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Opportunity

Nina sat by the living room window, looking out at what was left of her mother's garden-the yellowing banana palms, the brown and patchy grass. She remembered when it looked different. She and her sister Celia were little, and there were rows of pink and yellow bougainvillea all along the garden walls. There were orange gumamelas by the front gate, and wasn't there, once, a coconut tree that her mother had made her father dig up because, she said, she was afraid a falling coconut might strike one of her children?

When Nina looked behind her at her parents...she suddenly saw an old deaf man, blinking feebly in the dim light, and a woman with a perpetually angry look...

The late afternoon sunlight made everything look sepia-tinted, as in old photographs. Nina could see Mrs. Peñaranda waddling down the street with her shopping bag bulging with fruit, but already she seemed like someone out of memory, as did the skinny, shirtless boys running around and around on the sidewalk in a game of taya. When Nina looked behind her at her parents, sitting close together on the flowered sofa in the living room, she suddenly saw an old deaf man, blinking feebly in the dim light, and a woman with a perpetually angry look, rubbing a corner of her balled-up handkerchief between her right thumb and forefinger.

The old people's mouths and hands trembled. Nina wondered-was there a proper way to carry out a leavetaking? She was superstitious, after all. The day before, she had gone to mass and fixed her eyes intently on the young priest who was offering up the sacrament. His resplendent robes, white and purple, were a reminder that it was the season of Lent, of atonement. The electric lights were weak and flickered bravely in the gloom of the church, as though simulating candles. She felt the hard wooden kneeler, cold beneath her knees, and silently urged the priest to intercede for her with Saint Jude, the patron saint of lost causes. Later, she had lit a votive candle at one of the side altars. Her small contribution rattled forlornly into the almost empty iron box. Yet she noted that nearly all the candles were lit. Now she would ask for her parents' blessing, though she knew they wouldn't give it.

"In a little while," she told them, "I'll send for you. Once I've gotten settled. Once I've found a job."

But her parents were silent. Nina wasn't sure they really understood. Her father had suffered a stroke not long ago. Since then it seemed to Nina that he grew tired of listening to people. He talked often of returning to his hometown of Bislig. Her mother, too, though younger and still capable, had a way of protecting herself by hearing only what she wanted to hear.

"I'm doing this for you," Nina continued. "You deserve an easier life."

"Are you going with-that man?" Her mother said.

Nina looked at her. She nodded. Her mother turned her face away angrily and said, "What if he leaves you-when you are there?"

"He loves me," Nina said. The saying of it frightened her so much that she found herself trembling. She wanted her mother to say, "I understand." She wanted her mother to be kind.

Her mother had always been so belligerent, so quick to react to any slight. The wrong word elicited a slap, sometimes a beating. Even now that Nina was grown, she sometimes felt threatened by her mother's violence. Even now she could not be sure her mother would not hit her with her wooden slippers, as she had done so often when Nina was growing up.

"Please." Nina said softly. At that moment her mother leaned forward, into a slant of light from the window, and Nina could see clearly the patches of white hair at her temples, the fine skin mottled with light brown spot at the outer corners of her eyes. Her mother put her face close to Nina's, close enough for Nina to inhale the odor from her rotting gums, and she said, "I know what will happen. He will leave you. When that happens, you will think about coming home. But you walk out of that door, don't think you can come back."

When they saw her again, she was standing at the front gate with her suitcases, looking thin and dark and worn-out...

Nina knew that her mother was thinking of what happened to Celia. Celia was only sixteen when she ran away with a man from Tanauan, a man her parents had met only once. He took Celia to live with his family in Batangas, and for a long time they did not hear from her. When they saw her again, she was standing at the front gate with her suitcases, looking thin and dark and worn-out, and later that night in the bedroom Nina had seen the large purple bruises on her sister's hips and thighs. Celia had simply shrugged and said that her husband drank. When Nina wanted to tell her parents, Celia had said impatiently, "Ah, stop that. Stop being such a baby."

Later, the man came to the house. He wanted to take Celia back to Batangas, but her mother would not allow it. She stood in front of Celia with her fists clenched and her mouth set in a hard line. Later, she even hit the man, raining blows about his head while the man stood silent, accepting her mother's blows with bowed head. Nina watched in terror from the stairwell. Her mother's hair had come loose from its bun and the long grey strands fell down her back, and Nina could see her mother's bare shoulder where her sleeve was starting to slip. She would have liked to hold her mother tight and still the flailing arms, but she had been afraid. Celia stood impassively, looking out the window as though the scene were not actually happening just a few feet away from her.

In the end, nothing happened. The man went away and in a few weeks Celia followed him leaving her parents a note. Nina's mother screamed and pulled at her hair. Her sobs were deep and harsh and guttural, like the sounds an animal makes. For days she wandered around the house with her dresses only half-fastened, with her hair disheveled.

And Celia never came back to them. In bed at night in the room they once shared, Nina's eyes probed the darkness, her ears strained for the familiar laughter. The silence was wounding, more wounding than the pain of her mother's fists on her mouth and shoulders. In the years that followed, any little thing was capable of setting her mother off. When Nina begged her mother to stop, her mother would say only that she hadn't hit Celia enough, and that was why Celia had turned out bad.

Nina wanted to tell her mother that if it were not for the memory of those beatings, Nina would put her arms around her, might even stroke her hair, which she had sometimes been tempted to do, but had never actually done in all her years of growing up. Now she could only stare at her mother's bowed head and wonder at how thick and long the hair still was, at how vigorously the gray-white strands sprang from its roots. The strength in her mother was like that of an ancient tree. Now the branches of this tree were so long and so far-reaching that if Nina did not back away, the tree would smother her.

Nina stood up, murmuring something about being late. Her father was stroking his wife's hair with trembling hands. Neither of them looked up as she slipped out of the door.

Outside, it was a few moments before she could breathe properly again. She turned and tried to fix the house in her memory-the weather-beaten walls, green-tinged as though with fungi; the garden with its patchy grass, now overgrown with talahib. She thought about her parents, probably still huddled together in the living room-her father in a white shirt and the green-and-white striped pajamas he wore day in and day out; her mother, in a long-sleeved dress despite the heat, clutching her rosary beads. She told herself, they will manage. There was the chicken farm, of course, though that had not been doing too well lately. It was a small farm, only a few hundred chickens. There had been problems-chicks disappearing, electric wire stolen-and her father had taken to sleeping there, in the back seat of his old Volkswagen Beetle because they had still not saved enough to build a modest rest house. Her mother took the bus there early in the morning to bring her husband food, and usually returned home close to midnight, her ankles swollen from walking.

The relatives called Nina ungrateful. They said she was walang hiya. They said what a shame it was, that a girl with a university education did not even help her parents out.

Nina could not bear to be on the farm, with the ever-present flies. The relatives called Nina ungrateful. They said she was walang hiya. They said what a shame it was, that a girl with a university education did not even help her parents out. The last time she had gone with her parents to the farm, the heat and the ever-present flies made her ill. Her parents took her to a small lake, and they rested there while she drank some cool coconut juice and tried to collect herself. Nina tried to focus on the mountain on the other side of the lake, which rose from the water, blue and perfect. The water of the lake was very still, and in it she saw reflections of the bancas and the clouds. Later her father sent someone to bring them food. There was warm rice, wrapped in banana leaves, and fish. She saw her father laugh like a much younger man when Nina's mother tried to feed him some sweet rice cakes. She saw her mother dip two fingers into the water of the lake and bring it to her lips. Her parents acted like they were behaving for Nina's benefit. Nina only looked away, wanting to get back home as soon as possible. On the long ride home, in the corner of the back seat, Nina had curled up and tried to keep from inhaling the dust coming in through the open car windows. Nina never accepted another invitation from her parents to go with them to the farm.

Tony told her that he felt her parents were wasting their time. "Why can't they get someone else to manage the farm for them?" he said. Nina shrugged helplessly.

Tony was a much older man. She met him through an advertisement in The Philippine Star. Daily, she and a girlfriend would peruse the want ad columns for likely prospects. There were always a few Australians, Europeans, and Americans looking for Filipina companions. They had heard that Filipinas were very gentle, affectionate, and easy to please. They always asked for a picture.

Nina's girlfriend had received many offers and debated whether to choose between a Japanese or an American. "Japanese men expect their wives to walk behind. American men wash their own dishes," was how she explained her final decision.

When Nina received Tony's first letter, she was almost too happy. Until then she worried that she was too dark, not mestiza enough. Her eyes were what people called singkit-small and chinky. Before going to have her picture taken at the Foto-Time machine outside Shoemart Department Store, she tried to correct these flaws with make-up, applying beige powder to her face and neck, drawing two dark lines down either side of her nose with brown eye shadow, smudging black eye-pencil around her eyes. She was careful, in the picture, not to reveal her arms, for the difference in skin tone would have been immediately apparent. And yet, this American had singled her out! For a year, she carried his letters around with her in her handbag, stopping at street corners to read them over.

"Dearest Nina," he wrote, "what a lovely name you have! I would like very much to meet you in person . . ."

Then he made arrangements to come to Manila. Nina advised him to wait until July, when it would be cooler because of the rains. He agreed. In the meantime, he sent her pictures of his three-bedroom house in San Bruno, a small community just south of San Francisco, and of his three children by a former wife. Nina had not known, until then, that he had once been married. But he wrote her that it had happened when he was very young, barely out of his teens, and that he had been impulsive. He wrote that the experience made him want a calm, rational relationship with a quiet woman.

As for the house, it stood on the side of a steep hill, and on either side were houses that looked exactly like it. There was a small front lawn smoothly carpeted with grass, and two cars side by side on the driveway.

It was around this time that Nina began to dream. She dreamt that she was already in America. In her dreams, she was always cold, and always standing outside the house. She could hear a child's laughter in the background. She was disturbed because her parents seemed to have no place in the dream. She tried sometimes to imagine them standing at the front window of the house, looking out, but always their faces seemed so still and so unmoving that they reminded Nina of puppets. Then Nina became so frightened that she would begin to cry, and afterwards she would wake feeling anxious and depressed.

He looked older than in the pictures he had sent. His hair was completely white, and the skin around his neck and jaw was loose and wrinkled.

Her first meeting with Tony had been in the Aristocrat restaurant on Roxas Boulevard. He looked older than in the pictures he had sent. His hair was completely white, and the skin around his neck and jaw was loose and wrinkled. She guessed he must be close to sixty. From the first, he had a way of looking at her that was very direct and made her turn her face away in confusion. Right there in the restaurant he bent down and kissed her full on the lips. She immediately glanced around and saw a few matrons shaking their heads and puckering their lips. For some reason, Celia's words came to her just then: Ah, stop that. Stop being such a baby. After that, she was able to toss her head proudly and ignore the looks from the other tables.

Tony had said he would take care of the visas and the papers. He had a friend in the American Embassy who could help them. She would have to take a jeepney to Buendia and from there catch a bus that would bring her to M.H. del Pilar, to the Hotel Aureliano II, where Tony was waiting. He had bought the plane tickets only the day before. For days she wavered, not sure that she was doing the right thing. She cried, she said she couldn't leave, then she made up her mind suddenly, in a kind of cold determination.

Now she would be late, and she could imagine Tony pacing back and forth in his room, checking his watch repeatedly.

Near the intersection of Santolan and Kamias, she managed to flag down a jeepney. It was one of the more ornate ones, with flashing mirrors and a spray of gaudy flowers painted on the hood. A sign above the windshield proclaimed, in flowing red script: REBELDE. The driver stopped long enough for her to put her right foot on the lowest step. She swayed unsteadily as the jeepney lurched forward, but managed to duck into the narrow space where two rows of people sat facing each other on low benches.

It was dark in the cramped, narrow space, and at first Nina imagined that it must be full. But a fat matron with a bulging shopping bag who was sitting farther in called out, "Ale!" and gestured to a few inches of space that had suddenly materialized between her and a gaunt, sour-faced man in a dirty white T-shirt.

Nina staggered forward. She was immediately engulfed by the smell of onions from the lady's shopping bag and the smell of sweat from the sour-faced man. But it was not, curiously, an unpleasant experience. She was comfortable sitting with one elbow buried somewhere in the matron's side, the other pressing against the man's ribs beneath his T-shirt, her knees knocking against those of another man across the aisle, who continually smiled and nodded as though he wanted to make her acquaintance.

The closeness, the smells, the unlooked-for familiarity seemed to buoy her up. She felt as she often did at the beach when, floating on her back, she allowed the warm water lapping at her skin to carry her now here, now there, lulling her into a stupor. She liked the darkness and the proximity of so many bodies, and was sorry only that she could not see more of the city from the chinks between the people's heads and shoulders. She thought she saw a few low, weather-beaten buildings, and dusty storefronts advertising Coca-Cola and Seven-Up, but then the jeepney hit a particularly bad stretch of road, and everything jerked so much that the landscape blurred and became an indistinct jumble of reds and yellows.

It was nearly dark when she reached the Hotel Aureliano II, a shabby, cockroach-infested building at the end of a narrow side-street. Tony's room was on the fourth floor. The one window looked out on a narrow courtyard, enclosed on three sides by buildings and on a fourth by the street. She had come to know every particular of the room, and especially the configurations of the cracked plaster on the ceiling.

The bed was noisy. She knew how it would be-Tony would thunder and shove while she lay very still, listening to the squeak of bed springs from the next room. She knew that a Japanese businessman had the room to the left, and a Swedish tourist, the room to the right. One night she heard loud, banging noises coming from the Japanese's room and thought-though Tony told her she was imagining this-she heard the sound of a girl's whimper. The next morning, she passed the Japanese in the hallway and shrank against the wall. But the man only nodded politely and barely glanced at her.

Now as she entered the lobby through the revolving doors, she saw the bellboys stare and it seemed to her that one or two were beginning to snicker. She thought she heard them whisper, as she walked with flaming cheeks to the elevator, puta. Whore.

She laughed, thinking of how they would look, standing together before an immigration official in San Francisco: she and her sixty-year-old American boyfriend...

But she was elated. The thought of the life that was to come filled her with exultation. She thought of Tony, waiting for her in the room. Washed and shaven, with his hair meticulously blow-dried, he would look as he did when she first met him-immaculate in white pants, white shoes and a carefully pressed, light blue sports shirt. She laughed, thinking of how they would look, standing together before an immigration official in San Francisco: she and her sixty-year-old American boyfriend with the blow-dried hair and the immaculate appearance. Her own hair was now stiff with dust and dried-up perspiration. Her face needed washing. She imagined an immigration official staring at her and shaking his head. The official would not want to admit her but Tony would show him the papers. He would do this with a flourish, the way she had seen it done in the movies.

"It's all perfectly legal," Tony would say, in that sarcastic voice of his.

The official would turn red. "Yes, of course," he would say. To her he would add, "Welcome to America."

And she would walk proudly on, hardly deigning to glance at him.

Yes, she thought. Let the man have what he wants now. She jabbed at the elevator button with anxious fingers. "Take me," she whispered. "Please, please take me."

© Marianne Villanueva

----------------
This story first appeared in Villanueva's collection of short stories, Ginseng And Other Tales From Manila, published by Calyx Books, Oregon (1991).

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