by Rick Patriarca
It has been raining all day. There had been no warnings of typhoon, yet the downpour is loud and heavy. The streets are empty saved from the murky water the sewers are unable to absorb. The town looks weeping for some reason we don’t know.
Inside the house, Ronald, who is thirteen, sits at the dining table and waits for Kate to finish in the kitchen. He wonders what is taking her so long. She has been cooking for almost an hour now, and his mother never took that long. He remembers Kate hasn’t cooked for a very long time, she told him earlier. Perhaps, he thought, he should give her more consideration.
When Kate returns in the dining room, she sets the bowl in front of him and wipes the sweat off of her forehead. It is Sinigang, a sour, savory tamarind-based stew with small chops of pork usually served during the rainy season. She eagerly watches Ronald blow the steam away from the bowl and taste a spoonful of its soup. She expects his face to curl from the pleasant sourness, but it didn’t.
She sits across the table and watches him eat. After a minute, she asks: “How is it?”
“It’s okay,” he mutters.
Ronald shrugs his shoulders.
“What’s the matter?” she asks.
“I don’t know,” he says. “I’m not sure.”
“Is it not sour enough?”
“Then what? I can add more fish sauce if you like.”
“No, it’s alright. The flavor is alright. I guess it’s with the… the…”
“Is it bad?” she asks.
“No,” he says. “It’s just different.”
She says nothing.
“I guess I’m just used to mother’s cooking, that’s all.”
“I understand,” she says. She stands and goes back to the kitchen to get a bowl for herself.
Ronald thinks about the time when he saw Kate at the street the other day. He and his friends were hanging out at a sari-sari store, as they always do on a Friday afternoon, when Kate passed by. She was wearing a cheap-looking green sequin dress that exposed her smooth thighs. The dress also had a wide open scoop back that showed a generous portion of her back, as well as a plunging neckline that neatly displayed her breasts. Her dark hair cascaded down beautifully from her head to her waist, and she was wearing lipstick that made her lips as red as the freshly-picked roses sold in the market. Ronald didn’t know where she had been. Sometimes, on very random days, his friends would just tell him they saw her in a restaurant wearing clothes that were too short, or on cheap hotels with her face covered with all the makeup in the world. He would look down on his feet and tell his friends that he doesn’t want to know.
One of them whistled at her. The other said, “Hey, sexy! You free tonight?”
Ronald stepped back as his friends teased and laughed at her. He expected her to turn around and lash at them, but she just continued on her way as if she didn’t hear anything. When she was finally out of their sight, his friends turned to him and said, “Man, your father really hit the jackpot with that one!”
Kate returns to the dining table with her meal. They eat in silence for a minute, and then she says, “I used to be a great cook, you know? I just got a little rusty.”
“Who did you cook for?” Ronald asks.
“Oh, lots of people! We used to own a carinderia, me and my mother. She was really the cook and I was the waitress, but some days she let me do the cooking. I’m not as good as my mom, but I still think I’m great.”
“I really am! Why don’t you believe me?”
“I need a proof, I think. Like a picture or something.”
“Picture of what?”
“Of your eatery.”
“They’re all at home. I’ll bring you one some day.”
“You mean they’re at your parents’ house?”
“At home,” she says. “I’ll show you some next week. But for now, believe me. Okay?”
“How about my Sinigang? Is it good?”
“You already asked me that.”
“But is it good?”
Ronald says, “I told you: it’s different. Why do you have to be so annoying all the time?”
“I completely understood you the first time. But what I mean is, can’t you tell if a Sinigang is good or not as soon you ate them? How is it without comparing it from your mother’s? Is it any good?”
“It’s alright, I guess,” he says.
“You guess? You mean you’re not sure?”
“I mean -”
“I thought Sinigang is your favorite?”
“It is my favorite!”
“Then why do you have to guess?”
“I don’t know!” he says. “I’m used to my mother’s version and I never tasted anyone else’s.”
“Then how can Sinigang be your favorite food? You’ve only tasted one in your lifetime.”
“Tasted one version, yes. But I ate a lot of it. I ate it like all the time.”
“It doesn’t matter. Sinigang is not your favorite. Your mother is your favorite.”
“Yeah, you’re right. My mom is my favorite.”
There was silence, and then he says, “You don’t expect me to like your cooking readily, do you?”
“My mother told me I cook well, so I kinda did,” she says.
“This is the first thing you made that I ate. I can’t judge your skill with just one meal,” he says.
“Yes, you’re right,” she says. “But what really annoys me is that you can’t tell how delicious my Sinigang is because you’re so used to one version.”
He shakes his head. “Not my fault. My mother cooks really well.”
“I know.” She rolled her eyes. He goes back to eating. After a minute, she says, “Do you think your father will like this, though?”
“I have to tell him I’m getting rusty. I need practice.”
“This is not his favorite food, though,” he says. “Now that I remember, I think he’ll hate this. He definitely hates sour foods.”
“You’re just saying that because you don’t like it,” she says, looking at his bowl.
“Who said I don’t? I said it’s different,” he says. “I just think you have to cook something else for him.”
“I know. I made this for you.”
“Well, thank you.”
“I’ll make something else before he comes home.” She looks out the window. “Gosh, it’s raining hard outside. I hope he comes back soon. But I’ll make something for him before he does. I’m pretty sure he’s starving. He told me they don’t have real foods there in their office. This rain, though. This rain is something. It’s good that I bought groceries yesterday.”
“You don’t have to do that,” Ronald says.
“I have to. If I want to cook,” Kate replies.
“You bought groceries with your own money?”
“No offense. But did you?”
“Of course I did! I have my own money! I don’t ask for your father’s. I never did. I have a job.”
“What’s your job?” he asks. When she only stared at him, he says, “No, don’t answer that.”
“I’m a waitress, if you really want to know,” she says.
“It’s alright. You don’t have to tell me what you do.”
“I’m a waitress,” she repeats. “I waitress at a bar in Pasay. That’s what I do.”
“That’s where I met you father.”
“I’m telling you the truth.”
“I believe you! I really do.”
“Fine,” she says. “What do you think I do?”
She looks at him and sighs. “Now, what will I make for your father? What do you think?”
“He has never mentioned before what his favorite food is?”
“He had once. Kare-kare.”
“There you go.”
“Problem is, I don’t know how to make it. My mother always cooked that one.”
“Well,” he says. “I am more than sure he will like whatever it is that you’ll make for him.”
“I hope so,” she says. “Tell me, how did your mother do this?”
“Did what?” he asks.
“Sinigang. How doid your mother cooks Sinigang? Do you know?”
“No, not really. I don’t know how she cooks anything, but I know how they taste.”
“Really? Well, what did her Sinigang tastes like? Maybe I can do it her way,” she says.
Ronald looks down on his near-empty bowl and tries to remember the look and taste of his mother’s cooking. “First of all, she didn’t use tamarind. Never used seasoning powders or flavor cubes ever. She said it’s nasty for the health, and she was a real health buff, which was ironic. She used freshly picked kamias to make it sour. Sometimes she bought in the market, sometimes she went to her friend’s house down the block to ask for some. They have this very little tree, small as me, with lots and lots of kamias fruits hanging from its branches. Also, she never used water spinach. She loved chinese cabbage, and that’s what she used. Her version also had a lot of yardlong beans and radish and green long peppers, to give the dish an extra kick. And every time, every time I take a sip of her Sinigang, my face curls up for about ten seconds. My shoulders shudder and my knees jerk. It was very, very sour, but very delicious. Just the way I like it. Thinking about it now makes my face curl actually. That’s how good it was. I haven’t tasted anything like it for a very long time.”
“I’m sure you can tell your mother’s cooking from a million,” Kate says.
“I sure can. And to be honest, I don’t think there’s anyone in the world that can cook Sinigang as good as she did.”
“I can always try, right?” she asks.
“It’s better that you don’t,” he replies. He stands and walks to his room. Before he disappears, he turns to Kate and says, “You can cook something else, though. Something different. Only my mother can cook the best Sinigang. Maybe you’ll cook something else, and it will be your best. She wasn’t very fond of making pastries and dessert. She hated baking, which was weird for a woman. I love cakes, you know.”
“Honest to God,” he replies. “You know how to bake a cake?”
“There you go.”
“I’ll bake many,” she says.
He nods and goes to his room. After emptying her bowl, Kate washes the dishes and sits on the chair by the window, searching for signs of the sun from the cloud-covered sky. It is still raining hard, but she believes it will stop. It always does. Outside it’s cold and bitter. But inside it’s getting a little bit warmer.