Fall in love with the wrong girl. Let your mama find out when she follows you to the whorehouse along the tourist belt. Let her know where you spend your hard-earned pesos: half of it you’ve earned lifting cemented block after block at the construction site of Imelda’s new movie theatre, the other half is stolen from your mother’s secret mahjong stash that’s in the third drawer underneath her panties. She thought you and your brothers would never find it. Let your mama meet the future mother of your children in that whorehouse. Let the rage ensue down a long corridor of doors with women in frilly, white gowns behind them. Let your mama knock on each them. Let her rage a storm. Meth! Shabú! Drugs! Women! All from the province! Don’t you know, child, they’re all like me? Let the bodyguard laugh: he will enjoy your mother and her spitfire.
This is where it will begin. The leaving.
Tell the mother of your future child to wait for you. Let her believe in your every word. Tell her as you make love in a dimly lit room in Malate, as you both lie on a bamboo mat, as you push against each other, giving all you could offer, all you both could lose. Tell her everything she wants, everything you want to believe in, too:
Até Gloria left. She eloped with the U.S. sailor. Your old client. Don’t give me that face, mahal. He fell in love with her and she’s told mama she already has her green card! Think about it: America! I’ll take you there, I promise. Just wait for me. Once Até Gloria petitions me, I’ll take you there too. Imagine: a big house, maybe it’s blue, maybe it’s yellow, and kids! Lots and lots of kids! I promise, mahal, I promise.
You were always good at giving promises you couldn’t keep.
The walls will come down. The walls she’s built against the world as a sex worker. The walls she took down for you and your charm: you never make sense. It’s your puppy-dog eyes, that smile with the suave haircut. Guapo naman, paré, you’re a good-looking mestizo kid. Marry her at the busy courthouse of Malate, in a building with bullet-peppered walls and holes in the ceiling where the sunlight rushes in. Say your vows in secret. Kiss her with everything within. Let yourself believe your lies.
You know your sister will never petition you.
Not after she told you to stop seeing that whore.
Not after you yelled back: aren’t you a whore too?
Not after your mother kicked you out of the house for good. Especially not after what you saw. Not after you shamed your sister: barging in while she was working. Sex with two American clients. And for what: to ask the American and see if he was really marrying your sister—to see if you would really make it to America. It led to your beating, it led to you skipping work for weeks with a broken arm, you couldn’t lift a thing.
You came to America another way. A harder way. All because you were so hopeful.
Your sister forces you to take another job after you’ve healed. As compensation. A way to pay for your mama’s, your papa’s, your brothers’, and your other sisters’ ticket to America: Bahrain. To do what you do best: lift things. Sweat. In the heat. The sweltering, unrelenting heat. In another desert across the world. Become an overseas worker. Leave your familia. Leave your mahal, your lover, your woman with the long black hair, slicked in a ponytail, her red lips full and forgiving. Leave your Manila, the city that smells of sulfur and fish-ball carts and garlic and smoke and vinegar. Leave your gambling mother and alcoholic father. You learned all your womanizing tricks from him. You learned all your hopes from her. Leave your ten brothers and two sisters, all older than you, all disappointed, all surprised at your willingness to leave. Leave for your hopes, paré, leave for the good life. Your Até Gloria won’t give to you: so go get it, then. Leave. Come back a rich man. Prove your sister wrong. Prove your sister you’re worthy of something. Prove to her you had good intentions. Prove to her you’re a good man.
She’ll tell you you’re lucky. That she got you this job. That her U.S. sailor lover knew a guy who knew another guy, an Arab guy, a guy who’ll take your passport once you’d arrive, a guy who’ll beat you in another dimly lit room across the world. But she’ll tell you you’re lucky: if you had stayed, worked on Imelda’s wonderful, shiny theatre, you would’ve died.
Look, bunso, look at all the men who were buried in Imelda’s walls. Look how I cared for you. Look how I looked out for you. Look how I knew what would happen. Dios ko, God knows my heart. I only wanted what was best for you, bunso. I promise.
The heat will try to kill you. The land will smell of sweat and sand and spices and women you’ve never smelled, touched, or felt. You will fly across the seas and land in a country surrounded by men as dark as you, as angry as you, as confused as you, but they will look at you like the savage you are: desperate. Poor. In need of money. In need to take care of people you love.
First, you’ll land in Saudi Arabia. There, they will accost you, search you, take everything of value from you, find anything in your pockets, hidden between you armpits, your legs, and even your ass. They will find nothing. But there’s a cross necklace you have, that cross necklace made of gold and diamonds, the one your mahal gave you before you left, before you broke her heart, before you took her by the arms, the legs, and gave her a seed that would plant the inevitable end. That cross necklace: it’s your god. It’s in your bag. Underneath the shirts, the pants, tied up in your underwear. They search your ass but they don’t search there: Dios ko, you say, thank God, almighty, holy be thy name. You whisper seven Hail Mary’s, seven Lord’s Prayers. Make sure they don’t hear you. Or they will search you again, brown hands on brown hands. Don’t close your eyes. Pray as you walk. Pray as you saunter through immigration, through an airport crowded with men in white robes, headscarves, and women swallowed in black. You don’t understand their language. All you hear is a wall of different sounds, guttural sounds, beautiful, melodic sounds that don’t make up the high school English in your head or the spitfire Tagalog of your soul. You miss your woman, your mahal. You miss, in general, looking at women, women you like, in a city that was yours. Your mind shoots to the image of black-haired, cinnamon skinned goddesses lining the streets with short skirts and loud demands. Your women: they’re just like your mother, but younger. Opinionated, sad, angry.
But here, in this country of dry heat and sand, you’re alone.
You take a small boat to tiny country surrounded by the bluest waters. Bluer than the water back home. The sea will be just as salty, just as rough. The island across the way looks like home: buildings being built, buildings unfinished, buildings wanting to touch the sky but they’re hallow, skeletal, metal, and confined. The island is as loud as home: there are cars honking, roaring, men laughing in robes and wearing red headscarves. Sometimes there will be women, few women, walking beside them. They are covered in black too, but you see their faces: beautiful. Wide eyes. Calm faces. Long eyebrows. Delicate features, delicate noses, delicate smiles. They will rarely smile, especially at you. Do you miss your woman yet? Your women? Your queridas?
You will be taken to a damp building made of beige clay, one that smells of sweat and blood mixed with sand.
You will receive letters from home, only once a week. You will read letters from your mahal, all urgent, all pained, all sad. They will tell you of a baby swelling in her womb. They will give you the hope to move on: you have a child, you think, anak ko—you must live. You must live to see your baby’s cry. You will receive letters from your sister. Até Gloria will tell you how glorious America is. How the air is fresh and moist and the trees are palms just like home, the food smells of vinegar and soy sauce, just like home, and the money: they’re receiving it, week by week, paycheck by paycheck. The Arab men are honest men, she will write. Too bad you can’t learn a thing or two from them, Até Gloria will say. Bunso, oh youngest brother: I hope you learn to never step in a place you’re not welcomed. You will write back: Yes, Até. The Arab men are honest. They are hardworking and honest. They have taught me much. Please, you will plead, please bring me home soon. I have learned my lesson, you’ll write. I miss familia.
On days of longing, you will hear a melodic voice ringing on speakers, calling you to prayer. You will hear this morning, afternoon, and night, five times a day, every day. Every day is a day of longing. You will hear men speak of the salah. You will see them bow and pray, place their touching hands on the rug, lift their legs, stand, and fall in front of god again and again. You will not join. But you will cry. Their god reminds you of yours. Their god will bring you hope, their voices together, chanting, wavering, still. You will clasp your gold cross necklace in your pocket. You will clasp tighter and tighter, and as soon as you get use to it, to living here, to breathing in the driest heat, they will take your red passport, they will say: work.
Work. You will work every hour, day, night, every minute, every waking minute, every moment until you collapse. You will wear a blue suit, no helmet, boots you’ve brought from home, and you will lift, lift, and lift until you can’t anymore, until they whip you, until the words that once sang prayer switches to waves of anger, waves of burning, waves of whipping. You will work in the dry heat, where the wind cuts your skin, where the sands fill your lungs. You will work without food, without sleep, until the sweat becomes blood, until you’ve had enough and you hide, hide underneath a concrete beam in the corner of the building’s skeletal structure: you are small. You are tiny. You can fit anywhere unwelcomed. When the sun sets and the night is dark and blue, you come out from your hiding place and walk to the building they force you to sleep in without beds, without toilets, without water, a crowded room smelling of sweat, pain, and filled of other men like you.
You steal from the bodyguard; you steal the Arab man’s wallet when he’s asleep.
You steal back your passport. And you run.
You run though the streets. You run from the honking cars. You run pass the blinking lights, the signs painted with curved letters and faces of men with beards, the crowds of people clothed in white and black. You run to the end of the city, across the roads, through the late-night souqs, the rows of shops, the columns of tables filled with mounds of spices. You run through the pathways, the doorways to jewelry stores, the noises and clashes and howls and feet chasing you until you find, miraculously, under a limelight, a storefront with Tagalog words printed across the door and windows. You find a building that smells of home, that houses a sea of women who look and move and smile like you.
You talk to one of them. Her name is Denise. She is Filipina Americana. She is U.S. citizen. She is not as pretty as your mahal, not as lovely, not as petite, not as light-skinned, not as slender, but she finds you. Hides you in her room. Tells you she’s a flight attendant, that she travels the world for a cheap airline that pays decent money, a job just for now, na. But it doesn’t pay enough, she says, not enough for my dying mama and papa. Out the window, she points to the other women. She continues: They’re hookers. You think: just like your mahal.
It’s a secret love hotel, she explains, just for travelers with money, for Saudi men who like pinay girls. I’ve made some extra cash here, she says. She looks down, ashamed, and you lift her chin: I understand, you say, I understand.
She gives you food. She gives you rice. She gives you adobo, she smells of it: garlic and vinegar and chicken bones.
I’m leaving to America soon, she says. I can take you with me. I can help you, she says. Just call your sister. Tell her you’re weak, that they don’t feed you here, oh dear. Look at you! You’re so sick. She’ll pay for you to come home. I know she will. She’s familia, isn’t she? And if not, I will. I’ll give you a cheap ticket, she says and then switches back to the language you love: Or put you in a balikbayan box! I’ll help you, kababayan, don’t worry. Look at you, paré. So alone and lost!
It’s your puppy-dog eyes; it’s your charm. It’s your weaknesses, it’s your willingness to admit them, it’s your way of making women laugh. She laughs at your jokes, cries at your admission of sadness, your want of a better life. It’s your innocence, paré. Your loneliness. Your need to speak Tagalog. It opens the heart, it lets the hope, the pain, the desire rush in.
And here, this is another leaving. Your bodies will enter another. Your lips will intersect, lap into the other. You will marry this girl, too. This one you don’t love. This one you will use. This one who will birth you a son; your mahal will birth you two girls instead. But this one, once you get to America, she will teach you how to make a home of wreckage. You’ll propose with a stolen ring from your sister. You’ll live under your sister’s tyranny, in her house with the U.S. white sailor, until Denise says yes. You’ll move out. You’ll marry again in secret, in another courthouse across the world, one with no bullet-peppered walls and holes in the ceiling. You won’t mean a thing in your vows.
Days after, you’ll confess to Denise about your mahal, your marriage in Manila, the baby you’ve had with her. She’ll rage, just like your mother. You were always good at finding women just like your mother. She’ll throw at you a sea of pots and pans. She’ll beat her chest: just like your mother. You’ll apologize, you’ll smile, you’ll laugh, you’ll hold her hand, you’ll kiss her, kiss her good: just like your father. You’ll ask her to petition your mahal, you have to, Denise, you say, what about my anak ko? My child? I have to meet her. She’s my goodness to keep. I’m a good man, I keep my promises, you’ll say. You’ll try to smile. Your charming smile.
This is the leaving. The beginning of familia. The breaking of it.
Two women, paré, you thought you could pull it off? You did. You really did. You always were so hopeful.