“On the Waterfront”: Sin and Salvation

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“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.

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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.

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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?”

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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.

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Gong Li: The Garbo of the Far East

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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 ona 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/)

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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?

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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.

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That was the 1990s. It’s hard to believe Gong Li 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 glamor; 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 to 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.

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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.

“Race”: Triumph of the Will

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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:

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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.

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“The Notebook”: Do Not Forget… Do Not Forget…

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.