I spilled juice on the plane’s seat, stuck my fingers in the armrest ashtray, had to pee at all the wrong times. We flew for a wedding of relatives I never knew: me in an off-shoulder party dress, throwing petal to path, smile-nodding to no one. My lola wanted me to know the faces of aunts & cousins, their voices, the heavy air, the taste of coconut scraped by a spoon, & even the language I never learned, just its animals & exclamations, its body parts & potluck dishes. I ate mango for the first time, sticky sweet orange-yellow and told my lola, it’s gooder than a peach! She wanted me to get my ears pierced. All the other little girls will have theirs pierced, even the babies. I asked, how much does it hurt? pinched the skin on her arm—this much?
It was different when he could teenage
around in Arayat, blow smoke with cousins,
gulp tall, yellow beers. He has never been
an adult there. He’d walk into a house full
of new relatives, glassy skin lechón on the table
to celebrate his return. Cousins, nieces, nephews
requesting Mano, po? would line up
to press foreheads to his hand in bless.
He might see a ghost, a father
he hasn’t seen in 41 years. A familiar face
in a stranger: the man who delivers warm
& sweet pandesal on his bicycle with the same
long, straight teeth from my smile,
or an old man slouching smoke
into thick air on the curb. What if he asks
this man for a match & sees my sister’s
eyes looking back at him? A face he once saw
in an old photograph.
He has half-brothers, but that’s all
anyone knows, not their names or what
their laughs sound like, if their teeth
are gapped, eyebrows thick. If the half
in common is a stranger, are you still brothers?
What if he forgets how to do or say something:
Tagalog stale on his Kentucky tongue.
The people who raised him have disappeared
into a neighborhood of mausoleums. He has
one aunt left. Last winter she taught my sister & me
how to eat an Ilocano bean, its fibers
pulled through biting teeth.
What if he remembers everything:
the rice balanced on a greasy thumb
& scooped into a mouth, the sour
bite of pink buro from a jar, pig shit
swirled in dust, house slippers
slapping tile before dawn,
the little boy in him left
here with all the cousins, no one
to call nanay or tatay, alone,
the shape of him on a mattress
the version of him that stayed.