In Manila, the traffic never ceased. The people always moved. At all hours of the late night and early morning were people on their way to work or heading home. Early before dawn, security guards from the mall were waiting for their shift to end. The neon OPEN sign over the pawn shop lit up, and the owner stood behind the window like a statue. Across from the pawn shop, an office worker had returned home and was planning to climb out the precarious ledge outside his window to investigate the odd flapping noise in his air conditioner. Down the street from the residential building, Alec walked the usual route to his bakery, the same blocks and intersections he took for the past five years.
The little bakery stood quietly between the pawn shop with the iron bars over its display windows and the dimly-lit used electronics store. Despite its location near one of the busiest malls in Manila, Alec got the location cheap. He was in the shop by 4 AM, kneading the bread for fresh pandesal and ensaymada.
By 6 AM, the glass display case was full with trays of soft, fluffy mamon, rolls of Spanish bread, hopia with lightly sweetened purple yam filling, and savory pastries of beef and chicken empanada. The pandesal and ensaymada were always the first to go in the morning. The regulars usually came for fresh, warm bags of the bread. It seemed that the pandesal in particular had an odd effect on the customers. An old man, a security guard who usually came in after his night shift for his daily paper bag of rolls, said it best: “Your bread feeds not just my body, it nourishes my soul.”
Alec was touched, but he wasn’t sure where this was coming from. His baking resulted in simple Filipino breads. Alec’s assistant Jim, however, agreed with the customers.
“I dunno, man,” Jim said. He stood in front of the bakery’s bathroom mirror, shaving the hairs on his upper lip in an effort to make them grow thicker. “It just tastes better than the bread my mom made. Sweeter, I think. There’s a warmth to it. Nostalgic without the nostalgia. It just tastes like home but better. Especially when it’s still fresh and hot. It just tastes like... like a better version of home.”
Jim was still “Lenora” when he first started working for Alec. Jim was a teenager who sported a short, boyish crew cut and a practiced slouch as he walked. Alec once accidentally walked in on him in the bathroom binding his breasts while he was getting changed into his uniform and apron. He said he didn’t like how the simple “Bread and Stuff” logo stitched onto the front of the white uniform brought attention to his breasts. Alec knew better than to believe it had anything to do with bras. He did not need to ask what a better home entailed when he discovered Jim sleeping in the bakery after he stopped going by “Lenora.”
“This pandesal was my sister recipe.” Alec chewed on a piece of pandesal carefully, studying the taste as he watched Jim examine the fine hairs on his lip. Alec did make the bread sweeter, something his sister Aysa did with her own baking: an extra pinch or two of sugar as he mixed the flour. Just enough that it wouldn’t clash with more savory bread spreads or fillings the customers might’ve preferred to combine it with. He hadn’t thought about his deceased sister in years. But he didn’t forget. This was her bread. She was alive here somewhere. “You need to shave in the direction of the beard growth, starting at the edges.”
Jim grunted in reply, slapping his lower face with Alec’s aftershave. “As long as it grows. Anyway, it’s not just that. It’s the way you smile when you do it.”
“When you shave?”
“No, dude! When you make bread. You smile when you’re at it,” Jim snickered, a mock-coy smile playing at his lips.
Alec swallowed the last of his breakfast, feeling his face warming up.
Jim laughed. “You are! You are thinking of someone! Who? Who!”
The bell on the front door rang to life. Jim and Alec hurried out the kitchen. The usual array of customers came in for their daily breakfast on the go: the restaurant owner on her way to the market, employees from the mall, the road construction workers currently working on the building across the block, the security guards before their shifts, and the handful of tired souls whose mornings started long ago. All were gone as soon as the white paper bag of warm bread was in hand.
There were exactly two plastic green tables and chairs in front of the counter, sure. But most of the bakery’s patrons didn’t stop to eat their breakfast here. Not when Alec’s idea of coffee was a forgotten, solitary container of ready mix in the corner and the cheap packets of tea bags turned stale so long ago. Here, it was all about the bread. Jim’s attempts to make the bakery a place with a café-type vibe where patrons wanted to relax were for naught when the owner only cared about working in the kitchen. Even fewer wanted to eat at a place so sterile in imagination as “Bread and Stuff.”
Yet there was one woman who stopped to eat her pandesal in the Bread and Stuff. A guidance counselor working at a private school. She was a foreigner with familiar brown eyes—half African American, half Filipino. Jim’s general lack of reserve with questioning the customers revealed that the woman’s name was Malaya and her mother was from Batangas.
She liked to eat her breakfast at the austere bakery, with a bright purple travel mug of coffee from home. She walked lithely like a cool mountain breeze in Alec’s hometown of Baguio. “Hey, Alec! The usual please.” Her accent had an American lilt with something exotic like she’d lived elsewhere, or everywhere, her whole life.
“Good morning, Malaya” said Alec. He returned to the kitchen for Malaya’s usual order of three pieces of plain pandesal and one mamon. He jumped, startled by the sight of Jim hiding behind the door, grinning at him with wide, overjoyed eyes.
“You dog, you,” Jim whispered.
“Shut up and start packing the cooled loaves,” he hissed back. Alec returned with a paper plate. With Jim’s eyes on him, Alec grew aware of the tense squaring of his shoulders and the stiff straightness of his back. Of course Jim would notice this.
“Have you had breakfast?” Malaya asked. “Please, Alec. Sit with me.” She held up her mug of coffee over her lips, leaning back against her plastic chair.
“I’ve had breakfast, thank you,” said Alec. He rushed back into the kitchen, hoping his pale face didn’t betray the sudden rush of warmth he felt expand over his cheeks.
“What are you doing?” Jim demanded angrily. “What-Are-You-Doing! You’re like old! Thirty! I know you know how to do this! What happened?”
Alec was not bad looking. He knew that since the days his great-aunt pandered him out as a “mestizo” to child modeling agencies. Being told you were handsome almost all of your life usually did something to one’s confidence, but when Malaya entered the bakery, he suddenly felt intimidated. There was something about her that demanded more than he could give. Whatever it was, she was clearly not someone who could be won over by looks. Maybe bread, but Alec had a sense that whatever it was that would’ve made them compatible was lacking in him.
“She asked you to have breakfast with her,” said Jim, struggling to keep his voice low. The bakery’s cream and beige tiled walls echoed everything in the bakery’s small space. “She’s flirting.”
“She’s a counselor, right? What if she does her psych thing on me.”
He regretted his joke. The astute sixteen-year-old blinked several times, trying to translate what this “psych” thing could mean. “You mean, like, empathize with you?” Jim cringed. “I don’t know what you’re hiding, bruddah. But whatever it is, it’s bad for you. Let it out.”
Alec kept his eyes averted from Malaya’s table, which was difficult considering the size of the room. When she was here, the bakery felt smaller. The kitchen was only a little bigger than the dining area. The glass display case full of bread took up most of the room. There was only enough space for two tables next to the large window and glass door facing the street. Malaya always had a newspaper to frown at or a novel to read. Maybe he should try sitting with her one day for breakfast. He could ask about what kind of students she counseled. He did like to read. They could discuss literature. And somewhere between a discussion of censorship in schools and how to pronounce Proust, she’d find out he was an asshole.
His past girlfriends shared little in common save for the fact that they all thought so. They were not stupid girls, and this was an uncomfortably consistent critique on his person. It was likely Malaya might conclude the same. The fact that Alec never wanted to introduce them to any of his family members was seen as unwillingness to move the relationship forward—the inability to talk about himself as cold, emotional distance. Just a few conversations on books and bread, and the subject of family would come up. It always did in the end. The question was why talking about family was important at all.
Malaya let out a strangled cry. Alec snapped out of his reverie. Her eyes were wide with horror, staring past the bakery’s window.
He followed her line of sight. Past the display window, he could see a crowd forming across the street.
“I think I saw someone fall. Someone jumped off the opposite building.”
“Really?” Jim stood on his tiptoes, eager for a look.
“Jim, stay here.” Alec ordered. He ran outside. The cloudy morning sky was dark gray. A little too cool out for August. He knew it wouldn’t rain today.
Trying to wade through the crowd of onlookers, more curious than concerned, was difficult. There were people dressed up for work in their suits and familiar uniforms from restaurants and stores in the mall a few blocks away. He looked up at the building, searching for where the man could have possibly jumped from.
“Oh God, he’s dead,” said Malaya. She appeared next to him, her mouth muffled by her hands.
“There might be blood everywhere,” Jim muttered, gagging.
“I told you to stay inside!” Alec snapped. “You’re too young!”
“You were looking too!” Jim argued, affronted.
As he pulled Jim away from the street, the crowd surrounding him moved, and Alec caught sight of the dead man on the sidewalk. His eyes blurred. He tried to focus. His body started to swerve. It was as if his bloodstream was being pulled up and down different directions, expanding like the pool of blood on the ground.
“Aysa,” he called out, trying to reach out for the blurring figure of Jim. His voice strangled under some immense and mysterious strain. “Aysa!”
“Alec!” Jim cried.
Someone slapped the side of his face several times. When he came to, he found himself sitting on a bench outside the bakery, holding a warm paper cup of coffee. The body had been covered by a cloth as the police maneuvered the pedestrians away from the scene. A handful of people were talking to policemen. Malaya and Jim sat with Alec, watching him anxiously. “Dude, I think you blacked out,” said Jim. “Should we take you to the paramedics?”
“I don’t know what happened,” a woman explained to a policeman. “He just fell. There was this horrible sound—.”
“Eat something,” said Jim. He handed him a piece of pandesal.
“I don’t want any,” he tried to say. His tongue felt thick and awkward. He might have bit into it. He nibbled the piece of bread. The warm sweetness stuck to the roof of his mouth.
“Sorry,” said Jim. “It’s the batch I made. I know. It’s too sweet.”
“It’s perfect,” he said. As Alec focused on the little round ball of undercooked dough, he thought he saw his sister standing in Jim’s place.
“Oh God, he likes my baking. Can we get a paramedic over here!”
He blinked and Jim returned into view. The worst he feared finally happened. He forgot what his older sister looked like.
Malaya watched with disgust at the crowd of curious onlookers trying to get an unobscured look at the body. “People are just standing around.”
Alec’s eyes remained on the lone policeman urging people to move away. The crowd only swayed backwards, feet planted firmly on black asphalt, watching a body that would never move on its own again. “Give them free bread.”
Jim and Malaya both stared, surprised. “Dude, for real?” said Jim.
“Yes. Give them free bread.” He stood up. He tried to recollect what he thought Aysa looked like. Before their mother left them. Before Alec found Aysa in a pool of blood on their bathroom floor.
Hot water splashed against his leg. The cup of coffee forgotten in his hand had fallen. Nausea overwhelmed him. The blood was hard to unsee.
“We should go inside. I’ll help out,” Malaya suggested. She thrust an arm around his and led him back into his shop. He could hear Jim outside, announcing the bakery’s offer. There would be a lot more bread to bake. But all he could think about was the sister who lay dying on their bathroom floor. He returned to the kitchen, taking the cooled batches of bread out to the front. The bakery was filled with more people than Alec had ever seen. He stood frozen with the tray in his hands, unsure of how to start.
“I need a line to start over here!” Malaya announced as she took the tray from Alec and moved to stand at one end of the counter.
Alec left Malaya and Jim to serve the customers. The kitchen was where he was best. A bit of regret hovered over him now. He had made the decision to give out free bread in the middle of his shocked stupor. It felt necessary at the time. He only wanted to make the people stop staring at the dead man. Like he had become a thing, not a body. Alec hovered his hand over the oven door. The heat felt pleasantly dry against his palms. Alec stared into the ovens until the mounds of browning sweet dough blurred into an indistinct brown loaf ablaze in red heat. Taking deep breathes was surprisingly hard. He ought to call someone. His great-aunt perhaps. Or her marine veteran husband. His mother if she was still out there somewhere.
The memories of his mother were fewer with each passing year. She found a job as a maid in Dubai when Alec was seven years old. They said goodbye at the airport. Alec remembered her tears and kisses and, lastly, her retreating form shrinking into a shadow in the grey-walled Aquino Airport. She called once when she landed in Dubai. Then Alec never heard from her again. There were many stories about what happened to Filipino maids working abroad. Sometimes the women wanted to start over again, choosing to forget the children from their former lives. Sometimes, their employers took their passports away and forced them into a life of servitude without pay. There were many answers, and Alec was sure none of them were going to be the right one.
All Alec knew was that after his older sister Aysa died, Mom never returned for the funeral.
He remembered waking to the smell of bacon and freshly made rolls of sweet pandesal in the morning. Aysa was always up before the sun rose doing all the cooking and cleaning before school. And then there were the days when Alec found her unable to get out of bed. And great-aunt Merlyne came to take her to the hospital. That tedious long wait in a crowded ER just to see a doctor when she didn’t look ill. What did she suffer from? He knew but Alec didn’t want to attach a word to it. It would mean he knew what she had done. There was a boyfriend. He disappeared shortly after that trip to the hospital. Tita Merlyne told him it was cancer. He knew that was wrong. It never matched what he had seen—a trail of blood leading to the bathroom, and he didn’t want to think anymore.
“It’s a stupid way to die.”
The woman whom Alec had seen speaking with the police stood in front of him by the cash register. He was so busy handing out bread and thanking people, asking them to come back again after they sang their praises that he almost didn’t register that she stopped to actually speak to him. She was a beautiful older woman with an aloof sort of gaze that could be mistaken for a glare. Everything about her looked expensive—her makeup, her tailored suit, her smell. She stood out among the rest of the customers because she looked like the type of person who wouldn’t have given a second look at a place like the Bread and Stuff.
The woman was eating her pandesal bit by bit, avoiding smudging her thick dark red lipstick with expert ease. “The man was electrocuted. He was trying to repair his AC. The police say he died when his wife turned it back on. Stupid woman. She knew her husband was out there. At least he did not suffer when he fell.”
“Alright,” Alec said. His head was spinning again. The part of him that did not go numb at the thought of the man’s blood wanted this woman to take her bread and go.
She stood by the cash register, eating her paper bag of bread until the color returned to her cheeks thick with white makeup. “This is good,” she said, rubbing the dry crumbs between her manicured fingertips. Her eyes still retained the terror of what she had seen, that slight squint in the corners where she wanted to shut her eyes against the image of the fatal fall.
“My mother was a terrible cook.” The woman laughed. “She knew that, but she always tried. She used to buy our breakfast from a bakery as small as this. Smaller maybe. The tiles on the walls inside looked like a bathroom. So white and cold inside. But the bread was delicious. I was disappointed it closed down.” The woman surveyed the bakery, and for a moment Alec forgot she looked like she didn’t belong here. “Goodbye, sir.”
“Thank you,” said Alec. The regret he felt about giving out free bread ebbed away. Now he smiled, feeling there was some source of relief in feeding the witnesses after all. “Please. Come again.”
Alec had never seen his bakery so full before. Or so loud. The discussion among the customers was shocked but unrestrained. Many more were arriving once news of free bread had spread. Malaya’s attempts to make everyone stand in an orderly line were in vain, but no one crowded the counter. They were polite in that wide-eyed, shell-shocked way. The promise of free bread distracted them—the first bite, a soothing balm. He could see it in their faces.
His great-uncle Eric liked his sister’s pandesal. The recipe was easy, and Alec committed hers to memory from countless impatient moments watching her. After they buried Aysa, Alec went to live with his great-aunt and great-uncle in Baguio. They were kind. But they preferred to tiptoe around everything Alec was so desperate to find answers to. No matter how much the seven-year-old begged to know where his mother was, Tita Merlyne and Tito Eric refused tell him, even though everything in their eyes suggested they knew something. When Alec asked for at least one picture of his sister, the albums that were once his mother’s were safety tucked away on a high shelf, far from his reach. Alec wasn’t angry. He understood their intent was not malicious, only misguided. This was a family that believed that things left unsaid made everything alright.
It was a belief that eventually seeped into Alec’s psyche so that one day, when he was tall enough to reach out and find the pictures of a family he missed or old enough to ask about the disappearance of his mother, he did neither. When he started college in Manila, Tita Merlyne and Tito Eric were left to wonder why the obedient, quiet little boy they reared for eleven years never came back for Christmas.
“Can I have more, please?” an older man held out the warm brown bag of Spanish rolls towards Alec hopefully.
He was dirty, but surprisingly he didn’t smell. His hair was matted and unkempt, but his worn-out shirt was white. Alec usually saw him outside, sitting on a corner begging for money—a corner in clear view of the street where the man had fallen. Alec grabbed a bigger bag and emptied a whole tray of Spanish rolls into it. Some of the people waiting in line groaned.
“Shut up! This is free!” Jim snapped, kicking the kitchen door open while he expertly held trays of fresh rolls and buns with sweet coconut paste and purple yam filling in his arms.
“Are you alright, Alec?” Malaya asked. She worked efficiently, handing only one piece of mamon or hopia per person and directing those already served away from the counter.
Alec could see the homeless man through the window, offering his bread to the people outside. The ambulance was gone. By now, the body had been taken away. Too many congregated outside, watching the police steer traffic away from the scene.
By morning, the blood would be gone, and all that would be left was the litter from days past. Aysa was like the dead man. Somewhere deep down in the darkness he couldn’t face, Alec knew Aysa never meant to hurt herself. She only meant to remove the child.
Alec, who had been squinting at the storefront window, slowly turned his gaze at Malaya. “Yes?”
“I said how are you doing?” Malaya repeated. Alec could feel her hand hover over his shoulder before it fell limply on her side. “You should sit down. Jim and I have things covered.”
“Don’t you have to go to work?” he asked.
Malaya waved a hand dismissively. “I’ll head out soon.”
“You’ve been too kind.” For the first time all morning, Alec looked Malaya in the eye. The exchange of shy smiles was brief. The customers busy picking out what they wanted were inches away from them. They handed out the last of the batches of fresh bread until all they had left to give were the coconut cookies and macaroons.
The ones who witnessed the fall were very quick about getting their free breakfast and leaving for work, stopping briefly to talk to Alec. No sick leave or days off for any of them. Alec was sure of it. This was the kind of people Filipinos were: always moving, even if they didn’t really move on.
By late morning, sunlight emerged out of the cloudy sky, coating the bakery with a warm orange-yellow glow. Everything had moved around him with the hurriedness of an unclear dream. The barely registered praises and compliments were vague memories. As the sun reached him at the far end of the counter, he found that he could snap out of the ordeal of that morning and breathe.
“You know, you fit right in,” said Alec, after everything had settled and those they handed food out to only vaguely knew of what had happened earlier that morning.
“My mom used to work in a bakery,” said Malaya. “It was in Batanes, before our dad got shipped out to Korea. I always liked the ube. I missed it when we moved.”
“You did a lot for me today, really.”
“Of course,” said Malaya. “And if you need anything, you only need to ask.”
“Malaya!” Jim cried, pointing to the clock.
“Aaand this is as late as I can allow myself to be.” Malaya whipped her apron off and rushed out the door. “Thanks, kid!”
Jim saluted. “Don’t mention it!” He grinned at Alec until he realized he did something wrong and backed away into the kitchen. “What? She asked me to watch the time!”
“Ah, forget it,” Alec muttered as he waved at Malaya. There was no way after today that he could ever think of asking her out. He was just as likely to call his aunt and uncle.
“Dude, are you okay?” Jim asked. “You were out of it all day.”
“It was a bit much for me.”
“I guess I should be grateful you didn’t let me look at, um—.” Jim bit his lip, pained at the sight out the window. “Gosh we don’t even know his name.” There were cars driving by. A few people walking past. But the presence of the man felt constant to the both of them.
They closed the bakery after they ran out of baked goods. For the rest of the day as Alec and Jim cleaned the bakery, the lost image of Aysa melded with the dead, unknown man.
He went home and tried to sleep. In bed, he stared at his cellphone. The familiar home phone number was still there on his list of contacts, still remembered by heart. He could call his aunt and uncle. Demand the photo albums of his family that they kept away from him all those years. But when he eyed the green call button, his hands would freeze, and the idea turned impossible. He was ready to live with never seeing Aysa’s face again. He closed his eyes, trying to will away the blurred image of her that seemed to look out at him in the darkness of his room. Sometimes, the image looked like Jim back when he was a girl, but the thought felt ridiculous, inaccurate—a poor excuse to explain why he had hired the kid for a bakery with not that much foot traffic.
And then the dawn illuminated the ghosts away, and Alec realized it was morning again.
The walk to the bakery was not too long. Just a few long blocks of busy intersections and he could see the gilded and gated pawn shop next to the bakery. But the day after the man’s accident, Alec’s walk felt labored. There were just too many terrible ways to die.
He was usually back at the bakery just when the sun turned the skyline bright morning blue, and today would be no different. He looked across the way, and for sure, the blood where the poor man fell was now clean with no hint of the tragedy that occurred yesterday.
Grief. It is like a still, arid desert where the sun rises and sets without you. It was a familiar feeling. As Alec walked by the scene of the death, he felt it now, wholly and completely for the stranger.
Alec took one last look at the sidewalk across the street and turned to the bakery. He ripped down the FREE BREAD TODAY sign stuck to the entrance.
“So the free bread thing was an astounding success,” said Jim. He was making frenzied motions with a teaspoon on the surface of his cup of coffee. “A lot of people were pretty shaken up, but they said they felt better after they ate here.”
“We need to change the name,” said Jim. “Bread and Stuff is a bit trite. And one of us needs to learn how to make cappuccino.”
“Why just cappuccino?” Alec asked.
“I dunno. The customers kept asking for good coffee yesterday. We got new clientele for sure. We need to step up our game. That’s why I’m trying cappuccino. How do they get the whip cream on the coffee to make heart shapes and stuff? I’ve been trying all morning, but I can’t figure it out. Point is one of us needs to learn how to do it. It should be me.”
This kid, Alec realized, truly loved the bakery. But he couldn’t quite place why. Alec eyed Jim’s paper cup. “That’s not how cappuccino’s made. That whip cream is supposed to be foam. Wait, do you—? Do you want to learn to be a barista?”
Jim colored and shuffled his feet back and forth. “No. Not really. I just like the taste.”
Alec grinned. They could laugh about this—wrap up the ugliness of yesterday and force them to go back to normal with their usual jokes. “Would you like me to send you somewhere for training?” he teased.
“No.” The young boy blushed and frowned furiously at the floor.
This wasn’t their usual candor. At this point, Jim would usually bite back with a retort. Then Alec remembered that at the cusp of leaving the in-between world of his unique puberty, Jim’s choice to be who he was almost led to homelessness. The kid Alec had hired because of a possible likeness to his sister had seen this place as home. “That might be good for you,” Alec remarked carefully. “More importantly, for the bakery, too. I need to do that. Well done. Good idea.”
“No! It’s fine!” Jim rushed over to the ovens to check on the new loaves. “I can’t afford it anyway,” he snapped. “You already let me live in the room upstairs. I owe you a lot.”
“You don’t owe me anything,” he said. “I dock your pay for rent anyway.” Alec looked up as Malaya entered the bakery.
Jim and Alec waved at Malaya from the kitchen. The easy air of casual acquaintances had been replaced with a strange intimacy. Malaya stopped walking to her favorite table by the window and waved back. They all seemed to mirror the same dark shadows behind their eyes. Everything felt like a long departure from their usual routine of dawn baking, good mornings, silence, solitary breakfasts, and all the ways and reasons he couldn’t talk to this woman.
“I just want this place to be better, bro.” Jim whispered. “I dunno, man.”
This boy was going to get training as a barista, Alec decided. He would get someone to teach him all the strange names for the drinks that were just coffee to him, and maybe he would let this kid rename the bakery. He’ll rethink the last part. “It will be.” Alec ruffled his hair, the same way he would’ve if he had been born his brother, never a girl named Lenora with the soft oval face of Aysa. “We’ll talk about this later.”
Alec stared down at the plate he picked up from the drying rack. It seemed so long ago when he knew what Malaya wanted every morning. He brought a small assorted basket of fresh warm breads and butter to her table instead. She spotted the two plates in his hands and grinned.
“Good morning,” he said. “Do you mind if I sit with you?"