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If he couldn’t sleep, I would hear the karaoke machine turn on, the beat of a ballad playing, his voice streaming out of the doorframe’s slits.
I know what would happen if I walk to my father’s door, knock, and show him this picture. Ask him: What happened? He’d shrug and snap at me for waking him up. He’d close his eyes and stay silent. Tight-lipped. Struggle to breathe. Tell me there are things we can’t talk about in Filipino families. He’ll close up, kick me out of his room, and shut the door. If he couldn’t sleep, I would hear the karaoke machine turn on, the beat of a ballad playing, his voice streaming out of the doorframe’s slits. The house would be this mixture of silence and love songs till the sun rose, and even then, as I would cook his favorite breakfast, as the smell and smoke of frying Spam-and-eggs would crowd the hallways and rooms, he’d stay angry, moody, silent. It’s his way of moving on.
The silences. That’s what I have never forgotten: the way my father collapses when he confides these stories to me. When he denies it. When he tells me he’s making it up. So I piece things together, these tales that become my nightmares. My father’s old now, graying and becoming smaller, his back hunches, he’s got arthritis and gout, and he tells me the joints are killing him. We’re at the breakfast table. I didn’t wake him up and ask about the picture, so he’s in a jolly mood. He opens his shirt and reveals the elongated cross scar on his chest.
He points to it: Remember this, anak? My woman heart?
He always jokes about his new heart that saved him. Transplants can’t receive hearts from the opposite gender. The valves have to fit perfectly.
But he laughs: I got a heart transplant because of my addiction. I’m sensitive about it: my woman heart! I don’t like to talk about it either, child. It’s in the past. Just don’t follow my footsteps, di ba? You don’t want another person’s heart beating in your ribs. It makes it too hard, anak. To forget. Not good at all.
Dolores, he continues. You’re twenty-six now and you’ve finally returned home. The same age your mother left, ay naku! Married off at twenty-two to that sailor, too! What is he, a nuclear machinist mate? What’s that? An engineer? Maybe you’re smarter than your mother—actually married someone with a good-paying job. Your husband, he’s deployed now, yes? Where is he, the Arabian Sea?
I nod my head. Play around with my food. Crack the yoke open. I pull my hair back and tie it in a bun—I’m not used to the dry LA heat any longer. I smile, hold my dad’s hand, and he grabs back: I’m back home to confess the dreams I’ve been having. Because I couldn’t handle them when I was alone in my quiet, southern apartment, where the wind howled and the rains fell and the image of my drowning mother accosted me every night. After years of taking care of my dad from afar, sending him monthly checks, paying his bills, rent, managing his mother’s funeral—my lola, she was the one who raised me—I’ve come home to finally get the truth out of him, to make the night terrors stop.
Dad, I had said on the phone before I came, would you mind? If I lived with you for a few months?
My sister Louise had moved to Las Vegas with her family and kids—he still sees them often, drives the four hours to see the children. My half-brother Ben moved from my father’s house the day I had left—when I was twenty-two, eloped, and bright-eyed, willing to do anything to escape my father’s poverty. My brother followed suit. Left at twenty and rarely called.
Of course, anak! How I’ve missed you. Oh, did you hear my new joke? You know how to make a room filled of Pinoys say shit?
How? I smiled, pulling my phone closer to my ear.
We laughed. He continued: So, I can cook for you and tell you stories. Keep your lonely heart at bay until your husband returns. How about that, huh?
I don’t have the heart to tell my father I might leave my husband for good.
The bits and pieces that my father has told me over the years amount to this: a fractured distilling of something he’s lost. Maybe it’s his manhood, or his shame, or his women, the queridas, but it was never his charm or laugh that fills the room with memory. I tease these stories out of him after he drinks several Coronas, even if it’s early in the morning, or after I hand him black-and-white photos of Auntie Gloria and her sailor husband, photos that aren’t of my mother and him. Photos that aren’t interrogating.
It’s this white uncle who took my aunt and eight uncles to America.
My father brings up another half-truth: my uncle is the same man who helped an American GI beat him to a pulp. The man who haunts my dreams.
The swaying calamansi and mango trees are uprooted, the front grass is dry and brown. But inside, everything remains.
But because of your uncle, anak, I’m American, my father says. But, you know, the way I met him, well. When the bad happens, you go with the good, and when you’re over the bad, anak, you’re good with the good. All I want is goodness. He smiles.
I laugh. It’s his charm: he never makes sense.
So, your heart, I ask. Are you sure it’s a woman’s?
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