He was young once, I remind myself, searching for an outline of youth beneath the sagging maroon paunches underneath his eyes. He reaches for my hand, and I make an effort to imagine away the wrinkles and tan-colored liver spots that define his. But it is difficult work.
You look gorgeous tonight, Joana, he says.
Do I? It is difficult to think that, in the thin, long-limbed brown body which is as hard as nails. The flashy cherry-colored dress and silver-sequined heels (three inches high!) cannot conceal hair and skin burnt and faded by the brilliant, merciless sandpaper sun and wind of the fishing village I’m from.
Although I am 20 years old, I have never seen a Disney movie. So when I look at the rich girls at the table next to ours, I don’t think of Cinderella or Belle or Rapunzel. I think, rather, of the statue of the Virgin in the pea-sized chapel back home. Perfect porcelain black hair shot with amber and bronze where the lights get lost in it. Waxy skin like young coconut flesh. Do we share the same Filipino blood? Yes. No. YesButNo.
Over the white flesh of fish swimming in a sea of cloudy vinegar and golden slices of ginger, they look at me. They have cruel eyes through which I can almost see their thoughts. “Young Filipina gold digger with old American,” their sharp, beautiful voices say, although they are talking about clothes. I cringe when Roland’s hand touches mine.
It was not the same when Armando’s hand touched mine. Although he was harsh and abrasive, that last day I saw him. He was getting into his fishing boat on the shore of a gray, traitorous and familiar sea. My sea. Our sea.
Golddigger, he sneered, and his white teeth gnashed together like those of the murky gray shark we saw one day, when we were eight and still betrothed to each other in the sad, sweet way children make promises which they mean to keep, but don’t.
You don’t understand, I pleaded.
Do you love him even?
Yes. No. You don’t know about love.
I don’t. But I know that you have chosen a life in America with snow and an SUV over love. I don’t want to know about love.
But he has a kind heart. He has bought Papa a machine for his asthma. Braces for Manang. He is going to repair the Payag with new wooden boards so it will not leak anymore. And he has promised to send Maria to school. He even bought her a pink Barbie bag! She loves it. Maybe our family will one day get out of this dump, once I marry him. I dug for reasons and tried not to look at him in the way people look at each other, when they know it is the last time.
This place you are calling a dump is our home. Buy, buy, buy. It’s all about money. Gold digger. Golddigger.
It was the first time I saw that black, angry sneer make furrows on his smooth, sun-dark skin. It was the last time I saw him.
Miles away, seeking distance through devilish paddling, bobbing like a buoy in his fishing boat on a gray, traitorous and familiar sea. My sea. Our sea…
Would you like a cocktail, Joana? Roland’s husky voice, cutting the thread of memory.
Yes, and I return the squeeze his hand gives mine.
Nikki Martinez is a research and short fiction writer from Cebu, Philippines.