Introduction: Kismet at the Durian Tree is a story about a transgender Black/Filipina chef named Audra aka Momo aka Ferdinand and the immigrant and LGBTQIA struggles she and her family went through to get to where she is now. Her love for durian has been embedded in her DNA since she was still a boy back in Olongapo City, Philippines. This is also a story about a May-December romance between a 19-year-old Black/Filipino boy named Oscar and a jaded 50-year-old gay Filipino named Jed and how they went through hurdles (differences in age, lifestyle and outlook, etc.,) in order to make their relationship work. Audra’s, Oscar’s and Jed’s life stories are intertwined in a book full of drama and based on their love of durian; yet, in the end, it is all about family and love.
Audra from Momo from Ferdinand
Olongapo City, the Philippines.
That sleepy barrio situated at the northern part of the harbour known as Subic Bay in the island of Luzon. When the earth was still young, the land of tall palm trees, verdant forests and tranquil mountains was home to various tribes on its shores. These tribes were governed by Apos, and they were mostly male. Legend has it that the name came from the word, Ulo Ng Apo, which meant Head of the Chieftain or Elder. There was a village where a peace-loving Apo lived. He ruled with benevolence and the villagers went to him to resolve disputes through peaceful means. Though he is revered in his village, there were others who didn’t want him around. They were the usurpers and the inhabitants from a neighbouring village full of greedy men who coveted this particular Apo’s realm. One day, they decapitated his head in order to instill fear into the villagers. His body was never found. So when the distraught villagers went to cremate their Apo, they were met with shouts of “Ulo Ng Apo (head of the chieftain)” from the village children as the Apo’s body was paraded throughout the village before going to be cremated up in the hills. “Ulo Ng Apo” became a rallying cry uniting the villagers against their enemies. Thus it stuck with the villagers and neighbours alike as the land where Apo now rests is called UloNgApo or, after a few iterations, now officially called Olongapo.
A black man, in a crew cut and wearing white long-sleeved polyester shirt and long pants, slept on his side on the cold concrete floor, in between two wooden tables, in an empty stall of the market not too far from the bus depot early in the morning. His closed eyes twitched as his body jerked. A headless corpse that scantily clad villagers paraded in front of him suddenly moved and walked toward him while he was shackled in thick rope. The villagers chanted “ULONGAPO” at him. The voices became louder, “UULOOONGAAPOOO”, “UUULOOONGAAAAPOOOO.”
At the same time, a lone rooster in scarlet and black plumage tiptoed to the edge of a wooden table in an empty market stall facing a narrow alleyway. The tiny light bulb above the stall flickered. He locked his eyes at someone sleeping at the cold cement floor. An encroacher in his realm.
He inhaled deeply then crowed at the top of his lungs, “TAK-TALA-OOKKKKKK!”
The encroacher rose up from the floor below. His hands covered his ears and he gritted his teeth. He rubbed his eyes to see where the noise was coming from. The rooster was above, behind him. It stared down at the encroacher of his sphere then crowed again. Though he kept hearing “UUULOOONGAAAAPOOOO“, it was really “TAK-TAK-TALA-OOOKKKKKKKK!”
He grimaced as he covered both ears again. “Fucking cock!” He thought. He looked at the floor around him, picked up his white cap, stood up and walked to the alleyway. He stepped into a puddle of brackish water then started to run away from the stall. He looked back and saw that the rooster was still there, staring back at him. He walked for at least eight paces when he touched his forehead. It was dotted with perspiration. Then he stopped, his jaw dropped, and paused for a moment to digest the sight in front him. It was still dark as he stood in the corner of the alleyway in front of a street bustling with activity at 5:15 in the morning. The sun was peeking out of the mountains from the east, men on the left were hauling the silvery fish that glistened under the glare of the street lamp above, into large tubs of ice. Butchers in white tank tops lopped off meat they laid their knives on, some women were busy setting up their stalls while the others were throwing things in their large iron skillets that sizzled as their stoves were pumping up arcs of fire and smoke into the air.
As he walked towards the main street, he noticed the backs of the scantily-clad girls for whom he'd bought beer 4 hours earlier. They had identical turtle tattoos on their upper right shoulders. The taller one, with long black hair, hot pink bra and white daisy dukes, turned her head around then caught sight of the soldier. She saw his reflection in front of her, smiled, raised her drink at his direction. He nodded. He could still smell her jasmine perfume. He felt his pockets. His wallet and keys were still intact. ‘Whew,’ he thought. He looked up to the right, saw the bus depot sign, then turned to the left and walked slowly, both hands in his pockets. The bus depot was at the opposite side of the barracks he was stationed in and his sleeping quarters were behind it.
A woman with fair-complexion, standing around 5 foot 6 inch tall, and a dark-skinned boy crossed his path. He gazed at the boy then looked at the woman in front of him. He acknowledged their presence with a slight salute. The woman replied with a gentle nod. She wore a thick white lace blouse under a black polyester gabardine jacket and a matching knee length skirt. Her hair was tightly knotted into a bun, her walk was brisk and she held tightly on her black patent purse and a plastic legal folder. They approached the fruit stalls. There were a few empty stalls on the left of the narrow street going to the bus depot. The mango vendor on the first stall on the right raised her fly swatter at them and smiled at her. She smiled back at the vendor, an old woman clad in a denim cap, black sweater and jeans.
Her name was Kismet. Short for Kissandra Meterie. Her parents wanted a different name for their daughter that didn’t start with Maria, much to the disdain of the priest who had a hard time pronouncing her name during her baptism. They have been walking for at least 10 minutes but this was the time she noticed that the boy would stop, take a few deep breaths with his eyes closed, then open them and catch up with his mom. It set her pulse running. He’s too old to be carried, she thought. The square toes of her white shoes were already caked with mud as the boy ran after her. He wore a white cotton pique’ shirt tucked in tight khaki shorts.
“Manay, what is that perfume you are wearing?” Ferdinand asked his mom.
“I no wear perfume, Momo!” Kismet replied, tugging her son to move along.
“Manay, where is that perfume coming from, it smells soo good,” he insisted, skipping to get closer to his mom.
“What perfume? It stinks like Durian here!” she growled then stopped, turned her back and glared at him.
“I just want to know where that nice smell comes from,” he quietly replied looking around.
Kismet stepped back then she slowly took her son’s hand and proceeded to a stall to the right where a grey haired woman wearing a camouflage bandanna, blue t-shirt and a long black skirt was crouching on a hollow block in front of a makeshift wooden table. She kept swatting the drizzle of flies feasting on an array of tropical fruits covered in plastic wrap in a square plastic container.
“Hoy, pruts here, pris pruts, hurry!” she flashed her toothless smile and beckoned her bony fingers at them.
“Here! Is this the one that you think is a perfume? Yuck!” Kismet pointed at the spiky greenish-brown thing that’s just right in front of her son, she took her hankie out of her purse and covered her nose. He inhaled loudly, closed his eyes, exhaled, smiled then opened his eyes and looked at his mom.
He pointed at the saran-wrapped durian meat and asked, “Can I have this, please?”
“Hay Momo, we are going to be late for our interview, we still have to catch the bus for Manila,” his mom hurriedly opened her purse, “Besides, why you want this now, you come here all the time?” She handed the coins to the vendor. The old woman smiled and gave the bag to his open arms.
He shrugged and grinned. He took another whiff of the precious cargo inside the brown paper bag.
In the taxi going to the US Embassy at Roxas Boulevard, Momo glanced at his mom. She sat erect with the bags on her lap. He held on to his little brown paper bag with the durian fruit still inside. He peeked in, his left hand reached down and unwrapped the plastic wrapper, took a smidgen of the fruit then dabbed the right side of his neck with it. He took another whiff of his ‘cologne’ then leaned back, seemingly proud of his accomplishment.
Kismet noticed that. How interesting, she thought, as she watched his face lit up.
“Ay, you eat that Momo, not wear it,” Kismet said.
“But I want to smell good for the ‘Kano’, he replied.
“Why? You don’t have to smell nice to meet the Kano for your interview.” “Sige ka. If the ‘Kano’ smell you like that, he will not let you to America,” she raised her voice then took out her hankie and wiped the area where her son smeared some of the fruit.
He pouted and crossed his arms.
“Hala ka, no chocolates, walang snow, no Cadillacs, and no big Daddy to carry you,” she added emphatically. He slouched on his seat, hands crossed, still pouting.
The taxi driver made a face and opened his window.
There were protesters outside the US Embassy that afternoon. Momo looked outside to see the commotion. A white cardboard sign with “Down to US Imperialists who killed 100,000 Filipinos in the 1900s,” written in large red marker faced him. He turned to his mom, whose neck tensed up because the demonstrators almost enveloped the taxi. This was the time when the song by the Fifth Dimension started playing in the radio, “When the moon in the Seventh House. . . then it was mingled with screams of “Yankee Go Home!”
The taxi driver stopped the car. He told them to leave because it’s as far as he can go.
This was the early 70’s.
Audra remembered that day as if it was just yesterday.
“Ma’am?” The thick, bass drawl of a man’s voice startled her.
“Where should I drop this?” The tall, black FedEx guy asked as he pointed at a medium-sized brown box tautly secured with grey packing tape on the side of the front door. She blinked twice before she could answer and took a deep breath. She looked at him and smiled.
“Oh, just leave it inside, there,” she pointed at a corner next to the black teak lectern. The rays of the sun kissed her dark brown frizzy hair as she was trying to get her bearings back. When she finally signed the receipt on the clipboard and handed it back to him, she turned around, opened the door and paused. She took a deep breath and checked every detail of her café from left to right, and tried to muster the courage to walk past two steps to take in all of what has transpired from the last 18 months.
“Durian Tree Café”, she thought as she walked slowly towards the kitchen to check on her staff then turned around, eyed the place wistfully and thought, “My baby!”
Joe Mendoza graduated with a BA in English in Creative Writing at San Francisco State University in 2019. He published a book of poetry and a short story titled, “Dear Father, I am Maria” in 2019. Now 56, his wanderlust has him temporarily situated away from Berkeley and in his hometown of Davao, Philippines. He previously worked for the University of California–Berkeley and Accenture. He plans to release his second book of poetry and debut novel, Kismet at the Durian Tree, in 2021.
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