America, Still Beautiful
M. Evelina Galang
Malaya stood in the doorway, holding out a bowl of popcorn.
“Lola, do you want company?”
“Sure, anak,” Carmen said. “Sit with your granny.”
Music from the election coverage scored their conversation. A white image of Illinois filled the screen. “Too close to call,” said the commentator.
Malaya sat on the rug next to her lola, offering her the popcorn.
“I miss him too,” Malaya said. The fourteen-year-old leaned on her grandmother’s chair. “Lolo got here first.”
“I already told you this story.”
“I want to hear it again,” Malaya said, taking a handful of popcorn. “Lolo got here first.”
“Sige. Lolo got here first. We had been married just seven days. After the arrest he told me Manila was no place to raise a family.”
“His crime?” the girl asked.
Carmen smiled. “He stood before Malacañang Palace with his batch mates,” she said. “He wrote about it. Published the story in the Collegian. Was labeled a communist.”
“When Lolo’s student visa came through, you were six months pregnant,” Malaya added.
Carmen pointed to the screen. The lady waved from a platform. Balloons the colors of the U.S. flag fell around her.
“Walang hiya,” she said. “She hasn’t even won and see how she acts?”
“She’s not perfect,” Malaya said, “but she’d be our first female president.”
“Everyone says she’s a liar.”
“Lola,” Malaya said. “These newscasters are the liars. How can you watch this?”
“Don’t be disrespectful,” Carmen said.
“And you know,” Malaya said, “if that guy wins, he’ll deport immigrants.”
“Stop, hija.” She put her hand up.
Malaya said nothing, then, “Lolo Orlando was a bellman at the Pfister.”
“Yes, for many years. He rented a room with a busboy and an elevator operator. Between shifts, he took classes. That’s why you must study hard.”
Malaya nodded. “Thank you, Lolo,” she whispered.
Orlando saved every paycheck for almost ten years before he moved into his own place, before he could sponsor Carmen and the boy. It took another fifteen years of catering out of their kitchen before they bought the shop.
That was so long ago. Life in America was such a struggle, and still, Carmen never forgot how happy Orlando had been.
Malaya’s cellphone chimed. The girl read the text, and shaking her head, she tapped at her phone. Malaya’s thumbs twitched and thumped across the tiny keyboard.
The television glowed a winter blue. The blonde commentator called the states like a teacher taking attendance. Carmen closed her eyes.
In her dream, Orlando was a young man with hair greased back and parted to the side, chiseled jaw and a smile that still made her feel weak. “How we doing?” he asked her. “America still beautiful?”
“The shop is good,” she said. “My eggrolls are even more popular now.” In the dream, she pointed to the storefront on 76th and Mills, at the red neon sign, “Carmen’s Homemade Lumpia.”
“Not the shop,” he said. He lit a cigarette and she pushed the smoke away. She noticed her wrinkled hands, spotted with grease burns.
“Why am I old?” she asked him.“Why are you still smoking?”
He took a drag. Squinted. “Don’t worry about that. How we doing?”
Malaya danced into the dream, bringing her young grandfather’s hand to her forehead.
“She in school?” he asked Carmen.
“Getting good grades. A little moody.”
Once Orlando brought Carmen and their boy to the States, he stopped thinking of home. “You know we came here for them.” He was talking about their son and granddaughter.
“I know, I know,” she whispered, closing her eyes. She waved him away.
They bought that storefront in 1996, even though the neighbors were not so friendly. Even though at first, they lost money on the shop, giving away eggroll gift baskets, raffling free dinners at community meetings. “Carmen’s Homemade Lumpia” was twenty-four years old now.
As the states went red, she fell asleep. Orlando would have voted for big business. “Protect, the shop, mahal,” he’d tell her. “Guard our apo with all your might.” He would have made Carmen stand in line to vote with him no matter how cold. He would have said the woman running for president was a liar. All you had to do was watch the news, he’d say. Just look at her.
Carmen liked the way the woman stood tall even after the husband cheated on her. Liked the way the woman let the insults roll past like rain clouds in April. She thought about voting for her. Too liberal for Orlando.
After he died, she could not bring herself to fold his clothing into cardboard boxes, to give his things away. She couldn’t stop watching his news shows either, though the anchors talked as if they were always angry. “Ang pangit naman,” she used to say to him. “All they know is bad news.”
The noise from the television used to irritate Carmen. “Turn it off,” she’d tell her husband. “Give me peace.” But after he died, the silence suffocated her. Were Orlando alive, he would listen until the last ballot was counted.
The newscasters called the lady candidate terrible names. Why would they do that if it weren’t true? Weren’t they journalists? Carmen wasn’t sure when, but she’d stopped liking the lady too.
Last week her son called to instruct her who to vote for and why. “Don’t campaign me,” she said. “Don’t tell your mother what to do.”
She didn’t like the other candidate either. The man. He gestured at cameras, clumsy as a drunk on New Year’s Eve. His face a permanent scowl. Like a bully on the playground, he called people names. “I don’t like the look of him,” she whispered to Orlando in her dreams. But all the journalists said he was a successful billionaire genius who was going to let people run their own businesses. Not the government. Was she not a businesswoman too?
She weighed the candidates, slipping their campaign promises into her pockets and rolling them like loose change. Maybe she’d vote for the lady, a woman like herself, a self-starter, the mother of an only child. But then again, she could not stop hearing those voices from the cable channel, she could not stop thinking that her husband was somehow still with her, hovering over her and telling her to listen not with her heart but with her head. The business.
In her dreams, young Orlando co-anchored the news with an older white gentleman. Bill was Orlando’s favorite. “He tells it like it is, Carmen,” he often said. The two men sat before a map of the United States, pointing to the colors as they turned. Red. White. Blue. Red. Red. Blue. Red. Red. Red.
Carmen walked the house, checking each room, locking windows, securing doors. When she neared her granddaughter’s room she stopped. The girl was weeping as if someone had died.
“Anong yari?” Carmen called, opening the teenager’s door. “Malaya, why?”
The girl sprawled on her twin bed, wailing into her pillow. Carmen kicked off her slippers and climbed next to her. She pulled Malaya to her chest and sniffed the top of her head. “It’s okay, anak,” she whispered. “You’re okay.”
Malaya cried louder.
Carmen brushed the girl’s tangled hair, rocked her like she would an infant. She could not imagine what had set the girl to crying. Is she pregnant, Carmen thought? It would be okay no matter what. She waited for the girl to speak.
“Oh, Lola,” she said, “What are we going to do?”
“About what, anak?” Carmen asked.
The question triggered sobbing. Uncontrollable. Loud.
Carmen fell asleep cradling Malaya. The girl’s cries seeped into her dreams that night, and though she didn’t know what was wrong, Carmen felt the grief too. The child’s sadness came over her in waves.
The man had won and Malaya refused to eat. Carmen pushed a plate of garlic fried rice and eggs toward the girl.
“Sunnyside up. It’s your favorite,” she told her. “You have to eat or your father will be mad at me.”
“I can’t, Lola,” she sobbed.
“Oh, come on, it’s not the end of the world,” Carmen said, wiping the kitchen counter with a wet rag. Malaya’s face was swollen from the crying. Her lips were fat. Her eyes tiny little raisins. Carmen continued. “We have our health.
We have our house. We have the lumpia shop.”
Malaya sighed and her thin body shivered.
“Sige,” Carmen said. “Come to work with me today. You can roll eggrolls. I’ll make you noodles.”
“My teacher told Amna they were going to deport her dad.”
“Isn’t her dad American?”
They waited for the bus. The sky hung before them like a dirty curtain. The winds spat rain at their brown faces. Wiping tears from her face with the back of her hand, Malaya stared at the sidewalk. Carmen ignored her. The child was too emotional. Carmen regretted not sending her to school. It was only an election. The man would not change anything. She had been in this country long enough to know that politics was all talk. Malaya would get over this like the breakup with that boy last month.
The bus rolled to a stop. Exhaust sputtered into the air. Carmen nudged her granddaughter to move. She watched the teenager step up. She’s too skinny, she thought. She needs to eat. Carmen placed her hand on the railing and pulled herself up step by step. She had not slept very well in the child’s twin bed.
Every seat was taken. Men. Women on their way to work. Teenagers off to school. Old ladies like Carmen. But mostly the bus carried construction workers who had parked their trucks at a nearby lot. Malaya walked to the back of the bus, her head bobbing left and right in search of a seat. As they passed down the aisle, the people grew silent. All Carmen could hear was the hum of the engine.
Malaya stopped in front of a boy. “Would you mind giving your seat up for my grandmother?” she asked. He wore a ski vest and a backward baseball cap. His eyes were so blue. His skin the color of egg shells.
Carmen put her hand on Malaya’s sleeve. The boy stared at them. No expression.
“I can stand,” Carmen said.
“Come on, dude,” Malaya said.
The boy looked the girl in the eye. Then turned and looked out the window.
“Seriously?” she asked.
He grunted and stood up. Brushing past Malaya, he pulled the string above them. Waited for the bus to stop. “Fucking foreigners,” he yelled back, leaping off the steps and into the cold.
“What a jerk,” Malaya said. “You okay, Lola?”
Carmen frowned. “Ignore him, anak.”
More people boarded as Carmen sat herself down. And the passengers began talking again.
“Better learn your place,” someone said. “It’s a new day.”
Carmen turned to the voice. The white woman wrapped in a thick wool sweater stared at her two seats back. Her cheeks were red from the cold, her hair piled high upon her head.
“That’s right, lady,” she said. “We won. You lost and he’s going to deport all of you. Comprehendo?”
Carmen looked past the white woman. She turned back to Malaya who stood with her legs apart, one hand on the silver pole, the other on a hip. Malaya cocked her head. Threw the woman a look.
“You okay, Lola?” Malaya asked again.
Carmen nodded. Looking out the window, she counted the shops along the boulevard. The traffic moved in starts and stops. The grimy air colored everything like day old snow. She shut her eyes and tried to imagine Orlando sitting next to her, reading the news. She could not locate him anywhere—not the shape of him, not the scent of him, not the words that he spoke over and over again. When she glanced at Malaya she had to look twice.
Carmen called up to her granddaughter.
“How we doing?”
“America, still beautiful,” Malaya said.
She threw her hand up and flashed her grandmother a peace sign.
The girl’s body took up the entire aisle, small and dark and visible.
M. Evelina Galang is the author of the novels, One Tribe, and Angel de la Luna and the 5th Glorious Mystery, as well as the story collection, Her Wild American Self. She has worked as an advocate of surviving Filipina “Comfort Women” of WWII since 1998 and her book Lolas’ House: Survivors of Wartime Rape Camps is forthcoming from Curbstone Press in September 2017. Galang directs the MFA Creative Writing Program at the University of Miami and is core faculty and board member of Voices of Our Nation Arts Foundation (VONA).