Sunday, April 29, 2012

Big, Red Vein

I assume it was a normal season when I was born in 1967. The typhoons raged through the dirt streets of Angeles City every year, yet it never washed away the gregarious GIs, the loud-mouthed go-go girls of the strip clubs and whore houses so eloquently called cabarets. Here in this one Philippine city, I grew up with everyone’s second-hand stories—stories that lingered like the smoke of barbecue meat cooking outside the bars and discos at two in the morning, wafting in and out of my life, sometimes blinding the full view of my adolescence. The clamor of their drama still rings in my ear to this day.

The frenzy and ire outside the military gates of Clark Air Force Base include the whir and hum of jeepneys (army jeeps left by the United States after the Second World War made into colorful commuter vehicles) and tricycle checkpoints that whisk their patrons through the big, red veins of prostitute alley—a girl running topless after a garish Aussey while her friends sit outside on the laps of the young men in Air Force uniforms, arms around their necks, as if they loved them. I was one of the passengers riding the jeepney that drove by this moment; the other passengers looked briefly away and resumed their catatonic state as if nothing happened. I, too, looked immediately away but still remember it so distinctly as if it were forever branded in my prepubescent mind. My mother never admitted to me that she loved my father who once wore the same uniform, but I picture her clinging to him like the others did with a cigarette in one hand and a San Miguel beer in the other, her head thrown back and his arms around her waist, fingering her long, dark hair.

Ask any GI stationed at Clark and Subic Bay and he is likely to have had the best times of his life there. Seedy stories have been transported back to ships and planes like pollen back to the States. Some loved the women’s hospitality so much that they retired here, leaving all they knew in the States behind them. But there were also stories of the Black Syphilis. When a GI contracted it, he could never return home, I was told during adolescent gossip. I was also told that the whole bottom floor of the base hospital was nothing but a venereal disease clinic for them. Most of the GIs who had tours here left claiming to love Filipinas—they were so beautiful and smart enough to be their housemaids, their cooks, their ever-faithful good-time girls, and Mother Teresa’s on demand. Some married the prostitutes and brought them back home.

My mother was a house girl for a few military families stationed at Clark. She was a young, single Filipina during the height of the Vietnam War, working hard. She met my biological father and I was conceived and born before he disappeared into the mist of gun smoke and fire. Another GI leaving blood behind—a typical scenario. I mostly lived with my grandparents at the barrio until I was two, and then my mother married my stepfather, Walter, a young Air Force Airman assigned to the Military Police working the downtown beat. Soon after, my mother and Walter married, and then my sister, Becky was born at Clark in ’69. We moved to Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland for awhile where my two brothers, J.R. and John were born. My family moved stateside twice when I was a child, but returned to Clark each time.

***

I spent almost every summer from birth to my adolescence at Bonuan Blue Beach, a small barrio town on the cusp of Lingayen Gulf in the Province of Pangasinan, Philippines. I collected bottle caps, played marbles and stick ball with my cousins, and watched the Miss Universe pageant with the entire neighborhood huddled at my mother’s cousin’s house. I recall running to the seashore, which can be considered as our entire backyard, to greet my grandfather and uncles, after a long day of fishing. The deep channels carved on my elders’ dark faces glistened with sweat under the afternoon sun, and my grandfather’s toothless smile always brought me comfort. My mother’s kin were impoverished then, as they are still now, catching and selling fish as their mainstay—their daily bread. When one family had food, they would share with families that didn’t. While my siblings and I were considered “rich kids” by comparison, I inherently knew they were richer by far.

My Filipina grandmother used to comb her long, grey hair with coconut oil each day, and the view from her nipa hut (a house on stilts) was the view of Legaspi Sea—an unassuming vista that opened its mouth like a hungry bird to the world. This is not too far from where General MacArthur landed, and Spanish conquistadors explored. Yet the view that greeted my grandmother each day was of the sea and the coconut leaves swaying in the breeze while her grandchildren returned for siesta, their long lunch break from school. Some had uniforms and wore slippers, carrying school books and their composition books. Some of my cousins had to drop out after sixth grade to help their family earn money. Still they managed to converse with me, exchanging stale American jokes with their strong Filipino accents and singing along to the popular tunes on the radio. I would have been speaking their dialect with ease if it wasn’t for my kindergarten teacher making a house call when were stationed at Andrews Air Force Base. She came to urge my mother to speak her language to me so that I would learn how to speak English.

I don’t remember many names anymore, not even some of my favorite cousins. One by one, their names and faces have disappeared into the darkness, except for a few.

Beth Robinson was half-black and half-Filipina, as opposed to me—half white and half-Filipina. We were “mestizas”, a Spanish derivative meaning half-Filipino and half European or American. Beth was one of my closest friends in high school. We met as eighth graders in the temporary lodging at Travis Air Force Base in California as our families readied for a flight back to the Philippines. Together on the second floor balcony, we sang Sister Sledge’s song, “We Are Family”, pretending our round hairbrushes were microphones. After our families returned to Clark and settled into base housing, Beth ended up living only a couple of blocks from me. We’d walked to school together and snuck our boyfriends into her house from time-to-time.

I knew my stepfather disapproved of me dating black guys. I always thought of him as a hypocrite to demand my allegiance to his race while my mother’s skin was brown. One night, Walter, slumped over the dining room table drinking his usual mixed drink in a clear mug, the size of a pitcher, grabbed my hands and held them over his silver cigarette lighter. Slurring his speech he said,” You want to be black them?” his grip was harsh and violent, which made a deep, red mark on my skin, and a deeper impression on my memory. My eyes widened with fear, and I managed to yank my hands away and run out the front door. I ran nonstop to Beth’s house.

There were infamous stories of the military daughters sneaking around with the young GIs marauding prostitute alley. My parents thought I was a bad seed, a poor example to my younger siblings. I often snuck out of the house to hang out with my boyfriend, or to hook-up with GIs whenever my boyfriend and I broke up. We hung out off base in discos that did not care about age, where no such thing as “carding” existed. We drank and smoked and mingled like the grown-ups we emulated.

*** 

In 1991, I had finished high school and had settled into the States, when Mount Pinatubo—the volcano that had always been the backdrop of my youth at Angeles City—erupted. “The sleeping giant” had finally awakened. Throughout my childhood, everyone had ignored its rumblings, living in denial, continuing to sin and rebel. Finally, it seemed like the eruption was an act of God to cut off the vein, and rid Angeles City streets of all the madness and sexual gluttony.

Today, while I sat in front of my television set, images of flesh flash gratuitously like those silhouettes at the windows of my past. My boyfriend sits next to me deeply entranced, obviously pleased, ignoring my last sentence. I suddenly think to myself, What can I offer now? I sit silently with my hands on my lap asking another question, Where am I?

I was on the edge of this big, red vein wanting to know for certain the evidence of me. Not the throbbing, neon lights that beckon the faceless men over. For all I knew, they liked me because I was friendly, but now I know why.

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