in On the Art of Storytelling

Dolly Parton, Penthouse Forum, and First Love

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“What’s his name?”

“I think it’s Marco Polo.”

“Marco Polo? Does he speak English?”

“I don’t know.”

“Where’s he from?”

“Some place called the Philippines.”

“How come it’s not on the map?”

After class one day, I overheard two guys talking about me behind my back. I was walking out of school. The coldness of the January air was giving me the sniffles. I wanted to blow my nose, but I couldn’t take out my handkerchief from my pocket without the risk of a derisive comment. As evidenced earlier by a girl who had mimicked dabbing her nose with a powder puff when I had first sneezed into my hanky, a handkerchief to the students at Bancroft Elementary was something flashy, a decorative article of clothing such as a walking cane and Edwardian boots more befitting a dandy than a boy from American suburbia. I could have descended upon them from another planet, only to 12-year-olds in 1979, anything other worldly would have been less strange: Mork from Ork made us laugh together with a fellow earthling named Mindy, and planet Krypton was the home of our favorite superhero. What truly mystified the boys and girls at Bancroft was why this foreigner from a non-existent country, who was rumored to possess the nomenclature of an ancient explorer and the habits of an English duke, was in their midst.

The Bank of America had promoted my father to a vice presidential position that required him to set up office in its San Francisco headquarter, and he and my mother decided that the suburbs would provide the best schooling for their children. To our expressions of reluctance, my father had said, “This is for you, so that you can experience more of the world.” With the move to America, my brother resented the loss of his car; my sister was heartbroken she’d no longer have shopping trips to Hong Kong; I missed my weekends eating rice and pork loaf by the pool, sun soaked in trunks that were growing increasingly tighter on account of my expanding girth.

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But decisions my parents made for the welfare of the family could not be contested for long. So there I was in Walnut Creek, California, the new kid enrolled in the middle of the sixth grade and thus the subject of scrutiny by two boys I did not dare turn my head to look at. What would I have said to them anyway?

Lack of cultural and racial diversity notwithstanding, my sixth grade class at Bancroft Elementary consisted of a motley bunch of 20 students. Rodney looked like Lisa Whelchel, everybody’s Mouseketeer crush at the time – kittenish eyes, eyebrows so heavy that they appeared colored on by a felt pen, and a shoulder-length bob, the ends of which he had a habit of incessantly patting. He was close friends with a short blond boy who was called by his last name of Squirrel, although behind Squirrel’s back, Rodney called him “gay.” I’m not sure that, at 12 years old, we knew what sexual practices the word gay connoted. At least, I didn’t. From what I observed, guys used it primarily to reference a lack of coolness. In any case, Squirrel talked with a lisp and he fretted over his height, often wondering if at 13 or 14 he would experience a growth spurt as his older brother had. Matt was a dark-haired boy, tall and broad shouldered, who thought Dolly Parton was the most beautiful woman alive. I had two desk partners: Andrew and Billie. Andrew walked with a slouch, had moppy hair, and spoke with a drone baritone. His most distinguished characteristic was a pumpkin round nose with hair that protruded from the nostrils. All this gave him the air of a middle-aged man trapped in the body of a prepubescent. Billie was a rocker chick. She dressed in tee shirts torn at the hem and that sported rock band logos, and her favorite expression was “piss lick.”

Rodney was the first to extend a welcoming hand when the teacher, Mrs. Baxter, assigned an in-class exercise that required our being divided into groups. Derrière bulbous as that of a lady bug, dark hair short and curly, Mrs. Baxter was dressed in purple polyester pants and shirt. She looked like a blueberry. She stood in front of the class to introduce me. The classroom consisted of white walls and a white ceiling, a floor murky gray, and the teacher’s desk in front of a blackboard. The students’ desks were arranged in rows. Crayola drawings of cats and dogs, twirling smoke emanating from house chimneys, and figures that I supposed represented parents and siblings were posted on a wall in between the entrance and the windows. I was seated at the back.

“This is Marco Tan,” she said and she smiled. “Would you like to stand up, Marco, and tell the class where you’re from?”

All I kept thinking was that I hated what I was wearing: corduroys far too flared at the hem and a shirt with stripes that seemed misaligned because one stripe was not at a perfect horizontal with the pant waist.

“No,” I whispered.

Mrs. Baxter kept on smiling. The class focused on me.

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“The Philippines,” I said as I stood and pulled at my shirt lest the horizontal stripes appear uneven.

“Would you like to spell that?”

I spelled Philippines. She wrote it on the blackboard then emphasized the pronunciation was Philip-peens and not Philip-pines.

“Thank you,” said Mrs. Baxter.

“You’re welcome,” I said.

Everybody remained focused on me, astonished that I not only spoke English with an American accent but was also familiar with western etiquette.

The group thing started with Rodney’s raising his hand and saying, “We’d like Marco to join us.”

Rodney spoke with a subdued certainty that left no room for doubt. I thought how strange it was that less than a month ago I had been living in another country, in a neighborhood where occupants to homes stayed unseen behind iron gates and stone walls, where through the years we had never met the families on our block. At the International School Manila, students didn’t bike to class. They were chauffeured or bused. Now here somebody I had never seen before was declaring that he and I could be friends. But instead of appeasing my first-day jitters, Rodney’s courtesy sharpened it.

How odd would I seem to Rodney? I wondered. To the other kids?

Especially to Matt. Matt was the quiet type. This I could tell by the expression of curiosity in his eyes, the inquisitiveness he projected in which his questions were turned inward rather than outward. While everybody else in class was direct with his or her gaze at me, Matt was subtle. He glanced with his head slightly bowed like that of a hesitant puppy. Matt was also the handsomest boy I had ever seen. He was Italian-American with hair earth brown and lush as a lion’s mane, robust lips, and a pug nose – features that all came together to evoke the celluloid hotness of Tom Wopat in the “Dukes of Hazzard.” I had always been under the impression that guy’s who look as good as Matt are unabashed, cocky. That was the way the Fonze was in “Happy Days” and the way John Travolta was in “Grease.” Confidence comes with the territory of beauty. Not so with Matt.

The group consisted of Rodney, Matt, Billie, and me. The exercise required us to convene in the library next door so that we could choose two advertisements in magazines to discuss among ourselves the marketing implications of those ads and then write a paper on our discussion. The library was not short of magazines. Two walls contained racks of them: Boy’s Life, Reader’s Digest, Life, Newsweek, more Boy’s Life. The magazine section was across from the entrance, in a carpeted section that contained a rocking chair and that sofas and floor cushions bordered. The moment I walked in, I saw one image alone – that of silken hair framing a girl’s smiling face. The face was juxtaposed with bold and multi-colored letters that declared advice on dating and lip gloss. I headed to the magazine as if it were a light at the end of a hall. Once I picked up the magazine and flipped it open, I overheard a boy say behind me to the entire class, “He reads Seventeen.”

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I quickly put the magazine back to where I had found it, but the damage had been done. Snickering erupted.

Billie grabbed the Seventeen. “He was getting it for me,” she said. Dark eyes smiled at me from underneath dark bangs.

Rodney pretended not have heard the snickering and picked up a Time close to where the Seventeen had been. Some kids glanced at me curiously. Squirrel and Andrew stood side by side in another group. Rather than disdainful, they gave me a look of surprise akin to that which the class had had when realizing that I could speak English.

The one person who saw this moment as an opportunity to turn against me was Clayton. Clayton gave me hateful eyes. He would later like to boast that his mother had been Miss North Carolina, that he was a descendant of plantation owners. Pink as a pig and blond as hay, Raggedy Andy freckled with oversized sneakers, Clayton had the last name of Black, which was at odds with the way he spoke (a hint of an uppity southern drawl) and looked.

I don’t know who the boy was that had pointed out my gaff in choosing a magazine. Billie seemed to have dissipated the possible onslaught of taunts. Unfortunately, she would not always be present to protect me. In response to a question about who my favorite rock band was, I would reply, “Bee Gees.” I would prove myself to be infantile in my reference to a kid’s show rather than smart when, in answer to a boy’s question as to the meaning of the word casa, I would say, “It means house. ‘Sesame Street’ says it all the time.” At the end of the school year, I would get straight A’s with exception to one C in Physical Education. The one time classmates would take me seriously was when I would say with conviction that the word virgin only applies to girls because boys are called saints.

Through all this, Matt would react as he did on this first day at the library – with nonchalance. Eying the magazines on the rack, he stood a couple of feet behind me. He had on a lumberjack shirt and boots beaten by just the perfect amount so that they gave him the air of a seasoned huntsman rather than of a kid in hand-me-downs. How dark his eyebrows were, dark as the fur on a stallion, and how olive and clear his skin was. Every single girl seemed to be as entranced as I. Wherever they looked, whether it be at each other to chat or at a magazine, they sporadically gazed at Matt. I could not determine who his group of friends was. He stood apart from all.

II

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Matt di Giorgio in is his gym clothes was the vision of the man I wanted to be. You might argue that my memory paints him in a godly glow, one so idealized that it is far from the truth. No matter because even though the memory of an image is prone to faltering, the memory of a feeling is never wrong. And this is how it was to see Matt close to the flesh.

Physical Ed class was before lunch break. A bunk house at the end of a sports field was the designated changing room for the boys. A carpet was rolled up against one wall; a couple of benches stood aligned with the carpet; and for us to store our street clothes, cubbyholes stood against another wall. Graffiti of initials and dates were carved into the cubbyholes. The bunk house was as dank as a horse stable. In rays of sun shining through Venetian blinds, particles of dust danced in the air.

Matt always took a bench across the window on which the light had a direct hit. The method of his undressing started with one foot on the bench for him to unlace his boots with the concern one takes when untying the ribbon to a present. He then unbuttoned his shirt at a methodical pace. If he was wearing a sweater, he never removed it simultaneously with the shirt he had on underneath as the other boys did; rather, he removed each article of clothing one at a time. Neither did he let his pants drop to the floor in a rush to dress into the next attire, as if ashamed to be seen bare. He slipped each pant leg off consecutively and he did it with such care so as not to form a crease. In his skin at last save for a pair of white socks that matched white briefs, he folded his clothes into squares.

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Before putting on red shorts and a tank top, Matt often provided ample time for me to relish the sight of him in just his underwear. The hint of a tan line, the sun through the window blinds casting his body in shadow and light, mounds of burgeoning muscle and grooves on his stomach attesting to a natural athleticism – was he aware of the desire he elicited in others?

The red shorts fit snuggly on his thighs and buttocks as becomingly as shorts on a mannequin. My shorts flared out like a skirt. I could only imagine my appearance: a little hippopotamus in a tutu. While resembling a cartoon character from “Fantasia” might have been cute for me a year earlier, I was at present on the brink of adolescence, the stage where a hug no longer means a teddy bear cuddle but a shared warmth in the heat of another person. On my first day of Physical Ed, I placed my belongings into a cubbyhole beside Matt’s, looked at the ground to avoid eye contact with him, and bent my head towards him for a whiff of his smell. He smelled of soap and sun.

That night I lay in bed and gazed out my window. My bedroom had a view of the backyard. The moon shone through silhouettes of tree branches. The tallest tree in the garden was in front of my window. It was spurting the first leaves of spring. A wind ruffled the leaves. They resembled bird wings flapping against the purple sky. Books on shelves above my desk and ceramic figurines of farm animals on a chest were gleaming with the icy light of night, yet underneath my sheets, I was restless and hot. It used to be that when I would close my eyes, I could lose myself in a dreamscape of a rainbow arching across the universe or of a portal on a mountain wall that led to subterranean volcanoes erupting chocolate malt. That night the only vision I had was of Matt, his clothes tickling his body while he undressed the same way the sheets tickled mine, Matt wetting his lips as he raised a baseball bat and then slid his thumbs against the inner garter of his red shorts, Matt with eyes aglow under the sun shining through the blinds in the bunk house.

I hoped that by seeing him so vividly in my mind, I would be able to dream of him. That would not be so. It would never be. Matt was too earthly for me to take to a realm beyond the confines of reality.

Nevertheless, fact and fantasy united when weeks later I discovered a stash of Penthouse magazines in my father’s closet. They were in a duffel bag organized with other traveling bags that my father kept on a shelf beneath his shoes. I was not going through his belongings. My parents allowed us kids access to their closets. My sister, Andrea, would sift through my father’s office shirts because she liked to wear them layered over women’s blouses. Gordon, my brother, occasionally borrowed his shoes. The one business I had with my father’s closet was to place letters in a drawer for him to have his secretary stamp. The duffel bag was hard to miss. It was leather while the other bags were vinyl. It looked new, and it appeared to have bulky contents.

There they were – women photographed in a manner I had never seen women photographed before; stories of copulation (one was set in World War II with a German soldier who had a “cock shaped liked a swastika” – whatever that meant); letters from readers about their sexual encounters.

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The letters riveted me the most. They were short, unadorned, and they hit my carnal curiosity with the precision of a dart striking bullseye. It was afternoon. It would always be afternoon whenever I would sneak the magazines out of the bag and do my best to return them in their original arrangement. Those afternoons were full of sun, sun and stillness and silence.

The black font of four letter words, of graphic passages relating what men and women did with their privates and of descriptions of the insatiability of a human body, jumped at me from the white pages like a branding iron scalding my eyes.

Blow job. In every letter, a woman was giving a blow job. A blow job was the best sensation. A blow job was something performed with skill. Every woman gave a blow job and every man loved it. Amid this outpouring of women pleasuring men, one letter in each issue consistently presented itself as a crowning jewel. This particular letter routinely started off with the testament of “everything about homosexuality had disgusted me” or with some expression of disconnect to the notion of man to man union. The admission of “one night my buddy and I got drunk” ensued without fail, followed some lines later with “it hurt at first and then it felt good.” So that was how it felt to be gay.

Did these men all look like Matt? I wondered, these fraternity brothers and athletes and beer swigging, macho office colleagues.

On that first afternoon, I went to my room, undressed, and sat on the edge of my bed. Leaves to the tree outside my window were still, yet they were so green and vibrant that, even in their stillness, they looked to be undulating in the wind. I bent my head down towards the lower half of my body, puckered my lips and I blew, softly at first then with increasing force so that I was splattering spit.

This blow job thing does nothing, I thought. What’s the big deal?

I shut my eyes to imagine the women in Penthouse. Lace stockings sheathed their legs. Their bodies were sprawled on satin sheets. I blew some more. Nothing. And then came Matt. He worked his way stealthily into a lens I had framed around a Penthouse centerfold, only to explode in front of me with the full force of his smell, his physical nearness to me in class and at the bunk house, his sinewy muscularity. If Matt had never existed, what might I have thought at night while lying in bed? What vision of sex would I have had? For that afternoon and for many moments like it to come, he would be the central figure in scenarios I lifted from gay letters in Penthouse.

III

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One day, during recess, Matt pulled up a chair to the desk at the back of the class that I shared with Billie and Andrew. Since Billie wasn’t there, Matt must have felt comfortable to speak about girls… or rather about a specific woman he had a crush on.

“I love the way she sings,” he said. Matt had a gruff voice. As gruff as it was, it wasn’t harsh because it was low and he spoke softly. He leaned forward to rest his elbows on his lap. Stooped like that, he seemed embarrassed. “’I’ll Always Love You,’ you know, that’s my favorite song.”

“I don’t know that song,” Andrew said.

“Well, I’m not gonna sing it for you. It’s a cool song. Sort of.”

“Sort of?”

“It’s slow. It’s old. 1974, I think. It’s something my mom used to listen to.” Matt sat upright and this time, without room for contradiction, he said, “Hey, believe me: it’s a cool song.”

The confidence with which Matt spoke, I wish I had had such confidence a day before during lunch break with Clayton Black. Above the din of kids chattering and chewing on ravioli, Clayton’s voice echoed throughout the cafeteria when he yelled, “Buddha likes the Bee Gees.” Everyone sniggered. He and some other guys were talking about AC/DC, Led Zeppelin, and Lynyrd Skynyrd. Those groups didn’t exist in the Philippines. Their music wasn’t in harmony with the Filipinos’ penchant for dancing the robot or the hustle. I wish I had had the guts to tell Clayton to shut the fuck up.

“My mom would sing it to me as good as Dolly Parton did,” Matt said. “My mom looked like her, too. She had beautiful blonde hair and, you know…”

Andrew formed large circular shapes with his hands over his chest. “You mean your mom…”

“Yeah. She had Dolly Parton’s body.”

“Wow. She must have been really beautiful.”

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“She was a cheerleader. Even when she got really sick and started to lose her hair, she still had a great voice.”

“Your mom was a cheerleader and Clayton’s mom was Miss North Carolina.”

“Dolly Parton’s great,” Matt said. “She’s the most beautiful woman in the world.”

“Barbi Benton,” said Andrew. I could have sworn his huge nose blushed.

Andrew and Matt turned to me for my choice of a beauty. Matt’s eyes were as dark and glossy as chocolate dipped in syrup. A dark beauty. “Kate Jackson,” I said. Or maybe I should have said Jaclyn Smith.       

“I’d go for Jaclyn Smith first,” Andrew said.

“Or Farrah,” said Matt. “Definitely Farrah. But Kate Jackson is pretty, too… Loni Anderson. Suzanne Somers.”

“You and blondes,” said Andrew.

“I don’t think about it. I’m naturally into blondes.”

“Does it all go back to mom?”

“Yeah,” I said.

Matt blinked in consternation. Andrew turned to me in surprise at the emphatic tone with which I spoke. Apparently, I had an opinion about something.

“I mean…” I said to Andrew. “Does your mom look like Barbi Benton?”

“Not even close.”

Matt laughed. His laugh was deep with a hint of mischief. His tawny cheeks turned ruddy.

Andrew said to Matt, “Wait a minute. Are you trying to tell us that you like Tammy?”

Tammy was blonde. She wasn’t buxom, not yet at least, but she was blonde, platinum blonde, and she was tan and good in softball. She also spoke with a lilting voice. She always wore a hoody sweatshirt. Every morning when she arrived in class, she’d remove the hood and blonde hair flipped Farrah Fawcett style would cascade mid-way down her back. I had noticed how pretty her hair was on my first day in school, but not the way I was noticing it at this instant. Tammy was seated a few desks ahead of us. She was writing in a notebook. Her head was bowed. Every so often, she’d flip her hair back. Each flip burned me like a clothes iron.

“She’s really cute,” Matt said of Tammy.

“Yeah, she is,” Andrew said.

They were both admiring her, the slight movement of her body with each word she wrote, the tilt of her head.

She is sooo not pretty, I thought.

“Talk to her,” Andrew told Matt.

“I do,” Matt said.

“I mean really talk to her.”

That was a challenge for the rest of the day that gave Matt jitterbug fingers and coaxing nods from Andrew.

IV

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Why Matt would have the jitters beat the hell out of me. Sweet was a word that girls used on him. He said thank you and please. He picked up things for girls that they dropped on the floor, opened the door for Mrs. Baxter, never spoke behind anybody’s back. His sweetness wasn’t limited to girls. He would offer to share a bag of chips with a buddy and he was generous in lending an eraser or a pen. I myself would experience the potency of his sweetness during spring break. What made it so impressionable was that, since school was out, I had not expected to see Matt. He just happened to be there.

From the vicinity of houses where I lived, a gravel bike route extended so many miles to a park. Trees lined the route. Leaves were sprouting. This was my first spring ever. The season doesn’t exist in the Philippines. The Philippines recognizes two seasons alone – the wet months and the dry months. The dry months, the most scorching time of the year, are from March to May, during which the temperature rises to 90 degrees Fahrenheit. Never before had I needed to wear a sweater in April nor had I seen such a thing as April showers.

The day I went for a bike ride to the park, a two-day drizzle over Walnut Creek had lifted. On the third day, the whole shebang of spring that I had seen in “The Sound of Music” became a reality for me – green everywhere evocative of a mint coolness rather than the deep green of a tropical forest, flowers swaying in the breeze, and an incandescence that ignited the sky blinding white rather than burning sun bright. So what that Austria and the United States are two different countries in two different continents? They’re both in the Western Hemisphere, have snow and blond people, and that was enough for me to see them as the same.

I wasn’t riding fast, but I wasn’t careful. The cars zooming on the thoroughfare and the leaves above forming splotchy shadows on the ground distracted me. And then I got another first, a bee sting, right on my nose. That was when I fell. I was flat on the gravel, my bike on top of me. In a car that sped by, a girl looked aghast as she witnessed my fall. Her mouth was opened in the shape of an O. Her face was frozen as if it were an image on a bus billboard.

“Are you okay?” I heard.

I looked up. Matt was looking down at me from his own bike. He was holding a ball.

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“Yes,” I said. Oh, how the bee bite stung. I could feel my nose swelling. But that was nothing compared to having the boy I saw as perfect seeing me as a klutz, one who had literally hit rock bottom. Wasn’t it enough that in Physical Ed class a team always chose me last?

“You don’t look okay,” Matt said.

I attempted to stand. My pants had a tear on one knee. An elbow hurt. I feigned toughness, indifference to my ruined clothes. Matt held me on the arm, then yanked me up.

“Thanks,” I said.

“Hey, it’s cool. You’re welcome. Be careful.” He stood motionless for a moment, frozen as the girl in the car had been. He was struggling to hold back a chuckle. “I’m not laughing… This isn’t funny…” He laughed. “Your nose. You look like Andrew.”

“Really? That red and big?”

“No. Nobody’s nose can be that red and big, but it’s red and big.”

I laughed, too. “I’ve never been stung by a bee before. I’ve never even seen a bee before. It was right in front of my face. I was shooing it away like a fly and then it bit.”

“Ouch. Don’t worry about it. It will swell down in three days. Going this way?” He led his bike towards the direction of the park.

“Yeah.”

“Able to ride again?”

“Yeah.”

“Let’s go.” Like an afterthought, he said, “You’ve never seen a bee before. Wow.”

“No. Only  a lizard. Lot’s of lizards.”

“Lizards?”

“They look like little crocodiles. In the Philippines, they were all over the walls of my house and school. But they don’t bite. We also have giant cockroaches that fly.”

“That’s crazy,” Matt said.

When we got to the park, it was empty. Or maybe I just remember it that way. The see-saw and the swing set were immobile. The monkey bars were desolate without kids hanging from them. There might have been people at picnic tables, on paths that led to an adjacent neighborhood, but they were minimal enough for me to believe that Matt and I were alone in a place known only to him. And here I was, somebody he trusted enough to grant an entrance, somebody special.

I thought of the Dolly Parton song Matt liked, “I Will Always Love You.” I didn’t know the lyrics, didn’t know if I had ever heard them.

Matt sat on the ground, gazed at a sand pit in front of us. I sat with the ball in between us.

Who was he on his way to play ball with?

Suddenly, I saw Matt as alone as alone could be. No mother. No brother. No sister. All he had was a father I never saw.

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“It would be great if the ocean was in front of the sand,” he said. “Can’t wait till summer so I can go to the beach.”

“There are beaches here?” I asked.

“Sure there are. I mean not in Walnut Creek, but a few in the city. Definitely in LA.”

“Oh.”

“You not like the beach?”

“It’s okay. My sister and brother like it.”

“When was the last time you’ve been?”

That required thinking. “A year ago,” I said. “It was an island. My parents have a friend who has a resort on an island and he invited us.”

“He owns a resort?” Matt was flabbergasted.

“Yeah.”

“If my dad had a friend who owned a beach resort on an island, I’d be there all the time. I’d be living there. Wow.”

“But before that, it was a long time. My parents went once, but I didn’t. I was scared.”

“Scared of what?”

“Sharks,” I said. “We saw ‘Jaws’ and after that, my parents, brother, and sister went to the beach.”

Matt laughed. “I can see why you’d be scared. That’s crazy, going to the beach after seeing ‘Jaws.’”

It was crazy, all right. In the morning of that day, I had been excited to have the house to myself. The cook cooked me lunch and prepared me a treat of melted butter and sugar on toasted bread. I was glued to a TV marathon of Loony Tunes. But when mid-afternoon hit, visions of “Jaws” haunted me: a shark blade slicing through the surface of the water; a decapitated leg sinking to the bottom of the sea; a naked girl clinging in a  panic to an ocean buoy before being dragged underwater. The score of a wind instrument at a dirge-like pitch building momentum as the shark was about to make a kill chronically sounded in my head like a heart beat. I had just learned to read time. From the TV, I focused my attention to a table clock. 2:40… 3:00… 3:12…

What if a shark ate them?What if Daddy lost a leg?…What if they’re never coming home?     

At every car honk, at every zoom of a passing vehicle, I rushed to the window hoping to welcome my family home.

“I was being silly,” I said. “A shark didn’t eat anybody.”

“Good for you to have your family,” Matt said. “You’re way lucky.”

Matt and I sat silent, though the silence did not make me uncomfortable. Whatever impression of me Matt had formed, I was certain was good or else I would not have been there for that long.

Matt sprung to his feet. “Let me teach you something. Stand over there.” He pointed to a couple of yards in front of him. As I took my place, he said, “Use the inner side of your foot when you kick. Don’t kick with the tip of your toes.”

He rolled the ball to me. I did as he instructed. It didn’t seem natural. After the first two kicks, I reverted to kicking with the front of my foot. The ball didn’t flounder on the ground upon impact like an automobile sputtering for gasoline. It flew in the air.

“That’s good. Now really, really try it with the inner side of your foot.”

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Why is Matt being so nice to me? So patient?

“Now I’ll kick and you catch. This is how you catch.” Matt brought his arms together to form a cradle. “It’s just a ball. It’s nothing to be scared of.”

And I did. I caught the ball once, twice, thrice.

When classes resumed, Matt was friendly, but not any friendlier than he had always been. He was more familiar with me – a few meals together, talks about current songs and movies. He talked sometimes about Tammy, comments about how she looked pretty on a certain day and how she gave a smart answer to a question on grammar, but he never gushed. That was the way he was, a loner.

“Matt should ask Tammy out for ice cream or something,” Billie said.

Billie and I were seated at our desk. She must have caught on to my watching Matt. He had finally gained the courage to sidle up to Tammy and to embark on a conversation. Billie was chewing gum, popping bubbles. Her breath smelled of grapes. Black bangs grew down to her eyes. It was recess, so Mrs. Baxter’s rule of no gum chewing was lifted.

“He’s totally cute. He can have any girl he wants,” Billie said. She examined me through her bangs to gauge my reaction. Her eyes were dark, dark as specks of black pepper. “If he asked me out, I’d so say yes. But…” She stalled.

“But what?” I asked.

“He’s too timid.”

A few tables in front of us, Tammy was flipping her blonde hair back, smiling. Matt, even though he was seated beside her, appeared closed into himself. He was slightly hunched. His hands on his lap were formed into fists.

“He says he likes Tammy, but I don’t know,” Billie said. “I sorta think he’s telling himself he does. I don’t know if he even likes girls at all.”

What was Billie saying? She continued peering at me through her bangs. She had an all-knowing expression in her eyes, as if she knew about me and something about Matt that he didn’t know himself.

“How can he not like girls?” I asked.

She looked at the other kids in class. “Rodney, I think, likes girls,” she said. Rodney was seated with the little blond boy everyone called Squirrel. They were reading a Batman comic book. “Squirrel I don’t think does. He talks like my uncle. I mean it’s cool. My uncle’s gay and it’s cool. Clayton might like girls, but girls don’t like him. He’s too fixated on his Miss South Carolina mother.”

“North Carolina,” I said.

“Whatever. He’ll probably still be living with his mother even when he’s an old man of, like, 40 or something.”

I chuckled and I doubted if I had heard her right about her uncle. Could it be true? A gay uncle?

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“I just think that if Matt likes girls, he’d have a girlfriend by now, especially since Tammy likes him, too, I think.”

At 12? I thought boyfriends and girlfriends didn’t happen till high school.

Billie asked, “What do you think?”

“Me?” Whatever vision of gay I had, it wasn’t Matt. “I don’t know.”

“He’s cute, right?”

“I don’t know. I guess.”

Billie popped her bubble gum. “I’m glad you’re here,” she said.

“Huh?”

She poked at a roll of my tummy protruding from a space in between my shirt buttons. “I like that you’re healthy.”

“Fat,” I said.

“Okay,” Billie said. “Fat. Does being fat bother you?”

I didn’t answer because, honestly, I didn’t know.

“If it doesn’t, then don’t sweat over it. If it does, then I’m sure you’ll do something about it. For now, I like that you’re fat. I like that you’re different. Everybody here comes from the same place and likes the same things. You’re from a place I have no idea about and you like the Bee Gees.”

“I don’t like the Bee Gees.”

“Yeah, you do. That’s great. I wish I could meet more people different like my uncle.”

There she was again about her gay uncle. Was I evidently that way? Try as I did, I couldn’t get my eyes off Matt. He was wearing a necklace – a thin black cord, as simple as that – yet it emphasized the girth of his neck. I had recently seen a neck like that in a TV Digest issue that featured a picture of Christopher Reeve in a Superman costume. His sculpted face atop a neck firm as a pillar hinted at the virility underneath the S emblazoned on his chest.

Billie seemed to have noticed what I was looking at because she directed her gaze at Matt, as well. “Maybe if I were blonde, he’d like me.” She stopped chewing gum, paused to rethink what she had just said. “Nah… I like being a brunette.”

I nodded at her. Between her and Tammy, I found her prettier. She was slim and rugged in a hippy chick way. Her form fitting tee shirt bore the image of David Bowie, whom I thought was a girl that looked like a boy. Her hair was not flipped Farrah style but unkempt in a fashion that bespoke ease rather than sloppiness. Plus, she was saying things I never imagined a girl would say and she was saying them to me.

“I’m glad to be here,” I said.

V

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The summer allows for a child on the threshold of adolescence to experience a growth spurt, to have braces removed, to undergo some evolutionary transformation that serves as a rite of passage. For me, it was weight loss. Shortly before the end of sixth grade, I spent a day in San Francisco with my family. I had put special thought that morning on my attire: a new collared red shirt paired with a  new pair of white pants. I chanced upon my reflection on a display window at Macy’s. A male mannequin in satin shoes was juxtaposed with the  image of a belly protruding over a belt buckle. I tucked in my stomach. My belly remained protruding. Murky as the reflection was, my shirt was a bright red, my pants were a bright white, and my tummy was as round as a ball. Had I thought that morning that I looked good? I could have been Santa Claus’ son.

My plan to lose weight entailed this: no breakfast; an ice cream-sized scoop of rice rather than half a plateful; leaving the dining table hungry; a permanent omission of soft drinks. At school, I suffered from dizzy spells until lunch. At lunch, I never finished my food. I ate enough to silence the growl in my stomach, ate to moisten my mouth, which was constantly parched. The nausea commenced once more in the afternoons, and this I relieved with non-fat milk or non-fat yogurt, with anything that assured me on its nutrition label of its absence of fat. Once school was officially over, I had so grown accustomed to feeling light headed that the two and a half months of summer mowing the lawn to near collapse was normal to me. That was what dieting to me was about – starvation.

Seventh grade started in a new school, Foothill Junior High. By the fall, I had grown about an inch and had lost 20 lbs. Clayton Black and Matt were among those from Bancroft who enrolled at Foothill; Tammy, Billie, and Andrew were not. Matt had grown more than an inch and his walk, once marked by diffidence, had turned into a swagger. He appeared to be skipping over adolescence to manhood. No surprise there. The surprise was in Clayton. He still had blond bangs and long hair that covered his ears – a haircut that truly did make him resemble a dickhead – but he had done something over the summer that broadened his back and rendered his limbs less gangly.

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Clayton and I had social studies class together. The classroom was divided into a set of three rows of chairs at one side of the room and a set of three rows at another. The sets of rows faced each other with the middle of the room left empty for the teacher to walk through during a lecture. I sat in the first row of one section while Clayton sat in the first row of the other, directly across from me. A map of the world hung on a wall along with images of a Japanese pagoda, Flamenco dancers, and all sorts of landmarks and costumes that identified a culture. Matt and I had no class together. Other than an occasional hi as we passed each other in the corridors, we had no opportunity to talk, no reason to. He found at Foothill the person he was meant to spend his days with.           

In a rally introducing the incoming seventh graders, students gathered in the courtyard. Above a stage, the Foothill colors of purple letters in a gold frame spelled out the school’s name on a banner. The principal in suit and tie held a microphone. He had a waterfall of a mustache, cheeks plump and pink as though pinched by a wintry frost. After a speech welcoming the new school year, he brought to the stage blonde twin sisters wearing short skirts and carrying purple-gold pom-poms. Since Tammy was enrolled in another school, her blondeness provided no competition. The twins flashed toothy smiles and swirled their arms to “Born To Be Alive.” Their hair never fell into disarray. Their movements were synchronized. They were perfect.

A month later and for the rest of the semester, two of the best looking guys at Foothill were squiring the twins from their lockers to their classrooms, holding their hands and exchanging smiles with them across the lunch table. Those two guys were Matt and a red-headed footballer named Brian. Imagine Matt, his full lips and chiseled features, his strong neck and swagger, but with a nose aquiline in contrast to a pug nose and with complexion fair rather than tan, and you’ve got Brian. Matt and Brian sported the same haircut – buzzed at the sides and parted on the left – and both had a knack for lumberjack shirts and boots. When they walked in the corridors, people parted to make way. They didn’t notice anybody else, just each other. They were even oblivious to the blonde twins whose shoulders they wrapped their arms around. All at once, Matt’s and my greetings of hi ceased to be.

The one thing that was not changing was Clayton’s dislike of me. Our social studies teacher, Miss Webb, gave a lecture one day about tolerance. She was slim with a mullet haircut. She wore sandals and khakis rolled up at the hem as if she were going for a stroll on the beach. Although her hair was silver, she didn’t seem old. Her face was pale and as square as a marshmallow, and she spoke with a sing-song voice akin to that of a little girl.

“When you feel resentment for someone, stop yourself and try to think about that person and what kind of a life that person must have.” Miss Webb raised a finger to make a stop gesture. “Think about that person’s family, about all the people that person loves and who love that person back. That’s the one feeling we should all share – love, not hate.”

Nobody in class listened to Miss Webb as intently as Clayton. He listened with the temper of a rebellious teen, and he stared at me with a look of spite. With each mention of the word love, his eyes grew increasingly beady. The guy didn’t just dislike me. He hated me. Although in the classroom he was silent towards me, in the hallway the next day he was not.

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“Hey, chink,” he said as he caught up with me on our way to social studies.

I didn’t say anything. Nobody had ever called me that. Even at Bancroft, Clayton had never called me that.

Clayton didn’t walk ahead. He kept pace with me. I maintained my stride, thinking that by doing so I would show indifference. But Clayton sensed that he had struck a weak spot in me; I was too earnest in avoiding eye contact with him. He, in the meantime, was forcing his face close to mine so that I could see the rancor in his eyes. This close to him, I noticed that he had grown in height. We had been shoulder to shoulder when at Bancroft. Though he was not nearly as tall as Matt, he was still tall.

“Chink,” he said again. He didn’t yell. He whispered. His whisper was as sinister as a snake’s hiss.

From then on, Clayton appeared to be everywhere I happened to be. Foothill was not a large school. Nevertheless, it had four doors leading to four different buildings that encircled the courtyard so that one would think I could avoid him. Yet wherever I was, he materialized out of nowhere. Even if at the cafeteria he was at the opposite end, I imagined his eyes on me. The rush of students crowding the campus could not serve as a barrier between the two of us.

Clayton had his chance to exert the full force of his intimidation upon me when he caught me alone in the boy’s restroom. I was occupying a urinal stall. It was during class time. The door to the restroom opened then slammed shut, and in the urinal stall beside me, Clayton said, “You shouldn’t be in here. You should be peeing in the bushes outside.”

I fumbled to zip up my pants. Never mind that droplets of urine were still coming out of me.

“Say something, chink. Don’t you have anything to say for yourself? You’re such a faggot.”

At the sink, I hurriedly washed my hands then wiped them dry. Then Clayton’s reflection appeared in the mirror. He seemed larger than he had been a mere week earlier. Freckles peppered a tan face and his hair was blonder than that of the cheerleader twins. It had a golden sheen. I could no longer avert my eyes from him. I was looking at Clayton the way I looked at Matt. It was a way of looking that was instinctual. I wasn’t conscious of it until Clayton sneered.

He knows about me, I thought.

If only Clayton were still the dickhead wimp in sixth grade, then I would not have been this helpless. I would have been able to identify a feeling I had for him as hate or disgust or disdain. Instead, I was lost. Matt had a winning personality to match his looks. To be attracted to Matt was natural, logical. Clayton was a jerk. Still, the image of him growing into the man he would someday be gave me a punch in the stomach.

“What are you staring at?” he taunted. He brought a hand close to my face. “Lick the piss off my fingers, you chink fag dog.”

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Water was dripping from the sink faucet, producing a methodical tapping like the tic toc of a clock. The image of a penis was carved on a door to a toilet stall. The window was bolted shut. The opaque pane obliterated the world outside. Time seemed to stand still and I had nowhere to escape in order to move it forward.

Right then the restroom door opened and Matt stood at the threshold. Clayton turned to him with his hand frozen in the air, nearly touching my face. It looked as if Clayton were about to slap me.

“What are you doing, Clayton?” Matt said. He walked up to Clayton slowly, as sheriffs in cowboy films do when challenging an outlaw to a duel.

“What’s it to you?”

“Are you picking on him?”

They were so close that they blinked from the wisp of one another’s breath. Clayton looked up at Matt. His voice began to waver. His hand was shaking.

“He’s a chink,” he said.

Matt ticked him on the head. “And you’re a moron asshole. Leave him alone. Don’t ever go near him again.”

Clayton lowered his hand and he shook his head, not understanding Matt’s investment in me. I didn’t understand either. He left Matt and me alone.

“You all right?” asked Matt.

“Yeah,” I said.

I was hungry when I stepped out into the corridor. I would allow myself to be hungry past fall and into the winter. I couldn’t silence Clayton. I couldn’t control emotions of lust and love. I couldn’t will myself to grow taller. My ability to transform my body weight – that was the one aspect of my life over which I had absolute power. My neck became as delicate as my sister Andrea’s. My pants were so loose that pleats formed whenever I tightened my belt. No longer would anybody whisper “Buddha” behind my back nor would a button pop from my shirt due my stomach tearing through the seams.

After that incident in the boy’s restroom, I lost another ten pounds, making that a total loss of 30 pounds since the summer. I might have been on the verge of an eating disorder had my father not declared to the family over dinner that we were moving back to the Philippines. We would be leaving in January. The coming January marked not only a new year, but also a new decade: 1980. And although the Philippines was where I belonged, where we all belonged, it struck me as a new place because I would be returning a child no more but a teenager, a thin teenager. I could say that now, that I was thin. The pressure to mold myself into an image as American as Clayton and Matt lessened at last.

I never spoke to Matt again, but I was able to see him one more time outside of school. I was at a barbershop with my brother, Gordon, in a shopping complex adjacent to the park where Matt had taught me to kick a ball. Gordon was in the barber’s chair, an ankle on one knee. His platform shoes looked like a dumbell he was shaking with his foot as he flipped through an issue of Playboy. I tried to peek at the centerfold. He glared at me, then brought the magazine close to his face in order to block my view. I feigned disinterest and turned to the window.

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There outside was Matt, in the parking lot with Brian. They were leaning on their bicycles. They were smiling and laughing. Sunlight washed over the tops of parked cars, reflected off nearby windows, brightened the pavement. The sun shone everywhere, but never as vibrantly as it did on those two handsome faces.

Matt and Brian stopped laughing. Their smiles changed from ebullient to wistful. They stood staring at each other for a moment. And then Matt ran his fingers through Brian’s hair to brush it in place, exactly the way my mother did to my father’s hair and still does.

Years later, several years later, the image of Matt and Brian would return to me as clearly as if I were witnessing it anew. Just as Manila became home to me once more, San Francisco would be, too. Here I would come back a decade later not a teenager, but an adult. Here I would make a life talking to audiences about films both old and new. Work a couple of years ago at a film society required that I research on the early years of the AIDS epidemic in the Bay Area for a documentary to be screened. I was on the computer, reading back issues of a newspaper called Bay Area Reporter. Hundreds of obituaries of those who had fallen to the disease populated its pages since 1982. The obituaries were categorized alphabetically according to the last names of the victims: A, B, C, D… and that was when I came across his.

Matthew di Giorgio (June 5, 1967-September 20, 1996) died peacefully surrounded by friends and family at his home, overlooking a view of sailboats underneath the Golden Gate Bridge. Matt coached soccer to youths in the Mission, flew kites at the Marina, and every Sunday hiked to the top of Twin Peaks. He was most alive when close to the water and the sky. He adored Dolly Parton, crispy shelled tacos, and soft rain on windows. Matt leaves behind his father Fred di Giorgio, partner Alex Dalton, and his one-eyed pet beagle Mr. Snoop Dog. Sweet sailing, beautiful man. We shall meet again.

I have often wondered what had become of Matt. When I turned 20, 30, 40 the question was there. So it was, as well, upon the dawning of the new millennium.

It is now 2011 and I am 44. Only two years ago did I learn that Matt’s life stopped at 29. That I had believed Matt had been experiencing life’s milestones at the same time as I when in actuality he had been dead was tantamount to having believed in a lie.

Beautiful man. The accompanying photograph showed that in manhood Matt had  fulfilled the promise of his boyhood good looks. More than that – his eyes and his smile radiated the tenderness that I had seen in them when he had brushed Brian’s hair with his fingers. Had I actually been craning my neck to glimpse at the Playboy in Gordon’s hands? What I would have missed had Gordon allowed me full view of air-brushed breasts. What I wish I had said to Matt when I saw him through the window.

“Hey, Matt,” I should have said to him. “Clayton doesn’t pick on me anymore. Thank you.”

I should have said, “I’m going back to the Philippines. You know, the place where lizards crawl on walls and my father has a friend who owns an island resort. The place where kids don’t ride bikes and don’t play ball.

I should have said, “I love you.”

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