Lodestar Quarterly

Lodestar Quarterly
Figure reaching for a star Issue 5 • Spring 2003 • Featured Writer • Fiction

The Dreams that Made Delya Arraya Cavanaugh Weep

Noël Alumit

She awoke with a film of sweat on her forehead. She thought of waking her husband and telling him about it, but after 18 years of marriage, she knew what he would say: "Did you have one of your nightmares again?" She could never consider her dreams about Franky a nightmare.

Mahal kita, Franky would say in the flimsy reality of sleep.

She hadn't dreamed like that for awhile. Sometimes she didn't dream like that for weeks, months, years at a time. Then like scurrying rats, they came: the dreams that inundated her. Dreams that carried themselves into her days, seeing Franky late in the afternoon when shadows were most present, shifting the contours of the face. Sometimes she saw him crossing the street or entering a department store. Dreams that made her drive to the beach, walk over the sea and weep.

She put on her robe, walked downstairs to the kitchen, and looked through the window, waiting for that thin shock of light to creep over the earth. Soon her husband would be up, her two children would be arguing, she would eventually be stuck in traffic on the Hollywood freeway, and she would have to meet this Noah -- or was it Neal? -- and tell him what she knew.

Mahal kita, Franky said in her dream, as he said in every dream. Mahal kita, Tagalog for the phrase "I love you."

She stepped out of the shower and blow-dried her hair. She cursed herself for letting her hairdresser talk her into this perm. He said it would help her look younger. She secretly hoped some new curls here and there would remove the lines and wrinkles on her face, also perhaps make her tummy disappear, her thighs more firm. What was I thinking? she wondered.

She reminded herself that she had granted the writer only twenty minutes. She would have granted more time if she liked this Noah, but she didn't. She got the impression that he was a spoiled Filipino American. "Is this Delya?" she remembered him asking on the phone. "Yes. Speaking." "Hi, my name is Noah Balagtas." He said his last name slowly and deliberately. Delya knew why he did this; she knew it well: he wanted to let her know that he wasn't just anybody off the street, he came from a particular kind of family, a family Delya was supposed to know about. Her job in the state senator's office was to be a liaison to the Asian community. The senator's district had a huge Asian constituency. Indeed, she had heard of his family name, but she didn't know why. The thought of this kid, who certainly sounded younger than she, asking to speak with Delya, not Mrs. Arraya-Cavanaugh, not Ginang Arraya, but Delya. This implied a casual familiarity that annoyed her.

"I was referred to you," he said, "by Tita Amorez." Tita, yes, a good friend, a friendship that went back twenty-five years. "Tita said you might be able to help me."

"I'll try."

"I'm working on a novel or a book of fiction." I know what a novel is, stupid, Delya thought. Delya knew she spoke with an accent. For some, an accent immediately made her dumb. She chose to be pleasant. "That's wonderful. How may I help?"

"I'm curious about life under the Marcos regime in the Philippines during the 1970s," he said. "Would I be able to speak to you?" She was silent. "If I may have just a few minutes of your time..." She finally told him, "Twenty minutes. I'm very busy."

"Awesome. I'll put it in my date book. Monday, around nine. Interview with Delya Cavanaugh."

"Delya Arraya-Cavanaugh," she said, then hung up. She wanted him to know that she came from a particular kind of family, too.

She got on the freeway wondering how much she should reveal in the interview. Would she speak from the very beginning? Would she tell him she grew up in the suburbs of Manila, went to private Catholic girls' schools? Or should she skip to Franky? Yes. She would do that: talk about Franky. That's why Noah -- maybe it was Nathan -- called.

She would tell him that they met in college at the University of the Philippines in Manila. She would tell of his arrogance, his boldness. She would tell of Franky's bushy black hair that hovered over his head like rain clouds. She would tell of how Franky approached her and called her "ma'am."

"How are you today, ma'am? My name is Franky Benitez, and we are having a meeting tonight." He handed her a flyer. She took it.

"My name is Delya Arraya." She saw Franky's eyes narrow. She knew that look, and she nodded to confirm his suspicions, as if to say, Yes, Delya Arraya of Arraya Sugar Company.

"Come to our meeting," he said and indicated the flyer in her hand.

"I'll try," she responded, then walked away, turning back occasionally to look at this boy, whose skin was the color of cinnamon. She watched him watching her. Yes, she would tell of their first meeting, and how that flyer changed her life. It spoke of revolution against the President.

What she wouldn't tell him -- this Noah or Ned or whatever his name was -- was about their second meeting by the fountain, or their third, walking along Roxas Boulevard, or their fourth, watching the waves rise like fingers then fall like fists, in Subic Bay. She wouldn't tell him of being a teenager with a lineless face and falling in love with a man she would spend the rest of her life trying to escape, to forget. She wouldn't tell him how her parents disapproved of her dating him. Later, her parents screamed at her for getting engaged. She certainly wouldn't tell him that they were lovers. She wouldn't tell Noah or Ned that Franky said "I love you" when he orgasmed. Afterwards, he would ask, "Do you love me, too?" He sounded like a child needing reassurance. "Of course, stupid," she said. No, she wouldn't tell any of that.

She would, however, tell of how she left Franky for a weekend, rushing to spend time with her parents, furiously packing, only kissing him briefly as she exited his small apartment. When she returned, Franky was gone. She asked his neighbors if they had seen him. They shook their heads, No. She went to his hangouts; no one knew where he was. Finally, she asked a bartender in Tondo if he'd seen Franky. He told her Franky had gone to visit some friends in Quiapao. She was relieved. But when he did not return a week later, she worried. She had heard of the police taking students away, students who made noise about the President. At some of the rallies she attended with Franky, she'd heard firsthand accounts of what was done to prisoners -- the tortures, the beatings, the rapes, the random executions when the jails got too full. She was also told how to find missing persons: ask questions, talk to people. She, along with a bunch of other friends, went to Quiapao asking residents if they had seen Franky. Most said no. Others said he was picked up with a bunch of other students. She continued to ask people, enlisting the help of other anti-Marcos allies. She continued until she was captured, held in a safehouse, and interrogated for subversive activities against the state.

At her office, she pulled out a box of cookies from a file cabinet. She delighted in Pepperidge Farm. She looked into the boardroom. This is where she would have the interview, she decided. No one else had plans for it and she liked the big blond wooden table in the middle. The table would keep her a comfortable distance from Noah.

At 8:15, she peered through the curtains hoping he would come earlier. This would mean she could end sooner. Maybe get some work done. She hadn't been able to concentrate. She had a meeting later in the day to discuss plans for a new recreational center in the area. She would smile and tell people that they had the full support of the senator in creating a new facility for the neighborhood youth to play. She was there to assuage activists who petitioned to get more funding to build parks. She had met activists in her work, men and women who waved signs and made grand speeches, referring to civil rights or cancer or AIDS or discrimination. She fought on their behalf in heated debates with the senator.

She knew the importance of activism, but sometimes she looked into the faces of these activists and questioned their fervor. It seemed people in America had a lax approach to their social causes, only marching, protesting when they had time. Marches and protests were conveniently scheduled after work or on weekends, and only if the weather was good. Some were even willing to get arrested, but what relief in knowing they would be out in twenty-four hours.

She wondered how many of these so-called activists would put it all on the line. How many people fighting for civil rights this and discrimination that, breast cancer this and AIDS that would risk all of it, everything they had for their cause?

She wondered when she was arrested if all she and Franky were fighting for -- judicial fairness, social reform, freedom of speech, freedom of expression -- was worth it. Would she stand firm? Would she crumble? She thought this in a dingy room out in the provinces called a safehouse. Despite its name, a safehouse was nothing but. Five guards made her sit in a chair and asked for her name. "My name," she said, "is Delya Daluz Montenya Espiritu Arraya." She said her full name slowly and deliberately to let her captors know that she did not come from one prominent family, but four.

They wanted her to sign a document stating her illegal activities, confessing to being a Communist, admitting to other crimes she did not commit. If she signed, she was told she would be released. Then again, if she signed they could keep her. Her signature proof of subversive activity.

She told them she wouldn't sign anything. She told them she didn't do anything wrong. She told them she would hire a lawyer and fight her arrest. She spoke in English to let them know that she was educated, to let them know that she would be missed, to let them know that she wasn't some poor little girl from a small town that would simply go away. She wanted to let these men know, despite their uniforms and their guns, they were still peasants who imitated big men. For a split second, she thought about Franky, because he was not wealthy and probably came from the same stock as her captors. This made her sad. She hoped the guards did not see her sadness. She hoped they did not see how she was scared beyond recognition.

She was brave, hiding what she'd really wanted to do. She wanted to cry and fall apart and tell them she was only a teen-age girl looking for her boyfriend; she wanted to beg for mercy and be delivered to the front steps of her parents' home. She wanted to go back to school. She wanted all of these things, but knew she couldn't go back.

The best her high-profile family could do was to get her into a minimum-security prison instead of the horrors of a maximum-security cell. She had heard of "maximum security." Prisoners were no longer human there. She could be shut away in a dark room for months at a time or be electrocuted with wires attached to her private parts or gang raped.

In minimum security, she was fed scraps, spoiled fish, and rotted fruit. She endured dysentery. She was forced to see her fellow inmates -- students, doctors, teachers, artists, philosophers, nuns -- disintegrate into broken men and women, some of whom went insane in the process.

Random executions occurred when the prisons got too full. Men were pulled from their barracks and shot. It was at this time that she began to dream of Franky. She knew what they did to prisoners, and if it weren't for her family name and background, she would have been one of the many who disappeared. She didn't know what happened to Franky, and in not knowing she was forced to imagine, to dream the most heinous tortures committed against him. Did they stab him, then cut him up into little pieces, his remains in an unmarked grave? Did they shoot him in the back of the head, forcing his skull to explode? Did they bend him backward with rope tied from his feet to his neck, causing him to choke himself? Did they disembowel him? She didn't know.

She stayed in prison for two years. It took that long for her lawyer to get the charges against her dismissed.

Delya looked out her second floor window and saw a young man, the writer, park his car, a sports utility vehicle of some kind. She heard the chirp of his car alarm as he locked his door. He wore a sweater around his neck. She dreaded spending the next twenty minutes with a man who wore his sweater around his neck. She had met men and women like that when her parents sent her to the states to start anew. When she was sent to UCLA to gain her master's in public policy, she went willingly. After two years in prison and the hope of finding Franky gone, she wanted to leave. In college, she met a man she loved -- loved enough -- had two beautiful children, and moved into a cottage-style home in the Valley. She continued her work in activism, but nothing like she had endured in the Philippines.

She went downstairs to greet him. "Hi," he said, "I'm Noah Balagtas." His name was Noah after all, Delya thought.

"Hello," she said, guiding him to the second floor boardroom. "Would you like some coffee?"

"Tea, please."

Oh, yes, she thought, it was more fashionable to drink tea these days. She handed him a saucer of cookies, a cup of hot water, and a tea bag. She noted how he was disappointed at having been served Lipton. What did he want? Chamomile and a strainer?

"Thank you for meeting with me. I'm truly grateful," he said. Self-effacing -- good, but Delya couldn't quite buy it. There was something disingenuous about him, something that made her uncomfortable. She knew he'd just stepped out of the shower; his face wasn't oily yet. His hair was tousled, the way young people wear their hair these days. All of those expensive cosmetic products to have your hair look like you just got out of bed. He was too clean, too clean to be writing a book about this topic. She also knew he was vain. She noticed how he looked into every window that gave him a reflection.

"Did you have trouble finding the place?" she asked. "No," he said, "I ran the LA marathon, and we ran down this street, past this building." What a joy it must be, she thought, to have the privilege to put your body through such a grind, and pay money for the opportunity. "I run a lot," he said. "I ran a 10K to raise money for breast cancer research. I wanted to do my part. I think I'm gonna run for multiple sclerosis next." Delya wanted to hit him. She spent two years in prison so future Filipinos could have better lives. And this young man in front of her, runs occasionally for a good cause.

She watched him pick up a cookie, bite it and put it back on the saucer. He wiped his lips with his finger, the one closest to the pinkie, and she knew immediately that he was gay. She was more at ease. Gay men did not seem as threatening. Indeed there were gay men, mostly artists, whom she had met in prison.

He pulled out a tape recorder and fiddled with it. "Testing. This is Noah. Interview on March 2." He was nervous, and she relaxed some more. She watched him rewind the tape and listen. It worked. He placed the recorder between them and said, "Anything you can tell me would be helpful. My novel is about a boy whose parents were abducted. They disappeared. I went to Amnesty International to research disappearances under Marcos. I'm amazed that thousands of people simply vanished." Delya was impressed that he'd done his homework.

"Were you born here?" Delya asked.

"Yes."

"Why did your parents come here?"

"Um, to live a better life, I suppose. Though I visited the Philippines a few years back. It was gorgeous. I didn't want to leave. Everything was so cheap."

"People don't leave a country if their lives are good. They leave because their lives are difficult. When did your family arrive?"

"Sometime in the seventies."

The height of the Marcos regime, she knew. People left the Philippines in droves due to the economic hardships of the era. The Philippine economy has never recovered from such plundering. Filipinos left to give birth to American children whose primary purpose is to make sure their hair was fashionably messy.

"Why do you want to write this book? Why do you want to talk to me?"

She saw him look up, startled. He sat back in his chair. He took a deep breath and said, "Because my parents don't want to talk about it. And I'm curious why."

Delya clasped her hands, narrowed her focus onto the tape recorder and said, "I was a student. I met a boy." She told him all that she knew. She didn't mean to, but when she began, she couldn't stop. The twenty-minute interview turned into ninety. She watched the writer's smiling face slowly darken, realizing his little novel -- his book of fiction -- was more complex than what he'd intended.

"That's what happened," she said.

He adjusted that damned sweater around his neck. He was uncomfortable, she knew. He reached for his cup of Lipton tea. The cup trembled in his hand as he brought it to his lips.

"Thank you," he croaked.

He was preparing to leave. The interview was over, but not for her. She felt she didn't tell the story quite right. She thought she was too factual, not emotional enough. She didn't convey all that she was feeling. She didn't know how to tell him that she still loved Franky. After twenty years and a whole ocean apart, she still couldn't forget him. Sometimes it got so bad, she felt she could trade in her husband and marriage of 18 years, her two beautiful children, her degree that added extra letters to her name, her job with great benefits to know one thing: What. Happened. To. Franky? How could she convey that she missed the very first man inside her, that she missed the man she kept locked in her dreams to whisper, "I love you." How could she say this? She looked down at her hands, and finally said in a whisper more delicate than a spider's web, "I still dream... about him."

She watched Noah out of the periphery of her vision. She learned this skill in prison. She watched him pause, look at her, then look away. He didn't get it, but she hoped that someday he would. Someday, he would listen to the tape, listen to it over and over and understand what she was trying to say.

Delya drove to Santa Monica beach, parked her car, and stood at the edge of America. She made her way to the pier, walked on the wooden slats, watching the sea beneath her rise and transform into a deep green. She was standing over the ocean. She closed her eyes and recalled her dream: She held him, unaware of the blood dripping from the puncture holes in his skin. Knife wounds, this time, it was knife wounds. His black hair blended into the dark sky, stars hovered above him, the moon off to the side; looking up at him, Delya couldn't tell where Franky ended and the universe began.

NoŽl Alumit

Noël Alumit is the award-winning novelist of Letters to Montgomery Clift. His second novel Talking to the Moon is forthcoming in 2006. His work has appeared in USA Today, The Advocate, and others. Noël is also an accomplished performance artist.

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