Mia Alvar: “The Kontrabida” from One Story #165, 6/12/12

Joey Vendiola Cobcobo: “Seven Heads And Ten Horns”

Joey Vendiola Cobcobo: “Seven Heads And Ten Horns”

In the living room the family had switched from karaoke to a melodramatic Tagalog movie. Even in green it looked familiar, observing the rules of every melodrama I’d grown up watching: a bida (a star, a hero) fought a kontrabida (an anti-star, a dark force, a villain) for the love of a beautiful woman. The oldest films would cast a pale, fair-haired American as the bida and a dusky, slick-mustachioed Spaniard as the kontroabida. Between them the woman spent her time batting her eyelashes or being swept off her feet; peeking from behind lace fans; fainting or weeping; clutching a handkerchief to her heart or dangling it from the window as a signal; being abducted at night or rescued from a tower or carried away on a horse….When the bida won the woman at last, we whooped and whistled, again not out of joy so much as a malicious sort of triumph; the script had succumbed, at last, to our demands.

Another great tale from One Story. A good part of the resolution is predictable, but it’s nicely done anyway, and the emotional resonance works. If you have any chance of reading the story, stop here, as spoilers are ahead.

Steve, a clinical pharmacist in a New York hospital, left the Philippines for college and hasn’t really looked back. His father was abusive towards his family, and while Steve has fondness for his mother, he’s had no wish to visit them in the deteriorating suburb of Manilla where his mom, a nurse before her husband prohibited her from working outside the home, runs a sari-sari – a kind of convenience store located in a cinderblock building in their front yard: “The sari-sari compromised what I imagine was the dream of my parents, who grew up poor: a green buffer between the world and their world.” These front-yard stores aren’t uncommon in the area: “It was a way of shopping I had completely forgotten: egg by egg, cigarette by cigarette, people spending what they earned in a day to buy what they would use in the next.”

Steven has come back to visit at this time for a specific reason: his father is terminally ill with cancer. While he isn’t all that distressed at the notion of his father suffering or dying, he is distressed that Dad’s running Mom ragged. He’s also concerned that neighbors and extended family will talk them into coming to New York for treatment, so he’s been sending them money so they can buy what they need in the way of medical and comfort care. Then a freak opportunity presented itself to Steve:

It wasn’t his face I’d thought of a week earlier, at the hospital, when I took inventory of the narcotics cabinet. I wasn’t thinking of him as I unloaded the most recent shipment of Succorol, or when I found six more boxes than were counted on the packing slip, a surplus as unlikely as it was expensive. It was my mother I imagined, titrating morphine into his mouth by hand, as I recounted the boxes and rechecked my number against the number printed on the invoice. I thought of my mother, running back and forth between the sari-sari and the sickroom, as I typed the lower figure into the inventory log. I thought of her, crying or praying after morphine had ceased to comfort him, as I wheeled the Pyxis in front of the surveillance camera and slipped a month’s supply of Succorol into the pockets of my lab coat.

Of course, Dad wakes up dead a few days after Steve gives the patches to Mom. Though it’s not a surprise to me exactly how that happened, Steve seems flummoxed when he wanders into the sari-sari the evening after his father’s death and discovers his mother, high on Succorol, gleefully celebrating alone. In this instant, this woman he’s been trying to protect goes from innocent victim to murderer, and perhaps neighborhood drug dealer as well.

Through all the melodramas that my family and I had watched, in which the bida and the kontrabida crossed their swords over a woman, I never guessed that she might be the one to watch.

We all have an image of our parents, and sometimes we’re in for a rude shock when reality doesn’t measure up.

I like how the mother’s assurance that she’s stronger than he knows echoes from beginning to end, and how the bida and kontrabida of the movies is used. Still, the story once again sets up a woman as virgin whore and destroyer. After a thirty-year sentence, I’m surprised Steve is as shocked as he is that she could be capable of creating her own freedom; and I wonder if he’s being more than a little willfully blind, since he provided her with the tools himself. In fact, Steve’s motivation throughout – his sending money to keep his father from coming to New York, as well as stealing the drugs and risking serious legal consequences, combined with his supposed surprise at the end – makes an interesting psychological puzzle. Mom’s motivations, on the other hand, are crystal clear to me.

In her One Story interview, Mia Alvar explains she drew on some of her experiences visiting her family in the Philippines thirteen years ago:

It came from my last visit to the Philippines, when my eighty-eight-year-old grandmother was very sick. I had mixed emotions during this trip: joy at reuniting with family, and grief over my grandmother, who died while I was there. It must be common among expats to process these two occasions, coming home and losing a loved one, at the same bittersweet time.

Many particulars around my grandmother’s death in Manila, like the festive atmosphere at her wake and the bustling “funeral district” of Araneta Avenue, made a deep impression on me. But for a long time, I couldn’t write about them. The story didn’t emerge until I separated myself from the details and considered the reverse of my own experiences: what happens when a homecoming is not joyful? Is death, in the case of someone who isn’t so beloved, necessarily a sad thing? And what if a man were telling this story?

Her family also has a sari-sari in the yard, and they too are “hard-core karaokeers.” So here’s a story drawn from life, but modified – mirror-imaged, in fact – in a way to create a dark narrative from a bittersweet but honorable event. I wish I knew more about the decision to make Steve a man; is that because men are more likely to hold their mothers on pedestals, whereas daughters might be less patient with the woman-as-victim posture? A daughter, as well, might not have the same “returning hero” status as a son. It’s an interesting notion, how the story would play if Steve were Stephanie.

There’s a lot more in the story that I haven’t included: a primal scene from Steve’s childhood echoed in the deathbed scene; Steve’s ungainly efforts to help out in the sari-sari, allowing Mom to again assert she is stronger than he thinks; the welcome-home party including the movie scene of the opening quote that gives the piece its central image, theme, and title. It all comes together quite nicely, though I do wish Steve’s possible submerged motivations had been acknowledged a bit more. The bida himself had a streak of kontrabida in him; the lines between good and evil are always less than clear. Then again, maybe this is explored, just more subtly; after all, I got the notion from somewhere, and where else if not the text?