Ms. Aimee was not typical of the ladies of her generation who resided in this part of San Francisco. Nearly 20 years ago, when I was new to the city, wide eyed as any college graduate at the certainty of a glorious future, the ladies donned sable to attend Sunday mass and organized charity events over afternoon tea. Ms. Aimee’s attire never changed through the years that we happened to share the elevator or chanced upon each other in the lobby: a prairie skirt paired with sandals and a hand-knitted cardigan. The one common factor Ms. Aimee shared with the ladies was gray hair tinged blue under a certain light.
“Where we are, it’s unique among all the places in the world,” Ms. Aimee said on the day she invited me for milk and apple pie. This in reference more to the neighborhood than to its high society denizens.
Nob Hill is famous for the Brocklebank Apartments, a towering edifice the cream of old paper and with two residential wings perpendicular to each other like pages to an open book. Cinema has immortalized the apartments, most notably in “Vertigo.” You know the scene. Detective Scott Ferguson is parked along a sidewalk, restless as a rooster as he spies on Madeleine to appear past guarded doors, from the shadow of an awning, and is at once wonderstruck when she does, pristine in magnolia white coat and gloves midnight black that accentuate the delicacy of her hands. The scene is one for the ages. No matter your generation, you are stunned. Who of us hasn’t felt a caress of the heart at the mere sight of a beloved?
Other landmarks untouched by time merit Nob Hill its romantic aura. The Fairmont Hotel is resplendent with the opulence of the Gilded Age – pilasters and cornices and world flags at full mast lined on a balustrade that crowns the entryway. It is here where Tony Bennett first sang “I Left My Heart in San Francisco.” Grace Cathedral is a replica of the Notre-Dame but never more so than on foggy nights, when mist renders it the appearance of an image in a Monet.
The Brocklebank and the Fairmont both stand on Mason Street, towards the east of the Bay Area. Directly across to the west on Taylor Street, face-to-face with the hotel, is the cathedral. In between them: the Flood Mansion, a box-like structure of columns and floor-to-ceiling windows (the hue of chocolate milk, the mansion is the only grand home to survive the 1906 fire) and Huntington Park, with its center piece a sculpture quartet of male water spirits, each one affixed on marble sea shells as they hold aloft a fountain basin. California Street constitutes the south border of the park, and Sacramento Street the north, and right in the middle of Sacramento, in the tallest building on the block, is where I live.
I occupy the balcony unit on the west wing of the 5th floor, right above Ms. Aimee. There’s a reason the plant pots that bookend the balcony are empty. They are only filled when I’ve got family visiting, usually my mother. She adores flora, the burst of foliage decking this corner and that, as if domestic serenity were as infinite as nature. She buys my stock of toilet paper, detergent, disposable razors, and shaving cream, and she has me invert her mattress upon her departure so that, on her next yearly visit, the end where her head had lain would then accommodate her feet. (My mother read somewhere that this mattress flip-flop prevents sagging on each end from the weight of the sleeper’s cranium.) Within a month of her gone, the plants wilt, as do the white orchids in the dining room and the geraniums on a marble top strategically positioned in front of the balcony for the sun to highlight their lavender sheen. “Once a week,” my mother has pestered about watering the flowers and greens. “That’s not much, just a bit of love.” But a week goes by so quickly that I forget, and when I do remember, I drown them with too much love.
I’m somewhat of a free boarder in this fancy dwelling. It belongs to my parents, purchased as a home away from home. Their permanent address remains in the city where I was born and raised, where cricket chirps would lull me to sleep as a child and radio stations air Christmas carols starting September, where after wrestling practice at the recreational center, I used to imagine I was taking dance instead as girls to a ballet class would slip into their pointe shoes. The city is a far away enough place to justify the long stays of family, which for my father and older brother and sister can be two weeks, while up to six weeks for my mother, although this past year she didn’t come at all due to knee arthritis.
My father is a septuagenarian, which my mother will soon be. I myself am in the early phase of my middle years. That I maintain an active lifestyle of hikes and gym workouts keeps me youthful. Nevertheless, aging becomes an ever more present reality because I witness it in the doormen and in the neighbors, many of who have passed on, others of whom I realized one day, as you would an afterthought, that I haven’t seen in a while and doubtfully ever will.
“She was like you, all sprightly and on the go,” Lincoln, the head doorman, once said of Ms. Aimee. “Now she walks with a stoop.”
Lincoln himself is an institution. He has been with the building since its first tenants. (That would be 52 years ago.) The same age as my father, he remains on the tip of his toes, his smile the exuberance of a marionette. The thinning of his hair from a bush of black curls to white bristles is the predominant sign of his advanced years. Other doormen younger than Lincoln have not matched his longevity neither in life nor at the building. One died of a heart attack while lifting a suitcase. The loss took a toll on his brother. A dapper figure when I moved in, the brother would pace the lobby with the vigilance of a sentinel. He retired shortly after the tragedy, heartbroken and hunched with a walking cane. There was the doorman who kept failing the board exam to be a pharmacist. Now jowly and hollow in the eyes, he was merry when I ran into him on the bus recently in his reminiscences of his days at the building and somewhat melancholic, as well. Then there was the doorman who was fired over a fist fight with Lincoln. He became a flight attendant and… as doorman gossip has it… has undergone a nip and tuck.
Of Ms. Aimee’s hair, Lincoln said, “I don’t remember anymore what color it was. It seems to have been blue since forever.”
And blue her hair was till the end. Ms. Aimee died last month. She was 85, bedridden and quiet, as quiet as a forlorn lover, as a nightingale silenced by an arrow pierce to the heart. I stress her reticence, for it was noise that brought us together for a chat on that one and only occasion a year ago, noise of which she was the culprit. You see, she had just become a widow. Unexpectedly.
Talk about sprightly, that her husband certainly had been. I first met him in the elevator within a week of having moved into the building. I was so young that he mistook me, pizza box in hand, for a delivery boy. “So the tenant on the fifth prefers food ordered in, eh,” he said. “Not really,” I said then shook his hand. He spoke with a nasal voice and enunciated his words as if his mouth were filled with marbles (the way James Stewart spoke, come to think of it), and where Ms. Aimee was rustic in dress, he was juvenile. Whatever the weather, he wore shorts, and not long grandpa shorts, either, but short shorts with the hem as high as the pelvis. I soon learned that such clothing was conducive to his lifestyle. He cycled weekly. I was impressed. Due to the hilliness of the city, a bicycle could be a strain on the body. Not for him. Our building is perched on the tallest peak in the downtown area, yet with what energy he would pedal up and down the slopes, his small boyish frame bent over the handles, his muscular legs in speedy circular motion. The one article of clothing that kept him warm on cool days was a baseball jacket embellished with pins championing a miscellany of causes: Save the Whales, a peace sign, a smiley face, the LGBTQ rainbow, Think Green, Stop Animal Cruelty… Such a model of health and senior robustness was he that I had pegged him to be a candidate someday for the oldest person alive. Alas, no. And that was when Ms. Aimee started turning on her TV to near full volume and keeping it on through the wee hours of the morning.
As a result, Ms. Aimee and I were in conflict with each other. I would phone the doorman so that he could phone Ms. Aimee to inform her that she was causing a disturbance. She would lower the volume but not always. A few times, at twilight, I was so fed up that I would ring her buzzer.
To give you a sense of my experience standing at Ms. Aimee’s door, allow me to explain the layout of a story to our building. Two units occupy a story, one on the west wing and one on the east; thus, the elevator has two doors, one for each unit. As you exit the elevator, you step directly into a foyer with a single unit door before you. Some residents have chairs, mirrors, paintings, and rugs furnishing their foyer. The floor to Ms. Aimee’s foyer was a chessboard of black and white tiles. Life size, stuffed dolls, both gangly as cartoon buffoons, stood by the buzzer, dressed as a butler and a maid and each with a tray of candies in hand. Ms. Aimee never answered. The buzzer would pierce with the pitch of a fire bell, and still, she never answered. That was how loud her TV was. I would stand there, a madman of sorts, gnashing my teeth and pulling at my hair as the dummies would gaze at me, their button eyes and scarecrow grins turning ghoulish by the second.
The tipping point came when I would awake in the darkness of my room, in what would otherwise be the stillness of night if not for the music rising from the floor – an undercurrent threatening to surge into a tsunami: “I’m singin’ in the rain, just singin’ in the rain. What a glorious feeling, and I’m happy again… The rain in Spain stays mainly in the plain… I am starry eyed and vaguely discontented like a nightingale without a song to sing. O why should I have spring fever when it isn’t even spring?” As if violins ascending to a crescendo and muffled voices weren’t bad enough, I could now discern the lyrics and identify the songs. They might as well have been blasting from my own TV. I envisioned the actors – Gene Kelly, Audrey Hepburn, Jeanne Crain – performing the numbers. That I was so familiar with old Hollywood astounded me. Worse yet, that I was entertained threw me into a fluster more so than did the loudness of her TV. What was this fixation Ms. Aimee had on rain and spring? On a season that conjures flowers in bloom and doves necking? Could I, in my knowledge of her nocturnal TV viewings, subconsciously be sharing her fixation?
“At least we know what musicals she likes,” the building manager joshed.
I admitted that I liked them, too, but not at three in the morning. This had to end.
A judicious man in tie and blazer, the manager sat Ms. Aimee and me down in his office to discuss the situation. He was so intent for us tenants to co-exist in tranquility that Ms. Aimee consented for the volume to her TV not to exceed the number he would later indicate in red marker on post-its taped onto the remote controls to her TV sets. You got that right – TV sets, plural. Ms. Aimee had a TV in the kitchen, a TV in the master bedroom, a TV in the guest bedroom, and a TV in the living room. She kept her word… briefly… which led to more phone calls from me to the doorman. And then, one afternoon, my own phone rang.
“Hello. I just want to tell you that I am sorry I have kept you from sleeping at night,” Ms. Aimee said with a lullaby softness. “I really don’t intend to be bothersome. I really don’t. Perhaps you could try stuffing your ears with cotton the way mummies do to their babies. Babies often sleep peacefully when they have cotton in their ears.”
“Well…” No way! I should not have to alter my sleeping habit on her account. Neither was I a baby. “I’m afraid that won’t work. I would feel as uncomfortable as having a stuffed nose.”
“I’m sorry. We made an agreement… You made an agreement.”
A background ring sounded in the phone receiver.
“Excuse me for a moment,” said Ms. Aimee. “I’m baking apple pie.”
“Goodbye,” I said.
“Oh… Please, we must talk. We haven’t resolved anything and we must, for my sake as well as yours. For us both. And the apple pie… well… Would you care to have some?”
Just as unexpected as her phone call was, I was suddenly her guest.
What a trip her unit was. It evoked an ambience more befitting a garden cottage than an urban condo. A rocking chair along with a pair of floral-motif sofas, one lining a side window and another a wall opposite from the balcony, furnished her living room. The wallpaper bore water color images of onions and celeries and all sorts of vegetables. And a coffee table displayed framed pictures of her children (two sons and two daughters), their own children, and the children of their children. Her wedding picture stood as the central image. If her hair had been blue, I couldn’t tell… the photo was in black and white… but it had been styled in the same fashion as it was on the afternoon of my visit and as it would be for the rest of her life – a frou-frou do Easter bonnet high. Of course, a TV was the most prominent item. The only sign of modernity, it was a flat screen that hung above the fire mantel situated across the living room from the side window and was, to that date, among the largest of the Samsung models. I estimated an outrageous length of 65 inches.
We sat at a table in front of the balcony. Since the sliding glass doors were open, we could hear the laughter of children in the Huntington Park playground. I suppose a conversation between just the two of us was a long time coming; the noise problem had been ongoing for a year.
“Thank you for inviting, Mrs…” I did not always address her as Ms. Aimee. Aimee was her first name, which she insisted at that moment I call her by (she even spelled it for me) and which is another reason she was an anomaly; the Nob Hill ladies were all Mrs. So and So. However, considering her status as an elderly, I did not think such level of casualness to be appropriate. “… Ms. Aimee,” I said.
“That has a lovely ring to it. Ms. Aimee to you, I am then,” she said.
“Like the French actress but without the French pronunciation.”
She appeared flabbergasted, even amazed. “Yes, Anouk Aimee, though I was born way before she ever was. And you were born way after she was. How curious you should know of her.”
“Odd, actually… or so I’ve been told.”
The apple pie was the perfect degree of warm, akin to the sensation of ice cream melting in my mouth, and it had a teasing and delightful dose of sour amid the sweetness, a flavor distinct to green apples. It was exactly as my mother bakes her apple pies.
“I am sorry,” said Ms. Aimee.
“What for?” I asked. “This is delicious.”
She laughed. I had never heard her laugh before. Her laughter was mellow, almost controlled but so sincere that it had a girlish timbre to it. “I mean for the TV in the evenings.”
“That’s all right, Ms. Aimee. I mean, that’s not all right. I mean… What I mean is that I know you don’t mean to disturb me. No need to apologize.”
“What can we do?”
“At what level do you play the volume?”
Ms. Aimee procured the TV remote from a glass bowl on the mantel and handed it to me. The number 30 in red marker on a yellow post-it was taped to the back. I hardly ever went past 27 with my TV, and on the occasions that I did go to 30, it was loud, though not egregiously so. “Do you tend to go past this number?”
She didn’t answer.
I didn’t know what to say and then, “At what level did you have the volume when you would watch TV with your husband?”
“We rarely watched TV. Almost never.”
“I understand you have four TV sets.”
“That all came after he died.”
“On the occasions that you and he would watch TV?”
“About the level you see written on the remote. Less even. Also, my hearing was much sharper back then.”
“If you could keep the volume at the number written on the post-it, that would work well for us both.”
“I do try very much,” said Ms. Aimee with a long face, one a child would have when reprimanded. I felt guilty.
“I appreciate it,” I said.
“Voices, you see, even from the TV, they keep me company. Of course, I don’t expect you to understand. You are young. You must have so many friends.”
“I understand perfectly well, Ms. Aimee. Yes, I do have friends but not as much as before.”
Ms. Aimee seemed perplexed. “With Facebook, you must have hundreds.” Then her face lit up. In her eyes I sensed a sarcastic twinkle. I knew she was kidding.
“Very funny,” I said. From old movies to social media…what a curious intersection we were both at. “Okay. 368 Facebook friends, to be exact, about half a dozen of which I used to be close to.”
“Used to be?”
“Yes,” I said.
Ms. Aimee looked at me as a school teacher does when prodding a pupil to complete a sentence.
“They have since moved to other places and have started their own families. That is why I have few actual friends.” I chuckled at the irony of it all. A gush of wind through the balcony doors cooled my face. “To think that we were once a part of each other’s everyday existence. As every posting of a picture shows, they’ve thrived without me. ”
“I know,” said Ms. Aimee as she returned the remote on the mantel. “I’m on Facebook, too, and I know.”
This time I must have appeared perplexed.
“I may be ancient but not out of the loop with today’s goings on. My children, grandchildren, and great grandchildren, I see them on Facebook often, so often. It’s bitter-sweet. They visit me whenever they can, and when their visit is up… For all I know, yesterday’s goodbye could have been the final. If it were, then they’ve got their lives, and as you say, they shall thrive when I am gone.”
I wanted to say that, with her age, being gone was an impending reality. Dying was not the same as being on the cusp of middle age and already virtually non-existent to those once held dear.
“Letters,” she said. “Far and distant as a loved one was, letters kept you both in each other’s lives.”
“I wrote letters as a child,” I said, “and through high school, even college.”
“How nice. How nice to talk to one so young and who actually knows what I’m talking about.”
“I’m older than you think.”
“So you remember the beauty of letters. Let me tell you, nothing says ‘I care about you’ the way a letter written exclusively for you does, a letter written from the heart. You can see the love in the hurried script, the pressure of the pen on the paper. Kids today, they will never know that feeling.”
“Indeed. Even something as mundane as what a friend had for lunch was a pleasure to read.”
“Lots of those on Facebook. Food pics here and there, everywhere.”
“No, no. It’s not the same. There’s a difference between clicking a button on your mobile and uploading a pic” – she simulated clicking a button on a mobile – “and describing in words the taste and smell and feel of what you ate.” She simulated writing… and in cursive, too, not in print… with eyes shut as though relishing in her thoughts her own apple pie.
I was astonished at Ms. Aimee’s adeptness with technology. Then again, how else could she have been educated a load full on the latest flat screen TV model?
“I had nice penmanship,” I said. “Gorgeous, actually. Old English type of penmanship. Thanks to the computer, it’s been shot to pieces.”
Ms. Aimee was quiet and focused on the apple pie on her plate yet saw something else entirely, something that seemed to drift into her field of vision as a wisp of smoke at once adapting solid form. “My husband and I, before we got married, we wrote letters all the time. Since we were in love, the anxiousness over the wait for a letter and the exhilaration upon its receipt was ten times… no… a hundred times… a thousand times… a thousand times greater. The sensation ate me up. I became a walking vision of joy, a human light bulb. I was a young fiancée when he fought in the Korean War. Then we married, and later his letters carried even more importance. In the Vietnam War, he was a doctor, while I was here in the homeland, a nurse. His letters were an affirmation of life.”
“How did he die?” I asked. I had been curious for a while, for even Lincoln the doorman was mysterious on this subject. Now here Ms. Aimee and I were. And again, she was quiet. “I don’t mean to pry.”
“While doing a butt buster.”
“Have you ever done a butt buster?”
My imagination stretched far to scandalous territories: doctors and nurses, what games they must play. “I’m not sure,” I said.
“You either know or you don’t. A butt buster is not anything you forget.” Ms. Aimee took my empty plate and disappeared into the kitchen down the hall. She didn’t walk as much as she waddled.
“I guess… Yes,” I said. “Do you need any help?”
Not seeming to have heard my question, she said, “Well, that was how I became a widow.” Her voice, faint and faraway, possessed a dreamy quality, such as voices we hear in our memories.
“It’s a bicycle ride uphill.”
“Is that all. I got the impression it was something else. No then. I’ve never done a butt buster.”
The Grace Cathedral bell chimed. Late as it was in the day, children’s laughter from Huntington Park continued to waft into the balcony, and since this was summer, the sun remained vibrant. I stared at the sky. What an incandescent blue it was, as if brilliant days such as this were the permanent order of the universe, as if Sundays were exempt from storms and dark clouds. Then it dawned on me: what was I doing chattering with an old woman on a Sunday afternoon? Keeping company with Ms. Aimee was quite refreshing. Had this been an ordinary Sunday, I would have been strolling around the city, marveling how couples around me had progressed from strangers to intimates since that is what I do every day in forming a connection to the world. I observe people – couples holding hands, in a café sipping from the same straw, laughing in harmony; parents; newlyweds; pairs of all ages. I am drawn to lovers. A mere night before Ms. Aimee called, I had seen a blond boy in his early twenties at the subway station, in owl glasses and black sneakers and with a condition that caused his leg to shake while he stood stationary. Watching him, I wondered about the bullying that had tormented him as a child on account of his leg, commiserated with his isolation, his pain. Then I envied him as I was envying him on that Sunday. He had been smiling because he had a friend, another young man, one who was large and hefty and who held him in a manner that made it evident they were in love.
“Oh, that’s okay about my husband’s passing,” Ms. Aimee said, again in my midst. Ignoring my gesture that I was full (which I really wasn’t), she placed another slice of apple pie before me and poured me more milk from a porcelain pitcher. “My husband got a heart attack halfway through a butt buster. He died doing what he loved. That ought to be a consolation. As for you, you haven’t experienced real struggle and victory unless you’ve done a butt buster.”
“When I was young. A long, long time ago. He and I would go up a hill, then go back down, then go back up again just so that we could put to shame cyclists around us out of breath. We were arrogant. Show offs. That’s how it is when you’re young, as you certainly are aware of.” Ms. Aimee smiled a good-natured smile.
“I’m not that young,” I said.
“But you know what I mean. There must have been something you were good at that you wanted to show off to the world, something you’re good at still, that your mother must be proud of.”
I shrugged my shoulders. I could never get a partner, no matter how many my bed mates or how seductive my iron-pumped pecs. I was fundraising at a non-profit organization, doing my share in making the world a better place, and still, I felt empty. For all the esotericism of non-profit being a noble vocation, it was, for me, a job I was stuck at and one in which I wasn’t applying my true passion – a creative ardor for words and images that in my youth had been insatiable but that a routine existence had since squelched. I couldn’t even recall the last novel I had read. And as for close friends, whatever happened between us? Nothing. Absolutely nothing. A falling out would have been a cause on which to peg the severance of ties. Instead, we drifted apart for the simple reason that nothing ever stays the same.
“Really, come off it with this old nonsense,” said Ms. Aimee.
“I’m almost 40,” I said.
“40 is a kid. You’ve even got a few years to go before you get there.”
“You’re a baby. For the record, I’m 84. My, what I’d give to be 50 again.”
“50?” I couldn’t imagine myself at 50, yet here Ms. Aimee was, talking about 50 as if it were 20.
“Or about your age, when my husband and I first moved into this building. How lucky we were to have spent nearly our entire lives together in this neighborhood. Where we are, it’s unique among all the places in the world.”
A somberness suddenly overcame Ms. Aimee. She appeared to be a different person, as though something latent in her had been snapped awake, a volcano dormant for centuries and now about to erupt. “Who am I kidding?” She stared at me in the eyes. I could have sworn her own eyes flared with the red of lava. “That my husband died doing a butt buster is no consolation. It was stupid of him. I begged him not to. Did he listen? No. Never. He was the kind of man who did whatever he wanted regardless my pleas. For a doctor, he should have known better than to defy the limits of his ailing body. Look what his stubbornness has gotten me – a collection of televisions. Sometimes I think he loved himself more than he did me.”
“I wouldn’t say that,” I said.
A stony stillness and then, “How would you know?”
I bowed my head. Ms. Aimee was right. How dare I.
“Are you an expert on love?” she asked.
“No, not by a long shot. I’m the last person to comment on the subject. I can’t even tell someone to stay. So I go out searching for someone else, hoping then I’ll have the guts. I can’t even get myself to talk deep. It’s all very superficial with me, and I don’t want it to be.” Why I blurted this out beats the hell out of me.
“Not easy to hold onto people, you’ll discover, if you keep conversation on the surface. Even on Facebook, someone can unfriend us at any moment. No depth there.”
“Relationships are as fragile as glass.”
“Or as sturdy as steel,” said Ms. Aimee.
Right there, her analogy of human connection to the most durable of man’s material inventions… such a conviction could only have stemmed from a history of having given plenty of herself to one adored and in having received back in as much abundance. In images on the coffee table of her together with her husband, their smiles were uncompromising. Theirs had been a happiness that could not have been feigned. Sometimes I think he loved himself more than he did me, Ms. Aimee had said. Sometimes… not often, not always… and on these rare occasions, she admitted that the sentiment had existed in her head. The truth was in front of me: a widow who sought solace in social media and in current home viewing trends for the loss of a husband who had devoted himself to her ever since the word “television” had been introduced into the lexicon of our everyday vernacular.
“You were married for over half a century,” I said. “That is no small feat. If I’m a fraction as lucky as you’ve been, I might experience for myself a love the strength of steel.”
“Look at where you are,” Ms. Aimee said. “You already are lucky. This is a charmed neighborhood. Magic can happen if you allow it to.”
“The movie trailers that occupy the parking spaces around Huntington Park for days on end can be an annoyance.”
“I don’t mind.”
“Not once have I spotted a movie star.”
“You don’t need to. You make your own movie out of your own life with yourself as a star. That you can do it in this lovely neighborhood is a marvel. Such beauty. After all these decades, I remain in awe of Nob Hill. We do what we can to protect it from drastic change, and change I have seen a lot of, mind you. It was in this living room that my husband and I witnessed Neil Armstrong set foot on the moon, in hazy black and white. Flower Power, the AIDS epidemic, the dot com boom… many events that have started here in this city and that spread across the globe… we’ve lived through it all, in this building, yet the neighborhood has been unscathed. The Fairmont Hotel is as it has always been. The Brocklebank is the way Alfred Hitchcock filmed it. Neither Huntington Park nor the playground is going anywhere because this place will always have families. They will be living out their own stories, their own movies, and leaving their mark. You’re doing the same. There’s a piece of you on every bit of sidewalk right in front of this building and in the air you breathe as you step onto your balcony. Do realize, though, that there are also changes that are necessary, changes that bring out the best in us, that teach us to be patient, to cook for and tend to someone, to… to forgive.” Ms. Aimee gave a bemused grin. “Of all the foolishness, a butt buster at his age. The day it happened, I had milk and apple pie waiting for him exactly where you are. I was expecting him to rush through the door and devour every bite and chug down every drop without a word like a child. That was the way he was – self-absorbed as a child is and oh so tender, too. He was always excited to finish off a butt buster with an apple pie. And I… well… it was bliss to watch him eat it.”
” I remember him,” I said.
“Do me a favor, a gutsy favor.”
I was mute.
“Go on,” Ms. Aimee said.
“Stay,” I whispered.
“That wasn’t too hard, now was it?”
WTF! I just wanted to discuss the TV noise. For a non-descript lady whom I had perceived as a nuisance of a neighbor in possession of the most dismal of wardrobes, Ms. Aimee sure got me choking up. She got me to thinking of my own mother. My mother had been so agile in her walk that whenever she would come for her six-week visits, I would count down the days to her departure so that I could flee out the door, into the dens of iniquity in the south of Market Street and in the Castro district, there where I would drink, dance, and fuck, lose myself in a demimonde of clubs and drugs until midnight became dawn and the sunrise signaled sleep so that I could be at it yet again with rejuvenated vigor upon nightfall. I missed her. I wish she were regular with her visits as she had been in the beginning. I wish she could be a young mother always. I wish I could have a second chance at youth. I wish I hadn’t chosen jobs primarily because they allowed ample time for my party schedule. I wish I had looked into the eyes of those I had kissed and told them I loved them. I wish. I wish. I wish.
“You know, I’ve only walked onto my balcony five times in all the years I’ve been here,” I said, “twice to wash the sliding doors. I’ve got vertigo.”
“I do, too. Still… Ah! Children’s laughter. You hear that? That’s something. When there’s no laughter, then a voice fills the silence. A passing voice, a small, distant voice, whatever voice it is, it’s still a human sound. And when there’s no voice, then it’s the voice of nature, be it a strong wind or a subtle breeze.”
“I keep the balcony doors shut.”
“Oh, no.” Ms. Aimee wagged her index finger in severe disapproval. “No, no, no. You must have your balcony doors open. Listen to what’s out there. You will no longer feel as though you were trapped in a box, separate from everyone and everything. You’ll feel that you belong to the world, as you must.”
How did she know of my yearnings? “You’re right, Ms. Aimee,” I said.
“There’s a new voice to my family,” she said. “He’s six months old.”
“He’ll be visiting me in the next month. If you please, I don’t want phone calls in the middle of the night to interrupt baby from sleep or the buzzer causing a raucous.”
So she had been ignoring the buzzer.
“Babies, you understand, need heaps of sleep.”
Stuff its ears with cotton, I thought. “I understand,” I said. “Do know, Ms. Aimee, that no phone calls in the middle of the night or buzzers buzzing will occur should you keep the TV volume low. Baby’s peaceful sleep depends wholly on you.”
“Oh,” she sighed.
I could not leave her on such a discordant note. “The TV doesn’t provide anything special to you or any of us, Ms. Aimee. Everything it broadcasts is watched by anybody, anywhere. It’s a distraction to what genuinely matters. These walls, these family pictures… the stories they tell are what’s worth listening to because they’re unique to you, gifted to you to cherish. So cherish them. Honor them.”
Ms. Aimee scanned her surroundings, as if seeing things and people visible to her alone. “The sound of our memories can be the most strident as well as the most melodious,” she said and then, with the mildness of a prayer, “How he so loved my apple pie.”
From here on, the nights were silent. Although the refrain to a Hollywood musical no longer invaded my room, I would lie awake and imagine Ms. Aimee downstairs dancing cheek to cheek with her husband’s spirit, her footing firm and movement graceful, herself giddy with remembrances to sustain her from sunrise to sunrise. I fancied Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers as the movie stars resurrected on her TV. In all the dazzle of the silver screen – he in top hat and tail, she in a gown of oscillating feathers and billowing skirt – they were dancing on a stairway to paradise, heaven’s gate a few turns and spins away from Ms. Aimee’s balcony.
Ms. Aimee died last month. So desirable is this piece of real estate that her unit had scarcely been on the market when a buyer snatched it. I haven’t met the new tenant (or tenants) nor do I care to. That I have experienced no disturbance is fine with me, which leads me to believe that whoever Ms. Aimee’s replacement is must be young, maybe not as young as I had been when myself a new tenant, but in the phase of life where a daily itinerary consists of leaving home early in the morning and returning late in the evening because the world out there is for the taking.
As for my own home, it has remained unchanged in the near 20 years since I moved in -landscape canvasses that hang on white walls, white floor carpeting, and white upholstery to match white draperies – and yet, changed it has. Faint smudges of soot on the carpet infuse the unit with an atmosphere of having been lived in. The paint chip on the base of the bathroom wall, noticeable only when sitting on the john, has lengthened from a speck to a streak like the trail of an invisible snail, slow to form but as dogged as time itself to arrive at a fixed destination. The socket frames are lopsided. The golden door knobs are tarnished.
On account of my mother’s challenged knees, my parents considered selling since they doubted they would visit with the frequency they once had. I initially acquiesced, only Ms. Aimee’s words refused to let me be: where we are, it’s unique among all the places in the world.
Do not end. Start afresh. Refurbish. Revive. Stay.
Lo and behold, the prospect of a new beginning has fortified a will in my mother both mental and physical, she whose passion is creating a gentle and gorgeous haven for her family. I myself hear it every morning, this heralding of a rebirth. The laughter and voices that enter through my open balcony doors from Huntington Park grow ever greater in their zest for life upon each passing day. They beckon me forth towards the wealth of humanity, out there where the touch of another need not be a transient pleasure that dims my soul, but a spark that transforms my body into a vessel of eternal light.
His mother on the phone didn’t sound any different from when he had last seen her – sprightly with a girlish crispness to her voice. Carl was supposed to have arrived in Chicago three hours ago. He would have been by her side, only a winter storm had diverted his flight from San Francisco to a town in Kansas, where he was holed up in a motel. Half a dozen cars were parked outside his window, covered in what looked like Styrofoam flakes glued onto windshields and hoods. Snow particles in the sky flurried to the ground in creating a landscape of white frost. A diner across the street and a gas station beside it were the only other signs of habitation.
Carl had experienced many icy nights growing up in Evanston, Illinois, but none quite like this. In Evanston, the smoke that would emit from the chimneys of neighboring houses had warmed the view from the bedroom he had shared with his brother, and lights strung on trees had shone with the brilliance of candle flames in a bell jar. Down the hall, his mother’s and father’s laughter as both parents watched “The Carol Burnett Show” had assured him that a cozy home would be forever.
Their laughter… hers had been melodious, the sing-song cadence of a Disney princess, while his had been a baritone ha-ha-ha, exactly the sort of laughter one would expect from a man of his stature – lanky with a smile as eminent as his nose, features Carl had inherited. Five years ago, during a game of golf on one of Carl’s visits, his father died laughing. Carl was talking of the day his father had bought him a Hershey’s kiss the size of an apple. He had been a fat 12-year-old, and he would nibble on the chocolate hidden in a paper bag, behind his mother as they stood on a pier, watching sea lions lounge on rocks on a family tour of Fisherman’s Wharf. Since his mother had forbidden sweets, this had been a secret between Carl and his father for the four decades that followed. With a smile, his father raised his golf club, and that was when he had a stroke. As he fell to the green, Carl held his hand. The man might not have made a sound, but his eyes brightened, filling the air with a silent guffaw, and then they dimmed. Carl’s father was 83.
If only Carl could hear his mother laugh one last time. Or look into her eyes. Or hold her hand.
“I understand it’s brutal outside. Irene tells me everything,” she said, Irene being the caregiver. “She does everything. In fact, she’s holding the phone to my ear.”
“I’m sorry I couldn’t make it, Mom.”
“You talk as if the weather’s your fault.”
“Tomorrow, if the storm clears up, I’ll be on my way.”
“Let’s pray and hope.”
Prayers were always a way to be with his mother. She had instilled a belief of God in her sons as if her faith were a matter of genetics. Here were the memories such faith blessed Carl with: the saccharine scent of apple pie that wafted through the house at Christmas; Easter picnic, their feast a barrel of Kentucky fried chicken; and the “Prayer for the Dead” on All Saints’ Day for both grandfathers who had gone before he was born and a sister lost to a miscarriage – memories more associated with family than with church. Later, in surviving the loss of his own son, Carl discovered prayers to be a savior of sorts, a source of strength.
Carl pictured his mother as she had been in his schooldays, slim in flared pants or a pencil skirt, and her hair a bush of ringlets from a night of sleeping in curlers. What a visual impression she had made on his teachers, and arm-in-arm with his father, who had commanded his own attention with a firm walk and a posture as upright as a general’s, she had presented the image of the perfect wife.
In his last trip to Chicago this past autumn, Carl had dyed his mother’s hair chestnut brown, its natural color during his youth. Dying her hair was a task he undertook on every visit. After his father had passed away, she moved out of the house and into an apartment in the city, the bustle of which teased her vanity. His mother chose the apartment for its wall-to-wall panorama of a board walk ferris wheel and a lake that shimmered gold on sunny days and turned silver when the weather was somber. How silver indeed the lake was as Carl had combed his mother’s hair… perhaps for the final time, he was realizing just now… the silver of goblets and platters to a royal banquet. Due to gusts of frosty winds, the coming winter threatened to be especially freezing. People crowded the boardwalk for a final hurrah of outdoor amusement. The ferris wheel in motion bespoke the gaiety in the air, and as night descended, it lit up like an electric roulette, promising eternal youth and fun.
Once upon a time, Carl had been a child on the ferris wheel. Suddenly, he was several stories above it, removed from it by a brick thick window that blocked all worldly sounds, as if in a glass coffin. His mother seemed fine. Nails lacquered, face smooth from daily egg packs, and a widened waist from an addiction to buttered popcorn, she had settled nicely into widowhood. Carl returned to the West Coast believing he would share with his mother many more autumns such as this.
Then the caregiver phoned. Barely four months had passed. His mother was slipping. For whatever reason, she was slipping fast.
In the motel room, Carl attempted to be rational. Every child faces saying goodbye to a mother sooner or later, he thought. This will be over soon enough. Then what?
“How are you feeling?” he asked.
“Oh, okay,” his mother said.
“I’ve been sleeping a lot. It’s nice. I always dream.”
“I do, too.”
“I usually forget my dreams.”
“Same here. Makes you wonder what they’re all about if you can’t remember them.”
“But I never forget the feeling. Sleep dreams are peaceful. Better than daydreams. With daydreams… I don’t know.”
Carl sat on a bed by the window. The airline booked him in a room with two beds, he a lone traveler. “With daydreams, there’s an underlying wistfulness,” he said. Even when he had not been alone, he had only needed one bed. “More than wistfulness. Restlessness. Hunger.”
“I guess that’s it,” his mother said.
“What do you daydream about anyway, Mom?”
“I’m too old to have any more daydreams. I remember instead.”
Carl himself spent much time remembering, too much time. “It’s been a while since I’ve daydreamed.”
“Son, you’re too young to stop wishing and wanting for things.”
At once, Carl realized this was probably the most personal he had ever been with his mother. When face to face, they would speak of the weather, tell each other one was fine or okay to inquiries about well-being, and they’d share accounts of an afternoon activity. However, he was hard pressed for memories of any conversation in which they confided deep feelings, whether it was sadness or happiness.
“Maybe I should do what Andrew does.”
His mother laughed. At last, she laughed. No, she couldn’t be dying. Too much melody and heart and soul were in that laughter. “Your brother is a queer one,” she said.
“I’m the queer.”
Again, laughter. “Do you actually like calling yourself that? Isn’t it insulting?”
“Andrew, he visits me often. Don’t you be hard on him.”
Carl did appreciate his brother, although his brother could be irksome, what with Andrew’s demands that during every visit to Chicago, Carl must avail himself as assistant to his house construction and renovation business. Lending Andrew a helping hand could be a debilitating enterprise. In one project, Carl tore down a garage wall, exposing a bat perched on a scaffold. With a flap of its wings, the bat dove towards him and drove him onto the street, where he ran down the block with arms outstretched in front of him like a character from a ’70s cartoon. In another, a maggot stung with such a burn that he felt as though a drill were digging into his arm. To Andrew, spending time with their mother meant chauffeuring her to Costco then picking her up three hours later, and his idea of a vacation was back packing across the 50 states and sleeping in cemeteries to save a buck on motels. Manual labor spurred an appetite for ribs and potatoes. Days and nights exposed to the elements chafed his nose red.
While Andrew was burly and gruff of voice, puberty had made Carl conscious of his corpulence so that by early adulthood, he was as lean as a sprinter, stacking his pantry with oats and nuts, baked chips and protein bars. Although the brothers now had salt and pepper beards, Andrew had a full set of hair on his head in contrast to Carl, who was convinced a youth of perms and products that advertised snazzy dos had damaged his follicles.
“He doesn’t dye your hair, though,” Carl said.
“Of course, no,” said his mother. “Only you can do that.”
“That’s right.” What now? thought Carl. Years of penning news articles to the caliber of front page coverage had not equipped him with words for this night.
“There’ll be a welcome party for me in heaven.”
“The guest of honor will be really late. Years late.”
“I don’t think Daniel can wait much more.”
Daniel, it was inevitable that he would be mentioned. “I think he can. His grandfather’s keeping him amused.”
Now Carl laughed. His was a laugh that kindled the sweetness of his childhood. Lemego was what he had called Lego, a toy he had rejected on his fifth birthday, rather preferring cut out dioramas of circus performers and a Ken doll to GI Joe because Ken was the closest he could get to owning a Barbie. Daniel had been a different matter. He had a passion for building things, just like his grandfather, whom Carl used to call “Daddy, the wall pounder.” A financial manager five days of the week, Carl’s father on weekends was the neighborhood handyman. His respite from his day job consisted of furniture construction and house repairs from replacing a sink valve to clearing a jammed garbage disposal. Andrew had developed their father’s hobby into a vocation, and he would joke that Daniel was actually his own son by virtue of the boy’s knack for a skill innate to the Larkin men, one that had bypassed Carl, no matter that Daniel had not been born a Larkin.
Daniel would have turned 18 in three months.
“I wonder sometimes why I’m not good with a hammer and a hand drill,” Carl said and imagined his father and Daniel nailing planks together to erect a bridge that would arch over the moon.
“You build in other ways,” said Carl’s mother. “You build stories.”
“I guess… I don’t know… Whatever I write is read and then forgotten. News becomes old fast, and journalists are a dime a dozen. We’re replaceable.”
“I have scrapbooks filled with clippings of your articles.”
“Other people write the same stories as I do and have them published in other places – on the internet, anywhere. What I do is reportage, Mom, a dry listing of facts, some more sensational than others. It has nothing to do with anything special to us.”
The Larkin line ended here; Carl’s father had two sisters. All that Carl had created with his mother and his mother with him would vanish when his own time came, as if they had never been. How many stories since the birth of language had been buried in the ground, lost to obscurity, or cremated, their ashes scattered in the wind over meadows or ghostly waters? The stories Carl wrote were on this senator’s legislature and that mayor’s campaign, stuff nobody gave a damn about upon the count down to a new year.
The stories that truly mattered, that blessed one and all an equal chance in immortalizing everyone and everything held dear, were those born of personal histories – a muddled montage of faces and voices, places and sounds, all imbued with the fervor of a love that refused to perish. Of course, Carl had always known this, though never had he confronted this fact with the desperation that he was doing so now.
As did frequently happen, memories of Daniel were at this instant overlapping with those of his own boyhood: his mother’s yanking him by the arm out of the toilet; Daniel terrified on his first day of potty-training that the flush of water would suck him in; running alongside his mother in a sudden cloudburst, on grass the luster of green gummy bears; Daniel catching up with him during a race on the beach. The boy had had a heart condition. What the doctor had assured Carl would be a safe procedure turned out to be anything but, and grieving proved too taxing for the two fathers to remain together. At least, that was what Carl told himself.
Really, the parting between Joel and him had been nothing remarkable. The bed left unmade in the mornings, dirty dishes neglected in the sink, and one’s late nights out without informing the other could have been any couple’s reasons for a break-up. Unique to them was that Daniel had possessed an eerie resemblance to Joel. More than the ginger curls, the all-knowing eyes had startled Carl, as if by a mere glimpse the boy could decipher the secret behind every object and living soul alike. On Joel, an anthropologist, such keen perception was natural, the result of wisdom accumulated from trekking the Borneo rainforest and living among Amazonian Indians. On a child, it was troubling. Carl often sensed as Daniel would contemplate familiar rooms that the boy knew their walls would bear witness to bad tidings.
On the phone, his mother’s voice was so loud that she could have been in the same room as he, at the window, the winter storm creating a backdrop of turbulence, just as it had on the first Christmas without Daniel. That December some ten years ago, his mother had been lamenting that Daniel had inherited a congenital heart from Joel, he whose father and father before him had died of heart attacks; Carl should have been the donor, for given a history of longevity on both parents’ sides of the family, his DNA was certainly pure of ailments. She wasn’t making any sense, Carl had said; had the decision been in his favor, then Daniel would never have been born.
They were both in the bedroom of his youth. Above his desk hung a collage Carl had made decades back of Michael Jackson moonwalking; a Rubik’s cube; and Tom Cruise, thumb up as he posed self-assured in a jet cockpit. Carl was going to light up the sky with the colors that dazzled the decade of the 1980s: passion purple, electric yellow, fluorescent blue… His name would grace bookshelves. He would appear on TV talk shows and be interviewed on the radio. No dream was ever too grand. He never planned on a family of his own, and the unexpectedness of this blessing had trivialized all those adolescent big shot aspirations. Laughter, so much laughter, from the morning buzz of the alarm clock to the last light switched off in the evening, had illuminated the darkest skies the brilliance of Venus.
Standing against the window view of the blizzard, Carl’s mother resembled a powder puff. Her ensemble of matching sweat pants and shirt was cotton candy pink. Her skin was luminous, free of the wrinkles characteristic of a septuagenarian. And yet, her face appeared broken. The more she spoke of what should have been, the more creases marred the brows and weighed on the cheeks, as if she were a porcelain doll cracking apart.
If truth be told, there was a vital reason that Joel had been chosen, something of which Carl never confided in his mother and never would. An illness independent of genetics tainted Carl’s blood. Due to medical breakthroughs, Carl was saved from the fate that had befallen men of his ilk a generation earlier, when ignorance had run so rampant that a mere kiss had fomented fears of mortality, and he was able to nurture a relationship with a man whose blood tested clean upon every doctor’s check-up.
Then again, suppose Carl had sired a son. Suppose the child had died. The loss would have been twice the tragedy for the Larkins because the boy could have been the sole biological perpetuator of their lineage. Andrew was never going to be a parent… he could not even bring himself to marry the woman who had been tending to his home for the past decade as diligently as she had been to his office… though their mother badgered him incessantly.
“Andrew will be here soon,” his mother said over the phone.
“I will be, too,” Carl said.
The snowing outside had calmed. Carl might be on his way to Chicago after all. God might actually be answering the prayers of mother and son.
“You’re already here. Somewhat.”
Something was different. His mother was growing distant. She was breaking up as if static had come between them.
“I hear you, so you’re here,” she said.
How incongruous her voice quickly became to the bobbysoxer whose image Carl once saw as a child in his mother’s girlhood scrapbook. Photo corners affixed on a page a picture of his mother at 17, sitting on a sofa with jean-clad legs curled up beneath her as she held a Frank Sinatra record to her bosom. Despite the black and white of the picture, she had color in her cheeks, a blush such as that upon the first kiss. Who had his mother been thinking of? Was it a celebrity crush that had made her eyes gleam so and her smile ardent or was it a boy in school? Who was Susan Flores before she became Mrs. Laurence Larkin?
A girl that lovely evoked morning dew on rose petals and slow dances. Rightfully so – Carl’s mother was born on the 14th of February.
Nonetheless, she was not above paroxysm. “Stupid. You stupid, stupid boy,” Carl’s mother once screamed. It was a long time ago, and it was the single instance in his life Carl had seen her blow her top. He had deserved it. Fat was bursting through the spaces between each shirt button. Crumbs of battered chicken soiled his fingers. After a burp that resounded in the kitchen, he said, “You always over fry the chicken, Mom. I feel I’m eating burnt wood.” She was at the sink with her back to him. With the swiftness of a whip, she turned to face him. “Stupid,” she said.
Her lips quivered. Her eyes flared with a wrath Carl had never before witnessed. The tick tock of the clock on the wall across the table from where he sat ruptured the ensuing silence like a time bomb.
Through the window behind her, his father and Andrew were plucking weeds in the backyard. The grass reflected the gold of day, and sunshine around Carl bounced off varnished cupboards and bluebird chinaware his mother was stacking in a dish rack. Andrew himself had made a big deal about having to work the garden that Sunday. Hair scruffy, in mid-yawn, he had stood at the backdoor, a bread toast in hand as he demanded from their father $2 for his labor. He got a smack on the head instead.
“You stupid, stupid boy.” His mother could have been referring to Andrew, as well. Just as suddenly, she turned her back to Carl and continued with the dishes.
Your cooking sucks… I want new sneakers… No way am I doing the lawn… I want a bike… Drop me off at the mall… I want a sound system… Pick me up at five… I want a car…
In a motel room abuzz with the whirl of memories, in a hick town he had neither heard of nor ever imagined he would set foot in, Carl marveled at the choices, big and small, his mother had made that brought the world to this moment.
“Thank you, Mom,” he said.
She was silent and then, perplexed, “For what?”
“Everything is a lot.”
“Thank you, too, my son.”
“Are you my echo now?”
So many questions. Still, Carl didn’t know where to start or if he should dare to ask. What he was well aware of was that his mother could have married any man she had so pleased. She often reminisced of her sorority days when boys would position themselves by classroom windows to glimpse her as she sat in the quad. Her own father, a judge, had cut a formidable figure. Although his shoe size was that of a prepubescent, his voice reverberated with the bang of a gavel against a sounding block. If ever on the street he chanced upon two men in a scuffle, all he needed was to say stop and they would. This intimidated many a prospective husband… except Laurence Larkin, a stranger in town on a business trip. The man had such a swagger, a sureness of where he was and where he was headed, that when a family friend introduced him to Susan Flores at a dinner party, “I just knew,” she would one day tell her sons.
And so the journey mid-way across the country to a future founded on a hunch. A strand of pearls, Dior purses, a Tiffany card holder… gifts Carl’s father lavished on her on special occasions and upon his return from business trips muffled whispered arguments behind closed doors over her predilection for the luxurious. That his father was ever present at the dining table in the evenings and was a home busy body on weekends dismissed flattering remarks on another woman’s looks as just that – a passing comment. What regrets could Carl’s mother have had? What dreams sacrificed?
This Carl knew: he would not have needed to endure half as much on account of Daniel had his son come of age. Father he had been but still a man whose identity extended to a job, and times were different. Nothing of his mother’s upbringing had prepared her for the man he would become, no matter the niceties of living his father provided.
Home in Evanston had been a brick Colonial with a columned entrance and French doors, Grecian pots that flanked a walkway and shrubs gate-high. White enlivened the interior… lots of white… from the draperies to the bed sheets, only on the morning that Carl had walked into his parents’ room to kiss them a good day before heading off to school, a drizzle immersed everything in gray. Even his mother seemed ashen.
While his father lay snoring, she was staring at the ceiling as though a disturbing image were projected on the blank space above. Carl had left a video to the film “Making Love” in the VHS machine, in the TV stand across the foot of the bed. A film buff, he rented movies on a variety of genres from Spaghetti Westerns to thrillers glutted with scenes of blood and gore. Never had his mother voiced disapproval. “Making Love,” however, was something else entirely.
“You’re too young for a movie of that title,” she said.
“I’m too old for cartoons,” said Carl.
“What kind of movie is it?”
“A married man who has an affair with another man.”
His mother jolted.
“It’s a good movie,” he said.
Carl might as well have come out right there.
Nothing. His mother said nothing.
Neither did Carl. He had been the boy who would cry for Mommy never to leave the house, whose assigned place at the dining table was beside Mommy, who sought Mommy’s caress whenever he fell and scraped a knee.
The silence persisted the rest of his adolescence and through college, until his move to San Francisco, where his mother stacked his pantry with daily necessities and cooked his favorite dishes for his first week there. “Be careful,” she said when Carl at last divulged the truth of himself that for too long both mother and son had kept hushed. They were dining to a window view of neighboring couples and friends, all of one gender, as the neighbors basked in the sunset on their back porches. “We love you, Dad and I.” She would always be there for Carl in his adulthood, in his commitment ceremony to Joel and then in the rearing of his own baby.
Please God, Carl thought, pressing the phone to his ear as if it were his mother’s lips. Let me be on my way tomorrow before it’s too late.
“How strange snow is,” his mother said. “For a storm, it’s so quiet. A storm is supposed to be thunder and rain hitting the roof like an attack of arrows. Snow, it’s so… so soft, heavenly.”
His mother sounded as if she was drifting into a trance, a distant past, one that Carl shared with her of clouds wafting through open windows into a white bedroom. He saw her in a yellow robe and matching slippers, folding cloth diapers as tenderly as she did gift wrapping paper every Christmas.
“Who do those belong to?” he had asked.
“They used to be yours,” she had said and stashed the diapers in a bureau that over the years would be filled with mementos of life’s achievements and rites of passage: the first baby tooth, report cards populated with A’s and B’s, a spelling bee certificate…
Every item in the bureau had pointed to a path, detours unforeseen, which were not wholly a bad thing. Detours ensured Carl that it could happen again, this oneness with another to warm him on a night such as this, and perhaps even something more.
“Tomorrow,” Carl’s mother said, her voice regaining its vibrancy. “I’ll see you tomorrow, my son.”
“If not, then you need to trust fate.”
“What’s his name?”
“I think it’s Marco Polo.”
“Marco Polo? Does he speak English?”
“I don’t know.”
“Where’s he from?”
“Some place called the Philippines.”
“How come it’s not on the map?”
After class one day, I overheard two guys talking about me behind my back. I was walking out of school. The coldness of the January air was giving me the sniffles. I wanted to blow my nose, but I couldn’t take out my handkerchief from my pocket without the risk of a derisive comment. As evidenced earlier by a girl who had mimicked dabbing her nose with a powder puff when I had first sneezed into my hanky, a handkerchief to the students at Bancroft Elementary was something flashy, a decorative article of clothing such as a walking cane and Edwardian boots more befitting a dandy than a boy from American suburbia. I could have descended upon them from another planet, only to 12-year-olds in 1979, anything other worldly would have been less strange: Mork from Ork made us laugh together with a fellow earthling named Mindy, and planet Krypton was the home of our favorite superhero. What truly mystified the boys and girls at Bancroft was why this foreigner from a non-existent country, who was rumored to possess the nomenclature of an ancient explorer and the habits of an English duke, was in their midst.
The Bank of America had promoted my father to a vice presidential position that required him to set up office in its San Francisco headquarter, and he and my mother decided that the suburbs would provide the best schooling for their children. To our expressions of reluctance, my father had said, “This is for you, so that you can experience more of the world.” With the move to America, my brother resented the loss of his car; my sister was heartbroken she’d no longer have shopping trips to Hong Kong; I missed my weekends eating rice and pork loaf by the pool, sun soaked in trunks that were growing increasingly tighter on account of my expanding girth.
But decisions my parents made for the welfare of the family could not be contested for long. So there I was in Walnut Creek, California, the new kid enrolled in the middle of the sixth grade and thus the subject of scrutiny by two boys I did not dare turn my head to look at. What would I have said to them anyway?
Lack of cultural and racial diversity notwithstanding, my sixth grade class at Bancroft Elementary consisted of a motley bunch of 20 students. Rodney looked like Lisa Whelchel, everybody’s Mouseketeer crush at the time – kittenish eyes, eyebrows so heavy that they appeared colored on by a felt pen, and a shoulder-length bob, the ends of which he had a habit of incessantly patting. He was close friends with a short blond boy who was called by his last name of Squirrel, although behind Squirrel’s back, Rodney called him “gay.” I’m not sure that, at 12 years old, we knew what sexual practices the word gay connoted. At least, I didn’t. From what I observed, guys used it primarily to reference a lack of coolness. In any case, Squirrel talked with a lisp and he fretted over his height, often wondering if at 13 or 14 he would experience a growth spurt as his older brother had. Matt was a dark-haired boy, tall and broad shouldered, who thought Dolly Parton was the most beautiful woman alive. I had two desk partners: Andrew and Billie. Andrew walked with a slouch, had moppy hair, and spoke with a drone baritone. His most distinguished characteristic was a pumpkin round nose with hair that protruded from the nostrils. All this gave him the air of a middle-aged man trapped in the body of a prepubescent. Billie was a rocker chick. She dressed in tee shirts torn at the hem and that sported rock band logos, and her favorite expression was “piss lick.”
Rodney was the first to extend a welcoming hand when the teacher, Mrs. Baxter, assigned an in-class exercise that required our being divided into groups. Derrière bulbous as that of a lady bug, dark hair short and curly, Mrs. Baxter was dressed in purple polyester pants and shirt. She looked like a blueberry. She stood in front of the class to introduce me. The classroom consisted of white walls and a white ceiling, a floor murky gray, and the teacher’s desk in front of a blackboard. The students’ desks were arranged in rows. Crayola drawings of cats and dogs, twirling smoke emanating from house chimneys, and figures that I supposed represented parents and siblings were posted on a wall in between the entrance and the windows. I was seated at the back.
“This is Marco Tan,” she said and she smiled. “Would you like to stand up, Marco, and tell the class where you’re from?”
All I kept thinking was that I hated what I was wearing: corduroys far too flared at the hem and a shirt with stripes that seemed misaligned because one stripe was not at a perfect horizontal with the pant waist.
“No,” I whispered.
Mrs. Baxter kept on smiling. The class focused on me.
“The Philippines,” I said as I stood and pulled at my shirt lest the horizontal stripes appear uneven.
“Would you like to spell that?”
I spelled Philippines. She wrote it on the blackboard then emphasized the pronunciation was Philip-peens and not Philip-pines.
“Thank you,” said Mrs. Baxter.
“You’re welcome,” I said.
Everybody remained focused on me, astonished that I not only spoke English with an American accent but was also familiar with western etiquette.
The group thing started with Rodney’s raising his hand and saying, “We’d like Marco to join us.”
Rodney spoke with a subdued certainty that left no room for doubt. I thought how strange it was that less than a month ago I had been living in another country, in a neighborhood where occupants to homes stayed unseen behind iron gates and stone walls, where through the years we had never met the families on our block. At the International School Manila, students didn’t bike to class. They were chauffeured or bused. Now here somebody I had never seen before was declaring that he and I could be friends. But instead of appeasing my first-day jitters, Rodney’s courtesy sharpened it.
How odd would I seem to Rodney? I wondered. To the other kids?
Especially to Matt. Matt was the quiet type. This I could tell by the expression of curiosity in his eyes, the inquisitiveness he projected in which his questions were turned inward rather than outward. While everybody else in class was direct with his or her gaze at me, Matt was subtle. He glanced with his head slightly bowed like that of a hesitant puppy. Matt was also the handsomest boy I had ever seen. He was Italian-American with hair earth brown and lush as a lion’s mane, robust lips, and a pug nose – features that all came together to evoke the celluloid hotness of Tom Wopat in the “Dukes of Hazzard.” I had always been under the impression that guy’s who look as good as Matt are unabashed, cocky. That was the way the Fonze was in “Happy Days” and the way John Travolta was in “Grease.” Confidence comes with the territory of beauty. Not so with Matt.
The group consisted of Rodney, Matt, Billie, and me. The exercise required us to convene in the library next door so that we could choose two advertisements in magazines to discuss among ourselves the marketing implications of those ads and then write a paper on our discussion. The library was not short of magazines. Two walls contained racks of them: Boy’s Life, Reader’s Digest, Life, Newsweek, more Boy’s Life. The magazine section was across from the entrance, in a carpeted section that contained a rocking chair and that sofas and floor cushions bordered. The moment I walked in, I saw one image alone – that of silken hair framing a girl’s smiling face. The face was juxtaposed with bold and multi-colored letters that declared advice on dating and lip gloss. I headed to the magazine as if it were a light at the end of a hall. Once I picked up the magazine and flipped it open, I overheard a boy say behind me to the entire class, “He reads Seventeen.”
I quickly put the magazine back to where I had found it, but the damage had been done. Snickering erupted.
Billie grabbed the Seventeen. “He was getting it for me,” she said. Dark eyes smiled at me from underneath dark bangs.
Rodney pretended not have heard the snickering and picked up a Time close to where the Seventeen had been. Some kids glanced at me curiously. Squirrel and Andrew stood side by side in another group. Rather than disdainful, they gave me a look of surprise akin to that which the class had had when realizing that I could speak English.
The one person who saw this moment as an opportunity to turn against me was Clayton. Clayton gave me hateful eyes. He would later like to boast that his mother had been Miss North Carolina, that he was a descendant of plantation owners. Pink as a pig and blond as hay, Raggedy Andy freckled with oversized sneakers, Clayton had the last name of Black, which was at odds with the way he spoke (a hint of an uppity southern drawl) and looked.
I don’t know who the boy was that had pointed out my gaff in choosing a magazine. Billie seemed to have dissipated the possible onslaught of taunts. Unfortunately, she would not always be present to protect me. In response to a question about who my favorite rock band was, I would reply, “Bee Gees.” I would prove myself to be infantile in my reference to a kid’s show rather than smart when, in answer to a boy’s question as to the meaning of the word casa, I would say, “It means house. ‘Sesame Street’ says it all the time.” At the end of the school year, I would get straight A’s with exception to one C in Physical Education. The one time classmates would take me seriously was when I would say with conviction that the word virgin only applies to girls because boys are called saints.
Through all this, Matt would react as he did on this first day at the library – with nonchalance. Eying the magazines on the rack, he stood a couple of feet behind me. He had on a lumberjack shirt and boots beaten by just the perfect amount so that they gave him the air of a seasoned huntsman rather than of a kid in hand-me-downs. How dark his eyebrows were, dark as the fur on a stallion, and how olive and clear his skin was. Every single girl seemed to be as entranced as I. Wherever they looked, whether it be at each other to chat or at a magazine, they sporadically gazed at Matt. I could not determine who his group of friends was. He stood apart from all.
Matt di Giorgio in is his gym clothes was the vision of the man I wanted to be. You might argue that my memory paints him in a godly glow, one so idealized that it is far from the truth. No matter because even though the memory of an image is prone to faltering, the memory of a feeling is never wrong. And this is how it was to see Matt close to the flesh.
Physical Ed class was before lunch break. A bunk house at the end of a sports field was the designated changing room for the boys. A carpet was rolled up against one wall; a couple of benches stood aligned with the carpet; and for us to store our street clothes, cubbyholes stood against another wall. Graffiti of initials and dates were carved into the cubbyholes. The bunk house was as dank as a horse stable. In rays of sun shining through Venetian blinds, particles of dust danced in the air.
Matt always took a bench across the window on which the light had a direct hit. The method of his undressing started with one foot on the bench for him to unlace his boots with the concern one takes when untying the ribbon to a present. He then unbuttoned his shirt at a methodical pace. If he was wearing a sweater, he never removed it simultaneously with the shirt he had on underneath as the other boys did; rather, he removed each article of clothing one at a time. Neither did he let his pants drop to the floor in a rush to dress into the next attire, as if ashamed to be seen bare. He slipped each pant leg off consecutively and he did it with such care so as not to form a crease. In his skin at last save for a pair of white socks that matched white briefs, he folded his clothes into squares.
Before putting on red shorts and a tank top, Matt often provided ample time for me to relish the sight of him in just his underwear. The hint of a tan line, the sun through the window blinds casting his body in shadow and light, mounds of burgeoning muscle and grooves on his stomach attesting to a natural athleticism – was he aware of the desire he elicited in others?
The red shorts fit snuggly on his thighs and buttocks as becomingly as shorts on a mannequin. My shorts flared out like a skirt. I could only imagine my appearance: a little hippopotamus in a tutu. While resembling a cartoon character from “Fantasia” might have been cute for me a year earlier, I was at present on the brink of adolescence, the stage where a hug no longer means a teddy bear cuddle but a shared warmth in the heat of another person. On my first day of Physical Ed, I placed my belongings into a cubbyhole beside Matt’s, looked at the ground to avoid eye contact with him, and bent my head towards him for a whiff of his smell. He smelled of soap and sun.
That night I lay in bed and gazed out my window. My bedroom had a view of the backyard. The moon shone through silhouettes of tree branches. The tallest tree in the garden was in front of my window. It was spurting the first leaves of spring. A wind ruffled the leaves. They resembled bird wings flapping against the purple sky. Books on shelves above my desk and ceramic figurines of farm animals on a chest were gleaming with the icy light of night, yet underneath my sheets, I was restless and hot. It used to be that when I would close my eyes, I could lose myself in a dreamscape of a rainbow arching across the universe or of a portal on a mountain wall that led to subterranean volcanoes erupting chocolate malt. That night the only vision I had was of Matt, his clothes tickling his body while he undressed the same way the sheets tickled mine, Matt wetting his lips as he raised a baseball bat and then slid his thumbs against the inner garter of his red shorts, Matt with eyes aglow under the sun shining through the blinds in the bunk house.
I hoped that by seeing him so vividly in my mind, I would be able to dream of him. That would not be so. It would never be. Matt was too earthly for me to take to a realm beyond the confines of reality.
Nevertheless, fact and fantasy united when weeks later I discovered a stash of Penthouse magazines in my father’s closet. They were in a duffel bag organized with other traveling bags that my father kept on a shelf beneath his shoes. I was not going through his belongings. My parents allowed us kids access to their closets. My sister, Andrea, would sift through my father’s office shirts because she liked to wear them layered over women’s blouses. Gordon, my brother, occasionally borrowed his shoes. The one business I had with my father’s closet was to place letters in a drawer for him to have his secretary stamp. The duffel bag was hard to miss. It was leather while the other bags were vinyl. It looked new, and it appeared to have bulky contents.
There they were – women photographed in a manner I had never seen women photographed before; stories of copulation (one was set in World War II with a German soldier who had a “cock shaped liked a swastika” – whatever that meant); letters from readers about their sexual encounters.
The letters riveted me the most. They were short, unadorned, and they hit my carnal curiosity with the precision of a dart striking bullseye. It was afternoon. It would always be afternoon whenever I would sneak the magazines out of the bag and do my best to return them in their original arrangement. Those afternoons were full of sun, sun and stillness and silence.
The black font of four letter words, of graphic passages relating what men and women did with their privates and of descriptions of the insatiability of a human body, jumped at me from the white pages like a branding iron scalding my eyes.
Blow job. In every letter, a woman was giving a blow job. A blow job was the best sensation. A blow job was something performed with skill. Every woman gave a blow job and every man loved it. Amid this outpouring of women pleasuring men, one letter in each issue consistently presented itself as a crowning jewel. This particular letter routinely started off with the testament of “everything about homosexuality had disgusted me” or with some expression of disconnect to the notion of man to man union. The admission of “one night my buddy and I got drunk” ensued without fail, followed some lines later with “it hurt at first and then it felt good.” So that was how it felt to be gay.
Did these men all look like Matt? I wondered, these fraternity brothers and athletes and beer swigging, macho office colleagues.
On that first afternoon, I went to my room, undressed, and sat on the edge of my bed. Leaves to the tree outside my window were still, yet they were so green and vibrant that, even in their stillness, they looked to be undulating in the wind. I bent my head down towards the lower half of my body, puckered my lips and I blew, softly at first then with increasing force so that I was splattering spit.
This blow job thing does nothing, I thought. What’s the big deal?
I shut my eyes to imagine the women in Penthouse. Lace stockings sheathed their legs. Their bodies were sprawled on satin sheets. I blew some more. Nothing. And then came Matt. He worked his way stealthily into a lens I had framed around a Penthouse centerfold, only to explode in front of me with the full force of his smell, his physical nearness to me in class and at the bunk house, his sinewy muscularity. If Matt had never existed, what might I have thought at night while lying in bed? What vision of sex would I have had? For that afternoon and for many moments like it to come, he would be the central figure in scenarios I lifted from gay letters in Penthouse.
One day, during recess, Matt pulled up a chair to the desk at the back of the class that I shared with Billie and Andrew. Since Billie wasn’t there, Matt must have felt comfortable to speak about girls… or rather about a specific woman he had a crush on.
“I love the way she sings,” he said. Matt had a gruff voice. As gruff as it was, it wasn’t harsh because it was low and he spoke softly. He leaned forward to rest his elbows on his lap. Stooped like that, he seemed embarrassed. “’I’ll Always Love You,’ you know, that’s my favorite song.”
“I don’t know that song,” Andrew said.
“Well, I’m not gonna sing it for you. It’s a cool song. Sort of.”
“It’s slow. It’s old. 1974, I think. It’s something my mom used to listen to.” Matt sat upright and this time, without room for contradiction, he said, “Hey, believe me: it’s a cool song.”
The confidence with which Matt spoke, I wish I had had such confidence a day before during lunch break with Clayton Black. Above the din of kids chattering and chewing on ravioli, Clayton’s voice echoed throughout the cafeteria when he yelled, “Buddha likes the Bee Gees.” Everyone sniggered. He and some other guys were talking about AC/DC, Led Zeppelin, and Lynyrd Skynyrd. Those groups didn’t exist in the Philippines. Their music wasn’t in harmony with the Filipinos’ penchant for dancing the robot or the hustle. I wish I had had the guts to tell Clayton to shut the fuck up.
“My mom would sing it to me as good as Dolly Parton did,” Matt said. “My mom looked like her, too. She had beautiful blonde hair and, you know…”
Andrew formed large circular shapes with his hands over his chest. “You mean your mom…”
“Yeah. She had Dolly Parton’s body.”
“Wow. She must have been really beautiful.”
“She was a cheerleader. Even when she got really sick and started to lose her hair, she still had a great voice.”
“Your mom was a cheerleader and Clayton’s mom was Miss North Carolina.”
“Dolly Parton’s great,” Matt said. “She’s the most beautiful woman in the world.”
“Barbi Benton,” said Andrew. I could have sworn his huge nose blushed.
Andrew and Matt turned to me for my choice of a beauty. Matt’s eyes were as dark and glossy as chocolate dipped in syrup. A dark beauty. “Kate Jackson,” I said. Or maybe I should have said Jaclyn Smith.
“I’d go for Jaclyn Smith first,” Andrew said.
“Or Farrah,” said Matt. “Definitely Farrah. But Kate Jackson is pretty, too… Loni Anderson. Suzanne Somers.”
“You and blondes,” said Andrew.
“I don’t think about it. I’m naturally into blondes.”
“Does it all go back to mom?”
“Yeah,” I said.
Matt blinked in consternation. Andrew turned to me in surprise at the emphatic tone with which I spoke. Apparently, I had an opinion about something.
“I mean…” I said to Andrew. “Does your mom look like Barbi Benton?”
“Not even close.”
Matt laughed. His laugh was deep with a hint of mischief. His tawny cheeks turned ruddy.
Andrew said to Matt, “Wait a minute. Are you trying to tell us that you like Tammy?”
Tammy was blonde. She wasn’t buxom, not yet at least, but she was blonde, platinum blonde, and she was tan and good in softball. She also spoke with a lilting voice. She always wore a hoody sweatshirt. Every morning when she arrived in class, she’d remove the hood and blonde hair flipped Farrah Fawcett style would cascade mid-way down her back. I had noticed how pretty her hair was on my first day in school, but not the way I was noticing it at this instant. Tammy was seated a few desks ahead of us. She was writing in a notebook. Her head was bowed. Every so often, she’d flip her hair back. Each flip burned me like a clothes iron.
“She’s really cute,” Matt said of Tammy.
“Yeah, she is,” Andrew said.
They were both admiring her, the slight movement of her body with each word she wrote, the tilt of her head.
She is sooo not pretty, I thought.
“Talk to her,” Andrew told Matt.
“I do,” Matt said.
“I mean really talk to her.”
That was a challenge for the rest of the day that gave Matt jitterbug fingers and coaxing nods from Andrew.
Why Matt would have the jitters beat the hell out of me. Sweet was a word that girls used on him. He said thank you and please. He picked up things for girls that they dropped on the floor, opened the door for Mrs. Baxter, never spoke behind anybody’s back. His sweetness wasn’t limited to girls. He would offer to share a bag of chips with a buddy and he was generous in lending an eraser or a pen. I myself would experience the potency of his sweetness during spring break. What made it so impressionable was that, since school was out, I had not expected to see Matt. He just happened to be there.
From the vicinity of houses where I lived, a gravel bike route extended so many miles to a park. Trees lined the route. Leaves were sprouting. This was my first spring ever. The season doesn’t exist in the Philippines. The Philippines recognizes two seasons alone – the wet months and the dry months. The dry months, the most scorching time of the year, are from March to May, during which the temperature rises to 90 degrees Fahrenheit. Never before had I needed to wear a sweater in April nor had I seen such a thing as April showers.
The day I went for a bike ride to the park, a two-day drizzle over Walnut Creek had lifted. On the third day, the whole shebang of spring that I had seen in “The Sound of Music” became a reality for me – green everywhere evocative of a mint coolness rather than the deep green of a tropical forest, flowers swaying in the breeze, and an incandescence that ignited the sky blinding white rather than burning sun bright. So what that Austria and the United States are two different countries in two different continents? They’re both in the Western Hemisphere, have snow and blond people, and that was enough for me to see them as the same.
I wasn’t riding fast, but I wasn’t careful. The cars zooming on the thoroughfare and the leaves above forming splotchy shadows on the ground distracted me. And then I got another first, a bee sting, right on my nose. That was when I fell. I was flat on the gravel, my bike on top of me. In a car that sped by, a girl looked aghast as she witnessed my fall. Her mouth was opened in the shape of an O. Her face was frozen as if it were an image on a bus billboard.
“Are you okay?” I heard.
I looked up. Matt was looking down at me from his own bike. He was holding a ball.
“Yes,” I said. Oh, how the bee bite stung. I could feel my nose swelling. But that was nothing compared to having the boy I saw as perfect seeing me as a klutz, one who had literally hit rock bottom. Wasn’t it enough that in Physical Ed class a team always chose me last?
“You don’t look okay,” Matt said.
I attempted to stand. My pants had a tear on one knee. An elbow hurt. I feigned toughness, indifference to my ruined clothes. Matt held me on the arm, then yanked me up.
“Thanks,” I said.
“Hey, it’s cool. You’re welcome. Be careful.” He stood motionless for a moment, frozen as the girl in the car had been. He was struggling to hold back a chuckle. “I’m not laughing… This isn’t funny…” He laughed. “Your nose. You look like Andrew.”
“Really? That red and big?”
“No. Nobody’s nose can be that red and big, but it’s red and big.”
I laughed, too. “I’ve never been stung by a bee before. I’ve never even seen a bee before. It was right in front of my face. I was shooing it away like a fly and then it bit.”
“Ouch. Don’t worry about it. It will swell down in three days. Going this way?” He led his bike towards the direction of the park.
“Able to ride again?”
“Let’s go.” Like an afterthought, he said, “You’ve never seen a bee before. Wow.”
“No. Only a lizard. Lot’s of lizards.”
“They look like little crocodiles. In the Philippines, they were all over the walls of my house and school. But they don’t bite. We also have giant cockroaches that fly.”
“That’s crazy,” Matt said.
When we got to the park, it was empty. Or maybe I just remember it that way. The see-saw and the swing set were immobile. The monkey bars were desolate without kids hanging from them. There might have been people at picnic tables, on paths that led to an adjacent neighborhood, but they were minimal enough for me to believe that Matt and I were alone in a place known only to him. And here I was, somebody he trusted enough to grant an entrance, somebody special.
I thought of the Dolly Parton song Matt liked, “I Will Always Love You.” I didn’t know the lyrics, didn’t know if I had ever heard them.
Matt sat on the ground, gazed at a sand pit in front of us. I sat with the ball in between us.
Who was he on his way to play ball with?
Suddenly, I saw Matt as alone as alone could be. No mother. No brother. No sister. All he had was a father I never saw.
“It would be great if the ocean was in front of the sand,” he said. “Can’t wait till summer so I can go to the beach.”
“There are beaches here?” I asked.
“Sure there are. I mean not in Walnut Creek, but a few in the city. Definitely in LA.”
“You not like the beach?”
“It’s okay. My sister and brother like it.”
“When was the last time you’ve been?”
That required thinking. “A year ago,” I said. “It was an island. My parents have a friend who has a resort on an island and he invited us.”
“He owns a resort?” Matt was flabbergasted.
“If my dad had a friend who owned a beach resort on an island, I’d be there all the time. I’d be living there. Wow.”
“But before that, it was a long time. My parents went once, but I didn’t. I was scared.”
“Scared of what?”
“Sharks,” I said. “We saw ‘Jaws’ and after that, my parents, brother, and sister went to the beach.”
Matt laughed. “I can see why you’d be scared. That’s crazy, going to the beach after seeing ‘Jaws.’”
It was crazy, all right. In the morning of that day, I had been excited to have the house to myself. The cook cooked me lunch and prepared me a treat of melted butter and sugar on toasted bread. I was glued to a TV marathon of Loony Tunes. But when mid-afternoon hit, visions of “Jaws” haunted me: a shark blade slicing through the surface of the water; a decapitated leg sinking to the bottom of the sea; a naked girl clinging in a panic to an ocean buoy before being dragged underwater. The score of a wind instrument at a dirge-like pitch building momentum as the shark was about to make a kill chronically sounded in my head like a heart beat. I had just learned to read time. From the TV, I focused my attention to a table clock. 2:40… 3:00… 3:12…
What if a shark ate them?… What if Daddy lost a leg?…What if they’re never coming home?
At every car honk, at every zoom of a passing vehicle, I rushed to the window hoping to welcome my family home.
“I was being silly,” I said. “A shark didn’t eat anybody.”
“Good for you to have your family,” Matt said. “You’re way lucky.”
Matt and I sat silent, though the silence did not make me uncomfortable. Whatever impression of me Matt had formed, I was certain was good or else I would not have been there for that long.
Matt sprung to his feet. “Let me teach you something. Stand over there.” He pointed to a couple of yards in front of him. As I took my place, he said, “Use the inner side of your foot when you kick. Don’t kick with the tip of your toes.”
He rolled the ball to me. I did as he instructed. It didn’t seem natural. After the first two kicks, I reverted to kicking with the front of my foot. The ball didn’t flounder on the ground upon impact like an automobile sputtering for gasoline. It flew in the air.
“That’s good. Now really, really try it with the inner side of your foot.”
Why is Matt being so nice to me? So patient?
“Now I’ll kick and you catch. This is how you catch.” Matt brought his arms together to form a cradle. “It’s just a ball. It’s nothing to be scared of.”
And I did. I caught the ball once, twice, thrice.
When classes resumed, Matt was friendly, but not any friendlier than he had always been. He was more familiar with me – a few meals together, talks about current songs and movies. He talked sometimes about Tammy, comments about how she looked pretty on a certain day and how she gave a smart answer to a question on grammar, but he never gushed. That was the way he was, a loner.
“Matt should ask Tammy out for ice cream or something,” Billie said.
Billie and I were seated at our desk. She must have caught on to my watching Matt. He had finally gained the courage to sidle up to Tammy and to embark on a conversation. Billie was chewing gum, popping bubbles. Her breath smelled of grapes. Black bangs grew down to her eyes. It was recess, so Mrs. Baxter’s rule of no gum chewing was lifted.
“He’s totally cute. He can have any girl he wants,” Billie said. She examined me through her bangs to gauge my reaction. Her eyes were dark, dark as specks of black pepper. “If he asked me out, I’d so say yes. But…” She stalled.
“But what?” I asked.
“He’s too timid.”
A few tables in front of us, Tammy was flipping her blonde hair back, smiling. Matt, even though he was seated beside her, appeared closed into himself. He was slightly hunched. His hands on his lap were formed into fists.
“He says he likes Tammy, but I don’t know,” Billie said. “I sorta think he’s telling himself he does. I don’t know if he even likes girls at all.”
What was Billie saying? She continued peering at me through her bangs. She had an all-knowing expression in her eyes, as if she knew about me and something about Matt that he didn’t know himself.
“How can he not like girls?” I asked.
She looked at the other kids in class. “Rodney, I think, likes girls,” she said. Rodney was seated with the little blond boy everyone called Squirrel. They were reading a Batman comic book. “Squirrel I don’t think does. He talks like my uncle. I mean it’s cool. My uncle’s gay and it’s cool. Clayton might like girls, but girls don’t like him. He’s too fixated on his Miss South Carolina mother.”
“North Carolina,” I said.
“Whatever. He’ll probably still be living with his mother even when he’s an old man of, like, 40 or something.”
I chuckled and I doubted if I had heard her right about her uncle. Could it be true? A gay uncle?
“I just think that if Matt likes girls, he’d have a girlfriend by now, especially since Tammy likes him, too, I think.”
At 12? I thought boyfriends and girlfriends didn’t happen till high school.
Billie asked, “What do you think?”
“Me?” Whatever vision of gay I had, it wasn’t Matt. “I don’t know.”
“He’s cute, right?”
“I don’t know. I guess.”
Billie popped her bubble gum. “I’m glad you’re here,” she said.
She poked at a roll of my tummy protruding from a space in between my shirt buttons. “I like that you’re healthy.”
“Fat,” I said.
“Okay,” Billie said. “Fat. Does being fat bother you?”
I didn’t answer because, honestly, I didn’t know.
“If it doesn’t, then don’t sweat over it. If it does, then I’m sure you’ll do something about it. For now, I like that you’re fat. I like that you’re different. Everybody here comes from the same place and likes the same things. You’re from a place I have no idea about and you like the Bee Gees.”
“I don’t like the Bee Gees.”
“Yeah, you do. That’s great. I wish I could meet more people different like my uncle.”
There she was again about her gay uncle. Was I evidently that way? Try as I did, I couldn’t get my eyes off Matt. He was wearing a necklace – a thin black cord, as simple as that – yet it emphasized the girth of his neck. I had recently seen a neck like that in a TV Digest issue that featured a picture of Christopher Reeve in a Superman costume. His sculpted face atop a neck firm as a pillar hinted at the virility underneath the S emblazoned on his chest.
Billie seemed to have noticed what I was looking at because she directed her gaze at Matt, as well. “Maybe if I were blonde, he’d like me.” She stopped chewing gum, paused to rethink what she had just said. “Nah… I like being a brunette.”
I nodded at her. Between her and Tammy, I found her prettier. She was slim and rugged in a hippy chick way. Her form fitting tee shirt bore the image of David Bowie, whom I thought was a girl that looked like a boy. Her hair was not flipped Farrah style but unkempt in a fashion that bespoke ease rather than sloppiness. Plus, she was saying things I never imagined a girl would say and she was saying them to me.
“I’m glad to be here,” I said.
The summer allows for a child on the threshold of adolescence to experience a growth spurt, to have braces removed, to undergo some evolutionary transformation that serves as a rite of passage. For me, it was weight loss. Shortly before the end of sixth grade, I spent a day in San Francisco with my family. I had put special thought that morning on my attire: a new collared red shirt paired with a new pair of white pants. I chanced upon my reflection on a display window at Macy’s. A male mannequin in satin shoes was juxtaposed with the image of a belly protruding over a belt buckle. I tucked in my stomach. My belly remained protruding. Murky as the reflection was, my shirt was a bright red, my pants were a bright white, and my tummy was as round as a ball. Had I thought that morning that I looked good? I could have been Santa Claus’ son.
My plan to lose weight entailed this: no breakfast; an ice cream-sized scoop of rice rather than half a plateful; leaving the dining table hungry; a permanent omission of soft drinks. At school, I suffered from dizzy spells until lunch. At lunch, I never finished my food. I ate enough to silence the growl in my stomach, ate to moisten my mouth, which was constantly parched. The nausea commenced once more in the afternoons, and this I relieved with non-fat milk or non-fat yogurt, with anything that assured me on its nutrition label of its absence of fat. Once school was officially over, I had so grown accustomed to feeling light headed that the two and a half months of summer mowing the lawn to near collapse was normal to me. That was what dieting to me was about – starvation.
Seventh grade started in a new school, Foothill Junior High. By the fall, I had grown about an inch and had lost 20 lbs. Clayton Black and Matt were among those from Bancroft who enrolled at Foothill; Tammy, Billie, and Andrew were not. Matt had grown more than an inch and his walk, once marked by diffidence, had turned into a swagger. He appeared to be skipping over adolescence to manhood. No surprise there. The surprise was in Clayton. He still had blond bangs and long hair that covered his ears – a haircut that truly did make him resemble a dickhead – but he had done something over the summer that broadened his back and rendered his limbs less gangly.
Clayton and I had social studies class together. The classroom was divided into a set of three rows of chairs at one side of the room and a set of three rows at another. The sets of rows faced each other with the middle of the room left empty for the teacher to walk through during a lecture. I sat in the first row of one section while Clayton sat in the first row of the other, directly across from me. A map of the world hung on a wall along with images of a Japanese pagoda, Flamenco dancers, and all sorts of landmarks and costumes that identified a culture. Matt and I had no class together. Other than an occasional hi as we passed each other in the corridors, we had no opportunity to talk, no reason to. He found at Foothill the person he was meant to spend his days with.
In a rally introducing the incoming seventh graders, students gathered in the courtyard. Above a stage, the Foothill colors of purple letters in a gold frame spelled out the school’s name on a banner. The principal in suit and tie held a microphone. He had a waterfall of a mustache, cheeks plump and pink as though pinched by a wintry frost. After a speech welcoming the new school year, he brought to the stage blonde twin sisters wearing short skirts and carrying purple-gold pom-poms. Since Tammy was enrolled in another school, her blondeness provided no competition. The twins flashed toothy smiles and swirled their arms to “Born To Be Alive.” Their hair never fell into disarray. Their movements were synchronized. They were perfect.
A month later and for the rest of the semester, two of the best looking guys at Foothill were squiring the twins from their lockers to their classrooms, holding their hands and exchanging smiles with them across the lunch table. Those two guys were Matt and a red-headed footballer named Brian. Imagine Matt, his full lips and chiseled features, his strong neck and swagger, but with a nose aquiline in contrast to a pug nose and with complexion fair rather than tan, and you’ve got Brian. Matt and Brian sported the same haircut – buzzed at the sides and parted on the left – and both had a knack for lumberjack shirts and boots. When they walked in the corridors, people parted to make way. They didn’t notice anybody else, just each other. They were even oblivious to the blonde twins whose shoulders they wrapped their arms around. All at once, Matt’s and my greetings of hi ceased to be.
The one thing that was not changing was Clayton’s dislike of me. Our social studies teacher, Miss Webb, gave a lecture one day about tolerance. She was slim with a mullet haircut. She wore sandals and khakis rolled up at the hem as if she were going for a stroll on the beach. Although her hair was silver, she didn’t seem old. Her face was pale and as square as a marshmallow, and she spoke with a sing-song voice akin to that of a little girl.
“When you feel resentment for someone, stop yourself and try to think about that person and what kind of a life that person must have.” Miss Webb raised a finger to make a stop gesture. “Think about that person’s family, about all the people that person loves and who love that person back. That’s the one feeling we should all share – love, not hate.”
Nobody in class listened to Miss Webb as intently as Clayton. He listened with the temper of a rebellious teen, and he stared at me with a look of spite. With each mention of the word love, his eyes grew increasingly beady. The guy didn’t just dislike me. He hated me. Although in the classroom he was silent towards me, in the hallway the next day he was not.
“Hey, chink,” he said as he caught up with me on our way to social studies.
I didn’t say anything. Nobody had ever called me that. Even at Bancroft, Clayton had never called me that.
Clayton didn’t walk ahead. He kept pace with me. I maintained my stride, thinking that by doing so I would show indifference. But Clayton sensed that he had struck a weak spot in me; I was too earnest in avoiding eye contact with him. He, in the meantime, was forcing his face close to mine so that I could see the rancor in his eyes. This close to him, I noticed that he had grown in height. We had been shoulder to shoulder when at Bancroft. Though he was not nearly as tall as Matt, he was still tall.
“Chink,” he said again. He didn’t yell. He whispered. His whisper was as sinister as a snake’s hiss.
From then on, Clayton appeared to be everywhere I happened to be. Foothill was not a large school. Nevertheless, it had four doors leading to four different buildings that encircled the courtyard so that one would think I could avoid him. Yet wherever I was, he materialized out of nowhere. Even if at the cafeteria he was at the opposite end, I imagined his eyes on me. The rush of students crowding the campus could not serve as a barrier between the two of us.
Clayton had his chance to exert the full force of his intimidation upon me when he caught me alone in the boy’s restroom. I was occupying a urinal stall. It was during class time. The door to the restroom opened then slammed shut, and in the urinal stall beside me, Clayton said, “You shouldn’t be in here. You should be peeing in the bushes outside.”
I fumbled to zip up my pants. Never mind that droplets of urine were still coming out of me.
“Say something, chink. Don’t you have anything to say for yourself? You’re such a faggot.”
At the sink, I hurriedly washed my hands then wiped them dry. Then Clayton’s reflection appeared in the mirror. He seemed larger than he had been a mere week earlier. Freckles peppered a tan face and his hair was blonder than that of the cheerleader twins. It had a golden sheen. I could no longer avert my eyes from him. I was looking at Clayton the way I looked at Matt. It was a way of looking that was instinctual. I wasn’t conscious of it until Clayton sneered.
He knows about me, I thought.
If only Clayton were still the dickhead wimp in sixth grade, then I would not have been this helpless. I would have been able to identify a feeling I had for him as hate or disgust or disdain. Instead, I was lost. Matt had a winning personality to match his looks. To be attracted to Matt was natural, logical. Clayton was a jerk. Still, the image of him growing into the man he would someday be gave me a punch in the stomach.
“What are you staring at?” he taunted. He brought a hand close to my face. “Lick the piss off my fingers, you chink fag dog.”
Water was dripping from the sink faucet, producing a methodical tapping like the tic toc of a clock. The image of a penis was carved on a door to a toilet stall. The window was bolted shut. The opaque pane obliterated the world outside. Time seemed to stand still and I had nowhere to escape in order to move it forward.
Right then the restroom door opened and Matt stood at the threshold. Clayton turned to him with his hand frozen in the air, nearly touching my face. It looked as if Clayton were about to slap me.
“What are you doing, Clayton?” Matt said. He walked up to Clayton slowly, as sheriffs in cowboy films do when challenging an outlaw to a duel.
“What’s it to you?”
“Are you picking on him?”
They were so close that they blinked from the wisp of one another’s breath. Clayton looked up at Matt. His voice began to waver. His hand was shaking.
“He’s a chink,” he said.
Matt ticked him on the head. “And you’re a moron asshole. Leave him alone. Don’t ever go near him again.”
Clayton lowered his hand and he shook his head, not understanding Matt’s investment in me. I didn’t understand either. He left Matt and me alone.
“You all right?” asked Matt.
“Yeah,” I said.
I was hungry when I stepped out into the corridor. I would allow myself to be hungry past fall and into the winter. I couldn’t silence Clayton. I couldn’t control emotions of lust and love. I couldn’t will myself to grow taller. My ability to transform my body weight – that was the one aspect of my life over which I had absolute power. My neck became as delicate as my sister Andrea’s. My pants were so loose that pleats formed whenever I tightened my belt. No longer would anybody whisper “Buddha” behind my back nor would a button pop from my shirt due my stomach tearing through the seams.
After that incident in the boy’s restroom, I lost another ten pounds, making that a total loss of 30 pounds since the summer. I might have been on the verge of an eating disorder had my father not declared to the family over dinner that we were moving back to the Philippines. We would be leaving in January. The coming January marked not only a new year, but also a new decade: 1980. And although the Philippines was where I belonged, where we all belonged, it struck me as a new place because I would be returning a child no more but a teenager, a thin teenager. I could say that now, that I was thin. The pressure to mold myself into an image as American as Clayton and Matt lessened at last.
I never spoke to Matt again, but I was able to see him one more time outside of school. I was at a barbershop with my brother, Gordon, in a shopping complex adjacent to the park where Matt had taught me to kick a ball. Gordon was in the barber’s chair, an ankle on one knee. His platform shoes looked like a dumbell he was shaking with his foot as he flipped through an issue of Playboy. I tried to peek at the centerfold. He glared at me, then brought the magazine close to his face in order to block my view. I feigned disinterest and turned to the window.
There outside was Matt, in the parking lot with Brian. They were leaning on their bicycles. They were smiling and laughing. Sunlight washed over the tops of parked cars, reflected off nearby windows, brightened the pavement. The sun shone everywhere, but never as vibrantly as it did on those two handsome faces.
Matt and Brian stopped laughing. Their smiles changed from ebullient to wistful. They stood staring at each other for a moment. And then Matt ran his fingers through Brian’s hair to brush it in place, exactly the way my mother did to my father’s hair and still does.
Years later, several years later, the image of Matt and Brian would return to me as clearly as if I were witnessing it anew. Just as Manila became home to me once more, San Francisco would be, too. Here I would come back a decade later not a teenager, but an adult. Here I would make a life talking to audiences about films both old and new. Work a couple of years ago at a film society required that I research on the early years of the AIDS epidemic in the Bay Area for a documentary to be screened. I was on the computer, reading back issues of a newspaper called Bay Area Reporter. Hundreds of obituaries of those who had fallen to the disease populated its pages since 1982. The obituaries were categorized alphabetically according to the last names of the victims: A, B, C, D… and that was when I came across his.
Matthew di Giorgio (June 5, 1967-September 20, 1996) died peacefully surrounded by friends and family at his home, overlooking a view of sailboats underneath the Golden Gate Bridge. Matt coached soccer to youths in the Mission, flew kites at the Marina, and every Sunday hiked to the top of Twin Peaks. He was most alive when close to the water and the sky. He adored Dolly Parton, crispy shelled tacos, and soft rain on windows. Matt leaves behind his father Fred di Giorgio, partner Alex Dalton, and his one-eyed pet beagle Mr. Snoop Dog. Sweet sailing, beautiful man. We shall meet again.
I have often wondered what had become of Matt. When I turned 20, 30, 40 the question was there. So it was, as well, upon the dawning of the new millennium.
It is now 2011 and I am 44. Only two years ago did I learn that Matt’s life stopped at 29. That I had believed Matt had been experiencing life’s milestones at the same time as I when in actuality he had been dead was tantamount to having believed in a lie.
Beautiful man. The accompanying photograph showed that in manhood Matt had fulfilled the promise of his boyhood good looks. More than that – his eyes and his smile radiated the tenderness that I had seen in them when he had brushed Brian’s hair with his fingers. Had I actually been craning my neck to glimpse at the Playboy in Gordon’s hands? What I would have missed had Gordon allowed me full view of air-brushed breasts. What I wish I had said to Matt when I saw him through the window.
“Hey, Matt,” I should have said to him. “Clayton doesn’t pick on me anymore. Thank you.”
I should have said, “I’m going back to the Philippines. You know, the place where lizards crawl on walls and my father has a friend who owns an island resort. The place where kids don’t ride bikes and don’t play ball.
I should have said, “I love you.”
“Turn on the record player.”
Myrna was telling Rey what to do while he sat on her bed at the bottom bunk, rummaging through a white valise in which Myrna kept photographs and jewelry. The photos were of past families that had employed her, and the jewels were presents from those families for services rendered. Among a pair of glass earrings, a porcelain locket, and gold plated trinkets was a jade bracelet wrapped in silk that Rey’s mother had given the other day upon her return from Hong Kong. His mother always gifted a little something to the help from her business travels – Statue of Liberty key chains from the United States, wallets from Japan woven out of rice paper – although this time she presented Myrna something exceptionally nice: a semi-precious stone with a 24-karat gold lock. This raised envious eyebrows among the three other maids, whose bracelets were carved from bone. Still, they understood; Myrna was leaving. Rey rewrapped the bracelet, tucked it back into the space where he had found it, and shut the valise.
“I don’t want. I want to swim some more.”
As Rey lay his head on her pillow, Myrna looked up from the ironing board and out the window of the room she shared with the laundry woman, whose chores she had taken on that afternoon since the laundry woman was on her day-off. Swimming was out of the question. Shrubs and flowers that lined a wall directly across the pool were dry. Some hibiscuses and begonias were cowering beneath those on tall stems as if for shade and protection, while those exposed to the sun were at a threat of wilting. The glare of day reflected on the water, creating a blanket of haze. As for the ground itself, it was impossible to step on barefoot. Earlier that day, Rey had to hop because he complained he felt as though he were walking on a grill. If she sent the boy out there again, even for a moment, the sun would scald him. He had been outdoors, in the pool, for the past week. Toast brown, Rey was peeling dry skin off his face and throwing flakes to the floor. Even the flies couldn’t tolerate the hotness. They were crowding at the base of the window, scrambling to rip through the screen and enter the room.
“No. Your mommy will get mad. Five days you have been swimming. Look at yourself. You are like burnt rice.”
His mother wouldn’t be angry; of this, Rey was certain. Her main concern was his safety, and this she had felt secured of so long as Myrna would be there to watch over him. Now, however, she was seeing things as Rey did. Rey found no logic to his mother’s former sense of assurance. Myrna couldn’t swim, not even doggy paddle, and in the off chance of an accident, he’d be at the bottom of the pool, long gone by the time she could find someone to rescue him. Whom could she call on anyway? None of the maids knew how to swim. Neither did the old gardener. No matter. To satisfy his mother, Rey had learned in the past year that Myrna wasn’t entirely helpless as a lifeguard. On a summer day such as this, he pretended to be drowning, splashing and dipping his head underwater then rising to the surface to gasp for air. Myrna picked up a net pole. Strategically positioned by the pool, the net was one the gardener used every morning to collect fallen leaves adrift on the water. She extended it to Rey. With a laugh, Rey tugged. Myrna held back. He tugged again so that for an instant they were playing tug-of-war.
“I cannot swim!”
Myrna screamed as she fell in, convinced she was about to breath her last, until she was on her feet with the water level at her shoulders. She discovered that Rey was doggy paddling and that his own toes touched the pool floor. They also both realized that she could simply wade to his aid. Myrna got out. Droplets dripped from the hem of her apron and her hair, the wetness of which gave it the luster of black marble. She had been incensed at Rey for this prank, but today she grinned at the memory of it; in appeasing his mother, Rey had proven a point. What a joy to know that Rey was at last able to think for and look after himself, a far cry from seven years ago when his mother had hired her as his yaya. She also thought it all very sad, sad that he could do without a lifeguard.
“Burnt rice. Yuck!”
Lying on her bed, Rey was growing restless. He swung his legs up so that he could run his toes across the metal meshes to the top bunk. He often did that, swing his legs up when restless, but he had not been able to reach the top bunk until now.
“Do as I say.”
She folded towels and arranged them in a pile by the record player, on a table beside the ironing board.
“I want to swim.”
He bent his lower back forward even further and thrust his legs up even higher for his feet to reach the upper edge of the top bunk.
“Then you swim, but I am not watching you because I have all these to iron.”
Taken aback by Myrna’s exasperation, Rey flung his feet to the floor and approached the record player. He shuffled through record singles in a plastic dish rack. Though many of them were warped, he found one in good condition; it was of Myrna’s favorite song. He blew dust off its surface before setting it on the player platter. The first time he had heard Myrna sing the song was when he had lost a pair of his upper front teeth in a fight. Since they were his permanents, the dentist needed to reinsert them. As the pierce of a syringe needle numbed his gums with anesthesia, he shut his eyes, allowing Myrna’s voice to sooth him, and from then on, she would sing the song to him whenever his mother would leave for her travels. He’d run into her room, where he’d sit on her bed, and he’d watch her file her nails or comb her hair. Myrna took pride in her hair. It was long and silky, and she pampered it as she did her jewelry. She had dainty hands, too, hands that when she used to slip socks onto his feet or button his shirt, her touch had been tender. Sometimes, Rey would eat a meal with her. Sometimes, they would do nothing more than gaze out the window. That song would be the only communication between them. And so, it had become Rey’s favorite, too:
The time is near to say our last goodbye. Forever you will be deep inside my heart. In time the hours will pass, dear, and you won’t remember how I love you so. To leave you now is hard but must be done.
Upon the start of the record, Myrna pulled a blouse from the laundry basket and proceeded to press the collar. Rey stood in front of the window, face to face with her. She noticed that he was as tall as she. No doubt, in a few months, he’d be even taller.
The time is near to say our last goodbye.
“But you’re supposed to watch.”
For Myrna to repeat her final word of “no” was unnecessary. It was still sweltering outside, and flies that clustered together on the screen had increased. She could sense the sun’s fire, no matter that Rey blocked her view. Ignoring him, she sang to the record and started on a sleeve.
Forever you will be deep inside my heart.
“I know. You can watch me while ironing, okay? Right here. No need to be out there with me. Okay?”
Myrna was losing her temper, only when she saw Rey’s eyes beneath bangs beg her approval and the eagerness in his clenched teeth, a heavy weight befell her. Although she might still have been at the age where she could bear children of her own, she had dedicated her life early on to raising those of others, and in all the years since, she experienced no other kind of love; certainly, none like this. The others had had siblings with whom to laugh and play, whereas with Rey, Myrna had been his one and only. He would never again plead with her as he was pleading with her now. She nodded her consent. As he ran out the room, Myrna retrieved the valise from underneath her bed, took out the jade bracelet, and slipped it onto her wrist. She would treasure the bracelet for a long time after, even when she’d be working for another family, tending to another child. In two weeks, she was going back to the province for a rest before commencing on a new job of raising another little boy. He was five, Rey’s age when she had started with him. How long would she be with this one? As long as she would have been with Rey? Less?
In time the hours will pass, dear, and you won’t remember how I love you so.
Rey stepped into the sun. As he took off his shirt, Myrna noticed that he had lost much of his baby fat. As always, she waited for him to turn to her, to check that she was watching. He usually yelled, “Myrna, look. I’m jumping in now.” She set down the iron in anticipation of that moment and tapped the window for the flies to disperse so that he could see her face more clearly. But Rey didn’t turn around and merely flung aside his towel, raised his arms, and dove into the pool.
To leave you now is hard but must be done… must be done… must be done… must be done…
Eyes on him, Myrna heard nothing – not the water splashes, not the buzzing of flies that gathered back on the screen, not the song. The sun’s torridity no longer bothered her. It never had. She was aware solely of the speed Rey had developed in his swimming. The pool wasn’t that long, but he seemed ever smaller upon each stroke, almost disappearing the farther he went. Soon enough he was headed back towards her. Maybe, upon reaching the pool wall, he’d stop and smile. But he never did do so. Instead, he performed an underwater somersault and swam away once again.
must be done… must be done… must be done…
The iron elicited a steaming hiss. At once, Myrna remembered her chores. She buttoned the blouse, impeccably pressed as though brand new, on a hanger which she then placed on a clothes rack. She pulled out a pair of trousers from the laundry basket, set it on the ironing board, and was about to press a leg when she noticed the last line to the song was constantly repeating. Turning off the record player, she examined the record. A scratch as fine as a strand of white hair marred the black smoothness of its surface. With a little bit of regret, the record in hand, she uttered:
“It could not have lasted forever.”
So Myrna returned the record to its space in the dusty dish rack, among all the other broken records of the past.
In the after rain mist, moonlight shone through the window and cast her in a silver sheen. For three decades, Timothy had yearned for this moment. He had kept Sharon’s phone number and address from when they had parted tucked underneath a box of cufflinks. What’s the point? he would think just when he was that close to picking up the phone or writing a letter. Time wore on, and Timothy kept her contact merely as a souvenir.
Then came Facebook. Although they weren’t connected as friends (the wife had a habit of monitoring his account), in the ten years since he had messaged Sharon, they communicated by e-mail in ways that at first were platonic, mostly birthday well-wishes. Timothy could never forget Sharon’s birthday; they were born two days apart in the same year. Facebook informed him that she was single and worked as real estate broker in Los Angeles. Images of a woman dressed in either a summer frock or leotards, trim from a lifestyle of cycling in the company of her twin son and daughter both in their mid-teens, populated her wall. Sharon’s hair was still dark, but grown to the length of her shoulders. She wore bangs, too. Timothy had remembered Sharon with a pixie cut. She used to be proud of how the cut accentuated a graceful neck.
The photo postings gave Timothy vivid scenes with which to imagine this night. Now that it was happening, Sharon was even more beautiful in person. Age had replaced the softness of her features with a linear sharpness, and crow’s feet formed when she smiled. Timothy didn’t care just as Sharon didn’t care about the change in him. His girth had ballooned on account of an addiction to Coca Cola, his white hair was thinning, and bags under his eyes were as pronounced as a coin split in half imbedded in his flesh.
“Your mom’s liver pâté,” Sharon said.
“Your mom’s liver pâté.”
In a bathrobe, her legs curled up in a chair in front of the window, Sharon smiled as if she had just declared her love. Everything she had been saying the whole night seemed to connote love. So soft was her voice.
“In case you’re wondering, the magic ingredients are cognac and tabasco sauce,” Timothy said.
The sheets were still warm from the heat of her body. He sat up and rested his back on the headboard.
“What about the jelly layering on top?”
“I don’t know. Dried up duck lard. Or whatever it is pâté is made of.”
“You know your mom’s liver pâté was one of the most delicious things I’ve ever eaten.”
He saw Sharon as she had been when she had taken that first bite – the meticulousness with which she chewed, the delight in her eyes. They had been at his place, seated in the back porch. The sun brightened an adobe floor. She wore a pink blouse with a lace collar and cotton ball sleeves. Girl or woman, he didn’t know what to peg her. Her carriage – the straight back and high head – endowed her with an elegance beyond her years, yet how demure she was. By the way she marveled at the explosion of leaves on the garden trees and the blue flowers that blossomed in shrubs lining the porch, Timothy would have thought she had never ventured beyond the gates of her home other than to go to school. She had been with Timothy on that afternoon because their fathers golfed together.
“You impressed my mother,” he said.
“She was always nice to me. And your father, too. I’m still so sorry about your mom.”
“You were one of the first to send your condolences.”
The digital clock on the night table indicated the passing of another minute. Timothy never realized until then how cruel a digital clock could be. Bold numbers on a lit screen shouted the time.
“She remembered you in the end,” he said.
“She was lying there, about to go. Linda and my dad were out of the hospital. It was just my mom and me, and out of the blue, she said, ‘Tell Sharon hello.’ That was it.”
“That’s a lot.”
“She wished… as did my dad… the same thing I wish. I wish I had married you.”
Timothy had been wanting to tell Sharon this. He almost did in a moment of grief over his mother a few years ago, and then decided no, not by e-mail. This was something for which he needed to witness the look in Sharon’s eyes, to feel her nearness.
Sharon turned to the window. Rain drops on the pane brightened by the dawn glow resembled fragments of broken glass.
“I wish I had married you, too,” she said.
‘“What could have been.”
“Don’t you wonder?”
“Not anymore. Wondering is pointless.”
Sharon was right. No sense in discussing what had been the inevitable. Timothy had gotten into a decent college, whereas she was ivy league bound. Thus, they separated, their promise of fidelity despite being apart coming to naught.
“Sometimes I wonder what’s real,” Timothy said. “Like now. Now you’re here, but once the sun rises…”
“Well, last night really happened. My feet still hurt. Dancing in heels… You’re lucky you don’t have to endure a woman’s torture.”
Their song: “Do You Want to Hurt Me?” by Culture Club. He liked Madonna. She liked Cyndi Lauper. With Culture Club, they were unanimous. They had danced to the song for the first time on their senior prom. How pretty Sharon had been in a slip gown the hue of cream and a pink carnation he had pinned onto her bodice. They wouldn’t dance to the song until 30 years later, in a high school reunion where she was still the prettiest girl, her dress the red of dynamite and roses.
Timothy had declined attendances to past reunions, only this one was an exception. Sharon had e-mailed him that she’d be going, and now that he lived in the East Coast, he felt that it would be good to go back to the city where they had built their early memories; it had been too long. Even so, until last night, Timothy had had his doubts. Sharon could back out without informing him. Or she might show up after all, and he might never want to return home.
Home… what was home? A bombed business venture Linda was griping over and three kids, two boys in high school and a girl who came back every summer and Christmas during college breaks.
Amazing, he thought as Sharon massaged her feet. Hours earlier, she had been an irresistible, dangerous flower that upon her entrance had brought the hotel ballroom to a hush. Timothy at 15 would never have foreseen Sharon to grow into such a stunner. She had not stood out for him those first days in social studies class their sophomore year. Though Sharon was cute, she was to him just another of the uppity girls who barely talked. Matters changed on the day the class discussed childhood ailments. Sharon said she hadn’t gotten the mumps yet, which elicited a gasp from Timothy, who had read that failure to have the mumps by adolescence could cause sterility. He whispered this to the guy seated behind him, then waved his hand in the air to share the information with the class. “Don’t,” the guy said, pushing down Timothy’s hand. “You’ll embarrass that girl.” At last, Timothy noticed Sharon, really noticed – the shy bow of the head; the eyes that brimmed with curiosity; the hands, delicate with slim fingers – and he thought how sad if she couldn’t have a family of her own. And he wondered what kind of a woman she’d be in her twenties. Amazing that the two of them would now be in the same hotel room in their middle age, a history of a broken romance uniting them.
“You look great,” Timothy said.
Sharon smiled a soft smile and slipped off her bathrobe. Stealthy as a panther, she crawled on the bed, her back to the window. “You’re as handsome as ever.”
“Only you would see that.”
She looked at him questioningly.
He could read her thoughts. Didn’t his wife see that he was handsome? But none of Linda right now, not until sunrise. Night was meant for dreams.
Her head on a hand propped up by her elbow, Sharon lay on her side. Timothy ran a hand over her body, from the shoulders to the waist, from the hips to the ankles, memorizing the curves, the softness of skin. She had a faint scar from a cesarean operation, noticeable only when one got that close. The doctor who delivered his second born hadn’t done a good job on Linda. Hers was jagged, a pink zipper. He would kiss the scar to show Linda that he still found her beautiful. When was the last time he had kissed her there?
Rain drops on a window, the moon aglow in a velvet sky… Timothy could not have hoped for a more romantic setting. He had cajoled Sharon into their spending the night in her room rather than his because he didn’t want his personals to distract him. They would have reminded him of Linda, starting with his suitcase… she had bought it… just as she had chosen the frame to his reading glasses, which were positioned on a book she had recommended, some self-help guide about inspiration and faith in oneself. Both items were on the night table next to his phone that could ring at any minute with her on the other end. Suppose it was ringing right now? What excuse would he have for not having picked up?
“I see those Elvis Presley cheekbones,” Sharon said.
“I see Ann-Margret,” Timothy said.
“They had an affair, didn’t they?”
“On the set of ‘Viva Las Vegas.’ Those sexy hips of hers. That body. I don’t blame him.”
“I read she was the love of his life.”
“Funny how that works out. The love of your life is not the one you marry.”
“Ann-Margret.” Sharon blushed. “I’m flattered.”
How girlish Sharon was. Her stomach was firm and her neck was as delicate as a bird’s, as if she were in perennial youth. The California culture of outdoor activities, veganism, and trail mixers suited her. Timothy was hooked on sugar and fried foods, as was Linda, and being with her was all about indulgence. Brown rice disgusted him, and chicken breast made Linda scoff. Timothy found all this amusing at the moment. Girth notwithstanding, he was in bed with a woman who boasted a physique that could ignite any man’s desire. She was crazy about him, too, she the most feminine creature he had ever touched.
As Timothy fondled Sharon’s toes, he noticed the dim outline of a suitcase on a stand at the foot of the bed. Gray with grooves lining its edges, it resembled a steel block. A black travel bag sat on the suitcase. A pen, a notepad, and other office paraphernalia no doubt occupied its outer pockets. Such industrial designed baggage conjured the vision of a man in suit and tie, his face in shadows under the brim of a fedora hat, lost among a throng of businessmen dressed in the same code of anonymity. Sharon used to have a penchant for frills and ribbons. Their sophomore year, she would walk the corridors in ballet shoes with lace bows and a pink Hello Kitty binder in her arm.
“What are you thinking?” asked Sharon.
“Of you,” Timothy said. “At work… what do you wear to work?”
“A woman’s business suit.”
“Padded shoulders. What was that look called again?”
“The power suit. No. That was the ‘80s. Women today dress strong, but in a different way.”
Her clients were Hollywood big wigs, rock stars, and celebrated athletes – this movie producer, the manager of that famous singer, so and so and his supermodel girlfriend.
“You must be exceptional at what you do,” Timothy said.
“You’re being modest.”
“I’m good enough.”
She did it all by herself, he thought.
At once, he had an image of her behind a huge desk in an office with black leather chairs and a floor to ceiling window that provided a view of the Los Angeles skyline, buttons to press and automated drawers. He saw her alone, her own boss at work as much as she was at home, and he wondered if trust and competition could possibly coexist between her and the other real estate agents, what with salaries dependent on sales commissions.
Trust had cost Timothy his business. He had set up a marketing firm with his closest friend, who had double-crossed him by luring their clients to a firm of his own he had been operating on the sly. A year had passed. Thanks to his father’s financial assistance, he managed to retain their house and keep the kids in school, although Linda wouldn’t stop referencing the debacle: “You’re not good with money… I’ll set our budget… We can’t afford this anymore…” Now he was back to a desk job in a bank where his superiors never delivered on promises of a promotion.
A drizzle started outside. The drops against the window were soundless, yet in his mind Timothy could hear the pitter patters as murmurs infiltrating a dream, summoning him to awake.
“Your kids look so like you,” he said, focusing on that face. “It’s as if a husband wasn’t involved.”
“Jack’s actually a great father. Mike was a fantastic step-father. Still is. He remains a part of my kids’ lives. I’m on decent terms with them, Jack and Mike. I’m grateful for that. I’ve been lucky.”
Jack and Mike. Of course, Sharon must have mentioned their names; Timothy just didn’t think they had been worth remembering. What standard, all-American names Jack and Mike were. Both evoked hot dogs and baseball and a two-car garage to a two-story house, the entire package of wholesome, masculine stability that women married for.
“Your kids,” said Sharon. “I can’t tell. A little bit of both you and Linda, I guess.”
“Tough to tell because they’re all thin and in shape.”
Timothy laughed. The disparity in weight between his kids and both Linda and him was a gag. Sandra, the eldest, was on her third year at Vassar, working towards a degree in anthropology while earning an income as an aerobics instructor. Timothy, Jr. was gangly and constantly on the go, hurrying through breakfast, rushing out the door, running to catch up with his friends. Greggy was only 15 and already he had a voice that awed, one that filled the driveway with melody as he’d shoot a basketball. Fitness aside, eating was a merry family affair. Pork chops, meatloaf, chocolate cake… they splurged on it all.
Sharon wouldn’t survive a meal with his kids. She’d go hungry. At the reunion, she didn’t drink wine because apparently wine contained meat products, and she spent more time separating the cheese from the salad than filling her fork. Linda was an excellent cook. Her fettuccine alfredo was the best, the sauce creamy as vanilla ice cream and the bacon baked to a crisp. And she inherited the recipe to his mom’s liver pâté. Sharon today would most likely refuse even one finger scoop.
“From what I see on Facebook, your kids seem strong willed,” Sharon said. “I can tell by the way they look at the camera, so sure and confident.”
“Maybe it’s an age thing, this sureness that you can do anything,” said Timothy. “You were that way, and also so meek.” He had difficulty dissociating her from the color pink.
“I was in love. For you, I went to college to discover how I could be the best of myself.”
“You were also an A student. You could not have passed on Cornell University, and your parents realized that, too.”
“You wanted me to go.”
“You were meant to go. You earned your way there.”
“You were always my best cheerleader, Tim.”
“This place is for those who settle down. I only got into Pepperdine because of your help with nearly all my homework.”
“You sound 18 again, underestimating yourself.”
How did a man respond to that? “Uhuh.”
“Tennis,” Linda said.
“You were great in tennis. You used to compete. You had the strongest legs ever, calf muscles to die for.”
“Now we’re really going back in time.”
“Well… do you still play?”
Timothy paused for an instant. “Not since I broke an ankle.”
“I forgot about that.”
He had not forgotten, but he hardly remembered either. The mere mention of it brought back the refulgence of bright bulbs and white walls. Timothy was a week to graduating from Pepperdine when a fall in a tennis court brought him to an emergency room. Half the glass paneling to the ceiling lights was missing, and the brilliance of his surroundings made him dizzy, aggravating the pain in his right ankle. Then in walked a woman in an orderly uniform, that weird color of not quite green and not quite blue, and Timothy thought: She looks like something out of an aquarium. He saw the face, and he saw that it was young and pretty – full cheeks and eyes the brown of nature. They talked of mundane stuff, where they had gone to high school and where they had grown up. She was a small town girl in training to be a nurse practitioner. He was a city boy deliberating on what car his parents should gift him for graduation. Timothy saw her again days after for physical therapy and then on many occasions outside of the hospital.
A pregnancy, a return to his folks for the security of home, a shot gun marriage, and a stillborn… he could have left Linda, begged Sharon for a reconciliation, but no, not with Linda in that condition, her head prostrate and their child cradled in her arms, in a hospital bed as tears fell on the lifeless body. A second pregnancy brought them the premature birth of Sandra. Every day for the months that Sandra was in an incubator, Linda clutched Timothy by the arm as they watched their daughter’s chest heave upon each breath. What a sight Sandra was, fragile as a puppy in a bubble of a box, bundled up in an oversized diaper. Linda laid her head on his shoulder. “We’ve grown stronger together in these four years,” she whispered into his ear. “Imagine how much more in the next four. I need you.”
But did he need her?
“You should pick up tennis again,” Sharon said.
“Yeah,” said Timothy. “You’re right. I really don’t know why I dropped it.”
The drizzle outside stopped. Stars strewed the sky as diamonds sparkling beneath still waters.
“I think it’s going to be a sunny morning,” Sharon said.
A faint light shone behind her head, a halo.
“I think you’re right.”
Timothy shut his eyes. This was the vision of Sharon he would carry with him till his last breath.
“What did you think would happen with our meeting up again,” Sharon asked, “after a lifetime apart?”
“I don’t know.”
The digital clock timed off another minute. The gray suitcase and black bag on top focused in form upon the lifting dawn.
“Maybe exactly this,” Timothy said.
“What is this?”
“You tell me.”
Sharon placed her head on a pillow and caressed his cheek. “The sun hasn’t risen yet,” she said.
Her name was Pauline, but she went by Paule. She would frequently mention to Louie that if ever they had a daughter, they must give the child a male sounding eponym such as Toni or Billie, a name in which the spelling alone identified the gender of its bearer. A feminine twist to anything masculine pleased Paule… she wore men’s button-down shirts with the hem knotted at the midriff and tied her pony tail in men’s handkerchiefs… which was why in college she had added the “e” to her self-designated nickname; from a practical perspective, the “e” had saved confusion among professors whose relationship with her had been limited to essay assignments and exams. Paule was young and smart and pretty, and her husband would wonder what might have been had she had a long life.
Paule Mercado had attended Smith College. A higher education in America was a natural course for a girl who had been enrolled at international schools in three different countries, the last having been high school in the Philippines. Her major: Women and Gender Studies. A law degree from Columbia University added to her resumé, followed by a stint as a paralegal, during which she met Louie
“She was alone at the luggage claim and so was I,” Louie said to his brother, more as a verbalization of his memory than as an account. “I helped grab her luggage from the conveyor belt. She had two suitcases, and they were heavy. What a long flight that was.”
“For you it was long,” said Ron. “You were flying from Los Angeles to Manila with a stop-over in Tokyo. She boarded the plane in Tokyo.”
Louie stared at Ron, taken off guard. He didn’t recall ever providing Ron this detail. Even more odd was Ron’s pristine appearance. Hair slick, black suit tailor sleek, and a tan as if he had just come from the beach, Ron was dressed more for a dinner function than a funeral. Louie himself normally equaled his brother in sartorial sharpness… both boasted a trim waist and broad shoulders that any article of clothing complimented… only on this day wet spots darkened his arm pits, and he was mindless that his coat, which he had intended to toss behind him on the sofa, had landed on the floor.
Air-conditioner notwithstanding, the study room was stuffy. Three generations of Tolentinos covered the walls, from grandfather Teodoro Tolentino in a handshake with General Douglas MacArthur to his progenies and grandchildren at various stages in life. Turbaned warriors astride horses that decorated a Persian carpet rendered the floor a chaotic battleground. Mementos cluttered table tops: a silver dagger gifted from the Sultan of Brunei, honorary plaques, pocket-size ivory perfume bottles from China…
Although Louie and Ron never knew their grandfather, images of a bulldog scowl behind a whiff of cigar smoke rooted the man’s presence on this block in an old district of Manila. A mere handful of neighboring mansions from the pre-war days, when the Philippines was still an American colony, remained standing. Like eye sockets in decomposing skulls, their glassless windows opened into dark spaces. On the street, ignition pipes to vehicles that jammed bumper to bumper coughed black smoke, weeds sprouted through pavement cracks, and trash overflowed from a garbage barrel in front of a McDonald’s.
As the other families established a new neighborhood across the city, in a section that in the years after the war became the commercial center with hotels and banks lining thoroughfares, Louie’s and Ron’s father maintained Grandpa Tolentino’s vision of a family estate that would endure for generations. Modeled after an Italian villa, the house surrounded a courtyard. An inner gallery on the second level overlooked a Tuscan fountain amid bougainvillea plants in perennial bloom, and down a grassy slope from the outer facade, a stone wall as thick as a fortress rampart severed the outside world.
Paule had instantly fallen under its spell. She had given up a career in New York for this. Despite marriage, she had busied herself as a freelance writer, penning magazine and newspaper articles on the latest happenings in the Philippines that ranged from architecture to politics. She was in the works on producing a talk show so that, through TV, she could gain an even wider audience.
Success hadn’t hindered Paule’s desire for a family. Quite the contrary – success bolstered it. Both Louie and she were ready; they had been married for two years.
“She was alone at the luggage claim and so was I,” Louie repeated.
“You sound like you had been cursed to a life of solitude until she came along.” Ron said.
“No, you were not.”
“If I wasn’t, then now I certainly am.”
“Oh, please, Louie. Don’t be so dramatic.”
Louie could have grabbed his younger brother by the collar from across the coffee table and slugged him. Such daftness was crude. Could Ron actually be trivializing Paule’s death? The coroner attributed it to an allergic reaction to peanuts, an accident. Louie and she had been dining at an Indian restaurant they frequented, the proprietor of which was a family friend. The kitchen staff could not have been so clumsy as to overlook such a grave dietary restriction; of this, Louie was certain.
“Gago ka,” he said to Ron in Tagalog, which he only spoke when vexed, though Ron hardly took him seriously on such moments, particularly on an insult of being stupid, for stupid, he was not.
“You will never be alone,” said Ron.
“You will never understand.
“I do. I understand very well. It’s you who doesn’t.”
“What don’t I understand? Go ahead. Tell me.”
“You didn’t love her.”
“You didn’t, Louie.”
Ron spoke with a tone part all-knowing, part plea. And his eyes, earnest as those of a puppy, gave him a hungry look. He had had that expression his entire life. No, Louie couldn’t punch him. He had never punched anybody.
“On what basis do you insult me with that claim,” he said, “insult the memory of my wife? She has been buried a few hours, and the last mourner has just left this house. How dare you.”
“And now we’re sharing a bottle of red wine, just the two us, just like old times.”
“Your car was at the restaurant parking lot.”
“Sometimes I like to drop by to say hello to the chef.”
“You doused our food with peanut oil.
“I can report you to the police.”
Ron bowed his head as though he were a kid scolded for his mischief. “You think they’d do anything?”
“I could pay them to lock you up.”
“I could pay them even more to set me free.”
And therein was a bickering between the brothers that persisted since childhood: the older threatening to incriminate, the younger challenging the threat, and neither acting beyond words. They were never this way with their sisters and third brother, who five years Ron’s junior and married with his own kids, had always been an outsider, no matter that he lived on the estate. Noel didn’t share their memories of their mother. By the time he was a toddler, she was out of the house, shacking up with another man. As for sisters Diana and Claudia – the former being the eldest and the latter born between Louie and Ron – they were more attached to their father to heed their mother’s attention. Or ire. Their mother had been a drunk who would lash out at Ron, a belt or a stiletto her weapon of choice, while Louie would sacrifice himself as his brother’s shield.
Louie nearly laughed for mentioning jail. He felt as a fool did after cracking a bad joke. Ron had no sense of severity. He had been a weird child. An affinity for his sister’s Barbies, fruit scented stickers, and tutus aside, he stuffed anything in his mouth from his buggers to bits of Styrofoam that packaged Louie’s model war planes and match box cars. So that he’d stop, Louie would warn that he’d tell on him to their mother. The more he warned, the more daring Ron became in his attempts to digest the inedible. Ron went so far as to nibble on soil and smother soot on walls. That Louie kept mum regardless turned into a matter of the boy crying wolf. Such a provocateur was Ron. And what would provoke their mother to fits of violence could be as minor an act as refusing to sit when told to do so.
“Do as she wants,” Louie would urge.
Yet Ron would remain recalcitrant, his eyes wide, neck stiff, and mouth agape in mimicking an exclamation point. The kid might as well have been watching a TV melodrama. He seemed to glee at the sight of a beautiful woman gone hysterical, for their mother was beautiful, astonishingly so. Even Louie, upon her every snap, felt a tremor at the dichotomy between a visage alabaster lustrous, one with coral pink lips and eyes the brown of russet stone, and the ugliness fulminating beneath.
Ron was five when their mother first took a shoe to him and Louie was nine. Louie didn’t ask Ron what he had done; it had never crossed his mind to. They were in the playroom. Prints of Disney characters hung on the walls. Their mother had just given birth to Noel, and his crying permeated the house non-stop. Through the door, Louie overheard an exchange of words between their mother and father, while around him, Peter Pan, Pinocchio, and Sleeping Beauty were depicted in dire situations with Captain Hook, Stromboli, and Maleficent respectively: a sword fight, incarceration, and eternal sleep upon the prick of a finger on a spindle needle. Being scenes from a fairy tale, they attested that wickedness existed exclusively in the realm of make believe, and always as something vanquishable
The image of their father as the door opened would be the predominant image that would stick with Louie over the decades, overshadowing even that of the man tied to tubes in a cancer ward three years ago. Their father had replicated Ron’s exclamation point stance, only with more austerity. He possessed a voice the rumble of a bull dozer and a build sturdy as a stone pillar.
Upon entering the playroom, their mother appeared to be dipped in champagne, a sheen to her golden gown the effervescence of the liquor she often imbibed. From down the hall, Noel’s wailing trailed their mother, strident and deafening. Ron was on his stomach, on the floor, perusing an alphabet book. Sudden as lightning, their mother with shoe in hand struck his behind… once… twice… thrice…and then Louie, who had been sitting beside Ron, positioned himself on top of his brother so that his own backside received the blows. Protecting his younger brother was a natural impulse, one instilled in Louie by the Tolentino creed of family sacredness with which the ancestral images imbued the house.
Amid Louie’s tears, Ron kissed the welts on his brother. He would always nurse his brother this way, and long after their mother left, through high school and during Louie’s college breaks, the two would continue to sleep in one room; sometimes, just as on nights that thunder had frightened Ron as a child, in one bed.
Before the night she died, Paule had returned in the early afternoon from Hong Kong. She would frequently fly there due to its proximity to Manila, and shopping was such that Hong Kong had been ideal for updating her wardrobe. With a public persona in mind, she was especially particular about her clothing on this last voyage, inspired by the likes of Marlene Dietrich and Charlize Theron, movie stars celebrated for their elegance yet who knew how to feminize a tuxedo. Theirs was an image utterly Western in its aesthetics. “Female debonair,” Paule called such a look. Every detail to her, from the length of a black skirt to the red stitches on a white corporate shirt, was crucial.
To Ron, Louie said of his wife, “She’s a modern fixture amid these antiques.”
“She’s beautiful,” Ron said, “no doubt about that.”
The brothers were in the study, the sole room in the house where they could be alone. Diana and Claudia lived with their husbands in the commercial center, while Noel and his wife occupied a wing at the opposite end of the house, one decked with photos of his own brood. Paule herself didn’t care much for the study; it was too steeped in the past. “So many strangers on the walls,” she had told Louie on their wedding night. “Makes me feel that I’m intruding.”
In the courtyard below, Paule was instructing the gardener on where to position a collection of orchid tree limbs. Louie had ordered half a dozen while she was in Hong Kong, and their delivery on the afternoon of her return was his welcome back present.
The white orchids on tree limbs the black-brown of ancient sequoia mirrored the sight of Paule. She was cool and collected in a dress sun bright in contrast to the gardener, who with hands parched and brow sweaty, was the hue of coconut husk.
“She’s demolishing the playroom,” Ron said, a wine glass in hand as he stood beside his brother at the window.
“You exaggerate,” said Louie. “She’s redecorating.”
“Redecorating is my job.”
“That’s what you do for other people, for other homes. This is our home, Paule’s home.”
“Green and yellow. What kind of colors are those?”
“They evoke a garden, grass and leaves growing, a burst of life.”
“Why not pink since it’s a girl she wants?”
“We want neutral colors.”
“You were never so unconventional.”
“It could be a boy.”
“My bear, she got rid of it.”
“The stuffed bear.” Ron didn’t sound upset as much as he did wary. He watched Paule in the courtyard below, never veering his eyes away as if her pruning a plant was an act of defiance. “It sat in the corner of the playroom.”
“I told her she could,” Louie said.
“That was one beautiful memory of my childhood. One.”
“I’ll get you another bear” – a sardonic chuckle – “a pink bear.”
Ron had given the bear a name – Friendly. As children, Louie and Ron would talk to Friendly, imagine him responding to their every remark and question, and everything they imagined him say was an assurance of everlasting devotion: “We’ll play again… I like you, too… We’ll have more fun…”
“That bear,” Ron said, “he filled the entire store window a giant piece of happiness with arms and legs to sleep on and a cushion belly to lie on. Mommy put a price on him the store couldn’t refuse, and he wasn’t for sale.”
“One happy, beautiful memory,” said Louie.
“We loved Friendly. We would sleep on him. He had the softest fur. She bought him because of you, really. You pointed him out.”
“Because you wanted him.” Louie shut his eyes in conjuring another memory. “Toy cars on an icing race track.”
“She baked,” Ron said. “I forgot about that. Another happy memory for you. Your 11th birthday, the last she ever celebrated with us.”
“Paule bakes, too. That will make for plenty of happy memories for me and our children.”
“She’s not even pregnant,” Ron said.
“I have plans – a daughter and a son or two daughters and two sons,” Louie said. “A son to perpetuate our name. A son.”
“Noel already has three boys.”
“But I’m the eldest among us Tolentino males.”
“She’ll leave the kids with the yayas.”
Louie shook his head and tightened his lips. At last, an emphatic no. “All mothers already do that, and you underestimate Paule. She likes kids and held summer jobs as an au pair. So… no… she won’t be the typical Filipino mother who will have the yayas raise her babies.”
“Au pair… summer jobs…” Ron could barely conceal his drunken disdain. “How so not us. Now I understand why you married her. You want a high class maid, and one who talks politics no less. She’s over your head. The things that come out of her mouth, we don’t think about those things.” His disdain turned to laughter. “The look on her face at your engagement party, when she was about to take a bite of chocolate cake and I joked that it had cashew nuts.” Ron simulated her expression of horror.
“If I were her, I’d hate you, too.”
“But you don’t hate me. How do you explain that, with all your study of law and logic, with all the cases you’ve won? You will never hate me.”
Paule in the courtyard was smelling an orchid. Her lips were moving. She could have been singing or she could have been whispering to the orchid to bloom.
“Baking isn’t the only thing they have in common,” Ron continued. “Mommy had a thing for orchids. She would pat orchids as though they were puppies. Then again, she might have kicked a puppy. Good thing we never had pets.”
“That’s where the similarities end,” Louie said. “Paule would never kick a puppy. She would never hurt anything or anyone.”
“How do you know?”
That night would have marked the beginning of a real life for Louie. That night Louie would have proven Ron wrong. A family of Louie’s own would have been a reality after that night. That was his plan. Somehow, Ron knew this, just as he seemed to know Louie’s every thought and emotion before Louie himself became conscious of them, like a spirit that inhabited Louie’s body.
You didn’t love her… Perhaps Ron was right. What did Louie know of love? Paule had an online membership to The New York Times, watched indie and foreign films on Netflix, and was unrestrained in her criticism of high rises supplanting Manila parks as much as she was of the church’s stance against birth control. Louie neither possessed an opinion on the Afghanistan War nor heeded much notice to the ever increasing abundance of shanties along the Metro Manila Skyway. As for films, he regarded them as most Filipinos did – mindless distractions – and so he was satisfied with the Hollywood block busters that screened simultaneously in mall cinema complexes throughout the metropolis.
The common ground between Paule and him centered on her career; Louie delighted in her ambition. A self-reliance he had sensed in her at the airport luggage claim was the characteristic that had initially attracted him. The upright posture, the straightforward gaze, the gray bag and matching gray shoes… all gave her a determined air. Then there was the reason for her return to Manila: “Moving to study in the States was an adventure, then working in New York. Now it would be an adventure to come back to the Philippines to use all I’ve learned. And I miss my family.”
Paule’s suitcases were charcoal-shaded Samsonite. They were of sturdy plastic and modeled after an industrial box. The instant Louie grabbed hold of one, he pictured daylight permeating the rooms and halls of the Tolentino estate, rescuing from the shadows family photos that covered the study walls. The photo that shone the most brilliant was of Louie, Ron, and their sisters when Noel was just born along with their smiling parents. Their father was standing behind a chair where their mother was seated. She had an arm raised across her bosom so that she could hold his hand that was resting on her shoulder. With the other, she cradled Noel. Promise enlivened that photograph, the promise of familial loyalty and harmony, the promise of love.
In contemplating the meaning of love, Louie was certain of what love was not. Love was not the infliction of physical pain. Love was not abandonment. Love was not betrayal.
So here he was with Ron, drinking from a single bottle of red wine as if sealing a blood pact, in a room private to them, in a house brimming with a history nobody else would ever share.
“She would have been a good mother to my children,” Louie said. “You never know.”
“Exactly,” said Ron. “You never know.”
“No… No… I do know… She would have been a great mother. She came back to Manila to be close to her family. She loved family. She would have been a kind and caring mother. And I… I would have been a good father. My kids and my wife…. my own family… they would have meant everything to me.”
“Yes, they would have.” Ron’s face beamed as though Louie had reached a realization that had eluded him for too long. “That’s why I had to do it.”
The year that Celeste Solinas’s father fought the mayor of Calinte was the year that Celeste devised a plan of becoming a star like Imelda Marcos. She would leave this hilltop province to sign a record contract in Manila. She would sing on a noontime TV variety show following morning mass each Sunday. Radio dramas would reenact the story of her life, and other girls in other small towns would think up plans of their own to be just like her. On a frying pan she gazed at the face that would be loved by all – sepia cheeks and brow, eyes bronze black as her hair – a face that would be immortalized on rattan fans and lunch pails.
It was an April Sunday. Celeste was in the kitchen, helping her mother bake coconut pies. Flies gathered on the window screen above the sink. A saccharine fragrance pervaded the air, and the sun lit as tarnished gold cupboards of chipped white paint. The deaf boy Paquito walked in with two coconuts in his hands, two more balanced on top of those, and a fifth on which he rested his chin. Celeste’s father followed close behind. He had requested that Paquito give him coconuts from trees that flourished like weeds in Mayor Hernando Olizar’s garden. Mayor Olizar owned a bungalow on the only paved street in Calinte. Paquito was its caretaker. Since the mayor and his family spent most time in Manila, Paquito obliged Papa Solinas as he did anybody who asked him a favor. In the past few months since his arrival in Calinte, he had carved a bamboo pipe for Father Amores; he had crawled into a roadside ditch to retrieve a necklace of faux pearls for Doña Louisa, the postmaster’s wife; and as a mere act of magnanimity, he had given the madwoman Pelaez a basketful of pandesal, salted bread he had baked himself.
Paquito’s old dog went with him everywhere he went. Layas, Paquito had named him, which was the Taglog word for “run away,” for Layas was a dog that took the liberty to wander away from Paquito and to roam Calinte on its streets of cracked gravel, from one wood and stone ramshackle house to another, greeting the town’s denizens with his nose pressed against their hands. His coat a fading copper, Layas was barking and wagging his tail as Paquito and Papa Solinas entered. When Celeste put down the frying pan to look at Paquito, she noticed how true the saying was that masters resembled their pets: Paquito, though only sixteen, had white whiskers and no eyebrows, an Adam’s apple and arms tree branch slender. She thought it odd that he should be wearing dress shoes to pick coconuts. His thumbs were also deformed. The left was on the verge of splitting in half like Siamese twins. The right was blunt and hard as the stem of a ginger root. A second thumb protruded from its base.
Papa Solinas pointed to the kitchen sink. Paquito quickly walked to it in his eagerness to release the load. Papa Solinas handed him a machete hanging from the wall. Paquito poked the tip of his finger against the blade to determine its sharpness, then sliced each coconut with one forceful whack. Celeste watched him and she sensed that he knew she was watching, for when he was done, he turned to her and smiled with bravado. It was an impressive feat indeed. Not a single drop of coconut juice had spilled.
“Neldy, I had another dream last night,” Papa Solinas said.
“Oh, my,” said Mama Solinas, more exasperated than surprised.
Celeste’s father had been having recurring dreams for the past month. “Visions,” he called them, and in these visions a red-faced man was sitting on a throne beneath a tolling church bell. Around him the land was arid, gladiolas were wilting, and the round sweet lansones fruit dangling from dead trees were sapped of their juice. “What could my vision mean?”
“Dreams are just that – dreams.” Mama Solinas rested an arm on her belly and fanned herself with a paper plate.
Celeste proceeded to knead dough. Baking coconut pies was a Sunday ritual. Normally Celeste’s older sister, Wanda, assisted in the baking, only today she was in the market in Santa Cruz, a neighboring province downhill where Papa Solinas worked as a butcher; she was helping a brother, Nestor, operate the meat stall.
Papa Solinas dug into his pocket for coins to give Paquito. Paquito waved his hands and shook his head in refusal. Papa Solinas smiled in urging him to accept. His smile resembled a smirk because of a scar on the left corner of his mouth he had obtained from shaving with a hunting knife, and his short height and close-cropped hair gave him a boyish air, more boyish than that of the deaf boy Paquito, who muttered as articulately as he could that he had always wanted to visit the Solinas house, so to do Papa Solinas a favor was an honor, especially since the coconut trees in the mayor’s bungalow were bearing such rich fruit and nobody was there to enjoy it. Of course, he had always wanted to meet the Solinas children. Why, he asked, was Celeste always at home and never out in the square with the other boys and girls?
“I don’t know,” Papa Solinas said, for Paquito knew how to read lips. “Maybe you should ask her yourself.”
Celeste gazed at Paquito’s thumbs and then at his pure black eyes. “I’m busy baking pies,” she said.
Paquito bowed and headed out the door. Layas ran to overtake him, his tongue lolling.
“He has funny thumbs,” Celeste said to her father.
He replied, “They’re not pretty thumbs, but they bring good luck. That extra thumb means he’ll never lose his grip on anything. He’s blessed.”
Blessed, Celeste thought, and wondered about this stranger, where he had come from, what family he had, how he felt as everyone’s friend yet having no one truly know him. She wondered what sounds a deaf boy heard in his head.
Mama Solinas began to shred coconut meat on the chopping board. On a wall above her, a calendar picture of a blue-eyed baby Jesus looked upon her with a beatific grin.
“Come now, Neldy,” said Papas Solinas. “Do you think my dream is for nothing? You know what I think? I think God is telling me that it’s about time Mayor Olizar delivers his promise to us of a new belfry.”
“Why you? You are not Moses.”
“No, I am not, but I a man who believes in something.”
A new belfry. Mayor Hernando Olizar had been the mayor of Calinte for half of Celeste’s fourteen years, and for the past two summers, he had been pledging Calinteños that their church, a stone structure that had been standing in the town square since the days of the Conquistadors, shall have a bell tower to beautify their town. Lightning had struck the current one. It was now a heap of crumbled rock. The bell sat silent at its base, waiting to rise again and to ring throughout Calinte, downhill along the bamboo and tree-lined path that led to the rest of the world.
Celeste fit the dough into three pans then sprinkled brown sugar into a bowl of melted butter and corn starch. “Maybe you should be mayor yourself,” she teased her father. “Don’t forget that he also promised an irrigation system.”
“Mayor Solinas, that doesn’t sound nice,” said Celeste’s mother. “And we are happy in this home of ours.”
Home was two stories of moss-coated stone and weathered shutters. Among the furniture in the living room were a vinyl sofa patched in masking tape and a black and white TV the size of a Tide box. A Singer sewing machine and a makeshift altar with an image of the Virgin Mary flanked the sofa. Behind that was the dining table, the kitchen and the bathroom, and on the second floor were three bedrooms.
“Ha!” Papa Solinas himself scoffed at the idea of mayor. He was no politician. He seldom read the newspapers nor did he ever discuss national events with his family. When President Ferdinand Marcos had declared martial law a decade earlier, he didn’t know a midnight curfew had been implemented across the nation until, one night, Mama Solinas said that they could no longer wait for the rest of Calinte to sleep before they could walk under the stars. Whenever he overheard homecoming overseas workers mention Clark and Subic naval bases, he didn’t think of the military alliance between the Philippines and the United States but of Campbell mushroom soup. And yet… “I may not be mayor, but do not doubt the voice of a little man such as myself, Neldy.”
“All I know is that I am too fat to be the wife of a mayor and my flat feet won’t fit into high heels,” said Mama Solinas. She took two shreds of coconuts and placed them by her ears as if they were dangling diamonds. “What dreams.”
“Visions,” Papa Solinas said.
“Visions… Visions…” huffed Mama Solinas.
“What’s a vision anyway?” asked Celeste.
Her father slid his finger across the length of the machete. “Visions are what Magellan had when he discovered the Philippines, what our President Marcos has. They’re things we see in our mind of the great things we can do.”
Celeste glanced once more at her crooked reflection on a frying pan. “Visions,” she uttered.
Mayor Olizar and his wife, Countess Peggy, returned to Calinte with their daughter, Cynthia, after an Easter respite in Manila. A silver Mercedes was parked in the driveway of the Olizar bungalow. Celeste ventured to their walled-off home, hiding underneath the leaves of a mango tree outside the gate to glimpse a fairy tale of an existence.
The Olizars lived in a part of Calinte that belonged only to them. Eucalyptus sweetened the air. Macopa trees bore their pink fruit all year round. Other homes existed nowhere near. They did at one point. Through the passing seasons, storms had washed them away. The Olizar bungalow somehow managed to remain rooted to its spot. From sunrise to dusk, the varying hues of the heat glazed its limestone wall: morning blue, pale noon yellow, faded pink. On its front door hung a carving of a woman that once graced the prow of a Spanish armada. She appeared to be pointing to the North Star, keeping the bungalow afloat through floods and mud slides.
In the front lawn, young Miss Cynthia Olizar was lounging on a wicker chair. Her lips were bright red. Her bobbed hair was cut asymmetrically. She was wearing a skirt with the hem inches above the knees. Celeste had never seen hair styled in such a fashion and thighs daringly exposed. What surprised her most of all was that Mayor Olizar seemed blasé to his daughter’s attire. He was sprawled lazily on the grass, drinking coconut juice from the husk.
Paquito walked out the front door, followed by the countess and Layas wagging his tail. Paquito was dressed in his trademark leather shoes, white trousers, and white shirt. A red tomato motif necktie added a splash of color. With a tray of Coca Cola, he stepped down the porch steps. Behind him, Countess Peggy’s clogs tapped on the ground with her every step. The countess wore gold trinkets wound around her neck and dangling earrings large as bottle caps. Her henna-dyed hair was a lustrous auburn. She was called countess because rumor had it that the mayor had bought a castle in a land where snow falls and that the purchase came with a title.
Miss Cynthia took a cigarette from her purse. She lit the cigarette and tilted her head back to blow smoke into the air, smearing the cigarette butt red with lipstick. Miss Cynthia’s lips seemed to have a life of their own. Whenever she spoke, they took on the shape of every vowel she uttered, and whenever she was spoken to, she twitched her lips or oohed and aahed, depending on her reaction to whatever was being said.
Layas barked. Miss Cynthia cocked her head towards the gate. Her and Celeste’s eyes met. Celeste’s instinct was to run, but then Miss Cynthia leaned back on the chair once more. Paquito approached the gate. He guided Celeste to a spot behind the mango tree, out of everyone’s sight, and offered her a glass of Coke. After drinking, she puckered her lips then looked at the glass in imagining her own lip print red on the rim.
“Thank you,” she said.
Paquito took the glass and left.
“Thank you,” she said out loud, forgetting that he was deaf.
When the weekend passed, Celeste saw Paquito sauntering down the street towards her house. At the front door, he slipped a lipstick into her hand.
A present from Manila, he said.
She stared at him in wondering how he knew Miss Cynthia Olizar’s lips had fascinated her so.
Paquito, uttering something unintelligible, pointed to her eyes and then at his lips.
“I don’t understand,” she said.
Paquito repeated his gesture, speaking more slowly with elongated syllables, as if his mouth were filled with marbles. His message: he had noticed Celeste the whole time staring at Miss Cynthia’s lips.
Celeste placed her hand on her mouth. “Was I so obvious?”
No, Paquito said. Taking a deep breath, he shifted his eyes as a cat would, formed his hands into paws, and proceeded to say something long-winded.
“Slowly. Slowly,” said Celeste.
Paquito reiterated his sentence.
“Did I hear you right? Am I really like a cat?”
Yes, she was as stealthy as a cat.
Celeste rushed up to the bedroom she shared with her sister Wanda, shut the door, and rolled on the lipstick. She gazed at herself in a bureau mirror, clipped her hair up on one side so that it resembled Miss Cynthia’s bob, and copied Miss Cynthia’s facial expressions and poses. She continued this fantasy every chance she had the room to herself, leaving her lip print on paper napkins, pens, and Styrofoam cups. She’d powder her face so that she’d be as white as the First Lady Imelda and her entourage of high society ladies. She’d walk on the balls of her feet as if she were wearing high heels.
Every time Paquito delivered coconuts to Papa Solinas, he offered Celeste a present – a diadem of baby’s breath flower; a plastic pendant bearing the image of the Virgin Mary; a vine of lansones plucked from the trees in Kandulo, the creek beside Calinte where Celeste could hear her voice soar over the still water to the sky. There Celeste loved to sing the music of Air Supply, Irene Cara, and Olivia Newton-John. Papa Solinas once said that his daughter’s voice evoked the image of a waterfall quietly merging with a river – forceful and yet controlled and placid. The notes she touched, her ascension and descension on the musical scale, regulated the river’s flow. The river could rush downstream in synchronization to the upbeat tempo of a disco melody. It could remain stagnant to the forlorn strain of a ballad. It could drift towards heaven as the hypnotic refrain to a sad song went on and on.
Calinte mythology had it that treasure looted by friars a hundred years before hid buried in Kandulo. Whether or not the treasure existed, Celeste felt Kandulo to be a magical place. Every note she touched was as vibrant as the ting of a gold coin. In her heart Celeste knew that someday she’d be great. For weeks she had been singing Barbra Streisand’s “Woman in Love.” It was an accomplishment for her to hold the last note of the song as Streisand did, and with such ease as though the song came from the core of her being.
Celeste believed in greatness the way she believed in God and goodness.
One day Mama Solinas caught Celeste with her lips red, Paquito’s flower diadem on her head, and a bed sheet wrapped around her. Celeste had pinched her nose with a clothespin and had powdered her neck.
A daisy, she thought of herself.
Mama Solinas climbed the stairs without a sound and opened the door. Upon seeing Celeste twirling in front of the mirror, she stopped in her track. Celeste expected a tearful lecture on how she was too young to be tempting boys, but her mother simply looked at her, laughed, and said, “You look like a clown. Take that stuff off and help me with the laundry.” And she shut the door.
Celeste looked at herself in the mirror and then quickly looked away. Clown… Clown… Voices from outside floated over her. A bicycle squeaked by. A man hollered for sale a dessert concoction of soybean and brown sugar syrup. She buried her face in her hands to wipe off the powder.
The only sound that filled the room was of Celeste’s palms rubbing against her cheeks, a sound as cruel as the grating of sand paper.
Papa Solinas was a man of his word. The urgency that Calinteños shared for a new bell tower fueled his spirit to fight Mayor Olizar. He decided to open the Solinas home every Sunday as a meeting ground for this purpose.
On the first Sunday of August, the Solinas women awoke upon the first crow of a rooster to bake coconut pies. Mama Solinas added a special sweetening ingredient, Seven-Up, which she poured into a bowl of whipped cream that Wanda had made. Later in the morning, the Solinas family attended mass. Rubble from the razed belfry glinted in the sun like excavated jewels. The crucifix affixed on the spire was a black X against blinding clouds. In the side aisle, the Virgin Mary stood on a pedestal, swathed in white satin and a blue sash. With open arms, she seemed to be goading the worshippers to march forward on their mission.
Visitors came knocking on the open door of the Solinas home after mass. Since Mayor Olizar had continuously been delaying a belfry construction on account of a shortage in government funding, Papa Solinas proposed a plan: “All of you working men and women, donate a small percentage of your monthly salary to Father Amores, who will oversee the project. Those working in cigarette plants and soft drink factories could request donations or loans from your own businesses. Do not worry about amount. However little we collect would show the mayor how serious we are. Maybe then he’ll aggressively seek his own backers or donate from his own pocket. After a belfry, an irrigation system. We see how rich Mayor Olizar is – fancy cars, grand homes.”
“Listen to Judicio Solinas.”
“A small donation is not a big sacrifice.”
“God is with us.”
God was with Celeste, too, because among the chants of support for her father, a plan struck her with the clarity of the sun bursting through gray clouds: she would sing, not just sing to make a pretty sound as she did with the church choir or in Kandulo, but to move people to act upon what they thought was right. Clown… Clown… No! The time had come for Celeste not only to be heard but also to be seen. This for a cause that united Calinte.
The following Sunday, Celeste could hardly concentrate on kitchen work. Pies were still baking when the townsfolk arrived. The Solinas house smoked with coconut and melted sugar cane. Children pranced through the front door, following their parents who were carrying trays of fried meat and garlic rice. Calinte’s elderlies hobbled on either a bamboo walking stick or the arm of a niece. The train of families was endless for a good hour, which surprised Celeste. She had never noticed so many people before, some of who were coming for the first time. She had hoped the crowd would be small. It would’ve been easier to summon everyone’s attention. Now she didn’t know what to do, whether to make an announcement as she had intended or to sing softly to some children in a corner until the rest of the crowd heard.
When the pies were baked and slices passed out, Celeste took a seat by the TV and waited till they downed their food with beer to clap her hands, the only thing she could do since she was too nervous to speak. Her brother, Nestor, stopped in his tracks, as if whatever she was demanding attention for would be brief and trite. Wanda, pie in hand and red apron giving her a rose petal sheen, glanced at her. This was the first time Celeste alone had ever been face to face with an audience. She didn’t see people anymore. She saw eyes.
“Let’s sing,” she said. “Sing along,” she urged and began “Dahil Sa’Yo”:
My life’s been full of pain and suffering, a loving heart without a heaven. Granting me happiness, you freed me from sorrow. Only you, my love, are my hope.
The people before her filled the sofa and the dining table chairs, sat on the staircase, stood in the kitchen. On their faces Celeste noticed no awe, no expression of loss or nostalgia, just half-smiles that said, “So this is how she sounds” – whatever sound that was. A man popping open a bottle of Pepsi proceeded to sing along with her. Papa Solinas la-la-laed the song for everyone else to join in.
Because of you, I want to live. Because of you, until I die. You must know, I’ve got no other love. Ask my heart, it’s you and only you.
Because of you, I attained happiness. All my love I offer to you. If it is true that you shall enslave me, then everything in my life’s because of you.
Father Amores, his face so wrinkled that it resembled a prune, sang in unison. Wanda proceeded to wipe the kitchen counter and Mama Solinas to collect plates. Celeste looked at the rest of her audience, whose eyes were slumberous from one beer too many. She realized right then that her music was meant to divert these people from the toil of their everyday lives, from the mission of a new belfry, not to confront them with it. Today’s gathering was a party. This was evident alone in the way they sang – rough, loud, and haphazardly.
Still, Celeste wanted them to think and to feel. The lyrics were too searing to take for granted. She couldn’t help associating it with Calinte, and she honestly believed, as people drunkenly slurred their words and stumbled with full mouths over the lyrics, that she’d fight for Calinte, suffer for and give her life to it. Would these people be willing to do the same? Nobody could forget that the First Lady Imelda, on President Marcos’s first run for presidency sixteen years earlier, had promised through her own rendition of “Dahil Sa’Yo” to slave for the country. That moment was a part of every Filipino’s schooling.
To escape the zoo the meetings had become, Celeste on one Sunday stayed away. The oven was so steaming from the coconut pies that her home itself seemed a furnace about to explode. Even her mother early that morning had expressed her doubts over the meetings.
“We’re wasting money,” Mama Solinas said as she stood before shelves of coconut pies in the open refrigerator. “All this is supposed to be for the family.”
“Come now, Neldy,” said Papa Solinas. “We are all family, this whole town.”
“How many more crazy Sundays like this? Hardly any talk is about the belfry or even the irrigation system. They just want to eat and drink, these people. Our family, you say? Nobody cares, Judicio. That belfry, it’s just a building.”
Papa Solinas spoke with the somberness of a sage. “People do care. They’ve been giving money to Father Amores. And you’re wrong, that what is happening here is just about a building. This is about our church. This is about a promise.”
Mama Solinas said nothing more, for in his eyes the Solinas family saw that the fight for a new bell tower was perhaps the most important thing that Papa Solinas would ever do.
It was high noon. The sun was so turbulent that waves of heat undulated in the sky. Celeste happened upon the mayor’s bungalow. In the front lawn, Paquito was lounging in the wicker chair where Miss Cynthia, months earlier, had been showing off her glamour for lipstick and cigarettes. His feet were resting on a table. A straw hat was tilted over his forehead, covering an eye. Celeste would have kept on walking if Paquito hadn’t seen her. He waved at her to come closer and opened the gate.
“They may not want strangers inside,” Celeste said and pointed to the house.
Paquito shook his head. The Olizars were in Manila.
After little coaxing, Celeste entered, though Paquito didn’t take her into the house. He took her to a ladder at the back where Layas lay asleep. Together they climbed to the roof.
It was a new sensation for Celeste to walk on corrugated clay. She felt her steps lighter, airy, so different from walking on solid ground. She knew now what birds saw when they looked down on houses, flew higher than a tree, touched the sky. She had never ventured on a rooftop before. Neither did she know of anyone who ever did.
“I had to get away,” Celeste said.
Paquito led her to the center of the roof.
When they sat down, she with knees pressed against her chest, she asked, “You’ve heard about the gatherings at my house, of course? Talk of a new belfry and all?”
Paquito nodded, motioned with his fingers to simulate yakking beaks. The Sunday meetings at the Solinas home were the talk of Calinte.
“What do you think about them?”
Paquito gave her a thumbs-up.
Flies and mosquitoes whizzed around them. Paquito clapped his hands to kill a slew of mosquitoes while Celeste slapped them against her shin. Soon the two were slapping and clapping like monkeys, which made them laugh. Their laughter turned into gay screams at being on the roof of the grandest house in Calinte, at being on top of the world. Paquito got to screaming so loud that Celeste urged him to be quiet. He smiled, his tawny cheeks flushed. He looked different to Celeste that day. She had been trying to figure out why ever since they had climbed the ladder. Now that he was smiling, his face only a hand’s length away, she knew: Paquito had grown a mustache.
“You look like an old man with that. Then again, you’ve always looked old, and you’re only two years older than me. Have you ever looked your age?”
Paquito shook his head. He said that when he was just a baby, people already called him grandpa.
“Grandpa? You’re too young to be old.”
Paquito took a box of Marlboro cigarettes from his shirt pocket then tapped the box on his palm for a cigarette to slip out. He squinted his eyes the way Marlboro cowboys did in magazine ads.
“You’re too macho.” Celeste giggled.
Lighting a cigarette, he took a deep puff and exhaled through his nose. Celeste was stunned that he didn’t cough or lose his composure and pleaded him to do it again. Paquito stood, offered his hand to Celeste so that she could stand with him. He raised one arm over his head, wrapped the other around his waste, then tapped his feet. Cigarette fumes clouded his head.
“You want to dance?” Celeste asked. “Oh, I don’t know. I’ve never danced with a boy before.”
Paquito kept tapping his feet.
Celeste hummed a tune. “You’re off tempo, off tempo,” she said. “That’s not right.”
When at last Celeste took hold of Paquito’s hands, she quivered from the touch of his deformed thumbs, especially the one that stuck out like a limp sausage. He pressed his thumbs against his palms so that she need only touch his four extended fingers.
Celeste hesitated and then, “That’s not how you hold a girl’s hand. Put your thumbs out and wrap them around my hands like you do with your other fingers.”
Paquito looked dismayed.
“You want to learn to dance or not?”
So he held her hands while she his – the first hands of a boy she had ever held. She hummed a tune. He followed her steps, held her hand over her head as she twirled in a circle, her skirt billowing. Never mind that they tripped on each other’s feet, stepped on each other’s toes.
“You’re doing good. Just like that.”
Paquito cocked his head in the sun’s glare.
“It’s too bad you can’t hear,” Celeste told him. “There’s music everywhere. The flow of water, the chirping of birds – that’s all music. There’s music in the air… the fluty sound of the breeze… and you can’t hear it.”
Paquito pointed at both their eyes. He said that what he lacked with his ears, he compensated for with his eyes. He had eyes on every part of his body – on the back of his head, on his palms, on his stomach – and with his eyes he saw into things, he saw through them and around them, he saw people’s souls, he saw everything. And what he was seeing now in front of him was a very beautiful girl.
Celeste looked at him for a long time then touched his chest that heaved as if it were too small to contain his heart. She could feel the warmth of his flesh through his shirt, the firm outline of muscles. Suddenly.
Flinging an arm out, Paquito pointed at the sky and at the rooftops strewn around as steppingstones to mountain ranges in the horizon. If he could, he said, he’d give Celeste the world. She was too special to hide the rest of her life in a town perched so high up a hill that nobody ever ventured to it.
“What would I do with the world?” she asked.
With a voice like that, she could do anything she wanted, be anybody she wanted.
“How do you know when you’ve never heard me?”
She was wrong. Paquito had heard her voice. He felt it in church. Her singing was like God talking to him.
Paquito accompanied the mayor upon the latter’s return from Manila to pay Papa Solinas a visit. They drove up in a Cadillac. A curious crowd gathered at the Solinas doorstep. Since Paquito’s appearance frazzled Celeste, she wanted to leave, but the mayor’s presence intimidated her so that she was rooted to her spot. A giant of a man, Mayor Hernando Olizar nearly reached the ceiling. He was fat with big eyes, big lips, and a big nose, big fingers with manicured nails. The face of his gold watch reflected on every flat surface in the living room. Each time before he spoke, he wet his lips, as if about to devour a hearty meal.
“My honorable sir,” he said to Papa Solinas, “we have never met before, but it seems you know me quite well.” His laughter was Santa Claus jovial.
Papa Solinas stood up from the sofa to shake his hand. Even with his back erect and head high, he only came up to the mayor’s shoulders.
“I’ve been curious for the longest time about you, as all of Calinte knows you except me. At last, I have the pleasure of your company.”
“The pleasure’s mine, sir,” said Papa Solinas.
At the front door, Paquito handed a basket of canned fruits, biscuits, bread, and wine to Celeste as a present from the mayor to the Solinas family.
Mama Solina, curlers in hair, rushed sideways down the stairs. Her hips were too large for her to walk down with body facing forward. Seeing Mayor Olizar, she screamed from embarrassment.
“The mayor has come for a visit,” Papa Solinas said.
She patted her hair and straightened her skirt. “Excuse how I look.”
Mayor Olizar chuckled good-naturedly. “I see my wife in curlers all the time. I won’t be staying long. I simply wanted to meet your rebel rouser of a husband.” Again, a laugh. “I salute you, sir.” He saluted. “You have a brave husband, Mrs. Solinas.”
“Yes, that he is,” Mama Solinas said, first with trepidation due to the mayor’s surprise visit and then with certitude. “Yes. Yes. I have a brave husband.”
Papa Solinas waved away the compliment. “You are very kind, mayor. It is Calinteños who are brave. I am just speaking for them.”
“Speaking for them is no small task,” Mayor Olizar said. “Because of you, I hear them. A new belfry, that we will all have, and let us not forget the irrigation system.”
Papa Solinas was about to ask the question that for two years had been dangling unanswered – when? – until Mama Solinas caught Paquito clasping Celeste’s hand as he was offering a bag of Hershey’s kisses.
“Celeste, no,” said Mama Solinas.
Eyes doleful as if they both had been caught on a rooftop rendezvous, the two remained holding hands.
“Well,” Mayor Olizar said, “it’s nice to know my caretaker has a friend in your daughter. That’s a show of peace before us. By Christmas, we will have a new belfry.”
That was all it took to incite Mayor Hernando Olizar to fulfill his promise, a little butcher of a rebel rouser named Judicio Solinas. The entire month of October was filled with noise from an excavator, a jackhammer, and builders working from early morning to late afternoon. It was noise that Calinteños welcomed because it was the sound of progress, so much progress that a new belfry would be standing by November. Father Amores held a mass to thank Papa Solinas and the mayor, who decreed that those who donated towards the construction of the belfry should have their money back.
“I’m not sure about this,” Papa Solinas said to Celeste as the congregation trickled out. “Visions… heh… I should have listened to your mother. The rotted lansones in my dreams… the fat man with the red face… I see him now. He has the face of Olizar. And I thought it was Santa Claus.” A despondent chuckle.
Celeste said, “We are all getting what we want, Papa. You could not have done anything more. You did everything right.”
Papa Solinas looked down at her, gratitude in his eyes for such a daughter.
Yet Celeste felt as troubled as her father. The belfry was of brick… the red was garish against the gray church… and soon after its completion, tractors rolled through Calinte to Kandulo with the formidability of advancing tanks.
The townsfolk gathered in the square and in front of their homes. They cheered and clapped and wept. They raised their arms to heaven, joyous that their prayer was answered not only for a bell tower but also an irrigation system.
When the first trees in Kandulo toppled to the ground, Celeste was standing on the bank, on the spot where she used to listen to her voice float over the ripples of the creek. Though the mayor had told the people to stay away from Kandulo, Celeste had snuck there, crouching beneath bushes and sprinting in tree shades on her way to the bank. Fallen leaves rustled to her every footfall like rice paper being crumpled. Across the creek, a tractor mounted a tree, sending it to the ground with a thud as explosive as a bomb blast on a silent night. A series of thuds followed, each one more terrifying than the last. She couldn’t explain what she felt. It wasn’t fear. It was greater than fear. It was a gnawing presentiment of an end soon approaching. Maybe Paquito would understand. Maybe he’d feel what she felt and know why.
She returned with him on the first day of November, All Saints Day, a day commemorating the dead.
The sun was a white hole in the cloudless sky. Since All Saints Day was a holiday, none of Mayor Olizar’s workers were in Kandulo. Celeste brought Paquito and Layas to the spot where she had seen the trees being torn down. They rode a boat across the creek to the site of excavated hills and tree houses that the workers had built to rest in. The houses were made of thatched roofs and logs. Woven straw mats lay on their floors to serve as beds.
“Do you feel the same tingle up your spine?” asked Celeste.
Paquito shrugged his shoulders.
“Something’s going to happen. Something awful, I know.”
He laughed. He said that nothing could spoil their happiness.
“I mean it. I do. Something really bad. I know it. I know.”
He laughed harder.
“Stop laughing at me. Stop.”
Celeste slapped him on the head. Why couldn’t he understand her? “Will you stop?”
He couldn’t read her lips. His eyes were shut.
“You sound like a crazy person,” she yelled. “You hear me? You’re crazy. You idiot. You’re a stupid, dumb idiot. Idiot.”
The word “idiot” echoed around, sweeping over the creek, rushing through the bushes, rolling up the mountain walls and down again back to where they were standing.
“Idiot… Idiot… Idiot,” Celeste screamed even when Paquito had already stopped and was looking at her with hurt eyes.
Quick as a squirrel, Paquito climbed a tree on which perched a house no larger than a dog’s shed. She turned her back to him and stared at the still water of the creek. And that was when it happened. The floor to the house gave way. Piles of wood fell and Paquito along with them. Celeste didn’t see the fall. She heard only his horrific scream. His motionless body lay on the ground amid broken branches, a pool of blood, and lansones from fallen trees.
Too shocked to scream, Celeste ran to his side. She didn’t know whether to hold him up or to leave him alone and to run for help. Layas was frantically walking the length of Paquito’s body, whimpering and howling, his tail in between his legs. Celeste held Paquito’s head. A gash was at the back. She whispered his name. Blood smeared on her hands and reddened her skirt. She looked up. Tree houses were black against the dizzying white sky. Once more gazing at his face, she held his hand with the extra sausage-like thumb, that thumb which once frightened her so, and intertwining her fingers with his, she moaned, “Oh, Paquito. You weren’t supposed to lose your grip on anything. Forgive me. Please forgive me.”
Whatever Celeste did afterwards was a daze to her. She regained enough sense to run back to Calinte and to tell Father Amores of the accident. Questions by people of what they were doing there ensued, as well as reprimands from Mama Solinas that they never should have gone there in the first place, that Celeste was never to see Paquito. She must be a disgraced girl, some of the townspeople speculated. Why were they out there alone? What would Olizar do when he found out they had broken his law?
Celeste was too numb to care for any of the talk. Her one concern was that she knew not how to grieve. She shed no tears either of mourning or of guilt while waiting at home for a verdict on Paquito’s life. She was clueless on what prayers to recite and if to wear black should she lose him. She wondered what would be inscribed on his tombstone, he who possessed no last name and claimed no birth date. All these came to her as flashes of realization rather than as grave matters to contemplate.
Calinte buzzed with news that Paquito would live. He was recuperating in the rectory, under the father’s care. Only then did the weight of the situation fall on Celeste. For an instant, the prospect of Mayor Olizar’s return tinged her with fear. Yet she trusted in God and in Father Amores to vouch for her and Paquito should the mayor be enraged, for she carried no shield other than faith.
The next day and for the week after, Celeste visited Paquito, bringing him rice porridge she had cooked, bottles of guava juice, and berry twigs picked from the mayor’s garden to color the gray room of the rectory. Paquito’s head was wrapped in gauze. Bruises spotted his arms and legs. A sprained ankle caused him to walk with the aid of a bamboo cane. Yet how white and clean his shirt and trousers were, without a crease. When he had regained consciousness the night of the accident, said Father Amores, the first thing he had asked for was a set of freshly laundered and pressed clothes. So before Celeste Paquito stood each day, an image of purity amid four stone walls, one with a window no larger than that of a prison cell, and Layas asleep underneath the cot. He’d always ask Celeste if he were presentable enough for Mayor Olizar to lay eyes upon. He’d attempt walking without a cane, his back stiff in his desperation to conceal his limp. The mayor will be unhappy, he’d groan, very unhappy.
Celeste was unfailing in her response. “Forget the mayor. Think of yourself.”
Paquito would heed to her words for a mere moment so that she had to repeat them ceaselessly in the course of an afternoon.
“Stand and walk because of your own strength, not for the mayor. And if you must slouch and look small, do so because you need rest, not because of him. You are not a dog, Paquito. You are not Layas.”
Although Mama Solinas was against these visits, she knew now that nothing could withhold her daughter from doing as she pleased.
“All the more everyone will think something’s up if I obviously avoid him,” Celeste had said to her mother. “I have nothing to hide.” This she’d prove by smiling at all she would pass on her way to the rectory.
One day Celeste told Paquito, “Why don’t you move to Manila with me someday?”
She was admiring a surplice stashed in a chest. It smelled of pinewood and vanilla incense. The vestment, intricate in its herringbone design, got her talking about the city, the places there she’d sing at, the dresses she’d sew for herself. For the first time she saw no reason why Paquito could not be a part of these grand plans.
Paquito smiled so tremendous a smile that the only feature of his face noticeable beneath his gauzed head was his even teeth. He was sitting on a stool below the window. A breeze ruffled his shirt.
Me back in Manila, he said incredulously. You dream too much.
“These aren’t impossible dreams. What have you got to lose? You’ve got nothing here. Olizar is an evil man. Look at what he has done to Kandulo. That doesn’t seem to be an irrigation project to me. It’s about time you made something of yourself on your own. You’ve got nothing to be scared of.”
Paquito’s smile disappeared, and along with it the soothing coolness of the November air. She was confronted by that woebegone look he had given her when she had called him those cruel things.
“I’m sorry,” she said. She was sorry for this moment and for everything she had said to bring him here to a convalescent’s bed, sorry for his unknown roots. “All that I say is coming out wrong.”
That wasn’t true, he said. She was saying all the right things.
Celeste didn’t understand until in his eyes she saw a doomed hopelessness she had seen in the eyes of Papa Solinas on the Sunday they had first glimpsed the new belfry. Paquito could never leave the mayor. To do so would be to express ingratitude for his giving Paquito an identity, he a foundling left on the driveway of the Olizars’ Manila mansion. The mayor had brought him to Calinte because the mayor trusted him, as one would trust a son, to watch over the bungalow.
“Paquito, really. Do you believe the mayor feels this strongly about you? That he sees you as one of his own? Where is he now? How come he is not here?”
Paquito freed himself from Celeste’s hands and looked out the window to avoid reading her lips for what more she had to say.
“You’re deaf and you’re allowing yourself to be blind.”
When at last Paquito faced her once more, a crushing silence befell them both. The four walls were drab without his laughter contained within them. His loss for words deafened her to the voices outside and to the whistling of birds, to all sounds of communication by man and animal alike.
On Celeste’s final visit, Mayor Hernando Olizar was in the rectory room, flanked by Paquito and Father Amores, both head and shoulders shorter than he.
“So this is the little devil,” Mayor Olizar said of Celeste, humored rather than incensed.
“Good afternoon, mayor,” she said.
He gave her a crooked smile.
“The young do foolish things,” said Father Amores, as if reminding the mayor of a fact of life, then glanced at Celeste with nervous concern. “Their age endows them with a daringness that is sometimes reckless. Celeste didn’t mean to act against you, sir. She is a normal teenager in that she hasn’t yet the wisdom to know that the young, with all their beliefs of invincibility, have their limits.”
Mayor Olizar raised a hand in disagreement. “You underestimate this Solinas girl, father. She has a mind of her own. However, I’m sure she is wiser now. And so you must be, too, Paquito.”
“You have never disobeyed me before. Now that you have, you almost got yourself killed.”
“Very good. The father says your ankle will heal fast enough and you’ll be tending to your duties at the bungalow in no time at all, and only to those duties. Remember that.”
Celeste stepped aside as the mayor passed her. He bowed his head to exit through the threshold. His hands were large enough to crush Celeste’s skull in one squeeze the way she would an egg. Her anger at him gave way to defeat. Calinteños were whispering that Mayor Olizar was truly digging into Kandulo for the mythical gold, that for this purpose he had misappropriated the government funding. Surely, the First Lady Imelda must know about this. Surely, she would not condone the devastation of Kandulo.
“My best wishes to your father,” he said.
“Thank you,” she said. Those were all the words she could muster.
Paquito followed the mayor out without a word to Celeste, without a glance.
After that day, Celeste was more lost than on the day of the accident. No insurmountable force such as death was holding her apart from Paquito. It was another human being, though what inhumane acts he was capable of. Celeste didn’t know whether to knock on the bungalow gate once Mayor Olizar left for Manila or to wait for Paquito to come to her. She wondered if the mayor would have come between her and Paquito had the accident not occurred. She needed to believe that with one more day, one more song, one more dance, he’d listen to her as in those days now quickly fading.
The town gossiped that the mayor had breached their relationship by forcing Paquito out of the rectory at gunpoint. To their talk, Celeste retaliated with closed lips and a stoic face, and she preoccupied herself with household chores. The one time she allowed herself to express her sorrow was when she sang the “Ave Maria” during Christmas mass. She sang loudly and clearly, unaware of the gushes of wind that swayed the church bell and of the worshipers below, her eyes on cracks patterned like lightning streaks on the vaulted ceiling.
The sole person she envisioned listening to her was Paquito. Her voice resonated across the nave to the altar, up the bell tower, out to the sky over Calinte and beyond, as if such force would bless him with hearing. The rest of the choir was stunned mute. The church faintly echoed with the sniffles of worshipers mourning their losses. And in the music of the knells and the silence and the heart-wrenching sobs, Celeste heard a voice beckoning her from far away to leave Calinte – the voice of the boy she loved, maybe, or maybe the voice of God. Or maybe it wasn’t a voice distant at all but one that came from within herself.
Once mass ended, a weeping howl resounded throughout Calinte from the direction of Mayor Olizar’s bungalow. Celeste walked to the mayor’s gate, oblivious to the whispers and murmurs of the tailing crowd. On the roof, Layas was lying on his flank at Paquito’s feet. His four legs were convulsing. His translucent eyes were staring ahead at nothing. Paquito bent to pat him on his side. Layas stopped convulsing then shut his eyes once and for all.
Celeste was about to enter until Paquito stood once more. He looked at her without seeming to recognize who she was. Nor did she recognize him. His stance proud and face a blank, he was no less rooted to his spot than the armada sculpture affixed to the bungalow’s facade.
She hated June, the month that marks the beginning of the monsoon storms, because thunder and lightning terrified her.
“It’s like an earthquake but upside down, with heaven rumbling and splitting open,” Marissa once said.
I was seven. She was ten.
“I guess,” I said.
I had awoken to pee. Midnight had struck to a thunderclap, and the light was on. It emanated from a ceiling lamp bubble round, brightening an azure carpet and casting amid the drone of the air conditioner, in the stillness of the room, a memorial somberness to posters of Charlie Chaplin and Bruce Lee that hung above my bed. To my left, Marissa lay with the back of her head to me, deaf to my whining. There wasn’t space for two, and though I motioned with a push of my hands to budge her, I didn’t dare do so. That would have been akin to starting a fight with an older sibling, which our parents had reprimanded me was a no no.
“Be quiet,” Marissa said at last then turned to me. She had not been asleep at all. “What’s your problem?”
“You. Why are you here?”
“Too much noise outside, and it’s too dark.”
“I’m closing the light,” I said.
My sister sat up. “You mean turning off the light. You open and close a door, the refrigerator, an object. You turn on and off anything with a switch. Daddy keeps telling you that. And no, you are not.”
I stood to use the bathroom.
She laughed. “You always wear big shirts.”
“You and your big shirts.”
“You just want to pretend you’re wearing a dress.”
“Yes,” she said. “And what’s with the colors?”
I was wearing a red Thai dye with the hem down to my thighs. Among my other pajamas were Thai dyes purple, orange, and green – a psychedelic array of what resembled thorn crowns flattened between a pair of glass panes then painted in joy. I didn’t have blue. Blue was a color our father forced on me. If I could have had my choice, my carpet would have been pink, and if Marissa could have had hers, her carpet would have been azure, pink being a color our mother forced on her.
Marissa wasn’t laughing anymore, though she did have a smirk.
What a weirdo, I thought.
Even during the day, Marissa spent more time in my room than in her own. She had an affinity for guy stuff. The Bruce Lee poster had been her choice – a print of the actor’s mug in black against a yellow backdrop, a don’t-mess-with-me austerity to the eyes. The poster was among my possessions because I had done my sister a favor by telling our father I wanted it. We were at a book store and there Bruce Lee was. Had she asked the poster for herself, our mother would not have consented; it wasn’t fit décor for a girl. Our mother, however, did allow Marissa one indulgence, that she could have a helmet cut similar to Lee’s, and this so that she wouldn’t be stifled by the heat. I got one, too. Regardless, we didn’t look alike. While my face was rice cake rotund on account of my weight, Marissa’s was narrow. The cut on me resembled a coconut husk. On her, she really did channel the martial artist.
Marissa grabbed me by the wrist. “Angelo, you are not turning off the light.”
“I need to pee.”
“You probably sit like a girl.”
“What are you talking about?”
She let go of me. “I don’t care. It’s Daddy who does.”
“Well, you stand.”
“I did once. Sitting is easier. But I’m a real girl.”
Marissa and I each had our own bathroom, and mine was bluer than my bedroom. The moment I stepped in, I felt as though I was standing at the bottom of an aquarium. I raised my shirt the way I had seen our mother raise her skirt, oh so gingerly with fingertips on the hem.
My sister was right. I sat. As I unloaded, I wondered how many hours more till sunrise, of squeezing into a bed made for one, dreaded what more of my habits Marissa would claim to be aware of. Though the sing-song cadence of her voice echoed in my ears, she was difficult to visualize. As with an infant, her features were non-descript. The most one could say about Marissa was that her eyes, nose, and mouth were well proportioned. (The same could not be said about me. My ears protrude as trumpet funnels.) Had it not been for the earrings – silver loops the size of a miniature clock wheel – Marissa could have passed as a boy. What a feat of evolution it was when years later, while earning an art history degree in New York, she would appear on the cover of a magazine, her hair permed and blow dried and sprayed into a voluminous do the fad of the 1980s, and in the decade after, what photographers found gorgeous in her would adapt a nobility when she lost her follicles, her eyes serene with courage that each day could be her last.
The shower faucet leaked. A puddle formed around the drain. Every tap of a drop sounded as the tick-tock of a clock. Amid the hue of ocean blue, a pair of towels hung in front of me, each adorned with a rooster as vibrant as tropical fruits.
Why my fondness of colors? I didn’t have an answer because I never thought about it. Maybe I favored neon as an antidote to Marissa’s penchant for starkness, which is what had attracted her to the Bruce Lee poster. Charlie Chaplin was my choice. The guy made us laugh along with TV features of The Three Stooges. Juxtaposed with Lee, he was a treat of gummy balls. The smudge of a mustache that followed the upward curl of his lips, the church dome hat, the floppy shoes and pants so large that they seemed about to slip down at any moment… to my young mind, the Tramp was cultivating the message that no matter how crestfallen we are, a smile is never too far.
Charlie Chaplin was supposed to hang above Marissa’s bed. Marissa had said no. She didn’t want anything on her walls. She preferred 3,000- piece jigsaw puzzles. The puzzle images ranged from the Tower of London to a 17th century world map, from the Manhattan skyline to cherry blossom reflections on a lake. They strewed her room like painted carvings on floor tiles, providing visuals to lands and epochs that tickled her curiosity, she who was so restless that our parents allowed her swimming lessons along with ballet, high energy activities. She would eventually insist on college in the U.S., the opportunity to be her own person since a global education was the reason our parents had enrolled us since kindergarten at the International School Manila.
I reclaimed my side of the bed.
“I like blue,” she said.
I shut my eyes. The effulgence of the ceiling lamp created an incandescent spot on a black screen. “You’re scared of the dark.” I said, “and of being alone.”
“Yes, and I like blue. That’s why I want the lights on. Always. Mommy never stops about pink – pink curtains, pink rug, pink bed cover. I like sleeping to blue just as you like to wear big shirts so that you could pretend you’re wearing a dress”
“Shut up already.”
She did, though not for long. “It’s like an earthquake, but upside down, with heaven rumbling and splitting open.”
“What do you mean?”
I opened my eyes. I was the one who was supposed to be spooked over the clashing in the ether, God’s ire. During Holy Week, Marissa and I had watched a silent film on TV that depicted the Great Flood. The image of Noah with arms raised, his hair and robe awhirl in a cyclone, his foothold on the ark deck so precarious that a gale could have tossed him into the infinite horizon, haunted me for days. The drumfires from above and rain that struck our roof with the rattle of brimstones was what I imagined Noah must have heard. That my sister would find solace in her little brother’s bed made me wonder why her fear. I would have expected Marissa to excite over the world awash in a torrent. She belonged in water. In our backyard pool, whether exercising her freestyle or her backstroke, she swam with the grace of a ballerina, Tchaikovsky’s swan in flight across blue ripples, the splashes gentle, almost silent. Our father liked to tease her that she was Olive Oyle… so thin was she and gangly her limbs… but in water, she truly was a sight to behold.
“When there’s a typhoon, that’s what it’s like.” Marissa turned her back to me once more. “Just think, when you fall into the earth or are carried away, far away up there, you’re never coming back. Hurricanes and tornadoes can do that, you know.”
“That happens outside. Inside, we’re safe.”
“Outside. Inside. Doesn’t matter. A house can be lifted away.”
Another thunder, God cracking His knuckles.
“Ba, ba, ba, ba, ba, ba, ba, ba, ba… “ Marissa broke out in song. The Partridge Family, of course. She had a crush on David Cassidy, he a hippy youth with long tresses and a cheerleader smile. Apparently, I wasn’t enough of a comfort. She needed some guy who fit the bill of a girl more than she. “I think I love you. I think I love you. So what am I afraid of? I’m afraid that I’m not sure of a love there is no cure for.”
“I’m closing the light,” I said.
Of all the memories we shared, this is the first that often comes to me on moments I happen to stare into space, be it on the subway or at the office, a corner room cluttered with binders and stationery and where I generate fundraising letters for a K-8 school in San Francisco. For the entire duration I’ve been at this job, the wall pad before me has been bare save for plastic knob tacks and phone numbers. A calendar of Oscar winning films is at present the one item that gives credence to an existence apart from what I’m paid to do.
For this month of September, a watercolor poster of “Casablanca” has Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman cheek to cheek. His brow is wrinkled. An expression of surrender softens his eyes. His face is long and mopey. She radiates trust and confidence in lips parted as if to whisper eternal devotion. Blonde waves highlight a complexion that exudes an after rain freshness. “It doesn’t take much to see that the problems of three little people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world,” so goes Rick’s famous goodbye to Ilsa. As the moral artillery in her husband Victor’s fight against the Nazis, she must sacrifice the happiness she could have experienced with another man. Such is love.
Beneath the calendar, sunshine through my window frames in a glow credit card forms piled on my desk. The pavement outside is sand dune pristine, pedestrians on them scarce as are the cars that drive by, and a garage door to a house across the street glimmers with the promise of light on a projection screen. This calmness that is Pacific Heights creates the ideal neighborhood for kids: tomorrow poses no threat, while each day relegated to yesterday is one banana more that a child has consumed with one’s morning cereal, sweet and nourishing, a memory to relish.
My supervisor is out. I’ve got no pressing project. That it’s already autumn has a dual effect on me. I mourn summer, and I am also amused that in the Philippines, in another time, September was a reason for bliss; September was Marissa’s favorite month. Until it arrived, we had to endure gusty weeks. Most kids dread September, the start of the school year. Not Marissa. She equated her first step into a new classroom to the awakening of cicadas that in the monsoon had been dormant.
That’s one thing I miss – the chorus of cicadas, their chirps escalating to a crescendo as to harken the late hours, twilight’s chromium luster. Nevertheless, I choose to be here in the U.S., and the Dover School can offer its own treasures, bromidic as they may be. Take now. A teacher is reprimanding two girls in front of my open door for pushing in line. Past a file cabinet beside which a pizza box balances atop a recycle bin, the girls stand sleek in leotards and ponytails. They are far from adolescents yet already in possession of an adolescent spunkiness; neither wants to admit to having initiated the shoving. Mr. O’Farrell glances at me. A patient figure in a lumberjack shirt and a beard the density of a bird’s nest, he strains from rolling his eyes across his forehead. Down the corridor, fifth graders in a music class sing “This Land Is Your Land” to the jaunty accompaniment of a piano.
Such a familiar moment, this co-mingling of melody and infantile discordance, no matter the difference in people and place and the distance of everything.
“Little kisses,” Marissa said during a weekend swim.
She stopped in the middle of the pool and raised her face to the sky. Earlier, she had exasperated us with her continuous record playing of the Partridge Family. The record was new and so was the player, a red and white portable box with a headshell fashioned after a doll’s hairbrush. “Marissa, why don’t you turn that off for a while,” our father had said in a manner both gentle and emphatic. Such is our father’s tenor that even when he whispers, he’s got volume.
My sister obeyed. As a reward, our father permitted her a swim. The June when she had snuck into my bed had passed. July brought us on our annual trip to the U.S., where through August, we boarded planes to visit relatives in four different states. Classes were to commence on Tuesday. September was here. The grass in the resurgence of the sun had an emerald shimmer, and if it did rain, then it was sporadic, a caress compared to the punch of a typhoon.
Marissa had been in the pool for half an hour when a cloud rolled forth, immersing in shadow the surrounding trees, the leaves grown to such opulence that they appeared to be a bundle of green birds. Pinprick indentations mapped the pool. Rings formed around them, liquid halos, then disappeared as quickly as the next drop.
“Little kisses,” she yelled.
Since I didn’t know what she meant, I put on my trunks to find out. I was with our mother, who urged Marissa from the back lanai to get out before the drizzle strengthened. Downpour aside, our mother wasn’t keen on Marissa’s spending much time outdoors. A tan to her is synonymous with the province, with farmers and rice planters – laborers. We are city folks. All my life, other people have fixed our beds, washed our dishes, and taken out our trash. Our mother allowed me to dive in only because I had the power to cajole Marissa into the house.
“Five minutes,” our mother said to me, “then you tell your ate enough,” Ate being the respectful epithet for big sister.
Our mother was dressed for the humidity – spaghetti straps, a sash that accentuated a tiny waist, and baubles to compliment a neck fair and smooth as those of an actress in old movies. She watched us from the back lanai, in a chair with a cushion that bore a daisy motif. She adores flowers, our mother does. Rattan baskets and porcelain from Japan and China decked our home. Lobster claw plants, lilies, and tree branches filled them all. One arrangement had a marble-sized fruit we call kalamansi, our native lime, ready for the picking.
The lanai threshold was circular. Screen doors opened into the garden, to the pool yards away. Our mother sat at the center of the entrance, an empress austerity to her with back straight and head high.
My sister was right about another thing. Rain on the face is similar to a kiss multiplied by ten, a hundred, a thousand. I knew about kisses from our mother. As for Marissa, where she got the analogy beat me. I’ve never seen our mother kiss her. Our father did hug her plenty. Whatever lip pecks were involved was largely on her part. I opened my mouth to feel the patter on my tongue.
“Rain has taste,” I said. “It’s not bitter likes tears. It’s sweet.”
“It’s tasteless,” said Marissa.
“It feels sweet.”
“Sweet is a taste, not a feeling.”
“Then what it is I feel?”
Marissa gave me a sideward glance. “You’re feeling good.”
Marissa’s bathing suit was a one-piece patterned with Lifesaver stripes. She resembled a cluster of candies in a slot machine afloat on water. And she was caramel brown. None of us have ever had that hue. My yellow trunks emphasized my paleness. Plus, my tummy looked balloon inflated. No wonder our mother had a habit of pinching my cheeks and teasing me that I was delicious enough to eat. I was a dish of almond jelly and egg custard in boy form.
“I’m supposed to tell you to go in,” I said.
“I know,” Marissa said.
“Why don’t you listen to her?”
“When I feel like it.”
A spurt of sun broke through the grayness. A rainbow arched over our house, a two-level abode that boasted a stucco facade and a navy-tile roof, ionic columns to a balcony balustrade and air-conditioners that protruded from windows. In the lanai, our mother sat cross-legged, hands on her lap, as to strike a pose. Our eyes met. She nodded in that commanding way of hers… I was designated to do a job and do it I must… but I shared Marissa’s sentiment. The moment was too lovely to let slip away.
Neither did our father share our mother’s anxiousness. In khakis and a golf shirt, black hair pomaded and combed high leading man style, he appeared in the lanai, a red toolbox in one hand and a drill in the other. He set them on a glass table behind our mother before he disappeared again, only to reappear with a painting, an oil that depicted a man and a woman astride a carabao – our indigenous buffalo – he in a straw hat, she in a head scarf and a white top flimsy as onion thin paper. Both were in a landscape of oscillating stalks and orange-rimmed clouds. Our father thrilled in weekends where he could engage in domestic chores. If he weren’t polishing one of the wall-length screens our mother had purchased in Hong Kong – antique gems on which were imbedded soap stone carvings of peonies, bamboo, and members of the imperial court – then he’d be hanging art.
What a mystery rain is. What a mystery Marissa is. 40 years later, I still can’t figure her out. She had been tiger tough on the exterior yet kitten scared inside three months earlier, hiding underneath my sheets upon the first typhoon of the season. On this afternoon, she outstretched her arms and neck as if she were offering herself to God’s tears.
“Maybe snow is as sweet as rain,” I said.
“Sugar balls,” she said.
“Next time we go to the States, we should go where there’s snow.”
By virtue of our education at the International School Manila, America intrigued us. The academic calendar at ISM coincides with that of the States, while summer for local schools fall in the months of March to May, when temperatures soar to the 90s. The heat scalds to such a degree that we would sweat the second we’d step out of a cold shower. To parallel an American education, our parents gave us an American summer: McDonald’s French fries, Hershey’s chocolate, and the very American invention of the mall.
Although we had been traveling to the U.S. ever since I was born, the trip from which we had just returned was the first to awaken in me the possibility of claiming as my own this other country. An aunt and uncle live in Cleveland, in a white house with a trio of dormer windows that rise from a black roof, on a street populated by houses of the same design. Back then, they drove a station wagon, and with our cousins, they would take Marissa and me to May Company, a department store that was a smorgasbord of Hallmark greeting cards, Betsy Clark stationery, lego, and all sorts of products dazzling to the eye – from shampoo bottles the multitude of colors in a Crayola box to plastic chairs as sumptuous as cherries and grapes, from glow-in-the-dark surfer shorts to bubble gum in wrapping the shades of Jupiter. As a souvenir, our parents bought her the record player and the Partridge Family album; I got a Superman watch and a pencil case to match.
“Okay.” Our mother stood from her chair in the lanai. She waved her arm in a come in gesture to Marissa and me. “That’s enough.”
The drizzle remained constant. It neither hardened into a barrage nor lessened into taps. A ray of light continued to pierce through a murky cloud. The world had stopped on its axis.
This time Marissa complied. Because she did, so did I.
“Why can’t you listen to me?” our mother asked.
“I’m here,” said my sister.
“Did you have to make me wait and repeat myself?”
Marissa was catching up in height to our mother, who stood at five feet but appeared taller on account of heels and her carriage. In a few years, my sister would surpass our mother in physical stature, reaching a full height of 5’6”, and the two would share an affinity for make-up and fashion, a commonality that would cause our mother to boast of her daughter’s New York move, “That city is good for her. When she walks down the streets, men strain their necks to look at her and can’t turn away. Also, she’s at Barnard College.” I might have already noticed on that afternoon the beauty Marissa would someday burgeon into. She held up her chin with the pride our mother did hers, and in her profile a delicacy marked the curvature of her lips and shoulders. Just as our mother refused to buckle, so did Marissa.
“You should have been here way before now,” our mother said, “dried up, showered, and fresh. Look at you. You’re wetting the floor.”
“You’re so bossy, Mommy.”
Our father, nail in hand against the wall where he was to hang the painting, turned to my sister. His eyes were incensed with the fury of a volcano about to erupt. “Maria Clarissa, do not answer back at your mother.”
“You said I could swim.”
“That doesn’t matter.” His voice reverberated in the lanai a blast of harshly articulated words. “When your mother tells you to do something, you do it.”
Marissa was mute. To our mother, she always had a response, whereas our father had never given her a cause for one. This was the only time I ever witnessed her chest cave in.
“A typhoon can slam any minute. Never mind that it’s September. It’s not safe out there,” he said and then, “Angelo, hand me the drill.”
The drill was on the glass table in front of the wall where stood our father. He extended his arm towards me. I suppose he had intended to ask our mother for the thing, but since I was present, he resorted to me. Sopping wet as my sister, I created a trail of water footprints on the floor from the threshold to the table. The drill was a gray instrument that replicated a gun. It had a massive grip, a trigger, and a drill bit that extended from a barrel. I imagined the device in operation, the screeching noise and the drill bit in furious rotation, digging mercilessly into a surface, debris spewing all over.
“Angelo,” our father said, rage still in his eyes.
No sooner had I picked up the drill when it slipped. A bang resounded. A bullet hole crack formed on the spot where it landed.
Our father did not budge. His arm remained extended towards me.
“You’re supposed to pick it up with a firm hold, not a limp wrist,” said our father.
Betsy Clark, the Partridge Family, and a Wonder Woman watch… that was the Superhero I was crazy about, Wonder Woman. There was something else about America that made me wish I were back there at that instant, something more.
“This is how you do it,” our father said. He grabbed the drill as if to crush it; so red were his fingers from the pressure. “Now you.”
In May Company’s jewelry department, as our mother gazed at herself in a counter mirror to consider for purchase a gold necklace, two men stood beside her. They were spruced up in denims, suede vests, and cowboy hats. They each had a Marlboro man mustache and that hyper male squint. The pair could have been twins. Then again, not quite. The aura about them transcended the familial. They were too close, in a shared personal space. One man placed a ring on his finger then raised his hand to admire it, after which he took it off and put it on his companion. I had never seen such intimacy between two men.
I think I love you. I think I love you. So what am I afraid of? I’m afraid that I’m not sure of a love there is no cure for.
‘“Grip harder… Again… Grip the way a man does… Again…”
“My wrist isn’t limp.”
“That’s enough, Elpidio,” our mother said.
The kitchen door swung open. The door was located in the dining area that led to the lanai. Our wash lady came from the maids’ quarter downstairs, holding up on a hanger a dress with seashell patterns.
Our mother continued on with my sister. “You are wearing that tonight.”
A photo of me in the Superman watch and Marissa in the dress is on Facebook. She stands toes pointed inward at the foot of the stairs that lead to the second floor bedrooms. I am to her left. I have placed my hand on the handrail with the top of my wrist turned to the camera to show off the red and blue caped figure. The steps are varnished narra. The baluster is brass and metal coiled to form an ascending line of arabesque patterns. Such dexterity merits the proper attire. Our mother had a seamstress sew Marissa’s frock, while my outfit, a rust polyester leisure suit with bellbottoms, was tailor made.
The photo makes me chuckle. Kids walk to and fro in the corridor outside my office. The girls are dressed as if they are off to a pilates class. The boys are in basketball shorts. At any given school in the Philippines, athletic gear is exclusive to physical ed. Leave it to Facebook to punctuate the disparity between the students at the Dover School and me. My chuckle far exceeds this, however.
For our father, one shot is never enough. He takes at least three. That afternoon 40 years ago, he had one of the maids take several pictures of the four of us.
“Excited?” he asked as he put an arm around my shoulders.
“For what?” I replied.
Our father has always been a dapper figure in slacks without a crinkle and button down shirts that accentuated arms muscular from a youth of bricklaying – a package that exuded a confidence in him for having risen in social rank from laborer to owner of a construction company. As a victory laurel, he had won the admiration of a Manila socialite. I saw at that moment the impact our mother must have had on our father when he had first opened the door for her as she stepped out of a car and onto the lot where he was overseeing the building of a bank for her own father, a financier, one of the Philippines’ most notable. Holding Marissa to her bosom, our mother was prettied up in pearls and a blouse that rippled to her every movement – a raise of the arm as she instructed the maid on the camera button to click, a sway of the hips – and as she tilted her head to a quarter angle, I noticed that Marissa herself was in awe. She gazed up at our mother, straightened her stance, and positioned her toes forward. In an instant, the seashell dress that had been an awkward fit, one cut in the pattern of a nurse’s uniform, was awkward no more.
“For dinner. You kids said you wanted to go out tonight, so we’re taking you out. You wanted Italian food, so we’re having Italian.”
Whether or not the rain persisted, I don’t remember. It doesn’t matter. Our father had promised us a treat, and he has never rescinded on a promise. The events of the afternoon were behind us. Not only had I picked up the drill with a firm hold, but I had also hammered a nail into the wall, and this on my own initiative rather than on our father’s prodding. I pounded the peg with such force so that, upon the slamming of steel against steel, I was the loudest person in the lanai.
These photos had been set aside, buried for nearly four decades in magnetic pages stacked in a bureau and melted from the tropical heat, forgotten. The memories might have faded for good if not for digital restoration. They now jump out from the computer screen in front of me as if I am spying through a window.
I ponder how Marissa would have adapted to the internet era. She might have been keen on streaming the pop songs we grew up to, but she would not have been a Facebook fan. Remembrances of her gauche girlhood made her blush, what more that they are currently accessible at the click of a button. I complement my own boyhood pictures with selfies that show off a six-pack gained from my latest workout regimen. More importantly, Facebook connects me to our parents, who delight in showing the world that one has managed to retain an unblemished complexion and the other plays nine holes every weekend, grayness on her part and a gut on his notwithstanding.
What truly perks up our parents is the chance to post the trove of family pictures, their way of immortalizing our yesterday. They sold the house years ago. With Marissa gone and myself settled in San Francisco, they had no reason to hold on to such an enormous dwelling. Our parents today live in a condo at Fort Bonifacio, a military base turned into commercial real estate to accommodate Manila’s population influx.
Besides, I am now the lone child who visits. When I was in college at Berkeley and Marissa managed an art gallery in SoHo, the house anchored us both to our existence across the Pacific, luring us back every vacation, our rooms unchanged – mine still blue, hers still pink – save for the installment of a central air conditioning system and her floor free of jigsaw puzzles. Or perhaps our parents’ release of the house had been imminent ever since Marissa graduated high school from ISM.
“You can leave the family?” I asked in consternation to her declaration that she was off to the U.S.
“Yes,” she said.
Our parents acquiesced. Their daughter deserved the riches of the seven continents… and much more. As a woman, Marissa would be a certified scuba diver. A dear thing she would leave me with is an album of photos she had taken of her sea excursions. Star shimmering corals, rocks as porous as the moon, midnight streaks on fish sun yellow… the deep was a galaxy she would claim her own, while above, the tug boat that had brought her far away from Palawan Island or the Malibu shore waited adrift, undulating on soft current, as if it were an airship parked on a cloud.
Shortly after her 30th birthday, Marissa got married. His name is Bill. Rather than constricting her independence, Bill fostered it, teaching her to windsurf and goading her to join him on a 21-kilometer run at Angkor Wat, the cone towers gilded in the first blush of a new morn. Bill is an engineer and handsome in an all-American way – eyes the blue of Lake Placid and a jaw Mount Rushmore chiseled – yet whose neck and overbite conjure the vision of a giraffe.
“He’s not one to easily blend into a crowd,” Marissa said over the phone on the day he proposed. “How can I say no?”
And stand out Bill did, all 6’3” of him, in a black tux and a silver bow tie, his arm ornament my sister in a lace gown that in the sunshine permeating the church scintillated on her like diamonds on white petals. The open portals, bronze statues of saints encased in each, and the brightness of day through stained glass windows that could have been crafted from sapphires and rubies created a feel of space. Surrounding arches diminished Bill and Marissa to the size of a man and a woman on a wedding cake. They took their vows before an altar as majestic as a piece of the Parthenon, and in the midst of light particles that danced to the vaulted ceiling, they seemed ready to take flight.
But Marissa would have to fly alone. A year later, surrounded by bare walls, wisps of heaven outside a window would waft into her room. She had done what could be done. Treatments both medical and holistic could no longer combat the inevitable.
“If only it had been detected earlier,” our mother would bemoan.
“Stop, Mommy” Marissa said. “This is the way it is.”
My sister did have one regret, that she would not be able to visit Manila just once more. Instead, we gathered at her bedside as the TV featured footage of the latest happening in the Philippines: the eruption of Mount Pinatubo. A tsunami of volcano ash surged over stalks and palm trees. Nearby villagers coated in dust meandered on dirt roads as if the petrified corpses in Vesuvius had themselves been resurrected. The death toll of 722, a statistic that included casualties brought on by subsequent diseases and typhoons, flashed onscreen.
“The things I used to be scared of, so silly,” Marissa said. “There are worse things that happen. Even then, once it’s over, it is over.”
The month was June, on a blistering day in New York. No personal mementos occupied the night table. Marissa didn’t want any past present, only the future, which for her was represented by a medallion that bore a relief of the Pieta, and orchids, flowers she favored on account of their simplicity. She always had a sharp bone structure, but instead of rendering her face sallow, the weight and hair loss accented the sculptural quality of her features. And how soft her hands were as she rested them on her lap, two doves in repose.
“Are you sure you want to watch this?” Bill asked. He sat beside her, on the edge of the bed, almost ready to climb in.
“It’s nearly done. After this, ‘The Simpsons’ is on. We can all laugh.”
“Yes, Bill. Laugh.”
Marissa grinned at him the way she had at me the June she had first snuck into my bed. “I hate that shirt,” she said.
“That’s why I’m wearing it.” Bill had on a tee with an image of Bruce Springsteen’s jean-clad derriere against a background of red and white stripes. A red kerchief hung out of a right hip pocket, and a coffee stain blotted the center. “If you want to laugh, check out Bruce’s butt.”
“You’re such a hick.”
“So I am, but… honey… a natural disaster?”
“Oh, that shirt is so ugly.”
Our mother paced about as she talked of placing a vase here and hanging a watercolor there. “A picture of a teapot would be calming. Of roses, too.” She had been speaking of livening up the room for the two weeks since Marissa had been there. Our mother’s suit was tangerine. Two-toned pumps matched a purse. Buoyed by Marissa’s daily compliments over a purchase, she spent hours on Madison Avenue when out of the hospital. Her daughter would be in heels soon enough, it seemed.
“She’s a minimalist,” our father said to honor my sister’s wish of a stark room. He stood with arms folded, his big boss stance. Our father’s shirt was pink linen with a Mandarin collar. The shirt had been my choice, while my own shirt was blue, also my choice. I was glad to keep our mother company at Barneys, and I had come to appreciate blue as much as our father did pink. The color complimented his whitening hair.
Me, I was a mute figure in a chair. I sided with Bill. Marissa’s insistence on news of a cataclysm on the par of Armageddon was weird. But who were we to change the channel? We were her visitors.
The Dover School is fundraising for an innovation lab, a physical space where students with tools that range from a pencil to a hammer can design and execute projects that encourage trial and error and learning through failure: a velocipede, a telescope, a thermometer… As Marissa’s jigsaw puzzles did for her, the pertinacity to complete a whole can inspire these kids to dream, not only for themselves, but also for others. Marissa herself once envisioned that our father would erect a building higher than the clouds, a monument of a home.
“Maybe typhoons won’t be scary up there,” she said on that rainy night our father treated us to Italian food. “We’d be above the mess down here. When the sky clears, we’d have a view of everything. Every mountain. Every valley. Every rooftop. Everything.”
I was gorging on my pizza. A lit candle on our table flickered shadows on Marissa’s lasagna, and in the soft light, with her before a reef tinted wall, silver threads to the seashells on her dress sparkled as if she were a creature of the deep.
“Everything,” I repeated.
The word would resound in my head in the midst of what our father dubbed her “minimalist” surrounding. For all we accumulate since birth, we leave with nothing, not even laughter. No wonder hospitals are frightful. Rooms possess the desolation of a jail cell.
Screw “The Simpsons.”
“No,” I wanted to block the TV and declare as if I were some soap character that had popped out of the screen. “Things don’t end just like that. The rest of us go on living. Small as we are, our loss is as big as today’s headlines. Tomorrow needs to hurry, so I can get on with this business of starting again. I’ve still got my dreams.”
Instead, I sat through the shenanigans of America’s most beloved family as the flames of a setting sun made way for stars and my stomach growled for a roast chicken.
Nobody laughed. Rooted to Marissa’s side by the window, Bill flashed some teeth. That was all. I was with our parents on the other side, the door behind us. They were seated now. Our chairs were foam padded and covered in cream upholstery, fluffy to the touch and celestial to behold so that along with the numbness of the moment, we could have been floating in air. Bill turned off the TV. The room fell silent. All those around me looked old, weary, their faces furrowed and eyes damp, as if everyone had forgotten what is to be.
“Sweet September drizzle,” I whispered.
Marissa laid her head back.
“Lifesavers… Leaf wings… God’s kisses…”
So soft was her pillow that she seemed to sink into a cloud.
“I think I love you. I think I love you. So what am I afraid of? I’m afraid that I’m not sure of a love there is no cure for.”
Marissa shut her eyes.
Won’t you eat a chicken with me? I thought. What happens now?
If I could share with my sister the answer that life has provided over the years, here’s what I’d tell her:
Bill has remarried. Katrina is from Texas, born and raised, and of Mexican descent. The pairing of a Southern drawl with a swarthy face and eyes the black of melanite can be jarring, though only for the first few minutes that you meet her. She has a smile so infectious that you succumb to her warmth, and the way she says hello, you’d think you were the only human she cared to be with. They have a son, a lanky teen who wears his hair anime style, long so as to cover his ears and jaggedly cut. Lance is on his first year at New York University. He wants to be a scriptwriter, which is what Farley is.
Farley… such a dorky name, as is the man who owns it. He’s got a duck walk and a unibrow, black-rimmed glasses on a conical nose. He’s also able to unbolt the screws to a hubcap with one yank of a wrench, his forearms Popeye pumped; he makes the best paellas with jumbo shrimps and the spiciest chorizos; and his imagination has got Daddy and Mommy hooked on Netflix.
“Clever,” Daddy said of one film about an old farmer in the Idaho outback who with his dog, an Irish setter named Auburn, reunites a boy and his family and uncovers a drug ring. Mommy said it made her cry. “You must be proud of him,” she commented to me. “I am,” I said.
None of the films Farley writes would ever screen in the Philippines. He does indie work, not Hollywood big budgets, which are the only features that sell internationally. I love this auteur element about Farley… it shows an uncompromising disposition to be true to himself… and whatever it is he loves about me has kept us together for eight years. Today is our anniversary.
I can go on, but these are the important stuff. Goodbye for now.
The corridor outside my office is quiet. The students have been dismissed. The garage to the house across the street has dimmed, though it isn’t entirely blank. It never is. History makes us see things that aren’t there, our thoughts projected through a camera ensconced in our memories. I wonder what family today occupies our house from long ago, if at the moment a brother and his sister are bobbing in the pool, rain kisses on their cheeks amid liquid halos.
His real name was Roy Harold Scherer, Jr. Hollywood needed something more glamorous on theater marquees, so it took two of the world’s natural wonders – the Rock of Gibraltar and the Hudson River – and baptized the 6’4″ truck driver from Winnetka, Illinois (population of 12,105 in 1950) with a moniker crafted from the first words of each. A star was born. The first matinee idol of his kind, Rock Hudson ushered in the era of the earthy he-man.
Indeed, the hunk was all about the American outdoors. In “Giant” (1956), Hudson is the quintessential cowboy, a strapping figure that races on horseback across the Texas planes amid a panorama of mountains and a vast sky. As Jane Wyman’s love interest in “All That Heaven Allows” (1955), he’s a gardener in jeans and a lumberjack top, with trees building high and a storm of leaves his habitat. Even in his pairing with Doris Day in some of the best romantic comedies ever made – “Pillow Talk” (1959), “Lover Come Back” (1961), and “Send Me No Flowers” (1964) – Hudson is every lady’s stud and every dude’s pal. Yes, guys liked him, too.
Rock Hudson was easily a film maker’s jackpot. His appeal extended to regions beyond the United States coastline. My mother herself was a fan. A comely 17-year-old in the mid-1950s, she was featured in a Philippine newspaper supplement in which she listed among her favorite things red roses and Rock Hudson flicks. 30 years later, my sister, as well, regarded him as exceptional among the leading men of his era. A wholesome, masculine image could explain the actor’s multi-generational popularity, particularly among females. James Dean was too tortured. (http://www.rafsy.com/films-1920s-1950s/rebel-without-a-cause-rage-against-the-dying-of-the-light/) Marlon Brando was too mercurial. (http://www.rafsy.com/films-1920s-1950s/on-the-waterfront-sin-and-salvation/) Montgomery Clift was too withdrawn. (http://www.rafsy.com/films-1920s-1950s/a-place-in-the-sun-a-love-worth-dying-for/ )
Personally, I find the vulnerability integral to method acting sexy. The way Dean, Brando, and Clift manifested their soft spots beneath the armor of the classic white tee instructed me as an adolescent that manhood is not about bravado. Manhood is a complex state of being where, under attack, a guy defends his convictions of love and respect towards his fellow humans, unashamed to fall should a punch on the nose impair his footing. The honor is in the fight.
While for a boy, this makes for metamorphic cinema, a girl is reared to view manhood from a different perspective. Let’s begin with the Walt Disney fairy tales. (http://www.rafsy.com/films-1920s-1950s/snow-white-and-the-seven-dwarfs-someday-my-prince-will-come/) Every princess needs a prince, for only he has the power to rescue her from life’s perils and only in matrimony will she be assured happiness. Hence, girls grow into women with the notion that marriage is an immutable future. Fairy tales continue to exist for them, although in a different mode: Hollywood.
This is why Rock Hudson was perfect. He was the alpha male that embodied princely characteristics. No matter the bind he was in, no crack ever appeared on his veneer. Even with hair unkempt, he was immaculately groomed, and that face – the strong chin and eminent nose, the dusky eyes and broad forehead – evoked the artistry of Mount Rushmore.
The irony and the misfortune is that Rock Hudson himself needed saving. He was homosexual. As Hollywood’s premier box office draw, a revelation of his true nature would have lost studios millions of audiences and billions of dollars. Women would have been distraught. Men would have gloated. Everybody would have been disgusted. The attitude in pre-Stonewall America was that being gay was a psychological disorder, a condition that tweaked the brain to blindside a man to a sense of morals. And so the fate of those whose sexual disposition I share – a societal deprivation to love that drove them to dark alleys and public restrooms in search of human warmth.
According to author Armistead Maupin, best friend to Hudson back in the day, the actor sought refuge in San Francisco. What an earthquake of desire Hudson must have triggered upon treading the city’s seven hills, followed by a blaze of broken hearts in his wake. Who could say no to one of filmdom’s most spectacular images?
Regardless, carnal release is momentary and skin deep, though we try to convince ourselves otherwise. With a hunger in the soul, we continue on our foray to cavernous venues like animals in a burrow scrounging for nourishment. Unfortunately, the subterfuge did not certify discretion for Hudson. Confidential magazine got wind of his secret and threatened to expose him. To protect Hollywood’s cash box, agent Henry Wilson sacrificed Tab Hunter, another closeted swooner, to the gossip mill instead, then married off Hudson to his secretary, Phyllis Gates, whom Wilson’s biographer revealed years later to be a lesbian.
How crippling it must have been, this masquerade, this lying to the world. A draconian attitude towards homosexuality conditioned Rock Hudson to believe that he was an aberration of a human being. So ingrained was his self-loathing that when he became the most famous face of AIDS in the 1980s, he denied being gay.
My early adulthood coincided with the actor’s return as front page news. I was a freshman in college, a boy from the Philippines new to America, where its liberal atmosphere emboldened me to confront my own homosexuality. Since I was focused on the issue of being in the closet, I was ignorant of the Reagan administration’s refusal to tackle the AIDS epidemic. Politics had no role in my current crush (a German-Puerto Rican skateboarder named Ralph who had a deep voice, a square jaw, and a rounded derriere that a pair of Levi’s 501’s accentuated). Instead, the tabloid headlines of Rock Hudson imperiling “Dynasty” star Linda Evans due to a kiss when he guest-appeared on the TV series seized my attention, as did the jokes that sprouted from Hudson’s ongoing drama to survive. The man was entertainment. His suffering bore no link to me.
I was wrong. I recently watched on youtube an account of Hudson’s last months. While in Paris to receive treatment, he was staying at the Ritz-Carlton, gaunt and bed-ridden. Nobody wanted to hug him. Nobody wanted to touch him. To those who came into contact with him, if only by their mere presence of standing a few feet away, he was the loneliest person they had ever seen. What a colossal fall for a man formerly glorified as a specimen of masculine superiority. Such an elevated status is a set-up for rejection. We are all mortal. We all grow old. We all succumb to ailments. The more idealized we are, the harsher the world can be as our humanness betrays itself through every personal setback.
Farrah Fawcett comes to mind. (http://www.rafsy.com/actors-models-directors/farrah-fawcett-the-kiss-of-providence/) In her middle age, psychotic episodes such as vandalism of a lover’s property and incoherency on “The David Letterman Show” turned her into a stooge. Then news broke out that she was dying. Luckily for Fawcett, the virus that claimed her life did not denigrate her as a reprobate. We kept vigil. We hoped and we prayed. So did she. Ultimately, the bravery with which Farrah Fawcett faced cancer earned her something denied Rock Hudson – our respect.
As much as we’d like to believe in progress, times have not entirely changed. Despite the internet exposure to customs and lifestyles different from our own, allowing for an increased acceptance of openly gay actors such as Matt Bomer and Wentworth Miller, a code of silence continues to muzzle big budget performers whose careers are cemented in a macho image. Number one would be Tom Cruise. (http://www.rafsy.com/actors-models-directors/tom-cruise-the-art-of-survival/) Speculation has hounded him for decades so that every one of my friends is convinced that he’s gay. “He should just admit it,” a co-worker at San Francisco AIDS Foundation said, “Nowadays it doesn’t matter.”
Oh, but it does. Bare in mind that Cruise’s films do not screen in politically correct San Francisco alone, but also in the Deep South and the Midwest, in Russia and China… in places across the globe where homosexuality remains a perversion, and in some countries, a crime. Should it make headlines that Cruise prefers brawn to breasts, then ticket sales will plummet, movie studios will lose money, and Cruise will be jobless. No homophobe wants to see one derided as a pansy kissing a beautiful woman and touting a gun as he embarks on hair-raising exploits to save the world. Viewers would consider Tom Cruise both a fraud and an affront to manhood. Never mind that acting is all about… well… acting. When it comes to cinema icons, the line between fact and fiction is non-existent.
And so the tragedy that is Rock Hudson. He died at 59. For all his capacity to make men laugh and women fall in love, the press summed up his legacy in a single acronym: AIDS. That was enough for a once adoring public to turn its back on him.