The day Luis left for Vancouver was the same day my mother gave birth to my younger brother. Both arrival and departure were unwanted. At the well, as I washed rags full of blood and shit, Luis had told me everything will be as before. This time, his promise was a burden I didn’t want to carry. In my mind’s eye were a multitude of women carrying the weight of unfulfilled promises throughout their lifetime. I trembled at the thought of their shared destinies. Across from me, Manang Marta’s hands were white and cracked from using too much chlorine when washing clothes. Her back did not straighten from the many years scrubbing the cement floor of her tiny house. With her small store, she supported three grown sons who stole money from the cash box and drank the liquor from her own stock. I looked down at the soiled clothes and saw my mother’s legs wide open, waiting for the child to come out. Blood and water on the bamboo floor. When my little brother came out, he was so small, already a resigned look on his face. I looked at the path where Luis disappeared, wanting to leave as much as he wanted to stay. He was stupid for thinking that there was something to stay behind for. What he told me echoed all around me. He had said, with his usual cherry optimism, “I’ll get there then I’ll come back right after. Promise.” We were behind the stacks of empty crates of Red Horse beer so Manang Marta couldn’t hear us. I memorized his face, his hair, his hands on my forearm. The small scar on the side of his left eyebrow, when he jumped from the dike to the sea bed, a submerged branch struck him when he stumbled. He tried to circle me in his arms but I stepped back. “You should go. You’ll be late,” I said. There was confusion in his eyes but I had nothing else to say so I headed back to Manang Marta and squatted next to her to rinse the blood and shit from my mother’s clothes.
During siesta, I went to the end of the dike where the bangkas were moored and hid myself inside a tarp draped over empty fishing baskets. I then allowed myself to believe that in a few hours, Luis would be waiting for me on the bridge that connected my house to the dike, writing English words on the concrete floor with the chalk he always carried.
ROSES ARE RED
VIOLETS ARE BLUE
I WANT TO MARRY YOU.
I’d erase the word MARRY, thinking that I didn’t want to be married because all I would do is have children and more children and get sad when most of them died. Like Mama, I would cry every All Soul’s Day. What I had always told Luis was, “just because we are always together doesn’t mean that we will end up together.” He’d laugh and then pull me down to sit next to him and sang that song he always sang, his voice so much like the scratched noises a karaoke machine makes when it stopped working. And in that moment, the song was mine, the feeling was mine, the sea wind was mine, the world was ours.
When I left my sanctuary, the dike was still the tall, rough sentry that it was, and the houses crowded behind its walls were the same stilt houses as yesterday and the months and years before. Despite typhoons and tropical storms, people had built their homes the same way they’d always built them. They had never learned to move away. They had never told the typhoons, the blackened sea bed, the capricious sea that they have had enough. They should have packed their bags, destroyed their stilt houses, and moved far away. To move, just move. I turned my back on them and looked towards the horizon.
My moment of clarity drove me to ask Manang Marta if she knew of a place where I could work. Carlo, her eldest son, snored on the bamboo bench. He scratched his balls inside his basketball shorts. He reminded me of the pig Manang Marta raised last year. The same look of contentment when it settled in the wet mud in the afternoon heat. From where I stood, he smelled of rum.
“What do you need work for? How about school? Who’s going to help with… the little baby? What with your Mama not getting out of bed.”
I understood her nosiness. Everyone in the barangay shared every bit of good and bad luck. Everyone knew who had dysentery, who needed help mending fishing nets, who fucked which neighbour and showed up pregnant and hiding it. I resented her inquiries. I wanted something for myself.
I gave her a reason she understood, “Papa’s not home. He’s gone again.”
“Does your mother know,” she asked.
“Yes.” I lied. Her stare left me uncomfortable but I held my gaze.
“I know a girl who works for a rich Intsik. They might need a tindera at their warehouse in Carcar.”
“Can you tell her that I would like to work for them? That I can start right away?”
“Don’t you want to finish school?”
“The public school has a night school.”
“Madre Dios, you want to get raped?!” Manang Marta woke up Carlo with her scream.
“Who’s getting raped?” Carlo leered at me from his reclined position.
“Mind your own business,” I said.
“Can you please get up? Get up and wash the dishes.” Manang Marta smacked Carlo’s bare shoulders. It left a red imprint that faded in seconds.
“You and your brothers …”
“Will you shut up! Nag. Nag. Nag. All you do is nag. Hand me twenty pesos. I’m going to buy food at the carinderia.” He got up and scratched his balls again. This time he looked at me. “Do you want to come with me, pretty Rowena? Luis isn’t here to walk you around anymore.”
“Stop talking,” Manang Marta said.
“Ha! I bet a thousand pesos he’ll forget he was ever born here. He’ll forget how pretty Rowena is pining for him.”
“Manang, just tell me when you hear from the girl.” As I was about to leave, Carlo snaked his hands inside Manang Marta’s long apron, snatching bills; he left her screaming of how much she suffered.
When I arrived home, Berto and Miguel were playing on the dike. Boys with snot and dirt on their small faces. Their small bellies protruding. They had just scavenged for garbage in the sea bed: broken toys, empty bottles, unopened containers. I told them to be careful but the wind snatched my words. The air tasted of rain. The bridge connecting my family’s stilt house to the dike swayed rhythmically. I told the boys to pack the fishing nets before the deluge. They nodded their heads before hammering open a tin box with a big rock. Once inside my small house, my mother barely looked at me. Her face slack and dehydrated, a dusting of dandruff coating her long hair. I tidied as much as I could without waking the baby sleeping in his cardboard box.
“I got a job so I’m switching to night school.” My mother applied Vicks VapoRub on her chest and neck. The bowl of lugaw on the table left untouched. “I’ll walk home with Clara. Her boyfriend picks her up from school.”
“No,” she said. The skin on her upper arms jiggled when she rubbed vigorously.
“Ma, who’s going to feed the family?”
The baby mewled as the strong sea wind blew through the closed window. Without answering, my mother closed her eyes and covered herself with a thin blanket.
While Clara waited for me outside my classroom door, Hector and Paul boxed her into a corner. They thought they looked cool with their hairs slick with gel and cigarettes dangling behind their ears. I knew Hector wanted to touch Clara’s hair, to pull down the red scrunchy holding it in place. When Clara’s hair was down her back, she looked like a hair model from a Sunsilk Shampoo commercial.
“Can you please…” Clara said.
“Of course you can pleaassse…” Paul said.
Clara moved to the right and Hector blocked her.
“Don’t you have something better to do?” Clara tilted her head up since Paul had the height of PBA basketball player. He sometimes played for the varsity team.
“Rowena, I’ll meet you outside the school gate. Jomar is waiting already.” Clara turned around in a huff, her ponytail swinging angrily. With opportunity, Hector grabbed the scrunchy. As Clara’s hair cascaded down her back in ebony waves, Paul laughed while Hector bounced the scrunchy up and down his hand. Clara shook, maybe from anger, maybe from something else. I got to her as fast as I could, I kicked Paul’s shin and punched Hector’s shoulder. Clara then picked up her scrunchy when it dropped on the floor.
“Puta! Get the fuck away from her!”
“Kayat! That hurt, Wang.” Hector rubbed his shoulder while Paul glared at me from three feet away.
“I’m going to do more than that if you don’t leave right now.” It was 10:30 P.M. and in seven hours I had to be up to bathe and change Berto and Miguel so they could stay at Manang Marta’s. I had to be at Mr. Yang’s warehouse by eight.
“You okay?” Clara pulled her hair into a tight bun, the scrunchy a crown on her head again. “Did they touch you?” I leaned in to whisper.
“Let’s just get out of here.” She adjusted her pristine white school blouse, making sure the checkered red and green ribbon was where it should be. I shouldered my own school bag and left with her. We heard catcalls in our wake.
Jomar, Clara’s boyfriend, was twenty, four years older, and a college graduate with an engineering degree. She boasted about it to anyone who listened. “Not like the palahubogs at the corner store,” she’d say. Jomar had dimples, Intsik eyes, and hair parted in the middle like the idol Keempee de Leon. He always wore Converse high-top shoes, as if rubber slippers weren’t good enough anymore. He carried The Republic: just carried it around, never reading it. When Clara had a peek, she didn’t understand any of the words. It was in English but not in English sometimes. There were words like polis which she thought was about the policia. “Who wants to read about the police when they never help unless there was cash involved,” she said. She once nagged Jomar to carry his engineering study book instead so he could finally pass the board exam. To shut her up, Jomar twirled her around until she was dizzy and laughing. They were happy, as much as poverty allowed them to be. I looked at them and wondered how long before Clara had a child. They’d probably marry before she graduates from high school. He’d give up on being an engineer. His parents would be disappointed and, in a few years, he’d take over his father’s carpentry shop. They’d have five or six children, probably two miscarriages, and by the time Clara’s thirty she’d have that look in her eyes. The same as my mother’s.
Jomar usually waited next to the fish ball vendor’s store. Sometimes he’d be talking with a group of students. Other times, he’d be alone, reading the daily newspaper. If he could get his hands on an English paper, he’d read that instead. Tonight he was reading The Philippine Inquirer with his legs stretched out in front of him. Already the store was full of students dipping their thin sticks into deep fried snacks. Their chatter was loud, attracting stray dogs, sniffing around khaki pants and plaid skirts. As I exited the school, Opaw, the gate keeper – so named for his shiny bald head – gestured at me to come near him. I flipped him the bird. Up ahead, Clara dashed out, her crown of hair bobbing then finally coming undone. The scrunchy forgotten on the side of the road. Jomar looked up from his reading to find her crying in front of him.
“What’s wrong? What happened? Are you hurt?” He wrapped his arms around Clara and looked at me accusingly. Since Jomar could not go inside school grounds, he relied on me to keep Clara safe. As a concession, I picked up the forgotten scrunchy off the street and offered it to him. When he didn’t take it, I slipped it inside my bag.
Opaw knew he was the shit. And everybody understood this. He was a conspicuous pervert. He leered and made smarmy gestures to students he fancied, boys and girls alike. He touched their bottoms, sometimes pinched their waist, and always fondled their genitals. When he tried to grope my ass, I slapped him but that only made him open his mouth and stick his tongue out from between his missing front teeth. He liked Jomar, liked the way he smelled and how he looked so much like the Keempee de Leon. Maybe Opaw envied Jomar’s hair. Who knew. But as soon as Jomar asked him if he could pick up Clara inside school grounds, Opaw lunged towards Jomar’s penis. It was no surprise when Jomar beat the bald man to the ground. Blood gushed from cuts above his right eyebrow and the bridge of his flat nose. Jomar then told the gatekeeper that he would report him to the barangay captain. Opaw laughed. He laughed so hard that he swallowed blood trickling down from his wounds, “he’s my cousin, you fool! Unless you suck my cock, you’re not stepping foot inside.”
Clara sobbed until Jomar’s shirt was wet. I was certain that he was going to do something incredibly stupid soon.
“Was it Hector and Paul again?” he asked me.
“Why do you ask if you already know the answer?” I wanted to go home and do my homework and sleep for at least 5 hours. I was an unwanted third person in their couple universe but walking with them kept me safe from palahubogs who were drunk from rum and high from shabu.
“You have to stop working and go back to school in the morning. I know we can convince your mom,” he said.
“She’ll say the same thing, you know she will.” Below the streetlight, they looked more like father and daughter than two lovers.
“I’m going to ask again. I’ll make sure she understands.” I walked slowly ahead.
Unemployed since he failed the board exam twice, Jomar was unable to move to the city. He had a useless college degree that he couldn’t use in a village where most houses were built out of corrugated steel and stolen plywood and bamboo. Those who could afford to build concrete houses on solid land hired people with board certified engineering degrees so their castles wouldn’t topple on them at the first gust of a tropical storm. The little money his mother gave him for allowance wasn’t enough to pay for extra expenses, like transferring Clara to a daytime high school. When they finally caught up to me, their arms were around each other to hold off the disappointments of the world.
Carousel Calvo is a Filipino-Canadian writer currently living in Vancouver, BC. She has published her works at Ricepaper, Prairie Fire, Lyre, Headlight Anthology, and Soliloquies.
Featured Image via Shutterstock