Wednesday, December 23, 2009

i remember...#4

Christmas Past. 1973. I am 20.

Mother stares wide-eyed at the humongous Christmas basket. With her good left hand she turns the basket around, being careful not to tear the cellophane cover as she peers through it, checking the contents of the basket. My young brother, Basil, squats on the floor beside the basket. He touches the cellophane wrap but Mother slaps his arm and he promptly withdraws his hand.

"I'm just looking," he says smiling.

"Then just look."

"Open it," I tell her.

"No, the wrapping is so pretty. It's so nice to look at," she protests.

"Are you going to just stare at it until everything gets spoiled or eaten by ants?"

Mother smiles. Before she could stop me, I yank the glittery ribbon and it comes off along with the fake berry and holly trimmings and they fall on the floor.

"There," I say. "There's a box of Belgian truffles..." I hand her the box. "A can of cashew nuts." She promptly grabs it and places the can on her lap, her paralized right arm protecting it.

As I take out each item, she grabs what she likes and puts it on her lap. Those that she doesn't want to save she hands to my brother. When we finish, only four items can be eaten or used right away, the rest of the goodies ended on her lap.

"Can we have chocolate marble ice cream for tonight?" she asks.

"Ice cream, for Noche Buena?" I say. "You know I can't have anything cold in the evening. My stomach will...."

"Then don't eat it!" she cuts me off.

"Besides, we have ice cream cake in the freezer."

"But I want chocolate marble."

Since my mother had a stroke and became paralyzed a few years ago, I sometimes find myself in reversed roles with her: I the mother and she the child. But it's hard to say no with those wide eyes pleading at you, or the look of resignation that bears just a slight hint of pout.

And so I take a twenty-peso bill from my pitaka and tell Basil to go and get a large tub of chocolate marble ice cream. He goes off with my two younger sisters, Leng and Wowie, with three of the neighborhood kids, as if they were off to a big excursion.

When they come back, they have two large containers of ice cream.

"Two? Don't I get any change?" I ask holding my hand out for change.

Basil shakes his head. "The other one," he says, "is Rocky Road." I sneer at him. "But, it's your favorite!"

"I like that, too," Mother interjects.

And so the family ends up that Christmas eve having spaghetti and ice cream. I eat the spaghetti. The rest of them have spaghetti and ice cream.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

A SHORT STORY - Silent Night

The girl, about eight, stands by the window and holds her little baby brother in her arms as she hums "Silent Night". Sometimes the baby lets out a small cry, but always it is soothed by his sister's gentle swaying. She looks out the window, where she can see the far end of the street, the cars and buses tiny in her vision. She strains her eyes trying to make out if the image of a woman at the corner is of her mother, who has left earlier in the afternoon promising to come back with food for their Christmas table. But it's not her mother. For a while, it looks like her, but it isn't her. Lights can sometimes fool one's vision especially at dusk.

The girl thinks of her mother, concern obvious in her furrowed eyebrows, as she sets the baby on a tattered blanket on the wooden floor. Her mother has not been well for a few days now - she's had fever at each day's end, and coughs that sounded like ribs are about to burst out of her chest. Even then, after she has put on her only good dress, the pink one with little sequins in the bodice, she looks beautiful, especially with her hair pulled up and only little wisps of her curly hair framed her face. She has kissed both the little girl and the baby and held them in her arms for a long time, whispering soothing words.

She says she will be gone for only a few short hours. A friend from a long time ago owes her money and she will try to get it so they can buy food for Christmas and, especially, milk for the baby. She says they will go to church and attend mass and they will kiss the statue of the infant Jesus lying in the manger at the back of the church. She will be home soon, she promises. "As soon as I can."

The sky has already turned dark and the horizon's deep red slowly vanishes as the sun sets and the night settles in. Faint twinkling of stars appear above. The girl doesn't know if there will be a moon, but she hopes there will be. Her mother has said, after her father died, that he has gone to heaven and is sitting on an anvil and she can see him when she looks up at the moon.

The baby lets out a small cry. The girl puts her little finger between the baby's lips, and the baby, although too weak from hunger, sucks it eagerly. The girl prays that milk comes out so the baby won't be hungry anymore. The baby falls asleep and the girl wishes he would sleep longer this time, or at least until her mother comes back.

A woman with wan skin and pale face, sits on a chair outside the dance hall. She tries to suppress a cough as smoke from another woman's cigarette blows her way. Although looking sickly and dressed simply, she is no doubt the most beautiful among the other women. The manager, a short dark man with a goatee beard arrives shortly, accompanying another man, much taller, handsome and well dressed. But if one looks closely, his eyes are cold and expressionless. He eyes the seven women sitting along the corridor and points at the woman with the pale skin. The manager flicks his finger at her and although feeling sick, she stands and smiles at the man.

The manager asks the man and the woman with the pale skin to follow him through the long corridor and up a steep and narrow stairwell to the second floor. The manager opens a door to a small room with a wooden bed. There is a thin foam on top of the bed, a threadbare pillow and an old bedsheet. She unfolds the bedsheet and covers the thin foam. She sits on the edge of the bed. The man, without speaking, takes his wallet from the back pocket of his pants, opens it and pulls a few bills and hands it to the manager. The manager smiles and nods at the man and thanks him as he retreats from the room.

The man takes off his clothing and lies on the bed. The woman with the pale skin carefully undresses herself and lies beside the man. Upon his touch, she closes her eyes and when he goes on top of her, her tears flow. She thinks of her children, her beautiful little girl who she dreams will become a ballerina someday, and her little baby boy who she hopes will become a doctor when he grows up. She smiles at the thought and the man takes this to mean pleasure for her. So the man violates her body again and again until he himself is exhausted.

He gets up and dresses himself again. Although weak, she dresses herself, too. The man throws a few bills on her lap as he leaves the room. She pockets her money, and finishes buttoning up her blouse. On her way down the stairs, the manager hands her a few more bills. She smiles at the manager, bows her head slightly and thanks him for his kindness and generosity.

She takes a short bus ride to the nearest market. Most stalls have already closed for the night, it being Christmas Eve, but she knows one store that would still be open. The Jewish storekeeper keeps his shop open until late. She only barely notices the bright lights on Christmas trees displayed in the stalls, as her trembling knees speeds up to get to the end of the market building. She promises herself that if she feels better after Christmas, she will take her daughter here so she can see the beautiful Christmas displays.

At the grocery store owned by a kind Jewish man, she takes a small basket and goes around examining the store shelves. In her basket, she puts two small cans of Vienna sausage, a jar of marmalade, a small loaf of bread that is still warm, and a can of milk. She sees a small doll. She checks her money and, content that she can afford it, she pays for her purchase and walks briskly to the bus stop. Her arms are weak and her load proves heavy for them. She starts to cough again. A bus is coming fast and she needs to catch it so she does not have to wait long for the next one. She wants to be home immediately, to feed her children, and to rest.

Her head feels heavy and everything around her seems to swirl. The bus slows down, but the driver, seeing no one at the bus stop, drives away. The woman yells for him to stop. She runs; she has to catch this bus if she has to reach home in time to feed her children, to take her daughter to hear the midnight mass. She wants to go home to her children. She does not want to wait for the next bus which would get her home well after midnight. She needs to be home now.

She runs faster while she hangs on to her grocery bag, hugging it tightly around her chest so the cans of Vienna sausage and the milk and the marmalade and the loaf of bread and the doll don't fall off. When she reaches the curb, the heel of her left shoe breaks and she loses her balance. She fights to not fall and steps off the pavement onto the road. A car in the next lane swerves to the right to pass the slower car ahead, grazes the curb and hits the woman wearing a broken shoe and carrying a large grocery bag.

Suddenly, the woman sees blinking Christmas lights hanging on edges of the roof and gutters and walls of the market building. And as her head hits the ground, the last thing that the woman sees is the back of the bus as it speeds away, the bus that she has wanted to catch so she can go home to her children, while she still holds on to her precious groceries.

The girl sits on the floor, her little baby brother in her arms. He does not cry anymore. She has told him to stop crying for mother will soon be home. She puts a pillow on his face for just a while to quiet him. Her stomach continues to grumble from hunger, three days without food will do that to you. She stands up and looks out the window. But she only sees the darkness nearby, a flickering candle from the house in the middle of the field opposite her house, and the faint light from the street lamps at the far end of the street. A woman gets off a bus and the little girl squints her eyes to see if it is her mother. It has to be her. Finally!

She puts her baby brother on the floor, very carefully, for she does not want to wake him up. She stands by the window, props her arms on the sill, and starts to hum "Silent Night".

Thursday, December 17, 2009

i remember...#3

Christmas Past. Manila, 1975.

It is three o'clock in the morning and I am terribly late coming home. My boyfriend Jimmy and I along with our officemates have gone disco dancing. I don't know why I go when I don't dance at all but because Jimmy loves to dance, I feel obliged to go. I take a taxi to go home, but our street is too narrow for the taxi to go in so I have to walk the length of our street. Our street is near the town church and around the church, there are already people who have set up shop and getting ready to ply their wares to people attending the early morning mass. I pass by a woman busy making rice cakes. Older women, devout Catholics are slowly walking their way to the church.

I curse the fact that our house is situated at the very end of the street. The dogs wake up from the loud "clack-clack" noises my platform shoes make on the paved ground. They start to bark. I reach our compound of four houses, ours being one of the two behind. The house in front of us has a dog and this dog wakes up, too, and starts to bark which triggers other dogs to bark, too. The barking, if it lasts too long, would wake my father up, then he would find out I am just coming home.

My two younger sisters, Leng and Vivian and the children from the neighbors' attend the early morning Christmas masses. Leng, who is a deep sleeper, ties a string around her wrist and drops the end outside the window; it is long enough to reach just above the ground and the other children would pull it to wake her up. They turn this going to early mass like an excursion because afterwards my sister would treat them to the rice cakes and other sweets sold around the little market by the church.

Our door does not have a lock. Its "lock" is one of the chairs that we prop so that if anyone tries to get in, the chair will make such a noise that my father, or one of us would surely wake up. There is a hole on the wall, big enough for my arm to go through, reach for the chair and slowly remove it so I can open the door without noise. But the dogs continue to bark and for some reason the chair won't budge from its position. The neighbor's dog ambles near our house and I had to hit it with my shoulder bag so it would go away. That is when I notice the string. I pull it a few times until Len wakes up.

"Alright! Alright," I hear her say. I could imagine her arm going up and down as I pull the string. She opens the window and pokes her head out. "What time is it? It's too dark yet, are you sure it's already four thirty?"

"Shhhhh! It's me, I can't open the door," I say in a hushed voice. "Let me in, quick!"

Through the smokey glass of the louvre window, I make out the image of Leng after she turns on the light. She walks halfway across the living room towards the door then turns and walks back to the wall by the foot of the stairs. There we have a cuckoo clock that often stops running in the middle of the night. Not this night though so she has to turn the hands back. As she does this, she looks at me and I make a gesture by flashing my hand twice for "ten" and one finger. She sets the clock to "eleven and a few minutes".

As she takes the chair off the door, it makes a loud scraping noise. In an instant, my father is out in the living room, seemingly annoyed at the little commotion. The first thing he does is look at the clock. He sees it is a few minutes past eleven.

"You're quite late," he tells me. "Overtime again?" He refers to the fact that ever since my office started on a joint project with Mrs. Marcos, I have always been "working overtime".

"Yeah," I say, fanning myself giving him the impression that I am tired.

"Have you eaten?"

"No," I reply. I glance at the clock and say, "But I'm not going to eat now, I'm really tired. Goodnight." I walk up the stairs with my sister, and he goes back to his bedroom.

As I change to my sleeping clothes, my sister tells me, "Next time, you should only pull the string once and quite gently. For a moment there, I thought I lost my arm!"

In the morning, as he prepares to leave for work, my father notices the cuckoo clock. He checks his watch.

"Damn thing, it must've stopped again during the night," he says to no one in particular. He then pushes the hands of the clock to the proper time. The pendulum stops. My father pulls the chain and gives the pendulum a little nudge for it to start again.

My sisters and I look at each other and make funny faces until our father has stepped out the door. When he is out of our sight, we start to giggle.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

i remember....#2

Christmas Past 3. I am 22 years old.

My two teenaged sisters, along with the neighborhood kids, arrive from church in time for our Noche Buena, literally "good night". It has been a family tradition, as is the custom in the predominantly Catholic country, for us to partake of a midnight snack to celebrate the birthday of Jesus Christ.

The table is already set, plates and cups, spoons and forks. The children are excited to have Noche Buena with us. There is a whole leg of ham that has been partly carved by my father, a large platter of spaghetti with corned beef sauce (my father's specialty) sprinkled on top with grated Kraft cheese, fried hot dogs and sausages, sliced queso de bola or cheese ball imported from the Netherlands, hot chocolate, Coke and Mirinda orange soft drinks, and the children all clap as I take out the large ice cream cake from the freezer. The children eat as if they are in a marathon, their eyes surveying each other, keeping track of how many hot dogs Joey has already eaten, or how big Edna would bite her ham. They all laugh as Alex pushes food inside his mouth with one hand while the other reaches for something else on the table. My sisters and our father fuss over the children while we sip our hot chocolate, while painfully conscious that one person is missing from the table. You see, our mother passed away eleven months ago, a few weeks after last Christmas.

My sisters and I have continued our mother's practice of giving food to the neighborhood children, especially those from the farthest end of the street, children who are less fortunate, who would otherwise not have the same food we eat. Ever since my older brother and I had a job, our Christmas table fares have gotten better, especially that a number of our clients would shower us at the office with a lot of gifts of food.

This year, we also have started a tradition with the neighbors' kids, the ones from the three other houses in our compound of four, which we call "monito, monita" or kris kringle. Earlier in the week, we put our names in a container and each had to draw a name. Then we have to buy two gifts, one for the name drawn, and one for the person who draws our name. The gift for the former should cost a little bit more. You can imagine all of the younger kids wishing for their names to be drawn by me. But it doesn't matter, as I would give everyone a small gift anyway, mostly a small envelope with five pesos or ten pesos inside it.

Christmas Past 4. I am 38 years old.

I am alone in my apartment this Christmas Eve. I have set up on my glass top dining table my new china. Two place settings. I pour hot chocolate on my cup and open the small box of sugar dusted doughnuts which I have bought earlier from an Asian doughnut shop I have accidentally found on Sherbourne. The doughnuts remind me of my mother, of a time when she and I were walking along a tree-lined street on our way home from visiting my aunt. We had stopped at a store to buy sugar dusted doughnuts and we ate them as we walked.

I place a single doughnut on her plate and I eat mine with the hot chocolate. It is cold outside, I can tell by the heavy smokes coming from the chimneys of nearby homes and stacks from the taller buildings. The edges of the glass doors to my patio are etched with thin ice that sparkle as the lights from the Christmas tree reflect on them. I wonder if my mother's soul or spirit can be present when she has never been to Canada herself. But we had always believed that spirits can fly to anywhere. My sister Lengleng who lives with her family down at Coxwell in the east end does not like this idea for she is acutely afraid of ghosts.

The telephone rings several times -- friends calling to greet Merry Christmas. My brother who lives in Chicago with his family call as well. I tell him about the doughnuts and he, too, does not like the idea that my mother's spirit would come and visit me, because it would mean that she could visit him in Chicago as well. He tells me, "Tell her I live in Florida."

"You're a nincompoop," I tell him.

Monday, December 14, 2009

i remember....#1

Christmas Past 1. I am five years old.

Mother lifts the white mosquito net, crawls in and lightly slaps my leg. "Wake up," she says, "I have a surprise for you."

Before I could say anything, she crawls back outside the mosquito net. She unhooks the ears of the mosquito net from the nails on the wall. I crawl out, sit on the floor and start to fold my sheet. I put the folded sheet on top of my pillow and wait for her to finish folding the mosquito net. She puts the sheet and the pillow on top of the folded mosquito net and puts them away on a chair in the corner of the room. She rolls the leaf mat and puts it behind that chair.

I stretch my arms up and let out a loud yawn, then press the heels of my hands on each eye to rub off sleep. When I open my eyes again, she is sitting in front of me on the floor, smiling, her hand behind her.

"Close your eyes."

I close my eyes. Then she tells me to open them again.

Before me is a toy tea set - miniature cups, saucers, tea pot, glass, plates, tiny spoons and forks, in very light pink. They are the exact replica of a depression glass tea set, in neat package of pink cardboard and see through plastic.

"I won it at the store," she says. At the variety store at the corner, there is a kind of game called "bunot" or pull where for five cents you get to open a rolled piece of paper you pull out and on it is written a prize. Mother has won the jackpot for that game: the toy tea set.

I thank her and I go to wash my mouth and face carrying the package underneath my arm. When I have finished, I hastily comb my hair so I can sit down with the family for breakfast.

I sit on my spot on the dining table. Mother turns on the kerosene stove and heats up the iron skillet, puts a little cooking oil and starts to fry eggs. Today, being Christmas, we each get a whole egg for breakfast along with two fried sausages. Instead of pandesal or little dinner rolls, we have one loaf of tasty bread, the kind with different colored circles on the plastic cover. Instead of coffee, we have hot chocolate with milk.

When we have finished Mother clears the dining table. Father then hands us our gifts. For my big brother Erick, a set of plastic tools. For my little sister Vilma, a doll. For me, a miniature living room ensuite which he has made from scraps of wood and painted moss green. He arranges them in front of me on the table: a long sofa, a coffee table, two arm chairs on the ends and two small stools. I open my toy tea set and arranged them on the little coffee table.

Christmas Past 2. I am 21 years old.

I place the large ham on a big platter in the middle of the table. My father gives each one of us a thick slice. On the table we have a whole pack of real butter, a big platter of spaghetti with corned beef sauce and grated Kraft cheese, a whole canned Kraft cheese half of which has been sliced. There is also a large loaf of fruit cake peeking from its red cellophane cover, a large platter of jumbo hot dogs, and a large platter of a dozen fried eggs.

My mother, however, opts for a cup of chocolate marble ice cream and dips bits of the tasty bread as she eats it. She takes a slice of the fruit cake, but hands it over for my father to finish when she realizes the fruit cake has been soaked in rhum. She asks for a second serving of chocolate marble ice cream.

"So many food!" she says. "We should save some for New Year." She surveys our dining table, the same one we have had since I was a little girl. It has never before held so much food at one time.

Monday, December 7, 2009

blind date

"Wow!" Leslie exclaims as she enters my office. "Your office is bigger than mine."

"Sorry," I say, "now you make me feel guilty." I gave her a Garfield like grin, while her gaze sweeps the office and her hand touches the mahogany desk and credenza

She smiles and sits on the corner of my desk. "In any case," she finally faces me. "John and I were wondering if you would like to join us for dinner tomorrow night."

"Aha, you're inviting me for dinner," I say. "You and John. How nice."

Leslie nods and gives me her own version of the Garfield grin. I prop my left elbow on my desk, and cradle my chin on the back of my hand. Leslie smiles. Before she can say anything, I say, "You're setting me up for a blind date, yet again, aren't you?"

She giggles. "Rajid is a nice guy, Victoria."


"Oh, he's Indian, but he grew up in Britain. Only his name is Indian but he's more British." Leslie plays with the half dozen thin gold bangles on her arm. "Oh, Victoria, give him a try. He's such a nice guy."

"Hmmmm. I don't know, Les. I think you and John should stop worrying about me."

"Victoria, you shouldn't have to sit alone in your apartment all the time. By God, you have got to meet people. You have got to have a boyfriend."

"I don't need a boyfriend. Boyfriend is not everything in life, you know.Sorry, I can't date Rajid." I grab my day planner and open it.

"Oh, puh-lease!" She stands up and walks over to where I sit. She puts her arms around my shoulders. "I promise you will like him. But if you don't, then I'll stop bugging you!"

I laugh. "You already set me up, didn't you?"

"Yes!" comes the quick reply. I roll my eyes and shake my head. “Please! Please! I promise you he’s a nice fellow.”

"Okay, but I will drive to this dinner so I can go home by myself."

“Sure,” Leslie says.

“I’ll leave at anytime I wish!”

“Okay, fine.” Leslie pats my cheeks and gives me a kiss in the air. “You’re such a darling.”

She runs back to her office across the corridor from mine. From my phone unit, I see her make a call.

The next day, I am busy sending telex bids to Dallas, Texas when I hear Leslie's high pitched British voice at the reception. Matthew, the office accountant, comes in to my office, smiling.

"You're on a date tonight, I gather," Matthew says.

"And how do you know about this?" I ask as I try to tear the yellow ticker tape off the telex machine.

"He's in Leslie's office with John. They arrived a few minutes ago." Matthew takes the ticker tape from me and slowly rolls it around his hand. He continues, "Rajid is a nice man."

"You, too, Matthew?" I say as I give him a smile. "You're passing by Mr. Duncan's office, please be kind enough to drop the Dallas folder. Thank you." I wave him to leave.

I am about to make a phone call to the gym when Leslie comes knocking at my door.

"Hello, hello! Can we interrupt?"

I place the phone back on its cradle. "Sure, come in."

John appears at the door, looking dapper as always. An Indian man comes right behind him. Rajid.

Rajid is well dressed. He has a thick beard. He wears a white turban. He is a Sikh.

I remember a news story from a long time ago, when Indira Ghandi was gunned down by a group of Sikh militants. Mrs. Ghandi was doing her gardening chores when she was murdered. I shudder upon remembering this.

Then I also remember a conversation with the Filipino technician the night before when he came over to fix our fax machine. "The Sikhs don't wash their hair that is why they wear turbans."

I look at Rajid. He looks clean alright despite his thick beard and surprisingly I can only smell John's shaving lotion. Rajid does not have the strange odours. He waves his hand at me, but apart from a "hello" and "nice to meet you", he does not say a word. He stares at me with a smile on his lips.

And there we are, Leslie, John, Rajid and me, with some frozen smiles on our faces, in the middle of an awkward silence. Presently, Leslie and John excuse themselves. Rajid is left standing alone in front of my desk facing me.

"Checking me out, ha?" I say to Rajid.

"Oh! No, no," he says, "John and I were in the neighborhood and he decided for us to come here."

I smile but I have nothing else to say to him.

"Well," I finally say, "I guess I'll see you tonight."

He breaks into a big smile, and says, "Oh, you're not disappointed in me? You will come to dinner?"

"Of course, I will," I say as I stand up and thrust my hand towards him. He reaches for my hand and we shake hands.

"I pick you up at seven?"

"No, it’s okay. Thank you. But I think I'll drive down to the restaurant."

He smiles and leaves.

At four o'clock, Mr. Duncan, our boss, comes back from his lunch meeting. He goes straight to my office. "You're having a blind date tonight, I hear." He pauses, then, "What's the matter with you now? You're face is all red!"

I am about to say something, but I bend down and bury my head inside my trash can underneath my desk. I push a ball pen down my throat and the cabbage rolls I had for lunch came right out.

"I think I ate something bad at lunch!"

"Well you better go home and rest." Mr. Duncan says. "Hope you feel better soon so you can go on your blind date. Have Vijayan drive you home. You can use him tonight if you want to."

At seven o'clock, Leslie arrives at my apartment. "Are you better?" She takes a sweeping look at me in my terry robe, dishevelled hair, smudged eye make up. "You're not ready?" I raise the cold compress to my head.

"As you can see, Leslie, I'm not exactly in good condition here." I slump on the sofa. "I'm sorry, I can't go tonight."

Oh was all I hear Leslie say. She slowly walks towards the door, seemingly annoyed.

"Enjoy you guys!" I say when I know she's already outside.

I look out the window as Leslie drives away in her convertible. John sits on the passenger seat beside her and Rajid at the back. I take the phone and dial Sophie's number, a friend who works at the Sultan's office as Catering Director.


"I thought you had a dinner date?" she asks.

"No, I decided not to go." I make myself a gin and tonic.

"But why, because you said he's Indian?"

"No, I wouldn't have minded it, really. He's a really nice looking dude."

"He smells?" Sophie laughs. I laugh, too.

"No!,” I say as I have a sip of my gin and tonic. “I wouldn't have minded it, really. He's a very nice looking dude."

“Nice?” I hear Sophie say.

“Yeah, nice. As in panty-slip-down nice looking.” We both laugh.

"Does he have a smell?"


"But you don’t want to date a man who wears a turban and has a beard? I know you don’t like hairy guys."

"That would’ve been fine, too. I could’ve put that aside, really."

"Oh." I hear Sophie cluck her tongue.

"But you know what killed the deal?"

"What?” Sophie asks and I can imagine her wide-eyed anticipation. When I didn’t answer right away, she yelps, “What! Tell me please."

"He shook my hand, Sophie."

"Oh, no!" I can almost feel and see Sophie's mouth gaping.

"Yup, my friend. If there's one thing I cannot stand, it's a limp handshake."

Friday, December 4, 2009

je me souviens...

Antwerpen, 1984. Ifor and I sat in one of the small brasseries along the Escaut Canal, watching the setting sun and taking in the magnificent hues of the sky, pale purple and gray brushed like feathers against the hazy blue sky. Ifor sipped on his Stella Artois while I nursed a glass of martini. The boats had arrived and people occupied the patio chairs and tables and settled in with their aperitifs. I noticed how people stared and when caught, smiled then looked away.

"They seldom see an Asian in this part of the world," Ifor said.

"I'm not Asian," I protested. "I'm from the Philippines and that makes me a Filipino."

"But Philippines is in Asia."

"But THE Philippines," I corrected him. "Don't forget the THE."

"Anyway," he continued, "If you haven't noticed you're the only colored person in the whole plaza."

I looked around and he was right. Not one colored person, local or tourist. "Why is that?"

"Should I be ashamed?"

"Why should you be?"

"I don't know. The way you pointed it out to me seemed like I should be conscious of the fact."

"Didn't mean it that way. In any case, you're the most beautiful woman in here, too."

I laughed, the kind of laugh that made people's heads turn.

Ifor finished off his beer and signaled the waiter for another one. "And now they're all looking at you, too."

The waiter brought his beer and said something to him in Flemish, then in French. Ifor smiled and said something back to the waiter and the waiter nodded and smiled. He disappeared for a few seconds and then came back with a glass full of crushed ice and a bottle of Perrier.

"Hey, what was that all about?" I asked. "Did you pimp me to the waiter? He doesn't look bad. How much is my cut?"

"He asked if you are someone famous." The corners of his mouth crooked just a little bit for a grin that he tried to suppress. "I said you are an opera singer from Manila, and you are here in Belgium for a big performance in Bruxelles."

"You said that?!?" I said it a little bit too loud and all heads turned to look at me again. I covered my mouth when I realized this. He laughed and I giggled.

"Well, I better get on with my show then," I started to stand up.

"Oh no," Ifor said, eyes conveying both amusement and surprise.

Around the world, I searched for you... His face turned serious, one eyebrow raised, while he continued to sip his beer.

I travelled on when hope was gone to keep a rendezvous.... "I'm not sure if my lyrics are right," I said and paused for a minute.

"Your audience is waiting, mademoiselle," he tapped the back of my hand. I grabbed his hand and brought it to my cheeks. He tried to pull it back but I didn't let go.

I knew somewhere, sometime, somehow, you look at me and I could see the smile you're smiling now... He decided to play along with me.

Not letting go of his hand, I danced around our small table and stood next to him.

It might have been in Amsterdam...Somehow the light of the setting sun beamed on my face, as if I was on a stage and the kleigh lights on me. I wanted to stop, but the martini did something to me and I had lost all inhibitions.

...or in New gay Paris...or even London town...

People started to mill around the perimeter of the bistro and gawked at us, or me, if you would. Some people took pictures and the flashing of camera bulbs momentarily blinded my eyes.

No more will I go all around the world, for I have found my world in you....

By the time I reached the final note of the song, I was already sitting on Ifor's lap, his arms around my waist and mine around his neck and then we burst out laughing. We laughed so hard we almost fell off his chair. People clapped and whistled. A woman stood near us and smiled at a man who was holding a Nikon and took a picture of us.

The waiter came back and placed a carafe of white wine on the table, courtesy of, he said as he pointed to, the group of German tourists from the bistro next door. Ifor gave them a small nod and lifted his Stella Artois, smiling.

"That wasn't bad," he said.

"My singing?" I asked.

"No, the free wine."

And we laughed so hard we almost cried.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

PROMPT - my name is...

Chico. I remember my mother calling me Chico. But that was a long time ago. In another land. In another life. Now everyone calls me Ricky. That's the name Richard has chosen to call me.

Three years ago, I was five and I had not seen a foreigner before. We lived in an island where the shores are covered with very fine and very white sands. Strangers, people from other islands, the main island and even from the capital far away to the north, would come to our island. Some took pictures, others just lie down on the white sand and rubbed lotion on their bodies. Most of the time, they buy the fish that my father and his friends caught from the sea.

My mother said Richard was not only a "stranger", he was also a "foreigner". Strangers were people we did not know, but foreigners were people we did not know who came from other lands. Not just from the capital city up north, but from another country.

I could not take off my eyes from Richard the first time I saw him. He was a foreigner. He was from America. He had gold hair, blond they called the color. His eyes were blue, unlike ours. And his skin was very white. I had not seen such white person before and Richard looked like the gods in the comics drawings. And he spoke a different language.

"What is your name?" he asked me.

"Chico," I replied. "My real name is Ricardo, but my Inang calls me Chico."

Richard, he said, is the American name of my name.

"Chico, how would you like to go to school in America?" Richard asked.

"Are there a lot of books in the school in America?"

"Of course! Not just books, but also radio, colored TV." I didn't understand what a TV was.

"I don't have a son, Chico. How would you like to be my son?"

"Okay," I said.

Richard gave my father two hundred dollars so I could be his son. My father took the money, but Richard didn't take me with him that day. When he came back the next day, my father denied that he took the money. He said Richard only promised to give money but that he never gave it.

So, for two hundred dollars, he could take me as his son. Richard pulled his wallet, took out some money and handed it to my father. My father took them and put it in his pants pocket. Richard gave him some big white papers and told him to sign them. My father shook his head, and told Richard if Richard is adopting me, he would have to pay more.

"How much more?" Richard asked.

My father looked at my mother who sat on the floor at the far end of the house cleaning the bottoms of a pan with soot-blackened bottom. She did not look at my father although I knew she could hear him.

"One thousand dollars!" my father said.

"Okay, so I gave you two hundred the other day, two hundred today, here's another two hundred." Richard pushed more bills into my father's hand. "That's all, and if you still didn't sign these papers, I will call the military and tell them that you thieved the money from me."

My father looked at the white papers. He handed it back to Richard saying, "I cannot read and I cannot write."

Richard smiled. "It simply says that you have permitted me to take Chico to America so he could study there." Then Richard took out a fountain pen and drew something on my father's right thumb. "Here," he said, "press your thumb on this line here."

In America, Richard tells me my name is now Richard Jr., my nickname is Ricky and that he is now my father. He brings me to school every day. He buys me nice clothes and shoes. He takes me with him everywhere he goes, sometimes we drive, sometimes we ride our bikes. Richard always tells me that he is taking good care of me. But I do not believe him. Because at night, whenever he comes to my room and slips under the sheets with me, he hurts me.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009


Jan Mintoff looks like the young Alexander Godunov in the movie Money Pit. Blond hair that rest on his shoulders, the smiling eyes, the chiseled chin and the agility of his body as he moves from his desk to the door of the office to meet me.

"I'm looking for Peter Harrington, is he here?" I ask.

His mouth breaks into a big smile, perfectly crowned teeth flashing.

"No, Peter's out, but he told me you were coming," he says.

And he's a smooth talker, too. God knows Peter Harrington does not even know who I am let alone I'm coming to see him. Jan looks out at the parking lot and points at the red Miata. "Nice wheels you have there."

"Company car." He raises his eyebrows and his eyes bulge. Perhaps because I say "company car" so non-chalantly.

"You must be important!"

I turn to the woman at the desk nearest me. "Are you Mr. Harrington's assistant?"

"Yes, what can I do for you?"

"I would like to see one of your two-bedroom units. My secretary was trying to call this morning to make an appointment..."

The woman starts to stand up but Jan Mintoff comes between us and declares, "I'll attend to this. Don't worry." Turning to me, he says, "I'll show you the best unit in the building."

Hatat house is one of the newest residences in downtown Muscat, an L-shaped, five-story condominium building that the Minister of Petroleum has recommended to the office for my accommodation. In the Minister's words, "total luxury living", with an outdoor regulation clay tennis court, a squash court and an Olympic sized swimming pool. The price has been settled, all I need to do is choose which unit I want to occupy, hence my visit.

Jan Mintoff, though, is obviously in love with the red Miata he saw me drive coming in. "Who are you? You seem very important!"

"I'm not important," I say not hiding my ennui. "My boss only happens to have the right connections."

He consults the folder in his hands. Again the eyes bulge at seeing that our company's patron is the Minister of Petroleum. There are only two other big shots in the Omani government below His Excellency the Sultan: his top adviser and the Petroleum Minister. The Miata indicates my status as only the oil companies can afford to provide their employees with a Miata or other "high end" car.

Presently, we arrive at the 'show' unit - a well appointed two-bedroom apartment with two and a half baths, a large living room, an even larger dining room and a kitchen half the size of the large living room.

"Can we have coffee later on?" he asks as we walk around the apartment.

The afternoon sun shines through the glass doors of the back terrace. Jan Mintoff stands by the glass doors, his back towards the sun. I stand in the middle of the room and when I turn to look at him to ask a question, all I can make out is his silhoutte. Something caught me off guard as I look at him.

He stands with his legs apart and his trousers are thin enough for the light to shine through and I can make out the shape of his legs. Above the knee, mid-thigh, I make out his penis dangling from his boxers. I suddenly burst out laughing. No, I giggle first and that's when I have lost control and I burst out laughing. I hear him say, "What?"

I cover my face with both my hands and look away. I see the half-opened door of the dishwashing machine and I walk over to close it. He is instantly behind me.

"So, can we go for coffee later on?"

"My Miata can't go for coffee with you, young man." I am still laughing and losing composure fast. "And I have a boyfriend who works at the Hotel Intercontinental so I will have to ask permission from him if I can drive my Miata so it can have coffee with you."

"That's mean," he says quietly. "I wasn't interested in your car."

He's a good actor, too.

"I'm sorry," I tell him. "I didn't mean it that way. But thank you for the coffee. Now, can I see the actual unit that had been reserved for me?"

He smiles and we walk out of the show unit.

"What do you do at Atlantic Oil?" His eyes are again smiling. He holds my elbow as we enter the elevator.

"Executive Assistant. A glorified secretary, if you will."

"Wow! I know the British girl who works there. What's her name?" He squints his eyes and flicks his fingers, willing the name to come to his mouth. "Leila?"

"Leslie," I say.


And then it dawns on me. Leslie has been telling me about this guy she's dating, one of the rugby players for the city, who has got a really long penis. Not good in bed and not a very bright guy, but his "dick" is good enough for her.

"So what sport do you play, Jan?" I ask.

"How do you know I play sport?"

"Oh," I say, "You look athletic." I can bullshit, too, when I want. "What is it, soccer? Rugby?"

"Rugby." He pulls me towards him, and cups my face with his hands, the fingers sifting my hair. "Coffee, tea or me?"

I burst out laughing. "No, thank you," I manage to say after I slip away from him.

"Don't think so, buddy." I head for the door. "But tell Harrington to have this unit ready by the weekend." All business-like.

"Where can I call you?" He stands against the sunlight again. "Please let me call you." He knows the novelty has worn off.

"At my office. You have the number." I point at the folder in his hand with the car key.

He watches as I drive away in my red Miata.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

VIGNETTE - Cristina (a character development)

Setting: Cristina is in her apartment in Amsterdam, The Netherlands. The year is 1988. Her hair dyed blonde, she easily passes for a Caucasian - she has fair skin, the long upturned eyes have lashes so thick men used to fall for her dreamy eyes and her luscious mouth. She looks like the young Brigitte Bardot but with finer features. Born in Manila, Cristina was 16 when she was crowned Miss Philippines and went on to become a finalist in the Miss Universe pageant. But that was a long time ago. Now she has gained a lot of weight ever since she lived in Europe. Her favourite snack is Belgian chocolate. Tonight, she is depressed, having been dumped by her boyfriend. This is her seventh rejection in five months.

"Damn! Damn! Damn! He can go to hell. He can go to hell for all I care. What is the matter with these men? Damn all men! They're all liars! I hate them. I hate them!" is the thought that goes through her mind, while everything within reach and sight are being tossed against the wall or on the floor or out the opened window.

She opens the cupboard and reaches for a box of Leonida's, switches on the small TV set and lets all of her 165 pounds slump down on the papasan chair.

"They told me I'm beautiful and that I was special. If I was so goddamned special, why the fuck has everyone gone?" Her eyes start to well up and tears roll down her cheek as she unwraps the gold paper off a Gianduja.

"How come I am alone...they just wanted my body. Before sex I am the most beautiful woman in the world. After sex, they say, 'oh, Cristina, yer so fat, aren't you ashamed of yourself? You gotta lose some weight, y'know! Yer breasts are flapping all over you look like yer's going to fly!' Then I'm sure they all laughed, when I can't see or hear them. Even that stupid, ugly Ramon. He thinks he is so good looking, he thinks he's so great. He's a piece of shit! All Filipino men are. Oh, I hate Filipino men, they rough you up in bed, borrow money and never pay you back. They're never thoughtful enough to bring flowers. They want a free fuck and they won't even bring you, not even a wilted flower. They'll say 'I'll take you to dinner' and when you go, they'll either let you pay for yourself or pretend they forgot their wallet. Shit! They're all a piece of crap, those men!"

She stands up from the papasan and slowly walks to the bathroom door mirror. She stares at herself, from head to toe. She smiles at her reflection but winces as the sweeping stare reaches her bosom.

"I'm going to lose weight, one day, I'm sure I will. Then I'll be pretty again; then they'll all come after me again...I should've married when John asked me. Then I wouldn't have to worry about gaining weight. He'll send me to the slimming salon, just like when we were in Manila. Oh, I miss John, he's the only one who really cared and loved me. He's the only one who really wanted me. Someday, I'll be pretty again, they'll see. I'd be slim again. I have to stop eating these chocolates. I have to stop eating! If only I would stop eating. If only I'm beautiful enough. If only I'm slim just like Miss Universe. Damn that fucking Philippe Lowe! I had the best answer and the best body and he chooses Miss Argentina just because I had space in between my thighs. He should see my thighs now!...I really look repulsive. God, why can I not stop eating!"