IT looked like a Christmas card but it was only November, the early part of November at that. But then, you can't tell anymore when the season begins. It used to begin after Thanksgiving, then after Halloween, and now who knows when the season starts. The envelope was fairly large and thick, had gold trim on the flap, and a return address I didn't recognize. I didn't think I knew anyone who would confess to being from Fresno, not that I thought it was a hick town or anything but it really was in the middle of nowhere and nobody I knew would want to live there.
The card turned out to be a wedding invitation. It was from William Hagen and Carolina Dimarocot. That's when I realized I knew people from Fresno after all--how could I have forgotten Carol? She had burst into my life not too long ago and turned my everyday routine upside down for a few months.
Enclosed with the invitation was a picture of the couple and a note from Carol which said,
She had called me kuya, the Filipino term for an older brother or some other older relative one shows respect for. How can I refuse her now, after she bestowed that term of respect on me. And she would like to thank me again--I wondered what she meant. I liked it the first time she thanked me.
IT was on July 3rd when I went to the airport to pick up Carol. It was a three-day weekend and it took me forty-five minutes to get from my apartment in the mid-Wilshire area to the entrance to LAX. Twenty minutes would have been normal. It took me another twenty-five minutes from the entrance to the parking lot closest to the Tom Bradley International Terminal. I wasn't in a very good mood after that to go look for a woman I had never seen in person before. I was sorry I agreed to meet her but it was too late to back out now. I could just see the newspaper headlines: TOURIST RAPED AND KILLED AFTER FRIEND FAILS TO PICK HER UP AT AIRPORT.
I knew who to blame for this. My friend, Ernie, from Manila had set me up with her. He thought I was lonesome and could use some company for a while. "A few months at the most--she's a tourist," he said in his email. "She's a hot woman, if you know what I mean." No, I didn't exactly know what he meant but I hadn't asked for clarification. He even attached a JPEG file to his email. The woman looked terrific in the picture.
My love life wasn't precisely very healthy then or even now and that characterization should have been enough incentive for me but I tried to convince myself I was doing it for a kababayan, a Filipino countryman, who needed a place to stay for a while. After all, not too many Filipinos can afford the high hotel rates in L.A. when they visit.
I walked to the Tom Bradley terminal and waited. Luckily, the traffic delay didn't matter for the Philippine Airlines flight was behind schedule as usual. I got there at the right time, the plane had just arrived. Now all I had to do was wait until they get three hundred people out of the plane, get them through Customs and Immigration, and watch them come out through the long corridor up the ramp to street level.
I racked my brain trying to figure out how I could identify her--I didn't know how tall she was, how much she weighed, and what she would be wearing. If things ran true to form, she would look nowhere close to the picture I got of her.
The best place to watch the passengers come out is by the railing near the ramp but everybody was crowded around there. I settled for the roped-off area near the end of the ramp where passengers finally turned to get out of the terminal. I watched families join together again as those who went to the Philippines were met by those who didn't. You could tell who were local--they immediately went for the exit door. The newcomers would take more time to say hello and exchange greetings--some even wanted to hand out presents right there. Filipinos always give presents when they travel--once when they reach their destination and again when they return home.
I closely watched every unaccompanied woman who came out and tried to guess whether it was Carol. Mostly, I'd ask if she was pretty and alone. I wanted very much for Carol to be pretty. No luck so far. The crowd of people coming out of the tunnel soon started thinning out. It was already half an hour since I saw the first passenger come out. What if Carol didn't make it? But I couldn't leave until I was absolutely sure there were no more passengers left.
I hadn't seen a lone woman come out for a while until this one came out. She was pushing a cart with two large suitcases and two large carryons that were almost as large as the suitcases. She was wearing a short dress, a coat, a hat, and boots that may have been fashionable years ago. Her figure wasn't bad but her face was plain and homely. My heart sank. She had to be Carol and she was.
I honestly had no reason to get disappointed since my looks were not of movie star caliber, either. It dawned on me that maybe she was expecting something better, too. I decided to be kinder.
"Why did it take you so long to get out of there?" I asked.
"The immigration guy was giving me a hard time. He asked a lot of questions about what I was going to do here, where I was going to stay, and what places I was going to visit. I gave him your address and phone number and he finally let me go."
I took a good look at her, she must have been in her late twenties or early thirties. I couldn't decide whether her hair was yellow, red, or orange. I finally decided it was faded henna. Her skin was sallow, she probably avoided the sun. She was well-built but not heavy, everything was firm and nicely toned. I figured she exercised regularly. She wore a heavy, sweetish perfume that she must have refreshed before she stepped off the plane.
Well, her face was plain but it wasn't ugly. Why should I complain? I wasn't getting stuck with a mail-order bride in the first place. She'll be back in Manila in a few months.
When we got to my apartment, I had to carry all her stuff upstairs. She didn't offer to help but I remembered that women didn't do those things in the Philippines. Men carried the heavy stuff. It took me three trips to take everything up to the spare room I had prepared for her. It had been my study and computer room until I moved my computer and desk to a little corner in the living room.
"Why don't you freshen up before we eat? You have all the time tomorrow to put your things away."
"Isn't it too early to eat?"
"No, it's already seven o'clock."
"But it's still bright outside."
"That's the way it is in the summer here. It's light until after nine. But in the winter, it gets dark before five."
"That's weird," she said as she went to her bedroom to get ready.
I had gone earlier to the Kentucky Fried Chicken place down the street to get some food. I made sure I discarded all clues as to where the food may have come from and put them all in nice, clean platters and bowls. Carol enjoyed the extra crunchy chicken, the cole slaw, the mashed potatoes and gravy, and the biscuits. I didn't feel too guilty as that KFC outlet was one of the better ones in town. Their chicken wasn't all that greasy like in most of their other branches.
We made small talk and tried to feel each other out. She made her living in Manila as a real estate agent. She said she had been top agent for several months in a row but now the market had gone soft. She decided it was time to visit America and enjoy the bit of money she had saved up over the years.
"How do you plan to spend your time here and when are you going back?"
"Oh, I don't know yet what I'll do in the next few months but I'm not going back."
"Doesn't your tourist visa expire in six months?"
"Yes, but I hope to fix my status before my visa expires."
I almost shouted, Putang ina! Here's another Filipino who's going TNT--tago nang tago or "someone who keeps hiding." Filipinos are great for acronyms and abbreviations that sometimes I think the Pentagon is staffed by Filipinos who spend most of their time thinking of acronyms for the military. Great! If she doesn't leave in six months the first place Immigration will check would be my apartment. I saw myself going to Federal prison for harboring an undocumented alien and obstructing justice. That's all I need, I'll never get another job. Worse, they'll take away my green card and send me back to the Philippines. All because I was trying to be nice. Or more correctly, all because I thought I was going to make an easy score.
I remembered the stories I'd heard. They were true after all. Somebody once told me of a Filipino tour group that consisted of forty people who were going to visit six cities. After each stop, the number of people in the group shrank. Only twelve went back to the Philippines.
I was speechless until Carol broke the silence by trying to explain what she perceived to be what I must have been worrying about. "I've been corresponding with four men, all of them Americans. They have all proposed to me. I'll let them know I'm here and I'll marry one of them."
It sounded so simple, why should I have worried? But the thought of jail time continued to scare me. I also worried about jail food and getting sodomized when I got there. My future suddenly looked bleak. It was bright just a few hours ago. That's what I get for thinking about making an easy score. Next time I know I'll have to score the hard way.
I showed Carol how to operate the remote for the cable TV box and where the things she would be needing were. "Just make yourself at home," I said. If I had known what that innocent expression would bring about, I wouldn't have said it.
I had gotten tired by midnight while Carol's biological clock was still fighting her new time zone. I bade her goodnight and went to bed while she watched a movie channel.
The day proved uneventful. She slept in the daytime and watched TV all night. We spoke little with each other but I noticed that her things were now spread all over our shared bathroom. She had strung up a line to hang her wash over the tub. Her wash greeted me each time I went into the bathroom.
I told her about the coin operated washer and dryer down the hall. I said it would be easier for her to wait until she had enough dirty clothes then use the machine. And if she really had a lot of clothes to wash, I could take her to a real laundromat where we could do our wash together.
The third day was Sunday. When I woke up to make coffee, I saw that she was already all dressed up. Her dress was of a shiny material, like she was going to a cocktail party. She had those horrible boots on again. She had lots of makeup just like when I first saw her at the airport. And she wore the same heavy perfume again.
"What time do you go to church?"
I hadn't been inside a church since I was a child but for some reason I couldn't bring myself to tell her that. "Oh, there's Mass all day long," I said, hoping what I said was true. Hadn't I seen people coming out of church all hours of the day on Sundays?
"The church you go to, who goes there? The rich? The poor, or mixed?"
"I don't know, I guess they're mixed." I didn't know that churches were for different levels of economic prosperity.
We went to St. Basil's on Wilshire Boulevard for the noon Mass. I was immediately lost as soon as I got in. I tried to copy exactly what Carol was doing. I knelt when she knelt, stood when she stood, and sat when she sat. The last time I heard Mass, the priest said it in Latin. Now, it was in English just like those Protestant services. And people were holding hands, raising them up in the air, and even greeting each other just like Protestants. It probably had something to do with Vatican II but I couldn't be sure. I thought if they'd only get rid of the kneeling part just like the Protestants had done, it would be perfect.
After Mass, I took her to lunch at a Thai restaurant. Her shiny cocktail dress made people stare. I ordered for both of us since Carol didn't know anything about Thai food. I noticed she hardly ate anything except the stuffed chicken wings. She barely touched her Thai ice tea.
As we were leaving, I asked if there was anything wrong. She said she found it hard to eat at a Thai restaurant. A friend in Manila had told her that the Thais ate cats and dogs. "I couldn't tell what kind of meat they used in their cooking except for the chicken wings. And I thought the tea tasted funny."
She was starting to be a pain in the ass but I still wasn't getting any, either. Not that I tried because it's hard to get motivated when you're annoyed. She had taken over the whole bathroom. She cooked and ate but didn't wash the cooking utensils or the dishes.
My simmering anger finally boiled over when I got my phone bill. The record showed she had called friends all over the U.S. and talked for hours at a time. She even managed to call the Philippines five times. The total amount was about what I normally would have paid for six months of telephone service. I showed it to her but she didn't offer to pay for any of her calls. I told her she was going to drive me to the poorhouse if she kept it up.
One day I returned home to find that five of my wine bottles had been opened. I was letting them get a few more years in the bottle before opening them for a special occasion. They were the most expensive wine I could afford on my pitiful salary. I asked her about the open bottles.
"I was looking for something like the good wine I tasted before in a restaurant in Manila. They called it 'lady's drink,'" she said. "Don't worry, I just tasted them and all the bottles are still almost full. They're too sour for me."
In my rage, I went to the nearest market and bought her a couple of bottles of Mogen David Concord Wine. She liked them. "That's what I was looking for," she said. "How did you know?" She thanked me for being so sweet.
On yet another day, I found her crying in the living room when I got home. It sounded like the world had fallen in on her. She was inconsolable. I grabbed her and shook her hard to make her snap out of whatever it was that was happening with her.
"I flooded the laundry room."
She had at last tried to use the washer at the end of the hallway. She put two large cups of detergent into the wash and it bubbled over filling the whole laundry room with beautiful bubbles.
I got a mop and a bucket and cleaned up. I then showed her how much detergent to put in. I stayed there until she put her clothes in the dryer. I made sure she did it right. I felt guilty that I had expected her to know these things. Wasn't it not too long ago when I was making the same stupid mistakes?
I blew up again when I got my cable TV bill. It seemed like she had ordered every pay-per-view program available. I had never even watched one yet. And she was watching two, sometimes three, a day. I showed the bill to her and told her it would take at least a whole week's salary for me to pay for it.
Carol broke down and cried. "I'm sorry I keep doing dumb things that make you mad. I don't know anything about life here. It's miserable--I'll never get used to it. It's a very lonely life, very different from what I expected."
She made me feel mean and selfish. I remembered how it was for me when I first arrived. It was scary, I didn't know which bus to take to get anywhere. I was afraid to use home appliances I hadn't seen before. Everything was unfamiliar and I was miserable. Now, she was going through the very same things and all I could think about was making it with her.
I thought about the friend who took me in. It took me more than two months to find work and move to my own place. He must have gone through the same frustration I was now going through. When I tried to pay him back after I got my first paycheck, he told me to save it. He said it was now my turn to help our next kababayan who had nobody to turn to. I promised I would do just that. And now I was complaining.
I embraced Carol and said it was okay. "I'm not mad--I just want you to think what you would do if this were your own home. I know you wouldn't waste money and you would want to keep the place neat and clean. That's all I want."
She put her face on my shoulder and finished crying. "Someday, I'll be in a position to thank you properly," she said.
Our relationship after that incident improved. It wasn't perfect but she was doing a lot more things around the apartment. Of course, she was also getting used by now to how things worked in America.
"BILL'S in town," she said. "He wants to take me out tonight."
"He's one of the guys I've been corresponding with. He flew in last night and is staying at the Sheraton. I know where that is--I've seen it, it's not far from here."
"Well, enjoy yourself."
"You're coming with me."
"I can't, I have lots of things to do."
"You have to. A Filipina has to be chaperoned on her first date. You know that--Bill does, too. I've explained the custom to him. I'll look cheap if you don't come with me. Please, just this first time."
I understood the danger of saying yes--there'll be other first dates with her other penpals and I'll be stuck with chaperone duty if I relented. But of course, she was right. Just because I'd been in America five years doesn't mean I should put asunder Filipino traditions such as what Carol was now invoking so I said okay.
We picked up Bill at the Sheraton. Carol introduced me to Bill as her cousin. Carol was in the front seat with me, Bill was in the back, typical Filipino style first date. Bill had already picked out a restaurant. It was one of the more expensive restaurants on La Cienega that I had never been to before.
When we sat down for cocktails, Carol asked me what she should get so I ordered piña colada for her. I ordered the same to assure her it was a good drink. Bill got a double Jack Daniels. Carol loved the piña colada just as I thought she would. She ordered another after finishing her first drink in record time.
Bill must have been in his late fifties. He was fit and trim--had been married once and had a good business in farm equipment repair. His children had all moved away and he lived alone. I figured he was at least twenty-five years older than Carol but that was okay. I'd seen many happy couples with the same age difference before.
When it was time for dinner, I shamelessly ordered chateaubriand. I wasn't paying and I knew if I didn't do it then, I would never have another chance to try it in that restaurant. Carol had salmon and Bill, a large T-bone steak. We ate slowly and had more drinks. By the time we had dessert, a band had set up and was playing. The restaurant had a small dance floor.
When Bill excused himself to go to the rest room, Carol asked me in confidence what I thought of Bill.
"I think he's all right. He seems to be well off and knows how to live."
"I like him, too. But do you think he can still perform? I mean, I don't want to be stuck with somebody who can only do it once a week or less."
"Oh, I think he can do better than that. He looks strong." I had faith that Bill would have access to Viagra in case he needed it. I wondered if it was the alcohol that made her ask for my opinion on a very private and sensitive matter.
Carol wanted to dance with me but I told her I had two left feet. She got confused by the expression and didn't press on. She got Bill to dance with her. They were both good dancers and I enjoyed watching them cut it on the dance floor. They'd stop dancing every now and then and get back to our table to drink some more. They kept it up for a while until I noticed that Carol was already finding it hard to keep her balance. I pulled Bill aside and told him that maybe I should take Carol home before she got worse. It was very late anyway and time to go home.
Bill and I placed Carol in the back seat of my car where she dozed off and I took him back to his hotel.
"I hope she's okay," he said as he got off.
"Oh, she'll be fine--she just got carried away by finally meeting you after all these years."
By the time we got to the underground garage in my apartment, Carol was half awake and singing, "I love the night life…" She had a fine voice but it was late and I didn't want her to create a scene and wake people up. I picked her up and put a finger to her lips in an attempt to make her quiet.
"Kiss me," she said.
I softly touched her lips with mine. "There."
"No, a real one. I want a real one."
"Not here, wait till we get in the elevator."
I kissed her for real when we got in. She stuck her tongue in my mouth and sucked hard. I did the same to her. She was holding on to me as she still found it hard to stand on her own. I moved my hand to her breast--I had always wanted to check if she wore pushups. She didn't. Her bra was of thin material and I could feel her nipples. She giggled and reached down my pants--she made me hard and said, "I want this."
The elevator door opened on our floor. By then she had unbuttoned her blouse and was unbuckling her bra to show me her breasts. "They're real, they're not rubber," she drunkenly bragged. It was late but I was afraid someone might come so I quickly got her inside my apartment.
She reached down my crotch again and said, "I want it now."
She was completely undressed by the time we got to her bed, her clothes trailing on the floor all the way from the door. She was still woozy and wanted to be kissed and touched everywhere and wasn't satisfied until I finally got inside her.
SHE was already awake and had coffee ready when I got up the next morning. She was having toast and jam with her coffee. I sat down next to her and poured myself a cup.
"Good morning," I said.
"Do you know what happened to me last night?" she asked directly.
I didn't answer, I didn't know what to say.
"Look, it's okay. I just want to know whether it was a dream or Bill or you. I had a good time last night--it's been a long while since I had a more enjoyable evening."
I still didn't answer, so she continued, "I felt very relaxed when I woke up. It seemed so real--it's hard to believe it could have been a dream." She started laughing and joked, "I just want to know who to thank, and maybe do it with him again."
It was good to know she wasn't mad at me but she had never talked like that before.
"I was pretty drunk last night when we got here. I went straight to bed. I don't remember how long Bill stayed but the two of you were still in the living room when I went to sleep," I lied. In the two months she had been with me, I had learned to lie brazenly. The ease with which I was doing it now bothered me a bit.
She turned to me with a questioning look, poured herself another cup of coffee, and dropped the subject. Later that morning, she told me she was having early dinner with Bill before his flight back home. I didn't have to go with them this time.
It was on a Saturday a week later that Carol told me she was going to Fresno to accept a job offer from Bill. I was on my way out to get my car washed and gassed up. She asked me to make sure I came back for lunch because she was preparing something special.
When I got back, she had lunch ready. She had sinigang na bangus, bistek sa sibuyas, and leche flan. She surprised me--she knew how to cook after all. Best of all the pots, pans, utensils, and plates she used had all been washed and put away. I felt like hugging her but didn't because I didn't want her to change her mind about that Fresno job.
Free at last, or almost, I thought. Not only from Carol but from my promise to return the favor somebody did for me when I first arrived in America. My slate was about to be wiped clean. We ate quietly and it really felt like a special occasion for the first time since Carol arrived. She had some good qualities after all. She had even learned how to make piña coladas.
After lunch, we took our drinks to the living room to watch football on television. She knew what channel to turn it to. She turned to me and said, "I'm sorry to have to leave you. I hope you won't feel lonely."
Who, me? Are you kidding? I thought to myself.
It was now raining outside--it figured, I had just washed my car. We sat down to watch the game. I explained to Carol how football was played but I couldn't tell if she cared or not. She pulled her feet up and snuggled close to me.
"I don't know how I can thank you enough for putting up with me."
The piña colada had made us mellow. I gave in to the urge to hug her. She hugged me back and I kissed her without being asked like the first time. She didn't protest and we shed off any remaining antagonism we had towards each other.
After a while, Carol got up and turned the TV off. She smiled faintly at me and silently walked to her room. I followed her in.
ANOTHER Saturday, this time two months later in Fresno. The air is crisp but the warm sun takes the chill out from my bones. I wait at the church door for Carol as I was the designated closest relative who would give her away.
She arrives in a limo and looks radiant as the sun hits her veil to form a halo around her face. She's wearing virginal white and is beautiful as brides should be. She comes to me--and gives me a knowing smile.
This story has previously appeared in print.