The dinosaur skin and I have become intimate friends since Ella’s death, I realize as I stretch out my hamstrings, staring at the sunset. I want to lose myself in the grooves of color scattered across the sky. Instead, every time my gaze shoots upward, it ends up fixed on this road, ripped through with fault lines that look like grooves in T-Rex hide, extending miles away from campus. It becomes more familiar to me with every daily run. Every daily escape. Ella, who was always looking up, would’ve tripped and fallen on the snags in the ground. Unlike me, she wasn’t much of a runner. Neither are you. I let out a huff as I stand up, remembering all the times I unsuccessfully tried to convince you to go on running dates with me, how you protested by saying weightlifting and swimming were more your speed anyway. Not that I was ever surprised; running takes a certain kind of ignorance, and I am the least self-aware person I know, because I covet the ignorance, closed eyes, pretending everything is alright.
— | —
You told me the first time we met— No. Not the first time. I forget that I met you a little under a year Ella died, because that first year felt like walking through magma. Time was viscous. It was a month—two—three—away from the anniversary. Even thinking about it clogs my mouth.
“I don’t believe in miracles anymore,” I mumbled to you after you took me to a coffeeshop I’d never been to, under the guise of “studying for bio.” I remember feeling lost. You hated not knowing where you were going, but this was one of the few paths you knew by heart. If you were in my shoes, you would’ve been antsy the whole walk.
“You’d still believed in those,” you said, matter-of-fact. Side-eyeing me as we sat parallel, sipping on coffee. I stared into the black, bitter water, tried imagining it as blood. Jesus’s, maybe. This is my blood, that I have given up for you. Thought about Mary and Joseph, Jesus’s disciples. How maybe they didn’t need the ultimate sacrifice, they just selfishly wanted him, teaching, vibrant, alive.
“What do you mean?” I kept my eyes to the coffee. I heard her chiming, “Everything happens for a reason.” I wanted to punch that Ella, if only to touch her again.
“I mean, I understand why people gravitate to miracles. To religion. But I never got past my disbelief. Some omnipotent God? Must be sadistic, to make people suffer and fuck up the way they do,” you sighed, unsettling the surface of your latte. Shrugged the nonchalance off. Tears sprang to my eyes. I didn’t know how to tell you how refreshing it was, to not hear “Just pray for her!” or “Now she’s in a better place” or “God is watching over her”. To not have you rehash a billion reasons to stay optimistic when I was just sad and no amount of ice cream, no Fujifilm memories could bandage the gaping crack.
“If we’re created in the image of a god, they must really suck,” I said, placing my hands over the coffee. Breathing the smoke in and out. Focusing on reinventing my emotion, painting it as a product of vapor hitting my face.
“Not swallow,” you joked, and it wasn’t something Ella would’ve ever said. And yet, and yet—I found a giggle slipping out. And another. You rolled your eyes at my reaction, but there was so much genuine leaking out of your smile that it made my heart ache with want, so much I had to look away and clench my coffee tighter. No. Can’t move on. I cleared my throat and crossed my arms over my chest, keeping my eyes focused on the cars, the lights running.
— | —
“Hoy! Palanggay, close the light when you come in,” my mom calls from the restroom when I get back from my daily run that night.
“Okay, will do,” I call back, shutting off the front door light and wincing at seeing the bright fluorescent 10:00 on the clock.
My runs are getting longer, and every time, I wish I didn’t have to come back. In some other universe, there’s a me that languishes in the middle of a field, builds a makeshift hut and calls it home. But I picture the creases on my mom’s forehead, the tiny tremors shaking her hands whenever I get home later than her dinner of “frozen delights”, whether Goldilocks embutido or Bertolli linguine, and I know it’s my duty to iron them out. After all, my dad and all our relatives are in the Philippines. We are all the other have.
I feel a twinge of guilt that I haven’t told her about you; Ella was her person, everyone knew that. Ella’s parents, too. Now you’re becoming my person—I shut the train of thoughts off.
I smell like sunscreen and sweat when I drag myself into the kitchen, dinky luminescence illuminating greasy fried lumpia that’s gone soggy. I plop down and start eating, half-listening to my mom ramble about her work, white noise to drown out my thoughts. I let my eyes run over the “Jesus shrine” she has, the mantle of our fireplace adorned with Santo Nino, Jesus, Mother Mary, angels, all wearing penance jewelry, over the porcelain plates atop our cabinets, proudly displayed. One of them is from Ella, who’d thought of me, thought to get porcelain imprinted with the tectonic plate map. She was always a fan of those tongue-in-cheek jokes.
My mom clears her throat, and I look guiltily up at her with a half-eaten lumpia still dangling from my mouth. At seeing my bewildered face, she withers, and so do I, watching her face cave in.
“Sorry, ‘nay,” I whisper. “I’m sorry.”
She says nothing, just glances at the plate, stares at the fireplace mantle, then walks away.
It’s only then I realize she’s been talking in Cebuano the whole time, and I flush, feeling small and inadequate. I know how much effort she puts into speaking English for me, the black sheep of our family who didn’t want to learn Tagalog. Or rather, the white sheep.
I prayed to be white.
I talk to God out of reflex now. Maybe he’ll hear me this time. I listen for a divine shout, whatever that’s supposed to sound like. All I hear is a stifled sob in an empty room, the dishwasher rumbling in the kitchen, and bird shit peppering our roof. Maybe this is God, these noises. Maybe you find God in the clutter and the clamor. In the rumbling.
— | —
“What are you afraid of?” I asked her, one day. I was eight, I think, and Ella was ten. “And a half!” I can hear her deftly proclaiming, hands on her hips, lip stuck out. Our parents had dragged us to a park, insisting that “we needed to step away from technology”. We were lying on the grass, digging our toes into the still-mushy mud, letting it pool around our feet.
She turned to me, eyes impossibly wide.
“That’s such a broad question! Don’t you already know?” Ella groaned. “We grew up together.” Her eyes flicked across the ground, a small motion that instantly reminded me—I cast my eyes around, looking for an anthill I could drag her to.
“Hey,” she warned. “Don’t even think about it.” As soon as she stopped speaking, I threw up a hand to block her incoming palm, attempting to block my gaze. The contact caught her off-guard, and I was taken by surprise when she laughed.
I scrambled to meet her eyes while she was still giggling. “It’s fun, though! A little. Like watching an earthquake,” I grinned. “The dirt caving and crumbling—it’s really beautiful. I can’t wait to see a real earthquake. I bet with technology we’d all survive and just get to watch it from the inside and see everything moving. All those plates crashing against each other.”
Her mouth was contorted into a grimace, but her eyes reflected my smile, silently respecting my fascination. “This is the first time you’ve really been excited about something, Juls! I’m excited for you. But I think earthquakes are supposed to be painful. And honestly, I’m kinda scared of them. The ground coming apart—” Ella pulled her legs closer involuntarily, shuddered. “That’s why islands are scary. Even the Philippines.” She let out a sigh, shutting her eyes, remembering. I had never been, and wasn’t particularly interested in traveling back “home”; I was content to let Ella regal me with her own adventuring tales.
“I guess,” I relented, shrugging. “That doesn’t change their beauty or earthquakes’ coolness, though,” I said stubbornly. Her only response was a faux-exasperated huff as she flopped back onto the grass. Though I wasn’t facing her, I could imagine the slight upwards curve of her lips, her gaze tracing the leaves’ veins, eyes turned upward, reaching for the sky. Radiant. No wonder the ground was too envious of her flying. No wonder the tides wanted her for their own.
— | —
I know it’s another one of those days when I hear my alarm go off and my body feels too sluggish to snooze it. After what feels like eternities have passed, I roll over and check my phone, and though you’ve texted and there’s a missed call from Mom, I feel the dread knocking on my lungs as soon as I wake up, convergent boundaries, mountains of something I can’t wrap my head around pulling me down. I ignore the guilt and pull the covers over my head.
Everything is fuzzy when Dad calls me, right before Mom is supposed to leave work, and I’m still in bed, staring at the ceiling. I have a protocol for this, though. Stop, cover, and hold on. Stop slouching and sit up straight against my pillows. Cover my voice by lathering on happiness. Hold on, Dad, I text, I’ll get to my room, Mom invited a guest and I don’t want to interrupt you.
“Juls, how are you?” Grandma must not be doing well. I can hear it in Dad’s lack of effusiveness, no stories about how she’ll twitch almost imperceptibly or how a smile graces her face, then flits away. A twinge of marvel hits me, how she’s managed to hang on even after her earthquake has come and passed. My dad flew home as soon as he heard she was in a coma from a jeepney accident.
“I’m good, Dad. How about you?”
“Doing okay.” He sounds weary. We like to dance around each other like we’re fine. We’ve done it for the past two years.
“What time is it over there?”
“Almost three a.m.” My dad sleeps early, no matter what. The latest I’d seen him turn off a light was twelve-thirty a.m. But this—this says more. This says “I don’t think she’ll make it through the night.”
“Do you need anything?” You make fun of me for my superstitions, but they’re my security blanket, wishing miracles could travel through the center of the earth, all the way to the other side of the world. Wishing there was a god who listened to wishes.
“I miss my girls,” he says quietly. He never mentions her and I feel my insides rattle.
“She’s always with us.” He inhales, sharply. “They both are, Dad.”
I hold the phone closer to my ear and try not to cry. It doesn’t really work. I can hear my dad crying on the other line. I wished you were here. I wished Mom were here. I wished Ella was here. I wished I was here, but wishes are just empty words and—
“I’m just waiting, Juls. I’m just waiting and I can’t wait anymore. I want her to be better.”
But we can’t take her off the ventilator, he says in the in-between. My hyper-Catholic father wanting to aid in euthanasia. I realize maybe I’m not the only person in the family who’s stopped believing in prayers.
“I love you, Dad,” I whisper fiercely. The words crack on my suddenly dry throat.
“Mahal kita, anak. Mahal na mahal kita.”
— | —
I collect plates. You ask me about them when we start dating, leaning closer to examine the golden shapes hanging underneath my clavicle. “Are these some seismology thing?”
You brush your finger across the metal and the secondhand touch tickles, reverberates, pushes my eyes closed into pre-earthquake. I remember.
— | —
“You collect plates now.”
The surprise was evident in Ella’s voice when she noticed the tectonic plate pendant around my neck, the tiny Filipino plate. I beamed at her noticing. “I do!”
We were sitting on the swings, sweat staining our backs, summer before she left for college. All those days blended together, coalescing into igneous rock, burning.
“Do you think that’s what you’re gonna study?” Ella was staring at her hands, tracing the fault lines like she’d followed the veins of leaves, searching.
“Tectonic plates?” I blinked, stunned. “I mean, I haven’t really thought about it. I’m still a sophomore,” I shrugged.
She murmured a soft “You’d be a good geologist,” eyes still focused down. I knew from the way she didn’t meet my eyes that something was weighing on her.
“Juls.” She laughed, but it was choked. I glanced over to her, and everything about her in that moment was tender—her feet turned inward, black hair slipping out of a haphazardly tied bun, red puffy scrunchie around her wrist, fingers indented from pressing against the edge of the plastic swing.
“What are you thinking?”
“I don’t want to be a doctor,” she whispered. “I want to write.”
My eyes widened as I realized everything that meant—my best friend, the perfect Filipino daughter, graduating with straight A’s and a hefty scholarship from a good pre-med college, wanted to commit sacrilege. Wanted to demolish the family gods and ignore the implicit religion, STEM. I unstuck my thighs from the plastic swing seat, hit by the before-shock of pain from separation, Ella’s pain at diversion from her parents’ wants.
When I hug her, after we swing back and forth one last time, playing at being little kids again, she already seems far away, trying to figure out how to write her own story.
— | —
I jolted at the sound of your voice. “Sorry!” I exclaimed, louder than expected, and you recoiled. “Sorry,” I said again, sheepishly. “I just—just was remembering the first time I realized what I wanted to do with my life. The plates, yeah. They’re tectonic plates and make up the lithosphere, which has always been really interesting to me, because they move so slowly, but the root word of lithosphere is lithe. They’re a testament to contradiction.”
I hadn’t heard myself talk that much since Ella died. I came close, maybe every week or so, with my other friends, but not often. No one gave me the instinctual sense of comfort Ella did. I flushed and tried to divert your attention with an awkward chuckle, but noticed your face was abnormally blank.
“Hey, what’s up?”
Your eyes refocused on mine. “Sorry, remembering, too.” You ran a hand through your hair, agitated. “It’s the anniversary of when I realized what I wanted to do.”
“That should be good, right?” I asked cautiously.
“I mean.” You swallowed and stood up, started pacing. “I mean, I guess. I found my dad two years ago today. He was in a ditch. Dead. At the time, I didn’t know he was my dad, I just saw a dead body and called 911. I grew up knowing he disappeared. Mom never talked about him and I told myself I didn’t need a father figure because she took such good care of me. The coroner ran some tests and voila, I found out that he was my father and that he took his own life.”
We sat there in silence. You kept talking, voice somehow both deadened and awakened.
“I realized I never wanted to see that happen. I want to be a psychiatrist, Juls, and it all traces back to that moment, when I realized how badly people are fucked up, how much I wanted to not—” you paused, the tears already clouding your voice. You cleared your throat, paused and stood in front of the window. “Not see anyone else’s father by the side of the road. Not see some teenage kid, someone’s best friend, not just body but brain bruised beyond repair.”
“I’m sorry,” I whispered. Stood up from my chair, wrapped you in a hug from behind, pressed my head to your back, felt the shaking. Magnitude 8.0 on the Richter scale. Wondered what it would be like, to stop running, to face the pressure. Like you. “You’re making him proud.”
You turned to face me, emotions slathered messily on your face.
“Am I? Juls, how do I measure that? I don’t know. How do I ask a ghost? How is that any different from talking to God and hearing nothing?”
“You’re breathing. You’re trying your best. You’re working toward being a better you than you were yesterday. You don’t hear anything, but that doesn’t mean you can’t listen to yourself.” My hands trembled with my own hypocrisy.
You inhaled, exhaled. I felt like I was meeting you for the first time, caught off-guard by your fragility. You were a good foot taller than me, but in that moment, your heart looked so, so big, and you looked so, so small.
— | —
When Mom gets home, she gives me a look-over. The way she rakes her gaze over me always feels like a shrink ray, even though I know it’s because she’s worried. I don’t want her to worry. I smile at her and my mouth feels like it’s breaking.
“Dad called?” she asks, motioning for me to set the table while she pulls leftover beef caldereta from the fridge. “Kamusta ka?”
How is he. It takes my brain a moment to catch up to the phrase. Everything is delayed, and the words lava out of my mouth. “He doesn’t think Grandma is gonna make it past tonight. He said he misses us.”
“Ay sus,” she groans, exasperated “I believe she’ll be fine. She’s made it this long. Tell him to pray.” She fingers the rosary bracelet around her wrist, and I want to ask her if praying worked when her boss gave her more work than she knew how to handle, if praying worked when smoke charred her dad’s lungs black, if praying worked with Ella.
Instead I muster up a bland smile of assent, slip back into my room after dinner is all said and done.
“Going upstairs, nanaman. You have boyfriend to FaceTime?” Mom chastises from downstairs.
I pretend I can’t hear her and lay in bed, fiddling with my phone, toying with the idea of calling you. Toying with the idea of telling her that our friendship had long since crossed into the romantic, that somehow I’d woken up one day and you'd squirmed into my closet, pushed aside my skeletons, announcing you';d be there for as long as I’d let you.
You want me to; I don’t want another fracture. I can’t handle something more. Knowing your unconventional Pinay daughter is studying earthquakes and not becoming a doctor is probably a shock; how much more so knowing she—as a sophomore—is dating someone in college, a white boy nonetheless? I’ve already disappointed my mom enough, not learning Tagalog. Not following the path she’s mapped out, the fault lines I’m supposed to travel along.
Then again, we’ve already been battered. But it’s so easy to run, I think, shutting my eyes, shutting out her voice, letting myself dissolve.
— | —
“I don’t feel like we know each other,” you told me the next day after class, after three months of dating, a year of knowing each other as friends. Looked down at your hands.
I felt tears rise in my eyes. “Are you serious? What are you looking for? My comprehensive life story? I thought you wanted the present me, not the past me.” I dug my fingers into my wrist. “You already know what I was like a year ago.”
“I do! I do want the present you, Juls. That’s not even a question.” You let your hazel eyes land on mine, and I let air re-enter my throat. “I just—hm. Past you is still you. And I want all of that, too. No fine print.”
“There’s fine print, always. No free lunch,” I muttered.
“Babe,” you groaned, and your frustration was palpable. It nudged against me and I wanted it to stop. “At least tell me more stories. I don’t want to talk all the time. Why don’t you tell me about how you met your best friend, Ella? Why haven’t I met her?”
“When you go back to the beginning, doesn’t it mean that things are already at the end?” I was scrambling to put off this conversation, hadn’t brought her up except in passing. Like “Oh, she’s a good editor.” “Oh, she taught me how to tie my shoes when we were younger.” I was still working up to it, but you were looking at me with those eyes and I couldn’t escape, I couldn’t do anything but look away, I couldn’t—
“I was born,” I whispered. I felt the world pause to listen, heard the earth yawn, a question. “I was born, that’s how I met her.” I pulled out a newspaper article, crinkled from two years stuffed into my wallet, folded and unfolded as if creating plates would heal the earthquake. “Here’s why I hate the Pacific plate,” I muttered, shoving it into your hand and turning away.
PLANE CRASH OVER THE PACIFIC, 80 DEAD.
“What is this?” You wheeled your chair over to look up at me, and a moment passed before I saw recognition set in. “Oh,” you whispered.
I motioned for you to read it, faced away again. I didn’t want to watch your eyes flit over the words, didn’t want to see the realization when you read her name. “Ella Marie Cadapan, an incoming first-year at the University of Washington, was valedictorian of her class and an aspiring pre-med student.”
“Cadapan,” you murmured. “Cadapan—” Suddenly, I couldn’t breathe. Suddenly, all I could do was let gravity yank the words out of my mouth.
“My first name isn’t Juliana, but I go by it anyway because she picked that name for me. My mom told me she’d opened a baby name book and just pointed at a random name, giggled and realized it’d be cute. It’s the latter half of my first name, Miranda Juliana. But after she—” I gulped. Stared away from you, anywhere but your eyes, scared of pity.
“After she passed, I wanted to go by that name. Thought it fit me better. I know you didn’t know I had a sister,” I said. The silence stood stiff, at attention. “I’m sorry I didn’t tell you. It’s—” I paused. No. No, I had to say it. “It’s because she’s dead. Because I will never stop feeling like I contributed to her death.” I felt you stiffen too. I didn’t know where your head was and I didn’t want to figure it out.
“She was going to write,” I choked out. “She was going to write and she never got a chance to.” I felt my face moisten, become an undammed ocean. Picturing her body at the bottom of the Pacific plate, face turned toward the sky. “She was going to fly. I bought her ticket as a birthday gift because I wanted to surprise her. They buried her in the Philippines because she’d told Mom before she left that she wanted to live in the Philippines, help the community there, once she finished college.”
I hate the Philippines. I hate that she wanted to be there and not here, that she was more loyal to people I’d barely even met than me. The bile stuck to my dry throat.
“I’m sorry,” you said. Engulfed me in your arms. I tried drowning but you pulled me back out, tilted my head up so our eyes met. “Have you visited her?”
“No,” I respond, and familiar panic chafes against my lungs. Rises up and pounds all my organs, again and again and again. And the rumble louder than ever before, red, blue, gold, black, flashing, choking, shaking my foundation, me stuttering out, “I can’t, I can’t, I can’t—it’s too much, it’s too much—”
“Babe, look at me.”
Do I hold onto the voice? Or do I run further into myself?
I think your hand is clutching mine. I close my eyes and search for a memory, something good. I pray. Anything.
— | —
“We learn about the Great ShakeOut today!” Ella was bouncing on my bed, shaking me awake. Mom leaned on the doorframe, Dad hugging her from behind, both of them waiting for me to roll out of bed. I groaned and rolled over.
“Why does it matter?” I grumbled.
“It’s another story! Except it’s a story about the Earth!” Ella’s excitement, as much as I wanted to resist it, was contagious. I let her tug me gently out of the sheets, Mom handing me my clothes and Dad pushing a lunch box into my hands, jovially calling, “Don’t dilly-dally—we have to hurry, hurry, hurry!”
We learned that we needed to care about earthquakes that day. We learned about earthquake protocol. Stop, cover, hold on. I didn’t realize earthquakes shatter. Earthquakes stop you from moving. Stop, cover, hold on. Fragments never look the same no matter how much superglue you use. Earthquakes, if you run, you get stuck. You get battered.
Ella frowned when we got to recess. “That wasn’t as fun as I thought,” she said, hopping on the swings, pumping her legs, higher and higher, pushing toward the sky and away from the ground. Away from me. When she got home, I peeked into her room, saw her pencil flying over paper for the first time, worlds of graphite spinning out from underneath, tiny specks of gray dust clouding the paper. Saw her face, turned away from me, completely and totally absorbed, eyes dreaming of flight.
— | —
My fingers itch for my phone and I oblige them. With a few swift movements, instead of pulling up our texts, I pull up plane tickets.
I see Ella now, pumping, higher, higher. Me, running away from the swings, inviting her to play tag, running, not wanting to let her land. Ella, writing, scribbling, rushing headfirst into newer worlds. Me, running away from my own. I see me now, scared. Shaking. The 10.0 already rattled my veins, the big one. I grab my blanket, clutch whatever courage I have, and press purchase. Lay down and breathe.
You send me a picture of yourself in front of my house. I go out to meet you, still wearing my pajamas, calling out, “Mom, I’ve got the door!” You’re carrying sunflowers and the smile on your face carries the warmth of the first sip of a fresh latte.
“Hey, Braveheart,” I chuckle, poking your shoulder. “Long time no see.”
Your eyes darken a little with the unspoken question. “Are you good?”
I just slip my hand into yours. You give it a slight squeeze. We stand in the living room together, waiting.
It’s the first time you’re meeting her. I told her this morning that I was bringing my boyfriend over, and I could hear the eyebrow raise, the quiet protection and threat of language-whupping if he did something to hurt me. Her kindness stings in the face of my two-year silence, our two-year drought. My tongue doesn’t feel like a desert anymore and the truth about how my life has been feels like rain. I say “I love you” first this time. We speak the same language, now.
No more past tense love, just present tense. The skeletons are out, and the earthquake has rattled our bones. Grandma’s holding on, somehow. My dad’s holding out for a miracle.
When my mom sees you, laughing at your instant flush, because “You’re so formal for a normal lunch”, then crumbles, says nothing but a choked, “Anak,” when I hand her a plane ticket to the Philippines, I think maybe even if God doesn’t exist, some things sound like him. I stop covering my feelings and hold on to these people, this moment, our laughter.
I can hear Ella laughing too, somewhere on the Pacific plate. I finger my second pendant and smile, imagining her with wings, making novels out of clouds, teasing stories out of stars.
JANELLE SALANGA is a Filipina-American writer with a fondness for ampersands, proper Oxford comma usage, & Brooklyn 99. She is a second-year student at the University of California, Davis, majoring in Computer Science and English; her poems have been published or are forthcoming in The Margins, Occulum, and Tenth Street Miscellany, and she is currently a poetry reader for The Cerurove. She tweets at @jvne11y, is on Instagram @chaoticwaffle, and has a plethora of Spotify playlists @hypotheticvl.