It’ll take you a long time to talk about martial law, and you’ll never talk about it with anyone who lived through it with you. But for now, you don’t go to the rallies, you don’t join the student protests; you go silent or change the subject when someone at your table in the canteen brings it up. The fear in you predates Marcos, predates dictatorships—at least, the ones that come in the shape of a single person. No one would ever mistake you for an intellectual or an aktibista; most of the time, you don’t even really understand what people are saying when they talk about the news. Reading written Tagalog has always been difficult for you, even though you’ve gotten more or less fluent with everyday speech. But things like old kundiman from the thirties and forties where half the words for love are words you’ve never heard in your life, or the complicated dialogue in some new movie where all the characters except for the yaya come from Manila, things like newspapers—they still send you into dizzy spells. So you stay away.
But there’s no staying away from this: dread’s in every pore, every breath, every blink. Martial law means curfew at nine o’clock, it means streets empty except for military jeeps, it means classes that once had fifty pupils are now classes that have forty-eight, maybe forty-six. You and your other nursing student friends at the University of Pangasinan stay together through it all, eating all your meals together in the canteen even though some girls have taken to eating alone in their dorm rooms, sometimes playing music if they have a record player, Bread’s “Make It with You” crooning all the way down the dorm corridor. In the canteen, there are some girls who just start weeping into their plates, right there in front of everyone; maybe because one of their relatives has been taken, maybe just from the fear alone, stretching all of you wire-taut. Sometimes you’re one of the weeping girls—but you never weep in public; you do it only in your own bed, face smashed into the pillow so the tears absorb right back into the skin, the puffiness of your face in the morning the only sign of your labors. No one knows if you’ll even graduate, if there will even be a university left when this is all over, if it’ll ever be over. Then, a year into martial law, you hear about your cousin Tato. You and Tato both attend UP but you rarely see each other; the last you heard he was studying political science or law. It’s your mother who tells you that one evening, when he’d come back to Mangaldan to visit his parents for the weekend, Tato disappeared. Auntie Bobette had been outside with a basket of kangkong, plucking the leaves off the long stems, planning to make monggo for dinner once Tato was back from drinking with his friends. By the time the food had long gone cold, by the time they were eating its leftovers for breakfast and then lunch, Tato still hadn’t come back. A week later, Uncle David disappeared, too. That was how Auntie Bobette knew Tato hadn’t just gone underground with the aktibista friends he’d made at school, that lesser maternal grief of the period. If her husband was gone, too, something else must have happened.
Your mother tells you that a few months later, men from the military came to Auntie Bobette’s house in Mangaldan, parking their jeeps in the dika grass and frightening the goats into bleating. They knocked on the door, and when she opened it, they said they were there to inform her that they were willing to pay her for the death of her husband, as befitting the surviving family of a deceased military officer.
Auntie Bobette didn’t ask what they meant, didn’t ask why they were offering to compensate a death no one had even confirmed yet. She only said, And what about my son, Tato.
They didn’t acknowledge her words, or even flinch at Tato’s name, only repeating that they were willing to pay for the death of her husband. They spoke as if reciting a speech they had memorized. Bobette said, in Pangasinan, replying to an answer they hadn’t given: So they’re both dead.
She directed her words at the soldier who had been doing most of the talking, a Pangasinense commanding officer not that much older than Bobette. He’d probably known her husband well, drunk Diplomatico rum with him at the carinderia down the street; they’d lit each other’s cigarettes, judged the beauty of each other’s mistresses. Once again the officer said to Auntie Bobette, not in Pangasinan but in a mixture of Tagalog and English: We are ready to compensate you, as a military widow, for the death of your husband.
“But there’s no staying away from this: dread’s in every pore, every breath, every blink.”
And Auntie Bobette replied, with the blazing calm of a seraph: I don’t want money. If you’re saying they’re dead, then you give me the bodies.
When your mother told you this story, you were terrified of the next part—of what might have happened to Auntie Bobette, at the mercy of four or five soldiers. You thought maybe your mother, who had never been in the habit of calling you regularly at school and had never even visited your dorms, was about to tell you of one more death. But instead your mother told you that the frustrated officers just turned around, got back in their jeeps, and left. Nothing else. For years, Auntie Bobette waited for one more knock on the door, for it to be her husband’s or her son’s face she finally opened to, either gaunt and gulping at life, or bloated and ragged in death, left at her front door as a final courtesy. Or for it to be the military again, come to extinguish the last of the last flames. But it never came; it never was.
A month or so after you hear about Tato from your mother, you meet Auntie Bobette on campus, after she’s done finally collecting Tato’s things from his former dorm mates, who’d kept his belongings safe even when the school had already given away his room to new students. You ask how she is, sounding inane even to yourself, but you can’t find the words to speak about Tato or Uncle David. Auntie Bobette seems to understand that, because she only shifts the weight of the bulging duffel bag she’s carrying, full of her son’s clothes, books. She refuses when you offer to carry the bag, refuses when you offer to accompany her to the bus depot. She just touches your arm and says, Asicasom so laman mo.
All of your classes at school are taught in English, and even though most of your friends at UP are Pangasinense like you, most of the time you all end up speaking to each other in some mixture of Tagalog and English, imitating the poppy Taglish of teleseryes and radio programs. So you can’t remember the last time someone told you to take care of yourself in your own language.
When your mother told you the story, she never told it in a way that made it clear whether or not Tato and his father were dead. She knew, and didn’t know. You didn’t ask. You knew, and didn’t know, too.
Shortly after Tato disappears, you’ll meet the man who’ll become your husband and the father of your first and only daughter, the man whose ancestral family home stands at the center of Vigan, up north in Ilocos Sur, one of the old colonial homes that used to belong to Spanish officials or Chinese merchants; his family descends from both, but mostly from the latter. He’s an orthopedic surgeon, and he teaches and practices at Nazareth Hospital, the first place you work as a student nurse. People say that he’s only recently come back to the Philippines after having lived in Jakarta for ten years.
It’s hate at first sight. He’s one of these mayaman jet-setters who’ve been all over the world and who speak the English of commercials and foreign movies, the English of Asian kings played by white actors. Even the silence around him is regal; you can’t stand that silence. People say that he’s recently divorced, that he found his first wife, the cousin of Marcos, in bed with another man. You see him sometimes on his rounds, and he has a different nurse hanging on his arm every afternoon, a different girl in the passenger seat of his dark orange Fiat every evening. He’s a notorious babaero, the Don Juan of the hospital, and most of the nurses flutter when he so much as enters the room. Yet his reputation never veers toward the sordid. This, you discover, is less because of his wealth and the weight of his name, and more because of the fact that every woman who sleeps with him agrees that he’s a champion at eating women out. This is what differentiates Doctor De Vera from your run-of-the-mill babaero, they say. The man loves to make women come. He doesn’t just rabbit-rabbit-rabbit and then tapos na, they giggle to each other, while you jab a straw into a Coke bottle.
One day you’re assigned to do your rounds with him as a supervisor. He looks you up and down and you know that if you let this happen, you’ll be next.
You’re not going to let it happen. You’re going to get the rounds over with, even with your skin gone all strange and prickly, the tiniest hairs on your body alive, alight. In the middle of the rounds, you realize that in your haste to finish you’ve advanced several steps ahead of him. You turn around. He’s paused in the middle of the corridor, looking at you, amused.
You walk very fast, he says. He says it in English.
You flush. Standing there smiling, you think he looks like a darker-skinned Rogelio de la Rosa, pomaded hair and all, and before you keep on thinking up stupid things like that, you turn away from him, fast. But it’s too late. He’s seen your face; he knows he’s made you blush. Now you definitely have to avoid him.
But he doesn’t chase you, the way you think he will, the way you expect men like him to. He’s just—present. He’s around with all the answers when you need advice about a patient’s sepsis, he’s opening the entrance door to the hospital for you in the morning when you’re yawning and too unguarded to remember not to thank him, he’s in the break room debating favorite desserts with other nurses when you’ve slipped in looking for a place to take a nap. What’s your favorite, he’s asking Evelyn, a young nurse. She replies, Brazo de Mercedes.
Brazo de Evelyn, he quips, and she titters, along with two other nurses nearby, hanging around the edges of the flirtation in the hope of getting in on it themselves.
You roll your eyes and turn around to leave. Pacita, he calls.
What’s your favorite dessert?
You think about ignoring him, the way you should have ignored him when he opened the door that morning, the way you should have ignored him when he made the comment about how fast you walked. You didn’t even realize at the time that he must have liked it because he’d gotten the chance to stare at your wiggling ass. Only later did you think about it, in bed, hot all over with fury and something that wasn’t fury.
You should ignore him, but instead, you turn around and declare, in a voice so hard it sounds like you’re delivering an insult: Tupig. One of the other nurses, Floribeth, starts laughing. Native cakes pala! she says. You can buy that on the side of the road anywhere.
Yes, you retort. Isn’t that great?
You turn around to leave, proud that you haven’t blushed at all, proud that you’ll be getting the last word, proud to leave Don Juan and his admirers in your wake. But just before you turn your back, you see that Doctor De Vera has gone still, stricken.
Years later, when you’re married, he’ll tell you that tupig was the favorite dessert of both his older brother Melchior and his late mother. When they don’t sell it at the small Filipino grocery store in the California town you’ll live in together, you’ll try to learn how to make it without ever telling him—and then, when all your attempts turn out disastrously, you’ll give up, also without ever telling him. But you don’t know any of that yet. So right now, you just finish turning around and leaving.
“You’ve been foreign all your life. When you finally leave, all you’re hoping for is a more bearable kind of foreignness.”
Still, no matter how much you try to avoid Doctor De Vera—in your head, you address him only as the babaero; it helps you to distance yourself—he’s everywhere. And maybe it’s just your imagination, but it feels like he’s looking back at you, too. Even when he’s meeting another date in front of the hospital—a young woman who everyone whispers is the daughter of some CEO, of some company you’ve never heard of—it’s you that he’s looking back at, as he slips into the driver’s seat. It annoys you, because you see through it; it annoys you, because you’re meant to see through it. He’s not hiding the fact that he’s looking at you, and he’s not hiding the fact that he sees you looking back.
The fact that he’s a babaero isn’t really the problem. It’s not just the celebrity, or that his first wife was Marcos’s cousin, or that he’s a De Vera of the De Veras of Vigan, or that he’s a champion at, at, at—cunnilingus. The problem starts with the fact that he’s good at what he does. If reports are to be believed, he’s the best orthopedic surgeon on the island of Luzon. You’ve assisted him in the operating room more than once, and while he never loses the louche grace in his limbs—he and his anesthesiologist are known for singing kundiman during their procedures, so that you’ve become used to the sound of someone belting out Dahil Sa Iyo beneath the deafening keen of a saw juddering through a femur—there’s an expression on his face, a posture in his body, which you only ever see there. In that space. Each gesture has a calm, deliberate economy, so that even the air pressure around him seems to change, like someone descending into a mine shaft. No, it’s not calm; it’s self-possession. Even in a cavern, he owns himself. So that’s what it looks like.
The part that really gets to you, the part that gets to your quietest of parts, is the part about polio: you learn that his specialty is children with polio, that this was what he was doing in Indonesia, opening rehabilitation clinics in rural areas. It was becoming less common as you were growing up, but you still remember some kids with polio around Mangaldan and Mapandan, among the families living even farther out into the rice fields, past the bangus farms. Still, still, still—you’re not going to let yourself be seduced by him, by the myths that cling to his shoulders: cosmopolitan Don Juan, pussy-eater extraordinaire, savior of children—it’s all so ridiculous. It is ridiculous, but not for reasons you know yet. You don’t know yet about his brother, about his mother, about the beloved niece of his, also named after his mother, who joined the New People’s Army in college and who he long assumed was dead; you don’t know that he’s going to ask to name your first child together after that niece; you don’t know that you’re going to say yes the minute you see the wrecked look on his face when he asks; you don’t know that when your daughter is around five years old he’s going to learn that this niece is still alive, that she’s survived two years in a prison camp, that she needs help, money, and most of all a place to live; you don’t know yet that this place will be your home in California. Most of all, you don’t know yet that he’ll be utterly undone by his own life, that he’ll lose everything he has now, that no one who flirts with him and courts his favor in this era will remember him in twenty years, that not even the aura around his name will survive except as a source of fatigued pride, passed down to your daughter, who won’t fully grasp the context or the importance of that name when she says she’s proud to be a De Vera, parroting his words without knowing their meaning. You don’t know yet that when he’s an old man, marbled with lymphoma, one night while you’re asleep next to him he’s going to remove the oxygen mask keeping him alive, and that afterward, instead of burning his body and scattering the ashes over the rice fields in Ilocos Sur as per his final wishes, you’ll put him in a box in Northern California, ten minutes from the veterans’ hospital where you’ll work sixteen-hour days, so at least you can visit his grave on your lunch break. You tell his ghost, I can’t go to Ilocos Sur on my lunch break.
You don’t know yet that you’re going to love him, and that you won’t be able to differentiate this love for him from your devouring hunger to be recognized. It’s not that you’re imagining that he’d whisk you away to his mansion in Dagupan City or Vigan or Manila and you’d live happily ever after. You’ve got a happily-ever-after in mind, and it doesn’t have anything to do with being anybody’s nobya. For that matter, it doesn’t have anything to do with Dagupan City or Vigan or Manila at all, or anywhere else in this country. You already know that the first thing that makes you foreign to a place is to be born poor in it; you don’t need to emigrate to America to feel what you already felt when you were ten, looking up at the rickety concrete roof above your head and knowing that one more bad typhoon would bring it down to crush your bones and the bones of all your siblings sleeping next to you; or selling fruit by the side of the road while people had their drivers idle their cars to buy a couple of mangoes from you, making sure never to really look at you, making sure not to touch your hand when they put the money in it. You’ve been foreign all your life. When you finally leave, all you’re hoping for is a more bearable kind of foreignness.
But while you’re still here, warming yourself in the glow of someone like the babaero, you’re just. Curious. You just want to know what it’s like to be wanted by someone like that. Most of all, you want to know what it’s like to get it, and not need it. Most of the time, you need things you never get; you get things no one would ever want.
But getting something you want, that you don’t really need? Getting something that’s just about feeding that half-sewn-up second mouth inside you, unfed and lonely, cramped somewhere between your heart and your gut? You’ve never had that before. You’ve never had it, but you want to feel worthy of it, like the woman in the hair-dye ad you’ve been seeing around recently. You want to feel like it’s because you’re worth it.
If you had a girlfriend who was telling you this story, you’d cluck your tongue, tell her to throw the guy into the trash. You’d tell her to forget his name, to practice her English and pack her bags. But it’s not a girlfriend telling you this story.
From America Is Not the Heart. Used with permission of Viking. Copyright © 2018 by Elaine Castillo.