‘L’amour, CV’ by Lysley Tenorio
From The Atlantic:
My sister, Isa, speaks English and Tagalog. But one word, she could say in many languages: koigokoro, beminnen, mahal, amor. “It’s the most important thing,” she used to say, “the only thing. L-O-V-E. Love.” So when we learned that we would be moving to California, to a city called L’amour, she called it home, the place where we were always meant to be. I believed her.
This was January of 1974, our final days in the Philippines. Isa was sixteen, I was eight, and we were from San Quinez, a small southern village surrounded by sugar-cane fields and cassava groves, with a single paved road winding through. Every house was like ours, made of bamboo and nipa and built on stilts, and every neighbor was somehow family. No one was a stranger where we lived.
Like many Filipino men at the time, my father joined the U.S. Navy, and after he had served in Korea and Vietnam, his request for a transfer to America was finally granted. “Our plan from the very beginning,” my father said. My mother stayed silent, rubbing the leaf of a houseplant between her fingers until it ripped. My brother, Darwin, who was twelve, said he didn’t care one way or another. But Isa started packing that same day. “L’amour, L’amour,” she went on, like it was the name of a special friend she had that others never would. Friends and neighbors called her stuck-up and boastful; our oldest cousin called her an immigrant bitch. “American bitch,” Isa corrected her, and called our cousin a village peasant who would never know a bigger world. “You’re stuck here forever.” As though no place was worse than the one you were from.
This is us on the plane, the day we leave: across the aisle my mother stares ahead, barely blinking, never speaking, and my father rifles through papers, rereading each document as though he can’t figure out its meaning. Darwin sleeps next to me, so deeply that I double-check the rise and fall of his chest to make sure he isn’t dead. On the other side of me is Isa, and only when she looks at me do I realize I’m crying. She unbuckles my seat belt and lets me sit on her lap, promises me that I’ll be fine in L’amour.
We land in San Francisco but we keep moving. As soon as we claim our boxes and bags, we board a shuttle van and head south on the freeway, turn east hours later. I’m lying down for most of the ride, my head on Isa’s lap, feeling our speed. We never traveled so quickly or smoothly on the dirt roads back home; I could almost sleep. But suddenly we’re slow, and the driver yawns, “Almost there.” Isa looks confused, then panicked, and when I sit up all I see are endless fields of gray stalks, the miles of freeway we leave behind, and, up ahead, we seem to be driving into a cloud. “Fog again,” the driver says, and down the road, a sign becomes clearer. Welcome to Lemoore, CA, it says, ENJOY YOUR STAY!
They sound the same—L’amour, Lemoore—but I know they’re not. “Lemoore.” I tug at Isa’s sleeve. “What’s that mean?” She doesn’t answer.