The first time I met my father, I thought he was a distant uncle.

It was an afternoon, nearing merienda time, the sun leaving the air smudged with sepia and the buzzing of summer beetles. We were visiting an aunt, who lived next door to the other aunt we were living with. My mother had just left my father, and it was almost a full year since the day she walked out and took me and my brother with her.

A man ambled into the aunt’s tiny living room, tall, large and clumsy, with a little beer-belly, his eyes darting around warily. My mother gave a slight nod in his direction, and it seemed like everyone’s eyes were on them, and were on us. In the background, someone twisted open a bottle of Coca-cola—the caffeinated scent seemed to hang in the humid summer air barely moving in that room. At that exact moment, I remembered dreading the thought of meeting relatives I hadn’t met before; of family friends I was uninterested in idly chatting with; of kissing people I hardly knew hello and goodbye, attempting an amiable smile as they walked to leave in their cars.

The living room floor was a sickly beige color, made of marble that was older than I was, or even the inhabitants of that house. Likewise, the sofa was the same color, with some yellow stains on its old leather. For the first time, I could remember feeling real nervousness—not just clammy hands and beating heart or churning stomach. It was a combination of three, and a sort of sick feeling of premonition that there was something horrible about to happen, something that you couldn’t control clawing its way into your heart and out of it. The tall stranger stifled a cough at the back of his throat and looked at me and my brother.

I hid behind my older brother, and asked him in the smallest voice I could muster, “Who’s that?” Slowly, his eyes looked at me as if I had uttered something blasphemous—I hastily tried to repair whatever perceived damage I may have said: “Is he an uncle? Some family friend we haven’t met yet? A distant relative—,” I asked, unfinished. Curtly he answered that no, he wasn’t a distant relative, and no, that he wasn’t an uncle and didn’t I know who he was? I could only get a timid nod out, as his eyes bore into mine with some sort of intense energy, something that I had never been able to fully pin down and label. Several other aunts who came (the living room was getting much too warm for comfort now) glanced in our direction: my brother had raised his voice one-and-a-half decibel higher and this had attracted the attention. The attention was too much, almost immediately I could feel my insides wriggling its way out of my mouth, my lips drying up and my eyes blinking rapidly. As if unaware of the thick tension directed in our general direction, my brother sighed and answered me with a question. “Don’t you know that it’s Papa?” As if I was supposed to have known—and shouldn’t I have known? There was a twinge of melancholia there somewhere, but strangely it felt far away, like listening to a radio program fading away in the static, the tagalog-speaking deejay’s voice dissolving into thin air. I just couldn’t reconcile the thought of having a father at all with how I was living: I had never seen anything different with living with just my mother and brother and the three of us. It had never occurred to me to ask about my father—I never even thought about him until that day.

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I looked at the man sprawled out on the sofa, where a few adults (aunts, one or two uncles) who were allowed in that conversation between my mother and the tall stranger who was my father nodded a little too seriously, a little too morosely and talked as if it was late at night with everyone asleep. The other people who were not in the conversation (there were three left flitting around that small house) were now standing idly beside us, sipping iced coke and munching on pandesal from the nearby baker. An aunt who was in the conversation suddenly broke the eye-contact between me and my brother, and I let out a breath I didn’t even know I was holding in. Her manicured hand (classic red) waved at us to come over there. The man looked at my brother and me wearily, wearing a look that one would wear if one was faced with a speeding car when crossing the street—you being unsure if the car would stop for you. The floor suddenly seemed to lose solidity, and I held on my brother’s sleeve as he walked towards the man I was to call father. My mother looked at my face with a mix of the same uncertainty on all our faces, and of stern disapproval. She motioned for me to walk faster, and signaled to kiss him hello. I watched my brother, who climbed affectionately on his lap and kissed him on the cheek. Taking a tentative step nearer, I tiptoed my six-year-old frame to his rough, unshaven cheek and said a simple hello.

The air still hung with the same thick tension as before, the spaces being filled with everyone else’s awkward conversations when I knew that everyone’s eyes were pivoted on us, that every ear was straining to hear every single word. My father asked a few questions, about school, my hobbies, and I answered a little, mostly my mother answered for me, or talked more than I did at least—supplying details on what I’d done a few days ago, or what my brother said a day ago. I tried to listen to whatever they were trying to tell me, my mother and newfound father, but everything seemed too porous for my ears. My father was scrunching his forehead, like he was hunting out the right words to express whatever it was he was trying to say. I could tell that he was trying his hardest to let us know that he still cared whatever it was that we were doing, except that his mouth wouldn’t cooperate right, and he tripped over a few words.

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Several hours of that had gone by, and the sun was beginning to set. I felt the sweat drying up on my back, bitingly cold for summer, and the man stood up and exhaled a long breath. The whole room seemed to pause to look at him. Someone invited him to stay for dinner, but he refused. He mumbled something about getting home to his wife and scratching his nape while keeping his eyes fixed on the floor. I looked at my brother. His face was immovable, but you could see the muscles underneath contorting into strange patterns. My mother’s face looked relieved and troubled simultaneously. Then, as if remembering herself, she gave a start and whispered to us to walk the man out the gate, giving us what she probably thought was a gentle push.

My brother walked ahead of me, catching up to the man who was already opening the gate. His car was parked on the sidewalk, and my brother just stood there beside his black old car. He waited for me to get out of the gate, and as I took my place beside my brother, he spread his arms and took us in a clumsy sort of hug, and he let out a breath that I still can’t recall if he said something or just sighed. After a second or so, he let go, climbed into the front seat of his beat-up, 60’s era automobile and turned the ignition. The car coughed a little, once, twice, then chugged loudly, the smell of exhaust and gasoline invading the air.

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The crickets were beginning to sing. His car ran off, and made a left to the highway. The mosquitoes were starting to settle on my arm. I brushed them off and followed my brother into the house. A neighbor’s dog barked.

*Jacob Dominguez is the first prize winner in the short story category of 2008 Gawad Ustetika

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