Even a broken clock is right twice a day.
What was her name?
Your wife’s, stupid!
I guess I need to explain. Sometimes translations can misinform while at the same time being completely accurate. The literal translation for the Tagalog word bobo, which is what she said, is ‘stupid’. However, it can have and, often does have, a soft edge to it; there is a sense of kidding and playfulness. In this case it was clear that the playfulness was implied.
You learn to cook Filipino by Flor? I had served her a dish that was essentially a Filipino recipe.
Yes, I guess so. It would be hard to cook American here. Things are different here.
You like Filipino food? You eat rice? We had rice for supper, so in a literal way she knew I would eat rice. This was a deeper, a more global question. She wanted to know if I was comfortable with the concept of a rice-based diet. One where there was rice at essentially every meal.
Yes Nene, I eat rice. Why?
Well, this food is fine, I like it, but if you like Filipino, I can cook for you.
I see. You can cook?
Yes I can!
Ah OK well that will be nice, thank you.
You have maid?
Howard, who is cleaning your house?
Oh, me. I am cleaning the house.
That’s no good. I will clean it for you. Men cannot clean correctly.
So my wife used to tell me. But I do OK.
Your wife was right. I will clean it. I will start in the morning.
I see. Any other changes I need to make?
I don’t know yet. I will tell you later.
We ate the rest of the supper in silence, or I should say, I ate, as Nene ate very little before indicating that she was full. When I finished and started to clean the dishes from the table Nene stopped me. Go away! Go into the sala. I will clean up. Go, Go!
Oh, God preserve me if I didn’t hear echoes of my wife in those words. I did as instructed by this fourteen-year-old. I was being bossed around by someone fifty-two years my junior, but no differently than I had experienced with my wife. I allowed it because I wanted to allow it. There is no other way to explain it.
I sat in my easy chair in the Sala and picked up a book I had been reading before Flor died. The book had not been touched for forty-three days, and now it was back in my hands and I was reading it. In the kitchen, wearing a simple top and shorts of Flor’s, Nene was scrubbing the pot I had used to cook our meal. She was humming to herself.
The next thing I knew, I had made it through a few chapters, it was nine o’clock and all the lights, save those in the sala had been turned off. The house was quiet. I found Nene in my bed, under a comforter and wrapped up in the silk robe I had given her to wear earlier.
I was tired, confused, giddy, feeling pangs of something I could not assess. I undressed and climbed into bed on the opposite side from Nene. She could not have known that the side she had taken was Flor’s side… there was no way she could have known. I lay down and went to sleep, and for the first time in many, many months, I slept through the entire night without once arising.
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You have now almost caught up to me. This is the forty-fourth day and it is this morning I am writing about now. When I awoke, I was alone in the bed. The robe Nene had worn was hanging from a hook. I got up, slipped into the master bathroom, toileted, showered, and shaved before reentering the bedroom, only to find clothing laid out for me. It was my clothing but it had been ironed. Flor had ironed my clothing but I hadn’t and so after 44 days, nothing I owned had been ironed until… this morning.
Once dressed, as my fourteen-year-old would have me dressed, I entered the kitchen to find a freshly washed, smiling face, dressed in one of my wife’s dresses and a pair of pretty slippers. Granted the dress went below her knees and was never so long on my wife, but she looked good in it. The dining room table was replete with a bowl of fried rice and a mango sliced in three sections. What do you want to drink, Howard? I found three-in-one packets. Is that what you drink?
Yes, three-in-one coffee is fine. Have you eaten?
Yes, I have shrimp paste and rice! I am full now.
Ugh, I never could understand how Flor could eat that stuff. You like it?
You mean shrimp paste? Wow yes, very much.
You sleep OK? You want a better place to sleep?
I slept fine. You don’t want me to sleep with you?
Well, do you want to sleep with me?
OK, then you sleep with me.
Good, now eat, Howard! ... Howard we need some things.
We need bars of laundry soap. We need floor wax. We need dish soap. And vinegar, and sticky rice, and some saba bananas, and brown sugar for the sticky rice, you know the very dark type? Yes? The banana leaves I will get from the tree out back. Same with the buko juice, I will get from the coconut tree out back. I want a big hard green papaya, and carrots and red pepper. I will make you some atchara1, OK? But Howard, I do not want you to go into the market with me. If they see you, the price is too high.
You want to go on your own?
You will come back?
Silly! Yes, I will come back!
You need to know this address. I will give you money.
Thank you for trusting me, Howard.
You are welcome… now I think you can get everything with ₱2,000 but here take ₱4,000 just in case.
Howard, I do not need so much. No, please, I only need maybe ₱1,500.
Nene, do not argue. If you do not need it, you bring it back and we will use it another day.
OK. Tell me my address, Howard. I need to know where I live.
I told her. We discussed where she could get a tricycle and how to get through the gate. And then she was gone.
I wrote the first part of this while she was shopping. That was four hours of solid writing during which I did not know if she would really come back. The writing was a way of trying to understand what had happened to me. A sort of self-therapy, if you will, like the journal writing that patients sometimes do for their high-dollar head-shrinking therapists. There sure are a lot of them around Thousand Oaks, California.
I was pretty much at the end of the first chapter, and had tears in my eyes when Nene returned. I don’t know whether the tears were for my greatly missed Flor or my fear that Nene might not come back. But return the imp did.
She had bags, and receipts, and money to return. She wanted me to review her receipts and check the accuracy of the receipts plus the returned cash and make sure that the numbers equaled ₱24 less than ₱4,000, as ₱24 are what the tricycles had cost. ₱8 each hop. I didn’t think it was necessary to do that, but Nene got panicky when it looked like I might not check. So, check I did. I totaled the whole damned thing up and put on a sour face.
Oh God, Howard, what did I do wrong?
You didn’t eat any lunch. You didn’t grab even a drink for four hours. Next time you are gone so long I want you to sit down somewhere, relax and get some food, Nene! God damn it, there is not a single peso unaccounted for. You spent nothing on yourself!
I screwed up, because the girl came all apart, sobbing and wailing and alternately hitting me and hugging me. Why? Howard, why?! Why are you doing this to me? Why are you doing this? Why me? Why are you so nice? Why? Howard, WHY?
I don’t know. Maybe because I am lonely? Maybe because you were in so much need of help? Maybe because, even if I can’t help everyone, I can help you? Maybe because I need you to love me? Maybe because I am an old fool? I DON’T KNOW!
She’s sobbing, holding on to me. She is so little. She can’t weigh 35K. I have hard time even holding her, she is so far down below my arms. She is crying. I am crying. We are a couple of loons.
You want me to stay with you? I was hoping you would let me. That’s why I say I will clean and cook and do all those things, so you know I am good to keep here. You will let me stay? You want me to love you, Howard? I will, I promise, I will take care of you and love you and be good to you and be careful with your money and make you happy? Can I live here with you, Howard? You won’t tell me to leave after we have sex? I can really stay? Howard?... Howard?... Howard?
Yes, Nene. Yes.
Howard, I have never had sex. You will have to teach me. Do you still want me?
Yes. Now, Nene, relax, nothing bad is going to happen. You live here now. You live here with me. There is food to eat, a bed to sleep in, water to wash with, a roof to keep the rain off, and money for the doctors and medicine when we need it. Whatever you worried about before… that is over. You are safe.
She is jumping up on me, kissing me, holding on to me. I grab her under her ass, lift her up by holding her thighs so that she is face to face with me, her legs spread out above my hips. Her arms are around my neck and we kiss. I am a sixty-six-year-old man, French kissing a fourteen-year-old and she is as passionate as I am at the moment. She weighs so little, I am in no hurry to put her down. Yesterday at this time, she was naked, barefoot, scared, in the middle of a city street, dirty and alone in the world. The Nene in my arms is clean, combed, perfumed, well dressed and well shod and happy. Twenty-four hours and you would not even guess by looking at her now that she could have been that girl in the street yesterday.
Finally, I put her down when she whispers in my ear that she needs to put the food away. I am looking at her now. I am just standing in the sala, watching as she organizes the things she has purchased, leaving the things out she will cook now and putting away what she does not need. She is talking to me as she works.
Promise that if I make something you do not like that you will not eat it and tell me not to cook it again, please.
OK, I promise.
Do you like sticky rice, Howard? I am going to make it but maybe you do not like it!
I like it, Nene.
OK, is there anything you do not like?
I do not like shrimp paste, dried fish, or that ox tail soup. And I am not a fan of the snails in coconut milk recipe. You know that one?
Really, you do not like the snails? It is so good! OK, Howard, I not make it for you. You eat durian?
You eat balut?
Young balut. Sixteen day, not the old ones.
Good! Ha, I think you just look like a white guy, you must be Filipino! You like fruit salad with buko?
Yes, very much.
You eat tilapia?
Yes, but I sometimes have problems with the bones.
How about tuna, you like tuna.
Yes, very much, just don’t overcook it!
Really? You want it wet in the center?
You are weird, Howard! But OK I will cook it that way for you.
Howard, you know about woman’s things?
You know about our monthly?
I think I will start mine soon. I used rags, what should I use?
You need it now?
No, maybe in two or three days.
OK, there are some things in the bathroom, I will show you later today.
Thank you, I am sorry to ask you.
It’s OK, Nene… Nene, do you have a family?
No, Howard. My mother left when I was a baby. My father died last year from tuberculosis. I have a little brother but when my father died, someone took him and I don’t know where.
We need to take you to a doctor for a check-up. We can do that tomorrow.
OK. … Howard, why are you living here in Gensan?
And so I tell her the whole story, from my meeting Flor, through our life together in the USA and our move here and her diagnosis of advanced stage uterine cancer. She is stopping me every once in a while and asking for clarification, so I know she is actually listening. By the time I stop talking, the sticky rice is done and ready for me to test. The result is remarkably good. She tells me that she was the one cooking for her family since she was seven. She also cleaned the house all those years until her father died. She tells me proudly, she knows how to cook and clean. I believe her.
We finish what is either a snack or lunch, you can call it what you will, it is good and I am no longer hungry. We get up and I try to clear my place, but she stops me.
That is my job, Howard. Put it down.
I put it down. Nene is cleaning up and by the look of things she is about to get ready to start preparing the supper meal.
Do you have friends here in Gensan?
Yes, Flor and I… sorry I mean, yes I do. They have been calling and coming by to see if I am OK.
Are they single women?
No, mostly wives of my male friends. Sometimes with their husbands, sometimes just the women call my cell. They invite me to their homes for dinner sometimes.
Have they tried, you know, to have you meet other women?
Ah! No, not yet, but it hasn’t been very long since Flor died. I think they will try soon. … huh. … oh! I see. That would affect you.
Yes, she will kick me out.
Nene there is no, ‘she’.
There will be.
Why do you say that?
Because you need a woman and I am just a kid.
You are far more than ‘just a kid.’
I am too young to marry.
I know that.
How will you explain me to your friends?
I don’t know, Nene. I have to think about it.
You promised I can stay. I don’t think you will keep your promise, Howard. I think I will have to go soon.
Kid... — I would prefer to say, ‘Young Lady’ but there is no current equivalent in Tagalog. The term is archaic and no longer used. Some think ‘nene’ means ‘Miss’ as well as being a name or nickname, but it can also mean a young child… plus it’s her name! So I used Bata! Which does mean Kid! — Now you listen to me. If I promise something, I will do it.
I don’t think so. See? You just think of me as a kid! You will want a woman!
You can ‘think’ all you want. You will see. … and don’t you scream at me. I can hear you without the screaming.
Sorry. I am sorry. I am just scared you will tell me to go when you find a real girlfriend.
I am not looking for a girlfriend.
Maybe not today, but you will. And anyway, there will be Filipinas all over here trying to win you. You know that, Howard. You are not stupid.
Maybe I am stupid. I should have known it. Nene is right.
As soon as it appears that a suitable mourning period has passed, I will be a magnet, attracting the interest of women, most of whom I would never ever be interested in for any reason. Still there will probably be a few I will find interesting.
I have already promised Nene and I’ll be damned if I will go back on that now. Do I treat her like a daughter? She’s too young to be my maid. Everyone here knows I do not have a Filipina daughter, certainly not a daughter fourteen years old. Nene's native dialect isn’t same as Flor spoke. Even her Tagalog sounds different. Saying she is a niece will only raise more questions. … But, I have an idea.
Nene, let us get settled for a week. Let us get used to each other, have some meals together, learn a bit of each other’s habits and ways of doing things. Then I will invite some of my good friends over for a supper, which you will cook and I will introduce you to them.
What will you say?
Wait and see! I think it is time you learn to trust me. This will be a good lesson.
She is grumbling in Tagalog. If she didn't want me to understand, she might have used her native dialect. Her choice of Tagalog is intentional even though it is a little under the breath as she says… ‘you are truly a difficult man.’ ‘trust me, trust me… haha why should I do that you old fool’ ‘Some sexy Filipina is going to knock you off your feet and I will be gone as fast as a drunk finishes his Red Horse’
I figure this is a good time to ignore her and read a book. It’s too hot to sit out on the porch right now, so I sit down in the sala to enjoy the book. Nene is still grumbling…’go ahead and ignore me, read your book, you difficult, difficult man.’
This is a poor translation. Nene is calling me makulit, which means more than difficult. It is difficult, obstinate, have it only your own way, wear the other side down, like a dog chewing on a bone. She is also referring to me as bastos, which is ill-bred, discreditable.
Finally I say, Ah, I see that you are getting to know me! But I have a question, how fast does a drunk finish a Red Horse beer? I can’t stand the stuff. That shuts her up.
She continues to prepare supper and I return to my book. I must admit, she is cute when riled up. I have to admit something else. Dressed as she is in an adult’s dress and footwear, with her hair combed and shiny and smooth, it is hard to see her as a girl. Her lack of major breast development is not a factor as many Asian women have tiny breasts. As she stands in the kitchen preparing supper, her age could be anything from fourteen to twenty-four. There is a worldliness about her that eclipses her years as a young teen. This is a person who has seen much.
As I look at her, much to my confusion I am experiencing a stirring in my loins. She doesn’t look like a child. She looks like a woman. Right or wrong, it is affecting me.
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1 - This is a pickled papaya recipe using vinegar, sugar, a carrot and sweet red 'bell' pepper.
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