andrea salvador

"OUR COLLECTIVE GREAT-GREAT GRANDMOTHER"

Maybe, we’re lucky enough to know her name. It’s either Corazon or Carmelita or Flordeliza — her name a bouquet of invisible petal flowers. They’ve been pruned into extinction. The letters that assemble her name are scrambled like leaves inside a vacuum, spit out into newer, tender mouths years later. Cora. Carmen. Liza.

We might even have pictures of her, if her family was the type that skidded on the waves of up-and-coming, soul-possessing technology. A bulky camera might have captured her in real time: perched on a tree, a fruit basket on her hip. Its shadow holds a figure of a baby that is destined to come five years later. Corazon-Carmelita-Flordeliza’s character is superimposed onto the peak of girlhood. Her vigor and grace keep the photo from fading altogether. We know this, the shine in her dark eyes reflected back to us when we stare into a mirror. Genetics gone right; we suppose.

No one ever mentions our collective great-great grandmother in family reunions over case studies of faces. Even photographs aren’t enough to spark memories of her. No — it’s always her husband’s sharp nose, her son’s strong jaw. When the talk turns to accomplishments, to the ancestors that serve as pillars, we wait for her name to come up, punctuated with awe and a toast. As conversation ebbs to a repetitive tide — we can hear of our great-uncle Maximo’s car shop that began an empire and great-great-great grandfather Juan’s eye for curating expensive art only so many times — Corazon-Carmelita-Flordeliza morphs into an afterthought, discarded like a blurred sight or a dreamlike memory. When we mention her name, we receive the barest of uninterested, forced shrugs.

Everyone’s ears perk up when her heirlooms are offered homes, though. We fight for the leftovers, because they complete the constant gaping hole that is the puzzle piece of her. All that is left, after the crowds have thinned, are the smallest items meant for a hard, niche market. Plucked from time, dull gold handheld mirrors and crystal-studded barrettes rest heavy on our hands. We place them next to our own, no-frills combs and bottles of hairspray. Our dressers sink deeper into the tiled floors, pulled down by the gravity of the treasures. It becomes too difficult to hold them without having any proud claim, so after a while, we let them gather dust once again.

After all these years, Corazon-Carmelita-Flordeliza haunts us like a specter. We see her in everything but can liken her to nothing. She is a rock, pitched into an ocean and left to sink, untethered. She is liquid, slipping through our fingers, dripping onto the cement and left to dry after splatter. She is a stain, inked into our palms as we trace a family tree of broken branches. She is an uncharted destination, the only map to guide us dim memories and scattered artifacts. Our search never stops.

"THE RISE AND FALL OF THE BATHROOM CABINET"

I. Conquering the Aisles

My mother pushes the shopping cart through the hordes of college students and chattering officemates. Because of the traffic that tortured the highway, we now cruise through the supermarket ten minutes to closing time. Even though we’re late, my mother assures me that we can work it out – she has prepared a list, curled between her fingers like a cigarette. We reach the plastic racks full of beauty supplies and toiletries, fluids and powders packaged in all hues of shiny, alluring plastic. I help pile things into the cart: shampoo, soap, sanitary pads, and moisturizer. Before we leave the aisle, my mother reaches towards a gaping basket and throws in a powder compact. “Always get two shades too light,” my mother grins, through a white cake of makeup. Everyone tells her she looks pretty, but under the wan evening lights, she looks sickly to me.

II. Annexing the Shelves

When we get home, my mother heats our dinner – takeout from the fast food chain just below our condo. She hands me the plastic bag containing our splurges, telling me to sort them in the bathroom cabinet. I dry the sink with a towel and shake out the bag’s contents. Clack, clack, clack. They topple over each other and roll to a stop. I slide open the bathroom cabinet, wincing at the shrieks brought about by rust. It is half-empty, travel bottles lingering in the sides and expired tablets gathering dust, so I have no trouble adding today’s haul into the mix. I rip each bottle and box’s seal fervently, chucking the labels to the plastic-rimmed trash can below the sink. When I’m finished, I stare up at the assortment of products. My gut tugs as I pick out one word that crowds each scripted label: whitening. My mother once tried to soak me in a bath of milk. That didn’t work, so I suppose she’s moved on to trying subtler hints.

III. The Siege Before School

I’m a front-row dance performer in today’s awarding ceremony. It isn’t a big deal, but it is for my mother, who has dreamed that I follow her footsteps. She wakes me up one hour before my usual alarm, hairspray clouding my vision and batting a mascara wand near my eyes. I nibble on an unbuttered piece of toast while she pulls my hair back with pointy pins. Toothbrush sticking out of my mouth, I assure her that my classmate’s mother will be recording the whole thing, and yes, without a shaky hand but with a clear camera. Rebutted, she moves onto another argument as she presses my lips together with a red bullet. “You’d look so good if your skin looked a little...” she trails off, reaching for a tissue to dab at my lips. I fill in the word for her, though I can’t say it out loud: lighter. On the way out of the condo, my mother hands me her creamy powder compact, just in case. I keep it in my pocket throughout the day, like an invisible stain.

IV. The Surrender of the Snakes

My mother is waiting for me in our threadbare couch, lithe arms crossed over another in a violet smock. “Why didn’t you touch up your face?” she asks, which also means that she’s already seen the video. Her nose scrunches, like the sight of my exposed skin, shades deeper than hers, is also steps lower. I stare back at her, throat going dry with anger. When I am unable to contain it any longer – words have never worked for me – I rush to the bathroom and lock the door. Ignoring my mother’s knocks that grow louder each minute, I push open the cabinet and scoop all the items into the sink. My hands shake with the effort, but I manage to squeeze and pound the contents of each further down the drain: minty toothpaste blends with rose-scented lotion, topped with shavings of white soap. Each bottle hisses in protest, the liquids trying to my skin lick their manipulative tongues. I manage to deflect each one. When I’m done, I smash the compact into the faucet and throw each plastic piece into the wastebasket.

V. The Mother – Daughter Treaty

My mother used to be a beauty queen. She waved to adoring fans and twirled upon request, eyes crinkling with the joy of being loved for how she looked. Her past is immortalized in faded pictures, pasted in bulging scrapbooks that make up an entire shelf on the wall. She is luminous, willowy, paper white. Interview clippings state that she hopes for a daughter that will follow her footsteps. Maybe, she is quoted in a magazine, she’ll even surpass my achievements. I whisper that she better be ready, her daughter will disappoint her, but she doesn’t seem to hear it. Instead, she raps on my bedroom door, calling: “Supermarket in ten minutes. You can make the list.” You can make the list. It’s the greatest concession she’s ever made, so I begin to write.

Andrea Salvador is a Filipino writer, split between Manila and Melbourne. She has participated in the Iowa Young Writers' Studio and The Common Young Writers Program. In her spare time, she creates lists, watches horror movies, and rearranges her bookshelf.