Interview + Short Story + "5 Choices" Essay
Isabel Yap writes fiction and poetry, works in the tech industry, and drinks tea. Born and raised in Manila, she has lived in the U.S. since 2010. She holds a BS in Marketing from Santa Clara University and an MBA from Harvard Business School. Her debut story collection, Never Have I Ever, was published in 2021 by Small Beer Press and won the British Fantasy Award for Best Collection. Her work has been a finalist for the Ignyte, Locus, Crawford, and World Fantasy Awards, and has appeared in venues including Lithub and Year’s Best Weird Fiction. She is @visyap on Twitter and her website is https://isabelyap.com.
Photo credit: Meg Whittenberger
INTERVIEW WITH ISABEL YAP
Questions by Corinne Cordasco-Pak
Editor’s note: I was delighted to have the opportunity to interview Isabel on behalf of Revolute. Isabel answered every question with such depth and candor, and I’m so excited to share her interview with Revolute readers. Please note that I’ve edited the interview below slightly, for length and clarity, but I believe Isabel’s words and sentiments have been preserved.
Corinne: I want to start by talking about short stories. Often, there’s a focus on novels, but there’s a lot of room for exploration in shorter forms. For you, what is exciting or attractive about writing short stories?
Isabel: My background in writing is fan-fiction. That’s really where I got my start. Even in fanfic, I feel like so much of my favorite work was in the short form. There are a lot of people who write and follow these long, epic fanfics that are multi-chapter and take years to write. I enjoyed a few of those too. But when I think about my favorites, so many of them were short stories, where you can get immense satisfaction from this contained thing. And in the fan-fiction model where writers post as they go, I didn’t have to wait. The story was complete. That was the form my favorite writers were writing in, so it became the form that I emulated. I started out, as I think most people do, trying to write a long story, and I didn’t finish. I could already tell my writing wasn’t at the level that I wanted it to be. I took a break from posting fanfic, and I read a lot, and I was like, let me try writing in the style of writers that I admire. So I mimicked the style, which included mimicking the short story form.
The author who made me want to write original short stories was Kelly Link. I read Pretty Monsters because a fanfic author I like recommended it, and it blew my mind. That was my opening to see the kind of imaginative, interesting work that I’d been searching for in short story forms that are original. Because of that collection, I applied to Clarion and started writing more original fiction.
Corinne: That’s really cool. I love Kelly Link, and I feel like when I read Magic for Beginners the first time, something just opened in my head and I was like, you can do that?
Isabel: Right? That was exactly my feeling. I didn’t know you could do this in original short fiction.
Corinne: What made you want to focus on speculative fiction for your short stories?
Isabel: I started writing speculative fiction also because that was the genre open to unpublished authors in the Philippines. There was a period when I wanted to try publishing original short stories. I submitted some non-spec stories and some spec stories to various contests, to publications, and it was my spec stories that got accepted. So I was like, that’s what I’ll lean into. It was kind of a mercenary decision. But over time, it’s become a more deliberate choice, especially because my community is the speculative fiction community, which I’d gained through Clarion. That was really my entry point for publishing.
Corinne: In your collection Never Have I Ever, it seems like folklore and mythology are frequent sources of inspiration. Where does an idea start for you, and how does that evolve through drafting and revision?
Isabel: For as long as I’ve been writing original stories, I’ve always had a long-ish list of ideas. The seed of a story can be anything from an emotion to a sentence to—if you were ever on LiveJournal, they used to have these one-sentence prompts—and sometimes that’s the idea. There’s a story in my collection where the prompt was like, gay witch boy, San Francisco. That’s what my brain gave me. And that’s about as much as I had for quite a while. Then I started to flesh it out more, and it became, gay witch boy, San Francisco. Fog. Fall in love with Fog? From there, it became an actual plot where I gave the characters names and thought a bit more about their situation. There’s another story that started with White Lady—which is a kind of ghost in the Philippines—White Lady school story. And then my brain starts going, all right, what else can I add here? So they can come from anywhere, and usually, it’s a bit thematic, but I take whatever my brain will give me and try to see where the story will go.
Corinne: In terms of your writing career, how has your life changed now that Never Have I Ever is out in the world? You mentioned that you’re working on a novel, so it sounds like there are some differences.
Isabel: I don’t have an agent, so I don’t really have someone who’s planning my career with me. For a long time, I thought, you need to debut with a novel. That was the advice I’d received, and it was also the pattern that I saw. A novel is what gets you an agent, et cetera. For many years, I was just like, well, I’ll write a novel when I write a novel, and that’s what will kick things off, right? But it didn’t happen that way. What happened was that I couldn’t write a novel. Meanwhile, I was publishing short stories, and then at some point, Small Beer Press reached out and said, we’re interested in acquiring a collection from you. Kelly Link is a teacher of mine, so I know her and Gavin [J. Grant] personally. I felt okay undergoing that process with them because I know that they’re good readers for my work and I love what Small Beer Press has published. They’ve done the collections of a lot of my favorite authors. So I was like, okay, I trust them.
There was a brief period when I worried, is this going to hurt me? Is it bad to lead with a short story collection? When they reached out, it’s not like I had won or even been nominated for a Nebula or a Hugo or a World Fantasy Award. I know I published in good venues, but I’m not an award-nominated author, so who would want to buy this book? I was attending an MBA program at the time, and my mindset was, I don’t know when I’m going to write a novel, so I might as well take this opportunity. It just hit me that, if I don’t do this now, I don’t know when I’m going to publish a book, so I said yes. Now, I feel fine, but looking back at that time, I was really concerned that there would be no readers, and it wasn’t because I didn’t believe in my stories or didn’t believe in Small Beer Press’s ability to get the book out there, but it was more like, who’s going to care?
To me, the greatest gift of the collection has been disproving that. Although my stories have been out there online for many years, it’s still a different thing when it’s in a book that people can buy and hold as a paper copy and read. The book has far exceeded my expectations for what kind of life it could have had, and as a result, I just have more faith in a potential readership. The book came out about eight months into my working on the novel. At the time, I thought the novel would be done in a year, but novels are very difficult and it’s taken me much longer than that. There are people who read the collection and say, I don’t really like short stories, but I will look for the next thing Isabel Yap writes. I’m writing this novel partially for them, and I’m also writing it for all the people who already like my work. So that’s my focus. I want to write a good book. And in the meantime, truthfully, the collection has been beneficial in things like getting agent interest and editor interest. So to anyone who’s like, is it bad to go out with a short story collection first? My experience has been, no, it can actually be a good thing. As long as you feel like your work has integrity, and you trust your publisher, then it might be a good thing to try.
Corinne: Thank you for that generous answer. It’s always wonderful to hear about the career aspect of writing. Along those lines, do you have an ideal reader in mind whom you want your stories to land with?
Isabel: Yeah, I do have ideal readers in mind. There are five friends that occupy the front row in my mind theater. They are people who I trust. They come from various periods of my life, but they’re all fantastic writers. There’s a little bit of pressure, but I’m like, okay, if I’m doing things right, then they will like it, and that’s a good sign for me. When there’s a story that I’m feeling doubtful about, usually I’ll send it to one or two of them and get their take on it. So that’s sort of my compass for style, work, quality, et cetera.
Truthfully, I’m writing for anyone who wants to read the work, but I’m also writing for a particular reader that’s very close to who I was growing up. When I’m doubtful or wondering, what even is the point, I think of the me who needed these stories, which were never on the shelves. And I know that that is true because, again, through the collection, I’ve heard from younger queer Filipino authors. Someone told me she read stories in the collection with her mom, and that facilitated a conversation for them about queer identity. That’s powerful; that’s part of why I write.
Corinne: That’s really wonderful. I’d love to know more about your writing community: how you built it, how you maintain it, and any advice you have for someone trying to build community around writing.
Isabel: I was lucky because I went to Clarion. If you attend a workshop or if you go to an MFA, you have a built-in group of people. How long those relationships last is another thing, but Clarion gave me a starting point to have common ground with other writers. If I was living in a place that had Clarion alumni, I would reach out to them. I know not everyone can do this, but I mostly lived in major cities. There are just people around. There are always authors passing through. Another way you can get around this is if you attend a [convention], but those can be expensive.
It takes a little bit of bravery, but I very much value meeting people in person. I moved a lot in my twenties, so I would move somewhere and then I would be like, hey, can we have a coffee? I would do this even to writers that I super admired because writers are just people. For example, I moved to London. I didn’t really know anyone. I knew Zen Cho a bit because there’s not that many Southeast Asian authors. I invited her out and she was like, sure, let’s get coffee and go visit a museum. Then you just try to be cool because you don’t want to be a weird fan-girl. I was a big fan of her’s already and through that we became acquainted. I still view her as a senior in the writing industry, but we are also friends. Now—it doesn’t always work out. Some people you don’t click with, or some are too busy, and that’s okay. One thing that I suggest is that it’s helpful to find people who are in the same part of the journey that you’re on. Most of my friends are people who were publishing short stories around the same time as me. Find people that have the same goals as you at this point in time, and then you can move through your milestones together. My writing group met because we were all based in Boston. We got close because of the proximity. When the pandemic hit, we started writing together remotely and we’ve managed to keep that up. I respect all of them as writers. That’s an important element. We show up for each other, but also we’re all trying to write novels.
Corinne: I think that you and I have in common that we both have full-time day jobs in tech. I’d love to know about how you balance writing and work and what advantages your current setup gives you.
Isabel: Yeah. I’m a product manager. I’ve worked in tech for nine years—it’s going to be ten years this year. For about five years, I could only write during weekends because I was really fried at the end of the day. That would allow me to write a couple of short stories a year if I was lucky and focused. Then, I had a bit of a break before grad school and I wrote a lot. My second year [of grad school] I had slightly more flexibility, so that’s when I started pulling together the collection. Right after grad school was COVID, so it took me longer than I expected to find a job. That’s when I started writing the novel. Then I got a full-time job and it’s been hard ever since. So why the day job? Money and security are definitely part of it. There’s not a lot of money in writing, especially not in short fiction. I know how much my collection has made me. I sold it for a small advance, less than I make in a month working in tech. I didn’t have any problems with that advance because I had my tech work providing for me. But it’s truly not just the money. I also get a lot of value out of having co-workers and building good things for customers. Writing is very lonely, and I enjoy certain elements of my tech job a lot.
But the balance is really difficult. For a long time, I was like, there’s no alternative. I have to struggle. In the past twelve months of having very tough progress on the novel, I’ve realized that novel writing demands something different than short stories. I have to adjust how I view myself and how judge-y I am of my own output when I’ve had a busy or tough day at work. It’s forced me to rethink what I’m trying to get out of my dual careers. I used to want to climb the corporate ladder as much as I wanted to write, and now I’m like, maybe I need to reassess that. I don’t have the answer yet. I know the balance is off. Writing demands time and energy, and my job doesn’t let me give it at the level that I need to. My biggest fear is that I will not write a [novel] I’m proud of because of all the constraints, so I’m trying to solve for that.
I’ve talked to a lot of writers about how they make it work. Some people quit their job, give it six to twelve months, and then they go back. Some people go part-time. Some people do consulting and they work three days a week, then write two days a week. So there are actually many options. I didn’t see those options before. I just thought that I had to work fifty hours and then write twenty hours on top of that, and I know that’s not even as bad as it is for other writers. I was hard on myself for not being able to make that work. Now, I’m like, no, there are ways. These are the practicalities of being an author that I would highly recommend people investigate at the right time. When you’re just starting, learning craft, and getting excited about publishing, that’s not the right time to worry about all of it. But when you’re starting to get serious it’s crucial to think about this stuff. I would recommend practicing non-judgment and being very honest with yourself about your time, your energy, and what else is going on, because the worst situations I see are when writers give themselves illnesses trying to make it work. The writing will be there when you come back to it. I believe that.
Corinne: Yeah, I feel all of that so deeply. On a brighter note: as a reader, what are you drawn to or excited by? Are there writers whose work you’re trying to engage in conversation with yours?
Isabel: I like good stylized prose, and I also like it when authors are doing something a little bit weird with the form or structure. I also care a lot about character. In terms of who I try to be in conversation with, I’ve been lucky that I know a lot of my touchstone authors. A lot of them are people who I consider peers or are a little bit ahead of me. Everyone I got a blurb from is someone I enormously respect. That includes Sofia Samatar. She’s amazing. She’s a fantastic prose stylist, and the way she talks about her process is how I eventually want to sound when I talk about my work. Kelly Link, who is my publisher and my inspiration and my teacher. Elizabeth Knox and Tamsyn Muir, both authors whose stories make me see new possibilities. Karen Joy Fowler, who also was my teacher. My friends and colleagues—I’m really excited by their work, and one of my goals when I write is to continue having their respect. I don’t want to let them down because I know they have faith in me.
Corinne: That’s so fortunate that you have relationships with those writers and get to kind of experience that community. My last big question is: is there a question that you wish people would ask you?
Isabel: I like giving advice, although that is a question I get asked a lot. Truthfully, I would love if someone asked me about K-pop, because I love K-pop so much. But in terms of things that I want to share, I’ve been reading a lot about stress management and energy. I started working with a career coach, intending for her to help me with my day job, but a lot of what she tells me applies to writing. One is that taking care of your physical health is important—I don’t mean doing hardcore exercise, but looking at your sleeping habits, your hydration, your energy. Doing things to improve my health has given me more time in a really interesting way. Nothing about my circumstances has changed except that I take better care of my body. Last year, I could never write at the end of the day. I was too tired. This year, I can actually think about my story sometimes at the end of the day. So take care of your physical health. It might make a significant difference for what you’re capable of doing with writing.
The second thing is this mind-trick of asking, how do you want to show up? [My coach] has a specific method for it, but at the base of it is just thinking about what you want to become, and trying to embody that person. I did this exercise for the writer that I want to become, and that writer is someone who feels very calm about the work that they’re doing, and is curious about it and interested in it and is not overthinking publication or freaking out about writer’s block. I want to act the way that person does. I want to think about my work deeply, and I want to write the stories that I’m capable of writing. I’m not really served by panicking or feeling shitty about myself, even if, on the page, the writing is annoying me.
Corinne: I love that you have that coaching relationship! Thanks for sharing that! Finally, for the Revolute garden, if you could describe yourself as a flower, tree, fruit, or plant, what would you be, and why?
Isabel: I would be a mango. I feel like one of the earliest stories I ever wrote was a mango story, which I think every Filipino just needs to write a mango story at one point in their lives. It produces good fruit. That’s what I want to do with my work: write something that people can really enjoy.
Interviewer Corinne Cordasco-Pak is Lead Fiction Editor at Revolute and a 2023 MFA graduate of the Randolph College Low-Residency Program.
by Isabel Yap
Jake was sitting in the kitchen, staring at the glass of water next to his science book, when Margo walked in, drying her hair. There was a look of consternation on his face, like he was trying to understand something that couldn’t be understood. That wasn’t too unusual. Jake was smart, and curious, always wanting to find solutions to things. It was only a problem when Margo couldn’t give the right answer.
“What’s the matter, Jake?”
For a moment, he kept staring at the glass. Then he looked up and asked, “Don’t I like to swim?”
Her breath caught; she swallowed to keep it steady.
“That’s a funny thing to ask.”
“Didn’t we—used to go to the ocean all the time?”
“Did we?” His father had a beach house in Pangasinan; she wouldn’t call it all the time. “Sweetie,” she started, trying to sound normal, “you’re talking like you have some secret memory.”
“But I remember. . .”
She waited, her heart pounding so hard she was afraid he might hear.
He scrunched up his eyes, shook his head.
“No, I guess I don’t remember. Maybe I was dreaming.”
“Or maybe you saw it on TV,” she added quickly, then walked over and kissed the top of his head. He smiled at her and clutched her pajamas.
“Can we watch a little tonight? Please? I did my homework.”
She thought about what he had said, then decided that if they stuck to cartoons, there wasn’t anything to worry about.
“Sure,” she answered, feeling just a bit guilty when he threw his arms around her in a tight embrace.
* * *
Jake was nine years old and short for his age, although he made up for it by acting older than he was. Margo had him when she was twenty. In a lot of ways he was more like a little brother than a son, although every now and then he would do something that made her recall her mother’s face, twisted with exasperation as she said, someday, when you have kids, you’ll understand. Margo had been fresh out of college, with a degree in finance she had no idea what to do with. She had to learn responsibility the hard way.
Jake’s dad had been handsome and very rich, with the kind of shiny car that looked good parked inside one’s gates. Margo sometimes wondered if she had ever really loved him. What she knew for certain was that she had lived with him for a while, and enjoyed it. She’d eventually gotten a job with a major advertising firm; it made things a little easier, when they stopped living together.
“I’ll take care of him,” she had stated, coolly. He had stared at her, with his brow crinkled, apparently in anguish, running his hands through his nicely-groomed hair.
“I’m sorry, Margo. I—I won’t make it hard for you,” was the best he could manage. She remembered thinking about his car, and immediately after: Yes, that’s the least you can do, you bastard.
He’d stopped the financial aid around the same time Jake stopped swimming. The truth was, swimming was one of her son’s favorite activities. During the Salesman’s second visit, she had asked him, in a pleading voice,
“Not even for a few minutes? He loves to swim.”
“He can’t. Not in the ocean,” the Salesman answered. “That would cause problems, if you know what I mean. You can give him showers, of course, but not for too long. Saltwater, though—that’s different.”
Jake had been in the other room, shouting about how she had finally gotten him a PlayStation 8, at last at last at last! Listening to his happiness broke her heart.
“Distract him with other things,” the Salesman said, shutting his bag with a click. “It’s not hard, these days. Get him one of those swimming simulations from Toy Kingdom. It’s like the real thing.”
“Like the real thing,” she’d repeated, but only to herself, under her breath, as she led the Salesman to the front door.
* * *
Swimming wasn’t the only difficulty. She kept Jake from returning to school, because the other children would definitely talk. Instead, she enrolled him in online elementary, where the pleasant female AI babbled for five hours every day. Margo taught him herself, with books and a small whiteboard, when she could. She never let him out of sight, and when they left the house, it was only for brief intervals—quick walks around the nearest park, short trips to the mall to buy him things. Margo’s mother didn’t know that Jake had come back, and neither did Jake’s father. They didn’t visit any relatives.
When she asked for shorter work hours, her boss had been very concerned.
“Miss Ferrer,” he said. “I know it hasn’t been easy, this past year—is there anything I can do to help? Is anything the matter?”
It’s my son, at home, he needs me. I need him. I don’t want to be away from him—“I haven’t been sleeping well, sir.” That wasn’t exactly a lie; there were dark rings under her eyes to prove it. “I just need a break.” For how long, she couldn’t say. But she did her work well, so he simply nodded his head and said,
“If there’s anything I can do to make things easier, let me know.”
Nothing can make it easier, she thought, while packing the papers she had to work on at home. There were lessons to prepare for Jake, and dinner to cook, and afterwards she had to account for the monthly installment she was still paying the Salesman. But it doesn’t matter, she thought, when she opened the door to their tiny apartment, and Jake crashed into her knees, by way of greeting.
* * *
Sometimes in the middle of the night she would wake up in a panic, all the blankets thrown off, the electric fan doing nothing to keep her from sweating.
“Jake—” hands out, grasping at anything, imagining his wrist gone slack, his face pale in the glare of hospital lights. “Jake,” looking around rapidly, the plain room crazy in the blue moonlight, “Jake—”
“Mom?” His voice thick with sleep, he’d lift his head up blearily from where she’d nudged a pillow in front of it, in her panic. “What’s wrong?”
She would collapse, too relieved to mutter a soothing oh-honey-it’s-nothing, pulling him snug against her, until they were only one tight ball, his head fitted underneath her chin, the soles of his feet against her shins. She cried into his hair, while he fumbled for her fingers, grasping them in his sweaty, bony ones as he repeated,
“Don’t cry, don’t cry,” holding on, until she fell into deep, dreamless sleep.
* * *
He wasn’t growing anymore. That was inevitable—the Salesman had told her so. She didn’t mind so much, as long as Jake was back beside her. It actually made things more convenient. She would never buy clothes that did not fit. She would never have to worry about him getting acne, or falling in love and getting heartbroken, or even getting him into a high school.
In their simple, everyday life, this was a fact that could be ignored. The worst it got was tiring—each day blurring into work and teaching; the emails piled up in her inbox; her mother, on the other end of the phone, inviting her over to talk about showbiz, politics, the latest absolutely divine leche flan. (Jake loved that dessert, too. Her mother had served it, when he first disappeared, weepily telling all their guests about how she used to buy a whole oval plate for him, every Sunday, back when he was still visiting.)
It was a relief that she did not have to bring Jake to Lola anymore. He had asked about it once—
“Don’t we usually visit Lola on Sundays?”
“No,” she answered. “Lola lives too far away.”
He’d crinkled his mouth, like he couldn’t quite believe it.
He doesn’t need to know, she thought, while she scooped them both ice cream, and carried the cups into the living room. He had his feet propped up on the sofa, and was watching his toes wiggle.
“Can we get a dog?” he asked. It was obviously something he had been bursting to ask all day.
She wanted to say no, because they couldn’t afford it, especially not the low-maintenance kinds.
“I’ll think about it,” was her generous reply.
Jake smiled, his way of saying a hopeful thank you, but didn’t push it any further.
* * *
You could find anything in Greenhills. She visited it the following week, looking for a dog that never made a mess, and didn’t need to eat much (or at all). It had to bark and wag its tail, and look just like a normal dog. Preferably non-allergenic fur. It seemed like a lot of specifics, but she was utterly confident that Greenhills would have one in stock.
That was where she had met the Salesman, after all. Wandering through the stalls, the donation from her boss stuffed into her handbag, the word condolences smudged across the envelope. There were still tear-streaks on her face, and her nose was so red it could have been mistaken for one of their high-powered keychain laser lights. A lot of the sellers had turned their faces away uneasily, though some had the nerve to wave wrinkle-depleting eye creams at her.
There were no wares in the Salesman’s stall, almost nothing except the man himself, his laptop, and a bag full of papers. He was wearing a black cap that shaded his eyes; the most she could make out was a clean-shaven chin, a slightly squashed nose. He was wearing a faded polo and dark jeans. The laminated paper on the wall behind him read: The Salesman, Solutions for Anything.
“Even tragedies,” he had said, and she could tell he was looking at her black dress, her trembling fists, the fury all over her face.
* * *
What happened to Jake was unexpected, two missed meals and then fatigue so terrible he couldn’t even open his eyes. She’d brought him to the emergency room, watched them do all sorts of transfusions, missed three days of work, while the hospital personnel told her many things she couldn’t understand. In the end it had been mostly blankness, wrinkled sheets, the world too clean and white.
“Mom,” he’d whispered, so weak and tiny. “Mom, don’t cry.”
She didn’t think she could ever have him again, afterward. It was wrong of her to even think that way, because he was gone, he wasn’t coming back. She repeated that to herself for days on end.
When the Salesman told her there was a way, it was difficult to believe, even after he had talked her through the process, shown her all the papers. It was just one tiny hope—one slippery, crumbly foothold out of despair—but she’d held her breath and decided to take it. There’s a way.
Don’t cry, Mom.
“Bring him back to me,” she told the Salesman, and he did.
* * *
She found a promising breeder, who showed her terriers, pugs, and miniature poodles that matched all of her criteria. They even had wet tongues, though the breeder claimed they didn’t need to eat at all—just an energy injection once a week, and they ran like new. They were not quite within her budget, so she decided she could get one for Jake’s next birthday. Technically they wouldn’t be celebrating anything, but that was simply another secret in their new life.
Jake was lying facedown on the bed when she returned home. She did not drop her bags, run to him, and start making a big fuss. She’d done that once before, and the outcome hadn’t been pretty. Instead, she quietly set her bag on her desk, tiptoed carefully on the wooden flooring, and slid in next to him, so that she could loop her arm around him without moving him.
“Jake, honey? Are you feeling okay?”
The murmuring sound he made in reply was incomprehensible, but he did roll over and press his face against her chest. They stayed that way for a few moments. She listened to him breathe.
“My back aches,” he said at last, words muffled by her shirt. “And my head.”
She was not going to panic. He was not ill; he could never get ill again. At least not the usual ways.
“I’ll fix you some calamansi juice,” she replied, giving him a tight squeeze. “And I’ll call Doctor Reyes.” He nodded and rolled back onto his stomach.
In the kitchen, she grabbed the phone and dialed the Salesman’s number.
“He’s not feeling well,” she told him, spooning sugar into Jake’s glass. “Can you come over? Please?”
He told her to check the warranty first, but when she kept silent, he hastily changed his answer to,
“I’ll be there right away.”
* * *
She never stopped thinking of him as the Salesman, although to Jake he was always Doctor Reyes. It was probably not his real name. He came once a month, for maintenance, which was part of the warranty. He also came when Jake acted a little funny or talked about things that made her worry. He always brought his black suitcase, a set of tools, and his laptop. Margo did not trust him entirely, but she believed he had good intentions.
He stayed in the bedroom with Jake for a long time, looking him over, pressing him. The laptop had a full-body projectile scanner that could tell when things were wrong, and diagnose the problem, as long as the information could be found online. They used those machines in the hospitals all the time, but Margo hadn’t been to a hospital since Jake had disappeared. She sat nervously staring at the kitchen wall, because the Salesman hated it when she watched him work. Eventually she got up and scooped herself a bowl of ice cream.
After what seemed like eternities the Salesman stepped into the kitchen. Margo had the spoon in her mouth, and was just in the process of drawing it out again. She looked at him, too scared to ask anything.
“He’s sleeping now,” the Salesman said.
She nodded and pulled the spoon out of her mouth.
“Miss Ferrer,” he began, then stopped. He sighed. Why did he always have to wear that cap, even indoors? “It’s not—looking good. The system is operating, I can’t see anything wrong with what we’ve done, but it seems like physically he will be weakening, wearing down. It does happen. We talked about this.”
Yes, they had talked about it. If she looked at the papers that had come with him, it would all be there, outlined in the agreement she had signed. She gripped the spoon tight, resisting the urge to fling it at the wall. No, no, this was not ordinary, this was not going to happen, they hadn’t even had one year together yet.
“The strain of the memories might be getting to him, weakening his capabilities.” He paused. “Or he’s being flooded with too much feeling; there’s a warning in the sixth section, it’s causing aches, fatigue —”
No! she wanted to shout at him. You hack, you cheater, shut up! Instead she said, “Isn’t there something you can do to fix it? Something I can do?” He scratched his arm awkwardly.
“I’ll give him maintenance fluids, but I don’t know how well they’ll work. I’m sorry.” He sighed again, and somewhere in the back of her head she realized he meant it. “You don’t need to pay me for this visit.”
Suddenly the ice cream in her mouth was a pile of acid, too painful to swallow.
* * *
The Salesman had developed a computer program that could extract memories. It was like recovering a data disk from her brain, something to do with nanotechnology and the latest cognitive studies. All she could remember was falling asleep, and waking up with what felt like a concussion. Everything she could remember of Jake had been contained in fifty unibytes of data, safely stored in the Salesman’s laptop.
Then he’d taken it over to some engineer friends in Quiapo, who had reconstructed her son’s body perfectly, down to the mole on the sole of his right foot, the scar on his knee from when he’d cut it against some corals on their last beach trip. How they’d made him, and what they used to do so, she did not try to find out.
When the Salesman brought Jake back home, she could hardly believe it. She’d squeezed his hands, looked into his eyes, felt like she was being shattered, when he smiled and said,
“Mom, what’s the matter? Why are you acting so funny?” The memory they had loaded into him was set to a time before the sickness, and because it was hers, it obviously had gaps. But everything else—the way he rubbed his ears with the base of his palm, the sharp slant of his eyebrows—it was exactly as she remembered.
The Salesman had seemed a little reluctant to accept the praise she offered.
“Don’t forget to read all the papers completely,” he reminded, as she looked up at him, fighting back tears. He had added, almost hesitantly, “I hope this is what you wanted.”
Maybe she was supposed to wonder that herself, but she didn’t. The nights when she could press her ear against Jake’s tiny chest, and listen to his artificial heartbeat, were infinitely better than the nights without him at all.
* * *
One of the memories she had left in was Jake, age eight, sitting across from her over a dinner of take-home Jollibee. There was a spaghetti sauce stain on the collar of his shirt. She was trying to listen to his discussion about what had happened in P.E. class that day, but was too preoccupied with a work problem to focus. He must have noticed, because he eventually asked her what was wrong. She’d felt guilty as she answered,
He’d studied her over his forkful of chicken skin.
“You can tell me, Mom.”
She gave him one of her why-are-you-so-darn-mature smiles—he knew by then that she wasn’t like most other moms (“because you watch cartoons and wear jeans a lot, and don’t smell all—vanilla-ish”), but it still came as a relief to her that he was more understanding than other kids his age.
“Honey, it’s boring. You wouldn’t want to hear it. Just old business stuff.”
“Okay.” He ate his chicken skin. “You’ll be okay.” Unexpectedly, he added, “you’re a great mom. It’ll work out.”
“Sweetie!” He did not say things like that often, and it embarrassed her a little, especially since she wasn’t sure if it was true. “Come here, you little—” She reached across the table and ruffled his hair, thinking God, Jake, I would do anything for you. What she said instead was,
“You’re a great kid. The best kid ever.”
He smiled and said,
“We’re being mushy, right?”
“You and I don’t like mushy. Let’s stop being mushy.”
“Oh, yeah?” She raised her hands, curling and waggling them in warning. “Mush attack!”
They’d ended up on the living room sofa, giggling uncontrollably, Jake’s laughter collapsing into wheezes, as they continued to poke each other in the stomach, which was (they both agreed) the deadliest tickle spot ever.
* * *
The fluids helped Jake feel a little better, but she could see that he wasn’t recovering. She was thankful, now, that the Salesman had not told her directly; otherwise she might have exploded at him. Jake’s days were spent half on the bed, and she knew it would be sooner rather than later, when time would be up.
His face, at least, did not betray any pain. He only rested more, slept more. She read to him, watched cartoons with him. Jogged his elbow every now and then and said,
“Hey, stay with me? Okay? Don’t sleep if you’re not too tired.”
“Okay,” he’d answer. His eyes would close, but he’d hold on to her fingers to reassure her he wasn’t sleeping.
With her latest paycheck, she bought him a terrier that made his face flush with pleasure. He laid on the bed with it licking him all over; she could see the trails of saliva it left. Just like the real thing.
When he’d finished laughing and the dog started to amuse itself with the bone she had bought for it, she cuddled Jake and asked him what he wanted for his birthday.
“I want to go to the beach.”
She pulled back at those words, and held him at arm’s length, taking a long look at him. At his earnest face, and how much it probably hurt underneath. How the memories gave him a garbled past. How this was not going to be a future. How she was never supposed to have him back. How he wouldn’t have wanted that; how he would have said, You’ll be okay, mom. Let it go.
“Sure, honey. We’ll go.” Everything inside her turned into water, as she continued, “we’ll go next week.”
* * *
The drive to Batangas was still the same two hours it had always been, despite the newly paved roads, the automatic toll gates, the domes over the plantation areas that glimmered under the early morning sun. Sometimes she felt as if things might not be too different from her parents’ time, or her grandparents’ time. It was still a hot country. It was still a poor country. Most of its technology was still secondhand from Japan or Korea. Most of its people still smiled, and prayed, and did the best they could.
They had brought the terrier, which Jake had decided to call Lucky. Margo pulled over a short distance away from where the sand met concrete. The place was empty today. She had guessed it would be; it was very early, and it wasn’t a weekend or a holiday. Not a lot of people visited this part of the beach, either.
They walked to the water in silence, Lucky yipping happily around their feet, Jake holding his leash in one hand and his mother’s skirt in the other. She could hear the quiet rushing of the waves.
Saltwater is different, the Salesman had said. I’m sorry, he had also said.
She lifted Jake’s hand from her skirt and squeezed it tight in hers. Don’t cry, Mom, he had whispered. Don’t cry.
A short distance away from the water, she sat down on the sand and stayed there. Jake looked at her expectantly.
“You’re not going to swim?”
She shook her head, suddenly wanting to tug him toward her, bundle him up in an embrace and never let go. Instead, she smiled and answered,
“You go ahead.”
“Okay.” He bent to kiss her on the cheek. She pressed a kiss to his forehead, almost furiously. Don’t cry.
He walked toward the shoreline, looking back at her every few steps, as if to ask, is it really okay? His small feet stopped just at the edge, the waves lapping at his toes, while he stood expectantly in the ocean spray, which she imagined must be chilly. If he went in any deeper, he was almost certainly going to break (and she was going to follow, soon after, wasn’t she?); but it had been inevitable, just months of clinging on to a dream that had disappeared a year ago, in that bright hospital room, his whole body rigid, and the machines too loud without the sound of his heartbeat.
She wanted to shut her eyes, but kept them open, watching him go a second time. A last time. He turned back again, smiling almost as if in apology, then he stepped forward and moved into the sea.
Five Choices About “Sink”
By Isabel Yap
“Sink” is a story about grief. In 2009, when I wrote it, my family was grieving the loss of my grandfather, my grandmother, and the ongoing cancer treatment of my younger cousin Carlo. In some ways, writing it was a kind of bracing. Maybe some part of me meant it as an offering to my tito and tita, Carlo’s parents, as if I could capture something about the pain they were going through. (It’s an impossible task, but I share this story to honor Carlo’s memory. If so moved, you can donate to the L.A. Ronald McDonald House in his name.) We did end up losing Carlo, two years later. My collection, Never Have I Ever: Stories, is dedicated to him and my grandparents.
This was my second-ever published story. It came out in 2010, when I was a college sophomore, just before I left for the U.S. At that time, I thought my budding writing career was over. I’m grateful I found a way to continue writing after that; I’ve also been surprised by the life this story has had since. I believe it’s shared in print in some classrooms in the Philippines. Hearing from those students has been a great gift to me as a writer, and I wanted to republish this story to have it be accessible to more readers.
In revisiting this story for Revolute, I could clearly see the younger-writer-self that wrote it, down to the different stylistic choices she made with commas. While I wouldn’t write it this way today, I opted not to revise much to keep the story’s integrity. Here are five choices that struck me about “Sink”, re-encountering it fourteen years later:
- Margo’s age: I’d forgotten the detail that Margo had Jake when she was 20. Why did I make her such a young mom? I could reach and say it’s because I wasn’t (and still am not) a parent, so keeping her younger made her more accessible to me. But that isn’t true. Historically, and especially back then, I made few deliberate choices when writing characters. They came to me as they were. And Margo came to me as “a young mom, a good mom, who doesn’t have a strong perfume smell.” These days I’m just at or slightly older than Margo’s age in the present-day storyline, and the kind of grief I put her through is still so hard to imagine.
- Past tense: In revising this story for Revolute I couldn’t help myself and just chucked some of the past participles. Margo had had him when she was twenty. It’s correct English, but my brain flinches a little with that double had. These days I worry less about Correct Grammar and more about what sounds right to my ear (though, to be honest, I’ve always privileged my ear).
- The technology: Swimming simulations, AI, Playstation 8. Unibytes of data. The hand-wave-y mechanics of Jake’s reconstruction are wild—this was pre-Westworld! The domed plantation areas—that showed up in my story “Milagroso”—years later. I can see this future Philippines quite clearly in my mind. There’s more to imagine in it, for sure, but I like the mix of future and old tech that exists. Someone once told me that using specific technologies and numbers like that can date a story, but I find it somewhat charming. Anyway, the most unrealistic part of this story, to me, is a boss being so willing to let her take fewer hours just like that . . . especially in advertising!
- Jake’s kid-ness: This functions alright in the story, although the writer I am now would want to complicate him more. There’s a shorthand for kids one can do, where their age (and cuteness, on the page?) makes them lovable by default. Jake also has a kind of Filipino-child-in-a-commercial vibe—he’s easy to imagine in an ad for Tide or Bear Brand. As a version of a child born entirely out of a mother’s love and memories, he seems apt, but Margo isn’t a perfect mother, and Jake wasn’t a perfect kid. To keep the story at four thousand words, there probably isn’t a ton more exploration possible, but there’s probably a dark novella version of this that would be compelling, too. Though I probably won’t write it, since “Sink” exists, and I have a lot of respect for what “Sink” accomplished. In 2020, I did write a more complex perception of a kid in “A Canticle for Lost Girls,” the last story in my collection.
- That ending: It’s still quite sad, if I do say so myself! I only know beforehand how my stories end about half the time, and even then, it’s usually more about the sensation than the actual scene. In those days I still wrote fiction more like poetry, with the kind of roundness or echoing that I enjoy a lot. “Sink” starts with Jake remembering that he liked to swim, and ends that way, inevitably. I knew I wanted lingering, and to leave some beats for a reader to fill in. This story was partly a response to Eliza Victoria’s Parallel in PSF4, which had a similar sad family theme and echoing ending. A lot of readers have commented to me about this ending over the years. Gratefully, I’m able to admit that I still think it works.