My mother was 37 when we all came back to the Philippines. Her father had passed away, “Papang”, and we all had to come back home. She got a job in NEDA. I remember running my hands up her stockinged legs, the dignified suits she wore, the brown briefcase she brought to work. It was still only Ali and I who existed then—B-Jon came several years later--and Mom enrolled us in JASMS, even if I had wanted to go to Maryknoll, on account of my best Filipina friend back in the States raving about the school. Thank God I went to JASMS. On my first day, I remember literally hiding behind Mommy’s skirt while Mrs. Chan asked me, “What’s your name?” “Regina,” I answered. But she heard only “Gina” and that abbreviation has stuck ever since.
I turned 37 last Saturday. Mom booked us a villa at Mimosa in Clark, while she and Papa had a room in nearby Holiday Inn. A villa to accommodate my family, so very unlike hers and Papa’s during their time: twin boys, a pubescent daughter, a yaya on her fourth month of pregnancy. We check in a little after lunch, and Simone said she was hungry. She’s always hungry these days, my tall gangly daughter who I know, with all the kindness and understanding in her heart, sometimes quietly tolerates her neurotic mother. “She’s an old soul. She’s the mom and you’re the daughter,” someone told me when Simone was barely a year old. Maybe. Who knows.
I want to take them to Zapata’s, the authentic Mexican along Fields Avenue, because C is too expensive for my budget. So we drive, drive, past the girlie bars, past the spanking new Lewis Grand Hotel, only to find that Zapatas has been turned into a Thai restaurant, with working girls already outside, waiting for early customers. The twins are beginning to get restless; Sim’s in a bad mood. “Ok,” I say. “You want food? All sorts of food? Let’s go to Margarita Station. But Ma, don’t be shocked, ok?”
All Mama is concerned about is if they serve Asian cuisine. “Oh God, they have everything,” I assure her.
The Margarita Station is, of course, one of the oldest joints on Fields Ave. It’s home to dodgy old GIs and foreigners of every race. Girls working and non-working alike converge there to eat, play pool, look for a little boom-boom. Locals eat there, as well, with their little ones. So I figured it was, in my estimation, “family friendly.”
As we drive by the entrance – a shabby screen door – Mama gasps. “Is this it?”
From outside, one can see lumpy middle-aged foreigners drink at the window bar. “But Mommy,” Sim says, “there are creepy men inside.”
Creepy-looking men aside, the Margarita Station is also known for its friendly waitresses and service. No judgments are made there, as the case should be anywhere. Inside, Marco and Mateo gape at the women and men playing pool. “I want to learn billiards,” says Mateo, awed.
My mother is fascinated. “I didn’t know about this place,” she says. “All I know are the places inside the base.”
The driver, is of course, delighted. “Do you know this place?” my mother asks him. “Do you come here? I want to bring my friends here.” It takes her 15 minutes to study the vast menu. Simone has gotten over her creepy guy shock, and asks me, out of the blue: “Mommy, why are there pedophiles?”
I look around if there are any within shooting range. There aren’t. She’s asking because one of the freshmen from her school is dating a senior, and, because kids can be extremely cruel, the senior has been branded a pedophile. “Pedophiles are sick in the head,” I say. “They think differently, and need help.”
So we eat, take photos. The twins and Mama explore the souvenir shop. I tell my mom about the old bar ritual: “He who rings this bell in jest, buys a round of drinks for all the rest.” It’s the first time she’s heard it.
After lunch, she buys two pairs of ballroom dancing trousers from the shop next door, amazed at the dirt cheap prices. We drive past the other bars on our way back to the villa, back inside the base. I explain to Mama that as we drive further down, the places get dodgier and dodgier. Still, I urge Simone to look out the window and see what kind of world exists outside hers. To my surprise, Mama agrees: “Yes Sim, take a look so you won’t be like Mama.”
The twins don’t look out—they’re folded in the back seat, heavy with slumber.
My Papa arrives from Manila in the afternoon, but it’s only on the next day that we get to talk. It’s after lunch in Shanghai Palace, beside the old casino on MacArthur Avenue. “We used to come here in the ‘60s,” he says, “and watch acts like Pepe Smith before they became big.” Where? “Harrison. Vietnam War years. Everyone was on drugs then.”
As we drive from the restaurant, he continues. “We had a brod named Bombing Nepomuceno. His mom was the mayor and his dad was congressman. He’d invite us over for the weekend; we’d choose what car we wanted to take. It was always the Jaguar X36. We’d check into the Oasis and no one ever wanted to go home.”
Before we turn into the road leading to NLEX, he adds, “and Baluga (the nickname we have for one of his younger brods, Tito Val) and I would come here to buy Bose stereos even before Bose was known in Manila. We had those cannon-type speakers before anyone had them.”
And more. I love it when Papa reminisces like this. He comes alive, his speech is clear and confident, and you almost ache for his longing of years past. “There was this brod, a close friend of your Uncle Freddie’s, he used to drive an Impala. One day he saw us on the road. Kaway-kaway siya. Ayun, nahulog sa bangin.”
Marco and Mateo, eager to get back home and to their plants and Gizzard and Plants vs. Zombies, chant non-stop: “Clark never ends! Clark never ends!”
But it did. And so did the weekend of my 37th birthday.
Jan 12, 2.09 a.m.