FEATURED STORY: “SWIMMING LESSONS” BY CAROLIENA CABADA
The only way I could make it through a flight was to sleep the whole way, so I slipped a Dramamine tablet past my lips and dry-swallowed before settling into my seat. My father sat in the middle space, providing a buffer between me and the stranger who took out a sudoku puzzle book and lowered the seat tray before the plane taxied out of the gate.
My dreams when drugged always seemed to blur the line between reality and imagination, and my last conscious thought was of my father as a protector. Though slight, he was large-framed and imposing, his short, gray hair giving him a more severe look, and I imagined curling up into a ball behind him while he stood alert. Like a sheepdog, watching and shepherding the flock. He even darted around like one when induced to run. While the plane took off, I imagined playing fetch with him. When the plane reached cruising altitude, my father unbuckled his seat belt then turned a shaggy, wet-nosed face to me and barked. Do you need anything?
I shook my head sluggishly and slept on. When the Dramamine wore off and I blinked awake, we were more than halfway through the twenty-hour flight to Manila. I got up to use the toilet, ate half of the airplane dinner my father had saved for me, then took another dose to knock out one more time.
This time, when I turned my face toward the window, I didn’t see the vibrant cerulean of a daytime sky, but the deep sapphire of the ocean past the puffs of clouds. That blue seemed closer than normal, closer than it should be, until it rose to engulf the whole plane so that it became a submarine. Jellyfish floated past the porthole window, and a stewardess’s voice pointed people’s attention to the coral reef. Such a shame about the bleaching. But imagine all this the color of a Chanel lipstick!
When I came to again, the plane was descending, jolting when the wheels touched the ground. There was a whoosh and a roar of air resistance that seemed to jerk the plane back into a slower speed.
“How’d you sleep?” my father asked, his thin mustache curling more into a frown as he smiled.
I slurred, “I have to learn how to doggy paddle.”
We didn’t leave the airport at Manila, but waited around for one of the smaller regional flights to get us to Leyte. The small plane wasn’t even entirely full. My father and I had a row to ourselves, and this time the flight was so short that I just closed my eyes and feigned sleep before feeling the same lurch of the landing.
Tacloban’s airport was more like a large airstrip with a concrete building for a terminal, and my father looked just as lost as me before he heard above the crowd, “Greg! Over here!”
Over the heads of the people was a man so similar he could have been a twin brother, except his face was clean-shaven and his hair was closer to white. When my father and I got closer, wheeling our suitcases, the two brothers shook hands while a woman nearby put a hand on my shoulder.
“I don’t know if you remember me,” she said, “but I’m your Ate Alice.”
My face felt tight from an embarrassed blush rising up, but Ate Alice only laughed into my silence. “It’s okay if you don’t. I haven’t seen you since you were a baby. My dad, too. Your Tito Honesto.”
The other man turned to me, and here I saw the small differences between him and my dad. More sun spots on his cheeks, a small droop in the corners of his eyelids. He smiled, though, and nodded at me. “Immaculata,” he said. “You’re all grown up.”
Jet lag still hit me hard, and though I didn’t need to knock myself out for ground and water travel, I still spent most of the journey from Tacloban half-awake and dreaming. When we got to the docks to get on a boat that would take us to the small island where my Ate Alice lived, I leaned over a little to get a good look at what was beneath the surface. It was a little murky, but jellyfish floated, suspended and motionless even as the boat motor churned the water.
As we got further and further from the big island, the water got clearer, bluer, though it rippled and foamed against the sides of the boat as we sped to an island just visible on the horizon. When we docked again, I caught a glimmer of a sea snake winding between the rocks. A man was hauling in a net from a tide pool and waved. When he heaved the net ashore, it had a small tangle of crabs, tumbled together and snapping at one another, unable to get away from the insistent pull towards the shore.
“Just in time,” the man said, grinning. One of his canines sparkled silver.
The earliest parts of the trip were a flurry of names and faces. I couldn’t tell you who I met if I tried. At the first few meals on the first day, people wove in and out of the house. They all smiled when they saw me, squeezed my arms and remarked how ganda I was—mestizo-like, so I should stay out of the sun—remarked on the difference that decades could make on an infant. The crabs from the shore turned into our lunch and dinner. I realized then that I had never seen the places where my meals came from. It wasn’t just that I saw the crabs alive before they were cooked—my dad had bought live crabs before. I think maybe my funny feeling about the food had to do with seeing the crab’s place of origin, and the immediacy of the meal.
I ate it anyway, of course, because staying hungry was worse than trying to suppress nausea. My dad noticed that I didn’t attack the food with my usual gusto, but I think he was probably just glad I was eating.
Falling asleep in the guest room after dinner was easier than swallowing a pill. My breath still smelled a little fishy, but then everything did since the house was so close to the shore. The noise of the tide helped me along, gave my dreams a nautical flavor. I knew they were dreams, though, because I was swimming. Swimming alongside a wooden balangay I had seen anchored on the shore of the island, but this boat in my dreams was in motion, sails fully opened and stuffed full of wind. I was fast, I was a fish, leaping. I knew I was dreaming because of all the things I had learned in my life until that point, how to swim was not one of them.
The trip was my dad’s suggestion. He was getting old, a few years short of retirement age, and it had been decades since the last time he visited. Timing and money had always stopped him. But ever since I left home for college, a few years later than normal since I wanted to work and save up first, he seemed to have his delayed midlife crisis. He bought some new tires for his bike and then started filling an emptied and rinsed-out pasta sauce jar with the spare change he’d get when he bought Yoohoo and a sandwich from the deli near the hotel where he worked. The jar didn’t serve a purpose. I tried to get him to stop collecting the coins now that we didn’t have to rely on 99-cent meals when his paychecks stretched thin at the end of each month. He kept trying to push money onto me, since he was uncomfortable in the relative ease that came with not having to stretch a small budget over our two-person household. I kept refusing, reminding him that I was good, that I had saved enough, that I had scholarships.
Plane tickets for a trip from Chicago to the Philippines are expensive unless you book your flight months, almost a year, in advance. We booked tickets a few days before we left. I think my dad was just looking for an excuse to use all this money he suddenly had, and he didn’t know how to really spend it except on me. And I think he was desperate to get me out—out of my room, but also out of the state, out of the country, out of that hollow place in my mind I didn’t even know I could retreat to, let alone that I already had.
In the Philippines, he didn’t seem very different from how he was at home, except that maybe he ate a little more and gained weight quickly because of it. Ate Alice nodded encouragingly whenever he would ask for a second helping, and then he would push some of that food onto my plate, as well.
“Bibingka,” he said, pointing to the mound of sticky coconut rice that he spooned onto my plate. “It’s sweet. You’ll like it.”
“You’re not telling me princesa here has never had bibingka?” the man with the silver tooth said. “Sayang!”
The man laughed and shook his head when he caught my eye, letting me know that it was okay, he was only teasing. After the first few days of travel excitement settled down, the house was much quieter with the only people living there being me, my dad, Ate Alice, and the man I finally learned was Kuya Junior, Alice’s older brother.
“Though I am nothing like our father,” he said, waving away a fly that landed on the edge of a bowl. Tito Honesto didn’t live with Ate Alice, but after the first warm greeting at the airport, he was always wooden-faced and terse in conversation. He kept pushing his brother to eat more, eat more, and my father would take another helping, slide half of that helping towards me. The bibingka, at first, wasn’t sweet enough for me—I was so used to the intense sugar of American candy. But after a few days, it was like my taste buds recalibrated, and everything tasted more. More savory. More sweet. More like the sea. More like the sun.
Kuya Junior cracked jokes in a language I didn’t know that made the few visitors we had from the village laugh. He pulled his weight on the farm, too, climbing trees to chop down a few coconuts, opening them with a machete when he was back on solid ground. He took the balangay out now and then when there wasn’t a storm on the horizon, came back with a few fish for dinner. In the evenings, he sat with my father and exchanged stories. I noticed that the index finger on his right hand had a chunk of flesh carved away at the tip so that it was skinny, as if the bone inside had deflated.
“Tried to use a bolo knife with my left hand to cut a coconut,” he said. He held his right hand out as if holding something round. With his left hand, he made a slicing motion, and I could see top of the imaginary coconut, and the sliver of his finger, go flying through the air. “I might have cried. I’m not ashamed to say.”
“Kuya Junior always was a crybaby,” Ate Alice said, peeling the shell off of some fresh-caught shrimp. “Remember when you came to me at the hospital that one time?” She turned to me and laughed. “He said he saw a ghost in the cafe. Like, an honest-to-God haunting.”
At this, Kuya Junior blanched, but he smiled easily, if a little less bright. Even the shine on his silver-capped tooth seemed a little less vibrant. “Yes, silly of me.”
Because the trip was so sudden, I didn’t really bring anything with me. Ate Alice had watched as I unpacked my things, two weeks into the trip, finally understanding that I would be here for long enough that unpacking made sense. My dad and Kuya Junior were out fishing, which my dad had never done. My cousin took up my crumpled shirts and folded them neatly on the bed. “Do you…want to talk about it?” she said to my clothes in her hands.
My heart kicked my chest and I shook my head. “No.”
Ate Alice didn’t say anything, just folded my clothes and placing them in neat piles while I tried to sort through the nonsense I had packed in my haste. An emerald green pashmina that was a gift from Sara. Three pairs of tweezers. Mismatched top and bottom of a swim suit, though the colors were complementary—I could pass it off as an intentional choice.
Ate Alice nodded at the bathing suit in my hand. “You want to go swimming today?”
“I don’t know how,” I admitted. Every time I admitted something that I didn’t know, I felt ashamed. Young and old at the same time. A young woman, too old not to have known better.
Some evenings, especially after the storms rained themselves out, we sat around a bonfire, a few fish skewered and roasting in the flames. After the first few weeks of our trip, it was like all topics that were related to me were exhausted. There were only so many times one could ask whether I was going back to school, what I would study when I returned, and what I missed most about the U.S.
Kuya Junior had a bottomless well of conversations topics to draw from, always coming up with something to talk about, something to remember. Remember that time Christian and I switched the salt and the sugar to play a trick on Nanay? Remember when I fell from that coconut tree and had to walk around with my arm in a sling? Remember when that boy from the village wouldn’t leave you alone during Sunday school? Ate Alice gave as good as she got, but also came around to the same thing.
“Remember when you thought you saw a ghost in the hospital?”
Kuya Junior glared. “Alright, alright.”
“Did you really see a ghost?” I asked, meaning to ask it teasingly like Ate Alice. Instead it came out sincere, and there was some part of me that was curious. At night, with the bonfire dying down, the stars above us shone bright and innumerable. Every constellation I knew was a swath of starlight, dusted with crushed diamonds. It was almost enough to believe in things like ghosts and gods and the supernatural.
Kuya Junior smirked at me, shook his head. “Princesa, would I lie to you?”
I shrugged. “You could.”
“Ah, but I won’t.” My cousin sighed and slipped some meat off the fish freshly pulled from the fire, stoked the flames so that they jumped. “I swear to you, I saw something in the hospital that day.”
“Yes, yes,” Ate Alice said, rolling her eyes. “A kaperosa.”
“The spectral figures of wronged women who appear to men doing bad things.” Kuya Junior shivered, though I couldn’t tell if he was playing up his fear, or if he was truly scared. “There was this lady in the hospital cafe, and I swear, she walked right through the guy at the register. No one even noticed.”
“Were you doing anything bad?” I asked, again trying for sarcasm but ended up genuine. I took a sip of the calamansi juice in my glass and swallowed.
“Not at the time,” Kuya Junior said. He raised his hands, one of which held rice and fish meat pinched between his fingers. “I swear.”
Kuya Junior met my eyes over the fire. Any lingering traces of mirth were wiped from his face. “No.” He shook his head and raised his hand full of food to his mouth. “Never, princesa. You have my word.”
I had no reason to believe Kuya Junior, and I had no reason to not believe him either. In the days that followed that particular conversation, I avoided being in the same room alone with him, and he gave me that space. I would wake up early enough to have breakfast with Ate Alice and my dad, or go out to the village when someone would come to the island for a shipment of produce. Ate Alice came with me, too. We walked into the open-air market after she sold the corn and kamote she brought with her. I bought things from the vendors—Spanish fans with elaborately carved slats, rosaries that I know my dad had promised to bring back to the old women he worked with, umbrellas when the gray clouds rolled in and dumped buckets of rain overhead. We would wait by the docks at sunset when Kuya Junior would come around with the motorboat. He only used the balangay for fishing.
On days when I didn’t go to the village, I put on my bathing suit and stretched out on a beach towel on the shore with a borrowed book from Ate Alice’s shelves. Ate Alice told me, with a hint of a warning, that I was going to get dark. Kuya Junior would tell his sister that the sun is good for everyone, that all this obsession with paleness wasn’t healthy. I tuned them both out, slipping in my earbuds and turning the page of my book.
I felt like a rich lady from the novels I read. The ones with a delicate disposition that could be cured by a few weeks in the countryside, the fresh air and simple living of not having to do anything restoring my vitality. I didn’t feel like the time away could do much good. It always seemed so boring, and anyway, the ladies in those novels always seemed to rely on meeting a man in town to truly recover and return to some semblance of normalcy.
And yet, on that island, surrounded by water and watching as Kuya Junior hauled his nets to shore, I started to feel like I didn’t miss home at all. I could remain there, removed from time and space with everything in stasis.
Plus, living in my cousin’s house wasn’t all sunbathing and taking tea with strangers. Most days I worked on her farm, learning how to thin the plants strategically so that they didn’t crowd one another, how to tell when the fruit was ready to be picked, how to roll seeds into clay balls that could be spread along strips of land between the rows and rows of kamote, squash, and eggplant. A month in, I took up a bolo knife and learned to climb a coconut tree. Sweat dripped off me, made me slippery, but the first coconut I cut down and opened they let me have, stuck a straw into the opening and then gave me a spoon to eat the flesh. My palate had changed so drastically by then that it was almost too sweet. I let my dad have half.
Harvesting the coconuts became my favorite job. We didn’t harvest them all at once, but took a few young coconuts, a few mature ones, and then left a few on the tree for good luck. But the knife in my hand felt powerful, felt whole. Ate Alice offered to let me have it, but I couldn’t put it in my luggage—all I had brought was a carry-on of odds and ends and my backpack. My dad had put together a hasty balikbayan box to distribute to the family, but otherwise was similarly minimal with his packing.
Kuya Junior, whenever he saw me with the knife, always nodded in approval. “A worthy weapon for a worthy woman.”
I swung the blade, gripping the handle. “Think I could be as terrifying as a kaperosa?”
Kuya Junior grinned crookedly, hiding his silver tooth. “You could be their queen.”
We were around the fire, roasting fish and marshmallows, s’mores melting and cooling off to the side for dessert while we ate the last bits of meat and rice. I don’t remember how it came up, but the talk turned to my not knowing how to swim, and I could see Kuya Junior raise his eyebrows, a sign of forthcoming teasing at finding some gap in my knowledge almost out of his mouth. Sayang, Princesa, you don’t know how to swim? But instead he said, “I could teach you. No problem.” He followed up with, “If you want, that is.”
I think everyone, including me, was surprised when I actually took him up on his offer. Though his offer was a little glib, it was clear that swimming lessons were a responsibility he approached with the utmost seriousness. “This is a life skill,” he said, frowning slightly—as much as his mouth could frown. “As in, a life-or-death skill. It’s not something that should be done halfway.”
And so, I waded out into the sea wearing my mismatched bathing suit and one of my dad’s large t-shirts as a cover-up. The light that glittered off the surface of the water reminded me of ice, so I wasn’t surprised when it was cold when I stepped in. The water hit Kuya Junior at about mid-thigh, darkening the fabric of his plain red swimming trunks. He wore a white t-shirt that gleamed bright in the sun. When I reached him, he walked backwards, out into deeper water, beckoning me to follow.
Kuya Junior’s wordless understanding reminded me of my dad sometimes. Though my cousin was charming and talkative in company, he could be observant and deliberate with his movements to keep me comfortable. Maybe that’s why I decided to give swimming one more try, when childhood attempts, middle school P. E. classes, and free lessons offered through the university gym in my early adult years had all failed me before. Maybe before I wasn’t attuned to my body at all, was taught the definition of a backstroke or forward crawl without really understanding how to coordinate my limbs, without actually having the strength to move in a way that would keep my head above water. There’s only so far that theory can get you, only so much you can learn from reading words over and over again without really getting a chance to try for yourself, using your own muscles, your own bones.
The first lesson, though, didn’t go smoothly. “First things first, princesa,” Kuya Junior said, running his hands over the surface of the water. “Floating.”
“I don’t float,” I said, instinctively refusing the help I had initially accepted.
He walked back until the water reached his armpits, and he shrugged. “Nonsense. Everyone floats.”
I shrugged back at him, then walked until the water hit my armpits, too. The water buoyed and buffeted me until my heels lifted and I was just on the balls of my feet. “Okay. So what do I do?”
Kuya Junior arched his back until his shoulders touched the water. He relaxed his neck until the back of his shaggy hair spread on the surface of the water, creating dark tentacles around his head. “Lean back, then kick”—he demonstrated, the lower half of his body lifting to the surface—“then straighten your legs and torso and keep them tight.”
My first attempt, as expected, resulted in my sinking. I tried to imagine myself drifting on the current. But then my head started falling into the water.
Kuya Junior pulled me upright by my shoulders before my nose went under the surface. I let my legs fall so that my feet touched the ground. “Relax your muscles,” he said.
“But you just said to keep my legs and torso tight.”
“But not too much.”
I sighed, started walking away, towards where Ate Alice and my dad who were sitting under a large umbrella on the beach. “It’s useless, Kuya.” I turned my back to walk sluggishly to the shore. When Ate Alice opened her mouth as if to say something, I turned away from her, too, to go up to the house to dry off.
My dad and I were there for two months. I gained weight, my body stronger for the hard labor of farming and fishing. My dad was getting restless, having finished reading all of the books in Ate Alice’s home that he had any interest in—nonfiction about military history, scientific discoveries, biographies of various presidents. At the start of my final two weeks, Ate Alice put in an order for a pig that she would roast, whole, in the concrete pit in the backyard.
“You light a coal fire all along the length,” she said, gesturing to the rectangular space. “Then you skewer the pig with a large bamboo pole, mouth to rear. The pole rests on the sides of the pit, here,” she placed her hands on the sides, “and then you slowly turn the pig so that it rolls along the fire. That’s how we get the whole thing to cook evenly, get that crispy skin.”
I knew that the pig would be coming from the village. During my trips there, I would hear them squealing and snuffling around, though I never saw them in person. “Mostly the people raise the animals for themselves,” Kuya Junior explained. “Keep them in backyard pens and fatten them up. Then when it’s festival time, or someone’s birthday, they kill one early in the morning so that the pig will have all day to roast.”
“So we’re taking someone else’s birthday pig?”
Kuya Junior shrugged. “Ate Alice is popular in the village since her food is so cheap, or she gives it away for free to people who need it.”
“And it’s not like it’ll be all for us,” Ate Alice said. “We’re having a party, a going away. Really, I think people just want any excuse for a gathering.”
“Okay,” I said. The party didn’t really matter to me one way or another, though I don’t think I could have handled witnessing the pig slaughtering. I knew that pig was food for a crowd, but there was something about watching something warm-blooded die that made me feel sick. When the pig was delivered, placidly being led from the boat by Tito Honesto, I vowed to stay as far away from it as possible when it was killed.
And in all honesty, I wasn’t ready to leave yet. Arrival felt like being scattered into a million pieces, and I had just started putting them all back together. Leaving at that time would have meant leaving some part of me behind.
Then again, maybe that was the point. To leave some things behind, as much as possible. When I think of the trip in those terms, guilt shivers through me, dropping into my stomach. That island, as close to absolutely remote as I had ever been in my life until then, and have ever been since, seemed untouched by ravaging forces. Who was I to leave my troubles on there? I felt like an oil spill, lingering on the clear surface of those waters. It was the only way I could imagine myself floating.
On the day the pig was delivered, Tito Honesto brought it over and ended up staying.
“It looks bad out there, Tatay,” Ate Alice said, shading her eyes to look out at the oncoming clouds. “I’ll call Nanay. I don’t think you’ll beat that storm coming in.”
The sky darkened much earlier in the day than normal, never really taking on the reddish hue of sunset, just growing gray, then black, as the winds picked up. We cranked up a radio that Ate Alice kept in her basement and listened to the forecast. It wasn’t just a regular storm, but a tropical depression, strengthening into a tropical storm.
My dad packed our suitcases to move all of our things down to the first floor of the house. Ate Alice brought up any dried provisions from the leaky basement. I followed Kuya Junior around, helped him bring in the boats to tie them to trees on the shore, the wind already whipping at my clothes and making me stumble. Tito Honesto brought the pig into the enclosed kitchen annex, holding its neck and whispering comforting nonsense into its ear. We were all eating boiled vegetables over rice and listening to the radio when the tropical storm was upgraded to a typhoon. Ate Alice gave Tito Honesto the phone so that he could talk to his wife, her voice crackling over the line.
“Isn’t it late in the season?” my dad asked, mixing up hot cocoa for all of us, and instant coffee for Ate Alice who requested it.
“To be honest, it’s like typhoon season never really ends,” Ate Alice said. “We’ll be fine here, though. The house is built on a hillside, so rainwater will just flow down past us, and the trees shield us from the worst of the wind. The village, though. That’ll be a different story.”
“Ate Alice?” I asked, interrupting her conversation. “Can I go outside?”
She looked at me with wide eyes, her lips pressed into a thin line. “What? What are you talking about?”
“Just for a minute. I swear I’ll just stay on the porch.”
Ate Alice kept staring at me, and my dad, too. He had a look on his face, like I was already lost, and so I said, “I’m just curious how it feels. I’ll be right back.”
“I’ll take her,” Kuya Junior said from behind me. “I’ll watch her, bring her right back inside the moment it gets dangerous.”
Tito Honesto looked up from the pig at that, his eyes wider, younger, than I had ever seen. He said nothing, though, and my dad stared at my cousin then at me, his shocked expression mirroring his brother’s. I nodded, heartbeat in my hears, and after a moment, my dad looked at my cousin again and said, “Right back inside, the moment you think she’s in danger.”
Before either of them could say anything more, I dashed to the entrance to the backyard, kicking my feet into flip flops. Kuya Junior was right behind me, and he held the screen door open for me to run out into the rain.
The moment I got beyond the covered porch, the rain fell on me like a sheet of ice. It whipped so hard against my skin that I thought that I might be bleeding, but it was impossible to tell. The green leaves of the coconut trees were mere smudges, bending even lower against the howling wind. Kuya Junior yanked the back collar of my shirt just in time for some calamansi fruit to hurl past me, followed by loose twigs, dirt, other things kicked up by the storm.
“Stay under the porch roof!” he yelled, though most of his voice was muffled by the loudness of the rain. I let him pull me back under the covering, the sides of the house providing some shielding from the wind, but not much.
It felt like the whole sea was rising, exhaling explosively, flinging needles of rain. My vision blurred and I hung onto one of the wooden supports, not because I felt like I would be blown away, but because I wanted to be. Carried up in the storm, coming out of the eye like a superhero, like a god, like a scorned woman whose wrath could finally be felt and known. Kuya Junior let go of my shirt and stepped back to stick to the side of the house, his hand on the door.
The rain, then, struck my cheek like a slap. Water filled my mouth and nose, and then drained from it. I gasped, taken by surprise. I turned to Kuya Junior and he pulled the door open, stepping aside to let me in first. I ran past him, and he followed close behind, letting the door slam with the wind. I was soaked all the way through, my muscles kneaded by the whirlwind, marinated in brine.
“I don’t know why you’d do that, princesa, but can’t float on calm water.”
I laughed. Kuya Junior smiled, too, his full smile with his silver-capped tooth on display. “I’ve survived worse,” I said, meaning to sound playful, ending up serious instead.
Kuya Junior nodded. He slipped his sandals off and walked away, taking a towel from Ate Alice. The pig in the corner snorted in its sleep. I was tired, but I wanted to stay awake through the whole typhoon.
Caroliena Cabada’s writing has been published in JMWW, perhappened mag, Whale Road Review, and elsewhere. She was the recipient of the 2018–2019 Pearl Hogrefe Fellowship in Creative Writing at Iowa State University, where she earned her MFA in Creative Writing and Environment. She teaches composition and creative writing at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, where she is earning her PhD in English. Her first book of poetry, True Stories, is forthcoming from Unsolicited Press in 2024.