Wednesday, July 30, 2014

War Story: The Blue-Green Chiffon Dress by Cecilia Manguerra Brainard

I've been thinking of War because of current world events.

Here is a short story set in Ubec during the Vietnam War. This war touched our lives in Cebu, Philippines because of the American Base in nearby Mactan Island. In this story, I have fictionalized Cebu to become Ubec, and so this is a "story."

The above picture is a real photo showing three American soldiers who fought in Vietnam. I wonder what has happened to them. 

That's me kneeling, second from the left, with a veil. I was not wearing my blue-green chiffon dress, because I did have such a dress, but the following story could have taken place at around this time. Gemma could have been me; and Peter could have been one of those soldiers.  But remember ---- this is fiction, just story, but with the truthful message of the awfulness of war.

 "The Blue-Green Chiffon Dress" was first published in Focus Philippines, Inc, 1984, and it is part of Cecilia Manguerra Brainard's collection, Woman With Horns and Other Stories (New Day 1988 and Kindle).   ~ Cecilia Manguerra Brainard

Cecilia Manguerra Brainard
Copyright 2014 by Cecilia M. Brainard, all rights reserved
SUMMER VACATION started off badly with my favorite guard dog getting killed. I was heading for the hammock with my Lady Chatterley's Lover tucked under my arm, and a plateful of green mangoes and a Coke in my hands when Sultan walked up to me, stiff and hostile. His eyes were giant marbles. I called him and he bared his teeth, growling a little. His mouth was foaming. I ran, sounding an alarm, and the next thing I knew one of the men shot him. I saw him writhing, blood gushing to the cracked brown earth. There was something other than blood that oozed out of his gut. I touched him; he was warm and became very still.
          Sultan had been a sickly puppy. The servants had talked about drowning him but I took him under my care. He used to race to the gate when I arrived from school, and he'd jump up to lick my face. His death left me nauseous and sad.
          To make me feel better, Mama took me to her couturier, who was famous in Ubec for his expensive high fashion clothes. We caught him peering out of his shop at the American soldiers walking by.
          “That one looks like James Bond,” he said, pinching my arm enthusiastically.“Oy, love those bushy eyebrows,” he cooed with a roll of his eyes.
          Eventually, he got around to me, scrutinized me and said I had grown. He sketched a few dress designs and he and Mama discussed the drawings, material and cost while I roamed his shop.
          I was studying his ready-made dresses, frowning at the price tags, when a blue-green chiffon dress caught my gaze. The color was stunning, bringing to mind the deepest part of the sea. The soft billowy cloth was draped across the bosom making a deep V-neckline. The skirt was generously gathered and flowed in the same draped effect.
          I showed the dress to Mama who said it was too sophisticated for a teenager. The couturier prodded me to try on the dress.
          “Go ahead, Gemma,” he insisted, and to my mother in an admonishing tone, “This is 1965, we must keep up with the times.”
          Before entering the fitting room, I glanced at him gratefully, our eyes locking briefly.
          The bodice was loose so I stuffed Kleenex to fill it out. It was an enchanting dress and even my mother begrudgingly agreed. The couturier gushed over the blue-green hue.
          “It makes your skin glow,” he said. “Put your hair up in a French twist. We'll have to take in the tucks at the bust. And please wear a good padded bra,” he added.
          My cousin Yolanda and I went through the definitions of kissing, French kissing, petting and intercourse again. Our favorite pastime was locking ourselves in the bedroom, slapping on makeup and discussing sex.
          “I still don't know exactly how it enters the woman's part,” I said. 
          “Idiota, it just goes in,” she replied in exasperation. She had this superior attitude since Tristan danced slow drag with her and became aroused — she said.
          When our eyelashes were curved and stiff with mascara, we decided to iron our hair. We had read that it made your hair straighter and shinier. I spread my hair out on the board, warning her not to singe it. She lightly ran the iron over my hair, then I did hers. After, we swished our hair around our shoulders to see a difference. 
          “Manolette smiled at me at church yesterday,” I announced. “He's so sexy, I think I'll make him Number Two.”
          We proceeded to work on our crush-lists, shuffling the names of the boys in order of their appeal. I demoted Mandy to Number Ten because he had gone out with Mercedes.
          “They were necking. Why else do people park in Magellan Hills?” Yolanda said. “No big loss, Mandy has no imagination.”
          She added that her Number One was Ruy who claimed to have had an out-of-body experience. “At least Ruy has imagination,” she insisted. “Who's your Number One?” she asked.
          I told her it was Jose Marie, a senior engineering student —5'11”, lean, intelligent, much older at twenty-one. I fancied myself IN LOVE with him and got sweaty palms when he danced with me
          During the summer, Ubec was pleasant. It was not as humid as Manila because the cool sea breeze blew through the ancient acacia and flame trees. There was so much color at that time of year: the sparkling blue sea; the brilliant clear sky; lush hibiscus, begonias and fuchsias; and bountiful fruit — yellow-green custard apples, luscious red mangosteens, succulent pink tambis.
          The days flowed with little care. In the evenings, we attended parties or watched stocky Basque players hit the balls at the Jai-a-lai. Sometimes we went to the Sand Trap Club to dance to Amapola's music. There were movies, swimming parties and afternoon gossip sessions. And there was smoke-filled Eddie's Log Cabin, owned by an expatriate New Yorker, where we had greasy American-style hamburgers.
          Our routine was disrupted when one of the local girls, Elena, suddenly left for Hong Kong. In minutes, stories about her mysterious departure flew all over Ubec and continued flying for weeks. Her family insisted she needed extensive allergy tests. Gossip mentioned an illegal abortion and the American captain she had been dating.
          Ubec's matrons immediately stepped up their campaign against the American soldiers from nearby Mactan Air Force Base. From their mahjong tables, they lectured: “Madre mia, stay away from those soldiers, you'll catch Vietnam Rose. They're trouble. Look what happened to Elena.”
          I had already heard World War Two stories about American G.I.'s spreading V.D., getting girls pregnant, ruining lives forever. We knew a girl who stood 5'9” — a giant to our eyes —with fair hair and skin. She stood out like an aberration beside the rest of us with our small frames, black hair and brown skin. “A G.I. baby,” she was called behind her back.
          “Stay away from those soldiers,” the matrons scolded as they shuffled the ivory pieces.
          We, good girls, stayed away.
          We watched — from a distance — the dazed, short-cropped strangers wandering around our city. We made up stories: that one was a CIA-agent; that brunet was on R&R; the slight one with a nervous laugh was flying to Vietnam the next day on a bombing mission. We read about Diem, napalm, deforestation, and body counts. We saw photos of Buddhist monks burning in fierce self-immolation. We drove by the Base, saw the runway, tower, barracks, and the numerous planes. Several times a day, we listened to those planes flying overhead. We were scandalized by the shanties, claiming to be bars and massage parlors, that mushroomed all over the place. We clucked our tongues at the girls in tight colorful clothes who hung around with the soldiers.
          We watched — from a distance.
          Eventually, we tired talking about Elena's disgrace. I resumed my crush-list, with Jose Marie maintaining his Number One place. I was glad he was invited to my cousins's End-of-Summer party. For days I fretted about the affair. I dieted, painted my nails pink, dyed my hair Jet Black with some cheap dye called Bigen that I later heard made some women blind.
          On the night of the party, I stared at my blue-green dress as if it were some talisman. It would transform me into an enchantress, a goddess, and Jose Marie would be smitten and ask me to go steady with him. I kissed the back of my hand, imagining his lips on mine.
          I tugged at my padded bra and put on the dress. I applied another layer of mascara and reddened my cheeks and lips. Then I slipped on my gold heels and studied myself in the mirror.  I smiled, pleased with myself. Ordinarily I appeared average-looking with a pleasant round face — no bones to speak of, no strong facial characteristics that made people say: Oh, what pretty eyes, or, what a lovely mouth. Normally, I was just average. But that night, I actually looked beautiful. I was glad I had saved the dress all summer, for the right moment, for that night.

          The party was slow. The band, called “The Magnificent Seven,” was off-key and the boys stayed in the patio drinking San Miguels, Rum Cokes and a beer-gin-Coke concoction dubbed Virgin Coke. The girls were huddled in the living room — which served as the dance floor —gossiping about Carla and the two American soldiers with her.
          “I didn't want to invite her but her mother and mine are second cousins,” Yolanda explained.
          “Papa's going to whip me when he hears about this,” whined Dolores, whom we called Turtle Face.
          “They're just sitting outside, not doing anything,” I ventured.
          “You'll end up like Elena, Gemma,” Turtle Face said. She stared at me. “So, that's your new dress by the famous Mario. By the way, where's Jose Marie?”
          “He'll be here,” I answered smugly, as I fussed with the folds of my skirt.
          “I heard he and Mercedes are parked up in Magellan Hills. That Mercedes can probably find her way to those hills blind.” Dolores' turtle mouth twisted into a little smile.
          In my mind, Jose Marie plummeted from Number One to about Number Twenty. I felt angry and humiliated, and I consoled myself by thinking he would surely go to hell for necking with that cheap Mercedes.
          I was forcing a smile, trying to save face, when someone asked me to dance. The band was terrible, no one was dancing, and someone was asking me to make a spectacle of myself. I glared up and caught a flash of red hair and wide grin on an oval face. An American soldier.
          The girls stared at us with unhinged mouths. I didn't know what to do so I got up to dance slow drag with the stranger. I thought I heard giggling in the room.
          The American said something but the music was too loud. His mouth moved up and down, then he looked at me quizzically. I tapped my right ear and shrugged my shoulders. He tried once more and I heard, “...nice dress.” Aside from Yolanda, he was the only person who had said my dress was nice. I smiled and he grinned wider. When the music ended, he walked me to my seat and left.
          “What did the Americano say, Gemma? How'd it feel dancing with him?” Dolores asked. 
          I felt my chest constrict and I shouted, “Do I have to wash my hands so I don't catch anything deadly?” I waved my hands in front of her like a magician. “You are very provincial, do you realize that?  Pro-vin-cial!” Then I left.
          Outside I took a couple of deep breaths. I walked around the patio, past the boys who were getting drunk, until I found the American with another soldier and Carla.
          Carla was wearing red with black net stockings. She worked as a secretary at the Base. We tagged her “fast” because she sported hickeys on her neck and dated American soldiers. It was rumored that she went “all the way.” That night her date was Marcus, a good-looking Mexican-American. Peter, who had danced with me, was his friend.
          When I joined them, Carla was showing Marcus how to do butterfly kisses. She shoved her face close to Marcus' cheek and batted her eyelashes rapidly. The two boys laughed and I laughed tentatively. They were drinking Virgin Cokes and I started drinking. I was sixteen, Jose Marie and Mercedes were necking, and I could drink if I wanted to. The iced sweet drink flowed down my throat.
          I was feeling like a ripe mango when Carla started telling jokes.
          “There was this bar called Sally's Legs,” she related between giggles, “and one afternoon, a cop stopped a bum outside the bar, 'What are you doing here?' the cop asked.  'Waiting for Sally's Legs to open so I can have a drink.'”
          They laughed while I tried to figure out the joke. Carla whispered an explanation in my ear and I laughed hysterically.
          “Sally's Legs! I get it — Sally's Legs!”
          “You're drunk,” Carla said.
          “Am I? Am I? I've never been drunk before,” I said, still laughing.
          But soon I felt depraved. I was drunk, sitting there with American soldiers, laughing at dirty stories. I was truly lost. Trying to look dignified, I sat up, pulled my skirt over my knees and folded my hands together. I studied the white-wrought iron chairs that we sat on, the jasmine vine covered with sweet-smelling flowers that climbed the trellis.
          I watched the two soldiers whose arms and legs flopped all over the place. They were nice-looking, with strong bodies and boyish ways. I was surprised to realize that they were only a few years older than I. Still with milk on their lips, my mother would have said. They were talking now, their voices sounding like distant rain.
          Peter said, “I'm tired.  I just want to go home. First day in 'Nam I see these huge bundles stacked up near the plane and I lean against them. I'm smoking a cigarette like nothing's wrong, then later I find out those were dead bodies.”
          “Jeez!” exclaimed Marcus.
          “No kidding, Marcos. Dead bodies.”
          “Peter, you've gotta be cool, man, or else you're not gonna make it,” Marcus said. “You're feeling shitty 'cause you're going back tomorrow. Gotta be cool, man. Be like the NBC guy standing in front of a pile of gooks saying, 'This is Walter Bullshit reparting from Da Nang.'” He held an imaginary microphone in front of his mouth, as if he had actually seen this happen.
          “It's the waiting,” Peter said. “It's draining. Like we're on a sweep last month and we're being real careful. You know somebody's going to get it and we watch our step carefully. Sweep and sweep, and you're waiting. You're so tight, then Boom! This poor guy beside me loses his leg. Just like that.”
          I became sad listening to them and my mind latched on to the image of Sultan's body on that dry earth. They could die too, I thought, on some brown earth someplace, far away from their homes.
          “For me it's the food, man. Boy, do I miss Mama's carnitas and tameles. I'm sick of that shit they feed us.” Marcus ran his tongue around his lips. “One more month, man, and I am through. I'm going home! I'm gonna stuff myself with enchiladas, rellenos, and I'm gonna cruise down Colorado Boulevard and just have a good time, you know.”
          “One more month, that's great, Marcus,” Peter said.
          “How much longer do you have to stay in Vietnam?” I asked Peter, when Carla and Marcus went dancing.
          “Six months.”
          He became quiet and I was feeling uneasy because we were alone. But he sighed and sat back to look at the sky. “Back home,” he said, “the Big Dipper's over there.” He waved his hand vaguely in the air.
          I tilted my head and located the Big Dipper, wondering how the constellations could move when one was in another place. A multitude of stars shimmered in the sky; the moon was a mere crescent. A soft breeze was redolent with jasmine, gardenias and dama de noches.
          Peter took a deep breath and said very softly, “That feels good.” He paused then spoke in a distant voice. “It's real funny, but sometimes, in the middle of nowhere, I'll think of my baseball cards. When I was a kid, I collected baseball cards — Willie Mays, Mickey Mantle, Ted Williams — I had them all. But I don't remember what happened to them. My mind starts going through the entire house. I'll search my room, my sister's, my parents' room, even the garage. I rummage through all the desks, drawers, and cabinets. It's crazy. I've even written my Mom to ask about those cards.”
          He sighed, then he turned to me and said, “That's a real pretty dress.”
          “My friend doesn't like it very much.”
          I laughed remembering Turtle Face. He grinned and ran his hand through his hair. I had never before seen hair as red as the mangosteen fruit. My apprehension left me and I watched the stars with him. He liked the night and things of the night. These made him feel safe, he explained, in a way that implied he didn't feel safe too often. When we saw a falling star he gave a quick low whistle. “Now I can make a wish,” he said.
          As he was pointing out Orion's Belt, he put his arm around my shoulders, his fingers brushing my nape. My heart pounded against my ribs, but I didn't move or say anything. He was so close and I could smell him — a strange, musky scent. He was quiet for a while then with his other hand, he turned my head toward him and he kissed me. His mouth was warm and yearning. There was a sadness to his kiss. It made me think of Sultan and how warm he had felt before he became still.
          When Carla and Marcus returned, Peter kept his arm around me, but the spell was broken, the magic moment lost.
          The next day, I listened to the American planes blasting overhead. Was Peter in one of them? I wondered. Would I ever see him again? I looked at my blue-green chiffon dress lying on a chair — it was magical after all.
          Another plane zoomed overhead, making the windows rattle, leaving my soul with strange reverberations. I thought: Summer vacation was over. School would start. The rains would come.

Group photo from Cecilia Brainard Collection; Vietnam war photos courtesy of Wikipedia
Cecilia Manguerra Brainard is the award-winning author of nine books, including the internationally-acclaimed novel, When the Rainbow Goddess Wept, Magdalena, Vigan and Other Stories, Acapulco at Sunset and Other Stories, Philippine Woman in America, Woman With Horns and Other Stories, Cecilia's Diary 1962-1968, Fundamentals of Creative Writing, and Out of Cebu: Essays and Personal Prose. She edited four books: Growing Up Filipino I and II, Fiction by Filipinos in America, Contemporary Fiction by Filipinos in America, and Magnificat: Mama Mary's Pilgrim Sites. Cecilia co-edited six books, including Journey of 100 Years: Reflections on the Centennial of Philippine Independence; Behind the Walls: Life of Convent GirlsAla Carte: Food and Fiction, and Finding God: True Stories of Spiritual Encounters. She has also written a novel with four other women entitled, Angelica's Daughters, a Dugtungan Novel

Her work has been translated into Finnish and Turkish; and many of her stories and articles have been widely anthologized. Brainard's second novel, Magdalena inspired a stage play, Gabriela's Monologue, which was produced in 2011 by the Bindlestiff Studio in San Francisco as part of Stories XII! annual production.

Cecilia has received a California Arts Council Fellowship in Fiction, a Brody Arts Fund Award, a Special Recognition Award for her work dealing with Asian American youths, as well as a Certificate of Recognition from the California State Senate, 21st District. She has also been awarded by the Filipino and Filipino American communities she has served. She received the prestigious Filipinas Magazine Arts Award, and the Outstanding Individual Award from her birth city, Cebu, Philippines. She has received several travel grants in the Philippines, from the USIS (United States Information Service).
She has lectured and performed in worldwide literary arts organizations and universities, including UCLA, USC, University of Connecticut, University of the Philippines, PEN, Beyond Baroque, Shakespeare & Company in Paris, and many others.  She teaches creative writing at the Writers Program at UCLA-Extension. 
She is married to Lauren R. Brainard, a former Peace Corp Volunteer to Leyte, Philippines; they have three sons.
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  • tags: literature, fiction, short story, Ubec, Cebu, Philippines, Filipino American, Vietnam War, Cecilia Manguerra Brainard
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