She had never received so much attention in her life as she did now. In the past seven days she had been kept clean and spotless, given an extra share of the family meal, fussed about by the neighborhood wives who pinched her cheeks and told her what a radiant child she was. It puzzled her why, in the past few days, her mother had treated her like how Mrs. Zuniga, the rich childless widow in their neighborhood, treats her prized poodle, Waffles. Her mother had slathered anti-mosquito lotion all over her soft limbs, brushed her wavy hair every night, and scrubbed fuzz off her skin with pumice stone. Aling Nadia, the modiste, also came to their mouse hole of a house five days ago to take measurements for her new dress.

Everything excited but frightened her at the same time. If the local stories were true, she would be sold to a bearded Arab on a motorcycle or to an Intsik beho. She even heard stories of children being sold to boatmen to be ferried off to a far away place. If that happens, her mother could stop washing and pressing Mrs. Zuniga’s clothes for a living. And her father, who never really liked her, would not have to beat her mother up to squeeze money out of her. Her mother would not have to be so tight-lipped and would smile more since he could get himself a drink every day after he gets back from construction work.

To her relief, she later learned she would not be sold. She would be going to an audition.

For the first time in her life, she felt truly loved.

Now she sat quietly on a kitchen stool as she was told. She would not go to school today, her mother told her friend, Len-Len, who had come skipping to her house so they could go to school together. She was even allowed to get more sleep, snuggling into the rough bed covers while other children reluctantly trudged off to school. She scratched a mosquito bite on her cheek, marveling at the newly acquired softness of her skin. Her mother had let her into her personal stash of Ponds Facial Wash sachet every time she took a bath. She tried very hard to remember everything her mother had told her to say:

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(wave, smile)

Magandang umaga po sa inyong lahat,

Ako po si Jennelein Mae Smith.

Anim na taong gulang,

Nakatira sa Caloocan City!

(wave, smile)

I thank you, bow.

(bow)

Her lips shaped the words slowly, remembering to speak clearly. Her mother placed a platter of food in front of her and told her to finish it fast so she could get ready.

While she shoveled sinangag into her mouth, her mother repeated the instructions to her: Stand straight, smile. Speak clearly. Smile. Give the host a peck on the cheek. Smile. Answer the question well. Smile. Hold Jerome by the hand and walk slowly so you won’t trip. Smile. Remember to wave at the audience. Smile. And remember the song we kept practicing.

She kept her eyes fixed on her mother’s face as she chewed thoughtfully, the words becoming a blur. After lunch, her mother told her to take off her clothes and wait for her in the bathroom while she scrubbed the pumice stone with warm water. She stood naked in the dark, the warm smell of earth rising from the floor. A sour doggy smell wafted from the window. Their dog, Em-Em, who also doubles as a left-over disposal unit, must have vomited outside again. To pass time, she squashed tiny ants crawling up the crude hollow block walls. With the prize money, her mother said, they could get the walls and the floor freshly cemented so that ants will not crawl up on her legs when she took a bath. Other things could also happen, she could be a T.V idol, a movie star even, she heard Aling Nadia say. And if that happens, she could marry a rich mestizo. She’s fair and pretty. So much like her father. This puzzles her. Mang Narding is a brown man who hammers wood planks for a living.

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When her mother returned, she began scrubbing her back so hard she felt her skin might peel. She must be pretty today. If things go well, she must be pretty all the time, until it becomes a habit, like biting fingernails, like blowing spit bubbles. Her mother panicked when she saw the reddening mosquito bite on her cheek, and applied a squeeze of Hapee toothpaste on the bite to reduce the swelling,. “Do you still remember the song we practiced?” she asked her.

“Yes, mama.”

“Can you sing it for me now?”

“Yes, but mama, my voice sounds awful. It does not sound like the tape at all. No, mama, not at all.”

“I don’t care. Just sing it for me, will you? Sweetheart? Huh, huh?”

She opened her mouth to sing and some soap suds got in. “Swaying room as the music starts. Strangers making the most of the dark….”

Her mother scrubbed her legs and feet as her thin voice filled the bathroom. “Mama, what is that song about?” she asked, stopping in mid song.

“What do you care what it’s about?” her mother snapped. “It’s a love song, darling. But they won’t really ask you why you sing it so long as you sing it.”

“Why do I have to sing it?”

“So people will like you.”

“But I’m not happy with my singing. I don’t like my voice. I don’t understand the song.”

“But neither does everybody else.”

Her mother toweled her dry, taking care not to leave towel lint on her skin. She helped her into the new dress. She tamed her little eyebrows by plucking, ignoring her small yelps and watering eyes. Every star, she said, must be neat, must look good, even in Las Vegas where they only look at butt cheeks.

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She submitted patiently to every tug, every pluck, every harsh scratch of the old make up brushes. The brushes smell of old lady closet and old lady sweat. They smell of a lady who had just alighted from an intercontinental flight and didn’t look too happy. She must bear.

An hour later, Mang Bhong, the regular tambay on their street, had a taxi waiting for them at the end of the alley. The street was so narrow no car could get in. The neighbors eyed their exit like curious birds, cocking their heads to see a lice- infested kid strut down in her finery, with her stage mother, who normally spends the day squatted in front of a basinful of laundry, in a body-hugging dress. Years later, this moment will be in the magazines, in the tabloids, in the talk shows. She did not know what she was doing. And so did everybody else. Everyone was happy.

She must bear.

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