Marías at Sampaguitas
Prose by Roxanne Lim
Growing up in a broken home means that everything can change in an instant. I got used to dissociating at will, adapting to any situation. I did my best to find the happiness in everything, to find my own light in someone
else’s dark. I didn’t know what self-love was back then; only self-preservation.
Some instances were easier than others. When I was bored, I wrote fan fiction on Internet forums (Teen Titans-themed boards on Neopets, mostly), imagining every possible fantasy I could while my realities fell apart. Entertainment was my escape. Other situations were more challenging, less avoidable. When my mom left home because my father made me tell her I didn’t love her anymore. When my father made me exchange foreign money from past trips because we had no money to our name. When we got evicted only two weeks after I had just started making friends at a new school and moved away from everything I knew on a moment’s notice.
One place was constant: Jacksonville, Florida. I had way too much family there. My grandparents and their brothers and sisters and the children of their brothers and sisters who were my age but somehow not my first cousins. I remember getting so annoyed at family gatherings when they’d push me to sing “Paper Roses” on karaoke, to be sweet to the elders. I was overwhelmed by the amount of attention and generosity and excitement they so freely gave. But what personal discomfort I felt was irrelevant when we had a brick house. When we had a pool and a pool table. When we always had something to eat. And when we had a calamansi tree.
Calamansi fruit are a staple in Filipino food. Another constant. Yet even calamansi endure subtle change with time. The look and sour tang of a lime, evolving into the color and sweetness of an orange when ripe. They were smaller than my palm and grew in bunches.
In high school, my cousins and I were together more than we were with our own friends. We would call each other up and meet for everything. Super Smash Bros., Chick-fil-a, Steak n’ Shake, Bowling, Swimming, Walmart, Modern Warfare. Then senior year my cousin dated a girl younger than us, who started a rumor that I started a rumor about my cousin getting her pregnant. For months, I was isolated from the one friend group I never realized I could lose. I wasn’t allowed in their carpool to and from school, and if we crossed paths at family parties or at church, we’d barely acknowledge each other’s existence.
I would pick them but seldom drank their juice. I think I just enjoyed having something useful to do. The finished product rarely mattered to me. I always wanted to feel like I was accepted because I was useful. That I was loved because I was needed because I was helping everyone else - that alone was more rewarding than the reward.
There was a time I didn’t help. At 8 years old, in our two-bedroom apartment on 125th street, I fought every impulse to be the hero. The bottom of our bookshelf gave out when my sister went to grab one of her favorite books. She was being crushed by layers of literature, years of knowledge, before reading age. All I did was watch. Something inside told me not to move. I knew better, but I thought I had something to prove.
I’d watch my grandparents take whole bowls of calamansi and eat them after meals as a dessert or use as a seasoning when they cooked. It didn’t make sense to me that the fruit were so small but so flavorful - why didn’t God just make the fruit bigger so it could last longer? Why did we have to pick so many to be satisfied?
I’m told I suffer from impostor’s syndrome. There’s a direct proportion between how much I accomplish and how terrible I feel about myself. The more I do the less it feels I’ve done. I got lucky. I don’t deserve the praise - it must not belong to me. Lately, I’ve been working on being more definitive. I replace “I think” with “I know,” I make more of an effort to articulate and express even when it frustrates me. I’ve always pushed to make things better, but now I’m learning to accept what might not be.
People would even pay us for a batch of calamansi if they didn’t have their own tree. When my grandparents would visit NYC my parents would request a box full. This is actually a common indicator of a traveling Filipino family. The funny thing was being at baggage claim and trying to figure out whose box, torn open by TSA inspectors, was leaking on the carousel - hoping it wasn’t ours that had been ravaged by the journey.
At 22 years old, I went with my friends to get tattoos in the Lower East Side. Originally, we were all going to get three of the same tattoo, something in Baybayin or connected to our culture, as a symbol, an attempt really, of our shared Filipino heritage. That didn’t really work out, but I ended up coming back two days later and picking a mockup of three fruit side-by-side with the center split open. Oozing with life.
In December 2018, I went back to my grandparents’ home to spend the holidays recuperating from workforce burnout. It was 80 degrees and sunny most days, but even on rainy days I’d go outside to the backyard, inhaling the air my chest too often learned to live without. I could finally breathe. This habit of sitting by the pool for a long time, unprompted, unmoving is not new. I try not to think too much or let my mind wander when I do this. I can exist in a space I’ve always known to be my own. But I notice the calamansi tree is gone. I remember, really. The hurricanes and flooding of the year prior had killed it off and my grandparents chose to unroot the remains of it. Their hugs still smell of citrine clarity.
Ink haters always advise against getting tattoos of arbitrary objects, things that lack meaning. Funny, ironic even, how someone could glance at the vibrant shading of my fruits and assume it nothing more than an impulsive stain, a piece of art for the sake of aesthetic. That this was all for the likes, for the image of whimsicality. She was just being random. She got it to look cool. It’s just an orange – maybe she takes her vitamin C seriously.
Roxanne Lim is an independent media artist from New York City. A Filipina-American with both urban and southern roots, Roxanne’s mission is to share stories of marginalized voices and create content that uplifts and empowers their respective communities. She is the host of Suplada Pod (anchor.fm/supladapod) and ¼ of WOVXN (wovxn.com).
You can follow Roxanne on Twitter and IG @renaissanceroxy