had an anchor tattooed on his arm
because his children were lightness of heart and flight of feeling, but survival needed weight.
because he was a stronghold of courage when waves and warships battered his men.
because he needed to resist death’s current
because grandchildren would drift into life.
because he learned how to leave, and needed to teach himself to stay.
There was a hallway of books in my old home in Manila. I remember running through it before I left: arms outstretched, fingertips caressing an endless collection of creased spines. I chased laughter to the stairs, watched it slide down the narra banister like a child. There are no stairs in this studio apartment. Only bare walls and an absence of wood. As if ashamed, the laminate floors hide under stacks of my cardboard boxes. Sitting in the middle of this makeshift space, I open an old journal and a faded postcard of Fenway Park falls out. There are two unfinished stories now resting on my lap. I look past the boxes and blank walls and wonder if the same young girl who kept that postcard may live here yet.
Happiness is the train I’m trying to catch pulling out of the station as I run down the stairs. It’s the rumble beneath my feet as I push through the turnstile and see a second train arriving on the opposite platform. Happiness is the hot cup of coffee I left on top of the station vending machine. It’s my phone in the pocket of yesterday’s coat. It’s the new coworker I’m too anxious to meet, the idea I tell myself I’ll share tomorrow. It’s the friend I stand up for dinner and the eight missed calls. Beneath a fogged up mirror, happiness is the reflection I fail to see.
After a night of spinning strobe lights, forged festivity masked in glitter downing shots, after listening to the tempo of our loneliness at the Oberon Club, after pursuing private pain, on the T heading home as we read the intoxicated expressions of fellow train riders and later, walking past a line of winter trees, hoping to elude the same snarling drunks roaming the streets between Mass Ave and Boylston, we let two kinds of cold pass through us. We spurn the encroaching madness of corners, the questioning gaze of headlights. Finally, in bed, in blankets tangled like our lives, we hold hands, but only lightly, ready to let go.
We are drinking tea. Outside, it begins to snow. The road is darkened by slush, puddles turn in to small ponds, and soon, red brick apartments turn white, blue buildings become grey. I’m starting to lose count of the things that have colored us, have become ours. The snow has claimed this city. And somewhere far and unmappable, a mountain is conquered by an avalanche.
His pencil strokes cast your innocence into graphite. You, Dorette, his unwilling muse, enthroned on woven paper sheets. To us, the onlookers, you are the inexhaustible object. The wounded flower at the center of the table, blooming endlessly under the glow of attendant light. Is this the form your grief took in his arranging hands? Is this why you avert your gaze?
Bibingka, puto, polvoron, and turon—desserts that speak my stories of home onto your tongue, dear guest. I offer you a taste of my language: vowels round with rice flour and syllables rolled into delicate rice paper and dripping with sweet coconut milk. Can you hear the open-mouthed laughter of my grandmother, my mother, and I, our foreheads dotted with sweat, baking in our dirty kitchen? Or does my home grow slowly nameless in your mouth? Where words once were, the flavors of my people now flow, set free from the fruit’s flesh—are you amazed? You who dare to say “banana” without knowing the sweetness that first condenses, thickens, and then, in consuming grows awake, transparent, sunny, earthly, alive—like the harana, a lover’s song exchanged at open windows. Dear guest, sitting at this table, unknowingly pulling a chair up to my home.
February, be gentle. Be light and fleeting like the breath that passes between lovers’ parted lips. February, be tender. Peel back inhibition like thumbs into tangerines. February, be fair. Tip your scales in our favor: heavy with hushed friction, light with the paleness of orange nights. February, be content. In exchange, I offer close-clipped prose, bouquets of unfinished poetry.
I have a favorite photograph of my mother, standing in the sun, face flushed with achievement and triumph. She is by the shoreline, watching over the water as if she were looking out at herself. Where does the sea end and she begin? When writing about her, where do I start? Water has no shape even on paper. It can only be contained by a form assigned to her, my mother, who is more like water than she knows: movement fluid, taking the shape of a desire not to be forgotten. An old painter said that when he painted the ocean, he began with ships. They were the eyes of the ocean. Look for the outline of their sails in the horizon. When you know where they are, you can begin. My mother’s hands are cupped shells humming stories of distant ships. Her eyes, beacons of faraway light, leading them home. When she laughs, I hear the crashing of waves in to foam. She is a body of water, harbor to my name, filling spaces in me I didn’t know existed: a love of maps, a yearning for an undulating deck beneath my feet and the ebb and flow of syllables. She loves the way water loves: with intimacy, she nourishes; with intensity she destroys. The water in me always reaches out for her: I, the river; she, the sea.
A calendar is a lesson in geometry: the perimeter of a square, the volume of a life. Each day is a number, when multiplied becomes a year, when subtracted equals existence.