“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. (http://www.rafsy.com/art-of-storytelling/the-reward-of-being-an-author-it-isnt-money/) 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 (http://www.rafsy.com/actors-models-directors/farrah-fawcett-the-kiss-of-providence/), I had transferred a year earlier to the International School Manila 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. (http://www.rafsy.com/films-1960s-1990s/ordinary-people-extraordinary-lives/) “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 – swanky 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 “300 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. (http://www.rafsy.com/actors-models-directors/philippine-cinema-a-childhood-in-black-and-white/)

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.

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“The Jungle Book”: In Search of Who We Are

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I lost my job two weeks ago. For eight months I was employed at a K-8 school, where my task was to manage the database and to print acknowledgment letters. Familiarizing myself with the database was a trial, despite a three-day tutorial course. Matters of technology, from a project as minor as generating a spreadsheet to the titanic undertaking of designing a program, encrypted codes and all, are best in the hands of those who are left-brain dominant. They can apply the basic mathematics of one plus one equals two to a computer’s mumbo jumbo. In addition, my fastidiousness was continuously put to the test. My enumeration of oversights consisted of the following: duplicated addresses on a report, a letter with the closing attributed to the incorrect person, a donation appropriated to the wrong campaign. I consider myself detail-oriented; however, with the literary elements of characterization and sentence structure rather than with clerical duties.

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I believe in signs, so I must have prognosticated that an end would come soon, though I didn’t anticipate that it would occur as it did because previous employers had always complimented me on my industriousness. (http://www.rafsy.com/films-1960s-1990s/groundhog-day-a-spark-of-newness-in-the-everyday/) Even my supervisor at the school offered me praise at the start; she once said I was doing “great.” Suddenly, I was at the bottom of the totem pole. Those of you who have experienced this, you know what it’s like. We are incapacitated when our employers inform us that we are not performing up to their standard, for we are disappointed in ourselves. In fairness, I wish my supervisor had confronted me early in the spring about her misgivings, at the point when her opinion of me shifted, instead of slamming me with a 30-day probation period without a forewarning. She would meet with me in the fall every Friday to appraise my conduct for the week. Since the meetings had stopped mid-way into the New Year, I assumed I was on the right track.

Fortunately, I have family and friends with whom I was able to discuss my situation. When I met with a friend, Mike, for advice, his first question was, “Are you happy there?” “No,” I said. I sensed as early on as the day of my interview in August of last year that the school would not be a right fit. Technical issues aside, the office was cluttered. Stationery and binders and yearbooks lay in disorder in shelf compartments. Documents stuffed drawers. A carpet the hue of cannabis – faded green with traces of brown – was in desperate need of replacement. I accepted the offer only because it was a reason to move forward from San Francisco AIDS Foundation, where I had been employed for a decade and a half. While the load work at the foundation had been conducive to my writing schedule, I needed change. I’ll get used to this, I thought of the school; I regarded it as a platform to reentering a career in academia. As a former colleague commented during the interview, “I’m not sure what your long-term plan is.” I told her, “To teach again.”

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“No regrets,” my sister wrote in an e-mail in the eventuality of a discharge. “You’re a creative person. You’re not wired to do administrative stuff.” My friend, Wendy, said over the phone shortly after the school released me, “You tried. Now you know that it wasn’t for you.” Meanwhile, Mike a few weeks earlier had said of my promise to my supervisor that I’d do my best, “Your best may not be good enough.” I did do my best, and this my supervisor recognized. “We like you,” she said. “You’re a good guy, Rafaelito… I see that you work hard and that you apply yourself, but….”

As all this was taking place, I went to watch “The Jungle Book” (2016), the story of an orphan boy named Mowgli (Neel Sethi), who has been raised since infancy by a pack of wolves, climbing trees and sprinting with such alacrity that he outruns potential predators, the most vicious being the tiger Shere Khan (Idris Elba – voice). Khan wants the boy dead. Years ago, a human out of self-defense scarred Khan’s face with a fire torch, and ever since, the feline has been obsessed with vengeance to bite into Mowgli’s neck. The problem for him is that the beasts in the kingdom are protective of their “man cub.” Mowgli is family. For his part, Mowgli, under the tutelage of Bugheera (Ben Kingsley – voice) – a panther half Kung Fu master and half surrogate father – undergoes rigorous training so that he could fight in a mode that would make his wolf tribe proud. This poses another set of problems: Mowgli is a Homo sapien.

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Here is a message as primordial as the Congo Jungle: never try to be somebody or something you are not. Computers in this era are fundamental to the functioning of civilization, be it for business or leisure, though not everyone of us is techie attuned – I, for one. I forced myself to be; hence, the outcome. Every Sunday, I would get the willies. What I experienced wasn’t the perfunctory blues that a weekend was ending. It was a presentiment that Monday could sabotage the four days to follow with a database demand. For example, my supervisor once requested that I generate a donor report that included e-mails. While filters had been encoded in the database that enabled me to search for first names, last names, cities, and other forms of information, I couldn’t locate one for e-mail addresses. Hours later, I presented her a report with everything she had wanted except that. Only by accident did I find the desired filter, and this when I clicked days afterwards on the filter for phone number. It so turned out that e-mail address had been encoded as e-mail number.

All this is the past. I am relieved to be out. Happy. On the day I packed up my desk, HR asked, “How are you feeling right now?” “Fine,” I said. I truly was. I admitted that I had my doubts about the job as far back as the fall and that I have plans – to earn a teaching certificate. I need the intellectual stimulation that a classroom alone can provide. Printing nametags, stuffing envelopes, and recording contributions are necessary procedures for any business to operate, the vital nuts and bolts to a machine, but… to be blunt (and somewhat hubristic)… education at Tufts, the Sorbonne, and Cornell programmed me for higher responsibilities. Had the school not confronted me with its dissatisfaction in me, I would have floundered there. A friend in Manila said over Christmas when I expressed my reservations about the school, “You’re like a person who has outgrown his shoes.”

Yes. The shoes were too small, not too big. I need a larger pair, one that fits the size of my true talent. Mowgli in “The Jungle Book” vanquishes Shere Khan. He continues to live and thrive in the midst of the beasts that have taken care of him, but this time as a man, for it is as a man that he stands his ground against Khan. As for me, words are my talent. My calling is to guide young minds in asserting themselves through the power of language. I am a writer. This is who I am. The school was nothing more than a detour, albeit a necessary one. I am a wiser man as a result, and onward I travel on the path to my rightful place in the world.

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“To Sir, with Love”: A Voice Worthy of the World

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While earning my MFA at Cornell University, I was granted a lectureship with which I taught the personal essay and creative writing to undergraduates. I was nervous about the post. I had no experience. That I looked younger than my 30 years was an added challenge. Most of us are familiar with the staidness of a university setting. A classroom is set up as such that tables connect to form a square the near size of the room; it’s as cold as an interrogation chamber.

For my first teaching gig, I sat quietly in the twelve o’clock spot as empty chairs around me filled. Students with friends engaged in conversation, while those who kept to themselves eyed the threshold, waiting for the instructor to walk in. The most I got from everyone was a fleeting glance. Nobody conveyed a sign of recognition that I was the man whose thoughts on sentence structure and paragraph coherency could render fun the task of articulating oneself on paper. That was how young I looked. When I shut the door and greeted all a good morning, the boys and girls before me shifted eyes at each other. Every semester for three years produced the same initial reaction.

The first thing I always told my students was that I was primarily a monitor, a figure present to keep discussion flowing. The most valuable opinions would come from them, I stressed, and this helped to thaw the ice. What ultimately got them engaged were the in-class writing exercises. “Don’t think of this as work,” I advised. “Think of this as e-mails to a friend or a journal entry.” In one exercise students exchanged a photograph with the person seated beside them, and from the photograph now in their own hands, they developed a story. In another they provided five random words, which they then used to pen a paragraph or a poem. My favorite exercise was their speculations as to where they would be at the age of 30. This proved to be an illuminating study on gender roles. The girls prioritized family. The boys prioritized career. The girls were neutral as to the sex of their first child. The boys favored a son with whom to play ball. And they all envisioned themselves with graying hair and arthritis.

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One common element inherent among my students that eluded all forms of division, be they gender conditioned or otherwise, was a sense of purpose. This was especially apparent with the freshmen. Whether or not they knew what they would declare as a major two years down the road, they each had a goal – to do their darned best. The upperclassmen were different. Having gone through the rigmarole of exams and fulfilling credits, they were eager to graduate so that they could venture onward as adults cocksure in their future success. The incoming students, on the other hand, were in the transitional phase. For many, Cornell was their first experience to live away from home. They had earned their acceptance, and as obligated as they were to their parents for the opportunity, they were more intent on a tomorrow in which, through sweat and diligence, they could stake their claim on the world. These kids were hopeful rather than brash. In their ambition, I was more than a writing instructor. I was a friend.

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If there is a type of teacher that I hold as the ideal, he would be Mark Thackeray (Sidney Poitier) in the film, “To Sir, with Love” (1967). Although Thackeray understands the function of textbooks to education, he is also conscious that their formality and inundation of facts can pander. Thus, for him, conversation is key to stimulating the young mind. “We are going to talk about various things,” he says. A student asks about what. His answer: “About life, survival, love, death, sex, marriage, rebellion. Anything you want.” To show that he isn’t a bag of hot air, Thackeray relates hardships he withstood during his own youth. He was a dishwasher, a cook at a hamburger joint, and a janitor. He spoke a patois unique to the working class of British Guyana. He was the antithesis of the gentleman who stands tall before them, posh in dress, demeanor, and elocution. “If you’re prepared to work hard, you can do almost anything,” Thackeray explains of his transformation. “You can even change your speech if you want to.”

My own students responded to accounts of trials I myself survived. How they listened with dropped jaw and unblinking eyes to my confession that acceptance to a writing program was not easy. Admittance came on the third try. Year one, all ten schools I applied to rejected me. Year two, I cut my selection down to eight, and again I was refused. Year three, my father gave me an ultimatum: to do something with my pipe dream of being an author or to get a real job. I upped my pool back to ten schools. Nine turned me down, while Cornell’s offer came over the fax one afternoon that I happened to be checking my landline voicemail, followed by a phone call from the deliverer. “Are you coming or aren’t you?” he urged. “Give me a couple of days to think about it,” I said in an attempt to impress him that other programs had accorded me entrance.

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I once told a friend that I wish I were a literary wunderkind, that brilliance flowed from me with a single click of a keyboard and that success were instantaneous. “You’d more gain people’s respect if you struggled,” he said. He is right. These were words I shared in every class. Writing a novel isn’t easy. Getting an A isn’t easy. Triumph is not a given. We achieve it by proving our worth, and this includes forging forward despite multiple letdowns, for only in failure and rebuff is our passion strengthened. Rather than buckling, we must use them as fuel for our ambition. Now who exactly are we in the grand scheme of the universe to be of interest to anybody? “You all have something important to say,” I would remind my students. “Allow yourself the courage of emotional vulnerability. The more honest you are with your emotions – be they sadness or happiness or heartache or love – the more engrossed the reader. Nobody is here to judge you.”

Indeed, we all go through a shared set of emotions, but what make us unique are our own experiences in relation to them. A common error when writing is that we have played these experiences so often in our memories that we take it for granted the reader would be engaging in them for the first time. Slow down. Relay what you see, what you hear, what you smell and taste. Divulge conversations. Lure the reader into the world that exists in your head in order to propagate empathy. No matter who we are, our individual stories deserve to be heard, each one a link to the chain of human evolution.

“45 Years”: Two Strangers, One Bed

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How well do we know the person who shares our bed? This is the question that insinuates itself like arsenic in water between Geoff (Tom Courtenay) and Kate (Charlotte Rampling) Mercer on the days that lead up to their 45th wedding anniversary. At the outset, they are a typical couple. They laugh at one another’s jokes, enjoy the same taste in music (“Smoke Gets in Your Eyes” is their theme song), and are sentimental over shared remembrances. She bandages a cut on his thumb. He tells her she’s beautiful. Childless, their home a cottage amid sky, trees, and grass redolent of a David Hockney landscape, they are severed from the world, their reason for waking upon sunrise each other. A letter Geoff receives one morning over coffee ruptures the serenity. The body of his first love, Katya, who was killed in an accident 50 years ago while both were on a snow trekking expedition, has been found preserved in a glacier. Now the memory of a dead woman frozen in youth invades every moment between the Mercers.

The added complication to “45 Years” (2015) is that the revelation that surfaces of Geoff’s commitment to Katya confounds the man himself. Like a volcano presumed dormant, latent feelings erupt unexpectedly, burying in ash everything that surrounds him. Kate fights to breath, while Geoff labors to stop the blackening of the air with pledges of emotional fidelity to Kate. How well do we know ourselves?

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“45 Years” heeds to the preaching of gurus as a blueprint for an answer – that love is our best bet to realizing the yet undiscovered within us. We’ve all had someone who has generated a ripple beneath our hearts, someone we had been able to keep at bay until one day we found ourselves thinking about the person with a hollow feeling. Here’s a guy I’m surprised my insides didn’t palpitate over at the start. Meet Derek: early thirties; 5’11”; brown wavy hair cut preppy short; hazel eyes; a rugby player’s meaty and muscular physique. The year was 2004. We made eye contact at a club, the Mack Folsom Prison, the kind of place far from conducive for conversation. Slings were set up in caged areas, and monitors installed in ceiling corners played man videos. (You get the idea.) The joint was emptying out after a long night. I was standing by a sling, ready to leave, when Derek walked in and sat on a chair nearby, across a row of lockers that lined a wall. And then he approached me. “Come over to my place,” he said. The guy had a voice to match his look. How could I have gotten so lucky? I thought. The pick up was as simple as that.

Derek lived a few blocks away. His building was an industrial salmagundi of sliding doors to balconies enclosed in square spaces and rectangular opaque windows. His walls were white and bare. The floor was beige wood. Sun filtered through a tank of gold fish in the living room, while on a loft, on a leather-covered bed, Derek and I were gratifying our most animalistic of urges. Amid our intertwined limbs, he revealed bits and pieces of the person beneath the image. He worked as a flight nurse, a paramedic assigned to commercial airlines in the event of a medical issue among the passengers. (I had never been aware of such a profession.) He had earned a business degree from De Paul University in Chicago. And… here’s the real clincher… he moonlighted as a $300 an hour escort. What a compliment that he was offering himself to me free of charge. “What are you doing later?” I asked as noon struck. “You,” he said.

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That morning was the start of a connection between Derek and me that would persist for over a year. “I always, always have fun with you, Rafaelito,” he once told me. On another occasion, as I walked into his place, he gazed down at me from the loft, his eyes a shifting shade of blue and green, piercing with want and tenderness. One thing he withheld from giving me was a kiss. A kiss for him was cognate to a commitment. Still, what I saw in his eyes was unmistakable. I might have felt something, too. I’m sure I did. I would send Derek sexy e-mails. To the first one, he called me while I was at work. “I jacked off to your e-mail four times,” he said. “How did you learn to write like this? It’s like a combination of poetry and sleaze.” Herein began my knack for erotica. Derek suggested I get published, and I did. Four of my erotic pieces so far have been anthologized. The latest is based on him:

Have you forgotten that scorching May afternoon in the park in front of my building? Kids played in the sand dune, folks sunbathed on the grass, and we sat on a bench. We were stoned, sweaty, shirtless and reeked of each other’s sex. A couple nearby commented to each other that the heat was indicative of an impending earthquake, so I said to you, “If an earthquake struck and trapped me beneath a mountain of rubble, everything would be okay so long as you were with me.” 

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You hooked your arm around my neck, laid my head on your heart. “Me, too,” you said.

Now this interaction never transpired between Derek and me. While some instances I do relate are factual, an element of wish fulfillment pervades the story. Through art, we writers seek answers and resolutions to the jumble that is life. Only on the afternoon that Derek spurned me did I long for him. He had found somebody else, somebody he called a boyfriend, and in front of this guy while at Derek’s place one weekend I brought up a topic intimate to Derek and me. Being cut off was a sort of death. Perhaps I hadn’t been in tune to what lurked inside of me because until then, Derek was available and easy. So it must have been for Geoff in “45 Years,” this blindness to a deep-rooted affection. For the old man to confront the facts, Katya’s corpse needed to be unearthed intact in a time capsule.

As for Derek, he is somewhere out there alive and well, though enshrined in my memory as a young Goliath. My own fantasy of him remains as such:

You know what I really want is for you to wrap your hand around my neck with loving hands and to kiss me, kiss me long and hard. That is all I have ever wanted. I know a kiss is what you want from me, too. Never mind that I’m from across the Pacific, a newbie to your country, a newly minted citizen of this land of the free and land of the brave. What we have between us surpasses all cultural divides. Do I dare call it the “L” word? 

I can merely guess at what Derek would have truly wanted from me, be it a kiss or anything else. Warm looks and hours of physical unity aside, we never spoke of what might have drawn us together on a subliminal level. He always had “fun” with me, so he said. Am I to take that word at face value? In the end, we were two strangers in one bed.

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“Lovers”: The Tumult of Passion

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The way to a man’s heart is through his stomach. Mother’s drill this dictum into their daughter’s, and women’s journals dispense it as advice to snagging a husband. The flab that forms on the well fed’s waist is proof of a victory. It’s called a love handle, and on it a wife has a firm grip. The victory applies to matings of other variations, as well, be it two men, two men and one woman, or otherwise. My relationship with Jason vouches for this. (http://www.rafsy.com/films-1960s-1990s/summer-of-42-two-in-isolation/)

Jason and I met at Cornell University, where I was on a writing fellowship and he was in the hotel school. His home for the two years that we grew close was a brick walk up directly across Ithaca Commons from my place, a postmodern structure on which treetops at high noon would cast their reflections in black. Over takeout dinners of beef broccoli and pot stickers, we’d watch TV, down a bottle of wine, and talk about anything from Monica Lewinsky to a newfangled invention called google. The one occasion we veered from our routine was a late night when the Chinese restaurant where we would place our orders was closed. Jason improvised a meal with tuna, seaweed flakes, mayonnaise, and crushed red chili. Then “The Howard Stern Show” came on. We were back to our nightly pattern. Each moment we shared was comforting in its predictability. This would never have been if not for a pad thai dinner he had prepared for me shortly after we had met at Ithaca’s sole gay bar.

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However, nourishment that fortifies the body and pampers the heart doesn’t satiate the hunger of the flesh. Herein enters passion.

Passion heightens our senses. Whether in our presence or in our minds, those adored so devour us that all we see is their beauty as we quiver to their scent. Their flesh is electricity against our bodies. Nectar coats their lips. And in silence, we hear their voices. Should they on any occasion reject our emotional or sexual overtures, we behave in a manner deserted of dignity. We grovel and fawn. We are taken for a fool. Woe to us who are so besotted that we become stupid to what is right and what is wrong. No, this never happened between Jason and me, this losing of oneself into the other, and gratefully so, or else neither of us would have made it through graduate school in a sound state of mind. I kid you not. To know to what depths of depravity passion can drag a person, watch “Lovers” (1991). Beware: the film is based on a true story.

Paco (Jorge Sanz) is a soldier who comes home to Madrid upon the completion of his military service. He plans to marry his girlfriend, Trini (Maribel Verdú), who with her docile disposition and frugality makes for the ideal wife. She is pretty, too, with hair the black of a black panther and eyes that dote. They seem bound for a future preordained to all the betrothed during the 1950s – parent, grandparenthood, an apron for her, a tool box for him – until Trini requires that until the wedding, Paco lives elsewhere for the sake of propriety. Bad move. The room to the flat Paco rents belongs to no traditional woman. Luisa (Veronica Abril) is one sexy, sex-crazed lady who also happens to be a wheeler-dealer in a variety of money-making scams. Because Trini refuses to put out until their wedding night, Paco gets caught up in Luisa’s web of kink that entails (among other things) golden showers and a silk kerchief up a section of his anatomy where nobody had before dared to venture.

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The guy is a slave to Luisa. He never says no to her, whether in the bedroom or out, no matter that a demand could land him in the slammer. Who can blame him? We are all sexual animals, and when a smoldering fox ensnares us as prey upon whom to unleash the secrets of the oldest profession on earth, we cannot resist.

Passion can ignite anywhere, at any moment, and with anyone – a bolt that strikes us as lightning does a tree. We fall. Hard. Try to get up, and we are dizzy from the stars that swirl in our heads. This is what happened to another real life couple whose liaison caused tongues to wag in the 1990s: Mary Letourneau and Vili Fualaau. Letourneau was a teacher who unwittingly became a media festival when news of her dalliance with her student – Fualaau, 22 years her junior – made the circuit. She was 34 years old at the time, which would make her lover the age of… you do the math.

“Don’t look into his eyes,” Letourneau confessed in a recent Barbara Walters interview of her thoughts on the instant she surrendered to Fualaau’s advances. They were at a playground when he asked her, a married woman, if she would consider having an affair. The bond between the two had started way before then, however; for Fualaau, as far back as the second grade. She was substituting for his class when first he beheld her. “I thought she was a movie star,” he said to Walters. For the dusky boy, the slim lady with the giving smile and blonde bangs was a vision that would gnaw at him for the years that ensued, until that fateful day in the playground, when she was his sixth grade instructor, mentoring him on her spare time to develop his talent as an artist. They rendezvoused in the evening. A kiss led to a pregnancy, a six-month jail term, a parole violation, a second pregnancy, and another jail term, this time for seven years. “Why can’t it ever just be a kiss?” sighed Letourneau. (https://www.youtube.com/watch?time_continue=1&v=QmKOtsmqYlE)

But a kiss is never enough. For all the forces that conspired to keep them apart and the misery that resulted, Mary Letourneau and Vili Fualaau are today happily married with teenage children, living a quiet life in Seattle, where they operate a family restaurant. Their story would be ripe material for a movie. That Letourneau and Fualaau are at the polar end of the spectrum from the triangle of a train wreck that is Trini, Paco, and Luisa would be sure to pack in an audience. We need endings that spur tears of joy. Plus, the two are apparently a pair of foodies.

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What do you know? The tumult of passion can translate into marital harmony after all.