royceb: or do you prefer Baby?
jasmindls: It’s Jasmine, thank you very much.
royceb: nice to meet you Jasmine.
jasmindls: U too GTG TTYL, I type as I reach my floor.
The nurses are chatting around their workstation as an employee pushes a food cart down the hall past me for the early bird dinners. Usually, I try to snag a Jell-O cup for myself. I’d never admit it, but I actually like the hospital food. But this time, I leave it. I was starving earlier, yet for some reason, I’m not hungry anymore. I’m excited and queasy-feeling, and I suspect it may have something to do with the boy who’s texting me.
I see my mother rounding the corner in her dark blue scrubs, dragging a bucket full of water and a mop behind her tiny frame.
“Mommy!” I say, skipping toward her. I never call her that except when I want to make her happy. It’s sort of a Filipino thing, and right now I’m bursting with news about the scholarship. “Guess what!”
But before I can say anything else she sets down the mop and leans against the handle. “Are you busy?” she asks. “I need you.”
I shake my head, disappointed not to have her full attention, and my good mood dampens a bit. She seems stressed. “What’s up?” I ask.
“Can you come help me with a mess? You don’t have to touch anything. I just need you to make sure no one walks on it.”
I nod and follow her. When the pressure becomes too much sometimes, when I feel like I’m about to burst with anxiety over my grades or get mad that I’ve never had a social life, I think about my mom and what she’s sacrificed for us so that we can have a better life. I’m so grateful to her and my dad for everything.
She leads me down the hallway into a large room. There’s a nurse bustling about the bed, giving a small, frail woman with white hair a sponge bath. I look down to give her privacy, but the woman complains loudly, “Nothing special to see here, honey. When you’re this old, there’s no such thing as dignity. Your body falls apart like a junky car, but you still have to have the mechanic take a look at the insides. Funny how young people are so modest when they have no reason to be. If you’ve got it, flaunt it, I say.”
I raise my eyebrow at my mom, who suppresses a smile. This patient is a feisty one, that’s for sure.
The nurse quiets her down while my mother begins mopping up urine from the floor. Since I’m not allowed to touch anything hazardous, I squeeze the water out of the mop for her. Even though I’ve been volunteering at the hospital for a few years, I still don’t know how Mom does her job. There’s no way I could clean up after people like this all day long. I have mad respect for her. She’s stronger than anyone I’ve ever known. Deep down, I think she knows that about herself too. Mom doesn’t suffer fools and she was always the one who told me I could work my way up to the top. She’s always believed in me, that I could do anything, be anyone I wanted to be.
By the time we’re done, the nurse has left the room and the old lady is starting to talk again, something about meeting Frank Sinatra. She’s staring out the window at the tall buildings across the street, so I can’t tell whether she’s speaking to us or just to herself.
Mom nudges me with her shoulder. “Why don’t you interview her for your project?”
I check to see if the hospital room is on the approved list first, and notice that this patient was the last-minute addition that Gladys just handed to me.
Pushing the mop bucket out the doorway, Mom says, “Meet me at the parking lot at the end of my shift.”
I nod and pull up a seat next to the bed. The stories this old lady could tell sound like they’d be interesting, especially as she was describing to the nurse how she met Frank Sinatra backstage and he gave her a kiss on the cheek.
“Hi, I’m Jasmine de los Santos,” I say. “I’m here to interview you for the study you signed up for? I’m hoping to compile the stories into a book as well, and plan to share it with everyone at the end of the year.”
She gazes intensely at me, and I notice for the first time that her eyes are a milky blue, like the sky behind clouds. “I suppose you want to know my name?” She has a slight accent that’s hard to place.
I nod. “That would be helpful to start.”
“My full name is Amelia Florence Marsh,” she says, in the tone of voice as if she’s the queen of England.
“Ms. Marsh, actually, though I suppose that’s confusing since Marsh is my married name. I’m a widow.”
“I’m sorry,” I say, backpedaling.
“No need to be sorry. What do you have people call you when you never divorced but you’re also not married anymore? Anyway, I go by Millie with my friends. And we’re going to be friends, aren’t we? I can always tell.”
I smile. “Millie, I couldn’t help but overhear your story about meeting Frank Sinatra. Do you want to start there?”
Millie arches one perfectly plucked gray eyebrow. “Sure. I was a young girl then—around fifteen probably.”
“So what did he say to you?”
She purses her lips as she looks up to the ceiling like a little kid who’s been keeping a big secret for a long time and just can’t wait to tell someone, even though she also doesn’t want to be in trouble. “He told me I’d be just his type if I was just a little older,” she says with a throaty laugh. “Oh, that Frank.”
I laugh with her. “Did you meet other famous people?”
“Of course. We lived in Beverly Hills, and it was only natural in my husband’s line of work. But I’m not some kind of vulgar name-dropper, if that’s what you’re thinking, missy. The memory just reminded me of being young again, of having a body that worked for me instead of against me. Being old’s terrible.”
“Sorry, I didn’t mean to offend you,” I say, although I like that she’s a pistol.
Millie wipes her forehead with the back of her hand. “No, I’m sorry, darling. I’m an awful wretch when I’m sick. I shouldn’t have snapped at you. I just don’t feel well. At my age, everything stops working. They’re supposed to tell me if I have something wrong with my heart, but I think the only thing wrong with it is that it’s old.”
“I should let you get some rest.” I begin to stand, but Millie reaches out and grabs my forearm, pulling me back down.
“Please stay. It would be nice to talk a little more.”
I smile at her. She reminds me of my auntie Girlie—scrappy yet gentle. I feel slightly homesick for the Philippines. Even though I wouldn’t want to move back there to live, I miss my big family. My grandparents and cousins and aunties and uncles—all of them coming and going through the big house—all that noise and laughter and light.
“So you live in Beverly Hills?” I ask, wondering if maybe Royce is from there too. With a name like that...
Millie adjusts a pillow behind her back, sitting up and settling in for the long haul. “That’s right. Should I start there?”
I nod, and Millie begins to unravel her tale. I listen patiently, giving her my full attention, even as I’m eager for the day to end so that I can get home and tell my parents my good news already. They’re going to die when they find out about the National Scholarship. I can’t wait.
I had always hoped that this land might become a safe and agreeable asylum to the virtuous and persecuted part of mankind, to whatever nation they might belong.
ON THE WAY back home from the hospital, Mom is quiet and tired. I want to tell her my news, but decide to wait until she and Dad are together. That way it’ll be more dramatic and special. So instead of talking about that, I tell her about Millie.
“I’m so glad she signed up for my project,” I say. “She was a cool old lady. Did you know she founded her own construction company? She was a building engineer.”
Mom nods approvingly. “See, I told you, girls can do anything.”
When we get home, I dawdle behind her as she walks up the driveway. Shockingly pink bougainvillea flowers spiral around the trellises and lean against the outside of the house. My mother loves bright flowers. They make her feel more at home in America. She plants them every year: hibiscus, ylang-ylang, azalea, birds of paradise, verbena, scarlet larkspur, night-blooming jasmine. Our house may be small, but Mom makes sure we always have the neighborhood’s best garden. It’s her pride in life besides her three children.
I walk through the door and kick off my sneakers, exchanging them for a pair of light blue tsinelas, comfy slippers to wear around the house. Mom is already in the kitchen talking loudly to Lola Cherry on the phone as she cuts up yellow jackfruit and bananas to make turon for dessert. Lola Cherry isn’t my grandmother. She’s my mother’s cousin’s aunt, but we call her Lola—grandma—anyway. She’s as close to a grandmother as I have in the States. We haven’t seen my real Lola since I was thirteen and my brothers were seven and five years old. My brothers don’t even remember her that well anymore—they don’t remember much about our native country. Danny and Isko can only speak English, and my Tagalog is so atrocious, my mother scolds me for “losing my culture.” I hate when she says that kind of thing. As if she wasn’t the one who decided to move to America in the first place. I’m not complaining though. If my parents had stayed home, I would never have earned this scholarship. And getting to meet the president? The leader of the free world? Forget it.