For our July nonfiction, we're thrilled to share the chapter "Falling" from Cinelle Barnes' dazzling debut memoir, Monsoon Mansion. The book is out now and we implore you to get your hands on this harrowing and triumphant coming-of-age story set in the Phillipines.
Minutes after she sat down for dinner, Mama began uttering phrases that made Papa slump in his seat and made Lorna and Judith cover Paolo’s and my ears. “You all brought bad luck into my life. Putang ina kayong lahat.”
After her litany, Mama grabbed a carafe by the neck, held it up an arm’s length away from her side, and let go of it, saying, “Everything is falling.”
She then pushed back her chair, got up, and stormed off to her basement closet, calling out words to the evening air and expanding our vocabulary and fright. “Descend! Dive! Plummet! Plunge! Topple! Tumble! Stumble! Subside! Dwindle! Diminish! Die.” She locked herself in her closet and found solace in shelves full of designer friends: Christian, Louis, Salvatore, and Coco.
Papa stood up and walked around to our side of the table, patted Paolo’s head, and bent down to kiss my cheek. He told Angge to sweep up and took his beer and paper to the lanai, knowing that Mama never set foot in the muggy room. Broken pieces of glass sparkled on the marble floor. Beads of lemon iced tea seeped into the weaving of Mama’s rattan chair. Lorna picked up our plates and instructed us to go upstairs and said that we could finish supper while watching a show.Once upstairs, Paolo and I had no interest in eating. Instead, we played. He turned on his Nintendo console and put on Janet Jackson’s Rhythm Nation. I played house and pretended to be taking care of Tachio: feeding him and bathing him and rocking and singing him to sleep.
“Shhh, night-night, little one. Close your eyes. Shhhhh. Happy birthday to you. Happy birthday to me. Happy birthday to brother and sister. Happy birthday, you and me.”
I talked to him about how he got his name, how Mama ate pistachio nuts every day that she was pregnant with him, how she preferred his nose and lips and skin over mine. I told him that he could use anything that I owned—my toys were his toys because we shared a birthday.
I turned four that deathly hot Philippine summer, and Tachio would’ve turned one. I knew that he grew a year older every time I did, but he was always the same baby to me—a few hours old, mestizo, and dead cold. That was exactly what I pictured him to be when I played pretend. It frightened the household staff when they asked me with whom I was chuckling in my room.
“Neng.” Katring called me by the lower-class diminutive version of my name. “Who are you playing with?”
“Si Tachio,” I said, cradling a bundle of sheets in my arms.
“Hoy! Don’t play like that! Your brother might come back from the dead!” Angge said as the rest shuffled away in fear and marked the sign of the cross on their foreheads and hearts.
“But he’s my toy and my friend,” I said.
Then I whispered to the bundle of sheets, “It’s okay. They’re just stupid, like Mama says. We are not stupid, she says. We’re like Lolo.”
His imaginary face with the perfect nose and perfect lips eased up, and his imaginary crying stopped, and his imaginary doe-shaped eyes closed. He fell asleep in my embrace, cuddled in the warmth between a brother and his sister.
Unlike Tachio, Paolo and I grew and changed.
I grew fatter with each meal, as the maids followed Mama’s orders to keep me well fed. Tachio and I had both been born premature, eight weeks shy of our due dates, and were born weighing less than three pounds. Same birthday, same size, same undernourished bodies. The difference was that I lived and he died. His death reminded Mama that children who were too small, too frail, could slip away from life. She had the maids feed me rice and noodles and starchy fruits, and they gave me hot Milo and Yakult cultured milk at least six times a day. It contradicted Mama’s no-carb, no-salt, no-real-meals diet. Whatever she suffered not to eat, I gobbled down and deposited into my pan de sal thighs and jamon de bola belly.
I didn’t complain. I didn’t know how to. I didn’t know to make the connection between the size of my thighs and the speed, or lack thereof, of my feet. I didn’t know that when Paolo and his friends played tag in the garden, they always called me It because they knew I could never catch up. They knew I wasn’t a runner. They knew that I would soon shy away from their games, leave them be, and walk upstairs to my bed to read, sketch, and play pretend.
“Napabayaan sa kusina!” Like she was left alone in the kitchen! was a common joke with Paolo and his pals. They said it often and with the heckling tone that belonged only to big brothers.
“Napabayaan sa kusina!” Paolo said, rolling off his chair, clutching at his stomach, and dying from laughter.
“Stop!” I said.
“Napabayaan sa kusina!” he said once more after getting back on his seat.
“I said stop! I’m telling Mama!” I said.
“I don’t care. You’re fat. I don’t care.”
“You used to be fat, too!”
“But I play soccer now. And you, you’re just here playing with your pretend babies and talking to ghosts and coloring and reading and fatfatfat!” he said, sticking his tongue out.
“Yaya! Yayaaaa!” I said, beginning to cry.
“Paolo, stop it now,” Lorna said.
“Bleh. Yaya ka lang.” You’re just a nanny.
There was no winning against Paolo. My yaya said that he was a bully because he never got to spend time with his real father.
“He’s just lucky your papa loves him like his own son,” she said.
She took me upstairs, played a Betamax movie, and sat me in my plush bed. She fetched a tray of biscuits and rice cakes, and fed me again and again. And again.
Paolo changed the way all nine-year-old boys did. He became sweatier, stickier, taller, leaner, and meaner. While I was asleep, he struck silver forks against each other to make that scratchy, metallic sound that hurt the inside of my ears and the back of my mouth. He kept telling me that I had no shot at becoming a Ninja Turtle, especially not Donatello, because I wasn’t street-smart or ninja enough. He knocked down my Lego towers right before I could top them off with the last block. He hid my dolls. He ate my candy. And he never ever— not in a bajillion-gazillion galactic years—let me play with his Game Boy.
It was the first half of 1990 and Papa and Mama were rarely home.
Paolo reported the headlines to our yayas, pretending to be a news anchor and holding a Pringles can at chest level—his microphone.
“Mikhail Gorbachev becomes president of the USSR. Michael Jordan averages sixty points per game. MC Hammer tops the charts with ‘U Can’t Touch This.’ Imelda Marcos appears in court. And Arsenio Hall is TV Guide’s Personality of the Year.”
Paolo read these facts out loud repeatedly, from the television screen and from covers and pages of glossies from the duty-free American store, to which our tutor would say, as if she weren’t in the companyof children under ten, “Ayayay! The new decade is all about politics, superstardom, sex, money, sex, money, money, sex, and fame.”
My parents’ lives were much the same.
Papa frequented Taiwan, Hong Kong, Singapore, New Zealand, Abu Dhabi, and the United States. He made deals with hotshots in the Arab world on oil and car-part imports to and exports from the archipelago, and deals with those hotshots’ fathers and brothers to recruit Filipino men and women for blue-collar jobs. He met with elite Chinese businessmen—the kind who played golf and stayed at the Mandarin Oriental, and, like us, spoke perfect West Coast English—for trades.
“I give them something they want; they give me something I need,” my father tried to teach us. “It’s simple, it’s business.”
Mama ruled on the other end of the machine. She was a doctor, among many other things, and could approve a working-class man’s work permit based on health. Papa found them jobs, and Mama checked them for TB and STDs, and charged the OFWs—overseas Filipino workers—a fixed fee for their services. People needed work and they paid my parents to get it. Papa said that it was a genius plan for the ’90s—the decade of climbing the ranks and living life in full color.
Until the midyear crises struck.
As our televisions announced and blared, hundreds of people died in an earthquake in the northern mountains of the Philippines. Mama lost a few distant relatives and childhood friends, but was only fazed by their deaths for a day. A few weeks later, on August 7, 1990, Papa and Mama shook their heads and tsk-tsked in front of the television when the news anchor said that the United States was to join the coalition against Iraq.
“Anak ng puta,” both my parents said. “Anak ng puta yang si Saddam.” Son of a bitch, that Saddam.
The Gulf War began.
Papa repeated the anchor’s words for days, saying them under his breath and sweating, “Saddam. Naku. Diyos ko, huwag po. Not my men, please. Spare them. Not my men.”
My parents’ recruited laborers were displaced and dispersed throughout the Muslim-Arab world, caught in war zones, and Papa and Mama had to retrieve them, by all means, dead or alive, Papa explained to Mama. He rolled out a map of the world on the breakfast table and drew a red circle around the Middle East. He marked Xs where his men had likely scattered: Kuwait, Riyadh, Doha, Al Wakrah, Jeddah, and Abu Dhabi. He had Paolo bring him his plastic toy soldiers, which he positioned throughout the map—representations of where American troops were likely stationed or had attacked. Papa said that they had to pay countless officials, airlines, agencies, and civilians for repatriation. And he warned Mama that the mission to get everyone back would cost us tens of millions—my father’s FossilFil Project alone had ten thousand Filipino workers.
“Thousands of workers,” Papa said. “Good god.”
“Meaning what, Gonzalo?” Mama said.
“Search and rescue, repatriation, flights, agencies, compensation for families of those who don’t make it back, buying back their stash of Arab money, damage control.”
“Well, fuckin’ do something about it, Gonzalo,” Mama demanded. “You cannot—cannot—let us drown.” Persian Gulf War. Operation Desert Storm. Operation Granby. First Gulf War. Liberation of Kuwait. Mother of All Battles. Different perspectives, different names. The television kept spewing them out. My parents called it “The End of Our Empire.” Later on, Paolo and I would call it “The End of Our Family.”
“You useless, worthless man! You stupid son of a bitch! You’re driving us into poverty! Of all things, poverty! This is all your fault. What the fuck 37 are we going to do now? Puñeta! We’ve lost everything.” Bam! Mama slammed the door on Papa after her fit.
“Estrella, please stop screaming; you’re scaring the kids. It’s not my fault. It’s nobody’s. Everyone who has money in the Middle East knows that. Estrella, please, open the door,” Papa begged Mama.
She opened the door and held a makeshift weapon—a fine-tooth comb, a ruler, a lampshade—which he snatched from her hand and threw on the floor. She slammed the door on him again, and we listened to her scramble for something in the bedroom. When she had found what she was looking for, she came out with it, holding it in front of her face with arms in a V, her hair wet from sweat, her one sleeve off the shoulder, and the object catching and reflecting light—her Spanish-made, gold-finished letter-opener knife.
She took two steps toward Papa, paused, then tore through the air between them with her stabbing. She stabbed the knife just an inch away from Papa’s ear, just barely missing his face. We all gasped and froze—the maids who were covering our eyes and ears, the personal assistant, the cook, the tutor, the gardener, Paolo, and me. We watched Papa run for his life as Mama chased after him with gold blade in hand. We watched her slash the air, just failing to gash him by a centimeter or two. Papa, who grew up dodging wild animal attacks in his penurious hometown, evaded Mama’s acts of violence by sprinting upstairs and hiding in the extra bedroom. That night, he moved his belongings, too, and they were—physically and emotionally—separated. Only our finances—or soon, the lack thereof—bound them together.
I began wetting my bed.
After Papa moved upstairs, the mansion barely seemed like a palace anymore. Flowers stopped adorning mantels one day, and the next, a car 38 was purchased off our lot. Dessert didn’t come with lunch but just with dinner. The following month, there was no dessert at all. The maids started cleaning the house in unpressed clothes, and the drivers stopped waxing cars. Paolo’s daily routine and my schedule dropped from three after-school activities down to just either piano or ballet. The gradual downsizing proved evident in every part of the house.
Papa made efforts to uplift the collective mood of the mansion. He wrote notes to me, Paolo, and Mama, and he taped them to our vanity mirrors. He took me to not just the ice-cream shop, but also to the ice-cream factory, and he took Paolo on Boy Scout campouts. He ate meals with the household staff, cracking jokes and retelling tales from his childhood: how he went to school with no shoes and how his family slept in between the ceiling and roof of the fish market. He told me, “This isn’t normal. None of this is. But we were not made for normal. And for that, I am sorry.”
He was home more often because he no longer had to travel for business. I liked seeing so much of him, how I could always ride piggyback on him and play tickle fight. Half of the time he was home, though, he was hiding from Mama or shaking his head and covering his ears from her screaming. Was he better off working, traveling many miles and flying first-class, away from us? I wasn’t sure. I was still confused about babies and death and knives and all that screaming.
Papa noticed. He noticed how Mama had gone from dieting to starving, and how Paolo and I couldn’t seem to get along. So he planned a swimming day at Palos Verdes, the members-only pool club on the Antipolo hill.
“Who wants to go swimming?” he said, as he and the drivers packed our Land Cruiser with coolers, towels, and snack baskets.
Paolo and I cheered.
“Okay! Hop in and pick out songs we can sing on our way up,” Papa said.
“I have one! What about that one about puppies on the window?” I said.
“In the window, stupid. You can’t be on a window,” Paolo said.
I stuck my tongue out at him.
“Oh, you guys, come on. Let’s keep it nice and fun,” Papa said.
“Nice and fun, nice and fun,” Mama said, mocking Papa as she sat in the middle-row seat, hiding behind her oversize sunglasses. She left her knife at home.
Papa rallied the maids and boys and had them pack coolers and led a convoy up the hill to Palos Verdes. We arrived at the club an hour later and were welcomed by perfect weather and bath-temperature water. It seemed like all we needed was some fresh air and time outside the mansion. Once there, Papa began grilling, showing Paolo and the boys how to properly start a fire. Everyone, including the help, stripped down to their bathing suits.
The women, on the other hand, gathered around to assist Mama— Judith lathering sunscreen on her back and legs, Dehlia untying her lace-up sandals, and Katring fixing her hair under a floral swim cap. Once prepped for the water, she shooed them away with a one-two flick of her fingers and strode toward me in her lipstick-red one-piece Valentino suit. I’d been giving my inflatable whale a bath on the side of the pool, scooping water with my bucket and pouring it over my blow-up friend. Mama told me to stop playing, to which I obliged.
“Come here,” she said.
I put down my bucket and tiptoed to her.
Mama was a former collegiate swimmer. And her way of teaching us anything, including swimming, was to just throw us right in. Mama spun me around so that I faced the pool. She unbuckled my floatie, slid its Styrofoam rings off my arms, flung it about two meters away, and pushed me into the blue that was more than three meters deep. As I began to slip beneath the surface, she instructed everyone not to fish me out, to leave me room to struggle and gargle and kick my way up.
“You jump in to save her and you lose your job,” she said, hands on waist.
She lectured them on how children learned by doing, and that the best and brightest, the leaders of our country and of the world, earned their ranks by nearly drowning. She didn’t believe in lifesavers, not even in swim coaches, but in being hurled into whatever could kill you. As much as she and her ways were terrifying, they proved to be effective. Papa was getting ready to jump in, despite his lack of skill, but I kicked up and kicked up, my pan de sal thighs thrusting me up and my jamon de bola belly buoying me like a ship’s hull. I learned to swim.
And I swam well.
After the knife incident, Mama lived as two people: Mama who hid a knife in her silk robe and yelled at Papa over every meal, and Mama who lured an audience among the maids with her graceful butterfly strokes and swan dives. She was Mama who broke carafes and saucers and urns, and Mama who hummed while wading.
When she waded and sunned, we acted like her other self was back at the mansion, far away from our singing and swimming, far away from the fire crackling in the grill, the bath-temperature water, the normalness of an afternoon at the pool. Paolo and I splashed and shot at each other with yellow-orange water guns and sang while we rode the inflatable whale. We cannonballed and raced to both ends of the pool, and when we ran short of breath, we hung on to the pool gutter to rest.
“Psst, come with me. I have a surprise for you,” he said, pushing his body up on the gutter and out of the water.
“A surprise? What is it?” I said.
I tried to push up on the gutter like he did, but couldn’t. I instead swam to the steps and climbed out. I followed him behind bushes, through the gate and to the playground, mulch and leaves sticking to my wet feet.
“Look, I found you the tallest, biggest slide in the whole world,” Paolo said.
“Wow, that’s really tall and really high, Kuya,” I said.
“Go climb up and slide down.”
“Let’s go get Yaya.”
“Tell you what, you go and then I go. Deal?”
I hesitated. Then I said, “Deal.”
I walked around the slide and to the ladder, took a deep breath, and wiped my still-moist, wrinkly hands on my shorts. Then I wrapped my fingers around the stainless-steel rods and took one step up after the other, trying my best not to show how scared I was that the slide was three persons tall. I grabbed the bar on the edge of the platform, sat my rump on the cold metal ledge, and let go. The next second, I was in midair, legs over my head, arms flailing up to where I could reach a tree’s branches. I suspended in the air for a couple of seconds, then banged my head on the cement floor.
The slide was missing a leg. Nobody, not even Paolo, knew. Instead of gravity pulling me down the slide and to the grass, it forced the top of the ramp—where I had just been sitting—to break off from the ladder and thrust skyward, flinging me like a projectile onto the pavement.
Mama ran screaming. She must’ve heard the slide fall and my skull smack the ground.
“Help!” Paolo said. He ran to my side and shook my arm, but I didn’t respond. He tapped my cheeks and began crying. “Oh no, oh no, say something. Say something.”
“Get the car! Get the damned car!” Papa said to the drivers.
I heard everyone cry and scream. I heard sandals flip and flop back and forth, the metal gate swing and shut, the car engine rumble. I heard ice swish around in a cooler and then felt it held to my head. I heard Lorna snivel and pray, “Diyos ko, let there be no blood.”
“No blood, no blood,” someone said.
“Stay with us, my darling girl,” Papa said.
“She’s not moving!” Mama cried.
She was right. I couldn’t move. I thought about it and tried to raise my arm or wiggle a toe, to let them know I was okay, but I couldn’t. I kept telling my hand to wave and my mouth to open, but nothing happened. I tried to swallow my spit, but saliva just foamed in the corners of my mouth and dribbled down my chin. I could see whatever was directly above me—faces, arms, my mother’s hair falling in my face, the evening sky turning orange blue. I saw the evening’s first stars, too.
I heard everything they were saying, but I couldn’t respond. I heard the car backing up the driveway, the gates flinging open and closed, the maids praying to Jesus and Our Lady, Paolo sobbing and apologizing, Mama screaming at Papa and blaming him for the fall, Papa telling Mama, “Not now, please, not now!” and instructing the drivers to open the car door and start the engine.
I lay flat and stiff on Paolo’s, Mama’s, and Papa’s laps in the back seat as we headed for the hospital. Mama couldn’t get her bearings. She was just as paralyzed by the accident as I was. She sobbed. Her tears and wet hair fell on my face. They felt cold.
Typically, Mama could find a medical solution to anything, but this accident got the best of her. Paolo was still crying in the car, too. He kept saying, “Sorry, sorry. I didn’t know, I didn’t know.”
Papa sang to keep me awake, calling me his sunshine and telling me I took away his gray skies. He looked straight into my eyes and I sang back to him in my head, in my heart. I wanted to tell him, I’m scared.
They took me to the nearest hospital, Santo Niño, where the lower class received medical care.
“She’ll be fine,” the doctor said. “Terrified and shocked, but she’s fine.” It was a skull injury, all on the surface—no concussions or brain damage at all, he said. Nothing too serious; I was just shocked. I had received a hard blow to the head when I hit the ground, but the ground didn’t break my skull nor shake my brain. It was a closed head injury, only causing scalp wounds and a fist-size goose egg on the back of my head. I was completely conscious but lay weak with vacant eyes, almost as if I had been put under a breath-holding spell. Shock, the doctor emphasized. Shock, the impact of the fall stunned me into silence and motionlessness. The doctor pulled my eyelids up and flashed a small light on my face.
“Are you sure?” Mama said, naming every possible diagnosis she’d read in pediatrics textbooks.
“I’m sure. She just needs to stay here until she’s able to move and walk without assistance. We need to monitor her for twenty-four hours,” the doctor said.
“Thank you, Doc,” Papa said, giving him a pat on the shoulder.
I’d been wetting my bed, waking up sweaty from nightmares, and had become increasingly afraid of the dark. And now, shock, the doctor said.
My yaya had always said that children were very intuitive.
Something was wrong.
“This is all your fault,” Mama said as soon as the doctor stepped out of the room.
“Estrella, please, our daughter almost died, for God’s sake,” Papa said in the angriest, most stern voice I’d ever heard him use.
Mama didn’t care. She nagged and she yelled and they bickered.
Paolo walked up to the edge of the gurney.
“Why’d you have to scare us like that?” he said to me. “I thought you were gonna die there for a second.”
I thought, He loves me after all, that silly kid.
“I promise to take care of you. I know I always trick you. I’m sorry. Here, you can have this.” Between my arm and torso, on the crisp white hospital sheets that smelled like Clorox, he tucked his most-prized possession: his Game Boy.