By Agnes Marquez
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“In the Philippines, at home in Bulŕ, the coconuts would cook over the furnace. I would always watch. It fascinates me. They bring the niyog halves there, shredded of the husks, and you can see how white the flesh is. I like white. I almost tell papá not to ruin them. But if they heat them until they are golden brown, they’re worth more.”
The girl sitting on the plastic chair nodded her head absently. She had heard the story countless times. Her gaze wandered to the open window, watching the tiny flakes of white make their way to the snow-covered ground. She pulled her jacket closer to her body, tucking her hands in her armpits to ward off the chill.
“Mamá, I’m going to close the windows now.”
“You can’t ever imagine how hot it is there, Maj. You sweat with just the memory,” the old woman continued. “Every time I visit my father making copra, he shoos me away. The stench of burning coconut, mixed with bodily odors of the boys who harvested them. Unpleasant.”
The girl did not need to turn to know that her grandmother was smiling. Her grandmother always smiled when she told her stories, whether she was talking about the dusty, bumpy road from Sorsogon or the nights when she and her sisters would lie in the field and spot shooting stars.
“But the smell is worth it, isn’t it, Mamá? You, mamá Teresa and mamá Wana will go through hours and days in that heat as long as you can steal the cracked husks.” Maj bent her upper body into the freezing night air. She reached for the handles of the windows. Flakes of snow fell steadily, and she was thankful for the thick cloth of her jacket. Maj looked up at the sky. She did not expect to see any stars. It was snowing. And even in fair weather she never saw any stars. The bright lights of New York drowned out any stars that dared peek through the horizon.
Soft chuckle came from the bed. Maj made her way back to the plastic chair. Her grandmother’s eyes sparkled. “That we would! We would grab them and pelt the boys from school with them. Got us in more trouble than the worst of them. The principal always calls pa and scolds him. And then he scolds us, but we don’t mind. I know he wasn’t mad. His chest puffs up when his friends shake their heads and tell him we’re a handful. ‘Those Oliva girls’ they call us.”
“You three must have been something!” Maj responded. This usually lasted a week. Only four more days in this hospital, and then they can go home. She missed that cramped apartment. This spacey hospital with long airy corridors made her feel out of place, like she had been pulled from a homey, multi-colored world of patterns and dropped in a huge white box.
“While all the other girls were going to the market with their mothers, and whining so they’d buy them hair ribbons, my sisters and I were hopping at the back of the jeepneys and whooping. We wanted to get to Naga with the copra. We never get out of Bulŕ, and the copra boys always travel.”
Maj brushed her hand on her grandmother’s hair, which was as white as the pillowcase. “You beat them all, mamá. You got out of Bulŕ. You got out of the Philippines! I bet you those boys haven’t even been to Manila, and here you are in New York for forty years.” No matter how hard she tried to imagine, they were only words to Maj. She could not create the place in her mind beyond what she saw in old pictures. None of them visited, so Maj had never stepped foot in the hills that her grandmother told her stories of.
The phone in the corner rang shrilly, and Maj started in her seat. She glanced down at her watch. “It’s probably Auntie Mars.” She had grown up with Aunt Mars. She remembered that she was a vibrant woman who hummed with energy whenever she walked. Aunt Mars was a walking ray of sunshine until three years ago. Her smile had frozen when her husband asked for a divorce.
Grandmother drew her daughter into her arms and with her wrinkled hands tried to warm her. “It’s cold, ma.” Maj could still see the tracks of tears on her aunt’s cheeks. They were like snow melting on glass and slowly dripping down. “I can not take the cold.”
Her grandmother had sighed like the weight of the world was on her shoulders. “Marissa, you will go home.”
At the time, Maj pitied Aunt Mars. Her grandmother was sending her back, to that place of scorching sun and smelly half naked boys climbing trees using bare hands and feet. Aunt Mars was going to be sent where the roads were bumpy and rocky, where if your car went a meter to the right more than you were supposed to go, you would fall down an abyss lined with trees and muddy brooks.
“Maj!” came the cheerful voice of the exiled. Maj grinned at the sound. She missed her aunt. There was a short pause before the voice on the other line sobered a little. “I’m calling to check up. How are you? Is Mamá still awake?”
“She was not feeling well again, so we went here the day before last. It will pass, Aunt Mars. It always does.” Maj handed the phone to her grandmother.
While they talked on the phone, Maj picked up her sketchbook and pulled the plastic chair over to the window. The snow had stopped while she was speaking to her grandmother, but still she could see no stars. She peered down at the street. Although the air must be biting – she was inside a building and she was still cold – the street below was far from deserted. With deft movements of her hand she drew a figure in dark wool, hunched over a heater.
Maj stood when her grandmother said goodbye. She took the receiver and replaced it on the hook. “I think you’ll find yourself pleasantly surprised on your birthday.”
“The produce from this quarter has been harvested?”
“And sold. You should check your account tomorrow.” The old woman regarded the pad. “May I see that?” Maj showed her the drawing. “You have your grandfather’s hands. I wish you’d make a portrait of me, but I don’t want to look like this,” the grandmother said, hesitantly touching her silver hair. “I look like I’ve long reached and passed the winter of my life.”
Maj reached for the pad. “Don’t worry, Mamá, when I paint you I will show you with lustrous black hair, like in the photographs.” She opened the drawer and picked up the lone picture of her grandmother and her sisters. The three young women regarded the camera seriously. Although they looked uncomfortable having their picture taken, it was apparent that they were close. They arms were looped around the other’s waist, or hung from the other’s shoulders. “Why didn’t they come with you?”
“Did you think I stole Marissa away?” Maj shrugged. Her grandmother’s lips curved. “They came. Wana lasted about eight months before she wailed for our father to send money. She wanted to go back. She adored the bustling city. She relished the cool air. She even played with the snow. But two weeks into the winter and she would not stand for it any longer.”
“And she went home,” Maj concluded.
“Needless to say, papá was disappointed. He mortgaged the land in Bulá so all his daughters, us ‘Oliva girls,’ would be educated here.”
“You and mamá Teresa stayed.”
“And Teresa wed a beautiful man we met at the university. He was tall and he had golden hair. His eyes were a liquid brown, like Marissa’s.” Maj urged her grandmother to continue. She had not seen or heard about Aunt Mars’ father. “He cherished my sister, and Teresa worshipped him. They were happy.”
“Craig’s father wasn’t happy with his son’s choice of a wife. Craig volunteered to Vietnam to make him proud. And he was. He talked to him of his time in Korea, and told him that after the war, he could bring Teresa over to spend time with the family. Teresa went home with a purple heart on her pocket and her own heart broken. She needed to leave.”
“But she left Aunt Mars with you.”
“This is America, Maj. There is no better place to live.”
Maj waited for her grandmother to fall asleep before going out. She had not yet eaten. She picked up her wallet. She was at the corridor when a familiar figure rushed in. The two of them proceeded to the cafeteria to share a late supper.
“Have you spoken to Claire, mother?”
Green-flecked eyes met Maj’s. The girl could see the black iris at the side of the right one, and she wondered whether to warn her mother that her contact lens was dislodging. “She is well. She complains of the heat. I heard it was thirty four degrees there yesterday.”
“Much harder for her still when she is carrying.” Pink lips, moistened with the icy Pepsi, pursed in disapproval. Maj cocked her head to the side and regarded her mother’s features. “Shouldn’t you visit?” the girl inquired, earning another glare.
“Claire made her bed—“
“She did,” Maj agreed with a rueful grin.
“She should lie in it. Let her roast in that tropical hellhole. She is twenty years old. The least she could have done was—“
Maj tuned out her mother’s tirade. Since her sister had been shipped off to Bulá to live with Aunt Mars two weeks ago, Maj had been forced to listen to her mother for no less than fifty times. She preferred her grandmother’s retelling of her childhood than her mother’s complaints about how her girl had slapped all her dreams and intentions for her back into her face.
“Mother, you should probably look for Dr. Myers. See when we can take Mamá out of here.”
“It’s almost midnight.”
Since her grandmother started feeling ill, they have been in and out of the hospital eight times. She had been under the same doctor each time. “You still don’t notice that he makes his rounds at this time?”
Maj followed her mother out of the cafeteria. They found Dr. Myers easily. He went inside to check on her grandmother while the two relatives waited at the door. He checked the charts and looked over the old woman quietly.
The doctor held up a hand, indicating the door. Maj’s mother nodded and they stepped out. Maj went to her grandmother and tucked her hand under the sheet. Dr. Myers must have forgotten after he had checked.
She picked up her sketchpad and turned to the window. Surely there were stars now. Boring a charcoal circle on her thumb, Maj pushed open the window, and gasped at the cold air hitting her face. She looked up at the sky. It was black.
Maj slumped down on the plastic chair she had been using for the past two days. She stared at her grandmother’s sleeping face. In almost unconscious movements the charcoal moved over the pad. When she was finished, she drew another pencil, a shade darker than the last. Maj shadowed her grandmother’s hair.
The door opened, and she glanced up. Her mother was a raccoon. She blinked the sleep away from her eyes and focused on her face. The pink lips were trembling, and brown liquid tracked down her cheeks. Her mascara had run, making her eyes appear heavily bruised.
Two days later Maj kissed her grandmother’s dry cheek. She was waiting with her while her mother checked their bags in. “I’ll go with you, Mamá.”
“Nonsense. I’m going home because I need to be warm now. You’re young, Maj. Stay here. You still have a life to live.”
“When can I come?”
The old woman patted her granddaughter’s cheek. “After you’ve lived,” she told her. “When you’re old, or broken. You’re always welcome at the hills of Bulá.”
Her mother came to wheel her away. Maj saw the haunted look on her mother’s face. She looked like a woman about to be executed. Maj wanted to so much to take her place, and be the one to bring Mamá home. When her grandmother turned to wave to her, she blew a kiss towards the old woman.
Maj leaned her head back at the seat. Snow fell on the glass windows of the cab. She knew there were no stars. She could not see the sky because of the tall buildings shielding it from view. She closed her eyes and pictured them all, lying on a blanket in a field of grass. They would be counting shooting stars