Marlene helped her grandmother slide open the door that led to Angkong’s room. Kang Atsi took the bayong from the young girl’s hand and emptied its contents onto the kitchen counter.
Amah sat on her sofa and fanned herself while she elevated her tiny feet onto her favorite green stool. Marlene looked at her tiny feet, each one about three inches.
She remembered that it was only two days ago, when she had walked with Amah to La Simpatica Commercial at Ongpin St, a shop stall that sold hand-beaded slippers and tsinelas. They sewed cloth shoes for women who had bound-feet—lotus feet, as they were called.
She walked slowly into a dark room that smelled of cigarettes and the only visible lights were the signs on the exit doors. In the darkness, she saw threads of smoke. Her hand touched the rows of wooden chairs anchored to the floor. Peanut shells and candy wrappers crunched beneath the soles of her shoes
She saw a seated figure, a man who helped her draw the upturned theater seat downward to enable her to sit comfortably beside him. Chinese words appeared on the movie screen. Sneak previews of future Chinese movies flashed in front of her eyes. A Chinese female star, whose name she could not remember, sang on the screen.
He opened a bag of watermelon seeds and one by one popped the seeds into his mouth. He cracked them open with his front teeth and then spat the shells onto the floor. She held onto the ends of her skirt and tried to avoid being spattered with the shells.
Then, his hands, so much stronger than hers, removed hers from her skirt. He moved his hands up and down her legs. She tried so hard to keep her eyes on the screen, to read the English subtitles of the Chinese movie. The words came and went faster than her mind could comprehend them.
Listen. This is how I got the knife.
A couple years ago my sister said she’d pay for my plane ticket to visit our mother in San Francisco. Our mother was going blind, she said, and wanted to see us while she still had some vision left. My sister doesn’t have a United States visa. You know how hard it is for single Filipinas to get a tourist visa. The consuls at the embassy always think the moment you land in the States, you’ll go looking for an old American to marry so you can stay the country. Or become a TNT, tagongtago illegal immigrant. But that’s not fair. We’re not all like that. And it’s not like their economy’s what it used to be before the global bust they caused, trading in all those paper shares and fooling around with commodities.
Anyway, I had a multiple-entry tourist visa so my sister said, You go. At least Mom will be able to see one of us – while she still can.
I didn’t want to make the trip. There’s a gap between me and my mother that’s an ocean wide and an ocean deep for a lot of reasons, mostly to do with painful stuff that happened while I was growing up. I don’t want to talk about that right now.
I said, I don’t want to talk about it.
Between the bus stop and her apartment building, a tremendous gust of wind blows Dr. Vicente’s umbrella inside out and breaks the spokes, leaving her open to be drenched. When she gets home, she takes a hot shower then goes to the kitchen, cooking penne and heating up some amatriciana sauce. She eats standing by the sink. When she finishes, she mixes herself a strong drink and pours it into a coffee mug.
The students’ term papers are piled in four neat stacks on her desk. There is no rush to mark them now. Dr. Dimaano had drawn her aside and recommended a mandatory week off. Someone else could substitute for your classes, he had said. You take a break and get back in touch with yourself.
She knows she won’t be able to stand this.
You pick up any stranger’s thought as readily as you’d pick up a pretty shell by the beach side because all of them, even the most banal ones, catch your eye and you can’t help it. Sometimes a thought is brilliant and hard as a diamond, or edged and serrated like a dagger, or full of intent as a snake is of venom. Sometimes it seems bottomless, smooth and pure like silk, shedding its endless layers the moment you pick it up.
So you compartmentalize. That’s always been the ticket. Keep boundaries. Focus on the color of his pants, the bit of spinach between his teeth, the flashing lights of his cellphone.
If you’re still picking up a thought when you don’t want to, then you’ll just have to read the damn thing and move on.