It was Christmas Eve, a year after Duterte was elected, when my brother and his family were killed in a shopping mall fire in Davao City, Philippines. His wife and two girls were found in a furniture store; my brother, the food court. Based on the coroner report, he was holding two ice cream cones when he died. He was ten years older and had his own life there, while my parents and I had our own here in America. He was part of my parents’ old life and, when they left, he stayed behind.
Needless to say, I didn’t grow up with him. I was born in America. He was family and my kuya, but he wasn’t someone I would talk to other than the occasional “happy birthday” or Liked post on Facebook. His death didn’t really bother me as much as the idea of the wrappers of the cones being singed to his hands. The thought of them was clearer to me than my brother and his family’s faces.
When I told my boss about the hands and asked for a few days off to attend my brother’s funeral, he sighed and suggested I didn’t.
“Going over there and doing something like that will just make your dreams worse. Be grateful it’s just the hands you think about,” he said through the phone. I could hear something sizzle on his side. “If you go, you’re just going to regret it. I know you.”
At the time, I was still in college and working as the secretary for a small family law office that specialized in cases related to Filipinos and divorce. My boss was just three years older than me but already he had his own practice. We immediately took a liking to each other, and, as long as I did what he said, even if I didn’t understand it, he promised to take care of me. He was like my kuya, so naturally I told him everything.
“You’re probably right,” I said, but then insisted, not wanting to disappoint my parents.
“Tell them I said you couldn’t.” Something on his end bubbled and hissed. “It’s my fault.”
“Is that your final decision?”
“Don’t shoot the messenger?”
“Exactly,” he said to the sound of a plate dropping on a muffled surface.
So, the following week, I stayed in the office and the funeral went on without me. My parents grieved my brother for a year, but they never blamed me for not going. The nightmares about my brother’s hands eventually went away. New worries became old ones and, eventually, nothing to worry about at all. My boss said everything came and went like that, all while I took calls, scheduled appointments, and made copies. My life had been reduced to necessity. Nothing more, nothing less.
My boss was an eccentric person, to say the least. He never ate lunch, never appeared stressed, and he was extremely punctual and neat. His appointments always started and ended on time and not one thing in his office was out of place. He made sure everyone’s time was respected, everything was given, received, organized, and kept. In this fashion, I learned his pace and adopted it as my own. My stomach stopped rumbling at lunch time, my stress stretched into obscurity, and I made sure my time and my actions were never wasted.
The most interesting thing about my boss was that he wore a barong every day. There was seldom a time I saw him without one. For our Filipino clients, seeing someone wear a barong in the office was like seeing a politician or a father of the bride, not their divorce lawyer. Upon their first meeting, I would open the door to his office and their eyes would brighten with a sudden air of alarm, as if they had come to the wrong place. My boss would rise from behind his desk, his transparent and elaborately embroidered white barong hugging his form like a coat of mist, and greet them, assuring them they did not make a mistake. For our non-Filipino clients who were not familiar with it, I imagined the exotic nature of the barong in contrast to what they saw underneath—typically a plain white t-shirt, black dress slacks, and black dress shoes—brought to their minds a lowly server in a restaurant rather than a person of power. I have witnessed, time and again, these kinds of clients talk down to him, their respect for him measured by the thickness of what he wore. But, he and his barong always won them over. Eventually, these clients saw the barong and my boss for what they were.
Appearance aside, my boss took his work seriously. He kept his paperwork organized, his dates calendared, and his clients educated, informed, and happy. He collaborated with each client to identify and implement the best course of action to meet their desired outcomes—even, at times, giving them more than they knew they were asking for. A client who wanted alimony would get it—and an extra fifty dollars. Visitation? He would give them that and an extra day. The house? Well, my boss offered, how about some renovations, too? There wasn’t anything a client asked for that he didn’t think deserved a little extra added to it.
And, like some saint, my boss lived a simple, pious life. He drove a fifteen-year-old Corolla, lived in a one-bedroom apartment in the industrial park close to his practice, and kept miniature rewards cards for several grocery stores on his keyring. As for vices, there were only two I could speak of: his love for vodka martinis and spoon-muddled old fashioneds. He made one of each whenever I went over to his place, though I only ever wound up there to borrow and return a barong. Always for a wedding. Always the same barong. Always the two drinks. Everyone around me was getting married, while everyone around him was getting divorced.
“I’m sorry to always be doing this to you,” I said, accepting a martini from him one night. In it were three pitted green olives. He once explained that even numbers in drinks were always bad luck.
“No problem. You can borrow one whenever.” He sat down across from me, the perpetually borrowed barong hanging on the chair next to him like a shadow in a clear plastic shroud. “Who’s it this time?”
“Wasn’t it a cousin last time?”
“You know, us Filipinos and our big families. It’s a wonder you and I aren’t related.”
“About that…” he joked, and we laughed, each of us spilling a little of our drinks on the table. “Although I wouldn’t be surprised. You fit in my barongs.”
“Well, I just borrow the one. Besides, aren’t they one-size-fits-all kind of shirts?” I asked.
“Well, some. Most come in the standard small, medium, large. Still, these are special. They’re custom-made and fitted by my guy. I didn’t think anyone else could wear them, but you fit in one of mine, you fit in them all.” He swabbed his spill with his finger and dried it off in his jet-black hair. I looked to do the same to my own mess, but it was already gone.
“I didn’t know there was a guy for that,” I commented into my drink. The mixture was so clear it looked like the olives were nestled at the bottom of an empty glass. My boss explained that the trick was to stir and not shake. This was real life, he said, not James Bond.
“There’s a guy for everything. There’s a guy for your fridge, a guy for your water, a guy for your cable. Why can’t you get a guy for your barongs?”
“I guess,” I conjectured. “Still, barongs. That’s a tall order.” We sipped our martinis at the same time. The subtle floral notes and clean finish masked the bite.
“My guy’s like the arbularyo of barongs. Don’t ask how. He delivers. You want his email?”
“Oh no. I’m better off borrowing the barong from you. Comes with free drinks.”
“Here, here!” My boss raised his glass. “And free company.”
“And free fucking company!” I raised my glass in reply and took another sip with him, feeling the drink begin to warm my insides. “You know, at the rate these weddings are going, I’ll probably be coming over once a week like this. Probably even borrowing more barongs than just the one.”
“Good for us, good for business.” My boss finished off his drink and got up to start another at his bar.
Not wanting to be left behind, I downed the rest of my drink and signaled for another. “No kidding. You must have seen hundreds of them in your practice.”
“Which ones? Weddings or divorces?” He took out two whisky glasses from under the bar and carried them to the kitchen.
I yelled after him, chewing on the olives: “Divorces. I mean, you must’ve seen more of them than weddings.”
“Yes, isn’t that strange?” he yelled back. “There are more people getting married than there are getting divorced and yet, here we are, knowing more divorced ones than married ones.”
I thought about the “we” in what he said. I was in the same boat as my boss. I wasn’t sure why that hadn’t sunk in before. “It’s not that strange. It’s your business, after all.”
“Yes. And business is always very good. Two lumps?”
“Yeah,” I yelled. He knew I liked my old fashioned sweet, but he always asked anyway. I heard the plop of sugar cubes and the sound of him muddling them with bitters in each glass. Each slosh and crunch reminded me of someone mixing cement. “So, what are your numbers?”
“A hundred-and-nineteen divorces, including the three pending. I’ve only been to one wedding.”
The muddling stopped and I heard my boss tap the mixing spoons on the brim of each respective glass before setting them down and returning to the bar. “Mine.”
“Yours?” I asked, suddenly straightening my back. “You’re divorced?”
“No, I had a wedding. Big difference.” He free-poured two fingers of bourbon into each glass and began to stir each exactly fifty rotations, like I had seen him do many times before.
Feeling as if I was getting too familiar, I started to apologize, but he stopped me midway with the wave of his spoon. He reached down into the freezer under the bar and pulled out a large ice cube for each glass. With the ice in the drinks, he stirred them another fifty rotations.
“Sorry,” my boss said. “It might make it easier for me to tell you about it if you told me about yours, first.”
“Mine? I’ve never been married before.”
“Girlfriends? Boyfriends? Sorry if it’s too personal. Sexual harassment and everything.”
“Hey, I’m wearing your clothes and drinking at your place. I think we’re past that already.” I laughed. “No, man. We’re cool. We’re friends. It’s all right you ask.”
“No, don’t be.” I said and, before it got more awkward, added, “People think of me differently when they know I’m gay right off the bat.”
“I don’t know,” I replied, unsure of myself and what I was trying to say, who I was supposed to be beyond what other people thought of me. “Sometimes people think I want more than a conversation or a drink when they find out. Sometimes they find out and think I’ve been hiding a whole different person.”
In the silence that followed, I looked up at the table and, under his stoic stare, I thought I saw a slight crack of hurt. “But you’re cool,” I floundered, “I don’t think you’re like that at all! Are you gay, too?”
“Thanks. I’m not gay. But, I guess that’s the difference: I don’t feel like I have to say it, while you feel like you can’t.” He stopped stirring and went for an orange on the bar. He thumbed down two peels with a paring knife.
“I’ve only ever had two real relationships in my life,” I said. “Whatever else isn’t worth mentioning.”
He pinched a zest of orange peel in each drink before proceeding to rub the waxy rind around their lips. “Any one of those two you thought about marrying?”
“Sure. But the more we talked about marriage, the more it scared us, you know? I mean, our parents would kill us. Even now.”
“Your parents don’t know you’re gay?”
“Hell no. And with my brother dead, there’s even more pressure for me to, you know, carry on the family name.”
“I see. That sounds more difficult than some.” My boss dropped the peels into the glasses and brought the drinks over to the table.
“Maybe. I don’t know. Every relationship has its issues. Look at how many people are getting divorced.”
He placed one of the old fashioneds in front of me and took a seat. The rich copper sheen of the liquid cut through the glass and bled like a golden aura around our drinks. At the right angle, they looked like two suns between us. “Just because there are issues doesn’t mean people get a divorce, but that’s always the reason, isn’t it? A problem leads to a separation. We could have all these problems, but it just takes the one.”
“Some problems just eclipse the rest.”
“Yeah.” My boss grinned and took a sip of his drink. He looked at it before putting it down, as if trying to find the rest of his words inside. I took a taste in turn, the complexity of bitter, sweet, tart, and smoke hitting my nose and washing over my tongue. We sipped our drinks in silence until he huffed, put his glass aside, and continued.
“I wasn’t always from around here. The first time I stepped into the States, I was sixteen going on seventeen. Back home, I was already married except it wasn’t anything official. I gave her a cat instead of a wedding ring. Cute, huh?”
I nodded and thought of a cat curled up in my glass.
“Her name was Pat-Pat. The cat, not the girl. Her name was Faith. Anyway, I went to college here and I told her to wait for me. The girl, not the cat. I’d study hard, get my citizenship, master the law, and petition her here. Three years went by and I did everything up to the point of petitioning her. All the while, we emailed and called each other, our relationship growing deeper and deeper. I have known no deeper connection than the one I had with Faith.
“But at the same time our love blossomed Pat-Pat got older and older. She lost her sight first, then her appetite, and then, finally, hid under Faith’s bed and died. We were really pushing for her to live. I sent money home to pay for the medical bills. Faith made sure she got her medicine and curled up with her every night. We both prayed the rosary every day. Despite all that, our cat still died. She was gone. And with her, our relationship was over. Once Faith told me, we both said our goodbyes. I haven’t spoken to her since. That was five years ago.”
While I digested my boss’s story, I watched as the cat inside my glass uncurled itself. As it stepped out, I followed it to the edge of the table, where the animal dropped down into the lap of my boss’s barong. I picked up my drink again and tried to enjoy it, but its taste had somehow been sullied.
“That can’t be the only reason you two broke up. There had to be other things.”
My boss brought his old fashioned to his lips. He patted the barong beside him as if it had been the one who told the story. “Sure, there were other things, but that was the main reason. Sorry if it sounds silly. Like I said, your reasons are worse than mine, probably.”
“I mean, there’s also the fact that she was taking care of that cat herself. I’m sure she had her own problems on top of that serious responsibility you put on her. Come on, man, a cat?”
“I know, she must have felt relieved Pat-Pat was gone, huh?” my boss said.
“Sorry, I don’t mean to torture you, but there is definitely more to it, isn’t there?”
“Maybe. Sometimes there’s more. Sometimes it’s just a cat.”
Bewildered by the story my boss told me, I left that night feeling silly to be borrowing his barong. What had happened between my boss, Faith, and the cat seemed so ridiculous, and yet, I could not stop comparing it to what continued to happen between my boss, myself, and his barong. Before, when I used to put on his barong, I’d feel more confident and empowered, as if somehow what made my boss who he was had been sewn into its stitching.
But, after hearing his story, what I borrowed became just as transparent as the act. For years, I wanted to learn more about him and forget more about myself. For years, we had fallen into this type of relationship. This connection. Were we tied together by something so delicate? So absurd?
By the time I put it on for my cousin’s wedding, my boss’s barong had lost all its power. The collar itched, the sleeves were tight, and everything underneath showed completely through the dull patterns. To make matters worse, when I arrived at the wedding, I was the only one wearing a barong, so I easily stood out among the crowd. In my discomfort, I felt exposed to all of my relatives and friends. The barong had become less an object of distinction and more like a target on my back. For every Lola who would complement the seams and how guapo I looked, there would be three kuyas and a tita who would call me tamad or lazy.
Everyone had something to say, and, suddenly, I realized I had nothing to say for it myself. Suddenly, the barong became a burden. I had put on something I was no more a part of than my boss’s cat was of his relationship.
That night, after the wedding, I thought of the cat, and my brother’s hands returned in my dreams. Except now they were accompanied by fire, the hands even more vivid in their light than they had ever been. The skin of his tightly closed fists crackled and bubbled while the cones disintegrated, and the paper waved with each whip of the flame.
The next day, I phoned my boss and immediately went to his house to tell him about it. To my surprise, he wasn’t wearing his barong. He didn’t even make me a drink.
“So, your dreams are worse now,” he said, beckoning me inside.
“Yeah. Ever since you told me about the cat.” I shut the door, still carrying his barong by the hanger. It hovered beside me like a wraith.
“I told you. Sometimes cats do that.” He stood at the table, folding something on a plate.
I came closer and noticed the bananas and egg wrappers on the table. “You’re making turon?” I said, and hung the barong on a chair.
“Yeah, they’re my favorite. You ever make them before?”
“No, only watched.”
“You want to try? It’s not hard. I did most of the prep work already.” He placed a bowl of halved bananas coated in brown sugar between us. “You need to wash your hands. I’ll get you a bowl of water. It’s the binder for the wrapper. Gotta wet the edges.”
Before I could refuse, I washed my hands and carried my bowl of water and plate back to the table. As if under a spell, I had fallen into my boss’s pace again.
“Put an egg wrapper flat on your plate, then put one of the saba banana slices horizontally at the bottom of it.”
I pinched the long slice of banana and did as instructed. “Shouldn’t there be jackfruit in this?”
“I don’t do mine with that. Sorry. Just the saba banana.”
“Saba? I always thought it was just regular banana in here.”
“You can use any banana. But the Filipino saba banana is best warmed up in this.”
I compared what I remembered—glistening shells hiding molten centers of sweet mush—with what we were making—cold, dull, and inert exigence in a delicate sheath. As we folded the wrappers around our bananas and rolled them into turon, I wondered if this was really what they had always been. Bananas look like bananas until they’re not.
After we finished wrapping the turon, we brought them to the kitchen where the oil was already heated in a pot. My boss proceeded to pick out each prepared piece one by one, and slowly lowered them in. The turon crackled and wheezed as they transformed golden brown in mere seconds. My boss talked over their molten roars: “They’re transparent in the beginning, but you know they’re done when you can’t see what’s inside at all.”
When they were done, he plated the turon over a paper towel and let them rest before us, the sweet aroma of caramelized banana stewing in crispy egg wrapper and wafting in a pleasant heat.
“I’ve burned myself many times making this,” he said. “There’s no avoiding it. The oil’s always going to jump out of the pot. And if the cooking doesn’t get me, sometimes I’ll burn my tongue eating it too soon. Just a burst of oil or scalding banana! Pop!”
In the turon, I saw my brother and his family, my boss and Faith, my relationships and who I was to others and myself, all the what-ifs I had had up to that point, the cat. They were all there before me, too hot to touch, transformed.
“Sometimes I wish it was me. Not him.”
“You can’t think that. The fact is, it wasn’t you. It never will be you.”
“Did Faith move on after the cat?”
“She did. Had another cat without me. Divorced, go figure, but happy. You don’t need anyone else to have a cat.”
“How can you do it?” I asked. “How can you live with all the divorce, man? Doesn’t it make you feel depressed seeing these people want nothing more than to be apart?”
“On the contrary,” my boss said, reaching out for one of the turon way before it was ready. I could see how hot it was with the profuse amount of steam emanating from its surface, and even more so when I saw its insides. What was there had not melted away. What was there stayed and merely became something new. “People separating are always thinking about how it was when they were together. For better or worse.”
In the mall, my brother held the two melting ice cream cones, but he couldn’t feel them. By then, the fire was all around them, and what was happening before him felt like it was happening to someone else, a long time ago. Whatever distance separated them, in a matter of moments, it didn’t matter.
Rumpus original art by Lisa Lee Herrick.