Tale of Two Kitchens
When it came to our new home and its two kitchens, no one questioned Mommy’s logic. Clean tasks were reserved for the clean kitchen and dirty ones relegated to the dirty kitchen. And she was sole arbiter.
The kitchens stood on opposite ends of the house. Even though we could cut through the dining and living rooms to get from one to the other, Mommy and the maids slunk through the side doors that wrapped around through the garage or open-air porch. Guests never saw or smelled any trace of cooking or cleaning up, yet everything had to look like it occurred in the clean kitchen. The illusion eluded them. And even when it was just our immediate family seated at the table, Mommy served dinner through the clean kitchen’s entranceway, her Arc de Triomphe, when she could have easily taken the easy way in and out.
But the dirty kitchen was the central nervous system of our home. Though it was bathed in white tile and fluorescent lighting, and often reeking of Lysol, someone was always busy gutting fish, chopping vegetables, frying rice, or ironing a shirt. I sometimes sat in there after school with our two yayas and two maids isolating inedible black grains of rice from the day’s ration so I could listen in on their juicy chismis.
With the transistor radio blaring Filipino soap operas and confessional talk shows, they argued over leading men they would die for as well as the quality of advice being dished to women raped by their bosses or brothers. They loved to laugh until they fell to the floor, tears streaming down their cheeks, palms slapping the tile, and insults and names darting across the room—usually “gaga,” “bruha,” “aswang,” or some variation on the word “witch.” They used phrases I was certain Mommy would have washed out their mouths with bars of Ajax for. I preferred sitting among our help to playing with children down the street.
I felt a comfort and bliss among these women I did not necessarily feel with family. I laughed as hard as they did. I was one with them in our circle of silliness. But as soon as Mommy returned from running errands, her car’s horn tooting up the hill, I scurried up to my room to watch Bugs Bunny or Popeye or My Favorite Martian. Anything but be caught loitering in the dirty kitchen. Over time, I would come to accept the reality of our class differences as perhaps every Filipino child in a middle to upper class family did. I was a boy being groomed to expectations and destined to land somewhere good in life. They were merely gossiping girls, trying not to get pregnant by the male gardeners and guardsmen of the subdivision. The highlight of their month was a day off to go into town and mail their salaries in crumpled envelopes back to their respective families in the provinces.
The help’s quarters opened into the dirty kitchen, where the soap-white GE washing machine sat between its companion dryer and a sink where an elephant trunk-like hose spewed out and drained water after the rinse cycle. Mommy supervised the lavendera on weekends, preferring to hand-wash and line-dry, saving on electricity as well as salvaging fabrics from the spinning and gurgling of the motorized monsters.
I donned each day’s attire, wondering whether, like a hound, Mommy could sniff what my day had been like. When the man in Tatay’s office had me push and pull on his penis in the locked bathroom that first time, and the two more times thereafter, I shuddered at the thought of her smelling him on my clothes, let alone on me. I thought Mommy and all other mothers were smart and sharp that way.
It was July. The year prior we had moved out of faculty housing at the University of the Philippines and into Beverly Hills, a residential enclave in the hills east of Manila in the town of Antipolo, known for roasted cashews, sticky rice-filled banana leaf suman, and the shrine that housed Our Lady of Good Voyage. We technically straddled two municipalities, Taytay and Antipolo, though we paid taxes to and attended Mass in Antipolo. I liked the fact that we could step back and forth across an imaginary borderline between towns several times a day. The winding roads were constantly overrun with pilgrims as anyone travelling abroad made a point of coming here, which led me to believe the land around us was sacred. This left me more terrified than blessed, fearful that the Virgin Mary, like in Lourdes and Fatima, could appear atop a nearby hill, or on the wishbone limbs of any one of our three mango trees.
We were at the table, dining on deep-fried fish heads, squash, rice, and chicken consommé made from Knorr bouillon cube concentrates when Tatay cleared his throat.
“I’ll be on a visiting professorship at Yale starting next month,” he said.
I had no idea where Yale was at the time and continued to chew. Mommy let out a small sigh and spun the lazy Susan, letting it stop on its own like a roulette wheel. She won squash. “It’ll be for two semesters in Connecticut, in the States,” he added.
Oh, the States. It felt so far away. He would be leaving just three years since we returned from Brooklyn where he had been a visiting professor at CUNY and we had lived in Flatbush for an academic year. But then Baby Ruths, Snickers, and M&Ms as well as fat cans of Coke, 7UP, and Dr. Pepper filled my head like the store shelves of Clark Air Base near Angeles City and Subic Naval Base in Olongapo, strategic American outposts of an ongoing war across the South China Sea. It was always a treat when a family friend said something they brought was from the PX. And now Tatay could bring a luggage full of everything back direct from America.
“Tatay, how long?” I asked.
“Nine months, Job.”
It did not seem like a long time until I counted each month aloud on the peaks and valleys of my knuckled fist. He would be gone for Christmas. And New Year’s. And my seventh birthday in March.
“And Lanelle will be coming with me.”
I sat up as if the fish I’d eaten had bitten me. Lanelle, my older sister, now fourteen, grew a grin as wide as a slice of watermelon. She had known she was going. I could see it in the way she threw back her shoulders as she put a spoonful of Rocky Road into her mouth and slid the spoon out and up from between her pursed lips in slow motion. I did not like it that she knew before the rest of us did. I did not like secrets if I wasn’t a part of them.
“Can I go, too?”
“You just entered prep school at Ateneo,” Mommy said, pleased I was attending the Jesuit-run school where she happened to work in personnel administration on the college side of the same campus. “You, Rossana, Jonas and I will stay here toge—”
“You’ll be the man of the house while I’m gone,” said Tatay.
I perked up at the thought of bossing around my younger sister and brother, proving that I could think and act mature for a six-year-old. Rossana, three and a half, and Jonas, two and a half, did not seem to understand what was going on. But they eventually did and made their feelings clear the day Tatay and Lanelle departed.
“I hate you, Tatay. I hate you. I hate you,” Rossana wailed while Jonas whimpered in the middle of the departure area of Manila International Airport.
I repeated her words inside my head until the syllables broke down into senseless sounds. I, too, hated him. Why was he going away for so long? Why now? Why Lanelle and not me? Mommy lifted my stubborn arm to wave goodbye from the observation deck as they, like ants, walked the tarmac and up the boarding stairs onto a Pan Am Boeing 707.
The night before when I had pretended to be asleep in my bed, facing the wall, Tatay brushed my hair with his warm fingers before kissing my forehead. At first I did not want to tell or ask him anything about what was happening to me or what I was feeling about the man in his office bathroom. But a part of me thought, that he, a man, might understand what was going on. He always seemed to listen, with his hands clasped and index fingers forming a church steeple under his nose, before he spoke in his calming voice. Telling Mommy would be tricky, like climbing a volcano. And besides, if he could keep a secret with Lanelle, he certainly could keep one with me. Alas, I never approached him. I thought I would be blamed for allowing the man to do what he did to me, and I would be punished and locked in my room for the rest of my life.
The car radio, usually on, was not during the drive home from the airport. Rossana and Jonas were asleep in the backseat. I looked up to Mommy on my left. She was silent, slightly hunched over the wheel, focused on the road. Her face had shriveled into a Sun-Maid raisin. The last time I had seen her like this was a year earlier when we drove back home at the break of dawn after she had taken me to a faith healer. She had paid a female attendant a wad of peso bills before he laid his sandpaper hands on my face to pray cure my lazy left eye.
I did not know how to comfort her the way Tatay could when she was sad or sick. I had too many of my own thoughts to contend with. One thing I knew for sure: I did not want to be “the man of the house,” whatever that was.
Jonas and I shared a bedroom. We each had a matching desk built into the wall, shelving, side table, and closet. Lanelle and Rossana’s room mirrored ours. Both rooms had doors, one blue and one pink, leading into the same bathroom. We had sibling symmetry: girl, boy, girl, boy. We were an even six in a family that was not too big, not too small. But with Tatay and Lanelle in America, and Rossana sleeping in Mommy’s room at night, everything felt lopsided.
Collie, my yaya, had followed us to Beverly Hills and was joined by another yaya, Marina, who was more Rossana’s and Jonas’s. She and Collie acted as if they were tethered to every one of us, tripping over each other as they reacted to our every whim, wish, or pair of wet shorts. They were Mommy’s sergeants, and their priority was not to anger her or else risk being thrown out of the house as Mommy had done with the gardener and one of the maids a few weeks after Tatay and Lanelle had left. According to them, the two had been caught doing something they were not supposed to behind the water tank. Did this have something to do with getting pregnant?
Our yayas and maid were always up before we were in the morning. Sometimes I woke to the sound of trembling stacks of porcelain plates in transit between both kitchens, downstairs in the dark. Soon after, Mommy emerged from her bedroom, and the first, pale artificial light of day switched on along the corridor that connected our bedrooms.
The yayas cajoled us out of bed with a sing-songy, “time for school,” and “time for sunshine.” Then they washed the sleep out of our faces with warm, wet cloths before putting on our school uniforms, and then feeding us Frosted Flakes or chocolate porridge champorado with condensed milk, as well as a glass of warm powdered milk and chilled papaya juice. When Mommy called out that it was time to go, they carried our school bags into the Volkswagen station wagon my parents shipped back from our camping expedition in Germany on the way back from Brooklyn. Mommy drove us to school before heading to work. As she revved up the engine and reversed the car out of the lone garage and, hence, home on Dahlia Drive, she shouted the day’s task list out the window to the household troops in Tagalog and mostly to Collie, who then divvied up the duties amongst them.
“Wax the floors upstairs, finish cutting the grass, buy more rice at the market, shake out the curtains.” She barked orders even as the car rolled down the street.
When we returned in the afternoon, Rossana, Jonas, and I watched TV, took a bath and put on our pajamas while Mommy took a nap. I hardly spent time anymore in the dirty kitchen with the girls. Mommy joined us for dinner, then disappeared into the dirty kitchen and yelled at one or more of the girls, likely for a poorly executed task, before tucking us in bed by nine.
Mommy was unable to keep Tatay from leaving us, but she could control the appearance of our home, if not the behavior of those who lived in it. And like the maid and yayas, the new gardener and lavendera, and even Rossana and Jonas, I thought it best to blend into the day’s routine and not upset Mommy.
Since I had seen and felt the man’s penis bloat up those few times in the locked bathroom, I wanted to see if I could get mine to do the same. It was not until right after Tatay was gone that, whenever I went to the bathroom to pee or poop, I double checked that the doors were locked, closed the toilet lid, and sat on it with my shorts and briefs still shucked around my ankles. I started pushing and pulling on my fleshy penis with my left hand.
Nothing happened no matter how fast I pushed and pulled on it. I made at least one attempt each day for weeks. I started talking to my penis. “Do something, now.” I even asked God to intervene. I could not stay too long, though. Collie sometimes knocked on the door and asked if I was not feeling well. I faked a cough or two in response and said I was almost done.
Tatay and Lanelle had been gone for three or four months. Mommy was with us but was caught up in her own routine and melancholy and exhaustion. Her eyes seemed to search for someone or something beyond us every time she spoke.
One night I could not sleep. I stared at the mess of mango branch and leaf shadows cast against my bedroom wall and ceiling by a bright full moon. Every minute or so, they swayed ever so slightly to the music of a breeze, an accompanying score to the scene resurfacing inside my head.
I was back in the bathroom with his penis in my hands.
No sooner had I pulled out my own putty penis from the trap opening of my American flag pajamas, faded from the many drip dryings under the tropic sun, that I began to push and pull on it, revising the scene in my head:
He slowly and steadily pushed my head down until I was eye to eye with it. It smelled sour, like a carton of milk that has sat in the refrigerator for a very long time.
“Kiss it. Taste it. Put it in your mouth,” he whispered encouragingly.
I was flushed and frantic, flustered and fearful. My head throbbed as the velvet mushroom brushed my tongue.
I was no longer pushing and pulling but turning the head of my penis in a counterclockwise half turn, as if I was trying to open a bottle. I felt it harden. It stood up! I never noticed it stand up before and with such force. A surge came out of nowhere and ruptured at the tip of my penis. I panicked, held my breath for a second or two, and exhaled all the air I ever breathed in my life. I felt like passing out. But unlike the man, no arc of milk shot out of me. But it did not matter. I felt nothing as beautiful and wonderful and exciting and magical and fantastic as what I had felt that very moment. My first dry orgasm.
Within the routines of our household, I had established my own nocturnal ritual. After Mommy led us in prayer to have Jesus bless our family, especially Tatay and Lanelle, and to keep us safe and pure, she kissed us good night and turned off the lights. I waited until I could hear Jonas’s sleeping breath before playing with myself. I did not always have to recreate the bathroom scene in my head. I simply looked down at my penis and willed it to respond. Either way, I could only fall asleep when the gushing sensation left my body.
I was once in the pantry attached to the clean kitchen. Although it was a school day, I must have been sick that morning and stayed home. It was dark except for a naked light bulb with a beaded metal cord by it that I could tug on and off. No one would know I was here playing with myself. I wanted to know if I could get the same sensation to happen during the day.
I sat on the cement floor. Its coldness seeped through my flannel pajama bottom. But that did not stop me from sweating as I stroked my penis for the longest time. I would feel the surge from within start up, then die down, then start up again. This was so much fun, I thought to myself. This way it did not have to end as quickly. Maybe I should do it during the day instead of at night. Could it work both day and night?
Pretty soon, the pantry was my secret hiding place. Collie would look for me throughout the house, shouting my name. Then she would run in a panic out the front doorand into the street frantically yelling, “Jobert! Jobert!” Only then would I run back up to my bedroom and pretend to be asleep. Collie would return saying, “salamant Dios,” in thankful prayer to God when she found me.
But one day…
“Jobert, what are you doing in there?”
I was so taken aback with Collie bursting into the pantry that my entire body jerked.
“What are you doing?” she said with a raised voice.
I had released my penis and stood up. She returned a quarter smile and put her hands on hips, staring down on me.
What was so funny?
I followed her stare down. My penis was somewhat hard and exposed, caught in the front flap of my pajamas. I turned around and shoved it in, then turned again and ran upstairs into my room, slamming and locking the door behind me. I was under the covers of my bed without a clue as to what to do or say.
When Mommy returned that evening, I ran up and reached to embrace her. She bent her knees to the floor and by the jerk in her neck, must have been surprised by the loud kiss I planted on her cheek. I cupped my hand against her left ear.
“Don’t believe anything Collie tells you,” I whispered.
“Jobert, get up.”
“Whaaat?” I whined.
Rossana and Jonas came into focus as they looked out the window, their faces illuminated by bursts of fireworks—green and pink and orange. Pops and bangs echoed throughout the room, the windows trembling like the early morning porcelain plates shuttled across kitchens.
“Hurry, it’s almost 1971,” said Mommy.
We had fallen asleep in her room, as we had every day since the week before Christmas when she said we could. I thought it was because she missed Tatay and Lanelle. But part of me suspected she knew what I was up to at night and having me sleep on the fold-out beach chair next to her bed along with my brother and sister would severely limit the chances of my doing so.
Christmas had been quiet, at least compared to the year before, when both Tatay and Mommy had awakened all of us early on Christmas Day. We children had run down to the living room and looked under the silver tree. Like a hen, it had laid gifts that had not been there the day before. Red net stockings filled with chocolate coins in aluminum wrappers of red, gold, and silver hung next to the tree. Tatay read one of the labels for me. “Dear Jobert, Love Always From Santa.”
This year, Mommy tried hard to make Christmas morning just as happy, but it was not the same. I even noticed that the label on the stocking filled with White Rabbit candy and Topsy Curls chocolate treats one could find at the corner sari-sari store was in her handwriting and read, “Dear Jobert, From Santa.”
“Quick, over here. Hurry!” she said before starting her countdown from the number ten.
Mommy pushed the window open just as it struck midnight. The noise rushed inside, shaking through my bones and teeth as I stood alongside Rossana and Jonas, both screaming with glee. Mommy gave each of us a noisemaker to blow on, the kind that curls out like a frog’s tongue before it squeals.
All of a sudden, firecrackers thundered through the hills. Our view of the city lights was blocked by black smoke within our own neighborhood with flashes, faster than lighting, bouncing back at us.
“Happy New Year!” Mommy said, squeezing all three of us as we tooted into the crazy night. “Happy New Year!” Happy New Year!” she repeated before sticking her neck out the window and blowing her own noisemaker. At that moment, for the first time since Tatay had left, Mommy laughed uncontrollably. She kept blowing and blowing but could not get hers to roll out its tongue or squeal. All she got was an airy emptiness. She kicked her head back still in laughter and wiped away a tear before kissing each of us.
“Happy New Year, Mommy,” I said.
“Happy New Year, Job.”
We must have locked eyes long enough to know we had no more to say. Mommy broke her stare and blew on the noisemaker once more. It worked this time.
“I’m glad the year is over,” she said. “I’m glad your father will be returning home this year.”
I, too, was glad that it was 1971. In three months I would turn seven. I wanted to say something sweet and smart. Something that would keep Mommy’s smile in place, at least until Tatay and Lanelle finally returned home and we could be a whole, happy family again.
Lanelle showed up in June, back home first without Tatay. Something was different about her. She was taller and her hair longer, curlier than before. I was glad to see her, but it would take weeks, maybe months, for us to reacquaint ourselves. She said little of how life was in Connecticut. At fifteen, the curves on her chest were more defined than before she left, like Mommy and all women seemed to have. She also brought home two record albums, one called Hair, and the other by someone named Elton John. She played them over and over on the turntable. She dressed in bright shirts, as loud as her music, with rainbows bleeding in circular patterns.
But I wondered why Tatay was still not back when he said he would only be away for nine months. What would it be like to see him again? Would he have changed as Lanelle had?
Mommy picked up Tatay at the airport a month later, in late July. She insisted that we wait for him at home. When we saw him step out of the car, Rossana, Jonas, and I jumped on him, attacking him like eager puppies. He squatted down and hugged all three of us at once. Mommy shouted out to Collie and the others to carry in his suitcases. One was light blue and the other two were grey. They were Samsonite, as sturdy as tortoise shells, and their locks snapped open like TV antennae. And when Tatay opened each one in half, as if a casino clam, the crisp, clean scent of America exploded throughout the bedroom.
We sat on the bed as he took items out of the blue suitcase one by one, like bunnies out of a magician’s hat. There were boxes of Nestlé Crunch, Butterfingers, and Pop Tarts along with Mary Quant makeup kits for Rossana and Lanelle and Marvel comic books for Jonas and me. It was like Christmas in July.
While we laid out all the goodies on the bed and sat by Tatay, Mommy fumbled through his briefcase, then she tore up a folder and papers she found in it and started to build a pile of Tatay’s clothes from the other suitcases.
“Chica, let’s take care of that later,” he said. She ignored him and his nickname for her. “Chica, please!” he said in a louder voice. “We can discuss this matter later.”
A shadow came over Mommy’s face. What happened? Was not this supposed to be a happy moment now that we were all together again?
Mommy stormed out and headed straight for the dirty kitchen with Tatay’s clothes in her arms. She acted as if Tatay never washed his clothes in America. I wondered how could all his clothes be dirty, even the ones still pinned to cardboard and wrapped in plastic?
I followed her while everyone else remained upstairs. She did not seem to care I was there watching her pour Tide detergent into the washing machine. She had not used it since the rainy season arrived, and handwashing was not possible outdoors.
“Take off those shorts and Jockeys too. Now,” she said in a not so nice way. “Collie! Where are you?"
Mommy shoved Tatay’s clothes inside the machine. She sighed twice, the second bigger than the first.
I panicked and ran upstairs, not wanting Collie to help me since she caught me playing with myself. I took off my shorts and briefs and put another set on, then ran back and handed the used ones to Mommy. I thought she was going to scream at any moment. She did not look at me as she threw my clothes in the wash. She slammed the machine’s lid and walked out the side door of the kitchen. For the first time I was all by myself in the dirty kitchen. No yayas. No maids. No one.
Water started splashing in and underneath the closed flap. The washing machine gurgled and grinded like a monster awakening. I stretched my arms out to embrace its width. I shut my eyes and leaned my forehead on its metallic skin. It quivered against my chest and stomach as well as my crotch. And I was aroused. I sighed before walking out the side door and going inside the house through the clean kitchen, just as I assumed Mommy had.
When I emerged, there she was on bended knee, her arms stretched out, asking for a hug. And we did. She hugged me so tight, I must have lost a breath. I heard and felt her whimpers as I burrowed my head into her bosom. I would not soon forget that squeeze, like nothing wrong had ever happened and all was right between us. I would return to that snapshot for years to come, whenever she and I butted heads. But on that very day, at that very moment, I somehow knew I was her special one. No miracle was too grand to perform on my behalf. She would keep any secrets of mine close to her heart. And there was no need to ask about let alone understand what had transpired between her and Tatay.