Mama told you not to suck on the bead, but you don’t know what else to do in the room with the chalkboard. The bead is shaped like a dolphin and is gold. You trace its ridges with your tongue. You’re perched on a tiny green chair by the cubby that holds your lunchbox and coat. Cinderella is on your lunchbox, but her milky face is smushed. Letters snake across the room like the dirt paths of your old home. The Philippines. Some days you wake to dreams where you are running through them again, those dirt trails in the mountains, running, until Mama is shaking you awake saying, Seya, Seya, wake up, anak!
Your eyes follow the letters, their little illustrations. Alligator. Beachball. Car. Auntie Paz taught you these letters this summer, on days where she and you and your baby brother, Javier, would walk to the park. There, you marveled at the eggs the neighborhood boys had hurled to the ground. How the eggs sizzled in the heat atop the asphalt haloed by cracked shells. That was the summer the entire city lost electricity, and for three whole nights the sky was as black as it was in your old home, but with less stars.
Other kids shuffle through the door. Note that a few resemble Americanos from TV, blond and shiny and perfect. One boy wears a ballerina skirt, and one girl cannot stop wailing. Her cries ring through the room. You chew, faster, on your bead. You are not the only one here.
Alrighty, class, says the old woman in the front, whose eyes you’d been avoiding. The maestra. Her hair is the color of ash at the bottom of the votive candles in church, where you and Mama would light one for her dead mother. The maestra’s glasses are crooked and remind you of the whale poster you and Auntie Paz hung next to the bed you and Javi share.
A girl sits next to you. She stomps one foot. Her sneakers flash. She smiles, revealing tight-fisted eyes and a gap between her front teeth.
What’s your name? she asks. Her voice reminds you of a cartoon character’s. You stare at her marshmallow skin.
Name? Hell-oooo, she says. Your name?
Seya, you think. Instead, you whisper, Casey.
♦ ♦ ♦
The walls were stripped bare of their few decorations, namely the cheap reproduction of the Last Supper and the oversized wooden fork and spoon that flanked the kitchen entrance. The cupboards were emptied of charred pots, the one frying pan. Mama swept the concrete floors over and over. A brand new comforter, your best clothes, and a bleached pair of sneakers were among the items arranged into three large suitcases labeled MICHELLE KINDIPAN, your mother’s name, and NEW YORK, NY, your destination.
The rest of the items—the mismatching mugs, the TV whose screen was the width and height of a sheet of paper—were given away. You watched as your house grew emptier each week and, while it was happening, promised Mama you’d keep an eye on Javi. You and Javi escaped to play outside with your neighbor and best friend, Boy.
You and Boy rolled the marbles in the dirt and held them up to the sun where those hard little balls were especially glassy and green. The marbles were one of the many gifts sent over from Boy’s mama in Saudi. Javi squatted next to you. He couldn’t understand the rules and, instead, plucked pebbles from the ground and collected them in his pockets. The three of you tossed a ball, slightly deflated but still fine, climbed into the back of a rusty pickup truck, and harassed a flock of chickens together. Each time you caught a bird, you cradled it tight in your arms until the creature burst from your grip, wings spreading like an angel’s.
Seya! Your mother called from the doorway, her face flushed from packing, scrubbing, cooking, preparing. Play with Javi and make sure he keeps his hat on, it’s chilly today! Go with Boy to collect more potatoes. Anya met?! Why did you just drop them all over the table? Can’t you see I’m chopping cabbage here? Our farewell party is tonight, don’t you remember? Go help Lola Belén collect the laundry. She’s old, do you want her back to break? Hai, dios mio! Just stay out of the way.
And so you raced Boy up the third highest mountain in the municipality. You ran past the gardens chiseled into the side of the mountain, past the plants growing in perfect rows, the cabbage heads blossoming in the sun as you climbed higher and higher. You moved so that bamboo shoots wouldn’t jab your ankles. Your feet beat into the soil that ascended to where the clouds veiled everything in mist.
Boy! you called. Boy! Stop running so fast!
Javier toddled behind you, pebbles bouncing from his pockets. You stopped and grabbed his arm. Boy’s shaggy head bobbled ahead of you.
Come on, Javi! Let’s get him!
You were close enough to see the patches sewn onto the seat of Boy’s pants, his hoodie whose sleeves stopped beneath his wrists. You catapulted yourself onto Boy to stop him. Latched onto him. Javier bumped into the both of you and his weight and your joy were too much to bear. The three of you collapsed in a heap.
Panting, you untangled yourself and scanned beyond the cliff at what you could see below you: farmers bent over, their hands digging into the flesh of the green earth, their bodies like dots scattered across spiraling trails. Fertilizer—ripe, pungent manure—filled your nostrils. But you didn’t crinkle your nose at the scent. You knew the manure housed bean sprouts, carrots, cauliflower. Your heart pumped.
The three of you pressed your palms into the soft, damp ground.
Do you have to go, Seya? Boy said.
You shrugged. You laid your palm into the handprint Boy had made. Pressed deeper.
♦ ♦ ♦
When your aunts, uncles, and neighbors kissed you goodbye the morning you, Mama, and Javi are to leave—that is, before boarding the bus that would take you to Manila, where you’d see skyscrapers for the first time, and before getting on the airplane where your home zoomed into something unrecognizable, and you weren’t sure what was earth and what was sky—you breathed in your family’s scent. When their arms encircled you, you inhaled the ash that had settled onto their coats and wooly hats after the last bonfire, their hands that had tilled the dirt and sifted through grains of rice. They had nothing else to give you.
Do not forget us, Seya, they said. Do not forget your family here.
When Boy said goodbye, you clung to him.
Your best friend fiddled with a gap in his sweater where a button should have been.
Seya, your mother said. It’s time. The van that was to take you to Baguio was loaded with your suitcases and boxes. The driver, bored, smoked a cigarette.
I don’t want to go, you said to your mother.
Seya, she said.
I don’t want to go!
Goodbye, goodbye, goodbye, everyone said. You screamed, No no no no no! Your mother picked you up, carried you to the van.
♦ ♦ ♦
In this new place—which you learn is called Elmhurst, Queens—there are no chickens. No dirt trails, no mountains to climb. No carrots and potatoes to dig up. No packs of stray dogs you must avoid. Instead, there are squirrels. There are rats and cooing, gray birds that swoop and peck the sweet bread, the one Mama bought you at the Chinese bakery, right out of your hand. There are sidewalks speckled with black, hardened gobs of gum, a man who tailors shoes and sells his old electronics beneath the overpass. There are no tricycles to take you from home to the marketplace with Mama. No Lola Belén. No aunties. No uncles. No Boy.
Just Mama, Javi, you—and Auntie Paz, Mama’s sister, who greets you at the airport.
Is this Seya? My little niece? she says.
She turns to Javier, cups his face in her hands. Hello, guapo! Her skirt swooshes around you as she embraces you and Javi. Her pregnant belly smacks your face. Her bracelets—Bangles, anak, Auntie Paz says, when she catches you marveling at them in the taxi—clink together in your ears. She could be a movie star. You instantly fall in love with her.
You and Javi exit the airport and stand shivering in the February night air. Ice covers the ground and people hurry left and right. You have never seen so many people before. Auntie Paz hands you a puffy purple coat and one with an astronaut on the back to Javier. She tears off the tags with a yank.
You had never needed a coat so thick. You had never known the cold.
Your new home is also Auntie Paz’s home, which is above a nail salon. Canvases whose surfaces are swirled with paint are propped against the wall.
I cleared out my art studio for you guys, says Auntie Paz.
The room, which still smells sharply of turpentine, holds two beds. The bathroom, to your surprise, contains a toilet that flushes without you having to throw in a bucket of water.
It is your Auntie Paz who watches you every night when Mama begins her new job at St. Paul’s Hospital. When Mama gets home, she describes her night as you eat your breakfast of scrambled eggs. A sixteen year old girl, Mama says. Pregnant. Her own father, too—Dios mio. She says, This old woman who broke her hip? Her family dumped her in the hospital. Didn’t visit once and squabbled over her will. Other days, Mama is too exhausted to speak. Her head droops in slumber at the kitchen table.
When you ask if you will see Papa, who has been in the States for two years, Mama snorts, says in English, Your Papa? He’s who knows where.
You wonder if Who Knows Where is a place with dolphins that screech when you wave at them like the ones in the aquarium Auntie Paz took you and Javi to see. You are obsessed with dolphins.
But when will he be back? you ask Mama, who continues to iron her scrubs with the emblem of the American hospital stamped above her heart.
Seya, she says. Please.
With a kiss on your head, Mama leaves you with Auntie Paz. We’re lucky your Auntie’s on maternity leave, she says, pulling her coat on. And I’m lucky they have this sort of thing in the States.
So, Auntie Paz plays Snakes and Ladders with you and Javi, cooks sinigang na baboy, whose salty vinegar scent fills the apartment. Other nights she makes mac and cheese from a box. But always, without fail, are her art supplies, which are never far. Paints of every color and consistency, brushes whose soft bristles you like to smooth across your face, beads, clay, and a special box of pastels for you. Maize, Strawberry, Cerulean, Tangerine, Auntie Paz reads when she picks up each crayon. You test out these colors with tiny strokes. The pastel called “Forest” is the one you like the most because it reminds you of crops ready to harvest. Beside you, Javier lines up his collection of miniature toy race cars bumper to bumper. Mama purchased them for him at Dollar Tree after he’d cried and cried for them.
Auntie Paz helps you write your name on the small canvas. She places her fingers over yours. Together you write
S E Y A
in the sky, by the sun.
♦ ♦ ♦
The weather grows warmer, rainier, and one day, you wake up to fog covering everything outside your window. You think you have been transported home. You haven’t. You shed your puffy coat and take note of the green stalks that rise from the ground, though not at all in the graceful way you are used to seeing plants bloom. Here, weeds spring from pavement cracks and parched dandelions stretch toward the sun. When you squat and touch the grass growing from a little square plot at the park, strewn with candy wrappers, it prickles your skin.
For your fifth birthday, Mama buys peonies, roses, and carnations dyed cerulean from the minimart. She arranges them in vases scavenged from the clearance section of Home Goods. She places dahlias by the doorway, which perfume the entrance and mask the ammonia stench wafting from the nail salon. She puts roses on the windowsill and carnations and lilies at the kitchen table.
We missed the Panagbenga Festival, anak, but we can still celebrate with our own flowers. And it’s my Seya’s birthday!
Mama says, When I was pregnant with you, I almost didn’t make it to the hospital.
Crowds of people were there to see the parade. I thought about naming you sampaguita, after the flowers blocking the road. That would’ve been a mouthful, ha, Seya?
You think that she looks truly happy as she trims the stalks, clasps and unclasps the flowers to let them fall in place.
Panagbenga, she says. The season of blooming.
You stick your nose into the center of a daffodil. It is the color tangerine. You practice pronouncing this word, which buzzes on your tongue: Tan-gerrr-ine.
When Auntie Paz arrives and sees all the flowers, she says, Oh!
She calls to your mother. Michelle—Is everything okay?
Your mother nods, waves her hand absently in the air as if to say, Yes, yes. Dips her head into a bouquet.
Seya, Auntie Paz says. Umaika itoy, mon. Come here.
You go to her. She reaches into the pocket beneath her swollen belly and removes a bracelet with turquoise beads and a lone dolphin charm. Pins it around your wrist. It is the prettiest thing you own.
I brought you something else, she says.
At the table, you spy a cake. It is decorated with plastic figurines from Cinderella: the magic pumpkin carriage, the fairy godmother, the glass slipper, and of course, Cinderella herself decked in her signature powder blue ballgown.
Javi! Javi! you scream. Look what Auntie Paz got me!
Mama frowns when you push aside her sticky rice wrapped in banana leaves. You had never tasted ice cream before. You were used to milk poured over shredded coconut, red beans, and gelatin cubes all mixed with crushed ice. Instead of these textures, the ice cream is smooth and will taste vaguely of strawberry.
Paz, Mama says, Really. You didn’t have to.
I love it! you say.
The bubblegum-colored icing reads, HAPPY BIRTHDAY, SEYA! You pluck the plastic Cinderella from the cake and squeeze your eyes shut to make a wish. When you open your eyes, Auntie Paz asks what you wished for.
♦ ♦ ♦
You’re working on your latest drawing of a dolphin in an airplane, while lying on your stomach. It is your twelfth dolphin drawing of the week. You paste beads onto the spot where the dolphin’s eyes would be, your fingers tacky with glue. Auntie Paz towels off your little brother and changes him into pajamas.
Nag linis! she says, burrowing her nose into his hair. All clean.
As you color, you sing the chorus of something you heard on the R train, until Auntie Paz asks you to recite your alphabet. A, B, C, D.
Good, she says. Now how do you spell Seya?
The front door slams.
Michelle? Auntie Paz calls. What’s you mom doing home so early?
Your bedroom door opens. It isn’t Mama, but a man who stands in the doorway.
Your butterfly lamp rotates, projecting monarchs and the delicate, cut-out patterns of their wings onto the walls, your bed, and the man’s beige jacket.
Auntie Paz shoves you and Javi behind her. The man stands there, watching. You do not know him.
Alonso, Auntie Paz says. Michelle told you not to come back here.
Paz! says the man. Ay sus, that baby is coming any day now. But what happened to that lalaki who—what is it the Amelikanos say? The lalaki who “knocked you up?” That Mexicano?
Get—Auntie Paz says each word very slowly—Out.
Alonso, you think. You peer at the man’s face. You realize, with a rush, that it is your Papa. He is back from Who Knows Where! But he looks different than the photo you found when you were playing with Mama’s makeup one day. The photo lay in her underwear drawer and was torn into four parts. You placed the raggedy edges together, like a puzzle, and saw Mama and Papa standing outside a simbaan, Mama dressed in white. Papa’s arm was around her waist and his chin was tilted upward, proud. You hid the photo in your jewelry box.
But Papa’s hair is longer in person, and his eyes are tired.
He looks at you. Is that my Seya?
You want to go to him. Tell him about your birthday party, show him your dolphin masterpieces, and pull up Javi’s pant leg to reveal the stitch he received after he slipped on ice and tumbled down the slide.
My mahal, he says. Oh, my mahal. My love. Seya, Javier. My Seya and Javier. He says your names the way rain falls during monsoon season, so heavy and sudden that you must shut the windows. You struggle against Auntie Paz’s grip to go to him. Thrash your body away from her. This is the first time, though certainly not the last, where you do not want her to touch you. But she holds on.
I can spell now, you say, hoping that this will keep him. S, E, Y, A. Seya.
Papa bellows, Caterina Seya Kindipan! as you try, again, to escape Auntie Paz’s hold. He begins to laugh. As he does, a butterfly shadow rests on his tongue, flits to his cheek. Javier starts to cry.
Won’t she need an American name, eh, Paz?
You need to leave, Alonso. Or I’ll call the fucking police.
I mean, she’s an Amelikana now, isn’t she?
No, you say. I’m not! You want him to stay, to see your dolphin drawings.
But aren’t we all, mahal? Papa says. Like it or not. He takes one step into the room.
Auntie Paz squeezes you and Javi behind her. GET OUT, she screams.
He says, Everything changes in the Land of Milk and Honey, my Seya. He gazes at you one last time and leaves.
♦ ♦ ♦
The following week, Auntie Paz gives you a new one—a new name. Teaches you how to spell it while Mama works her night shift. By then, the lock to the front door has been changed. She teaches you how to spell this new name while Javi rides his plastic bike around the kitchen table. You trace the curve of the C, the peak of the A:
C A S E Y
♦ ♦ ♦
Auntie Paz takes you to your first day of kindergarten. When Mama returns from her shift that morning, she lies on the couch, watches as you eat your Cinnamon Crunch cereal before you go.
Listen to your maestra, ha, anak, she says. You nod.
You wear a coat that touches your knees and scratches your neck. It flattens the muffin-shaped sleeves of your dress. But you don’t care. Instead, you and Javi run past the trees, scattering the brittle leaves as you go. You and your brother halt. Wrap your arms around a tree trunk. Auntie Paz snaps a photo. Javi says, I want to come, too. Holds your hand.
You say, No, Javi, you have to play Power Rangers and wait for me at home, okay? You let him carry your lunchbox instead. Standing outside the entrance to your school, Javi and Auntie Paz wave Goodbye!
Two nights ago you heard Auntie Paz crying in the bathroom. Her skirt sagged, and you found her bangles strewn on the sofa and in the sink. Her stomach had shrunk, and Mama stayed home from the hospital for three days to watch you and Javi. And when you asked Auntie Paz, Where is the baby? she opened her arms and held you. You are my baby, Seya, she said. You are my baby.
♦ ♦ ♦
The girl sitting next to you kicks her feet under the desk. Her sneakers flash like lightening. I’m Giselle, she says. She points to your bracelet. Can I borrow that? I promise I’ll give it back.
You do not know what she is saying. You put your hand over your bracelet.
Welcome to K-106, the maestra says. My name is Mrs. Manzini.
Man-zeee-ni. You’d never heard a name like that before.
Let’s all sit around the rug and say our names!
My name is David. Ali. Chase. Annika. Theodore. Joseph. Lila. Dante. Giselle. Matthew. Rosany. Casey.
You discover that the whole day is a series of “Let’s.”
Let’s all go to the mat and read a book. Let’s remember to be gentle with the book. Let’s all count to twenty. Let’s leave Dante alone—he needs a minute. Let’s not forget to use kind words in class—Do you think “dummy” is a kind word? Let’s all hold hands with our partner and walk to the bathroom. Voices off, K-106. Let’s all eat our lunches.
You are ravenous. You unpack your rice and adobo when everyone else pulls out sandwiches and bagels. During Coloring Time, you pick Forest, your favorite color, and when the girl with the cartoon voice sees, she says, Ew, that’s a boy’s color.
You hear “Boy” and look around, alert. Is Boy here, too?
But he isn’t. So you exchange “Forest” for “Eggplant,” even though you don’t fully understand what she’s saying, that suplada, that mean little girl, and you hate Eggplant because it reminds you of bruises. When the class counts to twenty, you count to ten in English and the rest in Ilocano. When you hear you are wrong, you move your mouth and try to mimic everyone else’s actions: the way they smile, the way they run, walk, laugh, sneeze. No one wants to sit next to you or hold hands with you down the hall. You walk with Mrs. Manzini instead.
Where are you from, Casey? she asks.
You don’t know what to say. You point to your dolphin bracelet.
The only thing you do right is “Casey.”
You and the other kids choose sleeping bags to nap on the floor. You rush to pick the one with dolphins. If you fall asleep, you wonder, would you wake up somewhere you recognized by heart?
After your nap, Mrs. Manzini says another “Let’s.” By now, your hairclips slide and jab a spot behind your ear. The stockings Mama made you wear itch. You are hungry because someone pinched their nose at your lunch and said, Eeyuck! And everyone laughed until you said, Ano? Gaga sika! Stupid, you’re stupid. You spend the rest of the day silent. By now, home feels faraway.
Let’s draw pictures, everybody, the maestra says.
And so, you pick up the colored pencils, long and thin. You are tired, so tired, but you draw anyway in broad, sweeping strokes like Auntie Paz taught you.
You steady yourself. You fill the page.
You draw Javier on the bike he wanted. You draw Auntie Paz with a smile, a real one. You draw everyone in a big house. You draw fields around you, and Papa back from Who Knows Where. You draw yourself as Cinderella, without the drooping stockings. You draw a bagel for lunch.
On another sheet of paper, you draw mountains. You do not know how to draw crisp air, men atop water buffalo farming the land, the sari-sari store where Mama bought you little chocolates. But you draw the mountains and the sky as you remember them. You draw Boy. You write Seya at the bottom.
Daphne Palasi Andreades is a writer from Queens, NY. Her short stories have been featured in Joyland and Encounters. She is an MFA Fiction candidate at Columbia University, where she was awarded the 2018 Henfield Prize and a 2019 Creative Writing Teaching Fellowship. She has also received fellowships and scholarships to the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, Kimmel Harding Nelson Center for the Arts, the Edward F. Albee Foundation, and Martha’s Vineyard Institute for Creative Writing, where she won 1st Place for the 2018 Voices of Color Prize. Her work often explores diaspora, immigration, and the far-reaching effects of colonialism and imperialism. She’s at work on a short story collection and several novellas. Find her at www.daphnepalasiandreades.com