She, the Perfect Stranger (An Excerpt from “Love Carousel”)

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What was she trying to prove?

That was what Nigel would ask if he found out. But he wouldn’t find out. Megan wouldn’t tell him because he had no reason to know. She might have felt differently a month ago, a week ago even, felt differently before she had gotten her own place. She didn’t yet entirely understand why the grocer boy Todd’s flirtation had propelled her to find a home for herself. If she had not met Todd, she might now have been sharing the same bed with Nigel. Being with Nigel would have been the logical move to make while she was with her parents. And then Todd had given Megan his number, Todd whose eyes and smile she kept on envisioning. They would surface in her mind without any provocation, often at night, in bed, while she lay in the dark alone, daring her to break lose, to take a risk, to act as she pleased and not as anybody else expected her to. She would think of the clandestine fashion in which he had provided his phone number. She would think of Nigel and she would think damn him should he ever tell her his heart broke because she had been unfaithful. And as the late night hours would slip into early dawn, Megan would feel her desire to call Todd build from an urge to a longing and ultimately to a need.

Yet she still couldn’t bring herself to call him. Whenever Megan proceeded to press his number on her cell phone, she would stall on the third or fourth digit. What could she say after hello? How could she navigate the conversation without the ability to gauge his reaction through his facial expressions, his physical nuances?

She had to see him.

The grocery was nearly closing when Megan walked in. It was a Saturday night. Young women in short dresses and clean shaven men wearing button-down shirts tucked out chatted in front of a bar a couple of blocks away. Megan wondered at how Todd could sever himself from the fun in his midst. He ought to be enjoying his last summer before undertaking the burdening responsibility of a chemist.

Some people who appeared to be headed to the bar were in line at the register. As scantily clad as the women were, Todd was oblivious to them, ringing up their gums and cigarettes without providing anything more than a perfunctory good evening nod in response to their coquettish grins. The counter seemed to work as a cordon that sealed him off from social interaction. This pleased Megan. She might be the only woman in the city whom Todd had honored with his phone number.

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Todd didn’t notice Megan when she entered, didn’t notice her as she fell in line. Five people were before her, then four and then three. He looked up from the cash register, saw her and smiled. He gave her a big smile, the kind of smile one had when overjoyed that a person one longed to see had arrived. Megan knew that smile. She had seen it on Nigel on prom night and on the afternoon in the backseat of her father’s Cadillac. She saw it on Dylan. Dylan always had that smile.

Todd’s eyes were lighter this evening. While on their first meeting they were a deep earth brown, tonight there was a milky faintness to them. They were alone in the grocery now, she and he.

“Thank you for your number,” said Megan. What else could she have said?

“You’re welcome.”

“This doesn’t always happen, a phone number on a grocery receipt. In fact, it’s never happened.”

“Me, too.” Todd sounded shy compared to the first time they spoke, embarrassed. “It’s not always I give out my phone number on a grocery receipt. Actually, I never have.”

“Why didn’t you ask for my number or give me yours upfront?”

“I didn’t want to be too… too forward. So I ended up being cheesy.”

“No, not cheesy. Surprising.”

“It’s nice of you to come. It’s nice you’re here.”

“I’ve never responded to a guy this way before,” Megan said. “Let’s start off by introducing ourselves properly. I’m Megan.” She offered her hand.

“I’m Todd.”

Todd had large hands, impressive hands. They had calluses, probably from lifting weights. Even so, his palm was soft and he seemed to be holding Megan’s hand rather than shaking it.

“You should be out at the bars enjoying your weekend like everyone else,” Megan said. She was about to add: “like everyone else your age.”

“You should be, too.”

“I’ve already been through that. It was never my scene.”

“Mine neither.” Todd stepped out from behind the counter. “I have one last thing to do. Please stay. You’re welcome to.”

He shut the door, flipped the open sign to closed. Then he returned to the cash register to count the earnings for the day.

Megan asked, “You trust me with this part of your business?”

“Do I have any reason not to?”

“Since you trust me, then I trust you.”

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While Megan flipped through a magazine, Todd brought the money to a safe in an office located at the back of the store. From there, he asked her common conversational questions: where she lived, what work she did. He was wearing a lumberjack coat when he came out and he walked with a rugged stride down the aisle, slightly bow-legged in the way athletes were.

Megan placed the magazine back on the rack. As she looked up from the rack to face him, he was standing beside her.

“Do you have any plans for the rest of the evening?” he asked.

“If I did, I wouldn’t be here,” she said.

They looked at each other for a moment more, but there was nothing else to say and so he kissed her. He kissed her and she didn’t hold back.

She thought of her parents. They were a mere two blocks away. Megan had not dropped by their apartment to greet them. She had no intention of doing so. Her mother had been upset that Megan insisted on living apart from them, had said Megan didn’t care for them. Her father had defended Megan, stating that it was right she be on her own. Regardless, Megan would never be too far away. She was there this instant, thinking of them, yet allowing herself to live free of their or of anybody else’s opinion. Daughter, wife, mistress – whatever it was people identified her as, she didn’t belong to anybody.

So who was Megan tonight? As far as Todd was concerned, a stranger. He may know her first name, in what part of the city she lived, where she worked, but not her last name, neither her phone number nor her age. The only thing of herself Megan would allow Todd to take possession of was her beauty, for that was all she desired – to be nothing more than something beautiful to a man who struck her equally as such.

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Todd occupied a studio a few floors above. It was typical of a young man’s abode: magazines were scattered on the floor; crumbs dirtied the kitchen counter; a closet door was haphazardly left open. But atypical of a young man’s possessions, a Smithsonian was mixed in with fitness journals, and poetry tomes on Whitman, Cummings and Bishop were stacked on a desk along with chemistry books. A quilt covered the bed. The pattern of cows grazing on the grass beneath a smiling crescent moon made Megan acutely conscious of the disparity between her and Todd’s ages. Really, Todd was just a boy. Was it his undergraduate studies he had just completed or graduate school? By the looks of him, he was perhaps no older than 24. Megan had never thought of herself as an older woman, yet there she was. There she was and how confident this boy was in his seduction of her. He was stroking the nape of her neck, fondling her hair, tenderly pressing his lips against hers. Nothing was rushed about him. How was it he knew exactly what a woman needed?

“Of all the women who walk into the grocery, why me?” Megan asked.

“Something about you,” Todd said.

“My ineptitude with stain removers?”

“Somewhat. Nobody asks me for assistance. Nobody. And you seem like you need someone to talk to, to be with. You have a softness that makes a man want to reach out to you.”

Was loneliness so palpable? In Todd’s touch and in his kisses Megan sensed something in his life was missing, too. No pictures hung on the refrigerator door, not even a postcard. The walls were bare. Moving boxes that had yet to be assembled lay beside a scruffy sofa.

Light shone in from underneath the front door, through the curtains, from the desk lamp on which Todd had draped a piece of cloth. Megan wanted light. She always liked to see the person whom she was making love to and she liked to be seen in return. Sex to her was the most honest of unions, more honest than courtship or marriage. No lies. No facades. No secrets. It was two people drawn together to fill an emptiness that both shared. She stood back so that she could take in the sight of Todd. He undressed slowly. He enjoyed being watched, Megan could tell. He reached out to her and gently he ran his hand down the length of her naked torso, around her breasts. He seemed to be astounded by the evenness of her color as much as she was by the starkness of his tan line.

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“There isn’t a blemish on you,” he said. “You’re one tone all over, like a baby.”

“You, you’re so sun soaked.”

“I was a lifeguard in my previous life.”

“Have you ever saved anyone from drowning?”

“A couple of times. A little boy and a middle-aged woman.”

They lay on his bed, on the quilt with its little boy design, sinking into a pool of midnight blue and cream stars, of M’s and O’s trailing out of the heads of cows. The sheets smelled of Ivory Snow, while Todd smelled of spice and day work.

“Beautiful,” Todd whispered. “Beautiful.” He sounded as though he were experiencing beauty for the first time.

“When do you start your new job?” asked Megan. What she really wanted to know was when he was leaving.

“Less than a month.”

“Half of your place is already empty. The boxes.”

“I’ve always lived like this, ever since I left home. When I was in school, it made no sense to unpack since I’d be moving to another dorm the following year.”

“Your parents must be surprised at the vagabond their son has become.”

“My parents were killed in a plane crash when I was a kid.”

“Oh… I’m sorry.”

“No need to be,” Todd whispered, so close to her face. “I never knew them. I was very, very young. My uncle and aunt raised me.”

“Maybe your next stop will be home to you for a while, a long while.”


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A draft entered through a crack to the window above the bed. It cooled Megan like soft breath blown on her body. Todd’s hand on her belly was warm. His perspiration on her cheeks was as freshening as morning dew. He nestled his head on her chest and shut his eyes. In repose like that, Todd appeared small and delicate. Megan ran her fingers through his hair and it felt as though she were stroking the silken mane of a young animal. She and Todd were strangers to each other, and yet not quite, not anymore. In the little bit she knew about him, he seemed to have bared all of himself. And for the brief moment that their lives intersected, she had plenty of him to carry with her for a lifetime.

“You’re an unusual woman,” Todd said.

“How so?”

“I never thought there could be such a thing as perfect. I was wrong. I’ll always remember this night as perfect, you as perfect.”

“That’s because you don’t know me,” Megan said.

“The Searchers”/ “Les Cowboys”: We Belong… Neither Here nor There

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Some stories are so universal in their themes that every other generation reinvents them to conform to the current condition of the world, though with their essence intact. One such theme is the quest for an identity. At a time in America when cowboys were considered the good guys and Indians the bad guys, “The Searchers” (1956) premiered to commercial success and posed the question of what we would do if a person we love reestablished roots with a group of people we have been brainwashed to hate.

The movie follows cowboy Ethan Edwards (John Wayne) on a mission to rescue his niece (Lana Wood), whom Native Americans abducted when she was eight. Although Ethan completes his mission, he does so seven years later, and the 15-year-old Debbie Edwards (Natalie Wood) he finds has adopted the language, way of dressing, and rituals of the tribe that plundered her girlhood home. Meanwhile, the reunion triggers memories in Debbie long suppressed. Who is she really, both wonder. She belongs neither here nor there.

The French remake, “Les Cowboys” (2015), has replaced Indians with Muslims, the pariahs of the internet civilization as Islamophobe runs amuck over ever-deadlier terrorist attacks purportedly committed in praise of Allah. 16-year-old Kelly Balland (Iliana Zabeth) has run away from home with her Muslim boyfriend (Mounir Margoum), spurring her father, Alain (François Damien), and brother, Georges (Finnegan Oldfield), on a wild goose chase in pursuit of her. The pair travel from the comfort of a prairie town in France to Belgium, Yemen, and Pakistan, enmeshed in a decade-long hunt blotted by the breakdown of a family and unwarranted deaths. The obstacle is Kelly herself… she doesn’t want to be found… and should she be, elements of the daughter and sister so beloved might no longer exist.

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Every one of us, at some point in life, embarks on a diaspora of sorts. Whether we are off to college or migrating to another land, we part from a place that since birth has provided us a sense of belonging, in answer to a call of distant frontiers to forge our own destinies. My origin is the Philippines, the bedrock of many of my fondest childhood memories: weekend swims in a pool amidst a garden of hillocks and trees as bountiful as those in a rain forest; Grandma Antonia’s meat omelet; a house awash in light as relatives from second cousins to grand aunts gathered for Christmas; and the snap, crackle, pop of New Year’s Eve fireworks. I could not conceive of being anywhere far and apart from family. Then puberty hit.

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Today the United States is my home. “Would you ever go back to the Philippines?” my friend, Vince, has asked. To visit, yes. I do often, every holiday season. To live in, no. Only the U.S.A. can ballyhoo a diversity of creeds, ethnicities, and lifestyles. As this year’s presidential campaign has been reminding us, it’s this very diversity that makes America great, a nation founded on immigrants from Europe to Asia, from Africa to the Latin continent, all who have converged on the shores and tarmacs of this world power for one unified purpose: the prospect of an auspicious future. San Francisco has provided me the community to be true to my nature. I can dance with another man at a bar… hands on the other’s hips, lips close as to suggest a kiss… without fear of censure, and every June, flag poles on Market Street brandish the rainbow banner in celebration of Gay Pride month. The subject of HIV/AIDS is a public discussion. For those personally affected by the disease, a support network exists. Medication is available to prolong life as are counseling and social organizations so that one need not feel alone.

This isn’t to say that America is perfect. Homophobia persists, as evidenced by the murders of transgender people (17 were reported so far for the year 2016) and the shooting at Pulse, an Orlando gay nightclub where, two months ago, a madman opened fire, killing 50 men and women. Nevertheless, America holds sacred the first amendment. Whenever we are victims of an act that violates our civil rights, we speak, we shout, we protest, we take to the streets and raise placards at arms length that demand enough is enough. And those in government do listen. Ten years ago, we would never have thought possible marriage between two persons of the same sex and the abolition in the military of a law that prohibited homosexuals from serving. The United States is indeed a sanctuary for each to exert one’s rights as an upstanding citizen.

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The Philippines is developing its own progressive view towards homosexuality. I have seen in 20 years the influx of gay bars in Manila, some located in the commercial center and that attract the patronage of socialites and yuppies alike. More than ever, the media allot coverage to gay, lesbian, and transgender personalities. One such public figure is Vice Ganda. A movie star and TV fixture, he is heavy on the make-up and speaks with a voice as whirly as his sashay, he is Linda Evangelista in his array of hair colors and prone to histrionics when speaking of his past as a victim of anti-gay defamations. Ganda is a stereotype, which is not entirely good. While lending a voice to a segment of Philippine society to a large scale voiceless, he does so in a way that fans preconceived notions of what it is to be a gay man.

Ultimately, homosexuals in the Philippines do not have a political force. Their presence is contained within a box of flamboyance, everyone’s favorite couturier, hairdresser, gossip, and comic relief – an overall buffoon. Blasphemous is the gay man who breaks through the encasement. Because he isn’t easily identifiable, he is somewhat of a threat, like an enemy spy who blends in a crowd, unbeknownst to all lugging a bomb in a satchel.

In “The Searchers” and “Les Cowboys,” our self-anointed rescuers believe their respective enemies have corrupted the missing girls. Filipinos far from regard Americans as the enemy, despite having been under their colonial authority for half a century. On the contrary, we Filipinos are rather enamored by Americans. We so prize Stateside products that we don a tee stamped with a Tommy Hilfiger logo as if it were ermine, and billboards along freeways feature Filipino faces that promote a Western ideal of beauty of fair skin and aquiline noses. At the same time, while in high school at the International School, my Filipino friends and I had constructed an invisible wall between Americans and ourselves. We considered them loud and sexually loose, an eyesore in frayed jeans and athletic wear as daywear. By pursuing a higher education in the U.S.A., I invited a foreign culture to mollify my conservative outlook on clothes and manners so that, upon my senior year, my father disapproved of my daily attire of shorts, high tops, and a collarless tee. Meanwhile, on the sexual front… well… let me just say I was coming into my own.

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My sister, Anna Maria, never thought she would again live in the Philippines once she left for college in New York five years prior to my own departure. ( She had found her domain, there in a world capital synonymous with beauty and fashion, art and intellect. How she bemoaned being a misfit when, some 14 years later, she decided to expand her architecture firm to Asia by setting up shop in Manila. “This place really isn’t for me,” she said. We were at a luncheon during one of my visits, and she was criticizing the customs of a myopic society, namely the compliments on appearance that verge on sycophantic and the twaddle whispered over private lives, often false and pernicious. Yet in Manila she remains, and there she will be for a long time to come, perhaps for the rest of her life, for her career has flourished and her American husband shrugs off all about the culture that grates her.

Cowboy or misplaced soul, we are each a bit of both. As Ethan Edwards in “The Searchers” does right with Debbie, he gives us a closing shot a trademark of every tale about the wild, wild, west: that of a figure, stooped and solitary, lumbering into the sunset. Ethan is us either on the road to stake our territory or going back from whence we came.

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Richard Gere: Love Is Love Is Love Is Love

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Richard Gere belongs in the category that film goers have labeled Gene Tierney (, John Heard (, and Emily Blunt – that of underrated actor. Women associate him with his handsomeness. Men associate him with his handsomeness to women. I plead guilty to being so stricken by his good looks that when I watched “American Gigolo” (1980) in high school, I noticed nothing of his thespian talent. As male escort Julian Kaye, he epitomizes everything I wanted to be: a gym-toned sex god with scarcely a worry other than what to wear. I envied Kaye’s mornings. Like a gambler at a roulette table, Kaye pouts over and ponders an array of Italian made garments snatched from his closet and flung onto his bed. Though a bit befuddled, he’s having fun, for no matter his choice, he struts the streets a champion.

My oh my, how facile life is for the gorgeous. To a zit-ridden teen, the message to “American Gigolo” was clear, that to get ahead in the world did not involve any merit beneath the surface. Richard Gere would never have gotten the role that made him a star had he been born without that face, and without that face, he would never have had the perspicacity to channel a gigolo’s cockiness.

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The mold was cast, and our opinion of Gere was set. The man never failed to deliver, often with a surprise punch that made him even sexier. Here’s the reason “An Officer and a Gentleman” (1982) was a box office smash. Gere shows vulnerability, the very characteristic that elevated forerunners Brando ( and Dean ( to a level above the generic pretty boys of their own era. As Zack Mayo, Gere is a loner intent on being a pilot. He enlists with the air force, where he undergoes the physical endurance tactics of Sergeant Foley (Lou Gossett, Jr.), all of which fringe on abuse. The tyrant tells Mayo he’s out, and our hero breaks down, yelling as an orphan boy does to stay because he’s got nowhere else to go. How could we resist adopting him?

Women to this day swoon over the finale. Nifty in a navy aviation uniform of white suit and cap, Mayo sweeps Debra Winger’s factory girl Paula off her feet, out of the warehouse, and into a sun blazed future as wife to a dream man. Gere was against the scene. “Sentimental,” he called it, which is why it works. With his freshly minted stature as a bodice ripper in possession of a soul, no other actor could have rendered heartfelt the type of ending more typical of a Harlequin paperback. Gere’s cockiness was at full force once again, although evened by tears he sheds over his doomed BFF, Sid (David Keith).

The buddy factor in “An Officer and a Gentleman” is what gets me. Zack Mayo cries unabashedly, regardless that the object of his grief is another male. His embrace of Sid, this desperation to hold on to somebody already gone, is a shout to humankind that a display of affection towards a person of our own gender need not be shameful. Love, in its entire spectrum, is a virtue.

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As musical theater composer, Lin-Manual Miranda, said in his 2016 Tony Award acceptance speech, “Love is love is love is love is love is love is love is love, cannot be killed or swept away.” His chant came in the aftermath of a gun massacre perpetrated by a self-identified ISIS terrorist at an Orlando gay nightclub. Not everybody condemned the crime. Pastor Roger Jimenez of Sacramento preached to his congregation, “Are you sad that 50 pedophiles were killed today? No… I think that’s great. I think that helps society.” The Westboro Baptist Church pronounced, “God sent the shooter.” Tweets that the victims received their just due as a result of being “perverts” deluged the internet. “We live through times when hate and fear seem stronger,” said Miranda.

Since Orlando, we’ve had news of white cops murdering black men and black men murdering white cops; gunmen shooting to death 21 hostages at a Bangladesh café; and a truck mowing through a crowd of Bastille Day celebrants in Nice, leaving in its trail 84 corpses. Not all calamities make headlines. My cousin’s house burned down three days ago. Fortunately, he and his family (including four children between the ages of 13 and 21) were spared. Unfortunately, their belongings were not. They are at the moment taking refuge in a neighbor’s room, still in shock and disbelief, as my cousin figures out the first steps to recovery.

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The volatility of the world beyond the periphery of our front yard puts our personal concerns into perspective. How trite my annoyance is that I weigh 160 pounds rather than my comfortable 165. Sillier still is the media coverage on the Kardashian women, the latest scandal involving racy lyrics Kanye West – husband to Kim – wrote about fellow pop star and ex, Taylor Swift. And yet, human nature compels us to resort to the paltry and salacious as recourse to the hardships.

Richard Gere is no stranger to the tabloid mill. In the year that witnessed the dissolution of the Soviet Union, Nelson Mendela’s freedom from a 27-year jail sentence, and the Persian Gulf War, Gere proved with “Pretty Woman” (1990) that he had box office potential beyond the decade of the 1980s. Fluffy as the film is, it assured him continued work, the chance for a role that could get people to at last speak of him as an actor. Then came a dose of venom. A rumor of Gere performing an unsavory act with a rodent proliferated like forest fire. The rumor was all folks talked about. If Gere made any films during the ordeal, I have no idea. He became an icon of derision, was speculated to be homosexual, and through it all, kept mum, the humiliation his burden to bear in silence.

However, there were some subjects on which Gere did not cease to be vocal. A Buddhist since the late ’80s, he has become a prominent figure against the Chinese occupation of Tibet, establishing The Gere Foundation to campaign for the region’s liberation. He is outspoken on the rights of tribal people across the globe, giving speeches about their persecution under the authority of certain governments, and stands up for AIDS awareness, particularly in India, where he co-founded the AIDS Care Home, a shelter for women and children infected with the disease. Gere is a gentleman true to Lin-Manuel Miranda’s incantation. Still, the gerbil rubbish that led to doubts about his heterosexuality overshadowed everything. Gay men I knew gloated over the rumor. For me, it was nothing more than a cheap shot at convincing ourselves that Richard Gere is one of us.

Well, he isn’t. Even if he was, big deal. I see Gere as he wants to be seen, as an activist and an actor. My favorites of Gere’s second millennium films are “The Hoax” (2006), where Gere plays an author who elaborates a scheme to pen Howard Hughes’s biography, and “Brooklyn’s Best” (2009), in which he is an alcoholic cop caught in a morass of police corruption. I will always watch his movies. I will always be a fan. I fell in love with Richard Gere the instant he held Sid to him, in a desolate motel on a hot day, mourning the loss of a life once rich with generosity and promise. Only an actor confident in his own capacity to give could have tackled this most wrenching scene with integrity.

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“West Side Story”: Devotion in Death

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No matter how many times I watch “West Side Story” (1961), the ending chokes me up. The most recent viewing was on 4th of July weekend. It was a sing-along at the Castro Theater, complete with a goody bag. The contents: a paper crown, a glow stick, a bubble bottle, and a party popper. The objective of the screening was a shindig that would allow us to celebrate, albeit with a dash of irreverence, a cultural icon.

Irreverence, you might ask; teen angst, racism, and young death are serious themes. True, yet look at this way. That we viewers of multifaceted backgrounds and ethnicities could make light of such heavy material affirmed that “West Side Story” had endowed us through the decades with something deeper than tears and despair: happiness.

We cheered to the rooftop conga Bernardo (George Chakiris), Anita (Rita Moreno), and their gang perform while they tally the pros and cons of life in “America.” We hollered at Riff’s (Russ Tamblyn) impish chantey of “Gee, Officer Krupke!” We cachinnated as Maria (Natalie Wood), after she and Tony (Richard Beymer) exalt about “Tonight,” provides this instruction for a rendezvous at the dress shop where she works: “When you come, use the back door.” However, upon the climactic conclusion, a hush befell the theater. The moment is so searing that I wrote about it in an autobiographical novel, “My Wonder Years in Hollywood,” as pivotal to the narrator’s romantic awakening:

Doc’s Drugstore… Anita is on her way to dispatch a message to Tony, that Maria is to run away with him… The Jets harass Anita… “Spick”… “Bernardo’s bitch”… Enraged, she lies, says Maria is dead, shot down by Chino, Bernardo’s best friend… Tony emerges from Doc’s back alley to avenge the murder of his beloved… “Chino! Chino!”… Maria appears… A white shawl swathed around her head, she is Madonna-like… Bang!…

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My affinity for “West Side Story” is perhaps no different from yours. Although I am certain I was introduced to the musical as a child, my first memory of it dates back to high school. I would spend weekends watching old movies on betamax, the chastity of their stories fuel to my vision of love as sunshine and moonlight. Even a ruinous end to an affair, as in “The Red Shoes” ( and “A Place in the Sun” (, didn’t adulterate the emotions depicted. Quite the contrary. That a pair of tender hearts should shatter due to forces beyond their control underscored the innocence and the unjust cost of its loss.

So at 17, I empathized with Maria as she clasps the pistol that fells her first love and, motioning to pull the trigger, declares, “You all killed him… Not with bullets and guns. With hate. Well, I can kill, too, because now I have hate.” Add the music to the drama and the result is something fantastic. The 20th century update to the Shakespeare tragedy ( offers a modern perspective to a collective experience. This is how it is when we are in love. Life is a song. When the love is destroyed, the song plays on, but its melody turns doleful, a sob.

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The soundtrack to “West Side Story” was on my cassette player morning, noon, and night. I thought I was an anomaly. Everybody I knew regarded Tony and Maria as childhood fixtures, fairy tale fabrications in the vein of Snow White and Prince Charming. ( Then six years later, I moved to San Francisco. Suddenly, I was a stereotype. Musicals and classic Hollywood are apparently connate to every gay man’s identity. I learned that “West Side Story” in particular distinguishes itself among us because the miscegenation is a variation of the love that dare not speak its name.

Of the principle characters in “West Side Story,” we gay men most identify with Maria. Tony has already been through the hurdle of anger management issues and rumbles, while Bernardo and Anita make for a hardened couple, wise about the perils of the street. Maria is pure. Her one fret is that Anita refuses to lower the neckline of the dress she is to wear to her first dance. Regardless, she stuns in white lace and a red sash like a rose petal afloat in a milk bowl. She is the only girl Tony sees. They gravitate to each other. They touch hands, then lips, and a tremor within that Maria has never before felt opens her eyes to the splendor of being a woman. Love makes her beautiful.

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Early on, we gay men are bullied and shunned, made to believe we are unworthy and unattractive. We search for validation through physical encounters with those who share our pains, no matter how brief or casual. In our wanton wanderings, we incur the same afflictions that the high school heckler had upon us. We discriminate among ourselves according to age and ethnicity, mannerism and appearance. We marginalize and are marginalized within our own community. It’s adolescence all over again. And just like then, we dream of someone to spot us from across a crowded room, to see us and only us, and in that look make us realize how beautiful we really are.

If Maria can have such luck, then any of us can. I have, and I met him in the city fabled for such seismic encounters: Paris. The year was 1990. I had graduated from college in Boston the year prior. Because of Paris’s prominence in literary lore, I had told my father that the place would behoove my aspiration of being a writer.

Sure, I wrote. I wrote of my ambles in the city, for that is what I did every day, walked, walked along the Seine to browse the book stalls that lined the bank, through obscure alleys paved in cobblestone, and up the steps of Montmartre, where cafés surrounded canvasses on easels that stood on display in a square. In the evenings, Paris was utopia to a young man exploring his sexuality. Bars and clubs offered a sampling of men that I would discover through later travels consist of archetypes prevalent in every gay community of all cultures – the fashionista, the jock, the preppy, the daddy… everything. With a bombardment of visual wonders and fleshly delicacies, I wrote nothing that was remotely creative.

And yet, my 12 months in this most revered of capitals was not a waste. Jonas vindicated every street meandering and eight-hour fling. I wrote about him in a blog posting dated April 2015 as perfect. ( We never had any more than one night for me to notice any foibles. He was my Tony, and just as the dance hall becomes empty of other people as Tony and Maria spot each other through the crowd, so it was for Jonas and me. We were in a video bar. He was standing against a post, arms folded, biceps and shoulders powerful underneath a gray sports shirt. His soft curls were the brown of a mustang. His eyes were fixed on me.

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In the metro ride to his place, we spoke of our lives with the ease that we bare ourselves in a journal. Jonas could have been James Bond. ( He had gone to boarding school, played polo and soccer, lifted weights, and skied. In addition, he had a keen eye for art. On vacation from Sweden, he was staying with a friend, a dealer and collector whose Place des Vosges dwelling had Picasso and Warhol on its walls. All this Jonas revealed of himself without a trace of boastfulness; these were simply facts of who he was. “What’s important,” Jonas said when the talk came to guys, “is that the person is nice. That’s all that matters.”

Our moment ended upon the first sunrays of the morning. We communicated by letter when I moved to San Francisco. Then after a year the post marks from Sweden stopped. Jonas was 38. We are all aware of what was happening to gay men of that age in the 1980s and ‘90s. Nearly 25 years later, his presence remained so vivid that I memorialized him in my novel, he whose embrace gave me the firmness to brave the future heartbreaks integral to my voyage into manhood:

Through each disappointment, Janos’s love has remained constant, a reminder that I deserve to stand on the peak of Mount Olympus, where I could raise my arms to heaven so that God could shower on me the one blessing that inspires songsters and scribes, the magic of the Taj Mahal, and the birth of legends.

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“West Side Story” is everyone’s story. As unwavering as our devotion is, we are confronted with powers no human can tame. People die… but not our love.

“Notorious”: A Yearning Fulfilled

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Much about “Notorious” (1946) is unforgettable, which is why the film ranks as one of Alfred Hitchcock’s best, recognized by Time and Entertainment Weekly as among 100 of the greatest films of all time: Alexander Sebastian’s (Claude Rains) Oedipal complex; the fusion of the domestic and the erotic that has never before or since been done to such clever effect as T.R. Devlin (Cary Grant) and Alicia Huberman (Ingrid Bergman) intersperse kisses with a dinner discussion on chicken; the suspense the possession of a key can breed. The singular moment that stands out for me, however, is subtle in its impact, like the faint scent of perfume that lingers in the air long after its wearer has left the room. It occurs on the plane ride from Los Angeles to Rio de Janeiro. Huberman has the window seat. When Devlin informs her of the view on the opposite side of the plane, she leans across him for a peak, providing him and us the vision of that flawless profile, and right there, in the awe in his eyes as he steadies his gaze on her, we see the exact second the man falls in love. Fade out.

“Notorious” is a romance wrapped up as a thriller. Alicia Huberman has agreed to work as an undercover agent for the Americans. Her mission: to seduce Nazi in hiding, Alexander Sebastian, into proposing marriage so that, through his trust and affection, she can expose a smuggling ring that involves uranium ore. In other words, for the sake of patriotism, she sleeps with the enemy. The Mata Hari ingredient always makes for a spicy story – feminine guile impairs masculine resolve – although the real bait in “Notorious” that ensnares a new breed of audiences every decade is the dog and cat partnership between Devlin and Huberman. He wants her. She wants him. He is wary on account of her reputation as a lady of lax morals. She interprets his suavity as a ploy for her to accept the assignment. So the two feign cold and loathing towards each other. We know they’re going to get past the façade, pecking and necking as doves do before the credits roll. The question is how, and until then, we savor the tease. Herein is another example of how through cinema we vicariously fulfill our own unfulfilled yearning.

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Those of you who have been following my blog are well aware of my history of amorous affairs that could have led to emotional rewards. You’ve read how factors that range from idealization ( to objectification (, from circumstance ( to recreational substances ( have served as an impasse to an embrace of the heart. What else could there be? The object denounced as the “root of all evil,” of course: money.

Devlin enters Huberman’s life as a matter of duty. He’s a cop, and his superiors have called upon him to crash a party where the lady is hostess so that he could operate his charisma on her while she is under the spell of liquor. Given her father’s indictment as a criminal of war, she would be the perfect ally for Uncle Sam; the opposite camp would never suspect her of espionage. As for Devlin, the man is simply doing his job. So it was with Brad. Brad was a rent man, not just any rent man, but one who for years before our first encounter had dominated my video screen with situations of himself in male bonding action. He lived in Chicago, while I lived in San Francisco. I found his information on the internet and contacted him in the winter of 2007. Fantasy became reality when months later Brad responded that he planned to travel to my part of the country. What happened next spawned an erotic story:

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He isn’t tall, but he’s larger than life. He isn’t ripped, but he’s brawny. Like a thoroughbred fighter, Brad is beefy in all the right places: robust thighs, meaty abs, and hands that can break my neck with the force of a nutcracker. His left arm bears a skull and dueling swords tattoo – an imprint of danger – and his head is striking to behold. In its grandness, his head brims with carnal secrets as ancient as sex itself. To glimpse at those secrets is to gaze into eyes the blue of Neptune. To experience those secrets is to feel a cock that inspires the awe… and fear… of a cop baton.

To say that I was in orbit is no hyperbole. Think of the gold medal that dangles before you, inches within your grasp, until the skater after you does a routine to Tchaikovsky’s “The Dying Swan” that puts you at silver or of the girl that could’ve been your bride had you reached the airport five minutes earlier to prevent her from boarding the airplane. Ever since I first saw Brad on video, that was the position I had been in, of coveting with such ardency that the sheer sight of him was a wallop in the loin. And then I got him. I figured that since I cash in on his DVD’s, I might as well shell out the extra bucks for the real deal. The weight of despondency lifted. I was soaring.

A couple of years after that fateful night, Brad moved with his boyfriend to San Francisco. Although the two remained committed, they continued with their occupation in the pleasure industry, and I became a regular, as often as monthly. Brad was true to his stallion persona, both physically and attitude-wise. Whatever money is supposed to be, it begot no evil for Brad and me. We may have fallen into a pit of profanities, pushed our bodies to exhaustion, and devolved to the level of swines in a pigsty, but everything we did was consensual and done with implicit trust. Once the nasty was over, Brad was a different person entirely, shy and polite.

A fact about Brad: in high school, he was inept in sports. This he professed to me when I asked him to reveal something private of himself. What courage. I don’t know of any other man who would dare to expose himself as challenged in an arena where his masculinity is measured on a scoreboard for all to survey. I also learned that to subsidize college, where he had been studying business, Brad had a stint as a forest ranger, and near the end of our monthly sessions, he was working towards a physical therapist degree. The human in Brad really surfaced during moments in which scarcely a word passed between us. Lying on sweat-drenched sheets, his bulk of a frame propped up by the headboard, he was just a nice guy… sweet, actually… all caresses and strokes.

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Nonetheless, the money had constructed a wall between Brad and me. Chemistry can’t be faked, and I don’t doubt his compliments, which ran the gamut from my physique to my performance. The anatomical manifestation of sexual arousal, the grunts, the exclamations of enhanced sensory stimulation… none of this could have been bought. And yet…

Any time outside the bedroom that I chance upon Brad, I try to glimpse at emotions that lurk beneath his image. At the gym or in the Castro, at a bar or on the subway, I give him a hug and plant a peck on his cheek. Brad smiles, eyes aglow and all teeth. He hugs me back. He pats my behind. In a voice that’s both gruff and endearing, he says, “Good to see ya.”

He might mean it. He might not. Maybe I’ll never know.

In “Notorious,” T.R. Devlin and Alicia Huberman have closure, and it makes us cheer. If our own affairs could be blithely packaged and tied in a bow, then how simple life would be, as tranquil as sleep. We wouldn’t know determination or risk or gratitude. Life would be boring. So I see this is the way it is meant to be between Brad and me. Our meetings ended because he married his boyfriend and retired from the wild scene. That was about two years ago. Just last month, in response to my erotic piece, he sent me an e-mail: “That’s an awesome story about me. Thanks.” His kudos is enough for me to go by. Someday, gray and arthritic, I will put on one of Brad’s DVD’s, and witnessing him resurrected in the prime of his virility, I will be thankful that for a moment in my past, the feast sizzling anew onscreen before me had indulged my palate.

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“Imelda”: Our Guilty Pleasure

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What’s in a name? If the eponym happens to be “Imelda” (2004), then the answer is a closetful. The mere mention of it generates a universal reaction – those shoes! When in 1986 the Philippines’ former first lady and her husband, Ferdinand Marcos, fled the country for exile in Hawaii, the presidential palace, Malacañang, was opened to the public as a museum of greed. I was there. Among the items I viewed: a receipt from Italian couturier, Valentino, for the purchase of two dresses the sum of $150,000; throne chairs; and a hand mirror that bore the initials IM encrusted in diamonds. The grand showcase was saved for the last. Underneath Mrs. Marcos’s boudoir, racks of stilettos, slip-ons, and pumps in leather or woven in bamboo – many of them of the same style in various colors – lined a basement the size of a department store warehouse. The place could have been a DSW outlet, only with every Ferragamo fitted for one woman and with somebody else footing the bill (namely, the Filipino tax payer).

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For the public’s amusement, the Ramona Diaz documentary titled after one of history’s most infamous consorts depicts much of the excesses. Everybody adores a rags to riches story, especially when the story turns sour, and this is the reason Imelda Marcos feeds our fascination. No ordinary woman can boast a trajectory from a hayseed in a third-world archipelago of a nation to a glamazon bejeweled in Cartier, ballroom waltzing in the arms of Lyndon B. Johnson and Adnan Khashoggi. At the peak of her power, the Marcoses amassed a fortune estimated at $10 billion. Their illegal holdings included such New York real estate as Lindenmere – a Long Island mansion that flaunts 16 bedrooms and seven gables – and the Crown Building. Then the People Power Revolution broke out. Mendicants and millionaires took to the streets in rallying for an end to the 20-year dictatorship. Nuns formed human barriers between tanks and protesters chanting as their new commander in chief Corazon Aquino, widow of slain Marcos opposition leader, Benigno Aquino, Jr. A nation was being reborn.

That such a shift in politics was about to happen was as overwhelming to me as my transition from adolescence to manhood. The Marcoses had held the number one position in the land my entire life. When the uprising in the Philippines made international headlines, I was on my freshman year at Tufts in Boston while my sister had commenced with graduate courses in architecture at Harvard. A university in America had been my plan ever since my sister had left Manila when I was 14 for her undergraduate studies at Sarah Lawrence in New York. When she transferred to Columbia, I stayed with her during two of my summer breaks, and with days spent eating out and nights clubbing, I envisioned my own future in higher education to be equally fun-filled.

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The opportunity existed at Tufts. My roommates had the time of their lives – a dorm party here, a frat party there, and cultural clubs that offered a banquet of social activities from barbecues to dances – which for me was the problem. I was so absorbed in an image I harbored of myself as a dandy about town, a trendsetter dressed in black and white, that I struggled to make friends. In reality, I was an average teen dealing with the issues of self-image and sexuality. So what that I wore Benetton and Calvin Klein? No designer label could conceal the pockmarks and the body that lacked even a hint of athleticism. The lying was worst of all. I lived in an all-male dorm. My two roommates – one from Puerto Rico and the other from a town 40 miles away – griped that slots to the co-ed dorms had all been taken, so there they were. I voiced the same fate. The truth was that I had opted for this boarding situation, motivated by hopes of a boy meets boy romance.

As I spent weekends at my sister’s place to escape the Tufts campus, the People Power Revolution was brewing. My mother wrote of my father’s and her involvement in a letter:

On January 7, the Management Association of the Philippines (Daddy is the president this year), the bishop, Businessman’s Conference, and the Makati Business Club had Cory Aquino as the speaker during their combined meetings at the Intercon. The affair was flashed briefly… A picture came out in the USA Today paper, January 8th. Daddy was in the picture. He gave the closing remarks on that day. Cory’s speech was very good and she intelligently answered questions from the floor… People are clamoring for change that a big number are volunteering to help Aquino. On my part, I volunteered for NAMFREL (National Movement for Free Elections) and we help any way we could. 

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By the end of February, the revolution swelled. The news featured scenes of military helicopters landing on Aquino territory as their pilots renounced allegiance to President Marcos and of citizens that numbered in the millions thronging Manila’s main thoroughfare, Edsa Avenue, the banners they waved and confetti that danced in the air yellow, Aquino’s official color. Suddenly, I was no longer invisible. Guys in my dorm would ask, “What do you think about what’s happening in the Philippines?”

I have no recollection of what I might have answered. In the midst of a personal coming-of-age saga, the current events of the day were the least of my concerns, until the afternoon my Puerto Rican roommate showed me a New York Times picture of Imelda Marcos taken during her husband’s 1965 inauguration. She is pristine in a bubble do and a white gown. Her smile is serene and her eyes are limpid with conquest. I wondered what must have gone through her mind at that instant. A decade earlier, she had been a salesgirl in a music store. Now… “She was beautiful,” my roommate said. She was, indeed. She was also omnipotent and omnipresent. Everyone from classmates to my mother’s friends had an Imelda anecdote to tell: Imelda once ordered a Philippine Airline carrier to be available at her disposal, leaving the passengers stranded at the airport; Imelda had reserved two floors at the Waldorf Astoria; Imelda would throw $100-tips to hotel bellboys.

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I most relished my father’s anecdotes. Malacañang Palace would call our home every so often to extend an invitation to a social function, all of which my father would decline. Nevertheless, Imelda Marcos would summon him for a so-called discussion on the Philippines’ economic state, during which he along with other businessmen would ride in a van to the presidential palace with the first lady as a fellow passenger. She was always seated in an elevated section at the back. “I’d be right in front of her,” my father once told me. “Whenever I turned to say something, I’d be talking to her knees.”

What did I think? I was all for Cory, but Imelda was one colorful character on the par of the evil queen in “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” (, as comical as a Disney villainess, and because of her, the People Power Revolution bordered on entertainment. The jokes were non-stop: raise Imelda Marcos’s 500 brassieres on a flagstaff and salute, “Erin go bra”; Imelda Marcos makes Marie Antoinette look like a bag lady; Did you hear that Imelda Marcos committed suicide? She piled up all her shoes then jumped.

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And this brings me back to the footwear. I visited Malacañang Palace during vacation from Tufts. A pair of sandals was on display on a pedestal. In transparent platform heels, bulbs flashed with the zaniness of lights in a pinball machine. “Madame’s disco shoes,” the curator said. Ideas of my own purpose in life percolated right there. Adolescent blues, goodbye. They were momentary stuff. The factor intrinsic and everlasting to my being was my identity as a Filipino man. It’s no coincidence that I was born two years after the Marcoses ascended to power. The stories about their exploits became my stories. The nationalism that led to their debacle was in my blood. Write it, I thought. Hence, my calling.

“Hello, My Name Is Doris”: In Defiance of Age

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I went to watch “Hello, My Name Is Doris” (2015) with a group of gay men. We were about a dozen in all, and we ranged in age from our forties to seventies (with the exception of one tricenarian in possession of an old soul). I loved the film. As someone soon to turn 50, I saw in the title heroine my own attempts to retain a youth that no longer is and my imaginings of a life that could have been. Doris Miller (Sally Field) is a dreamer somewhere in the half-century mark. Dolled up in Minnie Mouse hair ribbons and vintage ensembles of cardigans and pleated skirts the muted colors of a 1970s snapshot, she has been severed from living due to an adulthood as caregiver to an infirm mother. She is given the chance to compensate for the years lost when her mother dies and she befriends John (Max Greenfield), an officemate so much of a charmer that every one of his gestures, be it a parting kiss on the cheek or late night phone calls, awakens in her the probability of a romance.

Half Doris’s age, dimples, eyes as translucent as afterglow, and a hot bod… John can put anybody in a trance. He sure did me. Plus, he’s got slicked hair the brown of chestnut combed high in replicating the style of bygone movie gods (think Montgomery Clift). If I had hair like that, I’d ornament my hip pocket with a comb. So the fantasies begin. For me, my John came in the form of an online hook-up ten years ago named Scott.

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Now before I proceed on Scott, allow me to emphasize that I rarely get hits online. A lucky night for me generates five messages despite the numerous appeals on my part, and of those five messages, even rarer is my attraction to any one of the senders. Imagine, therefore, my incredulity when I first saw Scott’s pictures. Holy mackerel, I thought. With dark follicles and a swimmer’s physique, Scott could have been cousin to Doris’s own object of infatuation. I had not even sent the man a message. He would later tell me upon our meeting that a filter search produced my username (feednseed), which he found “interesting”; thus, his initiative to reach out to me. In his message, Scott didn’t merely introduce himself nor did he limit his communication to some lame remark such as “what are you up to right now?” (my line); he provided his phone number. I would also learn that Scott was new to the site. He had signed up three days earlier, and within 72 hours, his profile garnered over 300 hits. “I started clicking on each one to read,” he said, “and then I stopped. It was too much. What a ridiculous amount.” That was how oomph the man was.

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Unlike with Doris and John, I had the fortune of consummating my desire for Scott. More than that: we formed a connection. I recall the precise second the zap of a visceral charge transmitted between us. We were rolling in the sheets when at one point I released myself from him to lie on my stomach. I turned my head to my left. Our eyes met. I chuckled and so did he. And that was it. As if upon the touch of our fingertips, my insides burst with all the good feelings known to human – Scott had brought me to life. Doris may not have a physical interlude with John, but she does experience this form of internal light in talks where they share bits of themselves never before divulged to others and in the comfort of one another’s company. Their friendship has the marking of a love affair. So instantaneous and entwined is their connection that no wonder Doris develops delusions of a courtship.

Delusions, however, played no part in whatever I envisioned as possible between Scott and me. The guy asked me out to dinner after our first night. There’s nothing to misinterpret about a date, particularly when it ends with a smooch at the MUNI station. It’s this easy, I thought on the subway ride home. Love doesn’t require effort. Love happens on its own. My sister has said that the right person “fits like a glove.” If the disparity in age between Scott and me had caused concern (I was 39; he was 28), it dissipated as the subway chugged along. On the window, against the blackness of the underground tunnel, my reflection was a beaming face. Although I can’t say for certain that Scott and I were a fit, something was right.

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The rightness gradually eroded in the string of missed opportunities that ensued. The letdowns consisted of missed phone calls. I didn’t pick up when he attempted to contact me at work for lunch. He tried once again during a weekend I had left my phone at home while with my parents in Monterey. Indeed, something as innocuous as failing to answer the ring of a mobile or to respond to a text can alter the course of a relationship. Scott must have assumed I was no longer interested.

I believe the real deal breaker came on our second sexual episode. Porn was playing on the TV monitor. I was in an altered state of mind. The happenings onscreen preoccupied me more than did Scott, and this led him to comment that I was disconnected from him. My efforts afterwards for future meetings, both romantic and erotic, resulted in declines. How is it that our initial encounter should offer such promise and end up two months later generating a bust? In addition to a spectacular first night and first date, Scott sent signals that I read as an invitation for a boyfriend. He would sign off his e-mails with the closing of “hugs and kisses”; he left a voicemail expressing concern in response to my voicemail that my father had a stroke; and those missed phone calls, no doubt they suggested his interest in me exceeded the platonic. A friend said that my being high during Scott’s and my second mating might not necessarily have put him off, that perhaps the inclination to have me as a partner was never there to begin with. If it had been, he said, then Scott would not have given up, for love spurs a person to dive in, not to hold back.

I didn’t need to wonder for long. In his last e-mail to me, Scott blatantly stated, “I do not feel the same way about you.” This the night before I was scheduled to appear at a function to read from and promote my novel, “Potato Queen.” ( We’ve all been up through the late hours of dawn, in a state of such helplessness that we lose our hold on life in the darkness of our rooms. Add heartache to this. I sat in bed, the walls around me creating a box that entrapped, and I screamed at the slashes ripping apart my insides. I wanted Scott. I was in love with him (or so I thought). I was angry and desperate and lonely, the condition Doris sinks into when she faces a moment of truth about John.

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Yet on I went with my appearance the next day, dressed as a kid in a Superman t-shirt. Silver-haired men constituted a large chunk of my audience. The event was in a hotel banquet room. The carpet was frayed and stained. (I don’t even remember the color.) The chairs were brown vinyl cushions in metal frames. One fellow reader, a professorial type advanced in age – bald with spectacles and a raspy voice – spoke about a liaison with a go-go boy in Bangkok, the basis of his memoir.

While mouthing answers to a Q&A, I guessed at what might have been had I calculated my moves more carefully in order to have circumvented certain gaffes with Scott: I should have brought my phone to Monterey; I should not have been messed up on our follow-up fuck; blah, blah, blah…. I questioned when I would have another chance with another guy, at what age would the bonanza of reciprocated love be mine. I’d be damned should I find my match in a macho dancer five decades my junior. Scott would have been perfect.

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Alas, it was not meant to be. What the heck. Tomorrow remains as it does for Doris. Spunky woman that she is, she permits neither age nor failure to deter her dreaming. Certainly, other men exist with whom she could experience the connection she does with John, and in so doing have someone’s hand to hold by the fireplace. The potential is available to us all, whether young or old, so long as we keep our hearts open and welcome love’s setbacks with the fierceness we do its blessings.

“Edward Scissorhands”: A Volatile Friendship

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What persecution life would be if we were incapable of holding those we love. This is the curse our title hero in “Edward Scissorhands” (1990) abides by for his duration on earth. As if deprivation of human contact were not enough, Edward (Johnny Depp) has an added cross to bear. An inventor’s creation, he is immune to the biological function of aging, which renders the sum of his years equivalent to infinity. The inventor, a nameless genius in the guise of Vincent Price (he of the graveyard eyes and ghost-white hair mold) was not motivated by malice when he implanted an inanimate object with a heart and a brain. He wanted to make a man in the vein of Adam, the embodiment of kindness and innocence, a creature in his likeness who could reinstate Eden to the paradise God had intended, Eden in this tale being the garden to the inventor’s castle that rises ominous on a hill overlooking American suburbia.

For reasons known only to a genius, Edward has shears for fingers. The inventor intended to replace them with the tendrils you and I possess, only on the day he was to do so, he croaked. Alone, non-existent to the world beyond, Edward seeks solace in the garden, sculpting shrubs into animal forms – his imaginary friends – until the afternoon Avon lady, Peg Boggs (Diane Weiss), ding dongs her way into the castle and wisps Edward off to the neighborhood downhill, an enclave of houses painted the colors in an M&M packet. With his taciturn demeanor and lugubrious eyes, our hero is a hit, particularly among the ladies, all of who offer him their heads so that he could groom their hair after every fad of the 20th century from the beehive to the asymmetrical cut.

No tale of innocence lost would be complete without a love interest. Here she is in Peg’s daughter, Kim (Winona Ryder), Edward’s light and darkness. Because of her, Edward soars so high that he kisses the moon. Because of her, he plummets so low that his existence henceforth is a bottomless pit. A nick on the cheek, a gash on the hand, blood, tears… for all the beatific transports of love, it can also rip our flesh and drain us of our substance, leaving us dry and forsaken. How can it be that an embrace, an act expressive of compassion, can inflict harm? Perhaps this is why break-ups happen.

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Such partings need not be exclusive to a romance. A friendship can suffer the same fate, the kind of friendship between two persons so emotionally conjoined that a disagreement, minute as it may be, results in a reaction the toxicity of a power plant explosion. When the parties involved both happen to have sensitive personalities, the relationship is all the more fraught. So it has been for Doug and me these past 25 years; we are proportionately guilty of cutting one another to shreds.

The night Doug and I met I was wearing a brown button-down shirt with white stripes, one designed by a Japanese label, and a pair of GAP jeans. (I have a knack for remembering my attire on life’s impactful moments.) A friend, Eric, introduced us at the End-Up, a San Francisco club with a dance floor and sliding glass doors that lead to a back porch, the perfect set-up for a co-mingling of bootie wiggling and conversation. Eric was one of my first gay friends upon my move to San Francisco half a year earlier. He had been telling me about Doug, describing him as this cute guy from the Midwest who had an affinity for Asians, while simultaneously informing Doug about me so that by the night Doug and I first shook hands, our curiosity for one another had already been roused. He has thick palms, I thought. And, of course, I was taken by Doug’s boyish handsomeness: brown eyes, brown hair succulent curly, and a cleft chin.

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Not until a barbecue shortly after that night did Doug and I exchange numbers. We went on a dinner date. He was quiet throughout the meal, speaking only when I would ask questions and smiling at my effort to fill the silence; I was so at a loss for dialogue that I rambled on about tennis lessons I had taken at 13. Regardless, we went on a second date. On this occasion, I was more hopeful. I threw a duffel bag of condoms and lube into my car trunk, then I drove us to Twin Peaks, a hill where couples make out in their cars to the panorama of the city, balls of light scattered about like an ocean of electric pearls. Though Doug and I might have kissed, the duffel bag never left the trunk. As we called it an evening, Doug held my hand. Politely, he said that he enjoyed my company but that he wasn’t looking for a boyfriend. He did call me three days later, this time with the intention of a social interaction, and herein began our friendship.

Just as with Edward Scissorhands and Kim Boggs, Doug and I became close in gradual steps, none of this crashing sensation of two persons having found in each other a kindred spirit. We developed a bond that could not have been possible had we been lovers. As a result, no filter exists to screen our words. Doug has a self-deprecating sense of humor, the very virtue that has been the root of our many arguments. His fair complexion, his self-perceived skinny legs and other physical “flaws,” his attraction to men of color… Doug has joked about these. Frequently. But the jokes are his alone to make. Should anybody else poke fun at him on the same matters, he would consider it an affront, which he has accused me of committing. I have shot back by telling him he has no intellect. My rejoinder occurred in a video store. We were searching for a film with which to spend the evening. That he considered boring my choice, “The Story of Adele H” (1975), uncorked my arrogance.

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Not that Doug isn’t worldly. He and I have a shared interest in cultures beyond the comfort of our upbringing and an appreciation of beautiful things. We dress similarly in blazers and tailor-cut shirts. He studied in Scotland and has toured Asia. He read “One Hundred Years of Solitude” upon my recommendation. Yet the criticisms we hurl at one another, how they cut. He is callow for never remembering my birthday. I am trivial in my demand that he keep my home tidy during his stays. He is infantile in his temper flares. I am cruel for calling him a child. Nevertheless, present in each other’s lives we will always be. As Doug himself has admitted, we’ve been friends for too long for one to do without the other.

We accept our friends’ foibles as much as they accept our own. Ultimately, their assets win in the end. This is the benefit friends have over lovers. Edward and Kim never get the gift of time to develop the flame that kindles between them… so dangerous is Edward’s touch that he can only adore Kim from afar… but for the brief moment they do have, she uncovers the human beneath the freak, and this enables her to grow from a spoiled girl crazy about the neighborhood meathead of a jock (Anthony Michael Hall) to a woman who comes to understand the true meaning of love. This is the Kim whom Edward cherishes forevermore.

As for Doug and me, we live in two different cities now. He is in Los Angeles, while I remain in San Francisco. It’s just as well. The last time we spent time together, two Thanksgivings ago, we were at each other the way a dental drill strikes a nerve. Apart from him, I heed little thought to our outbursts. I remember instead the way we were – two young guys fresh in exploring our identities as men attracted to other men, grateful that through this one commonality, we found other mutual interests that made us feel we had finally found someone to belong to.

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“The Trip to Bountiful”: A Vessel of Breath and Light

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Bountiful is a rural town in Texas that has been destroyed by the Depression. A lone house hunches on a turf as expansive as the sea. The walls are decayed. Windows and doorways reveal a hollow interior. Whose flesh once touched this skull of a habitation? Whose soul served as its eyes and ears? To imagine a young person old is difficult just as it is to imagine an old person young. And yet, imagine we do. With fragments of bones, that they constituted the physical foundation of a life is inconceivable. We see disintegration, ash, and emptiness. This house could never have been a home, a safe lair of painted stairs and a roof radiant with the reflection of the sun, of voices and footsteps animating its rooms. A tomb-like silence enshrouds the structure.

But the house isn’t entirely dead. It will never be. For whatever time she’s got left, Carrie Watts (Geraldine Page) holds the house sacred to her heart as a vessel of breath and light. Carrie is an elderly woman in Houston under the care of her son, Ludie (John Heard), and his wife, Jessie Mae (Carlin Glynn), neither of who understand her longing to return to her roots. The two have concerns of their own. Ludie agonizes over a promotion as an office manager. Jessie Mae highlights her days by gossiping with friends at the drug store. A night out involves a movie. Such is the existence for working class citizens in Truman-era America. The city provides upward mobility and diversions, reasons to dream. So when Carrie begs them to take her to Bountiful, a place that she describes as eternally verdant, where flowers and fruits sprout upon a single raindrop, they tell her to hush, that she should bury these visions; they belong to the past. The future is in Houston. Of course, Carrie is aware of this. What the two youngsters don’t realize is that her dreams are comprised entirely of the past. Coins in a pouch, a pension check tucked in a purse, she runs away and buys a bus ticket for “The Trip to Bountiful” (1985).

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Picture Carrie Watts: plump on the bosom and heavy on the hips; cotton candy sleeves on a floral-patterned frock; a straw hat; gray eyes that gleam with memories on a face a map of folds and wrinkles. She could be any old lady in our own family. She could be my grandmother. When Grandma Susan had an aneurysm, her mind rapidly declined. She forgot names, didn’t recognize the faces of her children and grandchildren. Towards the end, bed-ridden, she would gaze at the ceiling and mumble. “How eerie,” my sister-in-law, Margie, said. “I suppose that happens to all of us when we get to be that age.” We could only guess at the images and words Grandma Susan saw that hovered above – a visitation, a summoning from a greater force, God, prayers. And then one day, she mentioned a name, that of a girlhood friend.

My grandmother had grown up on a hilltop province. Houses of stone and wood line dirt roads. A blackish-gray behemoth of a church with plants that grow from fissures dominates the square. In the outskirts, a creek runs through a sylvan. My aunt, Tit Tessie, laughed. “She’s remembering herself at 13,” she said of Grandma Susan. “She would play in the creek with her friend.”

As children, we are ignorant of the notion of time and memory. Souvenirs bear no importance to us because we believe that today will never pass. The year I turned 12 (1979), my father’s managerial position at the Bank of America required my father and his family to relocate from Manila to San Francisco. In cleansing out my closet, I discarded a mishmash of items from a desk calendar of hand painted flowers to a Bionic Man doll, from a collection of Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew books to Sanrio goodies. Two things I regret having disposed of: a pair of caricature sketches of me drawn during a visit to Europe. One depicted me as an Asian Goofy with tombstone teeth, oblique eyes, and a neck wiry long. The other presented my profile, a sesame ball rotund head atop a stump of a neck. They were done in Copenhagen, within minutes apart from each other. Since I was displeased with the first, my father had taken me to another caricaturist across the square. I tucked in my neck and suppressed my smile so that what I got upon the second attempt was an image of pure corpulence.

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My heart sunk the way it does when, brimming with excitement, we unwrap a big box on our birthday only for the box to contain math books. I don’t know what I had expected. A glamour portrait, perhaps. Our European vacation was in 1975, and for years afterwards, the caricature sketches were stashed rolled up in my drawer. Then off they went to the garbage. If they could materialize before me at this instant, I would frame them. Over 40 years later, they are as precious as photo negatives, testimonies of a moment relegated to the remote past.

The avidity to preserve applies to every castle we have dined in and loved, slept in and dreamed, presided over as master. In grieving for what Ludie and Jessie Mae regard as nothing more than a ramshackle house, Carrie Watts in “The Trip to Bountiful” grieves for a period long gone when the laughter of all those dearly departed reverberated through its hallways. The singular person who sympathizes with her is a stranger she befriends at the bus depot. A young bride whose husband has gone off to fight in the Korean War, Thelma (Rebecca de Mornay) prays day in and day out against the threat of loss.

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Human ephemerality hit me hard when I turned 20. ( So evanescent was the present that I started a journal in which I recorded not only the date of each entry, but also the day and the time right down to the precise minute, as if by doing so I could freeze the now. I was barely 23 when already I wept for the passing of my youth through the manifold addresses that identified me with the stamp of a social security number:

120 West Hall. 2 Wren Hall. 6 Rue Emile du Bois. 280 Harvard Street. 4 Trowbridge Place. 10 Dana Street East. Each place for a point in my life was home, and each place I had to leave to go on with life. There’s something sad about leaving a place. It’s like saying to yourself, “This is it. There’s no looking back, even if what’s back there is simply great. Move forward because only in moving forward can I progress.” You leave behind the life you had while living there, and you leave behind friends and a part of your youth.

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I have resided in four addresses since, the current and longest being 1170 Sacramento Street in San Francisco. My parents purchased the condo the summer of 1990 towards the end of my second year in Paris, where I had gone to be a writer after graduating from Tufts University. The condo is on the fifth among 17 floors of a building that stands the tallest on Nob Hill. I have a balcony view of naked fountain cherubs in Huntington Park; the Gothic twin towers of Grace Cathedral; and the Fairmont Hotel, a construction that recalls a Gilded Era Vanderbilt mansion. I will never forget my reaction when I first walked into the unit: “Wow!” Layers of personal history have since accumulated: my coming out, my mother’s month-long visits that led to tiffs over my late nights of partying, and Grandma Susan’s 75th birthday.

My friend, Doug, hit the nail on the head when he said, “The day you empty these rooms and pack up to move somewhere else, it will be a very emotional experience.”

“The Wizard of Oz”: There’s No Place Like Home

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I once wanted to change my name from Juancho Chu to Wittgenstein Walcher H. Rockefeller van Stausen Smith (sometimes Smyth) VIII. Thus reads the first sentence to “Potato Queen,” my novel that chronicles the relationship between Caucasians and Asians in San Francisco’s gay community of the 1990s. ( Like many works of fiction, the novel contains elements of non-fiction. A writer’s key source of material is oneself, no matter how distant from the writer the characters and the setting portrayed might seem to the reader; the emotions splayed across every page are undeniably those of the author.

In my case, I really did want an Anglo appellation. At 11, I was the only Rafaelito in existence I was aware of, and who was I but a fat boy whose right pant pocket jingled with coins and whose left pocket contained a snot-smothered white handkerchief. As for my surname of Sy (pronounced C), it lacked flavor. Consisting of a mere two letters and a single syllable, Sy disappointed the tongue as an incomplete word in need of relish and glamour. Wittgenstein, on the contrary, was a name that evoked in my mind dandies and savants. Connected to surnames that could have been lifted from a Newport social registry, it gave a nobleman bearing to its owner, like Lionel Barrymore.

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That was me, discontented with who I was, a dreamer who longed to soar as a blue bird over the rainbow to a land where Christmas is white and castles in the spring crown green mountains, there where I would stand leading man tall and handsome. Already then Hollywood fascinated me. Even though the family TV was black and white, I remember the American shows I would watch on them as having been in color. Many of America’s prime time best aired in the Philippines: “The Six Million Dollar Man,” “Fantasy Island,” “The Love Boat,” and “Little House on the Prairie.” Hollywood was my Oz, a realm that scintillates with a brick road golden yellow, a field of licorice red poppies, and spires in the horizon emerald green against an azure sky. That Oz could only be reached via tornado underscored its grandeur in contrast to the dullness of home.

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When Farrah Fawcett made it big (, I had transferred a year earlier to the International School from La Salle, an all-boys Catholic institution. La Salle had provided a homogenous environment. We wore uniforms – beige shorts (or pants) and a patch, sown onto a white shirt pocket, that bore the La Salle insignia of an armor head atop a shield – and we were all Filipino. My new school exposed me to a faculty and student body of diverse nationals. Classes were co-educational, and we dressed according to our fancy with exception to flip-flops and torn garments. Just as Dorothy (Judy Garland) 30 minutes into “The Wizard of Oz” (1939) is no longer in Kansas, I was no longer in Manila. I had classmates who spoke of step-siblings and divorced parents, of two families and two homes. Their stories offered me the spice that the Scarecrow (Ray Bolger), the Cowardly Lion (Bert Lahr), and the Tin Man (Jack Haley) lavish onto Dorothy in their respective quest for a brain, courage, and a heart. A motley crew of friends in tow, Dorothy embarks on an adventure that would emblazon itself in the memories of moviegoers from now till kingdom come.

How boring I perceived myself in relation to my Western peers. I would fantasize that my parents feuded with each other, that my father had multiple wives, and that I shuttled from one domestic set up to another. I coveted stories of my own. Two years later, the film “Ordinary People” (1980) would heighten my fascination for Oz into an obsession. ( “Ordinary People” ignited in my adolescence a spark towards a creative vocation, a burning to be extraordinary.

Someday I’ll wish upon a star and wake up where the clouds are far behind me, where troubles melt like lemon drops away above the chimney tops. That’s where you’ll find me. Somewhere over the rainbow, blue birds fly. Birds fly over the rainbow. Why, then, oh why can’t I?

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Summer breaks allowed for my daydreams. My family and I spent them in the States. It wasn’t a vacation for me unless we boarded a plane that took us across the ocean, to a continent away from the familiarity of my own culture. The first stop every June was San Francisco. My father would report to the Bank of America headquarters, he having been employed there since the 1950s, initially as a clerk and then, towards the conclusion of his tenure, as a general manager to the bank’s Asian branches. Every day started and ended with the TV. I was hooked on shows that didn’t air in the Philippines, one being “The Brady Bunch,” my favorite. The Bradys might have been common folks to American viewers, but to me, they embodied the mystique of this country – flashy hotels, block-long shopping malls, and bubble gum.

Nothing about the United States has ever been small. Bank of America back then was the most reputable monetary conglomerate in the world. It was no coincidence that motion pictures were… and continue to be… the star spangled banner’s most profitable export. America is Hollywood. Hollywood is America. We Filipinos joke about our colonial history under Spain and the United States as “400 years in a convent and 50 years in Hollywood.” When MGM was a powerhouse studio, we founded our own movie industry patterned after that of the roaring lion, and the actors who graced the silver screen were themselves fair of skin, our locally groomed counterparts to Joan Crawford, Elizabeth Taylor, and James Dean. (

When I left the Philippines to continue my studies at Tufts University in Boston, my father asked if I intended to return after I graduated. “No,” I said. I was on the road to the plan I had laid out and there was no turning back. I envisioned a penthouse that overlooked Central Park, my wardrobe a collection of Gucci, Versace, and Armani on racks in a walk-in closet. The more foreign to my upbringing the lifestyle I adapted, the better. I had developed an American twang at the International School Manila. Now I needed to transform the exterior. First stop once I got to Boston: the gym. To be American called for a jock physique. And then I enrolled in a creative writing course.

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I hit a wall. During my sophomore year in high school, I had gotten an A on a story about a woman named Christina Wellesley, an aristocratic Brit who embarks on an adulterous romance with a military officer. Together they horse ride on a flower-speckled field and rendezvous in the shadow of a moonlit tree. I was 15. Thank goodness the mind at that phase in life matures exponentially so that by time I was 18, I realized the folly of creating a tale populated by characters I had no clue about and who occupied a world as alien to me as Kathmandu. What to write? I thought of an essay a friend, Michael, in a composition course our senior year had submitted. The teacher had read it in front of class. The piece, about a boy Michael knew back in Korea who had died, guided us listeners en route from Michael’s house to the boy’s and regaled us with both descriptive details and dialogue, the key ingredients to a story. So that was it. I didn’t need to search far for material, I realized. The material already existed in me, in my memories.

Through the years, as the distance between the disgruntled youth that I was and myself lengthened, home perched itself in my thoughts in a flurry of gold and sparkles. I am fortunate today to have the opportunity to spend Christmases with my family in Manila. However, the city of my past is quickly disappearing. Sky-scrapers, condos, and shopping malls rise with the rapaciousness of a forest fire, eradicating trees and grass, sparing no open space. Starbucks is now as ubiquitous as cell phones, and the six cinema complexes in the entire metropolis screen the same selection of Hollywood big budget features. Although Americanization has been synonymous to progress ever since the Thomasite missionaries at the turn of the 20th century elevated literacy among Filipinos by 90%, it was never done with such urgency.

“Slow down, world,” I want to scream. I yearn to turn back the clock so that I could hold all the things I grew up with that I took for granted – Nena’s hand after a day of her cooking, Tita Zennie’s icicle candies, the lizard I trapped underneath a plastic bowl, a narra tree and white sand and Toby the turtle. But I can only click my heels and wish.