It was a sleek, elegant, almost ruby red pair, with high stiletto heels. One was on my mother’s foot. She stood in front of the mirror admiring how the shoe elongated her leg. Satisfied with her find and with what she was seeing, she smiled at her reflection. The other shoe was in my hand. I examined it and saw that it was beautiful indeed: the closed shoe wasn’t too round or too pointy, its dyed leather gleaming in a patina of luxury. I turned it over: it had a $500 price tag.
“But you already have something just like this. You bought yourself a pair last week, remember?” I told her without looking up. “No, I don’t. That one’s a different shade of red. It has a bit of an orange undertone. This one’s more of a ruby red.” Mother snatched the other shoe from my hand and brought the pair to the register. As she swiped her credit card and the cashier bagged the shoes, I felt a sharp pain at the pit of my stomach. That pain grew even sharper when I saw how happy mother looked as we left the store.
Earlier that day, I had fought mother for $50. My younger sibling requested me to ask mother for some field trip money. It wasn’t an invented expense; the school trip was required. My brother had the letter and reply slip to prove it. “Let him find a way to get the money,” mother said, rather flippantly. “He can always ask your dad for money.” I felt my ears and eyes get hot as she told me this. “You are so unbelievably selfish!” I yelled. “Shut up and don’t you dare talk to me that way,” said my mother. “You don’t make any of the money.” It was true, so I fell silent and held my tongue.
This was three years after my family immigrated to the United States, when mother somehow managed to buy herself – and according to her, the family – what appeared to be a starter Mc Mansion in the outskirts of Las Vegas. The Mc Mansion was in the hilly part of town, where mostly white people lived. Tall palm trees lined the streets and all the houses had manicured front lawns, it was so easy to imagine trendy people in convertibles drive by. The two-storey house had five bedrooms, high ceilings, spacious living and dining areas, three bathrooms, a mini bar, a pool and a jacuzzi.
My parents’ bedroom had a lavish bathroom with a huge tub. The room also had a balcony. Mine was next to my parent’s room and shared the same breathtaking view. At night, from our bedroom windows, we could see the Las Vegas strip, its lights like glittering rhinestones scattered in the desert, the Luxor’s pyramid beaming a powerful, straight line in the sky. It was so beautiful. It also was such a pity that all of us, save for mother, knew that we couldn’t possibly afford to keep the house. Being new in America, it was the time to be wise and modest and frugal.
But this mindset wasn’t shared by mother and she made the best use of the house’s rather spacious walk-in closet. Big enough to be a bedroom, she filled it with so many beautiful things she seldom used. Coach, Kate Spade, Louis Vuitton and Salvatore Ferragamo handbags, costume and real jewelry, Longines, Givenchy and Gucci watches, outfits from Macy’s or Nordstrom (most of which were too small for her and were “fitspiration” purchases), pairs and pairs of shoes.
The footwear was particularly memorable as she seemingly had a new pair every week: sensible-looking, but expensive nude pumps; black, velvet pumps; snakeskin sandals with kitten heels; silver high heels encrusted with Swarovski crystals – we never saw mother use most of these things and we discovered some of them only later on when thieves broke into the house. Hysterical and in a panic when we got home to find the new flat screen TV gone, mother had sought our help to check if anything else of value was missing. That was when we discovered her hidden treasures. Apparently, she also had $10,000 in cash stashed away under one of the floorboards in the walk-in closet. Where the money came from, we had no idea, but thankfully, it was still there when we looked.
Being an interior designer and architect, it was natural for my mother to gravitate towards everything that was elegant and beautiful. She always had to look the part. But when my parents left their successful practice and had to start from scratch in America, it was just as though my mother couldn’t accept the drastic change in stature. In the United States, she was nobody. A brown woman. An immigrant who had to start over. But she kept on swiping her multiple credit cards, despite the persistent warnings from my practical father. I remember him frequently telling her that she had to be patient; everything will pass and we’ll eventually get to live our old lifestyle. But mother would have none of it. She continued to buy pair after pair of shoes until it was enough to drive a wedge into her marriage.
At first it was a hiding game: I began to notice that I never saw my parents in the same room together. I wasn’t sure if my siblings noticed. Since we would always be left to keep mother company and we would have to listen to her – ironically and of all things – litany about stress and excessive spending, I would feel a sense of panic, of dread. There were times when I’d feel nauseous. Sometimes, my body would hurt. There’d be no particular spot – they were phantom pains. Difficulty in breathing was another effect of being around mother. So whenever I had the chance, I escaped to my room just like most teenagers.
“It’s like talking to a wall,” father once told me. He came home from work early one day and invited me to share a meal of Peking duck at a nearby Chinese place he loved. “Sometimes, in the late afternoons, I feel like I just want to kill myself,” he said as he sliced the fatty duck meat. I had just taken in a spoonful and just like that, I had lost my appetite. He was a very quiet man, my father, and hearing this from him came as a shock. While sharing the same meal, he also told me that he got laid off from work. “Your mom is in so much debt, meaning, I am in so much debt.” He signaled the waiter for the bill and I felt terrible for ordering so much.
Eventually, father, unable to stand mother’s behavior and spending habits, found a way to avoid getting into fights with his wife: he got himself a job in the far pacific island of Hawaii. Finally, for him, a reprieve in a quiet paradise. He would mail colorful postcards, call every night, and send my siblings and I gifts of chocolate-covered macadamia nuts. Sometimes, he would also send the occasional watercolor painting. He started painting again when he was away from mother, so that was surely a good sign. My brothers and I were happy for him.
My brothers and I were left to watch as my mother filled the house with beautiful objects we couldn’t afford. My brothers, being in middle school, high school, and unaware, said nothing of the purchases. It was quite different for me. I defied mother every chance I got and echoed what my dad would’ve said: “We don’t need these.” “These are too expensive.” “These can wait for later.” “Save your money.” “Use the money for practical things, like education.” But she never listened. Instead of putting the brakes on her spending, mother would sometimes go on weekend shopping sprees, only returning home when the shops were closed and she knew we were already in bed.
On the night mother bought the red shoes, I purposely headed straight to bed. It was a wise move: there was no point in lecturing mother about what and what not to spend on. As I lay in bed and stared out the window, I saw the silver, shining city, Las Vegas. Here we were, in a strange but opportunity-laden land, unable to make a go of it, unable to succeed fully. This was then I remembered that back in the Philippines, before I followed my family to America, I didn’t have a bed. I was the last of my family to move to the U.S. and I suffered the aftermath of my parents’ failed business ventures.
My family lost everything to a lawsuit, so one day, men came into the house and took all of our things: the piano, bespoke furniture, antique dressers and mirrors, paintings, the beds – they even wanted to take the family dog, a golden retriever. If it weren’t for my protests, they probably would have taken the poor thing, confused yet painfully friendly to all the men ransacking the house. As I tried to tame the day’s fury by looking at the bright lights, my brother sat on my bedside. He was worried about his field trip. He didn’t want to miss that class. He did not want to fail a subject. I looked at the kid and saw he’d been crying. He asked why mother would not part with $50.
I got out of bed and got on the phone. Perhaps it wasn’t too late to ask father for some money. Maybe he had extra after paying off some of mother’s credit card bills. Surely, he’d never say no to helping out with a school expense. Surely, he’d never say no to a son. Or daughter. “Pa, Nico needs $50 for his school trip. Mom wouldn’t give money because she shelled out $500 on a pair of shoes today.” As I talked into the receiver, I remembered how mother looked in the mirror, admiring the ruby red shoe on her foot. My eyes felt warm. “The $50 is for school. Pa, why is she so selfish? Why doesn’t she think of us?” I must have been at the brink of tears and my voice was too loud; mother had heard.
She rushed and tried to take the phone away from me. “Give me that! Keep quiet. Don’t tell your dad!” She slapped my arm, so I got up and ran, still holding on to the phone. Mother followed and she hit my back and pulled my hair. “Pa, help! Ma’s hurting me!” I screamed into the phone, well aware that he was an ocean away. “She’s lying!” mother yelled, in hopes that father would hear.
Mother again tried to grab the phone out of my hand by slapping my arm and hitting my back, but I ran past the upstairs hallway, past the chandelier we couldn’t afford, past the staircase, past the living room and all the Ethan Allen furniture no one used or cared for. I just ran without knowing where to go. When I got to the garage, I hit the control button and when there was enough space, I crawled under the automatic door. Barefoot and in my pajamas I ran, my feet pressing against the rough asphalt of the street.
I didn’t know it then yet, but a week after running away from home, I’d be permanently out of mother’s house, working at a mental facility for former addicts and schizophrenics, a home for Las Vegas rejects: a woman with pink hair and go-go boots, an overweight Latina with the face of an angel. Former strippers and celebrity impersonators. It was a job no one wanted, but I took it. The residents proved to have more sense than my own mother. I didn’t know it then yet, but within the same year, mother would cash my brothers’ insurance policies and spend all of it on herself, eventually forcing my brothers to flip burgers and take odd jobs after school hours. I didn’t know it then yet, but I would continue to run away from mother, making other homes wherever I went. I just ran and ran and ran.
Ten years after running away from her mother, D.P. Lopez now lives a happier life. She’s a mother herself to a ten-year old and works as a lifestyle journalist, PR professional and editor. Her projects include work for companies based in Manila, New York and Stockholm. She’s proudly debt-free and believes that people should live below or within their means to lead stress-free lives, in absolute freedom.
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