Dried fish

Here goes the Australian lady from the second floor again, standing at the door, towering over Mama and looking mad. “It bloody stinks in here. You and your smelly food! You’re not the only ones living in this building you know.” She screws up her face. “It’s unbearable!”

Although I can’t see Mama’s face, I can tell she’s upset.

My brother Leo and I are having breakfast at the dining table and I can hear her yelling at my mother. Leo tears some fillets off the dried mackerel on the serving plate and pastes them onto a handful of steamed rice, molding them with his fingers, throwing them into his mouth. He swallows, takes a drink and pans from his plate to Mama, to the lady at the door, and back.

I should walk towards Mama now; her hand is glued to the side of the open door as if she depends upon it for strength. I should be there with her now, at least as a moral support, but I want to finish my food. She always tells us not to waste food and to be mindful of our relatives in the Philippines who have nothing to eat at all. She nods blankly as the lady continues to rant. Mama doesn’t have a chance to respond. She straightens her back once in a while, perhaps trying to look confident and dignified amidst the demeaning words from the woman. The wooden sandals she bought from Baclaran Market before we migrated to Brisbane clack as she shifts from foot to foot. Her T-shirt, with Palmolive written on the front, looks grey and old. She flicks her hair from her face.

The woman’s suitcase stands firmly beside her legs. Her perfume smells like the Ajax soap our maid in the Philippines used to scrub clothes with every morning. Her pressed business skirt extends to her knee, accentuating her slender hips. Black stockings wrap her skinny legs.

“S-sorry, miss,” Mama says with a forced smile, looking embarrassed. “We actually turned the exhaust fan up to max to get rid of the smell. Obviously, it hasn’t worked very well.” Mama uses a humble tone, showing her sincere apologies for disturbing our neighbor, but they infuriate the woman even more.

“I’ve actually decided to move out. My boyfriend refuses to visit me. If you’re having dead rats for breakfast, I don’t care. Just don’t bloody cook them until next month when I’m gone, then you can feast on your stinking fucking food!” She throws her hands into the air.

Blood rushes to my ears. This is really bad. Who is she to yell at my mother?

Mama’s face turns red. She tries to smile but looks like she’s about to cry through gritted teeth. I feel like yelling at the woman. I feel like punching her in the gut – that’s how much I want to hurt her – but I’m not sure if Mama would appreciate it. I will hold off for now.

“We’ll spray deodorizer around the apartment, then,” Mama nods, resting her hand on her chest. “That should get rid of the smell.” She bites her lip and sighs.

“Is that going to help my apartment? The smell is all over my curtains, pillows – everywhere!” She shakes her head and walks off. Her silky black top shines as the morning sun hits her in the hallway. She looks for something in her bag and pulls out a pair of sunglasses, then trots to the main door. Her heels clicking on the floor sounds like drums of war, fuelling my anger.

Mama shuts the door and returns to the kitchen, her chin quivers and her shoulders droop. “We’ll buy our own house soon so we can cook whatever we want. I’ll have to get a second job to help your father. Hindi tayo pumunta rito para pahiyain, we didn’t move here to feel ashamed of who we are.”

My heart sinks along with the pan that Mama carries to the rubbish bin, twisting it to let five pieces of finger-sized dried mackerel drop into the mound of trash. Murky oil and fish scales follow. The crunchy, tasty fish lying on potato peels, tissues and eggshells in the trash don’t look right. Those dried fish are my favorite. Papa and I took the trouble of catching the train to Fortitude Valley yesterday to buy three packets. Only to be thrown in the bin! They are my food. I grew up with their crunchiness and saltiness and their tanginess when dipped in vinegar. And now that we are in Australia, it’s hard to believe I can no longer have them. That’s not fair.

Mama goes to the bathroom. Her fading steps scream at me, compelling me to do something about the sodden fish. With trembling hands, I pluck each of them and lay them on the foil, before wrapping them with care. I run outside, lengthening my strides to catch up to the lady. Her high heeled shoes clack on the pathway along Coronation Drive. She’s now crossing the road and the pedestrian lights are just about to turn red. She must be working in one of the corporate offices in Milton. The traffic resumes.

I zigzag through the honking traffic and I stand in front of her.

She halts.

My lips purse and my knees tremble as I quickly open the foil and lift my hand to throw the fish at her face, but I freeze like a paused movie scene. The woman’s wide eyes, staring at me engulfs me with hesitation. The dread will horrify everyone with an image of the fish scales and brown oil sticking to her thick make-up and dangling earrings. My heart thumps and I feel the oil dripping down my arm and onto the ground.

“Put that down, you imbecile, or I’ll call the police!”

I drop my hand as my pride deflates at the shuddering tone of her voice. “Fuck off!” she sidles away.

I turn around in tears and walk to the nearby bench, facing the Brisbane River. Brown water laps the rocks below, nowhere near as brown as the Pasig River in Manila. I sigh, hearing every splash that seems to snap me back to reality. I scrunch up the foil like a ball and shoot it into the bin on the side of the road like a basketball.

The current flows towards the sea, dragging out with it my pride that I cannot defend my family. It’s tragic that I chickened out of doing something fair and just for myself. I feel so useless that I can’t stand up for myself. I cannot fight the woman. Not when I’m only 13, and yet to learn a few things. Anyway, not all battles are worth fighting. Perhaps, sometimes one just needs to put his hands up and lean against the ropes like Manny Pacquiao.

I pick up some wood chips from the ground and one by one, throw them at the trunk of the nearby Banyan tree. The tightness in my chest abates and the air soothes me. I walk home against the direction of the current. I should stop thinking about getting back at people who are against me and my family. Instead, I should spend my time making good for myself. Perhaps this is a better form of getting back at her.

The sun glints over the river, radiant like the blinding rays over the Boracay sand. Like the same sun that dazzles between my first country and my new, I remain good and bright. I may have changed place, but this is home now.






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