29 January 2013

Fondly, Niña

Again her left eye is swollen shut and again I know it must be to do with some unknown girlfriend or lover. She’s at the kitchen cooking chicken adobo, which she’ll pack neatly in Tupperware and eat later during a break from her usual night shift at the call center. Hi Miguel, she says, so I say hi back. Hi Ate Niña. 

The pair of sunglasses that she was wearing when she came in is on the dinner table. Her backpack, whatever is in it, wherever it has been, is propped on one of the chairs. I am sitting quietly at the table in front of my laptop and again I am filled with rage. Who is this person beating up my sister? Who is abusing her love? Because Lourdes—fondly, Niña—is loving—sometimes to a fault. It’s one of the things I have learned, that it’s possible to be loving to a fault. Another thing I have learned is that sometimes it’s better to be discreet and not say anything, even when there’s an elephant in the room.

So I don’t say anything. I simply let her watch a YouTube video on my computer, the audition of a stuttering gay Cuban singer on American Idol, and while she’s sitting next to me I do my best to ignore the plastic spatula in her hand dripping soy sauce on the floor. 

The eye is black just above the lid. It’s so swollen it looks like a nasty cockroach bite. The fact that it’s so dark, that it’s so black, makes me cringe. There have been times when it’s not the eye, when the bruises are on the cheeks, or the legs, or the shoulder muscles, or somewhere under the rib area, just under her breasts. There have also been times when the eyes are swollen but only from crying. You hear bits of her talking on the phone throughout the night—her sniffs and wails. Then she comes out of her bedroom in the morning and you know that something’s up. You smell her suffering. 

Once when we were children Niña couldn’t remove herself from the hollow newel at the top of our ancestral house’s green spiral staircase. We had been playing hide-and-seek and she had covered herself with a bath towel so that I wouldn’t be able to find her. But I did, easily. The edge of the sleeve of her fuchsia San Miguel Pale Pilsen t-shirt was showing—not to mention the bump under the towel that was obviously her head. Huli ka! I said. But no matter how effortlessly she had inserted herself in that gap, getting herself out seemed somehow impossible. Father had to come up and assist, and it put an end to the game. Niña was in tears.

Well, she’s thirty-five now, a beautiful grown woman. Time does fly fast, especially if you count not by years but by tragedies. The face of the lover-enemy who does this to her, I have not seen, and the violent parts of her life that leave marks on her body, I cannot claim to know, but the blood that runs through her veins remains ever the same as mine. To see her in such a state—to be helpless about it—it jolts the heart and cramps the fist.

Finally the chicken is done. She turns off the kitchen stove and we watch another audition, this time of a transgender contestant with a guitar who claims she’s from “North Carolina, Planet Earth.” This part makes us laugh. Niña, watching closely, says, I can’t figure out if he used to be a girl or she used to be a guy. Clearly she used to be a guy, I say. Then the contestant begins to sing, and her voice turns out to be like honey. 

You might find me by the side of the road, in that old train yard;
You might find me on the corner, with a smile on my face, strumming on my guitar.
I’m out here wandering underneath an azure sky;
I’m gonna keep on wandering ‘til my days on God’s green earth are done.

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