Ever since my boyfriend Tom showed me how to make that snorting sound for repelling rhinos—which he learned from a tracking guide in Nepal as a mountain-sized rhinoceros stamped the ground a mere ten feet away—I’ve welcomed any opportunity to amuse myself by exploding my nose.
That morning, I noisily dilated my nostrils towards my computer screen. I’m a freelance writer always pitching ideas for articles to a wide variety of online and print publications. Thus, I’m often checking emails even though the frequent rejections would reduce me to a blob of Scyphozoa out of water were my skin not as thick as a, well, a rhino.
“You sound like a dying seal,” my father lowered his newspaper to opine. He was resting on the horrendous armchair he brought along with him when he moved in with me three months ago. Duct-tape failed to prevent innards of old, yellow foam from sprouting between cracks in the faded brown leather—this glorious object effectively introduced an aesthetic layer of vomit to my attempted post-modern décor in black and white.
“Rhino, Papa. Not seal,” I said as I turned towards him. Once again, I considered how much he’d thinned, as well as how his face had come to resemble his chair with its wrinkles and hair inappropriately tufting out from his nose and ears. “Besides, how do you know the sound of a seal in its death throes?”
“YouTube,” he said. “What are you baying about?”
Baying? I mentally filed the thought that perhaps Tom was being diplomatic whenever he praised my attempts to repel a rhino as if its dirt-flecked, kayumangi body was on the other side of a flimsy glass window to my floor-level apartment. Right then, I wanted to address my father since he rarely spoke. When awake, he spent much of his time peering at old copies of the now defunct Filipino-American Post, often rereading them so that much of their ink was permanently transferred to the tips of his trembling fingers.
“I just got this email from Who’s Who of West Coast U.S.-Americans,” I replied. “They asked if I wanted to be listed in their next volume.”
To my surprise, my father slowly set his newspaper on the side table and leaned forward to give me his full attention.
“But that’s wonderful, hija,” he said, his eyes gleaming. Surprised, I thought, Is he about to cry?
“Oh, not really Papa,” I said. “It’s just a vanity project...”
I was about to explain that Who’s Who lacks rigor in its selection process and maximizes the number of included people so as to increase the number of people who might order the volume. But my father derailed my thoughts by standing. Once again, I noticed how his right leg trembled.
“Where’s that box of my things? I want to show you something.”
“In the hallway closet, Papa.” I said. “I put it there until you had time to unpack them into your bedroom.”
“All I have is time. Time to remember,” I heard him say as he shuffled to the hall. I noticed the stoop on his back—it seemed more pronounced than even just yesterday. I wish you had the strength of a, well, a rhino, I thought.
I decided to google Who’s Who while waiting for him to return. I wasn’t surprised to learn of “The Who’s Who Scam” through which respondents’ contact information were harvested for phishing. One victim, a Sally Martin of Chicago, said her credit card data was stolen for ordering thousands of dollars worth of plumbing parts that went to a stranger in Philadelphia. Sally said she could trace the theft to Who’s Who as she’d given them a brand new credit card and only used it that one time before the fraud occurred.
As I heard my father return, I turned to him, saying, “Apparently, there’s this Sally...”
I paused as he approached me haltingly, eyes not just gleaming but wet like his wrinkled, spotted cheeks. He held out a book covered in dark-brown material with faded gilt lettering.
I stood and guided him back to his ugly but beloved armchair. As he sat back, I knelt by his side, struck by how his arm felt like naked bone.
“What’s this book, Papa?” I softly asked as he held it towards me. But I could see the title from the faded gilt letters:
WHO’S WHO IN AMERICAN YOUTH
“You never got to know Roy, your older brother,” Papa said. “He’s on page 581.”
I took the heavy book and opened it to the page whose page number he’d memorized. The book opened easily to it as the spine had cracked along the page that obviously had been read frequently. There, I saw the name of my brother who had died prematurely in a car accident. I was four years old.
“Your mom—bless her heart and may she be resting in peace—and I received the letter notifying us of Roy’s eligibility to appear in this prestigious volume. We assumed it’s because he had straight As in high school.”
“Wow,” was all I could think to say as my finger trailed across my brother’s name and the inch-long, small print depiction of his biography. Roy, the young scholar, had enjoyed studying astronomy, history, and José Garcia Villa’s poetry. He’d also excelled at basketball, playing forward for his school’s varsity team.
My father raised his hand—I could see pale blue veins through his almost translucent skin. I felt again the ground shift as it did the first time I realized much of humanity will learn orphanhood before they die. With a trembling finger, Papa wiped both cheeks.
“We all had arrived in this country just a year earlier from this notice. But it was enough time to have Roy spend his last high school year in an American school. He was a brand new immigrant but he had undeniable talent.”
I was a writer. I spew out words for a living. But, again, all I could think to say was a whispered “Wow...”
“It was an expensive book. But, look—that title must be printed in gold,” Papa said as he pointed at the book. “I remember that its price was about the same as an overtime shift I put in at my cousin’s gardening company.”
I didn’t bother sharing that the book was still expensive today—over a hundred dollars per volume despite the fakeness of the leather binding and the lack of real gold forming its title.
“Roy was so young when the accident took him away from us,” Papa continued. “But through the years, your Mom and I were comforted by how he did not have a wasted life—he managed to appear in this impressive book!”
“Yes, he did, Papa!” I said as I gently shut the book and gave it back to him. “He was an outstanding scholar-athlete. If you and Mom sacrificed for your children, Roy was worthy.”
Papa nodded as he shut his eyes. I saw one hand cradle the book while the other stroked it. The hands relaxed only when he fell asleep. More and more, Papa was either napping or sleeping. The thin skin of his eyelids covered eyes that I knew had seen more anguish than I might ever know. A dictatorship, martial law, torture, and then the furtive flight from a beloved homeland were elements I knew only as stories rather than lived experiences.
When I returned to my computer, I saw Sally Martin’s story still on my screen. I closed its link and returned to the rest of my emails —their voluminous existence testified to my attempts not to waste my life. As I reread the email from Who’s Who, my eyes traveled downward to snag on the sight of my middle-age belly jutting out over my jeans.
I sat back and contemplated Who’s Who’s email. I didn’t bother imitating a snorting rhino as I wondered if I should participate—surely Papa would be pleased to hold a new volume bound in fake leather and caress its fake gold letters. I wondered if my unexpected consideration of Who’s Who’s offer, scam or not, might stem from a not-new fear of never being able to validate my parents’ sacrifices—both had suffered to give me a chance at a better life than one under the tyranny of corruption and poverty.
Then I wondered if my reluctance also might be from lacking faith my father would live long enough to see the book.
Ach! I thought as I tried to hold back a too-familiar feeling of despondence. If only my skin really was as thick as a rhino’s.
I looked again at Who’s Who’s invitation to join the ranks of “important people worth knowing.” Tenderly, I placed my fingers on the keyboard to respond.
Eileen R. Tabios has released over 60 collections of poetry, fiction, essays, and experimental biographies from publishers in 10 countries and cyberspace. In 2021, she released her first novel DoveLion: A Fairy Tale for Our Times and first French book La Vie erotique de l’art (trans. Samuel Rochery). Her unique body of work includes invention of the hay(na)ku, a 21st century diasporic poetic form, and the MDR Poetry Generator that can create poems totaling theoretical infinity, as well as a first poetry book, Beyond Life Sentences, which received the Philippines’ National Book Award for Poetry. Translated into 11 languages, she also has edited, co-edited or conceptualized 15 anthologies of poetry, fiction and essays. More information is at http://eileenrtabios.com