Another piece for Miss Spoken, the lady-centric live-lit show I co-host with Rosamund Lannin on the last Wednesday of the month at The Gallery Cabaret in Chicago. The theme for August was “The Other Woman”.
The way into the Cardenas’s house is pretty straightforward.
Climb the red brick stairs up from Elderts Lane, a shabby street that delineates the border between the Cypress Hills neighborhood of Brooklyn and Woodhaven, Queens. Hold open the screen door for any Filipino elders who may be departing. Their hands will be full, juggling car keys, an imitation Coach handbag that looked so good you would be forgiven for believing it was real, and two styrofoam plates piled high with food and wrapped in red cellophane left over from Christmas.
Take off your shoes and kick them into the pile by the front door, you do mano po to every lolo and lola and tito and tita who sit around the living room ignoring the karaoke going on right in front of them.
Mano po is when you bow to each elder, taking their hand and press it gently to your forehead. Show respect. It is important that you do this. It is necessary to genuflect, and appropriate considering you are about to visit Heaven.
Heaven is the table in the Cardenas’s dining room.
The table is long, made out of wood, and covered with doilies which are overlaid with a thick, slick plastic tablecloth. Foil pans divide the table into square and rectangles of food. So much food with names that sound like dances when they trip off the tongue.
A little kare kare, a slice of the the pork emputido Tita Baby brought, and lumpia so fresh from the fryer it drips hot oil when you pick it up with your fingers. Don’t forget a handful of crispy skin from the lechon, or the liver gravy that goes with it. Feel free to ignore the salad your favorite aunt bought at Costco. Everybody else does, and besides, if you want a vegetable dish, you can find probably some squash hiding under the chunks of pork in the pinakbet.
The sauces from all of these dishes soak the layer of steamed white rice that is the rightful foundation of every Filipino party plate. It will be the greatest plate of rice you have ever eaten in your entire life.
If you can find one, take a seat. Make yourself at home.
Smile politely when passing aunties and uncles pepper you with questions about school and whether or not you have a boyfriend.
The answer to the school question should always be something like, “I’m getting straight A’s/I’m on the honor roll” even if everybody already knows, thanks to the whining of your disappointed mother, that you are getting a B minus in geometry. The answer to the boyfriend question is always “Of course I don’t have a boyfriend.” Which is sadder for being the truth.
Everybody is related here. There are no strangers, only a sprawling family that overlaps and intersects several times over when you consider the sheer number of people squeezed into the house.
It’s not unusual to move from one room to another and be brushed by a dozen different hands. Your least favorite auntie pinches your cheek while asking exactly how much roast pork you ate. Somebody’s grandma squeezes your hand gratefully when you get her a clean fork. One of the drunk uncles squeezes your ass when you push past him on the way to the bathroom.
The party is for Don Don, the oldest Cardenas boy. He’s just graduated from the local high school. Because it’s his party, he can’t put on his summer uniform of a Thrasher tee shirt, Jams shorts, and Vision Street Wear sneakers before taking off on his skateboard. There are relatives bearing greeting cards stuffed with money demanding pictures with the boy of the hour. You get hustled into several pictures even though it’s clear from your body language and his that you are not friends.
The hour is late but the party shows no sign of slowing down. The little kids run wild, sockless and slipping as they chase each other. It’s no secret that while the children are cute, the cutest is Wowie.
He’s cute and spoiled and is a brat but with a name like Wowie I can’t say that I blame him. I know Wowie has a real name like Paulo or Eduardo but I don’t bother to learn or remember it.
Wowie’s mom moved into a house up the street a few months prior, renting the second floor apartment she shares with her son but not her son’s father. Nobody’s met him but everybody at the party knows something about him. The first thing to know is that he is White. This is easy enough to guess if you’ve seen Wowie’s round eyes and light complexion. The second thing is that Wowie’s dad is not married to Wowie’s mom. There is no ring on her finger.
When I make discreet inquiries as to why they are not married — being 15 I don’t have any gossip of my own to use as currency so instead I beg for scraps — people shake their heads. They suck air through their teeth — seeeeet — and say “Sayang”. Too bad. It’s just too bad. That’s all I’ll get out of them, that and a plate heavy with food for my mother.
For somebody who claimed to be too sick to attend a party that is literally right next door to our house, Mom has one hell of an appetite. I like to watch her hands as she eats.
She has beautiful, elegant hands with long nimble fingers. Perfect for scooping handfuls of rice that she pops into her mouth. I talk, and she listens. I tell her who’s gained weight and who’s lost hair. I say “Of course I did, GOD!” when she asks if I greeted everybody like I was supposed to. I lie about eating salad.
Before Mom goes to bed, I ask her about Wowie’s mother. She shakes her head and frowns. “Oh Jus-meen! Leave me alone. I’m tired.” She goes back to her bedroom, but doesn’t shut the door. So I wait until she gets back under the covers before I sit next to her. She tells me:
Wowie’s parents are not married. His dad wants to marry his mom, though. That’s what everybody claims. He wants to marry her and take her and Wowie off to that place all Filipinos dream of living — Long Island. There they can live in safety, away from the sharp eyes and wagging tongues of a bunch of elderly Filipinos, and be a real family.
I think for a second they aren’t married because his family objects because Wowie’s mom isn’t White. I wonder if perhaps Wowie’s mom’s parents back in the Philippines were mad at her, for leaving them behind. That didn’t seem likely, as that’s what Filipinos do. They go overseas to work so they can make money that they send to family back home. They’ve done it for years.
Mom tells me off for being stupid, for not seeing the obvious.
Wowie’s mom cannot, will not marry Wowie’s dad… because she’s already married. There is a husband in the Philippines, and two school age daughters. Wowie’s dad, Wowie himself — they don’t know about the husband and the two girls. The husband? Maybe he knows. Maybe he doesn’t.
By the time Wowie’s mom sends for her daughters, moves them into the second floor apartment, my family are long gone from the neighborhood. We don’t keep in touch with the Pinoys on Elderts Lane for a number of reasons. I wish we had though. The parties were fun, and the food was really good.
But also it would be nice to know what his real name was.
And I still want to know what happened when his sisters arrived in America, fresh off the plane, to discover they had a little brother named Wowie.
Note: if you’d like to hear the audio of me reading this, Story Club has it here: https://storyclubmagazine.com/2017/11/15/the-other-woman-jasmine-davila/ (thanks, Rosamund)!