Big Girl

The bathroom had no doorknob. It had a wooden handle, a fat piece of wood, like a branch of a tree but straight. When someone used the bathroom, there was a hook inside to close the door. I never used the hook. I never closed the door when I went in the bathroom. I couldn’t reach it or the light switch, either. Da hung his towel on the handle outside. The towel covered the gap. When I sat on the top of the stairs, I saw his pale legs as he sat on the toilet.

Da didn’t turn on the light when he sat on the toilet. He flicked the switch on when he finished. I didn’t see his legs when he stood in the bath. He whistled. I sat on the top of the stairs, my back turned to the bathroom door. I waited for Da. He whistled ‘mazing Grace in tune but he never sang it in tune.

Last night, Da showed me how to roll up the newspaper and swat the switch on. “It’s all in the wrist,” he said, “Flick it with your wrist. Try it.”

I did. With two hands, I held the newspaper. The light flickered on but it flickered off again and died. I dropped the roll and it fell on the wet floor.

Da smiled. “It’ll dry.”

Ma would cluck her tongue if she saw the damp wad of newspapers but Ma was asleep.

“That wasn’t today’s paper, was it?” he asked

I shrugged. “Are we in trouble, Da?”

Da looked at the date and buried the damp wad deep under the stack of newspapers by the door.

That morning, after Da finished his bath, he came out in his shorts. He called me and said, “I’m giving you a bath today. Ma’s still in bed.”

Ma was sick all the time. She puked a lot in the morning. Da whistled as he climbed down the stairs to the kitchen, and he whistled as he climbed up the stairs again. His towel hung on his shoulder. With the corner of the towel wrapped around his hand, he carried a kettle that had just boiled. It whistled, too. When he reached the top of the stairs, he said, “Go get your towel. It’s bath time.”

“Can’t Aunty give me a bath?” Aunty and Mama were sisters.

“She has enough to do, helping Ma all day.”

“You’re giving me a bath now? Ma says it’s bad to take a bath on an empty stomach, you know.” But Da always bathed me before breakfast and I never got a tummy ache.

“Your tummy’s strong.”

Da sat on the toilet, the door half open. I shook my shorts off and wiggled my shirt off. Da poured half of the water from the kettle into a bucket of water. He stuck his hand in, like a spoon and stirred the water.

“Not too hot,” he said, “just hot enough to take away the bite of cold.” He took a dipper and poured water on my head.

All the windows upstairs were wide open. Ma liked them that way. A cool breeze blew in through the gap in the bathroom door. Even with the warm water, I still shivered, my lips turned blue, my toe nails and finger nails were blue, too, and my teeth chattered.

“I c-can give m-myself a b-bath, you know.”

“Really? Okay. Show me how. If you do a good job, you can give yourself a bath every day, just like a big girl.”

Dad poured shampoo on my palm. He said, “Lather up well, now.” He pointed to parts of my hair I hadn’t washed yet. He poured water on my head. I jumped and splashed like a dog, and Da didn’t get angry that I got him wet.

He handed me the bar of soap. I gripped it and rubbed it all over. He handed me a face towel he’d already wet and I scrubbed myself. He scrubbed my back where I couldn’t reach. He wrapped me in my towel and rubbed my sides. “All warm now?” He took the other end of the towel and dried my dripping hair. “Get dressed.”

I looked back at Da before I dashed through the hall. My wet feet painted the wooden floor. I hated getting out of the warm bathroom. I liked it especially when he said, “Wear your Sunday dress, you can come with me to work today.”

Da worked at the police station. I thought he’d bring me to work with him. But he said, “Take care of Ma today.” And left for work.

Auntie lived next door. She came over and made breakfast every morning. She brought up Ma’s oatmeal and I ate mine on the kitchen table. She shooed me out of the kitchen. “I have chores to do,” Aunty said.

I wished I had school. I read all the books in my house twice already. Well, all my picture books, anyway. Ma wouldn’t let me watch TV. Ma said, “TV rots the brain.” She let me watch Sesame Street sometimes, but Ma needed her rest and the TV was in their room. I wished I was 7 and in first grade.

I sat on my bed and colored the paper dresses Aunty drew for my paper dolls. The dresses weren’t pretty, Aunty drew them on brown paper bags from the grocery store. I’d rather make a paper airplane or a paper boat than paper dresses, but I colored them, anyway. Auntie would cut them out later. Paper dresses made Aunty smile. She didn’t smile often. Ma didn’t smile at all.

I turned to my side. The red crayon snapped under me and it woke me. I fell asleep coloring the paper dresses, again. Oh, no, I had to go potty. I sat on the top of the stairs. I could step on the pile of newspapers to reach the light switch. Da kept a pile of newspapers by the door. I looked and it wasn’t there. Da must have taken the newspapers to the garage. I crossed my legs as I sat there, the way Ma did at church when she wore her heels. I was too big to make a mess. I was a big girl.

The bathroom didn’t have a window. It would be too dark if I closed the door. The faucet leaked. The drip, drip, drip bounced off the tiles when I shut the door. I ran inside the bathroom and pulled my underpants down. Where should I put them so they wouldn’t get wet? I put them in the sink. It was dry. No one ever used the sink. The water was too lazy to climb up the pipes.

I sat on the potty. I kept the door opened just a bit. The light was skinny enough to fit through the gap in the door. I held on to the sink so I wouldn’t fall into the potty, my tummy pressed against my knees so I see out into the hall. I would hear Da’s footsteps on the stairs if he came home early from work. What was Da doing at work? I wished he was here. I watched the stuff floating in the skinny light.

There was a bucket under the sink. Ma put it there to catch the drip from the tap there. She she used it to flush the toilet. In the morning, the flush didn’t work. Too many people washed their clothes and bathed at the same time. I dipped my hand in the bucket, splashed it about, and I stopped to listen.

Ma always said, “Water is precious. Don’t waste it.” Ma must still be asleep, so I splashed some more. I wasn’t wasting water. I was playing with it. The water just sat in the bucket and had nothing to do.

I splashed and sloshed it again. Aunty might come up. Sometimes, Aunty came over from next door to check on Ma. But Aunty sometimes took a nap on our couch. She didn’t sleep well at night.

There was a big window in the stairwell. The sun peeped in while I sat on the potty. The moon never peeped in when I went to the bathroom at night. The moon had good manners or the moon didn’t like my singing. I sang out loud when I went to the bathroom at night. If I sang now I’d wake Ma.

Da didn’t come home for lunch. Sometimes there were too many people at the station. Da took me with him to work once. I played secretary and I used Dad’s typewriter. I rode on his chair and swung round and round until I got dizzy. Da sat at his desk, in his brown uniform, reading a thick law book. He waited for the phone to ring. That phone must have been busted because I never rang.

People came by the station. When they came, Da put in a sheet of paper in the typewriter and he typed up what the people said. Sometimes, the people were all beat up and bloody. Da took their picture before sending them to the hospital next door. Sometimes, the people went straight to the hospital. The hospital called Da and he grabbed the camera and took pictures there. Da never took me with him to the hospital. He said, ‘You might have nightmares.”

Mama was sick. She bled. She bled so much. Da brought her to the hospitale. Now she’s in bed all day. She had a pillow under her butt, and her feet up on the wall. Her belly was big. Maybe she swallowed a balloon. Ma said, “I might just pop any day now.”

Da came home from work and brought Ma dinner in bed every afternoon. She didn’t like Aunty’s cooking maybe, she threw it all up. I didn’t want Ma to die. I didn’t want her sick. She called me twenty million times every day. “Can you be a dear and get me a glass of water?” she said. “Go get the sandwich from Aunty,” she said. “Could you hand me the newspaper?” I wish she stopped being sick.

Tonight, Da came home and had dinner with me. Ma was asleep and didn’t want dinner. Da left again with his law book. He went to law school every night. He took me with him once. Da wanted to be a lawyer. He read all his books because he needed to pass the bar. He’d pass it if the bar wasn’t very high and he ran a long way before jumping it. I jumped over the fence around the flower bed in Kindergarten. I didn’t ruin the flowers or knock over the fence. Dad could pass the bar, too.

When I went to bed, Da still wasn’t home. When I woke up again, it was still dark. I went to Ma’s bed. She was gone. Da snored on the bed. I laid next to him and waited for Da to wake up. I must’ve fallen asleep again. When I woke up, it was sunny outside the window. Ma still wasn’t there. Aunty came up. She said, “You better be good. Your Ma’s in the hospital.”

“Where’s Da?”

“He took her there while you were asleep.” I hoped Ma didn’t have nightmares at the hospital.

Da didn’t play with me anymore. He snored on the bed when he was home. I sat on the floor, next to the bed and listened to him snore. I didn’t want him sick, too. Lola stayed with us now. Lola was Ma’s mom. I didn’t like Lola’s hands. They were brown and shiny. The bones stuck out through the skin and her green veins were long lumps on the back of her hand. Lola never smiled. She used a palu-palo when she washed the clothes by hand. She beat and pounded all the dirt away from the clothes. The button on my favorite dress broke. Lola shouldn’t pound the clothes. Aunty said so.

“Nanay,” Aunty said to Lola, “don’t use the palu-palo anymore. Just use bleach to get the dirt out.”

Lola said, “Humph!” She didn’t say much, she pounded away at the wet clothes. Poor clothes. At bath time, Lola scrubbed me with a hilod. A hilod is a rock. It was rough. Lola rubbed it on my skin to get the dirt off. She said the volcano spat out the rock and it rolled down into the river where she got it.

“No!” I said. “That hurts.” I stomped my wet feet. “Da lets me take a bath all by myself.”

“Sige na,” she said. “Don’t give me trouble. I have to clean the house.”

“Ow!” I grabbed my arm away from Lola. “Da always uses the wash towel.”

“Stop complaining. This will make your skin soft and smooth. Soap dries the skin.”

She was right. My skin was soft and smooth when she used the hilod. But it stung. My elbows were red. I took that hilod when Lola was busy making lunch and I hid it under a pile of leaves in the front yard.

The next day, Dad dressed me up in my best pink dress. It made me itch around the neck and the armpits, but it meant we were going out.

“Are you taking me with you to the station?”

“Nope.”

“Are we going to church?”

“Nope, we’re going to see Ma at the hospital.”

“I don’t want to go to the hospital.”

“Mama misses you. Besides, she has a surprise for you.”

“You said I’d get nightmares if I went to the hospital.”

“Well, yes, if you go to the emergency room. But not if you go to up to visit Mama. It’s nice there. All the walls are pink and blue.”

“I hate pink. What’s the surprise?”

“I can’t tell you or it won’t be a surprise anymore.” He tugged at the bow he had made on my back.

“I can’t breathe, Da. It’s too tight.”

When we got there, Da went to talk to the lady behind the glass wall. I sat in the lobby next to a lady who wore a long white dress. It covered her all over, from the top of her head to her toes. Her toes peeked from under her long dress and white socks covered them, too. She had a cross on her belt. She sat with beads in her hands and she muttered and mumbled. I tried not to stare at her she might give me a nightmare.

Da came to where I sat and said, “Stay here, okay? I’ll go get Ma.”

“No! You said we were going up to see her.”

“Well, the doctor said she can come home.”

I grabbed Da’s hand tight. “Don’t leave me.” I looked at the lady in white.

“You’re a big girl, aren’t you?”

I nodded.

“You can take a bath on your own, can’t you?”

I nodded.

“You went potty all by yourself, didn’t you?”

I didn’t like where this talk was going.

“Well, a big girl can wait, can’t she?”

“Will you be long?”

“No. I’ll just pay and then, the nurse will bring Ma down.”

“You’ll come back?”

“Of course.”

“You promise?”

“I haven’t broken a promise yet, have I?”

I stopped to think about that. While I thought on it, Da walked away. He went up in the elevator. The lady in white patted my leg. “There, there, there’s nothing to be afraid of. Your dad will be back for you.”

After a long time, he came back with a few sheets of paper in his hand and a bag in his other hand. My back hurt from sitting. My legs didn’t reach the floor. He sat next to me and we waited some more. Ding! went the elevator and Ma came out holding a blue bundle in her arms.

“Surprise!” Da said. He picked me up and I saw the bundle Ma held. It squirmed.

“What’s that?”

“It’s Paul, your new baby brother,” Da said.

“Why’s he small and wrinkly?”

“Can we go home, yet? I’m tired,” Ma said.

Da put me down and we walked to the doors. Dad hailed a cab that had just pulled up. We waited as the passenger paid and then got off the cab.

I sat in the back with Ma. She said, “You’re a big sister, now. Can you be responsible?”

I nodded. I’d ask Da later what ‘responsible’ meant. If it meant getting water for Paul, and sandwiches for Ma, I’d hate that.

At home, Paul lay in my old crib. Lola washed and cleaned it. It now had blue blankets and small blue pillows. The crib stood next to Ma’s side of the bed where my bed used to be. My blanket and pillow were pink. They were on my mattress. But my mattress lay on the floor, by the foot of the bed.

Paul cried when he wet his pants. Paul cried when he was hungry. He cried a lot. Ma slept the whole day. I stayed quiet, I stayed away from Ma. I didn’t want to be responsible. I stayed downstairs away from Ma and Paul.

When I thought Ma was asleep, I went to see Paul in his crib, Ma turned. She said, “Run along now, don’t bug the baby when he’s asleep.” So I stayed by the door and watched Ma put Paul to her breast. Then Ma leaned back on a pillow and closed her eyes.

“Are you still bleeding?” Aunty asked Ma when she brought up Ma’s lunch. I brought a book to read to Paul while Ma was eating but Paul was asleep. I sat on the bed to read to Ma. She said, “Go downstairs and eat your lunch”.

That night, Ma lay on the couch in the living room. Da carried Ma up and down the stairs at breakfast and at dinner. She sat up and Paul slept in Ma’s arms. She kissed Paul’s head. I went up to Ma and she said, “You played out in the sun all day, didn’t you?” Ma didn’t kiss me. She rocked Paul in her arms. I tried to sit in Ma’s lap. She said, “You’re too heavy now. You’re a big girl.”

Da said, “Pot, can you go get my slippers? They’re under the bed,” he said.

“In your room? Upstairs? I can’t reach the light switch.”

“So?”

“It’s dark up there.”

“So?” Da wasn’t scared of the dark, he was a cop. He wasn’t scared of anything. ”You can run, can’t you?”

I nodded. “But Ma says ‘no running in the house’.” I looked at Ma.

Ma said, “Keep me out of it. I have enough problems.”

“Sing, then. Sing loud.” Dad set the table for dinner.

“How would that help?”

“You’ll feel braver.”

“But — “

“You’re a big girl now, aren’t you? Do it for me, Pot.”

I wished I slept the whole day like Paul.

“Go on,” Da said.

I climbed the stairs slowly. When I got to the last step, only my feet stood in the light. The florescent light on the kitchen ceiling reached only as far as the last step. When I took another step, I was in the dark. I raised one arm in front of me and the other to the side. I ran my fingers down the wall until I felt the door. I dragged my foot along the floor. I didn’t want to bump my knee or stub my toe. I squatted at the foot of the bed and reached underneath. I tapped my hand on the floor, feeling for Da’s slippers.

I found them! I sprinted to the stairs. I went down, holding the slippers in one hand and holding on to the rail with my other hand.

“There you are,” Da said. “Thank you,” he said when I gave him his slippers. “Go wash your hands now.”

“She should get your slippers for you every night from now on,” Ma said. “She’s a big girl, now.”

I looked at Da.

Da winked at me. He picked me up. “When you get used to the dark, it’s not so scary anymore,” he whispered. “You’re my big girl.”

“I don’t want to be a big girl.”