There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you. – Maya Angelou, American poet, memoirist, and American Civil Rights Movement leader
As I continue to work on the revision of my novel, I have absolutely no words for my blog. Hence, another excerpt from my novel, A Village in the Fields, for my blog post. Since today is my 15th wedding anniversary – yes, we have to endure the occasional Friday the 13th years – I chose this particular excerpt. To set up the scene, my protagonist, Fausto Empleo, is a young man working in a hotel in Los Angeles in the early 1930s. He lives with his five other cousins in a cramped apartment in Los Angeles, which was a common experience for many Filipino immigrants in America during this time. One of his cousins is suffering from tuberculosis and he and his cousins are enduring bigotry in and outside of their workplaces. But during this trying period in his life, Fausto meets a young Filipina immigrant who also works at the hotel and who, more importantly, reminds him of why he came to America in the first place:
They stood in the same position, eyes locked, even when the record ended and the needle jerked back and forth across its black glossy surface, making loud scratching sounds. She sighed. “My father played the guitar as part of our town’s rondalla. It was the best string band in the region.” She looked at Fausto, her smile fading. “Do you not like to listen to music?” She pulled away from him and replaced the records in a neat pile.
“I do not have time,” he said. “Where and when would I listen to music?”
“Right here!” she said. “We can listen every time they go to the doctor. You should make time, Fausto. You look too serious. It worries me. I should invite you to the theater to watch a movie with me so you can grow laugh lines here.” She ran her finger around the corners of his mouth, and added, “And remove your worry lines here.” She brushed her fingertips across his forehead.
Did she feel how hot his face had become? He stepped back. “I cannot afford to go to the movies. My cousin Cary says it is cheaper to hang around Hollywood and see the movie stars come out of their big cars and go into fancy restaurants to eat.”
“Oh, I do not care about movie stars. I like the people they pretend to be. I like the stories, the different worlds.” Her gaze drifted to the wall where the Italian plates from Mr. Calabria’s hometown of Palermo hung in a row. “When I am tired from studying and volunteering and working, I go to the movies. It makes me forget how hard things are here. When one of my patients died, I saw Charlie Chaplin’s City Lights. I was able to laugh again.” She laughed brightly now, as if remembering a scene from the movie, and adjusted the apron over her skirt. “Next time, come with me. It is only five cents. I know a place nearby where they serve a pork-chop dinner for thirty-five cents. We can have dinner and then walk to the movie theater.”
“I take care of my sickly cousin. I send money to my family. I cannot . . . .”
She pressed her lips together, petals folding, closing as if dusk had descended. “You are a good cousin and son, Fausto.” She offered him a smile. “When I come back from the movie theater, I will tell you what the story is about.”
After their shift on Mondays, she gave him her version of the movies she’d seen. Platinum Blonde pitted hardworking folks against corrupted wealthy people. In Tarzan, the Ape Man, civilized people were crueler than the brute Tarzan. She felt sorry for the monster in Frankenstein because the ignorant villagers misunderstood him. Listening to her was better than going to the movies, he told her; here, he could stare at her as she told the story, instead of sit in a dark theater. She laughed as if he had said something silly, but she was blushing. She always seemed cheerful, although there were times when he spied her near the broom closet brooding and looking sad for a moment.
One morning, he ran into her by the closet, her face shining like a full moon.
“What are you thinking about?” he whispered boldly in her ear in the shadows.
“Salabat and basi.”
Fausto was puzzled. Why was she thinking about beverages?
“I used to make my father salabat and basi, using sugar from our fields and herbs from our garden,” she explained. “My father loved to drink salabat, and I liked making it because the scent of fresh ginger root stayed on my fingers for days.” She stared at her white shoes. “I have not made salabat for a long time, even when I was home. My father lost his craving for anything sweet, anything with sugar in it.”
“That can happen,” he said. “I used to love bagoong, and now the fish smell upsets my stomach. I do not know why, but it does.”
“Yes.” She wiped her eyes with the corner of her apron and turned away. “We do not know why things like that happen.” She left him there, clutching mops to her chest.
One spring day, a few months later, she came looking for him as he was changing sheets. Her hair flowed down her shoulders, the ends curling at her waist, as luxurious as the mink stoles some of the female guests wore. She asked him to see a movie with her.
“Why? I always listen to you.” He pulled the dirty sheets off the bed with one strong, graceful tug, which he learned from her, and rolled them into a ball.
“I would like to see a comedy,” she announced, as tears gathered in her eyes.
“What is wrong?” He dropped the sheets to the floor and rushed to her side.
She withdrew an envelope from her apron pocket. “My father passed away.”
Fausto sat her on the bed. Two years ago her father had lost ownership of the land where his family had lived and grown sugarcane for generations. To remain on the property, he leased the land and shared half of his harvest. The landlord charged for the use of tools and animals, reducing their profit, and the agents cheated him when weighing the sugarcane. Even the Catholic priests, whom her father had asked to intervene on his behalf, turned him away, favoring the landlord’s bribes. The final blow was this year’s drought, which diminished his crops and prevented him from paying rent, fees, and taxes. Her family was evicted from their home and forced to live in the landlord’s hacienda, where her father and brothers earned less than ten centavos a day. Within a month of being forced off their land, her brothers pulled her father’s body out of Pampanga Bay.
“He was not a strong swimmer, yet he swam towards the sea,” she said in a flat voice. “My mother said he had lost his land, so there was nowhere else to go but the sea. My mother is scared, but she said she must be strong for our family. She and my sisters will find factory work in Manila, and my brothers will stay in the hacienda.”
“I am sorry,” Fausto whispered, taking her hand.
“They sent me here after we lost the land so I could help them. But I have been living foolishly here. I do not send enough money. I should not have gone to the movies or the restaurants. But it is so difficult here in the States. I am so homesick. I should go back, should I not?” She gently shook her hand and their fingers unraveled. She wiped her tears with the crumpled envelope, smearing her cheek with traces of black ink.
Fausto stroked her head, the crown of her glossy soft hair. She closed her eyes, her head tilting back. He combed out the tangles in her mane, his fingers touching her shoulder, the curve of her back. The ends of her hair fanned out across the bare mattress. “You are almost finished with your studies. If you go back now, without your degree, what good would that do? Do not waste what you have already done. I know it is hard, but you should finish your schooling and then go back. That is the best way.”
“And you? When are you going back?”
He thought of the letters his sisters had written on behalf of their mother, asking for more money. It was a way to show his father that he had made the right decision, his mother said. The money was also needed to help them through a meager harvest, pay for hired help in the fields so his sisters could attend school to become teachers, and send Cipriano to Manila to learn a trade. Could he not send more money? Fausto was happy to help his brother and sisters escape the fields. The news of their ambition eased his guilt. He doubled his monthly contribution, but it was getting harder trying to help pay for food and rent, and help sponsor his siblings’ education, let alone save for his education.
“I am still saving money for school. My American teacher back home told me a long time ago how important school is. When I finish college and work some more, then I will go back home,” he said, although his declaration felt like an outright lie. He hadn’t thought about school since the moment he stepped into the apartment on Hope Street.
“You are right. I should stay. We will both stay and be strong for one other. Maybe I will take more time to finish nursing school so I can work more hours here. We will both work hard and send more money.” Her voice grew stronger as she smoothed out the envelope. More ink rubbed off on her fingers, the addresses no longer legible. “When you send money to your family, I am sure you write nice letters to them. Will you help me write a letter to my family? Will you help me explain why I must stay here longer?”
He nodded. As he closed his eyes, he imagined rubbing the ink off her cheek. Their breathing became one. They remained seated on the edge of the bed, joined at the hip, until Mr. Calabria called them by name, breaking them apart. When Fausto opened his eyes, the room had gone dusky. Connie had dried her eyes. She leaned over and kissed him on the cheek. Her lips—the texture of rose petals—lingered on his skin. Then she kissed him on the lips, as fleeting as a memory. She stood up and walked out of the room, stepping with care over the crumpled sheets on the floor.