My neighbor found a rat in the toilet, so he poured boiling water over it.
“It took a while,” he says, frying strips of salmon belly. “But it worked.”
Tol is a new neighbor. He’s the friend of a friend who told me about the vacant two-bedroom apartment next to his. Our building is old; rats and cockroaches visit a lot. But all the electrical outlets and faucets work, even if sometimes they spark and leak. I’ve only known Tol a month, and the dead rat makes me look at him anew.
“Is that how Filipinos kill rats?” I ask.
“You’re half,” he says. “You tell me!”
“Maybe I would just pour half the kettle, then?”
“How would a half Filipina deal with a rat in the toilet at two a.m. in Quezon City?” Tol prods me. His tone is imperious. He senses my judgment, my unwillingness to laugh.
“I’d put something heavy on the toilet lid,” I say. “To make sure the rat couldn’t escape. Then . . . I’d come over to your house and ask for help.”
“And I’d pour boiling water over the rat,” he says. “Same fate.”
“What—I—how did the rat—?”
“Well. It melted.” Tol’s salmon sizzles. “Didn’t squeak or anything.”
A man outside yells in Tagalog. There’s an orphanage in the lot behind our building. Something falls against the bamboo fence guarding it. More yelling. We can sense a stunned, silent audience.
“What’s the orphan master saying?” I ask. I don’t know if his title is actually orphan master, but it’s what I’ve taken to calling the man.
“Walang mastisa kayo,” Tol says. “No one to blame but yourselves.” He clucks his tongue. “He yells at the kids all the time. Asshole. Sometimes, I yell back.”
I go home after eating Tol’s cooking. His sinigang one of the finest soups I’ve ever had. A careful recipe, redolent of ginger and garlic and tamarind.
Before getting into bed, I look at my own toilet. It’s empty and white.
I’m on my third month living alone. Almost every other person with a US dollar account here hires maids. Hardly anyone lives alone. The pronoun for “home” is sa amin—ours, automatically plural, a cultural assumption that your home is shared. I was raised in California and people in the Philippines tell me to not feel guilty about hiring a maid, and that I should find a partner or a roommate. But I don’t hire one and I don’t look for one. I’m fairly certain I should do it all myself.
It works, for the most part. I build a life that looks much like the one I had months ago at graduate school in the US. But when I’m not watching TV shows on my computer, or grading papers, or going for short, dangerous bike rides, or sitting with friends in a restaurant, old memories boil in my head.
One surfaces now. I’m two or so years old. An old woman, a babysitter whose name I don’t remember, is half-drowning me in the toilet.
I’m quiet while she’s doing it, but I open my eyes underwater and I feel prepared and resigned. I am going to drown, I am not going to drown, I am going to drown, I am not going to drown. Fingers snarl in my hair, guiding my head up or down. I don’t try to speak, I don’t try to scream, I don’t try to escape. I just wait and breathe when I can, then stop breathing when I can’t. All of it feels inevitable.
The next morning I wake up with a full-body rash.
I look at my new color in the mirror. An ethnically ambiguous tan, stippled with red.
I put my hands to the back of my head in shock. The skin behind my ears is swollen. I feel too hot and then too cold. Pain hammers the hidden surface at the back of my eyeballs.
I text my friend Petra.
Ummm. I have a full body rash. Should I cancel class?
!!! 🙁 Students are the least of your worries.
I take that as a yes?
I’m coming over.
When I open my gate to let Petra in, I see that she’s carrying three plastic containers full of food her house staff made. She hasn’t showered yet; she was rushing. Her black hair is dyed a strategically partial purple, and her wide wolf tattoo stalks the skin of her brown shoulder underneath her tank top.
“Dear,” she says, “I googled the symptoms of dengue. The rash is one of them. Do you have eyeball pain? Fatigue?”
“It’s toxic,” I say. “I use citronella. It smells nicer.”
“We gotta wage chemical warfare up in here,” she says. “I can bring a couple yayas to help if you want.”
I think of Petra’s house staff, two women around our age, scouring my floorboards with noxious, mosquito-killing spray.
“I don’t know,” I say. “Doesn’t Baygon kill other things too? I kinda trust the lizards and spiders to take care of the mosquitoes.”
“Stop trusting the creatures, Laurel,” Petra says. “Trust the poison.”
At the entrance to St. Luke’s hospital, SUVs with tinted windows and single-digit license plates linger, waiting for politicians and celebrities to exit from their appointments and procedures and traumas.
In the emergency room I freeze at the sound of moaning, grown men. I look away from kids with bandages over their eyes. A woman carries her daughter, who’s crying from a dog bite to her leg. She wails when a nurse puts a plastic blood-pressure cuff around her fat upper arm.
“Tell me a story,” I ask Petra.
“Are you panicking?” she asks.
“Maybe,” I say.
She types into her iPhone: At the emergency room, helping tamp down @laurelfantauzzo’s rising panic.
“Are you tweeting this?” I ask, and she tweets that I asked that.
“Okay. Here’s a story,” she starts. “When I was a kid, our neighbor, a priest, had a pet cat. It was savaged by my dogs. A Rottweiler and a golden retriever.”
An old man moans again from behind a curtain.
“We called a local vet’s office to make sure the cat didn’t have rabies. We didn’t want to handle its body ourselves. The vet, when she arrived, looked like a supermodel. Ganda nga, eh. She wore a white coat and high heels, and her hair was so big, so glamorous. She asked to borrow my cousin’s balisong. A Filipino pocketknife.
“She was so dainty as she did it. Sometimes she paused and tucked her beautiful hair behind her ear and sighed—” Petra tucks her beautiful partly purple hair behind her ear and sighs— “and then kept on going.”
“Kept on going doing what?” I ask.
“Cutting the cat’s head off. With the balisong. She had to collect it with a plastic bag to test it for rabies. You can only test the brain.”
I turn my eyes away from the front door, where a skinny old woman is being rushed in on a stretcher, plastic tubes emanating from all of her.
A young man in navy blue scrubs addresses me. “Lau-rel . . . Pant-ow-zo?” he asks. Petra says something in quick Tagalog, and the nurse gestures into a tiny assessment room.
I sit down in a plastic chair. Petra stands near me and translates my stats: age 29, female, dual citizen, Filipina American. Then my symptoms: rash, eyeball headache, bumps behind my ears. The nurse asks Petra a question.
“Are you taking any medications now?” Petra asks me.
“Sertraline,” I say.
Zoloft is the medicine, but I prefer its generic name, sertraline. It sounds prettier to me, like the name of a benevolent, hippie alien, visiting me from outer space.
“For major depressive disorder,” I say, since the nurse’s eyes have questions in them.
My full diagnosis is actually post-traumatic stress disorder, according to my grad school’s head of psychiatry, and Petra knows that. But I don’t want to be completely honest to a stranger, even a nurse. I haven’t been through a war. So why the diagnosis? Most Filipinos, like my mom, prefer church and friends and parties to therapy. Distractions, not confrontations.
The nurse touches behind my ear. I wince. He nods again.
“Trangkaso,” the nurse says. “No dengue.”
Petra brightens. “Ah! Trangkaso. A common virus. One you get during rainy season.”
Trangkaso, I think to myself. I try out the word. “Tra-nga-so.” Petra helps to correct me. “Trang-kah-so.”
When Petra returns with me to my house, I see an old dog limping outside my gate.
The dog has brown and yellow fur and I can imagine playing my fingers down the hard row of her ribs. She’s mix of something—a Labrador and a Rottweiler, maybe, pared down to a medium-sized dog. I don’t really know. She’s an azkal, a street dog.
Only purebred dogs are kept inside houses here. Other, mixed dogs are tied with short leashes to hard surfaces and used as cheap, living alarm systems. They get leftovers when they’re lucky. Most dogs just wander around the street, hungry and wounded.
I turn my eyes away from these dogs because I worry they can read the expression on my face. “If you ever encounter scary dogs,” a friend once told me, “show them your back.” Something about your face is provocative to dogs, so the blankness of your back is safer.
This limping dog looks at me now in a way I find familiar. She has gentle needy eyes. But her shaking shows me she expects nothing from me. When the dog sees me and Petra approaching, she limps into the gutter outside my gate and hides in the shade of a parked truck. I am filled with the urge to give the dog something to eat, but my refrigerator is empty.
Petra hustles me into my living room and makes me lie down.
“What do you want me to get you from the grocery?” she asks.
I think. It’s hard to crave anything through my rising fever and ache and rash. We hear small boys screaming and laughing and thumping a basketball.
“What is that?” Petra asks.
“It’s the orphans. There’s an orphanage behind here. A small one. They wake up around six a.m., singing the national anthem. My alarm clock is orphans.”
“Oh, Laur’l,” she sighs, using the nickname she invented for me.
“Can you get me Milo?” I ask.
My mention of Milo—a chocolate “nutrition” drink, more sugar than anything else, with happy Filipino basketball players printed on every green box—makes Petra pity me. She says my name again, sits next to me, and pets my hair.
This is my favorite gesture from a lover. It usually makes me collapse into a lover’s shoulder. But I stiffen when Petra does it, not wanting to show too much of my need to a friend.
“Is the Philippines trying to kill me?” I ask.
“Just a little bit.” She puts her fists on her hips. “Whatchu doin’ here, American?”
“I’m a dual citizen, Philippines!” I joke back. “I promise I belong here! Kind of! Wanna see my passports?”
“Bring it, motherland!” Petra chucks my shoulder with her fist. “Your immune system will be able to take anything after this, Laur’l.”
She returns later with five boxes of Milo, then returns home to her family’s house. I sleep. I wake in the early evening to Tol’s knock. He’s brought me beef stew and rice.
“What’s the matter with you?” he asks. “Ngek. Why are you pink all over?”
“Weakling Fil-Am,” I say.
Tol smiles and shrugs and leaves.
I look at the plate he handed me. I look outside my gate but I see that the dog is gone. I decide it would have been a waste, anyway, giving an azkal Tol’s good beef stew.
Before I go to bed I look at my face. My rash has subsided a little, but the circles under my eyes have grown darker.
I turn out the bedroom light and touch a match to a citronella candle on my nightstand. It fills my room with a smell halfway between citrus and wood. Another memory jumps up with the flame.
My mother is rubbing my knees and singing to me. I am ten. My dad reads to me from a Sherlock Homes book. My knees always ached as I was growing up. The pain kept me awake at night, but it felt better when someone rubbed my knees warm. I do not remember ever telling my mother this but she knew to do it.
Something makes the flame duck and dodge.
I am twelve and my dad takes my mom out to the garage to slap her. Later my mom punches me in the face. “You’re all I have,” she says as she does it. “Don’t you understand that? You’re all I have.”
Then I am sixteen. My mom is telling me she likes the Elliott Smith album I got for her, since he sounds like The Beatles. We listen in peaceful silence.
Then my dad headlocks my mom and wrestles her to the ground during an argument. I am seventeen and she charges into my room and throws my lamp to the ground and calls me useless, spoiled, useless.
“Fuck you,” I say to her once, when I am nineteen, and in that moment I am sure I deserve every hurt. My sinfulness feels like balance restored. Of course she would punch me and call me useless. Who would hesitate to punch me?
I let the flame get low. I fall asleep before blowing it out. I know I shouldn’t, but in the moments when I wake from nightmares, I like the warmth the candle offers, despite the danger.
Deep night. I hear something scratch and then topple and then run.
I open my eyes. It’s dark; the candle has burned itself out. All of the worst stories of Metro Manila return to me in that moment: home invasions, robberies, shootings.
I punch the switch of my bedroom light in time to see a mouse dashing along the wainscoting of my wood floor. The mouse is gray and tiny as my thumb. It flattens itself and squeezes into the space under my bedroom door.
I stand and open my door but the mouse has found somewhere to hide. I listen closely to the dark. I can’t hear him moving anymore.
I press a button on my cell phone to check the time. It’s 2 a.m. I get back into bed and wrap a sheet around me.
Then I hear the boy.
“Huwag!” he screams. “Huwag! Ayaw ko! Ayaw ko!”
The sound is coming from the orphanage behind our building. I stand. This phrase I understand. My mother taught it to me when she was watching a telenovela on Filipino TV. A woman character was screaming at a man about to attack her.
Please don’t! Don’t! I don’t want this!
The child keeps screaming. “Huwag huwag huwag! Ayaw ko! Ayaw ko . . .” He sobs.
I stand still, listening to whether or not the orphan master is doing something to the boy in the dark. I feel my urge to run. I feel that old panic closing my throat.
I open my laptop and send Petra a text. She’s awake at a party somewhere.
One of the orphans is screaming.
What do I do? A lot of times when you intervene the abuser gets angrier. Do I do something? What happens to him if I call the police?
Oh god. Don’t. The police here might take the kid somewhere worse.
It’ll be okay, Laur’l. Kids are resilient. He’ll grow up. He’ll learn to be okay.
He’ll grow up and listen to some other kid screaming in his backyard at 2 a.m.?
🙁 Oh, Laur’l.
The boy’s sobbing gets smaller, then stops. I stand again, vigilant, waiting to hear if his screaming will start again. It doesn’t.
I cough and light another candle. I hear the scratching, the tiny tumbling.
“This will end badly for you sooner or later, mouse,” I say out loud. My voice sounds strangled and thin.
The next morning my hands are covered in small red bumps.
They look like mosquito bites, or measles. The skin of my palms feels tight and weak. It hurts to close my hands. I put on bicycle gloves before touching anything. When I go to my kitchen, I see the cockroach in the middle of the floor mat beneath my sink.
The cockroach is as long as the neck of a wine bottle. The cockroach is its own small planet.
I pick up a sneaker and aim. I remember that I always mistake the word for “cockroach”—ipis—with the Tagalog word for “think”—isip.
I have a lot of these mix-ups. Malaya means “freedom;” “malayo” means far away. Pamankin means “niece” or “nephew;” pawikan means “sea turtle.” I gather words and make my mistakes and try not to make them again. My mother never taught me Tagalog. She never thought I would live in the country she left; that I would save up my fellowships, pack three balikbayan boxes, and reverse-migrate.
I wonder briefly what she would think of me at this moment, my bike-gloved hands covered in fever bumps, aiming a shoe at an ipis.
The sneaker lands, sole down, on the cockroach’s back. My aim was perfect. I feel triumphant. Then, with patient, planetary slowness, the sneaker moves forward.
I back away up the stairs.
At night, I look at the small black square of my magicJack. I put it away, and idly open Skype. I look at my parents’ names.
I light a candle and fall asleep instead.
I wake to the candlelight around 2 a.m. I feel too hot. I toss off my thin sheet. The heat gathers in my chest, lurches up to my shoulders and neck, makes my wrists prickle.
I stumble out of bed and kneel in front of the toilet. I groan and begin to sweat sickly. I take off all of my clothes. I blow out the candle and slap the bathroom light into darkness.
I vomit. I haven’t vomited since high school. I have a terrible fear of vomiting but I do it. There’s pasta and rice and I don’t know what else. I spit. I heave.
It’s okay. Let it out. It’s okay. You’re doing fine. Do you want to lie down? Lie down. It’s okay. You did okay. You’re okay.
I drag a pillow from my bed and lie down on the bathroom floor. The tile is cool. It calms me a little. I drink water. I vomit the water.
This time I can’t summon the will to soothe myself. I’m going to die, I think. I haven’t even reached the level of capable adulthood where I have adopted a cat. And I’m going to die.
I puke again.
This time I try to visualize my puke as a metaphor. I’m releasing it, all of it. I go through the rubric the psychiatrist taught me. The memories, the vigilance, the shoulder spasms when I hear loud sounds or an argument starting. The locked-up silence it all required of me. I’m letting it out. Soon I’ll be clean. I’ll be free.
Something swoops and smacks against the window of my bathroom. I heave. I hear the thing squeak confusedly, then flap away.
A bat. It was a bat. In Tagalog: paniki. A squeaky paniki. I try to smile but can’t.
I lie down on the bathroom floor again. Pain grinds along my torso.
I hear the mouse tumbling along my floorboards again. Then stillness.
I don’t realize I’ve fallen asleep on my bathroom floor until the orphans wake me.
It’s six a.m. They’re singing the national anthem, “Lupang Hinirang.” Chosen country.
“Bayan magiliw, perlas na silanganan. Alab ng puso, sa dibdib mo’y buhay.” Beloved country, Pearl of the Orient, your heart burns alive in your chest.
They sound cheerful in their routine, like any kids awake on a sunny morning.
The orphan master stops them, yells something, and makes the kids start again.
Petra comes over with her mom, alarmed by the uncharacteristic, no-punctuation text messages I sent her. This time, the ends of her black hair are burnt yellow. She looks at me wide-eyed. “Yo, you look whiter than usual,” she says. “Like, white white.”
“Like the kind of white that would get me better service in a restaurant?” I ask.
“Like, the kind of white that would own me!” Petra says, and stomps around my living room, brushing off her brown shoulders. We often make these terrible jokes to each other, as if laughing at the Philippines’s neocolonial racism could defuse its damage. But Petra’s mom stares at me and doesn’t smile.
“Naku,” Petra’s mom says. She’s dressed in elegant, black-and-white, corporate casual. “Don’t stand up. Lie down. How much weight have you lost?”
“I’m down to 107 from 118 pounds in Iowa,” I say. I lie down and curl up against a pillow. “I don’t know how to measure kilos yet. Sorry.”
“Take her back to St. Luke’s, huh?” she says to Petra. “You sure you’ll be okay with the taxi? I can call the driver if you need to borrow the car.”
“We’re cool here, Ma,” Petra says. She goes upstairs to pack a bag for me.
“Okay. Get her a long-sleeved shirt for air-con!” Petra’s mom calls. She goes to my fridge and fills a cup with ice cubes for me. “Here, suck on these. Drink coconut juice when you’re ready. Consult with an infectious diseases specialist. Do you have a health card?”
“I just pay out of pocket,” I say.
“Naku!” Petra’s mom shakes her head. “I’ll look up insurance plans for you. Sige. Bless.”
She rests her hand on my forehead for a moment. She draws a small cross with her thumb, giving me a traditional Catholic benediction. My mother never did this for me in California. I want to ask Petra’s mom to lay her hand on me again, but I close my eyes instead.
“Dude,” Petra says. “I took a picture of the nest you made in the bathroom.”
I open my eyes. She shows me her phone. My pillow, a sheet, and a cup of water surround the toilet in a sad morning pile.
“You should Tweet that photo,” I say. Petra does, making sure to tag me. Then she goes outside to call us a cab.
At St. Luke’s the doctor tells me I was misdiagnosed a few weeks ago, when I was first at the hospital. My illness wasn’t simply trangkaso. It was coxsackie virus, aka hand-foot-and-mouth disease. Coxsackie is named after the town in Pennsylvania where hand-foot-and-mouth disease first appeared. It makes people weak, dots their hands with weird, painful blisters, causes nausea. Now it’s ripping through people in Manila.
This time I get an IV plugged into the back of my hand, to rehydrate me, and a bed with my own curtain. Petra reads to me from a fat book of Robert Hass poems she’s been carrying around. “Ahem,” she begins.
“All the new thinking is about loss.
In this it resembles all the old thinking.
The idea, for example, that each particular erases
the luminous clarity of a general idea. That the clown-
faced woodpecker probing the dead sculpted trunk
of that black birch is, by his presence,
some tragic falling off from a first world
of undivided light. . . .”
“Hay naku,” I interrupt her, my American accent making her laugh. “Don’t!”
“Okay,” Petra says, flipping the page. “Laurel doesn’t want to hear about her mortal vulnerability in the emergency room. I can’t imagine why not.”
“My arm is cold,” I say. “Where the saline water needle is jabbed in.”
“Feel my arm. Is it cold?”
She touches my IV arm. “Whoa!” she says. “The feel of healing. Are you still thirsty?”
“Kawawa. The last time I was in the hospital, I got a tetanus shot.” She lifts her shirtsleeve to point at the wolf on her shoulder. “I made the nurse promise my tattoo wouldn’t be ruined. She promised. Then she put the needle right in his eye.” She taps the wolf’s head.
“Why did you need a tetanus shot?”
“Ah, I was on a weird date,” she says. “I was drunk and swung around on some monkey bars at this old playground. There was blood and rust on my palms. A usual weeknight.”
“Love starts in all sorts of bloody ways,” I say.
A nurse enters to check my IV, then leaves. Suddenly I feel like crying.
“Do you think the Philippines is trying to kill me?” I ask again.
“No, dear,” Petra says. She pats my arm. “Well. Maybe just a little bit. Maybe the Philippines is hurting you just enough to let you know it loves you.”
When I’m rehydrated and back home, my sleep simmers with strange dreams.
I dream about ex-girlfriends leaving me in the exact manner they left me in life.
I dream I’ve argued with Petra and she won’t forgive me.
I dream my parents are living with me in my Philippines apartment. They pick up and smash everything I keep on shelves and counters. When I demand that they leave, my parents look at me with pleading faces full of so much childlike need, I let them stay.
I wake up with sweat soaking my pillowcases. I run out of pillowcases.
I sleep again. Eventually my sleep turns blank.
On a day when I finally feel better, able to prepare my own food instead of texting Tol to bring me whatever he’s having, I go downstairs to my kitchen.
It’s a sunny noontime. The orphans are outside again singing. This time, the orphan master is teaching them a song.
“If you’re happy and you know it, clap your hands! If you’re happy and you know it, clap your hands! If you’re happy and you know it, then your face will surely show it, if you’re happy and you know it, clap your hands!”
The children’s laughter is louder than I’ve ever heard it. It flows over the bamboo fence and into my kitchen. The kids aren’t used to using English. Their voices tangle at your face will surely show it. The laughter ripples out of them each time they make the mistake. Even the orphan master laughs. The kids grow stronger when they start the Tagalog version of the song. “Kung ikaw ay masaya at alam mo ito palakpak . . .”
I stand for a moment in my kitchen, listening to their happy voices. Then I notice it: the small dark curl on the floor mat under
my kitchen sink.
It’s not a mark at all. It’s the little gray mouse. It died there on the floor mat, curled on its side, its paws clenched tight, its eyes closed and mouth open as if in sad, scared sleep.
I look at the mouse for longer than I need to. I move the floor mat to check. The mouse stays still.
My phone buzzes. It’s Petra.
Laur’l! My mom and I wanna know if you’re feeling better. Do you have an appetite? Are you hurting at all?
My phone buzzes again. This time it’s Tol.
Are you still a weakling Fil-Am? Can you come eat pizza?
I look at my floor mat again. I wonder what I’m going to do with the dead mouse.
I text Petra and Tol back the same answer.
Yes. All of the above.
Rumpus original art by Mobius Design Studio.