The Filipino Dragon
My father is loud. He announces his presence. He talks deeper when we are around strange men, he chews loudly, he sneezes at Volume 11. He works. He says he’s doing it for me. He says he had to trudge across narrow coastal lowlands to get where he is now, that he can’t find his way back. I ask him what he’s doing, and he says he hopes one day I’ll remember the fun memories we make. He runs miles every morning. His hair is greying. He studies a late-night program on the fearsome, predatory instincts and defense mechanisms of Komodo dragons. Their powerful jaws, sharp claws, armored scales, swinging tails. He eats all the leftovers off my plate.
My father says his parents are church-blind. He says that God doesn’t exist, that God never gave him anything, that everything he has he worked for. My father says his parents are embarrassing, annoying, deaf, Filipino, too Filipino, fearful, neglectful, loud. I tell him my grandparents are gentle, forgetful, patient. He tells me I’m wrong.
I teach my grandpa to use the camera on his clamshell phone each time I see him. He forgets his email password once a month. He never forgets to tell me that my brother and I are the last to carry the family name. My grandma can always be found wrapped in three coats three sizes too big for her. She never got used to winter. She was a nurse and had to use pagers so often I imagine it feels freeing to refuse my father’s offer to buy her a phone. She tells me about being allowed to come to America sometime after West Side Story as one of many Filipino nurses, and arriving as one of few. Surrounded by white people in white rooms who gave her a white coat. My grandma tells me that there weren’t many things they were familiar with. She tells me she stuck to doing what she knew would work, and prayed that it would continue to.
She tells me she would turn herself into my food if it meant I could grow into a dragon.
My grandma tells me that lately she is more afraid than ever that she’ll be attacked while morning-walking around the block. Her mask can hide most of her golden-brown face, but not her starfruit-slanted eyes, not her r’s that roll for generations like rocks on the ocean floor. My grandma tells me that even though they’ve been here for decades she still feels they are tago nang tago. She tells me that those who are attacking people who look like us are hiding from themselves. She tells me about moving closer to the ocean, toward a coastal lowland opposite the one she grew up on. She says that at the beach, the water washes dirt off everyone. “There,” she says, “nobody can hide.”
My father says my grandparents have always been so scared of trying new things. My father screams at his parents through the phone, mostly doling out fiery computer help, sometimes because they are hard of hearing, always because he doesn’t feel heard by them. My father screams at crabs trying to camouflage as rocks to evade Komodo dragons.
On my father’s birthday, Mom makes a steak. We stick our sharpest knife into the carcass. I don’t want to chew through the sinew, but my father is adamant that it’ll keep my breath hot. My father says he’s going somewhere near the coastal lowlands, but a little closer. Somewhere called Sydney. Everyone smiles, but we know we will miss him. Mom says it’s probably only for a few days, but it’ll be weeks again. My little brother and I look forward to placing the little souvenir snow globe he’ll bring back for us onto the bookshelf where dozens sit shoulder to shoulder, silent.
In health class, they play a video of our reproductive anatomy. There are glands, testes, and urethras. I think about the time I saw my father jettisoning into the toilet, how he thought nothing of the double-edged sword he was wielding, how my mom has only taught me to pee sitting down. I’m sad to find out I’m going to sprout hair everywhere and become hungrier for meat and crabs. I feel scary, and I run to the bathroom to examine how my eczema is spreading, splotching my skin with flecks and bumps of yellow. I look like a jaundiced dragon. I pray to my grandparents to reverse whatever is happening. If I were a crab, I’d be attracted to other crabs. That day, my friend lends me some extra quarters, and I buy deodorant from Walgreens, wrapped in plastic.
I wish a cathartic emotional conversation with my father could be prepackaged and store-bought.
Sometimes I hang out with my father. He plays baseball with me.
“You could be good at this if you stopped giving up on the play,” he shouts. “Nothing is handed to you; you have to go out and get it.”
He hits the ball again, and I dive too eagerly to my left. I misjudge the trajectory, and the ball hits me directly in the sternum.
“Wrong.” He enunciates the “g.” “There’s no crying,” he reminds me. I wonder what I can cry about. He’s teaching me to develop a spiny exoskeleton of some kind. A defense mechanism. I scramble to my feet and pull the rocks out of my hands. These landlocked pieces of gravel aren’t the rocks I want to be. I hunch over in ready position, glove out. This is the earliest memory I have of my back hurting.
Later, when we take a water break, we sit side-by-side. I’m the closest I’ve been to my father in weeks. His breath is hot. I look at the crashing waves inside my sun-heated Crystal Geyser plastic bottle. “When I was your age my family lived across the street from a park,” he recounts. “My father would never play sports with me.” His voice is riddled with tiny little bubbles, like there’s something boiling beneath the surface of his baritones. “I would go to the park and throw the ball off the wall there. To myself.” His voice has cooled into something smooth and maybe metallic.
I peek at him. His eyes are river-bottom brown. I want to crawl into them.
I ask why he wanted to play sports.
“That’s what American fathers and sons do,” he replies. He turns to me. “It’s our bonding time.”
My father sleeps in a room across the hall from mine. The blinds are always open. Even at nighttime they don’t budge. Sometimes when I hear him groaning, I know he has sleep paralysis and needs to be woken up.
One night I dream there are bandages being wrapped around my face. I can’t see anything. I can’t see who’s doing it. But their breath is hot on my neck. I scream for help but the bandages dip into my gaping mouth, my saliva saturates them, thickens them as they sink deeper down my throat. Then I’m on a boat, my back bandaged slammed-door shut. There are others who wanted to get on, but there’s no room. They’re plunging off the shores of the coastal lowlands, past the crabs hiding under the rocks, their tails whipping behind them. They’re following the boat, and I know they can’t swim forever. I realize my whole body is prepackaged for sinking. I can’t shake myself free.
I wake up screaming for my mom, but my father walks in. I tell him I think I just got sleep paralysis for the first time, like he might be proud of me. For being paralyzed like him. He tells me to go back to sleep. As I lie back down, my upper back spasms.
My father hates when I call him father, but I’m beyond calling him Daddy. I think about how I inserted my mom’s wedding wring into a slot behind the pedal of the recumbent bike in our basement. How it wouldn’t come out. I think about how my dad jokes about their marriage being a mistake. I think how lucky I am that he didn’t catch me spelling “ring” like “wring.” I wonder what he means when he says it’s wrong.
On my birthday I find myself on another boat. It’s not going fast. My little brother gives me a rock, which he says has legs. I name the rock Rodrick. Rodrick’s body is rough, and heavy enough to break glass. His legs never show themselves, but I can see indentations that could be mistaken for eyes. I feel like crying because Rodrick’s eyes are the first I’ve been able to maintain eye contact with.
My dad says we’re on our way to an Angel Island. I don’t know what that means, or why they’re taking me there on my birthday. My face is becoming pimply, and all my teeth look canine sharp. I lick myself clean. Over the edge of the boat I watch the shadowy archipelago on the horizon. I imagine this is how coastal lowlands look. I ask my dad if we can go home to the narrow strips of tropical sand focused in my mind’s eye.
“We can’t go there.”
“It’s an eroding, dangerous seashore.”
“We would stand out because we’ve been gone too long,” he explains. His eyes say easy prey as he turns back to my mom. The spot between my shoulder blades throbs.
I feel a wiggle in my mouth and stick my hand inside it. I can feel it hanging onto my gums by a single thread, so I press it between my index and middle fingers and pull out my last baby tooth. I’m glad I didn’t have to wait for my parents to tie it to a door handle and slam it when we got back to our house in the cement-clogged hills. “Happy birthday,” the door would say. I think about swallowing my teeth. I think about how nothing is permanent.
The day before I move away to college, I hear my dad groaning, screams muffled by his own mouth. I follow the noise to our wrinkly, black leather sofa. I know he wants to wake up, but can’t on his own, so I shake him. He doesn’t thank me, and instead looks bothered. I’m holding a book I bought with my allowance entitled How Not to Be Wrong: The Power of Mathematical Thinking. I’ve been feeling so guilty for procrastinating reading it.
He sees it in my hands. “Today is finally the day,” he tells me. I hunch my back at a venomous bite of pain.
I ask him if I look like a Komodo dragon from the Philippines, if the coastal lowlands are inside me, eroding me into a dangerous seashore. He stares down at his phone for half a minute.
“Well, Komodo dragons don’t live in the Philippines. But new findings show that there’s a similar lizard called the V. bitatawa lizard in the Philippines that’s really closely related. Too bad nobody knows that name. I’d rather be a dragon than a lizard. I’d rather breathe fire.” He shows me a picture of its yellow-splotched body from National Geographic. The caption says that it has a unique double-ended penis and that unlike the Komodo, the bitatawa has evolved to be vegetarian. Both species once had wings, but they shrank because they had no use for them anymore.
I tell him I’ve spent my life trying to avoid becoming a Komodo dragon. He looks at my clawless hands and tells me that I’m not, that I’m becoming something else, but that I’m growing up. I tell him that bitatawa should still be called a dragon.
Suddenly, before he can answer, I hand the book to my dad. “Why are you giving this to me?” he asks.
I want to be wrong.
A crab gathers the courage to scurry from the shadows of one rock to another.
My dad tells me that sometimes you want to be wrong, like how you want jumping to feel like flying, but the moment passes and years go by, and you realize you will never grow wings like you felt you had in that moment. Sometimes you want to be wrong, because if you’re right it’ll send your life barreling in another direction. Maybe if you were wrong, you could trick yourself into forgetting about it. Maybe you could forget where you came from, how your lungs are burnt from breathing fire, how you scared away all the crabs.
He hands me a list of life advice:
Breath should always stay hot.
You are a better person than me, but still on the run.
Coastal lowlands will all be underwater soon anyway.
Crabs have a hard time learning new things, besides new ways to hide.
There are always only two choices.
I fold the list. My eyes are wet. My back rips open. I rise up, and up and up, and suddenly I realize I’m floating. I get the feeling I’m not coming back.
I’m tago nang tago. But I’m not easy prey. I’m done hiding. I’m going to fly across the mountains, then to the coastal lowlands where I’ll become a dragon, and then a crab, and then a rock. I’m going home.
COLE PRAGIDES is a Korean-Filipino American writer from San Francisco. He’s currently pursuing his undergraduate in Environmental Engineering at the University of Colorado, Boulder. His work has recently been published in High Shelf Press, The Exposition Review, and Shizue Seigel’s fourth WriteNow! SF Bay anthology, Essential Truths: The Bay Area in Color. He can be contacted by email at email@example.com, or through Instagram @redwoodribcage.