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Benilda Becomes an American

Beni had always been prone to hero worship, which is what young girls do when their fathers play Superman. Her dad was always so heroic, so mysterious. So many things made him tick. She always had to give him space. And all the time in the world.

Then the next day dad would be monstrous because she had to be reminded to take out
the garbage, or that it was her turn to wash
the dishes. Or because she didn't clean the kitty litter box as clean as clean could be.

Because one day he was her best buddy. He made her laugh, carried her on his shoulders in shopping malls and carnivals so that all the other kids were so bleeding jealous of her. He threw her up into the air and caught her in his big arms as she felt her stomach falling.

Then the next day dad would be monstrous because she had to be reminded to take out the garbage, or that it was her turn to wash the dishes. Or because she didn't clean the kitty litter box as clean as clean could be. Or when she wouldn't understand the word problems her math teacher gave her, but she didn't ask for help since she didn't want to look stupid. Or if she did ask for help and then she was stupid anyway, because maybe she wasn't listening in class. She was probably goofing off, talking to boys.

Then dad would threaten to pull her out of school, to stick her in an all-girls' school. Or worse yet, move her back to the Philippines where she would have to attend one of those schools where the nuns thwack the students' knuckles with rulers or make them kneel in a bucket of monggo beans and say the rosary instead of play kickball with all the other girls whose uniform skirts came all the way down to their ankles, who giggled discreetly behind fluttering Spanish fans, who never said "huh?" and "whu…" like an unmannered American, who stood with ballerina poise and walked gracefully, with an invisible book balanced on their dainty little heads at all times.

And Beni would cry and cry because she didn't want to go back. She didn't remember much about the Philippines except for all the shadows and footprints of ghosts, and endless midnight masses, and the cows and the goats being butchered behind the house, their bright red meat laid out on banana leaves, the blood, the blood.

And she'd keep crying because she didn't know Tagalog anymore and she didn't think it was her fault, but he treated her like it was, calling her a "Goddamn Amerikano" behind her back, loud enough so she could hear him, knowing he had instilled God-fearing dread in her, knowing that was how he would always control her.

...Mom was the one who would always say "go ask your dad," because she couldn't make a decision to save her life. She was the one who would never defend Beni, never stick up for her...

And mom was no better; mom was the one who would always say "go ask your dad," because she couldn't make a decision to save her life. She was the one who would never defend Beni, never stick up for her; she would stand back and watch as dad threw Beni on the floor and then stuck his fist into the wall. Mom, who would walk down the hallways with punched-in walls, balancing an invisible book on her head, never blinking or turning, as if she could ignore those holes, and as if ignoring those holes would make dad's filling them in make those holes disappear forever.

That was mom's way. And Beni hated her for many years, decided she didn't need a mom anyway. Everyone else's moms drove on all the class field trips, baked and iced cupcakes for birthdays, and Beni's mom just threw shit. Glasses and bowls, calculators, power tools, anything close-by, lying around. She ordered Beni around and never said please or called her honey. She never put I love you notes in Beni's lunches, never cut the crusts off her PBJ sandwiches. She never came to any mother-daughter functions. Beni's classmates must have thought she was an orphan, and it was kind of embarrassing.

Sometimes she believed she would be better off as an orphan because then she'd get to be adopted by some rich glamorous man who wanted nothing but what could make her happiest. He would buy her everything she wanted. He would let her wear make-up; he would always want her to look stylish. He wouldn't care if she did her chores or not since they would have a maid because he would be rich, and they would live in a big house with thick, lush carpets and winding staircases, a big swimming pool in the backyard, artwork on the hallway walls. He would sing to her and call her sweetness and princess. He would let her have sleepovers and all the popular girls would want to come just to see how beautiful everything was, how lucky Beni could be, how handsome her adoptive dad was.

Maybe he'd be an Englishman, so he'd have a quaint accent, a strong distinct nose, and charmingly crooked teeth. And he'd know famous people, and Beni would get to meet them all because they would come over for sumptuous dinner feasts; they would bring her bouquets of flowers and pretty hats as gifts, and they'd let her sip their champagne.

So Beni would curse her bad luck, ending up here, with them - those people called mom and dad, those cruel people who never gave her anything she really wanted. They just told her what was good for her; they never asked her what she thought about anything. And she'd want to curse God for giving her such crumby luck, but she knew she'd go to hell, and then the devil wouldn't have to come and get her, as Catholic school and mom had led her to believe. She would simply be delivered straight to him. And with her luck, hell was being surrounded on all sides by the food that she hated most in the world - liver and clams. And the only way she could get out was by eating her way out, but the smell of liver, and buckets of live, spitting clams, would be so awful she'd want to barf over and over again. And she'd just wish she could have been thankful for being alive, living in a little house full of holes, with a fat, lazy orange tabby cat, with a mom and a dad, with a bossy older sister and two spoiled rotten younger sisters who got everything Beni could never have - cute Strawberry Shortcake and Smurf everything, brand new trendy clothes instead of older sister's last year, faded hand-me-down's. Beni wished she could throw tantrums like they threw tantrums, without mom and dad getting pissed. God, to have a good tantrum, to roll about the floor screaming and pulling her hair out! That would be like heaven! That would untie her insides; that would be so much better than a good cry. But dad would really whup her good!

That's the thing about superhero fathers who never let on that they have weaknesses... Superheroes have a thing, some thing that transforms them into some super evil villain.

That's the thing about superhero fathers who never let on that they have weaknesses, as Beni's dad who never let on that he had any inevitable flaws which permeated, penetrated his super human facade. Superheroes have a thing, some thing that transforms them into some super evil villain.

It must have been her imperfection, as a daughter, as a student, as a person. It must have been because she could never do anything right the first time around. Like that time in second grade, when mom and dad came home from a parent-teacher conference with ugly frowns on their faces. During this conference, it was revealed to them by a dowdy goose of a teacher, Mrs. Jacob, that Beni's reading skills were poor.

Actually, that's not quite what Mrs. Jacob had said. Rather, it was more like, "Compared to Beni's outstanding mastery of her multiplication tables, and her memorization of the seven sacraments and of all of the vocabulary words, her ability to read aloud, in front of the class, I mean, is significantly poor at best."

But Mrs. Jacob did not stop there; as mom and dad were not given to arguing with any American teacher over what was best for their child. As they sat there, muted and humbled and meek, not defending Beni in the least, swallowing their bile and pride, Mrs. Jacob managed to offer this possible explanation: Beni and her family were clearly foreigners. They must not have taken great care to teach their poor daughter good English. Perhaps they should stop speaking whatever foreign language they were speaking to the poor, confused child.

"Just speak English from now on; I guarantee you, this is what's confusing your daughter. She's so shy; she can't interact with her peers. If she continues this way, she will never get good grades. And without good grades," continued the dowdy goose with wide, concerned, icy eyes and a slow steady shaking of her wrinkled head, "she will never succeed." Just speak English. Just stop speaking whatever you speak. Just like that, with clear disregard for the exceptional brightness possessed by any multilingual child.

And so begrudgingly, mom and dad stopped the Tagalog. And the Ilocano. And all the warm stories of "back home." And all the leron leron sinta's, and all the bahay kubo's, and all the manang biday's. All stopped. Just like that. Beni had never felt so lonely and strange. It was like someone had cut off her right arm. And so begrudgingly, mom and dad agreed to meet with Mrs. Jacob, and then later on, with Beni's third grade teacher Mrs. Bean, at regular intervals. They wanted to track Beni's progress. They were all only doing what was best for their poor, dumb child.

Beni could see dad get uglier and meaner as he came home, prepared to speak English to his dumb slow daughter; perhaps she was not bright enough to process multiple languages after all.

And so begrudgingly, dad forced English words to come, however unnatural, however contrived. "Honey, I'm home," was something only The Beaver's father would say to his high-heeled, pearl-necklaced, vacuuming wife. Beni could see dad get uglier and meaner as he came home, prepared to speak English to his dumb slow daughter; perhaps she was not bright enough to process multiple languages after all.

English had always been for the outside world, that language he spoke at work to all the architects and engineers with names like Tom, Dick, and Harry. These generic men who came from strange and foreign places named Walla Walla, Utica, Waukegan, and Milwaukee. These generic men that dad was never interested in knowing too deeply, who sounded like "ah wanna wanna ah gonna gonna," when they spoke, which dad loved to ridicule. This tickled Beni so! They sounded so silly, speaking an indiscernible, comical garble. But then… dad would have to start speaking like that now!

Then grew the awkwardness of home life, accompanied by more Sunday after 12:30 mass visits to McDonald's instead of San Francisco Chinatown, and the consumption of more Filet o' Fish sandwiches, French fries, and strawberry shakes rather than mouth-watering sup gum mun yee mein and Mandarin pressed duck over steaming hot rice, served by the long time waiter Monroe, the handsome old man with perfect skin, at their long time favorite restaurant, Sun Hung Heung on Washington Street, across from Portsmouth Square.

Mom and dad never really cared for McDonald's. What was a meal served without rice, that you didn't eat with a fork and spoon to catch all of the sabaw? What was a meal not served family-style at a round table on white China? There was always something real icky about food wrapped in paper and styrofoam, processed assembly-line style, by some acne-afflicted teenager earning minimum wage.

This was all a bad influence on the children, her teachers insisted, and suggested instead some wholesome Walt Disney movies full of annoying tragic princesses and valiant princes.

So Beni didn't really understand why it was her fault; she just knew that it was. Because of her, they couldn't go to the Apollo Theater by the Cow Palace in San Francisco anymore. No more munching on chicharon and garlic peanuts while watching all the latest Philippine movies about criminal, polygamous men and their bloody prison breakouts. No more corny slapstick comedies starring the irrepressible Dolphy and Babalu, the man with the funny face and the chin. Beni's favorite flick was the one where someone switched the soap with the cheese; and so while some guy was foaming at the mouth and blowing bubbles at the kitchen table, an old man was eating cheese in the bath. This was all a bad influence on the children, her teachers insisted, and suggested instead some wholesome Walt Disney movies full of annoying tragic princesses and valiant princes. Beni must get acclimated to American culture. It was the only way to guarantee her success.

© Barbara J. Pulmano Reyes

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