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The Umbrella Country

Miss Unibers

A bird died at the first sign of flooding. 

From our second-story window, I could connect all forms of destruction with a seasonal song while I watched our neighbors fill up Tupperware, buckets, and drums with rain to be carried inside, but still, we quietly resisted the rain. The higher the flood rose, the more lives it took, sometimes animals--rats, dogs, frogs--floated in the flood and sometimes people and homes, which I had not seen myself but heard so much about. It was only this time of the year when I felt that there was more than enough of anything for everybody. As long as I could remember, water has always been scarce; it often got cut off or dripped out of the faucets. Not that I looked forward to floods because most of that type of water we couldn't use anyway, but the sight of water gushing out of nowhere always reminded me that somebody up there understood what was lacking down here. 

A quick slam of wind pushed me away from the window, closer to Pipo who was on the floor beside his Miss Unibers box. 

"What are you going to wear this time?" I asked, when I saw him cutting little crescent-moon-shaped pictures out of magazines. No answer. I could only hear the gush of humming rain outside and murmurs of little children as they playfully chanted over the death of the little Maya bird, slowly being whirled into the sewer. 

Meanwhile, Pipo studied a black-and-white picture he had taken from Mommy a while back. Although he never asked me to watch the door or listen to approaching voices and footsteps, I would always stand guard whenever he did this, so nobody could suddenly walk up the stairs and catch him. 

"Are you wearing that?" 

Miss Unibers, our game of the season. 

Games appeared and disappeared in our street. When they came back, if they ever did, they would usually take another form, like soft drink bottle caps: gambled with one year, shot up into the gutters the next, and flattened to become caroling instruments at Christmas. It happened every few months to accommodate the changing weather, but no one could really tell what we would come up with next. Unpredictable as typhoons, pabago-bago ng isip, the elders would say about us because our temperaments changed quickly, sometimes long after a flood or before all our rubber slippers were made into boats. 

While all the other boys gambled with marbles, playcards, and rubber bands to know who would be ruling our street next, the rest of us busied ourselves with Miss Unibers in those last days of the sun. I remember it clearly: 

I was standing at the back of the red cement steps of English-speaking Titay's verandah, watching with dismay the two contestants left in front of us. Plants in big terra-cotta pots made leafy walls on either side of the stairs and the big, old wooden doors carved with the letter R. We were hidden from outside, from other children like Big Boy Jun and his marble-gambling friends who would surely taunt us upon seeing us in costumes. The tall plants absorbed our voices, even English-speaking Titay's loud, cracking one.

"Secon-runnerup, Miss Germanee!" Her voice was an out-of-tune song. 

I clapped my hands to a succession of questions, overlapping like the rat-ta-tat yells of newspaper boys in the morning: Why was everybody so quiet when I sang? Would I ever make it to the top three? Did I have to sneak out in my mother's clothes to win this? Wasn't a wraparound of bedsheets and curtains enough for a gown? 

"Firs-runnerup, Miss Ha-why." 

English-speaking Titay gingerly pinned the sequined sash around Ling-ling who was wearing her first holy communion dress, layered with lace. English-speaking Titay was known for harassing boys with her big, flabby arms and her English in such a way that nobody would engage her in an altercation, mistaking the thickness of her skin for English proficiency. "What chu want?" she yelled at a boy one time, and the boy ran away, frightened not by English-speaking Titay, who was shorter than him, but by words he couldn't understand. 

I fingered the edge of my glittering sash as I gawked at the plastic table roses stuck across Ling-ling's chest, the green stems visible from afar. I had thought about wearing something similar but I couldn't find any in our house. We had only kept real plants; cutting parts of them would probably kill them. Ninang Rola would certainly get upset, especially after having patiently spent a great deal of time applying egg white on the leaves for them to glimmer. I grabbed my falling wraparound, wondering what had happened to the big safety pin that kept my costume in place. "Stop wiggling." Ling-ling turned to me with huge eyes and a whisper while she faked a smile on her face. Born a duck, she grew up into a girl. But even at the age of nine, she still possessed all the characteristics of a duck: her toes were so spread open that pebbles would always get caught between them; she lifted one leg to rest; her tongue was too small, she squeaked when she spoke. 

"Tenk chu. Tenk chu. Eeek." 

The winner stood there, towering over all of us. Unlike me, he hardly had a spot of sweat on his face. His costume was an island spice, flavored with candle-wax fruits on his head and a very, very tight nightgown, the one Mommy had been looking for for over a month. For days, she attached puñeta to all the names of our closest relatives--puñeta Mrs.-from-across-the-street, puñeta Sgt. Dragon Dimaculangan, puñeta Baby Cherry Pie--blaming the neighbors for stealing our clothesline with fishhooks. I never said a word. I wasn't even surprised to see Mommy's nightgown appear again as a gown with heart-shaped pieces of velvet fabric pasted all over it, shoulder straps replaced by a plastic vine of sequined multicolored leaves, a lace table runner on his back like a cape. All of them looking familiar. Even him. Pipo. Miss Unibers. 

For the third time. 

The rain swooshed so heavily that the sliding window shutters almost shook out of their grooves. I held them firmly to keep them from falling over. Behind me was Pipo. Behind me, our room. Pipo. This room layered with wallpaper over the years. Mommy said I was born here. In this very space, a few months after Pipo was born, I was conceived. It could have been raining outside, too; that was when couples like Sgt. and Mrs. Dimaculangan had nothing better to do but make babies. It could have been during the summer, during one of the brownout nights, when the city tried to conserve energy and turned everybody's lights off. Those nights, when mosquitoes haloed people's heads, they slid the shutters closed. Then I was conceived. Then I was born. 

There was one big bed in the middle of our room. 

Mommy and Daddy Groovie slept there, where I could have been conceived but no one would say. They never spoke to me about things that happened before my birth as if our lives only began thereafter. When I looked at the bed, I always imagined Mommy and Daddy Groovie's cockfight at night, thinking I could have been conceived immediately after what they did. That same bed was where I spent mornings as a small child waking up in my own wetness. Mommy covered the mattress with a multifold of blankets because of the stains I left. She decided one day to stuff my Jockeys with thick pieces of carefully folded cloth so that when I wet at night, I wouldn't wet the bed. I would go to sleep with a huge bulge in my shorts. Every morning when I woke up, the cloth was soaking wet. And so was the bed. A bigger wet spot overlapping with the other stains. Mommy said I would ruin the bed by peeing on it all the time, so she decided to move us into a bunk, me on top, Pipo on the bottom. The mattresses were thin. In a few months, they were thinner. The following year, I stopped wetting myself. I dreamt that I was inside an empty drum that we used to fill with rainwater. Somehow, being inside, the drum was taller than me. The paint inside peeled. It began to rain. Not until the rain reached my neck did I realize it was my own pee. Boy Manicure, from the beauty parlor five houses away, was there. Although I couldn't see him, I knew he was watching and laughing away. It could have been the sound of his laughter that reverberated inside the drum that woke me up, or the sudden flash of his Technicolor Revlon face in front of me. But I knew when I woke up I was dry, and I had been waking up dry since. I told everybody that a dream of rain healed me. Ninang Rola attributed the change to God's blessings, which for her, and many of us, came through rain from above. 

A window in a house. A big open eye that never slept. 

The same window where Daddy Groovie spent his days sitting, watching the movement of life outside while he chewed on his peanuts. He would wilt like guava leaves on a hot summer day, collecting his dreams of the States, putting them in little heaps the way he would peanut shells. Sometimes, the wind would blow his peanut shells and Pipo and I would catch them like falling yellow leaves. Once, he created paper boats that never sank in the flood. He must have seen Pipo and me struggling with little boats made of paper, cardboard, or rubber slippers. He taught us how to make them. I was seven then. Another moment with Daddy Groovie worth putting in a picture album because it was never to happen again. While it rained outside, Daddy Groovie taught us how to fold the paper differently, what edges to cut, and once the boat was done, where to prop it up with a Popsicle stick so that it wouldn't sink. He would say over and over again how lucky we were to learn this from him since his own father never taught him anything, how there were certain things we had to discover ourselves. While Pipo built the paper boat himself, I was imagining how many black ants I could put in the boat. I lost one of the paper boats one day; when I found it again, it was still floating on the flood, resting on a stone, the ants very safe inside. At times, we would put black and red ants together in one boat and see what they would do to each other while floating on the flood. Nothing. They just made little holes in the paper. 

Little windows on a boat. 

Pipo would never give up. "Could paper planes fly better?" He once handed Daddy Groovie a plane he had just made. Daddy Groovie took it from his hands, watched 

it fly into a curve, go into the back of the cabinet and disappear. "Now you know," was Daddy Groovie's response while he walked away laughing. "What do you think of that, PanAm?" Pipo attempted again a few times--a house made of Popsicle sticks, a sword made of bamboo, the proper way to turn slippers into boats. Each time Daddy Groovie ignored him, saying, "About time for you to learn this yourself." Since then, Pipo learned to discover all on his own houses in shoe boxes, paint in nail polish, dresses in curtains. He learned to use his hands, sometimes acquiring Daddy Groovie's heavy hands, chasing me with them, hitting me right on the head, my back, or using them to throw things that he could never improve: a tilting cardboard that was supposed to be a choo-choo train, a worn-out slipper sliced in half to be a boat, a shoe box dripping with nail polish that could have been a newly polished doll house, and a Miss Unibers nightgown ripped in the middle. 

Soon rain became the rhythm of humming, creating so many different sounds, so many songs for this flooded city. The thickness of the season lay on the ground, at least ankle-high. People sang or whistled while they plodded through the flood. I could hear little children singing for the sun to come back. Radios were on, alternating between early morning love songs and weather news updates. 

Inside our bedroom, I repeatedly hummed a song I sang at our Miss Unibers. I could still hear the enveloping silence when I delivered my bathroom-rehearsed talent. Nobody looked at me. It would have been better if they laughed or expressed some form of emotion so that I could know how bad I was. I knew I couldn't sing and didn't have any other talent. Just this round, owl-eyed face. Twin balloons for cheeks as if I were always keeping air inside my mouth, about to blow Juicy Fruit. Lower lips protruding so that one could see the soft flesh inside, a mouth of pouting, a mouth that always seemed to cry. Gaps between chipped teeth, so that whenever I saw a Colgate commercial I felt that everybody was looking at me, up and down, my mouth getting smaller and smaller, this giant toothbrush attacking me. 

My face was similar to the dark, except night became day and my face stayed the same. Many times, I had attempted to transform it by smiling differently, masking it behind daydreams of beauty queens in the black-and-white pictures Mommy kept from the sixties. Long glittering gowns. Mesmerizing bouffant hairdos. Arms and fingers, bent and spread out like mannequins in eternal postures of display, or like Virgen Maria on church pedestals, rings of flowers curling around her fingers, every week a new one. I imagined I was the mannequin at Aling Tina's tailor shop at the end of our street, whose dress changed every week. I would have the long and light-colored hair of Delilah de Samsona, the mannequin at Boy Manicure's beauty parlor. The perfect angular face of Sonja Carolina Santa Cruz, the head of a mannequin that mysteriously appeared and disappeared on Mommy's decade-old Singer Machine. But somehow I always ended up looking plain and flat, and my costumes like the old blankets that Mommy dressed the ironing board with. 

And the one who managed to come up with the best costumes was the same one who secretly stole Sonja Carolina Santa Cruz's mannequin head to use for fitting his hairpieces, kept his Miss Unibers box under the bunk bed. But deep inside me, I knew that he was born with the ability to turn towels and bedsheets into the most decorative gowns, and to walk with grace on his long legs without bending his back or losing his balance. That I could never quite get right. I didn't have the gift of long legs. Towels hung lifeless around my neck. I never thought about wrapping them around my head, the way Pipo did all the time, even at home. At our first Miss Unibers, he capped his head with Mommy's floral towel, a huge hairpiece, with all the flowers decoratively showing, and so high, twice the size of his head! He became Miss Kodak. Miss Swimsuit. Miss Long Gown. And eventually, Miss Unibers. 

The flood left a layer of mud on the ground. Rubber slipper prints just about everywhere. Our neighbors were talking about how the streets were cleared of beggars, how walls were built to hide the slum areas not far away from here, this way the foreigners couldn't tell they even existed, how men and women were hired to clean the streets in red-and-white uniforms and to flash welcoming smiles, how we should all keep clean and stay around the block because somebody might come and pick us up thinking that we were children of the streets. It was a rare occasion--Miss Universe--in our country for the first time. You could tell the excitement in people's faces. Everybody was betting on either Miss Finland or Miss Spain to win it. O, I'd bet my prize cockfighter for MisPain, O? 

Amid the thrill and confusion, my playmates gathered at English-speaking Titay's house to watch the Miss Universe show on TV. 

Sergio Putita babbled about how so many Stateside people were arriving, as if they would come near here. 

We only saw them on TV. He added that since people were asked to smile at foreign visitors to the city that he was smiling every day. Everybody was acting unusual, too, especially Pipo, who couldn't wait to see the show so he was being extra friendly to English-speaking Titay for a whole week. 

"What's that?" English-speaking Titay asked, turning to the window. 

"Sounds like our General Electric fan," Pipo said, getting up from the floor that was so polished we could see ourselves in it. 

We all ran to the window to see what the sound was. The window was not like ours; it was new, white, and made of metal, the glass thicker and rougher. Outside, the newspaper boys yelled and pointed at the skies. A helicopter roared above us. I knew that helicopters had been regularly circling the skies that month. Before I looked above, I noticed Boy Spit, standing in front of the procession of newspaper boys, as if leading them. 

Sergio Putita squeezed in between Pipo and me. "You know what they're doing?" He began another one of his made-up stories that no one ever paid attention to. "Those are government helicopters trying to blow away the clouds so it won't rain again, especially during Miss Universe. We talked about this over dinner at home. Papa said it was embarrassing for the beauty queens to get wet in the rain because it never rained where most of them came from. So while it was raining here, they all traveled to the south somewhere. The president wouldn't allow it to rain again tonight so he sent off his helicopters." Sergio Putita spoke so proudly of what he knew. I stared at the ground, wondering how the government could hide the mud. 

Putita. Little Whore. Sergio Putita claimed he invented Miss Unibers. It wasn't rare to see him singing "Sunrise, Sunset," his favorite song, and walking up and down the verandah steps and posing on the threshold, eyes flushed with an appetite for dreaming, spit drying in the corner of his lips. Pipo usually followed to show him how he should keep his back straight and tilt backward a little bit. They held each other up on the landing, cheek to cheek, smiles so big and fake, flashing missing teeth. It was English-speaking Titay who shouted, "Miss Unibers," but Sergio Putita screamed, his high-pitched voice sending summer birds back south. 

"Look!" Sergio Putita pointed toward someone who was pulling his shorts up. "Big Boy Jun. He's so ugly. Even from up here, he's so ugly." 

They all laughed. I continued watching Boy Spit. 

"Ugly. Ugly." Sergio Putita started yelling at him so that they all ducked under the window. I hid behind the curtains. 

Sergio Putita came from the most religious family in our street. They ran all the Virgen Maria processions on Sunday nights. Anything that had anything to do with prayers, their family name was connected to: his mother sang at the church on Sundays; his father played the piano; his brother SWAT was an altar boy before he took odd jobs. Their house was full of tall wooden statues of saints with shiny faces and lifelike eyes, clothed with beads and lace that Sergio Putita hid in rice sacks and wore to Miss Unibers many times. 

"Shhh. La Madre Patria is back," screamed English-speaking Titay's maid while staring at Miss Spain, although nobody understood what she meant. They all started walking back to sit on the floor. The newspaper boys began their parade, Boy Spit still ahead. While he walked past, I focused on his voice, ignoring the roaring sound above. 

When I sat back down on the wooden floor, Miss Aruba was gracing the screen. Everybody thought she was from the province up north. Dark. Big eyes. Thick curly hair. 

English-speaking Titay's maid remarked, "She's so dark. Must be Ilocana!" When the wrinkly old emcee whose name we could never say called Miss Aruba as second runner-up, the maid walked out, her face looking like she just dipped a slice of raw mango in vinegar and ate it. 

"Aruba Ilocana beauty. España Puta-Puta. Pwehh." 

She had no concept of countries but I had memorized all of them. But I also never thought Miss Aruba could be so dark. I looked at my skin when I looked at her. She was darker than I, although on TV, they all came in different shades of gray. 

Miss Finland's name was announced. English-speaking Titay panicked, pointing to the TV. "Oh, oh, oh, look, oh, oh." 

"What? What's wrong?" asked Pipo. 

English-speaking Titay stood up and ran off. When she came back, she was holding her doll. "Look." She put it next to the TV. "Look at MissFinlan, she looks like my doll! Oh, oh, oh, look!" She started jumping on the floor so hard that the rubber bands on her ponytail snapped off. The doll was a smaller version of Miss Finland--even on the black-and-white TV, it was easy to tell that she had blue, sunken eyes. "MissFinlan, that's your name." 

Finally Miss Spain ran away with the glittering crown. We all watched attentively and nervously, wanting more than anything to fall all over her knees. Ling-ling, as dark as Miss Aruba, had that big-teeth smile on her face. The beak of a duck. Sergio Putita watched so closely that his mouth began to bubble. And my brother--he sat in the back in suspicious silence--I knew what he had on his mind. This reigning queen. Thinking he could do it again. Copying Miss Spain's big-teeth smile as well, studying her walk, her hairdos, her glowing eyes, her gait. Contemplating my death, my embarrassment. His skin glowed even more, getting lighter and lighter. 

A whole city of children held in her spell. 

"Where is Pipo?" Mommy asked before she sat down for dinner. I had removed the empty chair hoping that nobody would notice he wasn't there. 

"Studying, perhaps?" replied Maricon. Her tone was one of disappointment because nobody touched her bifstek. 

"Viernes? Viernes? Qué se joda, Maricon!" Ninang Rola had bellowed earlier in the kitchen, seeing the slices of beef floating in sautéed soy sauce and onions. "Qué se joda, Maria Consuelo Buenaventura. Viernes. Friday. No meat. Don't you know what's forbidden anymore? Enough to be with you in a lifetime! Don't drag me to hell. Santíssimo Rosario!" Of course, I knew she overreacted, as always, especially once she began saying someone's whole name. Maria Consuelo. Consuelo de Bobo. Good for nothing, Maricon. 

"I saw him with books earlier." Maricon poured peppered vinegar into a bowl of fish sauce. 

"On a Friday?" said Jean and Jane Lacsamana, the twin sinners, feasting on the bifstek that everybody ignored. We called them Protestants, another English word that was hard to say. Whoever they were, they had their own rules. 

I knew where Pipo was, of course. This wasn't the first time he had missed dinner. 

"Gringo. Where is Pipo?" Mommy read my mind. 

"I don't know." I wanted to cover for him. English. Math. Religion. I wanted to say. Art. P.E. I wanted to add. But seeing their wide-eyed gazes made me realize it was perhaps too late; certain decisions were already made in their minds. But what was left to say? It was Friday. I quickly spooned rice into my mouth, and said in a low voice, "Studying ..." 

"On a Friday?" hollered Jean and Jane Lacsamana. 

"Yes, I think," I said, locking my jaw and staring at the twins. These boarders, I thought, you never know whose side they're on! Although I told everybody in our street they were my cousins, they were as unrelated to me as 

English-speaking Titay's blue-eyed dolls. Even though we were all as dark as the soy sauce in the bifstek, I never felt close to the twins, knowing that they weren't here to stay, just like the rest of our boarders in the past. They occupied the other big room in our house; just the two of them while the rest of us either lumped together in one bedroom like an Eveready matchbox, or like Ninang Rola and Maricon, on a cot or on reed mats on a cold floor downstairs. 

Daddy Groovie pushed his chair back, grabbing the edge of the table for support. I could see the rush of blood to his head. We had sat facing each other for years, the oldest and the youngest at opposite ends. I knew that blood. I knew when it went up to his brain. I had seen it with a San Miguel beer in his hand. The Spanish temperament Ninang Rola warned us about: Run away, when you see it, you must! 

His steps on the stairs were as heavy as my whole body sinking into my seat. There was quiet at the table, as if everybody had lost control of their hands and couldn't lift their spoons. They couldn't swallow anymore. With head bowed and lips pursed, Jean and Jane Lacsamana got up and went to the kitchen. The rest waited. I stood up. 

"Where are you going?" asked Mommy. 

I pretended I didn't hear. I knew where Pipo was. That was where I was going. I knew what he was doing as well. 

I sat on the landing of the steps upstairs. The door to our bedroom was closed. I could hear low voices downstairs, Ninang Rola advising Mommy not to follow. "When he's like that he doesn't see anyone," she was saying, "not even you and you know it." 

Mommy listened to her in silence. 

I wanted to go back down and tell her to stop Daddy Groovie but she probably already thought about it and decided to stay. 

The long yantok was slicing the air. I could feel it land on Pipo's skin. This was always the way with Daddy Groovie. There was the need to hurt Pipo, whip him with his long, smooth, rounded bamboo stick that he had kept for us before we were even born. A dialogue with his firstborn son, he called it. I could hear him cursing. Puta ka. Lalaki ka ba o ano? Huh? Huh? Are you a man? Who do you think you are, Boy Manicure? 

Another whip landed on Pipo, another landed inside me. Boy Manicure, I repeated. Daddy Groovie always mentioned that name to Pipo as if it was one of his curses. I sat there knowing I could have done something; I could have said he's sick, he's in bed. They always believed me. I imagined Pipo cringing in one corner, hiding, as if the yantok couldn't go into the deepest corners of our room. 

Daddy Groovie trudged out, still cursing. I bowed while he walked past and hid my head for cover, putting it between my knees and wrapping it with my hands. In darkness, as I closed my eyes, I saw Daddy Groovie's eyes, those angry squinty eyes, hurting Pipo, staring at me. 

The door slammed behind him and opened. As soon as I stood up, Pipo came out of the room, dirt shaped by his fingers on his wet face. The red lines on his legs looked like long, squinty little eyes. Pipo looked at me with Daddy Groovie's eyes, the squint of revenge. He grabbed my hair and banged my head against the wall and then ran away. My head almost hit the nail where we hung the broom. A spot of blood was left on the wall. I was too frightened to be hurt. There were quick exchanges of words downstairs. I walked into the room and shut the noise out. 

Pipo's Miss Unibers box was on the floor. 

For several nights, he skipped dinner to prepare for our next Miss Unibers. I always found a way to make sure he could do that, although he never knew I covered for him. His Miss Unibers box was lying on its side, wide open. Strings of fabrics were all over the floor. Scissors, Mommy's black-and-white pictures, a Miss Spain sash and all the other reasons why he won the contest three times in a row. Little hills of sequins separated me from the box. Don't touch. His voice appeared in my mind. Don't you ever, ever touch this. I thought about how many times I snatched bed-sheets two hours before Miss Unibers and blanketed them around my body only to be laughed at. How I never had a chance to be one of the three finalists so I could at least announce the best interview answer I had prepared in my head for so long. 

I walked past the box. No touch. No touch. The sliced air whispered softly. 

Jeepney smoke swirled into the room the following morning, filled with signs of a good day. I was awakened by noises of people cleaning the street. I looked out the window and saw a few men throwing rainwater on the mud while complaining about the possible casualties of another big typhoon. Thank goodness the flood went down fast. Some had already started mixing paint for their doors. A group of women argued about what color to use next, if yellow or orange or anything bright would bring luck. "How about mud," one woman joked, "the color of his face." She pointed at an old man with a rooster who was maliciously gawking at them. 

I wandered about in the room only to see Pipo's Miss Unibers box in the corner. He wasn't on his bed. I ran to the open door and heard morning voices downstairs. I slowly closed it and pushed their voices out. 

I walked closer to the box. I tried to forget about what happened the night before. The yelling. The sound of air being sliced. The cursing. The smell of blood. Although I could feel the cardboard Jesus with the glowing heart on the wall observing me, my curiosity dug into the box. The feel of fabric rolled around my fingers. The fact that Pipo kept it from everybody thrilled me even more. The secrets in the box. Every minute, I cherished my discovery. Heart-shaped velvet fabrics. Jewelry made of tin cans. The curtain embroidery he wore the first time he won. Coconut husks. Even Sonja Carolina Santa Cruz, the mannequin head. And what was this--? 

Long, smooth, black fabric. It clung like a cape with a hood on the top. Immediately, I thought of funerals, the blackness of brownouts. I wore it, touching its mystery, caressing its possibilities. 

I was going to be the last one called. Miss Unibers at English-speaking Titay's verandah started very late. There were ten of us, double the usual number. I could already hear the names of countries: Aruba, Finland, at least three Miss Spains. Other kids from the neighborhood heard about it and came, a diversion they couldn't miss. From the applause down the verandah, I could tell there were at least a dozen people watching. The flood had connected the houses, linking secrets we had kept so long, the reason why we have never done it again since. 

English-speaking Titay called Ling-ling. She was the third Miss Spain and number eight in a row. She copied Miss Spain's hair by wearing her mother's wig that smelled of mothballs. The redness of her cheeks was uneven, with remnants of the lipstick she had accidentally broken on her face earlier. She wore her older sister's yellow sweet-sixteen dress, a plastic lollipop in her hand. When she opened the door to the steps, I caught a glimpse of the children squatting on the verandah clearing, ten steps below us, giggling, covering their mouths with awe. They sat close to the walls of dwarf trees and thick pots of plants, leaving a huge opening in the middle for us to walk around. 

Sergio Putita was number nine. I peeked through the crack in the door. His shoes made cloc-cloc noises on the steps. There were screams as he showed his costume: star-shaped aluminum foil cutouts glued to his skin with flour paste, enough to cover his private parts. He had stars on the exposed cheeks of his buttocks. He raised his hands up in the air, spreading his fingers, like a fan. He turned to his side. Pushed his shoulder back. Lifted his chin. Bent his knee. Walked down sideways. Rested the knuckles of both hands on his forehead. Then threw the blanket that he covered himself with. Putita. Putita, they cheered. "Misssss Finlann," he screamed, matching the loudness of their voices. 

I found myself shaking down to my knees. I could see ten steps down and my head bouncing on each and every one of them. The door opened, the breeze came running toward me, and with it, silence. Eyes examined me from head to toe. My hood covered part of my face so that all they could see were my big eyes. The sides covered my cheeks so perfectly that they couldn't see my entire face, which was heavily covered with Johnson's Baby Powder. I thought of Pipo as I took my first step into the verandah clearing. As my clogs touched the tread, the wind blew again, into my outfit, inside, gently pushing my cape as if dancing with it, so naturally. 

The silence was even deeper now, but I knew it wasn't the sound of shame. They all looked at me and I didn't see the shame of Daddy Groovie's eyes in them. I imagined how Miss Spain--Miss Universe would have handled this situation, so while delicately taking my third and fourth step down, I pulled the string around my neck, releasing my cape to roll down the steps. So magically. I could hear their hearts jump. 

Now they could only see the nightgown that Pipo stole. Except this time, it was loaded with glittering beads and sequins shaped into stripes and stars. I slowly lifted my hands from my side as if spreading my wings, then put them together above my head to curl around each other. While flirtatiously sliding one hand down to my head, I leaned backward and pointed my clogs against the edge of the step. 

Halfway down, I stopped, holding still. I thought of Pipo again, the way he looked through me when he won Miss Unibers the last time, as if our blood was not connected. I thought of how he should have been here, how he could have easily won this, with his legs so long, skin so light, he would have beaten all the other Miss Spains. Suddenly I saw squinty eyes of blood, heard sounds of whipping and the loud banging of my head against the wall, a sound that has since stayed at the tips of my ears. 

Pulling my shoulders back, I lifted my head to taste the embracing breeze. No more typhoon, I thought, no more typhoon. 

And I took one last step down, hands resting on my waist. I examined each and every one of them, realizing how much their silence meant to me, capturing them with one blank stare. 

"My name is--Sonja Carolina Santa Cruz viuda de Amparo Muñoz Pilipiniana ... SMITH ... I'm Miss Woodside--Miss Nuyork ... I'm Miss USA." 

Use of this excerpt from The Umbrella Country by Bino A. Realuyo may be made only for purposes of promoting the book, with no changes, editing or additions whatsoever, and must be accompanied by the following copyright notice: copyright ©1999 by Bino A. Realuyo. All Rights Reserved.
Courtesy of Random House, Inc.

Excerpted from The Umbrella Country © Copyright 2012 by Bino A. Realuyo. Reprinted with permission by Ballantine. All rights reserved.

The Umbrella Country
by by Bino A. Realuyo

  • paperback: 320 pages
  • Publisher: Ballantine Books
  • ISBN-10: 0345428889
  • ISBN-13: 9780345428882