The following story was published in The Stonecoast Review:
Douglas woke with his head buried beneath his pillow and his morning still dark. It was only after his dream evaporated into wakefulness that he remembered he had two things to be happy about.
The first thought pulled his sleepy mouth into a smile—school was closed for Eid al-Adha. The Philippines did not recognize many Muslim holidays, and when they did, it was only in concession to the rebellious islands to the south. A Catholic holiday, on the other hand, was hardly a holiday at all, since his mother—and maybe his father—would drag him and his brother and sister to church.
The second reason for his contentment would not exist without the first. Because he didn’t have school, Douglas was free from wearing the black pants and starched white shirt that was his school uniform. He would still yawn his way out of bed and put on boys’ clothes, but unlike his uniform, he could push the boundaries of his play clothes further. As much as he loved school, he hated the uniform. And next year, when he entered eighth grade, he would have to wear a blazer, too.
He pushed his pillow onto the floor and watched a tilted square of sunlight beside his bed. He upped that count to three—three things for which he was grateful. A sunny day during the rainy season was a gift from God as far as he was concerned. For the moment, he ignored what his mother once told him: good things come in threes before luck changes course.
He crept from bed, opened a drawer of the bureau he shared with his brother, pulling slowly, cautiously so as not to wake John Ray. The drawer’s track squeaked quietly, like an old floorboard. He held his breath and watched his brother, listening for the soft, steady breathing of deep sleep.
Thank, God—his brother remained asleep in the other bed, a T-shirt over his eyes.
Douglas tucked a yellow tank top into a pair of denim shorts that frayed unevenly around his brown thighs, and tugged gently on a stray white thread. His mother had bought the shorts in the boy’s section, and the double-stitched hem had originally reached nearly to his knees. He’d used her scissors to turn them into cut-offs.
He threaded a belt through the loops and listened for sounds from the rest of the house. Hearing only the quiet chirp of the swallows that gathered on the power line, he cinched the belt tighter. His hips flared. Tighter. His stomach rolled over the buckle. Too much. It was the fourth hole of the belt that gave him the look he sought: that narrowing of the waist, that pushing out of the hips: the body of a pageant winner. Hands on hips, one hip angled left. Had Maria Rosario looked like this when she was young?
In the bathroom, he sat to pee, elbows propped on his knees and chin cupped in his hands. A wooden drying rack had been folded open below the window. He tried to touch a pair of pink cotton underwear, but it was just out of reach. The clothes were mostly his sister’s: little nylon gym shorts, a black school skirt, and a white undershirt, sheer as rice paper. He could almost feel Ivy’s clothes, the soft cotton and elastic bands hugging the curves of his new body. On the back of the rack, his father’s black socks threatened him like a pair of sleeping snakes.
He touched an ivory-colored pillowcase, but pulled back when his father’s socks glared at him. Just socks—they weren’t alive. They smelled like soap. He lifted one of the pillowcases, careful not to brush his father’s socks. He fitted the opening over his head to his hairline and fastened it in place with one of Ivy’s headbands. It looked silly, like a nun’s habit. He reached behind and gathered the pillowcase into a point and twisted a hair elastic around the end. Long hair. A ponytail.
Douglas swayed his head from side to side and felt the pillowcase brush the back of his bare shoulders. The cotton fabric grazed his lips, smelled like fresh shampoo. He curtsied and smiled. His skin felt light, as if separated from his body.
In his white socks, he skated quietly across the porcelain floor, listening for his mother or father. He put his ear against Ivy’s door. His sister was still asleep. Ivy slept like a teenager, sometimes even later than John Ray. Of the three of them, only Douglas liked to wake up early. When he reached the end of the hallway, he stopped and pulled the pillowcase away from his ear. The house was quiet, but Douglas pictured his father drinking a mug of bitter black coffee and reading The Philippine Star.
As he rounded the corner into the kitchen, he lifted one hand to the pillowcase on his head and dropped the other to the front of his shirt, ready to rip off his long hair and untuck his tank top. Ready to change back into a boy.
But his father was not at the table. Tucked under a plate of pandesal was a note.
Good morning, Douglas!
I am at school and your father is at the store. Please don’t wake John Ray and Ivy. There are some empanadas in the fridge.
He carried an empanada and a glass of papaya juice out to the front terrace and sat down at the white, wrought-iron table. The sun was already hot and white, and he wolfed the pastry so he could free his hand to shield his eyes. A hummingbird picked at a purple flower, its yellow belly inflating and deflating like a small balloon. The bird cocked its head at him and flew away.
A heavy, hollow clanging—like steel on stone—shattered the tranquility of his patio breakfast. The neighbors were adding onto their house, and the construction had been going on intermittently for several months.
He pulled back a branch of a cherry tree that was blocking his view, expecting to see men in overalls setting cinder block on cinder block and padding them with grey mortar, or angling red roof tiles atop one another until they reached the peak. But then he remembered his mother telling him the neighbors had finished construction. All that was left to do was clean up the debris.
The noise stopped.
The noise started again.
The clanging was deliberate. Almost violent. He crouched closer to the trunk and pushed aside another branch. With his free hand, he held the pillowcase to his head so it wouldn’t snag.
Danilo, the neighbor boy, slammed a rusted stub of pipe against a cinder block upturned in the mud. Between branches, Douglas saw Danilo’s bare torso. He watched Danilo’s biceps contract as he brought the pipe up. Stared at the diamond triceps that formed when steel struck cement. To Douglas, Danilo already had the sharp lines and muscle groupings of a construction worker, but his skin was not dark like those of the lower class.
The banging stopped, and Douglas slipped back inside the cover of tree branches.
There was still time to run inside the house.
“Douglas?” Danilo was closer now, but still hidden by the santan and sampaguita shrubs.
Danilo reached his athletic arm over the squat iron gate and unlatched it. Once inside the terrace, he had to know Douglas was there, half buried in the tree, yet Danilo did not look at him. He picked a red flower from the santan shrub and rolled the stem back and forth between two fingers. He lifted the flower to his nose and sniffed. The blossoms offered no more scent than a blade of grass—Douglas knew this.
“Why are you hiding in the tree?”
Douglas held the pillowcase firmly in place as he stepped out from the branches. He shrugged and reached for the glass of juice warming on the table. He wanted his neighbor to go away. Why was Danilo even talking to him? Boys like Danilo rarely talked to boys like Douglas—soft boys—except to tease him, to make fun of his “shaky voice” and “flouncy walk.” Two weeks ago, Douglas had waved hello on Colon Street, but Danilo had looked past him and kept walking with his friends.
Douglas shrugged again.
“You look like a girl.”
“No I don’t.” Douglas wanted to run inside, back into the bathroom where he could hide. But he let Danilo’s words hang in the air. You look like a girl.
Danilo shrugged, offered Douglas the santan flower.
“My mom says these help if you have the shits.”
“Oh.” He took the unscented red flower as a gift. “Thanks.”
“You want to play hide and seek?”
Danilo’s eyes crept—so slowly—up Douglas’s body. “You can leave your…that on your head if you want.”
Danilo touched the top of Douglas’s forearm.
He stared at the papaya juice rippling in his glass, felt color ignite in his face. He wanted Danilo’s calloused fingers to linger. Why did his touch feel so…different?
“Tag! You’re it! Count or don’t, I don’t care!” Danilo leapt over the gate.
Douglas’s body brushed against the bushes and he heard one foot, then another, squish and splash in a puddle. Then nothing but birdsong. He looked up at the power line that dipped from the street to the house and listened to the swallows as if they were cheering him on, telling him to hurry. He wanted to chase Danilo, and he wanted to hide from him. Go back inside, he told himself. Do not bare yourself to that world.
Then he ran.
He jumped over the gate. The top of his shoe, the laces, caught for a moment, but it didn’t slow his momentum. During the dry season, construction trucks made divots in the dirt, and these were now filled with dark, muddy water. As best he could, Douglas leapt around and over the edges and banks of these puddles, the heels of his shoes squishing into the mud as he landed, sucking audibly as he lifted free. He vaulted over broken bits of cinderblock and batons of split wood that had not yet been devoured by the mud. The effort was partly intended to keep his white sneakers clean and dry, but mostly to feel the sweep and sway of his pillowcase ponytail.
Beyond the new addition to the house was a small shed with a tin roof. The door was padlocked, and he circled the structure searching for Danilo. Nothing. He slowed his pace and shoved his hands into his pockets. Had Danilo gone in to watch him search like a fool? He was probably inside with his friends laughing at that fag Douglas. Just a stupid game. He looked back at Danilo’s house. Nobody’s watching, just go. Go! He straightened the pillowcase, and then he ran.
In the far corner of the lot stood an L-shaped wall of crumbling bricks. It looked like the remains of an old chicken coop. Before it, the land dipped into a small gulley of slick, dimpled mud before rising into a bank of tall grass. He took off his socks and shoes and balanced them atop a piece of cinder block.
The gulley was too wide to jump. He stepped softly into the mud, feeling the muck between his toes, then rested his hands on the grassy slope and pulled one foot at a time from the ditch, careful not to make suction sounds. He crept low in the grass as he approached the brick wall. Now and again he stopped to listen for breathing, to feel his own heart thumping. The sharp grass tickled his hands and knees as he crawled toward the lowest part of the coop, where the bricks had crumbled and tumbled to less than half their original height.
He stopped and planted his feet in the firm dirt. As he stood on his toes to peek over the wall, a snake slithered across his bare feet.
He looked down and screamed. In the sliver of time that he looked away from the wall, Danilo jumped and grabbed him at the waist with both hands. Douglas didn’t resist—not when his legs scraped the rough-edged mortar wall, and not as he tumbled into the old chicken coop. Danilo fell back onto the concrete floor, and Douglas fell on top of him.
Danilo held him in place and they laughed. With each tremor of laughter, he felt his chin dig into Danilo’s chest. Was he hurting him? He wanted to ask who was “it” now in their game, but he said nothing. He searched Danilo’s face for disgust, for a sharp, downturned mouth. He waited for Danilo to shove him onto the cold, cracked floor, waited for the words that would cut and scab for months: Get off me you fucking faggot.
But Danilo didn’t push him off. He said nothing cruel. He said nothing at all. Danilo breathed quick and heavy, and gently rocked his pelvis against Douglas’s abdomen.
Douglas moved his body with Danilo’s, an urgent choreography of pressing and accepting. He wanted Danilo to tell him what to do, to remove any doubt about what he desired. But rather than wait for words that would not come, Douglas ran his fingers along Danilo’s tight, soft skin, looking to his face for a sign that what they were doing was wrong, or welcomed. But Danilo’s eyes were closed. His mouth hung open, and with each heavy exhalation Douglas could smell tangerines.
He kissed the crevice on Danilo’s chest, and from there followed no set pattern—ribs to nipple to belly button. Still, Danilo said nothing—just pushed toward him, calmer now. Douglas laid his head on Danilo’s stomach. He smelled like fresh grass and sweat.
Douglas wanted Danilo to stop—or maybe just slow down—but not go away. He wanted to be right here with Danilo. To feel Danilo’s hot skin against his. To feel Danilo’s fingers around his neck, Danilo’s lips on his. He wanted to stay in this moment forever.
Danilo’s body stiffened. “Get the fuck off me!” He pushed Douglas to the ground.
Douglas’s elbow cracked against the concrete. He lay on his stomach, feeling the cool floor against his legs. He glanced up, but Danilo was looking away, staring out of the coop toward the clear blue sky. Douglas wanted to cry. Where had he gone wrong?
“Douglas started this! It’s not my fault!”
Who’s he talking to? Douglas tilted his head, following the trajectory of Danilo’s voice. His eyes traveled along the mossy brick wall, and when he came to the space where the last row of bricks should have given way to open sky, he knew he would cry. His father’s face, peering over the highest part of the wall, where the bricks still held firm. Douglas felt his new world crumble.
“Douglas, go back in the house.” His father’s voice was calm. Too calm.
Danilo exhaled. His muscles relaxed.
“Daddy, I’m sorry. We were just playing a game.”
“Douglas, go to your room.”
He pulled off the pillowcase and held it by his side, head heavy, sweaty. His father’s face changed shape. His mouth tightened and turned down, framed by sharp lines.
As Douglas climbed over the wall, he was, for the first time, aware of the red rash on his knees. The path back to his house appeared blurry and far away.
“So, you’re a fucking faggot, too, eh?” His father shouted at Danilo.
He knew his father was behind him by the sound of his shoes sinking and sucking in the mud. He expected to hear his father’s angry slurs—Bakla! and Puke ng ina mo!—but all he heard were his father’s heavy breaths, which he imagined reeked of rum and coffee.
His brother and sister sat at the kitchen table eating a late breakfast. His father shouted for John Ray to help him outside, and told Ivy to Leave Douglas alone in his room. He saw the concern, the question in the eyes of his brother and sister.
Douglas wiped away his tears, sat on his bed, and tried to think about what had just happened, but his father’s shouting kept breaking through his thoughts. He pictured the little red flower, the sway of the pillowcase, the scent of tangerines, the eagerness in Danilo’s touch—anything to avoid fixating on how his father would punish him.
The smell of smoldering charcoal led Douglas to peer out of his bedroom window, careful to keep his head low and out of view.
His father and John Ray stood by the fire pit watching the flames leap and settle.
Their father used the pit to host parties for fellow politicians and business associates. The men would roast a pig and drink expensive liquor while their wives—and sometimes mistresses—loaded tables with curries and plates of sticky rice wrapped in palm leaves. Douglas loved these occasions, loved how envious his friends were—begging, even bribing him so they could attend. For the food. For the entertainment of spying on adults dancing, stumbling, and cursing.
He watched out the window while bits of black wood turned grey and glowed red. What was his father planning to roast? A pig? A couple of chickens? He reached for the pillowcase, felt his own sharp, crewcut hair—oh, yeah—and shrunk back down on the bed. He knew exactly how his father planned to punish him. He would prepare a feast and confine Douglas to his room, where he would be tempted by the smell of lechón, its crispy skin blackening in the flames. His mouth watered. Hopefully his mother might sneak him a plate, once his father was too drunk to notice.
His father shouted to him—he must have seen him at the window. Douglas reluctantly stepped outside and stood next to John Ray, almost behind him. His father gripped a nylon cord and a burlap sack that smelled like coffee beans. He often used burlap for grilling tilapia, cutting wet strips to wrap each fish, which had been marinated in a special sauce. Then he grilled the fish high and slow, over the pit. He was known for this specialty.
“Get in.” His father held the sack at arm’s length.
“What?” Douglas shook his head and began to cry.
“Come on, Dad, don’t,” said John Ray.
“Get in the fucking bag, Douglas.”
His father moved closer and held the bag open.
Douglas gauged the distance to the alley. He’d never make it. His father was too fast.
His legs felt weak and heavy as he stepped into the sack, the burlap scratching his skin. He turned to John Ray, eyes pleading. The top of the bag only came to his shoulders, so his father pushed his head down, forcing him to kneel and drop his body into the sack. With his face pressed against the coarse fabric, he almost gagged. His father tied the top closed.
“Daddy, please,” Douglas sobbed.
“John Ray, grab the other end.”
“No.” His voice was firm.
“Dad. Dad, please. He can’t breathe.” John Ray’s voice broke.
“Get the other end, John Ray, or you’ll be next.”
Douglas’s body bumped and dragged along the ground, and then lifted toward the spit. John Ray was crying now, too. “I can’t tie this end.”
Do something, John Ray. Please stay. Don’t leave.
And then he heard his father’s short, heavy breaths replace his brother’s whimpering at the other end. He had seen his father do this many times, without even looking at the rope. He knew that his father had tied several square knots to secure him to the wooden post. Like a dead animal over the charcoal fire. John Ray couldn’t help him.
Within seconds he felt the heat. Suffocating heat. He screamed, cried for help, but with his face pressed against the sack he could not make out his own words. He heard water sloshing in the metal watering can just before his father showered the burlap. The fire sizzled and smoked, flared up again. His own breath tasted like ash and smoke. He coughed, tried to push the burlap away from his face so he could breathe better. Where was John Ray? He didn’t hear his brother’s crying. It was just him and his father.
“No boy of mine is going to be a fucking faggot.” His voice cut like glass, but he didn’t shout.
“Daddy, please,” Douglas choked out. “Please!”
“By God I will smoke the faggot sin out of you.”
“I am not your son! I am not a boy!”
“What did you say, Douglas?”
He couldn’t manage even a whisper. His eyes burned and his head felt light, like he might fall asleep. Then he heard metal slicing into the pile of unburned charcoal bits, and the scatter of light wood dropping into the flames. His father was feeding the fire.
His skin tightened as if it were sunburned. He stopped moving, hoping the sack would catch so he could escape. But if it tore open, he would drop into the pit. He was growing tired. Too tired to cry.
“Joseph! Joseph! Get him down from there!” His mother’s voice startled him awake.
“Do you know what I caught him doing this time?”
“Are you crazy?!”
His mother’s voice came closer. It was not a dream.
Douglas felt one end of the bag loosen, then the other, as she untied the burlap sack from the spit. His mother struggled to carry the end with his feet, setting it down gently. His father jerked Douglas’s head and upper body around like a baggage handler at the airport. He let go, and Douglas fell to the ground. His nose hit the dirt hard, and he tasted blood in his mouth.
By the time his mother had untied the top of the bag, his father had already disappeared. Douglas felt dizzy and weak as he stood. The smoke still burned, but he didn’t care about his raw throat or tight flesh. He reached for his mother and she wrapped her arms around him. His body shook violently. He tried to stop shaking, holding tighter to his mother—until he realized it was his mother who was trembling. He pushed his face into his mother’s neck, and searched through his bleeding nose for her scent of jasmine and palm oil.
“Mom, I don’t want to be his son.”
She held him tighter. “Be who you are Douglas. Just be who you are.”
His mother’s embrace was safe and warm. He wanted to tell her everything. About Danilo. About boys. Share with her how right it felt to wear the wrong clothes. The pillowcase and long hair. Share who he was. A girl? A boy? Somewhere in between? But she might tell his father.
“Come, Douglas. Let’s get you cleaned up.” His mother stood, turned away from the fire pit, and offered him her hand. She looked at his frayed cut-offs, spotted with soot. “What did you do to your shorts?”
“I’m sorry, Mother. I cut them. I didn’t mean to…”
“They look nice, Douglas. Cute.”
“Really? You like them?”
“Very stylish. Come. Let’s get something to eat.”
Douglas took his mother’s hand as they left the smoldering fire behind.