Cursed & Other Stories Presents the Heart-Wrenching Emotions of Filipinos Living Elsewhere
Palanca award-winning writer Noelle Q. de Jesus navigates the theme of
The book, which is published by Penguin Random House Southeast Asia and will launch at the 2019 Singapore Writers Festival in November, is dedicated to “...all the people who wear their national identity with simultaneous pride and shame. Because while they might wish to leave their home to seek greener pastures for those they love, they will never be able to leave their country behind completely.”
Below, the short story “Cursed” considers Rosario, a Filipino in the U.S., who is figuring out her heart, her life now with the man he is living with, and her life
If anyone were to ask, Rosario wouldn’t be able to say how she came to have this smarting bruise on her foot.
The pain just appeared, all of a sudden, yet she couldn’t make anything out through her sheer gray pantyhose. Nor could she take the time to examine it. There was f too much work to be done—expense sheets to process, travel bookings to make and too many sheets of minutes to transcribe from the steno pad she used for notes though she knew no stenography.
It was only later, back in what Rosario stubbornly still referred to in her mind as “Jon’s apartment” (though she’d lived here with him for nearly a year), this neat little one-bedroom flat in one of the high-rise towers around Lincoln Center. She fixed her attention on that twitching dime-sized bit of
Rosario splashed cold water on her
“Honey, pesto or tomato?”
At first, it sounded like he was asking her to choose among three things instead of two. Jon was making dinner—usually a version of boiled noodles and some kind of sauce, which was fine. He always did a better job than Rosario ever could. And this was true of most of the household tasks. Jon made the better mushroom omelet. He vacuumed better; she always missed spots. He cleaned and kept house better than she ever could.
She had grown up in Manila, in a house with a helper, not because they were especially rich, but just because that’s what everybody did. Housework did not come naturally to her. Still, they split cooking duties—she took Thursday through Sunday, and they usually ate out either Friday or Saturday. It was enough of a pleasant surprise that Jon proposed the idea of sharing these tasks—the tasks of life, he called them. That kind of
“Whatever you like,” Rosario answered quickly, and then changed her mind. “Oh wait, no, tomato, please.”
She slipped out of her no longer crisp, long-sleeved work shirt, and got into
Jon had the news on while he cooked, so when Rosario came out, she had no choice but to see Mt Pinatubo erupting in the Philippines. Rosario could not explain, even to herself, why it pained her so deeply to watch this calamity the way all of America was seeing it, as they sat in their houses eating their meat and potatoes, or lounged on their couches. It seemed to her the very height of betrayal.
Once more, she bent to examine her ankle under the light of the sleek halogen lamp that stood beside Jon’s three-seater convertible sofa. In the brighter illumination, she made out a spot of her skin tinged with red and a tiny, distinct nick. Rosario fingered the nick as though she were feeling a ruby or sapphire. As a child, she had always been clueless about her injuries. Her mother pointed out a skinned elbow or wounded knee, and then Rosario would see it for the first time, and only then would tears start to roll down her cheeks. Only then would she feel the pain.
“What happened, Rosario?”
Rosario didn’t have an answer for him.
When she was nine, she stuck her hand into an open rotary electric fan running on high, mainly to see what that silver-spinning center felt like. The blades clacked with an alarming gunshot-like clack-clack-clack, and instantly, she was staring at bloody cuts on the joints of her fingers, almost as if they had been drawn there with a red ball pen. Once, she stepped on a staple with her
Rosario had always been accident-prone. It was an accident too that she carried a US passport and could
Rosario and Jon ate the way they always did, sitting in front of the television. On the news, a network reporter was on location in the Philippines to cover the volcano’s eruption.
“People awoke today in the capital to find everything outside covered in light grey ash, a sign, meteorologists say that Mt Pinatubo, hundreds of miles away is nearing
“So, where is this exactly?” Jon asked as he stood to put his dish in the sink. Rosario again had no answer.
They watched footage of people trudging in single and
“How far is this place from Manila? This Pam-panga?” Jon pronounced the word carefully with
That’s when the camera focused on a grimy, raggedy little boy with a shock of dark hair and sharply sunken eyes with a man, presumably his father. They sat on a slow-moving truck, their legs swinging loose, off the vehicle. Both man and boy grinned absurdly right into the lens. The father’s smile was
Jon laughed out loud and even though she felt like crying, Rosario laughed too. Because it was funny. The flash of irritation that struck her when she arrived home bubbled up into a stronger dislike. Her ankle began to twinge once more. She suddenly hoped that Dennis might call tonight, this very instant even, though she had expressly told him not to.
He had called her office as soon as he arrived. But Rosario hadn’t told him about Jon. She said she was seeing someone, but neglected to say they shared
“I want to see you,” Dennis said, lowering his voice, so he sounded a little like a stranger. But she was not ready for Dennis, not now. She needed to figure things out. She was also confident he would never force the issue. He had always let her keep her boundaries. They would only go this far, and no more than that. The truth was they had never even made love. This was a decision that many times later, Rosario allowed herself to regret, if only to change the
“Hey you, come here…” Jon reached his arm around her but she moved away. From the start, he had fascinated her. In the same
“It’s too hot,” she complained.
“Hotter than the Philippines?” Jon asked, catching her and holding her close so she could feel his slightly sour breath in her hair. It was their little game. She would say something and he would retort, “Hotter than the Philippines?”, “Dirtier than the Philippines?”, “Poorer than the Philippines?”, “Smellier than the Philippines?” She moved away.
The telephone rang. Rosario did not move. Jon switched channels and then reached over her to answer. “Hello?” Rosario bent to pick at the scab forming around the nick.
Jon shook his head and muttered, “Asshole,” under his breath. He shrugged and replaced the receiver.
“You know, maybe you should give your folks a call …”
She felt the beginning of tears prickle behind her eyes.
“Call, see if they’re ok?”
He was so sweet. So considerate. Rosario felt a wild surge of panic. But why wouldn’t they be ok? Suddenly, she pictured her mother and brother running for their lives from volcanic lava flowing down slopes. She shook
“Just call. Don’t worry about it.” Jon said.
Her irritation subsided at this, like a cloud of dust.
They met at a Filipino party in Queens. A friend had an aunt who had a birthday, and Jon had been dragged along by her friend’s brother. He ended up riding back home with her on the subway as she lived in the Bronx with three other girls. He even got off at her stop and walked her right up to the door of her building. She was not impressed when Jon had said he had never met anyone like her. Yet something inside her softened when, without asking, he took her hand and then leaned in to kiss her goodnight on her cheek, moving in then smoothly but quickly to capture her lips.
In a spasm of guilty affection, she grabbed Jon’s hand and squeezed it. He took her in his arms and began kissing her. She let herself be taken, all of a sudden
And yet, on the telephone at the office, she spoke to Dennis, already thinking of the lies she would tell Jon.
Jon never called her that, even though that’s how she introduced herself when they first met. He liked Rosario. He said her name with four syllables instead of three, each one equally emphasized.
“Uy…” Dennis said, his voice low. “I’m here too.”
“It’s all over the news. You haven’t heard?” In the mirror, Rosario watched the woman apply her lipstick, puckering her mouth like a goldfish.
“Aren’t you worried about your family there?
Sari did not answer the woman.
When she came out, Jon was washing dishes, all of them — this evening’s dinner, this morning’s breakfast. Her job and yet he hadn’t said a word.
“They’re evacuating the people from the US bases because of this eruption.”
She nodded and started rifling through the mail. There was a letter from Nanay. Her mother wrote letters with bleeding pens on poor quality yellow writing paper, often splattered in spots with what seemed like cooking oil. Surprisingly, Sari’s mother wrote sharp, powerful letters that emphasized, as if Sari could ever forget, that she was the daughter. Her mother’s daughter.
“You have to start somewhere. You can’t be vice president on day 1. Don’t be picky. Take the work you can get because the most important thing is getting the green cards,” her mother wrote when she first started working.
Sari read impatience in the ink, felt the weight of the pen scratching onto the paper. She heard her mother’s voice as though she were saying these words from across the dining room table. Her mother never wrote outright about migrating to the US.
Later, Nanay asked about Jon. Was he handsome? What did his father do? Rosario finally enclosed a photo in one of her letters home— one that showed her and Jon in each other’s arms. A few weeks later, her mother wrote back to say that he looked, “kind,” which Sari knew meant her mother did not think the man was good-looking. Rosario did not tell her mother when Jon asked her to move in with him.
From the sofa, Jon offered her peanut butter fudge ice cream from his spoon. Again, she shook her head. She sat at the other end, resigning herself to seeing more that she did not want to see.
US military personnel and their families were climbing out of an airplane in LA. They smiled faintly at the cameras, fatigue readily apparent in their eyes. One weary wife bore a sleeping child on her
“We had no power, the volcano was about to erupt, and all through that, a typhoon. It was… unbelievable.”
The woman’s voice
Then a tall uniformed US serviceman and his wife came into view and as the camera zoomed in closer, Sari caught a glimpse of man’s Filipina wife.
Oh don’t, please, she thought. For even if this woman would never say it, certainly not on national television, Rosario knew it would be painfully clear just how happy she was. As the camera drew
“The capital,” the announcer said, “has sustained negligible damage. Just this continuous ashfall, which has proven harmless.”
She reached for the remote and switched to a sit-com. What
Jon stretched out his hand across the sofa to touch hers. She stayed where she was. How could they live together and yet be so distant from each other, almost as though they sat on opposite sides of an immense
“Hey…” Jon took hold of her
“Where did you get that?”
She shrugged. “I don’t know,” she said, and it felt like a lie.
Again the telephone rang.
“Hello!” Jon picked up the phone. The person on the line did not answer. Jon slammed it down.
Later that night, after they had gone to bed, the telephone rang once more. Rosario had been lying awake, feeling the bruise on her ankle with her left foot, and trying to find a rhythm in Jon’s breathing she could fall asleep to. Jon would wheeze then snort, grunt and turn over. For a few seconds, he might be absolutely silent, and then she would hold her hand over his nose, afraid he wasn’t breathing at all. Men back home died this way —
She stood and lifted the telephone receiver in the hallway by the bathroom, not bothering to close the door behind her.
She knew it was Dennis.
“Why are you calling so late?” she whispered.
“Sari, Mommy called. My Lola died. Heart attack from asthma.”
Just when she had grown accustomed to the darkness, it seemed to grow even darker. She couldn’t even make out the number keys on the phone.
“I’m so sorry…” For an instant, she wished she could hold him close and comfort him. She wished he were the one lying in her bed.
“Putang inang Pilipinas!” Dennis cursed.
Sari jumped, startled by his voice, piercing like he was in the dark hallway next to her. She wondered how to translate this into English — which profane expletive in English would be most appropriate. Outside, a police car screamed, at first faint, then louder, and then, it faded away.
“It’s a disaster. Nothing’s ever going to come of it.”
Sari heard Dennis breathing hard in ragged gasps.
“Stop,” she said, “It’s ok…”
“You don’t know. You just don’t know.”
“Rosario? Honey?” Jon’s voice was muffled from the bed. She stiffened in the darkness and held herself still, moving only her hand to cover the mouthpiece.
“Yes?” She said.
From where she stood by the door of their room, she made out Jon’s shadow, sitting up in the bed. Still holding the receiver, she backed herself up against the wall so Jon could not make her out.
“The place is cursed. It always has been.” Dennis replied. With her other hand, she cupped the space between her ear and the receiver so as to keep Dennis’ voice from escaping.
“You need to leave this guy and be with me, you know that, right?” Dennis said. Now he sounded drunk.
“Come back to bed, honey. It’s late.” Jon called softly as though still half-asleep.
“You mean it?” Dennis’ words were sad and slurred.
“Sari?” She did not reply.
She just stood there in the dark against the wall. “Sari, can I see you tomorrow, please…”
“Honey, are you okay?” Jon asked as though he were speaking in a dream.
“OK…” She said.
She replaced the receiver, and then she limped to the bed. She lay down beside Jon and fell asleep.
“Who were you on the phone
It amazed her how Jon’s voice was in no way accusing. It held no trace of suspicion, though she felt a gritty guilt rise from the pit of her stomach.
“What do you mean?” She tried to get the exact note of abstraction as she worked the coffee machine, and even made Jon’s face go blurry before her own eyes as though her vision might infect her demeanor.
“You know… on the phone…last night?” Jon pulled a chair and helped herself to cereal.
It was easy to forget everything that morning though. For the first time in all the weeks of this arduous summer, the sun did not glare, and she felt the closest thing to happy that she had felt in a long time.
As she walked the pavement towards Central Park and the appointed corner at which she had arranged to meet Dennis, Sari felt the creeping sense of guilt that inevitably accompanied her best experiences in this country. It was guilt she felt when the scent of green grass rose from her feet, reminding her oddly of mangoes. It was guilt that she was the only one in her family to be here to experience this — whatever it was — a glorious blue sky, ice skating, the ocean, hot apple cider stirred with a stick of cinnamon, fresh buttered corn in the summer, large white drifts of snow you could bury your face in or a costly event like a play or a concert or an exquisite piece of art in a free museum. How selfish she felt to enjoy these good things, without remembering her mother and her brother. How they would love it too. And what on earth was she doing here without them? How was she here while they were stuck in a natural disaster, the violent shifting of volcanic earth. It was strange and cruel. She was here; her mother and brother were not.
She caught sight of Dennis seated on a park bench along a tree-lined winding path opposite a large lake. He had not seen her. She felt a strange excitement, and flashed on an old memory, one she had so many times willed herself to forget — how he would suddenly grab hold of her and lean her against a wall and they kissed till they were both breathless. Now she stood in front of him, waiting for him to see her.
“Sari…” Dennis hugged her to him, a loose embrace. She hugged him back, but lightly, and felt him stroke her hair. “It’s so so good to see you,” he said.
“I’m so sorry about your Lola,” she whispered into his shirt, and tears sprang to her eyes in a rush of mixed emotions. She felt herself relax. They stood there for a while and summer breezes blew about them. Sari felt the air on her skin and at once, the stirrings of hope. She leaned in automatically, he kissed her, and she let him.
They sat on that bench and watched the people go by, and neither said anything at first.
“You look… you look great. I like … everything.” Sari smiled. She felt pressure to respond, but didn’t, and instead relished the sound of him saying, “everything.”
“You look the same.” It was something safe to say.
People passed by on rollerblades and skateboards. Mothers wheeled their babies in prams to the nearby playground. Sari and Dennis caught up. The job he was hoping to get. The second interview he was going to have next week. How he would move out of his aunt’s house on Long Island once he found a job and a place in Hoboken.
“What about you?”
Rosario told him about her job this past two years, as
“I can’t complain…”
He glanced at her.
“And this guy you’re with? Is it… serious?”
It was the question she had prepared for.
“It’s early, I think…”
“But you’re with him… how can it not be…serious?” She knew he was fishing about their living arrangement. She didn’t bite.
Rosario flinched and reached down to press on her ankle, not wanting to answer.
He leaned in and kissed her, and she not only let it happen,
“Sari, I know you know what I want.”
Rosario kept quiet. She watched a nanny playing with her two charges, twin girls of about five, blonde and blue-eyed. The little girls squealed as the woman pushed them in their swings. A hot gust picked up leaves on the pavement in a small, quick swirl. The woman was Filipino. She had seen them earlier. Their eyes had met, and they had exchanged the little nod, slight smile and the raising of the eyebrows, silent recognition that required nothing more. It was enough to share in that knowledge; we are from home.
“I was a different person back then. I didn’t know…” he reached for her hand. “…what I wanted…”
She turned back to him.
“And now, you know what you want?”
“Of course. I want you.”
She felt her heart tighten. She wanted him too. And how long it had been that she had imagined this moment. He wanted her back. He knew he had made a mistake. This was the way it was supposed to be.
“Ten more minutes, girls, and then time to go home and take a nap.” The woman called.
They both heard her accent.
“She’s from the Philippines.” Dennis too loudly, shifting all of a sudden to Tagalog.
He lowered his voice.
“I’ll bet you, she’s an accountant or maybe a teacher. And here, what is she? Everybody just leaves to get work, to make a decent wage. And who can blame them? It’s why we all leave.”
Rosario stiffened. Dennis went on. “And look at what’s happening—all the problems, corruption in government, natural disasters, lack of leadership. It’s going to take another fifty years, maybe more to get things working. Every time the country takes a step forward, it takes three steps back. So people, not even just poor people, have no choice but to pack up and leave. And they never come back.”
Rosario lost her temper.
“You don’t know that. I want to go back. Lots of people go back.”
Dennis argued on in that frustrating way she suddenly remembered all too well — like a bully, a bulldozer.
“You’re wrong. You’ll do what everyone is doing: you’ll stay here.”
“You’re full of shit, Dennis!”
Dennis laughed, but it was not a happy sound.
“People lie to themselves all the time. Don’t you know that? You’re lying too. You’ll get married, have kids, make your life. That’s what I want to do. That’s what we need to do.”
Rosario was silent. The moment of joyful, hopeful yearning was gone. She looked at Dennis, noting his various foreign features — all the things that had changed in his face, in his eyes. And then she looked down at her watch. When he saw her looking at him, he leaned toward her. But she avoided him.
“I have to go,” she said.
“I meant what I said, Sari. You and I will be different here.”
“Hey, let’s come on now…let’s go on home!” The Filipina manufactured a curly drawl to her odd sentences. Rosario recognized it because she did too, and Dennis as yet, did not.
“Can we get something to eat?”
“Next time…maybe,” Rosario said, standing. And then Dennis stood. She let him hug her, while she just stood there and took it.
“I’ll call you tonight?” Dennis asked, almost pleading.
Rosario shook her head. Her voice sounded faint and
She started walking, anxious to
“Sari!” Dennis called. “I’ll call you tomorrow, ha?”
She didn’t look back, knowing she would only see him standing there, looking confused.
When she got home, Jon was already cooking dinner even though it was her day. It was a pot roast, and he had brought out the rice cooker.
“Hey, you.” He said, kissing her on the mouth. When she felt the quick touch of his tongue on her lips; she leaned in for more.
“I’m going to wash up…” she murmured against his mouth. He hugged her close and then let her go.
In the bathroom, she peeled off her pantyhose, placed her foot on top of the toilet seat to examine her smarting ankle. Now there was a purplish scab lined with the faintest red. Rosario picked off the edge and peeled it away. The wound, now fresh, started to bleed. She stuck her foot in the tub, running cold water over the wound, welcoming the burn.
It was the way she walked that did it—the heel of her left foot colliding into her right ankle. And she never realized
Tears began to roll down her face. Sari wept for a long time, heaving sobs that she drowned out with the tap’s rushing water. Had anyone asked her why she was weeping, she would have no answer for them, except perhaps to say, this was how sad she was, this was how cursed she felt.
"Cursed and Other Stories" (Penguin Random House SEA) will be available on Amazon and in major bookstores in Southeast Asia.