“There’s a wandering violinist,” Darna whispers. She tilts her head to the left to indicate the man’s whereabouts. He plays with an exaggerated physicality, bending at the waist and then flinging himself in the opposite direction until his back arches. She doesn’t know what song he’s playing (it’s slow and fast all at once, she thinks), but his facial expression is set to “wistful.” Darna is often embarrassed on behalf of others, and so it is now with this violinist.
“It’s fine,” James says. He laughs gently at her discomfort and squeezes her for a moment.
“It smells like sterno and red wine.”
“It’s fine,” he repeats.
Against her wishes, Darna and James have enrolled their six- and eight-year-old children at Rivers Prep, a private school populated by the offspring of wealthy white people who, Darna freely admits, mean well. And yet they speak to her only when necessary, notably during the four weeks leading up to the school’s annual Around the World Festival. She was tasked with tamales and guacamole one year, and chow mein and pork buns the next, and though she is neither Mexican American nor Chinese American, she has done her duty. The mothers told her it was okay, it didn’t matter. “I’m bringing gravlax,” someone once said. “And I’m not even Swedish!”
The theme for this evening’s silent auction fundraiser is “It’s Magic!” The event committee, comprised of twenty-five parents, has festooned the hotel ballroom with silver stars and lightning bolts and poufs of purple and black tulle. Strategically placed fog machines and yards of twinkling lights have brought to fruition the desired effect of sweet, harmless mystery. Several of the school’s older students—8th graders—are performing simple sleight of hand tricks and illusions throughout the room. These little shows are scheduled only for the first thirty minutes of the event, after which attendees will presumably begin to fling their wallets open as they start to feel the effects of tonight’s signature cocktail, “The Abracadabra.”
Darna looks down and stares at her hands, which are preternaturally smooth, as if there are no bones beneath her skin. At events like this—where pre-formed cliques stand in tight buds and no one appears inclined to include her—she has a tendency to repeatedly examine her palms, her nails. James has told her several times now that this habit makes her appear unapproachable. And so she inhales and looks up, smiling as if she is enchanted by the whole spectacle. Abracadabra.
Darna is attending this fundraiser because she wants to make it clear to the other mothers that she participates. That she is a participant, i.e., one who takes part. She is no great conversationalist, though, and relies on James’ small-talk skills to navigate through these social scenarios. Tonight she clings casually to his side, and they share a tiny plate of figs and chevre wrapped with prosciutto.
“You look pretty,” James says.
He says this often these days, mostly as an afterthought. Darna doesn’t mind. She considers her black wrap dress and her red, ankle-strap heels. “Thank you,” she agrees. She searches for something to say that has nothing to do with their children. “This is confusing, don’t you think?” she says, holding up a fig. “Sweet and salty and creamy in a single bite?” She takes an exploratory nibble, and then delicately spits it into her napkin.
“What are you doing? Oh my god, Darna.”
“Sorry. It tastes wrong,” she says. “Doesn’t it?”
Before James can answer, he is lifted away by a wave of other fathers in dress shirts and slacks holding amber-colored cocktails. One of the men—there is always an overzealous one—wears a black velvet cape covered with embroidered moons, a nod to the magic theme. James looks over his shoulder and shrugs in farewell.
Unsure of what to do, Darna ends up in the ladies' room, where she considers walking into a stall and never coming out again. She wishes she were home with her children and that she had not left them in the distracted care of a teenager who responded, “I can totally do that,” to each of her gentle directives. She misses the trustworthy arms of Auntie Baby, her uncle’s widow, who arrived from the Philippines and moved in to help when the kids were toddlers. Barely a year had gone by before James announced that he felt like a stranger in his own house. Darna made the mistake of rolling her eyes, a gesture that drives James to extremes. The very next day, despite Auntie Baby’s tears, he bought her a plane ticket back home to Bicol.
In another hour there will be a line to get into the restroom, but for now there’s only one other person: a younger woman dressed inappropriately in a sequined sheath dress with a plunging back. “Hey, are you okay?” the woman asks.
Darna notes the heavy-handed eyeliner, the chipped nail polish. “I’m fine, thanks.”
“Oh, good. You looked a little off. I’m Susan by the way,” she says, speaking into the mirror.
“Who are you here with…Darna?” Susan asks. She swipes some cranberry-colored gloss across her lower lip.
Darna doesn’t understand the line of questioning and considers for a moment before answering. “I’m here with my husband. Our children attend the school.”
“Oh, shit! My bad.”
“What do you mean?”
“Never mind,” Susan says in a sing-song voice. “I don’t know what I’m saying half the time!”
“Who are you here with?”
“His name is Todd something. It was very last minute. The agency was all, ‘It’s easy money, and the guy’s not even asking for sex.’” Susan turns around and looks over her shoulder at her own ass.
“Oh,” Darna says. She wishes there were someone at the fundraiser with whom she could share this scandalous piece of information.
“What kind of name is ‘Darna?’”
“It’s a…superhero name.”
“What?” says Susan. She giggles and stomps her feet. “Like ‘Catwoman,’ you mean?”
“Kind of. In the Philippines, there’s a comic book superhero named Darna. She’s a warrior.”
“My roommate is Filipino!” Susan screams. She performs a pseudo karate chop and lets out a whelp. “I’m going to ask her about that. That’s hysterical.”
The men standing with James are on their third round of drinks, their voices growing louder and more combative by the moment. Darna wonders, not for the first time, how her husband—who is only a manager of the IT department at a little start-up—has learned to morph into the kind of person who chats easily with venture capitalists and investment bankers and the occasional CFO. They look, she thinks, like actors cast as white-collar criminals in a Hollywood movie.
From twenty feet away she hears one of them say to James, "We never see you at The Club!" Despite the universal belief that her husband is a member of The Club, he is not. In fact, without the financial assistance of his parents, they’d never be able to afford the tuition at Rivers Prep. James winks and takes a sip from his Macallan, and the conversation moves on without a hiccup. Out of kindness—for he is kind, Darna believes—he waves her over. She shakes her head slightly and begins a slow circuit around the periphery of the room.
She sneaks looks at the mothers who chatter at each other, wide-eyed, eyebrows raised, hands flinging gestures of surprise and resignation. Occasionally one will grip the arm of another, as if she has discovered something extraordinary and must pass it along. Sometimes they whisper behind their palms, exchanging secrets. They smile politely in her direction, and once or twice she begins to move towards them, but then loses her nerve and turns back around. She wonders if anyone has noticed her behavior. What must it look like, this start and stop, start and stop business? Her cheeks flame red.
Darna spots a short, black woman whose wedge heels appear to be causing her great discomfort. She’s holding a glass of rosé, from which she takes tiny sips. Though standing alone, she smiles boldly and nods in greeting to everyone. Darna feels drawn to her for reasons that seem both obvious and not, so much so that she makes an uncharacteristic beeline for the woman.
“Hello,” Darna says, her shoulders relaxing at last. “Oh my god, hello.”
“Do I know you?” the woman asks.
“Oh. No, I don’t think so,” Darna fumbles. She feels the familiar heat gather at her collar and begin its march up her face. “I’m Darna.”
“Thank you. What’s yours?”
“Does it matter?”
Darna pauses for a moment. “It matters to me.”
“Look, Darna,” the woman says. She knocks back the last of her rosé. “I know what you’re thinking, but it’s not like that. I’m an orthopedic surgeon, and I’m fine. I’m fine, you’re fine. Everything is fucking fine. We don’t need each other. We’re not starting a support group.”
“That’s not what I was—”
“Yes it was.”
“You’re so rude,” Darna hisses. “Screw you.” There’s a pounding in her chest, in her ears. Her anger renders her mute; she has seldom been so enraged.
“There you go, Darna,” the woman says. “That’s better. Have a good night.”
In her haste to be free of the woman, Darna bumps into a number of guests and then finds herself being jostled about by a small wave of people evidently headed towards the dinner buffet. She mumbles apologies, but no one seems to notice. For a moment it feels as if she’s been lifted off of her feet, as if she’s bobbing around like a cork in the ocean.
Darna notes which way the wandering violinist is moving, and then moves in the opposite direction. She wanders through the maze of silent auction tables, taking in the array of elaborate gift baskets and silently reading the descriptions of spa offerings and wine country tours, of tickets to Broadway shows and NBA games. She feels a pinprick of guilt: should she have volunteered to help with these baskets, this table decorating? She fingers the gold-colored cellophane of a “Happy New Year Basket,” then moves closer to check out the contents. There is champagne, of course, and crystal, a top hat and tiara, cigars and opera glasses. “Who would bid on this?” she says. She taps the shoulder of the man beside her. “Would you bid on this?” He neither turns nor responds. Embarrassed, she pretends she’s said nothing at all and moves on to the next table.
This is when she sees it. It’s a large box covered with red silk onto which is printed, of course, a fearsome black and gold dragon. The description card reads:
Box of Asian Delights This array of exotic offerings from The Far East will add a touch of oriental mystery— and fun! —to your everyday life. Immerse body and soul into these delights and you might even discover a few "ancient secrets.”
"What is this? What the hell is this?" Darna says. She had only meant to think it, not say it. Horrified, she covers her mouth and twists, slowly, left to right. No one has heard her, though; in fact, she has a feeling (it sits just above her belly button, this feeling) that no one can see her. To test her theory, she waves across the room at James. He smiles. The belly button feeling evaporates, but then quickly re-asserts itself when Darna sees that he is not smiling at her, but rather at a woman standing nearby. A thin, white woman with long, dark hair and an enormous forehead. Darna looks at James again, and then back at the woman.
With horrified fascination, she watches their pantomime play out. It’s a subtle flirtation—a barely raised eyebrow, a chewed bottom lip, suppressed laughter. Now the woman plays coy, looking down at the carpet, waiting a moment, and then looking up to see if James is still staring at her. He is; he can’t stop. As Darna doubles over to vomit, a vague thought forms: she isn't even pretty.
When she wakes she is staring up at a beautiful, doe-eyed woman in a yellow sarong. “It’s okay,” the woman says. “You threw up out there.”
“Outside the box.”
Darna pulls herself to sitting and looks around. The room—the box?—is large, and its walls are pure white, unblemished. There are no windows. She can’t be sure, but its confines feel a few football fields long in every direction. There is no ceiling. She catches a whiff of sterno, and looks up to see silver, purple, black. Yes, she’s in the box.
Despite the extraordinary turn of events, Darna is somehow not surprised. “Were you out there, too?” she asks. She pats down her own body to make sure she’s still whole, still herself. “I didn’t see you.”
“Yes, but last week. I was tending bar at a different fundraiser. It had, like, a Hawaiian theme.” She tucks her long hair behind her ears and rolls her eyes.
“And then what happened?”
“Girl, I don’t even know. One minute I’m throwing a glass of whiskey at some asshole who kept grabbing my tits, and the next I’m in here wearing this sarong and clutching a stuffed Hello Kitty.”
Darna looks herself over. Her cocktail dress and heels are gone; she’s wearing brown plastic slippers, baggy cotton pants, and an army green t-shirt. She looks, she realizes, like a cast member in the helicopter scene from Miss Saigon. She thinks of the thin, dark-haired woman outside the box and the way James looked at her. She imagines driving an iron spike through the woman’s big forehead.
Just then a man in a wide-brimmed straw hat saunters by. There’s a basket filled with reeds strapped to his back. "Hey," Darna says.
"Hey yourself," he replies. He walks on, giving her a quick once-over and dismissal. She swallows her hurt and draws her shoulders back. The man’s pants are rolled up to reveal dark, ropy calves. He is barefoot and weary.
“Don’t even worry about him,” says the woman in the yellow sarong. “He’s such a snob. Used to work in tech, but he must have pissed somebody off. Now he’s just in here with the rest of us.”
“Are there any Filipinos?” Darna asks.
“Oh, sure. A bunch of them landed in here together; I think they were having a bachelorette party in Vegas or something. Apparently they got really loud.”
“I bet,” Darna says, smiling in spite of herself.
“There’s also a Japanese poet, the heiress to a Korean shipping fortune—she’s such a bitch—and some Vietnamese restaurateurs.”
The woman in the yellow sarong takes Darna on a tour of the box, which is when Darna comes to the belated realization that she has shrunk down to nothing; she is so, so small. The gift certificates to Tiger Thai Massage and Orchid Beauty rise up like billboards. If it toppled over, the signed copy of the Dalai Lama’s How to See Yourself as You Really Are would kill her. What she thought was a playground structure turns out to be a gigantic set of sandalwood chopsticks and a trio of shiny black Baoding balls. Her children would love it.
She imagines the thin woman with the big forehead moving her belongings into the house that Darna has so painstakingly decorated. She imagines her cooking bland dinners and then writhing around in bed with James. She imagines her kids learning to call the thin woman with the big forehead “Mom.”
“I need to get out of here,” Darna says. She shakes her head to clear it of the woman. “What do I do?”
“If I knew, I wouldn’t be here.”
Before Darna can formulate her next question, a shadow falls across the box. When she looks up, it takes her a moment to realize that she’s staring straight into a monster-size version of James’ left nostril, his left eye, and half of his mouth. “Oh my god!” she yells. She jumps up and down, waving her arms over her head. “James! James! Get me out of this damn box!”
“I don’t think he can see—” says the woman in the yellow sarong.
“Can you hear me?! James!”
Then the face of the thin woman with the big forehead hovers into view. Darna rears back, frightened by the fissures in the woman’s makeup, the caked bits, the scattered blemishes so apparent now.
It’s getting darker. And darker. As the top of the box drops into place, screams of protest ring out all around Darna. She doesn’t join in the desperate laments, choosing instead to grope blindly for something—anything—to hold. She finds the flailing hands of the woman in the yellow sarong. She squeezes.
Veronica Montes is the author of the award-winning chapbook The Conquered Sits at the Bus Stop, Waiting (Black Lawrence Press) and Benedicta Takes Wing & Other Stories (Philippine American Literary House). Her stories have been published or are forthcoming in Wigleaf, SmokeLong Quarterly, CHEAP POP, jmww, and elsewhere.