A year and a half ago, my neighbor Norton stopped by my house. He was looking for Oliver.
“Sorry, Norton, but Oliver is taking a nap.”
“Okay. Thanks.” He turned to walk away.
“Can I help you?”
“Well, maybe. Can you speak Tagalog?”
He nodded in relief and fished out his phone from his pocket. The screen was a shattered mess, as though a drunken spider had spun a web from the inside.
“My girlfriend is in the hospital. Her sister sent me a message.” He scrolled through the screen until he found what he was looking for. He showed it to me. It was a text message, written in Tagalog. But not exactly.
“Norton, who is this from?”
“It’s from my girlfriend’s sister. They’re from the Philippines. Do you know what it’s saying?”
“Yes, I think I do. Why don’t you sit down?”
He sat on the top of my front stairs. I took a seat next to him, a respectable distance away. I was about to break his heart.
- - - - - - - - - - -
When I was in the fifth grade, a boy fell in love with me.
It was my second year in America, and my Philippine childhood memories were just beginning to fade. Even though my brother and I went to the same school, I felt isolated. I was bewildered by my classmates’ rude and raucous behavior, which would have been punishable by an eraser whack to the head at my old Catholic school in the Philippines. Being the only Asian in class, I felt alone in a sea of Others, my poor English a solid wall between me and Them.
During my weekly Health Class, my loneliness escalated. I could barely understand what my teacher was saying, as he used language couched in innuendo and ambiguity, to deter the inevitable giggling whenever the topic of genitals came up. I glanced down at my desk. Written in blue ink was one word: Hello. Unthinking, I wrote back: Hi. By the following week, I had forgotten all about this exchange. To my surprise, there was a new message on my desk.
What’s your name?
What was I supposed to write? My name is Lerrick. I hate this place. I want to go home. Everybody is mean and loud, especially Bubble Lips Larry, the bully. At that moment, encased in my unspeakable loneliness, I made a decision -- I would become someone else. Someone whose name didn’t evoke loneliness and anger, but happiness and love. A name that belonged to someone who lived anywhere else but here, to anyone else but me.
My name is Rosemoness.
It was a combination of three things my ten-year-old mind loved. Roses. Money. Happiness. The following week, he wrote me back.
Hello, Rosemoness. I’m John. Where do you live, Rosemoness?
I live near school.
What do you look like, Rosemoness?
Me? I got the blond hair and the green eyes.
I have brown hair and brown eyes.
That is nice. Do you like school?
Yes I like gym.
I like my teachers except my English teacher Miss Shapiro.
Miss Shapiro talks too loud!
Ha ha ha. Yes she does.
Our early correspondence was shallow and shy. But one day, John took it to a different level.
Rosemoness I bet your pretty. Blond hair and green eyes.
Yes my parents tell me I’m pretty.
In reality, my mother, hellbent on raising children with character, never mentioned our looks except in a pejorative way. “My children are so ugly,” she would tell us proudly. “But they are smart. And good.” Years later, my sister mentioned to her that this was a terrible thing to say, since she thought I was good looking. “Of course he is,” said my mother about me, behind my back. “But what’s the point of me telling him that? That will make him stuck up over something he can’t control. Baloney!”
Yes my parents tell me I’m pretty.
Rosemoness I want to meet you in person.
In my excitement to meet John, I had completely forgotten that he wouldn’t want to meet a lonely, isolated Filipino boy, but a pretty, blond, green-eyed girl. But I was already in way too deep.
Rosemoness I want to meet you in person. After school behind the cafeteria door.
I stood him up. I brushed aside any feelings of guilt or regret. The following week, I saw to my horror that my table had been wiped clean with a solvent. My entire conversation with John had been obliterated. A week later, I was sitting at my desk when I saw a head suddenly appear in the round glass window of the classroom’s only door. It was the face of a boy with brown hair and brown eyes, bobbing in and out of view. I knew it was John, jumping up and down to catch a glimpse of Rosemonness. It puzzles me to this day that no one saw him. I sat, frozen in place, head up and face front, pretending with all my might to look normal. I laughed along with my classmates at our teacher’s jokes. My hands grew ice cold and a hot sweat dripped down my forehead. The bell rang and thankfully, John was nowhere in sight. The following week, John wrote a new message.
Rosemoness, why dint you come? I waided an hour for you. Every day I waided for you. Are you
mad at me? I was mad at you but not no more. I looked but you werent sitting at our desk. It
was some Chinese boy sitting in our chair. Please talk to me.
This had gone far enough. I was frightened by his pleas, shaken to the core by his desperation. I didn’t write to John for two weeks.
Rosemoness, where are you? You don’t write no more. What happen to you? I am so scared. I
want to know what happen.
In an act of impulsive cruelty, I wrote John back.
John, I am moving away.
But where to? Yes, Massachusetts. Except I wasn’t sure of the spelling.
John wrote Rosemoness two more times, but Rosemoness never wrote back. She didn’t have the courage to say goodbye.
- - - - - - - -
“Norton, have you seen the TV show Catfish?”
“Well, Norton, there is something wrong her. She told you she was Muslim, right? Her first name is Christina, which I find unusual for a Muslim woman.”
Norton’s head dropped to his chest.
“But I’m really worried that she is sick,” he said, his voice bursting with worry.
“I’m getting to that. This message from her sister is written in Tagalog. But it’s in a dialect. A very unique dialect of Tagalog.”
“Can you understand it?”
“Yes, at least I knew it well twenty years ago. It’s changed quite a bit since then.”
“I don’t understand.”
“This dialect is kind of a made-up language,” I said as gently as I could. “By gay Filipino men. Her text says she wants to meet a man. A man with a big, uh, endowment. And with lots of money.”
“Norman, what I’m trying to tell you is that I don’t think Christina is who she says she is. She may be Filipino, but I don’t believe she is Muslim.”
“Norman,” I said slowly, shaking my head. “I don’t believe she is even a woman.”
Norman stood up. I continued speaking to him in a soft voice, suggesting he buy a phone card since calls to the Philippines are like a penny a minute, and call her, call Christina’s phone number and confront “her” in person. But he walked away.
Two weeks later, Norton mother’s knocked on our door. Norton had been missing for two weeks! The last time she saw him was the afternoon Norton had spoken to me. I told her that no, we hadn’t seen him at all. My mind suddenly concocted a story: I was being investigated for Norton's mysterious disappearance, my house filled with sniffing bloodhounds searching for his dead body.
A year later, I was walking my dogs when I saw a man approach. He stopped. I stopped. It was Norton. There he was, the former missing person, the victim of a shameless Catfish who had strung him along and broken his heart. And here I was, the original, unwitting femme fatale, Christina’s spiritual grandmother. As though choreographed, we began to walk toward each other at the same time, our gaits stiff and uncertain.
“Hello.” I could tell he didn’t remember my name.
“How’s it going?”
“Fine. How are you?”
He avoided my eyes. My heart began to beat faster, quickening from a decades old act of cruelty for which I had never repented, for which there was no hope of clemency.
I tried to imagine what he was feeling – if, after all this time, he harbored any resentment or if he had risen above it all and offered forgiveness in absentia. I wondered if he had consoled himself with the notion that even if she were fake, the love he felt was very real.
As he passed me on my left, I imagined these words, written in blue ink by a juvenile hand. I said them aloud in a voice so low I knew he would scarcely hear them, or understand what they truly meant: