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!”
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?”
“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!”