Outside #01-239, the post office in Lucky Plaza, they leer at her, and she wonders what the three of them are doing there. Don’t Bangladeshi workers belong in Little India? Still, she appreciates their dripping smiles, thumbs hooked in the pockets of their pants, hips thrust forward. She knows what it means to be hungry.
She has grown fat in this country. Life must be good for you there, say her relatives in Ilocano, pinching her fleshy arms and her pockets when she returns home every other year. The man she calls her husband has squandered her youth and her earnings, sent faithfully par avion every month for the last six years. This is for a taxi-car, so you can start earning for yourself, too. He bought a new stereo and threw karaoke parties for his friends. This is for the house—maybe we can build an extra room and rent it out. He lost most of it playing mah-jongg, his sister finally confessed, the rest he spent on beer and cigarettes. Lately he’s been staying out late at night; watching soccer with his friends. Now he only calls once a week, to save her money. Last week the sister said she thought she saw him with a woman.
She is only in her mid-twenties but she no longer knows if she is attractive. Her days are spent with an eighty-nine-year-old man, feeding him porridge with thinly diced preserved vegetables, wiping up the drool that collects in the crevices of his face, sponging his leathery raisin body before it shrivels any more in the heat. She cleans his penis gently with soap and water, then pats it down with Johnson’s baby powder. She has never been so familiar with a man’s body before; sometimes she thinks she knows him better than his daughters do. She hopes she will be there for her own father when the time comes.
After a quick glance in the glass door of the post office, she runs a hand through her curls and flashes a smile at the men. One of them, she notices, almost looks like a Bollywood star, if not for the pockmarks on his face. She holds his gaze for a few seconds before brushing her hair away from her neck. The Bollywood star leans back to say something to the other two men. They laugh. One of them punches him on the shoulder and then, after giving her the once-over again and licking their lips, the friends clear off. She pretends not to notice, turning to face the postage prices posted on the door before bending down to adjust the strap of her heel, her miniskirt riding up a little higher. He comes so close to her that they brush against each other as she straightens up. They laugh hesitantly, momentarily embarrassed. He places a muscular hand on her waist to steady her, and whispers in her ear.
As he presses against her under the stairs, his fingers fumbling urgently with her bra, she asks him, teasing, Do you and your friends come here often to look for Filipinas? He grins and says in lilting English, Our construction site is nearby.
Afterwards, the shirts on their backs soaked with perspiration, they share a mango lassi.
Three o’clock in the afternoon. She almost drops the towel wrapped around her breasts when she unexpectedly hears the door. He bursts in, a surprise guest in his own house, his pale face flushed from being in the sun. Hello, he replies to her startled face, I took half a day off today. I need a break from work so badly.
Yes, Sir, she mumbles, then ducks into her room to dress. But not before he can trace the line of her collarbone with his eyes.
An hour later she brings the freshly-ironed laundry into the master bedroom, placing the pantsuits and skirt suits into the IKEA-organized closet as quietly as she can, trying not to wake him. But when she turns to leave, she sees that he has been awake for a while. Has he been watching her? Come here, he says with a smile, tell me, is everything okay back home?
So nice that he always asks, she thinks, if only his wife were just as kind. He gestures for her to sit on the bed and she does, teetering tentatively on the edge. She tells him that her father is ill, coughing again because he smokes too many cigarettes, but other than that the rest of the family is fine, her younger sister getting married soon to a factory worker, her elder sister in Hong Kong doing well, her two brothers living off the money their new wives send home from abroad, so she thinks maybe she can finally start saving for a small business, a grocery store or something. Then suddenly she finds his hand in her lap, resting quietly on her thigh like a limp white handkerchief.
She is not surprised; for the past six months she has seen the signs. The wife on the phone in the middle of the night, the sound of the sobs keeping her from sleep. Some nights, being waken up by the slam of the bedroom door, peering out to see Sir making a disgruntled bed on the couch. Sir and M’am start to have breakfast separately, tiptoe around each other in the evening, one in the study on the computer, the other on the phone in the bedroom, watching TV. Even a four-room condominium can become a maze, a land of hide-and-no-seek. Last month he bought a sofa bed and put it in the study.
When he shifts his weight onto her she gazes at his hairy chest and thinks about her cousin who married an American man and now lives in California. Mrs. Donald Aubrey, she says to herself, the name lingering on her lips. Mrs. Donald Aubrey.
That night, she makes a bitter gourd dish for the real Mrs. Donald Aubrey, who gobbles it down without thinking twice.
From + 96654249183 to +639192434397
Sent 06/07/2003, 4:59 p.m., Dubai:
Dearest Mami, I miss your breasts and your smelly little pikpik. Please call me soon, I need to hear your voice. Love, Papi.
9:15 p.m. in Singapore. She cannot help but giggle when she receives the message, even though she is pretending to be asleep. But she is truly, truly, tired. She doesn’t think she can take another Can I have a Milo, Aunty? Can you help me finish my art class project? Can you wash the car tomorrow morning? Can you take Ah Ma to the temple? even though the family is good to her. No. Not for tonight. At midnight it will be their ninth anniversary, a relationship that has spanned almost a decade and three countries, consummated once every two years or so. They are not as lucky as the Cowherd and Weaver.
She wonders if she will have enough money to go home this December, even though it will be a busy period for the hospitals in Dubai with the rainy season coming on. At least she will get to see their son, who is already five. He called her “Aunty” when she took him into her arms last year and she cried. Her mother said, Never mind, he’ll understand when he starts going to school. She wonders what he will grow up to be. The day before her mother called to say that he sang along to the chorus of “Top Of The World” on their karaoke machine. Maybe he will become a pop star and take her to America with him.
Lighting streaks across the sky and the clouds rumble. The Cowherd and Weaver are crying. She dozes off to the pitter patter of the mid-year monsoon, her fingers still wrapped around her hand phone.
She dreams of Papi. He is wearing his nurse’s uniform and he is leading a camel in the desert to an oasis. She is lying naked in the water, her long hair strewn across the sand, an olive in her mouth. Papi takes his clothes off and climbs into the water while the camel drinks. He sucks her nipples gently and she arches against him, but when she opens her eyes he is Jesus Christ and he is bleeding all over her body. The water turns red but the camel keeps drinking. Then something is buzzing in her hand. Something is buzzing and buzzing and buzzing.
She snaps awake to find her handphone vibrating. Papi, it says on the screen, Answer or Reject. She presses Yes, and puts the phone to her ear. Hello my darling-darling, it says in Tagalog, did you forget all about me? I was waiting for your call all evening and I’ve already had my dinner. I’m too full to eat you anymore.
She laughs. Silly man, she says, who wants to be eaten by you? Anyway I’ve grown too fat already, you won’t be able to finish me.
He laughs. Who cares? I still want to marry you. But I don’t know if you want a man with a potbelly. Hmm? Do you?
I don’t know, she says, depends what he has in his wallet.
They laugh. Then a pause.
Hey darling, he starts, ten years already, you know? I’m still waiting. When?
Not yet ten, she finally says, nine. One and a half more years on my contract.
My God, he cries, you want me to wait more than ten years? Honey –
She stops him. Don’t you want Jerome to go to college? There’s no work back home, you know. Let’s not argue about this today, it’s our anniversary.
Okay. You win. But now I’m going to make you suffer.
She giggles as he peels her panties off with his teeth and kisses her oyster, saying, Mmm, smells like home. Sometimes if she comes hard enough she thinks he is really with her, buried deep inside her as when they fall asleep together for twenty-seven precious days, when the time jingles and the piggy bank is ripe. He only has thirty days of paid leave a year; also, if she is gone for more than a month, what will happen to the little girl and the old woman? Just yesterday the little girl showed her a book she made with the title, My Family, and on the last page it said, In my hous ther is allso my Antie, who cook for uss evrydae and I love here very mach. Family, she thinks, she has a family.
Not enough time on his phone card. She is cut off at the brink of orgasm, her hands still gripping her pillowcase. She tries to call him back, but there is no satellite reception. She sits up, frustrated. The rain beats on. Quietly, she steps out of her room into the washing area, to watch the water abuse the trees.