I only question my father about these half-truths now, after all these years, because of the nightmares. Because I think about my mother. Because I imagine leaving my husband.
Eileen Quinlan, Smoke and mirrors (red), 2005. Chromogenic print
There are three facts, three stories I inherited from my family that keep me up at night: one, my father met my mother in a whorehouse along the tourist belt. Two, my aunt, also a prostitute, brought us to America by marrying her US sailor client. Three, my father lies. He recounts these stories to me, over and over, and they change each time.
I don’t know if they’re rumors or if they’re true. Somewhere among them, there’s the reason why my mother left. There’s the truth of how they met, fell in love, and had us, my sister and me. It’s a story he won’t say. A story he won’t admit. A story I’ve run away from. Growing up, I didn’t have time to think about why my mother wasn’t there. I had to take care of my father. My até. My lola. But in that midst of taking care of everyone, I left.
It’s a long story. I paid my way through college. My father pulled out credit cards in my name, with my social security number, and I was in a mountain of debt before twenty-one. So I eloped. With my high school sweetheart who enlisted into the Navy. An encircling of my aunt’s story—I couldn’t help it. On some days, on bad ones, I think of myself as a poor whore who married for money. A whore who left her family. It’s what started my insomnia, the dreams. They’ve returned from my childhood.
I only question my father about these half-truths now, after all these years, because of the nightmares. Because I think about my mother. Because I imagine leaving my husband. So the dreams come, and every night, I have the same one, even if it shifts a bit.
It’s a dream of my father being beaten by an American GI with a baseball bat. Then it switches to an ocean. I’m dropped in the middle of an island and I’m on the edge where land meets the sea. I see someone on a boat. I’m on the boat. Their head’s in the water. I push them deeper into the waves, they’re fighting me, but like the GI, I beat them, I drown them.
I wake up in a sweat. I come to angry.
Sometimes that person is my father. Sometimes that person is my husband. We have history. It isn’t all good. But most of the time, that person is my mother.
I can never picture her face. It’s always white, pale like a ghost, like the rough hide of the bat-like aswang. The sound she makes when I push her head down is always a low murmur, a guttural tik-tik-tik. It scares the shit out of me.
I’ve always been superstitious like my grandmother. Lola always called my mother the aswang. The bitch. The whore.
I shiver to let these thoughts unwrap me. I get up and walk to the bathroom, splash water on my face. I see my reflection in the mirror. This is another fact I hate, another truth I inherited: I look exactly like my mother. People tell me this all the time: I act exactly like her, too. I never return their compliment. I would turn my back to them and say: I don’t know what you’re talking about. I don’t even remember how she looks like.
It’s been years since I’ve been back home in Los Angeles. My father snores in the other room, like a mountain infested with chirping birds and shrouded by smoke. I can hear him breathe in and out, loud, like he’s struggling to breathe. I walk to the closet of my old room. It’s dark. I open the dusty, large chest I keep all my childhood mementoes and photographs in. I rummage through the pile, throwing the ones I don’t want over my shoulder. I find it: the picture of my mother and father, laughing, smiling, and I’m in the middle. They’re on a white couch. She’s dressed in a pink summer frock. My father’s in a suit and wears dark-rimmed sunglasses. His hair is so suave. He reminds me of my husband. Just the way their whole body smiles and moves when they laugh. I wear a white, baptismal dress. I’m one or two. The year my mother left. I switch the light on and stare at the photo longer: they’re happy.
If he couldn’t sleep, I would hear the karaoke machine turn on, the beat of a ballad playing, his voice streaming out of the doorframe’s slits.
I know what would happen if I walk to my father’s door, knock, and show him this picture. Ask him: What happened? He’d shrug and snap at me for waking him up. He’d close his eyes and stay silent. Tight-lipped. Struggle to breathe. Tell me there are things we can’t talk about in Filipino families. He’ll close up, kick me out of his room, and shut the door. If he couldn’t sleep, I would hear the karaoke machine turn on, the beat of a ballad playing, his voice streaming out of the doorframe’s slits. The house would be this mixture of silence and love songs till the sun rose, and even then, as I would cook his favorite breakfast, as the smell and smoke of frying Spam-and-eggs would crowd the hallways and rooms, he’d stay angry, moody, silent. It’s his way of moving on.
The silences. That’s what I have never forgotten: the way my father collapses when he confides these stories to me. When he denies it. When he tells me he’s making it up. So I piece things together, these tales that become my nightmares. My father’s old now, graying and becoming smaller, his back hunches, he’s got arthritis and gout, and he tells me the joints are killing him. We’re at the breakfast table. I didn’t wake him up and ask about the picture, so he’s in a jolly mood. He opens his shirt and reveals the elongated cross scar on his chest.
He points to it: Remember this, anak? My woman heart?
He always jokes about his new heart that saved him. Transplants can’t receive hearts from the opposite gender. The valves have to fit perfectly.
But he laughs: I got a heart transplant because of my addiction. I’m sensitive about it: my woman heart! I don’t like to talk about it either, child. It’s in the past. Just don’t follow my footsteps, di ba? You don’t want another person’s heart beating in your ribs. It makes it too hard, anak. To forget. Not good at all.
Dolores, he continues. You’re twenty-six now and you’ve finally returned home. The same age your mother left, ay naku! Married off at twenty-two to that sailor, too! What is he, a nuclear machinist mate? What’s that? An engineer? Maybe you’re smarter than your mother—actually married someone with a good-paying job. Your husband, he’s deployed now, yes? Where is he, the Arabian Sea?
I nod my head. Play around with my food. Crack the yoke open. I pull my hair back and tie it in a bun—I’m not used to the dry LA heat any longer. I smile, hold my dad’s hand, and he grabs back: I’m back home to confess the dreams I’ve been having. Because I couldn’t handle them when I was alone in my quiet, southern apartment, where the wind howled and the rains fell and the image of my drowning mother accosted me every night. After years of taking care of my dad from afar, sending him monthly checks, paying his bills, rent, managing his mother’s funeral—my lola, she was the one who raised me—I’ve come home to finally get the truth out of him, to make the night terrors stop.
Dad, I had said on the phone before I came, would you mind? If I lived with you for a few months?
My sister Louise had moved to Las Vegas with her family and kids—he still sees them often, drives the four hours to see the children. My half-brother Ben moved from my father’s house the day I had left—when I was twenty-two, eloped, and bright-eyed, willing to do anything to escape my father’s poverty. My brother followed suit. Left at twenty and rarely called.
Of course, anak! How I’ve missed you. Oh, did you hear my new joke? You know how to make a room filled of Pinoys say shit?
How? I smiled, pulling my phone closer to my ear.
You say: Bingo!
We laughed. He continued: So, I can cook for you and tell you stories. Keep your lonely heart at bay until your husband returns. How about that, huh?
I don’t have the heart to tell my father I might leave my husband for good.
The bits and pieces that my father has told me over the years amount to this: a fractured distilling of something he’s lost. Maybe it’s his manhood, or his shame, or his women, the queridas, but it was never his charm or laugh that fills the room with memory. I tease these stories out of him after he drinks several Coronas, even if it’s early in the morning, or after I hand him black-and-white photos of Auntie Gloria and her sailor husband, photos that aren’t of my mother and him. Photos that aren’t interrogating.
It’s this white uncle who took my aunt and eight uncles to America.
My father brings up another half-truth: my uncle is the same man who helped an American GI beat him to a pulp. The man who haunts my dreams.
The swaying calamansi and mango trees are uprooted, the front grass is dry and brown. But inside, everything remains.
But because of your uncle, anak, I’m American, my father says. But, you know, the way I met him, well. When the bad happens, you go with the good, and when you’re over the bad, anak, you’re good with the good. All I want is goodness. He smiles.
I laugh. It’s his charm: he never makes sense.
So, your heart, I ask. Are you sure it’s a woman’s?
My father, without saying anything, heads to my lola’s old room, to the wobbly, black drawers we’ve had since my childhood. I follow him. Leave our fried eggs and garlic in the sun. He opens the frilly curtains, closes them, fluffs the pillow, and sits down on the carpet floor. He avoids my presence. I walk in and gaze above him: the paint’s chipping off the walls. The fountain outside is burnt, out of flowers and vines. The chipped veranda is gone; my father ripped it out the ground once my lola died. Too many things remind me of her, my dad said. The swaying calamansi and mango trees are uprooted, the front grass is dry and brown. But inside, everything remains: the ivory dressers matched with black ones, the china cabinet used for picture frames instead of china, holding photos of everyone in the family except my mother, the stacks of unwashed dishes that seem to never disappear, the smell of fried fish and vinegar.
Dad, tell me how you met Mercy, I say.
You mean your mother? He laughs, and I sit next to him on the carpet.
She’s not my mother. Lola Pacing was. Mercy is my birth mother.
He’s silent, contemplative. He looks out the window from his low place. The room feels heavy, the Los Angeles heat enters from the opened windows.
You know, I’m overly sensitive now because of this. He points to his woman’s heart.
I don’t want him to carry the silences anymore.
This is the nightmare I have. This is what could have happened the night my father met my mother: the city lights of Manila cloud the darkness with a crimson hue and the streets are rowdy and loud, the men thirsty, the women laughing, and the cars roar and roar and roar. It’s 1973. My father, Narciso, is running down the corridor toward Ermita, the tourist belt, in search for his sister Gloria. Narciso is running and running, past the smoke from fish-ball carts, past the yelling men in collared shirts—ay, boy, slow your ass down—past the women and their short dresses, past the cars that screech and honk and crowd the sidewalks, past the blinking lights, the sounds, the smell of fried fish and cooked meth, the flaming air of the night.
He sweats like a madman. He has reached the whorehouse. He looks up to the neon lights of Casa de Lady. He’s swallowed by the glow, the heat, the burning of his mind, America, he keeps thinking, America—but then, Até, what about the food we need to eat?
He seizes the gated door and a man opens it, flicking his cigarette ashes. My father, Narciso, has always told me this: he remembered the way the man smoked, like a badass, with his hand on the hip and the other in the air, the cigarette between his fingers, the vapor blurring Narciso’s vision. A coarse voice, an angry demand for money or no girls. My father, Narciso, shakes his head—not here for the girls, just my sister—but the man clutches my father, Narciso, by the neck and says it again: No money, no women.
This is when my mother enters the scene. She appears from the darkness, the alley, dangerous like a slithering aswang, her white dress as pale as her skin, her hair slicked back into a ponytail, her makeup impeccable, her smile flawless.
Pogi boy, she calls, pogi! I’ve been waiting for you all night, handsome. She places her hand on the bodyguard’s shoulder. Won’t you be a dear? This boy, pogi boy, he’s a friend. C’mon, be a darling. She flashes a red smile.
The bodyguard smiles at my birth mother’s touch. Just this once, he says, since you’re a favorite. Salamat, she winks. She takes my father by the hand, he is confused, dazed, still coughing at the weight of fingers once pressed against his brown neck, and she walks him upstairs, up a dark staircase, and stops in the middle.
She turns abruptly to him: What are you doing here? You’re Gloria’s brother, yes? Don’t cause any trouble for her, she has American customers tonight.
Narciso, my father, smiles that smile that has made every woman he has ever met crumble at the knees. It’s his eyes, he has always told me, he has the charm, the puppy-dog eyes.
I have to see if it’s true, Narciso starts rambling to Mercidita, I’m just here to ask her a question.
Mercy extends her hand. You’re going to need cash for this.
He searches his pockets. How much?
She shrugs. Two thousand pesos.
He takes a step backward, almost tripping over the steps. How is any respectable man supposed to pay that?
My mother laughs. It’s just to select and look at one of the girls, she says, it’s actually three thousand pesos to rent the whole room for the night.
That much? Narciso exclaims, running his hands through his perfectly waxed hair.
Mercy smiles shyly and lifts his chin toward her. I’ll loan it you, pogi boy, she laughs, but you better pay me back. Maybe a whole night with you?
Narciso trembles, hands in his pockets, back bent, and he looks away.
Mercy places her hand on his chest: You must be a virgin.
C’mon, be a dear. Here. She hands him two thousand pesos. Just enough to look. She flicks his forehead. Gotta go, pogi boy. I’m a favorite. I can do as I please. But: I’m late for work.
My father walks down a narrow hallway lined with closed doors. It’s quiet. He can hear his own footsteps, the creaks. The red lighting heats the long corridor. The walls are brown but the lamps make it appear crimson. He can hear faint screaming in the distance. His footsteps become louder. A dark man, as tall as the bodyguard, follows him closely. You’re a bit young for this, boy, he laughs. How old are you? Fifteen? Narciso shakes his head, no, sir, I’m seventeen. The man bellows a laugh, finally clutching his shoulders. Then why so nervous, paré? They’re just something to look at. You didn’t even give me the price for a whole night.
My father knocks on the first door. The smell of sulfur fills the hallway like a ripple, and Narciso coughs and coughs, hunching his back as the man keeps laughing, as if it’s coming from his belly: What do you think about this one?
Narciso sees a woman standing in a white gown beside a bed with no sheets. The light’s dimmed to a soft yellow. Her dress is a loose, frilly gown, something he sees his Até Gloria wear at night when the air is hot and sticky. Across from her is a small table with shabú tablets arrayed like candy. Meth pills. The man gently nudges Narciso aside and touches the red, orange, and lime-green pills, brushing them as he counts: isa, dalawa, tatlo. He picks up the one with the letter R on its face and flashes it toward Narciso: Just another thousand pesos, and I’ll let you have this. It’s good, boy, real damn good. Like madness. He pops it into his mouth. He slaps the woman’s ass. He gulps it down and his throat quivers at the weight of the tablet. I’ll even throw in this babae right here. He grabs her shoulder, rubbing it over and over. He then shoves a green pill into her mouth. She collapses on the bed. Narciso trembles, turns away, places his shaking hands into his jean pockets. Nah, nah, sir, not this one, just looking, need to see some more. The man eyes Narciso and a smile creeps at the side of his mouth: Good, good! You gotta keep looking; you’re not satisfied with the first one you see! Good! I like you, paré! He shuts the door slowly.
You gotta go with the good, the laughing man says.
The woman stares blankly as the door swallows her up.
Where are these women from? my father asks the laughing man. His eyes are shot red, his face grinning with madness.
The man takes out a heavy keychain, pulls one of the keys out, and locks the door. He flips the heavy keychain and it jangles in the silence. He slaps my father’s chest, hitting a button on Narciso’s jean jacket. Narciso loses his standing and reaches for the wall, but the man catches him mid-fall and pulls my father toward him. Narciso can smell the sulfur brimming from his mouth, the man’s breath, and the man pushes Narciso against the wall, feeling the crotch, the ass. My father tries to pull away, looks toward the other doors, starts rambling about the woman and her breasts, how he’d give the laughing man another thousand because he wants a long, long night with one of those girls. The man finally lets go of Narciso, smirks again, and leads him to the next door and the next, opening each one with a bellowing laugh: I like you. A real man’s man, at your age, too. They’re all fresh meat. It’s good you’re here.
Each woman behind that door is dressed in the same loose, white gown. Where are these women from? my father asks the laughing man. His eyes are shot red, his face grinning with madness. The provinces, he says, and slaps my father’s back again, where else do you think?
These ones are new, barely trained, still getting used to the routine, so it’s why we keep them here. Not like our favorites—our madames.
Narciso walks slower than the man, keeping a distance between them. He stands tall and tries to act like the badass with a cigarette. He rummages through his pockets, taking one out, and lights a cig he’s stolen from a mountain of trash. He tries to hide his trembling. And finally, after opening and closing countless doors, he hears the faintness of his sister’s voice. She isn’t screaming or laughing or crying. She’s telling a story. She’s slow, the octave of her voice is smooth and full of body, and my father, Narciso, gives the man another thousand pesos, something he has stolen from his mother earlier that afternoon, from her hidden cash for mahjong parties.
He tells the man with his finger: That door, I want that door, I just want to see what’s behind that door. The man cocks his head and purses his lips.
She’s busy, helping some American clients. They like her, she’s a favorite. Two of them are in there. You don’t want that door. My father nudges the man, tries to smile that smile with the puppy-dog eyes, and the man eyes him for a long time until he scratches his chin and says: Just this one time, because I like you, paré. Just watch. Knock on the door and see if they’ll let you watch. If not, knock on the last door. Maybe Mercidita will take you. She’s another favorite, more experienced.
He slaps Narciso on the back one last time. He walks away. The man’s keys echo across the narrow hallway as my father, Narciso, watches him disappear into the darkness, gently brushing each door, his fingers splayed against the wooden walls.
This is all conjecture. It’s all conjecture. Why do I repeat myself? Over and over? I’m compiling everything my father has told me over the years, in bits and pieces, during the late nights when he’s drunk and remembering the homeland like it were a woman he once loved.
It’s because of the silences. The shame that fills the room every time my father speaks about the past. It’s how we hid this, that, how I learned of my father’s drunken and meth-filled nights when I was child, when my sister and I ran between the chipped veranda’s pillars and threw blades of the grass in the air. My father would watch us, saunter from the backyard, the voices of his parés laughing in the garage trailed behind him. My lola stood on the porch with her bamboo broomstick against her chest, ready to strike. My father’s eyes were red, like blood, like heat.
My lola would shout at him. You’re drunk! You’re high! Disgrace!
Is this all conjecture too? Is this really what I remember? Is this why I married at twenty-two to my childhood sweetheart, to a man with bravado and charm and just like my father—a cheater, a liar, a gambler—but a man with a heart just like a woman’s, a heart that loves, that gives? Why I used my husband to escape, to live on the edges of South Carolina and Virginia, in coastal towns far away from my father and his heated memories?
He looks at me now, still sitting on the carpet floor. He hangs his head.
Dad, I start. You were still a good father. Look at us now. Louise has a growing family in Vegas. Ben’s a phlebotomist at Cedars-Sinai. I’m married, and he’s, well. He’s good to me now. We’re okay, Dad. Okay?
We can forget all that has happened to us and our familia. Your Aunt Gloria was never a prostitute. Your mother was never a whore.
And we’re here, anak, he says, drumming his fingers on the black, rough floor, in America. We can forget all that has happened to us and our familia. Your Aunt Gloria was never a prostitute. Your mother was never a whore. Your grandmother never gambled away my father’s entire military pension. We were rich and had as many Jeepneys and drivers and servants as you wanted and a big house in Mandaluyong and we weren’t poor, anak, remember, I’m telling you now, we weren’t squatters.
He collapses, hunches his back, brings his knees to his chest.
Dad, you can’t sit like that, you’ll hurt yourself.
I grip his shoulders, I hug him, I tell him it’s okay over and over. He retreats from me, his eyes draw a blank. My father, Narciso, can’t hear me. The silence feels like the dry warmth that blows into the room. The memories swallow him up like a shut door.
My father covers his face with his hands: Forget what I just said, anak. I’m lying. I’m going with the good, the juicy stuff, but I’m just making it up. To explain what I can’t explain. You need to go with the good and be with the good. God is watching. God’s a kind God and he’s protected our familia for a long time. Despite your grandmother’s gambling parties, your aunt’s whoring. Go with the good. The good, the good, the good…
This is how I imagine my father, Narciso, meeting my white sailor uncle: he knocks on that second-to-last door and nobody answers. So he knocks again, no answer, knocks a third time, again no answer, and knocks a fourth time, louder and louder, until there is screaming behind the door.
The American GI swings it open, his fist raised and ready. His eyes squint at the sight of Narciso.
He recognizes him: it’s Gloria’s brother. The youngest one. The bunso. The one who always brings him water whenever he’s thirsty at the small, humble bamboo house; the one who always bows to him, says: Hello, sir, GI sir, kind sir, how are you today?
The GI eyes this small, brown man, lifts his chin. Narciso looks past the GI’s neck and sees his sister wrapped in a blanket, covering her lady parts, and she is tied to the bed, both arms outstretched like the cross. Her head is tilted to the ceiling fan. It’s spinning and spinning and spinning and spinning. Another man, the white sailor, my future uncle, caresses her breasts and kisses her covered belly.
My father, Narciso, tries to say something, anything, but the American GI is drumming his fingers on the door, his other fingers still on my father’s neck, and is looking down toward him, is shifting his shoulders like he’s about to rage. He cocks his head forward and mutters something Narciso can’t understand, whispering something like: You shouldn’t be here, kid, I’m high as fuck, you better go, your sister is just giving us a nice time, okay? Just be a nice boy and go home.
I don’t know how the beating happens.
I dream that my father, Narciso, begins stammering his questions about America, about whether it’ll work, about whether he’ll really marry his sister as she’s stroked by that sailor who’s howling, as his sister looks blankly at the moving fan and there are pills splayed across the floor and the table. Narciso is trying his hardest to sound eloquent in his high-school English, but it’s coming off wrong. The American GI is rolling his shoulders and the white sailor, my future uncle, notices the violent streak in his friend and tries to stand up. But he’s high as fuck. The American GI picks up a bat from his Army bag, a memento from home, and he begins to beat my father, Narciso, first the head, then the arms that cover the head, then the torso, then the legs, and there is a swishing sound from the beating, there is nothing but darkness for Narciso as his sister screams for help. The white sailor, my future uncle, grabs the American GI from the back, his arms interlocked from behind, and they struggle until everything has stopped and Narciso awakes in a strange house that is not his. He cannot remember the beating until Mercidita is above him, petting him, telling him what a bad pogi boy he’s been. The events come flooding back to him like the pain that swells throughout his body, first from the head, then the arms, the torso, the legs.
This is where I stop. The dream. I switch. Where I begin to imagine the ocean. Where I drown my mother instead. Where I wake up drenched in sweat, in loss.
I know the night my father was beaten to a pulp led to the morning Narciso and Mercy made love.
I know before they made love, she introduced him to meth.
I know when they snorted meth into their bodies, giving into each other’s high, they fabricated my unknown sister. These are facts my father rarely remembers, facts he only told Louise and me once, when we were young and missing our mother, crying for her. A love story, he said all those years back, I’ll tell you a love story to make you girls feel better.
Now, when I piece it back together, I picture my mother, Mercidita, taking a bag of meth and sprinkling it on the glass table. She whiffs a lifetime into her body.
Try it, she says to the pogi boy, it’ll take the pain away.
My father, Narciso, hesitates but this is the start of it all: he whiffs it in, the world spins, the pain subsides, and the whiteness permeates his body.
For once, my father remembers, I felt alive.
His heart beats faster, faster, the heart that was his, the heart that wasn’t a woman’s. It thrashes against his chest like the heat swelling in his veins. It beats like a song, it beats like his body, consuming everything Mercy had to offer, everything he could give to her. The meth made him alive. The meth brought his manliness back to him. The meth eventually broke him. Broke them. Broke us. All of us.
Your mother loved me, he starts. We are standing nearby the window now. We have closed it, the curtains have stopped blowing, and the fan above spins. The air stirs, the room feels hotter, and the sun fades behind the rolling gate and wall of cacti that protect our home.
But I thought Auntie Gloria’s husband beat you up, too?
My father laughs.
Dad? I thought he helped that soldier with the baseball bat.
I don’t remember, he says after awhile. I just remember the way your mother looked at me. Like I was damaged. Damaged goods, she used to say. That sharp-tongued mother of yours.
I sit on the edge of the bed and begin to thumb through the memories of my mother. I hesitate and breathe in deeper.
Then why did she leave?
He doesn’t return my gaze.
Are you happy she left?
What if I leave my husband?
He shakes his head. No, anak, he says. The man loves you—why would you leave him?
Are you worried I’ll stop paying your bills? I can find a good-paying job here, Dad. I can support both of us.
He keeps shaking his head. Divorce is hard, anak, being lonely is no good. He loves you. You love him.
I hang my head. I know I do. I pause. Then, tell me why she left. Make me understand why I should stay.
Oh, well, you know, he starts. He pauses. He begins to walk away. I hold onto him, grab his wrist: Dad, I say, please.
What can I say? Your Auntie Gloria was mad at me. She didn’t petition me to come to America. She lied, I had to get a job at the local construction company and I was sent to Bahrain. I worked for hours and hours building who-knows-what, in heat stronger than this, stronger than Manila. I worked in the desert, anak! I almost died. Your auntie finally relented, bought me a ticket home. I flew here, to LA, I met Denise, and you know. Ben’s mother. We got married. I got my green card, my papers. I asked Denise to petition for Mercy to come afterward. Your mom was pregnant. At least I thought she was.
Dad? I drum my fingers on the windowsill. I thought you met Denise in Bahrain. I thought that’s why you married her too. She brought you here. I’m confused.
I thought she was pregnant, anak. Your mother. With your eldest sister, older than Louise.
I don’t understand, Dad. What happened? If you had us, I pause and breathe in slowly, then why did you keep using?
I don’t know, he says. He begins to break. To repeat. I don’t know. I don’t. He is gone. He walks down the narrow hallway toward his room and disappears into the fading darkness. I look back to the window, to the burnt-out front yard, to the sky that has become pink, gray, black, blue, the darkest of blues. I think of my mother, her hair slicked back into a ponytail, her lips red, the deepest red. I remember her shrill laugh. I remember her silences. The way her face twitched when she was angry.
I imagine her pregnant at twenty years old, sitting in her tiny, box-shaped apartment in Tondo, a dimly lit room with a bamboo mat as a bed and a bucket as a shower. She is alone, her belly swelling, she has always been alone. But in her womb there lay my unknown sister.
I conjure up my father’s voice on the telephone, distorted, airy, filled with white noise: Bring my daughter back to me, I can’t wait to meet her: the goodness I need to keep.
I dream of my eldest sister dying without a name, in a garbage can somewhere in the tourist belt, outside a whorehouse, in the middle of a burning city that roasted the brain like God’s hand.
I was in hell, my mother once told me, years ago when I finally decided to meet her as an adult, years after she left me as a child. We met in a sweltering parking lot outside a Chinese restaurant in Burbank. I was still in college.
Your father, well. He was so mestizo, child. He was good-looking. A real mestizo. He was a liar. But he was mine, he always was mine. I just decided, well. That I didn’t want a liar anymore.
I scoffed. But you didn’t just leave him. You left me. You left Louise.
She shrugged. Are you going to call me a whore? Your father couldn’t take care of me. My other husbands did, even if two of them died. Can your father even take care of you?
I was the same height as her. Two small Pinays staring each other down with the LA sun beating the cement. I clenched my fist. I wanted to smack her.
Anak, my dear. Don’t act like that. Look at your face. Wrinkles make you ugly. Do you want to be ugly? A man won’t marry you if you’re ugly.
Are you joking? I laughed, surprised at her comment, how she eased the tension by insulting me.
I thanked her in my head. I thanked her for leaving.
Well, child. What do you expect? Men will hurt you. Even that boyfriend of yours—he’s thinking of enlisting into the Navy, right? He’ll hurt you. I’m warning you now, anak. Because I love you. I do.
I relented and turned from her, walked toward my car. She yelled after me. What about the lunch I’m supposed to buy you? I didn’t look back. I opened my car’s door and drove as far away from her as I could, but I didn’t cry. I thanked her in my head. I thanked her for leaving.
Years later, as I would sit alone in apartments in three different states where my husband is stationed, where he is deployed, I thank her again: she was right.
I may be a fool, I say aloud. I reopen the room’s window and stick my arm out as a gush of wind rushes between my fingers. I talk to the wind, the air, the night sky, the moon: But I love him. And I love my father. I love because it’s good. I try to remember my father’s words. I love because the bad is over, and now the good comes. It stays. I imitate my father’s voice: Because when you’re good, you’re good with the good.
I laugh at how silly it sounds. I almost cry. I picture my husband’s face and imagine yelling at him: I forgive you. Because I’m not like my mother. I’m not her at all.
I think of her again: Mercy, Mercidita, her name full of weight, pain, and necessity for the man she once loved. I remember her four husbands, five children she never raised, and one she might have killed. I try to feel her emotions, try to understand why she had had enough, enough of his charm and his lies and his shabú—his cooked meth that led to his fake, woman’s heart—his other women and his want for goodness, his good with the good talks.
Out of pain and necessity and mercy, she left. For us. For herself. This is what I have to say, to think. It’s my own way of moving on.
I walk down the white hallway, now darkened by the set sun, toward my father. I hear his faint voice behind his closed door. He’s singing a kundiman on the karaoke, a love song. Maybe it’s for the memories of my mother. Maybe it’s for his children, for Denise, my brother’s mother. I imagine him in his large sweater, his wrinkled face laughing, smiling, the mic in his hands as he belts out everything that is within. I knock on the door, over and over again until he finally hears, and slowly, my father, Narciso, opens up.
Melissa R. Sipin is a writer from Carson, CA. She won first place in the 2013 Glimmer Train Fiction Open and her writing has been published or is forthcoming in Glimmer Train Stories, PANK Magazine, Fjords Review, Hyphen Magazine, and Kweli Journal, among others. She cofounded and is editor-in-chief of TAYO Literary Magazine. As a Kundiman Fiction Fellow, VONA/Voices Fellow, and US Navy wife, she teaches at ODU and Tidewater Community College. She blogs at msipin.com and is currently working on a novel.