From within her taxi, the girl takes in the half-built and skeletal structures, the night lights, and loud honks from cars that make Manama feel like home. The pink, beige, and gray highrises are decorated with pictures of three bearded men: they shout at her, remind her she is a foreigner, an outsider, a woman. Their curved, neon letters accompanied with English translations remind her of Manila, the dark and impoverished, loud city her father escaped from when he was her age, 25 years old, still young and yearning.
Bahrain feels like Los Angeles, where she has left her familia. The land is dry, rough, and out of water; smells of salt, spice, and the calm sea. The difference is the water’s blueness, a teal blue, and it surrounds the tiny island country, traps it, encloses the rows of houses made of sand and clay.
The girl is here to meet the boy, her lover, a man she has loved since 14. It is a star-crossed meeting, to fly across the world and meet the USS Douglas MacArthur porting days in Bahrain. They married three years ago. Eloped at twenty-one. She was a writer, going back to school for a Master of Arts; he was a nuclear engineer in the U.S. Navy. With him, she was impulsive; with her, he wished he could be someone else, someone better.
In this city, so far from what they know, the girl rolls down the window of the cab driving to their arranged hotel. The hot air rushes in. She knows she is lost, she has always been lost. She wants to hurt him and is jealous of this city that feels more alive than her, but there is something that draws her back to him, that claws and needs him, maybe it is because he is so like her father, a man of charm and broken laughter.
It has been over two hundred days since their last kiss on the corner of his gray ship that looks like a prison, a monster of lights on the sea that permeates darkness. She knows she must tell him she is leaving him.
The flight was brutal. It was twenty hours of agitation with two layovers, one in New York and the other in London. It felt suffocating to be confined in her seat, the noise of the plane filling with kids crying, men kicking her seat, the fear in seeing him again. Her heart palpitated each time she landed, each time she took off. On the plane to Bahrain, she sat next to a Filipina woman who owned the same Coach bag as her. She pointed to it, smiled at the woman, and the woman beamed, her mouth immediately falling into Tagalog. The girl cannot understand her familia’s own language, and the woman quickly noticed, turning her head, disappointed and cruel. The girl tried to smile again, but it was clear: she was Americana Filipina, and the woman was a balikbayan, a domestic worker, an indentured slave. That’s how much the girl understood in her spitfire Tagalog, complaints of flying to a desert city without familia, without blood relations, without an anchor, the pain of leaving home.
Once in Bahrain, she walked through the airport hallways with quick steps. Her father was right: the eyes never left her. The men dressed in white and the women covered in black, stared and stared, as if each one questioned her existence, her smile, her looking down at her shoes. She gave the immigration agent her Bahraini visa and he motioned for more. She was confused. The girl asked him what he needed. He pointed at her: Why are you alone? Where is your husband? Your father? Brother?
She rummaged through her purse, a Coach bag she thought would signify her class, her American-ness, but the man behind the counter eyed her, questioned the petite body with the black hair and light brown skin, finally saying: You Filipina, no? Are you here to work? Clean houses? He laughed.
He eyed her: Where is your sponsor? Your master?
No, I’m American. She repeated, tapping on the blue passport. The man still didn’t look up, he scoffed, and she continued: I’m here to see my husband. His ship, the MacArthur, is pulling in soon. See? I’m married. American.
She pushed the marriage certificate toward him with such force that he smiled, but not at her. He stamped her passport without a word, and she walked out into a crowd filled with happy families being reunited and still staring.
In the hotel, there are faces she recognizes, Filipino faces with Filipino-accented English, all who smile at her like she is used to, all who call her Madame, which she isn’t used to—it plants a seed of uneasiness. She rides up the elevator to the 18th floor, walks to the corner of the hallway, and opens the door to a room with two twin-sized, separate beds instead of the queen she reserved.
Maybe this is fitting, she thinks. A sign.
She rolls her luggage in, closes the door, sits on the bed. The girl plays with the sheets, fluffs the pillow. Agitated, she whines, I’m agitated. She opens her beloved blue purse, takes out her documentation, makes sure she has it all.
She pulls out the marriage certificate. Her ticket. Her proof of independence, her right to walk around alone in a city such as this. It’s a vibrant, colorful document—blue and red and purple—and she presses the notary seal with her fingers, smells the certificate until she can remember the heat of Las Vegas filling her lungs. The memories rush in, flowing from the heart to the head, taking her to the gray, lonely courthouse in Vegas, where a wrinkled woman who married them said their love was true and young, the things you only see in the movies. She remembers the wet heat of Charleston, the sounds of hurried feet, of running into each other, of long deep kisses in the morning light, of her arms reaching out to him, longing for his body. Her mind shifts to the smell of swamp, of Norfolk, where the Navy whisked him off and she couldn’t bare to follow, a city desolated with big freeways and storefronts peppered with bankrupt malls, Borders, Circuit Cities, and Big Lots. A city where familia was thousands of miles away, she was alone, and he was away at sea.
The girl begins to remember their ten-year history: Los Angeles, their home, Las Vegas, their elopement, Charleston, their first duty station, Norfolk, their separation—her back to California, to San Francisco, where she was going to be a real writer, she said with firmness, I’m going to be somebody, she told him and herself in the mirror.
In each city, she thinks, I was unfinished, still becoming. The girl has always been dramatic. She is an unmothered girl, a Filipina orphan in her own right: raised by her father’s mother since the day she was born, the day that her mother birthed her in agony and left her after she healed. She switches her thoughts to her lover, his family, their hatred of her. The girl was an orphan, they surmised, too needy, too broken, impulsive. She laughs at this as the mind rotates to his affair, her lover’s own impulsive desire for attention, how on one of their “off” periods, he took a querida, had an affair with the friend-enemy she both despised and loved. She thinks of all of this as she places her personal artifacts, the certificate and passport and military ID and other things, in the room’s vault.
She locks it with a code she knows her husband would know: the numbers 1-4-2. It was a joke they shared; he would say that his favorite numbers stood for I love me instead of the childish 1-4-3, I love you, which they used to text to each other on late nights when they were teenagers. She sits at the desk and sees a notepad. Her mind races. She begins writing a note to her husband, jotting down the things she wants to say, notes how she should act after not seeing him for five months, wonders to herself how he must’ve changed, how he must look. Surprising herself, she jolts up and pushes the beds together until they fit snug against the wall. She pulls the sheets off, makes it a queen.
I don’t even know what I want, she tries to explain to the quiet room, the lamps, the beds, I want the sex and I want to leave.
The room is bare with American, bland décor. It surprises her: the American-ness of the hotel. It is a thing she only notices now, after she has organized all her things and her anxiety had subsided, taking in the aura around her.
Hints of imperialism, she says aloud, to no one. Neo-colonialism, she corrects herself. Her father told her there would be poor Filipino workers in Bahrain. People, balikbayans he called them, who would come from the homeland to support their familia back home.
Anak ko! I once built those skyscrapers, he said to her on the phone. She had called him from the airport before boarding her plane from San Francisco to New York.
Dad, you never told me you were an OFW. She pulled the phone closer to her ear and relooked through her bag to make sure she had all her documentation: proof she wasn’t a balikbayan.
OFW? What’s that? A drink? If I were a drink, I would taste salty!
Because of your love of adobo? She laughed. But dad: you were an Overseas Filipino Worker? Why did you never tell me, papa?
She heard her father sigh, for a long time a marker of his disappointments. She imagined him in their old, ruined house in L.A., sitting nearby the window, looking at the gray expanse as if he could see her face, his beloved child’s face. Anak, my child, these are my secrets, things I will keep until the grave. Why would you pry? Walang hiya, my dear, didn’t I ever teach you shame? But what can I say, look at the woman you’ve become: traveling across the seven seas to tell your husband: I love you. A waste of money, a waste of time, but still, it’s true love, di ba, and I like him. He reminds me of me! I still remember that buff he used to beat me in poker. I’m still surprised, anak, you two lasted this long.
She nods her head in agreement but doesn’t speak, doesn’t disagree.
Blue covers the entire room. The walls are blue with portraits of abstract ocean art. The corner window expands from the blue floor to the ceiling. She opens the curtains and sees the rows of highrises extending before her, the blinking lights in Arabic, all red, all curved. It is twilight—the early dark morning before the sun basks everything into light. She hears in the distance a melodic sound, a calling. In the middle of the city stands a domed mosque that pierces the cityscape. The girl presses her palm on the glass, covering the oval building painted gold and surrounded by the city’s glow. To the east is the sea, the moon high above, the city still roaring and wide awake. She tries to see if she can see her husband’s ship pulling in in the distance. She imagines its ghastly lights, to smell its reeking smoke that hovers above the pilot deck and rows of military war jets, but she’s here early. Her husband’s ship will come when it arrives; that is life of the Navy, the life of a Navy wife, one of perpetual waiting, perpetual heartbreak. The girl lives for the boy, schedules her life around him. She knows this. Despises it.
He deserves at least this, she explains to the blue walls, at least one last good-bye.
She doesn’t close the curtains shut. The girl stands before the landscape with its blinking lights, takes off her clothes, naked before the windowpanes, hands placed on the warm glass. Alone with the roaring cars down below, she pictures her husband behind her, his nakedness wanting, the desire from both bodies bare before the city and the sea. The girl tries to touch herself. It is brief, it is uncomfortable, her moans are quick and uneven, forced. She sees herself in the window’s reflection. She was taught that she was beautiful, on her familia’s terms, holding a beauty that is warped in denial: she is light-skinned unlike her older sister, unlike the friend-enemy, unlike her husband, whose sepia skin matches the photographs of her as a child, when she played and did everything out in the sun. She is only light-skinned because her grandmother taught her to dye her skin with papaya facial soap, gave her lessons on how to shape her eyebrows perfectly with eyeliner. —I can’t do anything about your wild Até, anak, but I must do something about you.
She touches her cheeks, her lips, and though she inherited her father’s chin, she hides it with bronzer brushed under her neck, to strengthen the weak jaw line, and in this moment, she feels, for once, valuable, adored, sexy. But alone, she can’t come. The voices come instead, these low whispers of doubt and ugliness, all appearing in the voice of her lola, her grandmother who raised her, appearing in her forgotten mother’s voice, a mother she does not know: Are you a whore? it repeats, are you?
The room is dark, it is hot, the air is sticky, and her body is damp with sweat: she can’t sleep. She tosses, turns, tosses, turns, and stays up until the sun rises.
There is a knock at the door. She sits up, scared, and pulls the blankets over her nakedness. There’s another knock, again and again. She doesn’t know what to do, so she rushes to her luggage, puts on a collared shirt and skirt, easy things to rush into, but the knock becomes louder, harder.
Hold on! she says, putting on her shoes, high heels that her lola would always force her to wear—to make a black duckling look maganda, her grandmother used to say—and finally she is at the door. She can’t see through the door eyehole. She’s too short even with the heels.
She asks: who is it? There’s no answer. She asks again. Silence. Finally, she opens the door with the chain lock still attached. It extends and jolts the door from fully opening. A loud bang, a stop.
A Filipino woman stares back at her, her make-up impeccable. She wears an orange ball gown. She is darker, more like her sister’s orange shade, and wears heels quite similar to hers, black with two straps across the ankle.
The woman gasps: Oh! I didn’t know this room was already being serviced. My name’s Brittany. Would your guest like a third?
She looks at the orange girl, Brittany. Brittany is much younger than her, she can tell—it’s her eyes, eyes that give a look of desperation and wanderlust—but the red lips are alluring. The orange dress exposes the legs, which are short like hers, and the breasts are round, very round, and she can’t help but think what this girl whose name sounds too foreign in the girl’s mouth could possibly be doing here, in the hallway, in a hotel with blue walls, a girl who looks too much like herself.
Excuse me? What do you mean? I’m staying here. Are you looking for someone?
The orange girl laughs: oh, I didn’t realize this was your room, Madame. I thought you were servicing someone.
The orange girl stops laughing: Madame?
Brittany eyes her for a long time.
The orange girl continues: I’m sorry. I apologize. I realize I was wrong. You sound different. I thought you were like me. Excuse me. I’m sorry, Madame.
She wants to grab the girl in the orange dress but she’s already gone, down the corridor, knocking on a door far away from the corner room, across the hall. She sees a man answer, an American, maybe another U.S. serviceman, and his Southern accent reminds her of home. Brittany enters the room again laughing, her voice echoing: yes, sir, I promise a good time, very good time..
She then pushes the door shut, the chain lock retracts, and its clicking sound echoes in the silent blue room. The girl paces the room in her high heels, almost trips, and sits on the corner couch near the large windowpanes, legs crossed, stares into the nothingness, the captivity of a city so far from what she knows, and gets up once more. The girl paces and paces, her heels sinking into the carpet then she collapses on the floor, still in her wonderful black shoes, legs no longer crossed, and there, quietly and alone, the girl weeps.
When he finally is here, knocking on the door four days later, four days late, four days filled with guilt, shame, and room-serviced food, of a sorrow she cannot explain, she opens it, excited and sad, in black lingerie and still in her black shoes.
They first exchange this: quick hellos, long sighs, quick kisses, long ones too, him lifting her up, against the wall, against himself, her clawing into him, her wanting him, him holding her as if it is the first time and the last time. They need no wasted time to know each other’s bodies: they are strangers and non-strangers, desperate lovers in a sun lit room where the reflected blue surrounds them, swallows them, opens them, and now her legs are open, now they are rushing, now the emotions spill, tear, lap, lick, push: they are no longer at bay, no longer apart for months and days, and here is the want, the need, the fucking.
The moans are long and heavy, happy. Honeymoon moments of reunification that is still joyful sensual painful. When they finally wake from their daze, their sex, the nakedness, in the middle of the night, she turns on the lamps nearby the pushed together beds, she can’t sleep, and sees him for the first time.
You look great, you look skinner, she says. She smiles and touches his flexed arms.
They’re not skinny—I’ve been working out, you know. Knowing that I was seeing you.
I’ve missed you, she says.
He looks up, toward her, brushes her hair out of the way, and pulls her in.
She pulls away. The girl gets up and walks toward the notepad. She brings her knees toward her chest. She’s naked, still bare and open, her body shivering in her sweat. She begins to speak, but silence comes out.
He walks to her. In the light, she can see how he’s changed: his body is leaner, his body is darker, more brown, more beautiful, the head is shaved, eyebrows still bushy, the sex is exposed as if still wanting, arms are molded, chest is harder, thicker, the eyes still bright and yearning.
They are silent. She remembers when she fell in love with him; it was constant, like a recurring wave, like water crashing on the shore—this need to meet, to be loved. First, it was in history class; how their Japanese teacher, stern and harsh and cunning, had her bow to him when she couldn’t answer a history question and he could; second, it was the Philippine Independence Day Festival, where he bought her a baby chick and it pooped in his hat, where she first saw him play chess, where, in his shyness, he gifted her the winning trophy like a bouquet; third, it was after the fighting, after his mother would turn her eye at her short skirts, damning her as a querida; it was when the friend-enemy came on the scene, a perfect, inverted mirror to the girl, everything she was not: darker skinned just like her sister, a girl with less demanding beauty, she surmised—long dark hair, hazel eyes, and a button nose.
Her friend-enemy entered every classroom with a fierce grace and cool, controlled brilliance. Their school friends were confident that with her Catholic, Madonna-like demeanor and calming voice, she would save the world, voting her as the Most Likely to Succeed, when their shared lover was voted as the Class Clown. The girl was never voted as anything because she was thought to be too temperamental. It was a weakness, they gossiped, every joke and teasing could put the girl into a squall. They called her, batibot. Always feeling too much.
The friend-enemy once told the girl she always wanted to have her skin, her light color, but her integrity was more important than typical Filipina beauty. And the papaya soap, wasn’t that irritating her face? You look so colonized, she taunted, in the same sardonic, prideful voice her grandmother had. They were sitting in AP English Language class and just received their scores for the AP Exam. To everyone’s surprise, the girl was the only student who passed the exam. The friend-enemy was appalled; when their teacher praised the girl for passing, the friend-enemy kept hitting her pen against the desk and glared at the girl, like she wanted to devour her and her skin, eat it up, chew and spit it out.
After high school, the friend-enemy came and went like a ghost. Maybe it was being unmothered children that melded their distorted friendship together. They were both unanchored, both on a constant search for home, for acceptance. They competed in all their shared AP classes, vying for their teachers’ approvals, their love, and it was college that finally fizzled them out, until the affair seeped into the open, until the girl found out and it was too late, years later and the two had already eloped, despite their familia’s wishes.
But he loved her. This is the truth of their childish tragedy. It was the military that forced his love out of him. It was boot camp, the letters back and forth, the realization he was alone in the world, that his mother’s love wasn’t enough, that the friend-enemy’s attentions weren’t enough, and that he needed the girl he loved without reason, despite his familia, despite the girl’s fire.
But they are here, now, in this blue hotel thousands of miles away from home, and yet the past rushes toward them without remorse, with such desperation.
He holds her with this assurance, this neediness he never had before. Distance, she thinks, made him love her, a thing she always wanted.
I met a Filipina prostitute?
She turns to him, almost angry.
She knocked on the door. Looking for someone like you—someone in the military.
He’s at her knees now and he bends down, placing his head on her lap. She holds his head still, moving her hands gently across his scalp, feeling his breath.
She looked a lot like me, she says. I don’t know how to deal with it, there’re Filipinos everywhere. Back in Charleston, we were the only Filipinos in a block radius. Well, besides the Navy cooks, she laughs. Wasn’t that weird?
I was afraid to bring you here because of that. In Dubai, Filipinos working at the coffee shops, at the hotels and malls, walking little kids. You were right about that, he says.
But me and the prostitute were practically the same, she says.
No, you’re not. Not at all.
I married you. She lifts his face toward her. I married you for money. I was scared. I have sex with you, in a hotel room far from home, you flew me here, it cost thousands of dollars, you pay for my rent, you pay for my food; we’re the same.
He stares at her, tries to smile, But, don’t you love me?
Of course I do, she starts, but. She pauses. I wake up every night in a sweat.
He’s still looking at her, his hands wrapped around her body, he pulls her against him, he smells her, takes her in. He says nothing for a while. She stays quiet. He looks up, back at her, then lifts himself, walks toward the window, puts on his boxers, and keeps his body toward the cityscape and the sea.
Then what will you do? He asks.
I don’t know. She stops talking, composes herself, sits straight, speaks again: I ended up like my mother. With a sweet, funny man who cheated on me. What am I supposed to say?
He paces around the room. He folds his arms across his chest, unfolds them and sits on the bed. He stares out the window.
I’m sorry, he begins. He repeats it, starts pleading, what do you want me to do? What can I do? Erase the past?
She stays silent, turns off the lamp at the desk. The darkness surrounds them, enters the room, keeps her still, confined to the chair.
He breathes in. He places his hands on his head, fingers splayed across his ears.
Do you know what I go through? Do you know how hard it is to live on that ship?
I can imagine, she starts.
You can’t, he says. I go through this for you. For us. To keep us together. Like your father did for your family. I work hard. For you.
She shakes her head.
I didn’t ask you to join, she looks away. I’m sorry, she crosses her arms. She’s quiet. He tries to reach for her. She pulls away. She starts again: What can I say? She walks toward her Coach bag, pulls out a thin book, and begins to read aloud:
Forgiveness, I finally decide, is not the death of amnesia, nor is it a form of madness, as Derrida claims. For the one who forgives, it is simply a death, a dying down in the heart, the position of the already dead. It is in the end the living through the understanding that this has happened, is happening, happens. Period. It is a feeling of nothingness that cannot be communicated to another, an absence, a bottomless vacancy held by the living, beyond all that is hated or loved.
Claudia Rankine, she finishes. And the title, she laughs in disdain, she knows she is dramatic, she knows it, sums me up perfectly: Don’t Let Me Be Lonely.
They both know she is dramatic. They both laugh at the irony. He kisses her. She lets him.
If you leave, he says. He still looks down. He doesn’t finish.
It is here when she goes to him, when the girl holds the boy, when she takes him in. Here, the boy caves, here, the boy wraps his arms around the girl’s naked body, here, the boy pulls the girl in close as if she’s already gone, and because of this, she does not let go, she does not pull away.
The last days they spend together are quiet, they do not speak. They take a tour of the city, fighting with the taxi drivers and their peppered English, repeating the words: meter, meter, use the meter. The men laugh, they point at the girl. She is beautiful, one man said, pushing his sunglasses toward his face. I’ll give you a discount. The meter for the lady.
They hold hands in the cab, watch the city pass them by, tower after tower, crowded street after crowded souq, men yelling at each other, women covered, and then they find the bodies that look like them: the pinays, the pinoys, the workers. They fill the megamalls, they work the coffee shops, the toy stores, the clothing stores, the restaurants, the food courts, the movie theatre, the bars, the clubs, and every space with children, there are Filipinas walking groups of children to and fro, pushing strollers, fixing hair, rubbing dirt off cheeks. The stares are still present but less so, she is not a woman alone. She presses her palms against her husband’s, unwilling to let go of him, not willing to speak about their heated confessions, of her want to leave. Only a few hours had passed since she admitted her doubts. He looks at her quietly, without anger, and in moments when they laugh, he grabs her hand under a table, behind a pillar, in their hotel room.
Can’t you stay, the hands say, and her hands would respond, slowly slip away, and he would grab them back, she would give them back. Their hands stay there, longing.
They eat at a restaurant they find down an alleyway near their hotel, a few blocks down from the Navy base. They had heard Tagalog floating in the air. Although neither of them speak it fluently, they know the staccato of Taglish, the corny jokes, the laughter. They step into a dark restaurant with dark wood panels and an American breakfast menu. The chairs are plastic and red, filled with men from the base, all of them chatting and slugging down Bud Light beers. He sees sailors from his command, introduces them to her, tells them proudly: this is my lovely wife, and he smiles, he laughs, and she smiles back at them, her arm linked with his. The Filipina waitresses sit them down, hand them the American breakfast menu, but at the end of the list they find the item, Pinoy Breakfast, and they are ecstatic, happy. They order fried eggs, spam, and garlic rice, devouring the food as if they are home.
The waitresses are interested, they ask them: Are you half?
Half, they respond, confused, what do you mean half?
The waitresses laugh: Filipino, Madame and Sir. Are you half?
They both shake their heads, No, they say, we’re Filipino.
Filipino? The waitresses are confused, they point at their dress, their clothes, too fancy, they say with their eyes.
Filipino American, he says, smiling at the women, and then, as the waitress reaches over to pour more water in her cup, she recognizes the girl, Brittany, in the orange dress.
I recognize you, she starts. The waitress shakes her head, Really, Madame? I don’t remember.
She pinches her husband, and he glances at the waitress, then at his wife, who he thinks is leaving, and he drums the table, looks down, holds his wife’s hand tighter.
You can’t do that, the waitress points to their intertwined hands, you might get in trouble. She disappears. A man with a cane point to their table, and the girl who once wore that orange dress shakes her head, mouths: they’re American, she says, they do not have to do what we do to get by, di ba?
They watch the waitress turn away, evade the boy’s and the girl’s gaze. The woman who once wore that orange dress joins a crowd building around a man grinning in a suit. A white, American man grinning in a black-and-white suit. The waitress then takes off her shirt, reveals a black, glittery, low-cut shirt, matching perfectly with her cut-up, washed out jeans. Other women crowd the man, similarly dressed women—Filipina women—and they laugh and touch him on the shoulder, gently slap his cheek, bring him beer after beer until he is red in the face, ready for another exchange. They watch as a he pulls out his wallet, eyes the waitress in the black, glittery shirt, chooses her, and out they go, into the heat, into the dark night.
An exchange, the girl says after they leave. Did you see that? That man—he just, he just bought her. It was an exchange.
The boy nods. An exchange of wants, he says.
The girl looks back to him—an exchange for sex, an exchange for survival.
The girl and the boy then stop speaking, they are silenced by the witnessing, of seeing a body—who very much resembled their own, their parents’, their families’ bodies—enter into a barter between sustenance and desire, and even months later, they do not speak of that moment, do not speak of seeing the woman who once wore that orange dress enter into an exchange of wants with the man in a suit—and who was that man grinning in that suit? Another military man, maybe an officer, maybe a chief? It doesn’t matter. It is not until months later, when the girl waits for the boy on the pier in Norfolk, where that monstrous ship finally moors back on American shores, that the girl and boy rush to each other, even if it’s just for a moment, a second more, as the pain rushes within, without, against the crowd of happy families reuniting, against the wet, damp cemented base with the humid winds rising beneath them. An exchange of wants washes over them without notice, without stopping, and maybe the words of Rankine don’t leave them, maybe they sing it in their heads, this need, this want: Don’t let me be lonely, and they let it come, they fall into the other, hands intertwined, and the girl and boy collapse, hold on, let the emotions stay, push them forward, however unfinished, let the smell of the ocean and salt follow them home.