by Larisse Mondok
I should’ve ignored her. I barely understood her. My Filipino was bad and the noise, dust of Quiapo made communication harder.
But I was curious. I wanted to humor her, impress my cousins who were already inching away from the obviously crazy homeless woman—show them that I wasn’t the sheltered Phil-Am girl that they thought I was.
She smelled like piss and her face was covered by her wild hair. I spoke to her anyway. With a terrible accent, I managed to say ano or what in Filipino.
Beneath her long matted hair, a crooked yellow-toothed smile appeared.
I looked at her slit-eyed. She was saying gibberish.
“A baby. A baby is clinging by your ankles.”
My face fell. Bukong-bukong, ankles.
I heard my cousin audibly gasp. She yanked my arm and pulled me to walk away from the homeless woman.
Through the mass of people crowding the streets and the jeepney smoke clouding my vision, I managed to look back and stared at her as she continued to smile at me, leaving me to wonder how she knew to respond in English.
I remember that day almost ten years ago, as I sit now—my hand shaking, staring at a pregnancy test with somewhat of a pink plus sign on it. It is my third test, and it has not changed. I begin to sob and part of me claws at my stomach, willing it to go away. The thought that it is my dead brother cannot escape my thoughts.
I was born in the United States. We visited the Philippines every now and then, but by then I felt completely alien and removed from it even if I did look like everyone else. That incident with the crazy woman was the most memorable of the many trips we had. When my cousins narrated the story about the homeless woman whom they called an albularyo to my parents, both of them were horrified. I was a bit fazed by the incident at the time but it didn’t disturb me as much as it did them. I was never brought back to the Philippines. From then on, I was left by myself in our house in Ohio, where I threw secret parties in spite of my parents’ explicit and strict warnings not to let anyone else in the house while they were away.
They had always been terribly superstitious. I could imagine how and why during my visits to their home country but I couldn’t understand why they brought it with them in Ohio. I had to be superstitious in the Philippines, I was surrounded by that culture. I was told never to sweep the floor towards the front door or clip my fingernails at night. The reasons being, the former is said to sweep out good luck from the house and the latter will result into your fingers being cut. But in the U.S, it was hard to keep those in mind. Their beliefs morphed as we lived in the States, adapting to wherever they lived. My mother refused to vacuum the carpet facing the front door, because she felt it was technically sweeping. After seven at night, even if the sun was still out, my father never clipped his fingernails because in the Philippines, it would always be dark by seven. I never understood these beliefs—clearly illogical, passed down only through hearsays, stubbornly kept because it was tradition. I abhorred it, even more when I saw how my parents’ melded superstition with religion. On one of our visits to Manila, it was Holy Week, the height of my parents’ religious devotion. I was dragged to so many ridiculous practices. I had to walk using my knees from a Church’s entrance to the altar, go to seven Churches praying the Stations of the Cross at each one and attend Mass at 3 o’clock in the morning. And they say if you’re able to do these God grants your prayers. My parents made sure I did them so we could be forgiven for letting a baby die without being baptized, doomed in limbo where it could possibly haunt us back as a tiyanak.
That was the most troubling and harrowing belief.
My twin died in my mother’s womb. My parents believe I absorbed his weaker constitution—eating him. On my birthdays, we would pray for his soul in purgatory so he can rest in peace.
In Ohio, you cannot have an abortion once you are past twenty weeks. On LearnAboutYourBaby.com, it says that by twenty weeks, the baby is about the size of a big banana. By twenty weeks, it is learning how to swallow.
The doctor tells me I am six weeks along. He says I can have a medical abortion if I wanted to. I faintly smell alcohol all around me. The scent of sanitation makes me more nervous. I could kill the baby using pills, it occurs to me. He hands me a pamphlet about fetal development and a directory of some sort. He asks me if I have any questions.
I do, but none you can answer. Do you think I’ll go to hell? Will my baby eat me?
I place my hand on my stomach. “What’s the baby like right now?”
He’s looking at me—I know, even though I am staring down. I wish I asked for a female doctor.
He says, “Well, the baby is developing eyes, mouth—”
I interrupt, “Does it have a heart?”
He pauses. “Yes, the baby does.”
I end up not scheduling my abortion that day.
“Your birthday parties are weird,” Melissa said, dragging the word weird like seven-year olds do.
I was taken aback. It was necessary to me that Melissa—one of my very few friends, my very few white friends come to my party. I was glad she couldn’t see my horrified expression over the phone. I laughed as casually as I could.
“Weird?” I scoffed. “What do you mean weird?”
“The food. I don’t know. It’s a lot of freaky stew stuff. And that weird prayer thing you do.”
The tears started forming. I stifled my sobs. It was like holding up a mirror to all of the truths about me that I wasn’t comfortable with. And I couldn’t look away, not like how I usually did.
I opened my mouth but Melissa already spoke, “That’s basically why. Well, gotta go now, bye!”
I sulked the whole day. My perfectly normal pink baby doll dress, one I had to beg my mom to buy, suddenly didn’t feel ordinary enough to make me fit in.
Only three kids showed up in my party when I invited ten. The three only showed up because their mothers were friends with my mom.
My mom made sinigang, adobo and kare-kare. A collection of clear, dark brown and light brown broths with pork and chicken. The house smelled of vinegar and soy sauce. Freaky stew stuff, I remembered. I regarded them with disdain and refused to eat any even if my mother painstakingly cooked them herself for almost a day and a half.
Right after we blew out the candles on my cake, my mom brought out a stand-up crucifix with dozens of rosaries hanging around it. It replaced the cake on the table.
She announced that we were to start praying for the soul of Michael Esperanza. People gathered around the haphazardly constructed altar. My mom made the sign of the cross, announcing each touch, “In the name of the Father”—aloud, until all the murmurs disappeared and morphed into the start of the prayer.
“May Eternal rest grant unto Michael Esperanza and let perpetual light shine upon him.”
That sentence was said more times than Happy Birthday that day. On almost all of my birthdays.
“May he rest in peace.”
I burst out crying.
They couldn’t calm me down.
A baby keeps crying in the forest and I, frantic and worried, even though I have never cared much for infants, go and look for the source of the wailing. As the sound of crying gets louder, I only see pitch black until two babies come in sight. I first see the one I’ve been hearing crying. He is now screeching while the other one eats him—his mouth and tiny fingers covered in blood, both clasped on the wailing baby’s forearm. The eating baby looks at me as I come out of the bushes and from his eyes, I know I am next. It is always like this. And I wake up, haunted, checking that everything is intact and everything is, except my peace of mind.
I think I was lonely. He had talked to me while I was working—scheduled a meeting with one of the architects for a sales pitch. I checked him in as the receptionist. I hadn’t been seen for a very long time. I went out with him, went home with him, even though he didn’t know how to talk to me.
“I know a Filipino. I worked with him in the plant. We still keep in touch every now and then.”
“Oh.” I smiled tightly and said nothing else.
He cleared his throat. “Did you grow up here?”
“Yes, my parents moved here before I was born.”
“That’s neat. Do you ever go back?”
Back? I just said I wasn’t from there.
“Um…it’s been a while. I think the last time I was there I was thirteen?”
“Oh wow, why haven’t you gone back?”
Back back back back back.
“I’m not from there.”
“I’m not from there. So I can’t go back.” He looked confused. This time I cleared my throat. “I can’t visit again.”
“Oh.” He seemed unsure of what to say next.
Regret filled me. I used the same question, “Did you grow up here?” Unlike me, he had no trouble answering.
Aftertheabortion.com says, God prepares your body for pregnancy. It releases pregnancy hormones and suddenly you notice every baby on the street and feel a rush of, “I want to take care of that baby!” You start to fantasize about your own baby. You start to think of what to name him.
But I’ve always noticed infants anyway. I’m sorry, I always say.
Haven’t I already killed enough babies?
That’s why you can’t get rid of your child. Your body becomes confused. Society might be ok with killing your kid but your body will never be.
Do I go to hell or did my parents go to hell?
I am now seventeen weeks along. It’s not as worse as I thought it would be, but I haven’t slept much. I’ve been driving by Planned Parenthood once a week. I have three weeks left to decide, I convince myself. But I’m beginning to show, and a co-worker takes notice.
She tells me after I share that the father does not know, and no, no one is really going to help me, “Honey, raising a child is no easy thing. Maybe you should go home and see if your parents can help?”
It takes a lot in me not to laugh. Maybe she thinks I’m younger than thirty. The notion of home and of parents to welcome me is so absurd. But in the Midwest, people are polite, so I lie and say, “I’ve been thinking about it.”
“I don’t want to spend my birthday with you.” I told her, straight to her face, without blinking.
She was washing dishes and did not look up at me. I was worried the sound of running water and plates clanging together drowned out my courageous proclamation. But she heard me, and said, “Oh? Why not?”
“Because, Mom. You know.”
She turned off the faucet this time. “We do it for you, you know.” She took off her yellow rubber gloves, which she only wore when she did some ironing earlier in the day. My mom was convinced washing the dishes after ironing worsened her tremors.
I was getting more nervous. “For me?”
“For you. And your brother. So that he rests in peace. You will spend it with us. Like we always do.”
I was fifteen and fed up. The anger took over and I managed to say, “No. Stop. You can’t make me.” My voice was shaking.
She was looking at me now and I could tell she is upset. I expected her to yell at me like how she did when I forgot to close the fridge all the way or when I got a B on my report card. Instead, her voice was steady, as calm as it had been the whole time. She said, “Then, your brother and you will go to hell.”
She ended up not talking to me until I agreed to spend my birthday with them. The death day. Which it was both.
I am in front of the clinic. Nineteen weeks. I should have the abortion now. AboutYourBaby.com says there’s a chance the baby is now able to hear my voice. I talk to it. “Please don’t be a tiyanak.” I plead. My voice cracks as I say, “I’m sorry,” to no one in particular. I try to stop crying because it is so sad the first thing the baby hears from me is sobbing. It’s all I’ve been doing.
I was relieved when my parents died. Truly. The last thing they ever told me was, “Anak, please. Please pray.” My mom begged me in a very quiet voice. She was a small woman but she looked even more frail and petite on the big hospital bed.
Why would you ask that of me, ‘Ma? I had never gone to Church by myself, even with your insistence. Don’t ask me to mourn on my birthday. To pray for a life I never knew.
I never understood you.
It seems my nightmares have now stopped since I’ve made peace with myself to have the child.
Perhaps this is my penance. I just have to bring a new life into the world and raise it Catholic. A baby for a baby.
I get in front of the Church and hear the bells ring, but I never step in. There is so much anger in me whenever I stare at it. If you are about love, where is it now?
As I stand in front of it, bells tolling, excruciating pain starts radiating from my body. A stranger sees me and offers a ride to the nearest hospital. I tell him it’s ok, I am fine on my own, and I call a cab.
I cannot contain my yells and groans. The cab driver looks at me strangely, a look that seems to follow me wherever I go, whatever I am. A part of me knows it is this painful, but another says there is something wrong.
I explain this to the nurse when I arrive in the hospital. She has me hooked up to a machine, and she looks at me, bored, “Just contractions, dear.”
“The baby,” I cry, “It’s trying to eat me.”
That same look, maybe mildly confused, but she shrugs it off, used to hysterical and emotional mothers.
Nobody listens, and they are surprised how dilated I am. Rushed to the delivery room, they urge me to push and I do—just anything for the pain to stop, for all of it to be over.
I pray, “I’m sorry,” to no one again.
I hear a scream before I descend into black. It is too dark to know if it was an infant’s.
Larisse Mondok moved to the United States from the Philippines after finishing her Bachelor’s Degree in Business Management at Ateneo de Manila University. She is currently a NEOMFA Creative Writing student at Cleveland State University.