Two of my uncles hoisted the balikbayan box out of the truck bed. I heard the package hit the ground even though I was ten meters away, sitting on the porch, where I always sat. My seven younger cousins played with marbles in the shade, but when my uncles waved them over, they raced across the driveway to swarm the gift like moths around a fire. My aunts and uncles tore the tape away and removed a dozen toys, each wrapped in colorful cardboard and pristine plastic, jammed between hand-me-down clothes. My cousins laughed at each other as they tried on oversized shirts from the United States.
My American uncle had left the islands ten years ago and became rich enough that he sent monthly gifts, mostly old things that his wife and children didn’t want anymore. I was the oldest in the family—older even than my fat American cousins—so I couldn’t wear their clothes or play with their toys. Besides, I had no time for toys. It was my job to make sure the children focused on their studies and went to bed on time.
But that day, my uncle called out to me. “It’s for you, King King.”
There was a note from my aunt and uncle—This is for King x2, since he will soon be old enough to drive.
It was a steering wheel.
My uncle dug through the box for more. The wheel came with a book of blueprints that showed how to construct a car. I held the wheel in both hands and felt its smooth, cold leather. I turned it, looking at the road over its black arc, and I felt like I was driving.
My cousins begged to play with the wheel, but I raised it over my head. My arm shook under its unexpected weight. They jumped for it, but I held it high enough that no one could reach. “It’s mine,” I told them. “I’m going to be a driver one day.”
My uncle put the steering wheel in our shed, on the top shelf, in a wooden crate where we kept dangerous tools that the children weren’t allowed to touch. As he stowed the wheel, I asked him if he could teach me to drive his truck while we waited for more car parts.
“When there’s time,” he said.
I dreamed of what my life would be like after I assembled the car. I could go to college in the city—not far away, but far enough that you needed a car to get there. I could become a banker that wore a suit and a tie. Then, when I was rich, I could fly to the United States and live with my American cousins and get fat with them and send gifts across the ocean to my family.
The next month, the balikbayan box came again. I was the first to open it. I threw its contents on the muddy ground as I searched its depths. My aunt scolded me for being reckless, but she couldn’t focus on me because my cousins were already wearing the soiled clothes.
Inside the box: the handle to an emergency brake.
Over the next few months, we stored the pieces of the car in the wooden crate until it overflowed with metal, rubber, and plastic.
My uncle never took me driving, but I assembled my car just the same. I didn’t know how to use most of the tools at first, but they became comfortable the more that I practiced. Soon, on the grass next to the driveway, the bones of a car came into being. Tires attached to a chassis and two rows of leather seats open to the sky. The gift from overseas took shape, and with each balikbayan box, I was one step closer to being a car owner. A driver.
How will they send it all? I wondered. The frame, the windshield, the engine?
My fifteenth birthday passed, and I entered my final year of school. Already, my cousins were asking me if I would drive them to the market for candy or soda. But I told them no. When the car became complete, it would be mine. I would use it to become successful. I would go into the city, get caught in traffic, and honk my horn. Then, I would live in my own place, no longer sharing a bedroom with children or sleeping near lizards amid the barking of stray dogs. My cousins would need to wait until I went to America to become rich, and then I would send each of them their own cars.
That will take forever. But I’d waited over a year already for mine, hadn’t I?
Months passed, and the balikbayan boxes stopped coming. I watched my uncovered vehicle decay. Wild dogs and chickens slept underneath it each morning. Rainstorms washed over its skeleton and the harsh sun cooked it until it became a rusted heap.
I asked my uncle when the next piece would come.
“Be patient,” he said. “The box is delivered by boat. They take one to three months to arrive.”
My sixteenth birthday came, and finally the balikbayan box appeared. I rifled through it with ravenous hands, this time tossing the clothes of the children so far away that they had to fetch their gifts like dogs—but I never found a piece of my car. There was only a note inside.
We’ve been caught. Sorry, King x2. We’ll see you next summer when we visit, and we’ll take you into the city with us! We love you!
I read the note three times to make sure that I understood it. I crumpled and tore the paper and tossed the confetti over the corpse of my car. I got in the driver’s seat and squeezed the leather of the wheel, now hot as a stovetop under the summer sun. My cousins hopped into the backseat and asked me if we could drive to the market, but we only sweat in the summer heat and moved nowhere.
Alexander Salerno is a second-generation Filipino American. He lives in Texas and studied writing at the University of Texas at Austin.