This was in Long Beach, 1996. On the first night of the very first heatwave of the year, Tinoy was in his room with his girlfriend Chana, sharing a joint while listening to the neighbors make love from the apartment above. Outside, the rumble of the Metro Blue Line can be heard as it snaked its way down Long Beach Boulevard, sparks from its line briefly lighting up Tinoy’s dark room.
“Tacos,” Chana passed the joint, “I want some muthafuckin’ tacos.”
“Right now? I’m too high to do anything right now, babe.”
“Tee-Tee, you know I love you, right? You know that, right, boo? We been together now, what? Like a year and a half. Remember? Remember, Tinoy? That’s why I love you, boo. You loyal as fuck.”
“Baby…” Tinoy said and paused for a bit and finished in his head, I love you, too.
“Hey, so what’s up with your tatay nowadays? How’s he dealin’ with all that shit they be pumpin’ into his body?”
“You scared? Scared at all?”
“I don’t know.”
“I only ask because I got some good news, boo. We’re gonna need another…room.”
Tinoy closed his eyes. Chana’s voice drifted off into a mumble, punctuated by popping sounds from her chewing gum. He thought about what his dad had told him about having children, Make sure you have everything settled before you start planting seeds, anak; otherwise, a child of no means in America is a child of no meaning. When he opened his eyes again, he stared at the joint between his fingers and watched the smoke slither away from the burning tip.
“I don’t think we should have it,” Tinoy said.
“This is a miracle, Tinoy, you think it’s easy having babies?”
“Yes,” he said, “yes, it is easy having babies. Every girl on this block with a ready pussy got at least one knock on her body, whether or not they saw it through.”
“All you do is smoke,” she continued, “fucking smoke, chill, and then smoke again, and then what? Then what the fuck you gonna do?”
“It ain’t the weed, Chana. You act like I don’t have school, work, my dad, you.”
“Oh and then me. Yeah, what about me?”
“I’m tryin’, Chana, I’m tryin’. You act like I ain’t about our futures. All I think about is…”
“What kind of Filipinos are we, Tinoy, if we don’t have any fucking kids. You know my mama want grandchildren, right? Right?”
Tinoy turned on the light and walked over to the mirror to check on the condition of his eyes. His eyelids hung low, and his eyeballs were red and unbearably itchy. As he rubbed them, he imagined that the apartment complex caught on fire, and all the exits were blocked by flames, and the security bars over all the windows stayed locked, and there was nowhere to go but die. To straight-up disappear, he thought, what that must feel like.
“Bitch, is you crying? Are you for real crying? You know, me and your baby getting’ real fuckin’ hungry.” Chana got up and waddled over to the dresser. Tinoy noticed that she had held her tummy with both hands.
“How many months do you think you…”
“Don’t worry about it, okay? Don’t even let that shit cross your damned mind, like you care. And here,” Chana handed him a bag filled with bite sized brownies, “I baked these as celebration brownies. Your ass was supposed to be ecstatic at hearing we finally about to be a real family.”
Chana stared into Tinoy’s eyes. “God, I fucking hate you, you fobby piece of shit.”
Tinoy wiped his eyes with his shirt, ate two bites of brownie, and left to get his car in the parking lot. He owned a hand-me-down blue Honda Civic – his dad’s first car in America. Tinoy had modified the muffler to one that emitted a meaner growl, so whenever he mashed down on the gas pedal, his car vroomed like a Maserati – yet still drove like the 17-year-old car that it really was.
Chana’s favorite taco spot was in Northside Long Beach, which meant he had to drive on the freeway to get there fast. But when he got on the 710, he was faced with traffic, cars were stopped dead and a decoration of red from all the taillights bloomed into the night. Tinoy reveled in the coloration of it all, and he began to dream with his eyes fixated at the sharpness of the scene before him. He imagined the traffic was his mother’s doing from the other side, holding it up to give Tinoy a chance to fully reflect, to take responsibility for what was his. But a honk from the car behind him snapped Tinoy out of his trance. It doesn’t matter where she is now, he thought, all that matters is that she had left us for good.
As his car inched forward with the slow flow of the traffic, the doses of cannabis from Chana’s brownies were prematurely piquing. Tinoy’s racing mind raced even faster, his eyes darted from side to side, and he grew terrified of all the possible ways he could die at that moment. Every second a different worry emerged.
He took deep breaths to calm his mind, which at that point was riven by episodes of his life, both real and imagined, as if he were watching the local news in fast forward. Talking heads, fire and murder, sirens, cute animals, talking heads, grandmas in muumuus, sports. Repeat. Then he thought about Chana, who was the sole supporter of his cause. He was an immigrant after all and what they would call an “illegal” one at that. What his dad had said about it was simply overstayed visa and Tinoy still didn’t know what that even meant. What he did know was that when the Mexican kids ditched school to protest Prop. 187, Tinoy was more than willing to jump into the mix; he walked five miles to city hall and even made it on the front page of the Press-Telegram, arm in arm with his Chicano classmates. But even after all of that, nothing had come of it, he was still an illegal alien, and Chana had promised to marry him so he wouldn’t have to fear deportation.
Once the traffic started to roll along, he maneuvered toward the slow lanes and exited the freeway. He rolled up his windows, turned on the A/C, and drove to a taco spot in the Westside. He lined up in the drive-thru lane with his high intensifying. The steering wheel no longer felt attached to the car, and he felt like he was floating above his seat. The tingle from the cold air blowing from the vents made Tinoy sit up straight, and his eyes began to water from rubbing it so much. Tears rolled down his cognac brown cheeks and into the white fibers of his shirt.
“Hey, welcome to Albertacos, you ready to order?” said the speaker box.
The voice surprised him, and Tinoy couldn’t answer.
He surveyed the darkness beyond the restaurant’s parking lot and swore he saw some big things moving about and sensed an ambush. Embarrassed and afraid, he busted out of the drive-thru lane and got back on the street from where he came.
At a red light, he heard the sounds of rap music playing from the work van next to him. The work van was white and old, and Tinoy took joy in admiring its details, like the rusted metal side mirrors, about ready to fall; and the outline of a graphic signage formerly displayed at the center of the chassis, where there weren’t any windows; and the Mexican man sitting in the passenger seat, farmer dark with his hair buzzed down to a stubble.
The DJ on the song was scratching to the beat when the rapper dropped the following verse:
It ain’t what you do, it’s what you don’t,
Maneuver sideways, the police in hideaways,
Fuck around too much, you bound to get smoked,
Forget yo’ feelings, you might be hearin’ things,
POP, POP, POP,
That’s what we gotta to do to fuckin’ cope,
So we sell them crack rocks, black blunts, and some toktoks,
Billie clubs and you dead, cuh,
Surrounded by chalk chalks
Cuz we all about money green backs,
Fuck them police and back,
Long Beach is on attack,
Blap, blap, blaap.
Before the next bar dropped, the man in the work van turned to find Tinoy staring, and Tinoy lagged at looking away. The man then whistled, and Tinoy began rolling his window down. Once it squeaked its way completely into its slot, Tinoy began questioning why he acquiesced so easily.
“What the fuck you lookin’ at, ese?”
“Ay, where you from, homes?” said the driver, who had tattoos inked in place of his eyebrows. On one brow, it read Eastside, and on the other, it read Templos.
“Nowhere,” Tinoy shook his head.
“Then what the fuck are you looking at, ese?”
“Nothing, like I said, bitch. Now what the fuck are you looking at?”
The two men smiled, while the turntables in the song juggled beats in ecstasy, and behind them the sliding door to their work van opened. Inside were three other Eastside Templos, one no more, or less, as gangster as the other. The closest one to the door took a step toward Tinoy’s car right when the red light turned green. Tinoy didn’t waste a second and raced down the street.
He looked at his side mirror and didn’t see the van. He thought that he might’ve caught them by surprise and left them at the light. Then he looked at his rearview mirror and realized that the van was right behind his tail, with its headlights turned off.
Anak, the one thing you have to look out for, anak, is getting in trouble with the police. They will get immigration to pick you up, anak. They will fly you back, one-way ticket to Sampaloc. What am I going to then, anak?
Tinoy prayed to Lord Jesus as he ran the next red light and the red light after that. The van was faster than what he had expected, and he noticed, from the passenger’s opened window, a handgun was pointed at his direction. Tinoy hoped that homeboy wouldn’t waste the bullets on some idiot like himself, but then he thought that if he had, he would’ve hoped for him to be a better shot than he can ever be. Just straight to the dome, he thought, it’ll be less painful that way.
On Willow Street, some drivers who were caught up in the chase drove to the outer lanes. But Tinoy had to maneuver through the other drivers who weren’t that aware. He rode each gear to redline; moved in and out of the gaps; and at several points, found himself facing opposing traffic, all to shake the same gang of cholos who had been beefing with the Cambodians all week. And since Tinoy mixed in well in both appearance and gesture, having been mistaken to look either Samoan, Cambodian, or Mexican during the majority of his life in Long Beach, he was accustomed to being a target for all sides. When all the lanes fully cleared and the van lagged a few hundred feet behind, Tinoy made a late right into Elm Avenue, toward the very first apartment his dad had rented when they first moved to the States many years back, a street he knew all too well.
He turned into the alley directly behind the apartment complex where they had once lived, on the corner of 25th and Elm. He parked his car by the alley wall, shut off the lights, and rolled up his windows. His eyes bugged out toward the rearview mirror, waiting for the van to appear. When it hadn’t driven by after a couple of minutes, he shot a glance up at the apartment complex. He looked to see if the third-floor unit, the one that faced Signal Hill, had its lights on, and if so, who could this person be, yung anak ko, sleeping in the very room he once called his bedroom for so many years. What mischief could he be unraveling?
Before he could spot his old window, he heard a heavy knocking against the driver’s side rear quarter panel. It was one of the Templos smiling, showing Tinoy the gun in his hand. Tinoy was already in first gear and escaped with ease – down the same alleyway he so adored as a child, where he had played handball on most days, learned how to ollie, and where his dad taught him how to drive, inside the very Civic he was throttling.
The Templos caught up with him on Long Beach Boulevard. The streets were empty then, lit up by the amber tint shining from the city street lights. In the distance was the 405. Tinoy knew the on-ramp from the street would swerve around the bend and up into the freeway, and he knew that it would also lead directly back to the off-ramp, back to the street, had one decided to skip the merge.
He drove up to that sweeping turn where he felt like Michael Andretti racing around Shoreline Drive at the Long Beach Grand Prix. He looked at his rearview mirror and noticed that the van couldn’t keep up. As soon as he reached the top, he stayed in the lane leading directly back to the exit, which he did, and he slowed just a bit to watch if the van would merge with the rest of the freeway, and it did.
The mind needs to be busy, anak. Don’t run away from it if it starts scaring you. There are too many people out there running away from their own minds, blocking it with pills, separating the self, splitting it up to two strangers, made to stare at each other like two animals in a zoo, and no one knows who is who, who is caged and who has the key.
Back on street level, Tinoy pulled into the first street he noticed, his high had long gone by then, or at least no longer played the part. He turned off the motor and noticed the marine layer had already crept over Long Beach.
He thought about his mom again and asked the usual questions he often asks whenever she first pops into his mind for the day. Why did she up and bounce like that? What kind of mom would do that to their only child, her infant son? What did she look like? Do I have any resemblance to her at all?
His dad had given him all the advice in how to survive America, how to be a man, and how to stay praying to the Lord. But he still refused to talk about his own wife even after all these years, and it wouldn’t be long until he can no longer even think about her at all. The only living reminder of Tinoy’s mom was in a black and white photo. In it, she sat on a small boat by herself, by the banks of some tiny river somewhere in Ilocos Norte, and it was beautiful to look at as it was, with the scenery of provincial Philippines in the distance, of carabaos and fishermen, of family outings under huts and children playing in the water, and the mystery of the subject, a young woman in a floral tie strap dress, out of place, alone in the dinghy, yet determined to keep her pose, to portray a persona that Tinoy can only wish to have known, all of that visible, except for what was important were blurred and darkened from the high angled and misfired shot. The sunhat blocked his mother’s face, and her arm was in motion as the shutter closed.
Tinoy thought about that photo as he stared through his windshield and into the darkness of the block ahead, listening to the crescendo of night when nothing moved and nothing seemed alive.
He then imagined that his mother left the family because she was a danger to her only son – a maniac, perhaps, who didn’t have it in her, the way a mother should have. So she left, and he pictured her depressed and alone, and surmised in this imagination that she had drowned herself in Manila Bay, no suicide letter found. And Tinoy imagined her dark face, the one he had crafted in his mind, inspired by many years of deconstructing his own in the mirror and by staring at that one photo every day since, and saw it floating just underneath the surface of the water, while a plane bound for America flew by, reflected in her eyes.
It took him a while to notice that the darkness was no more, and the silence was replaced by the chopping sounds of a helicopter, hovering over his car. Its spotlight illuminated everything around him.
“Get out of your vehicle with your hands over your head,” the speaker from the helicopter said, “This is the police. Slowly exit your vehicle.”
Tinoy closed his eyes. He imagined he was with his mom inside that boat, and she was smiling and her voice was soothing, and all of a sudden, she grabbed a hold of her hat as if the wind might, right off, blow it away.
Roel F. Concepcion is a Philippines-born American writer of prose and poetry. Roel writes from L.A., where he lives with his wife and two young children. His previous work was nominated for a Pushcart Prize back in 2019. He blogs at www.wordsling.com and tweets @wordsling.