The western dawn crept into the net of my wakefulness. I tangled in yesterday’s web, unwillingly battling the clock’s legitimacy. Miami had catapulted my body like a pebble thrust along the lips of the Pacific, where I’d arrived to Manila shackled by an insomnia that knitted my eyelids back into my cheeks.
I finally fell asleep by gazing at my grandmother, harbored in the pocket of dusk. She was nestled in slumber, a silhouette of limbs cocooned in the bed sheets next to me. Like a child eager to comfort herself with familiarity, I stared at her to mute the shadows that were tattooed on walls.
The air-conditioner was a foreign murmur, reverberating to the steady beat encased in my chest. I spent my first night in Philippines learning to grasp the room’s dialect, peeling off four years of myself. But however strange it was, I had dreamed of this moment 18,000 miles ago when I was merely an American girl, displaced by its acoustics.
The next morning, babbling of my Lolo’s radio journeyed faster through walls than conversation. The Tagalog words were tremors my mouth could not mirror. I watched him from behind the lace curtains of the veranda, a crooked man perched on his rocking chair like an orchard held up by a rod. His chai tea skin blended with the beige furniture. Though muffled by static, the faint voices of classic Filipino artists like Pilita Corrales and Freddie Aguilar, who embodied the voice of nationalism, made him swoon.
They also helped him forget that the crinkles in his white t-shirt chiseled the craters of missing flesh. Lola told me he hadn’t been the same since the surgery, something about his stomach eating itself. I could not speak to a skeleton.
I headed back to the living room, sat on the couch and rummaged through photo albums tucked under the coffee table teeming with layers of dust, their covers barren of a timeline or name. The first book was bulky and unwieldy, both by the strain of age and grime, and the pages were adhesive. I peeled them like a prude, cautiously deciphering one face after another. The blue, tinted snapshot I finally picked to study was of a couple, poised in front of a tall bush.
The girl was slender, with limbs tailored to the framework of the boy’s arm resting on her shoulders. She wore a pearl necklace and a vertical striped blouse, where the lines met the border of her high-rise, enveloping her legs from thigh to ankle. The boy was dressed in a white polo, tucked in his trousers for the shoot, but his hips weren’t enough to delay their drooping. Their faces held features of the typical Filipino: narrow eyes, button nose, spherical cheeks and endless laugh lines. Only children born from the sun look like this.
My grandma arrived with a small, striped purse wrapped in her underarm, patterned similarly to the young woman’s blouse. She sat next to me on the couch, inattentive to the nostalgia that I had strewn on the floor. I stared at the glucose meter she picked out from the bag, hands slightly trembling as if not immune or numb to the needle. I waited until she was finished measuring the sugar in her veins to show her the photo I’d found.
“Lola, do you know who this couple is?” I asked.
She peered at it for a moment, glasses gradually sliding off the curve of her nose. “That’s me, darling. That’s your lolo and I,” she answered, her accent thick like the skin of papaya.
“Really?” I said. “Was this taken before or after you got married?”
“We started dating around your age, I believe, and we decided to marry at nineteen, so I’m assuming this was before?” She hesitated, as if she was shuffling through the decades, scavenging for the girl tangled in the antiquity of her conscience. “I don’t really know. What I remember mostly from those years was watching my friends get engaged.”
“Was it hard on you? Having to grow up so fast?” I asked.
“A little. When we used to live in the Bicol region, a lot of my friends followed their husbands to another province. In my time, men frequented the workplaces more often than women. That’s why I’ve never worked.” She beamed. “But that was once upon a time. We didn’t have the technology like nowadays, and I didn’t keep up much with the letters they’d sent me. Sometimes I wouldn’t even get one.”
She seemed accustomed to the consequences that breed when one marries young, being curtailed to fit gender roles and discarding free will. Our definitions of “woman” were too exclusive to compare. She advised me not to dance with this idea yet, as if saying I should wait until my bones are able to fit its rhythm. But genuine musicians know how to chart the anatomy of composition, and their feet do not waltz to what is foreign.
At that moment, my grandparents were the chipped edges of a photograph rather than its embodiment: wounds gained by neglect or displacement. The highways behind their eyelids were corroding, and the bridge to yesterday would soon be too feeble to cross. Time is not the sifting sand that measures the length of a moment. It is a predacious element of the conscious mind that extracts the mechanics of memory, scrapping what is old to house the new, one crumbling haven to the next.
Even if they had discord, we needed to write the notes and sing them while we were still able.