Wendy Tatlonghari Burg
On the day Brett Paul died there was a party going on. It was still early in the summer before the temperature set records and the humidity grew into a sticky blanket. The sky was a blue that looked manufactured, not as deep as bluebell petals, or as gray and light as a blue jay’s feather. It was a mix of those colors, perfectly flat and bright, as if painted on a canvas. A slight breeze came off the lake, the scent of pine and mowed grass wafting through the house. The water, a pane of dark glass, still frigid and the splash of fish jumping broke the morning silence.
I was stuck at home, which was outside of town, and on the other side of the county from where the party was. I didn’t have my driver’s license yet so I couldn’t take the car on my own. Someone would have to come get me, but I knew there was no one. No one I hung out with lived by me. There were only a few farmers, big farmers, meaning they had a lot of land, but few in number. And they didn’t have kids my age. The one family with older kids had a dad who was very strict. Those kids just worked the fields, milked the cows, and went to school. They were good at sports, but they were not allowed to go to parties, movies, or dances.
“Sex and drugs.” Sue Lynn, the oldest, said. “That’s all that’s out there my dad says. Sex and drugs.” They rode the same bus to school as we did. They were nice kids, two girls and a boy, clean, and cheerful. But they were not going to the party.
I stayed in my room trying to figure out how I could get there.
“Raymond! Joseph? Halika!!” I could hear my father calling out to my brothers in the yard. He wanted to take the boat out on the lake, maybe go fishing. I could hear the screen door off the kitchen slam shut once, then again. Then a few more times as my brothers came in and out for various things, a hat, a bag of chips, some drinks. I wanted to join them but knew I would grow bored fast, and want to be taken back to the house too soon after we cast our lines. My father would rather scold me for two hours then bring me to shore. That’s probably why he didn’t call for me.
“Tayo na!” My father often yelled in Tagalog but never taught us how to speak it. We responded to words like dogs to commands, not knowing exact translations.
“Go now, he’s calling you.” I heard my mother say. “Gigi, they are leaving.
Do you want to go?”
I pretended not to hear her, and waited for the sound of the motor on the boat to fade away in the distance. I wanted to get to the party. We moved to this small town two summers ago but only now was I finally feeling like I might fit in with the kids at school. Being one of two other Filipino families within a hundred miles, and coming from a big city, the first year at middle school was tough. Most of the boys called us “redskins” or “chinks” because they didn’t know what to make of Filipinos. To other Filipinos we looked mestiza, with our fair skin, narrow noses, and deeper set eyes. But we were “pure Tagalog” my mother said. I didn’t know the difference. I just knew that no matter how light my skin was we weren’t white.
Once my brothers sprouted to a decent five foot eight, rather tall for Filipino boys, and filled out as well, no one messed with them. They showed too much potential for athletics so the high school coaches wrangled the other boys, and got my brothers into weight training. I, on the other hand, was left at the mercy of smirks and catty comments. Most girls made fun of my clogs, and macramé bag, and one even asked if my mother was “a real doctor and not just a medicine woman.” I didn’t know that actual Indian Reservations were within a two-hour drive from town, and they didn’t realize that Filipino women became more than just mail order brides.
But in my freshman year of high school everyone seemed to change, their bodies and their attitudes. Even I filled out in some places, and only lengthened in others. I was stronger and more competitive in sports, and that brought me closer to my teammates. The other girls were nicer to me too. They complimented my clothes and hair, which I wore down and long rather than in a ponytail or braid.
And then Brett came to our school. Being white and a guy, it was an easier transition for him than me, for sure. But I could tell he was trying to fit in as well. He was tall but not the most athletic. He had jet black, curly hair, and deep set brown eyes. He was freckly, and lanky, not super talkative but not brooding either. I didn’t know where he came from, but he was not a farmer. He was too sharp and witty, but not snobby either, just open.
“Hey,” he said to me one day at my locker. “What’s the deal with lunch around here? I see a lot of trays of food in the cafeteria but no money exchanging. Do I just get in line?”
“Yea, if you don’t have money they put a mark by your name and bill your parents at the end of the month.” I said, “My folks gave me no info my first day either. Mrs. Paulson is nice, she’s got your back.”
“Cool, thanks.” He walked away, and then turned around at the end of the hall and called out, “I’m Brett.”
I just nodded and smiled. I never knew what to call myself. All the teachers called me Virginia when they took roll. It was my given name, but then one girl started calling me Ginny, and it stuck with the other kids. I guess it was easy for them, like Becky being short for Rebecca. But to me, a girl called Ginny wore ruffled skirts and weird hats that tied at the chin.
The next day my mother dropped me off in front of the school, and called out her window, “Gigi! Come to my office right after school, OK? Don’t forget. Dentist hah!”
I nodded and waved, then saw Brett crossing the street towards me.
“Gigi, huh? That’s cool,” he said. “I thought your name was Ginny.”
“That’s what everyone at school calls me,” I said. “My family calls me Gigi.” Filipinos loved nicknames, like Totoy or JunJun.
“Filipino. Is that what you are?” Brett asked. “So where is that? Near Hawaii or something?”
No one had ever asked me about the location of the Philippines. They just nodded as if they knew, their eyes searching their minds for confirmation. At least he tried to guess.
“Farther, closer to Vietnam. North of Australia, south of Japan.”
“Huh. Can’t say geography is my strongest subject.”
“It’s ok. I’ve never been there,” I said. “I was born in New York.”
“Explains the accent,” he said.
“Where are you from?”
“Oh, well, sorry about your Cubs.”
“There’s no shame in it,” he said. “It’s easy to be a Yankees fan. But it takes true faith to be a Cubs fan.” He opened the door to the school for me.
“I like the Mets,” I said.
“Same difference,” he said. “It’s still a sign.”
“A sign of what?” I asked.
Once in the door, he was swept up by a couple of guys with a trail of girls giggling behind him.
“That you’re cool,” he said. He turned and walked away with some older boys. New kid in town, I thought, and easy to like.
We didn’t hang out much but he was close to my friend Mary Seltzer. Her father owned a grocery store and she lived close to school. She had dark brown hair, and bright green cat eyes. She was super skinny, and her butt wiggled when she walked. Brett sat behind Mary in history class the whole school year, and once in a while she would let him cheat off her when we had a quiz. He would whisper in her ear and I could see her shoulders shake as she stifled a laugh.
“I don’t know how you two never get caught,” I said. “It’s so obvious that you guys are talking.”
“I think Mr. Douglas likes Brett,” Mary said. “Or he just doesn’t want to pick on him ‘cause he’s new. Wait til next year, Brett will be kicked out every day.”
It was hard to imagine because Brett was so likeable and didn’t run with just one crowd. All the teachers had their target group. The English teachers hated the jocks, the math teachers the farmer kids, history the nerds, and so on. Brett hung out with everyone. At lunch, he sat with the brainy, soft-spoken types, like Joey Barnes or Kyle Johnson, clean-cut boys from the Catholic school that got good grades, but never raised their hand in class or spoke out of turn. Brett played basketball so he had practice after school with the other jocks. He wasn’t a great player but often times he would be on the court early to goof around rather than warm up, or would stay late shooting around with the coaches.
Sometimes in the morning, I would see him hanging out with some of the farm boys waiting for the bell to ring. He wore a denim jacket with sheepskin lining just like they did, but he looked too clean and scrawny to be coming in from the fields. Brett would have a toothpick hanging out his mouth just like them, but he wouldn’t scoff at people, or tease the middle school kids. By Spring he was a sure bet for next year’s homecoming court.
“Hey Gigi, what do you do on weekends?” Brett asked, “Why aren’t you ever around?” He was placing pins on a frog we dissected in biology class.
“My parents are kind of strict,” I said.
“What about the movies?” he asked, not lifting his head. “Want to go to the show with a bunch of us on Friday night?”
“You could sleep at my house,” Mary said, and passed Brett another pin.
“I guess. I’ll ask my parents,” I said. “You know they’re not big on sleepovers.”
“We can get pizza across the street after,” Mary said. “Everyone goes over after the movie. It’s really fun.”
I was never invited to the roller-skating rink, or the bowling alley on Friday nights so I had no idea what other kids did on the weekend. I had a sense, but never really knew what I was missing. Most of the time I just hung out at home with my parents, watching whatever they wanted on TV, or reading in my room alone. They didn’t seem to care either way if I was with them, but they never took me out or encouraged me to go out with friends. So, it was no surprise that when I asked them if I could spend the night at Mary’s they just went with their usual “No.”
“Please? Just this once,” I asked.
“Why do you want to go there?” My mother was washing dishes and didn’t look at me. She often talked like she was conversing with her own mind. If she couldn’t think of a reason for me to want to go out, there must not be one.
“We’ll go to the movies. Then have some pizza,” I said. “You don’t have to drive all the way back to town to pick me up. I can meet you at the hospital in the morning during your rounds.”
“There’s no one to watch you,” she said. “Who will stay with you at the movie?” By this she meant adults. If we lived in Long Island she probably wouldn’t drop me off at a movie theater with my friends, but that also wasn’t a town of eleven hundred people, one third of which were probably related to each other in some way. Not a day went by when I didn’t meet someone who had been treated by my mother, or was Mary’s aunt, or a staff member at the school.
“We will watch a movie here,” she said. “You stay home.” The fewer words she used, the thicker her accent sounded.
I went to my room, sentenced to the same routine. The isolation of living by the lake frustrated me. When we first moved in, it was great. It was summer, we swam all day, ran around the blueberry bushes in the woods, went fishing off the dock, and grew our own vegetables. I had a sketchbook and spent hours drawing the boats on the lake, the sunset, random trees and birds. But the novelty wore off like cheap nail polish. It felt more like self-imposed exile created by my parents. We were outsiders, and living in the country kept us that way.
“Sorry you can’t come with us tonight Gigi,” Mary said at lunch the next day. She started calling me Gigi once she heard Brett say it a couple of times, and a few of the nicer girls did too. I liked the sound of it, as though they wanted me in their group even though I hadn’t grown up with them, or had a cousin marry into their family.
“I’ll call you in the morning to give you the scoop if anything happens.” Mary raised her eyebrows as she said this. I wasn’t sure what she meant but I already felt left out of something. Mary invited Katie Dern to the movie once she knew I couldn’t go. Katie also lived in town. Her father owned a car dealership and her mother was a hairstylist. Katie’s hair was blonde and feathered back like Farrah Fawcett’s, and her sister had the Dorothy Hamill cut. Katie kept telling Mary that she would look great with curly hair and should let her mom give her a perm, but Mary said she couldn’t stand the smell for as long as it would take to set.
When that Friday came around I felt like my friends easily forgot about me. Katie and Mary lived only ten blocks from each other and even closer to other kids at school. They all went to the same church, ate in town at the same restaurants, would see each other walking their dogs or mowing their lawns. I wasn’t missed because I was never there. The only events I was allowed to attend were my brothers’ games, and even those had to be home games. Mary never called me the next morning, but the following Monday Brett came by my locker.
“Hey, you didn’t miss much last Friday,” he said. “Your parents saved you from a lame movie and cold pizza.” I nodded and opened the door to my locker.
“You know I’m thinking of playing baseball this summer,” he said.
“Really?” I switched out my books, not looking at him.
“I’m no Mookie Wilson, but you should try to get to the games.” He repeatedly tossed a copy of David Copperfield in the air and caught it.
“That’s not really swaying me,” I said and shut the door to my locker.
“Oh c’mon. Even bad baseball is fun baseball,” he said, and grinned.
Will Simon rushed by and stole the book out of Brett’s hand and tossed it to another boy. Brett started down the hall to catch up with them, but then turned around and called out, “Try to get to a game Gigi! Want to see you around this summer!”
I heard some boys ooh at me, and a few girls laugh but I just rolled my eyes and went to class. On the bus ride home I thought about how Brett remembered that I liked the Mets. I imagined going to a baseball game and actually knowing one of the players. But once I saw my house on the lake, I knew another summer of solitary was ahead.
“Hey, what are you doing?” Mary called the morning of the party. I was glad to hear her voice. She worked at the Dairy Queen so we hardly talked, but she had the day off.
“Just hanging out,” I said. “My dad took Ray and Joe fishing.”
“Can you come in to town?” I could hear people talking in the background. She was probably on her kitchen phone.
“I don’t know, why?” I looked out the kitchen window to see if my dad’s boat was still gone.
Mary lowered her voice. “There’s a party at the river.”
“Are you going? How will you get there?”
“I don’t know but Katie said Will and Tim are heading out at noon.” Will Simon and Tim Weaver were in the grade ahead of us. Will drove an old blue Mustang convertible that he bought with money he earned washing dishes at the hospital on weekends. “Just see if you can come over,” Mary said.
“I’ll try. But either way, call me if you get a ride.”
“Ok, but hurry up and get here.”
I had only been to the river once, when Raymond drove a teammate out there after their softball game last summer. Trent Miller’s uncle owned the land and all the Miller boys and their cousins used it for fishing or parking or parties. Raymond drove my father’s Ford Bronco, and I was along for the ride home. That night I saw the pick-up trucks, and could smell wood burning. I heard the beat of the music, and buzz of the crowd and realized what high school would be like. I saw a future and couldn’t wait to be a part of it. When we got home, Raymond said to me, “Don’t ever go out there. Dad would kill you.”
Three hours passed and Mary hadn’t called. There was still plenty of time to get to the party. It would go for most of the night anyway, with a bonfire going and maybe even a keg of beer. But I wanted to go before it got dark. I washed my hair and blew it dry, out of nervous energy. I put on some black eyeliner and frosty plum eye shadow, and then dusted my cheekbones with cherry blush just in case I got to go. The makeup made me look older, and my face a little thinner. I used mascara to lengthen my lashes but wanted to wait to put on lip gloss for when I got to town.
“Gigi phone,” my mother called from the kitchen.
“It’s a boy,” she said, and furrowed her eyebrows as I took the receiver from her.
“Gig, it’s Brett.” He dropped the “e” sound at the end of my name, shortening it even more. It was annoying and cute at the same time.
“Oh hi. What are you doing?” I turned away from my mother who was about to take a cleaver to a raw chicken.
“I’m seeing if you’re going to the river,” he said.
“I don’t know,” I said. “I’m supposed to meet Mary.”
“Then will you come to the river?” He sounded like a kid asking for dessert. I smiled but didn’t want to get my hopes up.
“I’m not sure I’ll even get to town,” I said.
“What if I come and get you?”
“How are you going to do that?”
“I’ll figure it out,” he said. “Get ready. I’ll see you later.”
There was mischief in his voice that made me anxious. I didn’t really believe him, but I still felt drawn to his confidence. I started to picture the scene in my mind. Older girls in crop tops and cut-offs smoking cigarettes, and boys carrying twelve-packs of beer, some in high school, some just graduated. Some of them would have on cowboy boots and jeans with faded rings left on the pockets from their snuff cans. There would be speakers set on the roof of someone’s Chevy or El Camino, and music could be heard down river.
I just needed permission to go to Mary’s. There was no guarantee we would get to the river anyway so I could say we were just going to play cards at her house, or get a root beer float at the A&W. I heard the sound of the boat’s engine coming closer to the shore then stop as it drifted toward the dock, waves washing up on the sand and rocks.
“Gigi!” my father yelled. He had a baritone of a voice and often spoke louder than necessary. “Gigi! Your turn!”
I wasn’t sure what he had in mind. My “turn” just meant he felt guilty for leaving me behind or focusing only on the boys. Sometimes it manifested into a gift; a small ring or pin that he saw at JCPenney, nothing that required long spans of attention.
“Gigi, we’re getting the skis. Let’s go,” Raymond called, as he walked up to the house and into the garage.
“I don’t want to go,” I called back from my bedroom window. My mother opened my door without knocking.
“You need to go. Daddy is waiting.” She set down some clean laundry on my bed.
“Can I go to Mary’s?”
“Why Mary’s? Your father wants to take you water skiing,” she said. She opened my dresser drawers and put my socks inside, then my t-shirts.
“I don’t want to go water skiing. I want to go into town.”
“What is in town,” she said. “It’s family time.”
“My friends are there.”
“Your friends,” she said. “If your friends want you, let them come and get you. I go to and from town every night for emergencies, deliveries. I’m sick of the drive.”
“Raymond can drive me,” I said.
“Raymond is skiing,” she said. “As you should be. The lake is right there. Use it.”
“Fine.” I grabbed my swimsuit from the open drawer. “Will you take me to Mary’s after?”
“No, Hija,” she said. “Tomorrow after church we will go shopping in Fargo.”
“Gigi! Come on!” Raymond yelled.
“Now go,” my mother said. Then she slammed the drawer shut and walked out of my room without closing the door behind her.
I got dressed and went down to the dock, my flip-flopped feet stomping on the worn wood. Raymond was standing at the bow of the boat. His hair was cut so close to his head in the back that it stuck out a like porcupine, while the rest of it was long enough to sweep over the top. He had narrow eyes like my father’s and mine; only his cheekbones were high and sharp like my mother’s.
“What’s your problem?” He was waiting for me to untie the boat and throw him the line. Joseph was stowing the tackle box under one of the seats.
“Nothing.” I threw a life vest that was lying on the dock into the back of the boat.
“Well, hurry up. Untie the boat and get in.” He grabbed the vest and put it on, snapping the straps together.
“I don’t even want to go,” I said. My face felt hot and a knot was forming in my throat.
“So stay then,” he said, and jumped onto the dock to untie the boat himself. My father was collecting the fishing rods and placing them inside some hollow poles he had set up on the shore.
“Ano ba?” he said. “Bakit?” My father looked at both boys. Raymond shrugged and gestured a nod toward me.
“You don’t want to ski?” my father asked.
“I want to go to town,” I said. I blinked hard so not to cry.
“She wants to go to the river,” Raymond said.
“Shut up,” I said, and glared at him with narrowed eyes.
“What’s this?” my father asked. “What riber?” He always pronounced his “v”s like a “b”.
“I want to go to Mary’s,” I pleaded.
“It’s a party Dad,” Raymond said. “Out past Big Pine.”
“No.” My father shook his head. “No riber,” he said. “Lake.” He pointed at the water.
“Ugh! Thanks a lot,” I shouted at Raymond. “Next time mind your own business!”
I stomped back up to the house and slammed the back door. I locked myself in the bathroom so no one could get to me. I grabbed a Kleenex and started to wipe the eye shadow from my lids. Tears welled up in my eyes and I felt my face crumple when I saw myself in the mirror. I turned on the water so no one could hear me cry, then cupped my hands under the stream from the faucet, and buried my face in them. I could feel my nose and face turn more slippery as I sobbed, and I squeezed my eyes shut to keep from wailing. I almost wanted to drown in that water, to take a deep breath and disappear under the weight of it. But I choked and coughed, and opened my eyes to my stuttered breathing. I pulled a towel out of a cabinet and dried my face. In the mirror, I saw my puffy eyes and lips, my cheeks and nose a red and little raw, looking babyish without any makeup.
I heard a knock on the door and then my mother’s voice. “Gigi? Are you in there?” I rolled up the towel and threw it in the hamper.
“Open the door,” she said.
“One second.” I didn’t care that I snapped at her. I wanted the anger in my voice to be known, to hit her in the face. As soon as I opened the door I brushed passed her in the hall without looking at her.
“Gigi.” She whispered and followed me into my room. “You know that Brett Paul?” She always spoke of strangers in modifiers, like they were objects on a shelf.
“What about him.” I kept turned away from her and kicked off my sandals into my closet. I didn’t want her to see that I had cried.
“What? You’re lying.” I would have never called my mother a liar to her face but I was convinced she was just trying to scare me with a rumor from some nurse.
“There was a car accident,” she said. “I have to go to town.”
“I just talked to him,” I scoffed. “That was him on the phone.”
She ignored my disrespect. “He was in the backseat. The kids driving were drunk.”
I found out later that Brett was riding with Tim in Will’s convertible with the top down, on Highway 17. They lost control of the car, ran off the road and hit a slough. Brett was thrown into the ditch and killed instantly. They were four miles from my house.
At the funeral, an enlarged copy of Brett’s school picture was displayed at the front of the church along side a portrait of him with his parents and older sister. As I watched his parents weep and console each other, I felt both responsible for their loss and guilty for being spared. Mary and Katie sat with Tim and Will behind Brett’s family. I wanted to sit with them too but my mother pulled me into a pew off to the side. Even then I wanted to be with them, to be part of their communal pain and misery. When the casket was brought in, Brett’s absence was overwhelming.
I pressed my lips together as tears ran down my cheeks. My mother nudged me and passed me a tissue, oblivious to my yearning and loss. I knew she would never understand how I so wanted to included and belong, and to be bound forever by the memory of a summer party. I was sure she thought such wishes were trivial, and my show of emotion was gratuitous.
My hands shook with sorrow and I sobbed. Because what I wanted back wasn’t the party, or the movies, or the baseball games about to happen. It was the phone call, the sound of Brett’s voice as he grinned, and the way he said my name. I already pined for how it made me feel, like I wasn’t missing anything but that I was the one being missed. I had waited so long to feel that way, and my heart shattered at not knowing if I would ever feel that way again.
Wendy Tatlonghari Burg is a Filipino-American poet and writer with an MA from California State University, Long Beach. Her work has appeared in The Ravens Perch and Sublime Odyssey. Her story, “Yearning,” is part of a larger collection that explores the immigrant experience in the U.S. She lives in Los Angeles with her husband and two children.