On balconies, in sunlit rooms, embracing
relatives I never met, holding long-dead pets:
my parents’ youth is kept in the living room
in a wooden chest. Deckled prints no bigger
than my palm, formal studio portraits
and light-starved slides span monochrome
decades, peaking in Kodak Gold right
I was born. Again and again my parents are caught
ignorant of me. Dad, nearing 90 now, his mouth
a sparrow that no longer flies. How can he be
the smart lieutenant Mum has yet to fall for,
his uniform a brilliant white he can’t be trusted
with today? Mum, her eyes dimmed by limitations
and disappointment. Is she the girl, stem-thin
in a little black dress, gazed at by pomaded suitors?
Even then she felt like a displaced floor tile,
but in that girl’s beautiful, composed
there’s no hint of the anxious woman watching now
in terror, as the cold light of life without him
leaks in, like a new development, from under the door.
‘Partir es un poco morir,llegar nunca es llegar…’ – Oracion de migrantes
‘Partir es un poco morir,llegar nunca es llegar…’
‘When I left you, I had to kill a part of my heart.’ – Mama
‘When I left you, I had to kill a part of my heart.’
You stood on the other side of the barrier. Time is a tattered blanket that draped down your shoulders. I slit my chest open to excise a chunk
of myocardium. My tympanic membrane beat what you held back, Ma, wag mo akong iwan. Ma, don’t leave me.
Our day clattered down the litter, a snail-slow plane cut across our sky. I learned the routine – drawing a cross on each day block
of the calendar, Crocs clogs slap across the street. In and out, in and out of the automatic-door mouth of a concrete god.
Here’s the truth – I could buy our barrio’s botika and any blanket but there – in the unchecked wound of the world, under the fat
of clouds, you lie on a bed, a smack of IV drips hang over your head like a battery-drained cot toy. While here, I am setting a vomit bowl
under someone else’s chin, watching him sleep as the walls convulse in magma-hot breaths. Here’s the truth – my tympanic membrane beats,
wala kang kwenta, useless mother.
You said all I needed to do was to sleep and before I knew it, you’d be back. But I woke to the rice that needed rinsing, my siblings’ school uniforms that needed ironing.
I woke to a refrain of drunkards across the road. A man in a cowboy hat plucked his gitaraand sang about a person who packed a suitcase, Just when I needed you most.
I woke when the washing machine broke and beat clothes at the backyard. A sleepy face frothing in a puddle, Just when I needed you most.
I raised my head above the waves of smoke from a burning wok, and wondered if the swirl of black mist would reach you.
But I believed, Mama – before I knew it, you’d be back. When I yanked my sister by her hair for answering back, I held onto what you said.
When I choked on phlegm at midnight, missing the ginger-kick of your tinola, I held onto what you said.
When other mothers climbed to the stage and pinned medals to my classmate’s chests, I held onto what you said.
On Sundays, I played tumbang preso with the other kids. We laughed because we were not orphans, only left behinds. A swift hit – a rubber flip-flop knocked down an empty can
and the years clanked down the street. The smell of rain lifted the dust from the road. I sprinted for a shelter, Just when I needed you most.
Cured in the church my parents got
I was made to kneel for hours on the marble floor,
facing the gilded iconostasis,
as chants and swigs of holy water rooted out
the homosexual demons from my body.
20 years later, marriage required few words from me.
The painted saints that witnessed my translation
watched over my union with you, dear wife.
Their cool expressions, just like yours,
gave nothing away.
My mother smiled. The priest chanted:
And the wife, see that she reverence her
You stepped lightly on my toes.
Did she tell you to do that?
The wreath on my head felt surprisingly heavy.
I wore my father’s velvet suit,
tight over my chest and under my armpits;
I had too many ouzo shots at the reception.
It’s been a year now.
Are you my ideal match?
My mother certainly thinks so.
Unlike me, you know how to drive,
you never gave up on your German,
read Balzac and Zola in the French.
Your Greek betrays only a smidgen of your mother tongue.
You had a stint in the diplomatic corps,
dice vegetables and meat like a pro.
Men give you the eye in the street all the time.
I pretend to mind, but can’t make myself.
You spend a lot of time with my mother,
hanging off each other’s lips.
In the kitchen, just now,
you giggled like
girls with a crush.
It’s strange, sometimes I feel I’m imposing.
I try to join you, but you shoo me away.
We’re talking women stuff, you laugh.
I sit on the steps that lead down to the garden,
I picked up smoking recently.
The apple tree is looking worse for wear.
It hasn’t rained since we got married.