Marías at Sampaguitas
Flash Fiction by Tami Orendain
Updated: May 30, 2019
Arms brimming with groceries and textbooks, Maria allowed herself a deep, profound sigh just outside her own apartment. And then, she let herself in.
“Hello,” she called, using her foot to switch on a dim floor lamp. “I’m here, nanay*.”
Maria stepped into the sparse living room, which was bathed aglow by the television blaring the evening news, filling the room with a cacophony English and Tagalog blurring together. Setting all she held on a nearby chair, Maria turned her head toward the only other piece of furniture in the room: a queen-sized bed over which was a small calendar and on which sat an old-looking woman in a nightgown. “Hello, nay,” Maria said, “It’s me, Aya. How was your day?”
Her mother did not stir, eyes transfixed on the television. Unfazed, Maria began to unpack the grocery bag. “I had a good day,” she said, walking into their small apartment kitchen. “I had a few friends invite me out and a professor said she liked the piece I wrote. I read it to you, remember? She said I should keep writing, and she gave me a brochure to a writing conference. Seems pretty cool.” No response, just a steady stream of broken television sounds Maria could barely understand.
As Maria moved toward the refrigerator to lift out a carton of butter, she thought about the way her mother used to always encourage her to eat margarine when they lived in the Philippines. “Aya! Anak**! Eat margarine to grow!” She always thought that it was an odd superstition, but Maria would dig into the margarine and rice anyway as her mother cheered, “grow, Aya, grow!”
Turning to her mother, she asked for the first time in a long time: “do you want margarine in your dinner, nay?” But after another long silence, she realized it probably didn’t matter either way.
After preparing a bowl of rice and allowing it to cool to room temperature, Maria carried a small bowl topped with a tiny pat of golden butter back to the living room. “Dinner time, nay.”
“No.” It was one of the few words her mother still knew.
“I know, I know,” said Maria. “It’s not that great. I can’t really cook anything but rice. But it’s easy to eat, see?” She scooped a sticky spoonful into her mouth. “Ang sarap. Delicious. Grow, grow, grow.”
Coaxing bite after bite, Maria finally got her mother to finish half the bowl. Satisfied, she returned to the kitchen thinking about her own dinner and contemplating whether or not to tackle the growing pile of dishes now or later. She remembered the brochure, which was still in her bag, and decided to use it as a treat: if she finished everything she needed to do, she’d let herself read about the conference. She wolfed down the leftover rice and then turned to the dishes, determined to finish fast. But as she dipped her hand into the water to start rinsing, her mother began to cry, “no! No! No!”
Maria rushed to her side, waving her hands in the air to dry them as she investigated the source of her distress until she finally figured out that her mother wanted to watch one channel instead of another. She was able to go back to dishes and then begin collecting clothing strewn around the house into a laundry bin when she realized she had almost forgotten her mother’s bedtime medication. Shaking her mother, who was already dozing, Maria had to deal with her sleepy protestations before persuading her to take her pills. Finally, she was able to finish picking up laundry, promising herself that she’d bring it to the laundromat on the weekend, when Maria’s mother cried out another “nooo!” which let Maria know she wanted to use the restroom.
“I’ve got you, nay,” Maria came to her aid, though her mother tried to push her away. It was an odd moment of independence punctured by a near fall, which was stopped only when Maria caught her by the arm. “I don’t know why you won’t just let me help you,” she grumbled, tucking her mother in after she finished in the restroom. “It’d be easier.” Her mother had already closed her eyes. Sighing, Maria kissed her on the forehead and continued cleaning.
It was past midnight when Maria finally collapsed onto her own twin bed in the small bedroom beside the living room, separated only by a curtain of beads. She felt almost too tired to bring the brochure out. But she remembered what her professor had said—“I’d like to see you grow as a writer”—and forced herself to reach into her backpack.
Pulling out the brochure, she turned over to read the bold cover text in the moonlight: “University Annual Writing Conference, July 8th - July 10th”. She flipped the page around and read a quote on the back cover: “This conference made me feel like a writer.”
She dropped the brochure to one side and raised her other arm toward nothing in particular, watching her hand reach forward into the dark. Beyond the curtain of beads, her mother was quiet, leaving her thoughts free to echo loudly. Maria lowered her hand and closed her eyes, trying to will herself to return to the brochure, when suddenly:
“No! No! No!”
Her mother’s cry came from outside. Maria bolted through the beads to find her mother thrashing on the bed.
“Nay! It’s ok!” Maria bent over her mother, trying to calm her. “It’s ok—I’m here—I’m not leaving you—”
After what felt like an eternity, her mother’s wails were reduced to tiny whispers of “no…” fading into the dark. Maria didn’t dare lift her arms until she was sure her mother was asleep. Rising again, she felt her arms squeeze with tension and fatigue. She leaned against the wall to pull herself up, feeling her hand strike the calendar. Looking up, she remembered something she had marked before. Lifting her hands slowly and flipping the pages to “July,” Maria saw that she had scribbled: “July 8th - Mom’s surgery.”
It wasn’t until she stumbled back into her bedroom and fell into bed that Maria realized that her other hand was still clutching the brochure. She raised it to her eyes and saw that she had crumpled it, creating fine white creases into the bold text. She looked back at the curtains, thinking about how peaceful her mother was when she was asleep. Is this what she had felt like when Maria was a baby? When they were back in the house her mother had grown up in, when she used to call her Aya? When she left everything behind to take them both to America, hoping for something better for her daughter?
Turning away, Maria curled into a ball and hugged her knees, letting the brochure fall to the floor. “I’ll have to tell professor I can’t go,” she whispered aloud. Eventually she fell into a deep sleep, lulled by the soft sound of her mother’s breathing in the next room.
*Tagalog for “mother”
**Tagalog for “child”
Tami Orendain is a Filipino-American writer based in Southern California who freelances for entertainment and lifestyle (DisneyExaminer and SheLeadsDaily) and, as a day job, writes for a children's hospital foundation. In college she said she'd never write fiction, but, as always, she surprises herself. She is online at emmabeltami.com and on Twitter as @emmabeltami.