Before he left the Philippines to move in with his son, the American doctor, Titong made a bargain with himself: He would burn cigarettes on the tip of each finger before going back to his old ways. Yet, here he was, in his granddaughter’s room, beside her bed, in the middle of the night.
The girl’s eyes were closed as if she were sleeping, but Titong knew by the way her eyebrows joined together over her nose and her front teeth bit her bottom lip white that she was only pretending.
The red numbers on the girl’s clock radio blinked and Titong thought of his friends back home. Probably they were at the pool hall, drinking San Miguel beer on ice during a mid-afternoon merienda. Perhaps his buddies were talking about Titong at this very moment, imagining all the luxuries of his new American life: private bedrooms, riding lawn mowers, swimming pools, brewed coffee, toilet paper soft as silk.
Titong had experienced those niceties in his son’s American dream home, but he felt he was a prisoner of winter. Until the weather warmed up in late March, the ice on the ground and the freeze in the air forced Titong indoors. When it was finally warm enough to venture outside, Titong spent an afternoon walking through Split Rock Estates, stopping in front of each giant home and studying it. Americans had small families–two parents and two children. Titong thought of his friends, who crowded into one and two bedroom apartments with their sons and daughters, their half dozen grandchildren, and the occasional spinster aunt or widowed uncle. He imagined the clans moving into these mansions and thought how happy that would make him to see their dark heads in the windows or smell adodo stew or fermented fish sauce belching from their front doors. If Titong’s friends were living here, these chemical green lawns and ornamental bushes would be replaced with rows of tomatoes, corn, and squash. When Titong encouraged his son to replace the daffodils along the fence with okra or bitter melon, his son laughed at him, “We can buy those at the market.”
On another warm day, Titong stepped outside as a yellow school bus pulled up to the corner. Out tumbled little American girls with backpacks that hung over their rears and boys with crew cuts and blue eyes. Titong waved at them, but the mothers, dumpy in their sweat suits and ponytails, hurried the children along. For almost a week, Titong stood outside to watch the bus empty of children. Then, he went on his walk around the cul de sac and made up stories about his friends. He had already decided: the blue house was Bien’s; the yellow one was Gerry’s; the tan house was Fred’s.
Later that week, Titong’s son took him aside and told him, “There have been complaints about you.”
“What?” Titong asked.
His son explained how a spokesperson from the neighborhood mothers had called his medical office about the “threatening Oriental man” who stared into their windows and waved to their children. Switching into English, his son complained, “I am a respected doctor. Don’t ruin this for me.”
Titong obeyed his son, but he hadn’t anticipated how lonely his new American life would be. His son and his daughter-in-law worked long hours at their medical clinic; his grandchildren were at school all day and shuffled off to piano lessons, dance class, and soccer in the afternoons. It was just Titong and his thoughts all day, trapped inside the house. He was allowed to smoke in the two-car garage as long as the automatic door was open. His son bought him cartons of menthols from the Duty Free. The second refrigerator in the garage stored spare gallons of milk while the produce drawer kept his cigarettes fresh. His son turned the second garage into a workshop, flush with power tools and different sizes of wood and Titong built things: bookshelves, nightstands, stools, chests of drawers. Every room in the house burst with his furniture and his son’s wife complained, “We can’t use these.” Titong asked if he could sell the furniture through a “lawn sale.” His son’s wife lowered her voice and whispered fiercely to her husband, “Don’t you dare. You’re a doctor for God’s sake.”
Titong carved wooden spoons and broom handles with his paring knife, items that wouldn’t take up a lot of space. For the first time in his life, Titong lost himself in the making of something without worrying about whether that thing would sell.
In his new American life, Titong drank strong brewed coffee and his feet sank deep into carpets, but he was miserable. Titong didn’t dare complain to his son, but every now and then, he couldn’t help playing the fantasy of squeezing his son’s neck until his head burst like a popped balloon.
The first morning after he arrived from the Philippines, his granddaughters had gathered around him at the kitchen table. Jade, the curious toddler; Mari, the sullen teenager; and Lala, the schoolgirl, were pawing through many pasalubongs, gifts from the islands. The girls shook the plastic packages of candies made from caribou milk or sugared tamarind or caramel. They sniffed the pastries–the empanadas of ground meat and potatoes, the sweet ensamada buns like snail shells spread with butter and cheese, the ear shaped cookies grainy with sugar.
“Why do you have watermelon seeds?” Lala said. Lala tossed the bag of salted black seeds from one hand to the other.
“To eat,” Mari said.
“But we throw watermelon seeds away. We stick them on our foreheads and name them after boys we like and the seed that stays on your head the longest is the one you’ll marry,” Lala said.
Mari said, “That’s dumb.”
Titong took the bag from Lala. He noticed she shared the same long fingers as his. He bit a hole in the plastic and fished out a seed. “Like this,” he said. He was ashamed to speak English. His F’s and P’s were mixed up; Titong would say “he” when he meant to say “she.”
Lala stared at him as he cracked one seed between his front teeth. He peeled the two black sides of the seeds down until the creamy seed peeked out. He pinched the bottom of the seed and held it to Lala’s lips. She scrunched her nose.
“Bite it already,” Mari said.
Lala stretched her lips away from her teeth and bit down delicately as if her teeth were a parrot’s beak. Titong felt her tongue on his fingertip.
Titong lined up perfectly cracked seeds on a napkin. The white of the seeds were prepared and ready to be eaten. He pushed the napkin to Lala. He watched her eat the seeds one by one with delight. Lala was at that moment in her childhood when she wasn’t conscious of her body. She had long limbs, smooth and brown, and she moved like a cat, rubbing her hands over anything that inspired her curiosity. She had a habit of resting her leg over a sofa arm or kitchen countertop and bending over to stretch the long muscles.
Lala made her body big in the world, not like Lala’s mother who was taller and wider, but had a way of pulling her shoulders together, or like Titong’s wife, who by the time of her death, had shrunk into herself, as if her hunched back could protect her from the pain of life.
Lala was at that special time in a girl’s life when she hadn’t yet learned how the world would hurt her. Titong was sure that Lala’s older sister, Mari, already growing breasts and hips, understood from the looks of men and the women that her almost woman’s body was not only hers anymore.
Jesus said: “It is far better to put your eye out than look at something that causes you to sin. If your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off. It is far better to lose a hand than lose eternal life in heaven.” The story he heard that Sunday in his son’s church was the same story priests told in Catholic churches all over the Philippines or Mexico or France. This particular story stayed with Titong throughout the year until he heard it again the next. Many times, when he was building something, maybe a bench or a stand in his workshop in the Philippines, or chopping lechon into bite size pieces for the diners at the sari-sari store, Titong would remember this lesson. He would hold the hatchet above his wrist or a carving knife against his palm and tell himself, “If your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off.” But he could never do it. He could never remove the part of him that was making him sin.
Titong remembered the man, a nipa hut builder, whom Titong knew in the barrio. The nipa hut builder had a minor stroke and after recovering, found that his left hand was possessed. He couldn’t make his left hand behave. He wanted to continue working after his stroke and build nipa huts, but while he was hammering a nail into a bamboo pole, his left hand tried to pull the hammer from his right hand. He would wake up choking in the middle of the night with the possessed hand clamped around his throat. When he tried to pick up a glass of water, his possessed hand would turn the glass over and spill the precious water to the floor.
The local healer, the hilot, gave the man a charm to wear and tried to massage the demon out of the arm, but the man’s possessed hand pinched the hilot on the nose so fiercely it almost came off. In defense, the hilot bit the hand as if it were a tough piece of meat, drawing blood, and only then did it let go. A famous physician in Manila, American trained, said the man had something called alien hand syndrome, a very rare neurological disease. There was nothing he could do for it.
The man got so frustrated with his alien hand that he would slap it and bite as if it was a mischievous child who would not behave. He couldn’t trust his hand around his building tools and grew depressed because he could not work. He tried to restrain his alien hand by tying leather belts around his torso and arm to keep his hand still against his side, but his alien hand always escaped. He begged his son to amputate his alien hand. The man couldn’t do it himself because he was afraid the alien hand would wrestle the knife out of the right hand out of self-preservation and try to kill him. Titong pitied the once productive man and when he walked by him in the barrio, Titong pretended not to see him.
It didn’t begin the way you think. At first, Titong only watched her, a distant and admiring observer. He didn’t touch her. Her bedcovers were always tangled in her ankles and her legs were exposed, her nightgown twisted above her panties. He read, “Monday” embroidered in red above her left thigh. Needles of hair poked through the fabric of the girl’s underwear. It was probably her first growth of hair. A person’s pubic hair could change many times in one’s lifetime. It might start out soft and fine like the first hair on a newborn’s head. Then, it might curl into tight ringlets and years later, start growing in straight. In the later years, it changed color. His hair was gray now. All of his wife’s body hair, including her eyebrows, her eyelashes, and the hair under her panties had fallen out from her cancer medicine before it had a chance to gray.
A man doesn’t blink his eyes awake and think, Today, I will be evil.
On the contrary, a thoughtful man, a wise old man, the kind of man Titong believed himself to be, understood that each morning brought him one day closer to the end. In those dark mornings when he awoke in the spare bedroom of his son’s American Dream house, Titong asked himself, “What pleasure can I squeeze from today?”
Titong wasn’t an important man, no one would be writing down his memoirs or passing his stories down from generation to generation. Like his parents and his grandparents and his great grandparents, all peasants and farmers, all traces of Titong’s life, except for the qualities of nearsightedness and hearts prone to attack after age 65 in his offspring, would disappear once he did.
Valentino Romero, Titong for short, was born in a barrio in the Philippines countryside seventy-two years ago. After the third grade, he quit school to help his father in the fields. Barely eighteen, he married, had approximately the same number of children as his parents–a dozen, give or take, and squeezed out every peso he could from each working hour so that his oldest son could go to school.
To pay for his oldest son’s high school tuition, he bought a tricycle with a cab on the side and rode passengers from the market to home. By the time his son went to college, Titong had invested in several more trikes and the younger children collected fares. His oldest son went to medical school on income from the small store that his wife started below their home. The sari-sari store sold single packets of Tylenol, cigarettes by the stick, two finger shots of Tanduay rum. When Titong bought the first black and white television in the neighborhood, he charged children admission to sit on the floor in the sala and watch Woody Woodpecker.
When his oldest son Antonio started receiving a small stipend from his medical internship, he paid for the nursing school tuition of the next oldest child, Dolores, a daughter. When Dolores the nurse began to earn, she paid the next child’s way. And so on. This family financial aid system was Titong’s greatest achievement.
And now, at last, he was reaping the benefits. Many of his children were heroes of the country, OFW’s, Overseas Filipino Workers, and served the world’s wealthy. With his wife long dead, he rotated through his children’s homes, living a month in Hong Kong, Saudi Arabia, Bermuda, or Canada–any place in the world where college educated English speakers were needed to change a diaper or carry a tray of food.
But when one son, the doctor Eduardo, settled in America, Titong decided this was it. No more rotating from house to house and flying all over the place. This is where Titong would stay until the end.
Sometimes, all a man can do is to listen to his body and what it wants. He wasn’t hurting anyone. He never intended to cause anyone pain. On the contrary.
When he remembered them now, those nameless girls and boys from his past now all grown up, he felt some pain and shame, but not enough to stop him from hovering beside his granddaughter’s bed. His hunger grew in him each night, filling his head with murky swirling water until he couldn’t sleep or find peace. Titong knew the only way to stop the anxiety was to go to his granddaughter. He would only watch the nightlight flicker under the door and press his cheek against the buttercup yellow wood. He would only push the unlocked door open an inch and smell the sweet warmth of the girl’s bedroom. He would only take his slippers off for a moment, just to feel the plush green carpet under his toes, and remember that afternoon when he walked by her door to find the girl reading a book, lying on her back, legs spread like a compass, and her feet against the yellow wall, making black marks. When she noticed him, she dropped her book and said, “I didn’t mean to.” She sat up, rubbing her footprints from the wall with her shirt. Titong looked away and waved his hand as if to say, “Your secret is safe with me.”
Every night he swore he wouldn’t go back, but each night he found himself unable to sleep. The metal mattress coils seemed to burn holes in his back. The ceiling above him threatened to sink into his face. His pulse was a loud clock ticking in his ears. He lay very still, realizing this is how he would lie in a coffin at the end of his life. The end of his life was closer to him now than it had ever been. With each day, he was moving towards death. Titong could forget this during the day. He could get lost in building shelves and coat racks, but at night he would remember that those things that he had made so well would outlast his body.
Titong imagined pangs of hunger and would stand in front of the refrigerator with the door open, unable to find anything appetizing. He would wander the house, eventually ending up in the girl’s room. He wasn’t harming anyone, he thought.
As the digital clock marked the minutes he was surprised to see so much time had passed. By now, his friends in the Philippines were leaving the bar and heading to their cramped apartments for dinner with their families.
Titong watched the girl’s eyelids flutter as if she were trying very hard to keep them closed. The girl was in the same position he had found her in when he entered her room. It was as if she were frozen in that shape, unable to move. She was sprawled open, one arm above her head as if she were catching a ball, black strings of hair caught under her neck and spread over the pillow as though it was seaweed washed ashore. His own daughters had never slept so provocatively. Because his daughters had slept in the same room as his sons, they made sure to wrap their sheets tightly around them and under their chins, even though the Manila heat was stifling. His daughters, once they reached a certain age, knew they should be modest or suffer the consequences of what a boy, even their own brother, might inflict without meaning to cause harm.
Titong’s eyes lingered on the girl’s calves, which were shaped as elegantly as the legs of a well-made table. She had breast buds forming on her chest and her eyes darted under delicate lids as though they were fish in a tank.
He stood and watched until the moonbeam moved across the room a few feet.
Titong couldn’t ever harm his granddaughter. She was his flesh and blood.
But suddenly, tonight, Titong was overcome by a desire to kiss her. He told himself that she was sleeping. And even if she wasn’t sleeping, night made everything different, unreal. What harm could he really inflict when the girl was floating inside the night’s protective shadows?
A man can only put together so many shelves and make so many nightstands before he must answer his needs.
Titong took a step towards the girl’s bed. He could feel the warmth radiating from her body. Under the cover of night, she would never know it had been his fingers in the soft spot along her thighs or his tongue tasting her lips.
Titong thought, She will only remember the faint sensation of a dog licking her knee in the thin memory of her dreams.
But Titong was wrong. Although no one bothered to publish an obituary once oblivion swallowed him; he would always be remembered by Lala. She could never forget him.