A Memory of Sea
For my last night in Fremont, California, my cousin Sophia had this big idea of driving down to Santa Cruz to go swimming. â€œWeâ€™ll buy beers and everything, since you just turned 21!â€ Sheâ€™d been having big ideas for me the whole weekend I was there. Sheâ€™d say, â€œCecille! Letâ€™s drive to Six Flags and go on the Batman ride!â€ or, â€œLetâ€™s take the train to the city and then play guitar on the streets for money! Cecille, come on, you play so well!â€ but until then, all we did was sit around the living room of her boyfriend Mattâ€™s house, playing chess. Kuya Joseph was checkmating me on a Bart Simpson chess set but Marge stared bug-eyed at my Homer, so I didn’t feel like I was really losing. Arrow, Mattâ€™s Labrador, kept trying to steal the pieces; one of the Queen Marges had her hair chewed off.
I’d been in the United Stated of America a total of two months, and I turned 21 yesterday. Back home even a seven year old can buy beer (â€œpinapabili po ako ni itayâ€), but here in Fremont, California, I couldnâ€™t go in a 21 club a week before my birthday because it wasnâ€™t legal; kids under 21 arenâ€™t allowed to buy liquorâ€”so they banned minors from clubs. I wondered how my highschool life wouldâ€™ve turned out if I never got drunk and puked on car back seats when I was 14.
I ignored Sophiaâ€™s big idea because I was swimming the red tide and didnâ€™t want to go. I felt sticky and shifty, and my legs kept nervously riding against each other while we kneeled on the living room floor, my pad bulging uncomfortably. Mattâ€™s house had a maze of things to step on: discarded sweaters, old chewed up pillows (by Arrow and Mattâ€™s baby brother Tiny), CDs popped out of their cases, Arrowâ€™s dogfood, hairbrushes, magazines, blankets. A trail of dirty clothes lead to the washing machine by the den. Objects have a natural propensity to lie around here: yesterdayâ€™s dishes piled on the sink, reeking since yesterday morning, tables are disguised by old glasses, car keys, card games, ashtrays, a plastic ring, a highschool learner and todayâ€™s newspapers.
My lola says white people are too lazy to clean their own houses; Matt says their cleaning lady hasnâ€™t come in two weeks. Maybe itâ€™s just me, or Iâ€™ve been vacationing in this country for too long, but I feel like Iâ€™ve seen too many messy houses. American houses have too many things lying around. Back home things like cutlery, books and toys are displayed in glass cabinets, rarely used. Floors are bare and shiny from everyday sweepings. And when you walk around, there is no danger over tripping over anything but layers of dust on the floor. So all these foreign objects scare me; I stay in the living room where I know I wonâ€™t lose myself in a tangle of sweaters and doghair.
Mattâ€™s mom is a huge white woman with glasses like magnifying lenses. Sheâ€™s so big that every time she appears, its like sheâ€™s blending out of the huge floor length shelves in the living room; the grandfather clock by the stairwell, or the huge refrigerator in the kitchen. Sheâ€™s always offering us food. She says, â€œcall me Tammy,â€ every time we say â€œthank you, maâ€™am.â€ We, her guests, are a typical quiet Asian family, and she serves us rice for dinner, because she wants us to â€œfeel at home.â€ I glance over to Kuya Joseph and snicker. â€œYou should thank god she didnâ€™t bring out the chopsticks,â€ Sophia whispers.Â â€œShe thinks Flips canâ€™t use forks,â€ she laughs, spewing out rice at us.
Iâ€™m not surprised that she got that impression from Sophia, who is such a ditz she couldnâ€™t impart Pinoy culture to a maya bird. Sophia is the typical hootchie mama: she is the halter-top wearing, belly-showing, bleached-blond, eyebrows-plucked-to-the-sky, four inch heel booted babe that everyone thinks is fair game in Manila. She always reeks of Tommy Girl and thinks sheâ€™s helluv hot, just because she was born here and has an accent and canâ€™t say â€œputanginaâ€ properly. Sometimes I look at her and canâ€™t believe that we have the same lolo, that we have the same family name, only she says â€œPey-reyZâ€ instead of â€œPeh-rehz.â€ I turn my head and see her nuzzling up to Matt, who is huge like his mom, but is at least quiet and always just there like a blob of air. Sophia is an air vacuum.
After dinner we clean up after ourselves, stack the dishes and put them in the dishwasher slots. Sophia calls her bestfriend Anna. â€œJust come over so we can all go swimming, ahl-rhayt?â€ she whines. Even though itâ€™s nine in the evening, Anna arrives in ten minutes. We head off to Mattâ€™s van, where thereâ€™s a scramble over wool blankets and bucket seats. I settle in the back; thereâ€™s enough space to lie down in and watch the trees on the freeway spin by.
â€œNothing beats Mattâ€™s Mormon van,â€ Sophia says. â€œHuh?â€ I ask Kuya Joseph.
â€œMormons have a lot of kids,â€ he explained.
â€œSo all Mormons have big white vans that can fit twelve people. Like this van.â€
I donâ€™t really talk to Sophia; I mean, we both speak English, I know that much, but I donâ€™t understand her. When I listen to her talk to Anna her words are alien and sadder, flashier and wilder, hiccupy and liltingly sweet. When they address me, I have to cock my head sideways, trying to figure out what they are saying. Anna is a Fil-Am, too. Twenty years ago, my dad couldâ€™ve courted their moms, except their moms were whisked away by the promise of apple pie and fresh orange juice, unlike mine, who stayed to puree mangoes in the summer and have buko on hot afternoons.
â€œWhat time is your flight again?â€ Sophia asks me, and her words travel the distance from her shotgun seat to the last row, where I am. The difference: it floats over 2,000 miles of ocean, through a whole slew of giant malls and freeways, a tubful of fishballs, malutong na putanginas, a sense of shame, kahihiyan, conos and skwakings and hoochies and homies, maids and dishwashers, SM Shoemart and Costco, Fords and Toyotas, and churches and rollerskates. That accent: it is bubblegum, milkshakes and apple pie. Sophia is three years younger than I am, but I feel so young around her.
I close my eyes and try to picture Sophia as a white girl; it helps me understand what sheâ€™s saying better. â€œTen AM.â€ I call out to her. â€œAlas diyes ng umaga,â€ I repeat under my breath. We listen to Steely Dan on AM radio. (Our house, is a very very very fine house . . . with two kids in the yard, life used to be so small . . . .)
The song gives me hippie visions: camping trips, a fire, dandelion wine and cub scouts. I know whyâ€”like everyone else, I grew up on Sweet Dreams pocketbooks and Nancy Drew stories. Americana is my life, and I am in my Sweet Dreams novel, lying down on a matress in a â€œMormon van.â€ Any moment now, I thought, lightning will start, and Matt will turn on his wipers so we can only see headlights of passing cars in glowing blurry streaks, like in movies.
Sure enough, minutes later, it starts drizzling. The rain doesnâ€™t last very long, though. â€œMalayo pa?â€ I ask.
â€œAno?â€ Matt asks back.
â€œWhoa! Galing ah!â€ I giggle like Iâ€™m stupid, til Sophia says, â€œI taught him to say that to any Filipino phrase he doesnâ€™t understand. We have about an hour or so til we get there.â€
Weâ€™re going through dark winding roads and freeway, and I start feeling nauseous. My stomach is cramping because of my period, and Iâ€™m in no mood to socialize. â€œAt least weâ€™re going to the beach,â€ I thought. â€œI can just walk through the shore and waves will lap at my feet.â€ After particularly dark stretch, Matt pulls over. â€œWeâ€™re here,â€ he says.
I sit up, and we pile out of the car. From the road there are no lights. Thereâ€™s a cement platform with a toiletâ€”beside it, steps that go through a patch of weeds lead to the beach. I look around, my eyes adjustingâ€”not to the dark, it was dark enough in the vanâ€”but to the strangeness of it all. The place looked nothing like the beaches I know: the beaches I know are laid out, soft and quiet, like cotton sheets. There are palm trees and dancing fishing lights seen from 38km distance from the shore, and the light dancing on the ocean reflects the winking of the stars.
This beach, however, looked like a scratchy woolen sweater: it was bumpy, scary and rough. There were cliffs on both sides, rocks and driftwood the size of tree trunks, and waves riding up to my waist. â€œWeâ€™re here?â€ I ask nervously. So much for walking through the shoreline with waves lapping at my feet. These waves were noisy and messy, and as they crashed onto the sand, they sounded like they were going to slurp me up.
â€œLetâ€™s build the fire,â€ said Sophia. We started collecting firewood, except that since it had just rained, all the wood was wet. Still, we picked them up evenly in the bellies of our sweaters. It was so cold that the ocean sting wanâ€™t salty but nippy, and I could see the moon, pale and gibbous, trying fight its way through the clouds to reflect on the waves. The wind blew sand in my eyes and I hurried back to where we set up to try to build a fire.
I sit there stupidly while everyone starts taking off their clothes. â€œLetâ€™s goooo Cecille!â€ Kuya Jomar says. I feel funny and and sick and I have my period, but Sophia is taking off Mattâ€™s shirt and running into the water. â€œSoph, itâ€™s 55 degrees out there,â€ I call out. The fire is sputtering out flame balls, but Anna runs into the water after them. â€œWhooooooo!â€ she yells. â€œI feel a drizzle,â€ I say. They all call me in. â€œCecille!!! You have to try the Pacific Ocean at midnight!!
So I take off my sweater. Then my t-shirt. Then my thermal underwear. I take off my bra and see my nipples harden into pencil erasers, and I keep my panties on. I run to the edge of the sea and find everyone sitting in two feet of water. â€œToo dangerous to go further,â€ Matt laughs.
I wade away from them, and the waves lunge and roar and lunge at me. I swirl the water around me with my hands; it is like wading through smooth ice. I hear my cousin and her friends screaming in laughter, and I ignore them. I stare at the moon until it disappears. The clouds flow, then take form, then thereâ€™s drizzle again. Maybe here, it rains ice, hence the temperature of the sea, I thought. I stand up to feel the raindrops.
The waves crash above me and my eyes sting from bullets of 55 degree water â€“the rain and the sea melting on my face. And then I feel it: my blood starts drip down my legs, goose bumpy soft, smooth and brown. It is salty, iron-warm. It is familiar to the sea.