Artist Mik Gaspay
Raquel’s crazy Uncle Pete is crowing, “Keraw, keraw, keroo!” and tapping on the window of her dorm room with the bouquet of twigs that he had brought from the Valley. He had been wrestling with Raquel’s grandma’s dog when he rolled over some leaves in the dirt. They had crunched underneath his back, crackled like the balled-up newspapers he sometimes threw into the wire rim above the garage door of grandma’s house. He would leave the garage door open so that when he missed, the paper balls would shoot straight into his room, where they collected with the shreds of tire rubber, chewed up lollipop sticks, and bent metal scraps that he found in the streets. The prettier things he gave to Raquel, like the twigs he discovered that morning after following the trail of leaves on his hands and knees.
“Mark, will you cut that shit out already?” Raquel blearily draws the curtain and opens the window so abruptly that Uncle Pete ducks to avoid the swinging glass panel. Two weeks ago, Mark, wearing his heart, along with his frat letters, on his sleeve had serenaded her with a love song and his guitar.
“Who is Mark?” Uncle asks.
Raquel wipes the sleep from her eyes. “I’m sorry, Uncle. I thought you were someone else.”
Although she still has a hangover from last night’s keg party, she cannot now mistake the sight of her poor uncle standing outside her dorm room window, smoking a cigarette and wearing faded and oil-stained jeans, a crumpled imitation designer-brand tee shirt, and the Ray Bans he had bought at the flea market in San Fernando, the sunglasses he said made him look good enough for Princess Diana. Even though she had passed away, he would not stop wearing them. He used to tell Raquel that wearing them felt better because he could now look up at the Princess in heaven without fear. Ever since he fell from the roof of the old house in the Philippines, looking at the sky gave him vertigo.
“Who is this Mark?” Uncle repeats. “You have a boyfriend now. This Mark? You do not have time for your Uncle Pedro anymore? This is why you never visit? This Mark?”
“Uncle, please. Can you smoke a little farther from my window?” Raquel turns on the rusty electric fan that Uncle Pete had put together with some of his metal scraps, a steel chain, and the rickety motor of a power drill.
The fan had been a going-away present. Even though Raquel had not gone far, the Volkswagen Beetle that Uncle was continually working on could make the trip from the Valley to UCLA only if he brought plenty of water in case its old engine overheated. So Uncle had made Raquel promise that she would not forget him and once in awhile visit him at her grandma’s house.
“Your mama, she only wants the best for you, and she always gets what she wants. But your Uncle Pedro, he can see the moon. He paints your grandma’s roof blue. Maybe he cannot look at the sky, but he can climb on the roof and fly. This fan, makes the air spin, makes your hair twirl, makes you giddy.”
Raquel had laughed. She said she knew; she could feel the wind take her. Uncle Pete was the best man in the world, and no matter what her mother said he was just fine with her.
He was not bastos. He did not talk dirty to her, like her mother Lorna said he would. He did not preach about God and faith and ask questions that were only intended between a man and a wife. Did not knock her around the head or grab her by the scruff of the neck as he did with her grandma’s dog. Did not try to brainwash her, or do anything she did not want to do. He did not make her over like a tomboy despite her mother’s warnings.
“You want to grow up crazy like your uncle?” said Lorna.
“You want to grow up sirang ulo? Hold your head up. When a man looks at you, ignore him. Wait for him to prove himself to you. You deserve a man who will treat you like a princess, like a queen. Look at your uncle. Thinks himself in love with Princess Diana! He is a fool. You better not grow up to be one yourself!”
While Uncle Pete finishes smoking his cigarette, Raquel places the twigs in an empty liquor bottle on the shelf above her desk. Next to the bottle is the shot glass she had received during a social with Mark’s fraternity. It had been Raquel’s first quarter at UCLA, and she was finally away from home, away from curfews and midnight telephone interruptions. So when her suitemates invited her to rush one of the more popular Asian American interest sororities on campus, Raquel shrugged, What the hell. Why not? For three weeks she attached cutouts of the Chi Delt’s Greek letters to her ass with a glue stick and glitter, scored phone numbers from males on her ankles, her shoulder blades, and once above the spoon of her pelvis while she swallowed a body shot and sucked on a lime to chase it down. Mark had licked her lips clean, swished his finger in the shot glass, and traced a line of tequila from her stout sunburned chin to the beaded silver ring piercing her navel.
Raquel quickly changes out of her oversized tee shirt and into surf shorts and a tank top, dips her head under the faucet, and gargles with mouthwash. Then she slips into a pair of brown leather sandals and grabs the car keys on her desk. For high school graduation, Lorna had leased Raquel a brand new Acura coupe, which had power door locks, windows, and steering, a black leather interior, and one hundred sixty horses. Lorna had promised to buy it for her if she kept her grades up and did not end up getting pregnant or married.
Before Raquel had gone to college, she had assured her mother that everything would be fine.
“Don’t trip, Mom. I can take care of myself,” Raquel
Lorna had been satisfied with her answer until she discovered the condoms stashed between the box spring and mattress of the four-poster bed she had given Raquel for her sweet sixteenth birthday. She accused Raquel of being confrontational, of deliberately leaving the condoms behind to make a statement, make her angry, like the time Raquel came home from her high school graduation party wearing a boy’s sweater, which swished around her hips when she crept up the stairs. Lorna had waited until Raquel entered her bedroom and started to undress before she approached her.
“Whose sweater is that? Where is your bra? What, now your virginity is not enough, your boyfriend has to take your lingerie as souvenir? You take everything for granted, Raquel, all the things I give you, the nice, decent clothes I buy you, the fine, gold jewelry I drive down to Chinatown to get just for you. You never appreciate what I give you. Instead, you degrade yourself with cheap lipstick. You lie to me so you can go out with boys! What do you think you are doing? You think you are a woman already? You think the boys like you? They just want to get more of you. That does not make you a woman. Do you want them to call you a whore? Do you think they will respect you more? Is that what you think?”
Raquel told her mother to leave her alone. Get out of my room. I don’t want to talk about it. She did not want to explain how cold it had been in the hills above the San Fernando Valley, where the boy had taken her after the party, had lain her down on a mound of earth and promised to keep her warm. How she had waited to hear him say I love you, until she could not hear her ocean anymore, how afterwards she just wanted to play stickmen and matchbox cars with Uncle again. Instead, her mother made her lie in the yard with the brown centers of her breasts facing sunrise.
“If you like being dirty so much then sleep in the dirt,” her mother had said.
Raquel lay on her back on the grass, stared up at the roof of her mother’s house set against the black moonlit sky, and wondered if her uncle had felt just as alone and ashamed when he fell off the roof of the old house in the Philippines. She fell asleep dreaming that she was floating on her body board, balancing atop a wave, the sun shining on her.
She awoke to discover that the warmth had not been a dream. Sometime before morning, her mother had covered her bared breasts with a quilt.
Raquel meets her Uncle outside her dorm room and tells him she is taking him for a drive in her car.
“But where are we going?”
She drives along the Pacific Coast Highway to the spot on the beach where she used to go crabbing with her mother. Her hair was longer then, like her mother’s, black and wavy in the breeze. Lorna would dress Raquel’s hair up in barrettes and pigtails, twisting the braids with fingers as deft and resilient as seaweed sifting through water. Although Lorna bound Raquel’s hair so tight she squirmed, a few strands would drift free. The strands would get caught in the net, the crabs clawing at her hair with their pinchers.
When Raquel took up body boarding, she decided that she wanted to feel the water splash on her neck, the rush of waves tussling her short curls. She wanted to have sex on the beach. To arch on the sand like a dolphin, grit between her toes, fingers wreathing through the kelp that budded the shore. The night she wore the boy’s sweater, she had wanted to take him to
the beach, but he told her it was too far, and he just could not wait anymore.
When Raquel and her uncle arrive at the beach, Uncle Pete asks, “What are we doing here, Raquel? Where are the trees?”
“I want to show you something. There,” Raquel points. “On the rocks. You can only see it when you’re near the edge, because the water hits the rocks just so and sprays you in the face. When the water washes over you, you have to close your eyes like you’re dreaming so that you can see it.”
Raquel begins descending the slope toward the beach and reaches for Uncle’s hand so that they will not slip.
“The water is so blue!” Uncle hollers. “Like the sky, except that now I’m looking down at it, down at blue, blue, blue!”
Uncle releases her hand, picks up a fistful of sand, and showers the air. He lopes around in circles, flailing his arms, until he gets to the rocks.
“Easy there, Uncle Pete. You might fall down again.”
“No, you have to go fast, zoom like a rocket ship. You cannot be scared. When I stood on the roof, I was scared. That is why God struck me. He was testing me, daring me to look at his face, but I could not face him. I covered my eyes, and I fell down. Now I have to cover my eyes all the time. He punished me, you see? I could not even look at the Princess with my own eyes. And now that she is gone, I will never have a chance. This Mark, your boyfriend, does he look at you with his own eyes?”
“Uncle Pete, he’s not my boyfriend.”
“Well, then, he should not be looking at you at all.” Uncle Pete squats on the edge of the rocks. “Do you think your Uncle Pedro is crazy? I get headaches, and sometimes I have visions from God, but I am not crazy. Your mother, she tells me I should change my clothes, brush my teeth, wash my hands! But that is not dirt she sees. That is not bad. That is wrestling with the dog, climbing trees.”
Raquel sits down next to him and places his hand in a shallow pool of water beside them on the rocks.
“There’s nothing wrong with a little bit of balance either, Uncle Pete. Feel how good the water is?”
Uncle immerses his other hand in the pool, spreads his
fingers out, and then rubs his hands together, as if he were cleansing them.
“Look, there’s a wave coming.” Raquel gestures at
Uncle squints. “What am I going to see? How will I know what it is when I see it?”
“It’s a secret,” Raquel says. “You have to be real quiet, and you can’t tell anyone, or else you won’t be able to see it.”
Raquel gathers Uncle to his feet, and together they stand and wait for the ocean. Uncle Pete closes his eyes and faces the sky. The sun glances on Raquel’s brow, over her chest, crosses her knees. She body boards in rings around the waves, while Uncle blasts a rocket ship from the blue roof of grandma’s house to the moon.
Katinka Baltazar is the author of Songs of Discovery, and the editor and publisher of www.fiercewomen.com, a women’s community website. She studied creative writing at San Francisco State University.