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Excerpt from The Cine Star Salon

Things are picking up for me as I prepare for a late summer wedding and a book launch this fall. But here it is, the opening section of my debut novel, The Cine Star Salon. Launch and other related news will be announced soon, but I hope you enjoy this for the meantime.

The clanging of woks and harried calls from the cooks seemed louder that Sunday, the bustle carrying a more frenzied air. Sophia felt like a caged animal. She looked up at the ceiling, wishing to float above the flood of noise. Across the table, her parents sat straight-backed and elegant—they dressed up on Sundays for the mass. At this dim sum place along Fraser Street, they were familiar faces to servers who were used to serving them efficiently. Her father always brought them to the same place after the service; he enjoyed the anxious, deferential treatment. Sophia wished everybody would just slow down, that the plates of deep-fried rolls would land on the table without that haphazard clink, the tiny steaming bowls set down with some care. The world lacked in grace. There was no need for all this hurry.

There was also no need to talk so loudly. Sophia marvelled at how her mother’s excited voice surfed above the noise level in the restaurant, while Samuel and their father hungrily served themselves with the newly arrived delicacies. What was it with men that could make them so indifferent when everything around them was chaos?

“There might have been a fight, some confrontation.” Her mother looked to Sophia for confirmation. During last night’s Skype call to Manila, every single detail had been dissected, with Sophia’s mother embellishing with things remembered from the past, and Auntie Mila correcting her faulty memory, happy to fan the same topic as it kept at bay the other usual subject, which was her perpetual singlehood. They had harmoniously called it an accident. Sophia, who had been eavesdropping, missed the kindness of the word, its blamelessness, now that her mother was adding fresh angles to her younger sister’s juicy gossip. “Maybe it wasn’t an accident. Who knows?”

The feast on the Lazy Susan gave off the aroma of sesame and pork fat, all of which ordinarily made her day. Sophia had a voracious appetite. Adrian had once said that she wasn’t like other beautiful women who ate like birds. That morning she didn’t feel like a single bite.

“Your Auntie Rosy,” her mother waved her chopsticks at Sophia on your, stressing that the woman was just someone Sophia called Auntie, not a family relation, “has not seen a customer since the accident. The ale left with an unfinished haircut and a bleeding cut on her cheek. Fight or no fight, Rosy must have been drunk!”

Her father shrugged. “What’s going to happen now?”

“For sure, she’s going to lose the business. It’s so sad.” But her mother didn’t sound sad. She sounded cold, satisfied even.

“Where did Auntie Mila hear this?” Sophia made her voice sound skeptical, poised to dismiss the story. “Everyone in the neighbourhood is talking about it. I’m surprised you haven’t heard.”

“I haven’t been in touch with them.” She avoided her mother’s gaze by looking up at the server who put down a fresh teapot on their table before hurrying off with the empty one. He brushed against another server pushing a cart that carried towering piles of bamboo steamers.

Sophia herself felt like a tottering container in danger of falling to the floor, her secrets tumbling out like meat filling from a breached dumpling. How generous she had been back then, sending money and packages filled with salon supplies and gifts to Manila. It had been three years, but Sophia was remembering all of it too clearly. How, at the beginning, it hadn’t felt like a burden. Every amount she signed off, every package she sealed and shipped, left her with a nostalgic glow from paying homage. It hadn’t been hard to keep these charitable efforts from her stingy parents—as a child, Sophia had harboured bigger secrets. That Auntie Rosy was grateful to the point of tears every single time only spurred her generosity. Being left to run Cine Star after Aling Helen’s death had made her fragile and resilient at the same time. Such contradictions were the stuff Auntie Rosy was made of. Perhaps the end had been inevitable. Their friendship couldn’t have emerged from their dreadful misunderstanding unscathed. When everything finally blew up, Auntie Rosy no longer wanted to speak to Sophia, who had been irked but ultimately relieved by this outcome. Through all of it, her family had been unaware and uninvolved. As always.

Outside the skies were bright, the leaves vibrant in the late-September showdown between summer and fall, but all Sophia could see were the smudges on the glass window, swirling traces of mist where the cleaning cloth had been. A cut on the cheek. Auntie Rosy had been a stylist for decades. What had taken so long, Sophia thought, for something like this to happen?

The scene played out in her head: the woman storming out of Cine Star, hand cradling one side of her face. Murmurs rising among onlookers lined up at the next-door pawnshop and the bakery at the other side. Auntie Mila would have pieced the story together from plenty of sources. Her account was so detailed that her mother, who knew nothing about the people living next door to their Collingwood area townhouse, would talk about it for a long time.

But it was Erwin’s version that Sophia wanted to hear. It had been months since they had last spoken, but from what she could tell from his Facebook and Instagram posts, her childhood friend still lived in the same neighbourhood, worked at the same call centre outfit. Heard the same rumours. Erwin was Sophia’s remaining link to Auntie Rosy.

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