On my 25th high school reunion with the International School Manila (ISM), I ran into a guy who used to bully me. (http://www.rafsy.com/films-1960s-1990s/big-the-best-that-we-can-be/) The moment was not only nerve wrecking, but also unexpected. Robert had left after middle school and was at the reunion by invitation from an alumnus with whom he had kept in touch over the decade. Until then, I would occasionally wonder what ever had happened to Robert. He had been orangutan portly with dark hair and beady eyes, and I envisioned him in adulthood as an obese lout, surviving on a diet of beer and McDonald’s, his home in America a cigarette cesspool of a trailer car.
A man the complete opposite stood before me. Robert was Mr. Clean incarnate – bald, brawny, and sporting a collarless white tee. He approached me at the poolside buffet to compliment me on my own musculature and then, “I don’t recognize you. I recognize almost everybody here, but you.” I responded that I remembered him very well, referencing his heavy weight when we had been kids as proof, though I dared not mention the homophobic epithets he would hurl at me. As the sensation of worms churning in my insides debilitated me as if I were once again 11 years old, Robert expressed pride in the trajectory his life had taken since leaving ISM. Karate put him in shape, and a job first as a policeman followed by one as a juvenile correctional officer enabled him to release his aggression on the side of the law. “So you beat up guys,” I said. “I’ve been known to do that,” he said with a laugh.
Some past traumas stay with us through adulthood, and bullying is one of them. (http://www.rafsy.com/films-1960s-1990s/carrie-it-gets-better/) The trick is how to put it behind us. The It Gets Better Project was founded in 2011 in response to the reports in recent years of verbal and physical assaults directed at gay, lesbian, and transgender youths. Its website (www.itgetsbetter.org) offers video clips of former victims who have prospered as adults; in effect, relaying the message that the torment endured in childhood and adolescence should not cause one to languish but to strengthen, for the future is about rebirth. Finally, we are taking an aggressive stand against an issue too long ignored. According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, the number of suicides among youths between the ages of ten and 24 amounts to 4,400 a year, with bullying a primary impetus. (http://www.heyugly.org/aboutStatistics.php) Due to the disturbing statistic, cinema itself is bringing attention to this social ill.
One such film is “Moonlight” (2016). A coming-of-age, coming out tale, it follows a boy’s life as he braves face beatings in school and name callings at home. We are introduced to Chiron when he is just about ten years old, nicknamed Little for his timid personality. Little (Alex Hibbert) is fleeing from a pack of neighborhood no-gooders when he gets cornered in an abandoned motel. There he meets Juan (Mahershala Ali), who comes to his rescue and ultimately becomes the boy’s surrogate father. The bullying worsens in Chiron’s teens, though sexual identity is of no provocation. Lanky in oversized clothes and with head bowed as if in constant remorse, a young Chiron (Ashton Sanders) is prime target, a cat in a lion’s den. High school sucks, and home is no haven when mom is a junky who digs into her son’s pockets for cash to fund her next rush.
As an adult, Chiron (Trevante Rhodes) travels far for a fresh start. He drops the name Chiron for Black and, with a new identity, develops his physique into a steamroller of muscles, brandishing jewelry and gold teeth. No one dares mess with a hulky Black. However, the stony exterior belies the tumult within. Too much has happened to Chiron for him to simply let go, until he reconnects with childhood buddy, Kevin (André Holland), and onward he treads on a path to love and forgiveness.
Sexual awakening is petrifying to the young. It spurs a sensation never before felt, a mystery we boys seek the answers to in men’s magazines found hidden in our fathers’ closets. For those of us who experience lust for one of our own gender, there is no answer, and thus we fumble through the maze to a destination of discovery. So it is for Chiron. Evenings for him have a sensuous aura. The tide is high. The moon is a crystal ball of electricity. One night he has a wet dream. A 16-year-old Kevin (Jharrel Jerome) is smiling a smile part mischievous, part inviting. He is fornicating with a girl in some outdoor space at the end of a labyrinthine passageway. A terrace, maybe, or an alley. Chiron watches from a doorway, drowning in a cauldron of terror and desire. The smile is directed at him.
We all experience a Kevin of sorts. Mine was in the body of Guy, another boy who picked on me in the sixth grade. While I detested Robert, my feelings for Guy were contradictory. He had dark hair cut in the signature 1970s fashion of feather bangs, freckles, and that slightly bow-legged jock strut. Robert, he, and I were in the same gym class. One day in the locker room, Robert, seated on a bench, pulled a prank on Guy by attempting to yank his briefs from his ankle so that he was hopping on one foot, laughing like a goofball as his penis flopped. The vision of Guy naked was one I would have for the rest of my prepubescence on many nights that I lay in bed. He may have been a jackass, but I didn’t hate him.
Guy also didn’t proceed onto high school at ISM. Nobody I know of had maintained contact with him either. What man he became is hard to tell, for even bullies can undergo changes that vitalize in them a latent kindness. Here’s a case study courtesy of my brother-in-law. The quarterback to his Long Island high school would threaten to beat up other boys if they refused to do his homework. According to Steve, “He had to repeat a grade twice. That’s how dumb he was.” The footballer was aged 16 in a class of 14-year-olds. Fast forward 45 years later. He is now a science teacher in that same Long Island high school. Student comments Steve has googled are awash with commendations on his friendly disposition. “He’s such a nice person,” they chime.
At the 25th class reunion, Robert took the initiative to reintroduce himself to everyone, exerting the extra measure to compliment married men for having beautiful wives. Two years later, I learned on Facebook that Robert died from a heart attack. I wouldn’t call his passing retribution. I’d call it irony. He seemed to be making amends for past reprehensible behaviors. Then fate dealt a blow. I was rather surprised at my sadness when reading the news, for I carried no grudge towards Robert, never had. Neither did I care for an apology during our brief interaction as grown men. A state of dither aside, I had allowed bygones to be bygones a long time before. Cutting loose enabled me to thrive through the decades so that I embraced my sexual identity in college and, shortly thereafter, came out in San Francisco.
This spirit of strength in letting go suffuses “Moonlight” like a haunting melody. In certain African mythology, the moon is the goddess of creation, a symbol of motherhood and fertility. Its light promises the birth of a new dawn, and as the sun rises, we see more clearly where tomorrow is meant to take us.
“Ice Castles” (1978) promises a story that will get you sobbing into a Kleenex. Let’s start with the Martin Hamlisch/Melissa Manchester theme song. Soft focus silhouettes naked trees. A figure skater performs loops and axels in a snowy wonderland. Hair Goldilocks blonde, she is covered from head to feet in white winter apparel. Music starts with the tap of a piano, a soothing tune that evokes a ballerina in a jewelry box, and then a lover’s plea:
Please, don’t let this feeling end. It’s everything I am, everything I want to be. I can see what’s mine now, finding out what’s true since I found you, looking through the eyes of love.
Eyes are primary in “Ice Castles,” literally and allegorically. Lexie Winston (Lynn-Holly Johnson) is an ascending star, Olympic material. During an ice skating stunt, she suffers a fall, banging her head against tables and chairs chained together at the edge of the rink. The accident claims Lexie’s sight, which drives the girl to hole up in her home, dreams of gold thwarted, until boyfriend Nick Peterson (Robby Benson) demands she stop with self-pity and prove herself a champion. With Lexie’s will invigorated, Nick becomes her eyes.
“Ice Castles” doesn’t offer much surprises. The movie is set up so that from the moment tragedy strikes, we know our heroine will rise above it, doubly so upon the guidance of a handsome beau who serves as her motivational pillar. Yet as we all know, cinema speaks to us because it lends verisimilitude to our personal trials, a looking glass to the human ability to soar as a sparrow from the abyss of despair, and “Ice Castles” is no exception.
Now I can take the time. I can see my life as it comes up shining now. Reaching out to touch you, I can feel so much since I found you, looking through the eyes of love.
Tragedy recognizes no boundaries, an unwelcome presence lurking in the shadows eager to violate our well-being at any moment, anywhere. We could never have expected the turn of events on April 15, 2013. What started as a jubilant marathon in downtown Boston ended in chaos. A pair of terrorists detonated two homemade bombs concealed in a backpack. Building fronts blasted. Rivulets of blood flowed on streets and pavements. The attack killed three people and injured more than 260.
In the years since, the media have followed the recovery process of some of the victims, their resilience an example to all. Dancer Adrianne Haslet-Davis, her left leg now a prosthetic, has returned to the stage, and severe burns on James Costello did not prevent the man from finding love with nurse Krista D’Agostino. (http://people.com/celebrity/boston-marathon-bombings-one-year-later-5-inspiring-stories-about-survivors/) Newlyweds Patrick Downes and Jessica Kensky endured a combination of 40 operations on their limbs and ruptured ears, with Downes losing one leg and Kensky losing both, yet married they remain and indefatigable in their rehabilitation, which for Kensky included writing a children’s book, “Rescue and Jessica: A True Friendship,” based upon her relationship with her rescue dog. (http://people.com/human-interest/boston-marathon-bombing-survivors-patrick-downes-jessica-kensky-hbo-doc/)
Then we have the most famous endurance story of all, that of Christopher Reeve. (http://www.rafsy.com/films-1960s-1990s/superman-a-lasting-legacy/ ) In 1995, following an equestrian accident in which he was thrown off a horse, Reeve was hospitalized in a week-long state of delirium, only to regain his mental stability a quadriplegic. He wanted to commit euthanasia. His wife, Dana, didn’t deny his wish, but in her promise that she would never desert him if he were to give life a second chance, he turned his handicap into incentive for a new beginning. Reeve founded the Christopher and Dana Reeve Foundation and spoke at the Democratic National Convention, appeared on Larry King and gave speeches across the country, all on a mission to promote awareness of and fund research for physical disabilities. On the creative side, he remained as dogged as ever, producing and starring in a 1998 remake of Alfred Hitchcock’s “Rear Window” (1954) as well as authoring his autobiography, “Still Me,” and making a guest appearance on “Sesame Street.”
Nobody wants to go through what Lexie in “Ice Castles” does, and while we commiserate with her, we are tears and smiles when the end credits roll. “Ice Castles” is just a movie. Back to reality, we read the papers, walk the dog, and empty the trash, mindless of how crucial our physical faculties are in accomplishing the most routine task. To appreciate, we need to lose, as Boston marathoner Jessica Kensky did on that fateful April day in 2013; hence, the change in the way she reflects on the past: “I’ll think back to Christmas and say, ‘Oh, yeah. I had legs then, that Christmas’ or ‘Oh, I had a right leg at that birthday party.’”
Lest we think we are safe in our bubble, darkness of another sort threatens to fall upon us. Heed the words of Great Britain’s heir to the throne (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MY2m6JKQKeY):
“A recent report suggests that attacks are increasing on Yazidis, Jews, Ahmadis, Baha’is and many other minority faiths. And in some countries, even more insidious forms of extremism have recently surfaced which aim to eliminate all types of religious diversity. We’re also struggling to capture the ripple effects of such persecution.”
Prince Charles’s 2016 Christmas speech summates a year that witnessed the rise to power of Donald Trump, Rodrigo Duterte, and Maha Vajiralongkorn. Trump is to take oath on January 20, 2017 as the 45th president of the United States of America. (http://www.rafsy.com/films-2000s-present/race-triumph-of-the-will/ ) This despite campaign speeches that roused antipathy among his supporters towards marginalized groups, primarily immigrants and people of color, and that inflamed Islamophobe by categorizing all Muslims as potential terrorists. It should be no surprise that the first head of state he personally called to invite to his inauguration ceremony was Duterte, himself notorious as the Donald Trump of the Philippines because of his denigrating remarks about women and persons with disabilities. Add Vajiralongkorn to the bag of questionable rulers. The Thai king has raised eyebrows on account of his womanizing and addiction to gambling, but none more so than when he appointed his pet poodle, Fufu, as air chief marshal of the Royal Thai Air Force in 2007.
With such amorality exhibited among the three, we can indeed only struggle to capture the ripple effects of religious persecution, which include the elimination of LGBT rights, an escalation in hate crimes, and the ferment of white supremacy groups. The F.B.I. has confirmed that by orders of Vladimir Putin, Russia – a nation that condemns gays and lesbians – hacked the American presidential election in favor of Donald Trump. The day after his win, swastikas were spray painted on walls and automobiles in cities from coast to coast. The bigoted ideology that these men uphold as leaders of two of the most powerful countries on the planet sets a dangerous example to humanity.
The world seems to be reverting to the 1950s, a decade Senator Joseph McCarthy mired in xenophobia with his Communist witch hunt, branding treacherous anyone who lived by convictions disconnected from Anglo-Christian values. Many are once again blind to the colors that illuminate our neighborhoods and deaf to the diversified voices that harmonize around us. With homogeneity enforced upon us, we are crippled from being true to who we are. Fear not. The 1960s came to the rescue. As Hillary Clinton pronounced in her last campaign speech, “Love trumps hate.” The cloudy days that loom nearby could only mean another Civil Rights Movement awaits in the horizon.
Like a figure skater, history goes in circles, and whenever champions fall, they get back on their feet.
“Winter must be cold for those with no warm memories. We’ve already missed the spring.”
Love hurts and love delights, but never in equal measure. Because all things come to an end, the best we can do is to assure that as we look back on a voyage, we do so with contentment. Relationships, be they romantic or platonic, have their share of rough seas. Some sink. Some are smooth sailing until a divergent path causes both parties to drift their separate ways. Some reach one destination. Some lose their course only to emerge further on intact from a gale.
We always hope that the people we welcome into our lives are for keeps. I am grateful that I have never been betrayed… every friend and love interest has been trustworthy… though I no longer remain in contact with many of those to whom I was closest. Facebook doesn’t count in sustaining a relationship. The photos on a person’s account wall don’t include us; messaging is a cop out for a heart-to-heart conversation; and clicking the Like option to a posting barely expresses the extent to which we care. Instead of regaining for us an intimacy lost, images of our once dearest pals getting married, starting families, and growing old reveal how they have thrived without us.
As a freshman at Tufts University, I was a kid fresh off the plane from the Philippines, socially gauche and intimidated by the Greek system, which was a major component to assimilating into campus life. My roommates, one from Puerto Rico and the other from a Massachusetts town called Franklin, rushed at the same fraternity and formed a bond as brothers. Even so, Jorge and David F accepted me as a buddy. With Jorge, the connection was cultural. We Filipinos are Latin in our propensity for dance music and melodrama. (http://www.rafsy.com/films-1960s-1990s/the-law-of-desire-lunacy-and-obsession/) He and I were more Barry White than Bruce Springsteen, “Love’s Theme” our favorite White composition, and we regaled over balladeers to Tagalog and Spanish songs affecting heartache with voices that cracked, as if they were breaking down in tears. Jorge had hawk eyes and Ernest Borgnine brows, thick and bushy. His favorite past time: weekend fiestas with other Latinos at Tufts. David F, an all-American athlete handsome in the mode of a news anchor (think Tom Brokaw), possessed an openness to diverse cultures no matter that he had never boarded an airplane until November of our freshman year to spend Thanksgiving in New York. He was the first person I came out to, and after our graduation up until the second millennium, we kept each other abreast with our jobs and personal happenings.
The candidness in my friendship with David F bolstered my confidence as a gay man so that when I moved to San Francisco in 1990, I found my niche in the LGBT community. Eric, a flirt of the highest order, constantly wore tight shorts to show off muscular legs. Tony was his foil, a gregarious presence with an enormous smile and a baritone voice. They were both Filipino. Sean was Vietnamese and himself into weight training. On the subdued side, he was soft spoken and wore metal-rimmed glasses that gave him a studious air. David V was half Filipino, half Mexican, with full features and thick, high hair that never fell into disarray. Together we dined, worked out, and went clubbing. We exchanged opinions of what it was to be men of color in a subculture that promoted as the epitome of male desirability the Caucasian Adonis. At last, I found friends I could relate to, who empathized with my insecurities, struggle with self-image, and quest for love.
Each of these guys, from David F to David V, have blessed me with memories to cherish. “An Affair to Remember” (1957) occurs in several forms like the movie itself, which has undergone quite a few versions, the most popular being that with Cary Grant and Deborah Kerr. Nickie Ferrante (Grant) and Terry McKay (Kerr) meet on a cruise. The opening credits reveal the time of year. The trees in Central Park are bare of leaves. The ground is white. The silhouette of the Empire State building towers in the background behind a gauze of mist and snowflakes. Yet how warm it is on the cruise… companionship is the antidote to frostbites… and how can we ask for better company than two of the most beautiful movie stars of the day, entangled in an affair beset with conflicts. Nickie is fiancé to an American heiress (Neva Patterson). Terry is girlfriend to a rich man (Richard Denning) who provides her with financial support.
The two are so sophisticated that it’s incredulous he’s actually hard on cash, laboring as a billboard painter upon terminating his engagement on account of Terry, while she, single again for the sake of Nickie, earns a paycheck as a nightclub singer. He’s also got a grandma (Cathleen Nesbitt) who lives in the South of France, in a house perched on a hill. Baroque furniture decorates the interior, while a miniature Eden beautifies the premise. Grandmother Janou is hardly lacking in funds. Still, an obstacle other than another man and another woman needs to prevent our lovers from living happily ever after as the ship docks in New York.
So Nickie and Terry agree to meet at the top of the Empire State Building in six months, the projected time Nickie gives himself to be an economically stable man, which indeed he becomes as his canvasses sell like lemonade on a blistering summer day. “I was looking up,” Terry later says of the afternoon when she was rushing through the Manhattan traffic to keep their rendezvous. “It was the nearest thing to heaven,” she says of the iconic edifice. “You were there.” Nickie might have been. Nonetheless, averting our eyes to the sky instead of focusing them on a busy street is a reckless move.
What a voyage for Nickie and Terry. As Terry says on the final night of the cruise, “We’ve already missed the spring.” Since they are of a certain age, they see this as their last chance at true love, and therefore, the decision to go full steam ahead, whether or not they reach a shared destination, lose their course, or sink. Whatever the result, they would live adored in each other’s memories. As for me, my own aforestated friendships didn’t come to a stormy halt. Since some of us moved to other cities, geography caused us to drift apart. The one relationship charged with tension would be that with Doug. (http://www.rafsy.com/films-1960s-1990s/edward-scissorhands-a-volatile-friendship/)
Doug and I last saw each other this September, when he visited me from Los Angeles and stayed at my place. We’ve been friends since 1991. That would be close to 26 years. He’s Mid-Western American. I’m Filipino. Despite the cultural difference, we are similar in our global education (he had spent a college year in Scotland while I in France) and affinity for nice clothes (Ralph Lauren pants for less than a hundred bucks at I. Magnin’s closing sale). Above all, we come from a common family background, one that emphasizes traveling as a means of intellectual enhancement and personal growth. Paired with a physical attraction, we had plenty to talk about, which has not been the case in recent years. Much has gone on with us that we have not confided in each other. Doug has compared our rift to a sibling leaving for boarding school; the kinship remains, but the distance has caused a change in the relationship. His two-week visit was curtailed to two days, during which a yelling match erupted over my persistence for an Uber that never showed up and his mess of food crumbs in my kitchen.
“Turn the boat around,” Terry McKay implores in “An Affair to Remember.” It is now summer in New York. Autumn will f0llow soon enough, winter in its stead, and then Terry will be another year older. Hers is an impossible request, for in life, the past can only be relived in remembrances and, when that fails, in art. But we do have second chances, even when we’ve missed the spring. For as long as we are alive, nothing is ever finished.
Friends and lovers have a way of coming back.
“This can’t last. This misery can’t last… Nothing lasts really, neither happiness nor despair. Not even life lasts very long. There’ll come a time in the future when I shan’t mind about this anymore.”
Here’s the thing about passion. No matter how happily married we may be, devoted to our spouses in the comfort of a cozy home, our needs and future secured, a gorgeous stranger appears like an angel descended to earth and removes a piece of grit from our eye as we are about to board a train. It’s a scene we only know as true in novels and films. Alas, because it has become our reality, we refuse to let the moment pass, regardless the stakes. Nothing in life is entirely an accident. For such magic to spark what would have been a typical day must be a message from the forces of destiny. So begins the romance between our hapless couple, Laura Jesson (Celia Johnson) and Dr. Alec Harvey (Trevor Howard), in “Brief Encounter” (1945).
When at attempt at art produces an outcome that is either fabulous or feeble, we know it. The work moves us or it doesn’t. We applaud or we wince. While individual expression is paramount to an artist, certain rules are unbreakable. For one, shun clichés. Every narrative since the inception of storytelling has generally followed a prescribed path: 1) the introduction of a set of characters and the problem that besets them; 2) the catalyst that incites the characters to action; 3) the conflict that causes them to change; and 4) the resolution wherein they face their problem with a new gained wisdom that leads to the conclusion. Clichés are booby traps at every turn, particularly with a love story. Cast a beautiful woman and a handsome man as the lead characters. Make one or both of them married. Have them at first resist temptation and then succumb to it. Let guilt weigh on them. The conclusion is up for grabs, but no matter what, lamentations of heartache are compulsory. What a tremendous undertaking indeed to create a romance more on the level of Gustave Flaubert (http://www.rafsy.com/art-of-storytelling/in-defense-of-flaubert-and-austen/) than Nicholas Sparks (http://www.rafsy.com/films-2000s-present/the-notebook-do-not-forget-do-not-forget/).
Somehow, “Brief Encounter” accomplishes in avoiding paperback melodrama while remaining true to the arc of a traditional narrative. The situation that involves our lovers is really so very “ordinary,” which is a word Laura Jesson as narrator repeats to underscore the surprise of how dramatic her story itself turns out:
“I’m an ordinary woman. I didn’t think such violent things could happen to ordinary people. It all started on an ordinary day, in the most ordinary place in the world, the refreshment room at Milford Junction… I looked up and saw a man come in from the platform. He had on an ordinary mac. His hat was turned down, and I didn’t even see his face. He got his tea at the counter and turned. Then I did see his face. It was rather a nice face.”
Laura and Alec are British, proper and eloquent in the way folks who spend much time with books are. No tumultuous condition such as war poisons their passion with urgency and death. No locale fabled for romance serves as the backdrop. The setting is 1938. The relationship that burgeons between Laura and Alec happens in the most mundane fashion, a lunch followed by a movie. They are each spouse to another, and because they rendezvous in a town that like any other town is prone to gossip, they limit their kisses to the shadows in the underground tunnel at Milford Junction and a deserted boathouse – places to which few people would venture – as if they were felons. Theirs is a dilemma that bedevils all those in the throes of a forbidden love, depicted through an intensity of emotions that overpowers banality. And this is why “Brief Encounter” is a classic.
I myself am no stranger to a forbidden love. In the decade I was born, men of my tribe were jailed, lost jobs and families, and institutionalized on account of their affection for other men. Stonewall paved the way towards their decriminalization, and in the close to 50 years since, we gays and lesbians in America have united to establish a political force that has earned us employment rights, military acceptance, and marriage equality. Nevertheless, we continue to face incrimination in countries slow to recognize civil rights. Russia imposes fines on gay activist groups, the members of which the government deems as “foreign agents,” and in Uganda, homosexuals are sentenced to life imprisonment. China bans depictions of LGBT people on the television, and Iran enforces corporal punishment.
Truly, we are all ordinary men and women guilty of no harm to society. Our only fault according to those who condemn is our natural propensity for those we love. Even in America, for all the progress we have achieved, a return to the status quo is imminent. President-elect Donald Trump has been appointing anti-LGBT politicians to his cabinet, starting with his vice presidential running mate, Mike Pence, a fundamentalist Christian who as governor of Indiana sought to legalize conversion therapy, a procedure that allegedly transforms homosexuals into heterosexuals through psychoanalysis.
A former colleague at San Francisco AIDS Foundation recently exchanged marital vows with his partner. “I am proud of my husband,” he has posted on Facebook. However, with the tension that has permeated the air in the aftermath of the November 8 elections, he is afraid to hold his husband’s hand in public. We have reverted to 1938. Hate crimes have spiked up, reportedly committed in the name of Donald Trump. A group that calls itself “Americans for a Better Way” sent copies of a letter that demeans Muslims as “a vile and filthy people” to at least five mosques in California, propagating genocide. At Fort Hancock High School in El Paso, Texas, white students during a volleyball game paraded Trump placards as they chanted “build the wall” at their Hispanic classmates. (http://edition.cnn.com/2016/11/10/us/post-election-hate-crimes-and-fears-trnd/) “Gay families = burn in hell. Trump 2016” read a sign placed on a car in North Carolina. (http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/americas/us-elections/donald-trump-president-supporters-attack-muslims-hijab-hispanics-lgbt-hate-crime-wave-us-election-a7410166.html) The bigotry in Europe that culminated in the Holocaust is jeopardizing the stability of a nation universally respected as a stalwart of democracy.
In “Brief Encounter,” provincialism as much as propriety constrict Laura Jesson and Dr. Alec Harvey. In contrast to the goings on in high offices and the price denizens of a land pay as a consequence, theirs is a trivial affair, a paltry cause to a domestic disruption that has no ramifications on the safety of neighbors. But the affair does raise an awareness of our own prerogative to love… to love our partners, our culture, our community, ourselves… and once this is questioned, then so too is our standing as citizens of the world. The mooring of an ordinary existence threatens to break. We feel a passion we never have before, an ardency to retain what is rightfully ours.
History repeats itself as stories repeat themselves, for an event does not last unless it is recorded and retold. Neither is everything with us cliché. Despite the collectiveness of an experience, no two people live and remember it the same way.
“You was my brother, Charley. You shoulda looked out for me a little bit. You shoulda taken care of me just a little bit, so I wouldn’t have to take them dives for the short-end money. I coulda had class. I coulda been a contender. I coulda been somebody instead of a bum, which is what I am.”
Charley (Rod Steiger) is brother to Terry Malloy (Marlon Brando), a dockworker informant for mobsters that exploit laborers at the waterfront. In this, one of cinema’s most famous lines, Terry grieves for his lot among the lowliest of humans. He had made a wrong choice, though one done out of family loyalty. Mobster head, Johnny Friendly (Lee J. Cobb), had betted against Terry in a boxing match that could have put our hero in the big league. Terry had the skill, the drive, and the moves to be a champ, a title his for the taking. But for Friendly to win his bet, thus keeping Charley in good stead with the crook of a surrogate father, Terry took the plunge… in match after match, again and again… until his reputation dwindled from promising to hopeless. His name synonymous with loser, Terry finds himself under Friendly’s thumb. The situation doesn’t seem that bad, seeing that Charley had once been there and is now a big guy clad in fine threads.
One problem: Terry falls in love. The girl is bad news to Friendly. She’s Edie Doyle (Eva Marie Saint), sister to a dockworker Terry rats on and so in whose murder by Friendly’s hoodlums he unwittingly abets. Edie is Terry’s chance at salvation. The guy has never agreed with Friendly’s shady ways, though he had been complacent to act against Friendly since this was the only existence he had ever known. Plus, Charley has never looked so swell. Suddenly, here is a girl – porcelain fragile in appearance yet tough, unrelenting, and at the vanguard of civil justice – who awakens in Terry a conscience. The neighborhood priest, Father Barry (Karl Malden), is also on his back, ceaseless in his attempts to galvanize our hero towards vindication. Instead of double crossing his fellow downtrodden, Terry should battle against the real bad guys, cooperating with the cops to lock them in handcuffs. The pugilist can either stay a bum or prove himself a winner in the most important fight of his life.
Gangsters and shoot-outs, men beaten to a pulp and men thrown off building rooftops… this is not the standard way of living for most of us. Still, “On the Waterfront” (1954) is a classic because something about it conveys a universal truth. Think of instances when we’ve wrestled with our conscience, when we’ve complied to the wishes of one to whom we felt indebted even though the decision was unsettling to our nerves. My own conscience was first put to the test at a very young age. John, my best friend in the fifth grade, convinced me to be an accomplice in stealing a packet of Sanrio stickers from a girl named Claudia. (Sanrio stickers… of all the idiocy.)
Claudia was an easy target. She was Chinese with brownish hair styled after a broom. Some of us guys taunted her with the sobriquet Claudia Kaboogabooger because she picked her nose. John and I were ourselves an odd coupling. I was called Fagalito, while he, being half Filipino and half American, went by the surname of Peralta when in the Philippines and Smith when in the United States. He was a thin boy with bristly hair, faint freckles, and a Richard Simmons aerobicized sprightliness. John got my complicity by telling me a tale of apples he used to pluck from a neighbor’s tree. When the neighbor caught him, rather than chastising or telling his parents, the man allowed him to continue plucking as many apples as he wanted for as long as he wanted. So theft was not a crime; it was a communal act. That settled it. I so wanted those Little Twin Stars and Hello Kitty adhesives.
The robbery was easy. Each student was designated a cubby hole to store one’s things. The stickers were in an album with magnetized pages. We did it during recess, two packets each. We would have gotten away with it had John not given one packet to a girl he liked, Marianna, a dancer in ponytail who was walking around class with the loot pressed to her bosom. “She stole my stickers,” Claudia told me with eyes seething.
What happened next was a trial of loyalty and ethics. In “On the Waterfront,” Terry Malloy is childlike, a sensitive soul on the wrong side of the law due to familial allegiance, muddled over a killing his snitching precipitates. His boyish lamentation: “I thought they’d talk to him. I thought they’d talk to him and get him to dummy up. I figured the worst they was gonna do was lean on him a little bit.” I myself was perturbed over the hurt I had caused Claudia because she was somewhat of a friend. Her two older sisters were high school besties to my sister and remain close to her to this day. More than that, I had known John’s apple tale to be bogus; I just needed something to legitimize what we have all been taught goes against the grain of human decency.
Our teacher, Mrs. Engwa, beloved by us fifth graders for being motherly but young and pretty with long black hair held back by a decorative clip, had John, Claudia, and Marianna stay after class. John requested my presence, while Marianna requested the presence of her BFF, Sue, a Korean girl who cut the image of the pristine student – black-rimmed glasses, baby doll frocks, and a mullet cut. I couldn’t say no. Such guilt was already anchoring me down. “Who else is involved in this?” Mrs. Engwa asked John in a comforting tone, as two of the four sticker packets were yet unaccounted for. Sue, always assertive and smart, a pro of a philatelist at 11, adapted the tone of a judge. “Yes, John, who else?”
John was quiet, didn’t budge. He refused to name the other guy. No matter how hard Mrs. Engwa and Sue coaxed, how intently Claudia and Marianna fixed eyes on him for the truth, he was quiet. We were seated at a rectangular desk, in an air-conditioned room with a carpeted floor – a cozy environment – but I was suffocating. I got off my chair, fell to my knees, and said, “It’s me. He made me do it.” In an instant, I revealed myself to be a thief, a liar, and a coward, pointing a finger at another in an effort to elude blame. A hush befell all, this mixture of dismay, disgust, and disappointment.
The stickers were returned to their rightful owner. Mrs. Engwa allowed us boys to go free, but warned that should we do this again, our parents would be notified. Within days, we were back to our name calling of Fagalito and Claudia Kaboogabooger, trading stamps, and gathering on the floor as Mrs. Engwa sat above us in a chair to read us a story. Such is childhood. We easily forgive and forget, and friendships are transient. Come the sixth grade, John and I barely talked. Still, some lessons stay with us for the rest of our lives. I had never felt uglier as I did at that moment of confession, on my knees and in tears. In retrospect, the incident strengthened my moral fiber.
There’s this perennial debate: is man inherently evil or is man inherently good? I believe in the latter. I see evil as a necessary trial to overcome in order for us to discover the path to righteousness. And so we cheer for Terry Malloy. Sure he’s a bum. But he’s got the smarts to admit it and the heart to do something about it.
The Asian Greta Garbo. (http://www.rafsy.com/films-1920s-1950s/flesh-and-the-devil-the-sound-of-an-original/) Such is the agnomen the press has anointed Chinese actress, Gong Li. This is no minor comparison. Garbo is a legend, a screen deity from an epoch where few stars are remembered, what more on a last name basis. Here are the other two survivors: Chaplin (http://www.rafsy.com/films-1920s-1950s/city-lights-the-eyes-as-windows-to-the-soul/) and Valentino (http://www.rafsy.com/actors-models-directors/rudolph-valentino-fire-of-the-silver-screen/). Of course, there’s Swanson, although it was a talkie that earned her immortality. (http://www.rafsy.com/films-1920s-1950s/sunset-boulevard-the-edge-of-madness/)
Why this honor, you might wonder. Watch “Raise the Red Lantern” (1991), the Oscar Best Foreign Film that brought Li to our attention. Director Zhang Yimou does something reminiscent of a Garbo vehicle. He manipulates his camera to make love to his star. This iconoclastic approach to film making is rare. It isn’t always that a movie so feeds off an actress that her beauty is the nexus of the plot. I’ve witnessed it only in one other film made in my life time, and that would be “Tess” (1979). The object of adoration in the Roman Polanski classic: Nastassja Kinski, who herself inspired critics to link her to Garbo. (http://www.rafsy.com/actors-models-directors/nastassja-kinski-the-eternal-tess/)
Polanski and Kinski were an item, as were Yimou and Li; hence, the press romanticizing of such pairings as “the artist and the muse.” The collaboration was never more apparent than with the latter couple. Polanski directed Kinski in one film, whereas Yimou directed Li in at least seven. So potent was the chemistry between the Chinese auteur and his actress that it propelled both to artistic and commercial renown with their first film. Their meeting was simple enough. Yimou discovered Li while she was just a student at the Central Academy of Drama in Beijing, casting the 23-year-old in “Red Sorghum” (1989), where she plays a poor rural lass in an arranged marriage with a wealthy older man. Concubine, mistress, courtesan, femme fatale… these are the feminine archetypes Gong Li has often inhabited. Now you see why the Greta Garbo analogy?
Typecasting, you might scoff. If you were in Zhang Yimou’s position, I doubt you’d be able to resist modeling such a discovery after Garbo for the posterity of future film viewers. Lips the sweetness of plum blossom, complexion chrysanthemum radiant, a peony’s commanding beauty… Li on screen is a flower soft in demeanor but that withstands winds and storms. In “Red Sorghum,” she survives abduction and war. In “Raise the Red Lantern,” she schemes for liberation from marital enslavement. From “Shanghai Triad” (1995) to “Eros” (2004), from “Memoirs of a Geisha” (2005) to “Coming Home” (2014) (http://www.rafsy.com/films-2000s-present/coming-home-in-love-and-war/), Gong Li plays proud and dignified, no matter that tragedy could be her fate. Though not all of her films feature her under the directorship of Yimou, his influence on her is evident. The message her former Svengali has written in her every expression and gesture is readable to all: this is the plight of the Asian woman; it speaks of the chains that have shackled all women since Eve.
My sister could not get herself to see “Raise the Red Lantern,” its subject of misogyny too personal (as it is for many women). Regardless, she could not be immune to Gong Li’s novel stature as an icon either. She even got to stand in the actress’s place. This because of a dress. Fame brought Li to the attention of Shanghai Tang, the premier brand in the Far East of high end garments and luxury items and from whom my sister would have cheongsams custom tailored. During one fitting, the seamstress had my sister slip on a cheongsam Li had modeled. It was a perfect fit, save for the bosom of which Li is more ample than the average Asian female. What flattery. Shanghai Tang was swathing my sister in the silk that had caressed the woman consistently hailed as one of the most beautiful in the world, a privilege the brand rarely bestowed on its clients, if ever at all.
I still see Gong Li as she was when I first beheld her in the Oscar winner. It’s hard to believe she is now 50. Such is existence in the real world. Unlike her Hollywood counterparts, however, she need not bewail the dearth of roles for having reached middle-age. Li is revered enough so that she continues to command attention even when stripped of glamour; thus, her turn as a political dissident’s wife in “Coming Home,” dowdy and demented with only the emotionality of those eyes to rivet us viewers. She is arguably the Mona Lisa of the 21st century, in the most modern medium of aesthetic expression.
This brings me to the endurance of art and the mysterious ways in which a masterpiece comes into fruition. Without Gong Li, there would not have been Zhang Yimou as we know him. The same could be said of all the celebrated artists and their muses in eras past from Dante and Beatrice Portinari to Man Ray and Kiki de Montparnasse. We are born with the capacity for brilliance, yet for that brilliance to explode at full force, its debris glitter in the universe for time immemorial, a missing link is crucial much like a key to a lock. There is truth to the saying that behind every great man is a great woman (or vice versa), and so I wonder what brought Frida Kahlo to her Diego and T.S. Eliot to his Vivienne. Was their pairing serendipitous or preordained?
Whatever the case, they met and fell in love, and their love transcended the commonplace romance to produce art over which the world marvels. As Vladimir Nabokov wrote in “Lolita” of the doomed Humbert Humbert when the child predator authors a manuscript to perpetuate his devotion for the girl vixen: “I am thinking of aurochs and angles, the secret of durable pigments, prophetic sonnets, the refuge of art. And this is the only immortality you and I may share, my Lolita.” The only way that love lasts beyond the grave is through our celebration of it in songs and poems, in stories and images. The images at our disposal have multiplied in the span of the millennium, from carvings on a cave wall and oil on canvass to camcorders and mobile filming. Cinema, with its fusion of narrative and visuals, remains the most powerful of all, gripping us viewers at the throat and tugging at our hearts.
For all the political interpretations critics have applied to Zhang Yimou’s output in collaboration with Gong Li, one message is unmistakable: each one is the director’s shrine to his glorious star.
Jesse Owens is an American hero. History remembers him as a soaring figure who dispelled Adolf Hitler’s ideology of Aryan supremacy by winning four gold medals in the 1936 Summer Olympics held in Berlin. His main event was track and field; hence, the film’s title of “Race” (2016), an allusion to the man’s legacy on account of the sport and his ethnicity. As expected of a bio-pic on a personage of African-American heritage set in the Jim Crow era, the film depicts hurdles in a segregationist society that Owens (Stephan James) pushes himself to rise above. There’s the snubs of fellow athletes when he’s a student at Ohio State University and later, when he’s hailed champion, the White House’s refusal to allow him entrance through the front door so that he could attend a dinner in his honor.
The incident that causes him the most anguish, however, comes from his own community. Many blacks accuse him of betraying them for accepting the Olympic committee’s invitation to compete in a country blatant in its persecution of Jews and people of color. Jesse Owens’s mission is a titanic one. He must snag the gold. Anything less, silver or bronze, would be failure; only first place will make a statement about the inequity of discrimination.
The Olympics brim with stories of trail blazers. In exceptional cases, a participant gains acclaim despite zero medal victory. Nobody is a loser. If Jesse Owens is at one end of the spectrum, he a born thoroughbred, then at the other end is British ski jumper Eddie Edwards. Far sighted, physically heavy, and his skills deficient, Edwards was the proverbial dark horse relentless in his training, every faulty landing and every jeer never clouding his focus. He made it to the 1988 Winter Olympics in Calgary. Although he came in last, his pertinacity was so inspirational that at the closing ceremony, the president of the organizing committee singled him out amid the horde of gold, silver, and bronze: “You have broken world records and you have established personal bests. Some of you have even soared like an eagle.” And so was coined Edwards’s nickname of Eddie the Eagle, which also serves as the title to the ski jumper’s own 2016 bio-pic.
Whether political or personal, sportspeople have something to say. At every Olympics, a star emerges to capture our imagination. Scottish runner Eric Liddell, who regarded his speed as a gift from God rather than an expedient for the gold, was altruism personified in the 1924 games held in Paris (Liddell later became a missionary in China), and in the 1976 Summer Olympics in Montreal, Romanian gymnast Nadia Comaneci earned the perfect score of ten in the uneven bars competition – the first time in Olympics history for a ten to be given and the first of the seven tens she would amass at the event – in effect rousing admiration and affection in the West for this 14-year-old child of the Eastern Block.
However, Owens is unique among the greats. In spite of equality laws executed in the wake of the Civil Rights Movement, the ills of racism, sexism and homophobia still thrive today. Strong evidence is in the continued existence of the Ku Klux Klan, which endorsed Donald Trump during the 2016 presidential campaign, he the president-elect who demonizes Mexicans as drug dealers and rapists, is himself a purported rapist, and pledges to abolish same sex marriage. White supremacists threatened to assassinate Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton had she won as well as to murder blacks. Now as in then, Jesse Owens is a symbol of disenfranchised empowerment. We who are oppressed must fight to protect our standing as citizens of the world, not with weapons as much as with faith in our cause and the will such faith imbues, and in so doing, we will race to the finish line, our arms raised to the heavens in triumph.
Triumph of the will is not just idealistic blather. This is a conviction that encapsulates the spirit of the Olympics. One of the 20th century’s most iconic films is testimony to this – “Olympia,” a project the Third Reich commissioned to memorialize the 1936 games. Although, as “Race” depicts, the film’s ulterior motive was to validate Aryan supremacy, director Leni Riefenstahl (Carice van Houten) does something that the German government considers questionable, if not an affront. She includes athletes of all races. Owens, especially, captivates Riefenstahl, his record breaking feats impossible to ignore, and she dedicates copious footage to him. The director isn’t the only German in amazement of the African-American. In a gesture of sportsmanship, German runner Luz Long (David Kross) visits Owens in his room the night before they are to compete. Owens anticipates a disgruntled foe. Instead, he meets a fellow human who discloses his disgust for the Nazis and assures Owens his comradeship.
Allies exist in unlikely people, in unlikely places. As long as what we advocate upholds respect and dignity, we are not alone. I will never forget my sister’s 26th birthday. She was earning her master’s at Harvard University, while I was an undergrad at Tufts University in the neighboring town of Medford. After a celebratory dinner, I joined my sister and her friends to a restaurant bar, and though I was 21, I didn’t have a valid ID. I presented my credit card to the waitress, thinking that financial means would indicate a relative maturity of age. She was a Caucasian woman in a tank top and hair cut short, with brisk movements and a blue collar Boston accent that elongated the “a” as “ahh.” Since she denied the credit card, I gave her dagger eyes, at which she responded likewise, averted her head, and huffed. With every valid ID the present company handed her, she took each with a jerk from the holder and returned with a flick of her wrist. We decided to leave. On the way out, I told the waitress she was rude. In my youthful impertinence, I might have even uttered that she was a bitch. “Get out of here, chink,” she said.
I would have accepted had the waitress called me an asshole. The obscenity would have been an attack on my attitude. No. “Racist,” I said. Andy, a Filipino such as I, pulled me by the arm to the door; the confrontation was futile. “They’ll see,” my sister said once we were outside, they a reference to the waitress and all like her who hate because of skin color. “We’ll make successes of ourselves.” My sister and her friends today build homes and commercial compounds, and I persist on my calling as a writer, having penned one novel thus far. (http://www.rafsy.com/art-of-storytelling/the-reward-of-being-an-author-it-isnt-money/) We didn’t succeed on our own. Our ammunition: the opportunities with which our education gifted us. I myself can mention a few motivational words from teachers, but none as encouraging as those from Alison Lurie, the Pulitzer Prize author who mentored me at the Cornell writing program, when a manuscript I had completed was accumulating rejections. I had not foreseen Lurie and Cornell University to be in my future, but through faith in my talent and diligence, both were:
Please don’t give up. You are a gifted writer, and have important things to say. Remember that many, even famous writers, were rejected many times by stupid editors.
Please don’t give up. Nobody ever says that unless he or she means it. How this plea pertains to us all in these uncertain times. Donald Trump is to be the 45th president of the United States of America. In defiance and fear, people against him are talking of migrating to another country. Abandoning ship is a reflex action. As President Barack Obama stated in his post-election speech, the path of politics has never been linear; it’s a zigzag with every blockade to progress an incentive to unite us so that we break through and march forward mightier than before. This is what impresses me about America. When summoned to act in the name of liberty and justice for all, Americans produce wonders as big as the nation itself. The Civil Rights Movement, the Environmental Movement, The Women’s Rights Movement, The Gay and Lesbian Liberation Movement… all these movements happened here, their impact manifest in many parts of the globe. Rather than quit as the going gets tough, we Americans get even tougher. We haven’t reached the finish line yet. Lord knows how many decades or centuries more we need to trudge. Nevertheless, we will.
Hence, Jesse Owens and the Olympics. The games are a microcosm of the world, a simulacra of life. Not everything is in our favor. Life is a melange of rights and wrongs, privileges and injustices. To surmount the odds seems impossible, until a hero like Owens defies gravity to make us believe otherwise. Owens was one man. Imagine the heights ascended if we each could muster his will to join forces towards a unanimous mission.
Sure, “The Notebook” (2004) is sappy, a weepie contrived to appeal to a demographic of teen girls and ladies with lacquered nails. But hey, the film has a male fan base, too. 12 years after its release, “The Notebook” is now a classic, primarily due to Facebook. Originally ignored when released in theaters, it created a buzz when postings of the love story that vanquishes Alzheimer’s crowded the social media.
From the very beginning, “The Notebook” gets it right by introducing us to Allie (Gena Rowlands) and Duke (James Garner) in their old age. She is in a nursing home. He is a frequent visitor whose identity causes her much confusion. We sense the two must have a history for Duke to be diligent in his visits. How sprawling and beautiful that history is only becomes apparent to us when Duke reads passages Allie had written in a notebook. As expected, they were once a vivacious pair in the throes of a passion that glosses the world an eternal spring. And so we watch the progression from youth to agedness. Such is the power of the flashback, its ability to contrast with starkness two polar points in life: birth and death.
Upon love’s nativity, young Allie (Rachel McAdams) is a rich girl and young Duke (Ryan Gosling) is a poor boy torn apart by a class structure that deems them unfit to wed. However, she isn’t distraught for long. Enter Lon Hammond, Jr. (James Marsden). Her societal match, Lon is a Southern aristocrat with a penchant for wine and horses and a genuinely nice guy, besides. Since he has the approval of Allie’s parents, Allie experiences a resurgence of joy, and with her faith in love restored, she believes she is over Duke. She isn’t, of course; this is meant to be a tale of a woman torn between two lovers. Hence, the guy comes back and what we’ve got is drama upon drama.
Really, “The Notebook” is all very formulaic. Nonetheless, the movie resonates with us because we all eventually fall prey to time and the loss of memory. As I approach the end of my fifth decade, the notion of a mid-life crisis flabbergasts me. When we are young, we think we will be young always, all the more in the midst of childhood. As long ago as that was for me, I still feel the security the white carpet and four walls of my parents’ room assured me, in a white house on a street named Carissa. With “The Carol Burnett Show” my family’s favorite TV viewing, laughter filled the room. Not even murder could dampen the conviviality of our evenings, thanks in part to “Ellery Queen,” the whodunit detective series, every episode of which introduced a victim about to be offed talking to the camera as if the viewer were the killer. Such a gimmick engaged us in a guessing game for the next 30 minutes.
My reality paralleled the ebullience of the alternate universe encased in a black and white portable TV: the birthday cake Tita Zennie baked that was a diorama of match box cars on an icing highway; sleep-overs with my three favorite cousins Richard, Ariel, and Joel; sun blazed weekends as we lounged by the pool, the grass and shrubs that surrounded us the brilliance of polished jade. An accident on the day I turned eight nearly ruptured this idyll existence. My parents had given me a clock, one that with its white stem and red head resembled a flower. At school, I was excited for dismissal so that I could return home to gaze at the glow in the dark numbers as the time piece ticked away the seconds. I ended up at the dentist instead.
During recess, in a game of patintero, where players were dared to cross a line without being tagged by the It who stood on the demarcation, I had not been looking in front of me while running to avoid the It. In a moment as spasmodic as the shower scene in “Psycho” (1960), life was reduced to a series of splice edits. A boy before me was crying; my teeth had formed an indentation on his bald head. I turned to the side, only to witness my friends recoil in horror. I looked down. My white shirt was red. I attempted to shut my mouth, but couldn’t. One incisor was protruding from the gums, while the other had fallen out. For I was numb from shock, an older boy brought me to the clinic, where my mother was then contacted. At home, as I rushed to the bathroom to change out of my bloodied top, I glimpsed my clock and thought of the mishap, This is a gift from the devil.
The dentist reinserted the incisors, a procedure that required five anesthesia shots and took three hours. This was 1975. Needles then were tooth pick thick. I had pleaded with Dr. Eraña’s assistant to wait until I dozed off before the operation commenced. Caressing my hand, she would ask, “Are you asleep now?” I’d shake my head, until she finally said, “We need to get started.” I can still hear the crunch upon contact between the needle and the gums – the snack, crackle, pop of Rice Krispies. “You’re the bravest boy in the world,” Dr. Eraña said when the operation was done. She was impressed that I didn’t cry, contrasting me to a grown man whom she claimed had been sobbing the other day over work done with his molars.
So I survived, and my childhood resumed its innocence. We moved to a larger house on a street named Acacia, with a larger pool in a larger garden. Trees were ever present during my formative phase. Just as leaves sprout on branches, layer upon layer of foliage that reach the sky, so did one gleeful memory after another. It seemed they would never end. Every weekend was a frolic in the pool. Every summer brought me to relatives who reside in America. Every Christmas and New Year’s gathered yet more of the extended family in our garden, a landscape of hillocks and orchids and trees a bonanza of tropical fruits.
Love renders our memories golden. To an equal degree that Allie and Duke in “The Notebook” regard each other, we treasure those who have been a part of events we have come to enshrine in our thoughts. Yes, we all have stories of romance to narrate, perhaps not on the scale of a Nicholas Sparks heart tickler, but some even so that evince our dedication to a place and a person… be it a lover, a friend, or a relation. We are the sum of our memories. To lose them would be to lose who we are. Thus, our ceaseless efforts to keep them. We take pictures. We maintain personal bonds. We write.
Our efforts adapt an urgency as time hastens. Funeral bells toll. Voices diminish into a murmur. Faces fade. Do not forget. Do not forget. Without the love remembrances sow in us, we are vacant entities, bodies bereft of a soul.
I once wanted to change my name from Juancho Chu to Wittgenstein Walcher H. Rockefeller van Stausen Smith (sometimes Smyth) VIII. I was twelve years old and living in Manila, in a brick house that I imagined sometimes as a castle, sometimes as an ocean liner, a large-windowed house with twelve air-conditioners to keep it as cool as a Hollywood mansion. I played with bath towels as a queen’s headdress. The seal of envelopes to my collection of Hallmark stationery tasted like a rose. In my heart was a girl to whom Hardy Boy Joe, Shaun Cassidy, serenaded “Da Doo Ron Ron.” But the idea for my American name came to me not from TV or some fantastic thoughts I might have had of another world, another life: I was an accomplice to the secret love affair our family maid was having with the neighborhood watchman.
“I’d like to know his name,” my father said one morning over breakfast. He was commending the watchman for his sense of duty. Sometime at dawn my father had gone to the bathroom. He glanced out the window and from the end of the street the watchman appeared on his motorcycle, making his rounds. The watchman stopped upon seeing a light in our house turned on, then drove off minutes later when nothing more suspicious happened.
“James Cagney,” I said.
My father laughed. He turned to my mother who grinned at the sight of his thick eyebrows twitching like caterpillars. Her lips were as pink as faded poinsettias. “James Cagney, eh,” he said.
“You eat too much,” said my mother. “You imagine things too much. Take it easy.” My mother monitored how much food I put on my plate, counting the servings of rice and pieces of pork sausages. I was a kid without a neck. My stomach blocked my view of my feet.
“James Cagney,” I said again.
It’s true. The watchman’s name was James Cagney, James Cagney Alejandro. I had met him for the first time four months back. My family and I had just returned from our yearly summer trip to San Francisco, where an aunt and an uncle lived in Atherton, a town an hour’s drive south of the city. During the trip we saw Yankee Doodle Dandy on TV, so what a coincidence that I would meet an actual James Cagney. Like the original, the watchman had a pug nose, bulldog eyes, and a boxer’s build. He was half-American, white as Yankee Cagney with nails clipped and polished and strong hands. He and our maid Malen were talking at the white gate of our house. My father had already left for work and my mother had stepped out to the beauty parlor. I was roller-skating on the driveway, oblivious to the company Malen was keeping. She and James Cagney seemed to be engaged in nothing more than friendly talk. They weren’t holding hands. Neither one of them was smiling shyly nor glancing furtively around to see if anybody aside from me was witnessing any secret flirtation — signs of love I knew about from watching my two older sisters and older brother when they brought dates home. Although the gate was open, James Cagney stood outside while Malen never went past the premises of our home. She leaned against the gate, one foot on its tip behind the other. She was a large woman, Malen. Her waist was as wide as her hips. She had a double chin and the hair of cauliflower curls on her head made her taller than James Cagney. That alone made an affair between them silly. What man wants a woman larger than he is?
I skated down to them.
“This is Juancho,” Malen said.
“Like his daddy,” said James Cagney. “So Chinese.”
His smile, it had a sincerity to it, as if he truly were glad to meet me and had been wanting to for a long time, and his voice, he sounded like a boy — my seventeen-year-old brother Bach had a deeper voice — and yet, in his blue uniform, James Cagney wasn’t anybody that a car could run over. His forearms were Popeye big. His trousers fit his thighs like tights on Captain America. Face to face with James Cagney, I must have seen what Malen saw. The sky was no longer a sky; it was a lightless space with neither clouds nor birds. The trees lining the pavements, the other massive houses behind spiked gates, Malen herself — everything fell beyond the periphery of my vision. James Cagney, James Cagney Alejandro.
James Cagney left with a “See you later” to Malen. As he drove away in his motorcycle, I asked Malen when he’d be back. “I don’t know,” she said.
He was back the next day. He and Malen stood on the same spot at the gate. Again they kept their distance as I roller-skated on the driveway. “Yankee Doodle Dandy,” I said as I approached them. They looked at each other and laughed. Malen girlishly covered her mouth. I had never seen her laugh that way before.
“What’s that Yankee Dododa?” asked James Cagney. James Cagney Alejandro had never heard of his namesake.
“You have a movie star’s name,” I said. “Everybody in the States knows your name. How did you get a name like that?”
Malen gave another girlish laugh, her head bowed as if her hand were a fan she was hiding behind. “The same way you get your name.”
I was standing closer to James Cagney now, right beside him. He smelled of meat and heavy cologne. He wore a black cord that emphasized the thickness of his neck. I touched his gun holster.
“No. That’s dangerous,” he said.
I held on tighter.
“Uh, uh,” he said. “No.”
I let go. I glanced at his belt buckle. Square with a silver sheen, it was like a miniature shield. “Where did you get this?” I held it on the tips of my fingers.
“My uniform,” he said, looking down at where my hand was and then at me. I looked up from the buckle and into his eyes.
“Juancho, you roller-skate some more,” Malen said.
James Cagney came nearly every day. My father left for work each morning at eight. My mother had no fixed schedule, yet James Cagney would knock at our gate fifteen minutes after she would leave for someplace, no matter the time of day. Some days my mother had no plans for an outing and so James Cagney never came. Whether Malen saw James Cagney or not, she was always humming a tune.
One afternoon I was alone in the back terrace, at the lunch table looking through cut out magazine pictures of “Charlie’s Angels,” which I collected in a Hallmark stationery box. The only sound was the snip snip of the gardener’s scissors while he pruned the hedges that lined the garden wall. It was a distant sound, almost an echo, for how far and small the gardener was across the sprawling green stretch of grass. All I saw of him was his straw hat, which he hid beneath to block away the sun. The ceiling fan above me chugged lazily to shoo away the flies. My glass of calamansi juice was sweating with dew. And then Malen’s humming from the kitchen at the end of the terrace drifted to where I was. Her voice was full and calming. She was humming a tune I had never heard before and which I have never heard since. It was a kind of lullaby that for a fleeting moment froze the hot garden into an image from a dream. I didn’t know I was hearing Malen. I didn’t even know she could carry a tune. For the first time I thought of how Malen spoke. She had a wispy voice, one I had never heard her raise. I had never seen her in any outburst of emotion. She was neither happy nor sad. She was just there, a maid who silently dusted the furniture and served us our meals.
Malen came out of the kitchen with a tray of bread pudding. She laid the tray on the table and picked up a photograph of the Angels. Their hair flipped back and hands clasped together in prayer, they were modeling daywear: blonde Jill in a tennis outfit; Sabrina in a secretarial skirt and blouse; Kelly, my favorite Angel, in a bikini. Kelly’s hair was nearly as black as mine and I could see a little bit of her tan on me.
“Who do you like?” I asked.
Malen shrugged her shoulders.
She gazed at the picture a few seconds more then pointed at Sabrina. Of the Angels, Sabrina was the least dolled up. She had a bob and her skirt covered her knees.
“You want to look like her?”
“Why?” Malen said. “I’m not American.”
“I mean thin like that.”
She shrugged her shoulders.
“They’re all so pretty,” I said.
“Yes,” she said, though without much concern.
“Ape Woman,” I said, helping myself to the bread pudding.
Normally Malen would have pursed her lips to my taunt, but this time she grinned. She went through my cut out pictures of the Bionic Man and Woman, Hardy Boys Shaun Cassidy and Parker Stevenson, and more Charlie’s Angels. The gardener was watering the plants now, spraying the leaves of trees taller than the house. Malen hummed her song.
“James Cagney — he’s American,” I said. “Tell me, how did he get his name?”
“His mommy was American,” Malen said. She seemed to look into herself rather than at my Hallmark box of pictures. Her eyes were foggy, not tearful but layered with emotions I was just beginning to understand. “He was named after her daddy. Her daddy’s name was James Cagney. Good name for him. Macho. Strong.” Malen flexed her forearms. “What you think? He’s macho, huh. Handsome.”
I flexed my own forearms, but it stayed small. I tucked in my stomach, but still it bulged over my belt loop. I didn’t want my bread pudding anymore. “Yes,” I said with Malen’s tone of indifference. That’s when the idea for a new name came to me. I didn’t even think long about it. One blink and it spelled itself out before me: Wittgenstein Walcher H. Rockefeller van Stausen Smith (sometimes Smyth) VIII. I don’t know where Wittgenstein came from. Walcher I derived from Walton, as in “The Walton Family,” and H from Henry VIII, the king I was fascinated with by virtue of his having ordered the beheading of two of his six wives. Rockefeller was the most famous American name I knew, Smith the most American, and van Stausen rhymed with Beerhausen, a brand of beer so heavily promoted in the Philippines as Germany’s No. 1 drink when in reality it existed nowhere else in the world but in the Philippines. “How nice to have a nice name,” I said.
“Juancho Chu,” said Malen.
“Ape Woman, be quiet.”
“What’s wrong with that? That’s your name.”
I pushed the tray of pudding away. “I don’t like this.”
“But this is your favorite,” Malen said.
“Next time I’ll have… I’ll have spinach.”
“Spinach?” She laughed. “What’s happening to you?”
From that day on I stopped drinking soft drinks, forbade my aunt and uncle in San Francisco to mail me packages of Hershey’s Kisses and Nestle’s Crunch, and left the dining table hungry. I was nauseous and weak half of my waking hours, yet never too weak for a set of toe touches and jumping jacks. Nor for another round of masturbation. Since fat is white, I reasoned that whatever it was my penis was ejaculating must be fat, and so I believed that the more I went at it, the thinner I’d be. There I lay on my bathroom floor, morning, noon, and night, rubbing the fuzzy toilet seat cover in between my legs. Those Popeye arms, those Captain America thighs, the life that lay hidden beneath that gleaming belt buckle — me, too, someday.
“He’s losing weight,” James Cagney said to Malen toward the end of summer.
Hardly any light was in the sky — everything was gray — and yet how blinding James Cagney was with his wavy hair and his eyes that ran the length of my body. His security hat was on the handle of his motorcycle. Malen was standing in between his legs. She rested one hand on his thigh as he sat on his motorcycle, while with her other hand she brushed his brown hair back. None of the neighborhood watchmen had hair as light as his. Neither did any other civil servant throughout Manila. Under the sun, James Cagney never got dark. On a cloudy day he brought a breath of cool wind to a humid drizzle. James Cagney could have passed as one of the foreign residents of the neighborhood.
“I don’t know what he’s doing to himself,” said Malen.
I leaned against the tree that they always rendezvoused beneath and tightened the waist of my shorts. I had lost ten pounds.
“You might disappear,” James Cagney said to me.
I twirled a finger in my hair to form a wave like his. “I’m growing taller,” I said. “I’m going to get the kind of shoes you have.” He wore these black elevator boots.
“Not yet,” he said. “When you’re big already.”
James Cagney took Malen’s hand. Malen looked at me from the corner of her eye. He whispered in Tagalog, “Never mind. He doesn’t say anything, does he?” She said no. And they went on whispering. Mostly they stayed frozen in their position, gazing at and holding each other.
“It might rain,” I said.
They didn’t say a word.
“The sun might come out,” I said.
Still, no word.
“Mommy’s car’s coming.”
Malen jumped back from leaning on James Cagney’s lap. A car passed by, but it wasn’t my mother’s.
“Juancho, you go inside,” Malen said.
“I don’t want,” I said. That wasn’t what James Cagney wanted either, I didn’t think. But then he didn’t contest her. He didn’t even seem to hear her. He simply kept his eyes on her, as if with one blink he would lose sight of her once and for all.
“Bye.” I waved a hand up to James Cagney’s face.
He gave me a quick, impersonal, good riddance nod.
From the den window, I watched the two lose themselves in a private world of hand clasps and soft strokes. As large as Malen was, she was suddenly demure in the worshipful way she looked into his eyes, in the bow of her head. Her head was so low that her chin pressed against her chest.
Once classes started in August, I no longer saw James Cagney in the afternoons, but I continued with my diet. In a course of two months I lost a total of thirty pounds. I knew Malen and James Cagney continued their afternoon trysts because she would always be humming, not loudly but softly, softly as one thoughtlessly hums a tune while adrift on a wave of some beautiful memory.
“Why don’t you shut up,” I said one day when I was losing my head over some math problems. Malen was serving me my afternoon meal. We were in the back terrace and again the gardener was creating his own music of snipping weeds and watering trees. All of a sudden Malen was quiet. The expression on her face didn’t change. She still looked happy; she had this smug smile that said nothing in life could go wrong. I pushed the tray of food away from me. “I don’t want this salad shit.”
“But every afternoon you eat this. You said you like vegetables only.”
“It taste like dog caca.”
Finally the corners of Malen’s lips and big eyes dropped into a sad face. “Why talk like that?”
“Because you’re ugly.”
She didn’t say anything. She just kept looking at me with that sadness.
“James Cagney doesn’t really like you. You’re too ugly. He only sees you because we pay you good money.”
Malen quietly picked up the tray and headed back to the kitchen behind us.
I threw my math book at the heels of her feet. “Ugly,” I said. “Oomph! Oomph! Monkey face. Monkey face.”
She placed the tray back on the table, picked the book up from the floor, and placed it in front of me, opened to the page that I was working on. Then she returned to the kitchen, tray in hand.
I threw the book at the kitchen door then ran to my bathroom. I lay on the floor, rubbing the fuzzy seat cover in between my legs. James Cagney was stroking my hair, smiling into my eyes, touching my lips. Or was it really me with him? My hair is lead black. My eyes are the black-brown of a castana nut. Whoever it was that I imagined as myself was as fair skinned as James Cagney, as brawny and as cool. We were surrounded by darkness, no sun, no blazing sky. Yet how hot it was. I’m from a country where under the March sun sweat drips down your forehead as mercilessly as wax down a candle, lizards squiggle across hot white walls, and papayas grow the length of a dish tray. Cold is the hum of an air-conditioner to lull you to sleep, your lips around a tangerine-flavored icicle stick in mid-afternoon. It is the snow-capped dreamscapes you’ve only seen in American Christmas specials on TV. It is dry ice in your kitchen sink creating mist under running water.
That night James Cagney made his midnight trip to our house. I knew that he came nearly every midnight because some weeks before, the creaking of the back gate woke me. Only this night, the night for which my father would commend James Cagney for being a dutiful watchman, would be his last.
“He was here to see Malen,” I told my parents the morning after over breakfast. “They’re having an affair.”
“Eh,” said my mother. She forbade liaisons between the domestic helpers and outsiders. An outsider could break into our home and steal or kill. “Malen’s an old maid. Look at her. She doesn’t do things… like that.”
The whole family would find out the truth that Monday. James Cagney’s wife came banging on our gate. A girlishly thin woman, she screamed with a sparrow dull cry for Malen to come out just as I was boarding our car for school. In a huff, Malen rushed out of the garage and down the driveway, barefoot. Her feet against the ground made hard slapping sounds. The two were yelling all sorts of stuff, but the only words I could get were from James Cagney’s wife: “You’re the one? You’re so ugly. Ugly and fat.” Malen’s fluff of curly hair stood on their ends. In the five years she had been with the family, never had I seen her so angry. Not even with my own taunts of Ape Woman did her lips quiver so and her chest heave. Malen seemed to grow in size the way cartoon depictions of children growing into adults do. She dragged James Cagney’s wife onto the driveway and pulled at her bun. “Ugly,” James Cagney’s wife kept screaming, throwing punches into the air in an attempt to loosen from Malen’s grip.
I didn’t budge from my seat on the car trunk. I tucked in my stomach. I wasn’t fat. No, I wasn’t. Not anymore. I was thin and on my way to becoming James Cagney Alejandro handsome.
Our driver hurried to the scene. He pulled at the wife’s hair so that he and Malen were caught in a tug of war, only he was as tiny and weak as the wife was. Soon the whole housekeeping staff, my parents, two older sisters and older brother surrounded the three. “Enough,” my father calmly said. His neck was stiff and his upper lip twitched furiously. Though not as husky as Malen, he stood at equal height with all 5′10″ of her. He looked into her eyes, his own eyes large and commanding. Suddenly, she shrank in stature. She was no longer a part of the staff.
I never said good-bye to Malen. I never saw her again after that. By the time I had come home from school that day, she was gone. A year later I heard from one of the other maids that Malen was back in the province, taking care of her ailing mother. What province she called home, I didn’t know. If she was married, I didn’t ask. James Cagney continued on as the neighborhood watchman, saluting cars that entered and exited the neighborhood gate. Whenever my car would pass, he’d salute at me with a faint smile of recognition. And then one day he was gone, too.