Read time: 15 mins


by M Donato
2 July 2024

On the internet, on certain websites, there are pictures and videos of a version of me.


Her real name was Magda, but she wanted everyone to call her Mirinda, after the soft drink. She was my cousin. I met her when I was 8 and she was 10 and a whole head taller than me. It was my first time visiting the Philippines since my family had moved to New Zealand, and my Tagalog was just awful. At the airport, Mirinda picked up on it right away: ‘American?’ And I told her no, New Zealander. Then my parents ushered all of us—themselves, me, Mirinda and her mother,  Tita Z, into a van. They dropped me and Mirinda off in Bulacan, then drove away to visit my papa’s nanay, my lola, who was dying of cancer. Her dying was the whole point of the trip. But I was too young and had nothing I could do or say about death, and neither did Mirinda. Death was still so boring to us.

With our parents absent for most of the month, me and Mirinda became allies against boredom. Every morning, we’d use the small allowance Tita Z left us on the bench to buy snacks from the sari-sari: cornic, chicharon, pepsi in a bag. We’d drop our just-lit sparklers into plastic balloons and watch them explode, gluey residue left on the street like ectoplasm. Once, Mirinda brought me to her school. Mirinda’s classmates practised their cursive on an old blackboard and their English on me and afterwards showed me a forest area in the neighbourhood where a few of them had seen a manananggal. A manananggal was a monster, a divided woman: her torso hovering and her legs and pelvis trailing behind her, long black hair that swept the ground, bat’s wings and an insatiable hunger. I asked Mirinda if she’d seen it too.

‘Huh? Don’t be stupid,’ she said.

One afternoon, Mirinda had the idea that we should bathe outside with a hose and a couple of those big plastic tubs meant for handwashing laundry. I agreed right away. I felt nauseous wading around in the thick, hot air and was eager for the cool of the hose, even if it meant being naked out in

the open. Mirinda and Tita Z’s house was a one-room concrete shack with a front yard that was all concrete too, cracks sutured by makahiya and dandelions. If it hadn’t been for the property’s low

enclosing fence, there’d be nothing to distinguish the yard from the road and pavement. During my stay, I came to think of the people walking by, the buzzing tricycles, the hordes of roaming stray chickens, cats, dogs and the bats that flew overhead at night as tenants of the house too. In retrospect, it didn’t make sense that Tita Z and Mirinda should live somewhere so shabby. My papa was pretty well-off, even by New Zealand standards, and presumably so was the rest of his family. But I was a kid. There were so many questions I needed to ask that I usually ended up asking none of them.

Mirinda doused herself with the hose first, then me. The water was blood warm. I closed my eyes and turned slowly in the baptismal spray, pretending not to be disappointed. There was a clap of skin, jandals slapping the road and the soles of feet. It was a group of grinning men in loose singlets and basketball shorts. I smiled as they neared the lot. One of the men said something in Tagalog then wolf whistled. I’d never been wolf whistled. I crouched in the tub and tried to hide the parts of my body that I thought had caused it. Mirinda cackled. The men continued on their way down the road, saying things among themselves that I couldn’t understand, but that I feared were an evaluation of my body, my flat chest, my shapeless torso.

‘Bakit scared ka?’ Mirinda asked. ‘When they whistle, it means beautiful ka. They are always whistling at me because I am getting more beautiful.’

I stared up at Mirinda from where I was huddled. We looked a lot alike, with the same broad cheekbones and straight eyebrows, the slightly far-apart teeth. Were we beautiful? I pondered this mystery, ashamed.

When we finished bathing, we went inside and lay down on the bed that we shared, the big mosquito net curtaining us like princesses or captive animals. Mirinda sat watching the TV balanced on the kitchen counter. I took my mama’s pink compact mirror from the luggage and inspected my face, imagined what my features might mean to men and felt giddy and ill.

‘Look,’ Mirinda said, pointing at the screen.

In the show she was watching, there was a tall, lanky man with a long chin and brooding eyes that made him seem seriously sinister, though the accompanying laugh track suggested this was not his intended effect.

‘Siya si Vic Sotto. Vic Sotto is really famous here. One day I will be famous, and I will be in movies with Senor Sotto because I am beautiful. Men say I am like a Mirinda bottle; that’s why everyone calls me Mirinda. My actor name will be Mirinda Marquez.’

She drew a shape with her hands, the same one people made to describe Marilyn Monroe.

Mirinda was not remotely shaped like Marilyn Monroe—she was like me, half-formed, malleable, waiting to harden, with the years, into a woman.



The second time I visited the Philippines, it was my lolo who was dying. Mirinda met me and my parents at the airport, and the first thing she said was that my Tagalog was still dogshit. In the four years since I’d last seen her, I hadn’t improved. I stared at my Velcro sneakers with my hands shoved into the pockets of my three-quarter-length shorts. Mirinda was wearing red high heels, a striped pink  singlet, a denim miniskirt.

Once outside, my parents waved down a taxi and said they’d see me later. I guess they were in a rush to see my dying grandfather.

‘Walang hiya,’ Mirinda said as she ducked into the passenger seat of a silver van.

There was a man I’d never met before, driving. He turned and studied me over the shoulder of the seat. He was a thin man in his twenties, with frizzy hair and close-set eyes. I thought he was probably rich because he was wearing branded clothing, a nice watch, clean shoes, a fresh, woody cologne.

‘Wow, you two look a lot alike. Kamusta, I’m Kenji. I’m Mirinda’s boyfriend.’

His accent was American, and he spoke like a computer. Mirinda shoved Kenji    and muttered something in rapid Tagalog to him.

‘I’m Mirinda’s cousin,’ I said.

Kenji smiled and put his Ray Bans on. Mirinda rolled the window down.

The traffic went for hours. While Kenji smoked and toyed with the radio, Mirinda fixed her appearance, combing her hair, adjusting her half-empty push-up bra. I fell asleep, and when I awoke, it was just me and Kenji in the car. I sat up. It was dark, and we were parked by an outdoor bar where several groups of men were seated around plastic tables, drinking and smoking. I saw Mirinda at the bar drinking a Pepsi.

‘Mirinda is going to be a movie star,’ Kenji said.

He was lying across the passenger and driver’s seat with his back against the door. He lit a cigarette. A few men peered at us with a kind of recognition, as though we were taking part in the same ritual they were. Several of them lit cigarettes too.

‘What do you want to be when you grow up?’ Kenji asked. ‘A doctor,’ I lied. I wanted to be a writer.

‘A doctor? Well, I suppose that is possible for you. Nothing like that is possible for Mirinda unless Tita Z convinces your lolo to give her some form of inheritance before he dies. But her chances aren’t good. As you may have noticed, Tita Z is not so popular with your father’s family, though I suppose your father is quite kind to her.

It was true that Tita Z seemed to be estranged from the family. She hadn’t even been allowed to say anything at Lola’s funeral. My guess was that she’d pissed everyone off by getting knocked up too young. She wasn’t that much older than Mirinda herself.

I watched Mirinda finish her drink. A man went over to her and touched her arm, and they talked for a while. I could hear them from the open window.

‘What are they talking about?’ I asked. Kenji turned the radio volume down.

‘You don’t need to know what people are saying to comprehend their intentions,’ he said.

He spoke while gazing into the distance, and I could tell he didn’t think I understood him and that he wanted me to be confused.

‘Of course, intentions aren’t everything,’ he continued. ‘Intentions are not the same as meanings.’

He smiled sympathetically.

‘Sorry, I get talkative when I have a beer.’



I spent the next month being passed back and forth between Mirinda’s place in Bulacan and my lolo’s place in Binyan. I preferred Lolo’s house. It was huge with an open balcony, a garden of fruit and eucalyptus trees. The rooms were furnished with antique cane furniture and Persian rugs. In living room there was no television, but there was a large altar to the Virgin Mary, her mestiza visage softly haunted by grief. Alabaster vases of dried flowers surrounded her, and at her feet was a bible with a leather cover and gold lettering. The main hallway of the house was lined with dozens of wooden crucifixes along one wall, each tiny Christ staring plaintively up at the coffered ceiling, while the other wall was decorated with weathered sepia photographs of ancestors, their black eyes brooding with history.

One weekend, Mirinda and Kenji took me to Bahay na Pula, an apparently haunted estate in San Ildefonso. It had been used by occupying Japanese forces during WWII as a prison for the kidnapped women and girls they abused, raped, tortured, killed. The house’s red exterior seemed to pulse against the green backdrop of the untended lawns. We were silent as we approached. I tried to sense the past steeped in the earth and smelled what I thought was copper, fire, burned sugar. So many women and girls, some younger than me, had been tortured there. Kenji whispered descriptions of their sexual torments to us in graphic detail as we made our way through the ruinous grandeur of the halls.

‘Someone should make a movie about this,’ he said.

Mirinda got bored and went outside before us, and when we found her a while later, she was sprawled on the lawn in a daze. She wasn’t asleep, but she also barely seemed to register us when we greeted her.

Kenji prodded her once and then continued on to the car. I followed after him but then paused and turned back to wait for Mirinda. She’d propped herself up on her elbows and was gazing up at the house. Her grey, cotton dress was covered with dry grass. The way she was posed made it look like her body had been twisted in two.

When it was clear that Lolo was going to die very soon, they moved him back to Binyan. The whole family, including Tita Z and Mirinda, came to stay. During that brief period, my parents gained a newfound animosity for one another, and whenever one was at home, the other was out. They didn’t share a room. Neither ever acknowledged Tita Z or Mirinda directly.

Mirinda asked me for my email one day after dinner. She went over to the altar, took the bible from where it rested and flipped to the back where there were a few blank pages. She tore one out and handed it to me along with a pen. I wrote my email out carefully. She thanked me and sat back in her chair with a contented smile.

‘Do you like Kenji?’ She asked me. ‘He’s okay,’ I said.

‘I asked him to take care of you that night at the bar when you fell asleep. I don’t know what I would do without him.’

She said that last part, I don’t know what I would do without him, with extreme affect, like something out of a TV drama. Outside, some carolers were at the gate singing Silent Night. When the song finished, Tita Z came into the dining room and sat next to Mirinda. I could suddenly see how little she resembled her daughter. She was pale, with huge, light brown eyes and thin, shapely lips.

‘Hello,’ she said to me.

‘Hello. Thank you for letting me stay with you all these weeks,’ I said. ‘Are you worried about your lolo?’ she asked.

I told her not really.

‘Good. He is going back to God.’

I nodded, and she seemed to glare at me, or perhaps an expression of wary contempt was natural to her.

‘God willing, your lolo gives me and Mirinda some money. We need it very much,’ she continued, taking Mirinda’s hand in her own.

I nodded again. Mirinda took her hand back from her mother and gently folded the paper with my email on it into a tidy square.



The next morning, I woke up late to a seemingly empty house. I yelled down the hall, and only Lolo’s nurse replied. She told me everyone except Mirinda had gone out to do errands and that Mirinda was on her way out as well.

Mirinda was at the front entrance, doing up the tiny buckles on her red high heels. She had her hair down, and its glossy texture seemed to blend into the satin of the short, black dress she wore.

‘Where are you going?’ I asked.

‘Kenji’s taking me to the city,’ she said.

I opened the door and looked out at the gate. Kenji was standing there under the eucalyptus trees that shaded the driveway, peering through the bars with his arms hanging limp at his sides. He lifted one hand and held it there in greeting. Behind him was his silver van.

‘Merry Christmas,’ said Mirinda.

I stayed on the porch and watched her walk down the driveway and get into Kenji’s van. She waved at me from the window.

I spent some of the morning flipping through magazines. Normally, I could keep myself entertained with my magazines for hours, but that day I found them dull and childish. I got up several times to browse Lolo’s library but had no interest in any of his books. Whenever I glanced at the window, I would see the empty driveway and feel dread.

At 1pm, I heard the nurse running and yelling. I went out into the hall, and she rushed towards me, rambling in Tagalog.

‘You have to go,’ she said; ‘go, go, go, go.’

She pulled me to my lolo’s room, pushed me inside and shut the door. The curtains in the room were drawn, and the air had a congealed, sour quality. The room was more sparsely decorated than any other in the house, with only a bed and one set of drawers. There was a family portrait on the wall of my lolo, lola and papa.

Lolo was propped up against a pillow, his wrinkled, brown face glistening with sweat and his silver hair slicked back. His mouth was open, and I saw that, like a nightmare, he had no teeth. I went over to him and bowed my head towards him for mano po. With difficulty, he opened his eyes and stared with his  blue-ringed irises, perhaps not quite comprehending me. He began to speak slowly and in a commanding, urgent tone. I tried my best to memorise the syllables of his speech, so I could convey them later to someone who might understand their meaning. He continued  for a few minutes. At one point, he looked around the room, searching. Tears dribbled into the crevices of his cheeks. Finally, he grabbed my wrist and pronounced a familiar word which he repeated between so many sounds that I didn’t understand. Magda, Magda, Magda.



Papa insisted that I hadn’t grasped any of what my lolo had said and that his mentioning Magda meant nothing. Tita Z argued the opposite. While I waited in the pews at the funeral, I kept glancing at the door, hoping to see Mirinda. She never came.



For a while after I returned to New Zealand, me and Mirinda exchanged regular emails. I tried to write out the syllables from Lolo’s final words for her, hoping that she might decipher them, but she said it was nonsense and reassured me that it was alright that I didn’t know what he’d said before he died, and it probably wouldn’t have made any difference. But I kept thinking about the money Tita Z and Mirinda could have inherited from Lolo, if he’d meant for them to have any. It was obvious, within weeks of our return to New Zealand, that Papa had inherited a large sum. He bought a new home computer. I got an iPod. He and Mama were out every weekend, surveying real estate. Was this Lolo’s dying wish?

Mirinda told me that she was going to be in her first movie. I asked her what it was called, and she said it didn’t have a title yet but that she’d send me a copy if she could. Was she going to use her actor name, Mirinda Marquez? Yes, she said. Of course. She suggested to me that I should start watching Filipino movies to improve my Tagalog. One that she really liked was called Ang Darling Kong Aswang, which starred Vic Sotto as a man who falls in love with a manananggal. I hated Vic Sotto too much to finish it. It was unbelievable that anyone, even a manananggal, could love such a repellent man.

Gradually, I became busy with school again, and my emails to Mirinda grew further apart. I ran out of patience for the Filipino movies she suggested, and more immediate concerns overcame me. How should I style my hair? Who would be in my classes? Did my new shoes fit well? Did the girls in my netball team like me? I idled away so much of my youth, obsessed with questions like these.




The last time I was in the Philippines, it was for a holiday. I visited Boracay, Bohol, the chocolate hills and the white sand beaches. When I stopped over in Manila, it was only to see my papa who’d moved back to Binyan after retiring. He’d redecorated and refurbished Lolo’s house in the latest style, which was smooth, minimalist and brightly lit.

‘Whatever happened to Mirinda?’ I asked over dinner.

‘Oh, I don’t know,’ he said, shrugging. ‘She hasn’t kept in touch.’ ‘Isn’t she in movies?’

‘What movies? No, I don’t think so.’ ‘Do you know where she might be?’ My father frowned.

‘She’s probably still at their old house.’

Though it was a detour, the next day, I went alone to visit Mirinda and Tita Z in Bulacan. The cement exterior of their house was overgrown with vines of hoya, and there was a vicious white dog chained to the fence of the yard. The door to the house was already open, and I saw, in the dim room, Tita Z sitting alone. She didn’t greet me when I came inside. In the years since I’d last visited, she’d gained a great deal of weight, but otherwise hadn’t aged much. She fanned herself with a folded magazine, watching the TV on the kitchen counter. There was no evidence that Mirinda lived there still, no high heels with tiny buckles, no hairclips with bows.

‘Ano ng gusto mo,’ Tita Z grunted.

By then, my Tagalog was proficient enough to understand what she was saying. ‘Kamusta Tita. Do you know where Mirinda is?’

She laughed, and it sounded like choking. Glaring at me, she pointed to a box by the bed. I opened the box. It was full of DVDs with Mirinda on the covers. I recognised her immediately because her face and her body were the same as mine. The name she used was Marina Aquino. My name.

‘Your papa never cared about me and Magda,’ Tita Z said. ‘If he did, why didn’t he marry me?’

I closed the box and slid it under the bed.

‘Naiintindihan mo ba ang sinasabi ko?’ she asked. ‘Do you get what I’m saying?’

About the Author

M Donato

M Donato is a Filipino-New Zealander living in Te-Whanganui-a-Tara. She has a BA in English Literature from Victoria University and an MA from the International Institute of Modern Letters. Her work has been published in Turbine, Newsroom, and A Clear Dawn: New Asian Voices from Aotearoa, New Zealand.