A Short Story by E. P. Tuazon
or Mamamalengke Ako
Los Angeles, California, May 31, 2020.
In the Island Pacific market, overcome by hunger, Jess cannot take it anymore. She draws an Asian pear from the fruit section. It is a little bruised but otherwise edible without washing. She takes a glance at the lola picking up and putting down Filipino sweat sausages in the meat section and the woman in the hijab preoccupied with trying to find the crease to open her plastic produce bag in front of the eggplant. Once she confirms they are not looking, she pulls down her mask and makes quick work of it. The juices of the pear run all over her face and make dark lines on her black mask. Its refreshing, sweet taste is short-lived and she plants its seed-peppered core at the foot of the display before wiping her face with her shirt and limps her way to the seafood section unnoticed.
Pulling up her mask, she exhales and takes in the fruity fragrance of the pear mixed with the Dewar’s still sitting in her throat from last night. She is trying to get over the fact that she was hit by a truck in Hollywood just a couple of hours ago. She had joined the protest there, but once the looting happened, she started to trot off shakily with the rest of those like herself who lingered long after the more organized groups of protestors had left.
She headed in the direction of the metro station when she witnessed five masked men drag out an ATM machine from a nail salon and load it into a truck. Deciding it was none of her business, Jess proceeded to walk to the opposite sidewalk to avoid the growing mass of looters flooding broken windows and doors. However, once her feet made it to the asphalt, the truck screeched into drive and clipped her foot. She spun onto the ground and met the sharp smell of tear gas and weed. The drone of cheers, sirens, helicopters and her own blood pulsing above her eyes accompanied the cold ache in her cheek and foot. One passerby coming out of a raided anime store stood beside her in awe.
“Bro, I saw the whole thing! I wish I got it on camera.” The man had on science goggles and a Messi jersey wrapped around his head and face. Despite all these things covering him up, she knew he was Filipino too. Under one arm was a giant Totoro. Under the other was a body pillow with an anime girl on it. Jess couldn’t help but laugh. Why did she think to come alone?
“Bro, you hit your head or something?”
“No, it’s just my foot.” She wiggled her toe, but she couldn’t tell if she was actually doing it or imagining it. She couldn’t be fine, she thought. You don’t come out of things like this being able to wiggle your toe without something else happening.
“Those guys are lucky. They got that whole thing. Fuck the police!”
Jess thought of the nail salon. Scattered among the glass were the signs that read “Reopen June 1st” followed by something hand-written in red and Thai.
“Yeah, fuck twelve.” Jess said, reading the graffiti that was everywhere now.
“Fuck twelve.” She said and pointed at the boarded-up windows across the street, eyeing the restaurant signs and the billboards. They were all covered in the words.
“Bro, fuck the police.” The man said and proceeded on his way, walking off to the smoke in the distance, the glow of destruction reflected off his goggles as if he was participating in an experiment.
“It means the same thing!” Jess explained although the man was gone by then, his exit expediated by the sound of sirens in the distance, the lack of things to take left in the vicinity.
And, somehow, Jess was able to get up and walk. Somehow, she made it to her stop and the metro came and her foot could push the pedals down in her car and she was able to go home to her one-bedroom apartment in Canyon Country, far from it all. Somehow, she was able to pour herself a drink and another drink and swipe through all the news on her phone trying to find news about what just happened until she passed out. Somehow, there was nothing about her. Somehow, she hadn’t let the pain bother her until now, in the market, her insides empty, her foot throbbing. And, somehow, it all came with a question; while she lay on the ground, trying to explain what meaning things had, she did not know what meaning there was for herself. Why did she go to the protest in the first place?
She is trying to skip over the fact that she was hit by a truck a couple of hours ago, but her body cannot help but remember. Her shoulder hurts, her face hurts, her legs hurt, her foot hurts. She finds the aisle for beauty supplies and, below the malunggay supplements and kalamansi oil, she plucks a small bottle of Aspirin from its place. She presses the bottle open, pours a couple into her palm, then launches them into her mouth. To wash them down, she throws in a few gummy vitamins straight out the bottle. She chews on them and lets her mouth flood with saliva and their sweet-sour taste while she counts the number of pixels that make up the blown-up, low-quality picture of fruits on the label. She swallows them and cruises up the aisle thinking about what kind of thinking terribly made labels came from. If you had to do a label but couldn’t afford to give it a good finish, why even try to do something with color in the first place? Why not keep it simple, like black and white? Surely people would trust to buy what you’re selling that way. But that was the problem, wasn’t it, she thought, tasting the vitamins come up and mix with the Aspirin, the Asian pear, and the Dewar’s. The label could never live up to what was expected inside, what the inside could offer.
She feels like she nearly reaches an epiphany but, at the end of her aisle, there is a young Filipina her age crying into her phone in the seafood section, disturbing Jess from her reflection. She sees her move from the iced squid to the blue crab. She watches, wondering if it is a problem with allergies, the Corona virus, or if she is genuinely weeping. One has to be skeptical these days. She had marveled at the possibility of the thought going away, and with the protests and reopenings, she nearly convinced herself that it had. However, here it was, the awareness, the mistrust.
Jess throws the open bottles of aspirin and gummy vitamins into her cart and rolls it towards the woman until it is between them.
“Excuse me? Are you ok?”
“Ew, don’t fucking talk to me.” The woman says, not even looking at her. She puts her back to Jess and continues to look down at her phone, over the red snapper.
Jess immediately regrets being concerned but does not have enough strength to fight her pride. “Sorry, I just noticed you crying from the beauty section.”
“Six feet! Privacy!” The woman says, still not turning around.
The butcher several displays away notices the woman raise her voice but doesn’t look alarmed behind his mask. He looks back down at his work and forgets Jess and the woman are there again.
Jess shakes the handle of her cart. “The cart’s six feet and we’re wearing masks.”
“What? Are you a doctor or something? You going to point a temperature gun at my head and shoot? Get away from me. I saw you limping from a mile away. You’re making me feel uncomfortable.”
The word “limp” hits a nerve with Jess, but she is still too weak to retaliate and continues her crusade. “I’m sorry. I got hit by a truck yesterday.”
“What are you talking about?”
“I was at the protest last night. Some truck dinged my foot.”
This makes the woman turn and Jess cannot help but feel a pang of shame for having to stoop so low as to have to mention it.
“Oh my God. Those racist assholes!”
Jess doesn’t correct her. She looks down at the woman’s phone and there is a feed of posts from the protest last night. She recognizes some of the people and moments from yesterday. She sees the protestors, the police, the store owners, and rioters. She sees the chanting, the praying, the marching, the beauty, the bricks, the broken glass, the looting, the police brutality, and the fires. They collage on her tiny screen in sharp tiny boxes.
“Did you go to the hospital?” The woman says, dabbing at her eyes with the cuff of her sweater. Jess could tell she is not wearing makeup. She is not either. It is too early and too late.
“No, I’m all right. It’s just sore is all.” Jess says, still looking at the woman’s phone.
The woman notices Jess looking, and she swipes the screen with her finger, the squares rolling down it like a slot machine. “Wasn’t it terrible what happened last night?”
“Actually, it was great.” Jess says, her pride going strong, her legs and knees remembering the march, the kneeling, the trek all over Hollywood and its uneven streets.
“But what about the police? What were those jerks thinking?” The woman says, her cheeks tender but the tears gone.
“Yeah, they were shooting smoke bombs and rubber bullets at everyone.”
“Oh my God, did you get shot?”
“No, just hit by a truck.”
“Oh my God!” The woman exclaims, as if she forgot she heard it the first time.
Jess winces as the guilt wells. “So, was that what you were crying about?”
“Yeah, that and I read that they’re putting a curfew on us tonight.”
“A curfew? Like we’re a bunch of children? Jesus Christ. I can’t believe they’re doing this.”
“Only a tyrant makes curfews.”
“Well, it did get pretty bad out there.” Jess remembers the awning to the anime store tattered and shredded, the Hello Kitty painted on it covered in soot. The torsos and legs of broken action figures strewn together with the glass on the sidewalk.
“I know. The police brutality was terrible. What happened to George Floyd was terrible. Everything needs to change. We need to be better. I can’t believe we did this.”
“I know,” Jess says, and, after thinking about the woman’s words for a second, continues, “What do you mean we did this?”
“Oh my God, yeah. It’s all of our faults. We allow this to happen every day. With our president, our American culture, and institutions of racism that keep minorities out of power. But what really gets me miffed, and I don’t get miffed about just anything, but what really gets me miffed is us. Asians. Filipinos.”
Jess feels the regret already resurface at the word “miffed”, the question she had applied to last night beginning to apply to the now. “You think we’re the problem?”
“Yeah! The model-minority. The silent panderer. We’re in league with the problem: the Whites of America.”
“Think about it? Think of your parents. Weren’t they racist? Didn’t they say racist things like you shouldn’t hang out with those Mexicans? Stay away from that Black boy? Don’t lend that Bumbay that five dollars? My parents said things like that all the time. Don’t tell me yours didn’t.”
“It’s what Filipinos call people from India.”
Jess thinks of her sweet old parents. They are living in Porter Ranch in a predominantly Filipino community. She had heard her fair share of off-hand ignorant things from them but never saw them as the problem. Should she?
“We’re just as guilty as the Whites. We’re friends with them. We do everything they say. We date and marry their kind. We’re the lookouts while the White man murders all the other minorities who don’t step in line. We need to change. We need to fight back. We need to undo the conditioning and return to our roots and reconnect with our diaspora.”
And there it is, Jess thinks. She couldn’t figure it out until now, the feeling that had led her to the protest, that had led her to the girl. She feels it swell with the pain in her body. “I’m sorry, I have to go.”
“You have to continue fighting! Thank you for what you’re doing!” The woman says and Jess makes the mistake of looking back and catching the tears well in her eyes again. Jess cannot take it; it is humiliating to her to hear her talk about things like “diaspora” and mean it. It is embarrassing to Jess that this woman believes—actually, whole-heartedly, believes—in what she is feeling more than Jess believes in the same feelings in herself. It distresses Jess that this woman, this Filipina like herself, feels confident enough to scream it out loud in front of the dead fish and bound crab.
“I’m trying. I’m just someone trying to fight everything.” Jess says, remembering the lights of the truck turn on, the shadow she made on the street. She stretches out, wide on the pavement, but, she herself is so small in the light.
The woman’s face is covered in tears and a pure sheen of sincerity, but it does not understand her, Jess thinks. It only knows the answer to Jess’s question as much as Jess does. “Oh my God,” the girl says through the aisle Jess escapes, “don’t try too hard—you might get yourself killed.”
Outside, with her bag of opened aspirin and gummy vitamins, she is feeling the night beginning to wear off and the need to do something, anything, to satisfy herself again, to tell her she is doing the right thing. The thought of the woman, the man with the Totoro, and the pounding in her head like the chants and explosions from last night. She faces forward, looking beyond the parking lot, thinking about them, and—boom—Jess is hit by a car accelerating past the front of the store. Jess spins to the ground and an all-to-familiar feeling buzzes at her foot again. She lies dazed at the front wheel, driver-side.
The woman who hit her leans out and yells, maskless. She is the same woman, the Filipina from the store. “Are you fucking crazy, lady?”
People gather. “Is anything broken?” someone asks.
She struggles to stand. She thinks she sees the feet of the man in front of the anime store running off into the chaos.
“Don’t move.” Someone else says.
“Let’s call the police.” Another says.
“Oh, Fuck. Thanks a lot, bitch.” The woman who hit her says, getting out of her car.
“Do you want the number of my lawyer? Just let her know it’s me and she’ll do it pro bono.” A woman younger than Jess scribbles a number on her receipt and gives it to her. At first, she thinks it will say something like “fuck 12” but there are just numbers and totals and items purchased. A bag of rice for $12.99. Two pounds of ox tail for $8.37.
“Fuck you, lady. I just tapped her.”
“Pakikiramay! Show ng ilang empathy!” an old man says coming out from the Island Pacific. He has more bags in his hands than he looks like he can carry but he does not run. Not like last night.
“Let me help you with those, lolo.” Someone who is not Filipino says. The old man lets him.
“What were you doing? How would you expect me to see you? Who do you think you are?”
“I was leaving.”
“Why didn’t you wait and look like people are supposed to?”
“You ran me over.” Jess says.
“I’m a mother. You ruined my day!” She says.
The woman gets on her phone while more people come to Jess’s aid. Some are wearing masks. Some aren’t. Someone brings her some coconut juice with pulp. Another one, a Lakers cushion. “Benny. I had an accident. I was getting out of the market and someone got in front of my car. She’s giving me a hard time. I hate people like that. People who think it’s other people’s fault for things that happen to them.” She stops talking to her phone to ask Jess, “Do I have to wait until the police come? I have things to do, you know?”
A worker from the Island Pacific comes with a package of lumpia and puts it on her foot at the point of impact. Jess winces. It’s cold. The worker uses a roll of duct tape patterned with the words Balikbayan on them to bind the eggrolls to her foot. “I’m training to be a medic,” he says with an acne smile, “in the Reserves.”
“What do I owe you?” Jess asks the man.
“You don’t owe us anything. Just promise not to let these go to waste.”
Jess forces herself to stand; the crowd applauds as she crawls to her feet. “Thank you. Thank you very much.” She says and takes a bow.
E. P. Tuazon is a Filipinx-American writer from Los Angeles. He has published his works in several publications, most recently Five South, Peatsmoke Journal, Third Point Press, 3Element Review, Allegory Ridge, Adelaide Magazine, and a Forthcoming piece in The Rumpus. He has two books, The Superlative Horse and The Last of The Lupins: Nine Stories and The Comforters. He is currently a member of Advintage Press and The Blank Page Writing Club. In his spare time, he likes to wander the seafood section of Filipinx markets to gossip with the crabs.