When I reminisce about my childhood, one year always stands out. And that was when I was nine. So many things seemed to happen that time. It seemed that my life started from that point. Anyway, this short story is not autobiographical, although most of the events here did happen, I embellished it a bit...no, a lot!
The Albino Cockroach
When I was nine, I was visited by an albino cockroach. She had been living under the Balete tree in the front garden of an abandoned hotel in the middle of the village I was living in at that time. Tropical Palace, it was called, and the Village was BF Homes, Paranaque. My father used to work for the hotel before it closed down. In what capacity, I now do not remember. It just wasn't interesting information to a nine-year-old.
We rented an apartment (my father, mother and I- well, they rented it, I just lived with them) across the street from the hotel parking lot. It used to be a grand hotel, too. Five-star, they say. Judging from the size of the parking lot and lobby, I could well believe it although everything seemed big to me at that time.
The kids next door and I used to treat the hotel complex as one giant playground. The parking lot we used for patintero, the mini golf-course we used for bahaw-bahaw (the soft grass kept skinned knees to a minimum), the lobby (with its dilapidated counters and giant banga) we used for taguan. The swimming pool was still functional and the village employed a lifeguard, so we also had our swim parties during the weekend.
What wonderful summers we used to have there! It was there that I learned how to ride a bike. My father would run after me holding the seat of the bike because I couldn't balance yet, while I pedaled furiously with no regard to the buckets my father sweated. What a workout he must have had! My playmates just looked on drolly from the sidewalk.
I remember my first crash. I had just learned to balance and was enjoying my independence when out of the blue, a big tourist bus came at me head-on. I don't know if the driver saw the little girl on the bike too big for her just paces away from him. I would never know because I had decided to swerve sharply to the right and crash the bike into the gutter. You see, I have not learned how to brake yet!
All the while, my father was watching. With his heart in his throat, he later told my mother. He didn't shout at me because he didn't want me to panic and he was too far away to run after me. I think it was at that moment that my father learned to trust my decisions. He knew after that day that I had a strong sense of self-preservation and I would always find high ground.
Have I introduced the kids next door? There was Rosalie whom we called Lalie. She was a year older, tall and skinny. I always thought she walked funny, like she was always on stilts. In retrospect, I think her body outgrew her and she didn't know how to handle her long legs yet. There was Ian, who had a repaired harelip and a lisp. He was understandably shy and he never spoke when not spoken to. Then there was Bing, the baby. She was merely six and had the sweetest and most endearing personality. I was never cross with her. I never got annoyed with her. Even then, I may have subconsciously known how little time she had left.
There was also Lucille, with whom I shared a nickname (Lotlot), the adopted daughter of our landlady. She was nine, too but she seemed much older because she was so obese. Then there was Iyay, the daughter of our landlady's helper. I remember the three of us playing with Barbie dolls in Lucille's air-conditioned bedroom. Lucille sent Iyay's mother to buy lechon manok and we anticipated eating it with her. She did not share! Can you imagine a nine-year-old girl eating a whole roast chicken by herself?! I told my father about it and he just laughed.
It was 1986, the year when the Marcos regime fell and the widowed housewife of a slain political leader rose to power. Her favorite color was yellow. With the naivete of children, we were influenced by all the media hype, choosing good over evil, yellow over red. Our playtime uniform consisted of shorts in floral print paired with yellow tanktops, with or without the painted hand forming the sign for "L". We collectively insisted on yellow slippers, too, to the amusement of our parents. Our favorite song was "Magkaisa" and our favorite snack was "Cheesedog", barrel-shaped chips packaged in yellow plastic with the requisite "L" hand sign and the words "Laban". That was the marketing strategy of a genius.
It was one lazy afternoon when it was so hot we did not want to play patintero, that I first saw the albino cockroach. The six of us were resting on a nylon folding bed we had dragged all the way from the apartment. We were under the ancient Balete tree in the front garden of the Tropical Palace and swapping outrageous lies. Lalie was bragging that her Barbie had a castle. Well, what else could I do but say mine had her own swimming pool? Lucille was just listening to us, with a sneer that said, "you poor braggarts". She didn't have to boast, we've seen and played with her multitude of dolls and the Barbie car and Ken and the walk-in Barbie closet.
Just at that moment when I wanted to punch Lucille's face, I saw movement near our dangling feet. I looked and stared at that tiny cockroach skittering from one slipper to the next. My eyes bulged and it was several seconds before I was able to scream, "White lady!" In our haste to run away, the folding bed toppled over and we left our slippers behind, unmindful of the pavement scorching our bare soles.
Perhaps, so deeply entrenched in my consciousness was the sinister reputation of Balete trees. Paired with the rarity of a pure white cockroach, I instantly jumped to the conclusion that the hapless creature was a white lady taking on an animal form. It was fortunate for the cockroach that we didn?t trample her.
That night, when I told my father about the cockroach, he reinforced my beliefs about the supernatural, advising me not to play near the Balete again. He was capitalizing on that incident to make sure I stayed indoors during the hottest time of the day. Naturally, I dreamt about the albino cockroach in a dream so cliche, I probably just saw the whole scene in a movie before. In it, she transformed into this faceless maiden with, what else but a flowing white dress. Everywhere was gray smoke and the smell of burning candles was redolent.
"Charlotte," she said in a whispery contralto that scared rather than soothed.
"Yes?" I managed to squeak.
"Charlotte, don't play in the parking lot tomorrow."
It rained that night. Peculiar rain with a smattering of ice, our lady neighbor claimed. We were all asleep when the lady came home from work. She was a pokpok, I heard the tindera in the nearby store say one time. All I knew about pokpoks then was that they came home late, slept all morning and were really pretty.
The morning after, the streets were still wet, but the ice had all melted, it seemed. However, my father exclaimed that the plastic roof over our makeshift garage had lots of cracks and holes. There may have been some truth about the lady saying it rained ice the night before. The morning light itself was strange. There was an orange cast to it, the blues and greens muted but the yellows and the reds hurt the eyes in their brilliance.
I spent the morning indoors watching television, something I rarely do in the summer. I could still remember the dream, and was full of a morbid expectation. I knew something was going to happen that day. I knew, too, that it wasn?t going to be pleasant.
At around three in the afternoon, my playmates were banging at the door, calling out and asking if I wanted to play patintero. I did not even come to the door to refuse, I just went on watching the television set but seeing nothing. I kept hearing the scary whisper from last night's dream, "...don't play in the parking lot tomorrow...", over and over again.
They tired of waiting for me and left. I assumed they went to the parking lot. We had a patintero tournament going on at that time and the score was tied. I was assuming, too that one kid was going to sit it out because I didn't play. Most likely Bing, since she was the youngest. It turned out that I was right, horrifyingly so.
Thirty minutes after they left my front door, I heard them running back and shouting. I couldn't make out what it was that they were screaming but my heart was beating so fast, my palms were so wet and I was shaking. What I dreaded had come to pass, I knew. I just didn't know what it was.
I went outside on leaden legs, afraid of what I might behold. They were at the next door, Bing?s door. Lucille was sobbing, Ian was deathly pale and silent. It was Lalie, the eldest in our group who was shouting, "Bing! Bing! The bus! The bus!" while pointing towards the parking lot and I knew. Iyay was gasping for breath but she noticed me looking on and stared at me with accusing eyes.
I ran to the parking lot and the tourist bus that nearly ran me over was there, huge and menacing. People surrounded the front - helpers, drivers and guards. Everyone was silent. I squeezed between them and stopped. The bus driver was crouched by the right front wheel. Near his legs I could see a small hand, so still and white.
"Where is she? Where is my daughter?" I heard Bing's father behind me. He sounded angry, scared and hopeful at the same time. Is that even possible? The throng parted to let Bing's parents through. The silence became even more pronounced.
"You son of a -" Bing's father has now collared the bus driver and was getting ready to punch him when he was stopped short by Tita Evelyn's shout.
"My daughter! My daughter! Call an ambulance quick! What are you waiting for?! What are you all waiting for?!" I saw Tita Evelyn crawl under the bus and pull at something. I saw her cradle a body in her arms. That couldn't be Bing. No, Bing would never have worn red. We always wore yellow, yellow was our color for the summer.
Tita Evelyn was rocking back and forth now, her face crumpled and purple. There was an odd sound coming from her throat, like my dog Onni when he was growling at strangers. I felt hands on my shoulders, trying to pull me back. It was my father.
"Lot, let's go home."
"No, I want to stay. That's not Bing. Bing doesn't wear red. I want to find Bi---ing." Why did my voice tremble? My father lifted me up and got me out of there. My mother was waiting across the street and my father handed me to her.
"Come here, anak," she was cooing. I put my arms around her and rested my chin on her neck. My mother smelled wonderful. Like the sampaguita flowers we hung on our Sto. Nino every Sunday. I will never forget the smell of my mother?s hair that day. I didn't see my father head back towards the crowd. I didn't know that he was the one who called an ambulance and that he went with Tito Egay and Tita Evelyn to the hospital. I only learned about the details the next day.
I didn't eat dinner that night. My mother tried to spoonfeed me but I just turned my head. She finally gave up and helped me change for bed. I slept as soon as my head hit the pillow?and dreamt again.
This time the cockroach retained her insect form but she was much bigger. She kept on twittering her antennae and flashing her wings. She was in the middle of the parking lot. From out of nowhere, the tourist bust ran her over with a big crunchy sound and then everything went red. I heard myself screaming, "Bing!"
The next thing I knew I was being shaken awake by my dad. "Shhh, it was just a dream, Lot."
"It was my fault, Daddy! I didn't play. The cockroach told me not to. The cockroach told me." I was sobbing.
"It was nobody's fault. It was an accident," my father tried to soothe me. "Promise me, you will never play at the parking lot again, okay?" I just nodded.
There was a wake for Bing the next night at their apartment. I went with my parents and held on to my mother's hand all the time we were there. Lalie and the rest were sitting at one corner, being uncharacteristically well-behaved and quiet. They looked at me when we came in. Then Iyay whispered something to Lalie and Lalie whispered to Lucille and Lucille whispered to Ian who just shook his head. They never looked at me after that.
I wanted to cry but I didn't. I looked down and saw something that scared me enough to tug at my mother's hand and ask to be taken home. There, on the floor near Bing's coffin, was a tiny pure white cockroach.
DISCLAIMER: THIS IS A WORK OF FICTION AND ONLY VERY LOOSELY BASED ON TRUE EVENTS.
My very first TBR :-)