I came to America on my parents’ money four years ago. I had just finished college, and my dad convinced me the opportunity might be worth exploring since I had an American passport. It was the best time in my life to move to a new place, he insisted. He offered to send me to college abroad as well, but I was so wrapped up in where my friends were—how to be seen by the people that mattered—that I told him I’d go to college locally and maybe move afterwards. I said it half-heartedly at the time, but when my long-term boyfriend broke up with me during finals I felt like I needed a new start somewhere, and there was something empowering about telling my friends I was moving to America for good. Everyone treated me really well in my last weeks in the Philippines.
My mom went with me when I moved to set me up, bought me a car and put a deposit on an apartment. My parents gave me an allowance as I took unpaid internships with mid-level companies until I was able to land project coordinator with cushy benefits. They paid for my trips to visit back home and still do, despite my refusal. Though I know they will insist, it’s only proper I refuse first.
So when Andrea asked me what it was like for me when I came to America, after she had told me how her parents owned a sari-sari store in Pampanga and sold trinkets on the sidewalk to make ends meet when they first came on their plane tickets funded by the barangay, I didn’t want to tell her the truth.
I met her at a friend’s party a month ago. She told me she and my friend had the same assistantship, I think for the ecology department. We both stepped out to the balcony, and she explained to me how most eco-policies were classist and that had to change if we wanted any sort of real progress. I found her gorgeous and captivating. Strangely familiar too. Staring at her as she disparaged a professor with outdated ideals, I realized she looked like a cousin of mine who died young because of a congenital disease. But I vainly associate anyone I find beautiful with someone related to me. I think I do that very often.
We were dancing around the question, but we finally learned that we were both Filipino, and I was ecstatic to make a friend like her, so we immediately made plans to hang out. We decided to get ice cream at a favorite place of hers a week later.
She was looking at me expectantly that day as we waited for our overpriced, gentrified scoops of ice cream on a street corner.
I decided to distract her: “I started seeing the ghosts of my relatives whose funerals I couldn’t go to.” I took my two scoops of ube from the pimply teenager behind the booth.
I couldn’t see her reaction right away. She was taking her order of coconut and s’mores scoops from the counter, and her back was facing me. When she did turn my way, her expression was bored.
“Really?” She said, before taking her first bite.
We made our way to the outdoor seating with mismatched chairs and oddly shaped tables. I guess the store was going for an eclectic feel, but I somehow felt annoyed. At least spend money on furniture if I paid seven dollars a scoop.
“I see them around town. Just doing chores.”
Andrea was nodding, her head lowered, gaze focused on the ice cream. I tried to read her expression, see if I could find out if she believed me from how she pursed her lips. They opened to swallow a bite of white cream. I thought I saw a twitch beforehand, but I wasn’t sure. It was almost as if she was suppressing a smile.
“Ok, I know it sounds ridiculous. But I missed my uncle’s funeral in the Philippines. And he had a distinct face. Like he seriously had these really bad eyebags, his hair on top was balding in a specific way, and he had a very memorable mole below his right ear, on his neck.”
Andrea was looking at me now. I finally had her full attention.
“The day after his funeral, I see a man who looks exactly like him at a bus stop as I’m picking up Jimmy John’s. Like exactly like him. From six feet away, I saw his hair and those terrible eyes, but I needed to see the mole to be sure.”
She waited. Though the conclusion was probably obvious. Her small white spoon was now carrying half-melted coconut ice cream.
“I said, ‘Tito?’ And of course he didn’t look at me. So I said, ‘Excuse me?’ And then he looked. He craned his neck to the right, and I swear to god there was a mole on his neck, but it was wrinkled since he was twisting his neck. But I remember the exact mole placement. It was him. And he didn’t recognize me.
He looked at me, said ‘Yes?’ And it was the most awful feeling. Someone you know your entire life looks at you like a stranger. He had known me since I was little.”
This was a lie of course. Not the part about seeing my dead uncle on the street, or the part about seeing the ghosts of my relatives. I do see them, but my uncle recognized me. He absolutely did.
He looked at me and said “Niknik.” A nickname only my family calls me. But his neck wouldn’t stop twisting. It made a three-hundred-and-sixty turn, the mole stretching into a line as it wrapped around with his neck, his face with the same expression the whole time—a familiar smile that softened the dark circles around his eyes. That was the most awful feeling. I was simply terrified.
I ran away from him, forgot about buying Jimmy John’s, hoped it was all a nightmare. But it wasn’t. I still see them everywhere.
“Oh wow. How surreal,” Andrea said; ice cream dripped on her lips but her tongue swiped it away immediately.
She still seemed more interested in her ice cream than my ghost story. I expected her to be terrified, awed, or even skeptical. Instead, she acted as if I told her a story about how my thumb bent a strange way. Which it did, and people always feigned awe when I’d share that fact about myself. I personally thought it was quite amazing.
“Have you always seen ghosts?” Andrea asked, with a quick glance at me before she looked back down at her ice cream.
I felt a flash of irritation. She obviously hadn’t been keenly listening. “No, like I said, only when I moved here and missed all their funerals.” I looked down into my cup. My ice cream was melting too. I thought it would fare better in the heat, with how much it cost.
Another customer made his way into the dining area: a wide, almost squarish, elderly man walking with a cane. Even from the corner of my eye, I recognized him as my grandfather, Lolo Ben. Three years ago, he passed away unexpectedly after slipping in the bathroom. There was no way I could make it to the wake on such short notice. I was actually wondering when he’d show up.
He sat at the table next to us—licking ice cream off of a cone. I was a little jealous. I wish I had asked for mine in a cone. I never do, afraid it looks too childish, though I know no one would care. But I guess people who think like me would.
I waited for it, watched him in my periphery, as Andrea focused on scooping every last bit of cream in the cheap plastic-lined cardboard cups given to us.
Then it began, his head started twisting to the right, and for a moment it seemed like it would stop, but it continued until it reached the front of his body again, his neck a flesh coil, taut, straining, as he licked his ice cream again like a child. His eyes were crossed looking at the purple sweet in front of him. We both picked ube.
After a while, when I pretended to be staring down at my food too, Lolo untwisted his neck and finished the last of his ice cream cone.
He stood up—slowly straightened himself with the help of his cane. Then he made his way to us.
Before he reached us, now that Andrea finished every last bit of her sweet—that bowl was licked clean, like it never even had anything in it to begin with—she started asking me about current events in the Philippines—what did I think of ABS-CBN getting shut down? But the truth was I hadn’t been following it much, just vaguely knew from stuff I saw online. So a big media company got shut down because the president hated it. But I didn’t live there anymore, so I didn’t understand why I should really care.
“It’s awful,” I said, frowning. That felt like the right thing to say.
“He should get ousted,” Lolo Ben said, close enough for us to hear.
He is my grandfather. He is a ghost, I wanted to tell Andrea, but I didn’t. I decided I would tell her later that the old man who approached us was my lolo.
But she responded, her eyes widening, “I know, but the people voted for him. And the majority still like him.”
I knew who they were talking about. Filipinos talked about Duterte all the time.
“It’s a failure of our education system,” my lolo said.
Andrea was taking him all in, fully engaged in the conversation: a complete one-eighty compared to her reaction to me confiding my strange secret about seeing the ghosts of my ancestors. “Is that all? Democracy fails if the constituency is uneducated? Isn’t that what’s happening in America?”
“What do you think, Niknik?” Lolo looked at me, and the hairs on the back of my neck stood.
“Don’t call me that,” I spat, though I didn’t mean to say it out loud.
My lolo didn’t even acknowledge my outburst. He slowly walked away from us, his cane making a dull thud each time he stepped forward. Once he rounded a corner, he was out of my sight and the sound of his cane completely disappeared.
All of the ice cream in my cup had melted. I scooped it up like soup and sipped. Earlier I heard the server compare ube’s flavor to marshmallows, which irritated me. I didn’t like how my homeland sweet was reduced to something as common as marshmallows. It is so much more. It’s relief on a sweltering, hot day when you’ve done nothing but play patintero on a dead-end street. The comforting sensation of halaya’s soft, almost gooey consistency is perfect for Noche Buena. It is not simply marshmallows.
“What do you think of his war on drugs?” Andrea asked, her cup completely gone. Did she throw it away while I spaced out?
“Whose?” I garbled, melted purple ice cream in my mouth.
“Oh,” I said, uninterested. I looked down into my cup. “It’s awful.” That felt like the right thing to say.
“That’s what you said earlier.” It wasn’t Andrea’s voice. I peeled my eyes off of the swirling purple liquid in the bottom of my cup and saw my aunt standing beside our table. She had a long face, which had always reminded me of a banana. Her chin protruded significantly from the rest of her face. Tita Coco passed away from breast cancer a year ago.
“Tita!” I couldn’t help but say, my mind catching up to my eyes. I glanced at Andrea’s reaction, and she seemed amused, looking my aunt up and down. I wasn’t sure what I expected from Andrea, but it unsettled me, how everything was unsurprising to her.
“Tell me honestly,” Tita said, her chin seemingly growing longer with every syllable she uttered. “You don’t care, do you?”
“I care!” I said right away. I was scared what might’ve happened if I said I didn’t. It was one thing not to care, but to actually admit it? Isn’t that worse?
Don’t I want to care about people I don’t see who have it worse than me? Isn’t that what makes someone a good person? But I can’t seem to. What does that make me?
“Liar!” Tita said, her neck already twisted enough that I couldn’t see her face. “Liar!” she kept saying, her neck unendingly coiling.
I looked at Andrea, but she had already stood up and was a few feet away from me, her back facing me. She slowly looked my way, her body unmoving, neck straining. It stopped at what seemed like a very uncomfortable forty-five-degree angle, though her expression was blank and stoic. Meeting my eyes, she said, “Why are you even alive?”
That was such a strange question. Of course I am alive to do things, to change what’s around me. All of these ghosts are simply envious of the agency I still have on this Earth. Their haunting a manifestation of jealousy for the living—specifically me. I can be alive just because. I can be alive for me. Can’t I?
By the time I finished the last of my nostalgic purple sweet, I was alone.
Larisse Mondok has an MFA in creative writing from Cleveland State University and is a VONA Voices alumna. She moved to Cleveland in 2014, and people ask her, “Why Ohio?” all the time. Her short stories are published in VIDA, Cagibi, About Place, Marias at Sampaguitas, and in the anthology, There’s an Aswang on the Roof, There’s an Aswang in the Basement (May Tiktik sa Bubong, May Sagbin sa Silong) from Ateneo de Manila University Press, winner of the Philippines’ 2018 Best Anthology.
Bette Ridgeway has exhibited her work globally with over 80 museums, universities and galleries, including Palais Royale, Paris and the Embassy of Madagascar. Multiple prestigious awards include Top 60 Contemporary Masters, Leonardo DaVinci Prize, and Oxford University Alumni Prize at Chianciano Art Museum, Tuscany, Italy. Ridgeway’s art has permanent public placements at the Mayo Clinic, the Federal Reserve Bank, and elsewhere. Many publications have featured her work, including International Contemporary Masters and 100 Famous Contemporary Artists. Ridgeway has also written about her work.