Down from Doonside Station
Mama holds three grocery bags and her purse in one hand
while she holds my hand with the other.
We left my brothers at the Video Ezy –
two stores down from Doonside Station.
I wanted to stay with them,
so that they didn’t just hire stupid action movies,
but Mama never let go of my hand.
Mama pulls me into a store with a name made of palm trees.
Brittle brooms huddled in a corner,
sacks of rice sleep on the floor,
five different types of coconut water chilling.
Mama rifles through a neat pile of soup bases.
Reminds of how I look for NSYNC in my CD collection,
desperate to start a one-man dance party in my room.
Mama is looking for sinigang or adobo I bet.
Those are Mama’s go-to for a stress-free dinner.
Anything that will stop the chicken thighs
from sweating through the paper.
Mama brings four packs to the counter:
two sinigang and two adobo.
They’re thin and square and brown and plain,
plainer than the pack of rainbow treats
she’s managed to sneak under them, just for me.
‘Isa lang?’ the cashier asks, holding up the pack of polvoron.
The cashier has the same brown and freckled complexion Mama has,
but her face is oval, while ours are round.
‘Isa lang,’ Mama responds, trying to push the treats out of my sight.
‘Just one,’ Mama repeats in English after some time,
as she watches my eyes trail the glossy, rainbow pack.
The cashier’s eyes are sunken and Mama sighs between most words.
Mama’s Nokia vibrates in her purse, but she ignores it.
Papa’s the only one who has her number.
The last phone call she had with him ended in a million swear words.
It was just after we had gotten off the train and people were starting to stare.
Mama pays in cash and grabs my arm, squeezing harder than she had before.
I cry louder than Regine, the Filipino songstress trapped in the TV
teetering above the cashier’s head.
‘I’m sorry, anak!’
I’m wrapped in my mother’s warmth,
her shirt now home to my tears.
Mama opens the treats, each carefully wrapped in cellophane
‘Isa lang,’ she says, handing me a yellow one
knowing it’s my favourite colour.
Lily smelled like Playdoh.
The yellow one to be exact.
We met at the Mormon church,
perched on a hill near Huntington Heights,
but went to different schools.
Lily and I were soulmates,
long before we knew what that meant.
Our birthdays were only a few days apart.
We ate the same cake made of caramel swirls
and blew out the same candles.
We held hands. I watched the way my brown skin
became Brown against her White skin
until we had to leave sacrament.
Our mothers ripped us apart.
Lily and I stole glances at each other
when we were meant to be praying.
We always sat in the same wooden pew.
Her golden hair tied in a loose ponytail.
She usually had remnants of jam on her cheeks.
Then Lily’s yellow Playdoh hair grew past her shoulders.
My voice became deeper than the valley behind the temple.
When we were put into separate Bible classes
her family began to sit in a different pew
and I never seemed to catch her bluest eye anymore.
For the longest time I was convinced my soul was pink
when my body was brown.
Mama was expecting twins but only one made it to this world.
Her name was meant to start with a ‘V’.
I’ve long forgotten it because Mama would only ever mention her
when I plucked white hairs from her shiny scalp.
‘Gusto ko gawin nya ito,’ she would croon,
wishing she was paying ‘V’ a silver coin for every strand.
Sometimes I would catch Mama staring at me,
her terracotta wrinkles would smooth
and her plump shoulders would drop
whenever I would sing along to Mariah Carey in the bathroom,
‘And I know you’re shining down on me from heaven.’
Mama would smile at us whenever my sisters
dressed me in their clothes, their heels and their finest Hot Dollar store makeup.
My brothers joked about it all the time,
that ‘V’ was alive, just in my body, and I would laugh in brown-pink.
Was I walking the long way home from school through Woodcroft Lake
just to make fun of the boys she was supposed to fall in love with?
Was she meant to be the one throwing peace signs in my Timezone sticker photos
making bunny ears behind my friends who were all much shorter than me?
Perhaps I was looking for anything that explained why I was different
from the other Brown boys, who liked rugby and tits and spat everywhere.
Brown boys who I liked.
I just don’t think anyone outside of my superstitious Filipino family ever believes me
when I tell them, ‘I can feel ‘V’, tinkering around in my heart.’
It was produced as part of a series, published in partnership with Sweatshop: Western Sydney Literacy Movement. Editorial support for each poem published in A Sweatshop in a Red Room, has been provided by Winnie Dunn.