As Us

A Space for Writers of the World

Elsa Valmidiano – Creative Nonfiction



It’s 3:00 PM and I am scheduled for a massage. It’s hot, peaceful, and lazy on Sangat Island. She knocks on our cottage door, a shy brown woman with short bowl haircut right below earlobes. I’m not ready. After I have rushed about inside, using the bathroom, washing my hands, and finding a towel to take with me, I find her sitting patiently outside on our veranda, waiting for me.

She and I walk to a bamboo recliner in front of the beach.  

After lying down on my stomach, she presses her fingers into my back where I at first feel her far away, with there being no difference between me, the last person, and the next person she massages. She pours baby oil onto my skin, a routine, not caring, and I wonder if she actually has taken lessons to massage, or is this simply something she is assigned to do by Sangat? Qualifications don’t matter much, not out here, except to get the job done, make sure none of the guests complain, get paid for one’s services, and move on. She is my masseuse for now but this morning she was my cleaning lady.

I do not retain a clear picture of her features as I lie down on my stomach while she unties the strings of my bikini top and sits next to me kneading my back slowly according to my careful instructions. I ask her questions about who she is and where she comes from. Conversation seems to come as a surprise to her, and at the same time, not really, not from a fellow Filipina sister, who is just as brown as she is, as short as she is, as skinny as she is. There is little difference between us physically except that I grew up in America, have an American accent, and my features are softer due to being spared from hard labor under the sun and scrubbing floors of bathrooms and living quarters.  

She is from Mindanao, married, 32 years old, and has four children. The facts are not shocking but I am shocked anyway as she asks me how old I am, and I say embarrassed and uncertain under a laugh, “31.” She wonders why I do not have any children, laughs lightly, careful maybe not to offend, but in that lightness, there is a warmth and affinity to her that she feels likewise for me. I sense jealousy a bit as she speaks as we are about the same age, same race, same sex, and yet so different with different wants, different expectations. She says she doesn’t want any more children and says she is on the pill. I say, “me too.” She tells me she met her husband at a night club at nineteen. She and her husband live and work far away from each other and haven’t seen each other lately. She sees her children on weekends. I think, “how hard,” not for simplicity, but what other words can I say to let her know I understand? I could be her and she could be me.

I don’t tell her I could’ve been a mother, could’ve been one at twenty, but I decided against it. I felt I had no choice. I don’t tell her though, don’t tell her who the father was, who the father could’ve been because that man, that guy, really that asshole, a long time ago raped me, several times, but I don’t tell her these things. I don’t want to break her dreams of who I am and where I come from.

Maybe she herself couldn’t stop motherhood too, maybe didn’t have the choice, so she had all four babies. Maybe there could’ve been more but she decided against it too.

I tell her I was born here, tell her where my parents are from, but I don’t say anything else about myself or my upbringing in California or the places I’ve seen, the places I’ve lived in. Maybe she hears so many other people’s stories already from the tourists that she rarely talks about herself, so I let her talk, just let her tell her story, of what little she is willing to tell me. Maybe she doesn’t find her life all that fascinating, but I do. So I want her to tell me.

Between lazily opening and closing my eyes, I eye my partner who is sleeping peacefully in a hammock in front of our cottage. He is not so far away from me where I can reach him in twenty seconds in my bare feet on the sand. My heart melts as I look at him sleeping and I wonder if her heart melts the same way as she speaks of her faraway husband, the one she is not allowed to see.

Between her brown fingertips pressed hard and slow upon my brown back, I come to her finally, not oceans apart, but reclaiming home on who I could’ve been while she presses her palms upon me, upon whom she could’ve been.

As her fingers glide and roll across my entire body, careful not to disturb the most intimate places where my babies will be made someday, conversation ceases and we share something so small and so significant within an hour, to receive her touch and learn something as she massages my temples, my shoulders, my arms, my fingers, her palms pressed against my palms, until she says she is done and I am finished.

Palawan, Philippines, January 2009 

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Parañaque-born and LA-raised in the city of Carson, Elsa Valmidiano currently resides in Oakland with her husband. She is a writer, poet, feminist, globe trekker, and women’s freedom fighter. As the daughter of Ilocano immigrants, she writes to find a way home, not only to her Motherland, but other cities and spaces she has inhabited and immersed herself in.Her works have appeared in local literary journals such as TAYOmake/shiftBurnerAs/UsLiterature for Life, and others, as well as the anthologies Field of MirrorsWalang HiyaSame Difference, and the forthcoming anthology Circe’s Lament

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