by Elsa Valmidiano
Illustrated by Ester Petschar

Janice Estrada, one of the twelve Tagalog girls in my class, was throwing her sixth birthday party. Auntie Patsing drove me to her house and mingled with her parents in the living room, while I and a few other girls were upstairs in her bedroom. Janice’s mom was a nurse, and her dad was in the navy. There were very large pictures of them in the living room—her dad in his crisp military uniform and her mom in her pressed, white, nurse’s uniform. More than half of my classmates had a dad in the navy and a mom who was a nurse. Mommy and Pop were neither, and it made me feel kind of special. At the same time, I wondered why Pop hadn’t joined the navy and why Mommy wasn’t a nurse, like everyone else’s parents. When I did ask them, Pop laughed at me: “Do you really think that’s better, Josie?” I didn’t know, and I didn’t answer. It had been a stupid question, even though I didn’t know why it was stupid. I did know stupid questions don’t deserve answers, according to Pop.

Janice’s room was big, with a bed, a dresser, stuffed animals, a television, and framed baby pictures of her when she was one, two, and three in cute pink dresses and curly hair. I thought of how I slept with Mommy, Pop, and Sam in one room. I had thought all Filipinos lived like me. I didn’t say anything. I felt it was wrong. Knew it was wrong. Everyone would think it was weird that I shared a room with my parents and brother.

* * *

At Uncle Tino and Auntie Patsing’s house, the adults instructed us to keep quiet and sit on the sofa until they got home. We usually waited for almost an hour. Sometimes Uncle Tino and Auntie Patsing worked overtime, but they wouldn’t be gone longer than two hours if they did work overtime. Those afternoons were the scariest. Pop and Mommy and Uncle Tino and Auntie Patsing told us that if we made any noise, even whispered, people would come in and take us away. We kept quiet, not talking at all, but sat on the sofa holding each other.

“They’ll deport you. Do you know what deport means? It means if they find you alone in the house, the police will come and take you away and send you back to the Philippines, and we won’t know where you went. They won’t tell us. And do you know how they’ll know to deport you? Because of your flat nose,” Auntie Patsing would say with great seriousness.

“But Sam doesn’t have a flat nose,” I’d say.

“You sort of do, Josie, and they’ll deport you,” she’d say, wagging a finger at me, upset that I had questioned her authority.

While we waited for Auntie Patsing and Uncle Tino to come home, Sam said that if I put a clothespin on my nose, it would become straight and sharp like his. We took one of Mommy’s clothespins for my nose. When I first put it on, Sam laughed but was convinced that it would work. As it pinched my nostrils, Sam held my hands, sat quiet, and we waited for my nose to become straight. When Auntie Patsing and Uncle Tino arrived home, Sam would unclip it from my nose. Red marks would be indented on each side of my nostrils.

Every afternoon, I underwent the clothespin torture. After two weeks, Sam realized it wasn’t working, and told me to take my chances with being deported. He said no matter what, he’d be there with me and wouldn’t let me deported by myself.

If we needed to go to the bathroom, we’d go together, pee or poop quickly, then rush back to the sofa. Good thing Sam would go to the bathroom with me. I’d stop thinking about the monsters coming out of the toilet to eat my butt.

Sam and I got into the habit of showing each other our poop. One time, Sam’s poop looked like corn, and we laughed and laughed so hard. We didn’t think anyone could hear us. There were no windows in the bathroom, just the fan that would suck up the smell. I’d take a peek at Sam’s butó while he peed. I was fascinated by the yellow stream that would shoot in a downward arc into the toilet. When I went pee, there was nothing for Sam to see except me sitting down on the toilet. Other times, if we didn’t have to go that badly, we’d try our best to hold it in and wait until Uncle Tino or Auntie Patsing got home. They told us we didn’t have to do that, but we were scared, very scared.

Uncle Tino and Auntie Patsing owned the coolest turntable and lots of albums. Sam and I knew how to operate it simply by watching Uncle Tino play records tons of times. It was very easy to figure out once you watched him. When they weren’t home from work yet, Sam and I liked to play Michael Jackson’s Off the Wall album. Uncle Tino collected Michael Jackson albums: Got To Be There, Ben, Music & Me, and Forever, Michael. He played them over and over again, dancing around the house like he was some kind of disco king and singing into an invisible microphone that he held in his hand. Eventually Auntie Patsing would get sick of hearing it and tell him to turn it off. Our favorite song was “Rock With You,” which Sam and I would sing at the top of our lungs whenever it played.

We’d laugh out loud and sing “Rock With You” to test whether the police would really barge in and take us away.

SAM: I wanna rock with you ME: all night

SAM: Dance you into day ME: sunlight

SAM: I wanna rock with you ME: all night

TOGETHER: We’re gonna rock the night away

* * *

We rarely saw police cars except on the busy streets going to school, and even then it wasn’t that often. Sam was the one who said that it was impossible for the police to come that quickly, barge in, and take us away. With our laughter and insanely loud “Rock With You” tests proving that no one was going to come and take us away, I figured it was fine to finally invite friends over.

When I first met Liliana Torres, she was my new friend who told me that she walked home too. She had two older sisters and a Mexican maid who looked after her while her parents worked long hours. Her father was a doctor, her mother a nurse. On a half-day, she asked her mother if she could come to my house after school to hang out. I was excited to have a friend over rather than sit through another boring afternoon on the sofa with Sam. School let out at 12:30 p.m. on half-days. The holy days of obligation were observed at our Catholic schools, so Sam and I usually had the same half-days and off-days. It was the Friday before the feast day of the Immaculate Conception. Sam and I both had that Friday as a half-day. I don’t think Mommy and Pop ever knew when our half-days were, not that it mattered. Our usual routine was to walk to Uncle Tino and Auntie Patsing’s house after school.

Liliana would be at my house until 2 p.m., leaving plenty of time before Auntie Patsing and Uncle Tino came home from work at around 3:30 p.m. Both of Liliana’s parents were hapa, or what my parents called mestizo. Her mother was half-Filipino, half-Spanish, and so was her father. Liliana. I can see her now, mixing with the other Filipina girls in my class, sneering at me, or pretending so sweetly to be my friend when she wanted to copy my homework. She was one of the few Tagalog kids who never made a big stink about me being Ilocano, unlike everyone else in class who did. Even now, I don’t know whether I should like her or not. But she’s hapa. How could anyone not like her? She has soft honey-colored hair, soft honey-colored eyes, and her skin is white like a white girl’s, but there is something about the way she looks that you know she is still Filipina.

Liliana didn’t tell her mother that there wasn’t any adult at my house, and I think she and her mother assumed that someone would be at the house supervising us. I didn’t tell Uncle Tino, Auntie Patsing, Mommy, or Pop that Liliana was coming over. I didn’t know I had to ask. Sam and I usually took care of ourselves, and it didn’t seem like a big deal to invite someone over from school for a change. Sam decided to hang out at his friend’s house that afternoon, as he didn’t want to be surrounded by girls.

On the way home, we grabbed lunch at Foster’s Freeze. I ordered a chicken sandwich, which we split, and she ordered chili cheese fries, which we did not split. I have never liked chili cheese fries. They look gross to me, and I can understand Pop’s disgust over certain American foods. This would be one of them. I can’t stand the smell of the cheese. It stinks. Liliana loves it and swears it is delicious, but it makes me queasy watching her eat it.

She ate half of it and threw the rest away. My instinct was to always save food you couldn’t finish, but Liliana had done it without a care in the world. I began to think I could do the same. At least with food I thought was disgusting.

Liliana didn’t think it was weird that no one was at the house waiting for us. She seemed to like the idea that we could do anything we wanted without adults telling us what to do. She walked around the house, in and out of the bedroom and back into the living room, and opened each door, finding the closet and the bathroom. I wasn’t sure if she was looking for a secret passageway or secret room. We liked to play pretend games like that at school.

I followed her back into the bedroom. She finally asked, “Where do you sleep?”

“Here,” I said, as we stood in my parents’ bedroom.

“But where’s your bed?”

“I sleep with my mother. My father sleeps on the floor on a twin mattress.”

“You sleep with your parents in the same room? What about Sam? And your aunt and uncle?”

“We all sleep on the same bed, except my aunt and uncle sleep in the living room on the sofa­ bed.”

I didn’t want Liliana to ask me any more questions. She had a worried look on her face, and I felt that I had disappointed her or made her mad, but I couldn’t lie. This was our house, and this was how we lived. How could I make up a story that we lived somewhere else? I didn’t know where somewhere else might be.

Like Auntie Patsing taught me, it is good to offer a drink to a guest, so I asked Liliana if she wanted a Sprite. She was excited to have a soda, as her mother forbade her and her sisters from having any soda in the house. When she finished her drink, I showed her the recycling bag that we kept in the kitchen by our trashcan. While Liliana put her empty can in our recycling bag, she mentioned how her father thought recycling was stupid. “He says it’s a waste of time. People think recycling saves our planet, but those people are stupid. ‘You only live once,’” she said proudly, repeating her father’s words. Her words didn’t sit well with me. I didn’t disagree with her out loud, but she sounded like a conceited bitch, and I didn’t like the sound of her father.

I asked Liliana if she wanted to watch television. She said yes and didn’t ask me any more questions. I suddenly felt terrible, and embarrassed by how we lived. I wanted her to leave, but she couldn’t leave, and I couldn’t ask her to leave. We both had to wait until her mother came to pick her up. Luckily it was only another hour, but that hour felt eternal. I could feel my heart racing, my palms sweating, my stomach hurting. We watched the soap opera One Life to Live in silence. At around 1:50 p.m., she started looking out the window for signs of her mother.

Liliana’s mom was running 10 minutes late when Sam came home, earlier than I expected. It was the first time Liliana met Sam, and I’m betting it was then that she developed a crush on him. I didn’t really notice at the time, but when I think about it, yup, that day was probably the first day she had the hots for him. She seemed to be completely taken by surprise when Sam burst through the door.

“Hey,” Sam said, as he glanced at both of us sitting on the sofa. He threw his backpack on the floor and stood by the door watching television with us for a while. He didn’t join us on the sofa but continued to stand where he was. None of us talked. Liliana glanced over in his direction every few minutes and started fidgeting. When Liliana peered out the curtain to see whether her mother had arrived, he abruptly ran to the bathroom and disappeared.

At the first sight of her car, she picked up her backpack, ready to rush out and jump into the car before her mother could even park. Before she left, she spanked me on the butt so hard, and said, “You need to come to my house next time. It is so much bigger.” I had never been hit on the butt like that by anyone outside of Pop. Her spank stung so much that I felt like crying, but I was more so surprised that she did it. After that, my friendship with Liliana changed. I don’t know what she told her mother, but Mommy and Pop were angry when they found out that I invited someone over. They never would have known if I had not excitedly mentioned how Liliana had come over after they got home from work. They didn’t scream at me but told me in their cold voices never to do it again without their permission. They didn’t mention anything about me being deported, but they were very mad at me.

“You can’t trust people outside of family. We don’t know who this Liliana is. She could steal things from our house. We don’t know what kind of family she comes from,” Pop said in a very heavy voice. He didn’t scream, but each word seemed to weigh a thousand pounds.

I couldn’t tell him her father was a doctor and her mother a nurse. Pop’s voice demanded silence. I sat there wanting to cry, but I knew better. My whole body shook with fear as Pop’s words pounded into my stomach, my eardrums, and the inside of my mouth, each word sinking deep like fingers into a pan full of Mommy’s sticky bibingka—deep, deep, deep, until the fingers are completely swallowed. Mommy stood next to him nodding and scowling at me. She didn’t console me as Pop went on and on and on about how we shouldn’t trust people. He didn’t say, “Ukininam,” but I knew I had done something bad. Very bad, and I should feel terrible about myself.

After that I rarely had another classmate come over, unless there was a school project to do, even after Mommy and Pop moved us into our own house.