My father’s life is one where its greatest politicians were assassinated, were corrupt, sometimes simultaneously and sometimes not. Over the phone, we discuss Duterte and conflicting sovereignty claims in the South China Sea. He argues against American meddling, says “internal matters” multiple times. I think he is excusing a violation of human rights, though I do not say this explicitly. What I do say is “due process,” repeat it multiple times, refer to drug addiction as mental illness, not vice.
“The Philippines is a beautiful girl,” my father says, talking about islands now and how to claim them, “who wants to be wooed by all the boys.”
“I thought all countries were women, but that’s beside the point,” I say. “That girl will never have the pleasure, there’s nothing America wants in her.”
“That’s the sad truth,” he says. “Damaged goods, purpose served.” He pauses before continuing. “Tell me, are you satisfied? Is America finally ready to wipe its hands?”
The question hurts me mildly. He no longer thinks we are on the same team.
“Wait a minute, us? You think this is all our fault?”
“Does it matter?” he asks.
“The Philippines is only half a colonial narrative,” I say. “What about the country itself? What’s your role in all of this?”
I am trying to be firm, but I think what he hears is entitlement. He decides to play my game.
“Survival,” he says. “Survival.”
Son of a Whore is what a headline reads at breakfast – Duterte’s shorthand for President Obama and the Pope. My white friends give me shit about it over breakfast in the dining hall. I don’t try to defend myself. On my way to class I walk tight-fisted. It isn’t cold outside. It is already October and winter has yet to come. Colorado ski passes will be sunk costs this year.
My Military Strategic Studies – 400 group is a task force on resolving escalating tension with China. It includes me, two Chinese, and a Caucasian with a Hispanic sounding last name from Orange County. The group focused on ISIS had one too many members. When I walk into class my professor, a retired Navy Captain, asks me what I thought of the news today. He knows I have an opinion.
“We aren’t doing enough to help them,” I say.
“Help them?” says another cadet, tall, lean but athletic, curly blonde hair two weeks out of regs, voted conservatively. “What about saving their asses in World War II?”
“To cite outdated evidence of military support…” I begin to say, but the other cadet begins to laugh and gives me a flip of the hand. Actually, it is more of a chuckle. He thinks the conversation petty. Soon, it is time for the professor to begin class. We take our seats and begin to dissect the components of “Friendly Centers of Gravity.”
The members of my group eventually receive an A in the course.
“He doesn’t speak any English!” Ms. Novak yelled from across the auditorium, walking towards the other first-graders as they restacked a fallen tower of Jenga blocks. Some of them stopped building to listen to what she was saying. Ms. Novak’s eyes met mine as she continued towards us. She said it again, just as loud as she had from across the basketball court:
“He doesn’t speak any English!”
She shook her head as she passed me, slowly raising a hand to her forehead. It was the first time I had ever heard those words arranged in that specific order, doesn’t speak any English. I had never heard anything so conclusive, so sure of itself, so condescending and bitter, even from Ms. Novak – the old woman who made first-grade boys who wet their pants wear girls’ underwear as a replacement, who was rumored to hit the girls, and who remained divorced throughout her tenure as daycare supervisor.
I looked around to see who it was she was talking about. There was only a small litter of us left by four-thirty, sons and daughters of nine-to-five parents. There wasn’t a parent expected for another hour. There was the other daycare supervisor Leti, who I called Tita Leti, and a man standing by the supervisor desk.
More afraid than confused, I looked in disbelief at the man with a familiar mosaic of liver spots on his scalp, who wore a recognizably beige golf jacket, and whose upright posture’s only flaw was a tilted head – the tilted head of someone hard of hearing.
I watched him wait by the supervisor’s table, standing there with a half-way smile on his face, unresponsive to the claim some stranger made about him and was now broadcasting to my friends.
Why doesn’t he say something? I thought. Did he forget English? Does he really not understand what she’s saying?
Tita Leti met him at the supervisor’s table. I watched them as they talked, reading the fluidity in their lip movement and the ease of their exchange of words. They were speaking Tagalog. Once they finished, the man signed the sign-out-log as the parents did and we made our way to the car.
I buttoned my green cardigan sweater over my uniform, tugging at the thick patterned weave of cotton, trying to soothe away the anxiety of going home with someone I didn’t know and to whom I could not explain that in the house I lived in, we spoke both Tagalog and English.
The next morning my mother parked the car along the sidewalk by the McDonald’s across the street from school. I’d spent the previous night kept to myself, watching Cartoon Network and playing Playstation on the 10-inch TV my parents had upgraded from. She waited for me to unbuckle my seatbelt and give her a kiss before leaving, though I wouldn’t budge.
“Mom?” I asked.
“Yes, anak?” she asked. It was the word “son” in her native Tagalog.
“Lolo speaks English, right?”
“What are you talking about? Of course. You talk to your Lolo all the time in English. Why?”
“Ms. Novak said Lolo doesn’t speak any English.”
“What?” she asked. Her face grew stern.
“Yeah, when Lolo picked me up yesterday she said he didn’t speak any English. Then Tita Leti had to come and talk to him.”
She looked out at the road mouthing a question silently with her lips. She ceased, laid a firm hand on my forearm. Belaboring the story any further would be a terrible start to the day, for the both of us.
“Don’t worry, anak. You know your Lolo and she doesn’t. I’ll pick you up later. Have fun at school.”
I grabbed my bag and left for the secretary’s office, skipping morning assembly to pick up a tardy slip. I reported late to my teachers an average of twenty-seven times each quarter in grade school. There were things my mother valued more than timeliness, things that working mothers could only address in the car before their sons began their day.
Crossing the courtyard, I noticed that the car had yet to pull out from its parking spot by the McDonald’s. It was still there by the time I passed the transparent doors of the East entrance. I stayed by the doors for a while, watching the car, waiting for it to leave, unsure of whether my mother was able to see me. I watched until the school counselor spotted me and hurried me to the secretary’s office.
The day before I left for Basic Cadet Training at the Air Force Academy, my mother called her sister to video chat with my grandfather from their home in the Philippines. It was around the time he stopped wearing his hearing aid and stopped talking. He responded in nods of the head and yes’s and no’s in the informal Tagalog.
Before the call ended I asked him to teach me how to salute. My aunt reiterated my request, in English, her mouth two inches away from his ear. A smile worked its way across his mouth and cheeks, his eyes struggled to match the expression under the weight of heavy sagging eyebrows. He placed his hand flat on the tray table of the hospital bed installed in his bedroom and tapped it twice.
“Yon!” my mother said, “Like that!”
“Like a blade” my father said, sitting in the recliner to my right.
Keeping the shape, my grandfather touched his middle and index fingers to the edge of his eyebrow. When I did the same, my eyes began to water. Through the screen of my mother’s phone I could see my grandfather’s mouth arch as if he had smelled something sour. His heavy eyes never gave much away, though he was a weaker man now and could be read elsewhere: in a quivering lip, the lift of the chin.
I pushed the phone towards my mother, sitting across from me on the other end of the sofa. I sunk my eyes into my hand. My grandfather was still on the screen, but not by his own accord. Thinking it would be cute, my mother tilted the phone slyly and slowly towards me, trying to catch a peripheral image of me as I cried.
When I saw this, I slapped the phone from her hand. It went flying across the living room, hitting the wall, and falling on top of our dog’s crate. He barked twice. My father shot up from his seat and raised a hand to strike me.
Gradually, he lowered his fist, his eyes still fiery. No one in the room said anything. I stood up from the couch and walked out the door. I walked down the street to the entrance of the BART station and sat on a bench to watch train cars pass on the elevated track across the way. The red sky of a mid-afternoon in Daly City burned amber over the town houses, uniform squares of varying colors like the favelas of Rio de Janeiro stretching all the way to the city limits of San Francisco.
My mother picked me up earlier than usual that day. Ms. Novak met her at the door.
“Hi, Mrs. Lorenzo!” Ms. Novak said.
“Dianne,” my mother began, forcing a pleasant expression and tilting her head like a cherub. Her face remained defiantly soft looking. “Is Leti here by chance?”
“She sure is! Let me go get her for you.” She spoke like daytime hosts on the Food Network.
Leti arrived and her and my mother exchanged kisses with their cheeks.
“Wait here, anak,” she said. “I’ll be right back.”
They took to a corner where a set of stairs that were still visible from the gymnasium began. I dropped my backpack and shot miniature basketballs with some older boys.
I looked over at the two of them speaking, again with the fluidity of lips, but this time with longer pauses between the motions. My mother took a slight step backwards, away from Leti, and looked off into the nondescript distance to wipe a tear from her eye. Leti placed a hand on her shoulder. I ran quickly after a basketball rolling in the opposite direction.
Shortly after, my mother called me to leave. We didn’t say goodbye to anyone as we left. We took the local route home, the light rock radio station playing John Mayer or Norah Jones.
“He studied here, you know?” she said.
I didn’t respond.
“At Maxwell Air Force Base in Alabama.”
I thought of all the hours I’d spent in those trains, wondered if I had ever been in any of those passing by. I remembered the summer from two years before – my grandmother’s last visit to San Francisco, her last vacation anywhere with her husband. One night, she fell off the bed and hit her head on the nightstand. She was on blood-thinners. The next morning, I woke to my grandfather screaming. My grandmother had soiled the bed and was lying unconscious in her own vomit. A subdural hematoma got her in her sleep.
My parents drove behind the ambulance bound for the South San Francisco Kaiser Permanente. I stayed in the house with my grandfather where for the first time I saw his eyes droop and his mouth scrunch the way it did when he taught me to salute. We sat at the dining table silently. He sat painfully straight, the backrest of the chair touching his back only at a single, finite point. His eyes were closed, hiding deep somewhere in a memory or prayer, any place but the present.
“I was supposed to go before Lola,” he said.
I did my best to get him to sleep, led him to my bedroom several times, only for him to reemerge no more than thirty minutes later to join me in the living room. I failed to realize that the passage of time was the last thing he wanted. Perhaps what he wanted was vitality, or a seat in my parents’ car, a glass of water maybe. I wouldn’t know. I didn’t ask. Talking to him was hard enough, given his age.
Sitting beside me on the sofa, neither of us able to sleep, I changed the TV channel from ESPN to the Filipino Channel, thinking the white noise of the life he lived back home would comfort him. I stared aimlessly at a game show I couldn’t understand, too afraid to look at the man joining me on the sofa, too afraid to examine what time was capable of. Though eventually, I did.
Is this the sum of life? Is this what we arrive at?
I looked at his strained face, watched him plead silently as he ran his thumb along his fingers to count the decades of the rosary. I searched for the indications of the man he was, only to find someone ravaged by impending loss, anticipatory grief, and age.
Youth and fear stirred in me as I watched him. Never did I think that the time in my life which predated any possession of love or legacy would be this precious.
What will I have left of you?
I thought of medals collecting dust on a nightstand, pictures of French castles on porcelain plates that once hung on the walls of the Embassy, a gifted pistol plated with gold in Bangkok, mementos of a life traveled and accomplished that no longer seemed dear.
What will I leave? What can I give you before time comes? I am, because of you.
The children vacated the pool. Thunder echoed and lightning flashed from a gray sky. I liked the Filipino typhoon season. It was starkly different from any summer I spent in San Francisco and fundamentally opposite of any conception I had of the seasons. Often, a constant vail of rain eased the tropical heat and napalm humidity – a duplicitous comfort which led children to play outside in their t-shirts and return home soaking wet, showing the early signs of a cold, or worse, pneumonia.
At the Green Hills community pool, rain drops bounced three inches above the black-stone pool deck, creating a haze of neutral gray pointillism above the ground. It grew heavier. My uncle gathered me and the other grandchildren underneath the gazebo. I looked over its wooden rail and saw my grandfather, straw-legged but pear-shaped, swimming a steady breast stroke alone in the pool.
The other grandchildren played behind me, twirling towels and unraveling them at each other in snapping whiplashes, provoking prepubescent squeals. I watched my grandfather glide through the water, entranced by his focus – pull, kick, glide, breathe – there was a profound serenity in this perfected routine. Head down, sight concentrated on the black tiles marking the axis of the pool, head rising only for the absolute minimum time needed to take his breath, consistently timed after every stroke – a Spartan uniformity and determination.
“Is that Reg swimming?” the lifeguard asked my uncle, speaking Tagalog.
“Yes,” my uncle said. “Do you need him to get out?” he asked.
The lifeguard shook his head.
“He’ll be fine.”
They referred to him by the name the other generals used to call my grandfather: Reg – shorthand for Brigadier General Salvador Regalado, Philippine Air Force pilot, Philippine Military Academy – Class of ‘55.
“Should we go get him?” my cousin asked.
“No mijo, just stay here,” his father said.
Earpiece removed, my grandfather wouldn’t hear us if we yelled to him. It was a wonder whether or not he even heard the thunder. Surely he saw the lightning flash white upon the floor of the pool, but even if he did, he chose to ignore it.
Luigi Lorenzo is a fourth-year cadet at the United States Air Force Academy working towards his Bachelor’s degree in English. He will commission as an Intelligence Officer this May. He is a contributing writer for Transverso Media (under the pseudonym Ezra Carpenter) and his writing focuses on the Filipino diaspora and Millennial culture.
This composition was prepared and accomplished by the author in his personal capacity. The views and opinions expressed in this composition are solely those of the author in his private capacity and do not reflect or represent the official policy or position of the United States Air Force, the Department of Defense, or any agency of the U.S. government.