Literary Mama writing about the many faces of motherhood

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Milk. The American couldn’t remember the Tagalog word for milk. Latte, the damned Italian word, swarmed in front of her face like a distracting fly as she searched for the local word. She was standing, literally, in the middle of M.H. del Pilar Street, rooted like seaweed swaying in the pushy chaotic waves of Malate’s traffic. The so-called tourist district of Manila rushed at her as a bazaar of jeepneys, taxis, motorized tricycles, and pedicabs. The jeepneys’ growls dominated, their lurches amplified by the bars and bank fronts lining the street midday. Vendors, nursing students arm-in-arm in their required uniforms, office workers with permanent slouches, tangled and untangled without effort.  They aren’t afraid of the traffic, why should I be?

Facing the American, rooting her there with a calm, begging gaze, was a Filipina in a ragged Hello Kitty T-shirt, shorts, and plastic flip-flops. A smile lay easily on her weathered face. She wanted to laugh at the American’s pained expression. I only asked for milk, Americana, what’s with the angst? 

The American struggled to answer the Filipina’s ‘I need milk for my baby’ gesture. The baby was limp in his mother’s arms. Was he asleep, or was it the traffic fumes? His head was large like a 1-year-old’s would be, but his body seemed small and his hair was fuzz. The mother, mid-30s, had a choppy short haircut. Her frame, small even for a Filipina, hinted of a childhood on this very same street, nourished by the same particle-filled air, watery rice, and scavenged potluck.

“Meron ako’ng. . .meron ako’ng. . .I have. . .” the American started, but couldn’t complete the sentence. Her face twisted, she looked to the sky. Milk. . .latte. . .no—she needed the Tagalog word, the Filipino word. Talk to me–use the word for milk to remind me of it! Maybe the Filipina was from the province—maybe she spoke Cebuano, Waray, or something else, not the national language. The American wanted to cup her own breast, point to it—I have milk here!

The American, too tall, pale and wilted in this tropical sauna, had milk. Too much of it. Her breasts ached for her own 18-month old boy back in the States. She had shorted out her breast pump by plugging it into the outlet at the Pension Natividad—a much stronger current—and an elementary mistake made in desperation after a long flight. Should have known better, she thought. Now her milk was drying up for good while this listless baby needed it—here, now. She imagined holding him, relieving the pain, smelling his hair. . . .

Realizing that she could not communicate by words, nor reveal her own shameful leaking motherhood in the middle of oncoming traffic, the American scanned the spaces between buildings for a private nook where a gesture could be the offer of nourishment. You and everyone else needs a private nook. Permanent residents of the street occupied virtually every available crack. A child bathed in full view using an oil can for a dipper, an old man clipped his nails, a woman cooked on a small fire, someone unidentifiable napped in a push cart. Maybe this woman had a place, maybe a corner somewhere, shielded by a dirty curtain. I would gladly go there, thought the American as she looked around, wishing this woman would gesture her away from the street, down a corridor, behind a wall. I would sit down on your rice sack, behind the flimsy corrugated iron sheet, for a chance to nurse your baby. Show me the place you call home, where you keep your baby bottle and powdered milk. I’ll cuddle him right there. I don’t care if it smells like piss or if I have to flick away fig-sized roaches. And by the way, I’m not that different from you. But her Filipino failed her even more as the complexity of what she wanted to propose jumbled all of her available phrases and again, her Italian words asserted themselves, words from her husband’s tongue, words she now breathed daily. It had been 9 years since she had worked fluently with so many Filipinas in the city, 9 years since latte, ho fame, and mangia adesso had begun to push aside her Filipino. And she had not been a mother back then. She had never talked to them about nursing, about milk.

Her desperation re-flourished in English. How on earth did I get stuck in the middle of the street in the Bohemian red light district with aching breasts and no babe to suckle? And isn’t it fate that one appeared at this very moment?

But then, another thought washed away the previous one: is my milk okay? She stood in front of the Oar House, the very pub where last night she had drunk more than a couple San Miguel beers, that strong Filipino standard with a bitter aftertaste, the cause of a distinctive flavor of hangover. She had been hoping Boy would show up to reminisce, to flirt, and spent all evening waiting for him—figures. In the meantime she had a few with Nic, who, knowing Boy wouldn’t show, stayed like a good friend. Nic ended up asleep sitting straight up in his chair. She was about to check his pulse when the has-been theater guy sitting with them said, “He’s fine. He always does this.” Not when I knew him. Without moving an eyelid Nic summoned a grin, and she made a mental note to express her concern for his health tomorrow. Son of a doctor, he should know better, she thought.

She had left the dingy pub at midnight with its Rolling Stones and its classic Pinoy rock—her second home during her last long residency in the city—to the street where the vibrating disco music pounded the bottom line through her body:  Flesh for Sale. Flesh for the Taking. She stepped around a family of five, bedded for the night on cardboard scraps on the sidewalk in the same loose fitting clothes they wore by day. The toddler, who she could see was a girl as she wore only a short t-shirt, lay on the outside edge nearest the busy street, her father’s arm draped across her naked middle.

The colonial-American-built sidewalks were rare in the city and at night the street dwellers claimed large swaths of the pavement. A strong dollar fueled the trade in brown skin with musical and culinary side dishes. Expats also preferred sidewalks. Beggars preferred expats, and white skin was a pretty good indication. Her flesh was so white it stood out even among the flashing disco signs. Here, white was beauty, white was dirty, white was money. And white was so much more. It was complicated.

Now she regretted the excessive beer. Her milk was probably tainted with alcohol. Was that even possible? She wouldn’t have consumed even so much as her mother’s beef burgundy had she been nursing her own child at the moment. Organics, green leafy vegetables, good quality proteins. When he got a chronic rash, she had gone off dairy, and when that didn’t work, she’d cut out wheat. Would she have let him nurse from someone else, a stranger, a foreigner no less? What if this baby got sick from the White Woman’s milk?

Feeling like a failure on all fronts, she gave in to the most obvious solution–buy some infant formula. She looked at the mother and suppressed her own tears. This trip will be the end of my milk. She mounted the low curb, crossed the sidewalk, and entered the 7-11.

The mother followed with a hop in her step that said, Now we’re talkin’.

The American found a can of Nestle infant formula on the bottom shelf and showed it to the mother. She hated Nestle for this.

“OK ba ito? Is this OK?” the American asked. The mother looked puzzled. Squatting near the display, the American pointed to the label and read out loud, “Infant formula.” She looked at the mother again with raised eyebrows. The mother shook her head and reached for the Carnation milk powder. She pointed to the red and white box and smiled:  This one.

“Para kay Baby? For Baby?” asked the American. The milk powder was sinfully cheap compared to the infant formula. The mother nodded, her perpetual smile getting larger:  Finally, she understands!   

“Ati, ito ang para kay Baby. Sister, this is for Baby,” said the American. The Filipina tilted her head, her brows folded inward. She stared at the can:  But what is this? What do I do with it?

The American pointed to the mixing instructions. They were in English:  USE THE ENCLOSED MEASURING CUP. Was she even literate?  ADD 4 OUNCES PURIFIED WATER. Purified? The American remembered, then, rain trickling into a can. It was a restaurant-sized, vegetable shortening can under a blackened downspout, an empty one on standby. The baby did not stir as his mother shifted him to her other arm.

Katharine Bhee, who uses a pen name, has lived and worked in Southeast Asia for many years as a social scientist. She has published a book and numerous articles in this capacity. “Incarnation” is her first work of fiction. She lives in a rural college town in Illinois with her husband and two young children.

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Beautiful story.
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