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i cry at the pinoy store, not h-mart -- flash fiction by Christine Novelero

The hanging doorbell jingles as I step into paradise pocket-sized, at least for Filipino snack lovers like me. Why am I here again? I’m not even craving anything. I glance to my left and for the first time in my life, the office door is closed. I step closer to the door, hold my breath, and listen. No laughing accompanied by some quip in Tagalog I can’t understand. No shih tzu barking. Not even the faint clacking of a keyboard. I’m suddenly hit by the acute awareness of how cramped this place is. Or maybe the walls were always this tight, but I never noticed when you were beside me. 


I pass between the transparent twin fridges as they hum in identical monotone. Monotone, monochrome. The color of my days as of late. Funny how all the things you tune out as a child are the ones you pay attention to as an adult, and the other way around. Maybe I’m not the right person to say that, considering that the line between childhood and adulthood was always blurry for me. Not because of you, of course. You were always standing at adulthood’s starting line, tracing it with bold marker whenever life threatened to push me over. But Father, on the other hand…


I hoist one from the stack of wheeled red carts with long black handles. Plastic leashes, to tug it around like the adorable pet I once imagined it to be. That was before a certain someone’s appetite grew into an insatiable mutt whom leashes could no longer restrain. I—we, the two of us—were then forced to abandon this pocket-sized paradise when it turned into a ticket to hell, via his airtight ears and heedless hands digging an ever-deeper financial pit. You might not be with me, but at least he isn’t. No one’s hands to hold back, no one’s credit card to keep in check but your own. 


I maneuver the cart and feel it thad-ump as cool tile gives way to crisp, crackless concrete. A broiling gust of air greets me as I turn right into the garage, its gray walls insulant enough to pass for the world’s largest oven. Or a sardine can, considering how the aisles are packed and cluttered with non-perishable items. Rows of cardboard boxes are stacked against the garage door, while the shelves are crammed with banana ketchup bottles, dried fish in cans, and packs of pancit noodles. This room might be packed and cluttered, but at least it has a purpose. Like you. Unlike Father. Unlike our own garage, before our house was repossessed and the two of you finally went your separate ways. 


I wipe a thin layer of sweat from my brow and reenter the air-conditioned realm. The cart rumbles as it rolls atop tile grooves, and my stomach rumbles as I lay eyes on all the snacks before me: Broas ladyfingers, Skyflakes, Chippy, Clover chips, Crackling. Crackling. Father’s favorite. He brought at least three bags to every family party, along with several bottles of fine wine. They used to be my favorite too. Not anymore. Not since the day we realized that those parties were implausible, paid for with air and delusions. Not since the day you discovered his $200,000 debt. 


It was never enough for Father, was it? No such thing as a gift too expensive, or a debt too deep. Twenty years of digging our family into the ground with a shovel named “Credit Card,” the three of us standing in a hole only he could see. Twenty years of layering blindfolds over your eyes, dyed with “generosity” and “self-sufficiency” but weaved out of lies. Until the ground gave way and your blindfolds tore from the freefall. 


I grip the cart by its failure of a leash and kick it away. What a waste.  


Were greed and gluttony more precious than his own daughter? Was sloth a better spouse than his own wife? If he’d understood temperance, I wouldn’t have to work four jobs in college. If he’d considered diligence, you wouldn’t have wasted away. I wouldn’t have witnessed your thinning limbs, your pallor lips, your pained groans which I could do nothing to ease without the treatment you couldn’t afford. 


I stand there for an entire minute, staring blankly at the wall of chips in front of me before I realize that my face is wet. I’m… crying? Wait,  I remember now. Why I came here. I wanted to see what it would be like to mourn my mom from inside a freezer full of Asian goods. Like Michelle Zauner. Except I’m Filipino and I’ve never been to H-Mart. 


Tears still staining my cheeks, I turn the corner to the giant freezers, cart in tow, and—


That’s when I see him. His back is turned. He’s facing the food, his own cart, anything but me. His red cart is filled as high as the days when he used to take me on gluttonous snack sprees. All the acid churning in my stomach since my mom’s funeral threatens to disgorge from my throat, leaving him as a corpse to decompose in the heat. 


How is it fair that he—the uncaring, unsightly, unsatisfied one—gets to keep his years when yours were cut short? How is it fair that Father is the one standing before me now when you stood beside me my entire life? 


It should’ve been him, not you. 


 

Christine Novelero is a creative writing student at the High School for Performing and Visual Arts in Houston, Texas. Her work has been recognized by publications such as Scholastic Art and Writing Awards, Octopus Ink, and Create | Encounter. When she’s not writing, she is a chaser of sleep, a dancer at heart, an enjoyer of video game soundtracks, a sister to four cats, and a passionate volunteer.



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