Fiction / May 2010 (Issue 11)


A Month in the Tropics

by Donna Miscolta

It was his brother-in-law who picked him up. They had never met before and as they shook hands on the concourse, Johnny de la Cruz knew at once that Romulo had more claim to his family in the Philippines than he did. Though Johnny protested, Romulo carried both of his suitcases to the car. Despite his empty hands, he felt weighed down—by the fifteen hours of flying, the lack of sleep, and now as he followed Romulo through the automatic glass doors, the dizzying tropical heat.

In the days leading up to his trip, Johnny had gone bent-kneed with indigestion for which Tessie spooned Pepto-Bismol into his mouth. The sticky-smooth taste nearly made him gag. Tessie massaged her own temples as she told him not to worry, that she and the girls would be fine. But going back worried him. He feared heat and mosquitoes and sleeplessness. He feared being a stranger. He had a suspicion that his daughters would not miss him, and he tried to ignore the thought that he might not miss them.

They were all there to see him off. His daughters were silent and outwardly bored, though he sensed their giddiness about his departure. When he hugged them each clumsily in turn, he felt a pang of sorrow and a vague terror. He had never been on a plane before. What if his plane went down in the ocean? Would they grieve for him? Only Tessie dabbed at her eyes.

As Romulo drove through the crowded city that gleamed along the boulevards and grew coarse down side streets and alleys, he pointed out landmarks, some vaguely familiar to Johnny, though too often at odds with the version that had lived in his head during all his years in America—in Kimball Park, a smudge on a map of southernmost Southern California. He had not been back since leaving in 1946, not even when his mother had died. But he had written regularly, though the intervals had increased over the years, and he had always sent money, and every so often photographs were exchanged. It had always been apparent how much they looked alike—he and his father. Years ago, when they would stand side by side, Johnny felt the redundancy in his long face, big ears and wavy hair. Whenever his father, angry at some insolence or other, demanded that he look him in the eye, Johnny was too distracted by the similarities to focus just on his father's black irises, which, after all, were Johnny's as well.

"Rizal," Romulo said, nodding his head in the direction of the famous park.

Johnny understood from his brother-in-law's vigorous turn of the wheel, the way he thumped the switch on the air conditioner to blast full force, that hosting a Filipino who lived in America was a matter of pride. Johnny offered Romulo a cigarette and they smoked in silence. Even when the car filled with fumes from their Camels, Johnny could sense the clammy swelter of tropical smells press against the roof of the car, see the shimmer of its weight against the glass. Johnny lowered his window a crack and the violent heat stung his eyelids.

Manila had sprawled to its outlying towns and villages. There was no countryside anymore—just more houses and stores and traffic, and suddenly a driveway.

"Home," Romulo said, by which Johnny was sure he meant his, Romulo's, home.

"Welcome," Romulo added, which only confirmed Johnny's suspicion.

Again, Romulo insisted on carrying Johnny's bags. Before they reached the porch, the front door opened and his sister Nora came running toward him and he was startled by the welling of his smoke-irritated, sleep-deprived eyes. He was aware of Romulo edging past them laden with his luggage, of two small children tugging at his hands and elbows, his trouser thighs, of being gently shuttled inside the house and then falling to his knees at the chair that held his father, a withered stick of a man who patted Johnny's back over and over as his bony chest heaved.

 

***

 

In the first week of his month-long visit, Johnny was overwhelmed, embarrassed and secretly pleased by the attention. There were visitors nearly every day. They pressed gifts in his hands, and he, in turn, doled out the things Tessie had tucked in the crevices of his suitcase. When all of these had been offered, the movie magazines, fountain pens, Avon products and key rings, he gave his own belongings—his watch, a cigarette lighter, a belt—as he remembered was the custom.

There was a game of poker one afternoon and mahjong on another that lasted far into the night. There was a fiesta to attend where he was nearly swept into a procession as he stood on the sidewalk, self-consciously waving a crepe-paper Philippine flag someone had thrust in his hand. At night in bed, he lay exhausted and wide awake in the bungalow-style house that was open and airy, accessible to lizards and scorpions and mosquitoes. He pulled the net tight around his bed. He thought of these people whose house he was occupying, the pleasant stranger who was his sister Nora, her deceptively placid husband and their well-mannered children, and his fragile, shrunken father, who hardly resembled the man who once put him on a ship to America.

Johnny had left the Philippines in the aftermath of the war when the Japanese occupation had been replaced by American ships in the harbor and sailors in the cantinas. He had spent his testosterone-fueled, risk-taking adolescence running messages, pesos and the occasional grenade through rice fields for the local band of guerillas. But when the war was over and he was back in school, the classroom could not contain him, so he spent his days roaming the villages and beaches, pleasantly idle, if sometimes bored. It was a life in which his plans for the future consisted only in waiting for Bunny Bulong to turn sixteen when she would be allowed to date him. But he was on a ship a week before Bunny blew out the candles on her birthday cake. His father had added a year to Johnny's age to make him eligible for the U.S. Navy. The lie was eventually corrected, though there still remained the occasional muddle with official documents. Nevertheless, it made for a good joke whenever someone asked his age. As for Bunny, he made himself forget her, just as he made himself forget the Philippines, retaliation for having been sent away.

 

***

 

In the second week of his visit, Johnny and his father sat quietly in the shade on the narrow slab of patio, the emotion of their meeting that first day absent, as if it had evaporated in the heat. Behind them an electric fan rotated with a steady murmur, a backdrop to their conversation, intermittent as the buzz of mosquitoes. Despite the fan, a layer of sweat sealed his clothes to his body and Johnny shifted often in the bamboo chair. In the pauses in conversation, while his father squinted upward as if trying to locate something in the hot blue sky, Johnny watched his sister's children play. The girl, Trinidad , tossed a rubber ball, aiming it at the stick her little brother, Pablo, held and swung too late so that the ball bounced behind him to roll between the feet of the old man. Johnny watched his father lean down to pick it up as Trinidad approached slowly, hands behind her back. When the old man held it out to her she ran, smiling, to take it from him.

Johnny wondered if his father remembered confiscating his marbles until everything he'd won clacked heavily in a burlap rice bag—a sackful of wrongs. Skipping school, forgetting chores, arriving home late. Talking back. Confined to his room on those occasions, he would pull the shade on his window and light the candle on the ledge. Lying on his cot, he raised his hand and watched the oversized shadow it made. He opened and closed the giant fingers, positioned his hand and flicked his thumb at the invisible giant marble, dispatching it to burst the burlap bag.

The whir of the fan was a never-ending sigh between them.

His father said, "Tell me about my granddaughters."

Johnny was surprised at how much he could tell, how from this distance he could see his daughters more clearly than all those times they had walked past him in his own kitchen. He described their appearance, their resemblance to this or that family member, and he talked of their interests—Laura's competitiveness and her good effort but middling success at sports, Josie's compassion for scabby, ill-tempered strays, Sara's penchant for craft-of-the-week projects, which hung gracelessly in the bathroom or kitchen before someone consigned it to the garage—all infinitely more endearing in the telling than they ever were at home.

Johnny glanced at his father perched at the edge of his chair, head erect, eyes on some distant object. His father nodded. Johnny wondered if his father could somehow know that his daughters were probably not missing him much, that he had never been present enough to earn being missed.

"And Tessie? What does she like?"

"She likes her garden. And she collects..." Johnny struggled for the word akin to knick-knack. He used his hands as he described little ceramic ducks and roosters, and his father grinned with comprehension.

"Do you remember your mother used to collect shells?"

But Johnny didn't remember and he panicked momentarily, so he said what he knew must be true. "She liked pretty things." His father smiled, and Johnny felt a flash of pleasure, almost a sense of accomplishment at having reached across the wide ocean of their separation.

But then it was just the fan between them again. It was Johnny's turn to ask a question. Tell me about yourself, he wanted to say. Tell me about myself. But before Johnny could speak, his father cleared his throat, a long rumbling space-filler followed so closely by actual words that Johnny wanted to interrupt, to appeal to his father to start over so he could catch what he had missed the first time. But then his father's voice vanished into the drone of the fan as his chin dropped toward his hands that rested on his cane.

Johnny turned from his sleeping father to watch the children play, and they drew him into their game. Sometimes the ball bounced Johnny's way, and when he caught it, the children clapped in approval. If he missed, they raced each other to retrieve it and place it in his palms like a gift. Then they ran to the far end of the yard and called to him to throw the ball. He wound up his arm like a baseball pitcher and the movement fanned the air around him. He released the ball, sending it in a high arc against the bright sky, and the children danced back and forth, their arms outstretched, anticipating its fall.

Now the girl came to sit near Johnny. She was attentive, unlike his own daughters, and almost adoring as she leaned toward him with concern. "Are you hot, Tito?"

"I'm not used to it."

"If you stay, you'll see the rains."

"I have only two weeks left." The little girl took his hand, as if she could hold him there with her wistful grasp. But the truth was he was ready to go back. The heat was oppressive, the mosquitoes unrelenting, even the food at times unfriendly to his stomach. He was homesick. He did not want to see the rains.

He had not been away from Tessie and the girls since his years in the navy. He had hated the navy and he hated being at sea. But once he was there, the isolation grew on him and when he returned, the separations seemed in the end less painful than the awkward reunions on confetti-strewn docks. There was always the hugging clutter of other families, the delighted squeals and nervous hilarity of other families, the impromptu displays of welcome of other families—a child being tossed in the air and caught in waiting arms, a young wife kicking up her legs as she is lifted off the ground in her husband's embrace. Johnny was not given to such expression, but once, struck momentarily with an impulse, he attempted to swing Tessie in his arms. Laughing with embarrassment, she kept both feet on the ground and Johnny only succeeded in pulling her off balance. While Tessie straightened the corsage on her shoulder, Johnny patted the heads of his daughters and dropped a piece of candy into each hand.

Despite the prospect of another awkward reunion, he was homesick. He wanted to go home. He did not want to see the rains.

"What time is it, Tito?" Trinidad 's question brought her brother running to her side.

Johnny played the game they had played nearly every day since his arrival. "What time do you think?"

The children laughed and pulled Johnny to his feet. They left his father bent in sleep and walked down the street in this town that Johnny barely remembered. Streets were paved, many had sidewalks though they were narrow and cracked by the exposed roots of trees—coconut, banana, acacia—that wove their leaves and branches through an uneven network of telephone wire. The children, still holding his hands, skipped at his side, causing his arms to swing unnaturally, at odds with his stride. Yet, he was unwilling to pull back from the children. But when they were within sight of the sari sari, the children broke away and dashed to the entrance where they waited for him beneath a faded Coca-Cola sign. Inside, it was dim after the bright light of the sun, and slightly cooler from the fans that rotated in a lazy spin from the ceiling. The air was thick and musty with the smell of incense, bamboo, dried goods and sweets. The old woman behind the counter greeted them and began to bag the rice candy that had become their custom to buy. The children ran to the aisle where the toys were shelved. They were mostly cheap trinkets. Still, they made an inviting array. Plastic tea sets, rubber balls in a variety of sizes, paper fans.

"Choose something," Johnny told the children. The girl chose the tea set, white with blue flowers painted along the rim of each imitation piece. The boy was undecided. Johnny spotted a bag of marbles. He weighed them in his palm, felt their smooth roundness through the plastic. "How about these?"

But the boy shook his head, picked up instead a colorfully packaged figurine, a lunging action hero. Johnny let the marbles slide from his hand back onto the shelf. He patted the boy's head, and paid for the toys.

 

***

 

That evening there were guests for dinner. "You remember Bunny?" said his sister, when he came into the living room, feeling hot and sticky despite the shower he had just taken.

"Of course, he does." The woman stood to embrace him. She wore a white sundress bright with fancy birds, her black hair was knotted at the side of her head, orange toenails were on display in backless high-heeled sandals. She hugged him close, the knot of her hair pressed against his nose and he smelled coconut and hair spray, and for the first time since he'd arrived, he felt a connection to the life he had left behind.

"Bunny Bulong, Miss Sampaguita, 1946," he said, remembering how the announcer's voice went mushy with the news. She was fifteen, precociously glamorous and keenly aware of her appeal.

"Bunny Piña, now," she said.

"Piña," Johnny repeated dumbly.

"This is Carlitos, her husband," Nora said of the handsome, smiling man standing off to Bunny's side.

"Carlitos," Johnny said, appalled at his inability to do anything but echo the names announced to him. He extended his hand to Carlitos and they shook hands, Johnny gripping hard.

"Enjoying your visit?" Carlitos said with a grin that was affable enough, but with a preoccupation that made Johnny want to look around the room to find its source.

"Yes," Nora answered for Johnny. "He finally made it back to us."

"Yes," Bunny said, "finally."

"Yes," his father repeated softly.

Over dinner, the talk at first centered on Johnny and his impressions of the town after his long absence, but he made a poor focal point with his brief, unembellished answers to their proddings. Johnny felt their annoyance at his insubstantial answers. But what could he say? Life had gone on without him and now this place that was once home was as unfamiliar to him as the sound of Bunny's last name. Absence makes the heart flounder as Tessie would say. He was glad when Bunny took charge of the conversation, offering her own assessment of the changes she had witnessed over the years, changes that ultimately drove her to Manila proper.

"When a small town tries to be big, you might as well go live in the real thing."

"Lucky for me she did," Carlitos said, placing his hand over Bunny's, before withdrawing it to allow her to bring her glass of wine to her lips, shiny from lip gloss and pancit. When she set her glass down she put her hands in her lap.

"More pancit, Carlitos?" Nora asked, pushing the plate of noodles toward him.

After dinner they sat in the living room and Romulo played American jazz on the stereo. Carlitos tapped his foot. Nora brought out a photo album in which she had collected pictures Tessie had sent over the years—school pictures and faded Polaroids of the girls. Bunny commandeered the photo album and made Johnny sit next to her. She crossed her legs and he could see a light blue vein run across the curve of her calf. She propped the album on her knee and as she turned the pages with her graceful orange-tipped fingers, she made Johnny answer questions about his family. It didn't take her long to recognize and name each of his daughters. She was quick to notice the feature that united them—prominent, long-lobed ears, a lamentable de la Cruz trait that was only partly offset by large eyes.

"Those eyes are your saving grace," she teased.

Bunny closed the album and set it on the coffee table, so that her calf was again visible to Johnny.

"You'll have to come visit us in Manila before you leave," Bunny said.

"Yes, go to Manila, see the sights," his sister urged him just as she would a tourist.

"Yes, the sights," Carlitos chimed in, and though his nod was amiable, his voice was flat, airless.

"Romulo goes next week on business," Nora said. "You can go then."

With that settled, Bunny announced, "Time to dance." She went to Romulo's collection of records and slipped one onto the phonograph.

Carlitos stood up, summoned from his daydream by Bunny's command. They were a practiced pair, their turns smooth, their flourishes unforced. Romulo and Nora danced, too. Then the four of them traded partners. Johnny did not dance. This is what they knew and remembered about him, so they did not invite him and saved him the humiliation.

"Bolero," said his father, who did not know how to dance any dances either, but could at least name them. Johnny watched the measured, dreamy movements of the dancers, the rise and lift of their torsos with the sweeping slow step, their graceful decline with the quick, quick of the other foot. Where did people learn such things? His father kept the beat with a nodding of his head, and Johnny pretended to do the same as he tried not to look at the heightened curve of Bunny's calves as her toes gripped the insole of her sandals, tried not to watch how her movements electrified the birds painted on her dress, tried not to blush when he found Carlitos's gaze.

 

***

 

In the third week of his visit Johnny went to Manila. Romulo negotiated the traffic, weaving the car in and out of four, sometimes five lines of cars that crowded the highway marked for three lanes. At intersections, where heeding traffic signals was regarded as optional or advisory at best, cars pitched forward in spurts. Ragged children, ignoring the clamor of horns and shouts from drivers, darted among the cars, running up to those stalled in traffic and offering for sale fried peanuts, mangoes on a stick or bagoong, the salted shrimp that Johnny liked but resisted now. The small street hawkers amid the tangle of cars made him nervous. He held a package in his lap, a gift for Bunny and Carlitos, and he gripped it tighter now as Romulo veered into a gap in the next lane and then maneuvered down some side streets.

Romulo left him at the door of a small apartment house squeezed between a bar and a butcher shop. It was not the kind of place Johnny imagined a former beauty queen would live. Of course, it had been only a local pageant. But Bunny's regalness had extended beyond the tiara woven with sampaguita petals. Her straight posture and the angle of her chin made her imposing despite her small stature. Bunny's presence always improved her surroundings, he remembered as he pulled open the splintered door.

The hallway was hot and musty. A gecko was fixed to the ceiling. He knocked on the door that said Piña, barely readable in the dimness caused by several burned out bulbs. He heard heels clacking and then Bunny was at the door, more subdued in her dress and make-up than she had been the other night at dinner. Her hair was loose and fanned at her shoulders, her lipstick a soft coral, her dress flowing rather than clingy. It took him by surprise—the realization of what would occur once he stepped inside the door, because as soon as he saw her he knew that Carlitos was not at home. Though his impulse was to turn away, back down the airless hallway and into the gritty heat of the street, his feet remained planted, obeying some other desire, which had everything and nothing to do with Bunny.

She held out a hand to greet him, and Johnny, flustered, handed her the package. Bunny smiled and thanked him. She led him down a short hallway lined with the kind of framed art that could be found at flea markets. In the small living room, worn furniture butted up against each other. But the varied and harmonizing colors of the fabrics and the strategically placed decorative items gave the room an elegance that was Bunny. Johnny watched her open the package and her delight seemed genuine at the hand-painted ceramic candle holders he had picked out, though he wondered now if they didn't clash a little with the other objects in the room. Bunny set them on the coffee table already graced by a cheap sake set. Music played from the stereo, something classical that was unfamiliar to him, but which made him feel easy about taking a seat on the couch and accepting the glass of sake that Bunny handed to him. Bunny sat down too. They were side by side, just an inch of space between them. Bunny didn't cross her legs like she had the other night at dinner, which nevertheless made him think of the vein in her calf, a fine blue line that shone beneath the skin.

He could think of nothing to say and waited for her to begin the conversation. But when she opened her coral-painted mouth, the words she spoke came out of the blue, without context. And yet, it did not take him unawares.

"Do you remember my sister Odette? She has no children either. She says you get used to it."

The sake burned in his throat.

"There's still time for you," Johnny said, silently calculating her age. Thirty-nine. Old, but not too old for having children. He was embarrassed at how easy it had been for Tessie to become pregnant, how she finally went on birth control pills after Sara was born, despite the Catholic Church, because, after all, they had already defied the Church.

It was not just the memory of the abortion that prompted his next action, but some larger sense of desire and regret and loss that had seemed to coalesce in him since his return. He put his hand on Bunny's knee and slid it up her dress. There on the narrow sofa, they made awkward, indecorous love as he was careful not to upset the sake glasses on the table. He kept his eyes closed and breathed in the reckless scent of orchids and the tropics that came from Bunny's skin, glassy-smooth as marbles.

 

***

 

In his fourth and last week Nora took him on a trip to Nayong Pilipino, a theme park consisting of the country in miniature, the various regions condensed into an instant Philippines tour, the geography abbreviated in replica volcanoes and rice terraces. A jeepney took them to the different regions—Bicol, the Visayas, Mindanao and Sulu, the Cordilleras and Ilocos.

"Small world," Johnny joked.

He bought souvenirs. A tray inlaid with mother-of-pearl for Tessie, brushes with ox-bone handles for the girls, and for himself a picture postcard of the park, Nayong Pilipino, the abridged version of the Philippines further reduced to a small rectangle of glossy paper.

A few days later he packed these things carefully in the middle of his suitcase. He straightened out the room he had occupied for the last four weeks, adjusting the lampshade, arranging the mat so it was square to the bed, moving the vase of dried flowers back to the middle of the small table where he had stacked the American newspapers he read each evening. Then he sat on the bed next to his open suitcase, and waited for his party to begin.

Guests crowded the house for a farewell feast. The smell of garlic and fried foods mixed with colognes and sweat, and inside the cocoon of well-wishers, Johnny felt something catch in his throat. There was much backslapping from the men, kisses from the women and everywhere around him were hearty, insistent, unfailingly polite words.

"So little time to know you."

"You mustn't stay away so long next time."

"At least you will miss the rains."

He caught a glimpse of his father sitting on the couch, who nodded at him, knowing what Johnny knew—that he would not come again, and he wished then for an obliterating, torrential downpour.

At the airport he was escorted to his gate by a dozen relatives and their friends who had made a caravan to see him off. He had observed the occasion by wearing a suit, despite the heat, the cooling rains still weeks away, and he had loosened the tie a little and carried the jacket in the crook of his arm. On the stairs that led down to the departure gate, they posed for a picture, arranging themselves five tiers deep, with Johnny in the middle. Later, when his sister sent him a copy of the black and white photograph, he saw how obviously he stood out from the others. At first, he told himself it was because of his suit. But then admitted the suit had nothing to do with it.

As the plane left the tarmac, Johnny watched the distance open up between him and the land below. For a short time, they were over the archipelago, its islands a jigsaw of sizes and shapes that defied piecing together. Then it was just ocean.

 
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