My mother was six months pregnant when she fell down a flight of stairs. My father, Vincent—an Overseas Filipino Worker on a two-week trip back home—rushed her to St. Luke’s Medical Center in Quezon City, where the doctor announced that she’d bled too much. The baby no longer had a heartbeat.
“I was in class when it happened,” my sister said. “Aling Rosa had to pick me up from school, and I stayed with her family for two nights.”
“Did Mommy cry a lot?”
“All the time.”
When they returned from the hospital, my mother ran up the same stairs where she’d fallen, opened the door to the second room on the right—the room intended for the baby—and began to rip off the wallpaper. My sister walked into the room and saw my mother throw a desk lamp at the window before kicking the crib until the nails flew off and the wooden pieces fell apart. My father left for the States a week later, and my sister and aunts had to take care of my mother. They kept her away from the baby’s room.
She wanted to name him James.
I called my mother when I’d stuffed the last of my things into my suitcase. It was December of my first year of college, and I was still reeling from the final paper I’d procrastinated writing until the previous night. My bus ticket said 12 p.m., and I didn’t start packing until after breakfast when I’d kissed the off-brand Cheerios goodbye, my mouth watering at the thought of my mother’s cooking.
“When I come back, can we have kare-kare and Spam fried rice? Or anything fried, really—fried and greasy, and make sure there’s lots of it!”
I heard suitcase wheels rolling by outside my room. I looked at my phone, saw 11:32 a.m. on the screen, and put it back to my ear. The bus stop was two minutes away, and I didn’t care about waiting at the back of the line—beats getting frostbite.
“And if you can, make some lumpia and tell Dad to buy that sauce—what’s it called—the sweet and sour sauce? Or was it something else?”
“Ay naku, it’s like they don’t feed you there!”
“Pasta and pizza every night? Boring!”
“Okay, I will tell your dad. Anong oras yung bus mo?”
“It leaves in half an hour. I’m just waiting, killing time.”
“Packed ka na ba?”
“Saan ang roommate mo?”
“Gavin left yesterday. He only had one final, and his dad picked him up a few hours after. He got an apartment in Collegetown, so I’m getting a new roommate next term. Oh, and he gave me his coffee maker as a parting gift.”
“Ano?” she said, embarrassed. “Why did he give you an old coffee maker?”
The first time I met my roommate, he was wearing a polo shirt, cargo shorts, boat shoes, and a nice watch. When we shook hands, he noticed how I’d looked at it, and for a brief moment, I think he was scared I would steal it. He was a nice enough guy, but I still made my parents wear their best clothes whenever they visited. I told them they had to look just as good as Gavin’s parents that first day. My father was wearing his tsinelas, a wife beater, and torn shorts, while my mother had squeezed into an old sundress that no longer fit. When Gavin’s father recommended that we all go out for dinner, my father hesitated, and Mr. Nicholson said he would pay. My father, humiliated, said we would just spend the night exploring the town. I pretended not to notice him sweating as he spoke. Mr. Nicholson recommended a nice Thai restaurant downtown. Said it was very oriental. Had very fair prices. It was around when he was a student there. Legacy status and privilege: my first educational experience at college.
“Gavin was just being nice,” I said. “He joked about me drinking so much coffee and said that I might as well have invested in a coffee maker. I ended up using his so much that he just told me to keep it.” I hadn’t thought anything of it at first, but now my mother was getting to me. I tried to brush it off. “Now about that kare-kare.”
“Kare-kare, sinigang, pusit, anything you want! I can make it all!” She was overcompensating, and I regretted mentioning the coffee maker. “And if you need anything else, your dad will just go to the palengke and buy some more of it for you, okay?” More overcompensating. I could practically see her making a grocery list, adding far too many items. There wasn’t enough money in my father’s wallet, but she’d keep writing.
“Thanks, Mom. And also, big news. Don’t tell Dad, okay?” I wanted to give her something to be happy about. Forget about the coffee maker, I kept thinking. “I made the Dean’s List this semester!”
“Well, it’s not official yet. Grades haven’t been released because final exams and papers haven’t been graded yet. But it’s pretty easy to tell when you’ve done well in a class.”
“Wow, Jericho! Ang galing! Mr. Genius ka!” I could hear scribbling and knew she was writing that list.
“And some other big news about my clubs. I don’t want to spoil too much, so I’ll just wait for when I get home. Can’t wait for your cooking. I miss a good meal. They should hire you as a chef here.” The scribbling stopped.
“Anak, they wouldn’t hire me. My English is very bad.”
“It was just a joke, Mom.” I hoped she wouldn’t take it to heart.
“Okay, anak, I need to go na. Lots of shopping and cooking.”
“I want a feast,” I said, jokingly, though I think she took it as a challenge. I really needed to stop talking.
On the bus, I sat at a window seat, which was normally a good way to pass the time (count poles, watch clouds move across the sky) but ended up being a dreadful five hours of overanalyzing that conversation with my mother, repeating every word I’d said, wondering how many times she winced while I joked—seemingly harmless, yet fraught with judgment. I hadn’t meant to offend her. But I could see her hanging up the phone, putting down her pencil, and crying in front of the family dog. Ziggy would watch her in confusion, wondering why she was making those noises, why her body was shaking, why she kept blowing her nose into a piece of toilet paper. I thought of all the times I had made my mother cry.
Five weeks earlier, I had stayed on campus—my first Thanksgiving without the family.
“I have so much work to do. Everything’s piling up, and finals are just around the corner,” I told my parents, knowing they’d appreciate my hard work and keep silent about their unhappiness at having one less person at the dinner table. A text message from my sister later revealed that she’d be in New Jersey for Thanksgiving. I remember attempting to buy a bus ticket for New York City before realizing I’d spent all my money on take-out dinners and bad coffee dates. Four days passed before I even opened a notebook. At least I got some shut eye and caught up on TV shows, I kept thinking—a way of distracting myself from the image of my parents ordering Boston Market for Thanksgiving, their table empty of my mother’s fine silverware, my sister finishing her second plate at her in-laws’, my mother’s new recipes discarded.
“I think I made my mom cry again.” I was kneeling in front of a dirty toilet bowl, my face nestled atop the rim. Oliver, a guy from my Spanish class, forced me to drink a glass of water and stayed in the bathroom while I heaved.
It was my hall-mate’s birthday, and his band threw him a party at a house downtown. It smelled of weed and burnt toast. The beer was making me emotional, and there was always something about hiding in a bathroom during a party and hearing the muffled sounds of music through a locked door that made me realize just how drunk I might be.
He crouched down and met my eyes. “What did you do?”
“I didn’t go home is what I did.” I’d only ever spoken to him once before. It was during a conversation exercise in the first week of classes, and I had called myself Jacob. Language barriers somehow caused me to forget my name—or maybe it was because he had a nice face. “I didn’t go home even when I knew my mom wanted to try out a new recipe.”
“I’m not following.”
“For break! My mom wanted to try some new recipe she found on the Internet, and she’d been so excited about it. Mostly because she found a new way to enjoy her computer but also because she thought I’d be home. I think she might’ve even fixed up my bedroom, maybe some new bed sheets or something like that, but I didn’t come home because I was drowning in work.”
“Well that’s a valid excuse.”
“But I haven’t even started on my work! I just slept in all day and masturbated.”
“You only jerked off once during break?” He was joking, and I felt him inching closer.
“I feel like a jackass.”
“You’re not an ass! You’re just a college student.” He helped me stand up. “A typical college student who has had way too much to drink. Have you eaten anything yet?”
“I ate oatmeal earlier.”
“You’re an idiot. Come on.” He wrapped an arm around my shoulder. “Let’s get some shitty late-night pancakes and plan how you can make it up to your parents. You are going home for the holidays, right?”
“Yeah. But what about the party?”
“Eric’s too drunk to blow out his birthday candles. Just pretend we were here the whole time. Besides, these fluorescent lights are giving me a headache. Don’t you feel it, too?”
I nodded, and we walked to the diner a few blocks away.
My sister’s husband was sitting in the living room, drinking a can of Budweiser, when I walked through the front door. They’d been married for three years, but I still hesitated to call Roy my brother-in-law. He was still the same jerk who’d called me a faggot when I said I wanted to dress up as a girl for Halloween.
“How was the bus ride?”
My sister was in the dining room helping set the table. Roy walked me over, and my sister gave me a kiss on the cheek. “Big news,” she whispered into my ear. I thought she was talking about my big news. I figured my mother had blabbed. My father grabbed my suitcase, and my mother yelled hello from the kitchen.
I’d envisioned that first night home during the drive from campus to the city—“I made Dean’s List. I’m thinking of running for Student Council. I hope you’re proud of me.” But as everyone took their seats, my sister and her husband remained standing. She placed a hand on her stomach. He smiled his all-teeth smile. I knew the conversation wouldn’t be about my grades.
My mother screamed. “Ay naku, I knew it. We’re so proud! We’ve never been happier, anak!” As she walked over to give them a hug, I thought to myself how easy it was—to get pregnant. I mean, all you have to do is spread your legs, close your eyes, and there you go. I remembered the two nights before one of my exams, when I hadn’t slept and felt like fainting from the Red Bull. I got a 97%. Where was my hug?
I felt someone grab my arm. My sister reached in for another kiss. “Why so glum chum?”
I forced a smile and said I was just processing.
She said I was going to be an uncle.
I smiled some more because it seemed appropriate and then we were all seated at the table. My mother put a bowl of white rice at the center, beside a bowl of sinigang, kare-kare, and a plate of tilapia. This was the big feast I was promised, though looking around the table and seeing my father patting Roy on the back and toasting their beer cans, it felt like it had become my sister’s.
“Juvy,” my father said to my mother just as she sat down. “Get me a small bowl of the broth.”
Nodding, she got up and walked back into the kitchen. I was surprised at having never noticed his tone with her—like he was speaking to a servant. She came back and placed the bowl next to his plate. He didn’t thank her. She sat down and started piling the rice onto her plate.
When dinner ended, my father got two more cans of Budweiser and walked Roy to the living room. My sister and mother started cleaning up the table, and I heard my mother saying how excited she was to finally have a grandchild. I never got to tell them about my big news. No one asked.
I got up and walked to my room.
I thought of my fourth date with Oliver, when he let me stay the night while I worked on revising my final submission for a memoir class. It was late, and he had an early study group, but he’d stayed up until I finished editing. When he asked me what it was about, I let him read the introduction.
My big brother’s name would’ve been James. He would’ve eaten his vegetables and gone for a thirty-minute run every morning. He would’ve been handsome and started dating his first girlfriend in middle school. He would’ve dated a girl named Veronica, and she would’ve been the captain of the cheerleading squad. He would’ve played on the school basketball team, or football, or any team where he could make out with Veronica in between breaks. He would’ve been smart, too. He would’ve gotten into Harvard. He would’ve been perfect. My brother would’ve been everything that I am not.
I stared at his eyes while he read. I watched as he moved from line to line, and I grew more anxious as he got closer to the end. When he finished, he looked at me for a long time, and I felt naked. Then he kissed me. We spent the next hour talking about my mother’s accident, and then Oliver said, “Screw perfection, I love you just the way you are.”
“You love me?”
And then I kissed him, and he smiled, and I said I love you back.
I went to bed crying that first night back. Because I hated kids even when my parents wanted grandchildren. Because I had a boyfriend who loved me, and it sucked because I could never invite him over for dinner. Because I knew how mundane “I made Dean’s List” sounded next to a list of baby names.
For Hanna’s first birthday, my parents invited all of our family friends over to the house.
My father’s co-workers came. So did my sister’s and her classmates from high school and Lehman College. Roy’s family came, too—a loud Norwegian bunch. I saw some women from church—my mother’s friends—and made sure to avoid them before they could ask me why I hadn’t attended mass since my first communion.
I gave Hanna a kiss hello and shook the present in front of her. She squealed and reached for the box. I wanted to pinch her cheeks.
After three conversations with aunts who asked me about school (How are your grades? Wow that’s high! Oh, you study English? That’s why!) and girls (Do you have a girlfriend yet? No? But you’re so handsome! Why not?), I went up to Tito Paulo—the uncle who once served whiskey to his 12 year old son—and asked him if he could grab me a beer from the cooler next to my father. He patted me on the back and said he was happy that college was teaching me all the right things before handing me a Corona.
“So, how is school?” he asked. “Meet anyone yet?” Not you too, Tito Paulo!
I told him, “Not yet, I’m just focusing on my schoolwork.”
He laughed and said I was just like my father. They’d studied together at the University of the Philippines and came to America in the same year. He said my father was a huge nerd back in the day, and the other men nodded.
I asked them to describe my father back in his early New York years, and they went on and on about how hardworking he was.
“Ay naku! He was always at the hospital, kissing everyone’s ass, making sure to get some extra shifts.”
“He’d study when he couldn’t fall asleep. Kept us awake with that stupid flashlight of his. I wanted to break that shit.”
“He ordered Kentucky Fried Chicken a lot. Said it made him look healthier, but it just made him rounder.”
“He would always talk about your mother.”
“He never cried.”
“He refused to cry.”
“There were so many horror stories of husbands who went to places like Dubai or Australia or the States and would come back with bad news,” my Tito Paulo started. “They’d say they met someone else, started a new family, didn’t plan on coming back to the Philippines after this last trip. But not us. Not your dad.” He gave my father a playful punch on the shoulder and said, “Your mom never had to worry about that. One happy couple.”
My mother did worry, though. On three occasions, each inspired by the annulment of a friend or relative, my mother had recounted those days leading up to my birth and our arrival in New York. And so the family folklore goes—
She thought he would leave her.
Twice a year, whenever Dad flew back to the Philippines, Mom would hold a big get-together. My sister and all of our cousins and Mom’s siblings and Dad’s sisters and the neighbors and some strangers who just wanted food would gather outside the gates of the house where I was born, and they would hold up signs saying WELCOME BACK and WELCOME HOME as the jeepney rolled up. My sister would be the first to run up to Dad, tugging at his shorts with the expectations of American chocolates and trinkets. He’d pat her on the head and say, “Later,” as he ran up to Mom and grabbed her by the waist and kissed her with the lust of a man deprived of a woman’s touch for half a year. The others would cheer on—“Mabuhay!”—and the kids would run around the front of the house, impatient and hungry, and Dad wouldn’t let go of Mom until they could feel their sweat soaking through one another’s clothes.
She made sure he felt loved before he left again for the States.
I looked at my mother as she helped my sister bring Hanna into the upstairs bathroom for a diaper change. I wondered if they ever felt loved by their husbands.
It was half past two when my phone rang. I was worried it was my parents. They would never call so late.
The screen was too bright to look at the caller ID. I clumsily pressed Accept and said, “Hello?”
“Is your sister there?”
“No.” It took me a moment to recognize the voice. “Why would she be in Ithaca?”
I heard Roy cuss on the other end.
“Why isn’t she with you?” I asked nervously.
“Let me know if she calls you.” He hung up before I could ask, Why, what happened? I sat up, staring at my phone screen until my phone locked and my room went dark.
It took four tries before my sister picked up her phone and told me she was hiding in her friend Sophia’s house on Long Island.
When she started sobbing, I told her I’d be there soon and hung up. By the time I put my laptop in a tote bag and pulled my coat from its hanger, I realized I didn’t have any way of getting there.
“Sorry for calling so late.”
“What’s going on?” Oliver said in a croaky, still-asleep voice. There was something comforting in knowing he was the kind of guy who would help out at three in the morning.
His dorm was on the other side of campus, but he called to say he was outside just a few minutes later. His hair was rumpled, and I brushed it with my fingers as we made our way to the main road.
Four hours of driving without music—just static every few miles until we shut off the stereo—and by sunrise, we were parked in front of a townhouse on the far end of Nassau County. My sister walked out the front door holding a toddler car seat. Nathan, Sophia’s husband, was carrying Hanna, her arms wrapped around his neck and face buried into his chest. I had missed her second birthday party and was surprised at how big she’d gotten.
“I have her seat,” my sister said without saying hello. “It’ll just take a moment.”
As my sister wrestled with the belts, Sophia ran out of the house carrying a small box. “It’s some cookies. I thought Hanna might want some,” she said to my sister.
I was annoyed that no one bothered to say hello, but I remembered it wasn’t about us. The cold came in through the open door, and I turned up the heater. They gave each other hugs, we waved good-bye, and Oliver started driving to the highway. Hanna was sleeping. My sister was staring out the window.
“Want me to turn up the heat?” I asked.
She shook her head, and then it was back to the sound of the vents blowing hot air onto my face.
When we were a few blocks away from my parents’ house, I asked Oliver to park the car. My sister jolted out of her meditation and asked why we had stopped. I told her I hated whatever the hell was going on and that I wanted answers. Why did she run away? What did her husband do? Why scare everyone like that? I wanted to tell her our parents hadn’t stopped calling me, and they’d probably yell at her, but I thought better.
“I was scared.”
“Of what? Of Roy?”
She was quiet for a moment, and it took me a second to realize she was crying.
Oliver leaned over and pulled a box of tissues from the glove compartment. I handed them to her, and she blew her nose. The noise woke Hanna up, and she reached out for her mother’s hand.
My sister spoke of the times her husband would hit her, every now and then, whenever he got drunk and angry about something. Sometimes it was about work. Other times it was about a team losing a game. The night she ran away, he’d had no reason, he was just drunk, and she was in the way. “It wasn’t too bad,” she said. “Didn’t hurt. But then he walked upstairs and, for whatever reason, I thought he was going to go into Hanna’s room and hurt her.”
“Did he?” My hands had balled into fists. Oliver put a hand on my shoulder, and I could feel him trying to ease me up. I looked at Hanna, now teething on one of Sophia’s sugar cookies, and wanted to hit Roy in the face.
“No. Not at all. He was just walking to our bedroom.” She stopped and handed Hanna another cookie from the box, then brushed the back of her palm across her baby’s cheek. It was rosy, like her father’s, and I hated that. “But the moment he fell onto the bed, I rushed to Hanna’s room, locked the door, and texted Sophia to come pick me up. An hour later, we were gone.”
“Then your fucker of a husband woke up and called me.”
She lowered her head in lieu of an apology. Then, when Hanna reached for her hand again, my sister started to sob. Oliver said he would get out of the car and give us a few minutes.
“There’s a Dunkin’ Donuts across the street. I’ll get us some coffee.”
“Could you get me a medium black, and an orange juice for my sister? And if they have munchkins, could you buy a few for Hanna?”
“Sure thing.” He got out of the car, and I heard the doors lock.
My sister blew into a tissue and apologized.
“Stop apologizing,” I said coldly, though I hadn’t meant to say it in that way. I was angry, but not at her. I had to remind myself.
She wiped her nose and looked at me. It was the first time I noticed a small mark on her face—where he hit her.
“Why didn’t you tell us before?”
“There was no reason to.”
“There were so many reasons!” I heard my voice grow. “Are you going to tell Mom and Dad now?”
She thought about this for a moment, and I wanted to yell at her some more. Of course she should tell them, I thought. She looked at Hanna and kissed her on the forehead. She looked back at me and nodded.
From the rearview mirror, I could see Oliver standing at the crosswalk on the other side of the street.
My sister turned around and asked, “Who is that boy?”
“That’s what you get for not saying hello.” I wanted to avoid the question.
“I’m serious. Who is he?”
“Oliver. He’s from school.” I could see him walking towards the car.
“Is he your boyfriend?” Boyfriend. She said it so nonchalantly. I smiled at her.
Oliver opened the door and handed us our drinks. “And here’s a bag of assorted munchkins. I wasn’t sure what to get, so I just got them all.”
My sister thanked him and gulped down the orange juice. “I’m Kim. Sorry for not introducing myself earlier.”
“Oliver,” he said, shaking her hand. “That’s okay. You were preoccupied.”
“Sorry you had to meet me while I’m such a mess.”
“You’re always a mess,” I joked, and Oliver started the car.
My mother called eighteen times before I finally picked up. “You’re cowards. You’re all cowards!” I yelled and hung up before she could say anything. They should’ve yelled more. They shouldn’t have let Roy back into the house. I spent the entire car ride complaining, and Oliver had to keep calming me down.
“One apology? He said sorry one time, and that’s all it took?”
“I’m sure she just wanted to end all the commotion. I mean, your dog started barking, and Hanna wouldn’t stop crying. A lot was going on. Maybe she got flustered,” Oliver said.
“He probably hit her again the moment they got back home.”
“Don’t say that.”
“And that lecture from my dad. ‘Everybody makes mistakes.’ Bullshit! She thought he would kill their two-year-old child. How can anyone defend that?”
In February—when graduation was just three months away—I called my parents back and said I didn’t want Roy at my ceremony. “He’s your brother-in-law.”
“He’s shit to me.”
“Your sister won’t accept that.”
I hung up and called my sister. She said she refused to come unless her husband could come, too. I told her, “Don’t bother, I don’t want either of you two there.” When my mother tried to call me back, I let the call go to voicemail and put on my coat. I needed to take a walk.
Campus was empty, as it usually was on a Saturday. Everyone was in their apartments studying or sleeping in. I asked Oliver to meet me at a coffee shop, and I started to make my way up the hill. It was still cold out, but at least the snow stopped. My breath was visible and when I heard someone walking behind me, I grew self-conscious of my breathing. I stopped to let them pass, and I saw a car drive by the road below. A toddler was sitting in a car seat in the back. It reminded me of Hanna. She wouldn’t be able to come to my graduation. Then again, she’d probably just grow impatient and throw a fit mid-ceremony.
I hated my sister. I thought we’d shared a moment, back in Oliver’s car. For once, we weren’t bickering. I wasn’t the annoying pest. She wasn’t the mean older sister. Now we were back to square one, like when we were little.
Like when she told me the story of the dead fetus. James. Baby James. My sister’s voice was heavy in my ears. “I wonder if Baby James would’ve been a little prick like you.”
When the lease to my college apartment was up, I had finally given up on the idea of being able to avoid moving back in with my parents. It was just another month, I told myself. Just one month before I would leave for Boston.
My parents’ house felt so cluttered, though nothing was out of its usual place. The television was where it always was, across from the long sofa, which was adjacent to the small sofa, which bordered the coffee table. The kitchen was the kitchen. The dining room was the dining room. Nothing new in any of the bedrooms besides my diploma, now hanging above my headboard, and two suitcases—still full of the clothes I’d yet to unpack (refused to unpack, really).
My mother was wearing a sando and shorts, and I could see the burn marks from cooking on her arms. I kept telling her to stop using so much oil, or to at least buy a splatter screen, though—like she did with many of the things I’d told her in those last couple of months—she refused to listen to someone younger than herself.
We were in the living room, my reheated coffee sitting on the center table and her coupon magazines piled high beside my mug. She was cutting a coupon for three-for-one paper towels when I asked how my sister was doing.
“You should ask her yourself,” she said without looking up. Annoyed, I asked, “How is Roy?”
“You should ask—”
“I’m not going to speak to him. Or her for that matter.”
“Anak, it’s in the past.”
“It’s not in the past, though. He hit her back then. What makes you think he hasn’t hurt her since? Or Hanna? What about your granddaughter?”
“Tama na. That’s enough.”
“Why do you and Dad always defend him like he didn’t do anything wrong? Why defend Kim when she was stupid enough to go right back to him?”
“Because your sister loves him, and he’s her husband.”
“That’s a stupid excuse.”
“Sometimes love is just like that. It doesn’t make sense. Minsan, you get hurt and you have to learn to forgive.” That’s when she put the scissors down and started crying. At first, I thought she was crying for my sister—that she finally understood why I was so mad. But then she wiped at her face with the backs of her hands and said my father used to hit her, too.
My father had been an Overseas Filipino Worker for nearly 15 years before he could afford to bring my family to the States. He was allowed to travel back to Marikina for two weeks every six months. My mother grew anxious when she heard stories of her neighbor’s husband, who’d left his wife and kids for a woman in Saudi Arabia.
By the end of his fifth year abroad, my father began to send fewer and fewer letters. What were once lengthy messages, spanning several pages with far too many scratch-out marks and run on sentences about how much money he was earning and how much he missed my mother and sister, became:
I will send balikbayan boxes to the cousins in Parañaque. Tell Totoy not to keep all the chocolates for himself.
Make sure Kimberly throws away her old toys before the ipis crawl in through the walls. I will buy her new ones.
I love you.
When my sister turned seven, my mother was already five months pregnant. She would go to the palengke every day and eat siopao because it was rumored that mothers who ate the white buns would give birth to light skinned babies. She found blue striped wallpaper with baseball prints at a craft store in the mall and, when she saw how affordable it was, told her brother to help her bring it home. The toys and lamp she found at a convenience store, and the crib she found at Ali Mall in Quezon City. My sister watched as my mother’s siblings came by the house every couple of days to help make the room. Tito Nelson put up the wallpaper, and Tito Calvin and his son helped make the crib. My mother’s sisters swept the floor and put the toys in a corner, above two pillows.
My father hadn’t written, and it wasn’t until he came home that my mother finally stopped worrying. “Akala ko you weren’t going to come home,” she said. He laughed it off, but there was something in the way that he averted his gaze that my mother found unnerving.
A last minute party was thrown. The two families came, as well as some neighbors and the kids from my sister’s school. My sister’s friends kept asking to touch my mother’s stomach, and in between cooking the hotdogs and asking Aling Rosa to grab more ice cream from the freezer in the garage, my mother stopped to sit down, wipe the sweat off her forehead, and let seven-year-olds put their hands on her belly.
“I thought he wouldn’t show,” said one of my mother’s friends. Everyone had gone outside to eat, and my mother was sitting in the kitchen with a wet towel on her head.
“Did you know he was coming?”
“Juvy,” her friend said, her way of asking if everything was okay.
My mother waved her off and said nothing was wrong. “Go enjoy the party!”
That night, my father went to bed while my mother cleaned the house. He didn’t say good night.
Four days later, he drunkenly said that he’d kissed an American girl at a co-worker’s birthday party. My mother cried, then yelled. (“Anak ka ng puta!” “Walang hiya ka!”) He acted hurt, then angry.
And then he hit her while she was too close to the top of the stairs.
I asked my mother why she hadn’t left him. She told me she loved him. He kept her safe and comfortable. He gave her a family and a life in the States.
“That’s not love, that’s you feeling like you owe Dad because he has money.”
She slapped me across the face. “Putang ina mo! Don’t speak about things you don’t understand.”
“I know what love is,” I said, defensively. “That’s not love.”
There was only another day before Oliver had to leave for California. He’d gotten a job at a startup, and when he asked me to talk it out, I told him that there was nothing to talk about. “This is a great opportunity. Don’t give it up for a relationship.” He asked if a long distance relationship would be possible, and I said a cliché I once heard in a movie. “If in ten years, we’re both still single and in the same city, let’s try again.” We kissed and made plans for one final date.
We ended up staying in his house—in his bedroom. His parents were out until midnight, and it felt like we were teenagers again. His father had turned his room into storage but left the desk and the bed as they were. My wine glass sat, empty, on top of the box to my side, labeled Old Stuff.
“Everything gets old,” I said in a moment of drunken enlightenment.
“Especially us,” he said. “You didn’t used to have facial hair.”
I laughed and remembered the first time we met in our Spanish class. Our professor paired us together, and I tried hard to avoid his gaze. I’d seen his face on a dating app before but had been too shy to flirt with him. So instead, I stumbled through my grammar and accidentally said my name was Jacob. It wasn’t until the night of my hall-mate’s party, during our breakfast-for-late-dinner at the local diner, when he asked, How are you feeling Jacob?, and I said, My name is Jericho, and he said, I thought you said your name was Jacob?, and I smiled because it had been three months of not speaking to one another in Spanish class and yet he still remembered what I’d said.
In his bed, we talked about our futures. He said he was nervous about his job. I said I was nervous about moving to Boston for graduate school. We talked about traveling and being adults, and then his parents came home. We got dressed, and I hugged his parents goodbye, and he dropped me off at my parents’ house. They were already asleep, so he told me to tell them bye for him. I told him I loved him and I hated how we had to break up and that maybe we should give long distance a try. He told me it was my idea not to do that, and I nodded and said he was right. He said we needed to learn to let go. I told him I loved him one last time.
As he turned the corner and drove off, I remembered the first time he said he loved me, after I let him read my memoir assignment.
I’d written about a fictional brother named James. He would’ve been athletic and brilliant. Straight. I wonder if my mother thinks about that sometimes, too. Does she ever think about him on the days when she’s alone at home and her daughter’s in her own house, tending to her second newborn child? When she’s cleaning the living room and sees the photo of the old house from across the Pacific? Or when she’s showering and touching her stomach, which once held the child she never got to hold?