The pale orange color that lit the streets of Verga Subdivision in Bunawan switched on right before the sun started to set. The doors and windows had to be shut to keep the mosquitoes out. For most kids in the neighborhood, it was time to go home. For most parents, it was time to make dinner while they listened to local news on the television. The houses I passed by had their porches lit, the owners turning their lights on for relatives on their way home. Even the shabby houses of settlers in the area were loud and bright.
Our house was not far from the highway, but I had to walk two blocks the other way around before finally going home. During the day, our house didn’t stand out. But at night, it would be lit from inside with candles. Our house—which had two storeys, a garage that could park two cars, and a closed mini shop on the front—used to be as loud and bright as other houses in the neighborhood.
I used my phone, which I’d charged to full capacity in class earlier that day, to light my way to the front door. Our doorbell was so loud it could draw the neighbors’ attention. So, I knocked until I heard footsteps that tried to be discreet in an empty house so quiet. The curtain behind the window next to the front door moved a little, a pointless move since the porch was so dark.
“It’s me, Nay,” I told my mother. The door opened and the smell of lit candles wafted to my nose.
“Nganong nagab-ihan naman sab ka?”
I’d be cruel if I told her why I came home only when it had gone dark. Coming home in the afternoon felt like our neighbors were stabbing me with their eyes. The chismosas would huddle on the streets as they watched their youngsters play together. The bakaleros from the junk shop beside the entrance of the subdivision would sit around a table set up for them by the old tindera who knew everybody. All of them had watched me walk home one afternoon. They whispered to each other, but I knew what they had to say. And they were right. My family was a wreck.
“I have volleyball practice, Nay,” I lied. “We’re playing against other high schools in the city next month, so I’ll be coming home around six from now on.”
Nanay grumbled. She sized me up, foot to head, my impossibly thin frame. “I should start dinner,” she said on her way to the kitchen.
I sat on the dining table and watched her grab some ripe saba. That was the third week we had been eating nothing but steamed bananas at home. I did not mind because it was all we could afford. In school, I would eat rice and a sunny-side-up for lunch, which I bought with the fifteen pesos Nanay would give me every day. I didn’t have to wonder what she had to eat at home. I had to eat or else my classmates would start rumors. Eating one egg during lunchtime at a private school was humiliating enough. But eating made me feel guilty.
I heard the door close from the old mini shop. Nanay turned her head. Tatay was home. He worked as a department chief at the National Grid Corp. He’d moved into the shop after he found out that Nanay had been using their life savings for an investment. Even my aunts and uncles – probably my neighbors, too – knew that the investment was a scam. Nanay could not see that.
From the corner of my eyes I could see the light inside the shop was on. Then, I heard the sound of the television. Nanay and I froze. He must have paid for the electricity. For a moment I thought about the home economics project I had to do. The teacher had asked us to make a model house and light each room with small light bulbs to test how much we understood circuitry. But we didn’t have electricity at home, and Nanay could not afford the materials for my homework. I’d looked around and found two batteries in the drawer and a broken extension chord. I unscrewed the small light bulb from the ceiling. I then taped the two batteries and the bulb to both ends of the copper wire. It worked, but the tape burned after a few seconds so I had to change it just to keep the light on. When I saw the lights from the shop, I thought I could easily do that homework without having to squint.
I ran to flick the light switches. But none worked. I plugged the electric fan in the sala but it still didn’t work.
“The breaker is in the shop,” Nanay said. “Only he has electricity.”
I struggled to suppress my anger boiling along with bananas in the pot. I walked to the shop, pounded on the door, and demanded that he open the door. I kicked it many times. I forgot about the neighbors and what they were going to say.
“Door’s open,” he shouted from the inside.
“Really?” I screamed at my father who was eating take out on the folding bed he bought for himself. I pushed the take out from his hand. Rice and fried chicken were everywhere. I walked back to the house.
Nanay and I sat quietly as we ate our dinner. I dipped a steamed banana on brown sugar. Sometimes milk or Milo, but Nanay could not afford that anymore. She prioritized candles over condiments. Tatay used to pay for everything until he moved to the shop. Nanay was too old to get a job anywhere. She applied at an orchid shop in a mall downtown, but they thought she was overqualified to be vendor with her degree in botany. I wanted to ask her what other dips went with steamed banana. But I stopped myself because we could not afford it either way.
While we were eating, the lights above the dining table suddenly turned on. My eyes adjusted to the flood of white light. Everything, every appliance, every piece of furniture in the house had its own color again, instead of the pale orange light dancing on them. I heard the buzzing of the refrigerator again, the white noise from behind the television screen, the small gears that made the fan turn its head from side to side. I didn’t notice these sounds when electricity ran all day in this house.
“He must have come to his senses,” Nanay said as she looked around her well lit home. She grabbed a tissue and handed it to me. She told me to wipe my nose. I wondered why I had to do it. I didn’t have a cold and my allergies weren’t acting up. But I did.
“Look at your tissue,” Nanay said. A crooked circle in the shape of my nostril with the color of ash and dark smoke was on my tissue. Nanay and I laughed. I did my other nostril. She did both of hers. We laughed and continued to eat our steamed bananas. I washed the dishes when we were done. She watched primetime shows at the television. I listened as I did my chore. The house had never been this loud in weeks.
There was a knock on our front door. Nanay knew it was Tatay but she didn’t bother to get up. The door was not locked anyway. He knocked again.
“It’s open!” I shouted from the kitchen. The door opened. I turned to look at him. He was carrying a mug of beer and it was spilling on the floor of the house my mother bought with her own money.
“Go back to your cave, Long,” Nanay said calmly.
“Let me back in. You need electricity. You need me,” Tatay begged Nanay.
“We don’t need you here,” Nanay said. I wanted to disagree. I thought while washing the dishes, At least there’s water running on the tap.
“Look at our daughter!” Tatay was getting aggressive. “What have you been feeding her?”
“At least I feed her while you hide in the shop with your take-out,” Nanay stood up and yelled at him. Tatay charged at her.
“Selfish,” Nanay said as she tried to catch her breath. Tatay hit her with the mug on his hand. Beer was everywhere. I ran to where Nanay was and held her face with my soapy hands. I kicked my father again and again. He kicked back.
“You maxed out our account, remember?” Tatay said. He looked at me and told me to go upstairs. I started to cry but also couldn’t stop kicking him. He sat on the couch with his mug and chugged the last drop. He began to cry.
Nanay stood up and ran upstairs to what was once their bedroom. I followed her and left Tatay sobbing in the sala.
I found Nanay by the window of her room sitting and thinking. The room was lit with the fluorescent light but Nanay didn’t bother to put out the candle. I sat on the bed and watched her. She was not crying anymore. We were both quiet.
The sound of glass breaking startled us. It was Tatay’s beer mug. He banged the door close. A few seconds later, the lights shut off. Everything was dark and quiet again. The bed, the walls, and my mother’s face were once again painted with a pale orange color.
I walked to the window where Nanay sat. They were all there, our neighbors. When they saw me at the window, they turned around and walked back to their homes.
Marie Crestie Joie Contrata is taking up BA English (Creative Writing) at the University of the Philippines Mindanao.