When I was sixteen I asked my mother −still beautiful, often mistaken for my older sister despite the fact that she was pushing fifty− why she had never thought about building a career, if she ever worried about how she would support herself in the event (and at this, we both reached under the kitchen table to knock on fake wood) that something ever happened to Dad. Did she feel like her marriage gave her no choice but to stay at home and give up her dreams? Did she have any feelings of resentment towards Dad, or me, or Ben? Didn’t she feel the need for a purpose bigger than vacuuming the living room, walking the dog, making our lunches?
I asked her all this, intending to be just a little cruel, on the first morning of summer break. My body was still in school mode and had refused to sleep past eight thirty. Mom, of course, had been awake for two hours at that point, as she‘d done every day since I could remember, the two of us being the only ones home that day. Without me, she would be all alone, I thought smugly. It was the end of Ben’s first year, his only year, of college, and dad had gone to work not more than ten minutes before.
We were eating dried salted fish sprinkled over champorado, a sweet, chocolate rice porridge that was one of my only memories from the three years we’d lived in the Philippines. A strange combination, you might think, but that was the whole point: the opposing flavors and textures mixing and enhancing one another. You took a bite of fish, and all of a sudden the champorado was sweeter, richer. The bitter cacao powder cut through with brown sugar. And without the rice− well, then the fish would just be over powering.
My mother’s bottom lip had been dark with chocolate when she spoke. Her face stern, she told me, “Different people want different things. This is what I want. This is what makes me happy.” Her words were never truly free of her pacific accent.
I said, “Are you happy because you got what you wanted, or are you choosing to be happy with what you have?”
It was early, but that summer I had started looking at universities online, drafting different essays for different schools. I was much more motivated back then. Back then, everything seemed so clear, the path before me long but smooth; I thought I had paved the road well. Ben used to call me the Golden Child, used to joke that I would have been a better firstborn, as long as I didn’t scare away any potential girlfriends. I may have the better grades, I told him, but at least he could have a girlfriend. He agreed.
Our parents were kind of strict about that thing. Both had grown up in the motherland, where it was old-school Catholic, where my aunt and uncle who had been separated for years couldn’t get a divorce because there were still no laws to do it. So I wasn’t allowed to have a boyfriend until after college.
Where your aunt and I went to school, my mother told me, girls weren’t even allowed to enroll if they were born out of wedlock. Do you want that for your children? Do you want them to suffer for your mistakes?
As if the first chance I got I’d let some boy knock me up. I thought I deserved a little more credit than that. Instead, I said yeah well, the guys in my school who do have sex would never go for me anyways. Of course my brother, being the eldest male, was allowed to bring his high school girlfriend over whenever he wanted.
After breakfast, mother and I took our glasses of orange juice out to the patio and watched the sprinklers go off. It was barely nine-thirty. The air, still clinging to the final threads of spring, was cool enough at that hour that we still needed a blanket to sit under, forcing us to huddle close on the wooden bench.
My mother said, “When your father comes home maybe we can go out to a movie or something. You can pick.”
I didn’t say anything, just watched the sprinklers stutter and spray. I stuck my feet out and the closest one wet my toes.
At ten, our neighbor, Mr. Calloway, came out to mow his lawn.
“See you finally installed that sprinkler system,” he said over his fence. “That’s good! Convenient.”
“Saves a lot of time and effort,” my mom agreed. “A glass of orange juice, Dan?”
“Oh not right now, thanks. Though I may take you up on it later.” He started up his lawnmower, the engine puttering to life, and began to push, methodically, up and down his little patch of grass.
I asked my mother, “Was it always you and dad’s plan to move to America?”
“Hmm,” she sighed, “Not at first. Daddy had a small business in Manila, selling clothes wholesale. It was more than enough to get us by. Enough to send you kids to good schools. But we had to think about more than just ourselves. I have one sister, your dad had three. We moved here so he could earn more money, send some home to his family.”
“Ben said he remembers them a little bit. Our aunties. And grandpa.”
“I’m surprised you don’t. You and Ben were always together. What happened to him happened to you.”
“I remember us sleeping in the same bed,” I said, “when we would visit their house.”
“Yes,” said mother. “It was a small house.”
“What about dad’s sisters? Did they have to move?”
“They had to stay and take care of grandma,” said mother.
“Was she sick?”
“No,” she said. “But after grandpa died, grandma had no one. It was just what they had to do.”
“Did they ever get married?”
“I guess they never felt the need to. They had each other, that was enough.”
Enough. The word seemed the exact opposite to me, incomplete. I thought settling might have been a better word for our aunties, whom Ben and I used to call the Fates, because they all wore black and looked like the crones of old legend. My brother and I used to picture them with only one eye between the three, conspiring against mortals in their shared bedroom, cutting golden threads.
I said, “You know, you never answered my question.”
“About… about being happy. Are you?”
“Because this isn’t what you wanted.”
“You just said you wanted to stay in the Philippines. And I know you wanted to become a lawyer. But instead you followed Dad here.”
“True. But I chose to move here because I love him. And I love you. I have no reason to be unhappy.”
“Having enough is not the same as being happy, you know.”
“No, mom, it’s not, okay?” Suddenly it was too hot, and I pulled the blanket off me. I scratched at the place where our knees touched. Didn’t she get it? Couldn’t she tell the difference? I was sixteen, and even then I had understood the concept of settling better than she did. I saw it every day, after all. I saw it in the way my dad looked at her. At the way she looked at me, and our home. I saw it the months I’d had to walk to school instead of drive, so that we could have enough money to pay off the sprinkler system. We couldn’t afford gas, and yet we go out and buy a fucking automatic sprinkler system? To what, keep up appearances? Let everyone in the neighborhood know that our family was doing a-okay?
I pictured my aunts and grandmother, at home in the Philippines, growing old and fat on my father’s money. I had no relationship with them except for the burden of their need, the sacrifices we’d had to make in their name. Having to share one car between the four of us. Not being able to afford a prom dress, or textbooks for that matter; having no money to save up for college. Even my grandfather, who had died long before I was born, seemed more like family to me. I felt like I knew him through the stories my father told, the pictures he had compiled into the photo album on our coffee table, whereas I only knew my aunties and grandmother through the annual checks my father sent them in the mail.
“You know, mom,” I said, watching Mr. Calloway turn, so precise, at the edge of each freshly shorn line, “Sometimes I think you know nothing about real life at all.”
In the end Mr. Calloway could only stop for a quick chat, hovering in the doorway with his sweating glass of orange juice, drinking as fast as was polite. He was about to pick up his daughter, Cassie, from her clarinet lesson. A moment of weakness− I almost asked if I could come with him to surprise her, but at the last second I bit my tongue. Mr. Calloway glanced at me somberly as he said his daughter’s name. It reminded me of the day he told her that their dog had passed, the way he had looked, the lines around his nose and eyes. When they buried the dog in the backyard, I came to pay my respects. Then Cassie and I watched movies for the rest of the afternoon, and when we slept I pretended I couldn’t hear her cry.
That was long ago. After eight grade it became more difficult to see Cassie, mostly around the time she started dating Tyler, then Alex, then Sam. I didn’t mind. I knew we were still friends. But then people started talking about her, mostly girls, calling her easy, accusing her of stealing boyfriends. She got gum stuck in her hair and had to cut it short. Girls started staring at her in the locker rooms, scanning her body, searching for the condemning mark that they thought must have etched itself onto her skin.
Eventually, of course, I began to gossip about Cassie too. I stopped coming to her house and meeting her at her locker. I didn’t feel like I was betraying her, not really− she had betrayed herself by ruining her own reputation.
You need to be smart, I said to her one night, break up number four, the last time I would sleep over at her house. I know Mike asked you out. I would think you’d know better than to say yes after… the last time. Times.
Mike’s different from Sam, she’d pouted. He’s nice. I know for a fact he doesn’t have a girlfriend, so at least I don’t have to worry about that.
Still, I replied. How long until this one gets bored, or you get bored, or he moves to Canada or whatever?
Then it’ll end, she said, and at that I knew there was no reasoning with her. Because as much as I was annoyed at her, at myself, at the fact that I’d had to give up a friend for something as stupid as a reputation, I knew something everyone else didn’t. I knew Cassie had loved each and every boy she dated, as truly and fully as you could at fourteen. She wasn’t easy, she was soft. She wanted what everyone else did and wasn’t afraid to take it, even if that meant having it snatched away again, time after time.
A couple months ago, I got a call from Cassie for the first time in more than a year. I hadn’t checked the caller ID when I picked up the phone, and she didn’t say hi or anything, only said, I’m sorry. We talked a little bit after that, but not much.
“Well, now I’m really late,” Mr. Calloway chuckled, setting down his empty glass. He looked at me one last time. “I’ll tell Cassie you said hello?”
I nodded, and the screen door swung closed behind him.
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