Nicolette and Maribel
Ricco SiasocoNicolette was used to questions: asking for directions, responding at job interviews, answering her perky placement counselor or the immigration officer with chunky black glasses whom she met at a federal building in Post Office Square. She had lived in Boston for five months but her life seemed a long list of questions. What’s the snow like? her sister Menchie asked, when she called long-distance from Manila. Do you have a boyfriend? A job? When are you going to buy a car? So when her classmate, a Filipino-American woman named Maribel, interviewed her in sign language class, Nicolette sighed, answering with one-word replies.
“Where are you from?” Maribel asked.
Nicolette spelled “Manila” with her fingers.
“What do you do?”
“Favorite TV show?”
Nicolette covered her mouth and yawned. She’d been up since six that morning, reading the last chapter of a romance novel she borrowed from the public library. She glanced at the clock and noted a half hour left of class.
“Do you have a boyfriend?”
Nicolette signed “Men are,” and then let out a small howl. Maribel laughed. The class turned to the two women as Franklin, their instructor, tried to settle the group down.
Nicolette was a coarse, big-boned girl with spiky black hair and a pursed-lip smile that often masked a scowl. Her classmate, Maribel, was as bubbly as Nicolette was cynical. Maribel was also eight months pregnant.
Following the class, Nicolette paused outside the white brick building. Tall lamps cast scallops of light on the parking lot and lit the dozen or so cars as if they were on display. From the east, a cool autumn breeze brushed Nicolette's skirt and chilled her beneath her thin sweater. She was thinking of home--not her basement studio in Brookline, but her real home in Manila--and the joy of driving her Subaru on a night like this beside the bay. She unclicked her purse and removed a pack of cigarettes. There was a solitude to the night that she preferred.
Maribel joined her on the steps. "When I first saw you, I knew you were Filipino. Guess how?”
Nicolette pumped her lighter, cupping it to the cigarette at her lips. She shrugged.
"My mom pointed it out to me. It’s the button nose!"
She watched the pregnant woman gather her waist-length hair behind her and tie it into a ponytail. It reminded her of her own hair, before she had had it cropped. Maribel's face was round and shiny, a polished plate, and her gestures seemed animated: a marionette’s. After several minutes of small talk she even popped, as if someone had yanked invisible strings attached to her elbows and knees. "Shit," Maribel said, holding Nicolette’s arm. "I'm late for meeting my husband. It was nice to meet you--I like the way you talk."
The way she talked? Nicolette thought her accent was undetectable. The night was cooling quickly and she took another drag of her cigarette before stubbing it beneath her white sneaker. Beyond the parking lot, she watched Maribel rush past the diamond-holed fence. Even this far along in her pregnancy, the woman wore heels. Nicolette remembered her American cousins who'd visited her in Manila. Like Maribel, they possessed this same blithe manner, this same hurry to the next item on a punch list. And these cousins were lazy: their English was less precise than hers, cluttered with idioms and unnecessary slang. When her ex-boyfriend Peter met them, he would imitate their perky voices: “So whadda you guys do for fun?” Americans and their corny slang, she thought.
She walked to the T station, deciding that she would not sabotage the possibility of friendship. So far Nicolette had avoided making friends, reading as much as time afforded (both her romance novels and the New England Journal of Medicine) in the opulent reading room of the Boston Public Library. Once a week she allowed herself to break from her studies and her temp work, and lounged on the grassy Esplanade beside the Charles River, contemplating the numbered sailboats in the bay. She carried orphaned women's magazines that she salvaged from the laundromat with her because they, more than anything, seemed to echo her feelings about her new life: The Modern Woman Speaks: Career First, Spouses Second. What Makes a Place Home? One Sunday afternoon a nervous voice interrupted her reading, and she looked up from her Nora Roberts novel to see a good-looking Black man with his black labrador retriever, stooping to ask directions. Nicolette looked at him impassively, making it clear that he was an interruption. Other times on the Esplanade, her sister Menchie or other kaibigan in the Philippines interrupted her thoughts, and she would then remove the Date Due card from the back of her library book and compose a list of 25 things to share with them about her quiet life in the States.
Still, her ability to organize, to sort her relationships into neat compartments like supplies in a medical closet, frustrated her. Seated on her bench beneath the wide, cloudless bay, she would never admit that she longed for the messy logistics of a man. She could manage everything else--her career, her apartment, the demands of family and ex-boyfriends back home--but she could not will love into her life.
The following week, though she'd told herself to be pleasant, she pretended not to notice Maribel, who sat in the desk behind her eating an apple.
Franklin greeted the class with a sloppy jumble of signs, making them understand that they were to spell their name and their favorite food. He was a paunchy, thirty-ish man with unkempt hair and wire spectacles. He was chronically late for class. Still, Nicolette thought he dressed like the smart boys from her nursing college, and she liked the gentle snap of a pistachio shell in his teeth, prying it open as he observed her classmates in small groups. Tonight, after elaborating on his favorite food, Franklin explained the next assignment: in pairs, they would sign each other's biography.
"I know, interviews again," he said, his boyish voice a surprise after thirty minutes of silence. He distributed a handout on blue paper. "But let your partner get to know you. Open up a bit, have some fun." He winked at Nicolette as he handed her the assignment sheet and then dismissed the restless group of adults.
"I think he has a thing for you," Maribel whispered to Nicolette.
Nicolette closed her purse, turned, and smiled at Maribel. The pregnant woman seemed less done up than the previous week, in a dark Lycra dress that accentuated her small breasts and large stomach.
"Franklin. I think he's got a crush on you. See how he stares? Cosmo says that you can tell if a man's interested by watching his eyes."
She said that she hadn't noticed. She hated that Maribel quoted the same magazine she read each month. Following class, the women sipped decaffeinated coffee from a vending machine and agreed to work together on the assignment. Maribel invited Nicolette to interview her over dinner that evening; her husband Thomas was working late, coaching his wrestling team. "I'll make you my famous Cobb salad," Maribel said. Nicolette suggested they cook adobo or another, heartier, dish instead. She didn't have a kitchen in her studio apartment and wanted to take advantage of Maribel's invitation.
Maribel grimaced. "Thomas doesn't like Filipino food. He thinks it smells up the house." They sat with their steaming coffee on the pyramid of steps leading to the school’s front door. Kids playing kickball screamed from an adjoining field.
"We'll just use a little garlic. Let your husband suffer."
"I don't know, Nicolette."
"This assignment--" Nicolette said, running a hand through her spiky hair. She stopped to consider. "How about a compromise? Fried rice and Cobb salad. And then on Saturday, I'll cook you a real Filipino dinner."
The promise of a future date seemed to cheer the pregnant woman. They walked to a convenience store and purchased bacon bits (Maribel's selection) and fragrant white rice. On the way home, Nicolette carried the groceries while Maribel waddled beside her, her hands cradling her belly.
"You were cheating on Peter," Maribel said, "and you left him?"
Nicolette nodded. It was a small lie. She switched the plastic bag to her other hand. For once she felt like the gatekeeper, that she had traded places with her ex-boyfriend and his excuses. In reality, Peter drank excessively and ran around with other girls, claiming to study late in the Ateneo library. She nudged George Ramos, Peter's solemn best friend, about her boyfriend's whereabouts whenever they made rounds together at Makati Medical Center. But Nicolette couldn't admit to a married woman like Maribel that it had taken her four years to stop deceiving herself about a man.
Nicolette said, "I was talking to Peter and a group of our friends at The Giraffe--this nightclub where the up-and-coming bands play. One night Peter was drunk and George tried to quiet him down. But Peter continued heckling the band, throwing San Miguel bottles on stage, ordering all of the waiters around." She scratched the inside of her wrist. "So I left The Giraffe that night and went home with George. And when my visa was approved, I left them both."
"How did you end up in Boston?"
"I may have a nursing position at a school for deaf children."
"You don't have it yet?" Maribel asked.
"I have to master sign language first."
Maribel grabbed her lightly by the wrist. "Did Peter know that you were seeing George?"
They paused before a sycamore tree that had created a fault in the sidewalk with its thick knotted roots. Nicolette set the plastic bags on the sidewalk, massaging the puffy welts where they had dug into her fingers. Above them the moon and stars were scattered like a rubber ball and jacks across the sky.
Maribel's lips were parted, waiting.
"If I told Peter I was cheating with his best friend, who knows what he would have done?" It was a bit melodramatic, but she felt encouraged and flattered by the pregnant woman's attention. Of course, Peter was the one who had left The Giraffe that night with one of her girlfriends, while she was in the bathroom fixing her long black hair. George Ramos had refused to leave with Peter, though, and waited for her outside the ladies' room: a shy, homely man that in her finickiness she had never considered dating.
Maribel called Nicolette the following afternoon at her temp job, word processing for a law firm with five names. Nicolette stared out her picture window at the round courthouse across the way, thinking it looked like a wedding cake with one slice removed.
"We're meeting one of Thomas's friends tonight," Maribel said. "I think you'd like him. Sammy's a musician."
"Is he Filipino?"
"Does it matter?"
Nicolette spun in her chair and watched the curly-haired man who shared her cubicle surf the Internet. It did matter. Nicolette thought Filipinos should date Filipinos, not Americans or Blacks or incheks: Chinese. She’d never mentioned this to Maribel; the pregnant woman was too occupied with her baby and her own trivial problems. Besides, her husband Thomas was an American--a stocky, blonde-haired man who looked as if he'd stumbled into his life rather than earned it. When Maribel introduced him the previous evening over Cobb salads, he mumbled a few words about his practice and went to bed. Nicolette admired the way he moved in his grey sweats, and hated herself for noticing. Nothing made up for the fact that Thomas and Maribel's daughter would be only half-Filipino. Maribel, it seemed, had lost all sense of her culture. All that Nicolette sensed in the woman now speaking intimately on the other end of the telephone was a love of her husband, easy-to-prepare meals, and gossip about the other students in their weekly sign language class.
Nicolette's co-worker smiled at her, revealing yellow teeth. She turned and faced the window.
"Sige na," she whispered into the telephone, though she wasn’t interested in a blind date. At that moment it seemed more appealing than making another excuse to the yellow-teethed co-worker, who asked her out for drinks every night.
Maribel leaned into Nicolette in the loud pool hall. "Doesn't he remind you of Franklin?"
Nicolette shrugged, blowing smoke in the opposite direction of Maribel. Thomas and his friend Sammy played billiards on a red felt table. Sammy moved stiffly, a human coatrack, in his ragged wool blazer and ill-fitting pants. Nicolette saw the resemblance to their teacher, the awkwardness and laconic air, but Sammy wore thicker spectacles. Nicolette imagined him the type to hound a student rather than nurture her, as Franklin did.
"Sammy's written an operetta," Maribel whispered. "Do you know any Filipinos who've done that?"
Nicolette sensed the woman's eagerness to please. Maribel had pulled her long hair through the opening in her baseball cap this evening, and Nicolette wanted to share a story about cutting her own long hair as a kind of statement, once she told Peter that she was leaving him (moving around the world from him, actually, to a new life in Boston). How would the attractive woman react? She seemed to place great emphasis on appearance. Even the bulky Patriots jacket she wore tonight must have been carefully chosen because it belonged to her husband. Nicolette hated women who clung to their lovers, in conversation or otherwise.
She stubbed her cigarette in a paper ashtray. Thomas winked at them, grinding his hips to the 80’s music that filled the lofty warehouse. Sammy leaned against the wall, crumpled almost, awaiting his turn. He had greeted Nicolette brusquely when she arrived and then returned to his game with Thomas. To Nicolette the room felt heavy with noise: electronic video games, billiard balls ricocheting off bumpers, and the loud, drunken voices of three women at the table next to them. Why had she exchanged a night alone for this crowded hall?
She turned to Maribel and asked, "What will you name the baby?"
Maribel smiled. "Is this part of the interview?” She reached for her virgin daiquiri and sipped from the straw. Her cheeks looked shiny tonight. “Thomas wants to name her Alison, but I think Missy is nice." Did she just bat her eyelids? An image came to Nicolette of the tourists in Baclaran holding a commode in the air and proclaiming, “Look, honey, isn't it cute!”
While Maribel prattled about baby names, Nicolette began to search her purse for more cigarettes. Sometimes she wished she weren't so hard.
"Those are interesting names," she said, placing a package of facial tissues and a cell phone on the table. She avoided making eye contact with Maribel. "You know, Peter and I used to talk about baby names. His favorite was Manolo. Mine was very close to your name, Maribel--I liked 'Michelle.'" Of course, she had never talked to Peter about children. They barely agreed on a restaurant for their midday merienda. She was at the bottom of her purse and came up with one last cigarette. Why so many lies? She tried to relate it to smoking: more hazardous to herself than those around her. Nothing was that bad in moderation.
Maribel had grown quiet. Nicolette lit her cigarette, watching the other woman in thought, enjoying her soft profile. Maribel's face was not as plump as she had imagined, less round even than the women in her family, and her cheeks did not shine as she first thought. They listened to the young women at the next table share confidences about a recalcitrant lover. The trio of voices reminded Nicolette of pigeons cooing on the Esplanade.
After a while, Maribel spoke.
"Do you want to know what I'm afraid of?"
Nicolette guessed 'childbirth.'
Maribel dotted her lips with her napkin. The intensity of Maribel's gaze shamed her. "I'm afraid that Thomas will leave me. That this baby, even though it's the only thing keeping us together--that it’ll make him hate me even more."
She paused, sipped her frothy drink. She watched the men at the large pool table. Nicolette sensed it was her turn to ask Maribel questions, to listen to the woman's afflictions, to soothe her disquiet. What a silly game it was, becoming friends. How did Thomas and Sammy manage? In Manila, at the hospital where she had worked with shy George Ramos, she learned to separate friendship from work. There are many kinds of caretaking, she told her sister Menchie. Nursing is the only paying one. Now she watched as Thomas, in his familiar gray sweatpants, stretched against the edge of the table. He aimed his cue stick at a lonely ball in the corner.
Nicolette said nothing to Maribel.
Her needs went beyond a patient's. Maribel wanted to pose her on a polished mantel, beside Sammy and the rest of her American friends, coupled people expecting marriage, children, and quaint decorative commodes. She wanted none of it. Maribel's friends read Cosmo and talked in slang, made the boozy sounds that filled this crowded pool hall. When she looked around the room, Nicolette was shocked to find Sammy planted in a high-backed chair facing her, staring over his pint of dark beer.
There was only one thing that could distract her from her goals and it was something that this Sammy--brooding in his beer like an artist--could not provide.
On Saturday evening, Nicolette carried ten bulbs of garlic, a bottle of Kikkoman soy sauce, and one pound of pork hocks to Maribel's condominium to cook dinner. She also remembered a small microcassette recorder borrowed from the law firm. Tonight, she decided, they would finish the interview so that she could practice her biography before class. It would be the last night of her odd friendship with Maribel.
In the living room, Nicolette allowed Thomas to take her coat. “Maribel’s creating a mess in the kitchen,” he joked. From the sofa, Sammy stood (Nicolette had forgotten he was so tall) and kissed her awkwardly on the cheek. She blushed, surprised by the kiss--he seemed more outgoing than the previous night, when he and Thomas had played pool and ignored the women. “It’s great to see you,” he said, smiling. He had striking blue eyes. Distracted, she returned his greeting and hurried into the kitchen.
Maribel greeted her with a kiss as well. She took the groceries from Nicolette and placed them on the counter. Red lettuce leaves were drying on paper towels beside the microwave. "I told Thomas and Sammy it's Filipino night, so they're prepared," Maribel said, winking. Nicolette wondered if Maribel was always this happy. She remembered her disclosure last night in the pool hall. Thomas was so typical, so unremarkably male: Why didn't Maribel leave him? "It's easier with Sammy," Maribel continued, "he practically lives for ethnic food. Once he brought us to an Ethiopian restaurant, and we had to mop up this soupy thing with our hands! He's up for anything."
The pregnant woman scurried around her kitchen, and Nicolette sensed that she had prepared plenty of small talk for this evening. Sammy entered and stood in the doorjamb next to Nicolette.
Maribel said, “Sammy just got a promotion at the New England Conservatory.”
“It’s not a big deal,” he said. "Now I'm a hired hand with benefits." He placed his hand gently on Nicolette’s back. It was something Peter never would have done. She turned to him. “It’s more babysitting than anything."
Sammy talked about the difficulty of training his students for careers in music. Not everyone was going to play in a major symphony orchestra. As he spoke, Nicolette let his hand remain on her lower back, meeting his eyes at times. She liked the neat part in his hair, the way it waved up and then fell to one side. Before she could stop herself she was smiling, a wide, silly grin that instantly embarrassed her. They stared at each other a moment before Nicolette shook free.
"I should prepare the adobo." Maribel made room beside her on the counter.
"I’m sorry I was so aloof last night," Sammy said to Nicolette and Maribel. "Three of my students skipped their lessons, and I spent all afternoon waiting for them in a damp room.”
Nicolette wondered if Maribel had prepped him about the right things to say. In a long drawer, she found a tablespoon and used its curved back to break the husk of a garlic clove. When she looked up, Sammy was still idling in the doorway. He held one hand to the back of his neck, unsure of himself. "Here we are again, Maribel--the women doing all the work."
“I’ll help!” Sammy said. “Tell me what to do.”
She put him to work chopping the garlic (not too fine, Nicolette said, it reduces all the flavor), and the three of them shared a bottle of merlot while the adobo simmered on the stove. Eventually Maribel went to the dining room to help Thomas set the table. The sky had grown dark outside the tall kitchen window, and Sammy apologized to Maribel again for his sulkiness in the pool hall. His moods came and went, he said, in direct proportion to the number of students he was assigned each semester.
“Perhaps you should find another job,” Nicolette said.
“There isn't much work for a classical pianist. Paying jobs, at least.”
“And when do you compose your music?”
“Probably when you're sound asleep.” He set his wine glass on the counter and moved next to her. She could smell the wine on his breath. “Sometimes I write at night, but my mind’s always racing. So I wake up before dawn. I try to find a quiet time.” This reminded her of reading her novels in the morning, when her neighborhood was silent except for the T outside her window, steeling on its tracks.
Sammy cleared his throat. “Can I ask you a personal question, Nicolette?”
She stirred the pot simmering on the stove. The cubes of pork had begun to separate from its bones.
Her back to him, she shrugged.
“Are you seeing anyone?”
What could she say? That she wasn’t interested in dating? Or that she wasn’t interested in Americans? “I have a boyfriend,” she replied. She leaned down to the adobo and tasted the vinegary broth.
"Oh," Sammy said, staring into his wine glass. “That’s too bad.” He drank the rest of his wine. “If you were available, I’d ask you on a proper date.”
Nicolette replaced the round lid on the pot. When she looked up she saw Maribel over Sammy's shoulder, listening to them in the doorway. How much had she heard? Maribel glared, and Nicolette knew that she had seen through the lie.
“Kaina,” Maribel quipped. She strode to the counter and spooned rice from the steaming rice cooker into a bowl. She avoided eye contact with Nicolette. “My mom taught me the meaning of kaina, Sammy. It means, ‘Let’s eat.’”
Following Maribel’s dinner party, Nicolette expected other invitations to follow. She would be aloof towards Maribel, indifferent when Sammy called. Neither phoned. The following week, October's last, the two women stood in front of the sign language class sharing their biographies. They hadn't discussed what they were going to say. Nicolette had decided that her half of the assignment would be succinct and professional, relating only the facts. She hoped Maribel would do the same.
Nicolette held out her right hand and spelled Maribel’s name. “Worcester, Born--She,” she signed, “Wellesley, School--Went. Married. Pregnant.”
She continued: “First Child--Girl--One Month.”
"Point your fingers out, Lady," a man with a husky voice shouted from the back of the tiled room.
Nicolette sighed, spelling Thomas's name and explaining that he was the husband. She turned to Maribel. The pregnant woman half-sat on the table with her arms crossed. There was a small wooden lectern between them, Franklin’s bag of pistachios, and a smattering of colored pencils. Maribel picked up a blue pencil and rolled it between her thumb and fingers, pretending to ignore her partner. If Maribel wouldn't even look at her, what more was there to say?
Nicolette made the sign for "Thank You" and the class applauded. Franklin removed his wire spectacles, nodding so that Nicolette saw him. And though she knew she wasn’t being supportive, Nicolette moved to an empty desk in the front row and faced Maribel. She looked at the clock. There was ten minutes left of class.
Maribel straightened, and smoothed her white maternity dress over her stomach. She raised her left hand and spelled Nicolette's name. Then, switching to her right hand, slowly--as if she'd just memorized the alphabet--she spelled, “Philippines.” Nicolette smirked. The other woman's range was limited.
Weak, She, Nicolette thought.
“Job: Nurse People.”
Job: Bother People.
Maribel glanced at Nicolette, seated in the front row. She seemed to understand the look of annoyance on Nicolette's face but chose to face her classmates. “Friend, She. Mine,” the pregnant woman signed, pointing at herself.
Then she smiled, adding: “Tough cookie.”
The class laughed, and Maribel took the seat she always did, behind Nicolette. The pregnant woman had to be mocking her. To the rest of the class, they appeared to be friends.
Franklin praised the couple and inserted a videotape in the VCR. A deaf actor and actress communicated with one another, their words translated in red letters at the bottom of the frame. Nicolette sighed; she could feel Maribel grinning in the seat behind her. In her mind the class was over and she had returned to her studio apartment alone.