• Victoria Lambinicio

The Transformation of Lualhati

I. A Woman with Brown Skin

The low light was dark on Lualhati’s skin. Her black hair and eyes blended in. Meanwhile, the rest of the group, a family of three, of Whites, did not fade into the abyss. No, not like her. This did not escape the mother, Helen, as she evaluated her son’s fiancée. They were all sitting at an Italian restaurant. The lights were dim, romantically, and because it was so near closing time, there were few other diners. The parents were meeting Lualhati for the first time even though she had been with their son for three years.


Lualhati had been kissing up to her all night, and Helen wasn’t having it. Consequently, the conversation between the two had been stunted and Helen was thrilled at the worried look etched on Lualhati’s face. Let her worry. Of course, that wasn’t because Helen was racist and Lualhati was an Asian woman, a Filipino woman. Helen simply had a bad feeling about Lualhati. Wouldn’t Lualhati’s beliefs be far too different from her son’s? Asians, she knew, believed in strange things like zodiacs and the yin and yang. Meanwhile, Helen and her family were more realistic. They believed in proper science.


Finally, Helen left her thoughts behind and she said, paired with some laughter, a joke: “You know, it’s funny that our last name is Brown, but you’re the brown one!”


The father, her husband, Richard, laughed uproariously. Helen watched as Lualhati had to struggle with her own laughter. Her son, Robert, was different. He glared at her, his own mother, and said, “It’s a perfect tan. Women everywhere pay lots of money to tan their skin. Lua has it naturally.”


Helen smiled with a little “oops.” Lualhati must be sensitive and that’s why Robert had to rise up to defend her against a joke. Richard only continued to smile brightly, but Helen knew her husband well. He was thinking the same thing.


Dinner had started simply enough. Richard asked where the two had met. The couple then told an adorable little story where they bumped heads over the last available chair at the university library. Robert gave it to Lualhati in exchange for her phone number.


“That’s so impressive, Lualhati,” Helen cooed, “You know English well enough that you can go to a university here, and Duke, no less! You must have studied very hard back in your native country.”


“Actually, I was born and raised in Virginia,” Lualhati replied in a small voice. She put on a weak smile, but also suddenly looked a little tired, and Helen grew irritated.


“Oh, I see.”


A heavy silence followed after that. Helen, again, went back into her thoughts, although she normally wasn’t so thoughtful. Finally, after much agony, Richard lifted his glass and Helen rejoiced that it seemed he was ending their dinner. He stood up, tall, blonde, blue-eyed, an Adonis when they met and still was, and said, “Let’s finish dinner with a toast that Lualhati will finally become an American citizen!”


Helen laughed with joy, happy for her, but when she turned to look at the couple again, her smile dimmed as darkly as the lights. The couple was silent. Lualhati had an expression of exhaustion and discomfort. Robert, her son, her dear son, was in an obvious rage.


“Dad, she told you, like, 5 seconds ago. She was born here.”


Helen gave a shrill giggle. Her Adonis looked a little flustered and Helen thought to hide her own rage that her son would talk back to his own father over a tiny woman who wasn’t much to talk about. Her husband then said, “Yeah, I forgot. Well, it’s late. Let’s just toast and be on our merry way.”


Helen looked at Lualhati for one last time and saw the expression of relief wash over that tiny face. Dinner was done.




II. Find a Nicer Girl

Robert had too much to drink during dinner, so Lualhati was the one driving them to the home they owned together. The one that they had sacrificed so much to save the money for when they decided, after their studies were done, that they were made for each other. The one that, right now, had become a safe haven from comments like, “It’s funny that our last name is Brown, but you’re the brown one!”


Now that she knew why it took three years and an engagement for Robert to take her to meet his parents, she wondered how many more occasions she would have to endure. She and Robert were going to be together forever and that meant that she would be with his family too.


Then ten minutes after driving away from the restaurant, Robert’s phone beeped. It was a text message. He roused from his sleep and checked it and Lualhati waited for him to tell her who it was, he usually did so dutifully, but he didn’t say anything. She heard the clicking of his fingers flying over the keyboard, then he laid back down to his slumber.


She got worried.


Later that night, Lualhati had to see who had texted him. She started rummaging through his clothes, looking while Robert was busy taking a shower. She had a strong hunch that it was his mother with comments about the dinner and she needed to know what the results of her performance was. She had worked too hard to laugh at all of Helen's horrible jokes to face a negative result.


Unfortunately, when she found the phone, she was right that it was Robert’s mother. But when Lualhati opened it, she found the words, “Why don’t you let me find you a nicer girl?”


Lualhati’s heart sank, like a heavy rock into a dark hole that opened up underneath her.

“How could someone be nicer than Lua?” Robert had replied.


“Just someone nicer, honey,” wrote Helen, and that was it. Robert made no other remarks.


Lualhati really should have known. Of course, after such an agonizing dinner where Robert’s parents had to be told and retold of her origins, which treated them like stupid people, her future mother-in-law wouldn’t like her.


When Lualhati heard the shower shut off, she put the phone back in its place. By the time Robert emerged from the bathroom, she was looking quizzically at her reflection in the mirror.




III. Eating Cats and Dogs

The next day, Robert was in the break room, taking a break from work. He was hunched in his chair and had taken out his phone to cruise through social media when he found his mother’s Facebook post. Instantly, he grew in a rage, almost blinding, and thanking his stars that his mother and Lualhati weren’t friends on the site. His mother had posted, “We had dinner with Robert’s fiancée last night. Don’t worry, no cats or dogs were harmed in the process. We were at Olive Garden, lol!”


Immediately, he called his mother and demanded that she delete the post. Then he uninvited his parents to the wedding.


Helen said, again shrill, “How could your own parents not go to the wedding! Of course, we’re going!”


“No, mom, I am sick of your racism—”


“My racism? My racism? I don’t have a racist bone in my body, and you know it!”


“Cats and dogs, Mom? Cats and dogs!”


“It was a joke, I was making fun of those who actually are racist, that they would think that Asians would eat cats and dogs! Don’t be so sensitive!”


“I don’t care. No, you are not coming to the wedding!”


The two, mother and son, were quiet, huffing and puffing only, for a few seconds. Finally, his mother said in a low and threatening voice, “So, you’d pick that girl over your own parents?”


“Mom, you were a horrible racist!”


“Answer my question!”


Instead of answering, Robert just hung up. He sighed and sat back in his chair. After a while, steaming the whole time, thinking of Lualhati, her innocence, and yet the inhumanity that was being thrown at her, he went back to work.




IV. Shopping for White Skin

Meanwhile, Lualhati walked through the mall, a high-class one. She was on a hunt, but she barely knew what she was doing. All she knew was that when she looked in the mirror that morning, she decided that she did look a little strange. She had never cared for her looks before because she was so decidedly normal-looking that she never felt the need to enhance nor uplift anything. She never wore makeup. But now, she found herself in front of the makeup department, walking toward the most expensive brand name there was.


“Hello ma’am, how may I help you today?” said the cosmetics specialist, a man.


“Hi, I’m just looking around, thank you.”


When the specialist bowed out and left her to her own devices, Lualhati started with the lipsticks. Everyone loved bright red. She took down a vial of it and tried it on, and it looked fine enough, but wasn’t exactly the effect that she wanted. She wanted to feel suddenly, magically good enough for Helen’s approval, and she had a specific image of how she would go about getting it. She handed the vial over to the specialist anyway and he went to get her a new vial from the back.


Next, she looked at beige lipstick. She knew that people also liked to wear their skin tone on their lips, but when she tried it on, Lualhati drew back, tortured. The brown only accentuated her skin tone. She suddenly remembered, “You know, it’s funny that our last name is Brown, but you’re the brown one!”


The makeup specialist must have caught her expression because he said, “No, you’re right, it’s not your color. Do you want to try a darker brown?”


A darker brown? When she was already too brown?


Lualhati said, “No, thank you. I’ll just keep looking.”


She moved on to the blushes. There were so many, in compacts, lined up with one hue related to the next hue, descending from pink to brown, left to right. Last night, Helen had a rosy, pink hue on her cheeks that made her look fresh, like she had just stepped in from the cold. Lualhati went to look for it, but then the specialist came over and said, “No, no, you want to stay over on this right side. They match better with your skin.”


Her skin?


“You just want to go a few shades lighter, ma’am.”


Her skin was such a problem, Lualhati thought, now it wouldn’t let her buy whatever she wanted. And what she wanted was that pink, rosy hue on her cheeks to look like it did on Helen, but now even this cosmetic specialist was saying that she was too dark.

“Ma’am?”


“Oh, I’ll just take this one anyway,” Lualhati picked out a high-pink hue trapped in a compact, and lied, “I’m shopping for a friend.”


“Oh, ok! Yes, ma’am.”


Empowered by her lie, she made her last stop at the foundations. Of course, foundations were the solution to the new visual effect she wanted on her reflection; it must have been her inexperience with makeup that made her miss something so important. Now she lightly fingered the bottles. Did they hold the secret to Helen’s approval? Lualhati found Helen’s color, then changed her mind. She found Robert’s exact hue and went to the counter where the specialist was waiting patiently at the register.


Later, she also bought a blonde wig and heels higher than what she was used to.




V. Doesn’t Understand Tagalog

An hour after Lualhati finished shopping, she and her bridesmaids, who were all Filipino or Filipino-Americans but for Angela, Robert’s younger sister, gathered together at Kababayan, a Filipino restaurant. A popular television series, Kadenang Ginto, played quietly on the television placed in the corner of the floor. The group’s table was full of plates: lumpia, adobo, dinuguan, and laughter.


Angela was 17 years old with platinum blonde hair and bright blue eyes, the same shade as her father. When they were first walking in, she had stood over everyone else’s heads like a bright star over the other bridesmaids who were colored black and brown like the night sky, Lualhati observed. And Angela was kind, not like her mother.


Lualhati watched the girl laugh along with the group even though she couldn’t understand a word of what was being said; it was all in Tagalog. They were all there to discuss the wedding, but as it always was with Filipinos, Lualhati thought with derision, suddenly embarrassed at how everyone was acting around such a sophisticated girl like Angela, it didn’t take long for conversation to move from the wedding to idle chatter, the latest in celebrity gossip.


Rosalita, Lualhati’s maid of honor, pointed to the television with her lips when the news turned on. It was about that very scandal the women had been giggling about. It took so much of Lualhati’s strength to hold back a groan when she saw her best friend point using her lips in a pucker, a gross habit of her heritage’s culture.


Next, another friend, Dolores, started laughing and dancing to a happy beat playing from a commercial. Lualhati glanced at Angela who remained in her seat, but laughed and clapped her hands to the beat, along with the others.


Lualhati felt the shame grow over her skin even as her deep sense of sensibility knew that she was only being affected by the racism of her future mother-in-law. Still, the fact remained that, ever since that dinner, she had gotten stuck between two poles: her skin color and the items that were hiding in the shopping bag at her feet.


She knew she couldn’t show the items to anyone, or else they would know that she had been defeated. They would know that she didn’t want to be brown anymore.


“Aren’t you going to join in,” said Rosalita.


Lualhati turned to Rosalita and said, “No, I’m just not feeling well.”


That’s when a voice, like the light sounding of bells, came into the conversation saying, “Oh no! Do you think you’re coming down with something?”


It was Angela. Lualhati’s world stopped as she was forced to look into the girl’s beautiful blue eyes with her own black ones. Then she felt an ocean gather between them and its waves crash against her, pushing her away from what she now desired most. Lualhati had to force her mouth open and her own voice, trying to sound chipper like nails scratching on a chalkboard, said, “No, I’m not, I think I just woke up on the wrong side of the bed.”


“Oh, I’m sorry to hear that, but I’m glad to know that you’re not sick with something. Anyway, I hope you feel better soon,” replied Angela before she turned back around to the others’ conversation and the Tagalog phrases that she didn’t understand.


Lualhati was silent afterward.


Then Rosalita touched her arm to get her attention, “Did you and Robert have a fight?”


“No, no, nothing like that. I really just woke up like this.”


“Well, okay,” and Rosalita dropped the subject. They turned back to the main group. Because the television had turned to a scene where the male lead was dramatically professing his love to the main character, and Angela had asked what was going on, the women had decided to introduce Angela to a phrase of Tagalog, mahal kita (I love you).


“Maal keeta,” said Angela and the other bridesmaids corrected her. Angela got it on her second try with perfect pronunciation. Lualhati wanted to cry, lubog (submerged) in jealousy. Why couldn’t she be Angela instead? Why couldn’t she have been born a different person? Would she ever be good enough?


Ever so slowly, she was floating away from rationality. There was no way she could be eternally trapped into one identity. People were ever-changing and so, life was simply not like that. She thought again about her purchases. The wig was as blonde as Angela’s hair and, though people wouldn’t usually mix Asians with blonde hair, Lualhati had seen it before. They looked great, but how would it look on her? Against her better sensibilities, she felt a surge of renewed hope. She caught her reflection as she checked the time on her phone.


Tonight, all this will change, and I’ll be like a new person, she thought.


A few minutes later, when the bridesmaids had moved onto the phrase, pusong pinoy (the heart of a Filipino), that was used to call Filipinos back to their values, Lualhati stood up and excused herself. Everyone then stood up with her and said that they should go too; there was no point in carrying on the meeting without the bride. So, they left, one by one, five bridesmaids and Angela, until Lualhati was alone with Rosalita who was putting the tables back in their original places.


And when those two separated in the parking lot, Lualhati noticed that her best friend was looking at her a bit too intently for her comfort. She clutched her shopping bag closer to her body, scared that maybe Rosalita could see through the paper bag, but Rosalita didn’t say anything except, “Bye, Lua.”




VI. Hoping to be White

The silence of the house, empty without Robert who was still at work, was thick. Lualhati waded through its thickness, like a swimmer up against the ocean’s current, and her footsteps never made a sound, as she went toward the bedroom, clutching the paper bag with her loot. On the outside, if someone had been there to see her, she would have looked like a maniac, smiling brightly at nothing in particular. No one would have known the image Lualhati had been carrying in her mind, no, her heart, that made her smile so.


She reached the bedroom, went inside, and then stood in front of the mirror. A peculiar woman, someone Lualhati suddenly didn’t recognize, was waiting for her: a small brown woman, black hair, black eyes, thin lips, and, sadly, a flat nose. It was strange for such a woman to be the one looking back at her from inside the mirror when, actually, Lualhati had a completely different visage.


Barely rational, if at all, she quickly opened the bag again and took out the wig. She put it on with joy, careful not to let a single black strand of hair escape from the blonde wig’s clutches as she laid it on top of her head. And when she felt the wig clasp on, she breathed a sigh of relief that she wouldn’t have to live in shame anymore; she wouldn’t have to hide her truest feelings that yes, the jokes did hurt and made her think that she may have preferred a different life, one with love, one with a different appearance.


An inhale now. She was about to begin a new existence.


Then she looked again at the mirror. The blonde didn’t match the rest of her.


She looked like a tramp.


Despondent at what she wasn’t seeing, Lualhati thought that it was a simple fix: she just needed to lighten her skin. And so, she snatched the foundation from the bag, the foundation that was four shades lighter than her skin tone, Robert’s tone, and started to slab it on, taking the liquid out from its bottle in big goops. She thought that if she just had lighter skin, it would match the blonde hair and she would be fulfilled. But when she was finished, after she had pasted foundation on her arms, legs, and finally, her face, she looked at the mirror again and only saw a fraud.


If only I was real, she thought with the tears welling up in her eyes. Embarrassment and shame beating against her chest, she laid her head on the bed and cried. She must have forgotten to watch the time because Robert suddenly appeared. He wrapped his arms around her in a warm embrace, whispering slowly, lovingly, “Lua, come here.”


Robert, the love of her life, who she loved more than anything. Why did she have to be so brown? Why did she have to be from a culture that had so much wrong with it? Why couldn’t his mom just approve of her despite her obvious flaws?


Instead, her future husband rocked her in his arms, letting her tears wet his shirt. Every now and then, he would say, “I’m going to fix it, Lua, I will,” until finally, she fell asleep. When she woke up, it was morning. The wig was gone and the foundation had been wiped off of her body. A text message from Rosalita waited for her on her nightstand. It said, “Are you pregnant?”


“No,” Lualhati texted back, but then ran into the bathroom to throw up.




V. Three Pregnancy Tests

Hours later, Robert still hadn’t come home from last night when he caught Lualhati wearing the wig and foundation. She went through her previous mental state over and over again, kicking herself, thinking: What was she thinking? Did she really think that a blonde wig and some foundation would make her a different person, an approved person, a White person? Then she thought about why she suddenly wanted to become White in the first place and grew ashamed that one small occurrence of the racism she had felt all her life had such an effect on her.


Lualhati met eyes with Rosalita. Her best friend had convinced her to buy a few pregnancy tests and so, they met in front of the convenience store nearest to Lualhati. When Lualhati drew near, Rosalita gave her a small but knowing smile. She said, “Lua, I knew there was something wrong with you when you spent the whole party just glaring at everyone.”


“I was just in a bad mood,” Lualhati insisted again.


“No,” replied Rosalita, “I don’t think so.”


And they walked into the store.


There was no way Lualhati could be pregnant. She was on the pill. And yet, there they were, at her best friend’s prodding, walking into the store. Her best friend that had married her own love five years before, when they were both 25 years old and Lualhati was her maid of honor, and Rosalita then had two beautiful children. Did that necessarily make Rosalita more knowledgeable than Lualhati on such matters? Lualhati was so sure she wasn’t pregnant.


When they got to the appropriate aisle, she wondered at all the different brands of pregnancy tests. When Rosalita proceeded to take three tests of three different brands, Lualhati let out a little gasp, “You want me to take three?”


Rosalita smiled again, saying, “Of course, just to make sure.”


Lualhati gave her best friend an incredulous look, but accepted the idea. She put her hands in her pockets and, having only one objective, they wanted to make short business of the trip. Unfortunately, at the register, the cashier decided to make friendly conversation with them, starting with, “Oh my god, who’s the one expecting?”


Lualhati sheepishly raised her hand, returning the cashier’s friendliness, and replied, “Me, but we don’t know yet.”


The beeping of the register began, counting the seconds that the cashier held them back from accomplishing their ultimate goal. The cashier smiled. She was a bit advanced in age and so, when she smiled them a bit like a mother to them, that was her right. She said, “You know, I have three kids now, but when I was on my first child, I read every book I could about child-raising. But I knew that I wanted to raise my child progressively, and there were no books on that.”


“What do you mean by ‘progressively’,” asked Rosalita a little impatiently, but also aware that the poor cashier was only doing her job.


“Like, if my son wanted to wear skirts, then he could wear skirts. I thought, ‘What if my child was non-binary and I didn’t know what to do with it’?” the cashier said, “Of course, I wanted to be a good mom.”


“Oh, I have two kids and I’m a bit old-fashioned with them,” Rosalita replied, “The boy plays with G.I. Joes and the girl plays with Barbies, and all that. But once they leave my house, of course, they have every freedom to live the way they want.”


“And that’s your right,” said the cashier with a note of finality, putting the pregnancy tests in a plastic bag, “Eventually, nothing will stop the child’s actual nature.”


When they said goodbye to the cashier’s kindness and the two best friends made it back to Rosalita’s house for Lualhati to take the tests and have brunch with Rosalita’s family. Rosalita’s husband, Jorge, a half-Chilean and half-Argentine man raised in the States, was there. He smiled at them gaily and said, “So, did you two make it out okay?”


“Yeah, we got three tests,” Rosalita said before kissing Jorge in greeting.

Then she (and Jorge) practically shoved Lualhati into the bathroom.




VI. An Everlasting Love

When Lualhati next entered the home she and Robert shared together, there were bouquets of red roses in glass vases everywhere, on top of the counters, tables, on the floor, in every room. The scent of dew filled her nostrils and she waded through a new ocean, this time of red roses, and the current was pushing, not against her body, but with it, pushing her towards the balcony outside where she could see Robert, his eyes meeting hers. Lualhati had to cry as she walked through the makeshift garden that Robert had made of their home together, like walking through a new world where the colors were more vivid and the air more crisp.


He opened the glass doors and held out his hand. When she took it, Robert smiled quietly and pulled her into a warm embrace. Confused, she said, “What are you doing, Rob?”


“I’m showing you how beautiful you are,” he said as he lightly placed his lips on her forehead and then down to her lips, so softly.


After they pulled away, she grew embarrassed, saying, “Oh, stop. The roses are enough, really. They’re wonderful.”


“No, no, nothing will ever be enough, Lua,” he said. With one hand, he took a rose without thorns and placed it in her hair. His expression showed a bit of determination, and Lualhati remembered why she loved him so much, his willpower and his intelligence, before he continued with, “I swear, I fixed everything. You won’t have to sit through another racist thing ever again.”


“Oh, don’t worry about it. You can’t promise that, anyway,” Lualhati laughed into his arms, she didn’t always know why, but she knew he loved her too, he always made sure she felt loved, and then she said, “The world isn’t going to stop just because I felt a little bad.”


Robert took a step back away from Lualhati, bowed his head, and ran his hand through his hair. Then he said, “Look, I made a mistake. I had never lived through things like racism and I wasn’t on guard. But now I know and I can, Lua. I’m going to promise you the world.”


“And, I swear, that thought is all I need,” she said, pulling him back towards her until he had his arms wrapped around her body once again. They kissed, warmly, lovingly, and hungrily before pulling apart again.


Finally, after a moment of just looking at her future husband, Lualhati said, smiling—

“Robert, I’m pregnant.”




End.




Short Story by Victoria Lambinicio

Cover Photo by Jay-ar Cortez