April is nascent and the air is thick with morning dew. Ears agonizing, like you’ve just removed headphones that were wrapped around your head for too long. Legs aching as movement reintroduces blood back into your veins after a plane ride that felt like a thousand pages. But what a book it was! First plane ride, first time out of Maynila,an hour in Hong Kong, and now you’re on Canadian soil. Mountains visible against a cloudless blue sky, summits topped with snow, white like your favourite macapuno.See mist manifest with your every breath, smell the freshly cut grass. These are things you have never felt before. Mom says she’s only seen snowfall in April once in her four years here. It will take some time. Winter is still half a year away, but you’re hopeful.
“Get some sleep, Ate,” she says to you as you make your way inside her one-bedroom apartment.
Mom started to call you Ate when you became a big sister. Initially, it was just to teach your sister about kinship and respect, but it’s grown into a nickname, a term of endearment.
Two weeks earlier, you crossed the stage at the University of Santo Tomas to accept your English Degree. Dad sat in the audience beside mom, her hair much shorter than when you last saw her two Christmases ago. Your sister beside them. She’s 14 and is taller than mom. Soon she’ll eclipse you, too. Your brother was seated on mom’s lap. All eight years of him struggling to stay quiet and still. You wondered if your classmates would ask if he’s really your brother. Maybe they’d ask if you were adopted. Your macchiato skin a few shades away from his mestizo complexion. Mom says he got it from dad, like his nose and dimples. To your family’s left sat a pair of titas– mom’s younger sisters – one tito,your last living lola, and a pair of cousins. The school gave you two extra seats on top of the complementary four, yet a small delegation of the Batongbacal family took up an entire row despite this.
You wiped your hands against the loose sleeves of your gown before shaking the Rector’s hand and accepting the degree commemorating your years of hard work. “Dalisay Batongbacal” – a little too Tagalog, a little too probinsyana,but seeing your name alongside the words “Cum Laude” stirs up a sense of pride you didn’t know existed within you. An official seal from the Department of Education on your degree. A medal around your neck. Your dreams of teaching can’t come soon enough.
A feast waited for you and your family at home. Tables surrounded by plastic chairs filling the garage. Oversized checkered mantles enveloping each one of them. Inside were second and third cousins you’d never met. Dad’s coworkers, mom’s old friends.
The kitchen smelled of Lechon flown all the way from Cebu. Crispy red-orange skin crackling with every carve, every bite. A heavy peanut aroma wafting from the Kare Kareon another table. Pancit Palabok, Dinuguan, Bibingka– all the colours of the dishes painting tables and plates. It was a feast fit for your graduation and your family’s farewell. The papers had been processed. Mom came back to ferry you over across the earth.
There is a makeshift partition in the living room of mom’s apartment. This is where you and your siblings will sleep. Mom now works at a food court and dad got a job cleaning at a high school nearby. You consider going to school and upgrading your education, but your parents have their eyes on a three-bedroom apartment. So, you apply at a food service provider and you take a job at a university cafeteria in Vancouver. You write “Dolly” down on your nametag and you wipe tables and trays, hand out chicken fingers, punch in orders on the cash register. Brows furrow and laughter is held when students hear you speak: “Club sand-witz, mee-jum pryes, and lards coke, no ice.” Colleagues snicker when you say every syllable in words like “bay-si-ca-lly” or “par-ti-kyu-lar-ly.”So at night, you use your phone as a light and read to yourself, out loud or at whisper, until you fall asleep, until you eradicate your accent.
Your manager takes you under her wing, her accent light enough for you to wonder if she grew up here, went to elementary or high school here. But you hear it rise and reverberate with anger when she confronts the other employees who jest about your newness to Canada, the way you say “sal-mon” and “al-mond”,or how they can’t believe that you’ve never ice skated. She moved 10, maybe 15 years ago, probably around the same age as you. You wonder how old she is, but you know she’ll never tell. She gets mad when you call her tita.“I’m not thatold,” she’ll tell you, so you call her Ate,she’s your big sister now.
A few nights a week, after your shift ends, you and Ate drive downtown. She keeps a couple buckets, a pair of mops, a backpack vacuum cleaner, a couple pairs of gloves and a bevy of cleaning solutions in the trunk of her car. Depending on the size of the home, you can make a couple hundred dollars a night for a few hours of cleaning. All untaxed, all under the table.
Ate teaches you how to drive, tells you which Filipino restaurants have the best lumpia,who sells the best mangoes. Sometimes, she’ll Facebook you links to night classes, tourism and hospitality management programs you can take part-time. She helps your family pack and move to a place on Kingsway, close to the Filipino community, closer to St. Mary’s Parish.
You grow accustomed to the snow and to the rain. To packing yourself inside the morning train like a sardine, a sea of elbows and underarms above you. You wake to pain in your shoulders, wrists, and the soles of your feet. You help with the mortgage, the groceries and new basketball shoes for your brother. You pick him up from practice, drive him to games, take him to dinner after. You help your sister with her essays, buy her graduation dress, talk to her about boys. Send your parents on a cruise one Christmas. On Sundays you sleep in, stretch your back, keep your feet off the ground, skip the morning mass. Sometimes, you’ll wake earlier and join your family at church, where your brother serves as an altar boy. Take a second to remember the prayers, the hymns. Try to avoid the priest.
“Dolly, I haven’t seen you in a while,” he’ll say on the odd Sunday you attend.
“Sorry Father,” you’ll say back. “Been working a lot.” He’ll say that work is not everything and that happiness cannot be bought. You notice the condescending look in his eyes, the patronizing tone, but you’ve trained yourself to think before you speak.
“See you next week, Father.”
You take the promotion to head office when they offer it. Exchange the cash register for an Excel spreadsheet, trade customer transactions for client phone calls. Set up catering events, interview and hire new employees, handle scheduling, help with payroll. You don’t see Ateas often, but you still clean once or twice a week, meet for coffee on weekends. You help write her two-weeks notice, make sure the grammar is pristine, that the spelling is perfect.
One day your dad calls and you’ll meet with him at a dealership. Your brother is graduating high school, honour student, starting point guard on the basketball team, scholarship offers in and outside the province.
“Ate,” he’ll say to you. “Just a bit of the down payment and part of the insurance. He’s worked so hard, he deserves something nice.” So you sign the papers and your brother comes home to a new car.
You attend the work Christmas party at a downtown hotel. A 10-minute bus ride from the office. A 30-minute walk. You used to go to this every winter, put on your best dress, wear your nicest shoes. After five or six, you come to expect the same thing every year. The same hotel by the water, the vignettes of employees in tears about how their lives have changed, the musical performance from the younger, more spirited employees, the awards for your years of service, a raffle of gifts, the rallying cry from the CEO.
“What a great year we had,” he’ll say. “Let’s work even harder next year!” and you won’t see him again until the next Christmas party.
When Atequit, you stopped going entirely. You’ve missed the last two, but you’re here tonight. You walked straight from the office before the snow had the chance to fall on your hair. A down
jacket over your buttoned shirt, a scarf around your neck, your black slacks and boots that look formal enough for office wear. Don’t bother letting your hair down.
Round tables populate the hall, each enveloped by clean white linen that falls just short of your knees when you sit. An elevated platform centred up front. A podium, a drum set, a couple guitars, a projector and a large pull-down screen that reminds you of the lecture halls back in college. You’ve been to enough of these to know that the wifi works best in the back, so you sit somewhere near the exit, facing the stage. Scroll through Instagram while you wait, sneak out the exit when you can.
“Hi Ate!” you hear from the periphery. It’s a girl you interviewed last year, a few weeks after she landed. “Are these seats taken?” she asks you and you answer no. She introduces you to her boyfriend and asks about your plus one. You tell her you’re only here for the free dinner.
Dinner starts the same way every year: a bread basket, balls of soft butter, and a soup – tomato this time. The salad comes next. Mixed greens with hints of fennel, radicchio, and tarragon. Then, the main course, a creamy polenta and your choice of protein: braised beef short rib, grilled salmon, roasted chicken. You ask for the ribs so you can take home what you can’t finish. Skip the cake. Have coffee for dessert.
You space out during the video reel, step outside to see the snow start to fall during the CEO’s speech, come back to a livelier crowd for the covers of “Treasure” and “All I Want for Christmas is You.”
Your hands start to sweat as the awards roll out. Maybe you shouldn’t have had that coffee. When they start to hand out awards, you start to wonder if sitting in the back was such a good idea.
“Dolly Batongbacal, 15 years!” the CEO announces and you navigate your way through the tight spaces of the hall, weaving through and around tables and chairs, carefully avoiding stepping on dresses and feet. You wipe your hands on the sleeves of your office shirt before you shake the
CEO’s hand and accept the certificate commemorating your 15 years of service. The walk back to your seat feels like a road trip that couldn’t end any sooner.
“Wow, Ate,I didn’t know you’ve been here for so long!” The girl you hired says as you sit back down.
“Yeah… I didn’t either.”
Later you’ll catch the bus home just in time before the snow really slams the city. Take another look at your certificate. “Dolly Batongbacal,” you never even told them your real name. From the bus windows you watch the flurry of snow get stronger every minute, the familiar sound of tires rolling through slush echoing in your ears. Your apartment is still a 10-minute walk from your stop, and the night is a beautiful winter daze, air thick with melancholy.
Twenty-two seems so long ago now. Ambition and potential fleeting like the mist that manifest with every breath. You thought you’d be teaching, helping kids prosper, making the world a better place. Feel the snowflakes melt and cascade down the back of your neck. Tears drip down to your chin.
You live in a two-bedroom apartment just outside the city, always keeping the other room clean and available to any family. You get dressed for bed, a drop of rosehip oil before you sleep, blame the sniffles on the cold. A collage of photographs live on the wall beside your bed. Graduation photos, your brother’s basketball games, the car you helped pay for, your sister’s wedding, your goddaughter, cruises you sent your parents on, trips with Ate.Leave the certificate on your bedside desk, someday, maybe you’ll frame it too.
A picture of yourself taken the day you bought this apartment rests by the windowsill. Wipe the fogged windows to see the mountains surrounding the city, ski lights glistening like fireflies from afar. A flurry of snow like shaved ice for halo-halo,a thick layer of macapunoresting on the street. You are reminded of that April morning, when you waited for a snow that never came. Mom did say you’ll have to wait for winter. Mom did say it will take some time.
Carlo Javier is a Filipino-Canadian writer based in Coquitlam, Canada. His short story, “Janitors” was published in Immersion: An Asian Anthology of Love, Fantasy, and Speculative Fiction.
Katya Roxas is a Communications and Design Strategist at the University of British Columbia. Katya has experience with branding, content creation and social media and has a Bachelor’s Degree in Multimedia Arts, specializing in graphic design and illustration, and a Diploma in Digital Marketing and Communications. Born and raised in the Philippines, Katya is well-versed with the sacrifices and opportunities that come with being an immigrant. Through her experiences, she strives to break the barriers of cultural misrepresentation by creating honest and inclusive visual expressions.