Mia Alvar is a New York-based writer born in Manila, Philippines. She is working on a collection of short stories and a novel about migrations between the Philippines, the Middle East and the United States.
Alvar was awarded residencies by Yaddo (2012) and The Blue Mountain Center for the Arts (2011). She was a Teaching Fellow at Columbia University School of the Arts (2005) and was a finalist for The Best American Short Stories (2007) and a nominee for The Pushcart Prize (2012). Publications include The Kontrabida, One Story (2012); The Miracle Worker, The Missouri Review (2011); Legends of the White Lady, The Cincinnati Review (2008), The Virgin of Monte Ramon, Eophony (2008); and Roundabout, Small Spiral Notebook (2007). Alvar received her B.A. from Harvard College and her M.F.A. from Columbia University.
Photo credit: courtesy of the artist
Excerpt from “Legends of the White Lady,” a short story
If you are beautiful and broke, one place left for you is Asia. Usually when I ran out of money I went to Tokyo—always a face cream or a push-up bra there that could use me. This time, I went to Manila. I’d been there once before, with my roommate Sabine. In cities like these there is a demand for blue eyes and light hair and skin like milk.
Manila’s airport is noisier than Tokyo’s, more crowded, its faces a few shades darker. I towered, in both cities, over almost everyone. But while Tokyo could match New York for all its rushing, solitary people, in Manila no one seemed alone but me. At arrivals each brown face would locate the cluster of faces it belonged to, and merge into a heap of arms and laughter and chatter. Not that I had blended in much better when Sabine was there. She was only half Filipina, and 5’10”—almost as tall as me.
I looked for a cab and could only get a stretch limousine—the airport’s longest person hailing its longest car. On the highway, skinny boys in wifebeaters dodged the traffic, some wearing flip-flops, others barefoot, their shins and calves dark with scabs. They carried trays of gum and cigarettes. When traffic stalled us some boys lingered at my window, which was mirrored on the outside. They cupped their hands around their faces and squinted. Their eyes roamed, blank; they couldn’t see a thing. There were older beggars too, with body parts missing: hands, a leg, an arm.
This was the city where Sabine was born; when I’d first met her, though, I couldn’t guess where she was from. It was a question she had to answer often. “My mother’s from the Philippines, my dad is American,” she would say, in a practiced manner. “And no, he wasn’t ‘in the service.’”
Now my driver asked me the same question. “You American, miss?” he said, as he steered through the cars and bodies.
“As apple pie,” I said. It sounded more serious than I meant it.
“I can see that, miss. Where in America? Texas?”
“Here on vacay?” he asked, just like an American would.
I shook my head. “Work.” Then I remembered something. “Look, I’ve been here before,” I told the driver, “and I know we don’t go through Quezon City to get to this hotel.” Five years ago, the cab ride from the airport had taken three hours and cost 800 pesos—about double the time and money that we should have spent, Sabine and I later found out. We looked at a map afterwards. The driver had taken us along the edges of greater Manila and through Balete Drive, a long street in Quezon City that was supposedly haunted. While scamming us he told the story of a woman dressed all in white who roamed Balete after dark.