In the last letter Pablo remembered from Margie, though he could not say when that was exactly, she told her father she had started to dream in English. She was even starting, she confessed in her scratchy script, to think in the language. Pablo thought it was incredible. As a child, Margie could not speak or understand a word of English — she would respond only to words in Tagalog. Her teacher had called the parents over to talk about Margie’s “problem.”
“Margie is a cheater,” the woman said rather harshly, showing them two identical drawings of a hut, each with a very nicely drawn coconut tree, its green leaves peeking from behind the bamboo thatched roof.
“This is Ana’s drawing, Margie’s seatmate,” the teacher said, pointing to the big scrawling letters in the corner of the paper. Dulce had not been able to suppress an exclamation, so impressed that some of Margie’s classmates could actually write their own names, knowing full well Margie couldn’t.
“And this is Margie’s,” the woman said, holding up the exact same drawing and the same scrawling letters spelling out the word, “ANA,” a perfect forgery.
“I assure you, Mr. and Mrs. Garcia, the children were instructed to do their own drawings.”
When Dulce had confronted the five-year-old Margie, she said the child just shrugged her small shoulders, already her own person. “I couldn’t understand, so I just copied the girl beside me,” she said proudly in Tagalog.
And this little girl that had won herself a scholarship to study art and art history in America was now dreaming in English? It was truly amazing. Pablo wondered what Margie’s first dream was about, and wished to God that he could ask her, because if she could answer, he knew she would tell him.
He watched his daughter, lying so still in this hospital bed faraway from her home. He watched the movement of her chest, the way it rose and fell with every breath. Pablo clung to that movement with hope clenching in his own chest. It was the only sign, after all, that beneath all the tubes and the tape, Margie’s heart was beating. Margie was alive.
Pablo tried to recall the dream that he had, his last night in Manila; it seemed like it happened a thousand years ago. It had that same familiarity, more a memory, and certainly, it was the best dream he had in a long time. It carried him afloat on a happy cloud so pleasing that even within it, he became very much aware he was dreaming, aware of Dulce, sleeping warm beside him in their bed, in their house. What had it been about? A happy spell with his wife sailing on magenta and orange technicolor seas on a boat he built with his own hands? Or was it a memory of Cherisse, his once-upon-a-time mistress for three years, now friend, the wife of a colleague. Was it an imaginary basketball game with only four players and a bubble-like basketball that never burst?
He regretted it wasn’t Margie herself that he dreamed of. It might have been of her, as the chubby cherub she once was, leaping into his arms, showering him with kisses as she embraced him, all the while grabbing fistfuls of his hair. The sensation of her solid little body, warmly damp from perspiration, the soles of her feet chalky black with dust. That was a million years ago. Pablo felt he betrayed her. There was his little Margie, fallen ill all by herself in this cold country, and Pablo had lain there asleep, dreaming his own silly, selfish dream.
That was when the telephone rang, shrill and persistent as the American voice that continued to ring in his ear, even after he had replaced the receiver. The voice said Margie was in the hospital, in a coma. She was ill. A virus, they said, had infiltrated her nervous system. Pablo could barely understand the words in English.
In a different world, Pablo thought as he sat in the gleaming white-walled room with this quiet man, waiting to find out whether his 22-year-old daughter would live or die—that would be the nightmare, and Pablo, sleeping at home beside his wife, dreaming about his mistress—that would be the reality.
He glanced at Brian. Brian Jacobs. Pablo didn’t much like the look of him. If it were true that little girls grew up to fall in love with men just like their fathers, then he felt mildly insulted. The controlled American man took charge the minute Pablo arrived, called his daughter, “Marge” and spoke to the doctors and hospital staff as though he were the one, in fact, the only one who mattered? This man, just his daughter’s…well, what would he be? Did people nowadays still use the word “boyfriend”? Pablo steeled his heart against the thought the same way he had steeled himself against everything. He could not accept this, not till he heard from Margie herself who this man was.
Pablo tried to recall her emails. No mention of this tall man with light brown hair, the color of the panocha with which he sweetened his coffee. No, she wrote she had a great schedule, she liked all her classes and the professors. She was happy winter was over, she loved the spring, and she had begun to dream in English. No man named Brian had figured on the pink stationary.
“Do you remember Margie ever mentioning Brian? In a text or email or maybe during a telephone call?” Pablo had asked Dulce last night.
“No, but why does that matter? Why is that so important to you?” Dulce cried, her voice edged with hysteria and piercing reproach.
He heard Brian snore. The man was tall but not bulky or barrel chested. He was stretched out like a ladder against a wall in stiff, exhausted sleep. At least he can sleep, Pablo thought and felt foolishly proud that he could not. The hospital staff probably didn’t know what to make of them— such an odd couple they made. He, an old man, emotional and foreign, given to silent endless weeping, and then Brian — brusque and blunt, his distress apparent but muted as though preserved beneath glass of his cold expression.
Pablo stood up. He had to leave that spic-and-span waiting lounge. He wanted to see his daughter that very minute, even while he dreaded the sight. Pablo walked the halls towards the ICU, trying to be purposeful, but inside, bit by bit, his stomach turned to ice with apprehension. It was the same as it had been this morning, just as it had been the day before. There was the bed that dwarfed his daughter. There was the tray of untouched food that came in the morning and was taken away at noon. How angry the American had been when the staff moved Margie to the ICU, but forgot to bring along the flowers he brought her daily. Lilies and some other kind Pablo could not name. Marge’s favorites, Brian said.
“They have to be where Margie can see them when she wakes,” the man told them. It was brave and sentimental, but it embarrassed Pablo, even while he admired it. The monitor continued to beep regular dashes of green signaling Margie’s heart, brain and life. Nothing changed.
As for Pablo, he could only think: this was not his daughter. His skin turned to prickly gooseflesh seeing hers: white as onion skin paper marked with splotches of squeamish bruised blue. Margie’s skin had always been taut, tawny resembling fruit you couldn’t even buy in Manila — peaches or nectarines. Pablo felt faint with aching. He said her name, half expecting her eyes to flutter open. But the lids were swollen, translucent, barely closing over the white slivers of her eyes. This was not Margie. This stranger in the bed was as alien as the man who led Pablo to her.
For the first time in his life, Pablo felt ice-cold fear; it contrasted with his involuntary, scalding tears. He blinked them away, not wanting Brian to see. This man who held Margie’s hand, kissed her cheek and stayed by her bed, even while he, her own father, remained standing at a stoic distance. Pablo felt foolish, too fearful to display emotion before a stranger. Instead, he just stood there, blinking away his tears.
“Come back, Marge,” Brian whispered. “Come back, baby.” The man then squeezed his daughter’s hand and kissed it, right there for him to see. Pablo had a memory flash of the boys that had come to call on his daughter. Back then Pablo was strict, unfriendly, detesting the thought of them, constantly quelling the urge to prohibit such visits altogether. These gangly, awkward and acne-faced, they stood to greet him. “Good afternoon, sir,” their voices cracked with a breakthrough manly pitch, instantly laughable. Pablo’s disgust became amusement, sometimes even pity — they were so unsettled by his presence. Sometimes he was even moved to sit and chat. After they left, Margie always asked, “What do you think?” Pablo would only laugh; no boy was ever going to be good enough.
But this Brian was a man. He indulged himself in a bizarre notion: how wonderful Margie did not grasp Brian’s large hand in her small one with a reciprocal squeeze. The gesture was then solely the American’s, and perhaps under normal circumstances, Margie would have nothing to do with it, except be its embarrassed recipient, too innocent to know how to refuse. And yet, Pablo thought, bringing his heart to breaking point, had Margie’s hand moved, it would mean she was awake.