Sunrise on the 4th of July

By Fernando Manibog

Everyone was coming. And nothing was ready. Not the set-up for holding the traditional July 4th cookout in the backyard. Not the food, despite the reputation I had to defend, having taken years of cooking classes. Not my attitude, for sure. The barbecue was supposed to be a celebratory event for us parents to meet the Significant Others of our son and daughter, aged twenty-two and twenty-five. So why did it feel like a final reunion?

Dinner was set for Friday, July 2, 2010—not on July 4th itself, but the only date the four winds offered up for the whole family to gather in Washington, DC. The next day my daughter, Inès, was moving to New York for her new job with the help of her boyfriend, Brad, who was visiting from Boston and whom she invited for dinner. My son, Noël, was here only on a brief visit from college in Chicago with his girlfriend, Julie. My former wife, Marie-Thérèse, was returning from a business trip to Guyana and joining us for dinner straight from the airport before leaving again for Brazil in a week. Marie-Thérèse and I had amicably parted ways ten years earlier and rarely missed family get-togethers. Our $783 divorce was somewhat of a disappointment for our eager lawyer and baffling to separated couples who had chosen to become adversaries.

Six people. A perfect weekend for a traditional American barbecue of copious protein, loads of empty carbs, and heaps of simple sugars. Easy, I figured.

Except Inès sprang a surprise. She wanted Philippine food instead. Did she actually want me to slice, dice, blend, and sauté instead of just throwing slabs of red meat on hot coals? I may have taken cooking classes, but those were for Cambodian cuisine. I had not cooked dishes from my own country for a long time, having decided, as a single person, to subsist on the visually entertaining yet flavorless hot buffet at my nearby grocery store.

I wanted this meal to be perfect, to give my family sustenance and memories for the times ahead. And so that very same Friday at noon, while one meat dish was started and halfway done, I made a quick trip to Manila Oriental to buy the ingredients for pancit: thin rice noodles, fish sauce, anchovy flakes, onion sprouts, dried shrimp, sweet and savory Chinese sausage, and, most importantly, the dark soy sauce and coconut palm vinegar that had to be “Made in the Philippines.” I had SOSed saintly friends in Los Angeles, who emailed back emergency recipes that were reputed to be quick and crowd-pleasing. But I must get “only Filipino brands,” they warned, “or the recipes won’t taste right.” And of course I picked up leche flan—an all-yolk egg custard that Noël liked; two types of glutinous rice cakes—the colorfully layered sapin sapin and the chewy biko topped with caramelized coconut cream—that Marie-Thérèse enjoyed; and the purple yam ube ice cream I loved. For snacking on her long drive up I-95, I also got the munggo bean moon cakes that Inès adored. Goodies in tow, I drove back home, inspired to spend the afternoon mincing, dicing, julienne-ing, and marinating my way into a Filipino meal featuring mounds of meat, simple sugars, and empty carbs.

Then Inès sprang another surprise. While I seethed in crawling traffic, she called to ask me if I could accompany her to the U-Haul rental outlet thirty miles away because she did not want to drive a big truck alone for the very first time. But even if I could fly from Virginia to Maryland, I still had to pass by my house in DC to pick her up. Something was about to unravel.

“When?” I asked.

“Like, now?” she responded, instantly tightening my chest. “Now” was my cooking window. If I helped her get that U-Haul truck, when would I prepare my Filipino meal? In my mind my answer alternated between “No” or “Later.”

“Okay” was what escaped my mouth.

When I got home to pick up my daughter, I ditched the idea of making the noodles and turned off my almost-done meat dish. I was supposed to remove all the sauce, thicken it in another pot, fry the meat until it was golden brown and crispy at the edges, mix the sauce back in, and decorate it with cilantro, quarter slices of lemons, and crispy onions sliced hair-thin and deep-fried. But now the meat would sit in the pot and simmer, get overcooked, and start shredding. Maybe I would pretend it was a stew.

The checkout process at the U-Haul was achingly slow. When we finally walked to the truck, I moved toward the left side, but Inès said she wanted to drive. I sat on the passenger’s seat, half-annoyed and wondering what my purpose was in coming along. After all, I should have been at home cooking! But then she said something, in what struck me as that still-innocent voice from high school:

“This truck is really noisy and clunky. It’s scary to change lanes. I’m not used to driving something this wide. And there’s no rearview mirror.”

I straightened up and got ready for my expert lecture on how to drive a truck, even though I had done it only once in my life.

“You see…” I started pontificating, just as infallible and even more patrician than the Holy Father. But I stopped, suddenly recalling some pedestrian wisdom, maybe from a Hallmark card: “Hold on lightly, let go lightly.” I glanced at the decidedly determined young woman to my left and declared:

“You’ll be fine.”

6:45 p.m. Everything was ready. Thank God I cheated. On the way out of Manila Oriental, my guardian angel prodded me to pick up several milkfish already pre-marinated and cooked crusty brown; fifty pinky-sized, crispy-fried, Shanghai-style spring rolls; and one dozen each of grilled chicken and pork barbecue on a stick. Just in case. So—my cooking caliber be damned—here was a whole spread of carry-out food. Plus my should-be crispy meat cubes that I had salvaged and was going to try to pass off as a stew but had now become pulled pork adobo, Cuban style. That’s an ocean and a continent away from the Philippines, but no matter. Comfort food satisfies, whatever the nationality.

The children and their Significant Others wanted some American flavor nonetheless (it was the July 4th weekend, after all) and decided to grill some corn on the cob. Noël and Julie dusted the cobwebs from the old barbecue grill tucked in the garage and got the charcoal going. Inès and Brad grilled corn drenched with melted butter and spritzed with cayenne pepper. They heated the carryout food on the grill and poured out the drinks. Everyone was content. But how things have changed.

The image of Noël in his late teens, just some years ago at this same barbecue grill, flashed through my mind. He was trying to light up the charcoal to grill some marinated chicken. After droning detailed instructions, I finally grabbed the tongs from his hand and did the grilling myself. As I took over completely, he stormed away, hissing angrily but trying not to lose his composure:

“Why can’t I do it my way, the way I know how? Why does it have to always be your way?”

And then there was the morning not so long ago when I chastised Inès “for the millionth time” for not using a saucer under her coffee mug. She reasoned that saucers were inconvenient, that mugs were designed to be carried conveniently around by their handles without juggling them precariously on top of saucers, and that there had never been a coffee ring anywhere—on the kitchen counters, the dining table, the work desks—ever! She had a point, but rules were rules, and between us, I was the parent and needed to enforce parental rules, so I declared in a tone meant to end all discussion:

“Well, this is my home.”

To which she shot back with the sure voice of an independent woman approaching her mid-twenties:

“This is my home too!”

It took arguments for it to finally sink in: this place is their home, and in it they have the right to be themselves. Seeing my children now, all grown up, I understood that for me it was not the substance of the rules that really mattered in those moments as much as trying to hold back the tide of inexorable change. I had to retrench, relax, and let them organize and run the whole barbecue instead.

At the dining table I steered the conversation toward topics that would relieve the dread of departures percolating in everyone’s minds. The sauces in Cambodian cuisine are lighter than those in Thai dishes. Weeding during the summer is a pain, but raking the leaves in the fall can be fun—especially if kids are around to help you bag them (Ahem!). Office politics can destroy one’s soul, which reminds me—Filipino cuisine is the soul food of Asia.

But the heart of the matter was inevitable. Inès talked about Brad’s move to a new apartment in Boston while she stayed in Brooklyn and commuted daily to her own job in Manhattan. They said little about how they would cope with their separation. Noël’s lot was even more uncertain. He wondered where he would end up living and working after he graduated from Northwestern University near Chicago. He rattled off the names of possible employers, and to my dismay, none of them were anywhere near Washington, DC. Julie also wondered whether she would get the job she applied for in San Francisco. Silently my children had been worrying about the stresses of their soon-to-be long-distance relationships. We clinked our champagne glasses to wish all the children, now young adults, good luck. After one sip, Marie-Thérèse added in her laconic way:

“I’m next.”

Having been married to her for twenty-three years, I knew how to fill in the rest. I guessed that she would soon retire from her job and move permanently back to France. Having been separated from her ten years earlier, I also knew how to refrain from pressing her for details.

Marie-Thérèse and I were just barely getting to know both Brad and Julie. Noël and Julie were meeting Brad here for the first time. But what became clear this evening was how, with time, we have all changed, grown more distant, and moved on with our separate lives. Hiding under the big hellos were long good-byes.

Dinner was over. As everyone huddled behind the front door, about to leave, Marie-Thérèse could not help herself and burst into tears, hugging Inès tightly. Inès pulled her quickly into a dark corner of the living room. It was their own private moment; they exchanged no words. I felt a lumpy heaviness too but hardened my heart by focusing on the dishes to be washed, the food scraps and garbage to be thrown out, and the barbecue grill that needed to be cleaned. It was not because I did not care that my daughter, who had been staying with me for the past two years, was going away. Or that Noël might end up in a distant city after graduation. Or that I might not see or communicate much with Marie-Thérèse anymore. I needed reassurance from the permanence of routine tasks. People leave, but dirty dishes endure and repeat themselves. Although faraway places would soon claim everyone, and I would be the only one who stayed behind, there would always be chores to be done, the nest to fluff. When missing my loved ones—clean the house.

Past midnight, after I had finished my numbing duties, I went upstairs into Inès’s room. It was nearly empty. She had taken her queen bed, two night tables, and a few chairs. I ran my fingers across the dust and cat fur on her empty desk, the top of her dresser, the hardwood floor. My shallow breaths echoed in the hollow darkness.

Inès left Leonardo, her cat, because no rental apartment she looked at in Brooklyn or Manhattan would accept animals. His Himalayan breed gave him mounds of thick hair that shed everywhere. I never had a pet in my life and really did not want to keep him, but finally relented: “Only for a maximum of one year, after which I will put him up for adoption, no questions asked.” Leonardo blocked my path and looked at me with his huge, round eyes as if to say:

“In whose bed will I cuddle up now?”

“Shoo, Leonardo. I don’t know.” I went into my bedroom and closed the door. But with his relentless meowing, I opened it and blocked the entrance with a tall screen so that he could see me but could not get in. He was begging to be held but could not get near me. To avoid confronting my loneliness, I did not want to sense his warmth. We stared at each other through the screen in a suspended state of mutual frustration.

I showered and went to bed. Was it 1:15 a.m.? Eyes open in the dark, I felt that I had spent long years holding a torch and leading the way, but the fickle breath of change blew the flame out. The silence of the house gripped me with its claws. I was the only one inside the house with five bedrooms and a large addition in the back that may have been a last attempt to save a crumbling marriage. Would I be alone from now on? Inside my bedroom the darkened ceiling and walls taunted me like a cold shroud descending on a Pharaoh at the end of his powers, lying in his tomb. I bit one corner of my pillowcase and with eyes shut tight, I pulled on it against my clenched teeth.

***

Saturday, July 3rd. I knew I had forgotten something. That old barbecue grill left out in the yard was still dirty. I had been planning on throwing it away. One leg kept falling off, the wheels locked sometimes, and the grilling surface was crusted black with at least twenty years of grit and grime. Inès asked me to keep it because it brought back childhood memories. I suggested buying a new one, but she said it would not be the same. Suddenly I was thankful that the college guys who loaded up her U-Haul truck missed taking that old grill to the city dump, as I had asked them to do.

I went to the hardware store and cancelled my order for a new grill. What I really needed was a stiff metal brush, thin wire, strong duct tape, some black lacquer touch-up paint, and Krazy Glue.

***

On Sunday, the 4th of July, I met sunrise and DC’s early morning haze from my second-floor balcony. The overgrown shade trees, the smell of freshly cut grass, and chirping birds masked the threat of oppressive heat and humidity that would rise later in the day. I could not wait to wrestle with that grill: to lubricate the wheels, glue the third leg in place, secure it with wire, mask the repair job with duct tape, and touch up the rusted spots with glossy paint.

Like my family, this grill is burnt out, creaky, frayed, falling apart in places, but still hanging on and pulling through, yielding, giving, and pleasing to the extent it can. Noël could be in charge of starting charcoal and grilling again; Inès once more could be serving ears of corn slathered with salted butter and spiked with cayenne pepper bursts, and Marie-Thérèse—coming from across the Atlantic—could bring foie gras as she always did, while I could contribute the champagne. It could all happen again around this relic.

This place was once my family’s home, and I wanted them to keep returning. I needed to fix this piece of junk and make it last. A new grill just wouldn’t do. This has to be the one, with the kids’ fingerprints, the old stains from spilled marinade, the baked-in crust that bore witness to fights about who was in charge of the barbecue—with the children who finally won the argument.

——————–

Fernando Manibog holds a PhD in energy, an MA in international relations, and a bachelor’s degree in Asian Studies. He was an energy economist and is an evaluation consultant at the World Bank in Washington, DC. He belongs to a creative writing group, and has just completed the three-year curriculum at the Studio Theatre’s Acting Conservatory. His work has appeared in Mary: A Journal of New Writing, Silk Road Review, Green Hills Literary Lantern and Bethesda Writer’s Center Workshop and Event Guide.


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