the afternoon and most of the customers had left. The bus boys started clearing the tables. Ernesto, a tall gawking teen-ager, glanced at Lily. She watched his reflection in one of the many mirrors that lined the Manila Han Palace. She brought her eyes back to herself. She loved her uniform, a long gold cheong-sam trimmed in black, with a high Mandarin collar, the frogs drawing a loving line from long neck to round breast to slim waist. It fell in a sheath of gold, the slit in the skirt revealing a glimpse of pearly thigh.  She tossed her head back and her shoulder-length hair swished back in place, framing big brown eyes, high cheekbones, full lips.

She leaned nonchalantly against the counter, her small breasts outlined in gold, the slit parting to show more skin.

Ernesto was furiously rubbing the table with a cloth, his hair falling over his eyes, just a few feet from shimmering skin. He tried not to look at her but she could see his cheeks growing warm, hear his breath coming short. He gave a last swipe and hurriedly picked up his basin of water and his cloth. She moved forward just as he turned. Her shoulder brushed against his arm and the basin slipped from his fingers, the water spilling down the front of his pants. Everyone laughed.

"Hoy, ano ba? Watch out!" she said, backing away, checking her cheong-sam immediately for stains.

"Sorry, ho. Pasensiya na kayo," he stuttered.

The bus boys did not miss their cue.

"Hey, Ernesto, nice move!"

"Yeah, way to get your pants wet!"

Hoots of laughter. Ernesto flushed red.

Lily sashayed to the girls’ back room. Laughing and pushing, the other waitresses followed Lily. It was a small airless room, no windows, the thin plywood walls covered with pictures of movie stars, their smiles half-torn or pasted over with pictures of other up-and-coming starlets. Fourteen girls laid down side by side on seven bunk beds pushed together. They were in different stages of undress; fanning themselves with cardboard, newspaper, worn-out fans. They put their feet up; chatted, and rested until the restaurant would fill up again at 4:00.

"Hey, Lily, poor Ernesto," commented Baby, one of the waitresses.

"He was asking for it. Can’t keep his eyes to himself."

"Probinsiyano kasi. He’s from the sticks. He doesn’t know a thing. But that’s the way you like them, right, Lily?"

"Who, me? I like them rich. Ernesto’s just for practice."

A knock on the door. Time to get back to work.

Lily saw him immediately, a young man, gold flashing on his wrist, designer clothes, spit-shined shoes, not his spit, of course. He picked up the menu and Lily studied his hands, soft, white, smooth, no calluses.

She straightened up, took a quick, approving glance at herself in one of the mirrors and waited until she saw him looking around, then she glided towards him. She paused in front of him. He looked up; a slow smile spread.

"What will it be today, sir?"

He glanced at the menu and said, "I’ll have a Coke and," a mischievous smile, "how’s the pork siopao? Is the bun soft …smooth …tender?"

"It always is around here, sir," she replied, glancing out of the corner of her eyes.

He straightened up, gave her a long, calculating look and nodded.

She smiled, turned around, black hair swinging, gold hips swaying. His eyes were glued to her like sap on the stem of a freshly picked mango.

He came everyday for two weeks; always the same table, the same coke and siopao, and always Lily waiting on him.

In the backroom, the girls crowded around Lily.

"Well, come on. Tell!" Baby said, grabbing Lily’s arm.

"His name is Manolo. He runs his father’s construction business. You know that building that’s going up about two blocks from here? Well, that’s theirs."

"Wow! Di mayaman nga, So he is loaded!"

Lily nodded and took a crisp 500-peso bill from the tiny slit pocket of her cheong-sam.

"Wow, that was your tip?" Baby’s eyes popped.

"Every time?" another waitress asked.

Lily smiled and slipped the bill back into the slit.

It was Friday.

Manolo was wiping his mouth, the last of the siopao thoroughly relished.

Lily sauntered over. "Everything to your liking?"

He looked up at her, then down, then up again. "Yes, very much so," he smiled, "but I’m going to miss my siopao over the week-end. Any chance of taking it home?"

"Sure, how many?"

 "Just one," his eyes on her lips, "the most succulent one."

"Coming right up." She turned, thigh flashing through the slit in the cheong-sam.

She brought the bill with a brown bag. "Your siopao," softly.

Getting his wallet out, he asked casually, "What time do you get off work?"

"At 11:30."

"Like to dance?"

Her eyes lit up.

"Ok, be ready." He winked and stood up.

Lily kept watching the clock that night. As soon as the restaurant emptied, she rushed into the girls’ back room, quickly stripped, wet a face towel and washed her face, neck and underarms. A swipe of deodorant before putting on a white shirt and jeans. She left the first two buttons of her shirt undone, checked the way the jeans hugged her, put on her black pumps. She gave her hair a quick brush, traced half a crescent of “Dark Blue Night” on her eyelids, pushed the mascara wand in and out of the tube and carefully applied it, not missing a single eyelash. She looked at her face in the mirror, smiled and applied light pink blush on each cheek. Now for the final touch. She traced the curve of her lips with "Hot Pink," filling in the outline with "Luscious Pink." One last look at the mirror. Yes, perfect. She ran to the deserted parking lot and slowed to her trademark walk as a black car with dark-tinted windows slowed to a stop. The passenger door was pushed open from the inside. Manolo was at the wheel, smiling. She slid in the car. He roared out of the parking lot.

The disco was packed. The music was deafening. Manolo got a table with the flash of a 500-peso bill and he ordered a beer for himself and a rum coke for Lily. She was watching the DJ shouting into the microphone, at the waiters weaving in and out of the tables with their trays, at the couples gyrating, flashing red, green, and yellow as the overhead lights hit them.

Lily tapped her foot, her head nodding to the beat of the music. While Manolo paid, she took a sip.

“How do you like it?” He whispered in her ear.

“It’s good. I’ve never had it before.”

“I know.” A soft kiss on her cheek as he leaned back, taking a long drink, his eyes never leaving her.

He smiled, took her hand and cocked his head towards the dance floor.

Manolo watched her every move. She tossed her head back, eyes closed, hands moving above her head, hips swaying, legs moving in, out to the rhythm of the beat. She was music in motion.

The music went on and on and he could see the third button on her shirt straining to let go, tiny beads of sweat just above it. He narrowed his eyes and smiled. The music changed to a soft, slow beat. Lily moved towards Manolo, eyes still closed, arms raised. His were ready. He folded her to him, feeling her breasts against his chest, rubbing his cheek against her hair. She breathed him in, leaning against him. They hardly moved. Then she felt him stir and she looked up. He looked straight into her eyes, took her hand and led her out into the parking lot. He opened the car door for her and she got in. He drove very fast. Their breathing was loud in the silent car. The sleepy security guard waved them through the gates of the exclusive residential village. Manolo parked in front of a dark bungalow. He turned the key in the lock and let them in. The street lamp shone through the screen windows, Lily’s body silhouetted in its light. He hooked a finger in her shirt; the third button popped.

Months passed. Manolo no longer came for siopao but the black car kept coming every night. Lily was blooming.

Then one night, the car did not come. And another. And another.

The next day, a few minutes before the break, Lily rushed to the girl’s room and took off her cheong-sam. She was alone. She looked at her body in the mirror, turned right to see her silhouette and slowly caressed her abdomen. She hummed a tune and chose a short blue summer dress, the thin spaghetti straps showing off smooth silky skin. She brushed her hair, checked her make-up, turned around and saw the swirl of blue just above long slim legs. She smiled and gave a mock salute to the mirror.

Baby was the first to enter, followed by all the others. "Uy, saan ka pupunta, ha?".

"Uh uh. Not telling," and Lily was out the door.

She walked quickly to the construction site a block away. The wolf whistles made her slow down. A man in a hard hat came and opened the gate. He looked her up and down and smiled.

"What can I do for you?"

"Si Manolo, nandito?"

"No, umuwi na siya."

"He went home? At 3:00 in the afternoon?"

"No, I mean he went back to Cebu. Nanganak iyong asawa niya kahapon."

"His wife gave birth yesterday? But… but…"

"Yes, a boy, Junior daw."

Lily stood rigid, fingernails digging deep into her palms. Then she laughed and laughed and laughed, holding her own abdomen.

The man shook her shoulders, "Hoy, Ale, tama na. Hey stop it, lady!"

He took her by the elbow, still laughing, tears streaming down her face, and led her out into the street. The gate banged shut.

Leaning on Empty

It was my turn.

The teacher’s footsteps came nearer, her hand holding out the white envelope. I took it, turned it round in my hand, stared at it, opened the flap.

Math: 70 in red, a failing grade. Once again. The rest was a blur. Only five points for a report card all in black; that card was still as distant as the moon.

The bell rang. It was the last day of school. Children flowed out of the classrooms like molten lava. I picked up my books, put them in my satchel and lifted it to my shoulder. I turned around, looked long at the blackboard, the polished desks, the worn-out chairs. It was time to go home.

Papa was waiting, in his chair. He held out his hand. I gave him the report card. “Humph!” a glance, a look of contempt and back to his newspaper. My report card on the floor by the coffee table.

I wanted to say, "I’m sorry. I tried. I did. I really did. My very best." But I had been dismissed.

Willing myself to keep calm, I went out into the hall, up the stairs and into my room. I put down the satchel by my desk, pulled out the chair and laid my hot face against the cool wood. I closed my eyes. Wet cheeks against hard wood.

The maid knocked on the door, called,

"Kain na. Time to eat."

I wasn’t hungry but if I didn’t show up I’d be in even bigger trouble.

"Andiyan na. Coming."

Down the stairs, careful not to make a sound. I slipped into my place and stared at the mound of rice and sauteed squid and vegetables on my plate. I took a spoonful, a sip of water, another spoonful, another sip of water…

Jeffrey, my brother was saying, "So, the teacher said, ‘And as usual first honor goes to Jeffrey Lim.’ The class clapped. I stood up, walked to the front of the classroom and received my certificate. I was so proud, Papa."

"And so you should be, you are a Lim, after all."

"Well done, Jeffrey," Mama said.

Then quiet fell. I concentrated on the crunch of the snow peas grinding between my teeth, drowning out the silence.

Jeffrey went on, "My science project won. They’re sending me to Manila for the finals. Won’t it be great if I can bring the trophy home?"

"Wonderful, Jeffrey, wonderful," Mama said.

"You will, my son, you will. A true Lim you are," Papa said, glancing at me.

I only had one piece of squid left. I speared it with my fork and put it in my mouth. I seized my glass, swallowed, wiped my mouth and stood up.

The eyes followed me.

As I was climbing the stairs, my father said, "You’ll be going to your aunt’s in Canton. Since you don’t seem to appreciate the expensive education I’m giving you, you might just as well stay in the village and be useful to her in her old age."

My step faltered. I looked at him but his attention had returned to Jeffrey. I went to my room, lay on the bed, closed my eyes.

My aunt’s village in China. A house with no running water. Dim, dank, dark. No toilet. An outhouse a block away. Fields fertilized with human excrement.

My aunt, an old woman at 55. Bitter, dried up, no dowry, no husband, no status, nothing.

I could not see myself with her. I refused to see it. Surely my father was bluffing?

I opened my door a crack. Jeffrey and Mama were rising from the table. Papa went to his study.

I closed my eyes, prayed to Jesus, Mary and Joseph, to Kwan-Yin, Bathala, Buddha, and Mohammed. "Go with me. Make him say yes, please." I crept down the stairs and knocked softly on the study door.

A loud and irritated "What is it?"

I opened the door, looked down at the floor. Papa turned his chair to face me.


I swallowed the rock in my throat. "I… I’m sorry, Papa. I try. I really do. I just don’t understand. I can’t help it."

"I even pay someone to tutor you. No Lim is thick. Every Lim is sharp, good at figures, business-minded. When I look at you, I wonder where you come from.  Go, I have no more to say."

"Papa, please. Please don’t send me to Aunt’s. I don’t know anyone there. I can hardly speak Cantonese. She doesn’t even like me."

"All the better. You won’t get in trouble. You know enough Cantonese to obey orders. That’s all you need."

"Papa," I stumbled over the words, "my English teacher said my essay was really good, that she had sent it to a school in California, to see if it could win. First prize is a year’s stay at that school. Papa, please, I should know by this week."

I choked. I mustn’t cry. I mustn’t. He’ll despise me, think me weak. A girl, nothing but a stupid girl. I bit hard on my lip.

"Who told you you could enter this competition? It will only mean more money. If you win, Ha! if you win, who’s going to pay for the air fare, your living expenses? These people think I can spend money left and right. They don’t know how I sweated for it. No and that’s final. Now, get out. I have work to do."

I turned and saw that Mama had been in the room all the time. She had not said a word. She looked at me and turned away.

My knuckles shone white against the banister as I climbed the stairs. My room. My bed. I lay on it, careful not to disturb the bedspread. I wrapped my arms around my shoulders and brought my knees up to my chest. Cold and dry-eyed.

There was a knock.

The maid said, "Aalis na raw kayo." Time to go.

The nightly outing to the family restaurant.

Papa owned a restaurant on the top floor of the tallest building in town. He was proud of the Golden Dragon. He had built it from scratch, starting as a bus boy in one of the cheap restaurants in Davao, moving up to kitchen help, doing everything from chopping vegetables to scouring blackened pots and pans, until he had saved enough to start his own.

He liked to go to the Golden Dragon every night. We all had to go and see how well the restaurant was doing. Once he saw the full tables, he went to the office to check on messages. Jeffrey followed. Mama inspected the huge pantry and made a list of the things to be ordered from Hongkong. I slid open the glass door and stepped out onto the narrow balcony. A concrete ledge, chest high, ran along the whole roof. I wanted out of the freezing restaurant, the clanging and banging of pots and pans, the shouts of "Table 3’s bird’s nest soup. Dalian nyo. Hurry up!" I sat on the ledge, my feet dangling. It was hot and humid after the sterile cold of the air-conditioners but I liked the clammy feeling. I looked up at the black sky, no stars - too much neon blinking. In front of me, the sparkling floor-to-ceiling windows of the Golden Dragon and the waiters’ silent dance: the red and black uniforms gliding, weaving, turning, the arms going up, out, down, laying mounds of fried rice, sweet and sour pork, steamed fish on the table, then down, out and up again and into the kitchen. Papa, ready to go, waiting, frowning, seeing me at last.

It was my turn.

I looked at him, long and hard, until the ledge grazed the back of my knees as I leaned on empty.

Soy Milk

It was the last time. He chose a yellow straw, put it in the glass of soy milk. Slowly, leisurely, almost reverently, he took a sip. Another. Yet another. The cool sweet drink caressed his throat. Then there was none.

He got up from the table, took the glass, threw the straw, washed the glass with water and dish-washing liquid, her words echoing in his ear, “Don’t just rinse it. You don’t get rid of germs just with hot water.” How many times had he nodded his head, smiled and just rinsed anyway. Unless she was watching.

She was not. It had been a long time since she was. It had been seven months and three days.

He had come home to an individual-sized tetra pak of soy milk. Under it, a piece of paper torn from a spiral notebook. “I’m sorry.” That was all. He had wrapped the soy milk carton in the note, folding its corners just so, putting one-inch scotch tape in the middle and on both ends, like a carefully wrapped present. He had put it on the top shelf of the fridge. It had been the first thing his eyes saw every time he opened the door. No longer.

He looked at the paper in his hand, the words still black, the folds clear and sharp where they had embraced the box.


Published in Offshoots12 (June 2013)

Sharksfin Soup

He looked at the chandelier flashing light, the bouquet splashing color and the table gleaming white. Then he saw her.

She was young, petite, delicate. She had come from Hong Kong to her godmother’s in Baguio to get well. The mountain air of the summer capital of the Philippines was supposed to do wonders for weak lungs, her grandmother had said. She was the cashier at the Pearl River Restaurant, a congee and noodle place that did brisk business from 6 in the morning till 10 at night.

He was one of the cooks, standing over steaming vats of chicken or beef broth, dumping coils of noodles in boiling water, shaking them out quickly into bowls, ladling dumplings or beef brisket over the noodles, pouring in hot broth and sprinkling chopped scallions on top and then the loud, "Table 4’s order!" He moved quickly, smoothly, gracefully.

They stole glances at each other. Sometimes their eyes met; she looked down;  he looked away. The silent courtship did not go unnoticed. Teasing was rampant in the kitchen and in the girls’ back room.

He heard of a small restaurant that was going bankrupt. He shook out his nicest shirt, took the plastic bag off his Sunday pants, chose the only pair of socks with no holes, spit-shined his black shoes and got dressed. He asked for the afternoon off, went to town to see Mr Ho, a third cousin of his mother’s brother in the old country. Mr Ho owned a botica, sold medicine with or without prescription over the counter, and was doing quite well for himself.

He came out with a loan at a reasonable interest.

He went back to the restaurant and when business slowed in the afternoon, he talked to the boss, then went to the cashier and asked her to go for a walk in Burnham Park. She raised her head inquiringly at the boss, who said, "I think you need a break."  They left to hoots of "Uy may date sila!" and the laughing and teasing of everyone in the restaurant.

They walked side by side, not looking, not touching, not talking.

They sat on the bench and, staring out at the man-made lake with hired boats toing and froing, he said, "I have enough to start my own restaurant. It could be yours too, if you like."

She borrowed a red cheongsam and he bought a second-hand suit. They parted with 50 pesos for a wedding portrait and 25 pesos for a sepia-colored picture of the waiters and the cooks and the boss beaming at a long table around the shy, smiling couple.

The restaurant was on the corner of Rizal and de los Santos streets. A small room with a cement floor, four small round tables and a counter. They lived in the back room with only a bed and a cabinet. They cooked everything in a tiny kitchen, aluminum plates piled high with chopped vegetables and meat covering every surface. They served humba, pig’s knuckles stewed in soy sauce;  pansit, stir-fried noodles;  lumpia, spring rolls;  siopao, a bun filled with pork or chicken ‑ the poor man’s staple.

He was cook and waiter, balancing loaded plates on arms and hands, smiling at her as he passed. She was busboy, waitress and cashier, following him with her eyes as he rushed in and out of the kitchen. Their days were long and happy; their nights short but promising.

Word got around. "Cheap, good, tasty."

Now, years later, in the only high-rise in town, word still gets around "Delicious, exclusive, expensive." They serve Peking duck now, and abalone hot pot, and sharksfin soup.

Running feet, high-pitched voices, "Kungkung", Grandfather, and little bodies hurtling at his knees. He smiles, looks down and pats their heads. Then sons, daughters, sons-in-law, and daughters-in-law, sit at the table. It is his 69th birthday, a must-celebrate, must spend-birthday to bribe the spirits to grant him yet another year of life. Everyone is in red, the color of happiness. He raises his glass for a toast and then he sees her. Who is that withered old woman at the other end of the table?

The Monkey

I was eight when the monkey came. I rushed home from school, dying to get out of my blue, itchy, starched uniform. Home was above the store. Taking the steps two at a time, I heard the violent clanging of chains, a loud screech; and the monkey lunged at me, bared teeth inches from my face. Whoosh! His hand tried to grab me. I cringed and scraped the wall with my nails.

"Mama!" I screamed. The cashier came running, grabbed hold of the chain, yanked the monkey back onto its perch and said over the loud screeching, "Go, Sabing, go. He can’t reach you. He’s your mother’s new pet."

I choked. Mama hadn’t told me I would be coming home to a monkey on the stairs.

I was afraid. I refused to go up or down unless someone went with me and when the store was teeming with customers I had to wait. The monkey was just a hand’s breath short of reaching me. Clutching a salesgirl’s hand, I hugged the far wall as my feet raced against each other on the stairs. I could feel Mama’s eyes on me every time.

Mama had had pets before: guard dogs she talked to early in the morning before starting work, goats that gave fresh milk, a chicken that ended up in the family pot. But never a monkey.

I liked going down to the store after supper, sitting across from Mama at the huge desk strewn with papers. Mountains that dwindled into hills until they ended up in out-trays, in-trays and to-be-done trays. I played quietly, watching Mama often.

She was bent over the desk, the lamp throwing a bright white light on pink slips, yellow invoices and blue inventory sheets. Her glasses perched on the edge of her nose, the right index finger thrusting the glasses back up as they slipped, wisps of greying hair falling over her forehead, fingers flying on the black abacus.

One night I went downstairs to be with Mama as usual. I grasped the maid’s hand, steeling myself for the screech, the jangling, the whoosh but … silence. I looked up. No monkey! Running into the store, I stopped and saw the monkey on a new perch, my mother’s right shoulder. It raised its head slowly and fixed me with its gaze, gleaming brown eyes, shiny like marbles. The lips opened wide, yellow teeth, a quiet menacing grin. Its hands rifled through Mama’s hair, picking, choosing, eating. I wondered what. She kept on working, the monkey silently resting one hand on her head as he shifted from one shoulder to the other. Finally, he sat still, a hand on her shoulder, the other on the nape of her neck. I backed away. Mama looked up. A puzzled and irritated "What’s wrong with you?"

I pointed to the monkey.

"Stop it, Sabing. How many times do I have to tell you he’s harmless. He’s just a baby."

She gave a quick pat on the hand-foot on her shoulder and then back to her papers. I turned and silently went up the stairs, putting my foot squarely on the middle of each step.

The next night I stayed in my room after supper, and the next night and the next…

A few days later, I was clinging to the cashier’s hand, heart thudding.

"Inday, go back to the cash register. From now on, Sabing will go up and down the stairs by herself."

I stared at Mama and felt cold. I looked up and saw the monkey crouched, ready to spring.

"Ma, please. I…"

"No, " steel in the voice, "Go…up… the stairs… NOW."

I looked up at Inday; she stared at the cash register.

I took a step, then felt the warm trickle between my legs. My skirt was wet, my socks, my shoes. I heard Mama’s chair scrape backwards, hit the wall, the swoosh swoosh of the chair turning. She grabbed my arm and dragged me to the first step, beneath the eyes gleaming, shiny like marbles.

The hissed "Go" and she shoved me up the stairs. I stumbled and hit my shin against the first step, my face pressed against the skirt, the stench of urine overpowering. I gagged, pushed myself up and ran up to the bathroom.

The next day, Inday saw me standing at the top of the stairs and quietly, she came, held my hand and led me downstairs. The monkey was asleep.

Coming home from school, I memorized the cracks on the cement floor as each step brought me closer to the stairs. I took a deep breath. Then I saw. The marks where the nails had been for the perch. Then I heard. Silence.

I rushed back towards Mama, hair flying, arms reaching, wet eyes unseeing. My face on her neck, at last. I looked up. Her eyes were gleaming, shiny like marbles.


He takes another drag on the cigarette, a long hard pull, remembering the first time. That oomph that rushed to his head, trickling down light and lovely through every nerve.

It was a simple pleasure stolen in the fields, hidden by stalks of corn, high and dry. After a  hard day’s work, that welcome oomph. He plopped on the ground, put his hat over his eyes, pull on the cigarette and basked in the lazy late afternoon sun.

He listened for the rustle of the stalks that told him she was coming. A fast swish swish. She baked for the family and brought him three cookies every afternoon, still warm, wrapped in a napkin. She sat on the ground, the cookies on her lap while he kept his eyes closed. She took off his hat and put the cookie in front of his nose. He inhaled deeply, opening his mouth. She always gave him three guesses but he only ever needed one.

“Do you know there are 127 ways of roasting chicken? I’m trying one with crushed peanuts and diced oranges tonight. I was mixing the batter for the chocolate chip cookies when Sam saw the picture on the recipe book. He pointed with his chocolaty finger and looked up at me with those big green eyes of his. I couldn’t say No, could I? That little tyke follows me around and with those eyes, red curls and freckles…”

“A lethal combination right?” he chuckled.

She laughed, caressing a red lock and tucking it behind his ear. He’d never heard anyone laugh like her, as though afraid it would be taken from her even before it had begun.

He lit two cigarettes and put one between her lips. Hand in hand, lying on the ground, looking up at the sky. After the last wisp of smoke, he turned to her. All warmth and cookie crumbs in the tendrils of her hair.

One day the rustle of the stalks was slow in coming. She didn’t sit down. He got up. No cookies. She put one hand on his. She put one finger, trembling, on his mouth.

“Don’t ask. Don’t say anything.”

He looked at her, the questions dying on his lips as she shook her head, her eyes red, her cheeks wet. He reached for her, his whole body a prayer. The breath caught in her throat. Then the turn of her right ankle, the frantic swish swish of the stalks and the yellow dress with the little blue flowers was gone.

He never got the oomph back.

He looks at his hand, the wrinkles deep, the brown spots dark. He stares at the cigarette. He brings it to his mouth, the tip burning, the smoke rising, the ashes clinging.



I squint and lean hard against the steering wheel. I draw back and sigh. Snow, snow, snow. Thick and fast.

I love snow cloaking every fir and pine around the chalet, sparkling diamonds in the sun especially when I’m nestled inside with a fire roaring and a good book half-lying, half-sitting in the mamasan, a huge white, round cushion cradled in wicker. I push, stretch and snuggle and the cushion makes a niche for me.

I fell on the chalet in the summer, walking lost in the mountains of St Cergue. A path, trees and there it was. All wood, all geraniums, all Swiss. At the épicerie, five kilometers away, I got the number and booked the chalet for the winter.

The only thing I dragged from Geneva was the mamasan.

I locked up the house, left plants and keys with my spinster neighbor. It felt strange at first, this picking up and going, no longer sitting, watching, waiting.

Tick tock tick tock, my heart had counted each second, each minute, each hour, each day. Staring out the window in the rocking chair, dawn seeing pink, then orange, then fire on the white mountain peaks. Then dusk kissing them red and purple. The same colors on the mountain in the picture on the wall above the bed, above the white head on the pillow. His hair had not been as white as the starched white pillowcase. He had always liked to sleep on starched white things. I could never be bothered. Until then.

He had slept. He had often slept. Up, down, up, down the sheet covering him went and my heart fluttered to its silent beat. One day the sheet above his chest moved no more.

I sat in my rocking chair and stared out into my mountain-of-many-colors. A long time. A very long time.

The day came, the day for turning the house from holding two to one and as closets and drawers emptied, as tears no longer came, one last thing remained. The attic. And there it was. The mamasan where two twentysomethings had spooned themselves into one, its round emptiness waiting to enfold me.

It has been in front of the fireplace of the chalet ever since. Now only three kilometers away, waiting. I squint in the snow, change gears, drive up the steep mountain road. The tires skid on ice, I brake; the car dances and flies.

I struggle to open my eyes. It is dark. It is quiet. I am in my mamasan at last, a mamasan of snow.


Published in Foreign and Far Away, Writer’s Abroad Anthology 2013 (Oct. 2013)

Death and Noodles

The phone rings. My brother’s voice from the other side of the world.

“It’s mom. It’s bad.”

I put down the phone. I stare out the window. The Mont-Blanc glares back at me, stark and cold.

I ask for leave, pay the bills, ask the neighbor to pick up my mail. Three planes and 20 hours to get from where I am to where she is.

“Why French?” I can still hear my mom’s voice, her head over my shoulder as I fill in my college application. “Why not Chinese? You are one, after all.”

 “Precisely, I know enough Chinese. I want to learn something new. And I love the sound of French!”

“You always were different.” A shaking of the head, a shrugging of the shoulders. A giving up of her dream, an acceptance of mine.

I look out at the cotton-candy clouds, the blue sky a perfect foil to their tender puffiness. Nothing tender and everything puffy, everything angry red in my mother’s stomach. The images my brother emailed got stuck on Pause on the DVD of my mind.

I lean my head against the window. I close my eyes. I take a deep breath. Another.

“Hot towel?” A touch of Asian hospitality at the start of a long flight. I reach my hand for the towel. I hold it between thumb and index finger, shake it out, lean back and lay the towel gently over my face. The heat is a welcome sting.

I want to stay under that towel for a long time but soon the stewardess comes to collect them. She gives me the menu. Roast chicken with mashed potatoes or stir-fried beef and vegetables with noodles.

“Always pick the Asian dish. You won’t be disappointed.”

Will I always hear her voice?

I smile. She will laugh when I tell her.

“You who pay me no mind when I am alive, you will hear me from beyond the grave?”

I eat the noodles. “Always serve noodles on birthdays. It means long life.”

I watch a movie, two movies, three movies.