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Excerpt

Putsero

In the morning’s first light, she heats water for coffee. She browns garlic in the kawali so she can fry last night’s leftover rice with a little salt to serve with dried fish for breakfast. As the rice sizzles in the hot grease, Elena pulls the copy of the labor contract from the kitchen drawer, out from under old calendars (she keeps them for the children to draw on the backs), and fading pictures of each child as an infant.  Here is Siony at one year old, Boyette a few days after birth, and smaller photos of Taysie and Rosa, round, brown babies, their heads crowned with soft, black hair.

Arnold, asawa ko, she mourns silently as she sets his breakfast before him: a plate of hot, oily rice, a scoop of dilis on top, and a cup of steaming coffee.

The long, stiff pages of the legal document explain the terms and conditions of her employment with a faceless family. Elena stares at the sum she will receive monthly for washing and ironing clothes, cooking meals, cleaning house, and caring for children. Her heart seems to stop for a moment. Such a lot of money—five times what the still-sleeping Arnold makes as personal driver to the vice-mayor of their town. Elena cannot understand why any family would pay her such an amount to do such ordinary chores, the simple tasks of keeping house for a family.

She hears Arnold stirring in their room, curtained off from the sala and kitchen. He crosses to the kitchen, his bare feet whispering on the smooth bamboo floor. He rubs his eyes with his right hand and scratches his stomach with his left.  Elena regards him with a cool fear in her heart. His hair is tussled and the sleeveless shirt he wears for sleep is wrinkled, hitched up over his small pot of a belly. He sits groggily at the rough wooden table, automatically shifting his weight to accommodate the short leg on the chair. Arnold, asawa ko, she mourns silently as she sets his breakfast before him: a plate of hot, oily rice, a scoop of dilis on top, and a cup of steaming coffee. She yearns to tell him of her misgivings and anxiety, to spill out her wish to stay home after all and leave the Chinese family to some other more willing hands.

But his father’s small plot of land has been mortgaged to a moneylender and Arnold has advanced six months’ salary from the vice-mayor, all this money just to finance half of the recruiting agency’s fee for Elena’s job in Hong Kong. The other half of the fee will be paid back from her wages over time. Too late, Elena realizes. She is trapped. She must go. There can be no last minute change of mind. The airline ticket and notarized work contract will be handed to her at the airport in Manila, as she boards the plane to Kai Tak airport. It has all been set in motion and she must go.

At the table, Arnold murmurs his thanks before making the sign of the cross and tucking into his breakfast. Elena sits at her own plate of rice, unable to lift her hands to eat. When he looks at her, silently inquiring at her loss of appetite, she sees his eyes, blood-shot. Not enough sleep? she wonders, and picks up her spoon before the rice grows cold.

*  *  *  *  *

Arnold did not sleep at all this night beside his dreaming wife. He had helped Elena pack the new vinyl suitcase. A few pairs of pants, some of his worn T-shirts (work clothes, Elena told him), underthings, two new dresses his mother had sewn, a housedress, and a pair of rubber flip-flops. His cousin who had once been to the mountains in Baguio had gladly contributed a bulky sweater. His heart sank to see how little Elena had to bring from home. It seemed important, somehow, to show the family she worked for that her real family loved her and was sending her well prepared to do her duties.

He had gone to the wet market in the afternoon, wandering along the narrow aisles between the rows of stalls, looking for something special to send along with Elena. The vendors looked at him eagerly, many of them aware that his wife was heading to Hong Kong. Money would soon be in his grasp and each of them wanted to be remembered as a suki, a favored supplier of meat, rice, fish, chicken feed, trinkets. So Arnold walked slowly, aimlessly, through the muddy aisles, and found himself among the vegetable stalls, facing the arbulario, Mang Tinoy, and his array of fresh herbs, dried roots and leaves. The old man nodded at Arnold and broke him out of his reverie. Ahead were the flower and potted plant stalls that the town wives frequented. The vice-mayor’s wife was known among the plant sellers. Arnold often accompanied her to this section of the market so he could carry her purchases back out to the jeep.

Arnold blinked foolishly at Mang Tinoy. He started to speak but then stopped and scratched his head. “I want to buy something,” he said finally. Mang Tinoy waited patiently. Arnold was surprised at tears that brimmed in his eyes and the hot rock lodged in his throat. “I mean, some medicines. For Elena.” He trailed off so that he whispered his wife’s name.

Now Arnold lay awake beside Elena. His body felt heavy as a stone and he couldn’t even will himself to toss or turn...

The old man nodded again. With surprising grace, he deftly assembled separate bundles of dried cogon grass, rock salt, alum crystals, stalks of lemon grass, guava leaves, ginger root and oregano leaves. These he placed in individual paper packets and then tied them all together in a neat, square package with rough hemp string. His dark hands shook as he worked, but Arnold sensed the confidence in his movements. The old man explained the use of each herb as he patted it into place. Arnold tried to commit the old man’s litany to memory, but as soon as the gnarled ginger and alum disappeared into their paper sleeves, their medicinal merits slipped from his mind.

When the arbulario looked up and perhaps saw the despair on the younger man’s face, he chuckled and poked the bundle at Arnold’s chest. “Don’t worry. Your missus will know—she comes here often, especially when one of your children is sick.”

Now Arnold lay awake beside Elena. His body felt heavy as a stone and he couldn’t even will himself to toss or turn, to find a more comfortable position on the slatted wooden bed. This bed. And the memory of the afternoon’s tears in the market rose and overcame him.

He would be in this bed alone in a few nights. The vice-mayor had allowed him two days’ leave to take Elena and the family to the airport in Manila, to see her off properly. It was a six-hour journey instead of three in Pareng Gordo’s jeep because the third gear didn’t work. Arnold tried not to imagine a burned out transmission or an overheated engine. Pareng Gordo was lending the jeep in good faith and Arnold would just have to stop often and check the oil, maybe add water to the radiator. He was lucky to have a true friend like Gordo, who had offered the jeep months ago, when Elena applied for work, before Arnold had even thought that far ahead. Gordo’s wife was a domestic helper in Singapore and had written Elena with pointers on how Arnold could deal with her absence. “Number one, he has to learn how to cook,” Lolita said. “And number two, he has to abstain or stroke.” She used the vulgar word, bati, without apology. She had a midwife’s certificate and spoke plainly about matters of sex.

“You know, man,” Gordo had said, “life is so short. You have to do your best while Mareng Elena is away. We should help each other. Makakaraos din. You’ll make it.” Gordo had six children, mostly younger than Arnold’s kids. Gordo’s mother and spinster older sister came to live in his house after Lolita left, ostensibly to care for the brood of children, but also because they had been ordered out of the cardboard and scrap metal hut Gordo had fashioned for them on some untilled land that belonged to Mayor Argente’s family. So for Gordo, it was a convenient arrangement. No one had had to lower pride to make a request about sharing shelter or helping with housework. It had just happened.

Arnold’s parents already lived with his widowed sister, Rosemary, and her two children. He hadn’t dared to ask for his nanay’s help. She was overworked as it was, keeping house for Jerome and Lito, Rosemary’s boys. Nanay also took in sewing, spending the morning hours at her treadle machine while the light was good. She was putting money away for her health in her old age, and maybe for her grandchildren’s education, she said. In the next breath, she would complain that Rosemary never had enough food for her sons and how she often supplemented the pantry from her small income.

Arnold thought many thoughts this night. Why did Elena have to go? Money would spend itself as soon as it was earned. If they didn’t have it, they didn’t spend it. If they needed it and didn’t have it, they borrowed it. The questions repeated themselves over and over, wearing a monotonous track into his mind. He could not will himself to sleep. Would he be alert enough to drive tomorrow? Pareng Gordo had entrusted his jeep to him and not to either of his teen-aged nephews who would have loved to go along to the airport. Arnold agonized through the small hours of the morning. He watched through the open window as the moon waned and faded into the grey light of dawn. He struggled to press his anguish away but the effort increased the ache in his heart. He touched Elena’s hair and shoulder, careful not to put weight into his caresses so she could sleep on. Two years, he told himself, two years wouldn’t be that long. But he turned away and faced the wall in misery, knowing otherwise.

*  *  *  *  *

But he leaves his hand there and she feels his shaky, sweaty grip and knows he is anxious about this farewell business.

Nanay and Tatay have always told her to keep her eyes down. Siony thinks maybe this is because her eyes are too big, and her gaze can be frightening even when she is merely looking on. “Huwag kang titingin nang ganoon,” Nanay has whispered gently many times. Don’t look around like that. So instead, she looks at the ground, at her feet, aware of her mother’s loving, well-meant censure. Since she cannot raise her eyes, though, Siony has learned to listen better and to use her nose to sense danger or delight. When Tatay came home late one night last week, Siony ran to open the door for him. She hadn’t dared stare at her father as he danced into the house, singing, “Feelings,” unsteady on his feet. She could smell gin on his breath though, the clear liquid in the square bottomed bottles that Tatay and his friends passed around among themselves on birthday evenings or at wakes or weddings. As Tatay brushed past her, she felt the happy heat of his drunkenness too. She didn’t have to see to know.

Today, they climb the stairs to the departure deck at the airport in Manila. Tatay paid five pesos for each of them to come up to this restricted area so they can watch Nanay’s airplane taxi down the runway. Boyette pretends to tease Siony by squeezing her elbow as hard as he can. But he leaves his hand there and she feels his shaky, sweaty grip and knows he is anxious about this farewell business.

Stupid fifth grader, she scoffs, working up her own bravado. Nanay is already gone, she wants to remind him. We can’t call her back anymore. But then Siony remembers Boyette’s wide-eyed look when Nanay held all four of them to her chest, so tight that Siony’s neck hurt. Before they came up to the deck, they had stood around Nanay on the sidewalk just outside the departure lobby. Nanay had embraced them suddenly so that Siony was pressed face to face with Boyette. The hurt and surprise in his eyes cut through her own worries. Even crushed against Nanay, Siony managed to put her arm around Boyette’s sharp shoulders. She felt Taysie’s breath on her hand as it rested on her brother’s neck. Taysie stood behind Boyette, and little Rosa behind her. Nanay bent closer to them, kissing them lightly on the tops of their heads. “Siony, you’re the oldest,” Nanay said into her hair. “Take care of them all, okay?” Siony nodded, Opo, her head bumping against Nanay’s chin. Nanay was already turned to Boyette, telling him, “Junior, help Tatay, yes?” But that big hurt still welled in her brother’s eyes and perhaps he didn’t hear their mother. Nanay was telling Taysie to be responsible for Rosa. And then Siony felt the quick release from Nanay’s embrace and she felt Nanay scoop up four-year-old Rosa. “Bunso, bunso,” Nanay laughed, perhaps to cover the slight quaver in her voice. “Remember me,” she wheedled. There was a long moment while Nanay held little Rosa, while Siony was aware of the hustle and push of people around them, voices calling last minute messages to take care, to write, and how about Christmas, could you call us at Christmas? A long, long moment before Nanay, without another word, put Rosa down next to Siony and left them.

Nanay walked through the door for passengers, pulling her new rolling suitcase along behind her. Tatay ran after her, fighting his way through the other women who pulled similar suitcases. SIony lifted her eyes just enough to see him press something, a small bundle wrapped in brown paper, into Nanay’s hand. And then Nanay was swept past the security guard by the press of women behind her. Before she passed into the door, she turned and lifted both hands to them, her mouth making the movements over a single word, repeated many times, “Paalam, paalam, paalam.” Good-bye. Like that. And then gone.

So now as they climb the stairs to the upper deck--Tatay, Siony, Taysie, Boyette, and Rosa—if feels gloomy, like the end of vacation or like someone has died. Siony is the last on the stairs. She follows Rosa who takes two steps, then stops, takes two steps and stops again.

There are too many people already on the deck, hundreds, squeezed against the metal rails. A baby cries from the far end of the deck, punctuating the general babble rising in the humid air. A group of men leans against the back wall, some in dirty T-shirts and wrinkled shorts, some dressed too smartly for the heat in long sleeved polo shirts and carefully pressed trousers. The men burst into laughter as Siony clears the stairs and she wonders if they’re making fun of her dejected family.  Tatay paid good money for them to stand behind the earlier arrivals but it seems hopeless. What will they see now but the colorful prints of the women’s dresses, and the backs of heads tilted to watch the aircraft lift off the runway?

Momentarily, the sky darkens and Siony feels how the lifting airplane cuts all sound but its own. It stirs the air madly over their heads as if trying to suck them all up into its belly.

Boyette pushes his way through, shouldering himself between two boys barely his height. Siony sees the looks of irritation they cast at her brother, how the ire fades from their thin faces when they realize Boyette is slightly bigger and most likely older than they are. Tatay stands behind them, slightly apart from everyone else. Siony glances back and sees his shoes, wondering if he is uncomfortable in the tight sneakers he borrowed from Mang Ronnie. Without looking directly at his face, she knows he’s still wearing Tito Gordo’s sunglasses, perhaps hoping to blend in with these Manileños.

Taysie leans over towards Siony, wrinkling her nose at the mixed smells of humanity—sweat, dried urine, stale food. “How long do we have to stay here, Ate?” she whispers. Siony shrugs. “Baho!” her sister pouts. Taysie is so practical, sometimes it seems she has no heart. For Taysie, this farewell has already taken place, and she wants to go home to her comfortable routine. The problem is, the routine will be different now. Nanay has given them her duties. Siony must cook and buy the food in the market. Taysie will do the laundry with Boyette, and take care of Rosa. Boyette is supposed to scour the pots and pans, too, once a week, outside at the water pump. Siony already knows he won’t do this because his school mates will make fun of him if they see him squatting in the community square, scrubbing the week’s build-up of soot and grime from the bottoms of the cooking pots.

A wave of restless expectation ripples through the crowd. Boyette has climbed up a few inches so that his head clears the top of the railing. His cowlick whips crazily in the hot wind, and Siony sees his knuckles whiten because he holds on tighter as a huge roaring noise rolls over the deck. Momentarily, the sky darkens and Siony feels how the lifting airplane cuts all sound but its own. It stirs the air madly over their heads as if trying to suck them all up into its belly. Then it is past and Rosa, clinging to Siony’s thigh, lifts her voice, shouting as the sun’s light returns, “Bye, Nanay! See you! Seeeeeeee youuuuuuuu!”

*  *  *  *  *

Elena glances at the woman beside her on the plane. She is thin, pretty in a spare kind of way. Light brown skin, dark eyes that seem to look right through Elena. Women’s voices murmur behind her. Do they all know each other already? Is she the only new person going to Hong Kong?

“First time on an airplane, ano?” the woman says in Tagalog.

Elena squirms uneasily in her seat. She hadn’t realized how ‘siyana she must appear to this more seasoned traveler. “How did you know?” she asks.

“E, it’s in your face,” the woman smiles. “You look nervous and curious at the same time. Everything is interesting to you but it also makes you feel anxious, right?” She closes the magazine in her laps and tucks it into the pocket in the seat in front of her.  “You’d better buckle your seat belt,” she advises, and proceeds to fasten her own with a quick, satisfying click.

Elena glances across the aisle at the old Chinese woman. She already has her seat belt neatly across her stomach. How does this work? Elena feels a small panic. She mimics her seatmate’s motions, grasping the two ends of her safety belt and tugging the metal ends together. It’s a tight fit. The metal pieces barely meet across her stomach. Could it be that the airline has mistakenly put her in a seat meant for a child or a skinnier person? The belt ends slide apart with a dull clunk. Maybe hers is broken, she thinks with agonized embarrassment. Or does it work like the metal clasp on the new handbag Arnold bought her, one of the two metal pieces magnetized so that all she should have to do is put one over the other and they should snap neatly into place?

Elena feels the other woman watching her. Is she laughing at me? Elena despairs. She fights back her rising shame. “Ate,” she begins, realizing she is presumptuous to assume the woman is older. She only means to be respectful. “I don’t know how to do this.” She laughs nervously.

The woman makes no comment. Instead, she reaches into Elena’s lap and loosens the webbed belt. “Ganito,” she says. She separates a metal flap from the heavier side of the belt and deftly inserts the partner piece into the resulting gap. Elena sees how she does this in slow motion for her benefit. She wishes Siony was here, too, to learn this important thing. Just as soon as the wish forms in her mind, though, Elena brushes it away. The mere image of her daughter makes her weak with homesickness, and she has to be strong to work hard for her new employers.

“Thank you,” she tells her seatmate, and leans back, turning her head away. She closes her eyes and listens to the women around her, those voices she can understand. In their chatter, she hears their worry, their excitement, the easy way they lift away from home, already leaning forward to a place they have to make their own.

This piece appeared in a slightly different form in the March 2000 volume of Literary Review.

© Nadine L. Sarreal

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