by Leah Ranada
I couldn’t fall asleep the night before I began third grade. I was so excited about my new school. A better one, according to Mama, who thought the school I attended in our neighbourhood was old, smelly, and rotten like the rest of Manila.
Beside me, her breathing was soft and even, filling the gaps between Pa’s ragged snoring from the living room. A wire clothesline strung across our bedroom floated my blue uniforms in the dark. I liked their sailor flaps around the neckline which Mama pressed crisp and flat as I scrawled my name and “sy 1998-99” on the covers of all my textbooks and notebooks.
“You have one for each school day,” Mama had said, “not like me.”
Salesladies at Almeda Plaza only had one uniform. Mama said it didn’t matter because only the moneyless went there anyway. Even our family would rather go to Megamall or Robinson’s. Whenever she got home in the evening, Mama would wash the light evergreen dress in the bathroom and hang it to dry overnight. From its end of the clothesline, her dress caught moonlight and breeze from the window—its gentle swaying lulled me to sleep.
Like the other mornings Mama asked me to zip up her uniform at the back. The rough fabric wrapped snugly around the silky band of her pantyhose, her slender waist and back, before the thick pads settled on her shoulders. On her left breast pocket, she pinned on her nametag that said Marian in tiny black script.
“Get dressed, big girl.” Mama nodded at the clothesline.
By the time I had changed into my uniform, Mama’s hair was already swept up in an elegant bun. I sat at the foot of the bed while she peered into the small mirror nailed on the wall. Mama smeared yellow cream on her cheeks before tracing a dark pencil around her eyes. Her lips were the colour of bubble gum.
“Ma, can I wear makeup too?”
“No.” She didn’t turn from the mirror. “It will make you look old.”
But makeup didn’t make Mama look old. It made everything about her prettier—her eyes shone brighter and her mouth poised to say something smart. Sitting at our small table, she looked wrong against the walls of faded boards, bare cement floor, and dusty beams running across our tin roof. “Umm.” She frowned at my father, having bitten an eggshell which she brushed off from her lips with her fingers. Pa, who made the scrambled eggs, also looked wrong next to Mama. He wore home clothes all day because his computer rental shop was right in our house, taking up what should have been our living room and a second bedroom.
He tousled my hair while Mama leaned against the front doorway to slip on her sneakers. The high-heeled shoes she wore at work were in a plastic bag dangling from her forearm.
“Take care. Be good.” Pa’s voice was always wispy, his words snagged at the throat.
Mama’s words always came quick and strong, like the first burst from the faucet after days without water. During the jeepney ride, she told me we could barely afford my new school so I had to do well. “Don’t be like us, we didn’t finish anything.” Her words misted my cheek before fading into the traffic. “Look at your Pa, surrounded by brainless kids playing games all day. Go places.”
But I felt like I was already going places. My new school was an hour’s commute from home. We drove past the neighbourhood shacks, the wet market, and buildings with dusty windows. Then we reached the highway which I only got to see on the rare occasions Mama took me out on her day off. Her speeches were always about the better future I could have, if not a reminder that we would be living in the barrio if not for her urging Pa to move out of his parents’ farm.
That morning, her words reminded me of their fight I overheard nights ago.
“A private school. How are we paying for that?” Pa sounded tiny through the bedroom wall.
“Don’t you want the best for her?” Mama said.
Pa said something I couldn’t hear before the bedroom walls shook from the outside. Then Mama was saying, “What else? What else should we give up?” Amid the sharp slapping noises that followed, Pa pleaded with Mama to stop hitting him.
The jeepney passed by Almeda Plaza, its glass doors barricaded by metal railings in the early morning. My heart leapt faster because we were getting close to my new school. Mama started talking about a very nice lady who would pick me up after class, but I couldn’t pay attention.
We got off in front of a tall white gate with spikes that resembled vanilla icing around a birthday cake. Beyond it, a stone pathway lined with low shrubs led to a brick building. An archway opened to a courtyard filled with students and parents checking the lists posted next to each classroom. Boys wore crisp shirts and their pants had the same shade of blue as the girls’ uniform. I was glad Mama bought me a Hello Kitty backpack and matching tin pencil case even though Pa had pointed them out as magastos. All my classmates had beautiful things—new backpacks, pens with glittered ink, notebooks with hologrammed covers. It was easier to listen to the teacher because there weren’t so many of us in the room. In my old school latecomers had to sit on a bench at the back, books perched on their scabby knees.
I was so happy that day that I only worried about who was picking me up when the final bell rang. Outside the building, I nervously scanned the waiting area as my classmates ran to mothers with fluffy hair and yaya’s in housedresses. Then I spotted the Almeda Plaza green on a short-haired woman who seemed younger than the rest. Ate Tonette’s eyes, alert and searching, softened as our gazes meet.
I would learn later on that the Almeda Plaza’s back entrance, where Mama waited, was the most deserted area of the mall. She hugged Ate Tonette like we had come through a storm. “Salamat, Tonette! You’re a kind friend.”
“Naman, I told you it’s nothing.” Ate Tonette also brought her high-heels in a plastic bag. “Almost two, have to go.” She ran up a nearby escalator.
I followed Mama down the Underground Level where the air was warm like breath. “Hurry,” she called back at me, but I was already chasing her through the passages of bazaars displaying toys, jewellery, and gadgets. Vendors’ calls pierced through the air thick with radio jingles and the crowd’s chatter. The food court at the edge of the market gave off delicious aromas of grilled meat and savoury stews, making my tummy croak. So I couldn’t hide my disappointment when Mama set down a plastic lunchbox on a table.
She glared at me. “We can’t afford to buy lunch five days a week.”
As we ate cold rice with flakes of fried fish, Mama told me how lucky we were to have Ate Tonette. “She studies in the morning and works in the afternoon to pay for her schooling. A hardworking girl.” Something about Mama’s nod made me want to know Ate Tonette better.
Mama explained that her lunch break was too short so she couldn’t make it to my school and back on time. But Ate Tonette could pick me up on her way to work. Then I was to stay in the Women’s Department where they both worked till Mama was off at five.
“Cindy, listen, this is important.” I looked up to my mother’s bulging eyes. “We are not allowed to bring children to work. Remember that. Don’t talk to any of the salesladies. You must pretend you don’t know me and Tonette. You’re too young to commute so it’s either this or waiting at your school till dark.” She then pointed out that she had chosen a table in the middle of the crowded food court so we were unlikely to be spotted by another saleslady on a break.
“How about Pa?” I asked.
Mama’s laugh was tinged with anger. “Can’t you see he’s tied to his shop?”
That night she would calmly tell Pa how she had hurried to my school during her break and brought me to the mall’s staff area where I ate lunch before taking my afternoon nap. Pa would nod, eyes trained toward his computer shop which was open till nine. He wouldn’t have guessed that Mama and I acted like strangers after we finished lunch. I was a few paces before her as we went up the third floor. Beside the entrance to the Women’s Department, there was a dark, narrow corridor leading to a white door through which Mama entered.
A moment later, she reappeared inside the Women’s Department with fresh makeup on.
I spent the afternoon roaming the vast space of prints and colours. The air was cool and smelled of unused garments. We were surrounded by walls the colour of butter, on which the clothing brands were spelled out in squiggly brass letters. Andrea Jeans, Maxima, Playful Spirit. From time to time I sat at the benches and watched the salesladies in green say “Hi Ma’am” with birdlike voices. Mama and Ate Tonette greeted the shoppers too, while keeping a secret eye on me. They also exchanged gazes, smiles, and pokes in the waist when they thought no one was watching.
During recess one day, Divina Lui approached me to say that we had the same pencil case. Hers was Hello Kitty too but pink. She liked my red one better because it was less girly.
“Do you want to join us?” She asked.
I eagerly followed her and her best friend, Kaycee Villamor, to one of the benches around the courtyard where some of our classmates played tag and skipping rope. For the past days, it had felt like everybody was watching me as I ate Pa’s egg sandwich alone.
“What do your parents do?” Kaycee was studying me. I looked down at my feet, noticing I had the darkest ankles among the three of us. “You first,” I said.
“My Dad’s a seaman and Ma stays at home. She bakes cakes sometimes.”
Divina, who was sitting between us, announced that her Papa manages resorts. “The one in Batangas is my favourite even though I got a sunburn there.” She rolled up her sleeve to show the paler skin contrasting with the reddish hue of her forearm. “Mommy teaches in Ateneo.”
“My mother’s the manager at Almeda Plaza.” My foot found a pebble which I kicked away from the bench. Mama’s slow and steady way of telling Pa she had pick me up at school during her lunch break drifted in my head.
Kaycee scrunched up her nose. “Mama said there’s nothing nice to buy there.”
Tears almost sprang to my eyes. Divina shrugged. “My Dad manages cheap places too. He says it’s good to have money from different places.” Kaycee nodded at her friend’s cleverness.
“How about your dad?” Divina said
“He has a computer business.”
We heard the bell ending our break. I shook off the crumbs of my egg sandwich from my uniform. I knew they would never meet the real manager at Mama’s work. Ate Tonette, one afternoon, had motioned for me to approach her. From behind a file of mannequins, she pointed out a fat woman with ugly, thick eyebrows. She wore a black jacket over the evergreen uniform. “Always hide from Mrs. Bernardo,” Ate Tonette told me in a thrilled way like we were playing a game. “Make sure she doesn’t see you.”
One Friday night, Mama said we could have supper in the mall. It meant not having to eat Pa’s food, which was often tasteless and burnt because his customers kept him busy.
It was Ate Tonette’s dinner break. She worked till ten. The three of us sat at a table in the middle of the food court. This hiding in the bustle had come to remind me of the puzzle in the Sunday newspaper, where one had to spot an item hidden in plain view within a very detailed drawing. The song playing in the mall was about a man telling his girl that she was his source of strength, his reason to live. Mama sang the silly words.
“Loka,” Ate Tonette was smiling uneasily, like she was ashamed of Mama’s antics. “Eat something. You’re really hungry.”
Outside their work they didn’t sound like birds. Their ladylike murmurs rose with anger and laughter, if not dipping into hushed secrets. I thought how fun it was to be a grown-up, to have so many interesting things to talk about.
“Eduardo frisked me harder than usual today.” Ate Tonette shook her head. “Even snapped my bra. Like I’m planning to bring a bomb into the mall.”
“What a pig.” Mama lifted a bed of noodles to my plate. “You should give him hell next time.”
“I don’t want any trouble. There aren’t many jobs that fit around my classes.”
Mama clasped Ate Tonette’s hand. “I’m going to show that goon tomorrow. Last week, when he asked me to raise my skirt higher than usual, I swore at him. He almost cried.”
They both laughed. I joined in even though I didn’t know who Eduardo was.
“You’re too kind to me.” Ate Tonette said.
Mama still wore a cheery face. “Don’t you know you’re my love?”
Ate Tonette’s lips were quivering, as if fighting back a huge smile. Her face always did this whenever Mama said nice things to her. I understood. To me, Mama’s love was special too.
“These searches, I’m sure it’s Mrs. Bernardo’s idea.” Mama turned serious. “Her husband won’t touch her so she had to take it out on us.”
“It’s her who’s behind those missing vouchers.” Ate Tonette said.
“How do you know?”
Ate Tonette looked around. She cowered closer to Mama before talking about a woman who bought a dress a few days ago. “Mrs. Bernardo rang it. It was last season’s but not on sale yet. Three-hundred pesos. Everyone else was on break so we were the only ones on the floor. When I took over cash, the voucher booklet was missing three one-hundred vouchers. Nobody buys gift vouchers from Almeda Plaza anymore.” She finished with a chuckle.
Mama was nodding thoughtfully. “Ah, right. She took over inventory recently.”
“I’m going to tell at the inspection that she’s getting extra cash.” Ate Tonette said.
“They never happen.” Mama poked her noodles with a fork. “There are just talks of them to keep us honest.”
I was eager to join in their grown-up talk. “Mama, can you get extra cash too?”
Mama clapped a hand over her mouth so it was her shoulders that did the laughing. Ate Tonette pretended to be angry as she waved a fork between us. “It’s bad! It’s stealing!”
I was a bit sad when Ate Tonette had to go back to work. She hadn’t finished her food. She and Mama stood up and kissed each other’s cheek good night.
Outside the mall, we waited a long time for a ride home. The sidewalk was crammed with people out on a Friday night. Lights from the mall and billboards slayed the night air which carried diesel smog and blaring horns. Mama wore a tired look. “What a hard life Tonette has.”
Mama always worked on the weekends. At home, I swept the floor and washed the dishes early so I could hide in the bedroom for the rest of the day. I hated the boys who shouted pak-yu and gago while playing video games at Pa’s shop. I had gotten used to doing homework while hearing gunshots, explosions, the spurts and cries from the virtual killings. Sometimes, I would take a break and wonder how Divina and Kaycee spent their Saturdays.
Even when the shop quieted a bit, there was still the helicopter sounds from the electric fan. I thought an air conditioner, like the one in our classroom or the mall would be nice, but maybe our walls and ceilings were too thin to hold the cool air in.
My thoughts drifted to Almeda Plaza where the mannequins were my friends at a ball. We had our own glamourous circle, perched a station above Divina and Kaycee, who didn’t have our sense of style and wouldn’t know the intriguing stories being shared between Mama and Ate Tonette.
“How’s your new school?” Pa made sure to ask his questions while Mama was in the bathroom. I recited everything I liked about it. My friends. The big library. The computer lab. I asked him if he could give me money for snacks instead of making me an egg sandwich everyday. Pa sighed. I knew he wouldn’t get mad like Mama.
“How about the mall? Do you like being there?”
“The staff area’s nice. It has a sofa and a TV.” I scrambled to recall things about the staff area I had heard Mama and Ate Tonette mention. “There’s a washroom too. But salesladies have to get a pass from Mrs. Bernardo to use it. Only one person can go at once.”
“The other salesladies, do they talk to you?”
Pa had kind eyes but they made mine travel toward the ceiling where a little spider clambered across a cobweb, managing not to fall on our plates right below. “They only talk about the inspection.” Mama had mentioned this to Pa so I knew this was a safe topic. I wondered if I could tell him about the guards searching the salesladies through their uniforms. Or how Mama would tease Ate Tonette during the quiet times with nudges and silly songs.
“I just nap most of the afternoon, Pa.”
Of course, I knew not to tell Pa that I carried my backpack with me the whole afternoon because if Mama brought it to the staff area, Mrs. Bernardo would find out she was bringing a kid to work.
I started wishing that the women I imagined in the Women’s Department were real so I wouldn’t feel so alone. I came up with many games with the clothes. One day, I counted the ones with floral print. On another day I hunted for everything with stripes. The other salesladies were treasure guards tasked with hindering me from my quest. I had to complete my mission without running into them. But even from behind the racks and displays, I could feel their eyes on me. “Who’s that?” They whispered. “She’s always here.”
And this was how I came up with my new game of listening in on secret. I learned that everyone hated Mrs. Bernardo. “She’s coming.” I’d hear one of them say and they would smooth their uniforms, straighten their backs, and turn quiet. This had help me keep out of Mrs. Bernardo’s sight.
“Is that your mother, who meets you after school?” Kaycee asked me.
“That’s not Cindy’s mom. That’s a saleslady.” Divina was always the observant one.
Another group had beaten us to our usual spot in the courtyard so we were eating our snacks in the parents’ waiting area. My eyes wandered toward the gaps between the shrubs lining the stone path, the windows staring me down from the building. Kaycee was always picked up by her mom. A maid always came for Divina.
“Yes, Mama asked her to pick me up. I like her, she’s really kind.” This was mostly true so it was easy to say. Ate Tonette always brought me a snack after class. A little cupcake. Bag of salted peanuts. Hotdog on stick. I liked sitting next to her during the jeepney ride from school because she carried the scent of flowery soap at the time of the day when everybody else smelled of sweat. Unlike with Mama, I could tell her I was scared of the other salesladies who were giving me curious looks during the afternoon.
“Just ignore them.” Ate Tonette would say. “Say you don’t talk to strangers.”
Sometimes, Mama would notice the food Ate Tonette had given me when she met us at Almeda Plaza. “You’re spoiling her!”
“She’s hungry,” Ate Tonette smiled like she was joking. But we both knew it was true.
On Mama’s day off, she would still meet up with Ate Tonette and me at the back entrance. “Thank you for doing this,” she would tell Ate Tonette.
“Tonette, what an angel you are.”
“You’re so thoughtful, Tonette!”
Even though Ate Tonette always lowered her head, I saw how her face would always go pink whenever Mama thanked her. “Marian, really.” I felt a bit jealous because it seemed as if she was the only one who made Mama truly happy.
I got out of class one day to see Mama waiting for me. I ran toward her while glancing around, hoping Divina and Kaycee wouldn’t spot her. To my relief, she was in a hurry to leave. “Quick, I don’t want to be late!” Onboard the jeepney, she took out a steamed pork bun which appeared misshapen from being in her purse. “We don’t have time for lunch today.” She then craned her neck to the window and clucked her tongue at the slow traffic. I couldn’t get myself to ask about Ate Tonette.
By the time we reached the mall, Mama only had a short time left of her break. With my hastily eaten lunch a dense ball in my stomach, we ran up the two crowded escalators.
I didn’t know what to say when Ate Tonette appeared at the Women’s Department moments later. Her eyes went round when she saw me. “You’re here? I waited for you.” She blurted, forgetting that we were not supposed to talk in the open. I turned away, not saying anything.
This was how I learned that Mama was mad at her.
For the entire afternoon this new situation swirled a worry in my head. Earlier that week, our homeroom teacher Ms. Mercedes had announced the Report Card Day. Our parents had to come to the school to collect our first quarter marks. If the parents were not available, any guardian could attend in their place as long as they had a signed letter from a parent. It was different from my old school where they had let us take the cards home ourselves.
I had been sure Ate Tonette would pick up my report card with Mama’s permission. But when it was still Mama who picked me up the following day, something like cold metal clenched in my chest. My friends would surely find out my mother’s real job.
Like the day before, we left the campus right away. At the mall, Ate Tonette kept glancing at Mama’s direction. But my mother seemed to be always looking somewhere else. During a quiet time Ate Tonette tried to approach her, but Mama quickly walked away to speak to another saleslady. Later that afternoon, Ate Tonette met my eyes and tipped her head to one side, which was our signal to meet behind the mannequins. But as I was walking toward her, there was a sharp hiss and I saw it was from Mama whose lips were twisted in anger. Ate Tonette and I both retreated to our previous posts.
The Women’s Department was a different place from then on. My games, I realised, were silly and childish. I was tired of waiting for Mama. I hated Ate Tonette for causing my problem with the Report Card Day. I glared at her whenever our eyes met, believing that if Mama no longer wanted her as a friend, she probably did something really bad.
She was waiting outside the Women’s Department as Mama and I were leaving one night. I pretended not to notice her and I could tell Mama was doing the same, even as Ate Tonette was walking beside her.
“Mars, I need you.”
“You ask for too much.” Mama was staring ahead.
“I thought you felt the same way. We could start over.” Ate Tonette’s breathing came in short spurts. “I can’t go on like this.”
Mama glanced back just long enough for me to see half of her face. I couldn’t tell what she was thinking. Her hand reached back for mine. “Just stop it, Tonette.”
I wanted to see at Mama’s face. But all I could see was her hair, the tight, shiny coil staying in place as we hurried away from Ate Tonette’s fading pleas.
The other salesladies knew more than I did. I wanted to ask them whether Mama and Ate Tonette could still be friends someday. But whenever they spotted me, they would nudge each other and eye me like I was a scurrying mouse. I missed Ate Tonette, her calm, soothing way of talking, the snacks after schools, and the hidden smiles between us during the long afternoons.
While hanging out by the fitting rooms, I overheard a saleslady talking to another about how she had walked into the staff area to find Mama and Ate Tonette in a tight embrace. The other said she had heard from Eduardo the guard that Ate Tonette and Mama’s faces were so close, he was sure they were kissing.
On another afternoon, one of them said, “they were really just talking quietly, nothing much was going on.” To which her friend responded, “how could there be nothing. Look how Marian’s avoiding her now.”
Everything I heard was like a sharp object being driven into my ear. I walked away, wanting to disappear. I was that moth in a fable we read at school. The moth had ignored its mother’s warning against the flame of the table lamp and had burned its wings by satisfying its curiosity.
Mama was able to come for Report Card Day by switching her day-off with a saleslady who worked the same hours. Classes were still held, except for the last period when our parents were to arrive and meet with the homeroom teachers. Though she was not wearing her uniform, I knew Mama would be recognized by my classmates because she had been picking me up for more than a week. We walked side by side as the building grew noisy with eager tones from the parents. I kept my head down. Whenever I spotted a classmate, my body would veer to one side, creating a space between Mama and me.
“Are you really this shy at school?” Mama was in a joking mood. “Why are you so quiet?”
My heart was thumping against my chest by the time we reached my classroom. There was a line in front of Ms. Mercedes’s table. Near the front, Divina was pouting as she urged her mother to take her to Jollibee for lunch. She did tiny stomps on the floor. “What a brat,” Mama whispered. I bowed to hide myself from my friend.
Divina had seen me. I sauntered over to her, leaving Mama at our place in the line.
“Where’s your mom?” She craned her neck toward the back.
“She’s busy at work,” I said. “She and Pa can’t make it.”
“Oh,” Divina said. “Even for Card day?”
“Divina,” Her mother frowned at her.
“She has a letter,” I shrugged to show her that the arrangement didn’t bother me.
I was glad Divina was hungry. They left right away after getting her card. Mama only managed to nod at Mrs. Lui. When it was our turn, I stood at the side of the table, wanting to be far from Mama as possible. Ms. Mercedes mentioned something about me being bright and well-behaved. Mama smiled as she signed on the class list.
“Are you Cindy’s mom?”
“Yes.” It seemed as if her response filled the room.
As soon as my card was handed over, I turned to leave. My long strides weaved through small spaces between more arriving parents and classmates. Voices of two women talking made me nervous—what if my mother decided to become friendly with another parent along the corridor? I trained my eyes on the bright exit. When the sun hit my forehead, I started to feel a bit calmer. Maybe this was how I finally heard my mother calling my name.
“Cindy! Cindy! Sandali! Wait for me!”
She grabbed my shoulder as we reached the gate. “Why are you ashamed of me?”
I swallowed. “I’m not.”
“You don’t want to be seen with me.” My mother’s accusation, I knew, was loud enough to be heard by kids and parents milling nearby. I didn’t want to be scolded right then and there. Not by someone who supposedly worked for my mother.
I arranged my face into a sullen expression, copying Divina’s face in the classroom earlier. “At your work, I can’t tell people who I am.” As soon as the words were out of my lips, I sensed a lightness, an airiness within, as if a window long shut in my chest had been pulled open.
The first thing I felt was her fingers loosening on my shoulder. Mama drew back, her eyes glistening. “That’s different,” she said in a faint tone that relieved and scared me at once. “That’s different,” even softer now, her chin quivering a little. She turned, wiped something from her eye and hailed a jeepney that would take us home.
Mama didn’t seem angry that evening, but she also didn’t act like everything was fine. She handed Pa my report card during supper without mentioning the incident at school. When he asked about the fees for the upcoming term, Mama didn’t yell the way she always did when they talked about money. “Let’s see how it goes,” she muttered and reached across the table for the bowl of rice.
A cloud hung above us, testing its weight on our heads. That night, I stretched and twisted on my side of the bed as the sheet grew damp with my sweat. Even as she slept, something about Mama’s breathing told me she was hurt. I stared at our uniforms in the dark, wishing things would go back the way they were.
When I got out of class the next day, Mama was standing behind the other mothers, as if she had agreed to hide herself. On the way to the mall, she didn’t offer me anything to eat. I kept my head turned to the window, letting the dusty air dry my tears. I deserved this punishment.
In the mall, my stomach grumbled as I followed her to the third floor. When she turned into the small corridor I walked by, having accepted that I was going to starve for the afternoon. But Mama called me over. She held the white door open.
I stepped into a very bright living room. Three salesladies looked up—they were sitting on two brown sofas covered with clear plastic, like the kind Mama used for my textbooks. They were watching TV, shoes strewn beside their stockinged feet. Blinding light bounced against the metal lockers filed against the back wall. It was daytime there even though there were no windows. I almost jumped when I saw Mrs. Bernardo.
“Hello darling!” She planted her fleshy hands on her knees so that her face was right in front of me. Even as she smiled with all her teeth, the sharp arches of her eyebrows still made her look cruel. “So you’ll wait here while Mommy works, okay?”
A saleslady edged along the sofa to make space for me and my backpack. Next to the TV was an open door through which I could see Mrs. Bernardo had sat down behind a desk. Right across her office was another door from which two more salesladies appeared, giving me curious stares.
“My daughter,” Mama nodded at them.
They said hello in their bird voices. It was embarrassing to be surrounded by all these women whom I had worked so hard to ignore the past weeks. But then there was a delicious smell. Mama carefully placed a Styrofoam box of warm rice and fried chicken on the low table before me.
“You must be hungry.” She handed me plastic cutlery.
The chicken’s skin was crispy and the rice tasted of garlic. Everyone was watching me eat, but I didn’t care. Beside me, Mama heaved my backpack to the floor so she could sit and reapply her makeup. As my stomach filled up, I realised she was making it up to me after what happened yesterday. It made me wonder whether she now expected me to tell my friends that she was my mother.
From the door we had come in entered Ate Tonette. I looked down on my half-eaten chicken, but glimpsed her knees as she lowered herself on the seat right across and took out her sandals from a plastic bag.
“Tonette, can we talk?” Mrs. Bernardo sounded serious.
We all watched Ate Tonette skipped on one foot toward the office as she tightened the strap of her sandal on the other. Mrs. Bernardo asked her to close the door. Then we heard nothing else. “I’m going to work now,” Mama’s face powder compact clicked close. “Take a nap after your lunch.”
I lied down with my back turned from the people in the room. I was still awake when Mrs. Bernardo’s door opened. My eyes were closed, but they couldn’t shut away Ate Tonette’s weeping. Then the loud slamming of the other door. The salesladies left in the room whispered among themselves.
“She thought no one would find out.”
“She thought Marian wouldn’t tell.”
My eyelids flickered when I heard Mama’s name.
These women left the staff area only to be replaced by another group. Noises from the mall spilled into the quiet room every time people came and left. The sofa’s plastic surface made squeaky sounds against my bare arms and legs whenever I shifted my position. But I stayed facing the backrest.
“Have you heard about Tonette?”
“It’s her fault though.”
“Hey, why’s she sleeping here.”
“Mrs. Bernardo’s fine with it.”
I couldn’t remember when I stopped hearing whispers and everything faded to a wonderful black. Then Mama was patting my shoulder. “Time to go home, anak.” She had changed into her sneakers.
My eyes were still cloudy as we joined the stream of shoppers outside. I blinked them against the neon signs of boutiques and restaurants. “Cindy, can you walk faster,” Mama said.
I made bigger steps with my rubbery legs. I was in school again, fleeing something shameful. Only, I was hearing my mother’s name. “Marian! Marian! Sandali!” A hoarse and crumbling call. Ate Tonette reached us. She still had her high heels on.
“Diyos ko, Tonette!” Mama blurted.
“What did you tell them?” The wet, black streaks at the sides of Ate Tonette’s eyes gave her a scary look. But then, she also looked scared. “Tell them it’s not true. You know I have nothing to do with it.”
Mama sighed. “You’re unreasonable, Tonette. You ruin everything.”
“Why would you do that?”
“Cindy let’s go.” Mama said like it was me blocking the way.
“Tell them the truth.” Ate Tonette won’t move.
“Leave us alone!” Mama yelled this so loud some shoppers turned toward us. It was really quiet for a second. Ate Tonette slunk to the side. Only when Mama started walking did I realize that she had let go of my hand. I ran after her.
I could still see Ate Tonette’s muddied eyes as the jeepney drove away from Almeda Plaza. Then there were the same buildings, the wet market and shanties, each shabby sight reminding us of where we truly came from. Tomorrow, I had to tell Divina and Kaycee who my mother really was.
Then Mama pulled me close to her. “You can nap till we get home.” Something in me settled, like a blanket landing gently on a bed after it had been unfolded and tossed in the air. I realized that I no longer had to admit anything to my friends. Mama was no longer mad.
Pa cooked porkchops that night and she said they tasted good. “Milagro!” Mama licked her greasy lips as she told us what happened at work. Her story towered over the battles raging in Pa’s computers. The owners of Almeda Plaza studied the books instead of doing an inspection. I wanted to ask what kind of books, but Mama hated being interrupted when her story wasn’t finished. I looked up to see a spider, balancing delicately on a silver thread, crawling away from the grimy light bulb.
It was Mama who had told Mrs. Bernardo who was using the vouchers to steal money from the department. And now, Ate Tonette would only be working at Almeda Plaza till the end of the week.
Pa bobbed his head. “That’s unfortunate.”
I nodded as well. We both liked it when Mama was happy with things. My chest felt light for the first time in days.