Books & Art

Cursed & Other Stories Presents the Heart-Wrenching Emotions of Filipinos Living Elsewhere

Thirteen short stories by Filipino-American writer Noelle Q. de Jesus paint a picture of diaspora.
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Palanca award-winning writer Noelle Q. de Jesus navigates the theme of diaspora in her second book of short fiction, Cursed and Other Stories. In 13 tales, de Jesus, who was born in the U.S., raised in the Philippines, and now lives in Singapore, presents the spectrum of emotions, from pain to hope, love and longing, of the many Filipinos who have chosen to leave the country in pursuit of a better life.

The book, which is published by Penguin Random House Southeast Asia and will launch at the 2019 Singapore Writers Festival in November, is dedicated to “...all the people who wear their national identity with simultaneous pride and shame. Because while they might wish to leave their home to seek greener pastures for those they love, they will never be able to leave their country behind completely.” 

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Below, the short story “Cursed” considers Rosario, a Filipino in the U.S., who is figuring out her heart, her life now with the man he is living with, and her life then with a past love who suddenly appears in New York City. 

Cursed

If anyone were to ask, Rosario wouldn’t be able to say how she came to have this smarting bruise on her foot.

The pain just appeared, all of a sudden, yet she couldn’t make anything out through her sheer gray pantyhose. Nor could she take the time to examine it. There was f too much work to be done—expense sheets to process, travel bookings to make and too many sheets of minutes to transcribe from the steno pad she used for notes though she knew no stenography.

It was only later, back in what Rosario stubbornly still referred to in her mind as “Jon’s apartment” (though she’d lived here with him for nearly a year), this neat little one-bedroom flat in one of the high-rise towers around Lincoln Center. She fixed her attention on that twitching dime-sized bit of skin, and shut everything else out. A large volcano she had not even known was active was right now erupting north of Manila, sending harshly blinding ash-fall over the capital. The heart-moving shock of Dennis suddenly appearing here in New York City after years of silence. And now, sudden doubtful, bewildering feelings for Jon also seemed to be rising to the surface.

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Rosario splashed cold water on her face, and bent to examine her ankle but there was nothing there that she could see. It was simply tender to the touch.

“Honey, pesto or tomato?”

At first, it sounded like he was asking her to choose among three things instead of two. Jon was making dinner—usually a version of boiled noodles and some kind of sauce, which was fine. He always did a better job than Rosario ever could. And this was true of most of the household tasks. Jon made the better mushroom omelet. He vacuumed better; she always missed spots. He cleaned and kept house better than she ever could.

She had grown up in Manila, in a house with a helper, not because they were especially rich, but just because that’s what everybody did. Housework did not come naturally to her. Still, they split cooking duties—she took Thursday through Sunday, and they usually ate out either Friday or Saturday. It was enough of a pleasant surprise that Jon proposed the idea of sharing these tasks—the tasks of life, he called them. That kind of a thought would never have occurred to Dennis.

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“Whatever you like,” Rosario answered quickly, and then changed her mind. “Oh wait, no, tomato, please.”

She slipped out of her no longer crisp, long-sleeved work shirt, and got into a yesterday’s pajama t-shirt. She brushed her hair with thorough, methodical strokes. She knew she was stalling, not wanting to face any of it. 

Jon had the news on while he cooked, so when Rosario came out, she had no choice but to see Mt Pinatubo erupting in the Philippines.  Rosario could not explain, even to herself, why it pained her so deeply to watch this calamity the way all of America was seeing it, as they sat in their houses eating their meat and potatoes, or lounged on their couches. It seemed to her the very height of betrayal.

Once more, she bent to examine her ankle under the light of the sleek halogen lamp that stood beside Jon’s three-seater convertible sofa. In the brighter illumination, she made out a spot of her skin tinged with red and a tiny, distinct nick. Rosario fingered the nick as though she were feeling a ruby or sapphire. As a child, she had always been clueless about her injuries. Her mother pointed out a skinned elbow or wounded knee, and then Rosario would see it for the first time, and only then would tears start to roll down her cheeks. Only then would she feel the pain.

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“What happened, Rosario?”

Rosario didn’t have an answer for him.

When she was nine, she stuck her hand into an open rotary electric fan running on high, mainly to see what that silver-spinning center felt like. The blades clacked with an alarming gunshot-like clack-clack-clack, and instantly, she was staring at bloody cuts on the joints of her fingers, almost as if they had been drawn there with a red ball pen.  Once, she stepped on a staple with her bare foot, and instantly two neat punctures on her sole filled into perfect polka dots of red.  Another time, she knocked over a large bottle of cough syrup and sent chards of sticky glass flying, one right into her own shin.

Rosario had always been accident-prone. It was an accident too that she carried a US passport and could therefore fly to the US from Manila, and make her way, and put into action a plan to establish residency and then petition her mother and brother so they could come.  It was just a random trick of fate that she was born in the US while her father, now dead, was attempting to finish a doctorate and her mother worked in the university as a secretary, a foreign graduate student’s wife. Rosario came on a frozen night in a small, mid-western university town, out of the tropical heat and dust that would have been her blood’s element. Nanay said when Rosario came out of the womb, she was completely silent.

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Rosario and Jon ate the way they always did, sitting in front of the television. On the news, a network reporter was on location in the Philippines to cover the volcano’s eruption.

“People awoke today in the capital to find everything outside covered in light grey ash, a sign, meteorologists say that Mt Pinatubo, hundreds of miles away is nearing eruption. Families making their home on the volcano’s slopes are now fleeing to evacuation centers. They will have nowhere to go when this is all over.” 

“So, where is this exactly?” Jon asked as he stood to put his dish in the sink.  Rosario again had no answer.

They watched footage of people trudging in single and double file across dirt roads. The camera panned on a wood cart being pushed by a grim-faced couple, and in it at five or six small children clutching plastic bags. As the camera drew near for a close-up, the children were covered in gray dust, even to their faces, like ghosts.

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“How far is this place from Manila? This Pam-panga?” Jon pronounced the word carefully with a “ing” sound sans the hard g sound that the name of the province required. She knew what Jon was asking. He wanted the exact number of miles, north, south, east or west of Manila. But she didn’t know what to say. Pampanga was just… there… right where it always was. You drove on from the city, and bam, you hit it. Rosario sat mute.

That’s when the camera focused on a grimy, raggedy little boy with a shock of dark hair and sharply sunken eyes with a man, presumably his father. They sat on a slow-moving truck, their legs swinging loose, off the vehicle. Both man and boy grinned absurdly right into the lens. The father’s smile was a sheepish, displaying two blackened front teeth. The boy’s was wide and gummy; his two front teeth were missing. They smiled as if nothing, not even the loss of their home to this volcano would prevent them from looking good on TV. That they would never see the telecast did not matter in the slightest.

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Jon laughed out loud and even though she felt like crying, Rosario laughed too. Because it was funny. The flash of irritation that struck her when she arrived home bubbled up into a stronger dislike. Her ankle began to twinge once more.  She suddenly hoped that Dennis might call tonight, this very instant even, though she had expressly told him not to.

He had called her office as soon as he arrived. But Rosario hadn’t told him about Jon. She said she was seeing someone, but neglected to say they shared a home or indeed a bed.  After all, she thought to herself, that was none of his business.

“I want to see you,” Dennis said, lowering his voice, so he sounded a little like a stranger. But she was not ready for Dennis, not now. She needed to figure things out. She was also confident he would never force the issue. He had always let her keep her boundaries. They would only go this far, and no more than that. The truth was they had never even made love. This was a decision that many times later, Rosario allowed herself to regret, if only to change the face that she had let herself be taken or more accurately, overtaken by Jon, only because the American had expected this intimacy as a matter of course, leading her somehow to forget this act had once been so special, so important, something she had withheld for so long. And so, out of context, hurriedly and ever so very functionally — she had sex with Jon, because it was expected as a matter of course. Intercourse.

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“Hey you, come here…” Jon reached his arm around her but she moved away. From the start, he had fascinated her. In the same way she loved looking at a bright green pear or the strangeness of fruit like blackberries growing off a bush in the summer, flakes of snow falling from the sky in the winter. Jon, in some ways, was like something out of a fairy tale. And when he took her in his arms, she marveled at his height, his sheer size, the contrast of his fair skin and hair against her own dark brown, slight smallness. When Dennis held her, she had always been able to look in his eyes.

“It’s too hot,” she complained.

“Hotter than the Philippines?” Jon asked, catching her and holding her close so she could feel his slightly sour breath in her hair. It was their little game. She would say something and he would retort, “Hotter than the Philippines?”, “Dirtier than the Philippines?”, “Poorer than the Philippines?”, “Smellier than the Philippines?” She moved away.

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The telephone rang. Rosario did not move. Jon switched channels and then reached over her to answer. “Hello?” Rosario bent to pick at the scab forming around the nick.

“Hello?”

Jon shook his head and muttered, “Asshole,” under his breath. He shrugged and replaced the receiver.

“You know, maybe you should give your folks a call …”

She felt the beginning of tears prickle behind her eyes.

“Call, see if they’re ok?”

He was so sweet. So considerate. Rosario felt a wild surge of panic. But why wouldn’t they be ok? Suddenly, she pictured her mother and brother running for their lives from volcanic lava flowing down slopes. She shook of her worry. People were likely reacting to this with calm detachment, even humor. It was the national coping mechanism. There would be volcano jokes just as there had been earthquake jokes, flood jokes the year before, and martial law jokes before that.

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“Just call. Don’t worry about it.” Jon said. 

Her irritation subsided at this, like a cloud of dust.

They met at a Filipino party in Queens. A friend had an aunt who had a birthday, and Jon had been dragged along by her friend’s brother. He ended up riding back home with her on the subway as she lived in the Bronx with three other girls. He even got off at her stop and walked her right up to the door of her building. She was not impressed when Jon had said he had never met anyone like her. Yet something inside her softened when, without asking, he took her hand and then leaned in to kiss her goodnight on her cheek, moving in then smoothly but quickly to capture her lips.

In a spasm of guilty affection, she grabbed Jon’s hand and squeezed it.  He took her in his arms and began kissing her. She let herself be taken, all of a sudden needing the breadth of him, wanting the contact as if it would slake her thirst.  When they were through, she peeled herself away, unable to stand the sticky touch of his skin on hers. She headed to the bathroom for a second shower.

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And yet, on the telephone at the office, she spoke to Dennis, already thinking of the lies she would tell Jon.

“Sari?”

Jon never called her that, even though that’s how she introduced herself when they first met. He liked Rosario. He said her name with four syllables instead of three, each one equally emphasized.

“I’m here.”

“Uy…” Dennis said, his voice low. “I’m here too.”

In the ladies room, a secretary told her about Mt Pinatubo as though she had discovered herself.

“It’s all over the news. You haven’t heard?” In the mirror, Rosario watched the woman apply her lipstick, puckering her mouth like a goldfish.

“Aren’t you worried about your family there?

Sari did not answer the woman.

When she came out, Jon was washing dishes, all of them — this evening’s dinner, this morning’s breakfast.  Her job and yet he hadn’t said a word. 

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“They’re evacuating the people from the US bases because of this eruption.”

She nodded and started rifling through the mail. There was a letter from Nanay.  Her mother wrote letters with bleeding pens on poor quality yellow writing paper, often splattered in spots with what seemed like cooking oil. Surprisingly, Sari’s mother wrote sharp, powerful letters that emphasized, as if Sari could ever forget, that she was the daughter. Her mother’s daughter. 

“You have to start somewhere. You can’t be vice president on day 1. Don’t be picky. Take the work you can get because the most important thing is getting the green cards,” her mother wrote when she first started working.

Sari read impatience in the ink, felt the weight of the pen scratching onto the paper.  She heard her mother’s voice as though she were saying these words from across the dining room table. Her mother never wrote outright about migrating to the US. Instead she told stories— about the political situation, the rising prices of gas and goods, and how business at the general store she ran, was slow. At the close of every letter, Nanay would refer to a nameless time and place, when they — all three of them would be together again. Nanay’s first letter made Rosario weep. 

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Later, Nanay asked about Jon. Was he handsome? What did his father do? Rosario finally enclosed a photo in one of her letters home— one that showed her and Jon in each other’s arms.  A few weeks later, her mother wrote back to say that he looked, “kind,” which Sari knew meant her mother did not think the man was good-looking. Rosario did not tell her mother when Jon asked her to move in with him.

From the sofa, Jon offered her peanut butter fudge ice cream from his spoon. Again, she shook her head. She sat at the other end, resigning herself to seeing more that she did not want to see.

US military personnel and their families were climbing out of an airplane in LA.  They smiled faintly at the cameras, fatigue readily apparent in their eyes.  One weary wife bore a sleeping child on her shoulder, and spoke into the microphone with shrill tones.

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“We had no power, the volcano was about to erupt, and all through that, a typhoon. It was… unbelievable.” 

The woman’s voice cracked with static. Rosario could hear the sound of the wind. Rosario knew “unbelievable” was not the word this woman wanted to use. Horrible. Terrible. An ordeal. Sari saw the faint lines on the woman’s tanned face, lines around the blue eyes that must have fascinated the people at the town market. Despite everything the woman had the diplomacy not to say how glad she was to be out, how happy she was to be out and to be safely back home in the States.

Then a tall uniformed US serviceman and his wife came into view and as the camera zoomed in closer, Sari caught a glimpse of man’s Filipina wife.

Oh don’t, please, she thought. For even if this woman would never say it, certainly not on national television, Rosario knew it would be painfully clear just how happy she was. As the camera drew close, the woman’s eyes appeared swollen, her cheeks tearstained. In an instant, it was clear to Sari, the woman had wept throughout the flight, because of course, her husband could not bring the rest of her family. Catching sight of the camera, the woman smiled a slight smile, as though even just the faintest breeze could blow, and she would dissolve in tears.

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“The capital,” the announcer said, “has sustained negligible damage.  Just this continuous ashfall, which has proven harmless.”

She reached for the remote and switched to a sit-com.  What was that ash and rain doing to Filipino skin, she wondered.  Or the heat from the volcano—did it burn? Would skin peel? Afterwards, could the people forget, would the government help them rebuild their homes on the same volcanic slopes so they might go on?

Jon stretched out his hand across the sofa to touch hers. She stayed where she was. How could they live together and yet be so distant from each other, almost as though they sat on opposite sides of an immense ocean.

“Hey…” Jon took hold of her bare foot, and the dull twinge of her ankle became sharper at his touch.  She moved away, but not before he saw it.

“Where did you get that?”

She shrugged. “I don’t know,” she said, and it felt like a lie.

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Again the telephone rang.

“Hello!” Jon picked up the phone. The person on the line did not answer. Jon slammed it down.

Later that night, after they had gone to bed, the telephone rang once more.  Rosario had been lying awake, feeling the bruise on her ankle with her left foot, and trying to find a rhythm in Jon’s breathing she could fall asleep to. Jon would wheeze then snort, grunt and turn over. For a few seconds, he might be absolutely silent, and then she would hold her hand over his nose, afraid he wasn’t breathing at all.  Men back home died this way — bangungot— they called it — a demon sat on a man’s chest, suffocating him to death.  She would nudge Jon and get him to turn over. For a minute, maybe two, there would be silence.  Then he would start to wheeze again.

She stood and lifted the telephone receiver in the hallway by the bathroom, not bothering to close the door behind her. 

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She knew it was Dennis.

“Why are you calling so late?” she whispered.

Dennis voice was hoarse.

“Sari, Mommy called. My Lola died. Heart attack from asthma.”

Just when she had grown accustomed to the darkness, it seemed to grow even darker.  She couldn’t even make out the number keys on the phone.

“I’m so sorry…” For an instant, she wished she could hold him close and comfort him.  She wished he were the one lying in her bed.

“Putang inang Pilipinas!” Dennis cursed.

Sari jumped, startled by his voice, piercing like he was in the dark hallway next to her.  She wondered how to translate this into English — which profane expletive in English would be most appropriate.  Outside, a police car screamed, at first faint, then louder, and then, it faded away.

“It’s a disaster. Nothing’s ever going to come of it.”

Sari heard Dennis breathing hard in ragged gasps.

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“Stop,” she said, “It’s ok…”

“You don’t know. You just don’t know.”

“Rosario? Honey?” Jon’s voice was muffled from the bed.  She stiffened in the darkness and held herself still, moving only her hand to cover the mouthpiece.

“Yes?” She said.

From where she stood by the door of their room, she made out Jon’s shadow, sitting up in the bed. Still holding the receiver, she backed herself up against the wall so Jon could not make her out.

“The place is cursed. It always has been.” Dennis replied. With her other hand, she cupped the space between her ear and the receiver so as to keep Dennis’ voice from escaping.

“You need to leave this guy and be with me, you know that, right?” Dennis said. Now he sounded drunk.

“Come back to bed, honey. It’s late.” Jon called softly as though still half-asleep.

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“I will.” Rosario said out loud.

“You mean it?” Dennis’ words were sad and slurred.

“Rosario?”

“Sari?” She did not reply.

She just stood there in the dark against the wall. “Sari, can I see you tomorrow, please…”

“Honey, are you okay?” Jon asked as though he were speaking in a dream.

“OK…” She said.

She replaced the receiver, and then she limped to the bed. She lay down beside Jon and fell asleep.

“Who were you on the phone with last night?” Jon asked. 

It amazed her how Jon’s voice was in no way accusing. It held no trace of suspicion, though she felt a gritty guilt rise from the pit of her stomach.

“What do you mean?” She tried to get the exact note of abstraction as she worked the coffee machine, and even made Jon’s face go blurry before her own eyes as though her vision might infect her demeanor.

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“You know… on the phone…last night?” Jon pulled a chair and helped herself to cereal.

Oh that was Tita Flory…she talked to my Mom, and wanted to call me. You’re right. I should call home.”

“I told you.” Jon said.  He reached into the pocket of his bathrobe and handed her a tube of cortisone ointment. “Here, for your ankle…” 

It was easy to forget everything that morning though.  For the first time in all the weeks of this arduous summer, the sun did not glare, and she felt the closest thing to happy that she had felt in a long time.

As she walked the pavement towards Central Park and the appointed corner at which she had arranged to meet Dennis, Sari felt the creeping sense of guilt that inevitably accompanied her best experiences in this country.  It was guilt she felt when the scent of green grass rose from her feet, reminding her oddly of mangoes. It was guilt that she was the only one in her family to be here to experience this — whatever it was — a glorious blue sky, ice skating, the ocean, hot apple cider stirred with a stick of cinnamon, fresh buttered corn in the summer, large white drifts of snow you could bury your face in or a costly event like a play or a concert or an exquisite piece of art in a free museum.  How selfish she felt to enjoy these good things, without remembering her mother and her brother.  How they would love it too.  And what on earth was she doing here without them? How was she here while they were stuck in a natural disaster, the violent shifting of volcanic earth.  It was strange and cruel. She was here; her mother and brother were not.

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She caught sight of Dennis seated on a park bench along a tree-lined winding path opposite a large lake. He had not seen her. She felt a strange excitement, and flashed on an old memory, one she had so many times willed herself to forget — how he would suddenly grab hold of her and lean her against a wall and they kissed till they were both breathless. Now she stood in front of him, waiting for him to see her.

“Sari…” Dennis hugged her to him, a loose embrace.  She hugged him back, but lightly, and felt him stroke her hair. “It’s so so good to see you,” he said.

“I’m so sorry about your Lola,” she whispered into his shirt, and tears sprang to her eyes in a rush of mixed emotions. She felt herself relax. They stood there for a while and summer breezes blew about them. Sari felt the air on her skin and at once, the stirrings of hope. She leaned in automatically, he kissed her, and she let him.

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They sat on that bench and watched the people go by, and neither said anything at first.

“You look…  you look great. I like … everything.” Sari smiled. She felt pressure to respond, but didn’t, and instead relished the sound of him saying, “everything.”

“You look the same.” It was something safe to say.

People passed by on rollerblades and skateboards. Mothers wheeled their babies in prams to the nearby playground. Sari and Dennis caught up.  The job he was hoping to get. The second interview he was going to have next week.  How he would move out of his aunt’s house on Long Island once he found a job and a place in Hoboken.

“What about you?”

Rosario told him about her job this past two years, as a executive assistant for the CFO of an ad agency. The pay was good. Her boss was kind, and so far, she had received raise and two extra vacation days every year.

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“I can’t complain…”

He glanced at her.

“And this guy you’re with? Is it… serious?”

It was the question she had prepared for.

“It’s early, I think…”

“But you’re with him… how can it not be…serious?” She knew he was fishing about their living arrangement. She didn’t bite.

Rosario flinched and reached down to press on her ankle, not wanting to answer.

He leaned in and kissed her, and she not only let it happen, she lingered.

“Sari, I know you know what I want.”

Rosario kept quiet. She watched a nanny playing with her two charges, twin girls of about five, blonde and blue-eyed. The little girls squealed as the woman pushed them in their swings. A hot gust picked up leaves on the pavement in a small, quick swirl. The woman was Filipino. She had seen them earlier. Their eyes had met, and they had exchanged the little nod, slight smile and the raising of the eyebrows, silent recognition that required nothing more. It was enough to share in that knowledge; we are from home.

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“I was a different person back then. I didn’t know…” he reached for her hand. “…what I wanted…”

She turned back to him.

“And now, you know what you want?”

“Of course. I want you.” 

She felt her heart tighten. She wanted him too. And how long it had been that she had imagined this moment. He wanted her back. He knew he had made a mistake.  This was the way it was supposed to be.

“Ten more minutes, girls, and then time to go home and take a nap.” The woman called.

They both heard her accent.

“She’s from the Philippines.” Dennis too loudly, shifting all of a sudden to Tagalog. 

He lowered his voice.

“I’ll bet you, she’s an accountant or maybe a teacher.  And here, what is she? Everybody just leaves to get work, to make a decent wage. And who can blame them? It’s why we all leave.”

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Rosario stiffened. Dennis went on. “And look at what’s happening—all the problems, corruption in government, natural disasters, lack of leadership. It’s going to take another fifty years, maybe more to get things working. Every time the country takes a step forward, it takes three steps back. So people, not even just poor people, have no choice but to pack up and leave. And they never come back.”

Rosario lost her temper.

“You don’t know that. I want to go back. Lots of people go back.”

Dennis argued on in that frustrating way she suddenly remembered all too well — like a bully, a bulldozer.

“You’re wrong. You’ll do what everyone is doing: you’ll stay here.”

“You’re full of shit, Dennis!”

Dennis laughed, but it was not a happy sound.

“People lie to themselves all the time. Don’t you know that? You’re lying too. You’ll get married, have kids, make your life. That’s what I want to do. That’s what we need to do.”

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Rosario was silent.  The moment of joyful, hopeful yearning was gone. She looked at Dennis, noting his various foreign features — all the things that had changed in his face, in his eyes. And then she looked down at her watch. When he saw her looking at him, he leaned toward her.  But she avoided him.

“I have to go,” she said.

Dennis look flustered, realizing something had gone wrong. Sari wanted to punch him.

“I meant what I said, Sari. You and I will be different here.”

“Hey, let’s come on now…let’s go on home!” The Filipina manufactured a curly drawl to her odd sentences. Rosario recognized it because she did too, and Dennis as yet, did not.

“Can we get something to eat?”

“Next time…maybe,” Rosario said, standing. And then Dennis stood. She let him hug her, while she just stood there and took it. 

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“I’ll call you tonight?” Dennis asked, almost pleading.

Rosario shook her head. Her voice sounded faint and faraway, even to herself, “Next week … ”

She started walking, anxious to get away.

“Sari!” Dennis called. “I’ll call you tomorrow, ha?”

She didn’t look back, knowing she would only see him standing there, looking confused.

When she got home, Jon was already cooking dinner even though it was her day. It was a pot roast, and he had brought out the rice cooker.

“Hey, you.” He said, kissing her on the mouth. When she felt the quick touch of his tongue on her lips; she leaned in for more.

“I’m going to wash up…” she murmured against his mouth. He hugged her close and then let her go.

In the bathroom, she peeled off her pantyhose, placed her foot on top of the toilet seat to examine her smarting ankle. Now there was a purplish scab lined with the faintest red. Rosario picked off the edge and peeled it away. The wound, now fresh, started to bleed. She stuck her foot in the tub, running cold water over the wound, welcoming the burn.

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It was the way she walked that did it—the heel of her left foot colliding into her right ankle. And she never realized that was happening, till right now.

Tears began to roll down her face. Sari wept for a long time, heaving sobs that she drowned out with the tap’s rushing water.  Had anyone asked her why she was weeping, she would have no answer for them, except perhaps to say, this was how sad she was, this was how cursed she felt.

"Cursed and Other Stories" (Penguin Random House SEA) will be available on Amazon and in major bookstores in Southeast Asia.

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