Whenever I remember my elementary school years, it is winter. In the tiny town of Bogota, New Jersey, I sit in one of the thirteen classrooms of St. Joseph’s School, diagramming sentences under the supervision of used-to-be-nuns, the wind and sleet howling outside. The church — where I, my parents, and my Titas and Titos, my Aunts and Uncles, bow heads every Sunday under the smoke of incense and candles — connects to this classroom through a maze of corridors. While my classmates whisper back and forth in hushed tones of Tagalog, I keep my head down, my eyes focused on English words, the sounds of a mysterious and intangible heritage drifting around me like snow.
We celebrate Christmas in the school’s vaulted gymnasium, dancing the Electric Slide to music booming from a crackling tape deck and eating lechon pork under the basketball nets. My mother talks with my Titas in her tongue, while my white father picks at the foreign food. It is during one of these celebrations that I dress up in yellow sequins, am crowned “Miss Philippines,” and kiss Antony behind the bleachers. I am eight at the time, and Antony’s lips touch mine, soft and warm, like fresh pandisal. I know that Antony is my cousin — I have called his mother Tita Lisa since I first met him as a toddler. I know that kissing is forbidden, and this makes it appealing.
I learn later that kissing cousins is especially forbidden.
I learn later that Antony was never my cousin.
Like the others, Antony is related to me only through his parents’ shared experiences with my mother — whatever genetic link I might have with my cousins lies in distant jungles and ancient times: places only blood remembers.
Of these cousins, Rachel Matapang is my favorite. We do everything together. We are in the same class at St. Joseph’s; we take ballet together. When Rachel gets glasses, I also realize I can’t see the board and ask my mom for an eye exam. After school, while my mother takes care of paperwork at her workplace, I go home with Rachel and Até Jeannie, to watch movies, build snowmen, and play piano until Dad returns from his job crunching mainframe code in the World Trade Center South. As we come in through the garage, the heavy, automated door grinding closed behind us, Rachel’s grandmother, Mrs. Abulog, pokes her head out into the hallway. She speaks with Rachel and Jeannie in clipped Tagalog — about what, I’m never sure. After satisfying herself with their answers, she turns to me:
“How are your studies going?” she asks me, every time, and every time, I answer her in flat English. She makes a face and prompts me to answer in Tagalog.
I stare at her, my face burning, the words lost — worse than lost: never known. Eventually, she shakes her head.
“Maybe next time,” she says. She tells Rachel something in my mother’s language, before ducking back into her room.
“She said you’re hopeless,” Rachel informs me with a smirk. “Hopeless and a tibo.”
Tibo, I understand, thanks to Rachel. It means I am a tomboy and a dyke, and I will never find a husband. Our first day of Kindergarten, while the cold air turns our breath into steam, she gives me a crash course in Filipino slang.
“Do you know what bakla means?” she calls at boys across the parking-lot playground. “’Cause you are one!”
“What’s a bakla?” I ask.
Rachel gives me a look, as if I’m an idiot not to know. “It means gay,” she says.
And I don’t know what that word means either, but I decide I don’t want Rachel to call me it, or any of the other words she learns from her Até.
I ask my mother to teach me the words. I beg for her to talk to me in Tagalog. But she doesn’t want me to be Filipina; she shakes her head. At night, I hear her talking to her cousins over the phone — my real Titas, left behind in Luzon and Manila — talking about me, perhaps, or complaining about dad. Those conversations last for hours, the rhythm of the incomprehensible words lulling me to sleep in the darkness of our creaking house. The language becomes one of her secrets, one of the things she refuses to talk about — like the story of how she met my father, or her time as a Dominican nun. She wants me to be a white child, a child without history.
Yet still, we continue to celebrate Christmas with Filipino families. When Rachel runs off among the other girls to share secrets and gossip, I sink down behind the bleachers, ignored and alone. I emerge from hiding only to eat, touching nothing of the foreign food except my mother’s lumpia. I wish for the night to end.
And then it does.
When I enter fifth grade, Dad loses his job. My mother tells me we’ll be moving to North Carolina, and I throw a glass on the floor and run to my room. Through the locked door, I scream about how I’ll never make any new friends, how the only place I’ve ever known is here, how the only people I’ve ever known are here. After crying myself out, I come downstairs to find that Mom is still trying to sweep up all the tiny, glittering pieces of glass.
The night before Mom and I board the greyhound bus to Concord, we attend a rosary at Antony’s house. While the adults talk and gossip and pray, I sit upstairs with Antony, looking through his books and drawings. We talk in plain English, sharing pandisal and pizza.
“They speak differently down there, you know.” He picks slices of pepperoni off his pizza and places them on mine. “Maybe you’ll come back with an accent.”
“Maybe,” I say. And for once, the words don’t seem so incomprehensible.
Maybe you’ll come back.