For three hundred sixty-five days, Rachel Elizabeth Versoza woke up and the first thing she saw was her mother’s design idea for her bedroom ceiling. Last year, Mama hired a house painter who smeared thick baby pink paint with a palette knife on the wooden surface, pulled the palette knife in short strokes so that the paint stood in soft peaks, and smoothed it over to create a textured finish. The ceiling looked ravaged by termites.
Beth thought to hot-glue plywood squares to cover it, or buy sheer fabric and pin it up, but as it already looked like the surface of the moon, she spray painted it in various shades of blue. The day before, she squirted glow-in-the-dark paint over it as a finishing touch. That morning, when she opened her eyes, she raised her hand, her palm facing up to the ceiling. The moon seemed within her reach.
She groped under her pillow for her cellphone to check for messages. There were none. She sat up in bed and stretched. Facing the full-length mirror near the foot of her bed, she ran her fingers through her hair. She’d worn it short, wash-and-wear, since she was 6 years old, to save time in the morning. But she’d grown it over the last year. Beth kept it short for so long to thwart Mama’s avowed mission was to make her hair docile. Mama pulled her hair so tight she felt the follicles popping out from her scalp. Cutting her hair short, at age 6, was her first taste of freedom.
The next day, Sunday, Beth would turn 12 and two weeks later, she would start 6th grade. She went to the Assumption Convent and that year, there was talk again that the school will admit boys in the grade school. She didn’t want to be mistaken for a boy so she got her ears pierced. Mama heard that the school would admit boys in the high school, too. She said, “The nuns want to increase enrollment but it won’t work. “In the Philippines, boys went to all-boys’ schools — everyone knew that.”
Beth’s male cousins, the smart rich ones, went to the Ateneo, the Jesuit school, where they learned philosophy and foreign language. Her other cousins, the ones who were just as rich but not as smart, went to De La Salle. All the other cousins who were neither rich nor smart went to the Don Bosco where they learned electronics and auto mechanics on top of the regular high school classes. Her female cousins went to convent schools, just like her and her sister, and their aunts and grandmothers before them. To be safe, so she wouldn’t be mistaken for a boy, she grew her hair out and she had her ears pierced.
The slipping standards of the Assumption Convent was a frequent topic of conversation around Mama’s Friday night mah-jong game those few weeks before school started.
“Remember when Mother Superior stopped us in the hallway and made us kneel? If the hem of our uniforms didn’t touch the floor, we were sent home,” Mama said.
Her friend, the one who had ginger hair thanks to Clairol said, “Poor us if we had a growth spurt in the middle of the year. Our parents had to buy new uniforms. There was this one girl— oh, what was her name? I forget.”
Mama said, “Oh, oh, the scholar — her skirts were always let out and it always showed when the hem was let out.” Mama and her three friends laughed in tune with the scraping of the mahjong tiles on the wooden table.
These days, the nuns focused on growing social awareness in their students and not their hemlines. Last term, Mama gasped when she read a note Beth brought home. It was a permission slip for a class field trip to a home for unwed mothers, a holding center for youth in conflict with the law, and an orphanage.
“I’m not signing that. I won’t allow her to go there. She might catch a disease or something.” Dad signed her permission slip.
Mama’s advocacy for the poor and marginalized was limited to the Social Club’s Sweetheart Ball. It was the only fund raising event for charity that Mama supported. Mama was 12 when she won Club Sweetheart and Beth was now 12 but Mama sighed and said, “I guess I’ll have to wait three years for Liezl, instead.” Beth’s sister Liezl was nine. Mama trained her eyes on Liezl that summer and Beth hoped Mama continued concentrating only on Liezl for the next three summers. Having Liezl crowned Club Sweetheart was Mama’s new mission.
Beth thought only of turning 12. Twice every year, on Christmas and on her birthday, her Grandma and her Dad gave her money. The only conditions were: set aside twenty percent for savings which she promptly deposited into her bank account, and set aside ten percent for her tithes which she gave promptly in the offering basket on Sunday morning service when she went with Dad. On Saturday afternoons, she went with Mama and Liezl to mass at the Mount Carmel Parish while Dad waited for them in the car.
The rest of her Christmas and birthday money was hers to spend as she saw fit. In years past, she bought books from a second hand book store or waited for the Cut-Price Book Sale at the mall. She got more for her cash if she bought books second hand than if she bought them brand new. She never bought classics that she could borrow from the library. Beth had sounded out the depths of the second-hand bookstores she frequented: they stocked mostly best sellers and romance novels. She asked Dad, and he agreed, to open a family account on Kindle. Dad also opened a debit card account for her. Of course, the card lived safely inside Dad’s wallet but last night, Dad paroled the debit card and gave it to Beth for her school stuff. Turning twelve was freedom.
She basked in the glow of the moon she replicated and the joy of her 12-year old freedom, but her alarm went off and she went to the bathroom to shower.
She liked her hair best when it was wet for then it was thick and strong, yet graceful in its chaos of waves and ringlets. Why Mama wanted it straightened, she could not imagine. When she finished, she stepped out of the shower and planted her foot on the braided bathroom rug. She took two opposite corners of her towel in her hands and rubbed her back dry — she didn’t want to catch pneumonia.
She bent to her side and gravity pulled her hair. From its ends, beads of water dripped onto the rug. She held her hair in one toweled hand and patted it dry with the other. She smiled at herself in that mirror in the back of the bathroom door. She smiled as though meeting her 12-year old self for the first time. She flipped her damp hair and put her hands on her waist. The towel fell on the floor. She raised one arm and ran her fingers on her armpit — a soft fuzz met her fingertips. The same soft dark fuzz now grew in between the top of her thighs. She petted that, too, and smiled. Being 12 was great.
She cupped her breasts — they were only nipples and aureola, they barely filled her palms. She frowned and stood askance of her reflection. Even with hair growing in all the right places as they should, and with the hair on her head growing longer, her figure was still very much that of a boy, except her shoulders were as broad as her hips. And she had a perky tush, thanks to all the ballet lessons Mama forced on her. Would she find a bra at the mall that fit her? She was sick of those baby bras Mama bought her. She did the breast exercise in front of the mirror, the one her best friend Jeannie said would increase her bust size if done conscientiously. It probably wouldn’t work. She was just one of those girls who –
The bathroom door swung open with a bang as the door knob hit the wall.
Beth doubled over, picked up the towel from the floor, and wrapped it around herself. She checked the heat rising from her stomach before it pushed a scream out her throat — Mama never knocked before she entered Beth’s bathroom, never. Beth inhaled and exhaled until she was able to say, “What is it, Mama?” with an even voice.
“What were you just doing?” Mama narrowed her eyes.
“Drying myself,” she turned her back to her mother and pulled out a drawer to find her hair brush.
“Don’t brush your hair while it’s wet. No wonder it’s brittle and course,” Mama shook her head. She let out a sigh. “I’m taking your sister shopping. You don’t want to tag along,” Mama’s voice did not rise at the end of the sentence. Ah, it was a statement, not a question.
Still Beth said, “Thanks, but, Jeannie and I are shopping together today.”
“You’ve made a list, of course?” Mama said. Before Beth could answer, Mama added “Stick to your list. Your father spoils you — who ever heard of giving a 12-year old a debit card? Don’t let Jeannie talk you into buying stuff you don’t need.”
“I won’t.” Beth never bought things on a whim.
Mama stood in the doorway, her hand on the doorknob. As she was turning to go, she clicked her tongue at the mirror above the sink. She came into the bathroom. She pulled out a tissue from the box with a flick of her wrist. She rubbed the mirror dry until it squeaked. “You should take better care of your things. I won’t spend money on things that break down because you don’t take care of them.”
Beth looked up from the bathroom drawer to face her mother in the mirror. “Dad gave me money, don’t worry.”
“I don’t worry.”
Mama pulled out more tissues from the box. She attacked the bathroom counter next. “You never keep your bathroom clean, Beth.” Mama opened the closet doors under the sink and took out the bathroom cleaner in the spray bottle. She squirted the counter with it. Flick. Flick. Flick. More tissues rubbed the counter. “Don’t waste money on cute pencils or notebooks. Don’t forget to buy essentials: socks and undies.” Mama scrubbed the water spots from the tiles.
Beth crossed her arms on her chest as her hands smoothed over her arms. “I won’t.”
“Don’t take things from the rack — try them on for size and comfort first.” Mama threw the damp wad into the trash bin and it landed with a thwack. She took more tissues and doused them with bathroom cleaner.
“Buy only what you need,” she paused mid-sentence, looked at Beth in the mirror, but her hand kept rubbing the counter. “The camisoles I bought you at Christmas, they still fit.” She stopped scrubbing and turned around to look at Beth. Her gaze lingered on her daughter’s chest. “I’m buying Liezl her first bra today. She needs it already and she’s only nine.” She smiled now at Beth and hitched up the towel farther up her chest.
With two hands, Beth clutched at the towel corner that she had tucked in that wide shallow valley in the middle of her chest. She was almost twelve and still used a training bra. Life wasn’t very fair.
“Don’t wear shorts at the mall — people stare.”
“Okay,” her voice was even, but her nostrils flared.
“And tie up your hair — you know how it frizzes in the heat.”
Beth felt like standing under the shower again.
“Try to look presentable.”
Beth’s chest heaved.
The mirror and counter shone and her mother turned to leave.
Beth said, “Jeanie’s coming over in a while,” she paused, “Dad’s new assistant, Olivia, she’ll pick us up. We’ll see a movie and then go shopping.”
Mama’s shoulders rose as she held a big breath.
“You remember Olivia, Mama. Dad’s legal intern?”
Mama’s back stiffened until her cup Ds stood in their glory. She exhaled before she walked away. “I hope she’s getting paid extra for babysitting you.”
“It’s her day off,” Beth said. “Oh, and Olivia will drop me off at Dad’s office.” Dad thought Olivia was a lot of fun, too.