By Merlinda Bobis
I am forty. Divorced. No children. I own a fruit stall in Kings Cross. And I am Filipina, but this is my secret. People ask, are you Spanish? Mexican? Italian? A big man, brushing his hairy arm against my waist, whispers in his beer-breath, aha, Latina! Cringing, I say, si, si, si to him, and to all of them. I am Filipina, but this is my secret.
I dyed my hair brown. It goes well with this pale skin from my Spanish grandfather whom I never saw. He owned the hacienda where my grandmother served as housemaid. They sent her away when she grew a melon under her skirt.
Melons have their secret, too. No one knows how many seeds hide in their rose-flesh. Or who planted them there. Mother used to say, it is God, it is God who plants all things. I don’t believe her now.
“Is this sweet?”
“Very sweet. And few seeds.” I pretend to know a secret.
But he’s not interested. This man frowning at the melon sounds like a customer back home. He touches the fruit doubtingly, tentatively. His hand is smooth and white against the green rind.
“Want a taste?” I offer the last slice from a box labeled “For Tasting”. I pretend I am a fruitseller at home where we let the buyer sample the merchandise before any business takes place.
Sample the merchandise. This is how the men, who go to my country to find themselves a nice, little brown girl, put in. they’re great, these rice-ies. Give them a bowl of rice and they can fuck all night! An American serviceman said this once, grabbing me by my waist. I was twelve then, I remember I went home crying.
He gets it cheaply. He walks away with the melon now, the man with the smooth, white hand. More like the hands of my grandfather. Mine are white, too, but hard and rough.
So father said, papayas are good for your skin. Mash them well with your hands tonight, so they get soft and smooth when Jake arrives. Remember to be nice to him, ha? And fix that face – Dios mio, will you stop sniveling? Jake, the old Australian, whom my father had met in the city, became my husband. It must have been the papayas.
They’re too small here and not as sweet. See these here? Too expensive, but not as good as the papayas back home. The tourists go gaga over our papayas there. They are sun-ripe, tree-ripe, we say. And cheap. Have dollar, no problem.
“How much for this?” Her hand on the papaya is very tanned, with fine golden hair. She’s wearing a T-shirt with a coconut print. She looks happy. Good holiday. I want to ask, did you go to my country? But I keep my secret safe.
She frowns though, when I tell her the price. You see, papayas are expensive here. Go to my country. We sell then cheaply. I bite my tongue
“And a kilo of grapes as well, please.”
My youngest brother ate himself sick with the grapes which Jake brought from Australia to our village. It was the first time my brothers tasted grapes. It was the first time our neighbors tasted grapes. Jake was very pleased with himself. He promised more grapes. A week before the wedding, my father strutted about, imagining himself the father-in-law of a grape-king. When I came here, I found out grapes are very cheap, especially in late summer.
It was getting cold when I arrived. Autumn is cold for me. Winter is freezing. Hardly any grapes by then. Jake said we were too greedy – why are you always sending something home? He must have suspected I sneaked in some grapes in my letters. He opened them. He frowned at my dialect on paper. What stories are you telling them, huh?
I can tell many stories about sweaty white hands running all over me in front of other men nodding over their beer. Guess where she’s from? Oh no, I didn’t get myself an Asian with small tits. This is no Asian. Look at her melons. And they taste like plums – don’t they, luv? He laughed until he was beetroot-red, while hi8s fingers fumbled at my buttons, much to joy of his clapping and stamping mates. My ex-husband was a fruitseller. I learned my trade from him, and I learned to say, si, I am Spanish. Or, Mexican by birth, Señorita. Or, Italian, Signore.
He reminded me of the pet monkey we had when I was young. My father gave it away, because it would wake up the whole house in the middle of the night with its crazed monkey-sounds. Jake did the same, chattering away about his great big white banana getting bigger and harder – turn over. On your belly, quick. He was very quick. Then he snored his way through a land of fruit. I imagined it had overripe smell that made me sick. After a while, I learned how to doze off dry-eyed and dream of fruit-flies tracking down the smell, feeding on the smell, until each one dropped dead from too much sweetness.
I keep my stall clean and insect free. White people are particular about what they put in their bellies. Don’t get me wrong. I don’t say this is bad. I only say they’re lucky, they have the choice to be particular. That’s what I like it here. Actually, I liked it more after the divorce papers were signed. Oh, yes, I love it now I do not wish to go home any more. Who would want to see a divorced woman there anyway? My mother with her strange God? My grape-less father? Never mind. I can have more than grapes here. I also have mangoes, pineapples, avocados, even guavas around me. I smell home each day.
The woman with the red headband must have smelled what I smell. She smiles with the greeting I know so well. The blond man beside her is smiling, too, at her expectant face.
“Kumusta.” She is in earnest.
He shifts his gaze at me.
“You mean, como esta?” I pretend to look confused. “Of course, of course – muy bien.”
“Told ya, yer wrong, hon.” He strokes her hair.
“But – “ she searches my unsmiling face – “you’re not Filipina?”
“You’re Filipina.” I stared back.
“Yes, oh, yes,” she nods vigorously. “Arrived two months ago with my husband here – your mangoes, very expensive –“
“From Queensland, that’s why,” I shrug.
“May I?” She lifts a mango and smells it hungrily.
“Geez, isn’t she pretty?” The husband runs his fingers through her hair again. The red head band gets caught in his large, white hand.
“This one, please.” She lays the prized fruit on the weighing tray and quickly rearranges her band.
“Only one? Let’s have a kilo – nah, two kilos, if you want, hon.” He winks at me, before proceeding to stroke her hair again. “Ain’t I lucky?”
“Where I lived, we have a yard of mangoes.”
I go for mangoes, too. Jake said we were not only grape-starved, but mango-greedy as well. I told him I wouldn’t be asking for green mangoes if I were back home. He didn’t understand what I meant until I started having fainting spells. He took me to the doctor “to fix me up”. He did not want brown kids. I never told anyone.
“Let me tell ya, the Filipino kumusta comes from the Spanish como esta. The Philippines was once under Spain, y’see,” the husband lectures me on my ancestry.
“Spain very far…” Her sweeping gesture leaves an unfinished arc in the air. “A long way?”
“The other side of the world, honey.” He brings her hand to her side, then draws her closer.
“Hard for you, yes - ?”
“One gets used to it – ten dollars for these, thanks.”
As they turn to go, I notice the blowfly, a big black seed dotting the last slice of melon for tasting. Must have been here for ages! All because of that bloddy chatter – I roll a newspaper and get a good grip, Ay, my knuckles had never looked so white.