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R: PHX, S: 1IN10, D: 06/01/1999, B: Ricco Villanueva Siasoco,

The First Lady of Our Filipino Nation

by Ricco Villanueva Siasoco

The excerpt below is from Squatters, a novel-in-progress. Squatters explores the emotional and moral complexity of its central characters: Vera, a 70-year-old mother who flees an unhappy marriage in the Midwest and takes up residence in her son's one-bedroom apartment in Boston; and Will, her young son, who's navigating the murky territory of love and adulthood. Moving between Vera's voice and Will's voice, Squatters is a tale of the secrets deeply buried in families, the relationships between mothers and their gay sons, the intergenerational conflicts that abound as the traditional ways of the old world connect with the new, and the legacy of immigrants making peace with an uncharted, oftentimes hostile territory.


Paul hadn't settled into my apartment when my mother knocked on the front door, her bayong in one hand and Dom's long-forgotten Super Friends backpack in the other. Paul and I were hesitantly certain that living together was the next step in our relationship; somehow his intuition, or my unspoken fear of commitment, had cautioned us to move one pair of his satin boxers at a time.

We lay on our backs, necks wet in the humid afternoon, ignoring the interruption at the door. The knocking grew insistent and, finally, on Sunday time, I donned a pair of jeans and left Paul half-asleep on the mattress.

"Honey, I'm home!" she cried, her short arms outstretched in the hallway. A good foot smaller than me, she had thinning black hair with patches of scalp showing through, and drops of sweat collected on her forehead like the outside of an icy glass. She reminded me of an elderly actress I'd seen peddling greeting cards or adult diapers on TV once -- not my mother, but a shrunken, more animated version of a woman in her 70s.

"My baby," she said, embracing me. She stepped back, then reached out and pinched my love handles. "You look taba!"

"Mom! You're here?"

"Let your Moms see your new tirahan!"

Mom, or "Moms" as she often referred to herself, stepped into my narrow hallway, handing me her bags and kissing me on one flushed cheek. Wasn't it customary to make an announcement before an occasion like this? Pick up the phone and reach out to someone you love? I imagined a monotone voice overhead, as rehearsed as a stewardess or the driver of a T train: the performance will begin in five minutes; please return to your seat. You'd gather yourself in the back of the room, tuck in your ragged shirttail, spit your hair back in one of those giant gilded mirrors. Thank you for waiting, the guide would say, the show will now begin.

Never does he say, Hey buddy -- move it along, and plop you in a hard-backed seat.

"How? When? did you leave Des Moines?" I asked, my mother dwarfed by a wall of unpacked boxes. I held her thin arms in my hands.

"Hoy naku, you have a head cold?"

"It's just, you're here, right here in my living room!" I thought of Paul, naked in my bed 30 feet away. Was he still napping, dreaming of our earlier consummation in the midday heat?

"Surprised, hah? I have surprised my baby on his first day as a man!" The unnatural whiteness of her dentures filled her mouth like correction fluid. I felt a small hair lodged in the back of my throat and coughed loudly into my fist.

"And you answer your door like this, not wearing a scrap of clothing? What kind of job do you have, where they don't pay you enough to purchase a new shirt?" She squinted. I figured she was studying how much wider I'd grown since the last time we'd seen each other, in her West Des Moines home a few years earlier.

Paul emerged from my bedroom with a long, calm stride. One side of his blond, sun-bleached hair was flattened against his head, and he wore one of my loose T-shirts and his own worn jeans.

"So the shelves are all set up," he said, winking in my direction. "I thought I heard you talking."

I dropped my mother's luggage on the floor.

"Paul, this is my mother, Vera." I ushered him into our circle, my hand on his back. "Mom, this is, um, Paul."

We'd been dating for more than a year, but Paul and I still disagreed on introductions. He introduced me as his boyfriend or his partner, no matter whether the person was a colleague or a close friend.

My mother smiled politely, taking her two-handled bayong from my hand. She knew I was gay, and in her well-wishing had told me in overly enunciated Tag-lish that it was poor-feckt-ly okay naman. She ate up that bullshit from her television altar, from weepy soap operas like Loving and The Love Boat (anything with the L word in its title). When I broke the news to her, she had proclaimed I love you no matter what you choose, and You will always be my baby boy. That was back in school, a couple spring breaks ago. We'd spoken little about it since, focusing instead on the weather, her mall-walking club, and the various plights of my brothers.

"Excuse me a second," I said, hustling into my bedroom. "T-shirt," I shouted over my shoulder.

In the still room, I kneeled beside a heap of dirty clothes beneath an unscreened window. Outside, someone threw a heavy object into a dumpster; it clanged against the rigid metal sides. How did my mother find my new place? How long was she planning to stay?

A ragged green polo, my favorite, was tucked in the center of the mound, and I lifted several pairs of jeans and removed the shirt from the pile. After all, any shirt would be acceptable; I was a grown man. I pulled the polo shirt over my head and looked at myself in the long mirror mounted on the back of the door. Smoothing my short, tousled hair with one hand, I remembered Paul was wearing the same BU T-shirt my mother had given me as a gift before I left home.

I walked barefoot into the hall again, the cinnamon smell of my mother's face cream surprising me in the narrow passage. In my peeling kitchen, Paul poured my mother a tall glass of orange juice.

"Vera says you never separate your whites and darks. Maybe that explains the pink underwear," he said smugly.

I breathed through my nose, nostrils flaring, and took the brown plastic pitcher from his hand and returned it to the refrigerator. When I turned back to my mother and boyfriend, Paul's haughty, tightly pressed lips formed a small O as he realized the intimacy of his flippant revelation.

Later, frying eggs with crisp edges, I asked Paul if we were keeping him from his other commitments for the day. Beside me, on the counter, the rice cooker my mother had mailed me hissed and blew a miniature geyser of steam.

"Nope," he said, mopping the yellow of his fried egg with his toast and placing it in his mouth. "What commitments?"

"I don't know; I hear the radio station is hiring."

My mother, silent since Paul had greeted us from my bedroom, stared at her bleeding eggs and rice and pretended not to understand.


That evening my eldest brother, Johnny Boy, sent a terse e-mail indicating his wish for our mother to stay in my care as long as humanly possible.

"Mom needs her Magandang Baby," my kuya Johnny wrote, "and the rest of your brothers just won't do."

I sat at my round table, alone in my apartment save for my mother's bestsellers, the clutter of newspapers in the spacious living room, purchased-but-unread Don DeLillo and Denis Johnson, and a pile of one-act plays from the office. My mother wanted Bufferin and other last-minute items for her sudden sabbatical, and Paul had offered to show her the local CVS on his way home.

I turned the power strip beneath the table off and phoned Ray to confide Johnny Boy's message in him. The roar of small, coordinated wheels on pavement and his skater friends' raucous cheers drowned out his voice.

"Johnny Boy thinks Mom's running away to avoid him," Ray said, projecting his voice over the skittish skateboard noise. Our brother had asked her to subsidize another of his degrees -- this time a doctorate in some subject Ray didn't have a clue about. I heard Rebecca, his bland girlfriend, shout across the room: "Asian-American Studies."

I peeked through the thin blind covering my bay window. Dusk was settling in the street; a thin lamp hummed to life. On the crumbling stoop of my brownstone, Paul waved goodbye to my small mother and she disappeared into my building. What revelations had Paul made to her? And how much of his babble had the First Lady retained?

"Shit, Will, I swore she was leaving next week," he apologized, a safe distance from our mother and her willful path. Ray hadn't separated himself from his workshop long enough to notice the First Lady and her luggage on their merry way.

It had been almost four years since I'd seen him. Ray was a year older than me, but was often mistaken as the youngest of us; the teaching staff at my mother's school had a tendency to pinch his fat, dimpled cheeks. The last time we'd seen each other was the morning after Christmas when he brought me to Des Moines International Airport. I remember he bought me two prime-cut steaks from the gift shop.

"You're running away from home," he said, handing me the steaks and a crisp two-dollar bill -- his totem for luck. He hugged me, then gave me a familiar shove.

I waited for liftoff in the cabin of that nasally 747, surrounded by a group of Eastern-bound strangers. Fidgety, I glanced at the plane's emergency instructions and remembered the rest of his sentence: "and the First Lady knows."

One of my brothers, Dom probably, had secretly christened her the First Lady of Our Filipino Nation because her knowledge of our family was absolute. She could rattle off for us immunization records, off-color remarks we'd said and forgotten, a detail as impossible as the date Johnny Boy first learned to spell "Philippines" correctly, all as nonchalantly as the time of day. From the way we squeezed Crest onto our toothbrushes (Johnny Boy, left to right; Dominic, right to left; Ray, when he was forced into personal hygiene, directly into his mouth; and me, in a hurried squish) to how many times each of my brothers masturbated in the privacy of the bathroom or our shared rooms, my kuyas were convinced she kept a mental notebook of the secret goings-on in that small house.

She found Dom getting off in the metal tool shed once. I stood in the kitchen nuking green-bean casserole for our afternoon merienda. The First Lady's hissing was as concise and threatening to me, eavesdropping through the patio door, as I learned it was to Dom seated on the riding lawnmower, his white gym shorts limp around his ankles and a copy of Victoria's Secret beside the stick shift.

"Hoy naku!" she yelled. "If your Lolo and Lola could see their apo now! They would say you'll go blind, that you'll never grow up, but of course all that is not true! You know what's going to happen, Dominic? You're going to use it all up and have nothing left for making babies! Hoy, hindi puede maganak. You keep that up -- I know you and your brothers are touching your tetes at all hours in this house -- and you'll be sterile! Hoy naku, what would the neighbors say?"

I and all my brothers loved her to death, though we would each be hard-pressed to be the first to admit it. I hung up the phone and sat on my thin futon, waiting for my mother to climb the three flights to my door. In her tireless wisdom and painful, loving drills, she had managed to cultivate healthy doses of humor in us. And despite a chasm in ideologies and pursuits, my brothers and I shared a common understanding: the First Lady would never change a bone.

Ricco Villanueva Siasoco lives in Boston. He was recently featured at PEN New England's Annual Discovery Evening.