MARIANNE VILLANUEVA: PHILIPPINE AMERICAN WRITER
I N F E C T E D
It was a disease, their stepmother said. The children came back from Manila, and suddenly they stopped listening to her. They were running around the apartment, infected with restlessness. Pick up your shoes, pick up your clothes, she would tell them. Their father yelled at them. He was a tall, imposing man with a large nose. His glasses slid down and made him look like a strange type of bird.
The eldest, a girl, almost nine, looked at him and thought how strange her father looked standing there, hands clenched. She thought: he doesn't understand. All she wanted were Polly Pockets. Back home in her room in Manila, there were Polly Pockets lined up in rows on shelves that her grandmother had put up for her in her mother's old room. There was also a dollhouse, with a rug that her now-dead mother had made for the miniature living room. There, the girl had her own four-poster canopied bed, and white sheets with eyelet ruffles. The girl would bounce up and down on the bed. Stretched out, looking at the white pillows against the dark wood of the bedposts, she could almost think she was a queen.
In New York, where the children lived, it was starting to get cold. They stood on the street corner, waiting for the school bus, pressed against each other for warmth. The wind blew down the avenue, making their cheeks red. They held each other's hands. When the schoolbus came, they told each other, hurry up, hurry up! They clutched their heavy school satchels. They struggled on to the bus in their bulky coats, their heavy lace-up shoes.
When they got home, their father was angry. Pick up your shoes, he would say over and over. They didn't understand what the thing was about the shoes. The shoes seemed to materialize in the living room, in the hallway, in spite of themselves. Then they would go scurrying around, scooping up the hateful things, the things with the laces that were so hard to tie in the mornings, that always got their fingers in knots just when they needed to be out the door.
The food was different, too. After a summer of eating rice cakes, they didn't want to go back to eating frozen chicken nuggets and fish sticks, which was all the two Maids served them because their father and stepmother both worked in a bank and kept late hours, and the Maids were lazy when the master and mistress were not at home. It was not just the rice cakes the children missed, but the vegetables boiled in coconut milk, and the garlicky taste of the chicken. Their tongues curled backwards when they looked at the frozen food heated up in the microwave. Their stomachs, distended and full from a diet rich in pork and rice, suddenly seemed to shrivel up and sometimes the New York food would not go down and came back up the wrong way and then the stepmother flew into a passion. I have to be at work, she would say. Do you understand? I have a job! I have to be at work!
So finally their father threatened them. I will never send you back there again, he said. He was English and his parents were always telling him how spoiled his children were. For a week, the children were quiet. The two eldest talked about it and decided they must tiptoe around the apartment, especially when their stepmother was reading.
One evening, their grandmother called from Manila. Their father would not let them talk to her, but they knew it was their grandmother. Their father kept them out of the room and spoke in low, hushed tones. They pressed their ears against the bedroom door, listening. They could imagine their father's head moving up and down, up and down as he talked. That stentorian voice. They liked listening to their grandmother, the way her voice moved up and down, like a pianist practicing scales. She must have been talking about Christmas plans. When they were in Manila for the summer, their grandmother had told them they would be visiting her again at Christmas. But now their father came out of his bedroom and said they were not going to Manila for Christmas; they were going to Mexico. Mexico! Did they know anyone in Mexico? No, their father said. We will stay in a hotel. It will be warm there. We will stay on a beach. Your stepmother needs to relax. This has all been a great strain on her.
The girl grew wild with disappointment. She thought of her aunt, her mother's sister, in San Francisco. She had the telephone number, written down somewhere. Where was it? She searched frantically in all her coat pockets. Her aunt had called one day, when her father was out. She had made the girl write down the number, saying it slowly and carefully, so that the girl could write it down in her laborious script. Now remember, the aunt had said, you must always dial "1" when it's long distance. Remember, always begin with the "1." Her aunt spoke deliberately and slowly, as though it was very very important that the girl understand this.
The girl understood what her aunt was trying to say. Her aunt was worried. The new mother was very thin and had never had children. She was 42, four years older than their father. She was always impatient, complaining whenever the children, scurrying around her, accidentally jostled her or trod on the toes of her high-heeled shoes. She acted as though she were being buffetted by a high wind. Do not come near me, she would yell! Keep away!
Now where was her aunt's number? Because the girl was always forgetting where she put things, and her room was always cluttered with toys that the Maids then tossed haphazardly into the corners when it was time to vacuum, this number had vanished and the girl never found it.
The middle boy was always having accidents. He dropped things. He didn't dare tell his father that in Manila, his grandmother rubbed his body with hot oil every night before going to bed. It was the ritual he enjoyed the most. Stretched out naked on the cool sheets, his grandmother rubbed his body and slowly his mind would drift. Very soon, he was asleep. In New York, there was no one to rub his body. He hugged feather pillows. They were too soft and did not feel like the hands of his grandmother. His body sank into them; they were unresisting, inert things. He had nightmares. In the middle of the night, he would cry out. Jesus Christ, his father would yell. Jesus Christ!
The youngest was five. He looked the most like his mother. He had her eyes and her splayed toes. This, at least, was what everyone in Manila told him. He remembered very little about his mother, but he knew he looked like her. There were no pictures of her in the apartment any more, so when he tried to think about his mother, he looked in the mirror. She must have been light-skinned, then, and had a small mouth. The aunt in San Francisco had a mouth with thick, full lips. They had spent a few days with her in the spring. She was always hugging and kissing. "Does your new mother do this?" she asked the little boy once. "No," he said. "Why not?" the aunt said. "I don't know," the child said.
And after that, back in New York, he would observe other mothers with their children: how they held their children's hands; how concern seemed to jump into their faces whenever they shepherded their children across the street. "But I have a mother," he would think.
Before the new mother came, they only had their father. But they had all of him. He would come home from the office, loosen his tie, and, still in his suit, get down on all fours in the playroom. The children would scream with delight. They would hang on to his neck, his shoulders. He didn't care if they pulled at his glasses, or rumpled his clothes. His shoes were all scuffed. But this was their father before. Now that he had married again, he had forgotten how to get down on all fours. Now he was always telling them to behave. At dinnertime, which when their parents were home was a formal meal at which the children had to sit very quietly on the stiff-backed chairs and wait until it was their turn to be served, he seemed weary. The stepmother had a nervous way of looking around. Craning her head this way and that, she would say, where's the salt? What happened to the butter dish? This would send ripples of nervousness through the children. Was the salt under the table? Did one of them put it there? They couldn't remember. Where was the butter dish? What did it look like? Had they even seen it at all? They would look at her, jumpy in their seats. Their stepmother was exasperated. Dinner never went as planned. There was always something going wrong. The children could not behave. Either their elbows would fly out while they were spooning food onto their plates, or something would drop to the floor. Their stepmother would roll her eyes, and their father's face would grow red with embarrassment. Don't you know how to eat? he would say. Sometimes he would send them away. Go to your room, he would say. They jumped up then, feeling a great surge of excitement and joy. But they must not run. They knew this. They tried to walk slowly, carefully, putting one foot in front of the other, until they were all the way down the hallway and into their own section of the apartment. They would fling themselves on their beds. Without talking, they all began thinking of the same thing: the house in Manila, surrounded by mango trees; the swimming pool with its clear blue water; the black dog in the kitchen; the love birds in cages; the smells.
The middle child would get up and start playing with his Sega games. Pow! Pow! Pow! He had Mortal Kombat II. He was Subzero. He was Reptile. He could send snakes shooting out of the palms of his hands. Get down here! The words "Flawless Victory" imprinted on his brain and obliterated the shards of memory.
After a while, the eldest, too, would get up. But she was very listless. She would take up her Barbie dolls, one after the other. They all looked the same: all platinum blonde, with long hair. None of them looked like her. She was dark. Her skin, her hair, and her eyes were dark. People in Manila said she looked like her grandmother. She didn't know what to play with. She wandered aimlessly around the room, touching this and that.
The youngest lay on his bed, sucking his thumb and looking at the ceiling. He didn't tell the others but once, in a park by the East River, he had seen his old nanny, the one who had been with them when their mother was still alive. At least, he had thought it was her, though when she saw him, and he smiled and waved, she didn't respond. She was pushing a blonde little boy in a stroller. The nanny was from the Philippines, like the children's mother, and for two years after their mother died, and before their father married again, she had taken care of them. But the stepmother did not like her because, she said, the nanny "talked back." So she had sent the nanny away.
The youngest had stared at the nanny, but she was already turning her back. He wanted to bawl but he was afraid of what his sister would say. The nursemaid did not look in his direction again. Now he turned his head to the pillow. He would suck his thumb all evening.
Once a week, the stepmother took them to a doctor. Only, this doctor just wanted to talk. She was a thin, middle-aged woman with graying hair. The three of them sat in front of her, looking down at their shoes. When she could not get them to talk, she gave them paper and crayons. Draw me a picture, she told them. The girl drew pictures of women in kimonos. Is that your mother? the doctor asked. No, the girl said. I just like looking at women in kimonos.
The middle child drew pictures of airplanes and people falling down and cracking their heads on cliffs. The doctor would ask to speak to the father privately. This is very disturbing, the doctor said. She took the pictures and showed them to the boy's father. Your child is disturbed, she said.
The youngest drew nothing at all. If pushed, he would draw a square. Just an empty square, nothing else. Children like to draw, the doctor would tell him. He would shrug, let the crayon slip from between his fingers.
The girl's old piano teacher had moved away while they were in Manila. Now there was a new teacher: Russian, with steel-gray hair and wire-rimmed glasses. The girl found it difficult to understand her. Sometimes the teacher would become exasperated and after many times telling the girl to put her fingers on a particular key, she would reach out with her gnarled fingers, making the girl start and shrink backwards. The woman's fingers were hard from years of pounding the ivory keys. The girl was not interested in the piano. When her father heard her slow, hesitant practicing on the piano in the living room, it made him grit his teeth. He did not like to be reminded of his first wife, to whom the piano belonged. The piano had belonged to his first wife's mother for many years, and then she had it shipped to New York. His first wife loved to play Beethoven sonatas.
When Halloween came, the girl said she wanted to be Ginger Spice. She wanted a Ginger Spice jacket: short and tight, with a Union Jack motif. Then, when it came close to Halloween, she suddenly changed her mind and said she wanted to be Baby Spice, the pretty blonde one. She wanted the blonde pigtails and the short skirt and the spaghetti-strap top. To her surprise, the stepmother became very solicitous and immediately ordered up an outfit from a dressmaker, even taking the girl in for fittings after school. The middle boy said he wanted to be the stalker in Scream--the one who dresses in black and wears the mask. The father did not know anything about Scream, but there was a big toy store around the corner from their apartment. This toy store was on 87th street, and one weekend he took the boy there and they selected a costume that looked just like the one worn by the character in the movie: the white rubber mask with the trailing black hole for a mouth, and the black robe. The youngest child said he did not want to be anything. The stepmother lost her patience and called him "naughty." He spent a lot of time looking out the big plate-glass windows of their ninth-floor apartment, down at the street below. Whenever anyone asked what he was doing there, he would say he was counting yellow cabs.
Actually, he thought he had once seen the edge of his mother's cream bathrobe. The edge of it drifted out in the air, but she herself was around the corner of the building and he couldn't see her. "Come and see!" he'd cried out to his older sister, tugging her by the hand. When she'd come and looked, she said only, "That's the smoke from the roof of the next building." There was always some sort of smoke drifting by, from manholes on the street--something cooking down there, the boy would wonder?--or from the roofs of adjacent buildings. But the boy was sure that his mother was drifting outside the window. "She's come for me," he thought to himself. And afterwards, he was always by the window. The smoke that drifted by sometimes seemed to him to have a peculiar shape, like that of a woman peering in the windows. At these times he could not say exactly that it reminded him of his mother, but he was always watching and waiting for her.
Once he overheard an argument between his stepmother and his father. They were arguing about him, about why he liked staying by the window so much.
It's that woman, his stepmother was saying, and the boy knew she was talking about his old nanny. Came here the other day. Just dropped by, she said. Taking her new charge out for a stroll. He lives somewhere on 90th. They just happened to be passing by the building. She tells him things.
After that, the father said he would have a talk with the nanny. He would tell her she must not stop by anymore. It was bad for the children.
Early in the afternoon of Halloween, the aunt from San Francisco called. "Are you going trick-or-treating?" she wanted to know. "What are you going to be?" The two older children were very excited, describing their costumes to her. The youngest would not speak, and so the oldest girl said, "He's going to be a dog! He's going to follow me around on all fours, like a puppy!" This made the aunt laugh. She had no idea whether the girl was joking or serious. They told her that Regis Philbin, the talk show host, lived in their building, and that every Halloween he gave out huge parcels of candy. So they would be sure to ring the bell of his apartment. And there were a few other people in the building who gave a lot of candy, but most of the people were old women with harshly painted mouths and strings of pearls, who cared nothing for children holding out bags and asking for candy.
But the youngest child is distracted and doesn't think about Halloween. He sees his mother hovering outside the plate-glass window in a blue house dress decorated with tiny pink flowers. At least, he knows it his mother, though her face is obscured by a shimmering whiteness. She stretches out her arms to him. He goes to the window, and he looks down, and her feet are standing on air. Now she stretches out both arms to him. Below him, the traffic on Park Avenue is snarled. A cab has tried to make a right turn from the wrong lane and now cars are beeping. But the noise is very far away. His mother is speaking to him. She says, over and over, "Not too good, not too good," and the child knows she is speaking about him. Because last night his stepmother spanked him. He had broken something, he can't now remember what. But it was in his stepmother's room, and it was precious to her. He knew it was precious only after it was broken. When the thing lay in shards on the carpet. Then his stepmother wailed. She called him a demon. She said there was something inside him, something bad, that made him do these things. His older brother and sister only looked on, frightened, when the stepmother was carrying on.
His father came. He was very angry and dragged the youngest child to his room. The youngest child stayed there all evening, sobbing.
One day, the youngest child was about to go out. He stood in the foyer, waiting for the elevator. Then he saw her, his old nanny. She seemed to have been waiting for some time. With her was a blonde child in a stroller. The youngest child looked in fascination at this other being, and remarked how its mouth seemed to form little O's at intervals, as though yearning to suck. The nanny hugged him to her. "You're so thin!" she kept saying, over and over. She brushed his hair out of his eyes. She asked after the other two children. "They're in their room, watching TV," said the youngest child. He was alone in the foyer with his old nanny, and it seemed his heart must burst from happiness.
They heard a noise. The woman gave a start. "I have to go," she said, trying to free her skirt from the youngest child's fingers. "No! No!" he cried. He buried his face between her legs. He thought he could smell damp earth there and he liked it. But she pushed him away. "If your father asks, you know what to say," she told him.
She hurried down the corridor to the elevator. Now the youngest child wandered to the window. Again he saw his mother there. Only now her face was distinct. He saw it clearly: the dark eyes, the full cheeks. Every feature of her face was as clear as a photograph. And she was looking at him with her arms outstretched.
He looked down at the avenue. The yellow cabs were there honking, but the sound seemed again to be coming from a great distance. The boy would have climbed on to the window ledge but his mother shook her head and mouthed the word "No." Her voice was gentle. He thought she looked sad.
Then the boy's sister came running out, looking for him. She saw him at the window and asked him what he was looking at. But the youngest child looked at his mother, and she had a finger raised to her lips, so he did not reply. Instead he pointed at the busy cabs on the avenue. The girl said, "You are a funny boy," and ran away again. The youngest child saw his mother looking longingly after her.
The youngest child saw his mother was wearing flowered cloth slippers. These he had seen in a box in the hall closet once. He went to the hall closet now. He rummaged among the boxes, but though he opened box after box, the one with the cloth slippers had disappeared.
One of the Maids came out of the kitchen. "Bad boy!" she told him. "Look what a mess you've made! I will tell your father when he gets home!"
He looked again at his mother in the window. She only shook her head sadly at him and smiled.
Now the youngest child spent all his time at the window. "What are you doing?" the stepmother said impatiently. "Get away from there!" She was afraid he might fall out. She knew of the terrible mishap of Eric Clapton's child. The Maids were under strict orders to keep the boy away from the window.
But the Maids were too busy to keep an eye on him all day. They were both from the Philippines and loved to talk to each other in the kitchen. There were long stretches of the day when they forgot about the youngest child. Left to himself, he always went to the window. His mother was always there now, waiting for him. She always brightened up when he came.
Once the boy tried to tell his sister what he was seeing. He asked his sister if she remembered her mother, and she said, "Of course!" He asked her what their mother had looked like, and his sister said, "She had black hair." He asked his sister if she would know their mother if their mother were to appear again. His sister gave him a strange look. "I would know her. Of course I would know her," she said. But no matter how often his sister passes the window, she never turns her head, even when her mother is staring straight at her. And this is how the youngest child knows he is the only one who can see his mother, his mother who waits by the window and looks in.
In November it began to snow. It snowed so hard that all the schools were closed for a few days. Then all the children were home, and the Maids complained about how tired they were, picking up after them all day long. The stepmother was sick in bed with a cold. She never left her room.
The youngest child found that it was hard for him to see his mother sometimes, in the whirling snow. Her face was obscured by a strange whiteness. One evening, when his father was reading a newspaper in the living room, the youngest child saw his mother pass through the window glass--a white shape, more like mist than anything else--and come up to his father as he sat in his old armchair. She stood there for a few moments, and the youngest child held his breath. But his father merely scratched his nose and continued reading. Then his mother, who was now an indistinct white shape, began to make a slow circuit of the room. She stopped before the piano. The lid was open and it seemed to the boy that the keys trembled, but they made no sound. Then she moved in front of a painting of his stepmother. It had been painted when the stepmother was only 19. She was very beautiful, with rich, flowing black hair and large, sparkling eyes. His mother seemed to shudder. At once her light refracted into many shimmering crystals. These hung in the air briefly and disappeared.
The middle child's nightmares grew worse. Once or twice the Maids heard him call out "Cecilia", which was his dead mother's name. The Maids whispered and crossed themselves. The stepmother became frantic. She said the apartment had been visited by evil spirits. One of her secretaries at work told her about exorcisms and she had her husband call a priest. The priest walked around the rooms, swinging a censer and intoning a blessing. The youngest child saw his mother watching from the window. She was smiling.
Then the stepmother insisted, We must sell the apartment. The hall was too short, she said. She wanted a better view. The father talked to a number of real estate agents. The children looked around them at the familiar rooms and did not know what to do.
The eldest collected her dolls and told them they would soon be going to a new place. She imagined that in the new place, the children's rooms would be as far away as possible from their father's room. "Then we'll hardly see him," she whispered to her favorite Barbie, the one who was dressed like Princess Jasmine in Aladdin.
The middle child took to lurking in the kitchen with the Maids. They reminded him of his grandmother, with their strange talk, though the Maids had lived in New York for so long that they remembered little about their home villages and would never go back there even if they could afford to. When the middle child slid on to a high stool and leaned his elbows on the kitchen counter, the Maids only looked at him and laughed. They were not cruel, but the father was too busy; the stepmother too cold. They had heard of a grandmother in the Philippines, an aunt in San Francisco, but these relatives never came. The Maids had the apartment to themselves most of the time. Their friends were envious because they had so much freedom. But the Maids themselves were not happy. They grumbled that the master didn't pay them enough to stay in a haunted apartment, with three such unlikable children. So why pay attention to the boy? Let him sit there! They continued to chatter with each other.
The grandmother called again from the Philippines. It seemed to the children, listening from behind a closed door, that their father and their grandmother were having an argument. It seemed the grandmother didn't want the children to go to Mexico for Christmas. She seemed to be reminding their father of a promise of some sort. They heard their father say, "It's very hard. Don't press me; don't press me." This was followed by a long silence. When their father came out of the bedroom, he had his lips tightly pressed together.
And then one day the youngest child no longer saw his mother at the window. He stared and stared, but she was gone. The smoke was only smoke, drifting lazily by. He wondered if the old priest who had come and said the prayers, who had filled the rooms with the bad-smelling odor of incense, had anything to do with his mother's disappearance. He went again and again to the window. Yes, his mother was really gone.
He looked up at the gray sky between the tall buildings. He listened to the sound of traffic. He never again saw his mother's face, or watched her come through the glass as a white shadow.
The apartment on Park Avenue was sold after Christmas. Eventually the children grew up. The two oldest were sent to boarding school in England, as the father planned. England is a cold country, even in summer. The children never stopped dreaming about the Philippines, the warm beaches, the swaying palm trees. But they were only allowed to see their grandmother every other year. She had grown old and stooped. Her hands were gnarled, and it hurt her fingers to straighten them. It seemed to the children that each time they saw their grandmother, a gray circle around the pupils of her eyes had grown larger. A hump seemed to be growing out of the middle of her back. She walked with a cane. She still sighed and said, "If only your mother had lived, how proud she would be ..."
The girl went to college at Smith. She said she wanted to be a writer. The middle child drifted into college, though his grades were not quite as good as his sister's, and so he did not make it to an Ivy League school.
They were spoiled, the stepmother said. She was still beautiful, her hair still the rich black it had been when the children first met her.
The youngest child was killed in a car accident the year after the apartment on Park Avenue was sold. It was very strange. He was crossing the avenue to go home from school. People said there were no cars coming from either direction when he left the sidewalk. And he HAD looked, contrary to what a child of that age might have been expected to do. Suddenly a black jeep had appeared, seemingly out of nowhere. The boy was flung up in the air and landed on the jeep's hood. There was a sickening thud, and when he landed on the pavement, his head bloody, the bystanders saw his arms and legs were already purple and starting to swell up.
His old nanny came to the hospital to visit him. He was not conscious, but perhaps he felt her tears. They fell on his inert hands and sprinkled the white hospital sheet. She crossed herself over and over, and people who happened to be nearby said she was commending the boy's soul to his mother's care.
WRITER'S BIO: Marinne Villanueva is the author of the short story collections GINSENG AND OTHER TALES FROM MANILA (Calyx Books) and MAYOR OF THE ROSES (Miami University Press), and that she co-edited GOING HOME TO A LANDSCAPE: WRITINGS BY FILIPINAS.
Copyright 2005 by Marianne Villanueva; all rights reserved.
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