By Carljoe Javier
Nena held the slip of paper in her trembling hand. “Jing 09192430831,” it read.
She thought, I shouldn’t have washed those dishes after ironing the uniforms. She’d forgotten about the pasma that bothered her from time to time. If her mother had been around and seen her move towards the sink, she would have given Nena a long lecture about it; but then she was gone and the dishes needed to be washed because the water would be cut off soon.
She held her right hand in her left, the right clenched in a fist that would not be steadied, and the left trying to wrap around to calm its movement.
She remembered her high school science teacher and the argument they’d had over pasma. He’d told her that there was no such thing as pasma, no scientific explanation or definition of it, so it could not possibly exist. She sat there smiling and thinking of her mother’s hands as the teacher lectured on about the lack of evidence to make him believe in it.
Jing was one of her buddies from high school, one of the few friends she had who was still in the country. Most of them had gone abroad in hopes of faring better there, but she and Jing had stayed behind. Jing hadn’t finished college, but she had married a man who inherited his family’s businesses. So since she didn’t have to work, she spent most of her time going out or shopping.
When they had bumped into each other a few weeks ago as Nena was buying her kids’ school supplies, Jing invited her out to the bar her husband owned. Jing said that Nena could text her when she had some free time and they’d catch up on old times.
The old times, she thought. Those were the days, when they were single, out looking for boys, decked out in bell-bottoms, listening to rock and roll. There wasn’t much to worry or care about then.
Now she had kids and bills. She couldn’t even think of putting on a pair of bell-bottoms; mostly what she had in the closet were her bank uniforms and just a few sets of clothes for going out, since she spent most of her weekends at home anyway.
She stood up from her bed and moved over to the phonograph across the room. She’d received it as a college graduation gift from her parents, who had already passed away. She replaced the rock record with a disco album, one of her favorites. The music always made her want to dance. It reminded her of those college days when she went out and partied.
She worked overtime most days just to bring a little extra cash home. On weekends, if she had the energy, she would get some extra income by doing some telemarketing. She’d tried selling insurance, too, but the hassle of going out to meet with people was something she wasn’t willing to put up with.
On weekdays she came home from the bank with just enough energy to make the kids dinner. Then on weekends the kids would leave her at home while she fixed up the house and tried to get some rest.
It had been this way since her husband had left them. Shortly after Kitty, their third child, had been born, he went to work in the Middle East. He sent them money for a few years, but wrote less and less with each year. Then he came back and told them about his new family, and they never saw him again.
It would’ve been fine with Nena to go on without him. She’d noticed in his letters that he hadn’t been writing with as much passion as he used to. The letters had gone from being about how much he missed his family, to what seemed like progress reports running down what he’d been doing. The problem was that he didn’t even bother to send any money to help support their children.
She wanted to send her kids to the best schools that she could afford, even if meant giving up her own social life. She made enough as an assistant manager to get them by, but she always had to worry about the next month’s three tuition bills, or one of the kids getting sick, or some other potential financial crisis.
A raise sure would help, she thought. But then she couldn’t qualify for one. In fact, she wasn’t even qualified to be an assistant manager, although she was promoted anyway because she’d been at the bank for so long. If only she could learn how to handle those new computers and work with all the new technology.
It was just that she’d graduated from college without ever touching a computer, and she had trouble getting used to it. She didn’t have the patience or time to study it, what with all those bills being slipped under her door. Who has time to study computers when you have to keep finding ways to keep Meralco from cutting off your electricity? she thought.
But enough worrying, she said to herself, you’ve gotten through the toughest month of the year, and you deserve a reward, after saving and scrounging during the summer vacation so that you could set aside enough money to pay for the school registration and first month’s tuition fees.
And along with the first days of school came the shopping. The shopping was the worst part of the school opening rush because not only did it cost her most of her paycheck, but it also cut into her rest time. Instead of lying down and recovering from the week’s work, she found herself at a crowded shopping mall trading elbows with other, more aggressive mothers. They would grab the notebooks that she would be picking through or cut in front of her at the cashier lines.
She needed her rest time. On weekends, after lunch, she would give the kids some extra money so that they would leave the house. Then she would lock herself in her bedroom, pop something from her old collection of records into the player, stretch out, and shut her eyes from the problems.
But the kids would always be back too soon, and so would all the problems. Stop thinking about those problems, she thought. This was her chance to leave those things behind, even if it was just for one night. It was a chance for her to get back with Jing, to get back to the old times. She would go out to a bar and have a few drinks and see a show.
It had been such a long time since she’d been out to a bar. The last time was with her husband, before she’d gotten pregnant with Kitty, and now Kitty was thirteen. She wondered what kind of bar it would be. She used to go out to the concert bars, but she’d heard that the fad nowadays was the stand-up comedy bar. Jing hadn’t told her what kind of place it was. It doesn’t matter, she thought, I just want to go out and be with an old friend, it doesn’t matter where we go.
I’ll text Jing as soon as Alan or Jon gets home, she thought. Then she started thinking about who would get home first. Jon, her eldest, had asked for more money, so he’d probably be out with his girlfriend. Alan’s friends had dropped by earlier looking for him, so they’d probably be out playing basketball. So Alan will get home earlier, she thought, I’ll text Jing when he gets here.
No, I’ll have Alan text Jing.
She had already bought cellphones for her two boys, and Kitty was asking for one, too. She’d gone with them to buy their phones, and the clerk had explained to her how to work them, but she had gotten tired of so many details. All that talk about logos, backlights, casings, WAP, SIM cards, and other things made her dizzy, so she’d left the kids there and went to buy a Biogesic.
As she waited for Alan she paced around the room. Then she opened up the closet and looked at the clothes she could wear. She picked through the evening dresses that were either too formal or looked like the things an older woman would wear if she was trying to look young. There were satin floral patterns, sequined sleeves, pastel-colored skirts, and other things that her sister in New York had tired of and sent her. Then she went through the small stack of casual clothes she had. She settled on the jeans that she wore for shopping and a shirt that Kitty had given her for her last birthday.
She closed the closet and stretched out on the bed. Just as she was about to fall asleep she heard a bang from the front door, heavy footsteps, and the creak of the other bedroom’s door. Then there were thuds of shoes being thrown aside.
She got up and turned off the record player. She never listened to the music she liked when the kids were around, they were always listening to theirs. She heard the blaring, grinding sound of guitars start from the other room.
How could they call that music, she thought. She could never understand the things her kids were listening to, but she just put up with it all because she knew that her parents felt the same way about the things that she listened to.
She knocked on the door to the boys’ room, then opened it. Alan took his sweaty shirt off and threw it into the already-filled clothes hamper. The mound was piling up and there were socks, handkerchiefs and face towels lying around it. She remembered that she had to take those to the laundromat before she went out with Jing.
“Can you text someone for me,” she asked Alan.
“Here’s my phone, I’m just going to take a shower.” He handed her the phone, then grabbed a towel and moved towards the door.
“But I don’t know how to use this-“
“It’s easy, Ma, just press menu, choose messages, then write messages, type in your message, press send, put the number, then send,” Alan said as he walked down the stairs.
“Just text this for me,” she said, pointing the cellphone at him. She followed him down the stairs.
“I have to take a shower now, Ma.”
“No, you can’t shower yet, you’ll get pasma.”
“Come on Ma, there’s no such thing as pasma. And the water ration will be cut off soon,” he said as he shut the bathroom door.
She looked at the bathroom door, then heard the shower start. Then she looked down at the phone.
She looked at the screen, but she couldn’t find the menu. “Where’s the menu?” She screamed over the rush of the water.
The water shut off. “Oh, it must be locked, just unlock it, then it’ll show up.”
“It says right there, you press that center button, then the asterisk.” He turned on the water again and its sound seemed to meld with the metal music, creating a steady, throbbing drone.
She did as he said, although her hand was starting to shake, first pressing the center button with her thumb, then carefully and slowly pressing down on the asterisk, but nothing happened. She tried again, still nothing. “It won’t work!”
“Just do as it says. Did you press quickly?” he screamed over the sound of the water.
She unlocked the keypad, then pressed menu. Her hand twitched more as she tried to steady it.
“Like I said,” the water turned off, “go to messages, then write messages, send, number, send.”
She looked through the menu, passing the message screen twice, her hand twitching as she scrolled through the options. “I can’t find it!”
“Geez Ma! It’s right there!” The water turned on again.
She scrolled more slowly and found it the third time then went to the write messages option.
She’d never written a text message before. Her thumb wasn’t used to the repetitive pressing to get the words together. At the same time jolts were starting to mix in with the twitches. It took her a long time to finish the word “hello.” Then she had to ask what key the space bar was.
“Zero!” Alan screamed over the beating of the drops of water.
She spelled out each word, which made writing the message doubly difficult. She bit down on her lip as she pressed the keys, tried to steady her right hand by holding it with her left, and resisted the urge to curse each time that she pressed a key too many or too few times. Each tap of the keypad made the twitching worse, adding to the mounting frustration with the phone and a building irritation with herself. Beads of sweat were starting to drip from her brow, the saltiness biting into her eyes, but she ignored it, trying to focus on the phone.
It took her a long time, but she finished the message. “Okay, I finished it, now what?” She wiped her brow with her left hand, letting the right hand shake. Both hands were sweaty now from the pasma and sudden stress.
“Press options, then choose send.”
She pressed the options button, caught her hand as it jolted, then hit the arrow key and pressed OK. The screen was empty. “It’s gone!”
The shower stopped again.
“The message is gone.”
“You sent it?”
“No, it’s gone, I pressed options, then okay, and now it’s gone,” she said, her voice breaking at the last words. Her hand was shaking uncontrollably.
“You erased it. I can’t believe you don’t know how to text,” he said through the door. “You’ll just have to type it again. Ma, you really have to learn about these kinds of things. It’s so simple, you just have to pay attention.” The water started again.
Her mind filled with the roar of the water and the music from the upstairs bedroom. Her hands were now slick with sweat. She’d slumped onto the stairway, sobbing.
She held the phone in her shaking right hand, bumping and beating to the tremors. The screen stared blankly at her, while the cursor kept up its constant winking.
In her left hand was the piece of paper, creased and wrinkled. The ink was running, dragged by the river of sweat across the paper and onto her fingertips. The numbers were left unrecognizable, lost in the stains and smudges.
*for discussion, E-105 classes