You have been very busy preparing for tonight. It is the last day of the year, and you have been on a holiday rush, along with others, who are milling about in the mall, jostling one another in the supermarket. You decide to tag me along so that you can have someone to carry the bags of groceries, which are enough to last for a week. I suspect that all of them are for tonight; you’re the type who welcomes the New Year lavishly. Have you checked our purchases? Have you noticed the seemingly countless round fruits in Styrofoam and All-wrap bearing their weight in my hand? As we ford through the crowd, I try to keep close to you, lest I get lost and won’t be able to make it home with you tonight. (Walking the distance between the mall and our house is out of the question; it would be too far. And I can’t call you up on a cellphone—you simply refuse to give me one although I have always said that I’m old enough to have one.) I can already imagine myself—while we hurry through the throng of the holiday-fevered shoppers—being alone in the huge mall, crying, like how a child would, looking for you, running through the maze of people, beset with fear that will last until the stroke of midnight. I don’t want to spend the rest of my year wailing. It’s one of the countless things you have taught me—to welcome the New Year with happiness.
I remember when I was much younger, much smaller, you told me to jump around the house while the neighbors set off firecrackers on our fence, while I blew through the torotot, while you made noise with a ladle and an iron pot—clang! clang! clang! You emphasized the importance of jumping around during the first hour of the year, and I
understood you, word per word. I needed to get taller because my girl classmates were getting a head start and were bullying me about it. I just couldn’t let them dominate over me.
And now that I have grown taller, I let you tell me to carry the grocery bags.
“Because you’re the man,” you cajoled me. I wish I could tell you that this is only for today, but I don’t want to ruin the chance of getting that game console I’ve been badgering you about. Come to think of it, I don’t think you have any plans of granting me my wish. We are already heading toward the exit.
“Minda?” a woman approaches you from nowhere. “Oh my god, it is you,” she says above the din. We stop. You instantly recognize her. The way your face suddenly brightens up testifies to that. You two run toward each other, lock each other in an embrace.
“Oh my, Adel, it’s been a long time since we have seen each other,” you say. Judging by your statement, I’d say that you have already presumed that this Adel, who appears to be of your age but less unfortunate—she doesn’t have a piece of jewelry on (and you always say that you cannot leave the house without wearing one, lest you bump into one of your old friends)—hasn’t been avoiding you before. And if you were to ask me, I’d say that you’re right: she does seem both surprised and happy to see you.
“Is this your boy?” The woman turns to me and ruffles my hair.
“He has grown very tall now.”
“Yes, yes. He’s already 14 years old.”
“Fourteen, eh? Goodness gracious, how time flies!”
“Yes, yes. So how are you?” You ask her, fingering your golden necklace, lightly tugging at the pendant, which was made of rubies shaped into a crucifix. “How have you been doing?” “Same old, same old.” “You mean to say…” You sound appalled; your eyes and mouth widen into an O. But don’t worry about it. You don’t look phony, however
funny your expression may be. It’s just you, and if this Adel were your true friend, she wouldn’t mind. Like I said, it’s just you.
“Yep, I’m still single.”
“And you haven’t gotten back with Ruel.”
“Why should I? You know how he mistreated me. I have no plans at all of getting back with that monster.” Though your conversation seems to involve a sensitive topic, neither you nor this Adel is ill at ease. You two must be really good friends who haven’t seen each other in a while. I would know; you have this habit of inviting friends over while Papa is at sea, or getting into long conversations with friends whom you have bumped into. And I always end up listening, because you always tag me along.
“Look at you,” Adel says. “You look great! How’s your husband? Is he still connected with the cruise liner?”
“He has retired, decided to put up a business here instead.” Your eyes avoid hers.
“For the first time in years, he’s celebrating the New Year with us.”
“That’s good to hear. Glad to know that.”
“Well, we have to go.” You sigh, as if you were extremely in a hurry to get home. “You know we should talk more.” Fishing your cellphone from your bag, you ask for her number. After exchanging contact information, we bid goodbye to this Adel, and I notice that, unlike us, she’s carrying a smaller bag of groceries.
You are walking too fast again, and for a moment there, I almost lost you in the busy crowd. Please consider that I am straining to carry our purchases here and that I’m trying not to look weak-kneed, although the bags are like full of bricks. So we have to walk slower, lest I, your son, who has grown tall and showing signs of being a man, stumble and get humiliated.
Once we are in the cab, I want to ask you about the woman. I want to know why all of a sudden you’re looking out the window, silent. I want to know why you are heaving deep sighs, as though you were trying to expel the fume of the city from your lungs. But I opt to look out my side of the window, and watch the traffic, the people in the streets, the Badjaos who are cradling a child in one arm and extending the other, with palm up, asking for alms. I wonder if those people still hope for a prosperous new year, considering that most of the time, they are being sent away, refused of the little amount they ask.
Perhaps they haven’t tried wearing polka dots on New Year’s Eve. We should teach them, don’t you think? Tell them why, upon coming home, you begin preparing the fish, scaling them off with a knife, why you are cooking pancit, why you didn’t buy poultry, why you’re mixing the sweet condensed milk with the slices of assorted fruits.
Explain to them why you are placing seven kinds of round fruits on the table. Inform them of the reason for dressing up, the need to make noise, like how you have taught me every single rationale of this ritual many years ago, when I needed an explanation.
A few minutes from now, we will be leaving the old year and welcoming a new one. You are anxious because Papa has not come yet. You wonder where he is, keep looking at the clock. The noise of our neighbors—their laughter, their stereo played out loud, the eager children blowing torotot—seems to bear weight on you, because at this hour, we should be making our own noise as well. Instead, we have this unease, as you pace about the house, peering through the jalousies. It’s a good thing that the government has prohibited setting off firecrackers in the city. Otherwise, you would have grown more worried, fearful that while walking the streets, Papa will be thrown one. Dreading the idea, I myself try to push away the bloody and wailing image of him as he is rushed to the hospital.
It’s five minutes till midnight, and I hear the gates swing open and slam closed. Papa has come home; he’s singing the Auld Lang Syne out loud, belting it out. For a moment I thought I heard him hiccup, but I’m not really sure. There’s one thing that I’m sure of, though. I know that he has pushed the door open; the knob bangs against the wall. I know that he has staggered in, his eyes bleary, his cheeks ruddy as though they were the rind of a Fuji apple. And he reeks of alcohol.
You then run toward him, saying, “Where have you been? I’ve been worried sick—” before he slaps you across your face. Thwack! This would have resounded had it not been for the noise of the neighbors. Stupefied, you merely stand there, pressing your palm against the cheek which he has hit. You are clad in your polka-dotted dress, the one you always wear on New Year’s Eve; the torotot, which you have dropped, gyrates on the floor. Like you, I am stupefied, huddled on the sofa. I can’t do anything, afraid that he will give me the same harsh blow.
It’s two minutes till midnight. Other neighbors, perhaps having set the clock to advance, are already greeting one another with “Happy New Year!” Their ruckus seems distant, however. But we can’t join in the celebration. You have ensured to set the time according to PAG-ASA’s. You want to be accurate.
You coax Papa to get into cleaner clothes, gently telling him that they are soiled, that he should be at his best at the stroke of midnight. As you do this, I see the red marks on your cheek. And when you try to touch him again, he yells, “Don’t you touch me, you
worthless bitch!” and flings you into the corner, your body hitting the wall. And you remain in that corner, wailing. You scream, “What is wrong with you!” It is strident; I can see veins bulging in your neck. Crouching in that corner, you remind me of a weeping child. After all this preparation for the New Year, you have regressed and
decided to go back to the old one.
The midnight strikes. The next-door neighbors are greeting one another, “Happy New Year!” louder now. They clang pots and pans, and turn up the volume of their stereo. The neighbors across our house are blaring the horns of their car, yelling “Happy New Year!” at no one in particular. At the stroke of midnight, in our house, Papa darts across the room, kicks at you, kicks you on the stomach, sneering, “I told you to leave me alone but you wouldn’t listen!” He hisses as he blames you for the beating you receive from him.
You begin to scream, plead for mercy, trying to shield yourself with forearms raised adjunct to your head. “No, please stop it. I’m sorry.” But it’s of no use. He has managed to bring you down on the floor, and, with one final kick, has made you spit out blood. It dribbles at the corners of your mouth; it stretches from your chin to the linoleum floor. You cough it out, harshly, as if disemboweling your entire being through the mouth. And you cry. And it is the most painful sight.
“Mama!” I cry and run toward you. Papa has let me scoop your head up from the floor and cradle it in my arms. You are turning pale; your split lips are quivering while you look up at me. “You go to hell!” I turn to yell at Papa, who retreats, wide-eyed, and stumbles over. Regaining his balance, he flees from the house, leaving us alone, as how we’re used to in the past years.
And thank God, amid the din of the New Year, you are alive. You are still breathing.
I slowly place your head down, and go to the telephone to call an ambulance. And from where I stand, I see you suffer, Ma, and I want to console you, to tell you not to worry because there’s still hope. We have the Chinese New Year to look forward to. I heard it’s going to be on February 14. And on its eve, I assure you, we can still get this right, and the next time around, there will be firecrackers.
Julian de la Cerna works in a call center in Davao.