My voice was trembling as I punched in each digit scribbled down on the piece of paper. <What am I doing?> I chastised myself, <I don’t talk to men!>. But here I was, dialing the number of Mr. Shoe Polish. Keith! His name is Keith, I reminded myself and listened to the monotonous ringing tone as my heart pounded in my chest. <Please don’t pick up…. Please don’t pick up….> I prayed silently. “Hello?” I heard a cheerful voice answer on the other end of the line. For half a second my throat squeezed. “H-hi” I said, my voice a trembling mess, “It’s Sara”. There was a beat of silence before his voice boomed with recognition and warmth. “Sara! Hey! Kamusta ka na (how are you)?” he said and I inhaled deeply. “I’m- I’m fine” I managed to stammer. My face was akin to a tomato, and my palms were sweaty. Talking to men had never been my strong suit, so calling this guy was like leaping in the deep end for me. “Do you… want to grab a bite?” I asked quickly before I lost my courage.
“Oo, where are you?” he asked smoothly, and I blinked. <Holy shit! Did he just say yes???> my brain screamed. Mr. Drop Dead Gorgeous…. Mr. Put Together wants to go out with…. Me?? “Uh… my dorm?” I answered, my tone lifting to sound more like a question rather than a statement. Sensing my nervousness, he quickly took lead and let me know that he was coming right over, before hanging up. “Shit!” I gasped tossing my cell on the bed. In a frantic dash, I ripped open my dresser drawers digging through my usual, black clothing to find something—anything! —that resembled a V-cut top. Yanking on the shirt, I rubbed lip gloss over my lips whilst snaking my fingers through my hair. This humidity was killing my skin, but what could I do? A knock on the door moments later made my eyes widen. “Uh—just a minute!” I shouted before glancing at the mess on my bed. Throwing my comforter over the evidence I grabbed my purse and headed to the door. “Hey! What’s up?” I said opening the door, trying to act cool. I was definitely not cool. I was a nervous, rambling wreck!
“Come on” he said smoothly, suddenly taking my hand in his to lead the way, “I know a great place to eat at”. I couldn’t help but nod, glancing down at our palms resting together. His large cocoa hands snaked between my thin, ivory fingers. We looked good together. <He likes me…> I thought <Be cool. Don’t be awkward!>. We bantered about classes and the weather, of all things, on our way to the restaurant. <Why do people always talk about the weather when they don’t know what to say?> I pondered in my mind, as my lips pressed together into a thin line. Glancing up at the neon sign I smiled, my eyes lighting up. “You like Udon?” I asked. He held the door open for me smirking. “Of course,” he winked. Sighing blissfully, I walked into the tiny hole-in-the-wall spot. It smelled like heaven and pork all rolled into one tiny closet of a restaurant.
Everything about the place screamed simplicity and comfort, two things that made me feel instantly at home. There was minimal décor, nothing fancy, just a pair of chopsticks and a bottle of soy sauce on the mahogany tables. Plushy cushions on the tatami mats became our chairs as we sat on the floor facing each other. I’ve never been one for holding back my feelings. Complex thoughts enter my head, and like a bursting dam I ramble about this, that, and everything that I’m feeling in between. My parents always said that I had too strong of a personality for a man to ever love me. But I always retorted that if a man couldn’t handle my hurricane personality, then I didn’t need them in my life anyway.
So, staring into Keith’s dark eyes I suddenly blurted out to him, “I don’t know if this is a date. But, uh, if it isn’t then that’s okay, because I’m really fat, and white. I mean, of course I’m White. But you know, I’m not Filipina or anything, so if you don’t like me that’s cool”. Keith blinked, taking in my tsunami of feelings and the stream of babble that finally ceased from my nervous mouth. His brow furrowed as he studied me for a moment. “You know” he said calmly, and in a firm tone, “You really shouldn’t do that.” Now it was my turn to blink and be caught off guard. “Wha–?” I squeaked but he motioned for silence. “You’re un-sexy when you do that” he said flatly, “You lack confidence because you are fat. But, you should instead work on bettering yourself so that you gain confidence”. My mouth popped open in shock. <Did he… just say that I’m fat?> I thought beginning to turn angry. “I…” I began but suddenly the waiter appeared.
“And what are you both having this evening?” the server said with a warm smile. I looked at Keith who was glancing up at the man. He ordered two bowls of Udon for us both without consulting my tastes. <What the hell?> I thought bewildered. Finally, Keith looked back at me sensing my irritation. “I am confident” I protested finally, folding my arms across my chest. He raised his eyebrows in mock amusement. “Alright, then if you think you have confidence, then so be it. But my perception of you is that you don’t” he shrugged. “Which makes me un-sexy to you?” I snapped, and watched him nod. “Obviously we’re not a match” he said casually, “I’m sorry”. It took every ounce in my being not to cry right then and there, as I willed myself to stand up and grab my purse. “No” I said quietly, “I’m sorry that I asked you out to dinner”. Keith frowned, his brow furrowed with conflicted feelings as I slammed a stack of pesos on the table and left without looking back.
Outside in the night air I finally allowed the emotion to catch up with me. Like a cold stranger, it enveloped me from behind as silent tears dripped down my cheeks. <He doesn’t even know me!> my mind roared defensively, <I’ve been through so much!>. As I wandered the busy street back towards the University, I became acutely aware that a small pack of street urchins were following me. My pace began to slow as I noticed how filthy and malnourished the young children looked. They babbled in Tagalog, eyeing me closely. “God bless you, Ma’am po” one young boy said, walking up to me and held up his hands cupped together in a posture of alms for the poor. My eyes widened and I swallowed hard. “Oh…” I said softly taken aback. I glanced around for their parents but saw none. “Where…. Is your mother?” I asked the boy, who kept his tiny, dirty hands lifted towards me, as if pleading for just a few pesos. “Mother?” I asked again, reaching into my pocket for the last few coins I had on hand, and plunked them into his palm. In an instant he grinned with glee and dashed off towards the wet market.
Sheer curiosity overcame me as I hurried to keep up and followed him. He navigated the packed, foul-smelling market with ease, darting between merchants and customers alike, racing towards whatever place he seemed to call home. I glanced around briefly, struggling to keep sight of him, as memories flooded my mind. Atlanta…. The home of Coca-Cola, and also the place where I would be starved as punishment. Atlanta…. Home of the Georgia peach, and the place where I learned to dumpster dive. I watched the boy dart down an alleyway between shops, skipping on makeshift boards that just barely crisscrossed over the open sewage that leaked into the sidewalk path. I hurried along, praying that I didn’t step in feces as I raced in ever deeper into the heart of the barrio. Atlanta…. The home of fried chicken, and the place where, like this young child, I, too, begged for scraps of food from my old boss at my part-time job as a cashier at Dunkin Donuts. “Please” I had mumbled one night after my shift, “Can I take these donuts?”. They were going to be thrown out at the end of the day. Taking pity on me, he gave a quick nod and turned his head as I stuffed food into a wax paper bag to take home. It was my only source of food.
At last the boy darted up a rickety ladder several steps into a metal hut with a tarped roof. Carefully climbing up the steps, I called out for the boy. “Hello?” I asked, poking my head in the open entrance. Peeking inside I saw the single room with no electricity filled with 8 people, including the boy. A mother, tired and caked in sweat, held a newborn as the boy passed over the pesos to her. “What you want?” she snapped cautiously at me. The baby began to wail in her arms. Horrified at their living conditions I wondered what I could do to help, but knew that I had no resources to spare at the moment. “I… I’m sorry” I said bowing my head slightly and began to let myself back out of their house. It was only then that I looked around and saw dozens of other, equally dilapidated, huts stacked one on top of the other precariously creating its own squatters’ village. Dirty laundry hung on every open rope and line that could be found. Children played freely, smiles on their faces, oblivious to the plight of poverty that they lived in. This was their world, and I, their visitor. <I have to find some way to help> I thought wandering back the way I came.
It took me a while, weaving through the muck and debris that littered the path back to the road. No doubt my school shoes would need a thorough scrubbing. But this moment, seeing people who so desperately needed relief, renewed my sense of purpose. It shined a light at how insignificant my night at the Udon shop had been. Hurrying back to the University I made it my mission that somehow… some way…. I would find resources to help these people while I was studying aboard here in their country.