“Why are we doing this again?” Crystal sat at the dining room table making lumpia from scratch. Her fingers smelled like garlic and pepper from handling the ground pork, and her neck ached from hunching over the table. She was taught to roll the eggrolls when she was six, and after ten years she should have mastered the skill. Not yet. She looked at the stack in front of her. Some of them were kind of skinny, and others were like over-sized cigars, their thin wrappers almost coming apart at the tips.
“Not too tick,” Crystal’s mother warned from the kitchen. Even after fifteen years in the States her Filipino accent was sealed tight as the lumpia was wrapped. She had long coarse black hair that was held back by a metal barrette, and she wore a floral print duster. Her slippers were black mesh with colored sequins sewn on the top. “Because of your dad,” she said; “He says it’s time we inbite people to the house.”
“But why are we using the china?” Crystal asked. She dipped her fingers into the bowl of scrambled egg yolk, the “glue” that kept the wrappers sealed shut.
“Stop talking and work paster,” her mother said. She pierced marinated cubes of beef with wooden skewers.
“I’m just wondering who’s coming. And if there will be anyone my age.”
“Only adults. No children.”
“Ok, that’s weird. What about Tito Tommy and Tita Cory?”
“Of course they are coming,” her mother said. “But Gigi and the boys are staying home.”
“Why are you always asking why?” Her mother said, “It’s not your business.”
“Just asking,” Crystal said.
The Valencias usually loved entertaining but this party was different, and Crystal could tell. First off, no other kids were coming. Right there, it was not a Filipino party. Filipinos bring everyone: cousins, grandparents, nieces, dogs, all were welcome. But even Tito Tommy and Tita Cory weren’t bringing their kids. Second, they were using the china and the silver. There weren’t any of those bamboo paper plate holders and plastic utensils. Crystal even had to iron the linens the night before. And finally, the mahjong table wasn’t set up. So there wouldn’t be the sound of those little rectangular tiles clicking and shuffling all night.
This is an “American” party. Crystal’s father would wear a polo shirt with slacks like when he went to the golf club, instead of a t-shirt and shorts. Her mother would change into a party dress with sleeves and she would wear pantyhose and shoes, instead of slippers, in the house. They would serve wine and hard alcohol and eat at the dining room table. And because the party was different, Crystal found it harder to help her mother.
“You are not done yet?” Mira Valencia was high energy, and was often exasperated by how slowly her daughter moved; “Ay, just go,” she said to Crystal.
There was at least a third of the ground pork left. Mira could finish the rest out in ten minutes, whereas Crystal would take at least another hour. She walked fast, talked fast, and shopped fast. She could have two or three dishes going on at once in the kitchen, while talking on the phone. Her days were filled with volunteering at church, organizing her husband’s office, and cleaning her home. At night, she would do a crossword puzzle, read a book, and watch Jeopardy all at the same time, and still know if her kids were sneaking something from the kitchen, “Clean the chairs and table outside,” she said, and then picked up one of the eggrolls and re-did it, taking out some of the pork, rolling it thinner, and resealing it; “And sweep the porch.”
“Can’t the boys do that?” Crystal wiped her hands with a paper towel, “They’re out there anyway, throwing the ball.”
“Then get the vacuum,” Mira said, not looking up from her lumpia. She was already done rolling three, and they were thin and uniform. Crystal’s mother was usually cheerful and gregarious, but today she was agitated. They didn’t have the kind of help they had in Jersey. There was no live-in yaya, or cleaning lady, or any aunts or cousins that would come to help with the cooking and gossip with her in the kitchen. She didn’t have time to make her signature dishes like pork lechon or pancit palabok. It was simple barbeque beef skewers, grilled chicken, cold salad and rice. That food was just Sunday dinner food, not special enough for parties.
“There won’t be noodles?” Crystal asked.
“When am I going to make noodles? You want them, you make them.”
“It’s just that there’s always noodles,” Crystal said.
“There’s no time,” Mira said.
“Since when?” Crystal had never heard her mother so defensive.
“Since I have to polish the silver,” Mira said. “Now go vacuum.”
For once Crystal didn’t complain. Her parents said that “for a girl” (which really meant a Filipino girl) she talked too much: asking too many questions, speaking out of turn, and voicing her opinion. And though her own mother was very outspoken, sometimes to a fault, Crystal was expected to keep her mouth shut. Talking back to adults was disrespectful, and unbecoming. A young girl was to be quiet and to keep still, as if in church. But that wasn’t Crystal. Whatever came into her head she let come out of her mouth. But she could see the pressure Mira was under as she rolled the last eggroll. So for her mother’s sake, and perhaps her own, Crystal just did as she was told.
Their house was ranch style and sat on an acre at the edge of Pine Alder, a town of less than three thousand people. Crystal’s father bought the land before closing his practice in New Jersey, and Mira flew back and forth to the Midwest as the house was being built. After a year their new home was ready, and Dr. Valencia took the job as Chief Physician at the hospital. There were only two other doctors in town, Freddie and Cory Mendoza, who they knew from back east, so he was hardly head of anything. It just meant he earned more money, but did more work too. Crystal had just finished her first year of high school.
After vacuuming the living room, Crystal sat on the couch and started to play a video game on their big screen in their tv room.
“No telebision,” her father announced. His accent was also still strong, “Go get ready, and no shorts or those shirts with no sleebs. No ponytail hah! Your hair in a bun.”
Crystal rolled her eyes but said nothing. To her parents, their kids were Filipino. It didn’t matter that they were born in Jersey, spoke only English, and went to public school with kids who called their parents by their first names. They were expected to take off their shoes when entering a house, any house, and to make the sign of the cross whenever they passed a church. But sometimes Crystal didn’t feel Filipino, or maybe she didn’t feel like being Filipino, she wasn’t sure. She just knew she wasn’t what they saw. After she got dressed she looked at herself in the mirror. With her hair pulled back, she thought her face looked too wide, her almost lidless eyes did not resemble anyone else’s in the family. But she had her mother’s fair skin, and full lips and when she smiled her face looked lit from within. She wasn’t smiling when she saw herself, looking like a stewardess from Asiana airlines. She was convinced that if they asked her to pass the lumpia around on a tray her head would explode.
The guests seemed to arrive all at once, which unnerved Crystal’s mother since Filipinos were never on time.
“Smells good in here, Mira,” said Cheryl Hansen, a nurse at the hospital. She had a full wave of apple red hair and wore lots of make-up. Crystal’s father said he was sometimes afraid one of her false eyelashes would fall into a patient during surgery. Mr. Hansen ran the pharmacy in town.
“Hope there’s nothing too foreign,” said Mr. Anderson; “I don’t like to eat anything unfamiliar unless I’ve shot it myself.” He owned the bank and his wife, Kelly was in charge of Meals on Wheels at the church. They were both tall, and athletic looking, which made Crystal’s mom look tiny next to them.
Wayne and Valerie Bishop both sold real estate and lived across the street from the high school. They helped find the Valencia’s house, and had two young boys and a daughter a year older than Crystal. Dr. Nagel was the dentist. He was an old man who seemed to note what everyone ate. His wife, Carol was a slender brunette who worked at the jewelry store. A locket hung from a gold chain that was draped around her neck and she wore several thin gold bracelets on her wrist. Each of the ladies wore white pants, with pastel cotton blouses or cardigan sweaters, and the men wore their polo shirts and pleated slacks. They weren’t like the suburban moms Crystal knew back East. There were no Gucci shoes or Louis Vuitton handbags, both of which Crystal’s mom wore only to church and school meetings.
Crystal realized that they had never had this many Americans at their house before. Even in New Jersey the neighbors never came over for one of their parties. All of their parties were with other Filipino families.
The last to arrive were the Simons. Mr. Simon was the hospital administrator, and his wife taught tenth grade English. Crystal never really thought of Mr. Simon as her dad’s boss. Her father was the only surgeon, and to her that meant he was the hospital. No one could ever fill in for him, so how could anyone fire him? But Mr. Simon always acted like a boss. He had dark hair and a beard. His eyes were always hidden behind his tinted, aviator eyeglasses. He had two sons who he always bragged about to others, but made fun of when they were in the room. The older one, Will, was in Crystal’s class at school but never talked to her. She would see him and his brother once in a while, hanging out in the hospital lounge, waiting for a ride home just like her. Mr. Simon would tell his kids to sit in his office and not say a word. He would then hover in the hall as if in charge of something, making the nurses nervous. When he saw Crystal he smiled and moved close enough for her to smell his cologne, but she would pretend to read a magazine and not notice him.
Everyone ate dinner in the dining room, but dessert and coffee were served in the basement that had a pool table, and large cabinet that housed a stereo system. Dr. V, as everyone called him, loved music and collected all kind of vinyl records. Crystal could hear some old Frank Sinatra album playing in the background as she cleaned up the kitchen. She was tired, but knew she wouldn’t hear the end of it if she didn’t at least load the dishwasher. There wasn’t all that much to do since everything had been eaten. There were no leftovers, or half-eaten portions. This should make her mother feel good, she thought. Her mom was a Filipina matriarch first and foremost, and took the most pride in cooking, serving, or raising something.
Crystal left the few pots soaking in the sink, wiped down the counters, and swept the floor. She dimmed the lights and went to her room. She could hear the buzz of talking and laughter under the floor, but the party seemed farther away. As she let her hair down, she heard a man’s voice behind her.
“What are we up to?” It was Mr. Simon. He pushed the door open and walked in slowly. Crystal thought that he might have mistaken her room for the bathroom since they were right next to each other, but as he looked around she knew he made no such mistake. Crystal stepped back and leaned against the dresser behind her. His face was flush and he appeared much larger, his head and shoulders pushing out at the ceiling and walls.
“What a year the Bears had,” he said. He rambled on about the football team doing well last fall and then something about a movie coming out. Crystal was so confused that she didn’t catch the gist of anything he said. No adult besides her parents had ever been in her bedroom before, let alone a man she hardly knew.
“You wanna be a doctor like your dad? Or your mom for that matter?” He confused Mira with her Tita Cory, but Crystal didn’t correct him.
“Maybe, I don’t know.” Crystal slipped her hands behind her back and clenched the dresser. The hard, cold texture of the wood gave her comfort. She noticed he had a drink in his hand, from which he took a sip. He moved around the room like a threatening animal, a snake or a wild cat, sniffing around, blocking escape routes, but not quite ready to strike.
“You’d have to work hard,” he said. His voice was deep and low. Crystal nodded, acknowledging his authority. He eyed her arms, then her shoulders but avoided her face. Crystal’s scalp grew warm and she felt beads of sweat on her upper lip.
“You like baseball?” She shrugged, and looked around the room, wishing he would just end this conversation and wander off the same way he wandered in.
“I played ball in school,” he said, “Nothing like hearing the ball hit the glove of the catcher.” He brought his arm back and lifted his leg, then stumbled back against the closet door, spilling some of his drink on the carpet. Crystal didn’t move.
“Mike?” a woman’s voice called out in the hallway. Mrs. Simon came into the room. She was a tall, female version of Will. She had dark hair but deep blue eyes, and a heart shaped face. Crystal stood still, not saying a word. What was there to say? That he thought this room was just another extension of the party? Was she supposed to apologize for standing in her own bedroom? She thought about it, but when Mrs. Simon saw her husband straightening up so close to Crystal’s bedside, she decided to wait. Mrs. Simon looked confused. She gave a quick glance at Crystal’s hair then turned to her husband.
“Mike it’s late. We should go.” She clasped her hands in front of her, waiting for him to comply.
“It’s early,” he said loudly, waving his arms.
“Well Crystal’s tired. At least let her get some sleep.” Her tone changed to that of a preschool teacher. She scanned the room as if looking for other people watching.
“You’re not tired are you?” Mr. Simon looked at Crystal. She didn’t answer.
“Michael, let’s go.” He shook his head then sat down in the middle of the floor, trying to fold his legs in front of him. He shook his head, saying, “No” over and over again. Mrs. Simon stepped toward him, as he rocked back and forth. Crystal could tell that this wasn’t the first time Mrs. Simon has had to deal with her husband in this way, and she looked pretty frustrated. She wanted to offer to help, or maybe get someone from the party to talk to him, but her mouth wouldn’t open.
She slipped outside the door and into the bathroom. After a while, she checked to see if they had left the bedroom. Mrs. Simon was stooped down next to her husband trying to take his drink away and talk him into leaving. Crystal went down the hall to her brothers’ room. She grabbed a blanket that was hung on the footboard of one of the twin beds, and lay down on the floor. As she felt the rug against her cheek, the fleece throw wrapped around her, the image of Mr. Simon and the steady din of the party faded as she drifted off to sleep.
The following morning Crystal saw her mother in the kitchen scrubbing the pots and pans. She was back in her duster and humming to herself. Crystal didn’t offer to help. “So did you have fun?” She tried not to sound too sarcastic, knowing that her mother probably thought the night wasn’t worth all the work.
“It was o.k. They’re no lept obers.” Mira smiled and then said, “They seemed to enjoy it.” Crystal looked in the refrigerator for some orange juice.
“Some more than others, huh?” She pulled out the carton and poured herself a glass.
“Di ba? I tink Karen was so embarrassed by Mike.”
“He didn’t seem drunk at first but then she couldn’t get him off the floor of my room.” Crystal wanted to take back her words as soon as she heard them come out of her mouth. She hoped the comment would go right over her mother’s head.
“What do you mean?” Mira asked, suspect. Her big brown eyes narrowed, “He went to your room?” Crystal nodded and felt a weird sense of both fear and shame, but didn’t know why.
Mira threw down her sponge and walked out of the kitchen.
“Crisaldo! Saan ka?” She went into the living room and spoke Tagalog in sharp tones to her husband. The strange words rolled fast off her tongue, “Nagpunta sa kanyang kuwarto!” Crystal wasn’t sure if her mother was convincing her father of what happened, or blaming him for it.
“Sa Simon. Mike.” Then the conversation was like a runaway train, a crescendo of foreign syllables and sounds with hot sparks exploding in the air. Crystal couldn’t tell where the end of a word or sentence was, but she knew her mother was far from done.
“Sabe mo, show them respect,” Mira said, indignant, “Bakit na? Do they show respect? Hindi! And in our house, dios ko.” The “taglish,” Crystal thought, was a sure sign that her mother was furious.
Her father stormed into the hall, also bellowing. “That is the last time they come here!” He then saw Crystal and pointed his finger at her. “And you, you should not hab been up so late!”
“Why are you yelling at me?” Crystal set down her glass of juice.
“You should not be seen like that. This is your fault.”
“My fault? You invited them,” Crystal said.
“Don’t talk back.” He said, “You are always talking back. You go to your room.”
Crystal stomped off and slammed the door. Hot tears burned in her eyes but she didn’t want to give her parents the satisfaction of crying. Mr. Simon’s half empty glass was still on the desk. It was his fault, Crystal thought. Everything they did was to impress him and he didn’t even care. She imagined him snoozing away a hangover while her mother scrubbed the pans in the sink, oblivious to how much she did just to be part of the community. And her parents, what did they know? Don’t talk back they said, but look where it got her, stuck in a room with her father’s drunk boss leering at her, afraid to tell him to go away or ask someone to get him to leave.
She heard a soft knock at the door. Her mother walked in, and Crystal turned away from her and sat on the bed. Mira frowned at the half empty glass on the desk, and sat next to her daughter. Crystal inched away, but her mother leaned closer.
“He didn’t do anything, right?” she asked in a low voice.
“So what if he did,” Crystal said, “Would that be my fault too?” There was a brief silence between the two of them. Then Crystal’s mother sighed and cleared her throat.
“It’s not your fault.” Crystal waited for her mother to take the blame but she didn’t; “But you have to be careful, Hija,” Mira said.
The tone in her mother’s voice was a mix of counsel and caution, a sort of letting go. Whenever she used the word, “Hija,” Crystal knew her mother spoke from the heart. Crystal saw that Mira was resigned to her daughter’s future, her control over it fading. Sure she could still forbid Crystal from taking the car, or going on dates, but Mira couldn’t control how people saw Crystal, or protect her from the thoughts in a man’s mind, not even in her own house. And had Crystal not mentioned Mr. Simon being in her room that night, her mother would have never even known.
Crystal threw her arms around her mother; overwhelmed by the fear she couldn’t identify the night before. She wanted to go back; back to the morning before when she was rolling lumpia and playing video games, back to being told how to act and what to do. Mira hugged Crystal but not for too long. She stood up and asked, “You understand me?” Crystal nodded. Her mother picked up the dirty glass and walked out of the bedroom, leaving Crystal alone.
“Ok, Come on,” Mira tapped Crystal on the knee and stood up. She didn’t look at Crystal’s teary eyes. On her way out, she picked up the dirty glass off the desk and said to Crystal “Let’s have something to eat.”