Dinnertime (A Short Story)

When Lena’s sister announced she was pregnant at dinnertime, many things happened at once.

Mama fainted; Kuya Ray gaped at them all, a piece of half-chewed chicken falling right out of his mouth; Grandma ignored them; and Papa reached for the soup bowl and smashed it against Lena’s sister’s boyfriend’s face.

Fourteen-year old Lena, who was sitting next to the boyfriend, jumped out of her chair just in time. At an angle, she saw the boyfriend’s cheek cave in under the heavy bowl, his head snapping at the force of Papa’s rage. She took extra steps back as the guy who impregnated her Ate fell over backward, howling in pain

Her back touched the wall. With a bit of fear, she watched Papa’s contorted face: wide eyes flashing, teeth bared, veins popping in his neck and forehead in his fury, big hand still clutching the soup bowl. She knew he would swing the bowl again if the boyfriend so much as say anything.

She somehow doubted that the boyfriend would; the guy was spitting blood and a tooth or two all over the floor, along with the noodle soup that had been inside the bowl before Papa turned all homicidal.

She glanced to the left. Grandma was still bent over her food, as if she was used to displays of violence at dinner. Kuya Ray’s eyes darted to his father, then to his sister’s boyfriend, and back. He closed his mouth and rushed to the boyfriend to check on him.

Kuya Ray asked the guy if he was alright, which Lena thought was pretty stupid considering that the guy was still rolling on the floor, hand over injured cheek. The boyfriend started cursing, over and over.

Papa started to go round the table to him, raising the bowl over his head.

Out of the blue, Grandma said: “If he dies, I’m not going to help you dig a grave in the backyard.”

Papa stopped in his tracks.

With a cold look aimed at him, Grandma placed the glass to her lips and drank her iced tea.

Papa lowered his weapon.

Lena glanced to the right. Mama was groaning, finally coming to after her brief spell. Lena couldn’t help but notice the ridiculous strand of noodle that somehow got stuck up Mama’s nose. She’d fallen forward to the table when she fainted, so her face was a mess of rice, chicken and soup.

Mama has always been a lady. She went to church every Sunday, always well-groomed, her prayer book and rosary tucked carefully in her handbag. In a time when even the Holy Mass is an iPhone application (or so Lena heard) Mama kept to the old ways.

“Always look and speak like a lady,” Mama would always say to them. “And act like one too.”

Now, as Lena observed the noodle curled up her mother’s nose, she thought that there’s nothing at all lady-like about THAT.

Beside her Mama, Lena’s eyes finally found Ate Angel—the root of this entire episode. Her older sister wasn’t showing yet; her belly was still flat under her tight red blouse. She rigidly sat by the table, her eyes downcast, her pretty face pale. She hadn’t moved at all since she said, “I’m pregnant”, about a minute and a half ago. She didn’t stare up their furious father; neither did she favor her boyfriend with a glance.

Lena thought that if someone poked his head to the dining room and saw Angel just sitting there, he’d mistake her for a statue.

She took a deep breath.

Ate Angel was perfect. Well, used to be anyway. People would always tell Lena that her sister resembled the statue of the Virgin Mary at the grotto in the backyard. Serene and beauti—wait, there’s another word, Lena thought. Yes, ethereal.

That was Ate Angel, serene and ethereally beautiful.

Like the Virgin Mary, Lena thought. Well, so much for that one.

She sneered as she gazed at her sister’s belly. And realized suddenly that she was holding her breath. Slowly, she let it go.

As if her exhalation triggered a switch, the boyfriend stopped crying.

Papa placed the bowl to the table and turned to Angel. “Living room. Now,” he ordered through clenched teeth. He gestured to the boyfriend, who was getting to his feet. “You too.”

Ate Angel rose at once.

“No, wait, I forgot something,” said Papa. He caught her by the arm before she could escape.

Lena had to look down and smile to herself as Papa reached back and slapped Ate Angel across the face.

Hard.

One.

Two times.

“Now go,” Papa, letting her go of her arm. Without a word, Ate Angel fled.

Lena felt the bare cement wall against her back grow cold.

The boyfriend was standing now, wincing at the already forming bruise on his cheek. Papa gave him a small push, and the guy cringed from his touch. He stumbled out the dining room.

“You clean this up,” Papa said to her and Kuya Ray. Then he followed the boyfriend to the living room.

Mama began crying bitterly, her racking sobs mixing with the clink of spoon and fork against the glass plate as Grandma continued eating. To Lena, it was an odd melody.

She waited as Kuya Ray left to get the broom, and a rag to mop the spills on the table.

From the other room, Papa was asking, “How far along are you?”

There was a murmur as Ate Angel answered.

Then, quite distinctly, the boyfriend cut in. “I’m sorry…”

There was a silence.

Grandma helped herself to more iced tea.

At last, Mama wiped her tears with a sleeve and got to her feet. With a sniff, she disappeared up the stairs to their bedroom, just as Kuya Ray returned.

Lena didn’t move from her position against the wall. She just watched her older brother slide the mess with a broom into the waiting dustpan. With the rag, he did the same at the table. When he was done, he went upstairs as well.

“You’ll have to marry her of course…” Papa was saying.

She heard Kuya Ray slam the door in his room, and then rock music blared beyond the closed door moments later.

Minutes passed as Lena tuned in to the conversation.

Then Papa burst in and began pacing round the table. He was cursing and muttering to no one in particular. “Stupid girl, the slut, getting herself knocked up…”

He then swiveled to Lena. “Where’s your mother?”

“Upstairs,” answered Lena.

Papa was very agitated. And still very angry. He slammed a fist on the table, and the dishes jumped. Grandma wiped her lips with a napkin.

Papa, the strongest man in Lena’s eyes. He was proud and willful. His life was his family.

He worked hard to provide for them. Always had a plan, and whatever he wanted, he gets. Always.

He was powerful.

That was her Papa.

Except for one little secret. His flaw.

“Slut!” he was raging. “And the baby! The baby…”

Their eyes met.

He stopped pacing.

Her fourteen-year old eyes bored into his.

I know, Lena told him with her eyes.

And the blood left his face. His hands clenched, it trembled.

I know, it was you, her eyes told him.

He paled even further.

You.

With her eyes, she told him about a locked bedroom door.

The struggle, the feral excitement, and the guilt after.

I know. It was you.

He tore his eyes away from her and went upstairs. Lena smirked. And noticed that the clink of spoon and fork had ceased. She turned to see her grandmother looking at her.

It was an odd look. And Lena realized, with some surprise, that it was mixed pity and guilt.

“It wasn’t just her,” said Grandma.

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” said Lena, the smirk vanishing from her lips.

The wall against her back grew icy. She shivered.

“Abuse,” said her grandmother. “It wasn’t just her.”

Cold fingers trailed down Lena’s back, caressing her legs, into her stomach. “The difference was,” Grandma said. “She never liked it, but you…”

Lena rushed to the stairs.