Friday, April 10, 2009

Last Dance in Manila

The following short story was written following a trip to the Philippines in September/October of 2007. It was originally published in the Japanese travel magazine, Neutral. I am putting it on my blog since it is a story of a brother and sister, fictionalized, but there is a little truth in every story.

Last Dance in Manila

When Grandma died, I figured my brother, Max, was kidding when he recommended we visit the Philippines together. The last time we had vacationed was probably when he was sixteen and I was fourteen: the Grand Canyon, a hot, stuffy ride between vistas, Grandpa complaining about the crowds, Grandma about the heat. Behind their backs, Max repeatedly bombarded my teenage anxieties: ‘Olivia has an ostrich face.’ I hated my brother.

However the Philippines was not a completely random suggestion. When we lost our parents at a young age from a car accident, we were raised by our maternal grandparents. Grandpa had once been a military man who had fought in the Pacific, a hero of his time. When he helped the American army liberate Manila, he met my grandmother, “the most beautiful flower in all the archipelago,” Grandpa fondly boasted. Her name, in fact, was Rose, and though delicate and fragrant, she had thorns as well.

Around the time I finished graduate school, Grandma became sick. Max and I were her only relatives as she was ours. Both of our parents had been single children, as had been all our grandparents—we had no cousins, aunts, uncles—my brother, his wife, and that was it. But before Grandma died, she had become delirious. She spoke of the past, her childhood especially, of Manila, and of the coasts and mountains, of the sounds of birds and frogs at night, of the blues and greens of the swirling seas, of breaking curfew dancing with men of strong and sturdy posture. And then of a sister who she would “see in hell.” Here, my grandmother’s thorn.

While we were growing up my grandmother spoke little of her youth. We knew she was a ‘mestiza,’ because our great grandfather had gone there as an American entrepreneur to open some of the city’s first movie theaters, marrying a Filipina. But Grandma’s parents died right before the war. If Grandma had a sister it was the first time I had ever heard about it.

At the funeral I told Max about Grandma’s secret. A lot gentler since the days he called me ‘Ostrich Face,’ lately Max had been full of surprises. After university he had worked as a banker for some years but after getting married he suddenly quit to become a photographer. But he couldn’t seem to make much money out of it. He lived in San Diego, shooting weddings in Spanish chapels or barefoot brides on picturesque beaches. We knew very little of each other’s lives, mostly generalities. After a bitter childhood rivalry we never became friends.

“Let’s go to Manila and see if Grandma’s sister is still alive,” Max suggested. “Maybe we have a huge family there we know nothing about.”

I had only finished graduate school. Once I had wanted to be a writer but lately it looked like I would wind up a teacher. I wasn’t ready for a career or the future. I needed a vacation. And I was hoping we did have someone in Manila who I might love and who might help me in my loneliness.

With the money we inherited from Grandma’s estate, I decided to accompany Max to the Philippines, hoping he wouldn’t call me ‘Ostrich Face,’ and that we would somehow get along.

On the flight to Manila I learned Max had big plans for us: “I had no luck with the Internet. In fact, all I managed to find was the address of a private detective. I figure he can look for us while we travel around the Philippines.”

That was not what I had envisioned. He was copping out. I figured we would be the detectives but Max wanted to outsource our labor.

“Look, Olivia, it's a big city in a big country. Did you know that there are 7,107 islands in the Philippines? Even if she hasn’t left the city, there are over ten million people in Manila. Many speak English but the main language is Tagalog. I say we hire an expert so we are free to travel. Besides I need some pictures…”

Manila reminded me of Los Angeles, a city without a center, an urban sprawl that seemed endless and without exit. We wandered the crowded streets where I bought fresh mangos and Max ordered grilled chicken feet. I scanned the faces for a distant cousin, dreaming of the happy reunion. But the faces seemed contrary, not only from my own, but from each other. Filipino people—having mixed ancestry from occupying forces of Spanish, Americans, and Japanese, as well as having been settled by Chinese—reminded me of Americans and their complicated multicultural heritage. They had an easygoing laugh and talking to them reminded me of my grandmother, her dark olive complexion and warm smile.

We found a taxi easily enough so we could visit with the detective. His office was in the outskirts of Makati, Manila’s skyscraper district. Garcia was his name—a round, balding type who smelled of tobacco and who took our information down with an old typewriter. Our great grandfather’s name was Frank Fergueson. Our great grandmother’s maiden name was Monica Loutenco, a name that for me spotlighted an older, more elegant world. That was about all we knew.

“You’re not giving me very much,” Garcia shrugged, puffing his stogie.

“But can you do it?” Max asked. The question just kind of hung there for a moment, until finally repelled by the shrill traffic noise rushing below the window.

Garcia said anything was possible in Manila. But we didn’t stay and wait for his news. Max had booked us flights, for which we had to hurry to make. I asked him where he intended for us to go—Bohol, Mayon, Banaue—I had not done my research and the words sounded exotic, but like code, the secret language of pirates. “It’s easy:” coral reef, volcano, rice terraces was his explanation.

We flew to Bohol, an island in the southern range of the archipelago. Upon landing, we headed to a hotel on Panglao, a smaller island to the southwest connected to the larger island by bridge. Riding the taxi, I could see the jungle closing in on the road, shrouding the homes and schools, basketball hoops built from bamboo posts, plywood and recycled metal. In the front porches: karaoke machines, bottles of beer, scalped coconuts, and people singing.

Max insisted we go snorkeling. Throughout the Philippines, the coasts are famous for their reefs and aquatic life. As a boy, Max had been competitive—he liked to race as well as hold his breath—if we swam I expected him to dive down into the jumble of fish so that he could declare how strong he was. But when he propelled himself deep the first time, he squeezed my hand to follow and we kicked out, floating before the scattering fish like characters from dreams, until both of us ascended together, gasping for air.

While in Panglao, we hired a taxi to take us inland to the Chocolate Hills, a geographical wonder of gumdrop-shaped mountains, nearly identical in size and color, hundreds of them going to the horizon. Legend declared they were the teardrops of a heartbroken giant. Max set up his tripod and referred to his light meter. The sun was nearly gone and the sky was rippling into deeper and darker colors.

“Do you think they look more beautiful in a photograph?” I asked.

“It depends on the photographer,” he said.

“What do you see?”

“Light. Earth. Myself.”

“Is this why you became a photographer?”

The shutter clicked. He looked up at me. “I’m still becoming, Olivia.”

He made me jealous then. Unintentionally. Because he seemed to love photography as much as he once loved banking, which had one time been basketball. He was easy with his passion; it seemed to be his natural disposition.

The next day we took a connecting flight to Legaspi, in the vicinity of Mt. Mayon, a notorious volcano, which had erupted many times, as late as 1993. It never stopped smoldering—sulfurous smoke swirling from its cone like some exhalation of the earth’s bad breath—so very much alive, the earth seemed— tempestuous, sullen, magnificent. It was good enough for me when the tip poked out of some clouds but Max grumbled as he repositioned his camera along different viewpoints.

“This volcano reminds me of you,” he joked. “Coy, but full of fire, ready to blow up anytime, extremely dangerous.”

“Volcanoes don’t blow up without cause. Maybe they're jolted from dormancy by the acts of man.  Or maybe they just seem more frightening if you don't make an effort to understand them.”

"What are you getting at?"

"You started this whole subtext thing. You can figure it out."

“Was I a bad brother?”

“You don’t seem to know how hard it was. You even made we wish I was an only child.”

Max paused, unsure what there was to say, “The way we used to fight, you and I may as well have each been an only child; we were more bitter roommates than brother and sister.”

“I don’t hate you anymore,” I really believed this.

“Thank you.” He smiled at me, not as a brother but as a friend. “You know, when I decided to quit banking, I was scared for awhile. I want to start my own family but I can’t afford it yet. I often wonder if I would be better off as a talented amateur instead of a struggling professional. I thought it was too late to become a photographer. But times aren’t that hard, Olivia. And I like the work. Its never too late to do something if you try hard enough.”

We had just enough time to get to Banaue, in Northern Luzon, where we wanted to visit the famous “Stairway to Heaven,” rice terraces carefully carved into the Cordillera Mountains. They were cut into the earth 2,000 years ago by hand, a feat which made the spectacle all the more beautiful.  Unfortunately, many of the fields had fallen into disrepair, as many young people had left their villages to sell souvenirs or make fortunes in Manila, a neglect visible in some crumbling walls. 

Being the back end of the rainy season, we treaded on sodden paths made mysterious by mist languidly tickling the hills. Stepping lightly on these narrow grooves bordering flooded plots on either side, we followed Mario, a local guide, leading us through the wistful paths of twittering dragonflies, and as evening came, past frogs croaking amid the soiled fields. No matter how steep or muddy our way pointed, Mario’s singing pierced the relative quiet with his joy for melody. I wished I had his utter lack of self-consciousness.

I thought of my grandmother then and the way she used to hum when cooking dinner or driving us to school. She loved music, needed it. In her time she taught ballroom dancing, though I never seemed to pick the steps up.

“Do you think Grandma ever made it this far north?”

It made me sad that I did not know, that I had not asked this when I had the chance and that in all the time I had my grandmother I had never asked her the right questions, that there could exist a world she kept to herself, a part of me that had been lost but partially recovered.

In Manila again, the crowded, colorful jeepneys, the karaoke bars, and Spanish stone churches, paintings illustrating the trials of Jesus. At our hotel, a message from Garcia: an address he wanted to share with us.

“Good news, bad news,” he announced at his office. “Good news is your grandmother had a sister named Felicity. She’s alive. The bad news is she never married. She has no children and so when she dies you will have no more relatives here.”

I looked at my brother looking at me. Indeed we were all we had.

Felicity’s address was down a quiet alley in Binondo, the Chinese enclave in Manila.

We practiced opening greetings. Nothing sounded right. I wondered if maybe Grandma’s sister would even want to meet us. I wanted to turn back and go home but Max insisted we finish what we started.

The apartment was up a stairwell. We knocked. An old, dark woman appeared with graying hair. But I saw in her eyes the spark Grandma once had, something both resonant and intimidating. She looked us over, confused why two foreigners should be standing in her doorway.

“Felicity Fergueson? We have something important we need to share with you. Can we come in?” Max asked.

She led us into a small room furnished in an elegant colonial style. A karaoke machine was connected to the television. On a side table, an old phonograph and beside it, a shelf with hundreds of old records. I saw small paintings of landscapes, cats, and flowers, framed and hung, reminding me of Grandma’s other talent. Felicity served us Coca Colas. She must have been in her 80s but didn’t look frail. Her figure was slim and she moved gracefully for her age.

“My name is Max and this is my sister, Olivia. We are your kin,” Max explained. “Rose Fergueson, your sister, was our grandmother.”

The old woman staggered back, her face pale. “My God, you are!” She appeared horrified. “Is Rose with you?”

“Grandma died last month.”


“Why did you and Grandma stop talking?”

“Ask your grandfather.”

“He’s dead too.”

The old woman sighed, falling back into a chair. She didn’t have to say anything more. Her history was past and personal. Perhaps mistakes had been made. Some slights could never be forgotten though perhaps forgiven.

She sat there in silence. Max had been fidgeting with his camera but decided to put it away. He moved to the phonograph. “You have quite the record collection.”

“Hm?” Felicity was looking away, looking back it seemed.

“Grandma used to give dance lessons.”

“Oh, she could dance well but she wasn’t patient enough to teach.”

“She’s right,” Max said to me. “I still don’t know how to dance.”

“It’s easy,” the old woman growled. She rose from the chair and moving to the phonograph, selected Benny Goodman’s “In a Sentimental Mood.” The prewar jazz strands of Goodman’s clarinet rasped as Felicity took my brother and moved to the music. “One, two,” she whispered, directing his feet and how he should turn her.

“But I’m too old,” she said. “You should try with her.”

Max stood over me, his hand outstretched, offering me a dance. I moved to embrace my brother who did not step on my toes.

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