Blown Glass by Catherine Rose Torres
Photo by Jessica Maria Manley ©
Amy nearly slipped in her cheap sandals as she yanked the grocery trolley to free its wheel, which had gotten caught in the gap between two paving stones. She should have gone through the basement carpark where there were ramps, she knew, but she couldn’t resist passing by the swimming pool. It reminded her of the view of the sea that greeted her every morning in the village she’d left behind, the sorry clump of huts like flotsam thrown up and left behind by the waves. She could blot out the hut, with its sagging plywood walls and rust-riddled tin roof, when she looked at the sea. You’d think she would tire of it, or else forget it was even there, having grown up with the view, but she never did.
A party was in full swing at the roofed veranda that jutted out of the clubhouse, which she’d heard Mrs Q call the ‘lanai.’ They had many strange words for things that had simple, sensible names to begin with, these white people, she’d learned after years of working for them.
Happy birthday to you, happy birthday to you… The birthday girl stood dripping in her watermelon-red swimsuit in front of the cake. At the end of the song, she puffed out her little chest and blew the candles, sprinkling the icing with spittle.
Amy frowned, the thread of smoke unspooling from the candles nagging her with the sense that she’d forgotten something. She pulled the grocery list Mrs Q had scribbled on fragrant stationery paper from her pocket and scanned the items. Yes, she had gotten everything, except for the organic tzatziki, which was out of stock. What was it then? She folded the list and slipped it back in her pocket, careful not to crumple it—Mrs Q always wanted it back, together with the receipts, which she put in a fancy folder with clear plastic pockets. Suddenly, she stopped dead in her tracks and the trolley banged against her shins. She counted on her fingers. Yes, that was it. Three days ago had been her birthday, and she’d completely forgotten. Like everyone else.
Come to think of it, how old did that make her? She’d heard Mrs Q tell her friends on her birthday—there had been dainty little cakes that looked like little jeweled boxes and coffee that spurted out of a gleaming machine that had sparked a shouting match between Mrs Q and her husband when she bought it—that she’d stopped counting the years when she turned 30. When did she stop counting?
Amy snapped from her reverie as the birthday girl brushed past her. She was holding a toy that spewed bubbles through a nozzle, and the other kids ran after her trying to pop them. Some of the grownups had even joined in the game.
Amy broke into a grin as a few stray bubbles drifted past her. What did it matter if her family didn’t remember? True, they never failed to remind her months ahead, by IDD or SMS, when it was one of them having their birthday, but she’d learned after having worked abroad for years, that people back home had short and circumscribed memories. She held up a tentative finger and popped one of the errant bubbles. When she was little, she and her sisters would tear handfuls of hibiscus flowers and leaves from their mother’s shrub and pound them into a gooey pulp on a slab of rock. They would mix the pink and green gloop with water in a rusty old can, drop in the sludgy remains of a Mr Clean bar that their mother, a laundry woman, had all but used up, and slop everything around until it frothed. They would take turns dipping papaya stems into the mixture, blowing through them as through a flute, and watch shivering worlds, spherical mirages, emerge from the other end.
A bubble burst in front of Amy’s face, anointing her with droplets. She looked around, blinking. The kids were still playing but the grownups had returned to their barbecue and beer. Heaving a sigh, she adjusted her grip on the trolley handle and resumed her slog towards the lift that would deposit her right on the stoop of the Qs’ penthouse loft, where she had an hour to conjure up dinner: green salad with dressing made from scratch for Mrs Q, mackerel grilled just so for her husband, and macaroni and cheese for their teenage son.
She heard women’s voices coming from the living room when she opened the door. So Mrs Q had guests over, unannounced. That or she’d forgotten to tell Amy again. She would have to cook extra. She only hoped that that lady who couldn’t eat anything that wasn’t, what did Mrs Q call it, kosher? She only hoped that her voice wasn’t among those twittering in the living room like so many mynahs.
She left the trolley in the kitchen and stole down the hall that led to the living room to let Mrs Q know that she was back, and ask, if her highness—no, of course she wouldn’t dare say that—if madam would like anything special prepared for her guests?
The voices grew louder as she approached.
“You really got lucky with this one.”
“Six hundred dollars, you said?”
“Yes, and worth every penny. You can’t go wrong with a morena.”
Amy stopped in her tracks, recognizing Mrs Q’s voice. She couldn’t believe her ears—were they really just talking about her? Who would have guessed that Mrs Q thought so well of her? And here she was, thinking that the woman begrudged her the six hundred dollars she paid her every month. She wanted to do a jig or a waltz.
She suddenly felt timid about entering the room. “Speaking of the devil,” one of them might say, and another, “I wish I were as lucky with mine.”
No, what she had to do was get dinner started on her own to surprise Mrs Q. “Didn’t I tell you? She always knows what to do without having to be told,” she would tell her friends. And maybe, just maybe, she would turn to her, arms akimbo, and say, “What would I do without you, Amy?”
Now if she could just see how many friends she had over. She inched closer and peered through the doorway to get a better view. Yes, there was Mrs Q, and one, two, three other women—without the kosher lady, thankfully. They were standing around the dining table, looking at something.
“I was headed home after my workout when I passed by this shop near the gym, and there it was, winking at me. I thought, hey, why not, I have to reward myself, I lost five pounds this month.” As if to prove her point, she stepped back, hands on hips, and Amy saw what it was they had been looking at and talking about all along: a vase.
She smacked herself on the forehead. How could she have thought otherwise?
“This is my moreno collection,” Mrs Q had told her while giving her the grand tour of the penthouse on her first day with them. “You must absolutely take care when dusting them—they cost a small fortune, these babies.” Afterwards, when she left to play bridge at the Hollandse Club, Amy examined one of the vases and found a sticker at the bottom that said ‘Barovier & Toso, Murano, Venezia.’ So it was Murano. What was wrong with these foreigners’ accents, she wondered, which seemed expressly invented to trip her up.
Murano. She got that one sorted out at least. What continued to baffle her was why Mrs Q should amass all those vases—she counted twenty-two—and simply let them sit there on a shelf, a shelf custom-made for them no less, each vase in its own nook. It was anathema to her to see them go unused. To her mind, a vase is nothing if it doesn’t contain flowers. And to actually have a shelf built for them, well.
It reminded her of her mother’s collection of mismatched china from the factory where her father worked. At the end of every year, they would offload all the overruns from corporate orders at a warehouse sale where employees got first dibs. This would be the highlight of their mother’s year, and her finds were given the place of pride on a glass-front cabinet that covered one wall of the room that did double-duty as living and dining room, taking up half of their shack. The dining plates, cups and saucers bearing various emblems and insignias, from San Miguel Beer’s to the provincial government’s, would watch over the seven of them benignly as they ate their paltry meals on scratched melamine or chipped enamel-coated tin plates.
The fine china, if you could call it that, was brought out only on the most special occasions. Christmas Eve, for the Noche Buena, was one of them; her and her siblings’ graduations from elementary and high school, another. None of them made it as far as college so the special crockery were spared a further five outings. The day before her flight to Singapore, her mother took them out from their long hibernation and dusted them off for her despedida. She remembered the excited chatter of her younger brothers and sisters as they shared a roast chicken that her mother had bought from Andok’s on her way home from work. Was there a Disneyland in Singapore, her youngest sister asked, and did it snow there? Will she have her own room to sleep in? Would she remember to send them presents? She forced herself to smile but she couldn’t help wondering, as she glanced up from time to time at the wood carving that hung on the wall above them across from the china cabinet, if this was how Jesus felt at the Last Supper.
She would have loved to send her mother one of those beautiful vases, the smallest one even, but she didn’t dare. She’d heard of other maids who had to do time in Changi Prison for stealing lesser things—a bottle of lotion, half-empty, in one case—before being bundled off to the other Changi landmark Singapore was famous for, to be deported.
“There you are, I was starting to wonder what was taking you so long.” Mrs Q had spied her in the hallway. “Could you put something together? I have some guests over.”
Mrs Q clicked back to the living room. Amy noticed she was wearing a new pair of shoes. Another present to herself for losing weight, she supposed.
“Shall we repair to the balcony while Amy gets dinner ready?” she said. There she was again. Repair. What was there for these women to fix? They each had someone to fix everything for them.
She returned to the kitchen and took stock of the grocery trolley’s contents. What would be easy to prepare? The salad and…pasta, yes, why hadn’t she thought of it earlier? It would have to be cooked al dente of course, eight minutes, no more, no less. And the sauce—not the melange of minced meat, tomato sauce, ketchup and sliced hotdogs she’d prepared the first time she cooked spaghetti for her earliest employer, a French couple. A disaster, it had been. The pasta, a huge pan of it, ended up in the garbage bin while monsieur and madame went out to get their dinner elsewhere. No, she would never make the same mistake.
“Will it take much longer, dear?” Mrs Q’s voice came over the intercom. “We didn’t take lunch so we’re starving, you know.”
Then starve, dear, she thought of saying. “Just ten minutes more, madam,” she said aloud. “I’ll set the dining table.”
She cleared the newest member of Mrs Q’s Murano collection off the table and laid out four places.
“Dinner is ready, madam,” she said, opening the sliding glass door to the balcony.
“Finally.” Mrs Q clapped her hands. “We were beginning to wonder what extravagance you would serve us.”
The four of them took their places around the table and started with the salad. She cleared the salad bowls when they were done and replaced them with plates of perfectly cooked spaghetti.
“And the sauce, Amy?” Mrs Q said.
Mrs Q had her back to the hallway that led from the kitchen to the dining room so she was the last to see Amy come in with the sauce. It wasn’t until the brand-new Murano vase was sitting on the table in front of her, bubbling with the red liquid, a ladle poking from it, that she realized why the animated chatter of her friends had died down.
She leapt up with a shriek. “What have you done, you, you—” She seized the ladle and threw it at Amy, spattering sauce on everyone.
Amy picked it up where it had fallen, missing her by inches, and carried it to the kitchen. She scrubbed it on the sink and hung it up on its hook to dry. From the living room, she could hear Mrs Q’s friends trying to calm her down. She went to the storage room that doubled as her sleeping quarters, pulled out her luggage from under the bed and started packing.
She knew this was the end of the line for her. Strangely, she felt neither sad nor elated, merely relieved. She should have packed her bags and gone back home long ago anyway, ever since she realized the vanity of chasing after dreams that dissolved like bubbles, that shattered like blown glass when you tried to hold them.
She knelt on the floor in the middle of the shoebox room where she’d slept every night for close to two years, dreaming her outsize dreams. She shut her eyes, thinking of home, and saw the sagging walls and rusty roof, the outstretched hands and baffled looks that would greet her on her return. Her eyelids fluttered but she willed them to stay closed, until the clutter of hovels and the clamor of faces disappeared, and all that was left was the sea.
Catherine Rose Torres is a diplomat and writer from the Philippines. Her works have appeared in various literary journalsand magazines such as Ceriph, TAYO Literary Magazine, The Philippines Graphic, and Time Out Delhi. Her story “Song for Benzaiten” was included in the YA anthology Tomo published this spring by Stone Bridge Press. She is a recipient of two Carlos Palanca Memorial Awards for Literature and she recently participated in Write Forward, an online writing course by Birbeck College Writing Programme and British Council Singapore. She lives in Singapore with her husband, Suk Joo Sohn, a Korean scholar and translator, and their son, Samuel.