I’m back in Los Angeles and stand behind my father as he tells everybody the big news: my half-brother is getting married for money. “You see, Ben has purpose now,” my father says. “Purpose. God-given. The Lord gave him this opportunity.”
My half-brother rubs his hands over and over after each beat and breath. This is how Dad casts his net around us. He thinks this will bring the familia back together again. Marriage. Money. Want to make it in America? Marry, make money. It’s the only way; it’s what family has taught me since I was four when I sold calamansi lemonade on the sidewalk with Até Louise.
Every aunt and uncle and every good-for-nothing cousin huddles around the living room in a semi-circle. Some of them sit on the couch. Some of them stand. I scan the room. Old rugs and chipped wooden chairs are scattered everywhere—all things my father had purchased from Salvation Army years ago. Portraits of the Virgin Mary and the Last Supper adorn once white walls which have faded into a musty smoke gray since I’ve been gone. I look at Jesus and his disciples. After three years, the painting still hangs off-center. Crooked. No matter how many times I had straightened it out as a child, it always ended up askew.
Dad talks and I stay quiet. I can’t ask him why this is happening, I can’t protest. Family’s here. My mind feels fucked. I just landed from SFO an hour ago. Dad told me on the phone the day before it was urgent: you need to come home now, anak. Forget work, taking those pictures-pictures. We need you. He had already bought my plane ticket.
My father keeps talking: a friend-of-a-friend needs help. He met the girl’s family from one of his pares at the pool hall. They will give Ben ten grand, in installments of course, and he’ll buy a new car with that money. He needs one and my Dad certainly can’t afford another one after Ben’s accident a few months ago (he was driving home drunk or high, something he picked up from my good-for-nothing cousins after he moved here). After saying “I do” Ben will go back to school, maybe study phlebotomy; the girl’s family owns a technical school in medicine. Then after a few years, they’ll get a divorce. Let Ben off scot-free. My father rubs his round belly as he talks. He laughs his big, infectious laugh when he makes a joke. “Seven years older than Ben! Sagging breasts for ten grand? Sounds like God’s grace to me!”
Everyone laughs along with my father. But Ben sits cross-legged on the floor in the middle of the living room, staring into empty space.
“Ben’s only nineteen,” I say under my breath. “You can’t make him do this.”
Nobody hears me.
My father speaks louder. For once, he says, he’s proud of Ben. He’s helping our kababayan, a fellow countrywoman. But I think Dad, you’re always proud of Ben, even when you caught him smoking pot or ditching classes. He’s your only son. But I can never tell anyone this. You know how it is, with family. The things you can’t say, the secrets they hide until the omissions crack the surface, start fractures, evolve into lies.
This is just like three years ago, when I left for Berkeley. My father brought home a wife from his trip to the Philippines. She was my age. “Only visiting for a week, anak. Until I pass that test. Then, I’ll bring her back here and she’ll cook for us,” he said, with that laugh of his, the one that fills the room. It was a surprise, a welcoming-home gift, pasalubong. All for the familia. To complete us. Another lie of my father’s. He had married her in secret during his trip and took her home to meet us. My siblings and I knew his wish to “complete us” was a ruse to hide his loneliness. I ignored my father and his new “wife,” while my sister Louise went into a passive motherly rage, wiping anything my father’s wife touched, especially the kitchen utensils. My brother Ben stayed out longer partying.
It was another secret we have kept as a familia. It was something we didn’t openly acknowledge in our conversations, but all the relatives knew and gossiped about it. You know how it works. Tsimis. What we keep under wraps, like our Dad’s third-marriage problem. Or his lying problem, his mahjong-poker, pool-shooting problem, his tithing-way-too-much problem (always during confession), his sending-money-to-his-child-wife problem. We don’t talk about any of these things. I guess this fake wedding is his make-it-up-to-Ben moment for everything that happened when Ben lived apart from us. He has found Ben a bride, someone with money, another pasalubong.
I finally grab my father by the arm and say something, whispering in his ear. I tell him it’s illegal. I try to structure my disapproval from his point of view. I cite scriptures, rapidly, as fast as I could remember them. They come off fractured and disjointed. I mention God, Jesus, the Virgin Mary, sin, divorce.
My father just laughs at me. Everybody stares.
“Oh Patricia, God gave us this gift.” He pauses. “My anak, my child who forgets to go to church on Sundays. Walang hiya.” Dad flicks my forehead, and then kisses me on the cheek. Now, my cousins snicker. They nod their heads. Ask me what happened to my shame. After I turn away, cover my face with my hands, they finally shut up, satisfied.
Everybody laughs again, except my half-brother and me. Ben stares out the window, barely blinking. With his fingers, he plays with the wooden cross necklace his mother got him years ago. I look at Louise, eyeing her for motherly rage, and she puts her hands on my shoulders.
“Why can’t you just be happy for Ben? Like the rest of us?”
I shrug her off and head to my room. I am there for God knows how long. Nobody notices my absence until my father yells from the hallway.
“Pat! Bring the camera out. Take a photo of our happy familia!”
I sit for a while longer. My old room is crowded with junk my father accumulated over the years since I moved out after college—boxes and boxes of files, a bamboo broomstick, scattered poker chips, pool cues, blue chalk squares on the floor. I rummage through my duffel bag and pull out the DSLR camera I had saved up for since I was fifteen. My family thinks that my photography is a joke, a side hobby, especially Dad and Até Louise. I studied philosophy in undergrad at UCLA. They expected me to go to law school. I studied ethnic studies at Berkeley instead, dropped out of my doctoral program when the loans accumulated and compounded, and made a career out of wedding and event photos in the Bay. You can make a lot of money with the right eye and good equipment. Family rarely asks about what I do, how the assignments are going. Sometimes they assume I’m still becoming a “doctor” but criticize me for my liberal, non-Christian politics. I correct them. I never mention that I dropped out. I say I’m a freelance photographer. I make art. They scoff.
But they always ask for pictures.
I storm back to the living room. I will blur all their faces with my camera, use the shadows in the living room, create an aesthetic parody out of my ridiculous family. My uncles are cracking jokes on older pinays marrying the young, cheering with their coronas, and my aunts are laughing, covering their mouths. My sister holds her daughter Andrea on her hip, kissing my niece’s forehead. Ben sits alone on the floor, in the middle of the living room, in the middle of everything. The lamps are shining on him, a soft light. They beckon him to talk, protest, but he stays silent. I want to hug Ben, for once in my life. We don’t get along too well. But at this moment, I just want to hold him.
My father tells me to take a picture, asks everybody to smile, tells Ben to get up. He sluggishly stands, takes out his phone, and types, looks down at the floor again. My family crowds around him, Dad puts his arm around Ben, Até Louise leans in toward them. Ben still doesn’t smile. I bring the camera closer to my face and click on the shutter. Flash. I feel my phone vibrate in my pocket. The text from Ben reads “Help.”
Outside on the porch’s front steps, I can hear my niece Andrea cry and cry and my father yelling at the T.V. that’s playing his favorite game show Wowowee—you know the one, where scantily clad, fair-skinned girls dance to American pop music as an older pinay from the barrios steps into a tank with floating money, catches as much as she can with a broomstick, and everybody laughs. I can hear my sister on the phone as my aunts surround her, harping, barking orders in Tagalog. The wedding is in three days. Saturday’s dinner will act like the reception, introduce the families. Sunday’s the courthouse wedding. Of course Louise and my aunts would try to plan the wedding as if it were a real affair. Ordering flowers, lilies (Louise’s favorite), and a cake, reserving Golden Pheasant, our family’s post-church restaurant.
Ben leans against the porch, smoking a joint he had wrapped up in front of me. I tap his shoulder, gesturing my hand for a hit.
“You? Miss Vegan-I-Do-Everything-Right-Get-An-Education-Smoking-Kills-You?”
I laugh, covering my mouth, and hit him on the shoulder. “C’mon, let’s talk.” I wave my phone in front of his face, flashing his text message, a beacon.
He nods his head, flicks his joint and smiles.
“Let’s head over to the fountain. Dad will kill me if he sees you smoking.”
Ben moves in slow motion. He walks down the steps toward the rusted gate. The sky is slowly fading into night, it’s pink mixed with purple and shades of gray and blue. As I follow him, I can’t believe I’m home after three years. I’ve missed Christmas parties, birthdays, baby cousin’s christenings, all for my career, for photo shoots, assignments at Philippine festivals and marches, summer and holiday weddings, for paychecks, to build a network, to avoid coming home.
I walk past the wall of cacti that encloses the house on the left and see the sun setting. It’s a ball on fire, and though it’s turning into night, the air’s still warm and you can feel the sweat drops on your skin. On my right is the dried up fountain filled up with sampaguita flowers, something my Dad had gardened and kept up since I was a little girl. The calamansi tree stands behind it, holding the world still. Ben sits with his back against the fountain and rests his lanky legs on the rusted gate. He wraps up another joint, lights it up, and points it toward me.
I’ll admit it to you, I don’t get high that often. I’ve only gotten high once or twice, at a swanky party in Berkeley where everybody did coke and I opted for the lesser evil. My high fucks up my photographs; they come out blurred, like I am taking pictures of ghosts. But here I am with Ben, peeling petals off a sampaguita and smoking a joint. I smoke to relax, but I’m just anxious. Really, fucking anxious. My arms are shaking, my legs are shaking. I look at my half-brother. I still have a hard time seeing him as my flesh and blood. I don’t usually confess this to just anyone. You know it’s a shameful thing to say, in families like ours.
I take another hit. I’m fidgeting my legs again. Ben puts his hand on my knee, says it’s okay, laughs at how fucked up I am. I pass the joint to him and feel a calmness rush over me.
“Ben,” I start. “Don’t do this. It’s cheating the system.”
He shrugs, and I cross my arms, then clench the grass. He doesn’t look at me.
I think back to my time doing community work. The marches I led. The photographs I took of illegals, mga tago-ng-tago, the always hiding, capturing them at their most vulnerable moments in their box-shaped, confined rooms at the I-Hotel on Kearny Street. They sat idly, enclosed by the bare, plastered walls, looking out the window into empty space, just like Ben.
“You’re my half-brother. I came here for you. You asked for—”
He shakes his head, waves his arms like the air is suddenly thick.
“Help, yeah. I asked you to make them stop talking. Stop. Fucking. Talking. Not with this. Not convince me to do something else.”
He looks at me, his eyes flickering in the darkness, reflecting off the streetlight.
“I’m the one who told Dad. She came to me first. He lied about that pool hall shit.”
I don’t look at him. I can’t say anything, not for a long time. Finally, he extends his arm and passes the joint to me. I grab his forearm, clasp it softly as it shines in the limelight. I see what I’m used to: black spots spreading over his skin like clouds, covering his veins. There’s the slash scars from years ago, impressed on his wrists like bracelets.
When I was sixteen, Ben showed up in the living room like a ghost. His arms looked like overripe fruit, covered with small bruises on them. My sister had driven to Las Vegas the night before and fetched him from that “crazy bitch”—that’s what she has always called Ben’s abusive mother. Dad was nervous as hell, rubbing his hands over and over. My sister explained Ben was moving in with us, that I should be happy. We saved him. I looked away when my sister said this. She always exaggerated things, like my father. But when I glanced at Ben’s arms, I didn’t know what to believe. I remember the first words I said to Ben that night. “Why did you come here?” My arms were crossed, in defense. He said nothing of the beatings. “To get the hell out,” he said.
We can’t talk about the bruises or the scars. You see, in our family, there’s no privacy when it comes to boyfriends, girlfriends, jobs, tsismis, gossip, none at all. But then there’s this unspoken privacy: Hiya. Shame. Pain is the only thing you get to keep to yourself.
I pass the joint back to him and grab his left forearm gently when I notice something different. A new tattoo. It’s pure black and in the shape of a large question mark, at least four inches in height. I ask him when he got it. He says a few weeks ago. It’s still healing. I feel the weight of everything: the sun, the warm air, the cars that rush by our house, the line of cacti that encloses us. The noise and silence of home.
“I got this tattoo because it reminded me of you,” Ben says, breaking the silence.
I raise my eyebrows, confused, and take a hit. I breathe in too much. I cough and cough, grab my chest as Ben laughs at me, slapping my back.
“The first time I came here from Vegas, when Dad and Até left the room, you told me: ‘You’re nothing but a question to me.’”
“How is that a good thing at all? I didn’t mean that.” I think how this was years ago, when I was running away from home with school, overloading on classes, making up excuses.
“Because you were right. Até Pat, you’re honest. I’m nothing but a question.”
Between hits he asks me what does it matter if he marries this girl for money? Who would care? He repeats everything my father had said, like he was reciting Bible verses.
“I’m not like you,” he says. “I ain’t book-smart. I can’t keep selling you that bull.” He takes a drag, starts coughing, breathing in the high. He smiles now, a real one.
“I can’t stand it here anymore. You couldn’t either.”
I start laughing. I don’t know why. I hold my camera close to me; take pictures of the cars passing by us behind the gate. Ben laughs too, every time the flash goes off. Then a cop car rushes by us, sirens blaring and we duck, whisper ‘shit!’ aloud, in unison. We start laughing, slapping our knees. I look at him and smile. I think this is the first time we’ve laughed together since we were kids selling calamansi lemonade on the sidewalk and playing around on the front lawn as Louise chased us. But this was all before his mom took him away to Vegas, and I forgot he was ever my brother. I didn’t see him until it was too late.
Ben throws the joint on the floor. He leans his head back, looks up to the sky. Everything about him is burnt out like the crumbling joint we shared. The ashes float in the air bit by bit. And then I finally realize it. This is what it looks like. Escape, a quick one. Like the old pinay in the tank with the floating pesos and a broomstick.
“It’s still wrong. You’d be living a lie, gambling with fate, money, just like Dad.”
“You think it’s wrong since it ain’t you.”
I feel my stomach clench up. I clutch the grass again. You don’t know. You don’t, I repeat in my head. I think back to Berkeley, to the times I marched down Market Street in the city. The brown, ornate towers overshadowed us, but we were bodies—one body—protesting together like we were familia, a real one with no fractures, no omissions, no secrets or lies. I carried a red flag with a yellow pitch fork on it, raised my fist to the sky as we chanted: Makibaka! Huwag matakot! This was for the mga tago-ng-tago. The smuggled, tricked, the lied to. We called for a fair pathway to a green card, to citizenship. No cheating. No quick fixes. No broomsticks and floating money. I took photographs of them. Documented their pain, captured their struggling, juxtaposed raised fists against graffitied, cemented walls.
I look at Ben. He avoids my gaze. How can I tell him it isn’t just the fake marriage that bothers me? That I’m sick of how our family operates, sick of the lies and secrets, sick of their shallow religion. But we don’t talk about these things. I pick up my camera and take a photograph. He hugs his knees, looks straight into nothingness.
“Let me meet her,” I say. “I won’t let you get married until I do.”
He looks at me and smirks. “What a fucking busybody.”
I start laughing again and can’t stop. I hug him so hard he can’t stop either. When we calm down, Ben pulls out his phone and shows me a photograph. It’s a picture of him on Facebook, his favorite. His face is blurred against a white background—it looks like my room—and I can’t make anything out of it. I took it years ago, when I had just started photography.
“See? Even your art makes me look like a question.”
We borrow Dad’s beat-up Honda, tell him we are going out for food. Ben’s in the driver seat. We drive through Carson high as fuck. This city of my birth. We cruise down Dolores Street skipping stop signs, passing by our old high school and its barbed-wire, gated buildings that make it look like a prison.
The air is dry but crisp; you can feel anything on your skin. The window’s rolled down. The music is blaring.
We stop on the corner of Figueroa and 220th. Right by Tambuli Market. You know the place. It smells of peeled, salted mangoes mixed with gutted fish, a sour and bitter smell. It’s the local Filipino market with the broken, neon pink “Open” sign and the “Grand Opening” banner that’s been hanging for years. The one with pieces of soda-bottle glass arrayed on the storefront’s pavement. The one with aisles of imported candy and chips you’ve never heard of. The one place we’ve hated since childhood, when we wished our parents cooked hotdogs and burgers instead of fried, boney fish that pierced the hood of our mouths. It’s what reminds your parents of home and reminds us that we don’t belong here, or anywhere else.
Ben makes a sharp right. Pulls in the nearly empty lot and parks in front of Tambuli. He lights a cigarette and dangles his arm out the window. The workers outside move about lazily, sit on carton boxes, and stare at us, spitting Taglish. I start shaking my legs again. The street lamps cast a soft light on the workers. They look like ghosts staring back at us.
“What the hell are we doing here?” I ask.
He laughs at me, nods at my disgusted face. “This is where I met her. Her family owns it. Her aunt or uncle.”
“I thought her family owned some phlebotomy school?”
“They do,” Ben says. He points to the storefront next to Tambuli. The lights are off, the windows are tinted black, and there’s no signage above the door.
“That’s it? Is it even accredited?”
“Yeah, I checked. A few of her relatives work at Cedar-Sinai. The same uncle who owns Tambuli; he has two jobs, I think. Never fucking sleeps.”
He tells me the aunt manages the school. “That’s how we met. I applied to the phlebotomy school. Apparently, you can get some good money draining people’s blood. Better than bussing tables at Subway.”
He taps the tip of his cigarette. I can still feel the workers’ eyes on us, peering through the windshield.
“I couldn’t afford the tuition. So, the aunt introduced us.”
I shake my head, proud of his ambition but pissed at his audacity.
“Then why take me here?”
“Because she’s right there.” He points to a dark-skinned girl picking up glass shards off the ground, in front of the other workers. She’s wearing a pink apron that matches the neon sign. Her hair is black as the sky and tied in a bun. She flicks the forehead of one worker who’s sitting on a carton box. She yells at them in Tagalog. Get back to work, she says. Inside. She points toward the door. I see her sideways glances, the way she peers out into the distance, the sadness she carries in her body. And her arms, they look like overripe fruit, too.
“She looks old,” I say, arms crossed.
Ben opens the door and the car’s blinking light comes on, freezing me still.
“So? You want to meet her?” He looks at me.
I begin to shake my head, wave my arms in front of me.
“No. Not yet. Tomorrow. No, not ever.” I take a picture. The flash reflects off the windshield and we’re blinded for a moment that feels like forever.
The morning after I wake up in a gray haze and the smell of cardboard is on my tongue. My hand is stuck in one of Dad’s large, brown balikbayan boxes filled with his files. I take my hand out and hug my knees. When I feel a shadow over me, I open my eyes. My sister is standing at the foot of the bed. She lifts the blankets off without warning.
“Get up,” she says, and points at her watch. “Don’t you realize your brother is getting married tomorrow?”
I mutter it’s a fake wedding. That it isn’t going to happen. She shakes her head disapprovingly and sits me up, slapping my face gently.
“Who’s going to stop it? You?” She laughs.
I push her off me and try to grab the blankets from her. She continues laughing until I give up and ask for my niece. Louise says Andrea is with Dad; they’re playing in the living room. Andrea is the only subject we can talk about that won’t ignite a fight. Everything else is like walking on broken glass. She dropped out of college when she got pregnant with Andrea. When I talk about work or photography assignments, she scoffs, says I wasted Dad’s money. I would tell her that my thousands of dollars in school loans paid off my college, but she would never listen.
“You should have never went to college if you were going to end up doing that,” she once said, pointing to my DSLR like it were a crucifix. She puts her hands on her hips and tells me that we need to get to work.
I shake my head. There’s no window in this room, so I stare at the ceiling. The paint’s peeling off but I see the plastic stars my father stuck up there when I was child. They are still glowing in the morning light.
“He isn’t going to get married,” I say under my breath.
My sister clears her throat, ignores what I have just said. “We’re going to church. To give out wedding invitations.”
She begins directing me. This is what I need to do today: attend bible study at church, hand out invitations to family, pick up lilies from the open flea market if we have enough money left over, smile, act happy, be happy. I sigh and relent. I mention that she doesn’t have to come with me. That I could go to church alone.
“You? Going back to church? Like a prodigal son.”
She smiles and puts her hand on my shoulder, leaves it there until I place my hand on top of hers.
“This may disagree with your politics, but. . . ” She sighs, kisses me on the forehead. “Walang hiya. Don’t you have any shame? Let your brother do what he wants. He’s a man now.”
I cross my legs and give a small laugh. Nineteen years old and a man? When I left for college at his age, everyone kept telling me I was a little girl who had no idea how the world works, especially my sister. Ang bunso ko, my father would say, my baby daughter.
“And what right do you have? You come back after all this time and expect us to listen to you?” Louise looks me in the eyes and says this in a deep whisper, as if I’ve been dead for three years and have come back to life.
I drive to church through a grey fog. No one is on the road and Carson feels like it’s asleep. It’s early morning and I pass by closed shops and rows of same-colored duplexes. My father moved here during the 1970s, when he was in his mid-twenties. Escaped the Marcos regime. He tells me he was a respected engineer back home and had always dreamed of coming to America. Once, when he was a child, his mestizo cousin from the States visited him in the barrio and gave him a red, Mickey Mouse watch. Mickey was dressed up in a pilot’s helmet. A pasalubong of America. America meant everything to him. It meant Disneyland, candy-filled streets, dreams. He wanted to build airplanes. Explore the expanse of the painted sky. He gave up everything to come here. The only job he could find was at the pool hall. By day, he was a janitor. At night, a bodyguard. A hustler. A gambler. “Why did you leave?” I once asked him. He pointed at me, at my sister. Pursed his lips toward Ben. “Kids growing up in the barrio with tanks driving down the street? No good, anak.” He shook his head, smiling. And then he would laugh. “Makibaka huwag matakot. Leaving home, that’s another struggle, darling.”
I pass by the dim-lighted building on the corner of Figueroa. It’s in the same, deserted lot as Tambuli Market. The pool hall’s green-worded sign, Rack’em Billiards, is decorated by a nine ball and floating money. I see my Dad’s beat-up Honda parked in the front. Seven in the morning and my father’s cleaning, preparing for another night with his pares.
I brake at a stop sign and think about last night. The last time Ben drove high, one of his tires fell off at the 110 overpass and caused a traffic jam. He was frantic on the phone, crying, and Dad blamed it on Ben’s drug addiction. Not the guy from the pool hall who sold him the busted up Nissan. Ben never forgave Dad. And of course, they don’t talk about it. We can never talk about anything.
I exhale and turn up the defogger. The gray fog clouds my windshield. Then it happens: I swerve. Turn the wheel. A girl crossing the street suddenly stops, her palms outward, her body shaped like a cross. My sister’s car slips right past the girl, almost nicking her, and I press on the brakes. The squeaking sound of the brakes stops everything. I do a quick cross sign out of habit, thanking the Lord or whatever’s up there, hidden in that empty sky.
I didn’t kill her, this person in a pink hoodie. I shake and take shallow breaths. All I can smell is gas and burnt rubber. The girl runs toward my car. Her hooded body engulfs the rearview mirror. She’s screaming, hitting the car’s trunk, kicking the tires. All I can think about is her face—the spiked earrings, nose-ring, black, wandering eyes. I jerk the door open. Get out the car. To apologize, to say anything.
“The fuck were you doing? You blind?” she screams at me.
I look in the face of Ben’s wife-to-be. My mouth is open and I say nothing.
For now, Rowena is homeless. A power line crashed in front her apartment building three weeks before, leaving every unit without power. She’d been staying at the same church my family attends ever since, in a room upstairs.
“Call me Wena,” she says and looks at me. “Ben calls me that, too.”
I park right outside the church’s front steps. I hand her an invitation my sister has printed on regular, white paper. It’s folded neatly. The font’s Edwardian script—shows how much Louise is trying.
Wena mutters a salamat, thanks for the ride, the invitation. I ask her if she knows my family. She tells me she knew of us, that we make up the whole congregation. She’s excited to be part of a big family again. But the pitch of her voice is erratic, switching from high to low.
We walk toward the heavy, wooden doors. I can hear gospel music playing and vaguely make out my aunts’ voices from the choir. The sun’s slowly peeking through the clouds and polluted sky. Streaks of sunlight expose our arms—we’re a similar shade, cinnamon brown. I touch her arm and she flinches.
“I’m sorry,” I start as I remember the arms like overripe skin from the night before. I bite my lower lip. “Why are you doing this? There’s a better way.”
She stares back at me without blinking. I start rambling about the Dream Act. About registering herself. About education or military service. She looks at me, baffled.
“First, you try to run me over, kill me, and now you’re trying to ruin my wedding?”
She crosses her arms. I push the heavy door forward and it opens slowly; voices rush outside, filling the air with sound, loosening the tension.
“You don’t have a damn idea.” She eyes me, standing still. “You think I would trust strangers, tell them who I am? I can’t even trust my own.”
She points at me, points at my aunts singing.
“I lost everything. Ten grand. My money. Filled out permanent residency forms and other papers and documents, all of that, did it with a lawyer my aunt introduced me to. We met him at this church.” She looks me up and down, shrugs. “And now he’s nowhere to be found.”
She walks past me and down the corridor, toward the altar. I grab her again, yell at her. Ask how she’s going to pay my brother then. She looks at me without blinking again and smirks, as everyone turns their bodies in the pews and glares at us.
“My aunt’s money. I’m her slave till the divorce. Now, back off.” She pulls her arm from me and settles for a seat in the front. She does a cross sign and bends her knees, starts praying.
I hold the bundle of invitations with my right arm, my mouth still open, angry. An aunt comes over to me, kisses me, calls me my sister’s name by mistake.
“Anak, so good to see you! It’s been so long. Welcome to Bible study.”
I smile at her but say nothing.
“So are you married yet? With that face, you can’t wait any longer, ha.”
That face. I smile and shake my head. I put the invitations between us and hand her one. I give them to everyone at church and pass them out like candy. I leave without saying a word.
No hiya, they would say later to my father. Walang hiya. Your daughter, she left without even saying goodbye.
Every aunt and uncle and cousin fill Golden Pheasant with their sighing and cooing, dressed in Sunday’s best clothes. I can feel their excitement for Ben. I look for him in the crowded, red room. Dimmed paper lanterns hang from the ceiling. They’re red, orange, yellow, and purple. I feel like I’m walking against a crowd of bodies, down a hill, and toward a town on fire. I see Andrea being passed around to everyone. She’s crying as each aunt nuzzles her face, and raises her arm like a doll’s. I don’t know why I do this. I say my Hail Mary’s and the Lord’s prayers, even if they’re bullshit. I do the cross sign. I do anything that will take me away.
Food is everywhere. There are a million dishes on each table, and each is decorated with a golden, fried duck. Scattered on the tables are hills of lumpia and jasmine rice my sister had cooked. The tables are clothed with ivory linens, and the centerpieces are vases of sampaguitas, which Louise stole from our fountain, our father’s life work. There was no money left for the lilies.
Louise pushes me. She tells me to say “hello” to everyone. I nod my head and say nothing. I give her my silence, but I still smile. She flicks my forehead and then presses her hands on my face. “Let’s just be a happy family. For once.”
She points to a plump woman sitting in the corner. I can tell it’s Wena’s aunt. Ben sits besides her. Dad sits across from him, and Wena is nudged between them. She plays with her hair constantly, crosses her legs. Ben looks away from them, stares outside the window. They look tense together. But Dad, he’s smiling. The aunt, she’s laughing.
Louise pushes me again. “Go on,” she says.
I walk toward Ben. My aunt steps in front of me and starts jabbering about her daughter’s piano lessons, how I ought to attend one of her recitals and take photographs. I nod and smile, say I would if I find the time. Then one of my uncles takes me by the hand and tells me how adorable Andrea is. Asks me when will I get married.
“Ano ba, don’t you have any prospects?”
“No,” I tell him. He frowns and looks at me as if I were dying.
I’m only halfway toward Ben. Through the heads of aunts and uncles, I can see him cup his face. An older cousin hugs me tightly, almost crushing my camera around my neck, and asks why I wasn’t at her new son’s christening. I apologize and tell her I’m busy at my job. She repeats the same words my aunts had said to my father, with the exact pitch and tone: “Imagine that, if you’d have skipped this because of work. Walang hiya, I swear. As if family doesn’t mean a thing to you.”
I don’t say anything. I take a picture and she is stunned into silence. She takes a step backward, blinks. I smile at her.
“It’s great. It captures the moment perfectly.”
I start taking pictures to make them stop talking to me. I ask people to pose. To stand still. To freeze this moment in time. To become motionless. To stop Ben’s marriage from happening, even if it’s just for seconds. They laugh and smile at me, happily oblige with my camera. I move about the room, invisible. Finally, I hover over Ben’s table and my father’s talking with his arms and smiling. Then he looks at me.
“Anak!” he says and stands up, putting his arm on my shoulder. “This is my other daughter. My artist. She can do the wedding photos tomorrow!”
I smile politely. Nod at Wena. She doesn’t smile back.
Wena and her aunt look alike in every way. They share the same, curly hair, painted red lips and threaded eyebrows. They carry matching Gucci bags, placed neatly in front of them on the table. I can tell they are fake—the inscription on the tags read Cucci.
“Nice bag,” I say to Wena. I take a picture.
“Don’t you have any manners?” Wena says and shields her eyes.
Her aunt flicks her forehead. “Don’t listen to this girl! So stupid, she doesn’t know what she says. Take the picture again. I’m ready!” Wena’s aunt poses and smiles, wraps her arm around an awkward Ben, and throws up a peace sign.
I take the picture again. Ben looks at me, his mouth open.
I’m standing in the back with my arms crossed. Everyone moves around me, drinking and eating fortune cookies. I can’t hear them anymore. They’re muted and blurred like my photographs. My ears are burning, my stomach is burning, and everything swells like the paper lanterns above, like they’re on fire. I tap Ben’s shoulder. Ask him if he wants to go outside. Without a word, he gets up and heads out the door. My father sits idly with Wena and her aunt, talking logistics about the courthouse wedding. He holds both Wena’s and her aunt’s hands. “We’re becoming one,” he says.
I back away from the table. I head for the door. I follow Ben through the crowd of aunts, uncles, and cousins, pushing them all aside. My sister sees Ben open the front door and exit. I smile and mouth to her, “Everything’s fine. Everything.” Louise returns to talking to everyone again, hosting the whole dinner. Andrea is back in her arms. That’s my sister, I think, the strength of the family. Even if she can’t feel the earth shattering beneath our feet. It’s just another way of struggling, our constant smiles.
I push the glass door open but feel someone grab my arm. It’s my father. He turns me around and rests his hands on my shoulders. “Marriage. Money. You may not understand this now. But who are you to tell Ben how to survive? Live?”
I gently push my father away.
“I’ve lived here for thirty years,” Dad continues. “You think I can’t pass that test? I’m your father. What do you think those boxes of papers are in your room?”
I don’t say anything. I prepare for a lie, for one of his long speeches, or his infectious laughter. But I am not prepared to see the sadness in my father’s eyes.
“Court papers and debt.” he says. “They want to deport me. For debt. So don’t blame this girl. We play a game, anak. It’s a game.”
I let my camera fall between my hands, slowly, let it dangle from my neck. I look at Dad in disbelief at his confession. Another one of his well-kept secrets. The consequences flash in my head, and I hold back tears, my shock; it’s silly to cry now. He tells me it’s okay. He’ll handle it. He has a lawyer. I think about Wena—her lawyer from church who disappeared. He shakes his head, says he knows good people. He won’t leave us, not familia.
“Makibaka,” I say to him, placing my hands on his.
He smiles, kisses me on the cheek, on the forehead, and then backs away, nodding.
Outside, Ben smokes a cigarette underneath the streetlamp, puffing and puffing until he coughs. The smoke holds us in its gray hue, making everything stand still, even the passing cars, even their bright, red lights. I try to hold him. I try to tell him it’s okay. But he starts pacing now, back and forth, shaking and muttering indistinct sounds. I tell him to speak slowly, to breathe, and he stops right in front of me, in my face.
“What the fuck do you know? What I’m going through?”
He starts hitting himself. I put my camera on the curb and hold his arms. I’m not that strong, but I push him against the pole, tell him I love you over and over again until he calms down, until he stops pushing me away.
“She’s just like my mother,” he says finally, during this stillness.
The cars keep passing by us, the air feels warm and thick, like the exhaust is clouding our minds, and making it hard to see each other, know who we are. It’s like we were strangers at a bypass, loners standing before a sea of red lights. It is not the best lighting, but I pick up my camera and tell him to smile. This is the only language I know. Click. He doesn’t smile. Click. C’mon, for me. Flash. I love you. A quick smile. Click. A quick fix.
The next day, Ben marries Wena. He receives his money, but only partially. Then, just two months afterward, during the lies and immigration interviews, Wena meets a boy, falls in love, and posts pictures of them kissing on Facebook. Removes all the wedding photos I had took. Ben removes them too, and it crashes the whole scheme, screws it all up. They get a divorce after three months.
He keeps the money. Who is Wena going to tell—the cops? The immigration police? It’s a game, he says. The words of my father. He tells me this over lunch at a cafe in San Francisco. Right across Kearny Street. The I-Hotel. He had finally saved up enough money to visit me, and I give him a tour of the city. I array photographs of the manongs, the mga tago-ng-tago, on the coffee table in front of him like gifts, pasalubong.
“They’re like you,” I tell him, smiling. “All blurred. All questions.”
He smiles back at me, a real one. And for the first time in my life, I say: You’re family. But walang hiya, brother. Walang hiya. Leave us, if you have to. Escape. But do it without shame. Huwag matakot.
Green card weddings are just another well-kept secret in many Filipino American families. It's how my family operated: through secrets and disparities. I grew up with cigarettes on my tongue, handed Coronas to my father and his pares over poker games, and attended choir practice every Sunday. This story is my way of exploring family without shielded eyes, telling the truth, and uncovering what it means to love—without shame and in families like ours.
Melissa R. Sipin is a writer from Carson, California. Nominated for a Pushcart Prize in 2012, her writing has been published or is forthcoming in The Bakery: A Literary Journal, Lantern Review, and Kartika Review, among other publications. She cofounded TAYO Literary Magazine and is the recipient of the Narrative Writing and Community Engagement at Mills College, where she teaches a political writing workshop with Anakbayan–East Bay. She is currently pursuing her MFA in fiction.