My sister, Isa, speaks English and Tagalog. But one word, she could say in many languages: koigokoro, beminnen, mahal, amor. “It’s the most important thing,” she used to say, “the only thing. L-O-V-E. Love.” So when we learned that we would be moving to California, to a city called L’amour, she called it home, the place where we were always meant to be. I believed her.
This was January of 1974, our final days in the Philippines. Isa was sixteen, I was eight, and we were from San Quinez, a small southern village surrounded by sugar-cane fields and cassava groves, with a single paved road winding through. Every house was like ours, made of bamboo and nipa and built on stilts, and every neighbor was somehow family. No one was a stranger where we lived.
Like many Filipino men at the time, my father joined the U.S. Navy, and after he had served in Korea and Vietnam, his request for a transfer to America was finally granted. “Our plan from the very beginning,” my father said. My mother stayed silent, rubbing the leaf of a houseplant between her fingers until it ripped. My brother, Darwin, who was twelve, said he didn’t care one way or another. But Isa started packing that same day. “L’amour, L’amour,” she went on, like it was the name of a special friend she had that others never would. Friends and neighbors called her stuck-up and boastful; our oldest cousin called her an immigrant bitch. “American bitch,” Isa corrected her, and called our cousin a village peasant who would never know a bigger world. “You’re stuck here forever.” As though no place was worse than the one you were from.
This is us on the plane, the day we leave: across the aisle my mother stares ahead, barely blinking, never speaking, and my father rifles through papers, rereading each document as though he can’t figure out its meaning. Darwin sleeps next to me, so deeply that I double-check the rise and fall of his chest to make sure he isn’t dead. On the other side of me is Isa, and only when she looks at me do I realize I’m crying. She unbuckles my seat belt and lets me sit on her lap, promises me that I’ll be fine in L’amour.
We land in San Francisco but we keep moving. As soon as we claim our boxes and bags, we board a shuttle van and head south on the freeway, turn east hours later. I’m lying down for most of the ride, my head on Isa’s lap, feeling our speed. We never traveled so quickly or smoothly on the dirt roads back home; I could almost sleep. But suddenly we’re slow, and the driver yawns, “Almost there.” Isa looks confused, then panicked, and when I sit up all I see are endless fields of gray stalks, the miles of freeway we leave behind, and, up ahead, we seem to be driving into a cloud. “Fog again,” the driver says, and down the road, a sign becomes clearer. Welcome to Lemoore, CA, it says, ENJOY YOUR STAY!
They sound the same—L’amour, Lemoore—but I know they’re not. “Lemoore.” I tug at Isa’s sleeve. “What’s that mean?” She doesn’t answer.
We exit the freeway, turn into the Lemoore Naval Air Station. We drive through foggy streets to a section of military housing, passing rows of gray and concrete rectangular houses with low, flat roofs, then down a street that ends in a cul-de-sac. “That’s ours,” my father says, and we pull up to a house with a faintly lit doorway, newspaper-covered windows, a grassless yard. We step out, unload our cargo, drag boxes up the driveway to the front door. Most things are too heavy for me to lift, so I stand by the van to guard our belongings. Across the street, a balding blond man mows his dry, yellow lawn; two houses over, a lady with a shirt that says RENO! soaps her car, sprays it down, soaps it again. Then I see a family sitting in folding lawn chairs in a line along the sidewalk, their faces toward the sky. I have never had to meet a person before—back home, everyone knew everyone—and now is the time for someone to say Welcome or How are you? But by the end of the day no one says hello, not even us.
I hate my house. Too many walls make too many rooms, the hallway is long and dark as a tunnel. Nothing scared me back home, and I always knew where we were: you could hear a person breathe in the next room, and the floor shook when someone ascended the bamboo stairs. Now, brownish-orange carpet mutes our footsteps; I never know when a person is coming or going, who’s here and who’s gone.
Strangers come each day with heavy cardboard boxes on dollies—a refrigerator one morning, a kitchen table the next. When my father breaks down the box for our new oven, I drag it to the garage and build it again, turn it on its side, and wedge it between the washing machine and the wall. I crawl in, close the flaps. I fit perfectly. Minutes pass and I decide that I’m hiding, so I wait to be found, for someone to call out, Where are you? Where did you go? But no one searches, even as the afternoon fades and the garage darkens.
Then someone comes. It’s Isa. She has a suitcase in each hand, like she’s running away. But they’re empty, and she drops them to the ground like trash, pushes them against the wall with her foot. Then she paces from one end of the garage to the other, never seeing me, and stops at the driver’s-side window of our new, blue Impala. She stares at her reflection and sighs, then rests her forehead against the glass, clasps her hands together below her chin.
When I pray, I pray for us: my parents, Isa, Darwin, and me. Who knows what my sister prays for? When she’s finished, she writes something on the window with her finger, looks it over, and hurries back inside. I wait two seconds so I won’t be seen, crawl out of the box, and run to the car window, expecting a message from Isa. But all I see is her name, in fancy cursive letters, underlined twice.
I write my name over hers. I do it again and again, until all the dust is gone. Then I crawl back into my box, thinking how funny that Isa never knew I was here, that I still am.
Finally: we start school. The morning of our first day, Darwin and I are sitting at the kitchen table, eating instant champorado from a packet, a thing I’ve always hated: rice boiled in chocolate has never made sense to me, and when I say, “We should have left this back there,” Darwin socks me in the arm, tells me to not say things like that in front of our mother. I’m about to jab him in the head with my spoon when suddenly Isa appears in the kitchen, and the sight of her dazzles me: her eyelids are as blue as our toothpaste, her cheeks so pink I think rose petals have melted into her skin. I want to tell her, You are beautiful! and I’m about to, but Darwin says, “You look like a hooker,” and when my mother turns from the sink and looks at Isa, I know that trouble is ahead.